lHumphrey Bogart was called homely.
He didn’t play pretty boys. Think of him in Casablanca; Rick had a face like a bloodhound. A depressed bloodhound.
This is the journal of Tintin, a seriously ill young man with Bi-Polar Disorder who has set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. You can find out more about him, and the odyssey he has chosen, here.
Fontana Dam to Birch Gap Shelter
Staying at the resort had been more than worth the expense. Putting on wet clothes in the morning can involve a lengthy process whereby you stare at them for a while trying to talk yourself into thinking that it really won’t be that bad, knowing full well that it really will be; all whilst in the comfort of your warm, dry sleeping bag that you don’t want to leave as much as you don’t want to put those wet clothes on. Having a dry set of clothes after having been soaked to the bone the day before is deeply gratifying. After all, Justin was here to have a good time and I wasn’t in the business of demoralizing the poor lad.
I had no plan to change where we were heading to for the day, so we had a nice easy day ahead of us. I had to go to the post office to pick up the package that Perfect Storm, aka Weird Dude, had promised he would send. My boots were dry so they weren’t the reason my feet dragged on the walk to the post office. I was nervous. I really wanted to trust WD and I really did believe that he’d send the package filled with supplies to get me to Gatlinburg and my Neo Air Thermarest, but a lingering doubt remained. I felt guilty for even doubting him. I didn’t trust him largely because he had an obvious psychiatric disorder and I’ve spent a large part of the past five years campaigning against discrimination of people with such disorders.
I hoped that I’d been worrying for nothing. I hoped that the package would be ready and waiting for me. I really hoped that Weird Dude was just a persona and that behind it lay a well functioning, fully rounded individual. It seems my hope had been misplaced. In my poshest, primmest English accent, I asked Angie, the lady behind the counter, if there was a package for Aaron Gray (WD’s real name) and Stuart Skinner. “Just let me check for you honey.” I’d gotten off to a good start. I was quietly confident now. Angie had flashed me a reassuring smile that made me feel like she’d take care of any problem that arose. It seemed that would be no need as she returned carrying a package. Her smile had gone, replaced by a look of concern and deep thought.
“I’ve got a package for Aaron Gray, but nothing for a Stuart Skinner,” she said sorrowfully. We both looked at each other for while, both waiting for the other to remedy the problem. I asked her where the package had come from and I sunk a little when she said Franklin. The package was too small to house the contents of what I’d given him. “I don’t know what I can do. I can’t open it without ID.” Angie looked genuinely sorry. “Who is Aaron Gray”? I filled her in on the story, telling her that he’d said he’d post the package for me and I’d written out implicit instructions to send it to Stuart Skinner at this post office. It felt like we were at an impasse. I was hoping that Angie could somehow miraculously make the package appear and I think she just hoped I’d walk out.
Luckily for me, a van pulled in with a whole stash of mail and aptly sized packages. My confidence was restored and Angie told me to wait fifteen or so minutes whilst she rummaged through them. I grudgingly walked back outside to where Justin and Hunter were feasting on various items of junk food from the store. My look must have said it all and Hunter started laughing. I raised a smile. I wasn’t angry or annoyed, just concerned. I grabbed a coffee and waited long enough to go back into the post office so that I wouldn’t appear rude or demanding. I walked back in and Angie was dealing with other customers and so I decided to wait in the corner and write some postcards that I’d just bought. The bell rang to alert Angie that a new customer had walked in and I looked up and was filled with surprise. It was River!
River approached me with arms outstretched and she gave me a big, friendly hug. She was just as surprised to see me as I was her. In walked Fable and we shook hands. He didn’t seem as happy to see me as River and instead had an anxious look of concern that was very apparent, his eyes filled with heaviness. Even River’s eyes seemed to be tired. Something was clearly up. River told me that their dog, Joey, had gotten really sick and they’d had to rent a car to drive him back home. They wore the fatigued look of concern, but it seemed there was other stuff on their mind to. They were here to pick up Fable’s medication, yet, to their dismay, it had been sent elsewhere. Fable was clearly agitated, ready to go and pick up his meds from where it had actually been sent. We said goodbye and River gave me another hug, genuinely wishing me luck for the next part of the trip.
It saddened me to see them both so concerned and anxious. They had clearly had a rough few days and my heart went out to them. I can go without my meds and be fine for the most part. My mood may dip, I won’t sleep as well, but I’ve recovered well enough to be able to cope without them. I know that although my illness will never go away, it will always be manageable and I may live a life without any symptoms. The same can’t be said of Alzheimer’s. I have no personal experience of it, but know enough to be sure that I hope I never do. I have huge amounts of respect for Fable and I really wish him and River well for their time on the trail and long after.
It seemed a little trivial when Angie returned, sweat gracing her brow, to tell me that there were no packages for me. Hunter had come in to see what was what, offering to come in the next day to check on my behalf. “Can he do that?” I asked, willfully. “So long as he had ID,” Angie replied. It still seemed a little hopeful. WD had a package from Franklin that he’d sent himself. If that had arrived, then surely the one for me would have done. I posted a letter to WD. Angie wasn’t allowed to hold a note so I had to send a stamped, addressed envelope to WD, well Aaron Gray, pass it to Angie, who then put it directly behind her. It seemed a little comical, but was befitting of the fiasco I found myself in. I told him I was in Fontana, that there was no sign of the package and that I didn’t really care about any of the stuff, just my Thermarest. I handed my driver’s license to Hunter who laughed once more: “What, was this taken when you were sixteen or something?” The whiskerless, boyish face seemed like an eon away.
It was almost one and although we only had a seven mile day, I thought it best we make tracks. I bode Hunter farewell, telling him I’d leave notes in the shelter journals so we could meet up, hopefully with package in hand, but almost certain that this wouldn’t be the case. I highly doubt that it will turn up tomorrow. Justin and I called for the shuttle and I thought that if Karma didn’t exist, then it was giving me a hefty kick up the backside. In the shuttle were Major Douche and his whiney witch of a wife, Joy. That’s not her name, far from it. She’s a joy vampire, draining those in her vicinity of any good feeling they might be having at the time. “Do you know what the conditions are like in the Smokies?” You’re having a bloody laugh aren’t you love. Is there anybody free from this questioning?
I was fed up with people banging on about the Smokies. I was really excited about hiking up there, especially Clingman’s Dome, but people were building it up to be this Leviathan of gargantuan proportions. I know that the conditions had been bad, that people had been forced off it or had to skip round it. It helps to know what you are up against, but I like some element of surprise. It will be what it will be and it is what it is. There’s no controlling it. Knowing what it’s like is not going to change it. You either go all the way through the Smokies or you don’t and there’s no way of really knowing until you’re up there. I didn’t want to know. I was up for a challenge and I hope they present me with one, coupled with some spectacular scenery. I just hope I don’t bump into these two muppets along the way, though the chances are that I most probably will.
They got off at the resort and we headed to the crossing, where we’d caught the shuttle earlier. No skipping sections now! It was an easy walk past the dam, a place that undoubtedly is frequented by thousands of tourists in a day alone, yet there we were, on the observation deck all alone. I didn’t find the dam anything to marvel at and was eager to get back on the trail, even if it was a paved road for a while. As we edged closer to the trail head, I saw a bird gracefully skimming the water’s surface, only to soar up high and hover over the lake. It was the first bald eagle I’d ever seen. America’s national symbol flying before my very eyes and I was in awe. It mustn’t have been having much luck searching for food and it soon set off into the horizon. Like the coyote I’d seen on my second day, it simply vanished into the nothingness of distance. I was equally grateful to have seen a sight I’d hoped to see before I came out here. I hoped it was good omen for the days ahead.
I felt a little sorry for Justin, as despite the short mileage, it was another steep climb up to the campsite in less than favorable conditions. I knew he had some aches and pains from the day before and I hoped that the late start combined with the shortish day would see him ready for a full day’s hike tomorrow. The Smokies get there name as they are usually covered in mist as though smoke is rising out of them, and they lived up to their name today. There was a damp drizzle in the air too, so when we finally arrived at camp we set up our tents, I cooked dinner and delivered it to his vestibule, conversing whilst in our separate shelters. Not the greatest of days, but I was enjoying Justin’s company, particularly the trash talking that we dish out to each other.
The next day I was lost in thought. The weather had cleared up, much to the relief of Justin and myself. I didn’t want this to be six days of misery for him and he seemed to be getting in his stride. I never had to wait long for him to catch up with me when I paused for a break and he seemed to be happy “plugging along.” For that matter, I was happy to be “plugging along” too. All this fuss about the Smokies this and the Smokies that, yet the trail was no formidable foe, rather, a most gracious host.
Something was bothering me. I was beginning to get bogged down with a sense of guilt. Then it hit me. I’d left Hunter my ID, but we hadn’t discussed what he’d do with the package if it turned up. It’s a big if, but the package must weigh at least six pounds and he’s a top bloke too, so I know he’d carry it. I couldn’t believe how thoughtless I’d been. To make matters worse, I realized that I hadn’t bought extra rations to compensate for those I’d lost through the package. Justin was my saving grace as he had yet to build a hiker appetite and had lots spare. I was angry at myself for being so careless and felt a burden on those around me.
I have read someone describe depression as though elves came in the night and replaced the ‘mind with a lump of wood’. It felt as though mine had been replaced with a lump of lead and hiking became laborious as I became burdened with this heavy load I was carrying. Stuff like this gets to me. I know it shouldn’t, but it does. I don’t even know if Hunter’s got the package, yet I’m imagining him lugging up my heavy box and it feels as if I’m carrying that weight too. I now hope that the package didn’t arrive and that it sorts itself out some other way. All I can do is leave messages in every shelter journal telling him to take what food he wants for himself and dish out what he doesn’t. My Thermarest weighs less than half a pound and I have no worries about him carrying that, as he’d be all too glad too as we hadn’t asked for any money off of him when he crashed with us at the resort. Carrying the rest of it just for me was just a little too much to ask.
Despite the fact that the Smokies has the highest concentration of black bears anywhere in the world, I was still not keen on sleeping in a shelter. I’d been told that I could tent, but rule number 2 on the ground rules in the shelter specifically stated ‘tents are prohibited’. There were a few hikers in the shelter already and I hoped that it would fill up and so I’d have no choice but to tent. I asked round to see if anyone knew the real deal on tenting and I was simply directed to the ground rule sign: helpful. I was in limbo. I knew that there was no way I’d get a reasonable amount of sleep in the shelter. I get very anxious when sleeping around people and I avoid hostels as much as possible when travelling. I hadn’t come to the great outdoors to be packed inside a wooden shelter, sandwiched in between any old sod. I also didn’t want to get attacked by a bear. Nor did I want to get in trouble with a ranger, but I was sure I could put on my most proper English accent and play the dumb, ignorant limey and thus escape any punishment. It was a fail proof plan. It just so happened that the shelter soon became full and then some; nineteen hikers crammed in a twelve man shelter. A bunch of day hikers had showed up late and although they have ??? way to shelter space, having reserved and paid for their spots, no thru-hikers moved and so they slept on the floor at the end of the shelter.
I’ve found a flat spot where horses could be tied up. The Smokies is the only section of the AT where they’re allowed on the trail. I’m a little way away from the trail and I’m slightly nervous. I’ve made sure there’s nothing edible in my tent, other than myself of course. I haven’t been bothered about hanging my food up until now but think it’s best for my sake and my mum’s peace of mind that I do. There’s lots of horse manure surrounding my tent and I’m hoping that will deter any would be inquisitively famished marauder.
Spence Field Shelter to Silers Bald Shelter
I was taking my sweet old time getting ready, deciding on a hot breakfast of porridge for a change. I can’t really stand the stuff myself, but I’ve become sick of pop tarts and I eagerly snapped up Holy Smoke’s offer. He had the biggest food bag I’ve seen on the trail so far. Not many people carry fresh eggs on the trail, but they’re a staple of Holy Smoke’s diet. I was the only one left in the shelter when Moonpie rocked up. It was the first time I’d met him and we exchanged trail names. He’d heard of me and all about my package. I couldn’t believe my ears when he told me that it had arrived. That is was there the whole time I was and that it was now in the hands of Hunter. I couldn’t believe it. Moonpie couldn’t tell me what Hunter planned on doing with it. It was swiftly becoming a comedy of errors. I was becoming the “package guy”, not the reputation I was looking to forge for myself.
I left another note in the shelter journal for Hunter and hoped that he’d figure something out. I was at least an hour behind Justin now and I hoped that I’d catch up with him soon enough. I was doing my best to hike with him as much as possible as there wasn’t too long till he was heading back off home. The walk took me past Rocky Top and I almost felt a sense of relief to be out of the claustrophobic barren forest. The Smokies hadn’t lived up to my expectations, but that was because I imagined a dramatic contrast to what I had been hiking through before, but it was still much of the same as the past hundred or so miles. It hadn’t been helped by all the fear-mongering that had been spread by many of the hikers. The weather couldn’t have been better and we were very lucky in that respect, perhaps it would have been the beast that everyone made it out to be in rain, sleet or snow.
I caught up to Justin at Derrick Knob. It had turned out to be a beautiful day and there was a crowd of hikers sitting on the bank in front of the shelter sunning themselves. It was a crowd of hikers that I had yet to meet; Zip Code, Grateful, Boston and Green Dog. Moon Pie was not too far behind and as he came up the somewhat brutal climb to the shelter he shouted out “this hiking stuff can kiss my ass.” I thought he said that it was kicking his ass, as I found his accent a little too thick to properly understand. When he says his name, Moonpie, it sounds more like Moonpai. Everyone was in good in spirits, taking a much deserved rest and laughter rippled across the bank as hikers crawled their way up to the shelter with a look that said “dang, that was tough.”
The plan was to go to Double Spring Shelter, 1.7 miles north of Silers Bald but Justin was all beat up by the time we got there and we decided to stay put. I was hoping to get a little further so we’d have an easier hike into Newfound Gap so that we could meet up with Justin’s brother, Kyle. Little did I know what lay ahead of us the next day and being 1.7 miles closer wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
Silers Bald to Newfound Gap (Gatlinburg)
If I called the Smokies a gracious host, then somebody must have done something to piss them off. They’d been a complete and utter bastard to the early starting thru-hikers. Perhaps they’d been visited by the ghost of mountains past that pointed out the misery that they’d installed upon hikers and for a brief while, they’d turned from an old miser to philanthropist. The reprieve that had been bestowed upon us was short lived. Perhaps there was none at all and we’d just been lured into a false sense of security. For today will perhaps be the day that I remember most when I reflect back on this trip; it was a day filled with adventure, excitement and drama.
