I Walked 500 More

Time is weird on the trail. Well, time is weird anyway. But when you measure your life in days and miles, time gets even stranger. Maybe one day this won’t be surprising to me. But for now I find myself amazed at how much distance my own little feet have covered, how much I have seen and learned, and how much time has gone by since I began.

The last time I wrote, I discussed some of my favorite sections and memories from mile 150 to mile 500. For the sake of consistency, I think I’ll do the same here. Behold: here are some of my favorite parts of the Appalachian Trail between 500 and 1,000 miles.

The Birthday Week and Family Visits

For most of this trail, I have been traveling with my two friends Patches and Krazy Glue. Early on in the hike, we found out that we all had birthdays within a week of each other. For months we talked here and there about what we would do to celebrate. Here’s how it ended up: I bought a plastic birthday banner at Walmart a few weeks beforehand, as well as a set of paper glasses with “Happy Birthday!” on the top of the shiny frames. On the mornings of my friends’ birthdays, I put up the banner on a wall or tent (wherever they happened to be sleeping) and the whole tramily donned the glasses, beginning the day with celebration. At the end of the day, we had the hiker version of a birthday cake: a Snickers for KG, and a Rice Krispie treat for Patches (both complete with one candle. I am ultralight, after all). We sang to each other, and laughed at ourselves. Hiker trash, one and all.

Happy birthday, Patches!

When it was my birthday at the end of the week, I came over to the shelter in the morning to find my friends waiting for me, glasses on, banner up. They were a sight to behold, and I had to laugh. Later that day, Patches’ parents came to town for a visit. We had showers, cake, songs, and parental comfort. Best of all, though, we didn’t have to camp in the rain for three nights. Now that’s a gift.

As the trail has progressed I have become ever more grateful for the people who surround me, on trail and off. In addition to Patches’ parents coming to visit, my family also made another trip to see us just after we crossed 600 miles, and we spent a relaxing long weekend in a house in Pearisburg. The birthday week was just the icing on the cake after this. I got to celebrate the friends I didn’t know existed three months ago, who are now my family. Now we are bound together by time and miles and mutual experience. I am grateful for their support and their love, and I couldn’t have asked for a better week of celebration.

The Virginia Triple Crown and That Time I Sprained My Ankle

This part broke me (almost literally), but it is worth highlighting nonetheless. The Virginia Triple Crown is a series of three geological features, the ascents and/or descents to which are brutal, but rather gorgeous. First up was the Dragon’s Tooth. My friend Hermione and I hiked together the day we ascended this feature, and found that the path up was not nearly as staggering as the path down. The Tooth itself is a gigantic series of vertical rocks poking out of the side of a mountain like stony incisors. It’s an apt name. We enjoyed the view momentarily, and then began the descent, which cannot accurately be called hiking. This was the first section of the trail where iron rails were involved, and it took us about an hour to go less than half a mile. It wasn’t a challenge that we were anticipating, and it was hard. Actually, it was rather thrilling at first, before we became tired. But we were lucky with the weather and we managed the tricky descent without issue.

The descent from Dragon’s Tooth was tricky, but the views were our reward.

McAfee Knob, however—or perhaps most accurately the ascent to McAfee Knob—was another story. Hermione and I were trying to push for a 23-mile day to see the sunset on this iconic viewpoint. We almost made it, too, except for the part when we had to hike in the dark up and down a rocky path leading to the shelter. Just 0.3 before our planned stop, I fell and came down hard, rolling my right ankle. It was the worst pain I had ever felt, and I was convinced I had just ended my hike. All the thoughts of horror and dread started rolling behind my eyelids like a movie. I probably screamed like an animal (sorry, Hermz). But eventually, the waves subsided and I found that I could stand on it with some pain, but not so much that I couldn’t walk. So I hobbled to the shelter, set up my tent, and did my best to go to sleep.

Long story short, I woke up the next morning and decided not to go up for sunrise. When I did eventually get up, I stretched, took some good ol’ vitamin I, and decided that I could do a short day. Krazy Glue, Hermione, and I went up to McAfee and spent a luxurious late morning taking photos of each other on the edge of the rock. I was worried about my ankle, but so happy to have made it to this legendary and most photographed location.

McAfee Knob, one of the most photographed locations on the AT. A dramatic photo here is an imperative.

I ended up going a bit farther that day, including a romp across the lovely Tinker Cliffs. That may have been one of the best views so far. Later, I did an easy ten into Daleville, where an urgent care visit confirmed that my ankle was in fact not broken, but sprained. A relief. I was cleared to walk on it as tolerated, with frequent rest. The tramily and I took an unplanned but very restful zero day in Daleville. Again I felt myself flooded with gratitude: for them, for the fact that my ankle was not broken, and for the mere fact of being on trail.

