STARLIGHT, MOONLIGHT AND FIREFLY LIGHT


“We don’t claim to be sane,” said Spur as he and Silvermoon left the Hogback Ridge Shelter at 9 p.m., heading north on the Appalachian Trail towards Erwin, Tennessee.  They arrived at the 3-sided wooden shelter as I finished my macaroni and rice dinner.  For the last two hundred miles, we had leapfrogged each other.  They were about to jump ahead.

A month earlier, the pair decided to hike the entire 2160-mile AT, as hikers referred to the footpath, in one season — a thru-hike.  We didn’t know each other’s names in the outside world, but that didn’t matter on the AT.  I had learned they were from Atlanta.  Spur, his trail name coming from his spur-of-the-moment thru-hike decision, ran a business.  Silvermoon was a florist.  I was “Voyageur.”  Trail names were accepted social convention on the AT.  Every long distance hiker had one; some additionally had creative logos.

Shelters occurred every 8-15 miles along the Trail.  While comfortably sleeping a dozen, an adage was “there’s always room for one more,” especially in a cold, driving rain, a frequent occurrence in the mountains.  Unfortunately, most shelters harbored large populations of well-fed, pack-smart mice that ran over sleeping hikers.  I usually pitched my tent nearby or stayed somewhere else.  Indeed, one night near Hot Springs, I camped on the Trail itself — in poison oak as I later discovered — when rain and darkness beat me to the next campsite.

Shelters were a source of Trail news.  There was usually a logbook present, left by a hiker, containing instructions to mail it, postage guaranteed, when the book was full.  Reading the past three months of entries was a pleasant way to spend an evening and to learn about diversity of hiker goals, opinions, adventures, and equipment.  In addition, because of travel in both directions, one heard about upcoming terrain and obtained reviews of the nearest town, emphasizing food, cost, and lodging, in that order.

That evening, I was in the middle of a 300-mile hike from the Great Smoky Mountains to Virginia.  The previous year, I had walked from northern Georgia to the Smokies.  I was humbled by thru-hikers, who planned to walk seven times my distance.  But only one in ten who wrote “GA→ME” in the logbook actually succeeded, able to overcome the frequent physical and mental breakdowns associated with the effort.  Still, after several hundred miles of hiking, one’s efficiency increased dramatically.  Nothing in a thru-hiker’s pack was superfluous.  Extra food was eaten; running out of food was incentive to get to the next town quickly.

I stuck my head outside the small tent to see how well their headlamps worked.  Seemed interesting.  While the two were hiking under a waxing gibbous Moon, it was often cloudy in the Appalachians, so that bright moons usually weren’t helpful.

Probably more relevant, however, the AT was a green tunnel.  A few days earlier, in a large rhododendron patch, I started to remove my sunglasses because of the darkness.  I then realized they had been off for some time.  I arrived on the Trail with a full body tan.  After hiking in just shorts for two weeks, my tan faded.

Hogback was in dense, hardwood forest, dark even by AT standards.  Still, the idea of a night hike was intriguing, but not after my long day of climbing.  My pack was lighter than the previous year, and I was far more efficient, but high humidity in the South made hiking — especially the climbing — difficult.  I soon learned that clothing dried only when worn.  One could either wear wet, clean clothing or dry, smelly clothing.  Usually, it ended up both wet and smelly.

Nevertheless, I missed out on a real treat.  I should have gone with them, even after 21 miles that day and even without a headlamp.

Three days later, I caught up with the two at a restaurant in Erwin.  They were staying at Johnny’s hostel near where the Trail emerged from the mountains by the Nolichucky River.  At Johnny’s, hikers could shower, sleep in a real bed, obtain food, supplies, and transportation into town.  Everybody on the AT in Tennessee knew about Erwin and Johnny’s by reading the logbooks.  Word traveled fast on the ridgeline telegraph.  Hikers were good listeners in restaurants, since their mouths were used to eat rather than to talk.  I was no exception.  Sitting down at a table across from Silvermoon, I rapidly spooned a quart of chocolate ice cream into my fat-starved frame, seldom looking up during the process.  It was really good.  Every long distance hiker did this sooner or later, mostly sooner.

Silvermoon was still excited about their night hike.  While speaking, she kept rubbing her long, brown hair, enjoying that it was clean for the first time in about 100 miles.  “After we left you,” she said, looking at my rapidly diminishing pile of ice cream with some envy, “we descended into Low Gap and climbed in pitch darkness up to Big Bald.”  The AT in the South has numerous descents into gaps and climbs to balds, grassy mountaintops.  On a clear day, the views were spectacular from a bald.  On a rainy one, the experience and view were comparable to being inside a car wash.

“Once we were on Big Bald, it was just us and fireflies everywhere, with lots of stars and a bright Moon.  We didn’t need our headlamps, so we turned them off.  It was even better then.”  I actually stopped eating, visualizing the scene, having been there hours after they were.

“The miles just slipped by, with little flashes of light everywhere we looked.  We finally slept up there in the open, with twinkling lights above, below, and around us.  It was magical.”  Silvermoon smiled, then delivered the coup de grace:  “And so much nicer than that dark hole where you were.”

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