We’re the Lucky Ones
“If you take poetry and translate it, it’s like looking through a beautiful fabric from the backside.” Lucky was referring to the view from atop Snowbird Mountain. Beauty like this can not be captured in a photograph.
The day started with the threat of rain, though we didn’t mind. We were more focused on catching up to the Franklins, who were stepping off the trail for one last time while they were still close enough to home. Within a mile we caught them and followed them out of the Smokies, laughing and joking the entire hike. The fun didn’t stop at the park boundary.
“We’re sharin’,” Mr. Franklin stated.
“No, I’m Sharon,” I corrected him.
“We’re all sharin’, we’re the Hiking Sharins today!”
The conversation started when we came across trail magic! Next to a sign at a trailhead of the AT lay three orange Gatorades, but we were a group of four. To solve the dilemma, Mr. Franklin decided that he and Eddy would share a bottle, making them Sharins. Nate and I also split one, leaving the third bottle for the next hiker.
It was bittersweet to say goodbye to the Franklins yet again. With us having two big days planned, they would fall behind, but their choice to have one last day relaxing at home was one I would have made in a heartbeat. We hugged farewell and slowly backed away as the Franklins sang us “Happy Trails” from the tailgate of a man who offered to take them to the Standing Bear Hostel, where they would meet their family.
The Franklins left the trail just in time. For at least five miles, Nate and I went up. Gasping for air, I refused to look at the climb ahead, and I held my head down in determination. When we finally reached the top of the climb, Lucky, admiring the scenery, invited us to dine with him at the next shelter. We obliged.
Faint from the five-mile trudge up the previous mountain, I somehow managed to lackadaisically stay behind Nate on the way to lunch. I had repeated visions of myself stumbling over a rock and not recovering due to lack of snacking, but I made it to the shelter without obvious issue. Unaware of my state, Nate talked the whole way there, not even noticing my short responses.
We returned to the trail after an hour-long break, which included dehydrated fruit and hot chocolate, and I was partially rejuvenated. More uphills zapped me of energy that was only fixed after stopping for a granola bar halfway up the next hill. The food gave me a much needed boost but Nate had hit a wall. “I can’t keep up with her!” I heard him tell Lucky as we scooted past him toward the crest of the hill. I had hit my stride.
The final climb of the day was over Max Patch, a bald boasting beautiful views. It was not as steep as our guidebook showed it to be, but it did have over fifty stairs to carry us up the final incline. “Throw your poles in the air!” Nate ordered out of the blue. I didn’t know why he wanted me to do this and I was late to obey. His told me to do so because he noticed a woman hundreds of yards away turn from admiring the view to grab a picture of us hiking across Max Patch. It was quite a surprise when, days later, we got a message via Facebook from the photographer, who had somehow tracked us down. The picture is priceless!
“I hit a wall earlier today, but now I feel like I could hike further,” Nate informed me as we approached the shelter. “My legs are in a trance.” There was one other hiker when we arrived and Lucky and Slow Man, another thru-hiker, came in behind us. Gordo, a PT student on spring break, was kind enough to offer each of us snacks from his pack as we all cooked dinner and shared stories. We were grateful to have hiked nearly 19 miles, our longest day yet, but in order to stay on schedule, we’d have to do it again the next day.
“Do you have room for three more tonight?” Lucky, who seemed to have cell phone service no matter how deep in the woods we were, was making us reservations at Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn in the trail town of Hot Springs, North Carolina. He gave our names and let Elmer’s know that we were nine miles from town. Then we finished our lunch and started chipping away at the remaining miles.
Hiking with Lucky most of the way, we enjoyed more snacks and more conversation. When there was less than three miles left, Nate and I pulled away, as we wanted to retrieve a maildrop from the town’s outfitters before they closed. Carving our way down the mountainside, we smelled the town before we saw it. The tease of greasy, non-trail food was prolonged when Nate felt a twinge in his right calf. It had turned into a twisted knot, causing him to wince with every step. Downhill was the most painful. Nate tried to balance his desire to be in town with his need to baby his calf but the lure of a hot shower was impossible to resist. We arrived in Hot Springs over two hours before the outfitter closed.
“Hey guys,” we heard a familiar sneer as we walked through the door. It was Gator, perched behind the computer. He explained that he and Tadpole had arrived in town just an hour before and we were amazed to have caught them so soon after the Smokies. Not sure of whether they would hammock under the bridge or in the town’s gazebo, Gator inquired of our accommodations. When the woman behind the counter heard that we were staying at Elmer’s, she insisted that we eat his freshly made, organic dinner and breakfast, and she went so far as to call him to reserve our spots. Luckily, no one answered the phone.
Anxious to leave the gear store for the comfort of a private room, I let Nate know that we needed to head toward Elmer’s now. I was ready to not have store clerks buzzing around me and townies staring at my pack. I scurried the few blocks back through town with Nate limping behind me.
Lucky had already checked in by the time we found the not-so-conspicuous Elmer’s and he was squeaky clean, fresh from a shower and preparing to do laundry. We made plans to dine with him when he returned and sat on the bed at last. The room wasn’t much and we had no cell phone service or wifi, but I was happy to sit on something soft instead of a log or a rock.
