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The Long Trail

I wake feeling better, putting the last of the anti sting on my butt, I pack and start hiking again. Even though I feel better physically and mentally, I am exhausted overall but keep going. Motivated by the knowledge that I am close to what in my opinion is the most scenic, but physically challenging part of the trail. Having previously been to New Hampshire and Maine I am excited for the expansive vistas!

I knock another high point off when I summit Mount Greylock in Massachusetts. Greylock boasts the only subalpine environment in Massachusetts. The peak stands at 3,491 feet, a dwarf in comparison to the summits out west and just over half of the height of Mount Mitchell the highest point east of the Mississippi River located in North Carolina.

Approaching the top of the mountain through the fog, a dim outline of a structure emerges in the distance. I feel the dampness in my clothes, a combination of the sweat from the climb and the dampness in the fog. As the structure takes form resembling a pawn piece on a chessboard, I take a moment to get a few photos and try to imagine what it would look like without the fog before continuing on my way.

Its been around 4 months since I started the Appalachian Trail (AT)  and a few months prior to that my life freed up to enjoy this hike. Its strange because my ex wife is coming to meet me in Massachusetts for a few days after visiting a friend in New York. Her leaving is what gave me the freedom to knock this trail off my bucket list. The encounter was kind of anticlimactic nothing was really said; no apologies, yelling, screaming, or discussions were engaged in. I did, however, get two amazing OR beers from the Rouge Brewery and some gear for colder weather that she brought. We spent a couple days just hanging out, eating and chilling at the pool. It was as if nothing really had happened before, then she went back and I kept walking a separate path.

I crossed into Vermont shortly after and the Appalachian Trail started piggy backing off the Long Trail. The Long Trail goes from the Massachusetts-Vermont boarder and continues to Canada. It is the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the United States, built by the Green Mountain Club between 1910 and 1930 and was the inspiration for the Appalachian Trail.

I hike on these two merged trails for about a 100 miles before they split somewhere near Killington and the Long Trail Inn going their separate ways to different amazing destinations. I stopped at the Long Trail Inn because I was too late to get my package. I spent the evening drinking with an Aussie father and son discussing the differences in our healthcare systems. Our system really sucks! They were hiking the AT via yellow blazing. Yellow blazing is a term used for when you take transportation like a cab to points on the trail instead of hiking. They would catch a ride from town to town along the trail basically day hiking and spending their evenings drinking, then catching a ride to the next stop. I awoke the next morning to rock climbers leading a pitch outside the window of my room. I started the day in a great mood seeing others enjoying the outdoors also!

Connecticut Land of the Super Pretentious

Arriving in Kent, Connecticut everything seemed great, there were even outlets in public areas where a hiker could charge their electronics. A cyclist with a smile on his face, riding a pastel yellow cruiser with a brown basket on the handlebars, pedaled across the bridge to welcome me to Kent. There was even a place offering a free first slice of pizza to AT Thru Hikers. I passed up the pizza as I was on a mission to do laundry, thinking I would stop back for a slice later on that day.

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Well that’s where the friendliness ended. Even the local users of the laundromat seemed pompous. Yes the frequent users of the laundromat were above me, their importance lingering in the air mixed with the aroma of detergent. Should I be so presumptuous as to use the front loading washer like I belong to this aristocracy of local users or take my place with the proletariat of the top load users? I make my mind up as I notice people scrunching up their noses at me and scooting away as I go to redeem my bills for coins and yes to purchase soap from the dispenser at the laundromat. Fuck’em I am using the front loader! Waiting for my laundry, sweating, because I am wearing my rain jacket and pants since all my other laundry is in the FRONT LOADING machine becoming clean, I am approached by a gentleman wondering, “What are all you people doing here?” Is he referring to the hierarchical system I perceive to be in the laundry mat? Doesn’t he not know I declared myself one of his own by my choice of washing machine? “You people?”, I ask in reply. “Yes the dirty ones with the packs on.” Oh those people. Ha, he hasn’t discovered I am of the top load class. How does he not know who we are? The trail goes right through town. “I am assuming the other ones you are referring to are Appalachian Thru Hikers, also.” At that moment I blew my cover by saying Appalachian with a West Virginian sociolect! He knew immediately I did not belong in the front load group. After correcting my pronunciation, he immediately turned on his heels and walked away. I was not in the mood to hangout in town longer, not even for the free pizza!

