Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: Joining the Tribe

If there is one single thing that really blew my mind on that trip, it was the people. I'd been on the trail before, and Paul had spent years on the trail. To us, coming across an AT through-hiker was an oddity to remark upon: a really smelly person comes by,  usually with a really long beard, and mumbles "hello" under his breath at most. You'd stand back looking at what must happen to one after spending months alone in the woods hiking from Georgia to Maine in one year.
What was different this trip and forever changed how I perceive this pilgrimage was that, quite by accident we landed right in the middle of a "bubble" of through-hikers. I'm guessing that right about now I need to do some man-splaining.

Every year, thousands of people descend (probably ascend would be a better word) on northern Georgia to begin the trek to the 100 mile wilderness in Maine. For all of their trouble they get a piece of paper saying they completed the trail. I'm pretty sure that all of this is on the honor system, so I've probably met some people that have told me they've done the trail twice, and how am I to know if they really did. But, the real thing is the fact that by the time this throng has reached Roanoke, Virginia, where we started out, 4 out of 5 that started have already given up. The people we met were considered quite likely to finish the whole journey by the end of August. These people, in the current "bubble" were very happy. They told us they were about a week ahead of the "party people". I must assume that there were some dead serious people going without sleep ahead of them. It's not a race, but there does seem to be something about how many miles you can do in a day. Paul and I were good for about 10 miles a day, while a normal through-hiker would try to do 20 miles or more.

You might think, as I did, that these folks would see Paul and I as tourists, gawking as the real hikers did their thing, but they gladly accepted us into their fold. It might have been because we looked like real salty dogs out there, or perhaps it was Paul's stories of his hikes in Maine. He had many stories and it started seeming like the punch lines were his names for mountains. At least that's where he got the most laughs. Paul has some kind of condition where his brain substitutes the names of clothing stores for the names of mountains. I don't think there is a cure, but we do have hopes that it won't get any worse. An example would be, when he wanted to refer to the epic mountain Katahdin, he said Neiman-Marcus. It's strange, but every once in a while it worked out, like when he told someone that we had just hiked from the Gap.

On our third night, we stopped at a shelter and were surrounded by through-hikers. We all stuck around, waiting for a forecasted storm to hit. We made friends with GrapeNut, Couscous, RickTic and his girlfriend, Tasteless, Mandrake, Rockhopper and many more. Everyone had great stories to share. By the way, if you are ever out on the trail, there is one question that you need to know the answer to: what is your trail name? That is the very first thing a through-hiker will ask you. Paul already had the name, Major Pain, and I had to agree after going to several restaurants with him, that it is an apt name. I chose Bad Marvin since I had been using that name for a long time with my music. The thing you do with this name is to sign the registration book in the shelter and leave messages for those that come behind you.
I heard so many great stories on that trip and met so many wonderful people that it still invades my sleep at night. It might seem, knowing the difference in our hiking abilities, that we might see these people but for a moment and then never again, except for something I didn't understand before this trip. Most hikers only carry enough stuff to go for about 3 days (unlike us). They plan stops on the map where there are little mountain towns that welcome hikers. They walk to town to get a hotel room, a shower, a good meal, and more provisions for the trail...sometimes that "zero day" can turn into a "zero week". This is how we came to the point of the magic number 3. Paul and I decided that once you have met the same hiker 3 times, you are now considered old friends. Magic Mike (above in red) and Tasteless (above in blue) are examples of old friends of ours.
The best example of this was the trail runner girl. She looked about 19 years old and was hiking alone. The first time we saw her, she was passing us by while we were taking a break. I can still remember that she was blonde, quite striking looking, with large girl tattoos on her arms, and oddly enough, snot running down her nose like a little kid. She was hiking fast, with these trekking poles that looked more like long black toothpicks. She nodded a quick hello and then was gone, before we could even get a good look at how much pack she was carrying. She was pretty small and I still wonder how somebody so small can carry enough. We saw her again two days later, once again, as she passed by us quickly with a wave, still looking like she was just going for a walk in the woods. Then again 9th day of our trip, we took a bonus hike from the woods 20 miles back to town and she came across us, exclaiming "Hey! You're going the wrong way!" Then she stopped and told us she was really 31, an expert trail runner, and "some guys" were carrying the rest of her stuff. I got a good look at those tattoos and wondered, is this girl some kind of rockstar in this world? I held one of her trekking poles for a minute and could not even guess that it weighed anything. If my poles cost $100 and I thought that was a lot, what did her poles cost? The point is, the 3rd meeting was the time we turned into old friends.
It suddenly dawned on me that I could smell this girl from a decent distance and then realized that it was lunchtime and if she had just come from town and a shower, she had covered 18 miles in the time we had covered 3. It is truly humbling to see what some really athletic people can do. I'm just happy that they let us hang out with them.

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