The Easiest Terrain, the Least Miles, the Best Weather (in Which Inti Visits Me on the AT)
Even though it was a nero–just 8 miles and change–the walk down to VA 630 felt excruciatingly long since I was so eager to get there and see Inti. With no cell service for days, I hadn’t been able to confirm his arrival time or even check in to make sure nothing (i.e. work) had prevented his coming at all, so when I stumbled the last few feet down the trail and could see the tires of my Jetta–my view to the car itself was blocked by a kiosk sign–I made a “yip” sound and ran up to the car, where he was sitting in the driver’s seat, door slightly ajar. He got out and we hugged and kissed, laughed, pulled back to get a look at each other, and hugged and kissed again, touching each other’s shoulders and arms and faces and waists, giddy.
“You are stinky,” he said. His smile seemed helpless, the kind that precedes my favorite laugh of his, the one that would seem self-conscious if you didn’t know Inti.
“Yeah, more than last time,” I conceded. “The character of my B.O. has actually changed; it’s far more vile than ever before.” If I sounded proud of this fact, I was. It seems to prove something about what I’ve accomplished; my very body fluids have transformed, pre-superherolike.
Inti proudly showed me his new backpack, hiking poles, and sleeping pad, and then he lifted his brother’s (nonbackpacking) 2-man tent off the back seat and held it out for me to measure its weight. My eyes widened; it was massive.
“Holy shit,” I laughed.
“Yeah,” he said. This was the same tent we used last summer when I took my first adult car-camping trip with him, a tent that had seemed positively eensey at the time.
We drove to Marion, checked into the Econolodge, I showered, and we headed back out to lunch.
The convenience of doing all this running around with no waiting for shuttles or roadside walking in Crocs was a sheer wonder. What a luxury to have a car!
At Mi Puerto later, gulping down fajitas on the patio overlooking the main highway and across the street from a church, I listened to Inti’s account of the latest drama at work and it all seemed impossibly foreign and false and hopeless. I mean being out here is insanely hard but at least it’s authentically hard; it’s not a kind of hard invented by other people out of their private neuroses and agendas.
Since Inti did most of the talking, I finished my lunch and was digging my fork into his chicken, peppers, and onions and polishing off our second basket of chips.
I called Marion’s Transit and asked about a shuttle from the Mount Rodgers Visitor Center back to Dickey Gap, but they said they didn’t offer that. So I called the center and someone told me there was a guy, Jim Sparks, who liked to drive hikers around and not charge anything for it. He gave me Jim’s number. I dialed it.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice.
“Hi, may I please speak with Jim Sparks?”
“Is this a hiker?”
“Hold on. Wait, what is it about, we’re painting here.”
“Oh, okay. Well, I had heard he would give hikers rides?”
“Where do you need to go?”
“We were hoping to get from Mount Rodgers Visitor Center to Dickey Gap.”
“No, sorry. Tomorrow.”
“Well, it depends what time now. Only thing is we got a funeral to go to in the afternoon.”
“Oh, it would be the morning, as early as would be convenient for him.”
She took down my name and described Jim’s van and said he’d be there at 9 a.m.
Simple as that! Trail magic–it’s real, you guys!
For the balance of the afternoon, we relaxed in the room, got resupply (plain old supply for Inti), bought a tiny bottle of Knob Creek since we were only going to have to carry 1.5 days of food and could afford the extravagance of liquor, and ate dinner at the BBQ joint in the older section of town. The banana pudding was on point.
In the morning Jim was there to meet us as expected, stepping out of his greenish-gray minivan in a blue shirt, white beard, and a smile. He opened the back for us to lay our packs inside and then we climbed in. Bluegrass music accompanied our ride, and he told us about his son, who had thru-hiked in 2014 when the factory where he had been working had closed down and a government program had offered to help pay for nursing school. Between ending the job and starting the education he had walked from Georgia to Maine. Before his son did that, Jim said, Jim hadn’t even known about the trail, but now he liked to “haul hikers around.”
