Day 69: Harper's Ferry, WV - 1,019 miles

Hi guys, I've been wanting to do this for a while, but could never seem to fit it in. I finally have a bit of time on my hands, so here goes. Let's start by examining a typical day on the trail for me. And after that, just so you know what you're in for, I'm going to talk about my feet a bit. There will be some gnarly pictures of mangled toenails. You've been warned.

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When I wake up, there's a 50% chance that I'm either in my tent or in a shelter. Once, I put my tent inside a shelter, and there have been a handful of hotels, but for the most part, it's 50%. (I've been almost exclusively tenting lately because I mailed home my sleeping bag, and I'm just a tad warmer in there at night.) At first light each day the birds start singing in multitude, and that's when I first stir as well. Pardon the bluntness, but the first thing I do upon standing is find the privy or dig a hole. My insides are as regular as the birds, just less pleasant to hear. 

Breakfast usually consists of hot coffee mixed in with a Carnation Instant Breakfast. It's all about the calories, which is why I enjoy this hot beverage with a Tastycake Honey Bun. This thing is basically diabetes wrapped in plastic. 680 calories, pretty much all from fat. It's bread soaked in high fructose corn syrup topped with a layer of "icing" which you could peel off and use to repair small rips in your tent or pack.

I've mastered the technique of breaking down my sleep system while eating, and as a result I'm generally fully packed and stepping off forty-five minutes or so after I get up. I do not enjoy arriving at camp late and have adopted a personal motto of, "If you don't want to hike in the dark, don't sleep in the light." I like to get there (wherever "there" is) with at least two hours of daylight left so I can take my time setting up, making dinner, writing, and of course studying the AWOL guide to learn tomorrow's elevation changes and possible stopping points.

 Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Between breakfast and camp, I walk. I try to maintain a 2 to 2.5 MPH average including stops. At the beginning of the hike, I would stop a hundred times a day. Need water? Stop, get water. Need a snack? Stop, get snack. Makes sense, right? Over time I learned to arrange the things I need during the day so that I can reach them without stopping. Water, food, advil and the map are all within reach at the cost of only slightly reduced speed for a few steps. I now stop every two hours for about fifteen minutes. I'll pause (or stop) for amazing views or something neat begging to be photographed, but for the most part the deal is, if the sun's up, I'm walking.

This far into the hike, very few people even bother adjusting their pace to walk all day with a partner and everyone seems to have an unspoken agreement that we'll just see each other at the end of the day or along the way. So during the day, I mostly walk alone. Sometimes I listen to music or podcasts, but mostly I take in my surroundings, looking at and listening to everything. Birds, animals, trees, rocks, snakes, salamanders, flowers, the occasional human or two, leaves and thunder... there's never a shortage of entertainment while walking. I have never been bored. Not even once.

  "Virginia is flat and boring." - Bad Dinner

 "Virginia is flat and boring." - Bad Dinner

In sharp contrast to the solitude of walking alone all day, camp is almost always a bustling center of social activity. Lemmy and I have caught up with the tail end of "the bubble" - that stretched out herd of hikers who started in early spring, some of whom are already in Maine, many of whom are here, in the middle. Someone usually has a fire going. Two or three people will be at the picnic table, cooking, eating or reading the shelter log, searching for news from friends up ahead. One or two may already be in the shelter, wrapped in bags, snoring, oblivious to the jokers at the table. "Where's the water? Where's the privy? Who else is here? Have you seen Bluebeard? How about Tauntaun? (He smells bad... on the outside.)"

As the sky darkens the party gains and loses members as hikers arrive and others go to bed. Wherever I am, I'm usually asleep within minutes of closing my eyes, perfectly exhausted. Moments later, it seems, the birds are singing and it begins again with new mountains to climb and new streams to cross.

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So here I am in Harper's Ferry, West By God Virginia. The "unofficial halfway point" is what they say. It took me two months and eight days to get here. Do what you want with the math there, because all bets are off once we get to The Whites in New Hampshire. Near vertical rocky scrambles await, promising a one-third reduction in daily mileage if you believe past hikers. Of course, these are the same people who warned me that Virginia was "flat and boring" which it most definitely was not.

