2,189 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Summit

Baxter Peak, Mount Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine

On August 28, 2017, I completed the Appalachian Trail.

When I woke up, it was still dark and very cold. Autumn comes early to the northern woods of Maine, and what counts for autumn there would be considered winter just about anywhere south of it.

If I couldn’t see what I was doing, I damn sure wasn’t going to be freezing while doing it.

After twenty or so minutes deliberating if it was worth leaving my sleeping bag, the sun had risen just enough that I didn’t need a headlamp to pack up camp. I moved through the process deliberately. I’d done it more than a hundred times that summer, but I didn’t want to rush. The last thing I wanted to do was forget something. I also wanted to savor it a little. Everything since the night before had a ring of finality to it. My last dinner. My last time setting up a tent. My last journal entry.

My last view of Katahdin from Abol Bridge, which separates the 100 Mile Wilderness from Baxter State Park.

I left most of my gear at the ranger station. The dry-bags holding my sleeping bag, tent, extra clothes, food scraps and the few other items I wouldn’t need for the day were tied up with a bit of para-cord to be picked up on my descent. My backpack had only water, some snacks and a few extra layers thrown in for the final ascent. And Trex, my trusty dinosaur, strapped to the side of course.

I practically ran the first mile and a half up the Hunt Trail to Katahdin Stream Falls. The trail was an easy grade and the day was cold and clear. It felt good to have almost no weight on my back, and the eagerness for the peak was in me.

The trail rose steeply after the falls. My pace slowed, but I was still nimble compared to other days. I swung from the weathered tree trunks and rock crags, climbing the boulders with a grace I wish I had in the White Mountains.

That all changed once I broke tree-line.

Everything before that last climb up the Hunt Spur was practice. The White Mountains, the Mahoosuc Notch, nothing was as technical as the short distance between the treeline and the tablelands of Mount Katahdin. Climbing it required use of metal hooks and spikes driven into the rocks. Oftentimes, I left my fate to the rubber of my trail runners, hoping the smear kept me on the rock.

I can’t imagine attempting this climb in bad weather. The trail often winds past drops off the side of the mountain and scrambles over sheer rock faces. Even a little bit of water or wind would have made the climb much more difficult.

The trail to the peak has some very technical sections, but luckily the final stretch to the peak is pretty mellow.

Luckily, my summit day was a one-in-a million nice day. There was almost no wind and the sky was a crystal clear blue. Even with the chilly start in the morning, the peak temperature was mild.

Even after climbing the Hunt Spur, the trail isn’t done. It’s another two miles over the tablelands, a relatively flat-ish section of trail to Baxter Peak.

I finally laid a hand on that weather-beaten, scarred, cracked and oh-so-formidable Sign at 9:46 am, approximately two hours since I signed in at the trail registry.

Every thru-hiker needs to take a picture of themselves on top of the Katahdin sign. So, here’s mine.

I’m still not sure how I felt after reaching that peak. I expected to feel elated, overcome with a feeling of pride and accomplishment. I’d just finished the greatest trial of my life and proved myself equal to it. I thought I might feel kind of sad. The adventure was over. Now was just the long walk down.

But I didn’t.

I felt happy, sure, and maybe a little sad. There was even some awe at finishing the Appalachian Trail and the view from the final peak, but it wasn’t the overwhelming kind of feeling that causes a lot of thru-hikers to weep at the sight of the Sign. It was more that I felt all of these things at once and wasn’t really sure how to process it.

Physically, climbing Katahdin didn’t feel any different than other peaks on the trail. As callous as it sounds, I saw spectacular views for the last four months and 29 days. I’d had my fair share of perfect hiking weather.

At that time, it felt like any other peak, but everyone was just more happy to be there.

I hung out for a bit. Talked and celebrated with other hikers. Had my photo taken atop the Sign, as is tradition. I ran into a few other hikers I’d met along the way. Powerade, Southbound and Colby Jack summitted that day as well, so it was good to see them again. When the peak started to get more crowded with day and section-hikers, I decided to make my way back down.

Katahdin has an interesting shape for a mountain. One side is almost crater-like, with ridges circling down behind Baxter Peak. On the right is the end of the famous Knife’s Edge trail.

