“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” – C.S. Lewis
The remnants of Hurricane Ian are slowly making their way over the midwest and the air is damp and chilly. The prior weekend we were out in Shenandoah and the weather was cool but wonderfully sunny. Some leaves at the tops of the mountains had begun to change, but for the most part summer foliage remains in Shenandoah, but cool mornings and evenings have settled in. For months Ken and I had planned to complete a section hike on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah to end at Skyland. We talked about it with a few friends, and a couple decided to join us Saturday for a day hike, and then we all stayed at Skyland. Leading up to the trip, I had a lot to prepare for; sub plans, lesson plans for Monday, preparing to start a week (groceries, meal planning, lessons, etc). As hectic as these long weekend section hikes can be, once we get out there I am able to let all that bullshit go. Our spirit “animal” this hike was the mushroom. Fittinginly, this is what I found when I Googled its significance. “The sacred symbol of the mushroom affirms the freedom you have afforded yourself by doing ‘the work.’” This is the first time I wore my Whoop and I learned that I burned 1,586 calories Friday and an additional 1,870 calories Saturday. The FarOut app gave us some additional numbers to share – Friday our total ascent was 3,364.8 feet over 14 miles (2,755.6 ft descent because that is just as hard) and Saturday’s totals were 3,212.3 on the up, 2,591.2 on the down over 16.6 miles.
“There is the life that most of us live, and then there is the life we have buried deep inside us, the life we know we’re supposed to be living.” – Holly Whitaker
I taught a full day of classes, and scrambled to be sure to put all the lesson plans, seating charts and copies out for my sub, and left school to meet Ken in Annapolis. As I was driving, my blood sugar began to drop, and I realized I had packed the wrong kind of testing strips. Annoyed, I realized I would have to go back to my house before crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but I told myself everything happens for a reason. In fact, my sensor failed Sunday and I had to rely on my blood sugar kit to test, so luckily I had gone home for those. Between my strips, and Ken’s delayed flight, we ended up meeting in Annapolis later than expected and then that put us in DC traffic around dinner time, so we decided to find a hotel near the trail and stay there overnight. We had planned on parking at Smith Roach Gap, hiking a little over a mile to a campsite, but this seemed more civilized.
Maybe it’s the beginning of October, and the realization that I wish I had gotten more done during the summer break, but lately I have been fired up about getting as many trail miles in as possible. By the end of 2022, we should be at about 250 miles, but I want to do more. My main problem is that I don’t have much free time and I really began to regret not backpacking more during the summer. For me, the life I’m supposed to live revolves around hiking, exploring and writing. I feel more at peace with myself, even dripping sweat and out of breath on inclines, than I do in the parking lot of my school every morning. After some discussion about how to free up more time, Ken and I settled on making sure we get miles in with the kids in October, and maybe one more short section hike before it gets too cold and dark. A reminder that days are getting shorter came on arrival to the Residence Inn in Harrisonburg. Not only was it dark and cold, but the wind was whipping through the valley. I was relieved that I would get a full night’s sleep after a hectic day without listening to the leaves rustle all night wondering if it was a bear outside the tent.
I woke up before 6 on Friday, eager to get out of the hotel room and onto the trail. Staying the night in the hotel was nice in that we were able to do a shake down, and get rid of some of the extra food we had packed. With a hot cup of coffee from Starbucks in hand, we drove towards Skyline Drive to find Smith Roach Gap. Driving to our destination, I looked up at the surrounding mountains and took deep breaths to remind myself that there is no rush to complete the trail. At some point I would like to make a concrete goal as to when I’m going to finish it, but I promised to not do any new miles without Ken, so we have schedules, families, friends and other trips that will slow the process down. I am so impatient at times, but I also have tons of partially completed projects. I read multiple books at a time and in general I have several goals going at once. I want to finish something. The Blueridge Mountains, slowly transformed and worn down from years of weather, reminded me to slow down myself. I will finish the trail. One day.
Around 7:30 in the morning we parked, got out of the truck, and as I gulped my last gulp of hot coffee, a text came through from a neighbor that a tree had fallen down and was blocking the road at my house. If we had been outside the night prior, we would have been in that wind – the second time on this trip the universe did me a solid, even though it annoyed me at the time. The weather was crisp, and very sunny. We briskly made our way up the first ascent, about a 900 foot climb, to Hightop Mountain. “I almost forgot how beautiful Virginia is,” I said as I followed the side trail to the right to the overlook. The sun was still coming up behind us, and the valley below was covered by shadow, but just beyond that more mountains were soaking in the summer light, creating their own shadows, and so forth back to the bluish hue line of mountains way off in the distance.
