While I was on the Trail, I had several reasons, no, excuses for not
writing in a timely fashion. I
blamed the cold. I blamed exhaustion. I cited spending my time visiting friends. I have been
home for nearly a month now and have figured out why I was so bad about writing; I am lazy.
When I last wrote I was hiking alone and nearing Hot Springs, North
Carolina. This episode
begins with me hiking alone and leaving Hot Springs:
I left Hot Springs a little later than I had intended. I ended up hiking for a couple of hours after dark. The air was heavy with fog, if not a drizzle. As darkness set in, I was sitting on a large rock on top of Bluff Mountain, eating a Snickers Bar, and fumbling for my headlamp. I wondered how many people had eaten a snack on this same rock. It seemed to be the kind of place that begged to be sat on. Once I had the headlamp on, and Snickers Bar gone, I was ready for a couple more hours of hiking.
The damp air had turned cold. It was somewhere around 28*. Every step was crunchy, the air crisp. As the beam of my headlamp shined upon the trailside plant life, the now-frozen moisture glittered like diamonds hanging from the branches. Occasionally the glow was from the eyes of deer looking at me. Imagine my surprise when those 'diamonds' blinked and ran away.
I arrived at my shelter at around 8:30. There was a man already in his
sleeping bag, and snoring. He woke as I tried to get set up for the night.
We talked for a few hours. He was a psychologist by profession, and I'm
sure his head was swimming when I got through with him. He was
amazed when I told him what my plans for the next day were. It had taken him most of three
days to cover the 22 miles I planned to do in one. It was when I realized that I wasn't the least
bit worried about doing 22 miles that I also realized that I had become a pretty good hiker.
I left the shelter the next morning in a heavy drizzle. This would last
all day. As I crossed the
open summit of Max Patch, the wind-blown rain stung my face. The radio station I was listening to on my Walkman played that ever-familiar tone indicating an emergency. This time, though, the man hadn't said "This is a test."
Seems that all of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee was experiencing
storm warning. Rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow were all possible. Chance of precipitation:
100%. This was not what I wanted to hear on the day I was to enter the granddaddy of all
national parks: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
My options were limited. I could either hike to the first shelter in
the Smokies and spend a cold,
wet night wondering what the weather was going to do. Or, I could take a road walk at the edge of the Park and go to Mt. Momma's. Mt. Momma's is a bunkhouse/restaurant/store that is
popular among hikers, even though it is almost 2 miles off the Trail.
I stood on the gravel road that is the Park boundary, the majesty of
the Smokies only feet away.
If I went straight I had a mile climb to the next shelter. If I turned left, on the road, I had about a mile and a half to a dry, warm bed and a world-famous 'Texas Cheeseburger'. If I couldn't smell the cheeseburger through the rain, I'm sure I heard it softly calling my name. I turned left.
It was well past dark when I finally saw the lights of the store. I could see several people milling around inside. I was soaking wet and cold. I must have looked like a possum. As I walked in, I wasn't sure I was in the right place. The people I had seen through the windows were all dressed in their Sunday bests. They looked at me as though I was the last person they had expected to see. And, on a cold, rainy night in December, maybe they hadn't expected to see a hiker.
The room went silent, as stares make no noise. Finally, the woman I
guessed to be Mt. Momma
said "Can I help you?"
"Ummm. Do you have a place where hikers stay?" I asked, 18 eyes or more looking at me.
"Well, there's the bunkhouse" she said. "Do you have a heater?" she asked the man next to her.
He turned and walked away, mumbling something. "Go to the pink bunkhouse and he'll bring
you a heater. I'll get you something to eat."
"Now we're getting somewhere" I think. "How 'bout one of those 'Texas Cheeseburgers' you're
famous for?" I asked.
"The grille's closed. I'll fix you a plate of food."
I turned and went out the door. There were three bunkhouses. At 6:30
on a foggy, rainy
evening, they all look pink. I roamed around in the dark rain for a few minutes until a flashlight
headed my way. When it got close to me, I could see the man holding it was also holding a
space heater. I followed him into what I assumed was the pink bunkhouse. He found the
pullstring to turn the light on and put the space heater down. The pink bunkhouse was barely big
enough for him, me and my pack. It didn't matter; it was dry.
