Lost Dogs, Lyme Disease, and Surviving the Cold Snap
Let’s start at the very beginning….
About a week after I wrote my last post I hiked into Shenandoah National Park. After a strenuous couple days going through the rollercoaster and surrounding mountains just north of the park, I was hit by Hurricane Ian in Front Royal, Virginia, just a few miles short of the park boundary. Initially, I had planned to hike through the Hurricane, but after a couple hours of non-stop wind and rain, I was tired and cold and looking for a place to crash for the night. And lo and behold, I opened up Guthook (the AT guide app, now called FarOut by muggles) and discovered I was about 4 miles from a little hostel called the Wonderland Hiker Refuge.
The Wonderland Hiker Refuge is run by Scott and Lyric. Scott and Lyric went out for a hike one day 5 years ago and came back with a group of tired, hungry thru-hikers they fed delicious homemade meals to and posted up in their basement for a few nights. And so when I called them, dripping wet and hiding under a tree, I asked them to take me in for a few days. And they did. They let me crash in their house for three days, fed me breakfast, lunch and dinner, baked me cookies, helped me resupply, watched halloween movies with me and let me adopt their cute little kitten Poe for a few days.
Scott found Poe whining in their fireplace a few days before, and turned out to be the most adorable, curious, well behaved cat I have ever seen. It was almost as if he were made to be a hostel cat, he just loved hikers so much. I wanted so badly to just wrap him in my coat and carry him with me.
But there were more good things to come! And even though it was cold and rainy for some time after the hurricane, being in the national park meant I could hike out to Skyline Drive (the scenic road that goes through the park) almost every day to buy lunch, snacks, and milkshakes. There were so many day hikers in the park, though, which became quickly very overwhelming so I was more than happy to finish up and head south towards the Virginia Triple Crown.
The Virginia Triple Crown refers to three of the most scenic summits in central Virginia: Tinker Cliffs, McAfee Knob and Dragon’s Tooth. And while Tinker Cliffs and Dragon’s Tooth both have some spectacular rock formations and views, McAfee knob was a much more surreal experience.
Next to a Katahdin summit photo, your McAfee knob photo is probably the most important photo you will take on your AT thru-hike. Not only is it an iconic location, but it has taken on an almost legendary quality. For Northbound hikers, it is one of the earliest milestones they hit on their hike, Virginia is halfway done and the rest of the trail is rapidly approaching. For Southbounders, it is a long-awaited moment, a reminder of how far we have come, and in some ways, it is another gateway into the southern states on the Appalachian Trail. A lot of things change south of McAfee Knob: there are more hostels, more open grassy balds, and only a couple hundred miles left.
For me, it felt like a pretty significant transition. I woke up pretty early the morning I climbed McAfee Knob and watched the sun rise from my campsite. Then I quickly stuffed everything into my pack and ran up the hill in my shorts and my hiking shirt (feels crazy to me now in this cold weather) to take the photo. Then I pulled my quilt out of my pack and settled down to eat breakfast. After a few moments, the day hikers disappeared and I had the whole cliff you myself (something that any NOBO can tell you is a very rare occurrence). I finished the rest off the triple crown that afternoon and then settled in to a few weeks of almost complete solitude through southern Virginia.
Lyme disease and reflection
A few days after the triple crown, I started to get some pretty massive headaches. They were similar to some I had experienced earlier in the hike, but much worse. I had a few days where I was only able to hike a handful of miles because I was in so much pain. I was constantly fatigued and once spent half a day feeling rather feverish. I have experienced symptoms of a similar kind throughout the hike (ever since Connecticut, coming off and on in waves), but this was definitely the worst wave of them all. So I went to the emergency room (yep that is visit number 2) to see if I could get a test. Unfortunately they refused to test me citing that they would not be able to get the results to me, and since I was many many hours from my primary care provider, they just gave me a course of antibiotics.
It took a while, but that seemed to work. And during that time of recovery, I spent a lot of time reflecting. And I must apologize for anyone who already read this next snippet on Instagram, but it was one of the most important realizations I’ve had on trail. It came two days after I spent the night in a shelter in the pouring rain and cried for most of the night. It sounds worse than it was, in reality it was a hugely cathartic experience. A lot of the emotions I’d been saving up for weeks suddenly came rushing out all at once.
And not long after, I got to have a real, personal conversation with another woman on trail for the first time in months (seriously) and realized some of what was really going on with me.
I’ve tried to pressure myself again and again into believing that in order to be a “real” thru-hiker I need to be able to keep up with “the boys” and compete with the almost completely male hiker community that I’m surrounded by, but really struggle to feel like I am a part of. Without being really aware of it, I have spent the past four months being almost completely isolated in my own mind, even when there are other people around me. There is no one in my life (and virtually no one on trail) can actually understand and empathize with how out of place and ostracized I feel by a community that I love, and yet continues to infantilize, patronize, and objectify me.
I feel a constant need to defend my thru-hiker status, to prove that I am capable and that, even at 1,900+ miles, I have what it takes to finish this trail. And so when I would like to be calmly reconnecting with nature, I am spending my time angry, confused and discouraged. And in spite of having to sort through all of these crippling and confusing emotions, I still feel guilty when I take days off or can’t handle being around another group of egotistical men who ignore and look down on me.
