Today the trail is a mess of roots and rocks. Spiderwebs stretch from branches and trees, strands of sticky silk criss-crossed like caution tape across the trail. I brush them off my face, arms, neck, sunburned calves. Trip over the roots and rocks while doing so. Today, I decide, the trail is trying to kill me.
By 8 a.m. I’m already drenched in sweat. This humidity! This heat! It’s only going to get worse the further north I hike, the further the days sink into summer. I’m not sure if I can handle the gravity of this, so I push the thought away and keep trudging up the trail.
The goal today is Woods Hole Hostel, an old log cabin half a mile off the trail that has been converted into a woodsy retreat for AT hikers. It’s only twenty miles from the flat spot I pitched my tent at last night, so it should be an easy day. But the air is so thick and hot that nothing about today feels easy.
I stop ten miles in to take a break beneath the shade of an Oak tree. Sprawl my legs out in front of me, browned from too much sun and streaked in dirt. Pick at bug bites and eat snacks from my food bag. I want to sit here all day. Sleep with my back against the bark, with the ants and spiders crawling across my tired limbs. But there are miles to make, and maybe cold sodas to drink at the hostel! So I gather my stuff, shoulder my pack. Keep walking.
Get to the hostel at three. A dozen hikers are here–hanging out on the porch, reading books in the grass, playing Trivial Pursuit around a picnic table. They look up and smile when I arrive, say hello, go back to their things. I’ve never seen any of them before.
A young woman with long legs and blond braids gets up from her chair on the porch, comes over to me.
“I’m HaHa,” she says. “I’ll show you around.”
She’s a hiker, doing work-for-stay at the hostel. She’s sweet and bubbly and takes me around the place. Points out the composting privy and electronics charging station and fridge stocked with soda and juice and hard-boiled eggs.
“It’s an honor system,” she says, motions to a mason jar stuffed with coins and dollar bills on the wooden counter.
There’s space in the bunkhouse, or, for $10, you can pitch your tent up past the gravel driveway, she tells me. I want to camp, so I head up the hill in search of a flat spot. There are none. I’m flustered. My face feels flush. For some reason, I want to cry. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, I tell myself. Push the feelings down, shake it off. Decide not to stay here after all.
Before I leave, it starts to rain, so I take off my pack and hunker down on the porch until the storm passes. Chat with the other hikers. Drink a cold Dr. Pepper. Put a dollar in the mason jar.
After an hour the rain lets up so I hike on. In 2 1/2 miles there’s a shelter, hopefully some flat spots nearby, too. I can make it there before dark, even though the trail climbs up, up, up, over loose jagged rocks that try to take me down. It’s still so hot, so humid, and I’m hiking slower than I feel like I’ve ever hiked before.
I’m almost to the top of the mountain, slow and steady, when I set my foot down on a rock and all of the air gets sucked from my lungs. Someone–something–pushes me from behind and I heave forward, barely manage to stay on my feet. My heart races, thumps, leaps maniacally inside my chest. Everything’s tingly, I look at my hands–they’re tingling the most–but I can’t quite see straight. I’m dizzy, disoriented, heart’s still going so fast. Then the deafening kaboom of thunder overhead.
I’m running now, like a lopsided drunk. Heart still beating a million miles a minute, and I’m so confused. The clouds open up and rain comes down in fat wet drops. More thunder crackles, electricity illuminates the sky. Then the realization: I’ve just been struck by lightning.
It stops raining by the time I make it to Doc’s Knob Shelter. Sun seeps through the thick Rhododendron leaves. I plant my trekking poles into the dirt so they stand up straight, set my pack on the ground. Crumple onto the picnic bench, shoulders slumped forward.
Fozzie, Jersey Girl, and Two Ferns, three young guys I met earlier today, are here. They’re surprised to see me.
“We thought you kept going and did a thirty into town!” Fozzie says.
I tell them that I stopped at Woods Hole, that I decided to keep going. Give them hunks of homemade bread and Munster cheese that I packed out from the hostel.
“You guys,” I say. They look at me, mouths full. “I, uhh, think I got struck by lightning.”
It sounds so strange saying it aloud. Hearing the words come out of my mouth. They stare at me incredulously.
I rehash the details, trying to remember them all. They ask me questions, I answer them as best as I can. It’s exciting, it’s terrifying, it’s utterly unreal.
For the first time since the Smokies, I sleep in the shelter. We hang our food bags to keep the mice away, lay our sleeping bags in a row. It’s just us four, so there’s room to spread out. I sleep with my head facing out, so I can smell the wet dirt and Rhododendron trees. Feel the cool wind on my face.
In the middle of the night I awake to the sound of rain pounding against the shelter roof. Turn over onto my stomach, prop myself up on my elbows. I smile softly, taking in this private show from my sleeping bag. Watch the woods flash white hot, electric blue. Then thunder, no seconds in between.