Free to go, free to stop, free to choose my course. Untethered & unbound by schedules and deadlines; unfettered by a nine-to-five. Traffic & rent, are no concern; only how far I can walk, and where I lay my head. I didn’t find purpose; I chose it.
The Hum in the air, the rumble and quake; the screech of the brakes.
I grabbed my gear and got off the train at Penn Station, parting the crowd with my walking stick, and squeezed through the turnstile with my pack on. From there it was a short walk to catch the MegaBus. Nothing but luxury and comfort from here on out. It was a double decker bus; I tossed my gear in the cargo compartment below, and stepped on up. Blue cushioned seats, with 80’s style neon patterns, lined two by two on either side of the aisle. A lot of them would stay empty, not too many people heading for Philadelphia at 11 on a Monday morning it turns out. Hence the price of admission: a whopping seven dollars, to get me back on track for my fate, whatever that means. Add in the cost of the subway ride, and this one way trip had cost me $9.75.
I picked a seat on the upper level, towards the back. My hat took the seat next to me. The song that played on my headphones, was “I want to Break Free” by Queen. Naturally, I put it on repeat for most of the ride. That song had become my anthem. A music subscription, was just one of the new features I had picked up, in time to resume my hike; and now I had 8 gigs worth of songs on my phone. As the bus took off, I stared out the window, at the world passing by. Nostalgia hit, and I imagined a man, walking along the far shoulder of the road, carrying everything on his back.
There’s no turning back; the only direction that matters, is forward.
We reached Philly earlier than expected. The steady stream of passengers trickled out onto the sidewalk. And the suitcases, and luggage, were pulled from the under storage. Among them, was my own pack; it stood out quite a bit.
From here, I go on foot.
I kept expecting the familiar rush of fear, and excitement, but it never came. Oddly, I felt nothing. No optimism, no ominous sense of doom, just utterly neutral, like my brain had gone into standby, waiting to see how this turns out. There was no eagerness to my steps. I was keenly aware that if things went wrong again, it would likely be the end of the whole endeavor, but still I wasn’t worried. Entirely unemotional; I just walked. Good thing I had music.
It was a few miles out of Philly, I was pulled out of my head, when a woman began talking to me. She walked alongside me, so I felt no need to stop. She gave her name as Angelique, and told me her nickname is GypsyFeet. She asked what I was up to, and just nodded in stride as I told it. She then told me the story of her boyfriend, who’d been hit by a car a year ago. He was pronounced DOA (dead on arrival). But he came back. Then they told him he’d never walk again. She told me, that her boyfriend was not only walking, but he was hiking all over. He’d asked her to go, but she was afraid to take the leap. He left without her when she hesitated. Now, wishing she’d gone from the start, she’s planning to join him, in two weeks time. It was an unbelievable story, and maybe she made it up, I don’t know. Regardless it is a good story, and I was glad she told me. We parted ways, after a few blocks, she said I’d be able to find places to camp ahead.
Not that I’d been walking long at all, but I already learned my lesson the hard way, and spent a month recovering for it, so now that I was back, I would take it slow. For that I was grateful to have started late in the day. Though I did forget to account for the longer daylight hours. Back in February, the sky was dark by 6, now in April, it wouldn’t be until 8. Which means I had plenty of time to kill, when I decided to stop at Five o’clock.
Coming down the hill, into Kent park, there was a small enclosed dog run, with a few dogs playing inside. Passed that was a creek, where two men were quietly fishing. A narrow bridge stood 30 or so feet above the park. The short grass gave way to a field of yellow flowers, and farther still, tall ornamental grass stood, narrowing the path. The tall grass, was brown and dead, and added an eerie vibe, with the clouds hanging over. I spoke briefly with the fishermen, as they began packing. They seemed cool, so I asked if I might have any problems pitching a tent down here. Should be fine, they told me, and wished me luck.
I waited for the rest of the crowd to clear out, then set up camp, still with plenty of daylight left. The forecast gave a chance of rain, so I set up under the bridge, where the arch of it was low enough to the ground, to maybe give some cover. I whipped out my food bag, and ate some junk food.
Inside one of the pockets on my pack, I found a sealed envelope, a letter from my parents. Written on the outside, it said “only open when you’re missing home.” They stole my move, I had stuffed a letter in the mailbox the first time I had left home. Well, I ain’t missing it yet, I thought stuffing it further in my pack. And it might be a historical text, by the time I do, I laughed.
I read some books I’d downloaded to my phone, and got plenty of sleep, when night finally came.
Kicking off the first day back with an easy 7 miles. 122 miles total.
I was awake before dawn, but I wasn’t up until after.
It hadn’t rained, but it was a misty morning. I spent a while walking along the creek and taking pictures. Then I packed up, and headed up the hill and across the bridge.
Number 10 was one of those uneventful days. So strap in for the next dozen pages of innocuous details. But not really.
