I went backpacking with my wife and she put me into the pain cave. This was not a fun romp in a state park. It was not a quick daytrip. This was a rude wake-up call to the reality of hiking 80 miles of Appalachian Trail from Daleville to Buena Vista Virginia. Prior to my arrival Lauren had five days of solid rain… sick of trudging through mud she was beaming when I met her on the trail. After clearing a major gear logistic hurdle thanks to Dennis, I thought the five day forecast filled with sun would mean a benign and successful journey. After all the AT is easy compared to the PCT and hiking with a light pack is much easier than winter camping and mountaineering…. or so I thought.
The days looked like this:
Day negative 1: arrive sans rain gear, tent, sleeping pad. Due to my haste in Tampa these four items were left in a hotel room drawer, not to be recovered by hotel cleaning staff before they were reported missing four hours after departure. I was reminded of the kindness of humanity, and the generosity we should all share through the Golden Rule thanks to an amazing man who is easily Roanoke VA’s most amazing trail angel. Dennis picked me up @ 10pm, worked through a hotel room cancelation by putting me up in his guest room (Thank you Cindy and Moose for sharing) and lending me amazing gear to get back out onto the trail. I truly hope his journey and adventures continue to be as rich as he deserves.
Day zero: A well deserved foot massage for Lauren followed by pretending to eat like a thru-hiker.
Day 1: A nice smooth 18 mile section, camping near nice people at the end of a reasonable day just to make sure I’m committed and hooked.
Day 2: Pain Cave. I tried to put in a good sustained effort in the only place I can keep up with Lauren, on hills, but the result was a complete burnout resulting in a full depletion of electrolytes and ATP. She put me deep into the pain cave trying to keep up with her through the last ¼ of day despite good nutrition and Skratch. She was carrying more weight than I was, and easily out-pacing me on all grades of the trail. #humbled
Day 3: A more measured pace trying to stay below my lactic threshold but I was still rocked by the end of the day… Lauren was tired too but I was once again out of gas. She was in the story circle at the shelter well before I arrived. #humbled #paincave
Day 4: A bittersweet and mercifully short day. Once again she out hiked me and showed me what the A.T. was all about. As much as it was good to come into resupply, it was also hard to know that my stay was coming to an end.
By the end of it I was eager for a shower and hotel room. I managed a few hot days on relatively well graded and maintained trail in clean conditions with easy logistics. Lauren has been doing this for six weeks and has covered 815 miles. Not only was I humbled by the trail, and the pace that Lauren can sustain but I was humbled by the focus and dedication she displayed. While I sped off in my rented 2017 BMW 640i convertible for some planes trains and automobiles to rejoin the hamster wheel of modern life, she once again struck out into the inhospitable woods of the south to sleep under the stars and care for blisters. Saying goodbye at the trailhead left both of us in tears and it was only her determination that allowed us to separate and force me to watch my heart walk away and into the woods.
On the plane home I read an inspiring article about a Canadian gent who traversed the southern BC via paraglider. There was a phrase contained in the piece that has captured my thoughts for the past 24 hours: “Turning fear into love”. That simple sentiment is really what we have been experiencing over the past six weeks. Lauren did not sign up for this trip without intention, cause and reason. Our week together was very reaffirming that by facing our individual and collective fears, we are stronger. When I watched Lauren walk back into the woods alone on Saturday morning, armed only with a few inconsequential sheets of nylon, her wits, her knowledge and her self-awareness I can take sollice in this phrase and the early results we shared with each other. It has already been a gift to both of us to challenge our norms and redefine the difference between me/we/she/he in our relationship. As Lauren marched north toward her goal into the sunny neon green tunnel of chlorophyll I knew the trek is well worth the trial and that love would continue to guide our way.
Trails like the PCT, AT, and CDT mean many things to many people but for those lucky enough to use it as a portal to challenge, learn and grow it is an amazing and enchanting place. Of all my trips in the woods in 2017 the last week was by far the most meaningful. This trip was filled with love for my partner and best friend, a flood of memories and habits from PCT 2016, reflections on culture in the south and observations of a new place, appreciation for those who got me to where I was (Tiffany Turner and Dennis from Roanoke VA), and a strong dose of humility. In just a few short fleeting days I’m returning to the hamster wheel refreshed by nature, nurtured by kindness, awed by beauty, inspired by thru-hikers and their dedication, grateful for the people in my life who fill it with magic and fully in love with Lauren.
A few random thoughts:
- “To make the Pacific Crest Trail it took men, horses, mules, engineers and dynamite. To make the Appalachian Trail it took a Redneck and a bucket of paint.”
- The A.T. Shelter experience is fascinating. It forces a social experience unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in the woods. In many ways this centralized resource point was much closer to recreation in Europe than any confederate flag waving southerner would like to admit. The infrastructure allows many people to get out and share in something truly beautiful.
- I’m really glad I did not have to dig catholes in that clay!
- People are generally pretty respectful
- Southern kindness is real. As is a strong appreciation of guns. I loved talking gun shows with hikers and seeing open carry holsters in the Kroger.
- Economic segregation is very real. After visiting a few very white mountain towns in demography diverse counties it is clear that The New Jim Crow needs to bump much higher in my reading queue.
- The Green Tunnel is the perfect description. Each day was spent walking through a multi tiered forest of green. The variation was in the shade, density, placement and tone of the green. Based on aspect, elevation and location the forest would morph and change but it was astonishingly beautiful in its subtlety. Clear lower, mid and upper canopy changed, grew and shrank back to show new plants and life. The AT is focused on the nuance and the introspection. It is a special place.
- The section I hiked was perfectly timed to feel like an incredible garden. After years of growing rhododendron plants in the PNW I now understand what they should look like and what they can be when heat and water fuel their bloom. White, purple, red, pink were all on display in one of the most amazing displays of flora I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Timing is everything!
- I ate a few Mediterranean Quinoa meals. One of ~4-5 new recipes we put together for this trip. It was really good but still has room for improvement. HUGE thanks to Mitch, the Crane train, Phil, Allison, Ben, Alyssa, Christina, Chad and Alan and Shanda for GREAT food. It feels really good to have great fuel. Once again the nutrition side of this journey was a massive team effort. THANK YOU!
- To Greg, Daniel, Kevin, Joel, and Brant and everyone I’ve adventured with in April and May 2017… We had some fun in the mountains over the past month and each of our objectives was difficult. However, the enchantments, Dragontail, Trapper Peak and Rainer were all easy compared to chasing Lauren in the heat down the Appalachian Trail.
PS: The drive south from Lexington VA to Charleston North Carolina for the flight home was awesome. Top down and SPF 100 all the way! The new 640i can handle when asked, especially in sport mode. An impressive machine compared to the white 1977 BMW 630csi I drove many years ago.