I left you last when I was in Damascus, Virginia. On Wednesday, April 29, I followed the white blazes on the street out of town but decided to stop at the Subway for one last meal. As I was eating my foot long meatball sub, I picked up a local newspaper and read an alarming story about declining bird populations in the southern Appalachian mountains. I remember telling you about the wood thrush serenading me at dawn one day. This article told me that the thrush population in the mountains has declined a little more than 40% in the last forty years. Another bird, the cerulean warbler, which winters in South American and then returns to the Appalachians in the spring has declined 70%. All of this is because a decline in their habitat. Besides the residential and commercial development that has altered the mountain landscape, coal mining has taken its toll on the forested environment these birds require. Why get upset by the downturn in the numbers of a couple of birds? Well, its kind of like the canary in the mines to warn miners of the accumulation of dangerous gases. Biodiversity is the key to a healthy planet. Besides, I want to hear more wood thrushes on my hike through the mountains!
I finished my sandwich at hit the trail at the very late hour of 12:30 in the afternoon. It was a hard climb out of Damascus. I ran into a thru hiker friend of mine on the way, Wendy from Boston, and we hiked together for a while. We bypassed the first shelter and I decided to stop at a campsite beside a small pond. Wendy continued on. I realized the significance of this moment. This was my first solo camp in the wilderness. I was completely by myself, no shelter, no friends, just me. I found myself strangely comforted in this solitude. I rigged up a bear line to hang my food on a high tree limb, cooked my supper, and got ready to call it a day. I decided to play a song on my harmonica as a final act. While I was playing “Wildwood Flower,” I got the sense that something had joined in my song. When I finished the last note, I was astounded to find that every tree frog in the forest and every frog down by the pond was singing along with me. Soon after I stopped, they all quit too, and we all went to bed.
The next morning, Thursday, April 30, broke clear, and I felt great. No marauding bears. All my food was still hanging from the tree. Life was good! After breakfast and after packing up, I decided to do something on the spur of the moment. I reached into my pack and pulled out a small book of Psalms and Proverbs. My daughter, Elizabeth, had given it to me in Hot Springs.
Before I go on, I was to be clear on the fact that I consider myself an ecumenical person. That is, I believe in the validity of many trains of religious thought. My Ojibwe Indian friend, Eddie Benton Banai, told me at my first teaching job in Minnesota, “There are many roads to the high place!” I have always held true to this thinking.
But this morning on the Trail, I wanted to honor my daughter by reading from the book she had given me. I randomly opened the small book and read about two men who were both praying to God. One was a very important person, and his prayer was full of all kinds of boastful words. One was a very ordinary person, and his prayer just asked forgiveness for his sins. The point of this passage was that God responded favorably to the humble prayer. It was as if God preferred the mindset of a child. This is where the saying “Suffer the children to come unto me” came from.
As I read this, it was clear to me that I had become overconfident on the Trail. I had actually had thoughts that I was made for this Trail, that I was a lean, mean hiking machine! Could this attitude have contributed to my problem with shin splints and to my latest situation of getting blisters on my feet after 400 miles without any problems? I know I don’t have all the answers here, but at that moment on that beautiful morning by the pond, I resolved to approach the rest of the Appalachian Trail like a child. I will hike from now on with wide eyes and a humble heart.
That morning I hiked 16.3 miles into the Mt. Rogers wilderness. I hiked through the balds above Grayson Highlands and stopped at the Thomas Knob Shelter. I saw some of the famous ponies that live up on these high altitude grassy fields before wind and clouds moved in obscuring all views. It was an early bedtime for me and several other thru hikers that night.
The next morning I got a lesson in small world phenomena when my hiker friend Wendy introduced me to her friend Erik who had come up to see her on the Trail. Erik was from Durham and works at Duke. Erik told me that he was telling one of his friends at work about Wendy hiking the Trail, when his friend said he knew someone on the Trail as well (that someone being me). Erik’s friend was Alex Hardemink. It turns out that Alex is my neighbor on Wilson Street in Durham. Small world indeed.
I enjoyed Grayson Highlands even though much of its beauty was shrouded in clouds. Being there meant a lot to me because this is where I went backpacking with Elizabeth when she was eleven years old. I saw some of the same places Elizabeth and I had been: Fat Man Squeeze where the AT goes through a small rock cave and the Scales which is an old horse corral where we camped.
I hiked out of Grayson Highlands and stayed the night with some friends (Top Shelf, Gessa, Mudslide, Pudgie Pie, and One Speed) at Hurricane Mountain shelter. We had a fine time, but this crowd talked about doing short hikes for the next two days. I wanted to put down some more miles. The next morning, Saturday, May 2, I was first up. I left the shelter area to fix my breakfast so as not to disturb the others who were still sleeping. I was first out of camp at 7:30. I said goodbye to everyone just getting up because I had the feeling I would not see them for a while. I hit the trail in a rhythm of strides and breathing that felt very comfortable. My blisters had healed, and I was feeling good. Nine hours later I walked into the Partnership Shelter, 19.7 miles away. This was my longest mileage of the Trail so far, and it felt good. I had a good reason to push myself. This particular shelter is famous. First of all, it is a beautiful handcrafted building with a huge upstairs. But it also has a shower, a laundry sink, and several more nice features. It is called the Partnership Shelter because several organizations in that area teamed up to build it. But this is not the reason it is famous among thru hikers. It is famous because there is a telephone next door at the Mt. Rogers Park Headquarters that is available to hikers. Hikers can use this phone to order food! I teamed up with several new and old hiker friends and ordered myself a medium deluxe pizza with a slice of New York cheese cake for desert. Oh, and a gallon of sweet tea. I shared the sweet tea. We had a feast that night!
And one last small world encounter. One of the section hikers at the Partnership Shelter was Alicia Stemper. When she found out that I was from Durham and taught for years at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, she asked me, “By any chance, did you know Colin Law?” Colin Law! Colin was a student of mine back in 1984-86. But Colin is also my Internet guru. He is the one that has been posting all my photos and email to the website http://joeliles.chunkyboy.com. What a strange coincidence!
I left the Partnership shelter this morning and hiked 12 miles into Atkins, VA. I am staying at the Happy Hiker Hollow. My hosts Rambunny and Aqua have treated me well. They have let me take a shower, have laundered my clothes, have taken me to the grocery store, and have fed me home cooking beyond compare.
I am in good hands.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles