Part 34

After making loose plans to meet up with Mike and Ben later that night, E and I set off to find Bag o’ Tricks and his Billville friends. We wandered through the maze of tents until we heard someone calling our names. I turned to find Miss Janet standing behind us, arms outstretched for hugs. We chatted excitedly, telling her about how we’d fared since leaving her house in Tennessee weeks before.

“Oh, of course I know Tricks! EVERYONE knows Tricks!” She said when we told her who we were looking for. She took us over to the Billville camp, populated mostly by people who’d done multiple thru-hikes or those like Tricks who supported thru-hikers every year. Billville was replete with a tiki bar and crowded with hikers in Hawaiian shirts drinking beer or some mysterious jungle juice-like concoction. E and I felt like mini-celebrities with Miss Janet and Tricks introducing us to everyone as the first thru-hikers of the season, which wasn’t technically true, but we didn’t bother to correct them.

It wasn’t until later in the evening that I found the guys sitting around a campfire in a circle of other thru-hikers. Mike introduced me to his little brother who was hiking with he and Ben for a few days. I pulled up a camp chair next to Ben, handed him one of the beers I’d procured from the Billville gang and said, “well, if we’re going to be best friends, you’re going to have to tell me everything about yourself.”

He laughed at my demand and starting talking. We talked for hours, first in the circle and then wandering around the field of hikers. He told me that before the trail he’d been living in Madison, Wisconsin managing a Whole Foods bakery; that he’d moved there on a whim with a friend from High School (they’d put a bunch of cities in a hat and Madison was the winner) because they weren’t ready to get “real jobs” and that after the trail he was hoping to go to grad school for creative writing.

I told him how I’d been living with Kevin in Florida right before the trail and in Chicago before that.

“Pilgrim told me you were moving to Chicago with your girlfriend? You’re going to love it.”

He laughed again and said, “Oh right. That was the plan.” It turned out that after he’d met Pilgrim and Sug, he’d planned to go back to Madison to visit his girlfriend for a week. He’d found a ride from the trail to Roanoke, Virginia and then, while on a payphone outside of a greyhound bus station, they’d broken up.

“I’m sorry.”

He shrugged. “It was hard, but it’d been coming for a long time. The worst part was that it then took me 3 days to find a ride back to the trail.” Roanoke was over 60 miles from where he’d left the trail near Pearisburg.

“What did you do?”

“I found a seedy motel that had an all-you-can-eat buffet behind it. So I ate there twice a day and watched TV.”

“Sounds like paradise.” I said.

“It was pretty great.”

I told him about my job with Best Buddies and how after the trail I was going to law school to hopefully study disability rights. His face lit up as he told me about his older brother Ross, who has severe disabilities; about how his mom was the head of Special Education for the state of Delaware and how his dad was on the board of the ARC and taught college courses on disability law. Even his other brother and sister-in-law were Special Ed teachers.

“It’s like the family business.” He joked.

“But not for you? No pressure to go into education?” I asked.

“Nah, I don’t think so. My parents know I’ll figure something out.” He said with a self-assurance I don’t think I’d ever had.

We decided to walk around and found ourselves outside of drum circle. People all around us bobbed their heads to the bongos. Girls danced with their eyes closed, arms flailing; apparently finding an inner rhythm I couldn’t. I wanted to be open minded, but every part of me was fighting an eye roll.

“This is my first drum circle.” I tentatively told Ben. I looked at him but couldn’t tell from his profile whether he was into it or not. He seemed to be very laid back, and when we’d talked about music earlier he’d told me that he liked jam bands (and had teased me when Phish was the only one I’d heard of).

“See, this is why I could never really be a hippie.” He said, gesturing to a guy with dreads to his waist, so completely lost in the experience of drumming but so totally off the beat. “I can’t ever not want to make fun of a drum circle and I think that is requirement number one.”

I let out an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Oh thank god. I thought I was going to have to pretend to take this seriously if we were going to continue our friendship.”

Just then, Mike’s brother tapped Ben on the shoulder. Obviously drunk, he held up a backpack to show us. It was a prototype of a new lightweight pack that we’d seen earlier at one of the vendor’s booths.

“Look. I stole this.” He said in a loud whisper, looking at us expectantly.

Ben and I exchanged a look. Ben put an arm around his shoulder and gently said, “Dude, that’s not cool. You’ve got to take that back.”

Mike’s brother was deflated. He was 17 and thought everyone would laugh at the prank. Ben calmed him down, telling him we wouldn’t bust him with Mike, but made him promise he’d return the backpack.

“I can’t believe that just happened! What was he thinking?” I said after Mike’s brother had left, head down. “I think we deserve another beer!”

I grabbed Ben’s hand to lead him through the crowd as we made our way back to Billville. We found E hanging out with a guy named Chomp, who was engaged in a serious debate about Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson and the book about his experience on the Appalachian Trail “A Walk in the Woods” was a frequent topic of conversation among thru-hikers. I’d read and loved the book before I’d hiked, as had almost everyone we met. The argument against Bryson wasn’t that the book was not entertaining or well-written, but that Bryson held himself out as having hiked the whole trail, when in reality, he’d only completed less than half of the 2,100+ miles. The other side argued that Bryson never claimed to have finished a thru-hike and that by writing about the A.T. had introduced the trail and its culture to a much broader audience. All of the debaters were drunk (as was I at this point) and so the debate raged with no conclusion in sight.

E pulled me aside and gave a stern look. “You need to watch yourself.”

“What are you talking about?” I was taken aback.

“Ben. You’re drunk and you’re flirting with him. You were holding his hand! Does he know you have a boyfriend?”

“You’re drunk!” I retorted, a comeback only ever used by the drunk. “And yeah, of course he knows about Kevin.”

“Whatever.” E rolled her eyes. “Just be careful.”

“Whatever. You be careful.”

I walked back over to Ben. I was embarrassed and angry with E for calling me out. She was right, I had drank too much and though I didn’t think I’d crossed the line with Ben, what if I had? I’d had such a good time hanging out with him all night and I hated feeling now that I’d done something wrong.

“I’ve got to go.” I said to Ben abruptly.

“Okaaayyy…” He said slowly. “Everything alright?”

The words tumbled out of my mouth, “Look, E thinks I’m leading you on or something and I told her you know I have a boyfriend and we were just hanging out and having fun and you should know that I…I’m a good girl!”

Ben smiled, apparently amused. “Yes you are. And tell E it’s cool, I know.”

He hugged me lightly and said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you tomorrow….good girl.”

To be continued…

Part 33

Over the next three days we covered the 50 miles from Blue Mountain Summit to Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. We hiked first through a superfund site into Palmerton and then out of Palmerton to the Leroy Smith Shelter. Those days dragged. We were seventh graders with spring break on the horizon and no matter how many movies the teacher showed, we could not be distracted.

I woke up on May 14th at Leroy Smith Shelter with my stomach in knots. I’d become accustomed to the everyday body aches and with the help of ibuprofen had almost forgotten about the ever-present open sores on the heels of my feet, but I didn’t have anything in my first aid kid (a ziplock containing band-aids, gauze and duct tape) to fight the waves of nausea I felt that morning. I cursed my body. We had only 20 miles until the New Jersey border and I felt like shit. I peaked my head out of my sleeping bag and saw E hobbling around. The Pennsylvania rocks had taken a toll on her already injured knee. She regularly spent her mornings muttering, and occasionally yelling, at the terrain, until her knee loosened up. She then repeated the ritual toward the end of the day when her muscles grew tired.

“My stomach feels like shit.” I complained.

“Take a dump, you’ll feel better.” See Blue said without looking up from his trail guide.

“Thanks.” I muttered and stomped off towards the privy, dramatically clutching my stomach.

“NOPE!” I declared when I’d stomped back, still holding my belly, shooting daggers at Blue.

See Blue laughed and E patted my shoulder. I asked E about her knee.

“Surprise! It also feels like shit.”

We tried to pump ourselves up with the reminder that this would be our last day in Pennsylvania, that in two days we’d be back in Virginia sipping beers with Roxie and E’s brother Brian at Trail Days. But over the next few hours we struggled with what was, in Pennsylvania terms, pretty easy hiking. We were making the slow decent into the Delaware Water Gap and the hiking was mostly downhill. The sky was cloudy but the rain had held off. The rocks, though still present, were a manageable size. Within a few minutes of walking even my stomach felt mostly fine and I had to admit that my foot dragging was purely mental.

It was still before noon when I reached a road. Off to my left E and See Blue sat on a wall, smoking, looking at a folded up piece of paper. I plopped down next to them. I recognized the paper they were looking at as the contact information for people willing to give hikers rides that we’d picked up at the park ranger station outside of Shenandoah National Park.

“This says the owner of this motel will shuttle hikers into Delaware Water Gap.” See Blue told me.

“Dude, it’s cool with me. I’m fucking done.” I said.

“I’m going to go ask.” E said, leaving See Blue and I sitting on the wall.

“You’re cool with this?” I asked Blue. I didn’t know exactly how far we’d hiked, but we were well short of the 20 miles for the day. Getting a ride into town would mean skipping the rest of those miles.

He shrugged, “Yeah, I’m done too.” I was surprised. By that time in our hike, E and I had stopped worrying about cutting a few miles here and there, but See Blue was a purist and as far as I knew had never missed an inch of trail. We’d never talked about it. It was a touchy subject. Even if “Hike Your Own Hike” was the accepted mantra among hikers some people are adamant it wasn’t a true thru-hike if you took any shortcuts. And this was going to be a big shortcut.

E came out of the motel just then and the chance to question Blue about his decision was lost. Nobody at the motel was available to shuttle us, but they’d given E the name of a local man who was willing. Thirty minutes later we were waving goodbye to that man and watching his pick-up truck speed away.

“Did you catch his name?” I asked E.

“Mike?” E said at the same minute See Blue answered, “Jim.”

I looked at See Blue. If he felt bad about skipping those miles, it didn’t show on his face, and he wasn’t talking about it.

