Bad luck and good times on the Appalachian Trail

Darius, Chris and Jeff walking hard
We’re marching in the rain, single file along a wide mountain ridge. The sky flashes and a peal of thunder rolls above us. The ground’s getting muddy and my shoes are soaked through. My fancy rain jacket keeps the top half of me dry but not warm. You don’t remember how cold rain can be when you pack your rain jacket for a trip like this. You assume staying dry equals staying warm. Nope, I’m cold to the bone. My shorts are dripping and the handles of my trekking poles are spongy wet. The only way to get warm is to keep walking. And what else would I be doing? I’m on the Appalachian Trail.

The Appalachian Trail: the East Coast’s own icon of adventure and wilderness, your ticket to freedom and the majestic beauty of the natural world. Plus a few highways here and there, but you probably don’t even see them in the summer when the flora is in full bloom. This is the great outdoors. Over 2,000 miles of it, if you’re willing to walk the whole thing in one shot, from Georgia to Maine. It takes a person a good four to six months to hike it all straight through. It’s looking like it’s gonna take me a lifetime or two.

From time to time I adjust how the straps of my thirty pound backpack sit on my shoulders. That backpack, a loaner from a friend, is my whole world this week. Besides that all I’ve got is the clothes I’m wearing, a waistpack (it must not be called a fanny pack), and the ever faithful trekking poles. Well, that’s not true. I’ve also got three compadres to share this whole adventure with.

Leading the pack this rain-drenched Wednesday morning is Chris, trail named Scott. Funny story. We ran into a guy named David our first morning, then we met him again while eating lunch, or rather he met us. We had given him our names that morning and he went down the line calling each of us by name, until he got to Chris. Instead of Chris, he called him Scott. It became an instant inside joke as so many things do when you’re out in the woods with friends for a few days with no television.

Chris has been on this Appalachian Trail more than the rest of us. This will be his fourth time. He’s also quit the Trail early more than the rest of us. This will be his fourth time. Chris is energetic, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Which is good, because none of the rest of us are any of those things. His favorite phrase during conversations with the trail folk we meet: ‘Well, and you know how it is, ….’

Next in line is Darius, possibly the most reluctant man to ever step foot upon the AT. He is our – and evidently the rest of the Appalachian Trail’s – token black man. Darius’s trail name is Chocolate Thunder. If you can believe it, that name was not his choice. He is here because he carelessly said he would go with us if we ever went again, fully expecting us to give up after the last trip Chris and I took together in 2009.

What you need to know about Darius, besides the fact that using the woods as a bathroom is as close to hell on earth as he ever cares to get (before he hiked Kelly Knob of course), is that he is one of the most likable people I have ever met. DK knows how to make good conversations happen, no matter who he’s talking to. One of his many gifts.

I am third in line. I have no trail name, because no trail name can adequately express my sheer awesomeness. Mostly I am called are you seriously eating again? This is my third time on the Appalachian Trail and I consider myself, along with Chris, to be co-founder of this bi-annual ritual, even though I couldn’t make the second trip in 2007.

Last in line is Jeff, who is last because he does not like to be followed closely, which all the rest of us have a bad habit of doing. Jeff is that curious variety of walking contradiction, the analytical adventurer. This is only my second time meeting him and like Darius, it is also his first time on the Trail. Unlike Darius, he couldn’t be more excited about the whole experience.

Jeff was the smartest of us because he was able to borrow almost all of his gear from friends and coworkers. It’s probably because he works in finances. Working with giant sums of money in every kind of currency probably keeps him financially grounded in his own life so he doesn’t spend similarly giant sums of money on the kinds of things no one ever needs to have in their normal day to day lives. He would probably make an excellent money launderer if he were inclined to lead a more criminal lifestyle. As it is he uses his powers to do good, helping one of the largest Christian organizations in the world to keep tabs on the dollars, cents, pesos and rupees that fund hundreds, if not thousands, of humanitarian projects around the world.

We got on the Trail early-ish on Monday morning after getting into Hiawassee, Georgia on Sunday afternoon and eating Zaxby’s for lunch and Subway for dinner. We stayed at the Hiawassee Inn which caters to hikers and bikers (motor, not pedal) and they have a free shuttle service that dropped us off at Unicoi Gap, which is where Chris and I left off last time.

I don’t know if I mentioned this, but we are trying to do the whole Trail in sections. They call people like us section-hikers. The people who do the whole thing at once, they call thru-hikers. And yes, you are supposed to spell it T-H-R-U. It’s a hiking thing. You wouldn’t understand. Anyways, this is our third or fourth time out, depending on how you count it up, and we are still in Georgia. That’s why I said earlier it’s gonna take me a lifetime or more to finish.

So what’s the first thing you do when starting a five-day hike on the AT? That’s right. You take group photos. And so we did. Fortunately a guy named Josh showed up looking thoroughly beat, like the Trail had eaten him, chewed him up for a while, partially digested him, then vomited him onto a state highway which he walked across to get to us. He could see we were trying to take a group shot and he offered to take it for us. We stood shoulder to shoulder in front of a giant rock, looking clean and shiny, grinning from ear to ear. ‘You guys are just starting today, aren’t you,’ he sort of asked, sort of stated.

