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.