The day that I left Indiana I woke up on a couch in my buddy’s basement, which was good because it was below freezing inside my van in his driveway. I let the defrost melt the ice on my windshield and doubled down on my plan to head south. Time to get out before I get snowed in!
The road always provides what you need, even if that means you need to be tested. Day two back on the road offered me an opportunity to overcome a big challenge. I was driving down a dirt road with no name in Kentucky to look at the autumn leaves when I felt a pop in the accelerator pedal, déjà vu. I pulled over into someone’s front yard and started taking the van apart to access the engine. The ‘neighborhood’ I broke down in consisted of a few mobile homes with pit bulls chained to trees and confederate flags flying. I wasn’t sure that my hippie-go-lucky attitude would do well there, so I quickly swapped my tie dye bandanna for a ball cap that would make me look more “country”.
One resident came out and asked me what I was doing. He was suspicious, but we chatted for a few minutes. He said there had been a lot of drug problems and burglaries in the area, but if I needed any help his neighbor was a mechanic and would be home in a few hours. I thanked him and opened my toolbox to tackle what I was sure was an accelerator linkage problem.
Sure enough, the gas pedal was disconnected again, just like in the Bighorn Mountains, and this time I tried to fix it myself. The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was coming into play again. Instead of looking at my van as art and the feeling of living free, I viewed it as a simple sequence of mechanical processes, and one of them was broken. I found the disconnected cable and reattached it. The van was mobile again, but I had adjusted the cable so that my idle was whining above 2,500 RPM. It wasn’t ideal, but I was able to get it out of the front yard and back to a gas station where I could work on it without making the neighbors, and myself, uncomfortable. Over the next few days I continued to make adjustments to set the idle at a steady RPM. I’m definitely not a certified Volkswagen mechanic yet, but with a little patience, an inquisitive mind, and some basic mechanical knowledge, I’m gaining confidence in my ability to take care of the van myself.
I left Kentucky and headed for Tennessee. I was meeting Mamaw B, a grandmother who had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail with me in 2012, and a woman whose commitment to adventure is truly inspiring. It just so happened that Rafiki, my hiking buddy from the last few hundred miles of the AT, was passing through Knoxville that day, so I picked him up from the bus station and the three of us headed out for cold beer, live music, and plenty of trail talk. I hadn’t seen either of them since we finished the trail 3 years prior, and a few hours in one night wasn’t enough time to catch up with such awesome hiker trash, but I had to keep moving south.
From Knoxville I headed east to revisit the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. I drove to the top of Clingman’s Dome and then stopped at Newfound Gap to do a quick trail run to Charlie’s Bunion. It was a great feeling to be back on the white blazes, and even better to be traveling much lighter and faster without a backpack full of gear!
I left the Smokies and continued east into North Carolina. I had originally planned to follow the Appalachian Trail south to toward Springer Mountain, but something made me change my mind. Well, not something, someone. All summer I had been contemplating sending a message to a girl that I’d had a crush on since college in hopes that we could get together when I passed through the Southeast. Finally, back in Indy, my buddy Jon put my feet to the fire and helped me build the confidence to hit send.
Within a few hours of my message I had a reply and we made plans to grab beers and catch up on the last 10 years. Once I reached Charlotte we visited a few local pubs, and by the end of the night I’d finally worked up the courage (read as ‘I had enough beer in me to take a chance’) to tell her that I’ve had a crush on her. It was really just for me to get it off my chest and I figured that I’d be heading out that night to find a Walmart parking lot to sleep in and continue my trip as planned in the morning. To my surprise, she smiled and said she’d always liked me too.
The next day came too soon and I had to leave. I’d made plans to see my buddy David Valenzuela in eastern North Carolina and I didn’t want to bail on a good friend. I spent the next 4 hours driving and reviewing my tentative trip plans and it wasn’t long before I decided that I could spend a few more days in Charlotte, if she wanted me to.
In the meantime I made my way to David’s place and we popped the tops on some cold beers and talked about the Appalachian Trail, living in vans, traveling, and women. We headed into town and played a round of Disc Golf, met up with some of his friends, and had fantastic home cooked meals from his mom, seriously, one of the best cooks I’ve ever met!
After two days I said goodbye to David and started retracing my steps. I hadn’t returned to a single place that I’d visited so far on this trip, but I knew that heading back to Charlotte was what I was supposed to do. I ended up staying for several more nights, touring the city, taking her out for dinner and dessert dates, going on long walks, getting caught in rainstorms, and falling harder for her with every conversation. Eventually though, I did have to leave. I still had thousands of miles, many friends, and several states to visit before Thanksgiving in Arizona. I was reluctant to go, but I had chosen this vagabond life and I wasn’t ready to stand still.
I left Charlotte and drove to North Georgia. This was ground zero for me, the start of the Appalachian Trail, and the place where I began my transition to this unconventional lifestyle. Three years ago, standing at the start of the white blazes, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d be back here, living in a van, traveling full time, following my dreams, all because I took that first step off Springer Mountain.