In Two Photographs, What is the Appalachian Trail?

What is the Appalachian Trail in two photos:

 

The Appalachian Trail is all about the people. Every year, thousands of hopeful thru-hikers flock to the southern terminus of the AT to test their mettle against the brutal ups and downs of life in the Appalachian Mountains. Most of us begin alone before finding what we call our “trail families.” In this photo are Finch, Mountain Goat, and My Shadow who are cuddle together in the corner of a shelter enjoying each others comanionship and warmth as they prepare to remove their jackets and face a cold days hike. I had the great pleasure to hike with these girls for roughly two months.

While the first photo illustrates the warmth and comfort of friends on the trail, this photo displays the trails darker side. It is one of my favorite photographs for this reason. A lone hiker traverses an exposed bald on a dark and gloomy day. The trail tests us in many ways often bringing out our deepest and darkest secrets. On the Appalachian Trail (or any grand adventure) we are forced to face our demons. It is these thoughts we battle more than the mountains or rough terrain. The trail tests the mettle of our minds way more than that of our bodies. Even when we physically hurt, which is often, it is our minds that overcome the pain pushing us ever onward.

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Appalachian Trail: Struggles End with Halfway Arrival

I stand in the woods on the Appalachian Trail staring at a wooden plague nailed to a tree. The West Virginia / Virginia border. “F*** you!!!” I scream staring back across the imaginary line demarking the boundaries of the two states. “I HATE YOU!!!! AHHHHH!!!!!!” I was unaware of the animosity I had for the state of Virginia and underestimated the misery of my mood from the past few weeks.

The day before this emotional outburst, Firecracker and I crossed the thousand mile mark. The impact of walking 1,000 miles hit me harder than I expected. I’ve cycled multiples of this distance twice and nearly this far another time. Walking however; it doesn’t compare. I’ve never worked so hard in my life and I didn’t even know it. When faced with this kind of hardship, we block it out ignoring as much of the pain as we can. We have to. Until, that is, we overcome the obstacle or quit.

 

 

I overcame that obstacle when I stepped over the state line leaving Virginia behind for good. We entered Harpers Ferry not long after, a town known as the psychological halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. Oh boy is it ever that! Emotion rushed into my head with with a euphoria rivaling most other accomplishments. I felt relief more than anything; relieved to have walked half of this tortuous trail. No one can take that from me. I can also put aside thoughts of quitting, at least for now, as I am “over the hump.” I’ve begun planning the second half of the hike and have a greater goal to focus on: the great mountains of the Northeast known as “The Whites.”

As for my problems with Virginia, well, they are more difficult to explain. First of all, Virginia just has this reputation. The state is huge making progress seem to halt. Romantic notions of the trail are also gone by this stage – having left the body through blood, sweat, and tears as the trail breaks us (and our bones) and tears us apart. The “honeymoon” ends. “Virginia blues” is a common expression for these reasons.

Virginia is where I began to struggle. The beginning of the trail was easy for me as I did not face the adjustment challenges that other, less experienced adventure-travelers, faced. I came into the trail with a light(ish) pack — that was actually lighter then than it is now; the reverse of most everyone out here — and relatively strong in body. I was accustomed to physical hardship and the strain of living a homeless lifestyle.

The trail for me fell apart with the end of my trail family. I have always traveled alone. The group mentality was new to me and I fell into it full force loosing sight of my own needs and my budget. I put aside care packages and followed blindly along with my friends. I spent beyond my means on fancy meals and on nights indoors in comforting beds.

With friends and family comes the sharing of pain. In an already painful environment, the inability to shield myself from the pain of my friends sent me home for two weeks. Out here, your own problems are often more than you can stand let alone the problems of others.

Stressed beyond measure and needing a new backpack anyway, I hitchhiked to Washington D.C jumping on the opportunity for a break from the trail. I also needed money and listed my bike for sale on Craigslist. It never sold and I’m not sure I want it to. I bought that bike to cycle South America and I’m not ready for this adventure to kill that one.

Returning to the trail after this brief hiatus was difficult. Only now am I back in the mental flow state necessary to complete this trail. I returned out of shape (if you’re not walking at least ten miles a day, you’re out of shape) and with a ridiculously heavy pack. I don’t know what I was thinking! I know better than this.

