When Smugness and I started the flop out of Harpers Ferry, our energy was renewed, and are spirits were ready to absorb the south half, as if it were a new hike. Having completed New Hampshire and Maine, we were convinced that Virgina was going to be a cakewalk. We were wrong.
I should preface this with a small statement: of course the trail is wondrous and, quite frankly, a privilege However, it’s not the easy times that gives a story vivacity and flavour, its the struggles. This is a recounting of the struggles peppered into a hike of a lifetime.
After taking a few days to recuperate at a tramily member’s home, we set out for a hostel near Harpers Ferry and immediately noticed a change in vibes. Going south on a Flip Flop is lonely. We were no longer part of the early start NOBO crowd, and we were too far south to be part of the SOBO bubble (which is already far smaller than the NOBO bubble), and Flip Floppers make less of a bubble and more of a thin spread at best.
So, who are we seeing on a daily basis? Nobody, mostly. When we do see people on trail, they are usually day hikers (no shade or judgement), and if we are at hostels, they are usually work-for-stay guests, and nomads (again, no judgement or shade). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a different vibe. There aren’t people around to reminisce and discuss the trail, and hiker midnight is less observed in these crowds. Sometimes, the mix of guests can lead to unsavory conflicts as well. On the other hand, there is something slightly refreshing about slowly transitioning out of the hiker world and incorporating reality back into the hiker’s micro-culture.
Another crazy change to cope with was the weather. As a flip flopper heads north, they chase Spring for the majority of their journey. It wasn’t until Maine that we really felt summer upon us. But, when we flipped south, our first day on trail greeted us with 100% humidity on a 95 degree day (35 celsius). These conditions persisted throughout Virginia which made for incredibly exhausting days. Further, the mountains, heat, and humidity are perfect conditions for birthing thunder storms, which could be expected 3-4 times a week. When we weren’t wet with sweat and humidity, we were wet with rain.
Penultimate to my complaints is the environment. As a consequence of the NOBO bubble having already come and gone, and the summer sun having had time to do its work, the trail was reminiscent of a tropical jungle. Picture this: a lush and overgrown canopy overhead, humidity beading on the grass and leaves around you, a loud and relentless hum of cicadas coming from high, brambles and thorny thickets dense enough to obscure the trail. Breaking trail through spider webs amidst the wild greenery, you hear the slither of something through the undergrowth and the ominous rattle of a diamondback close by. You manage to find a way around, only to have stepped in a nest of yellow jackets who have nothing better to do than ruin your day. Panicking, as you run through the swarm to the safety of a shelter ahead, you find yourself traipsing through a forest of poison ivy, followed by piles of dead leafs. At last, you make it to the shelter. Finally, a moment to breathe… Or to catch a glimpse of a brown recluse spider, or black widow… Tent it is. After setting up, you peel off your socks from a long and sweaty day just to find teeny tiny little bugs crawling under your sock and bites everywhere. Are they chiggers? Are they lonestar tick larva? You don’ t know. Oh well, its time to gather water for food… But you climb down to the alleged water source only to find the summer heat has dried the stream and left less than a trickle (if you’re lucky). Now, picture that for 500 miles… Give or take. It’s full of life, beauty, adventure and mystery… But its also treacherous at times and it had the largest impact on my head game.
The head game: As much as Smugness and I started the flop renewed, we quickly realized that as far as we had come, we still had about as much to go, and this time without the buzz and solidarity of a thru hiker crowd. There’s less trail maintenance and less trail magic as well as an empty tank of motivation. Sometimes it’s hard to be present and practice gratitude, especially when life threatens your mind with monotony. It’s easy to put one foot in front of the other through the green tunnel, forgetting where you are, and what you are doing, and hard to remain in a constant state of awe and appreciation for your surroundings.
BIG NOTE: thank you to the volunteers, trail maintenance clubs, trail angels, and anyone out there I may have missed. Your services are much appreciated and absolutely NOT EXPECTED. I only mean to say that when you’re not around, you are sorely missed <3.
Surely, there were some positive changes? Of course. Perspective is everything on trail, and it was lovely hearing from the NOBOs of which challenges lie ahead, only to find that well-seasoned trail legs make it a whole lot easier. After stumbling through the rocks and roots of New Hampshire and Maine, the trails of Virginia were a veritable hiker highway. For the most part, they’re wide, graded, and full of gently ascending switch backs to help you ease your way through the mountainous landscape…Virginia is not flat. More to the point, as much as the “highlights” of the trail supposedly find their homes in the north half, there is still a ton of beauty to be had in Virginia: Shenandoah, the Priest (loveliest 4k I ever did climb), McAfee Knob, and Grayson Highlands, to name a few.
Onwards to Springer
Mile by mile as we inch towards the finish line, our tramily becomes more anxious and ready to be done. Virginia gave me a much needed reality check and change in perspective. I’ve always known how privileged I am. But this experience made me feel it. Not only have I been blessed with this opportunity, but Virginia has made me feel the absence of those things I knew were part of my privilege: the option to be clean, access to fresh produce, shelter that can truly ensconce you in from the elements, cellphone service that can keep you connected to loved ones, pets, a bed that you don’t have to set up, and lazy days. I’m sure that once I reintegrate into society, I will miss the simplicity of life on the trail, the greenery, and the solitude, but until then, right now, I’m ready to be back on my couch, cuddling with my dog, eating a salad that I ordered to my door, and watching Studio Ghibli on Netflix while I wade through this semester’s reading materials.
-A mountain goat, named Sprite
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