As I rode in the front seat of Gary’s Jeep on the way back to the trail, I thought about how Don loved to be out on his bass boat on beautiful Saturday mornings like this one. A couple of years ago in late March, he very well could have been fishing in a tournament with his good friend Mike. It had already been a special morning sharing breakfast in Gary and Lennie’s home at the Blueberry Patch hostel, with other hikers around the family table. We had held hands while Gary offered up thanksgivings. Now I was about to begin another day on the trail, after pancakes with fresh blueberry syrup, sausage, potatoes, biscuits, orange juice, and coffee. I expected to hike strong today.
I began the climb out of Dick’s Creek Gap solo even though the shuttle had included Sky (formerly Kristen), Chris from Birmingham, the Raisin Bran Kid, Apostle, and Seretina. Apostle, a former thru hiker who has also ridden his bicycle from the northwest corner of Washington to Key West, is hiking today for a few miles with his friend Tom, the Raisin Bran Kid.
Today I crossed the border from GA into NC. I took a moment to reflect on leaving my home state for hopefully the next five months. It will be the longest period of time I have been away. While I stopped to take a pic, the father and daughter team of Sassafras and Caboose arrived as did Happy Grumpy and Thor. I had passed and talked to both duos earlier in the day. I also chatted briefly with two brothers from Denver and Albuquerque out for a section hike.
Today was the prettiest day I’ve had to hike thus far. The sun shined brightly and views galore were around every bend of the trail. Along ridge lines, it was easy to see for many miles. On one stop I noticed Blissful sitting by a tree. Like some of the other former thru hikers, she is just out for a section hike this year. After a brief break, I hiked up on a couple who had stopped for a rest. Mandy and Whiskers reside in Cambridge. For about a mile I hiked with Maddy, who is from Minnesota, but currently serves as the cross-country ski coach at Harvard. She is hiking the trail before beginning graduate school in the fall.
Mid afternoon I stopped at Muskrat Creek shelter to prepare myself a snack. Sassafras and Caboose were already there and planning to stay the night. As I was finishing my food, Happy Grumpy and Thor arrived and also decided to stay. Since there were still four hours until sundown, I hiked on. For the first time on the hike I put my earphones on to listen to music on my small clip-on radio. The miles sailed by as I hiked steadily toward the next shelter. I only stopped one time, to talk with Tammy and Tony from Douglasville, GA, who were out for a section hike. They alerted me to the fact that there was going to be some serious trail magic at Deep Gap tomorrow morning. What they didn’t know, that I found out shortly afterwards, was that the magic had already begun.
As I approached the parking lot at Deep Gap, I knew immediately that I would be tenting there tonight despite the rain in the forecast. After all, I felt my tent needed another rain test. Large tents were set up and a camp fire blazed. I was greeted as I walked in to the gap by some fine folks who showed me where I could use a spit to roast my own hotdogs. I told them I would be right back after setting up my tent and changing clothes.
I meandered down to the campground and found a desirable spot between Blake and Blair, a weekend camping couple from Charleston, SC, and a family from Blue Ridge, GA. Scott was out for a short section hike with his 13 year old son, Uriah and his three younger sisters. Uriah, or Where Are You, helped me set up my tent.
The evening was another special one. I sat by the fire for a couple of hours visiting with the other hikers and the folks who were providing the trail magic. One of the “Omelet Angels” that I spoke with was Jeff from Heyward Co. NC. As I talked with Jeff and his adult son about Don and the reason for my hike, I noticed others turning their heads to listen, as the sun set over the mountains. Jeff is a veteran who flew med-evac helicopters in Desert Storm. Like so many others, he showed great compassion for my brother’s fate.
With the campfire still raging and hikers exchanging their plights of the trail, I called it a night and headed back to my tent. Just as I slipped into my sleeping bag, I heard the raindrops begin to hit the top of the tent. Even though the storms of last Saturday were’t expected, a steady rain all evening was. It has been my longest hiking day thus far, 15.5 miles. As I tried to get comfortable to sleep, I once again gave thanks for the incredible opportunity of hiking the Appalachian Trail.