Always Searching for Balance

79 Days and 787.3 miles since Springer Mountain

All right, it’s been an inexcusably long time since my last post.  I didn’t think that was a huge deal but it sounds like there’s more people following along with my hike than I initially realized.  Your support is humbling and wildly appreciated!  I’ll try to do better on this thing.  Moving forward I’ll be shooting for every two weeks or thereabouts.

Right now I’m sitting at Scotto’s Pizza in Glasgow, Virginia.  I hobbled into mile 787.3 feeling like my left iliotibial band has been replaced with a stale breadstick.  The hike in was 7.7 miles and it was physically my hardest day so far.  Ascents and flats were a breeze while anything even remotely down-sloping was akin to what happened to Mel Gibson at the end of “Braveheart.”  Of course, the last 7.7 miles into Glasgow is 75% downhill torture before a nice little flat.

Either way, I’m here, spirits are high, and I can turn my focus to what’s up with my leg and how I’m going to deal with it.  In the meantime, a few things have happened between last time I checked in and now.

Trail Days was fun!  Trail Days is the annual festival in Damascus, Virginia where past and present hikers congregate to generally celebrate trail life.  They discuss gear, do drugs, drink, play games, tell stories, and network with folks they might not naturally meet on the trail.  Hikers who started earlier will often jump back many miles to spend the weekend in Damascus while later starting hikers will skip ahead.  Mostly folks will then return to where they were on the trail and continue hiking from there.  Damascus is mile 471.  I managed to make it to mile 492 by the time Trail Days rolled around.

My wife, like the saint she is, drove from Chicago to the dirt road peak of Whitetop Mountain, 21 trail miles beyond Damascus.  It was an overwhelming convergence of worlds when she and my dogs emerged from the car.  In that instant I was transported to another life, previous to this 492 miles of trees, rain, and sweat.  I was reminded that the life I came from was essentially perfect.  While these past two months had completely consumed me, what it had taken me from is the unfathomable love and comfort of my ideal little family.

The mental transition from trail life to normal life is like being forced out of hypnosis with a shot of epinephrine to the heart.  It was jarring but in an awesome way.  I got to introduce many of my trail friends to my wife and show my wife a nice little window into how I’d been living the last couple of months.  It wasn’t always entirely smooth and comfortable but none of this journey has been.

It was an amazing weekend.  We had a hotel room in Abingdon, more than ten miles outside of Damascus.  We did trail stuff during the day; partied in Tent City where all the hikers tent, checked out the gear booths, and enjoyed everything Damascus has to offer.  But then we would abscond to our hotel, before the hallucinogenics and drum circles really got going.  We would gather our dogs and go be a family in Abingdon.  We watched a “Seinfeld” marathon on Comedy Central and we got dinner at Chili’s.  It was a sweet little paradise in the middle of a hugely enjoyable cacophony in the middle of an experience of a lifetime.

One thing that really started to emerge in the time surrounding Trail Days and the weeks after, was nonlinear hiking.  I know I touched on the concept of “slackpacking” in a previous blog.  It was something we did when I was nursing a puffy ankle and an unfortunately timed surge of depression.  It’s where you hike with less of your gear to a predetermined destination where you will be reunited with your gear and usually a place to stay. Hostels often offer shuttles to help hikers slackpack because they can charge you considerably more.  Imagine you are staying at a hostel at mile 100.  The hostel can drop you off at mile 120 and keep your backpack at the hostel while you walk back to it, completing those twenty miles with far less weight.  The hostel gets to charge you for the shuttle ride and the night’s stay they’ve guaranteed by holding onto your stuff.  Oh yeah, then you get to pay them again the next day for another shuttle ride because your hike has progressed to mile 120 but you just woke up at mile 100.  There’s other ways to do it but this feels like the most popular, and I know I made it sound like a scam but it’s mutually appreciated by consumer and proprietor.

Anyhow, after Damascus I saw more northbound hikers walking southbound than I realized there were total people hiking the damn trail.  While I reserve no judgment for those who slackpack, the influx was clearly observable and there had to be a reason.  I attributed it to a few different contributing factors.  There was of course the literal hangovers.  Tons of underweight and dehydrated bodies being filled with detrimental substances all weekend, further depleting everyone physically and mentally.  I think it was enough for many to take it easy on themselves for a bit.

I also heard multiple accounts of situations where a lot of social constructs broke down at Trail Days, groups of friends deciding to hike at different speeds, some friends quitting, some groups fighting and having their “tramilies” (trail families) completely disband.  I think issues like this really caused a lot of people to slow down, reassess and regroup as well.

Finally, I think a lot of hikers were stressed out by and trying to avoid the “bubble.”  The bubble of hikers coming out of Damascus was predictable and gigantic.  A hiker bubble, unless I’ve already gone over this, is a large bottleneck of people at similar parts of the trail, stuck camping at the same sites and shelters due to their sheer numbers.  I’m thinking some hikers opted to slackpack to avoid departing Trail Days in the middle of a 300 person herd.  If I hadn’t earned myself a twenty mile headstart, I might’ve considered drastic measures to avoid the crowd as well.

