Down in Rain, Up in Smoke

One day out of Nantahala, we reach Locust Cove Gap, where we set up camp and prepare for imminent rain. Other thru-hikers stopped at the NOC for an hour or two, then left to avoid the weather system creeping toward us. Lauren and I were more apt to enjoy the sun on a zero as planned, soak our legs in the river, then push out, regardless of weather.

As we’ve heard Ms. Janet (and others quoting her) say, “No pain, no rain, no Maine.” Her words have been our gospel.

At Locust Cove, we set up our tent (a one-person masquerading as a two), retrieve water from the ground spring downhill, make dinner (gnocchi in cheese sauce), and throw up our bear hang.

After seven, another hiker comes lumbering in. He stops at the sign, leans his pack against it, and rifles through his things for something he seems to have trouble locating.

It’s near sunset, and we’re surprised he is still hiking. He doesn’t acknowledge us, though we’re sitting on a log ten yards from where he has decided to rest. I walk toward him on my way to hang our toiletries. I’m hoping he decides not to camp; we rarely have a campsite to ourselves.

“How you doin’?” I ask. I don’t hear a response. It’s not clear if he heard me.

“It’s late. How many more miles you plan on hiking tonight?”

“Five,” he says. “To the road.”

From his back pocket he pulls a business card and hands it to me. It’s for a hostel in a nearby town. He’s the caretaker.

“When you get to the road tomorrow, call this number and y’all can stay at the hostel. It’s supposed to rain.”

“I’ll give it some thought,” I said.

He packs up the layers he’d taken out and zips the top shut, heaves it on his back, and halfway up trail, delivering a final pitch, yells down at us, “You know you want to,” as if that were enough to convince us, and disappears around the bend.

Later that night, tucked in our bags, the wind whips through the gap and broadsides our tent. We scurry out, unstake it, and turn it around so that its narrow fin of a body cuts the wind instead of catching it.

The next day it rains as we expected. The goal is not a hostel but the Fontana Shelter, dubbed “the Fontana Hilton” by hikers for its onsite shower, charging station, for its relatively recent construction, and for the number it sleeps; at a capacity nearing 20, it is one of the larger shelters, if not the largest, on the trail.

It is upward of an 18-mile day to get there, the majority of it in rain. The temperature is cold but not unbearably so, and our rain coats and pants keep us dry and insulated. Sweat is an issue. What rain doesn’t soak, sweat makes damp, but it is dry relative to what could be.

Around noon we approach two men hiking ahead of us. The trail has been quiet the past two days and they are the first hikers we have seen since the prior evening’s visitor.

They are both wearing bright-orange ponchos, and from behind look as though the sun had grown four legs and gone for a walk. Near the shelter where we stop for lunch, we meet the four-legged star; it is a father and son, eyes set on Maine.

We exchange names, chitchat, eat quietly while the rain settles. The respite gives us a window to air out our socks, boots, and insoles-all soaked after our wet morning.

The rest of the hike is uneventful. We step carefully over wet roots and slick rocks, muck through miles of mud, enjoy a few random moments of rain-free hiking, and at six, wander up hill to the Fontana Hilton, hoping, again, we might have a site to ourselves.

A plume of smoke escapes the entrance of the shelter. It’s as if the pope has died and the Vatican council is signaling a chosen successor.

Looking inside we see 20 hikers, some in their bags, others out, smoking, listening to another hiker in a Waffle House hat play guitar and sing cover songs with a folksy, off-key twang.

Some have been here since yesterday, hiding out from the rain, others arrived earlier in the day. It does not look like a promising place to rest, but after our trek in, with a wet tent in tow, we are too tired to entertain other options.

“Is there any room in there?” we ask.

They all seem hesitant to answer. I think I hear, “no.” Another says, “Sure, if you have a couple of bottles of whiskey!” Another says, “maybe up top.” After some shifting of pads, air mattresses, and sleeping bags, they create two spaces for Lauren and me to slip into. We are content to have the space.

An hour after dark, smoke still in the air, we wake up to a surprise: Half-Slow and M&M are delivering Bojangles, some late-night trail magic. Headlamps from every corner of the shelter turn on and give shape to the stagnant smoke trapped between rafters.

“Half-Slow!” I call out. “Is that you?”

“Lauren? Bryce?” he asks.

He grabs a plate before hikers closest to the box can clean it of its contents. He passes us a breast and buttermilk biscuit. It is the best fried chicken I have ever had. We eat and sleep. In the morning, we leave for the park.

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