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JOHNNY ROBINSON: Another Miserable Hike with James

     “Looks good, James. You first!” We’re facing a shallow sea of cold muddy water. We’ve just hiked down off of Kelly’s Knob to where Sinking Creek flows through the valley. Here the Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses the creek, and Rt. 42, before ascending the mountain on the other side. It’s been raining for days now and the stream has long since left its banks and spread out over the cow pasture. There’s nothing for it, so we slog unceremoniously through it all, trying, as they say, to keep a song in our hearts.

We got on the trail over six hours ago, about 5:30 PM, when we were dropped off at Wind Rock, near Mountain Lake, by our friend and volunteer driver Broaddus. It seems that he was extra jovial as he drove off in his warm truck, leaving us standing in the freezing rain. “You boys have fun! I’ll be thinking of you!”

In the intervening hours we had hiked into the dusk and on into the enveloping darkness. The beams from our headlamps had from the first seemed feeble, no match for the seriousness of the blackness in which we found ourselves. The corona of light extended maybe ten feet in front of me before being effectively snuffed. Since we were consistently at an elevation of more than 3500 feet we were actually in the clouds, and along with the rain the tiny water droplets of cloud mist reflected the light, further squelching our vision.

But we were having fun, and our conversation, when not overwhelmed by the clomping of feet through leaves, mud, and water, ran the gamut of topics. We were enjoying each other’s company.

Our first stop had been War Spur shelter, where we had each wolfed down half of our foot-long sub sandwiches. Spirits were high; we were delighted to be out on the trail for a couple of days even if weather conditions were, well, abysmal. The rain was incessant and the temperature hovered in the thirties.

A few more hours of traversing wet mucky trail had brought us to the ghostly summit of Kelly’s Knob and then to Laurel Branch shelter on the mountain’s eastern flank. Tempted to stay the night in that lonely outpost we decided to limit our stay to the time it took to eat the rest of our subs then head on north. By then it was after 11:00 pm but we felt good and we’re game to carry on.

A few thousand more footfalls and here we are slogging through Sinking Creek. Ugh. Once across the swamp, we establish ourselves on the ascent up to the top of the ridge of Sinking Creek Mountain. We give thanks to the trail crews who’ve recently overhauled this section of AT. They’ve created elaborate, functional rock sculpture in the form of stairs and passages around otherwise slippery slabs. It’s some impressive work.

Now it’s 1:30 am and we can’t be far from our goal of the remote Sarver shelter. My light is dying. The batteries were fresh at our departure but seven hours must be about the limit. My glasses are wet and clouded with fog. We stumble on in weary anticipation of coming to the blue-blazed exit trail to the lean-to. Um, and why again are we here?

Why indeed are we here voluntarily in these ridiculous conditions? We’ve shared similar shenanigans, and James and I had planned this 52-mile “fast and light” hike a couple of months ago. In light of the challenge of scheduling trips of any kind, we had decided beforehand to go whatever the weather. And as the wet cold days led up to our scheduled departure we had assured each other that yep we’re as game as ever.

No strangers to outings in crummy weather, as I said, we planned accordingly. But we knew that you can only do so much to ensure comfort in such conditions, especially when on our backs we carried as little as we thought we could get away with. Fast and light, remember, our ambitious mantra.

Finally falling into Sarver shelter at 2:00 am Saturday morning we prepare our bedding as quickly as possible and ensconce ourselves in our already-damp sleeping bags. Still laughing with and at each other, we both know that it will be an unpleasant night. Exhausted from 8 hours and 22 miles of walking I curl into a fetal position and focus on finding warmth in the thin dregs of clammy clothes and inadequate sleeping bag limply covering me. “Yeehaa! We’re having fun now, eh?” Unintelligible is James’ reply but I’m sure he’s doing fine. For a few hours I drift fitfully in and out of marginal slumber.

It’s now 5:30 am and I hear James stirring. Let’s go! is the feeling we mutually and unequivocally experience and, shivering, we pack our clammy stuff into our packs, pull on our awfully cold, soaked shoes and head out into…the unrelenting rain and inky black. “Hold on, James!” I fumble with stiff fingers to change the batteries in my headlamp by feel. We move out as fast as we can to generate some heat and to make time to our next big landmark, the Niday shelter, six miles down the ridge. We’ll have some breakfast there.

