Month: June 2019

Why am I off the Trail and What’s the Plan Now?

Virginia is rocky at times
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That’s where I started that morning

I guess a better question is could I have continued? I probably could have but for how long? Other things besides my feet were also flowing through my thoughts. I had lost 30 lbs. I didn’t feel bad but others had noticed and had said so. It seemed my lack of calories effected my total miles each day. My legs seemed strong enough to continue but I didn’t seem to have any energy at the end of the day. I was trying to eat all I could but it just wasn’t enough. I estimate I was taking in 2000 to 2500 calories a day. I will need to add double that going forward. In the northern half of Shenandoah I was able to supplement my diet with burgers and fries. This seemed to help with my energy in the afternoons. My nutrition needed a reset as much as my foot. I started to take look at some other things as well.

I’d missed some important milestones in my grandchildren’s lives. This affected me more than I anticipated. My retirement had given me the opportunity for the first time to spend all summer with them as well as both of my daughters who work in the school system. As for retiring I now think that I left for this hike a little too hastily. Although there wasn’t any other acceptable option, I could have used more time to settle into my new life as a retiree.

I thought about my decision to start this journey. What was the journey all about? The injuries, weight loss, and these other concerns needed answers. I am the type of person that benefits from time and separation to evaluate things when making difficult decisions. Some experiences in life aren’t fully grasped until after the fact. The trail is one of those. Looking back at my 5 reasons for wanting to do this hike revealed some answers. These are thoughts that began on the trail and continued as I reset my journey.

The trail follows the blaze to the left

#5 Challenge This was harder than I expected. The hikes I had done last year proved to be mostly for testing gear. Nothing I experienced last year prepared me for the daily mental and physical effort required to keep moving forward. The amount of ups and downs is staggering at first. Week three was my hardest and I almost quit right then. The toll on the body, not just the feet is real and persistent. Many of the aches come and go as you walk. But especially at my age you expect some discomfort throughout the day. It’s just a matter of degree and if it warrants special attention. I don’t mean to imply that hiking the AT is only about the pain to get to Maine. Many moments of each day are simply exhilarating. The body will generally recover and adapt to what is being demanded. At the end of each day when the climbs and miles are done there is satisfaction and pride in what was accomplished. The ups and downs are emotional as well. I think that is what makes this endeavor so enticing. A day on the trail can be filled with more life than a month back home. I need to process that thought some more as I reflect on the experience. I travelled 415 miles in 40 days of hiking. I feel the challenges I faced and experience gained sets me up for an even more meaningful journey ahead.

Exploring Harpers Ferry

#4 Adventure My whole time hiking was filled with adventure. Every hour new people were met and even though we might have different goals for the day a comradery was understood and appreciated. The shared experience created a friendship despite few words. The scenery was always changing and new. Trail life though routine required constant evaluation as the conditions changed. Moving forward each day insured that today would be the first for something. What would that be?

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A nice spot for lunch
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Unexpected moments on the trail are the best!

#3 Relationships This is a hard one. I am disappointed because my intention was to be gone for six months and though I knew injury was a possibility, I didn’t entertain that it might actually happen. I had hoped to meet like minded people on the trail and I did. Because of how and where I chose to start this hike, many of the people I met had many more miles and experience then myself. They tended to know each other and hiked twice as many miles each day. I learned from all of them and received kindness and encouragement. Some were hiking a similar hike as myself and these I got to know really well. I also was surprised how small interactions with section hikers influenced my hike. These hikers were only out for a couple of weeks yet just by our conversations over lunch we connected. I appreciated their approach to the trail and came to see their experience as a bridge between my first backpacking trips and this attempted thru hike. Each has it’s benefits. All of these relationships were very special.

I mentioned earlier family relationships. These especially were on my mind. I knew by the end of Shenandoah I needed a break. I knew I had to leave for at least a few weeks and sort out all my physical issues. How could I accomplish all of my goals? I started to look at the positives of changing the journey.

#2 Mindfulness

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The first thing you learn about Mindfulness is that it is intentional. Hiking insures that one stays in the present by focusing on one step at a time. It’s the next step that is most important. Then the next step becomes the present and the last one becomes the past. What is important is always the issue facing you at the moment. When hiking the mind tends to wander and this isn’t bad if there is also a constant coming back to the present. It is in the present that decisions must be made before moving on. If the past or future are littered with worry, doubt, or fear how can one make good decisions. I tried to make the decision to change my hike with these things in mind.

