Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 18, Buenas Vistas

Start: May 14, Mile 797.8
End: May 14, Mile 823.2

I wake up at 5:45, having slept okay with my ear plugs in despite the company, and try to pack up as quietly as I can while the late shelter arrival sleeps.

The trail is quiet and I've only see one other hiker all morning when I reach a trail junction where the AT has been rerouted due to a broken bridge. I read in the guide that the river is still easily crossable and has a large swimming hole, so I step around the brush that has been dragged to cover the old trail and head down it. It has not been recently maintained, with blowdowns and overgrown brush and I can tell from the trail tread that it is not as frequently traveled as the main trail.

Half a mile down the old trail I round a bend and find myself face to face with a young woman wearing only her shorts. After a half second of mutual stunned surprise, she yelps and covers her breasts and I turn around and walk a few steps south. A few seconds later she calls out, "Okay you're safe now." I walk tentatively back towards her. "Sorry," I tell her, "I wasn't expecting to see anyone on the old trail." Just then her friend, another young woman, walks up the trail towards us. When she sees me, her eyes go wide and she bursts into a grin. "Oh, you didn't!" she tells me, and I nod to confirm my guilt.

Just up the trail I see a group of nine other hikers, eight young guys and one girl. "Well," one of the guys tells me, "I didn't hear any screaming so you probably didn't catch Explosion changing." "No, I totally did," I admit. "Sorry we're all standing around in our boxers," another hiker says. "Trust me," I say, "boxers are plenty covered up." Explosion and her friend, Dirty Pasta, walk back to rejoin the group. Dirty Pasta is laughing, "Oh man, that was too funny." Explosion is blushing. "Usually guys have to buy me dinner before they see my boobs," she tells me. 

The group has just resupplied at Glasgow, so don't need to go into Buena Vista, where I have my replacement Steripen waiting. I get to the road crossing to town and see a pickup truck with a camper bed, trailer, kayaks and Ontario plates. I chat with the driver, Pepe, a thin man in his 70s. After 15 minutes of conversation I mention that I'm trying to go into town, and he offers to drive me down.

When the group from the swimming hole shows up I tell Explosion, "I'm going into town, any dinner requests?" It takes her a second and then she smiles. "Chick-fil-A," she tells me, and I tell her I'll keep an eye out.

I talk with Pepe on the 9 mile drive down the mountain into town. He has been traveling for the last few years, since a few years after his wife died. He tells me about driving around the States and Mexico in his truck, and of hiking in Nepal. "Now those are some mountains," he says, whistling.

When we get to the post office I thank him for the ride, but he offers to stick around and take me to the Food Lion afterwards, 2 miles away, and then all the way back up to the trail. "I've got nowhere to be," he says. "That's how I live my life these days. If I can help someone out, I try to."

At the post office I pick up the box with my new Steripen, which the worker informs me arrived not long before I did. I tear open the box and throw away the packaging, hoping that this replacement lasts longer than the first.

Pepe drives me to the Food Lion, and I remember walking this highway 10 years ago, the long road walk between the grocery store and hotel. I try to resupply as quickly as I can, then throw away all the excess packaging in the trash can in the Food Lion parking lot. My phone informs me that the nearest Chick-fil-A is 25 miles away, buy I have Pepe stop at a Subway where I buy a 12-inch chicken sub.

On the drive back up to the trail I ask Pepe how he met his wife, and he tells me the story of how she was the maid of honor at his brother's engagement party, and he was the best man. "I didn't even notice her at first," he says, "but as soon as I saw her eyes," he whistles, "man, her eyes..."

"We had a good life together," he says. He tells me how she got sick suddenly one day, was dead a few days later from meningococcus. "It took me 7 years to accept that it was her time to go," he says, tears in his eyes.

I eat lunch with Pepe back at the parking lot by the trail, consuming half of the sub and a sizeable fraction of my new bag of Doritos. "Be well and stay safe," he calls out to me as I head up the trail.

I have two goals for the afternoon: to catch up with the group from the swimming hole, who have a 2-hour head start on me, and to reach somewhere with cell service by 5:15pm, when I have my second phone interview scheduled.

Both of these goals take precedence over my normal style of slower, more efficient hiking, and I charge up the steep trail from the road, enjoying this controlled but unsustainable burn of energy. I stop near the top of the climb to talk to Kodiak, from Alaska, who tells me that the group is only half an hour ahead of me. I take encouragement from this and continue racing along the trail, and 20 minutes later I can see them a half mile away, a line of small colorful dots climbing up the next hill.

