THE ACCIDENTAL THRU-HIKER: WALKING THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL, Part Three

We met a lot of characters on the trail. Trail names like Rising Sun, ‘Graveyard Shift’, Marathon Man, Blueberry, Mr.Truth, Sagacious, McLovin’, Riki Tiki, Frog Fellow, Rodeo, Tenacious D, Forest Moistener, Slim Jim, Tom Sawyer, Forrest, Mav stuck in my head connected with images of gaunt hikers cold and hungry on the trail. We’d meet on trail, share intel, or simply pass by then read about who we just saw in the next shelter’s log book.

 

After six weeks of walking, one stood out: Backwoods AKA Laura from ‘Louisville, Kentucky’. We met Laura the first day in Georgia when Josh from Hiker Hostel picked us up from the train station. Laura came in by Greyhound. It was her second attempt in the same year to hike ‘as far as she could until her money ran out’ on the AT. She was looking for snow and keen on winter hiking. Laura, we discovered, worked at Kroger’s supermarket for 18 years. It was her dream to hike the AT. Not thru-hike, just hike. Be out there. Be a part of the trail and its community.

 

Her first attempt to hike was ten months earlier. She got about twenty miles into the trail and had to bail. Her ankle gave out. This time she planned on starting where she pulled off, and hoped, of course, to go much further. Laura had done all her research on the internet. We soon learned she was more than self-contained and capable of traveling solo. The only thing missing was the training to carry her winter-gear laden backpack and not get injured. Her pack was ready to hike but the body didn’t look so prepared.

 

The Appalachian Trail is unforgiving. It is a relentless series of up and down that cracks the fittest folks if you make the mistake of going too hard, too soon. We encouraged Laura to take her time, ease into it. She kept saying ‘I just want to be out there’. She had a journal on trailjournals.com and was admittedly obsessed with reading other hikers tails of the trail.

 

We spent the night at the Hiker Hostel and learned more about our new friend. I asked her if she’d hiked much. She said day trips were about all she’d done with her dog. Her friends named her ‘Backwoods’ because she was always out hiking. ‘I guess that’s my trail name, even though I haven’t really been on the trail much. Compared to most my friends I’m pretty adventurous.’

 

One day Backwoods was heading back to the trailhead and her parked car. High above the parking area she saw ‘some asshole trying to break into my car.’  She went on to say ‘Now, I’m not a violent person, but something took over me that day. I was going to get that asshole and kick his ass. It pissed me off that I was out there enjoying the backwoods, the trail, and there he was trying to get in my car with his stupid little Slim Jim.’

 

It took her awhile to get down to the car and when she did ‘that mother fucker was so dumb he was sitting in his friend’s car right beside my car. He was so stupid he was just sitting there….’ She walked up to the open window ‘and saw that dumb ass sitting there..he was just sitting there like to fool that he was’ and took her dog’s leash that had a big metal clasp on the end, wound it up and swung it into his face. ‘I couldn’t believe I hit him…’

 

Backwoods said she knocked some of his teeth out and scared them so much his buddy started the car and squeeled out of the parking area. She yelled after him ‘come back here you dumb ass!’ admitting she had no idea what she’d do if they’d come back. And the guy didn’t even manage to successfully break into her car….

 

The story did not end there. Backwoods said ‘well, this was a dark period in my life when I was doing a lot of stupid things. I was smoking a lot of weed and making a lot of bad decisions’. She didn’t go into what these decisions were but told us a short time after, she went back to the trailhead parking with her dog, a big bag of weed, sat hidden in the bushes waiting for the guy to come back. ‘I seriously don’t know what I was going to do to him but I wanted to hurt him.’

 

I came out of that evening with Backwoods knowing two things. One: I would not mess with a woman from Kentucky. Here was this lady, this nice looking woman, telling us her stories matter-of-factly in a tone suggesting ‘isn’t that what most folks would do?’. Two: I really wanted her to succeed. She was a natural story teller and her enthusiasm for the trail was a wonderful thing to see. She had no agenda nor ego, just wanted to be out there as long as possible. I’ll never forget her saying ‘Aren’t y’all excited! I’m so excited to be going back on trail tomorrow!!’

