Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 10, Dandelion Days
Start: April 23, Mile 344.2
End: April 26, Mile 397.7
I'm eating a container of eight cinnamon rolls with a spoon when I see a teenage girl walk up to the hostel. She looks like anything but a hiker, dressed in a crop-topped t-shirt and carefully torn pants, approaching hesitantly like she's looking for someone. I nod to her as I spoon cinnamon roll into my mouth. She shivers and covers up, pulling on a sweatshirt, although when she does I see that this too has been cropped, cut so that her midriff is still bare.
She walks around the building and I don't see her again until nightfall. I'm sitting in a chair by the metal fire ring when she walks up again, still wearing her dual crop-tops but with a drink in her hand and looking more comfortable now. She sits next to me and starts talking excitedly. "My dad's section hiking and I'm joining him for a while," she tells me. "He's off at Target looking for trekking poles. I like connecting with the hikers. Actually I like connecting with lots of people."
The close presence of this outgoing, crop-topped teenage girl makes me acutely uncomfortable, warning bells ringing, and I try to be polite without being encouraging, but this doesn't discourage her. She tells me about coming to this same hostel with her dad a few years ago when they hiked sections nearby. "There's an enchanted forest near here!," she tells me, and I remember that there is a section of the trail with that name. She leans in to show me the background picture on her phone, a misty, eerily illuminated forest. "And I saw an iridescent mushroom!" She shows me this photo also. "It all made a big impression on me and influenced my art." She shows me the pastel and ink drawing she made, with the forest and mushroom, a dragon face in the clouds, and a stork carrying a newborn baby. "There are other things going on also," she says. "I guess whatever was on my mind."
I start feeling bad for being so standoffish, and realize that after weeks of attempting to connect with thru-hikers, this young girl is making an earnest effort to connect with me and I have been responding like so many of the hikers I've met. Her name is Jill and she's 19 years old, though her face makes her look even younger, and she talks like a mature 25-year-old with the social inhibitions of an exuberant puppy.
She asks me about the trail and tells me about the Honda Odyssey van that she converted. "A woman in the Lowes parking lot helped me make the bed. We did an energy exchange -- she let me use her tools and I helped her with her social media." She tells me about her YouTube channel where she uploads her poetry and vlogs. "Not many people watch it but that's okay -- I'm still experimenting and figuring out what I want to say." When I look the channel up to bookmark it I see that her latest upload is a 17 minute video titled, "Menstruation Liberation - My Journey".
We talk until all the other hikers go to bed. When her father finally shows up, he seems intent on figuring out the shower and bunk situations, confident that his daughter has things under control. Jill bids me goodnight, heading back to her van for the night and offering to give me a tour in the morning. When she's gone the night feels quieter, but I'm smiling, surprised at the unexpected places connection can come from.
In the morning, when it is time for the breakfast shuttle into town, Shire, Peacefoot and Julian emerge from the private cabin. "... I haven't seen him since yesterday," I overhear Peacefoot saying, and when I realized that he is talking about me, I turn toward him. I furrow my brow and half-cock my head in a look of concern. "How you been?" I ask him. "You know, good," he says, smiling. "That's good, that's good," I tell him, nodding seriously, and Shire laughs.
The three of them take the breakfast shuttle into town to move to their hotel, and I decide to skip the breakfast run to stay at the hostel where things are quieter. I talk with Ryan, a 30 year old surgical tech from south of Boston who has been traveling around for work with his dog Aila. Jill walks up, wearing a bleached denim jacket and torn bleached denim pants. She offers to show us the van, and we walk over for the tour. Much like my converted Transit Connect, her Honda Odyssey is nearly all bed in back when in bed mode, but the foam mattress can fold up to make room for living.
I ask her if she and her dad are planning on hiking today in the rain, and she shrugs. "I just go with the flow. Sometimes I just have to let go of trying to control things." All of the thru-hikers are zeroing, at the hostel or a hotel. Only two section hikers head out as it's starting to rain. "We only have four days out here," they tell us, bundled up in all their rain gear. "It's now or never!"
The rest of us are content with a lazy rest day. Time Snake lies on his bed in the bunk room, one earbud in, on an open line with his identical twin brother. He intersperses conversations in the room with the occasion comment to his brother, and every time he speaks it takes a second to figure out if he's talking to one of us, but he seems more relaxed than I've seen him before, grounded by this connection to his twin.
We spend the rest day eating and talking, and practice accepting the forces we cannot control.
The rain is supposed to be gone by morning and it is, but in its place is a thick fog. I walk up and over the famed Beauty Spot barely being able to see 15 feet in front of me. When I get to the Enchanted Forest it is laced with fog, looking worthy its name. I take a few photos, but without enough sun poking through to create a glow I don't capture anything as ethereal as Jill's photo.
Walking down from the forest the fog finally lifts and I stop to talk with a southbound section hiker, telling him of the Enchanted Forest he's about to walk through. "We have lovely trees right here," he says, and we hear a crashing noise up the trail. We look to see Time Snake, roaring, waving his arms and barreling down the trail toward us. "Portrait," Time Snake greets me politely as he passes, doffing his ball cap mid-sprint before resuming his roar and disappearing down the trail. "...And bears," the southbounder adds, unperturbed.