I took frequent breaks to keep the miles from breaking my feet. It didn’t seem to be working, as I started to feel some pain in my foot again. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been, but it was incredibly troubling, that it was already hurting after so little effort, and me being cautious. I stopped at a post office, motivated by a slight sense of panic, and unloaded some gear. I had lightened my load, over the hiatus, left some things at home, but I still had some stuff that I finally could admit I didn’t need to be carrying. It would have cost me nothing, if I had made that admission just two days earlier, but now I had to get a box and ship it home. And so I finally got rid of the alcohol stove, I never used. As if I was ever going to stop to boil water. Cold and dry food, served me fine. I wound up stopping at another post office later, to send a few more things back, which I forgot the first time, because I’m dumb. A few pounds lighter, hoping it was enough to appease the pain, I continued on my way.
I walked about 13 miles this day, which is still taking it easy, since from dawn til dusk, I had over 12 hours to do it. 134 miles total.
I stopped for the day at Newlin Grist Mill Park. A small historic site, that I’d never heard of, but it had grass and cover, so it suited me fine. The small visitor center was closed, so I couldn’t ask permission. Probably for the best. I followed the path into the trees, under the darkening sky. Ducking off the trail to set my tent, behind a dense line of trees.
Sleep was hardly restful, I woke up every hour or so. My side would go numb on the hard ground, and I’d have to roll over to the other. More than that, I was a bit unnerved by the absolute darkness. To date this was the most remote campsite I’d had, far and away from the road and any lights. The wind rustled the barren branches, and twigs snapped in the black beyond my nylon walls. Hour after hour, I’d reset and try again for the hollow sleep.
I walked through shallow streams, and over stepping stones. A flock of deer piqued their ears, and bounded into the brush. A brief taste of what was yet to come. . . .
I found a bench and ate a double chocolate donut for breakfast, I’d bought it at a Wawa the day prior. I’d never even heard of a Wawa before (one of those gas station/ convenience store chains), and by the end of the week, I’d walk pass a dozen of them.
The day was slow going, with frequent breaks, on account of that foot. Still it never got much worse than just an annoying ache. But it was frustrating, more than anything else. Nearly two months after I started, and I was still at the very beginning. This constant back and forth was infuriating. My first attempt, sent me back home for a week, my second attempt sent me back home for a month. If it took me out of commission again, this whole endeavor was forfeit. It’d be back to reality for good. Dull, dull reality, same old job and everything. The thought made me shudder. Maybe the universe was telling me to go home, and stay in my lane. Maybe the universe should kiss my Puerto Rican backside. I ain’t going back unless I’m dragged, dammit.
I was approached in the parking lot, of yet another Wawa. I was taking a break sitting in the shade. After the usual questions, and chit-chat, the man offered me a ride a good way down the road. I declined, “I’m just walking it,” I said.
After a few more slow miles, and a bunch more breaks, that pain had me wishing I’d said yes.
At one point I came upon the perfect hill. One of those idyllic looking mounds of grass and dirt, with a single tree at its peak, sloped like a recliner. It was just calling for me to lay down and rest. So I did that for a while. I let go of the anger building up all day, making peace with the moment, as the sun warmed my face. Whatever comes, comes; but right now is just fine.
By 5pm, I had my sights on a decent sized park, based on the view from that google satellite. Looking at the map, I realized I could cut off about half a mile, by cutting through an open lot, otherwise I’d have to circle around it on the street. Me, being the genius I am, realized that, to walk a half mile extra, is to walk a half mile too far. So I opted for the shortcut.
It was a mistake . . . .
What I couldn’t see, until I was nearly at the end of the lot, was that there was a ravine back there. Still being the genius I am, I figured I could get through it. Besides, if I go back now, it’s even more than just the initial half mile extra. If you can’t guess how this went, I’ll refer you back to the sentence four lines up. See the thing about these ravines, and ditches, is that no one walks through them, so no one has to maintain them. So as I got thigh deep in thick brush and bramble, draped in vines covered in thorns, trying to force my way through, I was forced to admit, and not for the first time, I’m a real stupid genius. It was kinda fun though, pushing through like a bludgeon, but it definitely wasn’t any faster. With my gloves on, I didn’t even get scratched.
Again, the forecast was calling for rain late in the night, so I was hoping to find some cover.
Around 6 in the evening, I made it to Anson B. Nixon Park, in the town of Kennett Square. It was a decent sized park, centered around a pond. Right along the pond was a large pavilion, and immediately I knew that would be my best shelter from the storm.
I wandered the park in the meantime before it got dark. There were short trails looping throughout the manicured lawns and between the oak trees. There were tennis courts and facilities, a picnic area and some benches on the hill facing the water. On one of the benches a small dedication plaque read, “Fellowship of the Sword;” I got a kick out of that. I took a seat on the bench with my dinner, and a view west, where the streak of blazing orange gave way to deep blues and the purple dusk sky above.
