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(not so) New England

June 10, 2014

To being with, it has been awhile.  I have a complicated relationship with writing and I feel as though I treat her like very independent best friend.  Sometimes I ignore her for months or a year, but when we reunite it is as if nothing ever changed.  I definitely worry that I abuse her by only writing when I need time to reflect.  That said, the following post is one that has been in the works for nearly two years.  It consists of brief memories from the trail in New England, one memory per state.  At least for now, I hope it will give this blog some sort of closure with regards to my 2012 through hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Connecticut

I was spending a day off in New Haven with one of my housemates from senior year of college.  After an hour or so drive from the trail to his apartment, Ian and i collapsed on his couch. My phone rang. A frantic Olga was on the other end.
“You’re in New Haven? How long will you be there? You can stay at my apartment!”  My college friends have a wonderful habit of being not only hospitable, but having the distinct misunderstanding that if you are within 2-3 hours from them, it is the same as walking a couple blocks across campus to see you.  It’s really quite lovely.
“The problem is that I have to get back to the trail tomorrow. It’s not really near New Haven.” I love my friends from New York, but most of them are without cars.
“My roommate has a car! She’s really nice! I’m sure she could give you a ride. I’ll ask. Can I call you back?” Just as abruptly as it had begun, the conversation ended. I turned and looked at Ian.
“We might be having an Olga and Arielle invasion tomorrow.” He just smiled.

We started browsing dinner delivery options when my phone rang again. This time, Arielle.
“Olga says that she left a message with her roommate so we are on hold for now. Basically I called to let you know where we are.”
“Ok.”
“We’ll keep you informed.”
“I’m sure you will.”

About four phone calls later, the plans were finalized. Olga and Arielle would be coming in on the 4 pm train the next day. You should watch these ladies in plan-making mode. I smiled and whirled around in Ian’s desk chair.
“While we wait for dinner, wanna take a shower and do laundry?” he asked.  I smell. I know this.
“Yeah. Except ALL my clothes need washing. Any way I can borrow some for post-shower?” Within minutes I had a pair of soccer shorts and a comfy t-shirt in hand. College friends are the best kind.

Massachusetts

Mount Greylock is the highest peak in the state. Our first 3,000 foot climb since Virginia. The best part? There’s a lodge that serves food at the top.

By my watch we were getting close. Then some girls walked past us on the trail with ice cream. I turned to Mamaw.
“You know we are getting close when the ice cream hasn’t melted yet,” I said. She smiled.
Around the corner was the top. A lodge sat next to the observation tower. We dropped our packs and filed into the lodge–the view could wait.
After ordering and devouring our food, we welcomed a few other thru-hikers to our table as they walked in; the Noodleheads, Rigatoni and Angel Hair, whom we had met a few days before and Frenchy, a reoccurring character in our thru-hikes, someone I’d been seeing since Tennessee.

Now Rigatoni and Angel Hair are experienced hikers. Having already earned their Triple Crowns (thru-hiking all three major long distance trails in the US: the AT, the PCT and the CDT), they decided to do the Appalachian Trail over again since they “couldn’t remember it.”  So we were flabbergasted to find that the pair had somehow gotten behind us on the trail. The Noodleheads began to explain how it happened. The day before they had encountered a hiker on the trail, out for his first few days, who had fallen and hit his head. They ended up walking him to the road for help, Angel Hair carrying both her and Rigatoni’s packs and Rigatoni shouldering the hurt hiker’s large load. It had been quite the experience.

“It was interesting,” said Rigatoni after a pause. “The whole way he kept saying, ‘It’ll all be fine once my ankles calcify. I just have to keep taking Tums till my ankles calcify and then I’ll be set.'”

Vermont

This late in the game, things rarely change. What you have known to be true all along stay true. Your routines become important, the other hikers become family. And then sometimes, you see a familiar face.

