I recorded a new conversation recently with Off Trail Podcast (scroll to the bottom to get to the recording).
The show’s host, Ryan “Constantine” Bunting is quite an impressive dude. He started hiking in 2016 on the Appalachian Trail, and went on to hike the PCT in 2017 and the CDT in 2018…since then has gone on to hike all 11 National Scenic Trails, culminating with a speed record on the 4,830 mile North Country Trail in 2021 and has hiked over 22,000 miles and counting.
I like how he described our conversation:
We begin the show with what it means to identify as a thru-hiker. Renee has been involved in the outdoor, backpacking, thru-hiking world for 20+ years now, and we dive into what it means to her to be a thru-hiker, and whether or not that definition has changed over the years.
We dive deeper into time itself and as she describes it, “Deep Time.” Is there a finite amount of time needed to reach this type of time and what are the conditions that it is found? Along the way we go through her time in the outdoors and her progression into who she has become today. We start with her initial thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail back in 2002, and how the fire that began there was never quenched. Travelling forward through a masters degree to her next thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006, we chat the thoughts when she reached the point many in the outdoors eventually reach, the question of, “How can I make hiking my life.”
We discuss the growth from a hiker into making hiking your life. We chat Wilderness First Responder courses, meeting other hikers involved in the industry, and following your curiosity.
We go into all things Blue Mountains Trail and Oregon Desert Trail. The trail systems are located in the state of Oregon, which Renee has an important role in the decisions of trail routing, conservation, and trail awareness. We discuss the missions of both trails, and how one goes about bringing the thought of conservation to the forefront of each hiker’s minds and most importantly actions. Is it the maps, the trail association, the individual’s responsibility, the preparation, the information along the way, what are the ways and how does it become a reality? We discuss what a trail means when sometimes the very point of a “trail” is to not become a “trail.”
We chat a pair of scissors and $5 per cut of hair “fundraising,” the immensity of time in 6 weeks to build 30′ of trail, and the beauty of alternates.
Here I am with my backpack on again, and another warm and sunny weekend on deck.
This time my circles are more time and place-based. These circles encompass two years and multiple trips.
My first, most obvious loop, is returning to the scene of my Blue Mountains Trail groundtruthing hike. On this day two years ago I was walking above Hells Canyon and the Snake River. Today, I’m hiking along the headwaters of the North Fork John Day River. I drove up to NE Oregon this weekend for the Greater Hells Canyon Council’s yearly gala (if you remember, GHCC created the Blue Mountains Trail). Well, there hasn’t been a yearly gala since COVID happened, so this would be the return to an in-person event. Since I’ve come to call many of the people I met during my inaugural hike of the BMT friends, I jumped at the chance to visit and celebrate with them. AND my other 2020 hiking cohorts, Allgood, Mike, and Naomi will be there too!
The gala isn’t until tomorrow so I had time for a short trip to walk and sleep in these mountains again. I wanted to visit the Vinegar Hill area and walk more of the Princess Trail, which looks to have some stunning ridgewalking, but the area was still closed from a fire this summer. Then I thought of the Peavy Cabin trail, which traces the headwaters of the NF John Day River until it pops up on the Elkhorn Crest and Blue Mountains Trail. Two years ago when I was here, snow blanketed the old burn area and I had just survived my first and only single degree night on the trail.
But that wasn’t the last time I was up here…another circle brings us back to summer 2021. Kirk and I took a month off work to travel the river from the source (where I am nowish, writing this) to the mouth at the Columbia River. “But wait, you didn’t write about that,” you might be thinking. Nope, I decided that I didn’t have to always capture every moment in text, last summer was a different kind of trip anyway. Was the idea to travel the length of one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the west born two years ago on the BMT as I peered down into this drainage from the crest above? It must have been, because I spent the next seven months planning for it, and in early June, Kirk and I started the attempt by walking up this trail towards the highest spring that fed the 300-mile river.
I’ll give you a few highlights…the whole month was full of excitement, card games, random meetings with friends, crazy weather, 120 degree tempatures, and quickly dropping water levels. Oh, then there was the tick in my ear…so far only a few people have heard that tale.
