I stopped off in the Big Effer last night on the way home to take care of a couple of errands. In the grocery store I noticed a weathered man, within a few years of my age, pushing a large backpack around in his grocery cart, gathering a few compact necessities. In the cart with the pack was a long and worn hiking staff.
When I was done shopping, he was out front of the store reworking the contents of his pack to accommodate his new provisions, carefully removing extraneous packaging and delicately repacking everything in just the right place. I nodded to the man and we exchanged pleasantries, and I walked across the parking lot to the drugstore. I took a wild guess he was heading back to the AT trail crossing on the ZTH.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, I saw him hiking up the shoulder of the road a short distance away. He would extend his thumb in a desultory manner as each car passed him by, so he appeared genuinely surprised when I pulled over in a driveway behind him.
He quickly confirmed that he was, indeed, heading to the trailhead with a fresh load of groceries, and shucked the bulky pack with a practiced grace. We loaded it into the back seat—trunk full of crap—and he politely asked if I would prefer he rode in back with it.
For some reason, that struck me as very funny, and I walked over and unlocked the passenger side for him. Aside from his obviously being a heavy smoker (yeah, what a surprise...not that uncommon for hikers, from what I've found) he was acceptable company. We drove the short distance to the trailhead tentatively, with a couple of false stops before finding the right place—I can never remember exactly where it is, and neither, apparently, can the hikers.
His story, in brief, was that he had departed Delaware Water Gap on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border in September, heading southbound. He planned to hike as far south as he could before winter set in, find a place to stay for the winter, and return to Delaware Water Gap to begin hiking northbound in the spring.
We pulled over at the now-familiar looking trailhead. The early November sun had dipped below the Blue Ridge while we were both still back at the store. Twilight was already beginning to fade in the few minutes it took us to reach the road crossing, and the air was cooling rapidly from a mild autumnal chill down towards the mid-twenties it would reach by morning.
Without delay, we got out and unloaded his pack from the back seat. He thanked me profusely for my kindness, shook my hand enthusiastically, and hefted his pack onto his back. He was encouraged by the unexpected head-start I had given him, and though the light was failing, I reminded him the full moon would rise in short order.
He paused to tell me about the beauty and wonder of hiking the last few miles into last night’s shelter by the light of the moon, then smiled, thanked me again, and set off briskly down the trail into the cold dark woods. Part of me envied him his journey. There aren’t that many long-distance hikers left on the AT come November; besides the peace and solitude, the bare trees and crisp cold air would offer scenery unimaginable during the warmer months.
But the bigger part of me couldn’t help but think how cold it was going to get up on the mountain by morning, and how far it is to Springer Mountain.