We pull into the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome in the early evening. Alanna keeps the car running while I take too long to gather my things. Her heater is turned up all the way. Outside, the sky sags dark and heavy, unrelenting rain.
“I can take you back to Asheville if you want,” she says. “You can wait out the storm at my house.”
Her offer sounds so good. Too good.
“Thank you,” I say. “I can’t,” I say.
We hug eachother. Say goodbye. She leans out of her car window, into the rain, snaps a picture of me smiling sheepishly with my jacket cinched tight around my face. I wave. She drives off.
It’s only three and a half miles to Mt. Collins Shelter where I plan to stay tonight. My tent is dry–I hung it in the shower in our hotel bathroom–so hopefully I can sleep alone in my little home. I don’t know where my friends are, don’t know if they’re ahead or behind. There’s a knot in my stomach that won’t go away.
It takes me a little over an hour to reach the shelter, but I’m already soaking wet by the time I arrive. A handful of hikers are sprawled out on their sleeping bags, a few others cook dinner beneath the awning. My friends aren’t here. The knot in my stomach twists itself tighter.
But then I spot a familiar face. Fig is here! He is surprised to see me. He thought I’d be miles ahead by now.
“I went into Gatlinburg,” I tell him. “Stayed in a hotel with a friend.”
“I thought you looked too clean,” he says in his thick Maine accent.
I sit on a bench beside him as he eats cold vanilla pudding out of his cook pot.
“I have this every night after dinner,” he tells me. “It helps me sleep.”
We talk about the never-ending rain, about what it does to your body, your brain, your desire to keep going.
“How do you have the drive to do this so many times?” I ask him. This is Fig’s fourth time hiking the Appalachian Trail.
He takes a bite of pudding. Thinks for a moment.
“I’ll tell you,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve wondered why I’m out here. I’ve never seen it rain this much.”
I start to pull my tent out of my pack and Fig leans in close, gestures towards a young woman across the shelter reading a paperback book in her sleeping bag.
“She’s a ridge runner. You can’t tent tonight.”
Ridge runners are seasonal rangers of sorts, who hike along and oversee high-use sections of the trail. Make sure hikers are obeying the rules. The shelter is half-full. I sigh. Shove my tent back inside my pack. Pull out my sleeping pad and bag and set up my bed on the top row of the shelter.
I sleep terribly. Toss and turn all night. Wake up in the wee hours to pee. Try not to wake the others when I return, sopping wet, to crawl back inside my sleeping bag. Lie on my back and stare at the ceiling until I finally fall asleep.
Fig is packing up his things by the red glow of his headlamp when I awake.
“Morning,” I say softly. “I barely slept a wink.”
“I know,” he says. “Your sleeping pad makes noise every time you move.”
I’m so embarrassed. Apologize profusely. Hope I don’t have to sleep in a shelter again tonight.
For as badly as I slept, though, the miles tick by today. My body feels strong, my mind does, too. It rains for most of the morning but lets up by the afternoon. The skies even part, if only for a moment, so I stop to take in the view.
I see few hikers all day. Fig decides to stop early at a shelter fifteen miles in, wants to make sure he gets a good spot. My knee starts to scream at me, but I press on to the next shelter five miles further. The young dudes, I’m sure, will be there. I miss hiking with them.
At 4:45, I arrive at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, limping slightly. Half a dozen hikers are here. The young dudes, however, are not. Another hiker tells me they came through an hour earlier, kept going to the next shelter eight miles away. The knot in my stomach returns. Furls itself tighter. I should keep going, I think. But my knee is throbbing. And I need to eat dinner.
I sit on the bench beside the other hikers. Eat snacks out of my food bag. Still not ready to commit to cooking. To staying the night. To admitting defeat. Then it begins to pour, a symphony of rain battering the wooden shelter roof. I sigh. Admit defeat. Decide to stay.