The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
March 2016: Winding Stair Gap to Nantahala Outdoor Center
I spent the night of March 12 crammed in the back of our trusty ’93 Subaru in the officially closed Big Creek camping area near the north boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I’d already experienced the first of many “Charlie Brown” trail moments—stupid shit that wouldn’t have happened, if only I’d been paying more attention. In this case, a small plastic bottle of olive oil had come unscrewed and oozed out of a Ziploc bag, greasing up my food bag to make it even more attractive to critters or bears.
While relieving myself long after midnight, an enormous, dark shadow loomed out of the mist in front of me. Snapping on my headlamp I saw six shining green eyes. Though hunted to extinction in Tennessee by 1850, elk were reintroduced in the 1990s, and this massive, gorgeous bull and his two female companions represented about 1 percent of the state’s population.
Standing in a light rain at Winding Stair Gap, I watched my pricey shuttle disappear down the road the following afternoon. After checking my straps and retying my Hoka One One Mafate Speed trail runners, I was ready to begin my 130-mile shakedown cruise to the north end of the Smokys.
“Hell yeah, we’re doin’ the Appa-fuckin-lachian Trail … Here we go, fuck yeah!”
I turned to see three hefty young hikers shuffling across U.S. 64, enormous packs swaying. They high-fived and charged toward a gravel road adjacent to the trail. I could still hear them hollering as I descended a couple of rough stone steps and took my first steps on the AT. I caught up to them a few minutes later as they took a smoke break on the steep lower reaches of the climb toward Siler Bald.
“All the way to Maine,” the woman bringing up the rear replied when I asked where they were headed. Her cheeks were mottled but she wore a big smile. “We just decided to start here instead of Georgia, to avoid the crowds. We’ll come back and do that later.”
There was something deflating, even a little embarrassing, about having to describe my patchwork plan: hike for a week, head home to wait for Helen, then start at Springer and go as far as I could before Memorial Day. I had mentally targeted Daleville, Virginia (mile 727.5), about a third of the trail, as a good stopping point, but I wanted to be able to say that I was going all the way, too.
I said so long and continued up that first, 1,200-foot climb, surprised at feeling winded. After all, these were not the Rockies or Sierras. The Appalachians—as we were literally taught in school in Colorado—are much older, gentler mountains, their sharp edges scoured away by the eons. And if overweight, cigarette-puffing hikers were feeling that confident, how hard could it be?
The trail was beautiful in a spare, spooky way, climbing through barren, daguerreotype woods matted with slick brown leaves and spiked with straight, gray trunks, signs of autumn’s annual massacre. Tiny gray, piping birds were the only signs of life.
I passed one more hiker, a chunky bearded kid who had plopped on the grass of Siler Bald. (The “balds” of the south—not all actually bald—are, or once were, hilltops cleared of brush and trees to make way for grazing animals and provide clear views for scouts and lookouts.)
“I didn’t really expect it to be this hard,” said the kid, looking a little shell-shocked after 125 miles on the AT. “But I’m just going to take my time and see how far I go.”
It was the right attitude. Benton MacKaye, who first proposed the trail in 1921, said there were only three good reasons to walk the trail: “To walk, to see, and to see what you see.”
I arrived at Wayah Bald Shelter following a steep descent from its 5,300-foot namesake peak and my first thought was, Everest base camp. The area was jammed with hikers, and smoke, laughter and music billowed out from the three-sided lean-to. Tents and hammocks crowded every level inch of ground thirty yards out from the shelter. I managed to find an acceptable, if uneven, spot, and pitched my REI Quarter Dome 1 tent. I quickly changed into my trusty, 25-year-old Patagonia silkweight longjohns and a warm shirt. I walked two-tenths of a mile down a blue-blazed trail to get water then cooked up some ramen noodles.
As I walked past the shelter on my way to try my first AT privy before bed, I heard a woman declare, “I only do a few miles a day so I can get a spot in the shelter.” The idea that minimal effort earned such a reward irked me, and such “six milers” became the first gremlin in my pantheon of early-trail “bozos.”
“Party kids” soon joined the rogues’ gallery.
Typical early trail night, constant waking, shifting position, I wrote in my journal. The night was windy and roaring, and the groovers were up late whooping.
It was dark when I woke, but by the time I started walking, raw, red sunlight was clawing through the barren trees, hinting of rain. I happily rambled up and over several small peaks for the next few hours, appreciating the smooth, leaf-littered path beneath my already aching feet.
But the friendly tread turned trickster as I sang, “Down, down to goblin town!” on the 7-mile, 3,000-foot descent to the Nantahala River valley. In 500 miles on the CT I’d fallen exactly once, but in less than three hours I took three acrobatic tumbles, each time vividly demonstrating an even more ridiculous way to eat dirt. The final fall sent me rolling a good twenty yards down a steep, leaf-littered slope, where I lay thinking about those “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercials.
Old man! I cursed myself in my journal that night.
The rain I’d expected all day finally began falling just as I reached an empty Rufus Morgan Shelter, but I decided to continue on to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where I paid $22 to stay in the hiker bunkhouse. After dinner and a Dirty Girl Blonde lager at the NOC restaurant, I took one more fall, into bed.
How can I be this tired after just 27.6 miles? I wondered as I nodded off.
Little did I know, those “gentle” old Appalachians were just getting started.