What divides us, isn't so great as what unites us: the ground below our feet.
Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left…
Day: Doesn't matter; I lost track in the green tunnel.
It feels like a lifetime ago, since I started this, and at the same time, it feels like only yesterday. Sometimes it seems like time doesn’t flow at all beneath these leaves; and then you catch yourself staring too long at those red streaks in the sky, fading after sunset. The days blend together, as the scenery is slow to change and give way. And the end is so far away, it seems forever beyond the horizon, never any closer, even as you countdown the miles to it.
The whole world moves on, outside these woods; but here? Here is ageless earth.
A respite from reality, solace from society, a break from bureaucracy.
Subject to the whims of nature, peaceful and furious, both.
Dawn and dusk are the only points on the clock.
On a path tread by people you’ll never know, people who came before; they found their weakness even as they sought their strength. They stumbled and fell; shivered and sweat; they laughed and they sang; they cried and they raged; they quit and went home, or they carried on to the end.
Was it what they hoped it would be? Were they, what they hoped they would be?
The power of a dirt trail through the mountains; does it transform the soul, or reveal it?
Raw, bare, dirty, open and free.
Sore, stinking, wild, hungry and alive.
Stripped away, layers of excess; things you didn't need; things you thought you'd miss, but forgot about instead; things you thought were part of you, but fell away just the same.
You only carry the essentials, when you have to carry everything, and stress isn’t one of them. You come across a problem? You face it, you deal with it, you adapt, or you wait for it to pass. Beyond planning your next meal, most everything else just seems trivial.
You open yourself up to the experience; you let yourself feel it so completely, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows. All of it. The good days, become cherished memories, but the bad days are the story; the challenge and adversity, and coming out the other side, with some battle scars.
It's a hard life, physically and mentally, but it's simple:
You go, you stop, you eat; you go some more, you stop, you sleep.
And again . . . .
And again . . . .
left, right, left…
You will be pushed to your limit in the middle of nowhere, and have no choice but to go passed it. The trail will beat you like you owe it money, and somehow, if you endure it, you'll come away loving the experience; Stockholm syndrome maybe. Or maybe it just weeds out the bitter, and resentful. And all that’s left is the gratitude; appreciating little things, and celebrating milestones.
But of course, it's not the dirt that changes you; but the Time, the Isolation, and the People.
The time away, to find yourself; discover your limits, and find what you’re capable of. Time to think and reflect, on who you are and your place in the world. Time enough for all the lies you tell yourself, to fade away. And the time spent in good company, with people sharing the same journey, even if you only cross paths just once on the way. You have something in common with everyone out there; the pain, the doubts, the hopes. Even the simple shit; wet socks, and wishing for some ice cream. And you’re bonded by it. From a single conversation, you’ll feel like you’ve known the person for years, and you won’t even know each other's real names. Just everything that matters.
There’s an expression out there, and it’s ok if you roll your eyes at it, I know I still fight the urge, but you just haven’t seen it yet:
“The Trail Provides.”
It gives you the challenge, and the way through; it’s only forward. You have everything you need to make it to the end, though you may not believe it; the trail will provide the proof.
And then there’s the Trail Magic.
The Gift of the trail, is Faith.
Faith in human decency, in acts of random kindness. & Faith in yourself.
There’s no single instance of “trail magic” that, if I hadn’t received it, I wouldn’t have kept going. But if none of it had happened, I wouldn’t have gone for as long as I did. I wouldn’t have made it. You can’t rely on it, and you can’t expect it, but when it happens, it just blows your mind. Every single time. The simplest gesture, after a hard few days, can drastically improve the mood. Someone offering you a ride to town, or back to the trail. A table set up at a road crossing, with free food, drinks and smiles. An anonymous stranger picking up your check at a diner. A person offering you a place to spend the night. Or another hiker giving you a granola bar and some trail mix, because you ran out.
More than just grateful for it, you’re inspired by it. You can’t not be.
There’s a tradition among former thru-hikers to return to the trail, providing trail-magic of their own. The reason being, simply to pay forward the good they received from others. To give someone else that genuinely heart-warming, mind-blowing encouragement, and just make their day. That compassion is contagious. Like a force of nature all its own, it lives along the trail.
And it stays with you when you go.
Right. Left . . .
