Essay: A Backpack Named Zoe

Mar 18, 2017

The Appalachian Trail runs 2,190 miles from Georgia all the way to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. It takes months to complete and a good amount of preparation for novice and experienced hikers alike.

Milwaukee native Lauren Groh is embarking on that journey soon, and she is busy preparing all supplies she will need on the trail:

Today is a normal day, like any other. Lauren woke up and fed the crying cats. She brewed a strong pot of coffee and ate her breakfast. She got dressed, slung her bag over her shoulder, clipped her nametag to her shirt, and went to work. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Today is the last normal day of Lauren’s 29-year-old, Wisconsin life. Tomorrow she will be jobless, and slinging a much different bag over her shoulder. This new bag is blue, and it has all sorts of straps and buckles. Most importantly, the bag has a purpose: to keep Lauren alive.

The blue bag’s name is Zoe. There are a lot of other bags that look exactly like Zoe. In fact, Zoe has another name that the outdoorsy-type might be familiar with, but she is called Zoe because she is personal to Lauren.

Zoe has been put to the test, many times. She’s been on planes and subways and buses. She has seen four seasons, including one Wisconsin winter (which should have its own category). But Zoe is strong. Zoe is sturdy. She does her job well. She carries “keep Lauren alive” items like water, food, warm clothing, cooking supplies, shelter, first aid necessities, and navigational tools.

In a few days, Zoe will be put to the ultimate test: a two-thousand-mile journey on The Appalachian Trail. Of course, Zoe won’t walk. Lauren will do the walking, and she’ll carry Zoe on her back. In turn, Zoe will carry everything else.

On the Appalachian Trail, it will be Zoe’s job to protect “keep Lauren alive” items from blazing sun, whipping rain, bitter cold, and the horrendous stench of everything she carries. She will be with Lauren every step of the way, so she’ll have to bear her stench, too.

Each night as Lauren camps, Zoe will relax. Lauren will empty everything out of Zoe and embark on a very short list of nightly responsibilities. Zoe will patiently wait for her next mission, while Lauren and her hiking partner assemble their tent, cook and eat dinner, change into their pajamas, and turn in for the night. In the morning, the pair will complete similar responsibilities, with the additional task of finding and filtering that day’s water.

When all that is done, Zoe will again become heavy with “keep Lauren alive” items – her next mission already underway. Lauren will strap Zoe to her back and hike away from camp, discussing that day’s agenda with her hiking partner. Like Zoe’s missions, the agenda is simple: hike a certain number of miles to get to another camping spot.

This routine will repeat itself for the next six months, as Lauren walks North along a historical public footpath through America’s easternmost states, from Georgia to Maine. Zoe will cling to Lauren as she travels from town to town, while voluntarily fording ice cold rivers, braving thunderstorms, and scaling mountains.

When Zoe is around, Lauren often speaks of her upcoming trip on the Appalachian Trail. Fellow hikers wonder why Lauren is carrying Zoe, and why she walks with poles. People are curious, and sometimes shocked, to learn about this long-distance trail that thousands of people hike each year. Lauren explains that she feels privileged to have an opportunity to be in nature, doing what she loves all day, instead of being at work.

With Zoe’s help, Lauren will walk every, last one of those 2,190 miles, to her destination at the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. And with Lauren’s help, Zoe will make it there too!

Lauren Groh is a Milwaukee native and Lake Effect contributor. We will be bringing you a series of essays and interviews from Lauren as she hikes the Appalachian Trail in the months to come.