Third in a series
May 27, 3:00 a.m.
I knew I was awake; my mind was racing all over the place. Could I get back to sleep? Only hours before, I had been nodding off in a presentation. I’d hated to do it, but I got up and left before I fell completely asleep. Now I longed for that sleep.
I curled up on my side, listening to the pre-dawn quiet. The latest weather prediction, a 40- to 60-percent chance of thunderstorms, meant rethinking the contents of my pack. I would put the rain cover on it before we started out. That should keep the pack dry. I would need to take my rain jacket and pants, my all-season gloves, my SmartWool® sweater, and my emergency blanket. The books say you can get hypothermia by being wet in any season.
I didn’t want to be alone when the thunderstorms came. I wanted a guide nearby to tell me what to do. What I knew about hiking in a storm was all from reading: Drop anything metal, meaning your walking sticks. Even though mine have cork handles, I thought, they’re hitting the ground. Don’t be in the open if you can help it. Don’t head for a cave or a grove of trees. What’s left? Crouch down low and balance on the balls of your feet. If you’re in a group, spread out to reduce the chances of more than one person being struck by lightning. Oh, fabulous, my own lightning bolt.
I needed to calm my mind. Thinking of thunder and lightning on top of some bald would not put me to sleep. I thought of the thru-hiker I had sat next to at lunch the previous day. He told us he begins hiking each day at 3:00 a.m. with his headlamp to guide him. He would be setting out about now.
I lay in the dark, aware of the irony that would play out later on the Trail. If I were in the forest instead of here in my room, I would be wishing for this bed and the toilet a few steps away. I’d be longing to stop walking. Well, now was my chance. I was warm and safe. Before I faced the day in the woods, I wanted to appreciate my trauma-free surroundings.
At 3:50 I gave up on sleep and made my first cup of coffee. With the lights on, I took a physical inventory. My feet seemed all right: no blisters or hot spots. The strange red marks on the insides of my legs up to my sock line had faded overnight. My calf muscles were sore, and I had pulled something in my right thigh or groin during our Pennsylvania hike when I turned to hold back a branch for someone and lost my balance. I didn’t fall, but that brief body twist had made its mark. I hoped I could take two Tylenol and “walk it out” on the Trail. I didn’t want to be a whiner, even joking.
The Appalachian Trail in Maryland looks a lot like the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania: lots of rocks, some mud, and miles of green. The surrounding area was attractive and well maintained, something I had noticed immediately upon driving into Maryland. There was no road clutter; in fact, by the time I saw a sign for a gas station, I wondered if it was a mirage. Of all my impressions, this took the cake: I was surprised to be driving over mountains! Hello. Appalachian Trail? Four states?
For our second day on the AT, we would be hiking from Washington Monument to Crampton’s Gap. At 9.7 miles, it would be our longest hike of the week. Described in our handout as “Moderate,” the hike was sure to present a challenge, because yesterday’s hike had been described as an “Easier hike.” Easier than what? Oh. Easier than the next three hikes.
Washington Monument is a rugged stone tower located at the top of a mountain in Washington Monument State Park. It was erected in 1927, the first completed monument dedicated to the memory of our first president. Maryland is steeped in history, particularly that of the Civil War. Crampton’s Gap, where our hike would conclude, was the site of another skirmish between Union and Confederate soldiers. Our conference center was just a few miles from Antietam Battlefield, scene of the bloodiest single day in American military history.
We hiked over three mountains and crossed a few gaps and knolls in between. I think we ate lunch at Rocky Run Shelter, around the halfway point, but all I remember is the fat log I had to sit on because the other seats were taken.
Wildlife spotted: A few minutes after I sat down, another hiker said, “Oh, there’s a caterpillar…ON YOU.” The thing was two or three inches long.
Tip: Watch where you sit.
Later we thought we were going to get caught in the rain, so my hiking partner and I stopped and got out our raincoats, which meant taking off our packs to put them on. I had my pack covered as well. It barely rained, and then the sun came out. Our ounce of prevention may have saved us from the storms, the way carrying an umbrella will sometimes do in town. To avoid the trouble of taking it off, I continued to hike in my raincoat and sweated like a pig. I’ve rarely had to worry about perspiration, but on that trip I sweated with the best of them. Just a preview of life on the AT.
I tried my bug net in the woods of Maryland. Made of fine netting treated with insect repellent, it fit over my head and hat.
Tip: Remember to lift your bug net off your face before you blow your nose.
I hiked alone for a while, not the most comfortable of arrangements for those of us dreading a wildlife encounter, but pace dictates our hiking partners or lack thereof. I slipped in the mud and fell onto my left side, hitting my shoulder. No one saw me, but the other side of that coin is that if I had been seriously hurt I would have had to wait for help. Luckily I was fine, except for being muddy and having a scraped knee.
Wildlife spotted: a spotted frog
The weather was great and the scenery beautiful. The hike ended at 3:00 p.m. when we emerged from the woods to meet the vans. It had been 12 hours exactly since my first thought of the morning, and I was beat.
Someone asked me at dinner, “Are you still thinking of hiking the AT?” We were cleaned up from the sweaty day, and the big rains had come after we were off the Trail. I’d heard the rain banging on the window of my room while I was lying down, but I was too tired to see if it was leaking in.
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling like last year’s meat. “I don’t know. After today, I’m not sure I could do it.”
“Oh, you absolutely could do it!” my table-mate said, and her husband was nodding in agreement.
“Look at me,” I said. “I’m a zombie.”
“You’re not alone. The trail beats everyone up for the first few days.”
I was thrilled to realize that I wasn’t a zombie from hiking; I was a zombie from waking up at 2:45 a.m. I didn’t have to give up hope.
Next: Hiking the “roller coaster” of Virginia