Sunday, November 27, 2016

Appalachian Trail: Along the Virginia/West Virginia Border

I dreamt about the Trail last night.
It was twilight when I came into a town. I wasn’t sure where I was, but it felt like Maine. I realized I’d already been to all the towns in Maine, so I began to doubt that I was in Maine. The town was dim, with few streetlights, the way most of the Appalachian Trail towns were. I was looking for the white blaze that would indicate which way the Trail went out of town, but I couldn’t find any. I pulled out my guidebook, but found that it had swollen to Lonely Planet guidebook proportions and was missing a lot of pages. The only thing that was left in the book was the section on North Carolina and a lot of currency converter charts in the back. I was beginning to feel very stressed out. I had told a friend that I would see her at the next shelter area, and I was afraid that she would worry about me. In desperation, I stopped a bunch of locals. I asked them where the trailhead was and they pointed to a blaze on a tree where we stood. “Then it goes down there, along the highway.” They told me. Relived, I began to walk in the direction of the highway before I suddenly realized, ‘wait, I’ve already finished the Trail.’
And the dream, embarrassed at having been found out, shifted into something else.

The country started to mellow out a little after Atkins. The climbs were slight, when they were there at all and I enjoyed a few days of nearly flat terrain. As such, my mileage picked up a little, some days I was walking close to 30 miles. I began to worry that perhaps I’d reach Harper’s Ferry too early. Through the rest of Virginia, this was my main concern, For at least an hour every day, I thought about my anticipated meaning with Gina. I created this ideal scenario in which we came crashing into each other’s arms under the domed ceilings of DC Union Station. I’d get off my commuter train just in time to rush to the track where her train would just be arriving. I’d watch her get off the train and run to her. After that, we’d get an amazing cup of coffee and we’d go off to eat mountains of food. Or maybe she’d be waiting for me. I’d get off my train, dazed by the sudden urban surroundings and look up to see her walking toward me, with a huge smile and a bag of San Francisco burritos…
I’d get so lost in these fantasies that I’d come out of them startled to find myself in the woods, walking. Particularly in the morning, I was often able to crawl into my day dreams and make worlds out of them. It was the closest I ever got to the profound thought that I guess a lot of people expect from their hike. Most of the time, I was still stuck on the confounding mental radio station of scraps of songs, images from the past and, rarely, novel thoughts. From what I gathered talking to other hikers, the Trail produces no Confuciuses or Sartes. If you weren’t great at profound philosophical thought before you got on the Trail, don’t expect revelations, expect the radio, expect pop songs. The day dreams, however, were pretty impressive.
I found the mild terrain was better for these fantasies. Climbing and descending mountains, even the subtle green mountains of the Appalachians, takes concentration, or maybe it’s just that the physical effort is distracting. Either way, when I was huffing and puffing up and down mountains, I noticed the time went by quickly, but that I was hardly thinking about anything. When I was just walking along a river or something, my mind would be bouncing all over the damn place but, as such, time seemed to drag.
Before Trent’s Grocery, around the Wapiti Shelter (famous for the bizarre murders that had taken place there, luckily, I knew nothing about this until I was past it) I enjoyed a beautiful meandering walk along a river that seemed to last for hours. In the southern parts of the Trail, water means rhododendrons and this abundance of water had grown veritable hedges of them which the Trail maintainers bore through until the Trail resembled nothing so much as an emerald green mole’s tunnel.
I walked late into the day and what I thought was just twilight revealed itself to be rain clouds. It was around 6 and I’d already walked over 20 miles, but I wasn’t tired after the day’s relaxing walk. I stopped into a shelter to make dinner and decide what to do. There wasn’t anywhere to camp in the area and the shelter was dingy-looking, especially since the sky had darkened. It looked like a lonely place and I thought I’d probably keep going rather than stop here.
The rain came before my ramen water had started boiling and I had to run out a grab my stove from the picnic table. By this time, a few other hikers had joined me. As we all seemed to be from different walks of life and ages, in the little dusty shelter, waiting out the rain, I was reminded of the Canterbury Tales. I told my fellow hikers about the book, the different pilgrims and their stories. One middle-aged guy was really excited to tell stories and he and I mostly talked to each other while everyone else hovered between attention and sleep. It was then that I heard about what had happened at the Wapiti Shelter.
The rain let up with the suddenness that it had begun to fall. The clouds parted to reveal a twilight sun. The hour seemed too magical to stay in the shelter, plus we’d been joined by an incessantly arguing couple, so I decided to walk a little further before dark.
I had come a little higher that the river valley where I’d spent the whole day. The change in elevation, the rain and the twilight gave the Trail a magical feel, like the path from the book Grandfather Twilight. I seemed to float along, without a thought. The sky darkened and I hardly noticed at first but then I realized that I wouldn’t make the next shelter before it got dark and I wasn’t sure there’d be anywhere to stealth camp. Almost as soon as I had these thoughts, I noticed a hammock tied between two trees. Whoever was in it, looked to still be awake. I approached to see if there were any tent spots nearby. I recognized the pack leaning against a tree next to the hammock. “Kyle?” I asked the gently swinging nylon. “Hey! Mossman!” He bolted up.
We were next to a beautiful powerline clearing. I camped on the other side and in the morning, we got up and watched the sun come up over Pearisburg, VA.

The walk into town was easy, downhill to Angel’s Rest. I stopped on the rock for a while to contemplate the early morning view of the river and the smokestacks piercing the clouds above it.
The switchback leading down to the town was precipitous, the downed trees were mossy and wet and the Trail was clogged with mud. I was moving a little too quickly and almost fell a few times, but I managed to keep myself out of the mud. About half-way down, I crossed paths with a group of guys. They had the anonymous air of the city about them, so I heartily greeted them, as I tried to do to anyone I saw on the Trail who seemed unsure if they should say ‘hello.’ They responded not by returning my greeting but by asking me if they were almost ‘at the end.’ I paused a minute before answering.
“Which ‘end’ are you talking about? This Trail goes all the way to Georgia.”
“It does?”
“Yeah. If you’re talking about the Angel’s Rest, it’s right up there, but ‘the end’ is about 600 miles down the Trail.”
“Is this the Appalachian Trail, then?” One of the group asked. “And are you hiking the whole thing?”
I told them I was and they rewarded me with the greatest compliment one can get, looks of total astonishment. To be fair, these guys were out in basketball shoes and sweat pants, so I can see how they’d be amazed by the idea that someone could walk 600 miles, they clearly hadn’t even prepared for their short walk up the mountain. But it was nice to be the recipient of such looks, they twinkled a little with admiration, which was nice given that I knew these guys looked much better than I did. They could’ve just dismissed my bearded and backpacked character as a ragged bum and moved on.
As it turned out, thru-hikers didn’t look so out of place in the town of Pearisburg, VA. The area of town by the trailhead, was a little down-at-heel. The hotels there were obviously residential and, when I stopped into the laundromat, I noticed that toilet tank lid was bolted down, a sure sign of economic hardship, drugs or, as is usually the case, both.
Despite this ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ the downtown area of Pearisburg was very nice, mostly red brick buildings over a 100 years old. The ‘hostel’ that was listed in my guide, turned out to be a sort of hikers’ clubhouse behind the catholic church. An ‘A’-roofed building was edged by a wide porch. Inside was a sitting area, a bathroom, with shower and toilet in separate rooms, a kitchen with a stove and a refrigerator and, up a ladder a loft with sleeping pad that it was way too hot to sleep in. I took a shower as soon as I arrived and set up my tent in the yard. It was a beautiful place to stay; there was even a gazebo in the yard where I went to read when the other hikers fell to talking in the evening.
I left Pearisburg late the next day. I picked up two packages and bought some food which had me quite weighed down when I got back on the Trail. It was a grey Sunday and the Trail skirted the industrial area on the edge of town. I’d read that there was a stream we shouldn’t drink out of as there was a landfill nearby. For all this, after I’d gotten out of the town, the Trail was quick to turn impressive again. Before I hit the Rice Field Shelter, I hiked with Tarzan for a while: another thru-hiker I would eventually catch back up to in Maine.

