As I leave North Carolina behind me and enter Virginia, I start to contemplate how the Appalachian Trail has changed my outlook on life.
Before I begin, some of you have asked how I charge my iPhone on the trail. For one, I keep it in airplane mode most of the day so it doesn’t lose much charge. Second, I have an Anker battery pack that will charge my phone seven times. When I get to towns and hostels I make sure I’m all juiced up!
If you missed it in the last post here is my latest video as the snow returns to punish me:
I woke up at dawn and packed up my tent. I was stealth camping so it was cool to watch my campsite transform back to nature as if I had never been there.
I saw only two people as I hiked, both traveling south. The first was a hunter who passed me just as I left camp. The second was a SOBO (southbound) thru-hiker named Juicebox. She had started her hike the year before but started getting stress fractures after 1,000 miles and had to postpone her journey until now. It was a somber reminder to pay attention to my body and not push myself so much. After all, I’m only one-fifth of the way through.
Nevertheless I did push myself. The town of Damascus, Virginia, was only 20 miles away and the weather was too nice to slow down. It seemed silly to spend the night in my tent or a shelter when town was so close.
The terrain was very easy as I followed a ridge running a straight course toward Virginia. The trees were mostly oak and beech with some white pine saplings reaching for the canopy of deciduous competitors. I could see farm fields in the valley beneath the ridge throughout day.
To break up the monotony of the trail, I started listening to an audiobook. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, was shorter than I expected and I finished it before the day was through. It was quite interesting as the protagonist searches for his personal legend and the universe seems to rise up to help him fulfill his dreams. As I hiked through the woods I felt a strange parallel to the book as I walk alone, searching for meaning beneath the trees. As the book said, the past and future are of little importance compared to the present.
Here and now I am in the woods of Tennessee and will never again experience this moment. I tried to appreciate the present and all of the gifts the universe has given me. Even the simplest pleasures like the brush of soft needles on my skin as I passed a white pine sapling made me smile.
Near the end of my afternoon, I left Tennessee in the past and Virginia became my present. This is the longest state on the Appalachian Trail–about 550 miles, a quarter of the trail. It was a nice milestone to pass.
A few miles later I reached Damascus, VA. It’s a much talked about trail town for reasons I’m not entirely sure. It was very pretty with a nice river meandering through. I headed for the Woodchuck Hostel that was recommended by Juicebox. It was here that I ran into Transformer, Nomad, and Willow. They were surprised to see me and almost didn’t recognize me with my new pack. They were delighted to discover that I no longer go by Danny, but am now known by my trail name, Crazy Horse.
I arrived just in time to catch a ride to a wonderful place known as Pizza Plus. It is here that one can eat as much pizza, cheese sticks, and salad as they like for the low price of $7.99. I ate with Nomad, Transformer, and Willow as well as Peaks, Palio, and Skid. Our ride to the joint was a one-way service so we had to walk back to the hostel. Most of the others decided to go check out the grocery store next door but I headed back. As I started walking along the road, almost immediately a car stopped and asked if I needed a ride. I was very grateful as the grey-haired man drove me back to the hostel. Funny how the universe helps me out!
My knee is a bit sore from two 20-mile days in a row. I’m planning to take it easy tomorrow with just a half-day but Transformer is trying to convince me to take a zero. We shall see.
Day’s Mileage: 20.0
Total Miles Hiked: 478.4
Remaining Miles: 1,721.3
Breakfast at Woodchuck Hostel was delicious: scrambled eggs, hard boiled eggs, cereal, blueberry waffles, and home fries. I definitely got my money’s worth at this hostel—beds with linens, hot breakfast included, friendly owner, great price. Unfortunately for Transformer and Nomad, someone snored so loudly they had to move to the porch in the middle of the night to get some sleep. My ear plugs worked wonders, apparently.
It started to rain as I walked through downtown Damascus. I stopped in a few stores to stay dry. I bought a new rain cover because my old cover didn’t fit very well on my new Osprey pack. Before leaving town I popped in for lunch at Mojos Cafe. I had a pulled pork sandwich which was good but I wished it was bigger; I always want more food!
Back in the rain I headed away from town on the AT which also merged with the Virginia Creeper Trail. This trail follows the old railroad right-of-way dating back to the 1880s and is now a popular biking route. Eventually the AT diverged and I was back in the woods. I met another hike, Score, and we chatted a bit but he was too fast for me and went on ahead. I was trying to take it easy on my knee and only do 16 miles today at an easy pace. My knee was sore but the compression sleeve seemed to help.
The rain let up for a bit but would return as sprinkles now and again all day. It was my first full day in Virginia and I could already see why they call it the Virginia Blues. The trail wasn’t very exciting and the scenery seemed the same. The excitement of the first month on the trail, the Smoky Mountains, crossing state lines, it was all behind me now. Now I had the long state of Virginia ahead of me with not a lot to look forward to in the near future. Hence why thru-hikers call it the Virginia Blues since the monotony starts to set in.
I started thinking about my life and about the themes from The Alchemist. What is my personal legend? What was I doing out on this trail? Did I need to hike four more months or was one enough? Then I thought of the lyric from the song “Me and Bobby McGee.”
It goes: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
When you have nothing to lose, taking chances is so much easier and there’s less fear of failure. I then started to think about how humans place so much value on so many things when none of it really matters in the end. I used to get stressed when things didn’t go the way I planned, or I got in an argument over something, or got mad at someone because I placed so much value on the good outcomes. Society teaches us to value money or careers or certain life events. Society teaches us morals but even those are relative. Thus, I can choose what to place value on in my own life.
