|©1996 George Steffanos|
I spent last night in my tent beneath the soft shimmer of southern stars in that large, gently-sloping field beside the river at Nolichucky Expeditions. There was a picnic table, garbage cans, a building with showers and flush toilets, and the pleasant song of the river -- all for two dollars.
The people at Nolichucky were friendly, but seemed to merely tolerate backpackers rather than embrace our business as the Nantahala Outdoor Center does. The Nolichucky store contains virtually nothing in the way of backpacking supplies.
I started walking down the gravel road at about 8:30 this morning, headed towards town. This time, I got very lucky. A man driving a pickup truck stopped and gave me a lift before I was halfway to the main road. He drove me to the Post Office, waited while I picked up my packages, and dropped me off at the laundromat way out on the outskirts of town near the McDonalds and the Pizza Hut.
I got both loads of laundry going and sat down to open my packages. The running shoes sent by my brother were a joy to behold. I ripped off my boots and put them on immediately. The biggest thrill was the letters from home. I sat there reading them, exploding in constant laughter while everybody stared at me like I was a nut. I did not care. I was immersed in memories of my life before the Appalachian Trail -- memories which were already fading into the mists. After one month of this all-consuming experience, my earlier existence seems dreamlike and unreal. Sometimes, I get so lonely. I have no past and no future -- only the trail and my obsessive desire to complete it.
I washed all of my clothes twice. The whites still emerged a nice shade of gray. I shrugged and walked two blocks to the Pizza Hut and ordered a medium pepperoni pan pizza. The small just had not done it for me last night. The waiter told me that one person could not finish a medium pan pizza. I said, "Bring it." He then informed me that my pizza came with a free pitcher of soda, which, of course, I could never finish, either. I said, "Bring it." I left the crumbs of my meal forty-five minutes later and walked down the road to a shopping center. I am legend in Erwin.
I had to buy a whole gallon of Coleman fuel for my stove. Unlike Hot Springs and Wesser, no one in Erwin sells it by the pint or quart. I met a number of very nice people in Erwin, but, on the whole, its general atmosphere is not as friendly to backpackers as those other trail towns. None of the motels will rent a room to us.
I bought batteries for my pocket flashlight, which had been useless to me for the past few days after I had cleverly forgotten to replace them in Hot Springs. I also bought a package of envelopes to replace the ones which I had to throw away. All of those rainy days had left them glued together in one big, useless mass.
I walked over to the nearby grocery store and bought a week's worth of food. Not counting my short hike today, that is the time I am allotting myself to reach Damascus. It is time for the LEAN, MEAN, MILEAGE MACHINE to take control. I want to start catching up to the fourteen-miles-per-day pace I need to maintain in order to complete the Appalachian Trail in the five months with which I have to work. Tomorrow, unless it pours, I am shooting for a twenty-one mile day to Clyde Smith shelter.
I walked out of the grocery carrying a stuff sack filled with clean clothes, another one bursting with supplies from my mail drop, a gallon can of Coleman fuel, the package I was mailing back home, and a large shopping bag of groceries. I staggered across the parking lot to the McDonalds, dropped my stuff off in a booth, ordered a milk shake (Okay, so I was hungry again -- I'm a growing boy), and carried it over to the restaurant's pay phone.
I called home and talked to my family for a while. Then, I dialed a number I had obtained from the girl behind the counter, and called a taxi. I was not even going to bother trying to hitch a ride with all of the crap I was carrying. The taxi arrived two minutes after I hung up. On the way back to Nolichucky, I had the driver stop at the Post Office and I mailed my package. After that, he drove me back to my tent. The ten-mile ride cost five dollars. I have encountered some incredible bargains in these southern mountain towns.
Loading my backpack was difficult and time-consuming due to the mass of supplies which I had to cram into it. I was not ready to leave Nolichucky until 5:00. I noticed Ron's tent pitched nearby; I must have missed him in town. After filling my stove and my spare fuel bottle, I left the remainder of the gallon on the picnic table beside his tent. I was glad that he was there. He had shared a lot of good food with Dave and me on the night we met him. I know that it will come in handy. Ron likes to build great, roaring bonfires at the shelters each night, and he is not a very patient man.
When I was done, I hiked up the trail to Curley Maple Gap Shelter. Although that only got me three miles past Nolichucky Expeditions, I gained 1400 feet in elevation -- a factor which will ease the burden of tomorrow's long grind. The path climbed through a grizzled jungle of hemlock and rhododendron. The latter were just beginning to bloom -- the first I have seen on this journey. Like most southern forests, this one was incredibly moss-covered. Every rock, every dead tree, and most of the live ones sported a thick, fuzzy green blanket. It seems another world from the forests back home -- fascinating and, at the same time, alien to me.
It is now 7:15 p.m., and it appears that I finally have an Appalachian Trail shelter all to myself tonight. With that, and the coming of the new month tomorrow, it seems a good time to reflect upon the progress of this quest.
In town today, I weighed myself on an old-fashioned penny scale at the laundromat. Remarkably, I left a few more pounds on the trail between Hot Springs and Erwin, even while I was eating like a pig. I have now dropped more than twenty pounds in less than a month. Ten more pounds to go.
I hiked 336.6 miles in May. Thus, in twenty-nine days, I averaged 11.6 miles per day. I will have to do better in June, but I have overcome a great deal of adversity and am still here. More than ninety percent of prospective thru-hikers do not make it through the first 300 miles, and most are in better condition and much more experienced than I was. I am still here.
WEDNESDAY, 6/1/83, MILE 357.5 --- I was musing last night upon the manly nature of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. An adventure such as this brings out the true spirit of machismo. It is satisfying for one to contemplate, as he sips his hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows and savors his frosted Pop-Tart, that he has discovered the essence of his own manhood. Just an observation.
Monday night on the bank of the Nolichucky River had been a time of gentle breezes and soft starlight, but clouds had begun rolling in yesterday morning. By the time I reached the shelter last night they were looking ominous. No rain fell overnight, but day broke gloomy and foreboding. I left the shelter at 8:30 in a light, intermittent drizzle. Three miles later, I had to stop to put on my rain suit. Rain was pouring down once again upon the mountains along the Tennessee/North Carolina state line.
During the next few miles, the tempest grew in strength. To my surprise and relief, it all had minimal effect upon my psyche. The night of the Walnut Mountain monsoons had marked a major turning point in my ability to cope with extreme weather. As Dave and I were rolling in laughter through the puddles on the floor of that pitiful shelter, I realized that such things could no longer break my spirit. I am content now to answer loud thunder with an occasional obscenity -- more out of habit than anger.
Swirling winds tore through the thickening fog and the rain intensified as I climbed towards a peak known as Beauty Spot. Just as I broke out onto the large rolling meadow surrounding the summit, the rain abruptly and completely stopped. By,the time I had made my way down to the edge of the woods on the other side, the clouds had begun to shred apart in the teeth of that wind, revealing steadily-improving vistas of green mountains and valleys. I dropped my backpack and climbed back up to the summit. The wind faded to a good, fresh breeze. Soon, I was basking in sunshine, watching little tatters of cloud drifting off into the sudden blue sky.
