“As soon as I saw you, I knew an adventure was about to happen.”
– Winnie the Pooh
Don’t Smite Me Down, Please
The rain came down, a solid and unrelenting pane battering my face. So thick I couldn’t make out the individual drops. A bolt of lightning tore across the sky.
“1…2…” I counted up, remembering I had learned — years before I’d have any practical use for it — that the amount of time between seeing lightning and hearing thunder was in some way connected to the distance between the lightning bolt and me being struck by it.
“…3…4…” CRACK! I winced as the sound of thunder slammed down on me, enveloped me, and echoed around me, bouncing from mountain to mountain and filling the massive valley between them. I was on top of a ridge in central Virginia, now in the northern half of the state, doing some sort of squatty-run: squatting because I read you’re supposed to stay low to the ground during lightning storms; and running because I read when lightning strikes you, it will sometimes exit through your bum…or worse. I did not want to die this way.
It was 3 p.m., but might as well have been midnight. Thick, dark storm clouds had begun charging into the valley, 4,000 feet below me, thirty minutes ago. Thirty minutes ago, the thunder was faint — a gentle rumble. I was calmer then, sitting on a rock, eating spam wrapped in a tortilla, wondering if I had made the right decision in leaving my hiking friends earlier that afternoon.
“C’mon, King Cake,” Fatboy needled me then. The sun beating down on us, not a cloud in the sky. “Hang out with us in the water for an hour or two.” It was tempting. The temperature was hot and the water was refreshing. “You can’t just skip Dismal Falls,” he continued, referring to the swimming hole with the unfortunate name at which we were sitting.
“I’m not skipping it,” I reasoned. “I’m here now. For a minute or two. Then I have to move on.”
I didn’t really have to move on, but I promised myself I would. Virginia, and it’s 550 miles of Appalachian Trail — more than one month of walking in a single State — was wearing on me. It’s not for a lack of beauty. It feels like Virginia has a greater number and variety of viewpoints than the three states before it, combined. It’s just that when you wake up for 30 consecutive days in a State that is no closer to Maine, it’s a struggle to feel progress, and that can be depressing.
The feeling is so universal among thru-hikers that it has a name: The Virginia Blues.
And I had them. But I also had a plan. One night in my tent, I went through my guidebook and listed all the possible fun things near the trail in the remainder of the
State Commonwealth. Towns, side trails, breweries, ice cream shops, and anything else I could find. Then I’d come up with a two-week plan on how I would get to as many of these places as possible so I’d have something small but fun to look forward to each day. I even came up with a name for it.
It’s a good name.
Are you ready for it?
“The Virginia Dos.”
Get it? Rhymes with Blues. You can borrow that if you’d like.
So now I had a choice: do I sit here and swim with my friends, or do I hike into town as planned, possibly stuck for the night, drinking a beer and reading a book in a near-empty bar. Honestly, both sounded nice. The problem was I think the swimming hole hang is more socially acceptable, but I was more in the read-a-book-by-myself-in-a-bar mood.
Another bolt of lightening lit up the valley, snapping me back to my frightening reality, and reminding me that regardless of what I had decided to do, there was no escaping the rain today. This wasn’t the kind of lightning that flashed in the sky and made you go, “Oooh!” and “Ahhh!” This was the kind of lightning that launched a bolt from one end of the sky to the other, veins stretching off in all directions, like distributaries off the mightiest river.
“1..2…” CRACK! BOOOOOOM!
“Please God,” I begged a creator I probably didn’t actually believe in. My skepticism began when I was 13 years old. It was the day after my Bar Mitzvah, and the party had been Kansas City Chiefs-themed. Red and yellow everywhere, a Chiefs’ yarmulke on my head, and — the crown jewel — a giant sign-in board with me in a Chiefs’ uniform next to my hero, all-time great quarterback, Joe Montana.
I invited him to my Bar Mitzvah, but he wrote back (Joe Montana RSVP’d to my party!) that he was flattered to be invited to his first Bar Mitzvah, but could not make it because he had a very important playoff game the next day.
