**this is a continuation of my 2017 hike**
After my second trip to CA over Labor Day weekend, I returned to VA to prepare for a 6-7 day southbound stint on the trail before heading back up to NYC for another X-ray. I reasoned that this was a manageable number of days to test out my scheme and still stay within driving distance of my family members who could come pick me up if I needed to bail.
On September 7th, I woke up to the sound of my phone alarm at 530. I fought the urge to roll back over and made my way downstairs to make coffee for my mom and me. She’s been grinding the coffee and plunging the aeropress to help make the process possible. After running through the last few things on my checklist, we left for the trail around 8am. The drive to bears den is only about an hour, which left a sizable chunk of the day for me to hike. We ogled real estate along the treelined roads as the leaves split the sunlight into ethereal beams.
As we pulled into bears den, I had a flashback to the last time I’d been here on a chilly April morning with no clue how to use my hiking poles and only internet-based knowledge of many other backpacking tasks. I’ve definitely learned a lot in the last thousand miles. What I haven’t learned is when to quit, so here I am, hiking with a relatively useless arm that I have to be very careful not to re-injure.
I asked my mom to take the same picture that Peter took 4 months ago, and then we hugged goodbye. I got the feeling she either wanted to whisk me back in the car or kick off her work pumps and join me (minus all those spiders she’d have to co-habitate with). I turned toward the trail and walked away, which was difficult to do. I’m excited to be here, but I honestly don’t know what I’m getting into and if I can handle it.
I took a left onto the southbound trail and made a quick stop at the view from the ledges below bears den. The trail continued down a section dubbed the rollercoaster, which I have to say felt like any other stretch of trail. It was far milder than even the easiest sections of Maine and New Hampshire. It felt good to be hiking. The air was crisp and some of the leaves have already started to turn. I hardly noticed my pack on my back for most of the day. It came in at 24 pounds with the minimal amount of food I have to get me through Saturday where I will get a maildrop for the remaining 4 days. I want to keep my bag light to go easy on my body. I’m also not sure how I will manage to hang my food bag, so there’s no need to overload it.
As will likely be the case for a lot of VA, I didn’t make much in the way of specific terrain notes. I can say that today was rockier than I expected, but the beautiful woods made up for the sore feet. I’m sad to say, I definitely lost some of my foot toughness since leaving Maine. I guess the nerves have come back to life. For the first few weeks after my break (a term that spans multiple meanings in this case), I noticed that my feet were somewhat numb. My knees also spoke up to let me know that they still haven’t forgiven me for what I did to them in New Hampshire. But they held up well on the many gradual downhills of the day.
Around 11:45, I took a short side trail to the lookout at buzzard hill. Two thru-hikers were there drying out their gear and eating lunch. They were quiet as I passed by to sit at the rocks off to their right. I didn’t make any effort to break their silence. I fully intended to just keep to myself, but as I set my bag down, I heard one of them say hello. Then he said, wait don’t I know you? I remarked that he looked familiar and asked him his name. It turned out to be Silky Pete whom I met at the lakes of the clouds hut in the whites. We had a congenial reunion wherein I told him I’d broken my elbow and had just gotten back on trail today. He had also taken some time off and only just started in Harper’s ferry a few days ago. We shared excitement about the weather (gorgeous) and the ease of the terrain relative to the northern third of the trail. Then I went back to making my pb frito wrap and taking in the view. Returning to these snippets of my routine felt like a time warp.
I moved on after a languid lunch and some internetting. Much of the afternoon was spent reveling in the weather and the feeling of hiking while also having flashes of my fall and feeling anxious about taking a wrong step. My hand began to swell after lunch. Not much, but enough to be noticeable and to make it stiff when I flexed my fingers. When the trail wasn’t rocky it was downright leisurely, such as this bit of green tunnel:
Around 2:15, I stopped to switch around my water bottles. I can’t use the bottle in my left pocket unless I take my pack off, so I switched that one out for the empty one on my right side and ate a snack while I had my bag off. So far, my strategy for using rocks to balance my pack has worked. This way I can avoid taxing my right arm even more than I already am and I won’t inadvertently use my left arm to swing my pack around.
I got to the end of the alleged rollercoaster and scoffed at the sign that began “hiker warning.” It may as well have said “hiker warning: this will feel like hiking.”
Then came a short bog board stretch that gave me a bit of anxiety because of how many slips I had on them in Maine, but I passed over them without incident. I reached the turn off for the shelter around 3:15 and came to find Silky Pete and his somewhat silent friend collecting their water bottles to stop in at the spring near the shelter.
