Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 9, Winter in Late April
Start: April 21, Mile 285.9
End: April 23, Mile 344.2
I wake up early, hoping to get moving and warm before the storm arrives, and though I don't finish packing up until after sunrise, only one of the 15 hikers in or around the shelter is stirring when I leave. I am bundled up in my insulated pants and jacket covered in my rain gear, ready for the rain, sleet and snow. It takes a few miles for my foot to loosen up, and I walk awkwardly until it does, hobbling quickly down the trail.
I see the storm before it hits, dark clouds on an already dark morning. I am hot hiking in all my layers, but the forecast calls for the temperature to drop throughout the day into the 20s. A light rain cools me down, and then the wind picks up and the rain turns to sleet.
I take a snack break at the first shelter, where TTT and Austin are huddled out of the wind. Triple T -- Trail to Table -- chats with me, but Austin is quiet. Finally he says, "This weather is taking me to a bad place. All I've been thinking about all morning is getting off the trail." TTT tries to keep his spirits up and I hike on before I get too cold.
Dog Bowl, whom I met the night before at the shelter, catches me on the trail and we hike together. The trees are coated in ice, and beside the trail are small piles of hail and snow. Icicles form on my beard, and the ends of Dog Bowl's curly hair is white with frost. We hike quickly to stay warm, slowing down on the steep, rocky sections that are starting to gather ice.
Dog Bowl is from Philadelphia, and recently spent time in Vermont, so as we hike through the icy landscape I attempt to convince Dog Bowl to get vaccinated in the next town. "I don't know, both sides are just so screwed up," he says. "I think we need both sides but I don't trust any of them. I want to get away from all that while I'm out here." I tell him that opting out of the vaccine is opting in to the virus -- he can't just say he'd like neither please. "I don't know, man. It was all so rushed." He remains unconvinced, and I'm surprised by how few of the hikers I've met have been excited about -- or even willing to accept -- the vaccines that are so readily available in the south, after witnessing the mad clamour for the limited supply in Massachusetts.
Dog Bowl stops at the next shelter, trying not to get too far ahead of his friends, and I take a two hour lunch break, sucked into conversation with Margo, who is cocooned in her sleeping bag in the shelter. Margo attended and then worked at a small liberal college in Portland, Maine before starting the trail, and talking with her makes me feel like I'm back in Northampton.
Eventually I move on, the freezing rain having let up. The sky begins to clear, but as I hike I pass through sections of the trail that got more of the ice storm earlier, the tree branches all covered in thick ice looking like a winter wonderland. I meet Bluegrass and hike with him for several miles. Bluegrass hiked the first half of the AT in 2016 before running out of money, and is back with more savings and a determination to get to Katahdin. With my foot I can barely keep up with his 4 mph pace, but manage to do so for the conversation and company.
He stops short of the shelter, having read that tent spots are limited, but I press on, deciding to chance it. When I arrive the last semi-flat spot has just been claimed, seven tents in the listed two tent spots. The shelter is empty, but the temperature is supposed to drop into the low 20s, so I sit on the edge of the shelter with my pack still on, undecided.
"Do you need us to move anything?" Julian asks, his pack the only thing in the otherwise empty shelter. "No, I'm just in that dazed and unproductive post hiking phase," I say. "Ah, I know it well," says Peacefoot, thin, in his 50s.
At the picnic table, Shire, in her 40s, is cooking dinner. She has an intelligent and oddly familiar looking face that I can't quite place, although that may just be my brain's excuse to keep looking. "How far have you come from today?" she asks me. When I give her the name of the shelter I can see her do the mental arithmetic and silently conclude that they will never see me again.
When Shire tells me that she lives in DC, I ask her what she does there. "I work on the Hill," she says. "Doing what?," I press on. She gives me the name of the department she works in. "Tell him your title," Peacefoot prompts her. "Senior Advisor to the Chairman," Shire admits, half embarrassed. "She's kind of a big deal," Peacefoot boasts. "She's our Director of Logistics."
