a pirates life for me…
AT mile # 31.7
Neels Gap, walayasi inn at mountain crossing
Took a zero today- my first–and it was fantastic on many levels.
For starters, I just had a couple of swigs of genuine all American moonshine out of a snow chilled mason jar from a grizzled bear of a mountain soul who goes by a highly appropriate moniker The Pirate. And he looks the part, too.
First a few words on the place and the man.
Pirate is resident host, cook, purveyor of fine spirits (in all sense of the term), and a landmark himself at the Walayasi Inn hostel at Neels Gap, where the AT runs across the a local highway and straight through the stone archway which connects the hostel to the fully stocked outfitters. Actually, the archway connects the hostel to the wonderfully unpretentious co-ed social and laundry area which then connects to the cavernous outfitter. Yes, this is all wonderfully sporadic and every bit of it has that comfortable and familiar scent of thousand tired souls who go through the motions of cleansing and filling themselves after a grueling initiation to the AT. More on this soon.
Back to Pirate. A burly man, Pirate shuffles around the hostel at his own pace, responds when to queries in idiosyncratic mountain banter, such as, ” that door doesn’t always locks, but it opens”, referring to a capricious bathroom door that barely earns its name. But importantly, Pirate, when he wishes, dishes out hospitality like so many on this trail and also unlike any other. he is a walking trail magic. As we sat down watching one terrible VHS classic after another on a cold and stormy zero day at the hostel, huddled around an old space heater, Pirate walked out with a bowl of dip and a bag of chips, and quipped, to nobody really, that “ah that dang movie was on four times last friday and twice today” –it was a VHS edition of the horror classic /Mikey/. He scuddled back into his kitchen and an hour later, as we tried to focus on the dialogue midst random trail chatter, Pirate switched on the blender at full blast. Moments later he scuddled back in and set out five cups and then a three other cups (there were eight of us) half filled with orange creamsicle shakes, and proclaimed, “if you ain’t watching this movie you don’t get a milkshake” and walked right out again.
All this free of charge of course for Pirate cooks his meals and serves out deliciousness based on donation. If there are enough money in the donation jar comes supper time, Pirate will make you delicious pankcake breakfast and coffee and all kinds of goodness for condiments. Otherwise, you’d be lucky to get a piece of fruit and barely a fare thee well, as it happened to a group that stayed the night before us, or so we heard. he must have loved us. for supper we lined up to what hikers would surely call a bounty of delectable calories: Liberally spiced black bean rice stew, spaghetti with “al-freydeo” sauce–that’s exactly what he called the rich cream sauce–Cesar salad that was made with ranch and no croutons, an assortment of cookies, tarts, dips, 9 kinds of hot sauces and juices and coffee. All for pay-what-you-can donation, I kid you not.
I’m learning that ife is different out on the trail and folks go out of their way to make you feel at home with what little they’ve got. And they are creative, as pirate is with his mismatched meals. On top of that, he served about fifteen of us who were gathered around the common area which connected the kitchen/buffet to the tv room, an ice cold beer each. an hour or so later, when the crowed thinned out he served us his own moonshine—out of a mason jar and cold, cold! Ciel/Sky, K2Summit (who was simply Kristen at this time until I named her later) partook in the festivities with Pirate and I. One sip and my face went flush and hot. It was delicious, slightly fruity and potent. I took another mouthful and was instantly happy, grinning like a two year old who just discovered the chocolate fountain at the grown ups’ party.
I slept well that night; if i was here–where the official drop off rate for the AT is 20% of total hikers. and if I here then i am almost there!
It was a good feeling. I had put in a grueling 18 miles on the trail and two being lost at a goat path in the fog atop Blood Mountain. I was surly and bitter for those two hours spent wandering the mountainside, lost and unsure whither the white blazes ran. dense fog made it difficult to see the blazes, to navigate steep, slick and rocky outcrops of blood mountain. as it happened, at an important turn on the trail the blazes were not prominent in the thick, enveloping mist. I took the wrong turn and went dangerously down a precarious game trail which i mistook for the AT.
Trail Volunteers are amazing people who maintain the AT free of fallen trees, brighten up the white paint on the blazes, and, habitually, add incremental mileages to the overall trail. Truly, I am thankful for their efforts, but that day on Blood Mountain summit, I cursed them soundly with all my tired feet and anxious heart–though i took it back few minutes later. How could they not have a giant white blaze marking turns at such a precarious point? why wasn’t this goatpath so clearly marked? Why would they make the trail go this steep? why is this trail headed toward a gorge and no cables, not even a rickety rope ladder bridge in sight? Then it hit me, that nagging feeling one does his best to ignore as it mercilessly mocks your judgement: maybe I don’t see the white blazes because I am lost.
snow accumulates steadily on blood mountain. i trip and the mountain draws blood.
