Trail magic and unexpected encounters
It was a rainy summer evening, and the trail resembled a small river, but all I could think about was the package of dehydrated pasta primavera in my pack.
When I saw the sign that said, “Derrick Knob Shelter, 0.3 miles,” I practically began sprinting, despite the 30 pounds on my back. Yes, I was cold and wet — the waterproof lining of my rain jacket was at capacity after hiking about 10 miles in the rain — but more than that, I was hungry, and I could barely wait for a hot meal.
The shelters along the Appalachian Trail are three-sided structures, with one wall open to the outside. (Derrick Knob Shelter, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is no exception, although with its stone walls and fireplace, it is one of the nicer shelters out there.) Hikers sleep side-by-side on a wooden platform, and I’ve discovered that there are pros and cons to sleeping at the ends or in the middle; for example, a person usually has to deal with more mice activity by the walls, yet in the middle, one has to put up with potential snoring on both sides and, in extreme cases, two strangers accidentally cozying up to you in the night.
When my dad — my hiking partner — and I arrived at Derrick Knob, there was already a large group there, but luckily, the shelter slept 12. Choosing one of the only remaining spots, I put down my sleeping bag and Therm-a-rest and awkwardly shuffled around the side of the shelter to change my soggy clothes.
And then it was time.
Warm and dry, I stood underneath the edge of the shelter’s roof — the “porch” area — and began pulling out my backpacker’s stove and small cook set, pouring water into the pot. I screwed the stove onto the fuel canister, turned on the gas and lit the flame, eager to begin boiling water so I could cook my pasta as quickly as possible. And then I realized that the usually simple process was going to be particularly difficult because of the weather.
The flame, spurred on by the wind, was dancing around the sides and bottom of the pot, heating everything but the water. And I had forgotten the handy screen I had fashioned out of tin foil that typically solved problems like that. Too stubborn to ask someone in the group for help, I moved the stove and pot around, trying to shield the pair from the wind behind one of the shelter’s beams, and when that didn’t work, I tried to use my body as a wall to block the wind. But the water still wouldn’t boil.
Finally, someone in the group noticed what I was doing, and asked if I wanted to borrow a screen. Feeling unprepared, I sheepishly said yes, and as the water began heating up, I started to talk to the person who had come to my rescue. His name was Adam.
When I asked Adam how he had discovered the A.T., he told me he grew up near a small trail town in North Carolina. And I knew immediately which one he was talking about.
“Hot Springs?” I asked, thrilled to meet another Madison County native.
“Yeah!” he said. “I’m from Marshall. My uncle helped run a furniture store downtown.”
At this point in our conversation, my dad began listening, his ears pricking up at the words “Marshall” and “furniture store,” because his father — my granddad — was the owner of Home Electric & Furniture Company, which, before he retired and passed away, used to be the only furniture store downtown. My grandfather had co-operated the store with his cousin — the man Adam was referring to.
“Wait,” I said, beginning to feel like the world was a very small place and struggling to put the pieces together while scarfing down my pasta primavera. “I think we’re related.”
While Adam and my dad discussed specifics, I couldn’t believe what was occurring. Here we were, in the middle of the woods, sleeping in a shelter along the Appalachian Trail — and randomly meeting a relative whom I had never seen before. It was trail magic at its finest. I went to sleep that night full from dinner, but also from the beauty of the experience.
This weekend, if you’d like to experience a trail town, join me Saturday, Sept. 28, for a free guided hike in Hot Springs in honor of Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Family Hiking Day. I’ll lead a group up to the rock outcropping called Lover’s Leap and back, making a short, 1.6-mile loop. Bring your family and friends — we’ll depart from the Hot Springs Welcome Center at 10 a.m. For directions and more information, call me at 380-9547 or 452-0661 ext. 114.