Steps to the Summit
by Faith Breads
We all heard the train a-comin' the night Beamer belted out “Folsom Prison Blues” in the basement of Station 19E, Johnny Cash's loathsome rail line making a special stop in the Roan Highlands for one night. Her raspy baritone was a favorite amongst the jumbled crowd of janky thru-hikers and townies in camo, music being the mighty mixer of cats that might otherwise clash. I cheered with the rest of the transients. And though we’d been playing leapfrog for a hundred miles, I hardly recognized the girl on stage, the power of a shower proving simply undeniable. Beamer The Hiker was now Beamer The Magician, not just shapeshifting from hiker trash to Johnny Cash but performing pure telekinesis in the process. She uncrossed arms, cracked smiles, and grew the karaoke list a whole page. No matter how loud we’d Ba Ba Ba-ed just a song before, the wannabe Neil Diamond had no chance: this was the tune of the night. Perhaps because we had all once felt like Johnny behind bars, tortured by our own Folsom Prisons, mine being the prospect of living a life so-called free–with the car and apartment and corporate job–only to never really have the time to see the sun. Now, here we were, rich folks for the night at a hostel with over two-hundred beers and thirty-dollar bunks, night forty-three of our grand prison escape on the Appalachian Trail–and boy did Beamer blow our blues away. Well, everyone except one.
I was not the only fugitive of the Life Expected, enlisting my partner’s help to break my mother's heart. Mijal and I met in college, and for those brains that just fumbled the pronunciation or skipped it entirely, fear not: I couldn’t say it either when we first met. By the time I learned how to say her name (think Mee-hal), I had become unlearned in being her friend. I’d completely forgotten that’s all we were. It was an honest mistake when I referred to her as my girlfriend while we imagined meeting each other's parents – but she never corrected me. Similarly, she never flinched when I jokingly announced my 2021 departure into the Appalachia two years later, us imagining life on the trail as the credits of Wild were still rolling. At the time, I was all talk and no walk. Though a five-sport athlete, my grandparents conditioned me to drive up mountains instead of climbing them, spending many summers snaking around Skyline Drive with bellies full of roasted weenies – comfortable. Despite the style of Reese Witherspoon's hair in her role as Cheryl Strayed, I knew a thru-hike was anything but comfortable. I didn't take my declaration seriously until I realized Mijal had taken me seriously. Thanks to her, the A.T. not only existed in our thoughts but wedged its way into our conversations, bank statements, closets, and Christmas lists. Saturdays were for plucking the best discount gear from REI garage sale racks, and Sundays were for day trips to Shenandoah to test it out. We slowly became people who looked like they might hike the Appalachian Trail all in one go, and yet nothing was slow about it. Two years of planning our walk to Maine flew by overnight. Before we knew it, my mom was driving us down to Georgia in tears, salary and stability in the rearview mirror, Mijal and I a ball of nerves as we posed a critical question for the first time only then: do we even like to hike?
We set out to answer that question for ourselves on April 9th, 2021, departing from the famed arches at Amicalola Falls State Park with packs we swore would weigh five pounds less. On day one, we learned the weight of water and discovered just how precious a gift it is! By the time we made it up the first climb, we were unzipping our pantlegs to strut in knee-length shorts, and a fallen tree after the second climb begged us to sit and sip the weight off our backs. We feared being cold but had underestimated the sun, which proved its strength by scorching us underneath the bare trees. We made it to camp sunburnt and parched, but sure that we liked hiking enough to stay the night. Day two reinforced the weight of water, this time in the form of rain that logged our clothes, shoes, and packs. The frigidity we feared made an appearance after all, forcing us to stop mid-day for a hot cup of broth. And when we liked hiking even then, shivering forward with toes we could hardly feel, we decided we’d be alright. That was before night four.
On night four, we heard gunshots as we were falling asleep, and when Mijal rolled over to ask if I heard them too, I replied: honey, that was a tree. But the noise that followed could absolutely not be misperceived, a baby cursing the gun/tree with screams for stirring her sleep. Surely, we thought, this baby’s family is out for the weekend, and once we rose to see them gone, we figured they had hit the trail early to finish out the five miles southbound to the road. As we hydrated our oatmeal and coffee crystals, word buzzed that the pop was, in fact, a gun. The result of a blunt gone bad, a hiker high as Clingman’s Dome (the A.T.’s tallest point) mistaking a tent for a bear. Who knew skunk was the wildlife we should be worried about?
