(Note: Please see previous posts for the first two days of our hike).
This was our shortest day of the hike. By miles. Not by time. I was certainly short on patience. I was in pain, and it was not improving. Two and a half days of PUDS (hiker abbreviation for Pointless Ups and Downs) does not make for a happy woman. I was eating Advil, starting my day with three and making sure that I did not go past 2.5 hours before I took my next dose. At this point of the hike, there is no turning back. You simply keep going unless you can no longer go.
By mid-day, I was ready to sell my equipment, and so proclaimed with some other obscenities to my vastly patient and also worn-down husband. He later told me he was considering the same but was afraid to say so, lest I actually try to barter with the next stranger I happened upon.
The trail, a true analogy for life’s own ups and downs, sometimes smiles upon you in the form of trail angels and trail magic. Trail angels are the individuals who provide the trail magic. They’ll often leave soda or snacks for hungry or thirsty hikers at trailheads. They leave their numbers posted in shelters, in case someone needs an emergency ride out. Trail angels are often former thru hikers, giving back the magic they found on their own 2,170+ mile journey.
And so we were smiled upon in the midst of an arduous and painful day. Several hundred yards away, as we crossed an older dirt road, sat two individuals in lawn chairs near a large white truck. We waved and continued our pace down the trail. We were not exactly making good time and, in an era where one needs to be a little extra cautious about their safety, I simply continued to walk, my husband close behind. As I trekked down the steep hillside, I heard a sweet, soft, “Excuse me, excuse me”–couched in a fairly light, although discernable, Southern accent. I stopped.
“Excuse me,” said the woman. “Are you friends of Antman?” It took us a moment to realize she was referring to our friend, Dave–who we hadn’t seen since this morning. “Yes, yes, we are–is he okay?” I responded. “Yes,” she replied, “but he wanted us to let you know he waited for you for a bit and moved on. He’ll meet you at the shelter tonight.” Antman was not one for sitting still too long. We try, however, to take a 15 minute, packs-off break every 1.5 hours. It really helps when you start to tire, and you often wear down without realizing how tired you’ve become.
“Excuse me.” Southerners are so polite. “Would you like a piece of chocolate cake?” Southerners are GREAT. In what was probably the fastest pace I’d moved in the last 48 hours, we made an about face and trudged uphill to meet our angel. My new, ultra-polite Southern friend apologized for making us come back up hill.
The angel introduced herself as Hotflash and her husband as Flash–their trail names for their 1987 thru-hike. Hotflash (Ruth) and Flash (Hal) are pictured in this post’s gallery, in a black and white photograph with my husband, telling us stories about their hike as if they had just come off the trail. “It’s my birthday month,” said Ruth. “Let me get some cake and ice tea for you.” Ruth was 64 this month, and Hal was 67.
For the next forty-five minutes, we sat and listened to our angels. It was some of the best time I have ever had on the trail. Imagine someone you know who is utterly kind and humble. People you like to be around just because they make you feel better when you are near them. If you know people like this, you’ve met Hal and Ruth. The gift of our hike.
When we realized we had to move on (lest Antman send out the rangers, as we once had to do when we lost him–another story for another day), we thanked them for their kindness and offered to donate some money for oncoming thru-hikers. They would not accept, but wished us well and thanked us for listening. Reluctantly, we moved forward and back down the trail.
I swallowed a few more Advil. I had been enjoying myself so much, I’d forgotten to take a dose. I did not realize it until the pain began to surge through my knee and up my leg. Damn. We still had quite a few miles to go, including a two mile uphill climb, followed by several short PUDS. I wanted to sell my gear again, or stab my eyes out–whichever I could achieve first.
We arrived at the Punchbowl Shelter around 6:30 or 7. Antman looked a little concerned. I understood why when he told me he’d arrived three hours before we did. Two other hikers were also at the shelter. Tom, a biologist for a local hospital and an experienced hiker–and Joe (see gallery), an attorney and not-so-experienced hiker. They would be our shelter mates for the evening. I was glad to have the additional company. We had been twice warned, both by Ruth and Hal, as well as the former day’s ridgerunner, that Punchbowl was an actively haunted shelter. A young child by the name of Ottie had died near the area in 1891. It is thought that his spirit inhabits the shelter. Rumor is that the shelter is regularly vacated by thru-hikers in the middle of the night due to Ottie’s (or whomever’s) antics. We would soon know. It was dusk.
We settled in for the night. The moon was so bright it actually never got dark that evening. What I could see at 8 pm I could see at midnight. The peepers were loud enough to scare any ghost away, and little Ottie could have walked all over me and I’d have never known. I was beat–and surrounded by four men, sleeping in various stages all around me. I was not concerned, nor did I feel spooked, as I have in other shelters on various nights. No, if Ottie was here, he was friendly.
The evening past without incident. Since we were hiking out, I gave Tom some extra water purifying pills, as he’d run low on his iodine and had several days left. We bade Joe and Tom farewell, wished them luck, and moved on for our final day.
Things were looking up.