I’m starting to realize that most people who consider themselves hikers will have been on at least one hike where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. We can look at these experiences as opportunities to learn and prevent the same situations from occurring again. Or, we can see them as opportunities for character building. Or, as in my case at the time, we can have an identity crisis and start to over-think whether we really are hikers or just closet nanas.
I had been dreaming of doing a long, solo hike for many years. The introvert in me (which actually is the majority of me) had been desperate to escape the chaos of urban life, university, work and social commitments, and surrender to the rhythm of simplicity that can only be found on a multi-day hike. I felt like the world was throwing experiences at me left, right and centre, and I desperately wanted everything to stop so that I could just process, and breath for a while.
The perfect opportunity came when, upon receiving an invitation to a friend’s wedding in the States, I quit my job and planned to walk a section of the Appalachian trail.
I enthusiastically began researching the section of the trail that I wanted to walk, known as the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine. I researched lightweight tents and picked the perfect model to be my home away from home. I bought maps, read about bear safety and how to hang your food cache out of reach (this was new and scary to me, being from New Zealand where the most dangerous animal is probably the sandfly). I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods for the second time and promptly had vivid nightmares whereby I was being dragged through the ripped sides of my tent by my leg, caught in the mouth of a hungry bear. I wrote a packing list and gathered my gear in a small pile in the centre of my bedroom weeks before my departure. I brainstormed how I would carry 10 days’ worth of food in my pack without buckling under the weight of it. And then I remembered that I’d invited my brother.
It had been one of those comments semi-made in passing. “I might be going to the states later this year, you mentioned you could be keen for a hike there at some point? You’re welcome to join me.” I had meant it of course. I just hadn’t thought it through, or more specifically, thought about how having my brother with me would impact my long-distance hike dreams.
I should have seen the red flags when my brother expressed significant trepidation at my hike selection. Among other things, I should have researched our transport options to the trail head more thoroughly (turns out it’s pretty difficult to access trail heads in the States unless you have a car). I also should have talked to him about his expectations for the trip in more detail and emphasized how important it was to pack light and not go shopping for dress shoes and jeans in San Fran before we met up. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Long story short, my brother and I realized how different we were from one another in our approach to traveling and what we wanted to get out of a multi-day hike. Our plans morphed through different compromises during the first couple of weeks of our explorations together until eventually, our goals for the trip clashed too much and we parted ways.
By this time I had long since given up on Maine and was putting together a slapdash plan to hike a weeklong section of the Finger Lakes Trail in Upstate New York, as, for reasons I can’t recall, we had ended up in the city of Buffalo.
So, cue the next phase of fails.
I took a Greyhound bus to the town where I planned to start the trail, having found the location of trail headquarters where I planned to buy a map. Turns out my use of the word ‘plan’ was rather loose.
The bus dumped me in a one-horse town that didn’t even have a café where I could get a hot drink (It was f***ing cold and a cup of tea had also be part of my ‘plan’). So, I walked in the direction of the trail headquarters for more slow and painful hours than I care to remember.
It was during this walk that I started to get an inkling of how challenging the upcoming days were going to be. It turned out, as much as I’m ashamed to admit, I too had over-packed. I had been suckered into a closing down book store and left with 3 paper backs that I couldn’t bear to part with. In my over-zealous attempt at being prepared for anything, I had purchased 3 gas canisters for my stove when one probably would have sufficed. I was also carrying significantly heavier food than I ideally would have chosen in New Zealand due to being limited to the one unfamiliar supermarket that was in walking distance from our hostel in Buffalo. And, mortifyingly enough, I didn’t yet have a smartphone so was traveling with my tablet for the purposes of getting Wifi and Google maps (I’m cringing so much right now).
After finding that the road I was following on my tablet ended mysteriously in a copse of dense brambles and willow trees, and getting scratched up in the process of deciding to power through rather than backtrack an hour and take the long way around, I finally reached the trail headquarters.
Here, I spent the next 3 hours hashing out a ‘plan’ for my hike with one of the passionate volunteers. I had ‘planned’ to start walking from there upon purchasing a map, and see how far I got in a week or so, seeing how far I could stretch my food and figuring out what to do at the end when the time came. This was not to be.
Firstly, it turned out they didn’t sell maps as such. They had A4 size maps that they printed on request, each corresponding to about a day’s worth of walking. Furthermore, it was hunting season and sections of the trail were closed to hikers. Finally, it took a little more thought than I had anticipated to plan each day’s walk around water supplies and places suitable for camping, owing to sections of the trail going through private land and along public roads.