I walked past the shelter and looked down from a cliff into West Virginia. The ledge offered a beautiful walk for the evening and my thoughts had begun to drift so profoundly, that I almost didn’t see the bear until I was right up top of him. He stopped digging and looked up at me. I hadn’t seen anyone since the shelter and had no reason to think that there was anyone else around. Just this 200+ pound bear and I. I remembered my bear whistle and blew into it. Yogi didn’t seem at all perturbed and continued looking at me, as if deciding what to do. I blew again, harder and the bear, slowly, turned and walked a little way from the Trail. I walked on, trying not to run. He hadn’t gone far from the Trail and I worried that when I had my back to him, some instinctive impulse would force him to chase me.
I walked until I felt I was far away enough to look back. I didn’t see him, but for the rest of the evening, when I heard something behind me. I’d stop and look back, half expecting to see the bear again.
There are three places I camped that stand out in my mind and the spot after Pearisburg is one of them. Not long after I passed the bear, I came into an area that was semi-bald, that is, there were few trees up there and lots of long, yellow grass. I came to a rise on the Trail and found, under an old gnarled oak, a beautiful spot to put a tent and watch the sunset. There was even a fire ring and improvised benches nearby.
I set up my tent and settled down to eat. Having just resupplied in town, I was particularly weighed down with food and I worried about not being able to get it all up in the tree for my bear bag. I hadn’t passed that bear more than a mile back and I worried he was going to find my campsite before long and come sniffing around for food. All the cookies and peanut butter I had so recently been excited about now seemed like a terrible millstone around my neck.
It wasn’t even dark when I heard a branch break almost right behind me. I spun around fully expecting to see Yogi lumbering toward me and was immensely relived when I saw a hiker instead, a guy I’d seen earlier that evening, standing just off the Trail and having what looked like an intense conversation on his phone.
He stopped and introduced himself as Freebird. I offered the tent spot next to mine, relived to have company should the bear still end up coming to pay a visit.
After he was set up, Freebird and I talked and watched the sun set from our log perches. He told me that he’d been on the phone trying to figure out what to do with his dog. He explained that he’d found a stray dog months before coming out on the Trail. They’d become pretty close and when he set off for the hike, he left his dogs in his dad’s care. His dad had just called him to tell him a woman had showed up at the house and claimed the dog was hers and was particularly beloved by her grandchildren who lived with her most of the time. Freebird told me that he believed the woman. She seemed to have good intentions and had furnished various kinds of proof that the dog had been hers, “Still,” he told me. “This doesn’t make it any easier to let the dog go. We’d gotten really close and it’s a bummer to think that when I get back, she won’t be there anymore.”
We talked about the dog and about our lives before the Trail until after dark. When I finally got into my tent, I realized that the tall grass I had set up in was full of field mice. I listened to their rustlings, praying they wouldn’t smell something in my tent and chew through it. I also listened for Yogi, still fully expecting him to show up at some point, but, eventually all this vigilance took its toll and I fell asleep.
I woke up early, before dawn and made coffee. I sat on the log seat of the night before, expecting to write but put down my pen when I realized I’d miscalculated where I’d expected the sun to come up. A sliver of the blood orange-colored sphere had begun to show above the highest peak on the misty ridge to the north. The mountains were a cold, milky blue. The valleys sloshed with rivers of fog and, as the sun climbed, it illuminated this Himalayan landscape with its fruit-colored light. I sipped my coffee and savored the best sunrise I’d ever seen.
I hadn’t been back on the Trail 20 minutes before I crossed paths with Yogi again. This time, however, he ran off when he saw me. He’d probably been hanging around while I was watching the beautiful sunrise, deciding whether or not to maul me.
It rained for the next few days until just before the Dragon’s Tooth. Although I had cursed the rain and my sodden boots, I felt incredibly lucky to come to the Tooth after the sun had come out. With so many rock scrambles and precarious footholds, this section would’ve been terrible in the rain. As it was, I enjoyed it very much, especially after the days of rain, the sun-warmed rocks felt terrific. Living outside in the rain, the body cultivates a cold and damp feeling that only pure sunshine seems capable of eradicating. I lay on the rocks and let the heat and light pour into the still-damp pockets of my clothes. I noticed that the area behind my ears seemed to be drying (I had ceased to notice that it was damp), as were my armpits and the divots behind my knees. Only my feet, still swathed in their damp socks, enfolded in damp boots sustained their dampness. Even these began to dry when I took off my boots and happily wriggled my mummified, fish-pale toes in the sun.
The morning the rain stopped, I woke to the sound of an owl, calling to another owl through the woods. I fell asleep again and woke up around dawn. I was on the Trail early and enjoyed the solitude of it. I noticed a sign, crossing a road, that said something about ‘slack-packing’ here at 8 am. I checked my watch, it was 7:45, but I was enjoying my stride and didn’t really feel like hanging around to see what the sign was all about.
I climbed another rise in the Trail and came down into another gap. There was a stream next to the road and I had stopped for water when I heard a car pull up. I ignored it and was just about to go on when a girl with a strong mid-western accent came tripping over the bridge calling out ‘Trail Magic!’ I followed her back to the road and enjoyed a soda and a few granola bars with two girls who had come from Wisconsin with a thru-hiker supporting regimen. They told me they were going to be moving up the Trail the next few days, dispensing food and other hiker essentials along the way. I told them I hoped I would see them again and walked back into the woods.
I climbed up the Dragon’s Tooth that afternoon and was awarded with several beautiful views and the previous days’ rains rising in gauzy clouds from the folds of the forest. A number trail sections jutted out in Charlie’s Bunion-like viewing platforms and I was continually stopping and sighing.
It was late in the afternoon when I came down into the last gap of the day where the girls from Wisconsin had told me they’d be later in the day. I stood around a second, slightly disappointed that I wouldn’t be having another Coke and walked into the soaking woods. The path was nearly obliterated by puddles and mud and I hadn’t gotten far up with rise when I heard a car pull up on the road. I turned and peered through the trees to see the girls’ car and came dashing down the trail, nearly falling a few times in my excitement.
The girls greeted me warmly and offered me a seat and a Coke. I’d made good progress that day and didn’t mind taking a rest before the last 3 miles, which looked to be relatively mild. As I was enjoying my Coke and chatting with the girls, Kyle and another hiker came across the road together. The three of us chatted while the girls prepared to receive other weary hikers.
After our respite, Kyle, No Name (a section hiker, just doing Virginia) and I walked to the next shelter together. My new companions had come from town and had brought some wine and olives. We decided to build a fire at the shelter and split the wine and olives with dinner. The only other hiker at the shelter was a guy named Green Brier, who told us about the edible plant and pointed it out. The rest of the hike, I foraged the waxy leaves of this plant and munched on them as I walked.
The next morning, I made my way up to McAfee Knob, saving my coffee so I could drink it while I took in the view. I stood on the ledge and took a wind bath, savoring the warm coffee and watching the hawks rise and fall in the thermals below. After I finished my coffee and got a few pictures, I had a hard time leaving the most photographed site on the entire AT, in the quiet of a weekday morning, it was an amazing place.

Soon after I came down from the Knob, I was tightrope walking along Tinker Cliffs, another beautiful part of the Trail. The Cliffs have the formation of one tectonic plate pushed over the top of another. The spare vegetation at the edge results in some beautiful and precipitous views. Walking along, I noticed a piece of paper held down by a rock—a hiker communique. Something about being in the woods for extended periods of time makes one believe in the semiotic tenant that states ‘humans are sign-making animals.’ My eyes automatically jumped to anything that looked slightly inorganic. I visually devoured anything printed, even when I knew what I sign would say, I read it anyway. I saw other hikers do this too. In this spirit, I stopped to read the note pinned down by the rock at my feet.
“Be Careful! There’s a rattlesnake under this rock!”
An arrow pointed to a rock about two feet ahead and the date was listed at the top of the note. At first, I didn’t see the snake and then, as my eyes adjusted, it’s coiled body seemed to spring out into relief from the stone and piles of pine cones and needles. The snake didn’t rattle, but, as I moved around cautiously, he coiled tighter as if anticipating a strike. I took a few pictures and moved off quickly, so as not to annoy him too much. The rest of the walk into Daleville, I trod the Trail and little more cautiously, telling everyone heading the opposite way to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, I didn’t realize how unaggressive these snakes are until I nearly stepped right on one in Connecticut and still didn’t provoke a bite from it. The terrible thing is that a lot of people on the Trail feel justified killing these docile snakes on sight, as if they’re some kind of horrible menace, taking out hikers left and right. As it turns out, almost no one has been bitten by a poisonous snake on the Trail who wasn’t provoking the snake in some way.

