The 4th Quarter and Time Management
The all-important 4th Quarter! Victory is in sight! I’m on my home turf and familiar with the challenges and beauty that lie ahead. I just need to ride out the clock and keep my star players like my knees, feet, ankles, hips, and back from getting injured. The fall colors are here to provide the icing on the cake of my final miles in the Blue Ridge.
While I originally set out to get away from keeping a schedule, I find myself doing exactly that on the AT. Before I go to bed, I think about when I need to get up to have time to get to my next stop at least 1 before dark. I think about when I will want to stop for lunch and water resupply. The 1-day schedule is based on how much food I’m carrying and how many days I can take to the next full resupply. Talking to other hikers, many play it much more loosely than I do. I guess it’s just how I am. The Army certainly has some great tools for planning that are just second nature to me now, but I have always thought about my long and short term goals like this. I’m not walking this part out of me.
Sometimes I don’t make the miles I intended to. Maybe the push to the next campsite with reliable water is too far. Maybe the terrain was tougher than I thought it would be. Maybe a friend suggests staying at a hostel only a half day’s worth of miles. I can always make up the miles, but I cannot make up the time.
In time and space, you are where you are exactly when you are there. Pushing to make up miles always comes with a cost in this regard (and possibly a cost to wear and tear on your body). If I feel like I’m behind and push past Woods Hole Hostel only 11 miles outside Pearisburg, I have missed a tremendous opportunity to meet new people, get to know my hiking partners better, and stay on a spot on this earth that is truly special. Sure, I can push and pitch my tent on another piece of dirt near a spring that looks remarkably like the last one and contemplate life while I’m alone. Or I can make that stop at Woods Hole. I can list many of opportunities like sunrises, sunsets, wildlife encounters, rain, or clouds where slowing down or speeding up can make or break an experience. But slowing down to experience everything delays my reunion with my family.
And that’s the important thing to me. I’m hiking the AT to reflect and come to terms with my past to be a better husband, father, and friend in the future. I have taken a total of 15 zero days to be with my family at important events during my hike. I think I’ve actually made up those miles I missed, but I could never make up that time with them. My older son will only be recognized as a senior athlete by his school once. My boys will only turn 15 and 17 once in their lives. Should I have been seeking another sunset in Virginia or spending that unique time with them? I can now spend my time on where I have said my priorities lie for the last 20 years but have generally done a bad job demonstrating that.
The Post Game Press Conference
There are not many people who attempt an AT hike each year. Maybe a couple thousand attempt, and roughly 1000 actually finish. Of those, maybe 100-200 complete a SOBO hike. This year, due to extreme rain events early in the season in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, I think the number of true-blue SOBO finishers will be closer to 100 than 200.
I say all this to point out the fact that there are very few people who understand what we as SOBO ’23 thru hikers went through. It was an extreme mental, emotional, and physical challenge every day for me until I got to Vermont. It’s difficult to explain how terrified I was after completing 4 treacherous creek crossings in the 100 Mile Wilderness. But while I was doing it there was no fear. The wet boots and socks for 30 straight days of hiking almost forced me off the trail. Who understands what that feels like? Everything south of the Long Trail, including and maybe especially Pennsylvania, was easy for me. There’re tons of hard climbs between Massachusetts and North Carolina, but to me, it was just trail. Much more manageable than the 1200 feet per mile climbs and descents over boulders in Maine and New Hampshire.
How can I explain that I want to turn around and start walking back to Maine just as much as I want to be with my family and have water whenever I want? Thru-hikers get it. I very cautiously liken the thru-hiker experienced to the bonds formed in the military. Granted, no one is getting shot at on the AT (except maybe during deer season). But the dancers and trauma bonding are real. There are much fewer people who can relate to my AT experience than my combat deployments. Unless you’ve been on an extended backpacking trip, you really can’t begin to understand what we go through. Or thru. I have appreciated all the support, especially the conversations where people just listen.
Southern Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina
How do people get the Virginia Blues? I guess if you look at your boot tops for 500 miles that can get boring. Virginia might be my favorite state so far. It was nice walking through the fall colors, but water was pretty scarce. The only bit I found annoying was about 30 miles south of Wind Rock. That portion of the trail has been affected by the ash blight that kills nature ash trees. In my quasi-educated opinion, the lack of leaf cover leads to sunlight hitting the forest floor, causing the underbrush to go insane. The trail maintainers are fighting the weeds and sun. It was a bit of a mess. But the other 470 miles were awesome! The Grayson Highlands and the ponies were a real treat!
Tennessee seemed to get tougher. Mountains were bigger and the climbs longer. The elevation was higher and the weather got colder. I started sleeping with my water filter in my sleeping bag quite a few nights to keep it from freezing. Roan Highlands were a highlight of this section.
North Carolina continued that trend. In fact, a fair amount of the trail rides the TN/NC border, to include almost all of the Smokies. I hiked the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over a weekend with great weather. If you know someone within 500 miles of Gatlinburg, I probably saw them somewhere between Charlie’s Bunion and Clingman’s Dome. It was busy.
Before you enjoy the pictures, I would like to thank everyone who has donated to Camp Resilient. We have raised over $3600 for this wonderful facility that provides healing through nature for veterans, something I certainly feel strongly about. With Veterans’ Day coming up soon, please consider making a donation by clicking HERE or going to the “Tip the Author” link in my bio.
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