Tuesday, June 22, 1999
The land is showing off its beauty to me as I pass through its heart. There are over 2,500 varieties of vegetation with 1,500 of them being floral. There are 40 wildflowers that can only be found here in the whole world, found on the heath balds. The heaths are one of the two unique complex communities of floral interactions, the other being coves. Heaths are from the heath family of low evergreen undershrub’s, which include azalea, laurel, mountain myrtle, rhododendron, blueberry and huckleberry. The word “heath” is from the Scottish word “heather,” which has been altered. These heath balds are said to be the jewel in the crown of the Appalachian Mountains floral growth.
Then there is Kudzu. Kudzu is growing over the hills and trees as if someone had laid a green bed sheet over the land. It is an oriental vine introduced to combat erosion in Mississippi but it’s now grown and multiplied into seas of green leaves. Attacking and keeping Kudzu at bay is an accepted part of farming on the warmer slopes of the Blue Ridge and has yet to show any redeeming qualities. It’s become what I look at the most as I continue my journey north. This section of trail is not difficult to walk through. These are old mountains that have been softened and mellowed by time and weather, more rolling than climbing and fighting up and down.
The group of us headed up to the trailhead and registered with the Parks Service to enter the Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah means “daughter of the stars”in an Indian language that has been long forgotten.
As we were filling out the small paperwork required for us to progress, a large red truck from Oregon pulled over and a nice looking couple in their 30’s got out. They asked if we were thru hikers and got very excited to learn that we were. They began to pump us full of questions about hiking because they are getting preparing to hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year. We all took turns sharing hiking tips and told them some adventures we have had, then we got ready to leave, itching to lay our miles down. They took a group photo for us and then my friends began to turn and make their way into the woods. I asked the couple their names and what they were doing. “Craig and Donna, and we’re heading to Monticello next for the day.”
My eyes quickly grew large and my jaw dropped. I’m certain a bit of drool made its way down my chin. They saw my desire and without saying a word they took my backpack, threw it into the back of their truck told me to climb in. I’ve been wanting to go to Monticello for years and never expected that I would get to see it on this trip. This is a bucket list item I get to check off.
Craig and Donna have been traveling the United States for the last three years with only two commitments a year that require their time, Christmas and Thanksgiving with family. Other than that, they travel, climb, hike, explore, go to museums, read, meet people and have tons of fun. When they got married five years ago they went on an eight-month honeymoon with two of those weeks exploring the Amazon Jungle with two guides. This is real? People like this are real? That couple is fun and they are curious about everything. They asked me question after question about my life, why I chose to hike the trail, how I have grown on the trail, who I have met, “and tell us more about Llama?” This has to be a great life, to travel, explore and learn with someone you love. I don’t think it could get much better.
It wasn’t a long drive to get to Monticello which Jefferson called his “Essay in Architecture”,but in French means, “little mountain.” Jefferson was the third President of the United States, the author of the Declaration of Independence and is forever has his face portrayed on the nickel. On the backside of every nickel is a picture of Monticello (which I never knew. It’s even printed on it and I didn’t know that either).
Jefferson integrated his love for classical architecture with modern innovation and practicality to create an architectural masterpiece. It is the only house in the U.S. on the United Nation’s prestigious world heritage list of international treasures. The tour of the house was guided so we were moved at a pace much faster than my excited mind appreciated. I wanted to soak it in, to process at my pace the history, the creativity, the genius of the man, but we were shuffled through and given only a taste of the feast laid before us. Jefferson collected art works, musical instruments, maps from around the world, a giant library, artifacts and much more to display on his walls and in every room to challenge guests to the diversity of the intellectual world beyond his home and the United States. I love that! He was in the business of breaking paradigms, he’s my kind of man. His library was nearly seven thousand volumes strong, of which I am very envious. His commitment to education, learning and improving his country led him to establish the University of Virginia.
Since I was a kid I have wanted to visit this place and I finally crossed it off my list. I often times thought that this might be a trip my dad and I could do together. I’m fairly certain it will never happen, nor would my dad ever think to take a trip like this. Maybe he would. But if he did, I know he would never think to invite me along. That makes me sad to admit. I know my dad loves me. He’s told me my entire life. And what is also true is that he’s never called me, written me a letter, talked to me when I call home from the trail, or gone to coffee with me. He’s never invited me into his life. So I guess going to Monticello is half of my dream come true. And it’s a highlight of my trail experience.
