A Story from 10 Years Ago

When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail 10 years ago, I wrote periodic updates for the website GORP.com. Those updates are now available on Trailjournals.com. Below is my update from August 26. It descibes my day on the trail for August 19--one of the best days I had in the six months I was hiking. I've added some links for those who are interested. Enjoy the story!

(Writing from Bascom Lodge, Mt. Greylock, August 2000)

This morning, I left Vermont and entered Massachusetts, my fourth state on the AT. I also passed the 600-mile mark. Today marked a series of milestones, but the entire state of Vermont marked an important physical and mental transition in my thru-hike. I'm hiking more and faster miles each day, and I'm feeling more and more comfortable with trail life. Vermont was also a special time of reunions with good friends. Not only was I able to spend some time with Mudbug (a northbound friend from Louisiana) and Datto (a northbound friend from AT-L), but I also got to visit with my northbound friends Belcher and Swamp Eagle, and with my fellow GORP.com hiker, Nimblewill Nomad. New Hampshire was tough, and it seems that my Vermont experience--with its nice weather, gentle trails, good friends, and lovely views--was the reward for surviving the Whites.

At first, Vermont was as rainy as the Whites had been. At 5:00 a.m. on August 16, I was awakened by a huge crash of lightning, which was followed by two solid hours of hard rain. I lay in my tent, imagining I was a wounded prisoner at the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace , listening to the fighting outside. I fell asleep with images of battle in my head; when I woke up again, the battle was over. The world was still and quiet, and the bottom of my tent was submerged in a huge puddle of water.

Despite the day's beginning, I had a good day hiking. The trail was a never-ending series of rivulets from the storm. As I walked that day, I found myself in constant wonder at the magic the storm had brought to the Appalachian Trail. Is there anything more beautiful than water flowing over rock? Or the way the sun reflects off wet leaves? Or the way the mist makes the forest seem like an enchanted place? Is there anything more sublime than seeing the sun in the sky, or spotting a patch of blue among the clouds? I walked with a continuous sense of awe at all the motion and loveliness surrounding me.

It's all so simple, I thought to myself. Life out here is so simple. I just hope that, when I return to the "real world," I don't cease to be amazed and moved by the small miracles that occur every day.

The more I hike, the more I realize how easy it is to be happy out here--despite the rain, despite the mud, despite the intense loneliness I've experienced throughout Vermont without Isis and jackrabbit.

It's weird. It's as if I have two levels of emotion. The surface level is the level that gets frustrated, irritable, scared, and depressed, all in reaction to the many punches that the AT throws at me each day. Then there is the deeper level. That deeper level is like a flowing stream, singing and rushing along with unstoppable joy. And at the same time, that sense of joy is as constant, steady, and strong as Katahdin. Even my lowest moments on the trail can't affect that sense of hope and happiness that is constantly mine as I hike.

As a result, nothing can bring me down for long. Each new day has promise. And the weather matters less and less. Still, I've been thrilled to experience the wonderful weather we've had throughout Vermont. The sun is beautiful, and its warmth and light do a lot to restore the spirit of the rain-weary thru-hiker.

The experience of nature's beauty is a big part of thru-hiking for me, but it's not the only part. Another big part is the people, and Vermont was a state in which I visited with old friends and made new ones.

The afternoon of August 18, I settled down at Minerva Hinchey Shelter after a relatively short hiking day. I was stuffed from a late lunch at the Whistle Stop Cafe in N. Clarendon, so I decided I wouldn't hike the 15 miles I'd planned that morning.

A few hours later, several northbounders arrived at the shelter for the night. I asked them the same question I've asked every northbounder since Maine.

"Do you know Belcher?" I blurted, referring to a good friend of mine who is hiking northbound. The two of us had talked for the past year about meeting on the trail.

"Yeah, she's a few hours behind us," they responded. "She and Puck (her hiking partner) had to go into Wallingford. They'll probably camp by the road tonight."

I was going to see my long lost friend, Belcher, the next morning! I couldn't wait!

The next morning, I was up bright and early, and I hit the trail at 7:30. I raced the three miles to the road where Belcher would be camped. I knew she would be asleep, and I planned to wake her up by pretending I was a crazed fan who was addicted to her journal on Trailplace.com.

"Belcha!" I would whine in a nasal voice. "Belcha! I'm your biggest fan! Can I have your autograph?" It makes me giggle just to think about it.

When I got to the road, I found a note that Belcher had written the night before. "Waterfall," it said, "Puck and I had to go into town. We'll either go to the next shelter if we have time, or camp by the road. See you soon!"

I looked. No tent. And they hadn't been at the shelter. They must've stayed in town. I looked at my watch. 9:00. They should be back any minute. I sat down to wait.

So I waited. My hopes went up each time I heard a car, but they were dashed when the vehicle would pass without slowing down or depositing Belcher and Puck at my feet. I got more and more depressed. What if they haven't even woken up yet? What if they were enjoying a long, leisurely breakfast while I waited here, eating stale gorp, watching the rain clouds gather above my head?

Finally, an hour and a half later, I gave up. I wrote Belcher a note that I was hiking on, and I started to hike south. Each time I heard a car approaching on the road, I would stop, hoping it would slow down at the trail. But no cars stopped. I finally hiked up and over the hill, my heart heavy. I had looked forward to seeing Belcher for so long, but I needed to keep hiking.