In a fit of optimism, I removed my rain suit and the rain cover from my pack as I resumed my hike. I knew from reading the guidebook that the ensuing section of trail would be a killer, but I was more determined than ever to accomplish those twenty-one miles which had been my objective. Being stuck most of Tuesday in Erwin running errands had pushed my daily average down under twelve miles, and I was anxious to begin cranking it back up.
The climb up Unaka Mountain from Deep Gap was a real ba______er, but not quite as bad as it looked in the map profiles (in those profiles, it looked to be a mo________er, which is, several grades of difficulty higher than ba______er in the Steffanos Climb Grading System). The lofty summit provided no views, but was surrounded by a lovely grove of evergreens.
The climb down bit the big one. The route was so steep, eroded, overgrown, and blocked by so many large blowdowns that I eventually decided I must have wandered off of the trail onto a herd path. I had walked quite a distance since seeing a white blaze. Dropping my pack, I proceeded to waste a great deal of time backtracking to the last white blaze I had seen and carefully watching for turnoffs on the return trip. I eventually came to acknowledge that I had never left the trail, and that poorly-blazed must be added to the list of its deficiencies. I grabbed my pack and continued onward into the unknown. Almost immediately, I came across a white blaze which would have been visible had I only hiked a few more yards before turning back. I gave it the one-finger salute as I walked past.
I passed through Low Gap and over a couple of little ba______er knobs before reaching Cherry Gap Shelter at 3:30. I had completed twelve tough miles in seven hours despite the rain and a one-hour break on Beauty Spot -- acceptable. Somebody had taped to the shelter wall a newspaper photo of Billy Martin with a handwritten caption: Billy says, "Northbounders, you can make it over Groan Mountain today. Tough it out."
For northbounders, Roan Mountain is the last 6000-footer on the Appalachian Trail until Mount Washington in New Hampshire. The climb we must make is so long and relentlessly steep that the mountain has been dubbed "Groan." Making that ascent at the end of a fourteen-mile day from Cherry Gap would indeed be impressive. I will be tackling it tomorrow morning.
I resumed today's grind at 4:00. A climb out of Cherry Gap which approached mo________er status was followed by a long, steep drop into Iron Mountain Gap. I felt completely done in by then, but there was no turning back. In the map profiles the final six miles appeared rather easy, but, having learned not to take those simplistic diagrams too seriously, I plodded ahead warily, expecting the worst.
What the profile represented as long stretches of virtually level trail were in reality a lot of stiff, short ups and downs whose aggregate effect was little actual change of elevation. I was dragging along, still four miles from Clyde Smith Shelter, when the sky abruptly grew dark and brooding. I gathered myself for one last spurt and began flying down descents and trudging gamely up steep climbs with renewed enthusiasm.
In Greasy Creek Gap, I discovered that a trail relocation, so new it had not been in the guidebook, bypassed the final rugged knob. After nineteen hard miles, that was indeed a blessed sight. Better still, the storm clouds had cleared as suddenly as they had appeared, and the sun returned without a drop of rain having fallen.
I was just about down on my hands and knees crawling when I finally reached the side trail to the shelter. It was a long access trail. I staggered into the shelter at 8:20. Naturally, the shelter's water supply was a long way down a steep mountainside. I do not know how I made it back up. I had a huge dinner, including a whole package of freeze-dried beef in my soup and what the manufacturer considered to be six servings of instant mashed potatoes.
I have an awkwardly-spaced series of shelters ahead of me tomorrow. The next three are, respectively, 5.4, 9.6, and 23.6 miles away. That gives me four realistic choices for tomorrow night: (1)stay at Roan Highlands Shelter (9.6 miles), and try to do better the next day; (2)camp out and hope it does not rain; (3)try to hike 23.6 miles to Don Nelan Shelter (an extreme long shot); or (4)stay in a motel in Elk Park, North Carolina (the road crossing is nineteen miles away; the town is a two-and-a-half-mile hitch). I will make my decision tomorrow when I see what I have left after today's meat grinder. Knowing how I feel about long hot showers and soft beds, you know that I would love to use option #4, but that would appear to be a long shot, too. The terrain ahead makes today look like a Sunday stroll. At any rate, it is almost midnight, and I have to get some sleep.
Someone has left a Billy Martin picture in this shelter, too. He is staring dreamily out into space above the printed caption: Billy waits for his next challenge. Underneath, the anonymous decorator has added: Billy ponders, "Will Roan be as tough as Snowbird?" I will find out tomorrow. Oh, good -- another challenge.
THURSDAY, 6/2/83, MILE 368.8 --- It turned out to be option #2. I was very tired this morning and could not drag myself out of the sleeping bag until past 8:30. By the time I got started it was almost 10:00. That effectively ruled out options #3 and #4 before I even left the shelter. Not that it really mattered -- I just did not have it today, anyway.
The trail was rough. The mile from the shelter to the cliffs on Little Rock Knob was straight uphill. Another gorgeous day and a nice series of views made that climb worthwhile I made my way along the cliffs feeling tired but exhilarated -- three words which describe my condition over much of the course of the day.
A sharp plunge and a couple of steep-sided knobs rounded out the first two miles of the day. From the bottom of Hughes Gap, I began the fabled ascent of Roan Mountain. The initial climb out was deceptively mild, but the endless slope gradually became steeper. Groaning and trudging along on legs not far recovered from yesterday's exertions, I just had to turn off my mind and keep plodding ahead until the trail leveled off atop Beartown Mountain -- a minor summit of Roan. A short side trail led to a decent viewpoint up there, but my legs felt like they had just tackled Everest. There is never a damned Sherpa around when you need one.
The AT dipped down slightly into Ash Gap and followed moderate grades from there almost to the top of Roan, but one more thigh-killer was lurking right at the end. Finally, I dragged myself onto the crest of a grassy little knoll and the sprawling summit plateau unfolded before me. My legs gratefully kissed the ground as I collapsed into one spent heap. I'd like to think that had Billy Martin been there, he would have patted my butt.
A beautiful fir and spruce forest from out of my homesick daydreams of New England almost made me forget the preceding ordeal. It was one of those crisp, sun-washed days when the sky just seems to sparkle. Extensive swathes of bluets carpeted the open areas -- the first thriving specimens of my little blue friends from earlier spring days that I have seen in weeks.
I crossed a paved road which came up from the valley below and came upon a roadside picnic area with tables, trash cans and water fountains. It seemed a perfect spot to take lunch and attempt to regroup. There was a nice view of the valley, and I simply wanted to spend some time atop my last 6000-footer for almost 1500 miles. At that point, any hopes for a big-mileage day were already shot. I had chewed up more than three hours in covering less than five miles. So much for Elk Park.
After lunch, I stopped briefly at Roan High Knob Shelter to read the register, leaving a strange entry of my own (which may someday turn up in these pages) before leaving. Now that I am hiking alone, I intend to be a little more imaginative with my entries. I enjoy reading the warped creations of some of the hikers ahead of me, and I hope that those behind will feel the same way about mine.
