About the Author, Leah LaRocco: “Hi there, I’m a Long Islander who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. My first love was the ocean, but growing up camping and hiking around Vermont also contributed to a deep appreciation for the mountains. Public lands are some of my favorite places to hike and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a regular weekend getaway. I work full time, but believe dreams and passions can and should be pursued outside of the everyday 9-5. As a naturalist, I hope to convey how incredibly healing the woods, water, and wildlife can be when we make the choice to step outside.” Find her via her Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Website.
To see more from Leah, click her name above!
I’ve realized that I have anticipatory anxiety when it comes to traveling, and I reached a point where I was unhealthily stressed out about the logistics of making this whole trip happen. This was exacerbated by a sudden onset of IT band syndrome 4 weeks before I was scheduled to leave, which threw me into a tailspin, causing me to question my ability to accomplish this, and making me feel like a huge failure in spite of that fact that I’ve already hiked 650+ miles this year. I immediately started physical therapy and have been disappointed at how slow the progress feels. As of now, I have one week before I leave, and when I walk around town, I’m still aware of my knee even though it’s not causing any tear-inducing pain at the moment. Part of me is resigned that whatever will be, will be. This is out of my control. The other part of me wants to throw things and scream because I don’t want my body to mess this up for me. So I’ve been warning people that there is a very real possibility that I will return to work early if I’m a few days in and my knee starts screaming at me, making it impossible to go on. Part of me dies every time I do this, but I want them to know this going in because maybe it’ll make me feel like less of a failure if I have to come off trail. True story.
And then there is the gear. Since I’ll be hiking in New England September-mid October, the temps can vary wildly. Anywhere from 30s at night to 70s during the day. So this means I have to prepare for winter even though I’ll probably be sweating it up those mountains during the day. My 10 degree sleeping bag weighs a pound more than my summer bag. Clothing is heavier too. So even though I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money buying lightweight or ultralight gear, I’ve not figured out how to reduce my base weight below 15 lbs. for winter because I want to be warm. For those of you not familiar with backpacking, base weight refers to everything you’re carrying minus consumables like food and water. My hope is to never have more than 23 lbs. on my back, keeping in mind that one liter of water weighs 2 lbs. While 23 lbs. might seem like a paltry weight to some guy who weighs 180 and could lift a cinder block with his pinky finger, it feels like a ton of bricks on my small, scoliosis-ridden frame. Ideally, I’d love to carry no more than 20 lbs. including food and water, but I would have to make some serious sacrifices to my comfort and the last thing I want is to be freezing at the end of an arduous day. I will agonize over every ounce until the day I leave. This is inevitable.
My plan is to hike the AT from NY all the way up through VT and continue straight at the Maine Junction to complete the 272 mile Long Trail, a major bucket list item for me. The fear factor involved with this is that most folks will have finished hiking the LT at this point and I might very well have a lot of alone time on the northern portion of the trail, which is significantly more remote and difficult than the first 100 miles. I’ve been watching videos to see what I’m getting myself into and I’m not gonna lie, I’m nervous. The LT ends at the Canadian border, and in October, the possibility of snow is real. My hope is to complete the entire LT in 3 weeks, maybe less if I’m able to do some big mile days. I really hope I meet some late hikers out there.
Another thing that has been really tough for me during the planning stages of all this is the realization of how few people in my life truly get why I want to do this. My parents think I’m insane. I can tell even though they are trying to be supportive. They are going to pick me up at the airport and drop me off on the trail, but I’m trying to imagine them being ok with watching their daughter just walk into the woods off some sketchy road. I have lost count, and patience, with the number of people who repeatedly ask why Rob isn’t coming with me. And even though Rob has always been 100% behind all of my adventures, it’s not something he has a desire to do, so even though I talk about hiking all the time, he’s still thinking “You have fun, just please don’t ask me to go along.”
I will say though, that I have a few girlfriends who totally get why I want to do this because they are adventurous badasses who I admire so much. I met one of them on the AT and we talk about gear all the time and encourage each other in all our hiking dreams, which is amazing. Another one called me when she found out about my leg and told me some of her own trail experiences, and how she pushed through, then reassured me to go anyway and see what happens. And a coworker who, once we get work “out of the way,” is always willing to talk about trails and trips she’s taking. Ladies, we need to support each other, to keep lifting one another up, and empowering each other to chase our dreams. Women truly need other women speaking positive messages into their lives, like fire lifting a hot air balloon off the ground, enabling it to fly.
When I come home from this, whether it’s in a week or the full 6 weeks, I’ll be able to tell people what it was like, but as to what they will actually understand? It’s indescribable on paper. Unless you’ve hiked on the AT, it just won’t be real. And that’s ok. I’ll try to convey what this is like in the best way I possibly can because I’ll never forget how something in my soul was sparked the first time I read a book called “Alone But Not Lonely” by Annie Gibavic about her solo hike on the Long Trail. I’ll never forget how I laughed when Bill Bryson comically recalled his hike on the AT in “A Walk In The Woods.” I’ll never forget how I cried my way through “Wild” as Cheryl Strayed ripped her heart open so we could all walk along during her soul searching trek on the PCT. I’ll never forget how Jennifer Pharr Davis and Heather Anderson made me feel pain, thirst, exhaustion, and triumph (!!) as they wrote about their record setting hikes on the AT and the PCT. I’ll never forget how these books shaped me, inspired me, and made me a little braver to think I could do this too.
Until I leave, I’ll have to keep knocking myself out with Benadryl every night because my brain won’t shut off. I’ve woken up at 3 am making lists, purchasing tiny dropper bottles online, ordering a last minute sale item from Patagonia “just to try” to see if it’s better than the thing I’m already bringing…I can’t stop. I want this to happen so badly. I’m worried about the stupid leg, being lonely, falling off some sketchy boulder, having a tree fall on my tent, getting Lyme disease, hitchhiking (I can’t let myself even think about this yet), and the fear of feeling so utterly free that my transition back to civilization sends me into a depressive spiral. These are the things that go bump in the night inside of my head.