Stats was the only hiker I met on the trail who was both successful and toting an external frame backpack. A pack I believe from his early years as a hiker, it provided him with the ability to strap random gear and such to the outside of his pack. (For those unfamiliar with backpacking gear, most gear companies no longer make exterior frame packs for many reasons, including them being particularly heavy.) Not at all the ultra light hiker, Stats got a wonderful reputation for himself early on for packing out large amounts of food with the intention of sharing with those camping nearby.

At the bottom of a hill along the Long Trail section in Vermont was a gorgeous lake. When I first arrived, an older man, day hiker, got out of the lake in his underwear and after drying off from a swim, offered me some fresh fruit. As we sat and talked, many more came and joined us. A SOBO (southbound thru-hiker) joined us with tails from down the trail and then, from around the corner came a familiar face.

“STATS!” I was thrilled to see him. A high school math teacher, he lived in numbers. He had a trail blog on which he recorded statistics for every part of his day: how many liters of water he drank, how many miles he traveled. How many calories he ate and how many hikers he ran into. We had met his brother once down the trail waiting for him at a road crossing.  He had suggested that many hikers would probably look back at Stat’s blog to remember their own journey.

After a good hour or so of story telling and catching up, I gave Stats one last hug. He wanted to know about Rainbow and Mamaw, with whom I had just parted ways a few days prior.  As we parted ways, I watched him take a notebook out of his pocket to record his latest encounter. Some trail names speak volumes.

New Hampshire

It was the end of a 22 mile slackpack. I was so close to the road by the hostel. I knew because the trail was flat.  And because the hikers at the last shelter said so. It was dusk and I was losing light so I kept my head down and took quick strong steps. I was finally out of the White Mountains. Finally.  Then something big rustled in the vegetation up ahead.

I had very few personal goals for the trail beyond milage and putting states behind me in a timely fashion. But I considered seeing a moose to be a rite of passage. In fact, I was so hoping to see one that I almost didn’t recognize her when we first locked eyes. She was huge. I doubt if my head five feet and six inches above the ground would have even met her shoulder had we been standing side by side. She was up ahead on the left side of the trail. She was scared of me from first sight.  The amazing creature began crashing through the brush away from me.

Before I knew what was happening, however, she had turned around and was crashing right back at me. She stopped again, feeling my eyes on her lumbering figure and her look seemed frantic. She turned with her back to me finally and dove off deep into the woods.  I discovered what had distressed her almost immediately as coming towards me on the trail was a couple, day hikers. With me walking towards them and they walking towards me, she must have felt trapped.  The moose sighting had rendered me giddy and I began to gush at the couple, all of the pieces of the puzzle fitting together nicely in my head.

“You saw her? That was incredible! She must have seen me first and then saw you when she was running from me–wasn’t she HUGE?!” The couple smiled politely and nodded. The few feeble words of acknowledgement told me what I needed to know: they did not speak English. But we had all seen the cow and our smiles acknowledged the shared experience.

Maine

We had done it. Tim and I had reached the finish line together. After meeting within our first week on the trail back in Georgia, leap-frogging each other throughout the south and parting ways in Harper’s Ferry, I had lost track of him for 1,000 miles. 5 days earlier I caught up with him in the last trail town before the 100 mile wilderness and we swore we would finish together.

And so we did. Pushing two 25 mile days back to back to get out of the 100 miles and into Baxter state park. The weather report for our summit day had seemed grim, full of showers and thunderstorms, but we knocked out a Katadhin finish with a true early morning Alpine start. Hiking and scrambling our way to the top, we made it up in sunshine with some fast moving but dry skies at the summit. There 2% Tim scattered the last of his uncle’s ashes and we tried to soak it all in.

Four more miles to hike after you’re done, though. Four more miles to make it back down to the road. We shared our story one last time on the trail with some day hikers, got rained on just a bit and then the trees opened up and we were back at the trail head. Tim was planning on surprising his family because they didn’t know he had finished already but my parents were waiting for us with warm welcomes and congratulations.

We sat at a picnic table and my dad popped a bottle of champagne for the occasion. We had fruit, cheese, crackers and Nutella–a good hiker feast. My parents watched and talked while we tried, unsuccessfully, to eat the food at a polite pace. My mother sensed that we were trying to slow ourselves down and encouraged us to eat more.

