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An Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Part 9 - New Hiking Companions

Updated on February 5, 2013
Fried pies similar to these were a favorite snack of ours. They were sold in the general stores along the AT in the southern states.
Fried pies similar to these were a favorite snack of ours. They were sold in the general stores along the AT in the southern states. | Source

Snack Preferences


On the day after we left Hot Springs, NC we finally had some nice weather. It was sunny with no wind and temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s. We stopped for lunch at a small store next to the trail at Allen Gap. We shared a Dutch Apple pie, and we each had a pint of ice cream and some candy bars. It was unusual for us to get a full-size pie at a snack stop. Normally we bought the single sized fried pies that were popular in the southern general stores along the AT. The fried pies were delicious. I would typically get blueberry or apple. They were similar to Hostess individual size pies that used to have pictures of Charlie Brown characters on them. The difference was that the fried pies had flakier crusts that were not covered with sugary glaze. We both enjoyed those pies. As far as sodas went, Dave always bought Pepsi. I tended to go for Mountain Dew. My favorite candy bar was Snickers, although sometimes I mixed things up and bought others. Dave always got a Kit-Kat. I don't remember the ice cream flavor Dave used to get, but I always went for the butter pecan which was a popular flavor in the south as opposed to what I was used to seeing in stores up north. That's not to say I was completely unfamiliar with butter pecan before I hiked in the south, but the quantity of butter pecan pints available in the south was noticeably greater than in the north.


"There was something fun about it. It made us feel like we were part of a community, like we were long-lost members of some sort of family or brotherhood that up till then we were unaware of."

A Thru Hiker Brotherhood

We hiked 15 miles to Little Laurel leanto. The leanto was occupied by two other thru hikers: Paul and Mark. We recognized Paul as the same friendly guy we had met at the Laundromat at Hot Springs. He immediately introduced us to Mark who he had met at the hiker’s hostel in Hot Springs. As we signed into the shelter log, we noticed that Paul used the trail name “Irish Goat”, and Mark called himself “The Slackpacker”. We signed in with the usual “Double Dave's” and the date.

Like Paul, Mark was on a second thru hike attempt. He had started the year before, but he had cut it short in Waynesboro Pennsylvania. He was in his late 20s and he was from Ohio. He was lean with brown hair and brown eyes. Mark was quieter than Paul and much younger but they had their earlier experiences on the trail in common and they talked a lot about upcoming sections of the trail. Dave and I soaked up all the information we could. We especially wanted to know about good deals for places to stay and to eat in upcoming towns. Speaking with them was our first prolonged interaction with other thru hikers. There was something fun about it. It made us feel like we were part of a community, like we were long-lost members of some sort of family or brotherhood that up till then we were unaware of.

After the next day’s hike we found ourselves 13.5 miles further along, staying at Locust Ridge leanto along with Paul and Mark again. That evening they informed us of something that really whetted our appetite. They told us about an all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut lunchtime special in Erwin Tennessee. Erwin was about 30 miles away. We were determined to make it there in two days in time for the special which lasted from 11:00 AM – 2:00 PM.


An Adirondack-style leanto typical of the shelters along the AT.
An Adirondack-style leanto typical of the shelters along the AT. | Source

"Anyone can hike and camp for a few nights, a week, or even a couple weeks alone, but it becomes very hard to sustain a solo long distance hike day after day, week after week with no companion to share it with."

