Hello from Unionville, NY. Unionville is definitely the laziest town name I’ve encountered thus far. The post civil war settlers didn’t even try. Half-assery is apparently a trend here, as the free campsite they advertise is really a children’s playground. I had to move my hammock this morning so a nine year old girl in horrible pink overalls and slushee all over her face could use the swing set. The “village”, as they ask to be referred to as, runs along the NJ/NY border, at Mile 1345. They do have fantastic pizza and donuts, though, which almost makes up for the other nonsense.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve hiked 230 miles, and felt every single step of it. The Trail has been rocky, literally and figuratively. The weather has cycled from sweltering to rainy whenever it pleases, with no regard for comfort. My clothes, hair, feet, and bag are perpetually soaked from rain or sweat. I can’t escape it. It’s just as bad at night. Evening temps are in the mid seventies, and I’m surrounded in fabric and warmth. It’s like snuggling. I hate snuggling. I wake up like a fat kid stirring from a nap at the beach, except when I awake, there’s no half eaten Chicken Tender PubSub on my belly.
My feet are covered in callous and blisters. My toenails are discolored and bruised from repetitively kicking rocks. The balls of my feet feel like they took got in an elevator with Beyonce’s sister. What’s her name? Lozenge?
My ankles are swollen. Each rock on Trail protrudes at it’s own angle, and quite a few have resulted in a rolled ankle.
My limbs are a nightmare. They’re sunburnt, scratched by thorns, and the muscles are wound tighter than a crackhead’s budget. They’re covered in bites from mosquitos and jiggers. Jiggers, apparently, are a bug that’s sole purpose is to bite and annoy. So, essentially, it’s the Chihuahua of the insect world. The other night, I got up to pee, and in a rush to avoid the bugs, I walked through poison ivy, the Chihuahua of plants.
I have -1% body fat and a gnat wedged into the corner of my eye that I cant flush out. To top it all off, my face looks like Big Foot bent over and spread his cheeks.
So that’s how I’m doing. Anyway…
I left Boiling Springs, PA two weeks ago and checked into the hiker famous hotel, The Doyle.
I’m not sure why it’s famous. There’s no AC, and it looks like every horror movie ever made has been filmed there. Also, the nutjob I split the room with bought diced red onions when he went to town. He ate them as a snack, in fact, he grabbed it by his fingers and dropped it in his mouth like it was Trail Mix or fucking Skittles. He came back to the room at 2 am very drunk AND he’s rude to everyone. I hiked out at 5:00 am. Fuck that guy.
Back to the point, for two straight days, it rained on and off. Pennsylvania and it’s rocks are tough enough, but when they’re wet, they’re dangerous. The maddening part is how much your speed is reduced. It causes late arrivals into camp, which leaves no time for drying clothes out. I had to hang my hammock inside the shelter, which means no bug net, and to mosquitos, that’s like the scene in Jurassic Park when they lower the cow into the Raptor cage and they absolutely rip it to shreds. Just like that.
On this particular evening, after 19 miles, I saw a sign for a free hiker feast at the next shelter, 4.1 miles north. The sign said they would have homemade chicken chili and Mac & Cheese. I walked as fast as possible for two hours in a downpour before I had to stop for cover. I didn’t make the feast, ate Ramen, and slept drenched. My stomach had blue balls.
Lying awake all night, I had no idea the what the next day had in store for me.
I’m financially stressed, physically strung out, and mentally beat. No amount of anything helped me sleep. My eye started twitching at one point. So I just read until the sun came out. Reading has without question been the most consistent sanctuary in my life. Basketball wasn’t the release for me that it is for most athletes.
So that morning, I dressed myself in wet underwear, wet shorts, wet socks, and wet shoes. While doing so, I mistakenly leaned to one side too far, and I heard a crack in my pocket. My Nook tablet, the one I use to read throughout each and every day, was shattered. Financially, there goes $200. Emotionally, it hit me like a sucker punch. My eyes welled up in tears, and I remember thinking that was ridiculous, but I had no toughness barrier left. The turbulent waves of this trip have slowly eroded that wall away.
From where I stood in that moment, I had thirty miles to hike to get to a town with a free campsite, and a couple motels. Four miles into the hike, it was clear I was at least two days away. The terrain was too slippery, and by 9:00 am, it had already rained for an hour. I stopped at a shelter, and the caretaker there offered to “slackpack” me into town.
Slackpacking is when somebody drives the bulk of your pack weight to a town ahead, so that you can cover the miles quicker without the stress of the weight on your back. The downside is, it’s like signing a contract. You don’t have your tent/hammock, so you have to get to town, or else you’re fucked.
I felt like I’d finally caught a break. We worked it out, and by 10:30 am, I left, with 26 miles still to hike.
Two miles in, the skies opened up.
Now, when the trail gets wet and begins to puddle, I’m usually able to avoid getting my shoes completely soaked by hiking to the side, where the trail is elevated. However, when it rains like this, there’s no escaping it. The Trail itself was under a foot of rain. TWELVE INCHES OF WATER. The water went up past my shin. The surrounding terrain was under about four inches of rain, which may sound better, but each step out there includes a sock full of leaves, sticks, stones, and probably twelve different strands of animal shit.
It felt like walking along the beach, just past where the waves crash, except every one of these sloshing steps included some doubt. Why was I even hiking in this shit? I could find out tomorrow I owe too much money to the IRS and my trip is over. What’s the point? Even if it’s not over, why am I cutting it so close?
At mile ten, disaster struck. Let’s take a stroll down metaphor blvd.
There’s a traveling tribe. This tribe has a Dictator, very handsome individual. The Dictator travels in a wagon, and the wagon’s dimensions are too constricting, and it’s twenty degrees hotter inside. Every time the wagon hits a bump, his head rubs on the roof. After bouncing around on all the rocks and potholes, the Dictator cannot travel any longer, his head’s taken too much friction and every movement causes a sharp, immobilizing pain.
