Running from the High Ground and 4(ish) Faces of Nature: Days 31-38 on the Appalachian Trail

Electricity bounced off the rocky knob 200 yards away to my left and a cannon shot reverberated through my chest. The rhododendrons were lit in a blinding violet light and suddenly I was in trouble. 

I hadn’t paid attention to the map, and the horizontal rain had slowed my march. The result was: unsure of where I was exactly, I found myself on top of Little Knob (in fact a very high and exposed summit) just in time for the thunder storms I’d seen coming on the radar earlier that morning. 

Unglamorous, the only thought in my head was: “Fuckfuckfuck.” And I ran. 

Such are the moments on trail when there are no easy solutions, if there are solutions at all. Storms like this one had been raging all week, and would continue for a couple days. The trail was a literal river, and going backward made as much sense as going forward — or so my panic told me. 

To my horror, like that friend who doesn’t know when to quit, the trail continued to climb higher and higher through the flowing water, scrub, and boulders, dragging me.

Another cannon shot from lower on the ridge, and with 34 pounds on my back I was yelling aloud to the trail, “take me down, Jesus-goddamn-Christ, get me down, NOW.” I just wanted to be somewhere I wasn’t the tallest object, though I wondered if it would matter in all this water.

One of my favorite parts about backpacking is that the outcomes of decisions made throughout the day are amplified in a way they aren’t at home. Something as small as how tightly one ties the laces of their shoes, or when and where to take a water break, or the orientation of their tent can determine how safe and comfortable they are by the time they fall asleep. 

You are radically responsible for how any given day turns out, and this can inspire a tremendous sense of self-confidence. It also means you’re not insulated from the fallout of bad decisions. Tired from the rain and cold, I made a bad decision to climb when I should have sheltered. And now I had to figure something out. 

Some Light Philosophy on the nature of Nature

For how much time I’ve been spending outdoors, conversations with folks at home have made me reflect on how my interactions with nature are different from those while I’m in Kansas City. 

“Stop and smell the roses!” I keep hearing. And it’s true, I need to slow down. But the roses aren’t just lined up in a row like they are at home.

Here is some light philosophy about the nature of Nature.

Nature, the way we think about it and talk about it, can be a murky concept. I believe there is no such thing as nature separate from humans— there are more cells in our bodies that are non-human than cells that are human, and just because urban areas don’t fit a rugged aesthetic we associate with the outdoors doesn’t mean they aren’t part of rich and vibrant ecosystems. 

So I distinguish between the human and non-human worlds, as well as between densely populated landscapes and more remote landscapes with fewer people. 

In Kansas City my relationship with the outdoors is more deliberate. I go to the Tallgrass prairies specifically to look for nighthawks, meadowlarks, and horned toads. Then I go back to our warm house to read about the grasses and flowers I’ve seen. I sit with my dog on the porch and watch the weather as a form of entertainment. 

On long term backpacking trips that experience changes. It becomes more intense in some ways, less intense in others, and as always, is multi-layered in ways that are impossible to fully account for or categorize. So naturally, I’ve categorized them.

Three Ways Thru-Hikers Is Experience Nature On Trail

Nature as Backdrop

First, we experience the non-human world as our immediate surroundings. The beech and birch, the moose wood and trillium are backdrop to everything. The heady smells of flowers, mud, and green-spring are the water in which we swim. It shapes our every day. The topography, the water sources, the weather are all backdrops to the adventure, the campfire chats, the ramen noodle lunch breaks. But like all backdrops, the landscape of southern Appalachia tends to become invisible. The brain focuses on other things— until it can’t.

Nature as Puzzlemaker

This is where the second category comes in. We experience nature whenever it acts upon us. In these moments the non-human world confronts you, and stands in your way. It poses a puzzle to solve, for example, when a bear plays soccer in the middle of the night with your food canister, or a tick lodges under your armpit, or a sudden lightning strike says: “you’re not where you should be. Time to move.” 

Nature as Study Subject

Third, and this is less common among the hikers I know, nature can be a subject of study. Not subject of study like a biologist might think of it, but here I’m referring to moments of casual fixation. Moments of intentionally looking at something, and saying, “Dang. That’s pretty neat. The mountain views are the most dramatic example here. Probably all of us at some point have taken a leaf in hand and examined it casually, rubbing it like a velvet cloth between our fingers. Maybe a few others stop to explore the spring ephemeral wildflowers, whipping out field guides to figure out their names. 

This, however, isn’t always compatible with thru-hiking, which has goals that incentivize moving quickly and single mindedly down the trail. The adventure prioritizes peaks and vistas, allows for broad sweeps of multiple ecological zones during climbs from river bottoms to mountain tops. 

The mountains are not a garden, and the experience isn’t always relaxing or pleasant. Sometimes it’s terrifying. Sometimes it’s boring. But the tapestry of interactions creates an experience that is always (often in hindsight sitting in a hot bath) tremendously thrilling.

Nature as Story

This one is the squishiest of all categories— it’s the catchall that includes all of the different stories each of us brings out here, about Nature. It’s pure. It’s fallen. It’s wild. It’s sacred. It’s red in tooth and claw. It’s a single, living superorganism made up of  uncountable flows and existences.

Humans experience reality through stories that ground us and give our experiences clarity. None of them are Truth, but they’re close enough for the individual, and inescapable anyways so you might as well lean in now and again.

