The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
March 2016: Birch Spring Gap to Pigeon River Bridge
The weather was perfect for hiking the next day, with temperatures in the 60s, clear skies and a light breeze. I rolled out of Birch Spring Gap not long after sunrise and made good progress up to the Smoky Mountain ridgeline, but spent much of the day in full-blown “noronoia,” thanks to a funky belly. I veered off trail on a blue blaze around 1 p.m. to check out Spence Field Shelter, where I was officially “permitted” to stay (and where, just two months later, a bear took a bite of a hiker’s leg through a tent, causing the park to close the shelter).
In the Smokys, hikers must register and pay a camping fee and stay only at designated campgrounds and shelters, where tents aren’t allowed. Thru hikers are waived from declaring their exact itinerary but must surrender shelter spots to registered campers, whereupon they are allowed to pitch a tent. The definition of thru-hiker, according to the park, is anyone who is hiking the 70.5 trail miles through the park as well as 50 miles on either side.
Because I was not hiking 50 miles north of the park until April, I foolishly decided to apply for the more restrictive non-thru permit. But I’d arrived at Spence Field after just 11 miles, with hours of daylight to spare, and I didn’t intend to waste a beautiful day—especially since two women day hikers at the shelter told me that a “huge, nasty” storm was on the way. I was going outlaw.
The six miles to the next shelter (including a summit of good, ol’ Rocky Top) were tough going. Rough, rocky, rooty and steep, with lots of PUDs (pointless ups and downs), I wrote that night, thankfully oblivious to how much rockier, rootier and steeper the AT would later become.
But I enjoyed the camaraderie that night at Derrick Knob Shelter. I met two unusual hikers, Optimistic Dreamer and Babychicken (whom I referred to as “Optimistic Chicken”). O.D. was a quiet, almost grim guy in his 40s who had SOBO thru-hiked the AT in 2015, summiting Springer Mountain on New Year’s Eve, then turned around for a 2016 NOBO “yo-yo.” He began his long trek after the death of his baby son, father and two brothers in short succession; far up the trail, I would read more than a few of his anguished shelter logbook entries—”Why me?”—from his SOBO journey.
Babychicken was his tough, bookish companion, who had decided to hike the trail after her husband abruptly left her. She co-owned an unusual company, Novel Adventures, which arranged travel for mostly middle-aged women to experience their favorite books, especially Diana Gabaldon’s Scottish “Outlander” series. I talked endlessly about books to Babychicken and marveled at the pair’s fancy (for hikers) meals, including summer sausage fried in butter and honey. As different as they seemed, by mile 189.3, they were tightly twined partners, and I would see them again up the trail.
Though I give him credit for honesty, I was less fond of another older guy bedding down for the night.
“I just want you all to know, I do snore,” said The Snorer (not his real trail name). Oh, man, did he. Like a grizzly bear with a chainsaw. All. Night. Long. Once again, I slept poorly.
Thanks to the Snorer and a persistent pre-dawn owl, I was up and out by 7 a.m. for another gorgeous hiking day. The skies were a perfect, unsullied blue as I marched up toward Clingman’s Dome (mile 199.5), at 6,667 feet the high point of the AT. I reveled in the cool scent of spruce trees on the ascent, and for the first time the Appalachians reminded me of my native Colorado mountains. I was starting to see more than just tiny birds—squirrels and spring-brown snowshoe hare.
A bitterly cold breeze was blowing by the time I reached the top of the observation tower. I hunched down and ate tortillas and peanut butter with a couple of bicyclists and two hikers, including Greyhound, who I wouldn’t see again until some 2,000 miles up the trail. Descending the ramp, I ran into Chloe, my first ATC ridgerunner—staff members who hike certain sections of the trail keeping tabs, helping hikers and promoting Leave No Trace principles.
Blue-eyed and rather hard-charging, Chloe grilled me as she did every hiker.
“Trail name? Northbound? Thru hiker?” she asked briskly, clipboard in hand, cheeks red from the chilly breeze. “And you put the white copy of your permit in the box when you entered the park, right? And you’ve got your copy?”
“Oh yeah. Yup,” I said with forced confidence. In fact, I’d even lost the non-thru permit I did have (in case any park officials are reading, it was 2016 permit #B158242). I felt like a POW on the loose in enemy territory, quaking inside that she would soon demand, “Your papers, please!” in a German accent, and I’d be carted off to hiker jail and slapped with a $5,000 fine). She didn’t, and I scurried off into the spruce trees on my scofflaw way.
