When my family left Damascus I was raring to go on my solo hike again. Our time together had been sweet, but I was itching to hike more than eight miles a day. I was also tempted to try to catch friends who had pulled ahead of me on the trail. So, I started out from the Grayson Highlands averaging 20 miles a day for five days straight, carrying a week’s worth of food so that I wouldn’t have to leave the trail to re-supply. This was a recipe for injury, and in the first day of hiking I wore deep blisters on my left foot, blisters that became infected as I walked more miles each day without taking a rest. Soon I became marked with that most embarrassing sign of a hiker who has pushed too hard: the limp.
I was not the only one who fell into the Virginia hiker speed trap. The lengthening days of spring and the gentler topography of southern VA lured many thru-hikers into going too far, too fast. When I hobbled into Pearisburg and the Woods Hole Hostel I ran into a traffic jam of injured hikers. My old friend Camaro was traveling with a group that called themselves “The Gimp Crew” for their various ailments: shin splints, twisted ankle, fluid on the knee. As for me, I could barely suppress the head of steam I’d built up. I felt compelled to keep moving despite the pain in my feet, to cover whatever ground I could with a limping, one-mile-an-hour pace. I go to the woods in large part to escape the rat race of civilization, and inevitably I find myself caught up in a race of another sort, measuring my hike by how far I go each day. This is a sad state of affairs for the thru-hiker, and the body informs us of our error by breaking down.
At last I forced myself to take a rest, walking a “nero” (almost zero miles) to the Captain’s Place where I pitched my tent and sat around restlessly, twiddling my thumbs and repeatedly talking myself down from the compulsion to keep hiking. The day of rest did me just enough good to resume hiking the next day without a limp. I was thrilled . . . I was eager . . . I woke up at 6 AM and charged through a drizzling rain for 17 miles only to slip on a wet rock and fall on my face, bashing my shin badly. You might think a fellow would learn, but even with a new limp and a swollen leg I still felt responsible to cover long miles so that I could get into town and have a doctor check out my injury. Two days later I made it to McAffee’s Knob and sat at the view brooding over my predicament. My ankle felt stiff and weak. There was a scraping sensation when I flexed my foot up and down. I began to imagine the worst: I’d made it over 700 miles on the Appalachian Trail, and a moment’s distraction and bad foot placement could send me home for good.
Pain has a way of ruling your mind. When a part of your body hurts badly it’s hard to see past it. You know in principle that the pain is temporary, that good days lie ahead, but at the moment it feels like it’s been there forever and will never go away. This was my state of mind as I hiked the ridgeline down to Daleville the next day, trying to govern my thoughts and believe the best for my shin. I was mostly losing the battle of thoughts when I looked up and saw Sunshine walking up the trail towards me. She’d taken off work and driven up from Asheville to surprise me. The sight of her smile coming towards me brought tears to my eyes.
That was a turning point in my hike. We got into town and had my ankle checked out: all clear, thank the Lord! We rested for a day and then slack-packed out of Daleville—my ankle felt stronger mile by mile. For three days we walked together, enjoying beautiful spring weather and the lovely woods that were sprouting with trillium and may apple. Quietly, to myself, I renewed my commitment to curb the urgency that pushes me on the trail; to slow down and take care of my body and mind. It’s a commitment I will break again, eventually, but perhaps over time I will learn and become what they call “mature.” For now, I am so thankful to be continuing my hike and to feel my body growing strong and mostly pain-free once more. I’m softer now: the passage through pain has worn down my emotional composure, and I find myself more easily tearing up when I talk to others about my hike. I know now what a fine balance this journey rests in, that it can be over in a moment and that each day is a grace and a gift unto itself.
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The Smoky Mountains are one of the highlight sections of the Appalachian Trail. In winter they can be one of the most difficult and dangerous sections if you hit them in bad weather. A planned rendezvous with my friend Spencer at Newfound Gap had me rushing as I entered the Park in early March, and I neglected to check the weather forecast (not that it would have dissuaded me going in). The morning I began climbing Shookstack Ridge began cool and foggy, but soon a cold wind was blowing across the ridge, whipping frozen popcorn snow in my face. I came up behind another hiker who, thinking he was alone, was loudly exclaiming about how hard the climb was. I caught up with him and had a nice conversation in which he informed me that the forecast was for five days of snow. I looked at his blue jeans and his bulky pack and asked, “You know how hard it can get up on the ridge?” He assured me that he was prepared for what might come, and we parted ways wishing each other luck.
