It’s been quite a while since I’ve last written a post and there are many reasons for it, the biggest one being the shear amount that has happened between then and now. I guess the place to begin is on the bridge out of Hot Springs, North Carolina. Jake’s friend, Alex, dropped us off just as the sun was setting in-between two western mountains. We hopped the guardrail and were back on the Trail, heading upstream of the French Broad River. The water was a solid brown but as the sky lit up in a clouded spectrum of oranges and pinkish hues, it was reflected off the river as dusk slowly turned to night. The climb out of the little town was very steep and followed along the edge of a granite and limestone outcropping, making for dangerous, yet incredibly exciting, near-night hiking. That evening was our first warm, dry night in quitte sometime and we set our tents up right as the last rays of sunset slipped behind the mountains.
The sounds of empty coal cars thundering down some nearby railroad woke us up early and we set out on our way. Near midday we stopped for lunch at a shelter and from a few hundred yards behind us came a “hey boys” in a thick and very distinct south Jersey accent. We turned to see Mike “Buckets,” the thru-hiker we’d met back at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The three of us have been hiking together ever since.
After just a couple big-mile days, we were in Erwin, Tennessee staying at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel, a nice little place with showers, laundry, and cheap bunks. We resupplied and left the next morning in a hail storm. After knocking nearly twenty miles, we settled down in a place called Cherry Gap and called it a night.
Long before I began thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, there were a couple of backcountry trips that stuck out in my memory as the worst. The next morning began a day that surely topped any experience I’d had before and it has grown in infamy between the three of us since. It started off bitterly cold with a drizzling rain made worse by a wet, claustrophobic fog hanging low over everything. Hiking through the heavy air was exhausting and our visibility throughout the day never grew more than twenty-five feet. It seemed to grow colder with each passing hour and the farther we went, the wetter and muddier the three of us got. All time and sense of distance or direction was lost in that frozen, wretched fog. I would check my watch and hike for what I thought was an hour and look down to realize only ten minutes had passed. You could have considered the terrain easy on any other day but the shin-deep mud and constant beatings from a cutting wind made the miles drag slowly by. The three of us eventually made it to large, cabin-like shelter on top of Roan Mountain where we tried our best to get as dry and as warm as we could. That night we shivered ourselves in to what little sleep was possible.
While it was a struggle, before we knew it we were in Hampton, Tennessee and a little over fifty miles away from the Virginia border. We resupplied at a Dollar General and slept at Bob Peoples’s hostel, Kincora, which was amazing. That night, “Buckets” and I sat up and ate sixteen hot dogs in just over an hour. The next morning we followed the Laurel River for a ways before climbing back up in to the northern Tennessee mountains and somehow made it to Damascus in two days. Worn out and beat up from our two back-to-back marathon days, we did a zero-mile day there and my good friend from high school, Tyler, drove down and spent the night in the local hostel with us. That night there was a blues musician playing at a local bar and we spent the night listening to some real Southwest Virginia pickin’. I have never felt so happy to be back in my home state until now.
All too soon, Jake was knocking at the door at 6:15am and we were back on the Trail, hiking through the chilly, misty dawn. That afternoon, thunder roared and a little bit of lightning shot across the sky. Halfway up Whitetop Mountain, marble-sized hail began pummeling us from above, leaving whelps up and down my arms and shoulders. By the time we made camp, the mountainside was a shining, glassy mess of white ice. We had finally made it to the Grayson Highlands, a place where the windswept mountaintops roll in to one another and wild horses roam free over craggy rock scrambles. The weather was as near to perfect as it could be and for as far and as wide as our eyes could see was revealed the shear immensity of the land we were now venturing through. The three of us had one of our most enjoyable days of the trip so far.
Over the next few days, our group of three grew to five, including “Patches,” a school teacher from New Hampshire and one of the few female thru-hikers we’ve met so far, and Matt “Veggie,” a quiet but sincere western Massachusetts man who is hiking to his college graduation. Together we have covered incredible distances in only a few days, enjoying one another’s company all along the way.
Two days ago, the five of us practically had to drag ourselves through twenty-four miles of rain-soaked trail on a day where there was no sun, making the entire day a constant battle against the cold. By the end of the day, we were utterly exhausted and a few of us were low on food. The next morning was a frosty spring morning but the red sun coming up in the east quickly turned to a warming orange and the sky became a clear, cloudless blue. For some reason unknown to me, our energy swelled and we kept pushing on and on down the Trail. Finally, near the twenty-four mile mark, “Patches” mentioned something about there being a full moon that night. After discussing it briefly and throwing a good bit of our better judgement to the wind, we set off once again for a high ridgeline on what was sure to be a below-freezing April evening. By midnight our energy finally gave out and we pitched a tarp and all huddle underneath, having completed a 32.6 mile day. The night was a bone-chilling cold and the wind whipped relentlessly through the leaf-less trees but we were warmed by the knowledge that we had ventured far past our limits and somehow come out okay. The shear rawness of it all, the utter reality of what we had just done, all of it made the settling frost and the biting cold just a little bit more bearable.
We woke up early this morning to another sunny day and we set out for Pearisburg, Virginia early. Due to the night before, we were only about nine miles away and made decent time, pulling in to town around 11:00am. One-by-one, we descended on a local chinese buffet and, after about two hours, we had eaten so much food that the staff were doing everything they could to run us out except ask us to leave, including putting the same song of repeat for fifty minutes.
So here we are, nearly six weeks and six hundred thirty miles in to our hike. In all that I had read or heard about long distance backpacking, I had grown to expect some great change within myself, some overwhelming realization of who I am and what it was I wished to be. It is true, I have grown far more confident in how far I can push myself and what I am capable of. However, my own personal enlightenment has escaped me. It is within those whom I’ve met along this journey where a true understanding has come to develop. This Trail has shown me hundreds of miles of land where countless people live who are willing to help a fellow when they desperately need it. It may sound strange, corny, or crazy but the shear amount of kindness we’ve encounter both on and off the A.T. would make even the most stone cold, cynical person smile at a stranger. I’ve had food, rides, places to sleep, equipment, and words of encouragement offered to me without cost or conditions from all sorts of people. There’s still many miles and many months of trekking ahead but it makes the traveller’s weight a little easier to carry knowing there are still those out there willing to lend a hand when it is needed most.
Our next stop is Blacksburg, Virginia, my second home. We should be arriving on Wednesday, April 11th and my good friend Andrew Sunderman has offered to pick us up and take us in to town. After so many miles of unfamiliar countryside, I can’t wait to spend a night or two in a place and a people as close to my heart as Blacksburg. More to come in a few days from the heart of the Hokie Nation.
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