For me, Nature is a place of endlessly complicated and interwoven systems. There are some stories I tell myself that are tangled with my manhood, others that approach the spiritual sphere. But that’s for a different post. 

Getting Off the High Ground and into Camp Riff Raff

I made it down Little Knob, and up a few more balds in the following days before the rain and lightning stopped. The next night I was on top of Roan High Knob shelter with a half dozen other hikers, and at 6,000+ feet, is the highest shelter on the Appalachian Trail.

It’s an old log cabin with a corrugated tin room and enough room on two levels for about 15 very tightly packed bed mats. Roan High Knob is one of the few (maybe the only shelter) in the south with four walls and a door that almost closes all the way. 

We needed it. That night, the winds sounded like they wanted to scrape the shelter off the summit, and the rain deepened the creeks running down the trail the next morning. 

Days later, it was 8am at Dennis Cove Gap and the sun was shining. As I crossed a small parking lot I heard someone call “hiker!” from the tree line. On a roll and not one to linger, I almost ignored them, but they called again: “Trail magic!”

I looked over and there were two vested and rough shaven hipsters standing, one with a bag of oranges in hand, the other bending over a cast iron pot hung over a campfire. 

Superman and Chatty Kathy were the first of many members of Camp Riff Raff I’d meet in coming days. An Appalachian Trail thru-hiker alumni group, they were here to save me and my muddied, bruised body. 

“We’re doing free camping up near Hampton, and whatever else you need, slack packing, food, beer, until Thursday.” Said Superman. He reminded me of the cyclists at home: lean, tall, insistent on having a good time 

Chatty Kathy, a mustached elementary school teacher from up north added to his offer: “Hell, if you want us to drive your pack up to Damascus, or drive you up to Damascus, just let us know.”

Camp Riff Raff was helping hikers out in the run up to Trail Days in Damascus, VA, and their offer was tempting. Problem was, it wasn’t in my plan. Trail magic is never in my plan, that’s what makes it magical. Their camp was far short of my goals for that day and I’d arrive in Damascus by Sunday anyways.

”Think about it, dude,” said Superman.  “A lot of people just keep hiking after they see us. But think about it.” He scooped me a paper bowl full of blueberry cobbler from the pot on the campfire, gestured in the direction of camp with the spatula.

”Lots of hikers sprint from Springer to Harpers Ferry, they complain about how crowded the trail is, they avoid Trail Days. But they don’t understand is that after Damascus, after Trail Days, people quit. They go home. There used to be 16 people in a shelter, but by the time you get to West Virginia, you’ll be camping alone a lot.”

”This is the only time on the trail, really in your LIFE, that you’ll get a free place to stay, and strangers pushing free beer and food on you and your friends,” said Chatty Kathy. He was eating a powdered donut, the white sugar stuck in his mustache.

Maybe it was because I was tired and didn’t really feel like hiking 22 miles that day. Maybe because I’d been trying to make a conscious effort to slow down, enjoy the scenery, and enjoy the people. Either way, that night I set my tent up at Divided Ridge Campground, a wedding venue run by a couple from the area, and members of Camp Riff Raff who invite folks to stay on their land in the week before Trail Days.

In the coming days I would recline in the sunshine with a steadily growing number of hikers, eating pizzas, donuts, coffee, beer, potato leek soup, pepperoni sliders, and breakfast burritos bought in huge quantities by Camp Riff Raff. 

Some would “slack pack,” during the day. That means they left their packs at camp and took a day pack of just water and snacks to hike until a predetermined location, where members of Camp Riff Raff would pick them up and bring them back to camp. Hiking 22 miles without 30 pounds on your back is a whole lot more fun. 

I, however, don’t hike on my days off. Just enjoyed the company. Little Knob and the Roan Highlands were not that far behind me, but I could feel the bitter terror of running across the lightning pocked summits melt into something a little more savory. 

Type 2 fun: fun that’s miserable in the moment, but that challenges you in ways that encourage growth, and which in hindsight are always fondly remembered. Lots of that out here. 

The Week Ahead

I keep talking about Trail Days, but I should probably elaborate considering it’s this Friday. But I can’t, because I have no idea what actually happens there. It’s a festival, I know that, celebrating all things hiker, especially related to the Appalachian Trail. Standard festival things can be expected: food, music, drinks. I also get the impression that the energy in the crowd is wildly fun. Given the intensity with which people on and around the trail, and especially those who’ve hiked it in the past, love all things Appalachian Trail (and considering the high octane party culture I’ve seen) Trail Days feels like something I should check out.

The original plan was to get to Damascus a week early, and push north, shuttling back to Damascus Friday if it was convenient. That is still the plan, for the most part, but I might put a little more effort into finding a ride back for the day. 

With that said, I’m trying to make miles. I replaced my shoes in Damascus because the pair I started with have blown out the sides, and support completely collapsed. That’s just to say the long days should be a little easier on my feet, and I’m hoping to get a couple hundred more miles in before I need to zip up to New York for my sister’s wedding the first week of June. No worries though, I’ll be back at it after that! 

The Grayson Highlands are coming up, and Shenandoah are somewhere in the future as well. The next week promises more rain, but you know what? That’s fine. Great Aunt June would just say it’s more writing material

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Comments 3

  • tek : May 14th

    When the shoes go, you’ll know:) See ya at Trail Days!

  • thetentman : May 15th

    Great post, thx.

    Good luck.

  • Ben J : May 15th

    Thanks for sharing, Ben. I’m enjoying following your journey and your writing. Keep at it brother


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