This is no regular update. It is a short story. That means if you double the length of my already verbose posts then you have a rough estimate of the length of this. My Apologies, but I hope you enjoy.
Top 3 Moments on the Appalachian Trail #2
I was the first of us to reach the shelter. Before I even got to the entryway I thought to myself, this must be the worst shelter on the entire trail. It was small. It probably only fit four hikers, maybe five if they were really close friends. The roof was leaky. I could tell the afternoon rain storm I had just walked though had taken a toll on one particular corner of the shelter. It was old. Based off the way the wood was slick and worn down until the square headed nails protruded out, I assumed that most likely it was an original shelter from when the trail was built in the 1930’s.
The plan had been to stop there for the night, but it wasn’t going to work. Not with seven of us. Not with two other hikers already claiming a spot.
Eventually, the guys started to trickle into the shelter, throwing down their packs wherever there was space. Jean Genie and Duffle Miner had just graduated from Maryland Institute and College of Art, very prestigious in the art world. Spider Mac and Maineiac were both taking gap years. Spider Mac was headed into a graduate program for classical guitar and Maineiac was off to Green Mountain College to study outdoor education. Movie Star and Broken Pack were the shape shifting, mold breaking types. Neither was done with college nor interested in finishing it, they were bound for good things via pure determination and whatever hard work was required. I was the only girl and fresh out of school with a BFA in photography.
Only a week before, most of us had been strangers to one another. We had all come together while passing through the Great Smoky Mountains and had found much encouragement and entertainment in each other. The rough passage in very wintery conditions had built a strong bond between us. At the worst moments we were able to keep each other going and even crack a few hypothermia and frostbite jokes.
By the time Jean Genie reached the shelter, strolling in at his whimsical and unconcerned pace, the rest of us had already made the decision. It was almost dinner, some of us were already in the process of cooking, and we told Genie that we were heading on. “All the way!” we told him. I had tried to rationalize with the guys that hiking another thirteen miles into town and doubling our distance for the day, wasn’t the best idea. Despite their lack of sound logic, they had me beat on the facts. We couldn’t all stay here. The camping was terrible; we were way up on a blustery ridge. We at least had to go another seven miles to the next shelter and if we do that we might as well tack on the last few and end up in the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina.
If the shelter hadn’t been such a dump I probably would have fought back harder. A twenty six mile day was going to be our biggest yet and nearly half of it was going to be in the dark. I gave in because the lure of town was too much and if they were all going to make it tonight, I surely wasn’t going to hang around and be hiking in the morning while they drank coffee and ate pancakes!
We set out after dinner not knowing if more rain would come through or not. It was still early spring, only a few days after Easter, and a chill rolled in as the sun began to set. I snaked down the switchbacks of a steep mountain with Movie Star and Broken Pack and it lead us further into dusk as we descended. At the bottom, we took a break to get out our headlamps so they would be ready when the light was too faint to hike by. It was rapidly fading already, particularly in the valley with the mountains blocking the last shades of blue that were slipping into black. It seemed that just as our eyes could adjust no more, we ran into Maineiac and Duffle Miner, who were waiting for us. We took a short break until Spider Mac and Jean Genie caught up, then we all put on our headlamps and proceeded on as a unified group.
Maineiac and Movie Star switched off being in the lead. BP insisted upon being the caboose of the train and hiked using only the red light mode of his headlamp. I nestled myself in the middle of the line, three of them ahead of me and three of them behind me. It was the safest place I could think to be if we were to come across something unexpected. Night hiking started off as an exciting idea but we soon found it to be very nerve racking even with a large group of people. Every strange shadow seemed ominous and even the smallest and most harmless animals were terrifying in the night until properly identified. Our faces were parallel to the ground as we marched onward trying to avoid all the roots and rocks. I struggled to keep the heels of Genie’s boots in the light of my headlamp as we wove in and out of the undulating sides of mountains and up and over their tree covered summits.
It was cold out but I was sweating immensely and out of breath. We had been walking in the dark for several miles and I was growing weary. The terrain and miles were taking their toll on me. I knew we were all walking on fiery pins and needles due to a slew of new blisters that came up during the past week of hiking with wet feet in the snow, but none of the guys seemed to be slowing. Faintness came over me in a way that a hiker quickly learns to identify when on a long journey like a thru hike. It was hunger. Finally, I had suffered enough. Crankiness brought me to speak up against the relentless pace Movie Star was setting at the front of the line. “Can we PLEASE take a break?! This is not a death march!” To my surprise, the rest of the guys seemed to collectively sign in relief, though covering it with muttered statements of agreement. All of us were worn out and needed a long break, but it is not in the nature of males in their early 20’s to admit it.
We sat down in a row along the trail and began to rummage through our bags for snacks. BP reached in and pulled out two glazed honey buns, his favorite food to eat on the trail. He had cleared out the honey bun stock of a small market in Fontana Dam only a week or so prior. Now he ripped open both plastic wrappers, took a bite out of each honey bun and passed it to Duffle Miner. Duffle took a bite of each of them as well and passed them on once again to Spider Mac. At this point, Maineiac grabbed a cinnabon and started it down the line in the opposite direction. Jean Genie provided a pack of peanut butter crackers and I produced my clif bar, both of those traveled around the group. Movie Star gave up four consecutive snickers bars, one after another, taking a bite and handing it down. Every snack was passed down the line, disappearing bite by bite so that all eight of us, snack having or not, had the needed energy to keep hiking.
This moment in time, this strange way of consuming food, became an icon of the hiker community in my eyes. At a time in which all of us were miserable, too far into a decision to turn back and seemingly forever away from the goal, we were still able to create a joyful moment with one another. The act of digging down deep into our packs and pulling out the most sacred items we have, our food, and laying it down for our fellow hikers is a display of love one rarely comes across. It is a testament to the devotion and bonds built between thru hikers everywhere.
In a matter of days, six more brothers had been born into my family. The past week we had spent fighting for one another in any way that was needed to keep our clan together and now we were even divvying up food so that none of us went hungry. It was exactly the communal experience I set out on the trial to find.
Four days latter the group was temporarily disbanded as a stomach virus rocked the hiker community. Every shelter was plagued by hikers lain out heaving and groaning. Puke splatter was a common sight and the privies were filling up. We miraculously fell back into line with one another in the next town of Erwin, Tennessee, only a day or two after the sickness befell us all. As we commiserated together we couldn’t help but think of all the warnings that were now posted at every shelter and hostel in this section of the trail. “Wash hands with soap and water as much as possible! Avoid contact with those who are sick! Do not share food or drinks with other hikers!”
We still don’t think it is related.