The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, generally known as the Appalachian Trail or simply the AT, is a marked hiking trail in the eastern United States extending between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is approximately 2,181 miles long. The path is maintained by 30 trail clubs and multiple partnerships,and managed by the National Park Service and the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The majority of the trail is in wilderness, although some portions do traverse towns and roads, and cross rivers. The Appalachian Trail is famous for its many hikers, some of whom, called thru-hikers, attempt to hike it in its entirety in a single season. Along the way, the trail passes through the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.


Saturday, December 31, 2011

After more time than it should have taken me, I realize I finally need to put some of my thoughts to paper.  It has now been almost 3 months since coming off the trail.  I find myself in Tucson, in December, in shorts. The trail seems like yesterday but it also has this dream-like quality of something that has occurred in my distant past.  I am now on the other side of the country surrounded by deserts and mountains.  I guess I couldn’t have found more opposite surroundings than east coast forest. 
Here I am an Appalachian trail thru hiker. How does it feel people ask?  I wish it was easier to explain. The truth is, it’s not something tangible that happens the moment you come off the trail.  I talked to Kipper the other day and we were talking about how we find ourselves at night walking outside  and staring at the sky. Looking for something? Not really looking because we found it during those 6 months in the woods. Can I explain easily what we found? No but I can try.
I knew after the first night on the trail that I had entered a place I was familiar with but never really knew. We spend countless hours driving through and past woods and forest, looking but not seeing.  I was now officially and completely in the woods.  Glimpses of the world I knew were fleeting but just frequent enough to make you realize it was there and you were here. Going to the woods is a life changing experience.  It was an experience that was so exhilarating, intimidating, exciting and foreign all at the same time.  The entire experience has almost taken on a dream quality.  It is a period of my life that I will hold onto for the balance of my days.  What still surprises me is that it grabbed me, it held me, it changed me.   
I started the trip with the same knowledge that most people have - minimal. That’s part of what made it so exciting, the unknown. The people who did well were the ones who adapted and were resourceful. You must be able to stay calm and positive even when facing near freezing temperatures with only a light fleece blanket.  You must learn to be comfortable with sleet and 70 mile an hour wind gusts. We coined the phrase on the trail;  vomit of randomness. It seemed to fit and it became the explanation as to why adaptation and acceptance were the only way to survive.  I didn’t hike the trail by myself. Sure I started by myself, but I made some amazing friends. They became family.  I had those who I loved with me every step of the way.
And now I try to make some sense of this crazy dream...
Georgia was absolutely beautiful, though still looking like the tail end of winter, the feeling of a new season in the woods was very strong. The rhododendrons were about all the green you saw. Some starting to bud, eventually turning into one of the most beautiful things on the trail. Excitement and an overwhelming urge to see what was around the bend. I met some hiking partners early. People don’t understand the community aspect of the AT until they experience it. The trail operates the way the world should. Giving, caring, and respect for fellow man. (Let’s be honest though, there were definitely some turds out there. Some things you can never get away from.) The first steps on the trail were taken while sporting a massive ear to ear smile on my face. I had a huge face woody. The start of the trek for me was almost 50% hiking and 50% camping. While not hiking much over 12 or 13 miles, I made it to camp around 1 or 2 in the afternoon a lot of days. The rest of the day was full of fires, eating, and laughing. This somewhat relaxed start didn’t last too long until hiking more than hanging out was the norm.
Not too long after I took off from Springer came the Smoky Mountains. This felt like my old stomping grounds. I treasure the early memories of going to the Smokies as a kid. I have a tough time thinking back on specific moments on the trail but my time in the Smokies were very clear.  Living for the moment created a blurry vision of a lot of the trail. I rarely looked at my guidebook. I pretty much hiked until I saw a familiar face. I rarely knew where we were, how much we had hiked already, where the next shelter was, and what anything was actually called. A lot of people were somewhat obsessive (in a good way) about looking at “the book.” Which was great because I could just ask them where I was. I wanted to let go as much as possible.
Coming out of the Smoky Mountains was the first time I smelled Spring. The elevation dropped considerably and the forest was green and scattered with wild flowers. Every time the forest drastically changed there was a warming feeling of rejuvenation. The hunger for the next turn was overwhelming. I think I told my dad about once every 2 weeks that I was “getting good at this whole hiking thing.” Every time I said it I realized there was still a lot to learn and a LOT of miles still to hike. It all came down to being proud of what you did that day and have an open mind for what the next day would bring.
Another question a lot of people ask is; what was the craziest thing you saw on the trail? Kipper was telling me that this was one of the hardest questions to answer. I totally agree. We came up with this answer;  Almost everything we saw seemed crazier than the last. So many things came up with little warning, most good and some not as good. Nothing was bad. It was just what the trail had in store for us. I mean we were the ones who decided to walk 2,181 miles, you can’t do anything but be grateful for every rock, tree, flower, and animal you see. Start getting negative and you will find yourself on the couch wondering where it all went wrong. I now find myself wondering at times how it all went so right. Answer... positivity, stubbornness, great family and friends, and my dad.