But now, entering Harpers Ferry felt like hitting restart. All the burdens of the past month fell away renewing my energy and my spirits. I feel strong and ready to tackle the second half of the trail. My pack has returned to a reasonable weight. I’d even call it light though I’m still carrying this computer. I’ll continue this insane walk north until I either summit the infamous Mt. Katahdin or I die. Which is actually possible. I was nearly bitten by a copperhead a few days ago, stopping just short of the striking snake. It was in a stream and the splashing of its strikes alerted me to its presence.

 

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Firecracker taking a photo of thunderheads building over the mountains. We ate dinner sitting outside the grocery store. Then, we walked into the woods and camped along the road.

 

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Happy Creek Coffee and Tea in Front Royal treated us to a couple free muffins as we were leaving. Thank you!

 

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The Jim and Molly Denton shelter has a horseshoe pit in the front yard! No one would play with me however so I was left to play myself. The shelter also had a solar shower and privy stocked with TP. This is unheard of out here.

 

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The solar shower at the shelter. Water is piped in from a spring and is freezing cold. It’s also not in the sun so not technically a “solar” shower. I did clean myself though and felt wonderful for it.

 

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Volunteers from the PATC are trimming back the trail for us. I turned the corner and stood waiting, with my camera, for them to see me so I could pass by. She posed when she saw the camera! Thanks for your hard work. We certainly appreciate it.

 

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Walking through a field on the Appalachian Trail.

 

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Firecracker loves trains. She was SOO excited to see this one blocking our progress.

 

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Waiting for the train was a good time to eat my pre-made lunch. I’ve been making big batches of barley or pasta and bagging them to eat later. Cheaper and more nutritious than most bars.

 

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Our water filter is setup for gravity filtration. Her head is higher than the ground…

 

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One reason we filter water is to remove sediment. Mmhhhmmm! Crunchy water… The main reason is so we don’t get sick. I had a parasite once… Travelers Disease: When farts turn frightening

 

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Out here, we live in the woods and we bathe in streams.

 

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We play frogger crossing multiple lanes of D.C. traffic. Watching these cars wiz past was memorizing.

 

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A copperhead snake laying along the path to the privy. I noticed him on the way back…  This isn’t the one charged with attempted murder. I met him later in the evening.

 

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It’s 6pm and we are still in the notorious section of trail known as “The Roller Coaster.’ The section is 13.5 miles of steep up and downs. This is the last of my coffee. I saved it for this moment to see me through to the end.

 

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Firecracker making an early dinner as we physically and mentally prepare to push on into the night. We hiked 17 miles stopping at midnight.

 

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Cleaning out the tent in the morning before we walk into Harpers Ferry. Don’t you wish your house was this easy to clean?!? If only it came with hot showers…

 

In Harpers Ferry we had our photos taken for the ATC. We will forever reside in those pages that are, as my Uncle pointed out, the only cross-reference to our trail lives and our real identities.

In that box are my contacts sent by my Aunt and Uncle. Thanks guys! In the last post I pondered what would be worse, pain or blindness. Well, blindness won out when the pain in my right eye became unbearable. I removed the contact and walked for two days unable to see out of my right eye. It certainly made for an interesting walk!

 

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My box came stuffed with extra goodies! Thanks!

 

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And a special thanks to the Bishop family who sent this stash of goods!

 

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Inside the ATC (Appalachian Trail Conservancy) hangs this sign from Mt. Katahdin. This is an original replaced in the 90’s. Seeing it brought tears to my eyes. When I see it again, I will have walked 2,189 miles across the country. Unreal.

 

Plants of the trail:

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Food, Feasting, and COFFEE!!!!

 

Signs of the trail:

 

As for care packages, our next stop is Waynesboro, Pa, but my Mom has already claimed this drop. Thanks Mom!!!! The next city we will stop in is Boiling Springs, Pa just past the official halfway point. Woo!!!

