“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
– John Muir, environmentalist
I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk.
If each of those “I walk”s was a mile, it would represent less than 1/183rd of the trail. If each was a step, it would be 1/298th of what I hike on an average day. 1/5,580th of what I’ve completed so far. And 1/44,642th of the number of steps I’ll have taken by the time I arrive atop Mt. Katahdin.
But I was afraid if I wrote, “I walk,” that many times, you’d stop reading.
It’s May 23 — 31 days since I took the first of these steps. Today, like so many days during the last month, it’s raining. Today it’s actually pouring. I’ve heard it’s an inch of rain. But that doesn’t sound like much. How many drops is that? A million? A billion? More? It looks infinite. There’s no place to stop. There’s no place to take cover. All I can do is walk. So I walk.
“No, like, what do you do while you’re walking?”
I had just come back from Christian and Annie’s wedding. Actually, after the wedding, I drove in an enormous moving truck with my great friend, Will, who is moving to Memphis. I stayed with him for two days and then took the Greyhound to Knoxville and caught a shuttle back to the trail, at Mile 240.2, exactly where I departed a week earlier. As the shuttle pulled off the Interstate, I saw a large UPS truck parked on the service road, same place it was when I was hiking in seven days ago.
After buying three days worth of food, I was back on the trail, and — within 10 minutes — I passed by a familiar face, a bald man with round glasses and a UPS uniform.
“Hey, New York Mets!” he laughed, pointing to my hat, “Didn’t I see you out here a few days ago? You movin’ in?”
“A week ago, actually,” I smiled. “But I had to leave for a wedding. I’m a hiking. I’m supposed to be on the trail. Shouldn’t you be delivering mail or something?”
“Lunch break,” he took an empty sandwich bag out of his shorts pocket. I take my peanut butter and jelly up here. Get some exercise and do some thinking.”
And that’s how I answer the question of what do I do when I’m walking. “I think. A lot.”
“Well, like, what do you think about?” would be the next obvious question. It’s also tougher to answer.
I can tell you what I imagine. I spend an embarrassing amount of time pretending I’m Frodo Baggins, tasked with destroying the One Ring To Rule Them All into the fires of…Mt. Katahdin. Or some other Lord of the Rings scenario. (Challenge: because I left the trail for a week, I’m currently behind many of my friends. I’ll buy a sandwich for the first person to correctly guess the scenario I’ve been imagining the most this week, and submit it in the comments section.)
But that’s more of a long-term imagination thing. It doesn’t really occupy my day-to-day thinking. What does? Well…
Nom Nom Nom
“Pepperoni and mushroom pizza,” she fired back.
“A burrito.” We were playing a game that was really just naming the foods we craved. And then I upped the stakes, “With pork, jalapenos, and extra cheese,” as I hopped over a small stream.
“Good one.” She paused in thought before dropping a bombshell. “Verti Marte sandwich.”
“Damn,” I forgot Great Lakes, my hiker partner of a few days, had been to New Orleans. “What kind?”
“Any kind. As long as it’s after midnight.”
We laughed and walked.
“Your turn,” she instructed.
“Hmmm — Chinese food.”
“But not the real Chinese food,” I added. “No Hunan or…” I braced for it and dove in, “Sck…sck..sck-skechuan,” I attempted to pronounce Szechuan, which I had never learned to say. This had never been an issue until just now.
“Sech. Wan,” she wo-mansplained.
“Listen. Not that ‘authentic stuff,'” I probably used finger quotes. “I want the fried, Americanized version. General Tso’s Chicken!”
I think about food a lot. When I have wifi, I’ve noticed I often subconsciously go to Facebook. When I come to, I see I’ve scrolled down my newsfeed, liking all pictures of food. My friends Kate and Grant own and operate a sustainable farm, Local Cooling Farms, and recently posted a picture of a chicken one of their customers prepared for dinner. It looked incredible and I stared like it was the first time I’d ever seen (chicken) breasts in my life.
Sometimes I’ll even leave weird, unprompted comments. I imagine the poor friend I haven’t spoken to since high school, proudly posting a picture of their happy baby, eating his first solid food meal. Then a “like” by me within 30 seconds of posting, followed by the comment, “Mmm, give me that.”
“The crackers? The baby? Leave us alone, you monster!”
More than anything else, though, when it comes to food, I think about the restaurants I heard will be in the upcoming town. Between the trail book I have (AWOL’s AT Guide), other hikers, and brief spurts of internet, I can get a pretty good idea of the town’s highlights. Part of the reason I’ve been moving with such vigor yesterday and today is because I’ve heard that Erwin, TN, the town from which I’m currently 20 miles away, has a Chinese buffet. And not that Sck…sck…not that Cantonese kind, either. America.
