Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blister Boy

I write to you today a beaten man. As you know if you read my blog, I took last week off to start what I had hoped would be the first stage of an Appalachian Trail hike. But I am sad to report that this will likely be my last such attempt. Turns out I am what you would call a "tender foot". The best hiking shoes money can by and countless, well-intentioned trail remedies were not enough to prevent my feet from looking like hamburger meat by the time I called the thing off. But I did manage to cover about 50 miles in five days, meet some awesome people, and make memories that will last me the rest of my life.

I am in good company in not conquering the AT, however. Most people never get to the trail at all, even though it covers 2,180 miles while passing through fourteen states. Of those that do attempt it, only about 15% are estimated to actually finish the whole thing. Hiking the entire trail in one season is called "through-hiking". These folks are a special breed, and are not like you and me. They have a super-human tolerance for heat, rain, biting insects, rashes, thirst, and pain - along with a complete lack of common sense. I can walk in their footsteps for a while, but will never go where they have gone, or see what they have seen. My hat's off to you, you crazy sons-of-a-gun.

The group I had hoped to join are called "section-hikers" who, as the name implies, hike a section at a time over the course of multiple seasons (or even a lifetime), ultimately completing the whole thing. Of course there are also day-hikers that decide to just walk in the woods for a while, and I can think of no better place to do that. Just keep in mind that you need to turn around and walk back to your car. There's no monorail to take you. Trail etiquette dictates that day-hikers yield to section-hikers, and sections to through-hikers. Ditto for the shelters and "lean-tos" found along the trail. Many through-hikers bring no tents at all and rely solely on these shelters to complete their journey. There is one last group known as "trail runners" who, along with a support team in an automobile, run the entire 2,180 miles without any gear at all. These people are mentally ill, and you should probably avoid them at all cost.

The section I attempted was the portion of the trail passing through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Almost a full quarter of the trail is located in The Old Dominion (some 550 miles), and this section (about 100 miles) roughly follows Skyline Drive. Along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the course is relatively level (by AT standards) and considered a good place for beginners to get their feet wet (pun intended). But choosing to hike it in mid-July was a colossal blunder on my part. Sore feet not withstanding, it was just too hot. Most successful through hikes start on the Georgia end in March, and head north towards Maine, entering this section of trail in late spring. It tends to be wet and sloppy, but summer's heat is still far away. In July the trail is bone dry, but I was wet and sloppy. At one point I was sure I saw a panther, but I was assured that it was the heat playing tricks on me, as panther have been extinct in these parts for decades. Perhaps. The tiki-bar I thought I spotted just off of the trail was absolutely a hallucination, however. The patch of poison ivy I ran through to get to it was not.

So I am holed up now in my timeshare rental at The Summit at Massanutten in McGaheysville, VA, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. It's close to the AT, has a PGA-rated golf course, the highest vertical ski drop in the region and, most importantly, a whirlpool bath in each unit. The resort features units from 1 to 4 bedrooms, and enjoys a 4.5 star rating from RedWeek members. I am hoping to get up and about soon to check it out a little, but right now it gets a 10 from me.

That's all for now. I am going to soak my sore tootsies some more and focus on the positive aspects of my journey. I had hoped to come away with a great trail name - an AT tradition - but ended up with "Blister Boy" instead. It could have been worse. For a while they were calling me "that guy who was crying like a little baby when we found him," but it fortunately did not stick. Anyone want to buy a pair of men's hiking boots with only 50 miles on them?

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