With Ponies to Spare

I hiked 25 miles into Daleville, VA yesterday. This lands me near 730 miles, 1/3 of the way through the trail. Apologies for the recent lack of posting. I often have the intention of working on the blog at night in my Notes app so that I can copy/paste the content cinto WordPress when I have signal, but, well, I pass out.

Your circadian rhythms change out here. The rise and fall of the sun become a powerful force on your wakefulness. As the spring days grow longer, there are more hikable hours, leading to a general increase in exhaustion by the time I roll into camp. I like to leave myself about an hour and a half to set up camp and eat before crawling into my tent or shelter spot for the night. (I’m about 80% Tent Life/20% Shelter Life, there are major detractors and devotees of each.) I’ve miraculously kept up with my journaling nearly every night, though I frequently fall asleep midsentence and wake up hours later to finish the thought. Darkness hits around 8:45 these days, and the tug of sleep wins soon after. Journaling and reading (onto part 2/5 of my dissected copy of IT; sooo goood!) and blogging are an near-impossible order most nights. Most importantly, gotta save some time to enjoy the sights.

Small Step’s photo of me journaling by headlamp.
 

These last few weeks have been jam packed, here are some major highlights.

The 500 mile mark day took me through the Grayson Highlands, one of the best hikes I’ve ever been had. If magic exists, that day is proof enough for me. Sunshine broke after days of thunderstorms and the fog cleared to reveal alpine vegetation and scatters of rock set against the rolling hills of Virginia. 

When I was a little boy I spent countless days playing in a creek near my house, the rock hopping and tree swinging adventures in my head much grander than reality. For some reason, this particular hike felt like the actualization of my imagined childhood expeditions. I remembered parts of my younger self–in particular, who I thought I was capable of being–that I haven’t taken off the mental shelf in years. I ended the day enamored with myself and my tenacity. I know we’re not supposed to say nice things like that about ourselves lest we sound conceited, but I guarantee Child Creek Walker Me would burst with excitement if he saw what Thru Hiker Me is up to now. It feels good to wind up being your own hero. 

Near the 500 mile mark.
YOh, and Grayson Highlands has wild ponies. Wild Ponies! With babies!! They were introduced to the area in the 60s to help control plant overgrowth. You’re not “supposed” to interact with them but they come right up to you and I’m only human. Some people pack in carrots to share. I was worried I wouldn’t run into any ponies, but they were everywhere. My favorites were the ones whose manes looked like 80’s hair band Halloween wigs. They’ve been known to suckle the sweat off shelter dwellers’ exposed socks and hair at night. Magical! I watched one nearly kick a dog’s skull in when it got too close and wouldn’t stop barking. That sure would have put a different spin on the day. 


Last weekend, Tall Boy rented a car and I rode along with Small Step and Joules back to Damascus for Trail Days. It’s the biggest annual festival of the AT season with current thru hikers shuttling in from all points of the trail, reunions of past hiking classes, and hundreds of general festival goers. I’ve heard that the town population spikes from around 900 to over 3000 for the weekend. Vendors present table after table of enticing gear. It’s fun to windowshop and see what’s hot on the market. I can always find lighter weight options and more optimal tools, but this stuff is ex.pen.sive. and I’m on a limited budget so it’s important to be smart with purchases.

Representatives from major gear companies show up to repair or alter equipment for free. I was feeling a stabbing pain in my right shoulder, so Osprey (makers of my pack, with which I’ve largely had a great experience) restitched my hip belt so it can be further tightened to transfer more pack weight to my hips. Joules brought his 5 year old Deuter pack to the company’s tent expecting some assistance with a handful of inevitable shabby areas and they handed him the brand new model of his pack on the spot, no quesgions asked! Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. Companies do this to curry favor and reputation points amongst the AT community and hot damn does it work. 

Other daytime festivities included a parade that was literally rained on, a hiker talent show, foot baths and massages provided by local church volunteers, seeking shelter during rain, seminars, an all you can eat pancake breakfast, a nap, and ample opportunities for ice cream and funnel cakes. Hundreds of tents were set up in Tent City, spreading deep into the dense Appalachian forest as far as the eye could see.  Throughout the day, there was a call and response style schtick of someone bellowing an animalistic caw or yelp and receiving a wave of response cries from elsewhere in the woods. This played into the larger Tent City motif of embracing and releasing your inner wild nature. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes a bit forced. 

Joules with his new pack, on top of the world.
Tent City campsite shared by Tall Boy, Joules, Small Step, Blaze, Huggy Bear, Honey Badger, and Two Socks.

Trail Days after sundown was a whole different beast. Part sincere guitar circle, part hiker Woodstock, part psychedelic tribal rave, almost completely white, it’s one hell of a party if you’re down. Several areas in the woods were designated to different hiking groups (fraternities of sorts, including Camp Riff Raff and Camp Wonderland) who lavishly decorate them and foster different communal vibes. Some people got very into a firepit drumming and chanting circle (which you’ll hear in the video below), but badass fire poi spinning stole the show for me. 

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In case you can’t read the subcaption on the sign: “We’re all here because we’re not all there”. Love it.

This will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with festival culture, but in the hopes of being true to the experience it should be said that drinks and drugs flow freely at Trail Days. Not that everyone need partake by any means, and it’s not a forceful environment, this is just a deeply rooted part of the culture. I’ll keep this post PG in the interest of future employers who may be reading (Hey All! Thanks for getting this far!), but take me out for fried chicken some time and you can have the R-rated director’s cut with full commentary. 

Overall, Trail Days was a major success. I had a blast with my crew and ran into way more familiar faces from my first two months on the trail than expected. I’m grateful for everything I experienced, even if some elements of the late night raging were too bro-y for my tastes. I walked away with a lot to think about in terms of how men represent their masculinity in spaces with a sense of tribal order, because that is how my brain works. The lights in the trees were real pretty, too. 

Okay. Cool. This post catches me up to my most recent week (starting Monday 5/22) which I’d love to write about right now, but there’s too much to share and I need to enjoy more town food. It was a week worthy of its own post anyway. Grueling flood-condition weather, precarious maneuvers, dizzying overlooks, a deeper understanding of the psychological trail experience, and new thresholds of chafed skin await.  

So cheers until next time! Here are some teasers:

 

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