The hike up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT at 6,643 feet, was enchanting. The scent of pine wafted through the air and the sight of greenery was as refreshing as the cold. For the first time since I entered the Smokies I caught sight of snow and the white capped mountains were captivating. This was why I’d flown across the Atlantic Ocean. The sheer vastness of the mountain ridges forced me to stop still in my tracks in awe. I was eager to get to the peak of Clingmans, excited to reach one of the points that is synonymous with thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I wasn’t prepared for the concrete space deck at the summit. It’s an observation point for people who can’t be arsed to hike to a spot of outstanding beauty. Fortunately, the road was closed so it wasn’t infested with tourists and we at least had the place to ourselves. I didn’t like it being there. It looked like some retro-futuristic construction that seemed more befitting of a comic strip based in a colonized Mars. I walked up the winding ramp to the deck. The only redeeming quality of the deck was that its wheelchair accessible and I hope that it’s well used for that purpose.
The views were spectacular at the top and we could see some of the peaks that we’d climbed so far, including the memorable Standing Bear Mountain. What I wasn’t prepared for was the glaringly obvious signs of air pollution, evident by a distinguishable grey line of smog, beneath the bright blue sky. There were information boards that highlighted the devastation that has been caused by acid rain. They could start tackling the problem by closing the road permanently, with the exception of disabled people, and make people hike to the top rather than drive. The Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited out of all the national parks, with 9 million people driving through it each year yet shockingly, only 10% of those bother to get out of the car. Why inconvenience yourself when you can enjoy the views whilst sitting on your arse.
Postholing is where you inadvertently break through the surface of the snow so that your leg resembles a fence post stuck in a post hole. I had heard of this term, but was unaware of it’s true definition until I placed my foot on what I assumed to be firm ground, but was shocked to suddenly find my leg thigh deep in snow. We had to tread very lightly as we hiked through the trail and I was either slipping and sliding all over the place, falling on my backside on numerous occasions or falling straight through the snow. Every step required concentration and I sought out the footprints of previous hikers as markers of firm ground.
I followed the footprints directly passed a white blazed tree and continued to do so until my instincts told me something was awry. The terrain did not seem right for a trail down a steep slope with no obvious gaps between the trees. Something was up and the trail of footsteps led to a tree where they thinned out, with some signs of people following the contour around, instead of straight down. I realized I had gone the wrong way. I headed back and called out to Justin, telling him not to head the way I had and to look for the trail. It would seem that the trail turned at a 90 degree angle at the white blazed tree which is what had caused many people to stray from the path that was covered in snow. A sudden change in the direction of the trail is usually marked with a second white blaze, positioned off-centre in the direction of the trail. Not in this instance.
As so many people seemed to have made the same mistake, I decided that I should do something about it to prevent more people from hiking unnecessarily through the tricky terrain. Justin and I gathered some deadwood and erected a makeshift fence at the junction between the actual trail and the one that many people seemed to have incidentally followed. You often encounter paths that look like the trail and these are often blocked off with deadwood. It’s easy to stray sometimes as the mind has a tendency to switch off and auto-pilot kicks in. With all the snow and the dangers of post holing, it didn’t seem to be something I could leave alone, as it was a hazard with potential risks.
Even on the right trail, the hiking was still tough as I frequently fell through the pockets of snow causing me to have to lift myself up; a tiresome task with a heavy pack on. It was like doing a series of squat-thrusts and my quads were burning from the intensity of hiking through such unstable ground. Chumbawamba’s classic theme “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down” would have been a very apt soundtrack to the hike. All I could do after each posthole was get back up and hike again. It may have been tiresome, but it was exhilarating. I’d never hiked through anything like it and my sense of adventure soared. It was challenging and I felt invigorated as all my senses were on full alert; I needed them to be to keep me safe. I don’t know if I’d have heard it if I’d been hiking on familiar ground, but I just made out the faint cries of “help” in the distance, in the direction from where I’d just come.
I knew at once what had happened. Someone had followed the footsteps and not the trail, yet it didn’t seem like someone was just lost; there was panic in the cry for help. A wave of guilt hit me straight away. I saw a potential risk and I should have done better to reduce that risk. Even though I wasn’t out here in the capacity of an outdoor leader, I feel those who have a certain level of training should carry a sense of responsibility with them. Eager to make amends, I set out to put my experience and training into practice. I dropped my pack, grabbed my emergency kit bag, containing a first aid kit and various other survival items, and made my way back as quickly as was safely possible.
I was right in my judgment. Walking back from the wrong path was Green Dog and a very visibly shaken and bloodied Walking Man. I walked up to him to assess his injuries and he told me he thought his bone was sticking out of his leg. It became immediately apparent that it was his mental health that needed tending to and not his physical. I cleaned the blood from his legs and then checked for deformities. Walking Man was certain that he’d broken something in spite of his ability to walk. I took his sleeping pad off the back of his pack and made him sit down on it whilst trying to calm him down in the process.
I knew Boston, a nurse practitioner, was not too far behind. I was eager for him to arrive soon as his opinion would carry more weight with Walking Man and hopefully calm his somewhat irrational fears about his leg. Walking Man was highly agitated as the drama of the incident exacerbated his anxiety based disorder. I did my best to reassure him and I was relieved to see the sight of a Red Sox baseball cap. Boston had a look and confirmed that there was no damage to Walking Man’s leg, other than some superficial cuts. It turned out that he’d gone off the trail, post holed and got his leg trapped under a log. Luckily for him, Green Dog was not too far behind and was able to free him. I told Walking Man that he should really carry a whistle as had it been windier or raining then we may not have heard his cries for help. What he told me appalled me.
He had been carrying a whistle but at his shakedown at Neels Gap, he was told to drop it as it was judged to be a luxury item. I was shocked by this, even more so with someone with such obvious disabilities. Walking Man wasn’t alone, Grateful had been told to drop his too and I’ve later found out that this has been common advice to several hikers. I was outraged and shocked by the irresponsibility of so called ‘experts’. Their boasting of shaving an average of twelve pounds seemed like something to be held on to, if not bettered and I think that it’s not something that should be advertised. The cynic in me could not help but think of it as a marketing ploy. Safety should be the primary concern and not weight. I have not witnessed a culture of safety on the trail. Perhaps it’s because this is the first hiking experience for a lot of people and so they don’t know any better, but that’s more the reason they should carry one. A whistle is a vital piece of kit. You may never need it, but if you do, it could save your life. If we had not heard Walking Man’s cries, he may have gone into shock, panicked by his predicament or exposed to the elements, hypothermia would have soon set in. There is absolutely no reason not to carry a small, lightweight and inexpensive piece of kit. Why anyone would tell you to dismiss it is beyond comprehension to me. (An email seeking comments about this sent to Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap has gone unanswered. Ed.)
We decided to stick together as one big group for the remainder of the hike. I got everyone to gather some deadwood and to make the path more obvious so as to prevent any more confusion. I felt partly at fault for the incident as I could have done a better job of blocking off the wrong path. The whole incident had added over an extra hour to my hike and we were way behind our scheduled time to meet Kyle. Hiking took my mind off the incident and I began to enjoy the thrill of the challenging hike once again. We all post holed as we made our way along and we’d stop and wait till the particular person had got themselves back to their feet and were ready to hike on. It was as though there were snipers up on the peak, taking us out one by one as we’d fall without warning.
It was tiring stuff and we eventually made it to Mollies Ridge Shelter. We were slightly dismayed to find out that the shelter and water source was 0.5 miles away. We were beat as it was and I’d already hiked and extra mile and half; another unplanned mile was too much. Instead, we got our stoves out and boiled some water whilst we enjoyed a much needed break. Justin and I couldn’t hang round too long and we set off to meet up with his brother. Although the guidebook didn’t have any water sources marked, there was an abundance of them as the trail had now turned into a creek with water running down the trail. As much as I had enjoyed hiking through the snow, it had been a long day as I was relieved to arrive at Newfound Gap unscathed, though I wasn’t quite prepared for the frenzy I found there.
Newfound Gap was a hive of activity with a mass of tourists, taking pictures of the state line and the gap, climbing a short series of stairs and earning their reputation as “tourons” - a hybrid of the words tourist and morons. Thru-hikers amaze them like a caged exotic animal would a school kid. We are an oddity, with our dirty attire, our trampish looks and our crazy act of hiking more in 6 months than most of these people will do in a decade. “Are you one of those thru-hikers?” they’d ask. “Yes, ma’m.” “Where did you start?” They had no idea. “Georgia” I’d say matter of factly. “Where do you finish?” I’m about to drop the bombshell, to say the unfathomable and challenge their paradigm of comfortable, bubble-wrapped living. “Maine”, said as modestly as possible. “The state?” they’d exclaim. “Yes, ma’m.” “Oh my God!” they’d cry out.
“Where are you from”? Another bombshell about to be dropped: “England.” “You’re Bridish?” (there is a tendency in the US to pronounce t’s as d’s)? “Oh my God!” they’d cry out even louder. “Can we take your picture?” Perhaps I should have thrown feces at them to give them the full safari experience. Instead I pose politely and wish them a good day as they walk off, still gawking. This is being repeated all over the parking lot as hikers are surrounded by tourons, being asked moronic questions, trying on hikers’ packs and generally overloading hikers’ sensory loads.
As the hiking had been so tough, testing the whole group of us, Justin and I thought it would be cool to act as trail angels and asked Kyle to show up with some cold beers and double cheeseburgers. Kyle didn’t let us down and the both the burgers and beer tasted magical. I inhaled three burgers instantaneously, washing them down with some pale ale and none of that Bud, Busch, Nat Ice or Miller nonsense. They were rich rewards for a long and arduous day as were the several beers that we enjoyed that evening. I count Kyle and Justin amongst my best friends and I really enjoyed travelling with the J-Train once again. They’re good eggs, going out there way for me and making sure I was well looked after. I just hope it’s not too long before I see them both again.
I can’t really write a journal and miss out Gatlinburg. I just don’t think I have the vocabulary to properly give it justice. It is so far removed from what I was expecting that I was in shock when we drove through it. It was to me what I was to the tourons at Newfound Gap. I knew it was a tourist mecca, but I was expecting a few souvenir shops, a couple of museums and some arcades; something antiquated. Instead, it’s one long street of every tacky, money grabbing, cheap thrill providing, pointless tourist trap going. It embodies everything that I find ugly about America in the heart of everything I love about America. Miguel calls it the “anus” of America. I’ve seen worse, yet it many ways, it fascinated me; it’s got a bloody aquarium! Who ever heard of a bloody aquarium in the middle of the bloody mountains? It’s ludicrous. Tourists are surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, yet they choose to waddle, because a lot of them are too obese to walk properly, from Ripley’s Believe or Not to the Dukes of Hazard museum and then maybe visit the “Haunted” house instead of making the most of where they were. I’ve never seen anything like it and doubt I will again, perhaps that’s why I found it so intriguing.
Zero – Gatlinburg
Today was an unintentional zero. Myself and the two brothers perhaps had a couple of beers too many the night before. I woke up feeling exhausted with the previous day’s efforts still lingering in my legs. The brothers dropped me off in the afternoon after making sure I was well fed. I was sad to see the pair of them go. I’d enjoyed the week spent with Justin wishing that he could have hiked a little longer. I’d spent a lot of time with Kyle on my visits to Milwaukee and was sorry to see them both go. I just hope to get to repay the hospitality the pair of them showed me som day soon.
I sat on the grassy patch of the car park trying to sort out my stuff before I headed back out on the trail. I think I looked like too much of a tramp to be bothered by the tourons. They left me in peace as I tried to muster the energy and desire to leave. I was in the process of slinging the pack on my back when I heard a shout of “Tintin.” I looked up and saw the unmistakably large figure of Hunter. I couldn’t believe it. A wave of relief swept over me and I walked over to greet him. We gave each other a brotherly handshake; shaking hands before bringing each other in for a masculine hug, both happy to see one another. We were both laughing before we settled into the conversation of what exactly happened with my package.
The story goes: Double Dribble and Zach walked into the post office not long after I’d left. Hunter had told them about my misfortune and they were laughing about how my deepest fear had come to fruition. For some strange reason, it took them to laugh about it for the woman to check for a package for Tintin. I’d told her the story of what had gone on and just assumed that she’d check to see if there was a package for “Tintin.” Schoolboy error. Double Dribble went out and told Hunter who collected the package on my behalf, using my driver’s license and proof of ID. He opened it up to see what he had to lug up the Smokies on my behalf and was immediately confused as to why there was a bottle of beer sticking out of the package.
It had obviously preyed on his mind for a while as he asked me why I’d packed a beer. We were in hysterics when I told him. As we were leaving the Saphire Inn in Franklin, Miguel came out with two bottles of beer and asked if anyone wanted them. WD and Disciple both said yes. I can remember clear as day an image of WD sitting in the back of a pickup truck, on his way to the Budget Inn with my bag of stuff in his lap with a beer bottle poking out of it. The silly sod must have forgotten about it, much to Karl’s delight, who grabbed it out of the box and drank it.
Hunter had got my notes in the shelter journals, but planned on eating the food anyway and replacing the food at a later date. There was no way I was going to let him do that and I was just relieved that the situation had resolved itself. Good old WD. Hunter was going into town and not really wanting to hike out. I asked if I could join him and he was more than happy to share a room along with Craig. Hunter had met some trail angels dishing out cold sodas and various snacks for hikers as they made their way off the trail and on to the gap. They’d offered to give us a ride into Gatlinburg once I’d got my stuff sorted. Hunter helped me grab my stuff but not before we heard a tourist point at the contents of my pack and say, “Look at all that trash.” Trash! That’s my wardrobe and pantry love!