I passed up a side trail to Roan's famous wild rhododendron gardens. As demonstrated by the presence of bluets, spring was not yet far enough advanced up there for rhododendron to, be in bloom. I followed the Appalachian Trail down into Carvers Gap and began to traverse a magnificent series of lofty balds known collectively as the Roan Highlands.
A paved road ran through Carvers Gap; many cars were parked adjacent to the AT crossing. The trail up Round Bald, the first summit of the Highlands, was packed with day hikers wearing parkas and other heavy winter clothing. They must have thought me strange in my shorts and tee shirt, but what could they say as I blew by them carrying a heavy backpack as a handicap? It was a chilly day to be standing around, but a nice, steep half-mile climb sort of gets your blood going. Few of those people made it very far before the coats, hats, and gloves started to come off.
Beyond Carvers Gap, for more than two miles, the ridgecrest was a long, undulating meadow sprinkled with thousands of bluets. Near the top of Round Bald stood a small cluster of red pines. I read in my guidebook that the U.S. Forest Service had planted them years ago in order to determine if red pine would grow on natural balds. Hey, somebody had to do it, right? The world is far richer for having this knowledge.
None of the day hikers continued past Round Bald; I was alone on the open ridge for the rest of the way. I spent more time enjoying the immense panoramas and taking pictures than I spent hiking seriously. I just could not rush through a place like that. Many miles of far less enchanting scenery stretch through the central states of the Appalachian Trail. I can pick up my pace then.
After rolling along the ridgecrest over Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge, the AT left the open fields behind and plunged steeply down a wooded slope into Low Gap. I probably would have spent the night there in the Roan Highlands Shelter had not the place itself been such an armpit. Thanks to some thoughtful campers, the spring was a filthy trickle, garbage was strewn all over, and the area was infested by mice. It was truly a shame -- the location was wonderful.
I sat there uselessly for an hour as the afternoon trickled away. I knew I had to move on or face a night of unpalatable water and pillaging mice, but I could not seem to work up any enthusiasm. The elation of the open ridgewalk gradually faded, leaving me feeling listless and run-down. I drifted halfheartedly back onto the trail at 6:00, eventually pitching my tent in a field of high grass in Yellow Mountain Gap, where I ended an 11.3-mile day. So much for the LEAN, MEAN, MILEAGE MACHINE. Later for you.
The guidebook mentioned a trail to the left and a grassy track to the right, both leading to water. The trail quickly petered uselessly out. Three overgrown old roads led downhill to the right; I tried them all, one by one. After following the last one for a half-mile without a sign of water, I decided to give up and hike to the next Appalachian Trail campsite. While walking back, I heard a faint trickling barely discernible above fluttering leaves in the nearby woods, across a barbed-wire fence.
I may have said a little prayer while straddling the cruel-looking barbs, all of my weight balanced precariously on the bottom strand of wire as I climbed over. I seem to remember my sex life flashing before my eyes for a few desperate moments -- the recent portion doing nothing to cheer me. Somehow, I made it back to the campsite with water and a full compliment of body parts.
I slipped into a deep catatonic state upon returning. While darkness fell and dinner sat uncooked in the backpack, I sat on the ground playing with my toes and contemplating my navel for about an hour. I was simply played out, physically and emotionally, and just could not seem to work up much of an appetite. Eventually, I fixed myself some instant potatoes, ate a couple of Pop-Tarts, and stretched out inside my sleeping bag. I felt so low -- I still do. Where did this come from?
I have not seen Dave since Hot Springs; it appears I have seen the last of him on this journey. He was good company. I will probably go the rest of the way basically alone. I may hook up with another hiker for a day or so here and there, but it seems improbable that I will find fast friendship of that caliber again in such a short span of time.
I will not embarrass myself again by setting any kind of mileage goals for tomorrow. I would like to make up for today, but I will have to go easy and recoup some strength. With my luck, it will probably rain.
FRIDAY, 6/3/83, MILE 381.1 --- Something happened yesterday which I did not have the courage to write about. I was too ashamed. Today, I am going to come clean.
It was the end of that long, exhausting trek up Roan Mountain. I stood upon the plateau, a feeling of warm contentment easing my fatigue. An anticipation of an impending event of wonderful momentousness filled my being.
Suddenly, I was seized by a sense of being watched. Whirling around, I confronted the largest vulture I had ever seen. More than eight feet tall, with a huge, round beer belly, he was standing beside the trail picking his teeth with a broken piece of Kelty pack frame. I was immediately struck by his eyes: dark and ancient, and filled with the wisdom of the ages. A tingle of elation ran through me; he seemed about to impart upon me a nugget of deep, cosmic truth.
A slight change of expression darkened his visage. He gazed searchingly into my eyes, apparently judging my worthiness to receive this precious gift. Clearing his throat, he asked, "How many three-cent stamps in a dozen?"
"Four!" I shot back, quickly and confidently.
A sudden flurry of powerful wings and wind whipped painfully against my skin. A terrible spasm of horror seized my heart as I realized my awful mistake. "Twelve!" I shouted. "Twelve! Twelve!" But it was too late -- he was gone. I stood alone on the mountaintop, shame and despair washing over me.
After that, the rest of the day was shot.
I slept the sleep of the dead last night, so exhausted I did not even wake to water the grass until 6:30 in the morning. The sky had completely clouded over during the night, and hung low and threatening above my tent. I crawled back inside and zipped myself back into my sleeping bag. Moments later, I heard the first drops of rain spattering off of the tent fly. They stopped after a few minutes, but I knew they would return. I sank back, for a while, into my dark and gloomy dreams.
I awoke for the day at 8:00, threw my clothes on, and went outside to make breakfast. The sun was shining and not a cloud was in sight. The outside of my tent was dry. Did I dream the rain?
Disgusted with myself for once again sleeping so late, I made breakfast and wolfed it down. While cleaning up, I looked overhead. Clouds as black and depressing as my dreams had been filled the sky. Did I dream the sun? I packed up my gear as fast as possible but did not hit the trail until 9:30, feeling totally worthless.
It was a mile-and-a-half from my campsite in Yellow Mountain Gap to Little Hump Mountain, the next bald summit of the highlands. Along the way, I crossed an open, grassy spur of Yellow Mountain. The sun was shining and the clouds were breaking up. Strange morning.
Outside, the weather remained mostly sunny for the rest of the day. Inside my soul, the clouds also lifted a little. I challenge anyone who loves beauty to walk through the Roan Highlands on a nice day and remain miserable.
There were unbroken vistas from the trail all along the west slope of Little Hump Mountain to its summit. The east side, as I descended into Bradley Gap, was somewhat more overgrown, but still had frequent viewpoints overlooking the trail ahead to the summit of Hump Mountain.
Of all of the mountains I have seen on this hike, Hump is now my favorite. Roan had been my previous choice, so it has obviously been a very scenic past couple of days. I named this chapter (what did you think I meant?) after those two wonderful peaks. The fourteen miles of trail between Little Rock Knob and Hump Mountain traversed one of the most superb stretches of scenery I have ever encountered.
