The air was thick and warm. I was elated to relax and know that the near freezing temperatures I encountered up on the northern Appalachian Trail were behind me. I was calm and at peace after laughing on the phone with my parents making fun of the grump I met down in Salisbury and I easily fell asleep under the clear sky. But by early morning I woke up to gentle drops of rain hitting my tarp roof. I thought it would remain just that so I went back to sleep. I would have hiked to the shelter the night before but I remembered the .4 mile detour to get there very well and at this point I counted any deviation from the trail as a setback. I did prefer to sleep in shelters because of their dependability over a tarp on stormy nights but sometimes it just isn’t worth it.
With light barely creeping up on the horizon, I knew it was about time for me to get up and get hiking. But by now the rain that had rolled in hours earlier was picking up and the wind was starting to ripple the thin loose fabric of my tarp. I was exhausted though and rather than worrying about an impending storm, I took it as an opportunity to get some more rest. So I laid back down.
Within a few minutes the wind picked up to gusting upwards of 50 miles per hour and turned my tarp into a parachute. Lightning which I had heard off in the distance began crashing in every direction. The faint glimmer of light on the horizon disappeared in the thick ominous clouds and I was back in the dark. Lightning flashed all around me. I remembered 5 seconds per mile between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder. There wasn’t enough of a gap between the two to even count a second.
I grabbed my tarp from the sides as torrential rain pelted me from all directions. I was still in my quilt but sat up on my sleeping pad to bring my legs overtop of the insulation. If lightning struck the ground next to me, I didn’t want to have any sort of conductor up to my torso. In front of my two corners of my tarp were staked in the ground with two small 1g skewers that more resemble toothpicks than a tool for construction a shelter. But behind me the tarp was tied to two trees. So I knew no matter what I wasn’t going to lose it. My goal now was just to maintain some semblance of dryness. I pulled the tarp down around me but the horizontal rain was shooting in from every gap between the tarp and the ground. I was completely drenched but my Enlightened Equipment quilt had water resistant down and stayed lofted and kept me warm. I was too scared of being struck by lightning to get hypothermic though. I pulled the quilt up around me to keep from shivering, sat cross legged with my arms up around my tarp and sat, waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
The ground rumbled from the lightning and I could see it hit the ground just a couple hundred yards down the hill. The wind ripped leaves and entire branches off nearby trees and threw the debris at me. By now my tarp looked camouflaged with its leaf covered ceiling.
After over an hour, I could feel the wind diminishing. The rain turned vertical and within another 15 minutes it all passed. I could hear the thunder rage on another mountain but it was gone from here. My back ached from sitting hunched over for so long and I was absolutely spent from the stress of worrying for my life. When I knew it had finally passed, I dropped down on my sleeping pad, stretched out, and fell quickly back asleep.
I woke up just a half hour later covered in mud in my soaked clothes and damp hair. The weight of the water on the nylon of my quilt had turned it into a flapjack-like mess. The down was still lofted which was amazing but it’s never comfortable sleeping wet. I leisurely packed up, wiped the leaves from my tarp, shaking off the superficial water from my gear and squeezing out the rest. It felt good to be back hiking again. The thick humidity drenched me with sweat but I never minded the warmth.
The morning trudge
Down the hill I filled up at a beautiful little spring and then ran into a family with little children a short time later. We talked about the storm and wished each other an enjoyable hike and kept on. Down near Falls Village, CT I ran into a NOBO hiker in a park along the river. As usual for the mornings, I was feeling incredibly exhausted and really struggling to find my stride. It was a relief to talk to him though. With me carrying such a small pack, he asked if I was going for the record. He told me how despite not thinking anyone should try to hike the AT quickly, he could appreciate it and thought what I was doing was much cooler than a supported attempt. After the guy yesterday, it was nice to meet someone who understood that disagreeing with how someone does their hike doesn’t mean you can’t still respect them and their goals. Personally, I disagreed with him and saw the supported record as an immensely challenging hike as well, but I think we were both just fed up with the groupies following Jurek.
After Falls Village, the AT takes a three mile detour on a road which when planning the trip I thought might be a good opportunity to loosen up my legs and run. But I knew after my time on the roads in Massachusetts that I was likely to be relegated to 3mph for the rest of my journey. I stuck to walking but by the end of the detour the tendinitis in my anterior tibialis was throbbing horrendously. I was walking with a serious limp and on top of that had to poop really badly. Walking through a neighborhood I couldn’t really drop my drawers anywhere I wanted.
Once back in the woods the trail kicked up again and I immediately stopped to take care of business. But once back hiking again, in the thick heat of the morning I still wasn’t able to get my stride. It had taken me over an hour longer than usual to travel the first 9 miles. My tendinitis ached, my legs were sluggish and mentally and emotionally I was drained. I collapsed off the side of the trail and burst into tears. I thought with easier terrain I would cruise but I had only faced challenge after challenge.
I sat on the wet ground, legs splayed out, hunched over with my arms limp by my side and cried. And cried. And cried. Other hikers came by so I momentarily composed myself. I didn’t want any pity. So I wiped away my tears and said hello, avoiding eye contact because I was certain my eyes were red. Once they had passed, I called my mom. I knew she would know what to say to get me going again. And she did. Within a few minutes I was back to hiking, understanding that my legs would come over the course of the day; I just needed to stop my self-pity party and get hiking.
Later in the day the trail dropped down again and hugged the Housatonic River for several miles. It ran right along the shoreline and while I enjoyed the speed of the flat hiking, I yearned to get back into the mountains with some variability to give some muscle groups a break. Over the course of the seven or so miles along the river, the gnats gradually picked up until by the end it was a full fledged attack on my face. Hundreds of them swarmed around me as I hiked and launched constant attacks on my eyes, ears, and nostrils. Several of them made it deep into my lungs and others lodged themselves well up in my nose. It was absolute torture but I didn’t want to stop and pull out my headnet for fear of having a full scale invasion launched on my face while I rustled through my pack. I contented myself with the occasional sprint to escape and constant swatting. I watched two NOBO hikers from a distance, their hands flailing around their heads and obvious looks of frustration on their faces.
After a couple hours of dealing with the gnats, the trail kicked back up and away from the marshy shoreline. I enjoyed the change in terrain but toward the top of the climb I began feeling the slightest twinge of pain in my calf. It was getting late so rather than continuing on and stressing my calf, I decided to call it a day in Kent, Connecticut. But on the short road walk into town, my calf turned into a full throb and by the time I made it to the Inn where I would be staying, I was struggling to walk. My limp was extremely pronounced and I probably looked ridiculous but I was happy to have it come on in town rather than out in the woods. I made it to my room, laid down and took a huge sigh of relief.
After destroying a massive plate of eggplant parmesan, a pizza, and some soda, showering and washing my clothes in the sink, I laid down to get some sleep. I slept in the next morning and went over to the hardware store to borrow a wrench to change my pole tips. After than I stopped by the grocery store to pick up some snacks and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. By the time I made it to the edge of town I was done with the ice cream and bought some more from the outfitter. I replaced my socks with some I bought from their store and then worked my way out of town eating my second helping of ice cream. But back on the trail the calf twinge from the night before was about to reveal itself as an excruciating tear and end my trip.