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.
When I set out for my first solo adventure I had only a single overnight in the woods where we did an out and back of 25 miles. I planned for a 30 mile, 2-night point-to-point trek along the AT in Pennsylvania. It was going to be an exciting adventure, from a shuttle service to overnighting solo I was planning for big things. I arranged to be picked up at my car and dropped off at the trailhead north of my car. There’s nothing quite like being picked up by a total stranger in a van and being driven away into the wilderness. I was more nervous about climbing into his van than I was about the upcoming miles. This would be a longer distance than I had ever covered on foot, with my previous experience a max of running marathons at 26.2 miles.
My shuttle driver was friendly and wonderful, just as he should be, chatting to me about the trail, previous passengers and my upcoming adventure. He dropped me off and wished me luck. I didn’t need luck, I was confident it would all go well. There were nerves for a moment and then within a few feet on the trail I was home, free among the green tunnel of the AT. A few miles into my hike I lost my visor after stopping to enjoy an overlook. Sadly, this visor had carried me through 2 marathons, lots of training runs and vacations, and it wasn’t until hours later that I realized it had fallen off my pack. As the day wore on I met a southbound thru-hiker, One Step, who kept me company the last mile to the campsite. We set up our tents by the river, and I was happy to not be camping alone. While I was confident in my abilities, I knew I wasn’t quite ready to overnight completely solo. It was during setup that I realized I had not packed a sleeping bag, just my liner. Thankfully, it was the end of August, but it was still the mountains of Pennsylvania, thus it was a chilly night in the low 60s. I slept layered in wool base layers, coat, hat and 2 pairs of socks. Certainly not my best night’s sleep, but I survived. Lesson learned: no texting and packing gear!
Setting out on the second morning I realized that I had underestimated my hiking mileage and would be at my car by early afternoon, cutting what should have been a 2 night trip into a single. I made some slight changes to my route to bypass the car and hike onward, with a backtrack the next day. As I was filling my water supply for the day I slipped on the mossy rocks exiting the stream and started my hike with a single sopping wet foot. Onward I hiked, thankful for wool socks and trail runners that dry quickly. Ups and downs and rocks, so many rocks. Then came the rain as I was a few miles from my car. It was then I realized I had no clue how to attach my raincover, nor could I find my poncho. Thus, I hiked in the cool drizzly rain, and when it quit I wasn’t far from my car. Sopping wet, chilly and looking at the weather forecast for the rest of the day and next I decided to end my hike. I had achieved my goal, 30 miles on the AT, solo. Sure, it wasn’t what I had planned, but it was certainly not a safe idea to head out wet and know that I would have another cool night ahead of me. I climbed into my dry waiting car, with a fresh set of clothes and headed home, awash in the joy of having completed my first solo trip.
On that drive home I marveled at how fast the miles whipped by and how it felt like cheating to be driving. I also realized that my body felt very similar to how it felt post-marathon, shaky, cold and in need of caffeine and calories to restore my equilibrium. At that first rest stop to grab a cup of hot sugary coffee I had that same shakiness and soreness and fatigue after riding in a car post long-run. Regardless of how I felt physically, I was excited to have achieved my goal and found myself planning my next trek. While a backpacker was born on my first trip a few months previous, she was christened on this trip. For it was on this trip that I gained my trail name, Leilah Grace.
During that fitful night’s sleep the name came to me in a dream. It played over and over again in my head, an earworm that would not stop. As I hiked on day 2, hiking up the passes and laughing as I tripped over rocks down my descents, the name reverberated within me. Like the trail calls to me as a siren, so did this name. I had always thought I would be a traditionalist, earning my name on my thru-hike or being gifted with it from another hiker on one of these sections, but it was not to be. I left that Pennsylvania trail as Leilah Grace, the adventurous night beauty.