This was not the same carefree beer drinking Laundry Mat as down south!

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Later after hiking up a steep incline weighed down with my recent resupply and feeling miserable in general, I approach the top greeted by people. I survey the area seeing a bench with an amazing view of the valley below. Spinning back 180 degrees I say hi back to the greeters and head for a picnic table to unshoulder my load feeling better already. As I sit, my pack sliding from my shoulders, I am aware of a sharp pain in my right butt cheek. I stand up thinking I sat on a nail and bam another sharp pain. I had in actuality sat on a yellow jacket. That brief instant of feeling better vanished. I felt defeated and if I wasn’t already 2/3 the way done I probably would have quit right then and there I felt so miserable. A couple, who were doing an overnight hike on the trail came to my aid with sting relief and Benadryl. As I fell asleep in my hammock overlooking the valley below I am reminded of the kindness of strangers and the earlier advice I received to give it a couple days before you quit.

New York

If you don’t hike in the rain you won’t make it to Maine became the mantra for the trip. Sloshing through impromptu streams running down the trail from the storms that raged almost every evening was the norm, repeating the mantra as I no longer tried to avoid the water by hoping from rock to slippery pieces of downed wood, with my already saturated shoes and socks. I don’t know if this was normal, but I do believe it made for an impressive cloud of mosquitoes trying to drain me on a regular basis.

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The only things that sticks out in my mind from NY was crossing a four lane highway with a divider, the trail was more difficult to follow because of the rocks which did a great job of hiding the impact of the thousands of people that walked before me, and a handicapable guy fully padded with a hockey helmet charging up the trail.

This road crossing was not as intense or reminiscent of the Frogger arcade game like the time I tried to cross a much busier highway to get to the halo like beacon of the Golden Arches.

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The divider allowed for a single quick burst of speed to take you to sanctuary while you built up the energy for the remaining explosion of speed to get back to the safety of the trail.

New York was a preview of what the trail was going to look like soon. I was still not above tree line or in the alpine zone, but rocks were becoming more prominent and there were some laders attachded to the rock. This was nowhere as intense as the exposure at higher altitude with re-bar drilled into the rock to make the trail navigable.

The coolest thing I saw was the handicapable guy plowing down the trail, smile on his face, making sounds of enjoyment with his family in tow. He looked like some futuristic combatant with his hiking poles swinging and body fully padded. I loved the fact that he was getting so much enjoyment of the simple act of hiking!

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I am a sold 80 percenter in life. Yvon Chouinard sums this concept up in his statement,

“I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that doesn’t appeal to me.”

 

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I also believe you should do things you have an aptitude for, not waste your time learning how to and struggling to do something you can’t. There is a theory based on the research of Anderson Ericsson that if you spend 10,000 hours practicing a skill, you can master it. So one would have to spend about 90 minutes a day for 20 years to accomplish this! In my opinion that’s a lot of time to get close to being a 100% at one activity.

That’s why I decided to give this long distance hiking thing a try. I figured that at age 34, even if I started walking late in life and avoided it on occasion, being an 80 percenter and all I would still have accumulated the hours to be a pro at walking by now.

The big take away I have from being an 80 percenter is that I do spend 100% effort on deciding if the reward is worth even the 80% effort. Sometimes good enough is good enough!

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NJ to NY

It was the 4th of July weekend when I first crossed in N.J. The state was a dichotomy urban pavement and nature. I saw the greatest density of wildlife in this small section of the Appalachian Trail. I believe this was do to the urban wildlife interface, the animals were using the same narrow corridor of nature I was.

