My last update (the one before the ice cream one!) had me in Harper's Ferry, WV. I wound up taking a total of four consecutive zero days to give my feet a chance to calm down. I switched back to a well tried and tested shoe. In order to ease back into hiking, rather than simply jump right back into a string of 20s, I intended to ramp up. My next few days would look like this: 7, 14, 18, 15, and then maybe back into the 20s again. "I don't know," I thought, "I'll just wait and see." Definitely no Four-State Challenge in my near future.
I met Fiddlin' Jim and Joe on my way out of town! For those of you just joining us, these guys were half of my original trail family, and I hadn't seen them in weeks. We laughed and joked about how much had changed since then, everyone skinnier, more beards all around. They told me that Voldemort, Droid and Lemmy would probably be about a day behind, and I figured that they'd catch me at some point during my ramp up.
The trail doesn't stay in West Virginia for very long. In fact, I moved into Maryland that evening. With apologies to my friends who live there, I have to say that MD has been my least favorite part of the AT so far. Sorry guys, but you're the worst. I became used to a bit of road noise while in Virginia, thanks to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. Cars, RVs and Harleys just a few hundred feet from the trail would be a welcome relief from the sonic nightmare that is the AT in Maryland. All of the above plus: backing up construction vehicles, honking horns, lawnmowers, barking dogs, sirens and at one point what I believe to be a bagpipe arguing with a vuvuzela. I spent more time behind my earbuds here than in any other state. Fortunately, there was plenty of electricity available. I'll give you this, Maryland, you have the Dahlgren Backpacker's Campsite, and that was pretty sweet.
The Campsite is a flat grassy spot right by the trail. It's the size of a football field and has picnic tables, bear poles (to hang your food at night), and a restroom/shower facility with hot water and working power outlets. These are all the things a hiker could ever want at the and of a day, and it's all free of charge.
I had just stepped out of the shower and had put on pants and a shirt when the men's room door opened. There stood my old friend Droid, covered in sweat. I hadn't seen him since the Smokys and before I could register my surprise, he turned his head to someone just outside and said, "It's clear." Voldemort then burst through the door, ran to me and hugged me. The three of us moved the party out of the bathroom and onto a nearby bench, where we were shortly joined by Lemmy.
We had a lot to catch up on. Droid had been way ahead of all of us until a stomach bug knocked him off the trail for a full week. Voldemort had been chasing me for almost a month, and I had been trying all month to shake Lemmy. Just kidding, Lemmy! Voldemort said that she had read about my feet and forgave me for becoming a dirty yellow blazer. We learned from fellow campers that a local pizza place delivered, and after having not been all in the same place for over 800 miles the four of us enjoyed a feast together that night: pizza, Sprite and wine berries from the bushes near our tents.
The four of us enjoyed two full days of hiking before we were split again.
Having been apart, our resupply needs were out of sync, so Voldemort continued hiking while Droid, Lemmy and I hitched into Waynesboro to buy food. Having only recently returned to longer distances, our proposed goal for the day was a bit of a stretch for my tired feet; the hike plus the side trip to town would amount to something like 24 miles. With plenty of daylight left, I opted to stop about seven miles short at the Tumbling Run Shelter. This was before the world famous Half Gallon Challenge, where we'd all agreed to be in three days, and I was pretty sure I could make up seven miles over three days.
The Tumbling Run Shelter is the first "double shelter" you encounter in PA (northbound). They are labeled "Snoring" and "Non-Snoring," and between them on a raised stone landing is a covered picnic table. There are actual clotheslines and a small stream runs (in fact, it tumbles) nearby. Of course I'll stay.
Lemmy passed me on his way to meet the others and I asked him to tell them my plan. "See y'all at the ice cream place!" He left, I made dinner and while I was finishing, a headlamp appeared where the trail joins the shelter. The head under that headlamp belonged to Lode. He had a big beard, a big smile and his backpack was adorned with an action figure. He smelled too good to be a thru hiker. Lode introduced himself and we chatted. After a bit he asked, "What are you hungry for?" Now, this is one of the standard poll questions we all get asked by day hikers and weekenders all the time. That and, "What do you do when it rains?" and, "Do you carry a gun?" So I wasn't really expecting Reese's Peanut Butter Cups to appear when I said so, but they did. And in great quantities too!
Lode fashions himself to be not a Trail Angel, but a Trail Magician. "Shelters are my top hat," he says. "That's all I need to make magic." He lives near the trail and hikes for exercise, as well as the opportunity to mysteriously pull candy out of the air. Once during a hot, dry spell, Lode hiked several pounds of ice, drinks, and ice cream to a crowded shelter just in time for dessert. "Some of 'em were already sleeping, but when they heard there was ice cream I could see headlamps coming on and wrapped toes swinging over the edges of bunks." We continued talking until past "hiker midnight" and finally I turned in. That night, my headlamp attracted the fireflies into my shelter and I had my own private light show.
