Everyday it's a constant mental battle to be able to get up not knowing what's going to happen and not having a day that's so easy you feel as if you're not trying at all. Most days you wake up tired, hungry, and not wanting to hike at all, knowing you're just going to have to do it again tomorrow, but you do it anyway. Why do it day after day? That's what I set out to find out on this hike.
I've been racking my brain to figure out why I do it everyday. What keeps me going when others have decided to go home and not put their bodies and minds through the stresses of the day to day life on the trail? It's been 856.5 miles and I still can't say exactly why I'm still hiking. Part of it might be that I decided to do this for school and feel the need to finish to get the credit, but I don't think that's it entirely. Part of it could be that I told so many people that I feel I have to finish to prove to them I can do it, but that's not it as well. One person I talked to said that they hate hiking, but they finished their thru-hike because they had to prove to themself that they could actually complete something they set out to do. I can relate to that feeling, but I don't hate hiking enough to entirely feel that way.
The other day, as I was crossing the James River Bridge, someone asked me why I'm hiking the trail. I couldn't think of anything eloquent to say and after a few "ums and ahhs" the best response I could come up with was, "I lived in a small town before this and it didn't take much to move to hiking in the woods alone all day." I don't even know what that means. I know I enjoy my solitude more than large crowds, but my response didn't really seem good enough even for me. I had to laugh at my loss for words when asked the exact same question I plan on asking others. I've asked myself countless times why I'm out here, especially during tough parts of a hike. Why am I putting myself through this? I chose to do this and I can choose not to. Why wouldn't I just stop when it got hard?
I've found that I can do a whole lot more than I ever though possible. One of the toughest days was my run into Damascus with Early Bird. We did 37 miles in 10 hours and when we got to town I could barely move, but I kept picking up my legs, step after step, as much as they hurt, and when I thought I couldn't walk anymore I kept going. Since then, when things get tough, I think back to that day, and I realize I haven't come close to hitting my physical and mental limit. Maybe not having an answer to why I'm hiking isn't a bad thing. The good thing about it is that I haven't found a reason to quit yet. That, at this moment in time, is the best answer I can give. As hard as things get, as miserable as I feel, as many things that can and have gone wrong, I still haven't found a reason to quit and for now that is what keeps me going.
Something else that has come up recently is the question of what defines a thru-hike. Some, known as "purists", would say you're only a thru-hiker if you see every white blaze on the trail. I've already become a long distance section hiker in the eyes of a purist. On the other side of the argument are blue blazers.
These are people that will stray off the trail on one of the hundreds of blue blazed trails. These trails may lead to a view and then loop back to the AT, skipping part of the trail. The blue blazes sometimes take you all the way to the top of a mountain when the AT only skirts the peak. Sometimes the blue blazes are there for inclement weather when the AT might be dangerous, like during a lightning storm if the trail goes over a peak, for example. Blue blazes are there for any number of reasons, sometimes they're worth the diversion from the white blazes, sometimes they're not. You never know unless you take them.
I started out the trail a purist. I was determined to not miss a single white blaze, otherwise I felt I wouldn't have completed an actual thru-hike. It wasn't long before I realized that I couldn't always be that rigid. I began to think about one of the best pieces of advice I heard before starting the trail. A former thru-hiker told 2-Step and I that its good to plan out everything and figure out an itinerary, but when you get to the trail head throw the itinerary away, because everyday brings something new that you can't plan for. I thought I understood that, but I've found that it's hard for me to adjust plans I've made already when situations demand a change.
I've had to learn how to adapt to changing situations on the trail more than any other time in my life. 2-Step is much better at thinking on her feet than I am and since she's leaving the trail in Harpers Ferry I look at the second half of my hike as an opportunity to fully learn how to adapt to changing situations on my own. This also parallels how I've changed my definition of a thru-hike.
I started out thinking I had to do this, or I had to do that, or it wouldn't count. I felt guilty when I yellow blazed (getting a ride in car to skip a section of the trail) a section I've hiked before in order to be able to do the 37-mile run to Damascus with my buddy Early Bird. Afterwards, I was so excited that I had taken that opportunity. I didn't feel I had achieved anything less by yellow blazing that section, I had just done things a little differently than other hikers.
It's been a few hundred miles since then and 2-Step and I have taken a few blue blazes and missed a few white blazes here and there. We feel we haven't experienced anything less than a purist. So when the opportunity to aquablaze (taking a canoe down the Shenandoah River, which parallels the AT for a few miles) came along, 2-Step and I were intrigued. Granted, if 2-Step wasn't with me I might not have considered aquablazing as seriously. We are in this together until Harpers Ferry and we figured this would be a fun way to end her section of the trail. We'll be canoeing for a week and it will be the equivalent of about 160 trail miles. Maybe this disqualifies me as a thru-hiker, maybe it doesn't.
People come out here for different reasons, but one of the main reasons I've heard is for an outdoor adventure. When it feels more like a job than an adventure, you might as well go home and work for money. Since we've been dealing with the "Virginia Blues," 2-Step and I couldn't think of a better way to re-enliven our sense of adventure than to aquablaze. Never having gone on an overnight canoe trip before, we don't know what to expect and that feeling couldn't be more exciting.
I've definitely strayed from my original idea of what this hike would be. I can't say I regret any of the choices so far. 2-Step and I have both learned so much about each other, about how to rely on each other in stressful situations, and about ourselves as well. You can make the trail whatever you want it to be and with all the different people on the trail, there are a lot of different hikes happening all at once. So get out there, have an adventure, have fun, and as people on the trail like to say, "hike your own hike!"