We arrived at Dickey Gap and he offered us cold sodas out of a cooler in the back of the van, gave us some pre-stamped postcards with photographs he had taken in the Grayson Highlands, and handed out tiny packets of a salve his wife made to soothe burns, cuts, and stings. Then he stepped into the brush and showed us a plant that, should you break the stem, could also soothe irritated skin.
Finally we were off into the woods, hiking together. The day was perfect–no humidity or insects, clear blue sky, just-right temperature, and slight breeze, and the terrain was almost level. We had a few little ascents though, and at the top of one of these we stopped to eat our heaviest food, watermelon we had, in the motel room, scooped out of the rind into a plastic bag, and blueberries.
“This is kind of nice, hunny,” Inti said. I should say that Inti typically doesn’t love hiking; or rather he likes it for about 15 minutes, and then he asks “Are we there yet?”
This was different, though, he said. “We’re going to walk somewhere, camp there, and then walk somewhere else.” Better than a loop, I guess?
We had planned with Sunshine (my hiking buddy–more on her awesome self later) to meet her and camp at the same spot, a site between Trimpi and Partnership shelters, just shy of 8 miles north of Dickey Gap.
I had my Guthook out and was keeping an eye out for the campsite, and noticed that although in the AWOL guide only one site is listed, Guthook had three brown tent icons about 1/3 mile apart from one another. We reached the first one and it was empty; also it really didn’t have enough space for our huge tent plus Sunshine’s.
“She must have gone on to the next one,” I said. “She doesn’t have Guthook so she might not have realized this was it.”
We walked a while longer and came to the second site, which was also deserted. Although for the most part, Inti had kept up perfectly fine with me, I could tell he was wiped. I offered to go check for Sunshine at the third site, another 0.2 miles uphill, while he waited. I left my pack, hiked up, found no one and no water (the second site did have a trickle of a stream sort of nearby), and returned to Inti with this news. I was slightly concerned about Sunshine because there was nothing between here and Parntership, which would have made it a 19-mile day for her (her previous longest day was 17.5).
In any case, we definitely weren’t going to hike another 6.5 miles that night. Inti said, “Okay, chief, what’s first?”
“We can put together a fire ring” (this site oddly didn’t have one, though burnt leaves indicated where a fire had once burned) “and put up the tent.”
I changed out of my hiking shoes and rested a moment, sitting on a rock.
“This is beyond anything I’ve ever done,” Inti said.
“This,” he gestured around, and I realized he meant the remoteness, the isolation of our site. It was, as most unofficial, “stealth” camping sites are, simply a flat place where other people have at some point pitched a tent. To me it was great; the ground was truly level, water was less than 50 yards away and not down a steep switchbacked hill, and the site itself was literally touching the trail.
I realized that when I had said we’d be camping at a “site” and not a shelter, he must have pictured something closer to a campground, and certainly not something with just the two of us. I could appreciate how eerie it was. Although I haven’t yet stealth camped completely on my own, I once came very close, setting up a tent just 5 miles into the day, at 1:30 p.m., because I was trying to protect my foot injury, and sat alone at the site for hours before anyone else arrived, the whole time not knowing whether anyone would. Those were some long, lonely hours.
But here we had each other, and that was plenty for me. Inti made a fire, though it was too hot and early to really appreciate one, and inside the tent I blew up our air mattresses and changed into my camp clothes, read a little bit.
Then I joined him on a rock by the fire and we snacked, started in on the Knob Creek, and photographed the smoke as it made visible the slanting sunlight coming down through leaves.
“It’s so early,” Inti said.
“Yup. Lot of hours with not much to do!”
But then it was time to cook dinner; we had an Alpine Aire meal that Inti had brought from home, one I had bought ages go when I thought I would do a true shakedown hike, and we split that and then split a more typical hiker dinner: ramen with tuna.
Before we settled in to sleep, Inti said, “If I touch you to wake you up, don’t make any noise,” he said. I smiled and agreed to this, put in my ear plugs, and passed out.
I was awakened a while later by a gentle tapping on my arm and I carefully removed one ear plug and sat up.