We made our way to Church of the Mountain Hostel, a Presbyterian church with two bunk rooms available for hikers. The caretaker, a woman called Reverend Karen showed us to our rooms and then we settled in on the porch to figure out the logistics of the next few days. It was Wednesday afternoon and we didn’t need to be in Damascus until Friday. E and I wanted to hike the next day and leave Friday morning. See Blue wanted to drive down right away; he was anxious to see Roxy. See Blue was outnumbered, so he took to quietly pouting. E and I forged ahead, finding a car to rent in the neighboring town of Stroudsburg that would pick us up at the hostel, and were wrestling with the logistics of how to hike and still get back to the hostel when tiny woman with a blond pixie cut walked up to our little group and, with a serendipity that we’d almost come to expect, solved our dilemma.

She introduced herself as Trish. She’d thru-hiked years before and now lived nearby. Trish told us she liked to stop by the hostel to see what she could do for hikers and without hesitation, offered to drive us 18 miles up the trail the next day so that we could slack pack back to the hostel and be there Friday morning to pick up the car.

I’d talked to Cara about this phenomenon before we’d started the trail; the compulsion of former thru-hikers to come back and offer help. Cara and Chris now lived in New Hampshire and often gave rides and food to hikers. Cara explained it in terms of paying back the kindnesses she’d experienced during her thru-hike as well as a way to keep her connection to the trail alive. I didn’t really understand it then, but several times the next summer I’d find myself driving to the trail from my summer internship in Washington DC just to put cooler of snacks and beer on the trail.

“This is so fun!” Trish said the next morning, waving goodbye as she dropped us off in the middle of the woods in New Jersey. I hadn’t been paying much attention, but when I looked around and realized where I was, tears sprung to my eyes. From where we were standing, I could see part of the summer camp where I’d worked during college. I knew we’d be close to it, I remember hikes and bike rides during those summers on the AT, but I didn’t know I’d be able to see it and I certainly hadn’t expected to feel so overwhelmed being there again.

“You guys! This is it! That’s the lake where I thought I saw a ghost!” I practically yelled at See Blue and E, pointing out memory landmarks. They humored me for a few minutes and then set out in front of me, eager to get our last day of hiking before vacation over with. In college, I’d written a paper about the acute nostalgia I felt instantly after leaving camp each summer (both as a camper and then counselor at Camp Kern in Ohio and then later at this camp in New Jersey), about how those were experiences and feelings that I could never recapture but always yearn for, and I’d wondered if the pain of longing afterwards made the summers worth it more or less. After all, here I was, in the midst of the grand adventure of hiking the Appalachian Trail and I was so lost in this past that I was surprised when I found myself back at the hostel hours later. I’d spent the day reliving those summers at Camp Mason in my head, images popping up like a slideshow set to random. The guy I’d fallen for the first summer and then barely talked to the next summer. The camper I’d led on a mountain biking excursion, who’d flipped over her handle bars and when asked where it hurt yelled at the top of her lungs, “MY VAGIIIINNNNAAA!” The countless nights off I’d spent at the archery range doubled over from laughing with the other counselors. The weekend trip into New York City when a guy who spoke no English gave me a crooked tongue piercing. The campers who cried saying goodbye at the end of the summer; the ones who made me cry too.

“DUDE!” E called out from the church porch, dragging me back to the present, her pointer and middle fingers forming a big V. “VACATION!”

I returned the V sign and yelled, “VACATION!”

It took us 8 hours to drive from Delaware Water Gap, PA to Damascus, VA; a distance that had taken a month and a half to walk.

“It’s kind of depressing from the outside.” I muttered, as we sped past signs for towns we’d stopped in and the ridges of mountains we’d walked on.

We arrived in Damascus to a sea of people; hikers and tents and vendors had taken over, making it almost unrecognizable from the sleepy town where we’d waited out the snow storm with Sug and Pilgrim at the end of March. See Blue peeled off instantly to find Roxy, and E and I looked for her brother Brian and his friends, who had arrived earlier and set up camp. We were wandering around the makeshift tent village when we heard someone calling our names.

“Sweets! Not Yet!” We turned, surprised to see Mike walking towards us, waving his arms with a big smile across his face. We ran towards him, giving him big bear hugs, a happy reunion with our long lost little brother.
I looked at the guy next to Mike. He had a mess of brown curls, a hiker’s bushy beard, and baggy hiking clothes from the inevitable weight loss of three months on the trail.

He stuck his hand out, “Hey, I’m Ben.”
“No way!” This was the BFB (Best Friend Ben) I’d been writing to in the trail registers for the past few weeks.

“Did you guys get my messages?” I asked, looking from Ben to Mike.

“Yeah, what’s weird is that those are my initials. BFB. In real life. Ben Francis Brooks.” Ben smiled at me.

“Well, I guess it’s fate.” I said, my voice serious. “We have to become best friends.”

He nodded solemnly, “Okay. I’m in.”

To be continued…

Part 32

Bag o’ Tricks was one of those guys who was so enthusiastic and generous that a non-trail me would be convinced he had an ulterior motive. But by that point in the hike after regularly meeting people like Jim the caretaker, or any one of drivers who’d gone out of their way to ferry us in and out of towns, it seemed perfectly reasonable that there was someone who loved the Appalachian Trail and the community that had grown up around it so much that he spent his summers looking for thru-hikers that he could help while asking nothing in return.

“Come on, I’m going to take you guys to dinner.” He said and started back out to towards the street before we could respond. We hesitated only a minute before we followed.

That night, Bag o’ Tricks loaded the three of us into his car and took to us to do our grocery shopping and then to the local pub for dinner and beers, all the while regaling us with outrageous stories of the hikers he’d met over the years. It was never exactly clear to me, but I gathered that he lived nearby and over time had become part a network of hiker support that surrounded the trail. Often the hostel operators and outfitter owners in towns on the trail were people who maybe at one time had been thru-hikers and became so emeshed in the community that it was now a central part of their lives. And because they’d lived it, those were the people that helped each new crop of hikers, despite often being ill-prepared and underfunded, complete their hikes.

“Here’s what we’ll do tomorrow.” He started, again, not asking, telling. “I’ll pick you up in the morning and take you to breakfast. Then I’ll slack pack you to Blue Mountain summit. There’s a great pizza place there and I know the owner, so you guys can camp out back. Okay? Let’s get some beers.”

We nodded and just looked at each other, not sure what was happening, but knowing better than to question his generosity.

“Just call me Tricks!” he boomed as he handed each of us a giant mug of cold Yuengling.

He told us that he enjoyed helping as many hikers as he could, but because we were some of the first thru-hikers he’d met, and E and I the first women he’d seen on the trail that season, that we were getting the royal treatment. He took a big gulp of beer and with no segue, “You guys want to hear a joke?”

Again, we nodded and gulped our own beers.

“What’s the difference between a day hiker, a section hiker and a thru-hiker? A day hiker sees a fly in his beer and tells the bartender to give him a new one. A section hiker sees a fly in his beer picks out the fly and drinks the beer anyway. A thru hiker picks the fly out of the beer, squeezes it, yells at the fly “gimme that beer, mother fucker”, puts the fly back in the beer and drinks them both.”

We laughed with him, as much at his joke as at his infectious, raucous, roar of a laugh.

True to his word, the next morning he was back at the pavilion, ready to take us to breakfast. Between forkfuls of pancakes and eggs, I told him about the young couple we’d surprised making out on our return to the shelter the night before. He dropped us back off at the trail with promises to meet us with our packs at the pizza place that night. About halfway through the day, though, as we walked up to a rare four-sided brick shelter, there was Tricks again, beaming when he saw us.

He said, “I thought you guys might like some snacks!” and handed us juice boxes and fruit roll-ups. We accepted them with the delight of children at the half time of a soccer game. As we ate, the caretaker of the shelter told us that he’d met Sug and Pilgrim and that they were killing themselves, hiking big miles to get to New York in time for Pilgrim’s graduation and Sug’s friend’s wedding. We thanked the caretaker for the update, told Tricks we’d see him soon and headed back out into the rain.

I don’t think I looked up once over the next 4 hours as I navigated my way over the ever-slick Pennsylvania rocks. My mind drifted. I was physically on the trail, but mentally, I was anywhere else. I’d developed techniques to divorce my mind from hiking on days when the monotony became overwhelming. A new mix tape from E’s brother Brian would keep me occupied for days, I would listen over and over, dissecting the lyrics until the songs themselves became monotonous. I spent countless hours rewriting the awful jokes I’d told during my brief foray into stand-up comedy in Chicago or scripting my audition tape for the Real World (even though, at 25, I was already way too old to appear on the reality show). If E and I were hiking together, we’d develop elaborate scenarios about our made-up boyfriends (Shane and Jacob) who were also best friends, a hobby of ours since the 7th grade.

“When we go in to New York City in few weeks, Shane and Jacob are going to surprise us at the train station.”

“That’s so like Shane and Jacob.”

“Yeah, and since we’ll have no town clothes we’ll go to the goodwill together.”

“Oh! And each person gets to pick out the outfit for their partner.”

“Is mine Shane or Jacob?”


“Cool. Can we try on lots of different clothes like a movie montage?”

“Why wouldn’t we?”

“And then we’ll go back to the hotel room and get ready while they go get fancy appetizers and wine.”

“I would eat the shit out some cheese. And then we go dancing after dinner?”

“Of course. Shane and Jacob love to dance.”

That day, though, my mind was on Trail Days, the annual AT hiker festival in Damascus, Virginia that we were going to later that week. Trail Days is held every year in Damascus and many thru-hikers, no matter where they are in their hike, find a way to get to Virginia the second or third weekend in May. Hundreds of former and current hikers, trail enthusiasts and gear vendors take over the town for a massive party celebrating the AT. E went when her sister and Chris had hiked the AT in ’99 and said that we shouldn’t miss it. Our plan was for E, See Blue and I to make it through Pennsylvania to the Delaware Water Gap and somehow rent a car in time to drive back to Virginia.

I was so absorbed in the logistics of what E and I were calling our “AT Vacation” that it surprised me when I arrived at Blue Mountain Summit, 28 miles from where we’d started that morning. We ate pizza with Tricks, who had arrived an hour earlier with our gear, while he told us wild stories about past Trail Days. He attended every year with a group of friends who set up a party area they called Billville.

