By Janine Wilkin
The Whiskey Hollow Six
May 19, 2021
Spending time in the outdoors can be healing in many ways. For “The Whiskey Hollow Six,” a group of women embracing a drive to explore, their two-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail helped them find comfort in nature’s embrace and reexamine the artificial boundaries we often create for ourselves.
Confession: as a kid, I regularly faked an upset stomach to get out of gym class. On the days that I did go, I was the kid shrinking against the concrete wall, hoping I would not be the last to be chosen for a team. Childhood experiences like these have the power to create imaginary boundaries in our lives well into adulthood. Though I grew up loving the outdoors and spent more than a decade of my career in leadership positions at mission-based organizations intent on saving the planet, I stuck to day hikes, car camping, and canoeing. Backpacking? To me, that was for athletes, models in REI ads, and kids who were picked first for teams.
That is, until the global pandemic.
Back in the spring of 2020, like many, I experienced shock, fear, and sadness as the death toll grew and stories of people who had COVID-19 started to migrate from the news cycle into the fabric of our own communities. When the plans I made to travel for Christmas turned to ash, I also felt myself grieving the loss of mobility. If there is truly a wanderlust gene, mine is a dominant trait in my DNA helix. As the number of days we were locked inside grew, so did my urgency to get out.
And I began to wonder: “Could I backpack on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.)?”
“I can’t backpack,” was at the top of my altar of ingrained limiting beliefs. But in my desperate need to explore, it was about to be flicked off of its perch.
It started with a few overnight hikes back in the fall. These successes led me to create a culminating challenge: tackling several days in Shenandoah National Park with my friend Sandy who, courtesy of the pandemic, had found herself suddenly without employment. While the thought of backpacking shelter to shelter between 10 and 14 miles a day seemed overwhelming, we viewed the challenge through a lens that made it seem doable. We reasoned that we could put one foot in front of the other during available daylight hours and, even if we went slowly, we would make it to our destination by dinner.
Our training experiences on the A.T. were magical in every way: rain, driving rain, leaking tents, mysterious bug bites, bear sightings, sleepless nights, wolf spiders, blisters, wrong turns, and — since our packs were overloaded with inexperience (read: we packed far too much) — a lot of sucking wind and swearing on long climbs. Despite this “fun” (or maybe because of it), we became hooked.
We had discovered the perfect pandemic escape — until Sandy’s hip decided it was no longer willing to join us on our adventures. At this point, I knew I had a serious problem. I was addicted to backpacking, but not wanting to backpack alone, I needed to persuade other friends (fast).
I reached out hoping to find one friend to join me for a spring overnight backpacking trip on the A.T. Instead, I found five. Immediately.
Adrean, Carolyn, Heather, Kellie, and Margaret were drawn into my backpacking scheme like pandemic warriors to a vaccination clinic in January. Like me, my friends were either new to backpacking or hadn’t picked up a pack in 30 years. Though my incremental knowledge of backpacking could still be measured in nanoparticles, I suddenly went from last to be picked to leading the team.
We are all carrying a lot right now, and I am just not talking about pack weight. The pandemic’s total toll on mental health has yet to be quantified, but it was clear that the eagerness of my friends to join me was less about the desire to haul 35 pounds up and down hills for two days, and more by the need to come to the forest for restoration and healing. Even when I announced that the forecast was dipping down into the low twenties at night, instead of politely opting out, they “winterized up.”
We chose a section that was close enough for all of us to travel to without stopping and packed tents to be sure we could practice social distancing at our campsite, making COVID-19 exposure one less thing to worry about as we focused on our adventure. We called ourselves “The Whiskey Hollow Six,” after the A.T. shelter that would serve as our base camp where we would pitch our tents for the night. On March 20, 2021, we set out under clear blue skies from Sky Meadows State Park. The warm sun was a welcome contrast to the 20° F temperature. We tackled the two-mile climb up to the A.T., six pairs of lungs guzzling air. Pilot lights that had been extinguished by the pandemic flickered on inside of us, ignited by the smell of damp earth and the hopefulness of spring. After shedding some of our layers on the two-mile ascent, we welcomed the easy cadence of the ridgeline.
By noon, we were descending to our destination at Whiskey Hollow Shelter and campsite, where we ate our packed lunches. The sounds of the creek and wind blowing through the trees cheered our arrival and provided a backdrop for the afternoon. After filtering water, setting up our tents, dining, hanging bear bags, and fireside chats, it was already time to shimmy ourselves into our sleeping bags for the night.
The next morning, the sun peeked over the horizon through the trees, melting our feelings of exhaustion and summoning our adrenaline. As we started to decamp, filled with the pride of surviving the previous day’s hike and the chilly night, hand warmers defrosted our lifeless fingertips. Across the creek, Kellie’s tent was completely still — and remained that way for well over an hour after everyone else had begun the day. We debated among ourselves to let her sleep or to check on her in case we needed to report a missing person. The imagination can go completely feral out here. We breathed a collective sigh of relief when she finally emerged.
