''To live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived'' - Henry David Thoreau, in Walden.

Walking Upright: The Appalachian Trail In Virginia

By Matthew Jones

I undertook the glorious challenge of hiking the Virginia section of the Appalachian trail in the summer of 2010, age 21. This is a journal of my adventure.

Introduction:

The Appalachian Trail runs approximately 2179 miles (3,507km) from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Main. My aim was to hike from Harpers Ferry in Maryland to Damascus at the southern end of Virginia - almost the entire length of the state of Virginia. This section covers 550 miles along the AT, and enough detours for re-supply to make it at least a 600-mile hike. My Southbound direction was during the boiling hot Virginian summer, when everyone else follows the nicer weather North.

I set off in order to separate myself from society, so that when I return I may view it as utterly alien with newly cleansed perspectives, having trampled my culturally-warped spectacles.

I chose to hike alone. I wanted to push myself to the limits, to find out what lies under this fleshy-hair-mesh, as well as examine society from the outside. My research told me the weather “could be oppressive in a heat wave”. Well, what are the chances of there being a heat wave?

I wrote right then and there on the journey. I wrote it at the top of mountains and huddled in my tent during thunderstorms. I wrote it when I was desperate and, more of that not, I wrote after eating a much-needed meal. Due to this it has no chapters, as they could not be planned. It contains everything that changed me. It is in its original chunks, pruned into shape. Each time I sat down to write I put in the next number.

At 21 this was my first significant parentless journey. It will soon be only the first, the mere first. The first step of my real life. Although I am not likely to forget it, as I did my first physical baby step.

At times you will no doubt be glad to not be the real person in the book, and at others you may wish you were there instead. By the end however, I hope at least a drop of inspiration has been transferred from me to you to, to explore as a beautiful nomadic woodland creature.

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1. I travel from my Home in Cambridge, England, to Washington DC by plane then catch the train to Harpers Ferry in Virginia, where my hike beings. There is just enough time to buy a mini camping-stove and set off before darkness encroaches.

Enter the woods…

I set off and follow a sign for Appalachian Trail south, but it only shows the direction of the trail, not the trail itself. I am unsure how big the Shenandoah river is, but on the map there is a railway running along next to it and a road the other side. I cross the railway as the map says and cross the river too, but the river looks rather small and stagnant… I keep walking. No white blazes, it can't be the right way. I flag down a police car and ask if he knows the way to Jefferson Rock. He does, and so I arrive once again at the start of my hike, only this time in the back of a police car. What an entrance! The police man shows me a white blaze in Harpers Ferry and warns me this section is known as 'the rollercoaster' due to all the ups and downs. In the police car he tells me the 'river' was just an old canal (as I suspected) and he talks about the world cup. Set off hiking again, in the right direction this time. I ascend up some steps. Minutes from being dropped off I am drenched in sweat. My pack is very heavy and it is the evening of a 100 degrees day and is humid also. I keep going up. I stop (collapse nearly) for a rest and type a long text to my parents, but it wont send due to no signal and in my jet lagged, exhausted and dehydrated state I accidentally tell it not to save it… oh well. Sorry mum and dad. I get up and discover Jefferson Rock was only just round the corner. Jefferson (Thomas) said it was an amazing view, “worthy of crossing the Atlantic for”, but it is only ok, and now there is a massive bridge with lots of traffic in the middle of his view.

I cross the Shenandoah on the big bridge and head into the woods. It is getting a bit dark. I keep going, but it is now getting dark quickly and there is nowhere good to camp, the path is thin and steep. Eventually it flattens out (momentarily…) so I decide to camp there. I know I am not meant to, but the stove-man said if I am discreet and practice the 'leave no trace' it will be ok. He also warned me about bears, saying there are an especially high number of them around and people who hiked through Shenandoah saw 3 or 4.

Tent is up. Sun is down. I fumble to cook some rice, but realize I have a stove, butane, rice and a plate and water to boil, but no metal container to boil it in! I shove it all away and eat some salted cashews, an energy bar and some sultanas. It is pitch dark now and I hurry to get my food in a bag to hang up out of reach from the bears and not in my tent. The forest is making strange noises. Fireflies are about outside my tent. I get all my food in a bag and fumble the rope, which gets all tied up in itself. It takes me 10 minutes to untangle it in the dark. My head torch it seemed snapped in transit, making it now only a torch. I head out into the dark eerie woods, noises all around. I need to find a suitable tree. I find a stick and tie the rope to it and repeatedly chuck it up at a branch. It isn't an easy shot and it keeps falling back down and getting tangled in branches. I am topless, in the dark, trying to untangle my rope only to re-throw and miss and I am starting to get rather scared of the jungle noises. It takes me about 20 minutes of fumbling and throwing and getting more afraid until finally I get it over. I tie my food bag to the rope and lever it up… it falls down, my knot is wrong. I tie it again and hoist it up. It isn't high enough, but it will have to do because I am getting the out of there. I head back to the tent. For a scary moment I cannot find it in the dark, but suddenly it appears. I unzip it and go inside. It is as hot inside the tent as it is outside. I lie in only my boxers for many many hours, still sweating. My back sticks to the roll mat. There are LOTS of strange noises. I keep thinking I am hearing a larger animal… maybe a bear. Eventually at about 4am I fall properly asleep for a couple of hours.

I am awoken by an almighty crash, the sound of a big branch falling. I am convinced it is a bear. What other animal could rip off such a big branch? It must be trying to get at my food. My heart pounds. I think about looking for my penknife… but that wouldn’t do any good and I don't want the noise to draw attention to me. I hear more noises. More rustlings. There must be a bear out there rummaging around. It's probably got my food bag down and is enjoying a feast at my expense. I'll have to go back to Harpers Ferry and tell the story to the stove-man. I hear more rustlings, more twigs snapping. It is close. I sit up alert. I give up listening and lie down and shut my eyes but then straight away there are more rustlings. This happens a few times. Eventually I peek out through the mosquito lining that runs around the base of my tent. I see a big black fuzzy shadow. Is that it? I stare at it for a while. I can't tell. It isn't moving. More rustlings. I realize my food is on the other side… not where the noises are coming from… strange. Why would a bear come so close to a feast and not take it? I peek outside again. The big black shadow is still there. I don't think it is a bear. The sun is rising fast now. Once it’s fully light, at 5.40am I slowly venture out. I poke out my head first and look around. Nothing. I get all the way out and put on my shoes (still wearing only boxers) and look. Still nothing there. I walk up to where I left the food bag, watching all around as I go. It is still there! And in tact! I leave it there for now and go back to the tent (roughly 30m away). In the light I see three chocolate bars were left in the tent with me over night. Doh! I laugh, what a story, what a joke. I get dressed and packed up. There is definitely no bear. I see no bear tracks or anything. “Bearanoia.”

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2. I have now seen within 48 of USA arrival, a beaver, 5 deer, a vole thing, two bright red birds, an eagle (or some big kind of bird), 2 little terrapins, and fireflies (and the obvious, trees, squirrels, butterflies, humans, etc) and far too many mozzies. At one stretch I had to walk along slapping my face, which made me laugh more than hurt (note: laugh on the inside. I do not walk along slapping myself and laughing). Also of note, I saw a zagged brown lump on a fallen tree that I couldn't tell if it was a lizard or a poo. Interesting. “No time to poke that now!”

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3. I get to a shelter and springs. The spring is meant to be 0.2 miles away from the shelter. There are two hikers at the shelter and I passed some on the way, one was a woman taking photos of the terrapin. One guy with a strong accent I struggled to understand said he had been to Cambridge and that it had a nice coffee shop. I said, “yes, it has lots of nice coffee shops”. Then another said quickly “I'm Loon, glad t'v met ya”. He walked on too quickly for me to realize “loon” was his name, and not an admission of insanity (edit: I now realize it is probably a trail-name, so it was a bit of an admission really).

The spring is a very long 0.2 miles down a steep narrow path and it is a measly little spring. There are mozzies everywhere. I use a little bottle to fill up my big bottles awkwardly straddling the little stream as the flies attack me. I put in the tablets and whip out the mozzie spray. It works. It will take 2 hours for the water to be purified so I fall into a restless sleep right there under a tree (I later learn from “Hopper” that no one waits the full 2 hours, 30 mins does the trick…). There's a caterpillar vigorously climbing my bag. I put him on a leaf. He climbs up and down it pointlessly, and I watch wondering if the big black ant will eat him. It doesn't. I see the caterpillar cut part of a leaf off. I imagine him being old and wise and writing his memoirs in a book called, “Life on the leaf.”

I make it back up the steep 0.2 mile track having to stop twice. I don't want to sweat. I only have a little water to make it up as I foolishly drank lots upon arrival thinking I would have lots, forgetting I would have to wait 2 hours. I make it and have another more proper nap on a bench with my mat, my back sticks to it again. I eat lunch and go through my food. I have enough for today and tomorrow, but not the third day. My rice cannot be cooked without a metal cooking pot. I don't think it is enough to get me to the next food point at the end of the 3rd day, roughly. But a young man with a massive baleen-like orange beard said a hostel coming up did great spaghetti… hmmm. I test out the new water now that 2 hours has past. Tastes normal, boring. The leaves on the trees were beautiful when I awoke from my brief nap. I then get out the alphasmart and write up the events, having decided to not hike during the hottest part of the day today. Plus my shoulders are killing me. I consider that if I became a travel writer I would have to keep doing completely new things because otherwise I would stop making silly mistakes, such as all of the above, which would give me nothing to write about.

4. I get to Blackburn hostel. I go down lots and lots of stone steps to get there. I thought it had Internet but it seems I misread the booklet. Still, I can go for a number 2 and refill my water. I hear there will be food here later and lots of hikers. I think about staying as I am running out of food due to not being able to cook my rice. There is loud thunder and a few brief bouts of rain. I decide to keep going as getting closer to the next food place cancels out not eating a meal here, so I put on the waterproof covering for my pack, but it didn't rain again. I walk quickly; it's quite flat and slightly cooler than yesterday. I make the 4 miles in about an hour and 20 mins to Sand Spring which is a decent stream with a little campsite with one fireplace. No one is there. I eat more cashews, cake, raisins and wafer things with plenty of time before dark (lesson learned!). I hang up the bear bag in a good spot without difficulty. A hiker, mid twenties, male, comes to fill up his water. He says the usual American greeting of 'how you doin', I say, “hi”. He says walks past saying “how’s the water here?” I say “yeah,” thinking at first he just said “there's water here”. He leaves. I am too tired to interact, having gotten 7 hours sleep in 2 nights when I should be getting lots. I look at the photos on my phone and the videos, depleting the battery somewhat, but I was expecting Internet so that quenched my desire for familiar people.

I write this as the sun sets twinkling through the trees. It is pleasantly warm. Tomorrow I will wake up early and get to the Bears Den hostel, which DOES have Internet for about 7am. Bears Den has a short-term resupply store but that is only open between 5pm-9pm but I don’t want to have to hang around all day waiting for that to open, so instead I plan to ask someone there if I can borrow their cooking pot to cook one meal and then I will cook loads and loads of rice and put it in a carrier bag to eat during that day. Then I can eat my last bits of food the next day and re-stock up in the evening at Monterey convenience store. (Fingers crossed I can borrow a cooking pot or I'm stuffed!). I could actually make it to the place now if I packed up my tent and hurried, but I am too tired.

5. I arrive at Bears Den hostel. I go inside briefly just to on the Internet and send emails to my family before continuing along the trail. Instead of carrying out last night’s plan I have a good look at the guide and find a little village called Bluemont a few miles further on where there is a store. I go off the trail into Bluemont where I resupply. A banana and a giant tomato are especially yummy. The woman at The Village Market said there were no saucepans at all in her store, but she told me to hold on a moment. She returned moments later from her house next door and gives me a saucepan for free! Hurray! I continue along the trail refreshed from the fresh fruit and pleased with my new ability to cook rice.

I meet some nice people at a shelter. One has the trail-name Hopper. She is distributing her husbands’ ashes along the trail as he requested. Another is called Griz. He warns me that he isn't the Griz that everyone has heard bad things about. There is a girl called Olive Oil and another guy about my age who I talked to most, but I forgot his name. I learn of a great all you can eat Chinese in Waynesboro that has a section especially for smelly hikers. Waynesboro is at least 100 miles further south. Hopper saw 13 bears in Shenandoah! They seem unbothered by them. There is a hikers-log here which I have taken photos of, people have written hilarious stuff. I leave in an uplifted mood from the good interaction. It is just as hot today as ever. I press on but fall short of my target of reaching the creek beyond the next shelter. I don't even reach the shelter, due to spotting little bits of mud in my water which makes me decide to refill from a stream which is also had bits in it so I have to boil the water.

As the evening arrives I find a spring and single campsite with fireplace. I sit down and rest and think about the order I'm going to do things. But this spring's water is muddy too and it’s too shallow. Every bottle ends up with tiny water boatmen going around inside of it. I think and decide to stay with my dwindling 500ml. It is only a mile and a half to the shelter tomorrow for more water and if I have to drink it tonight due to the heat I can boil some water boatmen… I hope I don’t have to. There is now 200ml left. I can't drink anymore until I set off tomorrow unless I want to boil up water boatmen water. Its 7.30pm. I hope to sleep for 8+ hours. I look forward to making it to a resupply tomorrow for fresh fruit, and then the next day I should make it to Front Royal, where there is a Burger King. Drool. One of my tent pegs snapped today… I was hardly even pushing on it. Perhaps the heat makes it softer. Argh. It doesn’t matter much but if another one snaps I'll be down to the minimum required for my tent to work. Goodnight.

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6. Day three of hikingB. I hiked 20 miles! The last 5 were in an hour and a half in the cool evening, I am proud of that! I Entered Skymeadows Park, which is was very beautiful. I took photo of myself at Paris viewpoint using the cameras’ timer and then I had lunch there. There was a visitor center where I bought a $40 cooking pot and gave the one the Bluemont lady gave me to the people there, and left my pink plate and cup there too (the cooking pot came with a bowl). The cooking pot the Bluemont lady gave me was too big and heavy for my stove, which is why I bought a new one. I chatted to a few people at Skymeadows visitor center. I walked very far this day. I looked in mirror in the restrooms. I am more muscley than I ever have been!

The rice I ate for lunch outside the visitor center in my new lightweight cooking pot cost me a total of $100. $100 rice. Yummy. That cost is derived from the stove, which was $40, the $40 cooking pot and the butane and rice itself. I flavoured it with raisins. There was a kid catching a baseball in glove as I ate. He said to the thrower, “that ain't no cutter, that’s like a hard-core slider”. I’ve no idea what it means. I enjoyed today lots. I’m sure I will make it now, after some doubts yesterday caused by the AT rollercoaster, which is one of the most strenuous sections but is where I started. I am still looking forward to that burger king at Front Royal… hohoho. I only did 16 miles on the actual AT today, but took a 3.5 mile detour to the Skymeadows visitor center bringing it up to about 20. I gorged on a hat full of wild raspberries on the way back up that I somehow completely missed on the way down to the center! Someone said “great raspberries along here”. Delicious. Only 10 miles to Front Royal, I will be there tomorrow! I will stay in a hostel over night and then go the library on Monday morning where they will have Internet. I have white blotches on my t-shirt. I tasted them; they are salt. From my sweat! Tasty.

7. Considering trail names. Possibilities are: Jedi Jones, Gandalf, Smeagle, Hobbit, Treebeard. I just went for a piss completely naked and rather enjoyed it… I am tempted to do some of the trail naked… perhaps “Naked hobbit?”

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8. I did 10 miles this morning then I hitched a ride from the trail to Front Royal 4 miles. The guy who picked me up was called Peter who studied Philosophy, which I have studied a few units of and am very interested in. He quoted Aristotle, “reason is the slave of the passions.” It’s a shame the journey was so short we had little time to discuss it. I am in Front Royal now. There was a battle here with Stonewall Jackson… I think it is in a film I have. I must watch it again. I think the Court House here is the same as in the film. I am about to go see Toy Story 3 to rest my feet and relax, then I will get a room at the quality inn for $60… a bit expensive but oh well. Peter dropped me off at burger king; he was very nice. He is from New York State and had a funny accent, like a Chinese person who has learned american-english, despite being completely white. He talked a bit like a robot with short sharp endings to words. I liked him though. I ordered a triple-decker-mega-bacon-double-whopper meal (or something) but it was surprisingly small. I got a medium ice cream outside and it was surprisingly big. I will stay the night and go online tomorrow when the library opens. I know I will make the whole journey now. Adios!

9. Monday. Had all you can eat breakfast at the Quality inn with a middle aged couple from Newcastle. I didn't find out their names, probably because the were English, still, nice people. They are on holiday and have had 11 days touring Virginia and are about to fly up to Canada where they have relatives. I return to my room and put the radio on and boogie and shower to some great rock n roll. I am looking forward to getting back on the trail! The radio says about being in love is to do with dopamine, and that it is similar to a cocaine high. He says you can be asked “have you ever done drugs,” and reply, “no, but I've been in love.” For me the answer however, is the opposite.

10. Great day today (Monday). Best so far. I got shuttle to the trail from the Quality Inn in Front Royal at around 10.40am. An awesome black guy named Steve drove. I asked him if he lived in Front Royal. He said, “Yeah man I live in Front Royal, gotta get away from all the drugs n violence ya know.” I didn't know, but his manner was very friendly. When I told him I took a plane I said,

“My plane arrived in Washington at…” which made him think I flew it myself. He was amazed and exclaimed,

“Woah boi, you flew here, on a plane! wow! How many times d'ya refuel?” Eventually I explain I was just a passenger. When he dropped me off I asked him if he knew which way was southbound. He says, “good question,” I say I have a compass. He tells me to wait and says, “hmm, lemme see. I'm gon use my ol' skills. I trained with the 22nd airborn ye know, yees I did.”

“Really, cool,” I reply. He lines him self up (with what I didn't know), bends his legs and sticks his arms out in a funny pose. He suddenly shouts,

“THAT WAY,” pointing behind him. “That way's south,” he says proudly. I get my compass and ask him, “Which way did you think it was?”

“That way,” he points down the trail we can see from where he pulled up. He looks at me hopefully, his thick lensed glasses making his eyes big and distinctive.

“You're right, it's that way,” I tell him.

“YEAH! I told ya I got skills, I trained with the 22nd airborn ya know.”

“Nice wow, very impressive.”

“You see what I did there?” He asks. “I lined my body up with the sun and did it. You see it rises in the east, sets in the west,” (I know that… but I wanted to be certain). He explains to me in much the same way he explained in the drive over about how to cross the roads. Very detailed and a bit hard to understand. - I had told him I wasn't sure how it worked here without the little white man like in DC. He uses his hands a lot to gesture. Also on the drive he told me how he grew up with the 'English rockers', when I told him I was from England. He says he loves the stones and says he can name any of them.

“Hendrix,” I say,

“Hendrix, yeeah,”

“Bob Dylan,”

“Bob Dylan, yeeah,” then he says, “Beatles,” I say that I love the Beatles. Then we are there and I am getting out the door, he is still going “err erm who else…” We get out and have the compass bonanza. Then finally he says, “Mind if ah send up a prayyer?”

I say, “sure”. He does it right then, ending with a strong American “Amen,” I say a quiet English amen and set on up the trial. I ask the first hiker I see to make sure I'm going the right way, I am.

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11. I sit here now in Shenandoah national park at a spectacular overlook. I can see 4 lines of hills/mountains off in the distance before me and the sun is filtering through the clouds in a pinky/purply fuzz. There are some huge birds flying around. I thought they were eagles, but a guy who's also heading south says eagles are rare in this area. They are probably vultures or hawks. They are massive, brown and fly effortlessly (excuse the cliche, but that's what they do). The temperature is perfect and there is a warm breeze. The number 7 key has fallen off my alphasmart. I can hear bird song rising up in all directions from the green forest below. An incredible sight was just gifted upon my eyes, it lasted the briefest of seconds. A grey cloud softly pads the sky. A perfect beam of light just shone though it like an alien gravity lift illuminating a circular patch of forest on the opposing mountain. I didn't know whether to expect harps and angels singing or an space ship to emerge. Neither did… apart from in my imagination.

I’ve reached Gravel Springs shelter. The guy who told me about the vultures is there, I find out he is called Scarecrow. So are three middle aged women from Pennsylvania. They are very friendly and encourage me to stay. I tell them I have no trial name and so they say I must stay so they can give me one. I quickly am “christened” as “Upright,” because I tell them how I slept upright in Washington airport and because they think of English people as Upright people. I like it. They saw a bear just before I arrived and beat their pans to get it to go away. I wish I had seen it (the pan beating, and the bear). I say it is like chimpanzees smashing the forest up in a power display. They feed me all sorts of dried food. They have been section hiking the AT for 3 weeks every summer for 5 years. They are pros at preparing dried fruit in advance. They feed me dried banana pieces, cantaloupe, which I don’t know what it is, I suggest I thought it might be some kind of antelope. They laugh and say it is fruit. They offer me more food to go with my rice. It is delicious. I say that it is better than anything I could cook in the real world anyway. They laugh. One of the ladies jokes that hopefully I wont see “7” bears as that my number 7 key has fallen off (although it still actually works). We will all sleep in the shelter.

I also saw a bear cub while doing my teeth! It was about 20 feet away and is my first bear sighting. They are such beautiful animals, little fuzzy face. 'oh mamma bear where are you?'

I found my thoughts wandering to some funny places as I walked today. I wondered who would win in a fight between a bear and a gorilla. I think, providing they were equal (roughly) in size/weight the bear would, because claws beat knuckles, and teeth beat… a silly face. More importantly I HAVE A TRAIL NAME - UPRIGHT!

12. Tuesday, 1 week into my grand adventure! As with hills, my mood must go down at some point. While Scarecrow and Monica and her two friends were very nice, they snored. VERY loudly. One of them was like an elephant sucking up custard. This made me more antisocial today and less physically able to cope with the challenges. Thankfully, it is cooler, and so I decided to really go for it and try to make a 25 mile day - a long way by anyone's standards. I make the first 13 miles by around 12.30pm, good progress.

I expect to have lunch at a shelter by a spring but there is a hiker couple making-out there, so I fill up my water and take a look at the guide. In 1.5 miles there is a side trail to a Panorama. That sounds like a nice place to have lunch. I set off. I make it to Thornton Gap where the AT crosses the US 211 which goes into Luray. From this gap it should be a quick 0.2 miles to the side trial to the Panorama. I cross the road, enter the woods, stub my right toe and then stand on a sharp rock making my left toe feel like your funny bone does after it gets a nasty whack. I continue, grumbling as I go. There is another road a couple hundred meters away, I guess Thornton Gap is for two roads… didn't say that in the guide. Grumble. I cross again. OK, so from NOW it should be 0.2 miles to that Panorama where I can finally have lunch and a well deserved rest after almost 15 miles this morning. It is a steep ascent. I go up about 0.2 miles, no side trail to a Panorama. But there is a car park and I see a post labeling that spot as Thornton Gap. RAAAH! So now it MUST be 0.2 miles the Panorama, they just marked the gap from the furthest point possible on the other side of the two roads.

I continue the steep ascent, having to stop once briefly. My legs are giving up. I feel I have been deceived. I can't tell if it's the bad nights sleep, the long distance I've gone today, or just the unfortunate sign posting but I am not in the best of moods. I keep going up, contemplating slumping down and just having lunch and my break uncomfortably on the side of the trail, with bugs crawling up my ass and no Panorama. No, it must be any step now… maybe round that corner. No, maybe the next one. No. I am still ascending and it is a steep ascent. Finally I see a spot that is acceptable. It's not a Panorama but it has a bit of a view over Thorntons Gap. My thighs are set a-flame stepping over some big rocks to get to the spot. My legs practically collapse. I have found a new limiting factor. Usually it is the heat, causing dehydration and very slow cooling down. Then it is the bag's weight on my shoulders. And then there are the painful feet in the mornings/after long breaks. Now however, it is my legs themselves. The very pillars that hold up this creaky old library. They can barely hold me anymore. You see, due to the heat, I had begun to think the human body was like a robot. Give it more fuel, let it cool down and it will just keep on going. But unfortunately it is like a robot, only a more complicated robot. Even with the juggernaut of hydration and temperature out the way, the legs are still only (failing) muscle and bones. At least I have plenty of beef jerky to provide protein to fix them. Now is where I set off again to find that Panorama is just around the corner.

13. I managed 22 miles in the end, not 25. Oh well, I tried my best and it's still pretty far. I never saw the signposted Panorama, but the drama is over, I am rested and eaten and there were plenty of good views. I set up my bear bag properly high this time. I aim to cover 20 miles tomorrow and will buy a nice lunch at the big resupply place at Bigmeadows wayside.

I’m in my tent camped near Stony Man View. I’ve discovered a rock under the tent making my roll mat lumpy. I switch sides, shifting my bag and stuff over. I lie down and for the first time my back doesn't stick to the roll mat. Oh wait, yep, it's stuck again. Today was the first time I felt my knees suffering a little. I will get hiking poles after all. I struggle into my shoes sockless, I need the loo. I come back and write more. I’ve forgotten to do my teeth. I forgot them last night too, better do it. Last thing I need is my teeth falling out. I squeeze sore feet back into my shoes again. Doing my teeth costs me a mozzie bite and 300ml of water. Also my camera's memory card filled up today. I’ll have to go to a town to get that sorted…

14. 6.34pm. I have never ached this much in my life. I did another 21/22 miles today. After about the 17th mile if I sat down for longer than 5 minutes my legs would cramp, ALL OVER. Somehow I kept on going. I have left a few devices out to stop the bears, namely my smelly socks, a puddle of urine, and I have considered farting lots, but I don't want to risk a misfire. Today I passed the miles by drifting into my imagination. I imaged making lots of money when I get back, and how I'd do it, down to the very act of not licking my lips greedily when the 7.5k for 2 months is offered… For some reason I imagined having to get my 10 year old cousin to eat his food. I would do this by pretending that muscles are giants bogies and are awfully chewy because they rip off part of the nose too. Peas are goblin bogies, and Brussel sprouts are elvish bogies. They are so big because they age very slowly, like elves, until you eat them. He asks me (in my daydream) “what about these?” gesturing to some runner beans. I reply, “those are just beans. Beans and bogie salad, a renound combination across all middle earth”. I think that would work pretty well on any 10 year old, especially one as nerdy as he is (and I still am…). I didn't have substantial conversation today. I passed through Big Medows. It had very nice views but too many people I found. I passed people every mile or so around there. When there’s that many people you don’t stop and talk to them. I resupplyed there too, $30 for what I estimate to be 2 days food. My trail food sure isn't cheap… money will be an issue. I aim to continue this big block of not staying somewhere where you have to pay for about a week.