But back to today and my overlapping footsteps. I wanted to hike in a few miles, sleep with a view, and enjoy the surrounding mountains that have become so important in my life. I cruise up from Bend, bag still partially packed from my trip with Cindy in the Casades last weekend. Driving up the highway from the North Fork John Day Campground, I crossed paths with last year’s Kirk and Renee. Since we had decided on a multi-staged human-powered adventure, (hike, packraft, paddle board, IK, and raft), we had layers of logistics to figure out. BMT friends Jim and Rhonda Kennedy, who live on the Middle Fork John Day River, agreed to help out and shuttled us and some of our gear to the previously mentioned campground where we cached our packrafts. We would walk up to the headwaters, an out and back trip, because the river was too small and choked with wood to paddle.
Today I drove up and parked at the end of the road, some fourish miles from that high spring. There is a trail that climbs to the ridge top and misses the highest spring, but last summer I had guessed that we could just bushwack over to it…or close to it anyway because it was on a steep part of the canyon wall. It being early June, we walked into snow and when the trail started reaching for the crest and away from the river we reevaluated.
Soft snow fields filled in the gaps of pickup stick trees – piles of them in all directions had fallen after a long-ago fire. The going looked to be a long sufferfest of postholing to that high spring, and Kirk and I looked at each other, not really wanting to put forth the effort after all. We had both arrived at this month off tired and burnt out. There had been a lot to do at work to ready for being gone for a month, and endless logistics to figure out for this trip (packing 30 days of food for two people being one detail), and now that we were here, the exhaustion had a chance to settle in.
“Nah,” we said. “Close enough.”
It’s completely hilarious to me that we bailed on the source-to-mouth thing on day one, but it also seemed quite fitting. Kirk doesn’t have the thru-hiker mentality like I do, and besides, he was here to paddle. “Let’s not take ourselves too seriously,” I thought. We were here to have a fun adventure together, and this was just the first day. (As luck, or good decisions, would have it, we missed two other sections of river during that month…our source-to-mouth trip wasn’t to be).
This river keeps her headwaters secretive…for even today as I’m climbing the trail up high and to the crest it looks like an arduous hike to visit that spring, even without the snow. The downed wood makes a gauntlet of the drainage, and I don’t have the effort it takes today either.
I hike in 2.5 miles until I have a view and somewhere flatish to sleep. I wasn’t feeling very mile hungry, and I kept getting stopped by good ideas that I had to write down. I am full of it when I walk…I mean them 😄
Good night, circles of me and memory. Until the next time.
I woke several times in the night…wouldn’t you know it, my sleeping pad had a leak. The cold ground was sharp enough to rouse me from the depth of the long miles the day before.
But! The stars were stunning and bright. I gazed at the Milky Way and the incredible infinity of the sky above. I tried to put more air into the sleeping pad but I slowly sank to the earth again and again. Drat.
When I finally had enough of the air games, I retrieved my food from the ursack and made coffee in the dark. By the time Cindy rustled herself awake at daybreak I was onto my second cup of hot drink and was reading the latest issue of Harper’s.
Ok, let’s hike! We were in the shadow of Middle Sister for hours this morning, but the air was still relatively warm, no frost yet. The colors were pure fall with carpets of maroon and gold as far as the eye could see. It was the best kind of hiking. I marveled over the difference from the Appalachian Trail…you almost can’t even compare the two trails, they are so different in character and style that it’s not really fair to sit them side by side. I do love the easy-breezy rock-free smooth trail, but my body wasn’t used to striding out…I kept falling behind Cindy and wondered if the steep rocky trail from this summer had caused me to shorten my gate…it was nearly impossible to take long smooth steps this summer….even on the flat bog bridges I had to hike a bit timid so my feet wouldn’t slide out from me on the wet wood (that happened anyway a few times).
When the sun finally hit, we were snacking by obsidian falls and about to enter the lava flow portion of the loop. Somehow a few trees were still able to do their thing, and grew precipitously from the volcanic rock. The air was clear enough to see up to Mt Hood, and we stopped often to take it all in.
We were both feeling the miles in the early afternoon…even though I had hiked almost all day through the summer, the month at home and back at a desk had taken its toll, and my legs felt heavier with each mile.
Then back to the burn as we closed the loop on the weekend.
Finally I saw the glint of car through the burned out trees…cars! I do love seeing my vehicle intact at a trailhead, cause, you know, things can happen.
We hugged out our goodbyes and parted ways….Cindy had a long drive home, and I had a date with a tub of lavender scented epson salts.