I wanted to panic but I was too tired and the thought of being stuck on blood mountain, bushwhacking my way back to town was too much. So I did the sensible thing, i retraced my way back along the unmarked game path, graded steeply along the mountain slope, slick and uneven underfoot. Took me an hour just to get back to the blaze and then I was unsure which way turned north. It was foggy,you see, and tiring and it didn’t occur to me to check my compass, although I doubt that at that point the trail was headed due north. So i walked until I realized i was headed south bound when I came up on a familiar spot where I took a picture of my erstwhile hiking companion Blue–whom i met at a shelter earlier, a young college student, chipper and always smiling with one of those utterly trustworthy faces. I had earlier ran into him on the side of the trail retching bile out of sheer exertion (i did the same, earlier that day, at a shelter after doing my first 15+ mile on the trail). Once i figured out that I had to turn the other way something overtook me and I still like to think that this is the prospects of real food and a warm dry bed at Neel’s gap for i hiked from blood mountain to Neel’s gap in a frenzy, in less than two hours, covering the last two miles in less than 45 minutes.
i heard the highway from the bush. i hiked faster. across the street i could scarcely believe my eyes: the stone edifice at mountain crossing. I made it.
the place was teeming with tired hikers, some wet, some in the comforts of shorts and warmth, and section hikers and visitors to the area snapping pictures of us rare folk who would rather put feet to trail than pedal to the metal. It was a welcome sight to be sure and I was happy to get the last of the free pizza, pop and fruit squares one of the church groups had generously brought in for the hikers. I took the last few slices as I was one of the last people to make it out of Blood mountains in that rain. It was 6:30 PM, but might as well have been hiker midnite (which is 9 PM).
The lady at the counter said, no vacancy, kid. we are fully booked up. she offered that i could tent out in the back but i really wanted a shower and sleep inside. prior to this, my longest hiking trip was three days in near perfect conditions. fortunately the hostel did not allow people to stay two nights in a row due to demand. They gave me some free food and told me to check back first thing nine am to take a spot.
I was left with a few options. Do i hike out in the rain, pitch my tent in the storm and come back in the morning, sodden and miserable after that blood mountain fiasco? do i try to push for a shelter and miss out on a legendary mountain crossings in stay? i didn’t know what to do, so I walked out to the laundry area, pondering.
There, I met Blue, officially. Blue and I have been leapfrogging one another on the trail that day and I just happened to be around him when he was vulnerable and procured some tums to ease his nausea. Blue, on seeing me beamed with recognition. he told me that was his fifth can of soda–a trait i will come to know of him as an avid soda drinker when in town or hostel–and mentioned that his grand parents who were planning on seeing him in the next town will be making a quick detour to pick him up soon and he would happily take me to the cabin near by to secure a spot, and if not, at the the next town so that I can get a spot at a motel. I couldn’t believe how swift karma got my back— i wasn’t really aware of trail magic as a concept then.
Sure enough, Blue’s grand parents drove up in their clean car, cheerful and welcoming as ever to pick up a brace of wet, smelly and tired hikers, one of them their grandson and another a complete stranger. I will not forget the moment when Grandma took my hand in hers when i offered it in hesitant greetings and held it for a moment, looked at me and said, “oh you are so cold” and proceeded to warm my hands with her own, cupping my cold right palm with hers!
Trail guardians are welcome sights along the trail and these two were my first.
They took me into Hiawassi, got me checked at the holiday inn express (which was, of course, pricey at $90/ night, but i did not care; it meant a warm bed, hot tub, clean showers and a bath tub, and free hot breakfast buffet in the morning–i ate my fill, at least $30 worth, i kid you not.
Grandpa insisted that he’d like to take blue and i out to a nice steak house but by the time I took my two showers to shed hiker grime and put on relatively respectable town clothes one of the only steak buffets (yes, a steak buffet) was closed and we didn’t feel like Italian or fast food. So we ended up at huddle house, a twenty four hour diner not unlike Ihop. Blue’s Grandfather was full of mirth and tales. He is a historian, writer, retired game warden and all around awesome. A genuine storyteller. his stories held me rapt in attention. He told me of his time in New Newfoundland, Canada, his time as a game warden, how he got trapped in a bear trap.
being with blue’s family in such an unexpected way after a triumphant though miserable day on the trail so early in my hike was a blessing. I felt so much at home and so reassured that this is where I wanted to be, on the AT, hiking my hike and encountering such folk as fine as Blue, his grandparents, pirate.
I slept luxuriously in a large bed, ate a very hardy breakfast of eggs, biscuits, bacon, granola, pancakes, yogurt, fruit, jam, toast and tea not in that order and certainly not just once. I ate with Blue’s grandfather who offered to take me back into town to the hostel. Blue joined me for the ride–he was going to take a zero with his folks while I went to the hostel take mine, where I’d meet Pirate and his legendary hospitality.
I just finished a chat with Sky; she is hiking for a month due to a grant received from work. She works with children. she is intelligent and made for this trail. She will be hiking to Davenport Gap just outside of the Smokies then return to her life. She is originally from Indiana and had done some work for the Peace Corps in Macedonia. She was my moonshine partner.
It has been a wonderful initiation for the AT. I am thoroughly grateful. i appreciate, in retrospect, all aspects of that grueling 18 mile trek, even getting lost bit on Blood Mountain. it dawned on me that that is the longest continuous trek I’ve ever done in a single day— if you count only the distance. I was proud. Most average 10-12 mile days in the first few weeks. when it came to a pinch I had nearly pushed closed to the revered 20 mile/day. this was taxing and liberating.
The bunk house is sonorous. One gets to know his trail companions not just by sight but through scents and sounds, too. It’s peaceful here, despite the raucous night sounds. I think ill add my own to this sleepy symphony.