Middle Creek Campground to Four Pines
2016-04-21 — Middle Creek Campground
In the early morning hours, I hear the pattering of hail on the roof of the Shelter. I check my watch. 4:45am. We should be able to hike 10-by-12, 10 miles by 12pm, to lunch at Bryant Ridge Shelter before continuing to Middle Creek Campground.
After giving myself 5 more minutes, I pull myself from the warm comfort of my sleeping bag and blink away the last vestiges of sleep. The hail lets up by the time we start, though fog cloaks the trail ahead. We hike past a boulder suspended between two rock faces: the Guillotine.
"I think the system needs to be torn down and rebuilt." - Phlatlander
Hiking with company feels different from hiking alone: it provides less time for introspection, but also a friend to share the challenges and wonders of the trail. Conversation rises and falls, now touching on history, family, or education, then veering to trail stories.
Phlatlander talks at length about a religious group called The Twelve Tribes, or the Yellow Deli people, who lure Appalachian Trail hikers in by offering simplicity and community. I hear that members relinquish all material possessions: The group tells members where to live and what to do; not whom to love, but who is approved for marriage.
"Everyone here is more genuine." -Phlatlander
We hike 10 miles by 11:30am. The fog lifts, and Bryant Ridge Shelter looms ahead, large and luxurious with its two stories connected by a wooden ladder. The northbound hikers there tell us that Woody is about half a day ahead. As we pull out our last packs of lunch, Shweasle wanders up the trail, having slept in and hiked over 3 miles an hour to catch us.
"Back home, you kind of become who you've worked towards being your whole life: Your parents and friends know every stupid thing you've ever done." - Shweasle
After one more mountain, we reach the campground road and call for a ride.
“Are you all thru-hiking?” our driver asks.
“I’m not; she is; he’s back,” I reply.
Two dogs, one black and one white, lounge outside the camp store. Upon arriving, we rent a cabin, order hot food, and buy a pack of marshmallows at the camp store. We laugh as Shweasle inhales his two hamburgers; I don’t even see him eat the first one.
That night, we light a campfire by our cabin, roast marshmallows, play games, and tell tales. Only a couple hours past hikers’ midnight do we douse the fire and retire to our bunks.
"I was in school to be a teacher one time. I tell everyone it was because of the summer vacations, but really I wanted to be that one teacher who made a difference." - Shweasle
2016-04-22 — Bobletts Gap Shelter
The black dog herds me to the bathhouse when I step outside in the morning. I scratch behind its ears absentmindedly. A slight drizzle falls as we walk over to the camp store. Closed.
“Is she not in?” a pink-jacketed woman asks from the main road. Pulling her dog behind her, she walks up behind us.
“It’s closed,” we say.
“Here’s what ya gotta do. Go knock at that house over there. Susan’ll come open it up for ya.”
Feeling slightly self conscious, we walk follow her directions and knock awkwardly at the door. After a few long moments, we hear Susan shuffle to the door. She unlocks the camp store to let us in. Each of us scan the menu for breakfast and order hot food. I take my time to enjoy the egg-onion-tomato-and-cheese sandwich: one of the best meals I’ve had on the trail so far. As we eat, a radio broadcasts news of wildfires forcing hikers to evacuate in Shenandoah. We missed the blazes by days.
"Y'all started in Harper's Ferry? You're trained for the wilderness. That's good - ya never know when the Western world's gonna go to hell and we'll all have to live off the land." - Woman walking her dog at Middle Creek Campground
By the time Susan drops us off at the trailhead, a steady rain falls. By early afternoon, thunderstorms roll in. The trail becomes a river of mud that soaks through my shoes.
We need the rain for the wildfires, if nothing else, I think, my muddy shoes squelching with every step.