The misadventures continued into the morning, a handful of hikers sniffing around camp, searching for their food bags. One of the early birds spotted a curious jeaned man with a grocery bag fumbling with the cables that hung the provisions. Those single-digit days had tons of unlikely characters attempting to trek through, so it wasn’t beyond belief to deem him a thru-hiker – until three or four sacks were missing. Then, we realized the forager was likely homeless and hungry and in the know of how to make our high-hanging food his low-hanging treats. Hikers shared their snacks to help the foodless ones make it to the road, where they’d need to hitchhike into town for a resupply. As Mijal and I marched away from the circus, our thru-hike affording us tickets to The Greatest Show on Earth, a huddle formed around one of the last tents still pitched. Pale and pained, a girl we’d befriended the night before, Kelly, clenched her stomach as she described the bombing in her belly between breaths. Giardia, we all told her. Must’ve had some bad water drip from her filter into her drinking supply. We continued, assured by the surrounding spectators that they’d help her get through the day. The next time I got service, I received a text from one of our new pals who’d stayed behind: Kelly & crew hiked five miles south. Forced to crawl when it got bad. Ovarian cyst twisted x4. Size of eggplant. The doctor told her she probably would’ve died had she not gotten to the ER when she did. The other text I received was from my mom, asking: How’s it going – to which I replied: having sooo much fun! <3 love you!
Mijal and I hiked on. And much to our surprise, the small, stoned, and scarred did too. Kelly returned three weeks later with a new relic on her stomach, the dopers always offered a puff when we passed, and the baby and her family were, in fact, on their way to Maine. Admission to the adventure was simply one’s appetite (or one’s parent’s appetite) to be there, and the most unlikely hikers seemed to be the hungriest. We met hip replacement hikers, schizophrenic hikers, two-hundred-pound overweight hikers, gap year hikers, riddled with Alzheimer’s hikers, father-killed-my-mother-and-tried-to-kill-me hikers. Things that society typically viewed as disabilities and ailments were the very things that propelled people forward on the Appalachian Trail. Everyone had a why, and every soul-hungry hiker shared their why around a fire each night, none of us tired enough yet to retire to bed immediately after dinner. They were seldom sentiments like: I’m big and strong and want to put my strength to good use and see America. But instead: I’m weak and incapable and need to prove that I can become otherwise. The trail was never about who you were before getting on. It was all about who you were becoming while you were on it. So we never probed into each other’s pre-trail details unprompted, asking more questions about the future than the past. Unified not by our personal histories but by the everyday experiences of being a thru-hiker. Converging on the Appalachian Trail with one for-sure common denominator: the need to satiate our hungry souls with each summit and become who we’d once thought we never could be.
The further we forged towards freedom from our past lives, the farther we got from former familiarities until even the tags we’d worn since birth – the eternal name – proved fragile after all. Hikers forget their birth labels once others knighted them with a trail name, usually reflective of a unique experience on the Appalachian Trail. Unless you met in the first week or two, the only way you’d know someone’s real name was through Facebook, our phones communicating like mushrooms at camp each night to provide the most accurate friend suggestions by morning. Learning each other’s real names often shocked both the discoverer and the discovered, perhaps because the birth name was a reminder that our lives on the trail couldn’t last forever. Even if we reached Maine as radically different people, it’s highly unlikely that one who signs Dick Nipples on their hotel reservations, job applications, and holiday cards won’t be rejected and ostracized. So, we never knew each other’s real names unless you were outed by Facebook, in which case a game of who’s who would ensure. I recall digitally be-friending one of my trail pals, squinting closely at his half-inch profile picture showing him clean and jeaned, scratching my head thinking: I don’t know a Landon? Except, I did, for over 1,500 miles. I knew him as Hamburglar, twenty pounds lighter with his bushy beard unkempt.
