The C & O Canal has been many things for me but the biggest has been a wake up call. As soon as I set foot on the canal it seemed like Murphy’s Law had it out for me. I started out with all my water reservoirs filled because I was unsure of my water source. I knew the water pumps at each campsite would be turned off due to the freezing temperatures and I knew every twenty miles or so there would be a town. Nevertheless, I was now burdened with a 60lb pack and my body hated me for it. Each mile marker mocked me as I walked by. My feet were being crushed with every step. My left hip bone had continuously been sore from my high-waisted pants with an unfortunate allignment of pocket zipper and pack hip belt. I then had to deal with breaking in hiking boots. The warmer weather made my winter boots inadequate and after a few days of soggy feet I’d had enough. Other than thinking about the pain and discomfort, I questioned what reality was. By entering and exiting so many families’ lives, I get a glimpse of what another life might have held for me if I was raised in a different lifestyle with different values. I questioned the reality of the American Discovery Trail. After all was said and done, I came to the conclusion that reality is fluid. It is constantly moving and changing and therefore reality is the present moment. By the end of the day my body felt broken and it was only a 15 mile day. I had encouragement however, the West Virginia coordinator contacted me and debuted my arrival on the trail on the trail’s Facebook page. Suddenly, I had an influx of people offering their help to me further down the trail and I had hope.
A 20 mile day was ahead of me and I was fighting the urge to push through the canal while still managing my body’s physical limitations. I was experiencing a love/hate relationship with the canal. I could see the beauty it held in the spring and I was fascinated by the history yet it was redundant. The wintery state of the canal was filled with lifeless and leaveless trees. The path ahead of me was unmistakable, a gravel road. To my left was the Potomac River. To my right, the remnants of the canal. This was how it was and how it stayed mile after mile. I had to search for the motivation for the day. I’d been in my tent and sleeping bag for twelve hours hiding from the cold, darkness. I wondered how I was going to lighten my pack. I decided to carry minimal water and ditch my book “Gifts of the Wild: A Woman’s Book of Adventure.” I thought it’d be inspiring but each night I was too tired and I never actually started reading it. Therefore, I graced the next pooper in that campsite’s porta-potty with reading material. I started walking and the aches and pains weren’t as bad yet as the mileage went on they exacerbated. I didn’t see anyone for the first twelve miles and then was met by two women on horseback. The small interactions make my day. Four phrases helped me get through thus far. 1) Keep moving. 2) Progress. 3) This too shall pass. 4) Nothing lasts forever. I strangely found comfort in knowing that I can always count on things changing.. eventually. As I was walking, a bicyclist passed me and off in the distance a pitbull/lab mix was sprinting after. I thought it odd and wondered if the owner was the bicyclist but then saw a man even further back running after the dog. My guess, the dog gave chase after the bicyclist and the owner didn’t know if the dog would ever stop. The dog’s attention shifted towards me. I wasn’t afraid of her but I braced for impact. There was so much excitement. So much, that her slobber was flinging all over her face and she never skipped a heartbeat over it while continuing to be excited. I decided then that that was going to be my life goal for excitement. Next, a bicyclist stopped and started talking to me. He’d done the Appalachian Trail twice now and had life altering experiences from it. He assured me, “You’re not crazy, you’re wise,” when I mentioned some of the wild looks I’ve received. I thanked him for stopping and sharing his experience. At camp I treated water out of the Potomac with iodine tablets. It had a cloudy brown tint but tasted fine. I was also painfully aware of the train tracks not fifty feet from where my campsite was. My feet were hurting and it was getting dark. I wouldn’t be able to walk another five miles to a different camp. After a quick dinner, I retired to the warmth of my sleeping bag and slowly started to become unravelled. I layed there trying to make plans for the next day but soon felt overwhelmed. I was losing confidence in my body’s ability to keep moving but I equally didn’t know how to do nothing. Anxiety was rising in me and I felt like I wanted to throw up. I stopped trying to figure out the next day. “One thing at a time.” I told myself. I tried to gather myself and then an ungodly horn would go off and a train would flash by in all of its metal clashing. I lost it and started crying. I was now preparing myself for a restless night full of trains, jet engines, and animals fighting in the darkness.
