The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
April 2016: On the road to Damascus
Leaving Overmountain Shelter, I hiked alone up and over two beautiful balds that reminded me of the Scottish Highlands. The sun was out, the breeze was just right to keep me cool, and my heart soared as I came to the end of a small clearing at Doll Flats: Leaving N.C. Two states down!
Just as I reached U.S. 19E, which led to Roan Mountain, Tenn. on the west and Elk Park, N.C. I heard someone call my name. I turned back to see Lava Monster and Patches motoring along at their usual rocket pace.
“We made a point of getting up early this morning,” Lava said, “but you were still gone!”
Slowly, but surely, these two young speedsters were beginning to understand how such an old man could possibly keep pace with them day to day.
“Well, I wake up with the birds, sometimes before,” I explained. “And there’s not much point in lying around in my tent.”
They invited me to hitch into Elk Park with them for a late-morning breakfast at the Sissy’s Ole Country House restaurant, a hiker favorite that serves Southern vittles in heaping portions. But I had already decided to walk a third of a mile the other direction to bolster my food bag at the Mountain Harbour hiker hostel. Besides, I explained, I hate hitchhiking. So we went in our separate directions, seeking fuel.
Although the terrain was gentle, smoke and sun made for a long, hot afternoon. I had planned to “stealth camp”—pitch a tent in a non-designated camping area (perfectly legal along most of the AT)—but reached the Upper Laurel Branch stream without having found a good spot. A fast-moving couple with a sweet, tired-looking pit bull named Matilda, pointed out a faded blue blaze that led two-tenths of a mile upstream to Vango Abby Memorial Hostel, named after the late Ron “Vango” Frey and his beloved dog.
I made a snap decision and took the blue blaze. Walking along the beaver-dammed stream, the faint sound of music rippled through the woods. The first thing I saw upon entering a clearing was a tall, bearded, bespectacled guy playing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” on a porch piano. A Confederate battle flag hung limply from a high pole above a Bernie Sanders yard sign. Four young hikers were lounging out front wearing terry cloth bathrobes, waiting for their laundry to finish.
“Welcome to paradise,” one said. “You’ll love this place.”
Piano-playing Scotty, an engineer and Trekkie with 14,000 trail miles to his credit, has run the place since Vango died. A trail angel paid for construction of a sizable bunkhouse with a kitchen with a private “Astronaut” suite above. A bunk was just $10 and soda and frozen pizzas were just as reasonable. Scotty and I talked about Star Trek, Ray Bradbury and movies before I showered and did my laundry.
Birkie and Roo arrived and took the upstairs room. Patches and Lava rolled in and pitched tents beneath the flagpole. Later, the five of us stayed up late (for hikers) talking, laughing and feasting on pizza, Ben & Jerry’s and Coke.
Happy to be here, I wrote. And—surprise!—happy for the company.
The year 2003 bears the dubious distinction of being one of the rainiest years ever on the Appalachian Trail, with hikers reporting wet conditions on anywhere from half to two-thirds of every day during peak season, including a run of more than three weeks in May.
I experienced my share of rain on the trail—including a three-week run of wet weather in south and central Virginia—but in truth, the 2016 season will be better remembered as a drought year with many wildfires. The morning I left Vango Abby I literally walked through the still-smoldering remains of the Railroad Grade fire, a suspected arson blaze that consumed nearly 1,500 acres.
I had started off at 7 a.m. expecting an easy day. But an endless run of PUDs (pointless ups and downs) and a late-day march up Pond Mountain would add up to 3,500 feet of climbing on a day that turned hot and dry by noon. But the variation in terrain was a welcome relief, and at the bottom of an absurdly steep series of stone steps, I enjoyed dunking my head at Laurel Falls, where my mother had fallen and broken her elbow during a summer-camp expedition as a child.
During the 2,000-foot descent of Pond Mountain, I realized how much I had begun to despise the sound of traffic whenever I approached a road. The perpetual whine struck my ears as not just irritating, but aggressive, compared to the quiet of the woods. But there were perks to roads: I crossed busy U.S. 321 to find a cooler full of icy Cokes.
Dumping my pack at a picnic area for the Watauga Point Recreation Area, I stripped off my sweat-soaked clothes. As I was laying them out on the lawn to dry, a small SUV drove up.
“Hey, Pony!” It was Kansas, the ’14 thru hiker who had provided the incredible spread just before Unaka Mountain three days earlier. She was driving back to Virginia when she saw me crossing the road and wanted to know if I wanted what was left of her trail magic. Just then, Patches and Lava rolled in, and the three of us Hoovered up candy, fruit, chips, soda and more from Kansas’ rolling magic pantry.
“Double magic,” I said as the three of us sprawled in the sun following a fast, frigid dip in Watauga Lake. “Who gets that?”
Several hikers had endured a harrowing incident at Watauga Lake Shelter a couple of weeks earlier, in which bears actually entered the shelter and shredded tents in search of food. Optimistic Dreamer later described it as night-long siege. Nobody slept, and the men took turns stoking a fire to keep the bears at bay. As a result, not only was the shelter closed, but hikers were not even allowed to stop for the next four miles. Although it was late afternoon, the three of us plunged ahead through the “bear freakout zone” and, for the first time, made camp together.