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Setting up my camp one evening I look up over my hammock to see two bear cubs playing behind me, awe how cute I think, seconds before I wonder where their mother is. Scanning around in a full circle I spot movement coming up the hill across the field just out of the treeline. There she is I think as I start to panic, where did I put that bear spay, it would be super useful if it was on the outside of my pack where I could get to it in an emergency! Shit I need to pack up this hammock, throwing the rest of the contents of my pack that were spread out on the ground not so neatly back into my bag, backpack swing off my left shoulder as I start walking away from the cubs, I rummage though my pack looking for the bear spray, a half packed hammock pinched under my right arm pit while my right hand finally feels the bear spray canister in my bag. I look to my right scanning the field again for the mother bear, I see her, closer now, walking purposefully and powerfully in the direction of the cubs which also happens to be in my general direction. I am also walking purposefully, but nowhere near as powerfully away from the cubs! Not wanting to make eye contact I continually break my gaze from her as I  routinely check her progress. Soon her and the cubs are out of site. I continue at my pace, with my gear still haphazardly hanging off me for a little while longer. I finally stop and repack my bag before continuing farther down the trail and trying to set up camp again.

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I participated in some of the Holiday festivities while I was near the urban interfaces. I spent half a day laying around a lake soaking in the sun, eating ice cream treats periodically,  after I had an impromptu bath in the lake. After relaxing for the day I stopped by a fellow hikers parents house for some more relaxation and food. We camped in the yard and spent most of the day eating and drinking in the pool. This is probably the cleanest I have been since I started the hike, lots of time spent in the water!

This is also the only time my hammock got soaking wet from the rain. It poured so hard the slings holding the hammock to the trees soaked up and started wicking the moisture down the length of the strap where enough moisture accumulated that it then wicked the length of the hammock. Luckily this has been the only time its rained hard enough for a sufficient time period to accomplish this.

I hiked through the state of Jersey rather quickly and in to New York. At this point I didn’t really know anyone else along the trail, so I knocked out the rest of the states with nowhere as many brakes as I had before. My ex wife came to visit for a few days in the New England states, but that was my longest break until I made it to Baxter and finished the hike.

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Slackpacking the Gap.

If I recall correctly it was at Lehigh Gap, I stayed in the basement of a jail that allowed AT thru hikers to sleep in bunks. Here I met some hikers that had an extra copy of AWOL’s Hiking Guide which is supposedly the hikers guide of choice for any section of the AT. Up to this point, over halfway through the trail, I had been winging it and it was working out just fine. I did, however, use the book for the rest of the hike, since I had it. It was weird because from that point on I was kind of doing everything that the rest of the thru hikers were doing. We all had the same guide suggesting the same stuff. I was officially now part of the guide tribe, doing what was suggested by those who hiked before me.

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The hikers I met in the basement said they had met a couple who were going to section hike and were willing to shuttle their backpacks so they could slackpack. Slackpacking as you probably figured out from the statement above is when one hikes a section of trail without their backpack. My guide tribe offered to let me in on this amazing phenomenon! So, of course, I handed everything over that I needed at the time to survive and complete this thru hike, except a bottle of water, iodine tablets, a rain jacket and the clothing on my back to people I just became acquainted with to pass on to people who they in turn had just met to leave at some unknown location for me the next day.

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The next morning relieved of the burden of my pack and the unknown thanks to my new friends, but now saddled with the burden of having to rely on strangers, I head north with my new group. Slackpacking was amazing! I found it relaxing and rejuvenating after spending months carrying my backpack. We knocked out a lot of miles and ended the day still feeling refreshed. After picking up our packs from the side of the trail we moved on to the next shelter!

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Soon we were through the state of Pennsylvania and into New Jersey where the trail came too close to another state high point. I took a quick side hike to bag this peak. Maybe I will get to the top of all the state high points at some point, I think to myself. This hasn’t been an active goal, but I have managed to get to the top of a quarter of the 50 state high points. Damn, I am probably going to get sidetracked again before I hike the CDT.

Halfway There

Rumor had it before I started hiking that the Pennsylvania section was one of the harder sections to hike. It also came in third, behind New Hampshire and Maine on a poll of 2016 thru-hikers conducted by The Trek. Unlike the two hardest sections (1. NH and 2. ME), which were also noted as some of the hikers favorite sections, Northern PA was among the most disliked, due to the extremely rocky and rooty sections of trail. I don’t recall PA being that bad now 6 years after I completed the hike. I found an old Facebook post of mine stating, “snakes and rocks, that about sums up PA.” I do recall the tough sections in NH and ME however, Mahoosuc Notch in ME being the hardest in my opinon. Reflecting back, PA probably gets a tough rap because the hard sections are also mostly in tree cover so you are not rewarded with the same breathtaking views as hiking above the treeline in NH and ME.

