Days: 16-17 Finding My People

For most who start the AT they stay in close proximity with the people who started around the same time as them. This forms distinct groups and a community; we called this a bubble. From Springer to Davenport Gap I must have jumped through 2 bubbles, and therefore did not have a community. Geronimo being the only hiker I hiked with for multiple days. Due to my Zero in Ashville I had lost all chance of catching back up with him.

It was around 10:30 when I was dropped back on the trail. Physically I was rested but I was bitter which made me feel tierd. It is not my Aunt and Uncle’s fault; they treated me well, but the conversations about plans and my future regarding: family, work, and education were not welcoming. They could not have known this or that I had dropped out of school. I answered vaguely and faked my way through the day. So at Davenport Gap I was exhausted from this, but angry and hiked angry for the 3 miles to Standing Bear Hostel making it in less than an hour.

I was making lunch were the road to Standing Bear intersected with the AT, when I noticed a tall man and woman leaving Standing Bear. I knew I had seen them before but couldn’t remember Then. The man call out, “Is that Joedirt?” His voice bought back the memory of meeting the couple at Fontana. It was Quiet and Twister.

“Quiet and Twister!” I greeted them.

“We thought we lost you at Fontana, what happened?”

“Oh, I went 10 miles down the Bartman Trail after leaving Fontana.”

“Oh no, but you caught back up! Did you just leave the Smokey’s.”

“No just got back from a day in Ashville.”

“Then how did you catch back up?” Twister asked.

“I unintentionally did a 34 mile day.”

They both bust out in laughter. “We thought you were full of shit when you didn’t show up at Mollies!”

“How was it unintentional?” Asked Twister between catching her breath.

“I got kicked out of Cosby after doing the 27 miles from Mt. Collins.”

“That sucks.”

“It all worked out in the end.”

The two went on ahead, and I finished lunch. I passed the two again somewhere halfway up Snowbird Mountain, there was a third hiker with then called Happy Feet. Then at the summit of Snowbird all four of us meet. They introduced me to Happy Feet a short hiker who would hike with me to the end.

We all made plans to make it to Max Patch and camp on the bald. I didn’t think this was possible but I wanted to stay with Quiet and Twister, and had also surprised myself with how fast I made it up Snowbird. A hike two of my friends said was hell in the winter when they went from Davenport Gap to Max Patch.

The trail from the summit of Snowbird to Max Patch was smooth, and covered just enough to not let the sun bake you but let you know it was present. It was sunny that day and I knew it would be perfect to see Max Patch at sun set.

I leaped frogged with the three of them from Snowbird to the Patch. This would be how I would hike with my group; instead of single filed lines all at once. I would pass them when they would stop and take a smoke breaks and they would pass me when I had a snack. Seeing them enjoying cigarettes made me miss the habit, and I started to reason with myself on buying a pack in Hot Springs.

At Brown Gap both me and Happy Feet lost Quiet and Twister. They were very fast hikers. It was here that I started to get to know Happy Feet. How he had attempted the trail back in 2014 but had similar fate as Geronimo when he caught Nero in New York. I regret to say that I judged him that afternoon. I thought his pack was too big, and thought he hiked too slow; not in pace, but in distance. Because up to just a week earlier Happy Feet had not gone over 12 miles a day. In my pride, I felt this to be mediocre compared to my plus 18 average. But as it would be Happy Feet would be the better hiker. He was consistent and more importantly loved the trail. He also surprised me on how he keep up with my pace, since he was short.

“I might go slow but that doesn’t bother me, I love it out here.” He said as we jumped a stream just before reaching Max Patch.

We found Quiet and Twister setting up camp not at the summit of the bald but just off. At the top I found that people could drive up to the Summit, so Max Patch had become very popular for car campers. There was a tent city of its own on the summit so I was glad to have set up around Quiet, Twister and Happy Feet.

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Joedirt

 

There is a 360 view from Max Patch and we had arrived with enough time to set camp before the sun began to set. There were small clusters of clouds on the horizon that were turned hues of red as the light inched away. We cooked our meals beside us as we sat on our beds. The smell of cannabis mixed with the fresh notes of grass and a cold breeze. It was pleasant.

max patch
Max Patch

 

In the night under my tent I sleep comfortably until I woke just 30min before the sun rise. It was cold. In that 30min I fought to stay and enjoy the sunrise. When it came I was very under whelmed and began packing my camp with it as a back drop. Changing exposed on all four sides was unpleasant. It is only now that I can look back in memory and enjoy the sensory of that moment.

As I left, my companions were just waking up, they were all laughing at me because they could tell I was cold.

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Max Patch in the Morning

 

I waved to them saying, “I’ll see y’all in Hot Springs.” (We had all agreed to do the 20 to Hot Springs.)

It was an easy 20. The first 5 miles were an easy decent, four miles of two climbs, and the last 11 a fast decent. Quiet and Twister caught me at Taylors Hollow Gap. Happy Feet was not with them and I thought I had seen the last of him. (He had been unsure if he would be able to make it.)

Twister lagged behind me and Quiet, as I struggled to keep up with him. For the 3 miles I jogged while he walked.

The trail opened up to a paved road with a steady stream of cars. Me and Quiet waited for Twister only for about 5min before she caught up. It was 2:30 p.m. The hostel was near the trail but we went in town to find a soda and junk food. Then it was to the post office so Quiet and Twister could pick up their mail drops. I split from them at the post office to find the outfitter and buy a hiker’s Spork. (I had earlier lost mine.)

Hot Springs was not as I expected. A river ran around the east end of the town, and on the other side you could see a fire line on the bluff left over from April. I had pictured a mid-class resort town. What Hot Springs was, was a standard small southern town with jacked up trucks supporting rebel flags, and small flea motels. Hot Springs reminded me of Water Valley MS; a town that had started a arts and cultural revival just south of Oxford MS, the home of Ole Miss. So much of Hot Springs was old and plain with only local use. But sprinkled in were some new life in neat eats that put trendy and delicious twists on traditional meals. Hot Springs would make a perfect zero that I wish I had taken.

Quiet and Twister were sitting under a tree with there mail drops spread out talking with a woman. She was a hiker and was attractive, with olive skin tone and smooth face. Her name was Gypsy.

“Where are Dirty Mike and the Boy’s?” Twister asked Gypsy.

“They are around we’re all staying at Alpine Court.”

“Cool.” Twister and Quiet nodded then introduced me. “This is Joedirt.”

“Hi,” I said and extended my hand.

Gypsy puffed her cigarette and shook my hand and said, “Good to meet you, when did you start?”

“little over 2 weeks ago.” This got her to raise her expression in surprise.

“Wow, you’ve been putting up some big miles. I was getting some big miles too but like beer too much so I stop too much.”

“Where’s the best place to buy?” Asked Quiet.

“Over there,” Gypsy pointed to a store across the street right beside the Alpine Court. “But you can’t buy hard liquor here, you got to get a hitch to a nearby town, Which I got earlier.” Gypsy said with a wide smile.

Gypsy split off and Quiet and Twister suggested that we split a room at the Alpine Court. It would come out cheaper than staying in the hostel. I accepted and we went to book the room which turned out to be at the beer store. While purchasing the room I added on two 24 ounce beers, and a cigar.

