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Appalachian Trail Dispatch: Virginia is for Limpers

Editor’s Note: Blue Ridge Outdoors contributor Chris Gallaway is currently thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. He will be periodically checking in with BRO and sharing the story of his hike. This is his fifth dispatch from the A.T. Read his other dispatches from the trail: A Cold StartTrail MagicDifficult WinterMonumentsSpring! and Family.

When my family left Damascus I was raring to go on my solo hike again. As sweet as our time together had been I was itching to hike more than eight miles a day, and I was tempted to try to catch friends who had pulled ahead of me on the trail. I started out from the Grayson Highlands averaging 20 miles a day for five days straight and carrying a week’s worth of food so that I wouldn’t have to leave the trail to re-supply.  This was a recipe for injury, and in no time I wore deep blisters on my left foot, blisters that became infected as I walked more miles each day without taking a rest. Soon I became marked with that most embarrassing sign of a hiker who has pushed too hard: a limp.

Apparently I was not the only one who fell into the hiker speed trap. The lengthening days of spring and the gentler topography of southern Virginia conspired to lure many thru-hikers into going too far, too fast. As I hobbled into Pearisburg, VA and the Woods Hole Hostel I ran into a traffic jam of injured hikers. My old friend Camaro was traveling with a group that called themselves “The Gimp Crew” for their various ailments: shin splints, twisted ankle, fluid on the knee. As for me, I could barely suppress the head of steam I had built up. I felt compelled to keep moving despite the pain in my feet, to cover whatever ground I could with a limping, one-mile-an-hour pace. I go to the woods in large part to escape the pressure and rat race of our society, and inevitably I find myself caught up in a race of another sort, measuring my hike by how far I go each day. This is a sad state of affairs for the thru-hiker, and the body informs us of our error by breaking down.

At last I forced myself to take a rest, walking a “nero” day (almost zero miles) to the Captain’s Place where I pitched my tent and sat around restlessly, twiddling my thumbs and repeatedly talking myself down from the compulsion to keep hiking. The day of rest did me just enough good to resume hiking the next day without a limp. I was thrilled; I was eager; I woke up at 6 AM and speed-hiked 17 miles in the rain only to slip on a wet rock and fall on my face, bashing my shin badly. You might think a fellow would learn, but even with a new limp and a swollen leg I still felt responsible to cover long miles so I could get into town and have a doctor check out my injury. Two days later I made it to McAffee’s Knob and sat at the view brooding over my predicament. My ankle felt stiff and weak. There was a scraping sensation when I flexed my foot up and down. I began to imagine the worst: I’d made it over 700 miles on the Appalachian Trail, and a moment’s distraction and bad foot placement could send me home for good.

Pain has a way of ruling your mind. When a part of your body hurts badly it’s hard to see past it. You know in principle that the pain is temporary, that good days lie ahead, but at the moment it feels like it’s been there forever and will never go away. This was my state of mind as I hiked the ridgeline down into Daleville the next day, trying to govern my thoughts and hope the best for my shin. I was mostly losing the battle of thoughts when I looked up and saw Sunshine walking up the trail towards me. She’d taken off work and driven up from Asheville to surprise me. The welcome sight of her smile coming towards me brought tears to my eyes.

That was a turning point in my hike. We got into town and had my ankle checked out: all clear, thank the Lord! We rested for a day and then slack-packed out of Daleville—my ankle felt stronger day by day. For three days we got to walk together, enjoying beautiful spring weather and the lovely woods that were sprouting with fields trillium and may apple. Quietly, to myself, I renewed my commitment to curb the urgency that follows me on the trail; to slow down and take care of my body and mind. It’s a commitment I will break again eventually, but perhaps over time I will gradually learn and become what they call “mature.” For now, I am so thankful to be continuing my hike and to feel my body growing strong and relatively pain-free once more. I’m softer now, the passage through pain has worn down my emotional composure slightly, and I find myself more easily tearing up when I talk to others about my hike thus far. I know now what a fine balance this journey rests in, that it can be over in a moment and that each day is a grace and a gift unto itself.

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