I didn’t mean to go all the way to Hot Springs (the first town the Trail passes directly through). I had planned on stopping at the last shelter before the town, but when I got there and it was still early, I kept walking, thinking I’d stop at a stealth spot (an impromptu clearing, usually large enough for a single tent) just before the town, so I’d be even closer in the morning, but I kept going and around 5, I found myself walking into the town, pulled into it as if by magnet, my mind driven to a frenzy thinking about the food that was down there. I came into the gap feeling like a wolf. Hollow cheeked and wide eyed, I came into the dollar store and since I spent 17 dollars, I must’ve bought 17 things, but I don’t remember because most of it, I ate immediately at a picnic table I found by the Hot Springs community center. It felt like such a special moment, I took a picture, although I looked at it later and felt baffled by why I’d want a selfie of myself with a spoonful of frosted flakes dripping just inches from my mouth—I must’ve been partially delusional.
I had planned on going back up to a spot I’d passed when coming down into the town, but when another hiker told me I could just camp by the river at the edge of town; I decided to check it out. Unaccustomed to camping so close to a town, I felt a little like a bum setting up my tent while day-hikers walked by, but the spot was serene. The sound of the wide rushing river was a welcome change from the stillness of the evening forest and after reading and eating an entire bag of animal crackers, I was soon asleep.
The next morning, I packed up and went back into the town. Early on a Sunday morning, everything was still closed when I arrived, even the laundromat. I got a weak coffee at a gas station and walked across the little town. There wasn’t too much to see. When they laundromat opened, I was happy to have a place to sit with my book and my coffee for a while. The allure of town had already worn off.
I had to wait in Hot Springs until Monday for my packages, so I decided to do a work-for-stay at a local hostel, although, I would’ve been fine down by the river again, I really just wanted a shower and a place to put my pack for the day, but I was shocked by what I saw. Expecting a crowded, cluttered and dirty hostel, I was amazed to find Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn to be a well-kept Victorian home. Elmer asked me to weed his back garden in exchange for a bed for the night. There were two beds in the room he put me in, but no one else ever joined me and when I’d finished working and showering, I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the room’s balcony, overlooking the garden I’d just weeded, reading a National Geographic cover-to-cover and feeling a peace like I hadn’t known for a long time.
The next morning, I had a great breakfast at Elmer’s; everyone ate together at the same table and told stories of where they’d come from and why they were on the trail. Coming down the opulent staircase in the morning, I felt like I should’ve been wearing a dressing gown or something, the place was so beautiful.
After nearly two days in town, being back in the forest was slightly disorienting, especially as there had been a bad fire north of Hot Springs and the Trail wound through denuded groves of blackened tree trunks and had an infernal look to it. The thin black trees, piercing the sky and the earth looked like the bars of a cage and going back to the woods, I couldn’t tell if I was escaping something or just isolating myself. The letters from home I carried in my pocket, only seemed to intensify this question.
I stopped early and went to sleep before it was even dark.
The next morning was grey and wet. A light rain was falling. I had a big climb first thing in the morning; mostly rocks and mud. At the top of the mountain was a monument. A man who’d worked on the trail had talked about how if a certain rock were just moved a little, it would provide a perfect viewing spot for the valley below. Trail workers moved the rock and dedicated it to the man who’d had the idea. I stood above the low-hanging clouds and watched the mist swirl around over the trees, like grey rivers coursing through green valleys.
The next day was cloudy again; I waited for the rain, stopping to take out my jacket a few times, only to stop again and take it off after I started sweating. It was a long, uneventful day. I felt like I was trudging along. I couldn’t make my mind settle on any single concept and it bounced from thought to thought before tiring itself, like a dog chasing its tail and seemed to go as close to blank as I’m able to get it. The trail, just south of Erwin, also seemed uneventful. The last five or six miles to the shelter, there was no climbing, no downhill skidding, just a trail, skirting a valley that was constantly going in and out of other little valleys: the archetypal long, windy road.
