The next morning I was up at 6:00. I was happy! The day was breaking clear. I had re-visited a spot that was very meaningful to me last year. It was the place I had randomly opened a book of Psalms and Proverbs my daughter had given me in Hot Springs and read the story about “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.” It was the place I learned about humility. I became a different kind of hiker. I shifted in my feelings toward the trail, approaching it with the mind of a child. No longer was I going to be the “lean mean hiking machine” on my thru hike journey north. No longer was I a know-it-all. I was a child on the Trail in wide-eyed wonderment of the beauty and lessons offered around every bend. I credit this change in attitude with helping me be successful on my thru hike.
Cruiser and I had our breakfasts, packed up, and were on the Trail at 7:55, our earliest start yet. We only had 11.7 miles to go until Damascus and Trail Days. My leg was holding up. We were going to make it! The Trail was providing what we needed just as Cruiser had said yesterday. Once again, a dream of mine was coming true. All I needed to do was let go, let go of the fears and pessimism.
That morning we hiked by many streams and springs. Cruiser and I were both in awe of the many blow downs of trees that had already been cleared off the Trail. The deep, heavy snows and ice storms of the past winter had taken their toll. We were thankful for all the Trail maintainers who had made our way passable and who had given us the great experience of the last few days.
At 2:00, we descended the steep wooden stairs that led us out to Highway 58 outside of Damascus. We hiked the Virginia Creeper Trail beside the road into town and headed straight for The Hikers Inn where I had left my car on the street. It was still there! What was I expecting? The Trail had purged me of pessimistic thinking last year, but it had been creeping back in to my consciousness bit by bit. I resolved to do better in dealing with this tendency. All of this was like a dream happening on fast forward. Suzanne, the owner of the inn, greeted us with hugs. Old Goat and Check Six, who I had not seen since they tracked me down to a road crossing in Maine last year, came down the driveway, all smiles. Suzanne appeared again with two tall glasses of iced tea. Life is good!
I left my pack upstairs at the inn, and we put Cruiser’s pack in the back of my car. Off we went to retrieve his truck at the trailhead near Troutdale. It took us 45 minutes to cover the miles by road that we had covered by the Trail. At the trailhead we found hikers waiting, hoping someone would come along and give them a ride back to Trail Days. It was Zen Dawg and Coon Cat! We had met them on the Trail two days ago. They were among the many we tried to talk into coming back. It turned out that Cruiser and I were pretty effective ambassadors after all! Cruiser took two more hikers in his truck and headed in to Jerry’s Grocery to see if there were any more hikers there.
Back in Damascus, I directed Zen Dawg and Coon Cat to “The Place,” a house owned by the Methodist Church, where they could set up their tents for free. I settled in at the inn with the first order of business being a shower. I was glad to get clean, but the water of the shower actually irritated my leg. I applied a new coat of Neosporin and headed to one of my favorite places in the world, the front porch of The Hikers Inn. I watched the cars, trucks, and hikers go by. I waved to everybody! In no time I was having grand reunions with scores of hikers from last year: Swift, Gezza and Top Shelf, Hellbender, Storm, Rocket, Skittles, No Nails, O.G., Spaz, Old Man, Navigator, Jeremiah Johnson, Egg, and Buzz. Limbo, Mama Bear, and their traildog Mama Bear came by and gave me the banner for the AT Class of 2009. I had met them last year near the end of the Trail, in Monson, Maine. I had found out that Limbo was a professional mural artist and was from North Carolina like me. He and I hatched the plan then to get together back in North Carolina and paint a banner that we could all walk behind in the hikers’ parade at Trail Days. I had driven to their place in Old Fort, NC three weeks ago, and Limbo and I spent the day painting the banner.
Suzanne appeared with two highly coveted tickets to the hiker feed that was happening that night at the Baptist Church next door. I knew that Cruiser would gladly join me. And a great feed it was: pasta, baked chicken, beans, fresh vegetables, salad, and chocolate cake.
The next day, Friday, I attended a reception put on by the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers’ Association (ALDHA). Even more hiker friends from last year came forward to exchange hugs and handshakes. My dear friend Laura “One Pint,” who I had met in a snow storm on Max Patch, came to greet me and asked if she could “plant a seed” for me to think about. She asked if I would consider running for a position on the board of directors of ALDHA. I was floored and complimented by her confidence in me. I told her that I would think about it.
That evening, Old Goat, Check Six, O.G., Zipper, Zombie, and I had supper at Quincy’s on the main street. It was a great time full of reminiscing about our shared experiences on the Trail.
Saturday, the main day of Trail Days, was a blur. Foremost on my mind was getting the 2009 banner to the Hiker Parade. With the parade starting at 2:00, I got there around 1:15 and unfurled the 4 X 12 foot banner in the parking lot of the Sun Dog Outfitters. I laid out six permanent Sharpies. Hikers from 2009, some I knew, some I didn’t, streamed to the banner as if it was a magnet. Soon, the place was full of kneeling hikers signing their trail names. In no time the banner was full with more than 100 names.