Despite the run down look of the motel from the outside the room was nice. I volunteered to go last in the shower, and sat in a plastic lawn chair outside and watched the cars go by. I drank my beer slow, but puffed too hard on the cigar. It started to make me sick so I put out the half for latter. I saw the Hatchet Brothers unload from a truck at the gas station across the street. Quiet and Twister didn’t want them to stay at the Alpine Court; but I didn’t mind. The Hatchet Brothers did however, and claimed to us that they had just walked 40 miles down I-40 for a burger. I knew this to be false just as everybody else. (No town on I-40 in that area had 40 miles of separation.) At this same time three of Dirty Mike and the Boys showed up, The Stallion, Gator, and Big Foot. At this point all I did was meet them I had now idea that two of these hikers would accept me into their group, for the rest of my journey.

Quiet, Twister, and I were about to go eat when Happy Feet came walking past the Court. We called him over and found out he planned to camp on the river. It was late and we felt sorry for leaving him behind, so we offered him the second spot on my bed. He accepted but decided against eating with us at Iron Horse Station.

I ordered the AT Hiker Burger, and can only remember that I enjoyed it. I got plastered that night but didn’t realize it. I didn’t act a fool; in fact Quiet and Twister said later “you were in control of yourself.” However when I got back to the room I swan dived onto the bed and passed out cold on impact. I would awake in the exact same position in the morning.

So day 17 ended and I had found my people, and to some degree my routine. Up too Front Royal VA, I would take every opportunity given to get drunk. My time on the trail would become one of drinking and companionship. I don’t deny that much of my behavior was wrong, but I cannot honestly say I regret being a part of The Boys, and all it meant to be true hiker trash.

 

In starting this blog I never knew what approach I would take to this part of my thru-hike. Early on I thought I would write a-tell all showing in detail all my actions. If I was to do that I would find myself glorifying all my behavior, because as I said, truly have no regrets to any part of it. This however would not be at all helpful to anyone, so I have decided to write in a less detailed format combining multiple days.

I will never be one of those Christians to say I am better to have gone through my sins or pains. I believe I would be much more helpful to the Kingdom without these. For all sin destroys. But God does not build his Kingdom with our usefulness, but through his perfect power, stitching us back together in his plan, to his kingdom and to the tree of eternal life.

“[I]t is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.” Romans 11:18.

Day 15: Blue Grass Sunday

I woke up to chatter, the smell of Oatmeal and a ray of sunlight poking at my ankle. My body was sore all over like being bruised. Just by opening my eyes and staring at the old wood of the shelter I could tell it was going to be a sunny day from how I could make out the green of the old paint covering the shelter.

There were 5 others at the shelter, 4 friends in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and then the young hiker from Cheoah Bald who said he was going make Katahdin in 3 months. Just as I felt possible at that moment.

This hiker was now being called Fireball, as of the night before. Not for his short red hair, but for kicking his exploding camp stove down the mountain. A burnt path was scared in the grass giving proof to this incident.

“The bear is awake.” One of the friends said with a smile. They all turned to face me; curious to know who I was arriving at 12 in the dark.

I explained to the group that I had been kicked out of Cosby, and how I had come 34 miles from Collins shelter. They were all impressed except for Fireball who made a comment about how foolish it was to go over 25 miles a day, (some knowledge from attending West Point). I shrugged his comment off knowing what ever damage I had done to myself didn’t matter since I was going into Ashville this afternoon.

On my way out of the park, probably 500 feet from the boarder I meet a park ranger who was hiking in. He asked for my AT permit, which I was able to produce because I had wasted a day at Fontana Dam looking for a pen. I was then out of the Smokys and to say its farewell the park had a sign showing the bear that was shot and asked, “Did you kill this bear!”

No I followed the rules perfectly. I thought.

It was just a mile to Davenport gap, NC 284, where my aunt and uncle were to pick me up. The road looked like a logging road and was shaded and cool. I wanted sun and didn’t look forward spending the morning waiting hungry for my pickup. And then looking down the road I saw a wood sign with white paint that advertised food just a mile away. So I went. The road wound down the mountain very steep, and narrow. It hurt my legs and it was a long mile. But at the bottom the woods opened up and I could feel the warmth of the sun on my still damp clothes. The sun was still partially behind clouds but I could tell they were going to be blown away because of a dry breeze that only cooled one side of my body.

Where the road lead was a small community with two houses, an antique store, and the gas station that I assumed had the food. Chickens ran all over the road and goats were in the yard of one of the houses. I noticed a sign that said closed, but there was a woman walking up the road quickly. I figured she was coming to open the store it was just turning 9. I was right and once inside I purchased a muffin, chocolate milk, a bag of Funyuns, and two candy bars. I had till 1 to wait for my family. I took my food outside to eat and sat in a lawn chair near the fence line that kept the goats. All the goats came close to the fence, and some chickens pecked the ground around me. Blue Grass music played over speakers and it fit the scenery perfect. The sun was fully out now and the breeze had stopped, I could feel my body loosening up and relaxing, and my mind was at peace and not merely distracted.

I had noticed when coming into the community that the road split and at that split a sign signaled I-40, which is where I knew my family was going to be coming from. I figured I’d just meet them closer to I-40 and not on the logging road. I also thought I could find cell service closer to I-40 so I decided to follow the road.

I could start to hear traffic from I-40 when I came upon a park with a pavilion. I noticed there was cell service so I decided to wait there. I unloaded my pack and spread all my gear out to thoroughly dry. I sent a message giving my aunt and uncle with new direction on where to pick me up. Then I laid down and dried myself out.

A birthday party started to show up at the pavilion 30 min after I was laid out in the park. After another half hour all of their guests were there and they had blown out candles and cut up the cake. Then they brought out instruments, banjoes, fiddles, guitars, and mandolins and began to play music. And it was Blue Grass, praising God in a natural country twang.

My eyes were closed but I felt I could see them; in the picture projected in my mind the sun was even brighter and felt warmer. The grass I laid on was a sheet of green, not slightly patched with bare spots. The stream flowing around the park was a fifth instrument from God and heightened my peace even more. I praised God in my heart along with the band, singing with my soul as I imagined King David doing while composing psalms.

My mind then wondered to memories of Carrolton MS, from my early childhood. When my brother and I were still close and I easily made friends with all the other boys at homeschool parties. We played in church play grounds, much like this park near a creek, climbing trees and chasing each other with sticks. I was happy then, but only in ignorance of what can and does go wrong. At this moment I was happy despite what all goes wrong in life. I know now that The Lord gives this happiness in a promise. The promise: that all will be renewed, to God’s way, when we were ignorant to sin and only knowledgeable to our created purpose; to glorify God and love him. And as God saw of his creation, “It [is] very good.”

The End of part one.

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.

Day 13: Wet Day doubts

I was awakened soon after midnight feeling as if I was being watched. I turned my headlamp on red, back to my feet, thinking I’d see glowing eyes. There were none so I turned forward to look toward the trail.

Where the trail bent behind the shelter a red glow tinted the grass like my head lamp did. The shelter was quiet; not even a snore could be heard. I switched my headlamp off and watched. A group quietly walked around the shelter, and when they got closer and their black silhouettes showed crisper I was startled. The group cared AR styled rifles and I could see night vision goggles mounted on their heads. I soon however, remembered seeing signs in the park that warned of wild hogs, and this made me believe that this group was hunting the pigs.

