The sun beat down on the narrow wooden boardwalk. On either side, lush, impenetrable foliage hummed with insects and birdsong. It was sweltering — a cloying, sultry, sticky heat more appropriate for primordial jungles than for Western Massachusetts. And yet I was wearing almost every stitch of clothing I had: sports bra, tank top, fleece pullover, hooded raincoat, running tights, tall socks, trail runners.
As sweat and hysterical tears ran down my cheeks, I contemplated the life choices that had brought me to this moment, this pivotal moment, in which I had no option but to run through a swarm of yellow jackets.
A few months earlier, my fiance, Clif, and I had decided that what our life was really missing was a walk from Georgia to Maine. In undertaking a “thru-hike” of the 2,189.2-mile Appalachian Trail — that is, end-to-end, rather than in sections — we were called upon to risk life and limb over treacherous mountains, slippery rock scrambles and you-name-it-infested everythings.
By the time we’d reached Massachusetts, I had become a person who could trudge through snow, clamber up crumbling slopes and endure clouds of mosquitos. I could go for days without a shower or a change of clothes. I could push on for miles when I felt dead on my feet. I could huddle for warmth with strangers and vermin on cold nights. I was a new person. A stronger person. In so many ways, a better person.
But this new, stronger, better person was now staring down a boardwalked section of trail graced with a beehive. With the foliage pressing in, there was no way around.
I was a lot of things. But I was not, I was pretty sure, a Person Who Could Run Through Bees.
Why? That’s what everyone asks hikers.
What I usually say is this: My cousin Jen (or “Seaweed,” as she’s known in the nickname-happy hiker community) thru-hiked in 2002. Her adventures and exertions on the trail helped make her the fantastic person she is.
But what I probably should say is this: Fear was crippling my life. My aversion to risk had tipped over the line from sensible caution into paralysis, and — though I am not any kind of natural athlete — hiking the Appalachian Trail was my self-inflicted therapy. I had been so scared of losing my job, my apartment and my sensible life track that the only thing I could think to do was to dump them all.
Fortunately for me, Clif (or “Honeybuns,” as the trail community now calls him) felt much the same way. He had backpacking experience and a love of the wild and — unlike me — inexhaustible resources of calm and logic. (He claims his life as a programmer prepared him for long hours of toil for minor rewards.)
In a whirlwind of life changes, we got engaged in January 2015, gave notice at our jobs in February, sold what we could, gave the cat to friends, crammed my books and his computery things into storage and booked a flight to Atlanta.
On March 9, we set out from the trail’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Ga.
I’m not sure exactly where Honeybuns and I first met Scout and Burnout.
But I know it was near Fontana Dam, in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, that we started hiking together. Mildly hung over after a rest stop involving mini-golf, Guitar Hero and beer, Honeybuns and I were trying to find our way through some trail renovations when a familiar gangly figure with fiery red hair came walking up along with a wiry, dark-haired man with improbably large glasses. Scout and Burnout were friends from the Minnesota Conservation Corps, an organization that does trail maintenance, invasive species removal and fire prevention. We chatted in the unrelieved gray of the morning, cold mist dampening our clothes.
Suddenly, a harsh scream cut through the quiet morning, and a bald eagle appeared above, parting the clouds like an avenging angel. We gaped in amazement as it swooped over us in slow orbits before settling on top of the dam and surveying our group with its amber patriotic eye.
“Well, we should definitely all hike together,” I said. “America has blessed our friendship.”
And so we did.
A few days later, the four of us were killing time as we killed miles by playing Would You Rather. A particularly interesting debate involved whether we’d rather eat only cake or only pie for the rest of our lives. The variety of fillings and options for sweet or savory were clear advantages, and we went unanimously in favor of pie — a decision we fiercely defended against the other hikers around us.
We started calling ourselves Team Pie.
A string of other hikers meandered in and out of our company as their schedules and speeds permitted: Cliffhanger, a North Carolina college student; Hobbits, who read the day away then night-hiked to catch up; Karibu, just back from the Peace Corps in Tanzania; Rocky, a former corporate lawyer; Backlash, a New York bartender; Smokebreak, a steely-eyed Georgian with a love for hand-rolled cigarettes; Voldemort, an unflappably good-natured young woman also from the conservation corps.
But it was the four of us who spent almost every day together for the six months and six days we hiked the trail. As time went by, we went from people who happened to be hiking together to a group that was inseparable, as close as any friends I’ve ever had.
It was like falling in love.
It was falling in love.
Team Pie reached the highest point on the trail, Clingman’s Dome, on a March day of china-blue skies with temperatures in the low teens and a rib-stabbing wind that was clarifying and illuminating.
