Hustled to get it
To get it together
Down on the jive talk
Down on the weather
Brother I never felt better
No, I never felt better
Boogie Pilgrim lyrics by Bernie Taupin
Who in their right mind would choose to strap 30 pounds on their back, trudge up and down muddy mountains and then sleep on the ground? Who would choose a privy over a spa? Who would fight mosquitoes and rain and call it a vacation? Who would willingly go without a shower, eat dehydrated food and drink nothing but water, energy drinks and instant coffee for five days? Who would sleep in a mice-infested wooden hut with complete strangers who smell like a gym locker on the last day of school?
Me. In 2010 I was a corporate lawyer working in a hermetically sealed office with glass walls. I spent my days alternating between my phone and my computer, often using both at the same time. I spent my weekends arguing with two teenage children who insisted they knew more than I did.
When I can get out to the woods, I take the opportunity. I love being in the woods all by myself. It’s beautiful out there. Except for the occasional “hiker funk,” the air smells sweet. There’s no traffic (except at trailheads) and it’s usually very quiet. There’s no TV or raucous teenagers. I’m disconnected from my cell phone, my email and the internet. I don’t have to wear makeup or pantyhose.
Walking among trees by myself helps me recharge my batteries. It’s so simple and uncomplicated. Not easy, mind you, but simple. I put one foot in front of the other. I carry everything I need on my back. I’m a modern day pilgrim.
During the week before Memorial Day in 2010, I completed my first solo section hike on the Appalachian Trail. I took Bodey, my six year old terrier mix, with me. I started on a Friday night with a small group I met online, which consisted of Joe, the trip leader, his wife Joany and their two daughters, ages 15 and 5. Even though the girls were young, they were accomplished hikers. We were also joined by a young woman and former thru hiker with the trail name “Ember” and her friend Jared. A thru hiker is a person who attempts to hike all 2180 miles of the Appalachian Trail in one season. A trail name is a nickname a hiker earns on the trail, usually after doing something stupid. “Wrong Way,” for example, is a common trail name.
We started after dark at the James River footbridge near Glasgow, Virginia. We stopped after about a mile and camped near a small stream. For the first time I had to pitch my tent in absolute darkness with only my headlamp to help me.
The next morning we hiked south for 13 miles to the Thunder Hill Shelter. Shelters provide a water source and a privy, so hikers usually sleep in or near them. We found a tent site near the shelter. Joe pitched his tent first. As soon as it was up, Bodey trotted in and took a nap. I had to pull him out, which was embarrassing, but also he was very tired and weighed 35 pounds. It was like trying to haul a full size mattress down a flight of stairs.
We spent the evening enjoying stories, jokes and warm margaritas.
The next morning I parted ways with my group and began my solo section hike—just Bodey and me. I was happy to be hiking alone. I’m a ridiculously slow hiker and I stop a lot to take in the view and to catch my breath. No matter how good a shape I’m in, I get out of breath going up hills.
People usually ask me if I’m afraid to hike alone. Absolutely not. A person is safer on the trail than in a city. Crime is rare on the trail.
What about bears? People ask me that too. Black bears are more scared of humans than the other way around. I’ve seen a number of bears and they take off as soon as they see me. I really don’t see that there’s anything to be afraid of on the trail.
Soon after I started that morning I came upon the Guillotine; in fact I almost missed it. Here the trail ran through two giant rock formations about five feet apart. A large round boulder hung between the two formations, suspended overhead. It was a little unnerving to walk under the boulder, but what an amazing site!
I hiked ten miles that day. It was mostly a long downhill. I met a few thru hikers heading north, but other than that, I had the trail to myself. The only sound I heard was my own labored breath. I saw a few deer and one bear. The forest was lush due to the Spring rain. I walked along lost in my own thoughts, happy to be away from the office.
It rained off and on. During one downburst when I stopped to put on my poncho, Bodey burrowed himself under a rotting log and refused to come out. I had to pull him out by grabbing the straps of his backpack. His blonde fur was covered with bits of decaying wood. Even though Bodey loved to walk, he was not used to walking all day long. He wanted his afternoon nap!
