I never really had what you might call the “college dorm experience”, but I imagine that nighttime on the Appalachian Trail comes pretty close. You’re far from home, the living quarters are small, and the bathrooms (really just toilet seats over holes in the ground) are kind of horrifying. You grow your beard, dress like a homeless pirate, and exist on a diet of Ramen Noodles & peanut butter which you must hide lest your neighbors — in this case squirrels, mice, bears, wild boar, and the occasional hobo — steal it. And of course, most importantly, you share this experience with some of the greatest people you will ever meet, for life on the AT isn’t nearly as solitary as you might first think.
Daytime is much as you’d expect; lots of walking alone through deep shady woods, past rivers and springs, and up over sun-dappled summits. You can go hours without seeing a soul. But at night people tend to congregate, mostly in and around a series of rustic shelters built along the trail by various volunteer groups and government agencies over the last few decades.
The shelters, really just wood floors with three walls and a roof, are spaced roughly a day’s walk apart, and are almost always provisioned with a picnic table, fire ring, and the aforementioned slightly horrifying bathrooms, which are known as privies. The really luxurious shelters might have a loft, or plywood bunks for sleeping in, a roof over the picnic table giving you a place to cook in the rain, and a series of pulleys and cables slung around trees from which you can easily hang your food bag in order to deter nighttime visitors.
In addition to all this the shelters are usually surrounded by a handful of handsome campsites, complete with their own fire rings, and are almost always near a good source of water. And so people trickle in all evening, looking for a place to fire up their cook stoves, grab some much needed calories, and a get good night’s sleep.
It’s in those hours, after the day’s hiking is finished but before drowsiness forces everyone to their sleeping bags, that many of the best memories from the trail are made.
Imagine, if you will, that you are the sole survivor of some civilization-crushing apocalyptic meltdown. All alone you struggle to fend for yourself, with nothing but the sound of the wind and the circling buzzards to keep you company. Then one day a couple of well-meaning strangers show up on your doorstep, with news from afar, pleasant conversation, and a bag of fun-size snickers bars that they readily share. That is every evening on the AT.
After a long day spent schlepping alone through endless woods every person you meet becomes a kind of miracle encounter. Strangers take on a whole new significance, and you are even excited to see people you may already know quite well. Conversation flows easily as you all have something in common: you’re all hiking the same trail.
If they’re heading in the same direction as you, you discuss the higher points and moments of intrigue from that day. If they’re going in the opposite direction, you trade tips on the terrain to come. The shared struggle of the trail opens the door to deeper discussion, and it’s not uncommon to forge strong bonds with perfect strangers before the sun goes down.
Then, in the morning, you wake up, pack up, and do it all again. Because everyone tends to walk and rest at different paces, you will sometimes pass new friends from the night before filling water bottles from a stream or enjoying the view after a taxing climb. Other times, you only see evidence that they’ve been there — someone will stand a stray bird feather up in the mud, or thoughtfully drape a red bandana over a tree branch in order to warn others of a nearby bee hive.
You begin to get the feeling that you’re part of a very large, loosely formed community of transients. Each of you facing the same hills and rocks and wind and hunger, and each of you keeping a kind of distant eye on the others. It is very nice.
With this bond there comes a palpable feeling of loss any time it is broken.
The day after we left Hiawassee, while camping at a place called Plumborchard Gap, we met a man whose trail name was Gunny.
Greeting people by their trail name is a jarring, almost nonsensical experience at first, mostly because trail names tend to be jarring and nonsensical. We had, for example, met hikers by the name of Can’t Tweet, ColdieLocks, Smokes, Puffs, and Just Lookin’, and had even heard of a librarian who was walking north under the moniker Thunder Fuck. But gradually you come to see that “real” names are just words, and words with very little back-story at that.
“She was named Gertrude after her great aunt Gertrude”… Boring.
“She was named Thunder Fuck because one day in camp she absolutely blew up on someone and nearly killed him to death with her bare hands”… Now we’re getting somewhere.
In any case you grow to accept trail names as legitimate methods of identification, and cease to notice their strangeness.
Gunny was, like many hikers, immediately likable and easygoing. He was optimistic, congenial, and a great talker which can be nice after hours of woodland silence. We all chatted late into the night, and made plans the next morning to meet up and camp together again at another shelter about eight miles north. I walked out of camp that day, following a zig-zag of side trails and footpaths that lead from the shelter back to the main Appalachian Trail, and wondered briefly if I shouldn’t wait, if only to help ensure that no one got lost. But we were all trail-tested by that point, having already navigated nearly a hundred miles of south-Appalachian wilderness and I shrugged off the thought and pushed on.
That evening I sat in camp, trading stories with two hikers – Squirrel and Zero — whom I’d just met. They had actually started behind us that morning, about five miles further south at a place called Dick’s Creek Gap, and had made good time getting to camp.
“Did you see an older guy out there,” I asked, “big knife hanging on his backpack?”
“Yea, Gunny?” Squirrel said, “I passed him near Plumborchard this morning. Nice guy.”
“Oh, good.” I said, “He’s actually supposed to be camping with us tonight.”
Squirrel paused for a moment, a piece of string cheese half way to his mouth.
“Then why was he headed the other way?” he said slowly, but even as he said it we all thought we knew the answer.
By their very nature, any trail that heads north also leads south and while it’s not easy, it is possible to get turned around on the Appalachian Trail. Without any discernible landmarks you can walk for miles before realizing your mistake. Gunny had likely gotten disoriented in the twists and turns of the trail that lead away from camp, and had hopped back on the AT headed in the wrong direction. If he were lucky he’d see some bit of trail that looked familiar, or have a chat with another hiker and figure out his mistake. If not, he’d walk several miles only to be very confused to emerge out of the woods, after a long sweaty day, back where he’d started the day before.
“Poor Gunny,” Zero said as she glanced back toward the trail. And though none of us had known him more than a couple of hours – some of us only a couple of minutes – we all felt the same way.
This twinge of loss is common on the trail, and I felt it again several days later when Zero caught her flight home, and again a few days after that after parting ways with Squirrel.
Things like Facebook and email can help you to stay in touch. But these, you find, aren’t enough to recreate the sense of community and comradery that’s forged on the trail. No matter how popular or far-reaching it is, the digital world is a poor replacement for the real one.
It is, at the very least, a heartbreakingly funny little lesson in impermanence. Back home, in a world of twenty-four hour drive-thru, on-demand TV, and constant connectivity to friends around the world, it’s easy to forget that things on this planet naturally come to an end.
Easy accessibility can give us the illusion that people and posessions are in our lives to stay. But the reality, the real reality, is that they are only ever passing through.