I came into Daleville in the late afternoon. The town was spread out along a highway and wasn’t comfortable to walk. A small section of the Trail ran between Daleville and the hamlet of Troutville. The Trail was ringed by highways, but was well-kept as perhaps a place where locals walked (although I didn’t see any). It was also the place where I saw my first ripe black berries. I stuffed my mouth with the fruit as I walked, a thunderstorm moved across the sky and rabbits bounded continuously across the Trail.
Troutville was a portion of the Trail I was never able to share with anyone else. I never talked to any other hiker who’d stopped there and, indeed, when I camped in the town’s park that evening, there was only one other hiker. The old town lined a rural highway that slowed down to a 25 mph speed limit as it passed the peaked roofs and the thunderous front yard oak trees. There was a general store that was already closed at 7 pm and a fire station. I stopped at the latter and was told I could use the facilities to shower and wash my clothes. I finished just as dark was falling, but luckily the park was just across the street and I had my tent set up on the soft mown lawn in no time.
The next morning, I stopped by the post office on my way out of town. The front window was decorated with a painting depicting a hiker with a USPS package. A hiker box placed by the PO boxes was overflowing with granola bars and toothbrushes. After I got my package, I went back to Daleville to resupply and stopped at an outfitter where I found a pair of trekking poles in the hiker box. As one of the only people on the trail not using these poles, I had begun to feel curious about them, especially as I had begun to feel a pain just beneath my shoulder that daily waxed and waned, but never entirely diminished. Since the poles were free, I figured I’d just try them out, if I didn’t like them, I could always leave them at the next hiker box I came to. But after I hit the Trail, weighed down by my overzealous resupply and climbing up and down hills all afternoon, I was overjoyed to find the poles made the walk so much easier. Even the pain in my shoulder seemed to have vanished. Initially, the poles were a little awkward, but it didn’t take long to acclimate to them. The only drawback was that I no longer had a free hand to snack with as I walked, which probably wasn’t a bad freedom to have to give up.
Ran into Leslie the next morning, leaving the shelter and we walked together, talking until about 3 pm when we reached the road where the girls from Wisconsin were hosting a sort of trail magic bonfire. They had bagels and all kinds of snacks they were giving away, saying they were going back to Wisconsin and didn’t want to bring any of the stuff back with them. I had a difficult time deciding what to do but eventually decided to camp in the area rather than move on so that I could enjoy the food and nearby river without feeling like I had to keep moving. I went for a swim in the cold water and ate everything I could get my hands on. The girls had lots of vegetarian stuff and I ate until they had to go. Leslie caught a ride down the road to meet her parents. We’d been walking on and off together since North Carolina and I expected that we’d cross paths again sooner or later, but after that day, I never saw her again. I asked after her further up the trail. Once in Pennsylvania, someone told me that she was ahead of us, but the last I saw of her was in the logbook at the ATC in Harper’s Ferry, WV.
Bear activity had closed down the next shelter 15 miles up the Trail from the river where I’d camped the night before. As I hiked the next day, still full with all the trail magic food I’d eaten, I scanned the woods and the Trail for signs of bear, but didn’t see any. I passed the closed shelter in the late afternoon and made my way down to a clearing about 5 miles further out where I’d heard there was a good place to pitch a tent. When I found this clearing, there was a note stuck in a post marking the camping area. The note was an impromptu logbook. The first entry was dated 5 days earlier and read “Camped here last night and had a bear show up just before dark. We yelled, threw rocks and even maced it, but it wouldn’t go away. I’d consider camping somewhere else.” The next entry, dated the next day, said “a bear showed up and hung around sniffing for a while before leaving. Also, there’s a copperhead in the hollow tree to your right.” Although it was getting late, after reading this disconcerting note, I decided to keep walking. There was another shelter area further down the mountain and I figured the lower elevation would probably discourage bears.
The walk down the mountain in the evening was beautiful. A number of times the Trail came out alongside the mountain and opened up to the evening sky and the autumn colors of the late sunset. As I often did when I’d walked a long day, I put on my headphones and listened to a podcast and just spaced out for a while, crossing rivers and walking down switchbacks as the darkness rose through the forest, growing from the roots of trees, up into the lower branches, like a swelling shadow.
It was almost dark when I came into a river valley. The south bank of the river was marked by a clearing and a single tent. The hiker was already inside. I found a place to camp on the other side of the river, it was a peaceful spot, but I was disconcerted to notice there was no place to hang a bear bag. All the branches were either very high or very flimsy, as was so often the case and with all the nearby bear activity, I really didn’t want to leave my food out where it could be pulled down or would attract a bear to the area. I tied my paracord to my water bottle and tossed it as high as possible to the lowest, thick branch I could find which was still probably 35 feet up. The bottle fell short of the branch and exploded when it came down on a rock. I paused a moment to fume about the bottle, but I realized that I’d still be able to drink from it, but like a cup, since it’d broken in half. Still, I wasn’t happy and I was even less pleased on my second attempt, this time using a rock, to get my paracord stuck in the tree—something I’d felt fortunate I hadn’t yet experienced after seeing it happen to so many other hikers.
It was completely dark by the time I got my bag up in a spot that any bear could easily pull down, but, at least it wasn’t in my tent or lying on the ground. I crawled into my tent and hoped for the best before falling into a deep sleep after the long day.
The next few days passed without much event. I crossed the Charles River Bridge, which was quite impressive and walked all afternoon along a lake that resulted from a dam. It was a scorching hot day, but I kept walking as I’d read that the next shelter area was supposed to have a great swimming hole upstream from the camping area. After I’d gotten my tent up, I walked deep into the brush along the river, but I never saw anything like a good swimming hole, but I was too hot and sweaty to care about the lack of options and I settled for lying down in the shallow river for a while.
The next day was Sunday and it was incredibly quiet. I hardly saw any other hikers after having some great trail magic at the first gap I came to in the morning. It felt like everyone else had left the trail. I walked all day, alternately lost in thought and thinking about nothing in particular before heading down into a bowl-like depression where there was a spring that flowed out from underneath a huge rock. The trickle of the spring and the unnatural darkness created by the depression gave the place an eerie air. I made a fire to cheer myself up a little, but a gentle breeze blowing the twilight through the trees felt like it blew right through me into my heart. It was getting dark and no one else seemed to be coming. For the first time since I’d gotten on the trail, I knew I’d be camping in the spot all alone. The lack of underbrush made it possible to look deeply into the surrounding forest, even in the fading light. It felt huge, like it went on forever, an ocean of trees and darkness breaking against the tiny bulwark of my tent.
I woke up once in the middle of the night in that desolate place. I had to pee and as I stepped out of the tent, it was like falling off a cliff; I hadn’t taken more than two steps, but I felt like I was alone in the middle of the woods with nothing, no tent, no jacket, no shoes. I stood there for a minute feeling this baptism in wind and night, the dry leaves rattling overhead before I jumped back into the tent, wound myself up in my sleeping bag and lie awake, listening to the howling darkness, waiting, as a child waits, to hear something, softly and pitifully, deep in the forest, begin to call my name. I listened until I was asleep again.
I woke up and left the haunted grove behind, as soon as I climbed back up to the Trail, the sun hit me and warmed my face, which had grown cool and slightly clammy after a night in a depression by water. I was walking, lost in thought when I accosted a sobo who told me he was walking to Panama. He also told me that an up-coming blue blazed trail was well worth the detour as it was basically along an entire chain of waterfalls, which provided great swimming opportunities. I thanked him, convinced that there were some occasions worth getting off the Trail and a trail of waterfalls was certainly one of them.
I had a late breakfast on top of the Priest Mountain. The log book there had been turned into a confessional, but it was disappointing to read that the confessionals were mainly about eating stuff on the Trail or going to the bathroom and not burying it. It hadn’t been much of climb getting up the Priest, but the switchback going down seemed interminable, wrapping around the larger rocks of the mountain, occasionally spilling down in little rockslides. I tried not to move too fast, but it was hard when walking down what, in places, must’ve been nearly a thirty-degree grade.
Down in the gap at the bottom, there was a substantial stream along the road and a few locals were out for the day, their dogs gamboling in the water. I thought about stopping in the alternately golden and aquamarine stream and soaking my feet if not jumping in and spending the afternoon drying out on one of the large rocks that stood, half-soaked, in the river.
I kept moving, thinking of the waterfalls ahead and before long, I came to the junction which continued on the AT or veered to the left for the Mau-Har Trail. The sobo had told me that the trail was really rough, sawtoothing up and down with little respite. Initially, it didn’t seem too bad, but about half a mile down, the trail ran up the mountain and then slid down like a rope of Christmas tree lights that have slipped their nail and are hanging in a big tangle from the eaves.
I was continuously listening for the familiar roar of a substantial waterfall, but couldn’t differentiate the sound from the continual wind in the trees. Eventually, the distant roar raised itself about the sound of wind. The Mau-Har Trail took me down a crumbly switchback and I was standing above a river going straight down the mountain, alternately stopping in pools and then tumbling 10 or 20 feet further down. It seemed a shame that the AT skirted this majestic tumbling body of water.
There was a group of hikers down on the bank of the river sitting in the fashion of stoned hikers everywhere, that is to say, their packs were all nearly empty, stuff was spread out everywhere and they all wore happy grins as if admiring the chaos they’d created at their feet. I said hello and then went bounding down the falls, looking for the ideal place to swim. About 200 yards downstream, I found a great pool, the middle of which looked as though it may go down indefinitely to the earth’s core and come pouring out in some antipodal fountain. I stripped, put on my swimming trunks and then made the mistake of trying to wade into the freezing water. For minutes, I couldn’t face the possibility of jumping into the icy water. My feet had gone numb, but my body was still sweaty and dirty. I finally let myself tip over into the arctic water. I shot up immediately, teeth chattering, fingertips instantly numb, ear lobes and lips blue. After hiking in the humid 80-degree weather all day, it was beautiful. I plunged in again and dog paddled over the abyss in the middle of the pool. I let myself sink for a while, but the water got so cold and I couldn’t tell if I was anywhere near a bottom, besides, who wouldn’t fear the life that such a desolate and dark pool may cultivate, despite or maybe in spite of the cold.
I swam around for a few more minutes before getting out; my whole body had gone deeply, shockingly cold. Even my scalp felt chilled. I dried off and decided that I would retrace my steps back down the Mau-Har Trail. I could’ve continued down the trail and shaved a few miles off the AT, but I didn’t want to miss anything, so I decided to go back to where I left the Trail.
I can’t say this was exactly a mistake. But damn, it was hard work. In places, the Trail was so overgrown I felt like I was bushwhacking through a tropical jungle, using my trekking poles to knock the overgrown grasses out of my way. This side of the gap seemed to rise as steeply as the other had come down, where I’d been slipping and sliding a few hours before, I was now leaning on my trekking poles and heaving myself up every step. Perhaps the cool water of the waterfall had energized me. I’d been walking all day, but I didn’t mind the climb. The sun began to sink behind the mountains and I felt peaceful, like I belonged to the mountain, like I was not an intruder, but a natural component, like a tree, a rock or a bear.
I came into the shelter just before dark, there were only two other people camping there. There were iron fire rings and bear poles—poles that looked like giant hat racks, each with a loose pole attached to it by a chain, the purpose of which was raise food bags up to the top of the hat rack. It took a few tries to get my bag up there, especially as I’d used the last of the daylight finding wood for a fire. I stayed up with the fire for a while, appreciating the spectacle. The warmth it provided was almost as a secondary characteristic.
The next day’s walk was spent recounting the dreams of the last few nights, which seemed to be increasing in severity and verisimilitude. In the mornings, I had been waking almost dazed, like I’d been thrown suddenly from the arms of Morpheus, back into the waking world. As I walked, I picked over details, so realistic, I wondered if I wasn’t still dreaming.
I was attempting to camp right before the gap that led into Waynesboro, VA. As usually happened before coming into a town, I had begun to feel food-crazed and I wanted to be as close to town when I woke up as possible, so I could stumble into town, get a coffee and a bag of cookies and then plop down in a laundromat and watch the world go by for the rest of the day.
The last shelter was 5 miles out, it was a beautiful place, right along a river, with tent spots all set at a distance along the water. I decided to stop for a snack at a memorial bench that’d been built next to the river. A man at the shelter was holding forth on the area’s topography, flora and fauna. I decided to go up and ask him if there were any good stealth spots before the gap leading into town. As there were two streams, I assumed at least one of them would have an area to pitch a tent, but the man shook his head. “It’s all ridgeline,” he assured me. “There’s nowhere to pitch a tent between here and the gap, unless you want to sleep in that pioneer’s cemetery about half a mile from here.” I asked him if he was sure there was really nothing. He nodded vigorously as if it were the one thing in life he could be sure of. Slightly dejected, I went to look for a place to set up my tent along the beautiful river.
The bugs were terrible, so I built a fire. I cooked and then watched the flames until I ran out of wood and the bugs came back, driving me into the tent and another tumultuous night of dreams.
I woke up before dawn, feeling like I was starving. The thought of cookies, coffee and a laundromat pushed me out of my sleeping bag before the sun was up. I was on the Trail early; I stopped for a minute to pay my respects at the Pioneer’s Cemetery; in the early light, the crude, eroded stones looked themselves like ghosts, or lights rising from the ground. I was soon to find out I wasn’t alone on the trail. Not long after the cemetery, I heard a sound like digging and looked up to find the largest black bear I’d seen sitting right next to the Trail, digging in a stump. I could see that I’d have to walk right past him, so close that he’d be able to reach out and take a swipe at me if he should feel the need. I decided I’d try to scare him away, rather than walk by him. I raised my trekking poles up and started banging them together, yelling, but without much conviction, so early in the morning, it sounded more like a childish complaint. I couldn’t think of anything to say other than “hey, bear!” Luckily, he seemed to get what I was trying to do and took a few steps back from the Trail, enough for me to get by. I looked ahead as I walked past him, careful not to make eye contact that could be viewed as a sign of aggression.