I considered that the Appalachian Trail is very badly named, as I have not seen a single apple tree! Sorry about that “joke.” Aching muscles… I slept a good 10 hours last night, it was much cooler, even slightly cold which meant I could snuggle up in my sleeping bag which is how I sleep best. It never got especially hot today. The leg cramps are the main thing. If only I could have a full body massage… I had that conveyor feeling for the first time today, where you feel like you are walking on a conveyer belt and the world is going past. I thought I might be ill, as I also had a nose full of snot, but I sat down and drank 500ml, blew my nose, and it went away. I hear a crackling… will just test for bears. It's stopped, never mind. I hope I don't ache this much tomorrow or sooner or later I may actually pull a muscle. The ground is lumpy, even with my roll mat. I had to set it up at a fresh spot in the woods due to not being able to walk any further (my feet fell out - with each other). I also have a bit of pain in my back… ah well life on the trail! I completed the first 100 miles today! Big Meadows Wayside marked the spot. 450 trail miles to go. I just gave my calf’s a massage, or “mi kebabs” as I have come to call them. For the first time to today I attached my zip-on trouser legs and wore my log sleeved shirt.

I had thought part of my left toe had fallen off today. I thought my blister had turned into a callus and fallen off, attached by only a flap of skin, making it not hurt most of the time, but occasionally wince when it flapped back in place, making my toe too big for the shoe. I made myself wait in excited anticipation for at least 10 miles (until Big Meadows) but it seems my blister is still in tact. One of the many things science cannot explain. I dreamt of clean underwear and table football.

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15. I set up camp early today, 4.45. I still made it 18 miles. I need to resupply tomorrow just for a day's worth of food and the food place doesn't open till 9, so there's no point being closer, I left it 3 or 4 miles away so when I wake up I have somewhere to go. Then the night after that will be my last in Shenandoah, and I will be camping for free at the YMCA in a town called Waynesboro. There is a library next door with computers. Today was fairy uneventful. It was cool, making for an enjoyable morning. At lunch a boy of about 16/17 asked for my help. He had a “bum foot”, he thought he had tendonitis “or something” and wanted to get off the trail back home for a few days. Unfortunately we had the same guide, and I wasn't a local like he had hoped. I offered him a bandage twice, but he declined politely. His plan was to get to the next road crossing and hitch a ride somewhere to get a bus home. I wasn't a local and so didn't know any other way. Good luck to him.

The last part of my hike today was very tough. Due to water locations and limited food I had to fill up 5 liters. While filling up I saw a possum, or something. 5 liters would be enough for a few more miles today, a few more miles tomorrow morning to the store, and cooking a double batch of rice for dinner and breakfast, and overnight tonight needs a little extra. The extra weight made my feet feel like I was stomping along, they felt like they could pop. Oh how they ached. Still, I made it far enough and I'll be taking it easy in Waynesboro soon. It took an hour to cook rice, eat rice (with fruit and nut Trail mix as flavouring) then cook more again. I burned my fingers conserving the hot rice water for the next batch, to save on butane which was running out (and feels pretty much completely empty now). I drank the rice water after both batches were done. With a bit of salt and maybe some herbs it would taste ok, otherwise it is just bland, but very filling, maybe more so than the rice. I had to defend my food for the whole hour from ants and flies and bugs, luckily the big black ants don't bite, but squatting down to check the butane was still burning every minute or so was a pain - in the legs.

It's a nice evening; I am on top of a hill with a faint view just about visible through the trees. I am actually on a rather prickly raspberry patch, most of the fruits here have shriveled up unfortunately but I got a few good ones earlier today. I had to weed out these prickly raspberry plants to avoid them ripping my tent. I know about leave no trace, but 'my feet ent goin no further' so I have to. I pulled out most of them. It doesn't look like my tent will rip. The sun is going down. I've just had to extradite 4 big black ants from my tent… they smuggled in here somehow those cunning little things.

You wont believe what just happened. Getting into my tent I felt a wince of pain in my knee. That's right, after hiking 18 and 22 miles the last 2 consecutive days, I hurt my knee climbing into the tent. It doesn't have to get me much further (32 miles to Waynesboro!), but it looks like I am going to HAVE to get some hiking poles, and possibly an extra night's stay at the YMCA to let it heal. Damn. Also my shoes are definitely too small now. My feet have swollen, as I read that they would. The swelling has resulted in 2 massive blisters on my right foot, although I didn't notice either of them forming. My left has been suffering from the small shoe size after a couple of days. I may have to get some new shoes… which will be very pricey. Double Damn. I realize a lot of this sounds very negative, but really I feel fully alive. The various trails are like when someone who loves their job works hard at it for long hours, sort of. It is great, and I know I will be drawing (or rather, writing) on this experience for the rest of my life. While I look forward to it all being over - seeing as it's the hardest thing I've ever done, it is something I must do. Rather like when native American adolescents go alone into the woods as boys and come out as men. It is a right of passage. I already consider myself a man, but in western society we have a delayed adulthood, and remain 'youth' for a long time. 600 miles is an amazing distance to have hiked. I can barely imagine having done it. What a thing to have under your belt. It could lead to going on dangerous and exciting archaeology digs in parts of jungle where major hiking experience is required… that could be fun.

I just had to go out again and squeeze into my shoes sock less to do my teeth. I am always forgetting that all out of routine. On the way into the tent my knee went again. Very painful. It had gotten better as I lay down for a while for walking about, but when bending right down it cannot take the strain. Hopefully it will be healed enough over night to make it to Waynesboro… or I’ll have to hitch. I am much more awake today. Yesterday I was falling asleep at 7.30pm, yet it is an hour later today and I feel ok. I guess those last few extra miles make a big difference. (5th big black ant just extradited).

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16. I woke up this morning wondering why I am putting myself through this ordeal. I slept well, but waking up in a cold tent knowing that to get breakfast you have to put your sore feet into back into their shoes and hobble across the forest to a bear bag and unpick the knots with already messed up nails is never nice. I may have to go slower too because of my knee, making the promised land of Waynesboro further off. I even packed up my sleeping bag and travel liner before eating, which is the other way round to usual, just to spice things up. I remember now, it's good for my writing. That scene from the movie Gladiator appears in my mind, when the Emperer Marcus Aurellius asks Maximus, “tell me again Maximus, why are we here?” To which Maximus replies, “for the glory of the Empire sire.” “And what is that?” The Emperor asks. “And what is that?” I ask.

I just lost my bear bag rope up an evil tree. I got the bag down, but the rope on the other side near to where it was attached to the stick was all tangled up. It was only a light tangle and I thought it would just pass right over, but it got stuck. So I have one end of the rope in my hand (the end attached to the bear bag) and the other end is stuck in the tree. I untie my end from the bear bag and attach it to the stick I used for the other end and toss it back over. A plan that should work, but this tree is knobbly and its bark is very good at catching rope. It gets caught and all I can do is tugg at it. Bye-bye rope, you've served me well. As for you evil tree, take this, and that, and one of these. (I kick it - with the flat of my foot, not the blisters). Luckily the store is only 3 or 4 miles away and I should be able to buy more rope there. I can at least be glad that my tent hasn't been prickled by the raspberry plants.

This morning when I set off my morale was extremely low. I usually felt good at this time of day, but my body felt weak all over. For the first time in a week I had serious doubts again as to whether I would complete the trail (or trial). I had slept well, eaten well, I should be fine. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I am taking it more easy to day to raise my morale. I stopped to look at a couple of views for a bit longer than usual. That seemed to help a lot. I have been rushing through Shenandoah to try to get a 'few free days' at the end, but I wont have enough money anyway to stay anywhere half decent, so I may as well take my time on the trail. 15 miles a day is fine for that and 15 miles is easy for me. I will still probably take 2 nights in Waynesboro to have my first '0' day. I'll watch three movies and have a burger between each one! I can recover from anything with that treatment… Then I'll set off again with new found enthusiasm and keep to a slower pace that doesn't destroy me.

I just had to go down a very long 0.3 miles to a spring that is nothing more than a drip from a pipe… I have wedged my 2-liter bottle up to catch the drops. I need it full. It is half full and has taken about 10 minutes. Oh well, it's like nature forcing me to have a break when I need one.

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17. As I sit right now my troubles are all gone. I am observing what is by far the most beautiful view so far. I am at Blackrock summit, still in Shenandoah National Park. It was a pleasant short ascent that ended with a scramble up a massive pile of rocks - where the summit gets its name (though they are more grey than black). I can see all around, 360 degrees. The mountains rise and fall around me and in the distant valleys I can see human settlements. The sky is a perfect blue with a few little puffy clouds with flat bottoms as if sitting on an invisible dome, and a smudge of wispy ones too. Over the mountains there is a faint pinky purplish haze and then bumpy mountains followed by layer upon layer of more bumpy tree covered mountains, like the dents on a giant green clenched fist. I have long imagined writing the sentence; “these are the moments that make it all worth while.” It's a bit of a cliché, but at last, this is one of them. It is one of those places that is impossible to bypass. Impossible to shrug and say, “that's cool, lets go.” You have to give it some time and respect. It fits you in place. I feel like a lost pixel on a screen that has finally found its right place. I could sit here forever.

My mood was actually recovered before reaching Blackrock summit. I was making excellent ground, without pushing myself. I think it was a mixture of the flat ground, extra resting and extra food that fixed me. My depressed state has been vanquished! However, I still intend to take that 0 day at Waynesboro, but I am now hoping to make it there tomorrow evening instead of lunch time the day after. That is, if I ever leave this summit. It is like I have been lured into a palace like in the Ancient Greek myth, where they can drink all day and stay young and just party and have orgies for all eternity. Anyone who comes in to get them is guaranteed to be put under the same spell. I assure you if you were to promise now to come get me down without wanting to stay a while to look at the view, you would be wrong. You would think, “oh screw it, we got him down now lets look at the view, it's more important that some silly promise.” Not that I am one to tell people what they would do. But that is what you would do.

In addition, last night I am more certain than ever that there was either a deer or a bear outside my tent. It went all the way around, not that close, about 15+ meters away. It’s footsteps where slower than people's, like a lumbering giant and I could hear them clearly. It was definitely something larger than a squirrel and smaller than a dinosaur. The chances of it being branches falling off trees in a circle all the way round are pretty slim, I say a bear or deer are the options. I've learned not to let these rustlings bother me. I just remind myself there's nothing that smells like food in the tent (hopefully, unless I've missed something) so I just shut my eyes and continue the partially deformed dream. Last night it was about the Russians, who apparently are checking out the Ukrain to see if they will become communists, then I was attacked by some Asian agents, one with throwing knives who never misses, but luckily I had my pack on so I turned just in time for his knife to land in my pack, while I did an amazing volt over a high fence, then another, and then an incredible twisting kick that involved flying sideways though the air. The agent was subdued, and I continued to sleep.

18. IT FINALLY HAPPENED! Just a quick mile after Blackrock summit I finally saw some. The ultimate bear encounter. I had discovered on my check of the guide after Blackrock summit that there would be an 11 mile gap between my water source and the next, so I had to fill up with 4 liters, making my pack much heavier just like the night before. I was walking along wondering how far I could make it with such a heavy pack, and whether or not my knees and/or feet would give in, when all of a sudden an adult mother black bear and her two cubs come bursting out of the bushes a mere 10 meters in front of me. The mother shoos her cubs up a tall tree, which they climb to the very top of with incredible speed and dexterity. The mother stops and looks at me threateningly. I push my arms out sideways to make myself look slightly bigger and slowly back away, without looking her in the eye (just as the guide say to do). I retreat do about 40 feet away. The bear cubs are up the tree somewhere and the mother goes off to the right rootling around. I stand and listen. The signs say that if you encounter a bear you should give it a wide birth by taking a detour. Problem is, I don't have a map, just a guide so I don't know which way to take a detour. I stand and wait for at least 10 minutes. The weight of my pack is forgotten. I listen to the mother’s steps. They sound just like the suspect bear last night. I wait longer. But then… there is another sound, just the same as the mothers'! And this one is to my right. Those mothers have pinned me down! I don't see the second bear, but I retreat backwards a bit more hastily up round the next bend. I don't hear the second rustlings anymore, but there was no trail there for people. I stand around the next bend for another 10 minutes or so. I want to continue down the trail, but if the cubs are still up that tree then I'll have to walk right past them. Not good for when mumma bear hears me coming towards them and comes running. I wait. Maybe another hiker will turn up and we can work out what to do together. But that's pretty unlikely seeing has hardly anyone is going south and they can't come up the other way because of the bears. I work out that if I go back up this bend and take a slow right turn I should meet up with the trail further down at some point. I head off into the untamed wild. I can still hear occasional rustlings from where the mother bear went but they are quite faint now, but the cubs could still be in the tree. Whenever I hear another rustling from that direction I take a few more steps left, making my circle around them wider. I hear the mother bear coming towards me so I go even wider. To my relief I stumble upon an old dis-used trail. There is a fireplace at the top with ash in it and it curves round in the direction I need to go. I march off down it. I am getting away. Wow. My baggage problems are gone I notice. It doesn't feel heavy anymore. The adrenaline has solved my problems. Thanks bears! Next time you are tired from hiking and need some energy, get a dangerous wild animal, put him near by and you will have no trouble at all getting as far away from it as possible. I hike the next part at 4 miles in an hour, a whole MPH quicker than usual for me (and other hikers). A couple of miles along the way I see a bear cub about 40 feet from the trail scrambling off at the sound of me. Wonderful. What a fantastic day! Tomorrow I have just 15 miles and I will be in Waynesboro for my 0 day.

I've just noticed my left ankle is swollen. It doesn't hurt though. I have also just discovered a major rip in my bag. It is on the right where it wraps around the waist. It is badly in need of repair. I'll have to get that sorted in Waynesboro too, as well as getting a new memory chip for my camera or having the photos moved another way.

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19. Waynesboro. I arrived at the tourist info center to find an incredibly old old man who was practically deaf and couldn't talk properly behind the desk. One of his eyes was wonky and the other was blue and glazed over somewhat. I asked if there was a movie theatre a few times but he couldn't understand. Eventually he understood I wanted to go to go into Waynesboro and got out a phonebook to look up a cab number, but he couldn't find the number. Then when I said I'd go on foot and mimed with my fingers that I'd walk, (and say loudly that “I'd just walk then”) he said someone was coming to take him into Waynesboro soon and they could bring me in too.

I waited around pretending to be interested in the leaflets. A couple in their 60s who it turned out are Trail Angels arrived, offering to take me in to the YMCA, and they took the funny old guy too. They were very nice and gave me a little tour of the town as we drove. I showered at the YMCA and set up my tent. I wasn't sure if I set it up in the right spot, but it was the spot where the woman driving me had said the YMCA camping area was. There was another area over a barrier with a portaloo that said, “private property keep out, no trespassing.” I thought that might be the YMCA area, but I wasn't sure so I just set up my tent in the shade of a tree without crossing the barrier.

As I set it up a hiker walked passed and we had a brief chat. He could tell I was English straight away from my accent and make a bad joke about how it must have been strange hiking all the way across the water… then he walked off and continued talking, even though I was no longer there. I shouted, “good luck!” to him as he walked away still talking, but he didn't reply. He had said he was thru-hiking and was taking 5 months off to get it done and that, “it definitely is a test, test of endurance.” He went over the barrier and talked to an old guy with a big grey beard and a stick and set up his tent. I think my tent is in the wrong place, but no one seems to care. The old guy didn't come over to tell me to move it, but he did walk past a couple of times. He might be the porter that the YMCA desk person had said about.

I walk a mile and half to MacDonald’s and eat 2 triple cheeseburgers and a large chips and I buy a foot-long subway. I eat half of that too and keep the other half for breakfast. I am trying to gain some fat to burn on the hike. The day draws to a close as the sun sets, but traffic on the road seems to be increasing. I get out my earplugs and read on the packet how to put them in. I had put them in wrong at Washington airport (where I slept horribly “Upright” in a chair). I put them in properly this time and get to sleep after a while. I sleep ok, for about 8 hours or maybe less. I eat the other half of the subway. It’s all squished but still better than a trail breakfast. At about 8am it is already very warm and I head to the cash point. The moment of checking my balance has come. It shows it in dollars, I have $518 left. Not too bad, I may only have to borrow a couple of hundred pounds from my Dad after all. I withdraw $200. I only had about $45 left in cash from the $384 I brought over and it's only been 12 days, so I am getting through it pretty quickly.

I walk to the gear repair shop to check the opening times. It's a Sunday today and it is shut, but will be open tomorrow at 10am. Looks like I can't leave till tomorrow afternoon at the earliest, seeing as it takes time to repair a bag. I go to Kroger's supermarket and buy a big bag of kettle crisps, a bit bottle of diet coke (for the caffeine) 3 bananas, a peach, a plum, a bag of grapes, French bread and peanut butter. I look for a book section. I really miss books, I feel part of my mind that I had been building up is becoming weak again. I don't care about the extra weight, I want to read something. I find a section “choice books” but it only has about 10 books and they are all Christian books, and there is one silly book about “success in social situations.” I pick it up and skim through. There are ridiculous tips about hiding sugar packets under cups and what to do with soup spoons. I look over all the books again. How can this be the selection! America you are as illiterate as your foods are sugary. I ask a large black lady at customer welfare if there is a book aisle other than the Christian ones. She says “aao one.” I don't know what that means so I try to re-explain. “Aao one, aao one. Aao one.” “Ohh Ailse One! Sorry! Where's that?” She points me to it. I gasp in excitement. There is a whole aisle of books, paperbacks, best sellers, listed by author, the lot. I underestimated you America. Lots of them do look pretty trashy though, but this is still a feast of words for a starving man. I find a Paul of Dune, the 'direct sequel to Dune'. I think Dune is my favourite book at the moment and I've read the next two but this is one written by Frank Herbert's son, Brian Herbert. It probably wont be as good but I loved Dune and so I buy it. I cannot wait to get started! I feel like I’ve been in withdrawal from something, and I think that something is reading. I bump into a hiker I spoke to at the library yesterday (I went online there for an hour). He tells me the library will be shut on Monday too because “That's their holiday.” I don't know why it's their holiday, (unaware of the date being 4th July). I should have asked him if the kit repair place will be shut too. If it is I may have to stay ANOTHER day… oh well. Maybe I've been pushing myself a bit hard. This is about having an experience, not completing a mileage challenge at all costs. Does it mater if I only hike 500 instead of 600 miles and get enjoy it a whole lot more? I don't yet know the answer to that.

I feast on my food and book. Someone pulls over and tells me that they don't know if anyone will mind that I'm camped here, but I should move over to the other side of the barrier. I say ok, and finish my chapter. I get up and go ask the old guy with the big grey beard and the stick if I need to move. He says he's stayed here three days (not the porter then) and he doesn't see why I should move. He says as long as no one has a problem with it I can just stay there. The other guy didn't seem to have a problem with it either, he just didn't know if someone else would have a problem with it. So I stay. Maybe more people will say that maybe someone else will have a problem with it, but until someone actually has a problem I am staying put.

It is getting very hot. Heat wave is upon us and apparently will last 4 or 5 days according to the old guy. “This heat's bin killin’ me,” he says. I think he said he is a hiker, though he doesn't look like it. He says he's been thinking about hitch hiking up to Maine but he doesn't know if he could handle the bugs up there, so he's can't make up his mind and is staying here for a while. “It's a pretty friendly town,” he says. “People don't bother ya.” I agree with him, although the night before I had been thinking I don't like parts of the culture. The culture of driving everywhere and all the competing churches and the 'simpleness' of everyone. But they definitely are nice and friendly.

Almost midday. Getting hotter still. The lady at the desk of the YMCA and the lady who drove me said if I get too hot I “could always jump in the river.” I may do that later. But probably not.

appalachian_trail_huge_tree.jpg (huge tree,left, from just before Waynesboro)

I have just returned from a sweltering walk MacDonald’s. Another 2 triple decker cheese burgers down the hatch, and they filled up my water bottles too. I have been thinking some heretical thoughts. I figure I've done 10 days and 160 miles of hiking through Virginia. Is doing another 30 days really going to add that much to the experience? I have been thinking there has been that oil spill down in Florida, the biggest one ever. They must need volunteers. I am thinking that I will wait around in Waynesboro until Tuesday possibly until the library opens and I can look online. Maybe there are campsites near the spill and I could just get a bus down and go help out for a few weeks? I may change my mind on this, waiting around that long will probably get boring… but for now I am quite happy to be reading Paul of Dune.

20. It is now Monday evening. I am still in Waynesboro, this is my second 0 day in a row. I will be off tomorrow morning. I ended up staying so long for a few reasons. One is the people here are nice. The guy who walked off talking too himself is actually a decent guy called Joker. And there's someone else called Hobo who just graduated from doing a 4 year history degree and there was a girl here called Nut hatch. She was extraordinary. As well as being very pretty, she hikes incredible distances, 35 miles yesterday, and often 30 miles a day. 25 a day is easy for her, where as for me 22 is the most I have done. She wakes up early and continues hiking till 1am at night. Night hiking, on her own. She must be mad! And after a whole day of hiking! I have no idea how she does it. She has given herself only 100 days to hike the entire trail and has only $800 left and she is only about a third of the way through.

Myself , Joker, Hobo and Nut hatch (and the old guy who asked us to call him Hitch-hiker) stayed up watching the independence day fireworks from the wrong side of the YMCA barrier. We talked about big issues, the Middle East, Africa, Israel, Iraq, oil, society, religious brain washing. They found my idea of being a 'cultural Christian' interesting. Joker wandered off on tangents quite a lot, at the time I was thinking that he, “talked a lot of shit” but he is a funny and nice guy. I just disagree on pretty much all of his political views. He says that he doesn't agree with treating anyone badly, but that black people were already enslaved, and so now the blacks in America should be thankful their ancestors were brought here because now they are free in America and not stuck, starving in Africa. I thought his argument seemed pointless, devoid of any purpose. I said that surely forcing people out of their homes, separated from their family and dumping them in better conditions against their will is not a good thing to do. But he said that yes that was wrong, but now the blacks are in America and “how many of them wanna go back to Africa? I don't know anyone who wants to live there.” I said they probably don't want to go to China, Germany, or any other country because this is where their family is now, not because Africa is some kind of starving barbaric wasteland. Hobo pointed out that they are still in a type of slavery. I agreed, a slavery not bound by laws or chains, but by their cultural legacy. Joker says that's better than living in a hut in Africa starving and getting macheted. I say that he is generalizing massively. He seems to think that all of Africa is just people killing each other with machetes. I point out that those are only in certain parts, and usually where oil or diamonds have been found that the west want to make money from. I.e. The west dangles the carrot for the machete wielding, and we exploit them in lots of other ways like child labor.

As you can see the discussion went all over the place, and wasn't all that informed, but talking with these new people about these topics on the other side of the world from where I live was good fun. It wasn't that intellectual and I thought joker would get terrible marks in an essay with his ideas, but it was the first meaningful conversation I'd had since the elephant-snoring women and Scarecrow in the shelter about a week ago. When Nut hatch (the girl) arrived, the conversation topic shifted to some more light hearted topics, but we also talked about religion. It turned out we were all raised as different varieties of Christian, and all agreed that Christianity, Judaism and Islam were basically the same religion. Hobo described me as 'spiritual', which I agree with. Nut hatch often spoke of her boyfriend, an obvious sign she was hanging out with us for conversation only… She said something like, “why live if we have all the answers, the answer could be right after the next blaze,” which was nice. Hobo, despite his seemingly un-patriotic and even sometimes pacifistic stances, is planning on joining the military. He will become an officer straight away because of his degree. He says it isn't because he agrees with what they are doing, but it’s just a good career choice. I stayed quiet here. I had a big argument (after a few beers) with a very good friend back home who's girlfriend was planning joining the American military because it was 'her only remaining option'. I argued fervently that people shouldn't give in and do something they strongly disagree with for money and that she would be basically be doing something really bad, and wrong and would have 'lost' in the battle for good and evil. At this point my good friend of 10 years said he wanted to punch me. Thankfully he didn't. This time, with Hobo and without any alcohol to slacken my foolish tongue, I kept my mouth shut. I don't know him as well either so I have less of a right to state my opinions on his actions. He is very nice and is also southbound. I may end up hiking with him for a while, or paying to split the cost of a room in Daleville, 120 miles away, which is where we both will be stopping off next.

Another intriguing development occurred while waiting around in Waynesboro. During the fireworks the others drank a few beers. I refrained, as I am abstaining from alcohol for the duration of my hike. After the fireworks a big fat black teen approached us. She (or so I thought) needed help setting up their tent. We all went over and showed them how to do it, despite having never set up that tent before. It was so simple, it didn't make any sense why they couldn't work it out. It turns out that the big fat black one and the companion are actually homeless, and evidently mentally and physically handicapped in some way. They are not hikers. The next morning (today) they were gone from their tent. It turns out that they went to the hospital in the middle of the night due to a “belly ache” and one of them had a miss-carriage. I learned this from Hobo, who they told and asked to keep it a secret. Apparently they want to have a baby. An utterly stupid idea. None of us really believe anything they say. I can now clearly see that the companion is actually female, meaning that the big fat black one is the male. They returned late morning and lay there doing absolutely nothing all day.

I may sound heartless, but they are disgusting. They are both as fat as manatees (which doesn't make any sense if the are properly homeless with no money), and they lie there with their legs on top of each other doing absolutely nothing. NOTHING. We can't help them. They have to help themselves, but they have brought down the mood of the YMCA area (I finally brought my tent into the right side of the barrier, after a couple more people warned me I was on state property and that the police might come by). We are waiting and resting here for good reasons, but they are making us feel like bums. Joker made the joke, “Doya like cottage cheese?” I said, “not really,” he pointed at them and said, “well if you want some… hahaha”. Hobo, Joker and I are all eager to get back on the trail but the library doesn't open until tomorrow. It was shut today due to it being independence day yesterday.

I also went to the, “Shoe repair store that also repairs gear,” as it is marked on the map in the guide. I turned up just as the owner was arriving in his car a good twenty minutes or so after the 10am opening time. I told him I had a rip in my bag. He said he wasn't really open but he'd help me out. He said he wasn't a hiker but he was “sort of famous on the trail” and took the trail name The Singing Cobbler. When I told him I didn't know what a cobbler was, he said it is someone who repairs shoes and things. He opened up his store and walked in carrying his guitar. He asked me to give him a minute.

I put down my empty pack and look around. This is a very interesting little store. There are beautiful paintings on the walls, some framed some not, of the local area. They are by different artists and some have price labels on, one little one is for $150. Very reasonable, given its quality and that it is the original version. They are all originals. I take a minute to appreciate them. I head further into the shop, there are other little curiosities all over the place. Leather straps, bits and bobs, oils for something, some posters. After a few minutes he emerges, “ok show me watcha gat.” He is a very short man, late 50s, balding with brown hair still above his ears. He has twinkly little blue eyes and is full of energy. I consider for a moment that he may be gay. His accent doesn't sound especially southern or all that strong at all. I show him the rip. “Hmmmmmmmmmm,” he says. “That's the first time I've seen that happen. It would normally have come off there. How'd it happen?”

