HOT SPRINGS, NC: I woke up this morning in a bed. I turned on a light and got water out of a tap without running it through a filter. I didn’t even have to dig my own toilet.
It was fantastic and also a little strange. Clif (who is now going by “Honey Buns”) and I are now about a month in to our thru-hike, and I’m finding that our outdoor life is already becoming familiar. After 270 miles, abnormal is our new normal.
A few nights ago, we were tenting at Groundhog Creek Shelter with Scout and Burnout, our hiking partners since Fontana Dam, and fellow thrus Cliffhanger, Yogi Bear, and Stardust. We made supper (Lipton rice sides and tuna fish), filtered water (a nice spring at Groundhog), set up our tent (our new Big Agnes!) and gathered firewood (infinitely easier without snow on the ground.)
As we all settled onto benches and logs around the fire to finish eating and chat, I was struck by the kinship I felt for these people who had been strangers only days before.
We talked for hours. About the ocean, about wildlife, about our lives and plans, about South Park. (And about food and privies. Of course. Hikers cannot congregate without discussing eating and pooping.)
From my perch next to the fire, I watched the moon slowly rise above the tree line and cross the sky. The night was the same as many we’ve had before, but the magic of the backcountry was undimmed.
Gratitude has laced an undercurrent through every moment on the Trail. The hard moments (and there are many) are lessons for future appreciation. After a series of harsh, wintry days in the Smokies, I’ve learned to be glad each morning that my trail runners aren’t frozen solid. After a particularly bad resupply, I’ve learned to be glad for each meal that isn’t Potted Meat Food Product.
Uphills are still discouraging for me. I’m slowly getting my hiker legs, but ascents remain tough, tougher than I’d like to admit. It’s hard not to stop at the base of a vertiginous climb and gawk and the task that’s being asked of me.
But I have to remember: the Trail isn’t going to get easier. I’ll have to get harder.
So I count out rhythms. I mentally shout encouragement to myself, I listen to angry hip-hop, I pick landmarks to hike to, I think about past triumphs. Struggling, panting, in disarray, I get up the mountain.
And I am a little stronger than I was before.
This dizzying mix of elation and exhaustion (two sides of the same coin), the commiseration in shared joys and agonies, is a basis for all our trail friendships.
Of all the things I’m grateful for, the people we’ve met are paramount. There is no joy like walking into a shelter or camping area and seeing familiar faces. Hiking along, a flash of fluorescence through the trees could be the tent or the raincoat of a friend and encourages you to pick up the pace.
Scout and Burnout, Conservation workers from Minnesota, have been our hiking companions for about a week. We share food and gear and motel rooms, play 20 Questions, push and prod each other along. We’ll hike out of town a little later and find a camping spot by the river.
At the moment now, we’re all lounging at the Hiker Ridge Ministries. The sun is warm, the breeze is cool and the local diner has a $7 breakfast platter.
I can only hope that these golden, sun-drenched moments can last.
There is an intimidating beauty in the soap bubble fragility of these times. A friend may take a day off or walk a day ahead and we may not see them again. A broken leg or twisted ankle could be the death knell for our trip.
So I want to guard these precious moments and hoard them. I’m horrendously superstitious of any prediction, good or bad, about the weather or the state of the trail or availability of camping space. It’s why my trail name is now “Knock on Wood.”
But there’s no way to hold onto the joys or prevent the challenges ahead. I’ll just have to keep walking and continue becoming the person I need to be.
Love, friends. Knock