I have seen professional hog hunting outfits and the near military equipment they use to slaughter hundreds of pigs a night; It’s become a lucrative business in the south. So with this thought I lost my panic and confusion and watched the group fade down out of sight.

It was a struggle to fall back asleep, as I listened to the wind blow on the ridge. However I eventually was lulled to sleep by the light taps of rain on my tarp. I was awakened again as day light muted by over cast cracked over the tree line early in the morning. It was cold and the light rain was still falling, so I stayed tucked in my quilt cat napping as it got lighter.

As time went by I could hear the shelter wake. I heard one woman mention the armed group pass and heard some say she was being dramatic. I did not rise to defend her story I had not the will to get chilled in the cold and rain.

I began to smell the packs of Oatmeal being cooked and this made me hungry. But the rain picked up so I stayed under the tarp. The smell of breakfast lingered as if the moister of the rain was holding the smell in the area. Those who had cooked and ate started to leave and passed my tent. One man who was a thru-hiker, but one I never got a name from asked as he walked by me. “You gona take an easy day?”

“I really shouldn’t.” I replied.

“Hey hike your own hike.”

“Yeah you do the same. Take care.”

I was up soon after when the water that was falling was just what the gusts of wind blew from the leaves. I took my time packing and cooking breakfast. The cold had me stiff. I pulled all my equipment under the shelter, which was now half full with the occupants still in their mummy bags. I expected most of them not to be asleep but still I tried to be quiet which made packing take longer between bites of oatmeal. I don’t remember the exact time I left Derrick Knob Shelter; I’d say after 9 at the least.

I made quick time hiking once I got on the trail, even with the off and on heavy down pours that flooded the deep tracks of the trail.

When I crossed each of the 2 shelters that were between Derrick Knob and Clingmans Dome, I found myself questioning why I stopped at Derrick Knob and did not keep going the day before. (The answer being because I did 23 miles and was tired at the reasonable time of 5:00.) I was being hard on myself and this lead to a bad mood that my sloshing boots did not help either.

The Ecosystem of this high altitude section in the Smokys was unique to the rest of the trail I hiked. The trees turned to conifers instead of the hardwoods, and the earth was tough packed clay between the grey rocks. This was slick with the rain.

I was in full mist that was so thick it felt like a sheet of water slapping me with every gust of wind. I still detoured off the trail to see Clingmans Dome. It was smaller than I expected and the only view from its peak was the mist. The wind would catch the side of my pack and turn me like it was a sail. I felt like I was in the cows nest of a 19th century ship searching for dry land, but all I could see was wet.

This mist didn’t stop the steady stream of park visitors hiking the paved trail up to the tower. I was hiking down hoping to find a soda machine at the gift shop. There was no soda machine, or many options for snacks. Just some local granola bars and high priced chocolate bars that I bought because I had snacked heavy and was near out of day snacks.

I waited at the gift shop for the mist to lessen. In the meantime a ranger first asked to see my permeant, than congratulated me with a soda and Oreos. I asked the ranger about the group I saw at midnight and he confirmed, they were for the hogs. While talking with the ranger visitors to see the tower, came to inquire about the trail and get pictures with the dirty Thru-hiker. Being wet and behind schedule I did not like this attention and answered their questions quickly and vaguely. This extra attention drove me from the gift shop before I wanted to while the mist was still heavy.

But as I dropped into Collins Gap the mist broke up and for a few minutes the sun poked rays out from the clouds. But this was short lived and a half mile from the side trail to Mt. Collins Shelter the rain came back, and by the time I reached the side trail I abandoned the days hiking for the shelter.

It was another half mile to the shelter and it was through thick forest that keep the rain from soaking me to the extreme. It was 3 when I claimed my spot. There was only one old man shirtless and in shorts letting his wet clothes dry under the shelter. How he was not shivering I don’t know, but he read a small Gideon New Testament Bible like reading a novel. Every minute or two you would hear the sound of a page turn.

I greeted the man and introduced myself as Joseph and then said “or Joedirt.” He gave me his name and did not have a trail name, and I went to change into dry clothes under the eve at the back of the shelter.

There was a fire place in the shelter, but no dry tender. I took some damp sticks and a fire starter and played with starting it. It was not a problem when I didn’t get it lit and so I gave up with not much effort.

A couple that spoke with a Scandinavian accent came to the shelter. At this point it had been raining hard for an hour and you could see joyful relief in their faces as they entered shelter.

“Good evening all of you.” The woman said. Who was short and fit, and whore glasses and hair pulled back in a tight pony tail.

“Yes Good evening to you all.” The man said, after hanging both his and his wife’s pack up off the ground. He had short greying blond hair and was tall but muscular.

“Hey y’all.” I said back, while snaking on one of my chocolate bars.

The man reading his bible smiled and nodded.

“Is this all who is here?” The man asked.

“Yeah so far, I’m Joseph, or Joedirt. Are y’all thru-hikers?”

“No just hiking the Park, we started at Clingmans Dome.” The woman said.

“Yay stopping early for the day because of this dam rain.”

“Yay no need for use to get wet and be miserable for our whole trip. We haven’t got to make as many miles every day like you thru-hikers.”

“Yeah I’m afraid I’m being lazy today. I’ve only done about 12.”

“That’s not bad most thru-hikers don’t go over 12 till after the smoky mountains.”

“Yeah well I should be on my last day in the Smoky’s, I’ve got to meet family at Davenport Gap on Sunday.”

“That’s 25 miles you can do that.” The woman said.

As I talked with the couple I found out they lived in D.C. Both were originally from Denmark, and he was a researcher and she was a college professor. They were both familiar with the trail having hiked the Whites, and Shenandoah. They hoped to hike across every national park.

“While they shared this information about themselves Red, the cheerful old man with homemade gear, strolled into the shelter.

“Is that Joedirt? You should be in Hot Springs by now.” Red said.

“Between going five miles down the BT screwing up my permeant, and wimping out to this rain I’m surprised to be this far.”

Red joined in with the conversations with the Danish and me. Then took over. He had lived in Denmark so while the conversation switched to this subject I began cooking my meal.

Then The Lieutenant, (or Dickspatcher,) stomped into shelter soaked through his military surplus gear.

“I need a fire.” He said, and through a signal torch into the wood I had previously tried to light. I was sure this would light the fire and I guess he thought the same, so I watched him pile in more wet wood into the small fire place. As soon as the flare extinguished, only smolder and wet smoke remained.

That was the lieutenant’s last flare. Desperate he muttered “fuck” multiple times from the back of his throat.

Red cracked something wise, while the rest of use stood around confused over the situation. All of which the Lieutenant just ignored and got down on his hands and knees and began to blow the few coals red. I could now tell that he was legitimately worried.

The rain had not stopped but slowed. I took off my dry shirt and replaced it with my soaked rain jacket. Grabbed my machete and went to look for a fallen dead tree. It took a while to find one that was not taken with rot. But when I found a solid log I hacked away out of the saturated to the dry, making a pile of dry tender. I then hacked off the smaller branches from the down trunk and cared them and the tender back to the shelter.

When I returned the lieutenant was still blowing on the smoldering coals, and from his exertion steam rolled off his body. At least he is staying warm this way. I thought as I began splitting the branches with a rock and my machete.

