Appalachian Trail Tuesdays
Trail Tuesdays is my attempt to memorialize my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. The A.T. is a long distance hiking trail that runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia, to Mt. Katahdin in Maine- you can read all about the trail here or here. I try to post a new segment each week (please note the emphasis on the word try) on the main page, and will add it here if you want to read the whole thing from the beginning. Thanks for reading!
E and I stood around in the parking lot at the base of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian trail, with our High School Friend who had driven E down from our hometown in Ohio, and my College Boyfriend, who had driven me up from Florida, where we had been living together for the past 5 months. We made small talk and took goofy pictures of E and I all bundled up with our packs on our backs and hiking poles in our hands, trying to figure out how to say goodbye. College Boyfriend would be going back to his life, our life for the past months, alone, and I was walking into the woods without him. We had made tenative plans to be together after I reached Maine in 5 months, but we both knew that as soon as I started walking down the trail, things would be different. He was supportive of my need to go, but he readily admitted that he would be happier if I had stayed with him in Florida, playing house, so that we could seriously start planning our future together. At 25, I thought I might be ready for that future, too, but I needed what I saw as maybe my last big adventure, before I made any decisions. Standing there in that parking lot, I was having a hard time balancing my sadness at leaving College Boyfriend with the overwhelming excitement and nervousness I felt because the time had finally come, after almost a year of planning, plotting, thinking, obsessing about the trip, for us to take our first steps.
It had all started with a phone call in March, 2002. I was, as I typically was in those days, stuck in Chicago traffic when my best friend, E, called from her house in St. Louis.
“Dude, I think I’m going to hike the A.T.”
“When?” I asked.
“Next year, probably February or March.” E was in the process of studying for the MCATs, and would be applying to medical schools that fall, with the goal of starting school the following fall, so she would be able to take the five months needed to hike the A.T. the following spring, assuming everything went as planned.
“Wow, that’s really great.” I told her. We talked some more about her plans; me, inching along in traffic on my way back to the office in downtown Chicago; her, sitting on her porch in St. Louis getting ready to bike to the hospital where she was working as a nurses’ aid. E and I became best friends the moment we met the summer before seventh grade, and could, even now, a year out of college, spend hours talking on the phone about anything or nothing at all.
When E finally got off the phone so she could get to work, I was still about five miles from the office, which meant probably another hour in the car. I was working for non-profit that required me to routinely travel out to the Chicago suburbs, and I often spent hours at a time in my ’86 Honda Civic that had no CD player or air conditioning, driving out of and back into the city. After realizing road rage was doing nothing but giving me an ulcer, I had come to appreciate the time it gave me to think.
I thought about E’s plans. I was jealous. The previous summer, right after I graduated from college, E, E’s sister and my good friend, C, and I spent a month backpacking the Long Trail, a hiking trail that traverses the Green Mountains of Vermont, from the Massachusetts line to the Canadian border. It was my first long distance hiking trip, and I hadn’t been prepared for how hard it would be. In the minutes after we completed the trail, but before I collapsed with exhaustion, I swore I would never do something like that again. But now, almost a year later, the pain had faded, and the memories of the constant laughter and gorgeous vistas were all that remained.
Sitting there, in bumper to bumper traffic, I thought “Man, I wish I could do something like that”. And maybe, if the cars had started moving, and I had made it back to work, that thought would have stayed just that, a thought. But I wasn’t going anywhere fast, and pretty soon, I wondered “Why not?” And that was all it took. Without any idea of how I would make it work, still stuck in my car, I called E back.
“I’m coming with you.”
And just like that, my life changed course.
Up to that moment, I was working in a job that I loved, but knew wasn’t right for the long term, not sure what my next move should be. But as soon as I said those words, my plans started falling into place. I decided to follow E’s lead and go back to school after the hike, so I took the LSATs and applied to law school, an idea that, up until then, I had only given passing consideration. I also realized fairly quickly that since I could barely pay my rent each month as it was, there was no way I could save any money living in Chicago on my meager non-profit salary. I decided that when my lease was up in October I would move to Florida where College Boyfriend lived, so I could live rent-free. By a stroke of luck my non-profit was headquartered in Florida, so I arranged to work from College Boyfriend’s apartment, and travel across the state to the headquarters every few weeks until I left for the trail.
E made big changes, too, to make the trip happen. One week after sending me an email saying she thought she had met her “100% perfect boy”, she left St. Louis to move back to our Hometown, where she could live with her brother and wait tables to save money.
Decisions were made so quickly that it wasn’t until I was in the car again, this time on my way to Florida with my cat named Cat, that I even stopped to think about whether I was doing the right thing. I knew I wanted to do the hike, but was it worth leaving the job, friends, city I loved to move in with someone who wouldn’t even tell his parents I would be there? But by that time the wheels were in motion and it was too late for second thoughts.
When I got to Florida, College Boyfriend and I realized living together wasn’t what we thought it would be. I felt trapped, working at the apartment alone all day, not knowing another soul in Florida other than him. He felt overwhelmed, not used to dealing with another person’s shit the minute he walked in the door from work. One night, after another dinner grew cold while he went out drinking with his buddies, I told him, “If this is what it’s going to be like, I don’t want any part of this life.”
But as time went on, we began to figure it out. I gave him more space, and he was more considerate of the fact that I was lonely without any friends. We spent a lot of time at the beach, and entertaining friends who needed an escape from the cold midwest winter. We picked out furniture for his apartment, and built a coffee table together. We went to the weddings of several close friends, and started talking about whether that might be us someday. I asked him to put off any major decisions until I got back.
E and I settled on February 23rd as our start date. It was earlier than most, and we knew that meant we might run into some bad weather, but because we both would be starting school in the beginning of August, and the average thru-hike takes about five and a half to six months, we needed to get out as early as possible. February 23rd was the earliest I could leave my job, so that was the day we chose.
We planned obsessively. I spent hours researching every piece of hiking equipment, checking hiking message boards and customer reviews to find the lightest gear for the lowest price. I figured and refigured my gear list, the list of items that I would be carrying in my backpack, trying to balance the need to keep the total weight as low as possible, with my fear of not having everything I might need. We grilled E’s sister Supergirl, and her fiance Grover, who had met hiking the A.T. several years earlier, about what to expect. We read and reread every book we could find written about the trail. We poured over the guidebooks and E spent days sketching out a tentative mileage schedule. We knew most people about to hike the A.T. didn’t plan their trip in as much detail as we did, but we needed to finish in early July, giving us less than five months to complete the hike, and that meant we would have to keep a pretty quick pace.
“Its like a big puzzle.” E told me during one of our near-nightly phone calls. “And just when I think I’ve got it figured out, I realize I didn’t factor something in, like making sure we stop for the night near a water source, and I have to start all over. But I think I’m almost finished.”
“Yeah, like I was thinking we should make sure we don’t schedule any mail drops for Sundays” I said, referring to the days we would need to go into towns near the trail to pick up supplies our family and friends would send to the local post offices.
By the time E and I stood in that parking lot, at the base of Springer Mountain, the Southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, we had spent almost a year thinking about the trip. We were as prepared as anyone could be, but the time for planning was over, and now we just needed to take those first steps.
It was the cold that made us finally say goodbye to our high school friend and College Boyfriend. It had snowed the night before, the ground was covered, and the trees still held a light dusting. From the parking lot we stood in, we knew we would have to hike about a mile South to reach the peak of Springer Mountain, the official starting point of the trail, and then backtrack through the parking lot to head North, the direction we would be heading for the next months.
College Boyfriend pulled me aside. “I love you, you know”
“Yeah, I love you too.”
“Be careful out there, and after this, promise you won’t leave me for this long again.”
“I’ll be careful.” I told him. He climbed into his Jeep, and I was sad as I watched him drive back down the dusty roads.
“Let’s go.” E said, and I could only feel excitement as we finally took our first steps down the trail.
We talked giddily as we walked, barely believing that the thing I had imagined happening for so long was actually really happening. E told me she heard that when you reached the top of Springer Mountain, you were supposed to take a small rock, and carry it with you the whole trip, to place on the top of Mt. Katahdin, in Maine, the Northern terminus of the trail. We joked about not being able to find a small enough rock, and being weighed down by the boulder in our pack the whole trip.
An hour passed quickly, but we still hadn’t reached the top of Springer, so we were relieved when we finally spotted one of the mileage signs that often dotted the trail.
E reached the sign first and stopped. “Dude, you have got to be fucking kidding me.”
“This sign says Springer Mountain, 2.5 miles THAT way” she said, pointing in the direction we had just come from. “We went the wrong fucking way!”
E reached the sign first and stopped. “Dude, you have got to be fucking kidding me.”
“This sign says Springer Mountain, 2.5 miles THAT way” she said, pointing in the direction we had just come from. “We went the wrong fucking way!”
“Of course we did.” I laughed, rolling my eyes like a teenager. For years, E and I had bumbled our way through one situation to another, and this turn was par for the course.
“Jesus, we are idiots. How many times did we look at that map?” E smiled as she pulled a trail map out of her pocket. It turned out, we were heading the right direction, north, but we were supposed to have gone south out of the parking lot to reach the top of Springer Mountain, and then backtracked back through the parking lot to head north. On a normal hike, missing a peak wouldn’t be a big deal, but we knew that missing Springer Mountain, the southern terminus, the very starting point of the Appalachian Trial, was different. For a year we had looked at pictures of hikers, at the start of their journey, standing at the plaque that sits at the top of Springer, and we had imagined ourselves there a million times.
“So…what should we do?” E asked.
We had a choice, turn around and go back to reach the peak, take our picture, and then retrace our steps, a move that would add more than four miles to our day; or we could keep moving. In what would become an all too common mantra, we simultaneously decided “Fuck it.” I pulled out my camera to take a picture of E at what we deemed “our Springer,” and we continued to hike north.
“We’re not going to tell anyone about this, right?” I asked.
“Oh, hell no.”
The rest of the hike passed quickly. The trail was fairly flat, and down hill, and we giddily pointed out the scenery around us as we walked.
“Look,” E pointed to the bushes that canopied the trail, “Rhododendrons.”
“They’re beautiful.” And they were; everything was. A light snow covered every surface, except the trail, in my journal I would describe it as a “winter wonderland“.
Every few minutes, one of us would say “I can’t believe this is finally happening” or “Dude, its so on!”
That night I wrote “I think that, given some time, the full impact of what we are trying to do will set in, but right now it seems unfathomable that we are going to be hiking for five months. I can’t even wrap my mind around it.“
Our plan was to hike about 8 miles that day. We knew, from our Long Trail hike, that trying to hike too many miles too soon could lead to injuries and fatigue. We were so excited to be hiking that we walked quickly and before we knew it, we had reached our destination, Hawk Mountain Shelter. All along the Appalachian Trail, usually every 5 to 10 miles, there are shelters for hikers to stay in. They are generally a three sided wood structure, located near a water source. Although in most sections of the trail, backpackers can pitch a tent anywhere along the path, many chose to stop at shelters because they provide water, a place to sit, and refuge from the weather.
The shelter was empty when we arrived.
“What time is it?” I asked.
E looked at her watch, “Shit…its only 1:30. What do you want to do?” We were warm from walking, but it was very cold outside, and we knew that if we stopped for the day, it wouldn’t be long before we’d need to get in our sleeping bags to keep from freezing. But we looked at the map, and the next shelter was another 8 miles down the trail, so we decided to call it a day.
As we suspected, within an hour of stopping, we were wearing every piece of clothing in our packs, and were buried in our sleeping bags. We played cards, cooked dinner, wrote in our journals, and were asleep by 7:00pm.
The next morning, we woke at 7:00 am to slightly warmer, 35 degree, weather. I repacked my bag, ate an energy bar, and we headed out. We planned to hike another low mileage day, about 8 miles, to ease ourselves into our new routine. The terrain was more challenging than the first day, and climbing mountains with 35 pounds on my back reminded me how hard hiking could be, and made me wish I was better prepared. In the months beforehand, after finishing a round of physical therapy for a knee injury, I hadn’t been very active. I kept telling myself, “I’m going to be walking all day every day for the next five months, I can sit on the couch today.” With my inactivity, combined with the license I gave myself to eat whatever I wanted because “I’ll lose weight once I’m hiking“, on the day we started the trail, I weighed more than I ever had, and was in the worst shape of my life.
As the day wore on, the sun came out, and the snow melted around us. At noon we climbed down a hill to a grassy area and creek. We decided to stop for lunch, and after looking at the map, realized that it was just over a mile to our destination for the night, Gooch Mountain Shelter.
“Let’s just sit here for awhile.” E suggested. We laid on our backs, warmed by the sun, for almost two hours. We would talk, and then fall silent, lost in our own thoughts. I thought about how peaceful it was by that creek, and how, for the first time I could remember, I felt calm.
Eventually, we made our way to the shelter. That night, we met some other thru-hikers. E and I, and another hiker named Mike, built a fire. We all sat around talking, and joking, and playing games. That night I wrote “Its been an amazing day. I’m tired, but I’m really happy.”
And then, the next morning, the rains came.
I woke up feeling stiff and sore and cold. The temperature had dropped dramatically, and the ground was frozen solid. No one talked as we packed our belongings, sleeping bag first, then clothes, then food and cooking gear at the top. The optimism and camaraderie from the night before was gone, erased by the dense gray fog that covered everything in sight. As we left the shelter, a light drizzle began to fall, and I pulled out the waterproof cover that would protect my pack, and my belongings, from the rain as I hiked.
