Four years ago I hiked the Appalachian Trail.
I had set out early in 2012 to try and become a famed thru hiker, but sadly missed out on the accolade by 380 miles. Did I fail? Some would say yes.
I however listened to the sage words of my father when he asked me if I felt there was anything else I would learn by hiking those 380 miles, was there anything I had left to gain except to say I had done it, miles for the sake of miles? I thought long and hard at the time and the answer was no.
By then I had learned a great deal about myself, my family and friends, as well as having accumulated some wonderful new friends along the way and a partner with whom I share my life today.
And to date, hiking the AT has been the single greatest achievement of my life.
There are times when my heart aches for the trail. Literally aches. The desperate pull of the mountains, the desire to have the contents of my world confined to a single backpack and to walk, forever walk. Time to think and be calm and at peace. Well, along with a fair amount of sweating, pain, tears and cursing too, let’s be honest here. But at no point in my life have I ever been so fulfilled, so content or as proud of myself as when I hiked.
Coming back to the USA this year, I carried with me a desire. I would say a secret desire, but from the amount of times I have reminded Loops, my family and my friends about it, I guess it’s no secret at all. This year, I want to finish the trail.
I have two sections to complete, one in Virginia and the other in Maine. It is my hope that as we move south again along the east coast, once the cooler weather begins to appear, I will be able to don my pack and complete my miles, no matter how slow or how painful they may be.
And this week, I got a taste of exactly how slow and painful my journey may be, because for the first time in four years, I stepped onto the Appalachian Trail.
After we left the magic little barn deep in the Tennessee countryside, we traded our fields and farms for forests and mountains, driving just an hour or so into the heart of the Smoky Mountains. And it is here that I can say that anyone who hiked in the Ninja Ducks team in 2012 will know exactly where we pulled into when I say the words Gatlinburg and the hitch that we thought would never come.
Newfound Gap is the largest parking overlook on state road 441, the main road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It sits directly on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, a fact that clearly has appeal for the hundreds of people we see gathered around the sign proclaiming the state line when we arrive. There is a wide open view over the vast forested mountains where you are able to leap from your car, snap a shot and then be on your way, secure in the knowledge you’ve ‘seen’ the Smokies.
What the majority of people visiting here miss though is that about 100ft to the left of this amazing view is a rather ordinary looking dirt path with a small sign next to it marking it as the Appalachian Trail. What even fewer people take to heart, even if they happen to glance at the sign with its mileage marker, is that this trail runs in one direction south to Georgia ending at Springer Mountain, and in the other direction the trail reaches its pinnacle at Mount Katahdin in Maine; totalling just shy of 2,200 miles in length. Any person standing at Newfound Gap could literally step onto the trail, turn north and walk continuously on this path all the way up the east coast of the United States. Personally, I feel that’s a wonderfully inspiring and adventurous thought.
So it is here at this crossroads that Loops and I decided to spend two days, staying overnight in the car park 5,000 feet up in the mountains.
The drive up to the gap had me literally buzzing in my seat, I cannot overstate my level of excitement as I watched the altimeter above my head tick higher and higher, twisting and turning up the mountain road, waiting to catch my first glimpse of the gap I remember so well.
So it is no surprise that two minutes and thirty three seconds after I breathed in the view and the cool mountain air, I was grabbing a bottle of water and my hiking shoes to set out on the trail for a short walk. Loops was a little less enthused than I about the prospect of a walk on the trail. It seems for him, he may have decided that the entirety of his walking life took place on the trail four years ago. However, as I set off to trek north, I find him in his regular hiking place walking behind me, letting me set our pace.
The smile on my face could not get any wider, my heart is soaring and I feel that I could run up the trail, leap over rocks and nimbly twist around those pesky tree roots. There is a simultaneous feeling of comfort, automatically settling into a hiking rhythm and expecting what is to come, while at the same time feeling excitement, that this is entirely new and a thrilling adventure! I’m chatting away happily to a silent Loops behind me, and I look back every now and then to ensure he is still with me. He looks very much like a man doomed, and it’s about 20 minutes later he declares that he feels he has walked enough and wants to head back to the bus.
I feel crestfallen.
Hiking the AT, well, that’s something we do together. But then I suddenly remember that’s not actually true. We started our hikes separately. I had hiked without Loops at the beginning of our journey, meeting him after almost two weeks on the trail. Even when we hiked together, there were mornings we set out separately, and occasionally ending at camp at different times. So really, there is no reason for me to feel bad about this. It’s perfectly fine for him to head back, but I tell him I want to press on, which is exactly what I do.