I was back on the trail after seven days of the cushy life. Food. Baseball. Booze. Dance. I think there was a moment when I was on the dance floor, dancing to Flo-Rida, white wine in my left hand, a chocolate peanut butter cupcake in my mouth, and a phone in my right hand checking the Mets’ score. They lost and that will surprise no one. I thought my dance moves were awesome and that will also surprise no one.
To build back into hiking shape, my plan was to take a series of shorter days and work up to the mileage I was achieving before I left. The shuttle dropped me off on Wednesday afternoon, so I figured I could get 10 solid miles in before dark. This is exciting. I had so much fun with my friends, but I missed this, too. I’m back!
An important thing to consider during the day is where I’m going to sleep at the end of it. In addition to considering distance, I’d also need to think about if I wanted to sleep at a shelter or a campground. Both are in the wilderness and both are along the trail.
Shelters are three-sided structures — sometimes wood, sometimes brick — built, on average, every eight to ten miles along the AT. Shelters are great if it’s raining or if I want to be around people. Shelters can usually accommodate five or six hikers, though in the Smokies many had two levels and could fit 12 (or 20 on an especially cold night); and the Fontana Hilton — referenced in Part Three and one-of-a-kind in every way — fit more than 30.
The campsites are best when I want something more secluded. I’ve never seen one with more than three other people, and usually when I stay at a campsite, it’s just me. I can sit up and write at a campsite without worrying about my headlamp bothering other hikers, and perhaps most importantly, there are no mice at campsites. Rather, you can’t see the mice at campsites. You can see them at most shelters and, when you can’t see them, you can definitely hear them. And you can always feel their tiny, scurrying presence.
There’s a woman with the trail name, Sprinkles. Can anyone guess how she got her name?
She woke up one morning and found mouse poop all over her and her sleeping bag. Another hiker said they looked like sprinkles. Sprinkles. (Sorry. I should have warned you. Go get some fresh air, or a glass of water if you need.)
So why would anyone stay at shelters if you have to share them with mice? Well, have you ever tried to set up a tent in the rain, and then get in it to sleep? Sure, you have a rain tarp to put over the tent, but you can’t get it on before the inside of the tent gets soaked. Now go sleep in that. Or take down your tent in the rain. Then put it in your pack, hike around with it all day and open it up at night to discover it’s still wet, smells bad, and has gotten the rest of your pack wet, as well.
Even Sprinkles still stays in shelters.
On this day the shelter was 7.5 miles away, while the campsite was 10 away. It was supposed to storm around midnight, so I was leaning shelter and then getting an early start the next day.
And then I remembered what I forgot to pack post-wedding.
My biggest fear.
I made some swift calculations and decided I had a maximum of 36 hours before this became something about which I could not write. Could I make it to the next town, Hot Springs, NC, in 36 hours? I consulted my AWOL guide and saw it meant I would have to get to that campground tonight and then hike 23 miles the next day. I pretended like this was a decision I was making, but I really had no choice.
A Cross I Cannot Bare
Sometimes the trail provides you with strange characters to help take your mind off of what can otherwise be a monotonous existence. Shelters are a wonderful place to meet these people.
Take the God Squad, for example. Let me begin by saying I have no issue with those who are religious. I have met wonderful people who have a strong relationship with God, as well as religious folks who are total jackasses. I can say the exact same thing about atheists.
But the God Squad. That’s what they call themselves on the trail. They hike together. They camp together. They went off trail for a graduation together. And they all carry these oversized crosses (not that big) around their necks. The God Squad is very nice, but they have a penchant for arriving at shelters just as the sun is going down.
I do this occasionally, but I move quickly and quietly to set up my air pad and sleeping bag. Sometimes I won’t even use the cook stove so as to not disturb my fellow hikers, all weary after a long day’s journey.
But the God Squad. It was a night in which I didn’t recognize anyone else at the shelter. At this point, that’s a rarity. I had arrived at about 6 p.m., giving me time to meet others. It was a great group, many of whom I’d see often during the next two weeks.
At about 8:15 p.m., folks are starting to clean things up for bed, when — in the distance — I think I can hear a faint sound coming from over the hill. The shelter gets quiet. It’s getting closer.
Is that singing? Why is no one in the shelter saying anything?
“Damn it,” sighs a man named Blackalachian, who we’ll hear more about in a future article. He seems extremely resigned at this moment.
There are a series of sighs and curse words from around the shelter. Everyone appears to know what’s coming except for me.
“I think I know that song,” I offer, as it gets louder.
“Yeah, it’s the only one they know,” someone says. There’s laughter. But it’s a very sad, uneasy laughter.
Oh, it’s “Merry Happy,” the final song on Kate Nash’s first, and most successful, album.
