Three Springs Hostel to Thunder Hill Shelter
2016-04-16 — Three Springs Hostel
Mail drop day! I fly across the mountainsides, racing past campgrounds and straggling groups of weekend campers, picturing the ice cream and hot shower awaiting me at Three Springs Hostel. In the early afternoon, a couple miles from the hostel, I glance down the mountain and catch a glimpse of a row of cars parked in the valley below. Tents dot the fields across from the cars. As I descend into the valley, hikers and campers stroll by, hauling water, building campfires, and basking in the sun.
"H-O-L-C-O-M-B. It's in memory of a friend - he died on the trail." - Holcomb, '16 northbound thru-hiker
I approach the parking lot, power on my cell phone and call the hostel for a ride. One of the campers glances up from his campfire and hurries over.
“So…you call for a ride, a stranger shows up, and you just get in the car?” he asks incredulously.
“Well, pretty much. The ride’s from the hostel,” I explain.
Several minutes tick by. Then, a worn white land rover churns up the dirt road and pulls up by the side of the parking lot. A woman leans out the driver’s seat and introduces herself as Marcia. I throw my pack in the back and hop on, carefully perching atop a brown towel that covers the passenger seat.
We pull into a gravel driveway by a white house and several white sheds. Prayer flags flap in the distance, strung between wooden fence posts. To the right, tall blades of grass surround a pond; to the left, a screened porch juts out from the house. Marcia points me to a side door. I leave my shoes outside, take off my pack, and haul everything through the door into the hiker bunk room. Presently, a silver-haired woman peers in, introduces herself as Oma, hands me my mail drop, and offers me a tour. I marvel at the walk-in shower with a built-in seat. When we reach the screened porch, I meet another hiker: Dysfengshuinal, an older, slight woman digging into a large pizza fresh from the oven. Oma shows me the freezer filled with frozen pizzas and burritos, and the modest resupply shop with jerky and granola bars, then leaves me to my own devices.
"I was setting up my tent -- my stuff was everywhere, so this hiker comes up and says something like, 'You should learn fengshui!' "'I don't care about fengshui!' I told him. 'I'm dysfengshuinal!' "I just kind of made up that word, and it stuck." - Dysfengshuinal ('16 flip flop thru-hiker)
Immediately, I take a shower. Then, laundry. Lastly, ice cream.
For days, I’ve heard northbound hikers raving about the ice cream at Three Springs Hostel. Oma leads me to the kitchen.
“What size do you want?”
“We have a day hiker, section hiker, and thru hiker size. 8 oz, 12 oz, and 16 oz,” she tells me. “That’s a pound,” she adds for emphasis.
Dysfengshinal’s eyes widen when she sees me walking into the room with a bowl brimming with 8 oz of vanilla-Oreo ice cream. She disappears into the kitchen. A few minutes later, we both sit cross-legged on our bunk beds, scooping out gobs of ice cream with childlike grins plastered across our faces.
All night, Dysfengshuinal weaves stories about her adventures - meeting a cougar on the Pacific Crest Trail, seeing an 8-foot long black snake on the Appalachian Trail, getting her shoes stolen in Tibet: a life full of exploration.
We compare notes on hikers on the trail. “You must’ve seen Old Growth,” she tells me. “Older gentleman. We’ve been leapfrogging for the past couple weeks. He shouldn’t be that far ahead of me.”
“Was he wearing black clothes?” I ask, recalling the northbound hikers I passed in the past couple days.
“Yes. I believe so.”
“I asked him how he was doing. I don’t think he heard me.”
Dysfengshinal laughs. “He is a bit hard of hearing. Hikes with a pound of sugar, and says pizza is its own food group.”
What interesting characters we meet on the trail!
2016-04-17 — Brown Mountain Creek Shelter
An old-fashioned yellowed dial-up phone sits on the wooden bunk room desk. Taped nearby, a slightly wrinkled piece of paper reads ‘Wifi limited to 6-8am.’ I set my alarm to 5:00am, hoping to squeeze in some journaling before breakfast. By 7:00am, the smell of bacon wafts into the room from the kitchen.
Marcia looks up from her computer in the corner as I wander into the dining room. “She’s alive!,” she exclaims.
Oma glances over, a spatula in one hand and an egg in the other. “Is your roomie up yet?”
“Not yet!” I’m eyeing the glass of granola chia yogurt on the table.
“We have a tradition of saying something we’re grateful for before breakfast, instead of saying grace,” she tells me as she serves up a platter with two eggs, three bacon strips, a bagel, and cream cheese.
Friends; family; the chance to experience the trail; the ability to live life to the fullest, I think.