That game was against the Indianapolis Colts and I was watching it on January 6, 1996. The Colts got off to an early lead and I prayed to God, who I so faithfully served at my Bar Mitzvah just the day before, to let Joe mount a comeback. Maybe God ignored me. Or maybe God rejected me. Or maybe God just didn’t exist enough. But the Chiefs lost and maybe my relationship with religion had changed.
I say “maybe”, because what if S/He does exist? If someone said I didn’t exist to my face, I’d be pissed enough to send a lightning bolt through their body and out their you-know-what. So I figure it’s safer to just not be sure of anything.
I can’t see more than a few feet in front of me now. The rain is constant. The storm is pounding on me. And I’m on the highest ridge within dozens of miles of here.
But if I only try to believe in God when I’m in a lightning storm, or when me or my favorite sports teams need urgent help, God — if S/He exists — will see right through that. Maybe They like honesty?
“Ok, listen,” I address the God of Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca, “I know I haven’t been devout, but if you keep me alive through this, I promise I’ll go more often to…” I consider whether or not I should make a promise I know I won’t keep to the God I imagine is currently sitting in Heaven deciding whether or not to send a lightning bolt through my dick.
Oy, whoops, the “Jesus,” yell might be confusing to him. I mean Him. I mean Her/Him.
The storm is directly on top of me. Lightning strikes the Earth every 20 seconds. I watch bolts come down from the sky. I’m not even running anymore. I wrap my arms around my knees and scrunch into a ball on the ground like I saw on a poster hundreds of miles earlier. “I promise I’ll — uh –” I’m racking my brain for something I’m willing to offer that God might actually want.
Murder! I won’t murder. No, that’s a cop-out and if God exists, God would know it’s a cop-out. I’m probably not going to murder anyone even if I didn’t make that promise. If God accepted that, most people would just give up murder for Lent knowing they wouldn’t really have to change anything.
Except the actual murderers. They’d give up ice cream and then keep murdering.
Don’t covet thy neighbor? BOOM! You’re right! I don’t even have a neighbor. I live in a tent in the woods, I’m sorry.
Locusts? I don’t think that’s a Commandment.
Parents! Be nicer to parents! I’ll be nicer to my Mom! I swear it. If you let me live through this storm, I promise I’ll be nicer to my Mother.
I look out into the valley just in time to see a huge bolt rip between two peaks. I think about tossing my trekking polls, which I believe are made of aluminum…which I believe is a fantastic conductor of electricity. Why haven’t we designed trekking polls that aren’t made of metal?
I take a short respite from fear as I’m tickled by the idea of hiking with two large, useless, hilarious, phallic rubber poles, flopping around.
The rain softens slightly. The sky flashes. “4…3…2…” and the thunder is not quite so loud. I stand up, shake out my arms and legs and begin hiking again, wondering if this means my punishment for being a semi-believer is to hike the trail with two dildos for trekking poles. God, I hope not.
I walk into a brightly lit bar in Waynesboro, Virginia on a Sunday night and am surprised to see how busy it is. I pull up a stool at one of the last open spots at the bar, and begin the process of laboring through their extensive local beer list.
“Can I help you?” the bartender approaches, looking at me with disdain as I spread across the little space I have at the bar. A guidebook, a journal, a novel, and a baggy of electronics.
“Hi!” I smile, and proceed to order a sour beer from a brewery in town. I don’t remember the name, but it had strawberries and was tart.
A minute later she’s back with my beer, which is pinker than I was hoping, but about as pink as I feared. I look around to see if anyone noticed, and when my head made its way to the right, I made eye contact with the woman next to me. She’s in her 20s or 30s, glasses, and hair that stops at her shoulders — blonde with the exception of one thin vertical band of pink sitting over her face. She’s the reason I took this open seat over here instead of the seat next to the big guy who smelled like cigarette smoke at the other side of the bar.
“What you drinking there?” she scrunched her face and gave a close-lipped smile rising to one side that I think was meant to mock me, but also kind of made her look like she was having a stroke.
But, like, a cute stroke.
“Looks very,” she pretended to search for the right word, “pink.”
“I knowww,” I groaned. “I’m craving something sweet, but I was hoping I could be a little more discreet about it.”
