Newfoundland/East Coast Trail, Vol. 1

Yes, I know I have more stories to tell about Race Across the West, but this has been a very eventful summer and the stories are happening faster than I can write them. Last week I returned from hiking a good portion of the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland, Canada. The heroes of St. John’s, for me, are Alison and Geoff, who let me sleep in their guest quarters and leave my things while I was hiking, Bernadette at the tourism department who worked so hard to make our trip memorable and to keep us on track, and Carolyn Cook (there were many Carolyn’s), who worked for the tourism department and also at the Outfitters shop in downtown St. John’s.

Laura, Wendy, and I met Carolyn on a bright, windy day. She was leading a special walking tour of the area for Writing Walking Women, though only three of us showed up, which created a friendly, somewhat intimate setting. We walked through The Narrows, a neighborhood in St. John’s that follows the steep edge of the harbor. The houses reminded me of the homes I grew up near in coastal Massachusetts, and also of Valparaiso, Chile, which has similarly colorful homes stacked into hillsides overlooking the ocean.

From The Narrows we climbed our way along the coast, at times using a rope to steady ourselves along the very narrow trail that hovered between a wall of rock and the battering sea, ultimately approaching the bottom of Signal Hill. Living in Pittsburgh, I was more impressed by this hill’s panoramic vistas and that so many people were out hiking or running the trail and stairs. But it did give me a glimpse into what was in store for us on our own hike, and I was excited. When I first moved to Pittsburgh, E. had a sticker that said I <3 Hills that was produced by BikePGH. It took me years to understand it, but once my fitness was able to propel me up all the hills that I’d previously considered in my way, I really did share in this love of climbing, of feeling my body grind away at gravity, of that feeling of satisfaction in descent, knowing it’s the product of a job well done. So in hilly St. John’s I fit right in and took to the final stairs like a playground, running up sections and enjoying the changing view as I earned my way to the top.

The stairs at Signal Hill

Laura and Wendy, meanwhile, diligently plucked off each step like a tiny victory, and Laura expressed concern for not having any hills in Toronto on which to truly train for terrain like this. Carolyn, in her unyielding optimism, assured her that the trail was hilly, yes, but we would all be fine, and that it isn’t a race so there’s no need to go faster than one’s comfort level. We will all get there eventually.

That’s something very important to remember in a group effort. We are only as fast as our slowest member, and that’s a good thing. We may spread out over the course of a few hours to take up a collective long stretch of trail, but in order for the trek to be a success, we must regroup, find each other, check in, and allow others to check in on us.

Carolyn Cook, Laura, and Wendy discussing The Narrows

At nine people (eleven at the very beginning, though two stepped back to pursue their own adventure), this was the largest group in which I’d ever hiked, camped, or traveled, and the varied experience and fitness levels was a little concerning until we got on the trail. During our actual trek down the East Coast Trail, my fellow hikers impressed me by not only surpassing their own self-perceived abilities and stamina, but by being such kind and open-hearted travelers. Our most experienced hiker was also our slowest. As our group spread out in different paces, she typically pulled further back, moving at her own steady, sure-footed pace. We all gathered for snacks, lunch, or to regroup and assess the maps, and it was important for all of us to see everyone in the group accounted for physically. Early in the trip, possibly the second night, we had underestimated the technical level of the trail and gave ourselves too much time to rest. Carolyn Cook met with us to switch out some equipment (the first of two times she would come to our rescue with valuable upgrades), and she encouraged us to keep moving forward, but by that point the day had grown long and we had not yet even hit the most challenging part of the day’s hike.

The faster hikers in the group pushed forward to find a camp spot so we would know there was a space for all of us to pitch our tents (or hang a hammock, in my case). It was the right thing to do, but felt awful leaving people so far back without knowing how they were faring on the trail (and really, we knew they were growing tired and frustrated). We found a perfect campsite, but none of us to could rest, knowing people were still out there.

