To the Faraway, Nearby

August 19th, 2020 – Middle Carter Mountain, NH – Day 44 on Appalachian Trail

The AT has been on my mind a lot lately, stemmed by a talk I just gave to Pine Cobble School about my hike. I spent some time digging through all of my photos and picking out what I thought would interest them the most: the wildlife, including a turtle, porcupine, a bear and its cubs; a head-to-toe photo of me on a ridge to show my hydration pack, shoes, and hiking pole; an image of me hiking into the woods at night, looking like an alien from outer space with my headlamp, flashlight, and reflective gear; one where I’m wearing my big tie-dye poncho when I hiked through a tropical storm; a grinning selfie from the front of a canoe as I’m being rowed across the Kennebec River.

It’s been nearly two years, but I’m still feeling the ripple effects of the entire experience. I sometimes worry that I’m going to forget everything because I haven’t written it all down; then I’ll find myself on a run or lost in a train of thought and vivid memories will come flooding back, the good parts and the bad. I’ve been infatuated with the Appalachian Trail for some time, both before and after the hike. Why? When I say I feel connected to the mountains, or that being on the trail makes me feel the most alive, it sounds very hippy-dippy. I do believe there are certain things we are drawn to, and when you find them it’s like a lightbulb moment. Music, writing, and human connections have been those things for me, as has the trail. Why the AT, or the Appalachian Mountains, specifically?

It seems the universe or my subconscious, or something greater–or inward–has pulled me back to the eastern side of the continent over and over again these past few years. What was once a longing turned into a sense of belonging that I’m not sure I’ve felt anywhere else. It’s not totally fair to put stock into a place itself; a place doesn’t think or feel anything about me.

In the summer of 2015 I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I read about how, in 1929, after being hospitalized for depression and amidst difficulties in her marriage, O’Keeffe began spending summers in New Mexico. She wrote letters home full of “adventures and sunshine”, she went on pack trips exploring the rugged mountains and deserts of the region, and found subjects and colors that would place her works in every major museum. She wrote, “This really isn’t like anything you ever saw – and no one who tells you about it gives any idea of it.”

That sense of longing for a place reminds me of the famous John Muir quote, “The mountains are calling and I must go”. In the spring of 1868, John Muir visited Yosemite, a place he had only read a description about in 1866 and had “thought of…most every day since”. Enamored by the granite cliffs, mighty Sequoia trees, and roaring waterfalls, he wrote in a letter to his mentor Jeanne Carr, “It is by far the grandest of His special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter. It must be the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierras.” He spent the next five years of his life studying, exploring, writing, and theorizing about the “Range of Light”, and went on to campaign for congressional action in establishing and preserving Yosemite National Park.

I often come back to the thought that running, or movement, doesn’t inherently hold any meaning; it is what we make of it by the lessons we learn, the stories we share, the art we create, the healing that can occur, the connections we make, and the action we take based on those experiences. I believe in the importance of taking time to be in nature for those very reasons.

With many of these thoughts on my mind, I am answering the call to “come home” with an impending move back east. Last summer on the Long Trail in Vermont, in a moment of despair (and perhaps delusion) I vividly heard the trees around me ask, “What do you seek?” After a period in my life that has felt like a perpetual game of hot and cold, this new chapter feels like a step warmer in the search.

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Thanks for reading. If this resonated with you in some way, please consider buying me a coffee. Your support keeps this newsletter going, for which I’m so appreciative. Shoutout to my monthly subscribers for their ongoing support! Another great way to support is by sharing this with a friend or family member. New readers may subscribe here. Until next week! ~Mercury

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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds the fastest known times for a woman on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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