AT Day 102: Definitely The Last Update From Virginia

The past month-so since my last update has included some of my best days on trail, as well as most challenging. The canoe trip was a great success, despite some setbacks, and well worth being set back a week of hiking. The following days, hiking alone and atrophied, were frustrating and chore-like, but by the time I exited Shenandoah I felt renewed, with a peace and understanding that I lacked before the endeavor.

The canoe trip with the Snooze Crew began with a bang: waking up before dawn for the 10-and-three-more of us to pile into the back of a moving van and drive to a river shove-off somewhere outside Waynesboro, VA. There we were met by six others, creating a fleet of ten: nine canoes and a kayak. The river was high, but not too high (alto ma non troppo), and there was often no need to paddle. The first day out was a learning opportunity: We had one tump-over, one swamping, and once, sitting at the front of the canoe I heard, “Where we going, Boogs?” from my partner as we careened towards shore. Confused, and frustrated with the misplaced responsibility I cried, “YOU’RE THE ONE STEERING!” – an important bit of canoeing mechanics poor Sticks must have missed. I sat the helm thereafter.

That afternoon, and night, and some of the next day, rain came. This was fun on the river; to pivot for shelter beneath the canopy stretched over the water. Unfortunately, it caused the water levels to rise to a point we had to wait out a couple days at the outdoors center we were renting from. If you are good at counting, you may have noticed my last email was not sent on my 77th day, but a couple later, during the time we were “grounded.” We spent the days patronizing the small town’s few attractions and playing around the grounds of the center. Eight of our ranks grew impatient and returned to the trail (I don’t blame them) but we convinced our captors we were prepared enough to set off on the third.

The higher water provided even more thrust than our first day out, and outside of navigating small “rapids” we drew our canoes together in a flotilla, easing conversation, the passing of beers, and shooting of breeze. The river was beautiful, and had a different kind of stillness than in the woods. The sound of the water moving was inescapable, and yet it felt as though the world had stopped as we passed in the shadow of the mountains intended to be hiked over. We were treated to clear skies for eagles to fly during the day, and stars to twinkle at night; and to no major flubs save for another tump-and-swamp during some Class 3 rapids. Three days later, at Front Royal, the trail town that marks the end of Shenandoah, four of us ended our trip early while the others continued on up to Harper’s Ferry. We who left did so for various reasons: a planned family trip abroad, and unexpected and tragic funeral, and for myself, simply to hike. Logistics thrust me up to D.C. for a day, to rent a car, briefly pal around with a college buddy, and pick up some quality instant coffee (just the essentials). I drove back to Daleville, VA, where we had left off, and returned to the task at hand.

It felt good to be back in the woods, as always, but there was a simultaneous lament this time around. On my first days back, the few hikers I met were out only for a section, and then when I met thru hikers they were gone the next day as I passed. It felt I was a caboose, and the train had long gone. The shock was twofold: going from sitting, drinking, and storytelling with 12-18 other people (including some of my favorites on trail) to hiking 20 miles a day, alone, was demoralizing, to say the least. I escaped to audiobooks, listening to one a day, pondering, making good progress, but still feeling largely unfulfilled.

The area I had returned to was one of the most popular for hikers to skip (including most of the Snooze Crew), but it had its moments: some of Virginia’s best views, invisible creeks that ran under boulders, and a general verdancy that was comfortable to be surrounded by. Five days in, about, I had re-centered to a place of positive introspection, and separated the feeling of being “alone” with “lonely.” The summer solstice, on which thru hikers go naked, played a hand in this, since I was the only person I saw that day taking part, and with nothing to comfortably clip my mp3 player to, was left with my own thoughts. Two days later, my legs returned, and I felt the satisfaction of reaching a summit after the strain. That same day, I finally met some people who I would see again, albeit briefly, while drinking at the Devil’s Backbone brewery (of course). The brewery was an interesting space. It bothered me to support AB/Inbev so directly, but their campus with state-park-like car camping and brewing and beveraging facilities was a great combination.

Past the brewery, and on the other side of a town, I entered Shenandoah National Park. Unlike the backcountry of the Great Smoky Mountains, the AT travels along many trails frequented by day-hikers, and even includes sections of the road the park was built for. How American, I thought; to have such a beautiful space be optimized for driving. The trail here was easy, both because of trail maintenance, and the frequent camp stores and “waysides” meant I never carried more than a single day’s worth of food. Naturally, I stopped at a lodge both for its taproom, and after a night in an “unofficial” campspot behind a water tank, its breakfast buffet the next morning. While famous among hikers for the amenities and ease-of hiking (I did my first marathon day!), Shenandoah also provided the most bears I’ve seen, and the thickest greenery of the already very green state.

Leaving the park, I was back in Front Royal, two weeks since I had left. While the remaining duo of MOTHRA SQUAD powered into Pennsylvania and most of the Snooze Crew crossed the unmoving spiritual halfway of the trail in Harper’s Ferry, I had walked a distance previously covered by van and canoe in far less time, but I felt great.

My sister Holly and her fiance AJ met me in Front Royal (the second time I was there), and we drove to Richmond for a few days. It was nice to be in a town far away from the trail, and in a city with many things to do. It was even nicer to see them! The visit was short, and on Independence Day, I was dropped off back at the trail as the sun set. My fireworks were the dim glow of lightning bugs in the twilight, fading in and out, out of time with the bursts sounding in the distance.

Soon I will be powering through Pennsylvania, and crossing the unmoving spiritual halfway of the trail in Harper’s Ferry. As well as the literal “nerd’s” halfway mileage, and the truest halfway point, wherein a hiker must eat an entire half gallon of ice cream in one sitting. I can’t wait.

See you soon,

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