Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 12, Time Snaking Along

Start: April 28, Mile 420.1
End: May 1, Mile 527.1


In the morning I bake Pillsbury cinnamon rolls in the kitchen of Kincora, and when the smell of freshly baking cinnamon bread starts to fill the hostel I hear James stirring upstairs in the bunkroom. We eat the cinnamon rolls and wash them down with soda, trying to use up yesterday's purchases and load up on ever needed calories.

Back on trail I pass a pair of weekend car campers with a dog, a chocolate lab. The dog runs eagerly over to greet me, sniffing my crotch and trying to jump on me. The owners call out to the dog but don't make any effort to retrieve him. I try to step around him, but he runs up ahead along the trail, waiting for me to arrive and then running ahead again. "Go that way doggie!" I say, pointing south and tossing rocks in that direction, but I can't seem to get my point across. I consider hiking south to lure the dog back, but like most thru-hikers I am loath to hike backwards, preferring to go miles north rather than a few feet back, and hope that I will run into a southbounder who can take him.

When I get to a waterfall a mile up the trail the dog is still nearby, scouting the trail ahead of me.  I manage to get in front of him before a narrow cliff walk above the river and block the path. "NO!" I shout at the dog, and with this added volume the dog finally seems to listen, shrinking away, and I hope that he will find his way back down the trail.

Time Snake catches up to me an hour later. I ask him about the lab and he thinks. "Oh shoot, I did see someone looking for something, that must have been one of the guys. He was half a mile away from the falls, and then I saw the dog further up."

He tells me that the hostel he stayed at was clean and pleasant until The Breeze, one of the hikers we met yesterday, showed up. "I thought he just wasn't very friendly but then he started puking. All night, every hour he would sprint out the door of the bunk house -- he couldn't even make it to the bathroom." After the reports of norovirus in Erwin, it seems like the outbreak isn't as contained as we thought.

We meet a southbound flip-flopper who tells us that he stayed at Boot's Off, the hostel 8 miles north, and that several people were sick there too. "I don't think it's noro though -- these people were just throwing up and I heard from someone who had noro that when you have it you get diarrhea also." I am skeptical of this being evidence against noro, it having been a common trail virus before and gastrointestinal symptoms rarely being that specific. We tell the southbound about the dog and ask him to take it back to the road if he sees it still wandering on the trail.

Time Snake wants to camp at the Nick Grindstaff Monument, a spot he remembers from his former hike, where there's a marker for a hermit who lived and died on the mountain, so we hike quickly all day to try to reach there. We pass two woman at a shelter and ask them if they've heard anything about a norovirus outbreak. "Trail news sure travels fast!" one of the women, Slingshot, tell us, saying that she was sick, throwing up at Boot's Off last night. "Calves was sick the day before -- I think he gave it to me."

We see Calves at the next tent site. "It was rough, I was throwing up so much I went to urgent care, but they said it wasn't noro," he tells us. "How did they rule that out?" Time Snake asks, but Calves just shrugs. "Different symptoms I guess?" This doesn't seem to make sense, but we leave it.

As we're filling up our water, two section hikers, eager to talk to thru-hikers, pepper us with the usual questions. We answer them all, and ask if they heard anything about a stomach bug going around. "I haven't heard anything," one tells us. "Although our friend was sick and had to stay back at the last hostel. But she said she thought it was probably food poisoning since she picked some Craisins up from a hiker box." 

It's alarming to keep getting new reports of illness with every conversation, the scope of the outbreak larger than we had realized. "I've gotten giardia multiple times," Time Snake tells me, "I really don't want to get norovirus."

We warn another group of hikers at the tent site about the outbreak, but one is skeptical. "I don't know where you got your information but we were at Boot's Off last night and nobody was sick there." This seems to directly contradict the firsthand accounts from the southbounder, Slingshot and Calves. We tell him about the news Erwin and Time Snake's experience at the hostel last night, but the hiker is unconvinced. "We haven't heard anything, and we have friends who stayed at Station 19E and they didn't say anything at all about it," he tells us, shaking his head.

We change the subject, giving up on passing along the warning, but Time Snake and I are both irked by the exchange. "Little known fact," Time Snake tells me when we are alone again, hiking, "a side effect of norovirus is an incredible lack of self-awareness. 'Wow, I'm throwing up all night and everyone at all the hostels has been sick. It was probably these Craisins, which are designed to last forever.' "

"Even if it really is some other stomach bug, I don't see how you'd treat it any different from a norovirus outbreak," I tell Time Snake, and he nods. "I know, right?" We both make plans to avoid shelters and hostels for the time being, our determination only partly fueled by our continued annoyance with the outbreak denier.

It's nearing sunset when we pass the last shelter before the monument. "You're not going to hike more tonight, are you?" a hiker asks us. "We're going to try our darndest," I reply. "Three points," Time Snake tells me.

We stop at a stream before the dry campsite, and I take pictures of Time Snake while he collects water. "Just make me look cool, man," he tells me, posing and smiling patiently, "just make me look cool."