I decided to stay at the shelter so I’d be able to get up early the next morning and get into Erwin, TN. I wanted to get in and out of town the same day.
I was the first person to reach the shelter, but, before long, a guy I’d passed on the trail came up and tossed his stuff down next to mine. The shelter smelled like something had died in it. I said as much to my fellow hiker. He just shrugged “it’s a shelter,” he said, as if this was explanation enough for the terrible smell. I resolved to never sleep in one again if I could avoid it.
I woke up at first light the next day and almost floated along the ridge over a river that eventually brought me down into Erwin. The town was still grey and misty when I arrived. It was nearly a three-hour walk into town and I passed broken-down pickups and cluttered porches, wondering about the inhabitants and what the circumstances of their lives had created these swamps of broken possessions littering their homes.
I was still a ways out of town when I stopped at a gas station for coffee and asked, at an intentionally high volume, what the best way to walk into town would be. I didn’t have to say too much before someone behind me in line offered me a ride the rest of the way, it hadn’t been much farther, but it was nice to get off my feet for a minute.
By this point, I was becoming something of a connoisseur of laundromats. Generally, I found towns to be slightly obnoxious and overwhelming. On the trail, I was accustomed to greeting everyone I passed and feeling a connection to everyone I met. In towns, a bunch of people seemed to rush from place to place, unconcerned or even annoyed with each other. In many places, there were no sidewalks and people got into cars to drive distances of a block or two. Everyone was in their own world and I felt so strange, continually trying to connect to these people, nodding and saying ‘hi’ even when they intentionally ignored me. Laundromats seemed to be the one place to go to escape this feeling. In the laundromat, I felt comfortable in my anonymity, reading or talking on the phone while my clothes spun in the drier. It was the one place in which, I truly felt like I could step off the Trail. Never mind that my backpack was slouched over in the corner and that my deflated-looking boots were lying next to it, looking particularly dirty on the clean tile floor.
I asked to be taken to the closest laundromat and my driver took me to a place that had obviously closed down a while ago. I mentioned the dusty windows and the broken-looking interior of the building and he took me up the street to another place.
I spent most of the day drifting around Erwin before I ended up back on the Trail. I hadn’t gone far when I ran into two guys going south. I asked if they were sobos (south-bounders, walking from Maine down to Georgia). They told me that they’d just gone up to Damascus in Virginia for the Trail Days Festival and were walking back to Erwin, where they’d left from. I didn’t realize what this meant until after they guys had passed. It was Thursday, the Trail Days Festival had ended the previous Sunday. Unless they’d left early, it had only taken them 4 days to walk from Damascus (on the Tennessee/Virginia border) down to Erwin. I was closer than I thought and Damascus at around 500 miles, marked the end of the first quarter of the trail.
The next day, I was walking along, still early in the morning, not thinking about much, when it occurred to me, that I was probably missing all kinds of things happening in the forest. I knew it was possible to pass even the ostentatious without noticing (I’d seen another hiker walk right past a four-foot long rat snake totally oblivious) so I knew there had to be all kinds of minute things happening around me all the time that I was missing. Almost at the very instant I had this thought, I noticed something in the fork of a spindly tree. I stopped and took a step back to better examine it and found a bird’s nest, replete with a baby bird chirping up to its mother in the branches above. I must’ve been striding past things like this at a rate of 100s a day, but at least, this one time, I’d had enough wherewithal to realize it, stop and see something.
After the baby bird, I was a little more aware of my surroundings or maybe just more aware of the potential of my surroundings. Twice I noticed robin’s eggs scattered on the trail and wondered about the drama that must’ve precipitated them from the trees above. I tried to be attentive to the forest around me, but it was hard to maintain the scrutiny and after a while, each tree subsided into the monotony of the forest, the individual leaves sunk into green blurs and my thoughts turned on themselves.