 

We came out of that evening rooting for Backwoods to make it further than the 20 miles she mustered ten months earlier. I knew there was much more to her story and that the trail would be good for her, if only she could last. We packed our gear while she smoked another cigarette on the back porch of the hostel, saying that ‘last time on the trail I tried to quit smoking. This time I’m not going to make that mistake. Hiking is hard enough without nicotine withdrawal.’

 

We knew we’d meet Backwoods again sometimes soon. She had a head start on us by twenty miles. If she did it right and started slow, we thought we’d see her within the week. It only took four days and there she was, at the second hostel stay of the trip.

 

We’d managed sixteen miles that day while trying to distance ourselves from our shelter companions and their dogs. Peter opened the door to the Hostel at Neel’s Gap and I heard a big ‘Hey y’all!’. I’d already re-named Backwoods ‘BadAss’ but she didn’t know it. We greeted her like a long lost sister and she seemed happy to see us in return. She’d been inching her way along the trail, having the adventure she dreamed of.

 

Peter went to shower and I spent time with Backwoods/BadAss. She showed me a charm purchased in the Outfitter store the hostel was a part of. It was the trail symbol with the A and the T in a circle. She had it on her chain that had an E for her daughter, Ellissa. I asked about Ellissa and Backwoods told me she was 18, but had been killed by a drunk driver last April. ‘They both died. The drunk guy is lucky he died because if he survived, my babies Daddy would have surely killed him.’ Backwoods told me ‘I never tell people about Ellissa, I don’t know why I just told you that.’ I said I was glad that she did. I understood a little more just what this hike meant to her. So much pain to be absorbed while walking the trail. Human suffering and loss accepted as reality with the struggle of each step taken.

 

The following day we re-supplied before heading back on trail. A local offered shuttles for a small fee into the closest town. We shared the cost with another thru hiker, a twenty four year old recently retired (after one year) high school math teacher. He was full of unsolicited advice on the trail and was a total pain in the ass. But he grew on me and by the time we left, I somehow liked him and was glad for the encounter.

 

If only he would shower…the stink so bad, that infamous stink of AT hikers that have led some restaurants along the way to try to ban thru-hikers from polluting their business with the stink of the hike. He refused to shower because I don’t know why and had the audacity to state he didn’t smell much anymore after so many months on trail. I disputed this statement and said all I wanted him to do was shower, that he stunk up the entire hotel and it was a putrid smell making me want to puke! He laughed it off and I had to laugh with him.

 

To be young and know it all, I remember those times, and thought that one day this kid would grow into some awareness. Until then, he continued to educate me, Peter and Backwoods, on the ins and outs of the SOBO (southbound) thru hiker, how SOBO was more pure than NOBO (northbound), telling Backwoods how heavy her pack was, blah blah blah…and yet like I said we all kinda liked the kid. We even liked him after he tried mooching food off us all.

 

The shuttle driver was a lonely man who loved to talk. ‘Sam the Space Shuttle’ as in NASA drove us in to get groceries. He told us tales of wives and husbands past, kids, struggle, shrimp gumbo and cold Budweiser beer. The latter two were offers to temp a visit with Sam who was looking for an audience for his stories. If we had only been on the trail longer we would’ve said yes to the invite. It was a cultural experience being in this part of America and storytelling seemed to be a common trait among the locals. Instead, we packed our packs with food, gear and headed back on trail around 2pm.

 

Eight miles later we arrived at the shelter just as darkness set in. To our delight Backwoods was there, set up for the night, excited to see us and exhausted from her walk. It was the farthest she’d hiked and she couldn’t believe we left so late and were already there. I reinforced that hiking was not a race and speed meant nothing, trying to pump her up for making the distance that she did.

 

We all went to get water from a nearby spring and settled into the shelter, cooking our dinners. Backwoods had not only a solid stove and backup fuel, she had a backup to this set-up, then a back-up to the backup. She also had a HUGE knife that she ‘sleeps with every night. Just in case.’ After dinner we all sat in the shelter, protected from the wind, rain falling on the metal roof.

