“When the crisis comes…when there is no way out – that is the very moment when we explode from within and the totally other emerges: the sudden surfacing of a strength, a security of unknown origin, welling up from beyond reason, rational expectation, and hope.”
Goodbyes Aren’t Always Forever
In my two-and-a-half weeks on the trail, I’ve suffered through aches, illness, injuries, inclement weather and plenty of other challenges. But few of them match the lady sitting next to me, engaging me in a battle for elbow space going on its sixth hour on a 24-hour Greyhound bus trip from Knoxville to Des Moines.
There are rules on a bus. Each row has four seats. Two seats on each side of the aisle. Look at the two bus seats in front of you and stay on your side of the space between them.
If you encroach a little into that no-mans-land space between the two seats, I’m not going to make a fuss, but there’s no mistaking that she’s making a power play way into my zone. As I write this, my elbow is jammed into the soft, side of her arm, and I am slowly, but deliberately trying to push her back into her space. She doesn’t want to go back into her space, because she’s selfish and terrible, so she is pushing back.
Every five to ten minutes I’ve noticed she reaches across her body toward the window to take a sip of her soda. My plan is to wait until she does this again – any minute now – and advance way into her space. A good offense is the best defense.
You might be wondering why I’m on a Greyhound bus. A quick look at a map will reveal Des Moines is nowhere near the Appalachian Mountains … or any mountains. But it is where my dear friend from college and beyond, Christian, is marrying his super-charismatic wife (and veritable encyclopedia of Summer Olympic theme songs), Annie.
Logistically, this is one of the only challenges I have had to think about outside of walking from Georgia to Maine. Getting picked up from the trail can be a difficult and expensive endeavor. Imagine you have enough phone service to place a phone call for the first time in four days. In cold, biting, 40mph winds you seize your opportunity and begin calling random shuttle drivers from your guide book. “Hello,” you try to sound cheerful, but you’re not fooling anyone, “I’m trying to get to the Knoxville Greyhound station on Wednesday by noon. Would you be able to take me?”
“What?” they ask between wind gusts and inconsistent phone service.
“CAN. YOU. TAKE. ME. TO THE. KNOXVILLE. GREYHOUND. STATION.”
“Where are you?” A fair question.
“I’m in Great Smoky Mountain National Pa—“
“No, we don’t pick up there,” she is frustrated because she can’t hear you and she thinks your questions are stupid.
“No, I know that,” you are frustrated because you can’t hear her and you think her answers are stupid. “On Wednesday, I think I’ll be at Lemon Gap in North Carolina.” You sigh, “I think. Possibly Tennessee?”
“Lemon Gap in North Carolina,” she pauses, “…or Tennessee? I don’t know where either of those are.”
“It’s – it’s on the Appalachian Trail. My guidebook says you pick up on the Appalachian Trail.”
“It’s a very long trail.”
By now your body temperature is dropping. Your pack is hurting your shoulders. You have to pee. You’re hungry. You’re thirsty. You’re behind schedule for the day. Your lips are chapped. Your ankle hurts. And well-meaning day hikers in the Smoky Mountains keep trying to ask you, “Are you going all the way Maine?,” even though you’re obviously on a phone call that’s not going well.
“Yes, I know it’s very long.” You hate her. You take off your pack and pull out your guidebook. “It’s at Mile 259.2. I think maybe it intersects with NC 1182,” you sigh, “Or TN 107?”
She’s thinking, and then suddenly, “Oh, Lem-on Gap! she beams. “I’m sorry, I misheard you!”
“Ok,” you do not beam. “How much would that cost?”
“Lem-on Gap. Hm. Now, that’s pretty far out there.” She calculates. “Let’s say $200 one way.”
“$200?” Maybe the wind or spotty phone service made the $30 you were expecting sound like $200.
“Ok, thank you. I’ll call you back.”
I repeated this phone call six times and would have much rather hiked 60 mountains. Or thrown myself off one.
I have a really good excuse to not go to this wedding, and Christian and Annie would have 100% understood. But I read the transcript from the podcast, “Always Go to the Funeral,” last year, and it made me rethink some things about being a friend that I don’t think I was very good at. It’s not a perfect analogy. This wedding will probably be the most fun party of 2017. The opposite of a funeral. But it’s still going to be a pain in the ass to get there, and it would be easier to just keep hiking. But I want Christian and Annie to know their friendship is worth it, and the best way to show that is to get there. That’s what that podcast taught me.
So here I go! If this woman would just move her stupid arm out of my space.
How Long Is This Stupid Thing?
When I started the trail on April 23rd, the sign at Amicalola Falls State Park said I had 2,108.5 miles to the end of the trail at the peak of Mt. Katahdin. I thought the trail was 2,200 miles long, so this was a welcome surprise. Nearly 100 miles down and I hadn’t even taken a step!
After hiking more than 70 miles, I was now 11 miles farther from the end? To say the least, this was discouraging. To say the most would require a series of expletives.
