Smokies to Damascus: Thoughts up to Mile 470
From the site of Trail Days, a major in-season destination, I’m comfortably writing from Woodchuck hostel and about to spend my first night sleeping in a teepee. Here are some collected thoughts since leaving the Smokies.
Being Comfortable = Managing Discomfort
Today I spoke with one brother from the Whitewalkers, a duo hiking NoBo with two white huskies, about how we slept last night in this really clean, homey and warm hostel. Terribly. In fact, last night tucked in clean sheets and memory foam was the worst sleep so far, below the water dripping on my face from Iron Mountain shelter’s nail-holed roof while a mouse scraped open my food bag. Why? I’ve managed discomfort to the point where dripping water is the norm, it’s the expectation, it’s the lullaby. Nothing about winter hiking has been a comfort, whether it be putting on frozen clothing and starting the day’s hike with only a base layer on in 20 degree temps because you know one hour in you’d have to take your mid layer off from beginning to sweat. Every day starts with a metaphorical cold shower and ends with a steam bath to dry clothes by sleeping in musty gear. During the first month, these were discomforts, times I didn’t look forward to. Now, they feel like part of life, times a depend on to bring a sense of normalcy to my daily routine. A week goes by without taking off my undergarments; I feel cleaner at the end of this time then I do after putting on a washed set, knowing I’m starting the cycle all over again. All said, I’ve grown to take comfort in the cold and humidity. It wouldn’t feel normal without them. Thus, the damp teepee rug floor tonight rather than the mattress. I take this as the other-bodily equivalent of “getting my trail legs” and I know I have more discomfort to manage as the weather warms up and I can’t rely on the insulation that snow provides my feet from the cold, nor the security I feel knowing ice won’t slowly seep into my gear.
The Only Option is to Move or Die
Sounds dramatic. It is, yet it’s also true: I’ve learned that I constantly need to be in motion or I simply loose energy to maintain body heat while at rest. It happens quickly so I need to act quickly, minimizing gloves-off time and keeping a constant pace to keep blood flowing pedictably. This helps me avoid spikes and dips in my respiration, allowing me to keep a constant exhale and release of water vapor, and stay just warm enough to not be cold and cool enough not to sweat. Either end leads to more energy being used to cool or heat myself, respectively, and needing to drink more water and eat more food, affecting my hike from carrying more or becoming sluggish. It’s just how it is – the same in warm weather, yet my reality that I dwell on throughout the whole day. My fellow hikers and I agree: our perfect day is 25 degrees, no wind and sunny. We’ve grown to love the cold for how it helps us.
Everything has a Point
I’ve replayed the quotes I’ve read or heard about “pointless ups and downs” and generally wishing the terrain or weather would be more favorable. I get why we think these things; expressing them to others is an instant way to connect and bond with fellow hikers. Much of the time I spend is alone and I’ve said these wishes to myself in the past. I may well do so again in the future. I’ve found, though, that I’m simply not happy when I wish where I am or what I’m facing needs to be different. About 200 miles ago I started saying to myself, “Cole, if you could choose for something to be easier or harder, what would you always choose?” I don’t think many of us believe thru-hiking is going to be easy, and I answer, ” I always want it to be harder.” Everything has a point on the trail simply because the trail is itself, its what I decided to walk, stay dry and warm on, sleep on, eat on. In making that decision, every step has a point regardless of the incline, camber or conditions. I get stressed, frustrated, and upset when the shelter faces the wind just like everyone else. And I accept it because that’s the way the trail is and I decided to be here – I then move to what I’m going to do to train through the situation and make discomfort a new comfort. Binding with other hikers about how to manage these times have been the single most satisfying times because we show one another our staying power, our will, and our determination to live up to our decisions.
My first 22 mile day was huge. Any day that I hike 21.9 miles or more makes my dinner taste that much better. That day, I completed 1% or more of the entire AT. I was addicted from that first day and, unsurprisingly, the discomforts of that mileage in the first month become comforts. While I’ve been conscious enough to start the days ascending out of towns with a full food bag at lower mileage, the days since 1% haven’t felt the same. I became too comfortable with the expectation that I’d need to make that mileage regardless of the conditions. Else, dinner wouldn’t taste that amazing no matter the amount of hot sauce and butter. Enter snow and post holing, two factors that bring me down to 1-2 mph and keep me looking at the ground all day. Talk about focusing on the fact that I’m going slower than I’d like. Two days ago, though, I made a resolution. 17 miles through snow requires the energy of at least a 1% day, no less for the amount of mental energy needed to keep positive. Being flexible and being the best self means seeing that I was able to walk 17 miles in snow, remain healthy, and make it to the shelter and enjoy said hot sauce and butter – if I were to have better conditions, I’d be rolling 25’s. Today, then, is a training day for the day when the trail is clear. Just wait until that happens, I tell myself. Feet become wings. I know that I’m achieving a training effect (and physically this is what’s going on) and my sleep will be that much more helpful because I’m forcing recovery earlier. Now dinner has a larger purpose. Extra chicken tonight? Yes. And extra butter. Of course. Oh, its dripping water on my head again? No matter, I’m back out tomorrow stronger – thank you, snow. See you shortly.
Vision for Virginia
I’m still new to the philosophy of 1% and have some work to do in truly living up to my resolution. Add in wet feet and the calculus will change. Add in hiking partners and the equation will change. I still have a lot of exploration to hone into a flow, so what better state than VA to do so. In nearly every shelter entry from SoBos at Abigdon Shelter, the first in TN after VA, they write with glee about leaving VA. (The only one that didn’t mention VA were two zero-day SoBos who together named 120 Pokemon – highly impressive.). I know full well I have a lot in store for me that I have yet to even identify. I welcome this because I know it will be discomforting. I know I’ll need to see it all as training. It will all have a point. So, my vision for VA is to continue living 1% as a lens to my challenges. Not as a conpetitive urge, which can spark up when I hear others talk about making serious mileage after the relatively hilly GA/TN/NC sections. I’m setting out to minimize that – I want to live 1% out physically, mentally and emotionally and report back. I won’t set benchmarks for how many days I hit 22 or how many times I need to feel grateful. I do, though, commit to developing an awareness of this for my own self, my learning and my improvement as a hiker, person and person among people to come. I can’t imagine this hike as a solo endeavor, much to that reality these days, and must prepare for the times when I’m in some sort of a proper bubble. Living 1%, as an introvert who recharges in the company of one or none, may help me create the person I hope to be on the northern end of this whole journey. It’s just as important to me as moving as opposed to dying, just as important as believing in the point of discomfort, just as important as spending the night sleeping in a teepee. Off to set out my sleep system and start VA with a vision.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.