I complement Peacefoot on the fire when he adds wood to it, and he tells me that it was Naomi who got it started. Naomi is young, short and thin, looking almost childlike until she talks, her voice confident and mature. She says that she had to get off trail when she got sick, not being able to keep food down, and skipped the Smokies when she got back so that she could regain her trail legs while her friends catch up. "Who were you hiking with?" I ask, taking a shot in the dark. "Well, there was a hiker named Amazon," she says. "And Soldier Boy? They're awesome!" I say. Naomi tells me how Soldier Boy wrote her a handwritten letter to cheer her up when she had to get off trail, and how much fun she had with him and Amazon, Outback and For Sure. I am jealous of her for traveling in their group, and tell her what a great time I had camping with them.
I decide to risk the shelter, it at least being well protected from the wind, though after I set up Naomi tells me that all of the comments in the guide talk about how terrible the mice are at this shelter. It's dark by now, so I figure I'll just have to take my chances with the cold and the mice together. I wear all of my clothes, putting my second pair of socks on over my first and wearing my facemask to keep my nose warm.
I can feel the cold through my sleeping pad as the temperature drops, and hear the mice through my earplugs. I wouldn't have thought that I slept at all if it weren't for the fact that I can remember my dreams, a series of short separate vivid scenes interrupted by my turning from side to side in my quilt, my legs tucked up to conserve warmth. In the morning the thermometer reads 27 degrees inside the shelter, though I overhear other tenters say that theirs read in the low 20s. My sleep system is, as I had hoped, just barely good enough, and I hope that this will have been the coldest night of the hike.
While I am packing up in the chilly morning, Shire emerges from her hammock, bundled up to make breakfast, her Jetboil stove on the picnic table in front of her. I ask her if I can take her picture and she glances away embarrassed, before saying, "Okay, should I be candid or posed?" I don't tell her that what I really want to capture now is the look that she just gave me, her eyes averted with a half smile as her face began to flush, just before she turned back to meet my eyes.
I start to hike while Shire is cooking breakfast and the others are just getting up. I hike still bundled in all of my clothes and it takes a few hours for the temperature to finally rise above freezing, my foot especially stiff in the cold.
When it does finally warm up, I stop for a long lunch break at the next shelter. I have finished eating and stretching in the shelter when Shire, Julian and Peacefoot show up. Shire gives me a half smile, surprised to see me. They each pull fresh fruit out of their pack, and when I admire it Shire tells me that I just missed some trail magic, from a woman who stopped to stock a cooler with fruit after I passed through. "The early bird misses the worm every time," I say, shaking my head. One of Peacefoot's clementines rolls off the picnic table onto the ground and I call, "Finders keepers!" as I rescue it, but when no one offers to share I return the fruit to Peacefoot's pile.
I ask Peacefoot questions about where's he's lived and traveled and he jokes that I'd be a good interrogator. "It works because you stay so calm. 'Where's the body? Where were you that night? You can talk to me,' " he jokes in a casual, relaxed tone.
I hike alone up and over Big Bald. The weather alternates between cold and windy and warm and sunny as the clouds roll in and out and the trail winds its way from one side of the mountain to another. I have to stop a half dozen times to put on and take off my puffy and rain jacket. While I'm hiking all bundled up I see a half dozen slackpackers, hiking south down from Big Bald while I climb slowly up. One of them is wearing nothing but a pair of boxer-brief underwear and a tiny day pack. He's trail running with a pair of trekking poles, grinning as he passes.
Big Bald offers panoramic views that would rival Max Patch if the weather were better. On the next mountain over I see a whole suburban development of dozens of houses. It's a strange look, the Appalachians dotted with houses -- I don't remember seeing it before, and wonder if it's new since 2011.
I arrive at the shelter with my pick of the plentiful tent spots this time, choosing the flattest one away from the shelter. When Shire, Peacefoot and Julian roll up an hour later Shire sets up her hammock and Julian sets up his tent a few feet away from mine. I ask Shire if she'll show me her hammock setup, and I study the design of the tarp, hammock and attachment systems, wondering how difficult they would be to reproduce.
