The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
April 2016: Hawk Mountain Shelter to Low Gap Shelter
It was still dark when I crawled out of my bag at Hawk Mountain Shelter. A thin rime of frost coated the picnic table as I heated water for oatmeal and coffee. Hovering over the tiny flame, I tried to rub the warmth back into my hands.
Because Reid had sent a resupply box to tiny Suches, Georgia, we decided to stop at Gooch Gap (mile 17.8) that day, hitch into town and camp or stay at one of two hostels. I waited until Helen and Reid got up, then rolled out on my own.
Despite faint green hints on high branches, spring was still in abeyance on the southernmost reaches of the AT. The stillness of sleeping trees was interrupted only occasionally by the flitting of tiny gray birds and a volley of conversation between two barred owls—Who cooks for you?
I passed several hikers, including one poor guy on his knees to the side of the trail on Justus Mountain. “I’m sick. I just vomited. I think it’s noro.” I gave him a little water—and a wide berth.
At Gooch Gap I called to reserve three bunks at the Wolfpen Gap Country Store hostel. Helen and Reid were four miles back, so I got out my sleeping bag and started to read. When it started to rain, I scored a ride to town with a couple of day hikers.
There are scores of hostels and hiker bunkhouses along the Appalachian Trail. Some are legendary for catering to hikers’ needs, but more than a few are run by people who are only out to make a buck. Such was Wolfpen Gap (which closed after the 2016 hiking season, probably for the best).
Upstairs from the ratty store with half-empty shelves, two stale-smelling rooms offered banks of two-by-four, plywood bunks adorned with a strip of stained carpet for a “mattress.” The bathroom was cramped and humid and the toilet was crusted with urine, speckled with brown spots and sprouting stray pubic hairs, as if some disgusting Jackson Pollock had used it as a porcelain canvas. A squishy, clammy bathmat lay before a shower stall streaked with rust marks, hair and clots of soap. Even after I scrubbed the toilet and shower, I held my breath while I pissed, certain that every other surface still teemed with norovirus. (My instincts were dead on: a girl from San Angelo, Texas was to spend much of the night miserably yarking and shitting in there).
Refusing to pay for overpriced congealed pizza or grease-soaked chicken lumps that had incubated in the store for who knows how long (thanks to arcane county liquor laws, we couldn’t even buy a beer), I ate a hiker special—tuna, tortillas and peanut butter—before hitting the sack. Although exhausted, I slept badly, courtesy of a snorer in the next room and that poor noro girl.
Helen and I got out of there as fast as we could in the morning. Alas for Reid, the post office didn’t open until noon, but we agreed to meet him at the foot of Blood Mountain, feared by many NOBOS as the first “real” climb on the trail.
Walking through that misty morning with Helen, I was amused by the notion that she needed help from me or anyone else. Strong, smart, resourceful, flexible and friendly, she is one of the most natural thru hikers I know. I laughed when she told me she’d overheard Big Bird on a cell phone at Cooper Gap, just four miles past the shelter where he’d declared the AT was his home, now that his wife had booted him out. “Honey,” he was saying, “I swear it’ll be different this time….”
We reached Jarrard Gap (mile 26.7) by late afternoon under grim gray skies. Weather reports promised a cold, rainy night, but due to a curious requirement that overnight hikers carry a hard-shell, bear-resistant canister for just the next five miles to Neel Gap, we couldn’t take hunker down in shelters that beckoned from just 1.5 and 2.6 miles up the trail.
Helen — who had at some point during the day rejected my latest suggestion for a trail name, Jellybags, because her mom had managed to squeeze jam into tiny 1-inch square Ziplocs — and I pitched our matching tents, made dinner, and hung out as the oncoming storm turned the sky darker and darker.
“It’s OK if you want to take off tomorrow,” she said.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed by my own pointless urgency. “I think I will. I really loved walking with you today, but I just get … antsy to go.”
“Really? You?” Helen said, laughing.
