It’s 3:15AM and its dark. Our 3-sided stone shelter is packed with sleeping, snoring hikers. I hear the frenzied scratching of mice as they explore territory that we’re borrowing for the night. Packs are hanging from the roof’s support beams. I hope the sticks and plastic bottles we’ve tied to the cords will prevent acrobatic mice from making nests in our mobile homes. I turn off my vibrating phone alarm and think about going back to sleep. Pretzel and Hatchet and Brice-cream truck and Redman are not stirring.
Last night:”I know this sounds crazy, but I’m getting up around 3 tomorrow to do some night hiking.”
Pretzel stopped playing his cigar box guitar and looked at me. “Seriously? What for?”
“I want to catch the sunrise from the top of Clingman’s Dome.”
“But you want to get up at 3 in the morning?”
“It’ll be awesome. I’ll fix hot chocolate, watch the sun creep out from the highest point on the AT, all hours before the tourists start crowding the place. Then… I’ll hike the last 10 miles to Newfound gap and catch the early lunch tourists in time to hitch into Gatlinburg for a huge lunch at 5 Guys.”
Pretzel started playing again. He wasn’t impressed.
Hatchet hunkered down on the bench next to us and began fixing second dinner. “I could totally go for a huge burger.”
Pretzel: “Sketch (that’s my trail name) wants to get up at the ass-crack of dawn to be the first person on the AT to see the sunrise, then race to Gatlinburg for a greasy burger.”
Hatchet: “Sweet. When is the ass-crack of dawn?”
I could tell I was on the verge of getting some company, so I tried to sound enthusiastic.
“I’m getting up at around 3, but I’ll have a full belly, clean body, and a nap before everyone else reaches the Gap. Probably through my first round of free moonshine samples before everyone else gets to town.”
Pretzel stopped playing.
By the time I prepped my gear for an early departure. A large handful of hikers were planning to get up. Someone had carted out a bottle of Canadian Club and they were doing some pre-Epic Hike drinking. Rookies.
I usually start my day with a camp-cup of hot chocolatey goodness, but it was bitterly cold and I knew the hot chocolate wasn’t going to warm me up as much as the 1000ft climb to Clingman’s Dome. I packed quickly and quietly in the dark. No one else stirred. Put on my headlamp and began to climb.
The weight of the darkness, and cool morning mist amplified ambient noises made by wind pushing through tree limbs. Mostly I concentrated on avoiding the roots that tangled the winding Trail and stone steps, but occasionally I saw a few distant paired reflections on my periphery. Probably just really tall rabbits or squirrels with hypertelorism.
Either the Smokies had conditioned me or the grade of the climb was gradual, but I was able to hike at a brisk pace and still glance around at whatever scenery my headlamp illuminated. Within a few hours I reached the asphalt path leading to the tower atop Clingman’s. I kept my pack on to block out the chilly wind on my back, puffed frosted air, and marched around the 1/4 cement spiral leading to the top of the lookout tower atop Clingman’s Dome. Shades of pink and purple were making their appearance as I huddled beneath the low cement walls of the lookout tower. Plenty of time to heat up some hot chocolate. I’ll still be the first person on the AT to see the sunrise on this particular day. Shivering, because the layer of sweat soaking my shirt was getting cold, yay for me.
Then I heard Brice’s clunking huffing stride. I can’t believe he got up and hiked here. I was surprised to have company. Maybe a little bit peeved to share this moment with someone else. Maybe it was good to have some company.
My hot chocolate was delicious. Brice, shivered in his t-shirt now that he wasn’t racing to beat the sunrise, but he’d left his pack at the bottom of the ramp. He had Quit written all over his face as he talked about the great life waiting for him in Colorado. He’d done enough here, and while his body was beat up and he was tired, he felt like he had proved to himself that he had the physical endurance to complete the trail. I silently drank my hot chocolate, listening as he constructed a very well thought out argument. He knew he could complete the Trail. He had much better opportunities waiting for him back home, and a loving wife. As far as he was concerned, he accomplished what he set out to do. He hiked the AT. He could keep going for another 5 months…but why? Why do the same thing, see the same trees, and birds, and maybe an occasional bear, but on a slightly different mountain, again and again and again, for 5 months. He didn’t need a badge, or a certificate, (and I added… Or the Katahdin picture) to feel like he’d accomplished something meaningful.
I totally understood his argument. Hell, I’d made very similar arguments myself during my previous section hikes. I wanted to tell him that he might feel the pull around February next year, like I did. But we are all different. We need to decide for ourselves which path we follow. Some of us don’t find joy and peace from following white blazes on trees that remind us that we are still on the right path. Most of us don’t need to know if it will be just as hard to climb that mountain…over there, or the one after that. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m weird. But, as I slurped down the dregs of my hot chocolate and watched the shifting resolution in Brices face as he made his decision to leave the trail, the sun peeked out behind him. He wasn’t even paying attention to the changing hues on the horizon, and all I could think about was…
It’s a great friggin day for a hike.