I woke up this morning feeling somewhat desperate. We were almost out of the Shenandoah and closing in on 1,000 miles. The night before, I pushed hard for 20 miles to get into Front Royal to resupply and then stayed the night.
I stayed at the Quality Inn and there was a pool, and for the first time since last summer I swam, which was glorious.
I lay on the lounge chair in the late afternoon sun and closed my eyes and almost instantly was in the semi-dream state. I could hear the people around me – moms talking to their toddlers in the pool and others it seems angrily admonishing their kids for a multitude of reasons.
After three months plus on the trail, these were foreign sounds to me. And they seemed out of place, irritating and strange. I had not seen children or civilian life for a long time.
"What is this going to look like when I finish my hike?" I thought. "How's it going to feel when I jump back into life in another three months?"
I did not have an answer.
I was feeling desperate because I could not see something concrete to look forward to and I felt like I was foundering. My life now consists of only three things almost every single day – walking, eating and finding shelter.
The walking is hard – usually roughly 15 to 20 miles a day with a lot of hill climbing. So, having something to motivate me to walk those ups is really important.
It doesn't have to be something big to look forward to. In fact the last goal, one which motivated me for three full days, was blackberry milkshakes. I would be able to buy them at the Shenandoah campground grill.
It also didn't hurt that when I went to the first grill I discovered they also sold monster-sized cinnamon buns.
But I woke up this morning without any rewards that I could imagine and I was not liking my hike. Then as the day wore on, the trail began to work its magic.
In fact, out of the blue I stumbled onto three separate instances of what we call trail magic, two of the traditional ones – food from people on or near the trail – and one nontraditional kind of trail magic.
The traditional trail magic consists of usually former through hikers setting up tents or just working out of their vehicle and feeding hikers as they walk past them on the trail. The food ranges from hamburgers and hotdogs to cookies, sodas, beers and the like.
These are wonderful acts of kindness that hikers cherish.
So my day improved after I'd enjoyed two separate instances of trail magic and had good conversations with the through hikers who are providing the treats.
Later that day I approached an open field of 10 to 15 acres or more that looked like it was an overgrown pasture. The wind was blowing hard in the grass so that it looked like vast green waves at the beach.
In the middle of this isolated field I noticed a bench, and as I got closer I realized that there was someone sitting on it. It had to be a hiker. Only a hiker would be so far out so far away from everything.
By this time it was mid-afternoon and I was sweating heavily and spent from my day’s hike which included two big ups – one of 1,000 feet and one of 650 feet – and I still had one more to do.
As I got closer to the hiker on the bench he stood up and excitedly greeted me.
"Alpaca you're still on the trail! I can't believe it. So good to see you."
I stared at him for a moment and then replied, "Eagle Eye I can't believe this either. The last time I saw you was my first week on the trail over three months ago."
I thought Eagle Eye had dropped out after the first tough miles But there he was on a bench in the middle of nowhere enjoying some peace and the warmth of the afternoon sun. Now he was greeting his old hiker friend whom he too thought had disappeared.
We talked for a while, and I gave him the hiker hello/goodbye shake – closed fist knuckle to knuckle – and told him I'd see him down the trail again I was sure.
The trail had worked its magic for me yet again when I really needed it. And it no longer mattered to me that I didn't have some future reward to keep me motivated.
I had the Trail. I had my trail hiker friends and that mysterious compelling bond that is fostered out here on the sides of mountains, in forests, around campfires and on hitches into town.
The last up of the day – 850 feet – during the heat of the day lay before me. Instead of laboring mightily with my last remaining diminished pools of energy, that next hour I seemed to float up the side of that mountain tirelessly, as if I had wings on my feet.
It wasn't until just before I reached the summit that I noticed the tears that were streaming down my face.