The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
April-May 2016: Four’s company, a snore’s a crowd
Repeating our pattern, the lads got out front of me not long after we left Damascus, then I passed them when they stopped for lunch.
That afternoon, Easy-E, the fast hiker who had stopped to eat dinner at Abingdon Shelter before continuing his 30-mile day into Damascus, motored past me on a flat, forested stretch of trail. Just minutes later, I caught up to him at a huge metal bear box stocked with soda and sugary snacks by a local church.
We introduced ourselves, but after mainlining as much sugar as possible in a couple of minutes, I rolled on. The trail wandered through peaceful pastures that smelled faintly of cattle dung—to me, a pleasant, earthy odor that spun me back to my cowboying days. As the trail left the fields and began to rise through the trees, I sensed someone on my heels.
Turning, I saw it was Easy-E. Compactly muscled, wearing a cap, sunglasses, and a neatly trimmed dark beard, he wore the look of a man on a mission.
“You’re faster than I am,” I said as he approached. “Feel free to pass.”
“Not so sure about that,” he said, flashing a quick smile, “since you always seem to be ahead of me.”
“I just don’t stop much. That’s how I got my trail name.”
“I noticed,” Easy said. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again.”
Virginia continued to offer a rich variation of terrain that included not just rhododendron and mountain laurel tunnels of the three previous states, but also farms, meadows and long, exposed ridges. On the approach to spruce-crowned Whitetop Mountain, Virginia’s second-highest peak, I walked through wind-tossed grasses and open fields with hazy purple valleys stretching away to either side. Sunny, breezy and cool, the weather was Goldilocks perfect for hiking.
After more than 20 miles and nearly 5,000 feet of climbing, I skirted Whitetop and came to a gushing spring with spectacular views to the east. I explored a half mile up the trail, but decided to pitch my tent by the spring. Easy, Patches and Lava and an older hiker and Navy veteran, Ummgahwah, eventually joined me.
We finally learned a little more about Easy. He had been pouring it on to put miles between him and Bambi, following the dissolution of their month-long trail romance. Rumored to be the “hottest” hiker on the AT that season, I suspected I’d seen her early one morning as I passed by a shelter—the flaming blonde beauty surrounded by a frantic flurry of male hikers desperate to “help” her.
“Yeah,” Easy said, “that would be her.”
He’d enjoyed the romance, he said, but eventually she let slip that another male companion was soon to meet her on the trail, and he felt deceived. He made a decision to focus on hiking, and since leaving Bambi had been pounding out 25- to 30- mile days.
That day, in a different kind of trail magic, we gained a fourth companion.
The last day of April would turn out to be one of my most memorable on the southern stretches of the AT. After skirting 300 feet below Virginia’s high point, 5,729-foot Mount Rogers, we entered Grayson Highlands State Park, duly celebrated for its population of feral ponies.
But before that, I led Lava and Patches (Easy had risen and hit the trail before me; there went that advantage) on a mile-and-a-half detour. The AT is well-marked for almost all of its 2,189 miles, yet it’s surprisingly easy to get lost in your head and veer from the white-blazed path without noticing. Feeling like a doddering old fool, I half expected my new companions to bail on me after I led them astray.
“Pretty sure we were all to blame on that one,” Lava said later.
True, none of us noticed the error until Patches finally asked when we’d seen the last blaze. I still felt stupid … and we managed to get off track twice more that day, though not nearly as far.
The morning skies were blue, but by the time we came upon our first ponies (besides one scrawny fellow), it was cloudy and cool and dark skies hung like a waiting army to the west. I hustled down from the high, exposed pony country, but couldn’t outpace the storm, and soon I began to feel tiny drops of cold rain on my legs, hands and face.
As I approached the sprawling, corral-like enclosure at Massie Gap (mile 500.9), a non-hiker—I was getting pretty good at making such distinctions—in a red baseball gap lumbered toward me from a parked pickup.
“Are you a thru hiker?” he hollered through the rising wind. “If you are, there’s magic right down there. Go on through the gate and head left to those tents.”
Magic is most magical when it’s needed the most, and I’d been running low on chow. Pushing through the gate, I approached the encampment of pavilion-style tents, where more than a dozen hikers sat laughing and eating around an enormous fire. A tall guy wearing a Buddy the Elf costume held out his fist for bumping and I knew he was a hiker (never shake hands with a filthy hiker). He introduced himself as Mathrage, a teacher who had thru-hiked the AT in 2004.
“Eat and drink as much as you want. Take as much as you want with you. That’s why we’re here,” he said. “I’m serious. As much as you want.”
