Long-Distance Walking, USA
Comments 5

An Alleged Purist in Harper’s Ferry

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a new feature on their website* that allows former thru-hikers to revisit one of the highlights of their journey.

For many years, hikers stopping at at ATC headquarters at the “psychological halfway point” in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia**, have been made welcome by the volunteers inside. Dumping their packs on the porch, they pose before the ATC sign for a polaroid that is labelled with trail name, dates and details and stored in a bulging album:

© Appalachian Trail Conservancy

I wasted no time locating my shot: a younger, slimmer me (this was 2004) in my then-favourite T-shirt (lost by the U.S. Post Office later). I’m probably leaning on that wall because my legs need all the help they can get:

The stick's not mine, just a handy prop

Then I quickly found the pictures of all the trail friends I could remember — lots of good memories, and a few poignant ones as well.

Harper’s Ferry might be the psychological midpoint but for me it was a lot closer to rock bottom. My body, when I limped into town, was beginning the breakdown that would spell the end of my first shot at Katahdin. I’d also realised, to my surprise, that I was no longer just a hiker. I was labelled, rather dismissively by some, a “purist”.

Unfortunately my paper journal provides little insight. I stopped writing for some reason on Day 50, back in Laurel Creek Shelter, VA. Here’s the title page, drawn by my young daughter before I left Australia:

Luckily I kept lots of  notes in my Data Book: where I camped, food, fellow hikers, etc. Here are Days 68 to 71, when I entered Harper’s:

And my mother printed out my emails from trail towns. I’ve kept them and a ton of Trail mementoes. I’m a bit of a collector:

Today I’m going through those emails, some appropriately fuzzy scanned pictures. Strange times. It was in the Shenandoah, not long before Harper’s, that I detected an attitudinal rift developing.

The A.T. was almost hallowed ground to me. I’d read Bryson’s book in Japan, and since getting the idea in my head on a mountain top near Tokyo, I’d known I would walk every one of those 2,175 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Katahdin, Maine. Every one. It never occurred to me to do it differently.

Then the Shenandoah section:

Gentle terrain, easy walking. I race out of Charlottesville, VA burning Vibram:

Day 1: 14.4 miles

Day 2: 27.3 miles

Day 3: 25.5 miles

Day 4: 22.1 miles

Day 5: 23.8 miles

Day 6: 18.6 miles

Day 7: 18.9 miles

Da7 8: 17.8 miles

Day 9: 12 miles — arrive Harper’s Ferry

Part of my reckless speed comes from trying to evade a bunch of hikers who are wearing out their welcome. From an email:

The trail through the Shenandoah crosses and recrosses Skyline Drive, repeatedly, and there were plenty of opportunities for stops at roadside eateries, “taprooms” (bars) and campgrounds. I met and passed hikers that had been ahead of me up to now, bemused at what was happening to them. Everyone, it seemed, was under some slacker’s spell, holding out their thumb to hitch rides to the next campground so they could “party” with other “tour-hikers”, or blue-blazing by just walking the road and missing entire sections. 

Every day I pass some of these hikers, to find them relaxing at the next shelter. I’m stuck in a mobile party. Hike your own hike is becoming an annoying mantra. I’m labelled a “purist”, when I thought I was just hiking the Trail. I’ve never even contemplated any other option. I once backtracked and re-walked one bit when I realised I’d missed 100m or so of path…

Jim & Molly Denton Shelter

My 30-somethingth snake

Fellow purist

Manassas Gap Shelter for a snack & laundry

So, Harper’s. Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet there. So do the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. The name showed up repeatedly before and during the Civil War, with John Brown’s raid and execution, and the town’s multiple captures and recaptures during the conflict. I want to enjoy it, savour the history.

But I’m nursing a 100-mile limp. I can see myself favouring my left leg in this picture:

At the ATC, I get my picture taken, linger a while. Then, flicking through the album, the surprise of seeing this young couple, or almost-couple, again, party-hikers par excellence, smiling at me from yesterday’s polaroid. I left them many tens of miles behind, I thought. No way they could’ve walked here ahead of me…

I trudge down the beautiful, well-preserved streets…

..and sling my hammock in some trees outside town.

Next day, when I walk back in, there they are: the party-pair. Their ongoing party is in full swing, but I’m starting to worry about making Katahdin in time. Easy enough with short-cuts, but I’m hiking all of it. And I’m near the tail-end of that northbound caravan.

A painful trek to a laundry wears me down. Then the female party-hiker scores us all a ride to the nearby Wal Mart. Re-supply. On the ride back they ask if they can hike out of town with me that afternoon. Before long we’re crossing the Sandy Hook Bridge, as I curse my weakness…

..and we camp at dusk on the bank of the storied Potomac.

They lay their bags out on the sand and I rig up my hammock among the boughs and roots of some fallen trees. A few kayakers slip by. Cars tear down the highway on the far side, the stiff breeze masking their noise.

“Hey, Goat, can you wake us at six?” they ask before I climbed up into the hammock. I sleep badly; finally crawl out again, headlamp on, and prepare my breakfast: English Breakfast tea, Pop Tart, and four ibuprofen. Oh, and two Tylenol for a balanced diet. Time to hike my own hike. A touching farewell as I pause to wake them.

“It’s 10 to six. See you later.”

I never see them again. Push myself to my medicated limit all day, rising above the river…

..and into Maryland, through Civil War battlefields, dark woods, and my pain threshold.

Two generals, from opposing sides, died here. General Reno’s last words as he died were Hallo, Sam! I’m dead!

I walk 30.9 miles (49.7km), my longest ever on the A.T. and one of my longest ever. Maryland is flat and forgiving. I top up the painkillers, barely pause for a rest, and convince myself that the leg pain is only temporary.

There’s no way I’m making Maine this time around…


..but I’m not going down gracefully. I limp on after those white blazes, every painful step.

Call it a purist’s pride.

* http://media.causes.com/ribbon/1085601

** I’m a punctuation purist too, and Harper’s definitely needs an apostrophe!

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. Great write up, but that last photo is kind of sickening. Trying to translate that distance and the pain that would be involved in accomplishing it has made me feel a little queasy 🙂

    • Oddly, Greg, when I don’t have two developing stress fractures, I enjoy the challenge…mostly. But those were dark days. Pain clouds everything.

  2. I can imagine multiple stress fractures would be a hindrance when you’re walking a million miles?! I’m contemplating how to do a 200 km hike not a 2000 plus miles hike, so when I read your blog I can only wonder how you tune your brain into the endless distance. I guess you must zen out a little and the kms take care of themselves as they tick by? Such a mighty effort though especially as a ‘purist’ 🙂 That sign would annoy me if I was driving let alone walking…

    Totally unrelated, but I was reading the other day that Wills of Burke & Wills fame once walked 160 kms to join an expedition, but it didn’t work out so he walked back again. It makes me wonder what I whinge about sometimes when I read those ‘ye olde’ stories…

  3. Martin says

    I’ve really enjoyed reading through your AT posts, I don’t know if I’ll every make it out to the AT trail, maybe one day, the UK will have to do for now : )

    • Thanks, Martin! Well, I’m keen to explore the UK one day hopefully not too far off. But don’t give up on the A.T. — it’s awesome and is one of my favourite parts of the planet. I intend to do at least two more thru-hikes of the A.T., one as a SOBO.

      And thanks for reminding me I’m way overdue for more A.T. reminiscence!

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