Friday I took my first steps on the Appalachian Trail. I’ve been hiking for a couple of years now, and this was the first time I’d been on the AT itself. Mechanically it’s the same as hiking any other trail. Pick foot up, move forward, put down. Repeat with other foot, continue until you:
- Reach your destination
- need to stop for food, water, lunch, bathroom, search for missing partners,
- Feel like you’re about to throw up, pass out, crap yourself, or any combination of those
- Decide “you know what, I’d rather just be home on the couch,” and head back to the car.
Every hike involves those same feelings. Sooner or later you reach all of them. But, at least at first, none of those thoughts are running through your mind. You’re just happy to be off on an adventure. Sometimes I feel a little like Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of the Hobbit book/movie, when he wakes up and looks around and all the Dwarves have gone. He was invited on an adventure, and turned them down, only to realize he was being left out of something great, and ran out the door with only the clothes on his back.
The Appalachian Trail is like that, a grand adventure that many people have undertaken and it was my turn to get just the barest glimpse of it. I say a glimpse, because I was only hiking a dozen miles or so. To do the whole thing takes months and 5,000,000 steps. I counted 100 steps, then I stopped and tried to imagine doing that 50,000 times. It’s an incredible number when you really think about it.
First, a little backstory: I live what my crackhead GPS says is about 4 hours from Roanoke, Virginia. Roanoke is just a hair’s breadth from Daleville, and the trail runs right through Daleville. This was using a lot of back roads and 4 lane divided highways, instead of the interstate. Screw that. Between construction and traffic, it took WAY longer than it should have to get to Daleville. I left after my wife went to work, and didn’t get on the trail until almost 2pm. Okay, I DID stop for three geocaches on the way up there, because I wanted to get my 600th cache right there ON the trail.
So I got started late, and it was also 93 degrees outside, and sunny. From the park-n-ride lot a few hundred yards down the road, it’s easy to get to the trail. I stopped just inside the wood line at the first White Blaze, and took an AT selfie. My pack was feeling really heavy, and I guess it was heavier than normal. I had three day’s worth of food in it. I also had two hammocks, because I wanted to test my new one, but I didn’t want to be without the one with the bug net, in case the bugs were terrible. I was also carrying more water than usual, because I was worried water would be an issue in the heat. I thought about leaving my under quilt in the car, because after all, the low was supposed to be around 75, and who needs an under quilt at 75?
Afterward it was off and running into the woods. I was really amazed at the different landforms and environments present in short spaces of time. In a mile I would go from dense forest to open meadows and back to forests, through high dry areas and low wet spots. I know that other people hike the trails I go on, otherwise there would be no trail. But walking along the thin little footpath under my feet, I was awestruck. I’ve watched countless (okay maybe two dozen) YouTube videos made by thru and section hikers. They all trod this same path.
Much like seeing a city scene on a movie and saying, “Hey! I’ve been there!”, walking along the path gave me a feeling of reverence and awe. It was also very calming. Despite the troubles involved in getting there, within moments of stepping onto the path, it all washed away. It was just me and nature. And I say that with more emphasis than usual, because it WAS just Me and Nature. My friends were on the other end, so I was hitting this one solo. I walked up a ways, until I could look down on Troutville. I was sweating gallons by this point.
I said on Facebook I was a little disappointed in this first leg. That really wasn’t the right term, or the entire feeling. I was disappointed I was SO DAMN HOT. When one goes to Virginia in September, one does not expect sweat to be dripping from every pore. Add to that, maybe 3/4 of a mile of the trail uphill from Daleville lies a pretty good climb along a cut next to the interstate. The tall weeds keep out the cooling breezes, and their is an absence of trees to let in all the scorching rays of the sun. I was happy to cross under the interstate, if only for the brief respite from the blinding sun.
This is why I usually avoid summer hikes, and why I was tired and out of breath. I haven’t hiked since May.
The next interesting event was crossing a cow pasture. Cows look neat in the pens at the state fair, or sitting in the fields as you drive by at 80 miles per hour. But when you go into their habitat, and have to walk right by them, with no pen between you and them, it’s a little disconcerting. Cows are large beasts up close. The view from this hilltop was pretty incredible. The cows of course were all gathered in the shade right by the footbridge over the creek.
