jaunt [ jawnt, jahnt ]
1. a short journey, especially one taken for pleasure.
verb (used without object)
1. to make a short journey.
Bubba was arriving at 6:30am to pick up our little group and drop us at the trail head for our first day back with our full packs.
I called shotgun as he pulled up; it was cold and grey outside and I’d outgrown my excitement for riding in the back – the novelty had worn off.
I couldn’t put my finger on it but my head was elsewhere this morning. I lacked any excitement for what was ahead: a glorious hike through the Virginias on the Appalachian Trail. According to AWOL’s guide, today was going to be quite easy by comparison. Relatively “flat” with rolling hills and little real work; well, except for the first climb.
Working our way down the gravel road and over the overpass, we came across a small campsite by the trail’s forest entrance, and sitting atop a parked car was a white foam cooler. I peered in through the dense, damp tree line close by and spotted tents of various size camped by a small creek. A voice shouted, “Take a soda! They’re in the cooler, help yourself!” I recognized the person, she was a friend of Stink Bug’s that I’d met at Trail Days. She is a former thru hiker and she is slack packing her husband, with her newborn in tow. I forget her name, but I remember her being very cool.
Red Specs pulled out two Dr. Peppers and handed one to me. Oh yes, I’ll take one of those gladly, mein freund. The cold sugary goodness melted away the humidity, if only for a short minute. Last night’s rain lay thick across the forest and trail, slowly rising as the morning temperature increased. It had also turned the low points of the trail into muddy quagmires.
The next hour was uphill. A narrow green corridor of no particular allure. Jesus it was humid. My clothes were soaked after only a few minutes, and I was wiping away spiderwebs from my face every 10 feet. The ones at shin level looked like tiny tripwires that the woodland animals had laid out to ensnare their human prey.
I’d chosen to hike on my own this morning, and was making a great pace. I could feel my body “remembering” how this works: one foot in front of the other, breathing deeply and uniformly (in through my nose, out through the mouth), and I’d gotten the rhythm back with my trekking poles – I felt strong again. I’d missed this feeling.
The miles burned by and so did the morning – by 9:00am I’d cleared 5.5 miles and I decided to break for a quick bite: Babybel cheese, a granola bar, and a poptart followed by 3/4 liter of strawberry flavored water.
I’d slung my pack half way over my back and I spotted Red Specs coming down the hill. “Guten morgen!”, I shouted, and I got a great guttural one in return – it was a thing we did when out hiking together.
I started out and he followed for maybe a minute or two and said that he was going to stop for a break himself. I wanted to keep going so I offered him a “cheerio” as I faded into the forest ahead.
I’d been listening to music since early morning, and with it I can fly through the mileage – house music was always my favorite for getting the blood pumping.
Something caught my eye, a chipmunk or squirrel darting through the undergrowth, so I pulled out my earbuds and stood still. All was silent except for the occasional birdsong.
It was at that moment that it struck me: I didn’t want to be here. I gave it a few seconds thinking it was just my aching body that was doing the talking — it wasn’t.
Coming back to the trail had been a mental struggle of where exactly I should restart my journey; Hemlock Hollow (the place I left the trail), to join Cap and crew and slack pack / car camp the whole AT, or rejoin Tie Dye at Partnership Shelter in VA. I chose #3, and I’d been happy with that decision – until now.
I was ~250 miles north of where I should be. My days of hiking up here didn’t feel accomplished. I was forcing myself to walk every day. Before my injuries pulled me off the AT in April, I loved whipping out my AWOL 2013 AT Guide and planning the next day’s hike. I wasn’t doing that anymore, and it’s because I felt I didn’t deserve to be this far north; I hadn’t earned this mileage.
I started walking again and regained my composure, but these thoughts were filling my every step. Soon I reached the next gravel road about eight miles in and I starred into the forest ahead of me at the trail as it curved away, fading away from me into the thick green woods.
I wasn’t taking another step. I’ve hiked my hike.
I was on my own and I hoisted my pack off my shoulders and onto the ground. Again I looked into the trees ahead of me and a wave of certainty engulfed me: I missed home. I missed everything about home, and I missed my wife the most. Without a second thought I took out my phone, took it off airplane mode, and called Bubba for a ride off the mountain.
After I’d scheduled my shuttle — which would be arriving in 30 minutes — I felt at peace. For the first time since returning, I felt completely happy.
It wasn’t too long until Red Specs came into view and I told him of my new plans. His shoulders slumped and face dropped in disbelief. Tie Dye came walking down shortly thereafter and I dreaded telling her, I knew how she’d react. I explained how much I missed home and she understood. I wasn’t in any physical pain, and I was leaving of my own accord.
Tie Dye had been my closest friend throughout my hike, my confident, my journey’s companion. A woman of such positive mental fortitude, and I’d had the good fortune to hike these incredible miles with her. She never complained about the trail, instead she found ways to positively describe the roughness of a particular spot, or she’d examine ways of tackling it in a different way. She was the most positive person I’d ever had the pleasure of knowing – and it rubbed off on everyone, including me. We hugged and cried a little, and her hug felt genuinely embracing. I’m going to miss her the most. She waited for a while as I made another call to my wife to break the news. We hugged again, and I made her promise me to keep in touch and send me plenty of pics. In honor of our friendship — and just because she’s silly — she skipped and danced onto the trail ahead of me and slowly blended into the dense woods. I beamed a beaming smile as a thousand memories flooded my mind at a million miles an hour; it was hard to not lose my shit right there and then. I’m really going to miss her.
My outlook on life and my own existence had gone through the wringer on the trail. Questions, semi-answers, more questions, doubts, and all balanced by daily bouts of elation. The AT will make you look at yourself in ways you never would in the “real world”, as it forces you to open up your heart as you stroll along its 12″ wide dirt path. The AT will get to know you, you will have no option but to open up, to reveal yourself completely. You will become utterly vulnerable.
One thing I learned very quickly is that there’s no faking it on the Appalachian Trail. It’s tough. Very tough. And it’s daily, pounding your muscles into lactic acid-hardened pieces of meat. My 40-year old joints felt like they’d aged 20 years in two months. For many long distance hikers, taking on a journey of this magnitude is oftentimes a battle against the trail, its terrain, and the ever changing weather. It wasn’t like that for me: it was a lesson in who I really am, what makes me happy / sad, and what stuff I’m really made of.
I’m strong, and not just physically. My mental fortitude is way stronger than I imagined, and my desire to make others happy around me became abundantly clear. “Jolly” wasn’t a bad name for me after all.
Everyone knew me, even people I’d met only once remembered me and my trail name. I’d have moments of singing while I’d hike solo; today in fact I was singing along to “What a Fool Believes“, and let me tell you, Michael McDonald can really hit those high notes. I always give it my best shot, but not being able to hear my own voice, I doubt I sounded any better than a dying cat. But it was who I was out here, and I f*cking loved every minute of it.
I’ve hiked 326.5 miles, walked through four states, crushed the Smokies (although they crushed me in return), taken ~750,000 steps, and had the good fortune to meet some of the finest people in the world.
More importantly, I found myself, and I am returning home with exactly what I wanted out of the Appalachian Trail: the real me.
Thank you to everyone that sent me their best wishes and comments, they were way more helpful than you’d ever know.