As we were driving back to the trail for Craig and Donna to drop me off, they brought up the topic of Llama again. As we got closer to the trail they detoured and decided to feed me in Waynesboro before taking me back to the trail. “Yes please.” As we drove around the town I kept my eyes peeled open for Llama who might be walking around. In the last day I had heard from several people that she was right behind me and was trying to catch me. My heart was racing. “She’s on the trail still? She’s looking for me? Its not just me who wants to reconnect?” When we saw any hikers around town Craig and Donna pulled over so we could ask if they knew where Llama was.
They asked me why I liked Llama and I must have droned on because they just sat smiling and quiet, looking back and forth at each other. They loved the idea of helping me find romance on the trail, it inspired and excited them. So they kept pulling over and I kept asking any and all hikers we could find. No luck. No luck. No luck. I was ready to quit, they had gone above and beyond to help me find this girl and I was ready to hike a few miles to my shelter before it was too dark.
Donna said, “What if she’s supposed to be your wife? We can’t stop looking for her.”
“Ok,” I replied and settled back into my seat to keep watching out the windows.
We returned to the Blue Ridge Parkway that paralleled the trail and drove south looking for hikers. We made our way to the gated driveway of Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow, a hiker’s hostel and got out of the truck. As we walked onto the property to see if any hikers were there, signs that stated all kinds of silly phrases and “rules,”were nailed to trees and the hostel itself. There were several hikers there who said they had gotten sucked in and had been there a few days unable to tear away. They hadn’t seen Llama.
I was discouraged. This was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I threw in the towel and figured It would be another day that maybe we would meet again and see if there was something between us. We got back in the truck and began to drive north to where they originally picked me up in the morning. We had driven half way when there on the right was a grassy area and three hikers were sitting around rummaging through their backpacks. One of them was Llama. I yelled, Craig whipped the truck around and slammed the brakes in a cloud of dust and rocks stopping just shy of the three startled hikers.
Before the truck had fully stopped I jumped out of his huge red behemoth truck, I had no idea what to say or do after that. I just stood there for a second staring at her smiling. Her eyes lit up with surprise and wonder at how I could just appear out of nowhere. Llama had been going through her gear with her close friends Lu and White Bark preparing to separate from them. Her friends had told her that they were going to be slowing down for a bit so she had decided she was going to go looking for me. She wanted to hike with someone she knew and enjoyed and wondered if there was more going on between us. I asked, “Want to go hiking with me?”She smiled and gave me a hug. We threw her backpack into the back of the truck, she climbed in and we sat in the back seat just looking at each other. This is the beginning of my Shenandoah adventure.
Wednesday, June 23, 1999
Last night the shelter Llama and I stayed at had an inhabitant far more dangerous that the crafty mieces. I woke up several times to the sound of scraping and scratching under the shelter. It was louder and deeper than the previous sound of mieces, this was a large rodent at work. It would wake me up and drive me nuts, then get quiet and I would fall back asleep. An hour later it was active in its secret laboratory creating instruments of destruction.
When I got up in the morning I was exhausted. I moved slowly and gathered my belonging to put in my backpack. “Wait, where is my headlamp?”My headlamp weighs a ton and runs on three heavy AA batteries. In the trail register other hikers reported cameras and other items missing come the morning. Some think it is other hikers who steal equipment but I am certain it was a pack rat. They are collecting electrical gadgets and equipment, getting ready to take over the whole mountain. They are creating a whole city of advanced technology off of hikers’ gear and equipment.
Llama and I were the last to leave the shelter having come in late and slept so poorly. Just before we put our packs on she came up real close to me with a big grin on her face. This is it. I kissed her. Best day ever.
Llama and I walked the trail all day together talking mostly about our families, how we grew up, about God and what we each believe. She had been taught that to be a Christian and to go to heaven you had to go to church each week, pray, be nice to everyone, be honest… do this and do that. And if you did it right, God would be pleased and you wouldn’t get sent to hell. She had been taught that rules save you from hell. So when I started talking about hearing the voice of God, feeling the heartbeat of God, and being in a relationship with God, she had no clue what I was talking about. So we started talking about a different view of God than one that she known and had walked away from. She said, “Your relationship with God amazes me because I didn’t know that kind of life could be experienced and I’ve always wanted that. I always wanted it to be that way but I didn’t know it was real.”