"Change into some dry clothes and come back inside. She'll get you a
plate of food" he said.
"Oh, okay. I'll be right in" I said nervously. The little spring-coils in the space heater began
glowing orange and the heat was feeling good. I quickly got out of my wet cloths and tried to
hang them to dry. I combed my hair with my hand and wrung the water from my beard. I
wanted to look like a human this time.
"What do you want in your coffee?" she asked as I opened the door.
"Cream, please" I said. "Um, do you take Visa?" I asked, looking at the store part of the room.
"Oh, no." I thought. I had $11.00 American. The bunkroom was at least $10.00. I wasn't sure
how much the meal was going to cost. And that pop machine had 3 or 4 cans just wanting to
leave with me. "How much do I owe you so far?" I asked.
"$10 for the night" she replied.
"What about the meal?"
"Merry Christmas!!!" she said.
It was December 23rd. I had just walked in on the Mt. Momma Family Christmas.
That is why
all of these people were dressed to the nines. And, me without a tie.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to intrude." I said, feeling guilty about pulling the family away from their festivities.
"That's okay. Take this" she said, handing me a picnic basket full of treats. I paid for my room
and got the can of Pepsi that looked the most like it wanted to go with me.
Back in the pink bunkhouse, I rifled through my bounty. Ham, stuffing
(REAL stuffing), deviled-
eggs, cranberry sauce, green beans, sweet potatoes, rolls, homemade cupcakes (2) and hot
coffee. I would have fought to the death for those cupcakes. They even had little Santa Claus
figures stuck in them. I'll never forget sitting there, by myself, cuddled up next to that space
heater, Smoky Mountains rain falling on the roof, and eating like a king.
The next morning I was treated to two more of those cupcakes and coffee.
There was a smile
on my face, and in my heart, as I walked out of there that morning. "You be careful" I heard her say as the screen door slammed. I walked across the parking lot in a heavy rain, but with
sunshine in my mind.
A ranger gave me a ride back to the Trail. There were lots of reports
on his two-way radio
about the bad weather and how this or that road was blocked. There were some big branches
down along the road as we made our way back up the hill. We were busy chit-chatting idly and
I hadn't noticed that our surroundings had become ice-covered. He stopped at the Trail and I
got out and got my pack from the back of the truck.
"I'm supposed to give you some warnings and stuff. But, I know you're
not going to listen
anyway" he said.
"Yeah, you're probably right" I smiled.
"You thru-hikers are all the same" he smiled back. "Be careful up there." I waved as his window went up and he slowly pulled away.
I turned my Walkman on and hit the Trail. My first steps were in the
Great Smoky Mountains
National Park. The first .9 miles the Trail was covered with egg-sized ice chunks. It didn't really
slow me down , so I didn't think much about it. I noticed that the rhododendrons lining the Trail
were all ice-covered and drooping. When I got to the first shelter, I stopped to check the
register to see if anyone was ahead of me. I turned my Walkman off and sat down to read the
Before I had even found the last register entry, a loud crashing noise
outside brought me to my
feet and out of the shelter. A huge treetop had tumbled to the ground only a few feet from the
shelter. I stood there for a few moments and watched in amazement. About every ten seconds a limb, or branch, or treetop, or tree would come crashing to the ground, bringing with it the ice
that had been its very demise. It didn't take long for me to realize that I couldn't stand sitting in
the shelter, waiting for the next limb to come crashing down on to the roof.
I ate a quick snack and headed up the hill. The next three miles brought some of the most intense hiking of the whole trip. The Trail was littered with trees and debris. It is an uneasy feeling to be slowly making your way through ice-covered treetops, only to hear the snapping and crashing of another tree as it comes your way. I spent most of my time looking up, watching. Occasionally, I'd have to stop and let a tree complete its fall. Or, speed up so it could fall behind me. This was the only time I actually experienced any sort of fear on the hike. It was an incredible thing, and I'm glad I got to see it.