This is the story of those seven days of hiking across the Smokies, some of the most challenging and rewarding days of my hike thus far.
April 17, 2013:
Experiences on the Trail are made richer by sharing them with people you love. That fact made this past weekend a highlight of my hike that I will carry with me forever.Last Thursday I was joined in Damascus, Virginia by Sunshine, my mom, and my brother (with his huskie Kaya) for an adventure on the AT. We staged our hike from the Lazy Fox Inn, sorting gear and distributing food for a three-day trek up to the Grayson Highlands. A heavy rainstorm serenaded us in sleep on Thursday night, but by Friday morning it was clearing into some of the most beautiful weather I have ever seen as we left Damascus and began climbing up the Appalachian Trail.
We walked through three days of idyllic Spring, following the Whitetop Laurel River (swollen from the recent rain) as we wound up through the hills outside of Damascus. We kept a leisurely pace, laying in a sunny field on the second afternoon and sleeping ourselves into a bit of sunburn. When the weather turned rainy atop the Grayson Highlands it only served to add a new aspect to our hike, shrouding the heath balds in a mysterious veil of fog. We all delighted in watching Kaya interact with the ponies there, first shivering with apparent nervousness and then greeting the little animals with equal curiosity and affection.
It was all too good to put into words. We walked down from the Highlands on Monday afternoon and rode bikes out of the clouds and into a sunny day down the Virginia Creeper Trail and back to Damascus. We celebrated with a cold dunk in the river behind the Lazy Fox, a toast of champagne, and a proper hiker pig-out at the Blue Blaze Cafe. The pleasure my family took in the hike and the wonder they experienced along the way produced some of the most vivid memories I will have from this long journey.
Now, as I sit in Mojo’s Cafe and prepare to resume my solo hike this afternoon, the weather outside is suited to my mood: gloomy, grey, rainy. It’s hard to go on alone after such a highlight experience, but I know that so much good awaits me. From here on out the Appalachian Trail will be entirely new to me—I’ve never walked a section of the AT from here to the end. I will watch Spring emerge along the way as I settle into a more typical hiker’s routine, planning my progress four and five days out, no longer meeting friends or family to hike along the way. And so excitement and hope mingle with melancholy as I gear up for the next stage of the hike. Here’s to the continuing journey and the steps already laid!
As is surely evident from previous posts, we’ve had our share of winter weather on the AT this year. Even after I took a two-week layover in Asheville this March I returned to my hike and was greeted immediately by a heavy snowstorm. One long morning climbing up to Sam’s Gap I cussed my way through a bitter wind whipping icy snow in my face and cutting through my layers. It’s times like that when you feel an illogical anger towards the Trail and the weather: you want someone/thing to blame for how hard it feels.
Fortunately, I’ve had a few friends here in the Southeast who joined me on my hike and kept me company through the harder sections. My bud Josh came out to hike an 18-mile day with me that turned into a 24-miler when we arrived at the shelter and found it full (and us without tents!). I hobbled into the Holiday Inn Express that night barely able to walk. My friend Brandon came out for what was supposed to be a mild, two-day hike in the Roan Highlands. We found the trail on Roan High Knob had become a treacherous ice chute where you could barely keep your footing. We slid our way up and down the mountain and spent a cold night packed in the highest shelter on the AT, thankful for its four walls and door. And of course, Sunshine has been a constant companion and support, meeting me on the trail whenever she has a few days off work.
Sometimes it seems like my most relentless companion has been Old Man Winter. My trail name “Frost” became a running joke among trail friends—perhaps I invited this fate on us. One day it all changed at once, though. I awoke at Vango Abbey Hostel with my trail friends Ember, Passover and Lucky, and we walked into a cold morning with snow on the ground and thick ice coating the trees. The day slowly warmed, and when the air temperature hit the right point ice began calving off the trees and piling up on the ground. It made me think of the Robert Frost line “Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away, you’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.” By the afternoon we were walking under blue skies and stripping down to t-shirts. We’ve had warm weather for the most part since then, and I found myself a bit caught out with the wrong gear, all of a sudden regretting my insulated boots and zero-degree down sleeping bag.
