I hiked the Appalachian Trail.
This is not exactly true. I hiked a minuscule and anticlimactic section of the Appalachian Trail for forty-five minutes with my dog. We met a snake, and I accidentally left a bag of poop on the trail. This, however, is not a hiking story. It is instead a story about how I came to be on the trail in the first place. It is also a story about the best-laid plans of a writer going awry.
My husband was crewing a sailboat on the coasts of Europe, and I was home on our own sailboat where we live with our dog. As a mini-vacation, I decided to go on a writing retreat. I’d envisioned a four-day getaway that would include an equal balance of writing and dog walking. City rentals were out because my dog enjoys frolicking in the grass and playing ball far more than sniffing sidewalks, so I turned to agrarian locations that had wifi and lots of land. I’d planned to edit two articles under deadlines and compose a new piece about living aboard a sailboat and other first world problems.
I selected an idyllic apartment belonging to two restoration craftspeople. The rental was the most perfect and harmonious blend of Arts and Crafts meets Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and coordinating furnishings. The interior walls were finished in a sunny, softly distressed yellow and the ceilings were high and vaulted with stained glass in the angular, geometric peaks. The shelves lining two walls were filled with well-loved tomes on design, photography, and home restoration. The icing on this stimulating and ingenious cake was a guest book filled with small masterpieces from the creative guests who had come before me.
Suffice it to say that the meticulously curated atmosphere energized and stirred my creativity. I had high hopes for meeting my deadlines and then beginning the piece about living aboard a sailboat. I’d planned to leave my car parked, and I pictured many satisfying hours of writing, interrupted only by long dog walks around the property. Four days without driving would surely be ample time to recharge, meet my deadlines, and dig into my new draft. Unfortunately, my dog and the rural landscape had other plans.
The cozy apartment was set close to the road, surrounded in front by dense foliage and a circular gravel driveway and in the rear was a thriving forest. However, the only expanse of grass was located in the neighbor’s front yard. Thinking ahead to my deliberately outlined plans for the immediate future, I surveyed the grass-free landscape for additional patches of weeds. I realized my original version of a bucolic hideaway didn’t match the reality of our home for the next few days.
My dog quickly sniffed her way into the forested area in the rear and together, we discovered a picturesque stream and a well-marked woodland trail. There would undoubtedly be no endless games of catch or rolling in the grass. However, a footpath, or rather, a pawpath, with new sights, sounds, and smells might be an excellent experience for a dog who generally spends her days lying in the sun on a sailboat when she’s not chasing her ball.
We splashed, sniffed, and scrambled up and down rocks and rises in the landscape. As one who is unaccustomed to the wilds of the forest, I made sure not to stray from the trail. I carefully gauged the possibilities of encounters with ticks and other woodland creatures with fangs and stingers, and this was how I spent our initial walk in the woods.
We came across the rental’s host on our return trip. He advised me that the closest open grassy area could be found at the high school, just beyond the state line. “It’ll take you twenty, thirty minutes,” he said. For the second time, it was clear that the gulf between the fantasy of not driving my car, and the reality of an hour-long round trip drive was growing. Conversely, we had hours before sunset and no schedule, save for the small three-serving box of white sangria I’d planned to drink in the evening.
I believed I’d feel inspired, sophisticated, and cultured drinking wine in this artist’s snuggery. I imagined that my sips of boxed sangria would be taken from a hand-blown glass, uniquely consistent with the property’s visionary flair. I hopefully pictured myself making elaborate notes for my first draft about the myriad burdens one encounters while living on a sailboat. These are namely the need to get away from the said vessel and escape to an artistic refuge while one’s husband is sailing on the other side of the world.
With the afternoon free and my GPS queued to the closest high school, we drove on two-lane mountain roads and crossed the state line. I had plenty of time to wonder why I failed to consult the map before making this reservation We headed toward the high school but unexpectedly detoured to an adjacent cemetery perched upon a historic hill, as stated by an adjoining silver plaque.
We did not frolic on the plots because we are not that kind of people, and by people, I mean that I am not that kind of person and my dog is not that kind of dog. Instead, we enjoyed the freshly mown grass well beyond the cheerful sign that read, “Plots Available Here.” I silently added, “Frolicking Also Available,” as a justification for gamboling in the graveyard.