. . . Right. Left. Right . . .
. . . Left. Right.
My eyes are on my feet. In my head I'm counting footsteps, like I’ve done so many times when there’s nothing on my mind. Walking on auto-pilot. I've had enough time out here, to think of solutions for all the world's problems. And I did. But then I also had enough time after that, to forget all the answers. So right now, I'm counting footsteps. It's much more productive.
My feet are numb, but only when I'm moving.
Stillness brings pain; motivation for momentum. I lost feeling in my big toe, both of them in fact, I'm not sure when, but I realized a few months back. I was lucky with blisters though, only got about four of them throughout the first month; been good since. And I still got all my toenails, and never seen a trench foot (and yes, those are things some hikers deal with).
Aches and hunger are par for the course.
Most times, I’m running on fumes, because it's too heavy to carry enough food. But I'm also real bad at planning how much I'll need. Dense snacks, high in calories, and easy to pack; candy bars, pastries, jerky, granola, dried fruit, crackers, cheese. Most of it crushed, smushed, and repacked in ziplock. A lot of hikers will carry a portable stove, and they presumably spend half their entire hike boiling water for oatmeal or something, I don't know. They're smarter than I am.
Only a few beams of the afternoon sun reach the ground; the rest diffused on the leaves overhead.
Legolas is ahead of me; the trees towering over her on either side of the path. These trees would make anyone feel small; but for Legolas, her course is set, her footing is sure, and her steps are steady.
This is more her day than mine. I’d dropped back a bit further behind, and let her have these last silent miles to herself.
It's July 25th, and by the end of the day, I'll have walked about 1,300 miles (If I haven’t already, without counting side-trails and town miles). The last thousand-twenty-something of those miles had been on the Appalachian Trail (henceforth referred to as The AT), which is still less than half of the entirety of it. Legolas, on the other hand, by the end of the day, she’ll have walked all of it.
That's the length of it, all the way from Maine to Georgia (unless you're a NoBo (NorthBounder) in which case you'd say 'Georgia to Maine.' But we're SouthBound (SoBo), because we're cool like that).
Legolas would say, that she isn't a thru-hiker, because technically she missed that window by just over a week. I would say, screw technicalities, this is a thru-hike not a court case. But those definitions do matter to some people, just not me. Technically, a thru-hiker is someone that completes a long hiking trail (like the AT) within one year. And no, she’s not just a really, really slow hiker, that’s lived in the woods for over a year. In 2016 she’d hiked two-thirds of the trail, ending her hike, because of homesickness, career obligations, and the threat of a cold winter. Then in June (of 2017) she’d come back to finish those last 700 miles.
And now here we are at the base of Springer mountain, the southern terminus of the trail.
The trail is extra wide here; and it's easy to guess why. This is where NoBos start their hike. Thousands of would-be thru-hikers, every year, hike down from the top of Springer, like a pseudo-religious, quasi-homeless pilgrimage. And at the peak of the season, it may be as many as a hundred a day. It seems incomprehensible, that it would’ve been so crowded just a few months ago, and now it’s just me and Legolas. Their numbers drop off fairly quick, over the following weeks, but for all of them, their boots will have tread the path down this first mountain, and dug into the red soil. Only about a quarter of them will reach Maine, and complete the entire hike. Whereas more than half will be done with it, before reaching 500 miles.
There are plenty of reasons to quit.
Some will be forced off trail by things outside of their control; injuries, health problems, family emergencies back home, or even having their gear stolen. Although maybe it's unfair to imply any reason is fully in someone's control. You can't control missing home, and some people can't see past the pain and misery. Some just don't enjoy the hardship; and why should they feel compelled to stick it out for six months? A lot talk about quitting the trail, like it's this shameful thing, especially the quitters themselves. They'll list their reasons for going home, with embarrassment, and a bit defensive. But I think there's value in knowing that it's not for you, or that it's not for you right now.
Still, even I have to wonder about those who give up so early on. What could they have been hoping to get out of a 2,000 mile journey, that they expected to find in the first 30 miles?
These are my last miles on trail, and this lump of stone and dirt, is my final obstacle. There’s nothing left, but to climb to the peak.
I'm no thru-hiker. And I won't be, even by the end of this walk. The AT was never my goal, it was just my route for awhile. And now the end is looming over me, like so many storm clouds I walked under, on the days it took to get here. But even though my hike continues off-trail, it won’t be the same.
