1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
I awake to find a pool of water at the bottom of my tent. Condensation drips from the walls; every now and again, spritzes of water land on my face. I pack up quickly in the rain, wringing as much water as I can from the tent fabric, and slide my feet into my still-damp boots. That's the hardest part of the day done with, I think. And the hostel is just a mile away.
One highway crossing later, I reach a gravel road on the side of a cliff. Emblazoned in orange paint on a small rock are the words 'Standing Bear,' with an arrow pointing up the road. I turn and follow it until I see a cluster of wooden cabins in the distance.
Hikers in rain gear are everywhere. A stream runs beneath a bridge leading to a white house in the distance. As soon as I step onto the bridge, a dark bearded man in t-shirt and jeans intercepts me. "Are you here for a resupply or stay?" he asks.
"Ok -- let's have you put your pack down over there first." He leads me back across the bridge to the porch of one of the wooden cabins. I spot a bunch of hikers crammed into a grimy kitchen in one cabin. A power strip runs down the side of a table, filled with phones and power banks. I pay $2 for a shower in a curtained room across from the privy. Hot water runs down into a hole drilled in the stone floor. It feels amazing after the last few days.
One by one, the trail crew files in. First stop: the resupply cabin. Silas checks the fridge for Dr. Pepper. Carter, Kelly, and I grab an envelope and pen from beside the door to keep track of our purchases: the hostel operates on the honor system.
I chow down on the bagel and cookie spread I buy, hungry after running low on food. Only halfway through the bagel do I notice the fuzzy green mold growing on it. I immediately throw the bagel away and put back a pack of expired hot dog buns.
As I'm scrubbing my dirty clothes on an old fashioned washboard, trying in vain to rinse away the smell of wet socks with a bar of hotel soap from the store, Carter walks in.
"Some of the guys were talking about getting a shuttle into town. Would you be in?"
We split a Motel 6 room amongst the six of us and have Waffle House for lunch. That night, we scour the local fast food scene for potential dinner locales.
"There's an Arby's," someone says.
"Oh! What's a pirate's favorite letter?" Jenny asks.
"...R...," Silas guesses.
"You'd think it'd be R, but it's really the sea!"
"I owned a business out of college. It was called Tri Rho. It was a rowing company, playing off the rowing fraternities: Tri Rho - row row row. We actually started turning a profit."
The next morning, we find a shuttle back to the trail for $8 each.
"How did you get into hiking?" I ask our driver, Ronnie.
"Fishing, hiking, camping - those were big in these parts. Growing up in East Tennessee, that's what we did," he says.
We reach Max Patch, a bald with famously beautiful views, as a cloud of fog rolls in. Three faded silhouettes emerge in the distance.
"State your name," one calls.
I recognize Good Times' voice. "Not Bad," I answer over the wind.
Only when I get within 10 feet so I recognize the other two silhouettes as Lookout and Crusher, two other northbound thru-hikers. The shadows of trees loom overhead like sentinels as I descend to the shelter. I set up my still-wet tent, looking forward to town tomorrow.
I lie awake in my tent at 5:00 am, listening to the sound of rain against my tent fly. It's not supposed to rain today, I think. If only it would let up long enough for me to pack.
I force myself to get up. I need to hike 18 miles by 4:00 pm to pick up my mail drop at the Hot Springs post office before it closes. As I stand by the shelter picnic table, scarfing down some cereal, Diesel walks by.
"How are you?" Diesel asks.
"Doing well. You?"
"Cold. Wet." He pauses for a fraction of a second. "Normal!"
By dawn, the rain stops. We all race into town. I make it to the post office with time to spare, then pile into a cabin with Matt, Tom, Crusher, and Lookout. Taking advantage of the sun, we immediately pull out our tents and lay them out to dry.
That night, we eat dinner in town at the Smoky Mountain Diner, start a fire in the fire pit, and chat until midnight. Matt takes the trail name Onion Whisperer. Silas changes his from Missionary to Pepper. Kali becomes the Pronator - Nate, for short - and Kelly takes the name HRC.
"I know what to name Tom," Carter says. "Waldo. We're always saying, 'Where's Tom?' - 'Where's Waldo?'"
"It's like that proverb: If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together."
Before climbing out of town the next day, I send a message to Woody, a friend from my hike last year. 'Let me know when you're in the Hot Springs, NC to Erwin, TN area,' he'd said.
I camp with the trail crew for the next two days. Kelly's birthday is the second day. That night, Silas, Carter, and Kali bring back a card from town, which we all sign discreetly. Matt swings himself from a wooden beam on the shelter, instigating a dangling competition. Crusher packs out soda for all of us.
"At my high school, the penalty for being late was losing parking privileges," Tom is saying. "We had to park up a hill. Which actually made me more late."
"Is that when you decided to hike the AT?" Jenny asks.
"Yes," Tom responds drily. "I was walking down that hill, and my knee started hurting, and I thought, 'Let's do this for another six months.'"
As evening falls, I watch as one by one, headlamps turn on in the tents, filling the field with a warm, multicolored glow.