My Return To The Mountains

When you die, the world will move on without you. It’s like that when you leave for a couple weeks to go on a hike, too. I recently returned to the Appalachian Trail for 13 days to hike a southbound section spanning 260 miles from Daleville, Virginia, into Damascus, Virginia. The initial plan was to average 20 miles a day to make it to Damascus in time for Trail Days. The grand festival for smelly hikers would be worthy reward for laboring up mountains for two consecutive weeks.

I always have a plan. I probably spend more time planning than doing. Always thinking about the future, always deliberating on the best way to go about doing something. Setting the bar high, wanting to challenge myself so when I reach that far and away goal I can look back and say, “yeah, I did that.” That feels good.

Muffin Man is a good friend of mine, but in the real world we call him Rich. Rich is the person that put the idea in my head to hike the Appalachian Trail in the first place, some years ago. And we did it. All of it. From March 18th to September 16th 2016, we traveled through 14 states up the east coast, listening to the sounds of the forest and tripping over rocks and roots until we touched the sign signifying the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, 2,189 miles after our first steps on Springer Mountain. That doesn’t include the 9 mile approach trail, nor does it include the countless road walking when the gods of hitchhiking wouldn’t answer our prayers.

“See ya later,” Muffin Man said as he drove away, after dropping me off in Daleville. There it was, the trail, and there I was, 260 miles and 13 days away from this goal I created for myself. Why am I still doing this shit? I thought to myself after about an hour of hiking. I was arrogant to think I still had my trail legs. This hiking shit is hard, I thought when climbing up to Tinker Cliffs. I had forgotten just how long it takes to get from point A to point B, even when you’re pushing 4 miles an hour.

I managed to cover 10 and a half miles in a little over 3 hours, but by this point it was getting dark. I got a late start. Muffin Man and I had been camped out at Beach Mountain road doing trail magic (catering to hikers with candy, pizza, beer, and weed) for the past 3 days, and by the time we got packed up to finally leave it was noon, and by the time we got to Daleville it sometime around 3pm. Then we ate Wendy’s. Fuel for the 10 miles? Perhaps. Waking up in my tent 5 times the first night with stomach pains and a migraine? That wasn’t apart of my plan. But before I tell you about that, let me tell you about getting hit in the head with a big ass tree branch when I was trying to hang my food bag.

It was getting dark up there on Tinker Cliffs. It was time to set up the tent and get ready to sleep. I was the only one up there, to my surprise. Kind of spooky, I thought. This was the place a bear invaded our campsite last year, so I’d better hang my food bag. How does one do that, you might be wondering. It’s simple really, tie a rock around one end of your rope, then find a suitable branch to sling it over, at least 6 feet high and 6 feet out from the trunk of the tree. The higher the better, since the whole point is to make it difficult for bears and mice to reach. I had my headlamp on at this point, searching around to find a heavy enough rock. Got one. Alright, it’s tide up. Aim just above the branch you’ve chosen. Now throw. I probably threw that rock 6 times, and each time it came untied when it hit the ground, narrowly missing the branch I had eyed each time. I’m not the best rock thrower. And whenever I heard the slightest noise I’d do a quick turn to make sure no beasts of the night were sneaking up on me. Maybe a black bear was out there trying to catch me slipping. Come on, just go over the fucking branch already. I threw it again. It worked! Now all I have to do is tie the rope to my foodbag, and hoist it high into the air. Rope tied, now time to pull it. As I began to pull I felt closer and closer to being in my tent, able to sleep the night away. The bag was just above my head now. Just a few feet higher for good measure. SNAP. I look up to see the branch hurling itself at my head, so I reflexively duck and cover. Doesn’t matter. It’s a big ass branch and it smacked me right in the back of the head. Time to start over.

I eventually got the thing to work when I found a stronger tree limb, and then I walked back to my tent rubbing the back of my head. Thankfully I had set it up prior to the food bag hanging fiasco. I crawled inside and zipped up the entrance, only now I was face to face with broken zippers on my tent. :This isn’t going well,” I said aloud to myself. The next several minutes were spent adjusting my zippers so my tent would be completely sealed, creating the illusion of safety so I could sleep comfortably. Now I could rest. “But not so fast,” my gut said. “Remember that Wendy’s you fed me? Well, that beef doesn’t sit well in me, so were gonna keep you all night in misery as we struggle to break it down.” And it was miserable. My head was throbbing, my stomach was in knots and I tried to vomit but I couldn’t. Maybe I slept for two hours, maybe less. When the sun arose, I did as well. I drank a liter of water, broke down my tent, and stuffed it in my pack along with my other gear and supplies. I had planned 15 miles that day. Those were probably the most miserable 15 miles of my life. I stopped maybe every two miles to drink water, but it evidently wasn’t enough. I began developing cramps in my legs, my stomach, and back. Immobilizing, agonizing muscle spasms permeated my body as I walked. I was drenched in sweat and felt more than weak. I felt sickly. I must have food poisoning or something, I thought as I approached a road. Four Pines Hostel was less than half a mile away, I stopped there for the night.

At the local convenience store I picked up a gallon of water and spent the whole night drinking it. I slept for 12 hours and woke up covered in a cold sweat. But I was feeling better. Sore all over, but better. I looked over my mileage plan I had written down in my guidebook, and found I had 29 miles to do that day. What was I thinking? Can I really do 29 miles today? I made it 17 miles in the pouring rain and decided to stop at a shelter. I had a rash along my inner thighs that was beginning to draw blood. The shelter was overflowing with hikers so I set up my tent. Why am I still doing this? I already hiked this whole trail. The thought persisted. Will I make up those 12 lost miles in these next few days? The thought of doing that sounded dreadful. I remembered something a friend of mine said, tongue in cheek; “if you don’t set goals, you can never fail.” It was degenerate and nihilistic, but it made me laugh.