It started sprinkling as I finally decided to get camp packed up for the morning. I thought back to the night before and had to remind myself that there is strength in allowing myself to feel my emotions. Old habits die hard and I needed to remind myself that it was okay not to always be okay. Shortly after I started walking, I decided to stop in Harpers Ferry. I didn’t know a lot about the town but I had been excited about it. A man, Sherman, stopped and talked to me a few miles before I reached the town. He gave me the directions to Harpers Ferry and asked me if I believed in God. It is a common question that I’m asked on this trail. One that I am still figuring out for myself. But it gave me a lot to think about my last few miles before I reached town. Anyways, I was happy to just have a quality conversation with someone. When I reached Harpers Ferry, I was battling the gusty wind as I crossed the bridge over the Potomac and into West Virginia. I immediately went to investigate the town directory and starred at it a good five minutes or so. Now what? I had no idea what I wanted to see or even what there was to see so I started walking down the main street and stumbled upon a visitors center. No one was inside so I started reading the plaques about the artifacts located there. Then, Bert walked into the building. He was a lovely park ranger that had lots of knowledgeable information and no one to tell it to. I asked the simplest, and frankly only question I could think of, “What should I see?” He was more than willingly to help and offered films to watch, museums to see, and places to eat and sleep. The trick was finding out what businesses were open in this wintry off season. I started telling Bert about what I was doing and he started grinning from ear to ear with disbelief. Next thing I know, he hands me money to make sure I have breakfast covered for the next couple days. Now, I was in disbelief. I exited the building feeling rejuvenated and touched by the kindness of a stranger. I wandered up a side street trying to find food. Between the cold and the mileage I have been in a calorie deficit and am on a learning curve trying to find the right balance between food weight and calorie dense foods. I came across the Potomac Grill and walked inside, pack still attached. I was immediately taken aback by the number of people in such a small place when it felt like a ghost town outside. There was one door entering and exiting the establishment and I stood there, pack and all, and waited to be seated. That situation would have been uncomfortable enough but on top of that it was a room of rather attractive guys staring at me. Soon to find out, they were all Marines on a sort of field trip. With the waiter’s permission, I finally dropped my pack at the door and sat by myself at a table meant for six. I didn’t know where to look so I starred at all the decorations and signs on the wall until my food came. Next, I needed to find a place to stay for the night. There was a campsite on the canal I could go to a few miles up river but I needed a break from the ground hog day experience. I wandered around the street searching for an Inn that apparently didn’t exist. I spotted a guy walking towards me wearing what reminded me of climber’s attire (Patagonia puffy jacket, Appalachian Trail hat, coffee cup in hand.. I don’t actually remember his shoes but if they’d been chacos I would’ve argued with him until he agreed he was a climber too) and asked him for directions. He couldn’t directly help me but he pointed me in the direction of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy where I could figure it out in a warm lounge with nice people and wifi. There I realized that for the day, I had been an Appalachian Trail (AT) hiker. I was in awe as soon as I awkwardly fit through the doors. I was given a pamphlet with nearby Inns but was immediately shown the support and network surrounding the AT community. They had binders with the picture of every hiker with a small description that had passed through the building. There was trail magic, book exchange, and so much more! It felt like a thru-hiker’s mecca. I wanted to be a part of this community and I knew I’d return one day. They also helped me realize that I had to be patient with my body and give it time to adapt to the hiking life style. I officially weighed my pack for the first time and it was 48lbs with minimal food and water. Not good. In between all of my awe inspiring revelations, I did manage to find a hostel to stay at but I wasn’t eager to get there. Instead, I hung out with my new AT friends until they closed up shop. I had found familiarity there so when I walked outside into the dark, gloomy weather, I found myself in a daze. I made my way to the Towns Inn & Hostel and although it was nice and comfortable, it felt foreign. Instead of staying in the hostel, I was allowed to stay in a room because three men were already staying there. This way, no one was uncomfortable. The building itself was an antique and the people that I found myself surrounded by lived a unique lifestyle. The three men were part of a Christian church where their main mode of transportation was on bicycle and their life dedicated to spreading the word of God. They wore tunics, grew their beards out, and wore simple clothes. They also refered to God and Jesus by their Hebrew names: Elohiym and Yeshua. The women who ran the hostel were also part of a similar church except instead of beards grown out their hair was well below their waist line. They were soft spoken, kind, and seemingly at peace but I couldn’t help but think about what they’d be like angry. I once again pondered my belief in God and thought it fascinating to discover such a diverse interpretation of what it means to live by the will of God.
