Seventy miles on the North Bend Rail Trail were ahead of me. It was the last stretch before I would cross into Ohio on the Parkersburg-Belpre bridge. I hoped the rail trail would be more stimulating than the monotony I experienced on the tow path in Maryland. I had been in contact with the West Virginia coordinator, Sharon, and she told me she could host me for the night. I just had to get there. The trail passed through old tunnels that eerily made the hair rise on the back of my neck. As I appoached the tunnel, I could see the light from the other end shine into the darkness. My curiosity got the best of me and I wandered into the darkness without a light. I knew my visibility would decrease as I got further into the tunnel but I wanted to experience the sensation for myself. I attempted to avoid the puddles but inherently, I found them. As it got darker, my senses began to disassociate. I could hear my feet crushing the dirt below me with each step but my eyes told me that I wasn’t making any progress. The darkness gave me a strange floating sensation. Eventually I emerged into the warmer temperatures and began walking into one of the small towns along the trail. I checked my mileage. Six more miles until I’d reach the spot where Sharon could pick me up. I updated her on my progress while I had cell service and kept pushing forward. I was walking with purpose and eager to be on time to meet her. Along the way a trail angel, Greg, stopped and talked to me as I walked past his house. I enjoyed hearing a little bit about his story and meeting his fluffy, orange cat but I soon realized that I’d be late meeting Sharon. In an effort make up time, I was power walking down the trail. The trekking poles moved swiftly next to me, my feet pushed off from the dirt below, and sweat dripped down my face. I was moving with such intensity driven focus that I didn’t notice when Sharon bypassed some of the trail to get me. She yelled my name from the road but between the wind and my focused mind it was hopeless. I kept trucking along and moved past her. I finally made it to the meet point and apologized for being late but she was still laughing about trying to get my attention further back. My feet were achy and my body sore so I was overjoyed to have a place to rest and to add icing to the cake, Sharon offered me the opportunity to slack pack the following day.
Cereal was on the menu for breakfast and Sharon was apologetic about it. However, each bite of the crunchy granola clusters and fresh cut strawberries intrigued my taste buds. I hadn’t had cereal in months and the simple familiarity and the delicious crunchy texture were everything I needed but didn’t know I was missing. I had a twenty mile day ahead of me and energy was surging through me. It was a chilly morning and I felt like running. No pack and Julie’s light weight shoes on my feet, I wouldn’t have another opportunity to comfortably run for a while. I took off at a slow jog that progressively got faster as I warmed up. My pace had gone from 3mph to 5mph and I could feel the blood pumping through my body. Soon, it would be too warm to run and my energy reserves wouldn’t be sufficient but for now everything was glorious! Near the old train depot in Pennsboro a man asked how far I was going. I didn’t have my pack with me so I knew it would sound odd to say I was walking across the country. Instead, I opened with “Well, it’s complicated.” I explained slack packing and why I didn’t have my pack and then the guy asks me if he can take a picture with me. I was surprised but honored. It was the first time a random person asked to take a picture with me. After completing the twenty miles for the day, Sharon picked me up. I always offer to help with cooking and cleaning to show my gratitude to the host but sometimes I need a little direction. Sharon told me I could mix the beans. I thought “mix the beans, easy enough.” She brought out brown sugar, maple syrup, onion, and peppers. The first task was to open the can of beans. She handed me a fancy can opener that creates cut-free edges and I starts going at it. “Then just squeeze it.” she directed me. I looked at the can of beans and saw how squeezing the can would allow the lid to pop off. Before Sharon could see what I was doing, I squeezed the can and the lid went flying into the air while flinging beans all over my arm. Sharon and I just started laughing. She did however take a mental note that I needed specific instructions moving forward.
Before my time with Sharon had ended I shared my notes with her on recommended trail improvements and she helped me find the closest shoe store ahead of me. Although the temporary shoes Julie had given me were great, I traded Sharon for a pair that had shoe laces. After I got off the rail trail I would have to road walk again and that meant slipping into ditches to avoid traffic. Julie’s shoes just wouldn’t stay on my feet on that terrain. So, the legacy of the sisterhood of the traveling shoes continued and Sharon would be taking them with her to Lake Tahoe! I said my goodbyes and then started down the trail only, I felt lethargic. Three and a half miles into walking, I decided to set up my tent. I felt like I was disappointing myself and others but then I decided to throw those expectations to the wind. This was going to be the day that I learned how to accept myself despite not meeting my expectations for myself. I didn’t know what was worse though, not living up to my own expectations or failing the expectations I perceived others to have.
