The trick to successfully completing a somewhat monotonous 2,189.2 mile hike without going completely insane is setting and celebrating a boatload of mini milestones. And Emily and I have spent the past few days in an everlasting high-five. We practically bounced out of Virginia into Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, ecstatic to have four states under our hiker belts, especially all 500+ miles of Virginia, by far the longest state on the trail, best known for causing hikers to come down with the formidable Virginia Blues, which neither Emily nor I experienced. We actually straight-up loved Virginia.
From Harper’s Ferry, also known as the psychological halfway point, we quickly ticked off several other mini milestones that made us feel like super awesome and accomplished hikers. We walked out of West Virginia through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. We crossed the Mason Dixon line, passed the 2015 mileage midpoint, as well as the original AT midpoint sign, meaning we can start counting down instead of up, a huge mental win. HUGE.
Before my first white blaze, I read a lot about other hiker experiences on the Appalachian Trail. Some positive, some not so much, some inspiring, others completely ridiculous. Leafing through these words, I quickly realized that even though we are all walking the same trail, climbing the same mountains, traveling through the same small towns, each of us has a very different story to tell; each hiker develops a unique, personalized relationship with the AT.
And after 1217.8 miles, I’m still trying to figure that relationship out. I confess, I’m not totally enamored with trail life, like I know many hikers are at this point, though I love so, so many things. I love traveling through small town America, places I would probably never think to visit if I weren’t hiking this trail. I love falling asleep to a cool breeze and waking up with the sunrise and sounds of the video game birds (you know, birds that chirp like they’re auditioning for a Nintendo game) from inside my cozy tent. I love how strong my body has become, how it’s taken me this far with relatively few complaints. I love the people I’ve met and the stories that brought them here. And there is something insanely satisfying about breaking down camp, looking around and realizing everything you need to survive is expertly arranged in a pack on your back.
But I definitely don’t love everything.
And that’s okay. Because no relationship is perfect, including this one. If it were, I’d probably sabotage it anyway, so it’s just as well. Though I am not totally in love with the AT, and may never be, it has taught me so many things about myself, other people, and the random ways of the world.
Thing 1: We chose the best date ever to start hiking the AT. Emily is a husky safari guide in Finland and her season extends well into April, so we didn’t have a huge window. She was back in America for less than a week before we started our hike from Springer Mountain on April 20, which just happened to be the last day of a long three week stretch of constant rain. I don’t know how 21 days of rain would have affected my overall attitude, but I’m grateful I haven’t had to find out. We don’t take many zero days, or get caught in unplanned town vortexes (very often) and we’ve been been fortunate with a lack of injury time outs, so we’ve passed several hikers who started in March/early April and we hear about the rain. Rain in the Smokies, rain through Virginia, rain, rain, rain. If I had to describe my AT experience in 20 words, rain would not be one of them. As soon as Em reads this, she’ll go run off to knock on wood, so I’ll stop there.
Thing 2: I can say with 100% certainty, I will never hike the Appalachian Trail again. Somewhere in the middle of Virginia, we came across some awesome trail magic in the form of Indy and her parents and a four course breakfast. While her dad fried up eggs and sausage, we filled up on fresh fruit and juice and assaulted Indy with questions about her thru-hike last year. At some point she mentioned she was not at all interested in doing another long distance hike like the PCT or CDT, but might do the AT again, at which point I decided she was crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I love that I am doing this, I wouldn’t change a thing. But I am doing it for the adventure, for the challenge, not because I have a thing for the AT.
I can barely justify going to a country I absolutely love if I’ve been there before, because there are so many countries I have yet to explore. If I randomly (or more likely, very planned out-ly) find myself with five months of free time, no job, and money again, I would definitely not use that precious time to hike a trail I’ve hiked before. Emily and I spend mile after mile dreaming up ideas of our next big adventure. We want to bicycle from coast to coast, up Highway 101, back across Canada. We want to canoe down the Mississippi, hike and bike around all of the Great Lakes, dogsled across Canada. And obviously we’re going for the Triple Crown (AT, PCT, CDT). And that’s just scratching the North American surface. You should hear our international plans.
Thing 3: Finding an adventure partner is tough. Finding a great one is damn near impossible. Your abilities, goals, and determination must be similar for the partnership to even stand a chance. And even if you’re fortunate to find someone who (in this case) hikes your pace, embodies a similar sense of adventure, with the same level of commitment, the odds of actually being able tolerate that person day in, day out, is pretty low. Five months is a looooooong time to share a tent with anyone, even someone you really enjoy.
Well friends, I sort of hit the jackpot. Emily and I seem to view life through a similar lens. We share values and happen to be traveling down the same fork in the road at roughly the same pace. Our physical (and mental) strengths and weaknesses balance out as we each bring something different to the table.
Most people I’ve met on the trail are just out of college (when you’re still trying to figure out which direction to head in life), or retired (when kids are grown, careers are complete and you finally have time to head in the direction you’ve been dreaming about). And obviously this makes complete sense. People our age (late 20s, early 30s) are smack dab in the middle of making families or climbing career ladders. Which makes Emily even more of an endangered species. Lucky for me, marriage, children, and millions of dollars didn’t make it in her Top Ten Life Goals, either.
What’s more, Emily not only tolerates me, but sometimes I think she actually likes my weird sense of humor and overall oddness. We spend a lot of time drumming up our next adventure, playing cribbage and practicing our British accents. During our entire (extended) side trip to DC, we played British tourists, and it was brilliant. We really fooled all those silly Americans. We both have multiple trail personalities, complete with odd little voices, and many of our interactions end with a wide-eyed Emily and me saying, “Oh my god, what’s wrong with me?” I’m so lucky.
