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Essay: Over the Mountain

Contributor Lauren Groh has been through-hiking the Appalachian Trail this spring and summer.  So far, she and her hiking companions have hit several major milestones - including reaching 400 miles on the journey.

Groh checked in from the trail just recently and reflected on the day-to-day challenges of surviving such a major undertaking:

It's day 42 in the Appalachian Trail. We left Erwin, Tennessee three days ago, and our next stop is Hampton. We will hit the 400-mile mark tomorrow, if we push it!

Today we climbed the summit of Roan Mountain from our picturesque camping spot at Ash Gap, and encountered some wild winds on the balds that followed. They were so violent, the we had walked much of them sideways, and doubled over, just to stay on our feet! At one point I was hanging on a branch of a bush, for dear life!

We cut our hiking day short to get out of the wind, and the heavy rain that was on its way. Tonight we will sleep in a famous, bright red barn that was converted into a shelter for Appalachian Trail hikers.

We got to the barn at 1:30 p.m., which ended a very short hiking day, for us. Now it's 3:15 and there are at least 25 people here already - spread out across the floor of the barn. We are on the second level, and the draft from below is so bad that sleeping pads levitate when big gusts of wind come through! Rhesia and I strategically positioned our packs in front of the breezy gaps between the slats in the old barn's walls. We are hoping to at least stay dry once the rain comes!

Earlier, when we approached the barn, I looked to my left and saw beautiful spread of mountains, beyond a grassy meadow dotted with trees I was amazed!

Sometimes the views look the same, but whenever the hiking trail gets monotonous, a new plant emerges, or a bird sings a beautiful song, or we come across a magical waterfall! My perspective is constantly changing! I begin to notice the little buds on the trees, and the raindrop-like sounds of the tiny crickets hopping in the grass along the trail. I start to appreciate the bees buzzing around my head, and the trees creaking in the wind.

These moments are wonderful spirit lifters! Though it may seem like we have all the time in the world, we are still working hard! There are many times that it's hard to stop and smell the flowers, and see the views. We have to hike a certain amount of miles each day, based on how much food we have on our backs. Some days are long and hard, and when we make it to camp, it's all we can do to just set up our tent, eat, and go to sleep.

Timing has been a big struggle for us. Many days we are the last out of camp in the morning, and the last into camp at night. It's disheartening when we compare our camping and hiking styles to others', so we try not to do it. Instead, we make small goals: leave camp by 8 a.m., hike half our miles by noon, and get to camp by 6 p.m.. If we can meet one or two of these goals in one day, it's a good day. If we can meet all three goals, it's a great day!

One nice thing about being out here is learning to appreciate the little things. Yesterday, I was dragging, so I sprawled out in the grass and took a 15 minutes nap in the warm sun. Now, I am not a napper, but that nap in the sun could easily convert me!

I'm thinking back to that warm sun now, as I'm shivering in my sleeping bag in the famous Overmountain Shelter, only mildly protected from the 50-mile per hour winds blowing up the mountain, outside. I can't believe how volatile the weather is in the mountains! One day, sweat is pouring down my temples, and the next day my arms are covered in goose bumps under my rain jacket.

It's so hard to make long-term plans out here. Little elements of each day are constantly changing - from the weather to the terrain to my own energy levels. One day, we can hike 15 miles without blinking an eye, and the next day we might struggle to make it 10 miles.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail has been a lesson in both patience and flexibility. I'm learning to accept the things that don't go as planned, and to adjust my mindset, as things happen.

Although it's a challenge to make it to every single campsite we stop at, I welcome each challenge with open arms. These are the experiences that I hope will build me up and make me stronger. Pushing through the hard stuff makes the beautiful moments so much sweeter! And there are many, many beautiful moments to be thankful for!

Well, we're 400 miles down, and I'm looking forward to the next 400 miles...and beyond!

Lauren Groh lives in the Milwaukee area, where she graduated from UWM with a degree in journalism. She writes a camp and travel blog in her free time, and is currently through-hiking the Appalachian Trail from April to September of 2017. Follow her journey on her blog and social media.