Miss Gennie, the 92 year old proprietor of the Lazy Fox Inn in Damascus, welcomed me and showed me to my room upstairs. “If your body is feeling like it’s looking there young man, you’d best take your bath with the Epson Salts under the sink.” I certainly didn’t feel like a “young man” but I guess it’s all relative.
“Your friend called. He and his wife are getting in around 10. I’ll leave the door open for them, but you might have to show them around if they get in past my bedtime. And homemade breakfast is ready at 8. You’re not gonna want to miss it.” She left me to get settled in to a room that felt so much like a Victorian grandma’s house I was afraid to touch anything.
I spent the day tackling town chores and eating with my Trail family, but my mind was already shifting towards my reunion with John. He and his wife Gracia blocked out 4 days around Memorial Day weekend: he would hike with me, while Gracia would explore the area around Asheville, North Carolina. While I had been looking forward to catching up with John for several weeks, we hadn’t spoken in several years, and I had left without really saying goodbye. I’m sure he had lots of questions, and I wasn’t thrilled about having to provide the answers.
They arrived around 10:30, tired from the road, but still managed big smiles and hugs all around. (So glad I took a shower AND a bath earlier). We spent a little time catching up… “So tell me about your wife? And what is it like living in Romania?” None of the feelings of silent judgement I had secretly been worried about. Instead, we settled into a familiar banter.
The following morning, Miss Gennie prepared an enormous family style feast with cheesy grits, bacon, homemade biscuits and gravy, and lots of fruit. Everyone else was politely chatting and eating. I was stunned into a glorious stuffed-mouth silence. Full belly, reunion with great friends, and several days of beautiful hiking. It’s good to be on the Trail.
We stopped at Subway to hike out subs for dinner. Jem happened to be there, and after seeing John’s 6’5″ frame, recognized him as the guy I’d been talking about meeting for several weeks. She ran right up and gave him a hug. Subway subs for dinner, hugs from charismatic hikers, and the first several miles of our hike along the Virginia Creeper trail (which was primarily a gradual crushed stone bicycle path). I suspected that any of Gracia’s worries about a rugged trek through the wilderness were soothed quite a bit before we left. I made a mental note to ensure that we returned looking at least a little bit haggard so John could claim to have endured the harsh Appalachian elements.
John was determined to hike 63 miles in about 75 hours, which would put us at the Mt. Rodger’s Visitor Center at noon on the 4th day. Just in case, I mapped out several “bail out” spots that Gracia could pick John up at in the event we couldn’t reach our lofty goals. Eagle joined us for a nice stroll along the Creeper Trail, and since both were engineers, I was able to listen as they talked shop.
John’s 6’5″ frame made for long strides, but fortunately he slowed down a bit as we began our first ascent. I was supposed to be the “veteran” hiker, fully conditioned after more than 400 miles of hiking. This guy must be a machine! Each time the trail leveled out, John would stretch out his already enormous stride and I was racing to catch up. I could hear his watch calling out our splits each mile.
“You know I’m gonna have to call you Stretch right?” I said once I caught up with him at the base of a descent. He looked back at me and smiled. “Stretch… Haven’t been called Stretch in quite awhile.”
We were among the first to arrive at the shelter for the night. John didn’t appear sore or tired. I thought back to my first days on the Trail, when 10 miles were good days. We set up to our spaces in the shelter, John proudly unveiling a mattress pad that would inflate by stepping on it.
It wasn’t until the others hikers began arriving that I saw the first signs of disorientation from John (Stretch). Was fun to see his look of bewilderment as we settled into a fluid and familiar chorus of “remember when’s” and “how far are you going tomorrow.” Surrounded by a crowd with names like Pooch, Giggles, Day-Glo, Eagle, Giggles and Lumberjack, I wondered if he felt like he was on the wrong side of the bars in the monkey cage at the zoo.
“Here, you can use the spoon first,” I said. We’d decided that since we were going to be hiking together, there was no need for him to bring items that could be shared. Water filtration system, cooking stove and fuel were obvious redundancies. I guess the spoon made the list too. Maybe THAT’s why this is so easy for him…I’m his Sherpa!
On our way to Wise shelter
The next morning, Lumberjack, pooch, bearfinder, roadrunner, rabbit all left for old orchard shelter (24 mile day). Our original plan was to get to Thomas Knob (13 mile day). Stretch was really moving out. We were maintaining a 3mph pace (that’s wicked fast for hikers by the way) especially on the flats or downhills where he could really stretch out his stride.
