My highest and lowest moments of the entire hike fell within the same 24 hours. We woke up Monday morning and putzed around our site for a generous amount of time. We brought out the GPS and had a brief powwow about the distance and terrain we had to knock out that day. “It looks like it’s about 5 miles, as a crow flies, and a 6000 foot elevation.” Lesson No. 3: A crow flies a much shorter path than a human walks. In all our time talking about water sources and elevation changes and mileage, I never did figure out why in the name of all that is sanity the term persisted. Those little punks, with their wings and their speed and their cocky attitudes, have a very direct route from Point A to Point B, whereas we had foot bridges and reroutes and natural roadblocks, like two-lane roads, to go around. It honestly made me crazy. The difference could be as much as 4 miles at times. “Yeah, but how far as a girl walks?” I began asking.
We ate oatmeal and sipped instant coffee and talked wilderness bathroom habits in great detail. (We talked about bathroom habits and body odors in great detail often over our 4 days together.) Lesson No. 4: Did you know you’re supposed to take your pants all the way off when you poop in the woods? That way, if a bear or a snake or a pack of girl scouts attacked, you could run, rather than topple over with your pants around your ankles. Not saying I did it, but I was told it was for survival … Anyway, eventually, we packed up our circle site and rolled out. The terrain was gradual at first. The section was beautiful and almost Secret Garden-esque as we maneuvered among rocks in the subtle shade of the towering rhododendrons. I tried to picture what our hike would look like with these sleepy buds in full bloom. How brilliant the border of bright magenta and powder purple blossoms would be along the trail. Maybe someday I’ll go back when the hills are really blushing. After what felt like about an hour and half of tricky scrambling, we came to a break and the view was the first breath-taking overlook of the trip. It was a boost we didn’t know we needed.
We stopped for lunch and injury assessments early in the afternoon. Chicken salad on a tortilla, a Baby Bell and beef jerky, and a nagging blister for the Mr. Athletic tape and Band’Aids adhered, we were ready to rock the rest of the afternoon. Looking back, I think it was a blessing that we went into that second part of the Day 2 section blindly. I mean, maybe some of the people in our party knew the hellish climbs that awaited, but if they did, they weren’t sayin.
First up for the afternoon, a long, gradual climb on a Jack and the Beanstalk of a hill littered with brown crunchy leaves. As our rhythms and pace settled, our group spread out a bit. Soon I found myself walking alone. This was one of the only times I truly walked by myself on the trip. When you do any sort of repetitive activity in silence for a significant period of time, your thoughts start to interrupt each other and get a bit like an 18 year old’s on shrooms, though they feel deep and insightful in the moment. Mine were something like … Holy shit, this hill is endless … Gosh, look at Hank up there … he really is such a good partner … This whole thing is like a microcosm of life in general; with ups and downs and challenges and victories and moments when you feel off balance and teamwork and basic survival … There’s gotta be a blog post in there somewhere … Everyone should do this … My legs are freaking burning … I wonder what Hank’s thinking about … I wonder if he thinks I’m a good partner … If I were a bear, I’d be right over there … Realistically, will we ever do this again … Why does this look easy for Matt … Is it too soon for a snack … I hope they’re waiting on a rock after this corner … Nope, damn.
While your thoughts meander through and crowd your mind like a gang of drunken cats , there’s an orderly cadence that simultaneously takes over your body. Your trekking poles swing and find the ground each time your right foot advances forward. Your breath quickens and stabilizes in response to the rise and fall in demand. The crunch of your boots on the trees’ lost leaves and your inhalations lay down a basic beat to which the rest of your senses sing along. Minutes pass both painfully and quickly. It’s called a walk, but it’s arguably a dance as well. The probing solitude is a meditation with merit, no doubt, but the best part comes when you round a bend on a switchback and see your trailmates waiting, drop your pack and take a 10-minute rest.
After completing the hill of infinity, the boys and I gathered at a boulder to regroup. Hank wanted to keep moving and I felt some momentum lingering in my stems, so we left the crew and soldiered on to tackle the second high elevation of the day. Lesson No. 5: If you don’t like the scenery, just wait an hour. Something that amazed me about the AT was how quickly the backdrop changed. The morning was rhododendrons and rocks, while the first big hill was a sea of bare bronze and tree trunks, and now we were pulling ourselves up over large boulders and jagged mountainside saplings. (We’d see ice before the day was over.)
I don’t know if it was the fact that we were out of the forest and the sun was hitting my skin, or that this particular section of this particular mountainside felt uniquely beautiful and challenging, or the fact that it was just us, Biscuits and Gravy, trekking poles-deep in this glorious climb … whatever it was, reaching the top of that second mountain was a high point for me; likely the highest of the entire trip. This was also how I got confirmation – if there was ever any doubt – that I will do damn-near anything for chocolate.
