“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.” – Joe Ancis
“Excellence in any pursuit is the late, ripe fruit of toil.” – W. M. L. Jay
I left the hostel and headed north. There was a massive fenced in area nearby, which I learned is the Smithsonian Conservation Biological Institute. The 3200-acre campus houses a variety of endangered species, including the cloud leopard, mane wolf, American Bison, and cheetah. As a conservative Christian, I probably should have been on that side of the fence as well. Prior to its use for conservation, the area was used to train war horses during World War I.
My priority today was to coordinate a time and place to meet my friends, Darrell and Alicia Brimberry. My wife and I met, went to church with, and became friends with the Brimberry’s during my military assignment at the Pentagon. We share a love of the outdoors, and they plan to thru-hike the AT themselves in 2017 after he retires from the Army. Their plan was to set up a trail magic station for me and other hikers and then Darrell would hike with me for a couple of days. Alicia would then pick us up in Harpers Ferry and take us to their home on Bolling AFB in DC for some rest, recuperation and resupply. Needless to say, I was really excited about all of this.
Plan A had them setting up at Manassas Gap, but the timing worked better to shift that northward. I suggested Plan B which involved them setting up at Ashby Gap, mile 989.1. It seemed to make sense as the map showed the AT crossing a road there. My job was to hike at least as far as Dicks Dome Shelter, so I would be within 5 miles of their position the following morning.
Here, then, is how the best laid plan can unravel. When I got to Dicks Dome Shelter, I called an audible. Rather than face a mile ascent and five mile hike in the morning, I decided to go an extra mile. This would shorten my journey tomorrow and my AT guide showed a spring up on Signal Knob. Being nearly out of water, finding some was paramount. So I climbed the mile up Signal Knob only to discover the spring was completely dry. Not good. Not good at all. Given my increasingly desperate need for water, I had to hike on. A mile later I entered Sky Meadows State Park. It’s a beautiful park, but unfortunately camping is not allowed there along the AT. There are also no water sources there along the AT. Thirsty and tired and with no place to camp, I hiked on. A few miles later I arrived at Ashby Gap, our Plan B meeting point. The good news…there was a little creek so I could get much needed water. The bad news…this was a terrible spot for the Brimberrys to do trail magic. It was among the most dangerous, divided highway road crossings on the AT. So with the sun starting to set, I called Darrell and told him we needed a Plan C, but my priority at the moment was to find a place to set up my tent before it got dark.
Exhausted, I continued northward and eventually found a nice spot by a stream at mile 991.1, just as it got dark. After settling in, I called Darrell and he proposed a new Trail Magic and rendezvous point at Snickers Gap, about 12 miles north. I agreed, mainly because I heard him say Snickers. After my 21.7 mile day, I just wanted to go to sleep…and so I did.
My takeaways from the above narrative:
1) It’s not easy coordinating a time and place to meet someone on the AT because there are so many variables involved. I’m glad the Brimberrys were patient with me and flexible.
2) You can’t always rely on water being available where your AT Guide indicates, unless it’s a major source like a river. Thus, it’s good to have a backup plan, preferably one that doesn’t require hiking at night or in bad weather.
3) The butterfly effect is alive and well on the AT. One seemingly small decision (like hiking just one more mile) can have a much larger ripple effect, like having to actually hike 7 more miles (bad effect) and discovering the planned rendezvous point needs to be changed (good effect). I find it interesting to think about how my life might have been different had I made different decisions and flipped different levers.
4) Romans 8:28 says “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I think this verse tells me, among other things, that if I love God and try my best to live faithfully, he is going to ultimately bring about good outcomes in my life…regardless of which specific lever I flip (college choice, career choice, choice of spouse, etc.). I can (and do) make bad choices on the AT that have bad consequences, but I feel like God just figures out a way to have some good come out of them.
