The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
April 2016: Smoke and wishes
Thanks to a late shuttle—the driver had taken a leisurely lunch after church—it was nearly 4 p.m. by the time I crossed the Pigeon River Bridge (mile 239.5). It was about 45 degrees warmer than when I’d finished up here in March, and wildfires to the north had turned the air a hazy, somnolent yellow.
A missed turn led me to the famous (though not universally beloved) Standing Bear Farm hostel. I turned back and soon was sweating the 3,000-foot climb to the beautiful, grassy top of Snowbird Mountain. I’d originally planned to camp on Max Patch, the most beloved bald on the southern AT,
but because of the shuttle delay, I didn’t even get to Groundhog Creek Shelter (mile 247.5) until just before 7 p.m. It was the worst shelter I’d seen so far: Old and sagging, I observed. Privy practically in the middle of camp, filled to the brim. Animals have gnawed away half the toilet seat.
It was also the first shelter I’d had entirely to myself (not counting a bug-eyed little brown mouse, who scrabbled all night but remained utterly oblivious to my food bag). But I cooked dinner next to a group of eight friendly, card-playing young tenters who planned to rise early to catch the sunrise on Max Patch.
Thanks to my little friend, I was up early myself, and started up the trail in the dark. Outside the cone of my headlamp beam, the forest was alive with sound, owls talking, skitterings and skirmishes in the underbrush, and even the crunching footfall of some much larger creature deep in the shadows. Sunlight, stained bloody gold by a cold layer of smoke, finally fingered through the bare trees around 7. I came upon the only two hikers who had answered the summons of a 3 a.m. alarm, Kaleidoscope, a young woman from Colombia, and a kid who was soon leaving the trail for a Ph.D interview; they weren’t going to make it up the hill for sunrise.
Standing atop Max Patch, I cursed my shuttle driver’s after-church luncheon. Tenters and yawning cowboy campers were packing up after a clear, cold, windless night of stargazing and sunrise worshiping, and I knew I’d missed something special.
I’d made up my mind that I was going to hike 26 miles into the trail haven of Hot Springs, North Carolina. As the day grew warmer, wildfires that had lain down overnight—cooler temperatures equal higher humidity, which tamps down flames—raged anew. I’ve always loved the smell of wood smoke, but that day it was thick enough to turn my throat gritty and sore as I chugged up 4,500 feet of climbing.
I leapfrogged two fast-moving hikers, a young bearded guy from Virginia named Patches and a tall, Hispanic Californian, Sequoia, until they finally passed me in late afternoon. Hot, frog-croaking and tired, I paid $10 to pitch my tent on the spreading lawn of the Laughing Heart Lodge, right next to Sequoia.
After stuffing myself at the Spring Creek Tavern—including an outstanding Kolsch-style beer from Ashville’s French Broad brewery and even better, chocolate cake—I took a shower and joined the conversation on the Laughing Heart porch. The fact that I generally sleep with my food bag (where required, as in the Smokys, I hung my bag; when a locker was available, I made use of it) earned the ire a chunky, belligerent hiker whom I’ll call Overdose.
I explained to her that my system, a Kevlar Ursack with an odor-proof OPsak (an air-tight, water-tight, “sealable plastic bag is made from special film that is 17,000 times more odor resistant than HDPE,” an industrial-strength plastic, according to Ursack), works so well that even shelter mice leave don’t know there’s food under my knees.
“Bullshit!” Overdose barked, jabbing her cigarette in my direction. “You’re killing bears when you don’t hang!”
I understood what she was talking about: When bears learn that food bags are easy prey, they become conditioned to seek them out. When that happens, “nuisance” bears—though it seems to me that we are the nuisance—are too often killed by authorities.
But my system was far less likely to attract a bear than most of the lazy-ass hangs I had seen along the trail. Dangling a bag from a spindly branch 6 feet off the ground—and I’d seen plenty hung lower—is like inviting every bruin in the neighborhood to the world’s easiest piñata party.
I bowed out of the conversation when Overdose—with whom I would have another run in more than 1,000 miles up the trail—wouldn’t drop it. But I did later overhear her muttering, “OK. So I guess it is Kevlar,” after looking Ursack up on her phone.
I escaped Hot Springs the next morning, just two days before that section of trail was closed for nearly a week due to the wildfires. After another hot, smoky day, I pitched a tent at Hemlock Hollow, a remote, vaguely Deliverance-esque little camp near Greenville, Tenn. I met a hiker named Grey Ghost who had just spent several days off trail due to infected blood blisters; he still looked like he was walking on broken glass. I was grateful that I’d had no blisters on the AT so far; amazingly, I never would.
But my feet were feeling the punishment of some 65 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing (with nearly as much descent) in three days. Just as I’d briefly imagined I could outfox the weather, I had at one point fancied that I could avoid “the agony of da feet”; but this is one form of suffering virtually every thru hiker must learn to tolerate. After a long day, the soles of my feet felt like they’d been pulverized with a meat tenderizer by a very large and sadistic masseur; somehow, they always felt renewed by morning. I remained blissfully ignorant of how much more sadistic the rocks of Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Maine would turn out to be.
The following day—Dude, it’s 4/20! I scribbled, though I didn’t intend to join the celebration—I hiked through Jones Meadow, looked over Whiterock Cliff, crossed numerous small streams, and traversed a long, rocky ridgeline on my way to Sugarloaf Gap (mile 310.9).
