I promised myself when I began the Trail and this blog that I wouldn't sugar coat my experience--I'd paint an accurate picture of life out here. It isn't easy to share the hard parts, though. (Now, having had an hour's rest, I can also say what a beautiful challenge for a writer: conveying trials without aggrandizing them or whining).
As you've probably guessed from the above, I've had a rough go since returning to the Trail. My time off, both in DC and in Charlottesville, was fantastic. I was able to connect on a deep level with friends in the city, but also able to let loose and relax; I enjoyed the celebration of my little sister's graduation, yet also shared quiet moments with each family member. I was lucky to have that time, but I also started to get used to the comforts of the world. I needed to relearn my hiking routine, filled with blowing up my mattress each evening and no longer requiring a hot shower to greet the day. I can't finish my own meal, look around at the others' dishes and hope I'll get their leftovers. Really, none of that had changed, but I needed to embrace that lifestyle again.
Last time I came back from a trail vacation, I was joined by my cousin and had company to look forward to. As I left my parents on the side of a road in PA, it was a struggle not to look back--I hiked quickly simply to put distance between myself and that goodbye. I knew that these next few days would be lonely until I found a fellow hiker to join me.
Still, none of that would be so bad if it wasn't for the worst part: the Pennsylvania Rocks. Everyone warns you that PA is rocky and difficult, but I didn't expect it to take such a toll on me. It is truly amazing how nature has pushed every single rock to have a point facing the sky. Carefully treading through the maze of spikes hasn't necessarily slowed me down (I've still been able to accomplish some large days) but it has worn me out. Instead of having my natural gait and pace, I have to dance across the tops of boulders. I'm unable to zone out or reflect because the technical difficulty of the trail requires my full attention--so I feel each mile go by throughout the day. Each wrong steps brings pain either with a stubbed toe or sore sole. The rocks have done a number not just on my feet, but have destroyed the treading on my boots and even snapped one of my hiking poles! Even the views are rocky (see picture above). Of course, PA doesn't just offer stone hopping, daily rains, snakes, and ticks have all done their part to welcome me back to the AT.
Yesterday, about midday when I was feeling particularly low, I ran into two hikers I knew from earlier on, Digger and Phat Sister. We had a nice reunion and decided to hike together for the day, before they were getting off trail for a Zero. Their company lifted my spirits, until I found myself unable to keep up. Unphased by the boulder hopping, they were somehow speeding up in the rock patches instead of carefully placing their feet. They called it "controlled falling" and used their momentum to fly by. Before this, I had never really struggled to keep up with someone before, so falling behind was a mental blow on top of my physical weariness. They did admit to hiking more quickly to try to impress me, so it seems we all have some insecurities about our relative speeds.
Eventually, I realized that the very thing that allowed me to be so successful on other parts of the trail was holding me back here; my reliance on hiking poles limited me from trusting my own footwork. The AT clearly packed a few lessons into these moments: remembering that this journey is neither a race nor competition and I shouldn't find value in my comparison to others, as well as recognizing that becoming too reliant on any one thing will limit my flexibility in new situations. There's a philosophical idea that if man has a "why," we can endure pain more easily. I found that to be true; these lessons sustained me for a bit...until I stubbed my toe again and frustration took the reins.
It's not all bad, I enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and today there was almost no rain. I can't say that I've enjoyed PA, but I certainly will remember it for the challenge. And I did manage to score some awesome Trail Magic in my last town, so the people are at least fantastic. In two days, I'll be in New Jersey and one state closer to Katahdin!