Yesterday, Dick reached Erwin, Tennessee, and completed his first month on the Appalachian Trail. He has walked 358 miles. His feet are following a predictable pattern of pain. For the first hour, they are relatively comfortable, but for the next three or four hours the pain is excruciating. He suspects he has a neuroma in both feet now. For the rest of the day, they're numb. As soon as he gets to a shelter or pitches his tent for the night, he takes off his boots and puts on his sandalsóthe kind with the air bubbles in the foot bed. Several more hikers have decided to call it quits. Mothball is headed for home.
Dick has modified his trail name. Details below.
Dick arrived in Erwin before my package! Can't blame the post office; I simply didn't mail the box early enough, even with Priority Mail. Apparently, this isn't the first time a hiker has faced this dilemma. Dick simply made filled out a "forward mail" card at the post office, noting that his next mail drop would be Damascus, Virginia. In the meantime, I mailed another package to Damascus. This box included three zip-bags of gorp. Dick is fine-tuning his estimate of how much of it he needs for a week.
Nearly 500 miles, the portion of the trail that goes through Virginia constitutes 25% of the AT, the longest stretch in one state. Dick will get to see the beauty of my home state, though I grew up in the Tidewater area, far from the mountains.
As he did in Hot Springs, Dick telephoned at night and then again the following morning. I find that plan ideal. On the first call, I invariably forget half the things I want to tell him and sometimes the list of questions I want to ask isn't readily available. Knowing that he'll call me again in the morning solves all that. Besides, I like hearing his voice.
Earlier this past week, Dick and Rick Rocks said good-bye to Mothball. They left him on the side of the road near Ashville, North Carolina, where he hoped to hitchhike to town and hop a bus or a train headed back to Pensacola. He gave Dick his email address so I can make sure he receives these reports. That way, he'll hike in spirit with Dick and Rick Rocks all the way to Katahdin.
Katahdin is still months away, but next week, Dick and Rick should reach Damascus, Virginia, 116 miles from their present location. They'll be there just in time for "Trail Days," a three-day festival complete with a parade and a talent show. The stars are the hundreds of current and former thruhikers. I'll bet they've got stories to tell!
Speaking of stories, Dick told me about a man from Germany who is making a video while he hikes. If I understood Dick correctly, the man hiked the trail last year in three-and-a-half months. When he was finished, he looked for a video that gave an accurate portrayal of what it's like to hike the AT. When he couldn't find one, he decided to make one himself, which, of course, meant he'd have to hike the AT again. Apparently, the videos this man viewed all depicted the experience as one long walk through flower-filled meadows and sun-dappled forests, beside crystal waterfalls and babbling brooks. Nowhere did he see images of hungry, bone-weary hikers weighed down with fifty pounds of supplies on their backs, trudging through the heat, sweat dripping into their eyes, or mushing on blistered feet through ankle-deep mud while fighting blinding sheets of rain, or packed elbow to elbow in mouse-infested shelters. (Now there's a video that'll cut down the AT traffic!) To compensate for the weight of the video camera, he's carrying a twenty-pound pack, enough food for only two or three days, and a tarp. I suspect he is also carrying a vision: that while the hardships of the trail are true and plentiful, it is in facing those challenges that each hiker finds the hero within. Well, that would be my vision.
Dick told me about a man from Massachusetts who is hiking between twenty and twenty-five miles a day. That's a lot of miles to cover. But the man doesn't have to carry a heavy pack and he doesn't have to cook. His wife drives ahead of him in a van; they meet at the end of each day. She cooks; he sleeps in the van. That's definitely a team approach to hiking the AT.
Reminds me of a weekend vacation Dick and I took last year. I had put my name in one of those sweepstakes drop boxes in a department store and, lucky person that I am, won a two-night stay at an inn near Mount Washington, NH. Dick had often talked about hiking Mount Washington and here was his chance. I, wanting to share the adventure but not wanting to hike, told him I'd drive up and meet him at the summit. You see, half of all the cars in New England (a slight exaggeration) sport a bumper sticker that reads, "This car climbed Mount Washington." I had seen all the cautionary warnings about narrow roads, hairpin turns, and the absence of guard rails. But, I reasoned that if that many people had managed the drive, I could too. Did you know that when fear makes you grip the steering wheel, your knuckles really do turn white?
I did eventually make it to the top. So did a number of AT thruhikers. While Dick and I ate lunch in the cafeteria, we struck up a conversation with a young man whose trail name was "Easy." He was from New Orleans. He sat with us for over an hour, answering Dick's endless questions: What equipment do you recommend? How long will a pair of boots last? How do you get your food? How much water do you carry? Dick's dream to hike the AT had been planted at least a year before, but it was that afternoon that I watched it take hold. Perhaps he was influenced by the feeling conveyed in the young man's name: "Easy."
And speaking of names, Dick has made a slight modification to the name given him at the outset of the hike. Instead of "Every Hiker's Dream," he's going by "Doing Every Hiker's Dream." When he reaches Mount Katahdin, he'll sign the book as "Did Every Hiker's Dream."
You'll notice I didn't say "If he reaches Katahdin ... "
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Rand McNally Road Atlas of the USA
Thich Nhat Hanh
The Long Road Turns to Joy: A walking guide to meditation
Walking the Appalachian Trail