When we got to the general store by our campsite at night I was surprised to found the whole crew there working on their second drunken stupor. I thought they would be long gone ahead of me. But they were sitting in the sun eating ice cream, drinking beer, and playing Whiffle ball. The crew got there before lunch and then proceeded to get drunk, and then when they were sobered up they decided they should eat dinner. That’s when they thought beer would be as much fun as the first time. Lao-Hu’s wit was actually accentuated, keeping us all in stitches. We were planning on doing some stealth camping because as Lao-Hu said, “I am a patriot, a lover of freedom. I will camp where I want for the love of God.”Lao-Hu then went on to tell us that there is a fundamental imbalance in the universe. “Why cannot clean be wiped on our clothes and bodies as easily as dirt and filth? Something is wrong with this.”
At the general store I bought a small green toy lizard. When Llama wasn’t looking I snuck it into her backpack. This is part of the rich tradition of practical jokes that happens among hikers. We like to hide things in each others packs. Trinkets, toys, sticks, rocks, or food we don’t plan on eating. There is the stealth of trying to plant it without getting caught. Then there is the joy and laughter of finding it and then the fun of payback. Our little group has been passing around a carved piece of wood and a painted rock, now we will add a lizard.
Thursday June 24
Another great day of easy hiking. My boots are clunky and still cause my feet to bleed but I’m having so much fun getting to know Llama I barely notice or care. She is a grounded artist and that fascinates me. I’ve spent way to much time around artists that are self-absorbed and “too deep”for others. Some artists use their passion as an excuse to do whatever they want and blame it on something they can’t control. “I can act however I want, its not my fault, I’m an artist.” Llama seems grounded, she loves too notice life around her, and then tries to reflect what is beautiful. It’s easy for artists to focus on the pain and hurts, it takes great skill to reflect on things that bring joy, and light, and life. There is a maturity to her.
Llama continued to ask more questions about God, about what it means to have a relationship with God, how it works and how has she not heard this while going to church her entire life. We talked and we walked together the entire day.
When we got to the shelter were a lot of people around making dinner, sitting by the fire, doing their chores. And after dinner Llama and I were off to the side of the group and Llama asked, “So what do I do now?”
“About what?”I responded.
“With God. I feel like I know I want a relationship with God, but am I supposed to feel something? Am I supposed to do something? Do I just pray a prayer? That doesn’t seem enough.”
I grew up being taught that when someone is asking this, you are supposed to have them pray a prayer where they repent from all the evil they have done in life, seal the deal, notch your belt and feel very self-righteous that you did what you were supposed to do. I get motion sickness just thinking about that. I took a deep breath and simply asked, “Can I pray for you?”
“Sure.” She said.
I simply prayed,“God, talk to Llama and reveal yourself to her in ways that open her heart to you. Help her to connect to you.”
That’s all I did and then I decided it’s God’s job to make anything happen, not mine. After that the sun set and I went to bed.
Friday, June 25, 1999
The morning was cold and a dew clung to the grass. The first thing Llama did when she woke up was pull out a stack of birthday cards people had sent her and she was carrying them unopened until this morning. When we were both ready we hit the trail, we were the first out. I know because I was blazing the trail and clearing it of all the webs spiders had crafted through the night. Its Llama’s 25thbirthday today. Inside my backpack I had hidden an inflated balloon to give her later in the day as a fun surprise. Today we were both quieter. We hiking close by but not in step with each other, both of us lost in our own thoughts and taking in the most amazing views. By lunchtime I was several minutes ahead of her, so when I found a nice grassy location that was shaded I stopped to wait for her. It happened to be an old overgrown and possibly forgotten cemetery, Dean Cemetery. When she walked out of the woods and crossed Skyline drive, her face was bright and beaming with joy. She was alive inside and she was beautiful.
As soon as she sat down she started to tell me about how amazing her morning was. She said that as soon as she started to hike this morning her mind exploded with memories. She thought of her grandpa who had taken such care of her as a kid, loving on her and patiently teaching her. She thought of her parents, her uncle Dave, family and friends who had loved her, cared for her, protected her, and after each memory she heard God say, “That was me loving you through them. I loved you. I cared for you. I protected you.”
