Let’s pretend it’s the beginning of April, Spring Break, because to me that meant one thing: A week-long backpacking trip inhaling as much of nature was possible, drinking from nearby springs, and enjoying the serenity only a forest can bring.  For this week-long trek, there was one destination I had in mind: Mount Rogers.  I have looked forward to this hike since strapping my first pack onto my back.  Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia and with it came a strenuous climb, infamous wild ponies, postcard-worthy views, open balds, forests that supposedly resemble Canadian ones, clear steams — The list goes on.  Truly, it does.  I needed Mount Rogers.

There are a couple different Mount Rogers hikes and each have varying elevations and miles:

I suppose because Andy and I have trouble seeing reality, it was all too apparent that the last hike was the one for us.  Haven’t been out backpacking since last summer due to winter?  Oh, it’s easy to jump back in and pick up where we left off on the physical activity scale.  Haven’t been on more than a three-day hiking trip ever?  No problem, let’s test ourselves!  Haven’t done a climb more than around a 5,000 foot elevation?  Got this in the bag!  Only done a Level Four hike three times and a Level Five, well, never?  *Psh* It’ll be a cinch to tack on another star!

We are warped, I think.

Or warped I know.

Regardless, we quieted those poor protective voices, printed off maps, and began planning!

The trip was four and a half hours away with the start of the trail at the Virginia/Tennessee border.  This means that even if we left early, we would not have many hours to hike the first day.  The same with the last day, when we would end our trail — We didn’t want to be driving back in moonlight and darkness for almost five hours.  Therefore, we chose to break this hike into five days: Five miles the first/arriving day, ten miles the next, ten the following, ten again, then five miles our last day.  Keep in mind, at this point, we were really pushing ourselves.  Beyond us being dormant and foregoing exercise over the winter . . . beyond us taking on an overly hard, challenging hike . . . we hadn’t successfully cleared ten miles a day when we intended, um, anytime.  In the past, we had stopped, set up camp whenever we desired and therefore ambled about doing distances we felt comfortable with a daily.  Here, we were strategically saying, “Us, you are walking ten miles at least for the majority of your days.  Do it.  Do it now.”  This may not sound too insane but look again at the Difficulty Level, look again at the elevation.  Heck, the only time we push past ten miles a day on our ‘normal’ hikes was when we were lost in the wilderness with a fear of not surviving before giving life a last ditch shot . . .

And this is how my mind works: It was around here I came up with the three ten-miles-a-day plan.  I mean, we had actually done over ten miles a day often . . . due to the fact that we got lost often . . . so ten miles a day was an achievable victory.  And that’s how I tried to convince Andy too.  Which worked in the sense that he agreed to go.  But not in the sense that he agreed with my logic.

Regardless of what was going to soon be determined or not determined as an ‘achievable victory,’ we told ourselves firmly this backpacking trip was a test in numerous ways:  Plan and see if we could stick to specific mileage per day.  Plan and stick to a start and end date.  Plan and find water sources daily.  Plan and — eh, no — Stick to surviving in the forest for almost a week.  That’s why this hike was different.  It was concocted, calculated, and controlled.  We were to end up ‘here’ on Day So-and-So, camp ‘here’ on Night So-and-So, find water ‘here’ on Day So-and-So.  This all lead Andy and me to dubbing this trip our Preparation for the Appalachian Trail hike due to the fact that it was all white blaze.  It, single-handedly, would determine if we could successfully plan the AT.  It would determine if we could actually walk the initial Georgia portion of the trail soon.  It would determine if we could continue all the way to Maine on a path no wider than two-feet.  It would determine if we could actually do it, if we could become true AT hikers.

No pressure.

First, we started planning early on because, after all, organization is the key to success.  Numerous readings of maps were done, water sources on those maps were found, various-tasting meals were purchased, and several calls were made to national park rangers and shuttle service in the area.

The calls started off with the park rangers and quickly slid to confusing.  I wanted to know what to expect from temperatures, know where steams locations were, validate wild camping and fire abilities, hash out concerns, discuss life-or-death-situations — anything to make this hike successful.  “Plan carefully,” the young mousey sounding female voice on the other end of the phone told me.  “Plan for the unexpected.”  “But what is unexpected?!” I squeaked back.  I don’t know if I was trying to communicate in a tone she understood or if my fear of the unknown had me squeaking too.  “Just the unexpected,” she repeated which obviously brought no further answers.  That’s when my barrage of questions began.  “Again.  Just be prepared,” she moused back.  In the end, I learned that temperatures vary from one extreme to the next.  There are elusive streams with no specific locations.  Wild camping can be done in the national park . . . but not the state park . . . but there is no clear way to differentiate between the two.  Fires can only be made in pre-exisiting, equally elusive, locations.  And as far as the last bit — survival — we simply needed to be prepared.  Helpful . . . exactly as Andy and I have learned park rangers to be.  “We will plead innocence,” Andy told me.  “I’m not from the area.  I didn’t know.”  This is his solution for everything now, and in exchange I get a free ride as long as I don’t ruin the moment by opening my mouth.  Somehow though, I felt his lack of Virginia knowledge was about as helpful as he was getting us out of our last hiking ticket so I pleaded with him to double-back my efforts and speak to the park ranger himself.  “Please.  I feel it in my bones that it will have a different result for you.”  And so he did.  And so I was right.  The mousey woman was suddenly a wealth of knowledge, brimming with detailed information for the charming Englishman on the other end of the line.  Strange how that happens . . .

I did find one helpful person on my own though.  While Andy tackled the wanting-to-be-tackled park rangers, I called a shuttle service guy.  Previously we had been talking of how to avoid a shuttle, but it seemed inevitable due to the fact that we didn’t have time to double-back our hike and make it an almost eighty mile one.  That’s when I called Mount Rogers Outfitters Hostel (which side note, is comprised of an outdoors store and hostel across the street); they run the main shuttle service in the small town of Damascus, where our hike was.  It was here I spoke to a slow-drawled mountain man that I imagined to be balding and leaning back spitting sunflower seeds with a thick scuffed brown leather belt wrapped around his potbelly to hold up too big of drawers.

