Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 8, Hot Springs NC
Start: April 18, Mile 239.8
End: April 20, Mile 285.9
In the morning my left foot still hurts and I hike with a noticeable limp. It is awkward but not very painful, so I try to take each step gingerly and figure I'll see how it goes. Less than a mile from my magical jungle camp I run into a table with trail magic -- moon pies, mini candy bars and other snacks -- courtesy of a man wearing a magician's hat. I eat a package of mini chocolate donuts, and chat with Cajun, a hiker I leapfrogged with in the Smokies and another hiker I had only met briefly, Smokey Bear.
Smokey Bear is middle-aged, with a big white beard, a bit of a pot belly and a huge grin. Cajun is also middle-aged but taller and leaner, with a short grey beard. "They call me Smokey Bear because I smoke a lot of weed and I sorta look like a bear," Smokey Bear says. "A girl came up and gave me this sticker and my name," he says, showing a sticker of Smokey the Bear. Cajun doesn't speak much, but has a thick Louisiana accent when he does, and wears a purple LSU cap. The hikers he passes with his long strides tend to just call him LSU.
"I'm so happy I found a hiking partner!" says Smokey Bear, grinning at Cajun. "I hope I can keep up." "Shoot, I don't do too many miles," Cajun says bashfully. I laugh at this. "Weren't you pushing high teens every day I saw you in the Smokies?" I remind him. "Well, gotta rest my feet now," he says, looking down at them. I silently wish their budding trail bromance well.
Cajun and Smokey Bear are going into town and I walk with them as the trail goes under I-40. "I can't believe I'm finally hiking the AT!" gushes Smokey Bear. "All those years watching YouTube videos and reading blogs and now I'm here. This is my dream and I'm doing it!" His face beams. "I ain't never done nothing in my whole life. This is the biggest thing. Just think, you hike the AT and you got that forever. You have a bad day, you think, shoot, I hiked the whole AT and whatever it is don't matter."
I want to tell him that as wonderful a feeling it is to complete the trail, it can't compete with the starry eyed excitement he's feeling now. And maybe it's generally true that gratification can't compete with anticipation, or maybe it's just that in retrospect it's easier to feel nostalgia for the long passed anticipation than the gratification whose faint glow still lingers. Regardless, I envy Smokey Bear more than any other hiker I've met this year, and wave goodbye to him and Cajun as they walk up the highway ramp to try their luck at interstate hitchhiking.
I walk a quarter mile off trail to visit the Standing Bear Hostel, limping even more noticeably on the gravel road than I do on the trail. It is morning and I have no plans to stay, but after skipping the famous hostel on my last hike, I want to see what it's like while I'm here. There are more than fifty hikers in and around the hostel, sitting at picnic tables, milling about or tenting nearby.
I put on my face mask and can see the wake of my social disruption in the unmasked faces of the hikers and staff. The hostel runs a small resupply store with hiker snacks, a one room shop in a small wooden shack. There are jars and drawers crammed in filled with a selection of individual candy bars and Pop-Tarts, Knorr sides and individual Ziploc bags. It reminds me of an old general store from the 1800's, and I expect to find bolts of muslin and barrels of sugar as I poke around, selecting my snacks.
As I'm carrying my selection outside to purchase, I see Time Snake, who is just leaving. He stops to say hi before taking off, speeding down the road back to the trail.
I hike up and over Max Patch, the most famous bald-topped mountain on the trail and one of the best views of the entire AT. I take a break on top and consider camping there, but in the cool steady wind I am quickly chilled and decide that the sunset and sunrise view aren't worth a challenging night's sleep.
At the shelter a few miles away I see Time Snake again and Billy, a hiker in his 60s who thru-hiked the AT in 2016 and 700 miles of the PCT in 2019. With the three of us eating dinner at a picnic table we can talk openly about our AT hikes without feeling like we are showing off to each other. We talk about the hostels we liked along the trail and tell stories of our encounters with the trail angels and hostel proprietors we all know.
