In the morning, I pack my things as the sun rises, eat pop tarts and drink cold instant coffee while I shove everything into my pack. The boys are still asleep in their tents when I set out on the trail.
It’s cold, but not raining, so I hike in short sleeves because I know I’ll be sweating soon. Pop my headphones in and zone out. This is my favorite time to hike. When the day is burgeouning and my body feels strong. When my thoughts are new and everything is exquisite. When I fall in love with thru-hiking all over again.
It stays sunny all day, and the air is so thick and warm that I’m sweating even on the downhills. Which there is no shortage of. The shooting pain in my knee is back, so I take tiny ballerina steps which helps with the hurt but frustrates me to no end. I want to hike fast, especially since I can hear the road down below. The road means ice cream. Cold beer. Soda with ice. Cheeseburgers. Salad. Patience, patience. Tiny ballerina steps.
The switchbacks finally end and I cross the two-lane highway to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a river-rafting resort type of place with a lodge, restaurants, outfitter, and general store. Tourists in strappy sandals and Patagonia t-shirts stroll along the banks of the river, snapping photos of neoprene-clad kayakers paddling furiously through the rapids. Hikers I’ve never seen before hang out on benches, charging their electronics and drinking craft beer out of cans.
I buy a Dr. Pepper from the hot dog stand. Find a vacant table by an outlet. Charge my devices and refill my styrofoam cup with more soda. Get some sideways glances from a mother and her pig-tailed daughters. I smell really, really bad.
Finally the young dudes arrive, all stink and smiles. I gather my things and join them by the river. We peel off our shoes and socks and dangle our crusty feet into the water. It’s so, so cold.
Jeopardy flings his shirt onto the rocks and dives into the rapids. The other guys follow suit. Cambo’s nose begins to bleed, so he joins me on the shore, water and blood and dirt dripping down his chest. He’s laughing hysterically–we all are–and the tourists turn their cameras from the kayakers and point them at us.
We eat burgers on the restaurant patio. Moosehead buys us all a round of beers. The guys go for seconds–thirds, maybe–they’re done hiking for the day.
“Camp with us by the river, Tick Tock!” they say.
It sounds fun, but I want to hike on. Break up the big climb out of here. Plus, I can feel the melancholy of Town Limbo creeping up on me. The unease that sets in when I’m idle for too long. When I start to miss my family and friends, and a hitch back home starts to seem so easy, and the trail starts to seem so hard.
I bid the boys farewell, spot Ellen and Patrick crossing the road. They want to hike on, too, so I send some texts and use the free wifi while they get food, then the three of us head out at dusk.
Patrick pushes on in front, Ellen behind. The climb is steep, but the evening air is cool and I’m glad to be back on the trail. The sun starts to sink behind the mountains as the sound of the river falls away down below. Pine needles replace the crunchy brown leaves underfoot, and I stop, lean against my trekking poles. Smell the familiar forest smells and smile.
In a few miles, I find Patrick gathering twigs beside the trail. He criss-crosses the wood inside a make-shift firepit of stones and ash. Holds his flame to a clump of dry leaves in the middle. Lights the little log cabin on fire.
I lay my piece of Tyvek out on a flat patch of dirt. Blow up my sleeping pad, set my bag on top. Tonight it’s dry. Tonight there’s no need for a tent.
Ellen arrives and I convince her and Patrick to cowboy camp, too. We lie in our beds on the ground, talking about East coast hardcore bands and vegan burgers with cheese and the next day’s miles. I eat gummy bears and watch the last light fade through the spaces between the trees. Fall in love with thru-hiking all over again.