Being on the trail can have a small home-town feel. Everyone seems to know everyone, or at least to have heard of each other. I fully realized this as I sat at a coffee shop in Hot Springs, North Carolina, when a hiker I didn’t know asked me if I was feeling better; She heard that I had gotten sick after Gatlinburg. There are always mutual acquaintances, and not to mention recognizing people from the log books. All shelters on the trail, as well as most hostels and other popular stops, have notebooks and a pen available. Hikers typically sign their names and a recap/update for the day, but there are also displays of poetry, doodles, confessions, profound thoughts, funny comments. Some use the logs as communication with other hikers, and it’s an easy way to see if someone you know has already passed through the area. I’ve taken to signing ‘River’ with a few waves next to it as my symbol. Fudd says each crest represents how often I have to run off into the woods for a bathroom break during the day.
You can still spot a fellow hiker even if you don’t know them personally. When I first got to Hot Springs, I dropped my pack off at the hostel, and then walked through the town to do a quick resupply. That is, I need snacks. STAT. As I was walking, there were two dirty looking guys sitting outside of a motel, drinking beer. Instantly, I knew we were cut from the same cloth. They waved to me, recognizing my crocs and cargo pants, and asked if I wanted to join them. For an hour, I sat drinking beer in the middle of the day with two strangers talking about our journey so far. A girl named Summer joined us, and after noticing I hadn’t showered yet, asked if I wanted the key to her room so that I could. Either she was super generous, or I just smelled really bad. Probably both.
As much as I love the trail and being immersed in wilderness, time spent in town is truly precious. The littlest things I used to take for granted are now some of the biggest highlights: washing my hands, getting to explore the aisles of a Walmart instead of a small general store, fast food, seeing my reflection (well, this isn’t always glorious). Oh, and getting to do real laundry. More often than not, when there’s no access to a laundromat, we will wash our clothes in the bathroom sink and then hang them to dry in the hotel room. Hostels usually have an available washer and dryer for a fee, and some even let you borrow from a community closet for clothing to wear when yours are washing. This is when you see a bunch of people walking around town in their rain gear or random cotton shirts labeled with slogans like, ‘my aunt went to Cincinnati and only brought me back this shirt!’
Because it was blistering hot for a span of days, and also because I picked up some extra pack weight, I decided the only logical thing to do would be send home my warm gear. I asked my boyfriend to send me some reading material, and I received ‘Stages of Meditation’ a few days later. Great read, but it’s a little heavy (Half the pages are the Tibetan translation of the text – but who’s counting anyway?) I couldn’t part with it, nor some other inessentials, so naturally, the hat, gloves, and pants had to go home. Well, my mom didn’t like that one. Mother Nature didn’t, either. I imagine them both saying, ‘I told you so’ a few days after we left Erwen, Tennessee, and experienced the coldest day yet. The day started with rain, so I knew I couldn’t hike in my pants because it was the only thing I had to keep me warm at camp. Later in the evening, as I trekked along in my shorts, that rain turned to snow, and temperatures dropped drastically.
We set up our tents with shaking hands, and as I changed into my dry clothes and attempted to slap some feeling back into my red thighs, I realized my sleeping bag wasn’t going to cut it. It claims to be a 20 degree bag, but this experience reveals false advertising. Luckily, my friend Spit Fire has a two-person tent, and let me scoot in with her. We huddled in her tent, socks over my hands. Typically, the two of us are super adamant about not cooking in our sleeping area, but that night we held our pots of boiling water in our sleeping bags like old school warming pans.
The trail has tested every piece of my gear, not just the sleeping bag. I’ve replaced my jacket and shoes, and am currently experiencing issues with my water filter, which leaks, and my head lamp, which I snapped by pushing into the bottom of my pack. Furthermore, my rain jacket caught on a nail a few days ago and now bears a hole. Alas, in the wise words of a friend, ‘if it can’t be fixed with duct tape, it can’t be fixed at all.’ Others have experienced difficulties, too. My friend Chris realized that trekking poles and trees do not mix. After getting frustrated by a repeated rolled ankle, he hit the pole off of a tree, only to watch it break in half (the pole, not the tree). I similarly learned that donuts and pants do not mix; I forgot to mention that back in Gatlinburg, I popped a button trying to bend over.
The trail tests me as well as my gear. Some days I feel on top of the world, other days I feel like I don’t want to hike at all. This is particularly true in bad weather. A few days ago, I tried to claim that I only get cranky when I’m cold, to which my friend added, ‘and hungry.’ Touché.
I get intense cravings that are palpable and specific. So, as I’m out on the trail, I don’t just want ‘sweets’ or ‘something salty.’ I obsess over cocoa pebbles, birthday cake ice cream, poutine from a restaurant back home, a cold beer, pancakes. When hiking in a group, our conversations usually gravitate towards talking about eating, to which someone always ends up snapping, ‘can we just stop talking about it!’ We make jokes and laugh it off, but in all honesty, the hunger and cravings can be extremely frustrating. You’re days away from a town, burning thousands of calories hiking for 10 or more hours, and fueling yourself with nuts, jerky, and instant mashed potatoes. You’re hungry. For a more vivid image just picture this: I’m a 5’2, 125 pound woman. Yesterday, after consuming a cheese sandwich, two Little Debbie cakes, potato chips, a clementine, and Gatorade given to me by a trail angel, I came to a hostel with a food truck and a store. I then ate two pop tarts, an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, a large burger and a side of French fries. What should have left me in a food coma instead left me ready and unfazed to hike 9 more miles.
All of the challenge is making us stronger, though. We are hiking between 16 to 20 miles a day now, and plan on doing our biggest stretch in a few days into Damascus, Virginia. Here, my original hiking partner, Nicole, plans to meet back up with me so that we can finish the trail together. She asked if she could bring me anything, and all I could think is Seadog Blueberry beer from home. I’m not sure the Gifford’s ice cream would pack out very well. I’m looking forward to seeing my best friend, Trail Days, and soon crossing the trail quarter milestone. To the aches, pains, hunger, weather: I say bring it on.