Bear Poop, Shelters, and Mountain Laurel: My Favorite Things About Hiking the A.T.

Three (3) Weeks Out
Total Miles Hiked (2 previous sections) | 76.4
Miles Remaining A.T. | 2,113.6
Miles of Upcoming Section | 30 or so

Three weeks out and wishing we were starting tomorrow.

I’ve made my lists and will make more I know. They are all the same list arranged in various ways: gear organized by system (sleep system, water system, shelter); gear organized by placement within my backpack, the what-if-I-changed-out-an-item-to-save-on-weight list…

My sister, Walkie, loves making lists. Hers are more useful. Water sources, expected temperatures, elevation, mileage, calculations of distance versus hiking time. While my bear cannister will be deliciously filled willy-nilly with my favorite things to eat on the trail, hers will feature nearly the exact number of meals she intends to eat. I don’t know how she does it; our minds work in very different ways. Mine is occupied with sensory perceptions, emotions, elation, excitement; to her those are luxuries–she has to plan so that she can be spontaneous. Her elated landings on the tops of summits come with the price of preparation, so that when she basks in the sun there are no lists running through her mind. She’s already made them–they are taken care of.

In honor of three more weeks to anticipate the beauty of the A.T., here is my dreaming-of-the-Appalachian-Trail list:

My Favorite Experiences on the Appalachian Trail:

Most of this list is not in any particular order, but I do think shelters rank as my favorite feature of the Appalachian Trail. In terms of triggering a childhood excitement, a sense of mystery–a three-sided wooden hut appearing in the middle of woods is at the very top. Especially when no other hikers have arrived yet. Especially when we have the shelter completely to ourselves. Especially when we pull the logbook out, hidden like treasure in a PVC pipe on one wall of the shelter. And pour over pages of notes left by the hikers who came before…messages from three months ago and from this morning. 

Especially when the shelter has a ladder leading up to a loft. And you fall asleep there listening to acorns dropping on the roof (in early fall), or complete silence (in early spring when nothing in these higher elevations has woken up yet), or when a hunter strolls by in the night, blood seeping out of his clothes and dripping onto his boots, a gun strapped across his chest, and you call out in the night to greet him, and he warmly greets you back. And you didn’t see him because there was no moon, complete blackness. But the next morning, he wanders up to camp as you drink your morning coffee and tells you the whole story then. 

Mountain Laurel Groves
Straight out of a storybook, the woods change ten times over a single day of hiking. Steep inclines, shifty switchbacks, false summits, beautiful balds, rock scrambles, waist-high flowers, towering pines, and then, about once a day or so–you enter a fairytale land of twisting Mountain Laurel. I don’t have the words for it. Shade and peace for your legs and your soul.

Bear Poop
I saw my first bear scat during our last section-hike from Hogpen Gap to Dick’s Creek. It was fresh and moist and filled with small red berries. A bear had been at this same natural spring trickling down the hillside perhaps a few hours or a few moments before. After studying many images of bear markings on trees, I still can’t tell the difference between an innocuous patch of missing bark where the naked wood shows through OR a place where a bear has stretched and sharpened his claws or used the tree trunk to scratch that spot between his massive shoulder blades. But I am always scanning the tops of trees looking for the many bears who watch us moving through the woods. And searching for the tell-tale claw marks on tree trunks.

76.4 miles. Still haven’t seen a bear. 

Once, my sister and I were stalked by a dog whose howls grew ominously closer as we walked along a gravel logging road connecting two pieces of trail…that time it snowed, and I gave Walkie my warmer sleeping bag, then, retreated down the hillside to spend the night in the public park bathrooms…the time a random camper yelled to us across a campground “you’re not going to find a place out of this wind, girls…” We did, though, and it was the best spot we’ve ever pitched a tent, a balmy 46 degrees on a ledge behind the mountain, dropped down below the roaring wind. Or Hawk Mountain Shelter, where I caught “the fear,” and then, left it behind.

Each hardship is a story, but more importantly, even while I am in challenging moments on the trail, I am being tested, and I am enduring. With each cold night, each hard summit, my body and my mind are left more resilient than they were before.

Tent Time
Finding the perfect scratch of dirt and pitching our shelter for the night, Walkie and I luxuriate in camp, freeing our sore feet from shoes that are growing tighter from the subtle swelling caused by miles of walking. We tell stories, do yoga in pine needles, watch the sunset, climb into sleeping bags and talk softly until we drift off. Sometimes, looking through our photographs from the day, sometimes watching a movie on her phone. A perfect wall of nylon insulates us even as our voices drift out into the woods. 

Part Two: Walkie’s Favorite Things About the Trail coming next week.

Fellow hikers, what are your favorite moments on the trail? And what are the strangest things you’ve experienced on trail?

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