It’s my tenth day on the trail, and my first night in a hostel. You could also call it my first zero, but I did start with a 1.3 mile hike from Plum Orchard Shelter to Blue Ridge Gap, where I got a shuttle to Hostel Around the Bend, cost included with my stay. I’ve heard a few people call days like this “near-o’s”. It was a morning of mixed feelings. As I sat on a log waiting for the shuttle, a fellow hiker named Trainwreck came to me and told me he was done. He was going home. The trail was supposed to be a rejuvenating experience, but his joints and bones were just in constant pain even after switching up his pack.
He was looking for a place to hitch a ride from, so I told him about the shuttle coming for me. Around the Bend is run by good people, and I knew they wouldn’t charge him for a ride to the hostel. From there I think he’s headed to stay with an aunt in Tennessee before figuring everything else out. He said that the thought of quitting was really screwing with him the day before, but by that point he had made peace with it. Starting on that bright note, I made my way to Around the Bend to wash up and let my legs rest.
Around the Bend, a Hiker’s Dream
When I was back in Tesnatee gap, I had a pretty long conversation with some trail angels there. Their leader was named King Tut, and he’d been going out there twice a week through March and April for some 18 years now. They were religious folk, and they had a sort of slogan they liked to tell thru-hikers: “The Bible says love god and love people, so how do you love a hiker?” After that they’d vaguely gesture towards their setup of hot food, drinks, and medical supplies. It’s a pretty neat idea, and it’s at least half right. Being trail angels, they didn’t charge anything, so they had that on the hostels, but Around the Bend has everything a hiker could possibly need.
When you walk in the door of Around the Bend, you’ll be greeted with a large living space with a kitchen in one corner and a lounge in the opposite. In the other two corners are a dining table and a desk where you’ll almost always see someone hard at work taking calls next to piles of documents. Just outside is a deceptively small building housing their very own outfitter, which carries hard-to-find brands like Enlightened Equipment alongside packaged meals and bars. You can buy hot food and drinks inside, and breakfast is included with any stay.
On top of all those basics, they have complimentary massage guns and free laundry services alongside loaner clothes to wear while you wait. Also in the common room you’ll find a shared tv and two small friendly dogs with curly white hair. When it comes to affordability, some ingenious hikers have figured that splitting a small hotel room between 4 or 5 people gives you almost everything a hostel can offer at a lower price, but for solo thru-hikers, the $30 a night at Around the Bend is completely worth it. Also, I doubt there’s many other hostels on the trail where you can buy and heat up a vegan pizza.
So Who the Hell is Bob?
At this point you’re probably wondering what that title has to do with anything. Well here it is. Just yesterday, I rolled into Unicoi Gap needing a resupply bad. I could’ve hired Around the Bend to shuttle me over to the Ingles in Hiawassee, but a free shuttle goes down there at 2 pm, so I decided to wait. So in comes the shuttle and driving it is Bob, a two-time thru-hiker whose trail name also happens to be Bob. He seemed nice enough, but I didn’t really get to talking him until the ride back.
As he dropped me off, I got my first solid piece of Bob advice. I’m cold soaking all my meals, which up until now have only included ramen and oatmeal. Bob let me know about two more cold-soak staples: quinoa and couscous. After being dropped off, I noticed a USPS just next to the store, and with the NOC and Fontana Dam coming up – two places with notoriously bad resupply – I decided to stock up and mail some food ahead. Little did I know, that short decision would lead to two hours of panicking before Bob would roll back around for a 5 pm pickup.
I had made one critical mistake with my genius idea of mailing the next two resupplies. All the post offices were closed that day. Sitting in the PO Box section of an unstaffed post office with 15 days of food in a shopping cart, I started to panic. I noticed an outlet in the corner, and, always taking the small victories, I started to think about squatting in the office until Monday when the place would reopen. At least all my devices would be charged. That definitely wasn’t a realistic option, but I really had no idea how to wiggle out of this situation. So I did what any reasonable person does when they’ve exhausted every last resource they have: I called my mom.
I burst out of the post office and began rushing around town with a shopping cart, 15 days of food, and my mom on speaker phone. To any outsider, I must’ve looked insane, but self-consciousness is something you lose fast on the trail. After a wild goose chase led me to a Walgreens which supposedly had a Fed-Ex in it, (turns out it does neither packaging nor labeling) I was heading back to the shopping plaza when my mom noticed something about the Hostel I would be staying at the next day. Around the Bend has postal services. I knew Bob’s shuttle made a stop there before ending at Unicoi, so suddenly there was a glimmer of hope. The powers of Bob and the hostel were coming together to save me in my hour of need.
And Finally, Bob’s Wisdom
When Bob picked me back up from the Ingles, the only people left in the shuttle were me, him, and his wife, so of course there was conversation to be had all about the busy day. It was Bob’s first day driving the shuttle, but he owns a camper or something like that so it wasn’t too hard for him. We got to talking about the trail I was coming up on, and at one point I said I thought the Smokies would be my biggest challenge yet. Bob thought this over for a bit before telling me this:
“There’s a million Appalachian Boogeymen out there. People will tell you things like ‘If you make it past the White Mountains you’re golden,’ ‘The roller coaster will be the hardest hike of your life,’ or ‘The Smokies will be a real trial of endurance.’ Once you actually get to them, you won’t even realize you just hiked ‘em. It’s nothing but Appalachian Boogeymen.”
- Wise as those words are, I think I heard it in fewer from a group of weekend hikers during one of my first days on the trail. We were all gathered around a water tank someone had left in a gap for hikers, and when I told them I was going all the way to Katahdin, they told me this: “It’s just a couple of hills. You’ll make it.” That is real wisdom.
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