“I can’t wait to introduce you guys to Billville, they’re going to love you.” Tricks told me after we’d eaten two large pizzas between us and he’d helped me set up my tent in the picnic area behind the pizza parlor while the rain continued to pour.

“I’m so glad we’re going to see you again, Tricks. You’ve been such an angel the past two days. You have no idea how much we needed to meet you.” I said when I hugged him tightly goodbye.

Later, in her bivy sack under a picnic bench with me 5 feet away in my tiny one person tent, E said “You know, it was really fucking nice to have someone take care of us for a couple of days.”

“Yeah, he couldn’t have been more perfect.”

“Well, unless he was Shane and Jacob, of course.”

“Of course…which one is mine again?”

To be continued…

Part 31

“Hiker Trash!” cat-called Soft Serve from the porch of the Dog Patch, where she sat with Just Ducky and Snake, when the three of us approached.

“Oh!” I said, taking in the row of motorcycles lining the parking lot. “So, this is like, a real biker bar.”

As if on cue, four leather-clad bikers roared up behind us. As they got off their bikes, one of the bearded, bandana-ed men looked appreciatively at E and called out, “Hey Red!”

E looked at me and shrugged, “What can I say? Bikers love red heads.”

“This is my kind of place.” See Blue said, taking off his pack and going inside to get us a pitcher of beer. That one pitcher turned into several pitchers and a round of tequila shots turned into rounds of tequila shots. Before we stumbled the mile to the next shelter, E turning down offers from several bikers for a ride back to the trail, we had tried and failed to hustle some regulars at pool, called Pilgrim and Sug from a payphone in the parking lot, and danced on a picnic table with Soft Serve to Bruce Springstein. It was a miracle that we woke the next morning hangover free, a happy side effect of the fast metabolism our bodies had developed.

The Dog Patch party was the send-off we hadn’t known we needed. The next day we crossed the Mason-Dixon line, said good-bye to Just Ducky, Soft Serve and Snake, and hiked into Pennsylvania. Even given what we’d heard about the A.T. in Pennsylvania (mostly that the 230 mile stretch was incredibly rocky and fairly un-scenic), I wasn’t prepared for my reaction to this part of the trail. For me, hiking was almost always a struggle, but through Pennsylvania, for the first time, the trail felt like a job.

And I hated that job.

I hated the rocks that dominated the trail and in some places were more like boulder fields. E said it was as though “someone turned all these rocks on their asses so the flat part is underground and we have to walk on the edges.” I felt like I could never quite get my footing, figuratively and literally. My already weak ankles, a product of my many years of soccer played poorly and recklessly, turned on every slick rock. New hikers often comment that thru-hikers seem to have an innate ability hike fast while avoiding rocks and roots in the trail. And after weeks on the trail, I’d developed some of that (even though, at my core, I’m always kind of clumsy- every day on the trail I found a new way to bruise or bloody a different part of my body), but Pennsylvania made me feel like someone out for her first hike.

I hated the dreariness of the scenery. There wasn’t much to distinguish the trail other than the rocks; no real elevation changes, no outstanding views. And even if there had been, the eleven days we spent in Pennsylvania were a blur of fog and rain. The trail through Pennsylvania was nature’s equivalent of the dying steel towns that surrounded it. But it was in that state, where I made up songs as I hiked like “We Will Rock You (aka Pennsylvania Sux)” that we met some of the kindest, most generous people we’d meet during our hike.

One evening, a few days into Pennsylvania, we came across a shelter caretaker named Jim. The whole trail is divided into many sections and generally a local trail club will take responsibility for maintaining the trail and shelters along their section of trail. In that section of Pennsylvania the trail club had a dedicated volunteer who cleaned and made repairs on each shelter. We weren’t staying at Jim’s shelter that night, so we chatted with him for a few minutes and then hiked on in the rain. But early the next morning, a couple of miles into our hike, we were surprised to come across Jim waiting for us, holding a bag of what turned out to be fresh fruit, muffins, and orange juice. I looked at E and could see that, like me, she’d also teared up.

Jim smiled and shrugged as we thanked him for the millionth time. “You are the first thru-hikers I’ve met this year, and it seemed like you could use a pick me up.” After we ate, Jim offered to drive our packs up the trail to a hostel at Pine Grove Furnace State Park so that we could walk most of the day pack-free.

A guy that worked in Boiling Springs at the Appalachian Trail Conference office gave us a ride through the pouring rain to a hotel so that E, See Blue and I could finally do laundry and dry out for a night. In the run down town of Duncannon, PA (which our trail book referred to as “the jewel of the Susquehanna”), E and I drank beer and ate onion rings with local barflies in the middle of the day at the historic Doyle hotel. After walking on several miles of the trail that crossed a toxic waste site, with ominous signs warning “DO NOT DRINK WATER”, we arrived in Palmerton, PA to find that the town provided a free hostel to hikers in the basement of their city hall (formerly the town jail). The three of us spent the night there watching hockey, drinking beers and shots provided by a hiker-friendly bartender. When we left Palmerton the next day, the woman who gave us a ride back to the trail pressed a 20 dollar bill in E’s hand, telling us to buy lunch on her in the next place we stopped.

One particularly awful day- more pounding rain, E’s knee hurting so bad she could barely walk; we found ourselves standing at a disserted road crossing that we knew wasn’t within 15 miles of a town.

“Let’s just give it a half hour and see if we can get a hitch somewhere.” I told E, hoping that even a futile effort would take her mind off her pain. Not only did the driver of the first car that passed us (which was also the only car that came along in the 20 minutes we waited there) stop and drive us over 12 miles down the road to a McDonalds, but a different stranger spotted us in the parking lot a few hours later and offered to take us back up to the trail.

But even with all the kindnesses we’d experienced, nothing prepared us for what we found in Port Clinton, Pennsylvania. Hiking into Port Clinton, E and I were both in foul moods; the rocks and rain and our cumulative months of “togetherness” taking their toll. See Blue had hiked ahead of us a couple days earlier to make sure he hit a mail drop, but was going to wait for us in Port Clinton. Earlier in the day, E and I had stopped at a shelter for lunch and coming down the spur trail back to the AT, E, as she often did, headed the wrong way up the trail. I stood still, waiting for her to realize her mistake and turn around.

“Fuck!” E yelled when, after a few hundred yards, she spotted me and knew what she’d done. As she doubled back she mumbled, “Why didn’t you fucking say something?” I didn’t answer; annoyed, and for the 10 miles into town, neither of us spoke. Our squabble with each other was well forgotten by the time we ran into See Blue sitting on a bench outside of the Port Clinton outfitter, but our attitudes in general were unchanged.

“You girls okay?” See Blue asked as he led us to the pavilion in the middle of town where hikers were allowed to stay for a night. We changed into our “town clothes,” which for me, meant I put on a long sleeve hiking shirt and zipped on the bottom of my pants, and for E meant black long johns that we called her “sexy pants”, and were thinking about finding dinner when a big guy with a bushy brown beard and blue baseball hat bounded up the steps.

“My first thru-hikers!” He stuck his hand out, an infectious smile on his broad face. “I’m so glad you guys are here! I’m Bag o’ Tricks.”

We didn’t know it right then, although it didn’t take us long to figure out, but we’d just found our very own trail angel.

To be continued…

Part 30

See Blue, who’d gotten ahead of us the day before we’d found Pilgrim and Sug at the Dutch Haus, had been able to hike big miles through Shenandoah and Northern Virginia without us to slow his long legs down, but had spent a couple of days off in Harper’s Ferry with his girlfriend, Roxy.

“You just missed her.” He told us in his gravelly voice over dinner that night. He sighed deeply, his blue eyes focused on something beyond my head. “I’m glad you girls are here, I don’t know how much longer I’d make it by myself.”

I caught E’s eye and she raised an eyebrow. See Blue often talked idly about leaving the trail if it got too hard to be away from Roxy, but I never saw it as a real possibility. I chalked his melancholy up to having just said goodbye, remembering how Kevin’s visit had thrown me off for a few days, too. At some point, I’d stopped thinking about leaving as an option, even though in the first month of the trail I’d fantasized constantly of quitting. I was out of shape, constantly in pain, and mentally and physically spent in a way that I didn’t know was possible. Home, laying on the couch with Kevin, was a comfortable place I’d often let my mind wander to as I cursed the trail and struggled to catch my breath; truly believing, every time, that I couldn’t take one more step. But over the last few weeks, even though I was still constantly exhausted, frequently bored, and popping Ibprofen in massive quantities to mask the hurt, I’d noticed that my daydreams were less about home and more about life after finishing the trail. I assumed it would be the same for See Blue once we got back in the woods.

It was 3:30pm before we set out the next day, and it didn’t take long to see that See Blue wasn’t the only one struggling. Even with the new knee brace, E was having a hard time walking. The first several miles out of Harpers Ferry, including the only two miles of the A.T. in West Virginia, are completely flat before the trail rises gradually in Maryland. So even with E’s hobbling, we got to the first shelter quickly and I almost suggested we kept moving until I caught the visible relief on E’s face as she took her pack off and sat down. I’d worn the same expression countless times myself, when I’d kept it together just long enough to get through the day and the notion of going any further would have shattered me. It turned out we had stopped in the exact right place, because a half hour after us, Just Ducky, Soft Serve, and Snake walked in and set down their packs on the picnic bench. Immediately, Just Ducky noticed E’s knee brace, telling her he was a physical therapist, and got right to business diagnosing her problem (patellar tendonitis).

“This brace you bought is useless.” he proclaimed, and proceeded to MacGyver a proper brace out of the one she got at the outfitter and a piece of the water tubing from her camelback; hand sewing the neoprene around the tube into a band that would sit right below her knee and apply pressure onto the patellar tendon.

“It’s a miracle!” E hugged Just Ducky after she’d taken a few steps with it on.

Just Ducky shook his head, laughing at her enthusiasm. “No, but it should help with the pain some. I assume taking a break is out of the question?”

E looked at me and I said “we can do whatever you need,” knowing there was no way either of us would really consider stopping long enough to heal her injury.

