Week 12: The Road to Damascus
As some of you may have noticed, the week numbers on my posts have not exactly been precise, but as of June 15th, I’ve been on the Appalachian Trail for three months. And I have to tell you, I am loving it! This past week or so has been by far my favorite section, with well designed trails, beautiful sights, some great people, and my personal physical fitness finally impacting the way I actually feel.
I left Greasy Creek, where I’d stayed for far too many days at the wonderful Greasy Creek Friendly, where I’d enjoyed some time with a few good friends and very comfortable surroundings. I’ve been struggling with interpersonal interaction while I’m out on the Trail because honestly, I’m a curmudgeonly old man stuck in the body of a thirty five year old, and I very rarely like anyone I meet. So it’s a rare pleasure that I find myself enjoying the company of some very likeable people was a real pleasure. Talking about books, reading, watching some good movies together, it was spectacular. Unfortunately, I needed to leave before I spent the remainder of my “hike” sitting on CiCi’s couch, a problem I’m sure many hikers have had there.
I then set out for Roan High Knob, at over 6,000 feet one of the tallest climbs I’ve had thus far. I’d been dreading it for a while now, thinking it would be awful. However, I was incredibly impressed at how well the trail there was laid out, with plenty of switchbacks and gentle grades to make the climb very survivable. I stayed at the shelter at the top, the highest shelter on the Trail. The ecosystem at the top of that mountain is fascinating, being made up largely of species left behind by glacial recession back at the end of the last ice age. Red Spruce trees lent a wonderful smell and sight to the whole area. I met the naturalist assigned to that section of the trail who also stated that flying squirrels could also be found there. (unfortunately, I didn’t spot them myself)
After Roan High Knob, I proceeded across Little Hump and Big Hump, some beautiful balds with wide open views that made me feel like I was on some fantasy country walkabout. I stayed at Overmountain Shelter, where I had the exceedingly great joy of laying in a spot that I could see some fantastic views, including a wide open sky. I stayed up until around one in the morning just gazing at the stars, feeling like all the frustration to this point had been worth it.
That was actually the last time I’ve stayed in a shelter for a while now. I’ve become far more comfortable with my tent, thanks in large part to advice I received from many of you dear readers who identified some mistakes I made in my pitching based on a photo I posted here. Let it never be said that public blogging is useless! I should also thank the kind folks at MSR who also responded to my emails with some similar helpful hints. Because of this, I’ve had the freedom to set my hiking pace myself and can do better mileage than simply stopping at every shelter. I’m still going much slower than I’d like, and certainly slower than most other hikers, but I’m definitely improving.
And really that brings me to my next great experience. For the first time, I’m starting to notice really significant improvements in my hiking! I started by realizing that I was having a hard time sleeping when only a few weeks ago I was still passing out almost as soon as I got to a shelter, sometimes going to bed as early as six in the afternoon. Now I’m laying awake at 11 at night, my mind racing. The solution? Hiking more miles! Where 8 or 9 miles were leaving me exhausted before, I now have to go ten or thirteen miles for the same feeling. It’s incremental, but it feels great! I weighed myself again in Damascus, for the first time since Hot Springs and found that I’ve now lost somewhere in the neighborhood of SEVENTY POUNDS!!! (it’s hard to be exact when you can’t really be picky about the quality of scales being used, but still) I feel like I can’t really put into words how this is making me feel. I’ve been “the fat kid” for almost my entire life and while I’m still very much carrying a huge gut (illustrating just how heavy I was when I set out) I can’t believe the difference now in how I feel. I’m not exactly eager to walk around without my shirt on, but the idea now doesn’t send me into near apoplectic social anxiety attacks. (I’m still sucking in my gut when someone wants to take a picture though)
