The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
After a pleasant morning walk that included a couple of pastoral miles through Sky Meadows State Park, my cousin Margot picked me up at Ashby Gap (mile 989.1) and drove me to her 50-acre horse farm near Upperville, Va.
Fifteen minutes later, I was in a whole new world. The house built by her partner, Jim, was big, beautiful and clean, surrounded by forest and swales of green pasture. The farm had a pleasant, rustic feel, and Margot, a former Grand Prix competitor in dressage, spent much of her time working with and caring for her tall, German warm-blood mare, Layla, who has a pleasant, almost doglike disposition.
After I showered and tossed my filthy clothes into the washer, Margot drove me into town for a small resupply. The grocery store catered to, shall I say, the rather more upscale clientele who gravitated to this fox-hunting, mansion-dwelling corner of Virginia. There was nary a ramen packet or box of Pop-Tarts in sight.
You might be thinking, “Good! Who eats ramen noodles—the very definition of plastic, industrial ‘food’—or Pop-Tarts, which are little more than a super-efficient delivery system for the galaxy’s most fanatically processed white flour and sugar, the heroin of the snack-food world?”
Well, I do, for one, but only when on trail—and I’m not proud of it. But I’m not the only one who errs on the side of convenience over nutrition on a long-distance hike. A typical eating day goes something like this for me:
- Shoot up in the morning with a Pop-Tart or some peanut-butter crackers
- “Day” eating—bars (I’m partial to Clif and Kind bars); salted almonds or other nuts; dried fruit—prunes, cherries, apples, peaches; jerky; tuna packets; tortillas with cheese or peanut butter; afternoon sugar hits—gummi bears, Oreos, peanut M&Ms, Snickers, Milky Way, Sourpatch Kids, Skittles, Goldfish crackers, and so on; apples and oranges when I can.
- Dinner—Idahoan brand instant mashed potatoes; ramen noodles (I love these especially because they are salty, they put fluids in your system, and because it’s super easy to clean up after cooking); Knorr Pasta Sides; or, when I don’t want to mess with the stove, I’ll make “dinner” out of any of the above.
If that sounds terrible, well … you’re right. But it’s easy and it’s calories. And when possible, I do go for produce. After a hiker named Monarch gave me an avocado in Pennsylvania, I made a point of buying one every time I went to town. More than anything, thru hikers I talk to crave fresh fruit and vegetables.
Like any thru hiker, I tried to make up calories whenever I hit town. But I also made a point to eat as much fresh food and fiber as possible, to give my system a chance.
At Margot’s that night we ate burgers and mounds of fresh salad. Then the three of us sat on the porch sipping margaritas and watching hundreds of lightning bugs in their nightly, spiraling dance from the ground into the highest branches of a sprawling oak tree….
What a place. I needed this. I often forget that it’s ‘so nice for feet,’ I wrote, quoting Smeagol/Gollum, to take a nero.
And then, less than 24 hours after I’d gotten off the trail, I was waving to my cousin and walking back to my life in the woods.
Sending boxes to yourself is an old thru hiking tradition. It’s kind of fun to anticipate and open a box, but hiking the Colorado Trail I developed a strong preference for buying supplies in town.
First, two of the four boxes I had sent to me on the CT didn’t arrive in time, despite plenty of lead-time. And when I was able to pick up a box, I discovered that I was sick and tired of all the food I’d packed a few weeks earlier; I go through phases on trail, and my favorite meal one week might repulse me the next. To boot, the cost of sending boxes tends to eliminate arguments from economy. But most important, I realized I wanted to be a good ambassador and support businesses in hiker-friendly trail towns.
But because I’d bought too much before leaving home in June, I did send myself one box, to the ATC’s famous Bears Den Hostel (mile 1002.6), a historic stone structure managed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in northern Virginia. Arriving at the hostel at noon, I ruefully recalled another reason I’m not hot on boxes: the hostel was open, but no staff would be available to retrieve my box until 5 p.m.
I pondered leaving it, but anticipating the box, I had done only a mini-resupply in Upperville. My impatient demon protested mightily, but I did the smart thing and decided to kick back for a few hours, then hike on into the evening. The day was sunny and warm, so I rinsed my salt-crusted clothes and lazed around in ragged Runderwear. When it got too hot, I flopped on a couch inside and picked up a book about bears, enjoying two $1 Cokes purchased on the honor system. Eventually, I began to doze.
At around 4 p.m., I stirred awake. A young, happy-looking hiker drifted in through the door, followed by a bearded middle-aged guy wearing work boots, jeans and a serious expression.
