On the eve of Day 1.
His trail name was “T-Rex”. He was dressed from head to toe in shiny black nylon that was too small, both on the top of his bottoms and the bottom of his top. He often looked straight ahead in a stoner stare rather than make any type of eye contact with anyone in our group. He materialized from the darkness some time between when we left to stuff our excited pieholes at Smoky Mountain Bakers and our return. T-Rex must have mentioned his intent to watch Jurassic Park no less than 15 times, only to get up and put in The Thing instead, much to the delight of no one. The kid was just a few beats off the rhythm if you hear what I’m rappin’.
I’d felt some dull apprehension about who we might encounter on the trail. The timing was perfect for us to intersect a good number of thru-hikers (people hoofing it up the entire 2,000+ miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine), most of whom started in late February-early March. Right outta the gate I was sharing my leftover cheese sticks with this joker; a guy who was, “Sent away to an island when [he] was young because [he] was very bad.” Great … awesome. I live in the suburbs with 3.5 children and have a secret crush on Sarah Jessica Parker, so … we have a lot of nothing really at all in common. Please don’t cut off my hair while I sleep.
While the accommodations were charming in a way that felt appropriate for this kind of adventure – I especially loved the pictures and thank you messages from past thru-hikers displayed above the deep wash tub sink in the corner – T-Rex was adding a certain type of character that had me feeling unsettled. He was nothing like his calmer comrades, Ace and Calvin, who both ate their instant oatmeal and made polite conversation about “all the millennials who acted like the trail owed them something” and tendinitis.
At 10p.m. hikers who didn’t pay for a bed at the hostel are expected to head out and pitch their tent in the designated area (I mean to camp; get your mind out of the gutter). Ace had forked over the cash, but Calvin and T-Rex adjusted their headlamps and bid us farewell. The aggressive wind had been screaming at the tin roof of the hostel for a few hours at this point, and the gusts only seemed to be growing, both in strength and frequency. The barn was noticeably shifting and bending to nature’s bold breath. I could feel it. And so, when Calvin and his shifty trailmate came running back in about 30 minutes later, it wasn’t entirely shocking. “Nope … not doin’ it,” Calvin said with wide eyes. “Nope!” T-Rex chimed in for confirmation. “A tree literally just snapped and fell 2 feet from my tent! I could have died.” Calvin recounted skittishly. I’ll admit, I thought it was a clever ploy to catch a spot on the couch. I think we all did. (It wasn’t). We offered up some half-hearted sympathy and turned in.*
My thoughts volleyed between the hike and the roof literally flying off of the hostel as I shifted to find a dip in the mattress suitable for my soft form. As I settled, I heard voices from the loft area where the rest of our crew was nestled. “It’s gotta be something that goes together,” My brother’s friend, who went by The General on the trail, said. “Like peanut butter and jelly or, ya know what just feels right … Biscuits and Gravy. Biscuits!” He hollered in a jerky southern accent. “Biscuits! Get yo ass down here, girl! Damnit, Biscuits!” I knew they were working up trail names for me and Hank. And, like gum to a security blanket, it stuck.
Between the squalls, swaying barn structure and unplanned sleepover guest, T-Rex, (who must have gone in and out of the hostel at least 6 times throughout the night to do God only knows what … gather weapons and cut letters out of magazines for the note he would leave by our bodies, I assumed), I didn’t sleep. I can admit with little shame that it went against every instinct in my motherly being to curl up mere inches away from a stranger who may or may not have been a juvenile delinquent in some capacity and who may or may not have been shipped off on a boat by his parents to be treated for some sort of disturbing behavior, with nothing between us but a curtain. But this is actually good, I thought. Between staying up late to pack our packs the night before and this sleepless night, I should have no problems falling asleep on the trail tomorrow.
People started maneuvering the vinyl folding door to the bathroom around 7:15 or so Sunday morning. I whispered my zero sleep status and detest for T-Rex to Hank before shuffling out of the area where our king-sized bed was nestled. I sat awkwardly on a chair next to my brother blinking away what little sleep had accumulated in my eyes and acclimating myself to the sausage fest in which I currently found myself. I looked over Matt’s shoulder to see a kind-faced guy, about my age, sitting on the deck. He eventually stepped in, friendly but timid. He was swinging through to pick up a resupply box and didn’t hate the fact that we mentioned there was a shower here. “Hey, man,” he was looking at my brother. “I’m Bro-seph.” “Cool … I’m Matt.” There was a moment of silence as the morning high dropped from Bro-seph’s face and he accepted the fact that this guy wasn’t feelin’ his trail vibe. “I’m actually Matt, too,” he conceded.
See, trail names are a funny thing. Almost everyone we came across had one, and, for someone who is terrible with names, it actually made them easier to remember while also lending a bit of anonymity. I imagine there’s something freeing about being whoever you want to be on the trail. You don’t have to be “Sharon from Accounting” on the AT. You can be “Coffee Mate” or “Monarch” or “Shuffle Butter” or “Quick Cheeks”. It doesn’t matter. Anything goes. It’s a story you tell around the fire and your entry in the registry. The exchange between the Matts was a testament to the fact that my brother was there for the climb and not networking with the intriguing trail folk. He wanted to hike, spend time with his best friend, sister and brother-in-law, and maybe have some laughs. That was it. He had no interest in dissecting the new Lumineers album and he certainly didn’t want to sit around a flame talking trekking poles with strangers named “Nacho”. Ironically, it was also that exchange that earned him his official trail name, “Just Mat”.