#1 Spirituality I hiked mostly alone with time to open my mind to what the Spirit had to say. It centered around faith and trust. There were many new experiences and possibilities that might go wrong. I worried about my pace, my capabilities, even getting lost. This happened to me several times though thankfully not for long. Water was at times in short supply. The terrain was often unsafe, it seemed a fall was only a step away. Two or three times a day an ankle turned or a foot slipped without incident. Storms presented their own set of worries and concerns. Also being alone at these times left me feeling vulnerable. Like most of life we do not have control of these things. I responded with humility and thankfulness. I leaned heavily on my faith and trust that I wasn’t alone. I felt the presence of the Spirit always with me. Jesus was there beside me reassuring and guiding me. The hours each day spent open to this message fostered a deeper understanding of the nature of God and my relationship to him. It also gave me confidence not only on the trail but direction as to what I should be doing when I go back home.

Approach to the top of Cole Mountain
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The cycle of life
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Morning contemplation

There’s always a sun behind those clouds!

I’m still disappointed about leaving the trail but it was a tremendous experience. It touched on each of my 5 reasons for wanting to make the attempt. In fact by resetting my journey I’ll realize my goals more fully. Spend more time with my family and have an opportunity to reach out in the community and start walking my journey here at home. The trail will be there when I am ready to go again. The new plan for the trail has benefits the first one ignored. I’ll explain these in my next post. I thought of each of you while on the trail and used your encouragement along the way. Wishing you well as continue on your journey!

50 miles to Harpers ferry

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The decision had been made to return home, recover and take care of some scheduled dental work as well as process what I had experienced. That will be in my next post. Harpers Ferry lay ahead and I was excited to reach this historic town. It also is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. I will put a link to their site at the end of this post.

I had up to now left open the possibility of continuing on from Harpers Ferry. The plan was set but I still had 50 miles to go and each day would bring it’s own challenges and surprises including the infamous Roller Coaster 20 miles away. There also would be a stay at the Bear’s Den Hostel which was a wonderful surprise.

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First was a 10 mile hike to the Whisky Hollow Shelter. The trail started downhill and passed under some power lines and across some meadows. It again seemed very overgrown with underbrush. Finally a short climb and then down to the John Marshall Highway at Manassas Gap.

This area is filled with history from the Civil War. General Mosby of the Confederate Calvary roamed these woods over 150 years ago. Several stone walls erected from that time are still standing.

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At US 55 you cross a railroad track and under Interstate 66 following Tuckers Lane before exiting left and back into the forest.

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At this point you are only 800 feet above sea level. Then begins a long climb of 1300 feet. Being so low in elevation everything was mud and mosquitoes. Afterwards it turned into primarily woods with a rocky path. I stopped at Manassas Shelter for lunch three quarters of the way up. This was the third time I had resupplied with summer sausage and cheese. I had been disappointed each time. I’d hoped to benefit from the high fat calories and at home have always relished it. Go figure! It was hot and I gulped down a half liter of water and refilled my bottles. I finished the climb and descended 2.5 miles to the shelter.

There were lots of trees down as I came upon a pretty substantial creek. The side trail to the shelter was suppose to be here but no signage indicated where or what direction. A post which had been in the ground was removed and hanging by a rope but even it had no direction. I checked my phone app and ascertained from some of the comments that a new shelter had been built and the entrance was .3 miles northbound after the creek. I looked around but saw no white blaze indicating a trail or nothing that resembled the trail. After a few minutes of confusion I headed up a hill and found it.

I walked down to the shelter and found several hikers already set up in a pretty large shelter with 2 levels of bunks.