From kate nash’s album made of bricks ‘merry happy’
But I decide to keep my thoughts to myself. They finish the song as they arrive at the shelter, saying “Hello again!” to the others. They then sat at the picnic table outside the shelter, took out their miniature guitars and ukuleles — how in the world do they carry instruments with them? — and play “Merry Happy” one more time.
They play through a few other Kate Nash classics, which seems like an odd choice for a group of Christians, given the racy content in much of Kate’s music, but maybe they’ve never heard those songs. Or internalized more wholesome versions?
I’ll admit two things here I couldn’t admit to the others. 1) In 2009 and 2010 I went through a big Kate Nash phase. I’m still a fan. 2) I rather enjoyed the God Squad’s performance. But, in fairness to the others, I liked it a lot more that first night than I did the next three.
Archivists and Eyewitnesses
International best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer gave the commencement address at Middlebury College on May 26, 2013. Foer’s first novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” was a summer reading assignment for the class of 2013 before they arrived on campus in 2009. This year, the class nominated Foer to be their commencement speaker.
In author, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2013 Commencement speech at Middlebury College, he notes that some in the audience are holding their cameras up, snapping pictures or recording him, while others are simply sitting and listening. He calls those who are using technology to record the occasion, “archivists,” and those who are listening without recording, “eyewitnesses.”
In many aspects of my life I’m an eyewitness, but when I go on vacation, I’ve always been an extreme archivist. I can’t stop taking pictures. I think it’s some combination of not wanting to forget the moment, and also wanting others — whether it be my contemporaries or future descendants — to see how wonderful this place was. Or, is it that I hope they will see how wonderful I am or was? (Yikes.)
“We tend to think of things as if the archivists and the eyewitnesses will have roughly the same experience of today,” Foer explains, “but that the archivists will have the added bonus of pictures, videos and so on, which they will be able to cherish and share. We think the archivists will have more. But is this so?”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my first month on the trail. I know there’s a balance. For one, I need to take pictures for these articles. I think few will argue that pictures enhance the text I submit.
And when I got to Max Patch, 20 miles from Hot Springs, I was struck by how beautiful and different it was from everything in the first 250 miles of the trail. For a mile, the towering trees gave way to meadows of yellow and white wildflowers. As the trail maneuvered to the top of the bald, I could see other mountaintops as clear as this one.
How’d they get like this? I later learned this is where cows used to be brought to graze, and that balds would become more common in the coming miles. But it was sunny, breezy, and this first one moved me. Mountains that looked like rolling hills, straight from Hobbiton.
I instinctively and immediately grabbed for my phone and began snapping picture after picture. Panoramas. Landscapes. Portraits. I’d be embarrassed to count and tell you how many pictures I took, but I’m sure it was in the hundreds.
But, also, and Foer makes this point in his speech, there are pictures worth taking. Some photographs can heighten the photographer’s experience, and some provide value to an audience. But the vast majority of the, let’s just say 300, pictures did neither. Wouldn’t one have sufficed?
But it gets more shameful still. If it wasn’t for my phone dying (Max Patch took it from 63% to dead), who knows of what absurdity I was capable.
As I walked the winding trail down the north side of the bald, I was able to enjoy the view through my own eyes, rather than through the lens of a camera. I arrived at a spot featuring a relatively small tree in the foreground with orange leaves, and an even smaller green-leaved tree just behind it. The trees stood out in a field of wildflowers, which was flanked by the more formidable trees I’d come to expect on the AT. All of this funneled down into a soft sheet of the purest, most beautiful green, and behind that emerged the mountains from which I’d come. Jungle green. Deep green. Hazy green. Blueish green. Is-that-green? Sky. Clouds. It was beautiful.
And I needed a picture, but I wasted all my stupid-ass battery on the other side of the mountain! I know what Jonathan Safran Foer said, but I needed a picture to ensure I’d remember this magical, slightly angering moment.
I sat down and devised a plan, which started with me taking my second morning snack. I always save my favorite snack of the day for the second morning snack, because I need it to motivate me for the next two-and-a-half hours until lunch. Today, it was an Otis Spunkmeyer crumb coffeecake.
All baked goods get squished when you backpack with them. Some crumble. Pop Tarts are one of these. Every morning I open up a package of Pop Tarts only to watch what I estimate is 20% of the tart being swept away by the wind. But Otis Spunkmeyer crumb coffeecakes get better when they’re squished. It’s like the whole cake, now denser than it was designed to be, becomes as moist as the top of a muffin, leaving you with none of that…whatever the other, crappier part of the muffin is called.
Otis Spunkmeyer is not the proud sponsor of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, but if anyone knows someone there, I’d consider eating only Otis Spunkmeyer-brand foods for the duration of the trail.