I saw a park worker driving a cart around, and I chased him down. If there was going to be a patrol in the park, it would be a good idea to talk to him, before I get arrested for vagrancy. Especially since I was more worried about having cover from the weather, rather than being hidden away, as usual. So I explained what I was doing, and that I would be camping in the park.
Generally, when I would approach a worker, about camping on business property, or in this case, public property, there are three reactions you get:
The first is the enthusiastic and helpful type, very interested in the story, and eager to aid in some way, whether by telling you exactly where to go, who to talk to, or making calls so everything is taken care of. The first type is ideal, as they will often go above and beyond to hook you up, which can turn a fairly boring day into a cherished memory.
The second, is the apathetic, ‘I’m not paid enough to worry about you, or your problems’ type, so do what you want, don’t get caught, and don’t get me in trouble. The second type is not as helpful as the first, but they also won’t hinder you. And on those days that you aren’t feeling particularly upbeat for conversation and questions, you’ll appreciate the brevity of these interactions, and you still get what you need.
The third type is the bureaucrat, the stickler for the rules, the inflexible authoritarian; they’ll tell you “no” in no uncertain terms. Barring that, they’ll tell you they don’t have the authority to answer the request, in which case they will point you in the direction of someone else, who will invariably just say “no,” or give you a list of hoops to jump through, ie. permits, and paperwork, which is basically just a long-form “no.” Obviously the third type is useless, and as soon as you recognize this type of interaction, cease giving specifics, and let the conversation end as soon as possible, they will call the cops on you. Don’t argue, just move on.
This guy was the second type, just trying to finish his shift and go home. I respect that; spent enough of my life waiting for an hour hand to set me free. He told me, he didn’t think I’d have a problem, which was good enough for me. He answered a few more of my questions, and I thanked him for it, feeling a bit more at ease.
As the sky got dark, I set up in the pavilion. It even had outlets, so I was able to charge my phone, camera, and my battery pack. Later I headed to the bathroom facility. Using the sink, I washed up, trucker style, and did some laundry. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, having an entire bathroom to myself. Though, had I thought about it for half a minute, I’d have realized, it wasn’t the best idea, to wet my clothes, when a rainstorm would prevent me from drying them. I packed it in, after that, went inside my tent, on the wooden floor of the pavilion (the tent wasn’t really necessary, but I wasn’t yet comfortable with the idea of sleeping exposed on the floor without it. Plus the large openings of the pavilion, meant rain could blow inside). The floor was hard, but I got more sleep that night than all the nights before.
Another 12 miles in the bag. 146 total.
And still no rain, by morning. This was getting annoying. More annoying still, was looking at the solid gray clouds overhead, I had no doubt it was going to dump on me.
So far I’d avoided the rain, but today would be the end of my dry streak. Bring it on, I thought, almost eager to face the challenge.
The morning walk, started with a growling stomach, and a search for breakfast. Just before 9, on the outskirts of town, I came across Creekside Diner. Thinking maybe I should save money, since I’d been snacking pretty hard at just about every single shop and gas station for the past few days, I kept walking, but my eyes were transfixed on the humble looking eatery. My stomach growled again, and the decision was made. I went inside, and after thoroughly looking through (and drooling over) the menu, I decided to get the biggest, most intimidating breakfast I could find: The Monster Medley. Barb, took my order, she told me it was a huge sandwich, and recommended wrapping half of it out of the gate. That just seemed like giving up on a challenge before even seeing it; besides I had most definitely worked up an appetite. So I told her to leave it unwrapped.
We wound up talking for awhile, me and Barb, as she went back and forth between the other patrons. We talked about my walk, and while she seemed impressed, it was me that was surprised when she told me, they’d had a guy come through once, doing the same thing, but with a goat. Apparently I was missing a gimmick. Talking about my route, I mentioned that I would be hiking at least part of the way on the Appalachian Trail. Hearing that she told me, that she had once driven her kids to a trailhead on the AT, they wanted to do some hiking and camping. I don’t know how long they had planned to be out for, but they soon found out it wasn’t for them, and they called her to pick them up, before she’d even gotten back home. I joked, “hopefully I last a bit longer,” to which she pointed out, I’d already made it further than they had. She’s got two kids, she told me, when I asked. Both in their 20’s, just a few years younger than myself. Her son races dirt cars, and her daughter is in college, and practicing photography.
