1,000 Miles Past Due
Wow, it’s hard to believe how fast time has flown by since I recovered from my ankle sprain! It’s hard enough condensing each day to a few pages in my journal every night, but I’ll do my best to condense the last 1,000 miles into one post.
Never Quit on a Bad Day
A few days after I hopped back on the trail, I got to Grayson Highlands State Park. This is supposed to be one of the best places on the trail, if not coolest places on Earth. It’s a park filled with wild ponies. Every little girl’s childhood dream come true! The ponies are so docile they come right up to you. At least they do on most days.
On this day, it was 40 degrees outside and had been pouring rain for days on end. I had just enough food for breakfast, but I was picking up a drop box 4 mi down the trail, so I wasn’t worried. The trail was mostly rolling fields and large rocks. I’m sure it looks really beautiful when you can actually see the landscape, but it was so foggy I couldn’t see anything. Not to mention, it had rained so much the trail was flooded in 2-in of rain. So a gentle and enjoyable hike to see some ponies quickly turned into slopping and cursing my way through a pony poop-filled river of a trail. I lost the trail for one second and ended up in ankle-deep mud that sucked the shoes right off my feet. Oh, and I didn’t see a single pony, just waded through their poop! “If I make it through this without getting ring worm, it’ll be a miracle,” I muttered to myself.
Through a series of mistakes and misdirections, I ended up very lost and confused. By this point, I’d hiked well over 4 miles and was no where near my drop box. The further I hiked, the more disoriented I got, but I was so cold and wet, I had to keep moving. There were no visitors at the park that day (no surprise there!) and no marked signs, so I had no one to ask for help. I was cold, wet, foodless, waterless, and lost. Things were looking pretty grim.
A park ranger in a truck pulls up to me and asks, ” Hey hon, what are you doing up here?” I told her I where I was trying to get, and she told me I was hiking the wrong direction. “It’s 5 miles back the other way, then 4 miles down the highway.” That did it. I broke down in tears in front of a complete stranger. I think she pitied me so much she gave me a ride to end of the park to save me hiking 5 miles. I hopped in the bed of her truck and she zoomed down the road. Keep in mind, I’m soaking wet, sitting still with 30 mph winds pounding against me. “This is as good as any way to die of hypothermia,” I told myself. I got out of the truck feeling like an icicle, and started hiking another 4 miles down the highway.
This was no ordinary highway. There was no shoulder to hike on, yet alone for a car to pull over and give me a ride, so I didn’t bother trying to hitch in. Not to mention, there wasn’t a car in sight. So I hiked on the curviest highway I’d ever seen, barely running on fumes of energy. “If I make it 4 miles without dying of hunger, it’ll be amazing. But if I make it without getting hit by a car, that’d really be the miracle!”
Miraculously, I made it. And when I got to my package, the owner let me do laundry (which was more to dry my clothes than clean them), he gave me a hair dryer to dry my shoes, he turn on the wood-burning stove so I could warm up, and I sat inside warm and dry store, eating pizza till the rain stopped and my clothes dried. He then gave me a ride back up the trail to save me from hiking back up that deathtrap highway.
I heard from several people to never quit on a bad day. And I get why now. Sometimes the worst days can turn into the best days if you hold out for it. After hiking another 1,000 miles since this Grayson Highlands nightmare, I have no problem admitting that I’ve had many more bad days! But those aren’t days for quitting. In hindsight, those are the days I’ll never forget. The days everything went wrong and I seriously questioned my sanity, and yet got to camp and laughed over how awful that day was with all the other muddy, soaking-wet, chilled-to-the-bone hikers. Those are the days that make for the best and most vivid memories.
Surviving the Virginia Blues
Oh, Virginia. How she almost broke me. Virginia was supposed to be the easy state, the flat state, the 30-miles-a-day state. Lies. All lies. Virginia was one thing: long. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, since it spans 1/4 of the entire trail, but it felt like I was in the twilight zone. I’d think, “Maybe I’ll just never leave this place.”
More than the stagnant feeling of going no where, Virginia was where the newness and excitement of the trail wears off. It’s where missing loved ones becomes agonizing. I remember hiking over my first rocky section in Georgia, so cautious with every step, and so excited to be finally living this dream. By Virginia, I was glossing over rocks every day, secretly hoping I’d break an ankle so I wouldn’t have to say I quit, but I wouldn’t have to be doing this anymore. There was one night at a shelter a hiker named Guac came forward and said he’d stopped filtering his water so he might get sick from Giardia and go home. It opened up a whole can of worms, everyone confessing their secret escape off the trail.
No thru hiker is hiking for scenic views. We’re living in a scenic view. Sunrises and stargazing lose their awe. At least they did for me. What kept me going were the other hikers and visits. It was having someone to celebrate a 20+ mile day, or whine over a rocky day, or shelter zero on a really, really bad day. The movie Into by Wild has a scene where the main character comes to realize, “Happiness only real when shared.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s the people that make this journey what it is. Two things in this world: money and relationships. One of them will make you wealthy.”