I’ll miss those white stripes painted on the trees.
Guided by the White Blazes, their comfort and reassurance, that you’re on the right path; heading the right way. Whether the paint is pristine and bright, or faded and chipped away, they’re the ever-present constant, on a journey defined by change.
I’ll miss the seclusion. And the quiet.
Walking on roads, and highways can’t compare to the muted footfalls on pine needles and loose dirt. Water from a gas station tap, or a backyard hose, could never quench a thirst like those cool mountain streams. The fresh air, unpolluted by smog, and smoke. And the sounds of roaring traffic, & semi-truck horns, for that I leave behind the roar of waterfalls, and the chirping of wild birds. Trading overlooks and vistas, for gray tarmacs, and flat country roads.
But I didn’t leave home to find a new comfort zone.
And I won't quit my course, for the ambiance.
My path leads beyond these woods; and beyond them I will go.
I can only imagine the nostalgia, and bittersweet sorrow going through Legolas’ mind.
For me, life on the AT, had always seemed like a collection of small stories, and random events, connected by miles of walking in between. And this day had started no different.
Waking up at Gooch Mountain Shelter, a name I’d laughed at incessantly since I’d heard of it a couple days prior (because I’m a child). There were a few section hikers for company. We’d talked with them the night before, and I’d immediately bonded with 2 of them, cracking jokes at Legolas’ expense. At one point one of the guys had likened his own face to a rat’s (I can’t remember the context of the conversation), and in the morning he told us, it was his 32nd birthday. So of course I dubbed his Trail Name: RatFaceThirtyTwo.
Jokes on me though, because as we packed up, I found an entire family of mice, sleeping on my pack. First of all: gross. Second: Why? Why were they there? The little shits.
From the shelter it was 16 miles to the top of Springer mountain.
Just 16 miles to the end . . . .
Since we were heading South, and most people hike North, it was common for us to see quite a few people out on the trail. Though this late in the season, it was pretty much only day and section-hikers, as any Thru-Hikers were well into the northern states; including many that I had met along the way. This morning we passed an entire class, about 30 kids, hiking in single file, with a few chaperones. We stopped to chat with an army vet. And we met a girl with a big happy dog.
At one of the road crossings, there was a water truck parked. We’d heard that one of the years prior, had been such a dry season, that a lot of the water sources and streams had dried up. So the nearby Army base had parked the truck, so hikers could fill their water bottles. And at other crossings, strangers had left gallon jugs of water too. This year had definitely not been a dry one, but it was cool to see the truck was still there, and full.
We stopped for lunch at Hawk Mountain Shelter. And not just because it was conveniently placed roughly halfway through our hike, and not just to sit at a picnic table while we ate. But there was someone there I wanted to meet. The last few days, other hikers had told us about the man covered in tattoos, living at the shelter. Typically, they would mention it, just after hearing that I was from Brooklyn; because so was he.
So it was that I met the Tatted Brooklyn Hippie of Hawk Mountain.
He was acting as the caretaker of the shelter. Cleaning up the place, and the surrounding area. He was foraging for food mostly, to extend what he had packed out. I offered him some of my food, and we talked for a while about New York, and then about leaving it. (I wish I could remember the words, and his name, but I lost a lot of my notes from the trip. But that’s a much later story.)
The people that had told us about him, they didn’t seem to know what to make of him. Clearly he made an impression, all the ink kind of sticks out on the trail. But more than that, a few had spoken about him, with judgemental tones. He made them feel uncomfortable, because all they’d done was take one look at him, and decide he didn’t belong there. Anywhere else in the world, me and him would never even have spoken to each other, but out here, there was plenty to say. He was kind and friendly, and all he wanted was to live in nature, and be away from people. I could respect that.
There was another Army guy there. He kept to himself, I could tell he wasn’t to comfortable around the tatted hippie. We went to get water at the nearby spring, and he told me he was hiking for a few days. He told me how he had hoped to find someone else to hike with, so I told him about the first Army guy we had met, a few hours earlier. He hiked on down the trail hoping to catch up.
