The Right Thing and The Difficult Thing
It’s difficult to hug with backpacks on
but Xtra-Tuff tried as best she could to comfort me, creating one of the most tender and awkward moments I’ve experienced. We were somewhere between Daleville and Buchanan, and I was freaking out.
The last few days had been tough for me. We had some longer days around Catawba that I suspect my body never fully recovered from. After that it seemed like I was always tired and sluggish. My ankles were rolling wildly and often, causing a blister to form on the arch of my left foot. Mentally, I was just focused on getting from shelter to shelter before dark. I took fast breaks and made no time for views. I’d wake up earlier to try to beat the heat and take the day slowly, since fast wasn’t happening. Still, I seemed to roll into camp later and later. The day before the freak out, I got to camp at 8pm. Exhausted and hurting I slumped over a concrete block in our tent site. Xtra-Tuff had been five hours ahead of me and already ate dinner. I carry our dinners. That meant she had eaten out of her lunch supply.
Then she told me that because of bear activity, we couldn’t go to the shelter we had planned on for the next day. We had to go to the one 23 miles away. A number my exhaustion could not fathom. I stared catatonically into space. I was failing her. I was failing myself.
In the wake of all that information, plunged into a deep well of dejection. What was wrong with me? Why was I was becoming weaker and slower instead of stronger and faster? Were 20 mile days my max? 18? 15?
The next morning we had an amazing conversation about limits and goals. Xtra-Tuff asks the right questions, comes up with creative solutions and offers unparalleled support. She wants me to be happy and I want the same for her. I admitted I felt like I needed to do lower miles and take more zero days. I wondered aloud if the process of hiking and prepping for the AT was more valuable to me than completing it. If all the things I had done- like the trail crew in Arizona and contacting sponsors- had brought closer to my personal goals for this adventure than the actual adventure.
Did I need to do this?
Eventually, we came down to the time factor. Xtra-Tuff has class at the end of August. She can’t slow down. I can’t speed up. We walked on with the facts fresh in our minds and a 23 mile day ahead.
That’s when I lost it.
From Skyline Drive, I called Homer Witcher and asked him to take me to Middle Creek Campground. If you don’t know Homer, you should. He’s the rainbow after a rainy day. He showed me a book that was published about his family’s hike. That’s right- his tweenaged kids thru hiked the AT with him and his wife. And it turns out, his daughter’s name is Taylor. “Is that your real name?” He asked me with that drawl some Virginians have and some don’t. I nearly started crying again. My real name had never sounded so beautiful or so precious. I told him about the last few days or maybe week, maybe how I had been feeling underneath it all these past two months. He suggested I go alone, find a new partner or group to hike with and to do something like 13 mile days. I was conflicted but slightly buoyed. “You have to do what’s best for you, which can be difficult to figure out,” he said. “But many people have felt the way you’re feeling. You’ll be okay.”
I spent a lot of time on the phone with my best friends and my parents in the two days I spent at Middle Creek. No one wanted me to think I had failed or that I was weak. They all wanted me to see the value of what I had accomplished. They were trying to make leaving the AT okay, if that’s what I wanted. I wasn’t convinced of anything. That’d I’d accomplished anything, that it would be okay to leave, that I’d be happier on my own, that I wasn’t a great big crybaby. Ultimately, I turned to Thoreau. How had he known when to leave Walden?
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.
I wanted to feel as he did, but did that mean continuing on or didn’t it?
I moved on to trying not to think about the AT. I thought about getting a pedicure with my grandma, which type of typewriter I wanted to own and who I’d write letters to with it, how I want to learn how to make lemoncello with my dad and then intermittently, I slept. But each time I woke to thoughts of the AT crowding in. I really wanted to know what to do and I wanted to know now.
I’d miss the people. I’d miss living outside. I was surprised at how big of a deterrent not being able to write for AppTrials or my own blog was. I want to be an artist, I want to be a writer. Suddenly, I wasn’t afraid to admit that anymore, this is something I know the trail has given me. So how much sense did it make to take the avenue of inspiration and it’s outlet away?
I wondered if I’d miss the day to day, the actual hiking. I felt too tired and blistered to be able to know for sure. I let myself feel angry too. Hiking past a landfill, of all things was not what I had expected on this thru hike, and road crossings always incite a measure of anxiety for me. Back country? Not so much. I’ve most recently lived in Alaska and Arizona. It was not lost on me that I’ve worked equally or less hard for more rewarding views and terrain. How happy had I been then and now? How fulfilled?
And finally, this wasn’t a thing I had ever planned to do alone. Of all the friends and family I polled, none of them wanted me to go it alone either. But I could. If I wanted to.
The right thing and the difficult thing are often the same thing. When Xtra-Tuff and I got to talk again, it felt clear. We have to split up to meet our goals. But we also get to decide a lot about that transition. We can still be a team. Harper’s Ferry, the unofficial halfway point, felt like the right place to start this new phase. It was about 14 days away and a huge landmark for us as a team and as individuals. Perhaps it was long enough for me to know when I might feel as Thoreau did at the end of Walden.
I will not mince words here, this sucks. Xtra-Tuff is an amazing hiking partner and friend. I don’t want to not see her everyday. She has always had my back and our best interests at heart. I will miss the giggles around the bear hang, the quiet morning conversations, and urging each other to eat more ice cream. And those are just some of the things. But being able to go our own pace and on our own timeline is the right choice and we both know that.
We hiked the Appalachian Trail together. This will always be true and it will always mean so much regardless of us splitting up and whatever decisions we make about our hikes after. We did an honest and amazing thing together.
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Beautiful, moving post. Thank you.
Thanks for the insights, openness and honesty.
You’ll be a fine writer.
What deep, soulful work you’ve done Taylor. It shows beautifully through this post. I can soooo see you as a writer dear one! Yes indeed, sometimes the right and difficult thing are the same thing. Know you are shrouded in Divine Mother’s Light and Love.
I did it SOBO thru the winter of ’79, having started 8/5/78. I had a hiking buddy down until Front Royal, VA. But he had an asthma condition that turned into a walking pneumonia (found that out later) . He took a bus home from Front Royal and I entered Shenandoah NP on 1/10/1979, on snowshoes and alone for the first time in months. That started Chapter 2, my real growth experience. Several days later, my 86# pack frame broke in 2 at the lower back. Crisis, solve it, move on. Next crisis, solve it, move on. At a point I had not seen another human being, even at a distance, for 10 days.
The most growth productive time on the Trail for me was when I was alone.