Lows and Highs: Heat Rash and Gas Station Wine
Sad Beans is no longer with us. He’s alive, but off the trail. After getting used to hiking with certain people you expect to see their smiling faces around the corner of the trail or rolling up to a shelter. It took a few days to stop looking for my friend Sad Beans but I was lucky to find myself in the midst of a 12-person group–the self-named Haiku Crew. Hiking in a group of people that make you laugh until you pee your pants is significantly more enjoyable than spending the day hiking on your own. I’ve tried it both ways, and once you hike bigger than ten- to 12-miles a day, you’re basically walking all day, which ends up being much better spent talking with interesting people. I guess the only drawback of being with fun people is the peeing your pants laughing part–which has occurred on multiple occasions.
But realistically, staying with such a large crew meant trying to accommodate many opinions and varying hiking paces. Because of this, the Haiku Crew has since expanded in a trail family form of an accordion along roughly 100 miles of the trail. (Tramily is another word for those who have been hiking close with, and if you get off on your own you’re a trorphan.)
We missed seven miles of the trail that I fully don’t plan on going back to during this trip. You heard me right. I missed a few miles of the trail, but I haven’t lost a wink of sleep over it because they were actively on fire, and a park ranger made us hop off the trail early before getting into Hot Springs, N.C. This was the first time this whole trip that the “purist” mentality was put to the test for me. Some hikers pride themselves on seeing every single white blaze of the AT, without taking any detours, or without slackpacking (when you hike for one day a predetermined amount of miles without the weight of a full pack–usually assisted by a ride to your start point, to get those miles done sometimes southbound instead of northbound before leaving with your pack again from where you haven’t yet hiked). Pretty much anything other than backpacking in a classic sense would be considered cheating to them. I do not consider myself a purist, however, I will be hiking the entire trail. I’d love to see a purist come into my house 50 years from now and interrupt me from telling my grandkids how I hiked the AT (other than those flaming seven miles of it). The wildfire wasn’t able to be put out for days, which validated my moving on from those miles. Not every hiker had the same idea–as I heard even one purist saying he’d cross the rope put up by the rangers and night hike the section–on fire or not. I don’t think he actually went through with this plan but it gives you a sense for the different hikes people have on the trail.
May 5, Mile 300
Food standards are getting lower than I ever imagined they could. I have tuna and instant potatoes and I’m excited for dinner. (This didn’t last long though, and I’ve since stopped eating tuna.)
The temperature at night has left me sleeping in just my sleeping bag liner, some nights without even pants on in my self-contained tent.
As we put miles down you’d think your body adjusts to the physical aspects of the trail. In some sense I have gotten much stronger in my legs and I’ve gained weight I’d assume to be in muscle; a pair of wind pants had to be sent home when they stopped fitting my thighs. In other ways, there’s almost always something to worry about. In the escalating heat of the southern summer, I developed a minor heat rash wherever my pack touched my body. At first I thought I had rubbed in stinging nettle, a plant that feels like needles if you hit the wrong spot on it. With strategic lathering of Body Glide in the right spots (upper butt, to be exact), the heat rash has since subsided, but the calamine lotion stains inside my tent will forever remain.
Period only lasted a day and this may be the (second*) most magical thing that has happened this entire trip. I did expect this to happen eventually–I spend eight hours a day working out.
*Only to be beat by greetings from wild ponies that just want to lick you.
May 21, Mile 500
Getting a quarter of the way through the whole AT, the miles have become more of just a number. The day we passed the 500-mile marker we also walked by a Mexican restaurant in a gas station and we were far more excited for the latter. In that gas station, a truck driver motioned for us to come over to him. After talking about the trail for a bit he gave us a whole bottle of wine, which we consumed in that same gas station parking lot.
I’m not sure if the sight of a dirty, tired hiker or what makes people so giving to people who choose to live with their belongings on their back. Since the very start of my hike, I’ve experienced over a dozen instances of people being extremely generous and supportive of this endeavor. Sometimes it’s a church group, or usually an outdoor club in the area that sets up a tent or a couple of tailgating coolers with anything from pancakes and Band -Aids to cold beers. These people dedicate their time and some money to cook for or supply thru-hikers. Even something as simple as snacks can whip a horrible day around for someone living outside. It’s shocking how little fresh fruit you can keep with you backpacking and that’s the first thing I look for when I see free food.