I hadn’t walked half a mile after my bear encounter before I heard a scratching and looked up to see a bear cub scrambling up a tree, at the base of the tree the mom was crouching down in the way dogs do before they launch themselves after a ball. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to hide herself behind the tree or if she was getting ready to charge me. I noticed she had another cub on her back; she couldn’t have been more than 50 feet from me. I tried to make myself as non-threatening as possible. I walked on casually as if I hadn’t seen her, my heart hammering in my chest, waiting to hear the heavy sound of her paws pounding the Trail behind me. She stayed behind the tree. About 20 minutes later, I passed another bear, this time, I didn’t even bother to look up, neither did he, much more concerned with digging in his log that watching me. I came into the gap, like I came up from being under water, taking a deep breath after a morning in the bear-haunted forest outside Waynesboro, VA.
That night, I pitched my tent in a town park, in an area designated for thru-hikers. It was supposed to storm, but it only drizzled for a few minutes sometime in the night.
I was ahead of schedule to meet Gina in DC, so I decided to stay another day in Waynesboro, hanging out in the voluminous library there. The anticipated storm came that night while I was still in the library. It was amazing to hear the tumult of rain and thunder from safe inside a building.
That night, I stayed in a church basement hostel, thinking the storm would come back. I went for a walk in the evening, I could still hear the storm rumbling in the distance and the streetlights gleamed in the rainwater puddled in the slick darkness of the town at night. I heard voices talking quietly between sips of beer and the crinkly sound of burning cigarettes on the porches of the surrounding houses.
In the morning, I thumbed a ride back out to the Trail where it entered the Shenandoah. Freebird, the guy I’d met outside Pearisburg, after I’d seen the bear, was already in the car. We hit the trailhead together, but split up soon after. There was a shelter area only about five miles in, too early to stop and the next one was too far out. I figured I’d just walk until I came to something in the evening. I wasn’t seeing too many stealth spots, but I wasn’t too worried, the Skyline Drive which kept crossing over the Trail in the Shenandoah, made the Trail seem less remote.
As the sun was setting, I found a spot that looked flat enough, cleared off an area to pitch my tent and sat on a log to eat. I hadn’t been there 15 minutes when Freebird caught up to me. He stopped a moment to examine the area, looking to see if there was another place where he could pitch his tent. Although it was getting dark, he decided he was going to keep moving to see if he could find a better place further down the Trail. I wished him good evening, finished my meal, watching the light fade between the spindly ash trees that ringed my campsite and climbed into my tent just as the moon was troubling the horizon.
The Shenandoah was easy and I was way ahead of schedule to reach Harper’s Ferry, so I tried to take my time through the park. It was this point on the Trail when I started seeing the same hikers over and over, perhaps because I was doing shorter days. Sometimes, I appreciated the sense of camaraderie, but the park was already slightly more crowded than other parts of the Trail had been, so I occasionally resented never feeling far away from the next hiker. Even sleeping, I often found myself close enough to hear several hikers snoring through the night. But sometimes, it was beneficial to sleep near a group.
I had been hearing rumor of bear since I’d entered the park, but there were so many people, I didn’t pay much attention. I had seen plenty of bear and under more solitary circumstances when their presence was liable to be more unnerving. But, as in the Smokies, the talk was of the bears who were completely indifferent to people and, as a result, were quick to swipe at your pack or sniff around your tent at night, considering ways to enter.
Before I came to the—perhaps conspicuously named—Bear Fence Shelter, these claims didn’t worry me. It had been a lazy day and I’d been hiking on and off with a thru-hiker named ‘Go, Go Gadget.’ In the late afternoon, I came to a Way-Side (the camp stores that sold junk food, soda and beer throughout the Shenandoah Park) and plopped down on the bench outside deciding if I wanted another fruit pie (I was beginning to feel spoiled with all the extra food). Gadget was there charging his phone and asked me if I wanted a beer. He went in and bought a few and we sat on the porch of the store, talking about the Trail and our lives before it. The Bear Fence Shelter we were both headed to, was less than a mile up the Trail. So, even as the sun set, we were in no great hurry. It was the first beer I’d had since I’d said good bye to my folks in Georgia and this new unhurried relationship I was cultivating with the Trail felt good.
We continued the conversation as we returned to the Trail and got so involved in what we were saying that we missed the side trail to the shelter. We had walked more than half a mile past it before Gadget noticed. Having not seen any other places to camp, we decided to turn around.
There weren’t too many people at the shelter and we easily joined the conversation taking place around the fire. Gadget handed me another beer and after not having a drink for nearly two months, I could easily feel the effects of the alcohol, my hands and tongue felt heavy and I felt increasingly comfortable just listening to the voices of the other hikers detached of meaning, the way one would listen to birds sing. It wasn’t long before I decided to go to sleep.
I had pitched my tent down from the shelter in a semi-marshy area. There were few campsites in the area, as it most mostly large rocks and mud. Even the spot I had found I would’ve avoided if I thought it was going to rain; it looked low enough to flood.
I hadn’t been asleep long when I awoke to a sound, like a fugitive running blindly through the woods, but instead of the baying hounds behind him, I heard a sort of squeal. Now, everyone who camps with any kind of regularity has heard an unexplained noise in the dead of the forest night. Countless times, I have heard stories of growling-screaming-yawning sounds that were certainly not the product of coyotes, raccoons nor the frequently blamed loon. I have had this classic camping experience myself having once woken repeatedly to a sound like wings flapping in the middle of the night. This experience, however, was much more blatant.
Shortly after I heard the squeal, which was also a sort of braying, the crashing started. All at once, it sounded like a heard of elk was storming through the woods. I could hear the large rocks lifting and knocking back together in seesaw motions as the heavy animals trod on them. The braying continued and seemed to be moving around my tent. The crashing and knocking seemed to follow it. Something was wounded or lost, I envisioned a bear cub and an entire sleuth of bears hunting frantically for it. As the crashing grew louder, I considered looking outside, but it seemed certain that, should I risk something so foolish, I would be quickly and deservedly mauled.
Eventually, the sounds quieted, but it took a while. Every time they seemed to slacken, some stubborn member of the heard or pack or whatever, would come stomping, slowly past my tent. I feel asleep, hoping nothing would inadvertently crash into my tent.
The next morning, I was packing up my tent when I saw Gadget getting up. I was about to ask him when he yelled out “what the hell was that last night?” I was glad that I hadn’t been alone in the experience.
The next evening, a storm was blowing in. I’d hiked into the sunset and enjoyed a peaceful dinner, watching the last rays fall below the horizon from a picnic table in front of an empty shelter. A few other people were camping, but they were all already in their tents, anticipating the storm which the warm, dark wind blowing through the area seemed to portend.
The wind blew all night, but the storm never came. When I woke up around dawn, the sky looked stormier than ever. I hurriedly made my coffee, knocked down my tent and scuttled the mile up to Mary’s Rock. Standing on the windy ledge, overlooking the green valley and the heavy storm clouds in the distance, I sat down and tried to appreciate the view and my coffee, but, as high as I was and with the storm coming in so quickly, I started to think it would be prudent to climb down a little.

