The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
The rain began in earnest not long after we left Partnership Shelter and didn’t stop for the next two hours. This time I’d acquiesced to the MoonBeam-Patches “c’est la vie” approach: No coat, walked it out, I later recorded. Got utterly soaked, but lo! everything dried on my body once the rain stopped.
Virginia’s varied terrain made for another long, gorgeous day of hiking as we traversed streams, railroad tracks, woodlands, hills and swoopy green meadows. The lads stopped to chow down at The Barn Restaurant, just off I-81. I straggled in a few minutes behind, slurped down a cup of coffee, and headed on, knowing they’d catch me soon enough.
By the time we were together again, the sun was beaming down on the rain-freshened hills of southern Virginia, reminding me of James Herriott’s Yorkshire Dales and The Shire, homeland of hobbits in Tolkien’s legendarium. Shortly after 2 p.m., on the slopes of Gullion Mountain (aka Little Brushy), we came upon a sign reading, “1/4 WAY POINT/1641<ME—GA>547.”
Whenever I’m running a marathon, swimming a mile, or engaged in other long(ish) distance activity, my brain becomes a complete geek and starts doing math to distract me. This mental tic has me constantly computing fractions and percentages—OK, I’ve done 28 out of 72 laps, so that’s 14/36ths or 7/18ths, so I’m … uh … <click, whirr,=”” long=”” division=””> … 38.8% through the workout….—I wasn’t so obsessed on the AT (thanks, scenery), but I did take note when I’d walked 5% or 10% of the total miles, and 25% felt like a major milestone. Wow, I thought, I’ve only got to walk three times the distance I’ve come so far.
But hiker Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce, author of The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook (the most popular AT guidebook before David “Awol” Miller came along), suggested that while hikers reaching New Hampshire have completed 80% of the miles, fully 50% of the effort still lies between them and Katahdin. I hadn’t read Wingfoot, and it would take me at least a couple million more steps before I grasped that all my brain’s fractions and percentages utterly failed to capture how much “farther” I really had to go.
We’d agreed to make a 26.3-mile, 4,000-foot day to Knot Maul Branch Shelter (aka Darth Maul Shelter, mile 558.5). But as we began climbing the long, grassy hills leading us into a three-mile EoDMoFo, we spontaneously began belting out all the lyrics we could remember from The Sound of Music, from the obvious—“The hiiillls are aliiiive….”—to the unmanly (“I am sixteen, going on seventeen….”) and ridiculous, “This little goatherd, etc. etc.” I’ve since learned that the hills of Virginia bring out the same lunacy among many more AT wanderers than I would have guessed.
Sleep deprived and tuckered out, we flopped at the shelter in a giddy mood. Still haunted by the nightmare of the Gatlinburg Bore and Snore, I scribbled out and posted a sign reading, “Welcome to our humble shelter. If you SNORE intrusively, please consider the courtesy of tenting. The Management.” A few non-hikers who saw a photo of me looking grumpy in front of the sign earnestly accused me of being an anti-snore-ite—C’mon, man, people can’t help it if they snore!
To them I say, it’s the courtesy, stupid! As Baltimore Jack, sage of the AT, said, if you know you snore like a grizzly bear wrestling with a chain saw, don’t impose on others.
We shared the shelter that night with Olive Oil, who was clearly a kick-ass hiker (and, I learned, a purist, as was I … so far). Later, an older hiker named The Natural, along with his much-younger companion, Hashbrowns and his dog Maple Bacon Pi, showed up.
Passing Chestnut Knob Shelter (mile 567.9) the next day, I was sorry that I wouldn’t be staying. Fully enclosed and made of stone, it looked just like an old stone Yorkshire cow “byre.” Ducking out of the rain for a quick bite, we met one of those intriguing odd couples of the trail, Two-Pack, a young woman who appeared to be no more than 16 or 17, and her hiking partner First Step, who looked about 60 (if those names sound familiar, it’s because they appear in the prologue to this tale).
Eyeballing Awol’s elevations, we expected an easy afternoon. Thanks to endless PUD (pointless ups and downs), rain, mud and wet rocks, it was not. Our stay that night at jam-packed Jenkins Shelter (mile 578.6) was made memorable not just by Two-Pack, but also two weekend hikers who struggled, for literally hours, to get a fire going. As Lava put it, “It’s like they read a book about how to build a fire, but had never actually done it.”
While one kid collected soggy fuel from the surrounding area, the other began whacking away at a downed birch trunk with a large machete, despite the fact that there was (oddly) a saw hanging in the shelter. When they extracted two Ball jars, one filled with a purple powder, the other with clear liquid, from their packs and walked gingerly over to the fire pit, it was like we’d strayed into some bizarro-Harry Potter world.
“What’s that?” someone asked.
