For a 130-mile stretch through west central Virginia, the Appalachian Trail follows the famed Blue Ridge Parkway in fairly close proximity. Even though the trail crosses the scenic drive multiple times, I never let it intrude on the wild mountain experience found in the woods to either side.

From 4,200 feet on Apple Orchard Mountain, the trail makes a meandering 15-mile descent to the James River at 650 feet, crossing it via a 700-foot bridge. Built on the piers of an old railway span, it is the longest pedestrian-only bridge on the Appalachian Trail. Weeks of intense heat and humidity had worn me down by this point, and the river proved irresistible for a swim and a good, old-time hiker bath.

Beyond the James River, the trail climbs into a jumble of mountains at the 4,000-foot level, including Cold Mountain, The Priest and Three Ridges. Unfortunately, through five straight days of nearly steady rain I missed most of the vistas. Only the occasional startling bursts of pink from the blooming rhododendrons offered solace amid the gloomy mists on the forest path.

On the morning out of Punchbowl Mountain Shelter, lost in my thoughts or perhaps just under-caffeinated, I hiked the wrong way (south) for nearly two miles and climbed 1,000 feet. At a now familiar viewpoint I realized my mistake, barked out a few expletives, turned around and hustled north.

With both spirits and gear dampened, I finally dropped down into welcome sunshine at Rockfish Gap on the doorstep of Shenandoah National Park and made straight for a food truck serving hot dogs, fries and soda. As any thru-hiker worth his or her salt would, I consumed two of each before heading into town for a couple days.

Waynesboro, Virginia is 862 miles from the start of the AT on Springer Mountain in Georgia and a good place to take stock of the big hike before pushing on into the Shenandoahs. I noted the following in my trail journal:

“I’ve been on the trail for 79 days. I’ve lost 23 pounds and 3 inches off my waist. I now weigh a paltry 152 pounds, including shaggy beard. I haven’t had a single blister, and am still wearing the same pair of boots. I’ve shot 2,314 images with my Nikon, and 500 more photos and a handful of videos with my iPhone. I’ve written 40,402 words for my blog, and 2,600 for this column.

No estimate on the number of beers consumed, or Snicker bars or Ramen noodle dinners. I’ve enjoyed countless mountain views, made as many incredible trail friends, and have generally had a heckuva good time. Several full clouds of rain have fallen on me, but just a dusting of snow. I’ve seen a handful of snakes, but no rattlers or copperheads. Other than a few biting gnats, insects haven’t been a problem.

I am happy to be out here doing this hike. Some days are certainly rougher than others, and I miss my lovely wife Fran beyond measure, plus the other aspects of a comfy home life.

I am ever grateful for the good health and good fortune to carry through with this Appalachian Trail journey. Thanks to my wife, family and friends for supporting this dream.”

The attrition rate has spiked the last few weeks, with at least two dozen hiker friends leaving the trail. Injuries from falls, Lyme disease, poison ivy, boredom, homesickness, money woes, family problems at home, even an accidental stabbing – all have taken their toll.

Trundling along the trail for long hours each day, my mind wanders. I haven’t experienced any great philosophical breakthroughs yet, but I have enjoyed the complete freedom to think about everything or nothing at all. I once spent two entire days piecing together the lyrics for Harry Chapin’s “Taxi,” and another two days singing it over and over in my head. Go figure.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is the author of “AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast.” Follow Carey’s AT thru-hike in his Maineiac Outdoors blog at:

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