This might have been the thing that was serving as a mental block at the peak. The trail to Baxter Peak is not a loop. I had to hike back down the same five miles to get back to Katahdin Stream Campground, where my parents would pick me up. Even though I “finished” the trail, I was only half done with hiking for the day.

On the way down, people congratulated me on completing the trail when they saw the AT tag on my backpack. As I hiked, the praise and congratulations started to wear down the funk I’d been feeling.

I did it. I finished it. I proved that I could complete a 2,200 mile long journey through snow, rain, heat and difficult terrain. As I neared the top of the Hunt Spur, there was a big, stupid grin plastered on my face. This wasn’t another difficult hike to do. This four miles was a victory lap. I could take my time, enjoy the view, and revel in my accomplishment.

Then I saw a familiar orange hat pop up from the Hunt Spur, followed by a familiar face.

Dad hiked up the mountain to meet me.

We hugged. We laughed. He cried a little. We went through the customary ritual of him Shanghaiing some poor bystander to take a dozen photos on his little point-and-shoot that still has pictures from my Eagle Scout court of honor more than seven years ago.

He and my mother started hiking up a few hours ago. Mom decided to turn back at the Hunt Spur, but Dad wanted to try and make it to the peak to meet me. He looked up longingly at the crowd of tiny people in the distance while I looked longingly at the trail down the mountain. It was two miles back up to the peak and as nice as the victory lap was, I wasn’t eager to add four miles to it.

Eventually, though, I led Dad up the tablelands to the peak. It was worth it to share the accomplishment of finishing the trail with him. It’s something I know he wanted to do, and a few extra miles is the least I could do to show my thanks for his support and encouragement on the journey.

There’s only a few people I can think of for whom I would hike another four miles up a mountain on top of an already ten-mile day. Dad’s one of them.

We didn’t get to revel at the peak for long. He left Mom to hike back to the car on her own and happened to have both of their water bottles, most of the snacks and the car keys in his backpack. After our photo, he handed these to me and sent me back down the trail ahead of him to “save his marriage,” as he put it.

I practically bounded down the tablelands and when I got to the Hunt Spur, I fell back on my favorite technique for navigating technical terrain; throw myself either up or down it and hope it works out for the best. This sometimes results in me hopping the last few feet from a rock to the ground. My knees don’t thank me for it, but so far, it’s worked out.

The enormity of what I’d just accomplished didn’t hit me until I was back at the campground. That was it. It was over. 2,200 miles. I finished what I set out to accomplish. I didn’t even feel all that tired from the almost 15 miles I walked that day, just elated.

Mom was waiting for me in the parking lot, sitting with a group of trail angels handing out snacks from the back of a pickup truck. I started for her, when I was waylaid by a few other hikers.

Skills and Super Boring, a couple I’d met back down south and hike with through Massachusetts and part of Vermont, were apparently just a day behind me since we separated. They planned on summitting the next day. We hugged and congratulated each other on our accomplishment.

“Are your parents picking you up?” Super Boring asked.

“Yeah, that’s my mom behind you,” I said.

After a brief scolding for ignoring my mother, I gave her a hug. We finally got into the car, where there were snacks and cold drinks a plenty while we waited for Dad to make his way down.

A long car ride back the next day, and I was back home in Connecticut, ready to take it easy for a bit.

 

The adventure concluded. The mountain climbed. The dragon slain.  I’d made it there and back again in mostly one piece. Would I do it again? Maybe. But first, I need to be a real human being for a while. I’m sure they’ll be another adventure soon.

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2,184.6 miles on the Appalachian Trail: The Hundred Mile Wilderness

KATAHDIN STREAM CAMPGROUND, BAXTER STATE PARK, MAINE

It’s upsetting to me that the Hundred Mile Wilderness is the last thing a hiker does on the trail. After almost five months on the trail, all I wanted to do was finish. I didn’t have it in me to really appreciated some of the best terrain in all the fourteen states the Appalachian Trail passes through.

The Wilderness starts at Monson and ends at Abol Bridge, just before Baxter State Park. The whole length is beautiful, full of almost untouched forests and secluded lakes, most of which have ample space to camp on. Even though there were probably dozens of hikers heading for Katahdin around the same time I was, I barely saw anyone after the first day or so out of town. Whole days went by when I was completely alone in the forest.

