Thru-hikers like to invent games and “challenges”. For example, there’s the Four State Challenge, which involves hiking from Virginia, through West Virginia and Maryland, before reaching Pennsylvania. To complete this you hike 44 miles in under 24 hours. A slightly shortened version of that is the Maryland Challenge, which covers 41 miles from state line to state line. Is that too tame for you? Then try the Rocky’s Pizza Challenge, which starts from Curley Maple Gap Shelter in Tennessee. Within two hours you must race down the mountain to the town of Erwin, order two large pizzas at a local pizza shop, run next door to the liquor store and buy a case of beer, then haul the pizza and beer the five miles back up to the shelter.
Day 81, Dahlgren Backpack Campground to Ensign Cowall Shelter
I'm a sleepy time baby, a sleepy time boy
I was wondering if it had been unkind of Stick and me to push as hard and far as we did yesterday. We’ve been hiking nearly every day for more than 1,000 miles, but Ralph just got on the trail. Then I saw him shimmy up a bear pole last night and decided there was no reason to feel sorry for him.
Leaving Kim this morning in Harpers Ferry was entirely different than when I left her nearly three months ago on Springer Mountain. Instead of cold and rain, it was a warm and sunny day. Instead of being alone, my longtime friend, Ralph, and my new friend, Stick, were with me. Instead of being untested, I had a body that had become well-conditioned over more than 1,000 miles of walking. And instead of a small measure of uncertainty of what was ahead for me, I now had clear focus and a committed expectation I could, barring injury, reach Mt. Katahdin.
Today was supposed to be a zero day. In a strict definition of the term, as in a day of zero hiking miles, it was that. But zero miles was certainly not the number put on my truck today.
This was a significant day. It was obviously going to be a big day because I would be seeing my wife for the first time in a month. What’s more, I presumed this would be the last time I would see her for a much longer time. Most likely, I will not see her again until after I finish my hike in Maine. This was also when we reach what’s often called the psychological halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. The true midpoint will still be about 72 miles away. Nevertheless, it’s now starting to feel like we are closer to Maine than we are Georgia. I thought about this as Stick and I walked to Harpers Ferry this morning, but the true significance of the day hadn’t registered with me yet. That would come later.
Day 77, Sam Moore Shelter to David Lesser Memorial Shelter
And you know, it makes me wonder what's going on under the ground
I feel like I’ve been dragging a bit this week. I’m not sure I have an excuse for my lethargy, though. The trail hasn’t been especially rugged or difficult. The weather has been warm, but not especially hot. Oh, wait. Maybe I do have an excuse. In the last three weeks I’ve walked 290 miles with only one nero day and no zeros. That’s an average of nearly 14 miles a day without a break.
Thanks to the nearby squeaky tree, last night didn’t provide the best night’s sleep I ever had. The breeze that caused the squeakiness provided one benefit, though, and that was to make the night pleasantly cool. To mitigate the reduced amount of sleep, Stick and I slept in later than normal. It wasn’t something we discussed or planned, but it worked out that way and neither one of us complained.
Leaving Front Royal, Stick and I will have 53 miles to go to reach Harpers Ferry. These are the last miles of Virginia, which I entered on Day 36. As I stood at the Tennessee-Virginia state line, I thought about the “Virginia blues” and wondered if it would affect me. That's what some thru-hikers call a depression that supposedly sets in as they walk the long miles of this state. Now, as I near the end I ask myself if I have felt the blues. “Meh, not really.”
The siren call of food and beer was playing loudly in my head this morning when I awoke. We were leaving Shenandoah National Park and heading to Front Royal, Va. today, and I didn’t want anything to deter or delay us. Rain had fallen earlier this morning, around 2 a.m., then began again around 5 a.m. as I was waking up. Fortunately, the second rain shower didn’t last long and was finished by the time I exited my tent.
This hasn’t been an easy hike for Stick’s friend, Mike, who has been walking with us through Shenandoah National Park. He has been hobbled by bad blisters on his feet. Mike is a strong hiker, and given the circumstances has been doing fine, but he’s had to keep up with a couple guys who have been hiking every day for several weeks. That can't always be fun for him to maintain our pace.
Day 72, Rock Spring Hut to Pass Mountain Hut
The other day I met a bear out in the woods, oh way out there
There are many hiker traditions on the Appalachian Trail. Some are simple and innocent fun, like trail names, squirting hikers with water in the Trail Days parade, and confessing your sins at The Priest Shelter. Some involve risk-taking, like jumping off the James River Bridge or standing close to the edge of the overhang at McAfee Knob.
I met Stick a month ago and have been hiking with him for most days since. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him. It’s nice to have someone to hike with who is near my age and hiking speed. Stick’s friend, Mike, has been a nice addition to our team. For one thing, he gives me good opportunities to give Stick a hard time. “Do you see what I have to put up with?” I’ll ask, referring to something Stick has said. He replies unsympathetically, “Do you see what I’ve been putting up with for the last 20 years?"
I complained about the weather yesterday. It has been hotter each day. Today was as if the weather gods heard me and decided to answer, “Not happy with that? Then how about this?!"
As I was planning this thru-hike, I decided I should begin walking north in early March. There was a risk in leaving that early, as snowstorms can hit the Smokies at any time in that month. My thought for leaving that early, though, was to get as far north as possible before warm weather set in. Hot weather wears me out. My doctor had a different idea, and told me I needed hernia-repair surgery. It went well, but the recovery time was 30 days. I wasn’t able to start my hike until April 3.
Day 68, Rockfish Gap to Campsite at Mile 876.9
I would love to tour the Southland in a traveling minstrel show
The next few days will be spent walking through Shenandoah National Park. Stick’s friend from Missouri, Mike, will be joining us for this section. This can’t help but be an eventful, special section of the trail for Stick and me. For Mike, though, I expect it will be a bittersweet hike that conjures many memories. He hiked through Shenandoah with his brother about 35 years ago. Then four years ago his brother died suddenly and unexpectedly.