I just returned home from a 2-day backpacking trip that was supposed to be a 9-day trip, though to be fair, I always knew that I might have to cut the trip short. I’m new to backpacking, and I like camping well enough but I don’t exactly love it. I’m nervous about animals at night and I don’t like being dirty and when I’m on vacation, I really like a glass of wine or a beer at the end of the day. On a Camino, you can sleep inside and take a shower and have a hot meal and an entire bottle of wine. All reasons I really like the Camino. So nine days for someone who’s never backpacked before was ambitious.
But, you know, I thought I could do it. If not for the coronavirus, I would be walking through Portugal right now; I’d planned 40-days of walking this summer, more than I ever have before, and I was excited for it. Walking long-distance paths has become such a big part of my life, ever since I walked that first Camino in 2014. What’s a year without a long walk? COVID has demanded this question, and I didn’t want to accept its answer. I felt restless, my legs itching to go: to go somewhere, to go anywhere. Could I find a long walk a little closer to home?
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath (the C&O) runs for 184.5 miles from Washington DC to Cumberland, MD. It’s a mostly flat path and often used by bikers and day hikers, but there are some backpackers who hike the entire trail. With enough free campsites, water pumps and several towns close to the path, I thought it would be an ideal first backpacking experience. And in many ways, it is.
I threw my gear into my pack: a tent and sleeping bag and sleeping pad, a camp stove and a bag full of food and a water filter. I booked a hotel room halfway through the journey, in a town with a post office where I could ship a resupply box full of more food. If all went well, I’d walk for nine days, camping most nights.
I set out early, at dawn, driving to the my starting point, stowing my car, finding the start of the trail. The sun was shining and the air was fresh, my pack was heavy but my legs were eager. I was back on a long path! Nothing to do all day but walk and walk!
After about 3 miles, I realized how much weight I was carrying on my back. I could start to feel an ache in my shoulders and around my hips. My feet were starting to hurt a bit, too. I walked a few more miles, stopped for a short rest. A few more miles, stopped for lunch. I was 9-miles into the walk and starting to get worried. I’d planned for a first day of 22-miles (I know, I know), and the next day I was due to walk 23, the day after that, at least 25.
I’d intended to start a little slower, but poor planning involving picking up my resupply box from the post office meant I had to do big miles (note to self: in the future, don’t time a resupply for the weekend). But I thought I could do it, because hadn’t I walked 20-miles a day before? On the Camino, I do it all the time!
But here’s the thing. When I was planning this little adventure, I was imagining myself on my strongest Camino days. After 3 weeks of walking when my body had adapted to the path and my legs were strong and my shoulders could bear the weight of what I carried. Those were the days I recalled, the days when I felt strong and unstoppable. And there were days on the Camino, or on a hike in England, when I pushed myself hard, when I struggled but kept going. And these are also the kind of days that stick in my mind, proof that I can push myself hard, that I can keep going through some pain, that I can endure.
Well, maybe ‘endure’ should be the word of the last two days. There I was, on the C&O, putting one foot in front of the other, pain radiating through my body. “Have I ever hurt this much on a walk before?” I asked myself. I felt it everywhere: my shoulders and lower back and hips and thighs and feet and even in my ankles. My ankles hurt! I realized that I should have been more careful in my packing, that I probably should have done a few training hikes wearing my pack. Why did I think I could walk 20+ mile days with 30 pounds on my back like it was no big deal?
I made it to 15-miles. I stopped, I rested my feet. “4 more miles,” I told myself. “Then you can stop.” As I walked I came up with a new plan, one where I would shorten my next few days, and then take a bus or an Uber to the next town where I could pick up my resupply box.
After 19.5 miles I made it to a campsite and I sat on a bench and didn’t move for awhile. Slowly, hobbling, I set up my tent and washed my socks and changed out of my sweaty clothes. Two people on bikes road up, and set up camp at the opposite end of the site.
I took out dinner supplies, figuring I could eat and then crawl into my tent and have an early night, that maybe sleep would soothe my muscles.
I have this little camp stove that is nifty and neat and so easy to use. It heats up water in under 2-minutes and I’ve had it for several years, used it a few dozen times.
But this time? I was using a new fuel canister so that must have been it, maybe there was a leak, there must have been a leak, because something went terribly wrong and my stove went up in flames.
I keep thinking of that expression- “burst into flames”. That’s what happened. One minute nothing, the next, the thing was engulfed in flames. I started at it for a few seconds, my brain lagging behind the reality of the situation, lulled by the licking and leaping flames.
I snapped out of it. “Help!” I called out, panicked. The bikers ran over, the guy reached in to turn off the gas and the girl suggested I douse the remaining flames with water. I’d been frozen. I don’t do well in emergency situations, when I need to think and act quickly. If I’d been alone I would have figured it out, I think, but thank goodness there were other people there.
The stove was dripping like a Dali painting, the lower component fused to the fuel canister, the smell of burnt plastic everywhere.
“My stove,” I whispered.
I knew that my trip was over. Half the food I was carrying needed to be heated, coffee included. I might be able to push myself through a lot but I wasn’t going to do this walk without a morning cup of coffee.
It’s hard to quit something. I was thinking about that today, on my drive back home, and I realized that once I set my mind to something and go for it, I rarely quit (sometimes to my own detriment, but that’s another story). I thought about all of my research, the stages I’d planned, the treats I’d tucked into my resupply box, the excitement I’d felt about being able to head down a long path again.
But I knew I was done. I let the stove cool off and ate a cold dinner of tortillas and babybel cheese and tucked myself into my tent and fell asleep to the sound of trains on the tracks and frogs in the canal.
