PopPop is polishing off a bowl of Lipton noodles and Spam when three more backpackers hobble down the hill. "Hey, lookee there," he says. He recognizes these fellows, passed them on the trail a few days back. "I can’t believe you guys," he hollers out. "Y’all came all the way from Sassafras Gap? What was it, around 20 miles?"
"Twenty-two," groans a sinewy young man in a striped gray knit cap. He sports a scraggle of week-old beard and leans hard on trekking poles. Stumbling to the trail shelter, he folds like a rag doll. "Twenty-two miles," he mutters into grimy palms. His two companions shed their loads and shuffle, bent like spoons, to a nearby picnic table. Brodie Trickey is having a rough go. A hundred miles into the hike his right knee went bum. Now an Achilles tendon has swollen fat as a baseball bat. His buddy, Geoffrey Fender, is better off, but he’s game on one leg, too, thanks to quarter-size heel blisters deep as ligament and the color of bad meat.
All three recent college graduates are sopping wet and smell like cadavers. They are almost out of food. But more than anything, they’re happy to be here at the Fontana Hilton, one of the most famous shelters on the AT, as the Appalachian Trail is known to those who trek it.
Each year, nearly 3,000 backpackers set off from north Georgia’s Springer Mountain bound for Maine’s Mount Katahdin. It’s a 2,168.1-mile journey that passes through 14 states, eight national forests and two national parks and crosses 15 major rivers. Fewer than one out of every five who start out will touch the summit of Katahdin, sometime in late summer, and claim the title of "thru-hiker."
I won’t be one of them. I’ve come to the Great Smoky Mountains for a glimpse of AT culture, not exercise.
Tonight, hundreds of hikers will unroll their sleeping bags in the 256 trail shelters scattered all up and down the AT. Most are simple wood or stone structures, three-sided huts with a rough floor and unadorned platforms for sleeping. Some were built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers; a few are old ranger residences. Many have been erected in the past two decades to accommodate growing numbers of trail users.
Shelters are beloved and bemoaned by hikers. They are notoriously cold, frequently rodent-ridden and amplify every snore. But they turn strangers into neighbors, and rough wooden planks into community. Spending most of each day alone, many thru-hikers find shelters as memorable as any mountaintop view, and a major part of the AT experience.
Few if any are better known than the Fontana Hilton, which is officially designated the Fontana Dam Shelter. It’s located 163 miles from Springer Mountain. Hikers arriving at Fontana have just crossed several of the steepest mountains on the trail. Make it to Fontana, and you have left some of the most grueling terrain behind you. Make it to Fontana, and the least prepared and the weakest of heart and hip flexor have been winnowed away. Make it to Fontana, and a shelter awaits that is a cut above the rest, oversized, with a million-dollar view of fjordlike Lake Fontana, plus water spigots, flush toilets, free hot showers nearby and a $1 shuttle to an all-you-can-eat buffet. First, of course, you have to make it to Fontana.
PopPop limps over to the new arrivals. Most thru-hikers pick up a trail name during their first few weeks in the woods. PopPop’s real name is Mike Higgins. He is a 54-year-old recently downsized futures broker from Charlotte, North Carolina—tall and big-boned, handsome and friendly. "You boys look like I feel," he says. He ruefully rubs his lower back and winces. "Come on in."
Already the shelter is redolent of sweat, candy bars, wet wool and stove fuel. It’s a powerful perfume, and familiar. I may be a hanger-on today, but I’m no newcomer to shelter life. Once four of us, after enduring a -4 degree night in Virginia’s Mount Rogers region, pounded our boots out of the frozen mud with mallets of frozen broccoli. And I’ll never forget the midnight sight of an Old Orchard shelter mouse perched atop my buddy Robert’s forehead, munching on a green M&M as Robert snoozed unaware. I’ve hiked parts of the AT from New Hampshire to northern Georgia, so I figure I belong with these folks, even though I’m not traveling with them. "Pretty rough out there today," I say to another bedraggled arrival as he strips off layers of wet clothing. He gives me the once-over. "Don’t talk to me about rain, man," he says in a tired voice. "I see your boots." I look down. Clean as a whistle. Chastened, I slip into my sleeping bag.