The passionate volunteer bravely took it upon himself to figure out a ‘plan’ for me, as for reasons I can’t recall, he had decided it would serve me well to start my walk a few hours’ drive further down the trail. He took out a sheet of paper with the contact information for the Trail Angels of the Finger Lakes, marvellous people who make themselves available to transport hikers to and from trail heads. After a number of phone calls, he had secured me a ride to the start of my hike, and given me the phone number of an angel who would be happy to pick me up and return me to civilization at the end, in 5 days’ time (yes, my original month long Appalachian section hike had quickly disintegrated to 10 days, to a week and finally to 5 days along the FLT as I realized I would be stupid to turn down a ride on day 5 and risk being stranded in a country too afraid of humanity to pick up hitch hikers).
The trail angel who took me to the start of my hike truly was an angel. She drove me a significant distance and, after stopping en route for me to purchase a foot long subway, refused any contribution to fuel.
Finally, in the evening light, many hours later than I had anticipated, I started my walk.
Thankfully, that night, I didn’t have to walk far to the shelter that was to be my camp for the night. However, one final twist of fate had me pass a shady looking character in the forest when I was about 10 minutes away from the shelter. Bill Bryson’s story of the girls who were followed to their camp and murdered in their sleep flashed across my memory and so with some extra adrenaline-fuelled determination, I continued further and hid myself about 100m off the trail in a non-descript patch of scrub.
It was then that I realized, upon hanging up my food (is it far enough away from my tent? From the tree trunk? From the ground? Gosh this was complicated business!) my hands stank of subway. I washed them in a stream that was barely a trickle and hoped that the local bears didn’t have a taste for Italian herb bread and ranch dressing, as, much to my dismay, I could still smell the distinct odour (I have not eaten subway since).
My sleep that night was broken and filled with scenarios of crazed bush-living axe murders and angry, hungry-for-hands-that-smell-like-subway bears. I asked myself for the first time why I was putting myself through this.
The next day, I woke with immense relief to find that the horrors of the night had just been dreams and I had survived intact. I heated up some water for tea and porridge and looked around with pure elation. I was in a forest, by myself, with the only thing on my to do list being to walk.
The next couple of days passed uneventfully enough if you don’t count how painfully slow my walking speed was with my overloaded pack. I mostly managed to reign in my fear of bears though I was always on high alert and continued to have vivid dreams. I walked along undulating forest trails of beeches and birches with yellow leaves. I passed farm land and ranch houses with pillars of smoke coming from their chimneys which made me immensely jealous. The streams I was relying on for my water supply were running low, some of them even bare which concerned me but it wasn’t hot so I was getting away without drinking much. In fact, the October sun never really came out and I was quite often cold despite my walking.
Things got interesting on day 3.
After 2 and a half days of only my inner voices for company, I heard outside voices. I stumbled upon my shelter for the night quicker than expected and found myself face to face with about 15 teenage girls. In a split second, I had turned and retreated back down the trail. My instincts had kicked in and my introverted brain had simply said, “No, not doing this.”
I heard faint calls of “Don’t leave! Come back!” but by this time I’d blown my chance of making a normal entrance. If I was to return now, I’d have to explain why I’d fled. I’d been the weirdo enough in high school, I didn’t need to repeat that experience now, in my proud mid-20s.
I hid amongst the brush around a nearby stream, telling myself that I could claim I needed water if they came to find me. I made a fuss of filling my bottles and adding the water treatment tablets and then sat under a tree as it started to rain.
I sat there for a while, feeling lonely and stupid, hoping they’d leave, until finally I had to admit that I didn’t have any options other than to face the music, literally.
I slunk back to the shelter and the camp fire that they had blazing, and was immensely relieved and grateful when they didn’t make a fuss of my return. They asked me where I was from, gave me a mug of hot chocolate (never more appreciated!) and then all but ignored me (which suited me perfectly!).
They turned out to be an ice hockey team who had hiked into the forest for an afternoon of team building exercises. I suspected their coaches had said something along the lines of not overwhelming me as the girls flashed glances at the older women whenever anyone said something to me. I felt like an idiot.
Eventually they left and I had the shelter to myself. I kept their fire going into the evening and contemplated my suspicion that all humans are secretly pyromaniacs as I sat hypnotized by the dancing flames. I cooked a packet of dehydrated beans and rice and devoured what I had thought would be 2 servings in a matter of minutes. Carrying a heavy pack was hungry work!