Well, I learned the trail’s length actually changes every year. Sometimes the changes are sizeable – like when overdevelopment in southern Georgia resulted in the lopping off of 20 miles of trail, moving the start north from Mt. Oglethorpe to its current beginning atop Mt. Springer. Usually the changes are smaller. This year, for example, a series of forest fires in North Carolina and Tennessee caused the rerouting of a few miles of trail.
The annual adjustments mean the signs aren’t always accurate. But the guidebook most hikers use, The A.T. Guide, is updated every year. So, with confidence, I can say the Appalachian Trail is currently 2,189.8 miles long. I’m currently at Mile 240, which means we have 1,949.8 left to go – no matter what these official looking signs have to say.
Worn and Weathered
Last time I wrote, I was a doe-eyed, new hiker enjoying a half-day off in Hiawassee, Georgia. Since then, my doe eyes have become significantly less doe-y. When I see my reflection in a mirror every four or five days, I’m startled by haggard I’ve become. I take a daily selfie to track my beard’s progress, and the weary-looking slits where my eyes used to be seem to narrow every day, consumed by the expanding bags below them.
Despite the deterioration of my boyish good looks, I left my first trail town feeling pretty good. My blisters were covered with moleskin, my feet were wrapped in duct tape, my belly was full of mediocre buffet, and my body was clean (read: much less dirty – I don’t believe I’ll ever be clean again) from a shower.
I left the hostel on a wave of positivity, looking forward to the three-day hike, out of Georgia, to a half day of relaxation in Franklin, NC.
I’ve gotten some version of this question a few times from friends: “Matt – wouldn’t you finish a lot sooner if you didn’t stop in all these towns?” In short, the answer is yes, the hike would end much sooner if I didn’t go to towns. Because I would starve to death.
A town or shop on, or near, the trail is called a Resupply, because it’s a place you can resupply yourself with food or gear.
A day’s worth of food weighs about two pounds, so five days’ worth of food can take a pack’s weight from 30 pounds to 40 pounds. I’m not sure if it sounds like a lot to you, but thinking about it makes my back creak.
Even if I could fit 10 days’ worth of food in my pack, carrying it on my back would be a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking. So resupplying every three to six days is a necessity.
And no two resupplies are the same. Sometimes, like Hiawassee, it’s a whole town with grocery and convenience stores. Other times it’s just a hostel that carries food and/or gear commonly purchased by hikers. Sometimes the trail goes directly through the resupply, like when it will go through Hot Springs, NC at Mile 263. Other times the resupply will be within a short walk from the trail, maybe a half-mile or so. Still other times, the resupply will be 10 or 15 miles from the trail, but because you’re almost out of food, you’ll need to hitchhike to it.
But, for me, stopping in towns isn’t only out of necessity. The fun in this adventure isn’t just about walking from Georgia to Maine. I want to see the towns and meet the people that make up Appalachia. Going into trail towns is a huge part of the fun.
It’s [Trail] Magic. You Knowwww.
Cog, the man who drove me to the Knoxville Greyhound station opined, “the Appalachian Trail is hands down the best example of brotherhood and sharing you’ll find in the world.”
While it’s possible the reach of Cog’s declaration was extreme, it’s hard to disagree with the basic idea. People look after each other out here. Here are some examples from just the last five days:
-Someone anonymously left a box of bananas on a picnic table in a gap for passersby to eat.
-A group of women hikers from North Carolina and Tennessee set up a table at the northern end of the Smoky Mountains with fruit, donuts, coffee, and a mountain of Sausage McBiscuits taller than most of the peaks we’d hiked that week.
-On a cold evening, another hiker offered me their extra filtered water so I didn’t have to sit at the stream and freeze while trying to filter my own.
-Locals bought us beer in Fontana.
-On an especially cold and rainy night, hikers gave up their space in a shelter to fit extra people so no one had to set up their tents in the sleet.
These are just a few examples of the kindness you see along the trail. Only you can walk your miles, and everyone’s ultimately responsible for themselves, but you don’t sense any competition. People want each other to accomplish their goal – whether success means hiking to the North Carolina state line, hiking until a certain date, or making it all the way to Maine.
Besides the straight up gifting of food – referred to as Trail Magic – one of my favorite things to watch among hikers is the trading of food in the evening at shelters and campsites. Tastes change, or sometimes another hiker just found some exotic item more interesting than your six tuna packets. Maybe you can work out a trade.
This week, for example, I learned about something called a Ramen Bomb. Ramen Bombs are made by combining ramen noodles – my dinner three of seven nights a week – with mashed potatoes. It sounded amazing. I needed it. I had the Ramen, but I didn’t have the potatoes. Maybe someone else did.
My eyes were on the prowl that night at dinner when they spotted another guy with the instant mashed potatoes I coveted. I swooped in. “Hi – my name’s King Cake! I noticed you have a few packets of mashed potatoes, and I recently learned about Ramen Bombs. Have you heard of it?”
“Ha, yeah I know Ramen Bombs.”
“I was wondering if maybe I could make a trade for those potatoes.”
