The old guy up ahead remains nameless but at the time was the only thing which stood out as unique upon the entire mountain. We were miles from any road or Trailhead and having spent the better part of an hour stifling yawns and tripping myself awake on roots and rocks I had someone in my sights and I was closing fast. He was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat atop his head which sat at an opposite angle to the slope of his arthritic shoulders and made me admire him all the more for struggling up the hill at what I’d guessed was nearly 80 years old.
He wasn’t wearing a backpack but as I came closer I could see a small saw with a bright red handle dangling from the middle belt loop on the back of his pants.
“Are you a trail maintainer?” I carefully called out while still at enough distance to hopefully not frighten him.
He stopped in his tracks and slowly turned around, revealing that his shoulder pain extended into his neck making eye contact with me a rather laborious chore. But then he cheerfully reached his gloved right hand into his front pocket and removed another tool.
“I don’t use the saw much, but the pruners come in real handy!”
The Appalachian Trail is not only tended to by The National Park Service but also by dozens of registered hiking clubs within each of the fourteen states it passes through. These volunteers can be seen at least weekly cutting back overgrowth as it tries to swallow the path, sawing and removing dead trees, digging trenches to divert rainwater off-trail, building bridges over creeks, painting navigational blazes on trees and rocks, and making stone or log steps up steep and slippery sections.
I thanked this man for his service and told him it meant a lot to me that he’d climb to the top of a long mountain pruning the overgrowth just to make my hike a little easier.
“Oh, I go a little overboard on my section and my friend Larry says I overdo it. I’m out here at least weekly. But Larry ought not to have much to say cause he cuts his section of trail with a lawn mower!”
My new friend shared more insights and frustrations with his volunteer work, such as not being allowed to use his battery powered chain saw because he hasn’t taken the required course even though, as he carefully explained, he’s been using saws all his life and could teach the “certified” people a thing or two. He must have caught me glancing at my watch because he abruptly shifted gears and said, “Are you a thru-hiker?” And as I nodded yes he exclaimed, “I’ve never felt the need to hike the whole trail. Well, I’d better let you go. Looks like you’re running a little behind if you want to finish!”
And with that I moved on up the way buoyed by the man’s infectious energy but burdened by yet another reminder- I’m far behind my original schedule.
I’m currently at mile 864 and feeling good. I babied the leg injury for about a week after Trail Days by keeping my hiking miles low and slow. But as the painful sensations began to subside my confidence grew and I carefully picked up the volume and pace. I’m now, knock on wood, both the healthiest and strongest I’ve been since I began back on March 11th. Which is a good thing because after doing the math the challenge is daunting.
I have 1,334 miles to go. I don’t know anything about the final two states, New Hampshire and Maine, other than their reputation for unpredictable and cold weather. The finish line is on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, and the park’s website strongly urges all thru-hikers to have finished their hikes by October 15th because of the final climb’s propensity for closing due to wintry conditions. To allow room for any more potential problems or illness I’m targeting October 1st as my end date. The calculator says to achieve that I’ll need to average 12.4 miles a day between now and then.
Since days off are important for my physical recovery and mental health I’m attempting to walk over 100 miles every six days, thus earning one weekly Zero Day in a hiker hostel, budget motel, or heaven forbid, my tent. Mileage surplus to a hundred can help me end sooner or be banked for additional days I may need off for sickness or visits from friends and family. Looking back on my mileage log I’ve been able to meet that challenge for the past three weeks by hiking between a dozen to two dozen daily miles. I feel positive about this plan right now and believe it’s sustainable. Thanks for the reminder, Trail Volunteer full of spunk and goodwill!
The past three weeks have been a lot of work but include some real standout moments. I want to put out there right now that somehow Virginia has a reputation for being easier than Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Having just done the first two-thirds of Virginia’s 540 trail miles I’m here to say it is not true at all! I shredded my feet on the Triple Crown last week, three uniquely beautiful geologic rock formations in between the towns of Pearisburg and Daleville. The ratio of softball-sized and larger stone blanketing the trail as it both ascended and descended these mountains picked up x1000 and the sharp pointy edges made mincemeat of my shoe soles and feet.
The pain was worth it, however, as I marveled at each jewel in the crown. The first was Dragon’s Tooth. It looked just like the name implies and I reckon stood about 35 feet tall protruding from the mountain’s summit. Three young guys had just climbed to the top of it but had come back down as I arrived. I searched all about but couldn’t find a safe way up and since I was all alone decided discretion was the better part of valor and I’d settle for a selfie with the great incisor.
