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Monthly Archives: April 2009

If you’re going to hike the A.T., you need a trail name. Meeting a thru-hiker without one is just uncomfortable, like meeting someone at a costume party in regular clothes. Couscous just got her name a few days ago, after a whole five weeks of hiking, but just about everyone else has had theirs for a while now. So you know you need one, but how do you get it? You could show up at Springer having given yourself a trail name already. The more interesting ones have a story behind them though.

If you do wait for a name to happen to you, timing is key. Take Moose for example. I don’t know how Moose got his name, but since he got it so early, he missed a chance for a much better one. Moose hikes with a group of four. This group happens to have a name itself. The slowest hiker leads, and the other three follow closely behind, forming a single hiking mass. They all carry trekking poles. Several people watching this have independently given this ensemble the same name – the Centipede. Anyway, the Centipede’s members like to play jokes on one another, so one day leaving a little store for a long climb, they managed to sneak a two pound can into Moose’s pack. “Hey Moose, how’s your pack feeling today?” they chuckled up the mountain. “Great, it even feels light!” Once he got to camp, he was quite surprised to find two pounds of spinach at the bottom of his sleeping bag. His trail name should obviously have been Popeye. But it was too late, he was already Moose.

Here’s how some other hikers got the trail  names they’ve kept.

  • Hiker converses with other hikers at shelter one morning. Others go ahead, then at the end of the day, find hiker waiting for them at next shelter, even though they never saw her pass them. The same thing happens the next day. Trail name: Houdini.
  • It starts raining. While others put on their GoreTex jackets, hiker approaches down the hill carrying an umbrella. Trail name: Poppins.
  • Hiker looks like he just walked out of a bus station. He carries a black luggage-style backpack with a sleeping bag tied on. Across his chest, he carries a black duffel bag. When asked “Why are you carrying that extra bag?” hiker replies, “it’s for the stuff that won’t fit in the backpack.” Trailname: Two Pack.
  • It is very cold one evening. People at shelter are complaining about the probable need to get up and use the forest restroom in the middle of the night. Hiker offers suggestion. “Just keep an empty Gatorade bottle in your bag,” he holds his up as an example. “When you need to go, you can just stay in your bag and pee into it. Then, here’s the bonus – it’ll keep your bag warm. Just make sure the lid is on tight.” Trail name: 32-Ounce Gatorade.
  • In a crowded shelter, hiker has dream that he is mugged. Still asleep, he punches Peanut Butter, who is sleeping next to him, in the stomach. Peanut Butter wakes up and yells, but hiker keeps fighting in his sleep. Spotlight turns on his headlamp in the commotion to find hiker, now awake, on top of Peanut Butter, both staring dumbfounded at the light. Hiker rejects the trail name Jelly. Trail name: Night Fight.
  • Hiker is walking on Mollie’s Ridge in a storm when he is knocked to the ground by a bolt of lightning, which exits his left arm. Apart from a few minutes of ringing ears, he is okay. Trail name: Sparky.

 

-April 30, Damascus, Va.

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It’s just after 4:00 and I’ve been at the Flint Mountain Shelter for over an hour. My hike today was relatively short, about twelve and a half miles, so I was able to get to the shelter early. There’s been a constant drizzle all day. When it’s wet out, setting up the tent becomes very unpleasant. Even if everything inside my tent somehow stays dry, the tent itself will get soaked, and there’s no dry place to cook. So on rainy days, everyone heads for the shelters. There’s a friendly saying on the trail – “The shelter always has room for one more person in a rain storm.” I’ve seen this maxim tested, and can assure you that at a certain point, it no longer holds tue. In a snowsotrm we fit eleven people in a shelter designed for six. I heard of 22 people and a dog crammed in to a shelter just a bit bigger, but two of those crawled underneath the platform to sleep. By then, the leaws of physics says there is no more room, and the latest arrivals are sent out in the rain to tent. The rules are first come first serve, and that’s why I’m glad I got here early today and I know I’ll have space.