As I searched the plastic wrapper for any remaining crumbs, I spotted part two of my plan. Two women in their late-60s or early-70s, followed by their two tiny dogs, walking my way.
“Hi there!” I waved from a safe distance. “Can I ask a favor that’s big, but not too big?” My friends will probably recognize that I ask that question any time I’m asking for a favor, regardless of its size.
“Hello, dear,” the one in front smiled. “Well, tell us what it is and we’ll see what we can do.”
I explained the situation, and asked if they would take this picture and text it to me.
“Oh, sure, honey, Suzanne here can do that for you. She has the better phone.” It appeared to be a Blackberry or something, so I was afraid to see the phone that was not Suzanne’s.
“Do you want to be in it?” Suzanne asked.
“Oh, no, I’d just ruin it,” I politely joked.
“Oh, I think you definitely should be,” Suzanne was, for some reason, passionate about this issue, but fortunately her friend was able to refocus her.
“Suzanne, he doesn’t want to be in it! Just take the picture!”
“Oh, fine, how do you want it, sweetie?”
I proceeded to give Suzanne a complicated series of instructions that was probably impossible for her Blackberry to execute. The trees are the main focus, but you should also get that valley over here, and that cloud over there. And you see where it changes from that shade of green to the lighter green? Can you –”
Suzanne, tired of me, cut me off and announced she was just going to aim the camera at the trees and shoot. And that’s what she did.
Where the French Broad River Meets the Appalachian Trail
I’m pleased to report I made it to Hot Spring, NC without incident. Hot Springs is the first town the trail goes directly through. You can see the white blazes of the trail on Bridge Street, the main thoroughfare.
I arrived at about 8 p.m., checked into the hostel, set up my tent (typically you can rent tent space for $10 or $15, $5 or $10 less than a bunk without sheets), and then went off to explore downtown before everything closed.
It turns out everything had already closed. That is, except for the Spring Creek Tavern and Inn, which had live music, great wings, and more local beer than I could drink in a week. Most weeks.
The next morning I went to the local diner for a light breakfast, grabbed a quick shower, and visited the town library, where I tried to get the librarian to sell me a book. Admirably, she declined.
This is about the time everything went wrong. A guy I met at the hostel asked if I wanted to chip in with him and two others to hire a shuttle to take us to Damascus for Trail Days. Trail Days is essentially the Mardi Gras of the Appalachian Trail. There’s family fun, as well as some not-so-family fun. Trail Days even has a parade!
But I had just been off the trail for a week. I didn’t need to leave for another two days. On the other hand, people speak so highly of the festival, it seems like something I should experience during my thru-hike. Maybe I could find somebody to take me there for a day instead of two.
The guy from the hostel said they were set on two days, so I declined the ride. I felt confident in my decision. I was out here to hike, not for a damn parade. But, as soon as the van pulled away, I felt major regret. As is so often the case, I wanted what I couldn’t have. And now I had no way to get to Trail Days. Would two days have really made that much of a difference over a 2,189 mile hike? I wondered. Of course it wouldn’t have.
On my way out of town, I stopped at the local gear outfitter to resupply on food and moleskin, and to buy a watch. I asked if they had any leads on a ride to Damascus and they said to come back in 30 minutes.
I went to grab a beer and some cobbler while I waited, and 30 minutes later, I was back at the outfitter. No dice. No ride. Dejected, it was time to hike on. I figured if I could leave town by 3 p.m., I could make it the 11 miles to the next shelter, which would put me a few hours from a road should a ride to Trail Days become available the next day.
I reached for my AWOL guide to check mileage, when I realized it was missing. I walked over to the cobbler store and sure enough, there it was. I was now thirty minutes behind schedule. I threw my pack on to — oh no, the watch I just bought snapped off. Broken.
I walked back to the outfitter, and they were kind enough to give me a new one. Ok, 50 minutes behi — uck, I hadn’t bought toilet paper. So I walked to the Dollar General. An hour and 10 minutes behind schedule.
I hustled down the trail, which takes the bridge — for which Bridge Street is named — over the French Broad River, along the river, and eventually up the mountain. I was hustling, but the problem was it was beautiful. And the problem with beauty is that I need pictures of it. Shut up, Jonathan Safran Foer, I can’t think about you right now. We’re late!
Every time I stopped for pictures, I tried to make up lost time by moving faster. I was nearly running when the trail became extremely steep. Like, I had to use my hands to pull myself up, steep.
I couldn’t see the AT’s white blazes indicating I was on the trail, but I kept thinking, if I just get a little farther, I’d probably see one. The last thing I wanted to do was hike back down, which would be equally as difficult, only to discover I had been going the correct way all along, and then have to climb back up a second time.
