Tuesday, November 22, 2016

One Week

I have been so busy since leaving the trail that it came and went without me noticing - my one week anniversary since finishing the trail. Well, I didn't entirely forget, as I dreamt about finishing the trail last night. Thankfully my subconscious remembered the date. After an extended (flight delays) travel day back to Vermont, I spent the next day purchasing a new truck. Yay, I can drive again! I made the rounds to see as many people as possible before settling back into work. I worked for two days, with a beard net on to cover my gross beard and protect my patients from having to look at it. I then drove to Michigan and am visiting family here and in New Hampshire for Thanksgiving. Nothing like burning the candle at both ends - my specialty. Let's get to the hiking, however:

The last two days were relatively uneventful, but lovely at the same time. Sadly, the many forest fires ravaging the area left the air thick with smoke which made breathing a little harder and obscured the views. I tried to take in every second of those last two days, knowing full well that the end was so close and that I would (someday) miss this. It seemed to work out that the leaves were still colorful and hadn't fallen yet, which made for a lovely end of the trail. While the smoke was a nuisance, it almost added to the beauty sometimes.

Winter was definitely settling into the south, and the nights were chilly with lows near 32. This made for some challenging mornings in terms of getting out of my sleeping bag. My last day was still cold, so I decided to have breakfast in bed... mostly just to keep warm. As a treat to myself, I heated up water to mix my carnation instant breakfast into - what a joy! Once I was finally up and ready to walk, one of the first things of the day was Max Patch - one of the first big balds the NOBOs come to and therefore quite famous on the trail. I remember being sad back in May that I had missed Max Patch, but I was so glad to be able to enjoy it on my final day on trail. While the wind was whipping, and the smoke blocked most of the views, it was still a beautiful experience. Made more perfect by one of my most reflective songs coming on my iPod. The tears definitely were flowing as I enjoyed the limited views in solitude.

The walking the rest of the day wasn't challenging, just steady. In the afternoon we came up to the top of a hill with an FAA tower and a man from Ohio doing trail magic. He was handing out snacks, candy, drinks, and offering to cook hot dogs. He drives down from Ohio to the southern part of the trail for two weeks at a time doing trail magic and trail maintenance. What a perfect time to come upon a trail angel. They're relatively uncommon down south in the fall because the majority of hikers already went through there in the spring while going north. It was nice to sit for an hour, enjoy some snacks, and shoot the breeze. After that I only had a few miles left, and they flew by. I dropped off my pack at Standing Bear Farm, the hostel I was staying that night, and continued down the trail for my last three miles.

The slack-pack from Standing Bear was easy and beautiful. Before I knew it I could see Davenport Gap Rd, and the second tears of the day set in. I wasn't sure it was actually the road, until I was able to see the rock that I sat on so long ago, unaware of how different my thru-hike was going to end up from the one I planned. I got to my rock and sat down. I cried a little, I laughed, and I smiled. I was done. I had finally finished this massive feat. The next day I would be flying back home to Vermont and leaving behind this amazingly simple life I've lived all summer long. Bigger fears and worries than "where's the next water source?" and "how many miles do we have to get to the next resupply?" would start setting in, and real life would set its grip on me. As I sat waiting for my shuttle back to the hostel (Hey! I just walked 2,189.1 miles... I'm not walking backwards an extra three!) I was thrown back to the day I sat there waiting for my friends, knee aching, getting rained on, and not knowing what was in store for me. At the time that seemed like the worst day, but in hindsight with a different perspective, it all seemed so trivial. It also seemed like this was exactly how my hike was supposed to happen. I was meant to fight to get back on the trail, and I was meant to hike south for a month and meet another amazing group of hikers. I'm not sure if I've had a bigger lesson in "you can do anything if you can do this."

That night we all celebrated my finish with beer and frozen pizzas we bought from the hostel. It almost seemed like any other night. Everyone was talking, telling stories, and laughing. Everyone else was planning their next four days of hiking through the Smokies, establishing which water sources were dry, and ensuring they would have enough food to get to Fontana Dam. I just sat there as these conversations happened realizing that I didn't need to know where the next water was or which shelters I was staying at. I was done. I would be removing myself from this life for the unforeseeable future. I wasn't really sad with this realization, but more content. That's how I've felt since the second I stepped onto Davenport Gap Road. I haven't been elated, I haven't felt incredibly sad - everything has just felt right. I've had this overwhelming feeling of content and a sense of peace.  Don't get me wrong, I'm super happy and proud to be done and for what I've accomplished, but overall I just feel like everything is as it should be and everything will work out for the best. My worries are less, I've been trying to live every day in the moment, and I'm less worried about the future than I've ever been. I can't say I ever expected that this is how I'd feel at the end of the trail, but the Appalachian Trail is full of surprises. Maybe that's the best part of the trail - it has taught me to ignore the little stuff, gracefully accept life's challenges, and has put into perspective how simple I want my life to be - in terms of stuff, but never in terms of people and experiences. I want people around me, and I want all of the experiences. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to leave this world late in a life chock-filled with many amazing experiences. The Appalachian Trail being just one of them.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