I catch up to the group and pass them one by one, saying hi and chatting briefly until I get to Explosion. "They didn't have Chick-fil-A so I picked us up a chicken sub," I tell her, and she laughs. "Where are you camping tonight?" she asks. "I don't know, but you're welcome to take it now," I tell her. "I mean, technically it's half of a 12-in sub that I already ate half of, but it's yours if you want it." I turn my back to display the sub stuffed in my outer mesh pocket, and she retrieves it. "Wow, thanks," she says. "Now you have a narrative to tell yourself," I tell her, and continue hiking on, leaving her with the sandwich.

I stop to talk to a southbounder, who turns out has already hiked the PCT and is on a flip-flop hike, and Explosion passes me, hiking with Dirty Pasta. "Now I'll remember this sandwich forever," she tells me. "I hope so!" I tell her.

I catch up to her and Mountain Goat while they are taking a break. Mountain Goat is rubbing the bottoms of her feet, which she describes as feeling similarly to how mine out after the Smokies, the bottoms tight with an occasional pain along the top. "Are you sure you don't want me to massage them?" Explosion asks her. "Are you a massage therapist?" I ask her. "No," she says. "But she should be," Mountain Goat chimes in. "I'm just really good at sensing other people's pain," Explosion says. "Wow, apologies in advance for any unintentional transference," I joke, but fail to get the laugh.

Explosion tells me that she was working as a server, and attending college in Florida, studying general education. Mountain Goat tells me she was working in a law firm as a legal aid, and I tell them about my job interview in less than an hour, for which I still need to find reliable cell service.

I head up the trail in search of service, and when I find it I call my brother to test the quality, stepping 50 feet off the trail to make the call, and give the group a thumbs up as they pass. While I'm on the phone I see Dangeroso walk by, and am surprised to see him again.

Shortly after my call I catch up to him on a break, and I hike and chat with him for a few minutes. I ask him eagerly about the planning he did for the hike, and ask him how he picked the schedule. He shrugs, "just looked at a calendar." I ask him about Swami, one of the ten hikers to complete calendar year triple, and the strategies he used, but Dangeroso has never heard of him. As an obsessive planner, it's strange for me to interact with someone who is more of a doer. I learn that he started the AT slightly before me, skipping the approach trail and starting from Springer on April 1st, and he's been trying to hike bigger miles but has had to periodically slow down because of injuries. I say goodbye when I want to stop and chat with some hikers camped nearby, and wonder if I will see him again. For the sake of his endeavor, I hope that I won't.

Warthog and Squid catch up to me on the trail, and after letting them pass, I tuck in behind them and draft, letting them pull me along with their faster pace. I talk with Squid, and when I learn that she graduated with a dual degree in computer science and Spanish before her tour in the Peace Corps but isn't sure that she wants a computer job, I try to pitch her the idea. "The great thing about a career in computers," I tell her, "is that If you live cheaply it doesn't have to last for long before you can go off and do other, more fun things." But like most young people I've met, she would rather do fun things now, and is looking for a career that is as fulfilling and makes her feel as good as thru-hiking.

With the conversation and fast hiking pace we reach the shelter in what feels like no time, though it is already starting to get dark. Along with the 11 hikers from the swimming hole, there are more than a dozen other hikers here, and Warthog, Squid and I have to hunt for reasonable tent spots.

After I set up, I head over to the campfire, where the others have already finished their dinner and are starting to disperse. I walk over to Explosion, who is sitting next to Mountain Goat. "Did you get the job?" Mountain Goat asks me. "Well, I got a third interview!" I tell her. "What was it for again?" Explosion asks. I tell her the company and position. "Ooh, Mountain Goat was betting it with something big." Mountain Goat laughs, "He literally told us exactly what it was for when we were chatting on the trail."

Mountain Goat is struggling to finish her soup, a disappointingly bland and seemingly never ending concoction, and enlists the help of Explosion and the other nearby hikers in the task of consuming it. "I'm pretty sure this is how noro spreads," I tell them. "This is definitely how noro spreads," another hiker agrees, licking the shared spoon.

The group is planning on hiking 11 miles the next day, stopping for trail magic by Dirty Pasta's mother, Mama Pasta, and 10 miles to a Brewpub the day after. "Is the trail magic just for the 11?" another hiker asks. Explosion laughs, "Nothing we do is exclusive, that's why there are 11 of us." I am tempted to try to be number 12, at least for a little while, but I can't see myself stopping after 11 miles tomorrow, let alone making joint decisions with 11 other hikers.

I go to bed with a vague feeling of anticlimax. I'm not entirely sure what I had hoped to get out of the evening -- not a fairytale romance, but maybe another exclamation mark on a already satisfying story. Instead I feel the come down from the excitement of the day, and the anticipatory loss of likely not seeing any of them again; that familiar, self-inflicted isolation of hiking fast. Still, I have to acknowledge that it has been a good day, the type of day that makes me shake my head, smile and ask, "Oh AT, what do you have in store next?"


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