The climb up Hump was a bear, but views from every inch of the trail lightened the load. Like Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Little Hump, this summit had 360 degree views, but Hump Mountain was much higher and the panorama extended for miles in every direction. An intricate series of cross chains groped eastward towards the Blue Ridge's long eastern fork, while to the north loomed Virginia and Mount Rogers, its highest peak. The grassy Highlands rolled southward to Roan Mountain's lofty, forested plateau. Some miles away to the west in Tennessee ran Iron Mountain -- the long, lower range which parallels this western fork of the Blue Ridge. I will be hiking its flat, wooded crest soon.
I sat on top of Hump Mountain for almost an hour, drinking in views. The climb down was long and very steep. Obviously, southbounders will remember the climb up Hump Mountain just as northbounders remember the ascent of Roan. The east slope of Hump was densely forested from a point just below the summit and beyond; however, the Appalachian Trail broke out into the clear one last time, one mile later, at a place called Doll Flats. From this large, level meadow were great views southward into North Carolina, and, to the west, one last excellent farewell look at Hump Mountain's summit.
From Doll Flats, the Appalachian Trail descended north off of the state line ridge into Tennessee, and I said good-bye to North Carolina as well. Two states down. The path was a recent relocation, and the soft ground, not yet compacted by foot traffic, kept crumbling away beneath my boots. Many stretches were overgrown and the route was constantly blocked by fallen trees. It was slow going most of the way to the bottom of that descent, at which point the Appalachian Trail crossed Tennessee Highway 19E.
An addendum containing the information on this long relocation had been included with my Tennessee/North Carolina guidebook, but I had stupidly forgotten to bring it with me. As a result of that omission, I had great difficulty finding where the Appalachian Trail went once it crossed the highway. When I finally found the trail, it turned out to be just as difficult and treacherous as that part of the relocation on the other side of the highway had been.
The new trail route, for most of the distance to Don Nelan Shelter, either passed through private lands or followed rural lanes. From the highway, it climbed steeply through high pastures baking under a relentless sun. There were great views back towards Roan and Hump Mountains from the tops of several of the fields, but I could not appreciate them fully. I ran out of water and my tissues were dehydrating rapidly along those shadeless stretches.
There had been no lack of water sources; running out was just carelessness on my part. My head has been somewhere else these past couple of days. I finally came to a stream just as the path began descending rather steeply through forest and a few small fields.
The Appalachian Trail emerged from the woods at a small cemetery in the middle of nowhere and descended along its gravel access road. It came out on Walnut Mountain Road, a narrow rural hardtop, and followed it for a short distance past some houses and a church before re-entering the forest and dropping down into a wooded valley.
After a short stretch of woodland trail, I came out onto more pavement -- Campbell Hollow Road, which the AT followed for a mile, passing a number of small farms. Tennessee is known as one of the poorest states in the country, and the inhabited areas through which I walked today fit right in with that image. The Appalachian Trail passes through an amazing contrast of wealthy estates and rural poverty in these southern mountains.
When the AT left this road, it descended, again steeply, on a footpath into a secluded wooded valley called Sugar Hollow. When I reached the floor of the hollow, I made my way along the side trail to Don Nelan Shelter through a morass of gummy, black mud: a deep, oozing quagmire which several times completely enveloped my boots.
I dragged myself into the shelter at 4:00, the proud owner of a big 12.3-mile day. Yes, I am a lean, mean, bulls__t machine. I will never make Katahdin -- never. If this is the best I can do, I may as well pack it in. It is 16.6 miles from here to Little Laurel Shelter. If I can do that tomorrow, and then squeeze one great day out of my whimpering, quitter's soul, maybe I will again begin to believe that I can do this thing. If not, then perhaps I am just as useless as I think I am. We'll see.
As it turned out, staying at this shelter was a decent decision. Not fifteen minutes after I arrived, a drenching thunderstorm struck and hung around for about a half-hour. The next shelter is nine miles away, so I would have been camping out tonight had I gone on. Perhaps, by stopping this early, I can get to sleep before midnight and get an early start tomorrow morning. I definitely need to regroup.
I am in a deep, black abyss emotionally, which is probably fairly apparent from the whiny, self-pitying crap which lately keeps creeping into my writing. I need a big boost to my fledgling self-esteem, and I need it soon. I need to believe in myself again -- I need another finest hour.
Physically, I am run-down, but some fairly miraculous things have been happening. My pot belly is almost gone, and my calves are beginning to stretch the tops of my socks out of shape. The big miracle is the one happening to my feet. My blisters have turned into hard, thick calluses which seem indestructible. The ones which cover the entire soles of my feet are like rocks. Another hard callus has formed directly over that scab on my little toe, and the wound that could never possibly heal while I was hiking is somehow beginning to heal beneath it. I no longer need to swathe it in Band-Aids and adhesive tape.
Right now, my situation is almost the opposite of what it was when I was in the Smokies. I like what is happening to my body, but my soul is on the brink of defeat.
Unfortunately, it has always been my soul which has let me down in the past.
SATURDAY, 6/4/83, MILE 397.7 --- The midday sun beat down mercilessly on the Moreland Gap Shelter as I strolled in, leading my faithful mule. Oddly, the place was full of emaciated backpackers. They watched with guarded expressions as I dropped my pack and started to prepare my lunch.
A skeletal boy edged timidly over and sat down next to me. Greedy eyes surveyed my Tang and peanut butter crackers. "Want some?" I asked.
"Oh, it is no use, Mister," he said in a curious, flat monotone. "Ramone will be the only one to feast on those crackers."
I reached my hand inside my faded, old serape, fished around in my pockets, and finally pulled out the half-smoked stump of an old cigar. "I don't know who this Ramone is," I said. "But nobody is enjoying this roughage but me."
"Oh, you mustn't talk like that, Mister!" the boy cried. The other backpackers stared at me, fear and despair haunting their hollow eyes. Those nearest to me stood up and shuffled to the other end of the shelter. I shrugged calmly, pulled my hat brim down a little lower over my eyes, leaned back, and munched a saltine.
"I'll take the rest of those crackers, americano," said a harsh, flat voice from behind me.
I turned slowly, carefully removing the cigar stump from the corner of my mouth to spit out a stray shred of tobacco. Facing me across the shelter was the biggest, ugliest woods rat I have ever seen -- more than eight feet tall, with a huge, round beer belly. I pulled out a match and struck it against the stone of the. shelter's foundation. With cool deliberation, I lit my cigar and exhaled a long, slow tendril of smoke.
"I am Ramone," he said, his lips moving a little out of sync with his words. "This is my shelter, and any food that comes into it is mine!"
I gave him my trademark dubious sneer and dropped my cigar butt down on the ground, crushing it slowly out with my boot. I picked up a saltine, calmly spread peanut butter on it, and popped it into my mouth.
"Now you die, filthy americano!" he snarled, a full half-second before his lips began to move. He lunged for his rifle.
"Mphmrmph!" I replied, spitting out cracker crumbs. I flipped the right side of my serape over my right shoulder for faster access to my right hip. He quickly lifted his rifle, but I pumped three quick shots into him before he could fire. A weird, Spanish-sounding music was playing in the background as he slumped to the ground, his eyes filled with horrified amazement.
"Who are you," he groaned.
"A backpacker," I said.