Our next break for the day was at Long Creek Falls. Where I kicked my feet up, and reclined on a boulder. I’d gotten pretty good, at this point at aiming my camera on a timer, and getting in the frame. Just another useful skill, I’d learned on the trail.
Throughout the day too, I’d been keeping my eye out for a cooler. Legolas had been hoping to pop a bottle of champagne, to celebrate the completion of her Thru-Hike. Now, I didn’t expect we would find a stray bottle of the bubbly stuff just lying around, but I figured we might come across some day hikers with a few extra beers. So when I spotted some I gave Legolas a knowing look, a nod and a thumbs up. And she looked back at me and shook her head, muttering “no, no, no don’t.”
First of all: I thought she was gonna do it.
I mean every time I turned around, it seemed like she was getting free stuff from somebody. Leaving me both perplexed and bewildered, not to mention empty handed.
Second: Screw that noise, she’d been moping about it all day.
So I walked up to them, it was a group of a few young women, and a couple of guys. I went up to the woman, who seemed to be the leader of the group. Their conversation trailed off, as I approached, and they all turned to look at me.
“Hey,” I said “my friend is about to complete her thru-hike, and we have nothing to celebrate with. Could we bum a beer off you?”
There was almost no pause in the conversation, after I had asked the question, and the woman just shouted out “Hell yeah! That’s Awesome!”
I had only asked for one beer, we could split it, but I figured they would give us two. She pulled one out of the cooler, and I passed it over to Legolas. Then she pulled out a second and handed it to me.
Then she pulled out another. And then two more. Because: Hell Yeah!
Her name is Angela, and she is a goddam rockstar. She took our picture, and she asked Legolas about the thru-hike as we stuffed the bottles into our packs. I put two inside my bedroll, and Legolas packed the other three.
4 miles to go.
And we were carrying our last Trail Magic to the top of the mountain. It really was coming to an end.
I was going to miss having a hiking partner. We’d been hiking together for just about two weeks, and we talked about nearly every topic in all that time: life on the trail, life before the trail, and plans for after; family; work; religion; and of course Lord of the Rings. Mostly though, we just busted each other’s chops. And we had a bunch of running jokes, that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else.
It was a nice break from walking alone.
And it had come just after the lowest point of my hike. I wasn’t sure I was ready again, and I definitely wasn’t eager, to go back to walking by myself. But I have a feeling the rest of this trip, is gonna be a solo experience.
“Are you prepared to die for this?” I asked Legolas.
I’d asked her a few times over the last few days. The first time, she’d said “yes.” To which I told her, that was the wrong answer:
“Rule # 2: Don’t Die”
She asked what was rule number one.
“Rule one, is always get a milkshake.” I told her.
She then raised some concerns about my apparent priorities.
“Look,” I explained, “we didn’t come out here to die. We’re out here to live. And what’s life without milkshakes? Not a life worth livin’.”
So this time when I asked, she just replied, “Nope. I’m gonna climb this mountain, and then I’m going home.”
She didn’t turn back, but I nodded. She’d learned well.
As was always the case, the last mile of the day seemed longer than the rest.
But this mile carried all the anticipation of the entire trail.
Our impatience grew with every step. Until we could hear voices ahead. On the rocky top clearing of Springer Mountain, there is a single tree in the center, and a boulder behind it. On the boulder is a plaque:
National Scenic Trail
We had reached the end.
There were four others at the summit, when we arrived, two men and two women.
Legolas proudly proclaimed “2,000 miles in the making.”
“Where’d you guys start?” One of the guys asked.
I exhaled deep, “Somewhere far away.”
I walked over to the boulder with the plaque, and the older man, without a shirt on, sat on top of it. I knew who he was. “And you are Shirtless.” I said. (That was his trailname, try to guess why.)
“Yes I am.” He said. He responded to the statement, unsure if I was talking about his name, or his state of dress.
“We’ve seen you in the logbooks.” I told him, clarifying.
We’d been following him for the entire month, he was the only other SoBo we knew about on the trail, and we were afraid we wouldn’t catch up to him. We had taken a dozen extra diversions to some shelters along the way, just to see if he had signed in, and to figure how far ahead of us he was. And then to finally reach him, at the very end, it's the kind of uncanny situation that can only happen on the AT.
He made a joke, about only signing the logbooks, to leave a record in case he died out there. I liked him immediately.
