The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
April 2016: On yellow blazing, Baltimore Jack and a happy hippy happening
A brisk breeze was blowing when I lit out of Low Gap early the next morning, but intermittent sun and clouds made for excellent hiking weather the rest of the day. Not wanting company, I spent the first several miles scanning ahead for any sign of Weasel. Sure enough, I spied his blue jacket about four miles up the trail, but managed to scurry past while he was on his knees, fiddling with something just inside his tent.
Exultant, I spent much of the morning singing Dan Fogelberg (good, older Fogelberg) and cowboy songs. Just as I was reaching the crown of 4,430-foot Tray Mountain, I came upon an older woman whose blue Deuter pack was adorned with a yellow flower. I asked about the flower.
She said she had hiked about 1,200 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail the year before following the death of her husband. Ready to quite one breezy day in the Sierras, she felt something tapping at her ankle: a small, yellow flower bowing in the wind. She took it as a message from her husband to keep walking.
“What’s your trail name?” I asked as I turned to start down the mountain.
“Blue Butterfly,” she said.
“Gotcha,” I said, giving voice to a strangely persistent thought, “I thought it might be Soulflower.”
Though I’d planned to walk 23 miles to Deep Gap Shelter, I was waylaid at Tray Mountain Shelter (mile 58.6) so I could assist Jody remote writing and editing an obituary (a small service we have done for several years). By the time I’d finished it was late afternoon and I decided to stay.
As I sat on a rock, waiting for my next email and surveying sweeping views in three directions, a big hiker from Boston, OSHA, and his ukulele-packing friend (I neglected to write down his name) stopped by for lunch and a “safety meeting,” which they invited me to attend.
“What’s a safety meeting?”
OSHA—the origin of his trail name was suddenly apparent—silently explained by pulling out a small pipe and a gray-green knob of weed (the preferred 21st-century term, though I still think of it as “pot”). I enjoyed the euphemism, but declined to join in.
I stopped briefly at Dick’s Creek Gap (69.5) the next morning to take a photograph for my friend Kristen, who had buried her beloved dog Owen nearby a decade earlier.
Many NOBOs find a haven at the Top of Georgia Hostel and Hiking Center a half-mile west on U.S. 76, famous in part for the “shakedowns”—winnowing of unnecessary pack weight—by proprietor Bob “Sir-Packs-a-Lot” Gabrielson. I did not partake, but later heard varying opinions on his advice (I could never remember his name, and lazily defaulted to my own version, “Super-Pack-Head-Bob”).
Just past Dick’s Creek Gap, I heard someone approaching as I was peeing to the side of the trail. I danced and shook and managed to put myself in order by the time Blue Butterfly reached me.
“I want to thank you, Pony,” she said. “I thought about it, and I’m going to keep Soulflower. I was Blue Butterfly then, but I truly believe this is my name.”
Hiking the AT, I learned to embrace every opportunity to celebrate and mark my progress and make an effort to catch views. Unlike the high Rockies and Sierras, which offer spectacular eye-candy on an hourly basis, the AT is known for its endless “green tunnel”—miles upon miles of hiking through trees. I began to look forward to more than just the next view—a border crossing, a century mile point, the next road or trail crossings, where magic just might lurk.
At mile 78.5, I came to a battered wooden sign reading, simply, N.C./GA. I could now tell myself I’d completed 1/14th of the states traversed by the AT. My sense of elation and triumph was only slightly dampened by the steep, half-mile slog up to Courthouse Bald that followed.
I thoroughly enjoyed the company at crowded Muskrat Creek Shelter (mile 81.4) that night. The crew included Leave No Tracy, whose boyfriend Odie is the brains behind the annual AT Hiker Yearbook; Nemo, a loquacious guy with enormous glasses who literally danced up the trail and who often packed a bottle of wine and a pound of gourmet chocolate; Hula Bear, who was never without her light-up hula hoop, and her dog, Kita-bear; and The Dude, a gregarious Houston attorney.
I finally accepted that night that I wasn’t eating enough. Eventually on a thru hike, bodies tend to wake up from a sluggish metabolism and ignite the infamous “hiker hunger,” but as on my Colorado Trail hike, in these early miles I was losing weight like crazy—and I was nearly out of food.
The big bugaboo for the next day was the short, final pitch of Albert Mountain, one of the very few southern stretches of the trail that approaches the steepness further north. But thanks to human-constructed stone steps, the climb went quickly (I was also inspired to put some distance between me and the rednecks firing guns from the parking area below). Someone had scrawled “100 miles” on the tower, another psychological horizon: Only 2,089 miles to go!
When I arrived at Long Branch Shelter (mile 102.5) in late afternoon, I was surprised to find find Weasel already there, tent pitched and making vaguely inappropriate remarks to Jetson, 21, whenever her father, T-bone, wasn’t around.
I’d had a short day to Tray Mountain, thanks to the long-distance work situation, but had put in good miles to get to Long Branch. Weasel was a strong hiker, and he could have done 40 miles in two days. But not only had he not passed me, he also said he’d stopped at Unicoi Gap, 8 miles from where I’d seen him last, to spend the night at Top of Georgia. He’d have had to pull a 28-plus mile day to get here.
“Wow,” I said. “You must be doing big miles.”
“Not really,” he said. “Around 17 a day.”