This could have been a profound experience. It could have been the perfect time to reflect on my journey along the AT. I could have taken it slow, camped a few times on the shore of one of these lakes and swam or just enjoyed the solitude. I could have spent twice as much time in the Wilderness and had an amazing time.

The lakes in the Hundred Mile Wilderness are all secluded, cold and crystal clear.

But I didn’t.

My parents were expecting me at Baxter on August 28, and I didn’t want them to waste a hotel reservation. I packed six days of food because I felt that any more would be too encumbering and I didn’t want to pay for a resupply at the only possible stop along the way.

By this point in the trail, I was tired. All I wanted to do was get to Katahdin. Even though Whitecap Mountain, the last real peak of the trail before Katahdin was close to the beginning of the Wilderness, I was still exhausted at the end of each day. Even the shortest climb left me discourage.

I hated how I came to feel about the trail. I wanted to enjoy the last section, but all I could think about was the final peak and getting home after.

My first glimpse of Katahdin came at the top of Whitecap Mountain. It loomed out over the other mountains in the distance. From the side, Katahdin isn’t a graceful peak. It doesn’t rise to a sharp peak, so even when it towers over the other mountains, it looks kind of hunched over. I thought the sight of it would give me some relief, or anticipation. But after working for more than four months towards that goal, I don’t think I really felt all that different.

I often compared Katahdin to the Lonely Mountain from the Lord of the Rings, and this view kind of gave me the same feeling of nearing the end of a long, difficult journey that had yet to show its reward.

Sure, I could now see my endpoint. I could see how far there was left to go, but if anything, it was kind of depressing. I had come so far. I just wanted to finish, to end strong, and the mountain was still days away. After a certain point, “so close” stops being close. I’d been hearing the phrase “almost there” since Massachusetts, and I think I psyched myself out of recognizing it. “Almost there” for me would be 50 yards before the terminus sign at Baxter Peak.

Other than a mental funk, hiking in the Wilderness was amazing. Beyond the beautiful scenery, the weather was fantastic through almost the entirety of the stretch. Days were mild and clear and the nights were cold enough that I could bundle up in my sleeping bag and not have to worry about overheating. There were so few people around, I could get my choice of campsites or shelter spots.

I even ran into my friends from Lakes of the Clouds, Powerade and Southbound. Colby Jack ventured ahead to meet his parents and the other two were trying to catch him. I walked with them for a few days before they took off ahead.

Leaving the Hundred Mile Wilderness and entering Baxter State Park was a surreal experience. This was it. The final destination. Base camp for the last ascent. Again, it was kind of hard to comprehend what that meant. Here I was, in the last 1/20 of the hike, and it still felt like I had so far to go. From the entrance to the park, there is another 9 miles of walking to the long-distance hiker campsite. The whole way to it was a pretty easy hike, but it seemed weighted down with significance. It was hard to get my legs to work right, and a hike that would have taken me a morning back in July took me to the middle of the afternoon.

The whole way there, I saw groups camping for the weekend or just doing a day hike around the park. Many people commented on my AT thru-hiker tag and congratulated me on making it. My response was usually along the lines of “I’m not there yet,” or “Congratulate me when I get to the peak!” It was mostly a joke but a little true. I didn’t want to celebrate until I laid hands on that sign at the top.

1,747 miles on the Appalachian Trail: The other Long Trail

July 29

HANOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Vermont passed by in a blur. One second I was in a hotel in Bennington, just over the border of Massachusetts, the next, I’m in a hotel in Hanover, just over another border in New Hampshire.

That blur consisted of very long days, lots of rain, an excellent cheeseburger and about 100 miles of the capital “L” Long Trail.

Actually getting to Vermont was a lot of fun. I hiked most of Massachusetts with a group of hikers I’d met on and off over the course of the trail, many of whom I last saw months ago and didn’t hold out any hope of seeing again.

They’re the of the mind that if the trail passes by a restaurant, of course they should stop for lunch. It was a good time.

One particular shelter gave the best experience since walking off of a snow-covered mountain to a three-course meal in North Carolina.

Upper Goose Pond Shelter is a half-mile off trail, but it’s worth the walk. It has bunks with mattresses, lake access and caretakers that fed all the hikers present a pancake breakfast and hot coffee in the morning. Definitely worth a second visit.

