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Chester County Press

Lessons learned on the trail

10/16/2017 12:05PM ● By J. Chambless

Lindsay Schmittle on McAfee Knob, in Virginia.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

There's a license plate frame on Lindsay Schmittle's car, parked in the driveway of her Landenberg home. It reads, “I'd rather be hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

Last week, inside the converted garage that serves as Schmittle's low-tech printing studio, she was adjusting to having completed the trail – all 2,190 miles of it – and shifting back into normal life again. The experience of walking from Georgia to Maine leaves people plenty of time to think, and Schmittle did just that from March 25 to Sept. 11, when she ended her journey and returned home to Pennsylvania.

“It's a different sense of scale,” she said. “Particularly in New England, when I'd get to the top of a ridge and see the area behind where I'd been, and then look four mountains away, where I was headed. I was humbled by it. You are very small, compared to nature. Mother Nature is in control.”

That's one of the things that Schmittle will be conveying in a series of 22 prints that she is creating to document her journey, one print for every 100 miles. Blending hand-set type and graphics with her keen eye for design, she is putting together an exhibit that's already scheduled for two galleries. The project, called “The Printed Walk: Georgia to Maine,” was funded on Kickstarter in December 2016. many of the prints will go to the project backers, but the remaining limited-edition prints will be available on Schmittle's website beginning in January.

Some people take on the Appalachian Trail in segments, worked into their schedules or their level of endurance. Schmittle walked it straight through, aside from five days when she returned home for the funeral of her grandmother.

An experienced hiker, she had prepared admirably well, setting up packages of food and supplies that her family sent to post offices as she arrived in towns along the trail. She spent the nights in her tent or in three-sided shelters that are set up for hikers. For several luxurious days during the trip, she split a motel room with other hikers so they could do laundry, shower, and sleep in a bed – or at least on the floor in a sleeping bag. That happened perhaps one night a week.

“I met lots of people along the way,” she said. “We call them 'trailmilies,' like families, only on the trail. I met one at the beginning of the trip, and one near the end.”

The trail, she said, is a great equalizer. Whether you're a bank president or a college student, the experience of throwing yourself on the mercy of nature breaks down barriers and forms quick relationships. “I saw some people that I worried about,” Schmittle said, “Like, 'Are you going to make it to the next shelter?' They were out of breath and out of shape. And I met two other women that I hung out with towards the end. Most of the hikers are guys. Sometimes it was me and like 15 dudes in a shelter.”

Schmittle's family was concerned about her safety on the trail as a solitary woman, hiking by herself for weeks on end. “I didn't feel unsafe,” she said. “We did pass shelters where you'd hear people say, 'Yep, two women died here,' but overall the risk was blown way out of proportion.”

Schmittle saw two bears – “Both of them in New Jersey,” she said, laughing. “All along the trail, I'd get up early, hoping to maybe see a bear, but never saw one until New Jersey. I saw one, but he was not interested in me. I made sure to cross in front of him so I didn't surprise him. And I saw another one later that night.”

The creature that made the biggest impact was a rattlesnake in Pennsylvania. “It was a timber rattler,” Schmittle said. “About five feet long. I almost stepped on it. It was in an area where it wasn't supposed to be common. I jumped back, and yes, there was a little scream,” she said, smiling.

After breaking in her “trail legs,” she set a steady pace of 15 to 25 miles per day, depending on the terrain. The trail has flat stretches through the woods as well as nearly perpendicular rock faces that must be climbed on all fours, so the pace varies, she said.

“The second day I did 21 miles, which was a mistake,” she said. “I felt it the next day, but later I was good to go.”

Schmittle slept in her tent, or occasionally just in her sleeping bag under the stars if the weather was good. “But that stopped in the summer when the bugs got bad,” she said. Shelters on the trail are only three-sided structures to keep the rain off, and do nothing to stop mosquitoes.

