Facing Roan Mountain

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Roan Mountain conjures images of dying by hypothermia for me.

While at my hiking workshop last December, a previous thru-hiker named Hailey shared her experience of being wet and cold to the point of hypothermia symptoms setting in on Roan Mountain.

She said her brain wasn’t working right and if it hadn’t of been for the help of other hikers who made her eat and then put her inside her sleeping bag, she might have not made it through the night.

This is the story playing in mind when I wake up to howling high winds and a gloomy dark sky with the goal of getting to the top of Roan Mountain by day’s end. I quickly pack up my tent and am grateful when I see my food bag still hanging in the tree where I left it.

I walk at a decent pace putting in 5 miles by 10:00 in the morning when I arrive at the Clyde Smith Shelter. To my surprise, there is a party of sorts going on.

There is a man named Paul, trail name “Half Price”, who is drinking a hot cup of tea on his bunk. Paul is originally from England and he shares some of his tea with me.

Three younger guys in their late teens and early twenties that I had seen the previous week near Erwin TN are cooking a gourmet breakfast of eggs, cheese and wild leeks. Their approach to the trail has been a combination of hiking and partying whenever they come to a town or a hostel with resupplies.

Everyone is talking of a storm front coming our way. The forecast is calling for buckets of cold rain. Hailey’s story of Roan Mountain flashes in my mind. The four of them are done hiking for the day regardless of the mere two mile hike they put in from the hostel they slept at last night. They suggest I do the same. I don’t like the idea of stopping before my destination goal and yet, there is no way I will make it uphill to the top of Roan Mountain before the storm.

I claim a bunk space in the shelter and pull out my food bag to find something to eat.

The rain begins about an hour after I arrive. A continuous stream of soaked hikers appear: a group of men and male students from a high school in Ohio, a couple from the Netherlands, a father and daughter pair. The shelter is now over capacity. New arrivals see this when they poke their heads into the shelter and then retreat to pitch their tents in the rain.

I am cold and get into my sleeping bag by dinner time. Tomorrow I will make up for lost mileage.

Morning arrives and I get an early start. It’s bitterly cold in the high 30s and I have no regrets about the decision to stay dry at the shelter. I think about two of the hikers who stopped only long enough to eat lunch and then pushed on. I hope they are ok.

I hike 9 miles, almost all uphill, and make it to Roan Mountain Shelter by lunch. The shelter is a log cabin with a sleeping loft. It is dark and shaded and feels eerie to me. I quickly eat and refill my water containers then head on.

If I want to get back on schedule, I will need to walk 8 more miles to get to Overmountain Shelter which is a huge converted barn with great views. 17 miles is ambitious but if the weather cooperates, I think I can do it.

I walk alone the entire day. I reflect a lot. I think about my life. It’s half way over. What do I want to do with the second half?

My legs and feet ache as I push past Stan Murray Shelter determined to make it to the barn.

After an embarrassingly slow pace, I see the sign for Overmountain Shelter. Not knowing if there will be a privy at the shelter, I decide to empty my bladder in the woods. I have learned how to squat and pee without having to take my backpack off. I am proud of this skill that saves time and is very efficient. I assume the position like a dozen earlier times but something is different. The weight of my pack is too heavy for my tired legs and they give out.

My backside lands in the dirt as my bladder responds to the earlier signal to eliminate. I have no choice but to go with the flow so to speak. I look around once again for some hidden camera I believe the universe uses for moments just like this.

I laugh at myself and the humor contained in the embarrassing moment. Eventually, I pick myself up and clean off. I head down the side trail to the shelter where I can now see other hikers and a beautiful view.

My day is coming to an end. I see Paul and we agree to hike together the next day over Hump Mountain. It will be a relatively easy 9 miles that will take me to my truck. I need to get home before Easter.

Next Post: Hampton & Damascus

Monsters in the Night

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's Journal6 Comments

I wanted to ease into things.

Hence, the weekend day hiking trip with my spouse Mike followed by the four day section hike with my classmate Dave. This would assure no extended time alone. It felt safe and familiar.

