Confronting House Of Mirrors In Post-Hike Reflection
Are we really here?
Here as in an apartment an hour outside of New York City, in which I have been residing for four weeks and not holed up in a shelter, freezing my ass off. Here as in a rolling chair at a desk, typing from a laptop as opposed to through a cracked iPhone screen. Here as in back in New York, and therefore no longer hiking. The answer, obviously, is: Yes, we’re really here.
Preamble, With Apologies
Cogitating on the tumultuous life experience known as a long-distance hike may be more difficult than hiking the actual trail. My post-hike thoughts meander more than the AT itself, making for winding sentences and dense paragraphs. Additionally, it’s winter in New York, I’m gainfully unemployed, and nostalgia is in ample supply. Laconic my language is not. After I wrote this post – more for your sake than mine, dear reader – I debated a heavy edit. After all, a blog post probably shouldn’t have more than 2,000 words. But then I realized that most people think a hike probably shouldn’t have more than 2,000 miles, and we know how that went (spoiler alert: very well). So here’s the first installment of what’s bound to be a triple crown of post-hiking posts.
- Thought about quitting smoking (as I drove to the gas station to buy Parliaments).
- Spent 62 percent of every day talking on the phone or texting with friends from the trail.
- Painted my nails royal blue.
- Set off the smoke alarm attempting to make the most Instagrammable chocolate chip cookies.
As evidenced, I’m adjusting very well to post-trail life. “Post-trail? Weren’t you just in Pearisburg?” Yes. Backtracking is necessary.
So, like, I basically thru-hiked. I say basically because, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Presidential Range of the White Mountains is still on my to-do list; therefore, I fall 26 miles shy of the 2,189.8 miles necessary to claim thru-hiker status. That said, I spent 172 days hiking 2,163.8 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and while I’m not about to get a big AT symbol tattooed on my slowly weakening thigh until I walk that final stretch, I’m feeling pretty accomplished these days. For the record, I would never get an AT symbol tattooed on my thigh. I would get an elaborate nature scene laced in roses and thorns underscored by a pseudo-profound life quote on my rib cage.
I realize I’m jumping ahead quite a bit, but I summited – a rather grandiose word for the graded stroll up Springer – on Dec. 19. Requisite “Yay!” The final stretch was beautiful until it wasn’t. This description is both literal – the sunniest day in days gradually disappeared under layers of clouds, and we hiked the last two miles with the threat of a storm that came to fruition as we snapped finishing photos in the wind – and figurative – the palpable joy that had been coursing through my body for the last few days terminated in tears as I looked out over the scrubby viewpoint, and was quickly transformed into a heavy sense of rootlessness and dread.
Rootlessness and dread are terrible topics, though! So – and I can’t believe I’m saying this after 554 miles of it – let’s go back to Virginia.
Virginia, Virginia, Virginia
Virginia was, in short, everything. It’s long as fuck, as we all well know, and so it’s hard to cram a quarter of the trail into a couple of paragraphs.
Coming off the epic high of a double whammy full moon clear sky sunset-sunrise situation on McAfee Knob, I hiked happily to Four Pines in Catawba. Had I known that this would be the last happy hiking for a while, I might have slowed down a bit, but dammit, I was in a rush to eat town food and buy cigarettes. As you do.
The morning I was going to ascend Dragon’s Tooth was cold and rainy.
Though I don’t believe in anything supernatural, mystical, or fake, it was hard to otherwise explain the sudden shift in mood and meteorological conditions. “We’re karmically paying for the world’s best night on McAfee Knob” seemed like the only logical explanation, which goes to show you how irrational one becomes when hiking for six months. But paying we were. The cinematic conditions that had been our backdrop on the most photographed spot on the AT – perfect weather, unobstructed views, no other hikers – were a distant memory. It wasn’t merely raining, but fucking pouring. I hid under the awning at the Catawba Grocery, watching a parade of camouflaged hunters grab 36-packs of Bud Light and head back to their pickup trucks: It was the first day of hunting season in Virginia. I pulled my orange Carhartt hat down over my forehead and wondered for the tenth time how a bright knit hat could ever stand up to a bullet.