When Reid rolled into camp a couple hours later, he said he’d seen a clump of black bear hair just yards back up the trail. I walked back, picked it up, sniffed it (I smell everything; why ignore this perfectly good source of information?) and discovered that, just as my wife always asserts, bears are rather … pungent. If not for Reid, I wouldn’t have seen it at all.
The soothing white noise of rain on my tent all night gave me a good night’s sleep. Waking early, I broke camp in the dark, tossing my wet tent into a plastic garbage bag until I could hang it to dry. Walking silently past Reid’s hammock and Helen’s tent, I was a tad ashamed that my lofty fantasy of hiking with a trail family had succumbed to my own impatience in just three days. On the other hand, I told myself, I was just following the First Commandment of the trail: Hike your own hike.
A surprisingly pleasant, warm rain was falling as I descended Blood Mountain—a puny anthill compared to climbs in southern Carolina and the Smokys—and I was pleasantly soaked by the time I reached Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap (mile 31.7).The trail passes right through the place, via a short, stone-walled passage. It’s rumored that a quarter of would-be AT thru hikers call it quits here (and it’s a certainty that countless others plunk down lots of money for better, lighter gear; location, location, location, as they say…). Happily, I was satisfied with my gear, so I just bought some Gatorade, Pop-Tarts, candy and jerky, then headed up the trail.
As it happened, I’d met the former long-time owner of Mountain Crossings, Winton Porter, through a mutual friend on the beach in Hilton Head (Laurie, aka Sundance, whose son “Constantine” was also out on the AT). Porter’s book, “Just Passin’ Thru: A Vintage Store, the Appalachian Trail, and a Cast of Unforgettable Characters,” amply details the hopes and shattered dreams of hikers who arrive, often shellshocked, after the first 30 miles of the AT.
“I could usually tell, with about 95 percent accuracy,” Winton told me, “who was going to make it, and who wasn’t.”
I left Neel Gap in a warm fog but occasionally the mist thinned enough and a weak sun broke through, providing hazy views of endless trees from Cowrock Mountain and Wolf Laurel Top. Late in the day, I tumbled down to a paved parking lot at Tesnatee Gap to find a dozen hikers lounging in chairs set up by a Christian fellowship offering chips, candy, soda pop and water.
Christians, it turns out, are a reliable source of trail magic in the South. It seems to me they do ministry just right: Offering sustenance to strangers to show the strength of their faith and contents of their hearts, rather than preaching.
After a half-mile slog up Wildcat Mountain—a 500-foot ass kicker, though far wilder Wildcats lay in wait hundreds of miles up the trail—and a few more miles, I called it a day at Low Gap Shelter. Only one kid was in the shelter, but there were a dozen or more tents scattered nearby. A flock of party kids had built a fire and the party got rolling early.
I wandered up the hill to meet my fellow hikers, but quickly perceived that I was considered a creepy old party crasher. I also witnessed the mob descending into junior-high barbarism to drive a friendly young hiker named Rachel from the herd. One guy mocked her loudly for asking about “narcovirus,” while another stared dully when she told him a goofy joke: “What are you, like in fifth grade?”
Exiled from the tribe, Rachel rolled out her sleeping pad in the shelter, joining me and Luke, a quiet kid from Indiana. She made a hasty dinner and buried herself in her sleeping bag; I washed the gummy remains of pasta from her Jetboil cooking cup, thinking it might cheer her slightly in the morning.
That was the first time I’d ever seen that kind of ugliness intrude upon supportive ethic of the trail. I consoled myself with the thought that the harsh reality of day-to-day AT life would soon drive most of these party kids off the trail.
“I see a lot of hikers who have no idea what’s in front of them,” says the legendary 77-year-old hiker Billy Goat, who has been hiking one trail or other 150 days a year for the past 28 years. “They just want to drink beer and smoke pot, like the (trail’s) nothing but one big party.”
Yes, the trail changes everybody, I wrote in my journal. But it also amplifies who you truly are.