It’s not always like today. take the Spence Field Shelter I stayed at a few weeks ago in the Smokies. The sky had been clear all day, but there was a half foot of snow on the ground from the day before. In places alond the ridgeline, the trail went through thigh-high snow drifts. In the morning, the trail was icy, then by afternoon it turned to sloppy slush and mud slides. The going was slow and frustrating, not to mention cold and wet. On that sort of day, hikers often arrive at a shetler around lunchtime and are not inclined to push on to the next one. So they stay around for the rest of the day and try again tomorrow.

So when I arrived at about five o’clock, the scene was not welcoming. After spending the last few hours in peaceful solitude, I pulled back the tarp covering the front of the shelter to find a shocking density of unhappy humanity. People with foggy breath bundled in winter hats filled every corner–standing on the small dirt floor, huddled over small pots of ramen, catatonic in their sleeping bags. No one smiled or said hello as I dodged around them; I was just another body to fit in. Their gear had exploded everywhere. Backpacks and food bags hung like pinatas from the ceiling and the flood was littered with boots and trekking poles. Clotheslines stung from the rafters hung all manner of rain jackets, pack coveres, and tents up to dry like some strange decorative curtains. On one side was a fireplace with a crowd of four men tending a twig fire, above which hung a line of wet Smartwool socks. The whole scene was Dickensian, with the chimney straight out of Bob Cratchet’s house on Christmas Eve. I looked around for a spot. “Hey, do you think you could make some room right in there?” I pointed to a sliver of bare wood I had discovered between sleeping bags. A man who looked asleep said “I don’t really know who’s there, hey Tin Man, is that a spot between you and Snake Eyes?” Thankfully, they made some rom for me. I felt like I was in a refugee camp. Four more people fit into Spence Field Shelter before the end of the night.

But when the alternative is setting up a tent in the snow, it really doesn’t seem so bad. And most days, it’s a much more pleasant place. This particular shelter is a pretty decent one. Right now it’s nearly empty, but soon it will be covered in people who arrive with equipment and energy like a circus in town for one night. The structure is simple. It’s built of logs, with most of the cracks filled in. These form three complete walls, and a little on either side of the fourth. The roof is a slanted frame of two-by-fours covered in tin, which seems to be keeping everything dry. On either side of the interior are two plywood sleeping platforms raised about chair-height from the dirt floor. There are a couple of good nails for hanging up packs, and someone has even strung up a clothesline. Just outside are a picnic table and a fire ring, and around the corner are cables for hanging up food away from bears. There’s not much to it, but on the trail it has all we need.

These shelters were a part of the A.T.’s original visions when it was conceived and built in the 1930s. No only were they to provide ovenight lodging, but they were intended to be part of education and work programs, where city dwellers would go to learn avobout nature or participate in organized programs. This part of the plan never really panned out, but the legacy of the vision is that hikers have a place that feels like home out in the woods. Some shelters on the tail date from the original construction, but most have been built or rennovated by various hiking clubs since then. Now, there are over 250 shelters spread out over the trail, about one every eight and a half miles.

They share the same basic structure – roof, three walls, raised sleeping platform – but each is a little bit different, and these variations make some shelters much better or worse than others. Some have a second or third sleeping platform in a loft, anywhere from 3 to 6 feet high. They can be built from logs, or lumber, or stones, or even cinderblock. One is a giant converted barn. Most don’t leak, but some are draftier than others. Some are designed for just five people, while the Fontana Dam Shelter, dubbed the Fontana Hilton, comfortably sleeps 24. Here are some of the features that make a great shelter:

  • Skylights.
  • A tarp to keep the weather out from the open fourth wall.
  • Fireplace and chimney. So far, only the Smokies shelters have these.
  • Without a fireplace, a good fire ring.
  • A broom for tidying up.
  • Covered cooking area. In the Nantahala, the southern part of North Carolina, the shelter roof extends well in front of the sleeping platform over a table, providing plenty of dry space to cook. Having almost two rooms felt luxurious.
  • Plenty of hooks or pegs for hanging packs and gear.
  • Tables or shelves for cooking.
  • Bear cables. It’s much easier to use the hook and pully system than to throw a rope over a tree limb.
  • Without bear cables, there should at least be mouse hangers. These ropes hang from the ceiling with a stick tied to the end to hand up a food bag. An empty tuna can with a hole threaded upside down higher up the rope keeps mice from climbing down.
  • Nearby privy.
  • Nearby spring, on the other side of the ridgeline from the privy.

