May 22nd and 23rd are two days that really stand out to me, because I kept thinking that if I could somehow manage to put them into words I could actually capture a fraction of the essence of the trail.
We were on a bit of a timeline that day, Sukae and I. Sukae and I had been hiking mostly together since leaving a camp spot behind the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina a few weeks prior. We were in Virginia a few days after skipping over a section of trail for the time being to attend Trail Days in Damascus, and had been heading north from that point.
Regardless of how the combination of miles per day would play out, I just knew that I needed to be in a town or place with wifi at 11 AM on the 23rd so that I could be there for the flight attendant trip trading window to trade my flight schedule around for the month of June. Trade day is like a religious holiday for some in the flight attendant world, fully including myself, because my entire next month’s schedule rides on my ability to move around what I can when the two hour window first opens. The entire possibility of me wanting to come back to the trail in June for a few more weeks was depending on my ability to make some trades during this initial timeframe (as does my life every month, and so it goes.)
We woke up that morning of the 22nd knowing that we just had to reach certain points at road crossings (called gaps) where we could make it into a town that night or the next morning somehow. We weren’t in the most ideal location for this, and even with a guidebook it’s sometimes hard to tell how accessible these towns are or how busy (or not) the roads are until we’re standing right there realizing “oh s*** this might not work the way we need it to.”
It was a weird day of hiking. One of those days that alternates between taking in the beauty and feeling tired, between me being able to tell that my hiking partner’s shoulder was hurting and him not complaining and pushing through while I knew full well I was the reason for putting us on this timeline and that he would stick with me regardless of how bad the pain became. Somewhere in the early afternoon, after leaving camp later in the morning as usual because I will forever struggle to be an early morning person, we had hiked somewhere in the vicinity of 9 miles. My plan changed and changed back again several times throughout that morning. “Well, if we get to this gap we can get to this town, but this town might not have this or that, but if we get to this other gap maybe we can get to this town, but then it will be hard to get back to that gap after we’re in town, but if we reach this campsite we can then reach this other place tomorrow morning but then that might be more stressful waiting until the morning to find wifi”…etc.
So we found ourselves at a road after the relative 9 miles, and another hiker we hadn’t met before informed us that he heard a rumor of a church doing a hiker feed that day. There was supposedly a way to get there and there was free food. If that were true, we could probably get where we needed to be to have wifi the next morning from that point. Next thing you know, Sukae was using my phone because I was the only one with service while the hiker who heard the rumor who provided us with a supposed phone number, plus a fourth hiker, stood and listened in on the conversation as someone told Sukae there was a point about a mile past the next shelter where there would be a parking lot where they were shuttling hikers all day to the hiker feed. It would make about a five mile hike from where we were, or we could try to hitch a ride from our current location.
Sometimes it can be better to go with a known ride (or so we thought) rather than trying to hitchhike, and it’s always tempting to me to cover a few more miles on the trail if there’s time. At this point, none of the options felt great. Try to hitch from where we were. Try to get closer to where we needed to go, but it still might not be a better place to hitch. Try to find our way to this rumored hiker feed. We were tired after the morning’s hike that consisted of a fun filled first three miles uphill. Sukae, probably somewhat knowing I generally want to press on, made it clear that if we were going for the supposed five miles, we needed to just get going, and get going we did.
We did our best to speed through the next few miles to get them over with, me silently deciding to challenge myself to keep up with his faster pace and knowing this was one of those moments that he needed to not walk a little slower for me. There was a lot of silence and lot of me huffing and puffing, a lot of fruit snacks out of my hipbelt pocket and then some alone time while he rested his shoulder and I pressed ahead a little slower until he caught up again, where I watched a deer suddenly appear on the trail right in front of me and notice me for a second before moseying off into the trees again.
I found myself skipping water sources that day, knowing they are plentiful on the trail and not feeling that thirsty because I just wanted to move forward. With maybe about 2 miles to go until the supposed parking lot or side trail to it, we ran into some ponies. We were just outside of Grayson Highlands State Park at this point and knew about the semi wild ponies, but I never expected to come up on them right then. It was a complete slow-down oasis in the destination-pressed day. One walked right up to me, started profusely licking my arms and legs and wouldn’t let me walk away when I tried. I’ll pretend that cute horse loved me and that it didn’t just want to feast on the salt off of my skin.
We passed the shelter that was supposedly a mile before the point where we’d get to this parking lot, and the hiker from back at the road that told us about this rumored hiker feed was setting up camp there that night and said he had given up on the idea because what we were told on the phone didn’t seem to make sense. That crushed my spirits just a little inside, as it was a drastic 180 from when he told us about it at the road and then set off excitedly full steam ahead when he heard it was only another five miles. Another mile, and we didn’t come across any place to reach a parking lot. Maybe it was one of those side trails before the shelter? Maybe they meant the next gap in another few miles? We weren’t going to backtrack, we weren’t going to camp at that shelter, so to the next gap, Massie gap, we pressed on.
