Appalachian Trail 2021, journal entry 3, scattered fragments
Start: April 4, mile 18.6
End: April 7, mile 76.0
Having started hiking shortly after sunrise, I make good time and am on Blood Mountain by lunch time. Blood Mountain is still covered in fragrant mountain laurel, and at the summit I meet a new set of lounging hikers. I have already hiked more than 10 miles, the soft daily mileage limit I have given myself for the first week, but I am in the middle of a 5 mile stretch where hikers now need a bear canister to camp. Like most thru-hikers, I am not carrying the extra pounds of a bearcan, so this is essentially a no camping zone, forcing me to go at least as far as Neel Gap.
Once I get down Blood Mountain to Neel Gap I find a throng of noisy hikers, dozens of them eating, drinking and talking on the patio, with more shopping inside. The hikers here seem younger than the ones I've seen on the trail so far, or maybe just more uniform in their demographic, and the scene reminds me of a frat party.
For me it is near instant sensory overwhelm, and I can feel myself tense up and get increasingly annoyed. I remember this same feeling here from my last hike, the culture shock of coming out of the woods into an inescapable mass of boisterous humanity. I immediately shut down socially, not taking photos or introducing myself to any of the dozens of new hikers around me.
"Have you heard of sensory integration disorder?," my therapist asked shortly before the hike. "Or sensory processing disorder? You should look them up, but that gist is that some people have very strong reactions to sounds or tastes or other sensory inputs. For me," she says, "I know that I can't be around more than three simultaneous conversations at once, or I start to get irritable and experience severe anxiety."
For me, the most recognizable element of the descriptions was my misophonia, a strong, irrational anger at hearing certain eating noises. It is interesting, however, to view my current reaction to this sudden onslaught of sensory input through the lens of modern psychological disorders, which gives some useful context into the strength, and perhaps non-uniqueness, of my own reaction.
Like the last time I was here, my strategy is to buy some snacks and get moving away as fast as I can. This time I have electronics to charge as well, but my battery brick with 100W charging comes in handy at its first stop, letting me spend less than half an hour total at the gap while still getting plenty of charge to power me through to Hiawassi or Helen.
I have already hiked more than I would have liked to, logistically, for the day, but escaping the din takes clear priority, and after I finish my cold PowerAde I start hiking again. There are a few tent spots within earshot of the gap, but I pass these by without investigating.
When I finally find a suitable flat spot off the trail I have gone 14.9 miles, well over my soft limit of 10. I sit in the narrow patch of shade of a single tree trunk, resting and letting everything settle. One of the hikers I had talked with earlier in the day on top of Blood Mountain walks down the trail toward me. He has his phone to he ear, talking as he walks, and I raise my hand in greeting. "Sorry bud," he tells me, tilting the phone away from his mouth without breaking stride, "I'm pushing a little further," returning to his phone call like I have asked him to stop, or maybe tried to bum a ride.
Hiking along a ridge, I meet Laurie, a woman in her sixties, and Linnea, who is in her early 20s. They are hiking together, and when I pass them, I ask if I can take their photos. "Why?" Laurie asks, skeptically. I tell her that I'm trying to take photos of most of the hikers I meet. When she still doesn't reply, I laugh, and tell her that "no" is a perfectly valid answer. She looks to Linnea who shrugs and says, "I don't mind," so Laura adds, "okay, I don't mind either, and moves around me to join Linnea for the photo. "Are you related," I ask as they pose together. "Nope," Laura replies. "We just met each other out here on the trail," Linnea adds.
During part of a long afternoon shelter break, I sit with Yeti, the PCT hiker I had met on Springer, and Shoes, an experienced hiker with a big black and grey beard. Yeti and Shoes are both lounging with their feet bare, and when I take off my minimalist Xero shoes to join them, Shoes asks me if I've liked hiking in them, telling me that he has a pair of Xero sandals in his pack that he uses as camp shoes. I tell him that I've loved the Xeros so far, and suggest that he give hiking in the sandals a shot, though I know that most hikers find my suggestion of hiking in camp shoes to be absurd. Only after he leaves does another hiker tell me that Shoes got his trail name from walking the whole trail thus far barefoot, and I chuckle at my suggestion.
As I hike up the steep trail in the hot afternoon sun, I see a pair of day hikers coming down the mountain and slip on my mask. When the young woman sees me, she steps off to the side of the trail and pulls on her own mask, a fluid maneuver that takes a handful of seconds. It is an interaction that I've had hundreds of times in Massachusetts, but never before in Georgia. I want to stop and tell her that she is the first person of the more than 200 people I've passed on the trail who has put on a mask, but instead I just say hello and keep moving.