The next morning, at 6am, I packed up my things and turned around and walked the 19.5 miles back to where I started. I didn’t think it was possible that things could get much worse, but maybe it’s just that kind of a year.
About 3-miles into the walk, I could feel a blister developing on the bottom of my foot. I’d felt something the day before, but figured it would be fine. But this time I knew it was a blister. Should I have stopped and tried to do something about it? Probably. But my pack was so heavy that I just didn’t want to stop to take it off and put it back on more than was necessary. I was already feeling defeated, I just wanted to get the miles done and get back to my car.
So I walked, and walked, and the blister grew, and grew. After about 12-miles, I knew I’d be coming to a bench beneath a tall tree (aside from the campsites every 5-7 miles, there were few places to stop and take a break). I stared ahead, constantly looking for the bench, walking on and on.
Finally it appeared, but there was someone already there. A young guy, with a large pack and a tall walking stick.
My head was foggy from the lack of coffee, my blister ached with every step and I was annoyed that I couldn’t stop to rest at the bench. But then the guy called out- “Where are you headed?”
I stopped, and turned. “Just to Cumberland,” I said. “How about you?”
He gave me a small smile. “Denver.” A pause. “Colorado.”
I grinned, something shifted. “Tell me more.”
He talked about the route he’d plotted: starting in Pittsburgh, winding down to Cumberland and then onto the C&O to DC. He would hop to the Appalachian Trail and hike down to Georgia and then through the forests and into the midwest where he would pick up another long rail-to-trails path, and get himself over to Colorado.
“When the coronavirus hit,” he said. “I started to walk around where I live. It’s the best therapy I’ve ever found.”
I nodded and nodded.
“And then when restrictions started to lift,” he continued, “I knew that I just wanted to go out and walk for a really long time. It’s freedom.”
We talked for a few more minutes, he told me that I was the first backpacker he’d seen, and he wanted some advice. I sheepishly told him that I didn’t know much, that I was new to this too, that I didn’t even know the base weight of my pack. But I did know how to walk, and I also knew that walking was freedom, and maybe despite it all, that was enough.
He told me his name was Colby, and I wished him luck on his journey, then I continued on. I thought about him as I walked, wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t had to turn around. If I’d shortened my days would he have caught up with me? We would have been headed in the same direction and maybe I could have made a friend.
Or maybe, I wouldn’t have met him at all. Maybe I needed to turn around to find another person walking the same path.
A half mile further on I found a flat and grassy patch where I could stop and rest. I aired out my feet, drank water and ate a snack and stared off into the distance, where dark clouds were gathering.
Dark clouds. I’d timed the start of my walk for days that promised sunshine and clear skies, no rain. But the clouds were moving closer, and then there was the rumble of thunder, too.
I kept walking. What else was there to do? The clouds moved overhead and rain drops began to fall and then in the next minute, the skies opened up and the rain poured down.
Another expression: torrential downpour. How else to describe this rain? I’ve walked a hundred days on long-distance trails and I’ve walked in the rain but I have never walked in rain like this. I’d put a rain cover on my pack but hadn’t bothered to put on a rain jacket, figuring that I might just walk under a passing shower and the rain would feel good and cool on my skin.
This rain was hard and cold. It pelted down, for 10 minutes, for 20 minutes. After about 30 minutes it slowed and stopped, and I stopped too. I took off my pack and dug through to find my little towel. I looked up and down the trail and then took off my shirt and dried off as best as I could, then put on a dry shirt and pulled out a poncho to carry in my hand and then continued on.
The rain started again, falling even harder than before. I threw the poncho over my head and for awhile I stayed dry but soon there was too much rain. And then thunder, and lightening, and my blister growing larger and larger, I limped with every step through the thunderstorm, through the puddles and the mud, retracing my steps from the day before.
Thunder directly overhead and the path coming to a clearing in the trees and I stopped, and waited, and stared at the ground as water ran down the poncho into my shoes and then I saw tiny white marbles bouncing in the grass. Hail!
When it felt safer to continue I kept walking, and saw that further up the path, there was a bridge overhead and people sheltering underneath. I approached, and a woman called out to me.
“Where are you headed?”
She told me all about her days of hiking the Appalachian Trail. There was wistfulness in her voice, a tinge of envy, she looked at my pack and my poncho and my shoes and told me to savor every moment. Just as I was leaving she asked if I had a trail name. “I don’t,” I said (though the name ‘Flame’ ran through my mind). Trail names are common on the the long-distance hiking paths in the US, but not at all on the paths I’ve walked in Europe.
Something else shifted when she asked this, just as something had shifted during my conversation with Colby. It didn’t matter that I’d only made it one day on the trail and had to turn around. It only mattered that I was out there, and doing it: the weight of the pack, my battered feet, soaked to the bone, water rolling in my shoes and dripping from my nose but my legs still moving, one step at a time. Just call me Flame, I thought.
I continued, two more miles to the end. The rain stopped, the clouds moved out just as quickly as they came in. The sun poured down, warming me again. A man on a bike pulled up alongside of me. “Where are you headed?”
He was biking the final stretch of the C&O, doing an out and back ride and had seen me at my campsite the night before. “I figured you were heading south,” he said.
I told him the story of my stove, that I’d decided to turn around. And the blister, and the rain, and the hail.
“Karma,” he said, “I think if you can make it through this with a smile on your face, then something good will come back to you.”
I had a half mile left, 10 more minutes to walk. The sun was shining. My legs were still holding me up.