A LASH-er (Long Ass Section Hiker) renamed me after a stop at our first hostel, Hostel Around the Bend. Conveniently situated eight miles before the North Carolina border, Hostel Around the Bend is the perfect stop for hikers looking to celebrate almost completing their first state. It also happened to be where I’d celebrate my twenty-fourth birthday. I decided to bake Betty Crocker’s finest, a super moist strawberry cake, in a nod to my late grandmother (the same one who lugged me up mountains in her minivan), whose birthday is a day before mine. I assumed the hostel offered pans since the kitchen had an oven, only realizing after the batter was mixed and oven preheated that the only pans provided came in the style of sheet. Skeptic hikers watched as my baking resembled more of a boxing match than a birthday celebration, putting the pan in the ring round after round, me the cornerman wiping off stuck remnants and reapplying Pam for another bout. Once the very thin layers of cake cooled, I stacked them with icing serving as glue, the doubters dancing once they realized they’d get a slice too. Electronics charged but social battery drained, I bolted onto the trail the next morning, stepping largely to find solitude and distance myself from the crowd at the trailhead. I toasted to finishing our first of fourteen states with lunch, tortillas rolled with tuna, and waited for Mijal. The LASH-er emerged minutes later as I lay slumped on a rock, claiming he had tried to catch me though I was always one step ahead. Of course, I knew this, but one must fight for solitude in the first few hundred miles on the A.T. when camps are often filled with 20-30 tents a night. He sat beside me, and in a burst of excitement at having finally caught up, he sent my birth name to bed for a six-month timeout. From then on, I was Strawberry Lightning.
Mijal earned her fresh moniker during a punishing push out of the Great Smoky Mountains where we’d encountered our first bear, which wouldn’t have been so frightening if Baby Blue hadn’t almost gotten eaten by one. The same family from night four had kept pace with us for weeks, even though only four of the eight legs were walking. The night before our first major wildlife run-in, they had one of their own. Mother Bethany had set her blue-eyed girl by a tree as she hung their hammocks, and Dad Austin got started on dinner with Aadrik, the toddler of the bunch. As Bethany clasped the final hook, hikers hollered at a black blob between the trees. Critters aren’t scared of people in America’s most visited park, especially when well-intentioned guests feed them sugary treats. Visitors aren’t even scared of the critters anymore, particularly if there’s a solid selfie involved. The reality is that fed bears are dead bears, rangers bringing out the bullets once the bruins become too friendly. As this blob became less blur and more bear, hikers added their trekking poles to the ensemble, smacking them together as if to say: our books are filled for the night. You’ll have to dine somewhere else. And in the most curious plot twist, the beast bypassed the pile of food bags still on the ground, where it could’ve had tuna and Snickers-galore, and gunned straight for the baby. I admit, Blue’s eyes were hypnotic, a pair of pearls you couldn’t help but stare at for an uncomfortably long amount of time – but this was no way for the precious six-month-old to meet her first bear. Thankfully, someone high above agreed, sending a park ranger strapped with a hunting rifle to intervene right in the nick of time. Instead of hunting rampant boar that night, he protected Baby Blue, who rested in her custom-made miniature hammock, swaying peacefully above her parents.
So, you can imagine our fear when we encroached on a cub the following day, perched fifteen yards ahead around a bend in the trail – no mother in sight. Paralyzed everywhere except the mouth, Mijal discharged her version of bear spray, a clamor through Smash Mouth’s “All-Star,” as loud as her vocal cards could manage, veins sticking out in her neck and all. After ten minutes, her croak became a croon, the adrenaline wearing off, and we tip-toed forward with ears perched and eyes scanning, the mom never to be found. Hikers dubbed her All-Star by dinner, a transformation we thought was purely nominal at the time, but her becoming was underway.
The bears were the beginning of our stressful slog through the Smokies, with Mother Nature drenching us in three days of bone-chilling rain in the back half of the section. The first day wasn’t so bad, with evergreens emerging from the fog to create a magical, fairy-tale atmosphere. Though we were cold, we hiked slowly to take in the scenery, snapping pictures between thunderous booms, shielded by an oh-it-won’t-happen-to-us mentality. It being some disastrous thing that comes with loud, flashing thunderstorms, and we didn’t know what it was; we only knew we were safe from it. We anticipated arriving at camp early, where we’d have ample space to dry our gear. Except, everyone had the same idea, and it had happened to somebody. Lightning struck down on two section hikers, scorching their shoes and leaving them and everyone else around emotionally rattled. They were physically okay. Praise the Lord. But it was enough to cause my fear of thunderstorms to flare up, so we hunkered down in our polyester home, drifting to sleep with a mobile of wet socks and undies above our heads.
