AT mile # 31.7
Neels Gap, walayasi inn at mountain crossing
A pirate’s life for me…
Took a zero today- my first–and it was fantastic on many levels.
For starters, I just had a couple of swigs of genuine all American moonshine out of a snow chilled mason jar from a grizzled bear of a mountain soul who goes by a highly appropriate moniker The Pirate. And he looks the part, too.
First a few words on the place and the man.
Pirate is resident host, cook, purveyor of fine spirits (in all sense of the term), and a landmark himself at the Walayasi Inn hostel at Neels Gap, where the AT runs across the a local highway and straight through the stone archway which connects the hostel to the fully stocked outfitters. Actually, the archway connects the hostel to the wonderfully unpretentious co-ed lighter and laundry area which then connects to the cavernous outfitter. Yes, this is all wonderfully sporadic and every bit of it has that comfortable and familiar scent of thousand tired souls who go through the motions cleansing and filling themselves after a gruelling initiation for the AT. More on this soon.
Back to Pirate. A burly man, Pirate shuffles around the hostel at his own pace, responds when to queries in idiosyncratic mountain banter, such as, ” that door doesn’t always locks, but it opens”, referring to a capricious bathroom door that barely earns its name. But importantly, Pirate, when he wishes, dishes out hospitality like so many on this trail and also unlike any other. he is a walking trail magic. As we sat down watching one terrible VHS classic after another on a cold and stormy zero day at the hostel, huddled around an old space heater, Pirate walked out with a bowl of dip and a bag of chips, and quipped, to nobody really, that “ah that dang movie was on four times last friday and twice today” –it was a VHS edition of the horror classic /Mikey/. He scuddled back into his kitchen and an hour later, as we tried to focus on the dialogue midst random trail chatter, Pirate switched on the blender at full blast. Moments later he scuddled back in and set out five cups and then a three other cups (there were eight of us) half filled with orange creamsicle shakes, and proclaimed, “if you aint watching this movie you don’t get a milkshake” and walked right out again. All this free of charge of course for Pirate cooks his meals and serves out deliciousness based on donation. If there are enough money in the donation jar comes supper time, Pirate will make you delicious pankcake breakfast and coffee and all kinds of goodness for condiments. Otherwise, you’d be lucky to get a piece of fruit and barely a fare thee well, as it happened to a group that stayed the night before us, or so we heard. he must have loved us, for supper we lined up to what hikers would surely call a bounty of delectable calories: Liberally spiced blackbean rice stew, spagetti with “al-freydeo” sauce–that’s exactly what he called the rich cream sauce–ceasar salad that was made with ranch and no croutons, an assortment of cookies, tarts, dips, 9 kinds of hot sauces and juices and coffee. All for pay-what-you-can donation, I kid you not. Life is different out on the trail and folks go out of their way to make you feel at home with what little they’ve got. And they are creative, as pirate is with his mismatched meals. On top of that, he served about fifteen of us who were gathered around the common area which connected the kitchen/buffet to the tv room, an ice cold beer each. an hour or so later, when the crowed thenned out he broughout his own moonshine, out of a mason jar and cold, cold! Ciel/Sky, K2Summit (who was simply Kristen at this time until I named her later) partook in the festivities with Pirate and I. One sip and my face went flush red. It was delicious, slightly fruity and potent. I took another mouthful and was instantly happy, grinning like a two year old who just discovered the chocolate fountain.
I slept well that night; if i was here–where the official drop off rate for the AT is 20% of total hikers, I was almost there! It was a good feeling. I had put in a gruelling 18 official miles on the trail and two being lost at a goat path in the fog atop Blood Mountain. I was surely a bitter mountain goat for those two hours I spent wandering the mountainside, lost and unsure which way the white blazes ran. In the fog, it was quiet difficult navigating steep, slick and rocky outcrops of the blood mountain and at an important turn on the trail the blazes were not prominent in the thick, enveloping mist and I took the wrong turn and went dangerously down a precarious game path which I took for the AT.
Trail Volunteers are amazing people who maintain the AT free of fallen trees, brighten up the white paint on the blazes, and, habitually, add incremental mileages to the overall trail. Truly, I am thankful for their efforts, but that day on Blood Mountain summit, I cursed them soundly with all my tired feet and scared heart–though i took it back few minutes later. How could they not have a giant white blaze marking turns at such a precarious point? why wasn’t this goatpath so clearly marked? Why would they make the trail go this steep? why is this trail headed toward a gorge and no cables or life threatening rope ladder bridge in sight? Then it hit me, that nagging feeling one tires best to ignore as it mercilessly mocks your judgement: maybe I don’t see the white blazes because I am lost. I wanted to panic but I was too tired and the thought of being stuck on blood mountain, bushwacking my way back to town was too much. So I did the sensible thing, i retraced my way back along the unmarked game path, graded steeply along the mountain slope, slick and uneven underfoot. Took me an hour just to get back to the blaze and then I was unsure which way turned north. It was foggy you see and tiring and it didnt occur to me to check my compass, although I doubt that at that point the trail was headed due north. So i walked until I realized i was headed south bound when I came up on a familar spot where I took a picture of my erstwhile hiking companian Blue–whom i met at a shelter earlier, a young college student, chipper and always smiling with one of those utterly trustworthy faces. I had earlier ran into him on the side of the trail retching bile out of sheer exertion (i did the same, earlier that day, at a shelter after doing my first 15+ mile on the trail). Once i figured out that I had to turn the other way something overtook me and I still like to think that this is the prospects of real food and a warm dry bed at neels gap for i hiked from blood mountain to neels gap in a frenzy, in less than two hours, covering the last two miles in less than 45 minutes.
