Sarah Jane Hatfield, a former graphic designer at The Mountaineer, has embarked on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. During her journey, she’ll be sending dispatches from the forest, which we’ll publish each Wednesday.

This week, we join Hatfield as she overcomes a cloud of negativity (and a mama bear) to move closer to one of the hardest portions of the A.T.: New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

“When something bad happens, you have three choices. You can either let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.” — Dr. Seuss.

I spent most of this week in solitude, avoiding most everyone, as politely as possible. I was deep into my own thoughts, razor-focused on knocking out big mileage.

Every northbound hiker in the bubble around me seemed to have a negative attitude. I could sense their desire to be done with it all. Perhaps their pessimism was starting to infect me? I had to push that gloominess out of my head, though, or else it would become a rabbit hole of doubt and depression. I didn’t have time for that, especially since I was approaching The White Mountains (aka The Whites), one of the hardest portions of the A.T. I needed to be centered and doubt-free.

This has been a long journey, and I wanted to hold onto the beauty and adventure of it all, especially as it draws to a close. But it was starting to feel like a daily grind, and that was a tad frightening. I needed to recharge myself, to reignite my spirit.

I often post long-winded updates in a private group on Facebook for my family and friends to see. It must have been obvious in my recent posts that my mood had turned gray. I was stressing about the dangerous terrain I’d soon enter — The Whites. I still had no idea what to expect with them, and I began worrying if I’d be able to make it through the intense rock climbs with a fully-weighted pack. I re-evaluated everything I was carrying. Why did I still have four individual packets of sunscreen? The only time I’ve felt the need for sunscreen was on the Shenandoah River.

So I started purging. By the end, I’d pulled out almost two pounds worth of gear, and other random things, to either throw away or ship home. Two full pounds. I shook my head at the thought: I should know better by now. I had to stay as light as possible, so the weight of my pack wouldn’t pull me backward if I lost my footing on a ledge or a steep hand-over-hand rock scramble. I was trying to think of everything. But was I overthinking? Perhaps.

Relief from my self-destruction came in the form of a friend: Micey Anderson, a hiking pal I met last year. She’d recently reached out to me, along with a few other good friends, to make sure I was OK. She was staying in Vermont, and wanted to offer trail magic in whatever form was needed. Micey is a traveling nurse on a short contract in New England, extremely close to the trail.

She hiked out to see me the next day, bringing Subway and snacks. It really helped! We hiked together the second half of my day, ending at her car. She extended an offer for me to take a shower, do laundry and eat pizza back where she was staying. I couldn’t pass it up: open doors seem much easier to enter nowadays. The good Lord knew I needed her company, along with an overnight break from the trail. I hopped into her car and we drove to where she was staying — about 15 minutes from the trailhead. We had a lovely evening chatting about my mental state, gear and The Whites (Micey has hiked the first half of those mountains, northbound).

The next morning, Micey drove me to a post office in Norwich, Vermont, where I had my sister, Rebecca, ship me a food box, along with some winter gear. I thanked Micey for her support. Time with her was exactly what I needed.

I spent about two hours on a cool patch of grass in front of the post office, sorting my things and reloading the pack with winter gear. I had a surplus of food, so I decided to bump a box ahead to Glencliff, New Hampshire.

I hopped back onto the trail around noon, and had only about a mile to go until I crossed the Vermont-New Hampshire state line. That made me excited. The trail ran straight through town for a few miles, leading me down to the center of Hanover, New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth College. There were a lot of things going on, and people were out and about, enjoying the beautiful day. I cracked a smile, feeling like myself again.

Moments later, I was floored to see my buddies, Cloud and Leaf, sitting on a park bench. The three of us had started the trail on the same day in February. We’d yo-yoed the first month or so, and had since kept a text thread going with a few other hikers from that initial week on the A.T. It had been about a month since we’d texted. I was sure they were about to summit Katahdin any day now, yet there they sat, right in front of me. We had a lovely reunion. It makes me happy to know that I may see more of them in the coming weeks. My spirits were lifting.

The next day began with a straight-up climb. I implanted a single earbud and dug into the morning mountain. I saw her first. She was huge, likewise her cub. I stopped dead in my tracks, the skidding of my shoes on the dirt causing the mama bear to look up. They were standing on the trail about 30 yards in front of me. She didn’t seem to care about my presence, as I hollered for them to scoot. I shook with fear and I yelled, mainly because they kept going the same way I was going on the trail. I inched along for the next mile, on high alert. Once I saw another hiker coming from the opposite direction, I relaxed a little. I gave him the heads up and moved on with my day, remaining vigilant.

Saturday was my 42nd birthday. I woke up happy. I received a text from Broccoli Rob first thing in the morning. He wished me a happy birthday, and was trying to gauge where I was on the trail. With the Labor Day weekend approaching, he had to book it to the post office in Lincoln, New Hampshire, for his new shoes. He yellow blazed about 20 miles up the trail to reach the post office before it closed. He said he had a surprise for me, and asked if I wanted to yellow blaze up to Lincoln to celebrate my birthday. I was a little hesitant because I wanted to enter The Whites on foot. But after a few minutes I took him up on the offer. It was nice to see him again.

I met up with Broccoli Rob at the Liberty Springs trailhead near Lincoln. He had birthday cupcakes, which made my day. After an hour or two of catching up sitting there on the side of the trail, we decided to hitchhike/walk the 2.5 miles back into Lincoln to see what we could find. I badly needed a shower. During most years, it’s fortunate that my birthday falls on Labor Day weekend. That wasn’t the case this time. Virtually every hotel was booked. We ended up paying a little more than we wanted, but splitting the cost lightened the load.

The room had everything we needed, including a private balcony. I was ready to relax and enjoy the rest of the day with my buddy. We enjoyed great conversations, and a couple of cold beers. It was a fine way to celebrate.

I felt completely refreshed come Sunday morning. The past few days had been perfect. Answered prayers: exactly what I needed. Broccoli Rob and I would hike into The Whites together, then part ways once again. Each of us had been enjoying the solitude, and thus wanted the finish the trail on individual terms.

The next 70 miles will likely be the hardest yet. But I feel a new kind of ready.

So it’s into the White Mountains I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

Follow along on YouTube at Katahdin or Bust.

Week 27 mileage: 124.6.

Appalachian trail mile marker: 1,823.2. Only 368.4 miles until Mt. Katahdin.

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