How lucky are we to have the Appalachian Trail (AT) run right through Crozet? The AT is a remarkable accomplishment, providing a continuous, marked, and public hiking trail that runs 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, all the way up to Mount Katahdin, Maine. It is a national treasure and the fruit of countless hours of countless volunteers as well as selfless public and private partnerships.
The AT is marked along its entirety by white blazes, 2”x6”, usually found on trees, but sometimes on rocks and posts as required by the terrain. The trail is quite difficult along its entire length, with many people feeling that the section that runs through Shenandoah National Park is relatively tame. Hike the AT in Shenandoah and you may not agree, or perhaps you’ll just gain respect for how difficult the trail must be elsewhere along its route.
In October of 2019, I set an FKT (fastest known time) for running the entire length of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park, running the 107.8-mile length in 23 hours and 49 minutes. That time has since been beaten handily, but it was an adventure that I will never forget!
How great it was to start on the trail in Front Royal and run through the night without a map or ever having been on that part of the AT before, all thanks to the white blazes. I’m not sure if it’s a fond memory or PTSD, but the white blaze of the AT reminds me of how much focus it took to constantly be on the lookout for the next blaze throughout that difficult journey. At 4 a.m., when you’re tired, it’s easy to start to zone out and then panic—am I still on the AT? Did I miss a turn? And then right on schedule comes another white blaze, telling you that you are indeed on the right trail. Needless to say, the white blaze is a very meaningful symbol to me.
Occasionally while hiking or running on the AT, you’ll come to a double blaze—two white blazes, one above the other. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a double blaze signals an obscure turn, route change, incoming side trail, or other situation that requires you to be especially alert to changes in direction.
A few months ago, while on a morning run on the AT heading south off of Little Calf Mountain towards Beagle Gap, I came along a double blaze that I’m quite familiar with. It got me thinking about the things in our lives that serve as a proverbial double blaze. Here you are, traveling through life and suddenly, wham! . . . something signals to you that you are coming up on an obscure turn, a route change, an incoming side trail, or other situation that requires you to be especially alert to where you are going.
Many of us are offered double blazes regarding our personal fitness. Sometimes it is a health scare, when you realize that there is a lot about your body that you cannot control. But you can control what you eat and what you do with it. Other times it may be a simple realization that you are out of shape compared to your younger self, such as when you try to keep up with your child hiking up a hill. Or maybe it is frustration at not being able to fulfill a fitness goal you have, and realizing that you need to change something, or nothing is going to change.
Once during my Shenandoah FKT, I missed a double blaze and went off course. I had just entered the central district of the park and the terrain suddenly became much more challenging than it had been for the prior 27 miles. And it was midnight. As I struggled up the steep and rocky terrain, I became focused more on the rocks and my labored breathing than I did on watching out for the white blazes. Suddenly, I popped out on an amazing rock outcrop. A sliver of crescent moon was out, and it was a cold, crisp, clear night. The stars were only rivaled by the lights that spanned forever in the valley below. I took a few seconds to take in the view, and then realized that the trail just seemed to stop right there. I started calmly, then frantically, looking for the next white blaze, but there was none to be found. I started climbing up on large boulders looking all around with my headlamp for the obvious white blazes that I was missing! Dammit!
I took a deep breath and finally realized that I must simply be off course. I did have my phone and the SNP app loaded. I was indeed about ¼ mile off the AT, standing atop the popular tourist spot, Mary’s Rock.
It was a beautiful view, but I needed to get back on my way and I raced back to where I had missed a large post with a clear double blaze on it. I was back on the AT, headed south.
The parallels just keep coming, don’t they. Sometimes we are so caught up in the work and difficulty of our lives that we miss the double blazes that are screaming at us, “Hey! Look out! You need to make a change in direction!”
The COVID pandemic has made us rethink the different pieces of our lives. It has been in itself a huge double blaze. But the AT is made of thousands of white blazes and double blazes, all taking its travelers in the right direction so long as they are paying attention. Our lives are filled with countless blazes. Mostly single blazes, helping us to keep moving forward. But many double blazes, signaling us to change. Sometimes if we miss a turn, it is easy to get back on course. Other times, you can never find your way back, never make it to Maine.
May you stay on the right trail this new year, no matter how rocky and steep. May it be filled with challenges that change you for the better. May it be filled with beautiful outcroppings from which to take in the views.