Me: “Hi!  I am hoping to hike Mount Rogers soon and wanted to ask about your shuttle service.”
Mountain Man: “Neh hold’n one minute!  I’on’t recommend a shuttle for ya.”
Me:
Mountain Man: ” . . . How long ya lookin’ to go?”
Me: “The longest hike there is in the area.  The about forty-mile one that — ”
Mountain Man: “Why ‘on’t ya instead do the 41.5 mile hike that is a big loop, huh.”  It wasn’t a question.  Never-the-less, I asked him to explain only to determine that hike was the 21.5 mile second-hike-I-listed loop.  Maybe it was his drawl that confused me.  Or maybe he was confused.  That’s still to be determined.
Me: “Well, we wanted to hike a large portion of the AT — Do Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers.
Mountain Man: “I see, I see.  I reckon ya need a shuttle service then.”
Me: “I agree, that’s why — ”
Mountain Man: “Now we ain’t waitin’ for ya!  We ain’t waitin’!  Yew say yew’ll be there at — what?  What time? — and we wait for two, three hours?!  Not happn’n!  Nooot happn’n –”
Me: “That’s completely understandable.  Actually, we were –”
Mountain Man: “We’ll wait for ya for ’bout, oh I reckon, thirty minutes.  But no more!  Ya hear!  No more!”  I felt scared, a cold feverish-sweat gripping me, despite the fact that he was envisioning it all wrong.
Me: “I, I absolutely understand, sir.  We just — We wanted to be dropped off first . . . then we would walk and return to our car . . . You know — So no one would have to wait . . . ”  I silently prayed for approval in the form of friendlier words from a sunflower-seed-spitting Mountain Man.
Mountain Man: ” . . . Now ya talkin!  We can do that.  We can def-i-nit-ah-ley dooo that!”  Crisis averted.

From there, Mountain Man and I plotted our method of attack.  He told me his prices for four or more people, and I sweetly got out my country drawl to say it was only me and one other person, which talked him down to a great deal.  This meant awesome news: Andy and I didn’t have to pay a crazy amount to be dropped off in the middle of the woods, miles from civilization.
Mountain Man: “Fur yew?  Fur yew!  Fur yew?  I kin do forty-five bucks.”
Me: “But what about the person I’m going with?”
Mountain Man: “Fur the both uh ya?  The both UH YA!  I kin do . . . I kin do forty-five dollas.  But ya add on more — Now that’s gonna be more!”  I quickly agreed.  I was startin’ to like this Mountain Man.  And he was startin’ to like me.
Me: “Now here’s a question for ya — What is the best way for me to get there?” and I told him where I was from.
Mountain Man: “AW MAN!  Hot doggie!  Yew from where I’m ah’from!” and we waxed poetic about city life, surrounding counties, and how there’s nothing wrong with it but it wasn’t a life we imagined.
Me: “I know, I know!  I want mountains and land and country — what you have now!  I don’t want to have to keep driving to these hikes — I want to live there!  That’s why I have a week off and I want every second to be in those mountains.”
Mountain Man (who, by the way, was most certainly softening up and chuckling now): “I know, I know!  I hear ya!  Why ya think I moved awt here fa?!  Get yew — GET YEW OUTTA DOGTOWN!” and I admit it — I jumped a little at the force his excited yell had.

In the end, Mr. Mountain gave me perfect directions so that we would be at his doorstep soon.  “Now I’m ‘uh here Mondee through Saturdee nine ta six, and Sundee twelve ta six — Gotta let Jesus in at six.”  I giggled and told him I agreed.  Whatever made Mr. Mountain happy made me happy.  Still, I wanted to push my luck further.  We were moving forward on the most positive foot.
Me: “So . . . There are wild ponies?  Can ya tell me about ‘um?  That’s why we’re goin’ — I’m beyond excited to see the wild ponies!”
Mountain Man: “Oh yee-ah, ther’ah pone-ies!  ‘Bout, ’bout — lots of ‘um.  And they all got names.”
Me: “Stooop!  Tell me one’s name!”
Mountain Man: “Fab-e-oh.  Fab-e-oh.  Got a long blonde mane pulled ova one side.  Yep.  Fab-e-oh.”  Despite the fact that I’m a bajillion percent certain he meant Fabio, I continued . . .
Me: “Well, I hope I see Fab-e-oh.  Hey, what is your name before I go?  You’ve been so very helpful!”
Mountain Man: “People ’round here — They call me . . . Lumpeh!”

And that’s how our conversation ended — I introduced myself then told Lumpy I looked forward to seeing him real soon.  “Right, L!  I look’ah ford ta it too!” and I could hear him smile.  I was smiling too — The reason I was going on this hike now was solely to meet this Lumpy man.

The next two weeks were spent reading and re-reading our plans, packing, and finally the day came when we could set off to meet a man named Lumpy who would drop us off in the middle of a forest.

We arrived perfectly to the sleepy town of Damascus, due to Lumpy’s amazing directions.
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Then walked into his shop only to find Lumpy wasn’t lumpy at all.  Tall and super-duper slender, the six-foot-seven Lumpy towered over us wearing the longest legged jeans I had ever seen, a flannel shirt and vest, stocking hat, and dark-tinted sunglasses.  I glanced up at the florescent lights of his own store; they didn’t appear brighter than normal lighting.  ” . . . Lumpy?” I questioned.  I just had a feeling that was Lumps.  “Yee-ah?”  “Lumpy, I’m L — We spoke over the phone about a shuttle service to Mount Rogers.”  My voice was rising with excitement.  “Heck yeah, hey L.  Nice ta meet ya.”  I moved to hold out my right hand, provide a nice, firm handshake.  He didn’t move.  From there Mr. Lumps introduced us to a man named John.  John, on the other hand, could have held up Lumpy’s nickname as we first saw him hunched over a cigarette on the cinder blocks outside the store.  Shaved head that glistened in the florescent lighting I now understood why Lumpy needed the sunglasses when talking to him.  “This guy here — John — He’ll be ya driver” and off John went to show us what car to place our packs into.  I clung around the entrance of the store a bit longer than John and Andy, hoping Lumpy would strike up a conversation with me.  For weeks I had imagined speaking with him in person, imagined who this Lumpy character was and how he got his nickname.  Now that we were face-to-face, he had gone silent.  Then again, so is the way with country folk so I turned and, before the door closed behind me, I gave a final wave goodbye to Lumpy.