The next day the six of us set out walking together and by mid-day were bombarded by more hikers than we’d ever seen at once going the opposite direction.

“It’s the Maryland Challenge,” one of them told us. These hikers were attempting to go through Maryland on the A.T. from the Pennsylvania border to the West Virginia border, 42 miles, in one day. The trail in this section is mostly flat and smooth, making such big mileage feasible. Snake came up with a game where we had to greet each hiker differently (“hello”, “howdy”, “how’s it hanging”, “’sup?”) and if you repeated yourself, you were out. Even See Blue, who usually hiked out of our sight during the day, played along.

Kristy and Eric, two hikers we hadn’t seen since outside of Damascus, caught up to us at lunch and told us they’d seen Mike and Ben in Harper’s Ferry, but that they were taking the day off to meet up with Ben’s family. I was happy to think that since they were just a day behind, we’d probably hike with Mike again. It bothered me that we hadn’t really said goodbye after spending so much of our early days together. And I was interested to meet Ben. Pilgrim had made him sound like a great guy, had told me Ben was planning to move to Chicago with his girlfriend after the trail, so I thought we might have a lot in common. I started leaving Mike and Ben messages in the journals at each shelter we stopped at, knowing that the first thing most hikers do when they get to a shelter is to read the register. I’d tell Mike to hurry up and joke to Ben that we were going to be “best friends”, eventually shortening his name to BFB- Best Friend Ben.

By late afternoon, our group had spread out, making plans to meet at a biker bar called the Dog Patch that was right off the trail. E and I walked together. I noticed that her gait was easy, and I hoped that the new brace really was a miracle cure. We hiked down the mountain and crossed a bridge over I-70 (a bridge every time I drive under in the years since, I honk and wave, even if no one is on it). Still with only one working Walkman between us, E listened to Lauryn Hill’s Ex-Factor and sang along, and I listened to E and sang with her. We reached the turn-off for the bar and found See Blue sitting on a rock, smoking a cigarette, tears streaming down his face.

“What’s wro…” I started, before realizing that he was shaking, not from grief, but laughter.

“I could hear you all the way down the hill.” He managed, in between fits. “Jesus Christ, you’re the worst fucking singers I’ve ever heard. I thought someone was dying!”

E and I tried to look hurt. See Blue stood up, still laughing, put a lanky arm around each of us, and together we walked to the bar.

To be continued…

Part 29

It was April 27th when we left Shenandoah and all its craziness behind and started the home stretch into Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, the symbolic halfway point of the trail (the actual halfway mark is another 70 miles away in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania). I was conflicted about finishing the roughly 50 miles to get to Harper’s Ferry. Harper’s Ferry had been our interim goal for so long that it seemed surreal to finally be so close. It would mean that we were finally out of Virginia and we would be able to check in at the Appalachian Trail Conference visitor’s center as official thru-hikers (the ATC is headquartered in Harper’s Ferry). But also, Pilgrim and Sug would be leaving the trail for a few days to stay at Pilgrim’s sister, Jen’s house.

We stopped at a shelter about six miles past Front Royal, Virginia that night, still laughing about E’s ass explosion incident earlier in the day. Sitting on the picnic bench out front were two men and a woman in their mid-forties who introduced themselves as Just Ducky, Soft Serve and Snake. Just Ducky and Soft Serve were a married couple who’d started the trail a week before E and I, and I’d followed Soft Serve’s entries in the trail registries eagerly, her neat scrawl detailing the experience of the only other woman thru-hiker we knew of. It was a bit like meeting a celebrity, where you know so much about the person and feel an instant kinship before realizing they know nothing of you. The three of them turned out to be lovely people and we spent the evening swapping our misadventures and talking about future plans. E made everyone campfire brownies and Just Ducky provided peanut butter for frosting.

We said our goodbyes the next morning, the four of us planning to hike further than the three of them that day. The day was beautiful and the 25 miles passed uneventfully, but still, a collective melancholy had set in by the time E, Sug, Pilgrim and I sat silently in the shelter that night. Partially, we were worn out from the stretch we had just hiked called “the Rollercoaster” that lived up to its name. We’d been told that the trail maker had purposely routed an unnecessarily difficult series of ascents and descents and I felt it in my aching feet. And partially, at least for me, was the realization that in a day the certainty of our little group would be up in the air again. We got into our sleeping bags early that night, and had all been asleep several hours when a sound woke everyone and caused a chorus of “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?”

Awake now, I saw whatever it was zip across the front of the shelter again, rustling the leaves as it ran into the woods.

“Jesus, was that a coyote? A fox?” I whispered.

“It sounded like a velociraptor.” E answered, voice shaking.

“Damnit. I have to pee, but no way I’m leaving now.” I said eventually.

The animal never reappeared, but none of us slept well after that and in the morning we decided that the 25 miles into Harper’s Ferry we’d had planned wasn’t happening. I wasn’t too disappointed, since that meant we’d all have an extra day together. We hiked 4 miles to Snicker’s Gap and then a mile down the road to eat lunch at a restaurant. After lunch we decided to try to hitchhike back up to the trail, in keeping with our policy of no extra miles unless it leads to food. The first car that stopped was a white haired man who introduced himself as Don Maloney. As he drove, he told us how he had retired to the area and started a woodworking shop with his wife, Harriet.

“If you want to see the shop, it’s just up the road at our house and you can walk through our woods to get back to the trail from there.” Don offered.

I was already completely charmed by Don, and I could tell by how readily the others agreed to go to his house, that they were, too. In most other contexts, I would laugh at someone who told me they’d hitched a ride from a stranger and then had willing gone to their house. I would joke that it’s the beginning of every awful slasher film. But on the trail and with Don, the situation seemed perfectly normal.

We were lucky we’d lost our real world hesitation, because the visit to Don’s house became one of my favorite memories of the trail. He introduced us to Harriet and the house they’d built together. He showed us his studio, where he hand crafted gorgeous bowls and other pieces from the woods on their property. E, especially, was delighted when he showed us the Guinness he kept on tap in the shop. Don was a storyteller, entertaining while showing us how to use a lathe. It was several hours before we reluctantly agreed that we should get going, but not before E had ordered a bowl, made from wood found along the Appalachian Trail, as a wedding present for her sister Cara and Cara’s fiancé, Chris, whose wedding we’d be going to in a month.

It was a perfect way to spend a last day with our friends.

The next day, we passed the 1,000 mile point, made it to Harper’s Ferry in the morning and checked in at the ATC. We were the 13th-16th thru-hikers to make it there that season, and E and I were the 2nd and 3rd women (we later found out that Ducky and Soft Serve had hiked through the night to pass us because Soft Serve had wanted to check in as the first woman). We lingered at lunch with the boys until they finally had to go to meet Pilgrim’s sister.

“I’m so sad.” I blurted while I was hugging Sug for the 8th time.

“We’ll see you guys again. It’s definitely going to work out.” Sug told me, ever the optimist.

I honestly didn’t see how it would happen, but I nodded my agreement. They would be slack packing for several days from Jen’s house, doing bigger miles than we could with our packs and then we each would be getting off the trail for various reasons (E and I to go to Cara’s wedding, Sug to a friend’s wedding and Pilgrim for his graduation). As I watched them walk down the street, I felt sure it was for the last time.

When they were gone, E and I walked down to the post office, E complaining for the first time that day about her knee hurting. It took awhile to sort through the packages we’d received- I got a big haul from Kevin, with candy and fuel and sweet notes; as well as boxes from both my mom and my dad- and by the time we started walking up the hill to check into a hotel, E’s muscles had stiffened to the point where she could barely walk. Silent tears rolled down her face and it hurt to see how much pain she was in. We would walk a few feet, stop, she’d take a deep breath, and we’d start again. When we finally reached the hotel, I found E some ice, propped her up on the bed, gave her an unadvisable amount of ibuprofen, and cracked open a Corona. After two beers apiece, E felt in good enough shape to walk to the outfitter, where E bought new shoes and a knee brace, and I bought a belt to keep the pants up on my shrinking waist.

As we walked back through the lobby of the historic hotel, E said, “I got so used to having the boys around. It feels weird, right?”

“For sure. It’s too quiet.” I had the room key in my hand and was putting it in the lock when I stopped short. Stuck to our door was a note in familiar handwriting that read, “Ladies, I just got here. Let’s go to dinner.”

We’d lost the boys, but See Blue was back.

To be continued…

Part 28

Even though we had planned to hike four more miles that night, looking around our table at the Tap Room, it was clear that none of us was walking another step. We were all caught up in our relief and the warmth of the booze, and wanting to connect with each other in the way drunk people do. I told them about my biggest relationship regret and the guy I thought I’d probably never get over (E giving me a look and whispering, “you never told me that.”). E talked about meeting and leaving behind a guy in St. Louis and her fear that she’d never have a chance to see what could come of it (me giving her the same look). At one point, E and I stumbled to the front desk and rented a hotel room for the night (at almost a hundred dollars, it was the most expensive room we had or would rent during our hike) and then stumbled back to the bar for another round. Before we finally went to bed at the late, for us, hour of 11pm, Pilgrim and Sug convinced E and I that we should hike 33 miles the next day and we were drunk enough to agree.

I woke up the next morning feeling, not hungover- our bodies were so efficient by then that alcohol didn’t have much of a lasting affect- but nervous. We had hiked plenty of days over twenty miles, but for some reason, thirty seemed like a ridiculous distance to walk. Pilgrim and Sug had done it in the days when we were apart, telling us about a couple of hikers they’d met, Ben and Stitch, that were routinely doing 30+ mile days.

“They’re not super fast hikers. They just hike long days.”

The night before, Pilgrim had made it seem like an adventure. He’d broken the day into three parts- we’d hike 9 miles in the morning to Skyland, a Shenandoah restaurant on the trail where we’d have an early lunch, and then 18 more to a picnic area with vending machines and toilets where we’d stop for dinner, and then an easy 6 to the shelter. I found the prospect easier to consider when it was presented that way. I’d only think about the section in front of me and then pretend like the next one was a new day. But even though we easily finished the first leg, we arrived at another Shenandoah restaurant not yet open for the season.

“Okay, let’s just go” E said, always the one ready to face the task head on, while I usually dragged my feet.

