Monday, June 09, 2008

Appalachian Reflections

During the hiking season I often reflect on my 2002 AT thru-hike. As years pass, I remember fewer and fewer specifics--I used to recite the names of campsites in consecutive order as a sleep mantra; I can't do that now--but I can still pinpoint dates and times pretty well if I think about it. This morning I recalled that on June 9 I was in central Virginia walking through the geography of my youth, only a few days south of Rockfish Gap, very much part of Home. My trail log shows an 18.5 mile day from Cornelius Creek Shelter to the James River. I recall it as a pleasant morning followed by a hot afternoon with a spectacular view of the James from the top of a 2000 foot gorge. Here is where the James River cuts its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains, making its way from the Shenandoah Valley into Virginia's Piedmont and on to Richmond and Tidewater. It's about as dramatic a landscape as I've seen and being so much a part of my personal history, the overwhelming sense of home should not have surprised me.

It did, though. Not so much from nostalgia but rather seeing this river, this gorge and all that it connects, encompassed all the opportunity, adventure and satisfaction that I have been so very fortunate to experience in my life. Standing on that ridge, I was about the luckiest man on Earth.

The climb down to the river was, if not brutal, definitely tedious at the end of a long-mile, hot day. I and two hiking partners camped by the river that evening with time for a swim. Crossing the James the following morning was exceptional. The AT crosses the river on a 1000 foot footbridge built on the pilings from a former railroad bridge. I was out at first light, on the bridge by myself, passing over this great river that stretched away in two directions. The water was calm under a light mist. My boots echoed in the early stillness and all was right with my world. Even that climb out of the gorge was not a problem. Not now.

That evening we would camp at Little Irish Creek after another long, hot day. Two Trail Angels*, Tomboy and Renegade, served us grilled Polish sausage with all the trimmings, baked beans, salad and cold drinks from the kitchen they set up at a trail crossing there. After dinner Renegade drove three of us into Buena Vista to buy groceries and supplies. That's an awful lot of joy, wonder and luck in a very short time.

Now all these events are past. For me. For now. The cycle continues eternal, however, as a new year's hikers make their way north. The big cohort--hikers who started walking in late March-April--is in Virginia now, walking, like me, along the crest of the Blue Ridge, through Shenandoah National Park and into northern Virginia. Many are farther ahead in Pennsylvania. You can find their journals (and photos, I am sure) here and can see them at the Doyle Hotel. The names, faces and poses at the Doyle this year would fit right in with 2002.

* Trail Angel = someone who does something nice for hikers.