Emotional and physical ups and downs superseded the ups and downs of the trail today. From the outset my nutritional imbalance was evident. Without the good “town food” breakfast, I quickly noticed a diminished energy level. Even though I stopped and ate three times before noon, my pace was very slow. I attributed the slow hiking to both the long, hard day yesterday and to the lack of nutrients. Still I plodded along, early in the company of 20 something Nick (Shrek) and 66 year young All the Way. We hiked off and on together until just past the first road crossing. After that they pulled away.
Maybe it simply was due to my nutrition, but emotionally I just wasn’t in to hiking today. Even with some nice nearly level stretches, the hike was more drudgery than it was enjoyable. There was no gittyup in my stride. I merely plodded all day. Since views were minimal, I watched my feet to ensure I didn’t trip on a rock or root. I drank often to at least stay hydrated. I rested more than on other days as well.
After about 11 miles, when I was approaching my low point of the day emotionally, I spotted a southbound hiker walking toward me carrying a bucket. “I’ve never seen a hiker carrying a bucket,” I commented. “Well, you have now,” replied Animal, a 2012 thru hiker whose journal I had read. Animal had carried the same bucket every step of his hike last year. He said it contained hiking supplies. When I told him I was dragging today, he gave me some advice based on his experience. “Listen to your body,” Animal advised. “It will tell you what to do.” After a 23.0 mile day yesterday and a 21.7 today, both with full packs, I think it’s trying to tell me something.
Within five minutes of meeting Animal, another southbound hiker came into view. Pulling out a small spiral notebook and pen, seemingly before he even stopped, the older gentleman immediately asked my trail name. He wore a T-shirt with a large letter “B” over the word “Wrestling.” Identifying himself as the Coach of Pennsylvania, Randy quickly gave me a brief history of his collegiate wrestling background as well as his coaching accomplishments. He hikes a portion of the AT every year just to, in his words, “offer motivation” to the would be thru hikers. Was his timing ever accurate for my day! Before I finally broke away to hike on up the trail, the coach drew a symbol in the dirt, explaining how the hike and life revolve around joy and hope. I almost choked up as I told Randy about my Hike of Hope. The coach was certainly at the right place, at the right time today. It was a pleasure meeting and talking to Randy.
After our chat I seemed to have more enthusiasm even though my pace still lagged. At one point during the final two miles, I walked into a large, overhanging tree limb which about knocked me down. Stunned from the unsuspecting collision, I just stood and stared in the opposite direction for a couple of minutes. It wasn’t the first, and probably won’t be the last time I walk into a limb. Then within the next few minutes I heard rustling just to the left of me. As I looked down the side of the mountain a young bear was scampering away. When he paused to look back in my direction, I tried to zoom in for a picture, but he blended in too well with the trees. It took me almost 600 miles to see my first bear of the thru hike. I sure hope there’s another bear in my vicinity real soon.
The last one-half mile of today’s hike travelled a gravel road down to US 52 near Bland, VA. As I reached the highway I phoned a local shuttler, Bubba, for a ride to the only motel in town. It’s actually just off an I-77 exit. After checking in and showering, I walked across the road to a Dairy Queen for some much needed food. It’s amazing how much better the body and soul will feel after some hot food, even if it is fast food.
Today was a difficult one on the trail. At times I asked myself if I would rather be working in the real world. Remembering that restaurants are plentiful in that other world, I almost said yes. While contemplating the differences, I began singing the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t always get what you want.” I didn’t have the best of hiking days today, but “sometimes we get what we need.” I walked on and I learned. And through it all I thought about my brother. He walked with me today in a profound spiritual sense. I needed Don today. But more importantly I needed to remember that above all, in good times and not so good, that I was in the place that my brother loved. Yes, without a doubt, …….Don loved the woods.