I'm taking a couple of days off here for some much needed rest and to nurse my feet back to health.  (Here comes that gnarly toenail stuff I mentioned at the top of the page. This is your last chance to bail.)

My good friend Mark says that I don't have feet, I have hooves. This is because I've never had a blister for as long as we've been hiking together. I've been very lucky to have some good feet. I've been using them for forty some odd years now, and they've served me well. Recently I've been abusing them, and now they are starting to revolt.

The first thing I noticed was unexplained swelling way back at Clingman's Dome, around mile 200. My left foot puffed up, turned purple and a day later my left shin started barking at me each time I moved that foot. I didn't roll my ankle or twist it or bang it on anything; it just formed a bruise and hurt like hell for the next hundred miles or so. That all just kinda... went away, and now I can feel a dull ache in that shin, but since then, the worst of that problem has been gone.

 Do these pants make my left foot look fat?

Do these pants make my left foot look fat?

Next, somewhere around mile 400, I noticed something very weird. It felt like one of my socks was bunched up under my toes, but when I took off my shoe it was perfectly smooth. No wrinkles, twigs or small rocks, just the illusion of a bunched up sock. This has persisted, and has expanded to include a wider area and is now on both feet. There is no fungus, rash or otherwise visible irritation on those parts of my feet, just that weird sock thing. I feel it when I'm barefoot. It just comes and goes.

Somewhere around mile 600 or 700, I developed what I believe to be hammertoe. Three toes on my left foot have started to curl under my foot into a toe fist. It brings great relief to stretch them out and massage them. But while I'm walking, and they are inside my shoe, I just have to deal with it. Sometimes it's mildly annoying, sometimes it's show-stopping agony. STOP. SHOES OFF. NOW. Ten minutes of over-the-sock love and those little piggies are back on the trail.

Somewhere around mile 800, the heels, soles and balls of my feet became bruised. Think about what a bruise feels like. Now cover the bottoms of your feet with them. Now walk. All. Damn. Day. Doesn't get better, does it?  Oh just you wait...

 This is the least gross toenail picture I have.

This is the least gross toenail picture I have.

Sure, I don't get blisters. But I do get callouses. Big, thick callouses. I have several, but the one that has my attention right now is the thumb sized lump of leather formed on the back of my right heel. This particular leathery patch has no feeling; I could poke it with a needle and not know. But the actual skin where it attaches to my foot is sensitive and the damn thing slides around like it's held on with tape. If my foot doesn't hit the ground perfectly level, this pad slides and pulls at the soft pink flesh below, sometimes tearing.

 This little piggie... DIES NEXT!

This little piggie... DIES NEXT!

There's no mile marker for this next one because it's a never ending thing. I've been losing toenails, on average every couple weeks. The right big toe turned black first, and after a few days trapped in a wet sock, the thing just softened and gave way. My toenail was like a marshmallow that had been in the fire too long. The black crusty piece came off effortlessly and painlessly, leaving a white goo beneath. The white goo eventually hardened into something like a scab and now (a month later) actually looks like a new toenail. Right pinky toe was next. Then left pinky toe. Two more are in the works, and I've stopped placing bets on which will be the survivors. No toenail gets out alive.

Had enough? Too bad. It gets worse.

About a week ago, less than a hundred miles from the halfway point, every single problem listed above hit at once. The leathery patches, the hammer toe, the bloody spots where toenails used to live, and the bruises... all at once. I dropped my mileage and still the pains continued. I dropped again, and no relief. On Saturday of last week I walked 21 miles. Sunday, I did 15. Monday, 12. Tuesday, 5.

On that last day, Tuesday, I learned something about pain which I had learned about hunger back in Georgia. You have never really felt it. The previous evening, I stopped short and told Lemmy to go on without me. I knew I was going to slow down, and I'd just catch up later. That morning, I could barely get my shoes on. My feet were inflated and pink and I hadn't even taken a step yet. I unlaced my shoes as far as I could and wrapped them around my swollen feet. My first mile took ninety minutes. I had to place every step gingerly, yet there were plenty of rocks to send my foot rolling sideways causing me to lunge forward, jamming my other foot into yet another rock to slow my fall.

