Hike 52 – The Journey Will Continue

My final hike was actually 2 hikes separated by one holiday. To be honest, if I counted every hike I have done since the beginning of 2016 I would have completed this challenge in late February. Instead, I chose to only count the hikes that inspired me to go outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes that involved consolidating multiple hikes, like on my birthday. And because this was my final hike, I chose to make it a two-for.

Part 1 was a tiny portion of the AT in Daleville, VA. It starts just off Interstate 81, goes up to a ridgeline and past many beautiful views of Carvin Cove Reservoir, continues to Hay Rock and on to Tinker Cliffs or even Georgia if you want to go the distance. I had to get back on the road before it got too late, so I was only able to get in several of the Carvin Cove overlooks before turning around.

Part 2 was supposed to be a 2-day epic adventure in Grayson Highlands beginning on Black Friday, but an unfortunate series of events caused the death of my phone early into the hike. My educated guess based on maps and markers is that we did somewhere between 5 and 6 miles, but my phone was always my distance and elevation keeper. It also gave me a false sense of security, which I fully recognize but hold onto none the less. Between the loss of my good pal/favorite device and Turner’s recent behavior, I chose to make this a one-day hiking event. Let me explain, Turner is my red heeler hiking companion. Ever since our 10 mile hike a week ago, he has been very stiff and sleeping a lot. I may be pushing him too hard. Poor little Buddy. He needs a break. Here are some highlights from Grayson Highlands where we saw lots of people opting outside for Black Friday.

Here are some highlights from Grayson Highlands where we saw lots of wild ponies, lots of dramatic clouds, and lots of people opting outside for Black Friday.

So what does this mean? My 52 hikes are over. Will I stop hiking? No way! I have a goal to hit 1000 miles before the end of 2016. If I count my Grayson Highlands hike as 5 miles that puts my current total for the year at … dang! I even depended on my phone for the calculator function. The next few days will be painful… 861.01 miles!!! I have 5 weeks to polish off the remaining 138.99 miles. I’ve so got this. BTWs, I will continue to hike still after completing 1000 miles. I wonder what new goals I’ll think up for next year…

What did I learn on my 52 hikes you might ask? Well, for one I learned that the more often I put myself outside of my comfort zone the further I have to go to get outside of my comfort zone. For instance, when I first began this journey if I came across a bear or a snake along the trail my pulse would race, I would jump and yelp and react in a frightened fashion. Now I calmly pause, pull myself and the dogs out of harm’s way, grab my camera and take a photo. I’d probably have to see a mountain lion to get worked up now. The idea of being alone once left me unsettled. I now prefer it. I have learned a trust and respect for nature that I may never find with humans urban, rural or otherwise. I can now anticipate each mile as it passes without wonder simply based on how many thoughts have passed through my head, pulling on leashes, the movement of the sun, the intensity of the blood pulsing through my legs, or the feeling of my own weight impeding on my feet. I prefer directions that include rock faces and fallen trees instead of turn right at the second fast food joint and left at the bank. Whether it’s wooded or desert, rocks or sand, everything slows down when I’m following a trail. I have learned that in the midst of classes, internships, working full time, chasing the sun during the cold seasons, driving 7000 miles for adventure, the occasional volunteer work, and a date here and there, I can make it outside almost every day and it will be a fulfilling experience. I’ve also learned that an annual national parks season pass holds way more value to me than a gym membership.

52 may be over, but for me the hike continues…

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Let’s Talk About Bears

I’ve been seeing a lot of these big fuzzy creatures lately. I’ve lived, walked and driven in this county for 11 years, and during that time I would see a bear here and there with big spans of time in between sightings.Occasionally one will stroll through my yard, (by occasionally I mean once every one or two years) and my dogs will scare it away with their barks and yelps. Since last October the amount of bear sightings I’ve experienced has increased drastically. It’s probably due to my increase in hiking, excursions into the Shenandoah National Park, and the times of day I have been out and about. Whatever the reason, it’s becoming more common place for me to see one, two or even five in one short hike.

A few days ago I decided to head out to complete a short section of the Appalachian Trail along Skyline Drive that I had yet to do. While driving to the parking area I spotted the two in the photo above, heading straight for a trailhead along my path. I was a little concerned that rather than running from my car, they turned and walked toward me. Weird. I figured they’d be long gone by the time I reached that trailhead. And if they weren’t, I would have my pepper spray in hand and dogs by my side. Flash forward about ten minutes, I park the car and the dogs and I begin our hike. Within steps we pass a couple of thru hikers who quietly exclaim, as if to not startle too many other forest creatures, that there is a momma and cub on the trail just around the corner. My first reaction is “Hike Canceled!” Then I get ahold of myself and tell them that my dogs will likely scare them off, but it’s startling none the less. So we march on. I touch my pepper spray a couple times to remind myself where it is, and I dart my eyes around with each cautious step. I start messing with my camera settings just as something moves in my peripheral vision. I turn to the right, and there she is, about 20 feet away, standing in waste high shrubs with one arm down and one bent up as if she had just used it to place food in her mouth. She’s watching me. We make eye contact. I think, “Camera,” then “Get the dogs out of here before they startle her and she comes at us.” The dogs never saw her, though they did smell her. We never saw her cub. I squeaked out a few commands to my dogs to get them to move along faster as I gripped their leashes a little tighter. Momma bear never moved.

