1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
After arriving at McAfee Knob, I walk around, take a nap, and wait as the rest of my tramily arrives.
We watch the sunset.
We hike up for the sunrise.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
The next week begins in a haze of rain and text messages. With Silas and Carter returning from trail days, we find our trail family scattered over a range of nearly 100 miles:
'Let's try and reunite at McAfee's Knob on Monday!' Kelly texts.
'That sounds great!' Silas responds.
'See you there dudes!' Carter writes shortly after.
I hike out from Pearisburg in a steady drizzle, arriving at Rice Field Shelter around noon to find a group of hikers huddled around an iPad, watching Captain Fantastic. Briefly, I consider pressing on. I check my phone. Thunderstorms. Then, I see another text.
'I'm at Rice Field Shelter today/tonight (642.1),' writes Tom.
I look closer at the movie crowd. No Tom. I walk to the back of the shelter. There are four or five orange tents, all identical to Tom's.
'Is one of the orange tents yours?' I text.
'Yep!' Tom pokes his head out.
That afternoon, I set up my tent, watch the rest of the movie, and promptly fall asleep at 3:00 pm. By the time I wake up from the nap, it's hiker midnight, so I go back to sleep.
And so it goes for the next few days, with each of us periodically broadcasting our locations as we move towards McAfee Knob. The rain continues the next day.
"It's like a series of tests. In England, it's death by drizzle. Here, it's death by drowning. Only, the test is that you don't drown yourself," an English hiker comments drily.
The rivers are swollen with rain. I find myself wading through knee deep water when crossing one creek. After two days of rain, we get lucky: The skies clear. One afternoon, I meet a self-professed hobo at Laurel Creek Shelter.
"Everyone's a bit crazy," he says, staring at me intensely. "It's just a question of how much crazy you can take."
I feel rather glad to be tenting amidst other hikers that night.
The sun shines brightly the day I hike into the infamous Four Pines Hostel. I am marveling at the good weather and my good luck in encountering two completely unexpected trail magic events: one after climbing up Brush Mountain, where I hardly dared believe anyone would set up trail magic - let alone a full-blown hiker cookout with pizza, burgers, and hot dogs - and another after climbing down the rocky trail on Dragon's Tooth.
Joe Mitchell, proprietor of Four Pines, walks down the driveway in bright pink suspenders and sticks out his hand. "Hi, I'm Joe Mitchell. Where are you from?"
I swing by the hostel, where an Appalachian Trail sign hangs sandwiched between an American flag and a Confederate flag, grab an ice pop, and set up my tent outside.
Tom and Ian show up in the afternoon, at which point we all jump in the shuttle to the Homeplace Restaurant, which serves side dishes and meats in family-style platters. Sitting in the restaurant feels like sitting down to dinner in the dining room of someone's house. The place only opens from Thursday to Sunday; we just made the cutoff.
When Kali hikes in later that night, after the numerous shuttles back and forth to the restaurant and store/gas station have stopped, Joe hands her the keys to his van so she can resupply. Tom and I join in. Soon, the entire van fills with hikers heading to the store. Joe stops us on the way out.
"Go to the store, and straight back," he says gruffly. "Nowhere else."
We go to the store and straight back. The next morning, I wake up slightly later than usual, looking forward to a short hike up to McAfee Knob and a tramily reunion.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Subjectively speaking, the trail from Partnership Shelter to Pearisburg is not one of my favorite areas of Virginia. Views seem few and far between.
One night, I bolt upright at 1 am as the crack of thunder jolts me awake. I am camped in a tent, alone, on a ridgeline. Lightning. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. The storm is right overhead. I lie awake for hours.
When the sun shows, I find myself hiking in sweltering heat, straight through scores of spiderwebs and dangling caterpillars strung across the trail. Every few minutes, I pause to peel away the silken threads clinging to my face.
What I choose to remember about this section, though, is the kindness of the people.
There is Tina, owner of the Quarter Way Inn, who offers me breakfast in the morning. I am the only hiker there: most returned to Damascus for trail days.
"Do you want breakfast? We have leftovers," she says as I make myself a sad bowl of instant mashed potatoes. "Free of charge -- I just kept thinking, it's not your fault that you're the only one here."
Leftovers or not, the breakfast Tina serves up is a gourmet meal to me. French toast, potatoes, scones, and muffins - I clean my plate.
"I was staying at a hostel up in New York...and the owner said, 'The whole world comes to me.' I thought, 'I want that.'"
I remember the contentment of reuniting with my tramily - sans Silas and Carter, who are at trail days - one night at Chestnut Knob Shelter: eating mashed potatoes around the fire pit, talking to the other hikers gathered there, enjoying the view into the valleys below. Tenacious and Nighthawk are there, along with a small, fit woman with braided silver hair: Carjack.
"We always see you at the randomest times, and then you disappear," Tenacious tells me.
"I sometimes hike between bubbles," I explain, "and I get up early."