I ask Peacefoot about the minimalist Luna sandals he wears and he mentions that he's already done a few thru-hikes in sandals like these. I learn that he triple crowned in the 90s, then re-hiked the AT and PCT a few years ago, this being his third AT hike. I press him for details about what the trails were like in the 90s, never having met anyone who hiked all three so long ago. "You're doing the thing," he tells me, laughing. He humors me, though, answering all of my questions. He tells me about the grizzly bear on the CDT that looked up from its foraging to stare him in the eye before putting it's head down and ignoring him, and how strange it was to rehike the AT in 2016 and see everyone using their smartphones. Eventually he heads off to bed I'm left with a head full of images of phoneless hiking trails.
It is supposed to be another cold night, but I hope my tent will add a few degrees of warmth. By the time I leave the campfire the thermometer on my pack already says 27 degrees. I teeter on the edge of sleep for most of the night, the tent temperature dropping down to 24. I have just started to dream when I hear Julian, only a few feet away, get out of his tent at 5am. When he's still moving around inside of his tent an hour later I give up on sleep and pack up so I can start hiking and warm up.
"You pack up so fast!," he tells me as I stuff my frost-covered tent and sling my pack over my shoulders. He tells me that he saw a UFO this morning when he got up to pee. "There was a bright green light that slowly moved across the sky," he says. "I've never seen anything like it."
In the cold my feet feel especially stiff, and I'm still hobbling four miles into the day, though I finally feel warm. The trail is mostly downhill the 17 miles into town Erwin, and with a full day of rain forecasted for tomorrow, everyone is hoping to push into town.
When I arrive at Uncle Johnny's Hostel in Erwin all the private rooms and bunks are full, only tent sites left. I decide to pay the $15 to set up my tent so that I can take a shower and socialize with the other hikers staying here. I also hope to be around to snag a bunk in the morning when they open up, first come first serve.
I take a long shower, my second of the trail, and wait in front of the hostel for the 4:30pm dinner shuttle to town. At 4:29 I see Shire leading Julian and Peacefoot down the mountain at a quick pace. I make sure the shuttle driver knows they're coming and walk over to greet them. "You made it in time! I'm glad you're here," I tell Shire as she speed walks toward the hostel. "What time did you arrive?" she asks me. "A couple of hours ago," I tell her. "Of course you did," she says, though really I just left before them and hiked almost the same pace.
There are enough hikers that the shuttle driver decides to make two runs anyway, giving Shire and crew time to situate while the rest of us head to the Mexican restaurant. Seven of us sit together at a large double table, and when Shire, Julian and Peacefoot arrive we've only just ordered but they sit at their own small table. I walk over to say hi and Julian tells me that he heard that there was a Space X launch from Florida at the same time as his UFO sighting.
I ask them if they're zeroing and Shire says that they booked a room for tomorrow at the Super 8. I tell them I haven't figured out where to stay yet, the town seemingly booked up on a rainy Friday night, and I am half-tempted to ask if they'd be interested in sharing the room with one more, but they don't offer and I don't ask. Back at the big group table Time Snake mentions seeing the same strange lights in the sky at the same time, and when Julian walks by I call him over so they can share their experience.
The shuttle driver decides she can fit all of us in the van for one return trip, so we cram in, all managing to find a seat. Time Snake is talking to a hiker about the PCT when he nods his head to me. "This guy is a legend," he tells the other hiker, tapping the back of my seat, "He's a triple." I see Peacefoot's attention caught by this, catch the look of surprise.
After we all exit the shuttle Peacefoot walks over to me. "So wait, what trails have you hiked?" he asks me. "AT, PCT, CDT," I tell him, before listing my smaller and aborted thru-hikes. He shakes his head, smiling. We talk the triple crown trails again, on a more even footing than the night before.
There is a range of discreetness with which former hikers advertise their hiking resumes on the trail, from regaling anyone who will listen to only admitting under direct questioning. By not offering up information of my triple crowning when Peacefoot mentioned his own hikes I was definitely straying farther toward the secretive end than I usually do, perhaps enjoying the role of enthusiastic interrogator too much, hiding behind my exuberance.
It is fun to swap stories, but strange to see the difference with which Peacefoot looks at me. I'm reminded of one of the reasons I suspect that repeat hikers so often hide their experience. It is easier to pretend, at least to ourselves, that we are still on that first transformative journey that nothing can ever quite touch.