Thursday, May 31, 2012

West Virginia, A.T. Thruhike 2012

     Making it to West Virginia was a huge accomplishment for me. Arriving in a new state after being in Virginia so long gave me new confidence, and renewed enthusiasm! Don't get me wrong, I loved Virginia. I found kindness and love from many wonderful people, I enjoyed many landmarks along the trail, the rich history, wildlife... Virginia was wonderful.
     It was also a bit mentally draining, however. It just seemed like it was going to take forever to reach its northern border. The weather didn't help, either. For the most part, it was nice. In fact this whole hike I have been lucky with the weather, experiencing rain, snow and hail but usually it isn't bad. But there was a stretch while walking Virginia where it just rained consistently, day after day. And it was a cold rain, too. Paired with chilly nights. It wasn't anything I couldn't handle, but it did make me feel pretty drained.
     The weather, and the fact I went so long without an "accomplishment", added a new level of challenge to the hike; a mental one. I felt lonely. I was cold, and frustrated my gear was wet. I was slipping in mud. I was sore. All this made it noticeably more difficult to find pleasure in carrying all my supplies on my back and up over mountains each and every day.
     I never lost sight, though. As difficult as it became, I would remind myself how lucky I am to be out here living my dream. I breathed deep and took notice of the new wildlife that emerge only in these steady rains, like the rainbow of different salamander species. I set small goals, and ignored the long distances ahead of me. I daydreamed of all the times shared with people I am lucky to have known. I persevered.
     And then, some time later, I came to what is known as the "Roller Coaster", a series of uphills and downhills in rapid succession over a stretch of 14 miles. And on the final hill, racing up to the top, breathing heavily, sweating, greeted and congratulated by a few fellow thruhikers... I arrived to the sign. Virginia is done; I have completed another state. A warm blood ran from my heart and through my body, and I smiled a most sincere and joyous smile.
     After spending the night at Blackburn Trail Center, a nice little place set aside for hikers with bunks and a woodstove, I strolled on into Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Arriving at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), I was overwhelmed with emotion. I am pretty much halfway... I felt that making it this far, I can make it all the way.
     I was greeted by friendly volunteers, who gave me a place to sit and a cool drink, and we talked of the trail. I had my picture taken, and I am now officially in the records as a thruhiker.
     A very friendly person, and also a bit of a "celebrity" since being featured in the National Geographic A.T. Documentary, offered me a place to stay for the night in exchange for some work. I was excited to be able to spend a little extra time in this historic town.
     It was a great experience; we ate, talked about hiking, laughed, and watched movies. He really added to my experience!
     The next morning, after breakfast, he joined me in walking a few miles up the trail. As we strolled through Harpers Ferry, I admired the antique appearance. The town goes to great lengths to preserve its old appearance.
     The town is full of history. It has significance in the Lewis and Clark expedition, it was the site of occurrences which led to the Cival War and abolishing of slavery, and is the site of a once booming town full of old buildings, churches, cemetery, etc.
     I would learn as I walked with my host that the trail followed along an old canal towpath. Along the canal, as we passed old locks, was an old railroad track. At the time of their construction, canals were successful while trains were unproven. It ended up that the railroad became far more successful, and the canal became unused in time.
     We walked a few miles, and then he wished me luck and we parted ways. I have been very lucky to meet so many wonderful people along the trail. The people are a huge part of this experience, and I will never forget any of them; they have changed my outlook on things in a way I will carry with me for years to come.

Side Trails In Shenandoah and the Thruhiker Mentality, A.T. Thruhike 2012

     In the Smokies, I had decided to not only hike the Appalachian Trail from it's border to border, but I had decided to also throw in a few additional side trails, adding to the mileage of course, but also increasing the rewards with great views and an incredible experience.
     In Shenandoah National Park, I did the same. Not just because I wanted to increase the payoff though, but because I felt I needed to.
     You see, I realized quickly that in this National Park, the trail, which was very well maintained and well graded, brought me close to many scenic views and mountaintops, but did not bring me to them. In order to truly appreciate this place, I had to take to the side trails.
     Now, being a purist, I refuse to miss a single "white blaze" that marks the Appalachian Trail. That means I can only do out-and-back trails. Fortunately, there were plenty of good opportunities for short trails to some scenic mountaintops.
     Shown below are pictures of a couple of the side trail vistas, including a short walk to the stunning Stony Man Summit. Shown are myself and a fellow thruhiker, the kilted "Salt Bomb", whom was one of a few hikers on the trail willing to walk a few extra miles.
     This brings me to the topic of a "Thruhiker Mentality". I have come to realize that many people out here for the long haul develop a narrow sense, where they, in some cases, refuse to do anything but clock miles on the A.T. For example, arriving at a shelter later that day, I mentioned that I had done two side trails, and that they were impressive. A couple of fellow thruhikers insisted that I was crazy for putting in those extra miles.
     It gets interesting, though: I then asked if any of those same people had gone the extra 2 miles to go to the first "Wayside", which is essentially an overpriced fast food joint. Every one of them had. So, apparently I was crazy for going out of my way for beautiful serenity, to bag another peak, or to simply enjoy this wilderness... But it isn't crazy to travel miles for food.
     This is a syndrome. A mentality that overtakes some hikers out here, where food and conveniences become the only drive. Where one passes by mountains we may never cross again, waterfalls so close you can hear them, and the fellowship with the wilderness that we had sought in the first place.
     I am not criticizing. Everyone is out here for their own reasons, and can enjoy their hike in whatever way they please. I have just decided that I am out here for the scenery, the wilderness, all that this trail has to offer.
     I am hungry, tired and sore; but I refuse to give in. I don't want this experience to feel like a job, or a chore; that I must get up and churn out miles just because. I will get up and do what I love, and I love backpacking. I love climbing mountains, taking in views; I love walking this trail.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Shenandoah National Park, A.T. Thruhike 2012