Mark and Wendy were our trail angels and they had a very moving story to tell. In 2002 Mark and his son set off on a thru-hike attempt together. However, it wasn’t too long into the trip before Mark had problems with his stomach and had to get off the trail. He headed to a gap to hitch a ride into town and whilst he was waiting for a ride, his son turned up and said “We started this together, so we’ll finish this together.” When they returned home, the son went to an optician for a routine eye test when it was discovered that there was a pressure build up behind one of his eyes. A scan revealed that it was a cancerous lump. The son had brain cancer. Had Mark not become ill on the trail, they’d never have got off the trail and the cancer could have spread. The son was able to make a full recovery and together they thru-hiked the AT in 2007. It was quite the inspiring story.
It was an un-eventful evening with an average dinner and a couple of beers. We were all tired and bed seemed like the best place to be.
Newfound Gap to Standing Bear Farm (condensed)
I woke up feeling a lot more refreshed than I did the day before. That may have had something do with a night of sobriety, but the day of rest had allowed my body to recover after the punishment of the previous day. Craig got up fairly early, whilst I sorted out my pack and Hunter slowly arose from his slumber. We both had stuff we wanted to post back home and decided we'd head off to the post office after a terrible breakfast at a pancake house. The lady told us it was fairly easy to catch a “trolley” (a tram on wheels) to the post office; all we need do was flag one down at one of the stops. It would seem that we had to do a heck of a lot more than that as it drove straight on by. It was actually Hunter who said “Bollocks” and not me, but I very much shared in his sentiment when we were told the next one wouldn't be for another hour. Bollocks indeed.
We decided to walk it whilst attempting to hitch. Most of people in Gatlinburg are out of towners, have no idea where the trail is or that it even exists. They were not at all receptive to our approach. “Nope,” one woman said before hurrying to get into her car; all Hunter had said was “Ma’m.” One man rolled up his windows, another pretended that we didn't even exist, staring straight through us. We gave up and hiked the three or so miles to the post office. I managed to get a blister after the first mile and couldn't believe that my first one arose not from hiking, but walking through town.
We got to the post office at 11:40 only to find that it closed at 11:30. This was a real test of character and one we both passed with flying colours. We couldn't help but laugh at the calamitous day that we'd had so far. Hunter then burst out into song, recalling something that his mum used to sing to him “Momma always told me they'd be days like these.” I decided I liked Hunter a lot after that moment. The day’s events could have stressed a lot of people out but not Hunter. I was glad I'd decided to head back into town with him and I was looking forward to hiking with him for the next week or so.
The owner of the Grand Prix Hotel took care of the post for us. He couldn't have been more helpful during the whole time we were there. The owner was reluctant to even take money off Hunter for the postage at first and then only took half of what it probably would cost when he did. We caught a shuttle at the recently opened outfitters which is in keeping with Gatlinburg in that it's another tourist trap, designed to encourage tourists to buy what they don't need. I'd had enough by then and was keen to get the heck out of there and go back into the woods where I belonged. It took us a while though, as we were stopped every few minutes or so on the first mile of the trail by tourists bewildered by what we were doing. Hunter and I are quite the odd couple, with him being 6’8” and me with my posh English accent.
The next few days passed without much event. We caught up with Sarah who was part of the extended “family.” Sarah, or Dickel as we called her as she had a bottle of the branded whisky on her, is another chilled out, relaxed person and I very much enjoyed her company. Nothing was rushed with us. We took our time in the mornings and didn't rush to eat when we arrived at camp. I enjoyed being with people my own age too and found them easier to relate to than many others I'd met on the trail.
We had heard many great things about Standing Bear Farm and hiked the 30 miles to Davenport Gap, three miles from the farm, over two days, staying at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter in between. Davenport Gap marked our last night in the Smokies and the weather was so perfect that we chose to cowboy camp. The fact that the shelter had caged doors to stave off bears did not scare us off. I had managed to go through the whole Smokies without sleeping in a shelter, something I was particularly pleased with, feeling a small sense of accomplishment, too. I'd enjoyed my time in the Smokies. I couldn't have asked for better weather. Other than the day coming down from Clingmans Dome, the hiking had been relatively easy and enjoyable. I'm very glad for that day at Clingmans as it was the most exciting, adventurous hiking I've ever done. I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be the most memorable day at the end of my thru-hike endeavour.
We arrived at Standing Bear Farm around noonish. Although it was only a three mile walk, the temperature was sweltering and I struggled in the stifling heat. Luckily, there was a river running by the trail and there was even a small series of falls. I doused my buff in the water at every opportunity to try and cool me down. I went straight to the “magic” room when I arrived. It's a small room crammed with every delight that a hiker craves for; cold drinks, ice creams, pizzas, Pringles, hot pockets and oh so much more. I think it has a similar effect on hikers as the Wonka Factory did to the lucky golden ticket holders. It was a “world of pure imagination” and I downed two cans of ice cold root beer and took a third out with me, along with Pringles and a pizza. The lure of tasty treats proved too hard to resist. We were like junkies who hadn't had a hit for a while and the savory delights were as intoxicating. Kasmir had managed to spend over $50 in one night alone from his trips to the room. He made more trips to that room than a sailor to a brothel.
I had no desire to sleep in the bunkroom. Hunter, Dickle and I had hoped to rent out the cabin, but it was occupied with hikers who'd taken an unplanned zero. I asked Curtis, the slightly crazed and erratic owner, if I could set my tent up somewhere. Curits doesn't really like to answer questions and kind of shrugged as to say it didn't really matter, so long as I didn't pester him with trivialities. When he said I could tent up by the barn, my ears pricked up. We went and checked out the old, dilapidated barn and it was right up my street. I haven't just come out here to hike the trail, I'm also here to embrace all things quintessentially American and sleeping on a mattress of hay in a barn seemed like something I couldn't turn down.
Standing Bear Farm is old Native American land where tobacco was raised. Hawk, one of the residents of farm, told us of some of the old artifacts that he found there. Hawk is, in the politest terms, a simple soul and fits some of the stereotypes of a Hillbilly. We'd heard that he was a mean horseshoe player, a game where you try and throw a horseshoe at a metal peg. You get one point if you’re within a horseshoe of the peg, 2 if it's leaning and 3 if it's wrapped round the peg. You only score if yours is the closest. In keeping with my trying all things American, Dickle and I teamed up to take on Hawk.
I was paired up against Hawk at one end, with Hunter and Dickle at the other. Hawk displayed his mastery and they dominated the first game beating us twelve points to one. They raced ahead in the second, but I was beginning to get the hang of it and started to gain some ground on Hawk. Dickle got her rythmn, too, and we found ourselves tied 11-11. Hawk overthrew on both of his horseshoes leaving it open for me to snatch the game from them. My first horseshoe fell short, but my second hit the pole and fell a few inches away from it. The third game was no contest with Dickle on full fire scoring with ease against Hunter. It was perhaps one of the proudest moments of my life. We'd taken a local legend down in his own game. Hawk was a great sport and seemed impressed with our efforts.
During the game Trinket, named for his small stature, passed us on his way to the privy.
“Is this your first time playing horseshoes Tintin?” he cried out. I told him it was and he shouted out “well alright.” He seemed so genuinely excited for me that I was out here in the US trying out these new things. He loved the fact that I was out hiking the trail and seemed as, if not more, excited about my thru-hike as I was. I think he felt a sense of patriotic pride that I was out here and he encouraged me to do as much as I could whilst I was out here.
Buoyed by my win at horseshoes, I decided to build that night's camp fire. I felt a lot of pressure, with a whole host of eyes watching and many of them coming from experienced hikers. It most have been the momentum from the greatest victory ever (that's a fact I tell thee), but I built one hell of a fire in no time that had Hyway in awe saying it was like a gas burner. I'm usually modest about my accomplishments, but today of all days, I'm going to revel in all my glory. I had also found out earlier in the day that I was an uncle again. I got a little emotional when I found out the news, saddened that I had missed the birth of another nephew and the realization that I wouldn't see him for another 5 months was on the tough side. I miss my other nephew and worry that he might forget about his uncle “Dudie.”
I was surrounded by a group of hikers I hadn't really met before. Trinket was particularly keen to hear about my previous adventures. He's another great trail character, always enthused, always interested in learning about the person he's speaking to. I felt good about myself whilst talking to him, unlike someone he was hiking with that liked to belittle everyone else's accomplishments. This person who I'll call “The False Prophet” as he's one of those wannabe gurus, spouted off a load of pretentious nonsense that may have well come straight out of a bog standard self-help book. He's thru-hiked before and likes to let everyone know it, telling people what's ahead, what shelter they should stay at, what sights they should see; basically he wants you to hike his hike which is the only way to hike apparently. The man's a tit. I could rant about him some more for some of things he said to me, but he's not worth it. He's too busy drinking beer and getting stoned most of the time so I doubt he'll be keeping up with me. I let him and his comments get to me a bit, but it's hard to stay annoyed whilst I have a whole barn to myself and I'm enjoying the serenity of solitude. No snoring, no drunken antics from other hikers, just peace and quiet in an old barn, in the American countryside. Happy days!
Reunited with Miguel, Hunter and I set off together after lots of fathing about in the morning. It’s what we seem to do best, but I like taking my time in the morning. It’s one of the most peaceful times of the day, especially in an otherwise crowded shelter. It tends to be all get up, rush and go in the mornings and I’d rather let everyone just set off. I think I’ve become more tortoise than hare now and that suits me just fine. Miguel was being picked up at 11 from Hot Springs so we had to get going. Hunter was just having a tough time as all his clothes were soaked, it was cold and the idea of putting them was clearly far from appealing.
Hunter and I headed straight off to the Smokey Mountain Diner that had rave reviews for their epic breakfast and it was fitting of a Ridley Scott film starring Russell Crowe. It was Gladitorial. We both went for the skillet breakfast that came out with a side plate of eggs and bacon. On the skillet was a mound of potatoes, onions, peppers, country ham and a thick melted layer of fluorescent cheese. Delicious. A calorie overload if I ever saw one. Thru-hikers rival weight watchers in calorie observation come conversation. Hunter was delighted at a new find: a cheese Danish that had 500 calories in it. He was going to change his whole menu round it. There’s another C that people seem to forget about when talking about diet, cholesterol, but that seems to be trivial in the master hiking plan.
Hunter had to kill time before his buddy turned up who’d be hiking with him for the next two weeks. I wanted to find a place to bunk down for the night, drop my stuff and get all the chores out the way so I could have a proper zero the next day. The Sunnybank Inn, otherwise known as ‘Elmers’, seemed to be the popular haunt in town. It has a rich vein of history, dating back to 1840. It’s tradition of warm mountain hospitality has long coexisted with musical folklore. It was once owned by the Gentry family, with Mrs Jane Gentry and her daughter, Maude, teaching music whilst sharing food, songs and tales with hundreds of visitors off all backgrounds who traveled through Hot Springs.
Elmer bought the Sunnybank Inn from the third Gentry generation in 1976. He previously served as a minister, active in political campaigning and bringing healthy, vegetarian food to his community at a time when it was neither hip nor trendy. Elmer has kept the place in spirit with its origins with a well stocked music room and family styled vegetarian dinners. The house has a lot of character, with ornaments, paintings and various other antiquities scattered around the place.
After a brief tour of the house, Elmer showed me to my room with a four poster Queen sized bed. Jackpot. There was a furnace attached to one of the walls, a writing desk and a sixty foot porch that only I had access too; a far cry from a tent, or the shabby motel rooms I had stayed in in other towns. Despite the coldness I was feeling, the house had a warmth to it creating a homely atmosphere. The pains and strains drained from my body as I lay on the bed and relaxed for a while. Food shopping, laundry, a trip to the post office and outfitters seemed too much like hard work whilst laying on comfy bed on a stomach full of stodge and grease.
I got there in the end. I managed to ship two and half pounds worth of stuff to my mate’s house in Boston having now cleared the Smokies. I’ll soon be able to drop a little more weight when I swap sleeping bags, but I’ll still hang on to my down jacket as the weather can always wreak havoc on an otherwise well thought out plan. Resupplying at the Dollar General is tough going. It’s a few isles of complete and utter crap. I got the basics, deciding to splurge on some nicer stuff at the outfitters. They even had Typhoo, an English brand of tea in the outfitters. Finally, some decent tea! It had 89p written on the box, but the price tag said $3.99. Just a slight mark-up then, but having drank shit tea for week, it was money well spent.
I didn’t eat dinner at Elmer’s the first night, choosing to eat at the bar and have a couple of beers with Dickle, Hunter and his friends. However, I did on the second night as I was keen for a sit around dinner and although I’ve been hiking for a month now, I still felt I had to restore parity with the gastronomically greasy monstrosity that I ate for breakfast the day before. Everyone looks forward to trail town food, but most the food on offer tends to be about gargantuan gut busting portions and not decent sized, healthy, quality food. I’ve felt lethargic and slightly ill after most of the meals I’ve eaten in town. So one of Elmer’s veggie meals seemed distinctly appetizing.
Dinner with Elmer comes with a catch; you have to answer a few questions at the dinner table; your name, where you are from, what you did before you started thru-hiking the AT and then a the question for that night: what country and in what era would you travel to if you could. I loath questions like these. I find them pretentious, contrived and a judgment that will follow the answer. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who felt this way and it was a very awkward few minutes whilst we took turns to answer, gingerly looking at food in the process.
In keeping with my responsibility of promoting good old Churchill, I said the War Cabinet Rooms during the Blitz. I really wouldn’t have liked to have been there as it was undoubtedly an intense and stressful environment. I’d have much rather sat at home and watched it Big Brother style. It would have definitely made for interesting viewing, but hardly a pleasure boat cruise to partake in. There were no responses to anything anyone said, just an uneasy pause until the next person pitched in with their answers. Elmer would have gone to Renaissance Italy. Go figure I thought. I liked the place he had created, but I did not warm to him. I don’t think I saw him smile at any time and I wondered if he’d much rather have a different crowd than a bunch of thru-hikers who went out and got drunk in town as he seemed to suggest that’s all thru-hikers did in town. Dinner was delicious though and he’s clearly a talented cook who knows his ingredients very well.
Miguel was back from Ashville with his mum, Dickle’s girlfriend Julia had arrived to hike the remainder of the trail with Dickle and so we decided to go to the bar and properly introduce ourselves. We did not start conversation with a preconceived question though I did jokingly ask, somewhat mockingly: if they were a sauce, which one would they be. We only stayed for a couple of drinks. Miguel and I shared a pitcher of ‘Gaelic Ale’. There’s nothing Gaelic about it and it’s not really an ale, but it’s not bad for a draft beer.
