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.