Now it is time let go of safety even if it means facing my personal monsters in the night.

I have spent time alone with my inner self in the past. I have a broken part that is fractured and wants to heal but doesn’t quite know how. It is this broken self that stays hidden and can go unnoticed when I keep busy and distracted. But keeping overly occupied isn’t a formula for success. Living in high gear without direction is neither sustainable nor fun.

I am now seeing this hike as my own journey versus sharing in my son’s journey. Kerry’s been trying to get this point through to me quite some time. He explicitly commented from the beginning, “mom, you gotta hike your own hike.”

Which is fortunate because he recently called to informed me that his stress fracture in his foot is not healing and his hike will need to be put on hold. This comes after he has already told Microsoft he is leaving. Not having a job doesn’t seem to worry or phase him. Unlike me, he is not afraid.

I tell my clients that life is full of curve balls. And instead of trying to duck when life throws us one, we are better off learning how to hit curve balls.

So I will continue hiking my own hike of 500 miles.

My current section takes takes me beyond Erwin, TN. And my first day, I meet Karin, a woman in her late 50’s from Germany. She delights in my broken German and we talk all afternoon, eventually making it to a campsite with plenty of other hikers.

Time passes by. Karin pushes ahead, also being a stronger hiker than me. I don’t mind being slow. It’s only a problem when I feel I have to be something I am not. When I accept who I am and what I can do, it becomes easy. And even though I am alone at the end of a long day, it feels good when I make it to Erwin.

It’s Friday and Mike is waiting for me. He smiles as he walks across the bridge to where I exit the forest. He will be with me all weekend at a local Farmstay. We have a bed and bathroom all to ourselves. It feels more luxurious than some of the 5 star hotels I have stayed at. Luxury is relative to one’s current state of existence.

The weekend feels literally and figuratively like the top of the world. We enjoy the panoramic views from Beauty Spot and enjoy delicious homemade food. But Sunday afternoon comes sooner than I like and Mike drops me back off alone on the trail.

My sad heart gets sadder as evening approaches and I make it to a campsite where no other hikers have stopped.

I set up my tent and hang a bear bag for the first time alone. It’s pathetically comical watching me throw my bag over a branch 20 feet high. I finally get my food secured enough to feel safe and crawl into my tent.

The wind howls and I ask myself, why am I doing this?

Then I remember. I don’t want to run away from the things that scare me. I want to face them and overcome them. I know I can do this. I think about my favorite quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

“Fear is the mind-killer. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

I say it to myself several times until I know I will be fine tonight.

Next post: Facing Roan Mountain

Official Hike Begins

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I am meeting a hiking classmate named Dave to do a four day section together. He is a much stronger hiker than me but agreed to daily mileage that I can handle.

My goal is to hike four days with Dave, head home for the weekend, and then hit the trail again the following week.

What I find almost immediately into hiking is that shelters are pretty creepy if you are not used to them. We stay at Spring Mountain Shelter our first night. This is basically a simple lean-to that is enclosed on three sides and open on one side. Our shelter is full with five sleeping bags occupied by five hikers side by side. I am the only female.

You can hear everything in a shelter: people turning over on their crackly sleeping pads, night owl hikers conversing, digestive issues likely stemming from poor diets, and mice scampering around looking for tasty treats not hung in bear bags.

When I first get into my sleeping bag for the night, I have a claustrophobic moment. I tightly close my eyes and wish for a “Go Home” button to push. Sadly, no button appears and I am stuck here for the night.

Morning arrives with minimal sleep but all my earlier fears melt with the light.

Our second night, we decide to tent instead of using the shelter. I use a one person tent that Dave lends me since my own tent did not ship in time. About an hour after heading to bed, a massive thunderstorm passes through. Lightening stricks multiple times less than a mile north of us and over 2 inches of rain fall in less than an hour. Again, I want a “Go Home” button to push. And again, no magic button appears.