“Alright,” he was listening, but seemed a combination of entertained and skeptical. “What do you have?”
“Not much,” I admitted as I emptied my food bag in front of him. “The Smokies have cleared me out. Do you like Pop Tarts?”
“What flavors do you have?” he asked. Now we were getting down to business.
“These are blueberry. These are cupcake.” I didn’t tell him I’d had the cupcake flavor with me since I started the hike two weeks earlier. They weren’t bad as in they were moldy. But they were bad as in they might taste better if they were moldy.
“Yeah, I’ll take a pack of blueberry. Thanks man.”
Damn, still stuck with these cupcake Pop Tarts, I thought. “My pleasure! Thank you!” I said.
I’d count that as a success, but it doesn’t always work out like that. For example, I met a woman who thought she loved oatmeal so much she tried to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for five days in a row. By her second day she learned she was an idiot. I watched as she tried to trade oatmeal for literally anything else. There were no takers.
But someone did throw her a packet of ramen. I’m telling you, people look out for each other. And maybe there’s no better example of that than watching how people responded to Levi.
In the old adult cartoon, “King of the Hill,” there’s a character, Boomhauer, who mumbled so country you couldn’t understand anything he was saying.
That’s probably a good place to start with Levi. I met him for the first time while eating dinner in Hiawassee. We were with three other guys and, since I could actually understand what they were saying, I spoke mostly to them. At that point he didn’t have his trail name, so he went by his real name, Mike. I still call him Mike, and I’m pretty sure he’s the only person on the trail who calls me Matt.
I didn’t learn a lot about him that day, but I learned a few things about him.
-He didn’t spend any time researching or purchasing gear. His “pack” was a duffle bag, like the kind you would take to the gym that you don’t need to be waterproof; and he’s the only one hiking in jeans, which is how he got his name, Levi.
-He’s pretty tight with his cash, as he thought it was ludicrous the hostel was going to charge him for laundry. I wouldn’t be surprised if he also thought it was ludicrous they tried to charge him for a room.
-He bicycled from Colorado to the start of the Appalachian Trail, and once he finishes, he’s planning on walking or bicycling back to Colorado. There is no typo here.
I didn’t see the other guys we ate with again, but – despite the fact that he’s in his late-50s or 60s, has shoes that are falling apart, and smokes any time he can bum a cigarette — Mike moves fast. I saw him every few days — every day once we got into the Smokies. In fact, there’s not a person I’ve seen more days than Mike, and as a result, I can now understand about 30% of what he’s says.
I know his Dad has been trying to get him to take over the family dairy farm for the last 35 years, but he apparently always shoots back with the same eloquent response: “I tells him, f*** the farm, Dad. I ain’t no farmer.” Then he thinks for a second and adds, “Plus, I ain’t gonna have no kids, so you can’t keep a farm in the family without kids anyway.”
“You didn’t want kids, or you couldn’t have them or what?” I asked one night, feeling nosey.
He put his eyes down and swallowed hard, “Just wasn’t in the cards for me, I guess.”
I tried to change the subject. “So what do you do for a job, then?”
“Oh man, I just work so I can keep living this life.”
Apparently “this life” means kayaking from Yellowstone National Park to New Orleans (“I ain’t had no map, I just pulled off the river and asked someone, ‘Hey, what river is this?’”), bicycling from San Diego to Alaska (“Never been to the west coast. Seemed like a good way to see it.”), and walking from Michigan to Maine (“Someone says there’s a trail up there so I went.”)
“Well, what was your last job?” I demanded. I couldn’t tell if I thought he was insane or if I was jealous.
“I needed funds for this, so I bought big bags of tobacco for $5 per bag. Then I rolled cigarettes in Colorado and sold them 11-for-two bucks.”
“How many cigarettes could you get out of a $5 bag of tobacco?”
“Shit, Mike, that’s good business.”
“Where else you gonna buy 11 cigarettes for $2? Me and my partner’d set up front of the church and sell ‘em all day. People’d buy dozens of ‘em. Sold ‘em for a year.”
“How much did you guys make?”
“Enough to get to Maine. When I get there, I’ll find work enough to get me back to Colorado.”
And people on the trail love Mike. When his sleeping bag got wet on a cold, rainy night (because, as a reminder, he was carrying around a duffle bag), a bunch of guys helped build a fire to dry it that night. Two nights later I saw a woman walk into camp and beam, “Mike, I’ve been looking for you for a week! I’ve been carrying around this sweatshirt I found at a hostel that looked like your size!”
And he returns the favor as best he can, dishing out butterscotch candies he’d carry around in his shirt pocket.
Hanging out with Mike was a lot of fun, but watching everyone’s reaction to Mike’s journey has been one of my favorite parts of the trail: people embrace the weird out here. Probably because most people out here are pretty weird themselves. By the time I was getting toward the end of the Smokies, my fingers were always crossed, hoping I’d see Mike shuffle into the same shelter as me at the end of a long day.
It was 6 p.m. and I was sitting at Currahee Brewing Company, along the Little Tennessee River, with my new friend, and local artist, Shay, enjoying our fourth beers of the afternoon.
