Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 5, Campfire Songs
Start: April 11, mile 135.9
End: April 12, mile 152.9
I camp at the shelter less than a mile away from the Nantahala Outdoor Center. There's still time left in the day to reach the NOC, eat some food and stay in a cabin, but I usually prefer staying just shy of town and arriving in the morning. Not only is it cheaper, it also preserves the hiking sleep schedule. Towns, with their access to electric lights and wifi, tend to lead to late nights and late mornings.
I set up in the shelter with Crinkles, whom I met two days earlier at the shelter I zeroed in, and around sunset Thirsty Bear joins us, sectioning southbound. Thirsty Bear recently retired at age 40 after living in Chicago for ten years. "Finance?" I guess. "That was quick," he laughs. "Well, Chicago. If you had said San Francisco or Seattle I would have said tech."
Outside the shelter I check for service and read on Instagram that Dannielle, having foot pain, has left the trail just north of the North Carolina border. This news fills me with the grief and regret that I had expected to feel at thoughts of ending my own hike, and I am distant the rest of the evening, pulled away from the shelter conversation into thoughts of hikes that might have been.
Thirsty Bear falls asleep quickly and snores like a chainsaw, a ragged, irregular noise that cuts effortlessly through my earplugs. Lying awake for hours I can hear Crinkles shift around on her pad, the genesis of her trail name, though I would describe the noise her air mattress makes against her ground sheet as more of a series of squeaks, like you might get rubbing a balloon against a wall.
I wake up early, having managed only brief snatches of sleep. I quietly carry all of my gear to the privy to pack up, although had it been just Thirsty Bear in the shelter I'm not sure I would have been so considerate.
I arrive at the small village surrounding the outdoor center at 8am, an hour before anything opens. Finding the bathrooms open, I resupply on toilet paper, carefully unspooling and rerolling the narrow, thin, unperforated paper. It is clearly the cheapest toilet paper possible to buy, exactly what I would stock if I managed an establishment near the AT.
I find the outdoor outlets and plug in my large external battery, which is down to 10%. Within 30 minutes it's almost half full and I marvel at the wonders of 100W charging. As it gets closer to 9am hikers start emerging from nearby cabins. A woman in her thirties with a toned runner's physique and a tattoo of a pineapple on her ankle walks over and stands near me, typing on her phone. After a minute she asks, "Is this the Postal Service?" and it takes me a second to realize that she's asking about the song barely audible over the store's outdoor sound system. I catch snatches of the melody and say I think that it's Death Cab for Cutie, before eventually recognizing the song as their classic Soul Meets Body.
The pineapple woman enters the store when it opens and walks out a few minutes later waving a piece of paper -- "Got my Smokies permit!" she announces. It reminds me that this is now a task that thru-hikers have to do, new from ten years ago.
When Crinkles shows up I tell her, "Thirsty Bear must be hiking sobo so that we can't warn the other hikers about his snoring." She claims she was able to sleep through it. Crinkles and I figure the permit system out together, filling out the online forms and paying on our phones before forwarding the confirmation emails to an email address printed on the door of the outdoor center.
As we are filling out the forms we see a hiker walk out of the bathrooms with a large wad of toilet paper in hand. "You know they've got to be including that in the cost of everything they sell," Crinkles says. Inside the outdoor center we learn that the restaurant, much hyped by Thirsty, is short staffed and has decided that starting today they will be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so won't be open for two more days. This is disappointing, since I haven't eaten a town meal yet this hike.
By 10am all my electronics are fully charged, I've finished the orange soda I bought from the general store and I'm ready to go. I remember the climb out of the NOC well, especially how hot it was, and I want to start it before the afternoon heats things up any more. Waving goodbye to Crinkles, I walk the bridge across the river and make my way up the long hill.
The climb from the NOC is notorious as the longest continuous uphill section of the trail so far, 8.5 miles up before you finally get to top. The morning is cloudless and warm, and after five minutes I'm already sweating. "I'm thinking we must be almost at the top by now," I joke as I pass a hiker less than a mile from the NOC. "Oh, there's a good 6 miles to go," he assures me, and I don't correct him that it's actually 7.8.
I hike the steep sections slow, what feels like a crawl, but it's slow enough that I don't get winded and it lets me conserve enough energy to hike the less steep sections at full pace. It's a different strategy from last AT hike, and either the approach or the breeze that finally picks up makes the climb less brutal than I remembered, though still impressive in its duration.
Near the top of the climb I make a pitstop at Sassafras Gap Shelter, one of the shelters I remember most clearly from my last hike for the protection it offered from a storm and for Stompy-Mc-Stomps-A-Lot's morning coffee routine. The outside looks like it has been repainted since last time, and I'm glad that it's in such good repair.
A few miles down from the top I follow a side trail down to a spring. I take advantage of the solitude to strip down and give myself a bandana bath, having yet to shower this trip. Back on the trail I chat with the hikers lounging there, and when a new hiker shows up I point him in the direction of the water and start hiking back up the trail.
The hiker apparently doesn't need water because I hear his trekking poles as he follows me up the trail. I'm going pretty slow on the steep uphill, but when he gains on me I don't want to have to deal with letting him pass and then passing him again shortly, so I pick up the pace. He matches this pace and then increases it, clearly trying to pass. I amuse myself by matching this new pace, not trying to pull ahead but perversely curious how long he can sustain it. Within 30 seconds I can hear him breathing heavily as his pace starts to flag, and then I am alone on the trail for the rest of the afternoon, chuckling at the memory of this wordless drama.
