Back to Civilization!


Last week, I returned from a six-day trip on a 60 mile section of the Appalachian Trail. We hiked from Front Royal, VA through the northern part of the Shenandoah National Park, finishing our section at Lewis Mountain campground. On the map, this shows about 56 miles, but that doesn’t include 0.3 miles down to a spring and back up again, 0.1 off the trail to the shelter here or there, and so on. So we’re rounding up for those last 4 miles, and our boots agree.

I’ve written an eleven page “story” of this trip, but it is mostly funny only to those who were on it. So, like The Princess Bride, I share with you “the good parts version.”

After only about 2 hours of sleep (due to rude neighbors), we started on our journey. First, parking the van at Lewis Mountain for the week, and taking a shuttle up to Front Royal. Aside from being crammed in a very tiny car, the moment of note was when Mike, the shuttle driver told us “Yeah, I really doubt you guys will see any bears at all.”

Whew. What a relief!

My pack weighed almost exactly 45 lbs with all water and food loaded on it. The chafing on my shoulders was killing me by the middle of the first day. And after a break, I tested out my flailing optimism by saying “I love how much better it feels after I take a break from the pack. It doesn’t hurt when I put it back on!”, to which one of the more experienced hikers, Duct Tape, replied, “Yeah, it gives you hope for the next 500 feet.”

What, you don’t think Duct Tape is her real name? It is her trailname, which is a fun part of the AT experience. Because I’m a rookie, I didn’t get my trailname until day 3.

My trailname is “Tank”! I like it. I like it because it makes me think of a good guy from the Matrix, it makes me think of Tank Girl, and because it suits my style. I just keep on going. I might be slow, I might be a little lumbering or awkward. But nothing gets in my way, dammit. I think it is not only my hiking style, but also my running and racing style, possibly my biking style, and for sure my “balls to the wall” way of going about things in general. I am a Tank.

I didn’t really bring any skills to the hike, at least not specifically hiking skills. What I did bring was endurance training experience in the heat and humidity. I drink habitually, thirsty or not, so I was able to remind others to do the same. Also I can spot in myself and others when calories are called for. On a sillier note, I was also willing to go first in the face of something scary (past the growling bear we woke, past where the timber rattler might be) – very Tank-like, don’t you think?

I’ve already briefly introduced Duct Tape. Let me do a better job of that. She’s a high school English teacher who worked in the corporate world for a while before deciding to teach. She has taught backpacking classes in the past, and knows medicinal and functional uses for duct tape that would boggle your mind. She’s also very kind, upbeat and positive, and unstoppable. She was the bear-bag hanger, the fire starter, the duct tape queen, and the first to lend a hand when someone needed it. She could tie ropes really well, and she could remember the map without getting it out.

The other rookie on the trail (besides me) was Butterfly. Her trailname should tell you she’s going through a big transformation right now. This makes me think of that quote from Richard Bach: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly.” She owns a business where she and her mom upcycle used materials to make handbags. I think Butterfly is my new hero in terms of knowing how to best take care of herself and speaking her truth. I tend to suck it up and soldier on, even when I shouldn’t. I could learn from her example in a lot of ways.

The other pros were Blue Sky and Choir Girl. They had done 40 miles of the AT in Maryland a few years ago. I think more than anyone, they knew what they were getting themselves into.

Blue Sky got her trailname from the translation of her real name, and it suits her. Another HS English teacher, Blue Sky is just as sunny and bright as that name evokes. She was also the pace-setter, the fastest hiker, the fastest at setting up camp and tearing it back down. She was also the most social of us, delighted to strike up conversations with other hikers on the trail. This was an important part of the AT experience, and one I’d have missed out on given my “smile and nod and quietly pass” habits.

Choir Girl was our fearless leader. Like Duct Tape, had the map-memory skill as well, and most of all she understood the logistics of hiking. The logistics of planning and pulling off this huge adventure, the mix of people, the plan – including adjusting the plan on the fly as need arose, which is probably an even greater skill than the initial planning. As ever, she is also the most in tune with moods of people around her, and always there with a song on the trail or just someone to talk to.

There are so many stories I can relate from this trip. I think this is going to have to be broken up into a number of posts.

“Psst! Hey kid, I’ll pay you five whole dollars to carry my pack.”

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3 thoughts on “Back to Civilization!

  1. I so enjoyed this post! I'm wondering… when I was about 18, I hiked up in the White Mountains for a weekend. It was just so beautiful up there. I felt like John Belushi in Continental Divide – I didn't want to go home. And my first day home, I cried while driving to school, looking at all the asphalt. I just wanted to be back in nature.

    Did you have a similar feeling? Or were you happy to get back to real plumbing, windows with screens, and electricity? I'm happy now, but I really miss the beauty.

    I look forward to future stories about your hike.

  2. NewEngland, Sorry I haven't updated more. I've got the story about the bears that really does warrant its own post, as well as a couple of other tales that should be told from this adventure. Hopefully, I can get them all posted before we go on the next one!

    I think the best answer to your question is that I always feel that tug back to nature, just as every time I'm in the wild, I yearn for a hot shower. I grew up in the country – a rambling State Park in Ohio was my backyard. When I moved to an urban area (and I live in the city, not the 'burbs), I had to reconcile this part of myself that is a country girl.

    I have to reconcile the part of myself that is very much a city dweller. I love the energy and the diversity and the thrum of the city just as much as I love the solitude and peace of nature.

    For me, this is about striking a balance. I can live happily in the city as long as I can occasionally get far enough away from the lights to see the stars.

  3. Pingback: Step-by-Step: Climbing 2014 | . A.K. Anderson

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