1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
News spreads that the Winding Stair Gap fires are contained and the trail is open! Ron Haven shuttles Silas and I to Winding Stair Gap at 9:00 am; Matt, Tom, Carter, and Miranda resume their hike at Rock Gap, four miles back.
"There's some rangers with some food and stuff for y'all up at the bald," a southbound dayhiker tells us.
I check my phone. "We're around Wine Spring Camp now - I think Carter said they were planning to camp there," I tell Silas. "Siler Bald is about two miles ahead. Maybe they'll show up at the trail magic when they hear about it."
We hurry to Siler Bald, where an assortment of cookies, crackers, granola bars, and juice awaits us. Apples and clementines are in a nearby cooler. We stay for several hours, eating both lunch and an early dinner. Hikers come and go.
"I don't think they're going to show up," I say.
We wait another few minutes. Most of the other hikers plan to head to the next shelter, about a mile away.
"I really want to hang out with Matt and everyone," Silas says. "I'm going back to that camp site - Wine Spring, or whatever."
Going back to find our budding trail family. I think about losing time if I backtrack two miles. Then, I think about the past week and a half: the first day, the pizza party after Neels Gap, reuniting at the Budget Inn after the wildfire. I decide to go back, too.
When we arrive, we find everyone sitting around a campfire Matt coaxed from damp firewood. Silas and I set up camp, then join them.
"Yesterday, Solace said that only 25% of people finish the trail," Silas muses. "So he said out of every four of us, only one would finish."
Tom and I glance at each other.
"That's a gross misunderstanding of probability," Tom says.
I can't help but chime in. "He's assuming we're all acting independently. But we're not. We're interdependent."
We trade stories. We laugh. Matt puts on a green baseball cap, sticks a finger in his mouth, and blows. The cap pops off his head. Silas looks on in amazement.
"You like that?" Matt asks. He does it again.
Totally worth it, I think to myself. This is what it's all about.
Early the next morning, I climb up a stone tower overlooking valleys partially shrouded in fog. Burnt signs and blackened wooden posts line the walls of the tower. I stay there for a few moments, enjoying the view.
That evening, we all pile into Wesser Bald Shelter, eat dinner, then hike back up to a fire tower to watch the sunset.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), featuring a full outfitter, restaurant, and general store, lies halfway between Winding Stair Gap and Fontana Dam. We stop there for lunch, sharing a pizza as an appetizer, and ordering 1/2 pound burgers as main courses. Hikers and whitewater rafters alike mill about. I spot both Joe and Timothy in the throng. Packs line the outfitter storefront; cell phones are charging in every outlet; resupply boxes lie out in the open.
I stay there for a couple hours after lunch, charging my power bank. Timothy offers me a bag of cheetos before I leave. Miranda hitches a ride to town; today is her last day. After getting a late start, I start the long trudge up from the NOC.
I am still hiking at 7 pm. A couple of hikers, Atlas and Matchmaker, spot me. "Enough is enough!" they shout.
I decide to camp with them that night, two miles shy of the next shelter.
"I was in business intelligence. One thing I can tell you is I have never been bored."
"This guy came up here with trail magic pizza," he tells me. "It's all gone now, but Matt saved two slices for you and Tom."
The next day, I catch up to Matt, Tom, Silas, and Carter after a long 17 miles. Three more hikers, Jenny, Kelly, and Kali, are part of our crew. Silas catches me as I pull into camp.
After setting up camp, I head to the campfire. That night, I eat the best piece of pepperoni pizza I've had in my life.
As I hike into Fontana Dam the next day, I see a pair of old tan hiking boots filled with pebbles next to a sign. I look closer.
'My husband, James had a dream of hiking the AT...he completed over 165 miles...but God had other plans...I am placing a pair of James' hiking boots filled with pebbles on the Appalachian Trail at Fontana Dam, in hopes that when hikers come upon them, they will take a pebble and carry it with them until they reach the end of their hike, wherever that may be... '
I pick out a small black pebble and put it in my pack.
After doing laundry in town, I hike to the 'Fontana Hilton' shelter, so named for the hot showers and toilets in the nearby bathhouse. At least 40 tents dot the surrounding area. I enjoy one more shower and share one more night with the trail crew. The Smokies lie just ahead.