From the woods, probably up the hill, probably about 10 yards away, I heard it: crunch, crunch, crunch–leaves and sticks crushed under heavy footsteps not human. In my half-awake state I told myself it was a deer and was about to suggest same to Inti, but even as I opened my mouth to whisper this, I knew it wasn’t true. I knew those were bear footsteps; they weren’t light enough to be deer.
We sat in silence listening to it move behind us; aside from the footsteps and our breathing, there was absolutely no other sound. I knew how to scare bears off; I’d done it in the Smokies; you had to make a lot of noise and appear threatening. But how could we appear threatening in pitch-black darkness?
The crunching didn’t move closer, but it didn’t really move farther away, either, and we sat immobilized. Finally I said we could get out and shine light at it and make a lot of noise. Inti had his flip flops ready and suggested clapping them together.
“Okay,” I whispered.
He clapped them and simultaneously hollered out, loud and deep and grunty.
From the bear, we heard running and a bone chilling, whiny, huffy, agitated sound. At first, the running felt gratifying. “You scared the shit out of it!” I whispered to Inti. But then the running stopped and the crunching resumed, no more quietly (read: distant) than before. Occasional whines and huffs persisted.
“Damn. It’s not going away,” I whispered.
Inti suggested we get out and build the fire back up, and then decide whether to pack up and move to the next site, where we knew a few hikers had landed since my earlier reconnaissance.
Had I left my earplugs in, I thought, and been alone, I’d have likely slept blissfully through the whole thing, never the wiser about the bear’s presence. The bear probably wouldn’t have bothered me. Then again, you always wonder whether you have forgotten about some flavored Chapstick or a Snickers wrapper or, as with the hiker who was bit through the tent in the Smokies last month, coconut sunscreen.
For good measure, we shouted and clapped together the flip-flops one more time, and then we put on our headlamps, emerged from the tent cautiously, and built the fire back up. Inti wanted to move; I didn’t particularly, but I could see his logic. Also, I was a little freaked out, no doubt. He was a lot freaked out.
So, we went back into the tent and put everything except our air mattresses willy nilly into our packs, deciding to leave our food hanging where it was and come back for it in the morning. We unstaked the tent and Inti gathered it up in one hand, air mattresses bopping together inside, and took off up the trail.
I scrambled to keep up, and stage whispered for him to slow down, he had to look for the next site; it wasn’t going to be obvious, he had to keep shining his headlamp to the left or we’d miss it.
Finally, he called back that his lamp was catching reflective stuff–tents–and we tromped into the campsite at 10:30 p.m., restaked our tent as quietly as possible, and zipped ourselves in.
Disappointingly, we could still hear the bear crunching around, more distant and no longer whining and huffing, but out there nonetheless. The simple presence of other humans was enough to keep us calm and in our tent though, and I put the earplugs back in and, according to Inti, started snoring.
The bear came back closer at around 3 a.m., Inti later told me, but not close enough to warrant his waking me, and eventually, mercifully for Inti, it was morning.
We got up, cooked and ate our oatmeal, drank our coffee, broke camp, and were on our way after chatting a little bit with the other backpackers at the site and sharing what already had the aura of a good story.
When we arrived at Partnership shelter, 6+ miles and about three hours later, Sunshine was waiting, writing postcards, and apologizing profusely for missing the campsites; sure enough, she had blown past them entirely and had not realized so until she’d gone too far beyond them to retrace her steps. The terrain was so easy she’d made record time.
Inti took us into town where we started laundry, got resupply, and ate Mexican food once more. Then he took us back and waited while I sorted through the resupply, packing things into Ziplocs, giving some of it to him to take home, and taking the infamous, cold, Partnership Shelter shower.
When it was time for him to leave, I was grumpy and sad, and felt daunted by the upcoming leg–102 miles to Pearisburg. Once we’d said our goodbyes and he had left, though, and Sunshine and I had ordered and received delivery pizza (yes, to a shelter! It’s the only one!), the camaraderie of the other hikers, plus the last of the Knob Creek, warmed my body and soul.
And Inti had a great story to tell.
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