im at mile 468.8, sitting in the library in Damascus Virginia. My free internet session is just time ticking down, and as per usual, I feel like I have no time to rest. The last time I wrote this blog was my last “Zero”, a day of rest, of hiking no miles. I’ve been hiking a good average of 19 miles a day. Some days I hike roughly 18 and some days 25. Yesterday I hiked 27 miles straight to get to here, to Damascus. In the time that has passed since I last updated this (13 days) alot has happened.
Time on the trail is so strange and almost nonsensical. Days blend into one another and it’s common to not know the day of the week and especially not the actual date. I hardly ever really know the exact time of day and here in the green tunnel it’s especially hard to know the time of day because the light is never direct and there is almost always cloud cover anyhow. After I last wrote, I spent the night in the oldest building in Hot Springs, NC. It was an old mansion filled with antique furniture, past lives peeling from the walls, ghostly footsteps creaking on the worn floorboards. I dreamt so hard that night there as I lay in the massive bed. I wandered through all of my thoughts and fears. I adventured through forests and old houses with maps promising treasure and answers. Each door I walked through and each tree I pulled aside brought me back to people I’ve met, to places I’ve been, to memories real and made up. I felt as though I had time traveled. When I awoke the next morning to the bright light in the faded room,to the heavily used chairs and desk looking tired and almost like a congregation of the elderly starting and forgetting conversations, I felt like something had changed.
When we left Hot Springs that afternoon I left something behind. I felt good and I felt nervous and I felt challenged. I also felt almost unreal. Staying at Elmer’s Hostel was like a hallucination. All of my daydreaming was still fresh in my head. I was happy to walk in my body. My partner (Yogi) and I climbed high above the French Broad River, up passed Lover’s Leap, up the rock switchbacks and into the tunnel. We were promised good weather and the late noon sun pushed through the trees in rays and splatters triumphantly. I felt so warm, so safe. I felt like a child exploring with nothing but wonder. Even with a full resupply my bag didn’t bother me. We had the full intent of hiking into the night. We were hoping to get 19.8 miles in. We both laughed easily and climbed and moved into the dense trees. I was sweating and along the ridges, soft summer breezes filtered in, cooling me momentarily. My body felt stronger and I didn’t have the normal anxiety I feel when I am leaving a town. I didn’t count the miles. I didn’t think of my steps, or of being tired. We stopped to eat dinner with a fellow hiker friend at a shelter and pushed on as the end of the day was lazily making it’s way to us in the tunnel. All of the shades of green darkened. My mood calmed ever more as trees and shrubs and features became silohetted in the dying light. The little puzzle pieces of sky I could see through the canopy were bruising, to a dark bluish purple. I could hear our footsteps and I could hear Yogi’s breathing close to me when we paused in our conversation. Sometimes it seemed as though hours had passed as we would drop off in talking. We’d go into our own heads. I was asleep walking.
We were supposed to walk 6 miles after the sun had left us in the moist, cool dark forest. We turned on our headlamps and I felt like I could sleepwalk forever. There was no realization of time or tiredness or anything really, just my imagination and Yogi’s voice in the early summer evening. I felt like I was in a fairytale, lost somehow, waiting for a gingerbread house, or a witch, or dwarves. As we climbed through the thicket of rhodedendrons Yogi told me to turn off my headlamp. He was excited and I couldn’t place why until my eyes adjusted. The air felt cooler and my sense of anything around had been lost. All I could see was the yellow blinking of hundreds of fireflies floating around us. I could only hear the wind in the trees, faintly whistling. The fireflies seemed to be singing in Morse Code. They moved slowly, bobbing. I felt briefly that we were floating in space and that I was surrounded by stars. It was the first time I felt moved almost to tears because I was a part of something I didn’t understand. It was one of the most beautiful and quiet moments I’ve cataloged in my existence. We turned our headlamps back on and walked deeper into the night. We came to a road and a flat area just before the trail looked to ascend. In this clearing we turned off our lamps again and stood in wonder as the fireflies lazily swam in the air, blinking on and off, whizzing by our faces like drunken astronauts. We decided to stop there next to the road so that we could fall asleep to the nightlights. I lay my bedroll out on the ground next to Yogi. I felt so sleepy and childish. When I drifted off to sleep the fireflies were still wandering around. they were in front of my face. They told me to go to sleep, to not worry. I felt grateful again. So grateful. My home is where I lay my head. And as I walk every single day, I rest my head somewhere new. We missed roughly two and a half miles of our goal, but we made it up the next day. We were on a mission to get to Erwin Tennessee to see my good friend Curtis. We had a time limit and good weather. I carried those little fireflies with me and even when I saw them blinking again another night it wasn’t the same.
