I don’t know about you all, but often, I find myself stuck in (and craving) a routine. Wake up, drink some coffee, run, do some work, maybe run again, maybe do some more work, drink a beer with my friends, etc… I love my routine, but sometimes it’s all a bit TOO routine. When I’m lucky enough to find some time to veer away from my everyday life and, say, go camping for the weekend, I always find myself resolving to do new things, and gain new perspectives, more often.
Another gal who knew a thing or two about routine: Jen “Smidge” Ogden. Jen worked in the operating room for almost twenty years (where she was gifted her nickname)… until, one day, she decided she needed to get the you-know-what out of her routine. Instead of deciding to get off the grid for the weekend and spend some time around a campfire, however, Jen took her desire to get outside of her comfort zone to the next level. Jen decided she would hike the Appalachian Trail. An endeavor from Georgia to Maine; 2,190 miles, 5-7 months, solo. “It had always been on my bucket list, my lease was up, I kind of had a wad of cash…” she tells me, explaining her decision to hike the AT by herself.
During the first couple weeks, Jen repeatedly wondered, what have I gotten myself into? Living in New Mexico, the terrain on the East Coast was like nothing she had experienced, proving to be a humbling change of scenery. “The AT is the only footpath-travel-only trail, the climbs are insane, just giant boulder fields. The AT is just absolutely insane. We ran into people who had hiked the PCT before, all in shorty shorts and big backpacks…”
Jen hiked every day for five months, and ultimately called it quits in Vermont, just over 1600 miles in. “It rained so much. It truly felt like it never stopped raining. When you live in a place like New Mexico, it’s just soul crushing… I didn’t have anything left to prove. I had been camping in the rain all summer, my hair was molded, I had the adventure I was looking for… but I would go back in a second.”
She quickly admits that it was the coolest experience she’s ever had. She ended up walking about 200 miles by herself. By the time she was going through the Smoky Mountains, she eventually linked up with other hikers who were trekking along at the same pace. Jen formed a “trail family,” as she called it, with three others - “these people see you at your worst and at your best.” A family*, indeed.
Claiming she still feels like a “newb,” even after spending five months living in the woods, Jen has another adventure on her mind. The Pacific Crest Trail is next on Jen’s to-do list. “It was right that I came home when I did, but I need to prepare to be out there for a longer time.” She also notes that the AT had water everywhere, and a big concern of hers is that the PCT presents challenges in the way of water accessibility. She has resolved to say yes to everything she can, though, and the PCT is a challenge that is asking for her to take it on. “I can’t wait to have that feeling again of literally one step at a time, one mile at a time, focusing on the present. I came back home and everything moved so rapidly.”
The mantra that Jen repeated to me many times throughout our conversation was take the time. The trail taught her to be in the present. She still has trouble making plans, she says, because she was so used to just paying attention to every step she took, and the time seemed to go by twice as slowly. “I don’t work full-time anymore, I have two part-time jobs. Having the time is way more important to me than having the money or the things. I can work later, I can make money another time. I always imagine my mom. She didn’t talk to me for a month when I told her I was going to quit my job and go walk around. But she ended up being my biggest cheerleader - she was showing all her friends, they were kind of living vicariously through me… I want to be the old woman who has stories to tell.”
Jen’s best piece of advice is to just jump in and swim. Most people think they are going to fail at things automatically, she says, because of a laundry list of excuses. You see such a variety of people out there, and everybody does things differently, she notes, but we all get there.
“I brought home these lessons I learned, but I’m still Jen, with anxiety, or whatever. I wish everyone could experience something like that. I promise you won’t ever regret it…” Jen trails off, and I can’t help but think what the world might be like if we all resolved to bring lessons from nature into our daily lives.
*A family, by the way, that shared Happie Toes! Jen claims she never once had a blister or hot spot, and she would scrape SNB out of her tub and help other people with their blisters :)