Going Downhill, Metaphorically
The section between Four Pines and Pearisburg ranks as my least favorite section of the entire trail. First of all, daylight saving time happened. While I thought that falling back would make me wake up earlier, it turns out that old habits die hard; after the initial jet-laggy day or two when I woke up around six, I went right back to waking up around 7:45, rolling around in my sleeping back for half an hour, and departing around 9:15. This didn’t change the fact that it was now getting dark an hour earlier, meaning that an additional three to five miles needed to be crammed into the day.
On a sadder note, I’d been thrilled when, in Harpers Ferry, I’d finally caught up to a friend who I’d met back in Maine and had been consistently three days ahead of and then three days behind for about two months. We had a ball hiking from Harpers Ferry to Daleville, but he was forced to take a couple of weeks off due to an injury, thus ending one of the most hilarious parts of the trek. Additionally, as someone who generally prides herself on traveling alone and not requiring the company of other people to be entertained, it was somewhat sobering to realize that I was having less fun when I wasn’t hiking with someone. People, man. They’ll get you every time.
More dumb things happened during this section. I left my gloves on a branch while peeing and had to backtrack half a mile uphill to retrieve them as the sun was setting. I got holes in my Sawyer bag and was fake-filtering, squeezing it through the filter but watching it pour out of the bag into my water bottle, fully tainted. Another friend and I, who had been hiking together since Front Royal, split up leaving Catawba, and, due to nonexistent cell service, didn’t meet up again into the promised land of Pearisburg. Hiking alone is fine, but it was uber-frustrating when we realized that she had probably been less than a mile behind me for four days straight. I night hiked and heard hunters; I night hiked and saw hunters. The constant presence of rifles and deer carcasses would never become normal, though they were certainly prevalent. My knuckles and cuticles cracked and bled from the wind and the cold on the ridges, and the worst part was that it was barely below freezing.
Much-Needed Angel’s Rest
I arrived at the road crossing in Pearisburg feeling like death and looking deranged. Nothing a solid nero and zero can’t fix! Right? A solid 36 hours in a private room, eating healthy food (NB: This is not facetious! Angel’s Rest Hiker’s Haven – heaven on earth – has a phenomenal kitchen and vegetables were consumed!) maxxing and relaxing while watching ridiculous television… these are generally the components required to overcome a bad stretch of trail and set out early the next morning with a little more Springer in your step. Ha. Ha.
The plan was to take it slow, doing an 11-mile day from Pearisburg to Woods Hole. The weather was marginally warmer – hovering around freezing – but the clouds of doom and constant mist were ever-present, and I felt that I was marching to my demise. Despite having walked over 1,500 miles, I simply could not fathom doing 632 more. If getting to Pearisburg had been painful, Damascus seemed unattainable, to mention nothing of the fact that there were still three states after Virginia. Forget the Virginia blues, these were the grays and blacks. As I trudged up hills that were comparatively tiny, I found myself stopping constantly, checking the map frantically, and holding back irrational tears.
There were three miles to Woods Hole when I finally took my pack off and phoned home, demanding to be picked up.
“You need to come get me now!”
“What happened? Where are you?”
“I’m in Virginia and I’m dying!”
I was at the bottom of a 300-foot incline, checking my pulse, putting my boyfriend on speaker phone while googling “hiking-induced panic attack.” To all the writers of articles who claim that hiking reduces stress levels, I would like to take this moment to debunk your false science and alternative facts. Hiking is stressful, terrifying, and anxiety-inducing. Hiking is literally awful. The worst. People start smoking on trail because it’s so ridiculous. This is not a drill: Grown-ass adults who have never involved themselves with nicotine will be sitting around a campfire and know in the bottom of their hearts and lungs that they need a cigarette because nothing else will fix their broken souls. Hiking – not for pussies!
It was determined that driving from New York to the middle of the woods in Virginia was an irrational way to deal with my (assumedly) temporary freakout; additionally, though my heart rate was going the speed of a fucking Nutribullet, I probably wasn’t having an actual heart attack (according to Google). I figured the best way to deal with the situation was – kill me -to keep walking. I’d walked 3 miles about 500 times thus far. What was one more, right? RIGHT?