So at this point, I feel like I should tell you a secret that I haven’t really told too many other people until this point. I quit the AT within the first week. Back in Georgia right after I started I had a heart broken moment on my second day. I had hiked a grand total of three miles to get to a shelter and stopped. When I sat down, I told myself I was only taking a break, but when it came time to stand back up, I couldn’t do it. I’d completely lost the will to continue. I told myself if I didn’t get moving, I’d fail. I knew I needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other, I just didn’t have it. So I sat there, feeling like a failure, thinking I was done. Then I realized that I had quit my job and moved out of my apartment for this. I’d told everyone I knew what I was doing, if I went home after only a few days, I’d never survive the shame! So I cooked up a plan to go on, knowing I was done, and I’d just go home after a month. I figured that was long enough to be able to get out with some scrap of dignity intact. So I kept hiking, but the pressure was off. Who cares how far I went each day? I was already over! I was just going to focus on hiking and enjoying myself, after all I hadn’t really taken more than a few weeks of vacation in the last ten years, why not soak it up and enjoy the woods and mountains? I wasn’t racing, I wasn’t pushing to some finish line, I was just out for a stroll now! And something great happened! I got to the end of a month, and decided it was too much fun! And I was getting emails from people saying how much they enjoyed my updates and my pictures! I was getting to meet folks I’d never would have come across sitting at my desk back home. I still didn’t feel like a “thru hiker” but I was doing it anyways! I realized that I had become my own worst enemy that day, holding myself to some agenda that I’d made up, stealing the joy of the hike away. And now I’m sitting at hostels or shelters encouraging others, and I want to encourage you too. If you decide to do this, you automatically qualify. Just come out and enjoy it. Don’t beat yourself up over miles or states, focus on the path in front of you and live in and love the moment you are in, because it’s the greatest gift you can get!
After the Roan Highlands, I made a brief overnight stop at the Vango Abby Hostel (see my write up about the place elsewhere on this site). I made a trip into Roan Mountain, Tennessee for resupply, and I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly the locals were. The grocery store had great selection and prices for resupply and the Highlander Barbecue had easily some of the best food, awesome prices, and fantastic service that I’ve seen since I started my hike. If someone would open an affordable hostel I think this could become a great trail town stop (the Mountain Harbor has way too high of prices and way too few beds to be a reliable stop)
Next I reached Hampton, Tennessee and enjoyed a few days at Kinkora Hostel. I’d originally planned to skip this stop since I’d just been at a hostel a few days before (albeit without any zero days) and had resupplied fairly well, but Scotty who runs Vango Abby had prevailed upon me that I owed it to myself to swing by and meet Bob Peoples. Boy was he right!
Bob has been running Kinkora for about twenty years and has also been working hard on trail maintenance, including the Hardcore Trail Crew that works the week following Trail Days every year. He has a passion for seeing the next generation of hikers getting involved in trail maintenance and seems genuinely invested in helping everyone who comes across his path succeed. I honestly think I could spend a few weeks just listening to Bob tell stories. He’s probably one of the best people I’ve met out here hands down.
While staying at Kinkora, a few other long time hikers stopped by and they along with Bob were trading stories about Baltimore Jack. It was interesting to hear this kind of perspective, of course with his recent passing I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Jack, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him. However, this was a group of people who simply seemed to enjoy remembering someone who hadn’t been so much a ”Trail Legend” but had simply been their friend.
After setting out from Kinkora, I put my heart on trying to finally hit some “Big Miles.” I started setting my alarm for five am, and hiked until as close to sunset as I could. I knew the section approaching Damascus was as near to “gentle” as I’d seen, and I wanted to see what I could really do. I never hit the 20 mile day I’d hoped for, but I hit 16 and that made me pretty happy (and sore)
When I finally made it to Damascus, I’ve taken a few days off to make some much needed gear purchases, including sock liners, insoles, and a new pack rain cover (my old one was stolen while I was in Erwin.) I’m setting back out on the Trail as soon as I get this post uploaded, but I know I’ll be enjoying what’s still to come! I’m still chubby, still slow, still hiking alone, but I’m still hiking and no one’s taking that away from me yet!
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