“I didn't see it happen, or hear it I just noticed it. It might have been that there wasn't quite space in the tent and it got pressed up against the side,” I gesture and show a possible explanation. He says he doesn't think it will affect anything anyway, and he can't repair it because the place he would have to sow though is too thick and the stitches would rub on my hip and wear away very quickly. We have a quick minute of me saying, “oh ok, thanks” and him repeating that it doesn't really need fixing, and him asking if it has a warranty, but I don't know, it's my Dad’s, and that he can't fix it etc. He asks me about my hike and how old I am. I say that I am 21. He says he has a daughter who is 21 (not gay then) and that the big A1 size poster is of her.

“She took that in Edinboro,” he mispronounces the city Edinburgh. He tells me he she did a whole tour of the UK. She has short ginger hair and above her head is a big picture of the SPAM meat. She is outdoors somewhere. It looks arty, and she looks interesting and pretty. Apparently she lives 15 minutes away and helps at the store on Wednesdays. Before I leave he offers me a card, “It's not heavy,” he says. “That's the Webiste there. She made the Website.” I consider saying how I also make websites… I would quite like to meet her, but I don't bother. Never going to happen. I thank him and leave. Very nice man, interesting place.

I come back to the tents, shower in the YMCA, and resupply at Krogers supermarket. I will be doing 120 mile stint to Daleville without any resupply points, so I need lots of food. I have put together my own trail mix to save money. My week of food cost $71. My trail mix is a massive 3kg mixture consisting of 400g salted almonds, 400g honey roasted almonds, 800g salted cashews, 800g salted peanuts, 300g raisins, 300g dried cranberries and 1000g of chocolate MnMs. I mix it all together inside a triple layer of carrier bags. It is A LOT, and it tastes great. It is about the size of a newborn baby. I also have 7 packs of pitta breads, each containing 5 pittas, enough for 1 pack a day and 24 cheaper version energy bars, enough for 3 or so a day and a tub of Nutella. That is a lot of weight. My bag feels about as heavy as it would with normal food and 4 litres of water without it having any water at all, but doing a whole 120 miles completely self-sufficient will feel like a great achievement and the bag will get lighter every day and I have had plenty of rest. My left ankle is still a bit swollen but its getting better and my knees feel better. I don't think I'm getting any poles after all… but I MUST remember to get some more water purification tables at Outfitters on the way back to the trail tomorrow or I am stuffed. I will go on the Internet in the library tomorrow morning and look up volunteering for the oil spill options. I definitely want to do some more trail though. Perhaps a week or 10 days would be a good amount to spend volunteering to help clean up the animals and beaches there, provided I can camp for free, even if it cuts my hike a little short.

Hobo had his wallet with $200 and his cards stolen by some real hobos on the trail. I have to be careful.

Hitch hiker doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. When Nut Hatch asked if he was a hiker he laughed and said, “Weel, I'm kina a permanent hiker heh heh. I'm owf the grid.” I say, “the truth is out” and he laughs. This is between some fireworks. He says he lived 8 years without any electricity. He hates the heat and finally tested out the river for us. “Weel, ma skins nowt fallin off,” he says. I saw a turtle in the river so it can't be that bad. He just walks around, lies down on the grass, comes over for a chat. He says he's not sure what to do, “but gotta do somethin.” We also talked about the metric system. Joker, who usually is making jesting bashes at England says that the Metric system is, “the one thing Americans are stubborn about”. I say, “Oh, the ONE thing ey.” The others laugh. After a bit of chat about how much nonsense their system is I realize that in England we use both. MPH in our cars and Pints for beer, but we often measure things in centimeters, millimeters and kilometers. I suggest that if the whole world adopted the metric system, that alone would fix all the problems (that we had been discussing). A few laughs. Trail tomorrow!

More talking in the warm YMCA outdoors on a bench, Hitch Hiker is a truly fascinating character. When I tell him of my trail mix he says, “You're gonna end up lookin like that trail mix by the end heh.” Hobo and I are carving sticks. Hitch Hiker says that he lost his stick while, “taking a shit in the woods.” He spent an hour looking for it. I found this image very amusing and had to look away so he didn't see my grin. He says he has hitch hiked “everywhere.”

I say, “the only hitch, is that what you call it?” Hobo nods, “that I've had is from the trail into Front Royal.” Hitch Hicker says with a thick deep voice, full of pain,

“Arrg, ah I don't like Front Royal.” He always talks slowly and meaningfully. He says some teens threw a beer can at him and cops kept harassing him and he went to the Salvation army and other charity places to try to get food, but he couldn't even get a cup of noodles. 21. As I lay stuck to my ground mat that night I considered that Washington has gone presumably from the name of a place, to the name of a person (George Washington) to the name of a place again, interesting. I wonder how many other cities and towns are named after a person who’s name came from another city.

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22. The situation has taken a major turn for the worse. My hike is in jeopardy. I bought Aquamira at the Outfitters for water purification as my tablets from home were about to run out. I read the instructions. The two chemicals needed mixing and before being added to the water. The two chemicals are Chlorine Dioxide (part 1) and Phosphoric Acid activator (part 2). I try squeezing part 1. I need to mix 7 drops from each for 1 liter of water then let it sit for 15 minutes while mixed in with the water, that's twice as fast as my tablets. Neat. But the droplets won’t squeeze out. I am already very dehydrated from making a foolish decision at the last shelter to not fill up on more water, thinking that about 1200ml would be enough for 4 miles, which it would be if my pack didn't contain 7 days of food, the gradient wasn't all uphill (which it was) and if it wasn't during the hottest part of the day on a heat wave. So, I made it to Bear Springs with great relief, despite it being only a trickle from a pipe, but I can't get the droplets out of Part 1. The instructions don’t say anything about how to get it out. It won’t come out the nozzle. I have a look at Part 2, which looks the same. I give it a squeeze. That one comes out fine, but Part 1 wont. My patience is tested, and it is especially thin at this point. I am very thirsty, and quite hungry and I know my Nutella and pitta bread will make me very thirsty too so I can't eat or drink until I can squeeze these drops out of Part 1. I rest it on up on my knee. Not a wise place. I squeeze. I try squeezing the oblong container diagonally as if to squeeze in the corners. Still nothing. I am sure you are meant to just squeeze it because that worked with the other part, and the container is the same. I put my whole hand around it and squeeze very hard.

SPLASH! It explodes all over my face! My eyes are shut before I know it, by instinct. I'm not sure if any went in. I fumble with my eyes shut for my shorts to wipe my face that are attached to the outside of my bag. I am rather worried. I manage to unclip the straps of my pack with my eyes shut and get the shorts and give my face and bare legs a wipe. I cautiously open my eyes. I can still see. I am not blind. But I think I feel a very slight tingling in them, some of the mixture must have gone in. I keep them shut as much as possible, while trying to read the instructions that say what to do if the mixture goes in your eyes. I am alone in very empty woods that are no longer national park. I am in designated Wilderness. The most empty type of woods. I use my precious couple of hundred ML (one gulp) of drinking water to wash out my eyes as best I can, though it doesn't last for 15-20 minutes of washing like it should and I'm certainly not removing my contaminated clothing. My other clothes are deep in my pack somewhere. I read the more detailed parts of the instructions. It says Part 1 will moderately irritate the skin and eyes. Phew, I will not go blind and I have given them a wash, I should be ok. Thank goodness for that.

However, I now don't have anywhere near enough water purifiers to make it to Daleville, or even any of the towns in the right direction. I have 6 tablets from my old stock, enough for 6 litres (about a days water) and there is a tiny little bit of Part 1 Aquamira lift in the bottle. I curse repeatedly and think what to do. I have only passed one person on the 9 miles of trial I've done today. Hobo should probably be coming up behind me but I can't be certain that he left. The last I saw of him he was in the library waiting for an email to arrive. It's possible he won’t leave till tomorrow. I definitely can't keep going, as I may not come across anyone and I am already at the 'point of no return'. I.e. I have enough water purifier to get back to Waynesboro and that's about it. I do not want to go back to that town. I lingered there too long already. But I will have to go back the way I came for 9 miles, then get a lift to the outfitters and buy more purifier, and then get going again. This will cause a massive delay and will be tedious and annoying. I'll have to explain to the guy I passed at the shelter what happened, and then again at the outfitters and then what's even worse is I'll have to walk BACK AGAIN this way to get back to where I am! I don't know if I can put up with that sort of hassle. For now, I will wait around this spring and eat and drink some of my water and hope Hobo or someone arrives who I can buy purification tablets from. I am concerned this could see the end to my hike in Virginia.

I have taken a good look at the guide. The bigger resupply places are very far off but there are a couple of places I will probably be able to get tablets. I have easily enough to make it to Rusty's Hard Time Hollow and probably enough to make it to Crabtree Falls Campground, which has a short term resupply. That means taking a 4 mile (total 8mile including the walk back) detour, but that is much better than the alternative. I will continue forwards with an especially watchful eye on my water usage. Also that was $15 that popped all over my face… great.

I kept cutting it fine with water today, regardless of purification. For both refills I only just had enough to make it there. It's not really an underestimation, but more that I have such a heavy pack from the weeks worth of food that adding more water makes it almost unbearably heavy. Before the whole purification fiasco I dumped about 500g of my 'away-from-home-made trail mix'. I left it in a sealed bag in the middle of the trail and made two arrows using sticks pointing at it. Hopefully a hiker, maybe Hobo will find it. It could attract a bear but I had to dump it somewhere and scattering it out would eliminate a hiker from the list of animals that could eat it. That made the weight just about light enough for me to walk at a good pace and enjoy it. I have missed the trees and there were far fewer hikers today, now that I am out of Shenandoah, or the 'Shennies' as Hobo referred to them.

23. I am camped in a prohibited area, but it happens to be the most beautiful spot I have camped yet. I had planned from the start of the day to end up here (Cedar cliffs), but with the dramas of the day I didn't get here until about quarter past seven, which is when I saw the no camping signs. I made a rule after my dodgy first night of bearanoia to get camped and my tent set up by 7pm so as to avoid having to put up the bear bag in the dark. 7pm is quite a safe time though, it allows plenty of time to get everything done and I've become more efficient, but I set up camp in this prohibited area anyway. I think I felt, while making the decision, before eating and re-hydrating, that I was somewhat entitled to break the rules just this once, after my unjust treatment from the Aquamira. At first when I sat down to eat dinner (pitta bread and peanut butter and nutella, trail mix, beef jerkey - same as every meal now) I could hear the sound of a motor bike making it’s way slowly and vaguely in my direction from behind. It is unlikely however that a local yokel from the valley bellow is watching this prohibited spot with a telescope and ranger on speed dial, and a ranger isn’t going to burst from the woods on a path made only for hikers on a heavy duty motor cycle. When hanging up my bear bag I saw there were fires and other spots where quite a few people had camped on the prohibited area, so I am pretty safe.

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The view is comparable to the splendor of Blackrock summit. There is a wide flat valley in front and it fades into the haze. To the right are knobbly hills rising up into larger ones and on the left are mountains, like folds in a concertina fan. The sun is big and orange and is setting, swathing the entire scene in a pinky-purply flow and the air feels as warm as the sunset. It is silent, apart from the occasional barking of a dog from down in the valley where there are a few scatterings of buildings between the forest, and the buzzing of a mosquito. Absolutely beautiful. Today has been very intensive. I am fully alive. I look forward to the rest, in both senses of the word. This is just too beautiful.

24. Another very intensive but rewarding day. My water troubles are still not over. I hiked a total 20 miles today but only 15 trail miles… and I am 4 miles away from the AT. My refill from the night before was only just enough to get me to Maupin Field Shelter. I did the 6 miles there quickly and in the morning on only half a liter of water (all I had left). I thought the morning would be cooler and so left early from my prohibited spot at 6.45am, but it was actually extremely humid. It took an hour or so for the sun to burn off the humidity and it became slightly cooler like I had expected. I made it to the shelter with only 1 remaining water purification tablet, but I wanted to save it for an absolute emergency. This is only a 'moderate-to-big emergency'. It said in the guide that there was a piped spring behind the shelter. I hoped it would have a good flow. If it did I would dare risk drinking from it without purification. But… it was dried up. There was not a drop coming out of the pipe. Instead there was a slight ooze out from beneath a rock and there were bugs of all kinds swimming around in it (newts) and it was hard to get any without getting bits in it. Hmmmm.

I need that water immediately but I can't drink that without purification. I could wait for someone, but it will start getting very hot very soon. I have to make a decision.

I look on the guide several times. It doesn't make any sense. On the main page it says “Mau-Har trail to Rusty's Hard Time Hollow”. That trail is 3 miles long according to a sign, but the sign says nothing about Rusty's Hollow. But then the guide says it has more information about Rusty's. In this section it tells me to take a fireroad west 1.2 miles to the “BRP” (Still don't know what that actually means) then to turn left and walk 1.3 miles to Rusty's. Different instructions from the same guide. I get out my compass. I can see a fireroad, but it is oriented north-south! How can I go west? At the shelter there is a information board with a map. It doesn't show Rusty's but it does show the fireroad. I work out which way is West along the fireroad, but before setting off I take out my two big empty water bottles, my remaining 200ml (one gulp - I often end up keeping one last gulp) that is in a smaller bottle, and my last water purification tablet and the few droplets of the exploded mixture. I think about dumping my pack and then coming back for it. I am very thirsty and it is getting hotter and I have 3 miles to walk. I almost set off without it, but it just doesn't feel right leaving it behind. Someone could steal it… or more likely, a bear could find it. I'll be gone for a good few hours so I'd better not leave it. In the end I walk off down the fireroad, hoping it's the right way with my pack on and clutching the empty bottles in my hands. The fireroad goes on and on. I have a constant level of worry but it's flat and sometimes downhill and I seem to be walking ok and not feeling too dehydrated. Exactly at the time it should appear, it does. The road is there, so the directions must be right. I walk down the road and reach Rusty's Hard Time Hollow. A big chunk of worry evaporates. The drive is covered in signs. Some are rather amusing, while others are informative. There is one that says no reporters or magazine writers are to say anything about Rusty's without his written permission. I'm not either of those (right now…), but I don't want to give the game away. But I will say that there is a phone stuck halfway up a tree on the way down. Buildings with corrugated iron roofs emerge and a giant old red truck is coming towards me. I stand aside but it reverses. “Hello, A'm Rusty.”

“Hi!” I explain to Rusty about the exploding Aquamira and say water is really what I'm after. He asks me what my plan is, as he doesn't have any tablets or anything. I say if I can fill up on water I'll make it to Crabtree Falls Campground and buy tablets there. He gets out and shows takes me to his spring. He is a very kindly man. He asks me to stay,

“I wish you'd stay,” he says a fair few times. “You in a rush?” He is a man who takes things slow. When I say,

“I have to get to…” I sense him thinking its silly to have places you “have” to get to. I say I've just had a double zero in Waynesboro so I can't stay. (Plus it's not even midday… though I have walked 10 miles already). He accepts that and we chat as I drink a deliciously cool 2 liters from his spring that comes out a pipe in his shed and then I fill up 4 liters to take with me. He warns me saying,

“A dehydrated man is a dead man.” When I tell him about the bad spring at the shelter with the bugs he says that water with newts or “salamanders” is good to drink, because they wont live anywhere where there is the tiniest impurity… so I could have drunk it after all! He says I should make it to Damascus in the time I have, no problem. I say I'm hoping to get a bus up to New York and stay up there for a week at the end. This is my new plan. On Tuesday Morning in the Waynesboro library the Internet said there are lots of local volunteers for the oil spill who still haven't been needed yet, so they won’t want me. All I can do is sign up to an email list. Rusty tells me about 2 English hikers who came here. He is still good friends with one of them. The other jumped off the top of one of the twin towers before 9.11. He seemed to have no reason for it, they were in a band and he was, “a regular bloke”. He apparently climbed up on the in-ward curving fence at the top and was saying to the others he wasn't going to do anything, but then he jumped off.

Rusty has a big white beard, a red-speckled face and is completely warm hearted. He gets me to sign the visitor book and put my address like everyone does. 14,000 hikers have passed through Rusty's and he is the longest running Trail 'hostel' ever. There are no charges and he lives entirely from donations. He asks if I want a T-shirt. He says they are the most seen t-shirts all over the world and you can only get them if you come to the Hollow. You can't buy them anywhere else, so if anyone sees you wearing one then they'll know you've stayed at Rusty's. He says he's had a few English folk buy one. I hesitate, the sign says they are $18, but he is so nice and helpful and I would like a souvenir. Also they are made of a lighter material than my other clothes so it will be nicer to wear. I agree. Rusty gets me to write my trail name “Upright” with marker pens on a little board using lots of colours. He takes a photo. I say I would really like a copy of it. He says he will mail it to me. Not email… despite it's with a digital camera. He says he doesn't like the Internet. Some people made a mistake saying he was shut down on the Internet which meant he only got 60 hikers, which is a lot less than usual. He says his place has been for sale for 10 years. He doesn't want to leave particularly but if someone with lots of money comes along he will sell it, “don't mean nothin” he says. He offers to drive me back up to the trail. We drive off in his massive red truck. I am amazed it doesn't fall apart with all the bumps on his “driveway”. He says he needs to trim back the bushes, but they are full of poison ivy, “I hate that stuff, I really hate it,” he says. He drops me off and as I take my pack out he says, “If you won't be offended or nothin I'd like to give you a hug.”

“Sure,” I say. We hug briefly. He says that his mother died a few days ago and he has no siblings, so he makes the hikers his family. I nod solemnly and then say that that is really great (about the hikers as family) and as I leave he tells me to send down the nice hikers,

“I don't want no criminals, you're a good guy,” he says.

“I'll send down the good ones!” I say as I wave and leave. And I'm off, walking back up the fireroad. What a lovely man. I have gained some new energy from him and have 4 liters of water now. My pack is heavy, but I feel uplifted. I get back to the shelter and eat lunch. I improvise with my old-sweat sodden t-shirt to make a padding for my back. One of the straps on the lower left side has rubbed part of me raw. I weave the t-shirt over it and it works well. I still need to get to CrabTree Falls Campground and it is 4 miles off from the trail. I see on the information board at the Maupin Field shelter that Mau-Har trail is 3 miles and I could do that instead of the 5.8 mile stretch of the AT and ends up at the same place, cutting a corner. Given that I've already walked an extra 4.5 miles getting to and from Rusty’s and will have another 4 to the Crabtree Falls campsite and back (to buy purification tablets) I am happy to take a short cut.

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I set off… but the Mau-Har trail is not as it seems. It is a terribly tough 3 miles and it is the hottest part of the day. It takes me an hour and 50 minutes to walk it, which is almost half pace. At first I enjoy it. I find it to be, “very Jurassic Park.” It is wild and narrow, there is a lot of clambering over rocks and up and downs and over dead trees and through the dense undergrowth. There are a great many bugs but there is also a well sized stream. I feel properly in the jungle. But it just keeps going and going. My progress is slow. It stops being fun when I have to start sitting down to cool off every 5 minutes to stop my head throbbing and it takes a good 10 minutes or so of sitting to notice any decrease at all in temperature. I am sitting down in a hot place to try and cool down. Not much else I can do. After an hour and a half I have minor concerns that this isn't even the right trail, but it must be and I had been going slowly and taking lots of breaks. The Mau-Har trail is merciless. The AT would never have a stretch like this without a warning. However, the stretch of the AT I am missing does involve climbing a small mountain, so I can't be sure how it compares, but it is considerably harder than any of the AT so far. I feel like a Native American. The AT is the silly white man's trail. This is the real deal.

At long last the Mau-Har flattens out and becomes more AT-ish (better kept, slightly wider, less rocky and without the steep drop-off to the side, which I nearly stumbled over, several times). I would have really struggled without my stick in terms of balance and knees, with all the big stepping down and stepping up onto and off of rocks and big green leaves and bugs flapping around in my sweat-dripping face. The flatter part lasts over half a mile. I am surprised at how much there is left, but at long last, after almost 2 hours I complete the 3 mile death-stint. I am back on the AT with only 1.7 miles to the road where the Campground is 4 miles down. I remove my pack and sit and stand around at the Mau-Har-AT junction for a good 20 minutes to cool off. The throbbing of my head ceases.

I continue to the road and I manage to hitch a ride. The guy who picks me up is a complete and utter nutter. He is a caricature of the southern country hick. I didn't think people like him actually existed. He pulls up in an old blue truck. He has a big box of beers out and there are empty cans lying around. He asks me to move the box of beers into the back with my bag. At first I think he means for me to go in the back too, but he laughs and says he wants the beer in the back, not me. We drive off, he offers me a beer. “Don't drink?”

 
“I'm just abstaining for my hike,”

“Ohh,” he says. He seemed to like that more than if I didn't drink, as it means I must have been quite a heavy drinker to want to abstain. We talk about the heat. He says:

“Usually when we see a hiker, we say, 'you wanna hike, hike, an drive on by,” he chuckles in a very strong southern accent. “Sometams we takes pity on ya, I see you an I finks, dayem, is hella hot,” (note, I don't really understand the words he's saying, but I get what he means. I'm quoting as best I can). He puts on the radio and opens another beer. He chucks the one he just drank out the window, veering into the middle of the road as we go round a bend to chuck it out.

“I've missed music,” I say. “I've been hiking 10 days and not heard anything.” This isn't actually true, I've been hiking for 15 days and have heard some music in a few places, but I want to keep my sentences simple for him. He laughs a drunken laugh and says,

“Yeeah, where'd you start?”

“Harpers Ferry.”

“Harpers Ferreh? Boi you got some miles on ya yeeh boi, Harpers Ferry mayn I,” he continues talking. I can't decipher his accent but I can detect when I'm meant to laugh, so I manage a:

“Heh, yeah” a couple of times in the right place, I think, when he turns and says

“yew know”. He says an entire speech and I don't understand a word of it.

“Blabolbloonel yabadabble wanna hobble dooble do?”

“Heh, yeah.” I bring the conversation back to the weather. There are some cars with hikers getting out of them parked up on the left. He shouts something at them. I look in the passenger mirror, so as not to show him my expression of bafflement. He says with excitement, oblivious to my lack of encouragement:

“They probly thinkam crazay, cos I am, YEEEEE HAWWWW! heheh!” I stay quiet. Then after a few moments,

“I thought we'd be there by now. I should've only been 4 miles from where I was.” But it's ok, we see the sign, we are there. We pull into Crabtree Falls Campground and a young brown haired woman there says she is just leaving. She asks accusingly to the hick,

“Can I heelp yew?”

“Ah was just droppin off his here fella,” he says. “He's a hitch-a-hikin.” I say hi to her and we have a conversation about how I need water purification tablets speaking loudly over the back of his truck. She says there are none in the store and asks if I want to stay for the night. I say, “that costs $22 doesn't it?” (the price it says in the guide). She says, “it costs $24, but that's fine.” I thank the hick and he reverses and drives off. The woman lets me into the store, she had locked it up to leave. I say that Rusty (somehow she doesn't know who that is) said that Montebello, a nearby town, doesn't have water purification gear but that here would. She tries phoning the camping store at Montebello but the their phone is busy. She says her parents are going shopping for the camp store tomorrow and she can phone them up and ask them to try and find something for water purification. I thank her, and leave to set up my tent, and shower. Hopefully tomorrow I will wake up and be able to get something for water purification, or I do not know how I will proceed. The price of this is adding up now. I paid Rusty $20, then it’s $22 to camp here, and that doesn't include the cost of the new purification, and the one that burst was $15. An expensive mistake. Still, I got to meet Rusty and have a nice night at this campground.

In the shower I notice I have regained the perfect body (if I may say so), apart from that I am covered in bites and my legs are covered in scratches too. Just on my left shoulder now I can count 10 little red dots. I must have something like 40 bites in total, but they are not that annoying. Both my eyes are also slightly fuzzy. At first it was just the left, but the right one now has slightly unfocused vision too. It's from the chemicals that burst in my face which are moderate skin and eye irritants. I washed them out properly in the shower. When I was sweating today my eyes would sting as more of the chemical trickled into them. I think they will be ok. I'm not sure when, but I have a memory of having something toxic in my eyes that made them a bit fuzzy. In a few days they should be fully healed. I hope. I can still see well enough to type this and read Paul of Dune anyway. It's like when you just wake up and have to blink a few times to get your vision, only like that all the time. I have made friends with the campground cat, though he/she doesn't seem to like me stroking her that much, but now a second darker one has turned up and is very friendly. It's getting dark. Time to hit the ground mat. I have charged up my phone at the campsite. Along the Mau-Har trail I was very aware I had no battery to call 911. Not that I have ever had any signal to call anyway. My new t-shirt from Rusty's already stinks and has brown patches from sweat.

25. Good news and bad news. The campground woman's parents have bought tablets (and a water filter), but they can't bring them here till tomorrow morning at about 10am. I'll have to stay another night, brining up the cost of this stay here including tax to just over $50. I played 'soccer ball' with the woman’s kid while she talked on the phone to her parents. Her son calls one of them “Nini”, because she had so many problems with her knee that he came to call her that. Looks like another unplanned “0” day. I'll just read Paul of Dune and maybe take a stroll down to the waterfalls that this campground is named after.

I have just noticed a rather worrying bite on my leg. I am not sure if it is from a tick. It is on my left thigh. Back in Waynesboro Hobo reminded me that Lyme disease needs to be worried about if there is a circular ring rash around the bite. There is a sort of vaguely circular rashy thing around it but it’s quite patchy and not itchy and I don't know the symptoms of Limes disease. I feel fine… but it does look like it could be Lyme disease. If I were at a shelter with other hikers I'd show it to them and ask, but the other people here are in cabins or campervans. I'll leave it for a while and if it gets worse I can ring the bell for the woman to open the shop again and they might have a book with information on it, or a computer with Internet that I can look it up on. I think I feel fine. It is hard to tell after sleeping in a tent, you are a bit groggy and I’ve been reading my book all morning so my eyes are slightly strained and my diet has been very repetitive. I am not sure. I squeezed the bite and a little drop of blood came out and I wiped it with antibacterial wipes. Don't know if that will have done anything.

I have decided my leg is fine. I went for a pleasant walk along the rocks up Crabtree River and the rash went away. I feel fine. The man in the first cabin that is near my tent has been playing the guitar beautifully while I read. It will be a nice day off, even if I do end up eating lots of my food… An incredibly loud motor cycle just went past on the road, louder than a plane flying low over head. A camper shouts “Yee Haw!” Once it has faded. I am definitely in southern USA.

I have read 300 pages of Paul of Dune today, a reading record. I never knew I could read so much but apparently my mind works without caffeine now that I am not addicted. Small victories. Bed.

