1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Subjectively speaking, the trail from Partnership Shelter to Pearisburg is not one of my favorite areas of Virginia. Views seem few and far between.
One night, I bolt upright at 1 am as the crack of thunder jolts me awake. I am camped in a tent, alone, on a ridgeline. Lightning. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. The storm is right overhead. I lie awake for hours.
When the sun shows, I find myself hiking in sweltering heat, straight through scores of spiderwebs and dangling caterpillars strung across the trail. Every few minutes, I pause to peel away the silken threads clinging to my face.
What I choose to remember about this section, though, is the kindness of the people.
There is Tina, owner of the Quarter Way Inn, who offers me breakfast in the morning. I am the only hiker there: most returned to Damascus for trail days.
"Do you want breakfast? We have leftovers," she says as I make myself a sad bowl of instant mashed potatoes. "Free of charge -- I just kept thinking, it's not your fault that you're the only one here."
Leftovers or not, the breakfast Tina serves up is a gourmet meal to me. French toast, potatoes, scones, and muffins - I clean my plate.
"I was staying at a hostel up in New York...and the owner said, 'The whole world comes to me.' I thought, 'I want that.'"
I remember the contentment of reuniting with my tramily - sans Silas and Carter, who are at trail days - one night at Chestnut Knob Shelter: eating mashed potatoes around the fire pit, talking to the other hikers gathered there, enjoying the view into the valleys below. Tenacious and Nighthawk are there, along with a small, fit woman with braided silver hair: Carjack.
"We always see you at the randomest times, and then you disappear," Tenacious tells me.
"I sometimes hike between bubbles," I explain, "and I get up early."
Tom arrives at the shelter later that night.
"There's the top bunk open," Kelly says.
"There's a lot of mouse droppings up there," Tenacious warns him.
Tom briefly surveys the bunk. "-- I think I'll just take the weirdly lumpy grass," he says, walking out the door.
The night after encountering the thunderstorm, I stay at Jenny Knob Shelter and meet Joe, a section hiker and trail maintainer. He lets me use his stove to try one of his Knorr sides, since my Esbit stove can only boil water for about 5 minutes.
I spend the day before my birthday relaxing at Woods Hole Hostel: meeting other hikers, sampling the homemade bread and cheese, and enjoying the birthday apple my mom sent in my mail drop. Two dogs and a duck roam freely about the property. A couple work-for-stay hikers run to and fro, greeting new arrivals and filling smoothie orders. The duck-in-residence follows me around, eyeing my bread and cheese.
Before dinner, Neville, owner of Woods Hole, gathers the guests into a gratefulness circle. Then, we feast on bread, fresh salad, curry, and stir-fried ground pork. Neville even fries up a pepper-free pan of pork just for me.
"I've been all over the United States," the young man sitting next to me says. "Of all the places in the world, the one that makes me happiest is this house right here."
Before breakfast the next morning, we again gather in a gratefulness circle. "I'm grateful for my - as of today - 25 years on Earth," I say.
There is a slight pause. Then, a chorus of Happy Birthday breaks out from the circle of hikers. Neville sticks a few candles in my French toast and gives me a warm slice of her addictive cookie bars for the trail.
Woods Hole is one of the experiences unique to the Appalachian Trail: Guests come together to help with cooking and cleaning dishes, and each guest is expected to pick a chore from the jobs jar before leaving.
"What it does is create an awareness of space," Neville says. "When Michael and I created this vortex of awesomeness, it wasn't like that. I'd grown up watching my grandmother walking around, straightening things...back then, y'all were much more aware of the space. Now, you're more aware of the people you're with."
That night, I hike into Pearisburg and catch up with Kali at the Angel's Rest Hiker Haven. The entire complex consists of 70's style mobile homes. Glad to be out of the rain, I buy myself some fruit from the Food Lion next door, then settle in to watch Netflix shows with the other hikers.