48 Hours

I honestly can't believe that I am two days away from completing this thru-hike. All that separates me from finishing is 36 miles, where I will end my hike at Davenport Gap Road. Over six months ago, on May 13th, I hobbled 0.9 miles from the shelter we stayed at down to Davenport Gap Road. I then sat, in the rain, on a rock waiting for the Shady Creepers to come pick me up to go to Trail Days in Virginia. Little did I know, that a weekend of rehab in Hot Springs, NC wouldn't be enough to get me waking again, and that I'd need four weeks at home to get myself healthy enough to hike once more. I had spent so much time thinking about Katahdin and what it would be like to finish there. But in reality, I am going to be more excited to sit on the same rock I sat on back in May.

My month long departure from the trail, incredibly hard return to the trail (twice), and the strength it took me to do all of that will be perfectly summed up by that lonesome rock on Davenport Gap Road. It is the most nondescript dirt road, but to me, it is everything. It's the pain I went through in the Smokies, the determination it took me to rehab and return, and the strength it took me to come back to the trail to finish what I started. All along I thought Katahdin was what mattered most, and it definitely has personal ties for me, but this rock I sat on for three hours in May, could mean more to me than the hardest climb on the trail.

I have been thinking about the end of the trail for the last few weeks and have had so many emotions surrounding it. I've realized, that by completing my thru-hike in this southern section, I've been so fortunate. I've met amazing new people, have laughed endlessly, and have had the best four weeks. The trail has been amazing down here, and I have loved every mile. The last few weeks in Maine were so physically and mentally challenging. I had this constant "I want to be done" feeling while hiking up there - even though the hiking was some of the most beautiful on the trail! Down here, however, I haven't had that thought. I've really appreciated every single second of the trail. I think that knowing the end is near, not being constantly exhausted, and having more energy, I've been able to enjoy more of the trail. My mindset is now more on the lines of "enjoy every minute, because it's going to end soon." I feel that my perspective has changed, and I'm so grateful that I am taking in every last second of this trail while I have it. All of my friends who have finished already, keep telling me how much they miss the trail and its lifestyle. I think that has been super helpful in making me appreciate this even more.

I don't take any of this for granted. I truly understand how lucky I am to have the time, the means, and the determination to finish this trail. I don't underrate how small the trail community is and how supportive we are of one another. I have met some of the most amazing people both on trail and off. On the trail, one of the most cliche expressions is "this has restored my faith in humanity." It's so true. Whether it be the hitchhike pick up from the random local, a day hiker giving you food, or another ThruHiker telling you about the upcoming water sources. There are so many people in this world who are more than willing to help out random strangers.

Along with that, this trail has given me time to think. It has cleared my mind on so many fronts. I've been given the ability to prioritize what is most important in my life and what I want to accomplish. I've created long bucket lists. I've figured out what I DON'T want to do. I've realized it's okay to do things for myself. I've learned that I want to help people more. I've been broken hearted over the state of our country. I've been broken hearted over people. I've instantly loved random strangers I was hiking with. I've appreciated nature. And most of all, this trail taught me not to sweat the small stuff. Perspective is a hard thing to gain, and this trail has provided me with that luxury.

So I'm not sure how I'll react in two days when I finish the trail. I would imagine it'll be a mix of proudness, accomplishment, sadness, happiness, and excitement for what comes next. I do know, that I'll never forget these six and a half months. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Stick Season

What a week! The terrain since entering Tennessee and North Carolina (the trail crosses the border 40-something times) has been lovely! Most of the trail has been gradual, switchbacks when climbing or descending, and full of pretty balds and vistas. The balds have really accentuated this portion of the hike. Essentially, they are fields on top of mountains with 360 degree views. It is such a nice change of pace from the "green tunnel" to have views and a drastic change of scenery. Aside from the trail being lovely, the weather has been amazing as well! It is definitely getting colder, but it has been sunny most days, hasn't rained, and my gear is keeping me warm. A huge thanks to Joanna for hooking me up with so much awesome Mammut gear! We came to one bald just this week with an enchanting vista and decided to spend the afternoon, watch the sunset, and cowboy camp under the stars. Cowboy camping is just laying your sleeping bag out in the open, without a tent or shelter. It was my first time doing this and was so wonderful. Although, since we were in the open, the wind did make it a bit chilly. I got an early start that next morning, mostly to warm up and also because I was headed for town that day.

