Headed Down South, to the Land of the Pines (Day One SOBO)

After Katahdin* I flew out of Portland and arrived home the afternoon of July 3. The next evening, I went to a local park to watch fireworks with some friends. “How was the trail?” they asked. My mind raced, searching for a concise way to describe the past three months and ten states and 1,600 miles. “Fun, but exhausting,” I said. Which wasn’t exactly a “fun” answer, but I was still too exhausted to say much more.

My parents were planning to drive north to see my grandparents in a few weeks, and I convinced them to take the scenic route and drop me back in Bland, VA, on their way.

We left Chapel Hill at dawn and at 9 a.m. arrived at Brushy Mountain Outfitters, just on the outskirts of Bland, VA. The store was just as it had been three long months ago—small, with a low flat roof; one flickering neon “Open” sign away from looking totally abandoned. But the gravel parking lot and surrounding environs weren’t as dusty and hazy looking as I remembered, and the hills had lost their sepia hue in favor of brilliant spring technicolor.

I got out of the car and put on my pack and thought back to that sunny April day when I stood in the same gravel parking lot and said the same goodbyes to my same parents. I remember feeling nervous, and I remember forcing a smile to cover up my nerves as I took my first steps north.

In hindsight I had no reason to feel nervous back in April. Then, I was stepping onto the trail in the midst of a well-groomed (metaphorically, that is) and welcoming tramily.

But now I was stepping onto the trail completely alone, and yet I didn’t feel even the slightest flutter of nerves. Most of the remaining miles were in my home state, North Cackalacky. And I’d be walking on trails that were like the all trails I’d grown up with:

Trails that I’d navigated every summer of high school while at the Brevard Distance Runners camp, that left me at the end of each run coated with sweat-drowned gnats and spiderwebs.

Trails that climbed nameless mountains with viewless summits.

Trails that followed the natural curves of the land, that meandered from gap to gap, and that took their time in getting to places in the true Southern manner.

Trails that snuck their way through dark tunnels of entangled rhododendrons and magnolias, the types of trees that grow not only upward but sideways and diagonalways and loop-dee-loop ways; and then sometimes it seems like those trees are growing in no direction at all, that they have no grounded roots and simply hover in huge knots above the sunlight-deprived forest floor.

Trails that can make you feel isolated and enclosed, but in a strangely comforting way.

So even though I’d never been on this section of the AT, it didn’t feel at all unfamiliar. It felt like home.

The trail climbed steadily up a wide gravel road for about a mile before diving down from the ridge. I’d nearly forgotten how smooth and well-defined the AT is in the states that don’t border Canada.

I walked down through the thick damp groves where the rhododendrons had begun to shed their delicate pink petals all over the trail. The scattered flowers reminded me of those scenes in romantic comedies where the guy decorates the girl’s room with flowers and candles and chocolates to win her back. I even scarfed down a Snickers to really set the mood. The only thing missing was the girl.

Around 1 p.m., four hours after setting out, I’d already made over 12 miles so I stopped for lunch. While I was stopped I also checked the weather, and this put the first SOBO frown on my face: 80% chance of severe thunderstorms, starting in one hour. I looked up at the clouds and determined that 80% was a rather conservative estimate. The wind was already beginning to pick up, and all around me huge trees rooted in loose soil swayed and creaked, and each one looked eager to have a go at a game of Whack-a-Hiker.

Now, I don’t like rain. And sometimes I feel like a wuss for hiding from the rain. Like I should tough it out, like a “real” thru-hiker. But almost always, I decide that I’d rather be a warm, dry wuss than a cold wet and grouchy “real” thru hiker.

So as raindrops began to pelt the ridge and the rumbling thunder crept near, I checked Guthook and found a small general store nearby that shuttled hikers off the mountain. I called, and 15 minutes later I was on my way down into the rolling grasslands of the valley in a rusty pickup.

The general store was run by an Amish family, and it was in an old converted barn. A wide, covered porch had been built out front, and there were solar panels on the roof (I guess that’s still considered “living off the grid” by technicality), but inside the flooring looked unchanged and hoof-flattened.

I ordered a turkey and swiss sandwich on sourdough, a side of french fries, and a large coffee. The girl who took my order was about my age and she spoke with a faint hint of a Northern European accent—sharp consonants, flat vowels.

Behind the counter an older woman was kneeling before a table, and beside her stood a girl of no older than 5. The woman was showing the girl a heavily marked paper and reading off of it—in German. I don’t speak much German, but I recognized the numbers she was saying: “Acht Dollar fünfzïg weniger zwei Dollar sechsundzwanzig ist…”

“Sechs Dollar vierundzwanzig,” said the little girl. She was doing math. Three-digit subtraction. In her head. At 5.

I ate and drank the coffee and wrote for a while as the rain continued.

Around 4:30, the fog over the valley began to clear and so I paid my bill and went out to find the shuttle driver. I found him sitting on the porch in a rocking chair, rocking slowly, with his hands behind his head and his eyes closed. I felt bad for disturbing him, and almost turned and went back into the store, but the porch creaked under my feet and he woke up anyway.

“Y’all ready to get back to the trail?” He asked. And I was.

*I’m still working on blogs from the end of my NOBO journey… too many words, adventures, and emotions.

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Comments 2

  • Lon : Aug 21st

    For relaxation I enjoy being outdoors (hiking is always nice), but by profession I’m a school principal……and simply want to convey the pleasure I received as I read your post. I would think any educator would be thrilled to see their students develop an ability to express themselves with such vividness as you have shown here. Please consider putting your adventure in book form as I feel it would be a true delight to read.

  • Longsleeves (Trail Name) : Aug 21st

    After expressing my thoughts, I decided to read some of your other posts. In fact, I went back to your first post on April 8th and began reading. As I read I thought to myself that something seemed familiar. Sure enough, I had read your first post back in the Spring…and had even commented then on your writing ability. I had forgotten about that but am glad to see that even back then I recognized your ability to communicate. Guessing I must have not ‘subscribed’ back then, but have now. Look forward to reading your many previous posts.


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