Embrace the Suck!

Grapeyard Ridge/Baskin Creek Trail 8/5 and 8/6, 2017

This is a term that is well known on the Appalachian Trail for thru-hikers….Embrace the Suck!  That’s because so much of the trail is hard to do, uphill, strenuous, exhausting, etc.  Well, I was reminded of this on Saturday when I started the Grapeyard Ridge Trail. Several days before the hike, I asked our fearless leader (Mr. D.)  if he thought I was capable of such a “moderate” hike as it is labeled, and he said, “The question for you is whether 7 miles with a backpack is still too much at this point? Or are you willing to go for it and see what happens?”  To me that sounded like a challenge….well, challenge accepted!  I should have known better….but wait, there’s more….

So my friend, Eventually, (this is her trail name), gets to my house to ride with me.  I am pretty excited about it, but nervous as well.  I have meticulously planned, coordinated, researched the hike, my gear, printed my permit, packed, repacked and packed my backpack again trying to cut out any extras that might save some weight because you want as light a pack as you can have.  I think mine weighed about 30 pounds which is way too heavy.  I am feeling okay about my pack when I remember I hadn’t even added my food or water to the pack….there is a few more pounds.  We get all of our stuff together and head off.

On the way to the trailhead, I am looking at my phone trying to figure out where we are going to turn when I look in my rear-view mirror and see a police officer with his lights on in the far distance.  I said, “I think he might be after me.”  Sure enough, I was speeding, but there was nowhere to pull off.  He came right up behind me and turned on his sirens now, so I pulled right over on the road, got out my license and registration and prepared myself.  I had no idea what the speed limit was.  I hadn’t been to Gatlinburg in years, and honestly I was looking at my phone at Google maps.  I know it’s wrong, but I thought I was paying attention.  He said, “Do you have any idea how fast you were going?”  I said, “No, sir.” because I didn’t know.  Well, I was going 60 in a 35!  Yup, that’s right.  I had not been pulled over by anyone in so many years, I was completely flustered and bracing myself for the worst.  I deserved it.  I even held up my phone and explained that I was looking at Google maps, not the speed limit, which is even worse.  I wasn’t going to lie to him, so there you go.  He then went into helper mode and told us where the trailhead would be and told me to have a nice day.  HAVE A NICE DAY!  I couldn’t believe it.  I haven’t even gotten to the trail yet, and I have already had so much adrenaline pumping, it was ridiculous.  I learned my lesson and drove about 20 miles per hour the rest of the way…  SOOOOO GRATEFUL!!!

So that was how I started my hike….jump forward and we get to the trailhead and I have to pee.  Well, I better get used to going in the woods for the next 24 hours so why not start now.  It wasn’t that bad, and I had meticulously planned for all types of scenarios for that as well.  All set and here we go!  It quickly breaks up into the fast group and the slow group.  Mr. D. is our trail sweep and our teacher as well, and he hikes the whole way with us, one patient step at a time.  Seven miles pretty much straight up the first day and three or so miles the next day.  It was roughly 500 feet per mile incline which is really steep (at least for me and my unconditioned legs, lungs and body), and we were hauling ourselves up there at about one mile per hour…yes, you heard correctly one mile per hour….SEVEN-ish VERY LONG HOURS LATER….we reached our destination at Campsite 32!!!  Literally thought I was going to die…seriously!!!

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Before the pain…

Now, let me paint you a little picture of those seven miles….First of all, we see a bear first thing walking off in the distance.  Then not one mile in I step in a very large pile of bear poo.  Nice.  Got so nauseated from the ascent that I nearly puked several times, got multiple charlie horses so bad that my hiking buddy had to rub my knee from spasming so badly.  Every few feet having to stop to breathe and quit sucking wind, with constant (and I mean), constant encouragement from our teacher not to quit, keep going, you can do this, I was there where you are, etc. etc.!  I was so exhausted and sore I almost cried several times.  I really ruminated about how nice it might be if I could just lay down and have a bear come drag me off and eat me.  Seriously!!!  It would be cheaper than a helicopter picking my ass off the side of a mountain, and I just didn’t care!

