Reflections and Moments: The (Low) Highlands of West Virginia

Baby’s First Birthday:

This walk turned one month old just a few days ago. As I sit tonight on a bed in the motel I just checked into, a 22 mile day 34 is just behind me.  I’ve walked 520 miles total and 440 of those in the first month.  I walked into Bridgeport, West Virginia tonight on blown out shoes and sore feet, stores recently closed and the next opportunity too many miles away. I made the reasonable choice and found a room across from the mall where my new shoes are just waiting to find my feet.  I need a shower anyway. My feet need an ice bath. And a half-day tomorrow wouldn’t be the worst thing ever.

In just one month this walk has gone from shiny and new to tornado warning-flash flood-bruised feet old.  My head is spinning, the world is racing around me, and here I am meandering about it at 2 miles per hour.  I spent my last night in Maryland at a campground on the C&O sitting in front of a large fire I had built courtesy of some firewood gifted me by a youth group who was just on their way out.  I stared at the flames as my face flooded with tears, my mind and heart wandering to the trauma and loss that precipitated my walk across this country.  Yesterday I spent miles 15 through 17 of a 21 mile day in much the same place, tears hidden behind my sunglasses and cars whizzing past.

In a lot of ways I think I came out here to bring my body in alignment with my heart, the daily ache and fatigue helping to reconnect the fracture in my soul.  People keep asking me why I’m walking, why I would take on such a task.  Are you walking for a cause?, they ask.  “No, I’m walking for me.”  That’s not the whole truth, but they aren’t ready for the fuller story I have to tell.  Maybe I’m not ready to tell it.  And quite honestly right now I just want to walk, I just want to hurt, I want to cry and I want to feel within the ever shifting ecology of a slowly drifting landscape.

Walking through West Virginia has been a restorative experience, though that journey is far from complete.  The land has offered more than I could have ever asked for and the people I’ve met will walk with me always.  For now I want to share just a few of the moments and people who, in ways big and small, have shifted my reality.

The Land:

West Virginia has an aesthetic I find intoxicating. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where mountains are mountains and hills are hills.  By most definitions, West Virginia is filled with the latter, despite its declarations as

“the mountain state.”  I have indeed climbed a mountain during my time in the state, but I’ve done so through repetition and persistence…up then down, up then down.

I grew up at roughly the same elevation as “the highlands” here, on a “bluff” situated in the shadows of one of the smaller examples of mountains in the region, a 5000 foot stubby known as Mount Spokane or Mount Baldy, depending on heritage and tradition. Here I topped out on Dolly Sods at 4100 feet. What they call highlands here, we call valleys.  As I write, I’m reminded of a guy I met in the highlands of West Virginia by the name of Ron, “perspective, changes everything.”  Ron, I was already with you before you said it.  I say it a lot in my writing too, “context matters.”

My experience in West Virginia has absolutely been one of mountains, not hills.  I can’t hardly find the words to describe, but walking slowly through these relatively low rolling hills, I have never felt higher.

If not words, maybe a few pictures instead:

The People:

My second day in West Virginia it felt I could hardly walk, people constantly stopping to talk to me about what it was I was doing and a good many knowing exactly what I was up to, the ADT a part of their culture.  One particular farmer stopped several times, even putting his pickup truck in reverse once to return for more conversation.  He regaled me with stories of past hikers he had met (“I came by him right there, or was it at the corner”), their successes and their struggles…“I still have this guy on Facebook” or “she ended up making it to the West.”

Another pulled up with an apple, a bottle of water and a granola bar.  He dropped his tailgate and encouraged me to take a load off, “I’d just like to meet and get to know you a minute.”  So many more!  I walked 21 miles that day on the pure adrenaline of kindness, of people wanting to take a moment of their day to become a part of mine.  And then, my feet aching, a small corner church opened their doors for me to sleep in warmth and security.  I sat in their sanctuary unable to cry, overwhelmed by a day defined not by the struggle in my life nor the mileage in my bones, but by a history of wanderers who had sat where I was sitting in that moment, who rested where I was resting, who woke the next morning and walked another day.

In fact that very next day, as I hiked closer and closer to the base of Dolly Sods, “the West Virginia trail angel,” Charlie, drove up on me in his pickup.  “Are you on the ADT?”  I replied, “yes sir, the very same.”  His next words sent me 4100 feet high the next morning, an effortless climb on the shoulders of giants…”you must be Leif, I’ve been keeping an eye out for you.”  Charlie was just on his way back from bailing out another hiker who got jammed up in Parsons, “an hour and a half, you know, going 70 mph.”  He also had several others camped out at his place, and here he was, just in case I might need something.  I can’t even can’t, such an overwhelming willingness to just be there…

In case I might need something.

And well I have many more of these stories to tell (from just one state!), I want to close with one last partial story (for now!) about the simple kindness of a guy named Ron (I posted the following on Instagram shortly after the encounter):

As I was wandering through Davis, I stopped to take a picture in front of a cool old building.  A guy across the street asked, in that supportive sort of way, “what are you looking for?”

“Oh nothing, I just wanted to take a picture.”

“You should take it from over here” (across the street), so you can see the tree growing out of the chimney; here I can take it for you.”

We got to talking, “where from and where to?”

“American Discovery Trail, Delaware to San Francisco.”

“They bring you up through here,” he said a bit surprised.

“No, I just need some food,” as I pointed to the Shop and Save.

“Do ya need a lift back to the trail?”

Ahh, the sweetest words never sung.  Ron owns and operates the deli across the street from that cool old building.  He also works with mountain rescue and first aid, and has a lot of cool stories to tell, a fellow wanderer and philosopher.  After getting my groceries, I returned to the deli.  Ron invited me in, offered me more food and drink, a little conversation.  I told him, “I appreciate you.” He responded, “no, I appreciate you.” He continued on, “every wanderer probably owes somebody something, like I’m doing for you right now, I’m happy to pay it forward.”

That right there, that’s transformation, an economy based on true reciprocity, cooperative and sharing.  It doesn’t have to be capitalism.  Such economies have and do exist, thrive even (co-operative and sharing economies that is). It’s a paradigm shift, but it can scale up.  We can reimagine our world.  Ron already has, thank you my friend.

Upon dropping me off at the trailhead, Ron offered one more thing, “if you get into any trouble, need anything in West Virginia, call me at the Deli, I’ll get someone out to you.”

Now I’m gonna cry.

Final notes:

Oh and by the way, I have a growing collection of numbers I can call if I get jammed up in this beautiful little state, people who will drive the distance for a complete stranger,

a guy wandering down the road with a heavy looking pack.

I really am going to cry and I appreciate ya’ll for being here too and reading these fragmented pieces of a story well worth the telling,

step by step!

And finally, I just woke up from a splintered sleep in this hotel bed, the only other time I’ve done this being on week two when I got soaked by a flash flood and developed a nasty fever outside DC.  I woke in cold sweats this morning, in the midst of a dream where I was on the run, of all things, from Donald Trump…

(I’ll save the analysis for another time!)


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Comments 3

  • Nature Boy : Apr 29th

    WV is indeed a lovely bit of this continent. Quiet, peaceful. A good place in which to wander (in mind as well as body).
    Keep on keeping on, sir…

  • Melinda : Apr 30th

    You are an amazing writer and your thoughts run very deep! I always look forward to reading your updates. From one like mind to another, trust, it will come in time. Healing takes a lifetime.

  • Maureen : May 1st

    I live vicariously through reading these blogs. I love walking in the woods and wish I had the courage to do what your doing. Your writing in particular resonated with me and your photos are stunningly beautiful. Thanks for the journey. Enjoy yours.


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