Appalachian Trail, Journal Entry 4, Stop and Go
Start: April 8, mile 76.0
End: April 11, mile 135.9
I get to North Carolina and put away my mask, resolving not to put it back on until I head into a town or see someone else wearing one. If this hike continues it'll be on its own terms, not the ones I started with. I leave the mileage restrictions behind also, although it's now day 8 anyway, past the first week period so critical for avoiding injury. I've left behind almost all of the hikers I've met this year, so no one notices when I greet them unmasked.
There's a loss of identity that's hard to articulate, a baptism in the communal guilt for a half million dead, the blood stains faint through the vaccine, but still there. And yet I don't believe I will be able to really connect with other hikers on trail if I remain the lone hold out. "This idealism is not serving our long term interests -- social isolation on this hike will take an unacceptably high toll on our prospects for happiness," the internal audit concludes, and it's a surprisingly hard step to take, but I make the leap.
The forecast calls for three days of rain, futher motivation to start moving. I watch the sunrise as I hike the last mile in Georgia, and reach the tree marking the border of North Carolina shortly after. It's a cool, cloudy day and I take advantage of it, hiking until a rain shower threatens, the first drops coming down just as I get to Standing Indian Shelter, another shelter that brings back memories of my previous hike and the adjustment period I had then as well.
While I'm waiting at the shelter a hiker asks if I have cell service, and when I do I look up the weather radar. It's novel to be able to get a up-to-the-minute forecast in the middle of the woods, and we're able to determine that the current shower should end in 10 minutes with a several hour break before more rain starts up.
When the rain stops on cue I decide to head for the next shelter, pushing hard to beat the rain and try to get a spot at the shelter. Brief showers blow through, leaving me damp but not soaked, and I make it to the shelter well before the rain is forecasted. I am a few minutes too late for a spot in the shelter, though, and I'm disappointed but figure I'll at least have a chance to test my tent in the rain.
Other than my brief rain break at Standing Indian, this is my first time hanging out at a shelter unmasked, and there is a noticable difference. Ashley, who is hiking with her dog Riley, asks if I made my pack, and I let her examine it without trying to keep my distance. She sewed her dog's rain gear, there being no good ultralight options on the market. When she leans in to show me a photo on her phone I don't flinch away.
The rain never comes, though in my tent I almost wish it would when I can hear hikers talking loudly into the evening, and a couple watching Netflix on their phone in the tent next to mine.
Almost all of the hikers camped at the shelter are planning on going into Franklin the next day. My food only barely fits in my foodbag, so I consider skipping it. I get up early anyway, trying to give myself flexibility with the weather, and after waving goodbye to the hikers eating breakfast at the shelter, am soon hiking up to Mt. Albert and mile 100. The trail up Albert feels like the steepest section so far, a short but impressive stretch that I slowly step my way up.
The view from the top is as good as I remember. At the summit I see Yeti just before he takes off down the trail. "Portrait, man," he calls out, "I almost didn't recognize you without the mask!" I tell him that he's not following my advice to not hike too fast, though I admit that I'm not either. "Oh, I knew I wasn't going to do that as soon as you said it!" he says laughing as he speeds off up the trail.
I climb the tower to take a few pictures, and when I come back down I see Alex, a wilderness firefighter I met the day before at the shelter. Alex powers up the the trail to the summit. "I was trying to catch you all morning but it just wasn't happening!" he says. "Sure it did," I tell him, "you're here now!"
I reach the road crossing to Franklin just in time for the first town-provided shuttle, but I decide to skip it, hanging out at the road to enjoy some trail magic of soda and a clementine. Brenna and Mel exit the shuttle, returning to the trail. "I'm so glad to get away from town," Mel says, and I can sympathize with the feeling. "I thought the trail would be different," she says, "more solitude and hiking by myself." This reminds me of the view of hiking that people must have when they ask, incredulously, "You're going to hike 2000 miles all by yourself?" For those familiar with the trail this is as non-sensical as asking, "You're going to go off to college all by yourself? Aren't you going to be lonely for four years?"
