Friends Made on the Peoples Trail
The Appalachian Trail is known as the “People’s Trail,” and after our first week of hiking north Georgia it is easy to understand why this is so. The boys and I have encountered many other hikers—and everyone, it seems, has their own reason for being here.
When we made our way to the top of Blood Mountain last Sunday, we met Don and Mike, two brothers from, respectively, Pensacola, Florida, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The brothers were standing, with a handful of other hikers, atop a big hunk of granite that towered over the stone shelter that was to be our home for the night. Alexander, Ryan, and I hoisted ourselves up to greet them and to see what had prompted the spontaneous gathering. It was immediately apparent that, on Blood Mountain, “the rock” was the place to be. The view to the west was so commanding and exquisite that it quite literally sucked the air from our lungs and left our jaws agape, an OMG eventually winding its way out from between our lips.
As we stood gaping, Don passed us a flask of Irish whiskey, and my boys and I each took a glorious sip of the sweet nectar. Later, Mike shared that he and his brother make an annual pilgrimage to the wilderness for a bit of hiking, and this year they wanted a social experience. So the AT—the People’s Trail—was the obvious choice.
I’ve read a great deal about the AT over the past few years, so I knew about the social aspect going in. While I enjoy people, having the company of other hikers along the journey wasn’t an overriding consideration when we were making plans. It has, however, been a pleasure. The presence of others who are sharing a similar journey helps keep your spirits up. It’s not just you battling the rain, the fatigue, or the steepness of the climb up the last mountain and the painful press of the rush down the other side. You will undoubtedly meet someone during your day that will be delighted to share their experiences with you.
Tired, Cold and Soaked to the Bone
Don’t get me wrong. The AT is not filled with a line of intrepid hikers marching steadily around every bend—but it would be the off day that you wouldn’t meet someone. This could not have proven more true than this past Friday when Alexander and I ambled into Low Gap shelter in a driving rain. At this point in our day were were tired, cold, and soaked to the bone—and had been basically salivating at the prospect of a warm shelter for the night. So it was a huge disappointment to arrive at Low Gap and find the shelter full, with no room at the inn.
Of course the shelter was full! It was a weekend night on a popular section of the trail. A salient point we had naively overlooked. And yet, reading the disappointment on our mud-stained faces, the seven hikers who had already claimed dry cover for the evening began the process of reordering their gear in an attempt to eke out extra space for us. Just seeing their compassionate efforts helped us make a mini-recovery.
While the Low Gap shelter crew scrambled to make room for us, we busied ourselves over dinner. There was a lone, wet picnic table that sat squarely in the rain, so Alexander and I proposed to the group that we relocate it at the rear of the shelter under the partial cover of the overhang. Being the MacGuyver that he is, Alexander had a plan to rig a tarp from the roof and provide complete cover over the table. It worked, and the others now had a place to sit and fire up their camp stoves for their evening meal.
Things were starting to come together.
A Diamondback Rattle Snake and Three Tough Women
The interesting part of all of this was the effect that the activity and the small victory of the picnic table had on our moods. Focusing on the group, rather than ourselves, temporarily elevated our attitudes, and we found we could forget the miserable weather conditions and begin to enjoy what might have otherwise been a painful camp out.
It turned out that we had seen three of the hikers, a group of women, in the Low Gap shelter at Neel’s Gap, when we departed on Thursday, and had heard them hooting and hollering a mile or so back as they crested the trail high above Hogpen Gap later that afternoon. The hollering, as it turned out, was a reaction to a near-miss, when one of the trio, Lynn, a marketing executive from Atlanta, stepped in the path of a large diamondback rattlesnake and was struck on the foot. Miraculously, the snake’s fangs did not penetrate her shoe, and Lynn survived to continue their hike.
News of this sort spreads like wildfire on the trail. In fact, Alexander and I passed a father and son day-hiking the very next morning, and when they shared the news of the snake bite, it was already a cult classic. When the trio of women did not appear at Whitley Gap the night before (the next available shelter on the trail) I shared my concern with Alexander: “Hope those gals were OK in all of this rain. What a miserable night to be tenting it,” I said, adding a moan on their behalf. But via the trail grapevine the next morning, we heard the women had filled their water bottles at the stream below us and were now out in front, beating feet down the trail.
This was the first intimation that this group of women—Ann and Lynn, sisters from Atlanta, and their cousin Annette, who had flown down from her home in Bangor, Maine, to make their long-weekend hiking adventure—were no band of wilting daisies. And here they were, at Low Gap shelter, happy, joking, and having a ball among the worry and concern of the other hikers. Everyone else was making plans for a formal escape should the weather not clear during that night. But not these women!