The snow crunched beneath our feet. As Honeybuns and I had only trail running shoes, Scout and Burnout ran ahead, kicking snowdrifts out of the way with their waterproof boots and pretending they were Aragorn and Boromir clearing a path for the hobbits. (The trail is an excellent place to pretend you’re in a fantasy novel.)
We gasped at the long views, the desolate, barren beauty of the snow- and ice-covered pines. Alone at the observation tower, we could see for miles, snowy peaks in every direction, icy and uniform and unending. I felt so small. Even if I completed the trail, I thought at that moment, I would never see the smallest fraction of what I could see.
But it was a good start.
The emotional and meteorological hangover after such majesty was skull-splitting. Over the next days, as we descended and spring progressed, snow half-melted and the slick slush became nearly impassable. We shuffled along, snow and ice accumulating at the hems of our pants and in heavy knobs at the ends of my trekking poles.
As the trail wandered around both faces of the Smokies’ ridgeline, we were alternately blasted with freezing rain and left panting and quiet on the lee side. Ice caked the left sides of our coats and hats, the right sides remaining dry.
At night, our shoes froze. In the morning, it took two people to help me force my feet into my trail runners. I couldn’t tie them until my body heat had warmed them, and it took hours. Later, when things got bad, I’d say, “Well, at least my shoes aren’t frozen!”
I named myself. We were at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, a kayaking hot spot familiarly referred to as “NOC.” We were milling about with other hikers, charging phones, browsing gear. When someone predicted nice weather or trail conditions, I superstitiously knocked on wood. People teased me about it.
So I tried out the name “Knock” in my head. Knock sounded like a Neil Gaiman character, a skinny and streetwise young woman in a long coat. Knock would be light-footed, self-assured, self-sufficient, hard. I wanted to take this chance to self-define. To use my name as a goal.
Clif didn’t get his name for a few more weeks. I liked “Albatross” for him, because of his impressive wingspan, but we all decided otherwise after watching him voraciously tear into Little Debbie Honey Buns during the snowy days on the Smokies. (Honey Buns, interestingly, are almost as tasty frozen as they are at room temperature.)
One May afternoon in Virginia, Team Pie climbed a rock formation called Dragon’s Tooth. The climb up was thrilling. But by the time we were almost down, we had been low on water for several miles, and the humid, oppressive heat had us feeling dehydrated and cranky. Sweat soaked my clothes and turned into a gritty, gray paste in the creases of my skin.
All I wanted, as I have wanted few things in my life, was an ice pop.
Visions of fruity ice pops clogged my mind. It seemed the most incredible thing that somewhere in the world there were freezers, in which one could store cold, wet things and eat them any time one wanted.
We hadn’t really planned on a stop, but according to our guidebooks, Four Pines Hostel wasn’t far off the trail. It was starting to rain, and we broke into a bit of a jog as we approached.
The hostel was basically a huge carport — in other words, I was going to be sleeping on a dusty couch in a stranger’s garage. But I wasn’t getting rained on. I could have a warm shower with shampoo. There would be a shuttle to a gas station where I could acquire pizza and beer. My happiness was edging toward delirium.
And then: They gave us complimentary freezer pops.
I curled up on the concrete floor and started sobbing like a shipwreck survivor reaching land.
Activity around me stopped. “Is she . . . okay?” another hiker asked Honeybuns in a whisper.
I collapsed red-faced and sniveling onto a couch, and another hiker gave me a Miller High Life. I blew my nose and dried my eyes. Two scrappy farm dogs meandered over and settled down with me in a warm, stinky pile. I ate a cheap lemon freezer pop. Then an orange one. Then I ordered a pizza. Then I ate some homemade pickles, drank a ginger ale in the shower and applied Gold Bond to all of my chafing bits.
I do not expect to find greater happiness in this mortal plane.
The scariest moment on the trail was not, as many people often guess, bear-related. Rather, it was the weather.
Team Pie, with the temporary addition of a real-life friend named Gary, was headed over Kinsman Mountain in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The August weather was stunning — just a bit chilly, bright with sunshine. The weather report had said that there was a chance of rain later.
Honeybuns, Scout, Gary and I got to the top of Kinsman with relative ease. Burnout and Voldemort were behind us, as both were slowed by knee injuries. (Also, being a new couple who had met on the trail, this was effectively how they dated.)
The guys and I lazed in the sun, warming ourselves. It was my brother’s birthday, and we FaceTimed. Another group of hikers came booking through the top of the mountain. “Seems like a storm’s coming,” one pronounced. Indeed, where there had been only blue sky and fluffy bunny-rabbit clouds a minute ago, a dark shadow was beginning to gather.