That’s how our hike started.  John, who shuttles more AT hikers daily than he was able to count, sped along the edge of the winding mountain.  He told us stories of how he died twice and was brought back to life several minutes later after a massive Lincoln Navigator ran a red light in New York and plowed over him.  “I only have one memory from the accident — Can’t remember anything else.  I was reaching for a cigarette when I heard a voice screaming — a huge man running up to me, shouting, “OH SHIT!  HE’S ALIVE!  HE’S ALIVE!” and then I passed out.  They said it took two hours to cut me from the car.”  From there, John continued his surreal life, living nomadically in fourteen states but refusing to call any one place home.   The longest stay in one state was for ten years, and now he lives in a hostel.  “It’s great,” he said with a straight rally-car driver facial expression and beady eyes.  “Someone else picks up after me, cleans my place and I only pay three hundred dollars a month to live there.  No utilities or anything.  Of course I had to give up some things in life — a wife, a marriage — because my life is unstable.  But it’s worth it.”  Past stories of him, John told us about the AT hikers he had rescued when they called it quits.  “They stop for any number of reasons.  Wasn’t for them — Some greatly underestimated it, some got hurt, some got sick.  The norovirus, for instance — Now that’s something you don’t want to have.  It can kill a fully-grown adult.  Can you imagine how much damage it can do to a child?”  Andy and I pondered this much longer than we should have, imagining a life worse than death, while John continued and gave us the first bit of advice.  “If it doesn’t keep you warm or you can’t eat it, don’t bring it.”  I began to list all in my pack that I couldn’t cuddle with or eat — a hairbrush, rubberbands, pillow, spare fuel canister, suddenly what seemed like enough flashlights to light an entire home — I had the desire to empty my pack and was about to beg John to take my extra items back with him when our forty-five minute ride was over, and we pulled into the Foxcreek parking lot.   John got out and opened the hatch of his Subaru so that we could drag out our forty-two and thirty-eight pound packs.  Then he lit a cigarette while we tied our boots, strapped in, and prepared for setting off.  Taking one last drag he nodded a goodbye our way, saying over his shoulder, “You guys have hiked in Shenandoah — I don’t need to worry about you because of the bears there.”

And he left.

And we were alone.

In the middle of a small parking lot . . .

forty-some miles from my car . . .

five hours from home.

“You ready?” I asked Andy and he nodded so we set off.
20170409_142804IMG_0410I would soon learn the AT is similar to a scavenger hunt, one built around notes and quick scrawled messages to other hikers.  Notes of advice, warnings, and plans like this one found in the middle of the notice board to a guy named Chris, telling him to push south to Damascus which was over forty-miles from where Fellow Chris would find himself by the time he read the message pasted quickly up with a wide roll of duct tape.
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Trail registers are used to track hikers.  In them, hikers often write their trail names instead of birth names though.  Trail names are nicknames given by other hikers mostly on long distance trails, such as the AT which is most common for giving trail names.  This Nose Flute character stayed consistently in front of us throughout our hike but we never were able to find him.

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The temperature was in the seventies and we quickly felt warm, shedding layers of clothing before we were even a mile in.
IMG_0424.JPGThe warm weather also welcomed spring, sending green shoots pushing through leaves towards the sunlight. IMG_0432IMG_0433IMG_0434IMG_0447Oddly enough, even as temperatures pushed in the eighties, there were still patches of snow on the ground from the previous day’s snowstorm.
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Heading south towards the Old Orchard Shelter, we approached areas of balds bordered by fences, showing signs that ponies strayed through the area, despite the fact that none were seen yet.
IMG_0454IMG_0463This greatly disappointed me because I had packed a heaving bag of carrots for these ponies, a bag in which weighed an additional over one pound weight.  And let me tell you, if you’re hiking long distances, you may become the people Andy and I originally scoffed at but now are — The ones that pull out a scale to weigh e.v.e.r.y item in our pack in an effort to drop the overall weight.  Our goal is to get to at least thirty-five pounds, one we aren’t too far from actually, mainly given the fact that our first backpack had us lugging fifty pounds each over the mountain.  However, I digress — I say all of this to illustrate why we were snapping the handles off of toothbrushes and putting aside sunscreen because liquid weight is heavier than all others.  And here I am, choosing to pack an over pound bag of carrots . . . for horses . . . not even for myself . . . but for horses to eat . . . and they were nowhere in sight.

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Please notice the heavy bag of carrots

It was at this first horsegate that I walked through, fine and happy, followed by Andy who turned and suddenly screamed in pain then dropped to his knee.  “Oh my gosh!  What happened?!  What happened?!” I asked him, scared, confused, worried.  “Aghhh, my knee,” he huffed in terrible pain.  I learned then he apparently has a bad knee that gives him problems if he turns the wrong way, as in the precise way he turned through the horsegate.  So here we were, not even three miles in, a good trek from civilization, no cellphone reception, Andy unable to walk.  “What do I do?!?!” I pleaded with him, hoping to get some small task to help.  “Just give me a second,” and he curled his knee up, wincing in pain, uncurled it then winced more.  That incident definitely put me back.  So far, we have been injury-free on our hikes and that is the one thing I am most scared of happening.  If Andy hurt himself, there is no way I could carry him and his pack back.  If I couldn’t get his pack, we lose essential items we may need, mainly if I couldn’t get him back within that day.  It felt a lose-lose situation.  Luckily, he stretched his knee a bit more, inhaled as much air as he could muster, then set off through the gate once again.  “Do you want my knee brace?  Do you want to stop?  To rest?  To go home?”  Answers.  I simply needed something.  “No, I’m okay.  I just need a moment” so I hushed once more, keeping a watchful eye on him the entire time.

Regardless, he kept inching forward gingerly, then more keenly until he was back to his normal stride.  From there, we kept going on the blaze . . .
IMG_0462and once we had passed Old Orchard, we continued following the AT to Scales Campground.
IMG_0469It was here we finally found our first two ponies.
IMG_0480IMG_0484IMG_0489.JPGIMG_0486The next problem was the ponies weren’t interested in carrots.  And by “weren’t interested” I mean they acted as if they absolutely despised the orange vegetable.  I tried to feed them . . .
IMG_0475Andy tried to feed them . . .
IMG_0485.JPGand each time the suckers either ignored us or galloped away to the point that we worried we were harassing them.  Side note: We read later that you aren’t supposed to feed the ponies or harass them.  At that point in time I felt like the world’s worst hiker . . .