E and I started out the morning walking together in silence, and soon, she pulled away, and I was left to shuffle along by myself. Having backpacked together before, E and I had agreed beforehand that we would each hike at our own pace, even if that meant we would be walking alone most days. As the slower hiker, I knew it would be equally frustrating for me to always feel like I was holding her up, and for her to feel like she had to hold herself back. But, despite what I knew, as the distance between us grew, I couldn’t help berating myself “You should be in better shape. You are not going to be able to do this. You can’t make it out here. She’s going to be waiting for you the whole trip.“
The cold rain fell steadily, making the rocks and roots that covered the trail slick. I pulled the drawstrings tight on the hood of my rain jacket and tried to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. My mood grew darker as the day wore on. I was soaked with sweat and rain, and though I was exhausted from the climbs, steeper and more frequent than the days before, stopping to rest was not an option. As soon as I quit moving, my body heat dissipated, and within minutes, I was shivering uncontrollably. By the time I made it to the shelter that night, I was spent, emotionally and physically. Many of the same hikers we had met the night before were at the shelter when I arrived, and several straggled in soon after I did. We ended the day as we started it; cold, tired, and in silence.
The next morning, the fourth day of the hike, while the weather remained the same, cold and wet, the mood among the hikers was noticeably lighter. Everyone was excited because less than four miles from the shelter was Neel’s Gap, where, right on the trail stood the Walasi-Yi Inn, which serves as an outfitter and hiker’s hostel. With the warmth of a building with four walls and a roof calling us, even the steep climb over Blood Mountain passed without notice. A high percentage of those attempting to thru-hike the A.T. end their hike at Neel’s Gap, some due to injury, but most because the trail just isn’t what they thought it would be- its too hard, too cold, too lonely. I had heard this statistic when E and I were still planning our hike and thought “How could someone who set out to hike to Maine, quit after only 30 miles?” But now, thirty miles into my own thru-hike, I completely understood. It wasn’t that the experience wasn’t what I thought it would be, I had prepared for the weather, the physical pain, the solitude; it was that I wasn’t sure that I was who I thought I would be.
We were giddy when we reached Walasi-Yi, all of the hikers taking turns calling their families to give them updates, browsing the store for items they forgot, many going through their packs to send home unnecessary weight. I talked to College Boyfriend, trying to sound more upbeat than I felt. In the comfort of the hiker’s hostel, on a tattered thrift store couch, I took off my wet boots and examined the blisters that had sprung up the night before.
“Whoa! That’s disgusting.” A bearded hiker sitting next to me looked at my heels, and the blisters that had become quarter sized, gaping wounds. “You’ve got to take care of that shit, or you’re not going to be able to walk.”
I went to the outfitter and bought some antibiotic cream and large bandages, knowing that with the wet weather, and friction from my boots, it would be hard to keep the bandages in place, and there wasn’t much hope that the wounds would heal anytime soon. An hour later, my heels bandaged, E and I agreed that we should get going. We had planned to hike another 7 miles that day, and as nice as it felt to sit in the warm hostel, as tempting as a hot shower sounded, we weren’t ready to deviate from our schedule quite yet. Of the twelve hikers who arrived at Walasi-Yi that day, only four of us left the building that afternoon; E and I, Mike, the thru-hiker we had met two nights earlier, and a section-hiker named Dan.
With nothing to look forward to except another wet, freezing night, the last seven miles of the day dragged endlessly. When I finally arrived at the shelter, E announced that the roof leaked, so to be careful where I put my sleeping bag. Also, she told me, several people had written in the shelter log, the notebook found in most shelters for hikers to write in, that mice and bats frequented this spot. Listlessly, I cooked my dinner of Lipton Noodles, and then climbed into my sleeping bag, which I had covered with the garbage bag that usually lined my backpack, in hopes of waking up dry. As we lay there in the shelter, side by side, E, Mike, Dan, and I, we played a game where you name as many bands as you can for each letter of the alphabet, trying to keep our minds off of what were truly miserable circumstances. We finally grew silent, but the rain continued to pound, mercifully drowning out the sounds of any mice or bats that may have shared our beds that night.
I woke up to Dan, the section hiker, quietly cursing “Fuck!” He hadn’t covered his sleeping bag like the rest of us, and he woke up to find that with the leaky roof, and the sideways rain, his bag was soaked through. “FUCK! I’m going to have to go back, aren’t I.” He looked desperately at us, hoping we would tell him otherwise, but we knew he was right. The temperature was close to freezing, and the rain showed no signs of letting up. The next town was more than a day’s hike away, and without a warm, dry, bag to sleep in at night, those conditions could lead to hypothermia, or worse. We said goodbye, and watched Dan head back towards Neel’s Gap, knowing it would be that much harder for him to get back on the trail after this setback, and knowing that if we kept moving, we would probably never see him again.
I lingered in my sleeping bag, dreading putting on my wet hiking clothes, and not certain that I could face another day like those before. I re-bandaged my feet, and watched as Mike and then E left the shelter. E and I hadn’t talked much since the rain had started, I didn’t want her to know how unhappy I was. She seemed so strong and confident, aware that the situation was miserable, but ready to face it nonetheless. I felt weak in comparison.
I reluctantly started walking, every step harder than the next. My gloves were still wet from the day before, and my hands were so cold, I could barely grasp my hiking poles. At one point, as the trail followed a mountain downward, I lost my footing and landed on my backside, hitting my knee on a rock. The knee instantly stiffened, and I struggled to continue walking. Our plan that day was to hike about 13 miles, but I knew there was a shelter after 6 miles, where we had tentatively agreed to stop for lunch. I thought that if I could just make it to the first shelter, E would be waiting there for me. I fueled myself on this notion, convinced that she must be as miserable as I was, or at least understand the pain I was in, and that once I got there, we could agree that we should stop for the day, instead of hiking the last 7 miles as we had planned.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, I saw the sign for the shelter. But as I approached the structure, my heart sank. There was no one there. E had already moved on, meaning that I would have to move on as well. But I couldn’t. It had taken every reserve of strength I had to make it to this point, and I had no idea where I would find the energy to walk even one more step.
And so I sat on the wood planks of the shelter floor, already shivering from the cold, and began to cry.
I sobbed so hard and long my stomach ached. I desperately searched for any way to change my situation, and found no solution. In a moment of weakness, I pulled a cell phone out of my pack, the cell phone that E and I had agreed we would only use in emergency situations, and turned it on with the thought that I could reach my Mom, or College Boyfriend, anyone really, but saw, not surprisingly, that there was no reception.
I was in the middle of the woods, over seven miles from the next shelter, and 30 miles from any town. I sat there crying, hopeless, for a full half hour, until it finally sunk in that ”There is nothing I can do, I have to keep walking.” Realizing this, that I had no other choice but to move forward, was oddly liberating. By having no options, I felt free. And then, as if someone else was controlling my limbs, I mindlessly searched through my pack for a dry pair of wool socks, which I put on my hands, loaded my pack on my back, grabbed my hiking sticks, and started walking.
Resigned to my fate, and with my socked hands now thawing, I was able to think about something other than my own misery. The rain still fell, and my feet and knee still ached, but a fog had lifted. I had hit rock bottom, and now I was moving on. If I was going to have to hike, and really, I had no choice, I decided I might as well try to have fun. I made up songs about the slippery rocks and tree roots that covered the trail, singing at the top of my lungs “Wet rocks and roots are not your friends. They will get you in the end.“
By the time I reached the shelter, I felt like a different person. E and Mike were waiting there for me, E clearly worried, but not saying anything. They ushered me to the campfire that Mike had managed to start in the pouring rain. E told me that she had stopped at the previous shelter, but had been so cold and miserable that she had to move on.
“Today really sucked.” she said, putting her arm around my shoulders.
“Tell me about it.”
The next morning, we woke to something we hadn’t seen in days, sunshine. It was perfect hiking weather, cool, but warm enough to strip off a few of the layers we had become accustomed to wearing. We were fortunate the conditions were so ideal, because the terrain was harder than any we had encountered, and we were attempting our longest day yet, 15.8 miles.
Around lunchtime I reached the base of a daunting mountain. I took my time to scramble and climb the boulders that comprised the steep path. When I finally made it to the top, I was rewarded by an amazing view of nothing but more mountains and valleys and trees as far as I could see. I was surprised to find Mike and E sitting on a rock outcropping, waiting for me. E later told me what I had figured, that they had been waiting there for a long time. She said that Mike had wanted to wait because he said that this was the kind of view you needed to share with someone.
We had been hiking with Mike since our second night out, coincidentally stopping at the same shelters each night, but after that day, we became a trio. Mike was kind of a goofy, lanky, twenty year old kid from Upstate New York who was taking a break from college to thru-hike the trail. E and I were pretty goofy ourselves. Plus, Mike could start a raging fire out of nothing, in any weather, which we had come to learn was an invaluable asset.
We all decided that the next morning we would hike an easy 3.5 miles to Dicks Creek Gap where the A.T. crossed Highway 76. The town of Hiawassee, Georgia lay eleven miles down that road, and with it, a chance to resupply, make phone calls, and eat a warm meal. We reached the road quickly, eager to get to civilization, and were faced with the prospect of finding someone willing to drive three dirty, smelly, hikers into town. Hitchhiking is one of the central experiences of any A.T. backpacker. Most trail towns are too far to walk to from the trail, and so often, hikers have to rely on the kindness of others in order to get to town. Luckily, people who live near the A.T. are used to the sight of weary hikers sticking out their thumbs, begging for rides, even a few are brave enough to stop. E and I had the advantage of being some of the few women who thru-hike, and probably seemed less threatening to many drivers. As time passed, we developed a routine where E and I would smile and wave and stick out our thumbs, and Mike would hide behind us until someone finally stopped.
That first day, standing on the side of Highway 76, we were fortunate to see the telltale signs of a ride, break lights, and a quickly reversing car, within minutes. The driver was a Ridge Runner, the person responsible for maintaining shelters and the path, and providing support to hikers on certain sections of the trail. As we drove towards Hiawassee, he told us that we were the first thru-hikers he’d met that season, but that they expected record numbers to start their hikes in March and April. I liked that we were ahead of the pack.
Hiawassee is a tiny place, with a population of under one thousand people, but it seemed like paradise to us. Once in town, the first thing we did was go to the post office. In most towns near the trail, post offices will hold mail and packages for hikers. After collecting a package containing a book and $20 from my dad, and a card from my mom, we practically skipped across the street to an All You Can Eat diner. As we chowed down on anything we could get our hands on, eating food that would be greasy and unimaginable any other time, but was brilliant that day, our perky teenage waitress pestered us with questions.
“So how much do y’all hike everyday?” she drawled. When we told her, she exclaimed “Goodness. I walked a mile yesterday, in order to get in shape for cheerleadin’ and I’m still pooped!”
Her wonder at what we were doing, her announcement that “Wow. I could never do what y’all are doing. That is just sooooo cool!” made me realize that she was right, despite my recent lows, this trip was a very cool thing.
We finished our meal, and after spending over an hour on three adjacent pay phones, talking to family, and in my case, College Boyfriend, we stopped by the supermarket to refresh our food supply. In order to manage the weight of our packs, E and I had planned to only carry four to five days of food at any time, arranging our mileage so that we would arrive at a road crossing when were running low. When we finished our shopping, we lingered in front of the market, drinking sodas and cracking jokes, knowing that the only thing left to do was find a hitch back to the trail.
Being in town is exciting. Leaving town… is hard. Your pack is heavy with your fresh resupply, your belly is full of greasy food, and the trail almost always climbs upward, away from town. On that day, my reluctance to return to the trail was intensified by the sores on my heels, which I discovered had only grown since I last checked them. Knowing that every step would cause pain made it hard to want to go back. I looked longingly at the rundown motel across the street from the market. I was just about to suggest to E and Mike that we get a room and a shower and a bed and a roof over our heads, when a pick up truck stopped and asked if we needed a ride.
Once back on the trail, which did, in fact, climb steeply from the road, I realized that my optismism, my feeling that this trip was a very cool thing, had vanished. I thought about the times I had felt happy over the past week, and realized they were few and far between. I started thinking that maybe thru-hiking just wasn’t for me, and that if I wasn’t happy, maybe I should just quit.
That night, I made a deal with myself. I wrote in my journal “I started wondering today if I should quit. I’m hardly ever happy while I’m hiking, and I’m in constant pain. Today is March 1st. I’ve decided that I will give it a month, and if I’m still not happy, I’ll leave the trail.”
What I didn’t know when I wrote that passage was that I had a more pressing concern, and his name was Owl. Owl, of course, wasn’t his actual name, it was a trail name. Many people hiking the AT, or any long trail for that matter, adopt, or are given, a trail name, which they use during their hike. In fact, I never learned the real names of most of the people I met on the AT. Already, Mike had become Mikenango, a combination of his name and his hometown, and E had become Sweet n’ Low, a nod to the fact that she is diabetic. I had yet to find a name that suited me.
Whatever his name, we knew Owl was trouble from the minute he walked up to the shelter that night.
After he caught his breath, he zeroed in on Mike, saying, “That’s an interesting stove you got there.”
“Shit. A gear-head.” E muttered under her breath, as I rolled my eyes and made a gagging gesture. Not much had changed since high school.
Gear-heads are a peculiar breed of hiker, one that, even in our short time on the trail, we had learned to studiously avoid. They are, generally, middle-aged white men, decked out with sparkling new equipment, who will talk about hiking gear until they are blue in the face. Owl was no different. Like most gear-heads, Owl only feigned interest in others’ gear in order to pontificate about why his model of backpack/sleeping bag/water bottle/rain jacket was superior.