26. My life has been worth living after all. I am in utter isolation, complete solitude. It is just me and life all around. Me and “God”. The father of the woman from the store arrived this morning with water purification tablets. I bought them and some food to make up for what I'd eaten that day and he offered to drive me back to the trail. He drove me a little way extra up to the car park below Spy Rock. This helped make up for my missed miles. I have skipped climbing The Priest, which he says is the toughest southbound section around, but the detours still mean I have covered the same miles, in fact it is still a mile or two extra despite the car drop off.

The man who dropped me off knows Rusty. He says Rusty was closed for a couple of years because of the bad attitude of the hikers. He says around the years 2005/2006 hikers had a sense of entitlement expecting him to put them up for days without charge and drive them back to their cars which were an hour away and they had only been hiking a couple of days. There were day-hikers calling themselves thru-hikers (hikers who hike the whole trail in one go) and making demands, but the man driving me and Rusty do it because they want to help real hikers. It seems he experienced the bad attitude as much as Rusty. I don't know what caused it.

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I am in George Washington National Forest. I overtook a whole bunch of teens climbing up Spy Rock without packs. There was an oriental looking one who made it to the top long before the others. He asked where I was going. I replied, “Damascus, about 400 miles south. I've done 200 miles, so about 400 more to go”. He says he wishes he was doing what I was doing but he hasn't got time at the moment. He will be running from Texas to California though, “in the desert sun,” soon. We wish each other good luck and I depart.

I am on a majestic giant rock. It is covered in different types of moss and lichen and all I can see around me are green mountains. There was a massive thunderstorm last night and the clouds from that are lingering on the mountains. I meditated for the first time in a long time on this rock in the mist overlooking the green slopes and my eyes opened to a shimmering beautiful moist life haze. It is dark enough to feel like evening back in the shade of trees, due to the clouds, though it is only midday. The storm kept me awake last night at Crabtree Falls. At first it was too hot and humid to sleep so I lay naked with my back stuck to the ground mat in the gaps where the travel liner didn't cover. Then the thunder came. It was louder than any thunder I have ever heard. It genuinely was as loud as a military aircraft taking off. An immense booming right above my head. The lightning flashed and the rain poured down in a dense storm of large drops. They drummed abstract rhythms on my tent. It seemed like the lightning was almost directly overhead, and given the loudness of the thunder I thought this was the case, but there was a gap of a good few seconds between the lightning flash and the thunder boom, so I don't know why it was so loud. Anyway, it has affected the weather today making it more humid, but much cooler. It is the middle of the day and it feels like 8 or 9am, the perfect temperature. A pair of massive vultures launched with a flap from a nearby tree from where I am perched. I could see from their grizzled heads that they were vultures. Their feathers are very very dark brown. Also - I finished my Paul of Dune book and left it back at the campsite. The woman who’s son I played ‘soccer ball’ with said Dune was her favourite book, I said it was my favourite also.

This spot is so tranquil I wish it was later so I could camp up here, it's perfect. I consider that in a way by 'paying my respects' to a view, I am mourning its loss, for I know it cannot last. I mourn its devastation in advance, by being respectful to its beauty.

27. I'm alone at Cow Camp Gap shelter, which is only the second shelter I've stayed in my 211 miles since Harpers Ferry. That means I pass the 200 mile mark today, huzza! There is a thunderstorm outside, with thunder so loud it almost makes you feel afraid for no reason. The rain drops are drumming down hard on the tin roof, and I have had some time to think. People on the trail are all so nice to each other, and so are Americans generally. My theory is that people are friendly because they need to be, so in the 'wild west', the 'new world', people needed to help each other to survive so America developed this culture of chattiness. When we say “Hi” to a passer by we are breaking our silence. We are saying, 'I am willing to accept questions from you, I am not an enemy, we may be able to help each other'. You say hi, or some sort of greeting to every single person you pass on the trail, because everyone needs each other’s help. We are one big family. Conversely therefore, when someone is mean and nasty, it is because they have lived in too much luxury. It means they don't need you and so don't value you. So if someone is unfriendly, it often means that person doesn't understand the value of people, and so they are going to be unhappy and lonely. In cities there are too many people, we are all each others enemies instead of allies. We pass hundreds of people in the street in silence, they get in our way and we in theirs. More people now live in cities than in smaller settlements. I fear our over population will create more enemies in the world when we would do much better if we were all friends. It is now more important than ever that we spread life into space. There is nowhere else left to to go.

I just hung up my bear bag and strolled around in the rain wearing my rain coat for the first time, thinking some more. This experience is teaching me about the lack of value of material goods. Being away from the luxuries of society really makes you appreciate how much you don't usually appreciate them. In the library in Waynesboro I was finding it a great luxury to have squirty soap that comes out of those dispensers and then being able to wash my hands without worrying about using up my water supply. I was appreciating a meager washing of hands. Something we all take completely for granted. We may even think of ourselves as being good by bothering to wash our hands. This has got me thinking. We are always chasing around, trying to make money to up upgrade to the next level of luxuries. But, as with the squirty soap, once we have the luxuries we forget we have them. We are always seeking things and goods instead of seeking experience. Experiences are all we ever experience! Our materialistic culture has got people running round in circles, correction, spirals, death spirals. Humanity is in a death spiral and there is nothing that can be done to stop it. It is in our nature. The only thing that can be done is to extend the space we have to spiral to death in and try to buy some time to sort our selves out. Once again, this means expansion into space. I genuinely believe that space colonization is the only thing that can save humanity. If we put the money from wars for oil and power into space travel (and legalize certain herbs and tax them) we would be there by now. Stop bickering humanity. The world is like a representation of my hike. I chose to go alone as I thought others would slow me down and be a hindrance. Well, we are slowing each other down humanity. We will run out of food at this rate, and there isn't a resupply open in the solar system.

28. Another thunderstorm meant I slept badly for a second night in a row. Despite my ear plugs the rain was still loud on the tin roof of the shelter. I had a nightmare too where a friend of mine from University couldn't play tennis with me because he got shot because he was Jewish. He was walking around and was topless and covered in tears (instead of sweat). I woke up sorrowful, but I forgot about my silly dream when I started walking. At 7.30am I was ascending into a cloud. Every now and then a spatter of larger drops would fall, cooling me at no water cost of my own. It was quite surreal. I felt like Luke Skywalker training on Degobah with Yoda on his back using the force to make himself seem heavier.

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It's now 11.30 and I've done 11 miles today already. It was mostly downhill and cool and I need to get some big miles in or I may run out of food before Daleville. I ate a lot of my food at Crabtree campsite but their store didn't have proper food to resupply with so I just bought a few snickers bars and wafery things, but it's not really a proper day's food, so I'm not sure if I'll have enough. Daleville is in 70 miles and I only have 2 and a half more bags of pitas left and I eat one bag per day. So if I do 10 more miles today and eat the rest of today’s bag I'll have 60 miles with only 2 bags and I can't do 30 miles in a day, especially not 2 days in a row. But I have other foods that may make up for it. My mega trail mix supply is dwindling. I probably have 2 or 3 more days worth of that left, which is again, barely enough. But I do have about 10 bars of various types, enough for about 4 days so I am ok there. It will be a close one. Also I saw a humming bird while collecting water from a spring. It made the other small birds appear large and clumsy, it was so delicate. I never thought much of Humming birds from the nature programs on TV, but in real life they are quite magical. I heard its hum, a bit like a rifling through a pack of cards, then it darted between the flowers drinking from them. A very feminine bird and tiny too, only 2 or 3 inches tall. In the mist today I disturbed a fawn that was sitting down about a meter from the trail. It jumped up as I walked pass and skittered off.

My feet are drenched from the rain and mist. Now that I have taken my socks off the massive blisters on my little toe have gone green. I am concerned they may in infected. Time will tell. Also my tummy has been feeling a bit funny all day. Not sure why. I'm just not thinking past Daleville. Once I make it there I'll sort myself out.

15 miles done now and its only 1.35pm. I’m roughly on schedule for a 25 mile day. I have a few options. The first shelter and water source I will come to is Johns Hollow Shelter in 9 miles, so that would be a 24 mile day if I stayed there. Or I could push on a mile to Rocky Row Run which is a pre-existing camp site and water source, that would be 25 miles or 2 more miles on there is another suitable place and again another 2 miles after that. So it will be anywhere between 24 and 29 miles today. The more the better for my food reserves.

29. I’ve stopped for a moment, 19 miles done. My right foot has some sort of cramp. I rummaged for a chocolate bar and found one that had opened itself… 'always remember, it wants to be eaten, it's heard its masters' call'…

30. I am cataclysmically tired. I made it 25 miles to the pre-existing campsite that is Rocky Row Run, but I couldn't get my bear bag up. For some reason there wasn't a good tree near by with a strong branch sticking out prominently away from other leaves so I tried several throws up at a branch that as a very tough shot and when it fell down from each miss it would get tangled up again. I became very insane very quickly. I can do the hike but not the bear bag now apparently, it's all backwards! I gave up at that spot and found somewhere else and got it up there eventually. I also refilled on water from what seems to be a stream. I'm not sure if that is the intended water source here. There is also a big pipe, big enough to crawl down with a trickle of water dripping from it. I am not sure if that is meant to be the water source. It doesn't look like people have gone down there though, unlike the stream, so I have filled up from the stream. These tablets finally have something real to purify. I could try getting some of the pipe water in a bottle and seeing how clear it is but I am just too tired. The stream water is as clear as spring water so I think it is ok. The bear bag trouble really lost me my patience. I was just tired and satisfied before that but due to my lack of sleep and large mileage I easily became enraged. I am glad I am not at a shelter with other people, I should not be out in public right now. Although, sitting typing this is calming me down a lot. I feel ok again bizarrely. I am still slightly hungry but I have gone through my food and I will have enough now. I'll have no pitta bread on the last day, which will now be about 15 miles, but I should have 5-8 bars of various sorts depending how much I eat in the next 2 days and a few other bits and pieces, so that will be enough. I think. I got a great photo today of my face with a valley with trees and a river. My beard made me exclaim, 'what the is wrong with my face?' but then I took it again and realized the beard dramatically changes the shape. I actually quite like it. I look kind of funny. I know I will sleep well tonight. There is no storm brewing and I am exhausted. 21 miles tomorrow will be enough and I have a few “overlooks” in the guide that could be good places to camp. Goodnight. I just got in the tent and lay my weary body down. The tent netting got tangled in the zip, but I patiently untangled it and lay down. Then you know what I realized? I had forgotten to do my teeth.

31. I practiced my Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi impressions today as I walked. Someone almost caught me saying, “A jedi's strength flowwwwws from the force. Not this crude matter.”

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32.. I have just had what can only described as a “mystical moment”. Other events have happened today that are well worth writing about, but this moment was of the exceedingly special kind. As you know I have been rationing my food the last few days to have enough to make it to Daleville, without having to go off for miles to another town to resupply. I was just part way up a 1500ft ascent, the second of the day, and my belly started to growl at me. I had eaten a 'half lunch' almost 3 hours before, aiming to do 7 miles to the next water source and eat the other half there. Splitting up meals like that seems to result in fewer patches of intense hunger. I was about 4 miles into this 7 mile stint when I became too hungry to go any further. It was all up hill and my stomach was not happy at all. My pack was light, for obvious reasons, so I pushed on up this slope at a quick pace for a couple hundred more meters but I could go no further. I needed to eat. I sat down and got out my trail mix. This once grand bag of fruit, nuts and MnMs was dwindling. I gobbled a load of it down to leaving about one decent portion left. I had a couple of pieces of beef jerky too, then I re-packed up my bag and was about to continue, when I realized my hands were shaking. I thought that perhaps I was nearing the stage of having some kind of hypo-glycemic reaction (or something, something to do with sugar levels). I was exerting myself lots without enough energy. I thought I should really make sure I was properly fed before continuing to not let that happen again. But that would mean eating my precious few supplies. I realized that to make it to Daleville I would have to hike myself to the bone. Given the hunger I had just experienced and was still experiencing I did not like the sound of that one bit. Before I had eaten anything I would say I was hungry enough to beg a stranger (not that there are any) for food. Not good.

I get out the guide. Is there really nowhere I can resupply, will I have to go 5 miles off to Buchanan? Wait a moment… what's this. Jennings Creek is at a crossing with the road VA 614 and it says there is more info about that. I flip the page. “Middle Creek Campground. 1.2 miles East along the VA 614 and there is a basket symbol for short-term resupply. Can this be real!? My hopes skyrocket. I recheck a few times. I don't want to eat all my food and realize I've mis-read the guide. I've fooled myself like that before. When in desperate situations it's especially easy to see what you want to see… but the guide definitely says that. Middle Creek Campground is only about 15 miles from where I am now! Less than a days hike. I CAN EAT MORE FOOD! The swarm of flies around me and stinging nettle that keeps touching my left elbow no longer matters. FOOD! Like a starving man I grab my food bag. I take out my crumbling pita bread bag and peanut butter. The knife goes into the tub and takes a big swathe of it. I tell you this honestly, I have never found crumbling pita bread and a lump of peanut butter to be beautiful, but this was beautiful. As the inch wide piece of pita bread with the mountian of calorific peanut butter comes towards me I hear a grand chorus, a choir of angels, “Halleluja” I sing to myself. “Halleluja”. That song that is always overplayed in movies comes into my head. “I hear there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the lord, but you don't really care for music do you.” That one. The bread really is beautiful. I am looking at life on the knife. That knife that hasn't been wiped with anything but leaves for a week, that dirty knife moving through the fly infested air towards my hungry mouth. “HALLELUJA; HALLELUJA.” It tastes like ecstasy. I gobble and gobble. I realize something about beauty, it is really is what you need most. That splodge of peanut butter was being converted into consciousness, which forms reality. Peanut butter is the creator of my reality. That's pretty amazing.

I continue to stuff my face. I no longer have the milage pressure as before the resupply discovery, but I do still want to get some more done. But it no longer matters if Daleville takes a day longer. I am free to look at the views, camp in the most beautiful spots, and live free of the tracks that lead only to food once more.

33. Just around the corner from my “moment” a spectacular panorama with a board showing photos that demonstrate air pollution. There are three photos of the same view. One represents poor visibility, another average visibility and the far right one shows the best visibility. It says that the Blue Ridge is named after its natural haze, but air pollution is a problem.

I have concluded on this brief walk from my “moment” to this panorama, that Atheist and Theist are bad distinctions. They are missing the point. The two types of people are actually “meaning-ist” and “non-meaning-ist”. I.e. Some people believe the Universe is massive and we are only a tiny dot, and science explains how things just happen and nothing actually matters. They are they non-meaning-ists. Then there are the people (myself included) who believe that what we do does matter. How we live and love matters. It's not that The Universe is so big, it's my reality that is massive and yours. I don't believe in any 'deity' but I do believe in meaning.

I suppose now that I've got that out my system I can write what else happened today. I climbed a small mountain called “High Knob” today, followed by a larger one called “High Cock Knob”. I honestly don't know where they get these names from! What's next, “High Cock Penis Knob?”. On the way down High Cock Knob I suffered the tragedy of my trusty stick snapping (yes I will mention that name as much as possible!). It was snagged in one of High Cock Knob's knobbly rocks and was snapped completely in two at the middle. I took a photo and laid her to rest. I must admit, my hand felt empty without her… but I consoled myself, after all, there are plenty more sticks in the woods. I found myself eyeing up other sticks on the way down, but I couldn't pick up another stick, it was too soon. Shortly after these thoughts I did find a heavier grumpier and moldier replacement, but I quickly got used to this fellas’ weight and I am going to peel of his bark and whittle him down a bit to take some weight off (this stick is definitely male).

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I also chatted with a northbound thru-hiker while I rested at a spring. He had experienced the two incredibly loud thunderstorms two nights in a row also and I could tell he was still suffering from the lack of sleep, and possibly some dehydration. He knew from our conversation that I was going southbound, but five minutes after he left he came back all the way down to the spring with a card for Rusty's Hard Time Hollow… which is north of me. It's where HE should be going. I told him I had been there already and was wearing a Rusty t-shirt. He said, “don't know if you can still use it.” He was referring to the card, which had no use other than saying where Rusty's was located. I thanked him anyway and we wished each other good luck and farewell again. He was from Boston and thought that, “everyone on the trail's got an accent.”

“Yeah, it's very famous,” I replied. Someone observing would be able to tell we were both a bit out of it. We made little eye contact, treating each other as thoughts in each other's brains (which I suppose we are) rather than as people. Still, an interesting little encounter. He said that hiking the trail was a great experience, I agreed. Despite his tiredness he has come a long way and I think he will make it to Katahdin in Maine.

34. I am now camped in a fresh spot in the woods. I ended up doing 19 miles today. I would have stopped sooner but there was nowhere flat to camp. I am now only 11 miles from the resupply store so I'll get there tomorrow lunch time!

35.I’ve stopped at Bryant Ridge shelter to have a snack out of the pouring rain, though the rain keeps me cool. It is a big and brilliant shelter. I would like a summer house built as an exact replica at a location of my choice. It has an upstairs you climb up some bars to get too. I've been reading through the entries people have left in the hikers log book. Here's one:

“5/19. Stopped in for a rest before tackling Floyd. Contemplating dressing like a ninja and hiding in the rafters of this massive shelter. Somehow, such an act seems appropriate here - Devo of Loki + friends.”

I have found another entry that pleases me deeply:

“5/19. Here lies the account of the Three Bears and the finding of the spinning ring of power.' It has come to me, the spinning ring (gift from ex). It is precious to me, though I am bliged with a great guilt. The interior of the ring, once working, now only half spins. A secret now that only I can tell.

Traveling, nay swimming in the river, it fell off. I spent ten minutes in my underwear searching for it, heh like Isildur it slipped from my finger. And like Deagol, I found it again. No ones killed me yet, thankfully.

God Damn, it's entries like this that remined me why a girl is not hiking with me. So effing nerdy. - Three bears.”

“5/19. Last night I dreamt I choked out a mountain lion. It was the only way to keep him from killing me - Heads up!”

There an entry from Olive Oil who was a girl I met way back at the start and someone else had a similar idea to me here:

“16/19. I think I found where I'm going to live whenever I stop hiking - at this awesome shelter. Set up some big screens and BAM! Instant residence. - SKIDMARK.”

There is an entry from Hopper and Ben. Hopper was the lady I met who was distributing her husbands ashes along the trail. She signed it off as Hopper + Ben, so perhaps Ben is her husbands name.

I am too tired to do an update of what happened today after I added those quotes. I will say that I ended the day 'going commando' in two ways, and that I had another massive detour, possibly the biggest yet. I'll be taking it slow tomorrow and getting to Daleville a day later as a result of today’s “problem”, so I will update you further then.

37. I am listening to a song on the radio in my nice room at the Howard Johnson in Daleville (I'lll update you on the mess of the last few days very soon). The lyrics summarize my thoughts of late and so am enjoying listening to it very much:

“Out here in the middle, where the buffalo roam, we're putting up towers for your cell phone. And we screen all applicants with fine tooth come, wish you were here, my love.”

This song lyric I just heard on a song stepping back into society. After 130 miles and 9 days away from it all there are sparking revelations in side me constantly. I emerge from the woods and see a freeway, with “people” zooming in little metal pods. Where are they going? Why are they going so fast? Are they in a rush? What could be so important? I feel like modern society is a totally alien world. It has sprung up and changed so quickly people haven't even noticed the change. You can see it in our elderly as they struggle to make sense of the digital age. The lifestyle I have been leading out here on the trail is more similar to the life of the bear’s than that of the modern society dwellers. I say that with complete sincerity. I would even go so far as to say that evolution has split in two. While biological evolution is continuing as always, evolution of the mind - the evolution of thought, has now split off on its own trajectory, when they used to travel in tandem. Humans living in the digital Internet-ized age are like a completely new species, an ascended species, an alien species. People need to realize this change. It is not possible to understand it while living in society. Don't trust me on that. Experience what I am talking about for your selves. All these things sitting around in our rooms. The lights, beds, toilets, TVs; and those are just the basics. You don't have to be rich to have these paradoxically, “basic luxuries.” My recent supermarket shop illustrated this to me clearly. We are in a 'Sci-non-fiction' world. I go around, looking for high calorie foods with the aim of gaining some weight. I think, I know, Yoghurt, that is practically all fat. The yoghurt aisle seems a mile long, yet every single yoghurt on it boasts that it is “0% fat” or “virtually fat free”. I go to the orange juice section, the juice there has in proud letters that it contains “Less calories than the original!” Great! All “virtually worthless!” In Wendy's many of the people eating there are over weight. I see a fat person and think with a smile that if only I was in possession of some sort of tube, I could steel some of his un-needed blubber…

We live in a strange backwards world. Our world has been flipped upside down just slowly enough for no one to realize. Like the frog in the saucepans' water that is slowly brought to boiling point, we remain, not adapting. We are in trouble.

38. As I lie here in Daleville in blobby recovery from the troubles of getting here I’m flicking through a magazine about the Virginian city of Roanoke. Apparently, Roanok offers, “everything from fresh vegetables to fresh perspectives.” Wow! Sold! I'm so going there!

39. I am hyper aware of cultural change. We think that 'this is just how things are' instead of, 'this is how we do things'. Everything seems so transient. I could have been born 100 years ago, I could be throwing my excrement out the windows into Tudor London, I could have been raised in the far east and been one of the people of the rising sun. I could have believed anything. The different possibilities are too much for our minds to handle so we ignore the other choices, but being in a different culture to that of my English home (although there is a significant overlap) and contrasting it even further with a wild-wood lifestyle makes these things, that are usually too obvious to bother noticing, noticeable.

Why do people think they need to finish school and then go to University? Because everyone else does that. Not so long ago the standard thing was to be a farmer, or a warrior, or whatever. People don't realize all the things they could do. They don't need to get a job and rent a place and save up for a house. If they are tough, open minded and have a taste for new experiences they can step out their door and go anywhere. Why am I even doing a degree? Yes, so people with a degree are more likely to get a 'well paid' job and have more career choices. Well, right now I am thinking that someone with my personality is not looking to navigate along the stepping stones of society. I prefer to jump into the waters and swim and take a risk that there are new lands just out of sight. At this point in time, all the things that are likely to create my future do not require my degree, which is in Archaeology. I can read, write, travel, work with my Website skills to make decent chunks of money for more travel and draw just fine without being at University. I am not really at University for my degree at all. I suppose I stay there because it is a social base. We are social animals and I need a home that is not where my parents live.

Or do I?

I had not been expecting this little batch of writing leading me to think this, and I know the 'safe' option is to keep going with study. After all, I am enjoying University life lots. But if I did drop out (for the second time…) the options are so very tempting. Tough, but tempting. Just like my hike. In the first 6 months I would have already made enough money for a big adventure, such as canoeing down the Yukon river, or trekking across the Serengeti, completed that adventure and written up a travel book about it. All that would happen in well under 6 months. All the things I want to do are being put on hold for years because of my degree. But I am happy at Bristol (Bristol University). Or I was before this. At least I was 'content' there. If I was to get into the realm of estimations, it is sensible to continue. Over my whole lifetime, assuming I live to a roughly “average” age (which is assuming a lot) the degree is likely to have some benefits not yet visible to me. But isn't the other option likely to have hidden benefits also? It is like choosing between chocolate bread 'n butter pudding and crème brule. Both are delicious, both decisions could be called wise, but I just cant decide. I want BOTH!

40. The mountains move so slowly that I lap every one I climb. The trees and things stand still to my eyes, but when their film footage is sped up they wriggle and writhe and do the funky twist. The bugs creep and crawl, and I pace past. I am the fastest thing in the woods, usually. But compared to the zooming metal pods on the death strips of black, I am as slow as the mountain. I am the mountain man. The man from the woods, the brown leaf on the wind. The woodland creatures chatter, “I have heard of beings who travel faster than the wind. Quicker than a gust, riding on the power of lightening.” I know of whom they speak. Do I wish to rejoin the ranks of grey? “A suit and tie, until I die.” For that is their motto. Just another shovel, in the hands of another. No, not for me. I want to be the earth that is dug, the water that flows. The cold spring that tates of stone and leaves and fire. That is where I belong. Perhaps an Archaeology degree (a degree in digging) is fitting after all. Or perhaps I should just keep hiking and see what I think at the next stop. As Nutch Hatch said, “maybe the answer right around the next blaze.”

41. Well, I suppose I should tell you what happened before I reached Daleville. The crisis. I've already emailed the story to my family and told it in my facebook status update and to a few people I've met here, so it feels like I'm repeating myself. Anyway, remember how I discovered I could eat more of my food because I'd found a short-term resupply store and had that enlightened peanut butter epiphany? That store should have been 1.2 miles from the trail. A short detour. The guide said 1.2miles East along a road. I got to this road in the pouring rain and took out my compass. It said that turning right would be East and left would be West. So I went Right, knowing that it was possible the road curved and I could be going the wrong way. But hey, it's only 1.2 miles, I could just walk a little way and if I didn't find it I could come back again. So off I went. I walked for 20 minutes and reached a sign with a picture of a tent on. The store I was headed for is called Middle Creek Campground. So I thought, well, 20 minutes, that's 1 mile of walking, but the guide says 1.2, but it has been perfectly flat and my pack is light so maybe I have walked 1.2 and this sign is saying the store is just along that road that splits off to the right. So off down that road I went. For 15 minutes. But there was no store, or campground. But the sign said! 20 minutes and 15 is a lot more than 1.2 miles. I must have gone the wrong way. This sign couldn't be the sign for the store in the guide. So I walk back 15 minutes to the sign and continue in the direction I had been going. It should be 0.2 miles, so that’s a 5 minute walk. But the store just wasn't showing up and it had been raining for a long time. I was soaked. It started raining when I was still in the forest and the drops felt nice and cool on my skin then. I had thought about putting my raincoat on and even tried it, but it made it far too hot and I didn't expect the rain to continue for so long. So I was squelching around in my shorts and t-shirt and I was getting cold. And hungry. All the food I had left was a little bag of pitta crumbs, about the size of half a clenched fist. Not much at all. So far I had walked a total of 50 minutes and was still walking the wrong way. I wanted to make sure it wasn't this way. If it wasn't this way I must have turned the wrong way off the trail, and that was a long way back. About two miles back. I saw a sign in the distance, and my hope sparked up. The roads were all the same, black splodges though tall green trees in heavy rain. When I started to get cold I would start running like a lost commando with my half empty pack jigglying up and down on my back. I saw this sign and hoped it was the Middle Creek Campground sign. But it wasn't. It was a sign saying that I was now: “Leaving Jefferson National Forest.” Oh dear. I was 2 miles from the trail and had walked an extra half an hour down that road the sign had pointed me down. I was cold, hungry and getting rather worried. I had images of collapsing into a ditch and having people put blankets over me. Was my imagination running away with me, or was I actually that close to disaster? I'd say I was fairly close.