After I climbed to higher elevations, the air was warmer and the rain wasn't freezing. There was little or no ice on the ground and I was able to resume normal hiking. It was exhilarating to be able to move at a good pace, and remember what I'd just walked through only minutes before. The rain didn't seem to bother me anymore.
The next day brought me temperatures in the mid-20's, but clearing skies. 'Twas Christmas Day. The valleys were full of the 'smoke' that makes the Smokies famous. It was a beautiful day and I made excellent time. I spent the night with two boys from Ohio. They had quite a cache of firewood and had blaze in the pit. One of the guys said "That's an $8,000 fire if you bought the wood at a convenience store." I laughed.
They were still asleep when I left the shelter the next morning. I crossed
Clingman's Dome, the
highest point on the Trail, on what was a crisp, clear day. The temperature was in the mid 20's
and there was little wind. The day was incredible.
I got to the summit of Thunderhead about 15 minutes before sunset. Standing
on the pile of
rocks you need to stand on to see over the rhododendrons gave me some of the most awe-
inspiring scenery I had on the whole trip:
To my left were the eastern Smokies. The 'purple mountains' majesty'
against the pale blue sky
was beautiful. To my right was something I'd never seen before. The valleys were filled with a
sea of white clouds. I could see nothing below 4000'. Three or four peaks were tall enough to
stand above the clouds, making them look like islands. The sky above the cloud-sea was clear
and blue. Straight ahead of me the sun was settling behind a mountain top, leaving brilliant
oranges and reds and pinks splashed around.
"Yes!" I said aloud while clinching my fists as if I had just created
the perfect sunset. I hadn't
created it, but I certainly enjoyed it. I was so motivated by the entire experience that I hiked for
two and a half hours after dark. For the first time in my hiking memory, I didn't want to stop at
the end of the day. A day in which I saw no other human.
Rain, sleet, snow and cold was the order for the last 10 days of the
hike. If it was warm, it was
raining. If it was clear, it was bitter cold. It didn't seem to matter much, though, as I knew I was
nearing the end. I was hiking on adrenaline. I was a picture of excitement.
I was lucky enough to catch two other hikers for my last two nights.
I had followed them for 5
months, reading their register entries from time to time. I assumed they had already completed
the Trail and were resting comfortably at home. They had never heard of me.
I was glad to have their company. The last two nights were cold; temperatures
of 5* or less.
Having someone to talk to made it easier to tolerate the cold, as well as safer. Plus, it gave me
someone to blame for my mild case of frostbite.
As we loaded our packs for the last time, there was an exciting nervousness
in the shelter. For
the first time in five months, it didn't matter how the sleeping bag was stuffed in. The amount of
food didn't matter. Put the clothes anywhere. Didn't need waterproof bags today. Cram it in and
go. Watching the three of us, you could tell this was foreign to us.
We had 7.6 miles to go to complete our 2,160 mile journeys. I had never
completed a 2,160
mile journey before. I didn't know how it was supposed to feel. As we hiked, one of us would
all of the sudden yell. The other two would follow suit. We were excited. We were excited.
You couldn't ask for a better 8* day. It was clear with little wind. There was old snow on the
ground and patches of ice on the Trail. As we made our way up the last climb, our beards were
frozen, but our hearts and souls were warm.
The last .3 of a mile saw my clinched fist pumping the air a lot. I
could hear the excited yells of
"Yes!!!" and "Oh, Baby!!!" from behind. I yelled back. When I could finally see the plaque that
had been my destination for some 5 months, or 20 years, I thought it the most beautiful piece of
nothing I'd ever seen. I couldn't wait to kneel and kiss it. And, I did.
I was happy. I was thrilled. I was proud. But, I was not fulfilled.
I did not feel as though I had
found the answers to life's questions. I had not cleared my head of anything. I did not feel as
though I was ready to move to life's next adventure. I had accomplished something that was
really, probably, nothing. I was still proud.
After 20 minutes of hugging, yelling and picture taking, it was over.
My two new friends, who I
felt as though I'd known for years, headed back down the hill. I picked up my hiking sticks and
took a long look at the plaque. I was not fulfilled.
I said "I'll see you again" and kissed it once more."I will see you
again" I said as I walked away.
I am a hiker.
Back to my AT Page