Day 42: The Damascus Dash
May 24th: Stealth Site after Iron Mountain to Damascus, VA: 23.6 miles. (The “true” Damascus Dash is to hike the entire 33-mile “flat” section from Vandeventer Shelter to Damascus in one day, but we’re not crazy, so we did a 23-mile dash instead.)
My alarm wakes me when it’s still dark, and it’s hard to get up. But we’re hiking 23 miles today. 23 miles! I am determined to make it to town by our rendezvous time with our host in Damascus, so I eat breakfast, pack up, and leave camp by 6:30. Etienne is still asleep, but I know he’ll catch me by lunchtime.
I do not enjoy the first hour.
When I initially hoisted my pack to my shoulders and looked into the quiet, dawn-lit woods, I smiled and thought, “I should always start hiking this early.” But now, ten steps later, I’m laced in cobwebs. For the next few miles, every two or three seconds I feel a new thread of spider silk drape across my forearms or my face. Every time I brush off the strands, I “activate” the dozens of bug bites on my arms. Occasionally I’ll get a whole web in the face at once, and once, the resident spider comes with it, dangling from the brim of my baseball cap. I wave my trekking poles out in front of me as I walk, but somehow that only helps a little.
Eventually the trail passes through some golden-green fields and there is a beautiful view. I pause to take a break from silk-blazing. Then, it’s another half hour of it before I finally reach a shelter. Six or seven older section hikers are packing up to leave. A woman greets me, then makes a face. “Is that a sword?” she says, point out my foam weapon strapped to the side of my pack. “It’s covered in spiderwebs!” I take off my pack to eat a snack, and indeed the toy sword’s hilt has a silvery sheen. My skin is crawling. Now that the weather is warmer, will every morning be like this?
But after the shelter, it’s dramatically better, because now there are people somewhere front of me doing the noble work of clearing the way. I can hike and use my poles normally, and my mood improves. The weather is finally, finally beautiful again, and the trail coasts along the ridge line. I’m feeling strong and fast as I pass one person after another from the group of section hikers. Etienne catches me eventually and we eat lunch after hiking twelve miles by 12pm for the first time.
Then we keep hiking, and I fall behind Etienne as the afternoon wears on. I hike and hike and hike. The terrain still isn’t flat, but it is the easiest we’ve encountered so far: gentle, undulating hills, with more downhill than up as we descend into the valley. The miles have never ticked past so quickly before, but just short of Mile 20, my strength is flagging. I find Etienne waiting in a sunlit clearing. I give him a hug, half out of affection and half because I need to lean against something or else fall over. “Less than a mile from the border,” he says, hands on my shoulders to keep me upright. “Eat something.”
I nod. I do have a habit of not eating and drinking enough while hiking, usually because he’s ahead of me somewhere, and I don’t want him to have to wait too long. I began the Appalachian Trail determined to hike at my own pace. I was eager to make friends, but not necessarily a “tramily” I would feel obligated to stay with, and certainly nothing romantic. I was wary of any attachment that would pressure me to hike too fast or too slow. And for weeks I told myself that Etienne and I were both solo hikers. I was always careful to talk about “when I get to Maine” and not “when we get to Maine.” Our miles had coincided since Day 2, but I wouldn’t mind if he decided to leave me behind, because obviously he’s a lot faster. HYOH, you know? I would understand.
Of course, I’m lying to myself, and so even though Etienne has never given me any reason to doubt his patience, I always hurry a little, reluctant to stop for all but the most essential reasons. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but it’s already hard to imagine the AT without him.
Anyway, less than a mile to the border. I eat a granola bar and keep hiking. I’m almost finished with All the Light We Cannot See, but now I switch from audiobooks to music, telling myself I’ll reach the border before four songs have played. The third song is a long one, Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, and I reach Virginia before it’s over.
We take pictures with the sign. Virginia! I’ve hiked from Georgia back to my home state. Damascus is only 2.5 miles away now, so I walk fast. My feet are exhausted, my legs and hips and shoulders are all exhausted, but the trail coasts downhill into town, and before I know it, I am there. It’s just after 5pm. We hiked 23 miles in 10.5 hours, nearly an hour and a half faster than I anticipated. We already know our way around town after spending three days here for Trail Days, so we quickly find a restaurant to satisfy our 23-mile appetites. We gorge ourselves on pizza, a whole pizza each.
Then we meet Shasta, a good friend of my sister-in-law Emma. Even though I’ve never met Shasta, when Emma mentioned that I was hiking the AT, Shasta offered to host me when I passed through her hometown of Damascus. Shasta is friendly and blonde and very country. She drives us a few miles out of town to the house where she lives with her boyfriend Adam, who is even more country still. They are both incredibly kind and welcoming, and they tell us about renovating the 1820 cabin that makes up a part of this cool house. The cabin actually sits inside the new house. One thick log wall is an exterior wall, with windows looking out onto the dairy farm. The opposite original wall is now an interior wall, separating the kitchen from the dining room. Antique farming equipment decorates the living room, mostly found here on this property.
We chat with Shasta and Adam about the house, the trail, and about Emma and my brother Derek, but then they have to leave for a family party. That’s fine with me, because after 23 miles and an entire pizza, 8pm feels way past my bedtime. After a welcome shower, I collapse and fall instantly asleep.