He finally asked some of the difficult questions: “why did you disappear?” (I was ashamed), and “what life would be like in an ideal world once I finished hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
I told him that ideally I would be making a meaningful contribution, probably through writing and sketching, to help those who are struggling with depression and self-destruction issues. I made no promises, but said that repairing my relationship with God would be a part of my recovery. I was surprised to discover how easy I could share all of this with him while we were walking single file on the narrow path, surrounded by ferns and trees and wildlife that were too busy being alive to notice us.
We were so caught up in conversation that I was surprised that we had already reached the summit of White Mountain. The views were gorgeous. I was so happy sitting next to the heavy flowing piped spring near the summit. So delicious! Cold. Just what my body needed. Almost as good as a Taco Bell and Pepsi… Almost.
There was a bathroom and a trash can at the gap on the other side of White Mountain. A pair of day hikers gave Stretch and I a few Honey Crisp apples. The weather was perfect, sunny, cool breeze, plenty of water. The Trail was giving Stretch the Royal Treatment.
I was starting to appreciate the inclines as I could catch back up to John. We were making great time. We reached Thomas Knob around 2, and barely had to consider whether or not to press on another 5.5 miles to next shelter.
I hoped that the rocky stretch beyond the shelter would slow him down, but he was bounding down the rocks with his huge gait, before he left my line of sight, I felt like he was almost skipping. He flew past the ponies, barely pausing long enough to ask if I caught a few pictures before bounding down the trail again.
At a dirt road separating Graceson Highlands, a large family was walking along the dirt road. The father asked us where the ponies were. We turned around and pointed to the cloud covered rocky mound behind us. The father sighed, steeled his resolve and without looking behind him, started walking. One of the last girls in this day hiking herd, a preteen wearing a red shirt stopped moving. “No daddy no!” Her despair was so obvious. No one answered her. The herd kept moving, at a slow lumbering pace.
Before we turned around to resume our hike, I saw this poor girl forced to endure the torture of a day in nature as she was forced to keep moving to stay with her family.
We got to the shelter before 4, again the first ones there (fortunately). Stretch laid down and was asleep (snoring) in minutes. I left to get our water and saw another group of hikers wading in a pool created by a fast moving stream. Oh yes. I will be back.
Woke John when I got back and we stripped down to our compression boxers. I waded in up to my thighs and was ready to get out when another hiker came up. Ego won out and I did a push-up to submerge myself in the frigid water. Took my breath away. But I immediately felt warm and refreshed when I stood back up. Loved it.
We came back wet and triumphant to a shelter full of Memorial Day hikers. I didn’t even care that I was in my underwear in front of a group of 20-something guys and girls (2 with multicolored hair). I felt like a real through hiker.
Eagle showed up a few minutes later and gave us two trail magic beers. The shelter quickly filled up again. We shared a spoon for our dinners, drank beer. Stretch got a fire going. He was no longer the awkward outsider warily watching a collection of feral creatures. He more like Jane Goodall, an integral part of a primate family. Feels like we covered all the hiker bases.
On our way to Trimpi shelter
We woke the next morning to a light rain and 2 ponies that were waiting impatiently for us to get up and share our breakfast with them. Although there was hardly more than a slight drizzle, Stretch still got to check the box for hiking in the rain.
There was yet more Trail Magic waiting for us at a road crossing on way to Trimpi. Moutain Dew, coke, cantaloupe, bananas, apples, crackers with hummus. Really good stuff. Another group of hikers behind us… Day man, mama bear, stone cold, Hollywood, and thumper showed up. Hollywood had nasty poison ivy on his back. Carrie (one of the Trail Angels) collected a handful of jewel weed (the oil creates refractive sparkles when held under water) and squeezed the oil on his back. Jim (the other Trail Angel) gave us packets of homemade balm for stings and cuts. Jim offered me a register to sign. As I signed the 137th spot, I wondered how many weekends they sacrificed, and how many trips to Walmart they made, in order to provide Trail Magic for more than 137 people this season.
Our last morning was going to be a short hike. We had already hiked over 50 miles the first 3 days. He was trying to ignore several blisters and abrasions but otherwise, we were on the home stretch. Stretch took a moment to celebrate the fact that he hiked a mile for every year he’d been alive (56) and we pressed quickly to get to town. I wanted fresh hot food, and the chance to watch a movie (Kung Fu Panda – don’t judge me). I’m sure Stretch was looking forward to getting out of his shoes and back into Gracia’s company.
We arrived at the visitor center that marked the end of our hike together before noon on the 4th day. Over 63 miles. Beautiful scenery. Great people. And decent exercise.
Not a bad way to spend Memorial Day weekend.