Reaching the AT Spiritual Halfway Point
Daleville to Harpers Ferry
May 6 to May 24, days 54 to 72
I’ve carried more baggage than my gear on this trek. Previously I detailed how I’ve coped with grief and loss. I have two distinct destinations on this journey. On the map I’m hiking to Maine but psychologically I’m hiking to acceptance and peace of mind. Happily, after completing Virginia, I’m closer to both goals.
Trail Segment Summary
This segment took me 295.5 miles from Dalesville, Va., to Harpers Ferry, W.V. I covered this distance in 19 total days, including two zeros, one in Waynesboro and one in Luray. Significantly, I passed the 800, 900, and 1,000 mile marks. I completed the longest single state, Virginia. More importantly, I fell into a healthy rhythm. Physically I felt great, averaging an overall 15.6 miles per day. Psychologically, I turned a corner but it wasn’t before a real world tragedy set me back that I sprung forward. I’ll start there.
Real World Tragedy Strikes
My late wife’s mother, Roberta, unexpectedly passed away on May 13 after an intense ten-day hospitalization due a brain aneurysm. She was otherwise healthy, and there was no warning or evidence of an underlying medical condition. I followed her condition as best I could from the trail. At first I thought she would pull through but her situation became more and more dire. My thoughts began to fixate on her, her family, and my wife as old wounds and scars were ripped open. How could this happen within a year. A mother and daughter both die from brain issues? I felt myself slip backward on the recovery timeline. I really didn’t know what to do for a week. Eventually I shared what was going on with my friends to explain my latest social withdrawal. My trail family provided some pretty good advice and support and I hiked on.
When recovery became unlikely I decided to leave the trail and be with my wife’s family, who had always been there for me. I made a car rental reservation in Waynesboro and planned to drive home. The next day I hiked 19-plus miles without stopping and hitched a ride into town. The car rental agency didn’t open until morning so I called my brother-in-law. Roberta had passed at 2 that morning and a memorial service was set for June 8. He appreciated my willingness to travel home but said that the crisis was over and the family was exhausted. We decided I’d stay on the trail and return home for the service. Roberta was a big supporter of my hike. She followed my progress closely and she was the one who took Dixie in so I couldn’t continue this hike. I know have two angels watching me.
I stayed hiking and immediately felt better. The decision to leave was correct and the decision to stay was too. I also agreed to speak at the memorial service. I thought about what I might say as I hiked. This constant reflection dramatically improved my mind-set. Because the service hasn’t happened and my thoughts aren’t final I won’t print them yet but I think I understand what transpired.
Until this time I’d spent hours every day thinking about loss as it applied to me. Now I was thinking about how to package my experience into words to help others. When I heard myself “deliver” my message I was faced with some critical self-examination. Did I really believe what I was saying? If I didn’t I shouldn’t even deliver the message because it would just be platitudes. But if I did then I should take my own advice. The answer was yes. Yes, I did believe what I was saying and thinking. I haven’t discovered anything new or a miracle cure. I stand by my belief you never get over some things; they just get easier. My planned words won’t prevent grief for Roberta’s family but they might make things easier with time.
There is a lesson here. When I focused on helping others I ended up helping myself.
Feeling Normal About Feeling Normal
Truthfully, I had been feeling more and more normal before Roberta’s death. It’s hard to explain but I’d experience periods of time where I suddenly realize how good and liberating it feels to just feel good. Peaceful might be the best word. In the past these periods were brief and often brought guilt so I’d drive them away. Yes, that sounds strange to me too in hindsight. Other times I wanted them to stay but they slipped away. Now they have been more frequent and last longer, and it’s like a burden has been lifted off my back or clouds that cleared in my mind. Roberta’s death was a setback but once I refocused on others my recovery accelerated. I’m not “cured” or “over it” but I feel better and am starting to think more about the future and less about the past. Feeling normal is starting to feel normal.
Ain’t got no time for no Virginia Blues
Believe it or not, despite all the thinking about life and death, I really enjoyed this portion of the hike. Maybe it was because of all the heavy side issues that I loved Virginia so much. The trail was the escape from the real world. I had no Virginia Blues; Virginia went a long way to cure my blues.