 

It usually takes a moment of thought for the thru-hiker to realize that by any standard other than a one-person backpacking tent, these places are dumps. They all have mice. Even homeless shelters have mattresses, in a heated building with showers. One shelter with two short sleeping platforms and marked body-width slots looked uncomfortably like a slave ship. There’s always someone who snores. But really, they’re all we need. And besides, shelters have a purpose beyond providing shelter from the storm. They are the place for socialization on the trail. Most people hike alone or in pairs all day long, so the shelters are where they congregate to talk about the weather or share gossip. Every shelter has a register. These notebooks are filled with notes from the people who have passed through before, and so they serve as the trail’snewspaper. Each night, the shelter houses a makeshift family that will move on in the morning. Many people say they come to the trail for the sense of community. It’s these spaces, and some occasional rain, that make that community.

-Cherokee National Forest, April 19

Much of the Appalachian Trail experience isn’t even in the woods. Before I left, people seemed surprised by this when I told them. There’s a common perception that hiking the trail means six months of solitude in remote wilderness. But even if a hiker could somehow avoid his hundreds of fellow thru-hikers, he’d still have to come back to civilization once in a while to get food. The trail does of course goes through wilderness, but it’s never too far from a town with all the comforts of home. It even passes right through some of them. After all, it would be pretty difficult to draw a 2,000 mile line through the eastern U.S. without emerging from the wilderness once in a while. These towns and stops along the A.T., and the characters that inhabit them, are every bit a part of the trail itself.

The first time the thru-hiker emerges from the woods to once again see the clean, dry, cotton-wearing inhabitants of the real world is at Neels Gap, about three days from the start. After crossing the road, the trail passes directly through the breezeway of a stone building that houses Mountain Crossings Outfitter. It’s important to note here that there is no official training video for A.T. thru-hikers. There is no information packet with a packing list, “Before You Arrive” checklist, or F.A.Q.s. Hikers are on their own to figure it out. After 31 miles with the wrong boots, too many pots, or a malfunctioning rain jacket, Mountain Crossings is the place that gets the thru-hiker properly equipped and ready to get back on the trail.

The store is entirely devoted to hiking, with a particular focus on A.T. thru-hikes. They could easily outfit a thru-hiker from nothing, but more often they add to or replace what hikers thought they needed. I picked up a waterproof stuff sack and a pack cover. After three days of rain, stock was running low. One popular service, advertised on flyers all around, is the “Gear Shakedown – Lose 10 Pounds, Guaranteed!” On the floor in scattered corners of the store, hikers lay out all of their gear. A staff member goes through it all and says keep it, replace it, or send it home, not unlike a reality TV show, as the thru-hiker quietly accepts it. Mountain Crossings has the boxes and stamps to send a lot of hiker gear back home. And if your boots don’t fit, or your pack has the wrong straps, they have every major equipment manufacturer and retailer on speed dial to negotiate a speedy exchange or refund. As I was walking around the store in my flip flops, an employee saw the holes through three layers of skin on my heels. Without me even asking, he told me the problem with my boot fit. He got me some new insoles, cut to fit, and now the heels have healed. “I’m not trying to sell you anything,” he told me, “I’m just trying to get you to Maine.”

Perhaps more important than the gear, Mountain Crossings gives hikers a much needed psychological boost. The staff are all friends of the trail. Some have been fixtures of the trail community for years. Once is a contributing editor to the trail guide I’m using. Most have thru-hiked at least once. Hanging from the ceiling are dozens of old packs and boots from successful thru-hikers. In box by the wall is a stack of photo albums with pictures of thru-hikers who have passed through over the last two decades. Trail lore fills every corner of the store. The rookie hiker, who started three days ago with no instruction book and has gotten soaked and blistered with more confused rookies since then, suddenly realizes that this has been done before, and there’s a whole community of people who are part of it. Leaving Neels Gap feels like starting the trail all over again, this time for real.