While the rain makes the Trail unpleasant, the lightening makes it terrifying. The Trail goes over the mountains and, often, to assure the greatest views, it goes right up to the top. Every time a storm came through during the day, I found myself running along, hoping the trail would go down, but, imperturbably it always continued up, as if seeking the thunderous clouds themselves. This became especially hazardous after I picked up my aluminum trekking poles; when storms came through the poles were like my personal lightening rods. I had even tried once or twice, when a storm came, to wait it out, crouched under a tree, but no matter where you were in the woods, you got soaked in the rain. Being so wet, it was impossible to stay still. Without moving, it wouldn’t be long before you would start shivering. To keep warm, you had to keep moving, to keep moving, you had to climb, ever closer to the lightening.
The morning I came down from Mary’s Rock was possibly the one exception while I was on the Trail. Just as the rain started to fall, I spotted a parking lot and visitors’ center. I ran to the structure’s already dripping roof and managed to get under it before the rain began to fall too hard.
Being in a crowded park with a road weaving across the Trail had its advantages. Later on that day, I found myself gaining another visitors’ center and giftshop just before the rain began to fall again. I waited out the light shower, eating an apple I purchased, mealy as it was, I enjoyed it profoundly.
It was the third rain that got me. I was on the Trail, talking to a girl who’d recently lived in Buenos Aires. We were talking about Colonia del Sacramento when the light drizzle began to coagulate until I felt like someone was continuously pouring a bucket of water me. I said goodbye and began to walk in the hopeless quickened pace of all hikers in a storm, who know themselves to be far from any kind of shelter.
I arrived to the shelter thoroughly soaked. The rain seemed to be slackening and I set hung my boots and socks up, hoping for a windy night that might, at least partially dry them.
I left Shenandoah the next day. The walk was easy and I was at the last shelter area before the town of Front Royal before 3 pm. To kill time, I set to building a nice fire to cook with. I’d heard a storm was coming and the shelter was empty, so I refrained from setting up my tent, unsure what I was going to do.
I had just gotten a fire going, when a group showed up. Initially, I thought them day or section hikers, but as I overheard more and more of their talk, I realized they were actually attempting to walk the whole Trail as such a mob. How they planned on doing this, I had no idea. I couldn’t even fathom how they’d gotten as far as they had, given that the hour and a half they hung out around the shelter, I’d only heard them argue about which of them was going to go into town and get pizza.
The shelter was much more peaceful after the group left and before evening, the sun came out for the first time in days. I knew the rain was supposed to hit early in the morning, but I thought I’d probably be up before it hit anyway. I was planning on going into town the next day and I wanted to get an early start.
I set the alarm on my phone for 5 am, so it was no surprise that it started pouring rain about 4:45. I lie there in my tent listening to the rain falling through the pine needles, listening to the earth turn to mud.
It rained hard all morning. There was no point in leaving the tent, I knew I would only get soaked, but after more than two hours of lying awake, staring up at the tent, I decided I needed coffee, besides, I was going into town so I knew I’d be able to wash and dry my clothes, at least. I also expected to pick up my replacement boots, so I’d even have dry boots waiting for me at the post office.
I caught a shuttle into Front Royal from the trailhead and hitched out in the evening, after a day of washing, eating and reading. The shelter was an easy five miles up from the gap and I walked it with a loose, easy feeling. In town, the weather report looked good for the next few days and everything I had on was dry. The one detail I was upset about was the sign I’d seen for Harper’s Ferry. The town from which I was to take a train into DC to meet Gina was only about 22 miles—a day’s hike—away and I still had a week left before I was to meet her. I didn’t want to spend the time just ambling around DC. Harper’s Ferry would’ve been worse as there was no place to stay in the small tourist town. I couldn’t walk farther than Harper’s Ferry; the further north I went, the farther I got from DC and the more difficult/expensive it became to get into the city.
I had one good day of hiking before coming to the most impersonal part of the Trail around Bear’s Den. The section was just outside of suburban DC and, as a result, was crowded when I passed through over the weekend. Over the course of the entire Trail, I greeted those who passed by. Usually, the other hikers, regardless of whether they are out for a day or a month, were friendly. Perhaps the greatest thing about the Trail lies in its ability to act as an emotional link between very different people. Out in the wild, most people recognize that they are equal. Spending the better part of the day alone with the birds and trees induces a greater degree of friendliness in the most curmudgeonly hiker.
The hikers outside suburban DC have brought too much of the city to the forest with them. They walk in groups, talking loudly and don’t bother to even look up when they pass other hikers. Passing these people all day, I began to feel as if I were walking down a sidewalk, rather that hiking in the woods. When I did venture to greet people, my attempts were rebuffed, as if I were asking for spare change. Very few people even bothered to acknowledge me.
After living on the Trail for nearly two months, I felt a connection to it. Until this point, I had never felt jealousy over sharing it with others, but among these indifferent suburbanites, I felt protective of the Trail. I felt it belonged more to me than to them. I’d walked every step from Georgia, these people had just driven out for the day to try out their new running shoes. They weren’t giving the forest a chance; their headphones and loud conversations were isolating them from the experience.
It was a shame to have these feelings just before I knew I’d be returning to the city myself. I didn’t want to feel bitter. I wanted to take the Trail with me into DC. Out here, I’d seen so many magnanimous acts. People had given me rides, warned me of approaching storms and had fed me for no benefit to themselves. I had been the recipient of so much kindness, it seemed terrible that just being close to the city already seemed to be stripping it away.
That night was to be my last night in the woods for a while. I reached a campground full of people about 5 miles before the last gap before Harper’s Ferry. In the morning, I was going to walk two miles to a farm I had read did work-for-stays for hikers. I still had six days before Gina came into DC and I thought working on a farm would be a good way to pass the time if I couldn’t walk. I also hoped that my time on the farm might restore my faith in humanity before I went into DC. After the last few crowded and impersonal days on the Trail, I didn’t really even feel like hiking much anymore.