We packed up quickly and started to move off. We had barely gone a few feet before the wind picked up in earnest. Then the rain started. It was a drizzle at first, but unrelenting. We paused to put our phones and maps into dry bags and then quickened our pace to a near-jog.
As the rain intensified, the four of us decided that Scout and Gary, faster than me by far, should go on ahead, and we’d reconvene once we were off the exposed ridgeline. The two hurried off.
Within minutes, chaos descended. The skies opened up and drenched us with buckets upon buckets of water. I couldn’t have been more soaked if I had jumped with my pack into a swimming pool. With the wind whipping the rain, the air was alive with freak bursts of water.
We started to run. Water collected in our shoes and made our feet heavy, as if weights were attached to our ankles.
Down, down we went. Though it was midafternoon, it turned as dark as night, and I could hardly see. Lightning snarled and crackled around us. The time between the lightning and thunder shortened until it was scarcely measurable. At least, I comforted myself, we were getting off the ridge.
Until we weren’t.
Honeybuns and I groaned in unison when we saw that the trail would climb another 40 or 50 vertical feet and cross an exposed area before it would take us back below the tree line.
We ran up and over the exposed area, barely breathing until we were safely through. Marble-sized hail lashed our bodies.
We weren’t even sure we were on the trail anymore. Torrents of water poured along what we hoped was the path but could’ve well been a dry riverbed or just a break in the trees. At several steep, long, smooth rock faces, we sat and scooted our way down.
Actually thinking I might die, I called out to Honeybuns: “If we survive this thing, we should get married tomorrow.”
He threw his head back, face full of wind and rain and hail, and laughed. Then he saw my face. “Are you serious?”
“Christ, I might be.” He stopped and kissed me. And we kept going.
Eventually, we met up with our group and made our way down the rest of the mountain. At the foot, disoriented and exhausted, we convinced some wonderfully kind girls on a day hike that, despite our smell, it would be a ton of fun if they could drive us to town.
Then I tried to see how many McDonald’s double cheeseburgers a person could wolf down after a near-death experience. (Answer: 51/2, with a large fries and two Dr Peppers.)
We didn’t get married the next day. But we did split a dozen doughnuts and a six-pack. Almost as good.
I had never known anything like the instant community of the trail. There was such trust among strangers. You did a sort of quick-check when you encountered another hiker: Long beard or leg hair? Check. Beat-up gear? Check. Gross clothes and wafting waves of body odor? Check. Instant trust. Whoever had walked hundreds of miles to the same spot as I did had to be the same brand of crazy as me.
I had never known the perfect, vital taste of water filtered straight from a mountain spring. (To think that I once thought water has no taste!) I am ruined for tap water for life.
I hadn’t known how great my body could be. As my slight chubbiness wore down, my body stopped being a slightly unfortunate flesh cage for my personality and became me. My strong legs carried me up mountains. I grew to love my armpit hair, my leg hair, my own unshowered smell. I felt connected to myself in a way that I hadn’t even realized I was missing.
After a few weeks, I felt comfortable enough in my own skin to take off the capri-length running tights I wore under my running shorts. In another few weeks, I gave up underwear — a huge win against chafing and a time saver in that I could pee standing up. I lounged around in my sports bra. By the summer solstice, I was on board with the tradition of Hike Naked Day. (This turned out to be a mistake. It was also Father’s Day. There were families around.)
On that hive-infested boardwalk in Massachusetts, I finally gathered my courage and sprinted, screeching all the way. I felt a sharp sting on my left calf but kept running.
“Getitoutgetitoutgetitout!” I shouted at Scout, before collapsing on the ground.
“It’s already out,” he said, inspecting my leg. Honeybuns came up behind me, unstung and unfazed. He put an arm around me.
“It hurts,” I said, crying, laughing and snuffling.
“You’re okay. I promise,” Scout said.
Burnout and Voldemort came up. “Yeah, I got stung, too,” Voldemort said, with nary a tear.
I felt a little ridiculous. But these were my friends. And I had become A Person Who Couldn’t Run Through Bees, But Did Anyway.
I started peeling off my extra clothing, shaking and laughing.
Scout found an avocado had split in his pack, and we all sat on the side of the trail while I ate half of his avocado with a spork and mopped up my eyes.
We finished our snack, stood and kept walking.
We had plenty of miles to go.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
799 Washington St., Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
There is no required registration for thru-hikers, but the Appalachian Trail Conservancy encourages a voluntary registration system to prevent overcrowding. Register online at the ATC website. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the only section of the trail that requires an advance permit. This must be obtained and printed no more than a month in advance of entering the park. There are several businesses along the trail where you can file and print the form in preparation for the Smokies. There is also a $20 fee for thru-hikers. For more information, visit smokiespermits.nps.gov.