We knew it was time to get off the mountain. When hiking in snow, you travel half the speed, but require double the calories. We were plowing through three to ten inches of snow at 4,000 feet elevation, and knew that our next peaks would be five and six thousand feet high. We could only imagine how much more snow we’d find up there. And it was still coming down.
We reached Hogback Mountain Shelter mid-afternoon to find Bright Side and Samson shivering in their sleeping bags and every piece of clothing they had. “We’re getting out of here,” we said. “You want to come?” They did. So did Larry Boy, Punkin Pie, and Doctor Zhivago. It was three more miles to a road crossing. A flurry of phone calls and text messages were made, and a local maven of southern hospitality, Miss Janet, enthusiastically agreed to come retrieve all of us, plus two southbound hikers who had come down from Bald Mountain.
Due to the miracle of technology, cell phone reception is available on most eastern peaks and ridges. I would say that hiking the Appalachian Trail is not an immersive wilderness experience, despite its slogan, A footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness. It’s a mixture of culture and nature, a corridor demonstrating the many relations humans have with the earth. A hiker can see mountaintop removal, prescribed burns, and logging roads, as well as preserves, national parks, and state forests. The trail travels within spitting distance of towns, private lands, and at least one Pizza Hut; that particular franchise wisely does not offer an all-you-can-eat buffet.
So we descended almost jubilantly into Sam’s Gap, the slow ones following the fast ones. “No man left on the battlefield,” said Samson. Our impending rescue had us nearly sliding down the switchbacks, giant clots of snow clumping inside our pant legs and ice crystals clinging to our hair. At the underpass, Miss Janet was the first female I had seen in days. The presence of ovaries besides my own was refreshing, especially since these ovaries were within a body driving a fifteen-passenger van headed to town. And so it was that an hour later, Zippy, Samson, Punkin Pie and I were lying on snow-white queen sized beds in a heated room in the Holiday Inn Express, drinking complementary cocoa and letting our freshly washed hair soak into snow-white pillows propped behind us, reading USA Today and airing out our stinking, humid gear on every hanger, coat hook, and ironing board we could find. We ordered pizza. We slept. And the next morning, we demolished the Express Start Breakfast Bar. (We apologized in advance to the staff, but they are used to hikers in this little town.)
It is a strange paradox, how much joy can be had by returning to what you may have sought to escape by hiking. Every four or five days on this trail, you’ve got to get to town. You’ve got to find the coin laundry and the Dollar General and the hardware store that sells denatured alcohol for your stove. You’ll probably eat some food that took more than five minutes to cook, that was cooked by hands other than yours. You might end up somewhere with a controlled temperature, hear a car radio, check your email, call somebody you love, pick up a box of treats somebody mailed to the nearest post office for you. It’s great.
For Zippy and me, however, no matter how much we enjoy town, we are never completely comfortable there. We have wired ourselves to yearn always to be back out in the woods. It’s a good trait in a thru-hiker, but it’s still odd to find yourself at the KFC Colonel’s Buffet, groaning with relief at being warm and still at last, and simultaneously wanting nothing more than to climb back into those folded hills despite the snow, the cold, the harshness. To keep moving, keep traveling, keep surrendering to the pilgrimage.
We hope that as we go along, we’ll become able to better balance trail and town, to appreciate the joys of each. To be content with the present, even as we know it will change and change again. And, as creatures whose stay on earth is only temporary anyhow, to be at home wherever we are.