When the Trail Doesn’t Provide
“The trail provides” is one of the most common expressions said on the AT, second only to “Hike your own hike”. Both of these expressions have been defining points of my hike so far but not in the way I expected.
Along the way I have received countless acts of trail magic and unexpected kindness that have made my hike infinitely better. And while enduring hardships is part of long distance hiking, without these small “trail miracles” the experience would be vastly different. Unfortunately there have been many times where the trail has not provided and in fact has made me feel completely awful and unsafe.
The first day I considered quitting my hike was on Dragons Tooth in Virginia. I had been feeling down and unethusiastic about hiking for about a week. I lost my group in Damascus and hiking alone proved challenging. It’s hard to be in your head for 10+ hours a day without someone to talk to. I certainly miss my friends, family, and boyfriend more while alone. Of course I ran into other hikers frequently but none that hiked or camped with me consistently. You start to feel the “alone in a crowded room” syndrome. And crowded the AT is. I was shocked at around mile 700 to stumble into Niday Shelter after a long day and find the area 100% packed. I got one of the last tent spots and to top it off several hikers had hiked out cases of beer to drink to celebrate a birthday. When I arrived at 7:30pm, many were already loudly drunk. Not exactly what I expected of those communing with nature. Hike your own hike I suppose, but is that still okay when it is disruptful to others’ hikes? So beyond losing my group, I had hiked into a party bubble that seemed more interested in altering their minds than in hiking their hike.
I found this somewhat stressful since I’m not the partying type and had chosen to hike to have some time for life reflection. The few weeks of stress of being alone in a party bubble culminated at Dragons Tooth in the middle of a surprise thunderstorm after a tough, hot climb. I didn’t really see the view. I didn’t climb the rock formation. And honestly I didn’t really care about that stuff anymore. I called my boyfriend almost crying saying, “I just want to eat my snack…” I slowly climbed down from Dragons Tooth holding back tears and trying not to slip on the giant rain soaked boulders. At one point I thought it would be okay to fall and hurt myself because that would be a legitimate excuse to quit not just “I couldn’t do it”.
I sought reprieve at Four Pines Hostel that night and felt renewed by a shower and clean laundry. Four Pines was run by nice people who only had good intentions in helping hikers but I found even more party culture here that I wasn’t expecting. First there was a fair amount of very obvious drug dealing going on. I did not feel safe leaving my pack or belongings out. I have heard many stories of people having their packs and even food bags stolen on the trail and at hostels. Second, when I took a shower I had issues flushing the toilet. I determined the issue was the flapper and when I lifted up the back of the toilet I found insulin needles blocking the flapper. I don’t believe any hikers there had diabetes and I don’t think they would dispose of needles in the back of the toilet. Never on my hike did I think I would be so boldly exposed to drugs and partying and I felt extremely uncomfortable.
The next day I slackpacked 26 miles to Daleville to avoid Lamberts Meadow Shelter which was closed due to bears. I paired up with Wartortle and John the Baptist and had a nice day hiking over McAfees Knob and Tinker Cliffs. I have been hiking with these two for several days now and have enjoyed my time with them including swimming in the James River and completing a “Bearathon”. (We hiked 27 miles one day/night after a very bold bear decided it wanted the food bags at Marble Spring campsite).
But a few days ago I again found myself at a point of desperation at the top of a hot, tough climb in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. I was heading to Cowcamp Gap Shelter but decided I didn’t want to be there that night. I called my friends at the top of the climb in the pouring rain and asked them to pick me up at the road 2 miles back down the mountain. I hiked back down in a weird zen state feeling neither happy nor sad that I decided to abruptly get off the trail. I have slept a lot while staying with friends in Charlottesville and am feeling better overall. It’s so nice being in the company of others that care about you and having time to rest. I think my moment of desperation was just me being completely exhausted from hiking long days and not sleeping well. “Bearathon” and being verbally harassed by a townie in the Buena Vista park at 3am had lead to interrupted nights of sleep and me feeling too anxious/scared to fall into a deep sleep (which is desperately needed when you hike close to 20 miles a day for weeks.)
At the same time, I think my moment of desperation was also my subconscious telling me I was no longer enjoying my hike. I have been soaking wet and gotten into camp before. I know I can deal with that but at that moment the rain was almost an excuse to leave and I took it. I have learned that I do not enjoy the party culture of the AT NOBO bubble. And while I realize it may not last forever, I am only about 200 miles from the halfway point and I still can’t escape it. Trail rumor is that there is an even worse bubble behind me full of “Trail Days” hikers that is riddled with theft, drugs, and fights. I’m not sure what I expected trail culture to be like but it wasn’t this. It is very apparent to me now that all the trail novels I read before my hike made the trail seem more glamorous than it really is. (Also Josh of Hiker Hostel was right when he told me not everything you read is true). Maybe I’d prefer hiking in the off season when there is less people and less partying? Maybe I’d prefer hiking with a partner so I have a constant source of support? I’m not sure. I don’t want to quit yet. But the first few days I took off I absolutely had no desire to go back to the trail either. My plan for now is to hike to my house at the halfway point in PA and reevaluate. I’ve considered flipping to Maine and hiking south to get away from the bubble but I don’t know if that is the right solution or not. I will hike a few more weeks and think about it. Thru hiking is a daunting task. If you are feeling miserable at half way, how will you feel the rest of the way to Maine? I know I will finish the whole trail some time during my life. I’m just not sure about right now.
(I know this post is very negative but I have overall had a positive experience on the trail. The past few weeks have been rough and have just made me reconsider thru hiking vs chunk/section hiking. There are also many nice people hiking the AT but they do get outnumbered by partiers. App Trials bloggers are not the norm on the trail. They are a special treat when you meet them.)
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