Then I thought about how much more difficult this was than anything else on the trail so far. My body is against the mountain. There’s no way this is right. I eased my way back down to the trail, but now I was dripping with sweat. And the mosquitoes love sweat. So now I’m two hours behind schedule and I can’t open my mouth to breathe or drink water without mosquitoes flying in.
But this is where things begin to go right.
A Marvelous Night For A Moondance
I was swatting at the thick haze of mosquitoes surrounding me every few steps. I walk. I walk. But I was about to snap. A constant, thick swarm of bugs has ruined my hikes before, and I had been worried most of the AT would be like this.
And then I remembered I had planned for this moment.
“What the heck are these?” that wily ranger, Bill, from Part 2, exclaimed 280 miles earlier at Amicalola Falls State Park.
“No, listen,” I tried to reason, “I really hate bugs. More than most people hate anything. I’ll lose my mind if I’m constantly swatting them away.”
I thought I saw a glimmer of empathy behind his impassive mustache, “Well, no one else carries these, but they’re lightweight and they pack compact.” He sighed as if he was breaking his sacred rule, “Might as well. But do you really need all three?”
He was referring to the net that fits over your head, the net that fits over your shirt (which also has a net that fits over your head), and the net that fits over your pants. I can’t defend why I have two nets that fit over my head, but my distaste for bugs can’t be reasoned with.
I dropped my pack, went deep into my clothing sack, and pulled out the net that goes over my shirt and head. With bugs no longer an issue, I felt empowered. It was about 7:45 p.m., and I had another hour or so until dark.
As I walked, I thought about how I could get myself to Trail Days tomorrow. I was hiking in the general direction of a town in Tennessee called Greeneville. I remember seeing they had a rental car company, so if I could reserve a car, all I would need to do is pick up a shuttle to the car.
With a single, wavering bar of 4G, I sat on a bench overlooking a pond the trail skirts. As I reserved my rental car, a woman and her dog hiked by. The dog had been barking at me since the moment it saw me. “Sorry,” the woman said, “I think he’s afraid of hiking packs.”
I wanted to offer that perhaps hiking shouldn’t be their joint passion, then. But I didn’t.
“Oh, I had assumed it was the bug netting.”
“Nope, he’s barked at every hiker with a pack on.”
So every hiker?
Then she added, “The netting is great, by the way. I wish I would have packed one.” Take that, Bill.
Car reserved and I called a hostel near the trail that offered shuttle service to Greeneville, TN. We agreed on a meeting location, and an 11 a.m. pick-up time. “He has two rides to do before you, so if he’s running a little late, don’t go anywhere,” she warned as if this happened a lot. “He’ll be there, I promise.”
No problem. I was Damascus bound!
The trail took me along a dirt road as the sun was setting.
I had only done seven miles today, but I would need to do 11 to the pick-up location tomorrow morning. I admired the sunset as a red truck labored up the dirt road. The truck stopped in front of me, and the man inside rolled down his window. He looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Ain’t no place to camp around here, boy, and it’s gonna get dark real soon.” He gave ominous weight to “real soon.” Then he tipped his cap and drove away. I thought I could see him holding eye contact through his mirror as he drove off.
He was creepy, but he wasn’t wrong. I walked 100 yards and saw a small gravel road that led up into a tiny dirt parking area at the start of a bike trail. This would be my best option, I decided, though suddenly I was afraid this man would come back and kill me in some terrible, country way. Cautious not to make too much noise, I pitched my tent and hung my food out of the reach of bears.
It was a warm night, and I was in a clearing, so I sat outside my tent in my underwear and watched to see what kind of stars would be visible. As the sky faded from pink to black, a few popped up. So did the yellow lights of a handful of fireflies. I tried to remember the last time I had seen them — probably as a child — when I was snapped back to the present by the sound of an incoming truck rolling slowly up the gravel road.
I reached into my tent and grabbed for my t-shirt and pants. I threw my shirt on, but couldn’t find my pants. I grabbed my tiny knife, just in case he tried to kill me from extremely close range. As the truck got closer, I considered if my Long Island upbringing had trained me to fear rural people more than bears.
I was sweating, but I tried to play it cool. I decided that I would fight, but if I lost, I would not die screaming like a coward. I clutched my knife and rose to my feet. The truck pulled around the last bend and stopped. This one was green, not red, which eased my fear. And, inside, were two teenagers, a boy and a girl.
I waved as casually as I could muster in my underwear. The boy raised his hand politely, but looked disappointed. The girl looked appalled. They turned the truck around and drove back down.
Weird. I resumed my stargazing — there were dozens out now, and an increasing number of fireflies — when I heard another vehicle climbing the hill. I worried the teenagers might have called the cops, but I figured I could explain I didn’t have enough sunlight to get to the next campground and I thought this would be safe for me and out of everyone’s way.
