The hike is starting to feel like regular life now, which is both good and bad. I’m no longer struggling as much to accept the nature of the challenge and figure out how to deal. We’ve discovered what doesn’t work and made adjustments. But my mind is no longer entirely occupied and enthralled by the new-ness of this whole enterprise, and so occasionally I’ve felt myself drifting toward boredom. It’s nothing serious. Just passing thoughts, perhaps at 5:30 in the morning as I’m stuffing my sleeping bag into it’s stuff sack and I’d rather just be sleeping, that we’ve been doing this a long time now. And there is a lot longer to go. As they say, it’s a marathon we’re running here, and I think right now I’m starting to feel those first pangs of fatigue as the first energy burst wears off and it’s time to settle into a pace. I’m starting to think of the finish line existing out there. And then quickly try not to think of it.
We did our longest stretch in the woods right before we got to Damascus–sixteen days. We did have one night in a hostel during that time (Vango/Abbey), but the shower there was really gross and we didn’t do laundry because the washing machine was even grosser. So I only sort of count it. In any case, we rolled into Damascus really tired and really smelly.
We enjoyed Damascus a lot. But I’m still glad we weren’t there for Trail Days, which seems to have zapped the motivation out of plenty of people. I guess there’s something about four days of intense partying that doesn’t mesh well with hiking. We’ve seen an increase in people around us leaving the trail. Most are leaving because of injuries. It’s difficult to see that, because it feels like an injury is waiting in the treetops above everyone, and could descend at any moment. It feels like something you have no control over. But we’ll continue trying not to overdo it, to keep paying close attention to how our bodies are doing and be responsive to that.
Speaking of bodies. The eat-and-drink-anything party of the first month or so is officially over. When we first came out, I was excited to find that my stomach could handle things I haven’t been able to in a long time. It was fun and exciting to buy candy bars and crackers, drink beer and sodas. But those days are done. In Damascus I was feeling really worn out. We realized we needed to pay more attention again to being strategic about what we eat in town. We still ate giant hamburgers with fries and milkshakes, but we also went to the grocery store and bought strawberries and bananas, avocados and juices. And I felt a lot better.
Food and digestion and all this mess tends to increase my anxiety, especially when it’s not going so well, so I’m trying hard to remain chill about the hiccups I’ve seen lately. I’m trying not to assume it’ll keep getting worse. But I still really want to get to Maine, and I still don’t want to be miserable doing it. So I’m being as judicious as I can now with food. Again.
That said, we planned to increase our pace in Virginia and we definitely have. We didn’t really feel like we had, since we had a few unexpectedly low mileage or zero days and felt like we couldn’t get a good string of hiking days going. But then we did the math and were amazed at how much ground we’d covered. The terrain is not “easy”, as we’d sort of been led to believe. I no longer believe there will ever come a part of the trail I’ll call “easy”. But we passed 600 miles the other day, and have finally done a couple of 20 mile days (even a 24.8, which was crazy).
We were really motivated to move in the section after Marion, VA, too. I’ll never forget pages 58 and 59 in AWOL. More specifically, I’ll never forget how much I hated them. We found ourselves walking these long, rocky ridge lines with no water and nowhere to camp and nothing to mark the distance by, just endless trees and ridge. We were thirsty and irritated and hot. It was really humid, threatening rain but not doing it for days and days. Everything was sticky and nothing ever dried.
Also, I had a serious attack of cramps on one of those ridges, the kind I was fearing before we came out. Well, it happened. I immediately lost all my dignity, lying in the fetal position on the side of the trail moaning and begging poor Eric to get me out of there. All of a sudden the woods were my enemy and I couldn’t stand to be in them. We had no phone signal and no real roads were nearby. The nearest town was a day’s hike away. There was no way to get out, and no water, and no place to put our tent. I felt frantic and trapped. It was, as I said to Mad Max, who stopped in alarm to see what was going on, “the stupidest situation I’ve ever been in”. I realized that, while the AT never really feels like wilderness to me, it is possible to be very, very stuck there. I also sort of feel like a warrior for having survived that. It was truly awful.
But at the end of all tunnels come light. After the long waterless ridges, we finally made our way to Woods Hole Hostel, a place I’ve been looking forward to staying for more than a year. It’s an old log cabin on 83 acres of organic farmland. The inside smells like lavender soap and fresh baked bread. Neville, who runs the hostel part, teaches free yoga and meditates nightly in the kitchen. She reads poems around the bonfire and keeps a fridge stocked with fresh hardboiled eggs. There were chickens and pigs and goats and cats and dogs. It was heaven. And then my parents picked us up and took us to a cabin in the middle of nowhere by a river. It was a perfectly timed break. This afternoon, as I write this from said cabin, if I’m honest I feel a little sad that I’m going back tomorrow. But I’m also not ready for this to be over. It’s the strangest paradox, how this is so difficult and I’ll be so happy when we’re done, but I’m not ready to give it up yet. I guess the trail isn’t finished breaking me down and remaking me yet, and I can tell on some level. Who knows.
So we’ve finally got cool stuff coming up again (McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, and The Homeplace in Catawba) and the halfway point is on the (very distant but still visible) horizon. After a couple of days lounging by the river and eating wholesome food we didn’t have to carry anywhere, we’re feeling rejuvenated and ready to move again.
So on we go.