Today concludes my first month on the AT. I am writing from the home of a stranger that took me in for a couple nights in Erwin, Tennessee. Though I experience Nature in a wonderful state every day I hike, it is the people that I meet that have made this journey into something transcendant.
The AT has a community that orbits around the thru hiker migration known as trail angels. These folks offer food, rides, even their homes to help on the migration to Maine. The one with the most celebrity may be Miss Janet, who cranks up the angel business to eleven; it’s pretty much her full time job. She is no stranger to any thru hiker. No surprises then that it is her daughter, Kaitlin, in Erwin that took me in.
While witnessing this generosity on a large scale is its own unique wonder, it’s the little things I encounter almost daily that enchant the trail. I’ve wandered across mailboxes or coolers full of snacks, accompanied by a pep-up message (often bible verses). My hopes spike now at every road crossing for better or worse.
Two of my favorite instances thus far: On the way into Erwin and out of food, I encounter two different dudes at the same road stop treating hikers to soda and calories. I got just enough fuel and valuable intel to make it into town just after dark. Conversely, on leaving The Smokies, I met two groups offering full meals not three miles apart: not wanting to dampen the latter group’s spirits, I wound up hiking with a food coma for my last hour to the hostel I crashed at; not at all recommended. A brief instance of the zeniths and nadirs of being a well fed hiker.
By the way, The Smokies is slang for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most beautiful area so far on my hike. Its mountain views and unique microclimate are its main highlights for AT hikers. Within the park, I first encountered blooming wildflowers in abundance, winding fielded slopes and most intriguingly, its dying ecosystem of Fraser Fir trees. These evergreens are succumbing to an invasive pest, the Balsam Woolly Agelgid, which cause the tree’s bark to slough off. The evidence of its pervasiveness is immediate as the trail winds through a sprawl of death and decay. Saddening and beautiful those days were.
The park’s regulations for AT hikers I initially regarded as onerous and a source of stress, requiring a paid permit on hand, a time limit and staying within shelters as opposed to camping. Well the permit was easy to get, the time limit was generous with my level of fitness and the shelters were more accomodating than most, being the only ones on the AT so far with fireplaces.
As the miles rack up, I’ve noticed my strength increasing rapidly. My average mileage each full day now hovers around fifteen and the mad dash into Erwin nearly doubled that. In my first month, my total average is around eleven per day, with five days off taken. ~350 / 31 is the math for those curious.
I’m trying not to be too obsessed with mileage, in the process coming across an internal struggle, to understand and possibly temper my urges to rush for the finish. This is something that always gets me on marathon running. A group of free spirited types a hostel owner dubbed “The Ragamuffins” present a case for stopping and smelling the roses.
They defy my expectations of the modern AT hiker, eating wholesome meals with real preserves and produce, wearing unique, earthy garb, taking multiple days to enjoy every town or whimsy, and even carrying heavy instruments in cases. I was fortunate to cross paths with them multiple times and share a night encamped.
It’s ironic to me that I could regard this group of acrobats, musicians and wilderness philosophers with a sense of envy, being that there are many who would think that of me and would love to just be out here. But it’s base to say that envy is the sum of my emotions. What it really is, I surmise, is an admiration that people can do things so differently and wholesomely; and to realize that I am doing that in my own, unique way and inspiring others all the same.
While I consider my primary food source, 100% Food (“robo fuel”), a personal science experiment that is proceeding well, I’ve set myself another bonus goal. That is to teetotal and avoid alcohol entirely. There is a lot of cheap booze out here, which is potent when stirred in with the culture of boundless freedom the AT offers. Can I still be cool while I do this? I believe so. I’ve found over my life, especially in the Indie music scene, that the truth to being cool is just being weird and owning it.
As I approached the AT, I regarded it as an American rite of passage. Now that I’m actually walking it and have time to reflect, I realize that I am an avatar, embodying the human desire for freedom. I source this feeling as the reason I see so much generosity and feel such a strong comraderie to my fellow hikers. I am one of the few representing NYC out here and I intend to do a good job of it as I continue to Maine.
P.S.: Someone tell me where I can get a decent pizza south of The Mason-Dixon Line!