I can’t believe that over 300 miles have been hiked since my last post! The summer days are growing longer, and time is flying by at an ever-increasing clip. I am finishing up writing/editing this post on an Econolodge bathroom floor in Harper’s Ferry, WV as my parents sleep. They drove in from Cleveland to help me celebrate the completion of the first half of my Appalachian Trail journey. Harper’s Ferry is a gorgeous little town along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, steeped in Civil War and slavery history (the area vacillated between supporting the Union and Confederacy several times). The city is about 70 miles short of the actual midway point, but it is considered the psychological halfway mark.
I am thrilled that I got to share even a small part of this experience with my parents. They met several of my closest trail companions and my mom and I went on a wonderful short trek up to Weverton Cliffs, the first time we have ever hiked together!
So much has happened recently that I feel a vague anxiety about what to share. There’s too much! Here are the major highlights. I also plan to get a post up soon with a bunch of pics and videos that will further flesh out my first 3 months on the trail.
I currently average between 18-21 miles a day and take a day of rest about once a week (called a Zero Day if you cover no ground, or a Nero if you hike a couple miles into/out of town (or a Beero if you drink all day)). I’m pleased with my steadily increasing rate and I don’t beat myself up if my mileage takes a dip during a week of tough terrain or harsh weather. I’m working on listening to my body more closely than I have in years. Sometimes my spirit is willing to push on, but the bruising on my hips insists otherwise or my feet are flat out spent. Thru hiking is a marathon, not a sprint. If covering 5 fewer miles today means I’ll wake up 50% more refreshed tomorrow, so be it.
Expecting to complete a pre-determined number of miles regardless of trail conditions, personal needs, and weather constraints is not a hike that I am interested in. Important Life Lesson: Context is important, always.
During the first couple hundred miles on the trail, there is an earnest feeling of accomplishment in conquering the elemental challenges. Hiking through a day-long thunderstorm while maintaining pace and strategizing to keep gear as dry as possible feels badass. Summiting a mountain drenched in sweat, gasping for air, knowing that I properly managed my limited water supply lends to a primal feeling of capability. Simply tending to the obligatory chafes and cuts provides a certain level of self-care satisfaction. Given modest tools, I can keep myself alive in the wilderness. This is a far departure from where I was a year ago when I feared that I’d get lost on a 6 mile solo hike with map in hand on a clearly signed trail.
Over 1000 miles in, though, the challenges are decidedly less glamorous. The hard days are harder and the aches take up longer term residence in my muscles and bones. At this point in the journey, you know that you are physically capable of completing the remaining miles. Whether or not you make it all the way is a matter of how long you can endure living without your creature comforts. I’m still fully committed to completing my thru hike, but it’s not a stretch to see why people are cracking.
My most challenging stretch thus far hit about three weeks ago when we were slammed with several days of flood rains. No matter how nice your rain jacket, no matter how thick your boots, if you’re walking through rain for 10 hours a day you’re going to arrive at camp drenched. I don’t think my shoes and socks could have held more water if I was actively wading through a lake. I was wearing a temporary pair of shoes at the time, in between my waste of money, highly recommended, Brooks Cascadia trail runners that tore to shreds in a matter of weeks and the reliable Merrill Moabs that I’m currently sporting. The combination of mediocre shoe fabric rubbing against my sopping wet socks for dozens of miles caused raw chafing on 9 of my toes. I applied new moleskin bandages morning and night to prevent the final layers of skin from sheering off and bleeding, but the persistent wet conditions sloughed the wrappings off in no time. My pace took a major hit as I was feeling burning pain with every step. I had to verbally will myself onward during each day’s final hours. “You can do this. Keep going. Don’t stop. Keep going. It’s just water. Keep going. You won’t be wet forever. Keep going. Don’t stop. You can do this.” Et cetera.
