“When I os taken him up pear, he told me he a, he had the cancer. So, I stopped anduh got him a gallun a whiskey anda carton a cigarettes and I took him up air to-a the mountain anda I’m not sure but I think he died in August dat year … Me and my partner hada motel we ran and it was fulla, pardon my french, prostitutes and druggies when we bought it and a, we bought it on April 2, 2009. And we ran it and that. And then a, my partner, he died on April 2, 2011, see. … Now, you guys look strong, but they call me Don’t Give a Damn Sam and ifya need me to come getcha, I’ll come up ear and getcha. Just not when I’m fixin to go to bed, em k? I take 5 Benadryl and 3 Unisoms, and I ain’t gettin’ outta my bed once I’m en dare. … Oh yeah, we had a guy die of a heart attack right dare and a girl hung herself on a tree right over dare and uh, yeah, the trail can be a lonely place. I mean, I’d be lyin if I didn’t say I hadn’t thought about it myself. Well, y’all member that girl and her dog, dontcha? Someone took her from the mountain and, uh, well, he cut her head off. Yup, he de-cap-a-tated her.”
I could hear Sam Duke, our colorful chauffeur through the mountains, from the back seat, where I sat staring at Just Matt’s hairline trying not to vomit. Sam was from Louisiana, and his personal slogan was, “Let er rip, patata chip!”, a phrase we uttered no less than 89 times over the next three days. He’d picked us up at the Woody Gap parking lot, where we left Tank with the promise we’d return at a reasonable hour on Saturday. In our 45 minutes with Sam on the winding service roads of the Appalachian Trail en route to Springer Mountain, we discovered that everyone who had ever come into contact with Sam Duke had, shortly thereafter, died. Small talk with the Grim Reaper was not how I’d envisioned starting the rest of our section hike. Nonetheless, here I was.
Despite the disheartening development that we were now destined to be eaten by a bear or snatched by an escaped serial killer, it wasn’t all bad news for us. Because of our last-minute change of plans, Gravy and I were able to unload some clothing items and a day’s worth of meals from our packs. When you’re shouldering 30+ pounds and 50+ pounds, respectfully, every ounce dropped is cause for celebration.
Here’s what we ended up with:
Gravy carried much of the same, plus our tent and water pump. We split the weight of the food right down the middle. There are always things you’d adjust after the fact. I would have upped my coffee game, especially given the afternoon I was walking into. A few extra packets would have been a real morale booster; the more toxic sugar, the better. Speaking of, I picked up some Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee with Cream and Sugar and those packets were like drops of what the angels drink. Much better than the straight Via packets, in my opinion.
We exited Sam Duke’s mini van and stepped out into the parking lot at the trailhead. It was 30-something degrees, blowing and sleeting. It’s never good when you hold your hand out to gather precipitation and ask, “What is this shit?” Of course, I had to pee. I wandered off down a trail to find the widest tree and watched Sam drive away. Ah, fudge. We’re really doing this. The rest of my crew was standing by the Springer Mountain map, filling water bladders and situating gear. Lydia, a young female Ridgerunner, walked up from the general vicinity of the grass I’d just watered. Lydia’s role on the trail was to stay on a section to answer questions about gear, shelter and strategy, and educate hikers on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy initiative, Leave No Trace, their effort to minimize damage to the natural environment along the AT. (The jobs you wish you’d known about 12 years ago, right?) As she engaged in polite small talk, all I could hear was the sound of my inner girl crushin’ on her pants. They kind of looked like equestrian riding pants, but stretchier and warmer; Much cooler than my traditional cargo mom hiking pants. They must be a thing now because a bunch of chicks we saw had them. I was putzing around in farty fashions, showing my age for sure, at least from the waist down. It all felt very first day with a headgear to me.
We started down the trail and took our first steps in a three-day adventure. I followed behind Just Matt and The General as they perfected their Sam Duke impersonations and tallied the body count. The laughter worked as a warmer to counteract the piercing snow-water sludge diving at my face, and I was thankful. Not far in, we stopped at Stover Creek Shelter to make adjustments and get a little snack. Lydia was there. As were her cute pants. Just Matt made no adjustments and just looked on annoyed as we made small talk about bear canisters, the weather the night before and traffic on the trail. See, Just Matt didn’t like this part of it. He packed only bars (no “dehydrated bullshit”) and reminded all of us regularly, through both his verbal and nonverbal communication, just how much he hates to stop for any reason other than sleep or shit.
Lydia predicted the Three Forks Shelter, where we’d planned to stay, would be pretty crowded that night given the chilly temps they were predicting. She mentioned the Hickory Flats Cemetery and Pavilion as a better option. It was just a couple miles away and we were making great time. I mean nothing will motivate you to move your ass like numb fingers and perilous mud puddles.
I disappeared into my head a bit, thinking about everything and nothing at all, and before I even found my stride, I came to The General at a service road crossing.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“That pavilion is right over here, if you want to check it out.”
It was 1:40 pm and 36-or-so degrees.
I started counting the hours on my bright pink fingers as I shuffled toward the cemetery. If we left at 8 o’clock the next morning, we would be here for 18 hours.
At a cemetery and open-air pavilion.
In 30-degree weather.