All-Star and I rose before the sun the next morning, determined to be one of the first to camp on our second straight day of rain. Our only luck was that it was thunderless, so no it loomed above us. Instead, it ran below us, our path becoming less of a trail and more of a miniature waterfall. But we waded through the water confidently, with nothing having dried overnight. There can be no shock factor in getting your shoes wet when they are already soaked. It was cold, though, so we kept ourselves warm with the idea of a hot brothy lunch underneath the protection of a shelter. Eventually a wooden post emerged from the fog, and we darted towards it as if it would disappear if we blinked. All-Star started one of our deranged pre-lunch chants, her screaming LUNCH as I followed with NOW! And right when I began to dig for my spork, something proved to be more frightening than the bears – the faded sign showing 0.6 miles to the shelter. No way we’re tacking on another 1.2 miles in these conditions, we thought. So we sat, saving the ramen for later and eating our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches quickly to avoid another flare-up of mine: disgust from soggy bread.
With no hikers coming from either direction, the afternoon transformed All-Star and I into two little monks, enlightened by the prospect of outpacing the crowd to camp due to our sacrifices of shelter and sleep. We were no longer waterlogged but weightless, dancing amongst the salamanders in our great migration through the rain. We twirled and sang and clapped in our pilgrimage, euphoric in having completed seventy-five percent of the day’s efforts. But, of course, we were victims of late-stage hiker brain. The hiking day consists of four phases: the first three miles of every day being the groggy slog regardless of weather or terrain, the next six miles being the stride express, followed by three miles of the post-lunch plod, then the mad march to camp beginning five miles out from the day’s stopping point. Upon making it to one’s destination, thru-hikers usually excuse each other from being coherent for at least an hour, stage-five hiker brain completely deteriorating the ability to think. In fact, hiker brain is the leading cause of spilled dinners, improper tent set-ups, and unexplainable stares off into the distance especially when being addressed. We were clearly in our fourth phase, manic and moving towards the shelter, smiling and unaware of the day’s earlier sufferings. This time when the wooden sign pointed us 0.5 miles off-trail, we obliged happily, skipping all the way to our three-walled sanctuary, its back facing us, sighing with relief as we turned the corner only to find it absolutely stuffed. Where the hell did y’all come from, we gasped aloud. No one replied or budged, their butt-to-butt arrangement seemingly leaving little room for even speech. They’ve been here, another soggy hiker chimed in. The hikers at this shelter had decided to stay snuggled in their sleeping bags once the pitter-patter became a pour. Most of us were still lugging around too much food in that first month, so it’s not like anyone had to budge. And to think All-Star and I were the monks. These meditative motherfuckers stayed silent and still for three days straight.
Back to the tent, still damp from the night before, and with hikers now bottlenecking and spots limited, we had our pick: slumber in the shit-fields or on a slant. Really, there were shit fields. Toilet paper bloomed like flowers as trowel-less visitors left more than their droppings. We opted to sleep with blood in our brains, inching forward the next day not just damp but deprived of the nutritious Zzzs critical for recovery – but it didn’t matter. Two hundred miles into our twenty-two-hundred-mile trek, our beginner’s zeal would soon fade but not yet, keeping us warm and moving us along right when we needed it most. And on the fourth day, God finished creating the sun, the moon, and the All-Stars of the world – me having a front-row seat and even a helping hand in the act.
After three days the rain had stopped, and the sun peeked through trees starting to dance their late-April bloom, but it was only the start of our thaw. When everything is cold and wet for three days – the tent, the sleeping bag, the socks, the shoes, the jackets, the gloves – the warming process is inchmeal. Despite having the opportunity to land our legs at Standing Bear Hostel, the rustic rescuer of hikers only three miles north of the Smokies, something about Hot Springs made us feel hot – and that’s all we wanted after this stinging stretch of trail. We decided to push on another day, determined to get up and over Max Patch where Hot Springs would welcome us the next night. Yet, we had underestimated the climb to the iconic bald. I didn’t know it then, but a hiker would later tell me a fact that rings true when recalling this section of trail now: the Appalachian is steep compared to America’s other long trails because it was created by the men of World War I, hard fellas that sought the fastest way from one point to another. At first, All-Star and I chuckled at the sheer incline of the ascent up to the peak, a relentless pattern of steep-flat-steep. After hour five, we released stress by at-the-top-of-our-lungs screaming about our plans to open a trail-side giftshop with shirts that read: I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and all I got for it was two fake knees. By hour ten, we longed to be back in the Smokies. At least in the rain, no one can tell when you’re crying.