“I hope we have enough…I think I might have a granola bar in my purse leftover from kayaking yesterday.”  Tim and I locked eyes for a moment, visions of the hundreds of granola bars we had consumed over the past five months passing through our minds.

“I think I’m good on those for a while, thanks…” Tim replied.

 

 

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Avery Peak, Maine– covered in wild blueberries

Read more…

“Look Honey! These are hikers!”

July 8, 2012

Frequently Answered Questions, Thru-Hiker’s edition

Some snippets of conversations I have on a daily basis, about five to six times a day on weekends.

Q: Are you hiking the trail?
A: Yep!
Q: Woah. Where did you start?
A: Springer Mountain, Georgia.
Q: Where are you headed?
A: Maine.
Q: Maine? Like the state Maine?
A: …yes.
Q: Woah. How long has that taken you?
A: I’m at about 110 days right now.
Q: *screws up face trying to do mental math* So you started….
A: March 11th
Q: Woah.

Q: So, like, where do you sleep?
A: In my tent.
Q: But…where?
A: Wherever I can find a flat spot.
Q: Just…along the trail?
A: Pretty much. Sometimes there are campsites, but sometimes it’s just wherever I want to stop.
Q: Huh. Ok. But so where do you go to the bathroom?
A: Wherever I want, really. It’s almost easier than when I’m in town. Just pick a tree!
Q: *uncomfortable silence*

Q: So where do you get your food?
A: The grocery store. Where do you get your food?
Q: So you can get what you need at a local grocery store?
A: Yeah. Actually, the best part about this is that I am always looking for the high calorie stuff! The more calories it has and the less it weighs, the better.
Q: So what specifically?
A: Snickers and Little Debbie’s cakes.
Q: Haha!
A: No, really.

Q: What do you do when it’s raining?
A: Keep walking.
Q: But don’t you get wet?
A: Yup.
Q: Well…but…what do you DO?
A: Eventually the sun comes out and stuff dries. Until it rains again.

Q: Well, have a good journey!
A: Thanks!
Q: What was your name?
A: Well, on the trail we all go by trail names. Kind of nicknames that we use while we are hiking. I’m Nutter Butter.
Q: *nervous laughter, backs away ever so slightly*
A: Have a good day!

Note: The idea for this post was conceived after a particularly tourist-heavy Sunday afternoon in Bear Mountain Recreation Area in New York. I love sharing my stories with the folks I meet along the trail and I think it is fun to answer these questions. Many people I meet are very impressed and I am grateful to all those who have wished me well along the journey. This is a parody of all the interesting conversations I have had along the way, although other hikers will know it is not far from reality. I know what I am doing is a novelty to many and I only hope that I can be a good ambassador for long distance hiking while I’m out here. Keep the questions coming!

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Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson

1,000 (or 999)

June 7, 2012

1000 (or 999)

Hot. Sticky. Gross. It’s the end of May in northern Virginia and the heat is bad. Makes you almost wish it would start to rain. Almost.

I had hiked into dark the night before, getting to the shelter a little after 9 pm. I was up and ready to hike a little after 7 the next morning, with the ambitious goal of trying to hike 26 miles that day, even if it meant doing some of that after sunset. I would cruise past the 1,000 mile marker on to the free bunkhouse 12 miles outside Harpers Ferry. It would be my longest day yet by nearly 3 miles.

The morning was flat. Through tall grasses and Virginia farmland. It was getting warm but I cruised through the first 5 miles in under 2 hours and was feeling good. About a mile after stopping for a quick snack at a shelter, I encountered a sign.

