I have learned, probably unsurprisingly to those that have completed or attempted an AT thru-hike, that trying to hike 2,200 miles, write a book, keep a daily journal, post photos and articles online, manage some stubborn health issues and smell the roses all in six months turns out to be a bit time consuming. I am in constant question as to whether I have all the time in the world or if I’m just as busy as I would normally be. Fortunately, the former always wins out, and I no longer rush much of anything that doesn’t involve lightning, rattlesnakes or bears.
Still, it’s important to me to share as much about this journey as I can, in real time, and it bothers me to see a list of a dozen articles I plan to write on various sections on the trail. To that end, I am going to begin writing whatever occurs to me as I have a chance, without regard to order. If living in the woods has taught me anything, it is that things don’t always have to be “neat.”
I have really been wanting to share my experience leading up to Mt. Roger’s and Marion, VA, one of the friendliest towns I have come across. After Mt. Roger’s is Highland Grayson State Park, where I took all the photos/videos of the wild horses. Shortly after that video, however, began a torrential downpour.
At this stage, I will often hike through such downpours because it has warmed up quite a bit and the rain is now often a refreshing change. Back more than two hundred miles it was still quite cold, though, and I probably would have set up my tent, even if to wait out the rain and possibly continue on. Unfortunately, there is no camping in that park, and so I trekked on, eventually reenergized by reaching the 500 mile mark.
After this mark, I assumed I would be back in the woods in no time, it only being a couple miles or so. Then I hit an incredible section of rocks, really just pile after pile of boulders on flat meadow, ranging in size from my head to my last apartment. I have chosen to use trail runners for the first time, and after 700 miles without a blister I have no right to complain… Just the same, the one thing about trail runners, at least the ones I’m wearing (Solomon Speedcross 3’s), is that you must trade this comfort for caution on wet rock. Therefore, that stretch was a slow but exciting piece of trail.
That night I must have eaten like an animal, and as I neared Marion, VA I knew my food bag was more than a little light. I found myself 20 miles from the Mount Roger’s Visitor Center, which has fifty cent shuttles the 6 miles into Marion, and the evening before I determined to hike the whole 20 miles there. I believe the longest day I had done up to that point was 17 miles, setting up camp at 7 p.m., but I also knew this was a result of smelling the roses rather than ability.
I knew I would never get there in time to shuttle into Marion, but I could perhaps make it to the Mount Rogers Visitor center before closing, which had vending machines. With plenty of singles in my pocket a vending machine full of pop tarts and snickers bars sounded like a dream, and I hiked like the wind the next day.
By about 1 p.m. I had made it 16 miles, with plenty of time to spare. I had instant mashed potatoes for breakfast, with one package more left for lunch. But as I stood at the dirt road 4 miles out, hungry, wet, and needing to amp up my rain protection after such torrential downpours soaked me through to the bone and destroyed some of my electronics, I had an idea. I popped open google maps and did a quick, simple search: Walmart. As I expected, this road could also bring me to Marion, but it would be 8 miles.
So it was four miles to an unknown vending machine, or 8 miles to Walmart, to Sonic, to hot water, to civilization! I began hiking down the dirt road.
It was about a mile or so before I even reached the first house, and I passed it nervously because a car was coming down the long driveway. I doubted that many hikers walked down this road, and expected in such a remote residential area I might look a bit suspicious, a caveman looking guy with a backpack and Siri bellowing out directions.
The car did stop, but not to confirm my unease. Instead, the gentleman inside asked where I was going and quickly told me to hop in and he’d drop me wherever I needed. My stomach couldn’t have been more grateful to speed through 6-7 more miles. The gentlemen was traveling with his wife and a tiny dog whose inquisitive barks were even friendly. As we drove I answered their questions about the trail and where I lived with, I hope, the same sincerity with which I could tell they were asked.
With several more thanks as I unloaded my pack, I soon found myself inside a Walmart — the largest vending machine of all. Once I had taken care of my immediate appetite, I began to work my phone and plan what it was I was going to do now that I found myself in Marion.