Over the last week I've stayed at two hostels, both very popular on the trail. I did two nights at each hostel which allowed me to slackpack 25 miles out of each. Of the two, I feel so incredibly lucky to stay at Kincora hostel run by Bob Peoples. Bob is a trail legend who purposely bought the land he now owns to create a hostel for AT hikers. Aside from that, he is in charge of maintaining hundreds of miles of trail. His expertise on the AT is unmatched, and his enthusiasm for the trail is second to none. Above all of this, he used to live two towns over from where I grew up. His positivity, humbleness, and love for the trail are so overwhelming that you can't help but smile while talking to him. He has hiked so many trails around the world and has inspired me to do the same. It was a pleasure to spend two days in his company - the trail is lucky to have him as an ambassador.

Fall has come and gone here on the trail and almost all of the leaves have fallen. The colors were spectacular when I first got back on trail, but at this point most of the leaves are on the ground. This is providing an extra level of difficulty, as the leaves are hiding all of the rocks, roots, and slippery acorns we've more affectionately renamed "trail marbles." Luckily, after 2,000+ miles, my feet are pretty well adapted to feeling for trouble underneath them. I'm still able to do big miles, feel little pain, and continue on with my trek. As I've mentioned many times, it has been incredibly dry this summer. This has been a blessing in terms of not hiking in the rain, but hard when it comes to finding water to drink. With that, comes the risk of forest fires. With as dry as its been, a few fires have cropped up around the trail. Most are down near Georgia in a section I've already hiked. Unfortunately, there are a few fires that are burning around TN/NC and are causing smoke to fill the air. It was a surreal feeling in town yesterday walking through the haze and smelling the smoke. I could even smell strong smoke while climbing some of the mountains during my slackpack yesterday. Luckily, it rained last night, the fires are under control, and aren't endangering the trail.

Okay, I've brought you up to speed on the trail, but must address what's been overrunning my thoughts for the last twenty-four hours. I have been listening to so many news and political podcasts all summer, and have felt incredibly involved with the process. Having been a YUGE Bernie supporter, I was disheartened when he was robbed of a nomination that he deserved. I decided to fall in line and support our nominee. I wasn't thrilled by her, but I was going to vote for Hillary - anyone but Trump. The rhetoric he propagated during the campaign was so unacceptable and totally horrifying. His hate towards Latinos, Muslims, African Americans, Women, and the LGTB community was astounding. I couldn't, and still can't, believe that he won not only the GOP nomination, but also the presidency, with such behavior. When I woke up yesterday morning to the results that he won, I was so disappointed and depressed. The weather outside, cold and dreary, was a fitting match to my emotions. All morning long I kept reminding myself that this was in fact not a nightmare, but real life. I am well aware that, as a white male, I carry a certain level of privilege in this world. At the same time, as a gay male, I have experienced a decent level of discrimination. I don't trust Trump to protect my LGBT rights, or those of the trans community. I especially feel for the young kids in our community who are struggling to find their way, acceptance, and the security in laws that protect them. A year ago I would have said things were moving in the right direction for our community, now with our new president's hate speech, I fear for those coming up behind me. I can't imagine being a young, scared youth listening to our President and Vice President saying that conversion therapy is appropriate. This horrifies me. On an equally awful note, how can the man who represents us to the rest of the world talk about banning Muslims and building a wall to keep out Latinos?! This isn't the country I want to live in. I'm so saddened and scared that he was elected - not by a majority, mind you. I am terrified that he will select at least one (maybe more) Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe V Wade, gay marriage, and so many other classic cases that effect so many of us.

My fear is that we will never pull together as a country. My hope is that, while I don't agree with him on most things, Trump will bring our country together. This is the only solution. We need to come together as a country to do what's best for everyone. I'm scared, however, that with all the hate and ignorance, that this may not happen under this presidency. I am definitely not happy with the result, and in fact I'm borderline depressed... But we must continue to be the best versions of ourselves, and set an example that his behavior is not congruent with our beliefs.

