Alive

“Anything’s possible. It is night on planet earth and I’m alive. And someday, I’ll be dead. Someday I’ll just be bones in a box. But right now, I’m not. And anything is possible…Each moment can just be what it is. There’s no failure. There’s no mistake. I just go there, and live there and whatever happens, happens. And so right now, I’m getting naked and I’m not afraid…” -Suburbia

My body is torn and broken. My feet and legs ache from the miles of hiking the past few days. With bulging blisters on my feet, tears in the tendons and fascia on my foot, and aching knees and muscles, I will rest today in the comfort and warmth of my home.

These past few days I left the comfort of this environment for a grueling four day, three night backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail near Blacksburg. I set out with a goal I could not quite grasp. Forever my philosophy with backpacking has been simple, hike slow and keep the destination underfoot. If the goal was to get somewhere by a certain point, I felt I was doing it wrong. But for this past adventure, I would meld my competitive attitude from triathlon to the starkly different world of backpacking. I was going to try to hike over 100 miles in 72 hours in the cool darkness of late November. With a thirty pound pack on my back, I would attempt to cover a distance that previously took me a week or more. I thought I understood the pain I would endure but no matter how much you could have warned me about the challenges I would face, I would have underestimated the adventure.

The trip began near Buena Vista just before dusk with a 25 mile stretch to hike south of the James River. Soon into the hike, the sun set. With a pair of headlamps around my neck, like a jockey exchanging goggles, I rotated their use as the other would dim from overuse. Through the hours of night hiking I began to process what I was doing. Paranoia set in with the darkness becoming ever thicker. On the mountain ridges, with the distant lights of towns and houses in distant valleys, I didn’t feel alone. I felt humanity’s presence with the faint hum of traffic and the sight of civilization. But following along creeks, cut off by towering hillsides, the solitude was overwhelming. I had not seen anyone since my parents left me at the trailhead. I was utterly alone. Frequently, I saw footprints and scat from the familiar black bear. I realized a bear was here, reinforcing to myself the past tense despite the obvious steam rising from the droppings. I knew that the ratio of bears to humans leaned overwhelmingly in their favor. I have always thought of bears as innocent creatures, recognizing they are much less threatening than a human encountered in the middle of the woods. But despite my recognition as the animal as a harmless one, I understood and respected their power. I would hear rustling up the trail and clap my hands or click my poles together to avoid startling what was up ahead. A few strides later I would identify the creature as a deer or a wild turkey. I would remind myself of the process to handle an aggressive bear while still trying to remember that this is the east coast where we have friendly bears.

Psyching myself out, I wanted to stop hiking nearly ten miles from my destination. The night was eerie, with the rustle of large ruffed grouse flying past my head like a fighter jet not helping calm my nerves. In the crunch of the deep November leaves covering the trail, my ears could tune the world out, and with sight limited to the distance of my headlamp, the identity of shadows were only guesses. I would see objects towering over the landscape with frightening mangled claws. As I came closer I recognized the power of a fallen tree had simply ripped the soil and gnarled roots from the earth.

At camp, in the thickest darkness of the new moon, I fell asleep quickly. In the early morning, I was up again to begin hiking. With the sub-10 hours of daylight, I had no time to stop for a meal, realizing any moment I was not moving should be invested urinating, picking up water, or sleeping. I ate and drank as I walked. For breakfast: toaster pastries and fruit snacks. Thirty-six miles lay between me and my destination for the second night. But little over halfway through the day’s hike, the pain in my feet became overwhelming and the exhaustion took over me. I unrolled my sleeping pad and was asleep within seconds. I awoke mid-afternoon with many, many more miles to hike.

I opened up my first aid kit to attain some much needed pick up. My first aid kit for such an adventure consists of five things: one large bandage, six alcohol wipes, duct tape, super glue, and caffeine pills.

