Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 17, Slowly Speeding Along

Start: May 11, Mile 719.4
End: May 13, Mile 797.8


It rains overnight and early in the morning, despite a clear forecast, and I'm glad that I didn't chance a cowboy camp like I had briefly considered.

I get an early start into town and am passed throughout the morning by hikers eager for Daleville. When I get there my first stop is the outfitter, where I attempt to exchange my now trail-washed Darn Tough socks. "We don't do that here, you can buy them, but you have to exchange them directly through Darn Tough," the woman tells me, something I've never heard before in my years of replacing Darn Tough socks.

I buy a Sawyer Squeeze Mini to tide me over until the replacement for my newly broken Steripen arrives, the replacement having been sent to Buena Vista, and then head to Krogers to resupply. I buy too much food, still not having dialed in my resupply skills, and head outside to a picnic table to repack it. I meet Frosty, who is performing the same chore. He looks familiar, and when he asks me if I'm vlogging with my big camera I realize that I watched his videos of hiking the Long Trail last year on YouTube.

His in-person persona is a tamer, amped down version of his YouTube one, and he tells me that he got into vlogging because he has memory issues from the military, and wants to be able to remember what the trails are like. As we repackage our food Frosty also realizes that he has too much, and as he sorts it into daily Ziplocs he offers the extras to me. Despite knowing that I will already have a heavy food bag, I have a hard time saying no to the Danishes and breakfast bars. When we finally seem to have finished packing it all up, he takes a king size package of Reese's eggs from his shoulder pouch. "Do you want this?" he asks, ready to toss it in the hiker box pile. I pout. "Yessss," I admit. As I accept it, I complain, "Why you got to dooooo this to me??" "Sorry, I'm just that kind of guy," Frosty tells me.

My pack is, in fact, impressively heavy when I put it on, even more so when I add two 20 oz. sodas from the gas station on my way out of town. When that trail the enters the woods I stop to take photos of the "1/3 of the way to Katahdin" sign, and meet Pistol and Lobo. I ask Lobo if he knows where Paper Clip is, the hiker who gave him the hang tag on his pack. "I think he's not too far behind," he tells me. "Nooooo," I say, disappointed to have passed him without meeting him. "Don't worry, they go fast, you'll see him soon," Lobo tells me. When I don't seem encouraged by this, he asks, "Why, you aren't one of those super fast hikers, are you?" "Maaaaybe," I admit, but Lobo laughs, not seeming to quite believe me.

My claim must seem even less credible when Lobo and Pistol hike pass me on the trail, easily outpacing me. I pass them again when Pistol stops for a bathroom break, though, and don't see them again until the next shelter. At the shelter I read a blog comment from Smatt and then find the email that confirms that official ATC hang tags are back, as of today, and will be at Harpers Ferry by May 27th. I share this news with Pistol and Lobo when they arrive, and they are excited for the prospect of official hang tags and an officially recognized hike. "As long as you don't get there too quickly," I tell them. "We'd have to go, what, more than 19 miles a day to reach there by then? Yeah, I don't think that'll be a problem," Lobo laughs.

Pistol and Lobo are staying at the shelter, and when I hike out, Pistol calls to me, "Enjoy the rest of your hike!", clearly placing her own bets on my speed. "I'll see you up there," I tell her. 

Further up the trail I see a young hiker by the name of Mac & Cheese sitting with a group of other hikers by a campfire. Mac & Cheese is retrieving an aluminum-wrapped bundle from the fire. "Maybe a little too toasty," she says, unwrapping the aluminum to reveal a hunk of partially blackened baguette encrusted with toasted cheese. "I found this piece of bread on the trail, sitting over there on the rock," she tells me. "So wait, you found a piece of abandoned bread and your first thought was, 'I wonder if I can melt cheese on this?' " I ask her. "Uh huh," she nods happily. "I love it," I say. When her friend offers me some raspberries, I decline, saying that I've had been on a strict no-noro diet. "I've had to pass up so much free trail bread," I say wistfully, shaking my head. "Ooh, I didn't even think of that," Mac & Cheese says. She looks down at the bread then shrugs, "I'm sure the fire killed most of the things anyway," and continues munching it down.

When it starts getting close to sunset I look for a camp spot, and the first one I see has one tent in it already but room for another. The hiker hanging his food bag, a man and his 60's, says I'm welcome to share the spot, so I pitch the Triple P in the waning light. He and his wife collectively go by Gone with the Wind, one of the few joints trail names I've heard used in place of singular ones. The other half of Gone with the Wind is in their tent already, and I make conversation with both of them while I set up camp. They tell me how their tent almost blew away while they were trying to dry it on one of the first days on trail, giving them a story and their name.

When I lie down I realize that the spot wasn't quite as good as it looked, having a noticeable side slope. I sleep poorly, trying not to slide off the pad each time I roll over, and wake up early. When I leave the man is up but his wife is still in the tent, and I say goodbye to both of them without ever seeing her.

The trail begins to crisscross the Blue Ridge Parkway, bringing views and trash cans, both welcome additions. I pass a dozen or so tents early in the morning, and then see Goodfellow and Smiles hiking south. "I wasn't expecting to see you here!" I tell them. They tell me they are slackpacking back to Daleville for the day.

Hamlet and Jackie pass me not long after, and I catch up with them at the next shelter for a mid-morning snack break. While we're eating a young fast hiker stops by, asking if we've seen his friends before speeding off. "Enjoy your hikes!" he calls to us as he leaves.