For all my planning, nothing ever goes how I intend it to. This was something the trail taught me last year on my thru hike, but somewhere I found myself learning this lesson all over again. I sifted through my mileage plan and made adjustments. No way I was making it to Damascus in time for Trail Days. Would I get as far as I could and hitchhike the rest of the way? I decided to let future me figure that part out, for now, I was just going to hike until I didn’t feel like hiking anymore.

And that’s what this excursion back into the woods became. Sometimes I’d hike 15 miles, sometimes 20, or sometimes less than 10. Whatever I felt like doing. I hiked through blistering heat and humidity that evolved into rainstorms. The trail flooded and my feet squished with every step. The sun came back a few days later and the flooding was replaced with globs of mud. All the things I didn’t miss about the trail made their way into my travels. From gnats that commit suicide by flying into my eyeballs, rolling my ankle several times a day, feeling parched while climbing to the next spring, and the little bugs that feast on my flesh all night when sleeping in a shelter.

My favorite aspect of thru hiking was simultaneously stripped away, as I was with a different group of hikers each night at the campsite I ended up settling into. I was traveling south while everyone else was going north. The camaraderie I had found on my thru hike wasn’t there to lift my spirit when it was tired. But the people I did meet, however fleeting our encounters were, brought some light to my gloomiest days. Simple conversation, even if we just talked about gear, allowed me to escape the mundane thoughts that were inundating my psyche. As I approached the next campsite or shelter each night, I thought about who I might meet, and what we might talk about. It gave me something to look forward to as I traveled in the opposite direction of everyone I passed while on my daily hike. If the hikers I met found out I thru hiked last year as we exchanged words, their eyes lit up with interest and they began to ask me questions about my previous trek. When they asked for advice I told them the same shit they’ve probably heard a hundred times over. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Take it one day at a time, don’t think too far ahead, and enjoy it.” I should’ve said, “drink a lot on your days off and sometimes while hiking, always say yes doing to dangerous shit, and never plan.”

One morning I woke up in my tent with no inclination to hike that day, and I laid there for three hours trying to muster the will to move. I finally stumbled upon a scintilla of momentum and broke down my tent and packed everything up. But even then, the desire to hike simply wasn’t there. This was day 10 on my hike, and I was only about a mile from the next road. About 3 miles from the next town. My desire go into town won out over my desire to stay on trail, which didn’t stand a chance from the moment I awoke. When I got a motel room and took a shower, it was blissful to say the least. I felt holy in that steaming hot bathroom, cleaning the dirt off my legs. But as I laid there on the bed with nothing to do for the rest of the day, I began to miss the woods. To think I knew myself. I know nothing of my mind. But this was typical of my past experiences too. When I’m hiking, most of the time I don’t enjoy it. It’s mundane for the most part. I began to feel bad for taking a day off so I started doing pushups and burpees in the motel room, hoping to satisfy my itch to never be lazy.

Even when hiking in solitude, I hardly ever found myself contemplating the cosmos or my very existence. Most of the time my thoughts were steeped in animalistic wants and desires. I’d think about food all the time, I’d think about sex, how much I miss showers, and memories from back home. I’d think about how many miles I’d have to hike until the campsite, or where the next spring was so I could quench my thirst. I’d think about what I’d do if I saw a bear, or what I could say to that cute girl who’s hiking the trail too. Then I’d plan out the next 10 years of my life and think about how cool it’d be to drive across the country on a motorcycle. There was rarely any spiritual breakthroughs or backwoods revelations. It’s not like the movies. It’s not dramatic, it’s not profound, and it even begins to feel normal, like a daily grind. But when I’m not hiking, when I’m in a motel, or back home, or driving a car, or doing anything else, I find myself missing the trail. Missing the hike. I remembered Muffin Man saying that this is how you know you’re a thru hiker, when you miss the trail whenever you’re not on it. I suppose you could call my connection with the trail a love-hate relationship.

When I returned to the trail the next day, I felt stronger than ever, I did 20 miles and got to camp around 4pm. And it was easy. I mean really easy. The rash on my ass crack burned and was probably chaffing. I was thirsty as fuck, and dripping with sweat, but I felt like I could do 10 more miles. I didn’t, but I felt like I could. I had found my trail legs again, just in time for the end of this hike. Oh well. My parents had planned a weekend trip to hike in Grayson Highlands State Park and they were kind enough to pick me up in Atkins. I was 70 miles short of Damascus. 70 miles short of my goal. 70 miles I failed to hike. I’ve hiked them before. Who cares. Trail Days? Who cares. I missed my parents, and was content in simply hanging out with them for the weekend. Hiking in Greyson Highlands and seeing all the wild ponies with my mom and dad was a lot of fun, and we had the most delicious pizza and beer afterwards for dinner. It was Saturday night and I was in the hotel room reflecting, thinking about whom I was missing at Trail Days from my thru hike last year, and also thinking about where I go from here. Maybe in the future I’ll spend more time doing and less time planning.

Monday morning I was feeling enthusiastic about getting after the day, appreciating the little things I was beginning to take for granted, and was hungrier than ever to take on my passions by storm. I felt like I lost my lazy bone, and gained inspiration to not let a single day go to waste. The mountains had renewed my spirit, once again, and in the end I was thankful for having returned to the place I call my second home, The Appalachian Trail.

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