Although E and I had purposefully, and none-too-subtly, turned our backs to Owl, leaving Mike alone to fend for himself, it wasn’t long before he tried to engage us, too.
“Hey, what do you girls use to filter your water?” He asked, pulling his shiny new water filter out of his pack. Mike mouthed “suck it, suckers” to E and I. Pay back.
Since all water on the trail comes from a natural water source- a spring, a river, in desperate times a mud puddle, it needs to purified in order to avoid waterborne illnesses. Most hikers carry a water filter, or use iodine tablets to treat their water. E and I used bleach. Two drops of bleach in a liter of water kills anything dangerous, doesn’t effect the taste of the water, is light to carry, and most importantly, is safe to use. The method is uncommon, but certainly not unheard of. (One time, E and I collapsed in a giggle-fit when another hiker told us the joke- “What does Snoop Dog use to filter his water?” “BLEE-ACH!!” Hiker humor.)
“BLEACH!” Owl screeched, living up to his name, “I’ve never heard of that! Are you sure that’s safe?”
“Safe???” E said, “Well shit, Owl, we never thought of that!”
Owl, completely oblivious to the sarcasm E had so thickly laid on him, continued to quiz us about the bleach, and every other piece of gear we carried until I finally faked a yawn and told Owl that we needed to turn in for the night. But my thought that we would find peace from Owl in sleep was dead wrong. In addition to being a gear-head, Owl was a world-class snorer.
Around 2am, without more than a few minutes of sleep, E and I simultaneously reached our breaking point. Half-delirious, E grabbed a hiking pole and began poking Owl, while I stomped my foot on the shelter floor. This method worked to stop Owl’s snoring for about 2 seconds, and then we would hear a loud snort, and the racket would resume. Then, at 3am, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mike pull out his knife. He shot an evil look at the still-snoring Owl, and then plunged the blade into the corner of his foam sleeping pad. I watched as he cut two small squares of the foam, which he then stuffed into his ears.
“Ear plugs.” Mike told us, and laid back down. E and I followed suit, but found that they did little to dampen the sound.
In the morning, I peeked an eye out of my sleeping bag, and saw Owl cheerfully stirring his oatmeal, asking a bedraggled E, “How did you sleep? I didn’t snore, did I?” E is a redhead, and lives up to her fiery reputation. I feared for his safety.
Mercifully, E did nothing more than grumble “Just a bit” and pull her bag back over her head to catch a couple more minutes of sleep.
Somehow, we managed to drag ourselves out of the shelter, and sleep walk through the day, buoyed by clear weather and the excitement at crossing our first state line.
After a week on the trail, we had made it to North Carolina.
The next morning, I woke to find the water in my water bottle frozen solid, a fitting reward after another snore-filled night courtesy of Owl. E had audibly groaned the night before when we saw him amble up to the shelter where we had stopped for the day.
“How far are you all going today?” I heard Owl ask Mike that morning as I tried to psyche myself up to leave my warm sleeping bag.
“Ummm, not sure…what about you?” Mike answered, being intentionally vague about our plans, in hopes we wouldn’t have to endure another sleepless night.
Once I was satisfied that we would be hiking farther than Owl, I quickly finished my morning routine- pee, brush teeth, pack, breakfast- eager to get hiking to generate some body heat. As the morning wore on, the sun came out, thawing the trail, and boosting my spirits. Even the two big climbs, over Big Butt Mountain, about which we made endless ass jokes, and Albert Mountain, at the end of the day did little to dampen my mood. I reached the top of Albert Mountain, after what was the steepest climb we had encountered so far, and once again found E and Mike waiting to share the view with me. We walked together the last half mile of the day, joking and laughing at anything and nothing at all. The sun was fading as we got to the shelter, so to beat the cold, we quickly went through our evening routine- pee, unpack, get water, cook dinner, get in sleeping bag.
There was no lingering in the sleeping bag the next morning- we had 10 miles to hike and then we were headed into town! Franklin, North Carolina, would be the first place on the trail that we would get a shower, wash our clothes, and sleep indoors; I was beyond excited. I was practically skipping along the trail that morning, filled with visions of pizza and beer and a pillow.
My euphoric state was broken when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bearded man wearing a garbage bag over his body and carrying a camouflage backpack come running towards me from a side trail, yelling and waving his arms to get my attention. I looked around for signs of E or Mike, and, finding that they were far ahead, I suddenly realized how completely vulnerable I was out there. I was still miles away from the nearest road, and I hadn’t seen another person all morning. If this man wanted to hurt me, there was not much I could do except try to outrun him, and quickness wasn’t my strong suit. My heart pounded as he approached me.
“Are you a thru-hiker?” He asked me. He looked even creepier up close.
“Trying to be.” I answered tentatively, trying to pick up my pace.
As he walked along beside me he told me that he was a psychologist studying people who attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and so he was trying to track people down at the beginning of their hike to fill out a survey. He then wanted them to fill out another survey at the end of their hike, wherever they got off the trail, to see what the difference was between someone who completed their thru-hike and someone who got off the trail somewhere short of Maine.
Still eyeing him wearily, I took his survey with the promise that I would mail it to him from Franklin and hurried down the trail. When I reached E and Mike at the road crossing, I told them about the guy and asked if they were stopped, too. Neither of them saw him, and I never ran into another hiker who had either.
It was 11am and pretty soon after we stuck our thumbs out, a pickup truck stopped to give us a hitch into town. It wasn’t until we had loaded our packs in the back that I noticed the rebel flag sticker on his rear window, not an uncommon sight in the South. E and I slid in the extended cab and Mike sat up front. The driver, a big guy in a muscle shirt and cut-off jean shorts, introduced himself, asked, “Hey, have y’all heard this one?,” and proceeded to tell us a string of racist jokes. E and I sat there slack jawed while Mike mumbled “No, I don’t think I’ve heard that one before.”
“Well,” I said to E and Mike as the pickup pulled away, “I guess that goes to show there is good in everyone…even racists.”
Our driver had dropped us off at the Franklin Motel where we rented a hotel room and took turns taking long, hot showers. We grabbed lunch, and then headed to the Franklin County Library. Libraries were always a first stop in any trail town, because they have computers with internet access. The three of us sat in the library for over an hour, reading emails from friends and sending out updates of our progress. I cherished the connection, but was amazed by how separated I already felt from the outside world.
In a mass email to family and friends I wrote:
The trip so far has been a little bit of everything.
We have had a variety of weather- from freezing cold
rain to 50 degrees and sunny and so far we’ve survived
so I think thats a good sign. My emotions run the
spectrum, too :). On Sunday, we crossed the Georgia/
North Carolina line and today we cruised past the 100
mile mark…I think I’m getting the hang of this stuff
:). The scenery is ever changing- one minute I’ll be
walking through a pine forest and the next I’ll look
up and I’m under a canopy of rhododendrums (sp?).
There have been some really tough mountains but on a
clear day, the reward of an amazing view far outweighs
the effort it took to get up there. My biggest
complaint is probably the state of my feet…lots of
blisters that make it painful to walk. But hopefully
I’ll be getting a handle on that with a trip to the
I think about everyone a lot (I’ve got lots of time to
do that now, in between wondering what the lyrics are
to Ice, Ice Baby and “how the *&^* could I have only
walked 2 miles?”). I hope everything is going well!
That night, after running errands and gorging ourselves on pizza and one beer apiece (we worried about being dehydrated the next morning), we lay in our beds watching mindless television, thankful to be out of the cold and rain that fell steadily outside. The bed and pillow were a vast improvement over the hard uneven floors of the shelters I had become accustomed to sleeping on, but still, I had a hard time falling asleep. When I did fall asleep, I woke up every hour and stared at the digital clock. My mind raced, I worried about the rain and the next day’s hike.
I didn’t want to get too comfortable, knowing that the next morning we would be back in the cold and the rain, back on the trail.
Worrying about the next day’s hike had become a bad habit. I would pour over the elevation maps and trail descriptions, the mountains growing larger and the climbs steeper in my mind each time I looked a the maps. I would obsess over the mileage, fearing that I wouldn’t be able to hike as far as we had planned. As usual, the next morning I found that my concerns had been overblown, and my sleepless night, spent fretting over the cold and the rain, was for naught. The morning started out foggy, but soon the sun was shining, and the temperature rose to a balmy fifty degrees.
About halfway through the day I reached the peak of Wayah Bald. It was always a bit disorienting to find development on top of a mountain, and as I emerged from the woods, I was met with the site of a parking area, toilets, a paved walkway, and a stone lookout tower. Dripping sweat, after having just spent over two hours hiking up the side of the mountain, I felt a bit defeated seeing a fresh smelling couple strolling hand in hand from their car towards the peak.
When I reached the tower, I dropped my pack and climbed the steps to the top, where I found E and Mike talking to a small woman with two long pig tails. She had breezed by me on the trail earlier while I was taking break with a quick “Everything okay, hon?” I disliked her instantly.
“This is Hippy. She thru-hiked a couple of years ago and is out hiking for a couple of weeks.” E told me through gritted teeth. It seems I wasn’t alone in my opinion of this woman. Apparently, for the fifteen minutes before I arrived Hippy told E and Mike and anyone else who would listen about all the things we were doing wrong on our hike, and how when she thru-hiked “things were just so much better.”
“Fucking know-it-all. I hope we don’t see her again.” I grumbled to E when we finally started hiking again that afternoon.
“You can count on it.”
The first person I saw when I got to the shelter that night was, of course, Hippy, this time foisting her views on a couple in their early sixties. When they finally politely, yet firmly, extracted themselves (Hippy moved seamlessly on to another unsuspecting hiker), the couple introduced themselves as Doc and Virginia Creeper. I loved them instantly. Doc told me that he and Virginia had met only five years earlier at a Appalachian Trail conference, had fallen madly in love, and were recently married. Doc was attempting to thru-hike and Virginia was joining him on several sections of the trail.
That night we were packed into the small shelter like sardines, eight of us in a space designed to sleep six at most, when the wind picked up and hail started to pound the tin roof.
“Oh, this is so not good.” Hippy told us all. “If it starts lightening, we’re total goners. When I thru-hiked, I knew two people who got struck by lightening. So not good.”
“We’ll be alright, there are plenty of tall trees around.” Doc said, giving me a knowing smile.
Though no one got much sleep that night, we all survived, and over the next two days E, Mike, and I hiked over an endless stream of peaks and valleys, gladly walking further than Hippy, but sadly also Doc and Virginia Creeper. At one point, I hypothesized that the trail builder was a sadist, and asked E “why else would they put the trail right up the side of a fucking mountain, only to go right the fuck back down, and then right the fuck back up another one?” The trail in the Southern part of the Appalachian trail is known for its numerous steep climbs and descents. Instead of following ridge lines, much of the trail in the South crosses ridges, which means hauling yourself, and your pack, up and down tall mountains, all day long.
At the end of the second day, I came across E sitting on a rock, crying. Next to her was a sign for a spur trail, indicating that it was just a 1/10th of a mile to the shelter where we were staying that night.
“I’m exhausted.” She told me through her tears. “Nothings wrong, I just can’t stop crying.” I knew what she meant. At the end of most days, not only was I physically spent, but I was at the bottom emotional reserves, too, leaving little barrier to hold back whatever raw emotion that came bubbling up. It was why we laughed so hard our stomaches hurt at anything remotely funny, but also why the tears were so quick to flow.
“You know what we need?” I said as I helped her back to her feet, “A little mommying.”
The next day we hiked twelve miles in record time to get just that. We reached Fontana Dam before noon that day, where we had arranged to meet my Mom and spend the night at the Fontana Village Resort, which rented rooms at a discount to hikers. It was just what we needed. My Mom, a southern momma through and through, took us to lunch, fussed over our injuries, ferried us to do errands, and told us over and over how proud she was of us.
In the morning, she pulled me aside and asked me if I wanted to go home with her; she was worried about the state of my feet, and my knees, which had mysteriously swelled over night.
“Honey, ya’ll could just come with me for a couple of days and rest and I’ll bring you right back here when you’ve mended.”
“No, I’m okay, I promise.” I said, almost as much to convince myself that it was the truth. While taking a few days off and being cared for sounded wonderful, I knew I needed to keep moving. It was almost a surprise to myself to find that I actually wanted to keep moving. Fontana Dam was entrance to the Smokies, one of the most beautiful parts of the trail. In fact it was a hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my dad almost ten years prior that had introduced me to the Appalachian Trail, and I was excited to be in familiar territory.
At the entrance to the park stood a ridge runner, keeping a record of the hikers that entered. While Mike, E, and I stood there talking to him, another hiker walked by.
“Trail name?” the ridge runner asked him.
“Turbo.” the hiker, a young guy with longish brown hair and a beard, answered, and kept walking without even glancing in our direction.
E and I rolled our eyes at each other, assuming that the hiker adopted this trail name as a reflection of his attitude about hiking, full speed ahead.
The ridge runner then asked each of us for our trail names, writing them in a notebook. When he got to me, he asked, “Do you have a trail name?”
As I had countless times before to the same question, I answered “Nope, not yet.”
“Well there you go,” he said, “your trail name is Not Yet.”
And with that, I became known to the trail community as Not Yet.
