April 6, 2018
Destination: Damascus, VA Today's Miles: 0
Start Location: Damascus, VA Trip Miles: 470
It’s been a week. A week-long lesson on easy does it.
I woke up at about 8am. I stayed up until about 11:30 last night watching chapter one of Planet Earth II - the BBC series. Chapter one is on islands, and the sloth was featured in the episode. I couldn’t help but relate. I’d felt a little like a sloth this week. It’s been good though. I woke up relaxed and went to breakfast with Bear Meat, Clooney, Traveler, and Captain Krispy. Bear Meat and Clooney were hiking out right after breakfast, and The Captain was heading out not long after. Traveler was taking a zero. We had a great time at breakfast. I had the breakfast quesadilla and my usual two cinnamon buns, one delayed so as to make me feel a little less disgusting.
After breakfast I went back to the Inn to tape up my feet a bit and try walking in my shoes. I did so. My heels felt ok, with my left heel definitely a little further along than my right. What was odd though was that my right shoe felt too tight. I had spent forever in the shoe store earlier in the week trying them on and fussing about fit, how was it that it felt tight? I kept walking and hooked onto the Creeper trail to go back to the inn. When I got back, I sat on my bunk and messed with my shoes and socks. There was no doubt about it, the shoe was too tight. The only thing I could think of that might have happened was that my feet had continued to expand during the week. It wasn’t out of the question given I had them out of my shoes and in my crocs this week. While I no longer had my receipt or shoe box, I knew the guy at Sundogs, Brad, would remember me so I took the shoes back. He was incredibly nice and understanding and let me try a half size up - 10.5s. I tried those on. Hmmmmm...could it be that the right shoe was still too tight? It was crazy, but I decided to try the 11s too. My boots were a size 9 and normally in Altras I take about a half size up. Was it possible that my feet had grown an entire size and a half. Bingo! The 11s fit the best! I was astounded, and tried the 10.5s yet again, but I walked away with the 11s. I think I have seriously underestimated the abuse I’ve dished out to my feet! A friend of mine suggested that I change my trail name to “Clown Feet” via text (thanks Tony! ;-). He’s kind of right though - size 11 is a bit ridiculous for a guy who is 5’8”. I should measure them and see if they are as long as I am tall.
Anyway, I got that sorted and feel much better now. I ate a salad for a late lunch and felt good about that, until I found another bag of candy in the hiker box and destroyed it like a hungry cat will. I chatted with Paul at the inn and then ended up going to Mojo’s to have dinner. I ordered wings and a bagel and lox. As I ate the wings, a section hiker named Boots, also staying in the bunkhouse, showed up so I invited him to join me. He’s from Chattanooga, TN and hiking southbound from Grayson Highlands to Sam’s Gap. We had a good chat over dinner. As we ate, RTK and Scars showed up! I hadn’t seen them since the Smokies. We caught up a bit on that, and I asked Scars what the cause was of his kidney pain in the Smokies. Turned out it was related to dehydration and lack of food. After dinner Boots and I moseyed back to the Inn and it was time for me to settle down for the evening. My heels are about ready to be taped and for some slow going hiking. I would like to leave tomorrow, however, we have some wet weather rolling in - rain and snow. I’m going to wake up tomorrow, power myself up with some cinnamon buns, and make a call. If it is really wet, I’ll wait one more day, just so my heels don’t have the wet factor on day one, and head out Sunday. If it looks like it can stay dry for a few hours, I’ll probably walk about 5-6 miles and pitch my tent at a nearby campsite. Thank you all for the encouraging comments, tips, and for sticking with me through this!! I really appreciate it. Damascus is a cool little town. A lot of folks liked Hot Springs better, but no me. Damascus will always have a special place in my heart and stomach.