Nope, it was another pair of teenagers. And, once again, upon seeing me, they went right back down the hill.
After the third pair, 30 minutes later, I realized I was probably camped out on some Lovers Lane, or whatever the kids call it these days. It was an accident, but I decided to put my pants on in the hopes of feeling less like a pervert.
The third car was the last one — a quiet night at Make-Out Point — and I pulled my sleeping bag out of the tent so I could watch the night in comfort.
I realized I was now surrounded by thousands of fireflies. Millions? They felt as infinite as raindrops during a storm. There wasn’t a place I could look where fields and distant trees weren’t lit up by their constant, incandescent flicker. Five feet off the ground, 10 feet off the ground, 20 feet, 50 feet, they flashed like cameras during a Beyonce concert. They rose in the sky until I couldn’t tell if I was looking at fireflies or the thick, dense ribbon of the Milky Way, stretching from one end of the sky to the other.
It was too dark to walk. It was too beautiful to think. All I could do was stare. Stare at fireflies circle each other over a field of wildflowers. Stare at shooting stars chasing each others’ tails across the Universe. Stare at the little pieces of black space between the stars fill in with more stars, still, as my eyes adjusted.
Johnathan Safran Foer believes the eyewitnesses are more present in the moment. I agree with that. They don’t have to worry about getting the perfect shot, or phone battery, or recording volume. But he wonders if this means they’ll also have better memories. “[Those memories] won’t be posted and available for online networks to like, but they’ll be intimate impressions on deep and changing feelings.”
He quotes the poet, Wallace Stevens, who said, “Death is the mother of beauty. If we never died, the preciousness of our lives would die.” And then Foer extends Stevens’ thought to our predicament: “Forgetting is the mother of feeling. If a memory can be saved forever…it doesn’t move us. It’s only the memory, on the way to being forgotten — the human effort to remember — that is sweet.”
I sat on my sleeping bag and watched something too beautiful to capture. I watched for hours, afraid to look away. I watched the night sky light up in the same way I watch mountains climb up from a valley when I don’t have use of my camera; or when I’m at a dinner with my closest friends and a picture can capture the laugh, but not the year of moments that make us laugh; or when I’m looking into the most beautiful pair of eyes staring back, lovingly, into my own. I’m afraid to look away because I know the moment I do is the moment the memory will begin the long, forever process of fading away.
So I don’t look away. And I eventually fall asleep under a sea of stars and fireflies.
Trail Days Bound
I’m awake at 5am and begin hiking a little less than an hour later. I have 11 hours to complete by 11 a.m., and miraculously for me, I get to the rendezvous point, a gap with a state road running through it, a few minutes early.
I find a spot to sit, pull out an Otis Spunkmeyer crumb coffeecake, and write in my journal. It’s now 11:30 a.m. There’s no phone service in the gap, so all I can do is wait. I recall the hostel operator’s warning from the day before, “If he’s running a little late, don’t leave. He’ll be there.”
I take out my book and read. 11:50 a.m. I pace for a little while. 12:15 p.m. My rental car pick-up was for noon. After an hour and 15 minutes, I decide to try to hitchhike to the hostel, which must be around here somewhere.
There are only two things I know about hitchhiking. First, you’re supposed to stick your thumb out and look confident, but friendly. Obviously non-threatening. Check. I’ve got that. At least, I think.
Second, you’re supposed to stand in a place, easy and safe for the car to pull over, on the side of the road in the direction you’re traveling. The problem is I don’t know which direction I’m traveling. So I pick a side and, with great skill, the very first car that drives by stops for me. He tells me which way the hostel is, and also notes that if I walk a mile-and-half farther up the trail, I’ll only be a half-mile from it. He can’t take me but, the advice is helpful.
I’m feeling good about my hitchhiking abilities, so I try again. A car goes by. Welp, can’t get ’em all to stop.
Ten cars go by. Maybe I’m not smiling enough?
Ten more cars go by. Maybe I’m smiling too much now?
Ten more cars go by. Jesus, why am I so bad at this? Unwilling to take the blame, I chock it up to antisemitism and call it a day. It’s now 12:50 and I’m not going to get the rental car before they close. I decide the best option is to hike up the trail to the hostel and try to guilt them into taking me directly to Damascus.
And it worked! I learn the driver’s GPS wasn’t working and he was lost for hours before he gave up. (There are 15,000 people in Greeneville, TN. Can we please get this town a cell phone tower?) It turns out I’m much better at guilt-tripping than I am at hitchhiking. By 2 p.m. I’m on my way!
