I was recently reflecting on my first days on the trail. Yeah, I’ve only been traveling for about three weeks and am already feeling nostalgic. And, whoa, only three weeks on the trail?! It feels like so much longer.
It occurred to me that the four friends I’ve been hiking with – Zen, Lentil, Peanut, and Techie – and I met each other within my first three days of hiking. There was the warm up period where I was keenly aware of my insecurities. “I like these people. I wonder if they like me. I wonder if they’ll be interested in sticking together.”
Then, those feelings faded to the background as we began to plan our daily destinations together. Sure, I forced myself to acknowledge that these relationships and patterns are fluid, but I also let myself relax and enjoy the company and to imagine that our group wouldn’t change.
Then, several days ago, on a twelve mile hike, we all made our way to the Nantahala Outdoor Center to stay in bunkhouses.
When I arrived, I joined about a dozen other hikers by the river, resting my feet and catching up. Zen, Lentil, and I joined Techie (who had been a day ahead of us), showering and then going out to dinner.
For the record, this was my first burger of the trail, and it was glorious (glorious, I tell you!).
Yet, despite the two hours of hustle and bustle, Peanut had yet to arrive. I called her, and she was less than a mile away. When she finally hobbled into the restaurant, it was clear that she was in a lot of pain, having fallen on the muddy terrain and injured her knee.
After staying the night in the NOC bunkhouse, the four of us unencumbered by injuries said goodbye to Peanut, who promised to rest up and meet us at the Fontana Lodge in 27 miles. This was the first time in a while that it crossed my mind that our group of five might break up. Yeah, Techie had gone ahead and slinked back already, but an injury was a different story.
That first day out was an absolute slog. We had planned to do at least 13 miles, but after 6.5 miles uphill in clammy, foggy weather and deteriorating conditions, the four of us decided to set up camp at Locust Cove Gap after 10 miles. I found myself more than once grateful – and subsequently feeling guilty for the thought – that Peanut hadn’t joined us. She would have been miserable and physically vulnerable.
When we settled in for the evening, we fell asleep to increasing wind and a rainy patter on the tent’s fly. By the next morning, we were greeted by a fresh white blanket of snow and promise of more headed our way.
I don’t know about you, but when faced with a snowy day and a frozen water filter, I think to myself, “Hey, why don’t I go for a 17 mile hike?” And, lucky me, all my friends were on board for a day of fun snow hiking too.
I was the first one to break camp and start hiking, mostly because I was turning into a Jor-cicle and moving helped. Within 10 minutes Lentil caught up when I made the strategic decision to lean against a tree and cry from the pain in my hands for a second. I pulled it together before he walked up – or I want to think so – but he did say I wasn’t looking particularly happy.
After hiking for about five miles without fresh water, we came across a blue blaze sign for a shelter. The two of us made the decision to continue on, feeling we didn’t want to hike off trail and assuming we’d come across a water source imminently.
Within a mile or two more, we both became actively thirsty. I finally succumbed and sipped unfiltered water from my bottle, crossing my fingers that no bacteria were lurking. Even so, I remained parched. When Lentil began eating fresh snow and icicles, I perked up at the thought. The snow wasn’t for me, but the icicles were cool and refreshing.
Techie caught up with us a couple miles later, and the three of us continued on in earnest. Every so often Lentil, who led our small pack, stopped to follow the sound of a trickle, which inevitably fell short of a legitimate spring.
Around ten miles in, Lentil rounded a bend and excitedly yelled, “Water!” We all stopped, filled our bottles, and drank without reserve. We then hiked another mile to a shelter and stopped for the first time all day. It was 3pm.
While we ate lunch, Zen caught up. The four of us then hiked the last six miles to the road crossing where we called for the Fontana Lodge shuttle.
We arrived at the lodge at about 7pm, and Peanut was there to greet us. Having spent less than two days apart, it felt both like a minute and an eternity. We were dirty and exhausted, but we were also excited and relieved. At least I know I was.
And maybe Peanut’s experience over the previous two days had been different, but we were all back together again as a group of five.
The following day we lounged about the lodge, warming ourselves by the fire as the snow came down. With a storm in the Smokies, the lodge was littered with wayward hikers biding our time.
Lots of time for relaxing. Lots of time for thinking.
Once again, my mind wanders back to the bonds among my fellow hikers. With the hoards at the lodge, it was a veritable reunion of those I’ve met over the past few weeks. So, as much as I will still wonder if my friends and I will continue to hike together or part ways, this gave me time to realize that this experience is anything except what I expected. And, as a friendly reminder, I need to just chill out and enjoy it.