In the Company of Women with Whiskey
As Alexander was busy prepping our evening meal (potato gnocci, Knorr’s Parmesan cream sauce, and a foil pack or two of salmon—this boy sure takes good care of his dad!), Cousin Annette, of Bangor, Maine, meandered up to the picnic table, a Hav-A-Tampa Jewel cigar dangling from her lips and toting, as she explained, a ritual Maine peace offering—a half-pint of Fireball whiskey. (I for one had never tasted an alcoholic version of a fireball. Imagine, if you will, Southern Comfort blended with a strong dose of cinnamon and peppermint. Mix the Fireball with the cold, the rain, and a few of Annette’s stories, and you’d find that sweet whiskey pretty damned good!)
We had already learned first hand that whiskey—in moderation—is a critical component in wilderness survival, a nip or two at night serving as a stellar method to weather the rigors of the AT. We knew this, because Alexander had thoughtfully brought along a flask of Crown Royal. (Actually, his flask was an extra gas bottle for his stove, but he had filled it instead with our favorite smooth Canadian blend. And, yes, we did have a discussion as to whether we could run his Whisper-Lite camp stove on Crown Royal, but decided to pass on the experiment.)
But back to the Fireball. . . .
A Half-Pint, A Sad Tale, and A Sacred Communion
While first sharing whiskey, laughter, and stories with Annette, I found myself in the shadow of something deeper and more painful. This wasn’t just a weekend stroll on the AT for Annette and her cousins. As we stood in the lee of the shelter, Annette attempted to share in a nonchalant way that her long-time husband, the love of her life, David, had died of cancer just two months prior. It was an attempt at ease she could not quite manage, although she sincerely tried to pull it off. I stood there, slack jawed, attempting to process the news, and watched as her big smile cracked like glass under an immense but steady force. Tears sprang to her eyes, and I had a similar reaction. It was one of those moments that defies verbal engagement, so we just stood, eyes locked on one another, caught in that uncomfortable vacuum where language simply fails.
For those few seconds, I could not for the life of me differentiate between the sound of the rain beating down around us and the sound of my own heart beating in my chest. I could tell Annette had become accustomed to broaching this sad news, for, to her immense credit, she simply passed me the small bottle of whiskey as if handing me a cup of tea. It was one of the sweetest gestures I can remember, and I gratefully took a long sip while collecting myself, then passed the bottle back to her, a sacred communion intended for our immediate salvation.
The painful moment passed, and by the time Ann and Lynn rounded the corner, Annette was back in rare form, telling raunchy jokes, drawing hard on her cigar, and puffing out clouds of smoke between her stories. Every so often, I caught a glimpse of some of the other hikers back in the main shelter and saw the look of regret in their eyes. Why hadn’t they been included in our gathering?
Visitors to the Inner Lives of Women
But those other hikers couldn’t know the truth of these moments: Under the overhang of the shelter, between shared sips from the small bottle of sweet whiskey and the good-natured fun, Alexander and I were witness to the healing journey these three women were on. As I marveled at the women’s bravery and laughed hard at their stories, I also realized that, having transcended the predictable traps, we were basking in the natural attraction that both sexes derive from the other. In fact, Alexander and I had arrived in a special place most men only hope to find. Briefly, we were visitors to the Inner Lives of Women.
I cannot pretend to know how a woman views such a thing, but for a man, the interaction with a group of women who know there way around a dirty joke, who can throw back their heads and laugh until tears stream down their faces, who smoke cigars, drink whiskey and enjoy the company of men is a rare and delicate thing. That night, I believe, we touched on an intersection that marks a dividing line between the sexes. A demilitarized zone if you will—a place men and women rarely visit together.
While I am not sure of our exact place in Ann and Lynn and Annette’s journey (maybe we were just there as a counterpoint or a mirror for the work they were committed to perform), that night I did understand it would have taken a calamity much worse than a downpour to drive these girls from the mountains. It was evident that they shared a long history and a close bond and that Ann and Lynn had contrived this trip to fill the painful void in Annette’s life—even if that meant a respite of just a few brief nights on the trail.
If Alexander and I bore witness for them, they provided a sweetness and soft sounding board that only a woman’s presence can deliver. They buoyed us up, giving us friendship, laughter, and companionship at the end of a difficult day.
Truly, the Appalachian Trail, the People’s Trail, is a place of healing.