Writing: Maiden Voyage: Hiking the Finger Lakes Trail, Part One

Photo by Chelsea Kehrli

How could someone just wander through the mountains alone for all those miles?

When my father came home from Vietnam, he hiked the entire Appalachian Trail trying to ease his way back into civilian society. He was riddled with conflict over what he had done and how he was treated when he returned. His journey intrigued me for my whole life. I wondered what it would be like to take to the woods with my life on my back. Would I have the strength to do what my father did? Had I grown too soft in my advancing years?

A nurse I worked with years ago invited me to do a section of the AT and I prepared for months with research on gear and foods. I had a notebook full of choices, but what I didn’t have was practical experience. I have hiked before, but never something that extreme and the fear of what I didn’t know, kept me from going on that journey when it was offered. Months ago, my friend Lisa asked me if I wanted to go on a three days/two-night hike. I’d never done this before, but always had the desire to know what it was like.

I had wanted to discuss my father’s time on the trail for many years, but distance and awkwardness kept me from finding the right time to hear about his hiking days. Several months before he passed away, we had decided that I’d buy him a tape recorder and he could tell the stories verbally since the arthritis in his hands had made it difficult to write. I lost my father shortly after that decision and lost the chance to know about his hiking adventures or be able to share my own. My hope was that our shared love of the woods would bring us closer together.

We were very much alike in character–stubborn, hard-working, solitary to fault, but still community minded. Loyalty and truth were everything to us both. When he passed away in 2015, I lost a part of myself. He made his journey into the woods in his twenties, bereft and disillusioned. Now, I’d be making my own journey to the forest in my late forties searching for my own meaning. 

Better late than never.

My friend Lisa, several months back, had invited me to join a section hike of the Finger Lakes Trail with a group from ROCovery Fitness. My opportunity to test my strength and will were hand delivered. I had a lot of fears going into this hike which would be three days and two nights, as I had never backpacked overnight. With everything that had happened in my life, cue in a long line of high kicking traumas, it was safe to say I had trust issues when thinking about hiking with strangers. This trip would make me vulnerable to strangers and this is not my strong suit. But being stubborn has its advantages. Failure was not an option so I told Lisa yes.

A document was sent several weeks before the hike with all the information I would need to prepare. It included the people that were interested in going and the thought of hiking with eleven people gave me panic and at one point, I had thought of backing out. In the end, only four women, including myself, showed up for the journey. The group of women I hiked with were varied in personality, which made the trip interesting. Each of them was in different stages of hiking ability. All of us were sober living folks so this and hiking gave us common ground.

I had always been in awe of Lisa. I met her in a writer’s group several years ago and her writing was raw and full of her life’s traumas in such a connective and powerful way. Slowly over the years we became friends. She is tall and thin but is more strong than any woman I’ve met in both physical power and determination. But don’t imagine she is a hard ass just because she’s strong, because what she brought with her was a love of life, nature, and her extra goofy personality. Lisa was our hike leader and the only person I knew, the only one I thought I could possibly trust.

Photo by Chelsea Kehrli

In addition to myself, there was Chelsea, Lisa’s girlfriend, and Mo. As it would turn out, Chelsea and I were the least experienced hikers of the group and had similar quiet personalities. We often traveled in tandem near the back of the pack as we listened to Lisa and Mo talk about any number of things ahead of us. Mo joined us after we had completed the first day. She hiked in by herself and very quickly before nightfall. Mo has the best morale of anyone I’ve met as she was always happy to be exactly where she was on the trail. Even when the hike was miserable, she was smiling and enjoying life.

Prior to meeting these women, I had a fear of failing in front of them. The thought of others watching as my body disappointed me made me slightly crazy. I worried about slowing them down and holding them back from their own good experience. Most of all, I had to trust that this group would keep each other safe, keep me safe. This expanse of fear caused me to place a lot of pressure on myself. In the back of my mind, I knew I would love the hike and get along with these women, but after living a life where traumas sort of piled themselves up like cordwood, it was hard to see the light in this situation.