“ATTENTION HIKERS,” it read. “You are about to enter the ROLLER COASTER.” I had heard about this. Section hikers going southbound had spoken in somber tones about the roller coaster and my Thru-Hiker’s Companion had mentioned it. But hiking from Georgia to Northern Virginia will give you a bit of confidence, so I figured it would be tough, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

Ten ascents and descents, each over 500 feet in elevation change, all within thirteen and a half miles. That’s what they meant by “roller coaster”. I struggled up and down the first few hills, the heat heavy in the air, sweat pouring down my brow. My only respite were the streams that separated each hill, where I rinsed off and refilled my drained water bottle.

I stopped to check the register at the only shelter in the roller coaster. I pulled out my book and came to the sobering conclusion that I would not be able to make 26 miles that day. I needed a new milestone, a new goal to aim for. There was a campsite. Seven miles from that shelter was the bottom of the last hill in the roller coaster and the 1000 mile marker for the trail this year. Less than a mile beyond that marker was a campsite. One thousand miles walked from Springer Mountain. It would put me at seventeen miles from Harpers Ferry– not a bad haul for the next day.

The clear skies continued into the early evening as the heat of the day finally broke. I came to a four lane highway, crossed it and began the last ( or was it second to last?) ascent. At eight o’clock I took my pack off to fish out my headlamp before dusk settled in, preparing for a short night hike. The sun started setting a few minutes later and my vision began to shift. Suddenly I noticed small wet spots popping up on the rocks around me.

The trees were dancing in the cooling air and the drops shook from their branches. Looking up, the little bits of sky I could see were a deep royal blue with no clouds to speak of. I never saw the storm coming. How could there be rain with no clouds? Almost without me noticing, it had begun to pour. Before I could wrap my mind around that, the wind picked up, whipping the high branches above my head into a strong frenzy. And then, off in the not-quite-distant-enough vicinity: thunder. Really?

The trail was still climbing. I knew there were no campsites if I turned around, so my best option was to push forward. As I thought this through, climbing upwards and counting time elapsed between lighting strike and thunder clap, I began to narrate out this blog post. Here was the miserable life experience this writer needed to be inspired. Now if only I could find a flat spot for my tent…

Finally the trail turned downward. I paused every few feet to search the ground with my headlamp for flat clearings to pitch my tent, with no luck for what felt like a good while. Finally a spot appeared. Next to it, a small rock overhang provided dry space for my pack while I set up camp. I threw down my gear and got to work.

Once my tent was actually up, it became clear that the spot I had found was anything but flat. I took in the sight of my lopsided shelter for a moment before grabbing my pack and diving in. The option to take the tent back down, pack it up and continue hiking in the rain to look for a better spot was not actually an option.

Once in my tent I began to wonder if I had in fact made it to the thousand mile marker. I drifted off into a restless sleep, my weight propped against a rock under my body to keep me from sliding off the mountain in my tent. I then decided that it didn’t matter if I reached the thousand mile marker today or the next day. I had done the work, put out the effort. And what was the difference between 999 and 1000 anyway?

As I passed the halfway point a few days ago, I began to contemplate the milestones along the trail. What did a mile further really denote anyway? Why do we celebrate where we do? Each and every mile is different from any before it, so to lump it together with a hundred others or nine hundred and ninety nine others seems an injustice. But that’s just it. As Jonathan Z Smith would say, map is not territory. One cannot hope to symbolize all that has happened on the trail on a single map or in a single mile or with any one word like “halfway” or “through-hike.” Only the memories will serve to flesh out an experience that spans more than miles and more than months out in the woods.

I will soon start to countdown the miles to Katahdin, where I have till now been counting up the miles from Springer. And, truth be told, the numbers are important. These goals make a five month adventure seem accomplishable. Piece by piece, step by step, I will get there.

It could be worse

May 17, 2012

We hit the cicada cycle in Daleville, VA. For years at a time, cicadas lay, seemingly dormant, underground while the rest of the world forgets them. And then, about every seven years, they crawl out of the ground leaving it littered with dime-sized holes, find a nearby branch or tree or leaf or spot of ground and molt. They leave behind an exact hollow replica of themselves in the form of an exoskeleton. The emerging insect comes out winged, dazed and clumsy. They sit, covering the local flora, drying out new wings and producing a loud, continuous drone. I fear the day they learn to fly.

