One month solo on the Appalachian Trail
After a sleepless night, I rise before dawn to find a fresh dusting of snow on the ground. I stumble around the campsite packing up my gear, my muscles still feeling the effects of my lack of sleep. Drawing out the tent stakes from the ground, I find little balls of soil frozen onto the stakes. A gust of wind rushes through the trees. My tent lifts into the air, and I make a wild grab for it. After wrestling my tent into its bag, I finally start hiking.
I expect to reach the next shelter - just a few miles away - early in the day.
Dawn unfolds as I round a corner to find myself at the edge of a cliff. The sun's orange glow illuminates the Shenandoahs. Seeing dawn on the ridge makes the night's suffering worthwhile, I think.
I reach Gravel Springs Hut well before noon. A troop of Boy Scouts linger around the fire pit, shoving the last of their belongings into their packs. Two hikers, Captain Yoga Pants and Gentle Ben, stand brushing their teeth over the bear box: a bear-proof cabinet for storing food. A young man in a patterned blue shawl sits in the hut, looking contemplative.
"One time I was hiking in yoga pants - all the girls do it, so I figured I'd do it, too - and this girl comes up and says, 'move over, captain yoga pants.' The name stuck."
I look around for the logbook, where hikers and visitors traditionally leave their signatures. Remembering Mosey's advice about giving myself a trail name, I settle on Lil Phoenix. The name is nod to both my American and Chinese heritage, Lil being a nickname from Lilian, and Phoenix being a translation of the second character in my Chinese name.
"So are you Parkour?" I ask the young man, after seeing the name in the logbook.
"What brings you to the trail?"
He thinks for several seconds before carefully replying, "In almost every culture, when children grow into adults, they're sent out to commune with nature."
His reasons and experiences echo my own.
"The trail is hard," he continues. "Most times, I wouldn't call it anywhere close to fun. But I've learned so much in the short time I've been out here."
"And there are moments," I add, "like seeing the sunrise, that make all the challenges worth enduring. I think that in great struggle lies great potential for growth."
By the time lunchtime arrives, the sun melts away the last of the snow. I experience an unexpected touch of trail magic when a large group of Korean dayhikers arrives with pots and pans in hand, builds a fire, and begins to cook lunch. Half speak only Korean, but they insist on including me in their meal: one man lays a small bowl of sake before me, and another continuously drops morsels of shrimp, meat, squid, and tofu into my cup. As they leave, they press a bag of candy into my hands.
That night, more hikers arrive: Phlatlander, Woody, and Turtle Catcher. Both Phlatlander and Woody started in Harper's Ferry shortly after me.
I sleep feeling grateful for the random trail magic I received, the new boots I bought, and the beautiful sunrise from the morning.
"I don't think it ever gets easier; once you can do more miles, you do."