Trail Magic, Trail Angels and a Trail name.
Today I climbed Clingmans Dome, I have made it almost 200 miles (199.4 to be exact) and I feel great!
It has taken me 40 days to achieve this, significantly slower than I ever anticipated but I wouldn’t trade any of it….. Well maybe that period of never ending rain could have been a bit nicer.
I pick up my pack, it is heavy again. Filled with food for the days ahead. I am showered, fed and dry but feel almost like the air around me is thick as I push slowly up the hill. I don’t make it .3 miles before I stop and sit on a rock and stair aimlessly at my phone.
I repeat this process several times over the first two miles as any chance of making the first shelter quickly disappears.
I am alone. It weighs me down more than the 43 pounds I’m dragging around.
I spent the last two nights thinking that Jason and Crystal would meet me back at the gap. A medical emergency separated us two days earlier and I had not even stopped to consider that it might end their hike.
I trudge down the slope, dwelling on how hard it is going to be to find other hikers who are going the same pace.
At the bottom of the hill, beside a dirt road is trail magic. As I sit and massage my already sore feet while stuffing my face I feel my spirits lift. Around me I hear hikers talking about only going a short distance further to the old cheese factory site. I smile as the two kids play and bicker while dad makes more coffee for hikers. I am not alone.
Everyone is long gone by the time I finally drag myself out of my tent the next morning. I dawdle at camp, again feeling that overwhelming loss of direction. I’m barely a mile from camp when I hear voices behind me.
I soon meet Han, Bookie and wonder dog Star who are also thru hikers but are slack packing today.
“Do you have a trail name?” They ask, I give my standard answer that I’m holding out until it doesn’t have the word slow in it and explain about the feet problems… Explain is probably a little over generous and mostly means I started complaining.
Over the next couple of miles we leap frog a bit and chat some more. Before separating bookie tells me my trail name should be “Superfeet” that I should own the foot issues and empower myself. I immediately love the name, it feels right and suddenly even though I am alone I feel more powerful.
I set up camp alone early and delight in introducing myself to passing hikers as superfeet.
The next day I camp at a full shelter, and am surrounded by other hikers, all planning to go the same distance as me tomorrow… Hiawasse.
As I hobble down to the road I hear a voice call out “is that who I think it is?” Teddy Bear whose trail name is somewhat deceiving given his large stature is sitting by the road.
“I’ve been asking about you for 3 days” he says. A knee injury has forced him to take a series of zeros and camping near the gap has kept expenses down.
While I contemplate my next move other hikers arrive from town and among them I see familiar faces. It is relieving to see people who have been on the trail just as long as me at the same place.
I decide not to wait for the shuttle and join another hiker Phoenix for the short road walk down to Top of Georgia, as we walk up the driveway a shout rings out “hey its superfeet” the cry is taken up by others, some i only saw this morning others who have passed me over the previous days “superfeet” is cheered from every direction and I feel so light suddenly.
I haven’t even managed to unclip my bag when a voice from inside calls “did you all say superfeet was here?” at the door buttercup appears, a small dog follows at her ankles, we have never met but she is very excited to see me.
“are you superfeet?” she asks “umm yes” I reply a bit unsure of myself suddenly. “well you’d better come in, there’s trail magic waiting for you”
Inside I am handed an envelope with a message from Han, Bookie and star addressed to superfeet.
They have purchased me a Marble Foot Bath, so I can soak my aching feet. I take a deep breath as I look at the envelope, until 10 minutes ago I didn’t even know I was coming to top of georgia, but almost strangers had hoped I would enough to leave this treat just for me. I blink rapidly a few times and buttercup puts her hand on my arm and asks if I’m going to cry, I laugh because it’s a very real possibility.
That night I Skype home and see the faces of my nephews and talk with my mum and sister, I meet new hikers and over breakfast the next morning (Vegemite on toast yum yum) make plans to get back on the trail.
It is a strange feeling at a shelter to be alone while surrounded by people and I try to make a conscious effort to be involved and contribute to the chatter around me, but the next morning I again set out to hike alone, the others have already set off into the morning rain.
I reach the border of North Carolina and Georgia, the end of my first state and spend some time sitting and looking at the sign in the rain, I am happy but also feel the weight of thirteen more states to go pressing on me.
The first two miles of North Carolina are brutal and I make camp beside the trail in a random gap, unable to push further to the shelter.
I camp completely alone in the rain and awake the next morning to the rains continued down pour.
I zero there beside the trail, even though it is only a 2 miles push to the shelter and spend the day reading, I lose myself in someone else’s adventure and for a few hours forget about my own.
The rain does not let up and the next day i climb back into my damp clothes and push on to the shelter, I set up camp again in the rain.
Over the next few days i push shelter to shelter in the continued rain finally keeping pace with some other hikers, Turtle, slow and steady, maverick and blue eyes are at the same shelter as me each night and we are always happy to see each other.
The rain has made us all a little miserable but rocking Ronnie pulls out his guitar and we sing and laugh while everyone prepares there dinner, tomorrow we push for Albert Mountain, it will be a big day for me with almost 9 miles between shelters.
We awake to clear skies, the first time in weeks and while the trail is still a giant mudslide the sunshine has us all in good spirits as we head up the trail.
I pass a southbound day hiker and his beautiful golden retriever and here the magic words “trail magic ahead” he tells me about 40 minutes ago he passed a group setting up for trail magic at Mooney gap.