Rainbow, who I’ve been hiking with for several weeks now, has lived her whole life in Florida. She has never seen cicadas, knows nothing about them. As we near town, descending in elevation, their hum gets louder. We round a corner and I stop.
“Hey Rainbow,” I call behind me. “Wanna see your first twenty cicadas?” They are…everywhere. Every leaf on every plant has at least one lifeless shell and one very alive bug. The newly hatched cicadas that never made it to a plant lie squashed on the trail ahead. Our trekking poles get caught in the tiny pot holes that cover the ground. Rainbow is thrilled.
“So if we had hiked the trail last year or even next year, we wouldn’t get to see these guys. We are so lucky!” I laugh. Something about another man’s treasure.

The trail for me has been a series of extremes. Extremely happy to be out here, extremely tired, extremely wet, extremely cold, extremely dirty and, from time to time, extremely proud of myself. Coming into Woodshole Hostel a few weeks ago, I hadn’t showered or done laundry in ten days, hiked through heat and humidity and kept pulling on the same socks every morning. Just a few days ago, I managed not to sleep a wink after an 18 mile day, and began the following day feeling as though I already had 18 miles under my belt. Another time, after a full night of thunderstorms, the rain continued into the morning. I piled on all my waterproof gear on just to discover that I had several stream crossings to do. Where the day before I would have been able to hop easily from rock to rock, I now found myself wading thigh-deep in rushing water, unable to see the bottom.

That particular day, I had set off on my own. My Gore-tex boots had kept me dry every day till then. The streams that I was encountering this morning, however, were pouring in over the top of the boots. I began, for the first time in a month and a half, to quietly beg the trail to go uphill. If I went higher in elevation, I would leave the streams, which were starting to look like rivers, behind. In some sections the trail itself had become a through way for the excess water and there was no way to avoid it. Twice while crossing swift moving water my foot slipped under the muddy water and I nearly went swimming. I threw myself at the opposite bank and grabbed a tree at the last minute.

Finally the trail went up. And up. At the top, I reached a bald hill. The fog closed in around me with about ten feet of visibility all around. I kept my head down, watching the trail. The trail, which suddenly became less and less defined. Up on the bald, compressed grass was all I had to follow. A few minutes in I looked up to see that there were parallel compressions, about four more tracks (or was that the trail?) to my left as far as I could see. I became very aware of the fact that I hadn’t seen a white blaze since getting up on the bald- my only surefire way of knowing I was still following the trail. A small panic built up in my head. The fog seemed to close in tighter. I checked my watch, telling myself that if I didn’t see a blaze in the next 20 minutes, I’d turn around. What else could I do? Finally, finally out of the haze an old fence post appeared with a small but district and comforting white stripe of paint. All was well. I pushed on.

The plan had been to do 19 miles that day. After nine, I got to Chestnut Knob Shelter. One of the only shelters on the trail with four walls and a door, Chestnut Knob used to be home to the watchman at the fire tower. I opened the door, looking for a dry place to eat lunch and found a room full of smiling faces, some I knew, all of whom I would count as a friend by the end of the day. Those who had just walked the same nine miles as I from the last shelter encouraged me to stay, finding room for me on one of the sleeping platforms. Many in the shelter had decided to stay in for the day and listened with baited breath to our tales of fog and swift water crossings. We all sat wrapped in our sleeping bags, cheering every time a new hiker came through the door. One of the last to make it in that night was Mamaw B. At 71 years young, she is a top contender for the favorite thru-hiker of the season. The cries rang out when she made it through the door and we squeezed close to make room.

Having a good attitude makes all the difference out here. The trail is what one makes of it. When you’re out in the woods, prepared to hike and surrounded by positive people, it could always be worse.