So seven and a half hours later, we had climbed seven miles….yes, 7 miles!!!!  OMG!!!!  I was beyond exhausted.  I was having charlie horses in my knees, legs, and ankles – yes, I said ankles.  Have you ever had a charlie horse in your ankle?  Well, it ain’t pretty!  I was dehydrated, had a headache, and I couldn’t even eat.  I laid in my tent and fantasized about being home wondering what the heck I was doing.  I couldn’t wait to get home.  I laid there for about an hour and finally started doing some stretches in my tent and got up, ate a little bit of food and drank a little water, and I started to feel a little better.  Everyone else seemed to be doing just fine and having a great time.  I just sat there and tried to think positive even though I was wondering what kind of craziness my life had spiraled into.

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My wonderful tent!

As the night progressed I started to feel even better and I finally did some yoga, took some Vitamin I (ibuprofen), and sat around an awesome campfire.  We listened to stories and adventures and it was beautiful.  We had wonderful weather, a full bright moon, and cicadas singing really loudly.  As we wound down the night, Mr. D. told us to gather round the fire for the traditional “thorns, roses, and buds”.  This is a tradition where you tell your experience of the day: thorns = what was bad, roses = what was good, buds = what you are looking forward to.  Okay, so I know what you are thinking.  But by this time, I had a little bit better attitude and some time to think and gather myself.  Thorns for me, of course, was the fact that my pack was too heavy.  I was too heavy, and I was hurting…duh…no-brainer, but the rose was the fact that I had a great teacher and an encouraging friend to help me up the mountain; to never give up, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  And the bud was that I now knew my limits and what I needed to work on, how I need to train, and that I need to find the Middle Path.  Another thing that was really awesome was that Mr. D. said that I was his rose for the day because I didn’t give up, and I was an example of what it means to keep going even when you think you can’t.  That meant so much to me!  He said that I would be a future story to someone else who was struggling with whether or not they could do this.

So off to bed…well, literally I pretty much passed out.  I only woke up once, but I slept really well.  I woke up very, very sore.  I could hardly move.  I didn’t want to get up.  I didn’t want to eat but I did, and I tried to drink as much water as I could.  We had about 3.5 miles out of the backcountry and we were informed that the first mile out was straight up and then it would be all downhill.  All I could think about was getting home.  Oh, yeah, and I didn’t mention we had about 8-10 small river crossings…yeah! That was fun, but it just slowed me down.  I was on a mission.  I wanted to get home.  I was tired, sore and now I was hungry.

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Whooped!

We had been told that a good steady hiking pace was about three miles per hour, so I asked Mr. D. to show me what that looked like because I wanted to hit that speed at least for a few seconds on the descent.  When I finally reached that pace, I thought to myself how cool it would be if one day I could catch the fast group who I knew was probably at least 30 minutes ahead of us, but it was a fleeting thought.  The next thing I know we come to a river, and I look up and there is the fast group.  We had actually caught them based on my pace.  I was pretty excited because every time we hit a flat spot on the way down, he would encourage me to pick up my pace.  It only lasted for a few seconds, but then the fast group was gone again.  I didn’t care.  That was the highlight of my trip, and I was on cloud nine.  The rest of the way down the mountain went pretty fast, and I was never so excited to get in a vehicle and be headed home in my life.

I know it doesn’t sound like I had that much fun, and I wouldn’t say it was fun.  It was truly one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, but the sense of accomplishment that I have is pretty great!  I know what I need to work on.  I have new goals, and I also picked up a lot of new skills for the backcountry.  Even though it was extremely difficult for me, I still want to go back.  I want to work up to that, be smarter about my hikes, reduce the pack weight, reduce my weight, and work even harder on it.  Once I make my mind up, I don’t give up easily.  I still love nature.  I still love the quietness of the forest, and I always will.  It’s my temple.