I’ve been home a month now, and have been perfectly content to spend most of my days inside, doing inside things.
The arm is still bothersome, but I’ve been to a physical therapist a few times, and a couple sessions of acupuncture has definitely helped me feel almost healed. I have high hope of being able to return to my regular activities, like yoga. (Oh how I miss it!)
So Cindy, my AT 2002 partner, had a permit for the Three Sisters Wilderness (my backyard), and invited me out.
The idea: Circumnavigate North and Middle Sister, a 30-oddish mile route. The weather was looking like the typical clear, warm, fall day that October can reward us with.
The start: We woke up at 5am. Cindy had arrived a few hours earlier from Portland, and I made us egg and cheese bagels while we packed our few last things. Wheels up by 6am, walking by 7:30.
We were eager to talk trail, afterall, it was Cindy’s 20-anniversery for the AT too!
The morning trail necessitated a brisk pace till we warmed up along with the sun. We were walking through a vast burn area that would take the whole morning to get through. We were heading south from Scott Pass Trailhead.
We lunched at the junction with Demeris Lake, and couldn’t resist the pull of treeline and the pass between South and Middle Sister. The lake at the top, camp lake, is apparently at risk of breaching the glacial rock, which forms its swell in the earth, and flooding Sisters. When I worked for Outward Bound we avoided this drainage for liability reasons, so when Cindy and I reached the water, it seemed i might have miss-remembered the whole situation or this was one has-been of a risk.
It was lovely though. It was all so beautiful.
We spent the afternoon sauntering, as much as you can saunter in lose scree fields, stopping for photos and expressions of delight.
The best news of all: we were headed for the PCT to walk the western portion of the loop back up to our cars. My old friend.
I can’t tell you what a psychic boost it is to have the Pacific Crest Trail in my backyard. I know it has had a profound effect on me these almost 15-years I have lived here. All trail all the time.
We worry about finding water for the night after passing several dry creeks, but our rationing fate was sweetly wiped from our brow when we saw the pretty little pond, our hopeful destination for the evening.
There would be no tents tonight…we tucked ourselves into a small clearing above the pond, and lay out our tyvek. Soon we had inflated all the things and surrounded ourselves in down cocoons. The early October air cooled around us as we looked at a small pocket meadow, all golden and shiny in front of us. Contentment. We ate snacks until it was time to lay down.
So today I am ready to be done with the hike, which is convinent since it is my last day!
The tent held up overnight, but with each unzipping I was worried the unnatural angle of the broken and splinted pole would stress or tear the zipper or door fabric, so it was a relief to take it all down. These poles will be going in the garbage when I get to town, my tyvek ground cloth too…it has gotten to the point where it picks up a fair amount of the forest floor when I lay it down, and is absorbing water instead of repelling it. On a long hike I like to replace it every few months.
I had wings this morning. I have done a good job at being present on this trip, I had to be to keep from tripping and cracking my skull open on a rock, but today the thoughts of home, Kirk, seeing my parents, and wearing clothes other than my stanky hiking ones was strong. I couldn’t peace out all together though, Vermont’s roots and rocks continued with some additional mud pits thrown in for good measure. This was still New England hiking. And then my feet slid on a wet bog board like it was ice and I went down hard on my left knee. That could have been bad, but somehow it wasn’t, and I kept going.
I made amazing progress and even had time for a nice relaxed lunch under some power lines where I was actually able to feel the sun on my skin (the green tunnel is thick).
When I reached the Massachusetts border I did a little jig, three states completed on my sobo hike!
Then there was a crazy jumble of rocks to contend with as I descended to the town of North Adams, and bugs. Little knats flew in my eyes, near my ears and were all up in my grill the last few miles. No thanks! These bugs were the last straw…I’m done with you AT.
I had called a hotel from a few miles back (thank you technology!) and made plans for them to come pick me up at the hiker kiosk in town. NEMO is coming to pick me up tomorrow, and since I’m down a day earlier than I had planned, I’ll have some time to unwind, shower, do laundry, and be ready for one last hurrah with her, Pouch, and Rewan at their farm before I fly out the next day.
The trail turned into an urban hike as it crossed the valley towards Mt. Greylock, and when I reached the pre-arranged meeting spot, to my delight, found multiple coolers filled with cold drinks and snacks. Wooza! I was so thristy, it was hot in the valley and this was unexpected. A woman stopped by to check on the cache and I met Renee (another Renee!) who trail angels in the area and helps replenish the coolers and takes hikers in occasionally too. She has so much excitement for the AT and hikers, it really was a wonderful bookend to the hike. This community, these people, this trail…it’s larger than life.