Hiking in the Green Mountains of Vermont started out well, too. I had a few days of great weather going into Bennington and made plans to meet up with some family a little further down the trail.

A few shorter days of hiking brought me to Stratton Mountain, a favorite winter destination of mine, and lunch with Auntie Paige, Uncle Emmett, Auntie Cindy and Uncle Ted. They treated me to a fantastic burger and my uncles tried on my fully-loaded and smelly pack.

After a fruitless search for an emergency blanket for the coming colder weather, I headed back out.

I planned out the next week’s mileage to get me to Hanover in time to meet my parents on the weekend. That schedule had to be readjusted after the weather on Monday left me stranded at the warming hut on top of Bromley Mountain.

I hiked all morning through constant rain, and as the elevation grew, the temperature dropped. All I had for insulation was my rain jacket, since everything would soak through anyway and my body head would keep me warm. Sort of.

I rushed inside to get out of the rain and wind for a bit of lunch, but when I took off my jacket, i couldn’t stop shivering. Even though it would mean I’d have to make up the miles later that week, I wasn’t going to risk hypothermia. I changed into my sleeping clothes and stayed relatively warm there for the rest of the day.

There were three other people there; another man who was thru-hiking, and a woman and her nine-year-old daughter hiking the Long Trail. The kid was obviously going a little stir-crazy in the but. We talked a lot and I got to show off my skill at memory match games.

The next few days were difficult. I had to make up the miles I’d dropped on Bromley. Instead of four days of just about 2o miles each, each one was at least 21, with one almost 25 miles. It may not seem like much, but a body knows it’s limits, and that was certainly pushing it, at least for that long of a stretch.

The weather also wasn’t very cooperative. It threatened to rain all week. Most days had some kind of precipitation. Nights are also getting colder as I spend more time at higher elevation. I got my cold weather gear back from my parents and I’m hoping the almost three pounds of weight is worth it.

Despite it’s challenges, Vermont was fun to hike through. On a clear day, the views from the mountains are beautiful. The trail often passes for miles through stands of pine and hemlock. The other day I walked through a forest of young maple trees, none more than a few inches thick, standing straight and tall with no branches before the top. When the breeze blew, they all swayed back and forth with the same rhythm.

From what all the southbounders tell me, all this is just the prelude to the White Mountains. Despite it being recognized as the hardest part of the trail, everyone I’ve spoken to said it’s the most beautiful part to hike.

Things like that are what’s keeping me going on this. I’m not going to lie: I’m tired. It’s hard waking up every morning, eating cold oatmeal and shouldering a heavy pack for another 20 miles or so, do that for five days, then get a teasing rest in a real bed. Then know the cycle repeats itself.

My feet, knees, back, shoulders hurt. I’ve got a sore throat and a headache most mornings. I itch all over from dozens of bug bites.

Despite all this, I can’t stop. I have to believe this is all worthwhile. I need to know I’m still doing the right thing, that everyone was right to believe in me and encourage me to try this.

I’m reminded of a poem I like. It’s one of the few I know well. There’s a line in “If” by Rudyard Kipling that goes,

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you,

Except the Will which says to them, ‘Hold on.'”

That’s all I’ve got left. Just a desire to finish, and an unwillingness to quit. Everything in between is all burned out.

1,500 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Home Stretch

July 14

WINSTED, CT

The last two weeks have been a blur. It feels like I sprinted, or at least the next closest thing in a 3o pound backpack, from central Pennsylvania to my home state of Connecticut.

I didn’t take any zero or near-zero days and only had two or three that were under 20 miles. There was only one thing on my mind, getting home.

The plan was to take a few days off when I got back to Connecticut. I had a few errands and a lot of nothing planned, then would head back out on the trail with my dad slowing me down for a few days. After finishing the state, I planned to spend a few days at Greenwood Trails summer camp, where I’ve spent the last four summers as a counselor.

The trail between Port Clinton, PA and the Connecticut/New York border consisted of a lot of unique experiences. Pennsylvania continued to be a rocky pain in my ass, and New Jersey wasn’t much better. Looking at a map of the state, it doesn’t seem like it would be difficult, but many of the relatively small ascents were rock fields that would give PA a run for its money. There was also a surprisingly large number of bears. I saw more in New Jersey, and closer up, than I had the entire rest of the trail.