He said, he hiked so slow, he couldn’t believe anyone was following him.
I replied, “well we were about two months behind you, one month ago.” He laughed at that.
The other man (more names, lost in the time between occurrence and writing), he’d thru-hiked years prior, and had just come out for a short hike. The two women had both come separately, and were just at the beginning of their section hikes. The two of them asked the rest of us as many questions as they could think of. They weren’t experienced with long hikes, but they were out here going for it just the same.
Me and Legolas brought out the beers, and we offered them around. All the others refused. But I made an extra offer to Shirtless, and he accepted.
Three SoBos sitting on Springer Mountain. Each of us, at a different chapter of our hikes.
For Legolas it was the end of her Thru-Hike.
For Shirtless, it was just the first half of his Flip-Flop (a non continuous Thru Hike, broken up into pieces. Shirtless had started from the halfway point and hiked south, and now from Georgia, he would fly up to Maine, and hike back down to where he had started).
And then there was me; at the end of my LASH (Long Ass Section Hike). From here I would hit the roads and head West; with a much longer journey ahead.
It was a difficult chapter to close, as we cracked open the beers.
There was a partial framing of the sky, by leaves over the edge of the summit. It faced west, and gave an excellent view of the sunset.
The Thru-Hiker alumni, was the first to leave, and he took the empty bottles with him, so we wouldn’t have to carry them out. Shirtless and the two section hikers, left after. There was a shelter near the summit, where most NoBos spend their first night on the AT.
Me and Legolas stayed.
I had wanted my last night on the trail to be under the stars. I rolled out my mat and my sleeping bag, right on the summit. Legolas had a hammock, (she’d been carrying it for a few weeks since someone had given it to her, but she had yet to use it, since she had a tent). She tied it up between two trees off center of the clearing.
Tomorrow would be a day of planning, and improvising, hoping things work out and ultimately frustration when it all didn’t.
But none of those concerns would invade on this night. Not on this moment.
Today was a win.
I don’t know how to adequately describe life on the trail. Maybe I never could, but I’ll try anyway (because isn’t that the point?).
There are no words that could summarize the journey, and the pictures don’t encapsulate the experience.
What words could elicit that feeling of peace and bliss, at the end of a long, hard day, when you finally reach a gap in the treeline, and have a view to the setting sun, over miles of rolling hills and fog filled valleys. A picture might catch the sight, but it can’t capture the magnitude; it can’t give you the feel of the breeze across your face; and it doesn’t show how much effort you had to put, just to get there. Neither will the words or photos have the serene soundtrack of birds, rustling leaves, babbling brooks, and rain drops on the tin roof of the shelter.
How do I convey the relief, at coming across a crystal clear stream, after so many miles with a parched throat? Or the desperation, when that stream is only a trickle, but you still need to fill your bottle anyway, catching the slow drops. Or the sense of glee and triumph, when you reach shelter, or pitch your tent, just before the storm drops. Or the quiet exasperation, when it dumps on you, just 15 minutes prior. The forlorn acceptance, of slipping on cold soaked clothes, the morning after.
There are so many little details that flavor the memories, but may never fill the pages of the story.
Sleeping on the hard ground, and rolling over when your side goes numb; your pillow’s just a bag filled with clothes you aren't wearing.
And getting dressed in a cramped little space, putting on your pants, both legs at a time, laying down in your tent.
Or rubbing elbows in the night, at a crowded shelter, with every inch of floor space claimed by a hiker.
Or the extra hours spent inside your sleeping bag, because the morning air is too cold to get up.
Or learning to brush your teeth with half a toothbrush, and without using any water.
And I learned a hiker shower, is just moist towelettes.
Looking through the logbooks for names you recognize, elaborate sketches, or funny stories.
Or the time standing around in the middle of nowhere, just because you finally got a signal on your phone, to message family, and post pictures and updates.
And so many cobwebs to the face, during those first hours of the day.
Morning dew, soaking your pants in a meadow of tall grass.
Stinging nettles scratching at your exposed skin.
Thick mud puddles, holding tight to your boots.
Swarming gnats, determined to fly straight up your nostrils.
Jagged rocks and uneven ground; rolling your ankles, when the stones wobble and shift.
The trail itself, winding up and down so many mountains.
Ascents that make you breathe heavy, descents that make your knees ache.
