I got a great night’s sleep and woke up after sunrise feeling rested and ready. By now I understood that the start of each day was always rough. So it didn’t surprise me when the first few miles were dragging. With the weather clearing and temperatures rising, thick humidity permeated the air. But I’d take anything other than rain and was extremely excited for better weather. I was getting demoralized with how slow the hiking was going on such easy terrain but just continually reminded myself that it always got better. Nearly every evening I felt on top of the world, like I could keep hiking for another 20 miles. But the mornings were dreadful and I would set myself back so tremendously from slow miles in the morning that by the time I felt good it was already afternoon and I was racing to cover the distances.
But inevitably something always cheered me and got me excited for what was to come. This morning it was a fellow Richmonder nearing the end of her NOBO thru-hike. I was passing hiker after hiker, the second wave of NOBOs that I had run into on my trip, the last one being in southern New Hampshire. As I was passing a girl and her dog, she stopped me and asked, “Are you a southbound thru-hiker?”
I told her yes and then she asked if I was from Richmond. A mutual friend of ours had told her to look for me and sent her a picture of me. We reflected on Richmond and how much we missed home, shared in each other’s excitement for what he had done so far. To be so far from home and feel so alone, it was incredibly refreshing to make a friend from home.
My stride eased and my pace quickened with my new excitement. Now yet another person was going to be following my trip, I needed to pull my life together and get going. No more sub-30 days.
And then my Black Diamond ultra-distance trekking pole broke. Of course. Seriously, of course. It wasn’t even my fault. On this exact section of trail six years ago I jumped off a tree and accidentally kicked my pole, absolutely shattering the carbon fiber. But this time, the joint between two of the sections had come unglued and slipped down in the shaft, turning it into a flimsy mess.
My brain wasn’t really working on full capacity enough to try to fix it so instead I chose to sit down. I sat down on a fallen tree alongside the trail. After a couple minutes of pondering the hold of Murphy’s Law over my hike. To a non-hiker, trekking poles may seem like a ridiculous and unnecessary crutch. But to someone who has been hiking with them for nearly 650 miles, they are 100% essential. They provide stability on gnarly terrain, save my knees on downhills, help lengthen my stride on flats, and brace me whenever I fall or trip. You simply can’t hike as far or as fast without them; there’s no way around it.
I got back up, packed up my broken pole, and kept hiking with just the one pole. It was awkward but better than nothing. I took the time on the easy trails to call home and catch up with family and got to talk to my mom, dad, and my aunt who was staying with them in Virginia Beach.
Around 15 miles into the day I reached US 20 and hiked a short distance off trail to pick up my mail drop at Berkshire Lakeside Lodge. I had originally intended to stay but I was so off schedule that I reached it in the early afternoon. The clerk was out of the office for an hour so I waited. I talked with a NOBO thru-hiker who was taking a break to charge her phone and I let my shoes dry out on the porch.
Pretty soon the lady running the lodge returned and gave me my package. I ate all the extra food I had packed which included a few bags of fruit snacks, some pudding cups and fruit cups, and a couple Ensure shakes along with some supplements. Another lady working there came by to see the thru-hiker with the tiny pack and they both got a kick out of asking me questions about my trip. It was a cool setup with a Lodge so close to the trial. They loved having hikers and enjoyed hearing their stories and welcomed them without hesitation to come stay the night or just hang out for a bit. Right as I was about to leave I hesitated for a second and asked, “Do you all happen to have any gorilla glue?”
They thought they might so went around looking for some and then we three all pieced my trekking pole back together. And it looked good too. It wasn’t some crummy job that would break in another 100 miles. I was completely relieved but left my pole stored on my pack for the next couple hours to let it dry.
Excited for the quick fix, and warmed up after a slow morning, I was crushing the miles with comfort. In early evening the trail dipped down into a bog and crossed a long boardwalk. I was full fledged hobbling now, with my tendinitis completely locking out my left leg. It didn’t bother me much because it didn’t hurt. But on the boardwalk the pounding from my awkward stride rattled the boards with a loud thump. And within the first few feet and wasp leaped out from under the boards, latched onto the back of my right calf and stung me.
Getting stung by a wasp is a pain that you never really remember how painful it is until you’re sharply reminded. I realized this on a bike ride with some friends while I was a student at Virginia Tech when I ran into one at over thirty miles an hour and the bastard stung my quad. It hurt so bad I felt like I could hardly keep peddling, and I’m sure my blood pumping so rapidly didn’t help with keeping the discomfort contained. I had dreamed up this hike down in the Florida Keys on vacation with my family and a couple friends from Tech. My dad and my friend Scott both got attacked by the little buggers and did a little dance in pain while I laughed my tail off. So this time, after yelling a few select words I started laughing at the hilarity of the situation. That may be a sign of full fledged crazy running rampant in a person, when excruciating pain makes them laugh. But hell, it was funny, and as sleep deprived and exhausted as I was, sure I was probably a little crazy.
Heading back up the mountains my calf throbbed from the pain but was subsiding with each step. I still had no plans for where I would camp tonight. A friend who grew up in Richmond and went to Virginia Tech who was hiking the AT north was in Massachusetts and I knew I would either see him today or tomorrow, depending on how far he hiked. He had messaged me on facebook, hoping to coordinate it so we would cross paths and I told him I would be sleeping just south of South Mt. Wilcox shelter.
I made it there around dusk and, feeling great, decided I would have a go at making it to the next shelter, Tom Leonard Shelter, another five miles ahead. Six years ago, don’t judge me, but I actually did that 5 mile stretch as a full day. It was certainly a different hike with different goals, and I know which one I enjoyed more.
But I didn’t come out here for enjoyment, not this time. I came out here to accomplish a goal I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. So I hiked into the night, crossing roads with my light beam guiding the way. I crossed roads in between passing cars, drivers probably thinking they had seen a ghost. On a few slick saturated bog bridges down in the valley I slipped and fell deep into the mud. But in the process I had stretched my tendon that was so swollen it looked like a tumor. It popped as I fell and when I regained my balance the pain came on sharp and intolerable. I cursed the bog bridges; seriously, I hate them. Probably 90% of my falls are on the slick slats of wood intended to keep hikers out of the mud.
My tendonitis had become a non-issue for the last few miles but it raged after the fall. The trail kicked up slightly and soon the late night dizziness came on. Hiking in the dark is very disorienting, and with my compiled fatigue, each time I had to follow the narrow beam of a headlamp, I turned into a drunken mess. I stumbled over every little root and stone and couldn’t walk in a straight line on even the easiest of trails. The hiking was slow and I fell frequently.
But soon I was at the shelter, grabbing a space on the bunks and getting a snack before I unpacked my bag. I talked briefly with a NOBO section hiker who was spending the night but the conversation dead ended rapidly, him seeming entirely disinterested in talking as he prepped a late dinner.