Neels Gap

After 179 days on the trail, I had never been more ready for one of those days to end. It never stopped raining, not for one step of the 26 miles I had to hike. By nightfall, I still had eight miles to go. The trail was all wet leaves and slick rocks. Footwork was probably a couple miles ahead of me by now.

My headlamp reflected off the fog, putting a white veil over my eyes. All I could see was the ground around my soaked feet. Then, with five miles to go, the batteries in my headlamp began to die. I was on my only spare set. I underestimated how much night hiking we'd be doing, and how quickly my headlamp would burn through them. The light at my feet dimmed to the brightness of moonlight, at best. Sometimes I felt the ground soften and I knew I was off the hard-packed trail and had to turn around. The white blazes were frustratingly sparse, as well. At one point, I passed a blue blaze, a sobering sign that you may not be on the AT, you may be lost.

Getting lost in the woods on a moonless foggy night feels like treading water in the middle of an immense dark lake without a clue where the shore is. Thorny branches, that I couldn't see, reached out to grab my wrists. Tree roots seemed to be trying to knock me off my feet.

This is a good time to point out that we all sent our tents home, since we had only been sleeping in shelters and wanted to reduce our pack weight. I had no choice but to keep going.

Finally, a few hours later, I saw a security light glowing in the fog. It was the hostel at Neel's Gap. I called them earlier in the afternoon to see if I could arrive after hours and still get a bed for the night. I knocked on the partially open door of the historic stone building and poked my head in. "Is this the hiker hostel?" I asked.

"You're 14 minutes late!" said the hostel operator named Pirate who was waiting up for me. At last, a warm dry place.

"I just put your plate of food in the fridge," he said.

"Food?" I thought. I didn't expect food to be waiting for me. Pirate walked to the fridge, pulled out a plate covered in pink plastic wrap, and put it in the microwave. His long scraggly beard was dabbled in gray. His t-shirt had the words, "Pirate for life" sitting above his large round belly.

The other thru-hiker in the room walked over to me. "Are you Sundowner?" I asked. I knew I was getting closer to him from his entries in the trail registries.

"Yeah, that's me," he said and gave me a hug. "Congratulations on your thru-hike!"

"Thanks, you too!" I said, even though we still had 30 miles left.

My food finished warming up. "Wow, I wasn't expecting hot food to be waiting for me. I can't thank you enough," I said. "It was a rough night."

"It's Hanukkah! This is your Hanukkah dinner," Pirate said. He put the plate in front of me with a huge pork chop on it surrounded by potatoes, gravy, and green beans. "I put on some Hanukkah music, too. I even have a menorah on the table under the Christmas Tree."

Pirate went back to the fridge, "So, Ryan, do you want beer or wine?"

Never in my life have I gone from being so miserable to being so completely happy so quickly.

12-21-11: Pirate at Neels Gap Shelter12-21-11: Neels Gap12-21-11: Neels Gap Hostel12-21-11: Neels Gap Hostel