His eyes rolled over and he said no more. I strolled leisurely out into the blistering heat, wondering where the hell those bells and trumpets playing in the background were coming from.
The other backpackers came running from the shelter, laughing and shouting. The boy ran up to me and tugged at the corner of my serape. "Hey, Mister, who are you?" he asked.
I smiled, flipped him a granola bar and headed up the next ridge.
There was a magnificent light show at the shelter last night, in the form of an extremely intense thunderstorm. Immense, jagged forks of lightning covering half of the sky shredded the darkness. Tremendous explosions of thunder, one right after another, vibrated through the valley as rain battered the tin roof of the shelter. Luckily, it was a relatively new shelter. The roof had not started to leak yet.
The lightning had subsided by the time I awoke for the day at 6:30 a.m., but the deluge lingered on. I waited it out until 9:00 before the rain finally stopped. I set out immediately, feeling much better about my decision not to go on and tent it last night.
The trail was a mess today. It passed over a number of steep, low ridges severed by rugged ravines filled with lush rhododendron thickets and swampy streams. Ankle-deep gumbo bordered many of the streams and a skin of tractionless wet clay covered most of the slopes. I was constantly catching myself on nearby trees and rocks in order to avoid nasty falls. On one occasion, I actually felt the bone in my ankle start to bend a little just before I caught myself. Nevertheless, I refused to slow down. Having found myself losing another battle with my personal demons lately, I was fighting mad today. Thus, the first five miles of the day were more an exercise in survival than a hike.
Near the end of this stretch, just before it crossed a stream named Laurel Fork, the Appalachian Trail came out of the woods at the top of an old field, where I enjoyed my only views of the morning. There again were Roan And Hump Mountains and the intervening sweep of balds. The summits were shrouded in thick, dark clouds. Undoubtedly, a cold rain was falling on some poor sucker up there today. It was chilly even down at the elevation at which I was, but all that I had to deal with in the way of inclement weather were a few momentary sprinkles this morning.
After crossing Laurel Fork, the trail became a little better, but the footway was still in miserable condition from last night's rain. On one stream crossing I had to wade through muck up to my calves. On a muddy patch of clay just prior to the last steep, one-mile climb up to Moreland Gap Shelter, I took the back flip I had managed to avoid all morning.
I wrote in the register at the shelter that the guy who laid out the relocation I walked this morning should be circumcised with a rusty tin can lid. It was a childish and snotty thing to write about hard-working volunteers, but I was feeling cranky after my back flip so I was a bit of a dick. On a lighter note, I left in the register a story based loosely on those spaghetti westerns in which Clint Eastwood starred for Sergio Leone. It introduced the character of the Backpacker With No Name, who I intend to use in future register entries.
This morning's trail had mostly consisted of two fairly recent Appalachian Trail relocations. The afternoon hike, from Moreland Gap to Laurel Fork Shelter, was on an older, more established section of the AT with a firmer footway. There were some steep climbs as I followed the trail along the crest, of White Rocks Mountain, but the walk was a Sunday stroll compared to the earlier trail. There were, however, some dangerous stretches when the AT descended over wet, mossy rocks as it followed a stream called Coon Den Branch off of the mountain.
I made it down in one piece to a half-mile paved roadwalk along Dennis Cove Road, passing a bunch of one-room shacks decorated with "Private" and "No Trespassing" signs before the AT entered the woods again. It followed a flat, old railway grade for the next mile. A steep, rocky quarter-mile descent brought me to Laurel Falls: a wide, forty-foot-high cascade emptying into a deep, rock-walled pool. The trail then followed another old abandoned railroad bed past numerous smaller cascades and rapids in Laurel Fork Gorge, where the,stream makes a narrow passage between rocky cliffs lushly blanketed with pine, laurel, and rhododendron. The rhododendron were finally in bloom, decked out with large, reddish-violet blossoms -- the first I have seen on this hike.
Dozens of tents were pitched in the gorge. It was, after all, a Saturday night in June, and this was a beautiful spot with plenty of water not far from a road. As I climbed a steep slope from the stream bank up to Laurel Fork Shelter, which clings to one of the walls of the gorge, I was worrying that the place would be full. I was too tired to relish the thought of having to pitch my tent and set up camp.
The shelter was empty when I arrived. It still is. The valley below is teeming with people, yet I have this spot all to myself. The place is in fairly good condition, and a nearby small stream cascading down into the gorge has cold, delicious water, for a change. The dense pine forest all around me shuts out the rest of the world. I am enjoying an evening of quiet solitude right-in the middle of a crowded valley.
Today's 16.6 miles helped put the brakes on my rapidly plummeting self-respect, but I am a greedy man. I want a big day from myself either tomorrow or the next day. I want to put those demons on hold again for a while. Also, I want to be in Damascus, Virginia early Tuesday, and that town right now is 48.7 AT miles away.
Another daunting climb looms tomorrow, on a new trail relocation of evil repute over Pond Mountain. If I can make sixteen miles to Vanderventer Shelter on Iron Mountain, that. would leave me in great shape for a twenty-three-mile hike over relatively-flat ridgecrests the next day. That would put me, on Monday night, in a shelter ten easy miles from Damascus. This is the logical way I should handle the two-and-a-half days' hike to my next trail town.
If, on the other hand, I can climb up and over Pond Mountain tomorrow, climb Iron Mountain, and still cover the twenty-three miles to Iron Mountain Shelter, that would be awesome for me. I have been a real weenie since that initial twenty-one-mile day out of Erwin, and I would surely like to be awesome again. F___ logic.
Tomorrow night, I will either be feeling good about what a silly bastard I was that day, or I will be making sensible excuses about why I wimped out. Well, I do leave myself some wonderful options, don't I? Here I go again.
SUNDAY, 6/5/83, MILE 420.6 --- Perhaps the reason I had the shelter all to myself was the furry creature who clattered around all night, waking me up repeatedly. I got the beam of my flashlight on him for a second, and I think he was a small raccoon. I see from comments in the shelter register that he is more or less a permanent resident of the place, so the local people probably know all about him.
I woke up -- without his help for once -- at about 7:30, ate breakfast, and left the shelter after 8:30, feeling tired and sluggish. I was laughing at myself for even considering last night that I had any chance of being awesome today.
The first mile was an easy jaunt through the remainder of the gorge on a wide, old railroad grade. I felt pretty good by the time I reached the start of the climb up Pond Mountain, and was starting to have renewed visions of covering the twenty-three miles to Iron Mountain Shelter by nightfall. Ironically, it seems like every time I feel especially lousy when starting out in the morning, I put forth my strongest efforts once I get going.
The climb out of the gorge and up Pond Mountain was a nightmare -- every bit as bad as I expected it to be, and then some. In the guidebook, the trail description occasionally read, "ascend steeply." Most of the climb was steep. They saved those words only for the nearly vertical stretches. Were I to pick one mountain I have hiked in my life, the rewards of which were not worth the climb, Pond Mountain would be the one.
