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Hiker heroes, Hiking

A handful of hiker heroes – Part II

 

Iron Will

 

You wouldn’t have to look very hard to find examples of inspiring underdogs that tackle epic feats in literature or in movies. Harry Potter rose from neglected orphan to hero for wizards and muggles alike. Tyrion Lannister became the Hand of the King despite his dwarfism, an unquenchable hankering for booze, and women. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.

 

It’s one thing to escape into fantasy. In these imaginary worlds, anything is possible (even for a Cubs fan). We get to vicariously share in the thrill of impossible, but inevitable, victories.

 

It gets a lot harder to find similar examples once we return to the real world. Victory is far from inevitable, especially in the face of long odds. Then there’s the cycle of defeat: lost confidence and bitterness over recent losses makes it more difficult to keep pushing for the finish line, which leads to more defeats, which leads to…

 

These stories don’t make the headlines, but it was becoming the version I was most familiar with. This was one of the reasons that completing the Appalachian Trail became so important to me. I was long overdue to put another checkmark in the Win column. And what better way than to hike all the way from Georgia to Maine? The overwhelming majority wouldn’t be able to complete the entire 2,189.2-mile journey, but this would be my 3rd try, so I knew what I was getting into. Right?

 

I was still discovering what I’d gotten myself into nearly 1400 miles into the hike. It was way too early to start imagining storybook finishes, but occasionally I would slip by saying: “… when I make it to Maine,” rather than “…if I make it to Maine.” I was also getting a crash course (literally) on the difference between hiking and mountaineering in the obstacle course that you all call New York. By this point, I was fluent in bitching. Nightly shelter talk centered around the pointlessness of that stupid boulder field, or somebody needs to turn down the friggin’ heat, or somebody needs to invent shoes that are comfortable, don’t contribute to blisters, AND last more than a few months.  Then, somebody would arrive in the middle of one of our bitch-fests and say, “I just saw Iron Will. She was huffing through that same boulder-field, and she was doing it.” That usually made our bitch sessions a little bit shorter. Not much. But a little bit.

 

Iron Will might be working with a few additional disadvantages than the average hiker. She has Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, commonly referred to as Lupus, which is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease that can flare up and strike any part of the body at any time. There is no cure. Imagine living with a mutinous collection of antibodies that rebel against various organ systems, particularly the skin, joints and kidneys, leaving you bedbound for weeks at a time. It’s not surprising that one of the most common symptoms is an inescapable fatigue. I want to take a nap just thinking about trying to live an active life while my body is attacking itself.

 

But Iron Will didn’t take a nap. Even after a flare up attacked her spinal cord, resulting in paralysis below the pelvis. She chose not to give up her ability to walk. This required years of rehabilitation and physical therapy to learn to rely on her hips and arms. Then there were protracted negotiations to get the computerized prostheses that could sense her gait and lock/unlock her knees. These prostheses would make the mechanics of walking on flat ground more fluid, but she would still need to use twice the energy to walk the same distance as me.

 

Iron Will’s story already had the makings of an inspiring journey to overcome obstacles; however, I wouldn’t have heard of her if she hadn’t refused to give up a dream to hike the Appalachian Trail.

 

I think back to those initial days in Georgia, when I was frustrated that I hadn’t gotten my “hiker legs” yet. The Trail kept going up, except when it was going down, over and over again. I just had to keep hiking. Eventually my legs would get stronger, cardiopulmonary function would become more efficient. Spring was coming. There was hope. Blah Blah Blah.

 

I wonder what Iron Will’s adjustment period was like? Surely she questioned the sanity of her decision to hike the AT. I know I did.

 

“How am I gonna get up there?” and “does New York HAVE to route the Trail through EVERY boulder field they can find?” These were questions I had just finished asking myself as I rounded the summit of Bear Mountain in New York. Iron Will was there in a clearing just beyond a sloping rock terrace.

