For the obsessive long-distance hiker, there’s an absolute difference between two core states of your very existence. You’re either “on the trail” or “off the trail.”
The interlude between leaving the Appalachian Trail in September of 2001 and returning in August of 2002 was generally an unhappy time for me. I returned to the same job and basically the exact same life I’d left behind. I’d had this amazing experience but very little to show for it, especially considering that I didn’t complete the Trail.
I turned 21 in late September. The occasion is traditionally marked by a wild, drunken night of debauchery, but I had a subdued night at just a couple bars with my only friend in the area who was also 21 at the time. My other friends were either out-of-town at college, or still underage.
As a distraction from the monotony of work I went to a few concerts. I saw U2 play at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and then again a few days later at East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Madison Square Garden concert was particularly poignant, as it was held a matter of weeks after the September 11th attacks. Later after the new year I saw Billy Joel and Elton John do a concert together in Philadelphia.
Soon the holiday cards from my hiker-friends that had gone on to complete the Trail in 2001 began to roll in, making it more and more difficult to overcome my overall feeling of failure. I’d hiked a long way, but the goal, after all, was to get to Katahdin. So I couldn’t help but feel a sting of jealousy when reminded of the success of my peers.
It wasn’t long before I made the decision to return and complete the Trail the following summer. For continuity I’d start where I left off in Manchester Center, Vermont. I chose to start in mid-August, when I imagined that the highest volume of thru-hikers would be in the area, hoping to fall in step with the hikers of 2002.
In May I made a point of going to the Trail Days Festival in Damascus, Virginia. A number of folks I hiked with in 2001 would be there. The visit would break up the depressing doldrums of working a full-time restaurant job and help to tangibly stay in touch with the Trail.
If you read through my 2001 journal you may remember how I was plagued with terrible blisters in Georgia until I bought new shoes at the Nahantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. The shoes lasted me for the rest of the season until I got off the trail in Vermont, but they were fairly trashed and wouldn’t be suitable for my return in 2002.
So I needed new shoes. My blisters had been so bad that I was extremely intent on getting the same pair I’d bought in North Carolina. You can imagine my despair in the Spring when an online search for the shoes was futile! Oh no, they’d been discontinued! The make was a brand called Garmont, but the name of the exact model escapes me now as I write this sixteen years later.
Fortunately I had a clever idea. I knew I’d soon be driving from Pennsylvania to the Trail Days Festival in Virginia. The route along interstate I-81 generally follows the Appalachian Trail, so I pulled out my Thru-Hikers Handbook and found the phone numbers of all the outfitter stores in the trail towns along the way. I called them up, one by one, asking if still had any of the Garment shoes in stock in my size.
Rockfish Gap Outfitters in Waynesborough, Virginia had two pair in stock! Score! I bought them right then and there, giving my credit card info over the phone and giving the specific day I’d be there to pick them up.
I had a great time making the road trip to Trail Days, beginning to revisit the southern Appalachians by vehicle. The shoes were waiting for me at the outfitter.
As I was leaving the store I noticed a backpacker – he was trying to explain to a confused Asian couple that he was looking for a ride to the interstate. By the look of him I could obviously see that he was a thru-hiker. I immediately decided to interrupt:
“Are you trying to get to Trail Days?” I asked.
“Yeah, I am!”
“Well I’m your ride then!” I replied. “I’m headed down there down there now, let’s go!”
So there I was all of a sudden, back “on the trail” in a way and doing trail magic. I don’t remember the hiker’s trail name all these years later, but it seemed to be of the genuine vein of trail magic in that I was “meant” to pick up the shoes at that outfitter in order to magically transport him to Trail Days.
The festival was great fun, but sort of a blur in retrospect (As it should be, I suppose). I saw a lot of old acquaintances from the previous summer, but it still stung a little whenever they got to talking about Maine…
I opted for a longer route on the drive home, following the Blue Ridge Parkway and staying closer to the Trail. I particularly remember listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin on a rainy day on the Parkway.
After returning from Trail Days, the summer of 2002 grew to be more fun than the doldrums of winter. My friends from high school were in town, and we took full advantage of our newfound ability to go to bars, and even dance clubs. As my departure date for the Trail grew closer I felt as though my daily life was growing to a sort of climax – having an end date or upcoming transition in life always seems to make the here and now more tangibly tenuous.
Soon it was time to pack my bag and head to Vermont – time to get back “on the trail.”