I just got back from another 100 mile adventure through the woods. When my professors cancelled my Monday classes, that opened up the door for me to turn what could have been a simple walk into an epic trek through southwest Virginia.
On Friday, my friends were going backpacking in Grayson highlands near the Tennessee-Virginia state line. I rode down with them but instead of travelling south with them into the familiar, beautiful Grayson Highlands, I decided to head north to cover some new Appalachian Trail territory. On Friday morning at 11 AM I turned north and with a simple “See ya broskies,” I was off walking. I had abandoned my rain gear, my tent, and all extra clothing. I exchanged waterproof, thick boots for running shoes. The physical goal was simple: go as far as possible in 72 hours.
Around 6 PM of the same day, I made it to a shelter that lay immediately off the trail. A dad and his three sons were preparing dinner on the porch of the shelter. I said hello and set my pack down to clear out my shoes for the first time all day and to pull out my headlamp to prepare for several hours of night hiking.
“Would you like some Mac N’ Cheese?” he offered me.
“Oh no thank you, I really appreciate the offer though!” I responded.
“Where did you start?” he asked as he stirred a giant pot of macaroni.
“Just down the trail at 603,” I replied. He briefly looked up from his pot and then continued with his stirring.
After several minutes that he was obviously in deep thought, he finally asked, “What time did you start?”
“My friends dropped me off on the trail at 11,” I said.
After a second of mental math he responded, “You mean to tell me you walked 22 miles in seven hours?”
“If that is how far it is then I guess I did. Day’s not over yet,” I said as I strapped the headlamp over my forehead.
“Are you running from the law, son?” he asked concerned.
“Ha, no sir. Just how I do it. You all have a good night,” I said and turned north.
“Thank you. You too sir,” he responded. For the next hour I pondered over him calling me sir. With nothing else to do but to hike and think, I thought about the word sir. I know that some older people don’t like to be called sir but to younger people it seems like such a compliment of respect. To me it had meant a lot. I did think maybe I would find the park rangers coming after me after a report of suspicious activity but hiking far and hiking fast can hardly be considered suspicious.
The darkness came quickly and I remembered what had severely limited my miles the last time I did this. I absolutely despise night hiking alone. I’ve tried lying to myself and others about this, thinking I could be a tough guy. When hiking alone, thoughts are the only form of entertainment. When you leave your mind to wander, it does some pretty fun stuff. Let it off the leash and imagination will go crazy. With night hiking alone, the story is no different. Additionally, the hiking is very dangerous. Every rock threatens to roll your ankle off balance. Sheer cliff faces could drop you forty feet onto rocks or jagged dying trees. And when the trail isn’t threatening, it is gentle and ambiguous which could lead you miles off in the wrong direction into the thick of forest service property or into a wilderness thirty miles around. When you stray from the trail, you have no idea which direction the trail comes from. Topographic maps sometimes end abruptly off the trail and mountains all begin to look the same. The best bet when lost from the trail, even though it could be just by a couple hundred feet is to set up camp and wait till morning. It seems that every time I end up night hiking, a new moon hides in the deep dense black sky or clouds conceal any bit of light that may shine through. The world is limited to the distance of seventy lumens.
I made it to another shelter another nine miles away and crashed for the night. I was asleep within minutes. I had eaten as I hiked, no meals, just snacks, so that I wouldn’t have to use time cooking.
The second that light shined ever so slightly in the morning, I was back to hiking. Thirty miles in and my knees and feet were already killing me. I had definitely made the right decision to carrying minimal. I was walking in my running shoes which were not ideal but were definitely better than my gore tex hiking boots. Boots are heavy and hard to carry. But they have tread that doesn’t fail and cloth that doesn’t catch on every twig or rock. They are perfect in every sense except for weight and weight was what I most certainly didn’t need. After ripping apart a decently new pair of running shoes in such a ‘short’ trip, I’ll look into getting some super-light hiking or trail running shoes with vibram or similar soles that won’t rip apart so easily on rugged terrain.
Another decision I was happy about was ditching all my extra clothing. I literally had no more clothes than what I was wearing. I had checked the weather and was aware of impending rain on Sunday night and into Monday. So it may seem idiotic, especially considering it is mid-October and cold out there. But here is my logic. I spent almost no time at camp. Whatever time I did, it was invested in sleeping which means I was in my zero degree sleeping bag which is almost hot for this time of year. The second I would wake up in the chilling wind in the morning I would abruptly pack up, slap on my gloves and pull down my blaze orange stocking cap and begin walking for the day. Throughout the day, the breaks were no more than a couple minutes to pick up water. All my food and water for the day was within reach. There were no moments when I necessarily needed extra clothes. They would have been luxury items.
I also ditched half of my sleeping pad. I left my camera at home. Because I had no meals, I left my pot and spoon home. I left the “brain” of my pack at home. I exchanged a 4oz. pack cover for a 1oz. plastic bag. The only shelter I brought was a 3oz. mylar blanket that I prayed I wouldn’t have to use. There were little things that I realize I could have cut down on. I could have probably knocked another two pounds off my pack with better suited gear and maybe another pound by being more careful about what I brought. Three pounds may not seem like much but on the back of a 130 pound hiker traveling very long distances and racing daylight out of sheer despisal of hiking alone in the dark, it is significant.
My feet blistered on the first day but I wrapped them with a portion of the 1 ounce of duct tape that has made it with me every mile I have hiked on the AT since 2009. They swelled and one of the blisters honestly could use its own shoe it has become so swollen.
