Pogo Memorial Campsite [mile 2159.2; SOBO 1140.8]
I love that people memorialize their trail friends with campsites, bridges, monuments… not even counting all the dead people scattered up and down the trail, who probably weren’t all that into hiking but just happened to end up in the neighborhood. When I die, my hiking friends can dedicate a privy to me. Or a bench. A nice flat bench with a roof so hikers can eat lunch in the rain.
I’m kidding, of course. Pogo and the rest of the people immortalized on the trail have dedicated countless hours to it. They richly deserve their memorials, and I’m immeasurably grateful to all of them—and to all the people still working to build and maintain this stretch of magic. That’s why I’m happy to end at the ATC.
So. In the last few days, five people have addressed my overall low daily mileage. The last one is the one that grates: a local gentleman asked how long I’ve been out, and when I told him since March, he gaped.
“You’re a thru-hiker?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes, I am,” I said… and he laughed in my face.
Now, the guy clearly was a jerk. I’d picked that up already. But the implication was that anybody who started in March and is still out here is an idiot.
I don’t feel like an idiot. But I do feel the need to put a couple of things down in pixels, for posterity, as it were—even if it’s just my own posterity.
First, this hike stopped being about numbers a long time ago. It’s been about emotion and honesty (I hope) and exploration, about purging some lingering stuff and learning to be open to new things. It’s been a pilgrimage. I don’t believe we get to choose the shape of our pilgrimages.
Did I want to do a six-month hike? You bet! I was trying for five, expecting six, and prepared for seven. Eight was unexpected. (I don’t count the externally imposed two weeks when I had to wait for a vacancy at Katahdin Streams.)
It turned out that my body’s been more damaged by living than I’d realized. Fifteen years of martial arts: both knees are sore. I move like Frankenstein’s monster (probably not, but it feels that way). Every step on even a slightly bent knee has been painful—and as it turns out, the AT is all mountains! Who knew?
My feet are bad. My lungs are the worst; two decades of smoking. My lung capacity has never improved in eight months; uphill is still slow going.
All that added up to shorter days. After 12 to 15 miles I was cooked. Did I want to do more? You bet! And sometimes I did! But we work with what we’ve got. I’ve never been one to sprint, anyway. I’m more of an ‘outlast’ kind of person.
I’ve been invariably conservative. Hiking alone, I made sure to stop when I was certain I was safe. I could have managed longer days if it hadn’t been for the uncertainty about where I was going to sleep. I also didn’t hitchhike. Both of those issues would have been mitigated or eliminated if I’d been hiking with a partner or a group. But I wasn’t; 2186 miles, solo.
And there were other things. The journaling took time every day (not that I begrudge it, but that’s the reality). After Katahdin, with the time pressure off, I chose a November finish rather than pushing for October. In retrospect, that was a mistake, because I’m LOATHING these last few days of cold.
So, to the guy who asked me the other night why I wasn’t doing 30 miles a day, and to the guy who laughed at me a little while ago, I say: Frak you. It doesn’t matter whether the meat marinates for two hours or two and a quarter; in the end you’ve got the same roast.
OK, now that that’s off my chest, let me tell you about my last Tuesday on the trail!
It was cold!
Seriously, it was cold. I had crazy dreams all night about being cold. I couldn’t warm my hands up this morning at all, and that’s with getting up after dawn. I think it was the wind—hard and biting again, only this time it didn’t die overnight. It stayed windy all day. So even with the bright blue sky and the sun, I never took off my ski mittens or my bizarre collection of hats. Tomorrow I think I’ll bite the bullet and start hiking in my down jacket (my puffy) and possibly my down hood. At this point it can’t hurt, and if I start to sweat I’ll take them off.
Maryland was brutal today: all rocks and climbs. I think the SOBOs got the shaft a little with this stretch. All the uphills were steep and all the downhills were more gradual. The rocks were the same both ways, though. It’s just like Pennsylvania! A couple of times today the trail flattened out. Once I crossed some fields, and at the end of the day the terrain smoothed out a bit.
I’m hoping the mythical easy terrain of Maryland shows up soon. I have no idea how those guys muscle through this in a day.
This afternoon I met a SOBO section hiker. He started a week ago and he’s planning to go all the way to Springer, if he can. He doesn’t feel confident about the Smokies in January, though—and I told him he was wise to be nervous. His name was Broken Candle. I didn’t ask why, but I bet that’s a story! He asked about Shenandoah and bears and some other things, and it made me feel grizzled and experienced to be able to answer. But the most interesting was his pack. He said it weighs 45 to 50 pounds and it’s killing him; he can’t wait to get to Harpers Ferry and drop 10 pounds. I love that we all start the same. We begin with TOO MUCH WEIGHT then send home some insane amount after the first three or five or seven days.
Good luck, Broken Candle!
And to that nasty laughing local guy, who went on to tell me I should be in Harpers Ferry tomorow afternoon… No, jackass. I’ll do 10 a day for the next two days and seven on Friday so I can have a friend there with me at the finish and so I can hit the ATC straight from the trail and celebrate with them a little. Because it’s not about statistics. It’s about life.