Thursday, August 6, 2015

Reflections and Looking Forward

Looking out from the Balsam Mountain Firetower
Nearly 900 miles along the main Finger Lakes Trail and its six branch trails gives you some time to think. I have a B.A. in philosophy and so I always joke that I do indeed use my degree as I think deep thoughts while hiking the trail. So here's some of those for ya...

I've had a lot of people ask me what it is that keeps drawing me back into the woods and onto long trails for months at a time. I enjoy sharing these thoughts in particular because I think that there is something in there for others to learn and just may make them curious enough to venture out and do the same.
Trail somewhere between Bossard's Cabin and Hornell along main FLT
I am drawn to the simplicity of hiking a long distance trail. Don't get me wrong, the logistical efforts are many and the act of literally hurling yourself up and over mountains day after day sometimes through less than ideal conditions is not simple...but the fact that being out here doing just this sure is. My focus is pure and my purpose is clear. Each day I wake up and I hike. There is no question what I'll be doing for the day. While I hike I observe the plants, I consider where I'll stop for my next break, where I'll fill my next water bottle, where I'll get shelter if a rainstorm rolls in, and where I'll sleep for the night. I fulfill my goals for the day, more or less, then build camp, compile my notes, spend the evening writing, make sure I'm secure for the night whether that be hanging a food bag or rigging up  a bugnet, and drift off to sleep. Through the repetition of these acts, the trivial begins to drift further and further from the forefront of my mind, until finally it nearly falls away. Those things that really matter become readily apparent and are in stark contrast to those that really do not.

Hiking near Seneca Highlands Road at dusk
To some to desire to experience life in this way may seem unrealistic or even selfish...but to me this is what I call experiencing raw reality. With the trivial at a distance, the smallest of acts such a kind word or someone feeding you a meal or offering you a ride that doesn't know what it is you're doing becomes incredibly significant. The goodness that people are capable of offering is incredible and you feel this through and through. And damn it, that's real.

Star Left, Shepherd, and the trail magic of Mike on Bailey Road
The smallest of luxuries such as a shower, a giant bowl of Chinese takeout, a good book to read, a favorite song that you haven't heard in months, become heaven on earth. I mean there is really nothing better than sitting on the gritty curb of a nowhere gas station and enjoying an ice cream cone on a hot day. Everything feels better, tastes better, sounds better, and again...that's what those things really are. I think in our everyday life these sensations and perceptions simply become muted as we interact with and take in so much sensory experience that we can't possibly process it all.

Now this means that pain is heightened as well. Walking on an open blister for miles or being so tired that you don't want to lift your foot for another step, or so hot that your vision starts to blur or so cold that you think you won't possibly make it through the night seems like the hell on earth. But then guess what? You keep hiking until your feet go numb or stumble upon a cold stream or the sun warms your bones the next morning and you realize that for as intense as that all made it through and you always do. Pain is passing and really so is the elation of hearing a beautiful song. But that's part of the wonder and excitement of not only the trail but of life, you never know what is next. I thrive on this unknown. Not a whole lotta point in running from it, may as well embrace it.

Standing on trail, yes that's right, on trail, through the Catskill Forest Preserve
The one continual fountain of support or the greatest luxury I should say you experience on the trail is the beauty. Living life simplified also allows space for the beauty to come into clarity and fill you up. I have mentioned before that the Finger Lakes Trail is not a trail of daily summits and rewarding views...but it is grand in its simple everyday beauty that continues for miles. Hiking through a landscape that changes but is repeated over and over again, gives you the chance to pick up on different aspects of a similar place each time you pass through it. The tenth pond you've seen in the last week suddenly is no longer a pond but a body of water nourishing a host of algae and Pond Lilies and Milkweed and Cat Tail and home to dragon flies, toads, humming cicadas, and that beaver that has built his pile of sticks along its edge. The dead trees standing in the center and green mountainside in its reflection and sun bouncing off its surface is the most beautiful thing you've ever laid your eyes on. Although you aren't aware of it, you stockpile these experiences. After days, weeks, months of this, they fill you with a quiet contentment and deep down happy that although it may not always be at your surface, you may always draw upon it.