I stopped for the night at the Bryant Park Shelter. The shelter was located in a picturesque setting in the crux of a stream. I soaked my tired feet in the cool water, put on my pink crocs that I used for camp shoes and then hung my bear bag. Food must be hung high so the bears won’t steal it at night. To hang a bear bag properly, you must find a tall tree with a horizontal branch about 15 or 20 feet from the ground. The branch must be large enough to support the bag, but not large enough to support a bear. Then you have to tie something heavy like a rock to the end of a rope and throw it over the branch. Once the rope is hanging over the branch, you replace the rock with the food bag, hoist it up to the branch and then secure the other end of the rope to the tree. It looks easy on YouTube.
Unfortunately, many of the trees around the shelter with the right type of branch were dead, so the branches broke with a loud crack each time I threw the rope. Worse, the right trees were located on top of a steep slope behind the shelter. Good thing no one was around to see me slip down the slope in my pink crocs. And it’s not easy to throw a rock 20 feet up in the air! A few times the rock swung back and hit me in the face. Eventually I got it done.
I was alone at the shelter. I didn’t mind hiking by myself, in fact I preferred it so I could keep my own pace, but I didn’t relish spending the night alone. Fortunately, a young couple came along around 6:30. Although they kept to themselves, I was glad they were there.
Since the rain had started again, I decided not to pitch my tent but to sleep in the shelter. I hate sleeping in shelters. They are full of mice and squirrels and other critters that like to scamper across sleeping hikers and chew into backpacks. Worse, shelter floors are much harder than the ground. When it rains, however, it’s easier and dryer to sleep in the shelter.
The next morning I had the same problem with Bodey that I had had the day before. This time he got under the shelter and I had to crawl in after him. By now his fur was stained with mud. He looked as disheveled as I did.
Monday I hiked up Fork Mountain and then down to Jennings Creek. I was tired, dirty and I wanted to quit. To leave the trail, however, I had to walk 1.5 miles up a road to the Middle Creek Campground.
When I got to the campground the camp store was closed. It was Monday. I sat on the bench in front of the store and charged my phone so I could get a ride out of there. I had lost 40 pounds the year before and was doing P90X regularly, which is a tough workout program, but the hills still had me beat.
About five minutes after I sat down a young woman came out of a trailer across from the store and opened the store for me. I bought a Diet Dr. Pepper and some toilet paper. I always seemed to run out of toilet paper on the trail.
I called my husband. He encouraged me to keep going, probably because he did not want to drive all the way to wherever the hell I was to pick me up. A few minutes later a Subaru came roaring into the parking lot. A young woman got out and headed around the back of the store where the showers were located.
A young man with brown hair and a matching beard also got out the car and immediately started talking to me. He told me his trail name was “Two Rings” because he wore two earrings. He said he was a thru but had been forced off the trail near Blacksburg by gout and spent some time in the hospital there. Now he was waiting to heal so he could continue. He was so excited to return to the trail. His enthusiasm must have rubbed off on me because when he offered me a ride back to the trailhead I accepted. Hiking is like natural childbirth. You forget how bad it is when it’s over. Then you realize it again as you start climbing the next mountain.
After they dropped me off I began the climb up from the road. There’s always a tough climb up from the road. At the top I took some pictures at the Mills Gap Overlook. The sign at the overlook said there was a nice view, but it was too foggy to see anything. Everywhere I looked I saw nothing but tall, silent trees. They seemed to beckon me to keep going.
I walked a total of 13 miles that day and stopped at the Bobblets Gap Shelter. When I arrived I noticed a young man resting inside. This was unusual as most thrus finished up much later in the day. He got up slowly and awkwardly. Bad ankles, he said. He introduced himself as Caleb—no trail name, which was also unusual. We were soon joined by a tall bearded man about my age. I was glad to see someone my age. Caleb joined us for dinner and we listened to Bean’s life story. He was a retired sales rep for a bicycle company in Portland. He had a grown daughter whom he had raised alone. He got his trail name from the fact that he was a vegetarian. His daughter was sending him mail drops so he could eat the food he preferred.