The beginning of the climb was fairly moderate -- almost easy except for all of the overgrown trail and large blowdowns, both of which have been so characteristic of the Appalachian Trail lately. Gradually, the grades became more difficult. The trail reached the ridgecrest of the mountain and began to follow a well-worn jeep road. Grades usually moderate when a trail reaches the ridgecrest, but these became even more arduous. It was agony trying to make decent time while carrying a heavy backpack up that terrible trail. Climbing that smooth incline was much worse than climbing steeply up rocks. Rocks at least give a hiker level footholds from which to push off. To make matters worse, today was a very warm one and the humidity was choking.
I climbed for a half-mile on that road, past "cliffs" which the guidebook seemed to indicate were the major scenic highlight of the section. They turned out to be three small peepholes through heavy foliage socked in by haze so thick it could almost have been called fog. Had I been up there on a clear day, they still would not have been worth all of that climbing.
After the final cliff, the jeep road ended and the trail became even more sadistic. The grade was more than forty-five degrees in a number of places, and both of my calves were soon cramping horribly. I could only keep myself going with the solemn promise that I would never climb Pond Mountain again for as long as I live.
Somehow, I made it up to the vast plateau surrounding the summit. It was relatively flat and densely wooded, so there were no external indications that I was walking the crest of a fairly lofty mountain. On the bright side, the woods were cool and pleasant, with rhododendron and azalea blooming wherever I looked. The air was full of the hungry cries of baby grouse. Their nests seemed to be everywhere.
West of the Blue Ridge, the mountains over which I am now hiking are a big change from those I had traversed previously on this trip. These are like long folds in the land stretching for miles. Their ridgecrests tend to be heavily wooded, with nothing resembling a summit peak to break up their flat-topped profiles -- just an occasional wind or water gap cutting through. Walking their crests, one looks much like another. This is going to take some getting used to after all of the majestic scenery which I have been enjoying.
I passed up the one-mile side trail to the slightly higher bump on the plateau which formed the official summit of Pond and followed the Appalachian Trail as it turned left off of the ridgecrest. For the next mile the trail,was nearly level, but the footway was a rocky mess of erosion. Things became worse when it reached the top of a spur ridge and dropped straight off of the mountain. I would not want to be on a ladder stood at that angle. The footway was muddy and treacherous. Many of the trees next to the trail were missing bottom limbs from hikers like me grabbing onto them for their lives as the ground gave way beneath them. The AT climbed over three knobs along that ridge, adding some sharp little ascents to the rigor of the long descent.
Things slowly improved. There were actually a couple of switchbacks after the traverse of the highest knob, and the grade moderated greatly after the second one. The third and final knob was little more than a bump on the ridge. The descent came to an end at the point where the Appalachian Trail crossed US Highway 321. I am not aware if that ridge had an official name, but I came up with a few choice ideas as I descended it.
A small general store stood at the road crossing. A couple of ice cold cokes helped my mental attitude come around, as did the goodies I was able to buy for the trail. The owner of the store asked me what I thought of Pond Mountain, so I told him. I may have sounded just a touch bitter. He informed me that the United States Forest Service was negotiating to purchase sixteen acres of land nearby, the acquisition of which would enable them to reroute the AT around Pond Mountain, making the trail five miles shorter and eliminating those awful climbs. This would have already happened, he said, but the landowner was refusing to sell -- he was holding out for his price.
He must have been a brave man, relating that story to crazed backpackers fresh from the Pond Mountain ordeal, because, as he then informed me, he himself was the recalcitrant landowner. I contemplated for a moment how much fun it would be to deep-fry his testicles in light vegetable oil until the outsides were brown and crispy and the insides were moist and tender, but I kind of liked the guy and still had more miles to cover today. I just said good-bye and left.
The Appalachian Trail after the US 321 crossing was very easy walking, but weird as hell: cutting through the hearts of two combination beach/picnic areas along the shore of a large, man-made body of water named Watauga Lake. Hundreds of happy people were playing and relaxing in the sun with friends and loved ones. I felt completely out of place: proverbial outcast standing out in the cold, peering through a picture window at a large, warm family gathering. I passed through them like a ghost in their midst -- the solitary wanderer. The feeling caught me by surprise; until that moment I had not been feeling particularly lonely today. I got the hell out of both areas as fast as I could. That little voice in my head seized upon my sudden sensation of exile and was telling me to go home and end this lonely, hopeless struggle. And, damn, was it loud!
After the beaches, the trail continued to shadow the shoreline through a residential area. Then, things returned to normal as I followed the AT along an undeveloped stretch of wooded -lakeshore. Gradually, I shook off that case of the blues and was back to normal by the time I reached Watauga Shelter, where I had lunch. It was 1:30, and I had come ten miles in five hours. That was not bad 'considering the challenges I had faced on Pond Mountain, but it was not good enough to advance the cause of the twenty-three-mile day for which I had hoped.
I left the shelter at 2:00. I soon crossed Watauga Lake along the top of a huge pile of rocks poured into a narrow gorge. Watauga Dam looked like one of those emergency jobs that Superman was always building to save towns from onrushing flood waters. Thank you, Superman!
On the far side of the lake, I followed the dam's paved access road uphill for a while. When the road swung around the base of a steep little knob, the AT briefly left the pavement to climb over the knob before plunging straight down the other side. At that point, the trail crossed the road, re-entered the woods, and began the ascent of Iron Mountain. It followed a steeply-ascending spur ridge up through the chaotic tangles of a second-growth forest. The woods were rife with clouds of every type of insect imaginable, but I soon developed a special dislike for the flies. They swarmed my sweat-soaked body in hordes, and I was constantly brushing them off of my arms, legs, and face. They pestered me so much I amassed enough angry adrenaline to roar up that ridge in spite of fatigue. Soon, I was on the long, level crest of Iron Mountain.
From that point, although the hiking was fairly easy, the woods continued to be very buggy and the heat and humidity of the day were slow to abate as the afternoon wore on. The Appalachian Trail followed the ridge with no major climbs or descents to Vanderventer Shelter. It was 5:00 when I arrived. Feeling completely used-up after sixteen very grueling miles, I decided to stay.
The shelter was not very nice. Although the remainder of the ridgecrest was quite dry, the ground around Vanderventer was thick, oozing black mud, and the spot seemed to be home to half of the flies in Tennessee. Nevertheless, there was an excellent viewpoint of Watauga Lake and the surrounding valley from a rock outcrop just behind the shelter, and viewpoints are scarce on this mountain. I sat on that ledge for a half-hour enjoying the view, chasing away flies, and making sensible excuses to myself about why I could not be awesome today. Then, I stood up, put on my pack, and began walking the seven miles to Iron Mountain Shelter.
I badly needed water, but the spring for Vanderventer was far down the steep flank of the mountain; I had neither the time nor the inclination to make that trip. The guidebook mentioned a spring five miles up the Appalachian Trail. I never found it. I dragged myself along, trying to follow my slow progress by picking out the landmarks from the trail description in the guidebook. Either the trail did not quite match the book's description or dehydration and fatigue kept me spacing on the landmarks. Whichever was the case, those last slow miles seemed to stretch into eternity. I had no idea whether I was getting anywhere, but I kept going. I finally realized that the shelter was less than a mile away when I crossed under a set of power lines at 8:20.