I considered putting my tent up but was enjoying the sense of security I got from having 3 wooden walls surrounding me and decided to give shelter-sleeping a go. However, unfortunately by this time the rain was rather heavy. The fire was coping as I had a supply of dry wood, but the wind blew gusts of ashy smoke and rain into the shelter which threatened to either soak my sleeping bag or set it on fire.
So, I came up with the ingenious idea of putting my sleeping bag into the huge plastic bin liner that I’d been using to line my pack. It was just like a bivy bag, wasn’t it?
I slept a little that night, but was unsettled, not being used to the sensation of wind and rain on my face. Hindsight tells me that I probably should have put my tent up. But I am a stubborn breed of woman and once I start something, I finish it, usually. Plus, it was dark and my head torch is only good for reading.
In the morning, I woke to a new set of cards that had me re-evaluating my desire to be a woman who finishes what she starts.
- I was soaked. The rain had soaked my top half, and the lack of ventilation from my fantastic bin-liner set-up meant my bottom half was soaked from sweat and condensation. My down sleeping bag was not going to dry out in time for the next night’s sleep.
- My eyes were swollen to slits as a result of the smoke that had been blowing into the shelter for most of the night.
- I woke up with my period and some pretty major cramps which put me in an even worse mood.
- After studying the maps, I realized that the passionate volunteer and I had muddled the dates with my planned days of walking. I was going to reach the meeting place of my trail angel a day before he was expecting me. I would either have to wait a day, or try my slim chances hitching.
- The water supplies in the streams, even in spite of the rain, were abysmal and I was losing faith in my ability to keep finding ample sources.
- I realized I was still (completely irrationally) afraid of bears and was sick of walking and sleeping in fear.
- I realized I was sick of the cold and the idea of taking an earlier flight to Florida, the location of my friend’s wedding, was growing more and more attractive.
But I didn’t cry. I just felt overwhelmingly disappointed in myself for not enjoying the experience. In spite of all the factors counting against me, I remained on the fence as to whether I’d keep going or not. For the next few hours I plodded along, alternating between calling it quits and being a sucker for punishment and feeling too ashamed to quit.
Finally, things were taken out of my hands.
A skiing accident a few years previously had left me with some vulnerable muscles in my upper back and neck. The combination of my overloaded pack and reaching out my arm to grab hold of a tree root in order to haul myself out of a creek bed, resulted in something tearing. I felt a rush of hot pain wash over my shoulder blade and up my neck. Then I cried.
I had failed. I felt thoroughly miserable. As I sat on the forest floor, my shoulder, uterus and eyes all screaming at me in discomfort, I felt broken. If I wasn’t a hiker, who I was I? I had found solace in my identity as a lone wanderer as it allowed me an excuse for not conforming to social norms when I just wanted to be alone. But if I couldn’t even handle a multi-day hike by myself, what did that make me?
I walked slowly beside the next main road that I came too, my pack hanging awkwardly off my good shoulder, my eyes desperately trying to hold in the tears that would not enamour me to potential rides. It didn’t matter, my thumb went unanswered.
Eventually I came to an adventure centre with a semi-full car park and asked if I could borrow their phone. I rang my trail angel and explained my predicament but he couldn’t help me. I hung up before my sobs rang down the phone. A kindly staff member asked me if I was ok and offered me a ride to the nearby town. I cried out of relief this time, profuse in my gratitude. The staff member even drove me to a couple of different motels so that I could figure out which was cheaper. 50USD per night was the most I had spent on accommodation in my life but I paid for 2 nights up front, recognizing my need to take solace in a room of my own.
Upending my pack, drying and sorting my stuff was immensely satisfying. I even managed to wash my clothes, wearing my bikini and wrapping a blanket around me while all remaining clothing went in to the machine. I bought a can of beer and huge cookie from the petrol station across the road and settled myself in the king sized bed with the flat screen TV which I barely left for the next 48 hours.
It took me a while to get over my failure but going on many more hikes helped to renew my confidence. I am yet to complete a multi-day hike alone in the wilderness in bear country… although I have to admit, I’m not sure whether this is on my to do list any more. I successfully walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela by myself over 31 days last September and this went some way towards fulfilling my solo hiking dreams. But shortly after my American misadventure was when I met Michal and I have since come to realize that hiking with somebody you love, is far superior to hiking on your own, for me anyway.
I am glad that I had this experience. I can look back and laugh about it now. And, I learned some important things about myself. Namely the importance of planning and communication when other people are involved, and to be ruthless when it comes to packing light. Most of all, this hiking fail makes me appreciate all the hikes that have been amazing and makes me feel extremely lucky when things work out.