My task for the day was to make it to the next town, 12 miles away, and gather groceries. My left foot wasn’t hurting too bad and I managed to fix my hip irritation by slightly sagging my pants, that way the pack hip belt rested above the zipper seam. Before I got into Shepherdstown, I asked a woman for directions to the grocery store and she gave me phenomenal descriptions. When I told her what I was doing she lit up like a fire cracker! Her energy was contagious and it inspired me. As I crossed the bridge over the Potomac I was content and driven. I was going grocery shopping! It started snowing as I walked past the college campus into the heart of town. The snow fascinated me. I started singing “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton but only the main chorus because it appears that I’m incapable of remembering entire songs. Then, I started to try to catch the snowflakes with my mouth as they flew into my face. Hydration?? As I neared the Food Lion, I began narrating my thoughts and actions in a Northern/Scottish accent. Don’t be fooled, I’m terrible at accents but under the right conditions it appears that my deeply surpressed talents emerge. My favorite part about grocery shopping was pushing my pack around in a grocery cart. No one said anything to me but the looks were obvious. I was trying to shop for high calorie foods and felt that I did a pretty good job watching the weight. Man, I was wrong. My pack was crushing me again. My logic told me that buying dinner packets that I didn’t have to rehydrate would be beneficial. However, I forgot to think about the weight of the sauce that resided inside each of them. I shuffled back to the canal and then the three miles to camp already thinking about ways to discard the weight.
My genius idea to relieve pack weight was to eat dinner for breakfast and breakfast for dinner. That meant strange Indian cuisine packets with cheese cubes for breakfast that I mixed with tuna and children’s dinosaur oatmeal (more calories than the others and I get to watch dinosaurs hatch when the oatmeal is ready) for dinner. Let me not forget lots of butter in both! This was a long day. Every five miles I had to stop and it was a twenty mile day. My feet were hurting and it was getting worse. The brightside, I encountered the Big Slackwater section of the canal. The “big” is because of the larger water body created by Dam 4 and the “slack” means that this section of water tended to be calmer than the rest. This isn’t why I enjoyed this section though. I walked along the shoreline next to limestone cliffs. Limestone cliffs that I wanted to climb. Limestone cliffs that reminded me of my first outdoor climbing experience. The tallest cliff was no more than thirty feet tall but it gave me a sense of nostalgia and reminded me of the climbing communities I’ve become a part of across the country. Along this section, I came across a “hazardous conditions” sign that blocked my path. If the ADT has taught me anything, it is that I should be skeptical of signs and check it out for myself. While I took a break, I witnessed an orange and white kitten run past the sign. I freaking love cats and they provide a sense of comfort for me. There is also a possibility that they are my spirit animals so I took it as a green light to meander past the sign. A mountain biker also appeared and nonchalantly ignored the sign. At least if things got weird or dangerous, he’d experience them first. As it turns out, the path had been closed because of flooding but the water levels had since dropped and the path had a few muddy portions. No biggy. The last five miles of the day were pretty bad. I had a good limp going and rested after every mile while racing the sun. The dark forest green/bright blue/refrigerator white colors of the porta-potties soon became a beacon of hope for me. They symbolized opportunities to relieve myself but more importantly campsites, places of rest and shelter.