In between Harpers Ferry, WV and the actual midpoint in PA, AT hikers cross a small section of MD. Which according to this not very official looking sign, prohibits alcohol on the trail.

Maryland is such a picky state, when I was young I first noticed this phenomenon. Living near the WV and MD border, I frequently went into MD. I recall having to put my seatbelt on and the gun being removed from the gun rack on the back window when we would cross into MD. Then the freedom of leaving the picky state, flinging the seat belt aside and putting the gun back on the rack as the speed limit magically increased. Goodbye Maryland!

The Cumberland Valley is the actual midpoint of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Pine Grove Furnace State Park is home of the half gallon challenge. For some reason AT hikers stop at Pine Grove Furnace General Store located within the park and devour a half gallon of Hershey’s ice cream. I passed on this tradition and got a greasy hamburger instead.

At this point in my hike around 1090.5 miles in, I have had plenty of time for reflection. One topic that has been occupying my mind is adulthood. Frequently, people tell me to grow up and be an adult. I actually think it depends on how you define adulthood: chronological age, procreation, number of digits on your pay check, how miserable you are, making your own decisions or achieving a right of passage.

I feel I fit two of those qualifiers. I might be considered an adult by age and most importantly making my own decisions even if they are against the norm. I have trouble fitting my life into the check boxes. College (debt), graduate school (more debt), job (slave to pay debt), house (mortgage), etcetera. As a matter of fact, I put grad school on hold to do this hike and I believe I was told I couldn’t do that. Well it all worked out. I graduated and had this amazing experience and continue to have amazing experiences because I am making decisions that fit my belief’s and personal philosophy’s. As an adult I make the hard decisions that go against the norm and have found my own normal!

Harper’s Ferry

I have made it to what everyone touts as the halfway point. I hike into Harper’s Ferry, WV with my boot being held together with duck tape. I have to watch every other step I take because the sole of my boot is still kind of flapping at the toe and catches on roots, rocks or any others obstacles in the trail. If I manage to avoid the toe of the sole flapping I sometimes end up stumbling anyway because the slippery duck tape that now comprises most of the bottom of my shoe shoots off whatever surface it comes into contact with faster than I can compensate for, causing me to lose my balance anyway. I think to myself, “only halfway, huh” knowing full well the actual halfway point is ahead of me in Pennsylvania.

The next half will be easier I tell myself, I have a lighter backpack, hiking shoes with a sole, a tarp and hammock and I also decided to go stove less to save time. The pack I chose was the Osprey 50 liter Atmos pack. I would go through multiple shoes and boots deciding on a pair I liked. I got a cheaper off brand Harmony hammock with a Kelty tarp. I literally survived of Cliff Bars when I went stove less.

The Atmos pack had enough room for the rest of the trail to fit everything in the pack except for the time when I decided to skip a resupply and carry 11 days of food. I had to strap some things to the outside to accommodate the extra food. The pack still remained comfortable when overloaded. It is still usable, but did not quite hold up as well as my Gossamer Gear pack I used on the PCT.

I preferred the trail running shoes to the different types of footwear I had used so far. It took me until my second set of footwear on the PCT years later before I found the shoe I love, the Salomon X-Mission. A close second are the Vasque Mindbenders. They got wet in the constant stream crossings, but dried relatively fast and had no brake in time.

The hammock and tarp allow me to keep stuff dry by setting the tarp first in the rain for shelter then doing everything else under the cover of the tarp. I had ample room to hang up the clothes I was wearing before I went to sleep and do everything else I need for the night. On only one occasion did it rain hard enough for the ropes to wick water down the length of the hammock. This system also allowed me to set up camp on uneven ground. The hammock is by far my favorite sleep system, however I did not use it on the PCT.

In order to save time, I decided to not cook anything else or carry a stove for the rest of the hike. Town stops were so frequent I figured I’d supplement my nutrition with salads and well any type of food other than a Cliff Bar in town. This method did save me time by being able to eat while walking and not having to filter as much water for cooking purposes, but to be honest it wasn’t worth eating 20 Cliff Bars a day for sustenance. I used a stove on the PCT, however I am thinking about experimenting with going stove less again when I hike the CDT.

With this new plan and gear for hiking the AT I leave the “halfway point” and hike to the actual halfway point feeling energized and not hating Cliff Bars yet!