Eventually, at long last, a woman pulled in a little road to turn around and I ran over to ask for help. There were very few cars on the road, a couple had driven past me even though I stuck my thumb out, leaving me soaked through. But this woman said she “sort of” knew the way to Middle Creek Campground. “You go back about 2 miles and take a left,” she tells me. She mutters that she is going to run out of gas but offers me a ride. For some mad reason I decline her offer. I am all wet and don't want to mess up her car seats and she said she was almost out of gas so I don't want to mess her around generally. I don't know if that was extremely generous of me, or just mad English politeness, but I set off on foot. My non-water proof shoes had puddles in them. My feet felt fine but I was worried about them. Having drenched feet for hours is not good, especially when hiking. So I walked back for 20 minutes, or 1 mile, and arrived at that first sign again. The lady had said 2 miles, not 1, but 2 would bring me back to the trail, and my compass definitely said this way was east. I remember that the woman only said she, “sort of” knew the way, so maybe she meant to go left here. So I turn left here, down the road I already walked for 15 minutes down before. The sign says campground so there must be something eventually, and the woman said back here and left, albeit back another mile and then left. I walk down this road for a long time. I lost track of how long I walked. I was down to a finger of crumbs. I had put my raincoat on which made me feel a bit warmer, but my t-shirt was still soaked underneath. I keep walking and running and walking and running. A car passes but ignores my plea. The rain drums. At long last I see a sign, but this one is just a board saying about respecting the wildlife of Jefferson National Forest. 'Yeah, read that drivers, RESPECT THE WILDLIFE, I.E. RESPECT ME!' After a weary eternity I arrive at North Creek Campground.

Excited, I go up to the information board. It says it is a self-service campground. You have to put some money in some box or something and do it all yourself. There is no store. No nothing. But… as I walk around, dismayed, I spy a large campervan vehicle. It’s one of those massive ones that is the size of a house. There is a sign saying “Campground Overseers.” Hurray! People who will listen to me! I knock on the door and a friendly couple in their 60s open the door. Two little yapping dogs come tumbling out into the torrential rain, but retreat when they are told too. I ask if they know the way to Middle Creek Campground, “the one with the food store,” I specify. They direct me. “How far is it, roughly?”

“7, maybe 8 miles.”

“Ah. Ok.” I nod, half waiting for them to offer to drive me and half wondering if I should tell them I do not want to walk that at all. Luckily, they ask,

“You're not walking are you?”

“Well yes, I'm an Appalachian Trail hiker, only I messed up with my food supplies.” I babble some fairly shaky explanation about my situation. The man replies.

“Well I'd be more than happy to drive you,”

“Really? I would really appreciate that, thank you.”

“Sure, no problem,” he says.

“Do you want anything to eat now?” The woman asks. I am very hungry, which is contributing to the jitteriness (along with being cold and shivering), but if I will be in the store in a matter of minutes there's no need to take their food. I accept the ride and we set off. Unfortunately I never learned the man's name, but he told me all about America's national parks. He and his wife are going on a road tour of some soon up in Montana. He says it is very beautiful there. I tell him I've never been to Montana but I've been to Zion national park and that it was fantastic. He gives me a lesson in American history on the 4 heads that are carved on Mount Rushmore. He says that one of them is of the guy (forgotten the name now!) who founded America's national parks. He says, “You've got all the cathedrals an things, and we've got the national parks.” An interesting contrast to make.

As we drive we pass a parked car that I had walked past before. In fact we go right past the trail exit, and keep going. The rain is easing off at last after 8 hours. Almost straight away, mere meters from the trail exit, only LEFT instead of RIGHT is a small sign to Middle Creek Campground. I went the wrong way off the trail! This was pretty much the only direction left to go in the area. We get to the store and he offers to drive me back to the trail, but I refuse saying that I will need to spend a little while in the store. We shake hands, he wishes me good luck, I get my pack from the back of his truck and he leaves. What a palaver. But at least I am here now.

The store is very small and doesn't have food to resupply properly, so I end up spending $40 for food to get me to Daleville, which is only 30 miles away. As I had trudged I had thought that I would gladly pay anyone $20 to take me straight to Daleville. That figure rose to $30. Now I was spending $40 on rubbish, nasty tasting, unsatisfying wafer things and I would have to spend an extra day in the woods. It was about 4.30pm so my afternoon of trial miles hiking had been taken away by all this. I sat on a bench by the store under its over hanging roof to dry out my feet a little. It took me an hour to stuff my face with muffins from the store and get ready to go again. My food purchase for portable food consisted entirely of snickers bars (the luxury part) and these nasty whole meal cracker things that had peanut butter or cheddar cheese squished between them. They were only about 200 calories per packet of 6 and I was meant to be getting 5000 calories a day so I bought a LOT of these. They proved to be so horrible I could never eat more than 3 packets at a time so I would be constantly snaking on them all day and they made me very thirsty too because of their dryness. All in all it was an exhausting day, physically, financially and morale wise. I did not want this extra day in the woods. If anything I wanted one day less. I had earned it.

I grumbled a lot that evening and even more the next day. I awoke with 23 miles to Daleville. One hard days hike. Except that would mean I would arrive probably just after 7pm and so I wouldn't get to make full use of the Daleville Howard Johnson facilities. I wanted a proper arrival where I could laze around in the afternoon and early evening and then have a proper zero day. So I split the 23 miles into two days.

It turns out that hiking that slowly is more difficult than it seems. You see, every uphill step is a challenge, especially when you know you don't have to be taking it yet. It's like doing something half-arsed. It's more fun when you get stuck in. 15 miles was easy for me, 11 or 12 was not enough. I arrived at a shelter at 4.30 and stayed there. That is by far the earliest I have set up camp, but it turned out to be a mini-blessing in disguise. Three hikers arrived. Two of them were father and son and had just set off, although the father had hiked lots of sections of the trail before. They ended up leaving once the rain eased off. The other guy was a few years older than me and was called Apocalypse. He was a northbound thu-hiker. He stayed in the shelter with me that night. He and a friend did a 2000+ mile canoe trip along the Yukon river in Alaska, which I now want to do too. He saw grizzly bears and moose and it sounds like a great adventure. I may do that next summer. So the wrong turn wasn't all bad, because now I have an idea for my next big trip.

The next day my spirits were lifted. It didn't matter what had happed before; for today, I march triumphant into Daleville. And I shall have my burger and then another and then perhaps I shall go in the pool and lie on a bed and listen to the radio and maybe even watch a movie on the TV. Oh how great that shall be! I did a lot of striding and singing “Daleville, oh Daleville!” It didn't really have a tune or lyrics, just Daleville over and over again in victorious tones. At the last shelter from Daleville, a quick 5 miles from it I met a middle aged thru-hiker couple. They were very friendly and sympathetic when I told them my story (including the exploding Aqamira). The man was apparently thinking about quitting, but his wife said,

“He's been though that and he's still going! Did you cry? I woulda cried.” They took a photo of me, “another international hiker.” I left that shelter in a mood so positive I must have gone at 4pmh. My pack weighed practically nothing as it had hardly any food or water, I was feeling good about the nice people, but most of all… the vision of a burger from Wendy's was seared into my brain. It was all downhill too. So I got there quickly. I opened the door to Wendy's expecting trumpets and cheering and confetti. Where were the beautiful women to take my arms and the person to welcome me? 'Sire, here is your burger.' Instead I got a few funny looks, (though I felt pretty cool in all my hiker gear, and my shirt had just been ripped by some barbed wire, so I think they were 'good' funny looks) and a friendly local fat guy asked me about my hike. I made my order:

“The biggest baconater you have please and a large fries.” I ate it like one of those oldskool cartoons where they bite the whole thing down in a few massive bites. Some old people watched me and then once I'd eaten it all (in a matter of about 2 minutes) they asked me what I was doing and we chatted. Many of them had hiked the trail in their younger days. They wished me luck and left, and I sat and belched and gazed out the window. For some reason every time I took a sip of diet coke I would hiccup. It seemed I'd forgotten how to drink fizzy drinks. Every single time - hiccup!

And that is how I made it to Daleville for lunch time, had a proper lazy after noon in the Howard Johnson and a proper zero day. Then I paid for one more night and had another proper zero day. I write this as my second proper zero day ends, for tomorrow I leave again! To Pearisburg is my next section, 92 miles. A shorter section with some great things to see along the way, including the tent spot recommended by Joker and a tree that is apparently 18 feet around! I look forward to getting back on the trail. I also bought a crappy book to read on my zero days, but it is terrible. It's called Intervention by Robin Cook. I've read the first 60 pages and do not wish to continue. I will probably leave it in my room here. Shame.

I also feel like I've been abusing myself by trying to eat the most high calorie foods. Chocolate éclairs and French twirls. I've bought them deliberately and I'm eating them on purpose to gain weight for the next section. I lost a bit of weight last week and so this is meant to be a strategic health move to give me a little bit of fat to burn instead of going straight to burning muscle if I don't quite eat enough (a challenge on the trail). But surely all that sugar is bad for me? Bad in that it causes diabetes? I don't know.

42. The radio just said this funny line to get people to turn it up: “Listen loud so when you're 80 you wont be able to hear the teenagers make fun of you.”

43. Here I am at Tinker Cliffs, the place where Joker in Waynesboro recommended I camp. It easily lives up to my expectations. I am observing an incredible panorama, over 180 degrees of view. But it's not just the view. The big rock I sit on is amazing too with the abstract lichen patterns of green, grey, black, orange, brown and white. And the sun is sending beams through the billowing clouds. The sun and clouds alone are something you would see photographed by a professional. Then there is the view itself. To the far left I can just about make out a town, then there is an seemingly uninhabited valley with nothing but trees and one power line running through it. Then there is the main valley directly in front. This is wide, very wide and it has a sort of mini ridge along the middle that is still forested. In the valleys either side there are small rivers and a thin scattering of buildings going off into the distance. It looks like it’s from a geography text book, with forest, then field with river in the middle and a few buildings going on for miles and miles and miles. To the right are more ranks of mountains. It's 7pm and so the sun will be setting soon. This is going to be special. You have probably gathered I am generally quite happy on my own, but this is a scene that should really be shared with someone. I know I'll remember it for a very long time, which means it could have helped prop up a friendship for a very long time. Still, the tranquility is serene. There is a breeze blowing. It's warm by English standards, but cool by Virginia standards so I've changed from my shorts into the shorts with trouser bits that zip on and zipped them on and put on my hoodie and thick warm green socks.

I was able to get my ipod charged up for the first time at the Howard Johnson's in Daleville so I tried hiking with music today. It is a very different experience. It puts me instantly in “the zone”, the zone where I am in a different level of consciousness to full wakefulness. Sort of day-dreaming. I put on an hour long trance mix to start off and that was fantastic. Suddenly in a matter of seconds of plugging in my brain to the sounds I was in time with the forest. The base beats where like the big boulders and the rain fell in time with the lighter notes. The music seemed to mesh with the pattern of the woods and I was in “the zone” very quickly. The zone where time feels different and the miles go by and by. It made going up hills much easier because I couldn't hear my panting breaths and I was generally less aware of my body communicating with me. A bit like when you have loud music on in the car you can't hear what the engines doing, so you drive faster, but at risk to the engine. It didn't feel at all dangerous though, it just transformed struggling up a slope with newly softened limbs and an especially heavy pack into an enjoyable walking-dance where even my stick had a role. I didn't see any one on the trail for pretty much the whole way to Tinker Cliffs and the music made me very uplifted. I wouldn't want to do the whole hike with music though, it does create a sort of screen that despite making the forest appear crisper, is a barrier non the less. I can't hear the birds sing or my ragged breathing or twigs snapping underfoot or branches falling. I saw a branch the length of me fall from a tree the other day. Imagine that, poor tree. 'Aaaah, me arm!'. Anyway, it's great having music with me. It's like I'm carrying the Rolling Stones and all their equipment around in my pocket.

The sunset here at Tinker Cliffs is the perfect painting. Forget the view, the clouds are in perfect harmony. The grey swathes and gentle puffy whites with a deep maternal yellow egg sun slowly sinking. The oceanic blue gap is bordered by blue and pinky purply strips. The banana moon floats adrift in the blue ocean. I plugged in to enya, and I am overwhelmed. The great thing about camping here is I can looking forward to the sun rise in the morning too. Truly, art imitates nature. Nothing is perfect, expect when you stand back and see the whole picture in its entirety, then it is perfect. I just found a couple more energy bars so I had to take down my bear bag and put it up again, but it doesn't matter. My sleeping pattern was changed slightly in Daleville so I'm not feeling that tired (it's about 9pm) so I'm going to stay up on this rock until its completely dark and the stars will come out. I can't believe I haven't looked at the stars out while camping yet, I've always been asleep! The moon has struck a cloud and has presently sunk. The clouds are fanning out across the sky so there may not be many stars tonight after all. I'll stay up for a bit longer anyway. The mountains are just black bumps now as the sun's embers fade. It's getting a bit spooky… but someone is having a firework display in the valley below!

44. I've set off again. I passed Mcaffe knob, it had a good view, but I wouldn't say it was any better than Tinker Cliffs, and with the sun set I rate my Tinker experience far above the famous Mkafee knob. On the trail down from Mkafee knob there were lots of people. I am eating lunch just across from the car park where all the people were coming from from, observing from a rock. Humans are herd animals, I have realized. What is a fashion trend, or a craze? It is a herd response. Not a 'herd-like' response, but a herd response. People don't do things a certain way because it is the best way, they do things because other people are doing things that way and so they assume it is the best. Take cars for example. Their style changes too, like fashion, but there is more to it. Running a car is very expensive. For most people, at least in England, it would be much cheaper to not own a car but to use public transport and then hire a car when necessary. Renting a car may cost a few hundred pounds each time and say you needed that a few times a year, so that could cost about thousand pounds for going on trips out of town and that is rounding up. The rest for day to day living is public transport or even taxis. It is way way cheaper. So why do people buy cars? Why does everyone buy cars? Because it's what other people do. It's not about it being the most economical option. It's not about being lazy either, because with all the money saved the car buyer wouldn't have to work as much. The reason people buy cars is because everyone else does. It's easier to be like everyone else and not have to think for ourselves. And of course the other big reason people (mostly men) buy cars is to impress the opposite sex. Unfortunately, women are often not aware that by buying a fancy car the man is proving his own… foolishness? It shows he is not thinking in some way that I am. In fact is it probably reproductively useful to be part of the herd. And herin lies the reason. It is evolutionarily beneficial to be part of a herd. As we all know from year 7 biology, one of the key survival traits of the zebra, or fish, or countless other species is to be part of a herd. People make decisions based on other people’s decisions, which are based on other people’s decisions. It makes sense, but at some point the circumstances will be different enough for it to be time for someone to think a new. Rarely, though, does this happen. It’s started raining so I have to put the keyboard away now.

45. I’ve reached Dragon’s Tooth. I think the spot I sit on right now beats them all. Dragon’s Tooth is a natural megalith. It sits atop Cove Mountain. It is about 30m or so long and about 10m high. It is thin, like a tooth. I have scrambled up to the top, a challenging but fun climb usually, but taking the keyboard up with me was rather risky. I still have to get it down. I can see all around. The view to the left equals Tinker Cliffs; maybe it is slightly better - with a great long mountain ridge running long and strong along much of it. I can see a valley to the right too just over the top of some trees. The tooth cuts off sharply either side of me, leaving me very exposed to the drop, and the view.

appalachian_trail_dragon_tooth.jpg

I wish people I know could see me right now, perched on this huge rock at the top of a mountain. It really is spectacular. Better than Mckaffe’s knob I’d say and Tinker and Black Rock. Best yet. In the future we will all have computers in contact lenses so friends on the other side of the world would able to connect to my vision and view what I am viewing.

My tent is set up just below the Dragon Tooth. The climb up Cove Mountain was extremely difficult, by far the toughest yet. It really was a climb. Lots of scrambling up nearly vertical rock faces. At one point I went off the wrong way thinking the trail couldn’t possible want me to go up that sheer cliff face. At the base of Cove Mountain I calculated that I should arrive at Dragon’s Tooth at 5.30pm but I didn’t get here till about 6.15pm, such was the difficulty of the ascent. The cloud cover is grey mostly and it actually feels like it could rain any minute now. The first time I climbed up the Dragon Tooth (I’ve been up and down a few times now) there was a young couple who offered to photograph me. The pretty woman once worked in a hospital in Devon, and she said that at first the English people weren’t all that friendly, but once they got to know her they were fine. I said that I think Americans are much more friendly than English people. They were very impressed with what I was doing, “credit to you, wow, aren’t you scared?” I told them about the first night of Bearanoia and that I was scared then but that was it. I can see it has started raining in the valley on the right…

Anyway, they left me some granola bars, which was very nice of them. The woman lives near here and her partner said he is from South Dakota. I told them about my bear encounters – one of which was today! I saw a bear this morning, not a fully grown one. He was about 20m away. When he saw me he hugged the nearest tree. Then gradually he let go and turned around again. I stomped my stick on the ground and cleared my voice, “ahem!” He jumped up again and hugged the tree. It was quite an amusing sight! Then I stamped my stuck more loudly and made a very loud “AHEM!” Finally he let go of the tree and fled at a tremendous pace. His legs and arms (do they have arms or just 4 legs?) lolloping beneath. Black bears run as if they are throwing themselves across the forest floor. I also saw 3 more turtles out on the trail after the rain I mentioned earlier started. The AT became the Appalachian Stream for a while, with a good flow going down it. I also saw my first rattle snake, I almost stepped on it! It was very small, only about a foot long and an inch wide. I put my foot inches from it’s head so I performed a little hopping manoeuvre quickly out of its way. I don’t know if the small size makes them any less deadly (I think they are deadly?). I got a great photo of it. It is definitely going to pour with rain any second now so I am going to climb down the Dragon’s Tooth. I hope I don’t drop this in a puddle and lose my 30k words.

I’m back in my tent, alphasmart is in tact. I also drank cloudy/muddy water today. A stream was the only option. It was properly brown. My new iodine-based water purification (I got ANOTHER one, the other stuff ran out) says to use double dosage with cloudy water, so it tastes iodiney, but I’ve got a few flavouring things left which I am rationing to cover the taste of the iodine.

46. I went to sleep in a thunderstorm and awoke to more rain. I put my thermal top on back to front, tried again, got it the right way round but inside out. Now I’ve just realized I left my rain coat out in the rain so I have nothing to keep me dry. What to do…

47. I wore my rain coat anyway. It rained lots on the way to the next water supply. I made the 4 miles on only half a litre because I didn’t want to have to purify my spare murky litre which would need lots of flavouring to taste ok. I am taking a small risk I have on the water I have now, because of a complication involving having to use double my iodine on the murkey water leaving me with only a little bit left (I get more by putting water into the special container then waiting an hour). I didn’t want to wait an hour so I just used what I had left, 2 capfuls instead of the required 3. Hopefully it will be ok.

I slept badly in the storm last night and this mornings soggy 4 miles to water was tough. I think I’m becoming used to the woods at last, but that takes away an element of excitement. Perhaps this is when most learning occurs. If I just live in a state of being used to the woods for a little while longer then when I return to society it will be truly alien.

I had a fall on the way this morning too. I slipped on a rock in the rain. My elbow took a nasty wack and my arse got a little grazed but I’m ok. I’m just glad to be off that damn steep and rocky mountain. The view was all cloudy from Dragon’s Tooth when I woke up. I couldn’t even see the mountains on the other side of the valley at all. I really am very tired. I don’t want to get going again. I got a few good hours sleep but then never really went back to sleep properly again. I just kept getting to sleep then waking up with a numb arm or hand that got pins and needles in it as it came back to life. That happened 5 or 6 times. And my knees are tender so if I try to lie sideways at all they hurt, so my sleeping positions are very limited in a tent. I guess this is the part where I have done the hardest part, but it turns out there is another hardest part – the sprint to the finish, which happens to be over 200 miles long.

It’s 10 miles to the next water source so I’m setting off with 3 litres. And there is a 1600 foot ascent. Going to be a tough day. I just hope it doesn’t rain again although my socks will remain soggy for some time. I really need some spares. I have about 6 pairs (a ridiculous amount to carry!) but 3 pairs are big thick green ones which make my feet impossibly big for my shoes and the other pairs are ultra lightweight and are pretty much the thinnest socks available, but still make my feet a bit too big for my shoes. But my feet fit ok into the shoes if I wear normal socks, of which I have one pair. That saves me buying new shoes so I have to use this soggy pair. In the evenings I can use the thicker pairs if I’m just slipping into the shoes for a minute or two, but for proper hiking I need the thin ones.

My guide book is also sodden through. The pages are all stuck together. I was carrying it in a carrier bag yesterday in the rain but it seems to attract the drops. I’ve had a look at it and I don’t think I’m going to make it to the shelter I had planned. I think this next 10 miles will be it. It’s already 11.30 and I’ve only done 4 miles. I remember on my 25 mile day I had already done 11 miles by this point, so I am going pretty slow and I feel like I could go to sleep. Fortunately I bought a spare bag of pitas and my trail mix still seems pretty large so I think I have a decent amount to get to Pearisburg slightly later than planned, half a day later.

I was just getting up to go when I felt something on my shoulder. It was a caterpillar, a hungry hungry one. It was either biting my arm or sticking to it. It was crawling along the sleeve of my t-shirt by my shoulder. I tried to pick up him and get rid of him but his stickers kept him firmly in place and he would rear up aggressively so I had to get a stick and have him forcibly removed. Never seen such a determined caterpilla…

48. I have stopped to have lunch half way up the climb and I put the keyboard down on the ground. Next thing I know it is swarming with ants! I could see them running between the keys. I got rid of most of them. Another key has fallen off. The “R” key. They are probably using it to construct part of an ant shanty-town. An annoying one to be gone as that letter is used quite often it seems. It is now missing the 7, =, J and R keys.

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49. I have climbed the mountain and I’ve reached the Audie Leon Murrphy memorial. The climb was enjoyable actually, I put on some of my favourite songs and joined hikers-paradise once again. Murrphy was the most decorated American solder of WWII. He died near the site of the memorial in a plane crash in May 28, 1971. He was born on June 20, 1924.

“He served in the European Theatre – 15th Infantry Regiment – 3rd Infantry Division and earned 24 decorations, including the Medal of Honour, Legion of Merit, Distinguished service cross and Three Purple Hearts.

He was survived by his wife, Pamela, and two sons, Terry Michael and James Shannon.”

The memorial is a block of grey stone about 5 feet high with an American flag sticking out the top of it and a wreath with fake flowers in the colours of America. There is a cairn to the left of the memorial, just as high, made of stones. There are a great many tiny little stones all over it, which presumably individual people have added themselves. If he was a soldier from most other wars I would not add a stone, but because Murrphy fought in WWII, one of the few Just wars of recent times in my opinion, I will add one.

I’ve been sitting here looking at the memorial thinking about phobias (the fear of flying being the connection). I think a lot of phobias are not real phobias. Like arachnophobia. How can so many people be afraid of spiders for no rational reason? I have a friend who, when he saw a spider, shrieked in horror and coward away from it. How can that be a genuine reaction? Does that mean he couldn’t make it 100m into the woods with me because of all the spiders creeping across the trail (I pass a great many Daddy Longlegs’ making the crossing) and those in the many cobwebs? That is ridiculous. I agree spiders can look a bit, “creepy” and when they are crawling on you one is instinctively quick to shake them off, but we shake all bugs off. No one likes bugs crawling on them. I think in most cases of modern arachnophobia the person doesn’t have any desire to not be afraid of spiders because they can get by just fine with their “fear.” Maybe when they were little they saw a spider and though, “aah nasty” and never had to overcome that immature reaction.

It’s like when you are little and you decide you don’t like a food, then end up liking it again once you are older. I was like this with mushrooms. I would always refuse them because of my friend puking up a mushroom pizza all over me when I was about 5. This was my reasons for thinking I didn’t like mushrooms. I genuinely didn’t like the taste. I would taste it, then say I didn’t like it and tell the story of why I didn’t. But then I reached an age where it was silly to not like them for that reason. In fact the story would be embarrassing if I used it now as an explanation. It’s childish. I happen to like mushrooms now. People take these silly little “quirks” and use them to build their own idea of their own personality, to pad out the ego. For a summer when I was 13 I would drink the soft drink Fanta every day. I’d buy it in small cans and drink it. A boy at my school did basically the same thing but with sprite cans. He collected them in his locker and earned the nickname Sprite Boy. Arachnophobia and many other irrational rears are like this I think, not that I don’t believe in genuine cases. They are not real. We just keep hold of them in a desperate attempt to clutch onto who and what we are.

It’s also the same as picking a favourite colour. We all think we have a favourite colour and that colour represents our personality in some way. As a child I would always say, “red” because it is the ‘most powerful’ colour. It represents blood, love, hate, heat and fire. Apparently red is the most common colour for children to pick. But I don’t think I have a favourite colour anymore. How can we? Colours work by being contrasted with other colours. Your favourite colour might only look good when next to other certain colours and with other colours your favourite colour might appear dull. It’s ridiculous to have a favourite colour. It’s like a joke. How can I sit here in the woods and say which is my favourite colour? What’s you’re favourite wavelength of light? Sure, the green of the trees is great, so is the slightly lighter green of the lichen on the trunks, but it’s the contrast with the blue sky and white clouds that makes the green so great. And the brown and grey pebbly area by the memorial is its own vortex. Having a favorite colour is such an abstract idea. It’s so weird. I bet the first person who thought about asking, “what’s your favourite colour?” was either insane or on a psychedelic drug.

I know that we associate colours with different things. The eye is drawn to yellow first, and green is meant to invoke restful calm feelings. Pink used to be seen as a masculine colour, but as with many things these associations change with culture. I hope I don’t sound cynical… but the more I think about it the more hilarious it becomes! If you could go back and ask major figures from history, say Hitler, Napoleon and Julius Caesar, what their favourite colour is and why do you think their reasons would have any kind of correlation? Of course not. Did any Neanderthanls have favourite colours? Our favourite colour is not something we think about in everyday life, it just forms part of the illusions of our egos. So say your favourite colour is orange. Would you be happier if there was more orange in the world – at the cost of all the other colours? How merciless. From this moment on I shall have no favourite colour, because I tell ya this kids, favourite colours aint real.

This and other trivial realizations coming up shortly. 50. I accidentally put my watch up the tree in my bear bag so I can't tell what time it is. I'll just have to go by how I feel and the sun tonight.

51. I have suffered a setback. I needed water so I had to take a 0.4 miles off down to Sarver shelter and it was very a steep 0.4 all down hill, soon to be up hill. The spring was dry but there was some writing scrawled on the sign to look around at the left of some abandoned buildings for better water. I went looking for this water but couldn't find it.

