A week ago, a trail angel, Nancy, reached out with an offer to help our group out, offering to take us in for a night and help us resupply. As we began talking, I could sense Nancy’s sincerity, and we worked out a time and place that worked for her family and our group.
The way it worked out best was for our group of five (arbor, Scudz, wolfburger, the kid and I) to push some heavy days, four in a row, and then begin to slow down. I liked this plan, as it pushed us hard to get miles in early, and would only ease the miles needed to finish on time. Going into hot springs, our four days out were 24, 28, 28, and 29 miles. That’s really high miles on the AT this time of year. The days are short, really short. There’s less than 11 hours from sun up to sun down, making high miles more difficult than just a month or two ago.
Scudz and I reach hot springs, NC around 6:30pm, and breath a sigh of relief. Our last big day on the trail. Or so we hoped. We celebrate with arbor over BBQ and beers at the local tavern before calling it an early night. I’m exhausted, and fall asleep quickly. The high mile days felt good, but my body was tired, and now that the edge was off, it crashed.
I wake up late, having slept extremely well. The whole group goes to the local diner for breakfast, and I place two full orders and a hot chocolate. I’m not done celebrating the end of our high mile days yet. We have only 275 miles to springer, and a mere 19.5 miles a day that we need to do to finish on time. It’s time to pump the brakes, and I wonder if I’ll be able to do it. I’ve trained myself to ‘go-go-go’, and slowing down for more than a day or two has never been an option. I wonder how it will feel, if I’ll like it, or if it will feel too foreign for me. Mentally, I need to turn the ‘go’ switch off.
I go to the gear store after breakfast and purchase a small tarp I’ve been thinking of getting, by Etowah. It’s 6’x10′, no frills, and weighs only 9 ounces. I think it’ll work out well on the CDT, and want to use these last days on the AT as a testing grounds. I also get a free little alcohol stove made from a pop can, and purchase a .6 liter evernew pot. It’s smaller than any pot I have, and again, I want to test this configuration out to see if it would work well on the CDT.
Arbor, Scudz, and Wolfburger really hand it to me when they hear of my purchases.
“Mr ultralight carrying a stove and shelter, what a n00b!” Arbor says.
“I’ll stay ultralight by sneaking it into your pack every morning. You won’t even notice in that osprey.” I respond, heckling him back.
Our group is like family now. Constantly giving eachother a hard time. We all dish it out – me especially – and we can all take it. I like it, as I tend to tease a lot, but in this group, they can dish it right back, and it is always light hearted and ends in laughter at the things that are said.
We all take off at noon, headed for max patch, a tall, bald mountain some 20 miles south. It’s a lot of climbing today, out of hot springs, but it feels good. It’s a warm, sunny day, and it feels great in a tank top and shorts. Summer is making a comeback, as it hits 77 degrees.
After 6 or so miles, we realize we’re going to miss sunset unless we start pushing it. I don’t want to miss sunset on max patch, not on such a beautiful day. So I push it, hard. Arbor and I race over the crunchy trail, thick with fallen leaves. A 2,500 foot climb here, another 900 there, but we don’t slow down. Up and up we go, relentlessly pushing forward at a fast pace. Arbor, being a former cross country star in college, can crush, despite his heavier pack. It’s always a challenge mowing miles with him when we get in situations like this, and I really enjoy it.
We reach the summit at 6:00pm sharp. Chicken Fat, another SoBo is already there, having left earlier in the morning from hot springs. He’s obsessed with ultimate frisbee, playing on several traveling teams, and carries a disc with him on the trail. Tonight, on max patch, there’s no better place to toss the disc! The summit is huge and mostly flat. It’s roughly the size of a football field, and it’s all short grass. The mountain has 360 degree views of the mountains in all directions, including the smokies. Due to it’s open top, it’s a notoriously windy mountain. But tonight, there isn’t the faintest breeze; perfect. Chicken Fat, Arbor and I toss the disc, spreading out as far as we can on the mountain, diving to make catches, and running all around. It feels sooo good to be throwing the frisbee again, something I love and do often back at home.
