The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
April 2016: On yellow blazing, Baltimore Jack and a happy hippy happening
A brisk breeze was blowing when I lit out of Low Gap early the next morning, but intermittent sun and clouds made for excellent hiking the rest of the day.
I spent the first several miles scanning ahead for any sign of a section hiker I’d met at Low Gap. I spied his blue jacket about four miles up the trail, but suddenly deciding I didn’t want company, I scurried past while he was on his knees, fiddling with something just inside his tent.
I spent much of the morning singing Dan Fogelberg (good, older Fogelberg) and cowboy songs (“Oh, that Strawberry Roan…”). Just as I was reaching the crown of 4,430-foot Tray Mountain, I came upon an older woman whose light blue Deuter pack was adorned with a yellow flower.
She told me she’d hiked about 1,200 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail the year before following the death of her husband. Ready to quit one breezy day in the Sierras, she felt something tapping at her ankle: a small, yellow flower bowing in the wind. She took it as a message from her husband to keep walking.
“What’s your trail name?” I asked as I turned to start down the mountain.
“Blue Butterfly,” she said.
“If you aren’t attached to that,” I suggested before walking on, “how about Soulflower?”
Though I’d planned to walk 23 miles to Deep Gap Shelter, I was waylaid at Tray Mountain Shelter (mile 58.6) so I could assist Jody with writing and editing an obituary (a small service we have done for several years). By the time I’d finished it was late afternoon and I decided to stay.
As I sat on a rock, waiting for an email confirming the obituary had been accepted, I surveyed sweeping views in three directions. Soon, a big hiker from Boston, OSHA, and his ukulele-packing friend (I neglected to write down his name) stopped by for lunch and a “safety meeting,” which they invited me to attend.
OSHA silently explained by pulling out a small pipe and a gray-green knob of weed (the preferred 21st-century term, though I still think of it as “pot”). I enjoyed the euphemism—not to mention OSHA’s clever trail name—but declined to join in.
I stopped briefly at Dick’s Creek Gap (69.5) the next morning to take a photograph for my friend Kristen, who had buried her beloved dog Owen nearby a decade earlier.
Many NOBOs find a haven at the Top of Georgia Hostel and Hiking Center a half-mile west on U.S. 76, famous in part for the “shakedowns”—winnowing of unnecessary pack weight—by proprietor Bob “Sir-Packs-a-Lot” Gabrielson. I did not partake, but later heard varying opinions on his advice (I could never remember his name, and lazily defaulted to my own version, “Super-Pack-Head-Bob”).
Just past Dick’s Creek Gap, I heard someone approaching as I was peeing to the side of the trail. I danced and shook and managed to put myself in order by the time Blue Butterfly reached me.
“I want to thank you, Pony,” she said with a big smile. “I thought about it, and I’m going to keep Soulflower. I was Blue Butterfly then, but I truly believe this is my name now.”
Hiking the AT, I learned to embrace every opportunity to celebrate and mark my progress and make an effort to catch views. Unlike the high Rockies and Sierras, which offer spectacular eye-candy on an hourly basis, the AT is known for its endless “green tunnel”—miles upon miles of hiking through trees. I began to look forward to more than just the next view—a border crossing, a century mile point, the next road or trail crossing, where magic just might lurk.
At mile 78.5, I came to a battered wooden sign reading, simply, N.C./GA. I could now tell myself I’d completed 1/14th of the states traversed by the AT. My sense of elation and triumph was only slightly dampened by the steep, half-mile slog up to Courthouse Bald that followed.
I thoroughly enjoyed the company at crowded Muskrat Creek Shelter (mile 81.4) that night. The crew included Leave No Tracy, whose boyfriend Odie is the brains behind the annual AT Hiker Yearbook; Nemo, a loquacious guy with Elton John-sized glasses who literally danced up the trail and sometimes packed a bottle of wine and a pound of gourmet chocolate; Hula Bear, who was never without her light-up hula hoop, and her dog, Kita-bear; and The Dude, a gregarious Houston accountant who would remain a friend long after we’d both finished the trail.
Eventually on a thru hike, bodies tend to wake up from their routine metabolism and ignite the famously ravenous “hiker hunger.” I knew I wasn’t eating enough, and I was losing weight like crazy, but still, I wasn’t hungry. That would soon change.
The big bugaboo for the next day was the short, final pitch of Albert Mountain, one of the very few southern stretches of the trail that approaches the steepness further north. But thanks to human-constructed stone steps, the climb went quickly (I was also inspired to put some distance between me and the rednecks firing guns from the parking area below). Someone had scrawled “100 miles” on the tower, another psychological horizon: Only 2,089 to go!
“Wow,” I said. “You must be doing big miles.”
“Not really,” he said. “Around 17 a day.”
(Note: In the original version of this chapter, I wrote that I suspected this hiker — whom I’d referred to by a made-up trail name — of “yellow blazing,” and segued into a description of that term. He contacted me in September 2017, vigorously objecting to my portrayal of him and saying he did not yellow blaze this or any part of the trail. Given the subjectivity of my — or anyone’s — impressions, I have edited this section. However, I have kept the observations about the concept of “yellow blazing” below.)
“Yellow blazing,” named after the yellow lines on highways, refers to hikers who skip parts of the trail with mechanical assistance. Although “purists” insist the only true thru hike is one in which the hiker walks past every white blaze, carrying the full weight of her pack, in truth many 2,000-milers end up yellow blazing at least a few miles.
I’m no purist, but I certainly understand the logic: If a hiker doesn’t walk every, single step of the trail, how much skipping is allowed? Ten miles? Twenty? A hundred? That said, most hikers frown upon yellow blazing just to avoid a tough section, and lying about yellow blazing is widely considered one of the few true sins of the trail.