Any rock formation I have to vault myself over while wearing a pack does not count as a trail.

I ended up ducking off the trail for a night while at High Point State Park. It started raining when I was about four miles from the shelter, but heavy enough to soak me through. I knew from the trail guide that Mosey’s Hostel picked up from the park office and I decided that between the rain that day and the probable wet night I’d have the next day, I wanted to start off in dry clothes. A warm bed, shower, set of clothes and breakfast later, I made the right decision.

It was a good thing I got the park headquarters when I did, because the New Jersey state legislature didn’t pass a budget the next day, and it closed, trapping any hikers who showed up the next night in the rain until Mosey showed up.

Thanks, New Jersey.

The next night at Wawayanda Shelter was an interesting one. It was a long day, 25 miles, and all I wanted to do when I got there was make a quick dinner, lay out my pad and crash. When I got there, however, I found a few pairs of section hikers hanging out in the shelter overhang, and a freaking tent set up inside; a huge Wal-Monstrosity.

I asked politely, but tersely, for the people in the tent to move it, since the rain had stopped a few minutes prior. A little bit of unsolicited advice: read up on trail etiquette before heading out. The shelters are for everyone, especially in the rain, and putting up a tent inside one and taking up that much space seems selfish and disrespectful, even if that wasn’t the intention. For these folks, it was an honest mistake, but it still shows a lack of preparation that I find a bit worrying.

Most of the rest of New Jersey and New York passed in a blur. The weather seemed to switch between cold and raining to hot and muggy on a day by day basis. I think I saw more people in the span of a few days on the week of Fourth of July than I had on the rest of the trail, and almost none of them were thru-hikers. Mobs of people were at Bear Mountain and the various state parks I stopped in along the way. Now that summer is in full swing, the mosquitoes have been voracious, as well. The hours just before sunset and just after are a flurry of motion, trying to get everything done as quickly as possible so I can dive into my tent or get moving.

It was kind of weird to be passing through other people’s traditional summer day when mine are so atypical. The smell of charcoal, barbecue and sunscreen brought back so many memories, I seriously considered just joining a random family at the beach. I opted against that. Probably for the best.

There was one great day along that stretch. My friend, Kyle, joined me for a day. It was great to have someone to talk to about things other than the trail. All hikers talk about the same things; how far they’re going, when they started and what food they want to eat in town are at the top of the list.

After months of that and a few days of almost no other hikers, talking about Connecticut politics, movies, memories from college and reporting practices was a welcome respite. So, thank you, Kyle.

Kyle Constable, Ace Reporter.

Kyle met back up with me to finish Connecticut and do the first few miles in Massachusetts. It was a great throwback to our section hike last year, and it’s just nice to spend time with the guy. He’s always positive and down for a bit of adventure.

After a day at home, Dad and I headed back out for four days. The plan was to do the whole state in four days, but we had to stop in Salisbury instead of Bear Mountain. Yes, there’s another one in Connecticut.

We were moving at probably a little less than half my regular pace. It was a nice rest for me, but I don’t think Dad thought that. It reminds me of how far I’ve come since starting. There are things I take for granted, or do by muscle memory that I had to explain or wait for him to figure out. I wanted to be frustrated, but I remember when I had to work my way through all that three months ago.

My dad, Al. He stuck it out like a champ. Next time, we’ll do the whole state.

It was great hiking with Dad, even if it was only a short time. We haven’t got to spent as much time together as I would have liked in the last few years, and it was great to just hang out. Dad got to experience a bit of what it’s like to be a thru-hiker and I got a bit of a break. Hopefully, we get to do it again soon. Though, next time he’s carrying his own tent.

After hiking the state, I took a couple days off. After only one day off in two weeks, I thought I earned it.

Greenwood Trails is a second home to me. I’ve had some of my fondest memories and met some of my best friends at the camp, and I was excited to get back to it, even for a few days.

This place always feels like home. It’s one big, crazy, amazing, somewhat dysfunctional family. It’s always great to visit for a few days.

It wasn’t all rest and relaxation, though. The days were spent running high-ropes elements and lessons in go-karts and outdoor cooking. I even got the chance to run my favorite activity, “Terror of the Deep,” which involves flipping kids out of boats in the lake. I fell right back into my role as “Nature Nick,” and I loved it.

