The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
When I was 15, two friends (14 and 15) and I took a bicycle tour from Yellowstone National Park to Calgary, Alberta, down the Okanagan Lake Valley of British Columbia, and across to Vancouver.
It was an incredible trip that taught me more about self-sufficiency and survival than anything I’d learned in life to that point, even in scouting. We had our share of travails, starting on day one when I got hypothermia in the freezing rain on 8,800-foot Dunraven Pass. Thanks to my friends and a public bathroom with heat-blasting hand dryers, I recovered … and vowed never to let it happen again.
On May 5, 2016, a menacing cold front engulfed almost all of the southern Appalachian Trail, dropping temperatures into the 30s and 40s and delivering not just rain, but wind, sleet and snow. That day almost ruined my youthful vow to avoid hypothermia.
Patches got out front from the start. The morning’s miles were relatively flat, crossing several streams and passing by Dismal Falls, the weather cool and gray. But a steady, cold rain was pelting down by late morning. This time, I donned my rain jacket, but it didn’t matter. I was soaked, inside and out, in 15 minutes. By the time I reached the top of a 1,500-foot climb just past Wapiti Shelter (mile 616.3), the rain had turned to snow.
I sent good vibes to Heather for the three pieces of pizza I gobbled for fuel, put on my warm hat and thin glove liners, and kept walking. I didn’t seriously consider changing into dry clothes: Anything I put on was going to get soaked, anyway, and I knew the only way to stay warm was to keep moving as fast as possible.
The next several hours were brutal as I stumbled over wet rocks and slogged through freezing mud, numb feet squishing inside sodden shoes and the sleeves of my jacket sucking all warmth from my bare arms like some nightmarish, alien parasite. Sleet and snow hacked at my face, hands and legs, driven by a maniacal wind that continually found its way beneath the trees. My journal entry for that night, written with insensate fingers, was the shortest of my entire AT journey: Forecast cold, wet. Didn’t anticipate this. Sufferfest.
There is disgruntlement among some old-school thru hikers about uppity young’uns who listen to music while hiking the trail, very much in the, “Back in my day, we didn’t have all that bullshit…” vein. But as with most such things, the concerns are not baseless. Hikers wearing earplugs cut themselves off from a crucial source of sensory input (try passing one and see how high she jumps), while those playing music (or words) out loud are inevitably intruding on someone—or some critter’s—enjoyment of the silent woods.
Although I don’t use earplugs, I will sometimes listen to books, podcasts, and occasionally music, particularly if I’m having a tough day; I just slip my iPhone into a watertight plastic sleeve and secure it to my wrist or a pack strap. And on that miserable Cinco de Freeze-o, an mp3 audio version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saved my ass. Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Bill the Pony and the other members of the fellowship were also miserable and cold as a blizzard hurled them back from slopes of cruel Caradhras.
“The wind whistled and the snow became a blinding blizzard. … The hobbits, bent nearly double, toiled along behind the taller folk, but it was clear they could not go much further…”
In the end, of course, they did go much further, nearly 1,000 miles further. They had no choice … and neither did I. There was a fellowship to keep.
When I stumbled around the corner to Docs Knob Shelter, Patches gave a whoop. He’d rolled in a half hour earlier and had begun to wonder if I’d bailed out to the legendary—and no doubt warm—Woods Hole Shelter. My fingers were so numb that he had to help me unzip my jacket. Thankfully, the inside of my pack was dry, and once I’d put on warm, dry clothes, I buried myself in my sleeping bag beside Patches, who was doing the same.
Maybe I should have put on more clothes. Perhaps a sopping-wet down puffy would have provided more insulation than skin and sopping-wet Gore-tex, and long pants would have cut the wind. But I doubted that anything I had in my pack could have protected me from the onslaught. I envied Patches’ Merino wool shirt, which insulated even when wet, and vowed to make one—with long sleeves—part of my kit.
An hour later, Easy showed up, glaring and cursing. He soon joined our sleeping-bag huddle to watch the miserable sleet and rain turn into a small river in front of the shelter. Much to our astonishment, a heavy, hairy hiker, The Professor, showed up just before dark, every bit as soaked as we were, then decided to suffer for nine more miles on the promise of a dry bed in Pearisburg. Temperatures that night were at or near freezing, but I stayed warm and dry.
Thanks to my anticipation of food, warmth and other comforts, the next morning’s hike felt longer than it was. But when we hit the road, Patches and I were fortunate to catch a ride almost immediately from a young mother who took us to the post office, then up to the unsupervised, $10 “suggested donation” hostel at Holy Family Catholic Church.
Pearisburg’s modest comforts seemed positively heavenly after our ordeal: an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, a laundromat, good company, and a good night’s sleep (beneath the eaves of the porch, where we moved our bedrolls after a hiker named Wild Card owned up to being a loud snorer). The cynical Professor was there, as was a guy named Oak, who seemed more drifter than hiker, and Trekkeroni, a bespectacled kid who carried a 65-pound pack. The kid’s trail name reflected the odd fact that he routinely duct-taped two-pound pepperoni sticks to each of his hiking poles; these spicy-delicious death-spears were dangling from the rafters above Patches’ head until he persuaded Trekkeroni into moving them.
Just eyeballing them, I doubted any of these intriguing characters would make it to Maine. But it was Easy who shocked me the next morning when he announced he was taking a zero to manage persistent pain in his shins.