Thing 4: Cribbage is the best game ever invented, period. And no, I’m not talking about the game smart elderly ladies play on Sundays. That’s Bridge. Cribbage can keep two people entertained for hours. You can play it for at least 84 days straight (and counting), sometimes even more than once a day, and it’s a new game every single time. Just when you start to think you’ve seen it all, you’re dealt a hand you’ve never seen before. Em and I can predict each other’s hands based on the first card played, and our ability to see 15’s out of any arrangement of cards dealt is unparalleled. I need to personally call up the Portland couple that hand-makes these extremely tiny, lightweight cribbage boards, and thank them for being awesome. It is easily the most prized possession in my pack.
Thing 5: In a world filled with school shootings, church burnings, and marathon bombings, it seems downright insane to flag down a complete stranger in the middle of nowhere to catch a lift into somewhere, but hitchhiking is alive and well on the AT, and (at least for me) a huge part of the experience. In the double handful of hitches we’ve taken so far, I’ve noticed some similarities in the people who decide picking up two terrible smelling, dirt-covered, desperate girls from the side of the road is a good idea. For one, they do this a lot. They often live in the area and are used to seeing hikers and they’re glad to help out in the little (yet ginormous for us) ways they can. I think some of these folks do it for themselves as much as they do it for us. Because more often than not, soon after the obligatory ‘where are you from’ and ‘how long have you been walking’ questions, I learn more personal details about these very kind, but total strangers in the next seven minutes than I’ve learned about some (ex)boyfriends in months. They just seem to want to talk, and hikers make the perfect audience.
I’ve also learned that when you place your life in the hands of the kind, but potentially crazy person behind the wheel, you become a gun-toting, bible-thumping, very agreeable person, even if you’re anything but. Like, literally the opposite. Because the four miles spent in the back of a stranger’s car is not the time (definitely not the place) to discuss different political and religious views. Noooo, for those four miles, I am whoever it’s safest to be, and often that’s not myself. If we’re friends, you know how difficult that is for me, so I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for some of the things I’ve agreed with, some of the things I’ve let slide. I’m just trying to stay alive.
Thing 6: But seriously, the unnecessary goodness in people blows me away. We’ve had people pull over, even when we weren’t looking for a ride, just to see if we needed anything (we must have a permanent desperate look). On the 4th of July, we were crossing a road in the pouring rain and as we stopped to figure out where we were, a beautiful Toyota slowly inched closer to us. An 88-year-old Albert rolled down his window and said, “I can help you gals cheat if ya want.” We didn’t cheat, but he did give us an unplanned lift into Mount Holly Springs, PA so we could enjoy the rest of the holiday out of the driving rain. As we climbed into his immaculate, brand-new car, we couldn’t help but feel guilty about our wet, muddy imprints. We apologized for our mess, to which Albert replied, “I bought the car to use.” He also told us he had a terrible nose, but he sure could smell us, wooooweee!
We’ve had day hikers offer us their food, cyclists offer us much needed water, random strangers buy our meals in various trail towns, even in Washington DC. I could write a novel with all of the amazing trail magic we’ve come across on the trail, people leaving gatorade and water and goodies in coolers near trailheads, never receiving any recognition for their good deeds, because that’s not why they do it. A few days ago, I realized I had left my phone charging cord wrapped in the folds of my beautiful bed at the Holly Inn, almost 15 miles back. My phone is my alarm, my camera, my journal, my lifeline. I called the Inn, Mary confirmed it was there, then she offered to drive it over to me. She waved off my offer of money and dish-washing as she handed me my cord and wished me luck on the rest of my journey. How’s that for customer service?
As an AT thru-hiker, it’s hard to get very far without hearing the phrase, “The trail provides,” and it’s crazy how true this is. At first it was little things, like I would find two rubber-bands on the ground after losing two rubber-bands. (I know this sounds small, but when you are carrying so little, everything you are carrying serves a big purpose.) But then it was things like we really needed water before a big climb and we’d cross a road where a bunch of cross-country cyclists with van were taking a break, and they couldn’t have been happier to help.
But the most amazing way the trail provided happened just after Front Royal, VA. Em and I stopped at the Rite Aid on our way out of town so I could grab another knee brace, since mine mysteriously disappeared. We carried on our merry way a few miles up the trail when we randomly stopped for a break, much earlier than our usual five mile interval. I took my phone off airplane mode and saw I had a friend request from a random person. I usually don’t investigate these until town days, but this one came with a message.
“Hey, you gave me food on the trail when I really needed it. I was at rite aid and noticed your license and credit card with some cash in it laying in the parking lot. I have it and will hopefully be in Harper’s Ferry by Sunday.”
Uh, WHAT!?!?! I didn’t have my wallet (which is just a debit card and my ID wrapped together with a rubber band with some money in between)?!?!?! And this guy, someone we gave food to weeks ago when he had none, found it?!
I hadn’t even gone through that gut-wrenching realization that I lost it yet! And now I was discovering that of all the strangers walking in and out of the Rite Aid that day, the one person I sort of knew for miles and miles around, had found it on the ledge outside of the store, where I must have set it as I put on my knee brace. And we happened to be walking in the same direction. Seriously, what are the odds.
So yeah, I’m not totally in love with everything about the AT, but we’re definitely looking out for each other. And I hope we continue to do so for the next 971.4 miles.