Those were my sisters parting words to me.
I was standing in my parents’ kitchen bidding farewell to a few of my siblings – the rest of them would have been there to see me off, but with kids and jobs and homes that existed far away in other states, phone calls and text messages would have to suffice. There were eight of us kids in all, plus a few in-laws, nieces and nephews, and countless dogs. I think it’s safe to say that a standard family gathering for us is equivalent to a full house party.
As my sister gave me a hug, pulled back, and said those words in her very matter-of-fact tone, I was struck with realization. I’m the crazy one.
It’s a pretty standard phenomenon, really. The greater the size of your clan, the greater your odds that one of them will be a little nuts. I’m not gonna lie – I was more than a little pleased with myself for having earned the title before even setting foot on the trail.
Meanwhile, down toward the floor and on my left like the well-trained girl she is, my dog Zoe was leaning against my leg and looking up at me anxiously. She can always tell whenever I’m getting ready to leave her for an extended period of time and becomes very clingy a day or two before my intended departure.
Or maybe I just couldn’t help projecting.
Perhaps it’s to my credit, but just because I’m willing to risk my own life doesn’t mean I will ever be prepared to risk that of my dog. She is trained to stay in our yard and obey all manner of standard domestic commands, but she is a Retriever through and through. She’ll stay by my side for the most part while we’re out walking, but out in the woods and mountains who knows what she might chase after into the bush. And what about sketchy river crossings? Would I be able to carry her across? What about mountains? Or mountain lions!?
Someday I’d take her along with me on shorter hikes, but not this time. I avoided looking at her as I said goodbyes to my dad and brothers. Those big, brown eyes would suck me in and I’d start sobbing right then and there. Humans can reason and understand, dogs cannot. Zoe only knows that I’m leaving her again. I’m basically the worst dog owner ever.
“Why am I doing this?” I thought.
Seriously, though. I’d been on a total of three overnight backpacking trips (all to the same location) with my family and one solo backpacking excursion along the PCT (one night in the woods, and then I hiked out).
I was grossly unprepared for a long thru-hike. Logistically, I felt pretty golden. I’d spent the last 14 months doing extensive research and gathering all the gear I’d need, maps in both digital and carefully laminated paper form, creating an air-tight resupply strategy, and had all the town guides and water reports I could get my hands on. I’d done all the things with the words and books and internets. I’d joined several hiker groups on Facebook, talked with other backpackers, watched all the popular YouTube channels done by experienced thru-hikers and read all the top recommended books, and did as much physical preparation as I could manage. Most of this included long walks in my trail runners with a loaded pack because northern Indiana is sadly devoid of mountains or even small hills to climb. Also the landscape was covered in snow and ice and I didn’t have my microspikes to practice with yet.
I felt as ready as I could possibly be, but I hadn’t slept well in days. I don’t know if I was excited or verging on an anxiety attack. Maybe it would be better to just stay home. With Zoe. Where it’s safe.
Obviously, that’s not what I did.