 It was also around this time that rumors of the first trail party started circulating. “Every year around, Ron Haven throws an April Fools’ Day party for hikers in Franklin,” was the word from the staff at Mountain Crossings. “And you’re in luck, because that’s a week from now, and you’re about a seven day walk from Franklin.” I hadn’t quite realized that there would be events to plan around on this trip. It seemed pretty straightforward at first, the idea was to just keep walking until I get to Maine. But now there was a reason to walk somewhere much closer.

The most interesting thing about the Franklin hiker bash is how news spread about it. Most of its target attendees are semi-nomadic mountain dwellers. So the party had no website. We didn’t receive an e-vite. There were no flyers posted around town, no ad in the local paper. Everything anybody knew about the party was by word of mouth. And it came up in just about every hiker conversation for the week before. “Is it Friday too or just Saturday?” “I don’t know where it’s going to be, but I figure if you show up in Franklin you can figure it out.” “Is there going to be camping?” “I know there’s food, but I don’t know if it’s all you can eat.” “I heard there’s going to be an Elvis impersonator.” “Oh yeah, and wasn’t there something about a book-signing by Elvis’ manager or something?”

The best rumors, which swelled to almost legendary proportions, were about the party’s host, Ron Haven. “Ron Haven is a true friend of the trail,” said the people who worked at Mountain Crossings. “Man, I get to Winding Stair Gap, and I’m standing there with my thumb out, about to start walking down the hill, when this guy shows up in a short bus and says he’s taking hikers to town. That guy is a character,” said a previous thru-hiker. “That guy will take care of you, no matter what.” “Ron Haven has single-handedly made Franklin a great trail town. He’s convinced the people that hikers are a little smelly but they’re mostly good people and are happy to spend money in town.” “He owns the Sapphire Inn, the Budget Inn, and one other I think?” “Yeah I was talking to him one day and he said if I was looking to buy some property in town, he’s a licensed real estate agent and could help me out. I think he owns an antique store or something too.”

A section of the trail was jammed up for days with people timing their hike to get into Franklin for the weekend. I was not going to miss the legendary Ron Haven’s hiker party. But I was going to pass Franklin a couple days ahead of the weekend and didn’t want to slow down for it. When I got to Winding Stair Gap, the highway into Franklin, the short bus pulled up as expected and a burly beaded man got out to help hikers in. The man, the legend, Ron Haven. He will take care of me, no matter what, I remembered being told. So I asked, “I’m hiking on but want to get back for your party. Are you running shuttles from the Nantahala?” He shook my hand with a smile. “I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna send a limousine to pick up you hikers, now I ain’t kidding. I run a limousine service, and what you need to do,” he fished a card out of his wallet, “is call this number and tell them where you’re gonna be. If you can get ten people, it’s just ten dollars a person. We want to make sure we can get all y’all in here to celebrate at the party, not gonna leave anyone out.”

I got back to Franklin, not in a limo, to see what the party was all about. There was a bluegrass band. There was a lot of food. There was camping on the lawn in front of the Sapphire Inn. But most of all, there were a lot of hikers. Not just the ones on the trail I had been meeting, but dozens of hikers and others who had been fixtures of the A.T. community for years. People who have thru-hiked several times, people who have helped build sections of the trail, people who run some of the much-loved hiker hostels. Over the evening I met some of these characters, and heard some stories, and watched old hiker buddies reunite. They are a diverse cast of characters, united by this long footpath. We weren’t in the woods, and most of us were pretty clean. But it was a quintessential Appalachian Trail experience. And there’s lots more of it to come.