The clouds are wispy above us, and the setting sun quickly turns the sky into a giant light show. I take a break from throwing the frisbee to take some pictures as Scudz shows up. Drenched in sweat from the climb, and mouth breathing, she immediately drops her pack.
“Throw me the disc!” She yells to chicken fat, “I’ve been thinking about this all day!”
Scudz and I played on an ultimate team together in Denver, and she loves the game. She’s been anxiously anticipating this for a long time, having known chicken fat carried a disc since well before we had ever met him. Word travels on the trail.
The sunset turns wild, and I grab my camera to get some more photos. This is the most colorful sunset I have seen on the AT, and it’s gorgeous! I think of how lucky I am to be here, and the encroaching end of my adventure creeps into my head as I watch the colorful clouds move just slightly above us. Less than two weeks left. I need to soak this in.
Wolfburger and the kid show up an hour after dark, and we all lay out our sleeping bags next to each other. A local, Cassidy, joins us for the night, and brings several bottles of wine. We lay down, eating everything in sight and sipping wine while watching the stars come out. We talk of life, what we’ve learned from the trail, and what we’ll do when we go back home.
It sounds strange to me; home. Denver is my home, and will be for some time. But after six months of being on the trail, it now feels like home. Hiking all day, sleeping under a blanket of stars every night. I feel so connected to nature and the rhythm that comes with being out for such a long period of time. These mountains are my home, and My life in Denver seems like a distant memory from here.
The next morning we have 14 easy miles to I-40. We wake up and watch the sun rise as the wind picks up. It was a warm night on the bald, and I slept great. We all cruise together, excited to meet Nancy and her family and to enjoy some relaxation.
Nancy greets us on the trail with her sons Aiden, Owgene and her daughter Paige, and soon we’re greeted with a cooler of mountain dews at the trailhead. This is all too good. We all drink a dew and immediately perk up.
I remember this specific trail head, as I have been here before on the way home from my friends wedding in NC, back in ’11. I stopped, excited to take a picture by the sign with my buddy jonathon. I told him I would hike the whole trail one day, and would remember this spot when I did. And here I am, at the same sign, hiking through. It brings up many fond memories, and a sense of accomplishment, knowing I’m lucky enough to be out here enjoying this trail.
We get to Nancy’s house and are treated like royalty. I could go on an on about everything she did for us, from making us a home cooked meal, and opening up her house to five strangers. I needed new shoes, she made sure I got them. We all needed to resupply, so she brought us to a grocery store.
Her husband Larry and I talk business, and it feels good to have a semi professional talk with someone in the business world. I need to begin doing that more. My language has revolved around trail talk so much that I fear I may have lost the business lingo and professionalism. Hopefully it comes back naturally.
The five of us watch Mulan (Scudz choice) with the kids, and all is right in the world.
“I don’t even feel like I’m a guest,” wolfburger says “we’re just one of their kids. Their trail kids.”
Nancy marvels over what we’re doing, hiking the trail. She tells us how tough we are, and how inspiring our journey is. After she drops us off at the trailhead the next day, we all discuss this and laugh. We’re just bums. We have one job, one purpose in life, and that’s walking towards springer mountain in Georgia. Nancy? She has three children, two of whom she’s home schooling. She works as a vetrinarian. She owns her own business. She wakes up every day early and does cross fit, staying in super good shape. And she maintains a beautiful home, among many many other things. She reminds me so much of my mother. She’s a ‘super mom’, tackling the world as if it’s so easy. We wouldn’t last a day in her shoes, honestly.
We all head off into the smokies dry, clean, and well fed. It was such a great experience, and leaves me thinking of my own mother. I miss her like crazy, having not seen her since last Christmas. She was the original inspiration, giving me the original idea to hike the JMT. She planned to hike it if she felt better, battling an illness. When things didn’t go as planned, I hiked it with my great friend, badger (who has been uploading photos for me on this blog while I’m out). If it wasn’t for my moms dream, I would never be here on this crazy adventure. I’ll be home to see her and my dad again this Christmas, and I can’t wait. I’ve been missing them dearly.
Nancy also keeps a great blog, which you can find here: http://hopeandfeatherdays.blogspot.com/2014/07/finding-me-again.html?m=1
Give it a read!