This one’s about how part of the Appalachian Trail experience includes spooning with strangers.
Scattered all up and down the trail, usually about 6-12 miles apart, are little shelters built by volunteer crews. They’re three-sided structures, usually made of wood, with a roof and an open front. Some are small and simple, maybe with a picnic table and benches out front and a sleeping platform that can fit about six people or more. Others are more complex, with a ladder to a second sleeping level, and can fit at least 12 people.
(That picture’s not relevant, I just forgot to include it yesterday.)
The shelters are built near a water source, and, if you’re lucky, they include cables for hanging food bags. If you’re really lucky, there might even be a privy nearby…or at least a shovel.
There are always tenting sites in the immediate vicinity, in case the shelter’s full or you prefer not to cuddle with snoring strangers while mice crawl over your sleeping bag. My first couple weeks out, I slept only in my tent, but I camped near a shelter most nights so I could eat with others and enjoy the camaraderie.
The Smokies were different. In an effort to protect the land as much as possible, the park rules state that if there’s space in a shelter, you have to stay in it. The shelters in the Smokies are special, though–stone structures with fireplaces inside and strong tarps across the entrance to block the wind. After sloshing through snow, ice and mud on a cold, windy day, that can be mighty appealing. So we slept in the shelters every night in the Smokies…I actually haven’t used my tent since the first night out of Franklin.
Everyone typically claims their spot by laying out a pad and sleeping bag pretty soon after arriving, then goes about doing end-of-day chores and eating dinner. We slide our stuff over to make room for latecomers, especially on nasty days when no one wants to tent…it seems like there’s always room for one more.
That’s one of my favorite parts of the day, after people are settled in but before going to bed. We sit out front on benches or logs, comparing meals, talking about the day and what to expect tomorrow. We might even sit in the grass and try to dry our shoes and clothes if the sun’s out. Most nights it’s a familiar group, especially if you’re a few days away from a town stop, but occasionally there are still new people to meet. (Fewer and fewer new people these days…apparently Hot Springs is the point by which about 50 percent of thru-hikers have decided to go home.)
Hiker midnight is around 8 p.m., just after sunset. Some nights I try to stay up later to check out the stars, and also to avoid having to pee in the middle of the night, but it really is tough to say no to that sleeping bag after 8. If there’s a fire, the communal bed time gets pushed back a bit and we all stay up a little later, telling stories and learning more about each other.
Then the fun starts. There’s a symphony of crinkling pads and grunting as we awkwardly crawl into place and zip up our sleeping bags, then, on a good night, a few minutes of relative quiet before the snoring starts.
I don’t think I’ve shared any pictures yet that show quite how cozy it is most nights…especially cold, wet nights when we try to make room for everyone and our sleeping bags are essentially stacked on each other. If I try sleeping on my stomach, one of the people next to me will eventually end up partially on top of me. And if I sleep on my side, I can usually tilt a little bit and use a neighbor for back support. One night, I was sleeping between two pretty large guys, and just as we all settled in I found out that one was named Gandalf and the other was Treebeard. Treebeard called me Samwise for the night, and I think everyone enjoyed how excited that made me.
Other than that night, Tank, a 60-year-old guy who’s part of my hiker family, has been my default shelter partner. He’s one of the most impressive snorers out here, so once the rest of the group learned I’m pretty immune to it once I’m asleep, they made sure there’s always a little space next to him for me to set up. I’m the buffer.
Besides Flinch, who might still be a few days behind even after this double zero, Tank is one of my favorite people I’ve met out here (everyone in our group is, really). Tank and I bond over our old man joint pain and tell each other stories about our families and friends back home while we’re waiting to fall asleep. I think he was the first one in the group to learn my real name, which is always a funny moment…when you’ve been living with people 24/7 for a couple weeks without knowing their real names, it’s like a quick jolt back into the real world, like we’re all out here living double lives. Tank is the guy in blue sitting on the left in the next picture, which shows our whole group. He took it with the timer on his phone. It seemed like quite an accomplishment at the time.
Tank and J-Rex are the other two who took two days off here with me. Ace (just about the most generous person I’ve ever met), Mack and Frankie moved on this morning, and we have no idea when we’ll see them again since lately those three have moved faster than us. We all went to dinner together last night, reminiscing about what we’ve seen and accomplished together, talking about tentative timelines for the next few weeks, trying to guess where we might cross paths. A couple of us (I mean them, of course) even teared up talking about what it’s meant to have such an amazing group to share this journey with. These people have shared food and water with me, listened to me complain, seen me fall on ice, offered to take some of my load when my neck started acting up, and heard stories about parts of my life that normally take me years to share. Some of them have even heard me poop.
There are tons of kind, fascinating people here I have loved spending time with, and I can’t wait for that to continue, but that level of community will be hard to find again. So I am ridiculously grateful that Tank, J-Rex and I will be able to keep a small part of that moving forward.