We said goodbye to my name-giving trail runner and headed up the steep trail and into the Smokies. Right away, the trail was more populated than any before it. It was March 9th and spring break was in full swing. I took particular pleasure in easily passing a group of loud college age men, loaded down by their too-full packs. It was tangible confirmation that even though most days I still felt slow and out of shape, I was actually getting stronger.
That night, E, Mike, and I, as well as few other thru-hikers, sat around a fire with four spring breakers. They were full of questions about thru-hiking, and E and I lapped up the attention, eager to make what had been a pretty rough few weeks seem more glamorous. I noticed that Mike seemed unusually moody.
“What’s going on?” I asked him.
“I fucking hate thoughtless hikers.” He grumbled, pointing to one of the spring breakers who had tossed a orange peel on the ground in front of the shelter. “They’re dangerous.”
“Maybe he just doesn’t realize…”
“Then he shouldn’t fucking be out here!” Mike said as he picked up the peel, tossed it in his garbage bag, and stomped off.
E caught my eye and I gave her a little shrug. Mike wasn’t wrong that food left lying around would bring animals, and the Smokies were known for their abundance of black bear. By now, it was second nature to us to make sure no trace of food was left around the shelter, any food prepared had to be eaten, and all wrappers, food scraps, and cooking instruments went into our food bags. In most shelters, we hung the food bags from strings at the front of the structure, meant to prevent mice from chewing through them. However, in areas with a known bear population, we hung our the bags from trees or poles designed to keep the food out of the bears’ reach. Because the Smokies attract so many visitors, the park also attracts animals who are conditioned by humans’ tendency to leave food out. And while most backpackers, whether they are thru-hikers or just out for a weekend, understand the importance of keeping a clean campsite, there are always a few who don’t know, or worse, don’t care. So while Mike’s concern was certainly understandable, his anger seemed uncharacteristic.
Even sunshine and clear skies the next day didn’t do anything to change his outlook. I reached the shelter that night and didn’t see Mike anywhere. I realized that I hadn’t seen him all day, which was unusual.
“Where’s Mike?” I asked E, who had arrived before me.
“He took off. He said he wanted to get away from people, so he was going to try to make it to Clingman’s Dome tonight.” Clingman’s dome was another five miles up the trail.
“What’s his deal?”
“I don’t know,” E said, “But his attitude sucks, so its probably for the best.”
I had to agree with her. I looked around at our shelter-mates, and saw that we’d be spending the night with a group of obnoxious 50-something year old men, and a couple of frat boys, just the type of hikers to send Mike into a rage.
E pointed to the shelter, where the men were busy spreading out the contents of their massive packs, bragging about their past adventures, and trying in vain to start a fire, and whispered, “I’ve dubbed it the Tool Shed.”
“Holy shit,” I laughed, “you’re not kidding. Hey! Do you think it scares the frat boys that they are glimpsing their future…here’s you in 30 years.”
“Let’s show them how to make a fire.” E and I gathered wood, and quickly started a blazing fire.
We’re total badasses, I wrote in the margins of E’s journal.
“Thanks…” one of the men said, “I was just about do that.”
Between the chorus of snores and the howls of coyotes throughout the night, neither E nor I slept well that night. The next morning we woke extra early and quietly gathered our stuff while the Tool Shed continued to snooze.
“What time is your Mom supposed to meet us?”
“We better get a move on.” I said as I buckled the hip belt to my pack. We were meant to meet E’s Mom at Newfound Gap, a parking area that crossed the trail about halfway through the Smokies, and we would need to do twelve miles before noon. From the gap, E’s Mom would drive us to her family’s lake house in Tennessee where we would spend two nights, including our very first zero day- our first full day without hiking.
We hiked along at a fairly fast clip, which proved harder to maintain the closer we got to Clingman’s dome. Clingman’s dome is the highest point on the Appalachian trail, at 6643 feet, and even in March, the trail at that altitude stays covered in snow and ice. Several times throughout the morning, E and I found ourselves flat on our backs, unable to keep our footing on the slick iced trail.
“Do you think Mike will be there?” I asked E as we walked gingerly, trying to avoid falling yet again. Mike had been invited to come with us to E’s lake house.
“I don’t know, he didn’t say anything about it before he took off yesterday.”
We managed to reach the parking lot at New Found gap a few minutes before noon, and though it was crowded with tourists who would never make it further into the park than the lookout spot in the parking lot, we had no trouble finding E’s Mom, who has the same flaming red hair as E. Next to her stood a sheepish-looking Mike, who had decided to join us afterall. After sweaty hugs from E and I, E’s Mom piled the three of us into her Dodge Neon.
“Okay, you three,” she said as she started down the windy road to Gatlinburg, “Let’s get you home.”
We were headed to the E family lake house, about an hour north of Gatlinburg on Norris Lake, and to E and I it really was like going home. In eighth grade, E’s family took the two of us on a spring break trip to Norris, which E and I had prepared for by using puffy paint to decorate matching boxer shorts with phrases like “Spring Break Tennessee” and “Homies 4EVA” and “Anti Sweat Leaf” (in eighth grade we had very firmly bought into the no drinking, no drugs, no sex mantra being drilled into us by teachers and parents). It was on that first trip that E’s parents found the land where they would eventually build their house, and through the years we spent countless weekends and holidays roaming the nearby hills and splashing in the lake. The lake house had become one of my favorite places to be, because, at over thirty minutes to even the nearest convenience store, there was nothing to do there but relax.
After spending almost two and a half weeks in the woods, it was a bit of an odd choice to take our first day off at a house surrounded by the woods, but the lake house suited us perfectly. The three of us wanted nothing more than to lay around, eat home cooked food, watch TV, check our email, use the phone, and maybe drink a beer or two (E and I were well past our no drinking, no drugs, no sex phase by this time). I spent a good deal of my time talking to friends and family, and of course, College Boyfriend. I talked to my two closest friends, BB and H, who were both recently engaged and in the throws of wedding planning; full of news about dresses and venues and engagement parties. It was my first realization that while I had withdrawn from society, life was continuing on for those I loved, and I felt a twinge of sadness for what I was going to miss over the coming months. The rest of my time, I alternately laid on the couch in front of the TV and sat on the deck playing board games, always with something edible within inches of my mouth. By the time we headed back toGatlinburg I was, for the first time since beginning the hike, fully rested.
We had resupplied our food the day before, but decided to stop in Gatlinburg at an outfitter called the Happy Hiker before driving up the mountain back to Newfound Gap. After picking up a few odds and ends, a fuel canister for Mike, a new water bottle for E, we stood outside while the store owner took our picture. Like several outfitters and hostels along the trail, the Happy Hiker took photos of thru -hikers who had made it to that point and hung them along the rafters. We looked at past years photos and found one of E’s sister,Supergirl, taken during her thru-hike in 1999, and imagined finding ourselves there in several years.
As we were heading out the door, E started giggling uncontrollably.
“Wha…” I started, but then looked to my right and instantly realized the source of her laughter was a giant sign for a restaurant called the Burning Bush.
“Oh my god, you guys have to get a picture.” I told E and her mom.
“You girls are so bad” E’s mom chided, but still posed for a picture of the two redheaded women in front of a Burning Bush sign.
Still laughing, the four of us packed back into the Dodge Neon and headed up the winding road. On the left we passed four hikers we recognized from the Happy Hiker, thumbs out, looking for a hitch back up the mountain. E and I gave them a wave and a look saying “sorry, we totally would but we can’t”; a look we had seen and resented many times ourselves from passing motorists. It was nearly 11am when we finally reachedNewfound Gap, and the parking area was already crowded with cars. We were finishing up our goodbyes and taking a few final pictures when a van pulled up behind us and the four hikers from the road filed out.
“Dude, you guys totally gave us the shrug off.” Laughed one of the hikers from the van, a good looking guy around our age with the customary hikers’ beard and a sparkle in his eye.
“We were in a Neon! There was no room!” E protested, laughing along with him. He introduced himself as Pilgrim, another guy as Sugar High, who was his best friend from home, and the final two hikers as Lucky and Sparrow, a couple from Tennessee. We all stood around joking for awhile before we all started up the trail, Pilgrim charming us with his story of his mission to collect “flare” from every state, showing us the battery powered Nascar radio that was his Tennessee memorabilia, and Lucky laughing about all the trail names he considered and then rejected, like “Notgonnamakeit.”
We came across the four of them several times throughout the day, and fell into a comfortable rhythm of teasing and joking. They felt like instant kindred spirits, serious about hiking, but ultimately wanting to have fun. So I was disappointed that night when I headed down the side trail to the shelter and ran into them walking the other way.
“Are you guys heading on?” I asked. It was almost dark, and the next shelter was at least another five miles.
“Yeah…” Sparrow told me, wistfully, “Lucky and I have to get off the trail for a couple of days for a wedding and we need to get through the Smokies the day after tomorrow to meet my parents.”
“Ahh…well, be careful, its pretty icy out there. I hope to see you guys again. Happy hiking.”
“Yeah, we’ll see you up the trail.” She said.
“Just make sure to give us a ride next time.” Pilgrim teased.
I watched as they headed up the trail, sad to see them go, and then turned and made my way down to the shelter.
The day had been long, but good, not filled with the angst and dread that usually accompanies returning to the trail. And it wasn’t just the thrill of meeting new people, but the also the extraordinary beauty of the Smokies. Much of the trail that day followed a very narrow ridge, allowing sweeping views of lush green mountains on either side. I had spent all day alternatively scared I would fall down the mountain and amazed by where I found myself. And now, I sat on the shelter steps cooking my noodles and watching the sun go down and the sky turn a pinky orange, thinking how content I was. Cold, but content.
Eventually, one of the men staying at the shelter- there were a group of Michigan alum out for their annual get together, came and asked me about the little stove I was using. Instead of buying expensive propane backpacking stoves, E and I had made stoves out of soda cans (a trick we learned from E’s sister Supergirl, the source of all our backpacking knowledge). We would prop our little hiker’s pots up on tent stakes over the stove, which we fueled with denatured alcohol readily available at hardware and grocery stores. The technique was fairly common among backpackers, who were always looking for ways to shave weight and save money, but was a source of interest for hikers out for a day or weekend, who seemed fascinated by our homemade gear. By the time I had finished my demonstration, which included some smack talk about Michigan football on my part (I am also a big ten alumni), and I had eaten my noodles, the sun had completely set.
The next day we were reminded why the Smokies were so named, as a thick fog covered the mountains most of the day, making it impossible to see more than a hundred feet ahead. Much of the trail was covered in patches of ice and snow and as I struggled to stay upright, I thought about Pilgrim, Sugar High, Lucky and Sparrow, trying to make their way in the dark the evening before. By the time I reached the shelter that night, the fog had lifted, but I was exhausted from my many falls and near wipeouts. I was relieved to see only Mike and E waiting for me, rather than the crowds we had come to expect in the Smokies. Soon, we were joined by a Ridge Runner, who told us he was responsible for maintaining the section of the trail and its shelters from Newfound Gap to the northern end of the Smokies, which we would cross the next day. The four of us played cards, deciding that the losers had to collect firewood for the evening. Throughout the game, as the Ridge Runner talked, I could help but stare at his abnormally large teeth, conjuring pictures of a beaver or a horse. I wasn’t the only one who noticed, because in the morning, E elbowed me and pointed to a toilet bowl brush poking out of the Ridge Runner’s pack, and whispered “Do you think that’s his toothbrush?”
After hiking a couple of miles that morning, E and I came upon Mike sitting on a rock, reading his trail guide, waiting for us. All of us carried “The Thur-Hikers Handbook” an AT guide created by a former thru-hiker named Wingfoot. The Handbook contained mileage logs for the entire trail, as well as descriptions of amenities, lodging, and even hand drawn maps of the towns along the trail. Although it wasn’t always 100% accurate, it was an invaluable resource, and one we poured over every night, trying to figure out where we wanted to go the next day, and where our next resupply stop would be.
“Wingfoot says there is a store called Mountain Mommas about a mile off the trail at Davenport Gap where we can get burgers.” Mike told us. “We should go. It says the owner will give us a ride back up to the trail.”
We flew the five miles down to the gap, propelled by visions of hot food, and had hiked over seven miles by 10:30 in the morning. About a quarter mile after leaving the trail, we saw a hand written sign reading “Mountain Moma’s Store” with an arrow pointing down the winding asphalt road.
“Do you think her name is actually Moma,” I asked, pronouncing it like the MOMA, “Or can she just not spell Momma?”
“That Moma, she can’t spell for shit, but she sure can cook!” E twanged.
“She sure as hell better be able to cook…I’ll be pissed if we walk a mile out our way for nothing.” added Mike, voicing what we all felt. Like many thru-hikers, we hated to walk anything that wasn’t a “trail mile,” and usually only the promise of food or shelter would lure us off the trail, and even then we would try to hitch a ride for even short distances, often waiting much longer for a ride than it would have taken us to walk. It was very rare for us to take any of the many side trails that led to spectacular overlooks or waterfalls along the trail (VERY rare). It was an awful feeling to realize you had veered off the trail somehow and needed to backtrack- we were happy to hike, but only if it meant forward progress.
After twenty minutes on the road we spotted a small wooden cabin, and out front on picnic benches, sat Pilgrim, Sugar High, and Sparrow. Lucky was loading his pack into the back of a car driven by an older couple.
“Are you guys taking off?” I asked as we approached, remembering that he and Sparrow were headed home for a wedding.
“Yeah, dude, we’ll be back on the trail in a couple of days. It sucks, I don’t know if we’ll be able to catch back up with these guys.” Lucky said, nodding to Pilgrim and Sugar High.
