Mice, Bears and RockMan, Oh-My!

Before I knew it I was speeding south next to a mustachioed Turk to the most dangerous place you can go on a thru hike, home.  There are no official rules of hiking but if there were, not going home would be the first.  Seeing loved ones, eating your food, and being able to sit on very comfortable couches will start drawing you to stay home.
     Stepping off trail scares me. According to a survey I made up based on my panic about getting off trail,  you are 1100% more likely to quit once off trail. I already quit two years ago unexpectedly when I stepped off and couldn’t let it happen again. Luckily the people I visited at home didn’t want to pull me off at all (no job offers this time). Quite the contrary.

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     My pops picked me up and brought me to the great city of Durham at the drop of a hat. Parents offer unrelenting support that constantly goes overlooked.
My brother stuffed me with food, beer, and housed me. As always he opened his door, shower, and use of his water closet, meaning no cat holes this weekend. I got the chance to see a few friends who couldn’t be more excited to catch me in the middle of a great adventure.

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     Jourdi forced me to get my ribs checked out since they’d been giving me extreme pain for the past 300 miles. Turns out the pain in my chest was from two dislocated ribs.  They’d been dislodged around 300 miles ago and felt like lighting every time I sneezed. Master farmer Reid filled me with delicious delicacies of greens and other Sol Patch wonders.  Thanks to Jourdi, Drea, and some suction cupping, the ribs popped back in place. 

I didn’t feel like an old car ready to be parked but rather like I had been polished by the best pit crew on Earth. 

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Other small visits packed the small time but none left me longing to stay.  I missed my family and friends but they were so excited to see me continue and finish I would have felt uncomfortable staying. I didn’t feel like an old car ready to be parked but rather like I had been polished by the best pit crew on Earth.  Their understanding of my dream reenergized and rejuvenated me like I never would have guessed.

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Lorax’s pit crew, Scott, Tristan, Nick and Audrey


    
     After a successful wedding and reception, where I did a gentleman’s job stuttering through my best man speech, my folks dropped me back at the wayside at which I had stepped off five days before; hungry to hike. I got back on in the afternoon and hiked into the night to start the chase. Around 5 o’clock I spotted this young rattler sunning in the trail.  The young snakes are the ones to worry about since they haven’t found modesty in injecting venom when they bite.  A mature snake will be economic injecting you with just enough venom to get a message across.  The young snakes will give you way too much while they learn to budget.

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A mature snake will be economic injecting you with just enough venom to get a message across. The young snakes will give you way too much while they learn to budget.


     Just before nightfall I turned the corner into an open maze of blackberry bushes to see an enormous black bear.  The bear couldn’t have been more than 12 feet away.  I don’t know who was more startled but after a few seconds of eye contact he darted east.

The bear was like a fat dog caught eating a birthday cake running without a destination.

You might think a bear running would be terrifying, especially one who boasted a foot on my height and about three times my weight, but at some point size leads to goofy, uncoordinated physical mechanics.  The bear was like a fat dog caught eating a birthday cake running without a destination.  I watched it zigzag through a field of blackberries four feet tall, occasionally pausing and looking back to see if I was still there. I walked closer to it up the trail pausing to eat from the bush it was feasting on. Some get Yelp reviews for good places to eat, hikers stick the local recommendations.      

     After a minute it was 100 yards away and in another minute it was gone. I couldn’t have been more pleased. I was giddy until I saw the trail lead into a forest that looked terrifying in the dim light. The shade from the canopy kept the forest much darker than the open field and now I was way too aware of who, or what, might be out there. I hiked fast and with my head on a swivel.

     The next day I caught word Rockman was near. He got off at the same time I did a month earlier and was playing catch up for all of Virginia.  Luckily the pain in his foot was gone and he was good to go. I did a small day hoping he’d catch me to no avail. The next morning I decided to give up on him and push past the final wayside.  I asked hiker after hiker if they’d seen him but no one had good info. 

I was officially in the back of the pack and it was eerie. 

     At the last wayside I quickly noticed a big change. The thru hikers were gone. I was officially in the back of the pack and it was eerie.  The week before I ate with over 15 thru hikers.  This time I was eating with section hikers.  A storm was moving in but I was antsy. I needed to be back in the bubble so I pushed six miles to a shelter. After an hour I was plum surprised to see my favorite platinum blonde geologist, Rockman. He pulled a 24 miler after hearing I wasn’t far and invested the effort for our reunion. We hugged and talked like school girls about events during our month apart, gossiping about Thru Tang members and such.  It’s amazing how bright you spirit can become when you see a friendly face. Now I had a formidable partner to chase each day.

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It started raining so I made a rare choice to stay in the shelter. Most hikers get burnt out on shelter sleeping from being required to sleep in them in the Smokies and inevitably getting stuck with a chorus of snoring and farts.  It’s enough to keep you out….unless it’s just really, really wet and cold and gross outside.

I woke up to a strange yet unmistakable feeling. Four tiny feet landed on my forehead and ran down my face.  I bolted upright and turned my light on to watch a white footed mouse scamper into the corner. It’s a weird mix of distress and weakness. Wildlife molestation happens and even when it’s over I could still feel it on my face.  I tried to make peace with it and go back to sleep. I stared at the rafter above my face that the mouse had dropped from for a while before I could return to my dreams.
     The next morning I felt surprisingly lighthearted about the encounter. A shelter mouse interaction is part of a thru hike and, oddly enough, something I was glad I didn’t miss.

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     After a healthy maté Rockman and I hit the road. We always hiked well together so we chatted most of the day. Like clockwork we pushed out big day after big day without night hiking or rushing.  We finished the 103 mile section in Shenandoah quickly and systematically. I’d really been surprised at how narrow the park land was and how many times it was cut up by skyline drive. It’s amazing it’s even eligible to be a wilderness area.

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