A heat wave rolled in for a couple days and we got our first taste of summer. Of the four of us, three have been living in California for a spell. Humidity is something we had all but forgotten about. By midday, we were all wiped out. We discussed alternative game plans, waking up earlier, taking a midday break and hiking later, in the cooler part of the afternoon and evening- a siesta-style schedule. As we trudged along, the conversation fell silent and the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker broke the silence. Rainbow’s cheerful voice provided us with this insight: “It could be worse, we could be banging our heads against a tree to get food!”

A Day in the Life

April 30, 2012

“Yep. That’s what I’d call a wintery mix.”
Those are not the words you want to wake up to in the morning. Not when you have 19 miles to hike. Houdini was already out of his sleeping bag and standing up, staring out the open front of the shelter at the snow. We were at 4,300 ft where “wintery mix” meant snow. And plenty of it for late April in southern Virginia.

Houdini was usually the last out of the shelter in the mornings, but he knew the value of staying warm this time. He used to instruct for wilderness therapy and we had a lot to talk about regarding kids and risk management. I knew I needed to get up and start moving too.

About 10 minutes after Houdini left the shelter, I managed to be the second one out on the trail. Within a mile, I caught up and whizzed by him, something that rarely happened.

“You’re moving today!”
“Just trying to stay warm…” I answered as I walked by.

After passing Houdini, my footprints were the first to break the new snow on the trail. Rhododendron branches, heavy and white, bend forward over the trail and I carefully pushed them out of my way. The snow was still falling, softly. It was good packing snow; the crunching under my feet was the only sound I could hear, amplified in my rain jacket hood. Every now and again, the sound of snow sliding off small plants interrupted the near silence.

After crossing my first road of the day, the trail began to climb. Sometimes the trail was hard to find, the white blazes blending into the background of white snow. Once I got to the top of the hill, the trail veered over to the west face of the mountain. The wind was blowing pretty strong on this side and the snow drifts came up a foot higher. I began to carve notes into the snow for those coming up behind me. “LOVELY WEATHER” and a few yards further “NICE DAY FOR A WALK” and finally “THIS IS REALLY WHITE BLAZING.”

After stopping and cooking my first hot lunch on the trail, I checked my watch. Averaging 2 miles an hour, I predicted that I’d make it to the next shelter at 6:45. Not bad and well before sunset. I found myself cruising over rolling hills all afternoon. The sun had finally come out and I was falling in elevation. The snow was melting. Today felt good- beyond expectations, I decided, thinking back to snuggling in my sleeping bag that morning. I checked my watch. 5:45. I should have about 2 miles left. Just then the trail rounded a corner and there it was. Partnership Shelter, an hour before schedule! This was unexpected and wonderful.

About 500 yards beyond Partnership is a visitors center. Outside the visitors center is a phone, used by hikers to order pizza delivery from the nearby town. A shelter where you can order pizza? A hiker dream come true. There were about 10 of us staying at Partnership that night. We huddled around the phone and passed it from person to person. Each of us ordered a large pizza, stuffed crust, and a soda before passing the phone to the next person. Only a long distance hiker’s pizza party has enough pizzas for everyone to eat their own…

The cold was rolling in and the wind was blowing once the pizza delivery guy finally showed up. We took the pizzas back to the shelter and, in what looked like a sweet team building activity, we shuttled the pizzas up the ladder to the upstairs room in the shelter where we had 4 walls to cut the wind. Sitting there with a warm pizza box on my lap and good company all around, having beaten my average pace by an extra 1/2 per hour, I decided that snow and all, a bad day outside is indeed better than a good day at the office.

An inconvenience rightly considered

March 31, 2012

I’ve been trying to stay out of towns. Every time I go into town I get the distinct feeling that I am not doing what I came out here to do. There are miles not being walked and shelters waiting for my arrival. Plus, I end up spending money.

But trips to town are unavoidable. At some point, one needs to resupply. No matter how you try, it’s just not possible to carry more than 5 or 6 days worth of food. And a shower is nice every now and again. So into town I go.