I filled my canteens at Iron Mountain's spring, just off of the Appalachian Trail a quarter-mile before the shelter, made one more moderate climb, and stumbled in at 8:45. I dumped all of the water into my large pan and hobbled back down the trail to the spring to refill my canteens, leaving myself with plenty of water for dinner, breakfast, and the trail tomorrow. Moaning and groaning out loud, I repeated that little climb to the shelter one last time, made dinner in the dark, and went to bed.
On Pond Mountain today, I passed the 400-mile mark of the Appalachian Trail. It is time for all awesome little backpackers to go night-night.
Shrouds of silver mist hung over Pond Mountain as I trod that hidden side trail through impenetrable rhododendron jungle. Paradoxically, summer had come earlier to this spot than to the surrounding region. Red-violet blooms sparkled on the trees; heady fragrances wafted softly on the warm, moist breezes.
The entrance to the side trail is very difficult to find. Its very existence is known only by a chosen few. Its exact destination is also a mystery. Some say it crosses the vast western sea to Tol Eressea, the lonely island, and thence to Valinor in the Undying Lands. Some say that it crosses the Verrazano Narrows to Staten Island. Nobody knows for sure.
I scaled the final steep crag which few mortals have ever seen, much less conquered, and there he was: the High Lama of Pond Mountain. Many years ago, he had resigned his position as President and CEO of a large, multinational corporation, vanishing without a trace to seek a life of absolute solitude and spiritual enlightenment on this rock: a lonely outpost of spirituality so inaccessible that even the sadistic maniacs who plot new trail routes have never relocated the AT over it. The FBI still keeps an open file on the case of his strange disappearance, but the slow years pass without one slim lead.
He sat before me, a vision of spiritual splendor. A silver light seemed to radiate from his visage. His eyes were vast, dark pools of infinite wisdom. He was more than eight feet tall and had a huge, round beer belly. Next to him, I felt humbled -- a miserable maggot, unfit to receive a crumb of his knowledge. I prostrated myself on the ground at his feet and begged him to reveal to me the one Ultimate Truth.
Those wondrous eyes slowly lifted to meet mine.. He spoke in an ancient, yet vibrant voice. "My son," he said. "I have grappled with the absolute, and sought answers to questions both trivial and profound. I have meditated on the nature of the universe. I have cut myself off from the rest of the human race, sitting here alone on this spot through decades of solitude, and I have discovered one Truth which stands alone above all others."
Magnificent eyes bore into mine with incredible intensity. I gasped and waited. He spoke again, his voice reverberating out into the encircling void.
"The absolute Truth is: I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY NEED A BABE RIGHT ABOUT NOW!!"
I turned and trod the long path back down to the world of men, the sounds of his sobs receding slowly into the distance.
MONDAY, 6/6/83, MILE 436.6 --- Mice made a racket in the shelter all last night -- just what I needed after my raccoon visitor on the previous night and yesterday's long trek. I felt fatigued, sleepy, and cranky all day long, but, fortunately, I had an easy sixteen-mile walk over flattish ridgecrests.
I lingered leisurely over a pancake breakfast and started hiking at about 9:00. The last few miles of the Appalachian Trail on Iron Mountain followed a wide, grassy old road through forests along the crest. Along the way, I passed the "Nick Grindstaff Monument" -- a pile of rocks surrounding a hole in the ground in which a local hermit had lived and died.
The trail soon turned left off of Iron Mountain and followed Cross Mountain, a short ridge connecting the long, parallel ranges of Iron and Holston Mountains. The crest was open pastures. Most of the time I could not see them -- the AT ran through forest a few hundred feet down the left slope -- but I could hear cows mooing and stomping around along the edge of the trees above me. I crossed several streams running down from those fields, but the water was obviously of suspect drinking quality.
I had lunch at Double Springs Shelter on Holston Mountain. I was rained upon just as I left, but it was merely a drizzle lasting for less than half an hour. Threatening clouds lingered for the remainder of the day.
Holston Mountain was much nicer than Iron Mountain had been. While most of the latter had been covered with a young second-growth forest that was buggy and overgrown, the trees on Holston were tall and attractive and the forest floor was open and airy. Distant vistas were just as scarce as they had been on Iron, but the footway on Holston was wide, clear, and excellently graded -- the best stretch of trail I had hiked in many miles.
Like Pond Mountain, Holston was covered with nests of young grouse, and the air was once again filled with their incessant hungry cries. Every once in a while, the trail would pass too close to one of their nests, and the mother grouse would flutter off, dragging a wing as if it were injured and whining like a dog in agony. Even though they were merely faking injuries in order to attract intruders towards themselves and away from their young, they sounded so pitiful that I would feel guilty about being the cause of such stress. I always hurried by those areas.
I arrived at Abingdon Gap Shelter at 5:00, after an easy and uneventful day on the trail. Two guys were already there. They had hiked in from Damascus today and were heading southward towards the Smokies at the beginning of a month-long backpacking expedition. I have to admit that I enjoyed watching their faces as I described the climbs up Hump and Pond Mountains and other interesting sections of trail ahead. Hey, what would be the point of making all of these grueling hikes if you could not torture southbounders with your war stories? Two other guys arrived sometime later, and the shelter was full. It was the first full shelter I have seen since the Smokies.
Damascus is now less than ten miles away. I am going to arrive right on the schedule I planned back in Erwin. Looking back now, I find it somewhat amusing that I considered myself to be on the brink of failure when I had only come as far as Don Nelan Shelter Friday night. At that point, I had actually covered 44.5 very tough miles in three days. It is difficult now to comprehend just what the crisis was. Somehow it all worked out alright, though. Strangely, I now seem to thrive on crises, although they have always, in the past, brought out the quitter in me.
It is terribly difficult to change a basic fact of,your nature. Quitting is easy. You bear an awful burden when you force yourself to strive desperately towards a goal which you probably cannot reach. The prospect of failure looms so much more terrible when you have put so much of yourself into the battle to succeed. The potential failure becomes the defeat of everything you are or can ever hope to be. It is much safer to quit and say, "Well, I didn't really try that hard, anyway."
Carrying this crushing burden has made me pitiless and remorseless towards myself. I look at every choice I make through a microscope and try to uncover the hidden maneuvers of my subconscious. I know that it is terrified of this desperate gamble of mine. It wants me to quit, and will work on me in insidious ways to bring this about. I cannot let that happen.
And so I walk this long pilgrimage, battling the elements, physical obstacles, fatigue, pain, and loneliness. Most difficult of all, and most dangerous to my hopes, is the battle I have to do with my own self. 1701.9 miles to go.
TUESDAY, 6/7/83, MILE 446.4 --- My last night in Tennessee was a stormy one, and I awoke this morning to fog and drizzle. I left the shelter at 7:40 and walked the ten miles of the Appalachian Trail to Damascus in less than four hours. It was easy trail, and I was feeling strong and confident. Just as they had yesterday, the miles passed pleasantly and uneventfully. Before I knew it, I came upon a sign marking the boundary of the Jefferson National Forest. Three states were now completed, and I was entering Virginia. The trail gradually descended along the ridge into the green valley where Damascus lay nestled among the mountains.