The fire truck blew its horn to signify the start of the parade. We lifted the banner and led the hundreds of hikers from 2009 down the parade route. I had heard earlier that 560 hikers, both thru and section, had completed the Trail last year. I looked back and saw Old Goat and Check Six walking behind me. It was very meaningful to me that they joined us. They had to leave the Trail last year after hiking all the way from Georgia to Massachusetts. Check Six had taken some bad falls and had lost her confidence that she could continue to safely hike the Trail. I had told them when I first saw them at The Hikers Inn that all of us thru hikers regarded them as members of our class of 2009, but Check Six had gotten very emotional, saying she didn’t finish the Trail and therefore did not deserve to be with us. I felt so good when I saw her and Old Goat in the group behind our banner.
As the parade continued, I felt good about another more self-centered thing. I was concerned that, by my helping to carry the banner, I was going to be a target for all the water balloons and water soaker squirt guns used by the townspeople and bystanders on the hikers in the parade. Let me not paint a distorted picture here. The hikers come similarly equipped. The parade is a slow moving water battle. Indeed, I was a target, but I found that the banner served as a kind of shield, deflecting many of the water balloons from hitting me. Yes, I did get wet. There was one guy on top of a two story building who showered us with a water hose! But I didn’t get soaked. I wasn’t so against getting wet, I just didn’t want to be soaked at the Talent Show that was happening at the Town Park at the end of the parade. I had my harmonica in a ziplock bag just in case.
At 3:30, Leon, a hiker I had first met in Virginia last year, and Dutch Treat, who I had met at the ALDHA Gathering in Gettysburg, PA in October, and I got together behind the gazebo stage. We rehearsed “The Hikers’ Song.” It sounded good to me with this additional musical accompaniment. We were billed as “Braid and the Hiker Trash” and were listed as act 14 out of 18 acts.
When we were called, we took the stage along with Leon’s traildog Halifax. Halifax was one of the few dogs to ever hike the final mountain of Katahdin in Maine. We adjusted all the microphones to pick up the guitars, harmonica, and voices. I took the mic and recognized all the hikers from 2009 in the audience. A raucous cheer went up. Then, I took my hat off and paid tribute to the current thru hikers of 2010. Another cheer.
We started an instrumental introduction to “The Hikers’ Song.”. I was scared I was going to fumble the lyrics, but I managed to mentally focus on Cruiser’s words: The Trail will provide, even in this circumstance. The song went beautifully! Some of the audience members sang along on the choruses.
Amicalola was the place
Springer Mountain was calling to me
Calling to me, right to my face.
I am a hiker on the trail
The Appalachian, one and the same
It runs from Maine clear down to Georgia
It’s from that trail, I got my name.
From Neels Gap up to Bly Gap
North Carolina and Tennessee
In the state of old Virginia
My true love, she said to me.
The Shenandoahs, they led me northward
West Virginia was just ahead
From Maryland’s gentle mountains
Into Pennsylvania was I led.
There’s New Jersey, and New York.
Connecticut was next in line.
When I hiked into New England,
I had all the beauty I could find.
From Massachusetts to Vermont,
New Hampshire came soon thereafter.
The mighty mountains of the Whites,
They gave me pain, they gave me laughter!
In the north state they call Maine
There’s a place that not forgotten
For two thousand, two hundred miles
I have come to Mount Katahdin.
We are hikers, on the Trail.
The Appalachian, one and the same.
It runs from Maine clear down to Georgia.
It’s from that Trail, we got our names.
It’s from that Trail, we got our names.
It’s from that Trail, we got our names.
The crowd seemed quite appreciative of our efforts. When all the acts were finished, and after a period of deliberation by the three judges, the winners were announced. Emiline, an eight-year-old who captured the hearts of everyone when she proclaimed, “I’m a future thru hiker!” won third place for her rendition of America’s “Horse with No Name.” A girl and guy duo that sang and played fiddle and guitar to an Old Crow Medicine Show song, got second. Then a lengthy pause. “And first place goes to . . . Braid and the Hiker Trash!” The crowd went wild. I stood up and motioned to Dutch Treat and Leon to join me. The officials gave us a box literally brimming with hiking equipment that had been donated by the vendors at the festival. Backstage, we divided the prizes. Dutch Treat would only take a headlamp and its case. Leon took a nice backpack and a sleeping pad. This left me with a Big Agnes tent, a Katadyn water filter bottle, Leki hiking poles, some wool socks, a compression sack, and an alcohol stove. Many of my 2009 hiker friends came by to congratulate us.
Yet another dream has come true for me. The song that I composed on the trail has been embraced by others. In the moments that followed the talent show, I was asked if I would perform the song at the grand opening of the Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania the first weekend in June and at the next Gathering of ALDHA in West Virginia next October. I was speechless.
A hiker, Buzz, joined me for the walk back to The Hikers Inn. I carefully carried my box full of prizes. Up ahead, I recognized an elderly man. It was Gene Epsy, the second person to ever thru hike the Appalachian Trail. He did it back in 1951. His daughter was helping him negotiate the crowded sidewalk. I stopped to thank him for coming to Trail Fest. I told him that he was an inspiration to me. He smiled and shook my hand.
That night, there was a cookout at the Hikers Inn. Leon and Halifax came as my guests. Later, a bluegrass band assembled on the front porch. I played harmonica mainly in the background. They gave me a solo break on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It was then I realized that the bonds formed by hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and the lessons learned there, are now and forever will be the circle that is unbroken.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles