Hiking a long trail can make for some unlikely friendships.
I met some great people on the Appalachian Trail in 2004, and with the following scanned pictures and journal extracts, I recall one of the true characters I’ve had the privilege of meeting and walking with — colourful, passionate, larger than life, but dependable and true, like the Trail itself.
The meeting happened after a long, hard day, my first ever 19-miler (full disclosure: it was 18.9), a distance I’d never have thought myself capable of covering, particularly with the numerous long climbs typical of the southern Appalachians…
May 13, 7:58am, Cold Springs Shelter, North Carolina
Well, I did it — a very successful day yesterday, distance-wise. I had a good, refreshing stop at Rainbow Springs…
.. just me and Andrew* and Skittles** and some vacationers.
In the morning I had another shower and returned to my tent to find an apple and a banana on the picnic table — my first experience of “trail magic” — left by the couple from Pennsylvania.
I had to wait a while for the owners to get the shuttle back to Wallace Gap organised:
I was the only passenger — Andrew and Skittles were getting a ride into Franklin, Andrew to look for insoles to help his sore feet, Skittles to rest for a couple of days, get over his poison ivy.
Andrew was still sleeping so I farewelled Skittles and we got going just before 10:00…
No Country for Hirsute Men
I rocked yesterday. From the sweeping, terraced curve of US 64 at Winding Stair Gap, I kept up the pace for several more hours: Swinging Lick Gap, Panther Gap, passing the Pennsylvanian “trail angel” couple (I thanked them for the fruit).
My first real “bald” — bare, treeless meadows which crown several summits in this part of N.C. — was Siler Bald:
The bald was big, like a pasture bordered by woods. I ate lunch there: crackers and cheese, energy bar, pecan pie, Little Debbie trash-cookie — and felt good. I’d decided to head for Cold Spring Shelter, a long way off — still had another 12 miles. I was making up for the lost time the late shuttle had cost me…
Across Wayah Gap, I started the ascent of Wayah Bald (5,342′). Crossing the dirt road of USFS 69, a family group from Florida gave me a nice cold cup of orange Tang. I left them and moved up, and still up, till I got to the level area at the top of the thickly vegetated bald:
Nobody knows what caused these balds to develop — fire, insects, glaciers and human agriculture are among the explanations…
I had the place to myself. Despite the gloomy, hazy weather, a grand panorama of blue ridges and peaks in all directions.:
There were far-off Standing Indian, and Albert Mountain with the tiny dot of the tower on its top.
Had I come so far, so fast? It seemed miraculous that a person could be on Albert one day, and this peak the next, powered only by the workaday muscles of heart, lungs, legs and feet…
Making Sweet Trail Music with Myself
I had 5 ½ miles more to cover. I left Wayah at 4:30 and thought I could get to Cold Springs by 6:00, as it was mostly downhill. Well, the first part was…
I passed no more hikers that day. Through Licklog Gap and on, and on, through rhododendron thickets where I imagined lurking bears, and banged on my tin cup at each turn; over wet patches where the trail crossed and turned to re-cross seeping mossy streams, till at last I got to Burnington Gap, with one last tiring ascent of 1.2 miles.
I was tiring — I stopped for my third pecan pie of the day. I’d composed two songs — words and music — that morning in my caffeine-fuelled charge from Wallace Gap, and now they were gone to wherever flights of the imagination take off to, perhaps to return, perhaps not…
Shelter for the Evening
At last the regular, solid shape of what could only be the shelter roof, and then the sides: huge, ancient logs, chinked with cement.
This was an old and rustic shelter, and it had an occupant: one former National Guard Special Forces Colonel/Forensics Cop/Lobbyist, now retired, an amiable, likeable and garrulous middle-aged fellow called Carlos, out on a solo 60-miler to Fontana Dam:
He was lying back on the floor reading a true-history paperback about some WWII campaign. He promptly sat up as I dropped the pack from my trail-whipped carcass and collapsed onto an old wooden stool, and before long we were engaged in the most interesting conversation I’d had on the trail so far.
A Proud Southerner
Carlos — his trail name is “Forensic Man” — one of nine siblings from Alabama (and not at all as Hispanic as his name would suggest — seems he’d grown up near a Spanish community and his mother had been stretched for inspiration with all those children) was a keen amateur student of history, and especially the military history of the Civil War and WWII.
He has the self-confident bearing of a career soldier but is well-educated and interested in the world around him, a declared proud Southerner and Patriot but not at all jingoistic or boorish.
He declared that the [Civil] War had been about slavery and that:
“Slavery is wrong, it’s evil and it’s wrong, and the Bible is wrong when it says that you have to look after your slaves, and they oughta take that shit out!”
We talked about the A.T. and the War, and his family, and drank some of the bourbon he carried in a plastic “flexi-flask”.
“Are you a drinking man, Ian?”
“I can be.”
“Well, here you go.”
To be continued…
* Andrew retired injured soon after — we’re still in contact.
** Skittles made it to Maine and is still a hardcore hiker. He visited me a year or so back during a year of international hiking.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote