Morning comes with sheets of rain, but the expected joys of near-by Fontana Village Resort make the weather a minor annoyance. Once the headquarters for construction crews at work on Fontana Dam, scores of worker’s cottages have been renovated into small vacation cabins, and the resort’s buffets seem a sinful indulgence. After downing a hearty breakfast, I head into town with PopPop, Brodie, Geoffrey and their pal Shepherd, who carries a crook-necked hiking staff.
The village is taken over by hikers this time of year. They crowd the restaurant and a small grocery store filled with Lipton noodles, mac ’n’ cheese, and 13 linear feet of Pringles potato chips. In the Laundromat, a dark-bearded guy plays a violin, while a small congregation of rain-gear-clad hikers stuff wet sleeping bags into dryers. But the center of activity is the post office. Most thru-hikers resupply through carefully planned mailings to small Appalachian hamlets along the trail. Fontana is a major mail-drop station, and Brodie has hit the jackpot: he picks up a basketball-size box of resupply food, plus two more boxes and a pair of padded envelopes from friends back home. He tears into the cache like a wolf on carrion.
Behind the barred window, postmistress Virginia Zakroski grins. She relishes the thru-hiker season. "It’s really slow the rest of the year," she says, "but oh, boy, not now." At times she’ll have 200 boxes stacked, awaiting pick up. I point to a strawberries-and-cream air freshener, one of four hanging from hooks and window frames. Zakroski stymies a giggle. "Oh, yes, the hikers do smell," she says. "My regular customers will come in, wrinkle their noses, and say, ‘Oooh, you’ve had hikers!’"
By the time we make it back to the Fontana Hilton, another eight backpackers have trickled in after hoofing through daylong downpours: Oz. YoLo. Marine One, 62 years old and tough as heart pine. Some skinny kid with a dog named Doobie. Rabbit. Brooklyn. A young married couple. The shelter is a riot of rain jackets, mud-slimed gaiters, pack covers, hats, gloves. Food bags hang from ceiling hooks like multicolored carcasses. After supper, we retreat to our sleeping bags. With backs against the shelter’s pine-plank walls, the group—now two dozen strong—begins to gel into a genuine community, if only for the night. Oz tells a story about "Yogi-ing," the thru-hikers’ practice of sidling up to picnickers with a pathetic look, mooching handouts. There’s a round of recipe trading. "You know what’s good?" someone says. "Instant mashed potatoes mixed with ramen noodles. Now, that’s good." Murmurs of appreciation. Geoffrey returns, wide-eyed, from the bathhouse. "Have you been in there?" he asks. "It’s like Saks Fifth Avenue!" There’s a brief discussion of chafing and its myriad solutions.
But mostly the talk is about trail companions left behind. PopPop hasn’t seen Serge in a couple of days, and Rabbit is wondering if anyone has run into Creeper. What about Miracle Mike? "Saw him last night at Wesser Bald." Slipknot? Scruffy Sleeper? Sea Wolf? "Anybody seen PowerBar?" someone asks from the dark. There are howls all around. Seems that one thru-hiker figured he’d save the weight and trouble of cooking on a stove, and packed nothing but high-energy snack bars. "He figured out how many calories he needed a day, and divvied it up," the voice explains. The fellow ate 17 PowerBars a day until his guts shut down. He hasn’t been seen in a week.
A flask of bourbon bounces around on one side of the shelter; on the other, the orange tip of a glowing joint slips from one sleeping bag to the next. The shelter grows quiet. PopPop pulls out a harmonica and sends out a few lonesome strains of "Dixie," but soon the only sound is the rustle of bodies turning inside their nylon chrysalides. And the first snores, bane of shelter life. Geoffrey calls out the evening’s final hurrah, like the last "g’night" on Walton’s Mountain. "Hey, PopPop—you take your Metamucil yet?"
In the morning, I wake up to the wail of a loon on Fontana Lake. The skies are the color of old fish. Thunder grumbles. The hikers unfold from their sleeping bags, joints and muscles stiff as taffy. They move like praying mantises. "Mercy," Shepherd intones, to no one in particular.
I walk over to the far bunk. "What do you think, guys?"
Brodie winces. Geoffrey is stoic. "Put us on the injured reserve list one more day," he says. They’re young, resolute and unemployed. Another day of rest, I figure, and they’ll be back on their way to Maine. I dig out a bottle of ibuprofen and pour a few dozen pills into Brodie’s hand. I wish him luck, then strike out with PopPop, heading north on the trail.
From the Fontana Hilton the AT tracks a mile or so of hard-surface road, then crosses over the top of Fontana Dam. The morning fog is thick as gauze. We’re on a catwalk through the clouds. The arched back of the Great Smokies’ ridgeline has disappeared, yet I can feel its ancient bulk above us. Climbing and crossing the Smokies is a weeklong undertaking that entails solitude, grandeur and difficulty. PopPop is pensive.