“I had come to realize that this whole place and experience is what you make of it. Your attitude and frame of mind determined everything. It wasn’t hard to see how this undertaking could be the worst or best experience of a person’s life.” – Kyle S. Rohrig, Lost on the Appalachian Trail
The cold, windy and rainy night carried over into a cold, windy, and rainy morning. I didn’t sleep well because one of my shelter mates (whose trail name I won’t mention but it sounds like one of the seven dwarfs) snored loudly and non-stop from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m. It sounded like a freight train had gotten off track and was loose in his nostrils. Had he been next to me, I would have shoved a hiking sock down his esophagus. Of course, I would have used one of Deadwood’s socks in order to maintain my innocence. Deadwood would gladly take the fall for his beloved Ironman.
We hiked about 6 miles in the nasty weather and sought refuge at the Silers Bald Shelter. It was so cold that Stitch decided to build a very rare, midday fire inside the shelter. As we huddled around the fire, we checked the weather radar. A line of heavy thunderstorms was closing in…perhaps about 30 minutes out. Decision time: stay at Silers Bald by the fire and call it a day…or make a run for Double Spring Gap Shelter, just 1.7 miles away? I took one more glance at the radar and said, “I’m going for it!” I then took off hiking/running as fast as I could, with a few others behind me. We got to the shelter just as the thunderstorm hit. We were cold, tired and a little bummed over the wimpy 7.4 mile day. We were also very thankful to have dodged a massive thunderstorm.
We awoke to yet another very cold, rainy/foggy day. I heard a few grumblings that folks were already sick of the Smokies and just wanted to get through them. That was a shame because the Smokies are a beautiful, magical place. It’s just hard to appreciate that when your hands and face hurt and visibility is only 30 feet.
Elle, the late 20-something engineer who is part princess, part trail diva, and self-described “adorable,” was one of the first out of the shoot, and I was a few minutes behind her. Despite the crappie weather, I was looking forward to climbing Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT.
Towards the end of a long ascent, in the vicinity of Mount Buckley, I spotted something in the woods out of the corner of my eye. It stood out because it was Aqua colored and only about 15 feet off the trail. As I got closer, I realized (to my horror) what it was. It was Princess Elle, embracing a thin tree, assuming the 90 degree position, and taking a dump! Yikes! Gracious sakes alive! Katy bar the door! I looked away, following the lead of a nearby squirrel, and hiked on. But the scene kept running through my mind, haunting me. First of all, I didn’t even know princesses pooped. (Cinderella? No. Snow White? Absolutely not. Ariel, Princess Jasmine, and Sleeping Beauty? No, no, and no. Peach? Technically no, she only drops bananas from her Kart to slow down Bowser. Middleton? Unlikely, she’s not the Duke of Earl. Fiona? Okay, I’ll give you that one but she’s an ogre.) And why so close to the trail, Elle…behind a small pooplar tree? Some things defy explanation.
As I neared Clingmans Dome, there was a fork in the trail and I mis-read the poorly worded and positioned sign…and entirely missed the single white blaze down low and off to the left on a rock. Turns out half the hikers in our group would do the same and wrongly veer right, adding an unnecessary quarter mile round trip to the parking lot. We all agreed this fork could use one of those warning double blazes common elsewhere on the trail. Clingmans Dome is always impressive, but I’m glad I’d been there before on a day that wasn’t cold and rainy with poor visibility. I walked around the top with BooknBoot and a friend who met her there. Eventually Princess Elle arrived, smiling, as if a heavy load had been lifted. As she talked on the phone with her dad, I interrupted and called her out for what she had done to that poor tree. She’ll be getting the bill for my eventual therapy.
With the ice having been broken in a most unfortunate way between Sir Fob and Princess Elle, we decided to hike together for the next few hours. I learned that Elle would be meeting her boyfriend at Newfound Gap in order to spend some time together in Gatlinburg. We brainstormed some April Fools jokes we could play on him, like having me arrive first to tell him she had met another guy and decided to stay at the last shelter. As the day wore on, Elle sensed that my 50-year-old body was starting to tire. So she began singing a series of Jack Black songs to motivate me. I wasn’t familiar with any of them but appreciated her efforts. At the Road Prong Trail parking lot, we stopped with Master Wayne to rest and dry out our socks on a grassy slope.
We eventually arrived at the popular, touristy Newfound Gap, a mountain pass dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. After so many days of solitude in the wilderness, it was odd seeing so many cars and people there. One person not there was Elle’s boyfriend, but I defended him and assured her that he was probably in town making preparations.
I have read many, many books by AT thru-hikers and several of them talk about the “rock star” treatment that aspiring thru-hikers get at points along the trail. I hadn’t experienced any of that until Newfound Gap. As we organized our backpacks, dumped our trash, and ate a snack, several families and individuals approached us like you might approach a wild, smelly emu. “That’s a thru-hiker, dear,” whispered one mother to her young daughter, as she held on to her to keep her from getting too close. “Aspiring thru-hiker,” I clarified. “You don’t earn the thru-hiker title until the final summit in Maine.” From a variety of young and older folks, we got the usual questions about where we began, how far we had gone, and whether we had seen any bears. I so wanted to answer, “No, but I saw a princess poop in the woods this morning.” I showed restraint, not wanting to cause confusion for the young tourists and aspiring princesses listening and staring.
Honestly, after hiking 207 miles, recently in the cold and rain, I appreciated the rock star treatment, even though I’m just a smelly hiker. It brought back memories of the last time I had felt that way. I was on a plane full of troops on our way to Afghanistan. We stopped to refuel at 1 a.m. at Bangor (Maine) International Airport. As we exited the plane and walked down the ramp for a 2-hour break, we saw rows of people lined up on both sides, 25 to 30 of them…clapping, shaking our hands, and patting us on the back. It was 1 a.m., most of them were elderly, and we hadn’t even stepped foot into a combat zone. They handed us cell phones to use and had snacks and drinks set out for us. I felt like a rock star, even though I hadn’t done anything yet. And I felt so very honored to be among these troops, some of whom had been on multiple deployments…perhaps a few of whom would be called on to give their last full measure of devotion on this deployment. I truly appreciated the kindness and appreciation of fellow Americans that night (you can read more about them at http://www.flybangor.com/troop-greeters )
And I appreciated the kindness and interest shown on my hike by those at Newfound Gap. Memo to self: Do as much as you can, as often as you can, to make those around you feel like rock stars.
I said farewell to Princess Elle whose boyfriend would arrive just after I left. I hiked uphill a few more miles and settled in at Icewater Spring Shelter along with the rest of the Great Smoky Mountains Bubble. It had been another cold, rainy 13.4 mile day…and yet a wonderful day. As thru-hiker and author Kyle Rohrig once wrote, “Your attitude and frame of mine determined everything.”
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