I crossed the same bridge I had walked and comeback across twice that day. This was the third northern traverse out of town, and I decided it should be the last. There was an advisory in the guide book about falcons sometimes diving after hikers on this bridge. A warning about the spiders would have been a kinder use of that page. There were some industrious arachnids on this span of concrete and steel. I thought I had been coated in web terribly at eight this morning, but now, hiking out at 4am, they seemed to have hung twice the silk.
A friend once told me that unlearned lessons come back into your life repeatedly, a little more difficult each time, until you finally learn them. That summarized the repeated bridge crossings perfectly. It was much more difficult to walk north this time, though the air was cool, and I’ve long since been desensitized to spiderwebs during the AT.
I left the Pilot at 4am, and crossed the four lanes of roadway towards the high rocky outcrop on the north side of town. It was time to get hiking, and thus ended an epic stretch of loitering at this beloved truck stop. All total I’m sure I’d spent eleven hours there, and received trail magic three times. A trucker bought me lunch, another gave me a free shower voucher, and I was given a free drink at the Subway inside.
I stopped and looked back, thinking about the name Jayna. To my surprise she was leaning out the door and yelling something towards me. I had already forgotten my battery backup there earlier in the day, and assumed I must have left something else.
Awkwardly I jogged back across the road towards her. I thought she was telling me that I hike beautifully, so I laughed, but then I got within earshot.
“You write beautifully. I’ve only read the first one, but it was great.” Her smile warmed the whole of me. I know I responded, but I was so caught off guard I cannot remember what I said. I was beaming though, that was exactly the compliment I needed, at exactly the right moment.
She had work to do inside, and hiking my profession now; I had miles to seek. We parted ways. As I stepped onto the bridge for the third time that day, the most difficult time that day, I questioned myself within.
“Why the hell are you walking away from her Ryan?” I didn’t have a good answer then, and I don’t have a good answer now. My legs carried me forward, my mind wandered endlessly.
Halfway across the span, I sat and peered at the dark water below, then toward the clouds above. I finished writing the second post of the night, and meticulously reread the previous, hoping it to be without error. Satisfied, I hiked on.
I found a clearing near a nice rocky outcrop with a view of Duncannon below. It looked like a prime spot for day hikers, and I knew I’d be woken early. Three, maybe four hours of sleep was all the heat would allow anyway. No sooner had I pitched my tent and got settled in my bag, it was morning. My sleep was deep and dreamless.
I woke around 8am, to the familiar humidity and hum of zooming flies. I ran into a Sobo the day before, and he confirmed that several water sources to the north were dry. I poured over my guidebook, soon realizing I was looking at a fifteen mile stretch without water, during the heat of the day. I’ve been in a major mental slump for the past two weeks or so, and this was crushing.
Had it not been for the conversation with Jayna five hours previous, and her excitement about the trail, I’m pretty sure that morning would have been my last out here. I now had a new person reading my crazy ramblings, and the idea of quitting the same day didn’t seem right. I told myself to stop being a pussy, and started thinking of ways to take charge.
I realized that the heat was a factor, but much more so the loneliness of having hiked the past seven or eight days solo. I missed my friends, and since hiking out of Harpers Ferry, I had only encountered three other thru-hikers, none of whom shared my sense of humor. Firebird gave me her ETA on Port Clinton the day before, and soon I was on the phone with Gary, a local shuttle driver.
Yellow-blazing is the term for skipping a section of the AT via car or bus. Purists would surely revoke my thru-hiker title, but fuck those people, no one tells me how to hike. This was a last-ditch effort to restore my sanity, and to keep going. Otherwise, I’d inevitably quit.
The green Ford Windstar came to a stop near the bridge, the bridge I would not be crossing southbound again. Gary was a thin man in his 60’s and introduced himself with a firm handshake. The A/C was strong and soon we were up to speed, the pace of the vehicle feeling downright magical under sore legs. I felt as though there were a rubber band connecting me and Duncannon, pulling me back every time I tried to walk away. Thanks to this taught-faced hero of a van driver, the band had snapped at last.
Gary was a thru-hiker himself, and the third person I’ve met who knew Earl Shaffer on his ’98 hike.
“It’s your hike, no one else’s. The beauty of this journey is that it is exactly what you make it to be. Friends? People. That’s the most important part!” He said; comforting me after I explained why I needed his services.
He told me he wished everyone could spend two weeks on trail, and learn a lesson or two on kindness.
“We spend so much time competing with each other, trying to screw each other over, and subconsciously threatening each other. On the trail you put that aside, you grow out of it, and you help each other instead.”
This has been my experience as well. I remember sizing up other hikers during the first few days in Georgia, deciding in my mind who would stay and who would quit. The first question each of us had was what the other did for a living. Judgement and pride are so ingrained within us, we don’t even examine them anymore. Thankfully, those tendencies began to fade in the coming weeks, and more often than not, initial assumptions were proved false.
I felt extremely grateful to be riding in Gary’s van then. There was a lesson here, and as often, we’re lead to them unexpectedly. Near the doors of the only open hotel in town, I attempted to settle up with him, knowing the shuttle to be worth at least $80 by my math.
“Don’t worry about it. No, really! I had to run some gear up here for someone anyway, and they paid for my gas. I picked you up so I’d have someone to talk to.”
Suddenly his trail name “Gabby” made perfect sense. I shook his hand again and thanked him for his incredible kindness. As he rounded the lot and departed, I repeated the mantra known to every hiker by this mile mark:
“The trail provides.” I said, aloud and with reverie.
It was little time before I met up with Yoshi and Hannah again, a couple I canoed with in the Shenandoah’s, and have known for 800 miles. High-five was here as well, and assured me I didn’t miss much. He was considering jumping ahead, but stuck it out. The heat, and PA itself was driving us all mad, and it was nice to compare war stories with friends.
Only five more days of this state, so loved for its people, but so hated for its terrain.