Peaks and Valleys: The Women of the White Blaze
Waking up in the predawn and getting to watch as the sun lightens the sky and nature greets a new day. Sharing a warm, filling breakfast before setting out for a section of the Appalachian Trail full of new sights and experiences. Listening to the song of the birds, the rustle of the wind, the whisper of a rainfall. Unshouldering a pack at a campsite and watching shooting stars dance across the inky black sky as a gentle breeze lulls you to sleep.
These are just some of the reasons why someone would want to leave life behind and venture out onto the Appalachian Trail. Or, as Fast Feet describes it, “Every moment from the first step is a happy one. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s true. The minute I put on my pack and take the first step, my soul starts finding peace. I think changing focus from the million issues that I normally multi-task, my sole purpose is to now walk, one foot in front of the other…to the next break, next lunch spot, next water source, next decision where to stay.”
Meet Callie “Grasshopper” Cole, Olivia “CoffeeBeans” Affuso, Kathy “Jedi” Morgan, Jessa “Fast Feet” Freeman (twin sister of Grasshopper), and Mary “Butterfly” Adamy. These ladies from Birmingham, Alabama, are section hiking the Appalachian Trail, carving out time from their busy work and family lives to chase that white blaze. All of different ages and backgrounds, they share two commonalities: they belong to the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS) and are no strangers to physical and mental challenges that most would shy away from.
The Appalachian Trail is 2,200 miles of reasons, decisions, and personal commitments.
Butterfly focuses on the “mountain highs” and treasures the “Wow!” moments she comes across. “The culture and the atmosphere on the trail are addictive, and you want to be in the zone of a thru-hiker. Also, it is a blast meeting so many different personalities along the way. I will long remember sweet Amalie, the joyful and courageous nine-year old we met at one of the shelters. I hope she made the 240-mile trek planned with her father.”
For twin sisters Fast Feet and Grasshopper, their mom paved the way for their love of the Appalachian Trail. Fast Feet explained, “The high is what my mom called ‘cleaning out the cobwebs.’ She would disappear every year to hike a part of the Appalachian Trail, usually a section of the Smokies. Truly unplugging has a way of making you rethink life, your priorities, and what really matters to you. It realigns my soul with nature, where I want to be rooted instead of the busyness of the world. I think I come back refreshed and a much better wife, mom, and person in general.”
In the first post of this series, we mentioned how CoffeeBeans happened to be taking a vow of silence in the middle of a tornado warning. It turned out to be her favorite moment on the trail. “I really enjoyed what seemed like extrasensory perception on a day of silence (no talking). I heard the birds, the wind, the rain, and I saw everything more clearly.”
But life on the Appalachian Trail is not all sun-streaked singletrack and endless mountain views. With every peak comes a valley, and it was no different for the Women of the White Blaze.
Some battled physical ailments, like CoffeeBeans’ unbeknownst-to-her allergy to a surprising trail critter.
“One day I had a headache that I thought was likely related to sniffing all of the fir trees. It turns out that I have an allergy to Cladosporium that loves to grow on wet wood. This little bugger had my face all puffed up, and it made for some delightful nasal tunes as I slept by Grasshopper later that night.”
Grasshopper learned the hard way that it is possible to be over-prepared.
“I was overeager about getting in shape for the trail, and had this great idea to do a 13-mile hike with 30 pounds on my back and find all the hardest hills. I had already been doing a lot of running and hiking and had some pretty tight calves. This final hike was too much, and I think I hurt my left Achilles that day. However, there was no way that I was missing the trip. We climbed around 3,000 feet my first day. I remember wondering how do you tell the difference between a tight, sore muscle and a muscle tearing off your bone.”
For others, like Jedi, low moments were more mental hurdles.
“I guess a low would be the day we hiked to Clingmans Dome. My feet were tired of wet rocks going downhill, and walking on the pavement with the pack at Clingmans Dome was horrible on my feet. I remember getting back on the trail and still having 4 more miles of wet rocks up and downhill, and I wasn’t in the best of moods. Grasshopper asked what the name of the mountain was we were going up, and I said, ‘It’s called This Mountain Can Kiss My A**.’ ”
But there are never any long-term lows on the trail. Valleys seem hard in the moment, but the women collectively agree that the lows are actually positive. In fact, the Women of the White Blaze adopted the phrase “Embrace the Suck” as their trail motto.
“Our group is tough and doesn’t complain.” Grasshopper explained. ‘‘ ‘Embrace the Suck’ was our motto last year during the drought and heat, and during the cold and rain this year.”
As Fast Feet approaches her big 40th birthday, she appreciates being able to push her body. “The older I get, the less I crave luxury and comfort. The fact that we get up each day, sore as heck from the previous day, and strike out again is not something everyone can or would do.”
We are highlighting the planning, the peaks and valleys, and the adventures these Women of the White Blaze experienced during their first section hike from Georgia to Maine. To stay up-to-date with their blog posts, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the Menasha Ridge Press newsletter.