In the end though, we let them be — munching on the short, dry winter grass which is, without a doubt, not better than carrots . . . not that I’m keeping track . . .
IMG_0471and we settled on this amazing view before continuing on.
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At the base of the highlands was another trail registry.  Have I said already I absolutely look forward to reading trail registries?  I can imagine walking in the forest for months, passing a few hikers but for the most part, continuing alone with trail registries providing the only bit of information as to how many hikers are in front of you, how many you may catch up to, exactly who it is.  It’s like forming a sort of bond with those you do not know, and I found myself wondering if we would catch up to Nose Flute, get to say hello after following him for who knows how long.  And take a look too — While Nose Flute is there again, what is surprising is that for whatever reason the four hikers between us and him or her on the last trail registry have disappeared, three of which intended to stay on the trail for another few days and two desiring to finish Thursday, the same day as us.IMG_0495.jpg
Next, our trail took us higher . . .
IMG_0496.JPGand it was parts, like this, that were new to me.  True, we had recently hiked in areas with balds, but this — well, this was in the open for about miles.  Forest had disappeared entirely, leaving us following posts stripped with white on land so clear we could see distances far ahead.
IMG_0510.JPGEven more incredible — once we got to the top, there were more ponies.
IMG_0506IMG_0508.JPGIMG_0537.JPGIMG_0530.JPGIMG_0511.JPGThe horses were scattered throughout the highlands and we saw traces of them miles ahead when we continued onward too.  I was told by Lumpy they are Shetland ponies, which are native to England.  However, the more I research, the more contradictions I get — Anywhere from the ponies are from the Shetland Isles in Scotland to the ponies resemble Shetlands but aren’t actually Shetlands at all.  Regardless, they are stunning and the ones here were far friendlier than those before.  For example, this agreeable chap walked right up to us!  Look at how cordial he was too, actually smiling when I took his picture!
IMG_0524.jpgWe obviously knew he should be the one to feed so undone came the carrot bag and out came the carrots, which excited him so much his eyes opened wider and his pupils enlarged.  This, of course, made us want to feed him even more carrots.
IMG_0515.JPGIMG_0520“Bless him, the hairy lad!” Andy said as the pony munched loudly on carrots.  “His mane is so long he cannot see well!”  And that’s when my super sweet boyfriend moved his mane from his eye so that he could see better.
IMG_0521.JPGAnd that’s actually when his smiling picture was taken, which shows he was thoroughly appreciative and happy, and that made me even more excited so I smooched my face as close as his as possible.
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“Hiiiii, buddy!!!” I cooed to Lad as he lovingly flirted with me, averting those big brown eyes of his while nuzzling his nose toward mine.  “I love you!  I just love you!  You’re the handsomest pony in the world!  Oh, you are!  The most handsomest pony in the whole wide world!  Look at you!  Just look at you!  Being the handsomest — SHIT, ANDY!”  I was suddenly filled with terror and leaped back from Lad.  “JESUS, ANDY!  I’m HORRIBLY ALLERGIC TO PONIES!!!  WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?!”  “WOT!!!  Are you an idiot?!  How did you not think of this in the first place?!  How can you be ALLERGIC TO THEM when you were just KISSING one!!!”  “JESUS!  I was ABOUT to KISS HIM!” I agreed, “But I’m ALLERGIC!  I’m seriously allergic — Like if he touches my face or I touch my face after touching him, I’m going to swell into a gigantic purple grape and not be able to breathe!  HOLY CRAP!  I ALMOST KISSED HIM!!!  WHAT AM I DOING?!  What are we DOING HERE?!  I’M ALLERGIC TO HORSES!!!”  At that point, I was freaking out, my childhood flashing before my eyes — Me at petting zoos, being so eager to see my favorite animals, the horses; petting and kissing their soft noses only to have my mother carry me from the pin as I gasped like a fish for air, my throat closing.  Or me about to go on a family horseback riding trip, in the stables before we set off and the itching, itchingitchingitching then my mother pulling my hand to whisk me away while finding medicine to pop in my mouth until she could get me to a better location.  Horses.  I adored them so much I cried when I saw them because I knew later I couldn’t get too close, and here I was — yet again — forgetting those childhood memories.  I looked down at Lad, apologetic, with pitiful eyes.  He mirrored my pitiful eyes, apologizing in his own way but clearly not understanding why our almost move-to-first-base had him heading back to the dugout.  “PONY!!!  I’m sooo sorry!  But I’m allergic to you!  Like for real allergic!”  I turned to Andy.  “JESUS!  What are we doing here, what am I DOING here?!  This has Death Zone written all over it for me!  WHY IN THE HELL DID I PICK THIS HIKE?!  I must have come here to die!!!  What if I had KISSED HIM!?  What if I had touched him?!  Sweet boy, I cannot even give you carrots . . . ” and I looked at Lad again, who was trying to nudge my arm.  “Lad, I almost kissed you.  I almost died for you, buddy.  But you’re so handsome, such a handsome Lad — Hey Andy, get his hair again for me.  I cannot touch him and his hair is in his eyes because he wants to look at me and can’t.”  And just like that, I forgot again how deathly allergic I was to horses in an effort to be sure sweet Lad could see.

“What do we do?!” I complained moments later, after Lad had eaten about seven carrots himself.  “We can’t feed him them all to him” and I spreading my arms wide to motion to the other ponies that were surely as starved as Lad.  “Lad.  You have to share, buddy, okay?  Be a nice pony and share,” I suggested to him.  As if on cue, Lad nibbled the grass, which was dry, almost dying, and dirt-filled.  “Bless him.  I wouldn’t want to eat that either,” Andy said.  “Let’s try the others,” I suggested but each time we walked close to the fellas, they quick-paced away.  Meanwhile, our little guy was now following us, more a trained dog heeling, so I snapped more pictures of his cute face as he literally galloped towards us in an effort to stay by our side.

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In the end, none of the other horses wanted carrots and leaving Lad was the hardest part about the trail thus far.  Andy re-positioned his mane out of his eyes again and we said our goodbyes, speeding down the path in an effort to lose Lad, who continued to quick-gallop our way until the distance between us and him became too much for him.