After a round of hellos and goodbyes, we watched the four of them climb into the car. Pilgrim and Sugar High were being dropped off at the trail head, and I was excited to learn that they planned on hiking to the same shelter where we hoped to hike to that evening.
“Hey, this is kinda like payback. Later suckers!” laughed Pilgrim as they took off back up the winding road, leaving us standing in front of the store. We left our packs outside and opened the door to Mountain Momas (the sign above the door also had only one M), instantly overwhelmed by a combination of cigarette smoke and home perm. The building was divided into two sections, a small convenience store on one side, and a deli counter with several booths on the other. On the deli counter side were two older ladies, one sitting on a folding chair while the other rolled her hair in tight rows of curlers. Both had long skinny cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
“Let us know when y’all are ready and we’ll fix ya whatever you want.” shouted the woman in the chair who I assumed was Moma with a raspy country drawl . We quickly looked over the menu- every single item was fried- put in our orders and rushed outside for some fresh air.
“Dude, if I taste home perm in my burger…” E said and rolled her eyes. Our food was delivered by the beautician, who told us “If y’all want a ride back up the mountain, you’re going to have to wait for Momma’s perm to set.” Even though we had no idea how long that would take, and we had eleven miles still to hike, we told her we’d wait. I quickly ate my french fries and chicken sandwich that was so drowned in mayonnaise I doubt I could have tasted home perm if it had been there. We stood around kicking rocks until an hour later when Moma/Momma came out in a house coat and slippers, tight gray curls covering her head.
“Come on and get in my van and I’ll take y’all back up the hill. You’s might need to move some things around to all fit.” Moma told us, cigarette still dangling from her lip. We shifted around a mound of junk and E and I situated ourselves in the back, while Mike slid into the front seat. E and I were always more than happy to volunteer to squeeze in the back seat of a car, or sit in the open bed of a pick up, because the person in the front had the job of talking to the driver, and with someone like Moma, it was a struggle. E and I smiled to ourselves as we listened to Moma’s constant stream of chatter and Mike’s polite murmurs back. With one last waft of home perm and smoke, Moma dropped us off at the trail head and sped back down the mountain.
We started back up the trail, now officially out of the Smoky Mountain National Park, and I instantly fell behind the other two. My stomach felt like it had a brick in it and my muscles were tight from sitting around. The trail changed, too. Where in the Smokies the trail was well maintained and always scenic, this portion of the trail was rocky and if it’s possible, ugly. As I shuffled along, my mood darkened. I felt queasy and was upset when I realized that because I had forgotten to refill my water at the store, I was now completely out of water. Behind me, I heard voices, and turned to see a long line of teenagers gaining on me. I stepped to the side of the trail to let them pass, annoyed with myself that I was moving so slow. My stomach lurched. I waited until the group was out of sight, put my hands on my knees, and vomited, tears streaming down my face as I muttered to no one,”Fucking Mountain Moma.“
Then, taking a deep breath, I told myself to ’suck it up’, and started walking again. By this point in the hike, the turn around time between despair and resolve was little to none. I could have a nervous breakdown one minute and be laughing the next, knowing that I quite literally had to keeping putting one foot in front of the other. Within ten minutes I had reached a small stream trickling down the side of the mountain and I stopped to fill my empty water bottle.
“Hey” a voice called from behind me. I turned to see a tall, thin hiker with bright blue eyes, wearing running shoes and carrying one of the smallest packs I’d seen. We chatted while we both got water and he told me his name was CT.
“Hey, I’ve heard about you!” I told him, “You’re the guy who hikes, like, 30 miles a day, right?”
He laughed kindly, and said that was him, that he was trying to finish quickly, “It gets a little lonely, though, I never get to really meet people, you know.”
“Yeah, you just breeze right past them…later suckers!”
He took off ahead of me, turning to yell back “later sucker!” and I knew that would be the last I’d see of him. E and I had yet to hike 20 miles in one day, and doing thirty seemed near impossible.
Finally rehydrated and feeling inspired, I pushed myself to finish the day strong. When I got to the shelter, which lay in a grassy valley, E, Mike, Sugar High and Pilgrim sat at a picnic table talking. “Look who else is here!” E said, pointing to the shelter, and I turned to see Doc and Virginia Creeper, the sweet older couple who we had met a week earlier. The seven of us gathered around the picnic table to cook dinner, conversation flowing easily as we talked about ourselves and our hikes. After dinner Pilgrim challenged me to a “foot off” and we removed our bandages to show off our respective foot injuries- his, a rash that covered most of both feet, and mine, gaping heel wounds that still refused to mend. I won, hands down, and E declared that the whole thing was “fucking disgusting.”
That night, as we lay in our sleeping bags, talking and laughing like old friends, I thought about CT, making this trip by himself, and knew I wouldn’t want to do it that way, no matter how impressive the physical feat.
The next day, E and I stuck close together. We talked about Doc and Virginia Creeper, who we both had fallen in love with that morning when, still in their sleeping bags, Doc had leaned over to kiss Virginia and whispered “hey stinky” to which Virginia had responded with a girlish giggle. They were hiking South for a couple of weeks (while we were forever headed North), so we knew we wouldn’t seem them for awhile. We giggled about how we thought Pilgrim was hot and Sugar High was sweet. “Just like us” E said.
“Wait? Which one am I?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” She laughed.
The day passed quickly, and by 2pm we were at the shelter. Mike and Sugar High sat swinging their legs off the front.
“We’ve got a proposition.” Mike said, looking at us expectantly. ”We think you guys should hike to the next shelter with us. It’s ten miles…but that would mean we’d get into town early tomorrow.” The next day was March 17th and the night before we had all decided we’d stay in Hot Springs, NC, a town right off the trail, to celebrate St. Patrick’s day.
“Since when did Mike become a we with Sugar High and Pilgrim?” I asked E after we’d sent the guys on their way, telling them there was no way in hell we were walking another ten miles and that we’d see them the next day.
“He just needs some dude time.” E said, rolling her eyes. And apparently we needed some girl time, too. It was the first night the two of us had been alone in a shelter together and we passed the time gossiping and laughing, talking in a language only the two of us could understand.
At one point I asked E, “do you think Pilgrim and Sugar High call each other by their trail names? Because I’m sorry, I just can’t call you Sweet n’ Low.”
“Nah, dude,” E said, suddenly very serious, “When you’re best friends you don’t need names, you’re just like… ‘Hey!’”
It was quiet for about two seconds before we simultaneously burst out laughing, both of us rolling on the shelter floor. We’d recover, start talking about something else, and then one of us would say “it’s just like…Hey!” and we’d lose it again.
Later, after the sun was down, we lay side by side in our sleeping bags.
“Thanks for making me do this.”
A few minutes later, “E?”
“Did you touch me or did a mouse just crawl across my head?”
“Dude…my hands are in my sleeping bag.”
After a restless night spent paranoid about what might be crawling around the shelter, but with no additional sightings, E and I woke early, excited to finally get to Hot Springs. Grover, (E’s sister Supergirl’s fiance) had told us that once we reached Hot Springs we were officially thru-hikers. We had also heard about a bed and breakfast in the middle of town called Elmer’s that was supposedly very accommodating to thru-hikers. Luckily, the terrain was mostly flat and downhill and we arrived in Hot Springs in time for lunch.
Elmer’s turned out to be better than advertised; a warm, beautiful Victorian home full of musical instruments and books and home cooked vegetarian food that, because the owner had hiked the AT, allowed dirty, messy thru-hikers to stay for next to nothing. E and I settled into our room, thrilled to each have our own bed and a door that shut, we took showers, and headed down the two block main street. After loading up on a greasy lunch that instantly had me clutching my stomach and running for the bathroom, we hit the post office, laundry, grocery store, and outfitter. It wasn’t until we returned to Elmers that we realized we hadn’t seen Mike, or Pilgrim and Sugar High since we’d arrived. We asked around and Turbo, the hiker who had passed us on our way into the Smokies, told us that they were doing “work for stay,” an option at several hostels along the trail offered to hikers low on cash to do handy work in exchange for room and board. E and I had both saved enough money working in the year before we left to comfortably get us through five months of hiking, but those guys, recent college graduates (or, like Mike, on a break from college), were always low on cash.
Mike popped his head in our room an hour later to let us know he had made it back, and shortly after the three of headed down the street to the one bar in town, the Paddlers’ Pub. Earlier that day I had bought new army green hiking pants, pleased because I seemed to have lost some weight, so those and the long sleeve hiking shirt I usually slept in became my “going out” clothes. Mike was bubbling over with stories from his night spent with Pilgrim and Sugar High, and of his day spent working for Elmer. We ordered beer samplers and proceeded to offer cheers for each new flavor.
“To becoming real mother fucking thru-hikers.” Mike proposed.
“Real mother fucking thru-hikers!” E and I echoed as we raised our glasses.
No long after we’d finished our samplers, we spotted Pilgrim and Sugar High sitting at a booth with a hiker I’d never seen before. They motioned us over and we all squeezed in.
“I’m See Blue” said the stranger in a gravely voice, offering me his hand. It was clear right away that See Blue was not the run of the mill thru-hiker. Thru-hikers generally come in three varieties: 20 somethings trying to stave off the real world for a bit longer, the recently retired who are realizing a life-long dream, and the perpetual wanderer. See Blue was none of these. He was in his mid-thirties and had been a tow truck driver in North Carolina before selling his business and starting his hike. I could instantly picture him in the front row of an Allman Brothers concert screaming “Hell yeah, brothers! FREE BIRD!!!!” He was tall and wiry with a mess of dirty blonde hair, a full set of false teeth that he proudly took out for a laugh, and an ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips. Within minutes he had told us all about the love of his life, Roxie, a 22 year old hair dresser he’d left at home, and ordered the table a round of shots.
After the shots, the rest of the night was a blur. At some point E wrote on the backs of all of our hands “19.6”- a reference to the distance we were supposed to hike the next day and a reminder not to drink too much; a reminder I promptly chose to ignore. I was having too much fun to think about how I might feel the next day. Although the bar was packed for St. Patrick’s Day, the six of us made ourselves the center of the action, laughing loudly, teasing each other, making friends with the regulars, and just generally acting like fools. E, Sugar High and I started an impromptu dance party, persuading as many as we could to dance like assholes with us to Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake. The other guys bellied up to the bar, which is where we left them at 11:30pm when E finally convinced Sugar High and I that it was time to leave.
“Mike really likes hanging out with ‘the guys’, huh?” I gossiped to E as we teetered down the street. E, who had wisely cut herself off around 9pm, walked the rest of the way to Elmer’s while Sugar High and I stopped at the bank of pay phones. After several miss-dials, I correctly entered College Boyfriend’s number while Sugar High called his longtime girlfriend, Jen.
“Hello?” answered a sleepy voice.
“College Boyfriend! Happy St. Patty’s Day!” I shouted drunkenly into the phone in an embarrassing attempt at an Irish accent.
“I thought you were going to call before dinner.” College Boyfriend said in a flat voice. I had called while we were running errands earlier but he was at work, so the conversation had been brief.
The reception on the pay phone was not very good. “What? Oh, right, I just, totally got busy…” I trailed off and then laughed when I caught Sugar High raising his eyebrows at me.
“Okay, well…why don’t you just call me in the morning. I was already asleep and I can’t hear you very well.” The same flat voice.
“Ummm…we’re heading out really early, so I don’t think I can. But I’ll see you in a few days, right?” We had made plans for him to drive up to Erwin, Tennessee, the next town we’d be stopping in, to visit for two days.
“Yeah, see you in a few days. Just…call me when you get into town. Good night.”
“Wait, College boyfriend?” The line was dead. “Shit.” I muttered, staring at the receiver. I caught Sugar High’s eye, and we both burst into beer soaked giggles. “Holy shit, I think I just got hung the fuck up on.”
“Happens.” He said as he steered me back towards Elmer’s.
We sat on the back porch for over an hour talking about the struggles of leaving someone at home while we were on this journey and about what we thought the future held for our respective relationships. Sug (as we had started calling him) was sympathetic and easy to talk to, the kind of guy who girls loved to be friends with. We talked in low voices until, around one A.M., Pilgrim came stumbling around the corner, having just left the bar.
“I think I just did a shot of wheat grass.” he slurred.
“I’m pretty sure that doesn’t have alcohol in it.” Sug laughed.
“I thought it tasted funny,” giving me a sly grin. Pilgrim, I thought, was not the type of guy girls wanted to be friends with. The three of us finally headed to bed at one thirty, and I was asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow.
The next morning, E woke me up at 6:00am. I groaned and looked at her, remembering the 19.6 miles, and pulled the sheet back over my head. When I finally stumbled out of the room, I ran into Pilgrim, dressed in only his boxer shorts, looking like I felt. He grunted at me, scratched his head, and went into the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later, E and I were on the porch tying up our boots when Sugar High popped his head out the front door. “Hey guys, I don’t think we’re going to make it out for awhile, so I just wanted to say goodbye and I hope we catch up with you soon.”
We exchanged hugs and reassurances that we would all meet up again within the next few days. We looked around for Mike, decided that he was probably staying back with the other boys, and then E and I pounded fists, which still had “19.6” scrawled on the back of them, and headed off. My head pounded from too little sleep and too much beer. Soon enough, E pulled away from me, and I trudged up mountain after mountain by myself, constantly fighting my hangover. I thought about my conversation with College Boyfriend, and realized how frustrating our conversation must have been for him; for that matter, how frustrating every quick phone call over the last three weeks must have been. He was planning to meet me in a few days in Erwin and I hoped that once we were face to face things would be smoothed over. I replayed the previous night in my head, smiling at the memory of E, Sug and I dancing and Mike, Pilgrim, and See Blue commandeering the bar. I tried to imagine College Boyfriend in that scene, but couldn’t quite make him fit.