I love you Appalachian Trail, but it’s time to go home!
From studying FarOut this morning I determined that I would be going up, then down, up then down, and then up and down again. What a day I had planned!
The rain had drenched everything and I walked slowly through the wet….I wanted the miles to take all day, but like before, hiking slow seemed to lower my mood. I was in an unexplained funk.
I stopped to take breaks when the sun popped through, but always the rain returned. I even tried an optimistic lunch and strung up a drying line for some of the wettest gear, but the rain shut that down quick. Me and my funk continued on.
Today’s mantra: Just keep moving.
I read some more of my post-apocalyptic book and was struck by this page:
As I lumbered down the trail I passed a guy who recognized me. Scavenger and I had met at some hiker gathering out west, he was out to hike the Long Trail. 👣👣👣 happy trails Scavenger!
Even though I was moving slow, I made it to my destination mid-afternoon. I set up my stuff and this time the sun stayed out when I hung my wet out to dry.
I got up out of the tent to do something and wobbled around, unsteady on my feet. This often happens when I stand up after a while… I am unencumbered from the usual weight of the pack and don’t have the hiking poles to give me the extra stability these used and abused feet have come to rely on. This time I wobbled, stumbled, and fell….on my tent, and broke a pole.
“Welp,” I thought, “I guess that means the hike is over.”
I took a tent stake and begged some tape from another hiker at the shelter to splint the pole. It was ugly, the tent leans heavily to the broken side, but it stayed up.
I decided to finish tomorrow and truly be done. I could try to stretch out the paltry 20 miles to where I was getting picked up, but I knew the pull of the end would be strong, and now with this major injury to my kit, I was ready to call it.
The rain lasted all night, but I stayed dry and cozy in my tent.
The first order of the day was climbing Stratton Mountain….a special spot where the Long Trail was just a sparkle in some dude’s eye…which really led to the whole long distance trail thing in the U.S….thank you James Taylor!
The rain actually held off most of the day; from the forecast I had been expecting it all day, but was definitely willing to take less than that.
It was a green and dripping hike. I had an occasional view of a bog or pond, but it was primarily an exercise in walking the green tunnel today.
Mid-afternoon I popped out at a gravel road to find some trail magic. 2020 was a 2019 sobo (he is in the market for a new trail name… 2020 isn’t something he wants to carry around anymore). I had a cold root beer (!!) and a donut, and met another sobo. Ducky had only started a few days after me, but somehow I was just meeting him for the first time. Funny how that happens.
The afternoon was mellow and uneventful and I reached my destination (a shelter with a RARE view) fairly early. I set my tent up on a bunch of roots (which wouldn’t become truly uncomfortable until later) and chatted with some nobos that had rolled in. I guess I will be surrounded by nobos for the whole two months I am out here…a truly astonishing number of people all striving for big K.
After a lackluster dinner (a Knorr side…again) I dove into a new book, this one a post-apocalyptic tale told from the point of view of a first nation’s tribe in Canada. It makes me want to start prepping in earnest.
So NEMO lives close enough that she will pick me up in a few days for a night at her farm before I fly out. When we were talking about how far I’d get she tossed out some lofty numbers…and I just don’t want to do 20+ mile days at this point. I think I could, but I don’t feel like it, so I will stop once I reach the first town in Massachusetts. That sounds like four medium sized days. Perfect for this middle-aged woman (but to be honest…I don’t really feel middle-aged. Is it the hiking? 🤔)
When I woke in the king sized bed (🙌), I did morning things and hit the hot continental breakfast hard. I was outta there around 10ish, and I walked the mile or so to the post office so send some things away. Third pair of socks? Who needs you anyway!
I made one last stop at Zoey’s Deli on my way out of town and couldn’t resist the cookie as big as my head. Then I had barely pulled out my tyvek to hold up the “To Trail” part when a woman pulled over and offered me a ride. Vermonters like the hikers!
The walking was very nice today…smooth and fewer things to trip on than normal. I met a fellow sandal wearer and we chatted toes and twisted ankles for a minute and I had to switch to my chacos after that of course.