That’s the great thing about working at camp. After a while, it just feels like the natural thing. The kids and staff welcomed me back as if I’d never left. It’s like a big family.

By the time this is posted, I’ll be back out on the trail again, but right now, I feel like I could stay at camp for the rest of the summer. I need to peel myself away quickly, like a Band-Aid, or I’ll never leave Winsted.

That’s one of the hardest things about hiking the trail. Hiking for so long means missing a lot of the things that mark the year. Camp has been such a big part of my life for so long, that a year without it feels empty somehow, even when it’s filled with such a grand adventure as this.

It’s almost like I’ve stopped hiking because I want to, but because I want to finish the trail and DON’T want to quit. I know that’s just my nostalgia and comfort at the routine of camp talking, but it doesn’t make it any easier to leave.

Regardless, the trail is still there, and Katahdin isn’t getting any closer on its own. As John Muir said, “the mountains are calling and I must go.”

1,293 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Pennsylvania rocks!

June 28

DELAWARE WATER GAP, PA

It’s not the longest stretch of trail in a state. It doesn’t have the highest mountains or the craziest elevation gain. The weather at the time most pass through is pretty mild, but, make no mistake, Pennsylvania was one of the toughest states to hike through so far.

Sure, the Smokies in North Carolina were challenging because of the rugged terrain and difficult weather, and the more than 500 miles in Virginia can wear on a hiker, despite the pleasant trails, but after hiking through the 229 miles of Pennsylvania, I and the chewed up soles of my feet, can attest that it was a difficult journey.

The state looks innocuous enough on a map. There’s lots of flat ridges and short gaps between them. What the maps don’t say is that about half of those flat miles are over boulder fields and rock-strewn trails.

It might not look too bad, but these rocks are about person sized.

Each piece seems jagged and angled with the sharp side aimed at the most tender part of the descending foot. The rocks are placed far enough apart that splits and tedious balancing acts are often necessary to get through them.

There was about a mile and a half like this, then flat trail, then back onto the rocks.

Even when rock-hopping isn’t necessary, the sharp stones are common enough on the trail that hear expletives shouted from stepping on one or tripping over it.

One thing that really annoyed me about it, was that all the trail looked the same. The views were nice, sure, but after the sixth or seventh patchwork quilt farmland nestled between verdant valley slopes, it stops becoming necessary to go off trail to viewpoints.

The views from the rocks were really nice, they just all looked about the same.

That, and the rocks all look the same. Pictures on Facebook or Instagram just look like rocky trail, not the sharp, point deathtrap they really are.

Not all of Pennsylvania was bad, though. Lots of the trails are on old forest service roads or through nice, tranquil forests.

Do not trust these even, smooth paths. They serve only to lull hikers into a false sense of security before the rocks ambush them again.

The state didn’t seem to be able to make up its mind about more than just the condition of the trail. Weather, also proved fickle in Pennsylvania.

My time in the state started beautifully. I spent much of Father’s Day at Pine Grove Furnace State Park enjoying a swim and some ice cream. Shortly after, several miles from Boiling Springs, I was caught in a terrific summer thunderstorm.

Again the weather cleared for a few days, until a week ago, when I was again raving a storm to Hertline Campsite. I made it to the site before the rain, but ended up storing a wet tent for my hike to Port Clinton.

I set up my tent to dry in the afternoon sunlight, but several hours later, the sky opened up again, making the decision to camp in the hiker shelter in town for me.

The last few days of hiking have been some of the best. Clear skies, a light breeze over the ridges and cool enough not to overheat during the day and to warrant warmer sleeping clothes at night.

I guess it averages out.

Being in Pennsylvania also has a “home stretch” factor. For the first time, I can pick out almost when I’ll be back in Connecticut, my home state. I’ll start passing by places where friends and family live. The idea of my own bed for a few nights is going to driving me a little faster through New Jersey and New York.

I got a little touch of home, already. My parents came to Port Clinton as I passed through and gave me the best zero day yet. A few good meals, a soak in the hotel pool and a trip to Cabela’s are always welcome distractions, especially with parents not seen in more than two months.

These guys are the best.