It was nearing seven o’clock when Nate and I threatened to grab dinner without Lucky. He knocked on our door just in time. The diner would give us the most bang for our buck, we had heard, and it was conveniently located across the street from the Inn. But when we got there the door was locked! It was 6:59 and the diner closed at seven o’clock. Nate and I seriously considered buying a half gallon of ice cream and a dozen cookies each from Dollar General, which would cost us a total of ten dollars, but the smell of cooked food coming from the local tavern drew us in. We wolfed down burgers while we watched Lucky eat every last piece of pepperoni of an entire pizza. Then we went to Dollar General for dessert.
Accustomed to rising with the sun, it was no problem for Nate and me to be ready to hit the local grocer as they unlocked their doors at seven in the morning. We had attempted to buy our food the previous day while waiting for Lucky, but the store closed at six o’clock in the evening. This town shuts down early.
At 8:30 Elmer’s breakfast bell rung and we hurried down the antiquey, wooden staircase to the dining room. We signed up for breakfast the night before after hearing everyone rave about Elmer’s homemade, vegetarian goodness. Elmer made a true southern breakfast, but we are not southern diners. His biscuits were tasty but the gravy was thicker than the made-from-scratch kind we had at Thanksgiving dinner. I sampled the corn grits, which Elmer himself insisted we try, and I couldn’t swallow more than a spoonful. But what Elmer had, he had plenty of and we filled up on scrambled eggs, granola cereal, jam-slathered biscuits and melon. When we stood up from the table there was no way we could have eaten another bite.
On the way out of town, Nate stopped at the post office to mail home our winter gear that we had not required yet, even in the Smokies, and I used the wifi at the visitors’ center to check the weather for the next few days. Nearly a half hour passed and Nate still hadn’t appeared from the post office. Imagining him trying to stuff all of our gear into a tiny box or forgetting to whom to address the box, I crossed the street and peeked through the glass doors. I should have known. Chatty as a middle school girl, Nate was deep in conversation with the postmaster.
Once I was able to pull Nate out of the post office we made another stop at the gear store. Nate had noticed that he could see through the seams in his pack’s rain cover, meaning that it was no longer waterproof. And on this day, a pack cover was a necessity. Not believing that we planned to go back to the trail on the rainiest day forecasted for the week, the store clerk and townies tried to convince us to stay in Hot Springs another day, but we were having none of it. We needed to get out.
This was our first full day in the rain and it wasn’t as bad as it might seem. By the time we had reached the top of the ascent out of town, I was welcoming the rain. I knew I couldn’t feel any more wet than I already did and the rain, with occasional thunder, actually brightened my mood. The more towns we pass through on the trail, the more ready I am to leave the towns behind. I prefer our tent to a crowded hiker hostel or inn on any day.
There was a break in the rain as we finished our eleven miles out of Hot Springs and Lucky poked his head out of the shelter as we arrived. We didn’t even have time to take off our wet gear before a smile crept across Lucky’s face like a child preparing to show his friends a secret. He reached behind his hip and pulled out a bag of Cheetos! Lucky poured a mound of Cheetos into each of our cupped hands and we all salivated over our first pre-dinner snack. “I remembered you mentioning them on the way into Hot Springs, and I agree–they are a great fun food for the trail!”
My feet were covered in mud. I wiped them off with a rag as best as I could and slithered into my sleeping bag liner, trying not to wake anyone else at the shelter. I had woken up parched in the middle of the night and after having gulped down the last drop of water, Nate was not enthusiastic about crawling out of his sleeping bag and tip-toeing through the dark, downhill, to the shelter’s muddy water source. So I did.
Packing up a few hours later was easy. The day promised to be nothing like the one before, as the sun was shining and the air was warm. It took us half the day to catch up to Lucky, and when we did he offered us Cheetos and invited us to have lunch with him again. We all agreed to meet at the next shelter, which Nate thought was no more than a mile away. He was wrong. Wanting to get to the shelter and feel like he needed a break, Nate picked up the pace and we were sweating like dogs before we caught sight of the shelter. When we finally found it, we threw our packs from our backs and sat at the picnic table, ready for a rest.
During lunch Lucky insisted that we finish off his Cheetos and we shared our Laffy Taffy with him. While in Hot Springs we had all purchased bagels, cheese and sausage and, paired with our shared treats, we had a delicious and filling meal.
“Bad Weather Trail,” was written across a wooden sign, pointing to a trail that bypassed the AT. Glad that we had a beautiful day, we turned the other way, toward the “Good Weather Trail,” and started scrambling over piles of rocks. The guidebook had described this section as, “Rocky and strenuous.” It reminded us of the Adirondack Mountains, where trekking poles are more of a hindrance than a help.
What we were climbing is called Firescald Ridge and the views it allows are gorgeous. On one side of us North Carolina was spread out like a map, while the hills of Tennessee rolled out to our left. We felt like we could see for hundreds of miles and we tried to capture it with pictures and video, but nothing did it justice. I now believe that it’s not only the views that are so special, but also the way the mountains make us feel when we’ve reached the top; that’s why a picture isn’t enough.