The next town I went into was Cairo, pronounced “Care-o.” The original state coordinators for West Virginia had a shop there so I stopped inside, said hello, and signed their guest book. As I kept walking down the street, a man named Paul, store owner, started talking to me and introducing me to the other townfolk. His energy was contagious. Next door, the post office gave me a post marked envelope to mail them once I got to California. I realized then that not only was I going to have a family across the country but also penpals! I am definitely a believer in the magic of snail mail! One of the postmen was kind enough to buy me breakfast at the town diner and I endulged in an omelet and chocolate milk. As I ate, I thought about the mysteries of perfect timing. If I had kept walking the evening before, I would be having a very different experience. That, and then the magic of literally walking in other people’s shoes.
I finally would be walking into Parkersburg, the last town before I would walk into Ohio. I had a list of errands I needed to do but I didn’t know how to accomplish them all walking. Everything seemed so far apart and I was becoming overwhelmed thinking about it. It was a beautiful, sunny day but that actually created a few problems for me. The odd, 75°F weather was causing me to overheat in the clothes that I had, and I ran out of water four miles before I would be able to get into town. I eventually found a cafe/family restaurant and walked in there to cool down and refill my water. The stares started immediately as I walked in but I ignored them as I sat down at a table away from everyone else. I felt obligated to buy something if I was going to sit down so I ordered a scoop of moose tracks ice cream. I sat there searching on my Google maps, growing in frustration, and feeling more and more paralyzed. What to do? Where to go? A man, maybe the owner, walked into the room spraying air freshener and asked me, “Sweety, how long were you planning on staying because you’re stinking up the place.” I was caught off guard. I couldn’t smell myself. He proceeded to tell me that “it wasn’t my fault” and that I should “find someone to let me shower.” I clearly wasn’t wanted there so I left but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had made it through the entire state of West Virginia without crying and on my last day in the state, I broke down. Tears began to pour from my eyes as I walked along the highway. I didn’t really know where I was going but at least I was finally moving. The tears blurred my vision as I avoided the cars. I wondered if the passing cars could tell I was upset and if so, did they care? For the first time walking, I felt shame. I finally made the decision to get groceries at the Dollar General. As I walked into the store I had to numb myself from the stares and lack of acceptance. I had the trifecta of things people want to avoid: smelling, crying, and strange. Then again, maybe people weren’t treating me any different in the store and I just noticed it more because I was in a fragile state of mind. The next on my errand list were shoes. I had to walk 40 minutes to get to the nearest shoe store, “On the Run and Walk,” and on my way I passed a high school that was letting out for the day. It seemed like these teenagers were completely dumbfounded on how to react to me. I could feel their discomfort as they walked past me unwilling to acknowledge me. On the other spectrum, some of them held an unwavering stare even as I matched their eye contact. I was an anomaly. When I made it to the shoe store, I found the corner furthest from everyone to set my pack down and wait for assistance. A man named Dorsey gave me three pairs of shoes to try on that he thought would work best with my wide feet and high arch. I sat there and tried each of them on multiple times. My feet were swollen and sore from the walking that day and I was struggling to pick which I thought would make my feet feel best once they were rested. Dorsey helped me find the best shoe for me at the best price! Unfortunately, the pair was a bit hard on the eyes: neon yellow accented with purple. You could see them from outer space. They are literally out of this world. Fortunately, I wasn’t looking for style. I shared my journey with Dorsey while I figured out the shoes and he gave me some energy Gu’s for the walk. I was grateful for his help and his support towards my walk. My feet had been hurting incredibly and to finally feel like I had a decent pair of shoes was a relief. Next, I wanted to try to find some summer trail pants. Sharon had notified me that she had a contact point for me to help me run some of my errands and that is how I met Shane. Shane picked me up and drove me to Chickfila before we went to search for trail pants. I freaking love Chickfila and between the familiarity and the good food, I was feeling great. My spirits were slowly lifting and it worked out perfect that Shane had a stuffy nose. Even if I did smell bad, he couldn’t tell. From Chickfila we went to a farm store called Royal King to see if they had what I was looking for. They didn’t but I wasn’t too disappointed because I got to see baby chicks and ducklings. We tried one other place but weren’t successful. I had been planning to stay at one of the shelters at the Salvation Army but Shane was kind enough to offer me his couch to sleep on. The day started off rough but it did get better and by the evening, I was feeling human. Thank you Dorsey, Sharon, Shane, and the other people who were kind to me. No one knew I was having a hard day but you all made it better.