Basically, I had a massive rug burn on my dick. Travel only continued after careful medical attention and a couple strategically place band-aids.
Got it? Moving on.
I make a joke out of it, but an injury as ridiculous as dickburn is something I’d never even considered as a threat. Little unknown’s like that are really tough when you’re mental toughness is low.
Then, the straw that broke the hiker’s back. I met some people at a shelter where I stopped for lunch. After trading some stories, I showed them a picture of a rattlesnake I nearly stepped on. For some reason, my phone screen went black.
It never came back on.
My brand new iPhone 7, purchased off the rack at full retail price when my last phone broke in North Carolina, was done. That, plus the Nook tablet, is a $1,000 loss in one day.
Trip is over.
I can’t afford a new one with so much financial uncertainty. Nor was I about to hike a week in the rain without a phone.
I’m not ashamed to admit, I hiked the next five or six miles completely sobbing. Failure isn’t something I’m used to. That’s not to brag, that means I haven’t taken enough chances, but nonetheless, I felt worthless.
I could handle not finishing the Trail due to injury, and thought I could swallow leaving due to money. However, when it settled in, I was sick to stomach. I hated myself, and could already feel the regret of quitting beginning to build.
Once that passed, I was a zombie. I hiked as fast I could, with as little thought as possible, just trying not to think of my soggy feet or shattered dreams.
My mom knew about the phone. I called her on another phone when it happened. I think she could hear the quit in my voice, and to her credit, I could feel her biting her tongue when she wanted to encourage me. If you know my mom, that’s not easy for her. It’s like my sense of defeat had seeped through my end of the phone and affected her as well.
Hours later, on a whim, I borrowed another phone and called her again because I couldn’t imagine admitting to anyone else that I was done, officially.
She answered the phone, “Colby?!”
Just by the tone of her voice, I knew she’d pulled something off.
“I contacted Verizon and told them your exact situation. They said they would overnight a free phone to you, and to enjoy the rest of your trip.”
So often, we watch actors in the movies break down in tears when something good happens. The magnitude of those moments isn’t fairly represented.
For me, and I’m sure for some of you, things have never been so dire that a reaction like this is even accessible or authentic.
You might be saying, “Dude, it’s a cell phone, a silly hike, and you look like Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds, and Leo all moved to Utah, four way married each other, and defied science by producing a child with no female egg to carry it. Ya know? You’ll be fine.”
But in that couple of hours where I had quit, I realized just how badly I truly wanted to complete this challenge. For myself, I feared quitting the AT would affect my persistence in future endeavors, and that scared me more than anything else.
So that phone call saved me, and I dropped my ass down in about six inches of water with tears joining the rain falling down my face.
A second chance from failure.
A brand new mentality.
I finished the thirty mile day, paid for a shower, and hung my hammock at a free pavilion.
Now. A new mentality doesn’t mean things change, it just means when the bird shit hits my forehead, I wipe it off and smile.
The next day in town, I had a list of things to accomplish. Get phone. Do laundry. Get Five Guys. Then of course, get to bed early.
Well. My phone wasn’t there. Hahahahaha OF COURSE, right? Fuck it. I forwarded it to the next town and buried my emotion deep down for another day.
Every single item of clothing I had on me had been wet for a week, except one pair of boxer briefs, so I had to wash everything, except that one pair of boxer briefs. Local police were not huge proponents of me sitting in the grass lawn of a shopping center, reading a book in my drawers. Apparently, in that lone hour of semi-nude public reading, I’d caused a rubbernecking epidemic amongst the female population of Hamburg, PA. I explained my predicament, they asked me to conceal my predickament a little better, then we took a picture together, and I realized their wives made them come down here for a picture. Sneaky bastards.
Five Guys! I had two burgers, one small fry, and a couple Coke’s before walking back. The temperature read “feels like 98 degrees”, which was the name of an astronomically terrible boy band, and turned out to be an even worse climate to walk in. Over the course of the two mile walk back to camp, the sun became too much. I could feel the food baking inside me, and just as I went to cross the highway, it all came up. Nothing like throwing up on the side of a highway while 18 Wheelers zoom by at 70 mph five feet from your ass.
I’m 0/3 at this point, but whatever, surely I’d be able to sleep, right?
That night, I finished the book I’d been reading, The Gate House by Nelson DeMille, around midnight. I had to use the restroom, so I walked all the way to the street to pee to avoid waking anyone up. Mid-pee, I heard a pop and whistle. I turned my head looking for the source, then heard another.
Some piece of shit, right in front of my face, was in the middle of slashing this poor woman’s tires. I yelled “Hey!” before thinking he has a knife in his hand and all I had in my hand was my junk. So the guy slashed the last tire and took off running right at me. Halfway to me, he veered off into the woods. I called the cops. They sent a car. I stayed awake to wait for them. They never showed. I fell asleep around 3:00 am. 0/4.
I swear this shit only happens to me.
That morning, the greatest accountant in the United States of America, Chad Moreau, sent me my tax liability amount. I owe a third of what I thought I would owe.
Financial stress, gone. I treated myself to an air conditioned zero star motel room, an Amish market homemade crumb cake, a Coke, and a Harry Potter movie on TV. Also, I didn’t sleep alone. I spent the night with some bed bugs. All was well.
All of this was one week ago. In those 7 days, I’ve hiked 130 miles. Everything still hurts. I still have poison ivy, the mosquito bites have doubled, and terrain only gets tougher from here.
The finish line is still 800+ miles away, but like I said months ago, adversity provides clarity, and my eventual summit of Mt. Katahdin seems clearer every minute.