Later we reached the stretch at the trailhead where we saw the two crossing the street. The dogs could smell them, and I could certainly hear them. They were lost in the tall shrubbery, but they were there. They hadn’t made it far from where we had seen them some time ago. Continuing to hustle along, we reached the end of the section that I intended to complete, and I decided we should continue on. There are some beautiful overlooks up ahead, and I wouldn’t mind staring off into the vastness of the Shenandoah for a bit. Within a tenth of a mile we round a bend and there is another one right on the trail. What is going on? We made eye contact. I made lots of high pitched noises to try to scare him off (I say him because it looked huge). He did not budge. So we turned around. I can only tempt fait so much in one day.

These animals are in the middle of foraging and putting on weight, and it seems no human is going to stop them from doing so. Today, several days later, I went on a 10 mile hike in the George Washington Forest. Not a single bear or human was spotted. It seems there is plenty of room for them to roam here, and a lack of human activity and trash to invite them away from their natural comfort zone. I prefer my bear sightings from the car, far and few between. I hope the bears in the Shenandoah National Park aren’t being purposefully fed by people, but it would explain their lack of concern with my moving vehicle, hiking approach, and dogs. No matter how often we cross paths, I will never feel unafraid, but I will always feel like I won the lottery when I make it safely back to my car.

Have you had an experience with a bear? I’d love to hear about it.

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Naturific Reflectioning

It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve had a good hike. The last one was 7 miles of fun in the sun. Then I got sick, which really slowed me down. Today I got back into the swing of things with 6 miles on the AT. I’m trying to connect two sections I’ve done recently, and I got pretty close. It felt great to back out there huffing and puffing up a mountain.

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As usual, I spent most of my time watching my step. A little after a mile of walking the outer perimeter of the National Zoological Park Breading Center (eerily like Jurassic Park) I turned a switchback and came upon the above down tree. I had an instant connection and had to stop. Something about the smooth ripple of its trunk struck me. I placed my hand on it as I noticed the thin lines that made up a pattern. I admired the skewed rings of its life and wondered what had caused it to grow so far off from center. I imagined what it may have seen in its lifetime. I felt my breath pumping through my chest. I felt connected to the earth and to myself.

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In that moment of reflection I realized how lucky I am. I am free to grow in which ever direction I please. My happiness is tied only to me and the trees.

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What’s your weapon?

Today we returned to our post Jonas spot on the Appalachian Trail, and, once on top of the mountain, I let the dogs off the leash. That’s right, I gave it a whirl, AND ambitiously attempted to do some yoga. Turner was not having the handstand (see image above). Wow, I have not seen so much joy cross their faces in quite some time. They raced up and back along the trail, rooted around in the brush, and, to my delight, returned to me every time I called them.

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As we turned toward the car I realized that I wasn’t ready to head home yet. It seems the more I hike, the less I want to do anything else. So, we passed the car, and kept traveling. This section of trail was still coated in several inches of snow. With every step I thought of my connection to the earth, to my animals, to others, and to myself. My love for hiking seems to lie in the silence of the wilderness. In the calm, I can pick out an odd sound and recognize something that flashes by my periphery. I can identify things that feel off through my intuition, and know when to head in the opposite direction. And, when I doubt my own intuition I can always observe the behavior of my dogs who always know what’s up, and instinctively have my back.

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I saw a post on Facebook the other day asking women who thru hike if they carry a weapon. So many of them said yes, and referenced a favorite gun. I can’t help but wonder what there is to fear in the woods? Do these women also carry in their everyday lives?  I have only felt scared in the woods once, that being the first time I came across a bear. It has happened since then, and with each occurrence I feel a little less afraid and a little more knowledgable on how to keep a cool head and do the right thing. Which is to say, keep my dogs from dragging me toward a bear and her cubs, while maintaining a safe distance and shrieking in a high pitch like a little girl. Okay, that sounds ridiculous, but really, bears hate little girl screams. I mean, who doesn’t? The only instances I’ve encountered people that cause my hairs to stand on end have been in a concrete environment. Urban, suburban, and sometimes even rural, it matters not. People are some of the most deceptive and untrustworthy animals with which I’ve come in contact. I might argue that this little bit of information is a large part of why I retreat to the woods so often. It’s probably also a big reason as to why many other hikers are out there. I get that there will sometimes be random people out there who will cause me to go the long way around in order to steer clear of them. That happens anywhere. And if I’m not going to carry a gun in my civilized life, I’m certainly not going to start carrying one during my time of meditation. A gun would cause me to feel paranoid, fearful that I will accidentally shoot myself or one of my pups. Fearful that I may harm someone or something else and live to regret it. When I’m afraid my body temperature changes, my attention turns toward the thing causing me tension, my senses become preoccupied. For me the safety in fear comes when those characteristics are brought about by a real threat. If the fear comes from something I am doing, then it is simply a distraction. It could even cause me to appear off to other hikers. So, I will continue to walk this earth in a manner that will cause me to be mindful of peace, to project a sense of calm, and not to disturb my connection with my best defense, my intuition.

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