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.
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.
He’s hardly stopped moving in the last year, he tells me, ever since joining the ranks of the downsized. "I haven’t done much in terms of work," he explains. "But I’ve sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in both directions, and in five months I’ll be able to say I’ve walked the AT. That ought to be worth a couple of checks in life’s ledger book."
On the far side of the dam, the trail turns off an asphalt service road and reenters the woods. Once more the AT is the familiar white-blazed path, a foot-and-a-half wide and as long as you can take it.
The moment lingers. PopPop checks to make sure I have his 80-year-old mother’s e-mail address, and makes me promise twice to write her. He frets about Brodie’s foot, and wonders if he’ll see his trail pal Serge again. Sometime today, he says, he’ll pass the 168.1-mile mark. "Only 2,000 miles to go," he grins. And then he turns and slowly treads uphill. "I’ll call you in September," he says over a shoulder, as I scribble a note about the sound of a warbler singing in the wet woods. I want to tell him that I look forward to hearing if he made it to Katahdin, or to some more meaningful summit. But when I lift my head, he’s gone.