We’re pulling in at 4 p.m. and it becomes clear that Trail Days is going to be interesting. Damascus is a city, wrapped in mountains and threaded with creeks, in southeast Virginia, a little more than 100 miles up the trail from where I am now. I’m sure it’s been called “quaint” by many a visitor, but none of those visitors were there during Trail Days.
On this day I’d describe it with words like “Crowded” and “Crunchy.” (For the older generation, “crunchy” is the word for something that feels related to hippies.) But upon closer inspection, Trail Days feels like two separate festivals.
In Tent City, where the hikers camp out, tents and hammocks stretch as far as the eye can see, across an open field, and into the woods leading up to the mountains. Tent City is set up into small enclaves with names like Camp Riff Raff and Camp Campy McCampface Camp (it’s that final “Camp” I like the best in that name).
This area is overflowing with half-naked hikers, bonfires, booze, and lots and lots of drugs. When I was setting up my tent — at Camp Campy McCampface Camp, obviously — a gentleman came by with a notepad and asked if there were any drugs I wanted to order for the evening. I respectfully declined. But thank you, my dear sir. As I walked over to the free pulled pork, burger and hot dog station (read that again), another fine gentleman giggled at me, pointed at my baseball cap, and began humping the air, whisper-chanting, “New. York. Mets,” to the beat of his thrusts. Lots and lots of drugs.
It’s hard to believe, but there’s also a church congregation set up in this part of the festival grounds that offers just about everything to hikers for free. Need a shower? Right over here. Free. Want some fried chicken and iced tea? Step this way. Free. Need your feet cleaned? Come here. I will scrub your absolutely horrendous feet at no charge. (God bless them.)
Can we do your laundry? We’ll do it for free, and we’ll include a note with your clean clothes that says, “We’re praying for you.” That note is probably referencing the general hazards of the Appalachian Trail, but it’s hard not to think it refers to all the sins taking place just a few yards away.
The congregation had phone charging stations, movie nights, and a “bake sale” in which you couldn’t buy anything. They were just giving us cake and strawberry milk. I was stuffing peanut butter brownies into my pockets. A congregant was giving me the ziplock bags that made this possible.
Tent City also has the feel of a family reunion, as a large majority of hikers — regardless of where they happen to be on the trail — descend on Damascus for a party. Great Lakes was there. So was Toasty (who famously carried 20 McDoubles in his hiking pack) and his wife Panda Paw (who was famously grossed out by the number of McDoubles her husband was eating). And, against all odds, everyone’s favorite advanced-age drifter, Mike, from Part 3, was also there.
“Mike! What are you doing at Trail Days?” I walked over to greet him.
“I-ont-know, I-as just sticking out my thumb, get a hitch inta’ town, when a bus comes by and says, ‘hey man, get in!'” He still seemed confused as to how that happened or where he was. “I said I ain’t go not funds, and they said free ride to Damascus, so I went.”
I’m so happy to see Mike, but I’m also jealous I couldn’t get a hitch four miles down the road, while he got one 200 miles away without even wanting it. Mike has rotting teeth. And, I think, cataracts. He’s wonderful, but I think you warm up to him as you get to know him. Still, he out-hitches me every time.
A mile away, closer to downtown is a public park adjacent to Laurel Creek. This area is much more family-oriented. There is a constant stream of folk, folk-rock and country musicians, food vendors (ice cream, I missed you!), and — because it’s a hiker festival — lots of gear booths. I spent more than an hour there before heading across a beautiful, lighted bridge into downtown Damascus and a bar with a wonderful name, called Bobo McFarland’s, where I met up with my friend Pleasure House (the very best trail name) and a bunch of her hiking companions.
Rain, Rain, Go Away, I’m Trying To Hike
The next morning I woke up and it was pouring outside. I didn’t want to walk out into it, so I sat in the tent and read. Then I felt something in my pocket.
Peanut butter brownies!
So I sat in my tent, read and ate peanut butter brownies when I heard a hiker named Stormy (she says the rain always follows her) ask Great Lakes if she wanted a ride back to the trail. Great Lakes said she was going to stay for an extra day, so I popped my head out and asked if I could take her spot.
Stormy introduced me to the driver, Katie from Asheville, a section-hiker — meaning she hikes small sections of the trail at a time with the plan of eventually finishing them all — and within an hour, Katie was driving Stormy, Blackalachian, and myself back down south.
She actually had room for one more, and I tried to get Mike in the van, but he was sitting in a sermon and I couldn’t get to him. The weird thing is Mike is definitely not religious, so I can only assume they were offering something free in exchange for his attendance. Hopefully it was a ride.
I hopped back on the trail 55 miles south of Erwin, TN. I was able to make it to Erwin in two-and-a-half days, and it was the first time I hiked two consecutive 20+ mile days. This was also the first week in which I hiked more than 100 miles.