My one concern was that I would have to deal with heavy proselytizing on the farm where I was going to work. The place was owned by the 12 Tribes, and though I’d heard they were friendly to hikers, I worried there was an ulterior motive to their friendliness. Still, I had no other option, other than to hang out in DC for nearly a week before Gina arrived. Rather than face the multitudes again, I woke up early and headed down the road toward the farm.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Appalachain Trail: Hot Springs, NC to Atkins, VA

I didn’t mean to go all the way to Hot Springs (the first town the Trail passes directly through). I had planned on stopping at the last shelter before the town, but when I got there and it was still early, I kept walking, thinking I’d stop at a stealth spot (an impromptu clearing, usually large enough for a single tent) just before the town, so I’d be even closer in the morning, but I kept going and around 5, I found myself walking into the town, pulled into it as if by magnet, my mind driven to a frenzy thinking about the food that was down there. I came into the gap feeling like a wolf. Hollow cheeked and wide eyed, I came into the dollar store and since I spent 17 dollars, I must’ve bought 17 things, but I don’t remember because most of it, I ate immediately at a picnic table I found by the Hot Springs community center. It felt like such a special moment, I took a picture, although I looked at it later and felt baffled by why I’d want a selfie of myself with a spoonful of frosted flakes dripping just inches from my mouth—I must’ve been partially delusional.

I had planned on going back up to a spot I’d passed when coming down into the town, but when another hiker told me I could just camp by the river at the edge of town; I decided to check it out. Unaccustomed to camping so close to a town, I felt a little like a bum setting up my tent while day-hikers walked by, but the spot was serene. The sound of the wide rushing river was a welcome change from the stillness of the evening forest and after reading and eating an entire bag of animal crackers, I was soon asleep.
The next morning, I packed up and went back into the town. Early on a Sunday morning, everything was still closed when I arrived, even the laundromat. I got a weak coffee at a gas station and walked across the little town. There wasn’t too much to see. When they laundromat opened, I was happy to have a place to sit with my book and my coffee for a while. The allure of town had already worn off.
I had to wait in Hot Springs until Monday for my packages, so I decided to do a work-for-stay at a local hostel, although, I would’ve been fine down by the river again, I really just wanted a shower and a place to put my pack for the day, but I was shocked by what I saw. Expecting a crowded, cluttered and dirty hostel, I was amazed to find Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn to be a well-kept Victorian home. Elmer asked me to weed his back garden in exchange for a bed for the night. There were two beds in the room he put me in, but no one else ever joined me and when I’d finished working and showering, I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the room’s balcony, overlooking the garden I’d just weeded, reading a National Geographic cover-to-cover and feeling a peace like I hadn’t known for a long time.
The next morning, I had a great breakfast at Elmer’s; everyone ate together at the same table and told stories of where they’d come from and why they were on the trail. Coming down the opulent staircase in the morning, I felt like I should’ve been wearing a dressing gown or something, the place was so beautiful.
After nearly two days in town, being back in the forest was slightly disorienting, especially as there had been a bad fire north of Hot Springs and the Trail wound through denuded groves of blackened tree trunks and had an infernal look to it. The thin black trees, piercing the sky and the earth looked like the bars of a cage and going back to the woods, I couldn’t tell if I was escaping something or just isolating myself. The letters from home I carried in my pocket, only seemed to intensify this question.
I stopped early and went to sleep before it was even dark.

The next morning was grey and wet. A light rain was falling. I had a big climb first thing in the morning; mostly rocks and mud. At the top of the mountain was a monument. A man who’d worked on the trail had talked about how if a certain rock were just moved a little, it would provide a perfect viewing spot for the valley below. Trail workers moved the rock and dedicated it to the man who’d had the idea. I stood above the low-hanging clouds and watched the mist swirl around over the trees, like grey rivers coursing through green valleys.
The next day was cloudy again; I waited for the rain, stopping to take out my jacket a few times, only to stop again and take it off after I started sweating. It was a long, uneventful day. I felt like I was trudging along. I couldn’t make my mind settle on any single concept and it bounced from thought to thought before tiring itself, like a dog chasing its tail and seemed to go as close to blank as I’m able to get it. The trail, just south of Erwin, also seemed uneventful. The last five or six miles to the shelter, there was no climbing, no downhill skidding, just a trail, skirting a valley that was constantly going in and out of other little valleys: the archetypal long, windy road.
I decided to stay at the shelter so I’d be able to get up early the next morning and get into Erwin, TN. I wanted to get in and out of town the same day.
I was the first person to reach the shelter, but, before long, a guy I’d passed on the trail came up and tossed his stuff down next to mine. The shelter smelled like something had died in it. I said as much to my fellow hiker. He just shrugged “it’s a shelter,” he said, as if this was explanation enough for the terrible smell. I resolved to never sleep in one again if I could avoid it.
I woke up at first light the next day and almost floated along the ridge over a river that eventually brought me down into Erwin. The town was still grey and misty when I arrived. It was nearly a three-hour walk into town and I passed broken-down pickups and cluttered porches, wondering about the inhabitants and what the circumstances of their lives had created these swamps of broken possessions littering their homes.

I was still a ways out of town when I stopped at a gas station for coffee and asked, at an intentionally high volume, what the best way to walk into town would be. I didn’t have to say too much before someone behind me in line offered me a ride the rest of the way, it hadn’t been much farther, but it was nice to get off my feet for a minute.
By this point, I was becoming something of a connoisseur of laundromats. Generally, I found towns to be slightly obnoxious and overwhelming. On the trail, I was accustomed to greeting everyone I passed and feeling a connection to everyone I met. In towns, a bunch of people seemed to rush from place to place, unconcerned or even annoyed with each other. In many places, there were no sidewalks and people got into cars to drive distances of a block or two. Everyone was in their own world and I felt so strange, continually trying to connect to these people, nodding and saying ‘hi’ even when they intentionally ignored me. Laundromats seemed to be the one place to go to escape this feeling. In the laundromat, I felt comfortable in my anonymity, reading or talking on the phone while my clothes spun in the drier. It was the one place in which, I truly felt like I could step off the Trail. Never mind that my backpack was slouched over in the corner and that my deflated-looking boots were lying next to it, looking particularly dirty on the clean tile floor.
I asked to be taken to the closest laundromat and my driver took me to a place that had obviously closed down a while ago. I mentioned the dusty windows and the broken-looking interior of the building and he took me up the street to another place.
I spent most of the day drifting around Erwin before I ended up back on the Trail. I hadn’t gone far when I ran into two guys going south. I asked if they were sobos (south-bounders, walking from Maine down to Georgia). They told me that they’d just gone up to Damascus in Virginia for the Trail Days Festival and were walking back to Erwin, where they’d left from. I didn’t realize what this meant until after they guys had passed. It was Thursday, the Trail Days Festival had ended the previous Sunday. Unless they’d left early, it had only taken them 4 days to walk from Damascus (on the Tennessee/Virginia border) down to Erwin. I was closer than I thought and Damascus at around 500 miles, marked the end of the first quarter of the trail.
The next day, I was walking along, still early in the morning, not thinking about much, when it occurred to me, that I was probably missing all kinds of things happening in the forest. I knew it was possible to pass even the ostentatious without noticing (I’d seen another hiker walk right past a four-foot long rat snake totally oblivious) so I knew there had to be all kinds of minute things happening around me all the time that I was missing. Almost at the very instant I had this thought, I noticed something in the fork of a spindly tree. I stopped and took a step back to better examine it and found a bird’s nest, replete with a baby bird chirping up to its mother in the branches above. I must’ve been striding past things like this at a rate of 100s a day, but at least, this one time, I’d had enough wherewithal to realize it, stop and see something.