It strikes me as both embarrassing and true that I have slept in a bed my entire life, which is why sleeping outdoors is not very familiar to me. It’s out of my comfort zone. And yet, this is also something I am looking for. I want to be out of my comfort zone.

I hike alone the next day and enjoy magnificent views from Big Firescald Knob. I pull out a book to read on Howard’s Rock. I am grateful as a novice hiker to have even made it to this spot. And to have a perfectly clear day on this ridge is a special treat.

Dave and I meet a stray hiker that we fondly dub Whiskey Dan. Dan is a university professor who hikes to clear his mind and get out of the city. Dan asks our last day if it would be ok to hike with me. I say I don’t mind so long as he doesn’t mind going at my pace. He agrees and begins walking behind me within talking distance. He is soon sharing some of his very tragic recent life events with me.

Sometimes talking to somebody about the stuff you are holding inside can help. I know this well and Dan knows I am counselor which is why I think he’s chosen me to talk to.

We finish day four of hiking and head back to Hot Springs. All three of us hobble out of my farm truck when we get to town. We head into Iron Horse Station and have a farewell dinner.

The beer is cold and the food is good. We finish the meal and then say good bye to each other. I have completed my first section hike with multi-overnights sleeping in the woods.

As I walk to the truck, I think about the discomforts I’ve experienced: freezing morning temperatures, being scared at night, sore legs and feet. But I also think about the positives: fresh air and exercise, the time away from my office, the beautiful views and the great people I’ve met. I think duality is helping me appreciate life more.

I smile and climb into my truck to head home.

Next post: Monsters in the Night

20 miles in 2 days

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My sabbatical from work starts in 1 week so I think it is time to start some preliminary hiking.

Being a bit anxious, I am picking the only part of the Appalachian Trail I am familiar with: Hot Springs, the site of my hiking workshop last December.

My goal is hiking from Max Patch, a well-known bald, to Hot Springs in North Carolina. Bald is an interesting word that I hadn’t heard before in reference to a mountain. Like a person who no longer has hair, a bald is a mountain that does not have trees at the top of it. This makes for some really beautiful and impressive views.

I am hiking an easy 6.6 mile section by myself into Hot Springs. Then I will check into the hostel, have Mike join me for dinner and complete the more difficult 13.2 miles the next day.

I check the weather forecast which is calling for 45 degrees and cloudy. No problem, right?

I drive to where my GPS says there is a parking area next to the Appalachian Trail that will lead me by foot north into Hot Springs. The paved back road becomes an unpaved dirt path. I swear in my head I hear banjos from Deliverance playing. Then the brush clears and I see a tiny space to park my farm truck.

I get my pack out and begin my hike.

It’s quiet for the first mile then I hear someone else. I look behind me and see a tall person whose gender I can’t yet make out carrying a huge backpack. A few minutes later, I meet Sarah, a young women in her 20’s. Sarah is athletic, quiet and sweet. She has already hiked the El Camino de Santiago, a famous hiking trail in Spain.

Sarah slows to my pace and we walk together until arriving at Deer Park Mountain Shelter. There she shows me one of the items inside her enormous pack. It’s a small guitar. I’ve heard of hikers carrying unlikely items in their backpacks and Sarah confirms this does sometimes occur.

I leave Sarah happily filling her water bladder at a tiny stream when we part ways. Bladder is a new word I learn that refers to a bag like container that can be filled with water and later filtered for drinking. I actually have a 32 ounce one that came with my filter that is in my backpack. I just didn’t know it had a name.

I move on to finish my section and check-in to our lodging before Mike arrives. He manages to join me in time for dinner.

After dinner, we head back to the hostel while Mike is disappointed to learn there is no TV to watch the basketball game. But he is resourceful and finds a way to listen to it on his phone. After the game, he falls asleep while I think about tomorrow’s high mileage hike.

In the morning, we pack up and head out.

Unfortunately, the forecasted 45 degree cloudy weather is inaccurate. Today it is actually 24 degrees and snowing. Apparently, many towns near the AT are at lower elevations and can have different weather than the higher elevations where you are actually hiking. Who knew?