But I have been oh-so-thankful for the spring weather and the fine breeze that often spells the warm days. As Sunshine once described to me, we find ourselves dropping in and out of Spring as we hike the Trail. Up on the ridge it’s still bare, winter woods, but every time we come down to a low gap or into town we see more buds on the trees and flowers pushing up from the ground. It all feels like such a gift: even my farmer’s tan is a mark of pride.
Many people come to the Appalachian Trail looking to leave a mark. They distinguish themselves by hiking faster or longer than others, by carrying the least amount of weight or the most, or more commonly by scrawling their name and message on the shelter walls (we Purist hikers frown at this!). As most people find, the Trail ends up leaving more of a mark on us, revealing our character and personality in new ways and impacting our life and outlook. The impact the Trail has is evident in the number of people who place burial markers along the way. Between Watauga Lake and Damascus, Virginia the ridgeline is peppered with small cemeteries and markers. Some are old family plots; some commemorate hikers who loved the AT. The most memorable marker for old hermit Uncle Nick Grindstaff reads simply: “Born Dec. 26, 1851 – Died July 22, 1923 – Lived alone, suffered alone, died alone.”
We’ve been hiking a long time now. Two months of life on the Trail has already shaped me in ways that I expected and ways I didn’t. I am most comfortable moving at a walking pace now–highways and traffic unsettle me. I’m a few pounds lighter, and my white chicken legs are strapped with more sinew and muscle than ever. I’d like to say that I’m a more patient, grounded person, but I’ll leave that for other people to comment on. It’s hard to believe that I’ve only made a quarter of the journey. There is so much time left and Trail to discover, and I feel the excitement of that thought flutter in my gut like happy butterflies.
This is the boot I used during the worst of the winter weather. The waterproof liner was really put to the test in the Smokies as we hiked through one day of knee-deep snow drifts followed by a day of cold rain that turned the trail into a creek bed. At the end of day two, my socks were only mildly damp, which in my opinion was a great success given the conditions.
The Snow Junkie is built with an extra insulating liner which is great for winter sports and for keeping my toes warm on this hike (I have poor circulation in my digits), but the warmth of this boot would be overkill for most hikes here in the Southeast (you don’t want to sweat in your boot any more that you want rain running into it!). I was grateful to have this shoe when winter was doing its worst, but as soon as the days began to warm I was glad to switch to a lighter, trail-runner shoe.
When hiking in freezing weather, expect that your boots will freeze overnight. Even with a waterproof membrane the boot materials and laces will get impregnated with water and freeze overnight. So, before you go to sleep make sure you loosen the laces and flex the boot out so that your foot can fit in the following morning when the shoe is frozen stiff!
It’s often said that the best part of hiking the Appalachian Trail is the people you meet along the way. Starting my hike in early winter provided me an ideal opportunity to test that out. There wasn’t a swarm of people attempting to thru-hike at that time, as there would be in March and April, just a smattering of us crazies out there braving the winter weather to get an early start. The intimacy of winter hiking meant fewer people to talk with and quicker conversations and friendships when you found them.
When I arrived in North Carolina I was getting to know some of the other hikers that were traveling at my pace. By the time I entered the Smokies I’d connected with a small group of four other thru-hikers who I really enjoyed. We would try to push through the Smoky Mountains together, and it was a good thing to have company; because the Smokies were being blasted with a winter storm just as walked in. We were about to face the most difficult conditions on the Trail thus far.
Conversation with Mot while eating ice off the trees like a snow-cone:
Frost: “How’s it taste?”
Mot: “That’s the best snow I’ve had all day.”
Frost: “We’ll call it Smoky Mountain Shaved Ice.”
Mot: “I’ve heard it’s not healthy to eat snow for some reason. I guess you have to die of something.”
Frost: “Yeah, you have to live of something, too.”