This was no ordinary trail sorcery. Mathrage gathers friends the last weekend of April each year at the gap, setting up camp for the whole weekend to provide hikers with hundreds of dollars of free food, warmth and good cheer. They cook meals throughout the day on a huge grill, from breakfast burritos to tacos to barbecue, and keep a seemingly bottomless larder of chips, snacks, soda, beer, and all the fixins you could want.
Patches and Lava rolled a few minutes later, but Easy wasn’t there. We stuffed our faces in the warmth of a burning log some three feet in diameter. I enjoyed eavesdropping on Mathrage, as he explained his personal taxonomy of AT hikers: “big-dick” hikers, driven by speed, pursuit of miles and a sense of competition, “party animals,” whose favorite piece of gear is a pipe, social butterflies, who above all revel in fellowship, and other species.
I could have stayed there for hours, as many hikers had already. But I’d only walked 10 miles, and with thoughts of outrunning the worst of the storm, I stuffed a couple of beers, a soda, and snacks in my pack and headed out. The lads passed me eventually, but to my great relief, the storm didn’t decide to cut loose until after we were safely ensconced at Hurricane Mountain Shelter (mile 513.2).
When we arrived, a friendly, bearded guy in his 40s, wearing a hat emblazoned with the words, “God is Good,” was the lone occupant. A soft-spoken Southerner, Five Star was hiking the entire trail in sandals so minimalist they would have impressed the famous sandal-running Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico (I neglected to write down the brand, but I think they may have been Unshoes). When I asked, he described himself simply as “a follower of Jesus” who belonged to no religion.
(Fair warning: The next several paragraphs address religion, spirituality and atheism.)
Jennifer Pharr Davis, the remarkable Ashville, N.C. athlete who held the record for the fastest known supported hike of the AT until a few years ago, is a God-believer who has written that she encounters mostly unbelievers on the trail. I’m not so sure.
Certainly overt religiosity is uncommon, but I never heard any outspoken atheism, either. Patches came from a big family that practiced Messianic Judaism—Christians who live according to some practices of the Jewish faith—and Lava, like me, came from a Catholic background. Religion came up in our conversations, but I never knew precisely what their beliefs were—and I didn’t care; I still don’t. Likewise, I never told them that I am an atheist.
The truth is, accepting my lack of belief (for no matter what anyone says, belief is not volitional) is what led me to the trail. I’d grown up Catholic, going to “CCD” (formerly Catechism) and church, and I adored visiting Christ in the Desert Monastery with my high-school girlfriend’s family (to put it bluntly, being smitten with beautiful girls is the only thing that kept me in church for years). And I have had great friendships with progressive priests and monks throughout my adult life.
But after decades of attempting to force myself into faith, exploring dozens of traditions as a journalist covering religion—every flavor of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, several strains of Buddhism, Wicca, Scientology, and more—reading countless books, and interviewing literally hundreds of people about their beliefs, I’d never encountered evidence sufficient to convince me of the existence of the supernatural, whether ghosts or God. Today I am an “agnostic atheist”—I still see no evidence for God or the supernatural, but as I cannot know everything, I don’t claim knowledge that no such thing exists.
It took me years of personal work to shake vestigial fears of the punishing God of my youth. I first vaguely tried to believe in a “higher power,” but even that strained my credulity. Eventually I settled on a pure metaphor: Life is like reading a novel. You can read it purely for the plot—i.e. just walk around and do stuff—but if you want to learn and grow, you have to pay attention to subtleties, symbols and metaphors.
Having depersonalized the idea, I was able to start pecking through the shell of fear that had held me hostage for most of my life. I came to understand that this is the only life I know for certain I have, and it can end at any moment. As Morgan Freeman’s character put it in The Shawshank Redemption, it was time “to get busy living, or get busy dying.” Accepting this part of myself at last, without guilt, I vowed to start living in the present rather than regretting the past and fearing the future.
That was my personal great awakening. I auditioned for and got a part in my favorite musical (Jesus Christ Superstar!), traveled across the world to help recover the remains of my grandfather Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., a Medal of Honor recipient who had been lost for seven decades, and fell in love with long-distance hiking on the Colorado Trail.
I’ve had people point to trees, stars, the sea, to love and beauty, and ask how such things can have come into being without some guiding hand. But if anything, my unbelief has expanded my capacity for love, compassion, joy and wonder. Every day on the AT was a marvel that didn’t require any further “meaning.” The beauty, the pain, the friendship and the rain—every moment between Georgia and Maine—was exactly what it was. All I had to do was pay attention.
And yet I will always admire people like Five Star, who live their faith with quiet strength, peace and love.
(OK, you’re safe now. Back to hiking.)