 

I’d been looking forward to meeting her for quite a while, expecting a woman with fierce determination and maybe looking a bit like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. I approached her as a goofy fan: “You’re Iron Will! Wow! I’ve totally been looking forward to meeting you! Did you just come through those rocks?” I ignored the videographer with the professional looking video camera that was obviously trying to interview her. She laughed self-consciously at my excitement, but answered my questions. She didn’t flinch as I checked out her legs, noticing the lack of atrophy or skin abrasions I would expect from someone with prolonged paralysis. Her leg muscles are still getting some exercise…

 

She didn’t have that half-crazy/feral look I’d expected either. Part of it was due to her need to get to town frequently to recharge the batteries in her prostheses, but most of it was an infectious enthusiasm that she exuded. Within minutes, I recognized that this wasn’t just an epic struggle to overcome obstacles, she was having fun.

 

Yeah, hiking the AT was hard, but totally worth it.

 

 

Tune Up

 

Tune-Up

I don’t normally travel in a pack. However, I found myself hiking with 4 other hikers as we left New Jersey and made our way into New York. Thumper was the de facto leader as he had the greyest hair; Caveman nimbly bounced from rock ledges to fallen tree stumps and back to the trail, clearly in his element; Stonebridge, with his haunting gaze, silently stuck to the middle of the pack; I was the new-comer; and Tune-up provided rear security. Conversations were kept to a minimum while we made our northward patrol on the AT until we reached the rock piles that served as a welcome to New York. Then we bunched up to wait our turn to scale a crevice or wedge ourselves between gaps. “Seriously! We’re going up that?” Thumper and I tried not to get bitter as Caveman bounded up gleefully.

 

I started to feel patriotic. I’m sure the flags painted onto rock slabs, and the flag waving from a vista overlooking the Hudson River and New York City contributed. The composition of our pack was also a factor. We had served in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and the Coast Guard. Thumper, Tune-Up and I had military retirements under our belts.

Gabriel Burkhardt

 

“Pretty awesome that we can do something like this, isn’t it? I mean, hike the whole length of the country. No need for passports. Just a pack, money to buy stuff in town, and legs to get us to the next Trail Magic.” I didn’t record which of us said this as we stopped at a vista to chance our breath, but it echoed all our thoughts.

 

But we’ve sure paid for it, I thought but didn’t say out loud. When I didn’t have to focus on the terrain, I was pulled back into unforgettable scenes from my career as an Air Force surgeon. I wasn’t the only one that was stuck in another inescapable series of flashbacks. We set up camp at an isolated clearing, away from the nearest shelter and unlikely to be interrupted by other hikers.

 

Without discussing it, we’d gathered firewood and set up a fire ring even before pitching our tents. Tune-Up started talking as we were setting up tents, reluctantly at first, then the stories spilled out in a cathartic release. Camp chores on hold, we gathered around the fire ring with snacks. “Safe” stories about his time as a marine got affirming nods and laughs as we identified on some level to life as a military grunt. Thumper countered Tune-Up’s gripes about sergeants that loved to bury troops under grunt work, while I made weak attempts to justify the pointless orders that officers gave.

 

The transition away from safe topics occurred seamlessly. Tune-Up was telling us about switching to the Coast Guard to be closer to family, and to help others rather than to harm. I recognized his far away, emotionless tone as he recounted rescuing a passenger that had fallen off a boat. He tried to haul an unresponsive passenger to safety. In graphic detail, he described hearing multiple fractures in his shoulder as it was pinned against the side of the boat. The passenger was resuscitated and recovered without lasting injuries. Tune-Up, on the other hand, underwent the first of many reconstructive surgeries to restore function to his arm.

 

There was extensive scarring on his shoulder and upper arm. His bicep was atrophied. It was obvious that he didn’t have full use of his arm even without doing an exam. As he listed infections, unsuccessful revisions, and increasingly complex interventions, it became clear that his recovery and rehabilitation was more traumatic than the initial injury. He was dependent on narcotics, antidepressants, and sedatives to minimize debilitating pain and PTSD.