When my prep was done I approached the lieutenant with the dry wood and my fire starters. I expected to receive some anger from him because of his frustration.

“Hey I got some dry shit here.” I said as I knelled down to the fire place and began pull out wet wood.

“Thanks. You’ve got fire starters as well.” The Lieutenant said.

“Yeah I almost dropped them a few days ago in a hiker box glad I hung on to them now.”

Soon we had all the dry wood lit. Then slowly we added the wet. The fire lasted till I fell asleep.

With all of us dry we listened to the rain hit the shelter in peace. The old man continued reading his bible, although now he was laid out in his bag looking out. The Danish looked through a map of the park and made cups of hot coco. Red, the Lieutenant, and me talked about the trail. How we were all behind schedule.

There was nothing fake about our conversation we didn’t down play our concerns with finishing the trail, or as with Red and the Lieutenant wanting to finish. The Lieutenant missed his wife, and Red felt his health could be at risk, and he had too much love for his family to risk leaving them in death due to his own dream.

“I’m too old should have done this when I was your age Joedirt.” Red would say.

“To me it doesn’t seem worth being separate from her, or fair.” The Lieutenant would say.

“I’ve got nothing to go back to off trail, well not until September when I move to Montana.” I would say hiding all the truth in my statement with a smile as if joking.

There were pauses in our talk which Red would relive by saying. “We’ll hang in there.”

When I got in bed my mind filled with doubts. I thought on how ill prepared I was, and how I was behind schedule. Quitting crossed my mind. But It didn’t last long, as I asked myself what would I be quitting for? Comfort: on most days I wasn’t uncomfortable. As for this rain I’d figure it out, I had a Z-packs poncho waiting for me at Ashville that wouldn’t get saturated like my jacket.

When the headlamp of the bible reader went out I closed my eyes and mind. Accepted the 25 miles I would have to hike to make it to Davenport Gap in time, and fell asleep.

I would find out that it was 34 miles but I’d do it non the less. This was the only time on the trail that quitting crossed my mind. Even when I would become eaten up with Lyme disease I would not think about quitting.

I look back at this day and have to laugh at myself for how dramatic I felt. All over a little rain, and so real talk with good men.

 

Day 12: A Condemned Bear

I was crossing the dam for the third time at 5:30am. Crossing in the bleak morning light produced a much different feeling in me than in the heat of the day. It pumped me as if walking out to a hard base line as an athlete.

I was loose and ready to climb after a quick stretch at the permeant box. (I had borrowed a pen from the local who showed me where the shower room was and had finished my permeant.) I had not eaten and planned on eating once I summited the first climb. I had 2 miles.

I ate plenty of spider webs along the way; a negative to an early start on the trail. I finished the 2 miles at a 3min pace and set up my burner to prepare 2 oatmeal packets. While cooking I flipped to a random chapter in my bible, which happened to be James 3. On that day I’m sure I spaced this reading and only took a note of it out of habit. (Now, while reviewing my journal for this post I see its relevance to that day, especially verse 14, even more so for the day before.)

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart do not boast and be false to the truth.” James 3:14 ESV

James 3 is more famously known for warning us about the power of the “tongue.” But also has much to say on pride. Since pride often leads to misusing our words, to tear others down, or lead others in a wrong direction. Confidence can make people follow, and with pride comes confidence. When we forget that our accomplishments come from the Lord and boast from our own “selfish ambitions;” we do not lead to God, this I believe is why God humbles us so that we do not lead others into wrong. Jesus warns us in Luke 17:1 that it is a terrible sin to lead others into sin, and threatens those who do with punishment worse than drowning. God protects others by humbling the prideful but also protects the prideful by this humbling them since teachers and leaders are held to a higher standard and will face judgment for the faults of their followers.

I wish I could say I quite being haughty and judging towards others but still on this day, just as my first day on the AT, I was putting all my self-worth and pride in my pace and not in the Lord. It would be on week 3; one stress fractured foot and ill-nourished body later that I would lose my pride and view myself not superior to every other hiker.

Not long after breakfast I saw my first bear on the trail. I was hiking to the tune of some song in my head when I heard a grunt followed by some thumps crashing through brush going up a steep incline. I looked up to see the black bear, it was large in the 250 to 300 range. It stopped at the top of the hill, then sat down as if winded from ascending too fast. (I’m sure it wasn’t.) I stopped to focus my eyes on it and it avoided eye contact. I thought cool and then moved on.

After Birch Spring gap, (a camp ground,) but before Mollies Ridge Shelter I saw 2 hikers going south bond.

“Hey you guy keep your eyes out for a bear I saw one not too long ago.” I greeted the two.

“Do you think it’s the bear that attacked that guy?”

“Someone got attacked?”

“Yeah just the other night, the rangers are closing down a lot of the shelters.”

“Shit, do you know if Derrick Knob is closed I’m trying to get there for the night.”

“Could be but we don’t know.”

“Well alright. Y’all have a good hike.”

“You do the same.”

The day got increasingly cloudy and mist started to form. It was easy to see how the Smokys got there name. The trail was also slick it had obviously been raining in these mountains for a few days.

Just after passing Mollies I saw my first park ranger she greeted me by asking for my AT permeant and I was glad I had filled it out.

“You know about the bear right?” She asked.

“Yeah just heard. Do you know if Derrick Knob shelter is closed?”

“Could be but I’m not sure, Spence Field Shelter is closed, that’s where the attack happened.”

“Thanks.”

“This kind of stuff wouldn’t happen if you AT hikers took responsibility and stored y’alls food correctly.”

This was the attitude of most Rangers in the park. They were all on edge and upset about having to kill the bear. AT thru-hikers probably were the culprit but I knew it wasn’t me I never left trash, I wasn’t even burning trash at that time. But too many hikers were beyond ill prepared for a thru-hiking. But by the end of the Smoky’s these would be weeded out.

I believe I ran into the aggressive bear between Mollies, and Russell Field Shelter. I came around a corner to a bear the size of the one I saw earlier. Instead of crashing away It squared up, and then began bluff charging, making a sprint to 10 yards away from me then lunging away again. I somehow was able to smoothly roll my pack from my shoulders, unsheathe my machete, and hold my pack to the side with one hand and the machete in the other all the while yelling the guarantied bear deterrent phrase. “Hey bear fuck you, fuck off bear!” After 2 to 3 more bluff charges the bear darted off the trail and I could hear it crashing through the woods out of sight. I then felt accomplished and didn’t mind the rain trickling down through the canopy.

I went up and down on a mini roller coaster till I reached Derrick Knob Shelter. I found it to be full so I was forced into overflow camping. The rain had stopped so I set my tarp up in the dry and with little problem.

Talk about the bear attack circled with everyone at the camp. A ridge runner was there and she tried to dismiss many of the rumors with truth. But most wanted to believe the most sensational stories about what happened.

The most popular being that the man was dragged out of this shelter and almost died. I would find out the truth latter that it was a man in over flow camping that was bit once on the foot after waking up to the bear sniffing around in his tent for the coconut sunscreen that he was wearing.

Also at this Shelter were the Hatchet brothers. A notorious trail group of two who rumor had it carried 80 pound packs. I had heard of them since before the NOC, but didn’t realize I was eating with them since they had there packs stored in the shelter minus there food. I heard the Wolf Pack was also close by, but they planned on zeroing in Gatlinburg the next day. I had wanted to meet both these groups.

