I am waiting in a Key Foods parking lot in Milford, PA to meet up with Heather Houskeeper, who may have walked more miles than anyone I’ve ever met. We have a hiking date.
A woman pulls up, a small dog in her passenger window, and flashes a smile. Heather? Oh, no, she says. She was just friendly. Scanning the lot, I spot a long-haired woman in cutoff shorts in the far corner, perched on the bumper of a big black pickup. She is talking animatedly to an older guy with a ponytail who looks, even from across the lot, like he’s lived hard. They are deep into something — probably not her. Twenty minutes later I track down her cell number and call. She’s got a black pickup, she says. Yup.
That is one of the things the trail has done for Houskeeper. While most of us would wait in our cars, involved in our phone or fiddling with the radio, Houskeeper is out, taking part in the life of the place.
“I guess I feel a kinship sometimes with homeless folks,” Houskeeper said later, as we walk the trail to Hackers Falls. Sometimes, when long hikes brought her into a town, “I would wonder if I was being mistaken for homeless, with my bagel and cream cheese spread out on the sidewalk. It didn’t bother me. Living that simply, you get to experience life in a more real — more raw — way than when you’re buffered by a car, a building, media.”
Houskeeper, 32, has been back in civilization for a few weeks when we meet. Having hiked the Appalachian Trail and the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail, she most recently became the first person to hike all the branches of New York’s Finger Lakes Trail in one continuous journey. Being “home” takes some adjustment. Her last name, she acknowledges, is a touch ironic. Off-trail, she finds it harder to get to sleep, probably because of the artificial light, not to mention the siren song of being able to lie in bed and watch Netflix ‘til three. Staying with her parents, at first she was hyper-aware of the noise of being around people, TV and radio. That, though, has died down.
“You get off the trail feeling incredibly clear-headed, alert, energetic,” she said. “Gradually as I spend more time in the world, it fizzles. I haven’t figured out how to hold onto it.” The meditative yoga that she practices and teaches helps.
Still, after awhile, she knows what will happen. “I’ll feel this need; time to get back out there and re-set.”
Don’t we all? But most of us don’t do anything about it.
“It doesn’t have to be two months,” she said, encouraging. “It could be a really incredible day. I did that recently, and was restored. Back to the mindset I had when I was on the trail.”
Before Houskeeper sets off on her next expedition, the philosophy major first has to finish A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Finger Lakes Trail. It follows on the heels of her first book, a field guide to the plants of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. In her guides, she describes the most commonly found plants along the trail and how to prep them (not, as with many wild foodies, in three changes of water, but with instant mac & cheese).
“To make wild foods practical for the backpacker, I would have to join two worlds,” she wrote. “One world was that of the all-natural, non-processed, gourmet food-lovin’, wild edible eatin’ herbal medicine advocate; the other was that of the convenience store pickin’, lightweight focused, calorie starved, feed-me-quick-and-easy-and-make-it-taste-good long-distance hiker.” Houskeeper has carved her niche out of the space between these worlds, graduating from the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in Asheville, NC, and making a name for herself as the Botanical Hiker (thebotanicalhiker.blogspot.com).
Sometimes she wonders whether she’ll ever hike a trail with that sense of lightness that she had the first time she hit the AT. Back then, her only missions when she got to a town were to get a beer, re-stock, and find a gas station that had salt, pepper and mayo packets. Now wherever her feet take her, she is taking notes and photos of plants, and blogging on her Ellipsis tablet.
But that price is a small one to pay for the opportunity to integrate her work with her lifestyle. The boredom that plagued her on those early hikes is long gone, now that she is more intimately connected with the ecosystems through which she walks — and now that she’s a sort of micro celebrity at the lean-to’s.