“Hey, Pony!” the hiker said, rushing over. “You remember me? I’m Scavenger. We met in Damascus.”
I’d first met him outside The Place, a $7 bunkroom operated by a Methodist church that had too many rules for my crew’s tastes. Later, he showed up at Crazy Larry’s. He was tall and delicate looking, with a tumble of curly blond hair, a feathery beard, blue eyes and long lashes, extremely open and friendly.
I righted myself on the couch while Scavenger made his goodbyes to the man.
“I’m going to come back when I’m finished,” he said. “I mean it.”
They exchanged a long, sturdy embrace, then the guy went out, climbed in an old pickup and drove away. There had to be a story here, I knew; the kid should have been hundreds of miles ahead of me by then. Turns out that Scavenger had gotten injured and spent the last month working at the Stony Brook Organic Farm in Hillsboro, W.Va., run by a religious group known as the Twelve Tribes. The sect is well regarded among hikers for its cheap or free lodging, its Yellow Deli restaurant in Rutland, Vt. and the nearby farm.
“It was such an amazing experience,” the kid told me. “They’re all about love.”
Having talked to Twelve Tribes members in my hometown, Boulder, Colo., I had a different view. The sect eschews the Christian label, arguing that Christianity is “the whore of Babylon,” but still awaits the return of Jesus. They practice a brand of fundamentalism based on the Mosaic laws of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) and preach that the messiah will not come until the “true church” is restored, as described in Acts 2:32-37, which states in part that, “no one claimed any of his possessions for himself, but everyone shared everything he had.”
The group, founded by Elbert “Gene” Spriggs, aka Yoneq, who claims a direct line of communication with God, grew out of the 1960s Jesus Movement and is now widely viewed as a cult. Critics cite its alleged authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, as well as child labor and child-abuse practices. I’d certainly picked up on the misogyny in my experience with the group and saw how they preyed on the lonely and vulnerable. Some hikers told me their experiences with the tribe were fantastic, no proselytizing, no weirdness, but I didn’t want to put even a nickel in Spriggs’ pocket.
I finally got my box a little after 5 and, as expected, groaned at the contents—more tuna? But calories are calories, and I dutifully stuffed it all in my bag. Antsy after the long delay, I made a snap decision to follow a different blue blaze than the one on which I’d come, skipping a couple hundred yards of the AT. I’d just casually set fire to my purism, but if anything, it felt strangely liberating.
Bears Den lies about halfway through the reputedly brutal Roller Coaster, described by Awol as “13.5 miles of tightly packed ascents and descents.” There are even warning signs at the beginning (upon which one witty hiker had drawn a mark and the words, “Must be at least this tall to ride.”). Lava, who had come through here already—he wrapped up his hike at Harpers Ferry on May 27 to attend a wedding and move with Heather to Colorado—texted me that it was “no big deal,” and I agreed; at any rate, the Roller Coaster didn’t seem any more difficult than the rest of the trail so far. What’s more, it provided a happy milestone to celebrate: the Virginia-West Virginia border. I never really considered taking the so-called “four-state challenge,” covering the 44 miles from the Virginia border to Pennsylvania in one day.
Thru hikers often talk about catching the “Virginia blues,” a mental and physical doldrums that hits somewhere on the 540 miles from Tennessee to West Virginia (nearly a quarter of the trail). True, I’d had a break, but I never got the blues, despite a couple of brutal days. I adored Virginia—on my last day I saw a beautiful, finger-thin smooth greensnake (Opheodrys vernalis), several deer and, as dusk approached, an errant possum—and it would be my favorite part of the trail until New Hampshire and Maine.
I didn’t roll into the ATC’s Blackburn Trail Center until 8:15, but that was early enough for me to receive a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream and a soda from caretakers Trailboss and Sandi. Despite the fact that Independence Day still two days away, we got to watch four or five distant fireworks displays through a gap in the hills. The lightning bugs added a local touch on the dewy lawn below.
Before noon the next day I tumbled into the historic town of Harpers Ferry (mile 1,023.1), home of the ATC and the “spiritual halfway point” of the Appalachian Trail.
The 12.5 to Harpers were relatively flat, but often rocky — not so nice for feet, I wrote in my journal. Another preview of PA?
