I’m starting to fall into a comfortable rhythm. My shoes sound out a trotting cadence that is slightly offset from the clink of trekking poles against rocks and roots on the trail. My head bobs when going uphill to get that extra momentum. There is even some whinnying as I push the trapped carbon dioxide out of my lung bases. I’ve become a pack mule, the kind that is used to carrying heavy lodes and knows how to make the best of it.
It’s a beautiful day of hiking. Cool pre-rain breezes, the trail twisted and winded through rolling ridges. The battle between Green and Brown for control of the landscape is shifting.
I put on my rain gear at Wayah bald at the base of an old stone fire tower. Have a snack and chat with a family of section hikers that warn me about the big storm set to land on me in the early evening. Aside from some spitting, there is no rain for several hours, so I put my rain coat away. The sky opened up when I’m about 200 meters away from the shelter I planned to stop at for the night.
The tiny shelter is packed. Designed to hold 6 hikers, I saw 7 hikers huddled inside and another person buried in a hammock strung across the one exposed side. Lack of space wasn’t the only issue. Within moments of trying to find a flat surface to sit on for a minute to collect my bearings and eat another snack, I felt the anti-magnetic repulsion of being an Outsider encroaching on the territory of a newly formed Hiker Bubble. I pull a drenched log up as close to the edge of the shelter as possible and try to ignore the stream of roof drainage landing on the hood of my rain jacket. I eat another Cliff bar and listen to their conversation: “Does anyone want to try a bite of this beef stroganoff?” and “Turtle, you want me to hang ur socks up next to mine so they can get a little drier?” I suspect the social bonding is almost as comforting as feeling warm and dry while watching a torrential downpour just outside the shelter.
It’s hard to suppress thoughts about “those pesky kids” cluttering up the shelter. I know I’m going to have to start hiking again, and try to focus on the fact that this will be the first time I’ve hiked more than 20 miles in a day, rather than how wet my gear and I would be.
There are a few sympathetic goodbyes as I get up to leave which I don’t return. I’m already tired, wet-dog grouchy, and hungry for a hot meal. The rain pelts my hood so loudly it drowns out any thoughts other than getting to someplace not-rainy. Don’t know if I can make it another 7 miles to next shelter.
Less than a mile later, I pull out my AT guide book to look for a nearby hostel. Fortunately, about 4 miles away, at a gravel road crossing the AT called Tellico Gap, I am able to arrange for a former thru-hiker named Wiggy to pick me up. I learn that he is from Manchester, UK as he stores my drenched pack in a trailer. During the brief drive to his lodge, he hands me a laminated printout describing a hygiene policy, which is far too complex for my waterlogged brain to process. Instead, we chat about the joys of a military career (his in British Special Forces, mine in the “Chair Force”) and the advantages of being “calendrically challenged” since we are both too old to be engaging in physical activities more vigorous than shuffle board or golf.
His wife Maggie (also from UK), greeted us cheerfully in front of a secluded wooden lodge. I’m ushered into a heated “mud room” where they hang my pack, trekking poles, and take off my shoes and socks. Maggie and Wiggy proudly explain their precautions against viral, bacterial, and parasitic contamination: “There will be no incidents of Norovirus or bed bugs here.” Then I’m directly shuttled to the shower with a cloth bag for my hiker clothes that will then be stored back in the mud room. A clean change of clothes including socks waits in the bathroom. A handy scale diagram of common tick species hangs next to the light switch so I can identify some of the bugs that may have been feeding off of me for the past day. Handmade wooden plaques decorate the bunk room, common room, and kitchen with specific reminders not to wear shoes inside, to wash dishes after use, and several “AT Class of 2016” plaques.
By the time I finish my shower, I’ve forgotten the soggy day’s hike and I’m ready to devour a hot meal. Maggie magically appears with a fresh-baked pizza. There is a friendly collection of section hikers and vacationers here, and I enjoy a few moments of celebrity as a guy that plans to “go-all-the-way.” I don’t think I can deny that I’ve become a trail tourist again. Only 2 nights in a shelter thus far. This hiking-thing isn’t so bad.
I’m surprisingly buoyed by Wiggy’s parting words as I return to Tellico Gap to resume my hike where I left off. He had me sign one of his hand-made plaques and told me that he gives a plaque away each year to one of the hikers that sends him a post card from Maine. Of the 300 thru-hikers that signed his plaque last year, only 6 sent back postcards. Wiggy told me (unsolicited) that I would make it. This plaque is gonna look great in my cave!