With Lad and broken hearts behind us, we set off towards Virginia’s blue mountains, passing more ponies as we continued on the well-worn Appalachian Trail.
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With the sun setting and night about to envelope us, we scanned the area for a place to camp, and that’s when we saw this feisty fellow, swiftly jumping through the brush.
IMG_0558.JPGI should mention here that for a moment, we had a repetition of the ponies — I tried to get close to the rabbit, cooing over him as he darted away, only to remember that the one other animal I am severely allergic to is (drum roll) bunnies.  This, of course, didn’t go well with Andy, who seemed to have renewed vigor repeating the question, “How could you not have thought about these things in the first place?”  Even though I tried many times to reassure him that this was not a warped suicide attempt, he wasn’t having it and ended up sulking off, grumbling while testing his knew food-hanging skills.
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I will say, Andy’s two-pulley system, using a couple carabiners and a cord, worked wonderfully.  And these food bags were awesome as well — They are Osprey’s dry sacks, which are waterproof.

Content with how our day turned out, we set up camp a few miles from the forest, seeking shelter from the harsh wind among brush and trees.  We had planned to hike five miles the first day and ended completing almost one over due to the more flat and open highlands.  Therefore, Day One ended knowing we were ahead of our target mileage-per-day but also realizing it would get harder, and that’s when we would need any extra-stored miles because, for the three upcoming days, we had planned ten miles each . . .

But that was another time to worry — for tomorrow, a new day with new challenges.  And so, under the full moon, so bright it resembled more a sun, we chose to applaud ourselves and relish in our accomplishments because this, after all, was the farthest hike we had planned thus far.
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Day Two: We woke early, had a cup of coffee and tea then ate a breakfast of oatmeal (or porridge for those that are English).  We had slept peacefully and full and so we were ready for the next day’s adventures.  It was an odd experience to see the trail you are following weave and disappear into mountains far ahead, knowing you must continue on that path, walking — one step after another — up and over those massive looming mountains.  It was here we found ourselves again talking and planning our AT trip — the AT in its entirety — and wondering what it felt like to continue, grueling steps one at a time, over thirteen states.
IMG_0581.JPGBriefly taken back into the forest, we listened for Big Wilson Creek where our first water refill would come.  On the way, we saw enormous pine trees, the oldest we had found so far on a hike.
IMG_0579Luckily, the water was fast moving and easily heard as we passed by.
IMG_0590IMG_0589IMG_0583Therefore, it was a welcomed sight for water refill areas, and this one was heavenly.  Andy immediately went to topping off our bladders and bottles.
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From there, we found our first shelter, the Wise Shelter.
IMG_0627.JPGInside, we found many treats, including a list of detailed landmarks . . .
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and scribbled notes and carved words on the shelter boards.  This one stood out the most as it is what Andy and I want to live by and want the foundation of our relationship to be built upon . . .
IMG_0602and, of course, there was another trail registry, filled with odd comments and funny remarks.
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After we quickly signed the registry, the AT took us back out to the Grayson Highlands, where we read this area has some of the best views in Virginia.
IMG_0632.JPGAnd it didn’t disappoint.  We stopped here for several minutes, taking deep breaths of the cool mountain air and enjoying the reward of our hard work.
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Walking on, we passed ponies that were yards away from us . . .
IMG_0660.JPGIMG_0658IMG_0659and on further still into the highlands when suddenly, out from the bushes, this bright white and auburn baby lass came right up to us!
IMG_0647.jpgSo friendly and hungry for carrots, we took some from my pack to feed her.
IMG_0640Excitingly (for Andy at least because he could touch her), she loved being petted as much as she loved carrots!
IMG_0645Not seeing other ponies, we fed her two carrots, apologizing profusely for holding onto one in case another sweet love appeared.  Then, we said our goodbyes to Lass, who seemed quite content for a quick meet-and-greet because she resumed munching on grass before throwing us an affectionate goodbye look over her shoulder.
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Onward we went on the dry mud-trail, reinvigorated by Lass and how magical this place was when this large fellow appeared!
IMG_0653.JPGEager for love, he nudged Andy’s arms, persuading him to use both hands to pet him.
This blonde-maned pony adored Andy, and Andy loved him.  The pony walked as close as he could next to his new-found admirer, keeping his head practically under Andy’s arm.  “We have to give him our last carrot, L!  We have to!” Andy pleaded and so I gave Andy the last carrot to feed to his new best friend.  And that’s when Lass squeaked out from the bushes again, startling us both!
IMG_0644Lass immediately came trotting up to me, which broke my heart because I could neither pet her and we didn’t have any more carrots.  We ended up staying close to half an hour with these two though, which was tear-jerking when we had to leave them.  And boy did they test us!  When they bent to nibble on grass, we practically jogged away, hoping to make a discreet out, but they galloped after us!
IMG_0657“We should take them home!” Andy said as Fellow nudged Andy’s arm around his neck again.  “L, pleeease!  We should take them home!”  Can I say here Andrew is the worst — I am the type of person who walks into a pet store and comes out with a cat, despite the fact that I never wanted a cat but was so upset to leave him that I brought on an MS attack simply knowing the kitten’s brothers had been adopted and he was still left alone.  I’m the type of person that had to be pulled from that same pet store months later because I was sobbing — massive, hysterical sobs in public — over another cat, seventeen-year-old Chichi whose owner was forced into a nursing home and couldn’t take her.  I’m the type of person who still hasn’t turned on the news after hearing an absolutely horrible dog abuse story years ago; that story made me call the animal shelter that took the dog every other week, just to check on how she was doing and if it was adoptable yet because I was sure as hell going to drive several states down south for the opportunity to give her a loving home even though I didn’t plan to ever have another dog.  And it doesn’t stop there — It’s any animal, even insects, that I try to save, care for, or adopt . . . and here, of all people I am with, someone who begs me to take two ponies home!  At that moment, with Andy’s green eyes and two pairs of perfect-brown pony eyes looking at me, I was secretly thinking, “I thought that was the deal — You were supposed to be the logical one when it came to animals because I clearly lack the capacity to do it.”  “Fine,” I said, sighing and almost petting my Lass.  “You know I cannot say no.  Even if I am allergic.  Even if I will die if I touch you, Lass.  But come on, ponies.  Come on, Andy.  Let’s go home” and I meant it, I did, which he knew too so he smiled this amazing You’re-So-Incredible-And-The-Best-Girlfriend-Ever smile.
IMG_0654.JPGI mean look at him!  And the ponies were even happier at the news — They pranced, actually pranced, after us, elated to call our tiny apartment in the city home.  So as we walked towards that home, pony on each side of us, Andy and I discussed — in absolute honesty — about how we needed to break our lease the second we returned to purchase a house with acres of land for these two roaming ponies that found us on a hike.

