Half way through the 500 mile journey, a Q&A with Cassie and Matt

Last weekend, I traveled to Charlottesville, VA to meet up with Cassie and Matt as they took a few days off the trail to lead a movement and story collection workshop in town. Over a delicious, hearty meal of omelets, biscuits, and gravy, I chatted with them about their journey so far. (At this point, they had walked just under 250 miles.)

How long have you been out on the trail at this point?
Cassie: We’ve been on the trail for 22 days at this point. We’re tracking the days, but my sense of what a day or week is feels much different out there. Your day is marked by your need to keep moving forward, the need to find a place  to rest or  to find water. It’s about the most essentials. The limits of the day are marked by using the full amount of light that you have and fitting the number of miles that you’re trying to do in a day.

What has been difficult about the journey so far?
Cassie: The hardest days have been the days that are cold and wet. Though when the conditions are like that you end up moving faster. You’re not stopping as much. If it’s a nice day, you’re going to stop and take a break. But if it’s cold and rainy, you’re just pushing through to find some kind of shelter.
When the larger group was hiking with us at the beginning, you could see how each of us would take the lead or a larger role on the trail; someone was always there to pick the group up. When you’re out there with two people, it’s harder.

Matt: Where you’ve decided to do something as a team, your hardship becomes the team’s hardship. You don’t do anything alone. It’s the team mindset. If someone’s having a hard day and the team still has objectives, then you add to the team’s objectives.

We saw photos of the snow you encountered along the way. Was it expected? How did you cope with it?
Cassie: At the time, we were staying at Workspace for Choreographers. There was no internet access out there and we didn’t have a sense of what the weather was going to be. We got a call from Sandra (the coordinator at Workspace) that potentially bad weather was rolling in and they were expecting 4-6 inches of snow. At that point we had to make a decision whether to go and get the miles in or whether to wait at Workspace for another day, which would mean we had to increase our mileage after that. Sandra was worried, but was going to take the cues from us about making the call. The day came and she dropped us off. The park ranger onsite had to paint the worst picture so we would be prepared, but ultimately we made the call to go.
My biggest concern was my feet being cold. We found a good solution by taking some of the food bags and wrapping that around our socks and putting that in the hiking shoe.
The snow blankets all of the movement and sound that is normally in the forest, so any sort of movement is really startling out there. There might be a little bird or deer, but there’s a kind of stillness and hush and an evening of the trail and the landscape. To be on top of the mountain in the snow, when you look down, there’s no snow in the valley. It was incredible to be right on the edge, of two extremes. Walking through the snow it was as if all of spring had been blanketed. There were these fiddleheads popping out of the snow, and the little trees had snapped. It made me wonder what of spring can bounce back and what of that has been damaged?

What kind of wildlife have you seen?
Cassie: We’ve had 8 bear encounters. One of the recent sightings was really exciting: We woke up really early one morning, and we were walking down the trail and there were two baby cubs walking towards us. We were trying to make some noise for them to go away and they kept coming towards us. We were trying to find where the mother bear was because you really don’t want to be stuck between the babies and the mama bear. We realized that we were right between the cubs and the mother. We were at a ‘T’ in the trail and able to back down. The mother came out and stood right up on her hind legs, which was thrilling, I’ve never seen the full height of the bear. It didn’t feel threatening, she was just trying to see the full view and find the cubs.

How have you sustained yourself on the trail?
Cassie: You’re always perfecting the system and rhythms and that of course has to be adapted as the weather shifts. But we’ve found a good system by getting up early as the sun comes up and beginning to move so that our bodies don’t get too cold. The warm meals help. We cook two warm meals a day, breakfast and dinner and snack in between.
Mentally, although I may not be making as much, one of the things that we started with in the larger group was singing and songwriting, and that’s continued in some way, more in my head than outloud with the group. But I have this little trick of picturing Sarah and Zeke and the rest of the company just around the curve at the top of the hill and they’re sitting there singing and I think “if I can just make it around the hill I’ll see them singing.’ Music has helped sustain me through this time.

Matt: I’m really goal oriented out there so it’s the hike itself that sustains me. Making our miles and making good choices about where we’re taking our water from. The practice of being in the back-country is really motivating. You always have to keep your end goal in sight. You’re taking these incremental steps, you’re monitoring how wet your clothes are, judging the daylight that you have left when you need to be thinking about how to get yourself dry or warmer so you can have a good day the next day. You can’t be lazy about the choices you’re making. That’s extremely motivating for me.

What are you looking forward to most on the second half of the walk?
Matt: I’m really looking forward to the portion of the walk where we turn off the AT and go north and walk along the river. I think the walking will become challenging, the route finding is easy because you’re following a river. It’s been exciting to see Cassie push her limits. It’s fun to see that. She’s getting better and she’s becoming more tolerant of the “suck” factor. She’s becoming more ok with things not being in her control and doing what she can to make herself comfortable.

What do you miss most about home and your life off the trail?
Cassie: Making. I’m someone who puts my worry to work and I do that often through making and producing things. When you’re out there the ideas come or the worries come, you have to just walk with it, be with it. There isn’t anything in that moment that you can do or make with it. There’s a way that I’m going to be cutting back into my life that I’m excited to be back in the studio making, back home making meals. It’s a really useful practice to have some distance from that, and spend more time with the ideas before you’re in that production mode. So often we’re having to produce so quickly, so it’s refreshing to have the distance from it.
On of the things that happens out there, there’s an equal softening and sharpening. Much like what happens when it rains, the ground softens and opens up but all the trees and leaves become so clear and sharp and upright—I feel that happening in my body. There’s an equal weight and softening and at the same time, there is a sharpening. That’s an interesting challenge to bring back to the studio and to life. To sense that balance makes me feel ready to cut back into life in a new way.

About Emily Macel Theys

Emily (Communications and Development Director) joined the administrative team at the Dance Exchange in January 2010. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, Emily received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Allegheny College, and her Master of Fine Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College. Formerly the associate editor at Dance Magazine, Emily’s dance writing has been published in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher, and the Washington Post among others. She is also an avid baker.