As we approached the shelter that evening, Nate mentioned that he might start a fire. It wasn’t a cold night and nobody’s spirits were low, he just thought it would be a fun thing to do. When we saw that the shelter had a built-in fireplace and stone chimney, we knew it was kismet! I started setting up camp while Nate gathered kindling. Lucky arrived and heartily approved of the planned fire. I watched as they worked together to build the fire.
Once the fire was roaring we had nothing left to do but eat. Lucky had an idea. He picked out a thin stick and wedged it through his remaining chunk of sausage, then he waved it over the fire. His kid-up-to-no-good smile flashed across his face again. “Watch out,” Nate warned him, “Your stick might break!” And it did. But Lucky was able to salvage his sausage from the fire and he reported that it was delicious!
We awoke to colder temperatures than we expected. The thermometer attached to the side of the shelter read 32 degrees and the sky was gloomy. We strapped our rain covers over our packs and started walking.
“Whoa, which way to we go?” I had crawled over a boulder and scooted down the other side, landing in what appeared to be a dead end. The remains of dead bushes were in front of us, a tree blocked any path to the right and countless mini boulders covered the ground to the left. After exploring all of our options we weren’t sure that any direction was the correct way to go, so we turned back to where we came from.
Lucky appeared at the trail intersection closest to where we had gotten turned around and together we consulted the guide book. It directed us to continue straight, the way that Nate and I had already tried. We returned to the dead-end boulder and took another look around. Nate poked his head through the trees on the right and I crawled over the left side boulders, further than we had gone before. Nate didn’t find anything and all I saw were fresh notches in the trees, as if someone had removed the blazes. Continuing to step up the boulders, my eye caught something white on a tree. It was a blaze! “Up here,” I called down to Nate and Lucky. We spent the next few miles contemplating whether or not the cutting of the trees was done by hoodlums and why they may have done so.
The rain became more steady and the temperature dropped as the day progressed. A few miles short of the shelter we were headed to, at the top of a hill covered in black, dead trees, Nate and I faced a pick-you-up-off-your-feet wind. While it did help to dry out our outer layers, it was bone-chilling cold. I attached my trekking poles to my pack, shoved my hands in my pockets, put my head down and pushed on. I knew the shelter was coming up.
We hadn’t caught up to Lucky in over ten miles and we were impressed at his steady pace, figuring he wouldn’t stop for lunch on a day like today. As the shelter came into view Nate and I started singing, hoping that Lucky would poke his head out like he did two nights before. But he didn’t. Turning the corner to see into the shelter, we found a man laying flat on his back, cuddled inside his sleeping bag. His name was Wayfarer, and he’s a different type of thru-hiker. He’s already done the AT before, so this time he’s decided to do a “modified” East Coast Trail, starting in Florida and ending in Canada. When he reached the southern terminus of the AT in Georgia, he had already hiked over 1,000 miles!
We chatted with Wayfarer as we set up our sleeping pads and sleeping bags and as we ate the rest of our daily snacks. He told us that the notches in the trees that we had thought was the work of a teenager was more likely the work of a trail maintainer. It was the way original blazes were, he informed us, and someone must have been trying to make the direction of the trail more clear at the dead end.
While we talked with Wayfarer, we were always pausing to listen for Lucky through the howling winds. When it started to get dark, our concern multiplied. We knew he had a tent, but he also had the determination to keep going until he reached the shelter. And because we hadn’t passed him on the trail, we knew he must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Nate got out from under the tin roof of the shelter, where he was able to obtain enough cell phone service to call Lucky. It went straight to Lucky’s voicemail.
The night grew darker and the wind howled louder. Unsure if Lucky would make it, I encouraged Nate to collect enough water for our dinner. He was about to abandon the comfort of our sleeping bag when the silhouette of a figure appeared in the shelter entrance. It was Lucky! For the second time this trip Lucky had shown up when we were afraid we had lost him.
The unhappiness and discomfort was splattered across Lucky’s face. He, and a lot of his gear, was soaking wet. Filling us in on his war story from the day, Lucky told us how he reckoned he had walked nearly twenty miles because he missed a turn in the trail. After noticing his error, he backtracked to the white blazes only to turn the wrong way, heading south for a few miles. By the time he started recognizing things, the damage was done and he was miles behind Nate and me.
Lucky’s story of losing the trail wasn’t his only woeful tale that night. He had been battling a lower abdominal pain since before starting the trail, and he even went to the doctor a time or two to have himself checked out. The doctor didn’t tell him anything to keep him off the trail, so Lucky started hiking. Occasionally he would unclip his hip belt and walk with the entire weight of his pack on his shoulders, which eased the lower abdominal pain. But on this day, his trick didn’t work. “I have a hernia,” he stated, as matter-of-fact as any truth he had ever reported as a writer for the newspaper. “I’m going to have to get off the trail tomorrow.”
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