I’ve seen the movies, so I know all about Ninjas. These solitary creatures move unseen and unheard from destination to destination, accomplishing impossible feats with superhuman agility and stamina. For big moments that require every last ounce of awesomeness, there’s even a blood-curdling battle cry.
Those of you with experience in the outdoors probably already know that Ninja-ing is exactly the same as long-distance hiking. Sure, the metal cups, poop shovels, and Crocs dangling from our 40lb packs tend to make a racket when we stumble over rocks and roots, but if no one is around to hear it, it’s just as good as silence. And we all know that those bi-hourly Snickers breaks aren’t pauses to catch our breath or contemplate the sanity of climbing the mountain in front of us; we’re just giving the mountain a chance to submit to our greatness before we show it who’s boss. Our battle cry (which is sure to elicit a reaction from even the most hard-hearted): “Crap! Where the hell did I leave my toilet paper?”
I understand if you have a few lingering suspicions about your ability to join the elite ranks of Ninja-ing hikers. If it weren’t for the timely advice and encouragement of the Appalachian Trail’s Sensei, I’d probably be right there with you.
Some might call her the Appalachian Trail Sensei, I call her Trail Mom.
You don’t have to spend days learning to “paint-a-fence,” “wax on/wax off” or get a membership at the Cobra-Ki Dojo to gain access to the Appalachian Trail Sensei. In fact, she is an ubiquitous presence (and has been for more than 6 years) along the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Her name is Miss Janet, and her life mission is helping hikers.
Three years ago, at about this time of year, I was a few days into what would become my first long-distance hike. The shoulder strap on my top-of-the-line pack was held on place with duct tape and a prayer. My blisters already had blisters. What was supposed to be my first relaxing night with hot food and a cozy bed turned out to be a sleepless night on a plywood platform over a general store in a micro-town called Suches. The following morning, as I stared out at a frosty morning, I knew I couldn’t make it much farther. Our first big mountain, Blood Mountain, stood between me and the nearest outfitter. I was embracing my inner quitter when another hiker gave me Miss Janet’s phone number. “Call her. She’ll get you squared away.”
She cut me off in the middle of a rambling, excuse-laden rant that I thought I’d need to convince her to come to my rescue: “Sweetie, you just sit tight. I’m planning to swing by in about an hour. You’re gonna be fine.”
We don’t have to learn ALL our lessons the hard way
By the time she arrived, there were nearly a dozen hikers waiting. I wasn’t the only one that was caught unprepared. Our breath formed frost clouds that blended into a visible, collective sigh of relief as her enormous sticker-clad van “Bounce Box” pulled up. Packs and people piled in. When it was my turn to hop on board, I took a shot at one more round of justification for “skipping” a section of the Trail. “I feel dirty for jumping ahead, but my pack won’t make it, and my feet won’t make it with this pack on my back.”
She looked at my pack and said, “Honey, you don’t get extra credit for hiking stupid. But if it doesn’t sit right with you to skip Blood Mountain, you go right ahead. Your pack and I will meet you at Mountain Crossings Outfitter on the other side.”
A few minutes later, armed with no more than a water bottle, water filter, and plenty of snacks, I was on my way up and over Blood Mountain. Miss Janet had introduced me to the joys of “Slack-Packing.”
A handful of hiking epiphanies that double as life lessons
I could easily share a dozen Miss Janet stories from the past three years, and if we were to get a handful of hikers together, that number would increase exponentially. Here’s a few tips I credit her with that might be useful, even if you’re not a hiker:
- The trail isn’t 2,200 miles, it’s a series of 5-7 day hikes connected by town stops. (While Lao Tzu said something similar with: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” I’m pretty sure Miss Janet said it first)
- Hike light, freeze at night. (Those of us that choose to leave everything, and everyone, behind can travel faster. But it sure gets miserable when something goes wrong.)
- I know you lost 30, 40, even 50lbs on this hike, but over the next few months, you’re going to gain it all back along with an additional 10% unless you learn to kick that Snickers, Doritos, and PopTart habit.
- Post-Trail Depression is real. (I’m convinced these last two are related)
Feel free to share any others I didn’t mention below in the comments section if the urge strikes. (and of course, if you just want to tell me how awesome I am, that’s always fine too)
The real Magic of Miss Janet
Miss Janet offers a valuable service by shuttling hikers, helping with gear adjustments, and providing priceless pearls of practical advice. (For those of you keeping track of this week’s alliteration string, 4 “P”s is the number to beat.) However, the real magic of Miss Janet is in her contribution to the entire Trail Community. I’m going to gush a bit here, but her very presence creates the biggest moving population of hikers, or “Hiker Bubbles.” She connects hikers with each other, with hiker-friendly faces in Trail Towns, and through social media, with friends and family back home. What does she charge for all this?
Here’s her fee table:
Forgetting something in the Bounce Box: one video-taped dance that may get posted to Facebook.
Selective cases of “Quit-itis”: wearing a set of multicolored balls that look like van-sized Mardi Gras beads until you get your own balls back
Fear of hiking the White Mountains: Hike in a stylish dress (not included)
All other services and advice: DONATION
That last word isn’t a typo. And when I chatted with Miss Janet to make sure I hadn’t made any egregious errors, she gave me the thumbs up to share a phone number for hikers and their support teams, along with her Instagram address @themissjanet for those that want to enjoy some of her photos. I’m sure she’d be happy to include her Facebook info as well, but Facebook limits her to 5,000 followers at a time.