There wasn’t much room to pitch a tent so I slept in the shelter with Caleb. Beans pitched his tent nearby. Early in the morning I heard Caleb get up and pack. I fell back asleep and when I woke up again, he was still there and sobbing. He was in too much pain to continue hiking but he did not want to stop. This was his second or third attempt to thru hike and each time he had been forced to leave the trail. I could tell he felt like a failure. I talked to him for a while. Since he was only 27 I told him he had plenty of time to hike the trail but he could not hike in his current condition. I convinced him to go home to heal. He hobbled off, hopefully to the nearest road.
After Caleb left, I heard a voice say, “Good job, mom.” Beans had listened to the conversation but did not come out because he did not want to embarrass Caleb.
“I hope I meet someone like you,” Beans said before I left. Nice ego boost for a 50 year old woman!
This was now Tuesday. It was still misty and foggy, but at least it was cool. The hills were still kicking my butt and I had to stop often. I started to listen to music on my I-Pod and Elton John seemed to make the climbs a little easier. I walked another 13 miles that day. I met a couple more thrus heading in the opposite direction. One was an unemployed architect and another a firefighter from Brooklyn.
I spent the last night at Fullhardt Knob Shelter. This shelter was only five miles from Daleville where my hike would end. Fullhardt Knob is famous in hiking circles because for a time a woman lived in the shelter. Hikers are only allowed to spend one night in a shelter. This woman was not a hiker, however. Her name was “Crazy Mary” and she apparently had multiple personalities. One of them thought she was the rightful heir to the English throne. Fortunately Mary was long gone by the time I arrived in 2010, but it seems that the homeless try to inhabit the shelter frequently because it is so close to Daleville.
The night I stayed there I met Winston and Churchill. Not Winston Churchill, but Winston and Churchill, two men in their 70’s from Norfolk, England. Winston was doing a thru and Churchill was accompanying him for part of the trek. I asked them if they had ever hiked the Coast to Coast trail in England. The Coast to Coast trail is about 200 miles long and can be hiked Inn to Inn so camping is not required.
“No,” Winston (or Churchill) said. “We’ll wait to do that when we are old.”
The next morning they helped me coax Bodey out from under the shelter with Froot Loops and then they headed north while I headed south into Daleville. On the way, Bodey saw his first cow. He had never seen an animal that big and he stopped dead in his tracks. The cows paid him no attention but Bodey was not taking any chances. I had to put his leash on him and cajole him past them.
At Daleville, the trail emerged from the woods and crossed the main highway in the town. I saw a hotel and several restaurants, including a Wendy’s. I made a beeline for the Wendy’s and bought two cheeseburgers—one for me and one for Bodey. It was my first fresh—not dehydrated—meal in five days! Bodey had never been given an entire cheeseburger before so at first he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Once he figured out what it was, he gobbled it up faster than I did.
I had arranged for a shuttle to drive me back to my car, which I had left at my starting point. My shuttle driver was a rotund retired nurse named Del. He had worked in a nearby mental hospital for 33 years. Del is what is known as a “trail angel.” Trail angels are regular people (I won’t say normal) who, for whatever reason, like to help hikers. The back of Del’s business card read: “Not only have I touched your life, but also your family and friends. Knowing I’ve helped makes me feel thankful that we’ve met and shared these few moments together in this big world of ours. Take care. Safe Trail walking. Trail Angel Del.”
Del chatted about his job, his dogs and various other topics as we drove up I-81 back to my car. I mentioned on the ride that my car was low on gas, so when we arrived at my car he stayed to make sure it started. That night he called me to make sure I got home safe. That’s why they’re called Trail Angels.
I drove to our house at Smith Mountain Lake, which was only about 20 miles away. This was Wednesday and the family would arrive on Friday for the Memorial Day weekend.
I took a shower and a bath. Then I made an appointment for a massage and a pedicure at the nearest spa. It felt great to be clean and sleep in a real bed.
I had hiked 56 miles in 4 ½ days, mostly by myself. I hadn’t quit even when I wanted to. Instead I kept going and conquered those darn hills. I had hung my own bear bag, counseled a young thru hiker and received a much needed compliment from an attractive man. Some vacation. And yet I couldn’t wait until the next one.