There are days I felt invincible. And there are days I felt like dying.
Sometimes they’re the same day but different moments.
Some days were head-down-focus-on-the-miles. Some are stop and start, every five minutes pulling out my camera for some new wonder. And other days, are just lazing around at a hostel, and eating piles of food in town.
Certain places still stick out in my mind, the names, the mile mark, and the feeling of being there; others blend and mix, rearranged into a haphazard montage of random memories.
I ran down mountains in thunderstorms. I sidestepped venomous snakes, and I spotted bears from far away. I lost food to mice, and a pair of shoelaces. I walked through fields of wild ponies.
I squeezed through boulders, and zigzagged switchbacks. I slipped in mud; I stumbled on stones. I leapt over creeks, and crossed over fallen logs, and rickety rope bridges. And I jumped off a waterfall.
I lost three ponchos and a tent. I must’ve hitched a ride about a dozen times. I spent entire days, basking in the warm orange glow of a campfire. And late night hikes, cutting through the dark with a headlamp. I cowboy camped on clifftops. And I dangled my toes over the edge. I lost my way twice.
I had long conversations with thru-hikers and hostel keepers, trail angels and day-hikers. And I shared a beer with everyone who offered.“Happy trails,” became my standard farewell.
I hiked starved, soaked and sleep deprived. And for the most part, I hiked alone.
I was broken by the miles, and reforged in the mountains.
Stronger but incomplete. Withered and gaunt.
Depression and grief dragged me down, and I nearly drowned in a relentless downpour. I couldn’t tell the tears, from the rain and sweat, but it all mingled into a salty taste running off my mustache.
I said before, I don’t believe in ghosts; but I do believe in silence, and painful memories.
My footsteps have long faded from the trail. And my name won't be remembered, except by dusty old logbooks stored away, or maybe they’re burned for kindling.
I pass into the history of people you'll never know, hoping that these words echo true:
May the struggle be worthwhile.
This is where the story truly begins. Everything before, was just the prologue.
I stepped off the train, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
It was an hour and a half ride, from DC. I’d have preferred a window seat, but as it stood, it was a decent trip. The train pulled away, with passengers heading farther, at a faster pace than myself. I crossed the tracks, and walked away from the station.
Harpers Ferry, was unlike any town I’d ever seen. A settlement in the heart of wilderness.
At the fork of two rivers, and surrounded by lush green mountains. The town was built on a hill, which gave a natural rise progression to the buildings. As a historical site, the buildings themselves were old design, giving the whole place a frontier flavor.
I crossed the road to the general store. I got a kick out of it actually being called “the general store.” I met the proprietor inside, an older man, with a strength about him, and a friendly demeanor.
He was the GarlicMan, and I was Ishkabibbel.
I felt weird about my trail name, but he loved the story. He asked if I was coming to hike the AT. I told him, I was definitely going to give it a shot.
I left his shop with much needed directions, and set off across the footbridge out of town. There was a sign there, a marker for the Appalachian Trail. It read: to the left, was Maine, 1,165 miles away; to the right, Georgia, 1,013 miles. Somehow, I doubted it would be quite as easy as making a right turn from here. (And later I would learn it was an old sign, with outdated mileage. Every year, reroutes on the trail, alter the length slightly.)
On the other side of the footbridge, it let off onto the trail, which ran along the river. The road was raised up on the stone, and wound up along the mountain. So following Garlic Man’s instructions, I tossed my pack up first and climbed up to the road. It was nearly two miles up the hill to reach the HI Harpers Ferry Hostel.
With the walk to Union Station and to the Hostel, I’d walked another 6 miles this day. 281 total.
I met Peter and Nina, and told them they were highly recommended by the hostel crew in Baltimore. We hit it off pretty quick, and I bought my bunk for the next two nights.
There were only two other people at the hostel, and I made brief introductions, then got sucked into a game of Settlers of Catan, with Peter and Nina. After Peter won, handedly, he made quesadillas for the three of us; and suddenly the taste of defeat was instantly forgotten. I shared a big bag of saltwater taffy I had bought before leaving DC.
That night I laid up in my bunk, nervous about the coming day.