If you would like to send some treats, mail them general delivery to the Boiling Springs Post Office with zipcode of 17007. Write on the box in black sharpie, “Hold for AT hiker Ryan Brown.” As for what to send: snack foods of any kind (bars, nuts, dried fruit, trail mix, chocolate, crackers, cookies, etc.); dried foods; tuna, salmon, and/or chicken packets are most appreciated. The only thing you really shouldn’t send are canned goods and perishable items. Don’t take this as a challenge, but the only thing I can think of that I won’t eat is chicken feet. You wouldn’t send those would you?!?

One more thing, boxes should be mailed PRIORITY. This is most important because boxes shipped this way can be transferred to other post offices. I can call, from wherever I am, and have the box sent somewhere else. Also, let me know you’re sending one (I need to know to pick it up!) so I can thank you!

For a simpler way to contribute use the link below. If Cash is King, Paypal is Treasurer. $1 buys me a pound of pasta, enough food for two dinners; $2.50 – a cup of coffee while I write these posts. If you can smell me through the screen, $5 lets me take a hot shower in town and for $10-$20 I’m sleeping soundly in the softest bed I’ll ever know. Thank you so much!
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And thanks for following along!

Luray to Front Royal: When Things Go Wrong

What’s up everybody. I’m in Front Royal and have completed Shenandoah National Park! While I’m sad to be leaving the beauty of the mountains and the perfectly groomed trails that made for easy walking, leaving the park is a milestone. In 54 miles we’ll be in Harpers Ferry which known as the psychological half-way point. I’m excited and could use a boost to moral. Everything seems to be going so wrong.

Firecracker and I arrived yesterday on the 9:50pm trolley. We picked up Firecracker’s new tent from the post office courtesy of my Mom. She’s now using my old tent that I retired before crossing the Mexican border on my bike last year. It’s heavy and has been around, but will make for a fine, fabric home.

We assembled the tent in the park behind the visitor center and we took a nap. Neither one of us slept well the night before. With a full shelter, we were forced to cram into my tiny, one-person tent. “Get off my hair!” was the conversation of the night along with groans of pain as we kneed and kicked each other.

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Setting up the tents in the park. One is drying. We’re making sure the other is ok. Firecracker’s in there sleeping.

We walked to the grocery store for dinner. Two packs filled the cart with the baby seat holding a rotisserie chicken and a box of rice sides. Leaning against a wall of the store, we feasted tearing into the chicken with a ferocity even the bears of Shenandoah don’t possess. We must have looked homeless judging by the sneers of shoppers or the careful avoidance of eye-contact by others. I can’t say I blame them. I feel more homeless than I’ve ever felt in my life, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Reactions to our journey never cease to amaze me and even in our sorry state we offered many rides to anywhere we may need to go. One guy in particular sticks with me. As I returned to our seats along the wall, after having washed the chicken grease from my hands, arms, and face (my clothes must wait for a washing machine in Harpers Ferry. Can you say, “bear bait?!”), I hear, “Hey man, ya lookin’ like ya’ll been seein’ to many treeees.” He exhales from his e-cig a cloud of vapor that obscures the door I just walked through. “Food coma,” I mutter before sitting down.

Bellies now full to bursting, we address the next need: sleep. I pull out my phone clicking on google maps. The map reveals that the park boundary is near our location and satellite imagery reveals it’s wooded. “Perfect!” We walk to the tree-line along Skyline Drive and find a suitable place to pitch a tent. We stealth camped there last night.

It’s now 4pm and we’re sitting in a coffee shop. Firecracker is reading her book on waves. It alternates behind the science of rogue waves and surfing stories (I know this because she read me a chapter as sat in the tent avoiding a storm). Me? I’m working on this post trying to ignore the pain in my eyes. They ache so bad from old contact lenses I seriously consider going blind. I’m not sure which is worse, pain or a blurry world. The pain, apparently, cause I’m still wearing the lenses…

As for everything going wrong, I’m being dramatic. Not everything is wrong. Only a small serious of disasters that make a person — already tired and sore from walking hundreds of miles yet facing a thousand more — feel like life is conspiring against them.