Somehow this makes my little foray even more exhilarating. I’m alone hiking the Appalachian Trail! I pick up my pace for I am determined to make it up to the shelter that should only be 1.7 miles away. It’s getting later in the day, but I feel confident I can get there and back before the sun sets. I feel strong and confident as I continue on my way, passing a few day hikers heading in the opposite direction. The rocks underfoot increase the higher I climb and I carefully watch my step as not to fall or twist an ankle.
Breathing becomes harder and I break into a sweat as I push myself further.
It’s almost an hour before I begin to feel a little panic setting in, the light is starting to change, my water bottle is now empty, my legs beginning to tire – where the hell is this shelter?! I am reaching that point where the desperation is so great in my mind to see this AT shelter, I’m afraid my craziness will take over and I’ll bloody well night hike to make it happen.
It’s around this time I see an older couple heading south towards me, nattering away to each other with the lady carrying a white 10 gallon bucket in her hand. And suddenly it’s like four years disappeared and instinctively I know who these people are on sight, no doubt in my mind – they are trail maintainers. I practically run up to greet them, so happy to see actual, proper AT people! They are amazingly friendly and we chat for a couple minutes, I thank them for their work and we compare some hiking stories, they completed section hiking the AT just in 2014.
I enquire about the shelter I saw marked on the sign back at the gap, and after a moments frown and conclusion, the gentlemen tells me I must be talking about Sweet Heifer Creek. That stirs a memory from the sign, so he must be right. He tells me I’m only five minutes away, just up a little further and around the corner. I thank them and head off, feeling satisfied that I’ve almost reached my goal and happy I’ll soon be heading back for some food.
It’s when I reach the trail sign that I become completely confused. For indeed, I have reach Sweet Heifer Creek, but I don’t see a shelter, just another trail that diverts off from the AT.
I read through the two crossroad signs carefully, three times over. They show two shelters, one another 1.3 miles up the AT and the other down Sweet Heifer, 3.7 miles away.
I stand there puzzled and befuddled. My mind is clearly too wired and tired to comprehend the simple, obvious notion that I have misread the sign back at Newfound Gap. I am expecting to see a shelter, I am desperate to see a shelter, and therefore it must be here somewhere.
I turn on the spot, pirouetting a couple times, peering into the woods around me. Maybe the shelter is just off trail, hidden in the trees. I look carefully for other small marker signs I may have missed. I even go so far as to walk further down the AT for another 5 minutes, so certain in my belief that there should be a shelter here. It’s only as the light further dips that I have to accept defeat. I have simply misread the sign at the beginning of my hike, and now I can feel the heavy shroud of disappointment draping over my shoulders. I take a few deep breathes to calm myself and gain my strength back from my emotional loss, as small and silly as it seems.
It then dawns on me that I am actually proud of my accomplishment today. Ok, so I haven’t seen a shelter, but I have practically raced up the trail, not taking the easy option of turning back when it got a little difficult and tiring, but pressing on to make my mileage point. And I didn’t have to have someone cajole me into it, I did it off my own back, with my own inner strength. And with that thought, I snap my happy picture at my goal, turn on my heel and with the speed and grace of a mountain goat, I begin my sprint down the trail towards the gap.
It’s on my way down in the fading light that my mind begins to play its old tricks on me, thinking it’s hilarious to scare the living daylights out of me. Four years ago and too many times to count while hiking on the trail did I think I saw ‘snakes’, which turned out to be twigs on the path and convinced myself I heard bears huffing in the woods, but were in fact only trees rubbing their bark together. This afternoon, out of nowhere in the silence of the woods as I carefully tiptoed through a rock formation, I would have bet my beloved Blue Bandit bicycle on the fact I heard and felt a bear breathing literally on the back of my neck. The sound and sensation were so palpable that I stopped, heart pounding, terrified to turn around. It took every ounce of courage to turn around and see….nothing. Absolutely nothing. Ah yes, the joys of hiking on your own on the trail with an active imagination.
I was thankful therefore to not long after run into the trail maintainer couple from earlier. They had magically acquired a shovel and a pick axe on their journey south since last we met about 30 minutes previously. By this point I felt safety in numbers was my best way to go and spent the final part of my descent listening to their tales about their recent journey to Scotland, explaining how to correctly pronounce words such as Edinburgh, Leicester and Brexit and offering travel advice on the Isle of Skye.
Back at the gap we parted ways, and as I looked at Belle settled happily in the car park, I thought how lovely it now felt to end my hike with a hot shower, clean clothes and a hot sausage and mash dinner, rather than having to set up my tent, cook pasta in a pot and take a wet wipe bath before crawling into my sleeping bag.
