One Month Solo on the Appalachian Trail
Sunrise casts a blood-red glow on mountains ringed by wreaths of fog. Shweasle and Phlatlander hike ahead in the morning. This particular morning, not a single northbound hiker crosses my path. In the solitude of the forest, my loneliness becomes amplified to exceptional proportions. My mind fails to process any thoughts more complicated than the steady count of my steps: 1-2-3-4-5-6 ...1-2-3-4-5-6 ...
On this morning, the end of my fourth week on trail, my doubts, fears, and exhaustion all crystallize into a nearly overwhelming weariness. I am weary: wearier than I have been all the days before.
At midday, after passing a ditch filled with murky water, I heave my pack onto a rock and settle down for lunch.
Choose your mindset and focus, I think. Take the bad with the good. With some effort, I resolve to continue.
And the rest of the day turns out wilder than I could ever imagine.
"I had thyroid cancer about a year ago. Went through surgeries and radiation treatments and was back on the trail a month later! My wife just about divorced me - I was gone too long."
Wizard is the first northbound hiker who stops to chat. Wearing a pack barely a third the size of a typical backpack, he excitedly introduces his gear. "My tent is about 5 ounces. It's cuben fiber. I got this pack a year ago: 1.1 pounds. I was a Boy Scout. I made lots of my own gear."
His attitude rubs off on me. Spirits slightly lifted, I say goodbye and keep going. As I cross a creek, I come upon two more hikers refilling their water.
"Are you having fun?" one of them shouts in greeting.
He laughs. "At least she's honest!
"My name's Slug," he continues. "It's kind of an ironic nickname my dad gave me. People always ask, 'Why is your name Slug?' since I tend to hike fast. I'm going slower now, and really enjoying it... You should take your time through Grayson Highlands."
He whips out his phone and flips to a video of a wild horse in the Grayson Highlands. I watch the horse wander closer and closer until it stops, its nose less than an arm's length from the camera.
"That's amazing," I breathe.
"Where are you headed today?" he asks.
"Daleville, if I can make it." Daleville lies 18 miles from where I started: If I succeed in reaching it, the day's mileage will be my farthest yet.
"You don't have far to go. Just up this hill here" - he pulls out his elevation map and points - "and then it's all downhill and flat."
Encouraged by that exchange, I greet the next hiker I see enthusiastically: "Hey! What's your trail name?"
"BCM," he replies. "It stands for bass clarinet man. I played bass clarinet. My wife said, 'Your trail name is BCM,' and I said, 'Yes, ma'am.'" He smiles. "We've been married thirty years!"
As we part ways, BCM adds, almost as an afterthought, "You'll probably meet Strummystick somewhere between here and Fullhardt Shelter. He plays guitar."
So it is that when I see a white-bearded man with a long guitar-like stick strapped across his pack, I ask on a whim, "Are you Strummystick?"
He stops abruptly. "How did you know?"
"I met BCM down there." I gesture vaguely behind me. "He said you play guitar."
"Yeah...I've got it here with me." Studying me curiously, he points to the stick.
"That's cool. I was in orchestra in middle school and high school." Dim memories of fiddling performances float across the back of my mind.
His eyes narrow. "Where was that?"
"Connecticut." That's an interesting question to --
Before I complete the thought, he slaps both hands on his knees and shouts, "Mansfield, Connecticut?!"
"Yeah!" I look more closely at his face. The realization begins to dawn on me --
"I was your orchestra director!!!"
What a small world! Weariness completely forgotten, we put aside our packs, sit by the side of the trail, and catch up.
"That is wild!" Strummystick keeps saying.
He talks of fiddling and years of teaching middle school; of hiking and hostels and composing songs on the trail. I remember vividly the day he showed up on the first day of school, beard unshaven, ready to conduct orchestra after hiking the Long Trail in Vermont.
"Are you retired?" I ask.
"Retired as of June! Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to do this." He gestures to the trail.
"What brings you here?"
"What brings anyone here?" he shoots back.
I laugh. "Well, for me, it's the challenge. A rite of passage. A chance to grow."
"It's the same for me," he returns. "A rite of passage at 62, into my golden years!
"Have you heard of the song Wagon Wheel?" Strummystick asks.
"It got popular awhile back." He pulls out and unwraps the stick strapped to his pack, revealing a beautiful minimalistic guitar. "I wrote a version of it for the Appalachian Trail."
I listen, captivated, as he plays. I can't help but smile at his descriptions of life on the trail.
Presently, Spirit of '76, another northbound hiker, joins us. Before leaving, they mention two hostels ahead: Four Pines Hostel, and Woods Hole Hostel.
"You don't want to stay at Four Pines, though," Strummystick says jokingly. "It's a party house. Are you a party girl?"
"Um..." One of my mail drops is indeed scheduled for Four Pines. By this point, I've heard so many conflicting things about Four Pines that I don't know what to believe!
"But then, it's the Appalachian Trail! Anything can happen!" Strummystick says, laughing as he waves goodbye.
Wow! What are the chances of that?! Heart filled with wonder and joy, I easily make the remaining 7 miles to Daleville.
18 miles in a day! Triumph!
After heading to a grocery store and booking a hotel room in Daleville, I savor a melon for dinner.
We never know what life has in store, I think. If we believe in what we're doing, if we believe we're heading in the right direction, all we can do is hang on for the ride: Just when I started to feel weary and discouraged, the trail gave me hope: I just needed to hang in there!
Taking advantage of civilization, I check my cell phone and find a couple text messages: Phlatlander and Shweasle made camp one town outside Daleville. I text them, offering to share the hotel room for a zero the next day. As I absentmindedly glance at Facebook, I catch sight of Woody's page and read, to my surprise, that he is staying at the hotel across the street from me!
Exhausted and content, I sleep hoping to soon meet up with all my southbound friends.