 

My initial reaction was to help, to get more information. What was the next planned intervention? What about bone auto-transplantation? He had a copy of his post-injury X-Rays, which he showed me. I saw the extensive bone loss and screw misplacement that triggered the cascading series of failed repairs.

 

I was reminded of the patients with similar limb-threatening injuries that I was unable to save. One patient in particular had suffered through several years of interventions, tolerating my conviction that the next surgery would change the course of his recovery, that he would eventually walk again. I was so fixated on salvaging his limb that I didn’t appreciate how depressed he was. The next intervention restored blood flow to his leg. I was elated that he now had a “salvageable” leg. And devastated to attend his funeral 2 weeks later after he committed suicide.

 

It came as no surprise to hear that Tune-Up had been going through counseling for an eventual arm amputation. His hike was a farewell tour of sorts, a chance to get rowdy in the woods with a bunch of people that didn’t try to handle him with kid gloves. As I listened to Tune-Up share his story, I saw that this hike was also a chance to prepare for the new version of himself, and to finally shed some of the baggage that he’d accumulated since his injury.

 

I didn’t know Tune-Up prior to this hike, so I can’t quantify the degree to which the Trail has fostered his recovery. However, I can say that as we talked around the campfire, he displayed a genuine sense of peace and confidence about himself, about his future. It was overwhelming.  Tune-Up showed us that he was salvageable. Hell, that we were all salvageable.

Hiker heroes, Hiking

A handful of hiker heroes – Part I

Sunset

It’s time to wake from our delicious food comas. REI hath spoken: the stores are not calling, so we must OptOutside.

Dirty shoes and chilly cheeks. Burning quads and aching lungs. Dried leaves crackle underfoot. Nature porn so vibrant, super-cool pink sunglasses are called out of retirement. Yup, it’s all that.

I don’t know about you, but I slip into a sort of hiker trance after a few hours. My legs move me along the trail, while my mind drifts. I relive vivid memories, watch stories play out on my mental big screen, and slowly work through the issue de jour. This usually works out well, but occasionally I wonder if I might be missing opportunities to get to know other hikers.

When I look back on some of the more memorable moments of my recently completed Appalachian Trail hike, its my encounters with extraordinary people that stick out best. These people happen along at just the right moment, and often enough, that it’s hard to believe it’s coincidence. I’ve never properly thanked them for their role in helping me to become the near-perfect specimen that I am now.

Sharing these vignettes is my tribute to a few of the extraordinary hikers I’ve met in the mountains somewhere between Georgia and Maine…

Thank you.

 

Sunset

 

Midway through the 100-mile wilderness, I passed my 4,000th mile of long-distance hiking. A 50-mile hike sounded like a great way to celebrate. The former probably qualified me as an experienced hiker, while the latter suggested a few cracks in my hat holder. I’d summited White Cap Mountain the night before and my guidebook told me that aside from a few little bumps and river crossings, my path would slope gently downhill. Trail gossip promised stretches of red-carpet – red for the fallen leaves that blanketed a spongy, sculpted trail. I was tickled, wiggling-to-Tim McGraw-while-hiking tickled, to find that this time, both sources were accurate.

 

I arrived at Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to by early evening as planned. Satisfaction with the 23 miles I’d traveled so far took a distant second place to an urgent curiosity about the fabled quality of “Privy #2,” reputedly the best privy on the AT. I shrugged my pack off onto the edge of the shelter and said a quick hi to a solitary but familiar face before racing up for a privy tour.

 

I returned feeling relieved, and a little stunned. The solitary but familiar face belonged to Sunset, who nodded knowingly. “Pretty nice little privy isn’t she?” he said.

