Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 11, Kincora
Start: April 27, Mile 397.7
End: April 27, Mile 420.1
The moon shines brightly on my tent all night, and while I fall asleep quickly, worn out after thirty plus miles of hiking, I wake up again at 1:30am and have trouble falling back asleep in the moonlight.
In the morning I hobble out of my tent to capture the pre-dawn glow in the sky, and watch the sun crest the horizon as I'm packing up, Puff and Ranger Kiki just beginning to stir. My left foot feels surprisingly fine after the big day yesterday, although my right achilles feels incredibly tight, too tight to safely stretch. Having shifting ailments seems better than a consistent one so I call this a win and start the day at a comically slow hobble for the first mile or so until my muscles slowly warm up and I can walk more like a normal human again.
I pass James a couple miles down the trail and ask him if he's going to the Kincora hostel. "I don't think so. That's what, at least 20 miles from here?" he asks. I tell him that I think it's only 16. "I was planning on going to Boot's Off Hostel the day after, so probably not," he tells me. A mile down the trail I check the guide again and realize that James was right -- Kincora is still 20 miles away, more than 22 miles from where I started.
A few miles later I hear someone coming up behind me and see Time Snake. He gives me a mini bear roar, more of a polite greeting than the 'shroom-fueled rampage of the other day. I let him pass, but he slows down to let me tail him, and we hike together for the first time on the trail.
He tells me about hiking with his identical twin brother, and how he considered hiking the CDT this year to complete his triple crown but didn't want to make his brother feel left out. He and his brother started attending a college program to study mortuary science so they could open a funeral home together before they dropped out and hiked the AT and PCT together. We swap stories from the AT and PCT and I tell him about the CDT. As with so many of my trail conversations this year, the topic gets around to my giving unsolicited financial advice, and Time Snake, who has started to dabble in investing, is intrigued, asking questions about index funds and brokerages, taking notes on his phone.
Time Snake tells me that he read comments in the guide that the hostel in Erwin started having Norovirus cases just after we left, and I am glad that we dodged that bullet.
We pass a dozen hikers throughout the day, and Time Snake waits for me as I stop to chat, since I like to get hikers' trail names and hear a little bit about them before passing. He tells me that he always feels awkward talking to new hikers, but as we continue meeting hikers throughout the day Time Snake gets more comfortable. Whenever hikers ask us if we're thru-hiking he makes a game of always replying, "We're going to try our darndest!!". I tell him he gets bonus points for working the phrase into conversations in the most awkward way possible. " 'Are you going to the hostel tonight?' 'We're going to try our darndest!!' " I ask most of the hikers if they're planning on stopping at Kincora, and am surprised when none of them plan to, each planning to stop at a different hostel or skip them altogether.
The day is hot and sunny and we stop for water and a snack at Moreland Gap Shelter. When we hear hikers approaching we make guesses about which of the hikers we passed might be catching up. We're surprised to see Ram Chop and The Last Boy Scout, the first two hikers we met while hiking together this morning. Talking to them at the shelter, we learn that Ram Chop started hiking this year in Alabama on the Pinhoti Trail and Boy Scout started hiking at the Florida Keys, planning to hike all the way to Canada on the Eastern Continental Trail. "See, this is why I like meeting everyone," I tell Time Snake after we leave the shelter, "You never know who has interesting stories."
We stop to chat with a hiker shortly before the road to the hostels and as we leave Time Snake calls out, "Enjoy the rest of your hike!" When we're out of earshot I reproach him, "You can't tell people that when you pass them, man! *You* know that you're probably not going to ever see them again, but you it's rude to tell them that to their face. You always say, 'See you down the trail!' and sometimes it's even true."
When we reach the road, I head left up the hill to Kincora, where I stayed in 2011, and Time Snake, craving a pizza, heads right to stop in at the newer competing hostel that also sells food. I walk up the long 0.4 mile road walk that I remember from ten years ago. The hostel still looks almost the same from the outside, but vines have covered half the building, making it look almost abandoned. I don't see anyone on the porch so I open the door to the hostel and call "Hello!", but nobody answers. I assume that I have missed the dinner shuttle, everyone gone to town for food. The door to the residence is left open, though, so I investigate. I remember the residence being off-limits in 2021 so I approach tentatively, standing at the threshold and poking my head inside. "Hello?"