 

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Our camp with Backwoods

 

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The morning we left Backwoods asleep in the shelter. We walked into the rising sun.

 

 

Backwoodss asked ‘So y’all have any stories like the one I told you about the guy breaking into my car?’. She seemed genuinely interested but I lamented that no, we were not that BadAss and led quite uneventful lives in comparison. ‘What? Y’all do all this traveling, y’all have done so much!’.

 

She then went on to tell us another tale.

 

This time it was back in her neighborhood in Louisville. ‘There was a guy in our area that lived a few streets over. One day he decided to drive around the neighborhood, speeding and all, up over people’s lawns and into their flowers. He drove into our yard and knocked over a tree we’d just planted. It was a nice little tree. I was pissed.’

 

Backwoods told us she was so pissed off that this ‘asshole did all that then just drove away like he did nothin’ that she went out, dragged the tree and part of his bumper that had fallen off his car during his joyride, tied it with a rope to the back of her car and took to the wheel. ‘I dragged that stuff to his street, had to unfortunately drive over the neighbor’s flowerbed which I noted to myself I’d replant, up onto his lawn and got out of my car, banged on his door and said ‘Hey asshole, I think you forgot something on my lawn!’’.

 

The entire neighborhood was out yelling at the guy. He stood on his porch acting like he did nothing. The police came and he said he’d been targeted by hateful neighbors, that he didn’t know what everyone was so mad about. He became the victim and the rest of the community the bullies.

 

She said some months later the joy-riding neighbor bought a new motorcycle. Backroads boyfriend at the time tied it up to his bumper and dragged it behind until shreds of the machine were left.

 

We sat with jaws dropped when asked ‘So y’all really don’t have any stories like that?’. What a woman. She would do just fine on the trail. Like I said, I would not mess with a woman, or man for that matter, from Kentucky.

 

That was the last we saw of Backroads. I left a note the next day about a dried up spring for her to get water early when we found ourselves at the shelter for the night having to backtrack for a flowing spring. I read in her journal how grateful she was to get this note from ‘Red Feather and Wind Walker’ and that she hoped we’d read her thanks.

 

A week Later I read she was off the trail for good. Her knee blew up to the size of a watermelon. She had to bail and was destroyed. I read her second last and then last entry and it broke my heart:

 
Friday, December 12, 2014

Things are looking good.The first time ever in my life I ate at a restaurant alone. Kinda strange but that burger was worth it. I even saved half of it for a snack later. The place was empty except the cook, waitress, two women having lunch, and me. I didn’t have much else to do so I stuck around for about 2 hours eating and on the internet. When I stood up to leave a burning hot lightening strike of pain shot threw my knee and up the outside of my thigh. What the hell? That’s new. It only happened the once but on the short walk back to Mull’s Inn my knee was right back to hurting with every step. Back at my room with a bag of ice in my arms my thoughts weren’t very positive. Spent the rest of the day either with ice on my bum knee or soaking in a hot bath. Back and forth. Cold then hot. Well that shit didn’t work! I’ve got swollen fat puffy hurt knee again. I want to be able to enjoy my hike. With my knee hurting every step it isn’t any fun. Plus I’ve also learned that every time I came to a beautiful view or just thought to my self wow this is amazing it pissed me off so bad that my daughter wouldn’t ever see or get to do things like this. My wow moments always turned into me feeling bad I was there or me completely pissed off that Ellissa is gone. My mind is definatly not in a good place. Hopefully in the morning my knee will be good to go again and I’ll work on getting my head on strait while hiking.
-Backwoods

 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

I knew I couldn’t hike and still enjoy it because of my knee. Bet your getting tired of reading about my damn knee. I made plans to get my quitting ass back home. My trail name should be backhome instead of backwoods. The fact is my body can’t seem to last me longer than a week or about 25 miles before it stops working. Shit happens I guess it’s time for a new hobby.
-Backwoods

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