In an ironic twist of fate, we saw Josh again our last day, he coming back to the Trail full of blueberry pancakes and all-you-can-eat buffet calories, freshly showered, laundered, and bed-rested, looking nothing like his former self, and us now looking the partially digested and vomited ones. ‘I saw you guys a few days ago, didn’t I,’ he sort of asked, sort of stated.

The Trail north from Unicoi Gap goes nothing but steeply up. Switchbacks as far as the eye can see. We were all out of breath inside of ten minutes. They say it takes three to four weeks to get your ‘trail legs’, which sounds like a really awful venereal disease, but Chris and I have never been on the Trail longer than four days. So, for better or worse, we have no idea what it feels like to have trail legs.

By the time we got to Tray Mountain Shelter around four thirty in the afternoon that first day, we were wrecked. We stopped at the first empty campsite, dropped our crap and fell on the ground in heaps. We eventually went and filtered and refilled our water bottles and bags (called bladders – gross), set up our two two-person tents, cooked up some ‘just add boiling water’ dinners, put our remaining food in bear bags, which we strung up from a line hanging close to the shelter and far from our tents, made a fire and meandered over to check out the spectacular evening view from a nearby rocky outlook.

There’s no way to describe how your body feels after a day like that. You wake up the next morning and put that same thirty pounds on your back to do it all over again. You’ve probably experienced something similar enough to sympathize. As soon as the backpack goes back on it’s like you never took it off. All the soreness you thought you had recovered from over the last sixteen hours is right where you left it the day before.

We made a choice the second day. Chris and I had come to realize after our first two trips together that pushing ourselves to do ten miles a day or more, especially in that Northwest Georgia section, is just pure masochism. So we decided on this trip to plan shorter, more relaxed days, which he and Jeff had calculated ahead of time. On the second day we had a choice between a four mile day to Addis Gap or an eight mile day to Deep Gap Shelter, which would mean going up Kelly Knob (also known as Double Spring Knob, also known as why the hell am I doing this?), climbing just shy of 1,000 feet in one mile with no switchbacks to take the edge off.

Because we felt brave, and we would have been bored otherwise, we opted for the eight mile option. I won’t go into the play-by-play, but basically it was a few hours of trudging from shady spot to shady spot, about twenty or thirty feet at each go, spending as much time catching breath as actual walking. Except for me. I was eating while they were catching their breath. What? I have a quick metabolism.

We had one break about two-thirds of the way up when one of our number – I won’t say who because it feels like a breech of the unspoken trail code – decided it was time to take care of some business. He put down his pack, grabbed a bright orange trowel and a smashed up roll of toilet paper, and marched off into the brush like a man. As far as I know that was the only time any of us went number two in the actual raw, natural, woodsman way. Our campsites all hid privies this trip, which were basically outhouses set out from the campsite a bit where a toilet seat was attached to a shelf of wood with a hole in it, about five feet off the ground underneath. You throw in a handful of mulch after you are done and it keeps it from being awful.

When we finally arrived at camp later on, after coming down the equally steep backside of Kelly Knob, we were able to get a little cell service. We checked the weather, which reported rain starting that night continuing off and on for the next three days. The rest of our trip. We did our best to prepare for bad weather and went to sleep.

Side story: that night, Chris noticed a mouse crawling on his tent. I can’t remember the details, but he woke up in the morning to find mouse droppings in his boot. It would have been a nice boot to sleep in, warm and cozy after being hiked in all day. I think there may have been some kind of food in it too, a Snickers bar or something, before the mouse ate it.

Other than mouse droppings, we woke up to dark skies, but no rain. That’s promising, I thought. Jeff cooked himself some instant oatmeal, which he had been looking very forward to. Then as we were packing up to head out, the rains came. We ran over to the shelter to finish packing under cover.

The shelters on the Trail in Georgia are like big backyard sheds. They’re nice because you don’t have to set up a tent, but as long as we are on the topic of mice, they have a bad reputation for mouse infestation and, as Bill Bryson points out in his authoritative work on the AT, A Walk in the Woods, you could die just from breathing in the same place where mice have left feces behind.

By the time we were ready to go the rain had tapered off some. Like many AT campsites, Deep Gap Shelter is a little bit off the actual AT on a side trail. There was a stream on the way back to the main trail, so we stopped to fill up our water. It was still raining, but only drizzling. We finished up and started back towards the Trail and that’s when the bottom dropped out.

This brings us back to where our story started. Wednesday morning and soaked.

