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Appalachian Trail: Ruins to Damascus

I set a goal mid-hike to walk all the way to Virginia and in spite of thunderstorms, a couple of nasty old guys, and a whole lot of uphill through mud, I did it – with the help of my new hiking pal, Moxie.

Day twenty-nine, 8 miles

What a lark to spend the final night of my month in a beautiful site with wind and sun, then moon and stars followed by my own personal Wood Thrush to break the dawn.

Of course a couple of loud hikers with bright headlamps had to walk through at midnight and yell out, “Tents!” as if they’d never seen one before, waking us up and likely every other camper along the way. But hey, it’s the AT and that’s pretty much how it goes out here.

Moxie and wake up leisurely and take our time on this last day, every view blocked by thick leaves now, but grateful that it’s dry and sunny. The descent is gentle and before we know it, we come to the sign that welcomes us to Virginia. Three states, done!

Once we hit pavement, we’re immediately welcomed by a crew from Trail Ministries. Dozens of people from numerous churches in the area have made it their mission to ensure us grubby and hungry hikers are well taken care of.

They do this in numerous ways, though most important might be by setting up one of those mobile shower and laundry units used after a natural disaster and getting us a little less grubby. After two weeks, I am mighty dirty and feel like a new person.

I also manage to arrange a ride to the airport the next day with a lovely couple heading that way anyway since they live nearby. I am lucky indeed.

Moxie completely surrounded by Mountain Laurel, a type of rhododendron.

Trail Days is a lot of things and means something different to whomever you ask. Hundreds of people show up to check out the gear and presentations, but also to reminisce and party – heavily.

Several friends opt to stay elsewhere, but we went ahead and plop ourselves right in the center of things at “Tent City.”

At one time, this was simply an organic collection of hikers’ tents located in a puddly field – which resulted in thefts and general mayhem. Now, we pay a nominal fee for the privilege of setting in a puddly field, mine right next to a disco tent sporting bright lights and blasting music.

All the mayhem minus the thievery.

“Tent City”
Being interviewed by WCBY News. Somehow I was chosen to represent this wildly diverse rabble.

But I gotta say, I love it.

I catch up with friends like Yoshi who came with me to Aunt Janet’s before we lost each other; and Susanne, a 2023 thru-hiker I met in Maine and a sister in breast cancer thriving, plus Acuna from rainy days in Maine and Cashmere from sunny days in Georgia.

There are costumes and craziness, top gear vendors, plus a yoga class and an evening of contra-dancing (with lessons given by AT legend Warren Doyle, naturally)

I listen to a talk on foraging and pet several animal pelts, I feast on Southern Appalachian-style burritos and dance to a local band.

I’m even interviewed by the local news station, somehow chosen as a spokesperson for what this trail means to all of us. I hope I did us proud, especially since I leave tomorrow and have no idea when – or if – I’ll ever finish the trail.

Truth is, one month is enough. More that enough.

Last winter, I got a hankering to see what all the fuss was about, especially at Amicalola Falls State Park where it all begins under an arch, then the huge climb to that famous hotel from “A Walk in the Woods.” I was curious about spring emerging in the mountains and if Aaron Copland got it right. I really wanted to know if the AT is truly just a “Green Tunnel,” more a party trail where the views don’t count nearly as much as the camaraderie. I needed to put my feet on it and see what happened, with an escape plan should I hate it on day one.

What I discovered was I loved it. The first half was more my own soul adventure, easy to have when you get perfect weather. I sauntered back then and looked for soulful camp spots to lay my head in usually alone like on one of the most exciting nights of my hiking career on top of Standing Indian with the threat of a rogue bear, wild and noisy wind plus the Pink Moon rising as the sun set.

The second half was defined by the “quest,” one that pushed me hard and helped me see that I still have a strong body and an equally strong will. You can’t imagine how satisfied this 59-year-old feels having pulled that off. It’s only a walk, but accomplishing what you say you’re going to do can have deep ramifications for your entire life and build self-esteem in a way that’s not at all about ego or bragging, but about trusting yourself.

In the end, one month was just right and I’m heading back home now with a full heart, ready to set my sights on my next adventure in the Pyrenees…

Me and Moxie enjoying the best day on trail through the Roan Highlands. It was so sparkly, we had to wear sunglasses.

Anita Hike

Just a few more words here about my partner-in-crime, Anita Gschwendtner.

Anita – trail name, “Moxie” – and I met when I stumbled into her camp at Poplar Stamp in Georgia.

She was with four other hikers and had just come up with a plan to escape the following wet day of endless, cold rain by hiking to Unicoi Gap then hitching to Helen, a sweet touristy German town.

And she let me tag along.