After getting water near the Rod Hollow Shelter, I strapped on my proverbial seatbelt and began the famous AT Roller Coaster! The Roller Coaster is a 13.5 mile stretch of non-stop ups and downs. There is a total gain of more than 5000 feet as you make your way over more than a dozen steep, rocky hills. It’s a parting shot from Virginia before entering West Virginia.
A little more than halfway up and down the Roller Coaster, I came across a simple sign marking the 1000 mile point for northbound AT hikers. I had to stop for a minute and let that sink in. I just hike 1000 miles! I took a picture, of course. I also said a prayer of thanksgiving. I didn’t ask God for anything in this prayer, I just thanked him for bringing me this far on the journey without serious injury or incident. I posted the photo on my Facebook page, and received a comment from Rex Dutton, our preacher from Florida, which I found quite profound. Rex wrote:
“Congratulations! These adventures are going to make an awesome book one day soon. God will work through this journey of yours to do many great things! I have so enjoyed your posts! And for the rest of us who will never accomplish anything so significant, and may feel useless from time to time, I could not help but think about that tree behind you bearing that sign… It has never been anywhere, and yet, there it stands and it still serves an important purpose.”
By “anything so significant” I think Rex is referring to noteworthy, out of the ordinary physical feats. I reminded him that preaching 40+ years, as he has done, is an amazing, world-changing accomplishment that far exceeds hiking a trail…even a really long trail. I really appreciate his final point about the tree holding the sign. No glory. No fanfare. It’s not the biggest or oldest or prettiest tree on the AT or even that mountain. But it has a job to do and does it well. By doing its job, it allows the sign, and the thousands of hikers who stand in front of it, to get the glory.
I suspect among my readers there may be a few folks who feel useless or unappreciated at times. Maybe your life seems boring. You may think, “All I do is (fill in the blank).” Maybe it’s been awhile since your boss, customers, children, or spouse have thanked you for what you do. Let me remind you your life has significance because God made you…in His image! Your life has significance because Christ made the ultimate sacrifice, giving his own life, to make your salvation possible. God has a plan and purpose for each one of us. Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” Whether you are a plumber or teacher, a janitor or doctor, a tree or a sign, be a good one…do it well. Whether you aspire to hike the AT or just aspire to get through the day, know that what you do matters and makes a difference. You are a hero to someone, so keep on keeping on.
By mid-afternoon, at mile 1003.2, I arrived at Snickers Gap. I crossed the road and made my way over to Darrell and Alicia’s Trail Magic station. She came running up to hug me, which means she’ll probably need to throw her outfit away. I was that funky from my Roller Coaster ride. The two of them had been there for a few hours, giving out drinks, fruit, cookies and other goodies to hikers. There was quite a crowd there when I arrived. Alicia had prepared a private cooler of drinks and goodies just for me which was way, way cool!
After resting, eating, drinking, and visiting a bit, we said farewell to Alicia, and Darrell and I headed northward. For the first time in my journey, I was hiking with a long-time friend. He was eager and fresh, in part because he had missed most of the Roller Coaster and hadn’t hiked 12 miles in the heat that morning. I really enjoyed hiking with him and getting caught up on children, career, future plans, etc. Not surprisingly, he had several AT-related questions for me as he continues to prepare for their 2017 thru-hike attempt. At mile 1005.7, we stopped for a photo at the sign telling us we were crossing over into West Virginia, state #5!
At mile 1010.6, after a 19.5 mile day for me, we stopped for the night at the Blackburn AT Center. It wasn’t quite a challenging first night with me on the trail for Darrell, as we slept on the large screened-in porch of the Center and were offered big bowls of soup by the caretaker.
It had been an interesting couple of days, featuring a 1000-mile marker, Trail Magic, a Roller Coaster, a border crossing, and multiple changes of plans. Ultimately, God worked everything out for me, as I knew he would. I’m especially thankful he saw fit to provide me with a good friend to hike with, if only for a couple of days.
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