I slept on a picnic table last night in a small wooden pavilion in order to get out of the thunderstorm. I thought it would be a good idea and was proud of myself. And then the flies and mosquitos found dinner and wouldn’t leave me alone the entire night. I tossed and turned and burrowed into the sleeping bag only to sweat profusely in the summer night heat. It was an awful night. I couldn’t sleep, I just tossed and turned all night. I tried to hide by crawling under the table. Yeah, that didn’t do a thing. I got so frustrated with myself. I’ve done this before. I know how to sleep. Why can’t I do it this time? Maybe I just need more practice, I’m making too many mistakes. When the sun rose so did I. I got up and stared at my hands, the backs of both were covered with bug bites. I have never had so many bites before.
I really wanted to see Llama again so I waited until the afternoon hoping that she would catch up to me. As I waited by a river, throwing rocks and reading, five hikers came boldly up the trail without backpacks on headed north. I asked if any had passed a girl named Llama and none had seen her. Where is she?
Then they told me that Fish was slacking with them and that he was trying to find me. I had met him in Catawaba briefly and quickly built a sarcastic banter with him. He thru-hiked last year and is bouncing around the trail this year out of his love for hiking and hikers. He has mastered the philosophy of living in the moment without any thought to tomorrow. Then tearing down a road to the park we were talking in, roared Fish. He pulls up in his van with Sidewinder and Sam-I-Am along with him. We had a quick reunion, they grabbed me, pulled me into the van with my backpack, and tore off heading to the top of the next mountain for us all to walk down. I left my backpack in the van and hiked free of the weight. When we got to our designated meeting place, he was there waiting for us with our equipment. He slacked us a huge distance, helping me make up some miles.
Sam-I-Am, Sidewinder, Fish, the other hikers and I camped on the James River and relaxed in a beautiful state park stealthing among the trees. I got to know the new hikers and read a book as the sun set warmly. The James River is the largest river in Virginia and historically one of the most important avenues of transportation. The night turned cool along the river and I crawled into my tent back (I had gotten back and ditched the dumb tarp. I wasn’t going to have any more dogs or other animals gnawing on my head. And I really wanted no bug bites tonight). A lot has happened in my heart in the last few days and my mind is just whirling. I’m so tired and yet my mind is spinning around wondering what happened to Llama, preventing me from sleeping. This group has asked me to slack with them so I’ll stick around for a few days with them. That will help me catch back up from the time lost with the sickness.
Wednesday, June 16, 1999
My new hiking friends are Lao-Hu, Sierra, Buttercup, Flame, and Flame’s cousin who was section hiking with her. We got up, snuck out of the state park and they began to teach me the finer points in slack packing.
Fish told me that many hikers are still getting sick from Catawba. A doctor hiked to one shelter to treat the hikers who were packed in, taking IV’s with him to combat the dehydration. This is not a simple sickness. The hiker’s sickness made the news in Lynchburg and is getting picked up in other areas in the state.
Thursday, June 17, 1999
When this new group added me, I thought they knew each other and were close friends but I found out they have known each other for a very short time. This group really likes to talk as they hike, tell jokes and stories, and to push each other to go as fast as they can. So the group has taken solitude from me but has in exchange allowed me many miles, many great conversations and laughs and a sense of belonging. We hiked 22 miles yesterday and then drove to Roanoke in Fish’s van to spend the night in their hotel room. I was very grateful for that because the rain had let loose yesterday and followed through this morning. In the hotel room, whoever pays the most for the hotel gets the bed or beds. The rest pitch in a few dollars and you get the floor. Mosquito free, air-conditioning, no tent set-up, and close to a store to get unlimited ice-cream. This is a different kind of hiking than I’ve experienced so far.
Friday, June 18, 1999
After I called the health department, reporters and the EPA went to Catawaba and found bad water which may not be the cause of the sickness, but they also found the General Store selling egg sandwiches under the table. So the owner now hates hikers and will not sell to them, will not let them camp behind his store, and is now e-mailing every business establishment on the trail to ask them to do the same. I almost feel bad in light of the outcome. Almost.
Dawn Treader and Shiver came into camp at Hog Gap tonight. I warmly greeted them and then they made their way over to some other hikers to hang out. I really wanted to run over to them can catch up, to share what I’ve been thinking about, to share about this Llama girl I met, and to get an emotional hug from them. But I don’t think they want that. A distance has grown between us. It feels like they want me to move on. I see them camping with people, staying in hotel rooms with others and being part of community, I’m glad to see that they are connected with others. I’m just sad that they don’t want me to be a part of that. I wonder if I offended them, if I said something, if I did or didn’t do something… maybe it has nothing to do with me. And I’ll never know and I just need to not go alone into my head. It’s a bad neighborhood up there tonight. I don’t have to understand but I give them their space and I smile.
