And Just Like That, It Was Done.
It’s 5:00 a.m. and I’m sitting on an Amish-crafted wooden glider on the front porch of our log cabin. A few late summer mosquitoes pester me; heat-seeking proboscises discovering a mother lode in my exposed and unprotected arms and ankles. My eyes scour the dark woodland through ambient light, ears straining to hear a snapped twig, willing shapes to emerge from the shadows. To see silent deer, or the reticent black bear I know inhabit these woods.
I listen to crows gathering in the forest that surrounds me. Raucous calling. Before night fades away, a lone whippoorwill chants one last time before turning in for the day. Or so she thinks.
I’m seventy miles north of Wisconsin’s third largest city, watching trees emerge in the morning light, on this, the day of an historic solar eclipse. It’s an event I won’t be seeing in its entirety. Here in northeast Wisconsin, with rain predicted later this afternoon, there is only a 20 percent chance that we’ll get our 80 percent view. The odds are only slightly better to complete an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Or, in my case, finish writing this post.
Altitude, terrain and eclipse not withstanding, this morning is reminiscent of an August morning last year that found me in the Whites. I had descended Mt. Garfield’s treacherous waterfall of a trail just below the Garfield Ridge campsites in waning light, wanting to hike a few miles farther to the Galehead Hut. I came up short. Instead I set up my tent in a stealth spot and set my alarm for 4:30 a.m.
Much like a year ago, there is stillness, a warm blanketed softness to this diffused air. Birds challenge daylight with their first cautionary chirps. A small furry rodent rustles the leaf litter. Or maybe it is a toad.
Sitting quietly, observing, sipping coffee, déja vu transports me back to that solitary pre-dawn morning. Today’s caffeine fix, however, is dispensed from the depths of a heavy ceramic mug rather than a titanium cup. And the coffee is freshly ground, not instant.
Many distractions eclipse the potential even for something as simple as a few moments of quiet observation.
But today’s astronomical event is distracting me. I find myself endeavoring to expunge the Meatloaf–like sound of the one-hit-wonder “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” looping in my head. If I had a choice in the matter, the hippie in me would much prefer an earworm with the more soothing sounds, (but not necessarily the words), of say, Cat Steven’s “Moonshadow.” Thus far, though, I can’t get that internal radio station to switch tunes, much less channels, as I contemplatively suss out what it has meant to finish the whole trail. My epiphany.
I’ve been home now for almost two months—only ten days shy of the amount of time it took me to hike the remaining 862 miles after getting off trail last summer. When I didn’t finish my 2016 flip-flop thru-hike as planned. So many things darken our best intentions. Last year it was injury, lack of time and to be fair, lack of motivation after summiting Katahdin.
This year, after being in the habit of writing daily, I again find myself ensnared within the rabbit traps of civilization, preoccupied within deadlines of my own making, not to mention dealing for weeks now with the aggregate weight of a concrete writer’s block. Many distractions eclipse the potential even for something as simple as a few moments of quiet observation.
And while this may sound negative, I’m only waxing nostalgic. Evoking simplicity. When days were just comprised of walking, primarily preoccupied with distance and water sources.
Finishing Where I Started
I had slept well my final night. The clothes I swam in the day before were dry. My sleeping bag was warm, but not sticky. The gurgling waterfall, soothing.
Sunlight reaches the gap at the Paul Wolfe shelter, a few miles shy of Shenandoah National Park. Today is my last day. After all these miles, Rockfish Gap is my personal terminus.
The light dapples the rocks and forest floor. Hickory nuts occasionally fall. A deer wanders nearby. The sounds of the waterfall from my streamside campsite fade and are replaced by a cacophony of pileated woodpeckers and cicadas. The air is heating up. It’s going to be a hot day. Already a patina of sweat coats my skin.
Space Ghost, another Wisconsinite with whom I had enjoyed a 10:45 a.m. beer and a burger at the Catawba Grocery, catches up to me. He arrived at the shelter last night after dark. We talk for a while and he falls into step. It was nice to see him again and be able to say goodbye, but I send him on. I wanted to finish hiking the same way I started—alone.
While Podcasts have kept me sane through some of the more challenging days, I let my iPhone playlist shuffle, looping through a forever soundtrack bound to this singular moment.
I think about musicians and songwriters whose chords and lyrics resonate, friends whose spirits carry me, strangers who share the same footsteps and follow the same trail but are on a completely different journey.
I reflect on this last week—literally ending on a high note—hiking through the James River Wilderness, camping atop the Priest—and finally bidding goodbyes to people I had been repeatedly seeing, and prematurely saying goodbye to, since Day Twelve.
I text my husband letting him know I’m about 45 minutes away. He has been on the road for twelve hours and reports that he’s just reached the Waynesboro, Virginia city limit.
I emerge from the woods and cross the U.S. 250 guardrail on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just before 11 a.m. on June 30, and pause to consult my map. Still about a half-mile more to reach that National Park sign, my final terminus. I look up and notice a parking lot across the road wondering if Sam might be waiting there. Then I look right, then left before crossing—and there is our car. After fifty-nine days and hundreds of miles, we’ve literally found each other within minutes.
My final steps are not on dirt. Or rocks. But asphalt. I reach the big brown federal “Entering Shenandoah National Park” sign and the end. And just like that, it is over. I hadn’t beaten the odds of finishing a thru-hike in one year, but I had finished what I started.
Almost 2,200 miles, a cumulative 168 hiking days spanning a 14-month period, years of planning and it was done.
Ultimately I proved to myself that I possess the stamina of a sled dog. Or the stubbornness of an ass. Or the persistence of a three-year old who refuses to go to sleep even after reading several books, a drink of water, numerous hugs and kisses and one extremely long backrub. Take your pick. Only one is allegorical, one may be figurative and the last definitely legendary.
Shadows and Light
Green acorns fall, pummeling through canopies of leathery oak leaves, knock sharply on the cabin roof and startle me from my bear watching concentration and trail meditations.
Was there any epiphany—besides last year’s revelation that I definitely prefer being on the water paddling versus being concerned with finding and carry water hiking? I know my hike didn’t shine light on any deep darkness, but that wasn’t my purpose. I’m sure it illuminated a few shadows. I mean—really—you have a huge amount of time to be in your own head while you are doing all this walking stuff.
There were, however, a few lessons learned; a few “well that’s kind of interesting” moments:
- I learned more about my iPhone while spending time in the woods than I ever would have while sitting at my desk.
- I know after hiking the entire distance of the Appalachian Trail one really can manage just fine with only a pair or two of underwear.
- I know that months of untended hair won’t become matted or tangled, but will instead just turn into the likes of an 80s grunge band rocker.
- And, I have discovered that a toothbrush doubles quite nicely as a pot scrubber.
My coffee is cold. Time to get this post uploaded. Time to see if the odds of witnessing the solar eclipse are more favorable than the odds of finishing a thru-hike. Time to see if that whippoorwill will rouse and sing midday.
Update: Turns out, this time the odds were in my favor after all. I saw trees casting crescent-shaped shadows. I held my colander skyward and beamed larger than pinhole crescent-shaped images upon the pavement. However, you can bet my persistent sled dog ass, no “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was to be heard. Please don’t troll me for my musical preferences. Please just turnaround bright eyes…
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