“No.” Pilgrim said firmly. “We’re going to figure this out.”

“Dude. It’s closed. Let’s go.”

Pilgrim didn’t budge, head down, looking through the thru-hikers guide. So we stood there in the parking lot, packs on, waiting for him to make a move. Finally he said, “Okay, the book says that if we hike 4 more miles there is road crossing, and then 11 miles down the road is an all you can eat buffet. We’re going to get a ride down there and have lunch.”

It made no sense. Once we got to the road crossing, we’d have 20 miles still to hike, but none of us questioned him. Within an hour, we’d done the four miles and E had talked a young couple finishing up a day hike into driving us to the restaurant. And then, at the restaurant, we lingered, acting like we had nowhere to be. By the time we’d found a ride back up to the trail, it was 2pm. E sat up front talking to the older gentleman she’d found to drive us, while Sug, Pilgrim and I sat squeezed in the backseat grumbling to each other about how full we were.

“Why are all these cars parked along the side of the road?” E asked.

The man replied, “Oh, those are truffle hunters.”

“Ah.” E murmured and caught my eye in the rearview mirror. I shrugged.

“It’s big business up here, people looking for wild truffles.” The man continued, “It’s illegal to do it on federal land, but they still do.”

Back at the trail, I was strapping on my pack and I felt Sug looking at me. “You thought he was talking about chocolate, didn’t you?”

“What? No…” I said, laughing along with the others, realizing I didn’t get it, but not wanting to ask what we were laughing about. Once, when E and I were in high school, we were hanging out in our friend Amy’s kitchen. E picked up a meat tenderizer and announced, “This is what we beat the meat with at my house!” Amy and I laughed, and E continued, “You know, pound the ground,” causing Amy and I to literally roll on the floor with laughter. Finally, a clueless E asked, “Wait. Why is this so funny?” which only made us laugh harder.

Even though it was late in the day, I felt good about the rest of the hike. In my mind, we only had fourteen miles until we reached our dinner stop. The four of us hiked together, laughing and taking pictures as Sug hand fed one of the thousands of deer in the park a leaf. I didn’t even think about the remaining miles until around 6pm, when the sun started to go down, and the temperature dropped, and we were still over two miles from our dinner stop.

It was at 7pm, with the four of us huddled between two vending machines, eating candy bars and drinking sodas, watching the rain fall in the dark, when I finally asked, “Ummmm…how are we going to see the trail?”

“Headlamps!” Sug answered, flicking his on and shining it in my eye to illustrate his point.

We lingered until 8pm, waiting for the rain to stop (which it did, turning first to a fine mist and then to a thick fog), the 28 miles we’d already hiked and the late night finally wearing on our muscles. We started hiking and quickly realized that in the dense darkness, our headlamps were almost useless. Pilgrim’s light was the brightest, so he led, the rest of us following along so closely that I could touch E’s pack in front of me. The hiking was tortuously slow, our moods swinging from slap happy song singing (“Night hiking, deserves a quiet night.”) to deeply depressed silence. It was during one of these silences that I ran into E’s pack, not realizing the three in front of me had stopped.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” E repeated in a low voice. I followed the weak beam of her light over to the right.

“HOLY SHIT.” I was looking at hundreds of eyes looking back at me, shining in the darkness.

“It’s deer.” Sug told us in an unsure voice.

“Go, go, go!” I urged, not wanting to find out who we were sharing the woods with.

It was midnight when we finally reached the shelter, finding that it was almost full with a group of sleeping high school kids. We silently unpacked and squeezed our sleeping bags into the space.

“Hey,” Pilgrim whispered, “We have something for you guys…for finishing your first 30 mile day.”

And then he and Sug each pulled out a bottle of beer from their packs and handed it to E and I.

“No way.” E said, sounding as touched as I was. “This is the best.”

It was such a sweet gesture, and a perfect end to an epic day. Had I not been so tired, I might have cried. Instead, I took a sip of the beer and passed the bottle to Sug.

“Oooooooh!” I whispered, “Like a mushroom truffle!”

To be continued…

Part 27

We sat in the shelter on the morning of April 25th looking at the trail guides, trying to figure out our mileage for the day. The four of us, but mostly Pilgrim and E, who Sug and I deferred to when it came to mileage planning, decided to do 24 miles with a stop for dinner at mile 20 at Big Meadows- a lodge and restaurant in the national park. I felt really strong as we set out that morning. Pilgrim and I hiked ahead of E and Sug, E complaining that her knee was bothering her a little bit, something that was happening more and more frequently despite E’s insistence that nothing was seriously wrong. When E’s sister Cara had thru-hiked she’d developed a stress fracture on the top of her foot about halfway through her hike. She’d visited a doctor who told her to stay off it for a couple of weeks, then she’d laced up her boots a little tighter and kept hiking despite the pain. I couldn’t imagine E stopping for anything less. It made me think twice when I felt like complaining about my blisters that would never heal.

After a stop for lunch, the four of us set off together. I confessed to the group that sometimes when I hiked by myself I would think about what I would say in a submission tape for the Real World.

“They should do a Real World: AT.” Said Pilgrim.

I laughed. “Can you imagine anything more boring? So…they’re still walking…”

“Whatever. We’re fascinating.”

“Yeah, but we go whole days without talking to each other except at meals.” Sug pointed out.

“And I doubt anyone is as interested in poop as we are.” I said.

“Speaking off…” E said and motioned to me that she was going to take a pit stop.

Pilgrim, Sug and I walked on, hammering out the logistics of Real World: AT (“They’d have to get some super fit camera men.”). In the middle of our discussion on whether we would make more of an effort to clean ourselves if cameras were on us all the time, we came across a man with a huge walking stick, hiking in blue jeans. We chatted with him for a few minutes, discovering that he had thru-hiked years earlier. I looked over my shoulder several times, thinking E should have caught up with us by then.

“Hey, if you see a girl with red hair coming this way, will you tell her we’ll meet her at Big Meadows?” I asked the blue jeaned hiker, knowing that we weren’t far from our dinner stop and figuring she would catch up there.

Within 30 minutes we had reached Big Meadows, a complex consisting of several buildings with a bar, gift shop, restaurant and hotel rooms all in the beautiful old main lodge building. All three of us headed straight for the bank of pay phones that were located inside the building near the Tap Room. I spent twenty minutes talking to Kevin, and then went to look for E, thinking she was probably in the gift shop. I ran into Pilgrim walking back into the lodge.

“Where’s E?” He asked.

“What do you mean? I just got off the phone, you haven’t seen her?”

“No, I’m worried. She should have been here a long time ago.”

I could hear the panic in Pilgrim’s voice and I knew he was right, she shouldn’t have been more than five minutes behind us, but I wasn’t worried. E has a horrible sense of direction. Almost every time we’d come up a path from a shelter, she’d head the wrong way down the trail and I would just wait silently until she’d realize that I wasn’t behind her, then she’d yell “fuck!” and turn around. I figured that she had taken a wrong turn or ended up in the wrong building. Pilgrim said he and Sug would look around while I talked to the people in the lodge about where else she could have gone. A woman at the gift store told me that there was another store about a mile away that E could have gone to if she’d veered off the AT onto one of the many side trails that run through the park. I was feeling pretty confident that this was what happened and asked the woman to call down to the other store and ask them to look around for a red headed thru-hiker.

“Sorry, honey.” The woman said, as she hung up the phone.

“Wait? She’s not there?” I stammered and the woman shook her head apologetically, “Okay. Thank you for checking.”

I walked outside to look for the boys and a light rain started to fall. A small knot formed in my chest, worried for the first time. I didn’t really believe that anything bad had happened, still thinking that E was lost, but I knew now that we would need to go back out to look for her. It had been over an hour since we’d seen her. Pilgrim and Sug found me, having had no luck, and we hashed out a plan. Sug and I would backtrack up the trail, and Pilgrim would stay at the lodge in case E turned up there.

Pilgrim couldn’t contain his worry, “Be careful, you guys, it’s starting to get dark.”

“I’m sure she’s fine.” I reassured him, zipping up my raincoat. I felt a flash of annoyance, picturing E stubbornly walking the wrong way without me behind to redirect her.

Just then, a car stopped in front of us, and E popped out of the passenger seat carrying a six-pack of beer missing two and a gift shop bag full of half-eaten candy. The driver, an older man in a fleece jacket, opened the trunk and pulled out her pack and hiking sticks, setting them on the sidewalk. He gave E a quick wave and drove off.

“What. The. Fuck. Dude.” I yelled, feeling a mixture of relief and anger.

“Dude. You don’t even know.” She said, a smile on her face but giving me a look that shut me down immediately.

I walked over and hugged her, while Pilgrim and Sug gathered her stuff and ushered us inside. And then the story came pouring out. E had stopped to pee on the side of the trail, “and I guess I passed out, because the next thing I knew, this mother and son duo wearing matching American flag track suits were standing over me, shaking me, asking, ‘HONEY, HONEY, WHERE ARE YOU GOING?’ in like, a crazy southern accent and I thought I was hallucinating, but she kept saying “Where are you going?” and I was just like ‘I’M GOING TO MAINE!’, and that was the point when I realized I was lying on the fucking trail with my fucking pants around my ankles.”

E hadn’t known, but the site where her insulin pump connected to her body had been disconnected all day, meaning she had received no insulin, sending her blood sugar sky-rocketing. On top of that, she was super dehydrated, having run out of water earlier in the day but not wanting to take the time for a refill. When she squatted, those conditions combined to overwhelm her system and she’d passed out “MID FUCKING PEE!” “Team USA Hiking”, as E referred to them, had helped her to a road crossing and pointed her in the direction of a store, E thinking it was the one where we were supposed to meet. E had sat on the side of the road, given herself some insulin, drank some water, and then brushed herself off and walked down the road to the store.

“We called down there!” I exclaimed, not quite knowing what else to say.

“I don’t know, dude, I must have been on the phone or something. I thought I was waiting on you guys, since I walked down the road. I was just hanging out, eating Doritos and Twizzlers, drinking beer. When I came back in after using the phone, they told me you’d called down and that guy gave me a ride up here.”

