A Cow Stole My Trekking Pole and Dignity
As I walk through different sections of Southern Virginia, it feels as though I am connecting different parts of my life. Mount Rogers was where I went on my first solo backpacking trips, Angels Rest was where I first got caught camping in a thunderstorm (and saw a beautiful sunrise), and Dragon’s Tooth where I’ve found peace laying in the sun with the blue ridge surrounding me.
Angel’s Rest: An Example in my Terrible Sense of Direction
I realized while walking from Dismal Falls that Angel’s Rest was only 22 miles away. However, as usual, I neglected to think about the three miles I had already covered. I turned to my friend.
“Thomas! It’s only 22 miles away! We can make it today!”
He shook his head. “Ahhhh, you are doing that thing where you forget how much we’ve already gone!”
“It’s nothing!” I said. “Just a few more miles and we’ll be there!”
As we were hiking, I began joking with Thomas about the mileage. “Oh, the shelter is another three away!… just kidding! It’s actually one!” Usually I would unintentionally leave off any amount of distance that was less than a mile. So sometimes, I’d say our next break was three miles away… when actually it would be 3.9. Those were some of the longest three miles Thomas had ever done!
Finally, we reached Angel’s Rest. The sun was starting to go down, and my anxiety was starting to go up. We still hadn’t found the campsites I was thinking of. When I came to Angel’s Rest in college, there was a small grassy camping spot a thru-hiker was staying at. I asked her if she had any regrets thru-hiking, and she shook her head and told me to do it. Finally! I saw the camping spot I was looking for, right next to Peris Ledges.
I looked out over Peris Ledges at the lavender clouds and felt a comforting presence as if thru-hikers from the past were with me. This was the same path that all of the thru-hikers I met last year and looked up to had taken. I had followed in their footsteps and made it all the way back here — the place where I can still remember asking each smelly hiker — is it worth it? Should I do it? And finally, here I was, with every footstep, feeling their unwavering answers: yes, yes, yes! I looked out over the pink clouds in the distance, the mountains tall like waves that never crash, the valley below patched with cow pastures and farmland. This is exactly where I needed to be.
However, I was so distracted by this feeling, I felt like the campsite me and Thomas needed to go to was farther up ahead — not the one that I had just found. So I rushed up ahead and he followed — as he has been following my wayward directions the whole day. I was basically like a bad GPS that keeps recalculating and eventually tells you that you’re off the grid and there’s no hope for you. (Earlier he had even listened as I messed up several calculations of the miles we needed to pull to reach Katahdin, ranging from 17 a day to 20. So he was a little shaky on trusting my math skills — as am I.)
With each step, my sense of dread grew. It didn’t look like the forest was going to open up again — it looked like it was becoming more rocky, like the start of Angels Rest. Thomas continued following happily behind — and each time I looked back, he looked a little more uncertain as the dark closed in.
“Are you suuuure there are more grassy spots?” He asked in a hopeful German accent.
“Ahhhh… yeaaaah. A little farther!” I said and continued forwards. “I hope.” I muttered to myself.
There were not more grassy campsites. I had led us directly to Angel’s Rest. I cursed loudly. Thomas groaned behind me.
“Do you want to go back to the grassy one?” He asked.
“No, whichever one you pick is good with me,” I said, and he led the way back to a campsite closer to the summit. I realized that night I also did not factor in how cold sleeping at higher elevation was — we both froze our asses off. In the morning though, we stood at Angel’s Rest and watched the sun rise over the clouds, sharing the view with the sparrows weaving in and out of the vapor.
The mountains we had to climb stretched out before us, turned gold by the rising sun — the same today and forever. Regardless of my sense of direction, they never fail to feel like home.
Red Headlamp Nightmare
I hiked on past my small trail family the day after. I wanted to get to Blacksburg soon. As I hiked past Rice Fields Shelter, the setting sun shone soft light through the fern groves surrounding the trail, making their leaves appear phosphorescent as they swayed below the trees. Fleet Foxes played in one ear as I listened to my trail runners crunch on dirt and the birds’ evening songs in the other. I began to feel a slight sense of anxiety creep in — my headlamp has been stuck on the red setting since I first started the trail.
