A lot of time has passed since my last post, and a lot of miles, too. In 200 miles, I’ve left two more states behind and had some of the strangest and most amazing experiences of the trail so far.
The last few weeks have passed in a blur. I’ve jumped groups several times, hiking with different people for a couple days before either my or their pace changed. It’s interesting to hike this way. I’ve met a lot of really interesting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and have kept a good pace, but it does get lonely. A lot of groups I find myself in have been together since the start and I just tag along for a little while.
The weather has been awesome. I don’t mean it’s been good, I mean it’s been worthy of awe. My first day out of Hot Springs must have been a hundred degrees. I packed two liters of water and drank all of it in the short, five-mile day.
Only a few days later, it was windy and cold all day with showers on and off. I was forced to take a side trail along a ridge, because climbing over exposed boulders in a rainstorm did not seem like a smart idea. On the plus side, it stopped raining almost exactly when I reached the shelter for the night, so everything was able to dry.
I pushed hard into Irwin, TN on my own, leaving the group I’d hiked with for a few days, arriving May 3. I was hiking ahead of schedule, so I sent my mail drop further ahead to compensate and didn’t want to run out of food. I ended up staying the night in town, since Hot Springs was already five days behind. I ended up paying for a private cabin at Uncle Johnny’s hostel, since I was too tired to think about asking about tenting in the yard, and that was the only indoor bed available.
I spent that night frantically searching Irwin for a cheap pair of rain pants. Severe storms were predicted for the next few days, with a chance of snow, and I’d sent home my cold weather gear in Hot Springs. I was without long pants, rain pants and sweatshirt. I really didn’t want to die of hypothermia on Roan Mountain. Neither WalMart or the local dollar store had anything to fit the bill, and as much as I didn’t want to freeze, I also didn’t want to pay the absurd prices Uncle Johnny was charging for rain pants I’d probably use once.
I grabbed a few trash bags to potentially use as a rain kilt and headed out.
May 6 was when things got interesting.
I stayed the previous night at the Greasy Creek hostel to get my next week’s worth of food. The sound of rain pounding the roof woke me up several times that night and I was glad to be indoors, but I knew it had to be snowing at higher elevations. I headed out the next morning wearing my sleeping thermals and my rain jacket over a tee-shirt, relying on movement to keep me warm.
The entire top of Roan Mountain was covered in snow. It looked more like mid-January than early May. The trail was a wet mix of slush and mud, making each step difficult. Besides a quick lunch at the Roan Mountain Shelter, I barely stopped moving all day. I could feel the wind tugging at my jacket and feared the sweat underneath would freeze if given the chance.
I decided with a few other hostel guests to meet at Overmountain Shelter, a converted barn with space for over 20 hikers. One of the largest shelters on the Appalachian Trial, it was bound to have enough room, even with people hunkering down to wait out the storm.
When I approached the shelter, I saw someone coming out of it towards me. I though hypothermia must have set in and I was hallucinating, because the girl seemed to be wearing a ruffled tuxedo shirt and a bowtie. Se held out a laser-enraved wooden menu and asked about my order. I asked for the chef’s salad, salmon and green beans, and ice cream for desert, then asked what was going on.
“The Appalachian fucking Pine Mixer,” she said.
Sure enough, there were four tables set up in the bottom level of the two-story shelter, set with plates and candles. Seven other hikers were already enjoying fresh salads and hot tea and all shared shouts of “Can you believe this?” when I walked in.
The group throwing this outrageous and amazing example of trail magic was a class from the Savannah College of Art and Design. As part of their course, they hiked 50 miles of the AT in March, then designed an experience around it.
“We’ve been trying to deliver a new type of trail magic that’s a little unexpected and a little out of the blue,” said Becky, or FBI, one of the students and our waitress for the evening.
After hiking through freezing weather, having a fresh-cooked meal was the last thing I expected, but it was certainly very much appreciated. The SCAD students gave me and my fellow hikers an experience none of us are soon to forget.
I’m not sure if it was the meal, or the desire to cross another state border, but the next few days flew by. I racked up two 20+ mile days getting to Damascus, more than I’ve ever done before. It was worth it, though. I’m in town, had some good food, slept for a night at the amazing Woodchuck Hostel and am ahead of the bubble coming into Trail Days next week. In less than two weeks, I’ve walked 200 miles. I guess I need to start getting used to seeing those hundred mile markers.
In those days, I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks. Spotify has a lot for free download, and in particular I’ve been listening to the works of Jack London. In his novel White Fang, about a wolf-dog and his struggles in the Klondike gold rush, London presents ideas about what it means to be alive and wild; to move, hunt, strive. He also talks about the contrast between instinct and law; that instinct is what one knows to seek what is good and does not hurt and law tells us to do what does hurt for a greater purpose through learned experience.
I’m finding that hiking the AT has given me a new perspective on the idea. Hiking for hours a day can hurt, sleeping on the ground isn’t all that comfortable, and the food is terrible. Every instinct should tell a person to not do this thing, to go home, go inside, where there isn’t sunburn and blisters and bears.
And yet, thousands of hikers each year strap on their boots and walk 2,200 miles. Why do we ignore these instincts and go out in the woods and climb mountains with 30 plus pounds on our backs? Is there a reward at the end? Is there some kind of unwritten law we are following that makes us disregard our instincts?
Maybe it’s just the way we found to stay alive, to strive, to push ourselves. Maybe there’s something to be gained, something to prove, through all the suffering the trail gives. Those small victories, getting to the top of the mountain, reaching the next town, add up along the way, and maybe they cancel out the suffering and pain and loneliness.
Maybe. What do you think?