2016-04-23 — Daleville
Sunrise casts a blood-red glow on mountains ringed by wreaths of fog. Shweasle and Phlatlander hike ahead in the morning. This particular morning, not a single northbound hiker crosses my path. In the solitude of the forest, my loneliness becomes amplified to exceptional proportions. My mind fails to process any thoughts more complicated than the steady count of my steps: 1-2-3-4-5-6 …1-2-3-4-5-6 …
On this morning, the end of my fourth week on trail, my doubts, fears, and exhaustion all crystallize into a nearly overwhelming weariness. I am weary: wearier than I have been all the days before.
At midday, after passing a ditch filled with murky water, I heave my pack onto a rock and settle down for lunch.
Choose your mindset and focus, I think. Take the bad with the good. With some effort, I resolve to continue.
And the rest of the day turns out wilder than I could ever imagine.
"I had thyroid cancer about a year ago. Went through surgeries and radiation treatments and was back on the trail a month later! My wife just about divorced me - I was gone too long." - Wizard, northbound hiker
Wizard is the first northbound hiker who stops to chat. Wearing a pack barely a third the size of a typical backpack, he excitedly introduces his gear. “My tent is about 5 ounces. It’s cuben fiber. I got this pack a year ago: 1.1 pounds. I was a Boy Scout. I made lots of my own gear.”
His attitude rubs off on me. Spirits slightly lifted, I say goodbye and keep going. As I cross a creek, I come upon two more hikers refilling their water.
“Are you having fun?” one of them shouts in greeting.
He laughs. “At least she’s honest!
“My name’s Slug,” he continues. “It’s kind of an ironic nickname my dad gave me. People always ask, ‘Why is your name Slug?’ since I tend to hike fast. I’m going slower now, and really enjoying it… You should take your time through Grayson Highlands.”
He whips out his phone and flips to a video of a wild horse in the Grayson Highlands. I watch the horse wander closer and closer until it stops, its nose less than an arm’s length from the camera.
“That’s amazing,” I breathe.
“Where are you headed today?” he asks.
“Daleville, if I can make it.” Daleville lies 18 miles from where I started: If I succeed in reaching it, the day’s mileage will be my farthest yet.
“You don’t have far to go. Just up this hill here” - he pulls out his elevation map and points - “and then it’s all downhill and flat.”
Encouraged by that exchange, I greet the next hiker I see enthusiastically: “Hey! What’s your trail name?”
“BCM,” he replies. “It stands for bass clarinet man. I played bass clarinet. My wife said, ‘Your trail name is BCM,’ and I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’” He smiles. “We’ve been married thirty years!”
As we part ways, BCM adds, almost as an afterthought, “You’ll probably meet Strummystick somewhere between here and Fullhardt Shelter. He plays guitar.”
So it is that when I see a white-bearded man with a long guitar-like stick strapped across his pack, I ask on a whim, “Are you Strummystick?”
He stops abruptly. “How did you know?”
“I met BCM down there.” I gesture vaguely behind me. “He said you play guitar.”
“Yeah…I’ve got it here with me.” Studying me curiously, he points to the stick.
“That’s cool. I was in orchestra in middle school and high school.” Dim memories of fiddling performances float across the back of my mind.
His eyes narrow. “Where was that?”
“Connecticut.” That’s an interesting question to –
Before I complete the thought, he slaps both hands on his knees and shouts, “Mansfield, Connecticut?!”
“Yeah!” I look more closely at his face. The realization begins to dawn on me –
“I was your orchestra director!!!”
What a small world! Weariness completely forgotten, we put aside our packs, sit by the side of the trail, and catch up.
“That is wild!” Strummystick keeps saying.
He talks of fiddling and years of teaching middle school; of hiking and hostels and composing songs on the trail. I remember vividly the day he showed up on the first day of school, beard unshaven, ready to conduct orchestra after hiking the Long Trail in Vermont.
“Are you retired?” I ask.
“Retired as of June! Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this.” He gestures to the trail.
“What brings you here?”
“What brings anyone here?” he shoots back.
