The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
March 2016: Nantahala Outdoor Center to Birch Gap Campsite
A cool fog haunted the hollows as I left the Nantahala Outdoor Center bunkhouse and began the long, 3,300-foot climb toward 5,000-foot Cheoah Bald. By the time I summited, the temperature was nudging toward 80 degrees. The 360 views on top revealed endless brown hills ever-so-faintly dusted with the green of incipient spring.
My legs are built for going uphill. Many Bonnymans sport short legs with big calves, glutes and quads—a necessity, my great-grandfather used to say, in plowing the stony fields of the Scottish highlands. And that trait is the source of my trail name: I described my hiking style—short and stout, I put down my head and go all day—to Slow Man, an old guy on the Colorado Trail who urged everyone to slow down. “So you’re like a little mountain pack pony,” he said. And so I became Pony.
But that 8-mile march up from the NOC continued the erosion of my Rocky Mountain pride. If there was a high point ahead, the AT was all but certain to go there, via the shortest, steepest possible route. Switchbacks? We don’t need no stinkin’ switchbacks!
Well, at least the afternoon looked easy: a 1,500-foot descent, and just one more short climb to my destination, Brown Fork Gap Shelter (mile 153.1).
The hike into Stecoah Gap, a steep, leaf-slippery slog, wasn’t easy, but it was nothing compared to that final climb, dubbed “Jacob’s Ladder” by hikers. As I stood warily eyeing the route, a young guy in sweat-drenched long pants cruised past with a brief hello and attacked the ridge. I fell in behind him and we reached the top together.
“Holy shit,” I said. “That’s a crazy steep hill.”
“Yeah. Might be the steepest part of the trail so far,” said the kid, Chickenfoot.
Actually, it is merely the second steepest half-mile of the trail to that point (NOBO), behind “The Jump-up” to Swim Bald, which hadn’t made the same impression, and only the 62nd steepest half-mile segment on the entire AT, according to data geeks on whiteblaze.net who have tallied such things. What’s more, of the 75 steepest half miles, just 10 occur south of the Mason-Dixon line. All 25 of the steepest miles occur up north, in Massachusetts (1), Vermont (1), New Hampshire (12) and Maine (11). Luckily, I didn’t know that yet.
Chickenfoot attempted the AT in 2015, but said he got caught up in a “party bubble”; “It took me six months just to get to Harper’s Ferry.” This time, he was strictly solo, pulling 20- to 40+-mile days, taking zeroes every chance he got. When I turned off for the shelter just after 3 p.m., he continued, saying he planned to hike another 25 miles that day.
I reached Brown Fork Gap early enough to claim a shelter spot. The eight others who joined me (along with several nearby tenters) were young, but thankfully not party kids. For the first time since stepping off the CT, I got to revel in one of the trail’s greatest pleasures: Bringing together people who would never spend time together in “the World.” The group included two brothers from Knoxville, Goose and Sonic, both collegiate runners, their friend Spidey and the newest member of their uber-speedy quartet, Atticus, who was hiking the AT to mark the end of his German military service.
The headline in camp that night was norovirus. Both Great Smoky and Appalachian Trail Conservancy officials had sent email alarms that the dreaded virus—feces-borne, spread by contact with unwashed hands, and able to linger on hard surfaces for days, it caused relentless vomiting and diarrhea—had been reported on the trail. Rumor had it that the famous Fontana Hilton, a two-story shelter reputed to be one of the best on the trail, was ground zero.
I slept poorly once again, thanks to roaring wind and an acute case of “mousanoia.” Hikers have cleverly rigged up rodent-resistant “mouse mobiles” in many shelters—bits of stick tied to bits of string, with a soda can affixed—to hang packs out of reach of ubiquitous shelter mice. Despite complete confidence in my Ursack/OPsack setup, I hung my pack, then spent hours being jerked awake by the sound of tiny claws scrabbling on aluminum.
Notwithstanding a rapidly accumulating sleep deficit, I managed to keep my face out of the dirt during the long, sloping downhill to Fontana Dam. Although the dam hovers enticingly in sight for many miles, it takes forever to get any closer, thanks to a series of new switchbacks.
The Appalachian Trail continues to grow every year, thanks to rerouting. I heard hikers grumbling about long series of switchbacks, but of course, they’d grouse if it was nutty steep, too. And trail sections properly rebuilt by more than 30 local and regional clubs help prevent damage to the trail from erosion. Still, it can be disheartening to stare at your destination for more than an hour as you continue to pound away.
The day was gorgeous and warm by the time I reached the marina, where I flopped down for lunch with a cluster of hikers, including the young quartet of Corncob, Rhodo, and the “Kentucky Cruisers,” Jellyankles and Cheeetah. A recreational boater on his way home meandered over and handed us a treasure trove of calories, including peanut-butter crackers, cookies, baloney, cheese, bread and even broccoli (which, desperate for greens, I split with the Cruisers). My first trail magic.
But they turned out to be the last humans I’d until after dark, and I felt as if I’d entered a post-apocalyptic world. The Hilton looked fantastic—roomy and clean, with a beautiful view of the lake—but it was empty. “DO NOT STAY HERE!!!” screamed one logbook entry. “THIS IS GROUND ZERO FOR NORO!!” Then the dam visitor center was closed. Making my way across the concrete monolith, I pondered what I’d do if hordes of zombies began closing in on me from both sides. Jump, I guess.
The 2,200-foot climb to the tottering skeleton of the old Shuckstack fire tower was brutally hot and long. But when I climbed the rickety structure, wind through broken windows and holes in the plywood floor left me shivering; I was dehydrated.
I felt like I was seeing evidence of a once-great civilization now falling into ruin today, I wrote that night.
Despite feeling a little woozy and sick, somehow I’d hiked nearly 20 miles. By the time I arrived at Birch Spring Gap, a campsite with bear cables and a trickling little spring, I enjoyed only a few moments of evening sun, low and red before the barren little hollow became eerily still and cold. I ate instant mashed potatoes and jerky, then nursed a hesitant little fire into existence, seeking the companionship of flame.
The stars were pricking sharply through the bare trees when two headlamps came bobbing down the trail. Two young, bedraggled hikers grunted hello before pitching two tents on the opposite hill. One came back, water bottles in hand, and stood briefly by the fire, introducing himself as Rush.
He and his buddy, Tesla, just 16 and 17, were thru hiking. According to Rush, Tesla had been “patient zero” of the Hilton noro outbreak and this was their first day back on trail after a day or two recuperating in a nearby town. The five miles up to Birch Gap had drained Tesla, but at least he was no longer violently ejecting fluids from every orifice.
Although there was no wind that night, I bolted awake three or four times, my dreams imprinted with the snuffling of a curious bear. I’m not a “bearanoid” hiker, and there were no bears; I was still weeks away from seeing my first bear. I did learn later that the park has a standing bear warning for Birch Spring Gap, but the tale I heard later of a woman chased down the mountain—at night, wearing just one boot—by a Birch Gap bear, so far as I can tell, a trail myth.