After the tent fiasco and the missing mail that’s making my eyes ache, the zipper ripped off my tent. My tent stake snapped. My food bag fell off my bear line hitting the ground with enough force to tear the bag in half. I’m covered in poison ivy. Firecracker’s shoes are dead (making her complain a lot :-p). My pant seam split in the butt meaning I can no longer “go commando.” The stitches on my BRAND NEW backpack are pulling out. And to top it all off — and compounding every issue — I’m way under-slept from sleeping in shelters every night with guys like Dozer who get their names from their sleep-shattering snores. AAHHHHH!!!

But worry not dear readers! All will be well after a good nights sleep and a little bit of time. New contacts await me in Harpers Ferry along with new shoes for Firecracker (no more complaining!). Thread will fix my tent and pants; duct tape my food bag. Poison ivy goes away and my backpack might be alright. If not, Gregory or REI will fix or replace it. Mountain views and sunsets have the power to erase all but the most major of problems and like I mentioned last time, I have a bad memory for things like this.

 

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Firecracker says goodbye to her tent. We built a raft and set the burning tent adrift in the lake prior to leaving. Not really, but a good idea. I’m sorry for your loss Miss Firecracker.

 

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We walked a mile out of town after being shuttled to the trailhead by the hostel. We called it an early night at the shelter.

 

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Dozer and Cruzer carry mousetraps. Here, Dozer is baiting the trap with almond butter. A good last meal don’t you think??

 

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Cruiser hands Dozer a dead mouse. They average 3-4 a night and have caught as many as 7.

 

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Firecracker showing off her new blanket. She sent her sleeping bag home in Waynesboro trading it for a Hello Kitty blanket. It wasn’t warm enough. This one? Just right.
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WhiteCap is from Pittsburgh as well. We actually met once. I sold him an MSR Dragonfly on Craigslist. We sat talking for a while afterward. He recognized me when I mentioned Guatemala. Funny running into him!

What we eat on trail:

 

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Pasta with quinoa, butter, tuna, and a packet of pesto seasoning.

 

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Guacamole eaten with bagel and pretzel chips. We made the guac with avocado and pico de gallo. Firecracker carried the avocado for six days before they were ripe enough to eat. She was the talk of the trail…

 

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My food bag exploded (we call it a “yardsale” when this happens) so I organized the food a bit and took a picture.

 

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We found fresh mint near a water source.

 

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Fresh-picked mint flavoring my water on an overlook.

 

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Firecracker reading on a lazy morning in a shelter. Notice the pile of mint on the table.

 

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In the next photos: an interesting beetle on a backpack; a deer abnormally close (parks are notorious for this); a bear in the distance sneaking into our camp that we were just leaving;  AHHH!!!! A BEAR!!!

 

 

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She wouldn’t let me photograph saline solution as it streamed from her nostrils and mouth while using a neti pot. Oh well.  

 

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Leaving the Gravel Springs Hut late in the afternoon.

 

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And I thought I had problems… We found this laying in the shelter written on the back of a hostel’s business card. For the record, I sleep in a tent.
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These bear boxes are more effective than the “bear resistant” poles. We woke one morning to find a bag torn open and hanging empty from the pole. The only danger with these boxes is human error. Make sure it’s closed!

 

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We stop for a long lunch at a Wayside (restaurants in the park). Not only did we see Lady Catherine who I started the hike with in the hiker hostel, but Firecracker bought me ice-cream!!!

 

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Firecracker licks clean a butter wrapper. No Shame, No Maine!!!

 

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We stop and hang out at an overlook.

 

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Firecracker literally “hangs out” at the overlook. Those trees are 50ft down! If only she’d let me post the picture of her peeing off the edge. I’m not joking. Actually peeing. Off the edge!

 

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Looking into the Shenandoah river valley makes the mountains in this range special. I’ll hike this park again.

 

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Me, Kodak, and a white blaze on our way into town.

 

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Thanks for the photo Firecracker! It’s my new favorite.

 

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Hiking into the night so we can catch the 9:50am shuttle into town.

 

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Down climbing these rocks in the dark wasn’t easy. We miss Shenandoah NP already. None of this crap there…

 

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Riding the trolley into town. They added the stop at the trail head this year for the hikers.

 

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My first mail drop!!! Thanks Mom! This should have been my second, but my first package was mishandled after I had it transferred to Luray. Three more days…

 

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Who’s Ryan Brown?!?!

 

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An old building in the historic town of Front Royal.

