It’d be a lie to say that I didn’t have second thoughts about getting on the trail today.
Those thoughts started the second I woke up. I was lying in my old bed at my parents’ house, where I’d been sleeping ever since my apartment lease ended last Friday. The warmth of thick heavy blankets was, as usual, hard to depart from. But even more persistent in begging me to stay was that overwhelming feeling that’s impossible to escape at one’s childhood home: nostalgia.
There was just too much at my parents’ house that reminded me of the simpler days of childhood:
The blue linen couch where I spent Christmas Eve 2002 emptying my stomach in between ABC Family 25-Days classics, and where the next morning I discovered Santa had stuffed my stocking with Pepto-Bismol and ginger ale.
The cherrywood kitchen table where I shared dinners with friends and family, with my mom asking about my day while I scarfed down tacos after another late swim practice.
The window I snuck out of countless high school nights, pockets bulging with Dasani bottles of cheap fruity vodka.
The other window, the one I snuck out of after my dad had bolted the first one shut.
The problem with nostalgia
Nostalgia can be like a mental crutch. That is, it’s a helpful tool sometimes, a reprieve from inescapable pains of the present, or even just a fun thing to play around with when you’re not injured whatsoever. But leaning on past memories for support for too long hinders progress; you’ve got to put weight on a hurt limb eventually if you ever want to walk right, to feel right, to live a full life again.
Yet there’s no way to physically or metaphysically crutch your way through the AT. For one, it’s just too cumbersome. And second, even if your armpits and triceps could withstand 2,000 miles of plant-and-swing across terrain that doesn’t well accommodate planting and swinging, it wouldn’t be the same as hiking the trail the old fashioned two-footed way. At the end, you’d probably agree that at the very least, those crutches were a bit cumbersome. (I’m still talking in metaphors, in case that wasn’t clear. If anyone has in fact literally physically crutched their way through the AT, kudos. Major kudos.)
Time to Go
But as much as I appreciate my parents, their support of my reckless habits, and their seemingly endless pantry and refrigerator, I knew leaving that comfort of home is the only way to do anything truly memorable.
So I hopped out of bed, made and slowly relished what would be my last cup of French pressed coffee for who knows how long, and threw my pack in the car.
At 8:43 a.m., I pulled out of the driveway, my parents in tow and my nostalgia behind.
We wove our way through the commercial industrial swamp of the North Ccarolina triad toward Bland, VA. About six miles before the trailhead the highway began to wander and twist, as roads tend to do when they encounter stubborn rocky mountains.
After the blitz of the interstate those six miles seemed to take hours, but we eventually arrived at Brushy Mountain Outpost, a low ceilinged diner/convenience store/hiker haven. I stepped inside and found Cath, deeply tanned and smiley as ever. She introduced me to some of her tramily—by trail names, of course—and we sat down to burgers, thick-cut french fries, and chicken tenders.
I was both impressed and intimidated by the tramily’s appetites, and when I offered up the fries I couldn’t finish, they looked at me with disbelief before devouring the precious calories in seconds. I could have sworn Starfish was hungrily eyeing my ketchup-stained paper tray, too.
After lunch I said a brief goodbye to Cath, who was staying with her grandmother in hotel that night, and started trotting down the trail with my parents.
Well, “trail” is a bit of a formality. This stretch of the AT is one of the few that runs along an asphalt road. It was a bit of a letdown for my parents, but I think they still enjoyed walking through the quiet rolling countryside.
After a mile or so, I said my goodbyes to my parents as they headed back to the car. This is really happening, I thought. I’m really out here. Alone.
But the aloneness didn’t last long. With fresh legs I soon began to catch up with the dispersed tramily train that had departed a few minutes before me. I did my best to remember trail names—Classic, Physics, Frosting, Samaritain, and Cath was now Starfish.
The plan was to make it to the Jenny Knob Shelter, 12 hilly and leaf-strewn miles away. I hiked the last section with Physics, who—shocker here—is a physics major. We geeked out about neural networks and computers and mathematical modeling and all those techy sciencey things I thought I’d left behind when I stepped onto the trail. But out here, talking about those things didn’t give me anxiety, since there was no buggy code or project timeline to worry. I could just geek out, no strings attached, as it were.
The trail balanced atop a heavily forested ridge, which meant not many insta-ops, but occasionally the gray pines thinned and the green bumps of valley below shone brilliantly. Shadows of clouds racing above looked like wet spots on an immense ruffled emerald fabric. Papery leaves like autumn tissue paper crunched, and long-fallen twigs snapped easily, under foot.
The First Goodnight
We arrived at the shelter around 5, just as the day began to cool. I used my water filter for the first time and probably didn’t contract giardiasis, maybe. After preparing dinner buffets in which every dish contained peanut butter, we settled down and talked over the day.
My favorite quote from the evening came from Classic:
“I’m an asshole, not a dirtbag. There’s a difference. I might berate you to the brink of suicide, but I’d never steal from you. Stealing is wrong. And you should take my berating too seriously.”
True words of unfiltered trail wisdom.
It was a spectacular first day, weather, trail, and company wise. Couldn’t have asked for a better way to start. And tomorrow, onward.
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