A Walk in the Woods
I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, surrounded by field and forest, but getting into the outback wasn’t part of my childhood. Although my parents were raised in Altoona, they’d become big-city people in the dozen years they’d lived in New York. That’s where my brother and I were born; by the time my Mom and Dad returned to PA with us in tow, the wildest place they wanted to venture was Saks Fifth Avenue during a clearance sale. It wasn’t until I was far into adulthood that I discovered the serenity immersing yourself in nature can bring. And even then my experience was limited to what could be encountered within a few miles. I never hiked farther than that.
But with my goal to ascend Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua looming closer I knew I needed to begin to get deeper into the wilderness, to trek farther and longer. When my friend Hope suggested we hike a section of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, I jumped at the chance. She told me that the slice we’d be covering was renowned as one of the most beautiful along the AT’s nearly 2,200-mile length. This sounded good to me. We’d also be walking about 30 miles in three days. This made me nervous. Would my legs hold up?
We convened on a gorgeous early autumn morning at the Swift Run Gap trailhead in the park. The weather was perfect — sunny and just cool enough that we wouldn’t get overheated. It felt momentous stepping onto the famous footpath, like something was going to change that could never be returned to what it once was. And then we were tramping down it, the sunlight turning dappled under the big chestnuts and oaks, the air scented with pine and the clean, loamy smell of the forest floor. We passed other hikers upon occasion, headed south to our north.
About halfway through our hike I noticed a bearded cutie striding toward us. He nodded, said hello, and just as I was about to return the greeting I tripped spectacularly over a rock poking up in the path. My whole body extended, my arms stretched gracefully over my head, I must have looked positively balletic, like a moment out of a “Swan Lake” production gone horribly wrong. As I peered up at the hiker from my position at his feet, he deadpanned, “Wow. I guess I’m going to have to be a lot more careful saying ‘Hi’ to people.”
Hope and I laughed about my tumble for the rest of the day. I think part of my giddiness was from relief: We’d hiked almost 10 miles and I felt fine. Great, actually. The ease with which my body was eating the miles, striding purposefully with no pain and little pause (save for an occasional spill) was shocking. I’d become far stronger than I’d realized during my workout sessions at Victory Sports. I said a silent thank you to my trainer, Steve Jury, before falling asleep that night.
The second day’s hike, which was more than 13 miles long, took us through similar topography but for a little detour that led us into a glen. Painted in a hundred shades of green, the soft chuckling of a brook its only sound, it was perhaps the most peaceful place I’d ever encountered — until the next morning. The last day of our AT adventure dawned rainy and chill, with fog shrouding the ground, curling around tree trunks and low-lying vegetation.
We hadn’t been walking long when a passel of wild turkeys emerged from the mist to my right, followed almost immediately by a small herd of deer to my left. I watched them, holding my breath, as they strode with sublime grace down the trail. I knew in that moment that my time on the AT had changed me irrevocably. I knew that getting deep into the wild, into the kind of places accessible only by my own feet, would become something I’d not only always want, but need. I began to wonder… What if after Kili and Aconcagua I thru-hiked the AT, did it all in one fell swoop?
I was hooked. •SCM