     Waynesboro proved to be a very hospitable and hiker-friendly town. The local YMCA has a nice grassy area set aside in a park for thruhikers to pitch their tents whilst visiting the town. They also provided me with a care package with soaps and whatnot, and allowed me to use their showers. It was my first shower in weeks, and I can not tell you how wonderful it felt.
     The town also has a "trail angel network", which basically is a long list of names and numbers you could call for a free ride to town or back to the trail. These folks were undeniably angels, as they brought me where I needed to go out of pure kindness, and were so absolutely friendly in the process. I appreciated their help so much!
     As of Waynesboro, I have lost 45 pounds. This was a little shocking, I knew I would lose weight but I didn't expect to lose so much, not even half way in!
     I have what is referred to as "hiker hunger" in full force now. What this means is that my body has burned through much of its reserves, and I now burn much more calories then I can possibly consume. The result is a consistent hunger, and the ability to eat ridiculous amounts of food while still losing weight.
     In fact, eating becomes crucial at this point. My ability to eat and consume calories directly impacts my energy level throughout the day and following days. Waynesboro fortunately is home to a number of good, yet inexpensive, restaurants that I enjoyed.
     The weeks of rain and hail finally subsided for a few days, perfectly timed as I prepared to return to the trail. A trail angel gave me a ride back to the A.T., and I returned to my long walk.
     Within a few miles, I entered Shenandoah National Park. This park is beautiful to say the least. The trail runs along Skyline Drive, intersecting with it numerous times. This offers some unique conveniences that a thruhiker doesn't normally get. Passing picnic areas, campgrounds and campstores, restaurants, and the like means for a hiker easy access to potable water, bathrooms, trash barrels, meals and food.
    I took a side trail to conquer Tunk Mountain, and then followed the A.T. over Black Rock Mountain. I had hiked here previously with good friends just over a year ago, and I was immediately immersed in fond memories. The mountain summit itself is a fun little rock scramble, essentially a pile of rocks and boulders offering nice views. I sat and thought of time spent with friends, fun and joyous moments past.
     I also thought about the fact that prior to my thruhike, this was the southernmost section of this long trail I had set foot on. I remember seeing the white blazes, thinking of how this is the same trail I walked on regularly in New England; I was so excited and hopeful to walk it in its entirety. I talked my friends' ears off on the topic of the trail for the rest of the trip. And now, here I am, thruhiking... I am really, truly living out my dream.
      After passing by Loft Mountain Campground, and utilizing the store for resupplying, I came to some breathtaking vistas atop Loft Mountain. I decided to pitch my tent nearby, and I sat on my rocky perch and enjoyed the panoramic sunset while eating dinner. It is moments like these that I feel complete, that I truly appreciate the privilage of being on this long journey.
     The trail over the next couple of days has been nice and well graded. Honestly, this is the first time I can honestly say the trail has gotten easier since I started.
     Even though the trail isn't quite as difficult, I have chosen to take my time here. I have made good time thus far, and I don't feel I need to rush. I am enjoying this forest so much. It is refreshing, like cleansing myself of modern society, if even just for moments.
     The wildlife has been abundant. I have seen more deer than I can count. They don't run away immediately like the deer back home; here they seem to hang around, almost posing for my camera.
     I have startled a couple of bear. As I walk alone, quietly down the trail, I will catch a short glimpse of black fur as they dart away into the woods. They leave behind many signs that they are very present, where they dug for grubs, claw marks on bark, and scat along the trail.
     Last night, the threat of thunder led me to call it a day a little early, as I ducked into an old chestnut shelter. I was joined by 3 section hikers. They turned out to be a friendly bunch, and we sat around the fire sharing stories and laughing all evening. I had a great time, enjoying the simple pleasure of good company, and nothing else aside from the natural world abound and all around us.
     Today I made it to Skyland, a resort catering to guests of Shenandoah National Park. I could not pass up the opportunity to sit and enjoy a good meal, and I am glad I did. I enjoyed a delicious, filling meal by a window with gorgeous views. I was joined by a fellow thruhiker named Salt Bomb, and we talked a lot about woodworking, which is his trade.
     Getting back on the trail, blessed with nice weather, I am looking forward to the rest this park has to offer. Today the trail passes close to Stony Man Mountain, and I may just chose to climb to its summit.
     This adventure is made even more amazing in that I am free to do and roam as I please. These woods and mountains are calling for me, and I have every intention to remain within them until I am home.

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