“Fail,” she laughed, “but you do you.”
“Oh man, ‘you do you’ is only slightly less condescending than “bless your heart,” I joked a joke that wasn’t really a joke.
“Yeah, I don’t like it either. So, if you wanted something sweet, why didn’t you just get some ice cream or something?” she swiveled her stool toward me.
“Well,” now I caught myself scrunching up my face, in faux-embarrassment, suddenly self-conscious I might look like I was having a not-cute stroke, “I just had three ice creams at the Chinese buffet.” There was nothing faux about that statement.
“Ahh, the Chinese buffet. I heard it’s a must for the hikers. Is that what you are?”
“I am. And ‘you heard?’ So you don’t live in Waynesboro?”
“Nope, just south of Richmond.”
“Oh, ok,” I nod, “so what brings you into town, then?”
She turns back toward the bar. “Well,” she pauses. Now that she’s not facing me, I can steal a look at her. She’s very pretty, and each of the things that make her a little unique — the circular nerd-wizard glasses, the pink hair, the book she’s reading at the bar — are what have me interested. I check her hand to see if she has a wedding ring, but I can never remember which hand the ring is supposed to be on. I would be happy to trade my basic knowledge of lightning-thunder timing for Wedding and Engagement Rings 101.
There is a ring, but it doesn’t look like it’s of the death-do-us-part variety.
“I’m here for a weird hobby,” she says. She squints her eyes and sips her beer like she’s pretending she doesn’t want me to ask what it is, but knows I will.
“Oh yeah? That’s exciting,” I’m being sincere. “What is it?”
“It’s more like a goal based on a hobby,” she slides her not-pink beer from hand to hand.
I look in her direction and wait for her to finish her thought.
“I’m trying to visit every cemetery in Virginia.”
“Every one?” I exclaim. Usually when I talk to someone at a bar, despite my best efforts to deflect the conversation toward them, me hiking the Appalachian Trail seems to take up the majority of the conversation. That wouldn’t be the case this time. “What? Why? That’s amazing!”
“Well,” she explains, confident in her uniqueness, “There are a few reasons, but I think the history aspect of it is my favorite. Some cemeteries are the resting place for famous people we already know a bunch about. Some have people we can go through records to learn about. And some — and maybe these are my favorites — we only know their names, the year they were born and the year they died, if we can even read it on the stone. And that’s it. I think it’s fun to make up stories in my mind about them.”
“I love that,” I have so many questions. “Have you gotten to any cemeteries along the Appalachian Trail yet? There are a few I’ve passed in Virginia.”
“Oh yeah, a few. There are some great ones on the AT. Did you notice the Pearis cemetery just outside of Pearisburg?”
“Yeah! I took a million pictures of these two gravestones there. I think it’s so sad and beautiful when old cemeteries fall into disrepair. When weeds and grass start overtaking the stones.”
“That’s one of my other favorite parts,” she said, as our eyes met for a second that felt like more than a second. “Everything gets taken back by the earth some day. Even graveyards.”
“That sounds like a quote you’d find on a tombstone or a sundial,” I tease.
“Have you seen S-Town?”
“Life is tedious and brief,” I quote the most famous sundial motto from the show, which for those of you who haven’t seen it, is an incredible podcast of seven episodes, from the creators of This American Life, I would highly recommend.
In one episode, a main character who works with old time pieces, observes that “All sundial mottos are sad like that.”
“Time conquers everything,” she fires back effortlessly, as if she has 100 mottos memorized.
I laugh, “Ahh, I know another. Hold on,” I snap my fingers as I try to recall one. I’d listened to this particular episode a few times. “Oh!” I punctuate with one final snap. “Life passes like this shadow,” referring to how the sundial tells time. I take a sip of my beer, proud of myself.
She lifts her glass and gently clicks it to mine. “All hours wound; the last one kills.” She takes a hard, sustained swig of beer and extends her non-beer hand. “My name’s Sarah.”
“I’m King Ca–. I mean, I’m Matt.”
“It’s Later Than You Think.”