After the baby bird, I was a little more aware of my surroundings or maybe just more aware of the potential of my surroundings. Twice I noticed robin’s eggs scattered on the trail and wondered about the drama that must’ve precipitated them from the trees above. I tried to be attentive to the forest around me, but it was hard to maintain the scrutiny and after a while, each tree subsided into the monotony of the forest, the individual leaves sunk into green blurs and my thoughts turned on themselves.
That afternoon, I met Leslie, a hiker who hadn’t decided on a trail name. She and I had a similar pace and walked to the shelter together. Mostly, I babbled about different places I’d been, but Leslie managed to get a few words in and we had an enjoyable conversation to the shelter area.
That evening, just after I’d set up my tent, a heavy rain began that, while it was to wax and wane in terms of severity, would last for the next few days, rendering me soaked and miserable through the remainder of the North Carolina/Tennessee border walk.
The last section of Tennessee brought an improvement in the weather. The sun came out for my last few days before the quarter-way mark in Damascus. Word of bears increased on the Trail again. I passed hikers who warned me of bears ahead and another shelter was closed near Watauga Lake after a bear had ransacked it.
I still hadn’t seen a bear.
Just before Hampton, TN, the Trail dropped into one of its most impressive sections. Stone steps took hikers down to a waterfall and the Trail continued along a swift-moving river for a while. In one spot, the Trail came right down between a sheer rock face and the river, walking on it here had a certain Indiana Jones quality with the river rapids nearly boiling over one’s hiking boots, bridges crossed and recrossed the river. It came as a slight disappointment, after this easy, but engaging walk, when the Trail broke to the right, away from the river and up Pond Mountain.
Leslie and I had been keeping a similar pace since we’d met. We both woke up early and only took short breaks during the day. As with Tortoise, I’d hit the Trail alone, but sometime in the afternoon, we’d usually cross paths. I had been walking with her down along the river, when we hit a fork. One way, the Trail, led up Pond Mountain, but another trail, a blue-blazed trail, let into the town of Hampton. There was a hiker leaning against the sign at this junction. “If you go this way, the trail stays along the river. It’s really pretty. The AT,” he said, pointing the other way. “Goes up that mountain, straight up and right back down. I talked to a friend of mine who did it. He said there’s no view up there.” The choice seemed obvious, continue along the river, listening to the rushing water, crossing bridges and staying level, however, officially, the AT went up the mountain. To take the river path, shave off a mile or two and avoid the climb, seemed like cheating. The hiker hanging out by the sign seemed to see my conflict.
“Hey, man, you can do whatever you want. I’m just telling you what I heard. Don’t let me tempt you or something.”
I conferred with Leslie. She wanted to stay along the river. I couldn’t blame her; it was probably the most beautiful section of trail we’d seen, and the last few days had been rough in the rain with lots of climbs, but then I realized that most hikers probably took the easy way around the mountain and, with all the bear warnings in the area, I felt sure I’d see a bear on a seldom-traveled section of trail such as this. I didn’t relish the idea of meeting a bear in the wilderness, but it seemed there really wasn’t any other way to do it.
Leslie and I parted ways and I started up the mountain. The Trail looked a little overgrown and within a few minutes, I nearly tripped over the biggest rat snake I’d seen up to that point; he was like a black firehose stretched across the trail, warming in the sun. I stepped over him and he took no notice. It seemed an auspicious sign. I felt sure I’d see a bear on Pond Mountain.

I climbed for the next hour or so and saw nothing. There was one little view, but the top of the mountain was leveled off, walking at the summit was like walking anywhere else along the Trail, but the altitude thinned out the trees perhaps a little. I came down to Watauga Lake having seen nothing and I wondered if I’d made the right decision. I pictured the other trail following the musical river, with no strenuous change in elevation. ‘Oh well,’ I thought. ‘At least I got to see that snake.’
The rest of the day was beautiful, but it dragged out. I pushed to a shelter on the other side of the Watauga Dam. The top of the damn, felt like the first time I’d come out of the woods in a long time. The sun blasted down on my shoulders and wore me out. I shuffled on. When I hit the woods again, the sun was setting, and I still had a few miles to go before the Vanderventer Shelter.
Leslie and only just beaten me and was setting up camp when I arrived. I could hardly hold back, “How was it?” I blurted out. “Did you walk along the river for the rest of the way?” Leslie made an irritated face before answering. “No! I don’t know what that guy was talking about. The trail went off the river almost right away and after going into town, I had to walk down a highway for about a mile and a half. It sucked.”
After I’d eaten and gone to sleep. I kept thinking about the hiker we’d seen at the fork in the Trail. The symbolic nature of someone standing at a crossroads, waiting and leading travelers astray is an old motif, but it seems appropriate to introduce it again here. I would’ve asked the guy where he’d gotten his information if I’d ever saw him again but, of course, I didn’t.
The Vanderventer Shelter was like an apology for the closure of the beautiful Watauga Lake Shelter. Due to bear activity, this amazing shelter, right down by the lake always seems to be closed. The consolation is that the Vanderventer Shelter, affords an amazing view of the valley below. It’s a great place to see the sunrise on a clear morning.
I probably should’ve stopped in Hampton and picked up some food. I had gone through more food than I thought and had very little left to eat. Luckily the Trail was easy and I walked nearly thirty miles toward Damascus. In my hunger and fatigue, I kept thinking of ‘Road to Damascus’ comparisons between the apostle Paul and myself, but no scales fell from my eyes and I just felt hungry.