I hike by myself through the late afternoon, between the bubbles of hikers who stayed at or near the NOC. I smell the next shelter before I reach it, surprisingly fragrant campfire smoke wafting across the mountain. I am not sure if I will stop at the shelter, still having more daylight ahead of me, but when I arrive the vibe of the group seems so different from what I found earlier in my hike that I start looking for a spot to pitch my tent.
At the fire Soldier Boy, young, tall, and dressed in a full wool WWII uniform, is cooking up a culinary feast on the open fire. Amazon, a young woman with a long braid and serious expression is breaking large branches beside him to feed the fire. In the shelter are two young women, Sure Thing and Outback, and Issac, all in their twenties, who sit eating and watching the fire.
With the food cooking on the fire and the hikers all settled in it feels more like a camp than a shelter. Soldier Boy sits on a wool blanket and uses a cutting board to prepare fresh vegetables, cheese and a small loaf of bread that he baked himself at the NOC from the sourdough starter he carries. It must all weigh a ton, but the atmosphere it all creates is undeniable.
I ask Amazon how long any of them have been hiking together. She says that For Sure and Outback started the trail together and that she has been third-wheeling with them for a while, and they met Soldier Boy at one of the hostel a little ways back. "Eventually you know you get promoted to a full-fledged member of the tramly, right?" I tell her. "Well, I like my independence," she replies. "I don't like to be too committed." "In life or on trail?" I ask. She laughs. "On trail." But then after a few minutes of reflection she says, "Well, actually I guess that's the story of the last six years of my life off trail also. It's funny how trail life can be a microcosm of everything else."
"Are you the one who leaves or the one who is left?" Soldier Boy asks her, having been listening. She thinks. "I'm the one who doesn't get close so that neither of those has to happen." "Thank you for answering that," says Soldier Boy. "Thank you for asking," replies Amazon.
When Soldier Boy finishes his elaborate dinner, complete with dessert course -- popcorn freshly popped in a pot over the fire -- he tells us a story of the goat he owns back in Wisconsin and the cat he rescued after its paw was crushed by a car. The story is about how the goat is oblivious to all relationship dynamics while the cat is keenly aware of them, and how Soldier Boy tried to teach them to get along. During the story Soldier Boy gets down on his knees and elbows, crossing his eyes and contorting his hands and feet to mimic the way his goat sits, and while telling it he cannot help himself from periodically bursting into a loud, high pitched giggle. It is at first an embarrassing sound, and by all rights should be annoying, but somehow Soldier Boy's genuineness and glee makes it wholesome and endearing. "I think that's my favorite campfire story ever," I tell him.
Five of us sit around the campfire, and Amazon, returning from hanging her food bag, stands nearby. "You're welcome to a spot on my blanket," Soldier Boy offers, indicating the folded wool blanket he's sitting on. Amazon says she prefers to stay mobile, but eventually relents, and Soldier Boy unfolds the blanket to create a spot for her. "I was definitely envisioning sharing that small square," she says, laughing.
With all of us gathered, For Sure teaches us a campfire song, The Crazy Salamander. It is a camp song, so involves lots of repetition, hand gestures and sing-along, and accomplishes the goal of all camp songs by making us laugh and feel more comfortable with each other.
"Now we go around in a circle and all sing a song," Soldier Boy prompts. I am next in line, and don't know any song's lyrics by heart, but I have had the same song stuck in my head for the last week -- Johnny Cash's cover of Hurt. I sing the verses I know, and in front of the fire with the rapt attention of the group my voice sounds clearer and more filled with emotion than I expect. When I finish they all snap appreciatively. Issac can't think of a song, so Soldier Boy launches into a solo acapella rendition of a song from Taylor Swift's latest album, singing the whole thing from memory. Amazon follows, perfectly rapping Eminem's Without Me while Soldier Boy beatboxes the rhythm, and we clap and hoot enthusiastically. "You definitely have to be the front-woman in our band," Soldier Boy tells her. Both of their performances are awe inspiring, and I am unsurprised when I learn that Amazon was a Classical Music major and Soldier Boy taught musical theory.
We continue going around the circle singing songs or fragments of songs, together or solo. When Issac finally comes up with a song, Time of the Season, we all sing along to the parts we know, not quite getting the whole song but piling on enthusiastically for the chorus. "That was a perfect campfire song," Soldier Boy tells Issac.
Of the six of us, only For Sure takes her phone out. "You aren't looking up lyrics are you?" Soldier Boy chides. "No, I'm sending a Snapchat," she admits, but continues using the phone, the pale glow of the screen illuminating her face. I want to tell her: Someday you will be willing to pay more than you have to give for this very moment, and you're missing it. But of course I don't say anything, and try to focus on enjoying the experience myself.
The sing-alongs work the magic that performers have known for ages, filling us with the warm glow of connectedness that shared music can create. When the fire is almost burnt out and we have exhausted our repertoire Amazon points out constellations. "Amazon knows so much!" Soldier Boy exclaims. "Guys, can you believe it? She knows so much about so many things!" Amazon professes to only amateur knowledge of astronomy, but continues to teach us the constellations as we look up from the dying fire into the clear, twinkling sky.
It is magical night, the type I imagined when I dreamed of rehiking the AT. I feel connected in a way that I haven't in years, and part of me wants nothing more than to try to join this tramly. But the sheer one-sided strength of this desire and the age difference makes this feel impossible. Or maybe, like Amazon, it's simply my trail life reflecting the broader pattern of my life, and I love them all too much, Soldier Boy's ridiculous laugh and all, to be able to envision myself as a part of their group. Still, I go to bed happier than I've been in a long time, and while Johnny Cash still sings in my head, the lyrics don't feel so dark anymore.