Gaining everything from nothing
I was in Virginia, standing at the intersection of a small gravel road and the Appalachian Trail, trying to figure out if I should keep on hiking or call it a day. I had been out in the woods for only two days, but my hiking partner and I were craving a real meal — our instant mashed potatoes just weren’t cutting it anymore. The feelings were intensified after seeing, right before we descended the mountain, a white sign posted to a tree that advertised just what we were looking for: a hiker hostel and a phone number.
When the lure of food, conversation with other hikers and water that didn’t need purifying became too strong, we made the decision to call the number and get the free ride to the nearby hostel. It was ironic, then, when we pulled out our cell phones at the bottom of the mountain and realized that neither one of us had service. Disappointment set in, and we lingered by the intersection, trying to figure out how often the gravel road was used and what the odds were of us getting a ride.
It was about five minutes later when we heard someone running down the mountain behind us, and we turned around to see the familiar human-plus-backpack combination. This hiker was in a hurry — his trekking poles were flailing around like extra arms as he came to a stop right in front of us at the road. Catching his breath, he greeted us with a simple, “I made it.”
“Yeti!” we exclaimed, calling him by the moniker he’d picked as his trail identity. I realized at that instant that I had no idea what Yeti’s actual name was, but it didn’t matter. I was happy to see another familiar face, and I was even more happier to hear that Yeti had made the call to the hostel the instant he saw the sign on the tree; a shuttle was on its way.
After about 15 minutes, we heard the "shuttle" — a beat up white pickup truck already full of hikers — coming down the gravel road. It came to a stop right in front of the three of us, and we hefted our large packs in the bed of the truck and jumped in after them.
The ride to the hostel was oddly exhilarating. I held my arms out like I was flying, experiencing the cool mountain air to the fullest extent from the back of the truck as we sped down the gravel road, then the highway, then another curvy, pothole-filled road that took us deep into the woods. The truck came to a stop, and we took in our surroundings. The hostel wasn't a traditional hostel at all, but instead, a lot of tent sites; a small, cabin-like structure that contained a kitchen; and a tarp that sheltered a circle of chairs and a fire pit. Then we saw a man walking up to the truck, carrying a chainsaw in one hand and a beer in the other.
"I'm Trubrit," he said. "And we need some more firewood."
That explains the chainsaw, I thought, somewhat relieved.
After helping Trubrit collect firewood, the group gathered under the tarp for dinner and introductions. At least 15 to 20 hikers had materialized by the time sun had set, and the group was rowdy and talkative, happy to be in the company of each other and pleased with the promise of a hot meal. When Trubrit pulled out his guitar, though, he instantly had our attention, and we laughed and sang along as he played familiar tunes. I looked around at everyone in the circle and thought how wonderful it was that many of us hadn't met before and might not have anything in common besides the love of the Appalachian Trail; but here we were, at a hostel in Virginia in the middle of the woods, and we felt practically like family.
Trubrit finished playing a song and was quiet for a moment before he spoke.
"I used to have everything," he said. "But I really had nothing."
He went on, telling the group he was from Great Britain, where he had a successful job, a fancy home and lots of friends. His life at that point was full of money and prestige. Yet he decided one day to give it all up, start over in the United States and begin working toward his dream of opening not only a hiker hostel but a wilderness education school, with everything built by hand on land he had acquired through hard work and dedication.
"You're surrounded by the beginning stages of that dream," he told us, gesturing to the few log buildings around us.
When I left Trubrit's place in Virginia, I was happy to have met someone who was so dedicated to the hiker community, but I was also excited to know that were people out there who realized that "stuff" really wasn't what mattered. To me — a mid-twenty something trying to figure out a place in life — my meeting Trubrit contained a valuable lesson about leaving a mark on the world that was not so much about me as it was about others.