My inspiration came last weekend, hiking with two ladies with the Trail Dames who were stepping on the AT for the first time. Watching them strive to do something beyond what they'd ever done before made me want to try for something that pushed my limits too.
I picked a section along the AT in North Carolina that I'd never done for a solo out and back. I choose this section because it had a cool feature (Wayah Bald) 10 miles from my starting point (Winding Stair Gap), knowing that an out-and-back would give me 20 miles. But I also promised myself I'd turn around early if I was feeling tired.
I've been building up to 20 miles for the past five months-- during the week, I climb my neighborhood hills with my fully-loaded backpack (looking like a dork), and I've been carrying a full 30 lb. pack on my dayhikes or going backpacking every weekend. More importantly, I'd been building my confidence by hiking solo, first on familiar trails (where I knew I wouldn't get lost) and then in unfamiliar territory.
Starting from Winding Stair Gap (3800 feet), within the first mile, the trail passed a waterfalls and a cove rich with trilliums, clintonia lily, and umbrella leaf. I took so many photos in the first mile, I never thought I'd have time to make it to my goal.
The trail climbed to an opening at mile 4 where there was a side trail up to Siler Bald. The peak (5216 feet) offered a 360-degree view of incredible mountains in all directions.
The trail then descended to Wayah Gap (4200 feet), and climbed back up to Wine Spring Bald. I finally decided to really go for it when I spotted my second patch of yellow lady slipper orchids; I was cruising down the trail and spotted them halfway down the hillside. I took it as a sign that I was totally grooving. Whenever I am distracted, or if I'm not feeling 100%, I will miss spotting flowers, so seeing them was a good indication that I was fully alert and feeling the "flow" of my hike.
|View of lady slippers from trail.|
|Zoomed-in view from trail|
The final two miles to Wayah Bald (5350 feet) were the most botanically rich-- hillsides were thick with a diversity of wildflowers. Again, I stopped to admire and photograph and ohh and ahhh. The clouds had rolled across some of the mountains when I finally reached the CCC-build tower at Wayah Bald. But I still had fabulous views in the other directions. After I had lunch, it hit me that I'd just done 10 miles in four hours-- I was so excited but tried not to think about it. And I also couldn't believe I'd seen so many flowers-- including three separate patches of yellow lady slipper orchids.
The return trip seemed more difficult, with the long descent, and then ascent, and then descent roller coaster. In all, it was 4000 feet total elevation gain-- more than I'd ever done before though it turned out to be gradual.
The most difficult part was when my knee/leg starting hurting on mile 17 during a rough downhill section, and then suddenly, the pain was so bad I had to stop. I knew I had been going too fast, but I had been enjoying the feeling of trying to push myself. I haven't experienced pain while hiking like that ever before. It was scary, so I stopped, took a deep breath, and took inventory. I realized that I wasn't hungry, which is alarming because I'm ALWAYS hungry while hiking, and for me, this indicates a problem. Then I noticed I still had two liters of water left, which meant I hadn't been drinking enough. (During college, I ended up twice in the hospital with an IV for dehydration before I figured out that I was especially prone to dehyration and needed to both eat and drink during prolonged, intense exercise.) After a snack and adding "emergency" sports drink mixes to my water (which, thankfully, Still Waters had insisted I carry), I became more clear-headed and the pain subsided.
Was 20 miles really any more difficult than the 14 miles I'd limited myself to before I set out my New Years Resolution? Perhaps not physically, because I'd been training for it, but it was harder mentally because I was more afraid of getting tired or injured. Once again, the lesson for me is that the most difficult challenge is the mental part of hiking-- trusting myself and having confidence in my abilities.
What's next? I don't know but right now I feel like I could do absolutely anything.