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.

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