I had imagined a leisure pace with many breaks at scenic settings. I’d laugh right now if I wasn’t so cold. It sadly hurts our fingers and our core temperature to stop more than 5 minutes. Our only real break of the day is at Walnut Mountain Shelter to quickly eat a peanut butter sandwich which even frozen, tastes better than I expect it to.

Mike pushes on and I try to complain as little as possible since I am the reason we were doing this hike. And surprisingly, after 7 plus hours at a very respectable pace for non-hikers, we arrive exhausted at our farm truck.

Steam comes off my feet after I take off my boots and socks. I thank Mike for coming with me and tell him I can’t imagine I would have made it if I was by myself.

As Mike drives us back to town to pick up our other vehicle, I start silently wondering if I am capable of doing this journey on my own. I guess there is only one way to find out.

Next post: Official Hike Begins

Hiking Equipment Decisions

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A lot of people spend more time researching and buying equipment than they spend hiking. I learned this at my Appalachian Trail Institute workshop and want to avoid it. So I took notes and ultimately have decided to buy what other hikers before me have suggested.

I am spending approximately $1000 that includes:

A ULA backpack

A Thermarest sleeping pad

A Sawyer water filter

A sleeping quilt

A Big Agnes tent

A pair of boots

I am currently testing my pack weight with a 5 day supply of food and water.  Looks to be under 30 pounds which is good.  The goal should be less than 25% of your body weight.

My husband has clearly communicated both his support of my hiking and his lack of interest in joining me. He has multiple stories of being a good dad and spending time with our sons while hiking and camping in less than ideal conditions.  Each time I hear him tell the stories, you can feel the suffering reemerge.

I agree for the time being that his support will be in the form of occasionally meeting me at a hotel or hostel in a trail town.  He’s already begun to refer to these meet ups as conjugal visits.  I am hoping that hiking doesn’t feel like prison but I am the first to admit that I don’t know what I am getting into.

My next goal is to set a date for a weekend hike of around 20 miles.  I am going to do this in March right before my sabbatical begins.

The Appalachian Trail Institute

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's Journal1 Comment

Who signs up for a workshop two weeks before Christmas?

Apparently, me and 10 classmates named Pete, Steven, Carowyn, Sarah, Evette, Dave, Rosemary, Jeremiah, Brian and Richard.

I expected to be the oldest. Wrong. I expected to one of the only females. Wrong again.

I nicely blend with the other people who have come to learn about hiking the Appalachian Trail. We range in age from college student to retiree.

We arrived at Laughing Heart Lodge and Hostel in Hot Springs, NC not knowing what to expect. What we are quickly finding is a tribe. A tribe called hiker. Anybody can be a hiker. You just have to be willing to hike.  The challenge seems to be the need to surrender to nature and the inevitable curve balls it will throw you. But back to the Appalachian Trail Institute.

Normally, Warren Doyle is the facilitator of this workshop. But for some reason, Jennifer Pharr Davis is our guide for the four day experience.  Jen has taken time out of her schedule to inspire and share her personal experiences with us.  The nominal $250 per person price tag for this workshop does not begin to compensate her and her spouse for taking time out their life to hang out with us.

I am quickly finding that the hiking community does not abide by the rules of the world.  Meaning and purpose often trumps financial gain.  Hikers are not your typical bear.

From the beginning, I have been amazed by the almost instant bonding that has occurred with our class. I feel connected and loved by this very diverse crowd of people. We are staying up late listening to music and singing together within days of knowing each other. We are laughing and hiking and eating with each other like a family does.  I have to wonder why this can’t occur more often in life? The world would be a better place if it did.

The workshop has covered almost every topic you could imagine from equipment to knowing about different sections.

Jen’s newborn, Gus, who is 10 weeks old, is listening (and ok, often sleeping) as his mother delivers lessons. Brew, Jen’s spouse, has shared his insights regarding section hikes and performed for us at night the songs he has been recording.  Brew looks like a mountain man which masks his deep and emotional spirit that pours forth from his music.  The free concert was priceless.

