The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
June 2016: Out of the bardo, into the bears
I don’t believe in reincarnation or any other kind of life after death, but the next five weeks of my life were a kind of limbo between two episodes of life on the Appalachian Trail.
I’d walked nearly 40 percent of the trail over two months (including a mini-bardo in March and April) then plunged fully back into the World for a series of rewarding events — a visit from my stepson Dane, a Memorial Day presentation, and finally, a reunion with Bonnyman family members in the mountains of North Carolina some 20 miles from the trail, as the crow flies.
But when I wasn’t traveling or otherwise occupied, I was infected with trail longing. Summing up my wife’s description of me in that state, I was completely lost in the world of the trail and for her, it was sort of like having a large pig lying around the house.
I enthusiastically recommend taking a break from the trail here and there for those who can. I met many exhausted hikers who returned from a few days or a week in the city, at the beach, at a wedding, or just at home with family completely refreshed and excited. But if I did it again, I wouldn’t take a break much longer than that; two weeks at most.
But being home did give me time to hover over maps, scheme out transportation to get back to the trail, and most important, do my own personal shakedown. By the time I returned, it would be late June, so I could leave my warm-weather gear behind, saving a few pounds. I switched out a technical t-shirt for one made of Merino wool and packed a pair of tough, lightweight Arc’teryx shorts. I also followed Lava’s lead and bought a long-handled Toaks titanium spork, having grown tired of sticky knuckles. Between those and other changes, I was able to lose about 5 pounds of base weight.
Most important, I reverently replaced the Hoka One One Mafate Speed trail shoes that had carried me 861 miles with the Altra Olympus 2.0. The Hokas had simply become too narrow — or rather, my feet had become too wide — causing serious pain in the ball of my feet and a mild case of sesamoiditis. Altras are designed with an extremely wide, “foot-shape” toe box, and the Olympus sported as much cushioning as Hokas, which I needed because of an old heel injury.
It took a bit of finagling, but I finally worked out an efficient transportation plan: Following the reunion, I would drop Margarita — and her sister Claire, who was going to hike with her until early August, when they had to get ready for school at Rice University — on the trail near Buena Vista, Va. (mile 806.4). Then I’d return my car in Charlottesville and catch a shuttle to Rockfish Gap (mile 861.3), where I would restart my hike.
By the time Stanimal — owner of the excellent Stanimal’s 328 Hostel & Shuttle Service in Waynesboro, Va. — dropped me off at the gap, it was nearly 7 p.m.
“You sure you don’t want to just stay tonight and I can bring you up early tomorrow?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I really need to start hiking.”
Despite the relatively late hour, the air was sweetly warm and a little humid as I walked up Little Calf Mountain, crossing into Shenandoah National Park after just a mile. By the time I reached the summit the sun was gone. My fancy Arc’teryx shorts had proved no more breathable than a Pampers and I felt like I’d been dunked in gasoline.
But as I rambled along through the swiftly fading light, the woods turned into something out of a Disney fantasia, with fireflies blinking languidly in the shadows and owls calling mournfully from the branches above. Twice I crossed Skyline Drive, the paved road that runs adjacent to the trail for more than a hundred miles through the park. But the going over rocky, muddy trail was difficult, especially after my headlamp conked out; I hadn’t thought to check the batteries while in the bardo.
It was 9:30 and cavernously dark when I got to Calf Mountain Shelter (mile 869). There was just enough room to roll out my pad next to a wall (my favorite shelter position anyway), and I tried to eat a makeshift dinner of bars, cheese sticks and water without making too much noise.
Sometime long after midnight, I woke with a screaming start when 200 pounds of human deadweight smashed down onto one of my legs. A guy on the upper level needed to pee, and hadn’t looked where he was leaping.
“My bad,” he said.
I hate that non-responsibility-taking expression, almost as much as I hate it when servers say “No problem” in response to thank you. I guess that makes me old.