I’d love to tell you how wonderfully I slept that night, for it was beautifully cool and we were able to leave the windows open for a breeze. However, it seems that the park rangers could do with coming up to the gap around 2 am in the morning because there are some dodgy goings on up in the mountains at night. For two nights I did not sleep a wink for the cars coming and going with their lights flashing to each other secret coded messages and such like. It’s was scary and creepy to say the least. Or at least for me, Loops slept soundly.
However, even the lack of sleep did not deter me from loading a small pack the following day to make a second trip north up the trail, this time with the goal of either the Ice shelter (about 5 miles round trip) or past that all the way up to Charlies Bunion, a well-known outcrop of rock (about 8 miles round trip). Despite telling Loops he didn’t need to hike with me, I was secretly really happy when he donned his hiking shoes and set out for a second time with me on the trail.
I won’t lie, my legs were killing me as I walked. My knees and shins made their presence known and I had to grit my teeth a bit as I re-hiked the first 1.7 miles I already walked the day before; I mean, c’mon, I’ve already walked this and now I have to redo it? The lightness and joy had already worn off, and the realisation of hiking the trail came back like a slap in the face. Yes, this is how it really felt to hike the AT.
But it still didn’t deter me. Once we reached Sweet Heifer, I asked Loops if he felt like going on. We made an agreement to go to the shelter, eat our sandwiches and head back. It was acknowledged that neither of us had the stamina or will power for a hike to Charlies Bunion today. The further we hiked, the more we talked and reminisced and the longer I had with my thoughts, the best part about hiking for me.
The weather which started out overcast but warm, had now turned chilly and foggy and so when we finally happened upon the shelter – yes, there really was one today – I happily shrugged into my raincoat to keep me warm while I munched through my sandwich. I flipped through the shelter register to mull over the words of the hikers passing through this year, once again finding a strange comfort in the simple act of holding and reading the trail log. I added a sign in of my own, as I’d done so many times before. Sitting and resting, the realisation came upon me that while I may not feel as deliriously overjoyed as I did yesterday, I still clearly feel the pull of the trail. Had I had my full pack, I would have recognised my limits for the day, easily set up camp and been ready to hike again tomorrow, always moving forward to the next destination and achieving a goal every day.
As we prepared to head back south, two men and a younger lad appear in the shelter, huffing, puffing and sweating, weighed down by their huge packs. So late in the season, these can’t be thru hikers, and as we greet them we find that they are out on a three day trek; the two men are brothers and the lad, one of their sons. We spend about ten minutes chatting about hiking, their route and our past experiences on the trail. One of the men admits their mileage is a little on the high side, it’s about 2pm now and they still have another 6 miles to cover before they camp for the night. Tomorrow, they tell us, they have a 15 mile day planned. The man points to his son, “One of us did the planning and was ambitious to say the least.”
We wish them the best and strike out for home.
Our footfall is only broken twice, the first when I believe I’ve spotted a donkey in the woods. I hear movement and glance to my left, and there in the bushes I clearly see an animal bottom and a swishing tail. “Loops,” I whisper loudly as he is ahead of me, “there’s a donkey over here.” Even as the words come out of my mouth, I know how stupid they sound, donkeys don’t live on the AT, I know this. But honestly, nothing else comes to my mind as to what it could be.
Loops peers into the woods, humouring me I think, and is probably surprised to find an actual animal in there. “It’s a boar,” he tells me. And low and behold when I glimpse again I can indeed see the shape of a pig. But not just a pig, one with babies. Yikes. Now I’m scared. Boars with babies kill people, they’re really protective animals, and huge to boot. But this one pays us no mind and we stand and watch her and her babies snuffling and shuffling through the woods.
We continue on and about 20 minutes from the gap we come across three college aged kids, two girls and a guy. I can clearly hear the two girls debating their hiking plans for the day and as they come into better view, their equipment makes them stand out for almost ultra-light, long distance hikers. “Surely they can’t be thru-hikers?” I say to Loops. But when we greet the young lad, he stops to chat with Loops and confirms that the three are heading north. “You’re running really late” Loops tells them, with the lad agreeing they may need to flip flop – hike half way, jump north and then turn south again to beat the winter weather. We wish them luck and head our separate ways.
It’s a couple minutes later when I realise what we’ve just done. “You know, I always hated it when people told us how late and slow we were,” I tell Loops. “It always made me feel such a failure, like I really sucked at hiking and people thought I was silly for giving it a go.” “Yeah, I just thought about that too,” Loops admits. So quietly in my mind, I offered up a hope for them that they beat the odds and make it.