When two other hikers in their 40s join us, an experienced bike-tourer out for a section hike and another thru-hiker, I realize that this is also the first time I've been in a group of hikers this big where everyone is at least 30 years old. Whether it's the age or experience level, I feel more relaxed than I have for most of the trail, and the contrast makes me recognize the feeling of not quite fitting in that I've felt all trip, hiking around predominantly inexperienced hikers in their mid-twenties. Sitting with Billy and Time Snake reminds me of the feeling of hanging out with hikers near the end of a trail, when everyone has become seasoned by the journey, with two thousand plus miles of shared experiences to tell stories about.
"It's what, 30-something miles to Hot Springs?" Billy asks. "It's only 18 from here," I correct him, "you must have been looking at the mileage from the last hostel." Billy has a B&B reservation three days away, and this mileage miscalculation means that he needs to hike two short days to avoid arriving early, camping just out of town on the second night so he can hike in on the morning of the third. "Decisions... Do I hike 10 miles tomorrow and then 5 miles the next day, or 5 miles and then 10?" he asks.
"Well, I'm going to bed," I tell him, heading off for my tent. "If you leave before me in the morning I'll know you're gunning for the 10."
Hot Springs is only 18 miles away and, unlike Billy, I have no reservations to encourage me to wait. However, I decide to stop short at the shelter before town anyway. Partly this is to save money, the shelter being free, and partly this is to avoid having to deal with the hassle and stress of trying to make reservations or last-minute plans in a popular trail town at peak season when other hikers have already filled most if not all available spots. It is also, in part, to keep alive my streak of not having stayed in a town yet this trip. There is a feeling of disconnection from the trail that comes from entering the town world and sleeping indoors, and I am curious how long I can comfortably forgo this, staying immersed in the wilderness hiking experience.
Quadro catches up to me as I'm gingerly navigating a downhill. "You take each step so carefully!" he says. "Me, I just barrel down." Despite these differences in hiking styles I hike with Quadro on his way into town, eager for some hiking company after having hiked alone for days. Quadro hikes fast, looking forward to town, but I can keep up with him if I concentrate, matching three of my careful steps to each two of his strides.
I ask him about what he eats off-trail and we spend the next two hours talking through his meal routine, from the butcher and organic market he shops at to the style of preparation -- he cooks three meals at a time, eating the first fresh and the next two reheated. It is a true hiker conversation in that it is about food and is extremely in-depth, hiking being one of the few scenarios where time is seemingly limitless, so long as both parties are moving.
As we're nearing the final shelter before town, I give Quadro unsolicited financial advice, as I had with Tex, extolling the virtues of Roth IRA accounts. Quadro has a degree in accounting and works as an auditor but is skeptical. "I'd probably be more open minded if I weren't so hungry for lunch," he says. "When I get hungry I get stuck in my ways." We stop for lunch at the shelter, and then Quadro hurries down into town while I stay to relax for the rest of the day.
I've noticed that experienced hikers are more willing to delay or forego the comforts of town, while the newer hikers find the allure of reaching town hard to resist, pushing to reach town toward the end of the day rather than holding back, sleeping for free on the trail and arriving in the morning. I'm not surprised when the large group of hikers who stayed on Max Patch all pass the shelter, heading into town.
Billy, not being able to bring himself to hike either a 5 or 10 mile day, hikes the 15 miles to the same shelter as me. "I can always zero here tomorrow," he says unconvincingly. While stopping short makes sense, zeroing just outside of town without having gone in yet would take great restraint for any hiker.
I change into my rain gear and wash my shirt and pants in a gallon Ziploc bag with water from the stream. I have no soap so it's really just a rinse, shaking and squishing the bag until the water looks brown before wringing the clothes out and hanging them in the sun. It's the first time this trip I've washed my clothes, and it succeeds in cutting down the noticeable smell. The washing is easy but the drying takes a long time, and eventually I put them back on damp, which feels clammy and cold but succeeds at drying them before nightfall.