When I awoke the next morning my feet were tender, so I slipped into my Crocs and waddled around camp, getting ready to hike. Overnight there had been a text from my brother, and we worked out that his vacation and me being in Pennsylvania were a happy coincidence because that meant that we could meet up soon. As in day after tomorrow soon. It also meant that instead of catching my friends at Pine Grove Furnace State Park around noon, I'd instead meet my brother and nephew there around dinner, and catch my friends later. Perfectly doable, assuming that my feet didn't get worse. They had certainly improved compared to their worst, but I was now taping several toes and still walking gingerly on runnable surfaces.
So I made it to the ice cream thing and you can read about that in the last post. Here are some afterthoughts on my Half Gallon Challenge: I was about one third into my vanilla when I figured out that it had melted and re-frozen at some point. The top half was all watery ice crystals and the bottom was a puck of syrupy goo. But it was all they had left. The mint chocolate chip was very tasty and I'm glad I ended on that. I had a crazy sugar buzz and felt like crap the next day.
Jim and Jacob and I had a great time visiting and we enjoyed our stay at the Ironmaster's Mansion Hostel at the State Park. Even after I'd taken a shower and done laundry, Jim still forced me to wear one of his shirts and apply some scented armpit spray that reminded me of middle school. He also really saved the day by getting me to a not-nearby running shoe specialty store so I could pick up a specific insole I'd been told would cure all woes in the toes.
It was a quick visit and I was back on the trail. That was a short day because of the late start, which is usually the case when there's a town stop. The following day, despite the new shoes, despite the new insoles, and despite the ever decreasing mileage, my feet still hurt. If you followed the toenail report from my last update, you may recall that I was stopped in my tracks by a full list of problems. The good news is that now I'm only down to one problem and that's the bruising on the balls of my feet.
So I walked slowly and I stopped at 14 miles instead of 18. Which was good, because I got to spend a night at the best maintained shelter on the AT (so far), the Quarry Gap Shelter. A wooden gate with a welcome sign and a small wooden duck were what I saw first. I thought that I had accidentally wandered into someone's back yard. The spring was landscaped, including ceramic frogs, turtles, and a working sundial. Hanging plants adorned the double shelters and the caretaker had left plenty of fire making materials as well.
The following morning I received a message from Lode saying "nice to meet you" type stuff and reminding me that if I ever needed anything while I was in PA to give him a call. "Once you cross the border into Maryland or Jersey you're someone else's problem. But as long as you're in Pennsylvania, I got your back." This was music to my ears because I'd just started contemplating a zero. It had been nearly ten days and I'm sure my feet would benefit from some rest. Also because the next shelter was 26 miles away and I didn't see any stopping points along the way unless I wanted to tent by some busy railroad tracks.
I told Lode I'd be happy to meet him tomorrow afternoon and I spent the next day going ten miles in ten hours. I walked slowly on purpose and rested frequently. Nevertheless, when I finally met him again, Lode told me I looked like a slow motion speed walker because of the way I strain to not bounce or bob while walking, knees slightly bent, gliding just a bit.
I can hear the train on those busy tracks, glad to be miles away, here at the Lode Land Hostile. "I spell it that way on purpose," he says. "It's not a hostel, it's a hoss-steel." He's not in any of the guide books, nor does he want to be. Part of the reason he hikes is to take the magic to the hikers, but also to get a feel for who's out there. "I love to help people out, but I don't want people showing up in my driveway at ten o'clock at night. I knew your feet were banged up, so I called you." And now that I thought back, yeah. He did. And when he hiked up the AT to meet me he had a jug of ice water and offered to carry my pack. For the record, I declined, not because I'm a purist or anything like that, but because I'd just met the guy and for all I know he could be the Bad-Feet Backpacker Bandit and run off with my stuff. Or even walk off at a medium pace, I wasn't going to catch him.
Instead, he led me to his house, a stone's throw from the AT and showed me to my trailer. "The AC's been going for about an hour, but if you want to wait until after you've had a shower it'll be nice and cool in there for you."
The next morning he drove me into town to see a doctor, who happened to be one of his best friends growing up. Lode's friend wasn't in that day, but I was still happy to be seen. I was told by an actual medical professional that my feet "look great for having so many miles on them," and that I have high arches. This means that the balls of my feet bear a greater percentage of my weight than most people, hence the bruising and sensitivity. More cushion and better protection from rocks would be essential, so I asked Trail Boss Katie to send me my boots. The doc also said that I should rest for as long as I possibly could, which is why I'm here at Lode Land. Resting.