So that was our return to the trail. It was just enough to give me pause for thought, to truly remember some of the pains that went with hiking the AT and to make me reassess as to whether I honestly thought those final miles are really worth it.
I guess maybe they might be, because this is what I bought when we descended the mountain…..
Now wait! How does Dolly Parton come into all of this? I hear you cry.
After we reached the base of the mountain Loops and I decided to pop into Gatlinburg, fantastically described by one hiker in the trail register as looking like a 19th century mining town that was thrown up on by Disney. We settled on grabbing some BBQ for lunch and just as we entered the restaurant, Loops received a call from his family to say (out of the blue) they had literally just arrived in the same town on holiday! Cue a meet up, having lunch and a new plan for the next day – his family were visiting Pigeon Forge, a town about 30 minutes away, and the home of Dollywood – would we like to join them?
Now, visiting a theme park based on Dolly Parton has never graced my life to do list I will admit, but well, why the heck not. And so the following day, in the sweltering sun, we toured Dollywood, watched Loops and his niece partake in the rollercoasters, listened to some country music, saw my first ever live magic show and were allowed to board Dolly’s very first touring RV. I much prefer Belle. However, as an entertainment park goes, it really wasn’t bad.
I also have to mention that I had my best American/English conversation to date. While waiting for Loops to finish on the Tennessee Tornado, I noticed a gentleman sidling up to me nervously. He had a massive mop of pitch black curly hair and look very shy. After a moment and a glance he opened his mouth to talk to me.
I recognised that he had used words. That he had asked me a question. And now was waiting for an answer. I however had no idea what those words were, for his southern accent was so thick, to me it was indiscernible.
Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. I hate this. This strikes completely at the heart of my Britishness. I’m so embarrassed that I couldn’t understand him and now I’m going to have to ask him to repeat what he said, and of course am terrified I still won’t understand him. It will turn into a horrible scene where I will have to ask time and time again, feeling a deeper embarrassment each time, until finally I will simply have to apologise profusely and go and hide somewhere until he goes away.
Luckily I caught enough of a drift of his words the second time round, I worked out he was asking about the ride, specifically where the riders come out. “Do you mean when they finish or where they come out on the ride itself?” Now it was his turn to look confused, I guess he wasn’t expecting my accent either.
After a couple turns we manage to communicate he was looking for someone on the ride, to wave to them as they went past. I point upwards to where I too am waiting to wave to Loops. He smiles and seems very happy.
“That’s quite an accent you have,” he tells me. Mine? Really?
And then comes the question. Totally unexpected. I mean, if you would have asked me to name the top things I get asked by people when I open my mouth, the list would be as follows:
Are you from England or Australia?
Do you live in London?
How do you like America?
Do you like England?
What do you think of the EU?
And so on. It’s all pretty standard. So when my new friend decided to have a conversation with me, what I wasn’t expecting was his first question to be, “Does England still mine coal?”
I have to admit I might have looked a little like a fish for a moment. Staring, mouth opening and closing and nothing else. For this wasn’t where my train of thought was heading. Ok, well, I’ll try my best though not ever having developed any personal interest or skills in the retrieval of fossil fuels.
“I think they might, but just a little. I know they used to mine a lot in Wales in the 1980’s, but I think a lot of the mines have closed down now.”
He grinned and nodded his head happily, like I’d just given him a wonderful present of some sort, which in turn made me smile. He then told me he would very much like to visit England as he has a great interest in history. And it’s here I should hang my head in shame, for once again, he has taken me by surprise due to my instinctive first impressions.
The majority of Americans I’ve met rarely will mention anything to do with England having any type of history or acknowledging our country is old (those attempting to show some type of world knowledge will try and mention the royal family and maybe Downton Abby), so this surprises me to start with. The second is that looking at this sheepish gentleman; his floppy unkempt hair, grubby blue shirt, slightly hillbilly grin, and thick as molasses accent, I would have never thought that he would have an interest past the border of his own local town.
I feel so awful that I tell him I really hope he has the opportunity to visit one day and that he would certainly enjoy it as everything is old, and then I bid him farewell and go off to stand in a corner and hate myself for being so judgemental.
My mood did pick back up later in the day, along with my resolve to be far more open minded when I meet new people. I also have made an effort to learn a little more about coal mining in the UK, and now am aware that coal production peaked in 1913 and has been declining ever since, but we do still have about 30 mines left, but only 3 of them a deep mines.
In case I should ever meet another mining enthusiast in the US, at least I feel a little more prepared, no matter what they might look like.