The good and the tough experiences work together to build strength, teach character, and provide clarity. The first hundred miles of part two has created a conflict inside of me…stronger is my desire for home, a feeling at war with my fierce resolve to see this journey all the way through. Knowing these disenchanting times would come before ever walking a mile of the AT makes them easier to understand, but not necessarily easier to endure. In myriad ways, part two has felt like a brand new experience beginning with pristine hiking shoes and a replacement backpack. The glassy clear water of Maine has been replaced by muddy or completely dry stream beds. The beloved trail is either crowded with day hikers who are slightly repulsed at times by a thru-hiker’s appearance after a few days without a shower or it is absolutely void of humans at all. One can go hours, even a day, without seeing another soul, a stark contrast to the northbound walk where familiar faces greeted me every few miles. A trail consistently lined with moose poop has been replaced by a trail full of ominously large piles of bear dung…and bears! My entire 1,300 mile hike has brought me humbly into the presence of seven bears…three of those have occurred in this hundred miles in only a single day entering the Shenandoah National Park. Bees are out in abundance and painfully let you know it. Furthermore, gone is the love/hate relationship one has with the boulders and rock climbs that define the northern AT; instead is the bittersweet combination of pointy, painful rocks and pleasantly graded trail.
Though times have been onerous as of late, there have been, as always, some magical moments permanently tattooed in my memory. For example was my proud surprise at the ease of the infamous “Rollercoaster”, a thirteen mile series of abrupt and pointless ups and downs (or PUDS, as we call them); after New Hampshire and Maine, it all feels pretty effortless! The opportunity to rewalk my very first mile out of Harpers Ferry was a surreal treat, so many flashbacks to day one as daddy and Clint left me alone in the West Virginia woods. The Blackburn AT Center on night one provided a cute, rustic hiker cabin at no cost, a screened porch with rocking chairs, the company of my first southbound hiker, and the former thru-hikers turned caretakers of the facility. Sodas, brownies, and story swapping was the theme of the night! In addition was the 75 degree cloudless afternoon spent sunning and napping on a ledge watching Virginians live their Sunday lives from 1,300 feet above. Then there was the joy of meeting two other long distance hikers in a shelter after a miserably rainy day of believing I was the only other human soul on trail and another surprisingly pleasant night of meeting thru-hiker Athena! We had the shelter to ourselves but enjoyed the hilarious company of a group of Korean campers who cooked authentic Korean deliciousness for dinner and invited us to the feast where I ate until I was blissfully full. It was an unforgettable night after a rainy, foggy, cold day on trail. Kind strangers who hear my story and offer hugs and admiration uplift downcast spirits. A hiker friend from my northbound trek showed up to surprise me with magic and forever memories cowboy camping by a campfire under the stars. Close interactions with ballsy deer are commonplace in the Shenandoah National Park; early morning moments watching an owl take flight and a pair of red-headed woodpeckers play tag through the trees, both bringing back memories of times past.
The string of windy, foggy, gloomy days can certainly wear a hiker down a bit. A sharp, uncomfortable pain in the leg can slow one down to further augment the despondent feelings. However, as the fog eventually clears, the picture that is revealed is suddenly made more beautiful and appreciation soars. If the stars in the nighttime sky only appeared once every fifty years, people would massively flock to admire them. Instead, they are forgotten as we tend to grow complacent about nature’s miracles. After days and days of cold rain and foggy views, the next sunny day will be a treasure. A mantra I try to remember when struggling is, “Never quit on a rainy day”. There are infinite ways to apply that phrase to so many situations in life. Yeah, it’s been a tough transition starting southbound, but the best things in life are those that challenge us the most. Gotta keep walking 932 more miles.
Addendum to my journal:
This hundred miles ended today in a moment my heart will always humbly cherish. The benevolence of a stranger, Fred, who randomly gifted me my own room at Big Meadows Lodge here in Shenandoah National Park. At my lowest point, the kindness bestowed upon me by Fred has uplifted and humbled me beyond words. Grateful that the trail has shown me kindness from strangers time and time again and restored my faith in humanity.
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