McAfee’s Knob is said to be the most photographed point on the AT, and with good reason. It’s incredibly beautiful and breathtaking. A jutting point of rock from the cliff-side and a sheer drop into the valley below.
Buckeye, Atreyu and I decided that we wanted a sunset and a sunrise on McAfee’s Knob. This was an ambitious proposal the required a 16.3 mile day up and down 2 significant and 1 medium sized mountains/hills, a stop at Dragon’s Tooth (another amazing sight) and a small resupply and stop at the 4 Pines Hostel. All before sunset.
Somehow we managed it. It’s still one of the most incredible achievements in my mind.
Starting off at the Pickle Branch Shelter, we got an early start which was quite a feat in itself. Buckeye is a habitual late sleeper now that he’d gotten used to his hammock, but he was actually the first one up. We beat feet the 4 miles to Dragon’s Tooth with a few others in town and made it up the craggy torturous path to the summit. A clear, cloudless day greeted us – with views for miles.
We stayed for almost an hour on top of the Tooth. Around 11am we decided it was time to get moving – and wouldn’t it be nice if we could have some real food for lunch? You’d better believe it! So let’s roll on down to the 4 Pines Hostel and go to the amazing gas station up the road for pizza! So we did.
One of the best things about hiking with Buckeye and Atreyu? They are never short of conversation or song. They are strong, fast hikers but they have fun everyday together. Sometimes they hook the little portable speaker up and play techno, or indie. Sometimes there are long involved conversations about women, philosophy or politics. But even when they disagree they respect each other – it’s a rare thing to find friends like these.
4 Pines is a converted 4 car garage run by Joe. He’s a hell of a guy – he took me in the previous year when I was freezing after Sandy and fed me fresh venison, gave me a pile of blankets and said “go nuts with the wood stove.” So when we made it to his place for lunch he took us down to the gas station. Pizza, slushies, chips, hot dogs, beer. The whole nine yards for lunch. We played a little cornhole (beanbag toss for all you Yankees) and seriously contemplated if we wanted to do another 10 miles. “We could stay here tonight and make it a short day tomorrow…”
The other great thing about Buckeye and Atreyu? They never shirk from a challenge. At 3:30 we finally got going. The terrain between 4 Pines and McAfee’s is ridgeline and rugged. You hug the tops and dip down into the saddles, gaining and losing 100 feet sections of altitude every 1/4 mile. You climb and scramble in places.
We made it to the McAfee’s knob parking lot just before 7pm. The sun was starting to get lower in the sky – sunset was around 8:15 and we still had almost 3.5 miles to cover to the top. So we beat feet up the side of the mountain. The trail is well maintained, and a fairly easy climb until the last mile or so when you start going up steeply. We were on track and on pace.
Until we found a cell phone.
Atreyu: “It’s gotta be the cute girls we passed on our way up, about 10 minutes ago!”
Buckeye: “Maybe. But they’re probably already back at the parking lot by now. We’re going up.”
Spice: “So… what are we doing? Sunset is so close!.”
At that moment, the phone rang. Atreyu answered it. “Yes we’ve got your phone! I’ll bring it down for you!.”
Buckeye + Spice: “You’re going to do what?”
Ateryu: “I’m going to take my pack off and run the phone down. You guys keep going, I’ll meet you at the top.”
Spice: “If you do that, we’ll take your pack with us. I’ll wear it on the front and double pack it.”
So off Atreyu bounded, down the path we’d just come up. Buckeye strapped Atreyu’s pack onto my chest. I’m sure I cut a ridiculous figure in that moment, hiking up the mountain side with two packs on. But if it meant that Atreyu could catch up with us faster, it was worth it. Atreyu managed to catch up with us a mile from the summit, which was good because I was DYING carrying two packs together.
And we made it. All the way to the top for sunset. The three of us almost were running by the time we got there, because we were so sure we were going to miss it. But we didn’t. We’d managed to push a 4 mile and hour pace or more by the time we’d gotten to the top. That’s a feat for any extended period of time. It was all worth it though.
I’ve heard people say that they don’t derive any pleasure from accomplishing miles or getting somewhere. That they don’t measure their achievements by getting to X place by Y time. That may be all well and good for them most of the time, but I’ve never been able to subscribe to that theory. Getting somewhere, achieving something in the face of adversity, pushing yourself to the limit and winning – there is something valuable about that to me. Getting to McAffe’s knob for sunset was such an achievement. We all felt it and we were all filled a beautiful glow that night.
