The river water swirls beneath my feet…

…then moves on. The Nantahala River is beautiful and beautifully powerful. Where it crosses the Appalachian Trail is nestled a virtual playground for rafters, hikers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all flavors. It is a wonderful place to pause, to drink in the reward of civilization following a difficult hike, to enjoy a hot meal and to spend a day or so. It’s a nice place to choose to be. On day four of my knee injury choosing to park me here, however, I am more than slightly jealous of the river water. I am yearning to move on.

My forced stay at the Nantahala Outdoor Center marks what is likely the end of the companionship I have known since last I wrote from Neels Gap. It was there I had the fortune of meeting a phenomenal and phenomenally diverse group of fellow thru-hikers with whom I shared the pleasure of walking alongside for a hundred or so miles. On the trail, family forms quickly. There is solace in the routine of hiking at ones’ own pace, often solo, yet maintaining a keen awareness of those who are a few paces ahead or behind.

There is comfort in knowing the sunset will bring reunion involving the collective boiling of water for noodles, and laughing at the antics of the day. These dear ones have now moved on. Of course there exists the chance I will meet some of them at another point along the trail, but that likelihood lessens with each day I am forced to pause. I guess the irony is that I came on this journey alone, with the full expectation of remaining that way. I have not felt alone until now.

Among those whose absence is felt is a man named John Brown. John is a 68 year-old former marathoner with zero body fat and a magnetic soul. He knows every plant, flower, and creature in the forest, and slows down to commune accordingly. In lieu of “senior moments,” he frequently entertains with what he terms “LSD moments,” explaining them away with “you know, too much LSD in the 60s.”

John has made his livelihood in a variety of professions, from serviceman to shipbuilder and master craftsman, from salesman to manager of Vernon Valley/Great Gorge Ski Resort in New Jersey. He is hiking the trail for 90 days or “as long as it’s enjoyable” while his wife is away visiting family in Russia. John is careful to savor life as it comes, and unwittingly teaches the intentionality of being, just by being.  It bothers those in his hiking club that he has no real schedule for his hike, and no clue as to where he’ll be at any given date. This renders them incapable of keeping tabs on him, and apparently is quite annoying.

John thinks of the trail in 10-foot increments, one foot in front of the other. He could easily walk home to his 675 square foot cabin in the North Carolina mountains, but for now he figures he’ll just keep walking.

Also a part of the crew is a gentleman named Litefoot. Eerily similar to John in age, stature and athleticism, he too is a former Boston marathoner, and completed an Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2000. I find commonality in Litefoot in that he tends to be very hard on himself, often comparing his current trek with one that seemed much easier on the other side of a decade. At one point, word on the trail was that Litefoot had thrown in the towel. A fellow hiker witnessed him tossing his walking stick into the woods and hitching a ride to the nearest town. A few days after this report, following an overnight stop in Franklin, N.C., I chanced upon Litefoot again. He appeared refreshed, renewed, and ready once more to rise to the challenge. I don’t know what changed his mind, but I’m glad something did. It seems Litefoot and I both have a lesson to learn about the value and healing in slowing down.

And then there’s the unforgettable trio of Tri-Dub, 7/8ths, and Magic Mix. Upon our initial meeting, I was certain they had known each other from the start, which I suppose is mostly true. Tri-Dub (whose trail name was Dub Dub Dub prior to my fixing that situation for him) and 7/8ths had set out on the trail together, meeting the solo Magic Mix before leaving Springer Mountain. All of them 23 years of age and in various states of transition, they meshed immediately.

Tri-Dub, known in real life as Will Boyd, is a mostly quiet ball of enigmatic determination. He has until the end of August to finish the trail before beginning his graduate studies in plasma physics at MIT. It’s really no surprise that he meticulously calculated his mail drops and daily mileage goals, spreadsheets notwithstanding.