Towards the end of the day it started drizzling, a constant mist that soaked through my clothes but never quite turned into rain. With about two miles to go I was completely spent, with no idea how I would make it the rest of the way. This was the farthest I’d ever hiked so even under ideal conditions it would have been a struggle. In a daze, I made my way up the last steep climb to the shelter, crawling hand over foot at times to propel myself forward. I had thrown my pack off and dramatically collapsed on the floor of the shelter before it registered that there were lots of other people there. I spotted several thru-hikers, including See Blue, who sat at the picnic table smoking a cigarette and writing in his journal.
“College group,” whispered E, nodding to the six people I didn’t recognize.
“How far did you guys hike today?” asked a girl from the group.
“Oh my god, that’s amazing…I could never hike that far!” she exclaimed after we told her.
“I didn’t think I could either.” I said, still sprawled out on the shelter floor. Not hungry, but knowing I had to eat, I begrudgingly cooked dinner and was already in my sleeping bag when we heard someone coming into camp.
“MIKE! Shit dude, we didn’t think you were coming!”
Mike flopped down next to me, looking as exhausted as I was, “Come on…I couldn’t leave you two.”
Over the next three days, Mike, E, and I, covered the distance to Erwin, Tennessee. Towards the end of a long, hard, second day, I emerged from the woods to find myself on top of a grassy bald enveloped in thick fog. I fought my way across the summit as the wind whipped around me, at times so forceful it was a struggle keeping my balance. And then, as I was about halfway across the bald, I heard something that made me stop in my tracks. With the wind causing the fog to swirl surreally, I listened as the voice on the small armband radio I carried told me that the United States was officially at war with Iraq. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I finished the final miles to the shelter in a daze. Having grown up in the Air Force, I thought about the military families dealing with this news, and my heart broke. At the same time, after being on the trail for only a month, it was eerie how disconnected I felt from the outside world. I felt almost as if what I was hearing was happening to another country- I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, wrap my mind around the reality. When I shared the news with Mike and E, we marveled over how lucky we felt to be where we were.
Later that night, I discovered that one of my toenails had fallen off. “Great,” I said, in a lame attempt at a joke, “First the war and now this!”
However, when we woke the next morning, our minds were solely focused on getting to Erwin. We planned to take a zero day there, which would give us some much needed rest and allow me to spend time with College Boyfriend (”CB”), who would be arriving from Florida that evening. I was anxious to make amends after the drunken St. Patrick’s Day phone call. Even though we hadn’t been able to talk much in the past month, I had kept up with his day-to-day in the letters he wrote me each night and then sent, along with candy or other supplies, to whichever post office we were set to be at next. The letters were always very sweet and supportive, but I could tell that he was struggling with my absence.
The day’s hike was hard, but we finished by 2:30pm and soon got a hitch into the small town with a woman and her young son, who seemed both nervous and excited about picking up backpackers. With a wave, they dropped us off at Miss Janet’s, a hikers’ hostel famous among the AT community for the owner’s kindness and generosity. Sitting on the porch were two dark headed hikers, who introduced themselves as Firewood and Magic. Because up until then, Magic was ahead of us on the trail, I had read his entries most nights in the trail registries- notebooks kept at each shelter where hikers can sign in and write about their hike. Given the terse tone of Magic’s entries I wasn’t surprised that I found him a bit abrasive (”a real asshole” is how I phrased it in my journal that night). Firewood, on the other hand, was soft spoken and helpful, telling us that Miss Janet was out for the afternoon shuttling some hikers around, but would be back by 5pm.
Thanking him, we left our packs on the porch and headed down the block to get something to eat. Mike had read that there was a place in town with amazing burritos, but when we got there we found a sign on the door reading “Closed- Gone to Bristol.” We saw similar signs at several other businesses in town, and learned that because so many people in Erwin, including shop owners, were at the Nascar race in nearby Bristol, Tennessee, most of the small stores in town had closed for the weekend. We finally found an open Sonic and settled in for a snack of fries and onion rings.
As we were walking back to Miss Janet’s I heard someone yelling my name. I turned and saw CB leaning against his silver Jeep. My heart soared as I ran and jumped into his arms. When we finally untangled ourselves, I whispered in his ear “I’m sorry about the phone call.”
“I’m sorry, too.” He replied squeezing me tight. And then laughing, “Darlin’, you stink!”
“What? I showered, like, five days ago!”
Hand-in-hand, we made our way back to Miss Janet’s, where we met Miss Janet herself and found that she was exactly as advertised. She helped CB and I search for a local hotel, and then when we realized that because of the Nascar race all motels within a 30 mile radius were booked, she made room for us at the hostel. Once we were settled, CB asked E and I if we were hungry. We looked at him like he was crazy.
“Dude,” E told him earnestly, “We are ALWAYS hungry.” Like most hikers, after a few weeks on the trail, we had developed an insatiable appetite. Hauling a heavy pack up and down mountains from sunup to sundown burns an incredible number of calories, and it was nearly impossible to carry enough food to replenish our bodies each day. When we were in town, the amount we ate was equal parts amazing and horrifying. Mike, who had seemed irritable all day, decided to stay at Miss Janet’s while CB, E, and I drove a half hour to eat our weight in food at an Outback Steakhouse.
Not surprisingly, we woke up hungry the next morning, too, and Miss Janet fixed us all a breakfast of biscuts and gravy and eggs. CB spent most of the day shuttling E and I around, Mike, once again opting to hang back with the other hikers at Miss Janet’s. We had gone to the grocery store, lunch, done laundry, caught a matinee of the movie “Old School”, and were heading back to the hostel when we spotted two familiar figures walking down the street.
“Can you pull over?” I asked CB, as E and I hopped out of the Jeep to greet Pilgrim and Sugar High. “You guys made it!!” The four of us excitedly talked over each other, recounting the four days since we last saw one another. They told us that they had tried to leave Elmer’s to catch up with us the morning after St. Patty’s day, but were too hungover to hike, and so ended up staying there another night. They had just checked in at Miss Janet’s and were on their way to Sonic when we stopped them. After several minutes, I realized I had left CB sitting by himself in the Jeep.
“Oh shit, guys this is my boyfriend, CB. CB, Pilgrim and Sugar High, the guys I told you about?”
Graciously, Pilgrim walked over to shake hands with CB, saying “Hey man, Not Yet told us all about you. How was the drive?”
When we all got back to the hostel, Miss Janet announced that everyone was going to the local Mexican Restaurant for dinner, and that we should be ready in an hour. CB and I tried again to find a hotel for the evening, and once again, struck out. As we were getting ready to go, Miss Janet pulled out a box of clothes from Goodwill and encouraged everyone to pick out an outfit, knowing it would be fun for all of us to wear something other than our hiking clothes.
She pulled E and I aside, “You girls should wear some of these dresses to dinner…it’d be nice to feel like a woman for an evening, huh?”
Outfitted in oversized dresses, but with high spirits, we piled in the back of Miss Janet’s van with ten other hikers, including See Blue, Mike, Pilgrim, and Sugar High. We filled three booths at the restaurant, and ordered an enormous array of food and several rounds of beer. While the rest of us talked excitedly, telling trail stories, and comparing experiences, CB was quiet.
“Hey,” I said, squeezing his arm, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine…”
Looking around at our boisterous group, CB lowered his voice, “It’s just…I wanted to spend time with you, ya know?”
And I did know, I had missed him so much during the long weeks on the trail, but I also felt a twinge of annoyance. This was the kind of easy camaraderie I had pictured the countless times I had dreamed of the trail over the past year. I knew that when CB left the next day, these were the people that I would be hiking with and eating and sleeping next to for days to come. I wanted him to understand why I needed to be out there, and thought that if he could have a true “trail” experience, he’d feel closer to me when he was home. I didn’t understand why my usually affable boyfriend couldn’t just have a good time. I thought about earlier that day, while CB slept, when Miss Janet had asked me how the visit was going.
“It’s hard to have someone visit.” She said gently, pouring me a mug of coffee. “I’ve seen it a million times when a hiker’s boyfriend or girlfriend comes out to see them. Remember that while you’ve been out here having all of these intense experiences and making all of these new,male,friends,” she raised an eyebrow, “he’s been sitting at home missing you. He’s probably a little jealous. Just be sensitive, you’ve got a good guy there.”
Remembering Miss Janet’s advice, I swallowed my annoyance, kissed CB on the cheek and apologized, “I know, babe, I’m sorry, we’ll have all day tomorrow. I promise.”
Miss Janet had offered to slack pack us the next day, so after another hearty breakfast she shuttled Mike, E, Sug, Pilgrim, CB and I twenty miles up the trail so that we could hike south back to her place. Slack packing meant that we could hike without our heavy packs, still move along the trail, but sleep in a bed again that night.
Soon after Miss Janet dropped us off, the rest of the group broke away from CB and I. For a thru-hiker, hiking without a pack brings a special freedom. Without the extra thirty-five pounds weighing me down, I felt like I could run up and down the mountains, which is exactly what the rest of the crew was doing. CB, while not out-of-shape (but not in spectacular shape either- he was more of a pick-up game and beer kind of guy), didn’t have the stamina the rest of us had acquired over the past month, and so he and I slowly made our way through the woods. After about three miles, CB asked to take a break.
“Of course!” I said, forcing myself to stay cheerful even though I was getting antsy by how slow we were walking and worried about how far in front of us the others must be. That morning, Miss Janet had offered to pick CB up at a road crossing 10 miles into the hike, but he had refused, figuring he could finish the full twenty miles the rest of us had planned. I had encouraged him to reconsider, thinking that twenty miles might be a struggle, but he insisted he wanted to try.
“Okay, honey,” Miss Janet told him, slipping me her phone number and telling me to bring CB’s cell phone, “just in case he changes his mind.”
I found two tree stumps and took out a package of crackers from my jacket pocket. “Here, eat these, they’ll give you a little energy.”
After a few minutes, I noticed CB staring at me, “You’re not tired at all, are you?”
We started hiking again, over, what seemed to me, fairly easy terrain. Every 15 minutes or so, CB needed to stop and catch his breath, and I became increasingly nervous that he was physically not going to be able to hike the full twenty miles. About six miles in, I finally told him that we needed to call Miss Janet and see if she could pick him up. I was scared I would hurt his ego, but to my surprise, he agreed right away. When we reached an open field, I punched Miss Janet’s number into CB’s cell, only to find that there was no reception.
CB looked panicked, “What are we going to do?”
“Well…” I said carefully, “I guess we’ll just take it slow and keep hiking. I don’t know what else to do.”
The further we hiked, the more worn out CB got. And the more worn out he got, the more irritable he became. He started snipping at me, “You don’t pick up your feet at all when you hike.”
“Really? Well, it hasn’t hurt me so far…” Still trying to keep the cheer in my voice.
“It looks so weird. I’m surprised you don’t fall more. You should try picking up your feet.”
Finally, I’d had enough. “LOOK. What is your problem? I know you’re tired, but you complain that we aren’t spending enough time together and the minute we’re alone all you do is bitch at me. What is it, CB?? What?” Tears streamed down my face.
“I’m sorry,” he said, tears in his eyes, putting his arms around me. “It’s just, it’s been really hard without you. And, I come out here and you’re having all this fun and it doesn’t seem like you’ve missed me at all. And…and now I’m just frustrated with myself that I’m so tired and we’re not even halfway finished. And I don’t know…”
“Well…it sucks to have your girlfriend be in better shape that you are.” He looked down at me sheepishly.
I started laughing, “CB…all I’ve been doing for the past month is hiking, of course I’m going to be a stronger hiker at this point. I totally sucked at the beginning!” I gave him a playful rib poke, ” I mean, I wasn’t as slow as you, but I totally sucked.”
The tension cleared, we started walking again. I tried several more times to call Miss Janet, but could never get a signal. At the pace we were going, I feared it would be well after sundown before we finished. Eventually, we came into a clearing and spotted a parking area, which I figured was the 10 mile point.
Just as I was saying “Maybe we can find someone to give you a ride into town!” I spotted Miss Janet’s van in the parking lot. I felt a rush of relief.
“I thought maybe I should just come on anyway…just in case.” She drawled, giving me a wink. E and Sug climbed out the back of the van, handing CB and I both donuts and orange juice.
“Sug and I decided we’d wait here, so you’d have someone to finish with.” E told me as we hugged like we hadn’t seen each other in weeks. “Mike and Pilgrim are long gone.”
I thanked Miss Janet and said good-bye to CB, who was going to try to find us a hotel room for the night, and then E, Sug, and I started back up the trail. My mood was infinitely lighter and we hiked almost twice as fast as CB and I had.
“We were starting to worry…it was taking you guys so long.” E confided.
“Yeah, dude, he was really struggling.”
I decided to chalk the weirdness with CB up to his exhaustion and the strain of our time apart. Besides, I was having too good a time with E and Sug, the three of us telling stories from our past, and making up ridiculous scenarios for our future. We were practically running down the trail, even 16 miles into the day, and I marveled at how strong I felt. I told E and Sug about the pact I had made with myself at the beginning of March, when I decided that I would give the trail a month, and if I was still miserable, I would quit.
“I can’t imagine quitting now! We’ve come too far!”
