Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 14, Mountaintop Office
Start: May 4, Mile 558.4
End: May 6, Mile 633.6
Waitin' On snores loudly in the bunk room all night, having warned us he would -- "I'll buy you earplugs, man." I have my own pair but the sound cuts through them and I sleep lightly anyway knowing I have to get up early.
I wake up at 5:30, pack up by headlamp and leave before 6. As I'm leaving I see Penguin return from the privy. "Good luck!" she whispers.
I have a deadline, something I usually try to avoid -- 11.5 miles by 11:30am. Leaving at 6am should give me enough time, but I know the elevation won't be easy, the summit rising 2000 feet above the road. The trail rewards me with smooth, easy meadow walking on the last few miles up to the summit, though, and I arrive with 30 minutes to spare, enough time to eat lunch and research my interviewer.
On the way down from the summit an hour later I see Penguin, hiking south. "I thought you weren't going to slackpack today!" I say, surprised to see her. "Well, I wasn't going to, but after all that snoring last night I made a last minute sleep deprived decision." She's hiking from 27 miles ahead back to the hostel. I'm pleased because this means I might see her tomorrow. "How'd the interview go?" she asks. "Surprisingly well," I tell her. In addition to the phone call itself going well, the cell service was good, there were no other hikers at the shelter and the rain held off.
Not long after I see Penguin it starts to pour, sheets of rain visible as they blow across the trail, and then thunder and lightning. I see new rivers form in the trail, piles of leaves and pine needles carried along by the sudden deluge. The storm has mostly subsided when I see Time Snake hiking towards me wearing only his shorts, wet and clinging, a fanny pack and a small day pack. He's also slackpacking south, but doing a 30+ mile section. He stops to chat in the waning drizzle and with his shirt off I get to see his tattoos. "I decided to save the shirt," he says. He tells me about some of the hikers ahead that he met by hiking south. "I don't know though, I was getting some weird looks. And these are thru-hikers." "But then you put your shorts on and things were fine?" I joke. "Hey, this fanny pack covers at least 3/4 of my junk." Because Time Snake is doing a 30 mile day I may not see him until Pearisburg.
I stop for a snack at a shelter and see Circles sitting in her sleep clothes, looking ready for bed. She tells me that she was throwing up last night at the same shelter where I had my interview. "It was packed because of the rain and I had to share a bunk. I was barely able to make it all of the way out of the door before I puked." I scoot just a little further away from the shelter than I already was.
A few miles later I meet her bunkmate, who looks lost in thought. "I really hope I don't get sick," he says. "I think I feel fine? I don't want to be sick. I probably would be sick by now if I was going to get sick, right?"
With Time Snake ahead, I spend the day hiking by myself, in a gap between groups of hikers who bunched up because of the rain. I stop in at Trent's Grocery to buy some supplemental snacks -- not strictly necessary, but bonus food is a luxury I'm often willing to walk an extra mile for.
When I see a southbound hiker on the trail, I've been by myself almost the whole day. Her name is Capsaicin and she says she's a flip-flopper, starting in Harpers Ferry. "Oh cool," I say, "when did you start?" "April 1st," she tells me. "Nice, me too!" She groans. "Ugh, you're the first April start. Guess I'll have to start doing bigger miles." I ask her if she's planning on hiking north from Harpers Ferry when she flips and she nods. "Well, maybe I'll see you on the northern half of the trail then," I tell her. "I doubt it," she says, "you have two hundred miles on me." "You never know," I tell her. "I guess," she says.
I stop at the modestly named Dismal Falls for some photos and talk with Missing Person, who thru-hiked in 1993, has section hiked twice since, and worked as a ridge runner. He has the easy-going confidence, a take-it-as-it-comes attitude that I'm used to in many of the experienced hikers I know. I'm comfortable talking with him, and it reminds me of what it felt like talking with hikers back in 2011. I had assumed that the trail atmosphere would always be here, the culture intrinsic to the endeavor, but after my experiences hiking this year I'm not so sure anymore.
Hiking early in the morning I meet Sparky, another flip-flopper, who started from Harpers Ferry on April 3rd. I tell her she's not that far behind Capsaicin, and she sighs. "Yeah, I've been just behind her for days now." I tell her that she's only about 5 miles behind, and since she started two days later she'll probably see her soon. "I think the only way I'll catch her is if she stops somewhere," she says, shaking her head. Privately I wonder how Capsaicin will react to this later starter catching her.