Hot Springs to Rich Mountain Fire Tower
Breakfast was a slightly easier affair; no questions at breakfast as Elmer judged it a pointless affair as hikers tend to be too hungover to fully function in the mornings. It was an amazing spread yet again, with granola, biscuits (very much like scones), scrambled eggs and a fresh fruit platter. They had tea, but it was some fancy mint tea nonsense. I went for coffee instead. I wanted to go back to the very comfortable bed, but I grudgingly packed instead.
Towns are like vortexes to many hikers. It sucks them in, yet rarely does it spit them out. The modern comforts are hard to relinquish for many, including me as I love a cold fizzy drink on a hot day and the first day back on the trail is often a tough one. There has been one person a town has done it’d best to clear its throat of: Karl, one of the “hippy hikers” with his dreadlocked hair and long shaggy beard, whilst maintaining an imposing figure has a new trail name; scapegoat.
Karl had had a few beers and was making his way back to the campsite. He had forgotten to bring his headlight and was struggling to find their tent site. Someone in one of the cabins at the campsite decided that he clearly looked like a criminal, that he must have been up to no good and called the cops. Scapegoat got the full treatment; handcuffed, slammed against the car and then searched. There is nothing sinister about Karl. He’s a gentlemen behind the gruff and rough exterior, having worked on trails over the past five years up and down the country; for the Conservation Corps and the National Forest Service.
Luckily for Karl, Thin Mint was not too far behind him and came to his rescue. She explained that he looked the way he did as he was a thru-hiker and that he had a tent in the campsite. Scapegoat was allowed to make his way, but was told he had to leave town the next morning. Feeling somewhat aggrieved, he decided to stick two fingers up to the man. Scapegoat tied his hair back in a ponytail and stayed. The phone-pad-happy couple had left the campsite and with them, paranoid hysteria.
Miguel and I finally made it out of town by half one. I have no idea what happened to Spring. We seem to have gone straight from the depths of winter to the oppressive heat of the summer. The mountains were even turning green instead of a lifeless, barren mass of brown. It was sweltering hot as we made the climb up the rocky ridge out of Hot Springs and back into the forest. This is ‘merica so why aren’t their bloody soda machines on the trail? I still had the taste of a cold refreshing root beer lingering in my mouth and I lusted for more. Nope, I had to make do with stream water and Crystal Lite Ice Tea. Not really the end of the world, but then really not as half as delicious as root beer.
We had decided to stay at Rich Mountain Tower and sleep inside the sheltered, raised building. The sunset was promising to be a spectacle to behold with uninterrupted views from the tower. There was a couple at the bottom of the tower smoking cigarettes, debating whether to go up the rickety tower or not. We made polite conversation with them as they were non-hikers, informing them that we planned on camping up in the tower and that we were on our way to Maine. Hyway was already on top of the tower and we left our packs down below to scope it out. I brought my camera along to take a few pictures just in case we decided not to come back up. Hyway is another really good guy, a proud Southerner and a father to a son, Jason, with Down’s Syndrome. He can be summed up in two things he’s told me: “Tintin, if you write about the American Civil War, remember to call it by it’s proper name, ‘’The War of Yankee Aggression.” After he built a fire once, he turned to me and said “You see, you build fires to cook on, I build them ‘cause I like to burn shit.” He’s another intriguing character, humble and full of story.
He was intent on staying up in the tower and we thought that it would be a cool experience to do likewise. They decided to go off and get water, whilst I’d look after the packs below. Hyway didn’t trust the couple, but I just thought he was being silly. I walked back down and decided to make myself a cup of tea whilst I waited. The couple who seemed to be hiding from us, decided to go up to the tower, cameras in hand. I had left mine up there, perfectly poised to take pictures of the sunset. Miguel and Hyway arrived as the couple were making their way down and we were all set to make our way up.
I noticed that the woman’s front pocket in her hoodie seemed excessively bulky, but thought nothing of it. That was until I found out that my camera was no longer where I left it and the red car the couple were driving took off in a cloud of dust. Bollocks. I felt sick to my stomach. I hadn’t uploaded any of my pictures, nor saved them on to anything else. Not only was my camera gone, but so were the photographed memories of all 280 miles of trail I’d labored through. These wankers had driven up here, I’d earned my picture of the sunset. I felt helpless and unsure of what to do next. We had not caught their license plate, just the colour and car type.
“How do I phone the police?” I asked Miguel and Hyway. They told me I just had to dial 911. That seemed a little excessive to me. Back home, you don’t dial 999 unless it’s an emergency. You get the number for your local police station if you want to report a stolen camera, not clog up the emergency number. Not here apparently. You dial 911 and they’ll patch you through. I hadn’t come out here to do this, but I had to as I hoped there might be a way to catch these bastards and recover my pictures. I had found out earlier in the day that my insurance policy did not cover theft so it was a heftier blow to the stomach. There were cameras attached to the tower so there might be a chance their plates were caught on tape.
“Please state the location of your emergency,” the voice answered after a couple of ring tones to 911. I was nervous. I felt I was doing something wrong by reporting the theft. I felt like a foreigner on an alien land for the first time whilst I’ve been out here. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. I told him where I was and that my emergency was a stolen camera, so not much of an emergency. “I’ll patch you through to the local sheriff’s department.” Great, I had to deal with another person.
I could barely understand the woman on the other end of the phone. I took a guess and said “Rich Mountain Fire Tower.” I think she was asking where I was. “What is ya’ll emergency?” she said in her thick southern drawl. I politely, in my most proper English accent, said some very unkind people had stolen my camera. “Who done stoled your cam’ra?” You’re kidding me right?Surely not. First off, if I knew who stole my “cam’ra” then they wouldn’t have the bloody thing anymore. And come on love, I’m out here saying how the stereotypes of Southerners are unjust and I’ve ended up talking a lady who epitomizes all the stereotypes. Reporting this crime was going to be as tough as hiking up to the place where it happened. I was too shocked to form a response. “Who—done—stoled—your—cam-ra”? Now she’s talking to me like an idiot or as though I’ve just got off a bloody rubber dinghy from Cuba.
I told her I had no idea who, just that they were driving a red Ford Focus and I could give a good description. I told her best I could what had happened, but we may as well been speaking foreign languages to one another. “What—is—your—phone—number?” she asked me, slowly, drawing every syllable out for as long as she could, just so I, the English speaking Englishman, could understand what she was saying. She clearly didn’t understand me, as when Officer Oates showed up, he asked me where my truck was.
I thought I’d made it perfectly clear that I was out here, hiking the Appalachian Trail, all the way to Maine. Why the bloody hell would I have a truck? I told him what had happened and I felt understood by Officer Oates as he chuckled, saying he didn’t know why a trhu-hiker would have a truck on top of Rich Mountain Fire Tower. Neither did I, mate. Things were going well until he asked me for some ID so he could fill out the Incident Report Form. I gave him my driving license. He looked at it for a while, all confused like, before asking “what’s your surname, sir?” I pointed it out to him. Skinner, yes, just like the X-Files. Now the date of birth really confused him. It reads 28-07-80 and then Hong Kong, my place of birth next to it. Ever so slightly more confused he asked me “is this your address sir?” Nope that’s my date and place of birth. “They have twenty eight months in the UK?” he asked, thoroughly confused now.
Dear God help me. Together, we managed to fill out the report form, though it still doesn’t read right. I guess it doesn’t matter. He asked me if I wanted him to assign a detective on the case. Then I felt my Englishness all over again. “No it’s OK sir, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience any of you. I’m sure you’ve got much more important things to worry about.” English people don’t like to make a fuss and I just wanted this ordeal over with. I kept on looking up from the bonnet of the car, catching stolen glimpses of the most gorgeous sunset I’ve seen on the trail so far. Not only was I missing it, I couldn’t even capture it.
I think he laughed at my reluctance to pursue the camera and the awkwardness I was clearly feeling at even being asked. He agreed that it was improbable that they’d be caught. I couldn’t even prove they stole my camera. We scoped the area together and he even offered some sympathy, telling me that he’d had his camera stolen in DC. It mightily upset him. I thanked him for taking the time to drive up before he waddled back into his car and took back down the road. I walked back up to the tower, miffed about the camera and missing the sunset. It was late and so I only snacked for dinner, not wanting to go to bed at dinner.
It didn’t take long for the camera jokes to start. Every object was suddenly my camera, everything was suddenly worthy of taking a picture and Hyway told me I could hike faster now that I wouldn’t have to stop to take pictures. The wanker. It didn’t bother me. It was what I needed and I laughed with them. I chatted with Hyway until it was time to put my head down. I enjoyed getting to know him a little better, there’s actually a decent human being behind all those wise cracks of his. Only just though. He told me he was going to wait till he thought about quitting before he read my journals, so if I wrote anything bad, that would give him the motivation to hike on up and catch me to give me what for. I think I’d be removed from any site I posted if I wrote what I truly thought of him.
Fire Tower to Little Laurel Shelter
I don’t know what is going on, but I have constant cravings for root beer. Hyway told us that there’d be trail magic up ahead. The taste grew stronger and it was swiftly accompanied by the hot juicy taste of grilled meat patties, sandwiched in a bun and smothered with ketchup and mustard. The information was said to come from a reliable source. Hyway has his ‘Droid’ phone on him and he’s constantly checking the backpacking forums and updating to his journals. Someone on one of the forums spread the word that there’d be trail magic at Allen Gap. We all got excited in full knowledge that most ‘trail magic’ reports are inaccurate. Yet they still excite as people anticipate delights created by a Dollar General inspired diet. Imagine if I had someone stay with me a week and I dished out what I ate whilst on the trail. What would the consequences be if I served up tinned sardines in a mustard sauce on top of cheese crackers that claim to contain “real cheese” of which I have yet to find any evidence.
Would they call me bonkers and end me off to the shrink, politely eat their way through saying nothing and then continuing to do so for the next ten years and some, or do they whisk you off out for a meal, via a supermarket that actually sells fresh produce? Anything that might have a drop of delicious dripping fat oozing from it is worthy of a trail appointed Michelin star.
I know trail magic is something that should not be counted on or taken for granted, which it is by many. Some out here complain that they haven’t had nearly enough trail magic as they thought they would. We hiked as though we’d placed an order and all we need do is show up to collect it. We were fooled. I remembered a line from Star Wars: “Who’s the more foolish; the fool or the fool who follows him?” We answered that question with dumbfounded disappointed looks on our faces when we arrived to find Allen Gap sans trail magic. Tinned sardines were my excessively salty, bitter pill to swallow.
When I saw a sign that said “ice cream, sodas and tea 0.6 miles away” at Allen Gap, I made up my mind that a deliciously cold root beer was worth a 1.2 mile detour. Miguel was an easy push over and we stashed our packs in the woods and set off in pursuit of cold sodas and ice cream. We weren’t even that disappointed when we turned up to find they didn’t have any ice creams. “I haven’t gotten round to ordering in some yet. Perhaps I should do that soon huh”? You’re damn right you should. You lure us in with broken promises. That’s harsh days in my book. I couldn’t get mad her, as she was a sweet old dear and she had an amazing selection of loose leaf tea that I purchased six ounces of. Weight worth having. My highly inflated tea bags from Hot Springs were only going to last me a few more days at the rate I was drinking them. I’m managing four cups a day which is pretty impressive in my books. It’s probably why I haven’t had a bad day on the trail yet.
The farm was very quaint, sat on the bank of a creek and we enjoyed our root beers whilst lounging in the shade of the porch. It reminded me of a place we used to take our grandparents to back in Dartmoor, Devon. It was a protective shelter of sanctity from the sun. We sat a while until the temperature dropped and headed off for the three mile walk to Little Laurel Shelter. I went straight to the task of building us a fire whilst Miguel took his usual slow arsed time setting up camp. I think I had the fire built and my tent set up before he got round to joining us. We’d gotten to know Hyway quite well by now and so we were able to properly partake in the ancient art of banter. The shelters are no longer the hiker infested gear chat traps they were in the Smokies. The three of us had the shelter to ourselves and we laughed our arses off without disturbing hikers past “hiker midnight” (2100)
Little Laurel Shelter to Flint Mountain Shelter
Today was perhaps one of the most enjoyable days I’ve had on the trail so far. The banter was flowing and the scenery was stunning. Hiking wasn’t simply putting one foot in front of the other as the terrain had changed from root ridden dirt to a path that required me to literally climb up and down the rock strewn path. I have found it hard not to find the hiking monotonous at times, as it is often the same thing in the same surroundings, but hiking required care and attentiveness today. It’s not quite the challenge hiking down Clingman’s Dome was, but it was a drastic change from what I had been used to. The path took us on the rocky ridge of the mountain top, with steep drop-offs either side. There was a separate trail in case of bad weather which is an indicator of how exposed you are when hiking on top of Big Firescald Knob.
On the way to the knob, a word I find so amusing to see, say or type, we met some proper old fella’. We said hi and he asked us where we were heading. Hyway, being the wise ass he is, asked in jest “Is this the way to Maine.” Now I don’t know if that old man had a look of confusion on his face or that of a man who just encountered the biggest fools up in the mountains, but Hyway had him stumped. “No, you’re heading the wrong way. That’s the way to Hot Springs,” he replied. Oh dear. We clearly were heading the right way. Hot Springs was behind us, there was a white blaze staring us in the face and we were heading in the same direction as we had been for the past 300 miles or so. He was dead certain he wasn’t lost and I became slightly concerned for the old fella’ who was well into his seventies. Hyway tried to settle the matter and get things straight with him. I daren’t say anything. If he thought Hyway was lost in the woods, then Lord knows what he would have thought if he heard me talk. It wouldn’t have helped the situation. The man wasn’t senile but he may have thought he’d woke up today, went for a hike and lost all his marbles along the way. I just hoped they’d mark a trail for him to get back to his car and he could pick them back up along the way. I was pretty sure he thought we were a bunch of out of town eejits who had no business up in the mountains. We parted each thinking the other was lost. There didn’t seem to be any reasoning with him and so he set off headed for where he thought we were headed only to be put right by another thru-hiker, Pixie. It turned out he was lost, having hiked past the gap where he left his car. At least he was safe.
