AT Thru-Hike #28 – “Look Away, Ethel, Those Aren’t Rhododendron!”

“Then He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.'” – Matthew 4:19

Day 38

I got an early start on our warmest day yet. As I crossed a footbridge near mile 404, I saw my first AT rabbit. He glanced at me and hopped away, not wanting to be spork-shanked, field dressed, and eaten by Sir Fob.

At mile 406.7 I crossed U.S. Forest Service Road 293. Little did I know that just 24 hours later, hikers would be diverted down this road to avoid a forest fire in the area. I cleared this section of trail just in time.

By late morning I caught up with SpongeBob and we hiked together for about an hour. He is a recently retired doctor from Hawaii out living his bucket list dream. He wants to transition from working with humans to working with animals as a biologist. A friend of his has a job that includes doing autopsies on dead whales to determine the cause of death. He’s helped her with that and wants to do more of that kind of thing. At my request he also gave me a rundown on the pros and cons and touristy things to do at each of the major Hawaiian islands. Now I just have to figure out how to get the RV there.

I Spy A Snake
I Spy A Snake

As I descended White Rocks Mountain I saw my third AT snake slithering across the trail. After a warm, muggy 16.3 mile day, I headed .3 miles west on Dennis Cove Road to the popular Kinkora Hostel, operated by the legendary Bob Peoples. As hostels go, it’s pretty primitive. The suggested $5 donation gets you a bunk to sleep on, a hot shower, a shuttle to town, and access to a kitchen.

Bob & Fob
Bob & Fob

What sets this hostel apart is Bob Peoples, one of the most interesting people I’ve met on my AT journey. In addition to running the hostel for the past 20 years, he is an avid trail maintainer who takes hikers (on their days off) and other groups out to repair sections of trail. He loves the AT like few others, and loves interacting and sharing his experiences with hikers. While eating a large pizza (thanks, Stitch!), I sat listening to him with my fellow hikers. Here is just a sampling of some of his tales…

– The worst hiking injury he’s seen is a woman who broke her femur so badly that it dislodged her artificial knee. Sounds really painful. She had to be airlifted out.

– He explained how decisions are made regarding the building of shelters and privies. There are plants and animals that are considered endangered by one state (like North Carolina) but not another (like Tennessee). So at the top of a mountain shared by both states, that might affect where you place a shelter or privy. He also discussed the 2-foot long earthworms that live atop Roan Mountain.

– He explained the detailed, 3-year, multi-agency process to re-route a new section of trail, and some of the requirements involved, like maximum slope. (The folks at Jacob’s Ladder didn’t get the memo!)

– When you depart the Kinkora Hostel and get back on the AT northbound, you’ll soon come to a Pond Mountain Wilderness sign. If you travel six more white blazes (at about mile 418.8), an unmarked trail will break off to your left (the river will be on your right). You can take that unmarked trail to a “private, secluded swimming hole” perfect for you and your honey. (Being honey-less, I didn’t explore this side trail, but expect The Brimberry’s to do so on their 2018 thru-hike and report back.)

– Some privies have worms in the drop zone (my term, not his) to aid in the breakdown of solid matter. The reason hikers are asked to poop, but not pee, in said privies is because too much urine will drown the worms. I can’t think of a worse way to die for a worm than by urine-drowning in a poop filled privy. I started to explain that when I do #2 in a privy, there’s no way to stop #1 from happening, but that seemed like TMI at the time.

– He explained how wood used to build shelters and footbridges is carried up and down mountains. In situations where it’s necessary and feasible to use a 4 wheeler, they will do that build in the winter on snow, so as not to tear up the trail.

In Memory of Dwight & Dagan Cope
In Memory of Dwight & Dagan Cope

– He cautioned us about the upcoming Laurel Falls, the biggest and best waterfall on the entire AT. It’s important not to swim at the base of the falls, to the left as you look at them. Several have died doing so, including a father and son on July 4th, 2012. There is a whirlpool there that will submerge any and everything in its path for four to four and a half minutes. (Bob has tested it with a backpack.) They believe the dad went in to try to save his son, because dad was recovered with hiking socks on. Really tragic.

– He met one hiker who was attempting a thru-hike despite stage-4 cancer and a prognosis that didn’t look good. On his day off, the hiker volunteered to deliver a toilet seat to a privy that had just been built.  On his way, he convinced several other hikers that he was taking the toilet seat with him on his thru-hike as a comfort item. Nice! (By the way, said hiker is not only still alive but said to be improving.)

– He gave us updates on the forest fires that were burning, or had been burning, at locations both north and south of our present location.

– He explained the back story on the closing of the Wautaga Lake Shelter (in 2014, 2015, and recently) due to aggressive bear activity. It seems a local hunter (and jerk) began placing food at the shelter to bait a bear. During hunting season, the hunter returned and killed the mother bear. However, her two male cubs survived and associated that shelter with food. Recently, some section hikers tented there and hung bear bags, but kept a few snacks in their tents and were harassed throughout the night by the bear brothers. So due to the actions of a thoughtless hunter, none of us get to camp on the portion of the AT that runs along Wautaga Lake.

-His wife returned from a horse show several years ago and wasn’t feeling well.  She died from cancer just 9 months later.  She was the love of his life.  It taught him to do the things you want to do in life, because you can be gone just like that.