I hadn’t been so nervous at any other point of this venture, aside from the initial leaving. I had no idea what to expect from the AT. I had no idea what other hikers would be like; fitness junkees, tree-hugging hippies, jocks, nerds? I had no idea what they would make of my own journey, would they approve, laugh, scoff? At this point, the hikers I would meet, have walked over 1000 miles, I’m not even at 300. I imagined they must somehow be more capable than myself; more experienced, and more determined. why would they take me seriously at all?
I felt like an outsider.
Like a poser, and a fraud. I was still so insecure about myself, and my goal, that I never considered that, maybe, they might just accept me.
Eventually, bitching like a high school drama, wore me out, and I drifted off to sleep.
I walked the mile and a half back to town, in the rain.
I took any opportunity to leave my pack behind, so it spent the day tucked beneath my bunk at the hostel. It was much easier going downhill, and without the extra weight. I jumped down to the trail, and crossed the bridge.
I passed through the town, and up the hill on the red brick sidewalk. The two-story white building on the crest of the hill, the first floor, was white speckled with gray cobblestones. A long wooden sign by the door:
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
The AT logo: the two letters merged, and intersected by a semi circle containing a simple render of a sunset over two mountain peaks. I really love that logo.
Inside the ATC headquarters, the staff here works to inform visitors about the trail, and they work to protect it, procuring funds, and through legislation, to maintain the land for public use, and preserve the nature.
They have a small space in the front for merchandise, shirts, hats, maps, and other trinkets. I saw some things I would’ve bought, if I wouldn’t have to carry it. Instead I just picked up a membership, and a guidebook, which has all the necessary information about the trail; miles, shelters, water sources, road crossings and nearby towns. They didn’t have the SoBo edition in stock, so instead I bought the NoBo version. I’d only need half of it, and later that night I would tear it in half, keep the front and set aside the portion to Maine, to send back home in the mail. All those ounces add up.
I spoke with the staff, and asked all the questions I could think of, ahead of walking into the woods for the coming months. The gave me advice, and eased a lot of my nerves. They said after I finish my walk, I’ll have to come back to finish the rest of the trail too.
“Well let me see if I finish one of these walks first, before I go planning the next one.” I said.
I checked out the 3D scale map of the trail and then I checked out the hiker lounge. Here thru-hikers can rest, call home, and get snacks for cheap. There’s also a hiker box, a free trade system, where hikers can put things they don’t need, extra food, extra batteries, unneeded gear, etc. and take anything out that they do need. Hiker boxes can usually be found in any hostel close to the trail, and sometimes you find really cool things, but usually you just get some extra snacks out of it. Also in the hiker lounge, was a bookshelf of binders filled with the portraits of all the hikers that made it to Harpers Ferry. Decades worth of pictures.
Harpers Ferry used to be the halfway point of the trail, but over time the point has moved farther north. Even still, Harpers Ferry is considered the psychological halfway point. The ones that made it this far, are in it for the long haul, and only accidents or tragedy will take them off the trail at this point.
I had my own picture taken by the sign out front. I signed my name for only the second time ever, as Ishkabibbel. And I spelled it wrong. I was the 60th section hiker to come through this year. The polaroid entered the binder, one of two or three, they expected to fill this year.
It was just a simple picture, in a plastic sleeve, in a binder on a shelf, but it felt significant.
I was part of it now, and I hadn’t even walked it yet.
There were a few other section hikers there, a family of three. A little girl, maybe 11 years old or so, and her parents. We talked for a bit, I learned they were heading south, on the trail tomorrow, same as me.
And then a thru hiker came in.
He dropped his pack on the floor and took a seat on the couch. It was kinda like a holy-shit-moment; like you’re the guy, and you’re doing the thing, the whole thing. And here we are in a shrine to the endeavor.
His trailname was Long Haul; he carried a lot of food, and kept up the habit. He’d started down in Georgia, on February 13th, the same day I started in Brooklyn. He was pretty reserved, answered the questions he was asked and didn’t say too much else. He left to put in some more miles, and a short while later another thru hiker showed up.
He signed his hiker photo, “Chef / Soggy Whopper.”
“You got two trailnames, dude?” I asked him.
“Yeah.” He said. “Chef was the first one, and more recently it’s becoming Soggy Whopper.”
