A few days ago, before the local cell phone tower went down and plunged my work-life (at a wireless service provider’s store) into chaos, I wrote about why I missed 20.7 miles of the Appalachian Trail during my thru-hike in 2012. This past Sunday and Monday, I returned to North Carolina to hike those miles I’d skipped.
Being the early bird that I am, I was too tired after my shift ended on Saturday evening to drive all the way to the trail. Instead, I pulled up to a trailhead in southern Kentucky, where I slept in the back of my wagon. (My first car was a tiny two-door convertible. My 1992 Honda wagon makes a much better mobile home.) The sun hadn’t broken the darkness the next morning before I was up and driving south again.
I pulled up to the parking lot at Winding Stair Gap near Franklin, NC, around noon. As I needed to get to Deep Gap, I gathered my belongings, stood next to the road, and stuck out my thumb. Almost immediately, I was picked up by an Episcopalian minister in a muffler-less truck. He’d only been planning to drive one mile up the road, but he offered to take me all the way to the intersection of US 64 and USFS 71, the 6.2-mile, uninhabited gravel road leading to the Deep Gap trailhead. Along the way, he told me about a 60-year-old female southbound thru-hiker who attended church service that morning with her section-hiking friend.
I took stock of my utter contentment as I got out of the minister’s pickup and began walking down USFS 71. While the temperature was only hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the sunlight shone on the corridor of the road, making the day feel pleasant. All around me, yellow birches and rhododendrons stood magnificently, and a roadside stream quietly gurgled. It was picturesque, and I was completely satisfied to be in the woods once more.
After I’d walked maybe 3.5 miles down the road, a Toyota came rumbling up behind me, the first car I’d seen heading toward the trailhead. I smiled wryly and stuck out my thumb, and I was soon riding toward Deep Gap with a middle-aged man and his chocolate lab, Jenny. Jenny got the front seat.
As we pulled into Deep Gap, I felt as though I was transported back in time to the spring of 2012. The parking area and the trashcans in it were smaller than I’d remembered them, but all of the thoughts I’d had and emotions I’d felt when I’d arrived at the gap after my night at Muskrat Creek Shelter came rushing back to me.
I thanked my ride and hit the trail, taking far too many pictures in the first several miles of my hike, as I marveled at the beauty around me and the well-constructed (and so very not-New-England-style) trail. Before I knew it, I’d climbed to the top of Standing Indian Mountain, where I enjoyed feeling the sun on my face in a grassy clearing that offered views to the distant mountains and undulating valleys below. It was undisturbed, unadulterated, quiet, and perfect. I walked on.
That night, after gathering water from a cold little stream, I made camp in a rhododendron glen at 4200 feet, one of the lowest elevations I would descend to during my hike. I was sheltered from the wind, but the night was still frigidly cold — and exceptionally long, given that the solstice is fast approaching. But, I think I’m tougher than I was at the start of my thru-hike, and I didn’t have a problem toughing it out until morning.
That morning, my solitary hike became social, as I met southbounder after southbounder. I think I might have freaked out a certain pair of older hikers when I mentioned the Episcopal church they’d attended the day before. And, then, I surprised myself when I stepped aside to let a southbounder pass and then realized that the hiker I was looking at was the man who’d taken my picture atop Katahdin in August. The trail is long, but it is very narrow.
Albert Mountain is the most dramatic climb in the early section of the trail, and it is infamous among thru-hikers, so infamous that several hikers got off trail in 2o12 because they’d been intimidated by the thought of climbing it. Spending so much time hiking in the White Mountains seems to have warped my perception, since it seemed to me that I was atop the foggy summit with little effort. I kissed the golden USGS marker on the high point, thrilled to see finally see it after 2.5 years. It was too cold and windy to linger at the summit for very long.
Leaving Albert, the walking was incredibly easy, and time passed too quickly. With less than one mile to go, the trail rounded a bend and I suddenly found myself in the wide-open, understory-less, leaf-strewn valleys that I picture when I think of North Carolina. Thinking about all that the trail has meant to me over the last few years and about how much I’ve changed and grown since the first time I saw the sort of valley I was walking in, I found my eyes blurring and a knot forming in my throat. And then I quickly recovered, as I saw a horde of south bounders walking toward me. Amazed to see a northbounding hiker, they stopped to ask my itinerary; our conversation ended with congratulations all around. It was in this happy head space that I arrived in Rock Gap and saw the sign I’d seen two years ago when I got back on trail.
I reached into my pack and brought out an Appalachian Trail pendant I’d been waiting to give myself once I’d really completed the trail. Finally, I had done it. I had walked past every white blaze between Georgia and Maine.
On the long drive home, I began earnestly planning my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.