A very dear friend of mine asked me when I got back and she saw how sore I was and how hard it was for me to move, “What got you into hiking?”  I told her it was the solitude, the quiet, being in nature, and just really getting away from it all, and that still holds true.  I love it back there.  And the more I do it, the better I will get.  To me, the mountain is a metaphor for so much of my life…life is hard.  It is a lot of uphill with bumps, twists, turns, roots, rocks, snakes, bears, and so much more.  It hurts and sometimes you want to quit and give up, but I don’t.  And when you reach your destination, what you have accomplished feels so good, makes you feel stronger, and lets me know that I am way more capable of things than I think I am.  This is the mountain.  This is life!  This is hiking, and that’s why I Embrace the Suck!

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NEVER GIVE UP!!!

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My hike on the AT!

Okay, so now that I have your attention, yes, I hiked on the AT!  Granted it was only about roughly two (2) miles of the entire Appalachian Trail, which is roughly 2,200 miles give or take.  It changes yearly by a few miles because of re-routes, etc.,  but I was hiking the AT nonetheless!  I was excited about it, and I imagined what it would be like to actually thru-hike the AT someday.  Will I ever do that?  Who knows, but I can certainly aspire to be a better hiker.  So let’s back track a bit, shall we?

About a month and a half ago, I am sitting around my van with my family, and I mention to my sister that the next big thing I want to tackle and try to do is backcountry hike.  I really want to get away from it all, get away from the hustle and bustle and be one with nature.  Within a few minutes, she had pulled up a local hiking group and sent it to me to check out.  Within a couple of days I had chosen a Backcountry 101 hike to try.  I had chatted via email with the group leader for the hike and discussed gear, food, and my lack of being in shape.  He assured me that they would have gear for me to use if I didn’t have certain pieces and reassured me that I could do this trail.  It was only a couple miles in to the shelter and the elevation was 300 – 500 feet per mile.  It was to Max Patch in North Carolina, and we would be hiking into the Roaring Fork shelter for the night.

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So here is my modus operandi.  When I set my sights on doing something and I actually decide, this is what I am going to do, then I dive straight into it.  I study.  And when I say study, I mean study!  I read.  I watch videos.  I look at reviews.  I go to company websites and study dimensions, details, tutorials, etc. on whatever it is I am thinking about.  I watch other people doing what I want to do on YouTube and learn from them.  I write lists.  I practice.  In other words I do everything I can to be completely prepared as possible.  So that’s what I did with this as well.  Now, mind you I don’t have a lot of “hiking” gear.  I have some camping stuff and some things I use for my camper van, but a lot of that was either too small, too big, too heavy or just not appropriate for backcountry hiking, because with this type of hiking you want to have as light a pack as you can have because you are carrying everything you need to live and survive in the wilderness on your back.  And the hike leaders all suggested not to purchase a lot until after the clinic because they were going to teach us all about the different types of equipment one would need for this type of hiking.  So I borrowed a backpack, trekking poles and rain jacket just to get through this weekend.  I did purchase a sleeping bag just because I didn’t want to borrow that, and I had a few of the others things I needed.

Now, let’s talk about me and my physical issues.  I am overweight….(no, I am not one of those teeny tiny little vegans who only have salads and eat grass….I LOVE FOOD!)  I have a bad knee from a previous injury, and my back is not the greatest, but I thought hiking would be a great way to get into shape, lose weight and strengthen my back and knees so I was willing to push through.  However, about two to three weeks before I was to go out on trail, my left foot started hurting, the ball of my foot, out of nowhere!  Seriously!  I was so frustrated.  I did everything I could to try and help it and it just didn’t get better.  So I made an appointment with a podiatrist but that appointment wasn’t going to happen until after my hike, so what to do.  I thought about canceling because I didn’t want to do further damage to my foot, but I was so excited about going and I had done so much to prepare I didn’t want to give in either.

