Solitude, Community, and Trail Legs

This week brought lots of sunny days and some intense hiking. After the snowstorm last Saturday we hiked down into the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where it was about 70 degrees. We spent most of our Easter Sunday drinking beer and lounging by the river, giving thanks for the warmth. In the few days after that I hit some pretty intense climbs, which I actually handled pretty well. I’ve started putting on more miles daily, and I’m now averaging at least 15 per day. Two days after Nantahala I got to Fontana Dam, which is a weird little resort town based around a massive lake. There I stayed at the “Fontana Hilton”, which is a famous hiker shelter that has showers and running water. Past Fontana I entered the Smokies, which have a lot more regulations for hikers but are also beautiful. They’re full of wildflowers, which I haven’t seen too many of yet. Right now I’m resupplying in Gatlinburg, almost the midway point of the Smokies section.

As of right now I’ve covered about 200 miles. That means there’s less than 2,000 left! Once we hit 100, it felt like the miles started going by much easier. When it comes down to it, foot travel is actually not as slow as you might think. It feels like every few days we make it to a new town, a new place that’s pretty far from where we were before. We usually do anywhere from 12 to 20 miles in a day, which is farther than many people go each day even with cars. I’ve really been loving getting to see things at this pace, especially different parts of the mountains and the different towns we come through. Walking may not be the fastest way to get from place to place, but it does get you there and it lets you really experience everything in between.

Of course, I was been a big fan of traveling by foot for a while before this. For the past few years I’ve lived within a few miles of work, and I always chose to walk instead of taking the MTA. This not only saved me $125 every month, it also ensured that I was on time every single day. That’s one of the things I loved about walking, especially in a city – no amount of traffic could mess with your commute. It also made sure that I got some extra time to myself in the morning when I could just listen to music and prepare for the day. Those walks also helped me exercise daily and get in shape for the AT.

Walking is also one of the few times that I get solitude on the trail. Usually every shelter or campsite has a good number of people, so you’re very rarely alone. It’s possible to occasionally camp by yourself, but I haven’t actually pulled that off yet – and I’m not entirely sure I want to. I’ve also been hiking loosely with a group of people, which has been nice in a lot of ways. The companionship is reassuring, and it makes planning logistics easier. At the same time, having people that I like around every night does cut down on my alone time even more. Because of this, there’s also actually very little privacy on the trail. No matter where you are, chances are that either people are around you or someone will come along any minute. The number of people is reassuring because everyone looks out for each other, but I do often wish I got a little more time to myself.

Accommodations for a crowded night in the shelter

Despite the lack of solitude, I’ve actually been really enjoying getting to know people on the trail. Before I started I was really concerned that everyone was going to be irritating, but I’ve met some gems out here. There are, of course, people I’m not the biggest fan of but they tend to be easy to avoid. Everyone out here has their own story and unique character, and it’s a pleasure getting to meet so many of them every day.

Tink and Doc relaxing in our hotel room in Gatlinburg

When asked about people on the trail, a friend recently described it as a “vertically mobile community”, which I think is pretty accurate. Although everyone does somewhat different mileages, we still wind up in somewhat of a bubble where people all know each other. That makes it easier for us to look out for each other. One of the most exciting parts of my day is often walking into a shelter or campsite and seeing people there that I really like and didn’t expect to run into. That happens all along the trail, providing myriad opportunities for connection.

  • This week definitely made me feel like I got my footing a lot more as a hiker. At this point I’ve been out here for almost three weeks, and the trail is starting to feel like home. Routines and relationships are starting to solidify. My legs are feeling good, albeit a little sore. It’s setting in that I’ll really be doing this for five more months, and I’m alright with that.
  • Here’s some of my best pictures from this week:
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