Amusingly, the photos from sunset? Completely outclassed by the photos from the sunrise the next morning.
When I read things like this, it makes me reevaluate what I want to do again. I think about the Trail everyday. Things will happen and I’ll flashback to a moment. I’ll smell something and remember an instant. Everyday.
I think about the Trail every single day.
It changed me – and I’m not sure if that change makes me fit for normal society anymore.
I had a long discussion this evening with SingleGirlHiking about the Great Eastern Trail (GET), a 1600 mile long trail from Alabama to New York.
The pull is great. It is strong.
I justified it in my mind as well. The flu study I’m in the running for would pay for 4 months of hiking without any problem. I could be the third person ever to hike the GET on foot (no yellow blazing, no skipping for this one…). I could escape again to the wilderness and walk. Be free and whole again.
It’s a strong feeling. Being whole like that again.
I’ve felt good about myself before. In college I felt like I belonged, felt loved and accepted. I was loved and accepted, with many friends. They felt like family.
But out on a trail, I feel Whole. It’s hard to explain. Everyday I felt born again, every person I met never questioned who I was, or what I was doing. There wasn’t judgement on how I lived my life. My actions spoke for who I was, and nothing more.
I romanticize the Trail life quite a bit. I know I do. I remember how terrible the climb down the White’s was when I almost died. How it never stopped raining in the south for days. The feeling of dampness and wet that never went away no matter how much sun you got. The hunger and disgust when you had nothing but chicken ramen to eat that night. The pain of a 25 mile day.
But I have never felt more alive. More complete. More myself than I did out there. I had purpose and drive and love. Love for the people around me, the trees that grew over me and the smell of dirt and pines.
I can smell that freedom now when I close my eyes. I may be physically sitting in a basement in Virginia, but when I close my eyes I am in Maine or Tennese. Vermont or North Carolina. New Hampshire. I smell the pines, feel the dirt, pine needles below my feet. Feel the wind whistle around me and carry the scents of the forest while it tugs on my hair. It is as real to me in my dreams as it is to someone standing there.
Because I’m still standing there in those places. They never leave me. Even when I’m sitting in a basement in Virginia, crying a silent tear. Because of where I am, instead of where I am meant to be.
I think I’ve done a fairly good job this hiking off season of NOT getting embroiled in guerrilla internet warfare. I haven’t been getting into peoples faces about things like choosing trail names before they start, obsession over pack-weight when they shouldn’t be, upset with people over constant advertising. I’ve certainly discussed these things with a few close friends – but I’ve been…. restrained.
This is not one of those restrained posts. If you have delicate sensibilities… perhaps you should move on.
This all starts with the blog.appalachiantrials.com blog that Badger runs and his 3 lists.
- “I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail because…”
- “When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail I will…”
- “If I give up on the Appalachian Trail I will…”
A useful way to diagram out your reasoning, especially because expressing why you’re going out to do a long distance hike can be problematic for many. I know that 2 years after starting my first thruhike I STILL have problems with the “why I started doing this” bit when talking to people.
I have no problem with the first list, “I’m doing this because”. The second… I take a slight issue with. Why you ask? Because let’s face it – like all other plans you have on the trail, this one might not bear any resemblance to the reality you’ll find out there. Plans change – sometimes immensely.
When people go out on a long hike like this, they discover things about themselves, sometimes things they never knew or only suspected. Sometimes they validate what they already knew and reinforce it. As Rob Bird once told me “People are out here every year, looking for themselves or someone else – some people find it in 20 miles, others don’t ever find it on this path but have to go to another one. But they always discover the important things they never knew existed.” So what does that mean about your list of things you’ll discover about yourself when you finish?
Maybe it’s time to toss that list and instead of planning on finding or achieving the growth you “Think” you need – open yourself to actual growth that is spontaneous instead of planned. That’s just a thought and suggestion from someone who HAD a list like that and then lost it along the way – and was much happier and experienced FAR more growth when it was natural.
Again – just my opinion.