A hiker’s judgment of any given town or hostel is dependent on a host of variables, and should be taken with a grain of salt. But considering how large as it looms in AT lore, Harpers Ferry was a real disappointment to me. It is a beautiful town, situated on a forested hill at the confluence of the mighty Potomoc and Shenandoah rivers, and steeped in history. It was here that abolitionist John Brown raided the armory on Oct. 16, 1859 with 21 men, including a freed slave and a renegade slave, portending the bloody civil war to come.
Spiritual halfway point it may be, but Harpers Ferry is not much of a hikers’ town. The cheapest hostel charges $33 for a bunk, while the outfitter and general store is the size of a small-town barbershop, and surprisingly expensive (I paid $23 to replace my pole tips, though at least the guy behind the counter was nice). The restaurant where I ate lunch was fine, but unexceptional, though I did attract the attention of a nice tourist who wanted a photo with a real — and, I might add, filthy — thru hiker. Even the staff at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters struck me as rather cranky.
I spent only a couple of hours in town, then headed for the bridge across the Potomac, where I was stopped by a Harpers Ferry National Historic Park ranger making a presentation to a group of tourists who clearly saw me as some form of migratory wildlife.
“Do you mind if they take pictures?”
Halfway across the bridge, a young guy trotted up behind me and called out. He was just out of the Marines and full of questions about thru hiking.
“What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone who wants to hike the trail?”
I thought for a moment. “Always put everything in its proper place in your pack, no matter what, so you know where to find it.” He seemed underwhelmed by that bit of (trust me, excellent) advice, but continued to pepper me with questions as I walked.
“You can do it,” I said. “If you made it through boot camp and a hitch in the Marines, trust me, you can do this.”
Once across the bridge I turned, gave him a fist bump and stepped into Maryland, sixth state on the NOBO AT. The next three miles, walking alongside the historic Chesapeake & Ohio towpath, are without question the easiest on the Appalachian Trail, and despite walking 23 miles, that was the easiest single day I would have on the trail.
After a hot, muggy, 1,000-foot climb I followed the ridge another few miles to Gathland State Park, where I filled up with water, having read in Awol that the water source at Crampton Gap Shelter (mile 1,034.1) sometimes runs dry at midsummer.
The next morning, the Fourth of July dawned misty and muggy and stayed that way. I turned my ankle hard, for about the 20th time in my first 1,000 miles (thanks to my sturdy Bonnyman sinews, it caused only a few moments of sharp pain, but nothing worse). Pennsylvania gets all the bad press, but it seems to me the troublesome rocks actually start cropping up in Maryland.
How much worse can PA really be? I worried in my journal. The Arcteryx shorts are a disaster. Murderous chafe.
Next chance I got, I was sending the shorts home, along with (my secret shame) the laptop I’d lugged with me, in case my agent needed me to work on my manuscript or I snagged a quick freelance assignment, and another three pounds worth of stuff.
While walking through Washington Monument State Park I passed by a young female hiker wearing unusually beefy looking leg braces. Intending to ask her about her apparatus, I slowed down. But she was already surrounded by several people and looked busy, so I changed my mind. I found out after finishing my hike that she was Stacey Kozel, aka Ironwill, who was using high-tech “exoskeleton” braces to walk the trail … with paralyzed legs.
“So I’m able to walk because I’m actually balanced. It takes a lot of core strength, and my braces lock my knees when I’m standing. So when I stand I just have to balance with my upper body,” she told ESPN.com. “But it doesn’t matter out here. You’re a hiker. You’re part of the family.”
One more time I wish I’d listened to my gut and turned aside from my forward progress for just a few moments.
At Annapolis Rocks, the (extremely low) high point of Maryland, I committed my second sin against purity, cutting back to the trail on a different blue blaze than the one on which I’d come in. I ate lunch on a mist-covered cliff with Smeagol, a young French woman. By the time I reached Ensign Cowall Shelter it was raining and I decided to call it in after just under 21 miles. A half dozen other hikers breezed by and continued on into the rain.
All these guys talking about their 30-mile days made me feel like an idiot for stopping, I wrote. Oh well, at least I’m dry.
It wasn’t raining when I crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania the next day, but I wasn’t dry.
This humidity is a fucking killer. When it’s high 80s and humid you never dry, I wrote. I’ve got chafe in places I’d never imagined—hips, armpits, thighs? Stopped at a spring to wash my salty, slimy self from head to toe.
Later, I ran into The Dude, one of my favorite people I’d met on the trail down south, but the meeting felt disconnected and unsatisfying.
Maybe I’ve got the PA blues instead of VA blues, I wrote that night.
But my Pennsylvania purgatory was just beginning.