Cheese and Chocolate are sitting on the shady downslope of the hill across the road as we set out for another day on the AT. The weather has blessed us with sun, blue skies, and comfortable temperatures on our 5th day slowly ticking off the miles towards our 100 mile goal-for the year. We are not through hikers–but envious wannabes-at least on days like this one. Our story is short, like our hikes, but filled with the brief nuggets of information shared with us by those we meet.
The young smiling Swiss pair from the hillside soon approach as we progress at our much slower pace–she is ‘Cheese’ and he is ‘Chocolate’. They willingly engage in brief banter that consists mostly of our questions and their responses–started in Georgia in March, have seen many bears, including one large one this morning sitting at the heavy metal ‘bear box’, unsuccessful in his attempts, viewing the human wildlife with lazy curiosity and then leaving. The description of one particularly large rattlesnake as long as their hiking poles stretched across the trail, rattling its tail as they approached, is spine chilling. They waited until it slithered out of sight before continuing. Both tall and slim, they look fresh and eager to continue. I had stopped at a rest stop on my two-hour drive to meet my hiking partner–Rock Dancer–and purchased three large homemade chocolate chip cookies for the first thru-hikers we meet. All three go to these two, maybe not in immediate need of energy renewal since they just stopped at a local Trail Angel’s supply box containing fruit, sweet carbs and drinks, but still grateful for this future energy supplement! Lynn and I met the Angel a few weeks ago as he restocked and now witness the pleasure his efforts bestow on hikers. We all move on and Cheese and Chocolate soon disappear.
The initial ascent over large rocks and larger boulders eases into a less strenuous path, at least briefly, until more climbs require stops to catch our breath, and wary eyes to safely navigate rocks and roots and reptiles relaxing in the sun. Rock Dancer and I met over 35 years ago, have watched our lives and families grow and change, and shared a profession that brought us together early in our careers. The conversation is both light and deep as we touch on a wide array of topics. We speak of our appreciation of moments shared, of bodies still capable of traveling this route, and of brains still capable of dreaming and planning future adventures. We may look and move differently than years ago, but our spirits and desires are still strong, though tempered. Small blueberry bushes, no more than 12 inches high, line the trail. Though prized by many hikers, a few ripe berries still hide under leaves and we savor their intense flavor.
Today we are heading for ‘Agony Grind’, described as a very steep 500 foot decent over rocks and boulders in a ¼ mile span. We were planning to do the Grind last trip, but my intense fear of downhill movement on a day that had been more challenging than expected altered the plan. We moved it to this week’s agenda-but earlier in the hike while our energy and focus are still strong.
We meet a lone hiker–‘Union Jack’ from London- about ½ mile from the grind. He is tall and lean with the 3 month growth on his chin that announced his thru-hiker status. He left Georgia in April–later than the March timeline we typically hear, and averages 20 miles a day. Bears have been absent from his trip so far, but there have been lots of snakes of various descriptions. He is wearing trail shoe instead of hiking boots and explains this was his 3rd pair after opting for the less restrictive footwear after wearing boots initially. Another variation on the hiking theme!
We decide to take a break and eat some lunch. A second lone hiker, ‘Looper’, finds us perched on the rocks eating our PBJ’s. He appears beyond the average age we have previously encountered by at least a couple of decades, and sports a much shorter beard (shaved mid hike). I also note he is put together in a way that only more mature muscle and bone can achieve–and maybe only more mature eyes can fully appreciate! He seems more eager to move on than others, but obliges our questions: has just seen a bear cub this morning (and where was mama???), and describes an encounter with a rattler longer than his hiking pole and as thick as his trim but developed bicep. My imagination reels with fear and hope that we will not encounter such a monster.
‘Looper’ moves on and ‘Cowboy’ (Texas) and ‘Cornwall’ (England) quickly take his place: some snakes, some bears, hated Pennsylvania, enjoying NY. Then two hikers I had glimpsed behind us several times earlier arrive on the scene–the ‘Appalachian Snails’! ‘Cowboy’ exclaims that they are infamous, and he is thrilled to finally meet them! They are section hikers from Frederick Maryland on their third day out, hoping to make it to Vermont and New Hampshire if things go well. A supply box is waiting for them not far away in Fort Montgomery. He is concerned that he has not gotten his ‘trail legs’ yet and is struggling more than expected. She describes their preference for tenting rather than using the shelters and gives us advice from experience hiking the AT-having what appears to be as many years behind her as we do. They inspire me to consider the idea of a longer hike. They move ahead and we met them again on the Grind.
When we move on, it is obvious we spent too much time sitting, as our stiff muscles require extra time to move smoothly again. We are not far along when ‘Mac’ and ‘Ace’ overtake us–young NJ natives near home again with relatives in Warwick close by. They left Georgia in March. She feels Georgia was the most challenging part of the hike so far. He is enjoying it all.
The challenge for the day is just ahead: The Grind. ‘Rock Dancer’ does her moves, sometimes beyond my belief, over the jumbled rocks and down the mountainside, free of hiking pole or fear. I pick each point of contact for each step, depending on my pole as a portable handrail and grasping any convenient tree or larger rock to further steady my descent. Trust in the grip of my vibram soles or the strength of my muscles to keep me upright is slim. But I also do not want to let the gravity devil take control away from me, so I slowly decipher my personal path. We pass the ‘Appalachian Snails’ mid grind. He appears to be the definition of agony-red faced, sweating, and barely hobbling down the path. She is by his side with encouraging words and patience, trying to disguise the worry that everyone that passes can’t help but share.
We finish the ‘Grind’ and feel the reward of completing a climb famous for its difficulty. It was difficult, but not the most difficult we have faced in our days hiking.