Trailblazer: Gretchen “Dirty Bowl” Matt
Location: Spokane, WA
Trailblazing Role: Grounds Keeper
I am a Modern Hiker because: I am constantly searching for new limitations, and try to expand them daily.
Hike along any trail and you’ll likely walk past at least a few pieces of garbage ranging from single-use water bottles to well-used socks, glittering snippets of “microtrash” left behind after hurried snacking to putrid toilet paper blooms left behind after – well, you know.
Some folks are naturally inclined to pick up trash as they walk, but can you imagine scooping up over 700 pounds of the stuff? That’s what long-distance hikers Seth “Cap” Orme and Paul “Spice” Twedt, co-founders of the Packing It Out initiative, did during their 2016 Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike.
Taking inspiration from this intrepid duo and their passion for stewardship, the backpacking gurus at Granite Gear launched the Grounds Keepers program this year to support and promote the cleanup efforts of fifteen backpackers* tackling various long-distance trails around the United States. Gretchen “Dirty Bowl” Matt was first out of the gate in this inaugural batch of thru-hikers. She hauled out 30 pounds of litter while blazing through the 1,000-plus mile Florida Trail in an astonishing 40 days.
Matt, who earned her trail name while avoiding personal dish duty as an Outward Bound instructor, is no stranger to long trails. Her first experience was a quick foray onto the Pacific Crest Trail, which her then-roommate, John Zahorian of Pa’lante Packs, was hiking at the time. After spending a few magical nights cowboy camping under the stars, Matt was sold. She spent several years acquiring gear (and sewing her own), and began accumulating outdoor experiences (including the aforementioned Outward Bound stint), then set off on her own Pacific Crest Trail adventure in 2015, followed by a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail the next year.
With a resume that includes two of the three famed “Triple Crown” routes (the third is the Continental Divide Trail, which Matt hopes to hike someday), it might seem surprising that she chose the swampy, road-laced, little-traveled Florida Trail as her third long trek. However, it was almost a given that she would hike it someday, considering the idea sparked during her years at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, when she wondered what it would be like to walk through the entire state. Despite naysayers warning that it was “dangerous” and full of “crazy people,” the thought hovered in the back of her mind for years, and then came to fruition earlier this year when she was able to finagle a leave from her job at REI, sliding in one last adventure before launching into a five-year electrical apprenticeship program.
Here, Gretchen “Dirty Bowl” Matt spills the dirt on trail life and what it means to be a Grounds Keeper, from dealing with sunbathing gators to picking up X-rated trash.
How was the Florida Trail different from the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail?
There were way less people – I think there were maybe thirty thru-hikers this year. It’s not a full trail yet; it’s fledgling. It needs some more years to mature. There are a lot of issues happening in Florida with the trail [and] getting its land, so there’s a lot of road walking. There are swamps, which is different. I would say one thing that was different in a really positive way was that because there’s just not a lot of people hiking it, it definitely felt more personal. I felt like people kind of had their eye on me.
What were some of the physical and mental challenges you experienced?
Physically, the hardest part was the road walks. Lake Okeechobee has been dammed up for a long time, but you have to hike around; you can choose the west or the east side, but you’re just going to be walking pavement to get there, and then you’re going to be walking pavement around it. You don’t have your trail legs yet and road walking is really intense on your feet and your legs. Mentally, that section was really hard, too, because I started two weeks later than “the bubble” [the biggest concentration of thru-hikers], so I never even met another thru-hiker until maybe day ten or twelve. It was two weeks in before I saw another person who knew what the Florida Trail was!
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Yeah. It was the only trail where I’ve ever thought about giving up; I composed my quit letter in my mind [while] hiking down the road. I didn’t believe that there was going to be actual trail, because it’s just so much road walking. But also, as a woman, camping on the side of the road in Florida – I didn’t feel safe a lot of times. It wasn’t physically [that] my body was quitting; it was all mental. I just didn’t know if I could keep doing it every day.
How did you handle alligator encounters?