Going down that hill was a nice break from the woods, but not so nice the next day.
A few hours in, I was tired, hot, and hungry. I stopped along the trail and put up my hammock chair to relax and try and cool off. The breeze blowing under the thing really helps cool me off. So I’m laying in the hammock for about 5 minutes, eating my Cliff bar and drinking water, when I hear thunder in the distance. I say, rather ironically, “Gee, I hope it rains so it cools stuff off around here.” I got my wish. Almost before I could put the hammock chair away, it started raining. And it REALLY rained. Thunder, lightning, wind, the whole bit.
I had my raincoat on at first, then took it off because the rain slowed down and I was wet enough from sweating that it wasn’t making much difference. I really think the purpose of the raincoat is not so much to keep you dry, but to hold off some of the wind, so that the water against your skin warms up to body temp. You’re wet, but it is a warm wet. Less chance of hypothermia.
The rain came back with a vengeance about the same time that I thought I should be reaching the Fulhardt Knob Shelter. It was raining sideways and freezing cold. When I reached the top of the hill, I could hear air raid sirens coming from the town below. I’m guessing they were warning of severe thunderstorms, or maybe tornados. My friends said later they got hailed on, which is a good indication of tornadic-type activity. There was also this strange Klaxon that would go off occasionally, that sounded oddly like Azog the Defiler’s war trumpet in The Hobbit: Battle of 5 Armies. So I wasn’t sure if I was about to be carried away by a twister, or overrun by Orcs.
Thankfully the rain almost completely stopped when I got to the shelter, because after all, the one place you’re safe from rain is at the shelter (insert sarcastic tone here). I was also glad my GPS mileage and the AWOL’s guide mileage didn’t agree. During the rain, I had my glasses off and my head down. The book said it was 5.5 miles or so to the shelter from Daleville. I was almost at 6 and hadn’t seen it. I was worried I missed a sign, but there it was, suddenly in front of me.
I sat down exhausted and cold, and looked at my map. I was still 4 miles at least from the next shelter, Wilson. It was after 6, and who knew if rain was going to continue to be a problem. So, I gave in to the fact that I would have to spend the night here instead. I would work out something in the morning. I fixed my food and sat eating and enjoying the quiet. The shelter was built in such a way that there was really no place to set up a hammock inside. About the time I decided I should set up camp, two guys arrived. I told them they would have the shelter to themselves, and put up my stuff about 50 yards away, where there were good trees.
It was amazing how cool it was, and it wasn’t long before I got the under quilt out, and snuggled up in my now warm hammock. I wound up using my home made tie-dye hammock, although the foot end was lower than it should have been and I kept sliding a little during the night. I should have turned around the other way. It turned out I didn’t need the bug net, but after dark I started attracting moths while texting my friends and wife and trying to play a game, so I had to turn off the phone.
The next day I woke up and packed up, and the guys from the night before had left already. I headed out, thinking I was going the right way, and it was about 3 miles later I discovered I was headed south instead of north. I came across a fallen tree I knew I had passed the previous day. I sat down and looked at my map. My friends were going to stay at Wilson that night. There was no way for me to walk all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway like I wanted, then back to Wilson, and on to Fulhardt for a second night. I kept going, intending on going back to Daleville and on south. By the time I reached Daleville my feet were on fire and my knees were killing me. Rather than plunge headlong into the unknown I just gave up and left on a high note.
My video (music is “something new” by Axwell/Ingrosso):
What I learned:
Load your GPS with maps of the place you intend on going. Not that I really even used the GPS this trip, besides for geocaches. But I usually have the TOPO stuff on the GPS and it’s nice and easy to refer to, whereas I have to fight the map in and out of a “convenient” pocket.
White blazes are the same both ways. Pay attention when leaving the shelters.
When in doubt, use the interstate.
There’s no pleasing anyone. Some people hate that you are going somewhere at all. Others hate it when you don’t get to meet them somewhere. Sometimes you’re better just giving up on everything.
Exercise. Exercise. Especially in the off season. Hiking is more fun when you aren’t huffing and puffing.
Turn the phone off. Yes, I had signal here. Not great, but I did. Next time I go somewhere, I’m thinking of just leaving the phone at home.