And when, after hiding and bottling this all up for months, I finally got to talk about it all with another female hiker, I realized just how much I rely on my friends at home and the wonderful women in my life to help me feel a little less alone in a world where teenage girls aren’t supposed to leave home at seventeen and hike across the country. I was not prepared for the emotional roller coaster that being so alone would put me through – but I am grateful for the lessons I have had to learn as a result. There is so much I get out of thru hiking and living in the woods – and it isn’t always joy.
When I anticipated the trail changing my life, I’m not sure I understood how painful some of those changes would be. And I know some of you won’t believe me, but I am grateful for all of the stressful, painful, and minority traumatizing things I’ve had to go through to get this far, because in five years they will simply crazy experiences that have made my life better. Everything I do is so that I can be the crazy aunt who tells great stories and takes my brother’s kids on insane adventures.
When I was sick, I also entered the promised land of southern hostels and proceeded to take full advantage of the almost daily opportunity to stay indoors through southern Virginia and Tennessee. I got to return to my favorite hostel on trail, Woods Hole, and also stayed at bear garden, the long neck alpaca farm, rabbits hole and laughing heart.
Woods Hole is two old 1880 chestnut log cabins that have been passed down in a family for many generations, and has housed hikers since the 1980s. Every day Neville cooks two meals a day for the hikers and provides all kinds of rustic, homemade comforts. The greatest thing about Woods Hole is that there isn’t any cell service or television, so Wildstyle sat around in the evening and played 1981 Trivial Pursuit. We struggled a lot with the entertainment category and discovered that nearly every question could be answered with something relating to Marlon Brando, John Wayne, or Leave it to Beaver. In the end, the last question asked what the last album the Beatles recorded was. Which, of course, I knew to be Let it Be. But for whatever reason, that was not what the creators of the 1981 version of trivial pursuit believed. So Wildstyle and I put our shoes on and scrambled up the hill a little ways to get service and look it up. I wonder how people settled these sort of debates before the internet.
A few days later I stumbled upon a hostel somewhat by accident located in Burkes Garden, the highest fully enclosed valley in Virginia. It was absolutely gorgeous. Burkes Garden is a small depression in a tight circle of mountains, with open fields of horses and cows stretching out in every direction. All of the houses were old Victorian buildings with shutters and wrap around porches. Maybe I’ve been listening too much Anne of Green Gables, but it was like living in the past for a day. Burkes Garden would be a fascinating study in the effect of intense isolation and the patterns of behavior present in very small communities. Someday I’ll come back…
As many of you already know, I adopted a dog a few weeks ago. I had hiked out of Atkins and was spending the night sleeping in an old Victorian schoolhouse when a stinky, filthy, starving little dog found me. I fed him some jerky and then noticed he was full of burrs and covered in cow feces. So I cleaned him up and fed him some more food and went to sleep. He then promptly crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep. So I named him Jack. He followed me everywhere, ran after every new scent and animal and would sit down and go to sleep in my lap whenever I took a break. He was an amazing hiking companion. But I couldn’t bring him into Tennessee because of aggressive bear activity and the oncoming cold snap.
So after many fond memories and fun adventures, Jack and I parted ways. He had no collar when I found him, and no microchip either. There are no reports I’ve been able to find of a dog of his description missing in southern Virginia m, and so I found him a new home with family who will take care of him. We will meet again someday, but I had no realistic plan to keep him with me long-term.
It was strange to transition to taking care of another living things after so long alone. It changes the way I perceived myself. Suddenly I had to adjust my entire life, my habits, my expectations, my intentions, and my worries, to fit the life and needs of another creature. It’s hard to explain how isolated your mind becomes without constant external pressure from the outside world. And to suddenly have that pressure returned was a strange shift to undergo. But that shift was an important one to prepare for, because only a few weeks later I stumbled upon a SOBO bubble, and suddenly the inhabitants of my world grew exponentially.
The crazy thing is that I’d met another hiker going through the exact same thing only a few days before. And I’ve since been a part of reuniting a couple hunting hounds to their owners. It’s a crazy world out there.
Platinum Blazing with the Bubble to escape the cold
And that day, it snowed for the first time. I was hunkering down at the Refuge Hostel in Roan Mountain, Tennessee I preparation for several days of bad weather. The day after it snowed I hiked northbound back to the hostel where I was joined by five other hikers! And the next day as it poured rain on top of Roan mountain we cooked pancakes and told stories. It’s been amazing to travel with other hikers for a few weeks now and experience the trail through a completely different, more social lens.
We did a lot of slackpacking through the 10 and 20 degree weather, and stayed at as many hostels as possible
The greatest of all these experiences was hiker Thanksgiving in Hot Springs, North Carolina. The legendary trail angel Ms. Janet has planned and organized the Thanksgiving since 2002. She hosted me and 9 other hikers in her house for a few days before we moved on and met her in Hot Springs again. I’m so happy to have such a wonderful hiker community and the opportunity to do what I love every day of my life.
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