I dropped down to my knees, slowly rocking backward so that I could finally sit and take the weight off my aching legs. The hot water of the shower washed away the week’s worth of dirt that had gathered with every mile covered. My mind was blank, the throbbing feeling in my legs encompassing all thought. I looked at my legs, these strong, powerful legs that had carried me more than a thousand miles to reach the point where I now sat. I appreciated the hell out of these legs, the freedom they gave me, the journey they allowed me to partake in. A quiet smile spread across my face in the poorly lit shower, as I sat on the floor and thought about this day that was coming to a close, the epic task that I had decided to tackle, and how far I had come since the day I first stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail.
90 days. Exactly 90 days prior, three months in total, Ale and I had climbed Mount Katahdin in Maine on our first day as Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. That climb kicked our asses. We were both so exhausted after the ten mile ascent and descent that we fell asleep in our tent after a light feast of fruit snacks, too tired to even fathom the energy to cook dinner.
The next morning we awoke to aching bodies and heavy packs. We struggled to walk a total of eight miles that second day. The first week it felt as though we were moving at the pace of inch worms, and an entire day of exhaustive effort that took everything we had, hardly seemed to make a dent in the 2,180 miles in front of us. Our emotions were taxed, our bodies exhausted, our minds gasping for a productive way to pass the time when all we had to fill it was walking. The thought of reaching Springer Mountain in Georgia, the terminus of the trail, just seemed so impossibly far away.
Flash forward to this moment, this night that I am smiling to myself sitting on a shower floor of some random hostel in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This day I was reflecting on began early, before the sun broke the horizon.
My alarm went off abruptly at 4:00am. I sat up in the hammock immediately, my heart jumping into my throat with anticipation for the day. I heard rustling from the other hammocks as the rest of our crew began to pull themselves from sleep. I clicked on my headlamp, nudged Mango (the trail name Ale went by as a thru-hiker), telling him it was time, and dropped my legs over the side of our hammock. Everyone got ready quietly, packing up camp quickly. My pack felt so light in comparison to most days. In preparation we had all rationed our food so that we would only had enough to get through the next 16 hours- a meager effort to save ourselves from having to carry more weight than we absolutely needed.
What were we about to attempt? On the trail, it’s a little thing called the Four State Challenge where you hike across the borders of four sates- crossing from Pennsylvania, through the entire state of Maryland and West Virginia, and end in Virginia- all in one day, covering a total of 42.9 miles.
We began in the dark with a swift pace, headlights bobbing along the forest path, the dead leaves, dry from the summer draught, crunched beneath our feet as we cruised along silently. After five miles, we took a break to drink water and eat a power bar. The day before, we had all decided it would be best to manage our energy this way, hiking hard in five mile increments, then breaking for 20 minutes to replenish energy. We maintained this technique for the entire day, and I think it was essential for us to actually pull it off. The trail took us through towns, through developed parks, though nature preserves and wild woods.
The sun shone strong, the sky was blue and the breeze was light. It was a beautiful day. All along the way we passed shelters that looked enticing with valley views and campfire pits, but pushed on anyway. As the evening rolled in, the air turned cooler, and I felt as though we were literally walking into fall when we reached West Virginia. A grey fog rolled in and the wind picked up. We pushed onward, the miles melting beneath our strong legs and wild hearts.
After about 14 hours of hiking at the strong pace, I could feel the exhaustion of my muscles settling in. Keeping the Cliff Bars down at that point was a struggle as I began to battle nausea. The weight of my pack pulled heavily on my shoulders and hips. My feet ached as though they were weighed down by bags of sand tied to my ankles. Every incline felt like a steep mountain, regardless of the pitch.
We hiked the last few miles under cover of darkness, just has we had begun. My mind raced wildly as I stumbled along, ticking off the remaining miles- it took more mental effort than I had imagined it would. Cubby and Spoon had hiked ahead, keeping a faster pace than us; but Mango, Santana and I took our last twenty minute break together. We swapped coping advice, shared in the collective exhaustion we felt- but we also shared in quiet celebration of how far we had come, and how little we had left in front of us.
42.9 miles, in 16 hours and 37 minutes. After 90 days of walking, we were able to walk 42.9 miles in 16 1/2 hours. Only 90 days prior, it had taken us 12 hours to walk 10 miles. The accomplishment I felt was stunning. I was overwhelmed by my own strength, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. I hadn’t even realized how far I had come, figuratively speaking, until that moment in Harper’s Ferry.
Just as I had 90 days earlier, I fell asleep that night without being able to muster the strength to cook dinner. I awoke with a smile, and a greater understanding of what I was actually able to accomplish, what I could do, if I just decided to do it. And even as I hobbled on sore legs, the rain pouring down on us as we made our way to breakfast, I had never felt so strong, or smiled so wide.
Last week I published my website- and in doing so I finally managed to bring together several of my life passions and establish, publicly, the intention of the work that I do. The journey that I’ve taken to get here was filled with plenty of ups and downs, there were calculated breaks and regenerative moments, plenty of moments of uncertainty where I questioned if I could actually do this, but as I hit publish, as I began to share it, I suddenly was overwhelmed again with the realization of how strong I am- of what I can do if I just decide to do it.
With that, I wish you a most beautiful day. Take some time and acknowledge a moment in your life when you surprised yourself with your own ability, with your power and your strength. Love that moment, hold it close, celebrate it, share it to inspire others. Who knows what unbelievable beauty will unfold as a result of you.
Oh- and if you are curious, you can check out what I do when I’m not posting here at my new website- www.gretamatos.com