One month solo on the Appalachian Trail
Dogwoods bloom along Brown Mountain Creek, their hues of pink and white contrasting with the forest canopy. Crested dwarf irises poke up through the forest floor. Farther along the creek, an old sign juts up from the side of the trail: 'Memories of the Brown Mountain Creek Community.' A series of quotes and descriptions follows, describing the life of freedmen who worked the land as sharecroppers over a century ago.
I cross a series of footbridges, meeting a smattering of northbound hikers along the way. "How did you get your trail name?" I ask each one.
"I was going back and forth about hiking the trail, and my wife said, 'This could be your last chance.' So here I am."
"I was doing yoga, and someone asked, 'Are you stuck?'"
A short while later, I reach Punchbowl Shelter. Phlatlander already sits at the shelter table. I pull out a pair of old socks to wash, find some water, and join her.
"There's a couple birds watching us. They've been there for awhile." She points to a small, grey-winged bird perched on a thin branch several yards away. The bird gives a high pitched call, answered moments later by another grey-winged bird a few feet away. "I think they may be mates."
After completing my chores, I draw out a stack of postcards and begin writing. Periodically, the birds dive toward us, veering away at the last minute. "Maybe they have a nest nearby," I say.
The contents of our packs are spread across the shelter floor. Phlatlander looks around, a small broom in hand as she sweeps the dirt and dust from the shelter. "I found the nest!" she calls.
Wedged between two wooden beams is a small, palm-sized nest ringed by bits of moss and dirt. Five pale beige eggs lie nestled in the middle. It's beautiful, I think.
The birds continue to dive by throughout the afternoon, always zooming away soon after. That night, a chorus of frogs begins singing. As we bundle up in our sleeping bags at dusk, one bird flies to the entrance, hovers for a split second, then leaves. Seconds later, its mate swoops into the shelter and perches on the edge of the nest. It eyes us warily, then ruffles its feathers and carefully settles down atop its eggs. It stays there for the whole night, bravely protecting its brood, as the frogs trill in the moonlight.