One of the highlights was a mile gravel road walk (I LOVE a gravel road walk) and the gate. The gate was very popular on FarOut.
It was well into the afternoon when I was suddenly struck: today was August 22, my AT-aversary! Average Joe and I climbed Katadhin 20 years ago today. Today of all days was one to commemorate, and I usually do that by having a little treat 😁.
I walked the rest of the afternoon in a happy meandering. When it started to rain I stepped into my rainskirt and popped up my umbrella…it was the perfect trail for an umbrella, and the rain fell hard enough that I felt 100% that it had been worth carrying it for all this time just for today.
I arrived at the Stratton Pond Shelter and met Nigel hiking out. He had on Long Trail garb, and I had been expecting to connect with the caretaker at this popular spot; I had an inside connection! Here is another tale of the trail community providing: Green Mountain Girl had hiked some of the Oregon Desert Trail a few years ago, and we communicated a lot before, during, and after her trip. She has been so rad, and even sent me a gallon of Vermont maple syrup when she returned home from Oregon as a thank you (So nice!). When she heard that I’d be hiking some of the AT she mentioned she wanted to trail angel me (she works for the Long Trail as well 👍). She arranged for the caretaker here at Stratton Pond to hike in some beer for me…and after talking to Nigel and finding out he wasn’t my awaited contact and than in fact it was the caretakers’s day off, I had my instructions to look on their tent platform and I’d find a beer there with my name on it. Literally!
Haa, so nice!! My little treat! Happy trailaversary to me and Average Joe!
I magic’d two of the three beers to a couple of Long Trail hikers, and come to find out Cowabunga has also completed his nobo AT thru 10 years ago this week. Cheers to us!
So I didn’t mention yesterday that I had come to the top of Bromley Mountain and found a camping paradise. I hadn’t read all the FarOut comments, and had been focused on a shelter that was a mile further away, but when I crested the last climb, definitely grumbling as the climbs had been steep and rocky and the day long, I was awe-struck by the grassy clearing and hikers setting up their tents. I went up to a nobo who confirmed, yes, there is camping and a privy and even a building with outlets we can use. Oh happy day! The ski lift of the resort towered over the south side of the mountain and the clouds and sun were already giving off a pretty dramatic show when I arrived. It was a much needed boost to my moral at the end of a long day.
So this morning when I woke for my usual pre-dawn business, I could see from the hints of red on the horizon that it was going to be a stunner of a sunrise. By the time I made my coffee others had peaked their heads out and we were all basking in the rare sight of a sunrise on the AT (too many trees to get a regular view like this.)
I soaked it in before starting down the mountain. It was a great start to day 50. I cleared cobwebs from the trail with my face almost the whole three miles down. Yuck.
When I reached the trailhead and highway I started chatting with a woman who was hiking the long trail when a car full of nobo hikers pulls up. Jeff from the hostel in town was running them to the trail and offered to give me a ride to town. Oh happy day! My first item of business was breakfast. He took me to a cute breakfast joint where I put the hurt on some eggs. Then laundry. I wouldn’t be able to shower till I got to the hotel room, I like to shower before doing laundry usually, but the order of operations would have to be switched today.
Then resupply at the grocery across the way, then I decided to pop my head in some of the outlet stores that Manchester Center is known for. I might want to wear something other than hiking clothes on the plane or when I visit my folks (I’m spending a few days with my parents in Louisiana before I fly back to Oregon). I got a few tops….I had been looking for a dress, but I am not a fan of the options I had before me in a few stores, and the pant options were not appealing either. Am I an old lady when I don’t want to wear any of the fashions that are out now? Yuck. I’ll mail the shirts and a few things from my pack to my folk’s house tomorrow…I can lighten up my pack a bit for sure. Less than 100 miles to go to Massachusetts and my end point!
I ran a few more errands before waking over to the hotel. They let me use the pool even though I was early, and I stayed there till my room was ready.
The room had a tub! I had been banking on that and had picked up some epson salts in hopes that I would finally get a chance to soak. Devine. I had new nail polish for my toes, a moisturizing mask for my face, and new shirt. Look out Manchester Center!
I splurged big time on dinner down the street at Ye Old Tavern. It was historical and expensive and so delicious.
I couldn’t find anything worth watching on the 10000 channels of cable (seriously, there was NOTHING of value…cable has become nothing but infomercials and junk) so watched some netflix on my phone instead.