That afternoon, I met Leslie, a hiker who hadn’t decided on a trail name. She and I had a similar pace and walked to the shelter together. Mostly, I babbled about different places I’d been, but Leslie managed to get a few words in and we had an enjoyable conversation to the shelter area.
That evening, just after I’d set up my tent, a heavy rain began that, while it was to wax and wane in terms of severity, would last for the next few days, rendering me soaked and miserable through the remainder of the North Carolina/Tennessee border walk.
The last section of Tennessee brought an improvement in the weather. The sun came out for my last few days before the quarter-way mark in Damascus. Word of bears increased on the Trail again. I passed hikers who warned me of bears ahead and another shelter was closed near Watauga Lake after a bear had ransacked it.
I still hadn’t seen a bear.
Just before Hampton, TN, the Trail dropped into one of its most impressive sections. Stone steps took hikers down to a waterfall and the Trail continued along a swift-moving river for a while. In one spot, the Trail came right down between a sheer rock face and the river, walking on it here had a certain Indiana Jones quality with the river rapids nearly boiling over one’s hiking boots, bridges crossed and recrossed the river. It came as a slight disappointment, after this easy, but engaging walk, when the Trail broke to the right, away from the river and up Pond Mountain.
Leslie and I had been keeping a similar pace since we’d met. We both woke up early and only took short breaks during the day. As with Tortoise, I’d hit the Trail alone, but sometime in the afternoon, we’d usually cross paths. I had been walking with her down along the river, when we hit a fork. One way, the Trail, led up Pond Mountain, but another trail, a blue-blazed trail, let into the town of Hampton. There was a hiker leaning against the sign at this junction. “If you go this way, the trail stays along the river. It’s really pretty. The AT,” he said, pointing the other way. “Goes up that mountain, straight up and right back down. I talked to a friend of mine who did it. He said there’s no view up there.” The choice seemed obvious, continue along the river, listening to the rushing water, crossing bridges and staying level, however, officially, the AT went up the mountain. To take the river path, shave off a mile or two and avoid the climb, seemed like cheating. The hiker hanging out by the sign seemed to see my conflict.
“Hey, man, you can do whatever you want. I’m just telling you what I heard. Don’t let me tempt you or something.”
I conferred with Leslie. She wanted to stay along the river. I couldn’t blame her; it was probably the most beautiful section of trail we’d seen, and the last few days had been rough in the rain with lots of climbs, but then I realized that most hikers probably took the easy way around the mountain and, with all the bear warnings in the area, I felt sure I’d see a bear on a seldom-traveled section of trail such as this. I didn’t relish the idea of meeting a bear in the wilderness, but it seemed there really wasn’t any other way to do it.
Leslie and I parted ways and I started up the mountain. The Trail looked a little overgrown and within a few minutes, I nearly tripped over the biggest rat snake I’d seen up to that point; he was like a black firehose stretched across the trail, warming in the sun. I stepped over him and he took no notice. It seemed an auspicious sign. I felt sure I’d see a bear on Pond Mountain.
I climbed for the next hour or so and saw nothing. There was one little view, but the top of the mountain was leveled off, walking at the summit was like walking anywhere else along the Trail, but the altitude thinned out the trees perhaps a little. I came down to Watauga Lake having seen nothing and I wondered if I’d made the right decision. I pictured the other trail following the musical river, with no strenuous change in elevation. ‘Oh well,’ I thought. ‘At least I got to see that snake.’
The rest of the day was beautiful, but it dragged out. I pushed to a shelter on the other side of the Watauga Dam. The top of the damn, felt like the first time I’d come out of the woods in a long time. The sun blasted down on my shoulders and wore me out. I shuffled on. When I hit the woods again, the sun was setting, and I still had a few miles to go before the Vanderventer Shelter.
Leslie and only just beaten me and was setting up camp when I arrived. I could hardly hold back, “How was it?” I blurted out. “Did you walk along the river for the rest of the way?” Leslie made an irritated face before answering. “No! I don’t know what that guy was talking about. The trail went off the river almost right away and after going into town, I had to walk down a highway for about a mile and a half. It sucked.”