I felt like I had just walked through a hornets nest. Know why? Because I had just walked through a hornets nest! Right there on the trail some clueless hiker, or most likely a bear, had moved a rock under which there was a hive. So in addition to everything else, I now have angry red welts on my shins and ankles. 

 I warned you. 

I warned you. 

I gritted my teeth and winced with every step. The wincing gave way to swearing. The swearing gave way to moaning. I shambled down the mountain just making these horrible sounds, lightheaded from the pain and the labored breathing it brought on. One of my curled toes had started clicking with every fifth step or so, and the bruises on my heels were like tiny hammers. I cried. I had actual tears coming out of my eyes with every step, and yet I took more. I had to. Stopping on the side of the mountain does me no good.  If there's to be any relief it's up ahead and it's not coming to you. So go.  

I finally reached Thornton Gap, where I would make the transition from downhill back to uphill for another hour or so, had I been so foolish as to continue walking. On my way down, I had talked myself into making that day a "Near-o" or "near zero" - a day with very few miles, usually a resupply day. I knew that the only thing I could do would be to sit for a while. Maybe I could get to Luray today, back on the trail tomorrow, everything should be fine, right?

Wrong.

I stuck out my thumb and after fifteen minutes was picked up by a guy named Chuck who was taking his granddaughters to "grampy camp." He introduced me to the little girls and said, "We're going to help him find a place to get some food and get himself cleaned up," with just enough pity in his voice to make me temporarily forget that we'd already talked about the hiking part, and that he assumed I was a homeless person. Well, I kinda am.

Chuck dropped me off at the Budget Inn in lovely Luray, VA where I did all the things he had predicted, and slept. Hard. I napped from 4:00-7:00 and then slept again from 9:00-7:00. When I awoke on Wednesday I took too many minutes to hobble to the bathroom, holding every piece of furniture along the way for support. My feet were huge and I could not get my shoes back on. They were slightly better than the previous day, but certainly not ready for another thousand miles or so.

Okay, sure we know the human body is capable of some amazing things. Some mother in Wyoming lifted a car off of a baby, that sort of thing. Yes, I could dig deep and suck it up and so on. If a Nazi had a rifle to my back or if I were in a Stephen King novel, sure, I could keep going. But I'm a smart guy who wants to keep walking after this hike, so I decided to sit for however long I needed to. However, I'm also a smart guy who realizes that Maine doesn't get any closer while I'm sitting. I had (and have) absolutely no problem with getting those lost miles back via the passenger seat of a car. Harper's Ferry was only 80 miles north, there are plenty of shuttles available, and I was in the process of working out the details when Katie called.

Katie spent the first part of this week in Ohio visiting her parents and taking possession of the black Corvette that's been in her dad's garage for the last 13 years. She was planning to spend that day driving from Ohio to our home in North Carolina. "I'm going to be a few hours away from you today. Let me be your shuttle!" How could I possibly say no?

 She was looking at the guy with the non-creepy beard.

She was looking at the guy with the non-creepy beard.

A few hours later I was in a black sports car with a hot blonde.

 Lemmy stole my woman and I ain't even mad.

Lemmy stole my woman and I ain't even mad.

We made one stop on the way up to Harper's Ferry: a short side trip to Front Royal to find Lemmy, who had earlier shared his plan with me that he would stop there. We found him at the Visitor's Center downtown, and as you can imagine he was flabbergasted to see us. "Green Giant, what kind of person are you?!? The last time I saw you, you were crying on a picnic bench, and now here you are with a girl... and pizza!  Wait... whose car is that?"

So here I am in West Virginia, just a mile from the trail, nearing the end of my third consecutive zero. My longest stop so far. My feet feel much better and I have new shoes. I'm strongly optimistic that I'll start walking again tomorrow, starting with ten miles and slowly working my way back up. Lemmy will probably be here tonight, and if he takes a zero, he'll catch me while I'm ramping back up. Maybe. Either way, I'm going north. 

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