By Leilah Grace
She’s dreamed of a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, read the stories, hiked some miles, but until recently she hadn’t backpacked. Hadn’t experienced the challenges and the joys that come with carrying a pack over the miles, setting up a shelter, and cooking in a little pot. My daughter, Smoo, as she’s lovingly called by her siblings finally had the opportunity to experience an overnight along the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania.
We set out on a Saturday morning, where I picked her up from her father’s house, returned to mine, and packed her pack. She carried a change of clothes, sleeping bag, snacks, raincoat, sleeping pad, water filter, and bladders. I carried our main food, tent, extra filter and bladders, first aid kit, and my sleep system. We had a quiet drive to our starting point, a small roadside parking area in rural Pennsylvania. As we started our first steps into out 13 mile hike you could feel the excitement radiating off of her. A smile, and she was off, trekking poles in hand, navigating up the short steps and onto the hard packed dirt trail, following the blazes as we hiked alongside a river, slowly heading north and climbing ever so slightly. The day was hot and the humidity was rising, yet she was still smiles, enjoying the damsel flies, blueberries, and the play of the light on the leaves. As we exited the forest and into a field she made her first complaint, sore heels. A small rock in the field provided a seat and off came her shoes, it was then we discovered 1 full-fledged blister and another forming on the opposing heel. On went the bandaids, shoes adjustments were made, and off we went.
As we went to re-enter the forest something caught my eye on the horizon, a block of dark ominous clouds, clearly threatening rain. I had us don our pack covers in preparation, though opted to keep the raincoats in our bags, and here was my mistake. We entered the forest and the rain began, a gentle summer drizzle that quickly became a downpour. Under a tree we huddled, blocking our bags from the worst of the rain, repacking the packs to provide better protected and donning our raincoats. Standing under that tree for 15 minutes we finally opted to press on. The rain poured, leaves dousing us with water while we hiked, and then slogged through a trail that was quickly becoming a streambed with no dry areas on which to step. She pressed on, following my lead on where to step, trying to keep an illusion of staying dry while still maintaining the integrity of the trail bed. Eventually the rain stopped and we tied our coats to our packs, and hiked northward through the slowly draining trailbed. Our feet were wet, but our spirits were rising as we climbed higher and were rewarded with views.
Her heels ached, the blisters made worse with the wetness, and yet when I asked her if she wanted to camp at this beautiful view she was determined to push northward to the shelter we originally designated as our stopping point. From the view the trail turned rocks, true Pennsylvania rocky; every step a challenge of balance, persistence, and determination. Her smile may have dimmed, but her determination was not to be challenged. Pressing onward I hiked, scanning for stealth camping sites and each one that we passed I offered to her, and each was denied; her desire to camp at a shelter triumphing over pain and now growing fatigue. Finally, the sign for the shelter was in view and we blazed off trail down to the Cove Mountain Shelter, just south of Duncannon. We made camp, cooked a meal, and tucked into our tent. Wet shoes drying outside, socks hung inside. Morning arrived, and while I was ready to return to our car, Smoo required more sleep, and a leisurely morning was had fireside. We were able to dry her shoes and socks at a fire tended by two men out for a quick overnight. A small dose of an anti-inflammatory and extra band-aids applied and we were off again. Retracing our steps we now headed south slowly back to our car, mindful of her ravaged heels.
As we hiked her smile was still in place, though her steps were slower and breaks were necessary. We hiked in silence, we told stories, we compared hiking with the 2 of us compared to with her 3 siblings and we enjoyed the miles as they unfolded. Her steps slowed more and the pain grew greater. A trio of day hikers gifted us with more bandaids and moleskin. The application of this and another pair of socks and she was ready to hike onward. Determination in place, a smile peeking through at times, and she completed the miles back to the car. All smiles at the end and a desire to return to the trail, to return to backpack again, Smoo proved herself one of the strongest females I know. I’m proud to call her my daughter, and now backpacking buddy.