“But does having CB here make you want to go home…even a little bit?” Sug asked, probably thinking about his own girlfriend he’d left back in New York.
“No. Not even a little bit.” I said emphatically. “I mean, look, I miss him so much. Everyday I miss him. But this is a once in a lifetime thing, and he’ll still be there when I get home.”
“Good!” E said, putting her arm around me. “I wouldn’t let you leave me anyway.”
We arrived at our pick-up point, still in a great mood and feeling surprisingly energetic for having just finished a 20 mile day. We used a payphone to call Miss Janet, who in turn called CB. Miss Janet told me that CB had crashed as soon as he got in the van, but that he’d found us a hotel room and wanted to come get me. Miss Janet arrived first with her van full of hikers to pick up E and Sug. It was getting dark, so they decided to wait with me until CB got there. Ten minutes passed and the hikers started getting restless; they were on their way to dinner when Miss Janet stopped. After twenty minutes, we started to worry.
“Just go ahead.” I told them.
“No, honey, why don’t I bring you back to my place and you can call CB from there.” Miss Janet offered. Then looking at the hungry van of hikers, she added, “I’ll just drop these guys off first.”
I was climbing into the van when the headlight’s of CB’s Jeep appeared. CB looked frazzled, so I said a quick goodbye to Miss Janet and the hikers and got in the Jeep.
“I got lost.” he mumbled, “I’ve been driving around this fucking town for 30 minutes.”
I touched his hand. “We’ll you’ve got me now. Come on, let’s go back to the hotel.”
An hour later we were content, laying on the ratty motel bed, an empty pizza box sitting on the floor. We watched TV and made small talk, laughing like we always did at the ridiculous reality show contestants. He talked about his job and told me stories about our cat named Cat. As we turned off the lights, my head resting comfortably on his shoulder I said “I’m really glad you came.”
“Yeah, I really am. And I’m sorry things weren’t perfect. I just, I guess I just wanted you to feel a part of this.”
“But darlin’, I’m not a part of it. This is your thing.” He kissed the top of my head. “And that’s okay. I guess it’s just hard knowing that tomorrow you’ll be back out there and I’ll be driving home where the only thing waiting for me is a flea-bitten cat.”
“Only a few more months and I’ll be all yours.”
“As long as you get rid of those damned fleas.”
The next morning, after a tearful goodbye, I watched from the sidewalk as CB’s Jeep drove away. E walked down from Miss Janet’s porch and put her arm around me. “You okay, babe?”
“Yeah…I’m just a little sad.” I said, wiping my eyes. And relieved, I thought guiltily. I felt relieved to see him go.
Even though we were getting back on the trail that day, none of us seemed in any hurry to get going. E and I spent the morning hanging around with Turbo, who was taking a zero day at Miss Janet’s.
“Dude, Turbo,” said E, after realizing how delightfully goofy he was. “We thought you were going to be cocky hiker boy when we heard you say your name was Turbo going into the Smokies. Like ‘look at me, I’m Turbo, I’m super fast.'”
Turbo looked up from the bursting at the seams pack that he was unsuccessfully trying to shove a big bag of Skittles into. “No! So whatsit…uhh, the name’s a joke because I’m kinda slow and, you know, I carry a huge pack.”
“Jesus, Turbo, are you really going to carry that whole bag of Skittles?” asked Sug.
“Dude, go big or go home.”
Unlike Turbo, most hikers were obsessive about how much their pack weighed. Each item that went into the pack was scrutinized for its usefulness and discarded if it wasn’t a necessity. Even needed items were altered to shave ounces- toothbrush handles got sawed off, extra straps on backpacks were cut, all food packaging was removed before it went into the pack, book chapters were torn out and left behind after being read. Some of the choices seemed ridiculous (E and I carried a deck of miniature cards instead of a full-sized deck to save weight), but the weight of the pack made such a difference in how far and long you could hike, that to us, it made perfect sense to carry only the bare minimum. With full food and water, my pack weighed between 30-35 pounds, a decent weight for most hikers. And there are some backpackers, known as ultra-lighters, who, through a system of special lightweight gear, multipurpose items, and packing only the absolute essentials can whittle their full pack weight down to 15-20 pounds. When Turbo started the trail, his pack topped 60.
Once the group of hikers heading back up the trail had piled into the back of Miss Janet’s van, someone pointed out the map of the AT taped on the ceiling.
“I put that there so that thru-hikers realize how far they still have to go- this thing’s a marathon, you know, and you guys are just at the beginning.” I placed my finger on the dot marked Erwin, TN, and each of the hiker’s eyes traveled the distance up the map to Katahdin, Maine.
“God…and here I was thinking I was a badass for hiking 350 miles.” I muttered, my eyes fixated on the more than 1,800 miles we still had to hike.
It was noon by the time Miss Janet dropped us at the same spot she had the day before, only this time we would be heading north and there would be no warm bed to sleep in at the end of the day. I said goodbye to Miss Janet, and started up the trail. The melancholy from CB’s departure hung over me as I lugged my abnormally heavy pack on the steep climb up to Roan Mountain. I tried not to dwell on the negatives of the visit, but I couldn’t help but feel unsettled. During the day while I hiked, I replayed the weekend, chiding myself for not being more understanding to the situation I had put CB in and resolved to be more attentive.
It was already dark when I reached the shelter, and I was in no mood to talk. Luckily, the large group we were traveling with now made it hard to spend much time in my own head. In addition to Pilgrim and Sug, we were keeping pace with a couple of stoners- Nasty and Shaman, an old hippie named Vagabond, Firewood, and a sweet, devoutly Christian couple called Mawee and Pawee. E told me that Mike had pushed on to the next shelter with See Blue. We both agreed that it was for the best. From the minute we arrived at Miss Janet’s three days earlier, Mike had barely spoken to either E or I.
“He’s probably sick of us. We have been together every day for the last month.” E whispered once we were tucked in our sleeping bags.
“Well, I’m certainly sick of him.” I retorted. “He’s acting like…like…”
“Like a 20 year old boy?”
“Well…yeah.” I conceded. “Ugh, I guess he just needs to be around a little testosterone, huh?”
Since our second day on the trail, the three of us had been a team, and not that E or I would admit it, but both of us were hurt by Mike’s disappearance.
By the next morning, my mood had improved. The sun was shining and no one was in a hurry to get on the trail. I’d never been a morning person, and I always resisted the rush to get out of the shelter in the mornings (but I always did it because the other option was to sit around shivering). We took our time eating breakfast and re-packing out bags, and I finally got a chance to take in the view that I had missed by arriving after sundown the night before. E, Sug, Pilgrim and I started our day hiking together, falling into an easy banter, talking about anything and nothing, posing questions like the hiker favorite “what would be your perfect meal?” Any angst over CB or Mike had vanished and I felt a giddy excitement to be on the trail. We spent the day hiking over a series of grassy balds, allowing unobstructed views of the mountain ranges that surrounded us. At one point E and I stood at one peak and could look north to see Sug and Pilgrim on the next peak. We waved like idiots, excited to be out in open, under the warm clear skies. The majority of our time on the trail was passed hiking under the cover of forest, catching only glimpses of the sky when we reached a summit once, maybe twice, a day. To have unlimited views and sun gave the day a magical twinge and made me feel free and happy and almost nostalgic, wanting to hang onto this precise feeling forever.
Around noon, we spotted an old barn in a field a couple hundred yards off the trail. I checked the guidebook and figured that this was the Over Mountain shelter- a barn that had been converted into a shelter several years back. E and I walked down to have lunch and found Sug, Pilgrim, Nasty and Shaman already there.
“Let’s go outside,” Pilgrim suggested after we had eaten. The six of us lay in a row on the grass in front of the barn, letting the sun warm us, for over an hour. Every once in awhile someone would speak and we’d joke for a few minutes, but mostly we lay in comfortable silence, each soaking up the moment. It felt amazing to be there, to have nothing to do the rest of the day but walk in a landscape that most people would never be lucky enough to experience, for once to be warm enough to linger and close our eyes, and not have to hurry along to generate body heat.
“This is it.” E said, arms folded behind her head, eyes closed to the sun, “This is all I wanted.”
Eventually, we left the spot, rested and content, and set to climbing one last steep bald. I loved that while distance grew between us- Pilgrim first, then Sug, then E, and me, as usual, bringing up the rear, I could still see each of them, little dots making their way up the long climb. After making it to the top, the rest of the day’s hike was downhill, and I made it to the shelter for that night in good time. I was surprised to see Mike and See Blue building a fire, I had figured they would have hiked further than us that day.
“Hey!” Mike called out. He told me that he and See Blue had stayed at the barn the night before and so had made it to this shelter before lunch. “There’s a road crossing a couple tenths of a mile up the trail from here, so See Blue and I decided to hitch into town and pick up beer and hot dogs for everyone.”
“There’s beer?” I asked, thinking that after having the perfect day, this was too good to be true.
“There’s beer.” said Mike, as he put a cold Busch light in my hand.
We spent the night roasting hot dogs and drinking beer, telling crude jokes, and laughing at Nasty’s antics. Nasty, a tall, goofball of a guy, seemed a stereo-typcial stoner, and you never knew what nonsensical phrase would come out of his mouth next. Noticing that he had smoked three cigarettes in a row, he quipped “I’m smoking like a bitch out of water!” E and I doubled over in laughter when Nasty, searching frantically through his bag, muttered to no one in particular, “where is it? where is it?” and then pulled his hands out the bag, with his pointer fingers and thumbs looking like a shooter’s, and said with a smile “ahh, here it is…the old fart gun,” letting one rip.
Tears rolled down my face, “I totally wasn’t expecting that!”
“It was just…so well timed.” E giggled.
As we finally all settled into our sleeping bags, the fire still crackling, I wrote in my journal “by far- my favorite day on the trail.”
The next morning I lay in my sleeping bag thinking that after a month as a thru-hiker the only thing I knew for sure about what lay ahead of me was that I couldn’t know what lay ahead of me. I could pore over elevation maps and read guide books to get a sense of the terrain, but uncontrollable factors like the weather, the state of my body, the weight of my pack, my ever-changing mood, or the company I kept, could transform a seemingly easy day into an epic one, and an insurmountable distance into a walk in the woods. So while the day before was magical, I knew I couldn’t count on the feeling carrying over, and I would have to take the day as it presented itself. And as so often happened, that day presented itself with a cold, drizzling rain, and legs that felt like tree trunks. For all the beauty of the previous day, this day’s landscape was unforgiving, a series of sharp climbs and steep descents that made my still open wounded heels sting with pain. The big group, so boisterous and carefree the night before, was that evening crammed into a too-small shelter, silent and collectively moody.
So the following day was an improvement simply because I woke with a sense of purpose. E and I had a plan – we would hike six miles to the Kincora hostel that was set several tenths of a mile from a road crossing, pick up packages waiting for us there, get a ride into town to resupply our food, and then get back on the trail for another 10 miles of hiking. We knew that some of the other thru-hikers would chose to stay at the hostel overnight, if not longer- the lure of a dry bed and hot food too much to pass up. So when E and I arrived at the cozy hostel around 10 am, we weren’t surprised to hear Nasty, Shaman, Vagabond and several others making plans to stay the night.
But then Mike took us aside and told E and I, “I’m gonna stay, too. The owner said he’d slack pack us tomorrow if we would do some trail maintenance today. Why don’t you guys stick around?”
“You know we can’t do that, Mike.” E said quietly. Mike knew that E and I were intent on sticking as close as possible to the schedule we had set for ourselves, and that we were worried about falling behind this early in the trip and not being able to summit before our schools started at the beginning of August. E and I had agreed that we would stay on course unless an irresistible opportunity or obstacle presented itself, and Kincora, while a lovely hostel, was not irresistible.
“Alright.” Mike said, turning away, “I’ll just have to catch up with you in a few days,” not mentioning how hard it could be to make up that distance.
Back on the trail after completing our errands, I thought about how tenuous the connections we made often were. We shared intense experiences with the people we met, and while friendships were instantly forged, they were also easily discarded. One of the few codes of the thru-hiker is “hike your own hike.” Everyone has their own philosophy of how to attempt a thru-hike. Some people believe you need hike every inch of the trail with your pack on, others think it’s okay to take short cuts here and there; some want to cram as many miles as they can into a day, others feel you aren’t truly experiencing the trail if you don’t take your time. To reconcile these differences, most hikers believe that if you want to do your own thing- hike the miles you want, stop when and where and how often you want- you’ve got to let everyone else do their own thing, too. Of course, like anything where strong opinions are held there are some who can’t help espousing their views, but for the most part hikers tried to be respectful of each other’s choices. Although we couldn’t forsee circumstances where it would happen, even E and I had made a pact that we would split up if it was the only way we could each finish the trail happy. So even though we had spent almost a month solid with Mike, and cared for him like a brother, when he told us he was going to stay, and we said we wanted to go, neither side protested.
We hiked for several miles along a river, passing a gushing waterfall, and then made a laborious 2000 foot climb up a flat topped mountain. From the north side of the peak we could see Wautuga lake, but it was several more miles before we finally wound our way down to it. We crossed a road to get to the lake, excited because we knew we were now close to our shelter for the night. The trail climbed away from the shoreline, and we followed a serpentine brook until I spotted the three sided structure and picnic bench. To my surprise, the shelter was empty. Sug, Pilgrim, and See Blue had left Kincora before us, and we had made plans to meet at the Wautuga lake shelter at the end of the day.
“Do you think they kept hiking?” I wondered aloud.