“Doing 150-mile weeks has been fun,” he said, “but I need to recover.”
As quickly as it had flowered, our little trail family had dropped two petals. A lesson in impermanence, courtesy of the AT.
And by the next day, Patches’ stomach was giving him trouble. After a 1,100-foot EoDMoFo, we pulled up at Bailey Gap Shelter (mile 658) at mid-afternoon and he went straight to sleep. After a rainy start, the day had turned semi-pleasant, and I tried to soak up a little sun while chatting with a group of mostly older hikers, including Applejack, whom I’d met in the Smokys.
There’s an old Jimmy Buffett song that contains the lines, “I’ve had good days and bad days and going half-mad days.” Almost all of my days on trail are good ones, but the next wasn’t one of them. Walking alone through wind, fog and rain, I continually dropped my poles, twisted straps trying to shrug on my pack and stumbled constantly, while changing weather continually forced me to don and or shuck rain gear. Some 3,200 feet of climbing up Johns Creek Mountain and Bruisers Knob didn’t help.
Worst of all was the first fall I’d taken since my three-tumble day going into the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Walking with my poles tucked under my arm, I tripped and timbered into the rocks, smashing both knees and jamming my wrists. There was only a little blood, but I would pay for the mishap for many days with increasingly sore knees. One stupid mistake, one random mishap, and your hike is over; the AT is fickle, and unforgiving. I vowed to be more careful.
But it finally stopped raining that afternoon and the trail wooed me back with meadows, pastures, creeks and bridges—Thank you, Virginia, for providing more than just untidy oak-rhodo-laurel forests, I wrote.
I took time to ponder just how far I’d come. Two or three days from now, I’d reach Daleville (mile 727.5), the original projected end point of my AT section hike. But I’d made good time, and now, if all went well, I should easily be able to cross the 800-mile mark.
And suddenly, in the midst of that discombobulated, knee-smashing, lonely, wet, crappy day, I was flooded with such an intense love for life on the trail—this trail, this maddening, painful, exhausting, wet, beautiful, liberating Appalachian Trail—that it brought tears to my eyes. My heart seized with momentary grief at the thought of bailing out after 800 or 850 miles and returning to the World until next year. How was I to know I’d even have a next year? Finishing would mean more hardship for Jody, more expense, more travel, more hassle and crazy logistics … but I knew that if I didn’t try it would break my heart.
That night at Sarver Hollow Shelter I told Patches my plan.
“Yeah,” he said, “I was having a hard time believing that you were just going to quit like that.”
A relentless whippoorwill—are there any other kind?—roused us out of bed long before sunrise the next morning.
Virginia’s gifts just kept on giving, offering gorgeous ridgewalks, steep ascents, and interesting features, from a memorial to World War II hero Audie Murphy (mile 690.1) to the Dragons Tooth, a long, steep climb that ends in the first jewel in Virginia hiking’s “triple crown” (with the other two just a day away on the AT).
I was surprised at how few deer I saw on the AT compared to Colorado, where they are as common as crows or rabbits. On that muggy, cloudy day, I saw eight deer, as well as a huge rattlesnake. Downclimbing the Dragons Tooth was the most technical—and therefore fun—challenge of the trail so far. And for the first time in days, there was no rain.
I caught up to Patches at the famous Four Pines Hostel near Catawba, located just up the road from the trail where it descends from the rocky heights above. A favorite of hikers, Joe Mitchell’s hiker flophouse is a sprawling, tin-sided garage filled with cots, couches and mattresses that can sleep 30 or 40 hikers in a pinch. Two dogs, Lil Bit and Daisy, and a chunky cat named Buddy gave me a much-needed fur fix, and I enjoyed listening to the chickens, guinea hens, ducks and one old tom turkey hanging around the yard.
Joe and his oddball collection of hangers on—who were gearing up for their annual trek to make barbecue at the Trail Days celebration in Damascus—shuttle hikers to the famous Homeplace Restaurant for all-you-can-eat family-style meals for under $15. Alas, the Homeplace was closed the day we arrived; instead, I ate gross, greasy food from the quick-stop place down the road, giving myself a mild case of “town belly.”
To my great surprise and pleasure, Optimistic Dreamer and Babychicken (aka Optimistic Chicken), two hikers I’d met in the Smokys and was hoping to meet again, were there. When I mentioned that the stitching on one of my pack straps was unraveling, Babychicken whipped out a needle and thread and sewed it up tight.
Although ambivalent about getting off trail, I was also excited about my upcoming break. First, my stepson Dane was coming to visit. After that I would participate in a pre-Memorial Day ceremony with the governor of Tennessee in Nashville, then meet my mother, sister, aunt and cousin in New Orleans, where I would give a presentation at the National World War II Museum about my grandfather. Then in late June I was to accompany my mother to a family reunion in the mountains of North Carolina, where I would reunite with my cousin Helen—who now sported the trail name Margarita—and we could swap stories.
I’m excited to go home, see Jody and do all the amazing things I’ve got coming up, I wrote that night. But I’m feeling so torn! I’m not ready to get off.
Knowing (even if poor Jody didn’t yet) that I’d be back on the trail in late June made it easier. But that didn’t change the fact that when I came back, I’d be solo again, and the friends who had made these last weeks the best I’d ever had on trail would be hundreds of miles away.