 

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I’ll try and put the Elkton to Luray post together in Harpers Ferry. We are talking about spending some time there. I have the photos narrowed down from 601 to under 100 though… I take too many photos sometimes 🙂 I’ll work on putting up that donation link some of you have asked about as well. As for care packages, anyone wanting to send us some goodies, or even staples like pasta or barley, shoot me an email and we’ll figure out where to send it!

Take care everybody and happy trails!

 

 

The dog ate your what?!?

Hey, whats up everybody. I have to make this fast because we have a ride out of town in an hour. This section of trail has been incredible. Stormy and wet for a portion — how long, I can’t really say as I forget the bad quickly (a must when adventuring in the wild)  —  but the views have been stunning. I’ll post the photos and writeup in a few days when we get to Front Royal.

Yesterday was one of the most draining days I’ve had on trail (off trail actually). It started out well, really well in fact. We woke at 4:30am and climbed to the top of Hawksbill Mountain to watch the sunrise. It was beautiful of course, but heavy cloud cover from the previous days storms obscured most of the color.

We then hiked 14miles as fast as we could to make it into Luray before the Post Office closed at 4:30pm. The rush was exciting and made me feel like a thru-hiker again. Actually going somewhere and with purpose! It was awesome, but then the world dropped out from under me.

We made it into town with time to spare only to find my package had not arrived. I had it forwarded from Harpers Ferry and someone did not cross out the old barcode. Tracking indicates it left Harpers Ferry only to return days later. Its out there in the world somewhere right now. Hopefully, it will arrive Monday where it will be forwarded, again, to Harpers Ferry.

We walked from the post office to a little hostel. We arrived – tired, starving, and stinking – to find the owner not at home. A guest let us in where we sat talking for an hour before the owner arrived. She said she would drive us to food after she made a shuttle run.

We showered leaving our bags on the bag porch. We planned to camp (we’re poor), but were waiting for a storm to pass to set up our tent. I called my brother. Firecracker went to get something out of her bag.

“Kodak, get your bag off the porch, NOW.”

“I’ll call you back in a minute bro.”

Firecracker comes walking through the house carrying her bag. Her tent is out of the stuff sack and in her hand. I follow suit bringing my stuff to the front porch.

“What happened?”

“The dog ate my tent.”

Earlier, the dog was acting up so the owner put it out on the back porch. It chewed on my hat and, yeah, it shredded her home. The dog was a pain. Soaking wet from the rain, it jumped on us every time we went outside. Not something I wanted to deal with in my condition but, whatever. I like dogs; even bad ones.

The owner of the hostel dealt with the situation as best she could. We were assured immediately that we would be compensated and she let us stay for free (inside in a real bed). Then, this morning, the two worked it out with the owner handing Firecracker cash for the online price of the tent.

As for how to continue, my mom is sending my old tent to Front Royal where we’ll pick it up (hopefully) on Tuesday. We’ll shelter hop and cram in my tiny tent until we get there.

Was this my worst day yet? Probably not, but being tired, STARVING, and so chaffed that even sitting hurt is enough to make even the smallest problem worth going home over. Our group early in the hike adopted HALT as a motto for a reason. Halt and examine your situation: are you Hungry, Anxious or Angry, Lonely, or Tired. If you understand the reason behind overwhelming emotions, they are much easier to handle. It’s incredible how many problems can be solved with food or sleep alone.

Moral of the story? Be vary careful around dogs —— The chair just collapsed on me!!!! It’s time to go. Anyway, don’t give up without careful consideration of your current circumstances. Eat. Chug water. Talk to friends. Call friends and family back home (have trusted people back home that you can rely on to urge you to continue hiking. DO NOT call someone that will welcome you home too quickly).  Sleep. So many problems disappear with food, rest, and sleep. Don’t make quitting a spontaneous decision you’ll later regret.

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Identity Crisis: Ryan or Kodak? Bikepacker or Backpacker?

It is time to resume walking. Two weeks ago, Mountain Goat and I hitchhiked to Washington D.C. taking a break from the Appalachian Trail. Mountain Goat flew to Italy for a few weeks with family while I went to Pittsburgh with my brother. We hung out for a day in D.C. before deciding to drive back to the Burgh. Leaving at midnight wasn’t the best idea. My brother drove for less than an hour before pulling into a lot where we slept in the car until morning.