I was up at 5 a.m. that morning and hiked the 11 miles to Winding Stair Gap by about 11 a.m. I needed to stop in Franklin to buy three more days’ worth of food. But with two breweries in town, the promise of a shower, and my favorite soccer (Arsenal) and baseball (Mets) teams on TV that afternoon, I figured I’d spend the day.
As I waited for my shuttle, a man who introduced himself as Power Slide. When I told him my name was King Cake, he lost his mind and began recounting the long list of every food he enjoyed in New Orleans. “I love those beignets, and that gumbo, and those oyster poboys, and those shrimp poboys, and those roast beef poboys, and those poboys have that have shrimp AND roast beef all together in one…”
He offered to take me the 10 miles into town, which I accepted, because the soccer match was about to start. “And that gumbo, and those fried green tomatoes, and those crawfish…”
He must have stopped listing foods, because at some point I learned he almost completed a southbound thru-hike in 2015. He then finished the trip by listing his favorite foods on the trail. I zoned him out until he said the words “Cookie” and “Butter” side-by-side. “Cookie butter.” He said the most beautiful thing, it sounded like a poem, or a love song, about how he would take this cookie butter and smear it on tortillas for snacks. I’ve been searching for it ever since.
But now I’m with Shay, who is in his 60s and seems to be getting pretty hammered. When I first met him, during beer number two, he was talking to the bartender about his son. “My son was taking a picture of me and was like, ‘Dad, why don’t you try not smiling so big in pictures? It makes your eyes look real small,’ so then I said, ‘Well you shouldn’t take the picture, then, because how am I supposed to stop smiling when I’m looking at you?’”
Shay was a little less sweet and a lot more flamboyant after four beers. “Oh yeah, honey, I lived in France with the Rockefellers for years!” he announces and he runs his hands through his stringy hair and takes a drag off of his cigarette. “I was a hot,” he always emphasized the word hot, “and when you’re hot, you’d better use it. That Rockefeller boy wanted. Me. Bad!”
By the end of beer number six, Shay had transformed himself into a philosopher.
“Did all of this really happen to you, Shay?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, it happened. But it’s one thing to treat your facts with rigidity. I think it’s more important to treat them with imagination. Polish them up. Scrape away the bark.”
“Doesn’t polishing something up make it less authentic?” I tried to keep up, but six beers doesn’t make me a philosopher — it just makes me drunk.
“Matt, I think it makes things more authentic. If you tell someone a story, they’ll probably forget it. But if you tell someone a story in a way that is acceptable and resonates with them, it might change their life.”
I took out my notebook and wrote it down. Partly because it felt like this was worth remembering, but partly because I felt like Shay would like to see me writing it down. It took a long time to decipher what the hell drunk Matt wrote.
“Can I get you one more beer, Shay?”
“No, I don’t think so.” He looked at the ground. And he spoke without making eye contact for the first time all day, “This many drinks is about the time I get sad about my son. I think I’ll head home and smoke some pot instead.”
Before I could think of what to say, he changed the subject. “But right here’s my friend, Erica. She’s more your age, and I’m sure she’d be happy to show you around town.”
“Sure!” she jumped in from the table next to us. “I’m heading to Lazy Hiker, the brewery on the other side of Franklin, if you want to join?”
“I’d love to,” I said. The sun was beginning to drop over the Little Tennessee and, with that, I thanked Shay and promised we’d see each other again when he came to visit New Orleans. It’s a promise I made daily as I struggled with the sadness of saying goodbye to another person every few hours.
A Forest Destroyed?
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed along the trail is noting the small changes that are taking place as I move north. Like the first time I noticed a few pines on the ground, and then how, gradually over one hundred miles, it turned into an entire forest of pine trees. The beautiful thing is that it’s always gradual. There won’t be a place between Georgia and Maine where BOOM things just change. It will sneak up on you.
What happened? I remember reading in December that there was a big fire in Gatlinburg, just outside the Smoky Mountains, but this was still far from there. Erica told me there had actually been dozens of fires in the region at about the same time.
It was also a big point of discussion among hikers on the trail. It was so sudden, so sad, and impossible to miss. For more than 100 miles we had climbed through this forest that felt beautiful, menacing, and powerful. Now, for 60 miles, we were seeing how fragile it was. How easy it was to wipe out hundreds of years of growth in hours.
I know hikers who were so saddened by the destruction, they decided to skip that section of the trail by hitchhiking around it.
Back On The Trail
Sunday night was a long one, but I was back hiking on Monday morning. It was about 50 miles until Fontana Dam, which is the southern boundary of the Smokies, and I estimated I could get there in three tough days. “Tough” was an understatement.
Within 30 minutes of being back on the trail, the rain started again. And so did the sniffles, which became a cold I’m still carrying two weeks later.
I’d also heard an increasing number of stories of NORO Virus, and seen an increasing amount of evidence of it. NORO outbreaks are most likely to happen on then trail when lots of hikers are in close proximity, and living in unclean conditions. This is basically every shelter along the Appalachian Trail, and there have already have been several outbreaks and individual cases recorded this year.
