Tennessee: Finding the Answer
I walked away from the irresistible vortex of Mountain Harbour B&B, climbing very slowly with one last breakfast weighing me down. I left late, so only did 13.5 miles to a random tent site just off-trail and made dinner as thunder grumbled in the distance.
The next morning, my alarm went off at 4:30, and I woke up tired despite sleeping well. The interior of my tent was damp with condensation; my stomach was grumbling, but I wanted to get going before more rain arrived. I released the air from my sleeping pad, pitched myself out of my tent, and packed up – wiping down my tent with a rag. The moment I swiped the last bit of condensation and rainwater from it, the skies opened up and soaked it again.
I crammed a granola bar down my throat, then, still hungry, set off down trail at a squishy, heavy-footed clip.
I got about 5 miles down the trail before the rain stopped again, found a sodden log, and plopped down onto it, more tired than I’d been this entire hike. Then, out of nowhere, the tears started to flow.
I was surprised by them more than anything. I’d read countless accounts of people throwing their trekking poles in frustration, tears of loneliness, the Virginia Blues. Naively, I thought I would avoid all of those things. In well over 400 miles, there hadn’t been a single second where I felt too tired to go on, or anything less than blissfully grateful for the experience of my thru-hike… I thought was somehow exempt from the rule that the trail was more a mental game than a physical one.
As a thru-hiking hopeful, as I’d read those accounts of bad days on trail, the tears and the frustrations and mental struggles, I couldn’t help but think: I would kill to have what you have. To complain about something as incredible as a thru-hike seemed tantamount to sacrilege. But on that stump, inexplicably miserable and wet and hungry, all I could think to myself was: What the hell am I doing?
Until that moment, I hadn’t felt the enormity of 2,193.4 miles weighing down on me. I was, I thought, a pro at “embracing the suck.” Smiles during snowstorms. Laughing at the absurdity of frozen shoes. The wonder outweighing the difficulty. My love of solitude overshadowing even an echo of loneliness. Until then. Yet there I sat – nothing overwhelmingly terrible had happened, just a light drizzle… but the mental game had caught up with me, and beckoned me to play my hand.
I composed myself with a handful of skittles and some texts home, then hiked on. I made it 10 more miles before I looked up at a 2,000 ft climb and decided to camp down by Laurel Fork River instead. I figured that if I had asked myself that question: the “what the hell am I doing” one… I was going to make time to find myself an answer.
I set up camp way early at 4pm and even had time to build a fire. The sun came out, my tent dried out, and I felt the stress melt away with it. As I sat by the river, watching little eddies carry wild azalea petals, sitting quietly by a little fire, I found the answer.
The next morning, I woke up late and took the time to cook breakfast, before hiking 6 miles up and down to Boots Off Hostel.
There, I took time to recharge my devices, eat some pizza, and rest. Then, I hiked on nice and slow to a campsite by Watauga Lake.
It rained overnight, and my tent dried out as I sat and made myself another cooked breakfast, even though it meant I got on trail at 8:30… too late to hike the longer day I’d had planned.
40+ miles stood between me and Damascus, and with rain coming, I’d planned an ambitious 26.2 mile day – my longest ever – so I could cruise a gentle 12 miles into town the next morning: just in time to resupply, do laundry, shower, choose a town meal, and roll into my reserved bunk at Lady Di’s before leaving the next morning.
As I hiked, the forecast worsened, and I cut my day short at 21 miles as the heavens opened up and lightning and buckets of rain poured out.
I felt like I had another 5 miles in me, but it didn’t seem prudent to skip along a ~4,000ft ridgewalk in a booming thunderstorm. I texted Lady Di and reserved another night. I was still going to get there on the day I’d scheduled, but I would need a zero to get all my town chores done.
I woke up, stepped into a chilly drizzle to take down my food bag… and it didn’t come down. It was hopelessly stuck. Another thru-hiker and I carried the shelter’s picnic table over so that I could unclip my food bag’s carabiner from the locking carabiner the rope was tied to. I tried to cut the line to salvage as much as I could and remove it from the tree, but the line appeared to be hung up on the branch somehow and wouldn’t budge.
Despite this, and the rain that didn’t stop for the entire 18-mile day, I had a good hike – easy, rolling terrain and a good audiobook kept me in high spirits. I crossed the border, took a quick selfie at the sign, and hiked into Damascus about an hour later.
I walked into Lady Di’s at 5:30, ordered myself a pizza, showered, ate, and went straight to bed.
Ultimately, I’m thankful for the trying days of Tennessee – the way it showed me what the lows I’ll no doubt experience in Virginia and beyond will feel like, the perspective it gave me, and the little reckoning by the river it gifted me. I feel stronger, more capable, and ready for the next leg of this journey.
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