The Trail to Damascus
The tent was rattling in the wind. My camp shoes were full of water. It was cold. Neither of us wanted to get out of our sleeping bags. Nate was brave enough to stick his arm out and grab two packs of poptarts for our breakfast. We had no fuel for coffee and hot chocolate.
We listened to the rain pelt our tent while we worked up the courage to get dressed and packed up. It was a tight squeeze with both of us flopping around inside the tent and it was no surprise when Nate decided to face the outdoors before me.
“I’ll be out in a minute; all I have to do is put my boots on,” I assured Nate. Five minutes later I was still in the tent, wiggling into my pack. Sensing that Nate was becoming frustrated, I called out that I was ready and asked him to come to my door and pull me out. That was a mistake.
“Why in the world do you have your pack on?!” Nate growled at me as he untangled me from the tent. There was no sense in explaining myself, so I dropped my pack against a tree and helped Nate tear down the tent. It wasn’t easy with the chilling wind and the freezing rain, and when we were done Nate claimed that his hands were so cold that they were burning.
Before long we had warmed up enough to allow our arms to emerge out from underneath our ponchos. The terrain was rocky, and with the rain it had become very slippery–trekking poles were almost required. But for me they were one more thing to get caught in the rocks. “I’m down,” I called ahead to Nate after lowering my body down to the ground between the rocks in a slow motion fashion. When my pole got stuck between two rocks and my legs became intwined with one another, I knew I was falling and the only thing I could do was control the downward forces. I ended up half sitting nicely and half sprawled among the rocks. And I wasn’t hurt at all.
Nate was still hurting, but his right calf felt fine. It was his left calf today. He limped along, though, with minimal complaints.
We got to the Vango/Abby Memorial Hostel in mid-afternoon and were ready for a warm shower and a dry place to sit. It wasn’t fancy, but we got both, and more! After showering, Nate purchased a frozen pizza, two cans of pop and our much-needed canister of fuel. As he entered the bunkhouse, one can of pop began to teeter on the top of his stack of goodies and before he could balance it, the drink fell to the floor and exploded, spraying cherry-colored stickiness all over the bunkhouse. We wiped it up with an old blanket, leaving the bunkhouse cleaner than we had found it.
Someone had left an old scale and before eating Nate and I weighed ourselves. Just five weeks into what we imagine will be a twenty-plus week journey, Nate had lost twenty pounds. I was down fifteen.
That night we received a text from Lucky. The doctor had confirmed that he had a hernia and offered him surgery. But the recovery time of seven weeks would force Lucky to take 49 zero days, something he wasn’t willing to do. He strapped on a girdle and got back on the trail! We very much look forward to him catching us!
Having been told countless times that we could not complete our thru-hike without meeting Bob Peoples, we made our way through another rainy day to the Kincora Hostel. Along the way we passed Spruce Lee, a hiker who began his thru-hike in Virginia last year and had left Springer Mountain in January to finish the trail within a year. His tent was pitched inside a shelter and he sat inside, avoiding the misty air. He stuck his head out to cook and say hello. After a quick snack, Nate and I ventured out into the rain again.
We reached the road to Kincora just as Nate’s calf started bugging him again. Glad that we were almost there, I was nearly skipping down the road. Nate noticed another hiker behind us. I turned around to see a dark, tall, hooded figure, gliding down the road in a cloud of mist. I thought it was a dementor, but Nate figured it was Spruce Lee.
Bob Peoples opened his door to welcome us into the bunkhouse of his hostel. I offered to remove my wet, muddy boots, but he wouldn’t let me. After introducing us to another hiker who was staying at Kincora for the night, and warning us about the ferrel cats he had invited to live in the bunkhouse, Bob offered to drive us to the grocery store. We accepted.
Pinched for time, as Bob had a meeting to get to, Nate and I scrambled to get enough food for that night and the next two days. We ended up buying too much. That night we each ate a full-size bag of potato chips and four hot dogs with chili and cheese. Then we split a half gallon of ice cream. When we couldn’t quite finish the ice cream we relinquished it to Orange Crush (O.C.), the thru-hiker who had arrived at the hostel before us.
