I made it to Harpers Ferry and stopped in at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The ATC is a hell of a milestone for any thru-hiker, and having my picture taken out front was somewhat surreal.
I am the 1376th Nobo thru-hiker to come through this year. A total of 1378 came through in 2015, the last in September. Photos like the one above are put into a giant photo album, and I’ll be at the ATC first thing in the morning to have that album to myself for ten to twenty minutes. It’s nice to check on old friends, and put faces to names I’ve read in shelter logs only.
I hovered over a couple reading the album today and saw the photo of a girl I met just before Fontana. A short brunette with a mischievous smile and the darkest, widest brown eyes I’d ever seen.
When I met her on trail she greeted me with the firmest handshake I’d ever had from a woman. Her words were almost curt, but precise. Her straight black hair was pulled neatly under a ballcap, in a short tight bun. The ULA pack next to her was orderly, compact, and somehow Zen-like.
In Fontana Village she went down to the general store just before me and I remember seeing her come back up the stairs clear as day. What struck me was the complete change from the stoic badass she was on trail, to this carefree spirit in flip flops. Her hair was liberated, curling just before her shoulders, her lips were red, and a smile lit across her face as she held up a six-pack, the words “Dirty Girl” printed across the cardboard.
I had two wonderful days with her in Fontana Village, the best times being breakfast at dawn on the upper deck of the lodge. Great conversations over coffee, watching the sun slowly illuminate the mountain vista before us.
When we packed to leave and head into the Smokies, I hatched (what I thought was a romantic plan) to have breakfast with her one more time. I knew she was faster than me, so it would be the last opportunity.
I entered the Smokies eight hours behind her due to the post office. Nevertheless, I hiked for nineteen miles straight, which would be a 27+ to me now. A 250lb bear crossed my path at 9pm, and I shouted at it. It wouldn’t budge. I was on a mission, and would not be dissuaded, so I flipped my headlamp to 350 lumens and charged at it. It dashed up a tree and let me pass.
Near 11pm that night I made it to the shelter, and at 6am I shared a breakfast that lasted all of three minutes with her. She told me to leave Fontana in Fontana, and I marveled at the absolute efficiency with which she neatly packed her gear and left.
I hiked out soon after, struck with the beauty of the retreating cloud cover, and the contrasting dark mountains below. On top of a ridge I watched the sunlight stream down, the rays of light an alternating visual symphony painted by the clouds above.
Caught in the grandure of the moment in front of me, I realized she was right. Leave moments in their moment. It does not due hang on to them, or try to extend them.
Leave Fontana in Fontana.