I was told to read “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson before leaving on this trip by quite a number of well-wishers. But I insisted on bringing it along with me. Sure, it adds to the weight of my bag, but it provides me with exactly what I need on the trail. While I am hiking it is easy to slip into a rhythm and let my mind wander. So much so that I often forget where I am entirely, lost in my thoughts. A scenic look out or a sudden change in temperature, lighting or sounds jolt me back to the trail. What keeps me grounded in the adventure is the shared experience, with my hiking partners, with the folks I meet at shelters each night and with Bill Bryson.

Something he mentions when he describes coming to Neel’s Gap, the first sign of civilization one crosses heading northbound on the trail, struck me. He is thankful for the way the trail makes all the simple joys in life seem incredible–new and exciting all over again. It is with childish joy and wonder that hikers see all the commodities civilization has to offer. Just watch our faces light up when you say the words “hot shower” or “all you can eat pizza buffet.” As Bryson puts it, “It is an intoxicating experience to taste Coca-Cola as if for the first time and to be conveyed to the very brink of orgasm by white bread. Makes all the discomfort worthwhile, if you ask me.” And I would agree.

So town is a part of the adventure. And I find myself whisked away to it every few days. The vast numbers of people walking around, the flashing lights and the music being pumped out shock me as if coming into a foreign country, but simple amenities are welcome and appreciated.

I have, thus far, been to three states and walked nearly 210 miles in 3 weeks. My feet are routinely sore and my legs are getting stronger. I have passed the highest peak on the trail as of yesterday and watched the sunrise over it. I had my first 20 mile day in Great Smoky National Park, where “flat” is not an understood concept. A few more days in the Smokies, a few more days straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee before I hit Virginia, home to 1/4 of the entire trail. As we northbounders say: GA->ME ON!

Good Omen, Bad Omen

March 18, 2012

Early Sunday morning I was tossing and turning in my seat on the red eye train to Atlanta. Still groggy, I hadn’t noticed that nearly everyone on the car was stirring, but the train was stopped still. A woman in the back claimed that we had ran someone over with the train, but that seemed outlandish, unlikely. I woke up slowly, looked around and noticed the bewilderment. Some seemed concerned, many found it…amusing. Finally an Amtrak employee came through to confirm: someone lad been laying down on the tracks. We would be there for awhile.

Right outside Greenville, NC my adventure began with what most, and I, would consider a fairly bad sign. Our train arrived 3 hours late into Atlanta, causing us to skip the first chunk of the approach hike to assure that our late start would not cost us the day.

Day one on the trail was gorgeous. Sunny skies did not last for long, though. Day two found me under a constant drizzle and misty air, often without visibility beyond 100 yards. Coming into the shelter that afternoon, everything was full. I pitched my tent nearby, on the flatest piece of ground I could find, and headed to the cover of the shelter to cook dinner. By the end of my dinner, I had made a whole group of new friends, just from huddling around a covered picnic table, trying to avoid the rain. We all headed out the next day. It was great to have a group that kept about my pace and we were all looking out for each other from the very beginning. In fact, the boots that tore up my feet on day one were replaced on day three by a pair that had been giving Bam-Bam, one of my new found friends, troubles. He couldn’t wear them anymore, but since they fit me, he passed them off. We called ourselves the Misfits.

We stuck together through Blood Mountain and Neel’s Gap, the first big milestone on trail and waited out packages with each other when they didn’t come in on time. I am finally staring to feel stronger, although my pace is still fairly slow, I knocked 13 miles out yesterday. When a few of us from the group arrived at the shelter we had discussed staying at, we agreed that we weren’t quite ready to stop. It was still early and we figured we could make it another 4+ miles before dark. We left a message at the shelter log, stuffed the notebook back in it’s weather-proof tube and hiked on. It’s good to know that no matter what, there are others hiking your way.

Trail Angels are a fascinating by-product of the trail. From individuals who take it upon themselves to supply hikers in their area with snacks and rides into town to the church group who set up a free hot dog stand at the bottom of a mountain, serving everyone who walked by, the magic is always appreciated. I have encountered 3 angels so far and have been pleased and humbled by their presence. To be taken care of by random acts of kindness has to be the best omen so far.