After I’d eaten and gone to sleep. I kept thinking about the hiker we’d seen at the fork in the Trail. The symbolic nature of someone standing at a crossroads, waiting and leading travelers astray is an old motif, but it seems appropriate to introduce it again here. I would’ve asked the guy where he’d gotten his information if I’d ever saw him again but, of course, I didn’t.
The Vanderventer Shelter was like an apology for the closure of the beautiful Watauga Lake Shelter. Due to bear activity, this amazing shelter, right down by the lake always seems to be closed. The consolation is that the Vanderventer Shelter, affords an amazing view of the valley below. It’s a great place to see the sunrise on a clear morning.
I probably should’ve stopped in Hampton and picked up some food. I had gone through more food than I thought and had very little left to eat. Luckily the Trail was easy and I walked nearly thirty miles toward Damascus. In my hunger and fatigue, I kept thinking of ‘Road to Damascus’ comparisons between the apostle Paul and myself, but no scales fell from my eyes and I just felt hungry.
The last shelter area was ten miles from town. I reached it in the late afternoon and tired as I was, I decided to keep going so I’d be able to wake up and walk into town before too late in the day. I preferred coming into towns in the morning because the transition seemed smoother that way. In the morning, there’s less traffic and less noise. The change is not so overwhelming. As such, I’d managed the walk into Damascus perfectly. Groggily I knocked down my tent and drifted downhill into town. The Trail come right out in someone’s backyard and led up a quiet street along a park. A few people out running nodded to me. I stopped into a public bathroom and marveled at the running water inside.
The Dollar General on Laurel Street had just opened and I bought a few bags of cookies. I profusely thanked the woman behind the counter, telling her she’d just made my day.
I stopped into a gas station for coffee and settled in to make some phone calls, but found I had no signal. Slightly dejected, I started in on the cookies and weak coffee. I was happy for the food and the sun, but I had been looking forward to hearing some familiar voices, without this, there wasn’t much thrill to being in town; it was just another place to be.
I crossed the creek and walked down Douglas with my phone out, looking for a signal. A bar popped up at the edge of town in front of Mojoe’s Coffee House. I got another coffee and settled in for a few phone calls—the greatest part of coming into a town.
The last time I’d spoken with Gina, we’d talked about meeting in DC. The Trail went through the town of Harper’s Ferry, WV which was connected to DC by commuter train. Harper’s Ferry was also, roughly, the half-way mark and I figured this would be the ideal place to meet Gina, spend a few days in the city and recharge.
When I called from Damascus, Gina told me she’d bought tickets from San Francisco to DC and that she’d be flying out in about a month. As it had taken me nearly a month to reach Damascus, the quarter-way mark, I figured it would be about another month before I reached the half-way mark at Harper’s Ferry. I was ecstatic to hear she’d bought the tickets, now I had something tangible to walk toward. I had to be somewhere. I had a time and a place to meet someone I loved and who loved me, this seemed to renew my purpose and instead of wandering vaguely through the town, after the conversation, I strode with intention; every step now was a step toward Harper’s Ferry.
I stayed in town that night, doing a little work in exchange for a place to pitch my tent in backyard of a hostel. I still felt the pangs of hunger from the previous day and no matter how much I ate, I couldn’t seem to fill myself up. As late as 11 pm, when I was normally asleep, I was still up, eating cookies and reading National Geographics.
The next morning, the weather was grey and my stomach was a little unsettled from all the cookies. I stopped by the café again on the way out of town for another coffee and phone call. It began to drizzle outside. I couldn’t tear myself away, but I had to and soon I was back on the trail, climbing the gap that led out of town, toward Harper’s Ferry.