Three weeks ago I got a Facebook message from my prickly friend, Jen. “Enough patting you on the back for hiking a trail,” it began. “Did you find your 10s yet or what?” She’s referring to an idea I bring up in Part 1 of this series when I’m back in New Orleans — that I need to find the things in life that make me feel like a 10 out of 10. Things that are my own — that don’t rely on others.
Last week, I was walking down a relatively flat stretch of trail in Shenandoah National Park thinking about her question. Shenandoah is beautiful. The trees are thick enough to cover you from the sun, but not so stifling that it blocks the occasional breeze. The week I went through was especially cool, and — at trail elevation — the mornings felt like Autumn. The dense vegetation had a sweet smell that permeated the park, but opened frequently enough to reveal a valley speckled with farms and rivers, towns like Luray and Front Royal, and framed by mountains — the Blue Ridge range always extending north and south.
I hadn’t given much thought to my 10s over the last two months, so Jen’s question came at a good time.
Was hiking a 10? Ideally it would be, considering how much time I’m doing it. But, to be honest, I don’t think it is. I like it. I’m still looking forward to it. But I think I’m more of a put-my-hands-in-my-pocket-and-stroll-along-the-river kind of guy than a trek-up-several-thousand-foot-mountains-with-a-fucking-wardrobe-on-my-back one.
So what’s a 10?
An old housemate, Ben, came to visit me two weeks ago when the trail passed near Devils Backbone Brewing Company. He lives in Washington, DC now, but was going to be on vacation when I passed through DC around the 4th of July, so we made plans to hang out at the brewery. He was so quick to agree to it that I didn’t realize until I looked it up, how much of an effort it was for him. A three hour drive, one-way. Nearly 200 miles roundtrip.
The day before he arrived I thought about how long it had been since the last time I saw a face from before the trail. After my going away party in New Orleans, I took the bus to Atlanta. Tracy drove me to the trailhead in Georgia and hiked with me for a few miles. That was two-and-a-half months ago. I saw some of my best college friends at a wedding in Iowa and helped one of my very best friends move to Memphis. That was two months ago. Two months is a long time to go without a familiar face.
The brewery lets you camp on their property for free. So with all-day access to a brewery (as well as other breweries and cideries within walking distance) — and without the concern of driving — you can imagine the kind of day Ben and I had. I can’t remember the last time I laughed that hard. And the brewery was surrounded by mountains, miles away from even a small town. We walked over to a very strange house party at one point (think if the Bywater existed in the middle of a forest), but spent most the night catching up as the Milky Way filled in and expanded, a thick rainbow of stars above us.
It was an awesome night, and that feeling — Completeness? Contentment? Is that just what happiness feels like? To want to stay someplace a little longer? — is a version of the same feeling I felt when I got the message from Jen. Or when I just had a chance to see friends in DC.
Back in Tennessee, the trail passes a monument for a man named Nick Grindstaff who lived until the early 20th century. His tombstone reads, “Lived alone, suffered alone, died alone.” It was scarier than any bear, and my saddest moment on the trail. My biggest fear, and the one I came out here to confront.
There have been times on the trail that have made me feel very close to friends and family back at home. But then there are times I feel as alone as I ever have.
So I came on this hike to find sources of happiness all my own — that don’t rely on another — just to discover that one of those sources is spending time with close friends? Having the opportunity — without the constant constrictions of time — to learn about each other, and with one another. To get to know another human better, and in the process, to get to know myself better.
I think I found a 10.
I hear a rustling to my right. I think I found a squirrel. It’s hard to believe that’s a squirrel or a chipmunk, but we joke that everything sounds bigger in the woods. During my first week or two on the trail I would have jumped back, but fool me 900 times, shame on me.
I hear it again, but it’s coming from above me. That makes sense. Squirrels take to the trees when hikers approach. I go back to my thoughts about friendship. But the rustling is getting louder. Fucking squirrel, shut it. I look up to see what it’s doing, and I see it. The squirrel is six feet tall, 200 pounds, and looks like a black bear falling from 80 feet up in a tree!