Being in Pittsburgh was weird. It is my hometown; though, it no longer feels like home. There, I am lost in a former self. Returning home is never easy after a long journey. I struggle every time but, I’ve learned a lot about dealing with post “trail” depression. I’ll write an article on the subject. It will be good for me as well because this trip will not be easy to recover from.

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Our packs lean against the wall of a convienence store as we wait for a ride to the highway.
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Six different rides and a few subway stops saw the two of us into the Nation’s Capital.

Why have I not updated the blog in so long?! Well, now there is a question. I began with the intent to record every day of this Appalachian Trail thru hike, but quickly fell behind. Walking consumes most of my time and the day’s chores consume the rest: eating, setting up camp, hanging bear bags, sleeping. What little time remains, I socialize with friends and I make new ones. The AT is all about the people. Blogging daily is also expensive requiring more time in towns using wifi. My budget is broken.

Then, as I set about to catch up on posts, I became depressed! Looking through photos of the month before I realized that those moments are already memories. It became harder and harder to relive those wonderful moments when everything is so different now. One month ago, we were still in the honeymoon phase of the journey. Everything was fun and exciting. Then, we entered Virginia and the infamous “Virginia Blues” took hold splitting up our trail family and nearly my soul.

Now though, I am ready to finish this thing so I can get back on my bike! I’m enjoying the hike, but travel on a bike is true freedom. Walking requires more planning and just consumes more time.

So, this being said, I am changing the format of the blog. This will no longer be a daily journal of a thru-hike, but random Tales of Wandering from wherever I may be, the Appalachian Trail for now.  Continue reading

Day 35: How We Handle Rain on the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail: Day #35

Bald Mountain Shelter –> Big Bald: -1.2 miles

Total AT Miles: 324.1

Rain drops onto the tin roof as we sleep adding ambient noise that drowns out the twisting, turning, snoring people packed into an Appalachian Trail shelter on a rain day. I wake feeling rested but not ready to face the day.

“Want to zero and watch a movie?!!”

“Duh.”

We lay around the shelter watching the diehards don their wetsuits. They voice their anger at mother nature and curse their ill fortune. The stoic slip silently away into the dreary day.

By evening, the rain has passed and the sky has cleared. Our heads are now fuzzy from a break in routine. It is hard to stay in one place when you are used to moving somewhere new everyday.

Two of our group move on down the trail. The rest of us backtrack to watch the sun set from the top of the bald. I take my pack planning to sleep up there.

The top turns out too cold and windy for a proper nights sleep. I watch the sun sink below the horizon in a dazzling display of stunning colors with my friends. Then, I retreat a bit towards the shelter and a covered rock with a built in fireplace.

Dinner cooks in the coals of a crevice through the rock. The full moon floats above the overhanging boulder. I play with long exposures. Resting the camera on a rock, I set the shutter speed to 30seconds. The two-second self-timer ticks away tripping the shutter. I paint the boulder with my headlamp for ten seconds then I sit beside the fire and flash my face with the camera on my phone freezing my digital, almost ghostly, image.

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Mountain Goat journaling in the shelter while rain falls outside.
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The Big Bald Shelter on a dreary, rainy morning.
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Dr. Kool-Aid’s Zpack tent.
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My TarpTent Moment. It’s been home for ten months now and still going strong.
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Further journaling by Mountain Goat.

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Finch updates her journal as well.
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My Shadow playing in the mud outside the shelter.
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Really glad we’re not walking today…
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Until we do. Hiking to the top of the Bald, Dr. Kool-Aid walks the blazes a little too literally.
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Exiting the forest into the lower bald.
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Someone decided it would be fun to camp on top. Going to be a cold night albeit a beautiful one!
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The sun setting atop Big Bald.

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Cooking rice and beans in the crevice of a rock. 
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A hole in the back creates a perfect fireplace acting as chimney to draw away the smoke.

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Sitting beside the fire after dinner playing with long exposures. I really wish I had a tripod!
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The full moon behind the rock ledge where I sleep.