Day two was longer by a few miles, and we felt every one of them. Muscles we didn’t know existed had started to pinch us hard, like ornery siblings. Tired and frustrated, we missed a trail marker due to a fallen tree and had to backtrack. But like a forest absorbs carbon, it also absorbs our overload and stress. It drove us onward despite our physical discomfort, and we pressed forward even when tempted to cut the hike short. After breaking for lunch at Manassas Gap Shelter, we made our final descent from the Trail, mostly in silence, to the parking lot just north of I-66.
The forest had taken us in, like the soft lap of a grandmother comforting a restless toddler, and I realized it was not the loss of mobility I had long been grieving. Instead, I was craving the therapeutic power of nature. We ended the hike physically exhausted but mentally soothed and lighter, capable of once again embracing life’s journey.
While we each carried different individual burdens with us on our quest, collectively we learned one common thing: we must reexamine the artificial boundaries we have drawn for ourselves. Sentences that once started with, “I could never…” are now replaced with, “Maybe I should try…” From doubting my capabilities to becoming an evangelist for backpacking, my friends now constantly ask me: “Are you going to thru-hike the A.T. now?” I am quick to say, “No, I could never do that.”
But maybe I shouldn’t count myself out just yet.
Meet the Whiskey Hollow Six
Given Name: Kellie
Trail Name: “Sweet Dreams”
When invited, Kellie’s response was, “Yes. I need to sleep in the woods.” Crosses creek to stake out her own territory, “Kellielandia.” Only one of six not only to sleep all night, but to sleep in! Former diplomat and Georgetown grad who linked with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club during college, spending spring breaks on the Appalachian Trail. Thirty plus years later, she’s glad to be backpacking again.
“I need to find more time to be outside. I am my best self outside, and then have more to give others.”
Given Name: Adrean
Trail Name: “In Case of Emergency”
By far, the most “prepared” for anything we encounter on the trail. Need extra food or water? She’s got it. Deodorant? Moleskin, anyone? Left a senior position at a leading healthcare company and was scheduled to relocate to Chile on March 15, 2020. Instead, she has spent the past year volunteering and seeking a new position, always a challenge but especially in the middle of a global pandemic.
“I was looking for an opportunity to set a challenging goal, work hard, accept the support of friends and family who trained with me and encouraged me, and actually achieve my goal. I am proud of what I accomplished, and it has made a huge difference in elevating my self-confidence to pre-pandemic levels.”
Given Name: Heather
Trail Name: “Old School”
A fourth-grade elementary school teacher who dusted off her backpack from college days. It may not have all of the latest ergonomic accoutrements, but it packs in a lot of nostalgia. Leading up to the trip she feared everything from bears to her fuel canister exploding in her pack. As soon as she got on the Trail, she relaxed and embraced the full experience of being a pioneer woman so much so that as we stopped for lunch on the second day, she used the spear of her hiking pole to cut her apple into pieces so she could eat it with her braces.
“You’re not too old to try something scary. Keep trying scary things.”
Given Name: Margaret
Trail Name: “Stick”
Her will is unbendable and she sticks with her ketogenic diet, even as we flaunt carbs in front of her all weekend. She sticks with the physically challenging hike, and she puts a stick in the Ziploc bag with dirty wipes so she can differentiate it from the clean wipes. She’s carried the struggles of loved ones on this trip.
“What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of emotion during a physically challenging climb. When I reached the top of the climb, I felt lighter, as if the grueling climb bestowed a gift of tranquility and acceptance and as I stopped to take a drink of water, I was able to notice small signs of spring along the Trail.”
Given Name: Carolyn
Trail Name: “The Mule”
Sister of “Cheese Puff.” Named on an earlier hike, she resupplied her weary sister who had been on the Trail for three days and packed in Vietnamese beef stew, fresh fruit, and homemade bran muffins. With arguably the smallest bladder of the group, she had ample opportunities to take in the moon and stars at night.
“Even though the moon was only in its first quarter, it was bright enough to cast shadows and light the way to the ‘bathroom,’ no headlamp required. I have learned from watching my parents and in-laws age that it is important to keep moving. So I am pushing myself to try new things and to venture outside of my comfort zone.”
Given Name: Janine
Trail Name: “Cheese Puff”
Named on an earlier hike, after suffering from dehydration, over indexes on electrolyte-enhanced drinks, beef jerky and potato chips and as a result, retains so much water, if there is a Guinness Book of World Records for water retention, she wins by a wide margin. She feels blessed to be a collector of good people.
“During the pandemic, I definitely went from wanting to hike, to needing to hike. I am grateful to friends for joining me on my journey and to organizations like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and its volunteers for protecting and managing this sanctuary for restoration.”