Day two of hiking gave us our first dose of rain. The idea of making camp in the rain temporarily removed my allergies to furry creatures. That second night was my first in an Appalachian Trail shelter. We shared the space with four humans and three dogs. Yes, three dogs.
When I mention a backcountry shelter or show far away pictures of these cute little log lean-to’s, anyone who’s never been in one of these seldom cleaned structures in the woods glean romantic at the idea. Some of these shelters were cute, some were ghetto, some old and others new, some tiny some a big old barn, and almost all infested with mice. You would think anyone in the outdoors would have sense of responsibility in keeping things as they found them. There is a definite sense of entitlement that left many of these fund-raised, volunteer built, free for all to use shelters riddled with graffiti, trash and misuse.
One of the more cared for shelters along the way, although if you looked inside there is graffiti everywhere. Case in point.
This first shelter was a two level loft style structure that allowed, at least, a buffer from the dogs. One thing I noticed with most critters on trail is they were so tired from hiking most failed to even bark. They were also happy – so happy – to be out in the woods like their owners. Two out three of these dogs were about to keel over from exertion. One dog puked on the gravel eating/cooking area, then crawled into the owners sleeping bag like a bear into its winter den never to be seen or heard again that night.
We spent the late afternoon listened to Rising Star for a few hours go through his experience thru-hiking the AT back in 1996. He now hikes the trail for months a year, doing mini ‘yo-yo’s’, as he calls them. He starts and finishes in the same place, spending time working for stay at hostels along the way. He tells us about his life off the trail, how he’s ‘houseless’ and happy, traveling by bike along the Blue Ridge Parkway, for a good nine months of the year, working contract work in Florida the other three.
His dog, Roxy ‘Mocha Latte’ was a rescue dog he found only six months earlier. Mocha Latte has her own saddle bags and was a proud hiker. She loved being out there and loved Rising Star more than anything on earth. He said stuff stresses him out, that he has no desire to own anything except his bike and the pack on his back. His joy is rare in the world I know. Rising Sun is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.
The owner’s belonging to the puking, exhausted dog told us they were heading to Katahdin, Maine, the Northern terminus of the AT, which was, oh, about 2165 miles away. They had so much gear that they carried two backpacks a piece: one on the front and one on the back. They arrived in the rain and dark, exhausted but somehow talkative and happy.
I realized early on many people we met were stoned to numb the pain of walking with so much weight on their back. Our shelter soon became a smoking lounge, which was fine by me, for each their own. I sat up top, listening and laughing to myself at the company I was in. That’s the thing about hiking, or travel of this nature, you end up with folks you never would in ‘real’ or ordinary life.
The last dog and the last character to enter our evening was José. Well, we’re not sure exactly if it’s José, but that’s another story. He went by ‘Grizz’, a self-proclaimed trail name, which from what I understand breaks all the rules of trail names. They are supposed to be given randomly by another. For some hikers it takes months or years to get a trail name, so Grizz gave himself one on day two of his hike. He said he chose it because the Grizzly bear meanders. I don’t know about his theory but what the heck, Grizz was in his own world and happy enough, why question it?
We met José/Grizz the day prior up at the Springer Mountain parking lot. He looked at us while we sat on a rock drinking some water. ‘Where you guys heading?’ We told him the shelter about 9 miles away. ‘Where’s the next shelter?’ He looked kind of confused so Peter got out the guide book and told him the coming shelters on the trail. ‘Oh. I’m goin’ to Katahdin, you know?!’.
We left and didn’t see him and his dog again until he arrived that second day to the shelter. His dog took to Rising Sun’s sleeping pad immediately, making me glad we were up above, assuming dogs can’t climb ladders. José had a verbal stream of consciousness just like Rising Sun, only his was a little more bizarre. He told us all he found his sleeping bag under a bridge when hitchhiking to Georgia, that he’s hiked the trail before, that he’s been all over the world. He said he slept in a cemetery the night before. I secretly gave him a new trail name, ‘Graveyard Shift’, because of this and his arrival in the dark.
Rising Sun answered the deluge of questions Grizz had for the next two hours. They were both yelling and not listening to one another. All I wanted to do was sleep. It was too much. I went to use the privy (more on these later) when Grizz said ‘sorry I woke you up’. I snapped. ‘Grizz, how the hell can I even think of sleeping when you are yelling. You’ve been yelling for two hours straight! You talk REALLY LOUD….PLEASE JUST STOP TALKING!’.
I vowed to myself not to stay in another shelter. I came to the trail for peace and tranquility, for the challenge of hiking, but also to get away from all the noise in the world. This was not what I had planned for six weeks of Appalachian Trail.
We woke early before anyone, like we often do on hiking trips, at 5am. Got out of our sleeping bags, put on our only hiking clothes for the whole trip, got the stove going (after Peter accidentally spilled some water…which fell through a crack in the floor/roof boards, right onto Rising Sun, who was not very happy with us…), packed our bags and got set to leave.
Grizz got up and lighted his makeshift kerosine/fire hazard stove. He started talking loud again and I asked him to speak softer and not wake everyone up. He had a complete guide book beside him so when he asked about an upcoming trail town, I suggested he look in the book. ‘Nah, I don’t like to read much…’. He was an odd-ball but I have to admit, he grew on me. By the time we left, he had me shining his headlamp on his to take a picture of him eating his freeze-dried breakfast.
We left him there with the others sleeping. I had to laugh at our second night on the trail. It was all too much yet it was so little compared to what life usually is for me. I am constantly meeting new people and interacting with all sorts. To be in such close quarters with others, overnight, however, is a whole other story. I was doubting if this trail was meant for me and vice versa. It was funny at the same time worrysome to imagine almost six more weeks of this.
As soon as I started walking, any doubts slipped away. To walk clears the mind and opens the spirit. To walk sheds the negativity of any situation and allows rational, clear thought to prevail. To walk was my moving meditation and no matter the circumstances we would face, I realized nothing was going to take me off the trail.
I was meant for this trail and it was meant for me, just like it was for everyone else.