Dispatches from the Appalachian Trail

Past Articles



A Temporary Ending

By: Beau Denton

Beau Denton makes a big decision about the rest of his Appalachian Trail hike.

June 17, 2014


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Day 95: Harpers Ferry to Knoxville, Maryland, 3.8 miles.
Day 96: Zero in Knoxville.
Day 97: Knoxville to Gapland Road, 7.1 miles.
Day 98: Gapland Road to U.S. 40, 12.3 miles.
Day 99: U.S. 40 to Pen Mar County Park, 18.3 miles.
Day 100: Pen Mar County Park to PA 16, 2.9 miles.
Day 101: Zero in Waynesboro.
Day 102: PA 16 to Old Forge Road, 4.6 miles.

Toal miles: 1,067.7.

It’s ironic, I guess, that my most serious injury came on the easiest section I have seen this whole hike. After crossing the Potomac and entering Maryland, the trail out of Harpers Ferry followed the C&O Canal Towpath, the wide, flat, smooth terrain pictured above.

It rained quite a bit while I was in town, so there were still some muddy patches when I left. But it was warm and sunny, the trail was drying out fast, and the superb terrain meant I got lost in my thoughts, walking quickly without the care that each step requires in more difficult terrain.

So I didn’t even see the mud that slid my right foot out from under me. I pivoted on my left leg, reminiscent of the ice maneuvers that J-Rex used to rate in the Smokies. But this time I over-compensated, my left knee twisted violently, and before I knew it I was on the ground.

It was about half an hour before I was able to stay on my feet, and another hour to hobble the short distance to a road crossing. I called a shuttle to a health clinic, where the kind man who looked at my knee wouldn’t let me pay after finding out I was hiking the trail. He asked some questions and helped me stretch it out a bit, then said that it didn’t seem too serious, that I should take at least a couple days off and see if the pain let up before having to pay for testing.

I spent the whole next day, Tuesday, in a hotel bed: ice, stretching, bad TV. By Wednesday morning my knee was near its regular size again, but it kept buckling under me when I tried walking more than a few steps with my full pack.

So I slackpacked for the next four days, shuttling back to the hotel every night so I could leave my heavy gear there and walk with a light pack. It was three days of pouring rain, thunder, lightning, even one tornado warning before I reached the Pennsylvania state line. The terrain wasn’t bad, and I’ve heard the trail in Maryland is quite nice, but I spent the whole time soaked and staring at the ground, wincing every time my left leg’s placement wasn’t perfectly flat.

The fourth day I made it just under three miles before I couldn’t go any farther, and I decided to take another zero on Sunday. I spent the day thinking, listening and talking with people who have been in similar positions, and I realized a few things–that my main motivation for moving forward was fear of what people would think of me if I quit, that slackpacking is not the sort of adventure I was looking for, and that I can fulfill my dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail even if it doesn’t happen all at once.

But they say never quit on a bad day, and the recent downpours made for several consecutive bad days, so I set out this morning with, to the best of my ability, an open mind. It’s a gorgeous, warm, green day, and the terrain was relatively kind.

After four miles, I stopped for one of the once-every-20-minutes breaks that my knee necessitates. I listened to the birds above me and the soft breeze all around me, stretched out under the sun, and came to the quiet, peaceful realization that this was it…for now.

I say “peaceful” with all honesty, though the last few days leading up to that realization have been anything but. I’ve been tormented by the mental back and forth, weighing the pros and cons of postponing the rest of my hike. The truth is, a bum knee is only one factor. It’s been a bit since I have really enjoyed this experience. The fulfillment of pushing through pain and refusing to stop up to this point has been tremendously rewarding and confidence-building, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But I also came out here for a fun adventure and a sense of peace, and those things have been elusive as I’ve entered grit-my-teeth-and-keep-my-head-down mode. I honestly believe that trading the pride of accomplishing it all at once for the benefits of spreading it out over a multi-year section hike is a good deal.

And here’s how I know that this adventure has affected who I am: The person I was before this hike lived in near-constant fear of disappointing people and not living up to expectations. That Beau would have kept going, not for the grand adventure or the sense of accomplishment, but for the dread of being seen as a quitter. He would have paid to slackpack all the way to Maine if necessary, even if it meant losing the thrill of carrying everything you need on your back and the self-reliance that defines this hike at its best. The Beau that I am growing into is very slowly learning to make decisions without listening to that fear…and learning that the people I love will continue to love me and look for the best parts of me no matter what.

I learned in Harpers Ferry that the Appalachian Trail Conference does not differentiate between section hikes and thru-hikes. They honor completion of the trail, whether it takes six months or six years. (Hike your own hike, right?) And with that has come a sort of permission, an acknowledgement that, for me at least, postponing the second half is the best way to fully enjoy the trail ahead–beautiful, green Vermont, the stunning White Mountains, the primitive isolation of Maine.

So there it is. I will finish this trail; I’m just not sure when. In the meantime, I’ll figure out a way to get home in the next couple days. One of the things I was looking for when I left was increased clarity about what I want to do next, and I think I’ve found it…but more on that another time.

To those who have been hiking with me vicariously, I am sorry to end it so abruptly. Thank you all so much for following this journey, and for the encouragement, enthusiasm and care packages. I’ll keep writing here about other stories and lessons from the last few months, and I will most definitely write about future travels and adventures.

As always, thanks for reading.