I stop in at Wood's Hole, one of the more famous hostels on the trail. I visited but didn't stay in 2011, and as before the timing for staying is not ideal but I still want to check it out. I make my way down the road to the hostel where a young woman greets me and asks if she can help me get checked in. I tell her I'm just stopping by, and she says, "Okay, we just ask that you don't stay more than an hour. Things can get a bit hectic with too many hikers." I nod, though I only see a handful of other hikers, sitting in Adirondack chairs or lying sedately on the grass in the sun.
I see Mayday and Big Agnes sitting on the grass. "Portrait, come over," says Mayday. "We need more friends!" "I know the feeling," I tell her. "You should stay here," says Big Agnes, but having arrived at noon, I feel the need to get closer to town. The hostel has grown since I last visited, and even more than before feels like a hippie commune, with the organic vegetable garden and communal buildings with small, hand painted signs explaining the rules.
Big Agnes gets a call, leaving me and Mayday on the grass. Mayday says that she's getting off trail soon for a family vacation and then has a wedding to attend. She says that she, Big Agnes and Little Shoes got along great, but she realizes now that their group of three young women was a little insular, and since Little Shoes had to get off and Mayday herself is leaving, she wants to find Big Agnes a new tramly. "We were just talking fantasy tramlies -- I said Portrait and Penguin." "You must be doing a lot of 30 minute hiker interviews," I say. "Oh yeah, of course." " 'We regret to inform you...' " I joke. She laughs, says, " 'We received a lot of great applications this year. Best of luck in your hiking endeavors, and be sure to send us your Katahdin photo.' "
We agree how good it feels to do nothing after hiking for days. I share my theory that hiking is so enjoyable in large part because of all the things it forces you not to , consuming all of your waking hours with walking and daily chores so that you don't have time to do all the things you otherwise would, and that when you finally do get a break it's easier to enjoy it guilt free. "I know," say Mayday, "if I were back home I'd feel vaguely guilty and stressed about not doing anything in the middle of the day. I want to be one of those people that gets rid of my phone after this hike, get a flip phone."
I sit, talking and laughing with Mayday until I realize that an hour and a half has passed. I tell Mayday about my hour limit, and she tells me that probably no one will care, they just want an excuse to kick the rowdy visitors out. "Yeah, it's probably selectively enforced, but all it takes is that one snippy, passive aggressive comment and that's the main thing I'll remember about this part of the hike for the next 10 years. 'I know that *hiker time* is different, but I want you to be aware that you've been here for almost 2 hours, and we would appreciate it if you didn't take advantage of Neville's generous hospitality.' " "You? Yeah, you'd totally fixate on that. Me too, ten years later I'm surrounded by family and loved ones, but inside I'm just replaying that conversation."
I want to take a picture of Mayday and Big Agnes on the porch, where the lighting is good. Big Agnes is still talking to her friend on the phone, so I point to the camera and then her in question, but she holds up her index finger so I wait. In the meantime I take photos of Mayday and her new best friend, a small dog that has been roaming the hostel grounds. I finally decide not to press my luck any longer and wave goodbye, walking up the long road back to the trail.
I reach the last view before the trail descends into town and set up the Triple P. It's only 5:30, and I could easily walk into town, but as usual I prefer to stay just outside, at least in good weather. This gives me whole glorious hours by myself, and I start with a little foot care, trimming my toenails and washing my feet with my bandana.
Quest stops by, whom I've seen throughout the day as we've leapfrogged each other stopping at all of the various views and break spots. I tell him that he's welcome to set up next to me, and after surveying the nearby options he decides to take me up on the offer.
Quest is 19, unusually calm for his age, and tells me that he was raised Mennonite. He says that his older sister is coming out to hike the Pennsylvania portion of the trail with him next month, and I remember that I'm going to be getting a trail visitor of my own in not too long.
We are so close to town that we can literally look down at the restaurants 2000 feet below, but I'd rather be where I am, on top of the cliff, the noise of the city dulled to a faint murmur, with a sweeping view and the quiet company of a friendly hiker.