But I wasn’t going to need the permit anyway: I’d decided to hike seven miles into Newfound Gap, hitch to Gatlinburg, and end my AT shakedown cruise before the winter storm hit. I would just start from the gap instead of the top of the Smokys when I finished hiking with my cousin in April, I told myself, but I knew in my heart I was just wimping out.
Not that the run down from Clingman’s was a stroll in the park. As I noted in my journal that night from the wuss-out comforts of the Grand Prix Motel, “Net downhill” is fine. But on this trail, that doesn’t seem to translate to “easier.” I still had 700 feet of hefty climbing and my heart was pounding. That plus “town miles”—in an astonishing violation of the laws of physics, the last few miles into town are always longer than normal trail miles—made for a long day.
I experienced my first-ever trail magic at Newfound Gap, having been skunked for the previous 500 miles of the Colorado Trail and 100 miles on the AT. Two local Christians, Mountain Momma and Godspeed offered make-your-own sandwiches, soda pop and chips to passing hikers.
“We serve the hiking community because we love God, His creation, and people. It is our hope and prayer that you find ultimate peace while on this pilgrimage,” they write on their business card. “Our wish is that your blisters be few and your memories filled with adventure and joy. May God bless your journey.”
They also gave me a ride to the Grand Prix . I told them I was done for now, but I’d be back in April, starting at Springer.
Good to have a break, but frustrating to break the rhythm, I wrote that night. I’ve enjoyed trail life this week. Now three weeks of waiting, then hiking with Helen. It seems like way too long.
Interlude: Gatlinburg: A clash of civilizations, where skinny hikers desperate for calories swim upstream against an endlessly flowing river of enormously overweight tourists, white-kids performing lame raps on street corners, cheesy hillbilly animatronic “attractions,” huge jangling sports bars, the constant grumble and grind of glasspacked pickups the size of armored personnel vehicles….
But as I wrote earlier, I couldn’t face the shame of not hiking on the beautiful morning that followed. Thanks to Mountain Momma and Godspeed, I was back on trail 11:30 … just as the storm I’d tried to wuss out on arrived. After hiking 15 miles and climbing some 3,100 feet through rain, fog, light snow, hail, and glimpses of pale sun, I reached Tricorner Knob Shelter at around 5 p.m.
Temperatures dropped to 17 degrees that night, pushing the limits of my warm-weather gear and sleeping bag. And sleeping for 10 hours in town, I rolled and rocked all night again. Well, I wrote in my journal, that was a chilly night. I slapped earplugs in early and often against the astonishing buzzsaw snoring of the guy next to me, to no avail….
So I was up early, marching through an icy, foggy tree tunnel in near dark. But the trail was relatively easy, and I rolled quickly along a ridgeline in my down puffy and long pants against weather that shifted from wind and fog to sun and light snow.
As I neared the northern end of the park and the end of my first leg, I came upon Chickenfoot, the big-mile hiker who had psychologically dragged me up Jacob’s Ladder. He said he’d zeroed in Gatlinburg, started late, and drifted into Tricorner about 2 a.m., where he cooked “dinner” before heading up the trail. He’d tried to sleep without busting out his bag or tent, huddled next to a tree a mile north of the shelter.
“I didn’t sleep much,” he said. It was 2 p.m., and he was planning to hike another 20 or 25 miles. When we parted, I took his trash, then humped another three miles downhill, leaving the park. I hit the Pigeon River by late afternoon, hitched back to the Big Creek Ranger Station, then slogged about a mile through cold rain to the horse camping area where I’d left my car.
I didn’t know it yet, but those first 130 miles or so had given me an Appalachian Trail experience in miniature. The possibilities of camaraderie, every kind of weather, from 80-degrees and sunny to 17 degrees and snowing, the relentless progress of the trail up and over every mountain it can find, the beauty, the pain, and the indescribable joy of living simply, every day.
I’d walked through the Smokys, allegedly the hardest part of the trail in the South—I
thought south of the park was just as hard—but it was beginning to dawn on me that walking the remaining 2,000-plus miles might just be the hardest thing I’d ever do. But driving toward Asheville in a driving rain, I was already pining for the trail and counting the hours until I could return.
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