"My favorite is always the dawning realization that they're not passing you, you're passing them," I tell Jackie. In truth, it can be hard to tell. Because I tend to hike earlier in the morning and later in the evening than most hikers, I often pass them while they are in their tents, or in town. Since I hike slower per mile, a fast hiker who blows by me on the trail can be forgiven for a reasonably assuming that the reason they haven't seen me in the last 800 miles is because they are just now passing me, like most of the hikers they meet, when the reality is usually just the opposite, when I walk slowly by their tent again that evening.

If a hiker is fast enough and the timing works out, they might see me the next day, surprised that I am still around, and only if they ask my start date will they realize that I have usually started days or weeks after them. It can be entertaining to watch this realization and change in attitude, and I confess that, especially with the more boastful hikers, I enjoy delaying it as long as possible, silently letting them bluster about the big miles they've been pulling.

All four of us end up taking a break at the same time at the next shelter, a lovely elaborately designed shelter with multiple porches and an upstairs loft with windows. The others talk about their plans for Glasgow. I have my package at Buena Vista, only a few miles later, so am skipping Glasgow. The trail heads steeply uphill for a couple of miles after the shelter, and as I'm just starting to hike out I hear Jackie in the shelter sigh, "Ugh, this hill is going to suck." Having already started it, I call out, "Wheee, this hill is awesome!", and I hear her laugh. As soon as I say it, it's true, and I feel more energized than I have all day, like I have jetpacks on my sneakers pushing me up the hill.

The next shelter is off trail, so I skip it, and when I get to the shelter after that, I am surprised by the number of tents, more than 15 filling all of the reasonable spots, with several people in the shelter. As I stop by Hoot Owl recognizes me from town, having met me briefly in Daleville before I resupplied. He is clearly impressed to see me, having hiked the same miles that I did the past two days. He tells the rest of the shelter, "Hey guys this is Portrait, he's been crushing it! He started in April." I'm reminded by how big a difference there is from knowing no one ahead, to having met even one person once, one other person all it takes to break the anonymity.

Hoot Owl admires my pack and is eager to tell me a story of a fast hiker he met while hiking last year, and I try to be polite though I am more interested in finding a tent spot in the remaining daylight. I hike for another mile looking, and the spot that I find is mediocre, my standards dwindling with the daylight, but the soft loamy ground ends up being quite comfortable, even if the stakes don't hold very well.

~~~

In the morning I'm slowly stepping my way down the steep trail when I see a woman in her 70's climbing up with a dog, who steps off trail for me to pass. She is carrying a rake and clippers, and I thank her for the trail maintenance. A few minutes later I see another woman in her 70s carrying trail maintenance equipment. "Did you see a woman up ahead?", she asks me. I tell her that the woman with the dog is only a couple of minutes ahead. "Oh great, she started before me, and I was hoping to catch her." I tell her that she's almost there, so she must be crushing it. "Oh, I'm not crushing it, I'm huffing it," she says, but she looks pleased. "This is my survey question for the day," she asks me, "are you vaccinated?" "I am," I tell her, and she nods approvingly. I thank her for the trail work as I head back down the trail.

I stop for a break at the shelter before town, and several young fast hikers catch up. They are all annoyed by the older women that I met on the trail. "One of them asked me if I was vaccinated, I said no, and she said that there was a free clinic in town. I said, 'nah, I'm good,' and she asked me how I could say that I'm good. I just said 'have a nice day, lady' and took off." The other two are irritated that the women ask them to slow down so that they could have time to step off trail. " 'Stop, stop, I have to get off trail!' " one of them imitates. "Geez, if you're that worried about Covid then stay off the trail," he says, and the other agrees, "Crazy old women." I think back to my initial hiking experience this year, and hope that these women aren't as discouraged by their encounters as I was.

More hikers barrel past me as I near the road for Glasgow, hiking over the James River on the longest foot bridge on the AT. As soon as I pass the road, though, the trail quiets and I have it to myself for the afternoon. I amuse myself by doing a blind Skittles test, having seen a meme that they are all the same flavor with different colors. This hypothesis is easily rejected though, and I can consistently discern each of the flavors without looking.

When I reach the shelter there's only one other thru-hiker there, along with two section hikers. The thru-hiker reminds me that it's the first day of Trail Days, which helps explain some of the quiet. Since no one is in the shelter, I decide to set up there, my first shelter experience in a while.

I chat with the two section hikers, who are in their late 60s, and the man, Leprechaun, tells me that they met a couple of months ago on Our Time, a dating website for over-50s. The woman, Bucket List, had been planning this hike and several months of travel to follow, since before they met. After a successful first date, she told Leprechaun of her plans, and Leprechaun said that if she was going to be gone for the next several months then he should probably come along or they should call it quits. And though he had never backpacked before, a couple weeks of dating was enough for him to decide that he was in. Bucket List rubs his shoulders affectionately, telling me that this will be their first night in a tent together.

I am already asleep in the shelter when a group of new hikers rolls in after 10pm, and I find my ear plugs while one of them sets up in the shelter. He tries to be quiet, but I'm still annoyed that my solo shelter experience has been interrupted.

~~~

When I hiked in 2011, I deliberately placed myself in the heart of the bubble, and would not have wanted fewer people, the vibrant trail community and camaraderie being my favorite part of the experience. This year, having started at the same time and hiked a similar pace, I cannot wait for the crowds to thin out. I'm not entirely sure how much of this is because of Covid, a record number of hikers on the trail, the change in attitude of the hikers, or a change in me, but I take comfort in the knowledge that as long as I keep on hiking quickly, the trail will get quieter and quieter.

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