 

“Hey Sunset. Almost doesn’t feel right to just call it a privy does it? I mean, there’s a wheelchair ramp, a skylight, AND A DECK!” I said.

 

“Yup, the Maine maintainers sure know how to put together a nice privy. Would you hand me that stick?” he said, pointing a weathered hand towards a twig just beyond his reach. I handed it over and joined him at the side of the fire-ring to watch him build a twig tipi. Within moments, he conjured a fire into existence. We sat silently for a while, watching baby flames reach for the bigger sticks.

 

“If you’re planning to stay in the shelter, you might want to hang your food before it gets too dark,” he said without looking up. “The shelter log is full of entries from people that have new holes in their gear from the mice. Based on the amount of mouse droppings I had to sweep out, I believe it too.” His soft, syrupy South Carolina accent forced me to lean in and pay attention while he spoke.

 

I told him I was planning to hike on into the night, but resisted the urge to share the reason for my “victory lap.” Sunset, who got his Trail name from his hometown rather than as a reflection of his position in life, has taken long distance hiking to a whole new level. He completed his first AT thru hike in 2002, when he was in his mid-fifties. Then he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Then he hiked the Continental Divide Trail. Those that survive all 7,900 miles and 22 states are awarded the Triple Crown. Then, Sunset did it all again.

 

I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s warning: “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” I wonder what it must be like to have earned a Double Triple Crown. But Sunset doesn’t wear the crown. He doesn’t count the “little trails” like the 1,000-mile Florida Trail or the 300-mile Long Trail. He loves to hike, and he loves hikers. When I accuse him of being a habitual hiker, he says “Nah, now Billy Goat, you know Billy Goat right. He’s a hiker. Plans to log 50K by 80 and he’ll do it. I’m still a pup by those standards.”

Sunset

Enjoying time with Sunset in his natural habitat

Special K

 

When it comes to hiker categories, if there is such a thing, I proudly lump myself in with the “reflectors.” Reflectors are the group of generally retired hikers that are on the AT to stop and smell the roses, look back with fondness on the mountain of accomplishments behind them, and prove to themselves that they can still accomplish more challenging tasks than carrying a week’s worth of Ensure in from the Winnebago. On the other end of the spectrum are those that I call the Aspirants. These energetic youngsters are on the cusp of greatness. Careers and families of their own lie ahead. But before that, one more epic adventure, or maybe two… This March, a 14-year old named Keppy began a journey to become the youngest hiker to complete the AT “solo.” Keppy soon became Special K. She went through the same gear issues and adjustments to living in the outside that we all went through, but Special K did it without many of the advantages I take for granted. Fortunately, Keppy’s incredibly supportive mom packed up a camper, 9- and 12-year old siblings in tow, and left Nebraska to support her from the sidelines. I couldn’t bring myself to ask Special K how much she weighed, but I would be surprised if she topped 75lbs in the rain, which meant she was carrying roughly ¼ of her weight on her back every day. She’d never reserved a hotel room or driven a car. What must it be like to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder in a shelter with a dozen snoring, dirty grown-ups with all their talk of escaping crazy exes and irritating coworkers? And why would a 14-year old rather do this than hang out at home with friends, limitless access to TV and free maid service?

 

I first met Special K in Southern Virginia, after she had sorted through a daunting array of gear issues and pack adjustments (most long-distance hiking gear is not designed for petite young women). I lounged inside the shelter, snacking on my second cliff bar before dinner, resisting the urge to help her with her camp chores, prompted by laziness energy conservation rather than as a nod to her independence. She didn’t need it anyway. She hung her bear bag expertly and sauntered back to set up her sleeping bag near one of the walls. Out came her tiny food bag, and she removed a Zip-Lock containing a packet of dehydrated-something and a Snickers. She set up her stove at the edge of the picnic table and started cooking. The camp conversations continued around her, albeit without the normal spice that you would expect, while she remained focused on her tasks. A few other hikers asked the typical “How’s your hike going?” questions and she answered timidly.

