Doubt and Other Pests in Week 2 on the Appalachian Trail

Enter Doubt, Stage Left

This post takes a markedly different tone from last week. Names have been changed. 

The blue light of a sunrise behind the clouds showed the trail as a net of roots and rocks underfoot. 4 miles into the hike to Deep Gap and my knee was staging a mutiny. Too many days going too fast too early in the hike. Some say the trail brings the mind and body closer together. It forces you to listen to your hunger, your pain, your exhaustion. Easier said than done. 

I had hopes of bigger miles, of pushing on into the Smokies even, but every misstep rolled a thumbtack into the side of my knee. It’s a familiar strain– in past hikes stretching, strengthening eventually keeps that tendon on the outside of my knee, the IT band, in check. But the mountains are big. The climbs are steep. The descents are murderous. 

Knee injuries are extremely common among the folks I’ve been hiking with, especially in folks over 30. At Blood Mountain I saw someone call it quits for this same pain. If I was careful though, stretched, strategized my steps, the soreness was fine, and as experience told me, temporary. 

Even as the trail leveled out though, the roots and stones pummeled my feet. I shouted. I cursed myself for not being strong enough yet. I convinced myself I wasn’t strong enough to finish. 

A thought crept into my head: The Appalachian Trail is doable, but not for me. I swatted the words away, but they kept coming back. Finally I settled into them like a deep, comfortable bed. Who among us doesn’t enjoy some negative self-talk?

Later I realized after a week of fresh muscles and bright days among the rhododendrons, the honeymoon had simply come to an end. The gnats and mosquitos had arrived, but that day I’d be sharing the struggle with a different kind of pest: doubt. 

The Trail Always Wins

Then the sun came out, and my ego showed up like a lost friend. It offered to knife fight the trail. 

I never realized how stubborn I must be, because as the pain built, so did an urge to push on raging. But I remembered a piece of advice from Appalachian Trials: don’t fight the trail, the trail will always win. 

So I tried negotiating instead.

Ego: “Okay, I’ll accept not making Fontana Dam by Saturday, I’ll even listen to my body and rest for a day or two, but please don’t make me spend a week laid up in a Franklin motel.

Trail: “That’s not something one gets to negotiate.”

Ego: “Fair enough. How about I take it slow down to Deep Gap, and rest there. I’ll calm down and eat a Cliff bar and think about it.”

Trail: “Deal.”

The Bottom

From the top of the hill, I looked down through the bare trees and caught glimpses of a truck, and a row of people sitting on the curb. Trail magic, I thought. Perfect opportunity to sit, hydrate, and calculate my next move. 

But it wasn’t trail magic.

Lining the gravel access road were Cincinnati, Attica, and Florida, all of whom I’d met my second day out of Amicalola. The first two were younger than me, Florida was in his 50s but just out of the Air Force. They flagged me down.

“Hey! We’re done.”

“Done? Like, you’re finished?” I asked

Attica, sitting on the ground against a tree, nodded his head. “Yep.”

“My knee is throbbing. I’m just gonna go home, get in better shape and try it next year.” said Cincinnati. “And a bear tore up all of my food last night.” Their wallet had been in the bear bag, but Attica found it nearby.

These are not the individuals in the story.

I listened to how a bear had visited their camp at Standing Indian shelter three times. On the first visit someone reportedly chased the bear off wearing nothing but a headlamp, but to no avail. The night was filled with shouting and pillaging of food. Attica’s bear bag had fallen to the ground, easy pickings, but someone’s Ursack (an allegedly bear-proof kevlar sack) was ripped open. Glad I missed it. 

“Will your work take you back?” I asked.

They each shrugged, waved vaguely and talked about how unworried they were, all they knew was there would not be one more step hunting the white blazes. As I sat in the dirt and listened, I scarfed down several energy bars and stretched my leg. Florida must have noticed me limping because he asked me if I wanted a ride into Franklin with his friend.

I had just been thinking about how I never would have expected him to be getting off so soon. He was crushing the miles, never complained about soreness, was easy to laugh during evening talks. It’s hard to pin people, I thought to myself

Then I had another thought: I guess it’s hard to pin myself too. What are the odds that an hour earlier I had told myself the trail wasn’t for me? Sitting here I had absolutely no intention of getting off trail. How would that even work? 

Then I jumped up and went to the first aid kit in my pack. I ripped the plastic off the ace bandage and wound it again and again around my knee and walked around a little. It worked! The leg felt stable, felt strong. 

As I put my pack on it even felt a little lighter. Wild. As I painlessly climbed out of Deep Gap I went back to the negotiating table with my ego and the trail. 

Ego: “Okay. In exchange for the ace bandage I’ll give you two days in Franklin at the end of the week.” 

Trail: “We’ll check in on Saturday.” 

Franklin, NC

On the hike up and over whatever blessed mountain sits between Rock Gap and Winding Stair Gap, I saw another sunrise, but this time the sky was clear and my knee was stable. 

Warm, yellow sunlight spilled from ridge to silent ridge. Silent except the robins and towhees. Appalachia leapt and rolled away far into the hazy distance, and in that privileged moment, it was absolutely perfect. The last time I saw a landscape so clean it was on an early summer morning of no particular significance when I was 16. I remember it vividly: the same sun flooded our still sleeping neighborhood, the lilacs were in bloom, and the day felt full of promise. 

The day felt full of promise as I descended to Winding Stair Gap for my ride into Franklin. I felt my impatience for the Smoky Mountains ebb. My ego had made a concession in the interest of my body, and it will need to make more. 

The goals I set for myself these first couple of weeks were ambitious. I think we all have had to adjust expectations as we learn to negotiate with the demands of the trail. I think the first month is not just a time for conditioning muscles, but one’s image of themself, and to release that need to control. It’s time to learn to trust the process. 

The next days and weeks promise to be rigorous, so while pouring over my maps and notebook at the Lazy Hiker Brewery, I lifted a glass to my future humility.

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Comments 2

  • Bramble : Apr 19th

    I like your negotiations dialogues with the trail! lol.

  • Zazz : Apr 21st

    Some very good writing here, keep it up! Your experience also mirrors my own, I was always so shocked when I’d hear about the cheeriest people quitting their hike while I managed to keep going. I heard from a lot of people that if you weren’t fully committed and confident then you wouldn’t make it, but honestly I wasn’t sure until MA or VT that I’d actually make it to Katahdin, I took it a few days or weeks at a time over and over again until I made it. Just make it to the next town, take a breath, and set the next small goal for yourself, you can do it!


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