Early this morning with the wind blowing and temps in the low 40s, I was walking along the trail in a dense fog. I rounded a corner and came across a small doe standing in the trail about ten feet from me. We both stared at one another for ten to fifteen seconds. I said out loud "tell me this will all be okay" and she blinked at me. I'm hoping this is a symbol of our nation making it through this horror. It was a quiet and simple moment, but we both seemed to be on the same plane.

I am stunned the Trump has won, and I won't get over this easily. I am so sad that some of my friends and family would support a ticket focused on so much hate. This morning I thought of all of my friends who are teachers, looking in their students' faces trying to be civil and explain how a hate monger could prevail. All I could think today was I was glad I don't yet have children, because I don't know how I would explain to them why such a hateful and decisive person became our president. Eventually we all need to be Americans. We need to be nice to one another, help one another, denounce hate, and protect the civil liberties of those we love. I will continue to volunteer in my community. I will continue to take care of others - both at work and outside of work. I will continue to be the best person I can be, in order to make this country the best it can be. He may not be the president I wanted, but he'll be our president come January. For better or worse. So buckle up, America... Could be a bumpy four years.

"Never stop believing that fighting for what's right is worth it." - Hillary Clinton

Thursday, November 3, 2016


Again, time is flying and it's been over a week since my last update, and things have been great! Since my last post, I've finished Virginia, am into Tennessee, and have less than two-hundred miles to complete!! It feels so weird knowing I'm so close to finishing. Over the last week I've become much closer with my new trail family. They are: Thorny from Virginia, Bluegrass and Unicorn from Pennsylvania, One Piece from Maine, CrocFire from West Virginia, and Kremlin from New York. They all make me laugh and have been such a relief to be around for the last two weeks. We all hike at relatively similar paces and have shared many humorous dinners at shelters and in different towns. I owe them a lot for making this section of the trail so fun.

We spent Halloween in Damascus, VA and I rented a tiny house for the night! I have always wanted to build a tiny house, and this weekend definitely made that desire even stronger. This solidifies my plans to build/buy a tiny house sometime in the near future. We all ended up at the local watering hole in half-assed costumes to celebrate the holiday. It was perfect. Damascus is the home to the largest on-trail party every year, Trail Days. I attended Trail Days the day I left the trail in May for my original knee injury, not knowing it would be four weeks until I returned again. It was nice to revisit Damascus under better circumstances and also while it was far less crowded. Overall, it was a lovely town.

In terms of weather, we have been so fortunate. Not just here in the south, but really for the entire trail. It has barely rained this summer. This, of course, makes the water sources drier than normal, but I'll take that over hiking in the rain day in and day out. The last day it rained, we conveniently had a town day scheduled for Marion, VA. We made up for the yucky weather by going to this amazing Mexican restaurant for lunch AND dinner. It was glorious.

Recently a lot of people, both on trail and off, have asked me why I'm doing this. Originally it was to tackle a pretty awesome adventure with a good friend of mine. Also, to prove to myself that I could do it. It then became so much more. It became the simplicity of trail life, meeting so many amazing hikers and trail angels, and enjoying nature for all the beauty it has to offer. When I had to leave the trail back in May I was devastated. I had planned and prepped for so long, and my knees were sabotaging my hike. I not only overcame the knee pain, but was able to bring myself back to the trail after a four week hiatus. A task that many people would not be able to accomplish. At that point, I had only been hiking for about three weeks and 240 miles - still very green. I am so proud of myself for returning to the trail and sticking it out. There have obviously been hard days, but the good days outweigh them and are the ones I remember most. After summiting Katahdin and being home for three weeks, I was again challenged with returning to the trail. Not only did the task seem daunting because it was about five-hundred miles, I'd be doing it without my Shady Creepers. I'm again proud of myself for returning to the trail to finish what I had started. This experience has been so amazing, and I knew I needed to do it in its entirety. So, even though it will take me seven or eight weeks longer than I had hoped, I still overcame many obstacles to finish this epic journey. I did that. Twice. So in looking back at the trail I did this to prove to myself that I could indeed, walk from Georgia to Maine. The trail has taught me not to sweat the small stuff. It has placed a unique perspective on life's problems and reordered which ones matter and which ones don't. Even with all the challenges, I prioritized this hike and should actually be able to complete it. Pretty badass, I think.

With the end of the trail looming, I'm definitely being thrown into a hyper-reflective state. I'm thinking more and more about after the trail, friendships and relationships, what I should do next, how amazing it is that I've done this, and about all of the beautiful souls I've met along the way. I'm so blessed to have this opportunity. I truly am.