Country Roads, Take Me Home

Way back in March, we made a bet on who would cry first and I swore up and down it wouldn’t be me, I’m not a crier. It was me. It was the fourth day in a row of pouring rain and I stood ankle deep in mud with a cold river of water running down my back and into the top of my waistband. Six more miles until the next shelter. I cried for about thirty seconds, out of breath from hiking and heaving like a fish out of water. Then I realized I wasn’t carrying enough water to lose precious hydration on my tears. So I sucked it up, yanked my boots out of the mud, and trudged forward. 
And trudge I did, for the next five months and one thousand miles, from Georgia to Pennsylvania. I hiked, I climbed, I sometimes even limped and staggered. Occasionally, I reached mountaintops and lifted my arms in victory, forgetting for a moment that my body was too weary to spend a little energy on celebrating.

 

Crossing the bridge into Harper’s Ferry

We’ve been home for weeks already, though it still seems as though I woke up in the woods this morning. Truthfully, I’ve been putting off this last post because it makes me sad to be finished hiking. I keep receiving updates from other bloggers posing at the holy Katahdin sign- a symbol of everything we worked for- and trying to come to terms with the fact that I will not be posting my own eagerly-awaited summit photos I had been looking forward to for so long.

 

Our very long awaited photos at the ATC headquarters in Harper’s Ferry

  
Though I am home now, I miss the home I’ve become accustomed to, the one with the sky for a ceiling and dirt for a floor. I miss having The Proclaimers, or Eye of the Tiger playing over and over in my head as I edged closer to the peaks. I miss the most basic hiker communication of rocks and sticks spelling out warnings of snakes ahead or celebrations of mileage. I miss the quiet of the woods, of hearing myself think and the chatter of chipmunks being the loudest noise I encountered in an entire day. I miss the surprise of stumbling upon a road after miles of rock trails- having forgotten already that some paths are smooth and level. I miss the giddiness of coming into town, the sheer bliss of satisfying an endless hunger at a diner. Hell, I even miss rolling out of the tent in the morning, leaning against a tree to push my aching body skyward and stretching out my muscles to discover which of my limbs decide to mostly function today.

 

Our last selfie, finally crossing the border into West Virginia

 

 

This little guy bidding us adieu

Though I miss lots of things, there are others that I’ll carry with me even when I’m not on the trail. I’m so glad I learned the kindness of strangers, often whose names I never caught, but faces I’ll always remember. I learned to rely on others, and mostly on myself, both my body to carry me without giving out and my mind for persuading me to push a little farther- to feel my lungs expand bigger than I ever knew they could. The trail taught me lessons in simplicity, of stopping to catch my breath and noticing a toad or a little bird sharing my path, of adapting to the quiet and listening to the animals and leaves rustling. If you think childlike wonder has been lost, you should see a grown, bearded man speak to a caterpillar or watch his eyes light up in the glow of a campfire when you offer to share a piece of chocolate after a long day of hiking. These are the things I will think of when I’m in my ‘happy place,’ the things I daydream of, and the things I reiterate when people ask me why I’d want to live in the backwoods for months. I tell them I loved spending time living without interruption, without stress or agenda, and realizing how fortunate I was to be allowed this chunk of time in which I had no worries or immediate responsibilities- that was for later. Now was the time for being present. And present I was, drinking in my surroundings, complete with challenges that I took in stride. Sure, it was hot, steep, buggy, rainy, thirsty, hungry, exhausting at times- ok, all the time- but never boring. Never unworthy of my time.

 

The real Washington monument, at last

 Of course, I couldn’t have done it alone. I had the help of family and friends encouraging me from home, the help of strangers who were willing to give me their food and their time, and most of all, my two hiking companions who were there to literally pick me up when I fell down and push me forward when I wanted to turn back. My tent mates, my campfire builders, my buffet destroyers, and spider web clearers. Even on the cruelest days we still laughed, usually at ourselves.

 

We toured DC, including visits to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History,

 

Hot and Juicy Crawfish,

 

The National Zoo,

 

And of course, the National Mall.

 

There was this one guy in particular for whom I was, and am, always grateful. He carried the heavier half of a tent he never slept in for a thousand miles for me. He fetched water when it was too far. He swatted mosquitoes I couldn’t see and told me I was still pretty even when I hadn’t showered in a week and was covered in welts from bug bites. He continued on a twisted ankle for literally hundreds of miles, partially of his own determination but partly because he knew I wasn’t yet ready to give up on this grand adventure. He was there every step of the way, from the valleys to the peaks, to share in the misery and the celebration. A lot of people told us backpacking together would be a test of our relationship, but I would never have considered doing it any other way. Who better to share this experience with than my best friend? 