Luckily . . .

right when we were telling the ponies details of how they would have to put up with our apartment at least for one day, a family of four out for a day hike, stumbled along our trail and the children shrieked over our ponies, which caused Fellow and Lass to turn and the kids to coo over them.  And so, fine Fellow and little Lass were deceived, left behind in (what I’m going to tell myself) were equally happy hands and equally happy love while Andy and I slipped silently away, carrying with us only a tale of how we were going to smuggle two Shetland ponies from the highlands because we felt, truly in our hearts, they would be happier with us.

From there, (I’m not going to lie to you) this story goes downhill and downhill quickly, as does every broken heart story, I suppose.

We did see some absolutely breath-taking panoramic views, by far the most beautiful ones we have ever seen hiking.
IMG_0662IMG_0663However, all the walking and additional weight of sadness caught up to me.  “Andy, I’m sorry, but I need to rest.  My feet are killing me.”  It was true — In an unseen instance, my feet were in the worst pain I have ever felt.  It was as if I had been walking barefoot over sharp rocks for the entirety of our trip . . . so much so that, as we continued towards a massive rock on the trail to rest upon, I was almost in tears and barely able to step anymore.  “Listen, I’m going to ask you something that is — I’ll just put it out there — gross, really really gross.  And I know it is the biggest favor I can ask, but I honestly don’t know if I can keep going.  I’m in so much pain.”  “You’re going to ask me to rub your mingy feet, aren’t you?” Andy didn’t look pleased, not one bit.  “I mean . . . yes, yes I am.  Please, Andy.  I honestly don’t think I can continue and you know me!  I’ve never complained of pain in my feet before or stopped or not wanted to keep going but I honestly don’t think I can do it.  My feet hurt so much.”  There was a pause then one heavy, unhappy sigh then, “Alright then.  Give them here.”  That’s when you know you’re with someone that really loves you — when, after walking for miles in the same hot, sweaty, disgusting shoes and socks, your boyfriend massages your feet.  And it was heaven, pure bliss.  True, it hurt like hell because my feet were beyond sore — they just went straight from perfect to deeply bruised — but that massage felt so so so good.  “Ahhhhhh,” I loudly exclaimed, unable to hold in my pants of appreciation.  “That feels soooo amazing!  Don’t stop, don’t stop!!!  Right there!  It feels sooooo good riiight there!”  I’m a little embarrassed to say there were the most hikers we had bumped into around these parts and all of them were extremely confused (and dare I say intrigued) by what we were doing.  But it was, after all, just a boy and a girl.  On a rock.

Andy, bless his heart, massaged my feet for a long and pleasurable half an hour until falling back on the warm rock to relax.
IMG_0668IMG_0665.JPGSeeing our path turn rocky on the last bit of the high mountain, we soaked up the sun and view a bit longer before continuing on.
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Our trail took us over more harsh rocks (which livened the pain in my feet again) before we slipped through tiny cool caves that provided reprieve from the warm sun.IMG_0669IMG_0672Onward still, we continued towards the Thomas Knob Shelter, not because we intended to stop there, but because we needed that little landmark to know we were in fact succeeding at our targeted mileage.

The trouble was my feet we beyond stinging.  By now, I felt as if they were ground bits of bloody flesh, a messy pulp really, and with each step, open nerve-endings were hit, sending shooting pain coursing up my legs.  “Hey, Andy,” I was huffing in agony.  “I’m so sorry, but I have to sit down again.”  This was the second pause we’d made after sitting on the rock for half an hour.  It had been less than three miles.  “Hey no problem.  It’s okay.  I want a drink anyway,” and he went to sit on another large rock beside the trail, patting the top of it in an effort to get me to sit next to him.  I hobbled, slowly and painstakingly towards it, taking a seat on top of the grey slab minutes after had sat down.  “I don’t know if I can do it,” I told him and began to cry.  “I honestly don’t know if I can do it.”  “Hey, hey, it’s okay!” and he moved closer to me, wrapping his arm around my side.  “We’ve done great so far!  And remember, we did about an extra mile the other day?!  We are doing awesome!  It’s okay.  Do you want me to massage your feet again?”  But I was lost, lost in my own mind, counting how many more days we had, how much mileage we still had to cover, and calculating how many more miles that meant we had to complete daily.  “I cannot do it,” I choked, crying harder.  I hated that I was the weak link, the reason he had to keep stopping, the reason we risked quitting the trail.  I hated that I couldn’t be like him — not appear to be in pain, not feel pain but to continue walking, plodding on endlessly and not succumb to the perils of the trail.  “I’m so sorry.  I know you could continue.  I know you could go — I’m not a good hiking partner for you anymore.  I’m sorry I’m holding you up.  I’m so so sorry.”  I was sliding deeper into despair, one that has no end on a trail due to the thought that the only way to end a hike is to continue walking, which is the one thing I did not want to do.  I had lost that desire, the power, will — the hope — to keep going . . . all I could do was cry.

