March 12, 2018
Destination: Fontana Hilton Shelter Today's Miles: 0
Start Location: Fontana Hilton Shelter Trip Miles: 165.50
The shelter was packed last night, but I slept fairly well. A lady showed up last night and delivered pizza to the shelter as trail magic.
I didn’t catch her name, but she came by again in the morning and I learned that she lives in South Carolina and drives up here once a year to do trail magic. It’s pretty amazing! I wish I had been able to learn more about her. In the morning, Jay ate some fruit and said to me that he get a little weird just accepting trail magic, like he should do something for it. I told him that’s the beauty of it - it’s pure kindness. All you can do is pay it forward. Or, as Ron wrote to me in his note the other day, “magic it forward.” Life On the trail is tough, but somehow there seems to be more generosity and kindness than in many peoples’ “real” lives. I think there is something to be learned from that.
When I woke up, lots of hikers were bustling about the shelter. It was still dark as the clocks had bumped forward an hour. I quickly checked the forecast from my sleeping bag. Ah, the luxury of modern technology and a cell signal! The day still called for rain and up to 4 inches of snow at higher altitude. That said, I thought strongly about pushing on. I had a text exchange with my wife, and that helped me to make the rational decision to zero today as well. Weather will be cold tomorrow, but at least it won’t be raining (probably won’t be - things change fast in the mountains). You see, this is kind of my M.O. Hungry Cat is like a cat because he likes to be comfortable, likes to eat, and can be lazy. But he’s also like a cat because he gets antsy and curious and can quickly make a series of not-well-thought-out decisions that get him into predicaments. We had a cat named Hallie that passed away shortly before I started my hike. She was the litter runt and weighed all of about 5.5lbs. Even in her old age she looked like a forever kitten. She didn’t know she was tiny though; she would run around and let out these huge roars like some kind of jungle cat. Sometimes I’m like Hallie (minus the forever kitten part). I think I’m a jungle cat, but I’m just an alley cat like the rest. Anyway, I roared a little bit this morning and then decided to zero. Maybe I’ll order some drapes and furniture from Ikea for my corner of the shelter....
A lot of the group headed out into the snow. I heard Motorcycle Mama calling for a shuttle, so I asked her if she wanted company for breakfast at the lodge. I figured it was a good chance to hear her story. She agreed, so that was the plan. Before catching the shuttle I shoved my water filter into a smart wool sock and then into my down sleeping bag so it wouldn’t freeze, which would render it useless. I brushed my teeth behind the shelter (I’m highlighting this for my dental hygienist supporter who was kind enough to leave a funny post in my guest book the other day - thank you!) and ran into Rivers again. He confessed that he ran out of materials to make a second snowshoe, and so he disassembled the first one. I told him it was still cool that he even made one. It almost looked like some kind of winter mantle piece decoration. He and some others were heading into the mountains this morning.
At breakfast I ordered the breakfast burrito again, but this time had a side of two pancakes. It was all delicious! Motorcycle Mama and I got to know each other a bit. She is from New York and does, in fact, ride a motorcycle (a BMW something - I’m not that versed in types of motorcycles). Turns out she was an accountant for a software company, and just wasn’t feeling that work/lifestyle anymore. So, we had a few things in common. She has a cat named Button and showed me pictures. Button looks a little like our cat Lucy. We talked a bit about travel experience. She described a trip to Vietnam she’d taken that sounded really cool, and I told her about the years I had spent in China. We discussed some of the characters we’d met in the trail, and overall how we felt about the trail experience so far. I think the common theme was, even on the tough days it beats working! It was really a great conversation and I appreciated the opportunity to get to know a fellow hiker a bit better. So often we just pass each other on the trail with the same chatter - name, thru hiker or not, destination.
After breakfast, Motorcycle Mama went up to her room at the lodge. I wanted to charge my phone and journal a bit in the lobby, hiker trash style. I was wearing my hiking pants, but I had my green crocs on with no socks. I take every opportunity to air out my feet, and I wanted the blister on my right foot to dry up a bit. The lodge lobby had free coffee, so I settled in. There was a conference at the lodge and a lady from the conference approached me at the coffee machine. She asked if I was a hiker and said that she had forgotten how close this lodge was to the trail. She said she thought it was a great accomplishment that I would hike to Maine. All I could think was that I was just hoping to survive tomorrow! I don’t think about Maine. I really don’t. I take one day at a time and basically just try to make the next best decision I can and put one foot in front of the other without hurting myself.
I plopped down in the lobby and chatted with some hikers - Traveler from New Zealand was there. I found out that he lives in London now. He’s been living in the UK for a while. I found an outlet and plugged in to charge my phone and journal a bit. I knew I needed to go back to the shelter at some point, but it was quite cold out so I wasn’t in a hurry. The only thing I wished I had done was bring my water filter. I always worry about it freezing without my body heat. I drank some more free coffee. It made me jumpy! I drank lots of coffee prior to hitting the trail. It was a habit I developed while working long and odd hours. On the trail the most I’ve had is two Via packets per day in the morning. I think this was my fifth cup, so I definitely felt a little twitchy. It was nice to be in a warm lodge with comfortable furniture, free hot drinks, a restaurant, and views of the falling snow. The tree tops far away in the mountains were dusted like a Christmas scene. As I sat and journaled, I saw two girls, Pocket Doc and Toad, who were at the shelter this morning and I had thought set out hiking. I found out that they got 3 miles in and Toad’s ankle/Achilles was hurting badly, so they turned back to get s night of rest at the lodge. I felt badly for her as the first 3-4 miles are the meat of the climb into the Smokies, and also of course because she was hurt. They said that there were a ton of hikers who pushed on today. They were in a bubble of about 30. I was surprised, figuring most would zero and head out tomorrow. I do think there will be a large bubble tomorrow as well, which is ok.
