End Note: The Unlikely Path

A self-professed couch potato ventures to new frontiers — the greenway, the American Tobacco Trail, and beyond — and finds herself transformed.
by Jenn Bianchi

Ten months into the pandemic, I squeezed my leg. It felt like pudding in a plastic bag; sourdough and Tiger King had taken their toll. I needed to do something to avoid becoming one with my couch. Alas, there were no bikes for sale and I am way too clumsy for YouTube yoga.

But I had a pair of neglected tennis shoes and a couple of podcasts. So, I started walking.

At first, it was just a 10-minute saunter around the neighborhood. Soon that became a 30-minute walk on the Cary Greenway. Then monotony set in same paths, same houses, same sidewalk cracks. So, I tried out the American Tobacco Trail. It’s not far from my neighborhood, and it’s flat. Win-win!

Here’s what I hadn’t heard about the ATT: it’s a gateway trail. Within that first month I had finished the whole trail, from downtown Durham through Chatham County. First, you have coffee shops and bathrooms.

But toward the end of the trail, you’re out beyond the suburbs — for a novice, that feels like the wild frontier. I’ve got to bring my own water? It’s getting serious!

I craved a real hike. Hello, Eno River! Strut Nation is here in track pants with a water bottle. Within a few months I was paying attention to my time per mile. I switched from podcasts to 1990s hip-hop.

Two miles became 4, then 6. I realized longer hikes mean less traffic, which means more of nature’s obstacles. I traded watching birds and trees for stunning vistas of my shoes, rocks and knobby bits of root. Lesson: Pay attention or get humbled real fast.

Oh, I’ve felt gravity’s cruel embrace more than once. I could write a book called “Falls of the Triangle” without a single mention of water. I’ve taken tumbles at Jordan Lake, Johnston Mill Preserve and Umstead. Most memorable was the time I temporarily forgot snakes existed: I fell while screaming profanities over one slithering along a path at Holden Mill.

Today, I am a changed woman. A real hiker with Merrell boots, a day pack and bagged lunch. (FYI: Orange slices taste just as good now as they did when I was 8.) I wake up early to drive to Raven Rock or Uwharrie.

I take note of fellow hikers: Is that moisture-wicking technology? Should I get a microfiber snot rag? Also, here’s a tip: When you scream “What a handsome boy!” to a gentleman walking his pit bull, make sure you replace “boy” with “dog.”

Now I drop things into conversation like, “Oh, I have to wake up at 5 a.m. for a hike,” or “My thighs are burning from Occoneechee Mountain.” I once said to a new mother: “You think your baby is beautiful? Just wait until you see the trailhead at Poe’s Ridge!” (Sorry, Gabby.)

I’m a shell of the couch potato I once was. And I’ve never felt so alive.

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This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.