– One time as a teenager in Alabama he and some friends went skinny-dipping at a stagnant pond near Squalid Hollow. As they lay there eating Moon Pies and sunning themselves in all their glory on the muddy bank, a shadow appeared from the woods on the opposite side of the pond. Just then, a hairy creature, about 7 feet tall but hunched over, emerged from the woods. It was, without a doubt, the legendary Sasquatch. It walked along the edge of the water as the boys gazed in amazement. It then stopped, turned its head toward them, grunted, and then headed off into the woods. Wait…my bad. That wasn’t a Bob Peoples’ story…I heard that one from Rex Dutton, a preacher friend of mine.

– And finally, Bob told us a story about “Hike Naked Day” which occurs every year on the AT on the summer solstice, the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s traditional to hike at least a portion of the day in the nude, although compliance varies. A few years ago a group of four young, male 20-something hikers were cruising along on Hike Naked Day wearing nothing but boots, their backpacks, and a bandana hanging from the front of their hip belt to at least partially Fobscure their junk. Their butts were exposed. Well it just so happens Hike Naked Day that year fell on the same weekend as one of the local town’s
Rhododendron Festival. This festival brings together hundreds of mostly geriatric women from around the country to celebrate Rhododendron (however one goes about doing that). Among the activities is a few mile hike on a Rhododendron-heavy section of the Appalachian Trail. You can see where this is going. Yes, reportedly there were several “interactions” between these nude hikers (and probably other naked hikers) and the sweet little old ladies who hadn’t signed up for the Dangling Pear Festival. Word of these encounters caused the mayor, festival planners, and AT officials to worry that this could harm the festival and cause hard feelings toward the AT community. Those concerns turned out to be unfounded, as Rhododendron Festival attendance tripled the following year!

After story time was over, I went to sleep upstairs at the hostel about 10:30 p.m. At midnight I woke up tossing and turning, with Bob Peoples’ trail stories still stirring in my head. I turned on my headlamp and wrote a song, the previously blogged “My Favorite Trail Things”…then turned off my headlamp and fell into a deep sleep.

Day 39

I slept in today because I had only 8.2 miles to hike to put me in striking distance of the rendezvous pick-up point with Lil Jan the following day. By the time I rolled out of bed, all but two of the other hikers were long gone.

As I relaxed and ate breakfast, I got into an interesting discussion on religion with a fellow hiker taking a zero to rest his feet. Like a few of my fellow students, and more than a few hikers I’ve encountered, he’s somewhat skeptical on matters of faith. He’s big into science and looks more for scientific explanations for things, rather than a Creator-God. I told him I was a believer and that the things I’d seen on the trail had only strengthened my faith. I shared a story with him that I have found helpful on my faith journey. A man hikes way out into the woods, far from civilization, and stumbles upon the most magnificent, million dollar cabin he’s ever seen. The perfectly manicured lawn and landscaping draw him closer and he discovers the cabin is unlocked. He steps inside to an immaculate interior with all the latest furnishings, expensive hand-crafted furniture, marble hot tub, computer-operated controls for heating and lighting, big screen TV with theater seating, state-of-the-art appliances, etc. He’s never seen such an incredible place where clearly no expense has been spared. He steps outside, sees a man pass by, and inquires about the cabin. The man tells him there had been a massive explosion in the woods, a Big Bang, with wood and rock flying in every direction. The cabin, and everything in and around it, just happened to land that way…nothing but pure chance. It was a freak of nature and no one designed any of it. As crazy as that sounds, imagine a universe, or just a human body, or just an eyeball, that is infinitely more complex than that cabin. To me, the AT has simply presented more evidence that there is a Creator-God behind our magnificent universe. I think it actually takes a greater leap of faith to believe this universe all came about by chance. I enjoyed the discussion with my fellow hiker. There was no judging or condemning or name-calling. We were just two hikers processing all that we have seen out here, respectfully sharing some thoughts, and trying to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). We each gave each other some things to think about.

Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls

Just 1.3 miles into the day’s hike, I descended upon the beautiful Laurel Falls, which lived up to its hype. I saw the dangerous whirlpool and a nearby plaque on a tree honoring Dwight and Dagan Cope, the father and son adventurers who died there. Rather than swim, I hiked a hundred yards or so downstream to try to catch a fish. Catching a fish while hiking the AT, without using a rod and reel, was on my AT bucket list. Using a spool of string, lead weight, hook, bobber, and tiny piece of Snickers, I tossed the hook out into some rapids that had water pooling at their base. No luck. After a couple more unsuccessful tosses, I switch to a tiny piece of Slim Jim for bait. Bam! On the first toss I landed a trout! I’m not gonna lie…I felt like a Hunter-Gatherer saving his tribe from starvation, despite the three days worth of food in my food bag. I let the fish go, saw AT snake #4 on some rocks near my backpack, and continued hiking.

A Rare Calzone Tree
A Rare Calzone Tree
Just Pull Off a Chunk & Dip in Marinara Sauce
Just Pull Off a Chunk & Dip in Marinara Sauce

After climbing one final mountain in hot, humid conditions, I tented at a campsite with Gentle Ben from Idaho. I enjoyed talking to him, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Lil Jan, my wife and best friend for the past 28 years. She was going to drive 3 hours in the morning to pick me up at the Shook Branch Recreation Area on Wautaga Lake. I was beyond excited. I was like a kid trying to go to sleep the night before Christmas, knowing he has been a (mostly) good boy and Santa was about to deliver the goods!


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