It’s a sudden change. The locals’ accents have gone from gentle and mumbly to brash and loud. The day hikers look more citified, slick. We have officially left the South. We are now in the densely populated part of the North.

We were warned, though. In the restroom at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harpers Ferry, WV, a sign informed us that in a few miles, we would go from the Appa-latch-ian Trail to the Appa-lay-chian Trail. But that both were worth enjoying.
It’s also new terrain for us: neither of us has hiked any part of the Trail north of its “psychological midpoint,” Harpers Ferry. We were so excited to sign the registry and have our photos taken and logged that we were nearly woozy with hunger when we arrived. (We had only had breakfast plus two energy bars apiece all morning…) We are northbound thruhikers #78 and 79 this year. There are probably 700 or so more coming behind us. We ate giant sandwiches and ice creams in the old, historic town to celebrate, and now it’s on through Maryland.

This state has fewer than 40 trail miles, and I was surprised to learn how flat they are. It doesn’t look like what one imagines as the Appalachian Trail at all. The trail is often ten feet wide, running along a low ridge. Airplanes heading into DC are audible constantly, as well as interstate traffic, sirens, and train whistles. The views, low as they are, display farmland and condos through the brushy trees. The sunset is tinged with smog. One never forgets one’s proximity to metropolises, or to the nation’s history: we are passing many bloody battlefields of Civil War and Revolutionary times.

But there are subtle treats. A red toad that puffs up when a curious human gets too curious. A campground offering free, hot showers just as the noon sun peaks. And this:


…a showy lady slipper! I’d never seen any so large, the size of a small plum, and never outside of my grandmother’s cottage in the north woods of Wisconsin. Tiny ones grew in the open space where relatives parked their cars, and she would mark the lady slippers with surveyor’s tape. Woe to the family member who ran over her blooms.

The single flower was followed by a whole harem of the gems:


Georgia O’Keeffe, eat your heart out.


That’s approximately how many miles we have walked. It’s over a third of the trail. It’s an impressive number that pleases and amazes me. And it’s time for a check-in.

First, a physical. My toes are permanently puffy, but the bottoms of my feet are things of wonder. They are leathery, calloused and tough. It is as if they are becoming shoes (though I can’t imagine hiking barefoot). Sometimes I run my hands over them in pure enjoyment. My legs are scratched and tanned (with a farmer’s tan line along the ankle, and neck and shoulder lines to match). My hands look older than usual, with dry skin around the knuckles. They are extra dark on the side that holds my hiking poles. My face is thinner, as is my waist, but my legs are the same–I need these huge quads to climb and scramble up rocks. My butt is pure muscle; I’ll have to enjoy that while it lasts, as I’m sure it’s unattainable in the real world. And miraculously, I am pretty much injury-free. So grateful that my body has risen to the challenge of walking every day. I thank my body every time I remember, and ask it to continue to move so well, and I try to pamper it with tea tree oil, baby powder, and Glide (an amazing substance that nearly eliminates the need for moleskin).

Mentally, I’m enjoying myself. I don’t have butterflies each time we reenter the woods. That always used to happen when we’d take weekend trips or section hikes, but no more. In fact, I often look forward to escaping the roads and masses of people, to getting back into the green tunnel of trees where my sole purpose is to move northward.

Towns no longer automatically send me into control-freak anxiety. I’ve gotten used to the routine of town trips and am better able to enjoy their comforts. And best of all, since spring has pushed winter farther away, my joy has increased.

Spiritually, not much has changed. As I hike, my head has a constant news feed of mundane thoughts and observations: mile numbers, water levels. I pray when I remember to; singing ones are best, easiest to continue without interruption. (Saint Francis of Assisi’s song is my favorite.) I don’t breathe through my nose deeply and consciously unless I remind myself, and even then it doesn’t last long. I am not transformed. I am carry the same flaws and oddities. There is magic all around, which I appreciate and admire. But am I more connected, with other people in our linear community, or with nature? I can’t say. Perhaps the changes will not be apparent until we finish the trail and attempt to reintegrate into society…

As for J., he has a touch of poison ivy on his knee, and another on his ear. I don’t know how he managed to swish those two unlikely body parts in it, and nothing else, but it’s not too itchy so far. He’s burned off his reserves–gotten quite slim–so he valiantly stuffs himself when we hit town so that he will have energy to power up the hills. In general, he’s on cloud nine and has been ever since our paws hit the ground. Hiking is his calling.

As a team, we are always in negotiations. Zippy’s natural hiking speed has increased, which I discovered when we began hiking along with Clark Kent about a week ago. Clark Kent is a touch faster than I had been used to, and when he sped off ahead, Zippy zipped right along with him, while I sweated up the hill in astonishment. My natural speed has not increased. Instead I have honed my ability to hike without thinking of my speed in relation to others–to not focus entirely on results and comparison–so I am better able to enjoy my surroundings as we go. In poor weather, we hike close together, but on better days, we each go our own pace and meet up at springs and landmarks. We derive great pleasure from zipping our sleeping bags together at night. It feels luxurious, despite the tent.

We have also discovered the joy of the Zero Day. Though we had gotten off the trail for multiple days before (two weddings and a blizzard), we’d never just cooled our heels in town for a whole day. In Daleville we sprung for a room at the Super 8 with Clark, and it was wonderfully healing.

Our next section is Shenandoah National Park, which is going to be lovely. Zippy and I hiked it together seven years ago, so it’s redolent with shared memories. And once we pass Harper’s Ferry, WV–the psychological halfway point of the trail, I’m told–it’s going to be all new. Neither of us will have hiked any of the rest of the trail before. It’ll be into Pennsylvania and the North.

There come those butterflies again!