I walked into what I’d like to have a Stone Edifice through with the AT ran straight. It was teeming with tired hikers, some wet, some in the comforts of shorts and warmth, and section hikers and visitors to the area snapping pictures of us rare folk who would rather put feet to trail than pedal to the metal. It was a welcome sight to be sure and I was happy to get the last of the free pizza, pop and fruit squares one of the church groups had generously brought in for the hikers. I took the last few slices as I was one of the last people to make it out of Blood mountains in that rain. It was 6:30 PM, but might as well have been hiker midnite (which is 9 PM) but the hostel was booked up. they do not allow people to stay two nights in a row due to demand, yet all the bunks were taken. They gave me some free food and told me to check back first thing nine am to take a spot. I was left with a few options. Do i hike out in the rain, pitch my tent in the storm and come back in the morning, sodden and miserable after that blood mountain fiasco? do i try to push for a shelter and miss out on a legendary mountain crossings in stay? i didnt know so I walked out to the laundry area, pondering. There, I met Blue. Blue and I have been leapfrogging one another on the trail that day but brief periods and I just happened to be around him when he was vulnerable and procured some tums to ease his nausea. Blue, on seeing me beamed with his upteenth can of soda in his hand–a trait i will come to know of him as an avid soda drinker when in town or hostel–and mentioned that his grand parents who were planning on seeing him in the next town will be making a quick detour to pick him up soon and he would happily take me to the cabin near by to secure a spot, and if not, to the next town so that I can get a spot at a motel. I couldn’t believe how swift karma got my back. Sure enough, Blue’s grand parents drove up in their clean car, cheerful and welcoming as ever to pick up a brace of wet, smelly and tired hikers, one of them their grandson and another a complete stranger. I will not forget the moment when Grandma took my hand, when i offered it in hesitant greetings, and held it for a moment, looked at me and said, “oh you are so cold” and proceeded to warm my hands with her own, cupping my cold right palm with both of hers! Trail guardians are welcome sights along the trail and these two gentle folk were my first.
They took me into Hiawassi, got me checked into my first trail hote, the holiday inn express (which was, of course, pricey at 90/ night, but i did not care; it was a warm bed, hot tub, clean showers and a bath tub, and free hot breakfast buffet in the morning–i ate my fill, at least $ 30 worth, i kid you not)
Grandpa insisted that he takes blue and I out for dinner to a nice steak house but by the time I took my two showers to shed hiker grime and put on relatively respectable town clothes one of the only steak buffets (yes, a steak buffet) was closed and we didnt feel like italian or fast food. So we ended up at huddle house, a twenty four hour diner not unlike Ihop. Blue’s Grandfather was full of mirth and tales. He is a historian, writer, retired game warden and all around awesome. A genuine storyteller with stories to tell. He told me much and I was rapt in attention. He told me of his time in New Foundland Canada, his time as a game warden, how he got trapped in a bear trap. I felt so much at home and so reassured that this is where I wanted to be, on the AT, hiking my hike and encountering such folk as fine as Blue, his grandparents, pirate.
I slept luxuriously in a large bed, crouched in a corner as per hiker custom but spread fully out in the middle of the night. Ate a very hardy breakfast of eggs, biscuits, bacon, granola, pancakes, yogurt, fruit, jam, toast and tea not in that order and certainly not just once. I ate with Blue’s grandfather who offered to take me back into town to the hostel. Blue joined me for the ride–he was going to take a zero with his folks while I went to the hostel take mine, where I’d meet Pirate and his legendary hospitality.
I just finished a chat with Sky; she is hiking for a month due to a grant received from work. She works with children. she is intelligent and made for this trail. She will be hiking to Davenport Gap just outside of the Smokies and return to her life. She is originally from Indiana and had done some work for the Peace Corps in Macedonia. She was my moonshine partner.
It has been a wonderful initiation for the AT. I am thoroughly grateful and loved, in retrospect, all aspects of that grueling 18 mile trek, even getting lost on Blood Mountain. it dawned on me that that is the longest continuous trek I’ve ever done in a single day, if you count only the distance, and I was proud. Most average 10-12 mile days in the first few weeks and when it came to a pinch I had nearly pushed closed to the revered 20 mile/day.
It was taxing and liberating. The bunk house is sonorous. One gets to know his trail companions not just by sight but through scents and sounds, too. It’s peaceful here, despite the raucous night sounds. I think ill add my own to this sleepy symphony.