The protocol when seeing a black bear is to back away from it slowly and calmly. But the protocol doesn’t mention the bear approaching like a fighter pilot diving from the sky. I run 20 yards from that tree as fast as any man with a closet on his back ever has.
Now I face the tree and watch the bear. S/He’s not actually falling, but it is climbing down the tree faster than I just ran, nearly in freefall, paws barely touching the tree. Forty feet until it hits the ground. Is it going to come toward me or is it going to run the other way? I clench my trekking poles thinking they might keep me alive for another minute or two.
Twenty feet. Ten feet. Five. Four. Three.
It jumps to the ground and like most black bears, immediately bolts the other way.
I’m breathing as if I just did anything other than stand around waiting to be mauled. In the early days of the hike, I would have secretly felt a little more manly for having scared a bear off, but in southern Virginia I watched a deer — the most easily frigthtened animal on the trail — chase a bear across a campsite.
It’s becoming harder and harder to respect them. I say that knowing full well that this guarantees my death will come at the paws of a hungry black bear. Knock on wood for King Cake.
“I Did Nothing Good Today. I Have Lost A Day.”
Shenandoah National Park comprised a large portion of The Virginia Dos because it’s unique in so many ways. Not only in its majesty. Not only in the relative ease through which you can hike it — I hiked more than 25 miles in a day several times during this stretch, which is an incredible feat for picture-taking, stumpy-legged King Cake over here. But its also unique in the sheer quantity of food, beer and ice cream one will encounter.
Shenandoah is a different kind of national park than the others to which I’ve been. Established in 1935, its most prominent component is probably Skyline Drive, a road that runs north-south from one end of the park to the other. With its many overlooks, I would guess very few visitors ever leave the road. And, because the park is long, but narrow, the Drive — while not necessarily in sight — is never far from the Appalachian Trail.
Park planners imagined lodges, shops and restaurants scattered at points along Skyline Drive, serving motorists as they enjoyed a relaxing day observing nature from the comfort of their vehicle. And, to some degree, that’s what happened. Fortunately for me, because the AT stays close to the road, those amenities are also available to hikers.
If I was hiking through Joshua Tree National Park, or most other parks, I would be disappointed to have my wilderness experience interrupted by a gift shop. But not at Shenandoah National Park. It sort of fits. And, always hungry, I loved that I would pass by a Wayside for breakfast at 9am, a camp store to grab a local craft beer and/or cider and a blackberry milkshake by 3pm, and then a lodge to listen to a folksinger or Blues trio, eat a nice meal, and drink a few beers by 7:30pm. This is my kind of park!
On one particularly ambitious day, not too long after the swimming hole, I was planning on hitting a Wayfare around lunchtime for a burger, Big Meadows Lodge around 5pm for a beer and a meatball hero, and then ending up eight miles farther at Sky Lodge for music, dessert and another beer or two. On the Virginia Dos sheet — obviously I wrote it down — it looked good. I was looking forward to it for days.
But when I got to Big Meadows Lodge that evening, a few minutes after five o’clock, two friends I’d hiked with a couple of times over the last week were there.
“Hey!” Magellan waved me over. “King Cake, man, join me and Dr. Jekyll for dinner, please.” Magellan got his trail name because he always gets lost, so when someone wonders aloud where Magellan is, the common response is, “Out exploring, I guess.” Dr. Jekyll got her name because she’s really shy until she drinks. Then she becomes something completely different.
“Hey!” I walked over. “I wish I could, but I have to get on to Sky Lodge tonight.” The thing is I really did wish I could. Magellan and I got along really well. We’re both baseball fans and he actually used to work for the St. Louis Cardinals. He and Dr. Jekyll were a lot of fun to be around, and another friend, Churchill, just walked in to the bar area of the lodge.
This felt a lot like the swimming hole all over again. But I stuck to the plan and ordered my food at the bar. I was reading my book while I waited for my meatball hero to come out when I saw the musician — a folk singer with an impressive beard — setting up. Three friends. Food. Beer. Folk music. A great view of the valley. Screw the Virginia Dos.
I walked back over to the table with my friends. “Hey guys, do you think you’re in this for a drink tonight, or until this place closes. Because if you want to hang out for awhile, I’m in.”