When I ask to take a picture of Brenna and Mel eating their hiker food on the grass I can feel Mel wince at the tactlessness of the request, coming after her complaints, but despite my reminder that she does have a choice she agrees, the social difficulty of refusal possibly higher than her desire for solitude.
After my trail magic break I start hiking again, and when I see Alex and his friend head up the trail behind me I increase my pace just enough to give them an entertaining chase and quickly lose sight of them. The day is hot and the trail steep, up then down, but my body feels strong and it feels good to keep walking. When I am almost at the second road crossing I see a tall hiker with a slight limp head down the trail ahead of me and it takes me a minute to recognize it as Yeti. He is heading into town to take a zero in tomorrow's storm. I tell him I'm planning to zero at the next shelter and wave goodbye for now.
Having just missed a spot in the shelter spot the night before, I'm even more motivated to show up to the shelter early, pushing up the hills as I count down the miles. I hike through a recent burn area, blackened ground that still smell like smoke. The vegetation had been burnt while the trees only singed, so I guess that it is a controlled burn. Close to the shelter I pass a woman hiking with earbuds in who had stoped to select something on her phone. Having not seen another hiker since the last road I feel guiltily happy that passing her increases the odds of getting myself a shelter spot.
When I reach the shelter a group of young guys are eating dinner. Their tents are nearby and only two of the shelter spots are taken. The woman I passed, DJ, shows up a few minutes after me, her feet hurting, and we both unroll our sleeping pads to claim our shelter spots. It will be my first night in a shelter this trip, another covid exposure I'm accepting in this new phase of my hike.
"Does anyone want some Cheetos? They're up for grabs," one of the hikers announces. "I'd love some," I say, reaching into the bag and popping one in my mouth. "Ooh, firey hot!" If this is a momentous occasion nobody notices.
DJ, I learn, is short for DJMF, and I assume that I have been given the sanitized version, it being not uncommon for hikers with inappropriate trail names to have cleaner versions for use with wider audiences. But then I overhear her describe it to another hiker as standing for "Dad Jokes with Mom Features," her eyes twinkling.
After sunset another woman, Scream, stumbles into the shelter. "That sucked!" she exclaims, wriggling out of her pack. "I am in so much pain. I just bought 20 lbs of food and now my pack weighs more than 60 lbs." I assume that this is hyperbole until she hauls out her gigantic foodbag. When I heft it I guess it to weigh at least 18lbs. Scream sets up in the shelter too, the five of us fitting comfortably. Once again the forecasted rain never comes, but with my earplugs in I sleep surprisingly well, sufficiently tired from my first 20 mile day of the hike.
In the morning most of the hikers pack up, prepared in their rain gear. Scream, DJ and I hang back. "I'll see you all later," DJ calls to the group of guys she had been hiking with. "Where are you trying to get to today?" DJ asks me. I point to my sleeping pad and quilt still laid out in the shelter. "Right about there." She decides to follow suit, resting her feet and avoiding the rain. Scream doesn't even pretend to consider hiking, exhausted from her grueling slog the day before.
Scream tries to convince us to take some of her food, and lets me dump her food bag out onto the shelter floor to photograph and peruse. It looks like what you'd get if you asked a hungry hiker to shop for a family of five, doubles or triples of everything that looked good, bacon, ham, beef jerky, and dehydrated dinners of all sorts. I decide to generously help Scream by eating her 9oz package of Canadian bacon, and then half of one of her packages of precooked American bacon.
"I do this to myself," Scream says, shaking her head. "At Neel Gap they got me down to a 25 lb base weight, but then I kept on picking things up from hiker boxes and now I'm back up to 40 lbs. Then I bought too much at Walmart, but it all looked so good, and now I can hardly move."
