Signals From Sputnik: Springer to Damascus
Greetings from Virginia!
It’s a warm, pleasant, spring afternoon here in Damascus, although showers will likely roll in later in the afternoon – just when I’m planning to head back into the woods. But spirits are high amongst the thru-hiker crowd we’ve connected with here in town. Any thru-hiker’s morale will spike without doubt when entering a town, but Damascus is of course a special place. Beyond being a major trail town and the host of the annual Trail Days festival later on in the spring, it seems to be an especially notable waypoint for gauging one’s progress, much like the GA/NC border or Harper’s Ferry. Some people say that statistically around half of all northbound thru-hikers will drop out by this point, and although I haven’t witnessed that myself, it certainly does feel good to have made it this far. Now, when I look at one of those tall maps of the whole AT, the section behind me no longer seems quite so insignificant. It’s still a small portion in the grand scheme of things, but it’s enough to make me feel more confident, and not the other way around.
I’ve hiked so far with two good friends I met during high school, who are now known as Butter and GGG. I’ve taken on the trail name Sputnik, due to a neoprene cap intended for use under a whitewater kayak helmet that’s served dual use as bonus head insulation and as a pot cozy. At a few points I referred to it as my “Sputnik cap” due its ability to give its wearer a cosmonaut-like appearance, and although that was a bit of a misnomer, as the Sputnik satellite was unmanned, the has name stuck. GGG was especially insistent on me accepting it after hours of “rocketry” experiments off the tall tower on Clingman’s Dome, which involved airborne tent stakes with fins, parachutes, and a firecracker. (Needless to say, the three of us like to goof off along the way.)
We began our trek on February 25th, a date that feels just as distant now as the thick snow and icy temperatures that accompanied it. Despite bringing more challenging conditions, we found that winter’s strong presence made our first section of trail one of the most beautiful.
Equally interesting to me as the wilderness component of the hike has been experiencing a part of the country to which I am largely unfamiliar. The South is a very different place than my native state of Massachusetts, of course, but from no perspective is this more apparent than that of a thru-hiker. I knew I’d see new sights and meet a new community of people on this hike, but didn’t quite anticipate how valuable it feels to tour one’s own country on foot. Being a thru-hiker has opened up many doors for us, especially in terms of connecting with non-hikers we’ve met along the way, and allowed us to see a lot more of whatever we pass through – wilderness or not – than would be possible through any other form of travel. The has largely proven to be true in the best of ways. Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and now Virginia have all treated us incredibly well.
The snow had melted away by the time we hiked out of Neils Gap, and although the weather was by no means ideal, we experienced a new kind of scenery on the trail. Prolonged periods of heavy fog gave the forest a mystical feel, and the transition time between winter and spring in this part of the country has still proven to be in many ways to be a nice time to be in the woods.
We have also been accompanied by a fourth traveler on this journey, at times unknowingly. At the end of our first 20-mile day, coming out of Neils Gap, GGG pulled off one of his boots and watched a sizable metal screw fall out. After showing everyone this screw of mysterious origins and making the connection as to why he had experienced mild foot pain all day, he stowed it away to pack out and forgot about it. Days later, the screw fell out of a hole in the crotch of his pants while grabbing a seat in the Huddle House in Franklin. It has since been named “Screwdini” and gained a permanent place in GGG’s pack.
Other highlights from our hike so far include:
It’s safe to say that food – and the craving of it as much as the actual consumption – has taken a new role in our lives. As many have posted about before me, it isn’t hard to spend miles, even days, craving a particular kind of food. I’ve occupied many long hours on the trail by thinking through what would be present in Sputnik’s Dream All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. I give myself ten trays, each of which can be divided into two sections with separate items, but which must comprise a common theme. There are certain constants on my list, like an Eggs Benedict and greasy homefries tray, for example, but planning out a full dream meal from within the world of calorie-deprivation can be quite the all-consuming task.
Beyond intense cravings, I haven’t necessarily felt much hungrier at any given point than was common in pre-trail life. The time it takes for me to get hungry after eating, however, has shrunk to an incredible degree, even when I’ve had a massive meal in town. I’m getting intensely hungry right now as I type this, actually, even though I ate lunch just a couple hours ago.
I’ve addressed this in part by adding a large fanny pack, worn on my front and strung between my pack’s two hip-belt pockets, to my packing system. It serves as a feed bag of sorts, allowing me to munch on Combos and Chex-Mix while I walk, much in the same way that horses can be easily fed oats by strapping a bag onto their face. Of the many little tips and tricks I’ve picked up on the way so far, this is one of the ones I feel is most worth sharing. It’s obviously not that bad to frequently take off your pack, but I’ve found not doing so to be surprisingly liberating. By keeping water and water treatment (a modified Aquamira system) on hand, I often go a full day without stopping to sort through layers and little bottles at the top of my pack to reach whatever it is that I need. If nothing else, it provides opportunity to make a fashion statement.
Despite the difficulties of staying well-fed on the trail, or perhaps because of it, I’ve also found it surprisingly difficult to buy myself a sensible load of food at each resupply point. It’s apparent that the overwhelming nature of even a modestly-stocked Dollar General to thru-hiker eyes is far more powerful than my prudence regarding pack weight. Through careful pre-trail preparation and more recent modifications, I’ve gotten my pack “base weight” (everything that’s not consumable, i.e. not fuel or sunscreen) down to around 10 pounds. Yet I suffer from a strong tendency to pile all the weight back on when we hit the supermarket. It’s part bad planning, and part “It all just looks so good!”
On other matters concerning mealtime, know that when everyone tells you that buying this kind of spork (see below) is a bad idea, they are right. This one surprised its critics by making it all the way to Fontana, but broke down in glorious fashion while I attempted to stir pasta.
Okay… non-food-related highlights include some incredible pieces of wilderness, of course, among other little slices of fun along the way:Much more awaits – even before we finish the mind-blowingly long state of Virginia, which itself is longer than the trail’s passage through all three states we’ve hiked so far. The good news is that we all are still eager to put down the miles and enjoying the sights along the way. Boredom and drudgery seem inevitable at points, but, no matter the circumstances, there’s always a little part of the mind that’s chomping at the bit to push forward in pursuit of reaching Maine – and in the end that’s all it takes to keep moving.
The pack’s gotten slimmer, the legs have gotten better-suited for the trail, the daily mileages have gotten longer, and the weather has warmed considerably since the early days of our hike. Spring is on its way, and so are we! I’m grateful that all the news to report so far has been good news, and despite some smaller hurdles to overcome and the handful of ever-present concerns for any thru-hiker, the journey so far has been a successful one. I wish good luck to everyone who has yet to start or that we have yet to meet on trail! Now it’s into Virginia for a long, long while. We’ve only dipped out toes into the pool… a lengthy swim through rough waters lies ahead until we finish the state.
All the best from Damascus,
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