When we finally stopped laughing (each time we’d stop, someone would yell “I’m going to Maine!” and we’d fall out all over again), Sug looked at E and said, “Jesus. Let’s get a drink.” He led us all towards the Tap Room.

We had just ordered food and were well on our way to getting drunk, when it finally hit me.

“You could have died!” I blurted.

“I know.” E said quietly. She broke into a big smile and raised her glass, “To Team USA Hiking!”

“Team USA Hiking!” We echoed. I smiled back at E. She was so incredibly tough that most of the time I forgot that she was diabetic, but I promised myself right then that I would never let her get behind me again.

“So…” E said with a wink, “We don’t really have to hike any more today, do we?”

Part 26

Shenandoah National Park is one of the most populated sections of the trail due to its proximity to Washington DC, its accessibility and many amenities. Shenandoah is beautiful, but the Appalachian Trail doesn’t travel through many of the most scenic parts of the park. Instead, the A.T. follows closely along Skyline Drive, a winding road that cuts through the middle of Shenandoah, the trail crisscrossing the drive 30 times in 101 miles. In entering the park, it was the amenities that excited us- we read that all along the trail there were camp stores, restaurants and a even a lodge, and pictured ourselves eating our way through the relatively easy stretch of trail.

Our second day in the park we were up early, partly because it was a cold morning, partly because we had spent the night with a group of noisy high school aged kids and were eager to put some distance between us and them, but mostly because we read that there was a campground with a store seven miles up the trail. The four of us hiked together and it wasn’t until we were several miles into the day that I realized, for the first time, that I wasn’t struggling to keep up with the group. I’d felt myself getting stronger with each passing week, judging my progress on how easy it became to pass day and weekend hikers, but I consistently lagged behind Pilgrim, E and Sug. It wasn’t something new; I’d been slow my whole life. I was always one of the slowest kids in the 15 years I’d played soccer and softball; I’d resigned myself to being the slowest hiker early in the trip. And up until that point, I had been the slowest. I’d become accustomed to arriving for lunch or at shelters to find everyone waiting for me. I tried to not let it bother me, but the truth was, the truth I’m not sure I would have admitted to myself, was that every time I was the last one in, part of me was right back to being the embarrassed kid at soccer practice. If I had thought about it at the time, I would have realized how liberating it would be to not have to carry that self-imposed label anymore.

But my thoughts at that moment were not focused inward but to where they were ninety percent of the time I was hiking; on food. Which is why, when we arrived at the campground and found the store was not yet open for the season, we treated the disappointment with all the maturity of small children denied their favorite toys. It didn’t matter that we had food bags full of the same packaged foods the store would probably sell, there was a magic in buying and eating food you didn’t have to carry up and down mountains. We set back out onto the trail, mentally and probably literally kicking at the dirt. Soon, though, we crossed paths with a woman hiking the opposite direction who told E about a park restaurant and store a mile off the trail that we hadn’t known about and our faith in the universe was restored. Not only would we be getting food, but we’d be getting hot food and indoor plumbing and at that time in my life I’d have been hard pressed to think of something I valued more.

A half hour later, Pilgrim, Sug and I sat in a booth happily eating high school cafeteria grade hamburgers, when E emerged from the women’s restroom.

“Dude, don’t go in there.” She whispered in my ear. “Someone stopped that shit up.”

I laughed, knowing exactly who “someone” was, holding up my hand for a high five. Even if E and I hadn’t been friends since the seventh grade, her comment would have felt completely normal at that point in the hike. The frequency and openness with which backpackers talk about their bodily functions would make even the least squeamish in the “outside world” blush. When you have no privacy and limited facilities, where and when you choose to do your business is a source of constant concern and completely open for discussion. I could have pinpointed without hesitation the daily poop schedule of every person in our group and thought nothing of it (once in the morning was preferable, so you could get it out of the way at a privy).

We finished our meal and walked into the adjacent gift shop. I grabbed E’s arm and pointed out the caution tape that now blocked the entrance to the women’s room.

“What did you do?!” I giggled.

She just shrugged, continued looking at the candy selection and asked with a straight face, “What kind of fudge should I get?”

E and I stood at the counter to make our purchases (chocolate for me, rocky road for E) and overheard one young, disgusted looking employee telling another, “It was like a baby’s arm. Who DOES THAT?”

When we finally recovered our composure, E said thoughtfully, “It’s a rare thing to overhear a stranger talking about your shit. Is it weird that I feel kinda proud?”

“Oh my god. This really is the Shitendoahs!” I laughed, referring to the name I’d given the park earlier that day, since eating more town food was throwing off my routine and making me thankful for the increased access to restrooms and privies that being in a populated part of the trail provided. It was almost as if my nickname supplied a theme for our time in the park and we were determined to live up to it. I continued to proudly make use of every privy I passed. And then to cap it off, on our last day in Shenandoah, I was walking down a hill when I spotted E, ten feet off the trail, barely concealed behind a rock, squatting with her pants around her ankles.

She looked up to see me, and not realizing the headphones I wore were off, yelled, “MY ASS…IS…EXPLODING!”

What she did not take into account was that it was a sunny, Saturday afternoon, that we were two miles from a road, and in one of the most popular parks on the trail. So maybe she could have anticipated, but definitely did not know that at the moment she was looking at me, yelling about her ass exploding, I was locking eyes with an attractive man in his mid-twenties hiking up the trail from the opposite direction who was also within earshot of her pronouncement. He gave me the slightest bemused smile and carried on up the trail, mercifully being careful not to look too long in E’s direction.

“Dude. We all hear you. And see you.” I told E when I stopped laughing.

“Jesus. Of course it had to be a hot guy. There was no time!” E was finishing up her business when a family with two young children passed by, making no qualms about staring her way.

“What?” She barked.

That image of E behind the rock, yelling at me about her ass, to this day makes me laugh almost as hard as the day it happened. In any other stretch of trail, that and the baby’s arm would have been the most significant stories we’d have to tell (not that I don’t take every chance to relate both, and E, to her credit, always laughs).

But they both became footnotes to our time in Shenandoah, because three days earlier one of us had almost died.

To be continued…

Part 25

Before entering Shenandoah, Sug talked us all into making another unscheduled stop in Waynesboro, Va. It was a fairly tough negotiation with E and I pointing out that we had just stayed the night at the Dutch Haus, Pilgrim and Sug countering with an offer to pay for a motel, and E and I immediately agreeing. Checking our guidebook, we learned that Waynesboro is the home of the Fishburne Military School, an imposing campus in the middle of town, and, more interesting to us, an all you can eat pancake house. After checking into a Days Inn that by any other traveler’s standards might rate a disappointed “it’s just a place to sleep” but elicited cheers from me for the tiny complimentary bottles of shampoo and lotion, we headed into town. Because we had just resupplied and done laundry at the Dutch Haus, after stuffing ourselves on pancakes, we were at a loss for what to do and resorted to loitering in front of the post office trying to look menacing to the straight-laced military students.

“Hey!” E said suddenly. I could practically see the light bulb go on over her head. “Let’s get drunk!”

And so we did.

Armed with a case of beer and an extensive collective catalogue of drinking games, we took to our room at the Days Inn on a mission. Several hours later, having drank enough beer and eaten enough pizza for two men, I found myself in the bathroom on the phone with Kevin.

“I’m so glad you’re having fun. I miss you.” Kevin told me, sounding like he meant both things.

Pilgrim peeked his head in and I could hear E and Sug’s laughter from the other room. “Hey, sorry, I need to make a quick call whenever you’re done and then I volunteered us to go get more beer.” He whispered, shutting the door.

I finished up my call and handed off the phone and privacy of the bathroom to Pilgrim. Kevin and I had talked regularly since his visit in Tennessee and there was almost always a package or sweet letter waiting from him at post office drops. I was relieved that things seemed like they were finally back to normal. Ten minutes later, a suddenly somber Pilgrim and I walked the two blocks to the gas station for beer none of us needed.

“Who were you talking to? Everything okay?” I asked, the alcohol making me think it was okay to pry into life of someone usually so private.

“Yeah, it’s dumb. Just this girl.” He mumbled. And then, apropos of nothing, “I know you guys probably think I’m just this small town guy.”

“What are you talking about?” I was genuinely thrown. I saw Pilgrim as smart, artistic, complex; the opposite of what I thought he meant by “small town.” Not knowing what else to say, I blurted, “Dude, I’m from Ohio!”

Pilgrim looked at me for a second and we both laughed and moved on to some other beer-fueled topic. But as I hiked the next day, the relative easiness of the Shenandoah trails making it possible to ponder something more than “not another fucking climb,” his remark stuck with me. It struck me that my decision to hike the trail, although I had never articulated it, was in part because I wasn’t happy with who I felt I’d become. At some point, maybe during college, I’d begun thinking of myself as dull, directionless, as someone with nothing much to add. I looked at E, who had (and has) such a spark about her that people couldn’t help but instantly love her, and I wished for some of her vibrance instead of feeling like the dumpy sidekick. As I hiked through a non-descript patch of woods, it occurred to me, honestly for the first time, that maybe like Pilgrim, my self-image was skewed. I was, after all, the same person who had, on a whim, decided to take stand-up comedy classes, and had spent the last several months I’d lived in Chicago performing at comedy open mics around the city. I resolved to spend more time thinking about who I was, who I wanted to be and about how to go be her.

Part 24

It was only a little over a week since the day outside of Pearisburg when Pilgrim woke up refusing to hike and E, See Blue and I had set off into the fog without them, but the four of us greeted each other like it had been six months. I had halfway convinced myself that we would never see them again and yet there they were, as if we had planned all along to meet up outside of the post office in this tiny Virginia town.

Conscious of Earl and Flashback waiting for us in the car, E told the guys to meet us at the Dutch Haus when they finished their errands. Within ten minutes of arriving at the bed and breakfast, E and I were shown to our room, given fluffy bathrobes and told to leave our laundry outside the door of our room, “Don’t you worry, we’ll take care of it…we’ve seen worse!”