The forest, this trail, although it always looks the same upon a quick glance, or an angry, exhausted death march, changes. When you spend every single day in the green tunnel, you begin to see the differences. They are small at first. Orange newts on the path like flourescent sprinkles on a brownie, little snails inching away in their soft shell homes, stinging nettles clumped together playing an uninvited game of tag, beautiful quaint springs and falls, tumbling and churning the coldest, purest water you could ask for and birds, my god, the birds all singing their songs. As you climb down lower in elevation the entire forest is dense and thick and warm and moist. You can almost SEE it breathing. Up higher, there seems to be slightly more space as the older trees spread out with skinny arms. The rhodedndron pulls you into it’s deep cool tunnel. The flowers are quaint and tiny but demanding of attention. Sparce fungi creeps out of the wettest little pockets it can find. The way to Erwin was a welcoming of a lush world. Almost like a snowglobe filled with the dense hydrated ecosystem of the jungle…shook up and kept pristine, in its own primitive place and time. We arrived at the Nolichucky River as guests to my friend Curtis England. I’d worked with him years ago in Alta and was lucky enough to be recieved by him, in his world on the Nolichucky River. He’s been living there and guiding there for 6 years. When I met him five years ago in snowy Alta, Utah I’d listen to him talk about this glorious river in Erwin Tennessee. The way he described it always stayed with me and I always hoped that I’d at some point in my life be lucky enough to spend time with him there, in that beautiful place he’d spoken so amorously of.
Seeing him was really something special. He literally walked to me in the woods, and I was so happy to hug him. He looked happy, and he looked amazing. And I already upon seeing him for the first time in a long time didn’t want to leave so quickly the next few days. He drove us to his home and told us of the properties and the land along the way. I was immediately reunited with the way that Curtis talks, the way he is, and it felt like returning home in a sense. I felt so welcome and comfortable in his world and it felt lovely.
He is a manager for the Nantahala Outdoor Center and so he manages river guides on the Nolichucky River, a beautiful and pristine swollen snake of a river with class three and four rapids. He lives there, right on the river in a cabin. He offered us up our own rooms in guide housing. It was the most spoiled I’d felt since The Thompsons let me go on my way to walk this trail. Curtis gently asked if Yogi and I would like to float the river in an hour, to experience it at the end of the day. We were both excited to go for another adventure even though we had just hiked 17 miles to get there. Happily, Curtis prepared us to float the river. His gracious and kind girlfriend Kim was going to accompany us and assist Curtis. We drove up the winding mountain road up past Indian Grave Gap as both Curtis and Kim explained the land to us, the history and the ecology. Their love of this area was so evident. It was infectious and I couldn’t help but breathe it in and feel prideful. The smell of the river was heavy in the air and I took it in. We drove to the put in and carried the boat to the water. I nervously climbed in and as we all took our places Curtis took command and very naturally, slightly sternly, and of course in his own sense of humor kind of a way explained the rules. I immediately felt safe and secure as he navigated us down the river, taking us through some tumbling, rushing rapids, smoothly executing every move through each whitewater thruway. He had some fun with us, knowing we weren’t fully comfortable and surfed us on some rapids. He expertly showed us the secrets of his home and as he explained the river his eyes seemed to dance. His words were almost smiling. I felt as if I was recieving a secret esoteric treasure and my gratitide was almost painful as I took in this gift that he was so selflessly giving me. We arrived back at the NOC and I was almost sad to get back to land. It was so nice to be there in his world, in the place he’d so aptly described.
I spent an evening with him on the front porch of the common area cabin and we listened to the river talking it’s talk. We ourselves talked for so long. Curtis an I sharing thoughts and memories. I was so happy to be able to travel through his massive web of stories. His words and the rhythm of his cadence taking me in and out his thoughts and imagination. I could’ve sat on that porch a long time, drinking in that time with him and listening to the river. He gave me quite a time.