I set off eagerly, calculating in my head how many hikers are ahead of me and wondering if there will be anything left, while hiking as fast as my little feet will carry me, what was 40 minutes for the day hiker is actually 3.5 miles away and I must hurry if I am to make it. Fortunately the terrain is kind and between the sunshine and promise of food I am practically flying down the trail.
I don’t think I would have been more impressed if I’d walked into a Hogwarts school Feast. There is more food then could feed an army of hikers and everyone is lounging in deck chairs and chatting happily.
I excitedly try sloppy joes and moon pies and give both treats the Australian stamp of approval. The oconee hiking group who have put of this amazing spread chat happily with the hikers as we devour the amazing spread, the guitar is out again and we all join in on lines we know.
Upon discovering that my pack weighs 45 pounds there is some shaking of heads at my stubbornness to drop the weight and I gather some advice about how to take better care of my feet. I am the last hiker to leave the gathering and have nutter butter pressed into my hands, these ladies have actually offered me the shoes off their own feet.
I set up off the trail, small rain drops chasing me, I scramble up Albert Mountain, swearing the whole way, the Rocks are taller than I can easily climb up and my pack threatens to overbalance me with every step. Some sections I give in and crawl up on hands and knees, praying the rain holds off a little longer.
Suddenly I am there, 100 miles now behind me. Enough sun still shinning to allow me to see the spectacular views.
I drag myself the rest of the way to shelter arriving just as the rain starts, I spend another night in good company and have fun watching hikers taste Vegemite on cheese.
The next morning the rain is heavy and one by one we venture out in to it, the promise of reaching Franklin the only thing driving me forward. The trail has transformed into a river bed, I am soaked to the bone within seconds, my spirits fall as the mud and rocks make going so difficult I am barely making progress.
As I come to the first gap, about 3 miles short of my destination I see hikers gathered around a car, I do some quick math, there is space for me in that car, I hurriedly approach and close to tears ask where they are heading. The driver takes immediate pity on me and offers to take me anywhere I need to go in Franklin.
We bundle in, packs on laps jammed into the car, introductions are made and Colin asks where I need to go, I realise I don’t know, I have no bookings and don’t know where the others would have gone, the other hikers are staying with Colin tonight and he offers to let me come back to the guest house while I figure it out.
The gooder grove guest house is love at first sight for me, hikers sit in the lounge watching movies or talking around the dining table. Colin leads a small tai chi stretch circle and shuttles us to get milkshakes or resupply. I don’t leave for 2 more days and when I do it is only after 4 hours spent at outdoor 76 trying to find a magic foot fix.
I hit the trail refreshed, hearing Colins words of encouragement behind me as I set out on the trail, at least now the sun is shining and I feel hopeful that pair of shoes #3 may allow me to hike stronger.
It is on this next section of trail between Franklin and NOC that I meet Ki, Dave and Carver, who could all outhike me in a heartbeat but they don’t. I arrive at NOC only a few hours behind them and we laze the day away eating by the river, at the last minute we decide to share a cabin, even though other hikers had told us that we could “follow the railway to their hobo camp”
We get a lift to the local gas station to resupply and shortly after returning to the NOC I realise my wallet is missing. A very panicked 15 minutes ensues where I basically have a panic attack about being stranded in a foreign country and Carver manages to yogi a second lift, track down driver one and restore my wallet. The words “oh my God” and “thank you” were basically on repeat for the rest of the night.
The climb down to the NOC was tough, the climb out was a total bitch. Separated from the others by my slow pace I spend a good mile of trail playing the trail drums with my trekking poles after a southbound hiker warned me of a rattle snake ahead. In the shelter ki and I swap stories and laugh to ourselves a tradition that carries us to Fontana where we discover a mini Cooper convention has totally taken over the town.
We loose Carver in fontana, a death in the family has him getting off trail to return home but he promises to return on the otherwise of the smokies.
We make plans to leave Fontana in the afternoon and climb the 6.7 miles to birch spring, the other option of 11.3 miles feels too daunting to me. I worry that my pace will mean a separation soon from this new trail family, but am also reluctant to push too hard and risk injury. The decision is taken out of our hands when the camp-site is closed that very day due to aggressive bear activity. There is no option now but to push on, camping anywhere besides the shelter would be illegal. We pass the ridge running packing out two decimated back packs and I’m quite convinced I don’t want to risk flaunting that rule.
I struggle, I have to stop every half mile to take the weight off my feet. I play music to both scare away bears and take my mind of the miles and the climb. I sing kids songs and swear at the woods. when I finally get to the shelter it is late in the day and everything hurts, I can’t even managed the trip to get water, I eat and go straight to bed.
I made it.
The spacing of the shelters in the smokies, makes the next two days slow progress, with options to either hiker 6 or 12 miles. I cannot push another 12 yet, I’m still recovering from the first effort.
It is just Ki and I now, still giggling in shelters at night about the most ridiculous and inane of things. We adopt pipi and our duo becomes a trio.
I hit double digits again with a push for Clingmans Dome and in front of tourists on the tower pipi and I sing the song we wrote entitled “Gatlinburg” that is entirely comprised of food we want to eat.
We have made it to the highest elevation point on the AT. We have close to 200 miles behind us and I’m fairly sure I’d steal cherry coke from a child if the opportunity arose. I have five more months ahead of me and slowly my confidence is building.
BRING ON THE REST OF THE SMOKIES.
Ps. Least favourite hiker saying “no rain, no pain, no Maine.”
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