Reaching deep into the well of possibilities to grab a handful of hopes and desires excites the adventurer in me. I thrive on setting a new goal and envisioning the steps to achieve it. But action separates my ‘want tos’ from my ‘did thats’, and often requires movement into unfamiliar territory. It helps to have a buddy by my side. I often recall the words of Barbara Sher, one of my mid-life mentors: “Isolation is a dream killer.”
Lynn and I have been friends for over 30 years, through work, relationships, children, hardships and good times. Her readiness to explore and discover is the icing on the cake! Whenever I unlock a door to a new idea, she kicks it wide open. We live over 200 miles apart and regularly meet somewhere in between. We both love the outdoors and try to schedule a walk/hike/paddle as part of our time together.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) has been on our radar for years. Bill Bryson’s book- A Walk in the Woods further spiked our interests. Though the idea of thru-hiking the whole 2190 miles from Georgia to Maine has teased our imaginations, family obligations have curtailed the possibility. But entering our sixth decade propels us to move toward doing the things we have talked about. I am the planner. Lynn is the believer. We set a new, manageable goal–100 miles on the AT in the coming year.
It is early May. Online research points us to Sterling Forest State Park in Orange county NY, a good midway meeting point with AT access. First, we make our way to the large modern visitors’ center and speak with an enthusiastic, informative guide. I buy a trail map and guidebook for this section of the AT. It is now official–we are hiking the AT! A large 3D topographical map of the area takes up a good chunk of floor space. We push buttons that light up numerous trails and find the one we are heading to.
We park on East Mombasha Road and hike north, past Little Dam Lake. A small stream cuts through the trail with rocks providing a path across. Lynn strides across as if it is a city sidewalk. I come to a dead stop and watch water rush around each rock. Lynn hops back and takes one end of my hiking pole to give me added confidence. Some rocks are big enough to allow balancing on them with both feet. But some can only accommodate one foot at a time, requiring me to straddle the rushing water, then balance on one foot as I step across more water to the next one. This is not a hard task physically, but visions of losing my balance, falling, breaking bones, and being washed away make each step a battle between fear and willpower. My breath releases as I reach solid land.
I am less than five feet tall, which I am certain impacts my leaps and steps on the rocky trail, but that is not my major limitation. I have always needed to tightly grip the handrail going down stairs. I would rather hike up the steepest mountain than go down a minor hill. The pull of gravity is my friend as I place my foot on solid earth and push against it to move upward. But my heart gallops when I project one foot into thin air, with only my one bending knee to prevent that same gravitational force from smashing my body onto a sea of rocks below. My hiking pole acts as my portable hand railing but does not dull the fear.
I always let Lynn go ahead on the downhills. I marvel as her feet dance around rocks and roots or down the steep slope of boulders the size of a two-story house. I watch her for inspiration to trust my own steps, move incrementally toward more daring, thrill at my moments of accomplishment, but never approach her ease.
Near the Orange Turnpike crossover, we meet a man around our age, hiking his hefty body up the precipitous trail, carrying water bottles, bananas, and sweet treats. He tells us he has hiked parts of the AT many times, has recently survived bypass surgery, and is a now a ‘trail angel’ providing support for thru-hikers. He places the food in a metal cooler secured with a steel cable. I wonder if it is strong enough to deter the bears that also love a treat! I like the idea of providing a bit of care, encouragement and nourishment for those attempting to complete the entire hike, and store it in my ‘wonder what I could do to help’ mental file.
We take four hours to go 4.2 miles-with a couple of lengthy breaks. It feels like a long time for the relatively short distance, but then my feet and knees remind me of the ups and downs. I may be a beginner in need of physical improvement, but I am happy and satisfied with today’s first steps toward our goal. A diner is our next stop. We sit for a long while, eating a well-earned meal, reviewing our day, and planning our next trip. The unfamiliar demand I’ve placed on my muscles comes into sharp focus as I stand and hobble to the restroom. But my heart is happy and a sense of satisfaction accompanies me on the drive home. Total miles: 4.2.