Thankfully, the wind hides tears just as well as rain, and mine were dried instantly by the vicious swells that met us on the summit. We made it just in time to be spellbound by God’s golden sphere setting behind the Carolina mountains, and right then I knew it was the greatest sunset I’d ever seen. The first one I truly worked for: twelve hours of one foot in front of the other, climbing over 6,000 feet. Perhaps it was because my future in a wheelchair seemed imminent, but the parking lot below didn’t bother me despite other hikers feeling cheated and insisting it plagued the natural beauty. I was simply enamored by the couples falling in love on blankets, pups escaping their owners searching for fallen food, kids staining their shirts green by rolling instead of scrolling. No innovation in technology will ever replicate the lure of Max Patch, and I was happy to be experiencing that sunset with everyone, whether they climbed to the top by foot or by car. It could’ve been our exhaustion, or maybe that’s how all sun shows go, but the magic steeped in red and orange was ephemeral. As the sun waved its goodbye, dipping below the blue silhouettes of mountains far away, we became bewitched by the beatings we had just endured. That week, the trail had whittled us to our cores, All-Star more than me, our green fervor finally faded. With a shake brought on partially by our dampness in the twilight temps and partially by the process of her transformation, All-Star looked me dead in the eyes and pleaded for the offing of her auburn hair, perhaps with the last ounce of energy she could muster. Day twenty-eight left her evolved in such a fashion she demanded it, too, be reflected in her appearance. One pinky-swear later, protecting me from the aftermath, I hacked her hair chunk by chunk with a rusty knife and scalpel, the sharpest objects we had, her deep-red locks vanishing into the night with the wind like a tree altered by the change of season, shedding leaves and becoming bare.
We made it to Hot Springs the next day, where hikers took turns playing barber with clippers we’d snagged from Dollar General, buzzing off the rest of her mangled mane. We entrusted the most artsy of the bunch to carve a star into the stubble on the right side, showcasing her new self: All-Star. Here she was: bald and bold and beautifully unaware that the night on Max Patch would leave her more than transformed – it left her broken. Slowly, she realized. The confidence she carried with the cut lasted a few days before self-doubt began to seep into her head. What felt like a lifetime on the trail was barely ten percent of the journey, and that idea swallowed her whole. Two weeks later, she was a shell of herself – not just as All-Star, but as Mijal. She was her own Folsom Prison, and no matter where she was – the Appalachian Trail, back home in Maryland, Station 19E as Beamer banished the blues for everyone but her – she was jailed.
The riot at Station 19E lasted well into the morning, teetotalers even toppling off Sobriety Summit to join the drinkers in causing a ruckus outside the hostel, cigarette smoke and screams leaking into our sleeping quarters. Sleep prefers to take me with a hammer, knocking me immobile until morning but sneaks into Mijal sparingly as if she’s a pool it doesn’t know how to swim in, restricted to the shallow end. With the poor conditions at Station 19E, Mijal tossed and turned all night, though it wasn’t just from the noise. She roused me several times throughout the night, insisting we needed to talk about X, Y & Z right then, random topics from our pre-trail times. Still drugged by drowsiness, I said the trail would be the perfect place to discuss in the morning. The next day, our hitch dropped us off at the trailhead. Mijal looked at me wearily as I hoisted my pack up to my back. Her eyes alone could’ve spoken the words that came next, distant and strange, expired bulbs with no flicker left, yet I tried to flip the switch anyway. Let’s talk on the trail, c’mon, I begged. So we walked a mile, then Mijal asked to sit beside a tree. I need to go home, she said. I replied with an offering to stay another night at a different hotel, talk right then, and do anything she needed to stay, yet she’d decided. Her dad was driving down from Maryland to pick her up. The me-a-month-before would’ve gone home with her, but Strawberry Lightning was different from Faith. Newfound independence rooted me to the ground. Mijal didn’t encourage me to accompany her either, knowing our plans to thru-hike the A.T. weren’t truly ours but two separate dreams intertwined by being together. The Appalachian Trail had given her everything she needed. Mijal was hungry for other things, but my soul still growled. For the first time in my life, I felt alone.