(Please see the previous for the first three days of this hike.)
The last day of any hike is filled with ambiguity for me. I’m dirty and smelly. I usually have bites of some sort all over the place, bites I never felt when receiving them but which evidence themselves in profound itchiness and mysterious bumps in the days that follow. I’m tired. I might be soggy wet. And in the case of this particular trek, I am in pain. I want to get off.
So you hike. Like a horse drawn to oats in a barn, you move forward with a swiftness you did not realize you had remaining in you. Oddly, you are in a bit better condition than you were when you started, and a bit more comfortable with the dirt that layers your skin like onion peels. Just like my limp and its ensuing pain, it has become part of who I am.
We had less than 11 miles to our trail’s end. We were headed for the James River Footbridge, where Antman had left his vehicle. Our trip took us immediately uphill, and Antman disappeared into the morning fog. It was cool and windy, not like the other three days of our hike. I felt my arms sting and numb from the cool, sharp breeze as we climbed the saddles to the last mountaintop. I stopped to put a shirt on and almost immediately had to take it off. I could not seem to get comfortable. I’m not sure if that had to do with the actual temperature or with the fact our hike was ending.
We stopped for a few moments at young Ottie’s grave site (see gallery). Hikers traditionally leave small mementos, usually toys, on Ottie’s grave. This day there were none. We continued on, running ridges for several miles, and passing several scenic overlooks. And then we saw it, the James River. There it was. It seemed so far away.
No time to linger.
Our final descent was almost five miles. It seemed as though it would never end. Descending, for me, is harder than climbing. All of your weight must be precisely balanced. It is stressful on your knees and your toes, especially when it is lengthy and steep. Rock is almost unbearable, but we were fortunate in that most of the trail for this trip was relatively smooth. We proceed down the switchbacks, crossing many streams and small waterfalls. My knee was spent by the time we reached bottom. One final mile, relatively clear and flat, that ran beside a feeder stream. We were almost out of the big green tunnel.
I saw Antman. He said he had come out about 45 minutes ahead of us. I expect he was being polite and had finished a bit earlier than that. Nonetheless, we were grateful to see him. We stripped off our gear, all the things we’d needed to survive for the past four days, placed our packs in large garbage bags and closed ourselves into the small vehicle that would transport us back to our origin.
It is difficult to describe the culture shock that occurs immediately after a hike. Imagine spending several days in relative quiet, with almost no one around you. Most everything is green. There are no vehicles except the ones extending from your hips–called legs. You peel your house and its goods off your back, and sit down in a small box that wheels you in and out of careening traffic for almost an hour. There is honking and swearing, breaking and speeding, lots of concrete. The truck driver is swerving and, as we pass, I look up at him. He’s text messaging someone while driving a semi!
There was no concrete on the trail. No incompetent semi-drivers trying to kill me. Ten minutes ago, I was just surrounded by nature and peace. THIS IS IT??? I WANNA GO BACK!!!!!!
Backpacking trips are as unique as fingerprints. There are commonalities–the sweat, the bugs, the cold, the dirt. Uphills. Downhills. Ticks. Rattlesnakes. But the experiences are what we make of them, as the young thru-hiker so sagely noted to us on our first day of this trip. I like to akin an Appalachian Trail hike to childbirth. As soon as its over, you forget all about that pain—albeit, an epidural might have been handy in the process. There is a sense of peace and simplicity that accompanies the journey. Everything I need is on my back. My chores for the day are: 1) to walk 2) to stay warm 3) to find water 4) to eat and 5) to find shelter. My partner is with me. It is quiet enough to be in touch with my spirit. Nature is my Higher Power.
And so ends my journey for now. I left the trail in peace and anxiously await my return.
Thank you for reading and looking. Happy trails.