11 days ago, something out of the ordinary happened. I arrived at camp that night and nobody else showed up. I mean, there were other people there, just not people I knew. It had been a comparatively difficult day. The terrain had been unusually rocky and I had almost succumbed to the temptation to stop at the prior shelter. I'm pretty sure that's what Voldemort, Forager and Fiddlin' Jim did, especially since they were all still just waking up when I rolled out of camp that morning. I haven't seen them since.
This does not by any means imply that I have been alone. I spent about a week hiking with Dingo, Hungry Horse and Johnny Oak. The four of us put in many long days, pushed through some shitty weather, and enjoyed a relaxing stay at Woods Hole Hostel, an oasis so refreshing that we actually shuttled backwards on the next day to enjoy another night there.
One day back on the trail and now I was the one who had fallen behind. And during all of this my good friend Lemmy disappeared and reappeared a total of three times. It's like when you're stuck in traffic and you keep seeing the same red Volkswagen over and over, thinking, "I thought I passed that guy a long time ago." This is the nature of social life on the trail. Your friends are usually ahead of you or behind you, sometimes both, but never for very long.
During this brief period of social limbo I decided to take a vacation from Trail Life and go on a backpacking trip. I have found myself getting into a routine recently, one that centers around efficiency and maximum mileage. Just for a change of pace, instead of spending the night at a shelter, I decided to put the tent on the first good site I encountered at a reasonable distance to that day's target. It felt nice to not have to rush the final miles in near darkness to make it to the shelter. As my fire died down that night, I realized that that was the first time I had been truly alone in nearly 6 weeks.
Rather than base my daily targets on the seemingly random distances between shelters, I was now free to start or stop wherever I like, my only constraint being that I had to make it to Daleville by Saturday at 6:00 PM because I was expecting a package at the local outfitter. I would need to hike nearly 100 miles in only five days, and I had just finished hiking 100 miles in five days.
Everyone always says, "Virginia is flat," or, "Virginia is where you'll really start cruisin'!" The reality is that both of these things are true, but not until you've already passed the first 300 miles of the state. There are wide open meadows and rolling hills, but those hills are almost 1,000 feet tall and there's no shade. It is 90°. The climb up to every ridge is steep, and every ridge is a never ending treadmill of jagged rocky triangles, snaked with roots, thorns and sand.
Water has been scarce, sometimes miles between sources. And when I say miles I don't mean 3 miles or 5 miles, I mean like 16 or 18 miles without water. When you have to walk that far with only the water you can carry, you start playing games with rationing. "When I get to that tree, I can have one sip!" Water is precious, but it's also heavy. 2 liters weighs 4 pounds and that's just enough to stretch for 10 miles.
So the day before yesterday I found myself hard-pressed to make my self-imposed deadline of reaching Daleville by 6:00 PM on Saturday. I had to push through all of the above conditions while maintaining an average of 2 mph for 10, sometimes 12 hours per day. At one point I reached real dehydration. I was dizzy, stumbling, and had stopped sweating. My heart was pounding, and I found myself easily frustrated. I was thirsty enough to drink pee. But not my own, someone's who is more hydrated than I.
And at no point during any of this has the idea of quitting ever crossed my mind. Thinking about Mount Katahdin this early in the hike is pointless. I'm only one third of the way there. But in order to continue propelling oneself forward through such conditions some short-term motivator is necessary. At the start of each day this week I looked forward to taking a day off in Daleville. By the end of each day my short term motivation consisted of, "If I could just make it to that rock … I can let myself have … a Snickers bar!" And sometimes on the way to that rock, it reduces to, "Just one more step." According to my sister-in-law Priscilla, someone with an average stride will have taken approximately 1.5 million steps by this point, and I feel every single one of them.
My arrival into Daleville consisted of 19 miles by 3:45 PM, with plenty of time to spare before the outfitter closed. As usual, my Zero Day consisted of many chores: laundry, shower, food, phone calls… all tying for first place as top priority. And, as usual, I felt rushed. After a brief internal struggle, and with some encouragement from Lemmy, I decided to take the rare Double Zero. Today is my second consecutive day of not hiking, and it feels really weird. On the other hand, it's been 50 days, 724 miles, and even though I have Zeroed twice, I've never spent one full day really relaxing yet. Until now.
Hikers have been trickling in at a steady rate for the last two days. One brought news of Voldemort, Forager and Fiddlin' Jim. It looks like they will be arriving a few hours after I leave town tomorrow. It would have been nice to see them again, but it's also nice to know that they're not that far behind. One thing we all learned early on is that you never say goodbye on the trail.