I will never be quite sure what made me believe that I could tackle a 4 night, 50 mile backpacking trip solo with only two trips under those hip pouches on my pack. I just knew that it was something I could accomplish with planning and perseverance. It couldn’t be that different from my first solo trip right?
It was with these memories, and those of my first trip a few months prior I planned my next trip for 4 nights on the AT. I planned a 50-mile trek from northern Connecticut to Lee, Massachusetts. You can imagine that my friends and family thought I was a bit crazy to want to hike 50 miles for vacation, nonetheless in such a short timespan. Many of my family and friends do not understand my inner drive and need to see and experience life differently. Packing for this trip I made sure to pack my sleeping bag, unlike on my first solo trip, and a few other sundries I thought may be necessary.
I loaded my kids on the bus and then my things into the car for a 4-hour drive up to my starting location in Connecticut. I had this trip planned down to a very small window. I was leaving on a Thursday morning and had to be picked up no later than 10am in Lee, MA on Monday to return to Pennsylvania by 4pm so I could shower and work my second job. I knew that on my first day on the trial I had to cover at least 5 miles, which would have me covering 15 miles a day on my next days. I figured that this was reasonable given my history of covering 12-17 miles a day on my previous trips.
Day 1 I covered around 8 miles from the northern Connecticut border and had my first state crossing. Needless to say I was ecstatic. Sages Ravine at the border was a magical forest and stream, such so that I expected to encounter fairies flittering along. It was only as I was hiking late that day that I realized that I would likely be camping alone. Then the nerves hit. Hiking solo was one thing, but camping all alone in the ravine campsites had me nervous. I have never been so thankful to turn a corner at the campsite and see a couple cooking dinner. This couple and their sweet Great Dane were my saviors that night. I slept in peace knowing I was not alone.
I woke up to a crisp New England fall morning and as I headed out I leap frogged across a babbling stream, stopping to refill my water. I was thrilled as I hiked along Laurel Ridge with fantastic fall colors and overlooks to my right. My trek was turning into a quintessential New England hike. There were views, blue skies streaked with clouds and a lightness in the air. I was content to hike alone, enjoying the sound of silence and magic that is the mountains of southwestern Massachusetts. I played leapfrog with a section hiker, Retro, with whom I made a plan to camp that night. There was magic in those miles on that second day. As much as I struggled with descending peaks and rock scrambles, often throwing my poles down the scrambles, I was happy and carefree. I was cognizant of the decreasing daylight and much to my chagrin Retro was nowhere to be found near our appointed spot. It was then I gathered my courage and pitched my tent by a river, snuggled into a little cove with the forest at my back. Checking in with friends had me reassuring them I was fine while I was still nervous. It was Backbone, my hiking mentor, to my rescue, reminding me that I was fine and safe for the night.
As day 3 dawned I awoke, strengthened in my newfound skill of camping solo on the trail I also realized I had a water situation. I had 1.5L of water on me, and the river I was camped at was not safe for drinking. Reports from Guthook had all the water sources dry or contaminated for at least the next 6 miles. After 6 miles there was a potential water source, but the app had not been updated in a month for that source. As I set out I was nervous but hopeful that there would be a water source before the 6 mile mark. Luck was not in my favor and all the clean sources were dry, often so dry I had passed over them for a mile before checking the app. Finally, I came upon the Tom Leonard shelter and the potential water source. The creek was a quarter mile down a steep unmarked trail, but the water was crisp, clear and cold. I was not going to risk a water situation again and carried out 3.5L of water.
Hiking out to my destination for the night, North Mount Wilcox Shelter, I met interesting characters, from a man carrying a much larger pack than mine who was out for a quick weekend trip with a pizza box in hand, to a dad with his two kids and a group of inexperienced female hikers. As the day pressed on I was slowly becoming more physically and mentally exhausted with the fallout from the miles with rationed water.
That night I camped at the South Mount Wilcox shelter. It was different to be surrounded by a crowd. While I enjoyed the companionship and stories from the two, 2016 SOBO thru-hikers, I also missed the solitude. These fun loving people were intent on a bonfire, while I all wanted was quiet and my sleeping bag, but who was I to begrudge them their enjoyment. Morning came quickly and I had lots of miles to cover that day as I needed every minute of daylight. I was struggling to keep my mileage at the pace I needed to reach my destination on time. I set out, walking swiftly, having found that comfortable rhythm with my pack and poles in a way that I had not on my 2 previous trips. On this trip I had mastered manuevering my water bottles in and out without stopping. Learning how to transfer my poles to a single hand, pull the bottle, unscrew the top and drink with minimal slowing. I still struggled at times to reset the bottle, but each time was improving. It may sound like a little thing, but to me it was another goal accomplished and proving myself to be more competent.
After 2 miles into my hike on day 4 I planted my right foot on a down-sloping rock, and then suddenly I was twisting and falling. My right pole was jammed between rocks and I was twisting, turning, catapulting so hard and fast I thought my pole would snap. It was at that moment I felt the pressure and pop in my right ankle. As I regained my balance I tested my ankle. It held weight, hurt a little, but nothing significant. I hiked onward, what other choice did I have? I was in the middle of a mountain in Massachusetts, solo, without cell service. I was close to living out my friends and family’s greatest fear, that I would be injured on the trail without help.
For the record I am a physical therapist and have treated a number of fractured and sprained ankles, while myself having experienced both of these conditions. I knew that there was a possibility it was more injured than I knew, but I left on my shoes, relied more heavily on my poles and headed north, still intent on making it to Upper Goose Pond by nightfall. Five or so miles later after a brutal switchback descent I came upon Jerusalem Road and a stump that was calling my name. My hamstrings were screaming in fatigue and the pain and pressure in my ankle could no longer be ignored. It was decision time, continue on and risk further injury or having to be transported off the trail or call it quits. The longer I stood there debating the more I knew that I was procrastinating on making the safe decision. Logic eventually prevailed and I pulled myself off the trail.
It was a rough moment to sit there and know I was not going to complete my goal. I knew logically that I was making the smart choice, but it did not soothe my driven nature, all it did was feed my anxiety. As I sat and made lunch waiting to hear back from my ride some day hikers found me. They were able to speak with my ride and give her precise directions as to my location. Not only did they speak with her while out on the trail they found a trail maintainer and let him know about me. He finished his work and found me still waiting patiently for my ride. This angel called her and drove me to an easier to find location and allowed me to sit in his heated truck while I waited for her. I am forever grateful for those day hikers and trail maintainer for the kindness, concern and generosity. While not in the traditional sense of trail angels, these 5 people were my angels that day.
While I may not have finished my goal, I did complete 38 miles of my trek and learned, once again, that I am capable of more. My mastery of trail skills continues and each new trek is a new adventure. The trail continues its magical siren call and I will continue to answer.