Before going to my tent I checked the trail log and found that Geronimo was 2 day ahead. And I still hoped to catch him. I also found that Quiet and Twister ate lunch at this shelter.

Day 11: Pride Check

I was up early and organized, ready to go in less than an hour. The air was thick with humidity. This air chilled me; it being early morning with the sun still hiding behind the mountains.

The shelter still did not stir but I saw six pairs of feet tucked away in mummy bags as I left Cable Gap Shelter.

The landscape of the 7 miles of trail stood out to me with its ruggedness. Grey stone rock covered the trail in spots and outcropping of the same color lined the trail. These 7 miles to Fontana went by quick, but were slick and near technical. I tripped and nearly fell flat to my face if I had not caught myself with both hands as if engaging a push up position. Also I remember an instant of having to shimmy sideways along one rock wall to stay on trail or tumble off. I have had people ask me what physical requirements are needed to hike the AT and the only two I would say is balance and the ability do a burpee. If you don’t have these physical traits it is unsafe to hike the AT.

IMG_0235At NC 28 there was a vending machine as well as a phone to call a shuttle to the general store. I needed to resupply because I didn’t at the NOC. First I walked in to the bait shop at Fontana Lake, got a snack, and tried to resupply but the bait shop didn’t have enough. So I called the shuttle to take me to Fontana Village (2 miles off trail.)

While waiting I noticed a lot of Z-Cars traveling down the road and would latter find out that Fontana is a driving destination, and holds many driving club events. The week before was a Mini Cooper convention.

My shuttle driver was a young man of 19 who worked seasonally at Fontana on the yard crew. I could relate, being a seasonal resort worker myself. I tipped him well when dropped off at the General store and he returned to weed whacking.

The general store at Fontana had everything I needed. I bought up 5 days’ worth of food to get me through the Smokys which I planned to enter after my resupply. I was going to make it to Davenport Gap 4 day that way I could meet up with my Aunt and Uncle for a day in Ashville NC. I had agreed to this earlier and would let them know my exact plan of arrival at Newfound Gap, so I bought the extra day’s worth of food so if our schedules didn’t match I would be able to camp an extra day.

On top of my resupply I bought some bananas and ice cream to enjoy on the porch of the general store. I later planed on getting pizza at the Fontana Pit Stop (a gas station that sold food) after I found the ATM at the Fontana Lodge.

A couple came to the porch hauling 2 packs they were too clean to be thru-hikers I thought, and assumed them to be day-hikers over packing for their outing from a hotel room. (I was feeling arrogant this day.) They ignored me and went in the general store, but were soon to come out and joined me on the porch with their own ice cream.

“You a thru-hiker?” the man asked he was really tall (6’4) and had a full blondish beard and his smile showed in his voice.

“Yeah, how about y’all” I said smirking.

“Sure are I’m Quiet.”

“And I’m Twister.” The Woman said.

“Cool, I guess I’m Joedirt but just got that at the NOC, not sure if it’s going to stick.”

“Awesome, Joedirt, how many days ago was that?”

I was hoping and waiting for this question.

“Just the other day. I went from the NOC to Cable Gap shelter and now I’m hear about to go into the Smokys.”

“Sweet we just finished zeroing here today, It’s good to meet someone at our pace.” Twister said in a way to congratulate. And I felt a little humbled.

“Hell yeah we’ve been passing hikers like crazy, kind of made it a challenge, but it’ll be good to have someone around for a while.” Quiet said still with a smile.

“Yeah, I plan to make it to Mollies today. Then just three more days to Davenport Gap.”

“Nice, we plan to go through the Smokys pretty quick too, they can be pretty miserable.”

“That’s what I heard, also been told that it takes more than a week to get through.”

“To do 80miles, who told you that?” Twister asked.

“Sir Packs a’lot.”

“The guy at the Top of Georgia? He’s full of shit.” Quiet said.

I was glad to find someone who shared my dislike for Sir Packs A’lot, and looked forward to seeing them at Mollies. By the time they headed for the trail I learned that Quiet had previously hiked the AT and that both him and Twister had hiked the PCT and Arizona Trail. (They meet on the PCT.)

After they left I headed to the lodge to find the ATM passing a parking lot full of Z-cars fully decked out and surrounded by pin-ups. I attracted my share of attention and my ego was stroked more and more with each question and remark. I came away feeling overly confident in myself and proud, and I left Fontana Village with a full belly some cash and needing a good ass kicking. I wouldn’t get the ass kicking but by the end of the day I would be reminded of how inexperienced I was.

IMG_0236The Dam itself was bigger than I was expecting and the trail went right over it. (it is the biggest Dam on the Eastern sea board.) Some where there was a shower room that I planned on using but did not see it at first glance so I passed on un-showered. Across the dam I saw the sign that welcomed me into the Smokys. I was smiling with confidence ready to prove Sir Packs a’lot wrong. I saw a white mark ahead of me, (not a white blaze.) This led me down the BMT.

I zoned out for 3-5 miles assuming I was still on the AT. I don’t know how I assumed this, (there was not near enough elevation gain,) just pride that would be shattered when I stopped and reviewed my AWOL.

When I realized I had gone the wrong way I threw my AWOL to the ground snarled curses to myself. All I could do though was shoulder my pack again and back track. An hour of seeing the same uninteresting wooded surroundings of the BMT made my pride limp but I hustled physically.

At the actual internes to the Smokys I was knocked back even further when I realized a pen was not provided to fill out the permit, and that I had dropped mine. So there was more back tracking this time back over the dam exposed in the baking sun over the asphalt.

I could see a hiker coming towards me through the heat haze and recognized him as the guy I meet on Cheoah Bald.

“Hope, you got a pen,” I greeted him.

“Why.” He answered with the same confident smile I had had going northbound over this dam.

“There’s not one provided.”

“Well alright.”

Neither of us let off from our strides and passed each other. I murmured under my breath, “Fucking Prick” and was angry that he was entering the Smokys before me. Between the sun my anger and the sound of the rushing water going through the dam I lost the will to continue hiking that day. And when I found that the visitor center was closed and I would not be able to barrow a pen I decided to stop and stay the night at the Fontana Hilton an AT shelter at the dam.

It was 4pm and only a mother and daughter were at the shelter. The mother said there were more coming but they went to the village to get supplies for a party. When the party showed up I found out it was a getting off trail party as everyone at the shelter was calling it quits. They all talked of how hard the trail was, some were depressed being away from loved ones; they all missed feeling clean. So this was a big celebration for them all. I didn’t like it and it was upsetting to me. I now realized that there was nothing wrong with this since they all had happy lives to live off the trail and hiking these 166 miles lead them to appreciate it.

I drank with them accepting two lite beers, which got me buzzed. Then out of the trail came 4 Europeans with one local. The Europeans were hikers and had just finished a 20 mile day the local was showing them where the shower room was at the dam and I went with them. The shower room was one big communal shower that offered no privacy like a high school locker room. The Europeans were comfortable with this, me being American It was a little weird, but being on the trail you learn to lose a little modesty.