I laugh. “Well, for me, it’s the challenge. A rite of passage. A chance to grow.”
“It’s the same for me,” he returns. “A rite of passage at 62, into my golden years!
“Have you heard of the song Wagon Wheel?” Strummystick asks.
“It got popular awhile back.” He pulls out and unwraps the stick strapped to his pack, revealing a beautiful minimalistic guitar. “I wrote a version of it for the Appalachian Trail.”
I listen, captivated, as he plays. I can’t help but smile at his descriptions of life on the trail.
Presently, Spirit of ‘76, another northbound hiker, joins us. Before leaving, they mention two hostels ahead: Four Pines Hostel, and Woods Hole Hostel.
“You don’t want to stay at Four Pines, though,” Strummystick says jokingly. “It’s a party house. Are you a party girl?”
“Um…” One of my mail drops is indeed scheduled for Four Pines. By this point, I’ve heard so many conflicting things about Four Pines that I don’t know what to believe!
“But then, it’s the Appalachian Trail! Anything can happen!” Strummystick says, laughing as he waves goodbye.
Wow! What are the chances of that?! Heart filled with wonder and joy, I easily make the remaining 7 miles to Daleville.
18 miles in a day! Triumph!
After heading to a grocery store and booking a hotel room in Daleville, I savor a melon for dinner.
We never know what life has in store, I think. If we believe in what we’re doing, if we believe we’re heading in the right direction, all we can do is hang on for the ride: Just when I started to feel weary and discouraged, the trail gave me hope: I just needed to hang in there!
Taking advantage of civilization, I check my cell phone and find a couple text messages: Phlatlander and Shweasle made camp one town outside Daleville. I text them, offering to share the hotel room for a zero the next day. As I absentmindedly glance at Facebook, I catch sight of Woody’s page and read, to my surprise, that he is staying at the hotel across the street from me!
Exhausted and content, I sleep hoping to soon meet up with all my southbound friends.
2016-04-24 — Zero in Daleville
Shweasle and Phlatlander arrive in town early that morning. We resupply in town, and pick out some choice bites - apples, cinnamon, caramel - to pack out for dinner the next night. That afternoon, we get a hold of Woody via Facebook.
Beth, Woody’s wife and a former electrical engineer, picks us up for dinner at the Three Lil’ Pigs.
That night, enjoying the complementary hikers’ pudding and surrounded by our ragtag group of southbound hikers, I cannot stop smiling.
“Is anyone else super happy right now?” Phlatlander asks, leaning back in her chair with a contented sigh.
2016-04-25 — Tinker Cliffs
I hike out from Daleville after hitting the local outfitter to switch out my bear canister and 2-person tent for a bear bag and 1-person tent. Each shelter and campsite I pass overflows with hikers. Two of them stop me.
“Are you Phoenix?”
“Your friends are going to camp somewhere near Tinker Cliffs.”
I thank them for the news and hurry on. Finally, at the next shelter, I run into Phlatlander and Shweasle about to leave.
“Why Tinker Cliffs?” I ask.
“Because watching the sun set is going to be AWESOME!” Shweasle replies.
We make camp some distance from Tinker Cliffs. I walk to an overlook, soaking in the vast expanse of land, the undulating valleys and ridges forever extending into the distance, before my eyes. The sun edges ever closer to the horizon, its fading light caressing the distant ridgelines.
Presently, Phlatlander and Shweasle join me. I pull out apples and cinnamon from my food bag. Shweasle produces a few packs of caramel, and Phlatlander places a couple bags of strawberry daiquiris on a nearby slab of rock. As Phlatlander boils water, I begin to cut the apples with my pocketknife. We place the apples into her pot, coat each slice with caramel, and sprinkle in some cinnamon. The smell of cinnamon fills the air.
As dusk falls, we pass around the pot of caramel apples. So delicious.
