Virginia To New Jersey: A Love Letter to Luekotape
It was just a coffee shop. I’d been in hundreds, if not thousands of them. New England is ripe with them — this same cozy, hipster shop with local nicknames for its drinks. It was just a coffee shop, but my heart and soul felt full to the brim as I sat in its oversized and well worn armchair, listening to the thru hikers beside me chat and jovially harass each other while another quietly played guitar.
It was one of those trail peculiarities. We all have those moments in our lives that seem like they’re in ultra color. The senses seem strengthened, and you think “I’m never going to forget this.” On the trail, though, it doesn’t just happen on those perfect June nights on the porch with your college friends — it happens once or twice a day. And that day, in Harper’s Ferry, my trail family (the “Simple Fucks”) brought it on.
My trail family makes crappy, rainy, twenty mile days worth hiking. Even if sometimes we “accidentally” only hike two miles and spend all day at a stolen table in a pub playing Dungeons and Dragons.
I’ve officially got less than 900 miles left. It’s crazy to see the miles tick off suddenly to less than four numbers. It’s crazy to know I’m that much closer. I’ve started to allow myself to daydream about summiting Katahdin. It’s brought me close to tears. Granted, daydreaming about surviving the Whites brings me to tears, too.
Virginia brutalized me. I occasionally have nightmares that I’ve been teleported back to Damascus. Sometimes, when the rhododendron tunnels get deep or the trail is filled with awful PUDS, I think I may have been. I can say, definitively, that the Virginia Blues are real, and painful, and they will kick you in the butt from sunrise to sundown some days. At some point you realize your metabolism has changed and you need so many more calories. I had to completely revamp my breakfasts (PSA: poptarts aren’t good enough, but 2 Carnations, powdered goats milk, and coffee mixed in a Gatorade bottle…). Virginia was gorgeous, with cool crisp summer mornings and wide, soft dirt trails, and it was nearly 100 degrees with pointless descents followed by immediate, straight up climbs. The trail design feels pointless, like they were frustrated by their lack of massive mountains so they put senseless switchbacks on everything. And you can forget about comfortable ridgewalks. And the Rollercoaster was a really unkind final “fuck you” from the state.
It didn’t help that the early summer heat had set in. 90 degrees and humid, I was crawling my way up rocky hills every day. I started to chafe in ways and in places nobody should ever chafe, and nothing was helping. BodyGlide and powders only went so far. Ladies and gentlemen, Leukotape is amazing. You can put it anywhere. We all end up cowboy walking at some point. Trust in Leukotape to put an end to your old west wrangler impression. At one point, it was the only thing keeping me on trail.
Appalachian Trials is right: the honeymoon phase wears off. You know that moment when you’re alarm goes off in the real world, and you don’t want to get out of bed? You do it, because there’s a lot at stake. You need your job, your money, your boss’ approval. Your future and livelihood depends on it. Your ability to go out on Friday night depends on it. On the trail, nobody is affected by your decision to stay in bed. To not hike. To keep pushing to Maine. Sure, your friends may be disappointed, but they’ll forget in a week or two. You’re the only person who will know, or care, that you failed. You’re the only thing between you and a real bed, a real shower, real food…
You are fighting a battle with yourself every morning. You are fighting to find the beauty in the nooks and crannies, to appreciate simple moments when the whole day feels lost to the pain in your feet and the neverending rain or the merciless heat. That’s the hard part about this journey.
Luckily, Maryland and Pennsylvania have been just….impossibly wonderful. The trail is easy and well designed. All the rain earlier in the hike nearly destroyed me, but the water sources in PA are flowing. Checking Guthooks and seeing all of last year’s entries about dry sources, I’m so glad for that rain.
Hiking through a corn field at sunset, watching the fireflies lighting up the lazily waving stalks, brought me right back to being nine years old on our farm in Gettysburg. God bless Pennsylvania’s fireflies. The rocks in the last 70 miles or so were no joke though, especially in trail runners. My feet are genuinely bruised, and while I survived with no major ankle rolls, the nightly ache of muscles working overtime to keep that from happening was draining. The climb out of Palmerton was short lived, but bouldering with a pack on is not for the faint of heart. It’s certainly not for people like me, who are terrified of heights. I pride myself on knowing that I only cried once, and successfully fought down not one, but two panics attacks induced by the absolute inability of my short “corgi” legs to find a good foothold on the wet rocks.
My relationship with gravity has changed on the trail. Gravity is an ever present consideration on the trail, a mercurial relationship that regularly spirals between love and hate. It anchors your feet to the earth on those uphill climbs, but oh how much easier those climbs would be if it would loosen it’s grip on your back for just a moment. It will plummet you downhill, especially when the rocks are wide, smooth, and wet with a morning rain. It’ll destroy your knees as you attempt to fight it from dragging you and your pack down the trail any faster, but carefully considered steps can put gravity in your favor, making downhills a smooth, effortless glide. Vistas, McAfee Knob, and cliff walks would not be nearly as incredible without the mild threat gravity made against your life as you stepped closer and closer to the edge. You learn to revere it, to fear it, and to use it to your advantage when you can.
Three months on the trail have taught me, a lot. There is a quote in the Big Meadows Visitor Center about how discovery is not about seeing new things, but seeing them with new eyes. People come out here with different excuses: “I’m finding myself,” “I’m trying to sort some things out,” “I’m disconnecting to reconnect,” and even in the famous words of Ed Schaffer, “to walk off the war.” I still am a firm believer that nobody will come out here and return from Maine with all of their problems solved and their insecurities mastered, but the trail is certainly a journey of self discovery. I didn’t set out from Georgia to do anything but walk, but I’ve been forced to learn so many lessons out here, about myself, about others, and about what I want from my life once I’m off the trail.
I’ve learned about my body, too; what it needs and what it wants, and how sometimes those are two very different things. Sometimes, you have to force feed yourself the calories you need for the day when your appetite isn’t up to par, and other times there aren’t enough Snickers bars in the world to satisfy your hunger and you have to content yourself with going to bed hungry. I’ve learned to love my body on the trail. Not in the way the Instagram models mean it, I’m not more appreciative of my curves or accepting of my flaws. I haven’t seen a mirror often enough to even notice those flaws. Those things we fret about every day in the real world have faded to the back of my mind, and it wouldn’t matter if they hadn’t. My only flattering outfit choice is the tattered tank top and shorts that no longer fit after all the weight I’ve lost, and makeup weighs ounces I don’t care to carry (that said, ladies, a $5 town dress from Walmart is well worth the investment). No, I love this body for what it can do, what it can survive. This body has shivered with the cold of a Smokies snowstorm. This body has sweat under the brutality of a 95 degree day with 90% humidity. This body has ached so badly that it couldn’t sleep. This body has bled and bruised, massaged the pressure sores on the bottom of its feet, and nursed twisted limbs and hyper extended knees. This body has walked (1300 miles at this point). This body has lost its will and found it again, survived solely off caffiene, known when to quit after 5 miles and other days has pushed 30. This body has kept walking.
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Girlie, you made me cry again, dammit! So proud of you, and your will power. Your writing, as always, a cut above the rest, and your ability to describe what you see and feel puts me there. We are also counting down the days, but are enjoying your journey too. Love you more than words!!