Making Friends

When backpackers share a leanto there is usually some polite talk back and forth such as “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?”, but when thru hikers meet up and share a leanto, there are generally more things to talk about. Not only do the standard questions get asked and answered, but there are also a lot of questions about what has been encountered so far, common experiences, other hikers that have been met, and so forth. Sometimes that is the extent of the conversation, but sometimes personalities click, some jokes get cracked, and before you know it, friendships are born. Often this results in two or more thru hikers that previously were hiking alone to start hiking together for a while. Companionship on a thru hike can be a valuable thing. Anyone can hike and camp for a few nights, a week, or even a couple weeks alone, but it becomes very hard to sustain a solo long distance hike day after day, week after week with no companion to share it with. This is why many thru hikers hike with partners or meet up and hike with other solo hikers along the way for varying periods of time. Dave and I were partners, committed to hiking together from start to end, but both Paul and Mark had begun their trip as solo hikers. First they had fallen in together and now they were falling in with us. We were fine with it since their company livened up the evening routines of setting up camp, cooking dinner, and planning for the next day’s hiking. Every evening with those guys was full of laughter and friendly chatter. Hiking together didn’t mean that we stayed within sight of each other during the day. Sometimes we did, but we all hiked at our own pace and that usually meant we were separated during the day. We would let each other know where we intended to stay for the night (usually a shelter described in the guidebook) and we would usually all gather there at the end of the day. On occasion we would end up in different places for a night, but one group would generally catch up with the other on the night after.

After teaming up with Paul and Mark for a while, we started to notice their hiking styles and habits. Paul hiked with short, quick, choppy steps. He liked to get an early start in the morning. He carried a red backpack and was always the first out of camp. Mark left camp after him and as it turned out he often left about the same time as us. Usually within a few hours of leaving we would catch up to and pass Paul. On uphill sections he would hike as fast as he could until he was breathless. Then he would stop and lean on his hiking stick while he caught his breath, then charge on up the hill with renewed vigor until he ran out of breath again.

Where Paul would catch back up to us was when we took breaks for food, snacks, or to hang out at a viewpoint. Once we caught up to him near a short side trail that led to a view. We asked him if he was going to go down the side trail to see the view.

“I wouldn’t walk an extra 15 feet for a view,” he replied.

Dave and I got a good laugh. When it came to hiking, Paul was all business. He didn't hike fast, but he didn't stop for long either. He made his distance using the tortoise philosophy. He let the hares run by him, but he would catch back up and pass them while they stopped for a snooze at a viewpoint or while they were taking a long lunch.

Mark had his own unique style as well. He wore a pair of gray sweats around camp and he hiked in running sneakers. He had a small green pack – so small that it looked like a day pack. He had done things to customize it like add padding to the waist strap so it would serve as more of a hip belt. He had also attached hand exercisers to the lower portions of his shoulder straps so he could exercise his grip as he hiked. Whereas Mark wore gray sweats in camp, when he hiked he wore gym shorts. He also had a red bandanna carefully folded and tied around his head like a headband. If someone were to see him without his pack and his hiking stick they would probably think he was going for a jog due to his gym shorts and the running shoes that he hiked in. Mark never wore T-shirts. He had a few cotton button-down shirts that he had cut the sleeves off of at the shoulders. The net effect was that Mark had a very light and compact wardrobe that fit well into a small backpack and served him in a variety of types of weather. In addition to what has already been described, he wore blue polypropylene (fleece) jacket when it was cold and he had a light windbreaker as well. On a few occasions we saw him break out a wool cap.

Mark could hike at a fast clip. He was closer in age to us than to Paul. We eventually found out he was 27 years old. He carried a very thin hiking stick that he would occasionally twirl like a baton. He often whistled or hummed when he hiked. In a world where thru hikers were basically defined by their rumpled grubbiness, Mark always seemed to look neat and relatively clean. The system he devised to hike the trail was well thought out. He had everything he needed to hike the trail in his pack including a plastic sheet he could rig as a tent over his sleeping bag if he got caught overnight in a rainstorm with no shelter, a backpacking stove that ran on a small propane tank, a sleeping pad, and a sleeping bag. One important aspect of his go-light system was that he restricted himself to light, compact foods. Mark didn't seem to require a lot to eat. He got by, as he put it, on a handful of cookies for breakfast, crackers and snack food for lunch, and noodles such as Raman or macaroni & cheese for dinner. Mark was disciplined about his system and the result was that he was able to keep his pack to a maximum weight of 25 pounds.


I carried a transistor radio similar to this on the hike.
I carried a transistor radio similar to this on the hike. | Source

The Transistor Radio


When in camp during the evenings, we had a routine of playing a small AM/FM transistor radio with a retractable metal antenna that I carried with me. In many areas along the trail we were able to pick up radio stations quite well. Having the radio allowed us to keep up with some of what was going on in the outer world and we also got to play music. One thing I remember about the radio was listening to the reports of the British invading the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina after Argentina decided to occupy the islands, thinking the British wouldn't fight for them. It seemed strange to me that the British would actually attack the Argentina forces over a small set of islands that nobody had ever heard of.