(SIDE NOTE:  For those of you who don’t know or couldn’t guess, I am vegan, and I am a member of the Gentle Barn here in East Tennessee, an animal sanctuary.  One of the sweet animals they have rescued was Dudley, the cow, and he was precious.  He was rescued from a farm when some wire got wrapped around one of his legs, and it had to be amputated.  He was brought to the University of Tennessee to be fitted for a prosthetic and was rehabilitated.  People from around the world came to see Dudley and hear about his amazing story.  I went to meet Dudley with my boys, and it was an experience I will never forget.  Over the two years that Dudley was with the Gentle Barn, he had to go in for different updates and procedures to his prosthesis which is normal.  A week or so before my hike, Dudley had to go in for another adjustment because of a small wound on his residual limb.  The short story is that Dudley became ill and they made the very difficult decision to let him go.  Dudley passed on June 24th, 2017. Dudley changed lives.  He was an ambassador for a vegan lifestyle.  He helped children and adults suffering with their own emotional pain.  He was a beautiful spirit that will be missed forever.  For more information, please visit http://www.gentlebarn.org/tennessee/. )

 

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So I am definitely NOT comparing my story to Dudley’s, but when I heard about this, I was so very sad.  I loved Dudley so much, and I thought how great would it be to hike in his honor!  He had a prosthesis.  He was a survivor.  He never gave up, and showed the world how determined he was to live and thrive!  He would be my inspiration!  So that was it.  I was going to hike for Dudley!  With every painful step, if I hurt at all, I just thought about what he must have gone through before he got help and rescued and what he went through all the time adjusting to his prosthesis. And I kept going!

We learned sooooooo much.  We learned about survival skills.  We learned about gear, pitching tents, how to filter water, cook stoves, backpacks, simple first aid, how to hang a bear bag and why, trekking poles, hiking boots versus trail runners and trail shoes, gaiters, how to keep food warm longer, how NOT to walk around in the dark, and the list goes on and on.  When I got my tent set up and finally crawled in to go to sleep, I was scared.  I heard so many (scritchy-scratchy) noises, it made me crazy.  I didn’t know if it was mice, snakes, bears or what.  I imagined all sorts of things.  I finally decided that if I was going to try to sleep at all, I would have to try to put ear plugs in to drown out the insanely loud forest.  I thought which is worse, hearing “it” coming or being oblivious to “it” and dealing with it when “it” happened.  LOL…I slept pretty terrible.  I kept waking up.  I got cold.

Oh, yeah, and then “IT” HAPPENED!!! I had to pee in the middle of the night!!!  I had decided before I went to bed that if I HAD to get up and pee in the night I would just do it behind my tent a little ways away and then take care of “things” in the morning.  I wasn’t about to climb out of my tent in the dark night and trek about 100 yards away to a privy that was lined with what I was sure to be snakes, mice, spiders, and probably bears just waiting to eat me alive in the middle of the night!  I am sure you are laughing right now, but for real, this is what I was thinking.  Well, the thing is, I didn’t just have to pee if you know what I mean, which meant that I had to make the trek.  So I held it.  I held it for a long, long time, PLANNING!  I held it until it was either make the trek or there was going to be a catastrophe.  So I get my headlamp (which was way too dim for backcountry hiking), I got the little flashlight that one of the leaders gave me that would light up a football stadium, and my phone flashlight so I could set it down and light up the privy.   That is 3 lights, count them, 3!  Everyone had said that if you have to go to the privy in the night you can just turn on the lowest beam so that you don’t wake people with bright lights.  HAHAHAHAHAHA….not!  I lit up everything.  I am pretty sure I could have landed planes with the lighting upon my person.  Then when I got to the privy, we were taught to slam down the toilet lid so that if there were creepy crawly things under the lid, they would be dislodged and you could safely sit upon it.  Trust me when I say, I slammed that lid.  I slammed it hard.  Finally taking care of business while trying to light up the night sky in the middle of the forest was quite the adventure.  I thought what in the hell am I doing?  Well, the truth is I am having an adventure of a lifetime.  Back to the tent I went with a renewed sense of accomplishment.  I somehow felt like a pro now.  I had conquered the demons.  I had faced my fears.  I felt stronger somehow.  I think I drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the night, and when morning came, I felt like I was capable of just about anything.  I thought I can probably thru-hike the AT!!! I drank coffee, ate my granola bar and peanut butter, and went to the stream to learn to filter water.  It was glorious!