I had just finished the long, hot shower I had day dreamed of when I saw Pilgrim and Sug walking towards the house. I opened the window and shouted down at them, “I’M BLOW DRYING MY HAIR!” They gave me a confused thumbs up, obviously not as taken with the novelty of a hair dryer as I was. On the trail I would often go a week without combing, let alone washing my hair, so the hair dryer was a luxury.

E and I met the guys on the front stoop and learned that they come into town about eight miles behind where we had stopped for the day. They decided that instead of staying the night at the Dutch Haus with us, they would go back out onto the trail that evening, hike those eight miles so that we would all be starting out at the same place the next morning.

“What have you been up to since we saw you last?” I asked. “I thought you guys would have caught us days ago. We were going pretty slow.”

It turned out that hours after we’d left them in Pearisburg, Stitch, a guy we’d hiked with on and off in North Carolina showed up at the shelter with another thru-hiker, Ben. Stitch and Ben were going into Blacksburg, Virginia the next day so that Ben could get off the trail to visit his girlfriend in Madison, Wisconsin, and Sug and Pilgrim decided to go with them. The four of them drank wine, ate cheese and chatted up Virginia Tech girls all day.

E looked at them with fake anger. “So while we hiked in the snow that day, you guys were lounging on some college quad? That’s fucked up!”

“Yeah,” Sug said, “and it was awesome! You guys would really like Ben.”

Pilgrim chimed in, “He’s kinda like me, but super laid back.”

“So…not like you at all?” I joked.

Pilgrim told us that Ben and Stitch had been hiking thirty-mile days, something none of us had attempted yet.

“Yeah, Ben doesn’t hike super fast or use hiking poles, he just puts his head down and hikes all day. He said he’s lost like 30 pounds since starting.”

I pictured a friendly, short, chubby guy with a hiker’s beard and decided I’d probably like him, but knew that since he was leaving the trail for a week to visit his girlfriend, we’d most likely never meet.

“Since we took those two days off, we’ve had to hike big miles to catch up to you guys.” Sug told us. In the past when we’d hiked with them, we’d never really conceded that we were staying together as a group on purpose and so it surprised and pleased me to know that they had worked to catch up with us. I felt like our friendships weren’t as fleeting as many on the trail had turned out to be.

After an hour, the guys took off for their night time hiking adventure, and E and I went inside, still in our fluffy bathrobes, to eat dinner with Flashback. We had a lovely dinner and I was sad to learn that this would be the last time we saw him, because he was leaving the next day to go home to his family. While we drank wine and cheers’ed Flashback’s birthday and successful section hike, I thought about all the snapshot relationships I’d collected on our hike and was even more grateful that Sug and Pilgrim had caught up to us.

The next morning, after finding our freshly laundered clothes sitting outside our door and eating a delicious home cooked breakfast, E and I waved goodbye to Flashback and Earl from the trailhead. We found the shelter where Pilgrim and Sug had slept and woke them up, deciding to end the day about 25 miles up the trail, just on the outskirts of Shenandoah National Park. This part of the AT in Virginia defied the picture of an easy, downward slope that I’d carried with me through the earlier states. The day started out with a rough climb up a mountain that had three false summits. False summits are as annoying as they sound, just when I’d think I was at the peak of the mountain, I’d turn a corner and see that there was more climbing to do. It had been awhile since E and I had hiked over 20 miles in a day and by the last four we were trying to find anything to distract us from the pain our bodies were experiencing from the constant ups and downs. My walkman was, yet again, broken, so E would sing out loud as she listened to a tape and I would sing along. We discovered that “Southern Cross” was a great motivator, and sang “How many times I have fa-allen!” at the tops of our lungs as many times as it took us to reach the shelter.

The four of us had the shelter to ourselves that night. Pilgrim introduced the concept of “A.T. gym”, reasoning that while our legs were getting super strong, our arms and abs were not, so we should do sit-ups and pushups at night. “Let’s just get super ripped!” Even though everyone was exhausted from the day, we all joined in.

“Hey, should we hike through Shenandoah together?” I asked at one point, trying to seem casual, but still surprisingly shy to ask other hikers, even ones who had become true friends, to adjust their schedules to ours.

“Of course.” Sug answered without hesitation.

“Yeah. Cool.” I said, as if I had completely expected his answer.

The next day, the four of us set out for Shenandoah National park, expecting to see the Blue Ridge parkway, crowds, wildlife; but not knowing that this would be one of the most eventful sections of our hike.

To be continued…

Part 23

“And you’re, like, a fucking asshole.” I laughed and shoved E’s shoulder, causing her to tip over, making us both laugh harder.

The next morning we were slowly gathering our things, long past autopilot on our morning routine, when E announced that it was Easter.

I hadn’t even realized it was a Sunday before E said it, and now I wondered out loud if we should somehow mark the occasion. It seemed important, not out of religious obligation, but as a way to inject some normalcy into lives that were becoming more detached from the “real world” every day. I had gone to church as a kid, and had tried on variations of Christianity over the years, most notably my stint as a “kinda Catholic” during my years at Chaminde-Julienne Catholic High School, but nothing had really taken. And while E had grown up Catholic, she wasn’t overly concerned with the ceremony of faith. During her time at a Jesuit university and for the years afterward she had focused her energy on social justice, working to make good in her community and the world, but she didn’t care whether she made it to church on Sunday. It is one of the things I admire most about E, she is a person of action, not pretense.

“I could hide your candy bars around the shelter like an Easter egg hunt, if that will make you feel better.” E teased as we headed out.

The day was pleasant and we spent the morning hiking together, talking about faith and telling stories about Easters growing up. I told her about how I was 11 before I finally realized there was no Santa Claus and that while I sat crying to my mom (who I now know was thinking “How can this kid be so smart and yet so dumb?”) about my late revelation, I looked up at her and said, “wait! Does that mean there’s no Easter Bunny, too?”

Around lunch time we walked down to a shelter for water and a rest, and ran into Flashback, a section hiker we’d been hiking around for a couple of weeks. Section hikers generally hike the entire trail in several hiking seasons and Flashback was out for a month, completing as much as he could before he had to get back to a job and his wife and children. E and I both really liked him, having felt an instant kinship the day we found him climbing back up a ravine after tumbling off the trail because he was lost in thought. He handled himself with much more humor than I had the time I’d lost my footing going down a steep trail and then cried to E that I had “fallen off the fucking mountain!”

We hadn’t seen Flashback in a couple of days and it turned out he was being slack packed by the owners of a bed and breakfast right off the trail called the Dutch Haus. He told us that the owner was picking him up at the end of the night, and that it was not only Easter, but also his birthday, so he thought we should stay the night at the Dutch Haus and celebrate with him. E and I agreed to go and were secretly relieved when he insisted that it be his treat. By thru-hiker standards, we had both saved a decent amount of money to hike the trail, but the Dutch Haus, at a mere $25 per hiker a night, seemed beyond what we should be spending.

The rest of the day flew by, even though the hiking was challenging. Flashback told us that the Dutch Haus stay included a home cooked breakfast and dinner as well as complimentary laundry. We completed 22 miles and were picked up by the B&B owner, Earl, on a road a few miles north of the Priest mountain summit. As he drove, E asked Earl about how he and his wife had come to open the B&B in tiny Montebello, Virginia and I looked out the window at the passing landscape, thinking of how amazing a hot shower would feel.

Earl had just driven into town when I saw something out of the corner of my eye.

“STOP!” I yelled instinctively, and then seeing a startled Earl, “Sorry, do you mind waiting here for just a minute?”

E saw what I did and screamed with delight.

Sitting outside the post office were Pilgrim and Sugar High.

To be continued…

Part 22

Five days later, E and I sat alone together in a shelter for only the second time since the beginning of the trail.

“It’s going to be weird sleeping without See Blue mumble-singing Blue Oyster Cult all night.” E said, throwing a pebble at a tree. We both felt guilty. The day before, caught in a sudden shower of freezing rain, E and I had stopped for the day short of our planned destination without telling See Blue. We had no idea how far ahead of us See Blue was, or when we’d see him again.

“You think he’ll wait for us to catch up ahead?” I asked.

“Like we’ve waited for Pilgrim and Sug? Or Mike?”

“Right.” Separating from See Blue was another illustration of how upredictable trail life was. Doing your own thing was part of the hiker culture; you had to hike your own hike (an oft repeated phrase among hikers, so much so that the acronym HYOH was frequently used in its place). When Mike, and then Sugar High and Pilgrim had decided to stay behind, E and I had hiked on, not willing to change our schedule, and I doubted that See Blue would alter his full speed ahead mentality for us despite how close we’d become.

The three of us had spent the five days since the sunny afternoon on McAfee’s Knob hiking through the rolling mountains of Virginia. After the dramatic peaks and gaps of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, Virginia’s landscape was a welcome change. Instead of hiking up and down mountains, in Virginia the trail largely follows ridgelines and meanders through pastures. Thru-hikers spend more trail miles in Virginia then any other state, almost 550 miles. In the early days, we would long to be in Virginia, joking that it must be like a paved highway all the way to West Virginia (it wasn’t). It was a milestone to get to Virginia, and would be a milestone to get through it.

During those days together, See Blue, E and I did an equal amount of hiking North and exploring Southern Virginia trail towns. We resupplied at a gas station in Daleville, Virginia and caught a hitch in the back of a pick-up truck sporting multiple confederate flag stickers into the charming town of Buchanan where the owner of a Christian bookstore/50’s café bought us all lunch. We spent a night watching hours of Friends reruns in a shitty motel in Glasgow, a town notable only for the dozen full-sized fiberglass dinosaurs stationed throughout the rundown town center. We had also hiked almost 100 miles and had scaled the last peak over 4000 feet until we reached New Hampshire. See Blue introduced cocktail hour to our routine, surprising us by packing in wine and marshmallows one night, prompting E and I to stock our own “mini-bars” with little bottles of liquor. E and I discovered that See Blue slept in the nude (“you gotta let your shit breathe, girls”), a revelation that amused us to no end, as did his tendency to hum out loud to whatever heavy metal song was playing on his walkman. The three of us had settled into a comfortable trio, happily dividing camp chores, picking up the slack for whoever was feeling especially tired on a given day.