One time early on in the trek, Sad Beans and I hadn’t gotten used to the planning of days ahead food-wise and were probably two days shy of having enough food to get to the next town. The same day, a man named Kent parked on a road crossing of the AT offered to shuttle us to and from the grocery store. After originally saying no I waited by the trail for Sad Beans. Talking to Kent I found out he was unable to hike himself because of a disability and spent some weekends helping hikers get to town for no charge; he only asked that we let him know if we make it to Maine. We ended up taking the ride.
Remember that gas station Mexican restaurant we got wine at? More good things happened there. After chatting very briefly with a group of four men and women about hiking in New Hampshire, we ordered our food to later find out that one of the men paid for our whole meal as they were leaving. Again, it could’ve been how we looked as hikers or someone just wanting to help us out, but I am at a loss as to why people are so generous to hikers. I don’t see myself during this hike as requiring handouts but then again I don’t mind shaving my legs and taking a bird bath in a Subway bathroom (Subway, feel fresh). That isn’t to say that I won’t graciously accept anything I can get from a day hiker.
To answer these gifts with a simple thank you never feels like it’s enough. I’ve thought over and over again how I wish there was another phrase that could describe how much these gestures actually mean to me. It’s the showing of support located right on the trail that gives me another push to keep going. Even running into someone that maybe doesn’t have snacks to offer (I’ll still give an ocular pat down for anything) but is impressed and inspired by what you’re setting out to do is a pick-me-up. Even more so when there’re younger kids that are just getting into hiking that now look up to you.
I’ll admit I’ve sat in strategic spots like trailheads or parking lots to take a breather because I know people may feed me there. I’m feeling more dog-like every day. (But I can understand why they beg.)
Until I find something better to express my gratefulness I’ll continue thanking people repeatedly for every food item I accept from them.
After leaving Trail Days in Damascus, Va., we had set some big but realistic goals. The group we were with shrunk over the next week to five of us and even fewer since then (again because of hiking speeds and differing agendas). The group I was a part of had a 200-mile in ten days plan. It was a little ambitious but we got off to a good start and were right on track for the first eight days, hitting upward of 25 miles in a single, long day. Because this plan had been struck in Virginia, though, we should’ve known it was going to threaten to rain pretty much every single day since the beginning. Getting the miles done wasn’t the hard part; you just have to get started early (around 6:30 has the best chance of a good day) and walk. It’s the weather that makes everything so much more difficult and mentally testing. Much like I’d come to find out in the Smokies, this plan came to a halt when the rain made it slick and dangerous to walk on rocky terrain at a decent speed. Abandoning the 200-mile plan, I am not ashamed to say taking a full day doing zero miles (called taking a zero) is so crucial to mentally handling the trail. At least for me. When it was said and done, 200 miles were managed in 11 days and I’m content with that.
The bug bites are very real. I don’t know what about my blood makes me more appealing to bites than any of my friends on the trail, but after hitting around 60-plus bites I’ve started using a spray loaded with deet. I’ve never liked using chemicals, especially when you don’t shower for seven to nine days at a time, but have come to the conclusion that I’d rather not be led off the trail from a mosquito-borne illness. I baby wipe bathe myself every night anyway, not that it makes me feel any more clean but I’ll be sleeping with less deet.
It’s a common theme around here that people smell worse right after showering. I wouldn’t believe this if I was just reading it either, but with zero deodorant use your body levels out with how it smells after a few days. It still smells like you’ve been hiking, but not like a body odor smell. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a bad smell and I’ve more than once avoided waking too close behind the veil of smell left by a preceding hiker on the trail. On one occasion during the hike up to McAfee Knob, a popular day-hiking spot, another thru-hiker starts back hiking after lunch with a “ready to smell all the nice day hikers!” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t let myself get close enough to smell those clean people a few times. More often than not you can smell them coming up the trail before you can see them.
My pack has gotten lighter and lighter with every item I toss out of it. Go figure. It’s only taken me two months to figure out that if I haven’t used it every day I don’t need it. Anything that has any weight to it was tossed. I swear by Tiger Balm but in a glass jar it had to go. Sunscreen I just sweat off and end up not using? Gone. Sorry, mom, I’ll be better when I’m back home. The brain section of my pack that detaches? Sent home with extra clothes because I can live in one hiking outfit and one sleeping outfit and maybe two pairs of socks. Taking off with a lighter pack after restocking is exhilarating and I spent probably 40 percent of my hiking time thinking of what else I don’t need to carry and get excited to send things home or just trash them. Weighed in at the last stop with a full restock of four to five days of food plus water at 36 pounds and I’m pretty happy with that. Although some items I can’t fathom giving up, like my Kindle. It’s safe for now.
Until next trail update, thanks for following me here and on Instagram: @jennnerrr
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