It Doesn’t Take Much to Make a Hiker Happy
I’m still off trail healing up my foot; this post describes one evening in June.
As odd as are a lot of the situations in which you find yourself while long-distance hiking on the AT, it still provokes puzzlement to read the AWOL entry for Trent’s Grocery, which includes the following: “Camping $6, shower $3, laundry $3.”
At a grocery store?
At least by the time I reach Trent’s, in Bland, Virginia, about 600 miles into my NOBO journey, the word “grocery” no longer conjures images of geometrically arranged produce items without end; aisles of dry goods; the bakery scent of cooling, crusty French loaves. I know to expect instead the likes of dill-pickle peanuts, Zebra cakes, mini powdered donuts, and, since the AWOL entry has the little basket resupply symbol, ramen and tuna.
I’ve been around the block, so I’m not disappointed when Trent’s Grocery is in fact a gas station convenience store. I am surprised, however, by the proportion of the shelves that are given over to fishing tackle. The presence of a few taxidermed small mammals toward the back of the store startles me but is shrugged off with less of a nervous laugh than I’d have given that sort of thing at, say, mile 150.
I’m exhausted, of course, and grumpy, by the time I trudge up to the plate glass storefront, which has that one-way mirror coating, and my image reflected in it alarms me, as usual—who is that haggard, skinny, stringy-haired thing wearing her life on her back? I drop the pack and open the door.
A man behind the counter, who’s been looking out through the one-way, greets me: “Let me guess. You want a cheeseburger with a side of fries.”
What I really want, of course, is fresh produce—I might murder someone for a bag of arugula—but my state of exhaustion paired with gratitude that I am about to eat anything at all other than backpacking food precludes debate.
“Something like that, yeah. But first, restroom?” And he points to the back of the store.
That business taken care of, I wander the aisles, take in the fact of a few seating options at the front, and find a box of tomatoes and bag of onions incongruously placed next to a display of chips. I take a tomato in hand and pay for it, a V-8, and the camping, shower, and laundry (which turns out to be $6 altogether, win!) and head back out to sit on the bench and await my hiking buddy’s arrival.
Knees open to let seeds and juices fall to the gravel, I bite into the tomato and instantly feel its nutrients coursing through my veins. After gulping the V-8, I close eyes and let my head fall back against the glass.
Some curious characters loiter and attempt conversation, joke with each other about how they wouldn’t get one mile down the AT with a pack on their backs, and I surmise that this is likely accurate. Sunshine arrives and acquires her Diet Coke, and the two of us navigate the humid haze, over a cattle grid and up a gravel road to a white building made of concrete block behind which is a yard of relatively level grass littered with elderly RVs and a tent or two. A fence borders the area, on the other side of which is a chestnut-colored horse, flicking its tail and ripping up grass by the mouthful.
My tent is wet from the night before, and wet leaves and duff plaster my Tyvek groundsheet. I shake this, but doing so seems only to transfer some of the leaf bits to my face and arms, and I stand there contemplating running it through the dryer, or whether that hassle is even worth it before subjecting it to another potentially wet night. We haven’t seen truly blue sky for days and days.
A cool drizzle begins, so I drop the Tyvek into a crumple, speedily gather my laundry, and meet Sunshine in the warm, dry, filthy laundry room, where she stands in her underpants and Tevas, forearm covering her chest, squirting Dr. Bronner’s onto her clothes in the washing machine and waiting for me to add mine. I mention the Tyvek, and she suggests running it through the wash, too.
“But it’s covered in leaves; won’t the machine clog?”
She peers outside and juts her chin at a hose, coiled sloppily on the sidewalk that leads to the bathrooms.
“Ooh, good idea,” I say. So I put my clothes in the machine and do an awkward, combo high-step/dash across the lawn to retrieve the Tyvek. When I return she takes it to hold it up for me to hose down, but by the time we get organized thusly, I’m wimping out because the rain is falling on me in my only two dry items of clothing, my Smartwool hoodie and my long pants, which I wasn’t planning to wash.
“Nah, just forget it,” I say, and start back for cover.