After Davis and the cork tree, which began this story, I went back to where I’d been staying in suburban Sacramento for a few weeks. There is repetition everywhere. The same model of house has been built all over town. The four-way stops all look the same, intersecting streets with names like Diamond River and Marble Falls, when no rivers or falls are anywhere in sight. I go to sleep after the sun sets and wake up in the dark. In the early morning, the starlight breaks through the oak trees along the bike trail. I can hear deer crashing around in the brush and the air has the smell of damp earth that it retains until the sun burns it away.
It would seem like there would be a disconnect between the suburbs and life on the AT, but the sameness is familiar. While the woods never repeat themselves the way the suburbs do (same concrete curbs, same ornamental Japanese Maples, same Starbucks) they do appear the same for long stretches. It’s a trick of the mind, I guess. After a few weeks, it’s hard to see what’s beyond the leaves, the earth and the same lightening blasted tree trunk. It all starts to look the same, like it does out here in Roseville, California.
It takes more work than you’d think to keep seeing. Hikers start putting their headphones on, they stop more often in towns, clinging to the familiar and others invent challenges for themselves to make each day valid in its own way.
Even as the destruction of natural habitat to create suburbs corrals animals together, the Appalachian Mountains rise and fall in a certain way producing both green and arid landscapes, deserts and edens. The mountains wound around Virginia in such a way as to restore a primeval quality to the forests there. They teemed with a life that woke me up. Bears dug in stumps and stopping laboring only long enough to watch me walk by. In the morning, deer walked right up to my tent to graze. The sameness fell away; passivity became impossible after the first sighting of an Eastern Diamondback, coiled there in veracity.
In the suburbs, amidst the McMansions and the signs for new developments in bulldozed lots, coyotes still run, but at night they don’t howl. That’s the difference. On the AT, they’re always howling.
It rained a little in the morning, but I managed to keep my socks partially dry. I climbed up Greyson Highlands as the clouds were parting, the grass was still wet, the wind in the trees still shook down light gusts of rain. My thoughts were so far from the forest, it was like my head was somewhere else, far from my walking body.
I saw the horses before I got to the top. They were grazing in the woods. When I stopped to watch them, they shook the rain from their manes and approached me without trepidation, sniffing the air to see what food I might have. They were still wild, so I didn’t try to touch them, but their disposition was that of dogs, friendly, searching. I watched them move through the woods, biting at the wet branches and snorting at each other peaceably and within a few paces, they were gone, their chestnut coats becoming impossible to distinguish from the tawny oak trees.
The top of the Highlands were bald and grey with rock and fog. Another herd had moved up here, but they knew they were watched and trotted around with the coquettishness of show horses, but all for the aim of handouts, some even going so far to chomp at the unguarded packs.
I came down from the Highlands and near a stream I nearly walked into a deer. I jumped over the stream on a few rocks, looking down to assure I didn’t miss and step in the water. Landing on the opposite bank, I looked up to see a doe had been seeking my eye, waiting for me to see her. I was close enough to see my own startled expression reflected back in her bright, dark eyes. I stopped and we stood there, contemplating each other for a full half-minute before she licked the air, shook her tail, took a couple steps back and, still in no hurry, bounded away. Perhaps she had learned from the horses and was trying her courage to see if she could get an apple out of my pack, or maybe she was just less afraid. In Virginia, the deer had this tendency, to show little fear, to walk right up to people, but I never got so close as to feel the exhalations of one again.
The next day’s Partnership Shelter was renown as the Pizza Shelter. It was close enough to a road and the park’s visitor’s center, that hikers could call to have pizza delivered. As such, I found it more impressive than the Fontana Dam Shelter and even availed myself of an ice-cold shower. I ate my pizza with three other hikers; they shared, but no one seemed interested in trying my cheese-less pie, so I happily ate the whole hubcap-sized thing myself.
The next day, we left together, still talking about the pizza we’d eaten and other random subjects, when, 10 minutes into the trail, I heard a frantic scratching sound, like a cat tearing through cheap curtains and looked over to see a black bear cub coming down a tree. I immediately looked up to see where the mother was and saw a juvenile running up the trail ahead of us. After all the mornings and evenings holding my breath when I saw distant dark shapes and all the peering into the leafy twilight, my first bear sighting was with two other hikers when I had never been more oblivious to the Trail.
