I woke up on the wrong side of the bed (shelter) this morning. Particularly the side with the cold air blowing through. It poured again last night, the third night in a row, and just about everything I own falls somewhere on the scale between damp and completely soaked. I shovel lukewarm oatmeal into my mouth for the 4th time this week, and try to prolong putting on my soggy shoes. I take note of the dirt caked under my grimy nails as I reach for my trekking poles, which have fallen over from their precarious upright position, and are now equally covered in mud.
Picture the cartoon character walking with a thunder cloud over their head, and that is me trudging along the flooded trail as I organize a long list under the ‘Poor Me’ header: my knees hurt, my feet are wet, there’s mud everywhere, my hands are cold, I miss home, my phone is dead, I have to hike for 8 hours today, I’m all out of instant coffee…
I’m onto the ‘I haven’t showered in 3 days and won’t for 3 more’ part of the list when I’m interrupted by a familiar greeting, ‘Happy trails!’
It is from Tangle Foot, an older man I haven’t seen in a couple of days. He is sincerely smiling despite the rain pelting his face, and he has not said the phrase in a sarcastic or malicious manner. It is the same man that shared his tea with me, and told me stories about his Boy Scout days with pride.
I see him again later that evening at camp, and he helps us collect enough dry materials to start a small fire. The rain held out for most of the day, and we sit on logs and discuss what we saw on our hikes: a 360 view from a fire tower, an owl, an orange salamander, a fluorescent blue bug, a turtle, mountain laurel, dogwood, rhododendron. We talk about how much stronger we feel already. We review our mileage so far, get excited about what’s to come next.
I tease my German friend, Elmer Fudd, for not being able to pronounce his R’s. He fires back that my legs have managed to become dirtier than anyone else’s: ‘I know you awe closew to the gwound than us, but this is widicuous!’ I know he will soon be smoking his pipe, once again repeating that damp weather calls for tobacco.
After my nightly harmonica lesson (I can almost play Frere Jacques), Tape plays his famous Mice Castle theme song on his ukulele, and I hear the comforting unison of the Wisconsin brothers’ laughter. Before we hang our bear bags, we hold ramen and hot chocolate packages up as offerings to one another, asking, ‘did you get enough to eat?’ Even though we could each eat the entirety of our food bag in one sitting.
Soon it is hiker midnight, and we play a round of cards before retreating to our tents. I am drifting off with my headlamp still on and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ draped across my chest when Spit Fire whisper-yells to me, reminding me to look at the stars.
Oh, sometimes hiking the AT sucks. But so does sitting in traffic, so does trying to have a conversation with someone at a restaurant when their phone is glued to their face, so does feeling stressed and pressured to do what you’re ‘supposed to do.’
So I think I’ll pick my poison. I think I’ll pick the freedom, the fresh air, the simplicity, the fullness, even if it means filtering my water before I brush my teeth. It’s not always fun and it’s not always easy, but it’s already the best thing I’ve ever done. So I’ll stick with the AT, even if it means eating crumbly pop tarts and falling asleep to snoring, a symphony from strangers that aren’t strangers anymore.