In terms of music I especially remember a song that was popular at the time that was played over and over on that radio. It was “Mountain Music” by Alabama. Everyone loved that song and for a while we thought of it as the theme song for our trip.

Oh, play me some mountain music
Like grandma and grandpa used to play
Then I'll float on down the river
To a Cajun hideaway

Drift away like Tom Sawyer
Ride a raft with ol' Huck Finn
Take a nap like Rip Van Winkle
Daze dreamin' again

Oh, play me some mountain music
Like grandma and grandpa used to play
Then I'll float on down the river
To a Cajun hideaway

Swim across the river
Just to prove that I'm a man
Spend the day bein' lazy
Just bein' nature's friend

Climb a long tall hick'ry
Bend it over, "skinnin' cats."
Playin' baseball with chert rocks
Usin' sawmill slabs for bats

Play some back-home, come-on music
That comes from the heart
Play something with lots of feelin'
'Cause that's where music has to start

Oh, play me some mountain music
Like grandma and grandpa used to play
Then I'll float on down the river
To a Cajun hideaway, hey hey…

By Alabama

Alabama reminded Paul of the Bellamy Brothers. Every time the song came on he would say, “That sounds just like the Bellamy Brothers! Is that the Bellamy Brothers?”

Dave and I would always answer, “No Paul, it's Alabama.”


The summit of Big Bald.
The summit of Big Bald. | Source

"All around row after row of North Carolina and Tennessee mountains could be seen in the light of the setting sun. I couldn't ever remember being on a mountain top like that with no rocks, just a huge meadow full of windswept grass and a rutted path."

Big Bald

On our third day hiking with Paul and Mark, the trail was as tough as anything we had yet encountered. Coming up out of Devils Fork Gap was one steep uphill after another. We all (Dave, Mark, Paul, and I) stopped at Sam's Gap for a long break around noon. After that Dave and I got out ahead of Paul and Mark. We climbed Big Bald, which was a spectacular view, and went about a mile past the summit. We camped by ourselves that night and we had a campfire. We hiked about 15 miles, and were quite satisfied considering the terrain.

Big Bald turned out to be a fantastic surprise. Usually the features of interest along the trail were well known beforehand. They were written up in guidebooks, commented on in shelter logs, and discussed by hikers coming in the opposite direction, but Big Bald to us was nothing but the name of a mountain in the guidebook until we climbed it.

As it turned out we climbed Big Bald at the end of the day. Dave had gotten ahead of me so as I climbed out of the woods and onto the open part of the mountain near the top, there was no one else around. The bald meadow at the top stretched for a long way. The trail was a rut cut into the grass ascending before me. There was nothing but the grass, the trail, the wind, and the sky. There had been no anticipation on my part because we hadn't heard that Big Bald was a significant view or a cool mountain to climb or anything like that. Neither Paul nor Mark had mentioned it. Since I wasn't anticipating it, when I experienced it I was amazed. Dave had decided to keep moving. He had not waited at the top. When I approached the top all I saw was a lonely signpost at the spot where the ground stopped rising. All around row after row of North Carolina and Tennessee mountains could be seen in the light of the setting sun. I couldn't ever remember being on a mountain top like that with no rocks, just a huge meadow full of windswept grass and a rutted path. The wooden sign at the top verified that I had reached the summit of Big Bald. I stood there for a few minutes looking at the 360° view with no sound in my ears except the wind. It was a good moment - a rare instance where I was completely alone in a spectacular place at a spectacular time of day. I have a vague memory of thinking that that was what it must have been like to be the only person alive on earth. I stood there experiencing the loneliness for a while. It was a cool feeling, but it wasn't long before I shouldered my pack to move on. It was getting dark and I realized that it was best to have a friend to meet up with further down the trail. I hurried on to catch up with Dave so we could set up camp and start dinner.


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