Gosh, it’s good to see the dawn come. I do a little dance on the rocky trail as I realize night is done and I can get on with seeing better where I’m going again. Yes, we’re grateful to be able to stash our headlamps and when the three-sided Niday lean-to comes into view we trot clumsily to its relative sanctuary. We hustle to heat up some water for oatmeal using our tiny stove and equally diminutive cook pot. “Oh that’s good!” exclaims my partner, runny oatmeal leaking out of the corner of his mouth. Delicious indeed. But no time to linger; damp chill is again seeping into our bones, and the only way to get and stay warm – in spite of wearing everything we’ve brought – is to move, so off we go. John’s Creek and Little Brushy Mountain here we come.

Why, really, are we out here on this ridiculous hike when we could be cozy at home? “Like normal people,” says my wife with a laugh. I guess it has something to do with trying to live life as each of us is meant to, and maybe to chunk up our normal existence. Plus, given a certain level of onboard curiosity and restlessness, one may have no choice but to engage in such frivolity.

The day stretches on. A blister which reminds me of a fried egg blossoms on my heel but it’s manageable if I keep my mind off it. There is some animated conversation between us as we move along but moreover there are extended periods of silent slogging. We’re wrapped in our rain fortress ponchos, peering out from under the hoods through a curtain of raindrops at the brim. There’s deep self-reflection and gratitude, and a little light-hearted self-incrimination thrown in for good measure – the latter especially on the long climbs that are particularly memorable on this endless day.

At some point we pause mid-trail in that cold rain to wrap my blistered heel in a piece of duct tape – thanks to James – and that seems to at least alter the character of the discomfort.

We fix a grand feast when we arrive at the Pickle Branch lean-to mid afternoon. We get that little stove going in a flash and oh, do we savor the semi-reconstituted freeze dried glop of ‘Chicken Vindaloo’ and beef stroganoff. Scrounging in the dark recesses of our packs brings to light additional delicacies like beef jerky and chocolate eggs and little wax-coated cheese wheels.

Those we’ll save for later. We study the trail map while we stoke our inner furnaces, and calculate what exactly is going to be involved in getting us to the end of this section of AT, where James’ car awaits and beyond that the dry warmth of our respective homes and beds. “We’ve got our work cut out for us!” is the glaring answer to our inquiry, so we quickly pack and hit the trail…twelve more miles to go on this thirty-mile day.

The title of this story may lead the reader to wonder if one of the reasons for the misery – besides the weather – is James himself. On the contrary, if not for the always cheery and bright-eyed wondering, enthusiastic manner of my friend James then, well, it may have been grim. As it is, in spite of the inhospitable weather we sing songs, point out compellingly beautiful images to each other, and wonder about things. We discuss matters both trivial and weighty. And we scheme and brainstorm about improving our hiking systems and even planning our next outing. Maybe this is what Alex Soojung-Kim Pang refers to as the totally absorbing “deep play” in his recent book Rest.

Anyway, we slog on. There’s no other shelter now until we get to the car. We pass the dripping rocks of Dragon’s Tooth, we eat the goodies stashed in our pockets, we follow the trail through cow pastures in the Catawba valley. We wade through more swollen creeks. It gets pitch dark again. The cold rain continues, and the temperature doesn’t rise above the thirties. Several times we lose the trail in the mist on the last stretch of Sawtooth Ridge. We’re getting pokey from fatigue, and giddy thinking about getting warm and dry.

The parking lot on Rt. 311 comes into view and with a final burst of energy we bolt to the car and collapse gratefully against it. Our smiles outshine our headlamps as we realize we’re done. Our mud-splattered legs can rest, and our slimey ponchos and damp everything else can be soon peeled off of our wet-hound bodies.

Yes, we are happy.

So you see, even though the weather conditions were wretched we still had fun on our little outing. The trick is to keep a song in your heart, for one thing, but above all you’ve got to have the right companion. I hit the jackpot with James, and may you too enjoy partners equally steadfast in your own interesting forays in life.

And if you’re smart you’ll stay out of the freezing rain.

Johnny Robinson


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