Shenandoah National Park hiking winter

Old Rag reflections

Tomorrow I’m heading out to hike Old Rag and around the area for some training. I noticed on my spring break trip that my coordination and footwork was lacking, especially on the downhills. After growing up on trails, to hesitate on downhills and stumble on rocky terrain was pretty disappointing. No amount of running in Norfolk and treadmill hiking can prepare me for the variety of terrain that I will encounter on the Appalachian Trail. I’ve tried to make it out to the mountains often but school does a decent job keeping me close to my books. But after a biochemistry exam this morning, I’m taking the opportunity to hit some big miles out in Shenandoah National Park for the next couple days.

The first time I heard about the Appalachian Trail was on the switchbacks leading up to the summit of Old Rag when I was 12 or 13 years old. I haven’t hiked it since and am very excited to return to the site where my passion for the Trail and fascination with the record began. I remember the hike extremely well. With two parents who aren’t very fond of the outdoors, my only opportunity to get out and hike in the mountains was on an annual summer kayaking and canoeing trip. Some of the neighbors and their kids let me and my brother tag along for a few days out on the gentle rivers of western Virginia. And in the middle of the trip we’d take a day off the water and hit the trails. I remember wearing Teva sandals and only carrying my single purple Nalgene bottle. Within the first couple miles I had blisters forming but was too embarrassed to say anything about it. The wiser dads had recommended I wear socks but wanting to avoid the sandal/sock faux pas I hadn’t listened to them. By the time I spoke up I had quarter size blisters scattered along the sandal straps and on top of that had been out of water since the summit.

One of the neighborhood dads on the trip patiently helped tape my feet up and kindly gave me some of his water and before long we had arrived back at the cars. Despite bloody feet and exhaustion I was stoked about it. I loved the mountains, and for the rest of the week all I could think about was that Appalachian Trail thru-hike record. My sights turned to different things for a while and I focused on targeting more logistically feasible and rational goals. But in the last couple years with my pack weight getting lighter and an expanding comfort and embrace of the challenges the mountains throw at me, I’m very happy to have stumbled into the possibility of targeting this childhood fascination. If you asked me that day with blisters on my feet and a throbbing headache from dehydration if I could see myself hiking 40 miles a day, I would have laughed. Even five years ago on my Appalachian Trail winter thru-hike attempt I never could have fathomed becoming so well acquainted with the hypothermia that threw me off the trail that year. But now the mileage is simply an issue of hours in the day, and the cold and I have worked out our differences. What’s left to be determined now is the endurance, and hopefully I’ll settle that from mid-May when school lets out before I head up to Maine in mid-June.

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