A Week on the Appalachian Trail with a Homeless Drifter — And the Lessons He Taught Me
In late-April, I started out on a solo journey along the Appalachian Trail at Georgia’s Springer Mountain. I intended to spend the week hiking and camping alone and pushing myself through the first 87.2 miles of trail to North Carolina. I had it all mapped out, communicated plans (and backup plans), and had my gear loaded up for the journey. On Monday, April 24th, I set out for Springer Mountain. My plans changed drastically before even reaching the summit when I involuntarily met a homeless drifter.
This forced encounter took place on a backcountry road heading up to the top of Springer. I had hiked the AT Approach Trail with family and friends a couple days before, so I didn’t feel the need to repeat the hike to get to the Appalachian Trail. Instead, I discovered a guide who ran people up a Forest Service road to the top every day. I gladly paid Ron $60 to sit shotgun in a dry Toyota 4x4 as he bounced us up the poorly maintained dirt road. He was shuttling some other hikers to the top that morning and I was joined in the Toyota by a friendly, educated couple from Indiana. They worked for Purdue and — like me — sported some nice brand name gear and packs. We exchanged some banter about the Big Ten in between Ron’s stories about bear attacks, tainted water sources, and trail landmarks.
That’s when we saw him. Walking along this remote road in the rain stood a man who looked like he was lost. He was wearing Levis and a t-shirt and he was holding a Mountain Dew bottle at his side. He also carried a “backpack”, which turned out to be a tattered Nike duffel bag. As we approached, I noticed some missing teeth and an unkempt face. The only thing he was missing was a banjo and I quickly quipped that he was probably an Ohio State grad. Our laughter subsided as Ron pulled up and asked him if he needed a lift to the top of the mountain. “I ain’t got no money though,” he said. Ron shot back “Did I ask you for money?” and just like that, we had a 5th passenger in the SUV.
The aroma in the Toyota took an immediate hit as our homeless comrade settled in. This was impressive because that Toyota’s had hundreds of thousands of miles put on it carrying dirty hikers to and from the trail. Luckily, we were about halfway up and we only had to deal with the smells for about 20 more minutes.
We lobbed a few questions and soon learned that the new guy was from Colorado and he was planning to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. He had camped out on the side of US-52 the last two nights and he started hiking up the road at about 5:30 that morning. He seemed nice enough, but we all kept our guard up until we finally reached the top.
Ron gave us all some powdered Gatorade and instilled some last-minute advice before we parted ways. He explained if you wanted to do a true thru-hike, you had to hike about a mile southbound to see the actual first blaze. Otherwise you could head northbound and get on your way. I had already covered that part of the trail on Saturday, so I grabbed my gear and started heading north. The Boilermakers wanted a picture, so they were headed south. That left the homeless guy. I had really hoped he was heading south to see the blaze and sign. That would give me a chance to get a couple miles ahead of him and I’d never have to see him again. I was planning my escape when he stated, “I didn’t come here for no picture. I came to hike the trail.” Another plan foiled. The hitchhiker was going northbound with me.
I nervously saw off Ron and the others and started hiking at a brisk pace. The second mile went as quickly as the first and I was confident I had put some distance between myself and my northbound colleague. I stepped off to the side to throw on my rain gear and grab a quick sip of water. I hadn’t been there 20 seconds when I saw those Levis coming up the trail. We exchanged hellos and he hiked past. I hiked a couple more miles before I saw him again and went through the same brief routine. By the 7th mile, we had encountered each other several more times and I decided to start being friendly.
“What’s your trail name?” I asked. “Well, I guess it should be Colorado Drifter ‘cause that’s what I am. But my name’s Mike.” I had a starting point. I began asking Mike where he was from in Colorado and what he did. We were about as different as two people could get.