Someone had left a load of gear at the shelter so I went back there to see if they had returned, but there was still no one there. I read in the shelter log to see if anyone had left info about the water, but they hadn't. But I did discover that the hiker had left his stuff behind in the shelter because he had gotten sick and was too weak to carry it into town. He asked that people leave it there as he would get it once he had recovered. So, I was alone and it was a steep 0.4 back up to the trail and another 3 or so miles from there to the next water source. I only had a couple of gulps - not enough, given that it was pretty hot too. So I had no choice but to fill up from the practically dried up spring. I could barely notice a flow at all. I had to bend right down in a back and knee breaking position for well over half an hour to fill up enough to get me to the next water source.

The whole detour took an hour and a half, and it wasn't an easy detour. What made it especially irritating was that I probably had enough water to make it (albeit, slightly unpleasantly) to the next water source if I had never gone off down that steep 0.4. It meant that the afternoon wouldn't be an easy hike anymore, I would have to hike till nearly 7pm to get to the shelter. Annoying. But not a disaster, I had suffered far worse. It was just a typical hiker problem, much better than the previous calamities. I finally reached the shelter and a 50+ male hiker with a grey and black beard called Bandana arrived. He was friendly enough and we did the usual chat that happens at a shelter to make it so you are both comfortable with the other to spend the night with them (unless you 'click'). He slept in a hammock though so I had the actual shelter to myself. He thought my 18 miles was a long way, he had been hiking though Virginia in small sections for 5 years and someone was coming to pick him up tomorrow somewhere. To me 18 miles is ok, plus the detour, which made it a decent day's hiking. Despite my tiredness I slept badly. I dreamt I detonated an enhanced atomic bomb that blew up half the galaxy. It was very vivid and for a few moments I thought I knew what it was like to be dead. I was floating in white space, but them my imagination re-conglomerated and I was back in the shelter looking out at the black trees of the night. I didn't get back to sleep properly so for the first time I packed up my things to leave as soon as it started to get light. I was packed and said goodbye to Bandana at 7am, just as he was waking up. I climbed a mountain and was at the top by 8.20am. For some reason I had excellent hiking powers that day. I was tired but would be in Pearisburg tomorrow. The more miles I did today the less there would be tomorrow morning. I set of aiming to hike 20 miles and camp in a meadow that was supposed to have a spring. I reached the meadow at 4.30pm. Far too early to set up camp. Plus I couldn't find the spring. I did find some apple trees but the apples weren't ripe yet. I picked some of the biggest and least green ones, the ones with a slight reddish tint. They were sour, but the juices still tasted nice. Fresh fruit becomes highly valuable on the trail and I needed the juice because I couldn't find the spring. After sampling 3 apple trees I was finding the taste to be getting worse and worse. Either each tree happened to be less ready than the last, or the novelty of fresh fruit was wearing off. I pressed on and somehow kept plodding along the relatively flat ridge to turn the day into a 25 mile day. I arrived at Rice Field shelter in much better condition than in my fist 25 mile day (where I got angry with the bear bag).

As the name suggests Rice Field shelter looks out on a field, not a rice field but a meadow that has a great view of some valleys. Someone had left a book in the shelter. It was a biography of John Lennon. I watched the film about him, “Nowhere Man” on the plane over and I'm a big Beatles fan and I hadn't read a book in over a week, so I read eagerly. I made it through about 100 pages, skimming some, as the sun went down over the valley. It was a great day, and I only had 7 miles to do tomorrow morning to get to Pearisburg! I'd be eating hot fast-food by 11am.

One more thing that topped of that 25 mile day was Keffer oak. Keffer oak is a huge oak tree, 18 feet around. I've taken to the habit of taping my stick on the largest trees and saying, “anybody home?” in a Gandalf voice, to amuse myself. Unfortunately no one was home, but no one saw me either. I did almost get caught again perfecting my Yoda and obi wan impressions though… The man who almost caught me looked like a sort of aged action man, who made the joke, “aint no Indians out on the trail”. I wasn't sure what he meant by that. There was a lot of rain this week. As well as the three turtles I saw on the day the trail became the ‘Appalacian Stream’, I also came across a particularly feisty turtle-like-thing, that didn't hide in its shell like the others. Instead it sat and bit powerfully at my stick when I poked it. This one had a tail (unlike the others) and was completely mad. Its legs were very sturdy and it seemed to burst forward at my stick like an uncoiling spring. I also saw second rattle snake. It was slightly larger than the first, about 2 feet long. It lay across the trail at the meadow where I was going to camp. It wouldn't move so I had to go into a spiky tree to get around it. I'm glad the bears didn't see that act of cowardice or they might catch on to my vulnerability. I’m really just a brain stuck to a twig compared to them.

When I awoke in the morning from Rice Fields shelter, for an unknown reason, I felt lonely for the first real time. There was thick fog covering the meadow and I just thought it would be nicer to put on my wet socks and have someone to make jokes with as I wandered out into it. As usual however, that feeling passed quickly and I soon had my sights set on Pearisburg. I realized I'd feel like that more often when in a city full of people than on the trail anyway, so it was just a 'rhythmic' thing… Moods change with the ridge running, the climbing and the descending, sometimes for no apparent reason. Usually though my mood depends on what’s happening. I suppose I felt like others were missing out. I'd had my share of the experience, I thought of those back home who hadn't even tasted living like this.

This just fell out of my head:

lonley mountain fog rolled in over the mountain it filled the belley of the valley and soaked me utterly through A simple life for simple truth the mountain man is forever youth. Groomed he isn't and wild he is as tame the wind he wanderes on through.

52. Pearisburg. I read in a shelter log a hiker ranked the Plaza Street Motel in Pearsiburg as one of their best places to stay so I went there first, but they were full. Luckily the Holiday Motor Lodge was next door and I got a room there for a cheap $36.40. The other place was about $50 so I am happy with the saving. I am there now. I arrived yesterday morning after the 7 foggy miles and went to Hardees for a sort of second breakfast. The only food I'd had left at the shelter was a bag of pita bread crumbs and the scrapings from the bottom of the peanut butter and nutella. The Hardees food was cheap but small. The “Monster” option I went for was not very monstrous, but it was enough to plug the hole. Hardees is a strange place where they serve hash browns instead of fries and they call burgers 'biscuit', when they definitely are not biscuits. They are just very low quality burgers. The Motor Holiday Lodge looks a bit crappy too on the outside, and I suppose it is, but my room has a functioning shower, TV, microwave, aircon and fridge/freezer and there is a super market right across the road. This luxurious crap is plenty nice enough for me. It also has a crappy pool I've not been in and my room has two beds. Having two beds is very useful because I can sit and eat and spill food all over one of them and then move into the other one to sleep.

I am very bug bitten and there's a dead bug squashed between the pages of my soggy guide. Back at Ricefields I was certain there was something bigger than bugs living under the shelter. There were bumps at night, but only the bugs bit me.

 
Pearisburg is very spread out and small. It has a population of about 2000 and I was surprised to find half a mile of “Main Street” has nothing on it apart from trees. Still, I finally had a section with no disasters! They say it takes most people about 2 weeks to settle into a hiking routine. It’s taken me 3 to just not have a catastrophe, but I am happy with that. Hopefully the next section will go equally smoothly. I had an all you can eat pizza buffet at pizza hut for lunch today for only $6.50! Brilliant!

53. I've left myself with out much time to complete the last 160 miles from Pearisburg to Damascus. My flight is booked to leave Washington on August 6th and it's July 23rd today. There is no train station or greyhound bus or megabus stops in Damascus for me to get back to Washington. The nearest Greyhound bus stop is in Bristol. Coincidentally, I go to University at Bristol in England, so I will have enjoyed a fine pair of Bristols…. Bristol Tennessee is 30 miles from Damascus. I could hitch hike, or if time requires it, phone up a taxi, but I have already had to borrow funds from my Dad twice so I'd rather avoid that. This means I only have 10 days so I need to average 16 miles per day steadily every single day so I can't be taking anymore 0 days. I had a shorter day planned where I would be able to stop at a place for a burger but that day will have to be extended and I wont be lingering around till the 1pm checkout time tomorrow anymore. If just one day is majorly messed up I'll have to be making 20 or more miles per day for the other 9 days and that would be very tough, and also impossible. It's going to be a close one!

For now though, I can sit back and keep watching Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which is on TV. I'd been planning on buying a ring of power off eBay to carry on my quest but I never got round to it. After all that would only get heavier as I approached Mordor and as we know, the hearts of men are easily corrupted.

 
54. I've just resupplied in Pearisburg. It cost me $69 for enough food to get me 90 miles to Atkins. It should be a four and a half day hike, but I've bought enough food for 6 days to make sure. Its the same as usual, home-made trail mix, nutella, peanut butter, snickers, cereal/energy bars and I had to by 'bagel flats' instead of pita bread because they had no pitas. Each bagel has 6g of protein in though, which is good. I also got some corned beef and buns. The times I've been all muscley on the trail rather than spindly have been after I've eaten a whole corned beef can in a day so I'll be eating that today and maybe breakfast tomorrow if there's some left. I abandoned my plans of getting foods to cook in the stove. When it comes down to it I can't be bothered to experiment again. I have it sorted… no need to mess it up with new things. Damn, I forgot the beef jerkey! I'll have to go back to the store again. The weather has switched back to heat wave. It will be 100 degrees today. Urgh.

55. I've just climbed Pearis Mountain during the hottest part of the day and it is 100 degrees. I could only go for about 10 minutes at a time before over heating and having to stop to cool down for 5-10 minutes. It took me almost 2 hours to go 2 and a half miles up this mountain. Half pace (for ascending mountains). That is by far the slowest I have ever gone on the trail. My pack is heavy, the mountain is steep and it is as hot as a pony's gooch. I also drank over 50% more water than usual. I've just refilled from a reasonable spring and the flies are buzzing around. I've killed 4 mosquitoes already and there is a big black ant climbing up my leg. Angels Rest view was half a mile back. It's a nice view over Pearisburg. I could see the motel where I stayed and the big factory that I saw first when arriving from the trail. There was a sign down there with the name of a company on it and their slogan, “Safety starts here.” There was another one a few minutes later - I thought safety started back there! I could also see the Pearisburg town hall and sheriff’s office, which I'd walked past, and the Pizza hut where I had all you can eat for six bucks. It's only 5.8 miles to Docs Knob shelter tonight (its 4.20pm). That would usually be ok problem but with the extreme heat and maximum bag weight it wont be easy. I am having doubts about reaching Damascus in time now. If this heat wave continues it could really slow me down. I had been considering in the rain, which was worse, heat wave or thunderstorms. I couldn't really decide, but heat slows me down a LOT more. Not what I need when I have to be doing 20 mile days consistently for over a week. I had a slow start from Pearisburg which means that is what I need to be doing. I think rain is bad for morale but heat is bad for miles.

56. The walk to Docs Knob shelter was actually quite pleasant. I am there now. The first 4 miles flew by in about an hour. It was nice and flat along the ridge and a more reasonable temperature. The last 2 miles did somehow manage to last for over another hour. I became a little worried I had missed the shelter. I was thinking, 'if there's anybody's knob, it had better be Doc's Knob'. I kept on plodding and it turned up. There is a hiker here called Lone Wolf. He did his thru-hike 20 years ago when he was my age. He is a dairy farmer. He knows Rusty too, and has done for many years. He gets up at 4am to milk the cows 7 days a week, unless he is hiking. He told me he was bitten by a rattle snake 4 years ago and he had to spend 3 days in hospital recovering. I showed him pictures of my two rattle snakes to confirm their identity. Apparently they are not rattle snakes after all! Lone Wolf says they are garter snakes, and I am inclined to believe him. So I got spiked by that prickly tree to avoid the highly dangerous… garter snake.

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Lone Wolf set a fire going to get rid of the mosquitoes. It has worked well. He's warned me that there is a section coming up that I will arrive in tomorrow where all the water sources are dried up for 30 miles. He has written instructions on my guide of how to take a road into Bland to fill up on water and cut off a big chunk off the waterless section. He's also put his phone number in case I need help on this section, as he lives nearby. Not that my phone has ever said it has signal here. I am very thankful for his help. Arriving at a spring in this heat to find it is dried up can be deadly. It really is that hot. Lone Wolf says it may be a record temperature. His short-cut also means I have more chance of reaching Damascus as it cuts off some trail miles. I don't mind that seeing as I almost exploded a blood vessel in my head (or so it felt) climbing a mountain in the heat wave today. He told me about an overweight hiker in his fifties who died on trail recently. The man was in a shelter with 3 other people and never woke up. Apparently it was a heart attack. I thought that would have meant he would have woken up clutching his heart, but I guess not. Lone Wolf is a proper pro out here. He carries his lightweight fishing rod with him and catches trout in the creeks most evenings. He says that he usually catches 5 or 6 and cooks them up on the fire. I told him that I thought it took hours and hours to catch a fish, but he says he can do it in a few minutes. Sometimes it takes him 15 or 20 minutes per fish and only very occasionally does he not catch anything. Sometimes he just catches them one after another. “You do it in the mornings or t'ward the evenings,” he says. “In the afternoon they don't bite.” I quite like the idea of taking it slower and catching my own fish. The sun is going down and the smoke is drifting across from the fire into the woods. I can't see the screen very well anymore so goodnight.

57. I'm resting at the next shelter along from Doc's Knob. Due to the change of plan to avoid the lack of water I only have 15 miles to go today. I'm taking the hottest part of the day off and then I'll have 6 miles to do in the cooler early evening to Dismal Falls where apparently there is a swimming ”'ole,” and also according to Lone Wolf there are often, “lotsa women” there. So I'm going to camp by a mountain waterfall filled with bathing women. Well… I've eaten all the corned beef! I haven't bothered looking for the water source here yet, but I know there is water here because Lone Wolf said so. I've also been pointlessly munching through my food even though I'm not hungry, because now I'll reach Atkins early, and it just so happens that on the way to Bland I will pass the place that does burgers that I had been planning to go to before I realized I had to hurry up, only now I don’t have to hurry due to the trip into Bland to avoid the dry patch. Win win!

I became aware of a certain chaffing caused by the Internetting of my shorts. I ignored it for about a mile but then it became unbearable. I switched into boxers and the shorts that can have longer legs attached, but it was too late. Some major chaffage had occurred to my sexual material. I have been very aware of that every stride taken since. I don't know how people in hot countries cope. Perhaps that's why most 'Third World' countries are very hot, because the men, who should be working, are forced to sit around scratching their itchy bollocks due to chaffing from their shorts. We shouldn't be distributing mosquito nets, we should be giving out silk underwear! “One pair of these, for each pair of those.”

58. I'm at Dismal Falls. I've just set up my tent and eaten dinner. I'd quite like a dip in the swimming hole, and I will later. Right now it is rather crowded with children. The people here are the first I've seen all day since I left Lone Wolf back at Doc's Knob this morning. A little topless blond girl came exploring up round my tent. I said a fairly enthusiastic, “hi” and she raised her hand like a native American, but without the, “how”. Then a guy of similar age to me who was carrying a baby in his arms shouted over to her, “you runnin off on your own?” She said she wasn't and he came over. I asked if the water was warm. He said it was actually, “kinda freezin when I got out.” I'm guessing that because they are kids they will have a bed time, and so I'll linger around until then. If they don't go I'll just go in anyway. It will probably end up being fun with them in there, but I'm not one to try such things unless forced. The water I filled up from Dismal Creek is a bit yellowish. I put a bit extra Iodine in to kill any 'bonus bugs'. It doesn't taste of anything extra, apart from Iodine. Despite its colour I was relieved to have found it. The guide said it was 6 miles from Wapiti shelter, where I lay around at lunch for a few hours and wrote the last entry, to here. It was flat or downhill so should have taken less than 2 hours, but it took a little over 2 and a half. I don't know why. Maybe the guide is a bit inaccurate sometimes, or maybe it’s that my pack is still very heavy with food from Pearisburg and I haven't figured out how that affects my mileage yet. Who knows. Anyway I am here now and tomorrow morning I'll be hitching a ride into Bland for water… and whatever else I happen to come across.

I just took a dip. The kids left, after taking a curious look at my tent. I climbed down the falls to get in, almost slipping a few times. Those rocks are incredibly slippery! I could feel the luke-warm water on my toes. When I jumped in completely it was cold enough to make me gasp, but as I waded around there were quite a few warm patches… In some places it was deep enough to reach up to my neck. I stayed in about 10 minutes letting my aching muscles soak. It was only cold momentarily after I got out. I dried off with my travel towel and then a warm breeze massaged my soothed skin. I gathered up a load of firewood on the way back to the tent (less than 50m away). I'll keep it for tomorrow so I can toast my bagles on the fire for breakfast. That will be the first fire I've started a fire on the trail!

Some teens have arrived and are shouting in the swimming hole. My imagination's 'serene bathing sirens', as usual, proved unrealistic.

A great big beetle about an inch long is dashing past. I bet they are edible. Who ever heard of a poisonous beetle? All I can think of is Baloo the bear and the 'Bear necessities'… “Take a glance at the fancy ants.” I would like to try eating it. I wont. But I would like to.

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I'm not sure if I should hang my bear bag up here. If more people arrive it seems like they'd try and get it down, being non-hiking society folk. If I saw a bag tied up a tree and I didn't know about bear bags I'd get it down alright. I doubt people will stay here when it gets dark seeing as there isn't any artificial light for them, so I'll put it up soon. I bet I'll forget about toasting the bagels tomorrow morning. One thing at a time.

I'm feeling kind of neutral about the rest of my journey. I think the crises peaked on the way to Daleville. Then the views and beauty spots peaked with Tinker cliffs and the Dragon's Tooth on the way to Pearisburg. I'm not sure what “best bit” is left. I suppose the arrival in Damascus will be brilliant. Of course it will feel wonderful to complete my hike as aimed. But for the 150 miles I've got to go, I don't feel all that excited. I don't feel bad either. It's ok. I feel like a bit of a veteran. I know the game now. Lone Wolf said he didn't see any hikers at all for 2 weeks, so I am not likely to meet many more hikers. I look back on the double 0 day in Waynesboro as the peak of my socializing with Hobo and Joker and Nut Hatch and the old guy, Hitch Hiker. I would like to bump into Hobo, but that is very unlikely now. I've no idea what happened to him. I've not seen any entries from him in the trail logs. Hitch Hiking into Bland doesn't quite have the same exciting edge to it either that something like that once would have done. It's not my first or even my second hitch now. I can just hope that whoever picks me up is charismatic and interesting. Not more of the same conversations about my hike and some small talk from them. I want something either meaningful, or funny or unusual. I guess this is what it's like to be a foreigner in another land. Everyone is either a stranger or an acquaintance. It takes days minimum for someone to be called 'friend'. No matter how nice they are, it takes time. It's not that I particularly want to go home either. I don't really mind. I have just formed the expectation that the final 150 miles will not contain anything I haven't experienced already. That isn't bad necessarily, as I have experienced many wonderful things. It just feels like it's time for the tide to turn. I want a drink. I want to get drunk. I need some craziness and freedom from feeling like an outsider. Not until Damascus though. I wish I had another week. I want a spare week to go to New York on a bus and have some time doing other things. Still, I am incredibly stubborn/determined. Damascus is my goal and that is where I must go. I think there is actually a greyhound bus stop in Bland. Would it be completely mad to just say 'Screw it' and get a bus to anywhere? I'm having Deja Vu with this idea. I've had it before. I don't know if I could live with myself if I just quit the hike like that, even if I gained a wider experience overall. Maybe instead of going straight to Washington DC from Bristol I could stop at Baltimore or somewhere for one night. All depends on how quickly I make it to Damascus. Which is why I need to sleep now, for I have a long day tomorrow. I don't really feel anything right now, which is not the aim. Is what I've done significant? I don't even know. Nomads and others live lives just as tough. So I've lived a tough way a living for just over a month. Big deal.

59. I'm sitting by the fire I made at Dismal Falls. It's 9am. I woke got up at 7.45 with the idea of going for another dip. I almost chickened out after feeling with my feet that the water was very cold having not spent the day being heated by the sun. I stopped and turned around twice, “that is too cold!” But I ended up climbing down the waterfalls and sitting by the edge. I jumped in to the cry of, “for the book!” It was colder all over than it was on my toes. I spent the first 30 seconds wading around up to my nipples gong, 'that's cold, oh that's cold'. Then I realized there was no one around. Why wasn't I skinny dipping? I took of my shorts, threw them to the side, and it was done. I was naked! It felt surprisingly nice. I hadn't really seen the attraction before, but when I tried swimming I felt like an aquatic ape. It was great. I stayed in there naked for about five minutes. I was over the shock of the cold but there was no need to make myself all shivery. I climbed up and sat cross-legged naked beneath the waterfall for a time. I will remember this forever. The falls drummed on my back like a powerful shower. It felt so nice. You can't get more natural than that.

I returned to the tent in the best of moods, still naked and not at all cold. I put on some boxers and shorts and took down my bear bag and tried to get a fire going. It took a little while, even with a lighter, but before long I was setting fire to bagels and smearing on peanut butter and nutella. I have just eaten a LOT of “toasted” bagels. There isn't anything to rest them on apart from the fire itself so they ended up very blackened, but they do taste much better than when non-toasted. An excellent start to the day. The fire is still burning. I don't think I've ever still been camped this late before. It will probably take me until 10am to get packed up to leave and then I have to get into Bland. I suppose it's possible that I'll end up staying a night there, seeing as the stretch after it before water is still very long, I think about 14 miles, so I can't camp between Bland and the water or I will run out, even if I fill up to maximum capacity (5 liters) at Bland. It's going to be super hot again today judging from the temperature now (pleasantly warm in the shade while topless at 9am) - another reason to stay in Bland as I'll be leaving at the hottest time of day with a metric 'fuck-ton' of water. I could always hitch for part of the way to Damascus. Whatever.

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60. So I'm in a motel in Bland. As previously explained, I can't carry enough water to the next water source on the trail even if I left immediately. That happened due to my late start this morning, with the skinny-dipping and bagel burning. Those activities meant I didn't leave Dismal Falls until about 10am and then upon returning from a toiletry trip to the woods I stumbled upon (and almost into) a big hive of wasps. That meant I had to go back to my bag to get my camera and then go and find the hive again and photograph it and then return to my bag, which I'd left on the trail. So all in all I had a very slow start to what would have needed to be a 20 mile day plus a hitch into bland. No way that would happen in one day unless I set off at 7am.

Bland is a nice town, much less run-down that Pearisburg. I’ve only spent 2 nights on the trail between Pearisburg and here so I don't really feel like I've earned the break, but water requirements dictated my plans to me. I was very pleased to meet Darrel Tibby, who gave me a ride. I walked down the road towards Bland for about a mile in the un-shaded hot sun before I was given a ride. Some people going the other way actually pulled over to warn me it was 16 miles to the motel. I told them I was hoping someone would give me a lift, “so it'al be ok”. They drove off and five minutes later Derell Tibby pulled up in his truck and offered me a lift. He looked about 50 years old, but healthy and he carried his weight well. At first we talked a lot about the strange weather. He was saying that it had been a very unusual year with Bland receiving 2 feet of snow and then this extreme heat drying up the springs. “The corn's gonna have small ears,” he tells me. When I told him about Lone Wolf telling me about Bland and that he is a dairy farmer, Tibby told me that that was one of the toughest jobs. Apparently getting the cows to eat in the heat is very difficult and that means they don't want to make milk. The conversation kept going back to the weather, but I was determined to probe deeper so I asked him what he did for a living, which is where it gets interesting.

Derrel Tibby, or Tibby, as he is known, worked on a prison farm, which we drove right past. He told me as if it was perfectly normal, but I didn't understand. He said, “we've got 600 cattle, meat processing plant, corn processing plant, and we do vegetables too, there's greenhouses.” Why is that a “prison” farm I wondered? He went on saying that he had worked on a various local dairy farms for many years, 9 years here, 5 years there. As he tells his story he waves a friendly hand to other divers passing. I stop him as politely as I can and ask him to rewind, I don't understand about the prison farm. He says that there are inmates there who do the labour. Hundreds and hundreds of them working for money. “27 cents per hour”. Some apparently earn as much as 35 cents. At this point a walkie-talkie I hadn't noticed started starts making a noise. A voice comes through with a warning about an electrical fire. He pockets the radio and I state I've never really heard of prisoner farms before. He says, “yayep, they aint that common. The inmates jus do all the labour. Some o them aint done that bad a crime so…” he holds on a palm and tips it side to side, as if to say he isn't in complete agreement with them having to labour all day. I think to my self that I bet some of their crimes are very minor and I know a vague fact that the USA has a bigger proportion of inmates now than at any other time in its history. The Gulaag come again. Maybe that's just me thinking too much of conspiracy theories, but it's worth checking out. Anyway, I say to him, “that must be quite controversial, with them earning so little if they haven't done a very bad crime.” He nods. I say no more. Some more buildings appear, including a Dollar General supermarket. “Welcome to the quiet hamlet of Bland,” Tibby says. “It's a nice place. That's a nice house for sale there, if you're lookin, heh. The economy's real bad. Everybody's sellin up. My question is, where they gonna move too… that ain't bad?” He waves enthusiastically out the window and sticks his head right out, going into the middle of the road momentarily. “That's ma wife,” he chuckles as we pass the Dollar General car park. I tell him I'm going to stay at the motel. He says he had some friends who stayed up there recently and that they said it was nice. He drives me right up to it. It's on top of a hill with a nice view over Bland and the mountains/hills and valleys. He says he sometimes comes up to the motel to sit on, “that bench,” (just outside the front) to sit and watch the sun set. And so here I am. Outside my motel window just in the parking area there is an old rusty train. It looks about 200 years old. The benches Tibby pointed too are made from old wooden wheels.

It's nice here, apart from the woman who's been shouting and screaming down her mobile phone in the room next door. She paces out past my window sometimes arguing. She's been arguing with someone for one and a half movies. I bought 2 subways from the Subway, one for lunch and one for dinner. There isn't a microwave in my room and the Dollar General had no pre-made sandwiches. So I'm not being especially frugal… but you have to eat nicer things when not eating the same old trail food. Tomorrow I'll make it to that next water source.

When I am left to linger like this I start thinking too much about the other possibilities. I really want to make the most of my last week. I'll probably get back on the trail and start enjoying it as usual again. But tomorrow morning I could go to the library and buy a bus ticket all the way to New York. Why do I keep having these… what are they - doubts? Or are they ideas? How can I know what I should do? Completing the hike will be a milestone. It will be an achievement. That is a safe reward. A safe reward for the 'ego'. But is that what is best? I began this hike by being thrown in at the deep end, but I've learned how to swim. I'm ready to get out and try another medium. Perhaps a gelatinous type substance… Anyway, the point is, I am back in that state of dithering about what to do, only this time is my last chance to change plans. It's tomorrow morning's planning in the library, or it's a race to Damascus.