Our hike from Hightop Mountain to Bearfence Mountain Hut was fairly level, with minor elevation changes. The weather was perfect, and I was just right in shorts and a light sweatshirt. Along the path we noticed a lot of mushrooms of many varieties. There were bright orange ones, small brown baubles on logs, and a few that looked like oyster shells stuck to the side of a tree. “A mushroom, which is actually a fungus, is a fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting fungus that grows above ground or on its food source.” The fungus lives in soil and comes out when the conditions are right. Mushrooms thrive in damp places with decay. The trail was generous Friday. We were surprised by how easy the hiking felt, especially since the Connecticut section we had done seemed so much more brutal. We were able to admire the flora of the woods, talk about moving in together, how our relationship has evolved and there was a lot of self-praise going on about how fit we must have become. I spent some time in self-reflection about the growth I’ve had over the last two years – finding my inner strength again after a divorce, and sobriety have been the two things I am the most proud about. Mushrooms are a bloom that come from decay. “ You have dedicated much of your energy in the past few years to rebirthing a version of self that is free of the burdens that kept you stagnant. Emotions that once stopped the flow of your energy – resentment, guilt, regret, and despair – have lost their grip on your heart.”
We arrived at Bearfence Mountain Hut at 2:30 in the afternoon with 14 miles on the trail logged for the day. We decided to set up our tent site, lighten our packs a bit and go out for an additional hike. By this point the bottom of my feet were hurting, but as soon as Ken said “rock scramble,” I was in. The Bearfence Rock Scramble was just up the trail a bit from the shelter. It was a bit of technical hiking to get to the top, but nothing challenging. The 360 degree view from the top makes an Instagram worthy photo. Returning to the shelter, I read through the shelter’s log (I didn’t bring a book) and took a picture of a shuttle service someone had recommended. The temperature began to drop, and I put my rain gear on and huddled up next to the fire. Surprisingly we were the only ones at the shelter, we had just missed a large group of SOBO hikers the night before. I slept amazingly well from about 7:30 until 1 am and then off and on until dawn and didn’t worry once about any noises outside the tent.
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” -Pele
Saturday morning we got up before dawn, and had planned on leaving around 6, but it was still very dark, so we waited until 7. This tends to be the start to every last day of our hike when we are on a time crunch to meet someone! We had 8 miles to hike to Big Meadows Wayside to meet our friends. We had to move, but that would be easy, right? I mean we hiked quickly the day before, we had our hiking legs … wrong. The first climb was about 600 feet to the summit of Hazeltop Mountain and it felt like it went on forever. Unlike the switchbacks, where you can see how far you have yet to go, this was a tricky uphill. My feet hurt and my right knee started to fire up on the ascent, and just as I thought there plateau was just ahead, we would get to the top and find there was more to climb. I thought about how this is akin to life. Just when I think I’m “good” there is something that will come up. In the time since that climb, it has been a nasty fight with my ex husband, having my heart ripped out by my child who told me he wants to only live at his dad’s house and the fact that despite my best efforts, I just don’t love teaching anymore. More small climbs, and challenges to overcome – one achy step at a time.
By the time we got to Big Meadows Wayside (with an additional mile or so since we missed the side trail and bushwhacked a bit), we were hungry and a little chilly. Our friends had just pulled up, so we all went inside and sat for a bit. I enjoyed some hot Ramen and soda water while we all caught up. From there, we decided to take a detour to see Lewis Spring Falls. Turns out Ken’s “half a mile” was really more like .75 and we went down about 800 feet to where we could overlook the falls. If we had been closer to the falls, it would have been worth it, but in my opinion it’s not worth the extra trek (Bearfence Rock Scramble however, is). What goes down must come up, so back up 800 feet we went to reconnect with the AT and finish our hike, about 8 more miles.
By this point Ken and I were a bit worn down, hiking with “fresh” people. We still kept a good pace, but on the way up an incline, an old wrestling injury flared up in Ken’s knee, my blood sugar dropped and we slowed down a bit. Along the way, we were mostly ridge walking, with beautiful views on our right. Conversations kept my mind off how much my feet and knee hurt. The trail became very rocky as we neared Skyland, and we passed over a few giant piles of rocks (scree?). We had one final climb towards the mid afternoon and we arrived at Skyland a few hours later than we had expected, but still with plenty of time to enjoy a warm dinner, beer (for my friends) and dessert. Our little cabin was perfect- a hot shower, nice view and heater was a blissful way to end a backpacking trip. I learned from our shuttle driver that “Platinum Blazing” is what some people do – they section hike, but stay in lodges, motels, inns, bed and breakfasts along the way. Having both in one trip is nice, but not how I would personally complete the trail.
As I plan the next trip, and the one after that, I keep coming back to that nagging feeling that I need to change careers to be able to finish the AT before a decade has passed. I am a believer in putting out into the universe what you want, but I know I also have to take actionable steps. I faced a similar challenge years ago when I realized I needed to end my marriage. It was comfortable, steady and protective, but it was also just not the right one for me. My career is also comfortable, steady and reliable – but it no longer fulfills me. I will find something else. I will finish the AT. I will bloom in decay. “If you’re in a pivot period – if you’re still bridging the space between where you are and where you want to be – remember that the person you’re becoming is already within you. It’s just convincing your mind to act consistently on what your heart already knows it wants to do.”- Brianna Wiest