It wasn’t just my hiking crew, it was everyone that made each day valueable. The random, by-chance meets. On one lonely day of hiking, I met an incredible man. Dave Horton was maintaining a section of the trail I happened to be hiking, and within minutes of chatting I felt like he’d become my grandpa. If you need some inspiration, just google him. It’ll blow your mind. He was the type of person who radiates positivity. It’d be hard to stay downhearted around him. And this joyous spirit certainly wasn’t a result of an easy life. It reminded me of a scene from the movie Hector and the Search for Happiness, where Hector asks a Himalayan monk, “If you’ve been through so much, why are you so happy?” The monk responds, “Because I’ve been through so much.” This world needs more people like Dave Horton.
The Bubble No One Talks About
They warned us about the March bubble, and the April bubble, but no one warned us about the May Harper’s Ferry bubble. “The bubble” refers to the massive crowd of hikers on the trail. I’d heard all about the bubble in Georgia in March and April, but I had no idea what I was walking when I got to the unofficial half-way point in Harper’s Ferry, WV. Tons of flip-floppers started in the middle and were hiking north, then will eventually hike the southern half of the trail. Every day was the same song and dance with a new crowd because these guys were just getting started, still hiking 8-10 miles a day. Meanwhile, I’m hiking over 20. They’re a great morale booster because it feels good to fly past them, but I couldn’t handle the interrogation every night.
“How much does your pack weigh?”
“How much water are you carrying?”
“How do like that sleeping pad?”
“How many miles are you averaging a day?”
Don’t get me wrong, normally I don’t mind answering these questions for curious dayhikers, but after I’ve hiked 25 miles in the cold rain only to find a shelter full of flip-floppers who’ve been there since noon, all I want to do is eat dinner and go to sleep. So I’ve been tenting since Harper’s Ferry, which has the bonus of avoiding nuisance mice and old man snoring, but shelter space is where a lot of the bonding on the trail happens. That’s something I do miss.
No Rain, No Pain, No Maine
Good Lord, it’s been a rainy season! It seems like it hasn’t stopped raining in over two months now. Usually one or two days a month are gorgeous, but the rest of month is solid rain. It’s really hard to get out of your sleeping bag when it’s downpouring outside and everything you own is soaked from the day before. It’s wringing out your socks before putting them on your feet and hearing that demoralizing squish in your shoes with each step.
Mainly because of all the rain, I’ve had my share of falls. There are daily falls that are more embarrassing than painful, but every once and a while I have a fall bad enough to question if I’ll be able to finish the trail. Those are the really scary falls. Of course, there’s also my daily dose of knee, Achilles, shoulder, and ankle aches and discomfort, but that’s honestly become negligible since it’s there 24/7.
But let’s talk about feet. Somehow we all manage to hike 20 miles a day carrying a 30-lb pack just fine, but standing up first thing in the morning, I come out of my tent like a newborn calf, falling all over the place. It’s pretty terrible. But it’s all part of the trail. And that’s how Ibuprofen became my best friend.
How It’s Changed
I’ll do a separate post about all the things I’ve learned from the trail after I finish, and even that won’t come anywhere near to a comprehensive list. But when I talk to people and tell them I’m hiking on my own, a lot of people will say, “Months away from people? That sounds like my dream!” That’s not why I came out here, but thinking back I guess I probably would have thought the same. I’m pretty introverted and it’d always drain me going to large social settings. Not that I don’t like going out and meeting people, but it’d suck the life out of me.
I’d say within a matter of hours of hiking on my own, I started missing people. It’s nice to be in a beautiful place and have you’re thoughts for company, but it gets old quick. It turns into me getting stuck in my head, wondering why we say “taking a dump” instead of leaving one. There’s a running joke that you can always point out a SOBO (southbound hiker) because they physically can’t shut up when you stop to chat. And we’ve all been there, desperate for conversation with another human. It’s just easier not to realize it when you’re surrounded by people back in the real world. It’s the difference between being lonely and being alone, but both are equally detrimental after so long.
By far, one of my greatest takeaways from the trail as an introvert has been to genuinely appreciate the presence of other people. Like I mentioned earlier, people are what make this journey what it is!
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Happy you are still on the Trail and really enjoy your blog postings. Thank you for sharing with us.
Question for you: How are the shoes you purchased from Outdoor 76 working out after so many miles? Any more blister issues?
My reason for asking is your comments about Outdoor 76 in Franklin, NC were so positive, you have me considering driving 130 miles simply to buy some shoes from them.
I enjoyed your article.I’ve been in Pearisburg,VA the past week due to bronchitis. I can’t wait to get back on trail! Aka Inspector Gadget
I’ve definitely experienced grayson highlands in the cold, windy, rainy days. Sounds like yours was quite a bit worse.
Here’s hoping you can get back to it in fall some time, when the colors are at their peak and the pine trees smell otherworldly.