“King Cake, if you’re in, I’m ready to close this place down,” Magellan said. “Let’s do this.”
Dr. Jekyll agreed, “I’m in whether you’re here or not.”
Another great Virginia night in the books, I was in my tent feeling buzzed and philosophical. I thought back to a bad storm warning about a month ago, when the remnants of a tropical storm from the Gulf was making its way north. On stormy nights, I’ve noticed hikers tend to stay closer together. At shelters, often, because it’s easier to stay dry, but if that’s not possible, we’re at least more likely to be congregated at a campsite. The night I’m thinking of I was at a campsite as the temperature began to drop and the winds began to pick up. At campsites I’m usually alone, but on this night I counted 12 tents. Nobody looked scared. Nobody talked about it. But we had created a mini-settlement.
And I think that’s a good reminder for me: humans are pack animals. We are meant to be together. It feels energizing to be alone from time to time, but then there are other times, especially when things get difficult, we lean on each other to help us through. I think that’s beautiful.
“Take The Gifts Of This Hour.”
A couple of hours had passed, and Sarah and I are still at that bar in Waynesboro.
“So, wait, you don’t like to hike, but you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail?” she asked.
“No,” I try to re-explain, “I like to hike. I even love it some days. I look forward to it. But the things I love the most about this trip are the writing and the reading. If I can do that for an hour at night before I fall asleep, it’s the best day.” I stop to think. “And the going into towns and meeting people. Like this. I love doing this kind of stuff. But tomorrow I’ll love not doing this, and being in the woods by myself.”
“So you love the variety,” she says.
“Yeah, I guess I do.” I take a long sip of my water, which I’m trying to alternate with my beer.
I tell Sarah about a worry I’ve had recently, that has emerged as I slowly begin to discover what makes me happy. “What if I didn’t need this hike to figure things out?” I ask and pause to take a gulp of beer. “What if I’m wasting my time out here instead of doing something productive at home? Relationship ends. I felt in a rut I didn’t know how to get out of. Did I just run away from my problems?”
I look around and Sarah and I are the last two people left in the bar. Besides the bartender, obviously, who is taking advantage of the peace to catch up on some cleaning. I wonder if Sarah’s knee is touching mine by accident or on purpose. And did she initiate it or did I?
“So what if you ran away?” she asks. “I’m running away, too.” (While you were reading about bear attacks and Shenandoah National Park, Sarah told me she is recently divorced, which is about when she began pursuing her hobby.) “At least we’re doing something, right? It would be so easy to wonder what the ‘right’ thing to do is,” she’s using finger quotes every time she says the word, “right,” which, on this night, I love. “We can wonder and wonder and wonder, but at some point that’s paralysis.”
“We might sit in our rut forever,” I add.
“Exactly.” She finishes her beer and puts her glass down. “We might not be doing the ‘right’ thing, but at least we’re doing something. Every day can be an adventure, even if it’s not the perfect one.”
“Life Is In Motion.”
I mentioned earlier that a main character in the podcast, “S-Town” says, “All sundial mottos are sad like that.” The more I look into it, the more I realize that character was exaggerating.
“The sun shines for everyone.”
“Always time for friends.”
“While we have time, let us do good.”
Time is just as much about the future as it is about the past. And, with half the trail in front of me, I have a lot to which I can still look forward.
About a week ago, a few days after Waynesboro, I was in Luray, Virginia for the evening. I didn’t know anyone out in town that night, so I brought my book and my journal, and figured I’d see what the universe would send my way. It was one of those nights where it wasn’t possible to read. I met a bartender in the basement of a Mexican restaurant who wouldn’t let me buy drinks because we both had lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. I met a hilarious couple from Cleveland who bought my drinks and insisted they send me with to-go beers even though that’s not encouraged or legal in Luray. And I met an off-duty server who insisted I keep getting more desserts even though the kitchen was closed.
“I got you dude, what do you want?”
“Do you have anything with peanut butter?” I hoped.
“Dude!” he scoffed “Do we have peanut butter?” He disappeared for two minutes and came back with a slice of peanut butter pie and two scoops of ice cream.