We arrived at the shelter to find a day hiker present with his dog. “Where abouts in Britain are you from?” He didn’t even let me answer before telling me that he knew all about Britain as he watched Doctor Who; a really crap English science fiction show. He mustn’t have understood the part about it being a science fiction programme and not a lengthy investigative documentary series examining modern Britain. I did my best to be polite, but he was clearly a tit. I hate having conversations about England with people who have no interest in actually learning anything about the country, rather, just want me to reaffirm their stereotypes of the place so they can feel smug in their misguided belief that they know all about it. He probably couldn’t even pick out England on a map. I doubt he could pick out the US on a map. The only thing I think he probably picked at was his nose. He definitely didn’t pick at his food. He was a chubby bloke and was reading a book called “Skinny Bastard”, an unsympathetic self-help book to lose weight. The shelter was only 2.7 miles from his car. I could have saved him the expense of the book by simply telling him to try hiking a little further to the next shelter. It’s not rocket science, mate.
Every other word I said seemed to be mimed by him and badly so. He was more than just annoyance though. With him, he had a huge hunting knife, a telescopic baton that could easily crack any of our skulls and a gun. I don’t know what he expected to find 2.7 miles away from a road. An armed militia? A baying crowd of thru-hikers, so fed up with their diet they’d gone all cannibalistic. With mugs like him on the trail, it’s not the bloody bears I’m scared of. I feel very uncomfortable around guns. Especially when people with an IQ of a spade have one on them, in the same campsite as I’m staying in.
Hyway, as usual, cracked me up. He was talking to Miguel about some odd couple he’d seen on the trail where the man had bigger boobs than the lady. Now this Rambo wannabee had a pair to make Pamela Anderson envious. I thought Hyway was mentioning this as an indirect jibe. He hadn’t, but it was still hilarious and I turned around and did my best to stifle my laugh.
I didn’t lie being around “Rambo” as his incessantly idiotic questioning was annoying and he had a small armoury on him. I had put my tent up a long way away, wanting to put some distance between us. I don’t see the logic in having guns on the trail. I’m becoming more and more certain that the ownership of guns in the US has nothing to do with the second amendment anymore. I’ve seen plenty of bumper stickers down here stating “The Second Amendment makes all the others possible”. I think having the most well-equipped military outfit in the world might help too. One hiker who stumbled in late at night said he had a savings account for an MP5, a machine gun of some kind. Pyro told me he’d get a rocket launcher if he could, just because he likes to blow shit up. He likes to blow stuff up too, proudly telling me he’d taken some class in backyard ballistics. I think I’ll stay clear of him too.
Flint Mountain Shelter to Low Gap
I have never been so eager to leave camp as I have been today. I wanted to be gone from the imbecile with arms. As far as I bloody can. The man’s clearly a habitual liar, telling us that two hikers had just been murdered in the Smokies. Stuff like that would have travelled down the trail as quick as a forest fire during a heat wave. He was talking out of his arse. We told him stuff like that has it’s way of getting down on the trail and he told us he was the trail. I have no idea what he meant, but he was clearly out to massage his ego and impress himself upon us. It’s probably why he got his weapons out. If that was his intention then I’m sorry mate, you failed miserably.
The guidebook all said there was a ‘market’ three miles away from one of the roads we had to hike across. I had it in my head that I’d be eating steak with fresh vegetables tonight. I was excited for it, as well as a chance to eat at another diner in rural America. I enjoy my experiences in small town, independent diners as I find them to be rich in character and the staff to be some of the most hospitable folk I’ve ever encountered whilst going out to eat. Southern hospitality rightly deserves its reputation in my most humble opinion.
I learnt a harsh lesson today on cross-cultural differences of the interpretation of the word “market”. When I think market, I envision a place that sells mostly fresh produce. Imagine my horror when I discovered that the market was a bloody petrol station shop or “gas station store” if you’re a native of these shores that have so bastardized a perfectly good language. Americans can’t shoot at us anymore so they’ve clearly changed the language around to confuse the bloody hell out of poor old “Limeys” like me. That’s what it felt like anyway. I felt ashamed of my naivety. I was more upset that I had to have instant mash for dinner again with tinned tuna. Not quite steak cooked on a grill over a campfire.
To make matters worse, it took us close to three-quarters of an hour to get to the gas station. We thought the hitch would be easy. This is ‘merica after all, where many families have a small fleet of cars and where a lot of places are built around the car. Yet not one bloody car past us in thirty-five minutes whilst we sat in the sweltering heat, far from any shade, burning to a crisp, all in pursuit of some nice lunch, a cold soda, and me under the deluded belief that I’d be able to get some steak at this “market”. I was going to. One car did. I kind of half waved it down, until I realized that the driver, the sole inhabitant of the car, was breathing through an oxygen mask. Thoughts of him having a heart attack as we bundle into his car entered my mind and I thought it best I let him go on his way. We’d already confused the hell out of one poor old man. Best not do it again.
Sods law that when we decided to start walking, some lady pulled up and offered us a ride. The first café had closed at 2. Bollocks. The second café was closed. Rubbish and then I learned the true meaning of what a market is in the USA; a place that has about as much fresh produce in it as there is the International Space Station. Yet microwaved pizza and microwaved burritos beats the hell out of Ramen and I didn’t complain too much as I washed them down with a two litre bottle of root beer. The three of us managed to consume over 2,000 calories, the daily average intake, in one sitting. It was wonderful, yet horrifically gluttonous at the same time. It took us a while to move. It didn’t take my bowels so long though and we took it in turns to cause a massive line in outside the restroom.
We didn’t get into camp until almost dark, playing some name game from Sam’s Gap all the way to Low Gap. Hyway and Miguel would cry foul at any person unfamiliar to them. All they had to be was famous and you had to name a person whose name began with the first letter of the surname picked by the person before. “Who’s Gordon Brown.” They seriously did not know. I told them and they just laughed saying “Why the hell do we need to know who the prime minister of England is.” More digs at my nationality, but all in good spirit. To be honest, why would they need to know who Gordon Brown is? Walking later on in the day may mean we get into camp later on in the day, but it sure beats heck out of hiking in this stifling heat that seems to be continuing without end. Streams are drying up and water is a lot more scarce than it was. Some rain would be welcome.
I chose my spot as soon as we entered camp. It looked reasonably level, but it was too late in the day for me to really care or check it out. I didn’t even stake the tent as my first few efforts were thwarted by tree stumps. There was no chance of rain and there was only a calm breeze in the air, so I didn’t bother with the fly. Miguel decided to have a go at building himself a fire and after a slow start, he soon had one roaring. We did pick up some hot dogs at the “market.” Not quite steak, but they still tasted delicious, which really is saying something about the stuff I’m eating out here. The camaraderie that had grown between the three of us was in full flow and I don’t think anyone was spared some level of abuse.
We each retired to our tents and it wasn’t too long before I heard “man, I really suck at camping.” Apparently Hyway couldn’t even pick out a flat spot, on a spot marked “flat” in the flat lands of a very flat place. He thought if he placed his tent next to a log, that it would stop him from rolling down the camp. I think it just poked him places he really didn’t want to be poked in. Ripples of laughter echoed through the gap. Saying that, my spot really isn’t the best and I’m not too confident of a comfortable night’s sleep.
Low Gap to No Business Knob Shelter
I didn’t have the best night’s sleep last night. As soon as I hit the pillow a bloody owl started going. I heard Hyway laugh and I thought that the bastard was probably laughing because the owl had decided to perch itself on the tree right above me. I can’t Adam and Eve it I thought, imaginging what Del Boy, Britain’s most loved TV character would say if he was in my situation. I was right about Hyway, too. Of course he was bloody laughing because the owl was making it’s “who weeps for me” noise. It wouldn’t shut up and I thought there was no point in moving as the whole site was awash with noise. We could hear all the traffic below, as well as the freight trains that are anything but stealthy, seemingly wanting to alert everything that might be in some state of slumber, that it was passing by. My laziness in setting up my tent had cost me dear, too. I woke up on the meshed side of my tent, with the poles about three feet in the air. Gravity had me and my stake-less tent rolling down the hill ever so slightly. When I finally got around to sorting my tent out, because funnily enough, it wouldn’t just sort itself out, despite me trying my best to rapidly fall asleep so I wouldn’t be conscious of the predicament I found myself in, no sooner than I had; the bloody woodpeckers started drilling away at the trees. Hyway complained on a Facebook update that he’d be woken up by them too and someone said that they’d love to be woken up by woodpeckers. They’ve clearly never been woken up by one after a crap night’s sleep.
Hy6way had decided that he wasn’t going to try and keep up with us today and instead take lots of breaks. I decided I wanted to get into camp earlier today as I wanted to get an early night in. It may have had to do with the poor night’s sleep I had or just an accumulation of things, or even the fact I’d been away from home for six weeks, but I felt homesick for the first time since I’ve been on the trail. The weekend before had marked a year of my relationship with Emily, my sister had just had her second child and I knew my family would all be together. I find it hard sometimes, being a foreigner on a trail where we’re few and far between. I always get made to feel very welcome out here, but it would seem that if I’m not impressed by something or I don’t like something, it sometimes gets misconstrued as me being anti-American or pro-British. It’s really quite ridiculous. If I say I miss something it gets spun as “what, American stuff not good enough for you?” That’s not the case, but everyone here misses home comforts of some kind but at times it feels like I can’t express that. Maybe I’m being melodramatic but I’ve had “I’m sorry you’ve had such a disappointing time out here” and “how’s it better in England then?” Today I’m struggling with it. Its part of my responsibility to act as an ambassador for my country and it can be a source of stress at times. I tend to reinforce the stereotypes of English people rather than challenge them as a working class Scouser might. I’m just missing people back home and I’m feeling very alone and far, far away from home right now.
Miguel has yet to make me feel lke an outsider and being the sensitive old soul he is, lent me his I-pod so that I could listen to some Ricy Gervais podcasts whilst I hiked. It did the trick as it was a little reminder of home and they were highly amusing. We both stopped at the stream near Spivey Gap for lunch and I plunged my aching feet into the bitterly cold water. Out of nowhere came Southpaw, one twin short of a pair. He gave us the sad news that his brother, Bender, had decided to call it a day at Hot Springs. Southpaw wasn’t to be deterred and has decided to carry on, in fact, had hiked 27 miles yesterday and plans on doing 25 or so miles today so that he can catch up with the gang. Both the twins are popular characters on the trail and Bender will be missed.
I only made idle chatter at camp, still feeling the blues a little, but I’m sure it will pass. I’m out here to create a better reality for myself and there’s going to be plenty more tough days ahead of me to get to where I want to go. The good thing out here, is that there is always some kind of reward; a view, seeing a new animal for the first time, watching the flowers blossom as spring sets in; or reaching the peak of a really tough mountain that seemingly has no end. The plan is to set off early tomorrow, which is always a futile plan as it never materializes, get into Erwin early, get all the boring stuff out the way, relax and then watch a movie in the evening. I’m looking forward to catching up with everyone and it’s been amusing reading the shelter journal entries with those in front leaving notes for those behind to get moving. I was looking forward to catching up with Hunter, whose company I’ve missed in the last week, in spite of the great time I’ve had hiking with Miguel and Hyway.
No Business Knob Shelter to Erwin
We made it into Erwin in a couple of easy hours. I hate to admit it, but when I get that close to town, the hike is all about getting into town and we were doing our best to get in nice and early. We were greeted by rowdy cheers as we entered Uncle Johnny’s Hostel, reunited once more with all the gang bar Dickle. Thin Mint handed me a beer out of a cooler and I drank it whilst catching up with everyone. Hunter was heading back off to the trail with his mate, which was a shame as I’d have liked to have chatted to him for a bit longer, but I’m sure I’ll catch up with him soon enough.
The ride to the cinema was a right old hoot. I think there were 23 of us in the van that should really only hold eleven plus the driver. It was more reamed than a shelter in the Smokies and it was more school bus than a shuttle of adults. Most of the people in the van were on familiar terms and the mood was very immature. Poor old Miguel was the butt of most of the jokes as he got out of the van to go to McDonalds as he had some coupons his girlfriend gave him. Everyone thought he was joking when he asked to be let out, but he wasn’t and the laughter became hysterical as he walked, alone to McDonalds, like the littlest hobo, whilst we all got a ride into Sonic, right next to the cinema. Before he got out he shouted “Tintin, are you coming?” Not wanting to subject myself to anymore stick than I get already I said “Nah mate, I don’t think so.” I think Green Dog was in tears by this point. Walking whilst anywhere other than the trail is almost considered an act of lunacy. I guess Miguel really wanted to use his McDonalds coupons, but much to his disgust, they didn’t take them there. He came back a broken man.
Sonic proved to be another first for me. I had to press some button and talk into a speaker to order my food. It wasn’t as bad as the call to the police station, but I still ended up with a bunch of food that I really didn’t order, or really want. That didn’t matter though. I had decided to eat there as I wanted a root beer float, a classic American beverage. It was delightful, but I had to guzzle it down to make it to the cinema on time. I wished I hadn’t as it was possibly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t alone in this sentiment. Without exception, everyone though “The Clash of the Titans” sucked. At least I could be honest about something and not have my opinion dismissed as stemming from my nationality.
There are some bonuses to being English though. There was a little community get together going on in the town square. There was bluegrass and BBQ, two of my favourite American traditions. One woman coaxed me in with the promise of a hamburger and as we got talking she said “Hey, you got an accent. Where y’all from?” When I told her I was English and that I was hiking the trail, she told me I must go and meet the town mayor who was cooking the hamburgers. He left his duties for a moment and shook my hand, welcoming me to the town of Erwin. He didn’t have much time to talk, but he made me laugh when he said he sure loved the Beatles and Elton John too, but that he had to keep that quiet round here. It was an unexpected pleasure and my fondness for the South grew.
I went to bed soon after I got back, not wanting to partake in the drunken antics that seemed to already be taking place. Erwin is not a quiet town though. The hostel is sandwiched in between two roads and not far from the rail tracks where trains as long as the trail ride through, honking a “whistle” which sounds like an air horn hooked up to the world’s largest megaphone. I may be exaggerating, but only ever so slightly.
