When I moved to Maryland last year to take an internship with the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, I was eager to delve into my love of public lands. I knew it was nearing the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System, and I was determined to do something I’d never done before: backpacking.
I bought a tent. I went car-camping throughout Maryland’s state and national parks. I bought a backpack, a sleeping pad, stove, boots, waterproof matches, and a trowel for heeding the call of nature in nature.
I made plans with my roommate. Deciding that you can’t go wrong with the iconic Appalachian National Scenic Trail for your first backpacking trip, we plotted our course on the Appalachian Trail through the Maryland section and discussed how much food we should bring.
“According to these three websites, we should bring upwards of 2500 calories per day. For our 3-day trip, that’s over 7,000 calories each,” I said. With precision that would make any through-hiker proud, we laid out all our food on the table and counted precious calories for 5 ready-boil bags of rice, summer sausage, cheese, crackers, tuna, nearly 2 pounds of tortillas, granola bars, and coffee.
“This isn’t enough food!” I said, the image of me stumbling over rocks, starving to death was fixed in my mind, even though we would be on a trail that crosses half the major highways in Maryland. I convinced her to bring peanut butter, ready-make chili, a dehydrated dinner, and candy bars as well.
When it’s your first time backpacking, you don’t know how much it hurts to carry food that you know you won’t eat, on shoulders that vocalize their thoughts on your poor food choices and extravagant meal-planning. But once we were on the trail near Harpers Ferry, adrenaline kicked in, and despite my roommate’s early-onset blisters, we looked forward to the the next day which would be our first full day of hiking.
In the morning we made coffee and started to pack up when the first few drops of a deluge started to fall. We finished packing and fled the campsite. I ate my granola bar as the rain dissolved it in my hand. The rain lasted all morning, and though I should have been miserable, I was buoyant instead.
There was something magical about the forest. Rain drops fell through the trees, running off my fingertips, and the mists that passed through the trees made me feel like I was in a land removed from time, instead of a rookie backpacker tromping through forest an hour away from Washington D.C.
Backpacking does take its toll, however. I exited the trail two days later walking like a drunken sailor, nursing blisters and limping. I had had enough of a constant runny nose (and precious few tissues), sore feet, and the part of the AT called “devil’s racecourse” that threw out my hip on the last day. At that point, I couldn’t wait to get off the trail and back into society.
But over the next few days, as my blisters healed and my muscles stopped aching, I realized I’d changed out on the trail (though the change was not a caloric deficit; the two milkshakes on the way home neutralized any danger of that).
I remembered the mist in the mornings, and the nighttime fire blazing hot and bright after I’d willed it into existence through 30 minutes of fanning air into it. I remembered the conversations with other through-hikers, who allayed my embarrassment of bringing almost two pounds of tortillas with their own stories of being rookie backpackers (Bananas, apparently, were not a good trail snack).
I realized I wanted to go back.
I wanted to find a new trail to explore, and carry my pack scrambling over more rocks, experience new views. I realized that there is something out on the trail that is difficult to attain here in everyday life.
As we search for legitimacy in a world where we put a shiny veneer on everything we do, it’s a relief to go out in nature.
In nature, a tree is just a tree. A rhododendron is just as concerned with “how it looks” this season as a fox is concerned with the differential equations in effect as it pounces on a rabbit. On the trail, you can let your hair down, your guard down a little, and yes, you smell a little more frowsty than is usually acceptable.
This year, I found my trail, but more importantly, I found my love of all trails was real and substantial.
The reason why the National Trails System is encouraging people to “Find your Trail” is because you often find part of yourself along the way, also.
Since then I have done another trip, this time along the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. The PHT as we fondly call it, provides increasing continuity to a network of trails and partners along the Potomac River and supporting watersheds.
As we move into 2018, I encourage you: find your trail! You don’t have to be a seasoned hiker or outdoorswoman to enjoy the outdoors. If you’re wondering where you should start, check out the American Hiking Society’s “10 Essentials of Hiking.”
Monica Larcom is the Digital Media and Project Coordinator for the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and the C&O Canal National Historic Park