“What? No,” she says. She picks up the business end of the hose. “Just, here. I’ll do it. Turn on the faucet.”
So, full of gratitude and impressed as hell at her commitment, I do.
Then she cleans off the Tyvek, which folds annoyingly and stickily onto itself, forcing her to give up on modesty: “Please, no one come down the road right now,” she says. We giggle and then guffaw.
But her persistence pays off. I watch from the dry doorway as she removes 98 percent of the crud, turns off the faucet, and carries the dripping Tyvek over where we stuff it into the machine.
Later, we’ve survived the grim showers and I’ve nicked from the hiker box a several-sizes-too-small dress (deciding at the last minute to toss the hoodie in with the wash) to put on over my pants. We’re waiting for the cycle to finish so we can put our clothes in the dryer, which I’m sitting on.
Earlier, on trail, stopped to filter water, I had felt pissed off generally. All day it had been threatening rain, after two days already of rain. I was simply hating walking all day, always just marking time and measuring distance until the next pee break, the next water source, the next shelter, the top of this incline, the beginning of the next incline. The next town.
“This sucks,” I say.
Sunshine says, “What is it in particular?”
“It’s all endurance, all gritting and bearing it. It’s this place being filthy. It’s that we have to tent instead of sleeping somewhere dry, it’s that my feet are wet even though I’ve showered.” I straighten my knees and look at my wrinkled toes through the holes in my store-brand Crocs.
She makes sympathetic noises, we put our clothes in the dryer, and we head back down the gravel road to Trent’s.
The A/C blast hits us when we opened the door—it’s cold and damp outside; frigid and dry inside. I lament that my hoodie is in the wash and note the insufficiency of my hiker-box dress; goosepimples coat my arms like frost on a mug, but I know food will help.
And that is how we begin one of the eatingest afternoons I have spent on the A.T. On my first round, I take a bag of chips and a can of IPA and to the counter and order a grilled chicken sandwich. I pay, crack open the beer, am told I can’t drink on the premises, request a paper bag, put the beer in that, buy a bottle of water, and sneak sips of the beer while the clerk’s back is turned. She brings Sunshine and me our food, and the grilled chicken in fact is breaded and fried, a turn of events that delights me. It also has fresh iceberg lettuce and onion and tomato slices, which solves the earlier mystery of the bag of onions and box of tomatoes. They didn’t constitute Trent’s produce section; they were fixins.
Sunshine and I put away round one with dispatch and roam the aisles again. This time I select a package of mini powdered donuts and order some “Cajun” fries (these turn out to be doused with Old Bay, win!). A few other hikers, Shade, Sunrunner, and Camelot, arrive and they tuck in with the same methodica determination. I run back to pull the laundry out of the dryer and grab my hoodie, and return in time to see Shade’s food delivered, and she’s taken the one-fell-swoop approach: a cheeseburger and fries, a chicken sandwich and onion rings, and an entrée-size salad, delivered together.
A pink-faced, white-haired man who’d been part of the local color earlier appears to describe for us (again) the bear that swiped a post on his front porch the night before (he was grilling corn, potatoes, and steak earlier, he confesses). He adds on to the story now, describing the rat problem he is contemplating addressing with a pellet gun.
Sunshine puts in that he ought to fill a barrel with water and hang a bird feeder over it. You can see her credibility rise in his eyes, like the mercury on an August morning.
Shade gets up and buys an ice cream bar and a pint of milk, and I order a plate of chicken tenders.
Gradually I notice that I’m no longer grumpy, that I’m thoroughly enjoying every moment of this experience. I’ve got my clean, dry hoodie on. My belly’s full, my blood-alcohol-content is at a comfy level, and it’s been several hours since I’ve been dirty, wet, and walking.
I’m loving sharing the experience with Sunshine and loving running into the others repeatedly, and I’m loving the fact that the next night we’ll be in a proper hostel, Woods Hole, which AWOL calls “a slice of heaven.” At this point, Trent’s feels heavenly, so contemplating the next night is an almost unimaginable pleasure.
The lows may be low on the AT, but the highs are nearly indescribable.
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