‘Ah, life!’ – My AT journey continues…

Groceries here, just passing through.

My time on the Appalachian Trail thus far has been amazing, and amazingly challenging on every imaginable level.

After spending three weeks off of the trail dealing with my knee injury, I was welcomed back to the woods with a grueling hike out of the Nantahala Gorge. I heard an accomplished thru-hiker refer to this particular climb as his “most miserable day on the trail.” I understand why. The elevation gain is unrelenting. This, for me, was complicated not only by my physical need to readjust to hiking, but by an intense thunderstorm over the steep and rocky terrain. The redeeming part of this rude awakening, aside from being equipped with phenomenally adequate Columbia rain gear, was hiking alongside Yeti-Man and Longjohn (a couple of thru-hikers with whom I became acquainted before leaving the Gorge and hiked with for the next 80 or so miles).

Yeti-Man started southbound on the trail in January from his home state of Pennsylvania. He’s now headed north to Damascus, Va. before deciding where and if to continue following the white blazes of the AT. Though he wears his time in the woods with the grace of a bearded hitchhiker that only a fan of Russian roulette might stop to offer a ride, he is not nearly as creepy as he’d like one to believe. Yeti-Man has two aspirations while on this journey: To perfect his invention of dehydrated beer and to find a cure for stupidity. When hearing of my blog, he suggested I describe him as an “idiosyncratic anomaly.” So, there you have it; Yeti-Man is an idiosyncratic anomaly.

Longjohn is equally eccentric on the opposite end of the spectrum. When first we met, he was dancing wildly on rocks on the banks of the Nantahala River – oblivious to anything save his 174 song playlist on the MP3 player that is a permanent extension of his body.

Before getting to know him, one might assume his lack of inhibition to be fueled by something more artificial than an intense love of life. This is just not the case. This becomes obvious when witnessing his habit of occasionally pausing to sigh, look skyward and exclaim, “Ah, life!” while grinning from ear to ear. This is especially centering when learning of his experiences with a horrendously traumatic childhood, and the challenges he has faced coming of age as a gay man in the deep South. Prior to his hike, he had never spent any significant time outside of Alabama. As such, he relishes every opportunity to expand his horizons before heading back to complete his degree in sign language interpretation in the fall.

One of the highlights of time spent with this wonderfully motley crew was a stop in Fontana Dam, North Carolina over Memorial Day weekend. The AT shelter there is termed the “Fontana Hilton,” a reference to the shower facilities nearby. One evening during a dusk-lit swim in an emerald green cove in the lake below, I heard myself exclaim: “Now THIS is what hiking the AT is about.”

And really, it is. Fontana Dam is also where I learned a tip or two about successful hitchhiking. The three of us decided to trek the couple of miles to the nearby village, and were having difficulty hailing passersby. That is, until Longjohn decided to show us how it’s done. He turned around to face oncoming traffic, doubled over clutching his belly, and shouted “I’m SO hungry!” Within seconds, we had a ride.

Words cannot adequately describe the natural beauty of the Appalachian Trail as I have experienced it to date. The life lessons along the way are equally indescribable. I’m learning that it’s more than okay to slow down, to pause, to enjoy each moment as it comes. There’s a unique feeling of accomplishment and reward in reaching a beautiful mountain bald in the middle of a hard day of hiking; a serene sense that comes with sunbathing in a meadow until being awoken by wild turkeys whose space I’ve apparently invaded. Laughter often finds me when startled by hundreds of crickets exploding from the underbrush along the trail like Pop Rocks from a toddler’s tongue.

I do find it interesting that though I hike through these beautifully picturesque settings on a daily basis while on the trail, my thoughts and writing lean toward the human connections that have become so important to me throughout this journey.

For instance, when I resumed my hike post-injury, I found myself frequently overcome with emotion when arriving at a shelter for the evening and perusing the registers that are commonplace in such settings. Many of my fellow hikers from my “original crew” had left messages wishing me well, telling me where I might meet them if I was not too far behind. Trail registers become a sort of primitive email system in this manner. They can also serve as a cheap form of entertainment.

Baltimore Jack tells the story of “Vixen,” a fictional trail harlot he fabricated after growing tired of fellow hikers lamenting the lack of female companionship on the trail. Each time he came to a register, he would flip back a page or two, find an empty space and, in the most feminine handwriting he could muster, leave provocative messages urging the men to try and catch up with her. The men spent days on end logging ridiculous miles to catch the elusive Vixen before they finally were let in on the ruse.

I am now hiking through the Smokies, and am once again ready to move on. I have indeed met some interesting characters through this leg of the trip as well, including a family led by a tyrannical alpha-mom who more than once instructed her husband to fetch her a Wet-Nap because “her hands were kind of dirty.”

I camped a couple of evenings with an awesome group who taught me the art of the Facebook craze of “planking” through the father/son bonding experience of one of them sitting on the privy while his son suspended himself above it.

Perhaps the most amazing encounter came the evening prior to hiking out to Newfound Gap:

I arrived at Double Spring Gap shelter at nightfall to find a group finishing their evening camp chores before retiring. We exchanged pleasantries, and instead of offering my usual response of “I’m from Colorado, but originally from Indiana” when asked where I call home, I said something along the lines of “I’m from Colorado, but I went to school at Johnson Bible College in Knoxville.” That’s when one of my evening companions’ eyes lit up as she said, “I knew you looked familiar!” I did a double take and recognized her as Brittany Pritchett, a former college classmate. This came at the end of an emotionally taxing day in which I had been lamenting the fact that I had not seen a familiar face for the better part of two months. Trail magic and provision at its finest!

I was also the recipient of grand provision upon arriving at Newfound Gap. I emerged from the woods as dirty,smelly and foot weary as hikers come, only to find myself becoming an instant tourist attraction. “You hiked from where?!” and “This trail goes to Maine? I thought that was a typo!” were among the amusing comments I encountered. I was fielding questions in the parking lot for all of about five minutes before a group of gentlemen from Georgia, on their way to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, offered me a ride to town. Concerned about a female alone in the wilderness, one of them gifted me with some sort of police issued baton as a weapon. It was such a sincere gesture that I could not deny it, knowing full well I would be no better off carrying that three-pound contraption than I would be relying on my trekking poles for protection.

Since then, I’ve taken time in the completely tacky and over-stimulatingly underwhelming town of Gatlinburg to connect with old college friends and to pause. I’ve completed my resupply and am the proud new owner of a lightweight and extremely stuffable summer sleeping bag, having sent my 20 degree bag back to Denver until the nights get colder. I’ve been extremely pleased with the performance of most of my gear so far, includi
ng my Mile High Mountaineering (MHM) Divide backpack, which is shaping up to be a real workhorse. I did find my Whisperlite Internationale stove to be overkill, and replaced it with a “cat can” type alcohol stove that weighs less than five ounces and is perfectly adequate for a quick boil.

Though I’m getting back on the trail today, I’m realistic enough to know that If I had a schedule to keep, I’m way behind. The chances of completing a traditional thru-hike at this point are very slim. I’ll revise my plans along the way, though I’m not yet sure what that means. There is a chance that I will “flip flop,” meaning head up to Maine and begin hiking south to stay ahead of the elements. I might also skip not quite as far north to rejoin the thru-hiker bubble.

Thank you all for your interest in the journey this is becoming. Your support means more than you know.

Until next time, may you be encouraged by the immortal words of one Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel: ~”Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So…get on your way.”

(To read previous blog entries from Maria, click here.)

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Maria Icenogle