Reflections on hiking the AT through Virginia

Reflections on hiking the AT through Virginia

I wrote this blog in the fall 2018 but never posted it. At that time, it seemed too personal to share with the internet world. As a recent guest on the “Jester” Section Hiker Podcast, I was asked to read a journal entry to the listeners. I sifted through all of the unpublished blogs and decided it was time to bear my hiking soul.

The unpublished blog

Hooray!??  We just completed our 554 mile section hike through Virginia, the state with the largest number of Appalachian Trail miles.  The reason for the question marks is thus: I am not completely happy about the accomplishment.   

A man standing on a distant rock overlooking blue-green mountains and a bright sky of puffy clouds

For the past 2 years, hiking Virginia has become a part of our summer and fall weekend routine.  Change always triggers emotions, therefore I am not sure why I am so shocked about my oscillating feelings of excitement, pride and sadness.  Yes, I am sad, and almost broken hearted.  I have been melancholy during my first few days back at work.  One of my colleagues and work friend tried to understand.

“You just completed your goal, right?” She said.  “You always have plans, goals and dreams.  Aren’t you happy?  You can take a rest now.  I don’t understand why you seem so sad.”

Orange leaf covered mountains under a hazy blue sky.

Although we have chunked away sections of Virginia over the past 3 summers, we have focused and completed the majority of the miles this year (2018).  I’ve fallen in love with Virginia: the rolling hills, the valley views, the wildlife, the quaint towns and the people whom I met both on the trail and off.  

A man with a black lab, standing on a rocky outcropping that overlooks mountains and valleys.

And, I have fallen deeper in love with my husband of 30 years.  It was in Virgina that he stopped midstep, turned to me and said,

“I just realized that you have been in my life longer that you have not.”

Smiling backpacker, mountains and a valley in the background.

It was during our Virginia hikes that we daydreamed and made promises about our soon to be born first grandchild.  While hiking through the southern part of the state, we walked, talked and I cried while sharing my fears about my father’s failing health, and my husband spoke of his worries about his mom.  Sometimes, we reminisced about our early marriage, the  kindergarten through college years of our 4 children’s sports, band concerts and dance performances. But most often, we completed the long miles through hurricane inspired rain storms, ridiculously hot summer days, and slippery leaf fall treks, in complete silence, feeling utterly at peace in just being together.

Log cabin shelter in the woods

Section hiking provides us with time in towns, and our habit was to stay in the same area two weekends in a row.  The first weekend served as a place to stay the night before our weekend hike.  If we were completing day hikes, then we’d stay multiple nights in the town, enjoying meals at local restaurants, learning about local life from the servers and exploring the area in the evenings.  The following weekend, we’d return to the same town and it always felt like we were visiting an old friend.  

A narrow trail weaving through a grassy meadow on a mountain top

Walking the Blue Ridge Mountains and through Shenandoah was magical.  The view of  shadowy distant peaks from mountain summits, vibrant sunsets, the wildlife, the hundreds of miles of rhododendron, and the plethora of streams and water falls stand out in my memory.  Completing iconic treks through the Grayson Highlands, over McAfee’s Knob and Dragon’s Tooth, and through Shenandoah National Park will always be highlights of our Virginia walk.  Enjoying an impromptu overnight platform tent stay at Wood’s Hole Hostel so much, that we returned with our daughter a few weeks later.  Seeing many black bears, wild horses, trusting deer and the lone bobcat was a bit surreal, each animal looking questioningly at first, and then almost shrugging like “Oh, they are ok.  Let’s resume what we were doing.”

Silhouettes of deer peeking through autumn trees

We began our final weekend Virginia hike at McQueen Gap, Tennessee, walking 35.5 miles through Damascus and the southern most section of the state.  On Sunday morning, as we embarked on our final miles of the Virginia trail, I was excited, even exhilarated.  We walked northbound reaching Buzzard Rock at the summit of Whitetop Mountain faster than we had planned.  It was cold and windy, snow and ice showering us at we stood and enjoyed the 360 degree view of the surrounding valley.  I didn’t want to move on.  I was oblivious to the freezing temperatures and the wind cutting into my exposed face.  Brian nudged me, pulling me away from my thoughts and the thrill of the moment.  I noticed that both dogs were shivering under their fabric coats, and realized that we had been standing on the peak for much longer than I anticipated.  Out of habit I resumed a swift pace.  We were quickly warmed up, due to our work and because we were weaving through the protective trees that lined the descending trail. 

A hiker walking on deadened grasses at the top of a mountain, other peaks in the background.

We came to a magical section of moss-covered rocky trail that was glistening from the melting snow flakes.  I smiled and took in the view.  At that moment, it hit me.  We only had a few more miles to walk to complete our quest, and I slowed my pace.  I realized that Brian was not immediately behind me, so I stopped and waited for him and the dogs.  I didn’t have to ask him why he had slowed down.  I could see it in his face.  He didn’t want it to end either.  

Moss, ferns and trees in a forest

We walked in silence, each of us deep in thought, reliving the past 550 miles, and considering the next goal of our AT section hike.  We exited the woods holding hands and snapped a few celebratory selfies.  

A man and woman hiking couple posing in the woods

What is it about this trail that stirs such deep emotion?  We are not unique in our feelings.  I know of many through hikers who struggle to walk away from the 2,190 miles that they have completed in one year.  

I am sad to have ended a journey, but I am still eager and excited to complete even more Appalachian Trail miles in 2019.  Perhaps, thanks to this emotional experience, I will be more prepared for the feelings of one day reaching Mt Katahdin.

A pink flower blooming along an overgrown trail.

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