The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
March-April 2016: Hilton Head Island to Hawk Mountain Shelter
Here’s how my my wife Jody describes having me around during the my three extended breaks from the AT:
“You were just so not here. You were lost in the world of the trail. It was like having a pig in the house,” she says. “It wasn’t like having a dog, because I would at least be interacting with the dog. The pig would respond if called, and it didn’t cause trouble. But it wasn’t human, and it wasn’t fun.”
I’d left my heart on the bridge over the Pigeon River beneath a pale March sun, yearning northward. I managed to meet several writing deadlines, but otherwise, I was worthless for the next three weeks. I can only hope the last days of my life feel so long.
My 19-year-old cousin Helen had invited me to start the trail with her in early April, once she dispensed with two weeks of jury duty. I was haunted by visions of her being sucked into a months-long murder trial, but if she managed to wriggle free, we could start walking April 8.
Hiking as much of the AT as possible would be the last adventure in Helen’s “gap year” before starting at Rice University, following several months in Argentina and working on Hare Krishna farms in New Zealand through World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, aka WWOOFing.
I was excited to walk with Helen, who is smart, funny and admirably laid back. I love how the trail is blind to distinctions of age and circumstance, and two cousins, 35 years apart in age, would make an intriguing trail story. I also fancied that this would give me an opportunity to overcome my deeply etched trail impulse to go, go, go!
While in limbo, I spent time going over my gear. I was happy with my most important choices: my ugly aqua Hoka One One Mafate Speed trail shoes; REI Quarter Dome 1 tent; Therma-a-Rest Z Lite Sol sleeping pad (minus a couple panels, to save weight); Snow Peak Gigapower stove with auto lighter; Leki Jannu trekking poles, (allegedly designed for women and permanently borrowed from my mother); REI Igneo 20-degree down sleeping bag; Aqua Mira water purification drops; my beloved ULA Catalyst pack; and a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader, an indispensible luxury.
I managed to shave off a few ounces, but my base weight was still 19 pounds. That situation would improve once I sent warm-weather gear home.
With a week of jury duty availability to go, Helen texted to tell me her cousin Reid, a recent graduate from the College of Charleston from her mom’s side of the family, would be joining us. Restless and eager to hit the trail as I was, he decided to start hiking April 3 and retrace his steps to Springer Mountain to meet up with us six days later.
But unlike me, Reid was all about simply walking the trail, no expectations, no deadlines, no totting up miles or calculating speed to two decimal points.
“I’m all about the journey, not the destination,” he said later. “I like to stop and climb up rocks and hang out. I don’t want to rush this experience.”
Thankfully, Helen escaped serving on a jury, and on April 8, I drove a rented car to Ellijay, Georgia, where Helen and her mom Jean picked me up. That night we stayed with our cousin Anne, her husband Chris, and their four boys, ages 6 to 14. The house, built by Chris, lay hidden in the steep, wooded hills of northern Georgia, and the yard was aflutter with a dog, meowing cats, chickens and ducks.
Before dinner the oldest boy, Forrest, insisted we hike up a ridge behind the house. Churning up that steep, leaf-littered slope, my quads reminded me that whatever adventures the AT had in store for me, it wasn’t going to be easy.
When we met Reid at the Forest Service parking lot below Springer Mountain the next morning, he handed some extraneous gear, including a brawny hunting knife and a hatchet, into Jean’s safekeeping. But between his books—source of his eventual trail name, The Librarian—a hammock, a tent and other gear, he was still humping a 50-pound pack.
Anne, the boys and Jean joined us for the easy, two-mile round-trip hike from the parking lot to the Springer summit. The skies were clear, but I donned my winter gear against the bitter wind that razored up the mountain.
I stamped away the cold through many summit photos and extended goodbyes down below, and we finally hit the trail at 11 a.m. The walk to Hawk Mountain Shelter (mile 8.1) was easy, but I could see right away that Helen would soon be knocking off 15- and 20-mile days.
There were lots of people at the two-level shelter when we arrived, including four big, noisy middle-aged guys and a friendly, purple-haired young woman from Quebec. The mood was high as we exchanged stories against a background of hissing stoves.
“My home is right here on the Appalachian Trail,” rumbled a friendly, barrel-chested older guy wearing an expensive yellow shell, whom I silently named Big Bird. “My wife just kicked me out of the house.”
(The next day, Helen would overhear Big Bird talking to his wife on a cell phone four miles up the trail at Cooper Gap: “Honey, I swear it’ll be different this time!”)
Temperatures dropped below freezing that night, and thanks to wind, a light case of butt-chafe (which I treated with the miracle cure: Vagisil) and “four grizzly bears with asthma rippin’ and roarin’ like chainsaws,” I barely slept.
New rule, I scribbled in my journal. Check to see if any old fat guys are in shelter—if yes, PITCH TENT.