There was quite a few people around and one hiker informed me that a Boy Scout Troop was camped here getting ready for a trip out west. Over the next two days I would pass and be passed by several troops. Most of the camping was taken already and Steak N Shake hadn’t arrived so I set up in the shelter. When he did arrive he investigated an area I hadn’t considered. It was uphill and unknown to me it was an old logging road which had numerous flat sites. I moved all my belongings and set up my tent. Not long after, it started to rain lightly so I went inside to read until the shower passed. It didn’t and each time I thought it might I attempted to cook supper but then it would rain harder. Eventually I cooked from inside my tent with my stove under the vestibule. Afterwards I moved my bear cannister away from my tent 80 feet or so and crawled into my sleeping bag listening to the drops splatter against my tent and the thunder rumbling. It was a nice night of sleep.

Vines everywhere

The next day was a short hike of only 8.4 miles. It was once again very humid and with all the vines and underbrush (including poison Ivy), it replicated a jungle atmosphere. I needed water and at 1 mile there was a spring. I could hear it but didn’t see it. It took a few minutes but I found water spilling from under a rock amidst the undergrowth. I slipped several times on wet rocks and the muddy trail, each time I caught myself with my hand without even a knee touching the ground. Along the way we skirted around the Sky Meadows State Park.

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Looks like a very nice park. Boy Scouts kept coming from both directions. Different troops from different areas of Virginia I wondered how they chose this small area with limited camping for their practice. Turns out Steak N Shake was involved with a Scout troop in the past and he’d been to the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico where these boys were headed. I saw another black snake, happily not a rattler and a deer as well.

Rod Hollow Shelter to Bears Den Hostel 10.5 miles.

This was the start of the Roller Coaster. A 14 mile stretch of up’s and down’s without any views. We decided to break it into 2 days and stay at the Bears Den Hostel, doing the last 4 miles on day 2. I was prepared for the climbs but nobody mentioned how rocky it would be.

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I woke up to light rain that soon stopped. I had coffee but no breakfast and quickly packed. I think the total climbs were around 3250 ft. and close to that going down. I can hike fast but inevitably that leads to a slip or fall but I do enjoy it and think I will get better. The last climb of the day was 500 feet and extremely rocky. When I reached Bears Den I was in for a surprise. It is an old stone mansion on 66 acres built in the 1930’s. It is only 150 yards off the trail. When I got there the place was closed. There were several hikers camped in tents outside, one a French Canadian woman named Mervel. She said no one could pronounce her name in French. So she changed it to reflect what others could pronounce. She showed me a code to get into the hiker accommodations until the caretaker arrived at 5:00. Inside was a refrigerator with cold drinks for 50 cents. I quickly claimed a bunk and then happily took a needed shower. They also had spare sets of clothes to wear while washing your own. Mine were really in need as it had been almost two weeks since the last wash. Afterward I took to a lounge chair in the garden to write in my journal. Once the caretaker arrived we paid 30 dollars and received a pizza, soda, and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. We also had use of the upstairs kitchen, dining room and living area which was loaded with information and pictures of the mansion and it’s history.

Bears Den Hostel

In the morning the operators had laid out pancake mix and coffee for anyone who would like to make their own. I had a great stay and felt ready to finish this Roller Coaster! This was not a bad hike because this section of the roller coaster was only 3.5 miles. At first it started to rain and I put on my raincoat but within 30 minutes I was so wet from sweating I just took it off. After that the rain stopped. I completed the 11.2 miles to David Lesser Shelter pretty fast. lt continued to be rocky but we are decreasing in elevation the closer we get to Harpers Ferry. There was also a boardwalk to get us through some muddy areas. The shelter itself was very nice with a nice deck in front and separate cooking area. When I arrived There were 3 people none of which were spending the night. one was a thru hiker named Roo. I believe it is based on the Winnie the Pooh character. She was from the Netherlands and was having a great hike. She had badly sprained her ankle but recovered back in Daleville. She had met the other two day hikers some time back and somehow they ended up on the same overlook earlier this day. It was their third chance meeting. There would be a fourth as I saw them in Harper’s Ferry as well. Roo was headed to a campsite 5 miles ahead though there wasn’t any water to be had at the site. The water at this shelter was a crazy quarter mile down a steep hill. It also had blown down trees forcing you to climb over or go around. I actually got off trail and had to backup to relocate the correct path. She did not want to go back down there and decided she would just make her liter and a half work. I admire her willingness to go on by herself under those conditions. The next day I saw Unicef at the ATC headquarters and he had ended up there as well with 3 other hikers. They had a very good time. I decided to stay in the shelter as this was my last night on trail. Four other people tented and 2 others hammocked on the side trail leading to the shelter. Two others, a married couple from Blairsville Ga. (Spruce Lee and Shitake) stayed in the shelter with us. They were a great couple and had a good approach to the trail. They allotted each of themselves a dollar per mile. They kept track of who had how much and if one wanted to splurge it was ok but then they might have to walk extra miles in order to build their account back up. It seemed like their teamwork was paying off.

