On an overcast, humid warm morning, I stepped back on the Appalachian Trail for the first time this year. My hiking partner today was May “Dynamite” McDaniel, a 71 year-young thru-hiker from my hometown of Columbus, GA. May began her quest for Katahdin on March 16. After some early difficulties, which included several days away from the trail to adjust her food planning, Dynamite has been steadily working her way north. Prior to her departure I had promised to meet her along the A.T. and slackpack her a few days. Today I kept that promise.
We started our day with a drive to Devil Fork Gap, a road crossing between Hot Springs, NC and Erwin, TN. The previous evening I had contacted my old buddy, Tom “10” Bradford and arranged a shuttle from DFG to Sam’s Gap so that we could walk toward my car. Tom was booked; however, his wife, Marie, was happy to provide the service. After the short transport, May and I were walking south a little after 9:00. It didn’t take long for the trail to remind me of its difficulty. Still, after an early climb out of the gap up to a ridge, the A.T. provided my hiking companion and me a rather gentle path throughout most of the day.
Early in the hike I suggested to May that we play my favorite trail game, over or under on the number of hikers we would see. Pilgrim and I had often occupied hours on my thru-hike of 2013 keeping tabs on the number of other backpackers that we met or that passed us. Dynamite happily played along, selecting the “under” when I chose the number 15 for today’s walk. Perhaps this seemed a rather high number considering we were only hiking 8.5 miles, and it was a Monday with rain in the forecast. My reason for proposing 15, however, centered on the fact that we were southbounding and most thru-hikers were headed north.
The day passed quickly. Sharing stories from the trail, we reached the Hogback Ridge Shelter in a little over an hour. Along the way we were met by several northbound hikers including my friend Bon Bon’s son, “Doogie.” May knew some of the hikers and introduced me as a former thru-hiker and author of two books. Among the many that we met, I especially enjoyed chatting with Popsicle, a young lady from Oregon, and Preacher Man, a very young Episcopal priest originally from Birmingham. When the priest noted that he was almost out of food and not going to be able to re-supply until the following day, Dynamite offered him some of her provisions.
As the day passed I continued to count each hiker. Deciding to list them in Spanish, when I reached “ocho” by noon I knew the contest was going to be close. With less than one-half mile remaining, the number reached “quince” and I took a fall. I couldn’t believe that my first day on the trail since last summer, I found myself tumbling down the side of a mountain. I simply tripped on a stretch of flat trail, stumbled to my right, and rolled five or six times before coming to a stop on my right side. Other than a little lower back discomfort, I seemed to be fine. May, however, was shaken. Staring down at me, she pitifully asked, “Should I call 911?”
“No, I’m OK. Just toss my poles down to me so that I can get back up there.”
May obliged. As I lay there surveying the situation, I immediately thought of Speck, my good friend, and occasional hiking partner on my thru-hike. She would have been laughing mercilessly. I even smiled thinking about my predicament.
Within a few minutes I was back on the footpath, headed south. Although more embarrassed than injured, I still felt grateful not to have been hurt more seriously. Had it been in New Hampshire or Maine, I might have never been heard from again. I can’t believe that I fell on such a simple section of trail. Then one never knows what danger awaits on the A.T.
When the the road at Devil Fork Gap came into view, the number of hikers we had seen was still at 15. Then as we rounded a bend and spotted the parking lot, four hikers were preparing to head our way. I had won the game on our first day on the trail. We had met 19 folks, all thru-hikers. Even with my roll down the side of a mountain, it was an OK day. It felt good to be back on the A.T. I’ll re-evaluate the back later this evening, but my plan right now is to hike again tomorrow. And if I do I’ll try to pay closer attention to flat sections of trail with no obstacles. That’s what got me today, so I need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.