Someone asked me in the guest book if hiking the AT and meeting people on the trail has changed my outlook on life. I think it might be a bit early to answer that question, but I wanted to share a few thoughts I had on that. I think the answer is no. And yes. I don’t think it has changed my outlook on life. I think I did a lot of other work and had other experiences prior to the trail that helped me to see both the possibility of really thru hiking the trail, as well as the reality that I really needed to make some changes in my life, most notably how I was approaching my professional life. But the other side of that coin is that the trail has changed me just by re-affirming that I could do this - that I could break away from societal norms to have an adventure and be ok. I had the courage to let go, but the trail is giving me the experience of unfettered freedom. It is allowing me to see that, yes, in fact less is more, and I can do more with less. So in that sense it is impossible for it to not help in shaping a new outlook on life. It just isn’t some kind of white light experience. The trail gives me opportunities to practice important things that I am historically quite bad at, such as patience, humility, acceptance of no-strings-attached kindness, asking for help, and following advice. In a more structured life I can often avoid or frame such things. On the trail they become important on a different level, both to my experience and my survival. The trail quickly puts my ability to be rigorously honest with myself to the test. Am I hiking too fast? Should I go farther today to avoid weather conditions on a ridge, or is the abuse to my body in pushing more miles calling for me to stop now? I have already demonstrated that a lack of rigorous honesty, a lack of acceptance, can quickly manifest as a problem or injury. And sometimes it is hard to know these things, just as sometimes I might have to spend some time thinking or meditating to be sure that I am being truthful with myself, particularly when it comes to my own limitations and my will and desire for things to go towards a certain plan that I have concocted in my head. The trail is a great place for me to experience the raw truth that the universe doesn’t care about my plans; the universe has its own order and I am a tiny, insignificant part of that. Meeting others on the trail has certainly been fun. The trail tends to bring out the best in people, and most hikers are wonderful, trustworthy people. It’s a reminder of how “real” life can be, sometimes is, and often is not. Hikers have a strong sense of community, partly because we are united by a common activity. I believe this is particularly true for thru hikers, because we are united with a common purpose as well. When I crossed Newfound Gap in the Smokies and walked through the parking lot of rambling tourists who had pulled over to use the bathroom, stretch their legs and take a picture, I felt lost. Lost in a crowd. The sense of commonality, of camaraderie was not there. I received curious looks in the parking lot as I emptied my trash, repacked gear layers, and probably smelled like a garbage can myself. The trail gives me an opportunity to experience the gift that is being part of a strong community, as well as its fragile nature. I hesitate to label it ephemeral, for in the end it is created by people and erased by people, all through our actions and behaviors. It can be sustained as well as erased. The trail reminds me of the power of kindness and community, when so often our society feels so individually selfish, or goal seeking at the expense of or disregard for others. In life, too often there are heroes and villains, winners and losers, liberals and conservatives, my team or the other team - a ridiculous sampling of pointless polarity. On the trail, there are just hikers. Hikers help each other when something goes wrong. Hikers say hello and chat. Hikers yield the way. Hikers offer food. Hikers tolerate differences. Hikers are not violent, and have a healthy means for processing unhealthy thoughts. Of course it isn’t always this way. There are exceptions and the trail is not some grandly perfect utopia. But in general, the trail allows a microcosm for community and a kinder, gentler life, to bloom. As I refer to the trail, I want to be clear that I am not anthropomorphizing it. It is what it is. It is not kind, it can seem cruel and harsh at times, and it always demands respect. It is, simply, nature.
I’d like to think that hiking the trail will somehow help me to become a better person, to make the best choices I can make. If nothing else, I know it will help me with acceptance, and patience, and those kinds of things that I struggle with. Maybe other things will happen as a result. I try not to think too far ahead. I try to just live 24 hours at a time. Before I started this journey I promised myself I would practice being present on the trail - just being. I try not to think too far ahead. I don’t think about Katahdin. I don’t think about figuring out my life while hiking the trail, or figuring out what I will do for work after. I often think about food though! I also never really thought about whether the trail would change my life. I went into this purposely trying not to have any expectations, other than to be grateful and enjoy all of it, the wonderful and challenging moments. I’m sure you can tell that being in Damascus this long has been a challenge for me. But that is my perspective problem; that is my mind’s problem. It is NOT a real problem. And so I focus on being grateful for all of the awesome things about Damascus, because there are such things and it helps me to stay in a healthy state of mind. There is a reason I like to make a gratitude list every day, because it is easy for me to “forget” to be grateful, and I am happier when I am. Life is better when the cup is half full. Reminders never hurt me; in fact, they always help me. Even if the trail provides nothing else, it gives me the opportunity to practice living a more grateful life. Before the trail, when was the last time I truly appreciated clean clothes? Laundry was just a tiresome chore. Now it is a delight!
I’m sure I will have more thoughts on this topic later on. Remember these are just my thoughts. This is a personal journal - a place for me to record my thoughts and experiences on this journey. I prefer to keep a journal rather than use social media for these things, lest people get confused and think that my thoughts and feelings are projected on them, representative of anyone other than myself, or a forum for debate. This is just me talking about me. I expect other hikers will have their own thoughts and different experiences with how the trail has or hasn’t changed them.
David Miller made some observations in his book “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” that I really like. At one point he says “when the path is clear to pursue a fledgling goal, the path is also clear for deeper insight into your desires.” I stretch this a bit and think that I cleared a path to hike the AT by making some tough choices about my career and the way I was living that part of my life. I do believe that cleared a path for me to learn more about myself, to build even greater confidence in who I am by being a better person, by being true to myself. Where that leads I have no idea, but I am excited to walk that path. I feel alive! Miller also said later, “Now I see an unexpected benefit of thru-hiking. It is an escape from me. It is a forced simplification of my life; being on the trail limits the opportunities for me to pull myself in multiple directions.” I can also relate to this. It’s an escape from me but it isn’t. I still have to work at patience and acceptance. I still have to practice gratitude, and some days to fake it until I make it. But I no longer have the clutter and chaos that I had when I was working. It’s like some kind of long, healthy retreat. I’ve heard it said that it takes at least 30 days to form a new habit. Most people take less than two weeks of vacation a year. Most “retreats” are a week or less. A thru hike is 5-6 months in average. That amount of time, in a focused environment, offers a true opportunity for real growth, whatever that may be and however it may come.
I never regret my decision. I’m always happy to be on the trail. I always miss my wife, family and friends, and that is hard. I always miss Lucy the Cat, because she’s the squishiest. But I know I am on a good path - I’m where I’m supposed to be right now, and that’s all that matters, whether that is Damascus or some other part of the trail. The truth is I have no future career goals, no magic formula, no thoughts on Katahdin, no answers in life. I have only one plan in my head, and that is to keep walking.