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  • Ken Ilgunas

Observations from the Appalachian Trail

Two things I love more than I used to:

1. My van 2. The Appalachian Trail.

My van performed like a champ. I drove it 3.5 hours from campus in North Carolina, along roaring interstates and over rolling country hills, to southern Virginia. And there wasn’t a sputter to speak of.

I’ve wanted to name the van for some time now but I thought it ought to assert its identity to me rather than me, perhaps, applying a false appellation to it. I think “Fordy” has a nice ring to it. Gender-ambiguous, I know. But why can’t I have a van that’s potentially hermaphroditical?

For my four-day Fall Break, I hiked 60 miles from Mount Rogers to Damascus, Virginia and back up to Mount Rogers.

The AT is one of mankind’s finest creations. When has man created a 2,000 mile trail purely to simulate the exploratory experience? Never, as far as I know.

I have few possessions, but I do have a full set of backpacking gear for occasions such as these. Let me take this opportunity to introduce you to one of the loves of my life: my girl, Eureka.

Some random observations from the trail:

-There’s nothing more liberating than blowing a dollop of snot into your palm, wiping it on your pants, and not worrying or caring one bit about someone seeing you.

-Few things are as tasty for the ears as the crunch of dried leaves underfoot.

-Golden leaves occasionally spiral across the trail, twirling to the ground like helicopters gone awry.

-Caterpillars with white whiskers that reminded me of Japanese senseis crept across the trail like little bottles of toothpaste, squeezing their girth from one side of their bodies to the other.

-I can’t sing worth a damn. I can’t dance, draw, or speak a foreign language. I can’t milk a cow, install a window, or play an instrument. But fuck, can I walk. On Day-3 I walked over 20 miles uphill and could have gone more if it didn’t get dark. I heaved arms to and fro, grunted out each breath, and roared at whim while my shirt became so blotched with sweat it resembled a giant rorschach test.

-“When I rest my feet my mind also ceases to function.” – JG Hamann (Quoted in Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines)

-Serious hiking wakes my mind as if from a winter torpor. I stop less to catch my breath and more to write down the hundreds of thoughts hurling through my head. It’s not just the many thoughts that make hiking so invigorating, it’s the type of thoughts. The hiker begins to feel like he can do anything; that the world—not just this trail—can be conquered. I imagined myself as a transcontinental explorer, a revered author, a gallant lover. Oh the delightful strain.

-Atop Mount Rogers, about 5,000 feet, an armada of Hindenburg-sized clouds soar across the sky so fast that they look like giant wraiths frantically scanning the ground for missing ghost-children.

-One night, in the distance, some animal unleashed a loud, bubbly yodel. It was a sound I never heard before. I couldn’t even begin to guess what it was. I can best describe it as a “warbled howl”: part turkey gobble, part wolf howl. It sort of sounded like a trio of karate masters screaming “Waaaa!” in hand-to-hand combat.

– You’d think that four summers of wilderness experience in the arctic would have quelled my fear of bears. After my third day of hiking, I was cooking dinner under a roofed information sign where the trail crosses paths with a highway rest stop. There were torrential downpours and what seemed like 30 mph winds. A local passing by in his car pulled over and asked if I wanted a ride somewhere. I politely declined and he told me that there was “a big bear” just a 100 yards down the road. I disregarded his warning as I set up my tent in a nearby copse of trees. I had just walked 10 hours straight, almost entirely uphill. I zonked out immediately. An hour later, however, I woke with my nerves racing and my eyes wide. The ground crunched nearby and I suddenly realized how foolish it was to camp in such close proximity to a foraging bear. I determined to move my camp across the road where there was a fence that would protect me. When I opened my tent I turned my headlamp on and in the black of night I saw three sets of glowing eyes staring at me. It was horrifying. After a moment, though, I decided that I was looking at deer, not a trio of hungry bears. Still, I hurriedly packed my things and got the hell out of there.

-I want to posit that 20 miles of good trail is as physically taxing as 1 mile of difficult walking. I also think that I would have done much better on my 24 hour hike if I had been on a trail that inclined and declined like the AT because I would have been alternating the use of certain leg muscles.

-In the town of Damascus—which sees more than its fair share of AT hikers—I still was amused with all the gawkers in town. It feels good to be gawked at when traveling. It makes you feel important. And it makes you remember that you don’t have to wake up to go to work in the morning like the rest of them. Beforehand I picked up a tree limb and used it as a pole, imagining myself as Muir ambling across his beloved Sierra Nevada.

-A cow lowing pre-battle bellows approached me as I traversed over part of the trail that intersected with a farm. I wasn’t sure whether I should be afraid or amused. I bent over to get a look at its genitals. I felt slightly more at ease when I saw udders. Though, it also made me uncomfortable to realize how little I know about an animal I eat so much.


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