 

I didn’t speak with her directly that night. The next morning, she had already left by the time I got out of my cocoon. I chalked it up to another interesting sighting, like seeing a bear or Trail Magic with cold beer.

 

I didn’t need to refer to my Trail journal to recall the date of our next meeting. It was the summer solstice. In the hiker world, that’s Hike Naked Day. It was scorching hot. I was alone. No one would be forced to endure me out of uniform. I would never, never, never consider streaking through the woods, but part of this hike (for me) included pushing myself to do things that were outside my comfort zone. So… off with all my gear except my hat and my pack.

 

My anxiety levels were so high, a panic attack was a real possibility.  For the first hour or so, I peeked around bends before proceeding. I wasn’t afraid of seeing other thru-hikers; they should either be participating or at least tolerant, but I wouldn’t want to subject any unsuspecting day-hikers to an overdose of raw nature. I could ruin the being-out-in-nature part of hiking for someone that was hoping for a chance to get away for the day. And I was naked.

 

I was miles away from the nearest road crossing or town. Chances of contact with real-worlders was minimal. I eventually relaxed. The chaffing from my pack straps ceased to annoy me and I loved that I could appreciate full exposure to faint breezes. Maybe I’d get rid of my farmer’s tan.

 

A few squirrels scurried away from me, but otherwise no contact with witnesses. Awkward sunburns were becoming a factor. I was exhausted, more from the anxiety than the elevation changes, but I was triumphant. It was time to get dressed and stop at the next shelter.

 

I approached the shelter fully dressed. Thank ya Sweet Baby Jesus I was dressed before I got to the shelter. Special K sat with her legs swinging slightly as they dangled from the edge of the shelter platform. Next to her was a woman that I didn’t recognize. They weren’t talking, just gazing in my direction. I hadn’t seen Special K in weeks. What if she’d seen me? I thought about turning around, hiking on to the next shelter, but they had already noticed me, and besides, I hadn’t done anything wrong. What if she’d seen me!

 

I tried to act casual, but was undoubtedly awkward. After pitching my tent, I made several clumsy attempts to hang a bear bag. The rock kept slipping out of my sloppy knots as I tried to throw it over a limb. The two women watched, their bear bags were already secured. Frustrated, I picked a limb that was just over my head, tied the cord to my food bag and heaved the whole thing over.

 

“If you want, you can share my line.” Special K said when I came back over to fix my meal. She still spoke with a deferential, mousey voice and held her head down and to the side. But she met my eyes.

 

“Thanks. But I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I replied, looking over at a food bag that dangled about chest level. “The bears in Virginia are shorter and have bad balance anyway,” I said. She laughed.

 

I’m sure my embarrassment was a factor, but she exuded confidence as we chatted. She met her mother, younger brother and sister regularly at road crossings and town stops. Her dad was going to be joining the crew soon so her whole family would be sharing in the journey. Yes, she already had plans to make up the school she was missing, and Yes, it was hard, but she was having a great time. She replied patiently to the litany of questions, her practiced answers suggesting that she was repeating answers she’d given many times before. Before I got a chance to ask she said, “You’re getting ready to ask my least favorite question, aren’t you?”

 

“Umm. What’s your favorite part of the Trail so far?” I asked, reiterating the question I was usually asked.

 

She smiled, still holding her head down, but meeting my eyes more fully, “I was waiting for you to ask me why I wanted to do this? I always get asked that one.”

 

“Ha. OK. So, why did you decide to hike the Appalachian Trail so young?”

 

“I’m hiking the whole Appalachian Trail on my own because I want to be the youngest person ever. I know I’m going to do it sometime, so why not do it now, while it will be something special, that no one else has ever done before.” She still held her head down and away, but she met my eyes fully.