“Thanks!” I said as I dove in.
“What do you want next?” he asked.
“Oh, man, thank you, but you don’t need to do that.”
“Dude! You are hiking the Appalachian fucking Trail, bro. You like apple pie?”
“I love apple pie,” I admitted.
“Hang on.” He obviously came back two minutes later with a piece of apple pie. And two scoops of ice cream.
“Thanks so much. I appreciate it a lot.”
“Don’t mention dude. Just tell me if you like chocolate fudge cake.”
“Ha, I’m pretty full.”
“But do you like it?”
Of course I like chocolate fudge cake. That doesn’t mean I should eat it. “Yeah, I do. Most people do, right?”
He was back two minutes later with chocolate fudge cake. And two scoops of ice cream.
Later that night he went to 7-11 to pick up a pack of cigarettes. He came back with chocolate-peanut butter ice cream for me. He wasn’t even asking me anymore.
Two days later, I made a quick stop into Front Royal, Virginia for a haircut and a visit to the Virginia Beer Museum. It was a Saturday, so the normal hiker barbers were closed. I stopped in at one lady’s shop, an older Chinese woman, who was so concerned for my well-being that she refused to let me pay for the haircut. “No! Save money and buy food!”
“Ma’am, I appreciate this, but I’m not homeless, I’m just hiking. I would feel much better if I could pay you for this haircut.”
“No — you get for free. Do you want water or a Pepsi?”
“The free haircut comes with a free drink?” I took my free water and grabbed a hitchhike back to the trail, happy as can be. A 10 out of 10.
“Look At My Shadow And You Will See Your Life.”
Three weeks ago I was in Pearisburg, Virginia, trying to mail my unopened hiking shoes on to the next city. I didn’t quite need them yet, but I would soon. I arrived at the post office at the same time as an older woman; pale, white hair, with nice earrings and pink lipstick, impeccably applied. I held the door for her, which means she got to the attendant before I did.
“Can you tell me what kind of stamps you have?” she said as if it took all her energy to force out the sentence.
“Do you mean different methods of shipping?” the attendant asked.
Come on, I thought. I need to get back to the trail. I imagined how fast this would have gone if I didn’t hold the door for her.
“No, honey, I mean what design of stamps. Last week you had the bees pollinating a yellow flower stamp, and the Wonder Woman stamp, but you didn’t have the baseball stamp or the Jack Kennedy stamp.”
“Oh, I see. Well let me go into the back and look.”
My transaction would take less than a minute. I didn’t even have to pay for anything — only tell the attendant where to forward the package.
Three minutes later — I’d already be at the Dairy Queen! — the attendant returned with a sampling of what the Pearisburg post office had in stock.
The old lady pored over the stamps and appeared to be setting aside the ones she already owned. She set aside a stamp raising awareness for breast cancer, the Wonder Woman stamp, and a stamp called, “Delicioso,” that had a picture of flan on it. “Oh, look at this!” she beamed. It was a stamp with a the hands of a man playing guitar and the words, “Mississippi” above the year, “1817,” commemorating Statehood. “And there it is!” she punctuated each word as she looked at the John F. Kennedy stamp.
The attendant smiled. I think I was standing there with my mouth open. Initially out of annoyance and now in amazement.
“Can I please have one block of four of the Jack Kennedy stamps and one block of four of the Mississippi stamps, dear?”
“You sure can, ma’am. Anything else for you?”
“Last week I spoke to a man here and asked him to order the new baseball stamp, but it hasn’t come in yet. Would you be able to look into that for me, please?” she took a five-dollar bill from her purse and put it on the counter to pay for the stamps. “I can come back next week to check again. My husband loved baseball. He was from St. Louis. We would collect stamps together, and he always liked to get the baseball ones.”
“Of course I will,” and the attendant handed the woman the change and the woman went back to her car.
“Remember To Live.”
One of the most common responses I’ve gotten to this hike is something along the lines of, “I’m amazed you’re doing this, but I’m just not that adventurous.” I hear that all the time.
Here’s the thing: I’m not even sure I’m that adventurous.