“That sucks, I thought they said they were stopping here.”
Both bummed that we had now lost our entire crew, we set about our evening chores in silence- unpacking sleeping bags and pads, fetching water, pulling out food bags, and setting up stoves. I was finishing the last bite of my mac and cheese with tuna when I heard a commotion coming from behind the shelter. E and I tentatively peaked our heads around the wooden side, and simultaneously shrieked.
“See Blue!!! Pilgrim! Sug! Wha…how did you get behind us? Where have you been?”
“Ladies.” came See Blue’s gravely voice. By way of explanation, he pulled two beers from his pocket and handed one to each of us, then lit a cigarette and opened a beer for himself. Pilgrim and Sug talked over each other.
“We got to the lake really early, so we hitched into town to get some beer.” Pilgrim explained.
“Yeah, but Pilgrim ate too much at the McDonalds and we had to sit around for awhile until he didn’t feel like he was going to explode.”
“Well, yeah, but then it took forever to get a hitch back,” Pilgrim retorted, and noticed me staring at the bunch of firewood sticking out of his pack. “Oh, on the way up here, we stopped to get firewood.”
“And Pilgrim jacked me in the face with a log.” Sug laughed, pointing to a small trickle of blood square between his eyes.
I giggled, “Jacked…face…log.”
“Here.” grunted See Blue, tossing Sug a beer. “That’ll fix ya.”
And like that, our spirits were back up. With a fire blazing in the fire ring, the five of us played drinking games like “would you rather” and “boxers or briefs.” Later, tipsy from the beer, smoking a bummed cigarette, I watched E trying to dry the pants she was still wearing in the fire and thought about how much I liked being around these guys.
“Thanks for showing up.” I blurted, ” We thought you’d left us.”
“Nah…we wouldn’t have done that.” See Blue soothed. I caught E’s eye, thinking that it probably wasn’t true, but that it was nice to hear anyway.
We stuck together over the next two days hiking long and challenging 23 and then 18 mile days into Damascus, Virginia. Pilgrim and Sug tried to several times to convince E and I to stick around town the next day and take a zero, but even though we’d been hiking for eight days without a break and wanted to stay with those guys, citing our schedule, we told them we couldn’t. While See Blue checked into a motel and waited for his girlfriend, Roxy, to arrive, the rest of us headed to the hostel in town and then went for dinner and drinks at a diner owned by a former thru-hiker. Like all the time we’d spent with Pilgrim and Sug, this night was fun and effortless, like hanging out with friends we’d known for years. Towards the end of the night, Pilgrim and I stood outside, giving our ears a break from the laughably bad band and doling each other small insights into our lives, I started feeling wistful that if he and Sug took a zero day while we hiked on, we might lose them like we had lost Mike.
“You sure you guys don’t want to stay tomorrow?” Pilgrim asked.
“No…but we probably shouldn’t…”
Back inside I clumsily tried to broach the subject with E, wanting to see if she would consider changing our schedule, but then abandoned the thought, convincing myself that it was wrong to mold our hike to anyone else.
I woke the next morning to Pilgrim yelling “Holy shit!”
“What the fuck, dude?” I moaned and pulled the sleeping bag up over my head.
“Not Yet, you’ve got to see this.”
“Fine.” I said, not bothering to hide my annoyance. I climbed out of my bag and trudged to the window. “Holy shit!”
And there we both stood, mouths agape, looking at the foot of snow that had magically blanketed the ground overnight and the large white flakes that showed no signs of stopping.
“Well then,” I said, after a few minutes of stunned silence, “A zero day it is.”
Soon, E and Sug were awake too and marveling at the snow. The hostel, an old house maintained by a church, had no heat and so by 7 a.m. we were sitting at the diner, eating breakfast. By 10 a.m. we had checked our emails, made phone calls and played two games of Taboo. By 10:30 a.m. I was so antsy that I pushed my chair from the table where the four of us sat in bored silence and announced that “I’d be back.”
Because we went to the grocery store, post office, and laundry when we arrived in town the day before, there wasn’t anything I needed to do, but I needed to do something, so I trudged through the snow to the only thing open, the dollar store. On the two other zero days we’d taken in our five weeks on the trail, the first at E’s lake house and the second at Miss Janet’s with CB, maybe because they were planned, I’d been able to relax and enjoy the much needed down time. But for some reason, as I aimlessly wandered the aisles filled with plastic trinkets and past date canned goods, I couldn’t shake my restlessness. I’d grown used to the forward momentum of the trail, of never staying in one place, of every day making concrete progress towards our ultimate goal of Maine, and this day off felt more like a roadblock than a break.
After a half-hour of browsing I stepped back into the snow carrying three fun-sized bags of Cheetos and a $10 walkman. In addition to my arm band radio, which actually picked up a radio station about a quarter of the time, I also carried a portable cassette player, and one or the other was almost always on when I hiked alone. I heard comments from some hikers, mostly those out for a day or a weekend, who felt listening to anything but the sounds of nature ruined the experience. But after five weeks alone with my thoughts, I was ready for some background noise. E’s brother Brian made us a bunch of mix tapes and we carried two or three at time.
Musicians like Bob Dylan, the Flaming Lips, Snoop Dog, and Weezer, interspersed with the voices of David Sedaris, Mitch Hedberg, and Chris Rock, became the soundtrack of my hike. I walked through the woods, singing at the top of lungs “I got bitches in the living room gettin’ it on and, they aint leavin til six in the mornin’ (six in the mornin’)” or laughing out loud to Mitch Hedberg’s joke “My friend asked me if I wanted a frozen banana, and I said ‘no, but I want a regular banana later, so … yeah.'” There were times when the music seemed to be the only thing propelling me up the mountains. And when the perfect song came on at the perfect time- like Shawn Colvin’s cover of “This Must Be the Place” on the top of a cloud-covered clearing in Tennessee- the two became forever linked in my mind, so that any time I heard the song, I would be instantly transported back.
I made it back to the hostel and was greeted by E, bundled in her sleeping bag, writing in her journal with gloved hands.
“Hey, See Blue stopped by. He wants us all to go out to dinner tonight to meet Roxy.”
“Oh, cool, I’m interested to see what she’s like.” Roxy was See Blue’s girlfriend who had driven up from Raleigh, North Carolina for a visit. Roxy was See Blue’s favorite topic of discussion, and it was obvious to anyone who spent more than three minutes with him that he was smitten with her. The two of them had been holed up at the motel in town since we’d arrived, making dinner the first time we’d meet her.
Between napping, reading, and another trip to the dollar store for more Cheetos, I somehow passed the afternoon. That night, E, Sug, Pilgrim and I walked into the restaurant and were instantly greeted with hugs by a small 22 year-old woman with giant smile.
“Oh my god, you guys, I’ve heard so much about you!” Roxy squealed, and then said the thing that instantly endeared her to the thru-hikers in us, “Come on, let’s eat, I’m paying!”
We spent the evening stuffing ourselves with pasta and trading stories. Roxy entertained us with tales about she and See Blue, asked about each of our lives off the trail, and even seemed interested when we told and retold our hiking stories.
At one point I leaned over to See Blue and squeezed his arm, “She’s great.” I whispered, thinking “Why wasn’t CB like this?”
“I know.” See Blue answered, never once taking his eyes off her.
The snow had stopped coming down at some point that evening, and although it was still there, a full foot and a half, the next morning we all decided that we should get back on the trail. See Blue headed off first, in no mood to talk after his tearful goodbye with Roxy, and after breakfast, E and I followed his footsteps up the mountain, leaving Sug and Pilgrim at the hostel saying they’d get started after running a few errands. The hiking was slow, making the sixteen-mile day seem like at least twenty. The trees lining the trail were bent over from the weight of the snow and E and I were constantly running into branches, only to have a shelf of white powder dumped on our heads and down our backs. About two miles from the shelter, I noticed the distinctive imprint of Sug’s boots.
“There is no way they could have gotten in front of us!” E decided. But when we got to the shelter, along with Sea Blue and a thru-hiker couple named Eric and Kristy, sat a grinning Pilgrim and Sugar High.
“What the hell, dude?” I asked, completely confused.
“Yeah, we met this guy, Lonewolf, when we went to breakfast and he told us about a shortcut out of town.” Sug explained, telling how the Virginia Creeper trail, primarily used as a bike path, basically bypassed the mountain we’d spent the day climbing up and over, and cut miles off their hike. Where I had noticed Sug’s bootprints was where the Creeper met back up with the AT.
“Seriously?” I said, trying to get the last of the snow out of my soaked shirt.
“Before you get angry, we brought a present.” Pilgrim said as he pulled out a water bottle filled with pinkish liquid and handed it to me. “Peach moonshine from Lonewolf.”
Before the trail, I never would have dreamed of drinking some stranger’s homemade moonshine, but home rules no longer applied, and so I took a big gulp.
“Shit! Well…that will certainly warm you up.”
The next morning, April 1st, the snow was still on the ground, but the temperature had risen dramatically. We hiked along in the snow in t-shirts, following the footprints left by Eric and Kristy, who had left before sunrise, telling us they were being picked up by a family member at road crossing a couple miles from the shelter. We walked in a line, See Blue first, then Pilgrim, Sug, E, and me bringing up the rear. We reached a clearing and See Blue came to a sudden stop.
“The footprints stopped.” See Blue yelled back.
“Oh, this must be where Eric and Kristy got picked up.” E said.
I caught up to the others and saw beyond the footprints and tire tracks, a sea of pristine white snow, and understood the problem. We’d lost the trail.
“Oh, ha ha, I get it.” E said at last.
“Get what?” I asked, scanning the field of powder in front of us, and the forest beyond for any sign of the trail.
“60 degree day? A foot of snow on the ground? And now we’ve lost the trail?” she looked at our blank faces expectantly. “It’s April fools day, bitches!”
We then took turns telling “Yo mama” jokes in honor of mother nature’s twisted sense of humor while See Blue forged ahead, looking for the trail.
“Look like you’re lost.” I commanded, snapping a picture of E, Sug and Pilgrim giving their best “where the fuck are we” faces. See Blue waved us forward, having found the trail at a nearly indistinguishable break in the trees.
“How’d you find it?” Sug wondered.
“White blaze.” See Blue grunted, pointing to a nearby tree marked with a rectangle of white paint. The whole of the Appalachian Trail is marked every so often with white “blazes”, painted on trees or rocks or wooden posts, making the AT a very easy trail to follow. AT hikers get so used to blindly following these white rectangles that thru-hikers joke that at the end of their hike they’ll catch themselves following the white paint lines down the middle of a road.
The snow made walking a chore, and I spent so much of the day concentrating on following the deep footprints in front of me that I almost forgot to look for one of the unique features of that area of Virginia- wild ponies. We were stopped for lunch at a shelter on Thomas Knob, all inordinately worn out from the twelve miles we’d hiked and deciding whether to hike on or call it a day, when E spotted one, “PONY!” She rushed over to where it stood and then immediately doubled over with laughter.
“What?” I called, too tired to get up from the picnic table.
Now laughing so hard she could barely talk, she finally spat out, “This pony has the biggest…the biggest…shlong…I’ve ever seen!” and then “come take a picture!”
After confirming that the pony was indeed “hung like a horse”, we begrudgingly kept hiking, E motivating us as she usually did to stay on schedule, and as a reward that night we drank the rest of the moonshine.
The next two days were sunny and in the 70s, making me theorize that the snow had just been a fucked up side effect of the moonshine. We hiked two 20+ mile days, deciding to push on to Atkins, Virgina on the second day in order to make it to the post office before it closed. I noticed that the five of us- See Blue, Pilgrim, Sug, E and I, were now making choices as a group- how far to go, when to stop, when to push on- rather than just randomly ending up at the same place. Coming from a Big Ten party school, where most of my male friends were frat boy types (and CB, while not a frat boy, certainly fit the mold), Sug, Pilgrim, and See Blue were unlike guys I knew, and yet their company felt completely natural and familiar. Sug and Pilgrim were like E and I’s male equivalents, all inappropriate jokes and silliness, and See Blue was like the groups’ older brother. The more I got to know them, the more I liked each one. I knew it was a precarious bond between the five of us; after all, we hadn’t seen Mike in days, but one that felt real and important nonetheless.
In Atkins, we decided to all pile into a dingy motel room just a few feet off the trail at a road crossing, where we could shower and make phone calls, rather than hiking on to another shelter. The others had made a beeline for the Dairy Queen nearby and I was putting on my sandals to follow them when I heard an angry rap at the door. I opened it to find the motel owner stomping his foot impatiently.
“I counted five of you in this room.” He yelled at me. “You have to pay extra for five in the room.”
“Whoa, buddy…there were five of us here when I checked in. The person at the desk didn’t say anything. I’m happy to pay the extra, but there’s no need to yell.” I said evenly. My calm surprised me. Although normally a laid back person, I tended to get instantly defensive and sarcastic when confronted. Maybe it was the two beautiful days I’d just spent in the woods, or maybe I was just worn out from the hiking, but I found I couldn’t summon up my normal outrage.
Later, we all sat in the room watching tv and eating our Blizzards. The door sat open in an effort to keep the hiker funk down to a minimum.
“Holy shit.” Sug yelled. “Dog!”
“Wha…oh shit!” We looked over to see Sug coralling a large dog that had wandered into the room.
Seconds later the motel owner appeared at the door. “Oh, sorry…come here puppy.”
“I’m not paying for that dog, too.” I called as the owner pulled the dog out the room.
It appeared the outrage was still there.