BIKEpacking the Appalachian Trail: Why Is Going Solo Like Therapy?
A solo overnighter on a bucket-list trail that led to playing in the dirt and a conversation with crows.
OK, I didn’t really cycle on the Appalachian Trail. After all, that’s not permitted, but I did ride a former piece of the AT. The Iron Mountain Trail in Virginia was a 24 mile slice of the AT until 1972 when they moved it slightly South. This ridgeline gem has been on my bucket list for a while, so I decided to make an overnight out of it. Although the IMT is now shared with motorcycle riders, horse people and mountain bikers, it is pretty cool biking in trail-space walked by Grandma Gatewood and other storied hikers.
I do have to say that the first five mile section of the IMT is in very rough shape. Not sure whether to blame it on the record rainfall this year or the horses that make their ways along this same path. I may or may not have said, ‘horses suck’ a few times while trudging through 8 inch deep hoof mud, but I was cordial to a couple passing jockeys and their steeds. Luckily the mucky part concluded fairly quickly and the single track began.
For decades people have ventured to solo hike the Appalachian Trail as a means to restore mental fortitude. I once backpacked a chunk of it to overcome some ghosts myself. Although nine and a half times out of ten I’d prefer to be riding with a buddy, I was content going companionless on this one. Bikepacking solo is kind of like therapy. Being completely alone in the middle of nowhere seems to take things that were joggling around your skull and put them back in order. Why is that? Maybe it’s the free pace of things that encourages you to stop and do little meditative meanderings. I found myself lazily sitting on the forest floor a few of times studying tiny bits of flora, frogs and fungi.
It could be the silence that comes with solitude. You really don’t get that very often. I actually carried on a conversation with a small murder of crows for five or ten minutes at one point. It was kind of like they were following me along the ridge for a mile or so.
Or perhaps it’s the instinctual stirring of self-preservation. If you botch a line on a rocky descent, you are the only person who can drag your ass several miles out of the woods. I don’t think the crows would help. Even if you don’t worry about your own mortality, I think just having it in your subconscious tilts your perspective.
On a different level, beating the shit out of oneself is also therapeutic, I guess. The final 6 miles of the IMT dropped over 1,500 feet of rocky, and sometimes flowing, goodness. After spilling out of the trail into the tiny town of Damascus, I started the slow, tedious ride back up 25 miles of Virginia Creeper Trail and pavement. I’ll have to say that my Misery Indexometer was tipping towards a high 10 in the final few miles to my car as my legs were cramping and hunger was gnawing away at my belly. I guess the road broke my body, but a journey through the woods cleared my head.
- Park at the Northeast end (FSR 741 and FSR 4402).
- There is no water sources after where I made camp until the last 5 mile descent; plenty until then though.
- There are 2 different 3-walled shelters on the trail. One at about 5miles (Cherry Tree) and one at about 10 (Straight Branch).