“It’s definitely the better of the two.” I told him. (I would meet a lot of, ‘TrailName: Chef’s’, on the AT; apparently it’s one of those names you get from NoBos, so eager to give trailnames at the beginning of the hike, that if you just carry a couple packs of seasoning: “You must be Chef.”)
The origin of his newer TrailName, was that he had needed to resupply, restock his food, for the next few days on trail. And instead of going to a supermarket, and buying the standard hiker consumables, he decided to do his resupply at a Burger King. He packed out six Whoppers in his food bag, and stuffed it into his pack. The next day, all those Whoppers had melted and congealed into a meat and bread puddle of calories. And of course, he still had to eat it. (To this day, it's still one of my favorite TrailNames.)
Soggy Whopper had started his hike on February 19th. These were the early NoBos, far ahead of the pack. He’d been hiking today, since sunrise, at 6am. He’d hiked through the rain all morning for over a dozen miles, to reach Harpers Ferry. And he couldn’t have been in a better mood. He was enjoying life on the trail, pushing miles and gorging on town food. He was chasing adventure and simple living, and after the thru-hike was done, he’d be going into law school. I couldn’t think of any two things more opposite.
He asked if I wanted to hike some of the trail, right now, get my first taste of it. The ATC is located off a blue-blaze side trail off the AT. We followed the blue stripes, until they led back to the white stripes. Then followed those along the trail. From this side of it, you could barely even tell that there was a town on the other side the hill. The AT plunged straight into the green woodland.
Soggy Whopps still had his pack on, but he was quick. I just focused on keeping up. We stepped over rocks and boulders and around trees, all while to the immediate right of the trail, was a steep drop off. I didn’t expect the terrain to look so wild so close to town. But we looped around the peninsula, and back to main square.
He dropped his pack off at a hostel in town. And we spent the next hours exploring every shop on the main street. We went in for lunch at a bistro, and Soggy Whopper ordered one meal after another; entire meals with sides and everything. He wound up with four entrees, and like six sides, and these weren’t small portions either. But dude cleaned up. By the end there was one plate left and he took it to go.
I was awestruck. And suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
Hike and eat.
Soggy introduced me to some of the other hikers that had made it to town in the meanwhile. (I don’t know the stories behind their trailnames, so I’ll just give my best guess.) Spice Girl (obviously because she couldn’t stop singing “say you’ll be there,” which I mean, who can blame her?), and her boyfriend Brian (I believe he got this trailname, from his parents when he was born.), he’d come to visit her for a weekend on trail. An older guy, Hawk, (presumably with really good eyes.) according to him, he had yet to take a zero day. We met a woman named Purple Rain (a fan of Prince), and a guy named Rugby (gonna be honest, no idea on this one, maybe he was tackling people and ripping ears off. But it's anyone’s guess).
Soggy & Ish hit Harpers Ferry.
And then we parted ways.
We split off at the hostel, part of me wished I was staying there, just to see what craziness they would get up to.
I couldn’t believe how cool they all were, and immediately they treated me like one of their own. Soggy Whopper, he had this enthusiasm for life and grand pursuits. And he really rallied behind my goal to walk across the country, and showed me what it means to be HikerTrash, in the best possible way. I still wasn’t used to receiving anything other than skepticism and doubt, but all these hikers offered was support and encouragement. They had all walked a thousand miles so far, and just that morning had been soaked to the bone by a rainstorm, but they had this impervious spirit. They wouldn’t be demoralized by wet socks, and waterlogged feet. They were the most chill, easy going people, I’d ever met, and it would almost seem a contradiction, they were also the most driven and resilient. There’s not much room for ego, when you can’t even pack deodorant, I guess.
I would have to step up, to keep this kind of company.
I’d walked 5 more miles throughout the day. 286 total.
I returned to the hostel, anxious to be on my way. I practiced setting up the new tent I’d picked up in DC. I did my laundry, and I organized my gear, sorting out the stuff I wouldn’t take with me on the trail. Some things would be shipped home. Some things would be shipped ahead. And still other things, I would leave for the hiker box.
I had a long way ahead of me, and it would take everything I had to make it through.
But tomorrow I begin the Appalachian Trail.
And damn, if I wasn’t ready for it.
Or, as ready as I was gonna be.
I went to sleep that night, thinking of footsteps on the trail.
Right Foot. Left Foot . . .
Right Foot . . .
Left . . .