“Explosive,” one kid said, sniffing at the purple powder.
“We have to keep ’em in separate packs,” added the other, whose shirt implied he might be a U.S. Air Force recruit.
Lacking only popcorn, we hung back and watched the unfolding absurdity, trying not to laugh out loud and imagining the whirling fireball that would result if they bumped into each other on trail. We were only slightly unsettled by the thought that their hapless efforts might reduce us all to cinders.
But even through alchemy they could not summon anything but a few feeble, ill-fated flames; Jack London was surely rolling in his grave as they fanned the machete and huffed noisily at steaming piles of moss and damp twigs, generating clouds of damp smoke that immediately billowed into the shelter. I was sure “Dad” (aka Easy) would have to intervene before they choked us all, but finally, mercifully, they gave up.
Lava, who clearly—and not entirely inaccurately—seemed to see me as a 54-year-old version of that one smart-ass kid in grade school you could always egg on to do crazy shit, dared me to approach the sooty, defeated duo and bestow upon them the trail names we’d jointly devised for them. I declined.
Firestarter and Burning Man, after all, were armed with a machete and (maybe) enough explosive chemicals to blow the other hapless denizens of Jenkins Shelter to kingdom come, and if they didn’t take kindly to the names….
May 4 was another memorable day.
First, Lava’s wife Heather was driving up from Knoxville to Lickskillet Hollow on remote VA 608 to deliver a hiker feast in honor of his 28th birthday.
It was also the day I heard that Baltimore Jack, whom I’d met at Ron Haven’s place in Franklin, N.C., died. It was not until that day that I learned he was not just some overweight dude who knew a bit about the trail, but a bona fide AT legend who had thru-hiked the trail eight times since 1995.
Not everyone loved Baltimore Jack. He espoused political beliefs that did not always square with those of freewheeling hiker trash. He also was savagely opinionated, never missing an opportunity, for example, to blast SOBO AT hiking and hikers. And while a friend of his, Miss Janet Hensley (another trail legend, though I was still 1,300 miles away from our first encounter) told me he’d died of a congenital heart defect, it was sadly clear that he also struggled with alcoholism.
Despite my first, ignorant impression of Jack as some kind of blowhard, the trail taught me that his opinions were all grounded in hard-won experience and a genuine desire to see thru hikers succeed. He dissed SOBO hikes, for example, because Maine and New Hampshire are so brutally challenging that many SOBOs—who lack the conditioning gained by NOBOs over the first 1,700 miles of the trail—become discouraged and quit. Over my next few town stops, I read and listened to interviews with Baltimore Jack—aka Leonard Adam Tarlin—and came to appreciate his wisdom.
Party animal that he was, I’m sure Jack would have appreciated the celebration we had that night. Heather brought us (cue “Twelve Nights of Christmas” music…”): six Wendy’s burgers, four Little Caesar’s Hot ‘n’ Ready pizzas, 14 beers, 12 sodas, two bags of Doritos, tortilla chips and guacamole, a huge package of golden Oreos (a trail favorite for me), Snickers and other candy to replenish sagging food bags, and, best of all, her homemade Oreo cheesecake.
Reclining on my Z-lite pad, wearing glasses, a warm hat, 25-year-old Patagonia long johns, a rain jacket and dirt-smeared Crocs, I know I looked and smelled like a bum—but I felt like royalty.
“Pony was definitely the most talkative,” Heather wrote in her blog about being a trail widow, Spousesounds, “and I now understood why Andrew (Lava) had named his stories ‘Ponytales.’”
Yes, yes, a talkative bum … I don’t deny it.
But Heather had not come all that way merely to deliver a feast to four grimy dudes in the woods. In the morning, she would spirit Lava away for a friend’s bachelor party; he wouldn’t make it back to this happy little hollow until five days had passed. And since, as Heather wrote, our crew “had become something of a fearsome foursome, continually putting up big miles,” we would very likely be 100 or more miles gone by then.
Patches had been with Lava, off and on, since the Smokys. I hadn’t known him as long, but he was family. His understated humor, intelligence, authenticity and dry sardonicism was an integral part of our organism. Odd quadruple that we were, it worked.
“I’m going to catch you guys,” Lava vowed.
Physically, I knew he had the legs and grit to pull off day after day of 25 and 30 milers. But I would be getting off trail no later than May 18 for a run of unavoidable (and all good) Worldly obligations. By the time Lava got back on, he would have nine days, at most, to regain 100 or more miles on us. This might be the end of our time together.
“I … felt a little sad knowing that these 3 would be continuing on,” Heather wrote, “and that when Andrew returned to the trail, he would be hiking without them.”
I, too, was mourning the loss. But when he drove off with Heather the next morning, Lava would turn out to be the lucky one.