This article was inspired by Dave Voelker’s 1978 Cleveland Magazine article, I Walked Across Lake Erie — Alone.
In March 2020, people at John Carroll University as well as those in the rest of the world were forced into their homes after the COVID-19 outbreak. I, being one of the many students leaving their social circles, was extremely upset. I felt alone and sad like I was away from the world. However, I soon realized that was not true. I just needed to find a COVID-safe activity. So, in August of 2020, right smack-dab in the middle of a deadly pandemic, I started backpacking.
For my first trip, my cousin Ellie and I hiked the Colorado mountains, away from people and the world. While there are certain precautions you must take in the few instances you encounter another hiker, such as wearing a mask and keeping distance, it felt like the world was back to normal. I connected with the world in a whole new way — not through people or social events but through nature. I was hooked.
After that trip, I did extensive research on backpacking and hiking. I learned survival tips, watched gear reviews and joined online hiking communities. I jumped into the hiker’s pool and never wanted to resurface.
After months of research and small day hikes, I started making a backpacking bucket-list. Of course, being on the Eastern U.S., the first place I wrote down was the Appalachian Trail, also referred to as the AT. This trail is over 2,000 miles long, spanning from Georgia to Maine. I knew I needed to attack this adventure in parts. So, I decided to drive down to Virginia, accompanied by my very experienced hiker boyfriend, and drove the six hours to Jefferson National Forest. It would be the longest hike I ever did in one day at about 10.8 miles (but we ended up hiking 13 miles). With my camera and journal in hand, I was ready to document my first experience on the Appalachian Trail.
The following is an account from my journal plus my own extension from memory.
Friday, Mar. 5
I am heading out to my car now. I’m excited to hit the road but also not excited for the six-hour drive plus tolls. But hey, at least I will get to stretch my legs the whole day tomorrow.
I made it to the trailhead! I took an hour at a rest stop just to keep my legs from cramping. It’s about 25 degrees Fahrenheit out right now, so I am hoping my sleeping bag is right when it says it can handle 20 degrees.
Saturday, Mar. 6
I slept terribly last night. I made such a stupid mistake by not layering up under my sleeping bag. I suffered from some night sweats, which caused me to shiver the whole night. However, it is a beautiful morning.
I just had a light breakfast and some coffee. I’m all packed and ready to go! We got lucky with wonderful hiking weather: 30 degrees and sunny.
My watch says we are 5.5 miles in, but we are actually about 3.5 miles in. We got off-trail, which caused us to add a little over two miles. Oh well, more exercise I guess.
We gained about 1,000 feet of elevation. While this wouldn’t usually wear me out, this elevation is not spread out. We must hike that elevation all in one go, making it an extremely steep first part of the hike. I’m dying. Only about another 1,000 feet of elevation to go!
I was starting to lose motivation because all I could see in front of me was uphill. However, I am starting to see how high we are. That’s when I start to get a second wind … when I see my progress. We are surrounded by mountains. It’s absolutely stunning, and we aren’t even at the top yet.
IT’S FINALLY LUNCHTIME! Time for some dehydrated lasagna! (Trust me, it tastes better than it sounds). We made it to the beautiful first peak. We are completely surrounded by mountains, and I can see two towns in two different valleys. While it’s a bit chilly, I wouldn’t trade this lunch for the world. We also might warm ourselves up with a tiny swig of whisky. (Don’t worry JCU, I am of the ripe age of 22).
We made it to the peak! After a long, strenuous trek, we finally made it. We are exhausted from the incline, but we are both happily sitting on the ledge. We definitely needed a little rest with a view. This is, quite literally, the peak of my whole day.
I’m glad I worked so hard for this view. It makes it so much sweeter. Hopefully this decline will be relaxing.
We rested a bit before heading down the mountain. We needed it.
I remembered Voelker had a song stuck in his head while hiking and because of that, now I have a song stuck in my head. Not just any song, but Ariana Grande’s “Obvious.” Random, I know, but it’s so catchy!
“Don’t put the bands, put the bands on me
All my love, all my love is free!”
Yep, those are the two specific lines that are stuck in my head.
Seriously? Pocahontas’ “Colors of the Wind” now? How fitting.
The last mile always feels the longest. My feet feel calloused, my legs are exhausted, and all I want to do is lay down. But we are losing sunlight, especially since we are below the mountain range.
This trail feels like it will never end.
We finally made it back to our cars! Every time I start to get impatient while hiking, the trail ends. I always jump the gun. Time to patch up my tired feet. I’m extremely proud of myself today.
After we finished our hike, we gorged ourselves on some delicious backpacker food and relaxed for the rest of the night. By 4 p.m. Sunday, I was back at my apartment in Cleveland ready to shower and get to sleep.
This experience reminded me that this pandemic won’t take away my zest for life. While I can’t hit the town with my friends, I can still find other ways to occupy my time safely as well as spend more time with myself. I challenged myself this weekend by doing something I didn’t think I was capable of doing; we hiked 13 miles in one day. My exploration with Mother Nature has led me to learn so much more about myself and for that, I thank her.