The classroom workshop has been complimented by day hikes ranging from 4-7 miles on the Appalachian Trail. We’ve been given a nice December mix of weather that has included a cold day, a rainy day and a nice day. One of Warren’s quotes is:

The workshop ends today at a small diner that had been feeding us.  We all will leave the way we arrived with the exception of a small beautiful seed that is now planted in each of us.

Time will tell how each seed germinates and grows.

Enrolling in a Hiking Workshop

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Right under two months has elapsed since my son announced he is going to quit his job with Microsoft to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2017.  I see this as a sign for me to slow down and look where I am going.  I have stopped accepting new clients at my practice and have shared with a select few individuals my intentions for taking some needed time off. Their overwhelming response has been positive and supportive.

But now my thoughts are turning to logistics.  Sure, my son is capable of achieving an enormous task like hiking almost 2200 miles up and down over mountains from Maine to Georgia.  But even if my goal is much simpler section hikes, how am I going to do this?  My hiking skills consist of going to scenic areas and walking on nice trails during the day.  My camping skills include less than a half dozen times of throwing a ton of crap in the back of my car and then unloading it at a nice campsite.  And my physical condition?  Let’s just say it’s not very impressive.

What am I thinking?

A wonderful client of mine knew about my son’s intentions and promptly gifted me with a copy of Jennifer  Pharr Davis’s book, Becoming Odyssa.  I recently read it in Cincinnati while visiting my parents for Thanksgiving.

So I got out my computer yesterday and typed in “Appalachian Trail Institute”.

What came up was a website, warrendoyle.com, with a quote:  “Not all who wander are lost.”  Sounded cool.  I read lots of stuff before finding a contact number and dialed it from the couch in my living room.

“Hello”, said a an older man’s voice who appeared to be engaged in physical labor- like walking in the woods.

“Hello!  I am wanting to find out about The Appalachian Trail Institute,” I said.

“Oh.  I don’t hike in the winter.  I mostly do Contra dancing in the winter.  Let me give you Jen’s number.  She is doing a class soon in Hot Springs and might still let you enroll.”

I was promptly given contact information and the call ended.

So I contacted “Jen”, Jennifer Pharr Davis. For most of the world who is not connect to the hiking community:

Jennifer Pharr Davis is an American long distance hiker, author, speaker, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, and Ambassador for the American Hiking Society. She has hiked over 12,000 miles on six different continents, including thru-hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail (three times), the Colorado Trail, the Long Trail in Vermont, the Bibbulmun Track in Australia, and numerous trails in Europe and South America. In 2011, Pharr Davis set the unofficial record for the fastest thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail with a time of 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, an average of 47 miles (76 km) a day.

That’s why I am currently kind of excited and nervous. Jen just sent me an email saying I am now enrolled in the Appalachian Trail Institute.

Looks like I’m going to be in Hot Springs, NC two weeks before Christmas.


A Burnout Formula

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The top careers notorious for burnout include first responders (think fire fighters, law enforcement and military) and individuals working within health care (think doctors, nurses and mental health professionals). It seems to be a dangerous combination to combine stressful work without proper self-care and time to recharge.

I went back to graduate school for counseling when our youngest child started kindergarten. I felt very confident that I was in the right field. This was largely due to my positive undergraduate experience. While at Virginia Tech, I worked with some of the best researchers and clinicians in the field of Psychology. I loved the concept of helping people get mentally well so that their lives would get better. I didn’t at the time consider the effect working in this field would have on my own life and well being.

Twenty five years have elapsed since undergraduate school and my years working in field seem to be catching up with me. I tell my clients to use a likert scale to assess their stress level. Zero indicates no stress present and ten indicates high stress. I took a minute recently to ask what I would rank 2016 so far. 8-10 range was my answer.  I felt like 70% of my time was going to my work and the remaining 30% was being absorbed by my personal responsibilities.

I started to think about why my stress level was so high. There were personal stressors stemming from being a mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend.  There was the physical stressors from owning a hobby farm.  And there were the professional stressors.  2016 was the most financially successful year ever for my practice.  That seemed good on paper but I was noticing it came at a cost.

