“Welcome man. Dude. Welcome.”
This was followed by a man-hug. Two days later, as we took a breath at the conclusion of an exhausting climb, I would declare that Donald is my spirit animal.
“Just pick a spot for your sleeping bags. There’s plenty of room, so, like, just spread out man. It’s all good. Whatever you need. We’re just glad you’re here man.”
On a chilly morning in October the trail had turned to packed dirt as I neared the Georgia highway. It was my last descent of the weekend. Unicoi Gap. My thoughts were dominated by a pancake breakfast as I carefully searched in both directions before crossing to the parking area.
I spotted my car and sighed relief. Three days unattended with no damage from vandals. A quiet anxiety for section hikers. As I jogged into the gravel area, backpack bouncing, breath visible, my attention was diverted. “Hey! You want a doughnut?”
The offer came from two young fellas. Long hair, beards, with dirt-stained shirts, sitting in a beat up van with the side door open. If this had occurred on a random city block it might be termed as “sketch.” I immediately veered left and walked their way.
These two had just finished a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Due to COVID they were forced to segment their adventure in ways they may not have dreamed back in March. Nonetheless, their finishing point was Unicoi Gap, concluding a long southbound hike.
The Appalachian Trail traverses mountains, valleys, cities, and farmland, from Georgia to Maine. Or Maine to Georgia, as it was originally promoted during the 1940s. It is maintained by volunteers. All 2,193 miles. It is not a federal park, and even the portion through Smoky Mountains National Park is maintained by volunteers under the guidance of park rangers. These volunteers are mostly hikers who are driven to give back to their community.
Late July, 2015, soaked from excessive sweat, I resolved to push on to higher elevations and cooler temps. Just beyond Winding Stair Gap in North Carolina the terrain is challenging. I reached a flat area of the trail, appreciated by my legs, as I approached a vehicle. It was parked near the trail at the edge of a gravel road. Chainsaws echoed in the distance.
Abreast the vehicle an older gentleman asked, “you want a beer?”
I looked his way in silence as sweat streaked down my face. I’m certain he read the body language of, “is this a dream?” He then proceeded to open a cooler displaying an assortment of beers packed in ice. I chose a dark beer from an Asheville brewery. I sat and chatted with this angel for a bit before declining a second beverage. Nearly 2,000 feet of climbing remained.
A Society Apart
I am usually the organizer for AT Section Hikes. I enjoy doing this as much as I enjoy a solo hike. Though truly there is no such thing as a solo hike on the Appalachian Trail. For a hike covering Halloween weekend, of just over 30 miles, we needed an early start on day one. Available parking near Neel Gap, Georgia, even early in the morning, was going to be an issue.
Donald offered me the opportunity to arrive the evening prior and crash on his back porch. His offer was via text, before we had ever spoken.
Donald and his wife Mary are part of a network along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and portions of North Carolina. Shuttle drivers who pickup hikers, for a fee, and take them wherever they need to go. I received Donald’s number from another shuttle driver who was previously booked.
Unbelievable is a word I hear often these days. When applied to kindness along the trail, it becomes a word of meaning. I’m sure there exist other communities where people offer their house to complete strangers. I only know of the hiker community.
This network of support extends all the way to Maine. Though the AT is a micro-economy, shuttle drivers, hostels, and restaurants, most of the support comes from basic human generosity. The only cost being a conversation from another like minded person.
The rain stopped. My eyes peak open as I recall where I am. In a forest in The Smoky Mountains. It is still early evening. I exit my tent to gather water, then walk to the shelter to prepare dinner. My stomach is re-introducing me to hiker hunger.
Near the shelter, situated deep in the forest nearly one-half mile from the trail, there are several tents scattered about an open area between large trees. Trees which have stood the test of time. From within the shelter I can make out laughter echoing from the wood structure.
As I enter there is the typical hiker greeting. Maybe not much different than you would imagine. Hey. What’s up? How’s it going?
I find a spot and set my equipment to get water boiling. The conversations continue without pause, nor am I interrupted from my focused task. They did not have to read my body language to know I am hungry. Everyone on the trail is hungry at this hour.
After food I began a conversation. Two of the hikers would end up at the same shelter the next evening. Twice we would enjoy lunch in the same area without prior arrangement. All four of us enjoyed a sunrise I’ll not soon forget, at Cammerer Fire Tower, on the 4th day.
Maximus. And Gunnslinger with two n’s. They were on a shakedown hike in preparation for a thru-hike in 2021. These two were near mirrors of me and Andy. I’m the talker. Andy is the quiet one. Maximus and I spoke often. I heard the first sentence from Gunnslinger on the third night.
Trail names are given or earned. It becomes your identity in a community of people who seek a connection. Whether they realize it or not. Nature is the commonality which brings hikers to a spirit of togetherness.
My trail name is Monsoon. I seem to attract rain showers.
I met Charlotte in early September. Three of us on a section hike covering just over 24 miles, Charlotte gave us a ride to our starting point at Sam’s Gap. She runs Uncle Johnny’s Hostel near Irwin, Tennessee. Her husband, Johnny, passed in February of 2018.
The second time I rode with Charlotte, another shuttle ride with eight hikers total, it felt as if I was speaking with an old friend. I can still hear Charlotte’s raspy, southern-influenced, “heeey!”
The thru-hiker season along the AT occurs at different time periods in each state and city it traverses. March to October. All along the trail people come out to help the thru hikers. Trail Angels. Pizza carried to a shelter late in the evening. Cold sodas handed out in the midst of a sweltering summer.
Trail Angels are former hikers. People who are driven to give back.
Human connection is what makes us who we are. Without it we cease to thrive. The overindulgences of modern living, of which I am a willing participant, makes it increasingly difficult to find moments of true connection. A feeling of togetherness from shared experiences.
Nature resolves to remove these external forces. Long distance hiking trails are traversed by like-minded people who seek to escape, at times if only briefly, the saturation of modern conveniences. I crave time spent in nature. To reacquaint myself with gratitude derived from simple pleasures.
Laughter from the shared experience of overcoming the challenge of living through a miserable, cold rain. Long conversations with friends about nothing in particular. The sounds of the wilderness complement these things. Nature is adverse to societal distractions which so often seek to prevent connection.
This is the forest of our human mind. To find a way to connect. To be human. Nature is my avenue to navigate this forest.
About The Author
My name is Jerry. Trail name is Monsoon. In addition to running a hiking club, I also own and operate a coffee shop & bookstore. Check it out here.