We're surprised to find a tent already at the monument. The site isn't listed in the guide as having tent spots, and we only knew that there would be a few because Time Snake remembered it from his earlier hike. "Hello fellow Nick Grindstaff enthusiast!" Time Snake greets the hiker as we walk up in the waning sunlight, and she laughs appreciatively. We trade stories we've read of the old hermit, and joke about his curmudgeonly spirit haunting the area.

The woman, Hip Hiker, tells us that she heard that Damascus has a bunch of norovirus cases now also, and we realize that this noro-bubble will be even harder to outrun than we thought.

Time Snake finds us two tent sites on a nearby hill, and we leave Hip Hiker alone by the monument. We are 25 miles from Damascus, but it is supposed to rain tomorrow afternoon and the noro news makes staying in a hostel unattractive, all the other options expensive. Time Snake talks of trying to in-and-out, but doing this in the rain sounds tough so I say I might stop short of town, like I did in Hot Springs.

~~~

When I hear Time Snake wake at 5am I decide to rest while he packs up and leaves. After two days in the hot sun hiking at Time Snake's pace, which is slightly faster than mine, I have hot spots on my feet and am beginning to chafe. I've also been more tired at the end of the day, and I think that I'm more efficient at my slower pace, able to hike longer miles per day with less work.

Throughout the day I watch my heart rate as I hike, and find that when I hike my comfortable pace I stay around 110 BPM on the flat and downhill sections, naturally slowing down for most of the climbs to keep it from rising too much above that.

I stop at a road crossing when I see a woman just beginning to set up trail magic. She says that her son, Linger, is hiking this year. "I know Linger," I tell her and she's surprised. She did trail magic here the other day and only met one hiker who had met him. She tells me Linger started hiking on April 2nd and this makes sense. He's had to have hiked fast days to be nearby, and the only hikers ahead of him that would have heard of him would have had to hike even faster. There are a few of these, but most of these don't stop to chat with other hikers, passing dozens of new faces everyday.

I tell her about seeing Linger's bright yellow shorts with jellyfish on them, how after having lunch together he caught up and flew past me up a steep hill, and who he was camping with last time I saw him. I enjoy meeting and talking with hikers and finding out who has interesting stories anyway, but it's also gratifying when this knowledge comes in handy with mutual friends.

Further up the trail I see Washer, a hiker I had stopped to chat with on my hiking journey with Jill. Washer is wearing a hard hat and doing trail maintenance with Bob Peoples and a crew of volunteers. Washer tells me that he was the only hiker at Kincora last night, and that after a full day of working he's planning on going back there tonight. I ask Bob how his vaccine recovery day went, and he says, "Oh, not too bad. A little sore." He tells me to pick up a pickaxe, only half joking, but having planned to hike close to Damascus today, I can't bring myself to stop longer than to take a few pictures.

It starts raining just as I get to the last spring before Damascus. Time Snake has already found a room at an inn in town and messages that I'm welcome to his couch. But I'd rather have my own space and brave the rain, the first rain test of the Portrait Palace Prototype.

Stopping short of town also gives me several hours of downtime by myself, a nearly non-existent luxury when hiking all day everyday. Even in downtime I find chores to do, though, washing my socks and sun gloves by the stream, rinsing them again and again in a gallon Ziploc until the water is only slightly brown.

~~~

The tent survives its first rain storm, with only a little pooling of water in the bathtub floor when the wind blows especially hard, wetting the mesh, which drips into the bathtub. I lay everything out in the early morning sun to try to start drying it before I pack up to head into town.

I have three main goals for Damascus: To resupply, not get sick, and not have a bad time. Having been twice before I know that it's not my favorite trail town, but I will be content to not have any more bad experiences.

The grocery store is still a half mile long walk from the trail, the gravel bike trail unpleasant under my minimalist, almost non-existent soles of my shoes. At the Food City pharmacy I put Time Snake on the waiting list for a Pfizer vaccine. The pharmacist asks me for the name, and I say, "Time Snake". She looks at me confused. "Uh, first name 'Time'," I say, and she shrugs and writes this down next to his phone number.

I walk back to the trail and pass through town as quickly as possible, not stopping anywhere else, wearing my mask the whole time. When I get out of town I breathe a sigh of relief, and get an appreciative text from Time Snake for the vaccine help, though he wasn't able to get one before he left.

He catches up to me not far out of town, telling me that the inn he stayed at wasn't supposed to be open for the season yet, but his brother had booked the room online, and so they honored the reservation, just Time Snake and the owner there.