I see a large, open living room, the walls covered in bookshelves, a couch in the center of the room. On the couch sits Bob Peoples, the most famous AT trail maintainer and hostel proprietor extraordinaire, reading a Clive Cussler novel, with a cat curled beside him and another at his feet.
He looks up and smiles, telling me he'll meet me over at the hostel side of the building. I tell him I couldn't find anyone over there and he nods, telling me that I'm the first one for today. Inside the hostel we sit and talk. He tells me that there's less traffic here now that there's more competition. I ask him how many people he had yesterday. "No one yesterday," he says, "but I did have 8 the day before. There's no drinking here, so a lot of the hikers prefer it over at Black Bear and Boot's Off now," he says, seemingly unconcerned. "No cell service or wifi either -- here we just sit around and talk with each other."
I feel bad that this once popular hostel has become so passed by, nearly empty in the busy season of the busiest year. But then, as we talk, I think that maybe he prefers it this way -- the other hostels draw more of the crowd he'd rather avoid, and leave only the self-selected few who prefer this atmosphere. And maybe, like me, he prefers this one-on-one interaction to the bustle of a large crowd.
Bob still speaks gently, with the combination of unplaceable accent and speech impediment that soften his R's and W's, giving his voice a childlike quality that belies his deep intelligence and experience.
"I just got my Moderna shot," he tells me. I tell him I hope that he's planned out time to rest tomorrow. "Yes, I don't have another big trail maintenance event until the day after tomorrow," he says, and I hope that he experiences fewer side effects than my brother or mother, who both received Moderna vaccines.
I ask him what he's been up to and he tells me all about his hiking over the last ten years, hiking 5 of the Camino trails and other religious pilgrimages throughout Israel and the middle east. "It makes me sound quite religious but I'm really not," he says, "I just like the history." He tells me of getting locked in an old monastery hostel when he was following the path of the crusades. "They told me that the hostel closed at 1:30 -- I figured that since I had arrived at 1:15 I was fine. I didn't realize they were going to lock me in for the next 7 hours. I was in a room carved into the rock. I got to know the inside of that monastery very well!"
We talk for an hour before James arrives. "I didn't think you were coming!" I tell him. "Well, someone made it sound like it was only 16 miles away!" he tells me, smiling. "You put the idea in my head so I thought I'd check it out." We talk together for another half hour before Bob asks us if we need to go into town. James and I look at each other, sensing that neither of us need to resupply but that we would both appreciate hot food. " 'Need' is a strong word," I admit to Bob, but he offers to drive us to get food anyway, and we take the windy mountain forest service road that I remember from 2011.
When we reach the small grocery Bob gives James a mask to wear, and a van packed with 9 hikers pulls up shortly after we do, the name of one of the competing hostels emblazoned on the side. I wave to them, but when all they enter the grocery store unmasked behind me they seem uninterested in conversation, focused on the decision of what beer to buy. We we return to the car Bob is reading his book, and I ask him what's happening in it. "Right now our hero is in Australia, wresting a crocodile," he says, chuckling. "They aren't very well written but they sure are fun!"
Back at the hostel James and I eat our sub sandwiches on the porch and Bob comes out to join us after he finishes his own supper. We sit taking on the porch until the sun sets and dusk sets in. He tells us that if we hear any noises from the porch at night it's just the raccoons. He points to two bowls with cat food on the picnic table. "That's their food," he says. "I've been putting food out, and after three years the raccoons are fat and happy." Bob heads back inside, telling us that we may not see him in the morning -- if he feels good he may drive to Asheville tomorrow at 5am.
I poke around the hostel, looking at the decades of hiker finish photos covering the ceiling, and see the same faded "$5 Suggested Donation" sign above the empty cashbox, the same lifetime achievement awards in their dusty frames. There are a few new recognitions also, including a commendation from the state of Iowa on behave of all Iowans who hike the Appalachian Trail.
If the Bob Peoples from the bustling hostel of 2011 seemed heavy with grief from the loss of his wife, the Bob Peoples of the empty hostel in 2021 seems at peace with life, comfortable with the way things are. As much as anyone else I have met, Bob seems to have succeeded at living life, and it makes me hope that I can lead a life as fulfilling as his, greeting the next visitor at my door with a smile, content to sit and read for however long it takes for them to arrive.