As I begin this blog, it's about on Saturday, and I'm sitting on the basement couch of my parents' house in
Our first night in Millinocket was a Friday. Saturday we wasted and Sunday my parents arrived with the shuttle home. Both days the mountain was closed. We were hoping for Monday to summit, but late on Sunday we got the word it was a no-go. There had been a substantial amount of snow and ice dropped up on Big K and I suppose the park was trying to allow it to melt. We again began to consider all our options. The latest we could wait around was Thursday. The weather forecast did not seem promising, and none of the locals seemed to be optimistic about our chances. Hikers had been piling up in town for days - waiting, hoping, praying. As for myself, the only part of me that still even cared about the mountain was that tiny idea of getting a picture at the top. Just a stupid picture, yet one with so much gravitas. From your first thru-hiker steps in
The drive was basically mind-numbing (as any 18-hour interstate drive would be) except for an unplanned detour through
Christiansburg happens to be nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, not too far a drive from most points on the trail between Pearisburg and Daleville. Coincidentally, Shawn had missed some of this section, including McAfee's Knob - known as "the most photographed place on the trail" - and (more importantly) The Homeplace Restaurant, a magnificent family style all-you-can-eat buffet and a long-awaited gorging spot for most thru-hikers. What better way to celebrate the end of our seven month saga? With our now well-conditioned legs, we flew up the 3.5 miles to the Knob, passing many a day hiker. As if we weren't day hiking ourselves. And honestly, I don't think we were. I had an incredibly surreal feeling as we headed down the trail. I had hiked this small section many times in the past, but I had never thought of it as "part of the AT." After I traversed this same 3.5 miles in June, they took on a whole new significance. Yes, I knew the miles well, but I had never hiked them wearing a 35lb. pack. I had never hiked them in 100 degree weather. I had never hiked them on the way to Maine. This trail wasn't just a fun way to spend an afternoon outdoors. It was now part of my thru-hike - a small part of a much greater whole. Back then I was hiking with Freefall, someone I had known since Georgia and had become great friends with. And as we stopped to peruse the trail registers, I saw our entries from June 4th and remembered that miserable sauna of a day, and it left me speechless. I still don't know if I can quite wrap my head around it. We saw the names of all the other hikers we had met along the way, some not until Vermont or New Hampshire, marveling at how close we had been and never knew, or at how far they had been yet somehow caught up. None of these other "day hikers" knew any of this. They had no connection to the trail (I assume, anyway). There was no added relevance in the steps they took.
I suppose that is a lot of the allure of thru-hiking - to feel like you're part of something greater than yourself. The trail is its own microcosm. It's a 2,176 mile long society. I can probably rattle off a bunch of rationalized reasons for why I decided to take on a thru-hike, but I think a lot of it probably was an uncanny longing to experience this separateness.....set apart-ness.....exclusivity. I'm not sure I can put a label on it. Yes, I whined and complained a lot, and yes, there were many days when I honestly thought "What the hell am I doing?", but even on the worst of days I think the thing that kept me and many other thru-hikers going is the knowledge that what we were doing was something spectacular, if for no other reason than that so few people have actually done it. It might sound pretentious, but I think it's true. Every thru-hiker has a totally different experience on the trail, but they always have one thing in common - they're hiking from Georgia to Maine. Now I can begin to see why so many people decide to spend their whole lives on or around the trail. It can be a hard thing to give up - to go from being a part of this secret society, to being just another grunt somewhere in the "real world."
Besides this club mentality, the world of the AT seems to be one of humanity and serendipity. A world where hikers become best friends in a matter of days, where people are constantly depending on the kindness of strangers, and the strangers are happy to oblige. When you strip life down to the bare essentials (food, clothing, shelter, hiking) a person’s actions can impact you drastically and immediately. That’s not to say that everyone you encounter on the trail is all peaches and cream. But the bad experiences are mostly transitory, while the good ones stick to your mind (and your ribs if you’re lucky). I can’t even describe how just a cooler full of soda and freeze pops can make a dubious day worthwhile. I’m a big believer in “everything happens for a reason,” and never have I seen it more evident than on the AT. Whether it’s hiking through a snow storm to find a miraculous shuttle and dirt cheap hotel, or wandering clueless into a random town only to have a family invite you into their home – stuff just seems to work out on the trail. As long as you have faith that it will, which I think is a key element. So many hikers have a preconceived notion of what their journey should be like. They try to plan and control – and then they usually quit. If you can’t learn to be flexible, then thru-hiking is not for you. A good motto for my hike would probably be “I’ll/We’ll figure it out.” There’s nothing wrong with making a plan, but plans change fast, and you’ve got to be able to go with the flow or you’ll sink fast. Things will work themselves out if you let them. There’s so much I would have missed – people, places, experiences – if I had put my nose to the ground and stuck to my mileage every day. I wouldn’t trade any of the last seven months for all the Dr. Pepper in the world.
Speaking of things working out.....way back in April, Shawn spent a week or so down in Hot Spring, NC doing some work for a couple of guys (Frank and Brian) who run The Duckett House Inn, a B&B and small sorghum farm. He did such a good job that they invited him to come back in October to visit and help harvest all that sorghum, which they turn into some delicious syrup, and I could tag along. As it turned out, the harvest was the weekend after we got back to VA, so after a couple days of visiting, we hopped back in the car for a little epilogue to our big adventure. It turned out that a lot of the harvesting had already been done by the time we got there, but we were still able to help out shucking the cane stalks, collecting and bottling the syrup, and generally cleaning up. In return, we got to spend a nice romantic weekend at a bed and breakfast, giving ourselves a little decompression time before easing back into rigors of being productive members of society. After another slight detour through Pigeon Forge and good ol' Gatlinburg (how could I resist?!) we returned to Christiansburg, before Shawn sadly had to rent a car bound for Louisiana so we could both figure out how to make some cash and make our next moves. And I mean "moves" figuratively and literally. I've decided that as soon as my finances allow, I am getting out of dodge and making for that flat delta land, where Shawn and I can make a real go of this crazy little thing called 'love'. I can't wait, for so many reasons.
Which brings me back to this basement couch. It is now about 1:30pm on Monday afternoon. I told you this post wouldn't be fast. I'm currently awaiting a phone call informing me whether I've aquired a position as a cash office clerk at Virginia Tech. Even if the answer is 'no', I've still got my good ol' standby job of cashiering at Au Bon Pain. Sitting on this couch, essentially being in the exact same place I was before I left, is sometimes strange and sometimes frustrating. The trail often feels like another dimension. Or like a dream. I can hardly believe that it all actually happeend. But deep down I know that I'm not really in the same place. Those months were real, and they were life-changing. When I set off on my AT thru-hike, I had absolutely no idea what would happen when I finished - no plans whatsoever - but I was confident that in the many months to follow, something would come up, be figured out, or present itself. And lo and behold something did. Like I said, stuff just seems to work out on the trail.