Cheerleaders

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Despite the last post going out on April Fool’s Day, Zippy and I really did get back on the trail for three days just now, between the winter storm and the wedding. J.’s dad generously loaned us his blue Del Rio, which we left at the Greasy Creek Friendly (as opposed to Hostel, get it? …oh, and it’s pronounced Greazy, if you want to sound like a local). The kind proprietor, Connie, shuttled us to the trail, and thus commenced some of the most pleasurable, beautiful hiking we’ve yet enjoyed… long, sunny days over terrain hinting enticingly at spring: magnolia buds, tiny yellow violets, the post-rain smell of ozone. We climbed over Unaka Mountain, its dense spruce summit holding in a last inch of fresh-smelling snow, making the name apt (Unaka is Cherokee for white). And we felt for the first time the true community of the trail.

I should explain. For our first three weeks, we passed probably between a hundred to a hundred and fifty people. On day three, we’d checked in to Neels Gap as northbound thru-hikers #198 and #199. (Dan got a free candy bar for being #200, so we were just a hair early.) Until mile 317, we knew of no one who had passed us, though surely some did, maybe while we were in town resupplying.

So though we met lots of hikers, we didn’t stay with them long, never more than three days, and then they were gone, behind us. We passed various “bubbles” of people–little groups among whom bonds form due to similar paces and personalities, and from which miniature cultures arise. Some are mellow and friendly. Some brim with testosterone. Others are quiet. Some look forward to town trips (“We’re gonna get wasted! $3.99 wine at Walgreens!”) and others always yearn for the woods. Some religiously hang their food bags and leave no trace; others leave ribbons of TP in their wake. One group glommed around a guy ceaselessly strumming a small, purple guitar. Most groups, and hikers in general, are encouraging and positive, and also rich in dark humor. (One morning I shuffled to the moldering privy, tipped open the lid with a knuckle, and found that someone had taped a scrap of wrapper to the inside: “Making Warm Chocolate Memories”.) But despite all the interesting anthropological aspects of passing by bubbles, we didn’t feel an overall fellowship. Our hike was a couple’s hike, not a community’s.

Due to our six-day hiatus, these past fifty miles felt different. We’re further back in the pack, and are meeting up with folks we’ve met before. Two women and their dog, Roscoe. Dan, the famous #200. Leprechaun and Moxie from the Locust Cove campground, who were with us the night everyone’s food bags crashed to the ground at 4 am since we’d all thrown our goodies over a branch that was not as strong as it looked. And Fresh Grounds, a trail magic guy we met before the Smokies. He’s an energetic and hospitable man who sets up a massive spread, complete with folding chairs and a tarped shelter, for hikers passing through. (When we ran into him yesterday just past Indian Grave Gap, he ruthlessly pushed on us the following: two chili dogs for J., a can of Progresso vegetable soup for me, Fritos, bread, about twenty Hershey’s Minis, four Hydrox cookies, a can of Coca-Cola, and refills for our water bottles. Though I have to admit, it didn’t take much pushing. Fresh Grounds takes donations and will follow the hikers north as long as the money lasts. He calls his setup the Leap Frog Cafe.) And every time we see a hiker again, it seems that another thread of solidarity is stitched. We are excited to see them still here, still walking.

So we now feel more connected. The people we see now have been through the same weather, the same terrain. They have grown tougher, fitter, wiser, and better able to see the humor in adverse circumstances. We are all each other’s cheerleaders. It is wonderful.

I write this from a Knoxville hotel… we came down the mountain this morning through a few hours of freezing rain, and tomorrow, I’ll  be flying out to a Texas wedding, sunshine, and lots of family love! Time to print some boarding passes. See you on the trail on Monday…

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