Over the past year and a half while I was planning to hike the trail, I fantasized constantly about Virginia. I didn’t know at the time that I was thinking of Virginia. But all day and night I would dream of a golden sun shining down on rolling green hills, lush overgrown meadows full of wildflowers, pristine mountain streams running into valleys through centuries old farms, high rocky ledges where we could watch the sun disappear while a small mountain town lit up under the darkening sky. Turns out Virginia is the place to find all these things.
Sometimes in the mountains of Virginia we find ourselves walking through hallways of rhododendron bushes and mountain laurels in full bloom. Sometimes the breeze will pick up the scent of honeysuckle and carry a heady dose of the intoxicating rich floral fragrance through the dense, humid air right to our noses. Sometimes the rocks are purple sandstone and sometimes they are white granite covered in green fairy moss. Sometimes there are wild ponies.
Sometimes the trail takes us right through the middle of small rural hamlets, places that seem to have been forgotten by time (or at least AT&T and T-Mobile). The locals are friendly and cater to hikers with honed expertise. The general stores reliably stock first aid supplies, beef jerky, trail mix, Clif bars, Knorr sides, the entire pantheon of Little Debbie’s snacks, and beer. It still doesn’t feel like we are really walking to Maine. Right now it feels like we are just on a grand scenic tour of the super markets and gas stations of God’s country.
The terrain still kicks our asses, but not as relentlessly as it did in North Carolina and Tennessee. Our legs are stronger anyway, or at least more resigned to the fact that regular abuse is now their lot.
We meet kind strangers every few days who want to feed us, help us charge our phones, give us rides to town. Entire congregations of Baptist churches cook for us, pray that the Lord bless our every step, and put money in the offering plate every Sunday to pay for trail magic. Sometimes, when it’s just started raining, we’ll run into a group of former thru hikers under an easy-up tent cooking hamburgers and handing out craft beers. Why so many people feel that our choice to forego steady employment and good hygiene in favor of walking 2,200 miles makes us worthy of their charity is difficult to grasp, but we are profoundly humbled and grateful all the same.
The days are long and sometimes hard. There are mornings when I wake up feeling like the last thing I would ever want to do is walk another 20 miles today. There are entire days where I struggle through every step, wishing my feet, my knees, my ankles, my heels would just stop hurting so much; praying that the next step will be the last one I have to take to reach our goal for the day. I often feel guilty on those days, for I am aware of how incredibly fortunate I am to be on the trail, of how many people there are who would trade places with me in an instant, of the fact that I am literally living one of my wildest dreams. Reminding myself of these things does not stop the pain, but it helps me put one foot in front of the other despite it.
Most days are beautiful. Whether we are walking across bald peaks in brilliant sunshine or trekking through a deep forest shrouded in chilly mist, I feel like the luckiest person on earth simply to be there at that exact moment. I think often of the people who have lived and traveled through these mountains before me. I think of the Indians who had to defend their homes from white men, of pioneers who took a chance on a better life settling the frontier, of fur trappers trying to eke out a living, of Civil War soldiers who had to march through these hills with a hundred pounds of gear barefoot while nursing gangrenous bullet wounds, and then I think of me- a young, single woman walking through these woods on a well marked, well maintained path that highlights the best of the natural world east of the Mississippi for purely recreational purposes, and who has the convenience of cell phones, motorized vehicles, and Walmart to help her along. Whenever this thought really hits me, I just say it out loud: “what a time to be alive.”
In good time, I will tell the full story of everything we did in Gatlinburg and everything that’s happened since (if I don’t manage to do so in this blog, I expect to complete my memoir of our thru hike at some point within the next half century). But for now I can tell you this- I am still on the trail and I am grateful for every single day I have spent here, and for every day that I have left. I have experienced so many incredible things so far. I am not sure what they all mean and I think it will be a long time before I do. I am sure, however, that what I am doing right now is the best thing that I have ever done, and I am so grateful to have had the chance to do it.
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