I’ve decided to zero. It’s raining out, apparently there’s a fire on the trail and I’m tired. I’m going to do bugger all today and enjoy myself in the process.
Iron Mountain Gap to Erwin
I decided late yesterday afternoon to slack pack today for a whole host of reasons. This will involve being dropped off 20.2 miles up the trail and then hiking south to Erwin. All I need to carry is some food, water and maybe a rain jacket just in case the weather turns. I’m not going to lie, the greatest attraction to slack packing is the opportunity to get twenty easy miles done, but then I don’t know if they will be “easy”. It could still be a tough day, but I want to see what it’s like to hike twenty miles without all that weight I’ve been lugging around. I hadn’t planned on taking a zero yesterday, so slack packing would allow me to make up for that, as well as finally catch up with Hunter before his mate goes back home.
Miguel and Hyway decided they’d slack pack too. Miguel hadn’t planned on taking a zero either and he’s eager to get some miles under his belt as his girlfriend his coming out to visit him in Damascus. Hyway must have a soft spot for us as he’s determined to keep up with us. He clearly enjoys hiking with us and I enjoy his company so I hope he can keep it up. It’s not as though we’re going at a blistering pace, but that will change soon. I just hope my knees will hold out; the flatlands of Virginia should help with both.
It didn’t take long before I realized what a wonderful thing this slack packing business is. Sod the purists. There were a few other “slackers” joining us and one started saying he felt guilty about it as we were “cheating.” I fail to see how hiking twenty miles in the mountains can be classed as cheating. We’re still hiking, just with a little less weight. It’s not as though we’re taking an escalator all the way down to Erwin. My mates would tell me to get knotted if I were to ask them out on a twenty mile walk. The 17 mile one I took them on before I left just about killed them. Whether or not I’m “cheating”, being “lazy” or tainting the thru-hike experience I was excited about the day. I didn’t know what to expect, other than some guaranteed laughs with Miguel, Hyway and Kashmir, who’d decided to tag along at the last minute too.
We all jogged along for the first couple of hundred yards, as though given a new lease of life, enjoying a sense of freedom from the burden of our heavy packs. We leaped over the blow downs that once forced tediously tiresome maneuvers to clamber over. I’d forgotten what it was like to hike with a light load and it was certainly a lot more enjoyable. Hiking up Unaka Mountain was as beautiful as it was a breeze to get up there. The forests atop the 5,180 foot summit were enchanting, the footpath through the forest floor was a soft carpet of green pine. There was much to enjoy about the hiking and I felt I could fully adsorb and appreciate the surroundings I was in. There was something to be said about these ultra-light fanatics. Not long till I can get rid of some of the gear I was carrying for winter weather and in case the Smokies decided they didn’t want to play fair.
We passed Hunter who just laughed when he saw us. I think his buddy, Jason, who’d been hiking with him for the past two weeks, was slightly envious of our “slacking”. I was expecting to have caught up with the pair before, but Jason was missing his family back home and was hiking a little faster than planned so that he could be reunited with them sooner. We bumped it to a few more hikers that we’d met from Uncle Johnny’s as well as those we’d hiked with before. We were called an assortment of names, some in jest and there was some hostility directed at our way, hat I think stemmed from the hikers that had switched to a 45F degree bag, only for thee temperature to drop below 30F that evening. I was expecting some people to pass judgment on what we were doing but I really didn’t care; I was having too much of a good time.
It wasn’t long before we came to the section of the trail that had been closed as a result of the fire. Two northbound hikers were walking down that section, informing us that the trail was fine and they had no problems whilst hiking through it. Miguel ran up, passed the sectioned-off trail just as a US Forest Service truck was driving down in the other direction, forced to stop at the roped off section of the road. As hikers were making their way down the trail, I thought that it would be fine to hike through it in the opposite direction, but as a formality, I wanted to ensure that it was OK with the USFS. I was disappointed when I was told I couldn’t and Hyway joked “you see that’s the difference between you Brits and us Americans we have no respect for authority.” They thought it funny I asked, rather than trundled up the trail as Miguel had done.
The fire had forced us off the trail, but the fire had become part of my trail experience. There were hikers that expressed their anger and frustration that they had to miss a section, as though it meant that they could no longer claim to have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. It’s all a matter of perception in my opinion; today the the road became the trail for however little of it we actually had to traverse. The trail leads me only as far as my last footstep; what I experience after that has not been written in a guidebook. Although it’s tough and certainly not a pleasure boat cruise I agree with Flow Easy’s sentiment that it’s best to sit back and let the trail take you along for the ride. I prefer not to have my destinations dictated nor planned and I’m enjoying the hike more now that I have relinquished the rigid planning I once had.
We snuck back on the trail regardless at a Bald south of Unaka, stopping to pose for pictures. Miguel kindly took one of me on his camera but not before a few references were made to me not being able to take my own; bastards, the pair of them. We spent the remainder of the surprisingly short hike playing a game that is commonly played in walking groups back home. The premise of the game is that one person chooses a rule and then picks words accordingly. The object of the game is for the others to work out what that rule is and choose their words accordingly till everyone gets it. The rule I chose was that the second letter of every word I said was an I. People say a word one after the other and I’d let them know if it was right or wrong. I kept throwing words out there and they eventually got it. It’s a great game when you know what the rule is but terribly frustrating when you don’t. Miguel’s flamboyant protests testified to that; it’s his flamboyant dramatics that make him such an endearing person and fun to hike with.
We played till the last couple of miles, where we picked up the pace as we wanted to get back in time to shower and catch the six o’clock shuttle to get some grub. I managed to devour $14 worth of junk at Wendy’s and felt thoroughly uncomfortable afterwards. I do every time and I’m craving for a little quality over quantity. We’re planning to head for Overmountain Mountain Shelter which is a long day up one of the tallest mountains on the trail, Roan Mountain.
I know we couldn’t have done it any other way, but it does seem like we did the ‘slacking’ arse ways: 20 miles downhill without a heavy pack followed by a 20 mile hike up a bloody big mountain with a fully loaded pack the next. I’m looking forward to the challenge.
Erwin to Overmountain Shelter
I have mentioned Leave no Trace and my strong belief in the minimal impact of hikers, not just on the ecology of an environment, but on the environment as a whole. This sentiment, or way of behaving, should extend beyond the woods we hike in and translate into behaviour in towns, hostels and anywhere we frequent. Our actions or inactions, whether intended or not, have consequences. The behavior of a hiker or group of hikers can influence the experience of another hiker’s as well as affect the image of thru-hikers.
There is a host of reasons why people have taken to the trail. Some are clearly here because they don’t like following the civilized norms of society and choose instead to do whatever they want to do. One obnoxious “hiker” in an intoxicated state loudly declared at three in the morning, four feet from my tent: “I do whatever the fuck I want to. I ain't like those slaves in the real world.” Another moronic hiker acting as though though better than those in the “real world” because he’s managed to break free. However, he’s chosen to use this freedom to act like a drunken, inconsiderate vagrant. The irony is that he’s clearly enslaved to his vices.
When he shouted “get some ear plugs, man get some ear plugs” after I got back in the tent, having told him and the other obnoxious pricks around him to “shut the fuck up” I felt ready to knock him square out to shut him up. I’d asked them politely a few times before, but it fell on deaf ears. One of the party tried to reason with him, suggesting that they should move elsewhere as they were keeping everyone up. “I don’t care,” he said. He clearly didn’t. “Life is good at Uncle Johnny’s” so it is claimed. My time at Uncle Johnny’s resembled the antics of Animal House except there was nothing amusing about any of the behaviour of a whole host of hikers. I have become increasingly jaded by the behavior and attitude of some of the hikers out here. Most of them are between 18-30 and I hate that it is assumed that I’m one of the party group because of my age.
I have no problem with people drinking or getting drunk. I have no problem with people drinking beer or even getting drunk on the trail. What I do have a problem with is people imposing their behaviour upon others without care or consideration. There were about three separate parties going on during the night, all as loud as the other. Why they couldn't congregate together, in a place where they wouldn't disturb those who were trying to sleep, is beyond me.
It was the feeling of powerlessness that got to me the most. I only really had two choices; confront or put up with it.
I'd asked politely and with seriousness in my words but to no avail. The only thing I could think of doing, which I really wanted to do, was punch the loudest one in the face. That wouldn't end well. So I had to put up and shut up and hope they went to bed which they eventually did about five in the morning.
That's the problem with a hostel that is unsupervised at night as there was nobody to complain to, nobody who had the authority to do anything; people could act as they pleased without consequence. Some people had complained the day before, but it fell on deaf ears. Beer lures some hikers in and encourages them to stay a little longer than planned. Traveling through South East Asia strongly affected my attitude towards drinking. Young Westerners in their thousands swarm upon the tourist towns and drink en-mass, disrespecting locals, destroying their culture and disrupting whatever serenity may have existed. I'll admit that I got drunk at times too, but I found that my desire to do it lessened as I witnessed the impact that alcohol had on the places we visited. The joy of cycling was that we were able to get away from all of the chaos, to visit places where tourists didn't frequent and the uniqueness of our method of travel meant that we were often welcomed, even cheered as we entered.
At least in the woods I can do something about it; I tent instead of sleeping in shelters and if there's a rowdy crowd, I can always move on. When it got to four in the morning, I had serious thoughts of packing up my stuff, going to the Holiday Inn, check myself into a room, shutting the curtains and curl up into a ball in the bed, not to move all day. I got up at six without a minute of sleep, eager to get away from most of those who had kept me up all night. I wasn't alone. There were plenty of tired looking souls with angry words that wished acts of violence upon those who'd inflicted a night of misery on those who didn't party. We were in the minority though, but on the shuttle leaving for Iron Mountain Gap, we were in the majority.
I hiked hard up the mountain. I wanted to inject some life into my body but I felt lifeless. I was moving fast, but I was disconnected from my body. I was locked inside my head, fatigued and consumed with angry thoughts. A night without sleep for me can have serious consequences. It can have a severe impact on my mood and my health for longer than the following day. It also affects my stomach really badly, causing nausea and it wasn't too long till I threw up. After the second time, I wished I was back home. I hated how I felt and those whose actions had lead to it. It's a shame as it would have been great hiking otherwise as I enjoy hiking up the mountains.
Miguel came into the Roan High Knob Shelter, the highest shelter on the AT (6,275 feet), not too long after me. There was still snow atop the mountain and although the shelter had four walls, we ate our lunch whilst shivering in the corners. I didn't stay long as I wanted to keep on going, not wanting to get too comfortable and finding it hard to move as a result. It was all downhill from there, taking a couple of hours until we hit the side trail to Overmountain Shelter, a site where a group of frontiers men from the mountains, known as the Overmountain men, defeated a group of loyalists in the revolutionary war. I began to get excited as I got closer having heard and read many great things about the shelter and its location.
As I filled up my water bottles about o.3 miles away, I heard what sounded like a baby crying. I must have been hearing things I thought, as Caveman, who was also getting water heard nothing. As we got closer the cries became louder and more distinct. There was a baby in the shelter. A family of four with two infant children had occupied the shelter for the evening. They also had a dog that liked to bark. I couldn't believe it. I just wanted somewhere peaceful and quiet to lay down and rest. I really don't think it's cool to bring a baby to a shelter. It's not fair on everyone else who wants to stay there. Everyone has a right to stay at the shelter, whether you’re a day, section or thru hiker, but yet again, people were imposing themselves upon others.
A little tent city formed on the grassy knoll away from the barn and only those who arrived late on in the evening stayed in the shelter. I was happy to sleep in my tent, but was feeling fed up. I hiked 19 miles, most of it uphill without any sleep so it wasn't surprising that my mood was low. I know that there are positive moments in every experience if I choose to see them. I took some pride in what I had accomplished, despite feeling so rotten and being physically ill. One of the days I look back on the bike trip with pride was the day I cycled over 100 miles in 110F degree heat with no sleep, having been kept up by loud music blaring past the time we had to get up and leave. It was a long, long day and it felt as though my head was drooping over the handlebars. Lloyd went on ahead as we had to catch a bus to take us to northern Laos due to a lack of time. I finally arrived at the bus station some twelve or so hours later, only to find he wasn't there. I panicked and rode my bike all over the place trying to find him. Time was running out. Luckily for me, a local who could speak English noticed my predicament and was able to direct me to another bus station. The relief on Lloyd’s face was clearly evident and I'm sure mine was too. We were catching the sleeper bus, yet we had gotten back row seats that didn't recline, yet the ones in front did, so we were squashed in and my legs spasmed with cramps. It was torturous. But we got to where we wanted to go and we laugh and joke about it now. I'm sure I'll look back on today in the same way.
The night ended on a high though. I was surrounded by a good bunch of people, who liked to chill and chat round a fire. It was a pristine spot that overlooked the green rolling pastures either side of the valley.
Miguel and I had thought ahead, carrying raw steak, vegetables, tortillas and seasoning so that we could make fajitas. They were delicious, even with the envious stares of other hikers upon us. I went to bed at peace with the world, though hoped I wouldn't have to encounter another animal pack. I saw one poster, for the Endangered Services Campaign that read, “Just because you live like an animal does not mean you have to act like one.” Quite right.
Overmountain Shelter to Mountain Harbour B'n'B, Roan Montain
I meant to hike 14 miles today, but I ate a huge greasy plate of fast food in town and didn't feel like moving much. I'm also still exhausted from the lack of sleep over the past few nights. I popped into the B'n'B with every intention of moving on after hanging out for a couple of hours. The place was too nice to leave and my body was telling me to rest. I decided to stay and plan on taking a zero tomorrow. Those I like to hike with the most are all taking days off to spend time with their girlfriends. Miguel is racing off to Damascus and Hunter is flying to Denver. Hyway may not be off to see his wife, but I don't think he's up for matching our pace for much longer. I've decided not to rush off so that it works out that catching up with one another is easy enough. I don't want to hike alone and I'm in no rush yet. Time to chill out and it's a beautiful place to do so.
The hostel is in a working barn, above stables and complete with complimentary tea, movies and popcorn. There's a good crowd of people, including two English girls taking a year off before they head to university. It's nice to hear some familiar accents and have strength in numbers to stave off the usual onslaught of unoriginal jokes about English people. We were made to suffer Braveheart though, yet for some reason they wouldn't let me put on Dances with Wolves and allow me to shout out “cruel bastards” instead. We found common ground by watching the most American of American films: Top Gun. What a classic.
