Walking Back Home to Virginia
There I was again. Hunched like a small gremlin on the sidewalk in Damascus outside a Dollar General, scarfing down a Nestle drumstick ice cream with one hand while scrabbling to open a box of Cheez-its to fit into my food bag with the other. I gave up and sat with my back to the bricks, laughing to myself at how I must look. Like a crazy person, but a happy crazy person with ice cream. People should just be glad it wasn’t mayonnaise. I was thrilled to be back in Virginia — back to the first state I went backpacking in, a place that feels like home to me.
Earlier that week, I walked through gravel trails that wound through grassy pastures lined with dandelions, clovers, and buttercups. I walked through the meadow alone, imagining my shadow lengthening behind me, filling in the spaces left in the gravel by my footprints. Sparrows flitted overhead, and I could feel my spirit rising with them. The blue ridge mountains surrounded me on both sides, holding pace with me as I walked — as if they were sleeping giants keeping me company.
No matter where I went, which state I was in, they remained the same. The ridges thick with emerald trees that felt so familiar they could be the trees lining your driveway. I felt the same untethered freedom I did when I first started backpacking and smiled. I was all alone out there, no ride, no worries, and nowhere to go but north. The tall grass swayed in the breeze. An AT symbol decorated a barn door. I walked under a single tree in the pasture, listening to the breeze sift through its branches. Sunlight speckled the ground. A brown cow stood in front of me, the sunlight highlighting its fur the color of a riverbed. As I passed the white blazes and walked through the farmland towards Virginia, I had an unmistakable feeling I was walking home.
Realizing No One Gives a Shit
I watched a tractor pull through the gate and more cows got out into the pasture, and the farmer drove off. It’s funny how life kept going on — the farmer kept tending to his cows, my friends kept going to their jobs, and I just kept on hiking. Every time I got into town, it felt like a bunch of confetti should come down or a little man with a top hat should pop out of the cracks of a sidewalk and say congrats! You’ve walked another 100 miles! The only thing that did happen is some people waved, some people stared, some people honked. Your hike does not really matter much — except to you. That’s my favorite part about it. There’s no reasons to keep going except the ones you have. No one’s out here forcing you to do it. It’s just you and the trail, and everyone else who’s crazy enough to try.
I feel like it puts everything into perspective. Want to quit your job? Sure! Unless you’ve got a family depending on you, this is your own journey, no one else really cares! And that’s one of the most terrifying and freeing things in the world. You can just do what you want (as long as you’ve got the financial freedom to do it), and that just becomes your life. (Another outstanding realization for a post-grad twenty-something-year-old.)
Losing Friends on Trail
No one really prepared me for how it felt to lose a close friend on trail. In my limited life experiences at the ripe age of 22, it felt similar to graduating and knowing chances are you won’t see some of your really close friends again for a long while.
The trail makes a strange environment because you get used to seeing a steady stream of familiar faces, exactly like walking through the hallways of a high school, except they’re filled with stinky hikers and close friends instead of a weird girl who barks at people. Though sometimes there’s that too.
When somebody gets off trail, there is an undeniable sense of an empty place. Usually, you lose track of friends — some fall ahead and behind, which is actually comforting. You know if you speed up, you’ll see people you know, if you slow down, you’ll see people you know. There’s a sense that they’re still there.
When I walk, I like to think about how all my friends are doing the same thing I am. They’re all grumbling going uphill, zoning out at a water source, laughing at a dumb joke in a trail register. We’re all walking along on this trail that connects all of us.
When a friend gets off trail — there’s not that connection anymore. You won’t see them if you push ahead, you won’t see them if you fall behind. They won’t randomly be sitting at a shelter making dinner and you won’t catch them walking down the street in a trail town with an extra beer in hand. It’s a strange feeling.
The first time I experienced a member of my tramily leaving, I watched the sunset over Erwin from Beauty Spot. I almost left but went back because I had promised to put myself in the way of beauty — and the spot was literally called Beauty. I sat in a small clearing of reeds and goldenrod and cried quietly as the sun let go of the day. My friend was so far away and would only get farther. I went back into my tent and slept.
The next day, after watching the sunrise, I cried for most of it. I listened to fire and rain and sobbed my way across mountains. Funnily enough, the sadder I am, the faster I hike. Strong emotions trigger an equally strong physical response for me, and on trail this is especially beneficial. I let myself feel my sad emotions and let my tears fall behind me as I walked. I became a small sad speedy raincloud blowing snot rockets into my buff.
I passed a hiker along the way who looked at me and asked if I was OK. I laughed. “I’m sad because a friend got off trail.” I said, “but I enjoy sad hikes sometimes and being sad makes me faster.”
“The trail provides.” He nodded solemnly and I laugh-cried again and sped away.
That day was a blur of James Taylor, acoustic Pearl Jam, and Simon and Garfunkel helping me to thread my blurry footsteps through the rocks and roots. Every time I saw a friend, I cried because I was just so glad that I still was close with other people and they were still with me.
I was also routinely forgetting to eat — which made my emotions flop everywhere. I realized as soon as I started eating copious amounts of snickers while crying, I stopped crying. I was still sad, but my sadness is quickly filled by a full stomach. It’s funny how being hungry can make everything suck so much more. I was able to do 25 miles that day — and pulled into the shelter feeling like I could still do more.
Since then, it seems as though the trail has continued to teach me how to continue on my path and to trust myself as an independent person. With each friend that leaves, another friend keeps me company. Similar in life, friends will come and go, but you always remember the ones that have been by your side through the tough miles. Recently, another close friend left trail due to injury. I’d been hiking with her since the first few days and I still miss her but am grateful for the time we spent together. Her last words to me as I started to speed up on an incline were, “Go on! I’m right behind ya!”
I had a bad feeling. Later on when I found she had gotten off, I realized her words were still true. In a way, all the friends that got off trail were still with me. In other thru-hikers’ packs I see that are the same as theirs, in jokes I still tell that I picked up from them, in parts of my trail name. I realized that just because someone gets off trail — the connection does not end there. The AT has a funny way of bonding with people, so that even when they’re texting you from off trail — they’re still with you. Her words stick with me as I hike as a quiet encouragement to keep on pushing, even on my hardest days, reminding me that every step I take out here is a gift and something to appreciate. It’s an amazing way to stay present. When I walk in the mornings and listen to the birds waking up and feel the morning dew settling on my trail runners, I take a deep breath and am happy to be alive. It’s an incredible thing to be able to walk on this trail that connects so many hikers in winding and beautiful ways. Every day I look forward to who I’ll walk with. Old friends and new — the view is always better with someone to share it with.
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