I need to take some time and say that there were multiple hardships that I faced on the trail. For how much the mental aspect of the trail affected the outcome, I always knew that I had my Dad there to get my back. I had my ID stolen/lost, I needed supplies, I had a sweet blog, I got antibiotics shipped to me when the fear that I had Lyme disease set in, I had moral support, I got to bounce feelings and ideas off of someone who knows me better than anyone... All this due to you Dad. I love you and am forever grateful for all that you have done through the trail, past, present, and future. Thank You! I felt like you were right there with me when I stumbled through the clouds and reached out for that sign that I walked so far to touch.
After the Smokies came some great southern trail highlights like Hot Springs, Erwin, Pond Mountain Wilderness, Max Patch, and Roan Mountain just to name a few. Through all of these places is where I developed the mindset and physical strength needed to make it. Through this stretch I got a good sense of how crazy weather can change how you go about your day and night. I saw hail, 70 mile an hour wind gusts, lots of rain, and the heat started to kick in a bit. I could go on for days about the beauty and challenge of this section. If I did, things would start to get a bit redundant. I’ll say this... It was sweet!
DAMASCUS! WHAT UP! The first major milestone. There was a lot that happened for me around Damascus. I took 2 days off here to rest and game plan. Up until this point I had been hiking with Bierburger, Fish, Lemon, Bearbait, and Habitat. I owe a lot to these people. We were a tight knit pack that supported and helped each other every day. I had a blast and it got the hike off to a great start. There was a certain need to venture out of Damascus with a new start. I felt at this point that I was missing a part of the trail that I had looked foward to, solitude and a do whatever I want, whenever I want kind of mentality. Thanks to the crew for everything. I’ll always cherish the memories and friendships. I took some time to relax and figure out my gear. While in Damascus I met Kipper. With no definite plans we set out and quickly met up with Habitat. It was on. We quickly made it to one of the coolest sections of the trail, The Grayson Highlands - wild ponies, crazy changing landscapes, awesome campsites, and nice trail. Shortly after the Highlands we started hiking with Achilles. It was an extremely fun group of people to hike with. Next came the only time on the trail that I really thought I might be done for. Sprained ankle number 3.
The pain that everyone went through was probably the number two most common topic of conversation on the trail, just behind food. Something hurt at all times. You had to learn how to make friends with the pain and eventually start to find a strange joy in it. It made you feel alive and tough. I dealt with a nagging ankle issue for about 1,800 miles. The first sprain coming in Fontana Dam, the second... I think was around Pond Mountain Wilderness, and the third which was pretty bad right before Pearisburg, VA. The first 2 times I had to wait about 10 or 15 minutes before I could begin putting pressure on it and then it eventually loosened up. Not this time. I couldn’t go on. I walked back about a half mile with Habitat, who is one of the nicest people I have ever met, and set up camp. I ended up taking the next day off which was a bummer for multiple reasons. I was falling behind the people I was hiking with.  The next morning  I couldn’t put much weight on it. The day passed as I lay in my tent watching the butterflies. I occasionally walked over to the stream to soak my ankle. The next day it hurt but I could put pressure on it. I had 64 miles to Woods Hole Hostel where I was trying to catch up with everyone.  I got it done in 3 days with 20 plus miles a day on a busted ankle. Wake up early and hike late. Slow and steady. This was my triumphant moment over pain and adversity.  These three days defined my hike.
I met Kipper in Pearisburg. He was with Chimp. This was the first time we had met. Can’t say enough about these two guys. Kipper and I decided to take 4 days off and let my ankle and his shin splints heal. Chimp headed out on the second day. Through the next 4 days we slept in a hotel room with 6 hikers, camped by a set of train tracks where there was a train that passed every hour or so, even through the night, caught some fish, and paid a visit to Blacksburg where Virginia Tech is located. Did I mention we ate copious amounts of food during our time off? It was a lot of fun but we were both eager to get back on the trail. Shortly after we left Pearisburg I met Bluefoot for the first time. I hiked off and on with Bluefoot for the remainder of the trip. Awesome person! A lot great times on the trail were with Bluefoot. You’re my boy Blue!
After Pearisburg Kipper and I were in a strange bubble where we didn’t see many other thru hikers for days on end. It was starting to get hot and water was becoming more and more scarce. Kipper and I decided to try our hand at a little night hiking. The night before we stayed at Four Pines Hostel and ended up staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning. We decided to set our tents up in the barn. Bad idea. At 5:30 in the morning were woken up by about 15 chickens circling our tents squawking. They would not stop and we had only gotten a couple hours of sleep. We hung out all day and then around 8 at night we set out for Daleville, 26 miles away. This being one of the crazier hikes I was a part of. We got tired and incredibly loopy around 4 in the morning. We would have just set our tents up but we had to get to the post office in Daleville by noon that day. We pushed through and made it. After a nap on the patio furniture outside the Kroger we grabbed a hotel and headed out of Daleville early the next morning. Destination Waynesboro, the official start of Shenandoah National Park.
More to come………………..

1 comment:

  1. Spork!! You have such a gift for writing. I love your reflecitions... You're right, it is impossible to really explain what the hike really means and feels like. But you do a great job of trying! I hope you keep a PCT blog... Can't say I'm not incredibly jealous!!