The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
Standing on Charlie’s Bunion in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I experienced the first of many spectacular non-views along the Appalachian Trail. Completely enveloped in fog, my cheeks needled by cold rain driven by a harsh March wind, I could see nothing but gray.
Later that night, I hunkered down inside my 20-degree sleeping bag, huddled next to a dozen other lumps lined up in Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. The blue-tarp windbreak strung across the entrance provided marginal defense against the icebox air outside, which one hiker had measured at 17 degrees. I slept fitfully, chilly despite armoring myself with every layer I had, my earplugs insufficient to mute the buzzsaw snoring of the old man next to me.
I wouldn’t even be here, I thought, if Jody and I hadn’t decided to trade the discomforts of Rocky Mountain winters for life on a balmy Southern beach. And just 12 hours earlier, I’d been warm and dry at the Grand Prix Motel in one of America’s cheesiest towns, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, having decided to cut short my shakedown hike and bail out ahead of a wintry blast, predicted to hit the next morning.
But when I woke the sun was shining from an open blue sky, and hiker guilt began to gnaw at me like a mouse trying to get at a Snickers wrapper. The 500-mile Colorado Trail had schooled me well eight months earlier, but now I found myself having to reabsorb my lessons in Remedial Hiking 101, courtesy of the AT: Never make a decision at the end of the day; Don’t waste your hike trying to outsmart the weather; and Stop being such a lazy-ass!
I had looked forward to descending to Gatlinburg’s gaudy, animatronic-haunted strip for a leisurely breakfast surrounded by tourists who, on average, seemed to weigh three times more than the scraggly hikers who’d found their way to town. Instead, shamed by the sun, I gobbled a couple of Pop Tarts, stumped back to the road into the park and put up a thumb.
I hate hitching. Grizzled older men are not, I can say with confidence, widely prized as companions by many drivers. Car after car breezed past. Meanwhile, two young female hikers passed by offering cheery greetings. They walked 50 yards up the road, where the mere sight of their bare thumbs nearly caused a collision. Thirty fruitless minutes later, as I pondered going back to Plan A—which was actually Plan B, so I guess this was Plan C—and calling it quits, I heard a shout from a large white pickup headed into town.
“Hang on, Pony! We’ll be back in five minutes!”
It was Mountain Momma and Godspeed, two trail angels who had given me a ride from Newfound Gap (plus a Coke, chips and a sandwich) the afternoon before.
“Thought you were done after yesterday,” Godspeed said after I tossed my pack in back and climbed in.
“Yeah. But then I saw how nice it was this morning….”
Fifteen minutes later I started up the trail, still infused with morning optimism despite feeling the first tiny droplets of cold rain on my face.
My Appalachian Trail ambitions started small. I’d fallen in love with the stinking, sweating, marching, freeing, mesmerizing life that is thru hiking while hiking the CT, and now that we’d relocated to the South, I realized the most renowned of long trails was just a few hours’ drive away. My first plan was simply to sample the trail with week or 10 days of spring hiking.
But when a writing project unexpectedly fell apart, the void in my calendar yawned enticingly. Now I proposed to Jody that I’d hike from mid- or late-March to the week before Memorial Day, when I was scheduled to give a talk at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. I thought I might get 700 or 750 miles, roughly a third of the AT, and if I loved it, I would finish in subsequent years.
And so I slipped into that zombified state that is, for me, the obsession of planning a long hike: Incessantly poking through my my gear, poring over guidebooks and maps—David Miller’s excellent “2016 Northbound AT Guide” and maps published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy—reading blogs and gradually replacing daily beach runs with pack-laden walks.
Then in early February, I received a text from my cousin Helen Bonnyman, 19, who was “wwoofing”—working on farms in New Zealand through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms—and planning to hike the AT upon her return.
“I’ve tried to find hiking partners but they keep falling through, so I’m mostly going to be hiking solo,” she wrote. “However my parents and I thought it would be a good idea to have a partner for the first week … Would you be interested in hiking with me for a week and showing me the ropes?”
I’d always been a solo hiker myself. But Helen was smart and fun, and I love the way the trail makes no distinctions, making connections between people of different ages, backgrounds and circumstances—a retired firefighter and a college cross-country runner; a lonely 18-year-old girl and a 30-something, professional couple; trail “families” that spanned decades and nationalities and languages … why not two second cousins separated by 35 years?
But this meant a change in plans. I’d hoped to start at Springer Mountain in Georgia, the southern terminus of the trail, in mid-March, but Helen couldn’t start until the second week of April.
The smart thing, of course, would be to push my start date back three weeks. But there was a cost to such patience, namely, cutting my commute time to and from the trail by half and sparing me the expense and hassle of finding a shuttle.
And patience is not a virtue of which I’ve often been accused.