I reached a side trail to the White Rocks Cliff overlook, but I kept moving. I was too depressed to stop.

Several miles later, I saw a familiar northbound hiker round a bend in the trail.

"SWAMP EAGLE!" I yelled.

"NINA!" he yelled back.

What a much-needed surprise! I had met Chuck "Swamp Eagle" Wilson, a Key West-to-Canada hiker, while hiking the Pinhoti Trail in April. I'd nearly drowned in a flash flood the night before, and he'd found me on the side of a hill, huddled under the makeshift emergency shelter I'd built in an effort to protect myself from unceasing rains and temps in the 30s. I had been looking forward to seeing him on the AT, but I didn't realize we were so close.

We chatted awhile, and Swamp Eagle invited me to have dinner that evening with him and his wife Betty ("Honeycomb"), and to stay at their RV that night. I would hike 10 more miles to the next road, and he would call Honeycomb on his cell phone and have her meet me there.

With my spirits lifted, I began hiking down the trail again. A few minutes later, I was overtaken by a southbounder named Easy Rider.

"Hey Waterfall, I met your friend!" he said.

"Swamp Eagle?"

"No, Belcher."

"Belcher?" I was flabbergasted. (Well, not really, but I love using the word"flabbergasted" in my writing, and I don't often get to do that at my technical writing job at IEM!).

"Yeah, she ran up the mountain to White Rocks Cliff overlook. She thought you'd be there."

"Sh*t," I yelled. "I can't believe it."

"They got to the road about 45 minutes after you left," he said. "She was so upset that she missed you."

Easy Rider and I hiked together for a few minutes, and I rationalized aloud that, if I had taken the side trail, I probably would have missed Swamp Eagle. "You can't win 'em all, I guess."

But maybe you can.

Easy Rider hiked ahead, and I was soon overtaken by two more southbounders, Firebreather and Fall Girl.

"We met your friend," they said.

"Yeah, Easy Rider saw Belcher too." I replied, dejected.

"No, we saw Swamp Eagle. We told him about Belcher, and he started running down the trail to catch her so she can meet you for dinner tonight."

My spirits soared! Swamp Eagle, I am convinced, is part-human, part-angel. He appeared on the Pinhoti when I most needed help, and now he was chasing down Belcher for me.

I hiked with Firebreather and Fall Girl until we reached the road, and they went on down the trail while I sat to wait for Honeycomb. Several minutes later, a southbounder named Shepherd emerged from the woods.

"Hi Waterfall," he said, his Tennessee accent strong. "There's someone behind me who's been trying to catch up with you all afternoon."

"Huh?" It couldn't be Swamp Eagle, and Belcher had headed back north after missing me at the side trail. "Who is it?"

"Just wait--you'll see," Shepherd drawled with a grin.

Totally confused, I looked expectantly at the trail. Soon, a man with a long grey beard emerged from the trail.

"Nimblewill Nomad, this is Waterfall," said Shepherd."Waterfall, this is Nimblewill Nomad."

Nimblewill Nomad! We hugged as if we were old friends. I felt like we were, since we've corresponded by email numerous times and have read each others' hiking journals.

As it turned out, Swamp Eagle had met Nomad on the trail and invited him to dinner as well. Nomad and I talked about our hikes as we waited by the road, and Honeycomb soon showed up in her "Key West to Canada Support Vehicle." She informed me that Swamp Eagle had finally caught up with Belcher, and that the two were waiting to meet us at the Whistle Stop in North Clarendon.

An hour later, the five of us were sitting at a small feast, talking and laughing as if we'd known each other for years. What a change from that morning! I'd been crying and depressed that morning, and Belcher actually had streaks of dirt on her face from crying. Now, we were all together, happy, well-fed, and surrounded by friends.

What a coincidence that the four of us would be within several miles of each other on the AT today. But that's the way the AT is--numerous thru-hikers have reported that happy coincidences like this occur all the time out here. So many of us feel as if we are being led somehow, and not just by white blazes. There's something guiding us, and our job is to walk, and to listen to our intuition in order to better sense whatever it is that's leading us. The more I follow my intuition, and the less I mentally struggle against the rain, mud, loneliness, and difficult sections of trail, the more I find that happy coincidences occur, and the stronger that river of hope and joy inside me flows. I wish I could express these experiences and feelings more succinctly, but this update has already gone on too long, and I'm tired. This is all I can say for now: physically, I feel stronger than ever. Mentally, I'm feeling more and more prepared for the punches the trail has in store for me over the next four months. All I need to do is listen, walk, and wait for the magic to happen.

~ Waterfall


Crawdaddy79 said…
This is a much better read than 50 Hikes in Louisiana. And free too!

I'm flabbergasted at how well written and powerful some of these paragraphs are.
eArThworm said…
You know....the shelves of A.T.-memoir books still have room for one more. Jus' sayin'...
Waterfall said…
Jonathan: My goal in life is to flabbergast you.

eArThworm: I'm finding that The Barefoot Sisters' books are a great way to read about my own hike!
I am so glad you are writing again! good for you! :-D

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