The morning after I left Franklin, I also happened to walk by a guy laying on the trail projectile vomiting off the side. His buddy was watching him, trying to hydrate him when he could, and said they had two other friends who were looking for the nearest road access by which to try to evacuate him.
My stomach hurt, but in hindsight it was probably just the brief but sudden reintroduction of beer, hamburgers, and tator tachos into my diet.
On the second day after Franklin, there was a massive descent to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a makeshift “town” on the trail that anchored by a general store and an outfitter. My plan was to leave the NOC with everything I would need to make it through the Smokies, which included six days’ worth of food, a charged phone – which also doubles as my camera and occasional notepad — and external battery, and a belly full of brownie sundae.
This went as planned, but the descent was brutal on my knees. A 35-pound pack slamming down on your knees every step down can be dangerous and I probably wasn’t using my trekking poles as efficiently as I should have at that point.
Coming out of the NOC, I was hobbling and had a 3,500 foot climb over more than seven miles. This means three-and-a-half hours straight of uphill. The sun’s down by 8:15, and you’re in total darkness by 8:45.
I didn’t get to my campsite until 9:15 which meant I was walking with my headlamp guiding the way. When I got to the site, I had to still set up my tent, cook dinner, and hang my food. All while hobbling around, and toying with hypothermia as the sweat from the climb gave way to the dropping temperatures of a spring night at high elevation.
I thought I had hit rock bottom when I tried to hang my bear bag that night. In black bear country, you want to hang your food from a tree at least 30 feet from the ground. But you also need to find a branch on that tree that is too small and weak for a bear to climb on, but strong enough to hold your food (which on this particular night you may remember was six days’ worth).
It took ten minutes of trudging through darkness to find an acceptable branch. I took my rope and had to tie it to something heavy that I could throw over said branch. I used the little bag with my tent stakes in it, which is idiotic because if that gets stuck in a tree, I would run the risk of not having tent stakes. Of course it got stuck in the tree.
So I put my compressor bag of food on the ground and had to climb the tree to try to wriggle it free. While up in the tree, my food bag began to roll down the slick grass and down a steep hill. Into a stream. I know it was a stream because I heard the splash. This was going to be a long night.
ytI wrested the tent stakes free, climbed back down and then began the 20-minute process of finding my bag of food – the food that would keep me alive for the next week. The stream had carried it for awhile until it got caught in a pile of branches. Thank you, branches.
When I crawled into my sleeping bag that night, I laid awake shivering, imagining for the first time what it would be like to be anywhere else.
The Worst Day
The next day I was scheduled to hike more than 21 miles. At this point I had a full-blown cold which – for those of you that know me well – means I was stopping to blow my nose every three minutes. This forced me to develop an elaborate system of what pockets to keep the clean tissues, the used tissues, and the “lightly used” tissues. And, by “tissues” I mean “toilet paper” which meant I was now in danger of running out of toilet paper, which is my worst nightmare.
That day started with a big climb and at about 9:30 a.m. I had felt a bad twinge in what I thought was my quad. As the day went on the pain was starting to intensify in the space between my quad and my knee. I don’t know what that is, but every step uphill was a throbbing pain, while every downhill step felt like someone was stabbing under my knees, and trying to rip off my right ankle.
By noon, I was using my trekking poles as crutches, which is not how they’re meant to be used. The trail crossed a dirt road, County Road 1242, and I stood there with my phone out trying to figure out how long of a limp to a town or bus station or airport out of here it would be. Too far.
At about 1 p.m. I got to Black Gum Gap and I threw my pack on the ground to stop for lunch. Like a man in his 80s, I gingerly tried to lower myself to the ground. Too sore, I just let myself drop into a heap next to my pack and began to pull out the tortillas, a tuna packet and peanut butter.
Everything hurt. Holding the tortillas up to apply the tuna fish required more shoulder strength than I possessed. I laid there and waited to die.
Which is when an old man, maybe in his high-60s, with an unimpressive beard and the shortest shorts I’d seen on the trail came sauntering down the trail. “Hey there, hiker! How are you doing down there?” he stopped in front of me.
“What’s your name? I’m 8:30.”
“I’m King Cake.”
“King. Cake.” I wasn’t in the mood to explain. “How’d you get 8:30?”
“Some guys I used to hike with would ask me what time I’d be ready to hike in the morning. I’d tell them “8:30,” but it was usually closer to 10…”
A man after my own heart.
“So what are you eating down there?”
“Tuna on torti—“
“Ohhhhh nooo! That Mex-i-can taco bread?” he was in a tizzy. “Why??”
“Takes up less space than br—“
“Well no shit! But what is that? A 30-pack?”
“It’s got to last me six d—“
“A lot more than that if you stay down there.” I was not enjoying this man. “You know that 30-pack of Guatemala dough probably weighs more than your tent.”
I looked at the package it was in — 2.8 ounces. He was right.