Dysfengshuinal enters, wearing mismatched hiker clothes in three shades of red, as I clean my plate. She continues recalling years of section hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail: “Every trip is different. Some years are pretty. Well, it’s always pretty, but some years, everything is in bloom…”
“How did you decide to open the hostel?”
“I was hiking from Waynesboro to Daleville, and there were no good places to resupply, so I started calling realtors.” - Oma, owner of Three Springs Hostel
“How did you decide to hike the trail?” Oma asks me.
“For me, the trail is a chance to challenge myself, to grow a lot in a short amount of time, and learn what I’m capable of doing…I hope it’ll prepare me for the challenges I’ll face throughout life.”
Oma casts me a sidelong glance. “I don’t know. You’re putting a lot of stock into this trip,” she says, with the air of someone who has witnessed hundreds of thru-hikers come and go.
“Oh, all sorts of people come through here: people from all around the world, of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, sizes and shapes. Some are really excited to be out, and some are completely broken down by the time they get here. They say the first third is physical, the second third is emotional, and the third is both emotional and physical.” - Oma, owner of Three Springs Hostel
I weigh Oma’s words as I hike out from the trailhead, reflecting on both my hopes and doubts about the trail. Will I find what I seek? The trees still stand mostly barren. At midday, a scout troupe passes by, chatting excitedly. I pull out a foil packet of tuna with a handful of crackers, and settle down atop a log.
This trip is a start, I think. It’s the start of a lifelong process of change: a journey towards conquering myself, day by day. That journey doesn’t stop when the trip ends.
Finishing my lunch, I stuff the empty foil packet into my trash bag, shoulder my pack, and head up Cole Mountain. A few groups of hikers dot the summit.
A dayhiker rises from the midst of a picnic spread. “Can I offer you a couple apples?”
I smile. “I’m always up for fresh fruit! Thank you!”
A few hours later, I sit alone at Brown Mountain Creek Shelter, happily peeling an apple with my pocket knife as I flip through the shelter logbook. Woody wrote an entry earlier: ‘Dropped by for water’. I’m less than a day behind him.
I refill my water at the stream nearby and admire the buds on the surrounding trees. Another hour passes. Then, a familiar face shows up: Phlatlander!
“Do you want an apple?” I hold out my second one.
That night, another hiker shows up as we cook dinner: noodles for me, left-over-dried-vegetable soup for Phlatlander. I sleep looking forward to more signs of spring.
"You're supposed to have it all figured out, have a major and everything, at 18. What do you know at 18?" - Phlatlander
2016-04-18 — Punchbowl Shelter
Dogwoods bloom along Brown Mountain Creek, their hues of pink and white contrasting with the forest canopy. Crested dwarf irises poke up through the forest floor. Farther along the creek, an old sign juts up from the side of the trail: ‘Memories of the Brown Mountain Creek Community.’ A series of quotes and descriptions follows, describing the life of freedmen who worked the land as sharecroppers over a century ago.
I cross a series of footbridges, meeting a smattering of northbound hikers along the way. “How did you get your trail name?” I ask each one.
"I was going back and forth about hiking the trail, and my wife said, 'This could be your last chance.' So here I am." - Last Chance, northbound hiker, 2016
"I was doing yoga, and someone asked, 'Are you stuck?'" - Stuck, norbound hiker, 2016
A short while later, I reach Punchbowl Shelter. Phlatlander already sits at the shelter table. I pull out a pair of old socks to wash, find some water, and join her.
“There’s a couple birds watching us. They’ve been there for awhile.” She points to a small, grey-winged bird perched on a thin branch several yards away. The bird gives a high pitched call, answered moments later by another grey-winged bird a few feet away. “I think they may be mates.”
After completing my chores, I draw out a stack of postcards and begin writing. Periodically, the birds dive toward us, veering away at the last minute. “Maybe they have a nest nearby,” I say.
The contents of our packs are spread across the shelter floor. Phlatlander looks around, a small broom in hand as she sweeps the dirt and dust from the shelter. “I found the nest!” she calls.
Wedged between two wooden beams is a small, palm-sized nest ringed by bits of moss and dirt. Five pale beige eggs lie nestled in the middle. It’s beautiful, I think.
The birds continue to dive by throughout the afternoon, always zooming away soon after. That night, a chorus of frogs begins singing. As we bundle up in our sleeping bags at dusk, one bird flies to the entrance, hovers for a split second, then leaves. Seconds later, its mate swoops into the shelter and perches on the edge of the nest. It eyes us warily, then ruffles its feathers and carefully settles down atop its eggs. It stays there for the whole night, bravely protecting its brood, as the frogs trill in the moonlight.
