Days 4-5: "Don't freeze to death on your birthday."
April 16th: Neel's Gap to Whitley Shelter
April 17th: Whitley Shelter to Hiawassee
Yesterday was my birthday, and it was a great day. Granted, maybe the reason I think so is that I'm still in the "honeymoon" phase of the Trail, so everything, even the difficult stuff, feels like a marvelous adventure. In the morning, I woke up on the hill behind Mountain Crossings with snow on my tent. It proceeded to snow for most of the day, despite my weather app's insistence of "No precipitation expected."
But the cold wasn't so bad. We could still go inside the hostel to warm up, and then at 8:30am, the store opened and we could get a hot breakfast. A group of other hikers gave me a present: an old mousetrap they had found and all signed. I didn't even hike out with it, but I loved it. I loved that they had done something so small and so thoughtful.
Eventually I gave up believing the internet, and I packed up and left instead of waiting for the sun to dry my waterlogged belongings. Another hiker-- Etienne, whom I'd played cards with the night before-- waited with me, which I appreciated, but then we realized the glaring flaw in my plan . The shelter was 1.2 miles off trail on the top of a freezing mountain, and suddenly I felt awful that I had dragged him into that mess, even though he had chosen to come. Later I was thankful he was there, though, because the temperature plummeted. There were only three of us at the shelter and we pitched our tents inside. It became so cold that Etienne invited me and Nola, the other hiker, to squeeze into his tent with him. Nola was wrapped in a crinkly emergency blanket and she mumbled that she was fine, but I crawled clumsily inside. We laid next to each other, first shyly, politely, only our elbows touching through our sleeping bags as we stared up into the dark. Then, upon realizing how much warmer our elbows were than the rest of us, we huddled closer, and I slept for a few restless hours.
Today, we hiked 15.8 miles, and that's just officially on trail. If you count the morning spur trail from the shelter and the afternoon grocery run, it's closer to 18. I am in Hiawassee now, and I'm exhausted but content. Etienne and I are sharing an ugly Budget Inn motel room that feels like absolute luxury. We have clean, dry clothes and a hot shower and beer and beds, and life is good.
For now, I am grateful that the Appalachian Trail is so very, very long.