Erika was the furthest behind, and Carolyn McCarthy went back to look for her, using her headlamp as a beacon. She and Erika flashed each other as they got close, and then walked along back to the camp site, using their two headlamps to illuminate the way. There are not photos for this part of the trail, because there’s no good spot to stop and take out a camera. We did see a moose during daylight, however. There were a couple spots where I did have the space available to safely take out a camera, but looking in the viewfinder, I realized that no photo would ever do the area justice, and no one would believe how treacherous and breathtaking it was all at once. Similarly, there were no spots to pitch a tent, which is why we pressed on as long as we did. Around 10:30 p.m., Carolyn and Erika returned to camp, and everyone pitched their tents and went to sleep with nary a dinner cooked. After that heartbreaking split, we paid more attention to time, breaks, campsites, and each other.

This photo is from a day or two later, and only begins to capture the epicness
It was an important lesson to learn early in the adventure. Our slowest hiker is not to be fretted over, as she is also our most experienced and can survive anywhere (She had, in fact, seen a few small places to pitch her one-person tent, but pressed on knowing we would be sitting at the campsite worrying where she is and if she’d fallen from the cliff. Erika is a true adventurer and a perfect travel companion.), but as a group we must take everyone’s fitness and comfort into consideration. If someone’s feet are bothering her or joints are giving way, then we all feel it and must help each other by adjusting pack weight, making stops, assessing ultimate end-goals, etc.
Having a decent base-level of fitness and some experience on the trail (though certainly not the most), some of my role in the group dynamic was as the “vibe coordinator,” checking in with people, boosting spirits, and making sure everyone was having a good time and not weighing themselves down with fear. Fear is healthy and an incredibly useful tool for human survival. It can also work against us to keep us from pushing through things that are otherwise manageable. A conversation I had many times with my fellow trekkers went something like this:
Me: How’s it going, how do you feel?
Hiker: This is so hard, I don’t know if I can keep going.
Me: How are your feet? Your pack?
Hiker: Fine, I feel okay.
Me: Well you’ve already proven that you’re a great hiker, you’ve come this far and have already covered so much ground, so why wouldn’t you be able to keep walking?
And that check-in was usually enough to help someone snap out of the mental trap of thinking of themselves as weak when they were all actually incredibly strong women, or as incapable when they were actually all very capable, or as fearful when they were quite brave. My favorite part of the hike was watching people break down their own barriers and realize the wonderful, strong women they truly were, despite their assertions to the contrary. Every hiker dug deep and always had something more to offer the trail, could always keep going. After crying, after saying “I can’t,” after pleading she wants to go home, after having lousy camp food, after taping blisters on every part of her feet, after equipment failure of every sort, each woman kept trekking, kept finding reserves of energy, strength, perseverance hidden and lying in wait. I was so thankful to be able to spend time learning true bravery from this group of adventurers.

My favorite quote was from Wendy Goodman: “Honestly, I don’t like hiking. I don’t like camping. I don’t like the outdoors. I don’t like sweating. But I do it because there are things out here that can’t be experienced from a car window, and it’s worth the discomfort to be a part of those things, to put in the work to make it to a place like this that only someone who has had this experience will be able to see.”

On the flip, one time at a party for a new local bike shop, I heard the most idiotic quote by some dumb-dumb: “I don’t understand the point of travel. If I want to see the Eiffel Tower, I can just look at a picture. Why would I want to put in all the effort to go someplace when I can sit in the comfort of my living room and see it?”
I didn’t have a concise counter point at the time, but hiking the East Coast Trail and seeing how much of the best of it was relatively unphotographable due to the angles, lighting, danger, and amount of cliffs in the way, knowing that whatever great shot I managed would still never illicit the overpowering emotion of having hiked to that summit, I realize there really isn’t a need to counter that person’s perspective. This place isn’t for him. It’s for people who truly want to be there, whether they can and do, or can’t and read stories to use their imaginations to put themselves there.
¬†Anyway, I’ll have more to write here, and will be writing about the people of St. John’s, and the landscape of the East Coast Trail over at my other blog, Roadside Fires Burning, shortly.