Eastern Bluebird in the Fog — Days Four and Five

Day 4: Tuesday, 27 February 2024 – Gooch Gap to Woods Hole Shelter

The gloomy fog and rain made the day beautiful. Now and then, the mist moves theatrically altogether like a villain enters for a soliloquy or a tragedy fades to a close. I hiked further to make Woods Hole Shelter and avoid tenting in the wet… becoming a certifiable shelter-hopper.

Just around lunchtime, I caught a pair of trail angels (those who bless thru-hikers with food, rides, etc.) at Woody Gap called Gadget and Grateful. Angels indeed. I ate two grilled cheese sandwiches, an apple, had a cup of coffee, and took some cosmic brownies to go. Beautiful trail magic vanlifer folks.

As I hiked, with trekking poles paired in one hand and YouVersion open in the other, I visited two familiar passages of scripture I had memorized before, to bring them back to the front of my mind: John 1:1-13 and Psalm 121. This section of John, not yet narrative, makes for easier commitment to memory than later verses will. Poetic passages tend to come easier than others. Psalm 121 proved comforting then, and assures me consistently even now.

The LORD will keep

your going out and your coming in

from this time forth and forevermore.

I bedded down for the night in the Woods Hole Shelter. Three other guys, W. (now going by the trail name “Nomad”), as well as Radar and Lone Star, who I had just met, kept me company. Most the earlier crowd didn’t make it this far, went on to Neels Gap, or took a “nero” day (hiking a shorter distance than usual before or after getting off-trail for a night). We were a quiet group, and the intermittent rain through the incessant blanket of fog imbued a tiredness in the evening. I ate some expensive backpacking-designed dehydrated lasagna, gifted by Z. before he left the day before. Like all lasagna I’ve ever had, it couldn’t compare to my mom’s, and no food but this one has bothered my stomach during the hike.

I lay between Nomad and Radar, who snored in rhythm with the howls of the wind, but out here I’ve learned snores don’t bother me at all.

Day 5: Wednesday, 28 February 2024 – Woods Hole to Low Gap

I woke long before the sun rose, anxious and tired. Twice I heard a clear voice outside calling me, not “George” but the old nickname no one out here knows I am called, and one I do not identify with, so I said, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety,” and I went back to sleep.

I left the shelter a half-hour or so later than the others that morning (the beginning of a pattern) but didn’t mind. The rain clouds far in every direction shaped the orange sunrise in a sharp line over Appalachia’s rolling waves. The trees dripped a pitter-patter on the hood of my raincoat through the morning’s hike. The forest’s breath drew the white mist in an ebb and flow.

Nomad had some difficulties with his pack and his stomach, so I caught him the base of Blood Mountain, but from there he paced well with me as we summited its rocky heights. The fog’s pattern like a gentle tide in the morning changed to a river running over us, but we pressed on unbothered, imagining how nice the rock face would be for cowboy camping in the summertime. We arrived at Mountain Crossings in Neels Gap by 10:00. The most exciting part of the day was reaching our first A.T. landmark stop, and its most beautiful sight was not the abandoned hiking-boot-covered trees, but the melted-cheese-and-meat-covered Red Baron pizza, served on the cardboard box… just like Nana used to make.

We found Lone Star there and ate with him. Nomad didn’t want much of his at all, so after I finished mine, I ate a couple of his, but couldn’t finish it either. I carried the last few lukewarm slices to some other hikers nearby, and M., one of the girls we met a few days prior, was delighted to take them. M. was forced to wait a night in Neels Gap for a delayed package when she would much rather have been covering miles—a fiasco that would not be resolved until several days later, but did not at all stop her from soon blazing past me.

I spent some time chatting with other hikers who had paused there, dropped several things I didn’t need in their hiker box (a first-aid kit, a spare knife, a three-piece cutlery kit, and more), then weighed my pack at 35 pounds—an improvement after starting with more than 40. While Nomad elected to spend the night in the hostel and celebrate his birthday, and Lone Star perused the store’s shoe selection, I marched back down the trail.

The gentle rain of the morning had paused but was forecasted to return lightly in the afternoon. Bound for the Low Gap Shelter, some 11 miles further, I held a strong and steady pace and practiced John chapter 1 until I had memorized up through verse 18. I paused to watch a few Tufted Titmice dancing around each other, then stared long at the beautiful profile of a Pileated Woodpecker silhouetted in the glowing fog, giving Lone Star plenty of time to pass me by. The gentle rain returned, and steadily increased.