Frustration was the theme today. I had the time, the will, the energy, to make a twenty mile day but my feet were on strike. I had a couple blisters (my heel and in between my big and index toe) but what I was concerned about was the structural integrity of my feet. With my background in kinesiology, I’m familiar with bodily awareness but I sometimes lack the patience it takes the body to heal. I decided to switch tactics for today. I begrudgingly agreed to a fifteen mile day and actively avoided looking at the mile markers. As the runners ran past me I wanted to yell to them, “Take me with you!” I want to run. I was tired of walking. So, I decided to run, well, as best I could with a 50lb pack on. I tightened my straps, stationed my trekking poles, and began galloping forward. Oh, it was great! Of course after completing a few intervals my back held a small ache.. totally worth it. I felt invigorated and my spirits were lifted. I wanted to interact with the runners but they all seemed so serious and focused on their running time. I saw a guy with a minimalistic trail running pack and tried to convince him to switch packs with me. He just kept walking and laughed. I wondered if I could convince someone to carry my pack and walk with me for a distance but by then all my fellow humans had dispersed. I made it to camp with plenty of daylight to waste and felt unaccomplished. I set up camp and hobbled around. As I retired to my tent for the night I could hear the water lapping against the shore. I felt like I was on a boat.
I was at a loss for motivation when trying to convince myself to get the day going. I had a restless sleep and it was freezing outside but after I got going it became a race to pack everything up. In order to save time, I decided to not heat up my strange Indian cuisine and immediately felt the chills rolling down my back. I just made myself twice as cold and wasted energy to heat up the food once it was inside me. I knew better but ignored the voice of reason. When I finally started walking, I was walking for warmth, for life. The sun hid from me the majority of the day and snow perspired from the gloomy sky. Before I reached mile four of my fifteen mile day, my feet were giving me grief. Everyone kept telling me to take care of my feet but no one ever told me how. I knew I needed rest but between my stubbornness and lack of resources, I didn’t know how to allow myself to help myself, at least until I got into town. My thoughts were engaged in planning my evening. I needed to find a hotel. I day dreamed about a massive pizza delivered just for me and rest. Somewhere around mile seven or eight, I hit my breaking point. I plopped down in front of a big tree and had the sun briefly shining on my back. I felt defeated and stared down the trail as tears began rolling down my cheeks. I began to think of all the things I was grateful for and then I started sobbing. I thought about the support from my family, from friends, from strangers that I’ve met and will meet. I then thought about how fragile the idea of the American Discovery Trail had been for me. Despite having lived on my own for the past couple years, if my parents had put their foot down and told me, “No!” about me doing this walk, I don’t think I would’ve had it in me to continue without their support. Whether they realized that or not is a different story but I believe despite their fear for my safety they had a deeper understanding that I needed to do this walk and that in the end, it would be good for me. So, I sat there sobbing and hoped no one would stumble upon me on their morning run. I began to feel an unworthiness of the love and support behind me and my journey. I started to wonder why people believed in me but then I remembered, “Why not?” I started walking again but this time I felt numb. I was emotional exhausted. I was now only concerned with the moment, with the day. I blocked out the uncertainty of tomorrow. I eventually made it into the town of Hancock. Music was playing from the local businesses and there was a town directory waiting for me. People stared as I walked down the street but I felt more human and my spirit began to lift. I made my way to the American Best Value Inn and was immediately greeted by a cat. I knew I was in the right place. As I checked into a room I awkwardly tried to socialize and was pleased to find a personable atmosphere to rest. The vintage patio furniture and a room to myself gave way to bits of excitement within me. It was time to heal.