It's lovely outside the motel. The sun is setting, it's warm and there's a huge pink cloud with lightning flashes inside of it. A massive bolt went right across it. They are happening every 30 seconds or so and come in batches of 2 or 3 at a time. I'm watching it in the ads between the movie Armageddon.

61. Guess where I am. Back on the trail. This morning I was ←—> (that) close to 'giving up'. All the reasons I've given before very nearly convinced me. I had made up the target of reaching Damascus myself and covering a whole state doesn't actually matter or mean anything. 400 miles is a long way, and so is 600. Why bother with the last little bit? I'd get a 'wider' experience (whatever that even means) if I quit and did something else. It took 20 minutes of thinking through this on my bed to decide to continue. 20 minutes – that’s a mile of thought. I still can't provide arguments for why my quitting reasons are wrong, but I just think I would feel like I'd failed. It is irrational, but I have to accept that.

My escape plans included visiting an Amish settlement; perhaps I could offer to lend a hand shoveling cow pats or something while complaining about 'society' and the corrupting influence of technology. Or perhaps I could visit Blatmore house, “the worlds largest Home.” It has 250 rooms, and I'd imagine would serve as excellent setting for a fantasy novel. But I had to make a decision. If I went to the library to research these things there wouldn't be time to get to Damascus anymore. So I trusted in the trail to provide some unforeseen adventure, and I am very glad I did.

Thick cloud covered the sky once more. I set off from Bland along the 2.5mile road stretch that took me to the trail and it started raining hard. My feet were squelching within half a mile, but then the rain died off. A man in a truck pulled over and asked where I was going, without me even sticking my thumb out. I told him I was headed to the Appalachian Trail, “is this the right way?” I checked. “Yeeh, I'm headin there too.” He gestured for me to come over. His front seat was full of stuff so he apologetically said I'd have to go in the back with my bag. I didn't mind at all. I've wanted to do that all along! So there I was, in the back of this open truck with my arm over my pack. At first I put my hand on the side to steady myself. It felt a bit like I could slither off the end onto the road, but I soon realized that wasn't necessary so I let go. I was facing backwards and this made it feel like a roller coaster before it's on the fastest part. You wiggle left and right and because you’re facing the other way unexpected things appear. We turned off onto a gravel track that wound up the mountain side. The trees parted. “Wowww”. A view of a green steamy valley opened up. Little wisps of dispersed cloud were rising up from the valley like 100 little fires. It was once again, “very Juassic Park,” especially with the birds hooting and the fog thickening. We kept ascending for a little more and then he stopped. He said he was heading on further up the Mountain to, “heave scrap metal. Gives me somethin' to do on ma day owff.” I asked him if he'd ever hiked any of the trail before. “Nope, I've lived on the mountain side all ma life and I've never hiked any of it. Y’all got more will power than I do heh.”

“Well I did just skip some!” I shook his hand and thanked him. He wished me good luck on my trip and I was off again. I've decided that I like “Blandians”. Lone Wolf, Derrell Tibby and the truck guy, all very good people.

A few hundred meters into the trail I saw another one of those little red geko things. This one didn't play dead. Instead he sneaked around while I watched. I’m very glad I came back to the trail. The trail always wins. I also saw some bras hanging from a tree… “So this is where bras come from, I've found the source!” Chuckles. I'm sitting now by a hearth with a view. There's a streak of cloud across the mountain opposite and some thunder just sounded nearby. Better get going.

I've made it to the shelter - the first water after the 30 mile stretch Lone Wolf warned me about. Due to the rain my pace was quick, so as to keep warm, and my lunch break was short so I got here very early, about 3.30 in the afternoon. I spent a while reading through the hiker log book. Bandana must have been dropped off again for a bit more hiking as he left a message for me saying,

“Hi UPRIGHT! Maybye you will catch me before Damascus”.

I left a message of my own summarizing what's been going on. It was only 4.30 then though and the Alphasmart wouldn't switch on again. I fiddled with it but couldn't get it to work, so I decided to start a fire. It would pass the time and starting fires is always fun. The problem was the wood was all wet from the rain so it took me a VERY long time get the fire going. An hour and a half to be precise, and I burnt both my of my highly valuable opposable thumbs. Basically the length of time it takes for wood to dry out enough. I used up some pages from the back of the log book (sorry!) and a load of my own toilet roll. It still isn't particularly impressive. The big logs are still all damp so I have to use only the smaller ones that have dried out, which means continually going roaming for more and adding them. Still, it is burning and keeping the mosquitoes away. In the log book everyone (everyone being north-bounders or “NoBo's”) have been saying what a tough 19 miles it is to the next shelter. They complain a lot about the rocks. I'll have that to look forward to tomorrow.

I'm toasting some buns on the fire. It's burning nicely now. Three deer are wandering around. They came right up to the fire and stood a few feet away from it on the other side, then they wandered off. I got my camera ready for them to come back but they just went round the back of the shelter. I waited and listened. Then I got up and poked my head round the corner of the shelter and a deer was right there! It made me jump and laugh, and it ran off to slightly further away, but not very far. They are still nearby, and I can hear a wood pecker working on turning another tree into a flute for giants. A most agreeable evening. The deer just keep wandering all around, coming very close. About 5-10 meters away.

62. I'm at the top of Garden Mountain. It was a 1200 foot ascent over 3 miles, so pretty normal. I slept badly, I think due to the loud buzzing from the insects in the trees, which I thought I was used to by now. I thought I was dehydrated when I set off so I drank a liter of water to try and make my head feel better, but it was the lack of sleep making me feel funny. I am feeling fine now though. Nothing gets the blood flowing and the sweat dripping like climbing a mountain first thing in the morning! I saw 11 little red geko things (Red Efts I believe they are called) on the way up. A chipmunk scampered off past me squeaking and then there was a sudden movement. It was a snake, taking a swipe at the chipmunk, and missing. I think this time the snake was a rattle snake. It was partially concealed by a log a couple of meters to the left of a particularly rocky patch of trail. I scratched my left calf up from the prickly bushes while I clambered around off the trail on the rocks to get a good photograph. The blood from the scratches has dried already and I am quite amazed by blood. It always reminds me of terminator. Maybe a bit further inside there is a robot!

The cows are mooing down in the valley. I've got about 6 miles to the next shelter where I'll stop for lunch, although I've just eaten an early lunch right here. I wonder how many more red efts I'll see, and I wonder where they are all going? Perhaps their emperor has called a census. When I spotted my 10th Eft I congratulated him, “congratulations Number 10.” That meant I had to congratulate number 11 too, and now I'll have to do that for all of them, which will make me feel completely mad, but on a 'madness to miles' ratio it's not so bad. A Massive vulture is swooping around. I like Garden Mountain.

63. I've made it to the next shelter, Chestnut knob shelter. It is on a meadow on top of the mountain it is named after. It is an unusual shelter in that its walls are made of stone instead of wood and it has 4 walls instead of three, giving it the requirement of a door. The climb up chestnut knob was exhausting. The seemingly meager 900 foot ascent made the lack of sleep catch up with me. If I were this tired back home I'd refuse to go anywhere or do anything because I'd think I was about to be ill with something. I've got 9 more miles to the shelter where I'll sleep tonight, and the last 5 aren't very friendly judging from the variation in altitude. Quite a few ups and downs. From there it's just 16 miles into Atkins, where the plan I made in Bland, (only yesterday morning!) was to resupply and keep going. Given how quickly I have become in need of rest I am considering staying in the motel. I am definitely becoming soft, or maybe it's psychological. Like when you are blind drunk but somehow manage to find your way home, but when you get home you completely lose control and pass out/puke/make a big loud mess everywhere. Maybe because I am so nearly there that is happening. Hold on body I've not even opened the door yet!

The guide says there are shuttles available from the motel. Perhaps they could drop me half way or something. Look at this, it's pathetic, I've come so far and been so determined and now I'm talking about skipping it, AGAIN. I wouldn't want to be driven all the way, as I definitely want to arrive in Damascus on foot. How else will I be able to take the twirling baton from the monkey who presents it to me at my greeting parade?

I've just napped here for 30 minutes. I don't feel any more energized. Well maybe a tiny bit. I forgot to mention, I fell over on the way here too. I was daydreaming and suddenly slithered over sideways on a rock that bizarrely wasn't that slippery. For some reason I laughed as I fell down, coming out of my daydream. At the time I didn't think I'd hurt anything, maybe a slight knock to my right hip, but my right hip was hurting on the climb up Chestnut knob so maybe I did hurt it. I might stay in this shelter actually. I really am softened up. I've only come 11 miles today, that would make it the shortest full day on the trail ever. I have plenty of food and that would mean I'd arrive in Atkins in the morning so I'd be able to be lazy in the motel during the day, then I could get a shuttle part way to Damascus, perhaps to Troutdale, which would lave me 50 miles to hike myself. I am currently undecided whether to stay or not.

Here is the situation. I have now lingered at Chestnut knob shelter too long to be able to make the 9 miles to the next shelter. My hip injury has also worsened. Yes, I'm calling it an injury now. It hurts. I went off trying to find the 'unreliable spring' that is 0.2 north of the shelter and couldn't even find the AT. There are no trees on the meadow for there to be white blazes so I went of down some very overgrown game trail (hobbit trail) that had ferns and prickly plants on it. I came back and found the right trail, and my hip started to hurt more. I was looking for the usual blue blazed trail that leads to water but there was only an unmarked trail leading off from the AT. I walked past it, hoping for a blue blaze but after another 0.2 miles (roughly) it became apparent that I needed to turn around. If there is no water I at least want to see the dried up patch where it's meant to be. I tried going down the unmarked trail and found the piped spring.

But it was dried up, completely. Not a drop coming out and not even a puddle where it used to be. Coming back to the shelter my hip became much worse. On the flat it made me limp like a spastic, and on the gentle uphill it was I'd call bad enough to be called an excuse. A 'good one' that would send me back to Blighty. But I can't stay in the shelter because I only have 600ml ,which is nowhere near enough for the rest of the day, dinner and morning even if I am not walking anywhere. The next water source is 2 miles away, all downhill. I'm not sure how my hip will react to steep downhill. It means I'll have to camp as well, seeing as I'm not walking back 2 miles the wrong way to get back here and I can no longer reach the other shelter. At least I have an excuse to take a shuttle from Atkins, providing it's still bad then. It will probably be agony all the way there and then be perfect again when I wake up in the Atkins motel… don't get bitter now, you've been injured, you should be happy…

I made it to the pond with the piped spring that was 2 miles from the shelter. The pipe had a reasonable flow coming from it and there were lots of frogs practicing for a bizarre croaking choir. I filled up 4 liters and went another mile before finding a pre-existing campsite. It's now 6pm and I've set my tent up and got a fire going, to keep the flies away. It's 20 miles to Atkins. If my hip is better I may manage that all tomorrow. If not I could try and hitch a ride, although I don't know which roads to take.

My fire is big and impressive. It is hissing. There's not much else to do apart from make it bigger and bigger. Thanks Lone Wolf for giving me an excuse to let out the inner pyro. I've been sitting by the fire carving UPRIGHT into my stick. I added some designs as well, some lines and zigzags down the side. It looks pretty awesome now. Definitely magical runes. If this stick snaps now I don't think I will be able to ever carve up another one. This one's come with me all the way from High Cock Knob where my first one snapped. If it breaks I'll be stick-broken forever. I'll try and get it on the plane, although I may have to pretend I have a crippled back and need it to walk for them to let me take it on board. Or if my hip stays like it is I won't have to pretend at all!

64. As it got dark I lay down by the fire and put some Enya on my ipod. I gazed into the flames. At fist I was just going to let the fire go out then retreat to the tent (where I am now), but it was so peaceful I just kept chucking more bits of wood in. I lay there for so long. I forgot I had a body, I was just an entity. I had several waking dreams and when I did finally let the fire go out and got undressed for sleep I found my physical dimensional body odd and pudgy, almost amusing. I feel like my soul has received healing.

The insects in the trees are so loud. I don't think they've been like this the whole time, they can't have done. I don't know what they are doing up there. They’re probably having a mating orgy that I wasn't told about (typical…).

65. The road that was one mile further on from where I camped has turned out to be nothing more than a fire road, or “forestry service” road as a sign on it says. That must be what USF stands for… so there were no cars to hitch a ride from there. I had no choice but to continue, and my hip had not healed, even if my soul had. From that forestry service road it was another 6 miles to a proper road including 2 ‘half-mountains’ of 600 feet and 800 feet. I've just limped up and down the first. It was a real struggle. I leant heavily on my stick like some kind of great wounded three-legged monster. My hip is very bad on the uphill but pretty much normal on the flat or downhill, unless it is steps. I am not thinking beyond getting to the next road.

I also feel I may be about to be ill. Without meaning to be rude, my rear end feels like a ticking time bomb. I could deactivate it with some Imodium that supposedly “stops diarrhea with one tablet,” but it hasn't started yet. I should also be hungry by now but I'm not at all. I forced an oats and honey bar down anyway. I slept very badly again last night due to the insect orgy and tender body.

The main problem is that when I get to this road I don't even know if it goes anywhere near Atkins. All the other times I've hitched a ride have been on the actual road that goes into the town, but here I won't even know which way to try to go; and Atkins is a very very small place so few people are likely to be going there or even heard of it. From that road it's 12 miles on the AT to Atkins. That 12 miles would be immensely difficult with my hip and tiredness and possible illness making me feeble. The road is my only hope. 'Ben, why didn't you tell me!' (apologies non-starwars nerds).

As well as struggling along, my mind still works and as per norm I've been thinking about society. Society (here I go again) is like a wheelchair. Everyone is born into one and very few realize that they don't actually need it. It may be easier but it restricts freedom. You can only go to places with disabled access. Like when there is a famous view with a car park right next to it. Society has built its disabled ramp. As if the world is some kind of zoo or museum. So sure, standing up and walking around means you have to find your own place to sit every once in a while (like Atkins for me) but it is a much better way to live. Why do we use lifts and elevators in a culture filled with obesity? Those are devices for disabled people, not for healthy people or people who would be healthier if they didn't use them. If I ever became Prime Minister I would make all lifts have a big sign on them saying with picture of me wagging my finger and saying, “If you are fat, use the stairs!” It's ideas like that which could save the nation.

66. I am in Damascus. You may not believe me, but I am! Something about 0.2 short of a miracle occurred when I reached 'the road' (el rodo; fabled road of legend). On the way down I passed a group of a few adults and children without any packs, apart from one of them, a man, who presumably they were seeing off onto the trail. He asked me about water north of here and I gave him a brief rundown before continuing. I reached the road and sat down. There were no cars on it, but then a man emerged. I didn't see where he wandered from, but I asked him if he knew which way to Atkins. From the looks of him he was at least part Hick. He sort of lined himself up with the road as if acting out orienting his inner compass while making a thinking noise. He said it was right and then I'd cross another road that goes to Atkins. I asked him how far and he said it was about 9 miles down the first road and another 9 down the next. It's only 12 miles if I went on the trail on foot. I explained to him what I was doing and that I had a bad hip that wasn't good on the uphill.

“Need to work out the best thing to do, hmm” I say after receiving his information.

He pauses for a moment and says when, “they,” he gestures up the trail, come back he will be taking them near Atkins and can at least drop me part way.

“You musta passed theym on tha way,” he says.

In moments the family arrives and the man explains to them that I've hurt my hip and am trying to get to Atkins. It turns out he is the husband of one of the women. They wanted to walk on the trail for an hour with the kids. They give me some food, which I eat. I tell them that I lived off these cracker things that they gave me for 2 days. They laugh and we sit and talk for a while before leaving.

The man, his wife and a boy of about 12, I don't know the relation, go in the car with me. I tell them my plans to end up at Damascus. The man, who's name is Daniel, says that Damascus is actually only slightly further than Atkins, would I like him to take me all the way? It seems going by road to Atkins you have to go around the mountain so it is much further than via the trail. I consider his offer, I wasn't completely certain I would have arranged a shuttle from Atkins to let me skip it. Plans change so often and so fast. But I couldn't refuse. This would give me the extra time I've wanted all along and I wasn't enjoying hiking all tired and injured. It was perfect! So I accepted his offer, after offering to pay for gas money, which he refused.

His wife was full of questions about England, ranging from our views on the Royal Family, to whether our obesity is lower because we do more walking and less driving than Americans. She fired them out one after another and I answered as best I could. I think she was mostly fueled by a desire to make friendly conversation than actually to learn things, but there was definitely some genuine curiosity. Daniel is a funny man. He joked about how his wife (who was sitting in the back, I rode upfront with him) says that his driving makes people, “sea sick.” His wife quietly corrected, “car sick.” I told him I found his driving quite fun. He laughed and said, “in England yew drive on this here side doncha,” and he drove on the left hand side. The boy in the back laughed and so did I and his wife calmly but with a sense of humor suggested he go back on the right side of the road, in both senses of the word. Daniel said that if I find his driving fun, “we shoulda let her drive, she drives like this.” He demonstrates how his wife drives as if the road's a race track, breaking hard before corners and accelerating out of them. He did it complete with sound effects and all.

His wife suggested they give me a new shirt while they drop of the boy and herself as mine is all ripped on the right arm. I said thank you but I am fine with this one. Daniel said, “he laikes it, dat shirt, gowt histry.” He is right.

I asked what they both did for a living. Daniel makes fences and his wife is a school teacher, and the boy, “he goes to school for a livin, tihih.” We turned off down a little bumpy track to drop the boy off. “Nice to meet you he says,” as he leaves. I say the same back. We carry on down the bumpy track and come up to Daniel and his wife's house. His wife wishes me good luck and goes into the house, and so Daniel and I set of to Damascus. He asks if I a want a red tomato from his tomato patch. I wouldn't mind one but it doesn't seem worth him getting out his car and they've already given me so much so I say no thank you. I ask Daniel what else he is growing. He has two horses, one of which is being trained at the moment. He doesn't ride them, his wife does. They treat them well and the horses could live 25, 30 years. We drive on and it becomes apparent Daniel knows everyone. “Does everyone around here know each other then?” I ask.

“Yayep. Tha's Bille. Buildin a barn for his hay.” He points at a man hammering nails into a building that is just a wooden frame at the moment. We passed another man, who I think was Bob or Bill, “that bowb, diggin a 'owl. Don't he have a bad back? Looks like he dug two 'ole's.” I found Daniel quite amusing. I love his accent. He tells me that although you wouldn't expect it, he did go to college. His subject was “sort o' P:E”. He did football (American football) and some other sports. He quickly changed topic back to his job saying that he drives down here about 3 times a week to do fencing. For a moment it seemed like he might mean the sport, fencing, but a Hick (albeit a very friendly funny one) doing fencing is unlikely, despite being hilarious! “If anyone wants some fencin done down 'ere they call me. Nice folks down here, mind their own business. Not like them folks back there.” We are driving through the Appalachian Mountains. It is very beautiful and rustic, or “remote,” as Daniel describes it. He says it's the most remote place in America. His family asked back at the AT if I had seen any, “backward Appalachian mountain men.” I told them the story of the beer-drinking Hick who drove me to Crabtree Falls Campground and they found it very funny. They joked that Daniel is like that.

After about 30 minutes total driving we arrive in Damascus. Daniel drives me right to the middle, it seems silly to want to walk in the last little bit. I thought about asking him to drop me off a mile away but it just seemed ridiculous. We'd skipped a big section, I couldn't fool myself by walking the last mile. We shook hands and I thanked him lots and he drove off.

So here I am. In Damascus. My destination, but not my destiny. I'm staying at The Hikers Inn in a bunk for $25. A very nice old lady called Suzanne runs the place. She's doing my laundry. There's only one other person staying tonight and he's not here now, but Suzanne is fully booked tomorrow because it will be the weekend, so I can't stay. I've been to the library and looked up all my New York stuff again. On Google maps that is the only place 'nearby' that makes me excited to go, so that is where I will probably go.

I've been in Damascus all afternoon now but I still can't quite believe I've done it. I've completed my hike. It doesn't feel like I have. Maybe it will sink in tomorrow, or maybe not for a long time. I am now allowed to drink again according to my rule of waiting until the hike is complete and I am in Damascus. I would have thought I would be down the store drinking beers and then going to the bar I heard about. I'm not sure why I'm not. There isn't anywhere in the guide that looks like a bar. It's all places to sleep and buy food and hiking gear. I could of course go to the supermarket but it doesn't seem like it would quite live up to the expectation. It's almost like its such a big moment I want it to be with friends. I may go yet though.

Well, Suzzanne has given me a cold beer for free. I drank it in the shower. I have missed you old friend. I'm going to wander down the main street.

67. Last night turned into more of a celebration than planned. I found a bank and checked my balance: $169, not enough for the rest of my trip whatever I do, I'll have to borrow more off my Dad. I withdrew some cash and walked past Quincy's, which Suzzane told me has a bar, when I asked her. I eyed it up as I walked past. I could see a small stage in the corner with a man playing some pleasant country music on it and there were pool tables and quite a few people of all ages. I kept walking to the end of Damascus (a couple hundred more meters) and came back and went inside Quincy's. I would have one drink, or two if I got chatting and actually was enjoying it.

Conversation started immediately when the woman at the bar had trouble checking my ID so I said that it was a UK ID. A man of about 30 and a plump but pretty woman of similar age asked where about’s I was from and I told them I'd completed my hike and this was my first drink (technically my second now). We talked a bit more and so I ordered another pint. I didn't know they served beer in pints in America, so that was a pleasant surprise. By the end of the second I was ready to go back, it would usually be nothing but due to the 5 week break it was going straight to my head. I leaned back in my stool at the bar, thinking about leaving when Chris bought me a drink. He didn't stick around to talk much, but I drank it, and then the woman, Lynsee, bought me another. I told her I don't think I've hardly ever been bought a drink in England before, maybe a couple of times. She said it was normal here, it's just a way of saying hello. We talked about differences in culture between here and England. I said the biggest overlap was probably the drinking! They taught me how to say “Appalachian” in country style. (Aaapple-at-chan) The music was excellent. It was open mike night and someone did a really good country version of Led Zep's Stairway to Heaven. There was also some yodeling. I told Chris I wanted more yodeling, he put his hand on my shoulder and said with a laugh, “yew aint seen nothin yet”. I talked to Lynsee about yodeling and she says it isn't called yodeling here, it is called Twang, T,W,A,N,G. Other memorable events of the evening include a power cut where it went pitch dark for a few seconds and someone shouted, “FREE BEER!” and everyone laughed. The bar woman also exploded a frothy beer all over everyone at the bar getting it in all the yokel's beards. It was very funny.

I don't have a hangover really, but last night was definitely the celebration needed to seal off the end of my hike. For tomorrow I shall be in New York!

appalachian_trail_bristol.jpg

68. Remember how I wasn't sure what surprise my journey could possibly throw up? Well, today has surpassed all others I think. MIDGET WRESTELER MOLESTATION. Excuse me, that just blurted out. Allow me to explain. A man named Jeff picked me up from Damascus and took me to Abingdon, which is about halfway to Bristol. He was very enthusiastic with his “wows” when I told him about my hike. The drive ended with him saying, “well, you've met an American Christian.” He proceeded to preach to me and gave me a card thing… He dropped me off in Abingdon and so I then needed to get another ride to Bristol. It was only lunchtime so I had plenty of time, but it is apparently (so Jeff says) illegal to walk along next to an Interstate, which the road turned into between Abingdon and Bristol. So I had to get a ride from Abingdon itself.

The roads where busy and it seems paradoxically that the more cars there are on the road the more difficult it is to get a lift. It is a phenomenon known as “deferred responsibility.” It's where everyone thinks someone else will take care of it. So when I'm hiking down a road where the cars are few and far between the drivers feel the responsibility on their shoulders to help me, but if there are hundreds and hundreds of cars none of them feel it. Well I suppose they all feel it a tiny tiny bit, not enough to push them over the threshold of actually stopping and picking me up. There's also the factor that a lot is going on and they have a lot to process when it's busy so it's easier to not think about picking up the hitch hiker. So I stood there with my thumb out for a long time. Many hundreds of cars went past. I tried changing spots a few times. Eventually, after at least an hour in the hot sun, some girls took pity on me. They had seen me when pulling in to have a meal, then finished their meal to find me still standing outside. They had a dog in their car called Bandit. I'm not sure of his breed, but he looked quite wolfish, but was very docile. They dropped me off as near to the bus station in Bristol as they could remember, and I found it a minute later. It was just around the corner.

Then I met Tim, or Tiny Tim as some local kids called him. At first I thought he was a well meaning retarded midget. He said he was a wrestler. I polity went along with it, ignoring the fact he was a midget. He showed me a flyer and a poster with him on it. He actually was a midget wrestler. I was intrigued and had about 8 hours until my bus to Washington leaves (I'm going to spend a night in Washington on the way to New York to split the journey up). So anyway, I ask if I could have one of his flyer things. He says he has more at his place and gestures it's just around the corner. A little bell goes off in my head, I know to keep my wits about me. Anyway, he's a midget, what could he possible do! Even if he is a wrestler, I have my trusty stick. And anyway I like that I have finally met a fabled midget wrestler and so we walk off towards his house. Or so I thought.

He asks me if I like wrestling, or rather he sort of drawls it. He speaks as if he has something quite severely wrong with his head and he had some white tissue in his ears. I say I've seen it on TV before but I'm not really a fan, but I've got a friend who's a fan. Tiny Tim starts rambling about a friend he had here and another friend he had there. “I've got lots of friends,” he says. I don't believe him. This makes me think he is just a lonely disabled person looking for some company, and I suppose I was right, in a manner of speaking.

We cross a few roads and come to an area of grass with benches and man made shade creation structures. He wants me to, “hang out with him.” I don't really want to, but don't mind talking with him a little while longer. I ask how far is house is. Eventually it's revealed that we'd need to get a bus there. I say I don't want to go that far. Tiny Tim tries to persuade me by saying he has 3 new versions of his poster he wants to give me and he'll sign them. I've told him his posters are awesome. He says a few times he likes me. I think he is just lonely. He shakes my hand quite a lot. He looks at my legs and says they are nice. I think he is retarded. I say, “well, they've hiked 550 miles, so they'd better be.” I start to want to leave. So he is a gay midget wrestler. A hat trick of oddities, but I don't want to spend 8 hours giving conversation. The mental retardation of him makes it all effort. He explains about the ear tissues. He was injured in a wrestling mach last week, but is taking time off to recover for a match in Nevada next week. He's been a professional wrestler since he was 14. He's now about 30 or something, it’s hard to tell with his midget-ness. He says he likes me and likes English people. I ask him if he’s even been to England. He says he has. I asked him where he had been in England, to which he replied, “France.”

I try to make escapes. I keep my body language relaxed and friendly, and ask what there is to see in Bristol. He keeps wanting me to hang out with him at his place so he can give me some posters. He says he wants to help me out by giving me money. I say no, no thank you, and we shake hands which he turns into a hug. “Do you mind that? That I hugged you?” He asks.

