by Meghan Lena
When my dad decided to hike from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail for a second time, I couldn't understand why he felt he needed to lace up his boots and hike 2,300 miles again. So, I decided to find out for myself by hiking the 110 miles from Waynesboro, VA to Front Royal, VA in Shenandoah National Park with him. Unlike my brothers, the longest backpacking trip I had ever endured was approximately 20 miles, when I hiked the Routeburn Track in New Zealand almost 10 years ago. But, feeling strong and fit from my recent half marathon training, and having nothing better to do besides binge-watching Nashville (#summervacation), I gathered up exactly 25 pounds worth of critical belongings in my brand new backpack, and set off with my dad from Rockfish Gap.
The first day was a "short" day, only eight miles. Little did I know that by the end of trip, yes, eight miles would, in fact qualify as a short day. The terrain was gradual, and the trail was gentle. I couldn't believe how AMAZING my feet felt. Little did I know how quickly and drastically life below the ankles would change. More on that later.
We stayed the night at a shelter with a ton of other hikers. Luckily, we got there early enough to secure spots in the shelter. I was a little nervous because in the shelter log there was a big announcement from an earlier hiker: CAUTION!! LARGE BLACK SNAKES LIVE UNDER THIS SHELTER!! Dad, the optimist that he is, reminded me that snakes eat mice, so we wouldn't have to worry about rodents. In my world, however, mice > snakes, so yeah, I'll sleep on the top bunk, thank you very much. Can you even call tossing and turning on and ultralight ThermaRest sleeping? Also, did you know that ultra light = ultra thin? Also, how many times can your arms completely fall asleep in one night before you risk permanent damage? Day 1 Takeaways: hiking = awesome; living on the trail... questionable.
The second day on the trail we hiked 13 miles to another shelter. I definitely lost steam close to the end; the last uphill was torture, because at some point in the day, my feet developed about 6 blisters in various locations.
Day 3 we hiked 7 miles from Blackrock hut to a national park campground, where we were able to get a shower, and eat fries and milkshakes from the Wayside. We got a ride down to the Wayside from a ranger and tried to hitch the 1.5 mile uphill walk back to the campground, but nobody would pick us up. My feet were pretty tender at this point, with more blisters popping up in the weirdest of places, including underneath my big toenail, which is apparently a thing that can happen. Who knew.
Okay, so by this point, we're almost 30 miles in. I'm beginning to understand that hiking the AT is the ultimate test of willpower, determination, and strength, and if my feet would just cooperate, I think I could actually get into this... probably not the whole 2,300 miles in one take, but section by section seems doable.
The next day we hiked another 14 miles to Hightop Hut, and this day, my feet are the absolute worst. I don't want to complain, but every. single. step. is excruciating. I wondered if I'd make it. And then I met the world's original ultralight backpacker, an ancient, adorable lady who slept on a foam pad with a fleece blanket and no pillow. Ok, so if she can hike, I can too, right?
Leaving the hut the next morning, we had incredible views from the top of Hightop Mountain and then, after just a few miles of hiking, we came across TRAIL MAGIC! This was amazing: they had everything from sodas and sweet tea to sloppy joes, hummus and veggies (YAY) skittles, bandaids, and camp fuel. We sat and socialized with other hikers and the trail magicians (is that what they're called?) for a bit before heading to another campground, which was an 11.5 mile day. We got another shower and I nursed my feet before calling it a day as the sun went down.
From this campground we hiked a short seven or so miles to another park camp, where we had sodas and SALAD for lunch at the Wayside. We did laundry and had another shower, and the nice lady at the camp store gave me ice for my toe with the blister underneath it, which at this point, was causing some serious swelling. We had a belated Father's Day dinner at the Big Meadows lodge; daughter of the year, right here!
The next morning, we headed out with thunder rolling in, with our goal to get to a shelter 14 miles up the trail. We were about a mile from a sheltered lunch spot when we got caught in the first big rain of the day. We hiked quickly and got under cover before we got too wet. As we ate, we watched a huge thunderstorm bring with it nearly horizontal rain. After lunch we didn't get more than a half hour before another thunderstorm rolled in, absolutely soaking us. The first half hour of the storm was fun and exhilarating. But when the rain didn't stop and the trail became an actual river, it got a little old. After about an hour of heavy rain, it stopped and we were able to pour out puddles from our shoes, wring out socks and shirts, and hit the trail again.
We arrived at the shelter right as the next big storm hit. I nearly ran the last mile, as thunder rumbled in the distance. We had an interesting group of people seeking shelter from the storm at this shelter, and a trail friend had an enviable interaction with a mama bear and two cubs. The next day was our longest; we hiked 18 miles to Gravel Springs Hut. My feet were still a mess, but they were under control well enough to do it. A little "vitamin I" (ibuprofen) really can change your perspective on life. Plus, we got blackberry milkshakes at the last Wayside at Elkwallow Gap, and took a nice long break before trudging on the final six miles of the day.
Our final day on the trail was a 14 miler into the town of Front Royal, Virginia. I pretty much hit my threshold with 5.5 miles left, but Dad listened to me whine and waited while I ate M&Ms to get me through, just like the good old days.
So, 9 days, 110 miles, 15 blisters, 5 thunderstorms, 3 bears, 2 snakes, and countless mountain peaks and gaps later, we arrived in Front Royal, VA.
I have so much respect and admiration for my dad, who is putting himself to the test to complete this trek. I'm sure with the right boots I could do it too.
I was sad to say goodbye and watch my dad trek on. As ready as I was to chuck my boots in a dumpster, give Eric a big hug, and snuggle the cats, there was definitely a part of me that wanted to keep on going. I was warned by a hiker at the beginning of my trip that this would happen. My trail legs were strong, my endurance was peak, and keeping company with my dad was really great. The trail is a really special place. You hike, one step at a time, mile after mile, day after day, and even though I was only there for 110 miles, looking back and seeing what I've accomplished -- what my body is capable of doing -- is incredibly powerful. I'll see my dad again in Massachusetts in six weeks or so, until then: happy hiking; may the trail magic be forever in your favor!
Update: My dad reached the summit of Mount Greylock in Massachusetts this past weekend! I grabbed my 10-year old cousin and we met him for the six mile hike from the summit of the mountain into North Adams. I can’t believe he has “only” 600 or so miles left to go!
Link to photos: https://goo.gl/photos/nqg8vx2TfDcA9qPu8