David Lesser Shelter to Harpers Ferry 9.3 miles. Today was a bittersweet hike. I knew I’d be leaving the trail for awhile. The hike itself was fairly easy with few climbs. I felt excited though to see Harpers Ferry, go to the ATC for pictures, with enough time to explore the town and it’s history. We had a room reserved at the Quality Inn and the next morning a car to shuttle us back to the 4H camp where Steak N Shakes car was parked. We hustled down the trail to hoping to arrive by lunch. The hike itself was fairly easy with few climbs. It would however have one more rocky section which verified how much my feet needed the rest. I stopped often to look around and take it all in. Although I may have heard it first I was surprised when I first saw the Shenandoah River through the leaves. I waited for Steak N Shake so we could enter the town together. The river was 900 feet below so we carefully negotiated the steep descent. Crossing the bridge over the Shenandoah River was magnificent. It is wide and beautiful. From there you could see the town up on the hill. We stopped at the hotel and inquired and received an early check in. There was time to shower, have lunch and explore the town. First stop was the ATC, have our pictures made for the year book. I would now be classified as a section hiker because my finish date would be After April 13th next year. They have a scale here and I weighed 160 lbs. I started at 187. My waist was 31 inches. They have cold drinks here and we cooled off while reading about the history of the ATC and the Trail itself. Several hikers we had met were here and the place had a great atmosphere. Next we went to get lunch. The town itself is on a big hill and it was very hot outside. The houses along the way were all historic. It seemed every building and house was at least 150 years old. Restoration of other structures was taking place as well. After another high calorie lunch we explored some more. The town was filled with hikers! Finally we walked back to the hotel via the Appalachian Trail which passes through the town. It was a nice ending to a somewhat sad day and even up to the next morning I considered going on, after all Maryland was only .3 miles away!

Jefferson Rock
Railroad to Washington DC

The journey will continue later this summer. The path or direction not yet decided but I am going to do all I can to experience more of the trail, see more towns and visit all 14 states.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Shenandoah finish plus a fork in the road

Big Meadows to Skyland Resort and then Luray Va. 8 miles.  This was another disappointing change of plans that in the end made sense. I ha d been told to take only 2 or3 days food into Shenandoah. The idea being that there were restaurants along the way to supplement and resupply opportunities at the campgrounds. The reality was the resupplies were limited and geared to car campers and not hikers. Also they were spaced approximately 20 miles apart.  The restaurants usually weren’t in close proximity to the camp stores. Most of the hikers had 8 or 900 miles at this point. They were hiking 20-25 miles a day. It worked for them but not me. On top of that Big Meadows was closed except for the Lodge restaurant.