“I like to eat this Greek toast best,” as he unpacked his lunch. “It’s the lightest. Whattaya call it?”
“Pita” I tried to offer, but he wouldn’t listen.
“Pita.” I was talking to myself.
“The Greeks don’t get a lot right, but they nailed this one.” He took out his Breadda and dipped it into his crunchy peanut butter. Just as the Greeks intended. “So what’s wrong with you?”
I told him where I was feeling pain and he considered it.
“Listen, I’m no doctor, but I am old as f%^*, so I know a little about the body. The human body is incredible at regeneration. At healing itself. There’s nothing better.” He paused for a second. “How long you been through-hiking for?”
“Since April 23rd.”
“You’ve made it all the way here since April 23rd? I’ve been going since April 10th and I’m going to finish this time. You’re doing great, Kincaid!”
I’m not sure I would actually have quit that day. I’d guess I wouldn’t have. But the pain in my legs had me thinking hard about it. And 8:30’s reassurance – even though small – was the first I’d had in weeks. I didn’t realize how I’d needed it, and it’s incredible to think how a gesture so small can repair so much. I’m not sure if I’m even capable of crying anymore, but for the first time in years, my eyes filled up and a tear threatened to spill over.
“You said, ‘this time.’ Had you tried to hike this before?” I asked.
He took a bite of lunch, and looked at me as I tried to climb to my feet, “I made it more than three-quarters of the way last year. All the way up to Vermont.”
“To Vermont?” I exclaimed. That’s so close. “What happened?”
“NORO. It took me down and my wife made me get off the trail. Said it could be really dangerous for a guy my age. She was right. I was in rough shape for awhile after that.”
“And you’re feeling ok now?”
“Regeneration, man. Nature’s good at it.”
On The Footsteps of the Smokies
8:30? More like Nostradamus. I don’t know if it was the beautiful weather, the shower constructed for hikers at the dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) or if my body is just a miracle-worker, but I woke up feeling like Grandpa Joe when he conveniently remembers how to walk just after learning Charlie found the Golden Ticket.
Rejuvenated, I was ready to enter the Smokies. I hiked the half a mile to the dam and decided to take 30 minutes to check out the little museum inside the TVA visitor center. Inside it was just me, another visitor, and the older woman in her 70s who works there.
I walked around the museum learning how Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to create the TVA brought a newfound prosperity to the Tennessee River Valley, and singlehandedly led us to victory against the Japanese in WWII (maybe a little bit of propaganda, but still interesting).
I could see the woman working there was eyeing me nervously, but I wasn’t sure what I’d done to deserve it. I made eye contact with her and it was clear she wanted to say something. She walked over. “What are you doing with that pack today?”
Ah, sweet, sweet old lady. “I’m trying to hike all the way to Maine!” I was ready to accept her admiration and congratulations for my bravery.
“Not today you’re not,” in a tone that was about as sweet as a lemon.
It makes me nervous when old people are angry because you can’t fight them or argue with them when you disagree. “Oh? Why not?”
“Haven’t you been watching the weather?” she judged.
“I haven’t. I’ve been hiking,” I young-mansplained to her, “I heard it’s going to be cold and rainy today, but it’s always kind of cold and rainy.”
“Oh yeah? Are there always 90mph winds, too?”
“I – I’m not sure.” I could see by the way she was rolling her eyes what the answer was supposed to be. “I don’t think so? Is that very dangerous?”
Another TVA employee, a gentleman in his 50s, had walked in during the conversation and appeared to be waiting for his moment to berate me. “Well, 65mph winds are hurricane-level, so add 25mph to that and go stand on a mountain and see how you do” he offered.
“Wow, look at those leaves being blown right off the tree, Stephen,” she said to her coworker, but really to me.
“At 6,000 feet, those are probably whole trees blowing over,” he he responded to her, never dropping eye contact with me.
“I’d never let me grandson up there. ‘Will finishing a day earlier really matter?’ I’d ask him”
“Not if he gets hit by a tree.”
I thanked them for their advice and assured them I wouldn’t hike into the Smokies in this weather. Then I left the visitor center, walked over to the dam where I had a little bit of wifi, and googled, “How dangerous is it to hike in 90mph winds?”
The internet agrees it is very dangerous. Apparently 80mph winds can lift a human off their feet. I imagined Charlie’s Grandpa being blown off the mountain, 6,000 feet to his death, and decided I’d wait a day.
The Fontana “Hilton”
There are a million worse places to be stuck in the world. The TVA made sure this was the coziest hiking shelter on the trail, which is how it got its nickname, “The Fontana Hilton.” Two-to-three times the size of all other shelters, it also had a shower, bathrooms with electricity, lakefront access, filtered water, garbage cans, and a solar-powered cellphone charging station.
They also ran a $3 shuttle into the town of Fontana, about two miles from the shelter, where we heard there was a restaurant, a general store, a convenience store, a post office and a bar. It was 10 a.m. and we had an entire day to do nothing, so Forest, Gonzo, Mr. Clean, and myself decided to go into town.