When I see Time Snake next he's lying in his tent making dinner, camped near a pair of locals with a dog. "Did Ramble On offer you mushrooms?" he asks me. "I tried some," he tells me, "not my finest hour. Although I took so little that I only felt invincible for a mile or so." I ask him if it was shortly after the Enchanted Forest and he thinks then nods. "That makes more sense now," I tell him.
I start hiking before sunrise and startle four deer, their large white tails flashing as they bolt off. At a road crossing I see Jill in her van, flustered and bleary-eyed, her father nearby outside his Prius. "Sorry!" Jill apologizes to me, "I just figured out how to turn the car alarm off." I tell her that I didn't hear it, and just hiked in from a few miles away. "Take your pack off and stay a minute," her dad invites me, but I tell him I should keep moving while things are still loosening up.
I hike up Roan Mountain, admiring the switchbacks that Bob Peoples' Hardcore Crew created in 2011, just days after I hiked the section previously. I see Time Snake coming up from behind while I'm on a long switchback. "Oh man, that spot was crazy," he tells me. "That woman talked loudly to herself all night." I don't see him again before the top, though, and when I take a break at the shelter, the highest elevation shelter on the AT, Time Snake passes by.
Coming down the mountain I cross a road and see Jill again. "Portrait!" she calls out as I'm heading up the trail, "You can be honest -- do you mind me hiking with you?" I tell her I don't mind at all, but when her dad is still looking for the car keys she tells me I don't have to wait, she'll catch up, I take her at her word and hike on at full pace. A minute later Jill jogs up to join me, carrying a small day pack that looks like an elementary school backpack.
"I think I manifested this," she says happily. "I was just saying that I wanted to hike with Portrait. I told my dad that I wanted to see what your pace was like," she says, laughing. "I always hike ahead and my dad hikes after me -- I tried staying back to keep him company but I just couldn't do it." I keep a quick hiking pace up the steep hill, but Jill seems to keep up effortlessly. When she tells me about running track in her first semester of college, I am unsurprised. "My trail name is Dandelion today," she tells me, showing off the dandelion in her hair. "I decided that I will have a different trail name each day."
I'm busy talking when I realize I haven't seen a white blaze in a while. We're on a bald summit without any trees, so this isn't entirely surprising, but I remark that they either don't like blazes in this section or we're off trail. When I check the guide I realize that it is the latter, and I've taken us 0.6 miles to a off-trail peak. Jill is committed to getting back to her van, a 15 miles hike with a late start, and I feel bad adding another 1.2 miles to her day. "Well, at least we don't have to let it bother us!" she says, laughing it off as we return down the steep side trail to the AT. I hadn't planned on hiking as far as the road, having already hiked 12 miles on the day before Jill joined me, but I keep a pace quick enough to make sure Jill will be there well before sunset.
She tells me that the last time she was in Erwin she met a hiker she felt a strong connection with. "He was planning to go to medical school, but I told him I didn't really see him as a doctor. He's too adventurous and has too many things going on. Now he's out thru-hiking the CDT. We don't talk much anymore, which kinda sucks. He says he doesn't need me checking in all the time or whatever. But what is life without love?"
After I get used to the high energy level, I find it surprisingly easy to talk to Jill. When I bring up triple crowning or getting a PhD, Jill has no more or less interest in these than the yellow bird I see, or an unusual tree, and there's something freeing about this. Jill herself talks about life, family, travel. It feels good to have been forcibly befriended, all of my social inhibitions and second guessing blasted away by Jill's enthusiasm.
"When I got to Uncle Johnny's this year the first thing I remember seeing is you eating a big tray of cinnamon rolls with a spoon. Of course, I didn't know you were you yet then," she tells me.
We hike over the beautiful, exposed balds of the Roan Highlands, the day sunny and warm. When we stop for water at a spring and Jill takes off her long sleeve shirt, a change of wardrobe being one of the few things in her tiny day pack, and puts on a crop-topped Appalachian Trail t-shirt.
As we continue the day I realize that this is the most I have hiked with anyone since Dannielle on day two of the hike, and it is good to feel like part of a team, waiting for each other when we need to get water or a snack. I know that Jill's schedule is unlikely to line up with mine in the future, the logistics of shuttling two cars making for some late starts to the day, but this is freeing in its own way also, and I savor the warm feeling of companionship knowing that it is likely just for the day.
When we reach the road, 27 miles on the day for me so far, Jill presses her hands together and gives me a half bow. "Thank you for sharing this hiking journey with me," she tells me, before pulling off her shoes and walking down the asphalt road in her socks.
After trying so hard to connect with other thru-hikers, it is strange to have finally found connection, if only for an afternoon, with this 19-year-old section hiker. But the warm glow persists into the evening as I look for a flat spot to camp, something long frozen finally starting to soften and melt.