Before I reached Tesnatee Gap, the rainfall began to accelerate at such a rate I suspected the weathermen had (once again) failed me. I pulled out my phone and saw what had been a light forecast only an hour or two ago suddenly showed 90% chance of thunderstorms for the next couple hours. As soon as saw it, it all bottomed out, and thunder boomed nearby. I skated down into the gap, precariously at first, but then gaining confidence in steps that slid forward a few inches with every stride, rushing as well as I could without muddying my soaked-through pants in a fall. By the time I reached the parking lot in the gap, visibility was less than 100 feet ahead. A man pointed towards the woods line at some distance and shouted, “the trail continues over there!” His matter-of-fact understanding that I would carry on drove me harder up the next half-mile climb.

I hate the cold. Because I hate being cold, this February storm showering me and every possession relevant to my life provoked a great fear in me that I would have to lie down in a cold and wet sleeping bag, though my better mind knew I safely tucked it in a trash bag at the bottom of my pack, which had its own rain cover. I stopped behind a tree, while the wind drove the rain sideways around me, took off my raincoat hood and the cap my mother gave me, and prayed God would keep me safe and dry, or better yet, bring on the storm and make me braver for it. What would become my bad-day maxim rang then through my mind: you’ll see worse days than these. Amen. I replaced my hood and hat and rounded the tree, leaving dead behind me the one who hid in dry places, and walking instead as one with soaked socks. Lightning cracked over my head, shaking my body, and wind tried to blow me off the steep edge of the trail, so I smiled with masochistic ferocity and shouted into the busy air’s roar, for no one but myself, “In peace, I will both lie down and sleep, for You alone, O LORD, make me dwell safety.” The 500-foot climb out of Tesnatee in a half-mile before the next gap would have been nothing of consequence on a drier day, but it set firmly in my mind what these days could be. I decided water will not necessitate a cry from me, though I may prefer to give myself a break when prettier skies present themselves as later alternatives. This was just rain. The trail is just walking. I’ll see worse days than these.

As I stretched into Hogpen Gap, I recalled the smell of chili and grilled cheese, the warmth of the trail angels’ steaming cup of coffee I’d had just the day before… I imagined how nice that would be again in this gap I entered. And behold, appeared there, from the driver’s-side window of his Sunseeker, a man called Johnny Cash—my guardian from God indeed. His grey-beardedness didn’t hide his pity for my morose appeal, though in truth, unconditional enthusiasm proves the most tenacious of all my hiking gear.

“Hey! You want… something? Like a cup of coffee or something?” I don’t at all know the reason that for a moment I considered continuing down trail—maybe a stranger-danger instinct—but I suppose his offer more loudly echoed be not afraid, because I called back my inmost truth, “I would love a coffee!”

I left my trekking poles at the door and gave his Border Collie a courtesy pet as I entered, dripping on the vinyl floors. Johnny Cash insisted it was no bother at all; his wife, called Forest, would be coming in dripping shortly. He started a coffee, poured himself a glass of wine and offered some to me. I explained I’m only 19, and he explained he lives in Quebec (Forest being French-Canadian) and doesn’t really care. I appreciated his stance, but explained I am a man of God—but he explained that he is too—so I explained I do my best to honor the government and all that, but would join him for a glass next year, and stuck with the coffee. So was my meeting Johnny Cash.

We chatted for a time about the trail and his home in Canada (I’m invited now to visit after I pass through Katahdin, and greatly hope to make that journey), then about his wife, about the French language, all these churches and the one true Church, other things pertaining to life and godliness. While Forest thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, Johnny Cash would drive gap to gap, ready to receive her whenever she made the hike from the last one, so she spent about half her nights on the trail and half in the RV—it seemed a much nicer technique than the one I settled on. He wound up being a quasi-trail-angel for other thru-hikers all the time and had earlier that day helped out another hiker slack-pack (a practice in which thru-hikers hike sections of the trail without their backpacks).

Forest arrived soon after me, just as the coffee finished, excited to be out of the rain and perfectly happy to find another hiker sheltered with her husband, who she called simply “John.” Forest offered apple syrup as coffee flavoring (a Canadian thing, I assume?), which made for a plenty tasty pick-me-up before I headed back out. The rain had died out, but the fog persisted in a thick covering. I pressed on quickly to the Low Gap Shelter, giddy in the Light of God’s Providence, delighted with my new friends.

In the densely misty afternoon, I saw a sweet little bluebird perched on a branch over the trail, shining gently as springtime.

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Comments 1

  • Jenny : Mar 28th

    I enjoy your writing style and look forward to reading more posts. Meanwhile, keep heading north, stay safe and enjoy the splendor.


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