Andy comforted me as best he could: He gave me the last bit of Gatorade; he offered me all food in his pack; he scanned the area for a place to set up camp for the day; he asked what he could me get from my own pack to make me feel better; he even opened my pack and took at least fifteen pounds from me.  “We can stay on this rock for as long as we need,” he told me encouragingly, lightly but all made me cry harder because the last place I wanted to be in that moment was on that damned rock in the middle of the Appalachian Trail.  And it was getting hotter — Not a boiling heat but a heat that clung to my skin, and I felt I was being cooked under the sun.  “Andy?  Am I burnt?” I asked him, feeling the tears boil on my skin as they fell.  “Oh geez, you are,” he whispered.  “Maybe you should put on sunscreen.  I know it’s probably too late, but it will protect you from getting more sun at least.”  It is here I revert back to my original comment in the beginning about packing . . . about weight . . . about liquid weight.  “I dropped it,” I told him.  ” . . . Wot do you mean you ‘dropped it’?  Did it fall out?  Where is it?”  He began glancing around our feet, down the trail we had just walked.  “No, no,” I sheepishly looked down at my shoes.  “I, um, didn’t pack it.  I dropped it — the weight, I mean.”  The look he gave me was equivalent to me saying I threw all of our food and water but thought we could still survive on AT dust.  “ARE YOU CRAZY?!”  His arms flew into the air.  “WOT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”  “Liquid weight is the most — you know that!  I didn’t want to carry it!  I thought we would be more protected, that there would be more shade than there has been.  I haven’t been here before!  How was I to know?!”  We sat in silence next to each other, my despair escalating as the sun launched its heatwaves onto us, knowing we had no where to seek shade.  “I’m sorry,” I told him.  Not because I was sorry for forgetting sunscreen but because I was apologizing in advance for my next comment.  “But I would like a foot massage again, please.”  And so his anger was put aside to save my non-salvageable feet.  “Thank you,” I whispered when he was done and we both leaned back on the rock.  I may feel refreshed enough to continue, I thought.  I feel revitalized, maybe even approaching happy.  I may be able to keep going yet.  “I need to pee,” I said after awhile, prepared to start over.  Prepared to let my misery pass and grab ahold of a new opportunity to walk the AT.  “Yep, I just need to pee.”

 

Let’s sidestep for a moment and talk about something happy.  Let’s talk about the best hiking purchase I’ve made yet, the one I would have gladly paid a heck-of-a lot more money for, the one that has truly revolutionized hiking as a female.  It is, what I refer to as, my appendage.  This guy, the Freshette:
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I’m not exaggerating when I say it has revolutionized my hiking trips.  Instead of pacing and surveying for hidden pop-a-squat locations for hours . . . instead of becoming increasingly nasty due to the fact that I need to pee . . . and instead of having to take my entire pack off, do my business, lug it back on, then readjust and go through the pains readjusting, I now can stand — as liberated as a male — to pee anywhere I want.  I can choose to stand in one place and pee to the right or pee to the left or pee to the front of my shoes or aim between them.  Let me say the gravity of situation again:  I can pee anywhere I want whenever I want, leaving my pack on the entire time.  The brilliance of this device!  The pain, heartache, and time that no longer exist because of my new appendage — It’s nothing short of brilliance.  I’m so in love with my plastic-penis-like appendage that I tell Andy often I may even use it regularly at home just because I can!

“Alright, I’m going,” I announced again to Andy, feeling a bit happier at seeing my appendage.  “Right,” he told me, searching for a small snack for lunch.  “Where are you going?”  “I think I’ll go . . . ” I scanned the area, more refreshed, hope returning.  “Right there beside those bushes.  Right where everyone can see me.  But I don’t care.  Nope, I don’t care at all.  I’ve got this!” and I flicked my appendage in a showing-off fashion in front of his face.  “UGH!  WOT IS YOUR PROBLEM!!!  DON’T PUT YOUR PENIS IN FRONT OF ME NOSE, ME FACE!  WOT IS WRONG WITH YOU!!!”  “Whatever, Andrew.  I don’t have time to hear it.  I don’t have time for it because I need to pee.  The power is mine to harness!  With my appendage!” and off I stumbled, resembling more a ninety-five year-old woman hobbling, before coming to rest a few feet from him to relieve myself . . .

And that’s when it happened.  The worst of the worst.  There was no relief, oh none at all.  Only a mistake.  One big ultra-horrible mistake.

It was around this time I became a full-on body of misery.  If I had thought moments before when sitting on the rock in tears that life couldn’t get worse, well, life just got worse.  Much worse.  “I just pissed my pants,” I told him as I limped back to the grey stone.  “Wot?  Wot did you say?”  He sat up straighter.  He wasn’t necessarily asking me repeat my statement; instead, he didn’t believe me.  At least my urine smell didn’t give me away.  “I saaaid,” I told him nastily, “I. Just. Pissed. My. Pants.  I’m not even joking.  Do you want to smell?  Wanna feel?  They’re soaking — Everything.  My shorts.  My underwear.  Soaking with pee because I just peed myself.”  “How do you manage — ” “BECAUSE I DIDN’T PUT MY APPENDAGE ALL THE WAY AGAINST MY SKIN, OKAY?!  I DIDN’T AND NOW I SMELL LIKE PISS AND I HAVE TO WALK TWENTY-FIVE OR MORE MILES IN PISS PANTS!”  “Jesus.”  He shook his head in disbelief — not because I had peed myself but because only I would pee myself and now he was left with me, Girlfriend Who Peed Herself.  “Jesus,” he repeated, “this is going to be hell.  You’re going to be a nightmare” and up he stood, pulling on his pack before turning and walking down the trail.  Off he went, no glancing back, leaving me behind.

So I did what only I could do: Follow him.  Hobbling on pulverized feet in my soaking pee pants, deep in thoughts of what I would do first if offered on the trail: amputate my own feet or attack an oncoming hiker to steal their dirty underwear and wear it proudly.  Truth be told, I couldn’t decide.  Both were equally appealing and heck, even needed.  I guess I became so consumed with these two thoughts — weighing which I should chose so that I wouldn’t have to hesitate when the time to decide came — that I didn’t notice we passed the Thomas Knob Shelter, the shelter we had aimed to stop near for the day.  “Hey,” Andy said, finally pausing.  “How are you doing?”  The answer was that I was convinced my feet were a bloody pulp with toenails danging from portions of mushy flesh but — good news — the hot sun had now cooked the urine in my pants so they were dry.  Hurray for me.  “Okay, well.  I think we should find a place to camp for the night,” Andy suggested and in that moment I could have jumped on him — giving him the most gigantic hug I could muster.  “That would be great,” I responded and followed after him again, limps more pronounced with each step.

