Welcome Home: The Appalachian Trail

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Last week I came home from Damascus, VA where I was given the opportunity of a lifetime – to section hike the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. I had never backpacked or camped for 5 straight days before this, but I didn’t feel nervous. I felt ready to push my comfort zone farther and test all the outdoor skills I had gained from my recent ex-boyfriend. Damascus was a consistent 85 degrees with a bit of humidity, but as soon as I got off the plane something was wrong – Delta had left my pack in Atlanta where I had connected. I was in a panic and I nearly missed my ride back to the hostel I planned on staying in Damascus. Dave, my personal driver, is the town artist, and he assured me there was another woman being picked up that afternoon and that I could hitch another ride and see if my bag was on that flight. So we left the airport empty handed. As we drove, my worried look quickly faded as I was in was in awe of the rolling hills of green. In that moment, I knew that whatever was to happen would happen, pack or no pack. I had the walk through those woods.

When we got to Mt. Rogers Outfitters, Dave informed the guys of the issue and they agreed to take me with them when they picked up Gina (my tent mate, which I didn’t know it at the time). Bill was the driver. He had a lazy eye from a stroke a few years back and a big blonde/white beard. After losing his home and job elsewhere, Bill moved to Damascus in 2000 and now lives with his dog, D.O.G, in a hammock along the Creeper Rail Trail. Bill was my first encounter with trail magic. Bill drove through the hills along the back roads to the Tri-Cities Airport and showed me some beautiful homes, landmarks and lakes. We talked about everything; why I came on this trip, where I was from, things to do in Damascus, and we concluded with how I could move here. At one point Bill tapped my leg, leaned over, and said, “Welcome home.” This moment I will never forget because he was right, I was home. The intimate feel of Damascus, the community surrounding the AT happily welcomed me as a new citizen.

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After five enlightening days on the AT where I lived a temporary life covered in sweat, dirt, and deet, I felt like I belonged here. Our guide, Jan, had educated us on all things backpacking and she left nothing out, which seemed daunting at the time but I couldn’t be more appreciative. On The evening of Day 2, Jan told me I was a very strong hiker, and I took that to heart. Jan is a seasoned hiker, mountaineer, and snowboarder, so a compliment from her is quite valuable. From there on, I viewed our trip differently. Rather than being annoyed with our glacial hiking pace, I became more present and viewed this trip as a trail run for my next adventure on the AT.

By Day 5 it hurt to leave and I knew I had to return. The canopies, the ridge lines, the smell of Jefferson National Forest, and the kind encouragement to take a walk through the woods was nothing like I had ever experienced. I was welcomed whole heartedly; I had found my untainted little town that revolved around the love of the surrounding forest, and I was home.By Sunday afternoon, before I flew home, I had lunch with Jan and she helped me map out my next AT trip in October 2015. We mapped out the state of Georgia, but then moved on to central VA because of its beauty in the fall months. Jan showed me a hostel that she had stayed at and where to find a shuttle from the airport on the ATC website. I was so grateful that Jan was sharing her wealth of knowledge with me and belief in me; in that moment I felt more confident and capable than I ever had in the last couple months.

I couldn’t be more ready to leave this life behind and continue to walk through the woods.

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