Day mileage: 18
AT total mileage: 1,480.2
Time: 8 hours
One of the most common questions I'm asked by people interested in my hike is 'what's your most exciting memory so far?' A fascinating question- for two and a half months I've been walking down a dirt path over mountains, through rivers, across valleys and farm pastures. I've walked in torrential rain, stifling humidity and heat, snow, sleet, and sub-20 degree temperatures. I've hiked through ten states on the eastern seaboard, and have covered nearly 1,500 miles of terrain. How do you find a 'most exciting' or 'favorite' in an undertaking of that scale? I spent a long, long time today reminiscing about my hike as it has been so far. I thought about the towns I've visited, the national parks, the bears and other wildlife, the breathtaking and remote views of America, and the people. I really thought about the people.
I hiked the first quarter of the trail's total distance in my first month. I spent twenty someodd days with Crusoe, two weeks with Whitey, Cheesepuff, and Moe, and met hundreds of other hikers eager to prove to themselves that they too could in fact hike to Maine from Georgia. I socialized all day every day, met many people at shelters each night sitting around fully packed picnic tables as dinner was cooked, and heard stories of the influences and goals driving these relative strangers towards such challenging achievements. In the 7 weeks after Damascus, VA, I hiked another 1,000 miles - nearly half the total trail length - at an amazing pace that I'm incredibly proud of. I proved to myself a strength in hiking I didn't know I possessed, and attained a self-imposed goal of making it to the northern states in time to surprise my grandparents for their anniversary. I hiked 30 mile days back to back for almost a week, completing Virginia in half the time it takes most hikers. I met many people, passing by and usually being told 'we'll never see you again, have a great hike' as parting words. This section of the trip is a totally different memory in comparison to the first part. In my memory it will stand as more of a monologue, a solo act of many nights in empty shelters and distance oriented days.
One of the most important things I read before coming out to undertake the Appalachian Trail was to photograph people. The trail is only that, a cut path of dirt winding through thousands of miles of wooded land, inanimate and relatively bland in the two dimensional eye of a photograph. Trees are trees, rocks are rocks - a photo of Virginia trail might be interchangeable with a photo of Massachusetts trail shy of minute differences. I take thousands of photos, and as of now you have only seen a fraction of them. I take the obligatory scenic vista photos of gorgeous views and notable locations, but I also put a lot of time into photographing the people I meet and hike with. This is where an interesting fact comes into play... If you were to go through my camera and compare the first 500 miles of photos to the next 1,000, you'd immediately notice a change in the amount of people photographed. Sure, Pneumo was coerced into a photo or two, but there are nowhere near as many as I had been able to take in the beginning, simply because I never got that close to anyone during my mid-Atlantic stretch. There were many memorable people, immortalized for my personal memories via my writing in this blog, but none who I felt the need to take a picture of. I hardly met a hiker who I felt the need to capture a moment in time with via a real photograph.
As you may have guessed in my writing, I've had a big change of heart recently. As a schedule maker and daily distance hiker I set goals, attain them (ideally exceeding my expectations), and set new ones. It's a viscous cycle on the trail that probably has caused me to miss out on a thing or two. You don't know how many times I've stopped at a scenic vista and thought 'I could be the kind of hiker who stops here to read for an hour'. The thought lingers for a minute before I turn away from the overlook and hike on, reminding myself of a destination I'm aiming for.
I've hiked long enough and far enough that I'll be done over a month early. In fact I could hike only 17 miles a day and still be done with my entire thru-hike in well under four months.... quite the notable accomplishment. After really thinking today, hiking slowly and for a comparably short distance to my normal day, I realized that I have zero need to rush at this point. There's no pressing job to get home for, no wife and kids that need me to return, and no huge commitments that are waiting for me to get my ass out of the woods. I'm going to spend a while hiking with this group I've run into. It may not last all the way to Katahdin, but I'm burning my schedule and allowing it to come as it wants, 18-22 mile days that will be leisurely, no constant checking of my watch comparing hours of remaining daylight to the miles remaining in my hike. If you remember back to the Shenandoahs, I told you about running into a group of guys out for the weekend for a 30 year reunion of their thru-hike. I want the opportunity to forge those friendships. I often wish that Crusoe, Whitey, Soleil, etc. were still hiking with me. My memories of those times far exceed my memories of my mid-Atlantic ultra-hike. My time with Pneumo and Jellybean were important in and of themselves - I learned I was capable of some phenomenal hiking, and pushed myself to new levels of achievement in the trip. Unlike them however, I never came out here with the goal of a sub-100 day hike. That's racing. They've both since texted me and said they're working on a sub-90 day hike now, and I'm truthfully glad we got split up. In a small sense of mob mentality, I might have tagged along with their plan and pushed myself even more, a decision I might have ultimately looked back on and regretted someday.
I'll get to Maine in July. I'll summit Katahdin 5 or maybe 6 weeks ahead of my initially forecasted date. I'll complete a thru-hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. At this point, however, I'm going to spend a while with relaxing days a great company. As I write this there are nearly a dozen of us milling around the shelter, a fire blazing, dinners cooking, and some of my music playing on that portable speaker. This is a scene I wouldn't have envisioned getting to experience again before the end of my hike, and one I'm quite fond of being a part of. When I get the occasional opportunity to talk with Crusoe, someone whose company I regularly miss, he always tells me about how he's having the time of his life. In the past few weeks that had sparked a bit of envy in me. I thoroughly believe this is my opportunity to change the path of my hike for the better. This entire long, rambling, redundant post is merely stating that I'm having fun and am going to do my best to get every last moment of memories out of this trip. If in a week or two I say goodbye and press on for the northern tier, so be it.. But for now, I think I'll play a slightly different hand of cards.
As far as my hike today- started early, nobody in town is hiker friendly so I walked the mile back out to the trail, up a mountain, across a ridge, along a river, up a mountain, nearly bitten by a German shepherd, down a mountain, fell into a river almost waist high in water, dried off the dSLR (miraculously still functions perfectly), up a mountain, down another, between some rocks, got hit in the head by a tree branch that snapped out of a tree, saw stars and had to sit for a minute before my sight cleared up, got to the shelter 18 miles in and called it a day. Imagine if I summarized every day like this? You wouldn't have to devote so much time reading my ramblings.
Thank you for your continued support of my hike. Thank you for the encouragement to change my course of action, and thank you for your ongoing enthusiasm for my accomplishments thus far. If nothing else the writing will be more enthusiastic now that there's a small cast of characters added in. After all, even the screen writers for Cast Away gave Tom Hanks a volleyball to talk to.
Onward. Upward. En ensemble.