Others just get wet.
-Bob Dylan (or maybe Roger Miller)
I lay on my stomach, staring out the open door of the bunkhouse, waiting for Noah to lead paired animals past. It was raining again. Big, fat, wet, chilly drops expertly trained to find a way through pack covers, rain jackets and morale descended in overlapping ranks. Every gust of wind directed a misty sampling through the door. Nope. Definitely not hiker-friendly weather.
The stench of 14 soaked hikers and their equally soaked gear was too toxic to consider closing both doors of the open bay bunkhouse, so those nearest the door (me) were spared the worst of stale hiker-funk, but had to endure intermittent sprays of Nature reminding us who was in charge throughout the night. To Zero, or not to Zero, that is the question…
We had just passed through the north end of the Smokies and over 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Aside from an easily missed drop box for our hiker permits, there were no glorious arches, no cheering crowds, not even a sign to help us celebrate our victorious passage through a rugged 70 mile stretch of wilderness. I didn’t truly feel like I was out of the Smokies until I walked along the side of an underpass beneath Interstate 40. I stopped hiking for a minute to watch and listen and feel the blurry metal beasts as they moved faster in 15 minutes than I could hike all day. They roared past, oblivious to me and my brown strip of paradise, and I realized I wasn’t part of that world anymore.
Fortunately, just a few hundred meters beyond the underpass, a white blaze directed me back into the woods. It started drizzling as I made a steep but short climb back away from the noise and bustle. This rain isn’t too bad. Kinda refreshing actually. Besides, the hostel is less than an hour away.
I turned into the swampy driveway of the Standing Bear Farm and Hostel about 45 minutes later, feeling like a wet dog that had been abandoned outside overnight and hoped that there was still space in the hostel. I had been perseverating about my priorities for the past 30 minutes: dry clothes, hot food, shower, sleep, hot food, hot food.
The caretaker, a wavy-haired congenial type that kept addressing us as Sir or Ma’am pointed me to the bunk house and mentioned that he would be around if I wanted to buy beer once I got settled in. I quickly knocked out the first 3 items on my to-do list, feeling like a new person with dry clothes on, the last of the Smokies showered off, and a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (or PBR for those in the know) to wash down a microwaved burrito. Life was good.
I’m convinced that the rain knew I had reached a safe haven so it paused to save ammunition for a later fight. I gave myself some time to look around the Standing Bear hostel. Aside from 2 plastic Porta-Potty’s, the hostel was comprised of tightly clustered buildings made of distressed and weathered wood. It looked a bit like an early 19th century trading post. Lots of quaint old-fashioned stuff like a hand-washing system for cleaning clothes, but nearby was a heavily used dryer, and the kitchen/dining area housed a delapidated microwave and vintage pizza oven. This was a Steampunk fantasy brought to life. An isolated shack at the top of a rocky staircase looked like a storage space for things best forgotten, but inside was a hikers cornucopia. Packed wooden shelves behind plexiglass cases contained individual packets of peanut butter, Pop Tarts, Pasta Sides, honey packets, oatmeal, and so much more. the back wall was lined with clothing that previous hikers had left behind. In keeping with the Steampunk theme, a glorious refrigerator/freezer displayed delights that still make me grin to describe: Digiorno’s pizza, the right kind of sodas (Mountain Dew and Orange Crush), and gas-station-quality frozen snacks. Seeing all the right stuff in such a tight space made me believe in the goodness of the universe again. I pulled a paper envelope from a slot by the door and wrote down an inventory of my snacks and resupply. There was a reminder not to forget to include the cost of the hostel ($20) when calculating my own bill. This kind of “honor system” is very common at hostels along the AT, but still makes me proud to think that I am part of a community that relies on mutual integrity and respect, despite the fact that we look and smell like homeless-looking migrants.
To Zero, or not to Zero…
Despite the bleak prospect of a soggy hike and the temptation to remain close to the “shack of wonders,” the hiker stench helps get me out in the rain. The first 20 minutes are rough as the saturation level over different parts of my body rises. Between 80 and 95% wet sucks. After that, it stops mattering. Then it’s not too bad. Really it’s not. I can think about the dry set of clothes and warm sleeping bag nestled in waterproof stuff sacs that wait for me when I get to the shelter. Turn up the music… A stream of rain follows the frayed strands from the bill of my hat. I’m doin it. I’m a real hiker.