There’s no reason to sugarcoat it: the last two weeks have been extremely challenging and, for the most part, miserable. People had warned us about the dreaded “Virginia blues” – a low in morale that tends to sink in as one plods along the longest state on the AT. Having completed over 800 miles, the novelty of the hike is long past and the weariness of the daily miles over rough terrain is ever present. And while the warmer temperatures have been a welcome change, especially after dealing with the cold snaps earlier in the hike, they bring along some most unwelcome hazards – storms, mud, and pests.
The trouble began shortly after leaving Pearisburg, Virginia – a small trail town where my fellow hiking companions and I rested and restocked our food supplies. The weather forecast for the week had looked bleak with storms predicted every day. But I remained hopeful as we left with sunny skies overhead. Less than ten miles into the hike, however, the clouds grew increasingly dark, and the threatening sounds of thunder rumbled louder and more frequent from the west. With no shelter or other place of refuge anywhere in the vicinity, I kept praying and hoping the storm would pass to the south; but it didn’t. Suddenly, large raindrops descended upon me, followed quickly by a torrent of hail. I grew alarmed as the hailstones, pelting me mercilessly, seemed to grow larger, up to paintball-sized, while lightning and thunder raged close above head. Using my pack to protect me from the painful blows of the hail, I hunkered down with a group of three other hikers, realizing that we would be smarter to divide up (that way if lightning struck one of us, it wouldn’t kill all of us); but we were all grateful for the company, and if we were going to die, we decided we’d rather die together! Just as I was finishing uttering to one of the nervous hikers, “This, too, shall pass,” the storm blew past, just as quickly as it came upon us.
Grateful to escape the ordeal with minor bruises from the hail, I continued on my way, as I still had a long way to go before arriving at the campsite my hiking group had decided on earlier. But my elation quickly turned to nervousness, then to fear as I heard the all too familiar sounds of thunder again approaching from the west. For a second time that day, I was assailed by hail. While that bout of frozen precipitation only lasted a few minutes like the first, the rain this time was there to stay. For the rest of that day, and for most of the next two weeks, rain and mud were constant companions, slowing our progress and dampening our moods. To make matters worse, while hunching over to put my pack between me and the onslaught of hail, I had strained my lower back. I have had issues with my back before, but now I had to carry a heavy pack on it and hike up and down mountains. The pain was so bad at times that no amount of ibuprofen would dull it, and for the first time since I started the trail, I was truly miserable hiking. It was sad, because there were some truly beautiful vistas along the way – McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, Dragon’s Tooth – but I was unable to truly enjoy and revel in them due to the constant discomfort I was in.
The insect and arachnid springtime resurgence has also been the cause of much angst. There is not a single hiker among us who lacks numerous bumps and rashes all along their arms and legs from black flies, sand flies, deer flies, horse flies, chiggers, and mosquitos. Only two days ago, I began to notice ticks, and in large numbers. One day alone I found several nymphs and two adult ticks crawling on my legs, another adult tick in my tent and another one trying to breach my tent. Yet despite the regular tick checks, I still managed to find one attached to me.
Rain, injuries, and ticks – oh my! Yet despite all the misery of the past fourteen days, I still love it out here. This is exactly what I had signed up for when I chose to pursue the Appalachian Trail. I signed up for the beautiful views from atop the mountains, but I also signed up for the rigorous, steep climbs it takes to get there. I signed up for beautiful, warm, sunny days with cool, gentle breezes, but I also signed up for the snow and the wind and the rain that would give me new appreciation for the sun when it does shine. I signed up for the euphoria of being out in the beauty of nature, but I also signed up for the blood, sweat, and tears that nature will often force you to shed. So often we shy away from the negatives, almost expecting that anything worth pursuing will always bring us joy. But life simply doesn’t work that way, at least not in this world. Every worthwhile endeavor will bring its fair share of headaches and heartaches. But I argue that it is because of these griefs that the joy experienced is all the richer and more meaningful. So while I may still feel a bit of the Virginia blues, I know that it will make the view from Mount Katahdin in Maine all the sweeter!
Until our paths cross again,