1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Don, Josh's shuttle driver, drops by in the morning as we pack. His car with the mechanic, but he offers to hook us up with more shuttlers. "Dude," he says, "some of those other drivers, man, they'll charge you ridiculous prices, dude, for each additional person. Me, I charge the same price, dude. Doesn't cost me any more, man. I'm still going to the same place."
We end up dialing several numbers - no response - before trying our luck at hitchhiking out of town. After walking to the local coffee shop, we join a hiker named Athena at the curb, and stick out our thumbs. Cars race by.
After a couple minutes, Athena removes her hat and shakes out her hair.
"Oh -- here comes the hair!" Silas shouts.
"I'm about to show some leg," Athena jokes.
In a few more minutes, a pickup truck pulls over, and we find ourselves hitching a ride back to Neels Gap in the back of the truck.
That day, I meet Disciple and Halo, and run into my second round of trail magic, while hiking to Low Gap Shelter.
I'm legally blind, and it's getting worse. I recognize postures and gaits, but I I wouldn't recognize your face. I'd like to do it while I still can. I'd like to inspire people to get out there. Doesn't matter if you're overweight or have health problems. You shouldn't hide away."
That night, Silas, Tom, Jackie, Matt, Carter, and I stay at Low Gap Shelter. Around sunset, we gather firewood and tell stories around the campfire.
"Being the youngest of five has advantages and disadvantages. For the longest time, I thought rhinos weren't real. My brothers convinced me that rhinos were like unicorns. They were like, 'You know all those pictures in your textbooks? They're lying to you. That's what the government wants you to believe.' I was like, 'Woah.' So when I saw a rhino in a zoo for the first time - this was, like, the end of high school - it was as if I had seen a unicorn in real life."
I hike in steady cold rain mixed with occasional thunder the next day: The next shelter I reach is completely full with hikers burrowed into their sleeping bags. After Silas, Jackie, Matt, and Carter decide to get off trail to head into the town of Helen, I end up pushing on with a former investment banker named Ian.
"Got any good stories?" he asks me. "I like getting people's stories."
Somehow, the last 5 miles of the hike seem easier with company.
Ian and I reserve bunks at the Top of Georgia Hostel, owned by former thru-hiker Sir-Packs-A-Lot, for the following night.
When I get up for breakfast, pellets of hail pelt me across the face. A mix of hail, sleet, and snow continues to fall until I reach the hostel.
First order of business: hot chocolate. Then, a shower. Joe, Paul, and Carla from the Hiker Hostel are also staying for the night. That night, I join the other hikers at a local buffet, and play a round of scrabble before bed.
I get up at 5:38 am the next morning to sneak in one last shower before the other hikers wake: some 20+ hikers share the same bathroom. Sir-Packs-A-Lot delivers his daily spiel during the complementary all-you-can-eat-cereal breakfast. "25% of people quit by the time they get here," he says, highlighting the Hostel on an Appalachian Trail map painted on the wall. "50% quit by Hot Springs."
After taking an easy day into Plumorchard Shelter - the IT band in my leg bothers me a bit - I cross the GA/NC border on my 9th day. Though the day is warm, a sprinkling of snow still covers the ground in some areas. As I hike, two dayhikers pass by in the opposite direction.
"You've got some trail magic coming up in 6 miles. At Deep Gap!" they shout.
I thank them and hurry on. A couple miles from Deep Gap, I run into the backpacker I met on the train. I rack my mind for his name. Something like...Doug...Fart?
"Can I just call you...Doug?" I ask. I'm not too keen on accidentally calling someone 'Fart.'
"It's not Doug. It's Duck Fart," he says matter-of-factly.
"Duck Fart? How did you get that?"
"It's a drink. Back when the trail started, no one knew what it was. I had to show them how to make it. Next time I went back, I told them I was the one who showed them how to make the drink, and they said, 'Oh - Duck Fart!'"
"Last time I came down to Deep Gap was with a friend. We were planning on doing trail magic, but these other guys were there. So, we set up camp and sat around the campfire.
That afternoon, I indulge in trail magic from a couple of former thru-hikers: Red Truck and Green Truck. Hotdogs, barbecue pork, cantaloupe, peach crumble - what more could a thru-hiker ask for?
My pack feels light the next morning: I am just a day from my next resupply location in Franklin, NC, and I have eaten almost all the food in my food bag. After heading to Betty Creek, I camp with Good Times, Heinz, and Diesel.
"Good times - I always look like I'm having a good time."
"It was Heinz 57 because my pack weighed 57 pounds."
"Diesel. You'll see why tonight."