In the Midst of the Blues, the Path Becomes Clear
I’d heard a lot about the Virginia Blues. And I knew, heading into Virginia, that I might face them. But I was optimistic. I’ve talked a lot about the battles I’ve had with my feet in other posts. I had hoped that Virginia’s allegedly easier trail would help settle things down. And I also thought that knowing the Virginia Blues were a thing would help prevent it.
Wrong on all counts.
I want to talk a bit about how Virginia has gone for me, because I suspect I’m not the only one who struggled, and I hope perhaps it helps other hikers know they aren’t alone, either.
I did alright through the first halfish of Virginia. I was hiking with Tank and Tagalong for the most part, and we had fun and did reasonable miles. The trail in the Grayson Highlands was way rockier and more brutal on my feet than I expected, but it was punctuated with some nice stretches, too.
I limped into Woods Hole Hostel and zeroed there to help my feet and encourage my spirit. The time with Neville, Michael, Blue, Bear Charmer, and Golden helped me immensely, and my feet felt a bit improved at the end. I was by now hiking solo.
And suddenly, summer arrived, in full blazing glory.
I struggled with the heat, which made the swelling in my feet worse. But I still maintained my generally cheerful thru-hiker attitude despite feeling like I was melting. I had a day that, while devoid of truly awe-inspiring views, reminded me of the small town where I grew up, and my mother. I saw the Keffer Oak. It was an utterly beautiful day.
Other hikers commented to me that hiking was starting to feel more like work, and less fulfilling or beautiful. I assumed that was what the Virginia Blues felt like, and I felt safe from them, because it didn’t feel that way to me.
The blues hit me not long after, though, and from a really unexpected direction.
The trail coming down from Dragon’s Tooth is a technical section, more like climbing than hiking. It is the kind of trail that, as a day hiker, I relish: awkward rock slabs, hand over hand, lots of balance and footwork, even a couple of metal rungs in the ugliest places. This is the kind of stuff I love hiking in New Hampshire and Maine, and I was looking forward to it.
But there are really huge differences between my day-hiking life and my thru-hiking life. The pack weight and size are obvious factors, but my feet are the main one.
Thanks to the metatarsal and nerve issues in my feet, the day I hit this section of trail, I really couldn’t feel most of my toes or the balls of my feet well. I literally could not tell where under my foot the metal rungs were–if they were actually under the right stretch of the ball of my foot and centered, or if I was way off base, and in some cases I struggled to feel if my foot was even on the rung or the rock ledge.
Instead of being the kind of awesome challenge I was used to, it was deeply stressful, painstakingly slow, and about as far opposite of fun as possible. I dreaded every step and felt like I had to inch my way down, not trusting my feet for a second.
Something in this totally rattled me, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time. The rest of the day up past McAfee Knob was hard. I felt unmotivated and things hurt and I found myself just pushing forward to get closer to town.
But that day, I have since realized, planted a huge seed of questions and doubt. The obvious question, of course, is always: how long can I keep pushing my feet to do this? At what point do I risk permanent damage? How much is too much? I don’t want to mess up my post-AT life and possibly jeopardize lifelong pursuits just to finish this.
But that is a question I have faced for over a month. The new, more insidious question which I took even longer to articulate was quite simply: What if this makes me hate hiking?
My brain has this habit of pulling up films while I hike, and I remembered the documentary “Losing Sight of Shore,” about a group of women who row from America to Australia, across the Pacific Ocean, setting a couple of world records in the process. (If you’re into intense endurance efforts, it is worth watching.)
Specifically, I remembered Emma Mitchell, who starts out clearly loving rowing with her whole heart. And along the way, she loses her joy. Her smile disappears and she just goes through the motions. She finishes, but you feel like she lost a piece of herself along the way.
I felt increasingly like that. I was struggling to remember why I ever thought thru-hiking would be fun. I found myself envious and almost resentful of day hikers. I worried that I was burning myself out by staying on trail.
Throw onto that the joy of Mother’s Day, which made me think of my mom at the end of her battle with cancer, stripped of being able to do anything she really enjoyed, deeply pained, and it’s no wonder I had an emotional breakdown on trail.
But I pushed through to Waynesboro, lured by a long-awaited visit from my dad, who brought homemade anisette, and my aunt’s flourless chocolate cake, and a huge wheel of brie, and bratwurst that I shared as trail magic. I took a zero and did trail magic with dad, and then I slack packed my first day in Shenandoah and talked to him honestly and openly about how the trail had been. He seemed astounded at how pronounced my limp was, at how much foot care I did while in town.