One thing I never would have thought I would say I was thankful for having was ibuprofen. Drugs have a time in a place and almost always in my life I say there is no time and no place. I can tolerate enormous amounts of pain. I refuse to take medication for a headache and instead choose to go running or will shower, massage my neck, or sleep. But I have never put myself into a place where there is an overwhelming full body ache that I have on these distance trips. The insides of my knees will swell and in my somewhat skinny legs will look like footballs have been implanted inside my skin. But an anti-inflammatory drug helped keep that swelling to a minimum. I know this may sound like a stupid idea. The pain was always the same (maximal). The only thing different was that the amount of miles I was able to hike before being overwhelmed was higher. So essentially I took a drug to blunt pain that was telling me to stop because I was deliberately causing my body damage.
But the goal was not to save my body from harm. Otherwise I would have stayed in Blacksburg. But what exactly was the goal other than deliberate, self-induced pain from hiking too far? Many people were under the impression that my goal was as simple as the distance goal. That is true but that is the very simplest excuse and really is just an explanation of the means to attain what I was really looking for. In reality, I had become bored. I don’t know whether this was a result of the life I was living or just a natural cycle that I go through. It was a similar feeling that I felt in 2008 that led me away from civilization for four months in 2009. It was the feeling of itchy feet. I have been trying to pinpoint the cause of my itchy feet, why I get a damn near uncontrollable urge to get up and leave; to travel; to peace out on normality and say hello to beardedness and solitude.
I still have not exactly been able to trace the cause. I can maybe blame it on my professors this semester. Even with twenty-two credits, I have become bored. I am not being legitimately challenged in my last semester at Virginia Tech. Nothing I am learning is revolutionary like it was a couple years ago. My teachers are reiterating what I have already learned, simply in a different light, or in some cases literally repeating it.
But who knows if that is the cause. I have friends. I have really good friends, the best I have ever had. Everything in my life points to contentedness. That is everything except for my uncontrollably itchy feet. So while I am failing at pinpointing the cause of itchy feet syndrome, a disease I have acquired no less than three times now in my life, I do know of a sure treatment of the symptoms.
In civilization, I was struggling to convince myself that everything was real. Philosophically speaking, of course, you can only convince me of my own existence. But that is of no concern to me. I don’t care if a dead white man can convince me whether the world surrounding me is or is not of reality. But when I am unable to continue about my daily life because the universe seems so overwhelmingly vast and infinite and unbelievable, there is an obvious problem. When I am not studying for knowledge because it is knowledge I have already attained, why would I want to study for grades when I cannot convince myself that these grades are even real? It seems silly, I know, but I can promise you I am not the only one who has had these itches before.
But what better way to temporarily solve an itch than to scratch it? Two nights ago, my itch was scratched. Who knows, we may find my metaphor is truer than I hoped and the itch is only to return with even more force. On Saturday night I laid under the stars in pure and simple amazement at the sky above me. I had been cripple walking up a 4500 foot mountain when I came across a mountain top meadow. The scenery was evidently tended to the southbound hiker but I turned my head around occasionally on the trudge up to witness the mountainous beauty behind me. The sun was setting quickly and I didn’t have much more time before the despised night hiking began. But instead of opting for something I bitterly despised, I chose instead to set up camp. I laid out my 1/2 of a sleeping pad just twenty yards off the AT and pulled out my sleeping bag. The wind was cold and sharp. But in a zero degree bag I would be fine. The sun set in an uneventful fashion with no epic clouds in sight. But without cloudiness and with a new moon and with civilized light hidden behind mountain ridges, a mountaintop meadow makes a top notch stargazing location.
I fell asleep before dusk dissipated but woke up with the center of the milky way galaxy staring me in the face. If you have never seen the dense cluster of stars that is the milky way galaxy center, you are not capable of happiness that is of someone who has witnessed this beauty. I am sorry but this is fact. Your life will change forever when you see this sight. It is so distant and so dense that in faint light it looks like a cloud. But in deep blackness of a new moon and no earthly lights in sight, the center of the milky way is bold and overwhelming. I could see it. I could see this amazing deepness, this cosmic pool of stars and planets and life of which I am only one in thousands of quintillion on this planet. While it should have been as overwhelming as ever, it achieved the exact opposite. I felt comfortable and in place. At this point I was ready to return home, back to my ‘normal’ life.
But my adventure was far from over distance wise. The next day I woke to some hikers saying, “Hey look at that guy,” talking about me.
I abruptly looked over at them. “Good morning!” they said, laughing.
“Good morning!” I responded, with as much enthusiasm as I may have had I just been born.
I continued walking and walking and walking but the rest is uneventful in comparison. On Sunday I ran out of water for 18 miles and it poured rain for nearly two hours on Monday morning. My goal was achieved. My friend Daniel was picking me up at 12:30 where the trail crosses a road. The second I saw his roof rack covers saying “Go bananas” an ear to ear stretched across my face. That smile, one of happiness to have attained what I wanted to attain and of joy to value safety and comfort, did not fade for several hours afterwards.
Now it is nearing close to the time of my first meal since I got home. I will be going to eat with some close friends who won’t have any bit of clue why I am so damn happy. I thought I would happy about the food. All I could think about on the trail was pizza, ice cream, and fritos. But that excitement has faded. My feet are scratched, whether temporary or not, it is good to be back. At least I am aware of a solution, however temporary it may be.