With our bellies bursting, Nate and I crawled to the back room, where Bob had offered us a private lair with a double bed. Nate smelled it first. “Is that cat pee on the bed?” he snarled at me. I thought the smell was coming from the carpet but when we pulled our sleeping bags off the bed and got a fresh whiff, we were disappointed. Hoping the stench hadn’t already seeped into our bags, we lined the bed with clean towels before laying back down. We had to get good sleep. Fifty miles and two days stood between us and a visit with family in Damascus.
Delirium hit at mile thirteen. We sat down to munch on our dehydrated fruit, unsure of how we were going to complete another eleven miles. Before we ate half the bag we were laughing. It was an effort to stand up through all of the joking and when we started hiking again we had forgotten all of our sorrows. Twenty-four and one half miles seemed doable again.
The day was hot and neither of us had shorts to put on. We climbed mountains, salty sweat stinging our eyes, wondering why everyone told us the fifty miles between Kincora and Damascus were flat and easy.
And Nate’s calves were pain-free. Today, his right shin was the culprit.
We took a break at a barely-running spring and Nate was able to fill our water bottles while I made us a lunch of leftover hot dog buns, cheese and potato chips. It was delicious. The food fueled us to the next shelter, which had Bob Peoples jokes written all over it. Nate and I came up with our own:
Bob Peoples doesn’t predict the weather. He orders it.
Bob Peoples doesn’t need blazes. The trail follows him.
After the shelter, Nate doubted that he would be able to walk another 7.5 miles. He wanted to finish the 24.5 we had on our agenda, but he wasn’t sure his leg would let him. It screamed at him with every step. Knowing a campsite with water existed three miles before our chosen shelter, I encouraged Nate to stop there and listen to his body. We stopped, but just for a fifteen minute break. Nate was determined to get to the shelter, cutting the mileage into Damascus to a manageable 25 for the next day.
The sky faded into a dark blue and, just as we had started our day, we finished it with head lamps. It took us thirteen and one half hours to walk 24.5 miles, and Nate’s right shin was stabbing, but he was all smiles. We made it.
O.C., the hiker we had met at Bob Peoples’ place, had left the hostel a half hour before us that morning. He thought he might finish at the same shelter as us, but when we got there, it was empty. Wondering if he stopped by and signed the registry, Nate flipped the notebook open. Sure enough, O.C. had passed by at three o’clock in the afternoon. Then he kept going.
We crawled into bed with visions of a clean hotel room and family in our heads. The next day would be a long 25 miles, but now we could taste the homemade goodies waiting for us in Damascus.
At six o’clock in the morning we were stumbling down the trail, donning our headlamps as we dined on Poptarts. We had 25.8 miles to get to Damascus and twelve hours until my sister was set to arrive in town. We were confident that we would make it.
But we were wrong.
Nathan couldn’t walk. He started have debilitating pain in both shins, making movement nearly impossible. He would grasp both trekking poles until his knuckles turned white, using his upper body to hold as much of his weight as he could, yet he still inched along, barely lifting his feet over the rocks and roots buried below a dense blanket of leaves. I could tell he was in pain. I begged him to stop. He wouldn’t listen until a steep downhill section that forced him to try to hike backwards. Fearing that he would tumble over a small boulder, he turned back around to face the trail. At the bottom, we took a break, had a discussion, and decided that 25.8 miles was not going to happen today.
Nate hobbled the next two miles to a road crossing, our pre-arranged alternative pick-up location if we couldn’t make it all the way. Just as we turned around the last switchback in the trail we saw a big, white passenger van pulling away from the trailhead. We both let out a desperate moan, and I waved my trekking poles over my head as I ran down the hill toward them, but their only response was two honks of their horn.
The van left a hiker behind. He drew air in between his teeth and shook his head when he heard our dilemma. “They’re going right back to Damascus!” he informed us of the white van. We’d have to call for a ride, but as is the trend in the south, we did not have cell phone service so I sent out a midday Spot GPS message, a signal we had decided would mean that we were at the road instead of in town. The man allowed us to use his phone, but the shuttle service listed in our guidebook wasn’t operating that day. We would have to hitch.
