If you want to know one thing about me it’s that I am determined and driven. It’s how I was able to earn my PhD in 4.5 years while having 4 babies along the way, while staying married and running my household. All of my doubts and fears about backpacking were disappearing when Backbone turns to me and says whatever you do, don’t fall as we turn a corner and we face what appears to be a small vertical rock face. At the sight of that they came back. You have to picture this, I’m a 5’3” curvy girl and he’s a near 6’ lanky guy, he finds a little crevice and shimmies his way up without issues. I just stood there, pack on trying to figure out where and how I was going to get up the rock face myself. It took multiple tries, and a lot of deep breathing to calm my racing heart, but I managed. Scrambling up that rock face reminded me of the obstacles I had faced over the past few years and how pure heart and determination can get me through. The rest of our trip was fairly uneventful, though we had quite a side trail escapade to get to a water source. We cut our trip to just a single overnight as I was struggling with badly bruised toenails our second day from not tightening my laces enough. Despite all this, I was hooked. As we drove back to town all I could think about was when we were heading back out. A hiker was born in the mountains of Palmerton, PA.
From Hiker to Backpacker
About the Author: Leilah Grace is a hiker and adventurer. She’s at home in the mountains or the river or the beach. You never know where she is going to turn up. She lives just outside of Philadelphia with her 4 kids and 2 kitties. You can follow her @Leilah.Grace.Adventures on Instagram.
The number one question that I get asked when I head out on a backpacking trip is: don’t you get scared? My immediate answer is always no. I feel safer on the trail than I do in a big city. I didn’t grow up on trails, nor in the city; I was raised in the suburbs of multiple cities from Springfield, MA to Houston, TX to Detroit, MI to name a few. My parents took me car camping from a young age and I always loved our trips, especially when we went hiking in the woods. Even from a young age I felt the magic of the forest, comfortable in the quietness and peace that only nature can provide.
I had always wanted to try backpacking, but it was always low on the priority list, something to get to “later.” My friends and family were campers, not backpackers, and only a small group even enjoyed day hikes. In college I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and fell in love with the idea of hiking the entire AT, despite the fact that I had never been backpacking. As I grew older I still loved hiking and tried to take my growing family out when it was possible, but you can imagine the challenge of trying to hike with 4 children under the age of 5. There’s only so much that two adults can manage, thus our day hikes were short for a number of years. As my children grew older we were able to incorporate slightly longer hikes, though still challenging to manage it all. I couldn’t fathom how we could go backpacking, so I continued to sideline my dream of going out on a trail and really experiencing nature more intimately than before.
This year, following a divorce from my husband of 13 years, I met an AT class of 2016 thru-hiker, Backbone, who reminded me of my dream to go backpacking and reignited my passion for hiking. On a whim, two weeks before Memorial Day we made the decision to take me out of my first trip. We scrambled for those two weeks finding me gear, and he planned our trip. It was to be a 2 night stay out on the trail, somewhere in Pennsylvania. The morning we went to leave I distinctly remember him asking if I was up for something challenging. I looked at him and said I had no frame of reference for challenging, but sure, why not? How was I supposed to know that he had just picked us the most challenging portion of the AT in Pennsylvania? I didn’t, but I trusted his judgment. We parked the trailhead and headed straight up, as the AT likes to do.
To be honest, it was about 15 minutes into our trip that I began to have doubts, the pack weight wasn’t terrible, but I was struggling with the poles, the steepness of the trail and learning to manage it all together. Backpacking is more than just walking; it’s learning to create harmony between your body, pack, poles and the trail. I certainly was not doing well at integrating all those components, but I kept pushing.
Since that initial trip I have turned into a solo hiker. I was certainly nervous that first trip, but my nerves disappeared within the first few feet of being on the trail. I love being out on the trail; the silence, peace, tranquility and beauty of the mountains speak to my soul in ways that other destinations cannot. My time on the trail is a respite, away from the hustle and bustle of being a single mom to 4 amazing kids. I have what I need and no other worries or concerns other than my next water source and sleeping arrangements. There’s a freedom in carrying all you need upon your body while also relying on nature. I still consider myself a newbie to backpacking, with only 3 trips under my belt, but I learn more each trip, not only about hiking but about myself. The adventure continues and I leave the trail yearning for more.