Lessons from the Trail
Several months ago I wrote about my friend Tiny Hippo who was going to be setting out on the Appalachian Trail for a 500 mile section hike. She was between jobs and had a few months of severance pay so she figured on taking a "Radical Sabbatical" to do something she'd always wanted to try but never had. So she bought backpacking gear, asked everyone she knew for advice, took a disastrous weekend training trip, reset her expectations, and took the plunge on April 4. I had promised to hike with her for at least 2 days, so I could find out how what she'd learned from 6 weeks on the trail and maybe learn something myself in the process.
I met her at a hostel in Damascus VA after she flip-flopped due to a case of food poisoning; she had met her parents in Hot Springs and something she ate while at dinner with them completely decimated her. She made the safe choice and went home for a few days to recuperate and started again at Grayson Highlands but now hiking south towards Hot Springs to hit her 500 mile goal. As I walked up , she was sitting outside and ran over to give me a hug. Kayakers, rock climbers, disc golfers, the adventurous homeless; all of these are people I've had as friends even with the ups and downs of the olfactory experience. The fog bank of fumes that accompanied Tiny Hippo in that hug was in the top 4 worst adventure odors I've ever experienced, and that was with her wearing clean clothes and taking 2 showers.
Lesson 1 - I've long been told that wool, cotton, and other natural materials don't hold funky smells like synthetics do; after 300+ miles in synthetic, I can now say it is a fact that once the smell permeates synthetics there's no getting it out. It does double as bear deterrent though which is useful.
We set out to do a 30 mile loop, going up the Virginia Creeper trail to where it joins the AT and then hiking southbound on the AT back into Damascus so Rachel could keep heading south; this also allowed me to drop my car at Sun Dog Outfitters for $2 a night and we didn't worry about having to shuttling cars. Rachel and I set out north, and in my arrogance and bull headedness, I asked her to lead and set the pace. At the beginning, she was unable to hike more than 2 mph and I wanted to see how far she'd come. Since it was flat and level, a fast but comfortable pace was what was planned...and she took off at 4mph. If you've ever met me, I'm 6'4" tall, with a 34"+ inseam; I'm like a hairy, less attractive, Rockette dancer. Tiny Hippo is short; similar to a skinny hobbit. And as we hiked a 15 minute mile, she talked non-stop and had a seemingly endless supply of air. Most of my replies were grunts of approval or undulating "mmmm" sounds to show either disapproval or a general "meh". My pack weighed a good 10lbs less than hers and she proceeded to hike me into the ground.
Lesson 2: Even if you're in great shape, if your friend just hiked 300+ miles she's going to kick your tail if you try and match her step for step.
As we churned out the miles, we had gone almost half our planned 20 miles before 1pm and we had started at 10am. A quick snack of Clif Bars for lunch, and we kept on trekking because the turn off for the AT we were looking for was around mile 16 (the AT intersects the Virginia Creeper trail several times along that section due to recent detours). When we came to the turnoff I thought we should take, Rachel told me that wasn't the one and we needed to keep going. Since I didn't have enough air to argue, and since she had just hiked this section, I took her for her word and we kept hiking. 2 miles further on, I convinced her to break out the map and double-check and sure enough we had gone too far. We doubled back and got on the AT, which taught me lesson 3: memories can be wrong, but rarely is your map wrong. Also, people who stay on one trail rarely have to navigate.
With the "scenic detour", my pedometer said that we had hiked 25 miles by the time we finally stumbled into Saunders Shelter around 6pm. Tents were pitched and massive quantities of food were consumed before we settled in with the rest of the hikers beside a nice campfire. Trail names were exchanged and explained, stories shared of other thru-hikers, a discussion of how african killers bee stings may cure lyme disease, and the legend of an RV salesman named "Tom Raper" who's slogan was proposed as "We don't take no for an answer". Thru-hiker stories are sometimes the best, like the story of "Bearclaw", the hiker carrying 3 full size swords with him along the trail. This is not be confused with the other hiker, name unknown, hiking the trail in chainmail with a broadsword at his side.
