There is an expectation that once you heft that backpack and set foot on some dirt-strewn path that you are on your way to a destination. The destination may be far, impossibly far, but still, each step leads you closer. All around you, trees and wild flowers and scurrying animals and Nature extend father than you can see in an overwhelming vista of unexplored terrain. But you are in a well-marked corridor that allows you to be a part of all this without getting lost. Rather than limiting, this corridor is a reassuring tether.
I knew my hike along the Appalachian Trail would not be a direct march from Springer mountain in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Maine. There would be detours into town for rest and resupply, side trials to interesting views, the possibility I would need to bypass sections for one reason or another. This is a good thing. If the thousands of hikers that start the Trail each year all follow the same path and make the same stops, we would congeal into a monotonous, slow-moving conga line. But I couldn’t have predicted how circuitous my route would become.
I couldn’t have predicted that I would be on my way to meet a friend I hadn’t seen, or spoken with, in nearly two decades.
Before I started this hike, I never would have seriously considered spending several days in a strange place. And relying on some guy I hadn’t seen in nearly two decades for food, transportation, and a place to sleep? No way.
However, several weeks of casual banter via Facebook somehow evolved into an unscheduled detour. This friend, Chuck, was going to drive several hundred miles to pick me up from the Trail so we could spend two days together.
I faced the anxiety this caused with an intensity that any veteran Avoider would be proud of.
Despite my mental foot dragging, I eventually ran out of days to put things off. Chilly May mornings gave way to a June sun that pushed the temperature past warm, deep into the scorching end of the spectrum.
Sun burns I could deal with, but my mind began to overheat. I realized that I didn’t have answers to several questions that would probably be relevant. What is Chuck like after so many years? Is the woman I see him with in Facebook pictures his wife? Where does he live exactly? What are we going to do for 2 days?
An otherwise beautiful stroll through pastures and rolling hills became a grueling trudge as I struggled with the most pressing question: What the hell did I get myself into?
An unexpected oasis in Virginia
I hitched from the trailhead to a tiny town called Newport, which gave me plenty of time for a snack before Chuck showed up. Slumped contentedly on a shady sidewalk in front of the town grocery/market/post office, I laid out my fresh-from-the-rack row of corn dogs. A pile of Snickers, Doritos, and 3 beautiful bananas stood ready to reinforce as the dogs disappeared. There was Gatorade.
My anxiety faded into the background along with my Hiker Hunger. It’s a little easier to face an uncertain future with a full belly.
A lonely Snickers, the final remnant of my snack, stared up at my mouth longingly as a beige Clinton-era Land Cruiser pulled into the parking lot. Chuck hopped out. He was the same guy I remembered from our halcyon days in Cheyenne. Except bald, bearded, and beefier. We went straight for the hug. Goofy grins on both our faces.
He’s loading my gear as I find a home for Snickers in my cargo pocket.
“You always did find a way to get someone else to carry your gear without feeling like they were doing you a favor.” He’s laughing. This is gonna be just fine.
Relative to my hiking speed, we raced through semi-rural Virginia. Dilapidated homes surrounded by car carcasses and well-manicured lawns flew by at dizzying speed. We were shouting over air that blasted through open windows as the miles and memories transported us back to simpler times. Times when our biggest hassle was pulling guard duty on Friday night. And the really dark days were still in the distant future.
Chuck and I slipped into familiar roles. His was to corral my ego, the more brutally the better, and mine was apparently to provide endless stores of fodder for him to practice with. He had no trouble highlighting a dependence on hair spray to maintain my adorable coiffure, or pointing out that my taste in music was as lame as my nonexistent biceps.
“So where exactly do you live?” I eventually asked. “I stalked you a bit on Facebook and it looks like you either live in Virginia Beach or in Cumberland State Park. Either would be great with me, but if we’re going to Virginia Beach, I’m going to need to make some wardrobe adjustments.”
If I had to describe an ideal setting for a home, now I can just say, “Chuck’s place.” His home is actually inside Cumberland State Park, so trees, lake, beach, hiking trails, no traffic, no school bus routes, no neighbors broadcasting their volatile marriage. But, just a short drive away, you’re in Richmond, with all the important big-city stuff. Like food.
A 2-day detour from the trail turned into 4. Rebecca (his wife), a fastidious shopper and meal organizer, introduced me to vegetarianism. Maker’s Mark and ginger ale lubricated our nights until we were too drunk to play a card game called Skip-bo (despite any evidence to the contrary, I totally didn’t cheat). I knew, after sufficient training, when Chuck let me play The Door’s “Rider’s on the Storm” via the largest (and meticulously alphabetized) Vinyl collection I’ve ever seen, I was part of the family.
Epiphany on McAfee Knob
Getting back on the trail took some getting used to. The landscape didn’t blur past at 70 mph while I watched from the passenger seat anymore. I felt each rock and root, heard a squirrel scurrying up a nearby tree, noticed that flower was missing a petal. Several days of gorging and lazy living helped me put several pounds back on, but now I had to carry those pounds. I was working for my miles again.
My hiker legs didn’t return for duty until I reached McAfee Knob.
McAfee Knob, likely the most photographed vista on the Appalachian Trail, is an enormous rocky outcropping that juts out into open space. When viewed from just the right angle, it’s exactly like one of those infinity pools, except with rock instead of water, and your sweat is what’s making you so wet.
Crashpad and his wife 2-pack arrived shortly after I did. We shed our packs and lay down on the rocky platform, looking out over a vista that revealed an endless series of ridgelines that kept going until they merged with the horizon. No one said anything for a while. We’re going to have to hike all that, I thought. Then, We GET to hike all of this.
Later, we shared handfuls of wild raspberries that Crashpad harvested along the way. Then, we took turns capturing adventurous-looking poses on the edge of the precipice. I stood with one leg up in the air, both arms raised, hoping I looked like I was about to jump, but probably looking like a hairy version of the Karate Kid with a cool hat and pink sunglasses.
I could do it you know. I thought as I looked over the edge, I could take that leap into forever. Normally when I think things like this, internal klaxons go off, warning me that I’m back in dangerous territory again. But this time, it was different. I wasn’t depressed and contemplating ways to end the pain.
At that moment, I was sitting around a table with Chuck and Rebecca, drinking way too much bourbon and listening to the Doors; my belly was full of raspberries shared with new friends; and I was in the middle of a 6-month backpacking adventure that included views like this. Views that reminded me how much “out there” was out there. The same views that showed me I could be part of all this too.
All I had to do was take the leap.