Leaving the Trail Behind… For Now


“Dust in our eyes our own boots kicked up

Heartsick we nursed along the way we picked up

You may not see it when it’s sticking to your skin

But we’re better off for all that we let in.”

-The Indigo Girls, “All That We Let In”

 

I have been both struggling with how to put my thoughts and feelings together in a succinct and coherent way so that I could write this post and putting off dealing with that struggle since I got off trail in May. So when it comes to writing the final chapter of this part of my AT journey, I haven’t been waking up and moving forward every morning. I’ve been stuck in the same mile for eight months now. And it’s some crappy mile in Virginia that has no view and is definitely not flat.

Somewhere in very not flat VA.

Where We Left Off

I spent three weeks in Tulsa working on my Achilles so that I could get back to the trail. I’ve had my fair share of sports-related injuries, and I’m always amazed at the body’s ability to heal itself. I was feeling good enough after two weeks to plan my way back to the trail so I could meet up with the guys who had become my trail family.

But things change, and a lot had changed over three weeks (the trees had leaves and daytime temperatures were above 40 degrees). I got back on trail near Blacksburg, VA—about 40 miles ahead of them so I could take a few easy days while they caught up to me. I hiked over Dragons Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs by myself, and it was a big adjustment after being so used to hiking with a group. I wasn’t feeling the excitement I was used to, even though the weather was perfect and I was hiking through some of the most iconic parts of the AT.

The obligatory McAfee Knob photo. This spot is worth the hype. It’s always amazing to see exactly where you’re headed.

Reunion, Biscuits, Snakes, Beer, More Beer

I finally met up with Chili Dog in Daleville, where we shared a room at the Super 8, had our fill of some excellent Bojangles (seriously, how had I never had this before? We have every food in NYC but Bojangles—WTF?), bought Chili some mad, sexy Chacos, and hiked on. Hiking out of Daleville, I remember falling back while I talked to my husband on the phone and deciding to put my sunglasses on so I could cry but totally play it cool in case someone saw me. I remember saying to him during this conversation that it felt like I was standing in the middle of a house that was falling down around me. I was having so much trouble understanding why or how I could be feeling so much angst, when I was doing something I loved and generally having a great time. This was something I loved about being on the trail—the purity and power of the emotions I would feel all the time. There was nothing to distract me from my thoughts, and I was alone with them for so many hours each day.

Alone with my thoughts and these cows. Always cows.

So much of what we hiked through in Virginia was subsequently unremarkable and also really great. We encountered our first rattlesnake, swam in a snake-infested swimming hole, got handed PBR tall boys as we crossed the James River to spend the night at the town shelter in Glasgow, set up camp in a horrible campsite overgrown with poison ivy (and emerged unscathed!), started taking midday naps, drank way too much at Devils Backbone Brewing, and had an impromptu reunion with Achilles the morning of my last day on trail, when we slackpacked 20 miles in the rain to get into Waynesboro, where I would officially end my thru-hike attempt.

The dinosaur in Glasgow, VA. Yes, this is a thing.

Realization, Still More Beer

I had felt like I wouldn’t finish since I had gotten back on trail two weeks earlier. My body felt great, but my head wasn’t in it. And my heart was stuck somewhere in between. When the plans to meet up with my trail family started to fall apart, I was even more discouraged. I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided, but I remember feeling relief. That relief disappeared when I asked my husband how he felt about this and he told me he was disappointed. As upset as that made me, I had to realize that he had given up as much as I did so that I could try to do this huge thing. I told Chili in that poison ivy campsite, and it didn’t faze him one bit. In fact, he made the remaining days some of the best I had during my hike.

Trail magic tallboys on the James River with Chili. No jumping off the bridge!

In Waynesboro, Chili and I dried out in a hotel room, drank some beers we had carried around for a few days, did laundry, and when he got a surprise hitch back to the trail the next morning, he packed up and was gone in ten minutes. And just like that, it was over. I got on a train to DC, had a perfect weekend with my husband, then made my way back to New York. I spent the rest of the summer avoiding NYC as much as possible. I gave thru-hikers rides whenever I saw them walking down the road, finished the 40 miles I hadn’t hiked in CT, hosted Sherlock and Chili for a few days, got to meet Snicker Bear (love you, girl!) and hiked with them into MA for a few days.

Picking up trash at a road crossing near Great Barrington, MA. Leave No Trace, people. Seriously!

Reckoning and Rick

It is really hard to so publicly declare that you are going to do something and then decide not to finish. But I made the choice that was right for me, and I don’t regret it. Some people might say that I went home to things that felt comfortable (like showers, beds, and toilets), and maybe that was part of it. But I went home with a new appreciation for some very important things I was taking for granted, like being in the actual same physical space as my husband and making music with other people, and I will never undervalue those things again. We always say that the trail provides, and if it provided me with this understanding that playing music and being close to the one person I feel most connected to in this life are both vitally important to me, then I’ll take it. It also provided me with some pretty awesome new friends I hope to keep close for a very long time.

Part of the trail family. Sherlock, Snicker Bear, Prophet, Minnesota, me, Chili Dog. Every single one of them finished their 2018 thru-hike. Rock Stars!

I met a man named Rick on my second day back on trail. He started a thru-hike in 2017, but for various reasons decided to go home after several hundred miles. He came back in 2018 and picked up where he left off. He was going to hike two months and go home and come back in 2019. He was hiking his own hike, and for reasons that really mattered to him. As my chat with him percolated through my thoughts and wild emotional swings over the next few days, I realized that I had come back to that one axiom of hiking: hike your own hike. This was my hike, for my reasons, and I have to be true to those.

Deep in thought/exhaustion somewhere in MA.

The End Doesn’t Mean that It’s Over

I may not have finished as a 2018 thru-hiker, and I may not have inspired anyone to look up from their screen, get out of their house, and go outside to see what the natural world has to offer, but I stepped out of my comfort zone. And as I start to read the posts of the 2019 thru-hiker class, I feel that excitement all over again. I will follow them all through their successes and failures, and I can’t wait to meet as many as I can when I go back out this year to finish a big section I skipped while I was injured. I’ll still finish the AT, just in my own time (but soon, not many years from now). And I’ll keep writing about it, so until then, go outside and see something you haven’t. Preferably from the top of a mountain.

I wish this were a photo of me. It’s Chili Dog somewhere in VA. Over one hill and on to the next.

“Well I don’t know where it all begins

And I don’t know where it all will end

But we’re better off for all that we let in.”

-The Indigo Girls, “All That We Let In”

 

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Comments 2

  • Avatar
    EarthTone : Jan 22nd

    My hike has evolved into what yours is becoming. From the start, I always referred to it as a Quest and didn’t really care if I would finish in one year. In 2017 my wife and I started in GA and headed north. She decided to get off after Erwin and when I got to Damascus, I needed a break. After a month off trail we hiked Shenandoah together and then I jumped up to Palmerton, PA and hiked to Williamstown, MA. In 2018, I was going to finish VA and then jump up to VT and do the last 600 miles to finish, but I tore my rotator cuff one week in. I kept hiking for three more weeks to finish VA, but when I got off for my break, I knew I would need surgery before I could tackle the hardest part of the trail. So now, I’m looking to 2019 to finish. I am hiking the trail my way and am happy doing it that way. I have never lamented the miles I haven’t hiked yet, but I celebrate the many that I have hiked. Peace, EarthTone

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Pony : Jan 25th

    Go ahead, jump off the bridge!

    Reply

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