The Virginia Takeaways

550 miles is a long time to hike. A long time to have an adventure. A long time to revisit conversations with yourself. A long time to overcome obstacles and, hopefully, become a stronger human. A comprehensive retelling of my days in Virginia would be twice as long, so here are my top 5 takeaways.

1. Don’t let your guard down.

There was this interesting sensation upon crossing that state line and reaching Damascus. A sense of achievement? Sure, absolutely. But also a sense of ‘now what?’ That’s when I realized that I didn’t do my homework on the Virginia section of the trail. When I thought of Virginia and the AT, things that popped into my head were ponies, the triple crown, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Shenandoahs. I had no clue what order they showed up in, or where they even were. I was not alone, either. I heard more than once people asking, ‘Wait, so the ponies aren’t in the Shenandoahs? Where are they?’ Early on in my hike another hiker had commented that it appeared I had memorized the entire trail. Virginia proved that was NOT the case. I had been so stressed about being prepared for the first bit of the trail and GETTING THROUGH THE SMOKIES (written all in caps because that’s how my brain visualized it), that I never stopped to think about what came after that. Virginia was a vague blur.
Now, I’m not saying that one must have down every mile marker and what to expect each step of the way, but a little preparedness never hurt anyone. And yes, that goes for the weather, too. I think the one discussion I heard more about VA was ‘How long are you holding on to your winter gear?’ That was one area I did do my homework on. Pearisburg is the most common place to swap out for warmer weather gear, after passing over the Highlands and Mt Rogers. I had hung onto my gear for an extra hundred miles, just out of convenience (easier to swap when the hubby came to visit than worry about shipping things back and forth), and was so very glad I did. But even then, the first night with my warm weather gear was in the 30’s, so… Don’t let your guard down.

This is not Virginia.

2. The trail doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger.

Enjoy Virginia! It’s flat as a pancake!’ wrote Togs(class of ’19), and added a little winking emoji. My first ‘pancake’ in Virginia was a waffle, and that pretty much sums up just how flat Virginia is. My waffle was most definitely NOT flat, but had ridges and valleys. It had chocolate chips for all the rocks I would start to see. I added peanut butter, not knowing the mud I was going to start seeing, and strawberry jam, not realizing that this state was going to make me bleed more than once. I topped it with whipped cream, so of course there was more cold temperatures, snow flurries, and lots of cloudy days ahead. Dang, now I want a waffle.
You know what? That waffle was delicious. I devoured it and my new hiker hunger wanted another. Life on the trail is like that. Each day you wake up with a new set of challenges and have to ask yourself how hungry you are, and sometimes you surprise yourself by the end of the day. We don’t just wake up one day with legs of steel and the cardio strength of ultra marathoners. But we do develop them with each day we decide to put in the work.

3. Injuries are so much more than physical.

Many of us out on the trail are doing more than just climbing Everest 16 times. There’s internal work to be done, too. Old closets to clean out, ghosts to exorcise, wounds to heal. Getting physically injured can not only distract us from that work, but compound it. In my blog post ‘Injuries’ I talked about a couple major injuries I had to deal with during my time in Virginia. What I didn’t talk about was the major mental game that started when I got hurt. Folks I had been hiking around left me behind as I had to take a little time off and then start back low and slow. I couldn’t keep up with them or catch them no matter how badly I wanted to. It left me dealing with feelings of abandonment, of revisiting the grief I had when we moved away from our childhood home after my father’s death. All of the sudden I was surrounded by a new group of hikers, and I didn’t feel like I fit in. Imposter syndrome on the trail is very real. Then of course there were the pity looks, which I DESPISE. The doubting tone of ‘You’re a thru hiker?’ when I’d hobble in late after a barely 10 mile day because that was all I could do. Frustration and anger were the new weights in my pack, and man were they heavy.
As I have healed and regained my strength, I would love to report that all of those demons melted away, but I can’t. I still struggle. When I see social media updates of friends now much further up the trail, there is a definite mix of emotions I go through. I also find myself being much less polite when I get looks or comments when people ask when I started and I say mid February. It’s not a competition, people. Don’t put me in your race to Katahdin. I will say one thing, this trail has made me much more FEISTY. 🙂

4. Have something to focus on.


The hubby and my ‘little’ monkey. Best hugs ever!

We all hear about the Virginia Blues. What we don’t hear is how to handle them. Why do we get these blues to begin with? Sure, some of it goes back to my first takeaway, that ‘now what?’ feeling when we get to Damascus. There are less dopamine rushes because that next state line is over 500 miles away. The climbs, the weather, all the hard things are still there, but the honeymoon phase is most definitely over. As I’ve written about before, you have to eat that whale one bite at a time, so my strategy was to break the miles down into little goals. My rewards? Family and friends. One of the great things about traveling so much of my life is that I have friends everywhere. I also have a gigantic family, mostly spread up and down the East Coast like peanut butter with attitude. First visit was breakfast before trail with my mom, early on near Bland.

My mommy. <3

Getting through the triple crown meant I could nero with one of my buddies from high school. Just a little further up the trail won me a visit with my hubby and a brief side trip to surprise my youngest and hug a close friend. Getting up and over the Priest and Three Ridges and my cousin and her guy stopped by for beers at Devil’s Backbone. Once I started into the Shenandoahs, a college friend picked me up for a few hours of respite from the heat. Get out of that section and spend time with a theater buddy from my Germany days. Make it through all of Virginia and get a day with one of my brothers in law, his wife, and the niblings in Harper’s Ferry. On paper, it looks like I took all kinds of time off in Virginia, but most visits fell into already planned short days into or out of towns. Having this reward system definitely worked for me.

5. Remember why you’re out here.

Think back to that bright eyed and bushy tailed hiker that you were when you saw your first white blaze. What made them start this crazy thing to begin with? Keep reminding yourself of your motivations, as often as necessary, on good days as well as bad days. You might find you develop new reasons for being out here, and that’s ok too. When you feel the mental game start to get you down, return to your why. Get yourself back in the space of that new hiker. They knew they could do it. They saw Katahdin clear as day, a tough but achievable goal.
Rekindle a little of that honeymoon. Some of the best relationships consist of two people who get up each morning and make a conscious choice to be in that relationship that day. Sounds simple, but hey, isn’t the trail all about living simply?

Do you choose to get up and hike today?

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