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Shenandoah the Land of Food, Alcohol and Bears

Entering Shenandoah, I fill out the self registration permit. Ripping it on the perforated lines and attach part of it to my pack as I deposit the other section into the metal collection box. I decided not to blue blaze, take a canoe down the river, and continue walking through the National Park even with the condition of my feet.

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It’s starting to get really hot, wet and humid. I have ordered a hammock and tarp to replace the bivy I am currently carrying as my shelter from the now constant rain storms. The bivy also lacks ventilation and storage space for gear. Crawling into a shelter that has the size and feel of a coffin and trying to organize and change clothing is not just extremely difficult but impossible. Luckily for me, most of the storms have occurred in the evening, so I can avoid being soaked by the rain, unfortunately it is so humid I am soaked regardless. Sometimes, however, I relish hiking in the rain, the cool water washing away the dirt and grim of the trail and giving me a reprieve from the heat.

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The roughly 100 miles section heading north from Rockfish Gap, VA to Front Royal, VA. This section of the AT for me was one of the most enjoyable. I loved New Hampshire and Maine, but Shenandoah was great. The trail was virtually flat in comparison to other sections allowing for big mile days. There were way stations a short hike from the trail where tourists in cars would stop to eat while they drove through the park at a fast pace stopping at overlooks and eating food …ah nature! Not only could I eat an endless supply of greasy burgers at these oases, but every once in a while a tourists or two would venture down the trail a few miles. They were very interested in the thru hikers and would ask questions, then offer what food they had on them. Like any other wildlife I suggest you don’t feed the cute, skinny looking hikers no matter how much you think they need the food! I had become habituated to the extra calories from the tourists. I carried less food at resupplys because of the extra food provided by the well-meaning tourists. I started approaching every tourist I could striking up a conversation so they would feed me. Later when I left this promise land, I quickly realized I didn’t have enough food. I was forced to eat the random gummy bears that fellow thru hikers had dropped on the trail and luckily I came up on what tasted like a bag of Bisquick before I made it to my next resupply and increased the amount of calories I was carrying again!

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I stayed in shelters more than normal in Shenandoah so I could try to spread my gear out to dry. I noticed that the local bears much like me had become used to easy food. In the evenings they would investigate around the dumpsters possibly shaking down tourist for food. I remember one such instance years before I hiked the AT and I was in the park. I was hiking around one of the campsites when I heard a grunt, looking to my right there was a bear on his hind legs looking at me with another one on all fours a few yards from the one staring me in my eyes, it really felt like a shakedown. The person I was with says in a panicked voice, “I just ate pepperoni and cheese and the leftovers are in my bag!” “Do you think they smell it?” Later that night with this memory in my head, I would watch from the shelters while the bears would examine the bear hangs to see if any easy food was available before putting more effort into finding their dinner.

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Arriving at Front Royal, I called my old high school friend Ben who now lived there. He picked me up in short order and with my smelley bag in the back of the pickup and the windows down, we drove to his house. Where I met the newest addition to his family before showering and doing laundry. Later I would get a text saying he kept telling his teacher about dad’s smelly homeless friend!

The First Time I Almost got Murdered

Back on the trail with a few more dollars for beer in my bank account earned from working on the river a couple of days while I was home, I think about the possibility of blue blazing (taking a canoe on the river for part of the trail in Shenandoah).

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I arrive at Dragons Tooth, a gray rock cropping jutting out of its green spring surroundings, well one might say like a dragons tooth,  near Catawab, VA . This is the first truly impressive section of trail that I can recall. It came out of nowhere, here I was hiking along and then bam, this impressive section of trail that just made hiking a little more difficult. It was impressive to me because it was a preview of what the AT in New Hampshire and Maine resembled, with its rock scrambling and exposure. These were my favorite sections because I  was above the tree line in the Alpine Zone climbing vertical sections of rock with the aid of rebar that had been attached to the rock to make ladder rungs causing one to use their upper body which is a nice change from my everyday repetition of right foot, left foot for 10 hours. I loved throwing in a right and left hand to the foot pace!