We’d packed 6 Snickers bars for the 4 days (that’s 1 a piece for 3 days, if you’re doing the math, which I most certainly was). At 2:45 I must have made an ugly sound whilst heaving my huge ass up a testy boulder, to which my husband responded, “If you can make it to 3:30, we’ll stop and have our Snickers.” Even if Jennifer Aniston herself came down that mountain and told me we could meet for margaritas and haircare secrets if I made it to the top, nothing could have motivated me more than that promise of chocolate, roasted peanuts, nougat, and sweet, sexy caramel. And God love that man, he gave me 10-minute updates for the win. “30 minutes till Snickers, Court!” “10 minutes and it’s chocolate time!” We came to the most breath-taking area on, what felt like, the top of the world, kicked off our boots, pulled back the paper and ate the shit out of those candy bars. We called the chicks from that mountaintop, too, and it all just felt so satisfying. Because, you know, Snickers really do that.
I rode my chocolate-coated high down through a flat section of forest and right to the base of, yet another, mountain. Hank spotted a blue blaze (indicating a water source) and, respecting rumors of sparse water sources ahead and recognizing we had only about 4 ounces of H2O between us, he decided to make the trek to fill up. The terrain turned out to be a bit steeper than anticipated. As the grown men crossed my path one by one, they disappeared in Hank’s footsteps in pursuit of the blue blaze. Soon, it was just me and the 13 year old from our group left waiting. And waiting. And waiting. We stood in the shadow of our final summit for what felt like an hour until signs of life came shuffling and huffing through the sparse foliage. The staggering single file line of men emerging from the woods looked beaten, battered and as if whatever devilish descent took them down to that watering hole stole 5 years of their youth. The last to come out was my Gravy. And then it was time to climb just one. more. mother-lovin mountain.
With the exception of Lieutenant Blazer, who was an agile freak of nature, we were all running on fumes. The mountain, which would bring us to our highest elevation of the day, was a nature-made obstacle course constructed of unsettling ledges, rounded stones, tree root steps and puddles frosted in ice from the frigid overnight temps. Around every turn was a fresh ascending viewpoint and we put in a weary, weak performance at best. I will say I found it comforting that everyone in our group, and everyone we came across from that point on, acknowledged just how brutal our Day 2 route really was. It made me feel like my shaking limbs were a symptom of normal fatigue as opposed to fragility and a lack of preparedness.
When we reached the break in our third consecutive climb of the afternoon, we stepped out into the field where the Cloudland Hotel once stood and collapsed into various piles. My sugar buzz had evaporated as quickly as it came on, leaving me too disenchanted by this point to read the plaque that stands on this historical land. I tells the story of The Cloudland, a luxury resort that literally sat on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Consuming alcohol was legal in Tennessee at the time, but not in North Carolina. Guests could drink in the dining room, which was located on the appropriate side, but if they crossed the line painted on the floor they were in North Carolina territory and subject to the designated punishment. Where socializing and music once filled an entire building, now a handful of tired-ass hikers sat staring at its fluffy, billowy mascots in what was now an open grassland. There really are a lot of clouds up here, I thought to myself. Though had I been on an overlook with any other name, I might not have even noticed them. Once The General made it up the mountain we began talking camp. Our goal was to make it to Roan High Knob, the highest shelter on the Appalachian Trail at 6,285 feet above sea level. But Lieutenant Blazer was giving the hard sell on a patch of pine trees about 10 feet from where we all sat trail wasted on the ground.
The General pushed for us to finish out the day and head just .6 of a mile down the trail to the water source at Roan High Knob. We had covered 7.9 miles at that point, but that last .6 was the longest of the day. And it didn’t get much better once we made the jagged climb up to camp. The wind on Monday night was unforgiving and somewhere along the way, the heavens decided to start spitting giant droplets of pestering water. Lucky for us, the Magician was on the scene. The Magician was a super-focused thru-hiker with a lot of advice and a vegan dog. That’s right, his dog, Pig, was vegan. I remembered seeing them flash past us on that first big hill right after lunch. The dog was built like a tiny brick shithouse; strong and solid. Every morning, The Magician would rub chapstick on the pads of Pig’s paws and give him a full body check. Pig had a special blanket and was just basically killin’ it in all aspects of the game. The Magician walked Hank around and showed him the only other flat spot outside of the shelter to set up our tent. We also peeked into the shelter. “The mice won’t bother you. You’ll just hear them,” the other hikers said. I made the decision right then and there to be a total girl and stick to our tent. It was the wrong decision.
We set our tent up in the dark gray drizzle that comes on a stormy evening just before night falls. The fire was smoky and constantly considering extinguishing completely, making my eyes burn too badly to stay. I ate my freeze-dried lasagna, watched Hank and the Lieutenant tie a bear bag up into a tree and called it for the night. Around 11pm or so, I woke up with that familiar call to pee. I was cold and pissy. I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag. But I did. And once you get cold like that you’re pretty much screwed. My teeth chattered and my whole body ached from shivering. Hank gave me his down jacket to put over the one I was already wearing. Nothing helped. This is how I die, I thought. I’m going to pass away from hypothermia on some stupid mountaintop because I read some stupid book and thought, hey, why shouldn’t I go find myself in the freaking woods. My poor girls are going to have to tell this story so many times. It was all messing with my mind in a way that unearthed vulnerabilities and insecurities I’ve only felt a few times before. It put me in a bad, bad headspace and poked at my inner pessimist. I didn’t sleep that night, either. The wind tugged at our tent cover and toyed with the idea of demonstrating its brut power by removing the thing altogether. By the time the sun rose, my spirits and boot soles were completely frozen. I had hit a low point on the trip.