However, several hours after the beneficial effects of the caffeine wore off, the diuretic effect caught up to me. I found myself on top of a mountain, nearly nine miles from the nearest water source with only a couple sips left in my bottle. I wanted to sleep and rest. My legs were giving out on me. In my delusional state, I saw and heard water everywhere. In the sparkling glimmer of spider eyes, droplets of water would scurry over and under leaves. I wanted to eat them. I wanted to crunch down on a spider to see if their eyes were as thirst quenching as they looked. In the rustle of leaves I would hear streams. And then in the dead silence, sometimes I would hear a waterfall in the distance. I heard voices, two campers who were sure to have water. But when I stopped hiking to listen again, there was no one. I considered leaving the trail to hike into the valley, but in the vastness of the national forest, I knew the risk of getting lost was not worth the reward.

After hours of torturing dehydration, I knelt down to the ground in agony and frustration. From there, with pack still on, I fell to the ground. With my face on the damp soil, I felt some satisfaction. I wanted to lay there till someone came and found me. In the insanely hot humid weather for late November, I was ready to give up. But my headlamp shined on a beautiful sight. A rock inches away from my headlamp glistened with moist droplets from the dew forming. With no hesitation, I licked the rock to moisten my tongue and with just enough energy resulting from a wet tongue, I was able to rise and see a patch of wet moss. I pulled the moss from the ground and squeezed the muddy droplets into my mouth.

With mud streaming across my cheeks, I had enough energy to make it into the valley. Once there I lay with my head in the spring, letting the cool spring water launch directly into my mouth. I filled up my bottle and drank it in one swig. I wanted to stay there all night but as soon as I felt the energizing power of one source of water, a more threatening one began to fall above me. One source would keep me alive but without shelter, the other would threaten to kill me. I needed to continue. I know it may seem a simple solution, that I should not have taken the caffeine. However, I recognize that I would have only traded dehydration for dangerous mental fatigue and exhaustion.

After a few hours of rest, I rose to attempt the mileage again the following day. But when I stood from my sleeping bag, my knees buckled underneath me and I fell back down. The soreness was overwhelming and crippling. My feet ached and my muscles cramped. Usually one would find synonymity in dull and aching to chronic while sharp, stabbing is typically temporary. However, in the many hours I had been in the woods thus far, the pain I experienced was stabbing and persistent. It seemed unreal that so much pain and agony could come for such a long time but I managed to rise and continue my journey. My legs warmed and the sharp pains became more of a nuisance than inhibition of my stride. That warmth came and went and by mid afternoon I was once again walking with the stride of a chimpanzee.

I know it seems crazy, I did have an option to leave or slow down. There were road crossings and I very easily could have been off that trail and away from the torturous pain. But I came out here for that, to be humbled and experience something I had never done before and for that, I continued.

Late in the afternoon, the hiking was slow enough that a break seemed essential. I unrolled my sleeping pad on a ridgeline at dusk, fully aware of the demonic clouds looming overhead threatening to open on me. I set my watch to wake me in a couple hours but the pouring rain beat my alarm. In a frenzy I packed in less than two minutes and was back to hiking. A few miles later, the exhaustion and pain once again became too overwhelming to continue. Earlier, in just 48 hours of being on the trail, I had hit the 80 mile mark of my trip. But now I was breaking. I could walk no further at this pace. I found a boulder with an overhang and a dry flat space beneath it where I would sleep. I could hear the bats whine within the complex of rocks and I knew they probably were not the only residents. Despite the threat, my hesitation was short lived and camp was established. I was asleep within minutes.

I woke several hours later within a misty cloud and planned to get out of the woods. My trip was supposed to be a day longer but was becoming too crippled to continue alone. My exhaustion was sure to lead me to some poor decisions and without the possibility of help, any mistake would be amplified. Eighteen miles lay between me and escape. I hiked rapidly, only stopping once for water. I hiked along a slippery cliff face of which the cloud concealed the bottom. My strides were not straight but with extra caution I managed to traverse the section of trail with no mistake.

