1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
On my second day, I walk into a road crossing to find a trailer, heavily graffitied with hiker notes, reading 'trail magic -->.' I hurry down the road to find tables covered with food: granola bars, oranges, hot dogs, chips, soda...all provided by Papa Smurf and his Meetup group!
"What's your trail name?" Papa Smurf asks me.
"Not Bad?! Halfway through the trail, your name'll be OH GAWD!" he says, laughing.
"I've been doing this group for eight years," he continues. "You know that look of excitement kids get when they see something new? When you take them camping or something? I get to do that with adults.
Ten years ago, if you'd have told me I'd lead a hiking group, I'd've said you were crazy. Ten years ago, if I saw you, I'd've let you walk on by without stopping to talk. Then, I hiked 160 miles, and my whole personality changed."
"I'm famous. Sit down. I've got lots of stories. There was this hiking group for women hikers. Their leader had thru-hiked awhile back, so I knew her. I kept calling her, asking if I could come along. Finally, she said, 'Papa Smurf, you can come along, but only if you wear a bra.'
That night, I camp at a road crossing near hikers Sisu and Chief.
The next day, I head out early, only stopping to eat breakfast when I reach the next shelter. The hikers who stayed at the shelter begin filing out. I spot a familiar face from the hiker hostel: Timothy, a black man at least 6 ft tall sporting the beginnings of a salt and pepper beard.
I camp at Lance Creek with Timothy and several other hikers that night: Saskia, Jackie, Carter, Becky, Tri. News about an incoming storm circulates around the group.
"If we get up early, we can hike into Neels Gap before the storm hits," one person says.
"Do you want to hike out early?" I ask Timothy.
"Sounds like a plan," he replies.
"I've biked across country twice."
I awake to muffled voices and dim headlights shining through my tent. What on earth? I check my watch. 3:30 am. When I open my tent fly, I find that the whole row of tents has disappeared. Woah, they're really early, I think.
Timothy, a woman named Saskia, and I head out at 5:00 am. Our headlamps barely cut through the fog to illuminate the road ahead. By the time we reach Blood Mountain, torrents of rain pour down in sporadic bursts, soaking through my clothes and boots. Timothy stays behind to wait out the storm.
Mountain Crossings, an outfitter and hostel, lies only miles ahead. I eagerly anticipate a shower and warm bed. As I approach the summit, a lone hiker approaches me.
"Do you have the time?" he calls.
"Oh! good!" Relief flashes across his face. "I thought it was, like, 3. I got up, and everyone was gone."
He introduces himself as Silas: trail name Missionary. As we cross the summit, thunder rumbles in the distance. We exchange wide-eyed glances. "I'm glad I'm not on the summit," I say.
We find Mountain Crossings filled with hikers decked out in rain gear. The store clerk tells us the hostel is closed, but we fall in with a section hiker, Josh, who offers to share his room in town.
"Once you have a family, everything changes. My daughter - I live for her."
As we wait for a shuttle, a white-bearded man in a tan shirt walks in. "Just coming in to see if anyone needs a ride," he says.
We talk for a bit: He tells me about the time he rescued two hypothermic girls on the trail.
"What inspired you to come help out hikers?" I ask.
"I'd seen they needed it," he replies.
Before leaving, he takes out a large bag of corks and presses a handful into my hand. Good fire-starters, he'd said.
That afternoon, we find $5 pizza in town, meet up with Tom, Matt, Jackie, and Carter - who happen to be staying next door - and enjoy a pizza party.