At some point, Barb also brought out my food. Piled high on a plate was eggs, onions, peppers, mushrooms, ham, bacon, sausage, cheese and homefries, served on a long roll; and it was glorious. Truly the best sight I’d seen, perhaps in my entire life. Only the rim of the plate underneath was visible. It would be easy to forget it was a sandwich, as the bread was so deeply buried under the excess foodstuffs. I didn’t know how to start eating it. All I knew for certain, was I wouldn’t be doing it with a fork. This monster needed to be conquered by hand. With some ketchup, hot sauce, and a firm grip, I slowly devoured the masterpiece before me. In the end, I only made it half-way through, stopping just short of a food coma, I still needed to walk after all. I was not yet in the realm of true HikerHunger. I admitted defeat to Barb, and she got the rest wrapped up for the road. It was 10:30, when I left, almost two hours after I’d arrived. Barb gave me her contact information, and I promised to send along some photos.
Outside, the ominous gray sky, had begun its downpour. I was as ready as I was gonna be.
I had a small orange poncho, I’d pre-cut to wrap around my pack, to keep my stuff dry. And I already had trash compactor bags, lining the inside of my pack (a cheap hiker trick, to keep your gear from getting wet), so all the important stuff was doubly protected. For me, I just had to zip up my coat, and an umbrella. But if it rains long enough, soaked is just a matter of time.
The unending deluge, meant my breaks were limited to places with an overhang. Otherwise, it depended on how long I could get away with loitering inside a store. There was an empty car wash station, that offered a respite for awhile. Later on, I found cover inside a small spanish grocery store/ bakery. I got some treats and took a seat to enjoy them.
The game of the day, was finding a song to keep my spirits up, in the miserable weather. After a few skips on the shuffled playlist, I came to the song “Feelin’ Good” by Christina Grimmie. I was thoroughly entertained by the irony of an upbeat song, in the current situation. I set it on loop, and memorized more and more of the lyrics. Eventually I was singing out loud, competing with the roaring semi-trucks for volume. I decided to record this lunacy, and then the game became, trying to hold a stick, an umbrella, and a camera, while remembering the words to the song.
Pro-tip: when everything sucks, just have fun with it.
It was at 3:30 in the afternoon, when the rain turned it up a notch, and the wind really picked up. I was fighting with the umbrella, and struggling to keep my hat. I could barely see through the rain blasting on my glasses, and forward progress was hardly progressing. It suddenly seemed like a bad idea to be on the road. I crossed over to a nearby school, and the staff, let me wait out the worst of it. Looking outside, the wind and rain, passed like waves of white.
Fortunately the worst of it, also turned out to be the last of it. Only 35 minutes later I was back out on the street. And another 5 minutes after that, the sun was actually poking out of the clouds. I celebrated to clear blue skies ahead, cheering and jumping up and down. And I picked up my pace. It drizzled for a bit, an hour later, but it was nothing, and I didn’t even zip up my coat for it.
The road I was on, became more remote as I went. Not knowing what was ahead, I decided to stop just after 7pm. A wall of trees, to my right, was broken by a sudden driveway. I walked up, and knocked on the door. As soon as the question was out of my mouth, the older couple at the door, had agreed to let me camp. The conversation was so brief, I didn’t even get their names. I set up for the night under a tree by their house. Inside my tent, I had another portion of the Monster Medley, for dinner.
Through the storm, I walked 11 miles. 157 total.
Passing by hills and farms and even more hills. I crossed into Maryland, on unmarked back-roads, halfway through the day. Still more farms afterward, but fewer hills. It was still cloudy, and the views were flat, and unimpressive. I finished the Monster Medley for lunch; it was still good, even cold.
Around mid-afternoon, my headphones broke. Tragic. Especially after they were so invaluable the day before. The cord had gotten snagged, as I took off my pack, and it stopped working. It wasn’t the first time, they’d been snagged, but it was the last. I was immediately depressed, and angry at myself, for not being more careful. I rolled my eyes, and exhaled loudly through my nostrils.
I continued walking in silence. The music was dead.
I reached the town of Rising Sun, at 5pm. And was immediately disappointed I couldn’t play “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals (and others), at such a perfect opportunity. I went into the Dollar General, and bought some junk food and a pint of Twinkies ice-cream, to drown my sorrows. I ate the whole thing on the spot. Foregoing a more appropriate viking funeral, I merely tossed my headphones in the dumpster around back. No space for dead weight.
Near the opposite end of town, I picked my campsite behind a decrepit looking cabin, on Stubbs Hills. The cabin seemed to be an old scout troop house, or something, but it looked like something out of a low-budget horror movie. While I waited for dark, down by the parking lot for the park, a man came over to see if I needed any food and water. It caught me completely off-guard, I told him I was alright.
Back home, my family was amazed at all the good people I was meeting. I responded, “I’m a facilitator for human decency.”
I had my tent pitched by 8:30, and even tossed my still damp clothes up on the banister outside the cabin, so they could dry out in the night air. I went to sleep, at 10pm, after finding my first blister. Another “first” to cross off the Thru-Hiker checklist.
Lucky 13, ends with another 15 miles done. 172 total.