Will is a brilliant guy, but would prefer you not to know it. (This stands in stark contrast to a gal named Four Eyes, another thru-hiker grad student who warrants little mention except to say that she brought a physics textbook on the trail to ward off brain atrophy and potential friends.) What I came to appreciate most about Tri-Dub is that he seems to have no one to impress and nothing to prove to anyone save himself, which likely will be his biggest challenge of all. He and 7/8ths, aptly named as time constraints only allowed her to section hike 7/8ths of Georgia, have known each other since freshman year at Georgia Tech. They are in love, and at least one of them doesn’t know it. Their hike was the last time they’ll see each other before she heads to Berkeley in the fall.  The day she left the trail was a somber one.

Magic Mix is Matt from Chicago. Straight out of the Marines and preparing for film school, he’s on the trail to rediscover the pieces of himself that his five years in the service have desensitized. So far, I think he’s doing a bang-up job. Laughter and an air of lightheartedness follow Magic Mix in such a way that my first impression lent itself toward the notion that he is a “young 23.” My last impression brought the clarity that I was very wrong. I hope the trail brings the answers he’s looking for.

One of the remarkable things about time on the trail is how quickly time loses significance. It’s difficult to recall whether the storm atop Tray Mountain occurred two days ago, 10 days ago, or at all. It was a difficult 15-mile slog that day; I had spent much of the morning ambling with John, stopping frequently to marvel at bloodroot and mountain laurel. As such, I was a good clip behind Tri-Dub, 7/8ths, and Magic Mix.

When John called it a day at Blue Mountain shelter, I pressed on to meet up with the trio. I arrived at camp slightly before dusk to find the shelter completely full of slackpackers and others who had abandoned daily goals in favor of refuge from the encroaching storm. So excited to have reached my goal, I bounded into camp shouting, “Did anyone here order some Groceries?!” The hugs and ensuing laughter distracted my senses. I had not yet noticed the clouds building in the distance.

There are few good places to camp atop Tray Mountain. For starters, it requires camping on top of a mountain. Even the shelter is quite exposed. No sooner had I pitched my tent next to the others’ and finished my camp chores for the evening did the rain begin. It was gentle before it was horizontal, which is roughly the moment my prayers became slightly more fervent. It is no exaggeration to say that the winds roaring through those hills and through my tent that night were in excess of 70 miles per hour. It was among the worst storms I’ve yet to experience, and easily the worst I’ve had the privilege of being separated from by a thin layer of ultralight material.

Nonetheless, morning came, and with it the realization that we had all survived mostly unscathed. I shook the half-inch of standing water out of my tent, packed up and headed toward Hiawassee. Leaving camp, I noticed a strikingly serene lake freckling the landscape below. It would be some time later before I would learn the name of that lake: Lake Burton. There had been a fatality there the night prior in the tornado that swept right over Tray Mountain, narrowly skirting our campsite.

Now, it seems as though time is all I have. I injured my knee somewhere before Franklin, on a day when Tri-Dub and I thought it a good idea to
cap-off a 20-mile day with the steep and ornery hike up Albert Mountain. I hiked on the injury way longer than I should have, and am continuing to pay for it. Slowing down has been a tough and lonely adjustment for me. It’s difficult to lay aside the self-imposed pressure to be further up the trail, but healing is priority, and I’ll get there when I get there. I’ve found that the sun has a funny way of rising and setting whether or not I happen to know what day of the week it is, and that mostly it doesn’t matter.

Some time has passed since I first began writing; I’ve since been adopted by an NOC kayak instructor named Katie. She smokes a lot of weed and calls me dude, but has the kindest heart I could imagine. I’m more than grateful for such hospitality in the company of strangers. Katie’s father is an orthopedic surgeon in Franklin. Though I’m fairly certain I’m on the mend and anticipate returning to the trail shortly.  I have an appointment with him tomorrow to be sure. I hear Franklin is an hour’s drive away; weird that it took me much longer than that to hike here.

“In the space between words, in the time between thoughts, in the distance between the left foot and the right, is life. If you find it, hold it in your hand.”  –John Brown, Trail Guru

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Maria Icenogle