Sitting on the picnic table eating a snack, we waved at countless friendly drivers who zoomed by. We were told it would be an easy hitch down the mountain to Shady Valley, and only 15 miles to Damascus from there. Known as “the friendliest town on the AT,” Damascus, in our imaginations, was full of people looking for hikers to help.
When Nate was ready to crawl again we crossed the street to start hitching toward Shady Valley. We made it as far as the pull-off area for the trail when a car pulled over. The couple got out of their car, opened glass bottles of pop and started talking to us. They were waiting for an overnight hiker to come off of the trail. They had a son who had completed a thru-hike who also had to overcome shin splints. They would give us a ride to Shady Valley!
When the couple dropped us off at the gas station at the base of the mountain they pointed out the road that leads directly into Damascus. “Anyone going that way will be glad to pick you up,” they told us. They weren’t able to take us the rest of the way because they had to return to the mountain top to retrieve their overnight hiker friend.
The gas station was busy. In one corner of the parking lot were Girl Scouts selling cookies. Adjacent to the girls was a group of bikers surrounding a picnic table. At he other end cars were constantly pulling in and out, coming from and heading toward Damascus. We slithered through the store’s glass doors and stood between a line of customers and a bar at the window. We didn’t know what to do. I wanted to use the phone to let my sister know that we were no longer on the mountain but I chickened out. Damascus was said to have town wide wifi, so I decided I would contact her once we made it. If we ever made it.
Exiting the store, Nate and I chose to stand near the busy end of the parking lot and stick out our thumbs. Then we started walking toward Damascus, trying to look as pathetic as we could while still having the appearance of well-mannered, harmless hikers. It wasn’t working and it was silly for Nate to be shuffling along the side of the road when he couldn’t move down the trail, so we went back to the gas station.
A man in a suit was headed for a minivan. Nate limped toward him. “Is there any chance you are headed toward Damascus and could give us a ride?” he asked. The man shook his head. “Sorry, I’ve got a full carload already!” We asked the moms supervising the Girl Scouts. One said she didn’t have a car. Another woman said she was headed the other direction. There was nothing left to do but hitch as we resumed our walk down the road.
Car after car sped passed us. Some drivers waved and smiled while others just stared. “Oh this guy has already ignored us,” I told Nate when a pickup truck that had passed us headed toward Damascus drove by again, this time going the other way. We watched pitifully as the young man drove by. Then he whipped his truck onto a side street and turned around. He was coming back!
“Where y’all headed?” he asked with a Southern drawl. We told him we needed to get into Damascus and he offered to take us partway there. We obliged, throwing our packs and ourselves into the bed of his truck. As he drove down the road, I noticed a mile marker sign. Knowing Damascus was fifteen miles away, I watched the distance fly by with the wind whipping my hair in front of my face. There were ten miles left. Then five. Before I knew it we were driving past a “Damascus Industrial Limits” sign. He had taken us all the way to town! Grateful, we hopped out of his truck and said goodbye. We had made it.
Nate and I walked into the gear store and used the phone to call my sister, letting her know that we had made it to town. She was only three hours away, a few hours earlier than we had expected her. I walked and Nate hobbled across town to a coffee shop where we bought pancakes and visited with O.C., who reported that his feet were sore after having walked 40 miles the previous day! He admitted that he didn’t need to do that again.
When my sister and her husband arrived at the coffee shop to meet us, they had no idea what they were in for. We jammed our packs into the back of their already-full jeep and squeezed in beside my nephew in his car seat. Before we even left the parking lot, both my sister and my brother-in-law had rolled down their windows to dissipate the stench coming from the back seat. When we got to the hotel, we were immediately told to take showers.
Once we were cleaned up, my sister and I left my nephew in the care of the men and went to the store so that I could buy a few food items to round out the goodies they had brought us from home. We also washed our stinky hiking clothes and picked up pizzas to share with my sister’s in-laws, who were also spending the night at the same hotel. Nate stayed behind to ice his shins.
We spent the night stuffing ourselves with pizza, cookies and beer in a hotel room that didn’t smell like hiking socks and that didn’t have the hot air blasting to dry clothes over the heater. It was the best half day we could have asked for!
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