This put us in a quandary because after the Loft Mtn. store it was 60 miles before the next chance for a resupply and not a good one to say the least. After that you exit the Park and Front Royal Va. is 20 miles away. I was taking advantage of any cooked food I could get but had lost 3 maybe 4 inches off my waist. I hadn’t been able to weigh but could tell I was significantly thinner. My legs felt strong and I had high energy in the mornings but by late afternoon I bottomed out. I just wasn’t getting enough calories.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1012-2.jpg Today’s anticipated 14 mile hike would provide more views than any other day on the trip. Lunch was only 8 miles away at Skyland Resort. After an initial 500 ft. down and 600 ft. up we ridge walked up and down for 2.5 miles. Along the way there were views at Franklin Cliffs and  Crescent Rock. Skyland Resort had an excellent if not cheap dining room. I loaded up with over 2000 calories. while eating,  Jed had come up with a plan to shuttle into Luray and get a new pack. His shoulder strap broke a week ago and was causing back issues. Steak N Shake and I looked at the plan he had prepared for the last week of his section hike.  I noted he planned for long miles on a couple of days. At least one day was 18 miles. He had only been on trail 3 weeks and I convinced him of an easier option. If we all went to Luray we could restructure his timeline more reasonably and still arrive in  Harpers Ferry on schedule. We could get a needed resupply and a shower at the Luray Caverns Motel. In reality the resupply turned out not to be that good. Stopping for the night did help me though because I was beginning to wear down. Though I was hiking better, my foot injury had begun to involve my arch and the trail was getting much rockier the last few days. I wasn’t able to increase miles because of lack of energy throughout the afternoon even though my pace had picked up. I needed a rest and started to think of when that might be. Steak N Shake had made a proposal and I debated it in my mind. More on that later. The next day we shuttled back to Skyland Resort and started for Front Royal Virginia at 10:30. Front Royal is the northern boundary of Shenandoah Park. 37 miles away. Pass Mountain Hut was our first stop 11 miles away. This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1159.jpgThere were at least 4 views along the way of the Shenandoah Valley. The weather was comparatively cool to what it had been. I had lunch at the Pinnacles picnic area. Tuna fish on a tortilla with cheese and mayo, chips and some energy bars plus a mix of nuts and raisins. Later I stopped at the Byrd’s Nest Hut for a break and snack. I’m trying to eat something every few hours. Afterwards 3 miles from Pass Mountain Hut I negotiated a really rocky section up to Mary’s Rock overlook.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1035.jpg  An impressive rock formation. Then it is steeply down 1200 feet to US 211 and Thornton Gap. Followed by a 500 foot climb to the Hut. What I have found is anytime you climb to the top of a mountain or ridge there is a reason why those areas are higher than the surrounding areas. They are made of rock! Inevitably the last up or down is going to be littered with rocks upon rocks. Not complaining just a fact. I have learned to not expect anything else. I keep moving forward, often dividing the climbs into shorter sections which helps my attitude because I can measure my progress. It helps to know that I’m half way there or just 200 feet more to climb. Once at the Hut I set up my tent and had dinner. I rested well though bears were seen and heard around camp that night. I slept through it. Must of been tired. A deer wandered into camp during breakfast.

Gravel Springs Shelter was 13.1 miles away.  More picture opportunities and not so many rocks today. I had a good hike because I was able to eat a cheeseburger and chili fries for lunch and a blackberry shake at the Elkwallow Wayside  I also had a mountain dew and candy bar. Those calories make the difference for me. I also got a few resupplies for the next day. After lunch I climbed a 1000 feet with relative ease. At the shelter there were reports of bear activity around the shelter. I decided to stay in the shelter.

Gravel Spring Shelter to Tom Floyd Shelter 10.5 miles. Had several steep climbs 750,550,600 but these climbs seem routine now. A storm was brewing so I double timed it to Tom Floyd Shelter. The skies grew darker and the winds picked up. When the temperature dropped I knew it wouldn’t be long. I arrived at the Shelter only to find a crew of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club replacing the roof and some rotten boards. They were mostly finished and said they would be out of there by 5:30.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1183.jpg They too sensed the storm and were in hurry up mode. I pitched in and handed tools or held ladders. These volunteers bring in the materials by hand as well as carry out any boards, metal roofing, trash etc. My thanks to them for all they do. Finally the crew chief told everyone to get into the shelter as the storm was upon us for real. We gathered all the tools and moved to the back of the shelter. My hiking companions arrived just in time. This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1186-2-1.jpgThe rain and wind was pretty bad. Trees were bending toward the ground and then snapping back to bend the other direction. Within 10 minutes a nearby tree top snapped and came crashing down almost hitting the new picnic table the guys had built the day before.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1187.jpg Within 45 minutes it was over and worked proceeded for another hour. They left and we settled in for the night. several more hikers showed up and though I wanted to be one of the first to try out the newly remodeled Tom Floyd Shelter I decided to set up my tent before the good spaces were reserved. I sleep better in my tent and the chance of a storm seemed small so I vacated the shelter.

