Trail Dispatch: Diamonds on the Soles
Author’s note: All credit due to Paul for the title. Skip to the end for the audio.
Awah awah aahhhh…
This first report on my AT trek follows my first week on the trail. I have traveled from Harpers Ferry, W.V., to Boiling Springs, Pa., a distance of some 100 miles.
In this time and distance, any and all preconceptions have been stomped into the mud and ice between Maryland’s ridgelines and Pennsylvania’s misty forests. Outside of the shakedown hike, the gear exchange showroom, Whiteblaze forum, we enter the territory of Murphy’s Law, where shoelaces snap and clouds form. The Appalachian Trail has a very effective and time-honored way of beating the stupid out of you.
Despite the months of preparation, the pack and its contents have revealed themselves to be cumbersome and awkward companions. I did not weigh the pack when setting out, but when I reloaded in Fayetteville, Pa., the pack was coming in at near 40 pounds due in part to the paperback and loaf of banana bread I was carrying. Heavy work, but I wasn’t about to part with any of the contents. I have since upgraded to a lighter sleeping bag and the banana bread and novel have both been consumed. How the weight on my back fares in the coming weeks will be determined by the weather I encounter.
The spring weather has been unpredictable and even violent. I began my trek in the morning on March 25, crossing the footbridge over the Potomac River with clear skies and patches of snow. The 40 miles of Maryland saw snow ten inches deep in spots for slushy, slow miles, and long, wet days and cold nights. There was a brief window before Easter when temperatures rose to near 60, but I woke to three inches of snow on April 2 and I marched 13 miles through pouring rain yesterday. Today the wind is gusting hard enough to scatter yard furniture and down power lines in the outlying areas around Harrisburg, Pa. I heard someone at lunch use the phrase “accumulating snow” to describe this weekend, but this is spring in the Northeast and I am continually reminded by a tiny old man who lives in my head that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
Meanwhile, my hips, knees, and back have taken on the miles and adjusted with creaks, pops, and pains I haven’t before known. In the mornings I stretch my pale, shivering limbs on the chilly shelter floorboards in preparation for the day’s miles. By the end of the day, I walk like a cave troll. My feet shuffle through matted leaves and mud, and my arms jerk forward with trekking pole extensions like a spider’s legs grasping for purchase on roots and rocks. Looking in the bathroom mirror this morning, my eyes are sharper and more hungry. My cheekbones have new prominence on my face. I have grown some semblance of a beard that looks like sea kelp.
My time on the trail has been defined by prolonged silences in the rain, fog, and snow. In these drawn-out times the focus narrows and sharpens on the next blaze, switchback, ridge, the shelter, tomorrow. I have met few thru-hikers and only two flip-floppers on the same route as myself. One trekker with the trail name Tawah who I met in the Pine Grove Furnace State Park that snowy morning speculated that the NOBOs from Springer Mountain are caught up in as much weird weather as we’ve encountered and that the dropout rate may be higher this year due to the snow, wind, and rain.
While my meetings with other trail people have been some of the highs of this journey, my brief forays into towns near the trail have likewise been major boosts. A family in Fayetteville plied me with soup and applesauce from their bake sale and another woman picked me up outside Boonsboro because I reminded her of “that Robert Redford character in that movie about the trail.” Friends have left me the keys to their trailside cabins and picked me up for hot showers and laundry. Some local establishments have shown incredible generosity, including Stone Werks Coffee and Sweets in Boonsboro, Md.; the Trail of Hope Hostel and Timbers Restaurant in Fayetteville, Pa.; Caffe 101, and Anile’s in Boiling Springs, and Zeroday Brewing in Harrisburg, Pa.
I’m of that old-school Boy Scout philosophy: change your socks – change your attitude. And as long as my feet are in good shape, then the rest of me seems to fare about as well. Despite the miles traveled, the boots remain in good shape and my feet have yet to get one blister. I’m feeling good and my spirits are high.
Feeling like I’ve got diamonds on the soles of my shoes.
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