This entry is written on my phone, so I’m going to forego a lot of the self-editing that I normally do when I write because it takes too long on a phone. Aaaaand I just wasted 30 seconds of my life going back and editing some mistakes in that first sentence. A writer’s job is never done.
Last night Jen and I stayed at the Fontana Hilton, a superb shelter a short walk from Fontana Dam. Some sectioners were out there hiking for the weekend, and they shared food and beer with us. That was great, because I was out of food entirely (save a bit of peanut butter), having cut it very close in the Smokies.
One of my worst fears is running out of food. When I get low on snacks I’m especially worried, as I tend to not eat at all (in order to save what I have) and have hypoglycemic episodes while hiking. The first sign is that I’m unreasonably cranky. Then I’ll be going up a hill and my vision becomes blurry. Each step is an eternity in my mind. My legs reach out, but the strength that I rely on – that I’ve earned over these 2,000 miles – isn’t there. I curse. I fall. Eventually I sit down and eat something because I know I might pass out if I don’t, but at this point it’s too late.
That happened Friday. When it happens I’m basically worthless when it comes to hiking for the rest of the day. My legs barely function. I get out of breath. After a couple of hours I’m done. We did 7.5 miles that day, and I called it when I got to a shelter that looked nice. Our modest 17 miler turned into less than half a day of hiking. I hated to do that, but knew the coming mountains would take me all day (besides a staggering amount of effort) to complete, and the cold was coming on. I knew my little energy was best used in gathering firewood.
After sleeping and eating it’s like it never happened. The next day I did 23 miles in 8.5 hours, which is not fast, but it’s fast when the terrain is icy and you’re cold and deeply hungry.
Today we made it to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We also got a ride from some generous and kind folks, Brian and Charlene Wood. People like them have helped me out more times than I would care to count: churches and individuals that run small donation-based hostels, leave food and drinks for the hikers at trailheads, and pick up tired travelers who need a ride into town. These people never accept the money I offer them for gas. They never complain about how I smell or my muddy boots in their nice cars. Sometimes they take me into their homes and feed me. They have no way of knowing who I am, but they do it anyway.
They want to hear my stories and tell me, in whatever way they can, that they hope I continue on safely and have a good time. They say it with a look if they’re male, most of the time; women are more comfortable with themselves, and say it outright. If they’re religious they say it with a “God bless” or “I’ll say a prayer for you”.
One reason I came out here was to spend some time being whoever I felt like being. I don’t know that my friends would say “Jon’s the kind of guy who jumps off bridges 40 feet above a river” or “Jon’s the kind of guy who hikes 30 miles in a day”, but that’s the person whose life I’ve been living.
They likely wouldn’t say “Jon deeply respects every person he meets, whether he disagrees with their ideologies or not”. They wouldn’t say that because I’ve made a habit of being the wrong me a lot of the time.
There’s a cringe that’s coming. It’s building up already; I feel it in the muscles in the back of my neck, the ghost of a headache I know I’ll have soon. Someone’s going to say to me, smiling, “You’ve changed so much!”
But I haven’t. I’m still me. I’m just more me. I’m me in fullness. I am indeed the kind of guy who runs at a dead sprint down mountains with his pack on (you think I’m joking?) because his legs are so strong and his balance so keen that he feels safe doing so (this scares the piss out of day hikers every time: “Watch out! That man’s going to break something!”). He jumps off those bridges into those rivers. He eats food off the ground, knows what the hell a paw paw is, and can tell you all about the uses of wintergreen and how to identify it.
He also has learned to take “God bless” as the friendly comment it’s meant to be, despite what he thinks of it.
The trail magnifies you. If you come with fear and resentment you’ll find more. Come with an open mind and you’ll find difficulty and hardship you never imagined – and you’ll revel in it. You’ll stand at the halfway point and look back at the cold, wet days the way normal people look back at fond childhood memories. The bruises are badges of mountains beaten. You’ll learn to laugh when you fall. Vermont’s not so muddy! Pennsylvania’s rocks aren’t so bad! Bring it on!
You’ll be you, more you, you thoroughly and with a passion you never thought you’d muster.
That’s my take, anyway.