Hiking up the trail I see a gravel road and a large RV with a large American Flag outside of it. I guess that it is trail magic, and am right. There is a group of two dozen hikers, most of whom are in their 20s, sitting in folding chairs with beers in hand, entertained by the host, a man named Terry in his 60s. As I walk up, Terry interrupts his story -- really a dirty joke -- to acknowledge me. "Look at this fella, walkin up like he has covid!" he shouts. "Don't worry," he adds to the group, "I got both my shots," and I'm genuinely surprised that someone in Georgia, at least, is vaccinated.
He finishes his joke, pulling up his shirt to show off his overweight chest, declaring, "and if I ever have kids I got these titties, JUST IN CASE!" This apparently makes some sense in the context of the joke, or maybe the hikers just appreciate the enthusiasm or are sufficiently inebriated from the free PBR, because they laugh raucously. "See?" he says, pointing to two female hikers near him, "YOU can't tell that joke, and YOU can't tell that joke, but YOU can tell it," pointing to a young man. "Inside the RV we got a ladies room -- fellas, you gotta go outside," he tells us. When this presentation is over the hikers pick up their conversations. "Man, this has GOT to be the best trail magic ever," one of them says.
I eat a free hot dog, standing away from the crowd, and think, what have I become? (Johnny Cash sings Kurt Cobain in my head.) Would I have been able to appreciate this ten years ago? I decide that the honest answer is probably no, and this gives me some comfort.
I head to the shelter a mile or so up the trail from the trail magic. I know that almost all of the hikers from the trail magic will be here tonight, but I have already hiked 13.5 miles, enough over 10 to not be able to justify any more.
Getting water near the shelter I meet Eric, one of the few black hikers on the trail, originally from New York City. "Where in the city?" I ask. "I moved around, Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Alamaba." "Alabama," I joke, "is that the sixth borough?" "Yeah, it's up there by Yonkers," he replies, not missing a beat. He went to Alabama for the Air Force, and I tell him to keep an eye out for Dee. "You sure are covered up," he says, looking at my sun hoody and visor. "Yeah," I tell him, "I burn easily. The curse of fair skin."
Tonka shows up at the shelter and reminds me that we met on top of Springer. "I want to thank you," he says ernestly. "We were all so cold that night, and when you two showed up with hot chocolate it was a life saver. I was warm the rest of the day." He built his own tiny home before the hike, is considering starting a business making tiny homes after the trail.
I sit away from the shelter in the narrow patch of shade of a tree near my tent. Having showed up at the shelter at 3pm, I have hours of sitting and shade-chasing ahead of me. As I sit, I contemplate quitting. It's the first time I've seriously considered quitting on any of my hikes apart from the Arizona Trail, where I got off due to the pandemic, and rather than disappointment, the idea has a surprisingly pleasant flavor to it as it rolls around in my head.
Physically I feel fine -- stronger than I expected at this point in the hike, stronger than I felt ten years ago passing through this shelter. But I feel my resolve falter, the appeal diminished. The problem, more so than the sunk costs already put into the hike and preparation so far, is that I have nothing really to quit to, no job or plans to follow instead. It is an interesting brainstorming opportunity that I know will address itself without the need of my conscious assistance.
The hikers from the trail magic continue to roll in all afternoon, filling the shelter and all of the many tent sites. They sit cluster by a fire, by the shelter, at the overlook. I see the hiker who was walking and talking on the phone the evening before. He's sitting on a log by the fire, and a young woman sits down next to him, a few inches away. She laughs, leans into him, and he glances at her before turning away, continuing to stare at the fire and ignore her. All around me young hikers are establishing their cliques, like the first day of freshman orientation, and I feel impossibly old, more disconnected from the hikers around me than the strangers I never spoke with back in Northampton.
I'm hiking up the hill early in the morning to Dick's Creek Gap when I see an old hiker with with tiny pack ahead of me. In the trail log at the last shelter I saw that Nimblewill had signed in, and recognized the name as the hiker who hiked from the Florida Keys to Quebec and wrote a book about it -- Nimblewill Nomad. "Where are you from?" I ask him as I pass him and ask to take a photo. He pauses several seconds after each question, making me feel like we are communicating across a vast distance greater than just the differences in our age or miles hiked. "Northern Alabama," he tells me finally, "the start of the Appalachians." "What is it like there?" I ask. And when he still hasn't answered, "Is it like this?" Eventually he replies, "It's real pretty. We got a trail there, it's called the Pinhoti." "I've heard of that," I tell him. "Well then you should go check it out," he tells me after another pause, "make sure we're not fibbin'."