After dinner, we stretch out on our backs and watch as one by one, the stars emerge. Shweasle points out various constellations: the Big Dipper, Orion, Orion’s Belt.
“The one that looks like a W - that’s Cassiopeia,” he says. “She was so vain that the gods put her upside-down for the world to see her buttcrack.”
One shooting star streaks across the sky, then another. I close my eyes, cherishing this moment - this fleeting island of perfection in an imperfect world - and make a wish.
2016-04-26 — Four Pines Hostel
After hiking out separately in the morning, Phlatlander, Shweasle, and I meet up at Campbell Shelter. Shweasle throws his pack onto the table, gingerly stretching out his shoulder.
“I dislocated it,” he says matter-of-factly.
“What?! – Are you ok?”
“Yeah.” As he explains, he mimes falling, dislocating the shoulder, then popping it back in again.
The three of us hike up to McAfee Knob, where we spend the next couple hours eating lunch, napping, and admiring the splendor of the sprawling valleys below.
From McAfee Knob, we walk into Catawba. Phlatlander heads to the post office for her mail drop. I call Four Pines Hostel, the site of my next mail drop, for a shuttle. Shweasle wanders down the road to check out the local restaurant. He stops short of the main doors and turns around, shaking his head. “Closed,” he says.
We plop down under a tree to wait for our ride. Half an hour later, a colorful van hand-painted with a dragon on one side and an AT symbol on the hood pulls up on the curb.
“That for us?” Shweasle asks.
“Looks like it,” I say.
The driver sticks his head out the window. “I’m Eddie,” he says. “Y’all call for a ride?”
We pile into the van, cramming in with a motley crew of northbound hikers. First stop: groceries, i.e., a gas station stocked with snacks and a hot food stand. One by one, the northbound hikers pick up orders of burgers and pizzas, then head outside to lounge around two picnic tables and enjoy their fare. After grabbing a bottle of Gatorade, I join them. To one side, a guy with dreadlocks puffs idly on a cigarette.
Four Pines Hostel, a converted 3-bay garage owned by Jim and Donna, lies on the outskirts of Catawba. Chickens wander freely about the grounds. Eddie takes us on a brief tour of the hostel. Clustered in the center of the room are a bunch of old sofas varying in style, size, and color. Behind these sofas lies a row of mismatched cots. Up front, a floor-to-ceiling blackboard holds the signatures of scores of hikers who passed by. To the right, a door marked privy/shower stands ajar.
Eddie gestures toward the door. “Bathroom, shower, and laundry. We do laundry up at the house for $3, but if y’all want – “ He points to the sink: a white, 3 foot deep basin accented with a Jack Daniels bottle-turned-soap-dispenser. Nearby is a rack filled with an odd collection of soaps and shampoos.
“Feel free to help yourself to anything in the fridge,” he continues.
After leading me up to the main house for my mail drop, Eddie takes his leave. “I’ve got another 10 coming in,” he says.
Over the next hour, I shower, then wash my clothes in the basin. The water turns muddy as I swirl my socks around. After I finish, Donna and Jim drop by the hostel with a box full of homemade granola bars. At regular intervals, Eddie pops in to ask, “Y’all good? Y’all need anything?”
"You're the fourth Oriental face I've seen on the trail. The first girl." - Old Fox, northbound hiker and Ming Bao newspaper editor
In the late afternoon, after Eddie drops off another couple groups of hikers, Woody hikes in. He stares at Phlatlander, Shweasle, and me. “How’d you all get here?!”
That evening, all four of us sit around a fold-down table, eating freeze pops from the well-stocked communal freezer. Snatches of conversation rise and fall around me: “Hey, Manchild!” someone says. “Wait, is that actually someone’s name?!” another replies.
A couple hours before I retire to my tent, someone finds a guitar and banjo behind the sofas. Woody begins singing and strumming the guitar. After awhile, Shweasle joins in on the banjo:
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, nothing left to lose…”