Day 14: Triumph

“How far are you going Joedirt?” Red asked me as he looked over my AWOL while I ate breakfast.

“I’m doing the 25 out; all the way to Davenport Gap.”

I was packed, expect for my cook pot and Spork. The rain was trickling and the Danish couple had already left. It must have been past 8 a.m, just us thru-hikers were left.

“Joedirt I think you mean 34 miles.” Red said and I turned to see what he meant.

He handed me my AWOL and I found Mt. Collins Shelter, mile 202.8, then turned the page and found Davenport Gap mile 237. I crunched the numbers mentally at the speed of first grader learning his arithmetic. Red was right it was a little further than 34 miles.

“Ok well that’s not going to work, I guess I’ll go to Cosby Knob at mile 229.9.”

“That’s still 27 miles.” Red said solemnly.

“Where are you going to today?” I asked.

“I think Pecks Corner Shelter. I’ll do that today then 12 to Crosby, then the next day I’ll get to I-40 there’s a hostel there I can resupply at. I’ve only got 2 days of food left.”

I looked over at Red’s food. He had it out of the bag and spread in two piles that I guessed was each days ration. In one pile there was a can of chili and a granola bar. In the other pile there was two packs of Top Raman.

“You know you can get a ride into Gatlinburg at Newfound Gap just 4 miles away.”

“I can’t do that I’ve got to commit.”

Red’s tone let me know I couldn’t convince him to hitch into Gatlinburg. I knew I had two dinners, some peanut butter and tortillas, and a mix of granola bars fruit chews and chocolate. So I pulled my food sack out and departed one dinner, the peanut butter with the three tortillas, and my fruit chews and two granola bars. Leaving me with just the one dinner, one granola, and two chocolate bars.

“Here, if I’m going to do 27 today I’ve got to be as light as possible.”

“But what about the next day?” Red asked.

“I’ve just got a few miles in the morning then it’s good home cooked meals at my Aunt and Uncles house.” Red looked as if he wanted to decline my food but after his pause he replied “Thanks Joedirt.”

I then went to the Lieutenant and offered my fire starters but he turned them down.

I got on the trail at 8:30 and felt well rested and fast. Newfound Gap came quick with just over an hour’s work, and I emerged from the trail to school busses and church busses.

I found a trash can to dump all my garbage, and sat to study the elevation in the AWOL. While doing this I had three different families want pictures taken with the dirty thru-hiker. One church group approached me and wanted to hand out some pamphlets.

“No thanks, I’ve got a bible, you’re better off giving them to another hiker.” I said.

“But these will help you interpret your bible.”

“That’s what the Holy Spirits for.” I said with a smile and the man dropped his smile and his eyes looked frustrated.

“I think you will benefit from these brother.” And he began to set the pamphlets down beside me.

“I’m not bringing them with me.” I said a little more stern. He picked up the material and walked off and I began to type a message for my aunt letting them know my plans.

There was then an odd looking skinny man, with camo pants and sports shirt that approached. I didn’t like the look of him and was irritated because he interrupted my message.

“These church groups are always harassing everyone.” He said.

“I’m sure they mean well.” I replied, then asked for a cigarette.

He pulled his pack out of his breast pocket in a rush like answering a request from an idol. The cigarettes were menthols. (Not my preferred, but they helped clear the damp phlegm feeling in the back of my throat.)

I will not try to recreate the man’s rant on organized religion. It was long, and I payed little attention. The only part that stuck out to me was his worship of hikers. Saying we were on a spiritual journey.

“Maybe some of us are?” I replied. Then stopped my cigarette out and added it to the trash. I was back on the trail after that and away from the only stardom I had experienced in my life. I’m sure if I had been in a different mood, then I was in those early days of the trail I would have enjoyed the attention. But truly I found it frustrating and too late. (After the smoky I was never asked for another photograph.)

The trail after Newfound Gape flowed well with me. I would hear latter that this section was hard for others, but for me I believe I made my best time. I had to have because I made lunch at Pecks Corner before 1 p.m.

It was rocky but the rocks mimicked stairs in a way. They felt like spring boards to me catapulting me forward around multiple groups I watch start the trail before me at Newfound Gap all heading to Charlies Bunion.

It was raining at this time so I skipped the side trail to this destination. I could barely see out from the trail over any view due the clouds. I stopped at the unmarked trail leading to the original Charlies Bunion. There, a woman who had section hiked to Damascus VA last year, gave me a Stinger Honey Gel pack. I was thankful for the gift and enjoyed her company for the 5 to 10 minutes we rested.

Nobody was at Pecks Corner Shelter when I ate my lunch. The wind blew but the rain stopped. It was not a hard wind but peaceful like wind blowing over the ocean. I was proud of the time I made but still focused and not arrogant.

The sky cleared before I reached Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. I was going slower but was still going to make Cosby Knob Shelter before sundown. The descent down from Deer Creek Gape hurt some when I started to cramp. I took the Stinger and mixed a electrolyte tablet in my water. The Stinger kicked in and gave me a good buzz. (It was a pity I could never find a place to buy them on the trail.)

As the trail descended under 5000 feet the landscape became familiar to the normal eastern woods. It lost the conifers and ferns for hardwoods. The soil turned from firm clay to dirt.

Cosby’s Knob came out of now where with shouts, and the sound of two pots being banged together. When I made it to the shelter I found it full of gear. The residents were coming away from where the bear hangs were located. They all looked 50 plus in years, and not too happy to see me. I recognized a ridge runner uniform from one of them and saw she was young.

