***I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their well wishes on my birthday and on the start of my trek. I read every single comment and am truly touched by the flood of support. For those of you whose comments require follow up, I’ve tried to respond. I didn’t realize how much of a challenge it might be to stay up to date but will continue to do my best. Thank you for understanding.***
The day of my 30th birthday I woke up to a forecast of 60 degrees and sunny. Since I’m such a gullible person, I believed it. Luckily, it was wrong.
My friends Peanut and Zen and I began our hike out of Neels Gap with the wind whipping our faces and the fog rolling in. I quickly layered up as we all ascended.
Aren’t I just fashionable in my rain gear and balaclava? It’s a good thing, too, because fashion is always my highest priority. Actually, truth be told several women I’ve come across have refused to take off their hats for fear of what their hair will look like. I got over that worry on day 2…except if someone’s taking a picture, in which case I need prep time.
Anyway, as we ascended the mountain north of Neels Gap, I started to notice a heavy frosting on the trees but realized it was not precipitating (neither snow nor sleet). I pointed it out to the others, and Zen – who was an engineer and science teacher in his pre-AT life – said it was freezing fog and proceeded to explain how it forms.
It was funny because it wasn’t even that cold outside, but with the whipping wind and fog, it felt frigid. After I took about six breaks in 30 minutes…to swap gloves to mittens, take pictures, mittens back to gloves, eat beef jerky, and back to mittens, Zen mumbled something about me being such a woman and hiked on, leaving Peanut and me to hike and chat and laugh…and be women the rest of the hike up to Cowrock Mountain.
As we continued our way up the mountain, I started noticing an occasional plink, plink, plink from the trees lining the trail. The wind blustered through the laden branches and began fissuring the frosty coating, which broke off in chunks and littered the ground.
For the most part I had a dopey grin on my face as the trees shed their cold blankets. Every once in a while, I’d get pegged in the face with a shard. All I could do was laugh and sing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” And don’t think I was humming it, no. I was belting it at the top of my tone deaf lungs.
When Peanut and I finally reached the summit of Cowrock Mountain, the sun was out and air warming. From our precipice, we espied a nearby mountain, which was majestically covered with the same freezing fog we’d just hiked through.
I was completely in awe. I’ve never experienced such a crazy weather pattern in my life. I was left speechless and grateful, as I’ve found myself no less than a half dozen times a day.
After chatting with a local trail runner, who offered to bring us anything we might need (ie fuel canister) to Unicoi Gap the following day or two, Peanut and I continued on for another half hour to Tesnatee Gap. Upon arrival, we were greeted by King Tut and Jim, who were generous enough to surprise us with trail magic.
Trail magic is when someone offers assistance (usually in the form of food) to thru-hikers. Those who provide trail magic are called trail angels. Motivating forces vary (from previous thru-hikers to religious affiliations…and others), but – I can assure you – it is always a wonderful and much appreciated surprise.
King Tut (who is a minister at a local church) and Jim came bearing candy bars, bags of chips, sodas, and potable water. I had planned to make myself oatmeal for lunch but, upon experiencing the wind tunnel in the gap and perusing all the offerings, announced that my birthday lunch would be two bags of Fritos and a can of grape soda, which I haven’t drunk in 20 years. But ya know what? It was my birthday, and I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. And I’m a grownup, so I can eat what I want. Oh, and let’s not forget the Snickers Almonds bar I pocketed for later.
A few minutes behind me Peanut came slowly down the mountain. She’d strained a muscle around her heel and was hobbling painfully. The real magic is that King Tut and Jim had a fresh Ace bandage and ice. After wrapping Peanut’s ankle, King Tut generously offered to drive her a mile up the trail to avoid an extremely steep section and spare her ankle. If they weren’t there, the ascent could have seriously waylaid Peanut’s progress, not to mention the health of her ankle.
I continued on and caught up to Peanut a couple miles later. I hiked with her for a couple more miles before she urged me to go on; she didn’t want to slow me down. I promised to come find her if she didn’t show up within an hour of my arrival, and then I pressed on to Low Gap Shelter.
I arrived at 5pm, greeted by Techie and Lentil, who had arrived earlier, and Peanut followed a half hour later. After setting up tent, we went down to the crowded shelter to make dinner and celebrate Zen and my birthdays (he turned 28 the same day!).
I had carted half a bag of marshmallows from Neels Gap and instantly made friends among my fellow thru-hikers around the campfire. Then Peanut brought out several cupcake-shaped fudge pieces, and Zen and I blew out a lighter in honor of the joyous occasion. We all then shared a small box of red wine, which the man who runs Mountain Crossings Outfitter in Neels Gap gifted to me when he heard it was my birthday.
Wonderful. Wonderful. Wonderful.
It’s not every day that you turn 30 in the middle of the woods among friends that were complete strangers not a week before. Yep, here’s another one of those many moments where I find myself speechless and grateful.