By Janine Wilkin

A Dash of Trail Community

They say you never forget your first time. His trail name was “Greyhound” and I met him at Gravel Springs Hut, the first shelter you come upon when you enter Shenandoah National Park from the north. It was October and rain was driving on the tin roof. From our dry perch under the overhang, the forest appeared as a running watercolor still wet to the touch while the sound of my backpacking stove purred as it boiled water that would chip away at our dampness. He was younger, in his forties, a chef by trade, and on a hurricane scale of one to five, would fall into CAT 5 – hardcore, the kind that trained for the trail by doing Herculean sprints up mountains, like, you guessed it, a greyhound.

Of course, by “first” I’m talking about, get your minds out of the gutter, meeting your first thru-hiker. It was a first of another sort for me too, my first multi-day backpacking trip ever with my Thelma-to-my-Louise partner in crime, Sandy. As evening fell, we bombarded Greyhound with novice questions. He had thousands of miles behind him versus our eight, but he was gentle and patient in his responses, not boastful or condescending. The next morning, Sandy and I strapped on headlamps and rain gear in the dark, leaving a sleeping Greyhound lie.

Janine Wilkin and Sandy Johnson coming from Gravel Springs

Not surprisingly, Greyhound passed us mid-morning. We assumed given our 10-mile to his 20-mile plus days, given our CAT 1 status to his CAT 5, given our mid-life midriffs to his six-pack stature, that our paths would not cross again.

But like a guardian angel, Greyhound magically appeared each day of our journey offering encouragement and advice. Mind you, we would have hiked ten miles in total, but Greyhound would have clocked twenty plus, taking a side trail out of the park to resupply and back. He jogged past us going up Mary’s Rock with a pink Princess Jasmine backpack he had picked up at a thrift store in town to carry just his essentials; then again, we met at Elkwallow Wayside where we dodged raindrops and dined on pork barbeque sandwiches and Route 11 potato chips under the overhang of the restrooms; following that, the trailhead as we set out from Big Meadows and last, on our final night at Lewis Mountain.

What do I love most about the Appalachian Trail? Well, that’s like asking which one of your children you love the most, but if I’m forced to choose, it’s the community. It’s people like Greyhound. As a section hiker with 300-miles of Trail behind me, what stands out the most are the extraordinary humans I have met. The Trail is a great equalizer and it doesn’t matter how you cast your ballot, if it’s your first mile or four-hundredth, if you are twenty, or fifty or eighty, if you are fit as a fiddle or aspirational to be so, you can even be hiking solo, but you are never alone.