Titanic Pose!

I consistently find myself doing the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I think it’s pretty great. It means you’re always getting stronger and challenging yourself in new ways. I highly recommend it. When I look back at the last thousand miles, what I see are opportunities in my future. If I can do this, I can do anything. Even though we didn’t finish the AT, the seed of exploration has been planted and continues to grow within me. When I read about other long distance trails, or traveling in general, I know now that I am capable of setting out on any quest I choose. You know how after a long day of driving you close your eyes to fall asleep and you still see the road? It’s what’s burned into your brain after staring at nothing else for so long. When I close my eyes I see the trees.

A look back at Day 1

Folks, it’s been a great adventure, and as always, it’s not over yet.

 

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At last, North of the Mason-Dixon!

It’s been awhile since I updated! I would love to tell you that after leaving Daleville we suddenly became energized and motivated to pick up the pace, and hiked ourselves 300 miles upward, but alas, that was not the case.
It took us awhile to get up enough energy to pack up our things from the motel in Daleville and hike low miles out of town. On the second day, Shane wasn’t feeling very well, so we made the decision to road walk on the Blue Ridge Parkway for the day, since it would be a smoother, more gradual incline than the steep trail in this section. The BRP runs more or less parallel to the AT for awhile in Virginia, plus has more views than the trail, which only crosses the road occasionally at a few lookout points. 

  
We had planned to road walk for about 15 miles, but after only three, Shane felt too weak to continue. Luckily we were already on a road, so we stuck our thumbs out and the first truck that passed pulled over to pick us up. It was a sweet older man, who volunteered to drive us back in the opposite direction he had been driving because he was retired from the railroad and “not in a hurry to get anywhere anymore.” He took us to a clinic and even offered to wait for us while Shane had his appointment, but we insisted he go back home, and of course, he wouldn’t accept any money from us for his trouble. Once again, a prime example of a good samaritan willing to assist some struggling hikers!
The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with Shane, so we decided to let him rest for another day and head back out. The clinic was in Buchanan, which only had one motel, and it was booked for the busy Fourth of July Weekend. We asked around for the nearest lodging, and, much to our dismay, discovered that the closest hotels were in…Daleville. So, like in Groundhog Day, we returned to the vortex that we had escaped just two days before.
A few days later… We got a ride from Homer, a shuttle driver and former thru-hiker from 2002 who hiked with his whole family, including two children, who impressively completed the AT at the ages of 8 and 11 years old! Back on the parkway, we hiked for a few miles and came upon the Peaks of Otter, which is a park-type area surrounding three mountains, with campgrounds, hiking trails, a visitor center, and a lodge overlooking a lake. It was a very scenic detour, which required us to stop for lunch at the lodge, and eventually to stay the night, even though it was pricey compared to our usual digs.

 

The view from our room at the Peaks of Otter Lodge. We didn’t see any otters.

  
 It was at this time that we faced the ultimate conversation we had been avoiding for so long: we most certainly had a bad case of the Virginia Blues. We had read in recent previous shelter logs that many hikers were abandoning the trail because of this dreaded disease. Virginia is state with the longest trail section at over 500 miles, and it seems to drag on forever, creating an illusion that you’re not really making progress. We had been in this state for six weeks and we still had 200 miles of it left! Granted, we had been here for so long mostly because we couldn’t seem to drag ourselves out of the motels once we got into them.
It was hot and humid, we were hiking smaller miles than usual, and we were feeling very unmotivated to go on. Shane had been twisting his ankle on a regular basis, and was usually hiking in pain despite our many days off in town. We thought a change of pace might help. So, we hiked a few more days to Glasgow, VA, where Travis’s dad picked us up and drove us back to his house in Maryland. We said goodbye to Virginia- at least for now-and skipped forward over 200 miles to begin again at Harper’s Ferry, WV.

 

The James River Foot Bridge, the longest pedestrian-only bridge on the entire trail

  

It’s a hiker tradition to jump off of the bridge into the James River, but it was about to storm and we didn’t particularly feel like becoming lightning rods, so we decided not to jump.

   

Glasgow had a lovely free shelter for hikers, complete with an outdoor shower!

 

 

Glasgow also has a dinosaur…not sure why, but I’m not complaining.