Once clean we all dried in the sun. (Clothed!) The local passed around a bowl, as the sun was setting. I watched Old Glory fly in the red hues of the fading light, and could faintly hear the rushing water. I was not angry or prideful I enjoyed the company around me, and answered questions the Europeans had about America, but feed them lies about myself and the reasons for being on the trail.

Storms where building over the Smokys but it was a clear night at the Fontana Hilton. I had no trouble falling asleep with the laughter of the party. I set my alarm of 5 and had everything organized for easy packing in the morning. I knew the next day I would get wet but was ready for it. I said a prayer for strength before falling asleep, and this prayer led into a prayer for humility and to live for actions not words or thoughts.

Day 10: Back At It

For breakfast I had French toast, and grits from the restraint at the NOC. Grits are a power food, every time I would eat good grits on the trail I was able to knockout big miles.

Before leaving I stopped in the store and bought a 5 dollar poncho. It was misting when I got to the switch backs climbing out, so I put it on over my pack expecting it to pore soon. What rain had already fallen made the packed clay mud slick but this didn’t slow me down. I was practically running, pumping my arms with trekking poles to pull my legs faster up the trail. I was fleeing from any part of me that wanted to stay another day.

My knee was not swollen. It felt slightly tender to the touch if I prodded with my finger under the knee cap. This I believe was a miracle, much like waking up to renewed legs my second day.

I passed many, climbing to Swim Bald. The man from MT, Red, and the couple who helped give me my trail name with Geronimo. I was hiking with a pace that could catch Geronimo I thought. I wasted no time at the Wade Sutton Memorial, or views of the Nantahala Gorge. I didn’t even stop at the top of Swim Bald.

The first rest stop I made was at Cheoah Bald; right after Sassafras Gap Shelter. I was stopped by a gorgeous view, when the skies cleared up.

I crested the trail and could see full white clouds floating at my level going through the mountains. The grass and trees were washed; green from the light rain that had just left. I ignored the hiker who was resting on a log and walked right to the edge to be as close to the clouds as possible. It was like watching fish at an aquarium. I stood behind a barrier silent, and they swam silent with their graceful flow orchestrating a feeling, which made sound to fill in the silence. Beautiful music in a sight without a single decibel.

I snapped the picture then turned to the hiker who looked young. I guessed 18 to 20.

“Incredible view.” I said.

“Yeah I guess so it was nice to eat to.” He responded while packing up his gear.

“I’m Joseph,” (I had not yet started going by Joedirt.)

“Nice to meet you Joe.” He slung his pack on.

“I got to get going if I’m going to make Katahdin in three months.” He said and hiked off.

I took lunch there, it was an early lunch. I planned to make Fontana Dam and felt confident I could. I scanned my AWOL and looked at the obstacles that were between me and Fontana. There was a long almost 3 mile descent and then Jacobs Ladder followed by 11 miles then one more climb down for three more miles.

I took it easy on the decent but steady. If I remember right the section from the NOC to Fontana challenged your balance, and thanks to the rain all the rocks were slick.

At Stecoah Gap there were 2 hikers on the picnic table they were looking in there AWOLs trying to decipher were the water was.

“High guys.” I greeted them as I came out of the tree line.

“What’s up.” The younger looking one said who had long black hair full of grease.

“Ya’ll know where the water is?” I asked.

“It’s west down this road, were trying figure out which way west is.” The other said who had short chestnut colored hair.

I pulled out my compass and checked for west. When I found it I noticed a blue blaze on a guard rail that marked a side trail. According to AWOL if you followed the blue blazes it would lead to a hostel. The water was before the hostel.

“It’s this way there’s the blue blaze.” I said.

The 3 of use started stringing the blazes together. They were scattered erratically and a little hard to follow.

“This is like the trail your girl left me last night to follow.” The long haired one said to me, and I thought it was a little weird since we just meet. But I recovered quickly.

“Well at least she made you work for it. I just called yours and she came to me.”

The short haired one laughed, and started to sing The next Episode, (the rap used in many of the Thug life internet memes.)

I left the 2 at the water source they talked like they were going to stay at the hostel, and take Jacob ’s Ladder with fresh legs tomorrow. I headed for the climb expecting it to suck. The ladder started at Sweet Water Gap, almost a mile of vertical ascent.

I won’t say it was easy, but was not as bad as I expected. I only stopped once. The hardest part to it was fighting for traction since the mud was slick. There were trees all around and for some reason it all looked scorched, not alive and green. But withered like a poorly watered lawn in August.

I stopped in the shelter afterwards to check the trail log. I found Geronimo’s entre that said Jacob’s ladder was a joke, and that he would stay at the Fontana Hilton.

I had 6 miles to go before reaching the next shelter then nearly 7 to Fontana. The next six was rough I tripped constantly over loose rocks. I saw no one as well, and a felt tired.

When I reached Cable Gap Shelter the sun was disappearing behind the mountain. The shelter was full but quiet. I decided to stop for the night and make Fontana in the morning.

I made camp in a tent pad, and had a good bear hang nearly 200 yards away. It was dark as I ate my pasta side, and as soon as I was full I crawled in my tent for sleep. The temperature was pleasant, and I felt relaxed. I thanked God for the day and my healed knee. Then God blessed me with my first night of Fire Flies twinkling around my camp, lighting the dark like less obnoxious Christmas lights.

When any one asks me what the most beautiful sight is on the AT; I have to say the Fire Flies, they hold my most vivid memories of the trail.

Day 9: Zero Day

I was sad to see Geronimo go. We spent the early morning trying bounce half his resupply from the NOC to Hot Springs NC. I followed him while eating junk food for breakfast, a Honey Bun and chocolate muffin. Once he shipped his package from the NOC’s office it was back to the trail, and 27 miles to Fontana Dam the gateway into the Smokey’s.

I said my good bye believing I would catch up to him when he would zero at Hot Springs. He said his farewell to me, “so long Joedirt.” And I would not see him again; the closes I would come to catching him is a day’s separation at Davenport Gap. Geronimo would finish the trail, not a yoyo of the trail, and not as quick as he anticipated, but I believe the trail changed for him and he was satisfied at the top of Katahdin. It was an over cast day and I watched him wide up the switch backs out of the NOC.

I headed for the Outfitter after this; it was relatively empty except for a father and daughter who I meet at Top of Georgia. I greeted them but they didn’t recognize me. I printed my park pass then shopped for the supply’s I needed.

I bought another tube of electrolytes, this time Camelbak branded. I bought a Mountain Hardware fleece, and reflective emergency bivy, as well as a heavier rope and carabiner for a bear hang system.

This new rope and carabiner was not bought because I felt normal Para cord could not hold my food bag, but only to make throwing the system over a limb easier. I would spend the remainder of my hike adjusting rope weight and carabiner sizes to prefect this system.(Since I would lose rope and carabiners too often.) There is a lot more to a bear hang than you would think; trees provide plenty of variables to make it a frustrating experience.

Once these were purchased I checked out the hiker box for free food. This is an important strategy that I wished I took advantage of more. Many hostels and some other business along the trail keep hiker boxes, were hikers can unload leftover food or gear that they don’t want to carry. Instead of it going into the trash, and wasted, it can be pasted on and appreciated by another.

The hiker box is the best place to buy your cliff bars!