When I woke up the next morning I did not want to go. I stubbornly left the bunkhouse. I wasn’t ready for the day. I wanted to stay there and keep learning all of the secrets of that place. It’s not my place to stay and so I trudged on into the day.
Again, whenever I leave a town after a resupply, it feels as if a new phase has begun. This was the third push, the push to Damascus. It was a long and hard push to complete another state and it would be the most challenging and devastating push so far.
My first day out of Erwin was actually a nice one. It was painless and up and down and, well, beautiful. We climbed into the jungle, up into a drier forest, past Indian Gap where we recieved trail magic which included brownies, an iced tea party and the lovely company of our good friend Jigsaw, an intelligent smart-ass quick talking, super strong hiking lady. I was also lucky enough to get one more hug from Curtis who was driving up to retrieve the van we’d left up to float the river. We climbed alot that day but it seemed easy behind Jigsaw. She made me feel strong and free and light. We easily reached our little hovel of a shelter and ate dinner. As we all lay there together we laughed over silly things. I felt like a child with my siblings and as we drifted off to sleep the rain came down so heavy. It poured relentlessly as i came in and out of sleep. I woke up itching my bug bites and feeling uncomfortable. I slept terribly and when the early light of morning came I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag. That next day would be long and hard for me. It would be the beginning of a lot of discomfort. We had to climb Roan Mountain and we’d decided to stay at the shelter up on top (the highest shelter on the AT) so that we could stay with Jigsaw and also to make our day a little easier. We began the day easy enough, seemingly crushing miles quickly. As we began our long ascent, the rain came, and it came hard. It was cold and hard and demoralizing as I climbed. I was soaked to the bone and had misjudged our placement, thinking I had much more climbing than I actually had. I cursed angrily and loudly as we ascended. It seemed never ending as the rain just kept coming, seemingly harder and harder as we climbed ever higher. I felt so defeated and so cold. My body wanted warmth, and comfort, and dryness. It wanted food. I knew I was going to get to a cold shelter and have to strip down, put on my “dry” clothes which never seem to be fully dry because we are traversing through a temperate rain forest and wait the longish time to get warm because my body is stubborn.
Just as I was about to give up and cry, we were nearly to the top. The rain let up briefly and I was walking through a ghostly world of dead and naked trees flanked by dense firs and spruces. The trail went from a soft bed of pine needles to sharp, unforgiving, higher elevation rocks, which led us again into a misty pine world. I was nearing the summit of Roan and it sincerely felt as though we were beginning a journey so similar to the lord of the rings.
We reached the shelter and took the top loft area. The shelter in and of itself was closed, meaning there were four walls. It was not open-ended like many of the other shelters on this trail. Just as we took our wet things off and tried to make a home for the evening, the real rain came. And it just didn’t stop. I felt the familiar panic of having hypothermia in washington come on. I felt scared and sad and tired. I made no sense and whined like a baby as Jigsaw and Yogi tried to help me. I took benedryl and drifted off into sleep. I slept horribly, dreading the rain and the next 25 mile day, which was also promising rain. I just felt so sad.
When I got up the next morning I tried to have an open mind. And I got ready in the loft, putting on my wet clothes, my wet socks. Everything smelled so terrible. Everything felt horrible. But I just had to put it on and get ready to go and walk for 25 miles. It would actually be 25 of the most beautiful miles I would be lucky enough to walk through on the AT. And truly, it would be closer to 26.
My time here in the library is winding down. I have to cut this short. Yogi and I aren’t planning on another actual zero for a long time. So god knows when I get to post again. I’ll try to do it from the trail. My service is almost nonexistent and we are pushing yet again…but I owe you the story of the lush open balds I walked though, reminiscent of the highlands of Scotland, the Story of Scotty, an amazing physics professor living off the grid in the middle of nowhere I met one day, the graveyard we walked past in the walking dead world and my broken glasses, my broken partner puking his everloving brains out next to our shelter and the insane 27 mile walk into Damascus.
It’s all a long walk. Pray it doesn’t rain as much as it’s supposed to this week (6 days in a row). Im happy to be here and happy that time is irrelevant. This place and this choice I’ve made is all a balance of what I perceive to be comfortable and good. In the words of someone so very dear to me….”Everyting is Niiiice.”
Thanks for reading this. You’re all with me in this insane one foot in front of the other game.