Fontana’s a resort town, and at this time they were hosting a Mini-Cooper convention, which explained what I thought was the statistically improbable irony that 90% of the cars in town were mini coopers.
We also found out that the wind had already knocked out power to all of Fontana.
I wanted cheesy eggs so badly. At first it seemed like our only option was going to be Pop Tarts and peanut butter from the convenience store that was running off a generator. But then a rumor began to swirl around town that there was a breakfast buffet that had cooked its food before the outage and was keeping said food warm with gas heaters.
We climbed up the hill to the restaurant and were disappointed to see it was not open. We sat there, and for the second day in a row I wished I could cry, when a mini cooper stopped in the road in front of us. A redheaded man rolled down his window and, to highlight just how sensitive this information was, leaned in and whispered, “Looking for the buffet, boys?”
This all felt creepy, but I wanted cheesy eggs and nodded, enthusiastically.
He lifted his chin. “At the lodge.” I think he winked. “Half price.”
We ran. And when got in there, the lights were totally out, but the smell of bacon illuminated our way. Fortunately for us, we had headlamps and used them to see the different food items in the buffet line.
This endeared us with the mini cooper drivers who asked us to give them a lit tour of the food line in exchange for beer they would buy us later. I’d never stayed at a buffet so long in my life.
Finally, the Smoky Mountains
Forty hikers were holed up at the Fontana Hilton for an entire day, so obviously we threw a party. The rain rolled in at about 10pm which means I still got plenty of sleep and was up early the next morning to finally begin my trek into the Smoky Mountains.
We would learn later that day that many hikers had been evacuated from the mountains that night because of the wind, and that roads would be closed to vehicles for days. But when I started hiking that morning, I didn’t know a thing other than that it was going to get chilly that night.
And it was – it dropped down into the high 20s that first night and, when we woke up that morning, there were inches of snow on the ground. The climb to the higher elevations of the park were snow-dusted and beautiful, but by afternoon, weather was alternating between snow and rain, which created a terrible, muddy mess to hike through.
With so many hikers being forced to leave Fontana at the same time, a glut was created. If we couldn’t all fit in the shelter, some people would have to sleep outside and setting up a tent in sleet sounded miserable. There were three shelters, all about two miles from another that second night, and everyone in that range was trying to guess where they could find some space. I decided to go to the farthest of the three, and I was right, nearly everyone stopped at the second shelter.
When I got to the shelter for which I was aiming, there were only two other people there – Wild Heart, a woman I’d run into a few times, and John, an older hiker who seemed to be suffering from some stage of hypothermia. The good news was there were only three of us, which meant we’d all get to sleep in the shelter. The bad news there were only three of us to collect firewood and try to start a fire; and really only two of us since John was uselessly holed up in his sleeping bag repeating the phrase, “I should have eaten more an hour ago.”
“Can’t you just eat more now, John?” I asked.
“No, I should have done it more before.”
“Ok, maybe that’s true, but I don’t think that error means you can’t fix it now.”
“No, I should have eaten more an hour ago.”
Ok, just sit in your sleeping bag, John.
We had some major challenges with this fire, mostly because of how wet everything was. The fire pit was drenched because, whoever made a fire the night before used water to put it out. That would make it really hard for us to get a fire going again tonight. On top of that, there was no dry wood. Everything we could pick up from the forest was soaked from sitting in the snow, and mud, and rain for a day.
But Wild Heart and I weren’t going to give up easily. We tried everything. I had been using toilet paper at a rapid pace to blow my nose, but it was also a good fire starter, so we tried that. (My supply was dwindling.) To get a sustained flame, we used the cook stoves to try to dry out the wood. We tried gauze and band aids, and thought we hit the jackpot when I remembered I had alcohol pads in my first aid kit that might be especially combustible. They weren’t.
Looking through my toiletries bag, I saw an embarrassingly large number of condoms. “Would condoms work?” I asked. “At least then I could tell my friends at home I was burning through them.”
That’s obviously a great joke, but Wild Heart rolled her eyes as any self-respecting woman would. “You brought condoms?” she asked. “I’m going to see my boyfriend in a few days and I told him there’s no way he and I are going to have sex. Did you really think your libido was going to be strong out here in the woods?”
I looked to the sky and contemplated my libido. I was walking from Georgia to Maine. Conquering three peaks a day with 35 pounds on my back. Watching my body grow muscle in places only fat had existed. I was cooking my own meals outside, starting fires in the snow, and sleeping under the stars. When I was a child, one of my favorite shows was Rainbow Bright. This hike is by far the manliest thing I have ever done. I felt the sudden urge to pound my chest. Did I really think my libido would be strong in the woods? Damn right I did. Do you think Jane wondered about Tarzan’s libido? No, Jane did not.
“Well?” Wild Heart was waiting for me to respond.
“Oh – yeah – “ I stammered as I suppressed my inner-Tarzan, “I – I guess you’re right.” But as I watched the fire roar to life, I knew Rainbow Bright wouldn’t last a minute out here.