Now, See Blue miles ahead, E and I both grew silent as we sat, legs swinging from the edge of the shelter, tossing rocks at the trees and looking out into the woods that had become our home.

“Wow. We’re, like, alone.” I mused.

E stared at me for a full ten seconds and then sides of her mouth curled into a smile and her nostrils flared with suppressed laughter.

“Wow. You’re, like, fucking deep.”

To be continued…

Part 21

Two nights after the snow, I lay on a cot in the garage of a man I didn’t know, staring up at a poster of a naked woman draped over a motorcycle. I took a sip of my Natty Light and smiled, content for the first time since before the sickness and mess of Pearisburg.

The day after we left Sug and Pilgrim in their sleeping bags vowing not to hike, E and I had made our way, slipping and stumbling, through three inches of slushy snow covering a ridge trail made of rock. I fought to stay upright, my soaked boots rubbing against my once again open heel wounds. My poles slipped constantly from my sock covered hands (I had learned in our first week that only my wool socks kept my hands from stiffening with the cold). Every so often we would see “this sucks” written in the snow, an encouraging message from See Blue, walking a few minutes ahead of us. And even though the snow melted by the end of that day, “this sucks” was still the thought most frequently running through my head when we walked up to the Four Pines hostel; home to the garage cots, naked lady posters, Natty Lights and Joe Mitchell, one of the nicest hostel owners we would meet on the trail.

“Which one of you is E?” Joe had asked us when we arrived. There were few women on the trail and so his guess that one of us was E was not a stretch. He was leading us to the back of his sizable property, which included a house and dirt bike track situated a few minutes walk down a road that intersected the trail, “Your mom called, wanted to make sure you got this package…it’s insulin and I understand how important that is.”

It turned out Joe was also a diabetic and had worried about E ever since her Mom had called wanting to know if we’d made it there yet. Her mom knew we’d planned to stay at Four Pines because every couple of weeks, we tried to update our families and friends about what towns and hostels we thought we might stop at. That way, they could send supplies, like E’s insulin, or luxuries, like books or cds. My Dad made a habit of sending a book with a $20 bill as a bookmark and a box of band aids for my feet to every place we stopped. Kevin always sent cooking fuel and sweet letters, along with candy or cheetos. My Mom wrote me encouraging notes, E’s brother sent mix tapes, and my brother sent brownies. Every post office or hostel was like a mini-christmas, a connection to home, a reminder that people other than us were invested in our journey.

“How about a beer, ladies?” We had entered a huge garage housing ten cots, a card table, radio, shower and toilet in one corner, and a refrigerator filled with beer.

“It’s not much…” Joe trailed off.

“It’s perfect.” E and I agreed, meaning it.

We talked to Joe and drank beers while his kids zoomed around on four wheelers outside. Joe told us that we were some of the first thru-hikers he’d seen, but that later in the season the garage would be filled past capacity every night.

After See Blue arrived and we’d all taken showers, Joe offered us the keys to his old pick-up truck so that we could drive into town, three across in the front seat, to eat at a nice family style restaurant called the Home Place. For several hours, we feasted on $10 all you can eat fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, biscuits, coleslaw, and peach cobbler, stopping only to grunt about how good the food was or to ask the patient waitress for more.

Laying in our cots the next morning, bellies still full, E and I re-evaluated our planned mileage. We’d been hiking 20-plus miles days fairly consistently, but we were both tired, so decided to cut back on the long days for a bit while we let our bodies heal. Besides, we both hoped that our low mileage would give Sug and Pilgrim the chance to catch up. We hadn’t talked about it much because the fluid nature of the trail meant that people came and went all the time, we had learned that after we lost Mike, but to me, our little group felt incomplete.

As we rearranged our miles (“Okay…so we can do 17 instead of 20 today, and 18 tomorrow, not 22. We’ll just make those miles up in a week or so.”), I experienced a mental shift. I realized that I’d been dreading hiking. Every day for awhile, I’d gone to sleep worrying about the next day’s itinerary, and I’d woken up dreading what was to come. Just remembering that I had control over how far we were going and where we’d stop, and that I could say “look, I need a break,” made me feel like what we were doing was a choice, not a job.

And when my mental fog lifted, thankfully, so did the weather. We left Four Pines and Joe that morning, comfortable in our shorts and t-shirts, marveling at the cloudless sky. My body felt good, rested, healthy, probably properly nourished for the first time in weeks. We reached McAfee’s Knob, one of the trail’s most photographed overlooks around lunch time, finding it swarmed with day hikers. Until then, I hadn’t realized it was a weekend. I sat on the rock formation jutting out over rolling Virginia farmland far below, occasionally answering the questions of people curious about thru-hiking, but mostly soaking up the sunshine and I felt something I hadn’t in too long- gratitude.

Part 20

The night Cara picked us up we went through the motions of town. We gorged ourselves on Chinese Buffet, made phone calls, did laundry, shopped for food. Later, the boys walked over from the hostel they were staying at to the dingy motel room E, Cara, and I shared and we all drank beer and watched as Syracuse beat Oklahoma in the NCAA championship game. Nobody mentioned how late it got, or that we had 26 miles to hike the next day. I needed a break, mentally and physically, from the trail and it was nice to imagine us as just a bunch of friends watching a basketball game, even for a few hours.

I spent most of the night alternately trying suppress my coughs and tossing from the weirdness of being in a bed as opposed to a shelter floor. At one point in the night, E woke up from a dream laughing uncontrollably, having no idea why. Between my exhaustion and everyone else’s stalling, we didn’t start hiking until after 10am the next morning. Cara was slack packing us, so we left our packs in the hotel room and she drove us back to where she had picked us up the day before and we were to hike the 26 miles to Pearisburg and spend another night there before saying goodbye and hiking on. The day out of Pearisburg was the day we all learned that slack packing could be both a blessing and a curse. It is amazing how light and fast you feel hiking with nothing when you are used to 40 pounds on your back. But what we chose to ignore with our late night and late start was that we still had a marathon’s length of mountains to climb before the end of the day.

Cara hiked the first three miles with E and I, listening sympathetically as we complained, assuring us that what we were going through was completely normal.

“As crappy as it could be, Chris and I still talk about the trail at least once a day, even four years later. And I know we’d both love to be out here with you guys.” Cara told us.

So we felt good as we waved goodbye, encouraged by her enthusiasm. We felt good until about noon, when it started to pour and we realized we still had twenty miles to hike. And then everything fell apart. Objectively, there was no reason this day should feel harder than any other, especially because we weren’t carrying packs. But the collective weariness had taken hold and every mile felt like two, and the cold rain soaked me to the core.

I started crying as I stood at the base of what turned out to be the last big climb of the day, seriously believing that I couldn’t keep hiking. I cried when E and I reached the motel and she turned to me with tears in her eyes, saying “Let’s never talk about this day again.” I stopped crying long enough to eat almost an entire pizza, but started crying again as I lay in bed, once again unable to sleep. I cried as we stood at the hostel with the boys the next morning and waved goodbye to Cara.

I was standing outside trying to compose myself enough to hike when See Blue came and stood beside me.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

I sighed. “Nothing.” I said, shaking my head and wiping my face.

“Yeah.” He agreed, and lifted up my pack and placed it on my shoulders.

It was late when we finally got going. We had discovered a scale in the hostel and took turns weighing ourselves and our packs. In the weeks since we started hiking, I had lost over 20 pounds. We decided to hike only six miles that day. We needed a bit of an easy day, but we all decided it would be best to get ourselves clear of Pearisburg and the dark cloud that seemed to sit over it for us. I listened to Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” over and over as I crossed a river and willed myself up the mountain. As soon as Dylan sang his last “he coulda been the champion of the world”, I would rewind to “pistol shots ring out in the bar room night…” and start the story again. Sometimes it was the most random thing that got me through a day. After at least eight times through, I came upon Pilgrim sitting on a large rock staring out to the fields below.

I took off my pack and sat down beside him. “You okay?”

He sighed. “I’m just so fucking tired. We’re not even a 1/3 of the way finished this fucking trail and I’m already so fucking tired.”

I nodded, but didn’t say anything. I couldn’t let myself voice the doubts I constantly carried with me, especially now, after the sickness and weather and injury and, as Pilgrim had put it, the being so fucking tired all the time. My drive to keep putting one foot in front of the other was so fragile that saying anything out loud might mean I wouldn’t make it, and more than anything; more than sleep and warmth and hot meals; I desperately wanted to be a person who could finish this thing I had started. Even though I felt weak and weary, I wanted to be strong and determined.

So I listened as Pilgrim talked. Like me, he was wrapped up in his own struggles and worries. Eventually, we moved on to talk for almost an hour about our families and our ideas of what life would be like when we got home until we fell into a companionable silence.

“Should we leave the rock?” I asked after a few minutes.

“UGHHHHHHHHHH!” Pilgrim yelled in exaggerated frustration, grinning manically and hauling his pack over his shoulders.

In minutes, we were at the shelter with the others, boiling water for dinner, trying to stay warm in our sleeping bags.

The next morning the fog hung in front of us so thick that I could barely make out See Blue’s figure 20 feet after he set out from the shelter. Pilgrim hadn’t moved all morning despite the flurry of activity as the rest of us went through our morning routine- pee, pack, eat, hike. Sug just shrugged when we asked what was going on. As E and I were grabbing our hiking poles, Pilgrim stuck his head out of his sleeping bag, looked out at the fog and proclaimed, “I’m not fucking hiking today.” It was what I wanted to say many mornings, but had never considered that it might actually be an option.

“I guess we’re not going anywhere today.” Sug shrugged again, obviously used to his friend’s mood swings. “We’ll catch up.”

Looking over my shoulder as Sug climbed back into his sleeping back, I worried about losing our friends, worried that Pilgrim’s impulsive decision not to hike might change everything. As I walked, the fog turned to pounding rain, which turned to driving sleet.

“What else are you going to do?!” I screamed to the sky, not giving a thought to how ridiculous I must look. “Seriously, Mother Nature! What the hell else are you going to do?!”

Two minutes later, as I reached the shelter where See Blue and E sat huddled in their bags, I got my answer. The sleet suddenly and silently turned to snow.

To be continued…