She said that as she hiked the trail she was sobbing for miles as she recognized how loved she is by others and God. How God had placed them in her life to pour his heart out through. Then a deep sense of peace came over her, a quietness and stillness that sharpened her thoughts with clarity and courage. “I want to give my life to Jesus. I don’t know how that happens or what will happen but that’s what I want to do.”
“I think you already did,” I replied.
She sat leaning up against a tree just smiling and crying with happiness. What a great day.
Saturday, June 26, 1999
I thought blisters were going to be the irritation I enjoyed the least on the trail. Blisters on my toes, under my toes, between my toes, on my heals, and now, under the toenail. But there is a deeper pain that that, the chafing where it meets the saddle. The group I’m hiking with has convinced me of the power and magic properties of Gold bond. Its more than medication, its a party waiting to happen. When it is first applied to the areas of chafe, it burns and stings. Then after a few seconds it settles into the feeling of a gentle minty breeze. Its an amazing feeling. How could I have gone this long without it in my life? This isn’t something just for hiking, this is a product that revives and excites the soul and puts a spring in your step. You can always spot a person who has just applied Gold Bond because their hand will still be white from the residue of application. Then the questions start to come up, is it appropriate to bond in public or is this something that should only be done in private? Our group has decided that this is a question that only a whiffle ball game can settle. The container of Gold Bond has a warning of what to do if accidentally ingested. Sierra decided to liberally put it in a drink, on purpose, thinking that would be safe because it wasn’t an accident. He enjoyed the refreshing smoothie.
Moezass caught up to me today giving me a huge hug and the biggest smile. I’ve missed seeing him and had been wondering when I might see him again. He is glad to finally caught up so he can quit dropping the large miles down in a mad frenzy to catch us. He brought news of all the hikers we knew of who had dropped off of the trail because of injury, lack of finances, depression, disappointment, or life just took them a different direction. We are continually thinning ourselves out as we get further and further north.
This group of hikers that Llama and I have fallen in with are a group of lush drunks. They seem to be a group that thinks constantly about where the next beer might come from. They hike with beer stashed in their backpacks and hike buzzed. I’m not really drinking, partly because it’s not in my budget like it is in theirs, and partly because it’s just not that big of a desire for me. I love a beer. But I’ve never had a passion to get trashed. Its just not a temptation of mine. I love these people who seem to lust for beer. I don’t mind that they get drunk because when they do they are never crass, vulgar, or disgusting, but they because more fun, philosophical, intellectual and sharp witted. I know I just get emotional and can’t stop talking, its best that I don’t head there.
We went to the taproom at a restaurant just off the trail, and sat around drinking at the end of our days hike. The gang emptied out a keg or two while Llama and I sat nursing coffee, all of us listening to a guitarist and talking and laughing. The singer loved us. He asked for song requests and led us in boisterous singing and laughing. All the tourists sitting around the taproom sat clean smelling and rigid, watching us have a great time but very subdued. We were their entertainment with the guitarist playing all our theme songs.
At the end of the evening when the guitarist ended his set and the bar was closing down, Lao-Hu asked to borrow the guitar and once he was given permission took to the stage. He sat thoughtful for a moment and then began to play the song “American Pie” by Don McLean to the surprise and loud cheers of everyone. He is the only person I know who can actually sing the whole song from memory. He didn’t miss a word. who knows all the words. Lao-Hu is such a cool guy.
Rick the Ranger had been watching us all night and had asked where we would be spending the night. We all knew we would be stealth camping because the next legal place for us to camp was 10 miles away and the group was sauced. Lao-Hu had mumbled to Rick the Ranger something about possibly planning a night hike, which was our foreshadowing. We left the bar around 11:30 p.m. and walked five minutes with our headlamps on up to a water tower with plenty of grass and flat spaces. “Perfect!” We all set up tents and started to snuggle into our bags, when car headlights lit up our tents like Chinese lanterns. Ranger Rick found us! He was so nice not to give us tickets but he did make us pack up and hike on saying, “There is a huge rattlesnake den about 20 feet from the water tower and I’d hate to see you get into any trouble with them. Just climb to the next mountain and I’ll leave you alone.”