The next day, I came into Atkins, VA. The Trail passed right through the town, but there were only two gas stations and a Mexican restaurant there. I needed peanut butter, which I had begun eating by the jar-full to replace lost calories. A standard 16-oz. jar was only good for about four servings, or two days. I knew if I was lucky enough to find a jar of peanut butter at either of the gas stations, I would be paying a hefty price for it. Food at gas stations is always overpriced, but nothing gets marked up so high as non-snack items like cereal or jars of peanut butter.
Leslie and I had been hiking together on and off since we’d met before the Greyson Highlands. By this point, she’d told me about her experiences in the army, I’d told her about my experiences living abroad and each day, we’d run into each other along the trail somewhere and continue the conversation, comparing life in the US to life elsewhere, pros and cons.
We came out into Atkins together and nearly ran into a pickup truck idling at the trailhead. “You guys want to resupply?” The driver asked. “I’ll take you to the Dollar General down the road and bring you back if you want.” I jumped at the chance to glut myself on dollar cookies and buy a few jars of peanut butter on the cheap. Leslie wasn’t so enthusiastic and decided to check out the Mexican place, which was adjoined to the gas station.
There were two other hikers in the bed of the truck, along with out packs, there wasn’t much room to stretch out. We zoomed down a 55 mph road, watching the scenery blur and wobble under the influence of the potholed road and our rapid rate of travel. I bought about 8 pounds of cookies and peanut butter at the store and jumped back in the truck. For some reason, our driver took the highway back to the trailhead. I suddenly found myself barreling down the highway in the bed of a truck; we were passing everyone, when I looked into the cab to see if I could read the speedometer, I was terrified to see that our chauffeur was scrolling through Facebook photos on his phone! After more than a month spent moving no faster than three miles an hour, eighty-five already seemed impossibly fast, but from the open bed of a truck and piloted by a guy barely paying attention, it was dizzying.
As soon as we came to a stop, I dove out of the truck. I had to restrain myself from prostrating myself on the ground and kissing the oil-stained parking lot.
Leslie was still in Mexican place adjoined to the gas station. I ate some chips and salsa with her and one of the guys I’d had pizza with a few days earlier with named Kyle. When I left Atkins, I felt good and my memories of the place would’ve been positive had it not been for an e-mail I received about a week later from Tortoise, telling me that he’d gotten sick and had to leave the trail at that little gas station juncture.
Since we’d parted in Georgia, I’d hoped that I’d see Tortoise again, maybe I’d catch up to him after I got off the Trail in Harper’s Ferry, but now I had to accept the reality that he was no longer on the Trail and I felt a little more alone. Since Tortoise and I walked together, I had been hiking alone and while I had adapted to a solitary routine in the woods, it was comforting to know that he was somewhere behind me. By Virginia, most other hikers had formed groups. It was rare to come into a shelter area and find anyone eating alone; they all seemed to know each other. I felt like I didn’t know anyone and, as such, felt prone to the suspicions of others. Although no one ever said anything, I found myself wondering if they thought ‘if you’re a thru-hiker, how come I’ve never heard of you before? All of us know each other.’ This was the problem with averaging over 20 miles a day, you tended to pass a lot of people and, as such, you never saw the same hikers from day-to-day the way others did.
Because Tortoise was there at the beginning of my hike, he seemed instrumental to it somehow. Knowing he was no longer on the Trail made the hike seem much more ephemeral. I no longer felt like I was in the middle of the woods, but rather on a path that wound through settled America. Even as I passed bears in the twilight and listened to the long afternoon stillness, I felt the pressure of the civilized world, the world that had reclaimed Tortoise, pressing in on me, knowing it was often only a few hours away and, as I moved north, this only became more true. In the evenings, increasingly, I watched the scintillation of distant streetlights from the tops of wild mountains.