As we approach the shelter, who do I see sitting at the edge? JD! He gave me a hearty hello which I returned while also waving him off to say I would be back after getting water. Silky Pete offered to filter for me and proceeded to fill all of my vessels before his own. It felt easy to accept that kind of help from him, so I gladly took it. Then JD came over to take a picture of me to prove I still existed. I have been remiss in texting him because I haven’t felt like talking about my situation. He then proceeded to talk at me for 20 minutes regaling me with all the stories of people we know in common. In usual fashion, I could feel my stamina for talking lowering by the minute. I asked JD where he was headed, hoping he would move on and I could go about my business in silence. He expressed ambivalence about where he might go for the day. Then he wandered over to speak to his hiking mates in hushed tones. I had a sneaking suspicion he was going to try to stay to keep me company, which I was absolutely not in the mood for. I wandered over to ask the question of where everyone was headed. JD looked at me with a gleam in his eye and said he might just stay here. I both regret doing what I’m about to share, but I also know I needed to do it to set a boundary. I said in what I hoped was a kind but firm tone of voice that he shouldn’t stay for my benefit because I was in the mood to hole up in my tent and be alone. He said that would be fine. Then I said don’t stay if you’re just doing it to help me because I don’t need it, and I will be stubborn about accepting it. In my mind, I pictured an evening of being hovered over, which I have trouble with even from people who don’t set off my patriarchy alarm. He finally relented and said he would keep on hiking then.
After everyone left I went about the business of hanging my food bag. It became immediately obvious that the metal pole used to lift bags up to the hooks was not manageable with one arm. I had the idea to use the shelter broom as a hoist instead of the pole, but it presented the opposite problem: it was so flimsy that I couldn’t get it to stay up straight without fear of wrenching my wrist. I then went to my backup strategy, which was to hang my bear line over the hooks and tie it off to a tree, but tying off a bear bag with one arm is rather tricky.
My first attempt came loose almost immediately. I stood there, not sure what to do. I went it over to the picnic area and looked at the hooks in the rafters, but they were barely 6 feet off the ground which is not even close to high enough to be bear safe. So I went back to the bear pole and hoisted my bag once again, using a tree trunk as leverage to get the bag all the way up to the hooks then I wound up the extra rope with one arm while holding the tension of the bag to keep it in the air and somehow managed to make a knot without really using my left hand. I did sort of use it to hold the pile of excess rope in place.
Exhausted by my efforts, I decided to wander around to see if I could get a phone signal. I’d had wonderful service all day, and then the minute I got off the trail, it crapped out. It didn’t return until I got all the way back to the trail intersection where I texted my mom to let her know that I was done for the day and wouldn’t really be in touch. Then I called my Oakland and shared the exhaustion of the afternoon. As I sat there talking, I heard a hiker approach from behind me. I turned to find JD smiling at me. He said, “I realized that I owe you a tent stake.” And then he wandered down the trail to the shelter. I gave a heavy sigh and steeled myself for a long evening of Conversation. I feel bad because he’s a kind person, but he always seems to show up when I have so little to give.
I finished my phone call and wandered back to the shelter area. When I got there, JD announced that he was going to sleep in the shelter, but he didn’t expect me to hang out with him or talk to him and he would only talk to me if I talk to him first. It was said in a good-natured voice that I tried to return. I grabbed my bag and said that I was heading down the hill to set up camp by the stream. I wanted privacy and it’s closer to where I can get a phone signal. I’m not quite ready to be thrust into the void of no cell service after having been in touch with people I care about for the better part of the month.
Setting up my tent went rather smoothly. As did blowing up my air mattress. I have reservations about whether I can actually use my sleeping bag because of the zipper. I may end up in it without being able to close it or open it. I’m trying my best not to use my arm, but there’ve been a few times where I had to stabilize something, although to me I’m not using anymore effort than the doctor gave me permission for.
I forced myself to go all the way through my sleep set up and then grabbed my puffy coat and walked back up to the shelter. I tried my best to get the knot out of my bear line, so I could get my food down from the hook, but it was impossible to get the tension off the rope in order to loosen the knot. I called JD over and asked him to do it for me. He made a joke about me asking him only because I didn’t want him to feel useless, but I assured him that I actually could not get my bag down. If no one had been around, I probably would’ve had to cut my line or do something questionable with my arm. JD and I had a nice dinner together. As we ate, another hiker named Coach arrived. He seemed like he’d had a difficult day and said as much when he came to the picnic table. Coach isn’t totally sure why he’s out here and has been having a hard time since leaving Harpers Ferry because of the rocks and missing his family. We all agreed that this is not something you can really do without knowing why – otherwise it’s just misery.
After dinner, I asked coach to hang my bag on the same pole as his because JD was engrossed in a phone conversation. I went back down to my tent and made a phone call to Oakland while sitting on a log at the trailhead in the quickly dwindling light. She listened to me bemoan how hard this version of my hike is and how completely disappointed I am that this is now the trail I will walk. It’s a trail that involves massive amounts of troubleshooting and even more uncertainty than already existed. After the food bag exhaustion, I’m even less sure that I can make this work. We talked about disappointment versus injury to ego. I know that some measure of ego is wrapped up in this because if I think about stopping (for now), I feel like a failure, but the predominant feeling is just sheer sadness. I finally ended the phone call after hearing a few too many woodland noises in the surrounding darkness. Acorns sound like bears crashing towards me after sundown.
I’m finishing this to the sound of the rushing stream, a persistent chorus of crickets, and the occasional airplane flying overhead.
Mile 1186.6 to mile 1196.5 (9.9)
Total miles: 1010
Creature feature: not much happening today. Just squirrels and the usual bird suspects. I did hear quite a racket a few minutes ago, possibly a new type of owl.