 

I listened to her candidly continue to explain her reasoning. Special K was obviously one of those rare people that heard the voices telling her what she can’t do, what she should do, and refused to accept it. She was going to reach for the improbable, and her family was there to support her. She is Special.

Special K

Special K

Hiker heroes, Hiking

Surviving the Storm-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named

The trail through Roan Mountain range straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, and takes us up to one of the highest points on the Trail at 6285 feet. Dense forests and boulder fields would make the ascent nearly impossible were it not for the efforts of another Trail Legend named Bob Peoples. He organizes teams of volunteers to help maintain and improve sections of the Trail and even build new shelters.

I tried to remember this as I made the grueling climb to the summit at Roan High Knob. Several false summits had me thinking is was nearly there, only to find that more mountain was waiting above me. Pooch and I breached the low cloud ceiling, paused long enough to put our pack covers on in the hopes of keeping out some of the condensation, and kept hiking. AC/DC was telling me about “Dirty Deads, Done Dirt Cheap.”

By the time we crested Roan High Knob the cloud mist turned into rain. I stopped for a second to consider staying at Roan Mtn shelter (the highest shelter on the AT) but decided I had plenty of energy left, and the cool temps made for quick hiking.

The descent to Carver’s Gap was gorgeous. Coniferous trees crowded around us as the trail twisted and turned. Bob had rubberized mats placed and packed with crushed stone and soil to create wide shallow steps as we twisted and turned in a gravity assisted stroll. My hat was streaming rain.

At Carver’s gap, Pooch was and I split up so he could meet up with a few family members that drove out to take him to dinner. I switched out of my soggy socks and into my Vibram Five Fingers (Monica calls them my “Monkey Feet”) and began another series of ascents, this time over several grassy balds.

The trees and rocks were gone, so the wind and rain were free to push me around. The temperature dropped near freezing.

View from Grassy Bald during the same season last year.

View from Grassy Bald during the same season last year.

 

This is the view near the summit of Grassy Knob this year.

This is the view near the summit of Grassy Knob this year. I think the grove of trees behind me is where Jem tried to set up her hammock to ride out the storm.

It was cold but I was having a blast. I passed a group of 4 guys huddled in a small grove of trees, ” Is there a shelter nearby where we can dry out and get warm?” one of them asked. “There is a small shelter about 6 miles north of here. You might be able to dry out there.”

“Screw this. Let’s head back to the car. We can get some beer and be back at my place in an hour,” one of the shivering hikers said. They were about a mile from their car, and sounded like logic was going to prevail, so I pushed on.

The wind became ridiculously strong and biting. My cheeks and nose became numb, but so long as I kept moving, my core felt warm. After cresting the third bald, I dropped into a grove of trees. The wind was blocked so the temperature improved, but the muddy runoff turned the Trail into a sloppy stream. I caught myself before falling several times and began to intentionally mud surf my way down the trail. Laughing at myself, I decided that if I were in the Boy Scouts, I would totally deserve an AT mid surfing merit badge.

Showing off my muddy Monkey Feet while it was still fun to play

Showing off my muddy Monkey Feet while it was still fun to play

Unbeknownst to me, Pooch caught up to me after a particularly awkward recovery. I stumbled and shrieked (this time an embarrassing girly squeal), trying to keep my butt from getting muddy, but ended up soaking my arms and legs even worse.

The rest of the hike was not nearly as much fun. Everything that wasn’t in at least 2 waterproof bags was soaked. We were cold. However, we’d decided to hike to the Overmountain Barn and pushed past the tiny shelter on the way.

Arriving at Overmountain Barn to dry off

Pooch (pictured) and I arriving at Overmountain Barn to dry off

The loft of the barn was littered with hikers that had stripped down and buried themselves in their sleeping bags. The only light came from gaps in the wooden walls of the barn and a few portable stoves of hikers making dinner. Modesty wasn’t a consideration as I shed all my clothes. Kinda proud of the rivulets that flowed off my pants and shirt as I searched for a nail to hang them from. And thrilled to see that the clothes and sleeping bag I’d stored in compression sacks had remained dry.