The late morning sun had finally burned through the clouds as I followed the Appalachian Trail along the main street of this small southwestern Virginia town. Damascus has a population of only 1330, but it is an important supply point both for both the Appalachian Trail and a major cross-country bicycle route, as well as the commercial center for a sizable chunk of farming country. It has, for a town of its size, a surprising variety of businesses, including a drive-in restaurant, stores, a cobbler, a laundromat, and a Post Office.
I picked up my supply package at the Post Office. A letter from Dave was waiting for me as well. He had almost caught up to me. He slept in the abandoned building in Sams Gap on the night I would have stayed there had I been able to find my way inside. I wound up pitching my tent a mere three miles ahead of him in Low Gap, near Big Bald. The exertion of the long days he had put in trying to catch up to me after my head start wore him down, and he dawdled along with Ron for a few days to recover. He was at Nolichucky Expeditions with Ron, and they had both benefited from the Coleman fuel I had left there. Had I run into the two of them in town that night, I probably would have stayed in Erwin one last night with them rather than hiking the three miles to Curley Maple Gap Shelter. That's life. I will miss them.
I asked the postmaster about a place to stay in town. He told me that, due to the lack of hotels or motels, the local Methodist church provides an empty two-story house on its property to hikers and bicyclists as a hostel. I walked over to check it out. The place struck me as being somewhat dirty and shabby when I first arrived, but quickly grew on me as I started meeting my fellow guests. It wasn't exactly the Ritz, but it was a friendly place filled with a lot of good people. The building was old and weathered, but relatively clean. The sleeping arrangements were bare mattresses on the floor, but that looked comfortable enough to a person accustomed to sleeping on the hard wooden floor of a shelter. The shower I took before putting on my cleanest set of clothes was long and hot.
When I was staying in the Inn at Hot Springs and read that book called Hiking The Appalachian Trail, one of the accounts was by Gene Espy, the second person ever to hike the entire trail. He had become acquainted with the chief of police in Damascus. The man befriended him and provided food, money, and a place to stay while he was in town. This afternoon, I met the chief's widow, Gladys, who lives next door to the hostel.
I was returning to the hostel from doing my laundry and grabbing a few burgers at a local fast food place called the Dairy King (do I detect a possible trademark infringement suit?). I was clean, dry, and well-fed, so naturally I was walking along with a big, stupid trail town smile on my face, saying hi to everyone I passed because that is what you do in these small southern towns (even the strangers who drive past on the roadwalks all smile and wave to me. It is an interesting experience for someone from the Northeast). So, I gave her a cheerful hello as I passed her front porch. Next thing I knew, I had killed two hours of my valuable R and R time on that porch. She was a sweet old lady who was full of stories.
Her husband had been killed in the line of duty around 1960, and she had lived in that house with her mother ever since, until a few years ago when her mother died. Now, she is alone, but she has the hikers at the hostel next door with whom to pass the time, and everyone in town knows her. I am glad that I spent two of my precious hours with her, easing her loneliness and listening to all of those stories she has probably told a thousand times. I had a good time, but this is more disturbing evidence that I am somehow turning into almost a nice guy on this hike. I would never have taken the time to do anything like that before, much less enjoyed it.
Back at the hostel, I met two older ladies from Pennsylvania who are hiking the Appalachian Trail in shorter segments over a period of years. Their trail name is "The Go-Go Gals." They were fun. A local gentleman named George was with them. He was driving them to a local steak house this evening to treat them to dinner, and he invited me to join them. Steak . . . well . . . okay -- if I have to. He surprised me later by paying for my meal, also. I felt a little embarrassed by that, but he said that I could pay him back by helping out other thru-hikers when I get back home. This is the quality of people that you meet so often on the Appalachian Trail.
I told the ladies all about Gladys, and they made plans to stop by there later and,meet her, which is sort of what I was hoping for when I told them about her. Here I was, doing two nice things on the same day. WHAT'S HAPPENING TO ME???!!! When we got back to the hostel, I thanked George and the ladies, and walked over to the supermarket to buy food for the next stretch of trail.
I am meeting (in a sense) all sorts of interesting hikers in the shelter registers lately. They are all somewhere ahead of me up the trail. An incessantly cheerful gentleman calls himself "The Old Hawaiian Mountain Goat" and signs off all his entries with "aloha." There are a couple of women who call themselves "The Snail Sisters." One of them wrote that they like to sit around in shelters and talk about all the miles they are going to hike that day until it gets too late to head out. Then, they just stay there in that same shelter another night. Another woman calls herself "Wicked Wanda" -- now, she sounds like just the kind of girl I need to meet right about now. Finally, there is "Fuzzy Jim," whose cartoon series, "Anglehead" is rapidly becoming a shelter classic. In one of the hiker survey forms left here and there along the trail by the National Forest Service, he wrote that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail "for the sex." I would very much like to meet these people. I wonder if anyone behind me feels the same way about me from reading my register entries. That would be pretty cool.
I accomplished a good deal in Damascus today. Tomorrow morning, I will replenish my supply of Coleman fuel if I can find some place where it is sold in small amounts. I also need new insoles. The ones I have now are fairly miserable specimens after 450 miles. I will also take another shower, eat something at the drive-in, and then head out for about a half day's hike.
When I began this hike, I expected that my short layovers in trail towns would be restful. In actuality, they are almost more tiring than hiking the trail, in their own way. I have to run around, doing all of the errands that need to be done before I can hit the trail once more. Today was a whirlwind that was over before I knew it. The only trail town where I really rested was Hot Springs, because I spent an extra day.
Nevertheless, I do not want to get into the habit of taking many entire days off from the AT. The quick loss of physical conditioning resulting from taking just one day off in Hot Springs was astonishing. The endurance returned quickly once I resumed hiking, but the first day back on the trail was somewhat frustrating. A more insidious danger is the loss of mental resolve. After weeks on the trail, the pleasure in the small conveniences which towns provide can become a hard drug to kick. The longer a thru-hiker stays in a town, the easier it becomes to find excuses to stay even longer -- especially for me, a man already equipped with his own personal demons.
I have discovered that, once I tear myself away from each town, the reluctance to leave always fades quickly away. I selected the Appalachian Trail for the site of my last stand because I love the woods and the mountains. It only takes a few hours to stop missing the luxuries I left behind and to begin to enjoy the pleasures of the AT once more. What I call "The Trail Town Syndrome" is not so much an unwillingness to be on the trail as much as it is merely a lethargic inertia which intensifies over time. The quicker it is overcome, the quicker it will pass.
Damascus is about 450 AT miles from Springer Mountain, and, during that stretch, I have seen too many would-be thru-hikers drop by the wayside after delaying their departures from a town for one day after another. They eventually just seem to lose their will to continue. I set out on this trail with, perhaps, the weakest will of all, and, probably, the most riding on the success of this mission.
Deep in my soul, I know that ultimately I am going to fail, because I have always failed before. Every day I continue my quest is a small victory for me. Tomorrow, I will leave Damascus to chase my dream of Katahdin northward for a few more miles. It will be one more small victory. 1692.1 miles to go.
|©1996 George Steffanos
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