“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, and vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” – Samuel Ullman
I awoke, packed up, and began the 7.8 mile descent into Hot Springs. Or should I say, Hot Springs!!! A couple of miles out, I passed a rare Privy Tree that I named Deuce McLarty. They really should plant these about every 10 miles along the AT for hikers on the go.
I arrived at the Hostel at Laughing Heart Lodge just after noon. Tie, the amazing caretaker, welcomed me and gave me a tour of the place. There is a nice lodge, perfect for romantic getaways…along with a hostel, perfect for hikers who just need a shower, bed, hot coffee, and some food. The first order of business was to get my mail. My wife, Lil Jan and sister, Ellen, had both sent me care packages! Among other things, I was blessed with homemade cookies with Hershey kisses on them (thanks, El!), beef jerky, gummy bears, cards, and notes. After reading Lil Jan’s encouraging card, I kept hoping Survivor’s Jeff Probst would pop his head in and tell me I had a special visit from a loved one. That didn’t happen…but will soon.
After showering, I walked a half mile to take care of the usual trail town business…doing laundry at the Wash Tub and resupplying food at Bluff Mountain Outfitter. Several hikers, including Stitch, Orbit, Mom, Moses, Deadwood (and his visiting parents) and me gathered at the Spring Creek Tavern for some food, fun, and story telling. Oddly, it felt like a family reunion. I devoured a giant cheeseburger with jalapeños and French fries, in an attempt to slow up my weight loss. I learned that Moses melted his insoles while drying them by a campfire, and that Jenga (who wasn’t with us) earned that trail name after getting drunk in Franklin and toppling over. I also learned that, sadly, a sight-seeing helicopter had crashed in the Smokies on April 4th, killing all 5 people on board. What I didn’t know, yet, is that Deadwood’s parents would be bringing Trail Magic donuts to the hostel while I was in the shower! Well done, Mr. and Mrs. Deadwood!
I was especially glad at dinner to sit next to Fisherman, aka Fernando, one of the Hikers Formerly Known as ABBA. He got delayed in Hot Springs waiting on a late-arriving hammock that he ordered…and plans to crush some big mileage days to catch his Swiss hiking partners. He confirmed for me what I had suspected…that Switzerland, Sweden, and Swaziland are, in fact, entirely different countries. He is a Swiss architect specializing in mountain chalets, and said he’d hook me and Lil Jan up in one next time we’re in Gothenburg. I’m holding him to that. He also loves to fly fish and ties his own flies (thus the trail name), and plans to do some fly fishing along the AT. His favorite Swiss food is fondue and his favorite American food is steak…which costs $60 and up in Switzerland for 12 ounces. By the end of the night, he was my best Swiss friend ever.
I had three priorities on my zero day in Hot Springs. First, I made several phone calls to the family to let them know I was alive and well. It was great to hear their voices and get caught up on family matters. Talking to my wife is like Ramen noodles with potatoes and Tabasco sauce for my soul. My dad continues to adjust to life without mom, and I’m proud of him. I also got to FaceTime with Mrs. Wilkinson’s class back at Foundation Christian Academy (where I used to teach). They are one of two classes following my journey and doing various assignments related to it. It was fun to talk to them and answer their many questions.
Second, I decided to invest $20 for a 1-hour soak in a hot spring-fed hot tub/whirlpool at the Hot Springs Resort. After walking there for my 3:00 appointment, I realized I had no swim trunks and none were available at the front desk. The lady told me, “You won’t need any swim trunks. You’ll be alone and the tub has three sides to it, with the open side right on the river.” I looked at her and in my best Austin Powers voice said, “Oh, behave!” Based on her reaction, either I do bad impressions or she hasn’t seen the movie.
The attendant then led me to the river, turned the jets on, and handed me a towel. As I stripped down and lowered myself into the wondrous tub of healing waters, I got that feeling you get when you’re naked in a hot tub in the woods. (If that’s not on your bucket list, it should be.) As my bare behind submerged and then floated to the top, I wondered if the local Boy Scouts ever canoe down this river. (“Look away, Joey, that’s not a rare albino manatee, that’s Fob’s behind!”)
I decided to send a hot tub selfie to Lil Jan, but only from the shoulders up. In light of FCC Rule 438-09-b, Obscenity on Commercial Airwaves, and National Forest Service Pamphlet 10-8, Sexting from the AT, I had to be very careful what I sent. Even my chosen pose was arguably “overly sexy” and in violation of federal law.
After my 1-hour relaxing soak, I got dressed and walked to the Smoky Mountain Diner for a large, supreme pizza, my third priority for the day. For the first time on my AT journey, I was unable to finish a meal. (An embarrassing shame for a long distance hiker.) As I returned to the hostel with half a pizza in a box, I saw two tired, weary young hikers descend from the mountain and approach the hostel like I had done the day prior. I asked if they wanted half a large, still warm supreme pizza. Their faces lit up and they said, “Are you serious? Absolutely!” Watching them close their eyes and gobble it down in under 3 minutes, it felt good to be on the giving end of trail magic for a change. In fact, as awesome as it was to get the two care packages, I felt an even deeper satisfaction watching those two guys smile and devour that pizza. Perhaps that’s the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.”
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