“Hi” I greeted the group I did a head count to see if the shelter was full. I only counted nine. Some mumbled hellos in return but most just ignored me.

“What was the shouting for,” I asked the ridge runner who I would later find out her name was Chloe.

“A bear has been trying to come into camp.” She said with a tiered or frustrated voice.

“Whoa, is there any room in the shelter?”

“You can see.” She shrugged.

I still only counted nine and the shelter was to hold 12. I found a spot that was the most bare and began to make room for my bed. (I would hang my whole pack on the bear chains.)

“Excuses me sir.” A lady said with a shrill. “That’s my stuff.”

“I’m sorry but can I make some room we have to stay in the shelter till it’s full.”

“It is full!”

“Are their 12, I only counted 9?” I raised my voice possibly sounding disrespectful.

“There’s no room can you not see that!” The woman shouted with frustration; she knew I was right.

I ignored the woman and rolled my bed out on the shelter floor in the bare spot I had made. I unpacked my cook pot and meal and sat them on the bed then took the rest of my pack to hang on the bear chain. I expected to find my gear out of the shelter when I returned. I could hear the lady make a gasp in irritation, and the eyes of the others I could feel locked on me.

A man went to the woman and I figured he was going to move my stuff. They chatted behind my back and I could not catch their words as I continued to the bear hang.

The chain was littered with many bags of brightly colored stuff sacks and compressions. I had started to unload my stuff sacks from my pack, but then remembered hearing that it was more correct to the rules to hang your whole pack. So I strung my pack up on the only open loop present.

“Look you’re going to have to leave.” I heard the voice of the ridge runner say.

“What why?” I asked with some of the same tone left over from arguing with the woman.

“You’ve only been here 10 min and you’re already causing trouble, plus you’re not even hanging your bags up right. You’re taking too much space.”

I was stunned and didn’t answer back initially.

“Go ahead now pack up!” The ridge runner said with some attitude.

“Can I not just tent; I did 27 to get here?”

“It’s too late, besides I can’t let anyone tent with the bear activity.”

“I dropped the chain and let all the bags crash to the ground including my own. “Fuck it,” I said and went to collect the rest of my gear.

As I packed I could hear snickers from the group. The woman I had argued with stood under the shelter with a wide grin.

“Well bye.” I hear her say behind my back as I walked away.

I threw up a middle finger to them all, and hear a few gasps, and a clap. I expected to hear at least one of the old men stomping after me but I guess they were not part of my grandpa’s generation.

At Low gap I started to cook and oddly was not angry any more about being kicked out of the shelter. In fact I found myself thankful that I was forced to get out of the Smokey’s this day. The light was fading fast but at the moment it was its brightest red. The smell of my food brought on paranoia when I remembered a bear had just been run off a mile back. So I paced around the pot hyping myself for the last 7 miles in prayer. My prayers were both in thanks for the opportunity as well for help.

I had one mountain to climb which I attacked fast and became tied. I was in total darkness now and had walked into a deep fog. This fog was thick, and it scattered my headlamp’s light to where I had less visibility with it on. Spots on the trail were narrow, and with the blinding of my head lamp I couldn’t even make out the ground, or edge of the trail that fell off the mountain. So I turned it to off, and grabbed trees on the side of the trail to guide me. One step at a time is all I could focus on, just a little over a yards distance. I became anxious but was in too deep to stop; camping in this fog’s encasement was much more frightening than being on the move.

The foliage was thick lining the trail and I pictured faces looking out from it, hands reaching out to grab mine. In my own paranoia I mistake my own footsteps as being a stalker’s 3 to 5 steps behind. I had seen this all before in a reoccurring nightmare I had had from childhood. The trail looked just like it, with the heavy fog only reviling a small narrow path lined by the same leafy foliage. It only lacked cloaked men, (sometimes in the nightmare) and the drum.

I stopped soon after forgoing the headlamp to put away my trekking poll, and unstrap my machete from my pack to my side. The machete then soon wound up in my hand and this brought some comfort. However in my mind I waited for the drums.

I was not frightened, trembling, or begging and pleading a way out. As I said I was only anxious, and perhaps creeped out with a since of Déjà vu. The physical feeling was unpleasant, but in many ways emotionally I was excited and heightened. It’s not every day you can live through a dream and overcome a nightmare. From the smiles that was on my face, I murmured a mixture of prayers, (both for encouragement and praise), and hype phrases, full of profanity and crudeness, mocking the demons in my mind.

In the nightmare I always made it to the source of the drums, at the top of the summit, where I would be attacked. So when I saw the side trail leading to the summit, I laughed saying,

“Not today Satan!”

Then the trail started its descent and dropped out of the fog.

For the next 4 miles I slipped and tripped through mud and run off from the rain earlier. I scattered birds with my crashing but they wouldn’t startle me. My mind and body were tired and I felt nauseous. My eyes stung while I tried to focus, and I almost walked past the shelter.

The shelter had a cage in front of the door but I could see there were people in it. Although I attempted to be quiet I awoke and started one man, who raised quick with a gasp.

“Not a bear, I’ll be asleep soon, sorry.” I said to the man and got the door open. My voice felt raspy. I then heard him say, “That’s cool man,” and he laid back down.

When I lay down I knew I needed one last prayer of thanksgiving. So I thanked God for the day and the experience in the fog. I was grateful for being kicked out of the shelter. But didn’t have any special thoughts or feeling for the fact that I did 34 miles in the Smokey’s. I knew I had triumphed in some way but was too tired to pinpoint that I had accomplished a goal ahead of schedule. Not even I had felt that 30 plus miles were possible till VA, but I had done it.

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