The varied community of thru-hikers
“There’s a bear right behind you.” Ten feet behind me, my hiking buddy’s voice was as calm as if he had asked me to pass him the butter. Looking around, I saw a young black bear nonchalantly leaping over a tree log lying along the trail and then quickly disappearing in the woods. “That’s a first,” my hiking buddy said shaking his head, “I never saw a bear busting smack between two hikers.”
Thus began our trek to an interesting overnighter at the Gravel Springs shelter in the northern district of the Shenandoah National Park. We were pushing hard uphill on the little known Bluff Trail hoping to reach the hut to offload our heavy backpacks and pitch our tents before it got late.
Spending the night at the Gravel Springs shelter has many advantages. There is abundant water from a fast-flowing spring gushing from a stone-lined sluiceway, a very large fire pit, and depending on the time of the year, many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who stop for the night and exchange their stories of their experiences hiking nearly 1000 miles from their start at Springer Mountain in Georgia.
A graduation present from Florida
The first hiker showing up that night was a tall gentleman whose gait said it loud and clear: “This is a tough slog and I am hurting!” He was accompanied by a young lady who was in good spirits. They established camp by hanging their hammocks and refreshing themselves at the spring before joining us for snacks and some libation. We soon learned that they hailed from Florida, a father and daughter team on a three-week hike on the AT in the Shenandoah National Park. It was the father’s graduation present to his daughter who had just finished high school and had a lifelong dream of experiencing the wilderness.
No matter how great a physical condition you’re in, trail hiking is different, especially with a heavy pack on your back. After three days of going uphill and downhill over roots and rocks for about ten hours every day, legs that scream and cramp at night are quite frequent, especially for the older folks. Inspired by this unusual graduation present, we decided to be Trail Angels and shared our stash of magnesium-calcium-potassium electrolyte tablets with them, encouraging the father to take them every evening and pop lots of electrolytes during the day.
A section hiker from Tennessee
The next arrival was a section hiker, a person who breaks the 2,200 mile long trek into several shorter sections and usually finishes the full trail over a period of several years. She was a bubbly kindergarten teacher from Tennessee in her third year of section hiking, and we enjoyed listening to her many bear encounters, one of which recounted how she was held up by a bear which did not yield the trail. She had to wait at a safe distance until a couple of other hikers came along, at which time the bear trotted off into the bushes.
A SOBO from Germany
Our next hiker to roll in was a SOBO, a hiker going southbound from Mount Katahdin in Maine to the southern terminus of the AT in Georgia. He had clocked in at 28 miles for the day, and eagerly took his boots off and massaged his feet before claiming a place in the hut by putting his sleeping mat down.
He was a talkative German fellow from Frankfurt who had watched a movie about the Appalachian Trail several years ago. “I was taken by the staggering beauty of the trail and fascinated by the community of thru-hikers,” he said. “This movie motivated me to hike the AT because I want to fill my life with extraordinary experiences, and when I heard about Trail Angels I surely wanted to meet some just in case I wouldn’t make it into heaven,” he laughed. “In Germany we lack America’s natural beauty. The wilderness in this country is an incomparable national treasure yet it’s so accessible with the world’s best maintained trail systems. When I think about this long trail of several thousand kilometers, maintained by volunteers only, with lean-to shelters about every fifteen kilometers and white blazes for guidance every hundred meters, I feel very privileged to be on the Appalachian Trail and grateful to all the volunteers and communities who make this experience available to thousands of hikers every year.”
Listening to this heartfelt testament from a thru-hiker we realized how blessed we really are, but oftentimes we too quickly take it all for granted.
A NOBO flip-flopper
When a NOBO, or northbound hiker, leisurely walked into camp we soon learned that he was lagging about six weeks behind the last AT bubble of hikers and would no longer be able to reach Mount Katahdin in time before the snow and ice would close the trail. His plan was to flip-flop the trail: when he arrives at the AT’s informal halfway point at Harpers Ferry, WV, his fiancé will pick him up bring him to Mount Katahdin in Maine and from there he will hike southbound for the rest of the trail, finishing back in Harpers Ferry. Flip-flop thru-hiking is becoming more common as it sets thru-hikers up for a higher success rate in completing the trail because the hiking season is lengthened.
Dinner time brings more overnighters
With the lighting of the gas stoves, dinners were prepared accompanied by a lively exchange of the best trail recipes and the trading of some foods and condiments. As the smell of mouthwatering dishes rose up, a busy silence followed as hikers replaced thousands of calories expended on the trail.
During dinner, a hiker from Luxembourg who was attracted to the AT by Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods strode into camp and was greeted by the German who had shared the trail with him for a couple of hours. They conversed in German while the new arrival sat down, ate dinner, and then pitched his tent and crawled in for the night.
Next, a young couple from Estonia rushed into camp, nodded hello to everybody, dropped their packs and went to the spring to fill their water bottles. They were in a hurry as they had three hours left to hike that day. They said that they had hiked the TA and heard a lot of praise for the AT. This was obviously not their first rodeo — the TA is New Zealand’s long trail of 3000 kilometers called Te Araroa.
And finally we all were joined for dinner by a hiker family from St. Louis, MO. Two girls of 7 and 11 years of age and their mother were accompanying their dad for a couple of weeks on his thru-hike. The setting up of tents and preparation for dinner was like clockwork. The girls had all their chores assigned and accomplished them all with smiles. They were gladly answering our curious questions and shared their day’s experiences on the ten-mile hike. They talked about rain dropping into their tents, meeting relatives at the trailheads with cold drinks and sandwiches, and being lucky not to have gotten any blisters yet.
Talking to these young children was just as impressive as learning the stories of hikers from all over the world and how they were attracted to the AT. It was a highly inspiring night, and as I reflected on this by the campfire, I felt bonded to all there as I realized our commonality was a deep love for Nature and for spending time to explore it.