We walked under the roof to assess our accommodations for the evening. There was a young gentleman sitting in a plastic chair facing the trees. He turned and acknowledged us in a polite but minimal way. At this point, the rain was really starting to pick up, so I assumed our pavilion mate was waiting out the storm. I set my pack down and walked over to the bathroom. It had four walls – four walls! – and stood as a literal symbol of the term, “built like a brick shithouse”. I stepped in, out of the wind and into an eery silence. It was a silence that almost had to precede something horrific. I more than half expected to find a friend of Sam Duke’s propped up in a stall. But spooky as it was, it was easily 10 degrees warmer than outside. I stood in the sturdy privy not sure where I wanted to go. I didn’t have to use the drop potty, necessarily, but I didn’t really want to stand around with the frozen sausage fest in the pavilion, either. So, I stood. I stood in a brick potty and just stared at the wall. I stared at the cobwebs in the corners. I stared at the names carved into the plank over the stall built for those with shower bags. I stood and let my frozen mind thaw out with concocted tales of terrible scenarios that played out within these walls. I just stood.
Eventually, I found my big girl parachute panties and pulled them up. I strolled out to the pavilion and started going about the business of making lunch. It was 2 pm and we were strategizing tent setup so we could – what else – turn in for the night. During a break in our chat, The General turned to the young guy sitting next to us, still staring off into the woods.
“You start the trail yesterday?” he asked.
“No,” the kid said.
He shook his head, no.
“Oh man,” The General said. He then turned back around and gave us the big eyes.
It would appear this little guy was having a really hard time getting himself up the AT. Granted, the weather hadn’t been great, and there are a million factors that can crush people at any point in their hike, but one would likely be farther than this 3+ days in. Whatever his deal, it seemed like maybe his meditation was coming to an end and he would be moving on soon. He slowly, quietly stood and started meticulously packing up his gear. He rolled his sleeping mat smoothly and snugly. He checked his food bag and then reclosed it, twice. When all was said and done, he spent 2 hours pulling his shit together. Two hours. Then, he grabbed a water bottle and started off down the road. Huh.
Just Matt was antsy. He’d misplaced his gloves back at Woody Gap and, after finishing a mug of coffee (and sharing his extras with the group), he was ready to hibernate. He and The General put their tent up in about 15 minutes. Gravy, on the other hand, spent a good deal of time strategizing over our sleeping arrangements, since our modest two-person tent required ground for staking into. This was more of a concrete slab situation, so … And I’m not entirely helpful in these situations when I’m not frozen, so …
After several minutes of contemplation, it was decided that Princess Biscuits and Prince Gravy would be resting their royal heads in a makeshift tent under a large picnic table. Gravy draped a hammock tarp over the wood structure and used concrete blocks to hold it down around the outside. We put a tarp down on the ground, our mats on top of that, and we were all set.
Somehow we’d made it to 5 pm and so my counterpart and I decided to go ahead and start dinner. Just Matt and The General had been in their tent for almost an hour already, but Lawd knows I don’t skip meals. They’d turned into a mumbled screen of farts and giggles. (We’re talking about two 40 year olds here.) We boiled water for our freeze-dried Southwest Lasagna, cupping our hands around the scorching dew of the device for pleasure. The rain and snow had subsided, leaving just a straight up cold to harden the cemetery ambiance.
Our neighbor came back.
And then, just as carefully as he’d begun, he initiated the tedious process of unpacking his gear.
See, he packed it. And now he was unpacking it.
It was time for me to go to bed. I crunched on a 10mg chewable melatonin, brushed my teeth, and had a nonverbal conversation with my husband about the strange behavior playing out beside us before crawling under the table. I put the tarp door back into place and zipped myself into my wine-colored sleeping bag, secretly wishing I were drunk. I was wearing my wool cap, down accessories and long underwear. A sliver of early evening sunlight rubbed against the end of our “tent” to remind me it was approximately 6 pm.
But the sun’s light was a liar. I started to shiver about 20 minutes after I laid down, and began having flashbacks of Roan Highlands Shelter, also known as “the night mama almost died”. I inch-wormed my way backward out of our tent. Gravy was still cleaning up camp. Just Matt and The General were generating a massive amount of heat in their tent. I knew this only because I heard the expression, “sweating my balls off,” a handful of times from my icy cocoon. I stood up and looked at my husband, my trailmate, my life partner, and I told him the thing no one wants to have to tell their loved one.
“I’m getting in there with them,” I said.
“Like, for the night?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”
His feelings of abandonment sliced through my whiny tone as I crouched down and unzipped the door to my brother and my almost-brother’s temporary bachelor pad. It wasn’t warm. But it wasn’t freezing, either. I claimed a spot on the very edge as the two nudged up against each other in their nylon encasings. After 34 years of friendship, I was confident this wasn’t the first time they’d spooned (heads on opposite ends, of course) but it was certainly the only time I would remember.
About 40 minutes later, Just Matt had to pee. Since he was the patty in the hamburger, we all decided to get up and try. After that, my chill started to subside and I was able to drift off to sleep. My husband’s head was just a tent wall, tarp and picnic table leg away from mine, so I could quietly check in on him. When everyone was finally settled, I drifted off to sleep. The crack of a grown man’s fart piercing the peace of the pavilion jolted me awake every hour or so, but still I was warm and mildly content.
At some point after the sun went down, the tent filled with the vibrant muted yellow tone of car headlights and the familiar sound of gravel popping under tires. Someone was in the pavilion parking lot. My mind started firing.
Oh my gosh, they’re looking for that kid. I wonder if he’s still out there. Or, maybe he called a shuttle to come pick him up because he’s freezing and ready to get off the trail. Or maybe it’s the police coming to get him because he’s wanted. Or maybe they’re looking for another hiker who got off the trail and is in trouble. Or maybe they’re workers using the bathroom. Or maybe that kid was a scout and he called some serial killer who is now here to kill all of us and leave our bodies in the cemetery. I hope he doesn’t look under the picnic table. Damn you, Sam Duke! Damn you.
I found myself again just praying to make it to morning.