Shenandoah National Park

I had been looking forward to Shenandoah since the very beginning. I had heard about its lovely views, perfect sunset spots, waysides, and “easy” hiking for ages. While I don’t know if I feel comfortable categorizing any part of the Appalachian Trail as “easy,” it was definitely smoother and milder than some of the hills that had come before.

Patches and I were together for this section, but a couple of days of sickness had put Hermione and Slouch back just a bit, and Krazy Glue decided to speed ahead. It felt odd to have the tramily apart, but on the bright side it was a cool opportunity to meet new folks, and hear others’ stories. We did that a lot on this section, actually. I’m not sure why, but every night it seemed that we ended up with a slightly different group of people. I found this  to be intimidating at first, since you get used to seeing the same hikers on trail. But ultimately I found it to be a great experience.

One night in Shenandoah, Patches and I camped at what is perhaps my favorite tent site of the whole trail so far. It was a little stealth site on the summit of Hazeltop. It had flat, grassy tent sites, a big gnarled tree that was begging to be climbed, and a rocky view facing due west. We packed in wine and beer from a camp store, set up our tents, and watched the sun melt into an orange and blue pillow over the horizon. It was quiet and serene. I don’t necessarily mind shelters, but I had been craving a bit of peace recently. Every once in a while, it’s nice to shake up the routine and be silent. Watch the earth turn. Be still.

Sunset from Hazeltop in Shenandoah National Park. My favorite campsite and sunset of the trail so far.

Shenandoah also gave me another gift: my first bear sighting! On the very last day, heading out of the park, I was listening to the audiobook of Good Omens for the literal fifth time when a black shape went bounding across the trail in front of me and into the bushes to my right. I looked, startled, as a little black and brown face poked out and stared at me. “I’m glad you saw me,” I said to the bear, “because I definitely didn’t see you!” I watched as the bear sniffed the air a bit, and then backed out of sight.

Thank you, Shenandoah. You were a true joy.

The Roller Coaster

OK, this part wasn’t a highlight at all. It was honestly just a chore. The Roller Coaster is a 14-mile section of trail just before the West Virginia border. It has steep uphills and downhills with no views. It is rocky, hot, and sadistic. But I had to mention it, because I would be remiss not to.

Our mileage and time decreased during this section. I didn’t feel great the first day, and Patches and I ended up camping at a little site about four miles short of where we intended to go. The next morning we slept in, so we didn’t make many miles that day either. But there was a silver lining to this section: crossing 1,000 miles.

Crossing 1,000 was so exciting that I decided to just have a nap.

It felt simultaneously huge and underwhelming to cross 1,000 miles. Huge, because that’s four digits. That is 1,000 miles of exhaustion and pain and glory and determination and joy. Underwhelming, because at the end of the day it’s just another number. You’ll get there eventually if you start counting. We have so many more miles ahead. But the two of us were elated to reach it anyway.

Moving Forward (Bye, Virginia!)

The other day I was talking to Patches about how in Appalachian TrialsZach discusses how a hiker’s love affair with the trail will end, and it usually ends in Virginia. This is taken to be the origin of what is known as the Virginia Blues, the time when a thru-hiker starts to feel worn down, when hiking stops being fun and starts being work. Approaching the end of Virginia, I reflected on these ideas.

I had a hard time in Virginia, especially considering that this is where I sprained my ankle. We had a few truly hot days, a solid chunk of rain, and more than a little struggle. I know a lot of people out here who did experience, in one way or another, the Virginia Blues. It’s a very real phenomenon, and one worth giving mental weight and preparation to in order to complete a successful thru-hike.

That being said, I don’t think I’m “losing it” for the trail, or that I ever stopped wanting to hike. If anything, I am becoming more in love with the AT as I walk. I have realized that at the beginning of this journey I was reserving my affection; I didn’t go into this infatuated with the trail. I loved it and liked it, but I didn’t love it like I love the Camino. At the beginning, I found myself constantly comparing the hikes, thinking about my other experiences, wishing I still had 16th century churches and pilgrim dinners and albergues and other languages.

But I have grown out of this. As I walk north, I stop comparing this walk to others I have done. I stop criticizing what I don’t like and start cherishing what I do. Sure, the Roller Coaster was unadulterated torture, and spraining my ankle was not fun, and the descent from Dragon’s Tooth was a demonic joke. But I am surrounded by driven and curious people, people with iron will and quick wit and deep empathy. I get to live in the woods and pay more attention. I get to fall asleep to fireflies creeping under the vestibule of my tent like tiny insect night lights.

AT, you’ve captured me. I cannot wait to see more of your wonders.

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