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.
Even though the trail has thrown a few tough sections at us lately, I have to admit we’ve had it pretty easy the last few days. Two days ago: hike only nine miles and spend the rest of the day at a brewery. Yesterday: spend most of the morning at the same brewery before hiking. Today: an even shorter day of hiking and a visit to another brewery. I could get used to this.
Our stay at Devil’s Backbone Brewery was everything I could have hoped. No, actually, it could have been made better if there was a shower. A place to do laundry would be nice, too. Still, this place was close enough to perfect for thru-hikers that the day will be long remembered. The same thing could be said about today.
When Stick and I left camp this morning at 7:30, we thought this would be an easy day. We knew we only had about eight miles to go to reach Reid’s (sometimes spelled Reed’s) Gap. This was a destination we had both been looking forward to reaching for several days. Actually, it wasn’t Reid’s Gap we were thinking about, but what was located a short hitchhike down the road.
Situations on the trail are always temporary. Enjoying good weather? Sooner or later it will turn bad. Is the trail smooth and easy? Just wait. It will get rocky and steep before long. The point here isn't pessimism. The trail has a way of reminding you that when things are going well, you should enjoy the moment and take advantage of it. Conversely, when things are going badly, hang in there. The bad can’t stay that way forever.
The Appalachian Trail has many stories to tell. Hikers can speak to us of their trials and their adventures. The people who help hikers and maintain the trail have stories of why they give back. Nature can tell us about the ebb and flow of life, and of the challenges of survival. From geology we can learn about the history of the earth we walk upon. And some of the most fascinating stories are told by the artifacts left behind by people who lived here before there was a trail. As I walked along the trail today, all of these storytellers spoke to me.
We had free accommodations in the little town of Glasgow, Va., with the unexpected benefit of a hot shower. We camped walking-distance-away from a pizza restaurant and a store for resupply. A cell tower was standing so nearby it cast a shadow on our campsite, so we had a strong wireless connection. With all these luxuries and a giant, fiberglass dinosaur too, Glasgow offered a lot for thru-hikers to like. I was glad we stopped here yesterday.
In many ways, the Appalachian Trail is like a river. It’s true that hikers flow through it in two directions. Nevertheless, the trail is a continuous stream. A Greek philosopher named Heraclitus said, "In the same river we both step and do not step, we are and are not." While some people, including Plato, have misquoted or tried to simplify Heraclitus’s meaning to something like, “You can't step into the same river twice,” his words are quite deeper. The water of any spot on a river is never the same. It is constantly in motion, yet the river is constant in its sameness. The sameness comes from our memory.
Day 60, Jennings Creek Road to Thunder Hill Shelter
Like a drunken guillotine lingering just above my head
I had worried that Virginia would be a lot of the same thing. The same ups and downs, the same green tunnel, day after day. In fact, I worried about it so much at one point I even questioned if I wanted to really go through with a complete thru-hike. I can’t believe now I once thought that way, even if it was only for an hour or two.