The rain finally does come, and throughout the day wet hikers arrive at the shelter, deciding to stay or waiting for a break in the rain to set up their tents. A few hearty hikers head back out into the rain after a break, the hoods of their rain jackets drawn tight over their faces. Idlewild, in his 60s, decides to stay in the shelter. "This is the first shelter I've ever stayed in," he says, laying his sleeping pad next to mine, "so if I do anything inappropriate let me know." "Don't worry, if you start snoring I'll elbow you," I tell him. "That's fair," he says, nodding quickly.
"Something I'm eating keeps upsetting my stomach," DJ announces. "I think it's this Chexmix. Does anyone want this Chexmix forever?" she asks. "Like, no taksie-baksies?" I ask. "Like you have to take this whole bag right now," she says, holding up a large bag of cheese flavored Chexmix. When no one jumps on the offer she relents on her terms, offering samples and smaller portions to any takers. I take a small bag, and Scream comes over, interested. "Mmm, those are really good, I'll take some," she says. "Do you want the whole bag?" DJ asks hopefully. "You both know that Scream doesn't need any more food, right?" I tell them, laughing. "Oh I know," Scream admits, "but I have such a hard time turning down free food!"
When asked how her hike is going, DJ is ambivilant. "It's been interesting," she says. "I didn't realize it would be so much about drinking and weed." I tell her there are other types of hikers out there, especially as hikers spread out, though I wonder if I'm just trying to convince myself. "I thought I would have more time to think," she says. I ask her if she thinks while she hikes, not mentioned the earbuds she was wearing when I saw her. She says that lately her feet have been hurting and she's just been focused on pushing to try to get to the next shelter.
It is a calm, lazy day. It feels good not to hike. One of the paradoxes of hiking -- it feels good to move and it feels good to stop. I take a midday nap, putting my earplugs in and lying down in my quilt, letting the muffled conversations wash over me.
The rain finally lets up just before sunset, and the tenters venture from the shelter to pitch their tents. I hike up to the top of the nearby Siler's Bald, extracurricular miles. There's no view, the summit still in the clouds, but after a day surrounded by other hikers it feels good to get away from everyone for a while.
In the morning the trail is almost dry and I leave the shelter shortly after sunrise, saying goodbye to DJ. I pass two German hikers, two of the hearty hikers who had paused briefly at the shelter in the rain the day before. They are the first international hikers I've seen this year, covid travel restrictions still in place. I ask them how they got into the country and Mattias / Pickup tells me how they flew to Mexico and stayed there for 15 days to get around the European entry ban.
All day as I hike I see shiney rocks on the trail, grey, metalic looking stones, the smaller round ones looking like coins, The trail littered with treasure from some generous mountain fairy. I try to photograph them, but when reduced to a single still image they just look like grey rocks, which is I guess what I should expect when trying to share fairy treasure.
At a road crossing I see a trail magic table, and even more excitingly, the hosts are wearing masks. I pull my mask out for the occasion, and the encounter cheers me more than orange soda and turkey sandwiches usually do. Maybe North Carolina is different, I think -- I am hiking north.
I am alone on Wesser Bald Tower, the flat topped tower that was filled with hikers ten years ago. I see some hiker's unretrievable stuffsack stuck up in a tree by the tower and I recall the little parachute man stuck in the same tree in 2011.
The stretch of trail down towards the Nantahala Outdoor Center is a ridge walk, one of the rare stretches of trail where you get to stay on top of the neatly flat ridge between peaks instead of hiking straight up and down from valley to peak to valley.
When I was planning this hike it was connection with the community of trail hikers that I desired most. This had been the highlight of my 2011 hike, and after a year of isolation I craved it even more. I haven't felt this connection strongly yet this year, but I am reminded that there are other pleasures to be found out here, not least of which is the hiking itself. Alone up on the empty ridge, with a cool breeze and panoramic views into the Smokies, I feel almost like I could hike forever.