Day 3 in the Smokies was cold, but it was also sunny and beautiful. By 11 a.m. I was on top of Clingmans Dome, which at 6,667 feet, is the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail. The views were worth the wind and cold, and the first of a series of milestones I’d hit over the next few days was accomplished.
Midway through Day 4 reached the 219 mile mark, which meant I was 10% of the way to Maine. That felt more satisfying than telling people I was 6.3% of the way there. Days 4 and 5 were the two most beautiful days of the hike so far.
I hiked with someone else for the first time, Great Lakes, and it was a nice change of pace to have someone to talk to. There are plenty of people to hang out with out here, especially at night, but because I’ve been with any one person for a relatively small amount of time, the conversations tend to stay pretty surface-level. It was nice to be with someone long enough to hear why she was hiking, what she left behind at home, and what she thinks she might want to do when this was done. And it felt good to articulate my thoughts on those things for me for the first time in awhile, as well.
Then by Day 5 in the Smokies, my last day before I had to leave the trail to go to Christian and Annie’s wedding, we made it out the other side. As we got back down to the 3,000 foot range, it started to feel like summer again.
Whereas the challenge before the Smokies was the constant climb and descent, the challenge of the Smokies was the weather, and that was incredible in its own right. There’s a lot about this time I’m going to miss – mostly the beautiful views — but I never want to wake up and have to go outside and pee in weather like that again.
Days earlier, after we met, 8:30 and I hiked for a few minutes together, through a stretch of park that had been damaged by fire.
“It’s so hard to believe,” I began an idea I’d heard many times from other hikers, “fire can so easily wipe something out that seems so powerful.”
8:30 turned his head back to me while he kept hiking. “Wipe out?” he laughed. “Nothing here’s wiped out.” He motioned to the black on both sides of the trail with his trekking poles. “Forest fires have been around as long as forests.”
He increased the speed of his gait. “The ashes add nutrients to the soil. Burning off the dead plant life lets sunlight hit the forest floor so new things can grow.” He points to a few shoots of green popping up from the blackness, “And some trees’ seeds need the intense heat of fire to germinate.”
He stopped walking and turned around. “Wiped out? Look around. It’s like me, man. My wife thought I was going to die. But everything has the chance to renew. We might not be exactly the same when we come back, but we can come back from – literally, in my case with the NORO – some pretty tough shit.”
That made sense to me. The forest seems like a great place to renew, and maybe we sense that when we decide to come out here. Another hiker, Toothpaste, who when I asked if he wanted to grab a beer in Hiawassee, laughed that he couldn’t because he had to call his sponsor in a few minutes. He’s trying to renew. 8:30’s trying to renew. Mike’s trying to renew. Shay’s trying to renew.
Coming into Fontana Dam, a woman posted a note about her husband. He died recently, but he loved to hike and had a goal of making it to Maine one day. She took one of his hiking shoes and filled it with pebbles. She asked thru-hikers to take a pebble and, if they should happen to make it to Maine, to take a picture of the pebble and send it to her.
She’s looking for renewal, too.
And that got me thinking again about something I’ve thought about a lot during the last two years; we all have scars. Some are too fresh to have calloused yet and they sit there bleeding for the whole world to see. Some might have “healed,” but every wound leaves a mark, no matter how small or how faint. Some of us are better at covering our scars with a t-shirt, or a turtleneck, or a smile, while some leave theirs visible to remind them of the pain, or as a warning to be more careful in the future.
This woman will always be sad about her husband, but hopefully one day she’ll wake up and realize she can breathe again. One day she’ll wake up and she’ll be…hungry? Cold? Horny? Anything but sad. Maybe still sad. But a little less sad. Not only sad.
Everyone has scars. Not just on this trail. And not just people. Trees, too.
Goodbyes are Sometimes Forever
On the trail, you say goodbye to people every day. Most people don’t hike the same pace, so within a day or two someone’s moved forward or fallen behind. Some people are only hiking the length of a State, or a weekend.
When I left for this wedding, everyone I just made it through the Smokies with was going to keep going. I think I’ll catch up to most of them again within a few weeks, and I’m looking forward to that. But there’s a few I don’t think I’ll catch, and that feels weird.
I sat on a rock, packing my stuff to head out and Mike walked over. “You goin?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s about time.”
“You better hike fast when you get back if you gonna catch me.”
“Ha, I don’t know man, you’re one of the fastest.”
He smiled, and – breaking a major NORO Virus prevention rule – he reached out his hand. We shook. “We been together since the beginning, Matt. I’m gonna miss you.”
And I don’t know if it’s because leaving the trail had me feeling emotional, or because he reminds me of my Dad, or because after a few weeks together, I considered him a friend. But I’ll miss Mike, too.
Matt Haines is a true stereotype of modern New Orleans, moving to the Bywater from New York eight years ago to take part in disaster relief efforts. Matt is a member of the Rotary Club of Mid-City and, since leaving his job in education last month, spends his days writing, running, and
preparing to hike hiking the Appalachian Trail.