By 5 a.m., everybody else was annoyed with him too, as he was making an enormous racket at the picnic table. Another guy shrieked as loudly as I had when a creepy, Shelob-sized (and -looking) spider — one of many living in the rafters — crawled out of his pack and onto his hand.
All that gave me an early start for a pleasant day of walking through lush greenery and warm, humid air. I pitched my tent at Loft Mountain Campground and hitched a ride with a ranger down to the Loft Mountain Wayside — the first of several such restaurant/stores throughout the park — to eat dinner and try one of those Shenandoah blackberry milkshakes. Dinner was so-so, but I still wake up with tears in my eyes remembering those shakes.
As I’d feared, five weeks in the bardo hadn’t been good for my trail legs, and after 19 miles and 3,700 feet of climbing my feet felt like ground hamburger. I slathered half a dozen patches of stinging red chafe with Vagisil before nodding off (don’t laugh; it’s the miracle cure for chafe).
Birds roused me early and I was on the trail at 6:40 the next morning. Twenty minutes into the day, I rounded a corner to find a large black bear slumped in the middle of the trail. He — by the size, I guessed it was a male — leaped up and barreled about 20 yards up the trail before stopping to take a look at whatever had disturbed his reverie. When I slowly pulled my phone out for a photo, he turned and ran again. Yes, I’d glimpsed a bear near Lambert Meadows Shelter, but this was the first time I’d gotten a good, long look. Too bad he wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to catch a photo.
I reached the South River Picnic Ground, where I’d heard one could stealth camp — pitch a tent or hang a hammock outside a designated shelter or camping area — at mid-afternoon. But it didn’t look promising, and after dunking myself, clothes and all, in the thick stream of a water pump, I felt refreshed enough to keep moving. Thunderstorms never materialized, and to my surprise, I kept walking until I reached Bearfence Mountain Hut (so named in Shenandoah, but same as a shelter) after a nearly 28-mile day.
I’d exchanged only a few words with humans since leaving Rockfish, and was glad for the company of Lazy Eagle, a chatty kid who had hiked with Margarita, a hospital chaplain named Pacemaker and quiet, serious Honey Badger, recently out of the Marine Corps. We also got a visit from a friendly Appalachian Trail Conservancy ridgerunner, the first I’d seen since the Smokys, an older woman whose name I failed to record.
Fucking chafe city! I wrote about the following day. I sweat out my clothes, then walk and rub salt into my wounds all day long. I changed clothes at Skyland (Resort and Restaurant, mile 931.7), but it only helped until I got wet again, and now everything is soaked.
But at least the day featured another blackberry milkshake, this one at Big Meadows Wayside. I changed clothes and hung out with Honey Badger and a few other hikers before moving on. I did my best to force myself to take hills at a slower pace, hoping it would, as I wrote, “reduce swamp-ass to some degree.”
An hour later, driven half-mad by the oppressive, overcast heat, endless green tunnel and the brutal stinging of chafe, I ripped off my shirt and shorts and walked the last four miles wearing nothing but a ragged, 10-year-old pair of Brooks Runderwear — “tighty blackies” that had, over many years of use, faded to a sickly brown hue. I tugged the Arc’teryx shorts back on just before I reached Byrd’s Nest #3 Hut (so far as I know, there is no #1 or #2).
A spectacular sunset, viewed from a nearby tumble of giant rocks, along with a visual symphony of fireflies and a roomy shelter — just Honey Badger, Lazy Eagle and me — made up for a long, uncomfortable day. And I was just a day and a half away from a nearo at my cousin Margot’s luxurious horse property in Upperville, Va.
Life is just good, I wrote before falling asleep.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, and I never give voice to it, but I cannot seem to shake my brain’s persistent, involuntary competitiveness on the trail. If I see someone in front of me, I feel compelled to try to pass; if I sense someone coming up behind, I’ll instinctively turn up the jets. If a guy passes me, my brain immediately starts explaining why, y’know, I’m still tougher than he is — He probably hasn’t walked 15 miles already; He’s 20 years younger; etc., etc. (Curiously, if a woman passes me — and many have — my brain is suddenly all sweet and supportive: Right on, sister!)