Following the pleasure of the grass and dinner, the rest of the evening was spent with my petite box of white sangria and a mass-produced but nonetheless striking stemless wine glass. My focus shifted from writing to my dog’s next walk. Instead of beginning my new draft, I researched dog-friendly areas within my immediate vicinity. I consoled myself that a short drive would still leave time for many hours of revisions and rewrites to meet my deadlines. Thus, I convinced myself that the experience of temporarily residing in a creative paradise was a pleasure enough. When the sangria was gone, I said goodnight to my dog, and she curled up in the bedroom doorway, vigilant and watchful against the unknowns of the forest after dark.
During the previous night’s research, I’d located the second best hiking location. According to the vocal reviewers, my first choice was reportedly overrun with copperheads. Being from the coast where jellyfish are often the worst threats of the season, I opted for a hike at a well-maintained state park where nary a dangerous reptile was mentioned in the reviews.
After a quick breakfast and a short drive, we parked at the end of a crowded row of campsites situated on either side of a paved road. The sites were placed so closely together that it felt as though an apartment building’s exterior wall had been removed and the occupants had yet to notice. Each campsite was alive with the bustle of breakfast preparations on portable stoves and campfires. There were dogs on leashes, children in pajamas, folks bent over sturdy plastic tubs of non-perishable food, and couples were strolling to and from the bathhouse with towels draped over their arms.
We were interlopers, present only for the dog walking. As we meandered to the trailhead, I tried surreptitiously to observe the breakfasting campers without appearing voyeuristic. The trail’s uneventful mile and a half loop eventually returned us to the breakfasting campers, and that completed the second grass-free walk of the trip. As we drove back with muddy paws, I noticed an unobtrusive sign marking an entrance to the Appalachian Trail beside a modest roadside pull-off. I immediately knew where our next journey would begin.
I edited my articles in fits and starts, interrupted by urgent requests for attention, to play ball, and to give chase. At the very least, my dog undoubtedly wished for me to magically produce a patch of grass. I was beginning to doubt whether I could maintain the charade of a writer at a leisurely writing retreat. My dog’s periodic interruptions communicated her disbelief that she was expected to lie calmly for hours with only a few densely wooded strolls to break up the monotony. It was clear that although walks in the grass and chasing balls were of my utmost concern, my dog did not return the sentiment regarding my literary pursuits. Sometime during one of her mid-morning requests for something other than the confines of the house, I realized two full days of this dog-speak remained. After lunch, I checked the map, and at her next interruption, I pointed the car toward what will forever be known as The Time I Hiked (a negligible fraction of) The Appalachian Trail.
I expected a magnificent and grandiose trail. However, my coastal life is far from the world of trailblazing so I’m not entirely sure of the standard features found on magnificent trails. While this single serving portion of the trail was verdant and alive with birdsong, it was was unusually and disappointingly thin. It is possible that in my ignorance, I considered a wide, spacious trail to be more majestic than one so slim two people could not pass each other abreast on, but I digress.
Writers write. Dog aside, here I was, attempting to do precisely that. I had endeavored to write, and while I’d made little headway, I was now enjoying the storied Appalachian Trail. As I am wont to do, I took stock of this and was especially grateful to know that I am still a writer, regardless of how little writing I was actually doing. So the articles weren’t edited. So the path was a bit narrow. While a glowing neon arch reading, “Welcome to the Appalachian Trail,” would have genuinely been grand, it was nowhere to be found, but what else did I really need at this moment?
When the trees opened into a vast meadow of tall flowering grasses, the path narrowed even further. I spent a few moments gauging everyday items that were wider than this walkway; my dog, my laptop, a submarine sandwich placed sideways, a yoga mat, most table games except for Uno, and me.
As the trees thickened again, my dog stopped, deliberately sniffed, and made a deposit which I immediately picked up. I’ve read that human hikers bury their business in the brush and we’d seen the used toilet paper to prove it. However, I was slightly disdainful of that phantom wiper-and-leaver. I momentarily envisioned myself as a hardcore hiker who would collect my leavings in a utilitarian, biodegradable bag and attach it to a special clip on my backpack. I’d carry it along the trail, swinging from its clip. I imagined depositing it into a well-marked human waste receptacle that I knew existed only on the type of majestic, imaginary trails of my fantasies. I am neither an experienced hiker nor a hardcore anything, so having a well thought out human waste management plan involving biodegradable bags has not made its way onto my to-do list.