I head into town early, dreaming of fresh cinnamon rolls, and am unsurprised to see Billy join me, taking his chances with finding lodging for the night before his reservations tomorrow. We walk straight for the diner, only to find it dark, doors locked despite the sign advertising 6am opening.
We find a few other hikers milling outside the Hillbilly Market, and they tell us that the diner is closed all day today for grill renovations. I buy a small but cheap breakfast biscuit at the Hillbilly, but craving cinnamon rolls, I find all the available town food surprisingly unsatisfying. Roots and Dandi are attempting to arrange a ride into Asheville, North Carolina, to celebrate Roots' birthday. "It's your birthday?" I ask. "Happy birthday." "Well, it was a few days ago," he says. "The 16th." "Wow, I would have guessed older," I joke. "Yeah," Dandi says, "I like them young."
I feel no desire to stay in Hot Springs, though I know it might do my foot good. Jockeying for a bunk or room in a town overflowing with hikers just sounds stressful to me, and the remaining options expensive, if there even are any. I am tempted, however, to try to get in on Roots' and Dandi's shuttle, escaping to Asheville where the room availability is not dictated by hikers. But I don't know them well enough to feel like I can hang out with them on their birthday trip for the next two days, and loath to get so far away from the trail, becoming dependent on a shuttle to return, and am still compelled to move forward. I vacillate indecisively between my plans. I text Time Snake asking where he's staying, but when he doesn't answer -- cell service is spotty in town -- and Roots and Dandi get a ride while I'm in the Post Office mailing back my pot and stove -- a short-lived experiment -- I decide to take the remaining option and hike on.
I buy too much food from the Dollar General and with a full Gatorade my pack weighs 20+ lbs, more than it has yet, as I hike up the steep climb out of town. "You were smarter," I tell two day hikers, a young couple with nearly empty day packs, as I stop to catch my breath. "Your packs are much lighter."
It is a long slow hike out of Hot Springs, but with every hiker I've met still in town or before it, I find it easier to let go of any sense of urgency. Another nice thing about passing everyone who knows me is that I become anonymous, no one having either met me or even met anyone who's met me. I can become whoever I want, and when I approach the crowded shelter with the fire already going, I decide that I will be more like Springer Mountain Portrait, sans face mask.
Whether because of this intention, or just the natural warmth of the group, I feel immediately welcomed by this group of 15 plus strangers. I ask all of their names, making an effort to remember but laughing and telling them that I'm sure I'll ask again in a few seconds. "Portrait? " Hook asks, offering me a glass pipe, and I remember that today is 4/20, the large group well into their celebration.
I tell them that I saw four bears a few miles from the shelter, a mother and four cubs, and they tell me that those must be the same bears that attacked one of their food bags the night before, ripping it from its bear hang. Saint shows me his bag, repaired with duct tape, the words "Fuck you bears!" scrawled in sharpie.
I sit by the fire next to Ball Sack, in her early 30s, with hair in a tightly braided bun and an intense stare. "Will you teach me how to roll a joint?" Koozie asks her. She takes a drag on her own, waiting until she exhales before answering, "Can't we just appreciate this fine specimen I've already made?" "Oh come on, it's 4/20!" the other hikers admonish her. "Okay fine, but give me a few minutes, I want to enjoy this first." She takes her time, slowly finishing the joint before turning to her pupil. She carefully instructs him on each step of the process, even showing him how to add a filter. When Koozie finishes, she nods approvingly. "That's not the worst-looking joint I've ever seen," she says, and they pass it around to admire.
As the evening light fades, I offer to take a group portrait of anyone who's interested, and everyone enthusiastically gathers around the fire, leaning in, their arms around each other, smiling. It is the most friendly and welcoming group I have met this year, and if I still feel like I don't belong, then it says more about me than them. It is a good night on the AT, the type that makes me think that making friends with new hikers everyday might not be such a bad life after all.