I later learned that Jem had also chosen to hike through the storm, but was several hours behind us and forced to endure much worse conditions. She explains with animation, “I saw this ring of guardian trees and thought, I can’t go any further. Surely these trees were put here to protect me. I’ll set up my hammock here and bury myself in my sleeping bag till the storm passes.” It didn’t work. “I eventually looked down at all my fingers and we agreed that all 11 of us were gonna survive the night. I packed up, and put on my puny headlamp since it was already getting dark, and hiked. An eternity and a half later, Thank you Jesus! I saw a little reflection from another tent and a flat spot that wasn’t as windy and set up again. Once the sun came out, I realized that I was only a few hundred meters from the shelter. And best of all…I still had all my fingers!” She clapped and bounced a little as she celebrated her victory over what we all later agreed was to be called the “storm-that-shall-not-be-named.”

 

 

Jem. Long after recovering from the “Storm-that-shall-not-be-named.” Felt like a fitting name for the storm, in honor of Harry Potter and Voldemort

Hiker heroes, Hiking

Recent visits from Trail Angels

I’m trying not to take advantage of the generosity of Trail Angels, to avoid feeling frustrated if I have to wait for more than 15 minutes for someone to stop what they are doing in order to load smelly hikers into their cars to take them into town. When I hear: “You just put your wallet away right now. Getting your mouth next to a juicy burger is just as good as public service. That reminds me, I’ve got some chips right here if you want something to snack on during the ride,” I’m not thinking about taking rides (and food) from strangers, I’m thinking that Doritos are my new favorite chips, and that everything moves so much faster when I’m not seeing it at hiking speed. I have to remind myself that it’s not normal to expect a car filled with refreshing snacks to wait for us at deserted road crossings in the middle of no where. But it’s hard when these things happen all the time.

 

The Trail Angels I’ve met thus far sound like normal people. They have jobs. They have families. Responsibilities that would prevent most people from adding one more thing to their already overwhelming to-do lists. I’ve tried to put myself in their shoes (not literally obviously, as my callused and fragrant feet would demolish the average citizens footwear), but I have a hard time seeing the payoff for aiding destitute-appearing clusters of hikers. I guess I need to spend more time on the Trail to gain a better understanding of these unusual creatures.

 

Until then, I’d like to share a few sketches of some recent Trail Angels. I’ve undoubtedly missed several. But right now, sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room with a full belly, and a renewed sense of optimism in the potential for humankind’s goodness, I recognize that a lot of people have helped me to get here and keep me on the Trail. This includes you as well, my supportive readers.

 

image

Brothers Dave, Bill and Bob. They loaded me into their plush car even though I had 4 days of mud and stink on me and took me into Gatlinburg. I didn’t have much time to be self-conscious about my appearance (and odor) as we fell into an interesting and intellectual conversation about health-care reform (and hiking). Rather than feeling like a recipient of charity, I arrived in Gatlinburg feeling confident and connected with a trio of interesting brothers who accepted me despite my appearance and dependence on the kindness of others.

image

Al is what’s I call a “highlight hiker.” He hikes a section of the trail that promises to be interesting, then skips ahead to the next. Along the way, he makes extraordinary efforts to bring a little unexpected Trail Magic to the hikers he visits at shelters. On this particular night, he brought up oil, fresh popcorn and cooked what I consider the best popcorn I have ever eaten. He poured out a batch of perfectly cooked kernels onto an unused camp towel and watched us devour our separate piles (Norovirus had been going around so we took extra precautions not to touch things that would go in someone else’s mouth). He didn’t eat any, instead, he just started making another batch.