We packed up camp, and hiked up to the top of Max Patch.  It’s a beautiful “bald” as they are called where there are no trees and you can see 360 degrees.  It was breathtaking.  It was a feeling I can’t describe.  I cried at the top because it was just so emotional to see such beauty and to know I had accomplished so much to get there, and not just going to the bathroom at night in the forest, but the physical pain, the emotional game, all the steps of my life that brought me to that point.  That was it.  I knew this is what I wanted to do.  This is how I want to live out my years.  I want to go on as many hiking adventures as I can.  I want to day hike, backcountry hike, section hike, you name it!  It was so challenging but so rewarding.  Our teachers were amazing, patient and kind.  They helped me every step of the way.  I made new friends who were helpful, funny and caring.  I came home and joined a women’s hiking club that I plan on doing a lot more hiking with.  I am going to get in shape on the trails.  I am going to become stronger, and long-term goal is to section hike the AT one day!

I was the last one on the trail.  I was the slowest up and down the mountains.  It was muddy, slippery, wet, cold, hot, and everything in between.  It was hard and challenging in every way.  I was sucking wind.  I was scared in the dark. I was nervous and scared, AND I DID IT ANYWAY!  It was one of the greatest experiences of my life!

Since I have been home, I have studied and done so much more research on what and how to hike safely.  I started making gear lists and learning about what I need to do.  I have started studying orienteering.  I have joined some online backcountry/hiking groups to learn more.  I have studied trails and gotten apps.  Hiking is my new adventure in life, and I plan to make the most of it.  Stay tuned.  Peace, love and hike on!

Open Mind, Open Heart

A couple of weeks ago some students from the college that I work at mentioned that they were going to be visiting a local mosque to learn about their culture and religion. This fascinated me because I didn’t even know there was such a place for worship here in our area. Part of the direction of the Only Love Zen Sangha is to build bridges, tear down walls, and spread love and compassion where possible. One of the ways in which I want to try to achieve this is to visit/study other places of worship from all different faith backgrounds. My Great Teacher is doing this very thing in Michigan, and he has inspired me to do the same.  I thought this might be a place to start.  I went to the website and filled out the information to set up a visit. In my request to the spiritual leader there, I requested information on the proper etiquette for visitors to make sure that I didn’t do anything offensive. I think this is very important to try to appreciate other customs and rules because they are allowing me to visit.

 

Other religions fascinate me!  I love to study other cultures and traditions, so I was pretty excited about my adventure.  When the day finally came and I realized that I was going, I started to have some unusual apprehension that I had not planned on. It dawned on me when I got in the car that the scarf that I had on my head could might make it appear that I am a Muslim. This frightened me a little bit.  It wasn’t that long ago that a Buddhist priest was mistaken for a Muslim and was beaten.  I honestly looked out the windows of my car, and I pulled the scarf off my head. I realized then what some Muslims in our culture in America have to go through on a daily basis. It made me a little sick at my stomach the fact that certain groups have to walk around in fear all the time just because they have a tradition of covering their heads out of respect.  I realized then that the way people are judged by their looks is terrifying.  Why would anyone assume that all people of any particular background,race, religion or anything should be condemned or hurt or worse? So I decided that I would drive to the mosque (also more appropriately called a masjid) and honor everything about what they did and how they did it.