Anyhow, Alicia dropped me off on the same mountaintop she had found me on days earlier and after another tearful parting, I got hiking.  I put my head down and dashed through the notorious Grayson Highlands in the middle of a downpour that sucked a lot of the fun out of a trail section many find to be among the most memorable of the entire hike.  But I was sad and it was storming.  I still got to see the a bunch of wild ponies for which the Highlands are famous.  Memorable enough, but perhaps not appropriately appreciated at the time.

I hiked more or less alone for a week or so which was good from a contemplative standpoint.  But by the time I was finally able to reconvene with friends it was awesome.  You really do learn to lean on friends and fellow hikers out here for support.  I’ve got some good friendships out here but wouldn’t consider it a tramily.  We don’t really actually hike together during the day but often plan our campsites and town visits in accordance with each other’s plans.  We also don’t stop for each other or slow down for each other.  If someone falls behind they are responsible for making up the miles and catching those in front of them. Generalizing here, but tramilies usually travel as a more organized group.  Either way, I was elated when I was able to realign with my friends in time for Pearisburg where we all stayed at Angels Rest Hiker’s Haven for a couple nights.

We knew it wasn’t going to last so we made it count while we could.  We hiked a beautiful and difficult section of trail.  The following week three of our six were to leave trail from Daleville, myself included.  I flew out of Roanoke for a Minnesota wedding while Zamboni and Pacman took a train to DC for a concert followed by a Michigan funeral.  My baby brother got married June 4th and I was to officiate the ceremony.  It was an honor to be involved and my new sister didn’t make me shave my trail beard.  So a truly lovely reason to step off trail.

It was again, however, a jolting transition between parallel universes.  One day being in a muggy tent in the Virginia wilderness and the next, with my wife and family and dogs.  Porterhouse steaks, king sized beds, chairs with back support, and socks without perpetual moisture.  On paper, everything sounds better.  But there is an immediate forfeiture of simplicity.  The meditative hush of aloneness giving way to the stress of real life; constant choices, complicated hours that need to be filled or are already too full, and the needs and expectations of others.  Totally normal stuff, but living life normally is a muscle that needs to be exercised.  When you allow the muscle to atrophy, it’s tough to just jump right in at game time without warming it up.

So my first few days I was a little slow on the uptake.  Overstimulated by the prospect going to dinner or visiting with friends.  I apologized to Alicia a few times, assuring her I just needed some time to recalibrate.  It took a few days, but the morning of the wedding I was able to look at her and say “I feel pretty normal.”  Her response was great; nonchalantly she was just like, “yeah I know, you seem normal today.”  It was a nice confirmation.  We went on to have a blast at the wedding, then a perfect following day in Chicago.  It was so perfect that I stayed another perfect night in Chicago.  Things were very comfortable.

Then when I got into Daleville the next day it struck me.  In an effort to reassimilate off trail, at some point I had overcorrected and now I was going to have to pass through the difficult wormhole back into the world of trail life.  It took me an extra night in Daleville.  I watched a “Family Guy” marathon and went to the grocery store.  That’s really about it.  But I got my shit together and the next day forced myself back into the furnace.  It wasn’t a fun day but in the end it was fulfilling.  I hiked until the sun no longer allowed and erected my tent where there was no discernible space for a tent.  I camped alone and slept to a whippoorwill duet that seemed to last all night.  I was right back in it.

I met a few new faces and had some meaningful conversations.  Even ran into some hikers I had already met and had fallen a bit behind for their own reasons.  I hiked along the storied Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoyed some of its famous views every time the trail crossed it.  I had a bear come so close to my tent that for thirty seconds I could audibly track it’s inhales and exhales.  Lord knows I could track it olfactorily too.  In the end it even pulled out one of my tent’s stakes when it abruptly retreated from the area.  The gnats were at times out of control and the ticks are definitely making their presence known.  I was falling into a bit of a routine.

Flash cut to Glasgow.  Feeling great about being back on trail I tried to put a bunch of miles behind me and work on catching up to friends.  What I forgot, was that while my metaphorical mental muscle was atrophying and stretching and adapting back and forth, my actual muscles needed some attention too.  I expected too much out of my body without giving it the attention it needed.  I just signed up for night number three at Stanimal’s 328 Hostel and having meal number two at Scotto’s Restaurant.  But I’m tending to my leg properly and hoping for a relatively fast recovery.

Whether it’s between the worlds of hikers and normal life, or just making sure both legs work, I think I’m getting better at balancing.  

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Comments 3

  • David Groce : Jun 16th

    Another great post, Mike. Thank you so much. What distinguishes your posts from others is your focus on the personal; the mental aspect of the hike. Don’t get me wrong. I love the posts from others which detail the geographic, geologic, flora, and fauna of their day/week/month. Those posts really help create a mental picture of the experience. Your posts are really helpful in understanding the mental (as opposed to sensory) experience. Thank you so much for orienting your posts in that fashion.

  • william h compton : Jun 16th

    I agree another great post.
    I section hike and i am always torn between Normal life and trail life.
    I think about hiking all the time.
    Next week i will be helping out a fellow section hiker up in Mass
    appreciate your thoughts and posts.
    Da Breeze

  • thetentman : Jun 16th

    thx for the post and good luck. I am rooting for you.


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