Like many things, I was blissfully ignorant. I didn’t see an alligator until I got out of the first swamp, which was so nice because if I had seen one while I was in the knee-deep water, [I’d] just be so much more freaked out. Then once I got to the other side of the swamp, I saw twenty, maybe more. I saw so many alligators I stopped counting that next day. I was just like, Holy shit, they could have definitely been swimming around with me!
I just put them out of my mind for that first part. That day when I saw a million alligators, they were just sunbathing, so they really weren’t intimidating. But then I was just hiking along, listening to my music, and then I looked and there was one just flat in the middle of the trail. It was a really big one. I’m 5’10” and I could have fit inside of this alligator! Every time I would look at an alligator, I would just imagine [whether] I could fit my entire body inside of it.
There’s a picture on my Instagram account of this one time I was going to grab this can out of the water, it was in a ditch or something, and I bent down to pick up this can, and there was an alligator right underneath it. You’re on guard all the time. It’s a weird thing to have to worry about!
What were some highlights from the Florida Trail?
That first swamp was so cool. It blew my mind. I would do the Florida Trail again, I really would! For all of the shit it put me through and the terrible times I had, there was some stuff on the Florida Trail that you’re just not going to see anywhere else. The birding down south the first couple of days was so awesome because it was winter, so all of the birds were down there. I saw more wildlife on the Florida Trail than I did on the PCT and the AT combined, for sure! Birds, alligators, snakes, armadillos – and there are lots of bears down there! The beginning and the end also blew my mind. The ending is on a beach – you get this thirty-mile beach stretch that’s just insane. This trail puts you through the dumbest stuff and then at the end it’s just like, “Surprise!”
Why did you want to participate in the Grounds Keepers project?
I guess I have been carrying a little bit of guilt that I’ve been using all these trails and up until then I had never done any trail maintenance. You know, it’s always been about me – all me, me, me. This trail is for me, and I’m not going to stop and pick up trash when I see it, because it’s going to slow me down, and it’s time that I don’t want to spend and weight that I don’t want to carry. I didn’t like that attitude that I had.
How did others respond when they saw you picking up garbage?
That was [hiking companion] Lint’s thirteenth thru-hike and I’d say I affected him. It became a part of what we did, Lint, [hiking companion] Cyrilia, and I. They would find me trash and then I would carry it. I definitely talked to other people on the trail, whether it was the keeper of that section or other hikers who really respected what I was doing, and then also were kind of like, “Hey, because you’re doing it, I’m also doing it because I want to keep this section clean.”
Were there trends in what kind of trash showed up?
Yeah – I got obsessed with lottery tickets! I started noticing these trends where if I was in a depressed area, there would be more lottery tickets on the side of the road. So I started picking up lottery tickets, because I was like, I can’t pick up all this trash because it’s insane how much trash is on the side of the road, but I got really into the lottery tickets. So I started collecting things – I would have lottery ticket day, and then I had Bic lighter day. I don’t know why there were so many lighters, but I guess maybe people are smoking a lot and then they just throw their lighters away when they’re not working anymore? I found a book of blank checks once; that was interesting. That’s how I funded the rest of my trip. Naw, I’m just kidding – I threw them out.
What was the grossest or most disturbing piece of trash you picked up?
We picked up a penis enlarger. It’s basically like a big plastic cap that you put on your penis to make it look bigger – kind of like a glove, maybe. Then there were a lot of needles, but I didn’t pick them up. I was like, Naw, I’m good.
What’s advice would you give to people who want to give back to their favorite trails?
Because I work at REI, I volunteered for a day on a trail crew helping a local trail here in Spokane. I’m embarrassed to admit that it was my first time working trail maintenance. It was so hard – physically more demanding than thru-hiking. But I would say find your local trail crew and get involved, because at the end of the day, I felt that hunger that I hadn’t felt in a while and I felt really good about myself that I helped a trail that someday I’ll hike. So that was an awakening; I would do that again. But I also think that you don’t need to be sponsored by Granite Gear in order to do some sort of project – you can create any sort of project that you want.
All photos courtesy Gretchen Matt
* Yours truly is also participating in the Grounds Keepers program, cleaning up the Colorado Trail. Follow along via Instagram @ShawnteSalabert
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