I left Damascus a day before the Trail Days gathering was over. Every hiker on the Appalachian Trail within 100 miles in either direction would take a break and congregate over a long weekend in the small town of Damascus, Virginia.
Damascus is a town about one third the size of Donalsonville. The Appalachian Trail goes right through the middle of town, as does Laurel Creek. It is a small place with a big heart that embraces every tired, dirty, hungry hiker that walks into town.
During Trail Days there is food everywhere and hikers can eat a lot, believe me. Pancakes by the dozen and ice cream by the gallon. A long-distance hiker needs about 6,000 calories a day so a break in Damascus is like a visit to Disney World.
I left a day early to beat the rush of so many people leaving at one time. I left on the Virginia Creeper Trail, one of most beautiful sections of trail anywhere. Several miles out of town, you walk into the woods following white blazes that guide you every step of the way on the AT.
The rain started that night. It did not let up for days. I ate lunch the next day under a railroad trestle, looking for any break in the weather to enjoy a bit to eat. I slogged on in the mud until I pitched my tent under a tree with the rain still falling steadily.
The rain caused everyone still in Damascus to wait another day or two before leaving. It meant that I truly was in the woods alone, learning how to dry wet socks over a fire before cooking food for a meal.
It was eight days before I saw another human being. It was a miserably wet journey, with no one to share the struggle with me. I learned a lot about myself during those eight days. I learned to rely on myself, trust the skills I knew I had, and keep my wits about me. At the same time, I was so isolated and alone.
With no cellphones, or newspapers, or weather radios, I had to predict the weather the best I could. I pitched my tent during breaks in the rain. I celebrated at the first glimpse of a moon that was a signal that better times were coming. I slept with my socks in my shirt so my body heat would help dry a pair out.
Isolation is tough and challenging. In my case, I had willingly put myself in a place where I knew this could happen. I did not like it, but I knew that it would not last forever.
The self-isolation that we are currently enduring will not last forever, either. Perhaps it is harder when you can see people all around, but you cannot interact with them. Perhaps it is harder when you have constant information rather than none. Perhaps it is hardest when you do not know when the trial will end.
During our collective struggle, we must find ways to dry out our socks, so to speak. We must find ways not just to pass the time, but ways to reconnect and readjust to the things that make us happy.
Today is my mother’s 88th birthday. She is a trooper through all this even though her facility is on total lockdown. She cannot leave her apartment, even to walk outside. That is the hardest part for her, but she is finding ways to make the best of it, never complaining, at least not to me.
Her children will surprise her today by driving to Atlanta where we will stand below her second floor balcony to sing Happy Birthday to her. We will not hug her, or each other for that matter, but we will be there for her.
Tonight, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will all gather on a Zoom videoconference to wish her well, tell stories, and celebrate her birthday. It has been a long, long time since everyone in the extended family has been able to all gather at the same time.
My mother told a friend recently that this would be the first birthday of her long life when she would not be with any family. It turns out that she will be with everyone, thanks to technology and a virus that caused everyone to slow down.
I pray that you all stay safe and that this health crisis will soon be an unpleasant memory of the past. I pray that our days will soon be filled with more good news than bad. I pray that prayers for miracles will soon be answered.
One day soon, we will wake up and it will not be raining, the sun will be shining, and our socks will be dry. Remember this time of isolation so that we all become better people from what we have learned.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org