I’m not proud of that, but I have heard other seemingly well-adjusted hikers — mostly male, but at least one female — admit to the same sort of bullshit egomania in their own heads. But about a mile beyond Pass Mountain Hut, where I’d stopped for water the next morning, I actually met a guy who at owned up to it.
I was surprised (and annoyed) when I heard footsteps rapidly approaching behind me. I turned to see a tall, middle-aged guy in a floppy hat.
“I’m just going to jump in front of you,” he said.
So I let him — what else was I going to do? After giving him a little air, I started walking again at my usual pace. It didn’t take long for him to realize I was gaining on him, and he soon stepped aside. But then he velcro’d on to me and we began talking. He was a vocalist with the San Francisco Opera who was, he admitted, going through a mid-life crisis. He’d lost his apartment and just decided to live on the trail for the next several months. He went by Raiden, an homage to a character from the video game Mortal Kombat.
“You’re the first person I’ve passed who I couldn’t put in the rear-view mirror,” he said.
Despite my initial irritation — I really hadn’t been looking for company — the hours and miles flew by as we talked and talked and talked … and talked … about everything, including the inherent idiocy of being a competitive male. I got out front of him after stopping for lunch at Elkwallow Wayside (blackberry milkshake No. 3), but Raiden reminded me that I actually liked hiking with other people.
I hit Gravel Springs Hut early, giving me a chance to “do laundry” — i.e. rinse my salt-stiffened, chafe-inducing clothes — before a good crew showed up for a lively evening, including Raiden, Honey Badger and The Grocer, an old Australian guy hauling an absurd amount of food — and an admitted snorer. I pitched my tent up the hill.
Headlamp beams slicing across the walls of my tent stirred me out of sleep sometime after midnight. I put my glasses on and peeked out. A half dozen hikers were out of their tents and somewhere below me I could hear lumbering steps in the dark. Taking the opportunity to relieve myself, I, too, scanned the woods. Two tiny, shining yellow-orange disks reflected back at me. Deer eyes, I recalled, reflected green.
While there is a certain amount of “bearanoia” on the trail, I, like most hikers I’ve met, am absolutely thrilled by the prospect of seeing bears. True, in Shenandoah and other places where bears have become habituated to humans, they can cause problems. But in reality, they just aren’t that dangerous.
While in town somewhere in Virginia, I looked up bear-caused human fatalities. Since the year 2000, there have been 44 fatal bear attacks in North America. Of those, 26 were caused by grizzlies, which live nowhere near the Appalachian Trail. Of the 18 caused by black bears, just four took place near the AT (in Tennessee, New Jersey and Pennsylvania). Given that some 11 million people visited Great Smoky and Shenandoah national parks alone in 2015, it’s fair to say that your chances of being killed by a bear along the AT are vanishingly small — on the order of 1 in 60 million in any given year. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions and avoid doing stupid things (check out Dixie’s hilarious story of her first bear encounter during a ’14 AT thru hike), but it does mean bearanoia is completely unwarranted.
In truth, most hikers are enthusiastic about bear sightings, and I was certainly excited to encounter bears No. 3 and 4 the following day, a couple miles past Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. These juveniles — my guess, based on size — were poking around a downed tree trunk perhaps 15 yards off trail. I stopped the instant I saw them, not wanting to appear threatening in any way.
I’m not a big photo taker — my goal is at least one a day, but sometimes I don’t even manage that. I cannot explain why, other than to admit I’m a dumbass, I didn’t photograph these two seemingly willing, laid-back subjects. They never seemed the least bit perturbed, even when I started moving again, and all I had to do was raise my iPhone….
I did, however, take some nice photos of the well-fed copperhead snake coiled up next to the footpath to the privy at Manassas Gap Shelter that evening, so I guess that’s something. I also got to meet Cake, another young hiker who had walked with my cousin Margarita further south on the trail.