Tom arrives at the shelter later that night.
"There's the top bunk open," Kelly says.
"There's a lot of mouse droppings up there," Tenacious warns him.
Tom briefly surveys the bunk. "-- I think I'll just take the weirdly lumpy grass," he says, walking out the door.
The night after encountering the thunderstorm, I stay at Jenny Knob Shelter and meet Joe, a section hiker and trail maintainer. He lets me use his stove to try one of his Knorr sides, since my Esbit stove can only boil water for about 5 minutes.
I spend the day before my birthday relaxing at Woods Hole Hostel: meeting other hikers, sampling the homemade bread and cheese, and enjoying the birthday apple my mom sent in my mail drop. Two dogs and a duck roam freely about the property. A couple work-for-stay hikers run to and fro, greeting new arrivals and filling smoothie orders. The duck-in-residence follows me around, eyeing my bread and cheese.
Before dinner, Neville, owner of Woods Hole, gathers the guests into a gratefulness circle. Then, we feast on bread, fresh salad, curry, and stir-fried ground pork. Neville even fries up a pepper-free pan of pork just for me.
"I've been all over the United States," the young man sitting next to me says. "Of all the places in the world, the one that makes me happiest is this house right here."
Before breakfast the next morning, we again gather in a gratefulness circle. "I'm grateful for my - as of today - 25 years on Earth," I say.
There is a slight pause. Then, a chorus of Happy Birthday breaks out from the circle of hikers. Neville sticks a few candles in my French toast and gives me a warm slice of her addictive cookie bars for the trail.
Woods Hole is one of the experiences unique to the Appalachian Trail: Guests come together to help with cooking and cleaning dishes, and each guest is expected to pick a chore from the jobs jar before leaving.
"What it does is create an awareness of space," Neville says. "When Michael and I created this vortex of awesomeness, it wasn't like that. I'd grown up watching my grandmother walking around, straightening things...back then, y'all were much more aware of the space. Now, you're more aware of the people you're with."
That night, I hike into Pearisburg and catch up with Kali at the Angel's Rest Hiker Haven. The entire complex consists of 70's style mobile homes. Glad to be out of the rain, I buy myself some fruit from the Food Lion next door, then settle in to watch Netflix shows with the other hikers.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
I escape heavy rain for half of my first day out of Damascus, but my luck runs out after lunch. I see and hear the storm before it hits me: the smoky gray curtain of rain moving up the mountain, the roar of a million droplets like a waterfall in my ears. In this weather, nothing stays waterproof for long: The water seeps through my rain jacket, my rain skirt, my gaiters, my boots...
Then, I stand in front of Lost Mountain Shelter, soaking wet, staring pitifully at the two groups of section hikers already occupying the space. They look incredibly comfortable wrapped in their dry sleeping bags.
"You look like you're rain proofed," one of them says.
I give some sort of noncommittal answer as I go to set up my tent: I am most definitely not rainproofed.
77 walks by. "Take care," he tells me.
When I come back to the shelter, one of the section hikers, a mother of several children, says, "We can make room for you, if you don't mind sleeping horizontally."
Gratefully, I unroll my damp sleeping bag, put on my damp down jacket, and slide in for the night.
The next morning is drizzly. I shudder as I force myself to pull on wet socks. My boots squish with every step. The entire morning consists of foggy views, but then, I reach the Mt. Rogers parking lot, and the sun breaks from behind the clouds. The trail remains a stream, but I marvel at the miles of ridges and valleys visible from he trail. 77, 84, Scallywag, and Ty all show up for dinner at Thomas Knob Shelter, located at a prime spot near the summit of Mt. Rogers. I wake up early to enjoy the sunrise.
Dawn is still spreading when I hike out from the shelter. Not five minutes later, I spot a herd of ponies grazing near a cluster of tents.
77 walks up from his tent. "You missed all the excitement last night," he tells me. "They came through camp at 1, and they were licking the moisture off the tents --they broke this one guy's tent."
I spend the rest of the day hiking through some of the most enchanting terrain I've seen, enjoying the sun and herds of ponies around Mt. Rogers and the Grayson Highlands: Some scenes are too beautiful for words.
The next day, I aim for Partnership Shelter, famous for having pizza delivery, a shower, and a shuttle to Marion. When I get closer to the shelter, I begin to recognize the terrain: Last year, this was among the last parts I hiked during my long section hike. Memories layer upon memories. I remember sharing a pizza, barbecuing with my parents, hitting 500 miles, all in this small stretch of land.
Unfortunately, I arrive too late to order pizza or catch the last town shuttle. Having run out of food, I arrive feeling famished and slightly bummed out. I throw my sleeping pad upstairs, take a shower, then head to the back to wash my clothes in the sink. I rinse my socks out 20 times before the water runs clear.