Tiny Hippo had a story from her hike through the Smokies, when it rained non-stop for a week. One night as she came into the shelter area, she put up her tent, changed into her dry clothes and camp Crocs, and settled in next to the fire. Eventually the call of nature requested she take care of some business, so she grabbed her trowel and TP and asked the other campers which way to the privy or at least the general bathroom area. The pointed her to where a hill dropped away from everyone so she headed that way. With all the rain, the trail was more like a mud trough and her Crocs tread weren't up to the task; she slid halfway down the hill before completely losing balance and getting her entire backside covered in mud. Taking a moment to collect her thoughts and anger at getting dirty, she looked around and realized an odd collection of ant hills surrounding her on both sides of the trail; and out of the anthills, like flames spurting from a volcano, were small bits of white toilet paper sticking out of the top. With growing horror, she realized nobody had taken the effort to dig deep into the mud to bury their waste, and there was the strong possibility she had just slid in some of it. Fully enraged, she completed her business and began hiking back to the shelter in a huff...which is when she realized if it was impossible to hike down the hill without slipping an falling, hiking up was far, far worse. By the end of her struggle, she was crawling on her hands and knees, using the trowel like a primitive ice axe to drag herself back to the shelter. I can only imagine what the other people at the shelter thought when this mud (hopefully it was mud) covered, sobbing, borderline hysterical figure came from the otherside of the hill, but they gathered around her all the same to help her clean herself and to calm down from this major panic attack. Once she calmed down a bit, and changed into her smelly, but cleaner, trail clothes she sat down at the fire, positive she now had a cocktail of diseases only found in third world countries. One of the guys sitting around the fire looked at her and chuckled a bit, but didn't stifle it before she caught his gaze.
"Do you like movies?", he asked. "Classics?"
"All I can think of is that scene where Andy Dufrense crawls through that tunnel...through 200 yards of poop and garbage. You just had your own S***shank Redemption experience!"
Which gives lesson 4: When crap happens, you have to be able to laugh about it.
Morning sun started poking through the clouds around 7am after a horrific thunderstorm with pouring rain through the night. Soggy tents were packed, and we shouldered our packs again for the hike back into Damascus. Through the night, Tiny Hippo had changed her mind about hiking south from Damascus and instead wanted me to drop her off a little further south and she would keep going on to Hot Springs. I could tell something wasn't quite right though during our hike the day before, and today she seemed even more off. We talked about her reasons for hiking the trail, a much needed break from a particularly intense job, and about our reasons in general for hiking. Beautiful mountains, quiet creeks, and open meadows were not why she started this journey, but instead it was a grinding physical challenge to prove to herself that she could. More miles, and more time changed things, and she found that even with the camraderie of the trail community she kept wishing her husband or people she knew off the trail were doing it with her.
We made it to Damascus in record time and she asked if I could drop her off between Elk Park and Roan Mountain where she would keep hiking south. An hour drive and a short stop at Bob's Dairyland for Huckleberry Ice Cream brought us to where we parted ways. I gave her some extra food and swapped fuel canisters since hers was acting up, and after a hug she was off heading south again. I wasn't hiking farther with her because of a family event; my grandfather is slowly fading away from pancreatic cancer and we had plans all weekend for nothing in particular except spending time together, and the drive home was spent thinking of all the trips I've been with family and friends. While I've enjoyed my solo trips on the west coast, they never hold the same special place in your heart as the ones taken with people you love.
The next day I got a text from Tiny Hippo, which I'll just give an excerpt of here. If you think I'm a long winded writer...she can beat me for days.
"I have had a revelation that I am ready to get off the trail and I am sad that it was this quick after hiking with you. But I am just at a good stopping point. A light bulb came on and I realized I'm not enjoying this like it was to hike with you. Hiking with you helped me realize it is more fun to share experiences and enjoy them than be that weirdo by themself. I think I'm done with thru hiking, and instead I'll be dragging my husband and friends out on the trail as weekend warriors".
Sounds like we both learned something on that little hike.