Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 19, The Story of How They Met
Start: May 15, Mile 823.2
End: May 15, Mile 843.5
I get up before 6 and leave before any of the 20 other people in or around the shelter, wondering which if any of them I will see today.
I see two older hikers sitting in the trail, and squeeze between them to pass. "Sorry," the woman says. "No worries," I tell them, "the best seats are often right in the trail." When the man introduces himself as Stumpknocker, his wife says, "you may have heard of him," and I realize that I've met him before. "We camped together in 2011," I tell him, "just outside of Pearisburg." "Could be," he says, "I think I was on the trail that year." "We were camped with Tree Beard, the kid from Iowa who packed out two 16 oz steaks from Food Lion. He cooked one right on the fire, ate the whole thing and looked like he was going to be sick, but a half an hour later, he said 'I think I'll cook the second.' " "I remember that!" says Stumpknocker, bursting into a grin. "The food, as soon as you started talking about the food I remembered it. That kid sure taught me a thing or two," he says, smiling. "Ever since then, when I go out, well it's mostly on canoe trips now, but the first three nights out, before the ice in the cooler melts, I cook real town food."
Stumpknocker says that he's working on his second section hike. "I do things in twos," he says. "I did two northbound through hikes, then two southbound thru hikes, two flip-flop hikes, and one section hike so far. Next year is the 20th anniversary of my first thru-hike, and she keeps telling me I should get back out on the trail and do another thru. I remember that first hike vividly, the people I met. The rest, they all start to blur that first one is still clear."
Though I have not yet hiked half the trail this year, I can't help wonder if the same will be true for me as well, the people I met in the first 800 miles of my first hike etched just as vividly in my memory as the hikers I've met in the past few weeks.
I am too early at the road crossing for Mama Pasta's trail magic, but instead I am the first recipient of magic by Grits, a friend of Squid's who is here to surprise her. I stick around long enough to eat a hot dog, two slices of pineapple upside down cake, and drink a soda. I would like to be around to see Squid's surprise, but remember that while I was hiking with her last night, she said she often gets a late start, not hiking until around 9am. I leave the road with a full belly, not feeling bad about missing the other trail magic.
I can tell it is a weekend, as the trail near Priest Mountain is crawling with weekend hikers. I have to stop every minute or two to let the groups traveling southbound pass, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, college students and families. As I let one group of hikers pass, a woman tells me, "I met three other hikers today who look just like you!" I laugh -- if she had said one other hiker I might have wondered, but with three it's a clear case of all dirty bearded hikers looking the same to day hikers. "But seriously, didn't they?" she asks her friend.
The day is sunny and warm, the trail steep and rocky and the going is slow. I'm glad that, unlike most hikers, I try not to set my sights on a particular destination as I'm hiking, and so at least don't feel like I'm falling short of my expectations as I slowly work my way up the climb. After the epic 3,000 foot ascent, I take a break at one of the more scenic overlooks, and eat a big dinner. When I finish gorging myself I feel sick to my stomach, and hike in a nauseated daze. I feel slightly better after an impromptu cathole break, but still feel tired and queasy.
I get to the shelter, make a bee line for the privy, and decide that I literally do not have the stomach for any more hiking today. I set up my tent up the trail away from the shelter for a little privacy, and then head back to the shelter to socialize. I meet White Walker, the other Alaskan the Kodiak told me about, and Wubba, her trail romance, both in their 30s. White Walker and Wubba are openly affectionate, touching and kissing each other at any opportunity, still in the glowing phase of a new relationship.
I take off my socks and shoes to do my little foot maintenance, cleaning between my toes and underneath my toenails, and White Walker surreptitiously photographs me with her iPhone. My instinct is to be annoyed, since I try to be diligent about asking permission to take photos myself, but then I figure I would have given permission anyway, so I let her shoot away, trying to act natural for the camera. When White Walker tells me that she likes to capture the candid moments of camp, I agree that those shots are often the best.
I ask White Walker and Wubba if they met on the trail, and they confirm that they did. I tell them that I met my ex, Castle, early on the PCT, and we hiked the rest of the PCT and then CDT together before living together for the next four years. "Where is Castle now?" asks Wubba. "That's a good question," I say, "I wonder that sometimes."
I ask White Walker and Wubba for the story that they tell about how they met. "Both stories, actually," I tell them. "You mean the story we tell and the real one?" Wubba asks. "No," I say, "I mean each of your-not-quite real stories."
Wubba starts, launching into a gloriously fantastical account of their meeting. "White Walker was cursed by an evil sorceress to be injured as she walked until she found the greatest fool in the land." They hold hands as Wubba spins his tale and gesticulates with his free hand. I am suddenly grateful for White Walker's candid photographing of me, because it gives me tacit permission to photograph the couple without interrupting the story. "We got to the Station at 19E and I hit on her hard for a solid day, but she didn't even notice," Wubba says, and White Walker blushes at the memory. "Our first official date was at Angel's Rest in Pearisburg," Wubba says, "where we watched a movie we both liked on the grass." "What movie?", I interrupt the story to ask. "Mars Attacks," White Walker says, grinning. "We didn't even make it through the movie," Wubba says turning to White Walker and kissing her. "I think mostly we just talked," White Walker says. "And I didn't want to leave, so I slept out on the grass and got soaked by condensation in the morning," Wubba says, laughing. "And now she's stuck with me," Wubba concludes, kissing White Walker's clasped hand.
"Now I want to hear your version," I tell White Walker, but she looks into Wubba's eyes and says, "No, I think you did a good job," smiling and patting his hand. Wubba gets up to tend to the dwindling fire, and I talk with White Walker.
She tells me that she worked as a emergency vet technician in Alaska, and had her own dog walking business, and that Wubba quit his job as a lawyer for the hike. "Is the smoke getting in your eyes?" she asks and I shake my head. "No, just sad," I whisper. "Should we sit down?" she asks gently, and I nod, and she leads me to the edge of the shelter. She sits next to me and puts her arm around me, rubbing my back through my puffy coat. "You miss Castle?" She asks. "Yes," I say, "and I miss the feeling of meeting and hiking together. It's been a while since I've seen a new trail couple." I tell her that there's something special about that energy when the excitement of an adventure and the excitement of a new romance combine. "Yes, it is special," she says, and even in her concern her face glows, the radiant compassion of someone upon whom fate has bestowed great joy, at least for the time being, and who is more than willing to share.
Wubba comes back from tending the fire, and sits on White Walker's other side. We talk about hiking, and I tell them that they should hike the PCT together, and that there have been few things that I've enjoyed more. When Wubba gets up to start getting ready for bed, he kisses White Walker on the mouth. "Portrait?" he says, puckering up and leaning over for a kiss, then laughs. "No? Too soon?" I laugh, "Too soon," I agree, and I'm charmed by the way he has subtly acknowledged this unexpected emotional intimacy that I have shared with his girlfriend.
I get up to get ready for bed also, and I repeat my suggestion to White Walker that they can always go hiking again. White Walker tells me that she has a career in a business to go back to back in Alaska, and that she doesn't know what Wubba will do. She looks unconcerned as she says this though, that future perhaps still an unfathomable distance away.
I feel drained by the day, and I retreat to the quiet solitude of my tent, out of earshot from the shelter. I had read that there are more Star Link satellites being launched tonight, and had wanted to try to watch them, but when I reach my tent I realize that all I want to do is sleep, and as soon as I lie down I slip into unconsciousness.