Alas for Five Star, our arrival was not to be the last of the day’s insults to his solitude. A couple of hours later perhaps eight young hikers showed up, giddy, wet and full of laughter. Though friendly and fun, they were extremely loud and not overly attentive to the presence of others.
Leaning against the back of the shelter, the four of us watched the Mickey Mouse Club/Chuck E. Cheese show—names courtesy of Lava and Patches, respectively—like a line of sullen old buzzards. After about an hour, Five Star quietly began packing up.
“Oh, man. I feel bad that you’re being driven away,” I said, wondering if anything I’d said or done had contributed to his departure.
“I’m not being driven away,” he said, smiling. “This is just what I’ve decided to do.”
Easy impressed me later when, sternly, but without condescension, he asked the kids to pipe down so others could sleep. They instantly complied, as if dad had shushed a room full of giggling children.
Sometime after midnight, I woke to the sound of rain hammering on the tin roof.
If I look objectively at my 2,500-plus miles of thru hiking to date, I have to say I’ve been incredibly fortunate with weather. The CT taught me that if you aren’t willing to get wet and cold, you might as well go home, but I really only experienced one brutal drenching over nearly 500 miles.
Overall, the problem for 2016 Appalachian Trail hikers was not enough rain, as most seasonal and even some previously reliable water sources went dry. But the storm that blew in while we sat around Mathrage’s bonfire was the beginning of a weeks-long stretch of almost daily rain.
The skies uncorked on us for four or five hours after we left Hurricane Mountain, and I was reminded that no matter if you’re wearing a $600 Arcteryx jacket or $9.99 Frogg Toggs, rain gear will not keep you dry in a sustained downpour. That morning, I neglected Patches’ advice (first shared with me by MoonBeam on the CT) to walk jacket-less through most rain. My old GoLite (RIP) jacket was sodden after 20 minutes. (Here’s an excellent piece on thru-hiking in the rain.)
Wet or not, it was a beautiful day as I walked alone through forests now fully adorned with emerald foliage and long meadows full of tiny white and yellow flowers. A grouse boomed off into the underbrush and I kept my eye out for countless red efts and tiny toads drawn out by the rain.
We planned to walk a “short day,” 19 miles, to Partnership Shelter (mile 532.2), much loved by thru hikers because you can have pizza delivered from nearby Marion, Va. But when we arrived at 1 p.m., Patches and Easy decided to hitch to town. Lava and I crushed bills into their hands, knowing they’d return with mega-calories of junk food.
An hour or so later, we gorged on McDonald’s—which I hadn’t eaten in years—soda, beer, Oreos, and more. Later, a group of section hikers from Wisconsin (two couples and a teenage girl we dubbed The Swingers) gave us pizza. The fabled shower at Partnership was too cold for my tastes, though I did wash my head in a sink at the back of the shelter. Other hikers continued to arrive, including a chatty, appealingly geeky young woman named Olive Oil.
Late in the day, a burly guy in his late 50s showed up, unduly proud that he’d just completed the first eight miles of his SOBO section hike. He proceeded to loudly boast about the cabins he owned in Gatlinburg and continually tried to prod people into political conversations. As soon as one group of listeners found a way to escape his attentions, he’d find new victims and repeat his spiel almost word-for-word.
The Swingers took the upstairs at the barn-like shelter, while our crew, Olive Oil and The Gatlinburg Bore set up on the lower level. He was fortunate we didn’t string him up for the bears after he destroyed any possibility of sleep with his mind-shattering snoring. This guy roared like a jake brake without cease from the time he hit the sack until morning.
I was unfortunate enough to be about a foot and a half away from his buzzsaw piehole. I flipped during the night to give me five more feet of buffer, but it didn’t help. At one point, I turned to see Easy glaring like a vengeful demon, seemingly ready to leap over me and strangle the guy (I wouldn’t have stopped him). Instead, he hauled his sleeping bag out to the lawn, until a steady rain drove him back to the picnic table.
All hikers snore sometimes. People can’t help snoring. But this was a simple matter of courtesy. Back in Franklin, I’d heard no less an authority than Baltimore Jack present the obvious answer to the problem: “I know I snore. That’s why I don’t sleep in shelters.”
Eventually we just got up, brains crusted with lack of sleep. I scanned the row of boots with my headlamp, trying to remember which pair belonged to the GBS—the Gatlinburg Bore and Snore.
“I’m going to piss in ‘em, I swear,” I whispered through gritted teeth. “No, wait—I’ll shit in them!”
As they say, what happens on the AT, stays on the AT.
I will say—in admitted violation of everything I believe about human compassion and right living—that if any of the cabins destroyed in the terrible wildfires that blazed into Gatlinburg later that fall happened to belong to the GBS, well … karma’s a bitch.
Not that I believe in karma….