I guess I realized that since nothing really matters except what I choose to value, I should choose wisely. In the present I’ve got all I need: shelter, food, water, and clothing. I’m in nature and even when I’m freezing in knee-deep snow or in the pouring rain or blazing sun, I’m here and I’m happy. A simple life is so much better. It’s funny how I don’t even think about or miss all the material things I left at home. I can’t even remember all of my belongings. This is what walking alone in the woods does to the brain…I start thinking way too much!
Anyway, eventually I made it to Lost Mountain Shelter. There ended up being seven of us guys there. The rain kept sprinkling on and off. Dehydrated spaghetti and some of Lindsey’s old Easter chocolate made up my dinner. Most of us decided to take a risk and not hang our food bags. I’m not worried about bears; it’s the mice I don’t want chewing through my bag.
Day’s Mileage: 16.5
Total Miles Hiked: 494.9
Remaining Miles: 1,704.8
When I lived in the city and had a desk job, I used to get so upset about things like traffic. I let people irritate me and get under my skin and I got stressed out when things didn’t go as planned or go my way. This morning at about 5:30 AM, two of the guys in the shelter decided to wake up, pack up, make breakfast, converse loudly, and eventually go about their day as if no one else was in the shelter, let alone still sleeping.
Later that morning at a more reasonable hour, one of the other shelter mates remarked how irritated he was that the early-birds were so loud and disrespectful of the rest of us. I remarked that this hike has helped me to let things roll off my back. I said, “When it rains, I could get angry and upset that I have to hike in such shitty weather, or I could just accept the rain for what it is and not let it ruin my day.” He replied that this is true, but you can’t control the weather. I replied, “you also can’t control people”. It’s funny to think how irritated I might have been at the morning roosters several years ago, but today I didn’t let them bother me. After all, it’s only rain.
In shorts and a tee, I set out into the chilly morning. It soon warmed up as I hiked up to Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia. Along the way I listened to Carrie Fisher’s book, Wishful Drinking, read by the author herself. It was a quick listen and pretty amusing. It’s sad that both her and her mother died.
The weather was nice and the terrain pretty. The hike up the mountain wasn’t bad and the views were spectacular. I was in the famed Grayson Highlands. Meadows sloped down the valley with distant mountains poking above the clouds. To top it off, wild ponies grazed next to the trail. I stopped at a shelter with a beautiful view and had lunch. A hungry pony licked the salt off my hands and arm, nibbling gently.
I tried something new for lunch. In the last town I had bought tomato paste in a tube and spread that on a tortilla with some cheddar cheese and pepperonis. It was a little pizza burrito and it tasted amazing. Of course most things taste great when you’re constantly famished.
The views continued as I hiked on. It was like something out of Lord of the Rings: giant rocks in the middle of these wide fields with nearly 360 views of the surrounding countryside. It sprinkled a bit on the way down but a little rain never hurt anyone. I passed a lot of day hikers and families on Easter break. They would ask me how far or how long to the top of the mountain or the shelter but my concept of distance and time is so distorted now. A mile is not far to me but I could see the disappointment in their eyes when I would say, “only another mile or so.” A mile is so short to me these days!
I planned to take it easy and only hike 16 miles and by the last few my knee was hurting. I reached Wise Shelter where two older women were already set up. Their names were Helper and Second Chance. The latter had hiked 1,000 miles last year and had to leave the trail for a death in the family. She was out here again giving it a second try. They were very friendly and talkative. Helper, on the other hand, should have been named Helpless. She constantly was asking me very basic questions about the trail; I do not have high hopes for her making it very far.
Some of the guys from the night before passed me to go camp a little ways farther. The weather was so nice at this point I was tempted to keep going. But I listened to my body and stayed put.
With the shelter to ourselves, I talked with the women about our lives and such. I told them how I didn’t have a job at the moment but I like traveling and the freedom to do the things I want to do when I can still do them. They were very supportive and were glad I figured this out at my age rather than later in life. It’s nice to hear things like that from our elders. I may not quite know what my personal legend is or even what the hell I’m doing out here in the woods let alone what I’ll do after the trail, but right now, life is good, plain, and simple.
Day’s Mileage: 17.5
Total Miles Hiked: 512.4
Remaining Miles: 1,687.3
As soon as I hit the trail it began to rain. Not hard but the wind was gusting at 25+ mph so it was a constant, blowing rain. The temperature was in the 40s and it felt cold. My shorts got soaked and I had to stop to put on rain pants. My gloves were packed away somewhere and my hands were numb. It’s only rain, right? I was getting a bit worried about potential hypothermia or frostbite on my hands at the very least. If the rain kept up I might have to stop somewhere to stay warm.
Surprisingly the rain stopped after a few hours and the sun came out. I saw few people as I hiked. I feel a bit out of touch from the world. I haven’t had reliable cell service since Damascus but the isolation doesn’t bother me. A weather forecast would be nice, though.
I stopped at a shelter to pull out my gloves and an over-prepared couple gave me some food to lighten their pack weight. They gave me some lemon peppercorn tuna packets, crackers, and some protein powder. I thanked them and continued on, eventually hiking 20 miles to Trimpi Shelter. My knee didn’t start hurting until the final two miles.
I was the only person there as I ate tuna and cheese on a tortilla followed by chicken and rice with chocolate and caramel for dessert. I estimated I ate 3,000 calories today. Just before dark another hiker, Nate, showed up. The night’s low is 28 degrees. I listened to the mice scurrying around on the ground as I fell asleep. I could see stars in the sky; I can’t remember the last time I saw stars since I always go to bed at dusk.
Day’s Mileage: 20.1
Total Miles Hiked: 532.5
Remaining Miles: 1,667.2
Daily Average: 14.8
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…the classic line from “Me and Bobby McGee.”