As we ate breakfast the day he dropped me back on trail and drove home, he said: “I wish I could be happier for you.”
I realized, in that moment, how negative the trail had become for me. And I thought, “He’s here. With a car. It would be so easy to stop now.”
I did not stop. I had him drop me on trail and as it started to pour, I thought about him saying that and I sobbed.
Because this was not the hike I expected.
And so I did the only thing I could think of: I talked to my mom.
I do this, periodically. Sometimes daily, but on trail I haven’t done it as much because I am a bit self-conscious about talking aloud to a dead person. But I needed to talk to someone, and dead parents are very good listeners.
So I told her about how proud she would be of dad, of how chill and amazing he had been coordinating the visit and how awesome it was to see him. Of how great he did at trail angeling.
And then I said: I need your help. (Also a thing I say a lot.)
I need your help with my feet. Do I get off trail? Is that what I should be doing?
I rattled through all the clutter that had been swirling around my head. The worries about my feet, my lack of enthusiasm for hiking in 90-degree days with high humidity, how much I missed showers and fresh vegetables. And in the midst of that, this sentence came tumbling out:
I don’t want to quit.
I had posted a video to Facebook on Mother’s Day, when I fell apart. And in it, I had noted that I was hiking now for so many other people in my life: friends with autoimmune issues and lifelong injuries, battling cancer and other nasty conditions keeping them from the things they wanted to do.
These people have all been inspirations to me, because they manage this kind of pain just trying to do their normal lives. I have felt like I carry them all with me, so they can experience this hike vicariously. As can my healthy peeps who would never want to do this specifically but enjoy seeing it unfold.
I carry all of these people with me every day on trail.
In exchange, they comment on photos and posts, send packages, text me encouragement, send me cards, etc.
I thought about a conversation I had at Woods Hole Hostel, talking to Trial and Error about letting go of the hike you expected and embracing the hike you’ve been given.
The hike I expected was a hike of personal challenge and triumph, an endurance athletic endeavor.
The hike I’ve been given is much less about me, and a whole lot more about the entire community of people helping to keep me going. Fellow hikers, family, friends.
I realized, hiccuping into the storm as I kept hiking, that this thing I am doing… it is no longer really about personal achievement as it is wanting to give this hike to everyone I know, wanting to show them the wonder and frustration, and to show them one can triumph over adversity to complete a thing.
And as I heard myself say I didn’t want to quit, I knew that’s what was keeping me on trail.
So I asked for help in finding a way to stay on trail for all of them, not for me. And help finding the joy again.
And somehow, in that, I felt lighter. I felt the weight and tightness of the last couple weeks start to drip off me.
Over the next few days, despite constant rain, I had some of my best hiking days in weeks. Almost immediately, I started to see amazing little details again, even amidst the fog and rain. Like the solemn beauty of rock fields in fog.
I found amazing mushrooms (when I day hike, I love photographing mushrooms, so getting back into this has been fun).
I exchanged surprised glances with hungry deer.
I hiked slightly shorter miles and gave myself more time to lie in my hammock and read, or journal, or just chill. I reread the quotes I had collected for just this moment, and they felt perfect.
And I started to love hiking again, tentatively.
I don’t think there is a set of steps I could give other hikers going through this that would be foolproof.
I do think that the conversation with my mom helped me do one really clear thing, though.
I’m part of a Facebook group called Women for Tri, an excellent resource for female triathletes. I had written down this quote from one of the members last fall:
Listen to that little voice that whispers behind the screaming.
And that is the one piece of advice I have to offer in dealing with the Virginia Blues. Once you fall into them, your mind will start screaming things at you. All the things making you miserable, all the things you could gain if you just stop, and probably some panicked “Why am I thinking all this?” screams, too.
Whether you return to a list of reasons why you’re thru-hiking, or talk things over with another hiker, or your dead mother, or your dog, find a way to listen to that whispering voice. It may take a couple weeks of struggle to hear it, but it knows the answer.
And once you find that answer, staying on trail or getting off trail will feel, definitively, like the right choice. And that knowledge will help beat the blues. Sometimes getting off trail is absolutely the right decision. But not for me. Not yet.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.