In the NOC’s hiker box I found some generic granola bars and a few cliffs. There was also an emergency blanket, and I kicked myself for not looking earlier. I also pulled out a trucker cap that would define me throughout my time on the trail. It was orange with a gray front that had a black silhouette of an eagle in flight. It read “fly” in the eagle. Hikers came to know me by this hat, it would mark my spot in shelters, and hikers would call me from behind at a distance because they would recognize me for this hat.

It was now time to check into my room. I got to check in at 10 because it was not occupied the night before.

First thing I did in my room was take a bath. Then I took a dive onto the king size bed and buried my head into the pillows. I felt comfort instantly and the force that had been keeping me wake for the past week melted and I found restful sleep. I know I slept because I dreamed.

I dreamed a reoccurring dream; a dream that has been a part of my life since my early teenage years. Its theme is always the same, but the location changes and my reaction changes.

It is always about some evil; whether the man calls it a killer a beast, or spirit. This time it was a beast. The man this time looked like an old track coach I once had, and the location looked like the campus at Top of Georgia with some elements of the NOC.

The man said, “There’s a beast out there.” In an easy voice.

Drums start in an erratic beat sometimes fast sometimes slow. (There are always drums in the dream.)

“You better be ready” the man says.

At this point I always had two responses, I either armed myself and stood my ground in brave fear, or I would frantically hide and feel intense fear till I woke as the evil approached. But this time I asked the man.

“Where is it?”

“Just over the hill.” He said.

I then jumped into a pool that had made its self-available and came out covered in mud.

“I want to see it.” I said to the man and felt excited.

“Go right ahead.” He replied with a shrug.

I climbed the hill like I was stalking deer through the gullies back in MS. I could hear the beast cracking limbs, and grunting, sometimes sounding like a boar other times sounding like a weightlifter forcing up their bench max. I never saw the beast. I never do, but this was the only time I ever went looking for it, not to kill it, but just to view it out of curiosity. This also was the last time I had this dream. So far in my life that is.

I awoke feeling anxious. After the daze of sleep eased away I checked the time; it was almost 4. I left my room wanting to enjoy the Nantahala River with some of the snacks I bought earlier. As I walked to the river bank I tried to figure out what I was so anxious about. I had gotten sleep and felt I could still sleep.

There was no pleasant sun to make me feel at ease on the river’s banks. I still sat at its bank in a comfortable lawn chair listening to the flow speak its chatter as the water rushed around the bend between its obstacles.

In the time I spent out there I watched hikers gather above me by the outfitter drinking cans of beer and laughing. I stayed down by the riverside alone, and decided to text a few friends and see how the end of semester played out. They were all confused, they knew I was hiking but didn’t know why. I had dropped out of school suddenly and left without telling many. At the end of conversations I was given warnings about bears and told to be careful.

I left the river side still uneasy and bought 2 beers before the shop closed along with hot dogs and buns. At my room I called my parents and grandmother. At the end of each conversation both said.

“I’m afraid if I were you I would get to such a pretty place where there is good food and a comfortable bed and not leave.”

I then realized this is what I was anxious about, not leaving the NOC. That my knee would stay swelled tomorrow and I would tell myself let’s stay one more day. You need more sleep. Some more good food will do you good. The Predators play in the Stanley Cup play offs tomorrow you wouldn’t want to miss that. I was worried all of this would keep me there and I would abandon the trail for comfort.

So I wanted to start the trail at the moment while there was still a little light left. Hike may be 5 miles or to the top of Swim Bald and cowboy it besides the trail. Then I would have most of the climbing out of the way for tomorrows. (Except for Jacob’s Ladder.)

But I didn’t leave I stayed not wanting to waste the room my parents gifted me to get rest for my knee. I prayed for my knee, and for my own resolve to get up and go in the morning.

Then the thought accord to me that it was good that I was worrying and recognized may own weakness and want for comfort. It meant I could fight it; it wouldn’t sneak up on me in the morning and hold me at this place for an easy transaction of money for another night’s stay.

I drank my two tall boys ate my hot dogs, and watched some NHL. I fell asleep with the TV still playing, and woke around 2 to turn it off. Tomorrow I would leave rested and healed.

Day 8: The Nantahala Outdoor Center

Geronimo’s and mine’s first order of business was to get a good meal, while we waited for our hostel bunks to open up at 1 p.m.

Without a shower we took our seats and proceeded to get food drunk. I don’t know the science behind it, but drunk best describes our state after we ate our double meal; no alcohol required. We ordered two apps, chips and salsa and hummus that we shared with each other, I had fish tacos with an added taco, and Geronimo had a veggie burger. (He was vegan.)

We laughed, finding everything around us a joke, and stumbled our way to the river side to continue to wait on our bunks. The water was not too cold when I soaked my feet in the Nantahala; I laid back and felt as I was lying in the sun on a sandy beach. But in truth it had turned partially cloudy and I sat on pee gravel. The time went by smoothly and we joked about getting properly wasted at the bar that night. (But it was not open for the season yet.)

When 1 p.m. came we went to find our bunks. The hostel at the NOC is divided into multiple buildings and rooms, with a large shower house and common room with kitchen in the middle. Our room had three bunks holding 6 people. You opened the door with key cards and the rooms had air conditioning and heat, which made it the most advance hostel I stayed in on the trail. (Besides Tea Horse in Harpers Ferry.)

In the room there was one older man organizing his gear and airing out his pack. At first glance I thought he was the vet I had met on my third night, but he was not. This man’s trail name was Smoky.

“How did you get the name Smoky?” I asked assuming it came from something pot related.

“O, I long hauled for some time, so I got the name from the movie Smoky and the Bandit.”

Geronimo put on some music, Grateful Dead, and the three of us enjoyed it and continued to talk. First about the Grateful Dead. Geronimo and Smoky had much to say on this subject, my only bit put in this conversation came from listening to their last performance when it was streamed in live to the Meadow Village at Big Sky MT the previous summer. Somehow this conversation segued into long hauling back in the 80’s and its drug culture. Smoky was an expert on this subject, and shared his stories of going 48 plus hours straight fueled on diesel cocaine and many other drugs I didn’t know about.

“Now days the law has taken the fun out of it, a little cocaine never hurt nobody.” Smoky said. Geronimo and me didn’t have much to say. I just halfway agreed by talking about how ridiculous insurance was for big rig drivers. (My brother hauled for a while.)

“I only used to get the job done. My wife had me clean at home.” Smoky further remarked.

Another hiker came in as our conversation was wrapping up with Smoky. He was around Smoky’s age or older but not worn down with substance abuse. He looked like a Marine commander with short well-groomed grey hair and fit body. His pack was an Alice frame pack and carried all military surpluses gear.

“Good evening, I’m Dick-Spatcher.” He said after throwing his pack on his bunk. We all laughed.

“Interesting name, I’m Geronimo, who named you that?”

“Well it’s also The Lieutenant in polite company, a group of college kids gave me Dick-Spatcher at Tray Mountain. I was a dispatcher this last year after retiring from fire chief.”

By this time it was approaching 3 o’clock and Geronimo and I went to get showers and then see about printing park passes for the Smoky Mountains.

After my shower I got the first good look at myself in the mirror since starting the trail. I saw a much different form then the bulked 205 body that had started the trail. I had been on steroids just two weeks prior the trail and without proper nutrition and a gym to stimulate my muscles they were all leaving rapidly.

