One Month Solo on the Appalachian Trail
Today marks my last day in the Shenandoahs, on which I will hike to the town of Waynesboro 7 miles away. When I wake, lights from a nearby town still glimmer in the distance.
A slight drizzle rains down in the morning as I climb Little Calf Mountain. At the summit, I turn to look back across the Shenandoahs at the peaks and valleys fading into the distance. I walked across all that, I think.
I continue hiking, descending from the mountains and passing a cell phone tower, several fields, and a fence stile. Shweasle walks by me at midmorning. So he's southbound, too, I realize. By now, trees obscure my view of the valleys. I make out bright green fields beyond the tree branches, illuminated by rays of sun peeking out from the clouds.
Around midday, I reach Rockfish Gap, the site of the Appalachian Trail trailhead in Waynesboro. 'Appalachian Trail Hikers - Welcome to Waynesboro!,' reads a paper nailed to a tree just north of the gap. A list of trail angels offering rides to town follows.
I fumble in my pockets for my guidebook page with a map of the area, intending to walk the 0.5 miles to my mail drop at a local motel. Gone. Two busy highways intersect the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway here; after mulling over my options to get to my mail drop, I decide to call a trail angel. Taking a deep breath, I pick a number and dial.
"Hello?," a woman answers.
"Hi, is this Cindy?"
"I'm hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I got your number from a paper on a tree near Waynesboro - I was wondering if you had the time to shuttle me to town today?," I say in one breath, in such a hurry to finish that I forget to mention my name.
A pause on the other end. Then, "I really need to get my name off that list."
"I've got some health problems right now, so I can't drive as much as I used to," she continues.
"Oh, I underst--," I start to say.
"Well - where did you say you were?"
"Well, I'll tell you what. I'm feeling pretty good today, so how about I come get you in about 15 minutes?"
Relief. "Ok, thank you so much!"
"I made about 350 trips up the mountain last season. I'm going to miss it."
Cindy directs me to wait at a red-roofed abandoned Howard Johnson's inn next to an old popcorn stand across the street.
Presently, a truck pulls up at the curb. A white-haired lady wearing sunglasses and a lilac long-sleeved shirt rolls down the window. "Going somewhere?"
"I only need to go a mile or so," I tell her, clambering into the truck.
"Oh, you're staying at the motel," she says knowingly. "If I might make a suggestion, the Quality Inn in town is a much better place to stay. It's at the center of everything, and a lot of the hikers stay there - I don't want you to feel isolated."
She hands me a map of Waynesboro and drops me off at the Quality Inn, after swinging by the motel to pick up my box. I vaguely wonder whether any of the other southbound hikers are at the Inn. That afternoon, I walk all over town, doing laundry, mailing extra food home, and checking out the grocery store. For dinner, I head to Ming's Chinese buffet, load up a couple plates with broccoli and fish, and join a couple hikers and a biker seated there.
"How do you like it so far?" one of the hikers asks me.
"There's lots of interesting people to meet."
He chuckles. "That about sums up the trail."
The biker gets up to refill his plate. He returns with a few jello cups and ice cream. "When someone asks, 'How's the trail up ahead?,' I never know how to respond. It's such a personal question," he says.
His statement lodges in my mind. My experiences on the trail are so shaped by my mood, my physical condition, the time of day, the weather, and factors other than the terrain. Some days, the rockiest hills seem fun. Other days, the smoothest dirt paths become seemingly insurmountable challenges.
He's right, I think. We all experience the trail differently. Just like life - we all experience life in our own unique ways. And so much of it is mental.