Although the profile in Awol’s guide didn’t look too arduous, the 25 miles between Sugarloaf Gap and No Business Knob Shelter added up to more than 4,500 feet. The weather was fickle, veering from cloudy to sunny, with plenty of wind, forcing numerous changes of clothing and making me cranky. A Pepsi and snacks, courtesy of trail angels at Spivey Gap, improved my mood—and eased worries over a nearly empty food bag.
I love sleeping in my tent. But I am a fundamentally lazy hiker, and whenever rain threatened overnight, I did my best to get to a shelter; who wants to mess with drying out a tent? No Business was small and packed, but a storm was coming, and kindly hikers squeezed and shuffled to make room for me. Rain rattled the roof all night long.
I headed out early the next morning during a break in the storm. Walking through the fog and wet trees, I had long, beautiful views of the Nolichucky River below. To my good fortune, I reached Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel outside Erwin, Tenn. at 9:15, just ahead of a torrential downpour that would deliver a steady stream of drowned-rat hikers for the rest of the day.
Uncle Johnny is an old trail hand. Between his tie-dye shirt, floppy fishing hat, grizzly white beard and his lumbering, friendly dog, a Rottweiler mix named Jerry Garcia, he is the very stereotype of an aging hippy. The hostel, which runs a shuttle to businesses and restaurants three times daily (I always wonder if there’s payola), offered varied accommodations, from tenting to cheap bunks to newer, better appointed private rooms. I opted for the dingy bunkroom.
I enjoyed talking to hikers at the hostel, as usual, but my feet were itchy before the day was out, as usual. And while I wasn’t exactly bored, I found myself wishing for a serious change of scenery; I’d had enough of rhododendron tunnels and bare southern trees. And as much as I enjoy hiking alone—it’s almost all I’ve ever done—I was surprised to feel the slightest twinge of, not exactly loneliness, but a totally unprecedented desire for company. What’s the hell? I wrote. Must be coming down with something.
But the next day I saw few hikers (I credited a free church barbecue in town that day). Except for two sisters from Massachusetts, Legs and Verge, who waved hello as I walked past Curley Maple Gap Shelter (mile 346.4), I saw no one as I ground out the 3,500-foot, half-marathon climb to the summit of 5,200-foot Unaka
Mountain. The trail climbs through lush temperate rain forest over many rocks and rills, arriving at a crown dense with evergreen magic. It was beautiful, even when shrouded in a chilly fog.
After a long, clammy descent—I’m sick of clouds and rain and fog—sun tomorrow please!—I pitched my tent in an abandoned apple orchard just past Iron Mountain Gap. The place was lonely, beautiful and peaceful (except for a rumpus of wild hogs squealing somewhere down the hill to the west). In late afternoon, Legs, Verge and their friends Sweets and Jingle rolled in. A little later, a newlywed couple named Tumbleweed and Shiv arrived—a thru hike of the AT isn’t my idea of a romantic getaway, but hey, Hike Your Own Honeymoon.
I learned that Legs’ and Verge’s parents, Bombadil and Goldberry, were somewhere ahead on the trail, also thru-hiking. And I watched, fascinated, as Tumbleweed, an organic farmer, marched out into the field and returned with wild violets, ramps and onions to toss onto a frying concoction of fresh vegetables. I was relieved that I hadn’t eaten my little lump of hyper-processed instant mashed potatoes in front of such dedicated (and healthy) gourmands.
Magic was plentiful down South, and the next day was the best yet. I stumbled onto the dirt road at Hughes Gap where Kansas, a woman who thru hiked in 2014, was offering an unbelievable spread—deviled eggs, barbecue sandwiches, pop, candy, cheese, cupcakes, brownies, chips, hummus, carrots and celery, and more. I seldom stop for long during the day, but I had a hard time pulling myself away from this bounty.
On top of that, my wish for fresh landscapes came spectacularly true in the gorgeous Roan Highlands of Tennessee, some 2,500 feet above the gap. The weather was warm and breezy, just right for a stroll up a series of long, bald ridges adorned in grasses caught between winter yellow and spring green. I was thrilled to see a troupe of turkeys slinking off into the shade of the spruce-fir forest and sang out a curious assortment of songs on the long descent to Overmountain Shelter—the old cowboy tune “Strawberry Roan,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” an incredible song about “life after death” (but probably not like you’re thinking), “Bristlecone Pine,” and, wtf, Hall and Oates’ “Kiss on My List,” which I don’t even like.
Overmountain is one of the iconic shelters on the AT. Built in the 1970s, it’s a two-story barn that was converted into a shelter by the Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club in 1983. But I’d heard it was overrun with mice, and the weather was so spectacular, sunny and warm, that I and a dozen other hikers—the biggest crowd I’d seen in awhile—decided to pitch tents or cowboy camp on the adjacent lawn. Among the crowd were Birkie and Roo and Tumbleweed and Shiv (whose marital bliss seemed slightly on the rocks at that point; strong as they were, I concluded they probably wouldn’t make it to Katahdin).
There also was Patches, 23, who had blazed past me on the way into Erwin, and his friend Lava Monster, 27, a long-distance runner whose first trail name had been Ultra. These two high-rollers had rumbled through the Smokys together, 70-plus miles and some 12,000 feet of climbing, in just three days. I definitely couldn’t match their speed, but somehow I was keeping pace with them day to day.
I slept beautifully beneath the stars, waking up to the sounds of coyotes in the valley and turkeys gobbling in the woods. I left early, when everyone was still sleeping, including several dew-drenched cowboy campers. Alone as usual, I had no clue that my second wish was about to come true.