Zero: Roan Mountain
I'm done feeling sorry for myself and have let go of the anger I felt at the raucous hikers. That may well change if I encounter them again, but I've decided to take more control over my trail experience and not let it be dictated by the behaviour of others. It may seem somewhat hyprocritical given the length of my rant to choose to go off to a bar, but I'm not just out in the US to hike the trail; I want to encounter cultural experience and sample small time America. The offer of free pizza and $2 beer at the “Beer Wash”, a local drinking hole, seemed like a good opportunity to hang out with some locals.
I didn't want to advertise the fact that we were going to the other hikers. That may be selfish, but I didn't want a bunch of hikers to descend upon the place in their droves and take over the bar. Thin Mint decided to stay as free pizza and $2 beer was too enticing and she decided to stay at the hostel so she could go. Creepy rocked up just before we set off and Buzz, well Buzz went to the bar, bought two cases of beer, brought them back and drank most of them knowing he was going back to the bar. Buzz is a short, rotund farmer from Georgia. He's not a man of many words and those that he does speak are said in such a thick Southern drawl that he may as well be speaking Dutch.
The “Beer Wash” is about as a classy as its name. The bar walls are coolers lined with cases and cans of beer, with only a small area to sit in. We made our way out back and Hunter and I decided to play some darts, a game that I love going to the pub to play with my mates back home. There were a couple of pool tables with some old boys who could shoot pool alright, yet couldn't seem to stand up straight, swaggering as they approached the table. Country and Western music was blazing out of the jukebox, Coors Light was flowing, the air was thick with smoke and there were women with cowboy hats; I couldn't ask for a more authentic experience.
I wanted to play one of the locals in pool and try to strike up conversation in the process. I approached one man, dressed in camouflaged gear, which I have found out is considered fashionable by some folk out here; a pony tail and baseball cap sporting the Confederate flag. I made my way over and sheepishly asked if I could play the winner. “I don't care,” he said and he clearly didn't. All eyes were on me and there were smiles as Hunter and company found my attempts to make friends amusing. “You don't want to play with them. They're mean.” said Buzz flatly eyeballing them up. They weren't the friendliest folk I'll give him that, but they didn't seem mean, just not receptive to strangers.
Buzz went over to the next table, where a man of smart attire was playing against one of the cowgirls, whose face was as leathery as the boots she was wearing. Buzz seemed to pride himself on his ability to connect with fellow small town folk from the south. It worked. It was game on. Buzz and I versus the pool sharks, Beth-Anne and Hank. They had their own pool cues so it was serious business. We'd only played a few shots each before Buzz disappeared. “Where's your buddy gone?” asked Hank. I had no idea. With all the beer he'd been drinking, I assumed he'd gone to relieve himself. “I think he's gone to the bathroom,” I offered. Now Hank looked at me all funny. It's the quizzical, slightly confused look I get after when it registers with the person I'm speaking to, that I'm really not from these parts. “The bathroom,” mimicked Hank. I quickly corrected myself, “sorry, I meant restroom.”
I wanted to mingle, not stand out, which is kind of hard when I look like a tramp yet speak with a very middle-class English accent. “Now where you from?” asked Hank. I was interested to see what his reaction would be when I told him, yet was slightly nervous as I didn't want too much of a scene. I may not have wanted a scene, but it was quite the scene that followed when I told him I was from England. “ENGLAND” he shouted, “Well heck, ain't you kind of cute,” said Hank as he approached me to shake my hand. I was mistaken. He didn't accept my handshake but instead, put his arm round me and squeezed me in tight. Oh dear. “You can be my English muffin.” I really didn't want him to be my American pie and I began to get very nervous, uncomfortably so when he asked me if I liked men. I may have been on out in the woods for a while, but not even Leatherface appeared attractive to me even with her cleavage practically spilling over the pool table when she went to take a shot.
I felt very awkward and wanted him to let go of me, yet I wanted to remain friendly and not offend the man. “You ever seen Deliverance?” I had the seen the film of the canoeists terrorized by redneck Appalachians that included the notoriously disturbing scene where one of the characters gets raped whilst being made to squeal like a pig. It was obvious that Hank was doing his very best to make me feel uncomfortable. He was succeeding alright. “You know I'm just fucking with you.” I looked up and old Leatherface was cackling away. “Don't worry honey, he's just messin’ with ya'll.” Well he messed with me alright and even though I knew he was joking, there was some part of me that wasn't entirely sure and I was relieved when he let go of me.
Buzz returned, armed with a load more beer and we continued playing - well I played whilst Buzz swayed. I got my revenge on Hank by cleaning up whilst they had four balls remaining, even with Hank pinching my bum just before I played the black, trying to put me off. That will show ya I thought. Buzz came up to me and told me quietly that I was meant to let the locals win. Sod that. I want to make as many locals down at various games as I made may way up the US. National pride is at stake each time I play and I want them to remember the time they got be a Limey at their own game.
It was a successful night out. We'd all had a great time, laughed a lot and met some interesting characters. Buzz and Hunter were offered the opportunity to get to know one of them a little more intimately. There was an old Cougar at the bar, which I've been told is an older single lady who hangs out at bars in hope to lure younger men back to her place This cougar wasn't content with just one wanting to take both Hunter and Buzz back home. Hunter wasn't interested but Buzz certainly was. I think we did him a favour by coaxing him back to the hostel. Maybe we did her a favour, but it was almost one in the morning and we have a 24.4 mile slack pack planned tomorrow.
Roan Mountain to Kincora, Dennis Cove
Slack packing again. Hunter didn't really want to spend another day of doing nothing, yet needed to be somewhere where he could get a ride into Asheville to catch his flight to Denver on Friday. I hadn't planned on taking the day off before, but I was really glad I did, as I enjoyed hanging out with Hunter and last night’s antics at the bar was probably one of the best nights I've had whilst I've been out here. Once you slack you'll never look back. So it is said by some. I enjoyed my hike a lot more with a lighter load and hiking 24.4 miles didn't really fell like something a slacker would do. We managed to sort a shuttle out so that our packs would be sent ahead to Kincora where we'd hike to. I planned on hiking with my pack anyway and just put all the stuff I didn't want in my waterproof rucksack liner. I think the true definition of slack packing is hiking without a pack, so in that sense of the word, I wasn't really slack packing. More lack packing, which is a word I've just made up for hiking with a pack that lacks its usual contents. I've made this up purely to appease the doubting voices in my head that tell me I'm cheating. Well I ain't. It's official. There's nothing slacking about lack packing.
It wasn't too long into the hike before I noticed a familiar walk. I was going to shout out, but this familiar figure did not have his trademark Stars and Stripes bandana. As I drew closer, I knew I hadn't been mistaken. It was Hyway. “Hyway you slacker,” I called out. Not knowing I'd taken a zero in Roan Mountain, he was surprised to see me. He offered to let me go by, but I was more than happy to walk with him and kick off our usual abusive banter at each other. He'd zeroed at Overmountain Shelter and a hiker on one of his forums had come found him, offered him a place to stay and a chance to slack pack for a couple of days; I don't think Hyway gave it a second thought. Hyway doesn't care much for his “bitch”, the heavy load that he has to carry on his back to get him from place to place.
We hiked to the shelter together where Hunter was waiting. We read through the shelter journals and saw that Miguel had stayed there the night before and had the place to himself. Even though I was lack packing (I am going to carry on using this term), 24 miles is still a longish day and I soon made my way out shortly after Hunter. I can rarely keep up with Hunter. There's over a foot difference between us in height, but he tires sooner than I do and so I always catch up.
I made my way to one road and saw some fat bloke pull up in a pickup truck, let out a bloodhound that soon tore its way up the trail. I've never seen a bloodhound before and I wondered what it had been let out to find. The guy wasn't walking it, that was for sure, so I assumed it must be training or seeking something out to bring back. I had no idea. I'm not too informed in the way of bloodhounds. I was daydreaming my way along the trail as usual when I was startled by something tearing up the trail. I turned quickly and tripped over in the process, falling on my knees. I looked back, certain to see a snarling cougar or a huge bear. Instead, I saw the droopy eyes and the droopy ears of the bloodhound that had been let out some five miles earlier. It walked ahead of me all the way until I met back up with Hunter who he must have decided was far nicer than me as he decided to follow at Hunter’s heels, nearly causing Hunter to trip several times.
Even though the trail to Coon Den Falls was 1.8 miles off the AT, we decided to go and check them out anyway as Jones Falls had been so stunning. I got a little concerned when Rumplestiltskin, as Hunter had started to call the hound, carried on following us. The trail to the falls was steep and potentially treacherous. I lost my footing on the slippery rocks and rolled back on my ankle. It caused a sharp intake of breath, but I managed to escape reasonably unhurt, feeling only a little soreness as I walked it off.
The falls proved to be a little disappointing and the walk back up the trail preyed on our minds. We didn't fancy walking back up there. Neither of us had a map, but we knew the blue blazed trail looped round and so we assumed that it must cross the road that would lead us to the hostel. We decided to give it a go and sure enough it took us to USFS 50, where we turned left as we knew we were East of where the white blaze trail would have taken us. We didn't bat an eyelid about missing the small section of the trail. We were walking the same distance, if not more and we found out later that it used to be the trail. We were more concerned about the dog, that we were beginning to think must have been the mongrel of the litter as it walked straight in front of an oncoming car. The passengers shot us an angry look that told us to keep control over the dog they assumed to be ours. It was becoming obvious that the dog had been dumped and was going to walk in whatever direction we did.
We arrived at Kincora to see a host of familiar faces. My stuff was on one of the bunks, but I wasn't going to sleep in the overcrowded bunkhouse. I took my stuff off to a small trail that led to a tent pad, next to a small stream and a little stonewalled building. There was a raised, wooden tent pad adjacent to the stream at the foot of a lush green hill and I set up my tent in one of the most beautiful sites so far. I was a happy man, content with life and the small piece of tranquility I had found.
Lack Packing – Kincora
Last night was perhaps the most terrified I've been on the trail. I was awoken at four in the morning to the sound of something crashing down the hill, branches snapping, trees falling. Well that's what it sounded like. It was making its way down the hill, headed straight for my tent. I was certain they'd find my half eaten remains the next day as I was far away from the hostel. I panicked not knowing what to do. Despite my stance on guns I wanted one, a real big one. Big enough to take out armoured vehicles. Alas, all I had to fend for myself was noise and I let out an almighty “woooooooo” as though I was welcoming my favourite band on to stage. Pretty pitiful. I rushed to grab my head torch, quickly unzipped my tent and poked my head out expecting to lose it in one foul swipe.
I had no idea what I'd do if I saw a bear staring at me in the face. I'd probably go into cardiac arrest and so it wouldn't matter. I wouldn't do anything because I would lack the ability to do so. Every time I go SCUBA diving I pray I'll see some big sharks. They fascinate me and I am obsessed with them. I want to see a bear, but when I'm awake and on the trail, not whilst I'm all alone in the dark. I guess I'm not scared of sharks because I know a lot about them. I don't know much about bears, only the terrifying tales of them which is probably why I have an irrational fear of them. I just associate all bears with Grizzlies. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a Tyrannosaurus staring me in the face with the amount of noise that was made as something descend upon my tent through the woods. For the second time in the space of a day, I had been fooled into fear by the calamitous crashing of a cast away droopy-drawered dog.
Despite the best efforts of the folks at Kincora to shoo him away, it would seem that Rumplestiltskin sniffed out my scent and was doing his best to get into my tent. I felt bad for him as it was raining out, but at the same time he'd scared the living daylights out of me and sleep became an impossibility as I was pumped with adrenaline. It was hard to get mad at the loveable, lost eejit of a dog though and we made a compromise; he wasn't allowed in the tent, but I allowed him to seek cover in the vestibule. He didn't follow me to the hostel when I got up for breakfast, instead he hurtled himself off on into the bush, nose to the ground. I still had no idea what he was doing out here.
All the crowd at the hostel had planned a nine mile slack pack. It hardly seemed worth it, but it was being taken in the spirit of an outing rather than a hike from one place to another. I can't brag my way out of this one as I went pack-less, only bringing a cup with me. There were plenty of water sources to be had and they lent to the serenity of the hike. We passed countless streams, rivers and the beautiful Laurel Fork Falls. We passed one pool of water that looked like a great swimming hole. I love water and in all honesty, I'm more beach bum than mountain man. Lloyd christened me “Duck Boy” on our bike trip as I'd throw myself in any body of water that I could find without hesitancy. I had to; it was bloody hot the whole time and needed to regulate my body heat somehow. I didn't need to cool down today, it was cool enough and I knew the water would be bitterly cold. I was going to walk on by, but I wanted to go into the water. The only reason I wouldn't would be that it was too cold and that's no excuse at all, especially after my resolution to be in control of my trail experience.
I want to hike without regret and throw myself into as many new experiences as possible and I decided to take a literal approach to that. I stripped off down to my boxers and braved the waters. Pixie, Megladon and Chef went from hovering around the water to following suit. I may as well have dived into the bloody Arctic it was that cold and I let out a “Woooo!”; part shock and part excitement at the spontaneity of my actions. Pixie followed, then Megladon, then Chef and Three Bears turned up and jumped in, too. The look on everyone's faces as they resurfaced having plunged into the pool was priceless. The water was shockingly cold and I know I stayed too long in the water.
The water was invigorating and I felt alive. I had read a sign in a diner the other day that read: “Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to slide in sideways, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming ‘WOO HOO! What a ride!’” This is now my trail motto. Although I haven't read this before, the sentiment expressed has been the fabric that has woven the life I have lived the past few years. “Live,” Nietzche said, “as though the day were here” and each day I'm here I want to try and do something unique. Something memorable or unordinary. Today that manifested itself in splashing in a swimming hole. We were all giddy with joy afterwards and I felt a new bond with hikers that I'd only say hi to in passing.