I had lost my bulging six pack, my chest was still defined but smaller. The striations I had had in my shoulders had smoothed out but my quads had become more defined, and my knee was swollen; (I had forgotten to take more Aleve.)

I carried my dirty laundry to wash. While I was waiting out from the laundry room I saw a familiar face immerge out of the trail. It was the hiker I saw leaving Gooch Shelter on my second day; the one who whore the White Socks hat.

“Hey good to see yuh!” I said, thrilled to see that he had not dropped of the trail.

“Oh high, I meet you around Woody Gap right?”

“Yeah, looks like you’ve shed some weight.”

“Yeah I’m down to 30 pounds now, been able to do constant 15 mile days.”

“Where did you come from today?”

“Wayah Bald shelter.”

“Nice me and Geronimo did a near’o out of Cold Spring Shelter.”

“You staying here tonight?”

“Yeah how about you?”

“No I’m just getting some food then going to stay in the Rufus Morgan Shelter.”

“Nice I’ll see you around then.”

I left and went to join Geronimo in the outfitter. He was at the computer printing his pass and I decided to procrastinate and print mine the next day. I looked at gear and clothing in the outfitter. I needed an extra layer and an emergency blanket. I also needed a better bear hang system. All of these things I just looked at and would decide later on whether to purchase the next day on my zero.

After collecting my laundry I went to grab some beers and hot dogs with buns, but the store was closed. So at the hostel’s kitchen I ate an Idaho potato and was surprised it still tasted good after eating a good meal.

There were 2 other thru-hikers in the kitchen cleaning up after they had cooked and ate their meal. So the 4 of us went into the common room to talk.

“What are you two’s trail names?” The woman asked whose trail name was tumble weed.

“I’m Geronimo.”

“I’m just plain Joseph now, a trail name hasn’t stuck yet.”

“One hasn’t stuck with me either.” The man answered whose name was Jose.

“What came close?” I asked.

“Cactus, me and my wife are from New Mexico, when she got tumble weed the shelter thought about calling me Cactus but it never stuck.”

“For me a day hiker wanted to call me Kicking Wing, because I was winging my hike and was saying Kick’n a lot.”

“Kicking Wing, it’s about time for you to change your name to Kicking Ass.” Geronimo said referencing the movie Joe Dirt.

“That’s the Indian’s name in Joe Dirt right?” Tumble weed said.

“Theirs’s your name Joedirt.” Everybody agreed.

For some reason I didn’t like the trail name Joedirt; I guess at that time I took myself too seriously. Geronimo liked it and used it for the rest of the night, but the next day we would separate.

Since he was hiking out the next day, we went to sleep soon after nine. Our bunk mates were already snoring. The mattresses were not good at the NOC and I wondered and worried that I would have another sleepless night. I didn’t however and fell asleep fast but woke up around 3 in the morning. I was ok with this I had a king size bed the next day.

Day 8 part 1: A Hard 12 Down

I had gone through my 7th night without sleep. The air outside my quilt was cold somewhere close to freezing. I knew the sun was coming but it had not risen yet giving the environment a muted blue tint. The birds had not woken up yet and I had not sleep yet. I hoped at the NOC I could find sleep.

My body ached like growing pains. My sight only registered life in still images as if I was constantly blinking. My mind made sights and sounds in my peripherals that weren’t scary but annoying. I felt I couldn’t hear ever syllable in conversations, and I only responded with frustration. This is the best I can describe how I felt since day 4. All these symptoms starting in a low degree but now were sever, yet I was wide awake and had energy to hike.

Geronimo woke as I was slipping into my hiking clothes.

“You’re getting an early start.” He said.

“There’s no point in staying laid down when I can’t sleep, and it’s too cold to stay still.” I said shivering.

“Guess I’ll see you at the NOC.”

“Yeah defiantly.”

I pushed hard and let my body warm up with my heart rate. I had not eaten breakfast and only planed on stopping to make it once I saw good high sun.

Less than an hour in on the day I reached a side trail to Rocky Bald and my Awol said views. I was in the golden hour of the morning, and knew I would regret not seeing the sunrise like me and my friend Taylor would have when we would camp on Wesser Bald. So I took the tenth mile extra and wasn’t disappointed. (The picture I have posted is not what I first saw.) The view mesmerized me and I stood staring in it. Then without dropping my pack I collapsed down to sit to enjoy.IMG_0217

Misty clouds were swirling in gold light. There whiteness was not diluted by this light but stood out more pure. Only the mountains and their foliage was cast gold. The clouds were moving out of the valleys by the wind almost as if they were being rushed down a path like livestock by a herdsman.

Time past, how much I don’t know, more than 10 minutes but less than an hour. Then Geronimo showed up.

“You missed it.” I said.

“Doesn’t look like it.” He replied and dropped his pack to sit.

He pulled out his phone to snap a pic, and this brought the idea to me. (Hence the picture you see.)

We ate breakfast and then made short work to Wesser Bald. Along the way we passed through Tellico Gap, a starting point for the 2 times me and my friends visited this area. In the Gap there was a Styrofoam cooler. With enthusiasm I walked to it hoping to find a soda or Gatorade in it. There was only trash. But Geronimo and I took the opportunity to unload our trash in it, so the trail angle who left it could take it away.

Leaving Tellico Gap I could picture Taylors FJ cruiser parked. This felt cereal, and some of the feelings I tried to summon up the day before were present.

The trail up to Wesser Bald felt long on my previous hikes up, but that day it was easy and took at most twenty minutes. At the top on the observation tower Geronimo and I ate breakfast. The sun was high and the winds were still. The temperature had warmed up to a comforting level, and I felt that I could lay out on the tower and sleep.IMG_0220

“The next 6 miles are a bitch Joe. Be careful with you knee I blew out my knee on my last thru-hike here.” Geronimo warned.

“We’ll see how this goes; I don’t think I’m operating on a full brain.” I said while taking Aleve.

“Have you really not slept at all since starting?”

“I think I got a nap in at Standing Indian.”

“How come?”

“Don’t know, I’ve had these insomnia spell ever since my junior year in high school. My senior year right at the end I didn’t sleep for 2 weeks.”

“What’s that like?”

“Unsurety. You just feel unsure about everything.”

“Do you feel that way now?”

“No I’m very sure just hurting and a little slow.”

We started the 6 mile descent. The first mile brought us past Wesser Bald Shelter, the only place to get water before the NOC. I needed to resupply but didn’t I knew I could get a Coke at the NOC and I didn’t want to waste any more time getting there.

I didn’t dread the next part of the descent, which was the kicker, I looked forward to it. And it would become one of the best times hiking I had on the trail. There was rock scrambles but not too jagged to slow you down. I felt as If I flowed down them despite my knee pain, which felt like my tibia and fibula were driving my knee cap out of my skin. Having the sound track of James Cameron’s Avatar playing in my mind helped with this; the musical piece where the characters are climbing the floating mountains. I would download this later and it always helped my pace when played. (Except for my last two days.)

Geronimo and I Joked back and forth with each other much like me and my old track and field friends would do as we ran the mile or two mile races. It lightened the load of a sucky situation and made it fun. Before Noon Geronimo and I were standing by the NOC’s welcome sign drinking sodas and eating chips.

“That’s how you do a Nearo.” Geronimo said and we high-fived our accomplishment.