Around 10:25 an SUV and a truck pulled around by the General Store to shuttle us to the trailhead. It was frigid outside. It was so cold, you guys, that the hostel owners’ goat wouldn’t come out of a hole it dug for itself in the side of a hill. That’s freaking cold. Nonetheless, I wedged myself into the extended cab between Just Mat and Gravy. The General sat up front. It felt like we drove forever. As people made small talk and the cab filled with the smell of warm coffee breath and heavily applied deodorant, my attention went to how nonchalantly our chauffeur was taking these tight bends around the mountain; the mountain with no guardrails. One little sneeze, one sip of scorching-hot joe, one slip of the steering wheel and the truck would go violently tumbling. My eyes darted. No one else seemed to notice how close we were to plummeting to our deaths. Forget bears … we were never going to make it out of the shuttle alive. The driver mentioned that after they dropped us, they were heading for a rescue. Apparently a couple of girls had gotten sick and couldn’t go on. Apparently a lot of hikers had gotten sick this year. “So we can call if we need rescued?” I inserted casually. He was playing a killer alternative radio station and I began to calm down.
We reached the start of our section at Iron Mountain Gap and piled out of the two vehicles. It was still bitterly cold. There was a stiffness and hesitation in everyone’s gate. Our bodies wanted to hibernate. “Good luck!” our escorts said before heading back down the winding mountainside. We gathered for a group photo, adjusted packs, poles and jackets, and took our first steps onto the Appalachian Trail. “We’re really doing it guys!” I said to Just Mat and Gravy. Just 1 minute later I was so winded I couldn’t utter more than 2 words strung together at a time. “Wow this … is so … pretty, huh?” To which my husband responded, “I think … we might … have … underestimated … the physicality … of this.” The good news was the heat came fast to my core and fingers. The bad news was the next 4 days were guaranteed to hand us our asses on a platinum AT platter.
The landscape on that first day was much like a Midwest forest with a mountainous backdrop thrown in for good measure. Gradual hills, barely budding foliage and the dried, leafy remnants of the past autumn carpeting the path. Honestly, the first section went so fast. It was a manageable 6 miles and I felt invigorated when we arrived at Clyde Smith Shelter – our end point for the day – in time for a stupid-late lunch around 2:30. The weather was beautiful, probably in the high 50s/low 60s and a sad tuna salad tortilla rollup never sounded so good. In the unforgiving light of the mid-afternoon, the shelter gave off more of a lean-to vibe. It had 3 walls, a roof, a few sleeping platforms and mouse mobiles (strings with bottles and cans attached to keep rodents from scurrying down the line to get into your food sacks). For some reason I pictured cute little playhouse-type structures with warm, sturdy perimeters. Not so much.
We opted to set up camp in a circular area behind the shelter. “It’s nice and flat, and it looks like only a few people shit back here,” The General proclaimed. Lesson No. 2: Always look for toilet paper before you pick your camping spot. He and Just Mat had hammocks they attached across from each other, as did the father and son in our group. Lieutenant Blazer (a friend of The General’s) made a last-minute decision to sleep in his bivy sack next to the fire. The fire … ah, the fire. There are spirit makers and spirt breakers on the trail and the fact we were able to have a fire was a huge maker for me. I had heard the only blazes permitted on the trail were the white ones you follow, so I was delighted when I saw a fire ring at our site, and even more geeked when I sat next to that fire with a little hot cocoa. As I savored my hard-earned pouch dinner and listened to the tunes coming from The General’s portable speaker, my husband bustled about putting the finishing touches on our tent and hanging our packs from the trees. “Gawd, look at Gravy just hustlin to get shit done while you sip hot chocolate,” Just Mat remarked, in a way only a big brother could. “Princess Biscuits. That’s your new name. Princess. freaking. Biscuits.” And like a bad first impression to your bunkmates at church camp, it stuck.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I typically catch my Zs on my tummy, and my mummified sleeping bag wasn’t really conducive to remaining in that position without suffocating. I was using my clothing stuff sack as a pillow at the General’s recommendation and it didn’t want to stay put, slippery little sucker that it was. I laid there, Princess Biscuits in the vast wilderness, as my sweet Gravy finally found some rest. Around 10:30 – which felt like 3am because we went to bed as soon as the sun disappeared – my hot cocoa kicked in. I suddenly had to pee. I had to climb over my poor, sleeping husband to frantically fight for release from the zipper and find freedom. He awoke to a knee in the liver from his beloved, but I did escape in time to water the nearest thirsty tree. As I climbed back into my cocoon, empty-bladdered and a bit sugar buzzed, I reflected just long enough to admit to myself that this shit was real. And this shit was tough. And this shit was really tough.
*A note from the author: In hindsight, those poor kids really could have had their water shut off that evening. I felt like the worst kind of jerk the next morning when we saw the tree and can’t stress enough how happy I am that to my knowledge neither they, nor anyone else we came across suffered any serious injuries.