I was violating some basic boundaries that could have kept me well.  I was guilty of following a formula sure to create burnout:

1) Overbook 20+ clients into three workdays per week.

2) Start coming in earlier in the morning and staying later at night.

3) Do not take vacations. Feel guilty when you do. Work double time before and after any time off.

4) Continue to accept clients after your caseload is full.

5) Respond to clients during non-business hours.

6) Specialize in trauma work and bring your work home after you leave the office.

7) Ignore self-care, practice poor nutrition and stop making time for exercise.

Who was to blame for where I was in life? Myself.

Nobody was making me do this. I was self-employed and owned my own business. I preached work/life balance and the importance of self-care to all my clients.

What was happening? And more importantly, how was I going to correct the problem I had caused?

I think the solution is going to require me to take some much needed extended time off in 2017.

I’m going to call it a sabbatical. Sabbatical is a Hebrew word that loosely means taking scheduled time off for rest.  The Bible talks about the importance of periodically allowing agricultural fields to lay fallow.  I do this with a section of my vegetable garden every year.  It prevents pests populations from multiplying and cuts down on diseases. As counter intuitive as it might sound, even though time is taken off, productivity will increase as a result of the rest. 

I love what I do and I love my clients.  I think now I need to love myself and recharge.

Hey Mom, I’m Quitting Microsoft

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It was past my bedtime. My three sons and some of their college friends had come home to run the Hickory Oktoberfest 10K. The plan was to wake up early in the morning and head downtown before the race started.

My husband Mike was already in bed for the night while I was puttering around the kitchen in my nightgown picking up.

My eldest son Kerry was sitting on the bench at our harvest table and began talking to me as I cleared dishes at the sink. Kerry and his younger brother Dayton both interviewed at Microsoft when Kerry had just completed his junior year at UNC and Dayton has ended his freshman year.  It seemed like a wonderful dream when Microsoft offered Kerry a job and Dayton a summer internship.

Which is why when you think your children are aligned for safe and successful careers, you jump when they say:

“Hey mom, I’m quitting Microsoft next year.”

I paused. I was processing his words. I was waiting for him to elaborate.

“I want to hike the Appalachian Trail. There’s never going to be a better time, you know. It might never happen if I get married or have kids. I think now’s the time.”

I agreed with his logic. I appreciated the way he had thought it through and was being intentional. I told him he had my blessing and headed to bed.

That night and many to follow would be restless.

He had activated an alarm within my being that seemed to go off about every seven years. And when this happened, I knew to expect changes in my life.

Do You Have a Personal Strategy?

Michelle EllwangerCoachingLeave a Comment

The word strategy is derived from a Greek word meaning “the art of the general.”

At a basic business level, a strategy is the unified concept of how an enterprise accomplishes its goals.

A strategy involves choices and is intentional.  What you choose to do is as important as what you don’t.

What about a personal strategy?

Write down answers to the following questions:

  1. What are your strengths or passions?  This should be easy if you think about what brings joy in your life.
  2. What do you value and are willing to sacrifice something else for? This is an indicator of what is meaningful to you as an individual.
  3. What do you want to accomplish?  This is not a short term goal but rather what you would like to be said at your funeral.

The answers to these questions make up your personal strategy.  Watch out for lists or the word “and” in any of the answers.  That could be sign that you do not have a strategy but are trying to be everything to everyone.  Be bold and choose.

Having a strategy will do two things:  First, it will help you recognize what you should stop doing to free up time to focus on important things.  And second, it will give you the courage to overcome the anxiety associated with new endeavors if they are aligned with your strategy.

Evaluate what you do every day – where you work, how you spend free time, what you are saving for, planning for, and thinking about.  Is all of this in alignment with your personal strategy?  There should be no judgment about past decisions.  That is not the point.  The point is to be intentional about how you live your life now.

Eliminate the possibility of any regret for things left undone.  Ask yourself today, are you a soldier following orders or the general of your life?

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