The next day would be a transition day. Steak N Shake’s car was at the 4H campground only 1.2 miles away. Jed was going into Front Royal to get a mail drop. He decided to spend a couple of zero days in town. Steak N Shake and myself needed food so we hiked to his car and he drove us to town where we had a good breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bacon and sausage with real coffee and orange juice. we then went to resupply before dropping Jed off at the Quality Inn. Steak N Shake and I then went back to the trail parked his car and headed out. I should mention something that happened earlier on the way to get the car. I was hiking light leaving camp that morning having no food except one pack of cocoa. I motored from the shelter ahead of everyone else. Soon I checked the APP on my phone which listed the 4H Center. It showed me near the Center but I saw no side trail. I thought maybe I had passed it so I backed up a little. In a minute a man and his niece Determined (Her trail name) was coming down the trail. They said my hiking companions had taken a side trail about .5 miles back. Sure enough about then I received a text from Jed wondering if I missed the turnoff. It was not marked and not on my APP. I had to hustle back uphill 300 ft. on a muggy morning. I was out of breath and hot but made it back in 15 minutes. Good thing I didn’t have any food in my pack.

I had been hiking with Jed for almost 200 miles. I will miss him and wish him good luck on the rest of his hike. Steak N Shake had grabbed a sandwich for lunch at the resupply store. I needed more than him and in the rush I forgot to get mine. Later Trail Magic would come to the rescue. After bringing the car back I had to repackage my food in the 4H parking lot. There was a camp for young students going on a hike and the Counselors asked if we would answer their questions about thru hiking. We gladly agreed and then they went on a short hike of their own. I finished packing my food while Shake ate his lunch. I wasn’t at all sure what I would eat but felt the need to get hiking first. We only had 5 miles to the next shelter and it started out down hill. The terrain was not very pretty and it was miserably hot. Thick vines were crowding  close to the trail. You could tell we were passing through private lands. I could se a tall fence on both sides through the thick underbrush. Mosquitos swarmed around whenever you stopped.  I hadn’t eaten yet when I came to a wide path of grass and at the end of it appeared to be a road with a parking lot. I saw what I thought was a picnic area and decided that’s where I would stop for lunch. When I got closer I realized someone was giving out Trail Magic. Another hiker from last year had set up a grill and had cold drinks in a cooler. His house was actually on the other side of the brush I had been walking through and he had cut a path out so he could give hikers lunch as they passed by. I had two hot dogs, two Mountain Dew’s and a bag of chips.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1200.jpg Thanks to Flip for the kindness! It changed my attitude and restored my energy for the day. I crossed US 522 and climbed 850 rocky ft. before another rocky steep downhill. On the way down my knee locked up and I almost hyper extended it as I stumbled forward to the Jim and Molly Denton Shelter.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1208.jpg This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1212.jpgThis was a special shelter. It had a solar shelter, horse shoes, Adirondack 3 person bench/chair, a covered deck and a pavilion over a large picnic table. Later General Lee arrived as would Galileo, Unicef, and Hercules(2014 thru hiker) bringing more Trail Magic! I immediately took a shower and set up my tent. It had ben a good day but the rocks had once again destroyed my feet. Now both seem to have the same issue. At times they seem ok but never better and slowly they seem to get worse. Sadly I have to weigh all my options. I thought about my goals for this journey, my health, what I missed back at home. I knew I needed time off but wasn’t sure how long. I have to figure out how to carry enough calories. I was hiking better but for how long? I also had been scheduled for dental surgery before I left. I had planned to go back 200 miles ago but put it off. That wouldn’t wait much longer. I’ve decided to suspend the hike for the summer months and during the time off answer these questions and come up with a plan for the rest of this year and then finish next year. More on that in the next post. I will go on to Harpers Ferry and Steak N Shake will drop me off in Roanoke on his way home to Savannah. My friend Paul lives there. At that point I will rent a car to Chattanooga and regroup, rest, rehab, take care of the dental issue, but most of all reflect on what I learned and hopefully a strategy to make this work. I still want to see each of the states. I’ll be a section hiker but I don’t have much time so they will have to be long sections. Hopefully I can complete this next year. It’s 50 miles to Harpers Ferry West Virginia. That is the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. I’ll stop by there and tell them of my plans. Maybe they will have some ideas. I’m disappointed but not quitting or giving up. The journey will continue… Stay tuned for the finish of this part and news of my plan!