I’m no expert, but my thought is just because hiking 2,200 miles isn’t your idea of fun doesn’t mean you’re not meant for an adventure. Even if you’re afraid of the dark, grossed out by bugs, and don’t like to sweat — your adventure is still out there.
John Amatt, a Mt. Everest climber and author said, “Adventure isn’t hanging on a rope off the side of a mountain. Adventure is an attitude that we must apply to the day to day obstacles in life.”
I love that.
It’s easy to mock the woman at the Pearisburg post office. I just did a few paragraphs ago. But I also can’t stop thinking about her. She’s on a quest more meaningful than mine. She is desperate and driven to find a stamp her husband would have wanted for their collection. If finding a missing stamp isn’t an adventure, I don’t know what is.
If trying to get to every cemetery in Virginia isn’t an adventure, I don’t know what is.
And, yeah, if walking from Georgia to Maine, and watching the world change along the way isn’t an adventure, I don’t know what is.
One fun part of an adventure is that its outcome isn’t predetermined. Sometimes it’s going to go wrong. Sometimes you’ll go all the way to the post office and they won’t have your stamp. Sometimes you’ll get lost. Sometimes there’ll be lightning and sometimes there’ll be bears.
But then sometimes there’ll be vistas, and ice cream, and friends.
“All Hours Are The Same — They Are Distinguished Only By Good Deeds.”
Live performance of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee with “Walk On” at a live concert in front of a television audience in 1974 at the BBC.
I’m now halfway done with the trail (!!!), which means that every step I take brings me closer to being back in New Orleans. (Well, not literally, obviously, but I think you know what I mean.)
I’m excited about that, but it also creates urgency to this trip as I can now envision it coming to an end.
Similarly, we’re halfway done with the year. I’m sure a lot of you had New Years Resolutions back in January and, if you’re anything like me, you’re not accomplishing them. If only I would have written, “Hike the AT.”
But the halfway point is a great time to recommit. Or to reevaluate. Some soccer friends and I have a long-running joke in which we give a name to the summer. One summer the World Cup was on so we were watching a ton. And we had joined a soccer league. And we had just created a supporters group for the New Orleans Jesters soccer team. We called it the Summer of Soccer.
The next summer we were all going out a bunch and collectively were having luck with women. (Luck for us is relative. “She let me buy her a drink!”) We called it the Summer of Romance.
So what is 2017 going to be for you? When you look back on this year ten years from now, it’s going to be the year you accomplish what? Ran a certain amount? Read a certain number of books? Traveled somewhere you’ve always wanted? Binge-watched some great TV show?
They’re all adventures.
When I look back on this hike, I also want to be able to remember it as the time I was able to raise more than $2,000 — $1 for every mile I hike — in memory of my Dad (who I wrote about in Part 5) to the Live Oak Wilderness Camp. It means a ton to me that we can turn this hike into more than just me walking real far.
The camp provides days that are fun, safe, and intentionally designed to build leadership in their young campers by focusing on kindness, bravery and awareness.
Live Oak — which is 1.5 hours from New Orleans at the 90 acre Camp Tiak, in Wiggins, MS — is in its second year and will serve more than 260 campers from 60 New Orleans-area schools. Campers are ages 9 through 13 and are as diverse as the city in which we live!
The camp’s leaders have a long history of doing great work for New Orleans’ students, and you can learn more about Live Oak here.
And you can donate here.
For every dollar you donate, I’ll hike a mile for you. I appreciate the support of everyone who’s donated so far, as well as anyone who has supported me in a myriad of other ways — from comments to care packages and everything in between. It really does mean so much to me!
And, as always, if you have any questions, thoughts or suggestions, please leave a comment. Also, I update my Facebook page two or three times a week, so feel free to friend me here.
Thanks for reading and see you in the second half!
Matt Haines is a true stereotype of modern New Orleans, moving to the Bywater from New York eight years ago to take part in disaster relief efforts. Matt is a member of the Rotary Club of Mid-City which meets at Treo every other week and, since leaving his job in education last month, spends his days writing, running, and
preparing to hike hiking the Appalachian Trail.