He claimed to have spent a night at Blue Mountain Shelter (mile 50.5), but I’d passed his tent before that. It seemed pretty clear that he’d shuttled down to Hiawassee from Unicoi Gap, then shuttled back to the trail at Dick’s Creek Gap, skipping 17 miles of the trail.
“Yellow blazing,” named after the yellow lines on highways, refers to hikers who skip parts of the trail with mechanical assistance. Although “purists” insist the only true thru hike is one in which the hiker walks past every white blaze, carrying the full weight of her pack, in truth many 2,000-milers end up yellow blazing at least a few miles.
I’m no purist, but I certainly understand the logic: If a hiker doesn’t walk every, single step of the trail, how much skipping is allowed? Ten miles? Twenty? A hundred? That said, most hikers frown upon yellow blazing just to avoid a tough section, and lying about yellow blazing is widely considered one of the few true sins of the trail. But that night was the last I’d see of Weasel.
In no mood for hitchhiking, and completely out of food, I hustled to reach Winding Stair Gap the next morning to meet a 9 a.m. shuttle run by Haven’s Budget Inn in beautiful, downtown Franklin, North Carolina. I tumbled into the gap at 9:08, and the shuttle arrived seven minutes later.
The driver was Ron Haven—Long-time local 800-pound gorilla, I wrote, owns hostel and hotel in Franklin and runs shuttle—and seated just behind him was a, red-faced, gorilla-shaped, John Goodman-like guy wearing pounds of AT bling. His announced himself as Baltimore Jack and began enthusiastically discoursing on the trail, offering tidbits of advice and answering questions for the winding, 15-minute descent into town. He didn’t look like a hiker to me, but he sure seemed to know his stuff.
My guess is that Haven, a long-time conservative commissioner in Macon County, doesn’t much approve of the vagabond appearance and lifestyle of most AT hikers. But as owner of the Hiawassee Budget Inn and Franklin motel, as well as a $20/night bunkroom across the street, he sure didn’t mind them as customers. He repeatedly emphasized that the shuttle was free, whether or not you stayed at his place, but given that it was the only stop, and considering hikers’ well-known aversion to “sideways miles,” it was no surprise that everyone that morning decided to bunk at his place.
Baltimore Jack told those of us planning to stay at the hostel that he’d meet us there in 10 minutes to sign us in. When he showed up, it was obvious he’d taken time out for a little nip.
Walking back from the grocery store after having bought too much food—food supply is a skill I have not mastered; my food bag always feels overstuffed or I’m running on empty before I hit town—I saw two young hippy women hula hooping.
“Hey, my wife makes hula hoops,” I called out.
“Cool,” said the one wearing flowy, stripy balloon pants. “Are you a hiker?”
“Cool!” said the other, her hair a wild nest of bronze curls. They stopped hooping and walked over to me. “You should come to our party tonight. It’s for all hikers, up at Gooder Grove … do you know where that is?”
It was the new hostel in town, a 10-minute walk up the hill and into the trees from Haven’s place.
“I’m Jane Owl,” said the one with the hair, holding out a fist for a bump, “and she’s Flow. We’re going to have beer and music and all kinds of food. You should come.”
Around 5, I headed out with Stretch and Badger to check out the party. As we were walking up Philips Street, a white van stopped next to us.
“Are you guys headed to the party? I’m Zen, I own the place,” said the driver, a dark-haired young guy with glasses. “We’re going to get the keg. When you get there, tell them to give you a bottle of Highland Gaelic Ale. See you there!”
Zen (aka Colin Gooder) had invited part of a trail-walking hippy troupe from Oklahoma—Flow and Jane Owl, Yosh the Oracle, Doctor See and Rhythm, and The Green Lady—to play music and make vegetarian food (a clever hiker later dubbed them the “Oklahomies.”) It was quite a party. There was a keg of IPA from nearby Lazy Hiker Brewing, hot dogs, hamburgers, fruit, chips, cookies, brownies and more for those not into the excellent vegetarian hippy fare. Safety meetings abounded and multiple dogs, including Grove residents Bodhi, Josie and Ambrose, milked constant attention from canine-starved hikers.
Zen showed me around the place, including a downstairs area he was renovating to put up more hikers and install a hot tub.
“I’m trying to build the business,” he said. “But I have to get a shuttle going. Right now, Ron Haven scoops up all the hikers for himself.”
Zen invited me to bring my pack up and stay the night for free. He gave me a ride down to the hostel, where I packed up my gear. “You leaving us?” Baltimore Jack said as I passed by the office.
Despite my initial impressions of him, I’d had a couple of short, interesting conversations with this enthusiastic guy. I especially appreciated his candor about snoring: “I’m a snorer. I know I’m a snorer. So I don’t stay in shelters.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Met some new friends.”
I would not realize until a few weeks later that I’d been talking to a true AT legend.
Sitting around a huge bonfire in the trees while the hippies played music, I talked for a long time to The Dude, who I’d met at Muskrat Creek Shelter. I soon understood why so many hikers found him similar to his namesake, to the big, laid-back character played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers’ cult film, “The Big Lebowski.” Eventually, we walked into town to meet Leave No Tracy, a young hiker named Pending and a section hiker named Tony at the brewery. I wandered back to the Grove and fell into bed about 11 p.m., sober, stuffed and happy, but the party went on without me until near sunrise.
I’m glad I stayed here, I wrote that night.
But the next day a shuttle would carry me 140 miles up the trail and I doubted I’d see any of these people again.