Massie gap turned out to be a .6 mile walk down a side trail from the AT, and precisely as we were beginning to walk down this .6 mile adventure of joy we encountered a day hiker, walking the same way to his car parked at the gap. After a few minutes of conversation, and my mind dead set on the fact that we needed to now swiftly procure a ride into town, any town, I tried to be sly and asked the man where he was headed tonight. In all my awkwardness that I am I guarantee he knew what I was getting at and I ruined our chances. I still don’t know where he was headed that night, but he did offer us a taste of some maple moonshine and a diet Dr. Pepper which I downed like water despite never drinking diet pop in my normal life, because another truth of the matter at this point is that I was completely out of water due to not taking ample opportunities to get more water earlier because I for whatever reason decided I was superhuman and had a goal of getting somewhere and didn’t need to worry about water that day.
As we were taking sips of the maple moonshine, hiker number four who was gathered around us during the phone call about the hiker feed at the road earlier in the day was sitting there along the parking lot, camp stove out and making his tortellini dinner that smelled like the most glorious thing in the moment, trying to get any sort of cell reception to leave the phone number we had contacted earlier another message. He too didn’t find the supposed pickup point and figured he had to press on and maybe it was at this gap, like us.
In addition to no water, I was lacking in the phone charge department and had 3 percent left. My battery charger was dead. Sukae’s mega charger that gives something like 6 charges that he got for free out of a hiker box back at Fontana Dam was also dead. I’m pretty sure his phone was dead. I barely had one bar of cell service and tried the phone number with the remaining precious battery percentage to no avail. At this point hiker number four finished his dinner and being smart, vanished back towards the direction of the trail when he realized that his best choice was to continue on a few more miles to the next shelter past the Grayson highlands where camping was allowed again.
We might have done the same thing had the situation been different, but I still had trip trading to take care of the next morning and let’s be real, we weren’t excited about the idea of several more miles that would be in the dark at that point. We tried a few hitches with the few cars that came down the road, as it sunk in more to me that we were in the middle of a state park and not right off of a larger road, it was getting too late and our chances were slim. We took turns going down to look at a map of the area that was posted, while I discovered a new delicacy that my cravings haven’t gone away for since.
Stick the spoon in your mouth to wet it a little, dip it in a layer of that fake chicken seasoning goodness, scoop up some of that crushed dry ramen like a spoonful of msg-flavored crackers and it almost tastes as good as the smell of the tortellini hiker number four was making. It was also at that precise moment that I was leaning against the wooden fence in front of the parking spaces, crunching on that dry ramen like it was the best thing I ever ate while pondering my stupidity at having zero water, zero phone battery or service, and no chance of hitching a ride from this point while it was getting dark, with the only other option to walk a few miles in either direction to a place where camping was no longer unauthorized, that I felt genuinely eerily happy, like there was no where else I’d rather be.
Let me back up for a second. There were a lot of places I would have rather been at that moment, like not stuck in that very situation at that parking lot.
But overall, it was just rolling with the punches in its rawest form right there, and I didn’t care at all because it was what it was, and Sukae also knew it was what it was, cool as a cucumber, and I just kept thinking to myself that this is life, right here. And it was all I needed, no qualms about it.
At about that point, someone walked up to their car, one of the last in the lot, and in conversation mentioned to us that not far down the road there was a turn with a sign for a campground that couldn’t have been too far. The rational side of me at this point figured it would be better to go with the known than the unknown, based on following word of mouth and hunches all day to no avail. It really would make sense to pick up and start hiking back to the trail and out of the Grayson Highlands and set up camp in the dark somewhere. But without much thought we for whatever reason felt that the right thing for us after that day was to follow that road to the supposed state park camp ground, presumably one of those paid ones, and figure it out from there.
So we walked. We were talking when Sukae hushed me, and I listened, heard the faint sound of babbling water and my legs were walking in that direction before I even knew I made any conscious decision to do that. There was a creek just there in the trees next to the road where we refilled our water supply, and continued on following those yellow lines while the misty dusk paved our way. It was maybe 15 minutes later or so when John and Joan rolled up in their van. Sukae stuck his thumb out at the sound of an approaching vehicle coming up behind us on the road, and the words “need a ride?” were music to my ears. They opened up the side door full of climbing equipment, maybe a kayak or two, their bed, and their immediate energy spilling with generosity. We rolled up to the campground and without hesitation, Joan told us to set up our tents on their campsite. We took full advantage of the campground outlets and flushable toilets and accepted two beers from John, sitting at the picknick table in the light of their camping lantern listening to snippets of their lives. I can’t speak for Sukae, but I felt wholeheartedly like I was being watched over, and we were indeed exactly where we were supposed to be in that moment of our lives.