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The ticks are starting to come out in full force. I am removing attached ones every few days, luckily they eventually subside. I get in a habit of taking my hiking poles and holding them in front of me in a V shape like a plow spreading apart the tall grass as I hike through it. I do not know if this actually does anything, but it feels proactive in keeping the ticks off.

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I arrive at the foot of Shenandoah National Park at dusk. I walk towards I-64 to try to hitch to Waynesboro. I see this old monstrosity of a building on a frontage road that appears to be a motel. I approach it and in fact it is a hotel and conference center that is past its prime. I note a few cars in the parking lot, this is the only thing that leads me to believe that it is actually open. I wander around looking for the office and finally find it just to the right of where I started looking circling the building in a clockwise direction. I enter and ring the bell for assistance. Do-da-do, Do-da-do, Do-da-do, I wait impatiently for help after ringing the bell again. I can’t wait to get a shower and order food.  I click my tongue repeatedly against the roof of my mouth waiting for someone to answer  and ring it again. Finally someone comes, takes my money, and gives me a room on the other side of the building. I walk as fast as I can to the room while ordering pizza on my phone. The next morning I am on the balcony finishing my leftover pizza enjoying the morning when a car pulls up and a short stocky man steps out and screams up at me, “are you by yourself.” I answer, “yep” thinking he a hotel employee checking to see if I had snuck multiple dirtbag hikers into the room. “so you’re by yourself” “yes”, I replied. “so you’re telling me no one else is around” he states suddenly in a very creepy voice as he approaches the steps to my balcony. I realize at this point that my room is kind of isolated on the other side of the building, as his bald head disappears as he starts up the steps; I decide that he in fact doesn’t work here. I grab my bag that luckily is already packed, shove the last of the pizza in my mouth, throw the room key into the room, slam the door and quickly make my way to the set of steps on the other side of the balcony! As I make it to the road, I notice the guy is in his car slowly creeping behind me. A car comes up behind him causing him to drive past me. I see him coming back towards me on the other side of the road. I manage to hitch a ride into town before the creepy guy turned around and luckily I never saw him again!

For the story on the second time I almost got murdered click link

 

 

 

 

 

Friends and Family

Recovering from my harrowing escape from the licking ponies, I get back to the daily routine of hiker life. This routine is one of the most amazing experiences I have had the pleasure of living through. Imagine everyday is about doing what you enjoy and having the feeling of complete freedom! Sure you have your must dos and goals to accomplish like in everday life, but trust me, it’s not the same. A person still needs to perform the normal day-to-day activities that sustain us, but something as simple as not having the convenience of turning on a faucet for water makes getting water so much more fulfilling. Think about having to plan your day around where you get your water, only to get there and surprise there is no water. Now what!? You have to figure it out. I revere the dichotomy of the change and repetition one experiences.  The feeling of getting up everyday and not knowing what you will see and experience that day, yet also knowing the everyday activity of hiking to Mount Katahdin remains constant. The daily repetition is meditative and calming in nature while the unknown fuels the adventurers wonderlust.  For me the feelings that any long-term adventurous activity brings is to be truly alive! I have yet to experience this in the everday struggle of accomplishing the American Dream, which is sold to you everday.

Once I arrive in Pearisburg, VA I contact one of my friends whose parents have a cabin in Monroe County, WV,  Plans are made for me to be picked up. I am headed to Albright, WV for the Cheat Fest, a music festival that helps to raise funds for Friends of the Cheat, a non-profit whose mission is to restore, preserve, and promote the outstanding qualities of the Cheat River Watershed. I will get a chance to kayak and listen to blue grass music. Thanks Clayton!

After I get off the phone, I head out in search of food. I decide on Mexican for dinner. I order a meal for two and margaritas for four at La Barranca. The next day I am on my way to Clayton’s parents cabin. I have another amazing dinner, sleep on the porch and then spend about a week in the tri state area of PA, MD, and WV, hanging out with friends and family. I am supper grateful for the support I get from everywhere! I am super lucky to be able to get on the water and kayak with friends while in the middle of this journey.

Back on the trail, I continue my quest north making steady progress towards Shenandoah National Park. Right after I hike through Shenandoah, I stop to visit an old high school friend, Ben and his family. They live just outside of Front Royal, the northern gateway community for the Shenandoah Valley.  Fortunately for me, the trail almost goes past his house. It will only be a short hike to his place.