I even got to spend some time with extended family I haven’t seen in a while. Thanks for coming down, Bob and Marion. It was great seeing you.

And Chochi Annie, thank you so much for reading!

It was nice to feel somewhat like a human being again, but for the past few days and until I hit the Connecticut border, it’s trail shelters and cheap hostels for me.

It’s odd to think it’s been almost three months on the trail. I feel like my body and mind have changed so much on a journey that’s only a little more than half done.

I’ve lost weight and I’m sure my legs are stronger and I’ve got more endurance. However my feet and knees feel terrible and any flexibility I had before the trio is pretty much gone.

I also think I’m better able to withstand difficult and boring tasks. It might be some kind of mental endurance, but more than once I’ve just put my head down, squared my shoulders and trudged through the rain. I don’t think I’d be able to do that three months ago

Tomorrow starts New Jersey and state number eight of the Appalachian Trail!

965 Miles on the Appalachian Trail: Oh, Shenandoah!

June 9

FRONT ROYAL, VA

More than a hundred miles of hiking through Shenandoah National Park had a huge positive influence on my outlook on the trail.

Last week, I was feeling kind of down. Hiking started to feel like a job, becoming something I had to do, not something I wanted to do. Keeping pace with my faster companions and several days of poor weather and an ill-fitting pack had left me a bit dejected. I even found myself missing viewpoints if they were even a little off the trail, just because I wanted to be done hiking for the day a bit sooner.

100 miles of hiking in the second national park of the trail has turned me around, though. Not literally (that would be bad), but in my outlook.

The trails in the park are much more mellow in grade and terrain. Hiking 20 miles in Shenandoah is much easier than 20 miles on the trail south of the park.

Even though some days were rainy, most of the time in Shenandoah National Park was clear and dry.

It gave me the chance go change my hiking philosophy. I got up later, took more breaks and explored a bit on the side trails.

Yesterday, for instance, I didn’t leave camp until the late hour of 7:45 and took a quarter mile detour off the trail to the Bearfence Rock Scramble. The views from the top were incredible and for the first time in weeks, I felt like I was actually having fun hiking. It slowed me down, I didn’t get to camp until almost 7 pm that night, but that didn’t matter. I got to remember why I started this crazy endeavor in the first place.

I saw neither bears nor fences, but Bearfence Rock Scramble did have some excellent views of the valley.

Shenandoah National Park also has a marvelous feature I wish was implemented all along the trail. Waysides, camp stores and restaurants in the park, are spaced along the trail so there is about one every day. There’s something really satisfying about hiking ten miles, taking off a pack and sitting down to a burger or ice cream in the middle of the day and packing out a snack for after dinner that night. Or, probably my favorite feature, local beer sold by individual cans or bottles for a surprisingly reasonable price. Finally, the dream of ending a day on the trail with a cold IPA after dinner became a reality.

Thru-hikers share Shenandoah with thousands of tourists, car campers and day-hikers. It’s unlike the Smoky Mountain National Park in that most of the campsites are car-accessible and scenic Skyline Drive winds through the park (and across the AT in many places).

It is kind of strange to be hiking through the woods and hear a major highway like Skyline Drive through a few yards of trees.

Sometimes, this gives hikers the feeling of being being on display, like a wild bear or deer people stop to gawk at in the park as they go about their business. The dirty, smelly, sweaty hikers are in stark contrast to the clean, cotton tee-shirt and tennis shoe wearing day hikers.

This deer and I were probably thinking the same thing whenever a group of campers passed through. “What strange creatures… I wonder if they’ll give me food.”

That difference comes with just a little sense of superiority. I just huffed-and-puffed up the mountain to this view and you’re standing here still smelling like fabric softener after getting out of your car.

Ha.

They treat the woods like an amusement park or zoo. Walk the well-trodden path, take a look or a photo, then move on to the air conditioned gift shop. I walked it, rain, sun and snow. I live this life, I have for two months and probably will for much longer. I’ve earned this, have You?

At least, that’s how I felt at first. The truth is, you don’t have to earn the wilderness and the beauty and wonder it provides. It’s there for everyone to experience and love. That’s the whole point of the parks. Hiking the AT is hard, and for a lot of people, out of their reach. For many, driving to a national park and spending a weekend in an RV and doing short loop trails is the best way they know how to connect to the woods.