-April 17, Hot Springs, NC

When fair April with his showers sweet,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root’s feet
And bathed each vein in liquid of such power,
Its strength creates the newly springing flower;

Then nature stirs them up to such a pitch
That folk all long to go on pilgrimage

-Chaucer

The two thousand or so hikers who come to Springer mountain every year don’t wait for great weather. In the north Georgia mountains it will be pleasantly warm with flowers in full bloom about two months later. But in March and April when they arrive, no leaves have bud, there’s plenty of rain, and it’s still cold enough for snow to be a constant possibility. But the hikers have to start now to have enough time to walk to Maine before winter starts again. They aren’t just here to enjoy the scenery. They are trying to get somewhere.

Chaucer’s pilgrims were going to Canterbury’s cathedral. The Mayflower’s pilgrims were going to a new world free of persecution. The Appalachian Trail pilgrims are going to a rocky, isolated mountain in the middle of a lonely, isolated state. And why, exactly? Okay, so maybe it’s more about the journey than the destination. But as they climb muddy trails in the cold March rain with a giant pack pulling down their backs, the Appalachian pilgrims raise some serious questions. Who are you anyway? And what are you doing out here?

The characters on this trail come from many places. Many are young, but there are plenty in middle age as well. Most are in good shape, but not all. Usually they have spent some of their lives enjoying the outdoors, but a few have never hiked before. What unites all these people, bringing them out of warm dry homes with hot meals for the cold wet Georgia mountains? A love of long walks? A taste for granola? A yearning to find peace in the wilderness?

Actually, the only thing these people have in common is a lot of time on their hands. When you ask them why they are hiking, they say “I retired,” or “My business went under with the economy,” or “I finished school.” They give reasons for having six months of free time, but never think to explain why they are here instead of, say, golfing, or learning French, or traveling to every major league baseball park. For some reason, it just seems natural to some people.

Many of them are a lot like me. Twenty-something men who quit their jobs or just finished college, they figured that they wouldn’t have many other opportunities to live in the woods for six months. But some also have wives staying at home, or jobs they are hoping to return to, or mortgages, or other real-world reasons it might be a hard trip to make. Some seem well-off, with all the latest high tech gear, and some have scrapped together some cheap equipment and see the trip as a economical way to pass a summer. Some come in pairs, and some come alone. Some hike far and fast, and some enjoy one step at a time. Some of the older hikers are retired, or on a leave of absence from their careers, and are experiencing something that they dreamed of and planned for for years. Other seem to more or less live in the woods, with no discernible life off of the trail. In the real world, these people would be businessmen and hippies, yuppies and rednecks, college kids and parents. But in the mountains, when it’s raining and they are sharing a few square feet in a rustic mountain shelter, they are just fellow hikers.

Part of their distinction from the real-world happens with the use of trail names. Every thru-hiker has one. There’s Damascus, Firefly, Western, Ramble On, Houdini, Hopscotch. Some choose their own trail names, and some have trail names thrust upon them. I hardly know anyone’s real name, and it doesn’t really matter. To me, they’re just other thru-hikers, people to share some time with as we go on our way.

Virtually all of them share two characteristics. They are independent, and they are friendly. People who come out here know how to take care of themselves. They cook their own food, they know where they’re going, and of course, they carry their own packs. You can’t be a follow-the-leader type and suddenly find yourself out here. But far from being loners, or cutthroat competitors, they are also very friendly. It makes sense, since the trial is basically just a small town stretched out over a long line, that people show some of that small-town friendliness. At shelters and campsites every night is an instant community. No one passes on the trail without saying hello or stopping to chat. And help from a fellow hiker is never far away. Even though it’s an individual pursuit, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together.

Why exactly we’re all out here, I can’t really say. We’re all trying to go north, to see where this trail ends. But I think just as importantly, we’re all here to see each other, to live in a sort of parallel world while we tell each other our stories. One nice thing about their world is that we’re all here by choice. Everyone is happy to be here, and that positive attitude rubs off. So even when it’s cold and raining and spring eels like it’s late, we pilgrims still have the company of strangers, and the promise of a big rocky mountain at the end of the trail.

– April 5, Natahala National Forest