For this trip, I spent a fair amount of money on good, solid gear following the list of suggestions from Lisa’s list as well as various hiking websites. I bought quality things as an encouragement to keep hiking, even if this sort of hiking didn’t turn out to be my favorite. This journey would be my maiden voyage for hiking with full gear for anything longer than a day. I was bound to make mistakes, but I was eager to see what I could do better. Before the trip, I packed and repacked my gear several times to try and offload some weight and make everything fit without shifting. We were advised not to carry more than twenty pounds but no matter how hard I tried. I couldn’t get mine under thirty-two pounds. I thought I would be okay. In the end, it wasn’t and there were so many things I learned weren’t needed that could’ve lightened my load.

For fun, right before I left to meet the women for our trip, I drew three tarot cards to see what I needed to learn about this hiking adventure. There on the table were some deep and challenging lessons I hoped to achieve: gentle strength, charity, and teamwork. These would all become relevant in this journey, more than I could ever imagine.

Day One: Access 5 on NY-245, B1

Photo by Aleathia Drehmer

Lisa, Chelsea, and myself arrived at access 5, a jumping on point in the middle of the Bristol Hills Trail of the Finger Lakes Trail.  We parked in the DEC lot, and made our way around the side to start the trail which was wide and flat. This went on for a while and then suddenly we were back to the DEC building only on the other side. We had taken a wrong turn already and this did nothing for my nerves. Upstate New York has been riddled with rain this summer and as we walked back the direction we had come from, we realized that with all this extra rain, the weeds had grown over the opening to the trail. I’m 5’5” and these weeds were up to my neck. After leaving some sort of marker for Mo who would be joining us late, we bushwhacked into the trail head to find the orange trail markers we were looking for. Once in the woods, the climbing was nice. The universe blessed us with pleasant temperatures and no rain and this was a welcomed change.

I used this part to get acclimated to my pack and my body underneath the heaviness of my gear. The solidness of everything I had packed was heavier than I imagined it would be on a steady slow climb as I tried to avoid roots and rocks. It was challenging for me to find a comfortable pace since I am usually a fast walker in general. I would need stamina if I were going to make it through alive. Very early in the hike, Chelsea was complaining of back pain as she was recovering from a recent back injury and had hiked in the Adirondacks the week before. We hadn’t even hit the 9% incline yet that was going to last over a mile. Chelsea had not brought trek poles and this was my first time using two of them. I’m a one pole sort of person, so I let her borrow the other one to help her back. I knew the upcoming hill would be challenging but I also knew that I’d feel accomplished when I had finished it. This would be my first act of charity on the trip and it was a nice way to start the hike.

Photo by Aleathia Drehmer
Photo by Chelsea Kehrli

Along the way, we took in a myriad of beautiful flowers and the day was full of butterflies of all kinds. The ground was littered with American giant millipedes everywhere we looked. We spent a lot of time trying to avoid trampling nature when it was possible. Along this part of the hike Lisa named her backpack Stella and I named mine Sancho as a tribute to Don Quixote’s trusty companion, and also because I felt like a pack mule.

We made our way through a high grass strip of field nestled between swaths of forest until we came to a lean-to area. It was nice to offload the pack and stretch while looking out over the amazing view of Canandaigua Lake. The first day’s hike was over and all that was left to do was set up camp and find water. Despite my earlier mention of tons of rain in New York, it took us a while to find running water in which to filter to refill our water bladders and bottles. This trek led us down a steep embankment. It was a beautiful view from the creek bed and I found a rock shaped like a boomerang. The hike back up the hill wasn’t my favorite part of the night but at least I wasn’t carrying old Sancho.

Photo by Chelsea Kehrli
Photo by Aleathia Drehmer

The three of us made dinner and watched the sunset while anxiously awaiting Mo’s arrival. It was getting dark and I kept my eye on the path that she was supposed to arrive from. She is a super fast hiker and did make it to camp before dark. We enjoyed the rest of the sunset and a fire. The temperatures were pretty cool for summer, down to 48 degrees, but I was toasty in my mummy bag and layers. All through the night, we heard coyotes in the distance that sounded like they were heading away from us. Before the trip, my best friend’s son gave me a talisman to ward off coyotes and strangely, I felt safe with it in my backpack.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for parts two and three.

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