Day Two ended with us accomplishing almost ten miles, a total of 9.63.  We found a spot at the base of the mountain, covered in thick leaves with little flowers barely popping their heads above ground.
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There was a fire pit already made and even large limbs to sit on.  “Listen.  Maybe tomorrow I will want to keep going, okay?” I told Andy.  “Maybe tomorrow I will feel better.  I just don’t feel good now.”  “Do you want to make a fire?” Andy asked as night was setting in, knowing one of few comforts on the trail is a fire.  But I was ready to decline all comforts to start anew the next day.  “A fire?  I’m burnt.  I’m hot.  My feet hurt.  I pissed my pants.  I’m miserable.  I just want to go to sleep and wake up and have it be a new day.”  And with that, poor Andy was left outside as I hobbled into our tent and passed out . . .

until, in the middle of the night, we were awoken.  It was pitched black, silent, when I heard a shoving sound, as if something large and mighty were trying to force a tree over.  We could hear the tree being hit and a massive rocking back and forth, extreme effort to push a huge amount of weight into the tree.  “Andy,” I whispered terrified because that sound — I knew that sound, I remembered that sound and only one very large substantial animal could make those heaving puffs, have that energy.  “Andy, are you awake?  Do you hear that?”  “I’m awake, L.  I hear it,” I heard him whisper back.  From the clarity of his voice, he had been awake for several minutes too, listening.  “Andy, I think it’s . . . ” I was too scared to finish.  “I know.  I think it is too,” he told me and my heart began to pound, pulses so deep until I could hear it, feel it in my ears.  “I think it’s at our food,” I told him.  “It is.  It has to be.  That’s definitely where the sound is coming from.”  And that sound didn’t let up — It was a continuous huffing push, a sound that came only when an entire being’s weight was being forced against an unmovable object.  “Andy?  It’s a bear.  I know it but what if it isn’t — What if it’s like before?” and I knew he understood I was talking about Three Falls when we were terrorized by what we are going down on record as saying were ghosts.  “I know,” he told me back, moving slowly, methodically towards the corner where he put his head torch and flashlight.  Slowly, he unzipped the tent as the zipper moved almost silently down the track.  We had to see — we had to.  We could not live another night petrified by the unknown.  Slowly, slowly, the zipper kept traveling down and with each small pull, the sound continued outside until finally, when the opening was wide enough for him to fit his head through, the sound stopped.  Andy didn’t hesitate — On went his head torch and on went the flashlights he held in his hand.  I saw the spray of light moving quickly over the ground, sweeping over trees, over our hung food bags.  But . . . there was nothing in sight.  “Our food is still there,” he said after awhile, coming back into the tent following his scan of our area.  “There’s nothing out there, L.  Nothing.”  The rest of the night, our bodies were tense, unmoving, listening for what we knew was a bear to approach again.

Day Three began with us wide awake and hearing another animal walk very close to our heads.  “Andy?  Do you hear that?” I whispered to him again.  “I hear it,” he said.  “Shhh.”  That “shhh” to me means only one thing — There is no threat.  If there were a threat, say a bear, he wouldn’t tell me to “shhh” and instead would have several other words — or no words — to explain the situation.  This “shhh” meant he too heard the animal but that we were okay and so we held our breath as the leaves crunched underfoot, guessing what it could be.  Once it had cleared our area and we could hear its footsteps further away so we hopped from the tent to find this guy, a white-tailed deer.
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Combined with the day before and the bear-noise-filled night, we decided it was better to leave the hike than continue on for three more days.  The fact was that I still only had one pair of shorts covered in pee (though, thankfully, clean underwear), my feet were almost unwalkable, and upon examination in the morning, I had one of the worst sunburns ever.  “I’m just miserable,” I told Andy as he examined my skin which wasn’t even red but more plum.  “I’m sorry.  I know you could easily keep going, but I just want to go home.  I think I truly could force my feet to keep going, but I don’t know how much more sun I will get and I’m already in pain.  We have no idea what the trail is like ahead — if it is harder or easier.  And we have to do ten mile days for the next two days or we won’t get back in time.  I just can’t do it.  Even if we get a little behind — We can’t.  I just want to go home.”  “I know,” Andy said, not hesitating as we packed our tent.  “I know.  I was going to tell you this morning — I already decided.  Let’s go home.”

They say never end the AT on a bad day, and this — unequivocally — was a bad day.  Or a bad set of days.

They say you will have regrets if you don’t keep walking, keep going because it will get better — The pain will numb, the concerns will go away, and soon enough you’ll cross trail magic.

They say you should end it on a high note.

And in the end, that’s what we did.  We did end it on a bad day.  We do have regrets about not pushing on.  But . . . we did end it on a high note.

We plodded, slowly, taking our time because we knew time was our friend now.  We stepped from the forest back into the last bits of the Grayson Highlands, enjoying our final view from the AT this time.  And then we stepped down a hill to cross a road . . .
IMG_0094coming to rest in Elk Garden parking lot, where behind the sign and pavement, re-entry into a forest that was rumored to look more like traveling through Canada.
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But we didn’t go in.  Exhausted, burnt, content with our decision, we waited under the Elk Garden sign, sitting on Andy’s foam pad and trying (more like praying) to get a signal for Lumpy to send a driver to rescue us.
IMG_0704IMG_0705“It’ll be about an hour.  ‘N forty-five dollars.  That okay?” Lumpy asked when we finally reached him a good thirty minutes later.  “That’s fine, Lumpy,” I told him.  Because it was.

In that moment, I was sitting exactly where I wanted to be — beside a road that would take us home; beside my boyfriend who never says no to an adventure with me and puts up with quite a lot but is the first to offer support, the first to know when to stop and when to keep going, the first to offer love.

I don’t know where I hoped to be or imagined being at the end of this hike, meaning an actual physical location.  I guess that answer turned out to be Elk Garden 17.32 miles in on the Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands AT trail.  But it felt we were somewhere else, somewhere more significant.

While this trip was hard and grueling and painful, it was also special, well worth it.  That’s why no matter what anyone says, I know we did end it on a high note.  I left the AT in the back seat of a minivan wearing my pee pants, windows down, hair blowing in the cool breeze, Andy’s hand in mine.  I left feeling happy, hopeful, free.  So no matter what anyone says, we knew we set a goal far beyond what we may have been able to accomplish.  But in the end, we did better than we expected.

And so when the van parked and we got out, we strolled up and down the sidewalk of Damascus, population 900, pointing out the different bricks that were removed and replaced with various AT stones, messages immortalized from other hikers.
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And when we were done, we walked hand-in-hand to our car then retold our tale to each other the entire drive back.  It was our hike, our laughter I heard, our smiles and our love I saw.  So I’m grateful — Extraordinarily grateful we found each other,  grateful we went, grateful we have this story.  Because, of all advice they tell you, this is the top one: Hike your own hike.  And that’s exactly what we did.

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