As I sat finishing up dinner, a middle-aged hiker stopped by to cook dinner. His name was Wishing Bone, and he was from the People’s Republic of China. As it was already evening, I assumed he’d be staying the night, but after eating, he began packing up to move on.
“My visa is only for six months,” he said cheerily, “so I must go along quickly.” He was averaging well over 25 miles a day.
(More than a year later, I drove to Salida, Colorado to meet up with another AT friend, Sour Patch, at the local hostel, before heading further south to climb several 14,000-foot peaks. After spending the night at the hostel, I gave Sour Patch and another hiker a ride up to Monarch Crest, then made two more trips to ferry hikers back to the Colorado Trail. On my final trip down, I saw a hiker craning over a map at the side of the road where the trail crosses U.S. 50. “Do you need a ride?” I said after pulling over. The middle-aged man who hopped in my car seemed familiar — it was Wishing Bone, this time on a shorter visa. He didn’t remember me, but we talked all the way into Salida about the AT.)
In no mood for hitchhiking, and completely out of food, I hustled to reach Winding Stair Gap the next morning to meet a 9 a.m. shuttle run by Haven’s Budget Inn in beautiful, downtown Franklin, North Carolina. I tumbled into the gap at 9:08, and the shuttle arrived seven minutes later.
The driver was Ron Haven, local politician and budget-motel owner, and seated just behind him was a, red-faced, gorilla-shaped, John Goodman-like guy wearing pounds of AT bling. His announced himself as Baltimore Jack and began enthusiastically discoursing on the trail, offering tidbits of advice and answering questions during the winding, 15-minute descent into town. He didn’t look like a hiker to me, but he sure seemed to know his stuff.
My guess is that Haven, a long-time conservative commissioner in Macon County, doesn’t much approve of the vagabond appearance and lifestyle of most AT hikers. But as owner of the Hiawassee Budget Inn and Franklin motel, as well as a $20/night bunkroom across the street, he sure didn’t mind them as paying customers. He repeatedly emphasized that the shuttle was free, whether or not you stayed at his place, but given that it was the only stop, and considering hikers’ well-known aversion to “sideways miles,” it was no surprise that everyone that morning decided to bunk at his place.
Baltimore Jack told those of us planning to stay at the hostel—the cheaper option, just across the street—that he’d meet us there and sign us in. When he showed up ten minutes later, the odor of bourbon made clear he’d taken time out for a little nip.
Walking back from the grocery store after having bought too much food (food supply is a skill I have not mastered; my food bag always feels overstuffed or I’m running on empty before I hit town) I saw two pretty young hippy women hula hooping.
“Hey, my wife makes hula hoops,” I called out.
“Cool,” said the one wearing flowy, stripy balloon pants. “Are you a hiker?”
“Cool!” said the other, her hair a wild nest of bronze curls. They stopped hooping and walked over to me. “You should come to our party tonight. It’s for all hikers, up at Gooder Grove … do you know where that is?”
It was the new hostel in town, a 10-minute walk up the hill and into the trees from Haven’s place.
“I’m Jane Owl,” said the one with the hair, holding out a fist for a bump, “and she’s Flow. We’re going to have beer and music and all kinds of food. You should come.”
So around 5, I headed out with Stretch and Badger to check out the party. As we walked up Philips Street, a white van stopped next to us.
“Are you guys headed to the party? I’m Zen, I own the place,” said the driver, a dark-haired young guy with glasses. “We’re going to get the keg. When you get there, tell them to give you a bottle of Highland Gaelic Ale. See you there!”
Zen (aka Colin Gooder) had invited part of a trail-walking hippy troupe from Oklahoma—Flow and Jane Owl, Yosh the Oracle, Doctor See and Rhythm, and The Green Lady (a clever hiker later dubbed them the “Oklahomies”) to play music and make vegetarian food. It turned out to be quite the party. There was a keg of excellent IPA from nearby Lazy Hiker Brewing, hot dogs, hamburgers, fruit, chips, cookies, brownies and more for those not into the excellent vegetarian hippy fare. Safety meetings broke out all over and multiple dogs, including Grove residents Bodhi, Josie and Ambrose, milked constant attention from canine-starved hikers.
Zen showed me around the place, including a downstairs area he was renovating to put up more hikers and install a hot tub.
“I’m trying to build the business,” he said. “But I have to get a shuttle going. Right now, Ron Haven scoops up all the hikers for himself.”
Zen invited me to bring my pack up and stay the night for free. He gave me a ride down to the hostel, where I packed up my gear. “You leaving us?” Baltimore Jack said as I passed by the office.
Despite my initial impressions of him, I’d had a couple of short, interesting conversations with this unusual guy. I especially appreciated his candor about snoring: “I’m a snorer. I know I’m a snorer. So I don’t stay in shelters.”
“Yeah,” I told Jack. “Met some new friends.”
“Hope they’re good lookin’,” he said.
I would not realize until a few weeks later that I’d been talking to a bone fide AT legend.
Sitting around a huge bonfire in the trees while the hippies played music, I talked for a long time to The Dude, whom I’d met at Muskrat Creek Shelter. I soon understood why so many hikers found him similar to his namesake, to the big, laid-back character played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers’ cult film, “The Big Lebowski.” Eventually, we decided to walk into town to meet Leave No Tracy, her friend Pending and a section hiker named Tony at the brewery. I wandered back to the Grove and fell into bed about 11 p.m., sober, stuffed and happy, but the party went on without me until near sunrise.
I’m glad I stayed here, I wrote that night.
But the next day a shuttle would carry me 140 miles up the trail and for all I knew, I’d never see any of these people again.