The last shelter area was ten miles from town. I reached it in the late afternoon and tired as I was, I decided to keep going so I’d be able to wake up and walk into town before too late in the day. I preferred coming into towns in the morning because the transition seemed smoother that way. In the morning, there’s less traffic and less noise. The change is not so overwhelming. As such, I’d managed the walk into Damascus perfectly. Groggily I knocked down my tent and drifted downhill into town. The Trail come right out in someone’s backyard and led up a quiet street along a park. A few people out running nodded to me. I stopped into a public bathroom and marveled at the running water inside.
The Dollar General on Laurel Street had just opened and I bought a few bags of cookies. I profusely thanked the woman behind the counter, telling her she’d just made my day.
I stopped into a gas station for coffee and settled in to make some phone calls, but found I had no signal. Slightly dejected, I started in on the cookies and weak coffee. I was happy for the food and the sun, but I had been looking forward to hearing some familiar voices, without this, there wasn’t much thrill to being in town; it was just another place to be.
I crossed the creek and walked down Douglas with my phone out, looking for a signal. A bar popped up at the edge of town in front of Mojoe’s Coffee House. I got another coffee and settled in for a few phone calls—the greatest part of coming into a town.
The last time I’d spoken with Gina, we’d talked about meeting in DC. The Trail went through the town of Harper’s Ferry, WV which was connected to DC by commuter train. Harper’s Ferry was also, roughly, the half-way mark and I figured this would be the ideal place to meet Gina, spend a few days in the city and recharge.
When I called from Damascus, Gina told me she’d bought tickets from San Francisco to DC and that she’d be flying out in about a month. As it had taken me nearly a month to reach Damascus, the quarter-way mark, I figured it would be about another month before I reached the half-way mark at Harper’s Ferry. I was ecstatic to hear she’d bought the tickets, now I had something tangible to walk toward. I had to be somewhere. I had a time and a place to meet someone I loved and who loved me, this seemed to renew my purpose and instead of wandering vaguely through the town, after the conversation, I strode with intention; every step now was a step toward Harper’s Ferry.
I stayed in town that night, doing a little work in exchange for a place to pitch my tent in backyard of a hostel. I still felt the pangs of hunger from the previous day and no matter how much I ate, I couldn’t seem to fill myself up. As late as 11 pm, when I was normally asleep, I was still up, eating cookies and reading National Geographics.
The next morning, the weather was grey and my stomach was a little unsettled from all the cookies. I stopped by the cafĂ© again on the way out of town for another coffee and phone call. It began to drizzle outside. I couldn’t tear myself away, but I had to and soon I was back on the trail, climbing the gap that led out of town, toward Harper’s Ferry.
After Davis and the cork tree, which began this story, I went back to where I’d been staying in suburban Sacramento for a few weeks. There is repetition everywhere. The same model of house has been built all over town. The four-way stops all look the same, intersecting streets with names like Diamond River and Marble Falls, when no rivers or falls are anywhere in sight. I go to sleep after the sun sets and wake up in the dark. In the early morning, the starlight breaks through the oak trees along the bike trail. I can hear deer crashing around in the brush and the air has the smell of damp earth that it retains until the sun burns it away.
It would seem like there would be a disconnect between the suburbs and life on the AT, but the sameness is familiar. While the woods never repeat themselves the way the suburbs do (same concrete curbs, same ornamental Japanese Maples, same Starbucks) they do appear the same for long stretches. It’s a trick of the mind, I guess. After a few weeks, it’s hard to see what’s beyond the leaves, the earth and the same lightening blasted tree trunk. It all starts to look the same, like it does out here in Roseville, California.
It takes more work than you’d think to keep seeing. Hikers start putting their headphones on, they stop more often in towns, clinging to the familiar and others invent challenges for themselves to make each day valid in its own way.
Even as the destruction of natural habitat to create suburbs corrals animals together, the Appalachian Mountains rise and fall in a certain way producing both green and arid landscapes, deserts and edens. The mountains wound around Virginia in such a way as to restore a primeval quality to the forests there. They teemed with a life that woke me up. Bears dug in stumps and stopping laboring only long enough to watch me walk by. In the morning, deer walked right up to my tent to graze. The sameness fell away; passivity became impossible after the first sighting of an Eastern Diamondback, coiled there in veracity.
In the suburbs, amidst the McMansions and the signs for new developments in bulldozed lots, coyotes still run, but at night they don’t howl. That’s the difference. On the AT, they’re always howling.
It rained a little in the morning, but I managed to keep my socks partially dry. I climbed up Greyson Highlands as the clouds were parting, the grass was still wet, the wind in the trees still shook down light gusts of rain. My thoughts were so far from the forest, it was like my head was somewhere else, far from my walking body.
I saw the horses before I got to the top. They were grazing in the woods. When I stopped to watch them, they shook the rain from their manes and approached me without trepidation, sniffing the air to see what food I might have. They were still wild, so I didn’t try to touch them, but their disposition was that of dogs, friendly, searching. I watched them move through the woods, biting at the wet branches and snorting at each other peaceably and within a few paces, they were gone, their chestnut coats becoming impossible to distinguish from the tawny oak trees.

The top of the Highlands were bald and grey with rock and fog. Another herd had moved up here, but they knew they were watched and trotted around with the coquettishness of show horses, but all for the aim of handouts, some even going so far to chomp at the unguarded packs.
I came down from the Highlands and near a stream I nearly walked into a deer. I jumped over the stream on a few rocks, looking down to assure I didn’t miss and step in the water. Landing on the opposite bank, I looked up to see a doe had been seeking my eye, waiting for me to see her. I was close enough to see my own startled expression reflected back in her bright, dark eyes. I stopped and we stood there, contemplating each other for a full half-minute before she licked the air, shook her tail, took a couple steps back and, still in no hurry, bounded away. Perhaps she had learned from the horses and was trying her courage to see if she could get an apple out of my pack, or maybe she was just less afraid. In Virginia, the deer had this tendency, to show little fear, to walk right up to people, but I never got so close as to feel the exhalations of one again.
The next day’s Partnership Shelter was renown as the Pizza Shelter. It was close enough to a road and the park’s visitor’s center, that hikers could call to have pizza delivered. As such, I found it more impressive than the Fontana Dam Shelter and even availed myself of an ice-cold shower. I ate my pizza with three other hikers; they shared, but no one seemed interested in trying my cheese-less pie, so I happily ate the whole hubcap-sized thing myself.
The next day, we left together, still talking about the pizza we’d eaten and other random subjects, when, 10 minutes into the trail, I heard a frantic scratching sound, like a cat tearing through cheap curtains and looked over to see a black bear cub coming down a tree. I immediately looked up to see where the mother was and saw a juvenile running up the trail ahead of us. After all the mornings and evenings holding my breath when I saw distant dark shapes and all the peering into the leafy twilight, my first bear sighting was with two other hikers when I had never been more oblivious to the Trail.
The next day, I came into Atkins, VA. The Trail passed right through the town, but there were only two gas stations and a Mexican restaurant there. I needed peanut butter, which I had begun eating by the jar-full to replace lost calories. A standard 16-oz. jar was only good for about four servings, or two days. I knew if I was lucky enough to find a jar of peanut butter at either of the gas stations, I would be paying a hefty price for it. Food at gas stations is always overpriced, but nothing gets marked up so high as non-snack items like cereal or jars of peanut butter.
Leslie and I had been hiking together on and off since we’d met before the Greyson Highlands. By this point, she’d told me about her experiences in the army, I’d told her about my experiences living abroad and each day, we’d run into each other along the trail somewhere and continue the conversation, comparing life in the US to life elsewhere, pros and cons.
We came out into Atkins together and nearly ran into a pickup truck idling at the trailhead. “You guys want to resupply?” The driver asked. “I’ll take you to the Dollar General down the road and bring you back if you want.” I jumped at the chance to glut myself on dollar cookies and buy a few jars of peanut butter on the cheap. Leslie wasn’t so enthusiastic and decided to check out the Mexican place, which was adjoined to the gas station.
There were two other hikers in the bed of the truck, along with out packs, there wasn’t much room to stretch out. We zoomed down a 55 mph road, watching the scenery blur and wobble under the influence of the potholed road and our rapid rate of travel. I bought about 8 pounds of cookies and peanut butter at the store and jumped back in the truck. For some reason, our driver took the highway back to the trailhead. I suddenly found myself barreling down the highway in the bed of a truck; we were passing everyone, when I looked into the cab to see if I could read the speedometer, I was terrified to see that our chauffeur was scrolling through Facebook photos on his phone! After more than a month spent moving no faster than three miles an hour, eighty-five already seemed impossibly fast, but from the open bed of a truck and piloted by a guy barely paying attention, it was dizzying.
As soon as we came to a stop, I dove out of the truck. I had to restrain myself from prostrating myself on the ground and kissing the oil-stained parking lot.
Leslie was still in Mexican place adjoined to the gas station. I ate some chips and salsa with her and one of the guys I’d had pizza with a few days earlier with named Kyle. When I left Atkins, I felt good and my memories of the place would’ve been positive had it not been for an e-mail I received about a week later from Tortoise, telling me that he’d gotten sick and had to leave the trail at that little gas station juncture.
Since we’d parted in Georgia, I’d hoped that I’d see Tortoise again, maybe I’d catch up to him after I got off the Trail in Harper’s Ferry, but now I had to accept the reality that he was no longer on the Trail and I felt a little more alone. Since Tortoise and I walked together, I had been hiking alone and while I had adapted to a solitary routine in the woods, it was comforting to know that he was somewhere behind me. By Virginia, most other hikers had formed groups. It was rare to come into a shelter area and find anyone eating alone; they all seemed to know each other. I felt like I didn’t know anyone and, as such, felt prone to the suspicions of others. Although no one ever said anything, I found myself wondering if they thought ‘if you’re a thru-hiker, how come I’ve never heard of you before? All of us know each other.’ This was the problem with averaging over 20 miles a day, you tended to pass a lot of people and, as such, you never saw the same hikers from day-to-day the way others did.

Because Tortoise was there at the beginning of my hike, he seemed instrumental to it somehow. Knowing he was no longer on the Trail made the hike seem much more ephemeral. I no longer felt like I was in the middle of the woods, but rather on a path that wound through settled America. Even as I passed bears in the twilight and listened to the long afternoon stillness, I felt the pressure of the civilized world, the world that had reclaimed Tortoise, pressing in on me, knowing it was often only a few hours away and, as I moved north, this only became more true. In the evenings, increasingly, I watched the scintillation of distant streetlights from the tops of wild mountains.