 

I got lost looking for the place so when I finally arrived it was raining, and a lady drove up in her car in full dress and I watched her walk in because they have a separate door for sisters as women are called. So I very quietly walked in behind her and I sat down after I realized I needed to take off my shoes.  I observed the woman in another room bowing in silence and praying. There was something very beautiful about her doing this and it reminded me of why I was there. I was there to find the similarities not the differences.  I bow in my practice as a Buddhist.  I do prostrations in my practice as a Buddhist.  I pray and chant in my practice.  There was absolutely no difference between her and me.

 

About that time a lady who was walking with a crutch came into the room where I was sitting and was very nice and asked me if she could help me. She identified herself as the Admin there and asked how I knew the teacher there.  I said that I had talked with him earlier that week via email and that he had told me that I could come to the class. She was very gracious and said that she had seen that email and made me feel welcome.

 

The first lady who came in before me told me what to expect and just told me to have a seat and make myself comfortable. She asked me what was my reason for being there, and I said that I was there studying different religious paths because I was a Zen Buddhist priest and I wanted to get to know a little bit about other traditions and other religious values and other places of worship so that in my quest to build bridges I would be able to speak with a little bit of knowledge about each and every place that I visit.  We chatted for a few minutes about looking for peaceful connections in things rather than creating opposites.

 

After I saw where I needed to sit, I sat beside her on the carpet in this big room very sparsely decorated. There were no statues, no crosses, no deities of any kind.  The man at the front of the room was dressed in a long, white robe with beads around his neck and white cap on his head.  He was standing next to a whiteboard and a few books on a little stand and he introduced himself.  

 

The next hour was filled with the beginning history of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandfather and talking about the history of Islam as it relates to the Prophet Muhammad, his grandmother and Medina and Mecca and how all of that kind of tied together. He said that this was like the beginning of a 6 to 8 week course; just a very generalized history of the Prophet’s life and his timeline.

 

The whole hour went by so fast because I was captivated by all the stories I had never heard before, a beautiful story. I was enthralled and really enjoyed listening to everything.  People came in during the class to sit and listen or just take notes.  It was very relaxed.  People could ask questions and comment about things that he was talking about.

 

After the class was over I sat and talked with the lady that walked in before me and we just talked about different aspects of the class and then she asked me what my purpose was for being there. My answer: “LOVE”, and she smiled.  We chatted some more about similarities and that people want peace and love in their lives.  Nobody wants to hurt and suffer.  I want to spread peace in the world and I want to figure out ways to do that. She shared with me some more about her Buddhist background and how she could relate to what I was doing.

 

After the class the teacher and I talked for a little bit about why I had come and my purpose.  I shared with him that in the past I was an activist with anger and how that never solved anything.  It never made anything better.  He seemed to understand and opened the book he had in his hand called “The Book of Wisdom”.  The very first few lines of the first chapter says, “One of the signs of relying on one’s own deeds is the loss of hope when a downfall occurs.  Our desire for isolation, even though God has put you in the world to gain a living, is a hidden passion.  And your desire to gain a living in the world, even though God has put you in isolation, if a comedown from a lofty aspiration.”

 

He invited me to an interfaith dialogue dinner later this month where 12 different religious leaders come together and eat dinner and talk about their paths. He asked if I would come as his guest and then he gave me the book that he had been reading from.  He said that in the past he had not found a Buddhist to participate in this gathering before and he said that he quit trying much like the passage in the book had said and when he did, I came to the class.  

 

This meant so much to me.  I went with an open heart and an open mind and I feel as though I made new friends.  I wrote him after class and asked him if I could continue to come to classes so that I can continue to learn. He said that I am very welcome to come and continue to listen to his classes and that he was excited that I was coming to the dinner.  
This was a beautiful experience!  When we go out in the world with an open heart and an open mind, beautiful things can happen if we are willing to listen and trust that moment.  We find good if we are looking for good.  We find peace if we are willing to cultivate it.  We spread love if we can be love!  The choice is ours!  Peace, Saij