1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
A fire tower lies directly ahead atop Albert Mountain. As I climb up via a winding passage lined with rhododendron bushes, I catch a glimpse of dawn through a break in the foliage. I can't help but pause, taking in the pastel colors splashed across the sky.
Climbing the fire tower will place me a full mile above sea level. Slender metal beams support the tower, offering wide open views to the valleys below. Halfway up, I glance down and feel my legs start shaking. That should be high enough to put me a mile above sea level, I think, hurrying back down. I put on my pack and hike on for awhile before I think, What are you doing?! This is your only chance to climb that tower. You may not come this way again. Go back!
I grit my teeth, walk back, pull on gloves, grab the railings, and scramble up the tower as quickly as I can. This time, I make it all the way.
By early afternoon, I reach Winding Stair Gap, closely followed by several other hikers, including Good Times, Heinz, and Diesel. Solace, a shuttler from the Franklin Budget Inn, arrives shortly after I call for a ride. He drives an old white van with the back seats pulled down and a Bert doll tied to the center console.
"Will we all fit?"
"The most I've fit in here is 20 people and a dog," Solace reassures us.
Four of us pile into the front seats, while the rest squeeze onto the back seats with the packs.
"Have you thru-hiked?" someone asks Solace.
"I haven't - but Bert has," Solace says, keeping a straight face as he nods at Bert.
Fifteen miles later, we pull into Haven's Budget Inn. A group of at least eight hikers sits sprawled outside the first room. Good Times heads over to join them. I spot Silas and Left Foot nearby; they wave hello as I retrieve my mail drop. As I sit down next to them, one of the hikers - Chicken - says, "I've been wanting to get out of this town for days, but I kept getting hammered. This is my fifth beer-o!"
Woah, I think. Another hiker, Rowdy, has her dog, Steve, with her. Steve sniffs curiously at my mail drop as I pet him.
Silas, Good Times, and I end up rooming together in the Baltimore Jack Hostel across the street. For dinner, Silas and I head to the Asian King buffet with three other hikers: Brian, a preacher from California, and his two sons, Nate and Caleb.
"So why are you hiking?" Brian asks me.
"Unfinished business," I reply. "I did a long section hike last year. I was drawn by the challenge of it, and the chance for personal growth. Met a bunch of thru-hikers and got inspired, so this year, I'd like to follow through."
"Unfinished business and follow through," Brian muses. "Both of those would make good trail names."
True, I think, though Not Bad has grown on me. It's cautiously optimistic, gets a laugh out of people, and has several different connotations: not bad -- totally AWESOME, not bad -- it was terrible, or just plain not bad. When I make it to Katahdin, though, maybe I'll take a new trail name. Change it to something with a ring to it: something I've earned.
That night, Silas and I find ourselves wondering where Matt, Tom, Carter, and Jackie ended up.
"I think they're behind us -- they all got off at Unicoi," I say.
"Someone said Matt was here yesterday," Silas replies. He pauses. "Matt's really wise. He says really deep things. Like, the other day, he said, 'Hating someone is like drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die.'"
"There are some who say man is the sum of his adventures."
Good Times walks in after calling his partner. He drops into his bunk and announces his plans to zero the next day to let his shin splints heal. "There are some people ahead of me," he says, "but I realized it's my hike, and I should take care of myself - not worry about keeping up with everyone."
As I get out my sleeping bag, I notice a small stuffed giraffe nestled into Good Times' pack. I ask him about it.
"The giraffe was my mom's," he says. "She died a few years ago, but she was always the one to push me to travel. It reminds me of her -- sometimes, when I see the sunset, I'm like, 'Mom, see that?'"
The next morning, Good Times heads down to the office to reserve his bunk. "Do you want the good news or bad news first?" he asks us as he returns.
Silas and I look at each other.
"Bad news," I say.
"The trail's closed from Winding Stair to Wayah Gap."
Silas and I rush down to the office. Joe, from the Hiker Hostel, lounges out front next to a red handwritten sign: Trail closed from Winding Stair to Wayah Gap due to wildfire. In no time, a crowd of hikers gathers.
"I'm leaving," Joe says. "I'm going to hike through the fire."
"They won't let you through," Solace warns as he walks by.
"I'd like to see them try and stop me," Joe replies. "I'm fireproof - I'll just hike at night."
"I'll just skip that section," another hiker pipes up. "What is it - 5 miles? What's 5 miles in 2000?"
Silas and I decide to give it a day to see if the trail opens back up. I don't want to skip that section if I can help it, I think.
"The trail knows best," Silas says as we reserve our bunks for another night.
A few minutes later, a full shuttle of hikers pulls in. As the hikers step out, looking rather tired and unkempt, we spot several familiar faces. Matt. Tom. Carter, with his girlfriend, Miranda.
That afternoon, we all head down to the local hiker bar: The Lazy Hiker, featuring specialty beers like the Slack Pack, Trail Mate, and Twentymiler IPA. We run into at least twenty other hikers, including Timothy from the Hiker Hostel and Jackie. Tom orders a flight of beers. Timothy signs me up for a ping pong tournament, in which I lose spectacularly to Ian, but win a consolation glass of beer. After trying a few sips of beer samples, I order a hazelnut one that I give to another hiker.
"With so many jobs, it's like, 'Where have you been? What have you done?' Here, it's more, 'Where are you going?'"
When the sun sets, I find myself sitting with Midnight Chef and Kickback, both from Connecticut. Solace passes by, orders a burger and complementary fries, then joins us. After taking a bite, he pushes the fries over to me.
"Thanks." I dig in. Delicious.
Midnight Chef talks of working in a rehab center. "It can be very rewarding," she notes, "but these people, they're not always right in the head. You know the steps they should follow to get better, but they just want to use..."
"I eat second dinner at hiker midnight."
Solace tells us stories from the year he thru-hiked: tales of walking to every town before shuttles were available, of facing several feet of snow in the Smokies, of having no water for three days... He explains how the hostel we stayed at, the Baltimore Jack Hostel, came to be.
"Baltimore Jack was a good friend of mine," Solace says. "You loved him and you hated him; he was a scholar and an asshole; he thru-hiked 9 times and would give you the shirt off his back.
"He would do things like, if he saw a cute girl, he'd say, 'You're so good looking, a starving dog would jump out of the car to chase after you." He'd drive by a huge group of hikers, roll down the windows, and shout, 'Y'all should get a job!'
"When he passed, we named the hostel after him."
When we finish our food, Solace offers us a ride back to the hostel in his van.
"Thanks," I tell him as he pulls into the Budget Inn. "You're amazing."
As I leave, I hear him murmur, "You hear that, Bert? We're amazing."