I’ll give a little background here. I’m a shelter girl, even when it’s not raining. A fair weather fan, if you will. For 90% of thru-hikers, the shelters on the trail are more of a worst-case-scenario than a luxury. But for me, I’ll typically opt to hang my hat in a wooden structure instead of my tent any day. In all honesty, it’s just because I’m lazy and tents take so much laying out and poling and staking and hooking things to other things. And my tent is too small to hang my hat in, anyway.
I’ve come to really enjoy them. The threat of mice or getting sick doesn’t phase me (been there, done that), and I like being able to spread my things out and have a little room. Most days, I don’t have any competition for claiming a spot. When it storms, however, that’s a different story. All of a sudden, hikers race to lay out their sleeping pads, elbowing others out of the way and practically yelling, ‘this is Sparta!’ Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
This past week has been some heavy rain in Virginia, and as I trekked/swam through the flooded and muddy trail yesterday, I envisioned my routine for when I got to camp. For a 20 mile day, I was actually making good time for once, and didn’t think twice about seeking refuge once I got there around 5:30. I imagined myself peeling off my wet jacket, hanging my pack on one of those nifty mice ropes, putting on dry socks while I chatted with the kind strangers that I already trusted to sleep next to me.
Even though it was pouring heavy rain, I sauntered into camp with a smile on my face, utterly relieved to have made it. My relief amplified when I saw that even though the shelter had some people in it, they weren’t at all packed tightly. My guide showed there was room for 8 people, and only 6 sleeping bags were laid out.
‘Room for one more?’ I said goofily as I threw my pack off, getting ready to make myself at home. It was more of a greeting than an actual question, I assumed I was already in the clear.
‘Actually, we just filled up’ said a man looking up from the Candy Crush on his phone.
At first, I thought he was joking. Like I said, only 6 people in an 8 person shelter. The expression on his face told me otherwise.
‘We can probably squeeze one more!’ Someone in the corner offered, but the man turned and gave a flustered look, responding, ‘no, then we won’t be able to get in and out.’
An older man on the other side of the shelter looked uncomfortable. He suggested that they all close the spaces in between their bags, and that they should have no problem fitting me in. Another voice from the opposite side confirmed, ‘yeah, that should be good!’ They started shifting their things, and the older man instructed the girl next to him to slide over.
She responded defensively, ‘why should I have to move?’ She looked left and right with an exaggerated look of remorse on her face as she told me, ‘sorry, I just really don’t think it’s going to work.’
I was dumbfounded. I stood there with the cold rain pelting my body, and looked at the noticeable space between them. Each person had their belongings spread out, and you could see inches of the wooden shelter floor next to them. I felt awkward and shocked; nothing like this had ever happened before. I’ve been in many shelters where we are crammed elbow to elbow in a storm, yet we always make room for one more. I have no problem sleeping in my tent, and I truly didn’t expect anyone to go out of their way for me, but it was just so obvious that there was room for more people.
I set my tent up in the rain, feeling a bit sorry for myself. I was a little confused and still taken aback. Part of me wanted to protest like a child, saying, ‘you don’t even appreciate shelters, I’m the one that likes them even when it’s not rainy! And AWOL said I could! You don’t even know Her name!’ (Her, being the shelter, of course). And the other part of me knew I was just being dramatic. I was trying to make sense of how I felt about the situation when I marched back up to the shelter to get my trekking poles.
This time, there wasn’t space between the bags. A new sleeping pad was added to the mix. For the record, it fit perfectly. The hiker that had arrived after me stood laughing with the male and female in the shelter that had originally told me I couldn’t stay.
Now I was really confused. And hurt. And shocked. I felt my face growing hot as I dared the group, ‘oh, so there was room?’ Every now and then, I can get a little moxie in me.
No one said anything for a heavy moment, and then the female answered (without making eye contact with me), ‘we moved our stuff for you, but then you decided to pitch your tent.’
That was complete BS. Because it was raining so heavily, I had left my pack in the shelter while I ran to set up my tent in pieces on flat land. Everyone in the shelter saw me make three trips back and forth, but no one offered for me to stay.
In the moment, I didn’t have any clever one-liners. I sat in my tent that night, stewing over the interaction. I’m a sensitive person, don’t get me wrong, but something about this really, really shook me up. Had they saved a spot for him? Was he just more persistent than me? Normally, a petty act like this wouldn’t affect me, and I’m pretty good at laughing things off. Plus, even though it was raining, it wasn’t cold or lightning or anything like that. I was wet, but I was safe. Why was I so upset about such an insignificant event?
For the last 7 weeks, I’ve been spoiled by outrageously kind and generous people. I’ve had my world absolutely rocked by strangers helping each other. I glorified all thru-hikers as being selfless saints, but had the forresty rug pulled right out from under my trail runners. See, for a while I’ve known that in terms of the elements, the trail isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. What I didn’t realize was that in terms of people, hikers aren’t always Mother Teresas, either.
I know my shelter karma will come around, and I will sleep mice-free all next week when this weather lets up. Also, for those of you that don’t fill shelters to capacity or help fellow hikers out when times are tough: what would Bob Peoples say? Yeah, bet that will turn your attitude around.
One thing I do know about the trail is that the good always overrides the bad. That’s why so many people come back, so many people value what it stands for, even though it’s excruciatingly difficult. I know that soon, I’ll be laughing about this encounter, just like I’m able to about the days hiking in snow in my shorts, or eating all my snacks two days before town. I’ve decided not to be discouraged; there’s way too many smiling faces to meet, stories to be told, and instant coffee to be shared.