A pond along the FLT outside of Ellicotville
I suppose I could say in a nutshell that thru-hiking above all keeps you present and provides you with the resources to deal with the intensity of the present.

This is what keep me hiking. I'd be curious to hear what draws y'all to the trail...keeps you hiking. Comment on this thread either by blogger or facebook and let me know. I'm curious.

And what now?

I'll be continuing to blog for certain. Expect posts particularly about the plant life that I encountered as I start to pour over my notes and begin the process of writing the guide to the edible and medicinal plants of the Finger Lakes Trail. I will also be posting about other local adventures on trails in the northeast and upcoming events in the area. I may very likely be speaking about the Finger Lakes Trail at the upcoming Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association Gathering and will be the guest speaker at the FLT Spring Campout this coming June.

Depending upon the post, these may or may not be posted to the Finger Lakes Trail or Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association Facebook pages, so please do take a minute to like my page: on Facebook and/or become a member of the blog (you can do this by entering your email in the space provided to the right of the present post) so that you will continue to receive regular updates.

I will be remaining in the northeast, primarily in Milford, Pennsylvania for the next couple of months. During this time I would thrilled to offer some plant walks and talks about my experience, so if you have an idea or a group that would be interested, do drop me a line! I will be returning to Asheville, North Carolina for the winter to continue working on the upcoming book and promoting my already published, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail, about NC's 1200 mile long distance trail. Come late spring, I will be returning to the northeast and planning to relocate to New York state so that I can offer educational classes, workshops, and plant walks about the flora of the local area and the logistics of long distance backpacking.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
This trail was primarily a wilderness trail like the Appalachian Trail and a notable shift from the oftentimes civilized aspects of the Mountains to Sea Trail, however even greater than this latter trail in its solitude. I went days without seeing or talking to people, encountering dayhikers only in the Ithaca and Catskill portions of the trail. Above all, I adored it, and am missing it already. My heart aches at the rhythm of crickets chirping outside my bedroom window at night and my legs yearn to hike miles. If you are considering a day, a week, or a full on thru-hike of the Finger Lakes all means do it. It is an opportunity of a lifetime!

Thank you to all who supported me along the way. It's true I was a solo hiker and hiking without a support team, however thanks to the FLT community as well as folks who lived along the trail, it hardly felt like a solitary endeavor. I rarely felt lonely given the number of people who reached out to me via Facebook and my blog. Remarkable. All of you made this journey so much more meaningful. Beauty really is greater when shared with others.


  1. Oh, Heather, thank you so much for your beautifully written expression of perfect bliss! I am so thankful you are sharing your journey and yes, it does inspire. I know one day I'll be brave enough and hopefully prepared to make the journey of my dreams. Thank you for the inspiration and the education.

    1. Thank you Janey :) I know the opportunity will find you as well. I remember you telling me how you wished to hike the Appalachian Trail when I was preparing for that first hike some years ago. I also have brought up the influence that managing your health food store had upon me many-a-time in my travels. I learned so much there. Thank you for that opportunity!

  2. Oh, Heather, thank you so much for your beautifully written expression of perfect bliss! I am so thankful you are sharing your journey and yes, it does inspire. I know one day I'll be brave enough and hopefully prepared to make the journey of my dreams. Thank you for the inspiration and the education.

  3. Heather, it was great to meet and hang out with you while you were passing through the Ithaca area. Your blog post above is a great expression of your journey. A very wise man (John Muir) once said "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks". True that! See you again soon!

    1. Thank you Paul! John Muir has influenced so much of my not only life philosophy but life philosophy. Word up John Muir :) And having just ready your soon-to-come article, I look forward to reading more from you as well!