The Rollercoaster is a 13.5 mile section of trail in Northern Virginia of tightly packed ascents and descents. It’s a last “hurrah” of sorts before reaching the 1,000 mile mark and departing Virginia. Most thru-hikers’ bodies are hill-crushing machines by the time they reach The Rollercoaster, so it’s not as tough as it looks on the map.
While The Rollercoaster was fun, this blog post is about a different sort of rollercoaster: an emotional one. Since my last post, my days and weeks have been filled with lots of ups and a handful of downs. Those of you who know me well know that I’m generally very positive, but I also want to be realistic with you about some of the difficulties I’ve faced. Thru hiking isn’t easy; in fact, it’s really hard. But rest assured that every challenge and hard day I’ve had pales in comparison to the amazing things I’ve experienced. As I’ve said before, trail life is great and I’ve never been happier.
Going into Shenandoah National Park, I had new shoes, a lighter pack, and a need for speed. I’d finally worked out all of the kinks in my gear just as the terrain began to flatten out a bit (side note: the trail through southern and central Virginia is NOT flat, despite what anyone says). I enjoy pushing myself, so I decided to do some big days (26-30 miles). It felt great! That is, until I woke up one morning with a pain along my shin bone that I’d never felt before. I hiked the next two days thinking I could “push through” the pain (not one of my smartest decisions), but it worsened to the point that each step induced tears and whimpering. After moving past my stubbornness, I accepted the fact that I was going to have to take a few days off the trail. I love being in the woods, so taking multiple “zero” days was emotionally difficult for me. I knew the people I’d been hiking with would be hard to catch up with, and I had no idea how long it would take for my injury to heal. But, when your body speaks you are forced to listen. As it turns out, my body was desperate for rest and those few days gave me just what I needed.
Rest, new insoles for my shoes, KT tape, and compression sleeves have done the trick, and I’m happy to report that I no longer have any shin pain. I’ve done several big days in the past couple of weeks and feel great again, although I’m making sure not to push myself harder than I should.
When I returned to the trail after my shin splint sabbatical, the rains I expected to experience in April and May (but didn’t, thankfully) moved in. It rained almost constantly for four days. I know that rain is a good thing, but after a few days of wet shoes, socks, clothes, tent, etc. my morale was l-o-w. The outdoor educator in me helped me stay outwardly positive around other hikers (“it’s nice to cool off a bit!”, “The creeks will really be flowing – won’t have to worry about water being scarce!”), but I was having a hard time buying into my optimism. The thing is, there’s nothing you can do about it except accept the fact that you’re wet and remember that the sun will shine again. And shine it did! It took a couple days, but eventually I was able to dry out and cheer up.
My recent trials were completely bearable because of the generosity of family, friends, and complete strangers. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the trail gives you what you need when you need it. On the rainiest day, my sister-in-law’s parents, Catherine and Tal, swooped in and picked me up for a night in a warm, dry bed on their nearby farm. It was incredible! I awoke the next morning to pouring rain. Instead of heading back to the trail, we sat around for hours eating a never ending stack of pancakes, drinking coffee, and talking about skiing and Colorado. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect rainy morning. By midday the rain had slowed, so I headed back to the woods with dry shoes (Catherine used a blow dryer to get some of the water out of them – amazing!), a toasted PB&J sandwich, and high spirits. Thank you, Catherine and Tal!
A week later, my friend Qui-Gon and I found ourselves running up the trail in a torrential downpour toward Caledonia State Park. Thankfully, my friend Carly was there waiting for us. Carly and I worked together at an outdoor program in western North Carolina in 2007 and haven’t seen each other since. She and her family live near the trail in southern Pennsylvania, and they offered to take me and Qui-gon in for a night. It was so cool to catch up with Carly and share our stories from the past 8 years. She and her husband, Jake, and one year old daughter, Sammy, took us to dinner at an awesome Mexican restaurant, let us do laundry and take showers, and gave us incredibly comfortable beds to sleep in. The next morning, we had breakfast at a great little local restaurant, resupplied, and headed back to the trail. It meant so much to me that Carly went out of her way to give us an incredible night off the trail. Outdoor educator friends are the best!
Half Gallon Challenge
Since my last post, I crossed the 1,000 mile mark, made it to the halfway point, and, perhaps most importantly, ate a half gallon of ice cream. The Half Gallon Challenge is a longstanding tradition for thru-hikers that takes place at the Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania. I arrived in Pine Grove around 9:30am, which made me a little hesitant to take the challenge. My plan for the day was to hike 19 miles, and I wasn’t sure how well that much cream and sugar would sit in my stomach. But when I hiked up to the Pine Grove General Store and saw Magnus chowing down on some ice cream while several other hikers cheered for him, I knew it was ON. Initially, I thought the common rectangular carton of ice cream you see in grocery stores was a half gallon. Wrong. A half gallon is a rectangular carton PLUS a pint. I elected to start with the carton and chose Neapolitan flavor. Things were going exceptionally well until I had about a quarter of the carton left to go. I foolishly saved the frozen strawberries to eat last, and they were almost impossible to get down. Next up was a pint of hand-dipped ice cream. I went with raspberry because the woman working there said it was the easiest to stomach. I’m convinced that eating that pint was harder than climbing Katahdin will be. There were so many feelings: extreme nausea, sugar-drunkenness (this is a thing), dread. The ice cream was thick and sweet. I was simultaneously sweating and shivering. But there is no quitting for this yellow bird, so I silently counted to three and choked down the last bites. Success! I’m now a proud member of the Half Gallon Challenge club, and I have a nifty wooden spoon to prove it. Thanks to Coco, Magnus, Qui-Gon, Red Panda, Varsity, Obi-Wan, and Bear Claw for the encouragement. I couldn’t have done it without you guys.
As it turns out, all that ice cream gave me tons of energy, and the afternoon’s hike was relatively easy and fun. I guess 3,000 calories and 90 grams of fat will do that for you.
I’m currently enjoying a zero day in Delaware Water Gap, PA. My mom came to visit me for the weekend, and we’re having an awesome time hanging out and being silly together. Her visit was perfectly timed, as the last few days have been very challenging. Pennsylvania is known for its rocky trails, and they’ve really been making hiking difficult. This state has been beautiful and the people here are some of the nicest I’ve met along the trail, but I couldn’t be more excited to leave these rocks behind.
This morning, my mom and I decided to pay forward some of the trail magic I’ve experienced over the past few months. It felt so good to leave some treats for fellow hikers, and I’ve spent all day picturing their smiles as they approached the coolers full of cold drinks, fresh fruit, and candy. Hopefully it gave them at least half of the joy leaving it out there provided my mom and me.
Until the next time, peace be the journey.
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