 
 It was so nice of Travis’s family to let three smelly hikers take over their home for a few days! They fed us real food and we got to do our laundry over and over again (without having to put quarters in) until it no longer reeked of sweat and grime. We made yet another trip to REI, this time to switch out my brand new trail runners for boots again, since my feet had been aching for the last few days, as though the entire bottoms were bruised. It turns out trail runners really aren’t meant for backpacking with heavy packs, which I didn’t know. 

 

Yay food! Yay comfy beds! Yay DeFraites family! And look, you can see their faces now that they shaved off their four-month old beards!

 
Travis’s mom helped us slack pack from Harper’s Ferry to Pennsylvania, allowing us to cover the entire state of Maryland (over 40 miles) in just two days. We visited the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters in Harper’s Ferry and enjoyed the scenic trip through the historic section of town, which followed an old canal tow path for a few miles parallel to the Potomac River before crossing the border into Maryland. We stopped for lunch at Gathland State Park, which is the former estate of Civil War correspondent George Alfred Townsend.

 

The War Correspondents Memorial at Gathland State Park

 
We began our second day of slack packing at the original Washington Monument, which was not exactly photogenic due to a lightning strike a few weeks ago that cause structural damage. Unfortunately, we were not able to go up into it, since it needed repairs. We ended the day at Pen Mar Park, making it our longest day yet at 22 miles.

 

Washington Monument looking sad with orange cones

 
 

Finally made it out of the South!

 
  
Back out on the trail with our packs, we passed the marker for the 2015 midpoint, at 1094.6 miles. Even though this was not our midpoint since we skipped ahead, it still felt like a milestone. Just after the sign, we saw our first rattlesnake, who loudly announced his presence and meandered slowly across the trail while we stepped as far out of the way as possible. 

 

Here’s the halfway point sign, in all its glory.

  
 
We continued on the next morning to Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where the Ironmaster’s Mansion Hostel provided us with porch space to dry out our packs after hiking for several hours in pouring rain. We checked out the Appalachian Trail Museum and visited the park’s general store, which home to the Half Gallon Challenge, where many hikers attempt to eat a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate passing the halfway point of the trail. We did not participate, since a bucket of ice cream didn’t sound too welcoming at 9:00 am when we were soaking wet from the rain. We did, however, get a hot meal instead, and then the sun came out and it turned out to be a nice (very hot) day after all. We passed Fuller Lake and took a side trail to a view at Pole Steeple, where we talked to lots of curious day hikers about our trip. It felt nice to take our time and enjoy the park.

 

Ironmaster’s Mansion

  

Pine Grove Furnace

    

Pole Steeple Lookout


 …Which brings me to my final update of this post. We have done the math, and we would need to complete more than fifteen miles every day, not including any days off, in order to get to Katahdin by the end of September, which is when we would have to be done in order to have time to go back to the section we skipped in Virginia (Plus, we don’t have enough money to take any more time). It may be possible, but we have been moving slowly lately due to the heat/humidity and Shane’s ongoing ankle issues, and it doesn’t feel right to try to hurry just to get to the end. After all, the whole point of the AT is the journey, not the destination. 
My main goal for hiking was to see new things and travel to new places, which is exactly what we’re doing. Some of my favorite stops on this trip have been parts that weren’t technically on the AT, such as the blue blazed trails to side views and stopping in the parks along the way to learn about the historical significance of the areas through which the trail passes. If we hurry to keep up the pace, these are the moments which will have to be forgone in order to finish on time, and to me those are sacrifices not worth making. If lingering to take in the mountains a little longer means postponing the long-awaited completion of the trail for us, then I am willing to wait a little longer. We are having fun spending time together and being on an adventure, and while it is a bit disappointing to have Katahdin a little farther out of reach, it also feels as though a weight has been lifted off of our shoulders. We no longer feel the pressure from ourselves to finish this year, although we still have plans to complete it eventually. 
We are not quitting, but rather prolonging our hike. Our new goal is to reach the 1,500 mile mark, which will put us approximately on the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts, and then we will return to Virginia to do the section we skipped. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to come back out to finish the remaining 700-ish miles (some hikers call this a “thru in two” hike).
For now, we are looking forward to having my family visit this week and to reach our 1,000 mile mark soon! It’s been a great adventure, and it’s not over yet!

 

Our current location, beautiful Boiling Springs, PA.

  

And, just for fun, this little guy who was chirping under a log at our last campsite. 🐸