A Turning Point, Of Sorts
I obviously didn’t die on a fake mountain, so I’ll skip over the agonizingly boring story of getting to Woods Hole, having a fabulous night with fabulous people, and making the most fabulous decision to slackpack and return to Pearisburg again. This turned out to be the morale boost of a lifetime: Some other friends, who we’d gotten ahead after Glasgow, had just arrived and were also zeroing. I had forgotten, in the midst of frigid nights and lonely miles, that there were, in fact, other people on the trail – people whom I’d met and whose company I’d enjoyed. We thought we’d gotten irreparably ahead of them, and it was – dare I say – trail magic to have our paths convene one more time. Much commiserating transpired, as did much consumption of food. I have a very clear memory of sitting around a booth in a Mexican restaurant trading stories about the various times we’d cried in recent days.
Ostensibly, the moral of the story is that sometimes you need to take a double zero, and also that people are amazing. I’m gagging in my mouth as I write that, because it totally sounds like some trite trail thing, but I challenge even the most cynical New Yorker to spend six months in the woods and not emerge mildly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (more on that in an imminent post).
Whatever the cause, my mini-meltdown seemed to have been medicinal because the stretch of trail between Pearisburg and Marion felt fun again. We camped in rhododendron bushes, watched mice do laps over our possessions at the Chestnut Knob shelter, and stealth camped on a ridge where the wind whipped so loudly that we couldn’t stay asleep. It was still gray, and it was still cold, but the feeling of tedium had lifted and was replaced with a simple desire to keep going.
Well, Let’s Not Be Dramatic
I’m not saying I was infused with exuberance, that I did a complete 180 and instantly loved everything. That’s simply not me.
I believe, though, that Harpers Ferry to Daleville is one of the best sections of the AT. There are views: the Shenandoahs, the Three Ridges, the Virginia triple crown. We missed the view on the Priest, but the hilarious logbook more than made up for it. There are towns: Front Royal, which has a trolley you can ride for 50 cents; Waynesboro, and the infamous Ming’s AYCE buffet; Glasgow, which was, for reasons I can’t figure out, hilarious; and Daleville, hashtag HoJo and a great Goodwill. Also, the Devil’s Backbone, which is epic. Finally, the company I kept in this section was first class. To go from what’s essentially a vacation from your vacation back to the humdrum habits of solo-hiking in shit weather on boring terrain is enough to make anyone second-guess his or her reasons for being out there.
When you’re hiking for weeks on end in a rapidly chilling shoulder season, beauty and novelty become backdrop to necessity: Where is the next water, and will it be frozen? Can we muster up the strength to walk 22 miles on knee-deep snow for the third day in a row, fueled by fruit snacks because my canister fuel won’t fucking heat? Can we realistically bear another night outside? More than that, though, I had started to feel that the hike was obligatory, like I’d committed some twisted crime during a blackout and was paying penance à pied.
I realize this will sound like a drag to aspiring thru-hikers, who are currently shaking their heads and casting me off as a misanthrope who didn’t carpe enough diem, man. But I maintain that, whether you’re a NOBO with the ever-looming closure of Katahdin, or a SOBO with impending holidays and an aversion to midwinter hiking, your thru-hike, for most mortals, will have a deadline of sorts. Deadlines are generally associated with jobs and health insurance and other shit people hike in order to avoid; thus, this line of thinking is anathema to a rolling-stone type of person. Who wants to admit that adventure has an expiration date, and that soon enough ascents will be attained and decisions will be on the horizon?
I know, I know: This isn’t a detour, it is a lifestyle! #nomadswag! The mountains are calling and you, like, neeeeed to go! But the reality is that despite our amazing Instagram accounts and rose-colored glasses, hiking is hard the majority of the time. Living in the present means accepting this, and choosing to continue both because of and in spite of this. Maybe the reason I left Pearisburg in good spirits was that remembered I had a choice. That no one was forcing me to hike. That you’re allowed to cry on gorgeous mountains because you can’t perfectly time the way you feel your surroundings. It leaves room to luxuriate in snowstorms because, even though all reason says you shouldn’t, you feel amazing.
Nearly The End Of Virginia
We rolled up to the Econo Lodge in Marion on a high from having hitched with a kindly middle-aged woman. Marion was a turning point as well: The Grayson Highlands were coming, a new state was coming, new people were coming. There was no way to know how the last quarter of the trail was going to turn out. For the moment, though, we wore shorts and ate Taco Bell in the laundromat, with bad television and scratchy, warm beds in the near future, and we were happy.
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