At the gap I stick out my thumb to try to hitch to Hiawassi. Back in 2011 this was the spot of my first hitchhiking experience of the trail. This time I at least know what side of the road I should be standing on, but it still takes 15 minutes for the first car to stop. "I can take you into town for $20," he tells me when I walk up to the car door. When I tell him I'll wait, he is offended. "What?" he asks, "You don't have twenty bucks? How much have you got?" I shrug and tell him I'm not carrying cash and he drives off.
After another fifteen minutes of waiting by the side of the road a second car stops. He tells me he can take me into town, and when I pause to figure out the best way of piling of pack and poles into the crowded rear seat, he prompts, "if you want to come you gotta get moving, I'm in a hurry." As if to demonstrate, we squeal away as soon as I buckle up and are quickly pushing 80 down the curvy mountain road. I ask him if he's headed to work, and he tells me he's going to hang out with his buddies, "Sit around, drink and tell lies, most all we ever do." I relay my previous hitching attempt and he laughs. "I woulda told 'im to git lost!"
He drops me off at the Ingles supermarket, where I take my time, walking slowly up and down every isle twice while my battery pack charges by the vending machines. I'm not particularly hungry and it feels like I buy almost nothing, but when I take my purchases outside to the shade to repackage them, they won't even fit into my foodbag. There is a skill to not under- or over-buying food for each section, and I am clearly rusty.
Just after I finish packing up a woman driving a pickup truck pulls up looking for two hikers who had ordered a shuttle. "$10 each if you want to go," she tells me and another hiker, Elliott, as she lights a cigarette. I'm loath to pay for the ride, and still don't have cash part from my emergency $100, but the timing is good and Elliott spots me the $10, which I Venmo back to him.
Halfway up to the gap the driver finishes her cigarette and surprises me by announcing, "Alright I'm gonna ask you all to put on your masks. I know I wasn't wearing one but that's just because I was smoking, and I promised my kids." The other hikers dig around for masks. "I don't have one," one of them says. "What do you want to do, this?" he asks, grinning, and pulls up his t-shirt over his face.
Back at the gap I see Shoes, who still has to go into town and stops me to share contact info before I hike on. I tell him about vaccine availability in Hiawassi, and he responds enthusiastically. "Wow, that might be worth zeroing for!" I tell him a zero probably won't be necessary, though I haven't looked up appointment availability. "I may not see you again," he tells me. "Oh, you'll see me," I tell him, "I'm going slow." When tells me he's going slow too, I say, "Great, then I'll see you every day!"
The day is hot and sunny, and with an overfull foodbag it feels like I am crawling up the hills. I am overheating and tired, but when I get to the first shelter I see a group of multiple father and son hikers out for an overnight with their dogs and after signing the register I decide to move on. "Did you see that facemask he was wearing?" one of the fathers asks incredulously as I hike out. The day gets hotter, and flat spots are elusive.
I sit in the shade by my tent. Two young women set up their tent and hammock nearby, and I sit quietly by myself. I haven't introduced myself to another hiker or taken a photo all afternoon. I've stopped journaling, stopped taking notes on what occurs throughout the day. The women are tired from the day's hike, talking quietly to each other as they set up and rest. "Do you mind if I make a campfire?" one of the women asks me. I gather that she is called Kelly, and I tell her to go for it. "Come join me," she calls to her friend, who is lying in her hammock. "I will once you've got the fire going," the friend replies, laughing. Kelly gathers twigs and quickly gets a flame going. "Okay it's ready," she calls to her friend, who crawls out of the hammock with her phone in hand to join her.
"Our first campfire of the trip," Kelly says, as they sit beside each other on a log. "...Mmm...," her friend says after a few seconds, looking at her phone. "Are you even listening?" "...Hmm? No, I'm reading." "Pain in my ass, reading," Kelly mutters good-naturedly, shaking her head, staring at her fire.
Subject appears to have suffered an acute depressive episode. Preliminary investigation suggests contributing factor may be the small electronics device carried in subject's pocket, which may emit a form of previously undocumented psychological radiation poisoning. Witness descriptions of subject's behavior indicate that subject had been following a strict isolation of protocol for some manner of viral pandemic. Blood tests indicate inoculation against virus, recommend secession of all non-critical isolation protocol, reintegration with society. Recommend avoiding non-critical device contact until further toxicity analysis is complete. Recommend weekly follow-up observations while grant funding persists.