When I finish hanging my clothes on the clothesline, I spot Scallywag waving me over. His hair is tied back in a red bandana, and he has a couple slices of pizza in his hand. 84 and Ty sit nearby, next to Giggles, a woman with hair dyed purple and teal.
"Do you want some pizza?" Scallywag asks. The four of them have ordered three gigantic pizzas - each with upwards of 20 slices - between them.
The unexpected trail magic could not have come at a better time. I dig in.
Ty raises a pair of birdwatching binoculars and mimics various bird calls. 84 joins in. It's impossible not to giggle as they mimic the high pitches meow of the catbird. A feeling of contentment fills me as I sit by the fire, eating pizza, listening to these snatches of conversation around me.
In the morning, I do manage to catch the shuttle to Marion, where a local trail angel named Gary shuttles me to the post office, buys me a Sunkist, and offers me a Hardee's sandwich. I pick up some Dr. Pepper for Silas - my tramily is scheduled to arrive later in the day - and easily catch a ride back to the shelter with 77, Tenacious, and Nighthawk. Most excitingly, I open my mail drop and find new insoles. I immediately throw out my old, duct-taped ones and put the new ones into my boots. In the afternoon, after briefly reuniting with my tramily, I move on to Chatfield Shelter.
1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Before leaving the hotel, I fashion myself a makeshift rain fly with a plastic bag and hope for sunny weather. We all head to the lobby for breakfast, piling our plates high with pancakes, cereal, eggs, and biscuits.
"Y'all are acting like it's your last meal," Mary, the breakfast attendant, tells us.
Then, it's time to shuttle out. We squeeze into a truck, with Tom in front, me on the center console, and everyone else in back.
Halfway through the day, we hit 400 miles. When I reach the shelter, Jenny, Kelly, Silas, and Carter have already eaten dinner. I start setting up my tent. As I'm snapping the tent poles into place, another hiker walks in, heads behind the shelter, and begins to pitch his tent.
"There's always a risk when you use the shelter as a wind buffer," he says. "You never know if it'll blow the other way."
He wears a baseball cap emblazoned across the front with Bush-Reagan 84 and speaks with a southern drawl. He introduces himself as 84: "If you forget, it's on the hat."
After setting up his tent, he crawls inside for the night.
Carter pulls out his phone and does some calculations. I overhear him saying, "Guys, if we do 20 miles a day - 120 miles a week with a zero - through Virginia, we can make it in four months."
20 miles a day?! The trail crew plans to do 24 miles the next morning. I fall asleep not knowing whether I can keep up, or when I will see them again if I do not.
I wake up and start packing before 5:00 am - I must pick up a mail drop at Kincora Hostel today - just in time to catch a glimpse of 84 folding up his tent. He and I briefly share a look of mild bewilderment, both of us shocked to see someone else up so early, before he hoists his pack onto his shoulders and heads out of camp.
After passing the ruins of a cabin and coming to a road, I find a sign for Kincora Hostel nailed to a tree. A short walk later, I find myself in front of a rustic cottage covered with English Ivy. 84 sits on the side porch, in front of a wooden table topped with a large plate of cat food. "Bob'll be back soon. He just left to shuttle some people out," he tells me.
"I'm not fast, but I have good habits. It's all about consistency."
I set down my pack to wait for Bob. A smoky gray cat leaps onto the table, followed by a couple calico ones. After another hour, Bob Peoples drives in.
"Might I trouble you for my mail drop?" I ask him.
He consults a handwritten list on the wall, disappears behind a wooden gate, and emerges with my package. After paying him $5, I spend the next hour organizing my drop as Bob recounts his hiking trips and the colorful characters he's met. Several more hikers trickle in, including Scallywag and Ty, friends of 84.
"Would you be interested in slackpacking?" Bob asks me. "I'd take you to the road, and you hike 9 miles back. Stay the night. You've already paid the $5. It'd be like a nero -- no charge."
And so, I end up slackpacking back to Kincora from Watauga Lake. That night, I take a bunk at the hostel and enjoy the antics of Fireproof and Dishes, who are parading around in snow suits scavenged from the hiker box. The ceiling and walls are plastered with photo upon photo of hikers at Katahdin.
I wake to rain falling on the roof. Sighing, I pull my makeshift rain plastic bag rain cover over my pack. When Bob walks in to feed the cat, he eyes my pack up and down, then returns with a blue rain fly. "Here. See if this will fit."
It fits perfectly. I have a new rain fly!
The next couple nights - my last in Tennessee - I stop at Iron Mountain Shelter and Abingdon Gap Shelter. Like almost every shelter in Tennessee, these have no privies. Once, walking out to the back of the shelter, I hear the sound of hundreds of buzzing wings: With every step I take, swarms of flies rise from the -- well fertilized -- ground.
The third day, I catch up to my trail family in Damascus. Camp chores consume half my time, but after finding my mail drop, picking up a Mother's Day card, back-washing my filter, and doing laundry, I enjoy a comfortable night on the couch of our four bedroom, ten person rental house.