As far as I see it, the big achievement is almost less significant than the multitude of little achievements, because the big achievements are merely derivative of the little ones. The real victory of the AT comes not in hitting these milestones, but in daily choices. An example: I bought new shoes in Waynesboro, VA. After breaking them in, I discovered a manufacturing defect in the left shoe that has given me a nasty and excruciating blister-bruise combo on my left heel. And about 10 miles into each day, the temptation to quit early for the day sounds absolutely delightful. But if I make a pattern of getting off my feet until they're comfortable, I'll never get anywhere. The AT is a lot about pain tolerance, and knowing when to listen to your body, and when to grit your teeth and suck it up. These choices are what make 1,000 miles possible.
People often talk about the "Virginia blues". Virginia is a really, really long state. It contains about 550 miles of trail (about a quarter of the entire AT), and I, like most hikers, spent a bit more than a month in the state. After a while, the monotony of travelling in the same state can become oppressive, especially since a good chunk of it is spent walking nondescript ridges. I never got the Virginia blues, however. I found Virginia to be punctuated by a few really delightful sections. One of them was the Dragons Tooth. It's a gigantic rock outcropping atop a mountain that sticks more or less straight up into the air. It's a really fun climb, and blurs the line between a rock scramble and straight-up bouldering (yes, the little nondescript figure at the top is me). You don't get very many of those adrenaline-rushing "oh crap, I'm gonna die! This is awesome!" experiences on the southern half of the AT, but this was definitely one of them.
Virginia was also the place where I finally got my trail legs. It had been a source of some annoyance to me that, although I was feeling stronger, I was still plodding along through the southern part of the state. However, around mile 750, I finally started to hum along at a good pace. First I started doing a couple of 20 mile days per week. Then I did a pair of 20s back-to-back. And finally I could do 20s on a daily basis. I went from doing about 100-mile weeks to 115 mile weeks. And when the terrain became easier in Shenandoah National Park, I could do a 130 mile week. The goal isn't to do big miles, of course. I know a lot of people (especially young people) who ramp up the pace to keep up with their friend-groups, and end up with shin splints, tendonitis, or stress fractures. But after a while, an 18 becomes a short day, and you're able to do 20 and still take the time to sit on a rock and admire a view, or to play a 15 minute game of peek-a-boo with a pair of deer.
Anyway, tons of things have happened since I updated last, but I don't possibly have room to describe them all. Also, I'm lazy, and am running out of themes for my ever-expansive blog posts. So I have an assignment for you: if you wouldn't mind, PLEASE leave a comment on the bottom of this post (or shoot me an email/facebook message/text) to let me know what YOU want to know about this here hike. I'd like to make it interesting and relevant to the readers, and to avoid having to come with with good post ideas. I will answer pretty much any question except the following:
- "Do you bring a gun?" If you think I'm gonna tote a five-pound brick of dead weight all the way to Maine on the odd chance that a bear even looks askance at me before running away in sheer terror, you crazy. A gun will do nothing to protect me from any actual dangers on the AT (namely: hypothermia, giardia, or slick rocks in a rainstorm)
- "How to you eat?" I open my mouth, insert the food, chew sufficiently (sometimes), swallow and digest, and burn it as energy, much like you do! Now if you're asking where and how often I get the food, that's a different question entirely.
- "I just met a guy with a beard on the trail, but I can't remember his name. Do you know him?" Yes, probably, but "guy with a beard" describes every thru-hiker who has a Y chromosome. Try to be more specific, and don't include stuff like "scruffy hair", "was carrying poles", and "flew past me really fast".
- "How far are you going?" This question is always ambiguous, because I'm never sure if they mean where I'm stopping for the night, or how far I'm going on this trip. If you misinterpret, you either look like a braggart, telling them you're a thru-hiker when they really just wanted to know if you're gonna take the last spot in the next shelter, or too reticent to share what you're doing.
- "Do you wear deoderant?" Yeah, like that would make any difference after you've been sweating from every square inch of your body and haven't showered in two weeks.