I tell Time Snake that I'm planning to stop at Partnership Shelter for my birthday in 2 days. "Oh yeah," he says, "a Portrait Partnership birthday." We camp in a grove of trees, hoping to get some shelter from the wind, and I hear them creaking and knocking each other throughout the night.

~~~

In the morning I let Time Snake leave first again, content to have another day at a slower hiking pace. I'm soon in the Grayson Highlands, home of the famous ponies, where I meet Rebel, a hiker whose Confederate flag logo I've been seeing in the shelter logs. He is unmistakable with his Confederate flag adorned gear, and has a GoPro strapped to his Confederate flag headband, and a compact Sony camera on a small tripod sticking out of his shoulder pouch. I had hoped to meet him at some point to ask him if he knew why so many people found this offensive.

"Oh wow, is that a full-frame Sony mirrorless camera?!" he greets me. "It is," I say, taken aback, "a Sony A7C with a 24-105 lens." Rebel is hiking south for the day, but when he sees me he turns around to hike north with me for a bit so he can talk to me. I see that he has AT, PCT and CDT patches on his backpack, and when I ask him he acknowledges triple crowning, but brushes it off, still in awe of my camera. He is obsequiously friendly, rushing to brush the dust off my lens, offering to take my photo at the 500-mile marker that we cross.

He tells me of his own plan to buy a full frame Sony mirrorless camera. "I'm going to work long enough to save up $3,000," he says, "and then bet it all on Nadal to win the French Open. It's basically a sure thing. That should give me the $6,000 for an A7IV."

I am out of loss for words at having this sudden fan, with no idea of how to transition from receiving his fawning admiration to giving him my planned admonishment. Soon enough though he stops at a viewpoint, ready to turn around, and I leave him while he tells a local about how other hikers complained when he flew a drone up to them. "I told them it's a free country, man," he tells the local, and I shake my head with bewilderment as I walk away.

~~~

I spot an unattended Sawyer Squeeze filter attached to a bag lying by the side of the trail. There are lots of day hikers around, but a Sawyer Squeeze filter is a good indication of a brew hiker, or at least a section hiker, and so I ask around if it is anybody's. A few day hikers tell me that it's been there for awhile, so I decide to pick it up in hopes that I run into its northbound owner.

I spend the day asking all the thru-hikers I meet if they dropped their water filter, and several say that they saw the same filter on the ground, but none of them know who dropped it.

I've hiked till nearly sunset when I see a group of a dozen hikers gathered around a campfire. I have walked 25 miles by this point and am starting to get tired. I walk down to say hello, but the group seems intent on learning about a game they are about to play. Finally one of the hikers asks my name. "Portrait," I tell him. "Why?" he asks bluntly, his tone aggressive, and while I've been asked for the origin of my trail name many times, I've never been asked in a way that made me feel defensive before. I'm not sure how to respond so I say, softly, "I don't know..." "You don't know why you have your own name?" the hiker asks, scoffing incredulously. "Maybe it's because of my camera," I say, still softly, knowing that really it's because this is the name I have chosen to introduce myself with, part of my self-image projected out into the world. I am Portrait because it feels right, sounds right and this is who I want to be here. He turns away from me, having given up on more conversation.

"The hot dogs are up for grabs," somebody says, pointing to a bag on the ground, and I ask who brought them. It is a quiet hiker on the edge of the group. "Where'd you pack them in from?" I ask, and he tells me a few miles north. I wonder if he's a section hiker now, but the game instructions have begun, from the same hiker who questioned my name, and my conversation is cut short.

I roast a hot dog on a stick, my hunger stronger than my fear of noro. I wave the dog through the flames, hoping this will kill anything on the surface. I try talking quietly to the hiker next to me, but the same hiker from before interrupts -- "We're TRYING to play a game here," he tells me loudly. It is awkward being surrounded by new hikers I am not allowed to interact with, and I have a strong desire to leave this group, a stronger desire to never see them again. I eat the hot dog half-cooked, putting my pack back on and asking before I go if anyone dropped a Sawyer Squeeze water filter. Someone tells me that Icebreaker in the nearby shelter lost one, so I thank the hot dog provider and make my way to the shelter.

On my way I see Time Snake, cozy in his sleeping bag and tent. "I think I have a new least favorite hiker of the trail," I tell him, recounting the awkward interaction at the campfire.

As I walk up to the shelter I overhear one of the hikers saying, "...and I don't want to be out here that long without a filter." "You must be Icebreaker," I tell him. "I have a gift for you." He looks confused until I pull out the filter and hand it to him. "Thank you," he says, still seeming confused, but grateful. "How'd you know it was mine?" I tell him I've been asking everyone I've met for the last 12 miles, and someone at the campfire told me that it was his. I'd like to hang out and chat, the vibe of this group infinitely more pleasant than that at the campfire, but I can just see the red orb of the sun disappear below the horizon, and know I need to find a tent spot.

I find a mediocre tent spot not far from the fire ring, but feel compelled to hike on, into night if need be, to get further away. As the twilight fades I do my first night hiking of the trip. I recall how I like night hiking, the weather cool, no sun to worry about, but that tent spots are almost impossible to find by headlamp. Eventually I find a spot, two miles past the shelter and fire ring, and decide to cowboy camp for the first time this trip rather than set up my tent in the dark.

When I turn off my headlamp to pause and let things settle, the stars seem to leap into existence all at once and I'm reminded of the sensation of seeing glow in the dark stars appear on a ceiling for the first time, the surprise of watching them leap into existence as soon as the light switches off. The trail can still surprise me, I'm reminded, for better and for worse.

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