The next day was McAfee Knob, said to be the most photographed feature of the entire AT. I stayed in the Catawba Mountain Shelter the night before and the morning of the hike I enjoyed talking with two fellas my age from Northern Ohio who were section hiking the Triple Crown, Kevin and Jeff. They were a preacher and parishioner from the same church and provided a lot of laughs and a fun start to my day as we ate breakfast together at the shelter’s picnic table. I wondered if they would be able to get up the climb as quickly as I would so we could take each other’s picture on the Knob (“That’s what she said!”- sorry guys), a famous tradition. I wanted to sit on the ledge with my feet dangling in space like I’ve seen so often over the years but after failing to climb Dragon’s Tooth I didn’t know if I’d have the courage to do it.
As I climbed the two miles up from the Shelter I met purple-haired Dilly and Dally coming back down. They’d gone to the iconic rock in the early hours to catch it at sunrise. I asked if there was anyone else up there, hoping to have a photographer for my big moment. They said a young guy was, but they’d left because he was chalking up his hands to hang from the rock and they didn’t want to see him fall, which would surely result in death. I told them goodbye and picked up my speed so I could catch this Daredevil in action but before long I encountered a skinny kid in all black clothing with chalk powder stains smeared up and down the front of his body. He told me his name was Tree Man and proudly Air Dropped the photos of his grand achievement. I couldn’t believe what I saw but I thought to myself if he can do that I can surely sit on the ledge.
The only problem I had in getting my prized picture was by the time I’d gotten to the top of McAfee Knob there was no one around. But it was beautiful, so I FaceTimed my lovely wife Lori who was back home getting ready for work and shared the moment with her. About 20 minutes later I heard voices approaching and was glad to see a father and daughter combo appear from the trees opposite the cliffs’ edge. They were day hikers named Kevin and Bailey Jordan, from Raleigh, NC like me, and they were astonished that I sat on the edge as Bailey used my camera to snap a scary several minute photo shoot. Well, Kevin was astounded while his daughter wanted him to emulate the feat with her while I took their photos. Being the good dad he is I captured his bravery along with his daughter’s delight.
The third jewel in the crown was also the most chill but maybe my favorite. Tinker Cliffs was a series of more than a dozen rock outcroppings positioned in a way that allowed for panoramic views while affording privacy from the other cliffs due to their various heights, as well as trees and boulders acting as peripheral fencing. Imagine balconies on a high-rise apartment building and you’ll have an idea. There could be a lot of hikers visiting Tinker Cliffs at once, but you’d feel like you had the place all to yourself. It was a peaceful place to rest up before tackling the painful rocky path down into Daleville.
As awesome as the Triple Crown was there happened to be a completely different kind of moment that eclipsed it. I finally saw a bear. I’d befriended a younger hiker in his 30s by the name of Black Dog from Oklahoma who carries around a picture of his black dog, which unfortunately passed away last year. Over the past couple weeks, we’d hiked a good deal together and one of our topics of conversation had been bear sightings. Black Dog had already seen four since he started the AT and I’d been lamenting the fact I’d seen none.
After leading BD across some pastureland and through a herd of cattle we climbed up and into the woods. I felt like I was slowing him down as he’s a stronger hiker than I, so I stepped aside to let him by. Just as he’d gotten around a bend in the trail and out of my sight I surprisingly came right back across him again. But BD was no longer hiking. He had his phone camera out and was very intently filming. I knew immediately it had to be a bear so I pulled out my phone and started videoing too. I tiptoed forward to see a 300-pound black bear staring at me from a distance of around 30 yards. The hair on its back was up so I turned my trekking pole pointy end forward in case I needed to use it as a spear. Instead, the bear slowly retreated another ten yards before beginning to forage the ground, looking back up at us every few seconds. It was thrilling to spend several minutes with the bear in its habitat before he finally ran off down the hill. He was powerful and moved elegantly between the trees and I thanked Black Dog for his bear whispering skills.
I still have far to go and much more pain and discomfort to endure. But I’m also confident I’ll have plenty more AT jewels and experiences to temper the hard times and help push me forward as I rack up the miles. For now I’d better follow the old guy’s advice and get some sleep. I’ll need the energy tomorrow since I’m still “running a little behind if I want to make it on time!”
Thanks for reading!
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