I was happy to have such a turnaround in events and the communal dinner was in stark contrast to the Animal House antics of Uncle Johnny's. We ate a home cooked dinner together, without alcohol, enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company. We celebrated having come this far with a cake that Three Bears made with 412.6 written in icing on it. A lot of people are fans of the film “Into the Wild” out here; some are out here because of it. It tells the tragic story of a young man, driven by a deep desire to forge an independent identity of himself. Inspired my Thoreau and Jack London, he wanted to fend for himself in isolation in Alaska to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan like” (Thoreau). Christopher Mcandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, was in part, driven by the anger he felt towards his parents and some of his actions, particularly the infidelity of his father that had lead him to being a bastard child; something he was unaware of till much later on his life and only by accident. This was to have a huge impact on his sense of self, setting off to Alaska to forge a new identity, one that he was in control of, starting with a new name. Christopher was a wounded young man and I can't help but think that he wanted to be alone so that he'd be safe and free from anymore hurting. He died alone, but not before realizing the poignant point that “happiness is only real when shared.” It's why I believe communal living is essential for the health of both an individual and a society. We've lost that way of living and I believe we have suffered greatly as a result.
A community is created by a shared reference point and we talk about a community of hikers and that's because we share the same objective: to thru-hike to Maine. It's why there is no concept of stranger on the trail, unless they be day hikers or tourons. It's why everyone seemed to be glowing with joy and laughter reverberated round the table. There is something magical about Kincora; it's a place that does not command respect, but nurtures it. I have not been to a better hostel in all my travels, anywhere in the world than Kincora. Bob Peoples is perhaps the most genuine man I've met out here; he lives a life of service not just with the donation-only hostel, but with the vital maintenance work he does on the trail, too. I plan to go back and become a member of “Team Hardcore”, something that he runs after Trail Days where he enlists hikers to volunteer their time to give back to the trail by “hardcore” trail maintenance, or by creating a new, more hiker friendly section of trail. I intend to be part of that team. There's a lot to be grateful for out here and I don't think I could go back home and be right with myself if I didn't give back somehow. The trail didn't just appear, it was built and is continually maintained. I don't want to be one of those hikers that takes that for granted with a sense of entitlement as they're “thru-hikers” and hike with that arrogant, selfish sentiment.
I'm in with a good crowd at the moment and I hope it stays that way so that I can share my happiness with some like-minded individuals. I hope to have many more days and many more nights as I did this day.
I’m in Daleville as I write this; a town that has nothing of interest to offer; a sub-standard Mexican restaurant; a Pizza Hut that does not offer an All You Can Eat buffet, much to our disappointment. It’s another sprawl of a town littered with high-rising billboards. However, the trail crosses the “town” and it does have a very comfortable hotel that allows this grimy limey to scrub myself, cleaning some of the sores and rashes that have formed all over my body and clean clothes that would otherwise go straight into a furnace to be incinerated for the benefit of mankind. My beard is coming a long very nicely, betraying my Celtic roots as it’s a wiry ginger mess. If I passed me in the streets I’d stop to give me money. It’s a very strange affair to see an unrecognizable face look back at me each time I catch myself in the mirror, which isn’t very often, hence the shock factor. I’m still a handsome devil if I say so myself, though I think many, if not most would disagree with that sentiment.
This is my first journal since a long time ago, in a town far, far away. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to hike, do what I have to do when I get into camp and then write. Basically, I can’t be arsed at the moment. I felt I’d put myself under a lot of pressure to keep up and write interesting journals that provide an insight into thru-hiking, not the trail, but the act of trying to get from Springer to Katahdin. 2,178 miles is a long way on paper, yet is only recently that I have realized the reality of hiking that distance. It’s a bloody long way and that’s understating the enormity of what I feel I have left to cover. I have a deadline to keep too, something that I have not given much notice until now. I have to average 15.8 miles a day without any days off if I want to get to Katahdin. That’s a lot of miles when you factor in the notoriously tough White Mountains and the fact that I need and will want to take some zeroes in the future.
Having to average this daily distance is putting me under a fair amount of stress. It is more than achievable, but it constantly plagues my mind and interferes with the freedom I’d like to feel on this hike. I’m hiking on an accumulative basis at the moment where each day I bank or withdraw miles from an imaginary pot. Anything over 16 miles is a deposit and anything less is a withdrawal. It’s helping me keep on track and I hope to bank 16 miles soon enough so that I can enjoy a zero. I hiked a 20 and then a 24 so that I could come into town today and try and write a journal, eat lunch and then head back to the trail head. An 8 mile day seems like a chilled day on paper, but there still doesn’t seem to be a moment when I’m actually doing nothing: there’s always something that can be done. Journaling is slowly falling down in the order of things I’d like to get done or do. I’ve started carrying a book with me. Reading someone else’s musings is far more entertaining than writing my own.
I’m also a little tired of carrying this 2 pound typewriting machine, with its broken screen and missing keys. I get lots of strange looks when I pull it out at shelters. “Are you carrying that?” people will ask in almost abject horror; a question still asked even though they’ve seen me remove it from my pack. I don’t know by what other means it could have made its way from shelter to shelter. If there’s some magical means then please let me know. To many it’s an unnecessary weight, but to me it’s something that allows me to pursue an interest with greater ease. I have always enjoyed writing, but struggle to find material to write about and my mental health often gets in the way. I’ve found hiking the trail provides me with an abundance of material and I’m grateful to say that I’m in good health. I’m constantly tired, but who isn’t on the trail?
There are those that can pull off twenty miles day after day but I like to think of those people as soulless mutants. It helps to think of them in that manner. Having slack packed a few times (just a few, honest) I am fully aware of the difference that weight makes to the act of hiking. Lugging this machine round has become slightly tedious. I decided to do something about it and ordered a Peek device; a lightweight, small machine that acts like a Blackberry only without phone capabilities. I thought it would be great as it’s a lot easier to carry around and I’d be able to update more often. But, I have yet to get a signal in the four weeks that I’ve had it. I haven’t even been able to activate the bloody thing. So not only am I carrying around this somewhat archaic machine, I’m also carrying around something I bought to save me weight, thus increasing my predicament. It’s like trying to fix a leaking tap only to find that your misguided efforts have lead to a burst pipe and you now have a flooded kitchen, only that flood is the puddle of sweat that forms on the trail every time I stop to take a break. It would appear that somebody decided to turn on a furnace. I don’t know what happened to the seasons, but Spring can’t have much of a personality as it hasn’t been invited to the party. Summer is flexing its muscles and I’m feeling the effects as is the trail, with water sources drying up.
The heat saps the energy out of me and has made hiking a lot more strenuous than I thought. For the most part, the foliage does its job and offers some protection from the sun, but the heat can still be felt. Luckily, thunderstorms have broken out and there has been a five day period of rain and it looks like it will continue. Most hikers out here seem to freak out when the weather turns and their mood seems to dip. I love hiking in the rain. I don’t care for the dark much, yet we are mostly in the shade anyways. Everything is so lush post rainfall; I have never seen leaves so green; new types of flowers blossom daily; brilliant brightly orange colored Efts (newts) appear on the trail and the mist shrouds the mountains with a mythical, ancient presence. I love being hovelled inside my tent, listening to the rain pitter patter off my rain fly. It sends me into a deep, relaxed state and I find myself sleeping soundly. Getting out of bed the next morning may suck, especially putting a wet, hence heavier, tent away but it still beats sleeping in a shelter. Those who shelter have no grounds for complaint when it rains. Wimps. The same people that moan about the water sources drying up are the same that moan about it being wet. There’s no winning with some out here!
Virginia has not been the flat State I’ve been lead to believe. When I expressed concern over the distance I have to cover over my timescale everyone seems to harp in with the same old lines: “Don’t worry, it’s all flat in Virginia”. Flat compared to the Pyrenees perhaps, but it’s not flat. I’ve slogged it up a fair share of climbs and they’ve been as tough as many I climbed in Georgia or North Carolina. The heat has added to the intensity, but still Virginia ain’t flat. Fact. I’ve said so and anyone who says otherwise is talking out of their backside. Coming over Dragon’s tooth where you’re climbing up and down rocks, using metal rungs at some points, hardly constitutes a flat terrain. But Virginia has been surprisingly beautiful. People talk about the Virginian Blues, a state of mind often arising due to the length of the Virginian section (it’s the longest), but the Graceland Highlands straight out of Damascus provided the most refreshingly entrancing views thus far. Hiking the trail is a little claustrophobic at times; rarely do you pop out of the densely wooded “corridor” and every time I do, I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t want to compare hiking on the AT to solitary confinement, but it does feel like it at times and I enjoy walking out of the woods; Virginia has given us many “out of the woods” opportunities, even if it is past someone’s backyard, which it is a lot of the time.
The Graceland Highlands are sparsely covered, with more rock formations gracing the rolling hills than trees. It’s perhaps an area most famous for its inhabitants, ponies, which like to come up to you and lick you clean. We are salty lollipops to them and letting their raspy tongue run over your arm is a fair trade for perfectly posed pictures with them. Whilst I don’t have the “blues”, far from it, the initial euphoria of hiking the trail has long gone and a hiking routine has set in. Many hikers have fallen by the wayside and it has felt as though we have had the trail to ourselves at times. Unfortunately, Virginia has seen the loss of one of my favourite hiking buddies, Hyway, as well as Kashmir who hiked with us from Damascus to Bland before taking time off. Hyway had hiked with Miguel and myself over 200 miles and there was always an abundance of camaraderie and laughs when he was around. He can be bloody annoying at times as he never shuts up and is pretty relentless at times, but I loved the banter that we had going, as we shared a very similar sense of humour. I think other hikers found the dynamics between us a little odd at times, but then it felt like we were having a much more enjoyable time on the trail than most others.
It was a sad and a strangely surreal moment when he left us, or we left him, or the trail separated us (however you want to look at it). We were about to go up a big hill (I think it was three Jolly Ranchers worth for him – read his journals if you want to find out his scale for mountain measurement) when he suddenly stopped and turned round to let us in front. We tend to hike together on the flats and downhill, but leave him behind on the ups. He had stopped to let us go and say that he wasn’t going to shoot for the 20 we were aiming for. We hadn’t talked about this before and it came out of nowhere. I made a fist and did the fist to fist kind of handshake that you guys do out here and left, kind of forgetting that it may be the last time I would see him. It didn’t feel right saying goodbye that way and I felt a little guilty at walking away from one of our party. But it has to be done on this trail if you have conflicting schedules and wants from the hike.
I became despondent when I realized that I had no pictures of him. My camera had been stolen the day I met him and he left just after I got my new one; I had no photographic memories of this American Adonis (he’ll love that). When we (when I say we I mean Miguel and I) bumped into Kashmir in Bland, he informed us that Hyway had nearly quit the trail. I wished there was some way we could stay together for the rest of the way, but it’s not possible. He just needs to stop being a bloody Drama Queen and get on with it. Every story is enhanced by its characters and my trail story has certainly been enriched by his presence. I’m glad we got to hike together for the period of time we did. Sounds like I’m writing a bloody eulogy. At risk of being a little “bromantic”, I do miss him but I was able to get my way and get a shot of his ugly mug. Miguel and I were hiking out of Pearisburg when we saw some section hikers coming down. We stepped out of the way when out jumped this raging lunatic screaming. That lunatic happened to be Hyway who was hiking southbound for a week with a friend. It was good to see him again and say a proper goodbye. Miguel and I even gave him a hug. It’s got to be tough for him, hiking out here whilst his family looks after his son, Jason, with Down’s syndrome. I hope he makes it to Maine.
For the most part it’s just been Miguel and I hiking together. Miguel makes me laugh every single day, most of the time unintentionally, but laugh nevertheless. I’ve certainly enjoyed hiking a lot more since we’ve been hiking together and I think it’s because we’re always making each other laugh. We hike at about the same speed, but we certainly don’t do things at the same speed. I have never known anyone to take so long getting ready, ever. It is not unusual for us to leave well past ten in the morning and that’s having got up at half past seven. I’ve waited two and half hours for him one day, which he’ll deny of course, but it’s no exaggeration. I see packing up my stuff like doing a jigsaw. You’ve got lots of different bits that need putting together to fit nicely in your pack. If you do the same jigsaw over and over, you know where all the pieces have to go so you should get pretty quick at finishing it. Not Miguel. Nope. With Miguel it’s like he’s doing a new jigsaw every day and has the attention span of a toddler. One day he cried out with delight: “HA, I’m ready before you. BAM”. This was swiftly followed by “Shit, I haven’t got changed yet.”
His moment of triumphant joy was short lived. It doesn’t really bother me though. I hate rushing in the mornings and will get up earlier so I don’t have to. However, it can get annoying arriving at camp late at night and I’m slowly starting to jolt him into action so that we can get earlier starts. He’s a good hiking partner to have and despite hiking 500 miles together, we have yet to bicker.
We’ve also been joined and left and then rejoined by Tornado, a hiker famous for his “Jew-fro”, a massive mound of curly hair on top of his head. He’s fresh out of high-school, yet has travelled more than most of the people on the trail; in fact, a lot more. He’s even been to the Galapagos Islands, the lucky bastard. His travels and his intellect mean that he’s mature for his age, a lot more so than most of the college graduates and I enjoy conversing with him. He’s also the only person that seems to understand everything that I say and often acts as my translator, something that is needed more times than you’d think. Miguel and Tornado will bicker sometimes, but they love each other really. It would be unfair to call him Hyway’s replacement, but he’s fitted in nicely, though has left (and will leave us again) on a couple of occasions to meet up with people off the trail.
Well balls, I’ve got a lot more to write about but not enough time. I’ll try catching up on my “cross” as I call my broken typewriting machine, but it’s extremely difficult. I plan on writing about the ins and outs of hitchhiking, resupplying, hostels, Bulldog the “Blind Hiker” (met him several times now), slack packing as well as my views on the South, the US as a whole and asking the question (which I hope to be answered): does every American male over the age of 50 have diabetes?
I’m actually in Glasgow, 775.9 miles from Springer. It took a little longer to get here than planned as it was a hard hitch in. Luckily and randomly, Moonpie drove to the Gap to pick a friend up. He’s already done this section so he’s taking some time off in Waynesboro. It was another surreal moment and it was great to see him again. It just hasn’t filled me with confidence that I’ll get a hitch back with any ease. I only plan on hiking to the first shelter, Johns Hollow, which is only 1.7 miles in.
I hope I can keep on writing and hope to have my journaling device debacle sorted out soon!
Tintin's AT trail journal will appear on this site regularly .
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