Saturday, June 19, 1999
When we crossed the James river a few days ago we entered into the lands once claimed by the Iroquois Tribes. They were a warlike people who raided anyone they wanted to with the exception of the Cherokees. They were the most wide spread Indians going up into New York and on into the Lake Ontario region of Canada. They are usually remembered for their Mohawk hairstyle, a single stripe of hair down the middle of the head, or with a scalp lock, a single lock of hair grown out to a long length.
Sierra carries a wiffle ball and the plastic bat that sticks straight out of his pack. Whenever he has a few minutes free from hiking he will take his pack off, pull out his bat with great reverence and will then swing it around feeling its weight. He will then proceed most often to use the bat as a light saber believing himself to be a Jedi of great power and skill in the ways of the force. He practices his sword moves every chance he gets, lunging and swinging at imaginary objects, attacking and dodging, thrust and parry. The only time he stops practicing is when a Wiffle ball game has been challenged. He gets a sly grin on his face as if this was the best moment of his day because you walked into a trap.
He argued with me that if you place a cone over a small radio speaker that sound is increased. I argued that sound did not increase but was only given a focused direction making it sound louder when directed towards the listener. We couldn’t settle the question so to the playing field we went to play five one-out innings with the Wiffle ball. The game would decide who was correct. It was a tough battle of one-on-one lasting about an hour with a crowd cheering us on. In the end, focused direction won out over increased volume. The next two challenges will be over which is more important questions revolving around which is better, calculus or geometry? And then we will finally settle the issue of which coffee is better, Sumatra or Guatemalan? Lao-Hu is the coffee challenger.
Spring on the trail has been delicious. Every bend in the trail seems to present us with more gifts. Wild strawberries and black berries are the first to be coming ripe. They have been small but full of juice and very sweet. I can’t wait to find wild blueberries as we get further north.
Sunday, June 20, 1999
When I get my mail drop at the post office I first go through my food box and plan my weeks worth of food, trying to budget how I will eat. I try not to carry more food than I need and I don’t want to run out and need to kill a squirrel for a meal. My favorite part is the mail from friends and family. I save them until I’m done for the day and can savor them. I want to emotionally engage and process the things I hear. As I sat by the fire reading my mail, Sidewinder came over by me and looked at what I was doing. After a few minutes he asked, “What kinds of things are people writing you?”
I responded, “People are encouraging me and telling me how I have impacted their lives.”
In a loud mocking voice he said, “So they are blowing sunshine up your ass, probably all lies.”
Others around us got quiet, slowed what they were doing and looked at us. I was pretty embarrassed.
He has taken to cutting me with his words lately. I’m trying to not be near him and his mouth or engage him in conversation if I can help it. I don’t understand how one person can enjoy me one minute and the next slam me to the ground in front of everyone.
And as I read these letters from friends I hear from some that my writing is having an impacted on their lives. That feels good to hear but I don’t think I ever head that when I was back in my normal life. I would have thought that I had no impact on their lives. Maybe. In my life back home I struggle with depression and loneliness. Why do I not feel loved through the routine of daily life and why is this different? And I’m guilty of not sharing affirmation to others.
Whenever I come across a hiker that has caught up to me I ask, “Have you seen or heard of Llama?”
Most tell me they haven’t seen her in a week. So I leave messages for her at all the shelters I pass asking her to hurry up and catch me. I really thought I would have heard from her by now through the trail relay system we have.
The papers have stated along with CNN and the Washington Post that there were unhealthy levels of fecal coliform bacteria found in Catawaba’s well water. Human fecal matter had leached into the water source. The illness according to health officials is consistent with the Norwalk Virus.
Monday, June 21, 1999
My feet are raw and bloody so I’m taking a zero day in Waynesboro, VA to rest and heal.
The first major expedition into the Shenandoah Valley was in 1669 led by a German, John Lederer. There were a few people hidden throughout who were already making lives for themselves. They were tough Scotch-Irish families, driven by poverty to carve out a life in the stark wilderness. John Lederer was surprised because he thought he was the first pioneer but made him different from the others is that he was simply the first to return to share his discoveries with others.
In 1716 Alexander Spotswood, Virginia’s Governor, led a band of Virginians underdressed for mountain travel through the Blue Ridge. It was a symbolic political gesture to indicate that the valley was open for settling from the East. That it was safe for others to follow. At the end of their exploration each member was given a small golden horseshoe and they became known as the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.
As the trail crosses roads and highways through Virginia I often come upon sleepy little stores where mountain folk sit around on creaking wooden chairs and even cracker barrels stained dark with age. Tractors and pick-up trucks are ridden down the roads in the day and people sit on porches while moths and mosquitoes buzz and flop against the screens. There are people who live in these mountains, tucked deep into its folds. They have a deep love and respect for these mountains and feel bonded to them. And many of them are protective and don’t want outsiders messing them up. The mountains aren’t just rock and stone but a breathing and living creation of God that they don’t want others desecrating.
As a hiker I am not a part of this land, but I also more than a tourist. I feel like I’m talking to their hills and mountains and listening to God through them. I am actively participating and engaging with them and in a sense giving honor by giving my time and sweat.