I’m hopeful this upcoming one is when I finally reach my target of 112 miles per week. Reaching that target would mean I’m hiking an average of 16 miles per day, which gives me a little room to relax each week, while also finishing the trail in mid-to-late September.
So I walked. I walked. I walked. It has been raining the majority of the time since Trail Days and that’s created a roller coaster of experiences. On the positive side, flowers are beginning to bloom along the trail.
I’ve also been amazed at my mind’s ability to occupy itself. I once realized I’d zoned out and had been repeating the location, Round Top Ridge, for more than an hour. “Round! Top! Ridge! Round! Top! Ridge! Round! Top! Ridge! Round! Top! Ridge!” I have no idea why I did this, but I did something similar with “Hurr-i-cane Gap! Hurr-i-cane Gap!” a day later.
Since the wedding, I’ve also been singing, “Low” by Flo Rida, any time I’m moving fast, even though I don’t know any of the lyrics other than, “Apple-bottom jeans,” “boots with the fur,” and “low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low.”
But that doesn’t stop me. “One step, let’s go! Two steps, let’s go! Three steps, let’s go! Woah woah woah woah woah woah WOAH!”
More than three days of rain have exposed some problems, as well. For one, I now understand that, while my tent is waterproof, the bottom soaks up water when it puddles underneath. I’ll need to find some Tyvek to put underneath the tent to stop water from getting in. Until then, I’m stuck with a wet tent.
Also — either because my socks and sneakers are soaked, or because they are are swelling — my feet are getting cut up so badly I had to hike in my crocs for the last three miles into Erwin. When I took off my sneakers, I saw I popped blisters on the back of my heels, had abrasions on each side of both of my feet, and had a 270 degree slice around each ankle.
Imagine how the worst sunburn on your back feels when your friend unknowingly comes by to say hello and slaps it. That extremely sharp, dizzying, nauseous, about-to-black-out feeling. That’s how I felt any time my sneaker or sock rubbed against any of the spots I just mentioned — which is nearly every spot on my foot. Almost every step I took, especially the ones in which my foot rotated even slightly on a rock — and there are lots of rocks — sent a shooting pain through my body, making me feel like I was going to pass out.
The mile before I switched to crocs, I was moving down the trail with such care to avoid rocks and to stick to a flat surface, but it was unavoidable. That pain would shoot through my body and all I could do was let out this loud scream of a sigh to release some of the pain.
I was barely walking. But I was walking.
When I got into Erwin, I treated my cuts and inquired about the Chinese buffet I had been thinking about for the better part of a week.
“Buffet’s only open on Sundays,” he explained, unaware he was breaking my heart.
“Today’s Tuesday,” I tried to hold it together.
“Ok.” Breathe. “Anywhere else open to eat?”
“Hm. There’s a bar and grill a few miles into town.”
“How do I get there?”
“You can’t. No shuttles running now, and it’s too far to walk. I’m closing up in a minute, but we’ll shuttle you into town in the morning.”
So I waited for the attendant to leave, ignored his instructions, borrowed a bicycle from the hostel, and biked down the shoulder of a highway into downtown Erwin.
And that’s where I’m writing now, in between talking to the bar owner, Cowboy, and trying to eat the pickled eggs and pickled sausage he recommended from their limited, late-night menu. I thought I liked pickled everything. I was wrong.
By the time this article is published, I should be at Mile 367. Just a hair more than one hundred miles until my next shower, and about 650 more until the next time I’ll take time off the trail to go into Washington, D.C. All I can do is walk.
And tonight I’m thinking again. Is it a bad thing I couldn’t get the Chinese buffet today? Or is it a good thing I got to hang out with Cowboy at his bar tonight? Because I couldn’t have both things.
Is it a bad thing I missed half of Trail Days and had to pay more to get there? Or is it a good thing I got to spend a night watching fireflies light up the sky?
Is it a bad thing a relationship ended, or is it a good thing I ended up 5,000 feet above the clouds, watching the sun set over Erwin?
I don’t believe in divine intervention, fate, or that everything happens for a reason. But maybe that’s the point. Shit happens to us all the time. But, no one else gets to decide if an event and its effects will ultimately go down in our ledger as positive or negative. In the end, we’re the only one who can assign the value to them.
I’m not saying bad things don’t happen. Exactly the opposite. They happen all the time. But we can’t control the rain. And rather than cursing it, we can look at the rain falling on a type of flower we haven’t seen yet, and just choose to appreciate the moment in front of us.
Sometimes behind a camera, but not always.
I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk. I walk.
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 which meets at Treo every other week and, since leaving his job in education last month, spends his days writing, running, and
preparing to hike hiking the Appalachian Trail.