VA to NH and the Final 450
Nearly 1,300 miles north on the Appalachian Trail from Damascus, VA, I’m on my first full
recovery day since that town as well. I can truly say I’m a thru-hiker, living the lifestyle of the back country and still unable to sleep well indoors, a topic I delved into a couple months ago. As this time passed, I’ve encountered new and familiar experiences – given how close I am now to completing the trail, give or take three weeks, I’ve been able to really think through what matters to me. Here’s the latest.
Originally 1% of the trail, around 22 miles a day, was a daily goal. It is still a benchmark for me in that to finish when I’d like to, I try to hike this daily and consistently at that. I did the 35 mile days yet I’ve found a personal balance with 1%. In terms of other ways to make significant progress each day, I’ve found ways to “smell the flowers” (read: they’re aren’t any around yet!): stop and read shelter log entries, reliving the moments of SoBos I met way back in GA; taking blue blazes to vistas; packing in uncommon foods like loaves of bread, which are quite a challenge to compress; recovering on the trail by soakng my feet in rivers. These are small actions, 1% solutions to the needs I have and that randomly pop up during sections. Greatest of all the flowers to smell, though, are my interactions with fellow hikers and townsfolk.
The Privilege and Responsibility of Being Among the First
Without fail, every new town experiences me as the beginning of a new thru-hiker season. I constantly hear that I’m the first, that I’m early, that I’m crazy, too. It’s all wonderful attention for someone who talks to himself most days and randomly laughs at jokes I replay in my head. Being that we often remember the first and last event in a series most vividly, these times are a wonderful opportunity to set the tone for the hiking season, one person at a time. In this way, I’m privileged to be an ambassador of the great hikers on their way up from the Southern end – they’ll share their stories, show their gratitude and make good impressions. We also know that not every thru-hiker will leave a positive impression and so often those times overpower all else. From hearing the misconceptions, stereotypes and broad brush strokes about thru-hikers, I feel a great responsibility in being the first. Really, this is about investing the extra secnds, minutes and sometimes hours into the interactions I have with those who approach me in post offices, grocery stores, on the side walk, on the trails and in the shelters. I’ve been thanked at times for simply stopping to talk, hearing that they imagine thru-hikers to be so determined to meet their daily miles that they feel hesitant to get their attention. It seems unreasonable that thru-hikers come across as uninterested in others to the point where they neglect them as fellow human beings, yet when I think about it, they’ve met more thru-hikers than I can say I have. There’s some truth in it all.
Hiking My Own Hike
By northern Virginia, I began to deliberately stop to talk to every person I pass and give them 100% of my attention. The reason: in that area I bumped into another thru-hiker, a rare occasion for me, and our conversation helped define my hike going forward. After the basic details of our hike I mentioned how great it was to have the chance to talk to another thru. I was told, and I’m paraphrasing, that if the hiker was on foot he/she wouldn’t have even stopped. There’s more context, tone and body language to the event yet I thought about this for days after. I felt ignored and unimportant while also acknowledging that, aligned to what’s commonly ‘hike your own hike,’ nothing was bad or wrong about the hiker stopping or not; a conflicting feeling for me. The awesome thing about the trail is that it’s for everyone and every motive. I’ve come to feel that as long as people respect one another and the environment, the diversity in use makes the backcountry all that more interesting. I also reflected that I don’t know this person, what they’re hiking for, what they’re like off trail, etc, and was able to make peace with the whole incident. This person was just simply really into his/her own hike – that’s exactly what I was about, too, and the experience made me think I can use this time as an instructive step for me. Had I come across similiarly to others? I’m sure I have and I made a concerted effort to make my hike more entwined with the small, frequent interactions that occur daily. And after all, I’m grateful to have had this experience as speaking wirh more people in a deliberate, genuine and focused way has made me happier out here. One fellow, an EMT and small business owner out for a hike just before Harper’s Ferry, WV, said I changed his perspective on thru hikers after our evening and morning conversations. It was clear to him that thru-hikers were good folks and he was compelled to act on his interest to provide trail magic this season. And as I talked about ice cream multiple times, he gave me $20 to feed my rampant Ben & Jerry’s habit. In northern New York, a small conversation to a trail maintenance volunteer resulted in an offer to drive his car to a resupply. I could have started both days with a quick goodbye to start my miles – now, I try to start and stop for people, because that’s me telling myself, “Hike my own hike.”. It’s not trail magic. It’s the goodness of the human spirit genuinely connecting with another. That’s how I do it now.
Tomorrow, I begin NH and in a few weeks meet the Big K. I’ll for sure be striking a few poses while I’m up there and that will be exciting. Yet, all I can think about is what’s after the hike. The people and ideas that I’ve found that are metaphorically worth carrying are fairly clear to me at this point and I’m more excited about those. My mom visited me right before I crossed into Hanover and I’m reminded that this hike is about developing into the person I need to be to carry everything after well and accomplish the upcoming challenges that are unique to my life story. I can’t wait to act on them – they’re what keep me moving these days. This is still a developing idea.
More after the hike is complete – less than 450 to go, 80% done and 20% to be created.
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