But I was up at 4:30 the next morning and headed up the trail alone. Again, what appeared to be an “easy” day from the elevation profile in Awol’s AT Guide, wasn’t.
Following the slog up Pond Mountain, I’d coined the term End of the Day Motherfucker (or EoDMofo), to describe the seeming inevitability of one last, brutal climb before reaching camp. Nearly 500 miles in, I was beginning to grasp the true nature of this trail and the “gentle, old” Appalachian Mountains.
There are NO ‘flat’ or ‘easy’ days on the AT, I wrote later. At least not when you are hiking more than 20 miles.
And, inspired by “the lads,” as I had begun to think of them, we were piling up serious miles. Following a 25-plus mile day, we’d decided to push through 27.4 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing, which would put us less than 10 miles from tiny Damascus, Virginia, home of the famous annual Trail Days gathering and a much-celebrated waypoint.
Somehow, I stayed out front of Lava and Patches all day. The scenery was beautiful, ranging from long ridges to grassy meadows with old stone walls. I arrived at Abingdon Gap Shelter (mile 458.6) at 3:20 and the lads came tramping in an hour and a half later. Giddy at the prospect of a giant breakfast, we vowed to reach town before 10 a.m., and settled in for a memorable night.
As I rolled out my sleeping pad, a lump that had appeared to be a pile of cast-off clothing released an audible fart. A large, pale young guy emerged from the heap, yawning and asking what day it was. He introduced himself as David.
Later, a lively young couple, Terrible Lizard and Les Mayo (who turned out not to be an actual couple), showed up, full of smart, snappy banter that would have made the Marx Brothers proud. Terrible Lizard got her name when she accidentally scooped up a small red eft—a juvenile eastern newt, commonly seen on the trail— while filling her water bottle.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s not a lizard,” she said. “But ‘Terrible Newt’ just doesn’t have the same ring.”
This prompted a running conversation between us about women scientists and how they are portrayed in movies. We railed against the the insipid new movie, “Jurassic World,” in which the main female character stumbles around in heels and makeup, as compared to the original, which featured a badass female hacker and a field scientist who dressed in boots and gear suitable for … wait for it … a scientist. Far north, I would come to appreciate this pair’s sharp and sardonic shelter logbook entries, such as wildly exaggerated “bear counts” that mocked breathless hiker bear tallies (and eventually segued into a “shark count”).
Easy-E, a fast, compact New York hiker pushing a 30-plus mile day to get into Damascus, stopped by the shelter to make dinner before soldiering on.
While cooking dinner, David shamelessly begged for everything—coffee, food, tobacco, water—leading us to dub him The Mooch. Lava, encouraged by what he’d seen of my unfiltered manner, egged me on to bestow the name upon him, to his face. I declined, in part because he seemed more homeless than hiker.
Near the end of dinner, Lava headed off into the woods downhill, small plastic spade in hand; the shelter had no privy. When he returned, he laid the dirt-covered tool right next to where I was eating.
“You know,” I said, “it’s interesting. In theory, a shit shovel never actually touches shit; only dirt. And yet you can’t help feeling an aversion to it out of mere association….”
Lava’s cheeks flushed to the approximate shade of a red eft as he sheepishly removed the offending instrument. To my disappointment, he refused the new trail name I suggested: Shit Shovel.
After dark, we had front-row seats to a spectacular storm that split purple-black skies with jags of lightning and sent a river of marble-sized hail coursing beneath the shelter. After the tempest had passed, we heard a woman’s voice singing up the trail. When a headlamp came into view, we hollered out a greeting. Though Lady Catherine had already walked more than 20 miles and braved the hail in the dark, she said she was going all the way into Damascus.
The lads rose early the next day and we started together. I soon lost sight of them in the warm fog, but they waited for me up the trail, and after that, we flew in formation. Giddily (and literally) jogging the last three or four miles, we spilled into sleepy Damascus at 9:20. We checked into Crazy Larry’s, one of several hostel options in town, before taking care of the real business: stuffing our faces at the excellent Mojo’s Trailside Café & Coffee House.
I always feel a sense of release when I hit town. My body lets down its defenses just a bit, as if to ask, “Uh … does this mean we’re done with all this foolishness?” This time, the ball and big toe of my right foot were extremely sore; I didn’t realize it yet, but the trail would permanently change my feet. In addition, my right knee and a ligament in my left ankle felt “twingy.”
But as always, it didn’t take long to start feeling antsy about doing my “chores”—food shopping and laundry. And by late afternoon I was champing at the bit to hit the trail.
“You are,” Patches would tell me on a sunny August day, less than a mile from the end of the trail, “the most restless hiker I’ve ever met!”
But I didn’t resist when the lads roped me into one more breakfast at Mojo’s the next morning. We rolled out of Damascus late, exactly 24 hours after we’d arrived. As always, the pleasures and pains of town faded quickly into the reality of the trail. Only this time, I hadn’t left good company behind.