Despite the weather and the cold (I’m a big wuss when it comes to cold, so I may just be speaking for myself on that point), the hike that day was easy. Really nice. And beautiful too. Even with the rain, or maybe because of it. It began to let off after the first couple hours and by the time we came out at Dick’s Creek Gap, it had mostly cleared up. The gap was at an intersection between the Trail and a main road, U.S. 76, so we crossed the road and were met by a large middle-aged man standing next to a red pickup with a makeshift fence built around the bed of it. He kept telling us how we needed to get to town, how there were great all-you-can-eat restaurants and finger-licking good barbeque joints and motel rooms with warm showers. He was like an evil seductive temptress, but a really unattractive man version who was too scary to be tempting. He was charging five bucks a head for rides into town.

So far there have been pull-offs at most of these places where the Trail crosses a main road and this one had a big sign and picnic tables, so we walked up to a table and set our stuff down. Chris checked the weather again on his iPhone and we waited to hear our collective fate. It would be clear for the afternoon, the iPhone told us, but it would start raining again that night and into tomorrow and probably Friday as well.

If we kept going, there would be no other place to get a ride to our car. We would have no choice but to hike the rest of the sixteen miles to where it was parked at Deep Gap – another Deep Gap – in North Carolina. At present, we were nine miles from the Georgia / North Carolina border, my personal goal for the trip.

We took a vote. It was a split. Two wanted to continue, come hell or high water, and two wanted to call it a trip and quit while we were ahead. Darius referred us to the Code of the Trail, as laid down by the hikers Morgan and Bartholomew, which explicitly states that any tie goes to the man with the keys to the 4Runner. He could also have cited to us an ancient proverb I heard a few weeks later at church, ‘The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.’ Either way, the decision was made; we were going home.

Well, there was still that minor issue of getting to our car. Not long after the guy in the red truck left, a mother and daughter pulled up in a small SUV and dropped off three hikers. They stood outside the car chatting, so we took the opportunity and rushed over to ask a huge favor. They happily agreed to take two of us to our vehicle in North Carolina (not a quick trip) while the other two stayed behind with the gear. Thank you again, Hiawassee mother and daughter whose names I forgot to write down.

They call that ‘trail magic’, a kind of pay it forward, love your neighbor culture that is a rich part of the Appalachian Trail experience. We got to be on the giving side of it when we finally made it back to our car and saw a group of hikers sitting down for a rest. We walked over, asked if they wanted our leftover hiking food, and laid a massive pile of energy bars, ramen noodles, tuna packets, oatmeal, instant hot chocolate, and random other goodies at their feet. They looked like they had just died and gone to McDonald’s. Happy to help, brothers, happy to help.

We made it back to our boys and the rest of the gear about three hours later, having made a point of not stopping to get hamburgers or cokes or any of the other stuff we were already craving after not quite three days away from society. After picking them up, we went into an Arby’s to change and try to fill some of those cravings. And then we drove straight home. Since we were all still free from responsibilities for the next four days, we went to the beach and hung out and did all the stuff you can’t wait to do when you get back from the Trail.

And there lies the strange thing I’ve experienced about the Trail every time I’ve been on it. All you can think about leading up to the trip is getting out there in the woods, away from all the noise and distraction, close to that wildness of the barely touched earth each of us craves in some back corner of our souls, sharing an adventure with friends just as dumb as ourselves, eating pre-packaged food and sleeping under the stars.

Then you get out there and it’s nothing but pain from sunrise to sunset, and probably all through the night too. And there is no entertainment and no stimulation and nothing fried or grilled or baked, and pretty soon, much too soon, you are talking about how much fun it would be to be home playing Risk around a nice smooth table or playing Driver 2 on Playstation or watching Firefly or Long Way Round or playing tennis or drinking Chick-fil-a milkshakes or just checking email, for crying out loud.

Then, finally, you either finish the section you intended to hike or you get forced off the Trail early by bad weather, and you’re totally ready to get home, thinking it’s going to be a while before I ever do that again. And guaranteed, within a month, you’re thinking about how much you can’t wait to get back on that trail again and planning to buy some new gear that will make things so much better than last time and telling stories about all the crazy times you had out there, or writing about it for some obscure online magazine.

And that’s the crazy irony of the Appalachian Trail, or any uncomfortable but fun experience for that matter. You leave everything behind looking for some kind of contentment, but sometimes the true contentment comes when you get back to everything you’ve left. And that’s a great side-effect of any experience.

So here’s to the AT, and to every other trail, to things not usually going as planned, to good and bad surprises along the way, to happy hiking Josh, for whom eighteen miles a day was a fun day in the park, to British guy Warren, the business consultant with a six month visa and nowhere else he’d rather be, to home-made banjo-carrying boat-crafting David, whose enthusiasm for hiking was more than the four of ours put together, and to the bears, for not eating us or our peanut butter Cliff bars. Bon voyage and happy trails!

If you want to learn more about the AT, the unofficial Bible of the Appalachian Trail is unquestionably ‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson, and it is an amazingly good and funny book, even if you have absolutely no interest in ever hiking the Appalachian or any other trail.

Photos: Nate Green

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Bad luck and good times on the Appalachian Trail

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