But here comes the nity-gritty – the part I worry about and almost take offense to when I read the final list: “If I give up on the AT without finishing”
All of the lists I’ve read have pretty much the same gist. Major topics in those lists include
- Being disapointed in themselves
- Thinking of themselves as a failure for not finishing
- Regret not finishing
- Not be someone worth respect from others
- Never follow through on things
- Become unattractive to others
- Not be someone my friends/family/significant other can be proud of
If most of these were on your list (or are in your head) please I’d ask you to do the following.
Remove your head from your ass and wake up and smell the coffee.Seriously.
There are a few things on this list that are real, and worth noting as being things that can or will happen. When you get off the trail, you will be depressed about it. Not “if” but when. For those who have read my previous posts, they know that I came back from this years hike and was in a spiraling depression – and I FINISHED this year. in 2012 when I made it 1600+ miles and got off I was also depressed. Common link between? Getting off the trail – not whether or not I finished!
What else is true on this list? Regret – you’re going to regret things no matter if you finish or not. You’ll regret skipping 5 miles that one day (I still do) or you’ll regret not finishing. You’ll regret not hiking with certain people more, and hiking with certain people less. REGRET IS CONSTANT – but is NOT a defining characteristic of the trail.
I could regret being with the girl I was for 3 months and giving her EVERYTHING about my trail experience, including changing my hike for her – but I DON’T because it was still Awesome to be with her – despite everything that happened later.
So for the rest – we have to talk.
All this talk of letting other people down, not being worthy of respect or love from others is baloney. You set out to do something that most of them don’t understand at all. They love you for you – not for something you’re doing. If they didn’t love you for you, they wouldn’t be interested in what you’re doing in the first place. So stop that. Stop that right now. If you have to get off the trail for whatever reason, they aren’t going to love you any less – in fact most of them still get to brag about you “my sister/brother/son/wife hiked over 300 miles on the AT! Isn’t that awesome!”. They are NOT going to go out and say “Oh well he/she/it tried but couldn’t do it because they were terrible at it.” So stop it. Now.
Never following through on things is another bit I hate to hear – sometimes there are circumstances FAR beyond your control that come into play on your hike. I told the story about Damselfly recently, and how she stubbornly decided to finish despite seriously injuring herself. That injury is a hike ender for 99% of people. Things like money get in the way – family issues or even just simple time. Things beyond your control happen – and for all you control freaks out there, you’re going to have a hard time dealing with this. Learning to let things go might be your biggest lesson on this hike. So stop worrying about how not finishing a hike like this means that you are never going to follow through on things. That’s crap.
I’ve read two different ones now that say “I’ll become unattractive to others.” This is a female thing it seems (sampling size = 2, so don’t kill me feminists) and it’s positively untrue. Ladies out there – you’re going to get on trail and be the hottest commodity besides Snickers bars. Hiker women are the sexiest things on the planet in my mind. Single Girl Hiker agrees with me I think. She tells me Hiker Men are the sexiest things out there too. Why are you attractive though? Not because there are so few of you – it’s because you’re willing to take chances, be yourself and commit to things. I’m talking about not waffling – knowing what you want and taking it. To me at least, there is nothing more unattractive then the inevitable dance of “where do you want to go for dinner.” You know what you want! Go take it! It happens all the time on the trail. Plus you know, you’re hot! So stop thinking you’re unattractive. Patently untrue.
The biggest thing is that people are disappointed in themselves. I can understand that, and it is something that will happen. But it’s also something that I’ve come to see as not being “real”. What do I mean by that? I mean that you went out and tried – you can be disappointed that you didn’t finish, but it’s not the defining characteristic of your hike.
Your defining characteristic is that you went out there in the first place.
You can run around and around on not finishing, not having gotten what you wanted out of it but that’s all a load of malarkey when you come back to the simple fact: you went out there and did SOMETHING.
And that fact is greater than 99% of people you will ever meet.
You went and followed a dream you had – it may not have succeeded, but you DID do it, even if it was just for a little while.
That is something majority of people will never do – can never do. It sets you apart.
The statistics show that only about 20% will finish a thru-hike. I think that number is lower myself. But of the 3000 or so that will start, they are all following a dream of some kind. That dream is what is important. Not finishing, not doing X or Y or Z on your list. The dream you have to go out and hike a long distance trail is what is important. So stop making lists. Instead be open to your hike and what it can bring to you. Not what you bring to it.
I love you all.