A Strange and Wonderful Nero

Day 108: Hemlock Springs Campground to Graymoor Spiritual Center

Smushing my rolled up rain fly into the front pocket of my backpack, I caught a glimpse of my watch and saw it was already after 7:00 am. I was last one out of camp today — still a few more things to pack up — but I like spending time at camp in the morning. When I’m with a bigger group, I often feel hurried to start hiking. When I’m alone, I whistle back to the birds and listen for the squirrels rustling about in the duff carpeting the forest floor. Everything feels safe. Everything feels clear.

I thought of my friend Honeybun from the beginning of trail. In Georgia, there was this energy in the air. A pressure to hike big miles from the get-go, like maybe you could prove you’re “a real backpacker” if you were packed up and ready to go before the sunrise. I always liked how Honeybun would sleep in and enjoy his morning coffee ritual every day. He was usually the last one hiking in the morning; I was usually the second-to-last. I’d walk by him and say, “Bye, Honeybun.” He’d reply, “See ya, Shuuuug” in his Southern drawl.

Sugar isn’t my trail name, and Honeybun isn’t his. He could out-hike every one of us if he cared to. 

Anyway, I was only planning to walk about three or four miles today so I let myself enjoy the quiet of my empty campsite once I finished packing. Then I took off.

Welcome to the tick factory. Picardin, don’t fail me now!

A lot of people were sitting outside the Appalachian Deli when I arrived: hikers, bikers, and motorcyclists all chatting about their travels via various modes of transportation. I ordered French toast and joined them. 

I decided to take a trail nero at the Graymoor Spiritual Center nearby. For those who don’t know, a nero is short for “nearly zero.” It’s when, during a long-distance backpacking trip, you hike just a few miles then take the rest of the day off. When I’ve neroed in the past, it’s usually been to a town or a hotel, but I wanted to stay close to trail today to wait for my friend Digit.

Since the 1970s, Graymoor has allowed Appalachian Trail hikers to camp on their baseball field, and I imagined all the retro tents that must’ve lined the outfield back in the day as I approached the pavilion. I was greeted by two 60 to 70-something men whose names I can’t recall, two 20-somethings named Old Man and Scout, and a mom and her two daughters who were section hiking. They all knew each other from camping there the night before, so I felt a little out of place. But it’s okay to feel uncomfortable sometimes.

It was a Sunday, so Old Man and the family headed over to the chapel for church. I almost went, too, just to soak up the togetherness of song and community. But I’d only recently arrived and wanted to set up.

After pitching my tent, I meandered back to the pavilion where one of the older men was rolling a joint. “My church,” he explained with a shrug. He lit it. “How I find God.” I nodded.

I spent the rest of my morning writing in my tent, then took a catnap in the breeze — rain fly pinned open in the suffocating heat. When I woke up, I was hungry again (I’m always hungry).

I talked to the guys while my refried beans and rice were cooking. Turns out one of them started hiking last fall and has been growing out his beard ever since (it was quite long). The other one was experiencing some leg pain; I think he said shin splints. So he’d been zeroing at the spiritual center for a few days. I added Fritos to my rice and beans and scooped it all up into some tortillas.

Digit arrived mid-afternoon and presented me with a bottled Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino. It was comforting to catch up with him and make plans for the days ahead. I missed Digit’s company since we finished Pennsylvania together.

Trail magic!!

As the day wore on, Chickadee and Cal rolled in — familiar faces! Later, a backpacker who was doing a weekend shakedown set up her tarp in the outfield past second base.

I started eyeing the outdoor shower. Really, it seemed like everyone noticed the shower at the same time. So with quiet understanding, we formed a line by placing little towels and soap containers in a row on the picnic table by the structure.

When it was my turn, I braced myself. The water felt bitterly cold when it hit my skin, but it was refreshing in this nearly unbearable heat. A trail angel had even left fresh bars of soap in the slats.

As I pulled my town dress up over still-damp hips, an unexpected thunderstorm started rolling through camp. Someone yelled that my tent had blown over. I sprinted over from the pavilion and re-staked it with Scout’s help. Everything inside was mostly dry, but we were soaking wet, running around in the rain, feeling free.

About twelve of us all took cover under the pavilion. Digit washed his hair under the water  coming off the roof. Later, we cheered on a hiker named Kachow who ran through the mists toward us and made room for him at a picnic table.

Finally, the storm passed. And with it, the week-long heat wave had finally broken. As the sun set beyond the trees, the sky blazed orange and pink overhead. I couldn’t help but smile.

My church.

How I find god.

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Comments 3

  • Jenny : Jul 10th

    I love this image of the storm and the washed hair from the gutter spout. Well done, thank you for posting.

  • Elana : Jul 10th

    Been following your hike. I so appreciate how you move through the world, and how you illustrate your experience through your posts and pics. Thanks for sharing so eloquently. I am recovering from brain surgery and find your story inspiring. Many blessings for a safe and wonderful journey.

  • Shan : Jul 11th

    That’s my friend!!!!!!!


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