“No. No its fine,” I say. I start saying that I'm off, nice to meet you. He accepts at last, shakes me hand, touches my shoulder and grabs my penis for a moment as if to shake it goodbye!

Shaken, but not stirred, I say goodbye and walk off. He calls out to me, he asks if I was bothered by that. I say, “Yes, I was a bit yeah.” I turn and walk. He shouts after a few times, he is whining. He wants to 'hang out'. I wave, he waves and I'm gone. So. THAT WAS WERID. What can I say. I can finally join the ranks of those who have been affected by midget wrestler molestation!

69. While writing up that last section in Bristol sitting on a bench on the sunny mainstreet, an old woman in a wheelchair stopped and asked me about my typing device. She had a very seductive voice. She used to live in New York and she warned me that the bus stop there is, “just the worst. You could get your throat slit like that.” She was very nice though, we talk the usual talk about my hike and she offers more safety tips. I half-joked that I had my trusty stick. She laughed and said she still carries around a massive… I thought she was going to present a blade, but it was a torch. A huge metal torch she uses to whack people with if they attack her. She carries it around in a bag attached to her wheelchair.

I asked a man directions to the movie theatre but he said it was so far he would call me a cab. He came back to me saying that they wouldn't drive into Virginia. The state line that divides Virginia from Tennessee runs though Bristol. It seems I am on the Virginia side and the cabs can't cross the line. How ridiculous. I found out later that all I needed to do was cross the road and I would have been on the Tenessee side. I don't mind though, I bought a copy of The Colorado Kid by Stephen King to read and it's a lovely warm evening. I'll keep a look out for dangerous midgets.

I was fairly suspicious of strangers when I left and then as my hike continued I gradually became more trusting. All hikers are allies and hometown hospitality has lived up to its name. But the midget has knocked my trust back down a notch. I played the innocent with him, but I kept alert all the time. When you're surrounded by so much friendliness its hard not to become more friendly yourself. I didn't want to put on my cold hard English mask. I'm still on my adventure. I'm still allowed to pretend to be talkative.

70. My Bristol visit has been flipped back into positive. While sitting in some shade a working class man in denim asks if I mind if he sits there. He has a strong accent but it is not the same as the other people around here. He tells me his name is Joey. He's about 50 and I can smell beer on his breath, but he comes across as open and honest. He tells me he's spent 7 years in “the penitentiary,” and that somehow he feels like he fits in there. “Does that make sense to you?” He asks.

“Not really, I don't think so.” He brings to my attention that the road we are sitting by is “State road,” the one that Divides Virginia and Tennessee. He offers to take my photograph, but he remembers that there is a big sign that people stand in the middle of the road to get their photo taken under, so we get up and walk down a couple of blocks to it. As we walk he reveals he has a problem with alcohol but only drinks about once a month, but when he does it’s for a few days straight. He tells me how he came to Bristol years ago to visit his sons, but he hasn’t seen them for a long time. He tells me they are good boys, but one of them has the same problem he has, and he makes a drinking gesture with his hand. I reply with what I hope is understanding and interest in how he is doing. He then reveals his real name is actually Atillo and he has just managed to get a job yesterday. He worked very hard all day for $40. He says that he is allowed to be paid so little because his work was gained via a church charity, but he says he was, “damn pleased to get it.” I asked him where he lived before he came to visit his sons in Bristol and it turns out Atillo is from New Jersey, and used to live in New York City. When I told him I'd be staying in a hostel in New York by Central Park he laughed and patted my shoulder, “oh Central Park! That's a nice place. Don't mess around there at night though, I mean it. You'll meet the nicest people there during the day, walking their dogs and riding their skateboards. But at night… well. It's kinda like a jungle.”

71. And it is. I am at Central Park Hostel now sitting on my bed. I will update you on the happenings in between. I couldn’t write more updates because I was destroyed by the 12 hour overnight coach journey. While I was writing that update about Atillo in Bristol, a girl and 3 guys of about 16/17 turned up and so did Atillo. One of the boys said, “I hear you're writing a book.” I hung out with them for a couple of hours. Kim, the pretty girl, sat next to me. She gave me a silly band (wrist band) that turns into the shape of Buzz Lightyear when you take it off and it glows in the dark… She said she liked my accent and there was some mutual attraction. When Attilo, who was slightly drunk asked who here was her boyfriend, one of the others (who wasn't her boyfriend) put his hand up as a joke. She said if she could choose from who was there, “I'd choose the British guy.” Hurrah.

One of the teens had some MDMA power (ecstasy powder). He offered it around. I declined, I had a bus to catch. Atillo however took some and became very excited as it was apparently the only drug he had not yet tried. I think some of the others may have taken very small amounts by dipping their fingers in and rubbing it on their gums.

The sun set and it was getting towards 9pm and my bus to Washington left at 9.55pm. One by one they left until it was just me and Kim and she wanted to go to a coffee shop so we went to one that was just down the road and a friend of hers was there and his mum (by the looks of her). Kim received a phone call and had to leave, she was being picked up by her Granny.

I was very tired by this point but I talked to her friend and his mum who walked me back to the bus station. It felt like it wasn't really a natural conversation, because I was re-telling stories of the trail that I had told 10 times before, and only a couple of hours before when meeting the others. Anyway they were nice and I waited at the bus stop with one other man. He was black and when I spoke to him he said he had just been released from prison for 7 years. I said, “congratulations.” He was going to Richmond. I asked if he had family there and he said yes. I told him about my hike.

You would not think than a black ex-con and a middle class white British person would have much in common, but we bonded on both of us finding it strange to be back in society. Obviously he'd been out of it a lot longer than I, but he agreed 5 weeks in the woods was still enough to make you notice things about the way people behave. We talked about that for a while and then the bus arrived.

The Bus journey wasn't terrible but I wouldn't call it pleasant. It was supposed to be 10 hours but it ended up being 12. We stopped many times, and for too long, often it seemed for the driver to smoke a cigarette. I was at the back right by the toilets so people kept knocking into me slightly as they went past, waking me up and all the fat woman next to me had to say were complaints. We made a stop next to a MacDonald’s and so I had a midnight burger. There was a major delay in Richmond where we changed buses. The bus we changed to was full, they had oversold the tickets (as usual it seems) and so about 20 of us had to wait for at least an hour for the next one. This was at about 6am. I had slept less than 4 hours. I managed to get about another hour in on the final stint into DC.

I arrived in DC and an unofficial cab driver gave me a lift to the DC hostel charging me $15, which was definitely a rip off, it should have been about half that, but I got there quickly. The hostel hadn't received my email from the day before and was fully booked out by an American football team, but the lady behind the desk was very helpful. She phoned up all the other hostels, finding out that they were full. Eventually she managed to find a place (with no obligation to help me) where I could camp called Greenbelt Park. I would need to take a metro and a bus to get there and the tent site would cost me $16. She printed off the bus timetables and got me all sorted. I also booked a room in the hostel for August 5th, the night before my flight. I went around an art museum for a couple of hours but then became too tired from my bad nights sleep on the bus to go to more, so I went to the Cinema. I felt bad at first going to see a film when there was plenty to see and so outside, but I was too tired. The film was fantastic, Inception it was called. It was about going into other people's dreams and bringing them into yours and about dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams and in each layer time goes slower. It built up to a very exciting climax which, at the risk of missing the last bus to the campsite, I stayed to watch.

I got the metro and bus just fine but I couldn't see Greenbelt Park anywhere. I was out in the outskirts of DC. I asked a fat black woman with a deformed face for directions. She said it was behind the mall, then she called me sexy and said she liked my sexy accent, asked if I had a girlfriend. I thanked her for the directions and set off, but another woman who was with her at the gas station shouted to me that it was the other way. I walked back and she gave me the proper directions.

I found it and set up my tent. There was a heard of deer grazing on the field and some kids playing football at the other end. The designated tent sites were a couple of miles walk away and it was already 8pm so I just put my tent up here on the field with the deer. No one said anything, and I left without paying. Did I feel bad about that? No. It was a national forest or national something and there was quite a lot of rubbish in the forest.

On the way back to the metro station (there was no buses on Sundays) I met two Iranian brothers in their late twenties. One of them, Massa, was a lifeguard. He had lived in Washington for a year, after moving from Iran. His brother Mika had lived there for 3 years and was a student. Their car had broken down yesterday in the dark and it was something to do with the battery so they had to push it to the side of the road without any lights in the dark on a busy road. It meant that today to get to work at 10am they had to leave a 7am to use the metro, and they were going to be at least half an hour late. They didn't have to go far, but the metro is like lines coming into a center. They had to go from Greenbelt (the end of one line) to Cherrywood, which is the end of the line next to the Greenbelt line, but that meant going all the way into the center and out again.

The brothers both lived in Poland for a few years and say it is a great place to live. Not good for making money, but the people there are very nice. Massa wrote down the name of a town in South East Poland. I may visit there. We got on the metro together. A couple of weeks ago they were doing great Massa tells me. He had been promoted to a position above lifeguard and their car was fine, but then he made a mistake and was told to go back to life guarding and then their car broke down, so now they are struggling. His promotion gave him a salary but now he was back to being paid by the hour.

I wished them good luck with their car and everything and left the metro at my stop. I went to the American Museum of National History. There was the original C-3P0 outfit in a cabinet and I got a photo standing next to it! I couldn't look around long as I needed to get my bus to NYC.

The journey was a pleasant one this time. It was a more comfy bus and I got an extra hour's sleep in. NYC is very impressive. As we approached the skyline emerged. I could see the Empire state building and a lot of other skyscrapers and the river. We went into a very long tunnel. I was slightly uneasy there but we emerged from it in Manhatten. What a busy place. I walked for about a mile when I got out of the metro until I felt like getting a cab and I arrived at the hostel without any problems. It costs $40 a night and is quite nice. My room is clean and I'm only sharing it with 1 person, Mike.

Mike is 31 and Korean but lives in LA. He runs a printing business that isn't going very well. He's very friendly and he is amazed by my journey. He once drove in his car on his own all around America visiting every single city except Seattle. His car broke down in the desert, which was scary he says, as I can imagine. I walked all the way down Broadway past Times Square, which is the equivalent of Piccadilly Circus in London, only at least twice as big. There are so many lights.

NYC is much more modern than I'd expected. I think because a lot of the times I've seen it on TV have been from films and TV shows made in the 80s and 90s.

After a couple of hours of walking down Broadway it was 8.30pm and so I asked a policeman where the bars where. He said further down Broadway at around the 20s streets. This was on about 35th street and I'd walked from 103rd street where the hostel is. I found a bar and drank 2 beers at 7 bucks a pint. Pricy, but to be expected. There was a large Italian man sitting to my right exclaiming about the sharks on the TV. “Wowa, thata is so-a big.” I joined in saying how massive they were and then talked to a bearded man on my left who had lived in South Africa, where apparently there are lots of Great Whites. I left. I was looking for a bar with music and atmosphere and women.

I found another one, a sports bar, and started talking to these two girls. But I think they were lesbians together. They were nice though and I enjoyed the chat and another pint. I left at about 10pm for the long walk from 24th street to 103rd. I arrived after midnight and met my room mate Mike. I talked to him and then went to sleep for a good 9 hours. Now it's time to walk through central park and visit South Port pier, which was recommended to me by the man who lived in South Africa.

72. I don't think I particularly like being in NYC. Especially being here alone, which was not a problem on the trail. It's not NYC specifically that is the problem. I'm having trouble adjusting to how people treat each other in big cities. It's not nice. On the trail everyone are allies. Everyone is interested, or at least, shows interest, in each other's hike. The people in the small towns are very friendly too. Derrell Tibby, Daniel and his family, Jeff the American Christian, Rusty, and all those I've met down in Virginia (or even the part of Bristol that's in Teneessee) have been lovely.

Here though in Manhattan there are too many people. No one has time for each other. The more people there are the less everyone is worth to each other, so in NYC, my value to others is very low. Perhaps I'm worth a few bucks to the kebab stall owners, but definitely not worth any time for talking to. The city has already tainted me. A Chinese woman said, “excuse me I…” I thought she was another person trying to sell me something so I said, “no thanks,” and kept walking, but immediately realized she was holding a map in her hand. I had just been incredibly rude so someone looking for help. Imagine if a hiker just went past another with a casual, “no thanks.” It’s a reaction worthy of tears, which I saw too. A woman was sitting on a busy street with a sign saying she was homeless due to abuse. No one was stopping to give her anything and she was starting to cry. I walked past, stopped, thought about what I had with me, and went back and gave her some chocolate brownies from my lunch. I probably should have given more. But she was very thankful. I don't care if it was an act of some kind, if you have to get by by pretending to cry on the side of the road you are in a pretty desperate situation. In a busy place like New York no one thinks it's their responsibility. Just like with the hitch hiking, the more cars the harder it is. Everyone cares about each other less. And that is what I don't like about NYC.

A homeless man asked a man carrying bags of food if he could have some. The man just shook his head and grunted and walked past. On the trail if someone needs food you help them. Even though you've carried that food around on your back for 100 miles you give it to the person who needs it. This man had just bought it from a supermarket yet he wouldn't give a dollar worth of it to a hungry person. Why not? Because there were millions of people all around him. He doesn't need to, someone else will. 'This guy will be alight if I don't.' Well guess what, he wont, because they won't.

I also don't like New York because of the noise. I am used to peace and tranquility, but yesterday I walked all the way down to South Port pier, almost the entire length of Manhattan (took me about 5 hours) and by the end I had a pretty bad head ache. It wasn't due to dehydration because I had been drinking plenty. It was a hot day too and the angry noise of the city was getting to me. The cars engines, the honking, the shouting, the sirens. Even down at the seaport there were helicopters coming and going making a right racket. I went to the restrooms on the pier and sat in a cubicle and stuck my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes, in an attempt to lower my sensory input. It was information overload.

Imagine walking past the engines and furnaces of the Titanic where men are shoveling coal into the massive cranking machinery for hours. That's what walking through Manhattan on a hot summer's day feels like. It's impressively big, but that's just about all it's got going for it. It's not like the woods, not at all. Instead of tranquility you have noise, instead of peacefulness you have stress, instead of solitude you have loneliness - a million people ignoring you; and instead of every inch being beautiful you have endless concrete. A concrete jungle indeed.

I was also annoyed about having to spend so much money. I needed some more water. Three streets were lined with vendors selling it for $1 per bottle. I passed one where the water was kept in icy water so instead of buying from all the $1 I continued until there was another stall with ice cold water. When I reached one I was charged $2 instead of $1, because the bottle was slightly bigger. Then I dropped my map when buying the water. I didn't realize for a few blocks so I needed another map. I walked on for another 20 minutes or so and found a little store. I had to pay $5 for a map, a tiny little map of Manhattan that I could get for free at the hostel. Half a block later I passed an information kiosk, where I could have got a new map for free.

Central park is nice, that's true. It's massive and there's a reservoir that has trees all around it and skyscrapers looming up behind them. I like NYC a lot better at night, but that is a time for socializing. If I was with my friends I would enjoy New York at night a lot, but still not really like it during the day. I don't want to get in the habit of drinking alone (even if it is just 3 pints) so I'm going to avoid that today. I'll read lots and walk around central park.

I ended up buying a whole new outfit of clothes. I spent $172 and bought some red shoes, jeans, a silky blue shirt, a black waistcoat and a red v-neck jumper to go over the shirt and under the waistcoat. It feels very snazzy. I'm not used to wearing clothes like this. I feel like I’m Spiderman when he turns evil and goes and buys evil sexy clothes and dances down the streets of Manhattan. I bought a few beers and drank them in my room and then went to a club. I was all kitted out. I ended up blowing a LOT of money. I was drunk. I think I spent about $150. What a waste. It cost me $40 to get into the club and about $30 in cab fares there and back and I bought a bottle of beer inside for $8 only to drop it by accident on the floor, where it smashed. I talked to a couple of girls and danced with one of them, and then left. I wasn't especially drunk, but just about. I was outraged in the club to find that a double vodka and coke was $28 and a triple would have set me back $42. What a complete rip-off! How could it ever be worth that much? I suppose to show off to girls how much money you have. As always.

Luckily I wasn't so out of it to pay that much which is why I went with a 'cheap' $8 beer. I left the club after a while and found another bar that seemed nice. I had withdrawn $60 on the way but only had $7.90 left which wasn't enough for a beer but the man served me anyway, albeit a bit grumpily. I talked to some of the people there, one of the women told me 'I would want to walk to the English guy over there.' I learned from him that most of the people here were attending a conference. He had a degree from Cambridge, co-incidentally where I grew up. I felt quite out of place, and didn't enjoy the conversation. I felt these were wealthy people, he kept going on about 'the conference' smugly in his smooth voice. My new clothes acted like a disguise that tricked them into thinking I was like them. So they were there to make money. I was not. I wanted fun. I went and sat back at the bar, asking the bar tender lamely, 'so you live in New York?' He wasn't conversational and so when he went round the corner I angrily slid my beer across the bar so it smashed on the other side. I feel terrible about that. I am ashamed. I was at a low point. Feeling lonely and alcohol do not go well together. He chased me out of the bar shouting saying he knows I don't have money to pay for the clear up. I said I'd do it, but he said no, get out of here, go home. He had every right to. How had I come to this after my perfectly pure hike? 3 days in the city is all it took. A very bad night for me.

When I made it back to the hostel at about 2am Mike was still up. We talked for quite some time. I was in a much better mood by then, after talking with a nice cab driver on the way back. I was still slightly drunk but not very much.

73. The next day I woke up feeling bad about the night before. Not a physical hangover, but about the way I had behaved and how much money I had spent. I lay in bed depressed until 1. Mike lay there for that long too. He was stressed about his business. He had eaten nothing at all the day before because he was so worried. I had a slightly blurry memory of him saying he just wanted to make a friend in New York and that it was nice that we were friends. I sat up and asked him his plans for the day and he said he was not going to go anywhere at all. He asked if he could come with me to the Metropolitan museum of art, and I said yes.

We didn't go there in the end but we had a fantastic day. He took me to a Korean restaurant in Korea-town and paid for it. “A loda these places serve fusion food,” he said in his Korean-American accent. “I don like fusion. I like real Korean. That where I take you.” On the menu it said we were ordering beef with some kind of soup. I said I wanted to go with something more adventurous than that, but he said he thinks it would be adventurous enough. He was right. The waiter served an array of little dishes. I tried a little bit from each but apparently I was not meant to eat those. What they do is sit there with the delicious mouth watering food in front of them and talk, waiting for the rest to arrive. I think the cultural purpose may have once been to show off how sophisticated and un-hungry you are, but I was not either of those. Then you eat the little dishes in combination with the main food. It took me a while to catch on to what Mike was saying when he said, 'no, don't eat, no, don't eat.' I started off with chopsticks but he asked for a fork for me, which I ended up using. The food tasted excellent. The only bad part was when I ate a boiling hot spicy red pepper by accident, which was so hot it made my nose drip. The beef was all in tender little strips, as if it had been grated and the orange coloured soup arrived bubbling hot. There was squid inside and clams and other things that turned it orange. It was all very tasty.

It was a very hot and humid day and Mike is quite lazy, so we did more resting in starbucks (which I paid for, much less than the meal) than I would usually do (none). He showed me on his iPhone all the cities he drove to on his big tour of all the American cities. He spent over $10,000 on the trip and it took him 2 and a half months. He did it a few years ago when his business was going well. He had saved up about $100,000 and didn't know what to do with the money. He says he went on the journey to find himself. His business is struggling now because a big company has out-competed him with better quality and cheaper printing equipment. We walked around the city more and I bought a belt. Mike told me he felt like I was his brother. I laughed and said, “you’re tall English brother.”

Mike is a Christian and had arranged to meet some other Koreans he met at a church in NYC. I was happy to come along when he invited me. We met at Times Square on the stairs that you climb up and sit on to watch all the people go by and the lights. One of the Koreans didn't speak very good English, he was mid-thirties. One was 21 (my age) and called Daniel. He was hilarious and we got on very well. The other is a short and energized 37 year old Korean woman, though she looks more like she is 25. Her name is Erin. We took a subway to Kat'z delicatessen. Erin was keen to explain to me that a famous scene from the movie Delicatessen was filmed there, where a woman is talking to a man about fake orgasms. The woman says to the man that it's easy for a woman to fake an orgasm. The man doesn't believe her, so she demonstrates there at the table. A woman sitting along from them says, “I want whatever she's havnin.” I think I may have seen the clip before, but I want to watch the whole movie now.

It was at Katz's delicatessen that I ate what is undoubtedly the best sandwich of my life. It was the famous Pastrami sandwich. The meat was about 3 inches thick in the middle and it was mouth-wateringly juicy and tender and flavorsome. It was so nice. Daniel did a hilarious impression of how Indians (not Native Americans) speak English. He grew up with lots of Indians and has it completely perfected. We were cracking up laughing. I put my Yoda impression to good use. I have not laughed like that at all on my whole journey. Erin asked where my favourite place in New York was. I said Chelsea pier, which Mike and I visited that day. It was calm and peaceful there and we posed with our tops off and the sprinklers came round and I let it sprinkle on me. Erin said the Brooklyn Bridge at night was her favourite spot, so after the sandwiches we took the metro there (I am the only person who walks everywhere apparently). Daniel bought us all ice creams. The view of the city was truly beautiful. I did not think I would find concrete beautiful, but with the skyscrapers of the financial district lit up like giant bar codes it becomes memorizing. The cars flowed under our feet like an unbroken river.

The next morning I woke up before mike but woke him up and bid him farewell and good luck with his business. He said, “take care,” and I left. The museum of Metropolitan art wouldn't let me in with my bag and they have no storage (fools!) so I didn't get to go there. I wouldn't have had time anyway, as I underestimated the walk to the bus station which is at Times Square. I almost missed the bus, but it was over sold as usual, and so I had to wait and hour for the next one. But I didn't mind the wait as I read some more of The Colorado Kid. The bus journey went smoothly and I got a subway this time (instead of the expensive taxi) to the DC hostel. Tomorrow I leave for home, and I will be very sad to go. Although I am looking forward to seeing my Dad and then the rest of the family. I am having serious thoughts about continuing University. I want to travel forever, but I will write more about that later.

74. I have flown from DC to Ottowa. My flight to Heathrow isn't for another 6 hours. I am feeling a mixture of mostly negative feelings. For one thing I was interrogated three times by the Canadians. I think because of having a backpack they thought I might be trying to smuggle drugs. They asked me aggressively about my journey and when I showed them my alphasmart the policeman said, “isn't that bit heavy to be taking back-packing?” What am I meant to say to that? Obviously not, seeing as I have just carried it 550 miles, you retard. In fact its whole purpose is to be lighter than a laptop and to perform the only function I need it for - writing. But he wanted to play the policeman and keep asking me. He looked through my text messages on my phone, asking, “who's Smiffy?” and and looked at my photos on my camera and even read some of what I had written in here. I asked him, “is this normal?” He said yes, it's what he does all day. Sigh. So you’re a twat all day. He went through everything in my pack. He took out my cling film and asked me if there's anything inside the roll. I said no, but he didn't believe me and poked around in it and scanned it. He commented on my slightly damp passport, saying, “didn't you think of putting it in a plastic?” I told him truthfully I did put it in a plastic thing, but it somehow got a bit wet anyway. He said, “well it obviously wasn't a very good plastic thing.” FUCK YOU.

I am also sad to be going home. I feel I have grown so much. I have out grown University. I cannot imagine going back to living in a small room and doing the same things every day. Imagine you had a dog tied to a stick with a rope. After years the dog is let off the rope and runs free all day until he can see Mountains and lakes and new places on the horizon. But then the dog has to go back to his rope, tied down. I feel like going back to University would be like going back to being tied to the stick with the rope. I won't just be tied down for the two more years of my course. Each year puts me in greater and greater debt, making me tied to money making to pay it back. I want to keep traveling.

To make matters worse I failed the most boring unit last year (I got a 1st in the most interesting one). I have to do another essay for the boring unit to stay on the course. I don't know if I can do that. It is like thoughts I had about TV shows while watching day time TV in Bland. Surely there are enough actors and script writers to make brilliant shows run all day on all channels? Surely also, there are enough people and places in the world to travel around to fill a life to bursting with exciting new experiences? Why can I not live that life? Why spend any longer than absolutely necessary doing something boring? I do have some good friends at University though. I don't have a companion. But I can't go back. No one will understand apart from other travelers. It's impossible to understand without living out on the trail/road. I am addicted to new beauty. I will work very hard this summer to make money in London doing Website work and to get my books finished and published. If I get a book published I will definitely drop out. If I get an agent I will almost definitely. If I don't get either by the end of the summer, I don't know what I will do. I crave more adventure. I don't know the psychological cause. I'll have to Google that when I get a chance.

75. Back “home”. Feels strange. I run through in my mind all the people I met from start to finish. I chuckle about a story Mike told me about how on his grand tour of the USA he stayed in a hostel with two young men from England. Amid giggles he said that there was Internet in the rooms. I immediately knew where he was going with this. If you have someone laughing and it is about an Englishman and the Internet, you know what it is. Yes. It is that. Mike interrupted one of the Englishmen masturbating, and saw his erect penis. He then had to stay the night in the hostel room with them, and the one he caught didn’t say a single word to him!

And that is the deep truth of existence summed up right there. I was able to predict what Mike what going to say. This is someone who grew up in Korea, lives in LA and who I had known for a mere couple of days, yet I could sense the masturbation humour. We are all the same. I have bonded with people who you would think to be complete opposites of myself. The ex-con in Bristol, the drunk hick, the gay midget wrestler (ok so that wasn’t the good kind of bond!). I know what I have. I don’t need some scrap of paper telling others about it. I have some brains and I feel like I’ve gained a dollop more. A limpet more, to be precise. You know, those creatures that live on rocks on the beach. I feel like I’ve had a brain extension of similar magnitude. One of them has stuck to my head and is making me see things differently. I can’t go back. I must. Serve. The. Limpet.

No, I jest. What I mean is my perspectives have been skewed back. I have unlearned what I have learned. Yoda would be proud. A song by Charlie Winston called “Like a Hobo” played this lyric when my Dad picked me up in the car. “The less I have, the more I am a happy man.” I am finding that completely true. Why would I work for years to get a piece of paper (a degree) that ensures financial stability when I don’t even want money? I view everything we have as something we must carry. Even though we don’t carry money physically on our backs, it weighs us down just the same. I genuinely don’t want it anymore.

I wish I could end this book like a fiction book, where everything goes back to normal. But I can’t. I can’t go back to life and continue pretty much the same as before but with some slightly more positive attitude gained from “my experience.” I am in limbo, in flux. Between places, and straddling rather uncomfortably. I have to pick now as the gap widens. Which way should I go?

=====If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.===== - Henry David Thoreau, in Walden.

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