My slowness meant that shelters were jam packed by the time I arrived. Tall Boy and Small Step thankfully convinced their shelter mates one night to make some space for me, but I wasn’t able to completely avoid setting up and breaking down my tent in the rain. I have been mentally stepping through the calisthenics necessary to erect my tent in a downpour since before I left for the trail. I was able to (fairly successfully) set up the rainfly and footprint first to prevent the body of the tent from becoming fully soaked. I would have given myself a high five if I wasn’t concerned with speeding through the process and continuing to move lest my sopping body veer towards hypothermia before I could change into dry clothes. (Note: ALWAYS keep a dry outfit to change into at night when backpacking, even if it means wearing cold, wet clothes in the morning).
In my haste, I failed to realize that the tent was on top of several roots big enough to jab my back through my inflatable sleeping pad. This was also the night my pad sprung a leak, forcing me to re-inflate it 4 times to prevent my sleeping bag from sagging to the floor of the tent and absorbing too much rain and condensation. Between dealing with my pad, wiping the puddles forming in all four corners of the tent, adjusting my position to avoid the roots, and listening to the rain pound down, I got maybe 2 cumulative hours of sleep that night and packed up the next morning to do it all again. No mincing words on this one; it was miserable.
One particularly memorable morning during the storm, Small Step and I had to make two crosses over a stream raging with flood waters up to our hips. We balanced on slippery rocks and branches to make it across but other hikers apparently chose to bite the bullet and ford the stream against the current. This dangerous manuevering was equally thrilling and tense.
The flipside of the perpetual endurance challenge is that the high points are even higher. I hiked over McAfee Knob, one of the most iconic AT stops. Having your McAfee Knob picture taken is, like, a Thing. People like to get right up to the edge to dangle their legs off. I got as close as I could without wanting to vomit or feel like my knees might buckle and sending my falling to my death. Historically, I’m not a lover of heights. But I’ve come a looooooooong way.
A few weeks back, I was invited to spend the weekend at Small Step’s family lake house in Maryland. Her parents and siblings gather there every summer and her parents were gracious enough to drive nearly 3 hours south to retrieve Small Step, Tall Boy, Washbear (reunited with us after a month apart), and me up from Shenandoah National Park. With coffee and Krispy Kreme waiting in the car, no less! We spent a glorious afternoon relaxing on their dock, soaking up the clear sky sun, and occasionally jumping into the pleasantly chilly lake. I went for a wild tubing ride tethered to a jet ski driven by Small Step’s brother Matt who hiked with us for a couple of days earlier in June. Also, mounds of barbecued chicken and corn on the cob for the win. This excursion is exemplary of why I avoid cementing my trail schedule too firmly in place. You never know when an unexpected opportunity for fun or adventure will pop up. I feel incredibly privileged to have spent time with the Schmittle family.
For anyone thinking about hiking the trail, know this: Virginia IS NOT flat, nor is it a cake walk. You’ll hear many fairy tales to the contrary, but they’re largely wishful thinking as far as I’m concerned. You may not be completing 3000 foot ascents as frequently as in previous states, but mountains still factor in regularly. There are stretches with slight elevation change, particularly in the Shenandoahs. but they are often riddled with jagged rocks, meaning you’ll wake up the next morning feeling like someone took a hammer to your soles regardless. Although Virginia offers many many memorable sites over its 500+ AT miles, the terrain and visuals do become monotonous after a while. The state concludes with The Roller Coaster, a 13.5 mile stretch of back-to-back steep ascents and descents. It kicked my ass.
I wonder if this dissonance between Virginia’s reputation and reality has led to the recent influx of people Yellow Blazing (getting car rides to skip sections of the trail, named for the yellow road lines as opposed to the white blazes you follow in the woods), slackpacking (hiking with a substantially lighter day pack and having a hostel or helper meet you down the line with the rest of your gear), taking shortcut side trails, or flat out ending their hikes. In any case, the number of fellow thru hikers has noticeably declined.
That’ll do it for now! Apropos of nothing, here is a video of a lovely field I walked through at sunset that felt quintessentially American.