Shakedown Hikes and Type 2 Fun

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t get as much time on the trail, specifically the Appalachian Trail, as I would like. While I’m great at creating excuses to find myself among the pines, I’m almost equally as adept at creating roadblocks in my own life that stop me from pursuing what I so dearly long for.

I’m still caught up in that transition period that I spoke about earlier. Maybe more so this time. At the time of my last post, I was still living in North Carolina, still gainfully employed. Now, as I sit pecking absentmindedly on the keyboard of my aging laptop and sipping coffee in the ground floor of what used to be a Sears department store, I can’t help but gaze backward into the past with a sense of awestruck wonder and ask myself, “How did it all change so fast?”

It surprised me; the adjustment, the sudden and jarring changing of lanes. Maybe it shouldn’t have, I knew it was coming for over a year. I begged for it almost daily. Regardless, the shock of cold water still soaked into my bones and made me wonder if I was making the right choices.

So, I did what all great thinkers do in times of duress: I ran away and hid in the woods.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a clear, sunny day. Taken by Beau Schaeffer.

My trip to the Great Smoky Mountains wasn’t purely a panic reaction, though it certainly contained some of the same elements. My saving grace might have been my decision to ask Beau to accompany me on the journey.

Beau has been my best friend for the last seven years, despite the unavoidable ebb and flow of life’s river. Our friendship, spurred on by menial labor for mediocre pay when we were only 16, has certainly seen its changes, though I hesitate to call them ups and downs. Looking back over the years of friendship that we have shared, I am hard-pressed to find a single instance that I would describe as a down. These moments are so hard to mentally locate or isolate because of Beau’s unceasing and unwavering sense of positivity, something that will doubtlessly become apparent as you read about our experience.

We were introduced to Type 2 fun early on. Those experiences that seemed unbearable at the time never ceased to make us smile when viewed longingly in the rearview. During all of those seemingly unbearable experiences, I was always glad that Beau was there with me, both for the encouragement in the moment, as well as the part he played as a cherished cast member in my own life’s play.

Our friendship has seen its way through the drastically different paths that we traveled down, though I don’t believe that our goals, dreams, or aspirations ever became too drastically incomparable. Beau and I have both always been wild, and have both sought out the wilderness, as wild things will often do. Though our paths have diverged, our passions have maintained a reliably steady course.

My plan to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail wasn’t a shock to Beau, as it was to most others in my life. To him, it almost seemed like the next logical step in my progression as an adult. Aside from Dad, I think Beau has been my biggest cheerleader.

We met on the outskirts of Gatlinburg and basked in the kitsch that the town seemed to lambast us with. Being Tennessee natives, we were both painfully familiar with the city and its overflow of tourist traps and overpriced attractions. I valiantly fought the urge to purchase a shirt that declared “I HAVE WALKED THE ENTIRE WIDTH OF THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL” proudly across the back.

After we staged a car at Clingmans Dome, we split up gear and weighed out packs at Fontana Dam. There were no more legitimate bailout points for the next 32 miles as we began our unbelievably under-planned hike of the Great Smoky Mountain portion of the AT, or at least half of it.

If you’ve ever been sucker-punched, you might be familiar with the mix of emotions that I dealt with during the next five miles. No one EXPECTS to get sucker-punched. That’s the whole point of the sucker-punch, right? Well, because I failed to really look at the elevation profile on the map, I didn’t EXPECT there to be 3,500 feet of elevation gain right out of the gate. Lots of emotions coursed through me during the next five miles: betrayal, nausea, fear. More than anything, I felt as though I was finally feeling what it was to bite off more than I could chew.

Checking the map, while unnecessary, is a great way to distract your hiking partner while you take a break. By Beau Schaeffer.

Beau smiled, hiked ever upward, and took pictures of me while I dry-heaved and faced the inevitable return of the grease-filled burger I had eaten an hour prior.

We stopped at Campsite 113 for the evening, dutifully setting up our tents and making dinner while we rested our legs and hoped that tomorrow would bring fewer uphill climbs.

I evidently had much to learn about the Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Trail in general. The only constant is the uphill and the screaming plea of relief from your feet that have felt like ground beef for the last few miles.

But Beau smiled, hiked ever upward, and made conversations on the uphills, something I could only find the energy for about a quarter of the time. We never ran out of things to talk about, which hardly surprised me. Neither one of us had remained quiet since we became friends.

We talked about podcasts and the Free Solo movie. We discussed the idea that maybe Edward Abbey was kind of a dick sometimes and we compared premature opinions about next year’s elections.

Saturday brought us less elevation, and more scenery. We watched the leaves that had turned clash noticeably with the ones that still desperately clung to life. The green tunnel enveloped us at times and made the views less frequent. Being trapped in a cocoon of filtered green light is an experience that is too often overlooked or thrown aside in favor of scenic views and classic overlooks.

Saturday night brought us to Derrick Knob Shelter, where we met a collection of weekend warriors like ourselves, dedicated section hikers, and one hiker in the middle of a flip-flop, bound for Harpers Ferry. We talked about why we were all on the path while the stars poked their pinholes in the sky above us, one by one.

Relaxing in a shelter before the last stretch of the day.

Beau and I walked (read: hobbled) into the parking area at Clingmans Dome the following day around noon. We were once again surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of the world off trail. We hadn’t even been gone long enough to forget them. We limped up the hill to the observation deck and attempted to stifle our pride when people pointed out ridgelines and mountain features in the distance.

“I hiked that,” we told ourselves. “I climbed that mountain.”

But, like most Type 2 fun, I think it’s a little better, a little sweeter, when I catch its glimpse in the rearview, primarily because I didn’t have to do it alone. For what seemed like the 1,000th time, I found myself being grateful that Beau was there.

“That was rough,” Beau said as we collapsed into booths at a downtown pizza joint after recovering our vehicles. “How do you feel? About the trail and all.”

“More nervous than ever, Beau.” I massaged the cramp building in my calf and debated the merit of pineapple on my pie. “But I know where my weak spots are now, and I think I know where my walls are.”

“That’s about what I figured. I think you’ll be fine. Here’s to Type 2 fun.”

“To Type 2 fun.”

“And to friends worth having it with.”

P.S. It goes without saying that Beau is a much better photographer than I am; see the evidence provided above. Feel free to check his other photography out, links will be on my social media pages!

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Comments 2

  • Mags On The Trail : Oct 13th

    You are an excellent writer! Best of luck on your thru-hike.

    • John Mecklin : Oct 13th

      Thanks so much! I appreciate the support!


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