 

image

Whiskey Will. On a chilly night at a shelter that was several days from town, we were feeling a little glum about the prospect of hiking several more days in the rain, enduring chilly nights, and putting wet clothes on in the morning. Another hiker (named Snow White because she took a nap in a meadow in Georgia when everyone else was hard at work with the serious business of hiking) mentioned that a friend was in the area and might be stopping by. Shortly after, Will arrived, trailing his faithful stead, and looking jubilant. We weren’t as cordial as we should have been. I’m going to say that it was the weather that prompted our chilly reception. Then, this beautiful human, this hero to the undeserving, and champion of lost causes, he pulls out a full bottle of whiskey, opens it, and steps back. By the time the bottle was empty, there were smiles around a campfire, hope smoldered once again in chests previously dampened by bleak prospects. Still makes me want to quote Byron and Keats just thinking about the miraculous change that an unexpected whiskey buzz can induce.

 

image

I’m at the Mt Roger’s center outside of a town called Marion with my friend John. He and I are waiting for his wife to pick us up so we can get lunch, preferably something a la Taco Bell. A hiker that we had never met walks by with his pack on. He looks like he’s on his way to the Trail. I say hi, and he asks if we need anything. Uncharacteristically, I say no. He tells us to think about it while he browses through the visitor center. When he returns he asks us again if we need a ride into town. We tell him that someone is already enroute to pick us up, but he offers to give us a ride to Marion anyway. “No problem. I spend more time helping hikers than I do hiking. Last year I only hiked about 20 miles in a week.” We were still content to wait (and let this hiker, named Crow, enjoy a beautiful day of hiking) but I saw his little dog imploring us to provide an excuse for another car ride, so we finally agreed. I’m such a sucker for dogs.

Hiker heroes, Hiking

There are some characters out here

Very few hikers are able to complete the entire Appalachian Trail. I knew this going in, but I’ve also discovered that the successful ones usually have some unique gift to rely on. Whether it’s an unshakeable faith in a higher power, a cause that attention needs to be drawn to, or a very weak connection with reality that allows one to dismiss the miserable moments as fantasy, these attributes (among others) allow hikers to enjoy and endure 6 months of playing in the woods. After more than 40 days of hiking, I’ve come to rely on my special brand of crazy to carry me through the not-so-sunshiny days. And it seems to be working.

I’m not alone. In fact, this is the most “crowded” year the AT has ever seen (I’m pretty sure its not entirely due to my irresistible magnetism). I’ve eaten and slept with dozens of different hikers. We have shockingly different backgrounds and personalities, but as we come together around the shelters each night, a little bit skinnier, a little bit hairier, and a lot a bit hungrier, those differences become the flavor that makes conversation so much more delicious.

These are just a few of the recurring faces I’ve met thus far. I’m still getting to know each of them, so I’ll limit descriptions to a few details. I wonder which ones will make it all the way…

 

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From left to right: Clutch, TheMan, and Hollywood. Each are firm believers in the “if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing” mantra, and I am continually surprised to see this unstoppable trio smiling, and smoking, and hiking.

 

Lumberjack

Lumberjack. We’ll be talking about him quite a bit more in future posts. He falls squarely into the “really good guy” category.

 

DEETS

DEETS. I sure hope we are able to spend more time together. Thus far, we cross paths near towns, but our hiking speeds are still very different.

 

Skittles

Skittles. I made the mistake of thinking that a 4’6″ 23-year-old with vibrant multi-hued hair was on the AT to play around. I’m beginning to learn that her path through life has been anything but carefree and easy. I’m looking forward to spending more time with Skittles further down the Trail.

 

Cliff bar

Cliff bar has been alive for 71 years, but I think his insatiable curiousity keeps him far younger. He is hiking 250 mile sections of the AT this year and we were able to spend a lot of time together during his “section” hike.

 

Bloodman

Bloodman. He took this trail name because his son calls him blood to underscore the importance of family. Sometimes crotchety, always energetic, this Maine native is heading back home. I can already tell…he’s going to make it back home to his family.