We were tired, some of us were drunk, we were all nervous about seeing any snakes, but we packed our gear up and let the full moon and our few headlamps light the path for us. Only two of us had them so once we got under the trees we felt very blind as a group. It was slow going as a group of six of us walked in single file. The person in front would yell out where the rocks, logs and steps were. We were so close to each other if any of us did fall we would have gone down like dominoes. As we turned on a switchback we scared a family of deer, waking them up at 1 a.m., “crazy hikers!” They jumped and bolted all around us, their red eyes reflected the two headlamps. Legs and hoofs seem to be everywhere but not one of us get knocked down by them. We were freaking out as much as they were. We ended up camping two miles away at 1:30 a.m. on a high cliff overlooking the Shenandoah Valley with the stars shining bright and wisps of clouds lit up and glowing from the moon. It was a 19 mile wonderful day.
Sunday, June 27, 1999
It was a bright sunny Sunday morning. I slept deep though it was not a long sleep. Others in our group seemed to struggle more. Everyone else besides Llama moved slow. They struggled through hangovers and from the rough nights sleep on hard bedrock of the cliffs. A fellow hiker named Prince Albert came down the trail and stopped to offered me a hit off of his tinfoil pipe to get me going, “That’s very kind, no thanks.”He likes to celebrate at the top of ever mountain and then again at the bottom with a smoke with his dog Tennessee.
Two other objects have been added to the hiding game we like to play with each other, a rosary and a small doll head with poofy red hair found on the road. I don’t know if it’s that I’m an easy target or that they want to see me carry useless things, but they all seem to end up in my pack at the end of the day.
Mozeass told me a new story about Sunshine, the hard to love man who is disabled. A couple of weeks ago he was sleeping in a shelter and didn’t tell people how cold he was getting in the night. By morning hypothermia had set in and he needed getting help to get off the trail. He is going to take some time off and heal and decide if he should just be done or not.
I’m finding a new struggle among the group that I’m hiking with. They don’t mind that Llama has joined us but they don’t do anything to accept her. They don’t talk to her, they don’t include her, she’s almost invisible to them. It feels like the glue that kept everyone together and enjoying each other was Fish and he departed a few days ago to go back to Florida to work. Sidewinder is getting more and more cutting with his words and they are becoming less passive aggressive and more directed to make jabs at me. Is he mad at me or that he is hiking and needs to point his anger at someone? Whatever the reason he seems to have chosen me as his target for his teeth.
We hiked 22 miles, it feels awesome to see the numbers of miles increase but there haven’t been the brutally painful mountains to slow us down either. The more gentle trail means I can look around more as I hike but that still didn’t give me any sightings of bears. Every day someone will spot a bear and I’m still trying to lie to myself, I squint my eyes and pretending that a squirrel is a powerful black bear and I feign fear. I did see another rattlesnake after almost stepping on him. It was almost entirely black with a yellow fat strand of rattles on its tail. It rattled at me but never coiled, it just slowly slithered into the brush irritated with me for disturbing its sunning.
Monday, June 28,1999
We were tired of hiking the trail so we boldly walked right down the middle of Skyline Drive which parallels the trail. Buttercup was struggling, ever since the Ranger Rick stealth camping night hike her foot has been giving her problems. She was limping down the road making squinting pained faces as she took every step. She walked the 22 miles limping and was about to go another 15 with Lao-Hu to reach town by morning but the pain grew to great. So I hitched a ride with a park ranger to take her to the hospital in Front Royal for her to get her foot x-rayed.
The doctor said that he saw no signs of a break but that it is probably just her tendons. She was told to stay off it for a week. That normally would be a problem because all the hikers she is with probably wouldn’t sit around waiting for her, but she is in luck. We all decided to try a special blue blaze, we are going to canoe down a river for a few days.
We came off the trail to get ready for our canoe trip and packed ourselves into a small dirty hotel with absolutely no room for the ten of us to move around in. I absolutely love these people, they smell bad and are very hairy, they wear the exact same thing every day, but their love is genuine and they are blessed with diverse beautiful personalities. And as with every town they come to, they managed to find their favorite drinks and then consume large quantities of them.
I don’t foresee my time with this group continuing too much longer. I have enjoyed this group but they seem to be getting more cutting with me and each other. I think I need to be away from Sidewinder also. And Llama isn’t connecting well, this chapter is about to close. I want to hike around those who I also enjoy, those who affirm and build up. Llama and I will strike out on our own.