I launched myself down hills as it grew darker, and switched on my red headlamp. I tripped on everything and jumped at every shadow, thinking it was a demonic entity coming to steal my soul. Every time I looked up, the trail gaped in front of me like a dark maw I perpetually pitched myself into. Who knows what lies ahead… bears, demons, math teachers coming to suck the joy out of my life… Every few minutes I had to reassure myself, no, there are not demons in this woods, your soul is safe! The woods are good in the dark! That’s just a log, not Lucifer! It was just a mile until the shelter — I could make it before I was possessed and sent to the seventh layer of hell — right?!
Finally, I stumbled on the shelter. It was empty. I put my head in my hands. My heart was still racing, everything looked evil in the red light, AND I was alone! There was graffiti on the bunk I had chosen in the stone shelter. “Fear the Goat Man,” it warned. The graffiti next to it assured me, “I am the goat man!” Great! Now I had that to worry about too.
I was too stressed to make myself dinner alone in the dark, so I did one of the worst bear hangs yet in a tree behind the shelter. I laughed nervously to myself, thinking how it would make a good story after I was done experiencing it. The next morning, I mixed up my water bottles — and noticed miles later a sign that warned “please boil or chemically treat all water! Danger! Do not drink from stream!” It turned I was possessed by some kind of demons the next day — just the intestinal kind.
A cow stole my trekking pole!
At Keffer Oak, the oldest tree on the Appalachian Trail, a bunch of cows stared at me from the woods. I was wary of cows in the woods, since previously on the trail, I had been going through a section where they looked above me like ominous rectangles, eager to avenge all the steaks I ate in the past.
Two cows had jammed themselves into the gate where I needed to get through. One was pushing himself underneath it. How odd, I thought. Thru-hiker cows!
I walked closer and realized there was a huge pile of trash in the middle of the gate. Idahoan packets, ramen packets, a sawyer squeeze bottle, an epipen, countless candy wrappers all littering the trail. I started to worry. Did a thru-hiker get injured here and leave all their stuff? I didn’t want to play first responder today.
I talked to the cows softly, urging them to scooch. The bigger black and white spotted one swung his head to look at me and gave an indignant moo. “Well, you’re in my way friend. And you shouldn’t eat trash!”
Once he ambled out of the gate, I thought about what a thru-hiker would do with all this trash. Pack it out! Was my only logical response. I knew if I walked by it, I would feel guilty — and I knew it would be harming the trail and the animals, and if I didn’t help out the trail with all it’s given me — what kind of a thru-hiker was I? Blllluurrrghhhh. There goes my attempt at 28 miles to Dragon’s Tooth!
I began to pick up all the trash and put it inside the white trash bag that was laying in the middle of the gate. The white cow on the other side began to lick the side of my head. “Eeuuuaach!!! Don’t do that cow! Keep your tongue to yourself!” I stood up and she jammed her head through the gate, tongue fully extended, wet brown nose thrust towards my chin. I patted her on the nose tentatively. In response, she reached out her tongue again and almost wrapped it around my hand. It felt like sandpaper, and I had no idea cows’ tongues were so long. “Okay cow, that’s enough,” I said, bending back over to pick up more trash.
I put down both my trekking poles outside the gate on the other side as I needed both hands to pick everything up. An older man hiker walked up, looking at me.
“Oh! That must be the trash bag hikers were talking about!”
I just about put my head in my trash covered hands. “Ah. That explains it.” Someone must have left the bag, thinking they were helping out thru-hikers, and the cows must have discovered the bag and dragged it over here. Last morning, I had just been thinking about how I had a bunch of trash and wanted to get rid of it — but a random trash bag in the woods might not be the best place to put it, especially because of the cows that would be sick now after their morning munchies.
The hiker helped me pick up a few pieces, talking about how he was section hiking when the wife would let him. I heard some odd noises from behind me and turned around.
The cow had grabbed the strap of my trekking pole in its mouth and was running away! It jerked it out of the ground like a dog with a shoe it shouldn’t have and began to bound away with it.
“Hey!!!! Give me back my trekking pole cow!!!” I yelled and started to run after the pesky cow. After some more yelling, she dropped the trekking pole, now aware that it was not a cow chew toy. I didn’t think I’d be running after a cow like a crazy person — but there we were!