Since I have the time, I’ll finish the story of the Hiawassee Magic. I already wrote about meeting Louise and Miss Ellie, and about going back for my puffy jacket at the restaurant. This piece of magic is perhaps the strangest. That night after dinner when I was unpacking and organizing my bag, I found something on the bed spread at the Budget Inn. At the time I thought it had fallen out of my ditty bag (what’s a ditty bag? See my videos to find out.). The bed spread was very mottled with many colors, typical of a slightly dated motel pattern. On it was a small tan rock. It was about the size of my thumbnail and was shaped like a heart. On one side it had a heart drawn on it in green marker, and on the other it had a capital “G,” also in green marker. You can see a picture of it in my photos. I was convinced my wife Gillian had put it in my ditty bag, so I texted her. She had not! Then I was convinced my parents had done it, but they had not either! I felt a little crazy, and in a way I felt like I’d just barely missed Santa coming down the chimney. The only thing I could figure out was that maybe someone else had accidentally left this rock on the bedspread, and I had found it. The coincidence of the “G” was a bit uncanny though. I took a picture of the rock and told Gillian that I wasn’t going to carry the weight, but would take the picture instead. However, I did actually decide that the rock, weight or not, should come with me to Maine, and so I vowed to bring it with me and give it to Gillian after the journey as a surprise. I thought I put it in my ditty bag. A few days later when I checked my bag, the rock was not there. Now, I don’t know if you believe in magic, but this was so odd! The rock was kind of exactly what I needed, mentally, when I needed it to get me going again. If I didn’t have a picture of it, I could almost believe it was a conjuring of my mind. I wish I had the rock to give to Gillian, but most things magic require an element of ephemerality to be magical, and I suppose this was no different. I can even see the next hiker finding that rock. Maybe it would even have a different letter on it - whatever letter that hiker needs to see. Regardless, at that moment I knew just how special the trail was, and that if I could always remember the magic of that rock, I would never lose my way. Not on the trail; not anywhere.
I waited until my electronics were fully charged. I went back to the lodge restaurant and ordered a taco salad to go. I know you’re probably thinking “what?? A salad?!” Well, I needed veggies and protein. It had chicken in it, and it also came in a taco salad shell that I could eat for carbs/calories. As I was waiting for the food, Dicey walked up. I barely recognized her all cleaned up. She got food to go back to her room. We chatted a bit and she said she was staying at the lodge and then hitting the trail tomorrow. Somehow it made me feel better to know we would head out on the same day. She had a lot of knowledge and confidence in the woods. I know she wouldn’t walk out into certain death! I ducked aboard the shuttle with my food and had an entire conversation about chainsaws with the shuttle driver.
There were some new faces and old faces at the shelter. Squatch was gone. Maverick and his son Goober (I met them at the Pit Stop the first day here) are staying tonight, as well as some section hikers and Sparrows. I wanted to shower. In fact, I had planned to shower back at the lodge. I don’t have a towel and I just washed my buff, so I didn’t want to lay down with that and have my wet buff freeze. So, in true hobo fashion, I went into the lodge bathroom and came out looking my fat like Santa, my jacket pockets full of paper towels so I could pat down later. Like I said, I’m a classy guy.
I walked up to the bathroom and there was a maintenance crew working, so I went back to the shelter and ate my salad. It was good! I swept up the shelter floor to get some of the detritus out. Most shelters have a broom. Then I put in some socks and tucked into my sleeping bag to wait for a bit to take a shelter. Some of the shelter folks from last night had left some food behind, so I grabbed a ramen for tonight. That and the trail magic snacks from yesterday will make a nice dinner!
I finally went up and took a shower. It felt glorious. I can’t see to quite get rid of the hiker funk though. It’s like my pits have this memory of stench, and 5 minutes after the shower they remember “oh yeah, I supposed to smell like dead squirrel toes. Let me get on that.” Anyway, when I finally done with this adventure I think I’ll have to shave off all my body hair and soak in vinegar for a few hours.
I went back to the shelter and talked more with other hikers and ate an orange from some morning trail magic. It was good to eat citrus. Everyone is talking about the Smokies. We don’t know what to expect from the hiking. We know it will be cold, but we don’t know if the trail will be icy and dangerous, or just manageable and slow going. I’ve been at this juncture with whitewater kayaking before. Getting ready for the next big challenge, then thinking more about the potential consequences than focusing on the fact that I’m prepared and ready. It becomes kind of a self-defeating psych out. So I’m going to stop thinking about it and just wake up in the morning and hike! It will be good, and we should have great views.
In his book “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail,” David Miller wrote: “Anything that we consider to be an accomplishment takes effort to achieve. If it were easy, it would not be nearly as gratifying. What is hardship at the moment will add to our sense of achievement in the end.” I’m glad the Smokies will be a challenge. It will make me feel alive.
I’m going to rest a bit and make ramen later. Tomorrow I plan to eat a cold breakfast on the go. I’ve been antsy today eating and resting. Tomorrow it’s time to hike!