For a small off-trail town Glasgow was a lot of fun and offered everything a hiker needed. The town has a thru-hiker shelter in the park where hikers can camp for free. Next to the park is restaurant, small grocery store, and laundromat. The sense of hiker community and hobo/tramp feel is something I love about the trail. Finally, if I haven’t convinced you it’s a fun place yet there’s a brontosaurus that lurked in the mist.
Devils Backbone Brewing
What is better than a brewery? A brewery that will pick you up from the trail, feed you breakfast and coffee, let you camp for free, has outdoor pavilions, games, and live music. They also have excellent beer, food, and local people that smell fresh and clean. When our time was up they gave us hiker swag and a life back to the trail. Officially it was a nero but we spent 24 hours at Devils Backbone, a must stop for any AT thru-hiker.
Waynesboro is larger than Glasgow and home of the iconic Ming’s all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Ming’s lost money the night we hit it, which happened to be Mother’s Day so the place was packed and the food was hot and fresh. Thru-hikers can also camp in the city park and shower at the YMCA for free. Now I really felt like hiker trash and loved it. I took a zero to resupply and hit Ming’s one more time.
Two days out of Glasgow I got caught in a hell of thunderstorm. The timing couldn’t have been worse as the the storm caught me on an exposed ridge. Rain soaked me and the pea-sized hail pummeled from the sky. Lightning was striking the woods around me. Flash-booms, with no delay between lightning and thunder. I ditched my poles and crouched on the ground until the worst lightning passed. I felt like Lt. Dan on Forrest Gump’s boat defying the storm but I was happy when it was over and vowed to be more careful.
Careful or not sometimes the storm is unavoidable. On my second night in Waynesboro we were hit with widespread severe weather including derecho winds. As I hunkered down in my tent and held on a fist clutching a beer appeared under my tent door. It was Seven, delivering a beer in the midst of the storm. Thru-hikers…. gotta love em.
Shenandoah National Park, More Bad Weather
The bad weather at Waynesboro set the tone for Shenandoah National Park. I spent six days going through the park, and it didn’t rain on the first day or the last day. Every other day was rain-soaked. The weather detracted from what seemed to be a beautiful place. I found I wasn’t affected by the rain as much as earlier in the trip, mostly because the temperatures were warmer. The trail resembled a river in many places.
After three days of rain I was ready for a break and we found it. On May 17 we camped at Big Meadows Campground. Although we were outside in tents there was a lodge nearby with a restaurant and tap room. May 17 also happened to be my 50th birthday. Over beers we celebrated and my tramily came through. Seven and Double-Tap packed in a mini pecan pie and candle and the lodge provided ice cream. I also received a roll of TP as a present. I’m happy to be 50; too many people I know never made it this far. I’m proud to be hiking the trail at 50. No complaints here.
The weather worsened the next day but I had a lifeline. Right before I started this hike a long-lost high school friend, Beth, contacted me with an offer of trail magic. She and her husband, Joe, live near Luray and they would be happy pick me up for some rest and relaxation. We had a great visit and I returned to the trail dry, clean, and fed. Equally great was that the weather finally broke and the sun returned.
Now I was on a roll. I felt like I had the rhythm of the trail. Irish Paul and I pushed over 25 miles just to reach the 1,000-mile mark. A lot of emotions flowed as I stared at the number 1,000 in rocks. I reflected on Brenda, Roberta, and my fellow veterans, especially those who are no longer here. Then joy burst out; it felt like such a huge accomplishment.
Virginia didn’t go quietly. I faced the 13.5-mile section of trail called the Roller Coaster with continuous ups and downs, still plenty muddy from all the rain. Then the trail mellowed a bit and after a short trip skirting the Virginia-West Virginia border I descended into Harpers Ferry, home of the ATC and the psychological halfway point. I went straight to the headquarters, took my picture, and logged in. I’m NOBO hiker #333 to arrive. I was #1,027 to leave Amicalola Falls. I was sweaty and muddy but all smiles.
I’m meeting my mom and aunt in Harpers Ferry for some zero days before I proceed on the trail. It’s a natural place for a break and to collect my thoughts. I’ve come a long way, geographically and emotionally. I feel great, the best I’ve felt in years. The adventure will continue soon. Stay tuned.
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