The closest brush with calamity occurred near the end of the trip, she said, in Maine. “We had set up camp at night. It was raining, and we set up in the dark,” she said. “Normally, you look around your campsite to make sure there aren't any dead trees that could fall on you during a storm, but we couldn't see. At about 12:30, a tree fell on me. It was about 18 inches in diameter. It fell across my legs, with about a centimeter clearance. Luckily, I had set up my tent on a bed of leaves, so there was some give to the ground. That saved me. The other half of it fell on my stove, above my head.”

If Schmittle had been positioned inches to the left or right, her legs would have been crushed. “I was very, very lucky,” she said. “I credit that to all the tree hugging I had done earlier on the trip,” she added, laughing.

The next day, she called her family. “The first thing you say in those calls is, 'I'm OK,'” she said. “And then I told my mom a tree fell on me.”

Along the way, Schmittle met an 84-year-old man who was hiking the trail by himself, and a couple with a 1-year-old baby in a backpack. For meals, she had prepped dehydrated foods that she carried and resupplied by picking up packages in towns along the route. Many of the towns on the trail are small and have a solitary fast-food restaurant, so dining options were limited. “I was craving ice cream a lot,” Schmittle said. “That's what I'd get when I was in town. And fresh food was another thing. I really wanted a nice salad.”

One moment that stood out – and will be featured in the artworks she is creating – is watching the northern lights at a lakeside in Maine. “Seeing that was on my bucket list,” Schmittle said. “It was the last week of the trip, after the tree had fallen on me, and a group of us were camped by a lake. One of the guys came up and said, 'Come here and tell me what you think this is.' We looked and there were these green lights, moving in ribbons in the sky. Every once in a while, one of them would shoot off in a different direction. We brought the group out to the beach to see it. It lasted about 15 minutes. That's definitely going to be one of the prints.”

At one point, she was camping in the mountains during a thunderstorm. “That was wild,” she said. “I heard this huge wind coming up the valley and then it would hit the tent, and I'd be holding my arms and legs out, hoping my tent didn't fly away. The next morning, my tent stakes were pulled out of the ground,” she said.

Schmittle admitted she didn't have as much time to think about art as she had planned. “I did take a lot of pictures, and I picked up birch bark that I will print from,” she said. She also picked up charcoal from a burned forest in North Carolina, along with some red clay, mica and slate that she will experiment with to see if they offer interesting textures and pigments.

The trip was planned for safety's sake, but not scheduled too tightly. “I saw people on the trail with spreadsheets, marking off how far they had to go,” Schmittle said. “I'm glad I didn't plan everything out like that. That allowed these moments of spontaneity. I was so glad I took a leap of faith.”

On the last day, she reached the summit of the final mountain with a group of fellow travelers. “There's this big sign at the top of the final mountain that you see in all the photos of people who finish the trail. My trailmily and I arrived within five minutes of each other and had about an hour and a half on the mountain by ourselves,” she said. “I had envisioned the moment for so long, but there weren't any tears. I realized that it really is all about the journey.”

Schmittle has a long stretch of art-making and gallery scheduling for the coming months, but she smiled and said she has another trip in her five-to-10-year plan. “I'd like to do the Pacific Crest Trail,” she said. “It goes from Mexico to Canada and has deserts and snow-capped mountains. It's a more technical trip. So yeah, there will definitely be a 'Printed Walk 2,'” she said, laughing.

For now, her works are scheduled to be shown at a gallery in Alabama in March, and a gallery in Georgia in April, with more to come. “I'd like it to be a touring exhibit that goes to as many of the states on the trail as possible,” she said. “In Georgia, I'll be displaying my gear, too – my tent, all the shoes I went through, plus the prints. It could tour as long as 2018 or 2019.”

The experience of creating art prints is another new venture, she said. “I always considered myself mostly a graphic designer, so I'm just dipping a toe into the fine art world. I'm learning. I never thought I'd be in a gallery, let alone doing 22 fine-art prints.”

Schmittle's time on the trail has shifted the way she sees her life, she said. “It's really changed my sense of what's important and what can be sloughed off. It's changed my outlook on the world. After I got back, I'd hear people talking about the silliest priorities. I was thinking, 'Guys, you really need to go take a walk in the woods.'”

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To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].