2016-04-19 — Matts Creek Shelter
What defines success? Is it the milestones we reach? Or is it a continuous process: a direction we head towards day by day?
The James River winds through the valleys below, visible for miles from the ridge line. I savor the fleeting moments before I step out to a viewpoint or summit, when trees still obscure the landscape below, and the world, about to open up before me, seems brimming with possibilities. Presently, Phlatlander joins me. We descend along switchbacks for the better part of the mile, drawing ever closer to the river.
“My dad said if I were a boy, he’d worry less. He worries because I’m a girl,” I note.
“Sometimes, that makes me mad,” Phlatlander responds.
The longest footbridge on the Appalachian Trail spans some 700 feet across the James River. As we reach the bridge, excited shouts fill the air. Young men and women tread water below the bridge, calling and beckoning to a couple of their friends above. I watch as their friends clamber over the bridge railing, hesitate for a brief moment, feet dangling off the edge, then plunge into the water below. Seconds later, they emerge, sputtering and laughing in the warm summery air.
A woman holding a paintbrush in one hand and an open can of white paint stops us after we cross the bridge. “Care for some bananas?” she says, touching up a white blaze on one of the trees.
“Are you sure?” we ask.
“That’s why I brought them!”
Later, we stop by an inviting creek to fill up our water. We wade in barefoot, letting the water wash the layers of dirt away. I watch as a butterfly alights on my Camelbak to sip the droplets of water clinging to it. The water running across my toes feels pleasingly cool in the heat.
It's taught me to appreciate the small things." - Phlatlander
That night, as I boil a cup of cocoa, the sound of faint laughter reaches my ears. Two northbound hikers bound into the shelter: Rooster, lean and scruffy with a cigarette in hand, and Bumblebee, sporting a green bandana, her face slightly flushed.
“You’ve got to stay at the Four Pines Hostel!” they tell us.
“Jim’s the owner. He cusses at you, like, nonstop. It’s awesome!” Rooster says.
“But not at the girls,” Bumblebee breaks in.
"I graduated, but it wasn't that long ago. I did the army thing. I went back. It was tough. For me. Going back to school with kids who were in middle school when I was in Iraq." - Rooster, 2017 northbound hiker
"I'm between undergrad and grad school. I wanted to hike, so I took a year off." - Bumblebee
We chat intermittently throughout the night. Bumblebee and Rooster pull out their maps to plan their routes for the next day. “That’s just 22 miles,” Bumblebee says, tracing the elevation profile with one finger. “One huge descent, though.”
I allow my mind to wander over each moment of the day. These are the experiences I want to remember, I think.
2016-04-20 — Thunder Hill Shelter
Get up. Brush. Eat. Pack. The mornings have solidified into a routine.
“There’s no water at Thunder Hill Shelter,” one of the northbound hikers said the day before. “There’s an unmarked spring 0.3 miles off trail. I drew a map of how to get there in the logbook.”
Thunder Hill Shelter is my destination today.
My dad’s words from weeks ago float incongruously to the surface of my mind. “You need mental stimulation.”
Face your challenges and work through them, I think. Mental and physical challenge lead to growth; growth leads to the milestones of success. Besides, overcoming challenges and emerging in triumph is infinitely more satisfying than coasting along in life.
As Phlatlander and I hike up a hill, a familiar voice yells at us from a campsite off trail: Shweasle. He reclines against a rock, wearing a plaid gray kilt, looking like he had just awoken at noon.
“There were about twelve whippoorwills here last night,” he shouts. “Didn’t get any sleep! I don’t know who it was who said ‘the lonesome cry of the whippoorwill,’ but ‘lonesome,’ doesn’t even come close to describing it! ‘Cheerful,’ or ‘overly enthusiastic,’ maybe. I mean, had that guy even heard a whippoorwill before?!”
Phlatlander and Shweasle hike ahead. When I reach Thunder Hill Shelter, I spot Phlatlander hanging her clothes out to dry on Rhododendron branches.
“Hey!” she says. “There’s a Mountain Dew waiting for you!”
“Someone left Mountain Dew in the shelter.”
“Someone left figs, too, if you want some. We just opened a pack,” Shweasle adds, without looking up from his phone.
“I found the spring,” Phlatlander continues. “I got 5 liters of water, so that’s 2.5 for each of us.”
“Thanks! You’re awesome!” I’m again struck by the level of interdependence along the trail.
After examining a rather large blister that looks as though it gave birth to a baby blister underneath, I head over to enjoy the Mountain Dew and figs. The three of us study our trail guides, aware of the need to resupply soon. Just a day’s walk away is a campground; we plan to head there the next day.