We all come to the woods for different reasons. Some come for solitude, others for companionship. Some go to see something new, others to recapture something familiar. Still more come for adventure, ehile equal number come for relaxation. Whatever brings us here, we remain because we are in awe of its wonder.

And that’s fine. It’s great actually.

They may tell the story of their trip to a friend or family member, who may want tl experience the park themselves. Maybe they’ll see the curious white blazes on the trees and discover the Appalachian Trail. They may tell someone about it, who may say, “Hey, I’d like to give that a shot!” That’s how hikers are made, and that’s how amazing places like Shenandoah National Park are sustained.

And to me, that’s what it’s all about.

Also, I saw a bunch of bears, so that was really cool.

 

860 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Virginia Blues

June 3

WAYNESBORO, VA

It has been more than two weeks since my last post. I’ve been through most of the 500 or so miles in the state of Virginia and I have come to one conclusion: there are too many miles of the Appalachian Trail in this state.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty. There are some great views along the Tinker Cliffs and the classic hiker photo-op spot at McAfee Knob, but 500 miles is too long to not cross a state border.

The standard Thru-hiker photo at McAfee Knob. One of the few places you may need to wait on line on the trail.

There’s even a term for the melancholy hikers feel while spending the more than a month, sometimes two, in the state: the Virginia Blues. Hikers thrive on the achievement of passing another boundary line, ticking another of the 14 states off the list, and spending so long in, as many see it, one place kind of drags on the mind.

It’s not just mental. Virginia is a tough state to hike in, especially at the pace Mercury, Check-It and I are moving. Averaging 20 miles a day over terrain that isn’t too much different from the mountains of North Carolina and Georgia will do a number on the knees and feet. Many hikers attested along the way that “it gets easier in Virginia.” They were wrong.

Even when it’s not up and down all day, much of the trail is rock-strewn and uneven. Every step must be carefully placed to avoid twisting and ankle or slipping on wet stones.

The weather can’t seem to make up its mind, either. It rained on and off for almost a week, then had three or four days of bright sunshine. Then, just when I started to dare to think the sun might stay, the sky opened up for a one-hour downpour. Rain fell in huge, heavy drops, the wind blew across the mountain and the temperature dropped probably ten degrees in a matter of minutes. I didn’t even reach for my rain gear because by the time I realised what was happening, I was soaked to the bone.

This is what the trail looks like after a few days of hard rain. Notice the white blaze on the far tree.

After just enough time for my shoes to absorb enough water to stay damp for the next two days and for me to unload my entire, and I do say so myself, creative repertoire of expletives at the sky, mountain and self for the foolishness of this whole endeavor, the sky cleared up to a bright blue, and stayed that way for the next three days.

I don’t get it either.

But sometimes, that’s what the trail is about. Hikers dare to do this crazy, adventurous thing, that is often-times uncomfortable and dangerous and can’t expect it to be all rainbows and unicorns. There are days of rain, painful uphill battles, trails that look more like someone drew a zigzag up a rock face than cut a path and state-based depressions.

The trail North from Dragon’s Tooth leads straight down several rock faces. When metal staples on the rock are required to get up or down, it should no longer be considered “hiking.”

The trail takes and takes and takes, until the only thing a hiker wants to do is hobble to the nearest bus home, crawl up on the couch with a Netflix-enabled device and eat food that wasn’t rehydrated in a bag.

But sometimes, the trail gives. It gives new friends. It gives food and rides from complete strangers who seem like thier only purpose in life is to help and support others. It gives spectacular views from a 3,000 foot tall rock precipice. Sometimes it gives a dry campsite on a soft meadow and a beautiful sunset after a heavy rain.

People like Granny and Old Goat really show the heart and soul of the trail. They drove miles out of their way to cook a delicious meal for a bunch of smelly bedraggled strangers, and they plan on doing it again and again along the trail.

The trail took a lot from me in the last few-hundred miles. I came into Waynesboro fatigued, sore and angry that I felt that way. Now, I’ve got a stomach full of good food, a good night’s rest and a few new pieces of gear and am ready to head out into the Shenandoah National Park and the next stage of my journey.

Here’s hoping for a few more campsites like Cow Camp Gap. It even had a rope swing.