However, exhaustion overcame me once more and took me to the ground for one last nap. When I woke, only four and a half miles were left in this epic adventure. I quickly made it to the road and with my thumb out, was immediately offered a ride. He dropped me off just down the mountain at the end of a road that led straight into downtown Blacksburg. With such luck with the first hitch, I was sure I would be back in Blacksburg within the hour.

Hours later though, I still stood watching car after car drive past me. One guy even felt the urge to flick me off. I thought it a brilliant culmination of my trip. I wanted to live in the lowest pit possible for this trip and I had managed. I was surviving on minimal rations of food and water. I stood in the misting rain for hours, waiting for a favor from a fellow human. I understood that sometimes people do not feel safe or cannot give hitch hikers rides. It can be unsafe for elderly or the weak to risk the threat of a hostile passenger. Or they may only be going a mile down the road and correctly anticipate I want to go further. They may already have a passenger or groceries filling the other seat. I understand and I never criticize anyone who does not pick me up because I know there are reasons. Sometimes people just don’t want to stop, and I understand that too. It is a favor mandating thanks and gratitude from myself, and is certainly not an obligation.

But I thought it incredible the assumptions this man made about me because I was standing on the side of the road with my thumb out. He probably assumed I was a bum, a traveler mooching off hard working people for a simpler, easier life. He made wild assumptions about who I was based on what he saw but could not be more wrong. He has several options of how to act as a passerby. Many people will wave to me and I’ll wave back. I understand their attempt to reconcile their inability or disinterest in picking me up. It is amazing how much power a simple wave had for me standing out in the cold, misting rain, wondering what my options were with all my friends back home for Thanksgiving. It was very refreshing for people to engage in the simple activity of lifting their palm from the steering wheel, totally unnecessary, but so meaningful and something I was so thankful for. But this guy, a middle age man, took the effort to roll down his passenger window as he drove by me to flick me off. I was disgusted and torn, not because his assumption that I was worthy of the bird was right but because of the reality that he made the assumption. Just two days before a holiday of gratitude, love, and thanks, he flicked me off for reasons I am ultimately unsure of.

With my hitch hiking failing, I was preparing to set up camp on the side of the road to try again the next day. But three hours after I had begun my attempts, a man named Donny, in his haste, peeled off the side of the road and yelled for me to get in. I threw my pack in the bed of his truck and slid into the passenger seat. I was a broken man and Donny, despite receiving continuing thanks throughout the 30 minute drive, could not understand enough how much the ride meant to me. He dropped me off at the entrance to my neighborhood and I wished him a happy Thanksgiving.

I walked down my road with a gimp stride, swinging my left leg underneath me to move it forward. I smiled and laughed with the overwhelming happiness to be home and safe. After showering and getting some much needed nourishment, I lay down on my couch to enjoy a movie. My goal had become simple and clear, to suffer and be humbled. I accomplished that. The past four days were some of the most difficult of my life. No one could have adequately warned me of that. But in my exhaustion, I lived. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I will not take any of the comfort for granted.

“Evenings were peaceful, smoke settling in the quiet air to soften the dusk, lights twinkling on the ridge we would camp on tomorrow, clouds dimming the outline of our pass for the day after. Growing excitement lured my thoughts again and again to the West Ridge…There was loneliness, too, as the sun set, but only rarely now did doubts return. Then I felt sinkingly as if my whole life lay behind me. Once on the mountain, I knew (or trusted) that this was to give way to total absorption with the task at hand. But at times I wondered if I had not come a long way only to find that what I really sought was something I had left behind” -Thomas F. Hornbein, Everest: The West Ridge

Grayson Cobb

Grayson Cobb

I am a long distance backpacker, triathlete, adventurer, climber, kayaker, and lowly medical student currently living in Norfolk, VA attending Eastern Virginia Medical School and getting out for adventures on weekends.
Grayson Cobb

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