Sure, this endeavor is physical. That’s the part we answer the most questions about. The mileage, the temperatures, the states, the stress injuries, the animal encounters…measurable details which most hikers were already reciting, on constant reel, in their heads anyway. Therefore, we can answer those questions readily. Now, I finally have the space and the time to really sit with my thoughts and I find words difficult. I hope to honor the immeasurable.
I was walking along, minding my business, which happened to be hunger. It’s here. I was thinking about 10 years ago, as a hiker on the AT, and the kind of things I thought were delicious. I almost don’t want to admit it, but I was thinking about junk food. The kind that really didn’t appetize me at all a month ago, cherry pie, to be precise. You know the ones that come in a little paper box, 390 calories and acquired, generally, at a dollar store or gas station. “I could really go for one of those right about now” I said out loud. Then laughed at myself. “Welcome back, Kiddo.” Fair enough, I was on a hearty itinerary that day. 34 miles through the Roan Highlands. I knew I was somewhere in the teens and approaching lunchtime, which meant over 20 miles to go and the climb was just after this next road crossing. Well, one of the climbs, at least.
I caught sight of the road, and was debating whether I should hold out for lunch on top or stop to fuel up for the climb, when I noticed the white van waiting at the bottom. It had an AT license plate and some hiker friendly symbols on it’s side doors. I tried to cool my passions. As a vegan, I find I do a lot better if I accept that I’m un-feed-able (in life and on the trail) and then if there happens to be something I can eat, it’s a pleasant surprise. A man popped out of the driver door. “Hello. Got some trail magic for you.” He made his way to the back where I had just arrived. He swung open the back doors to reveal a hiker’s lounge. He had removed his back rows of seating and replaced them with a sideways futon. On the floor near the boot, where a cooler and a plastic bin full of snacks. And guess what…..cherry pie! “I have plant-based jerky left over from trail days, if you would like some. There’s cold beverages, just give it a good pull to get it open.”
I had to pinch myself before I could respond. “Wow,” came out weakly, “thank you. I’m a vegan, actually.”
“Well, there you go. Take as much as you want. And take a load off.” He patted the floor of the van. I obeyed, pack off, butt down. Then reached for an orange soda and that cherry pie, which was lovely, and vegan. This man was all kinds of magic, a trail legend, named Robert Bird. Known for his generosity far and wide. He had a hostel in Massachusetts for years, called the Birdcage. Where he charged every hiker no dollars and declared that he feels moved to pay it forward and hopes we continue the gesture. He’s also fostered 6 teenage boys in his lifetime. People like this give me more than hope, they give me peace and gratitude. Here is a link to a documentary about this amazing human. https://thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/watch-trail-angel-documentary-one-wing-fire/
“When you get to The Station, ask if there are any hiker-donation rooms available. Dave wouldn’t advertise it, but there are a lot of rooms already paid for by generous strangers. You just have to ask.” He smiled. He didn’t treat me like I was crazy or stupid to think I would make it there tonight, even though we were 21 trail-miles from it. He was right, too. When I arrived at 8pm, after a glorious walk through some vast highlands that reminded me of certain tunes about certain hills being alive, some nice people I will never know the names of bought me my stay. I wrote and played the guitar and ate fries, thinking about humanity.
The next day was the whole reason I was making crazy miles, Bob Peoples. One of my biggest regrets from my 2011 hike was not making time to meet this man. He has a bust in the AT Hall of Fame for his dedication to helping hikers. He has put in thousands of hours doing trail maintenance and leading groups of volunteer trail crew. His hostel, Kincora, is tucked into the woods, all but swallowed by plants and animals, and feels like home. He only charges 5 dollars, and you get whatever space is available. I got a hut out back. He drives hikers down the switchback mountain road to the grocery store every evening and insists on doing your laundry. The most special thing about Bob, is that he'll make you laugh. He sits with you on his patio like you're as family to him as anyone ever was.
As if that wouldn’t have been enough, a man I was told to look out for as trail royalty was there at Bob’s hostel, Nimblewill Nomad. Going for a record to be the oldest man, at age 82, to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Or maybe not even, I’m not sure how much the record means to him, he simply keeps walking. He speaks with tears in his eyes about the blessed life he’s lived and recalls funny moments with Bob over the decades. He’s quick-witted and kind. Making his acquaintance was both inspiring and comforting. You can see his hiking bio on his website, which is nimblewillnomad.com. I would list some of them, but it will hurt my wrists. He has more miles than anyone I’ve heard of.
There’s so much love out here on the Appalachian Trail. I’m in Damascus, VA for my 7th zero day. Last time I hiked this trial, I took 9 days off for the whole summer. Now, it’s been a month, and I’m already at 7. I’m glad. Also, I’ve gained a pound. That feels like winning. But none of that matters. What matters is that we’re all here, being together, while we’ve got the chance. Long May We Walk!