Instead of holing up in sodden tents, we ate schnitzel and bratwurst and sauerkraut, all of which thoroughly revived us for the miles ahead.

The next morning, however, I caught a hitch for only one, and so I lost Moxie as I hiked ahead.

A few days later, I took a day off to visit my Aunt Janet and figured that now Moxie’s got to be miles ahead of me.

That was until I arrived at Fontana Dam just outside the Smokies.

I was in the midst of dispatching an entire pizza, when in marched Moxie, apparently – and miraculously – only two miles behind.

She was rarin’ to go and keep marching right up a huge mountain and into the National Park.

You see we had a string of gorgeous days ahead to enjoy this premiere section of trail with only one half-day of rain in between.

I knew if I timed it right and kept moving, I could experience every one of those delicious spring days awaiting me.

And Moxie had the exact same thought.

So we joined forces, shelter-hopping on the rainy day, then walking a string of 20+ mile days.

And we nailed it.

It was absolutely heavenly up there especially shared with a like-minded soul. It was not only the place itself, but the power and elation that came from feeling our feet walking over all those mountains.

After the Smokies, we took one more short break in Newport, Tennessee as it poured rain. It just happened to land on May 4th, so naturally, while doing chores, we watched every single Star Wars movie, one after another.

And that’s when Moxie came up with a plan. If we kept up this pace, we could walk to Virginia.

We didn’t stick to the plan exactly, but the inside-out cardboard box framework showed it was possible.

For the briefest of moments, I’d thought it might be kind of bad ass of me to check off North Carolina and Tennessee and walk 239 more miles.

But that brief moment did not last. It felt way too far and way too hard, I thought.

But Moxie was undeterred. She’s determined. She’s driven. And she’s organized. Her trail name definitely suits her.

As she sketched out a plan on the underside of a cardboard box, I suddenly could envision myself as she did, accomplishing the big goal she had in mind.

So off we went on a quest, a quest not just about finishing up the states, but about walking in on our own steam to Damascus, Virginia for the annual “Trail Days,” a monumental gathering of current hikers and past hikers, hundreds of gear companies, AT legends, AT magicians, AT angels, AT support crew and all the AT hangers-on out there.

Kind of Hiker Trash meets Renaissance Festival.

And the timing would be perfect since the Trail Days weekend would take place right before other obligations required I return home.

Once we committed, we encountered challenges with rollercoaster terrain on repeat plus a few days of severe thunderstorms, thankfully watched from the safety of shelters, us and our hiker friends laid out in a row like goose down sardines.

What I loved the most, though, were our stealth camping sites in the woods. They were so small, we set our tents close enough to touch. This way we could crawl in and get cozy in our private lairs but still chit chat as if at a slumber party. No one bothered us but the dawn bird chorus alarm clock.

In a word, our quest was wonderful. So many wildflowers, so many waterfalls, so many mountains and grassy balds, waves of blue mountains into the distance. We had one astonishing sunset in icy winds, loads of goofy fungi, awesome trail magic, dozens of gummy orange efts (newt juveniles) and carpets of wildflowers.

Most of our conversations took place while walking downhill, then silence and breathing as we powered the uphills. Both of us cried at some point – feet hurting, exhausted, frustrated, hungry – yet at those times, the other was as solid as a rock.

I’m normally a solo hiker, but I’ll miss Moxie at my heels (she liked me leading) and how she analyzed and talked through decisions, always self-assured, but also at ease letting me decide where to camp or how far to go.

As I write this, I’m on my way home and Moxie will move forward to walk all of the AT to Katahdin. My trip is over and hers is only just beginning.

Moxie does not need me to tell her that she’s got this and will stand proudly on the famous summit sign in Maine just as I did a year ago.

But as I fly through magnificently tall cumulus clouds and leave these beautiful mountains and my magical and serendipitous month on trail behind, I hope she knows how intensely grateful I am that I was in the exact right place to find a hiking soul mate like her and accomplish a worthy goal.

All I can say is thank you, Moxie, and god speed on your journey. We did it!

2 Responses

  1. I’ve followed you on your adventures for several years now. The photos are always awesome and introduce me to so many new flowers, birds and nature in general. I live vicariously through your hikes. So glad you found Moxie mid- trip and realized that another kindred spirit can boost your spirits when you are down! Happy trails and I will be cheering you on! Hugs to such an awesome trouper.

    1. Many, many thanks Susan! Meeting Moxie was such a serendipitous surprise. My goal for the hike was of course to see the place and experience it first-hand as I had always been curious. But I wanted to test my body and see how I managed before I headed to a much more challenging adventure on the Pyrenees. Somehow Moxie entering the scene forced the issue to see just how much I could actually do – and we succeeded!

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