I walked back to my pack and strapped the cow-smelling bulky trash bag to the top of my pack. It stuck out on either side like a disgusting white bow. A disgusting, fly attracting, at least three pounds, hot, sticky white bow. I wondered about when I could get rid of it…
“When’s the next road crossing?” I asked the section hiker.
“Uh… ten miles I think!”
I started walking. Throughout the day, a swarm of flies followed me and motivated me to hike faster. I walked along exposed ridge lines where the sun beat down on me and my trash bag. The plastic was hot and sticky against the back of my neck, jamming my head forwards.
Despite all that, after five miles, I began to grow a strange fondness for it. It smelled like the cute cows. It had been with me for five miles — so we were bonded. We lived, we laughed, we loved, we suffered. At first, I tried to sympathize with the hikers that left their trash in the bag. You know what, if I was in their shoes and found a trash bag, I would’ve done the same. Everyone wants to get rid of trash, they couldn’t have known some cows were going to take it. Seven miles later, I was cursing the thru-hikers who left their trash in the bag, and myself for taking it. The direction of my thoughts didn’t matter so much, the only thing that mattered is that my feet kept moving forwards, the trail around the oldest tree on the AT was just as it was before the trash, and the cows were safe.
Eventually, me and the trash bag made it to the road crossing. I collapsed on the ground under a tree, very tired. I started writing notes to stick on both cars that were there, explaining I was a thru-hiker and couldn’t take the trash farther; even though we’d had such a fun journey together, I’d rather die than take it farther, and could they take it soon.
As I was writing them — the section hiker walked out of the woods… and clicked his car keys — and the car to his left beeped!
“Oh!!! Hi!!!! Would you mind…”
“Ahhhh, I knew it was going to be me winding up with this trash. Sure, no problem, I’m happy to help out.” He smiled and took the bag. Thank god!!
The trash was packed out to somewhere it would be disposed of properly, and by the section hiker who helped me out a bit in the first place! What an odd day. The trash had motivated me to do ten miles more than if I didn’t have it — I wanted to keep the AT (and cows) safe and as natural as it was before. In the future — even though we all want to get rid of our trash — let’s do our best to make sure it gets somewhere where it will safely get off trail so cows aren’t pooping m&m wrappers (as much fun as a cow that dispenses m&ms sounds). The section hiker took my trash as well. After all that, I did get to get rid of my trash — just maybe with more trouble than I wanted!
After I got rid of the trash, my pack felt incredibly light, and I pushed on past the Audie Murray monument.
I felt stressed about camping alone again. In the campsite just past the mountain, the trees felt huge and looming — no sound but the whisper of leaves. I began to panic. Should I just push on to the next shelter? Instead, I decided to stay.
I pitched my tent perfectly — all sides taut, the tent stakes sliding in the ground without rocks. I threw the bear hang on the first try (which never happens) and my tent was perfectly angled so I could watch the sunset as I did my afternoon stretches with the flap open. It was perfect.
I took a deep breath and realized it was important to feel safe in being alone. Otherwise, I could never experience these moments of quiet solitude in nature with the sun setting and the trees blowing in the summer breeze. There was no one else around but me to see this, no need for awkward conversation, only the sounds of birds singing to the sunset. Before, I was too stressed to see the beauty in it, but now, safe in myself, I see it.
I reflected on days past. I had my nails painted pink by a combat veteran — a joint in one hand and a bottle of hot pink lacquer in the other, while we told each other openly and honestly about our reasons for hiking — how it makes us both feel alive and united in this mishmash community of oddballs. That afternoon, I was hustled by a nine-year-old in an intense game of tic tac toe. I don’t know another place where I can find such quick bonds which people who I never would have had the chance to meet in day-to-day life. I started to realize how peace is easy to find in a place where we’re all identified with the same thing: being a hiker. Your past does not matter, nor your income, your career, your gear; what matters is that you’ve got enough to get by — mentally, physically and financially — to walk to Maine. When everyone becomes a blur of darn toughs, stuff sacks and smart water bottles, looking at a stranger may as well be the same thing as looking in a mirror. In any hiker, you can see parts of yourself. The dirt caked calves, the blistered toes, the chipped nail polish fingers. I used to be nervous going into the woods on my own — but now I rarely am. On trail, I never see my reflection most days — but I don’t need to. I see it in the people around me, in their strength, their resilience and their humor. Here’s to a trail full of hikers that make it feel like home. I’ll see you up north!
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