That evening several more trail miracles occurred. First I received a photo of a family friend who had already done so much to support my trek handing me a bill through cyberspace. He had, I believe, been out with my father, neither having any way of knowing that I had just found myself in the first town with no hostels, hiking from motel to motel to be told that there were no more rooms until getting one of the last available at the most expensive. His kindness made it a much less guilty night; This was the first time I had stayed in anything but a hostel on the trail. While an occasional private bathroom is amazing, motel rooms start to seem like an unnecessary luxury as televisions, real beds, and clean sheets start to become irrelevant. Avoiding a late night 8 mile hike after sprinting 16 miles on a rumbling stomach, however, is not.
Next, I saw a Facebook message from someone who had been following my hike wondering if I had hit a few towns yet. As it turned out, I was in one of them, and luckier still, the one she lived in. I was ecstatic when she offered a ride somewhere if I needed because my abrupt trip into Marian four miles early left me with a dilemma. I am a relatively purist hiker, at least in terms of my desire (nay, need) to hike every step of the trail. Therefore, the next morning I would either need to hike the 8 miles back from where I left the trail or take the shuttle to the Mt. Roger’s visitors center and hike the 4 miles south, then double back north again. These 8 miles should seem like nothing on a 2,200 mile trip, but for some reason they hurt a bit when they don’t get you closer to Katahdin.
The next morning when I had finished getting my food and supplies for the next stretch of trail and began heading to the post office, we made arrangements to meet at my final destination in town. When she asked if I wanted to get lunch in town I jumped at the opportunity to eat in a real restaurant — so often it’s hard to know which of the local places to go to in town and I end up at a Subway or something simply because it’s a known quantity.
I was not disappointed when she and her mother brought me to a bbq place (had been craving bbq for 500 miles) where I had an amazing beef brisket sandwich and got to hear a bit about what it’s like to live in a trail town with hikers flowing through every year. I thought taking care of lunch would be a nice way to thank them for the ride, but was overwhelmed with kindness again when she insisted on paying.
As I mentioned earlier, my entire time in Marian made me feel like it was one of the friendliest towns along my way. I have never hitch-hiked along the trail, a habit related more to the places I have spent most of my life than any feeling of danger, yet here I was so quickly offered a ride both in and out of town, getting to the store when I desperately needed to and saving me a total of 15 miles of hiking along the road — pretty much a full day’s worth.
These sorts of things tend to just happen on the trail, to the extent that I often hear it said that the trail takes care of everything. Yesterday was another excellent example of such perfect timing and kindness as I hiked into Four Pines hostel after having pretty much run out of food for the second time after hitting some unexpected difficult and beautiful terrain. (Beautiful terrain can slow one down just as much as difficult!).
In any case, I believe it has been more than 6 weeks since a friend contacted me for information so that she and another friend of hers could send care packages about a month ahead. I looked ahead in my guide and tried to estimate where I might be and where I would probably stay. (Once again we find planning on the AT a finicky business, and I averaged 1 less mile a day than estimated).
So it turned out that because of this kindness from over a month ago, I hiked hungrily right into a giant box of food, plenty for me to feast on the day and a half at the hostel and still hike out with a full resupply. This was even more perfect when I found out the “grocer” listed in my guide was a gas station, which never would have had the cool stuff found in the generous care package.
Everything just seems to work out on the trail, as long as you don’t struggle against the unavoidable challenges you come across. If one of the goals of your hike is to live carefree, you have to walk the walk to make it happen — and live carefree. Old habits are hard to break, but they must be broken. At home, I usually have 4-5 whiteboards going at a time with list upon list of things to do. As I began adjusting to the trail, I caught myself making a to-do list on my phone for each time I was in town — wash this, replace that, buy lots of Oreo’s and the like. DANGER! Toss the phone in the river if you have to (just kidding, Mom!). Planning to be spontaneous? When you say it aloud you realize how silly this is.
This is harder for some than others. It’s harder for me. But I can tell you, all-you-can eat fried chicken tastes even better after you’ve hiked for two days on a handful of oatmeal packets. When life is simplified into it’s most basic elements, it’s quite apparent there there is no up without down, no satiety without knowing hunger, no relief without knowing fear.
In short, there can be no triumph, if there has been no challenge.