As I scooped my dog’s leavings into a bag meant for dogs, not for humans, I remembered the “take only memories and leave only footprints” philosophy because I’d gleaned two essential lessons in Girl Scouts. The second gem was how to practice building a campfire using coconut shavings as kindling, pretzel sticks as tinder, and tootsie roll logs as the logs. As an adult, I have not had the opportunity to build either a pile of snacks or an actual fire, but I do distinctly remember how each is constructed.
The journey’s soundtrack was a chorus of birds, and the occasional unknown plunk of something falling from the treetops. Had it been dusk, each plunk would have put me on alert for the ubiquitous killers who lurk when you’re miles from where anyone can hear you scream, as we were at that time. Fortunately, we encountered only two separate hikers with tall, sturdy backpacks and the requisite sleeping rolls. I greeted both hikers enthusiastically, believing they might be starved for company. I also assumed that my dog and I were interesting enough to stop and chat with. I imagined striking up conversations not about where they’d buried their waste, but how long they’d been hiking or what they were cooking over their solitary campfires. Rather than being thankful for the company, both passed us quickly. I was carrying a purse large enough to hold only my keys and phone, and I grasped that this lent the appearance of someone not of the same ilk as even the most ill-prepared hiker on the byway.
My dog and I continued deeper into the timber where the colors were consistent shades of green and brown. I periodically scanned the trail for rocks and once, noticed a long, tangled black cord standing out in stark relief against the dirt. I had approximately one half of a quick moment to process the contrast before my dog’s paw came down in the middle of the tangle. It immediately came alive. In the second half of that quick moment, I saw that the tangled cord was, in fact, a slender coiled snake!
Caretakers of any creature smaller and furrier than yourself who are in danger will agree that leaping into the air and screaming the word “snake!” is the best way to proceed when faced with such an emergency. I did just that. My dog immediately lifted her paw, likely because she is an animal with instincts far more agile than my own and she felt the snake underfoot before the word “snake” was forcibly ejected from my throat.
The snake quickly slithered from the trail without incident, and there is no doubt it will be telling the story in bars for years to come. “I was just laying there in the sun. Out of the blue, not only was I stepped on, but the other one had the nerve to scream my name like there was a fire in the theater. Can I get another round?”
The snake was my queue to end our hike, as vipers on the trail were enough nature for one day, so we withdrew from the grove. We retreated across the expansive meadow of tall flowering grasses, along the segment of trail that was wider than a deck of Uno cards. Nearing the end of that section, I discovered the bag of dog poop was missing. Should I backtrack deep into the woods and risk another serpent encounter? Alternately, should I trust that the bag was, in fact, biodegradable and hope a passing hiker would kick it into the underbrush? I chose the latter; the sun was uncomfortably low in the sky and a single woman entering an unfamiliar woods after dark without a flashlight is precisely the scenario found in a garden-variety horror movie.
On the drive home, I imagined the worst trail slang reserved for people like me. I was woefully unprepared for hiking on an acclaimed and noteworthy trail. I broke the silence of the trail to shout out the name of a wild animal, and it appeared that I’d carelessly dropped waste anywhere I pleased. I did not yet know these derogatory words; however, a quick internet search identified me as a slack packer who left my cat hole on the NOBO. While slack packer pleasantly rhymed and undoubtedly fit, there was great shame in leaving a bag of poop on the Appalachian Trail.
During our moments of solitude while walking, of which there were many, I’d contemplated the two remaining days ahead. They would be filled with insistent dog-speak and the fantasy versus reality of the entire undertaking. I was doubtful at how productive the fits and starts of any meaningful writing would be. As a lark, I checked the following day’s forecast and saw that thunderstorms were predicted. I envisioned hour upon hour as captives in the house, and I immediately began packing. We arrived home shortly after dark, and my dog frolicked joyfully in the familiar grass. With the next two days off work, I was able to fully realize the goals I’d outlined in my temporary retirement from the world. I edited and wrote while my dog chased her ball in the grass.
I still fancy myself to be the type of author who whimsically participates in writing retreats where the best-laid plans of women and dogs never go awry. Alternately, I am still loath to admit that despite how much potential the failed writing retreat seemed to hold before we arrived, the words Dorothy used to bring herself home from Oz are resoundingly apropos; there’s no place like home.