Mike was a 51-year-old from the San Luis Valley where his family owned a cattle ranch, but he “didn’t want to be no rancher” and went about seeing the country instead. He hitchhiked, hopped on trains, walked, and rode a bicycle all through the US, Canada, & Mexico. He was a recovering alcoholic who got sober after a car wreck in 2005. He had been a miner, digging Bentonite and gypsum out of the Colorado ground. He was married once, but it ended when his ex-wife filed for divorce a day after he paid off the house. This seemed to mark the end of his mining days and the beginning of his drifter lifestyle. He worked odd jobs here and there, mostly operating forklifts or front-loaders for $15 an hour. Mike didn’t keep jobs long and seemed to make drastic decisions spontaneously. His parents’ patience had run thin decades ago and they were quick to remind Mike that he’d “never amount to anything” in this life.
Mike was also amazingly resilient. He started out for his hike on January 31 and rode his bike all the way from Colorado. By the way, I’m not talking about the motorcycle variety; he rode a Trek through snow, wind, and rain. His bike gave out in Chattanooga and Mike decided to leave it there because he couldn’t afford to fix it. From there, he walked and hitchhiked his way to Georgia, staying in shelters on occasion.
I learned all this about Mike in the course of a few hours as we hiked along the trail. He was surprisingly easy – and interesting – to talk to, aided by the fact that he didn’t go out of his way to hide his flaws. Instead, he’d offer up nuggets about his past that most people in my circle would go to great lengths to hide. Remarkably, Mike would tell you these stories with a warm smile on his face. He never looked for pity.
Mike asked me what my plans were on the trail and I explained that I was hiking that week to honor an old friend’s memory and that my plans were to break off the trail at North Carolina. “Well, maybe I can help you get to North Carolina,” he offered. As nice as he seemed, I still felt uneasy at the suggestion and secretly hoped that our time together would soon end. I had even been snapping photos of Mike when he wasn’t looking in case Forensics Files needed photographic evidence for my posthumous debut.
We covered good ground that first day together and Mike and I came around the corner to Gooch Mountain Shelter around dusk. Due to the rain, there was a large crowd camping there and they had a fire going. I was eager to interact with them as we approached, but I quickly realized they were standoffish and skeptical of Mike. Most of them stopped talking and stared at us as we made our way to the last campsite left, the coveted one near the bear box with a considerable slope.
I went to work setting up my tent and hopped inside to spread out my gear. Mike was working on his shelter, which he explained would hang from the trees on the campsite. After blowing up my sleeping pad and air pillow and rolling out my comfy sleeping bag, I got to work hanging electronics from the roof of my tent. The satellite tracker I brought along to keep my wife aware of my location — and to call for SOS in the event of emergency — plugged in to charge alongside my iPhone and FitBit. I sent off a couple of quick texts and headed back out to see Mike’s setup and cook some dinner.
I was immediately ashamed.
All the luxuries in my tent stood in stark contrast to the tarp and sleeping bag on the ground that Mike was using for his bed. He was finishing tying a second tarp to trees to give him some cover from the rain. The rain was coming in sideways from the wind and you could see his sleeping bag was already wet. It was a horrible shelter at best, but he seemed happy with it. “This will keep the rain running away from me. I’ll be fine.” We both knew it was a half-truth, but we didn’t dwell on it for long.
Our discussion moved to dinner and I asked Mike what he was going to eat. “I’m ok, I don’t really eat much.” We had just hiked 14.1 miles. I was starving and assumed Mike hadn’t had a decent meal in a few days. There’s no way he wasn’t hungry. I grabbed two freeze-dried meals out of my bear bag and fired up the JetBoil. Tonight’s meals would be Pasta Primavera and Beef Stroganoff, although those would be generous descriptions of their final tastes and textures. Nevertheless, the meals were hot and they’d be a welcome departure from the cold, rainy day.
After the meals were ready, I asked Mike which one he wanted. He reiterated, “I’m ok, I don’t need to eat.” “Well, Mike, I’ve already cooked two of them so you need to eat one. Which one will it be?” That was all it took to persuade him to grab the Pasta Primavera. As I was devouring my chow, Mike just sat there looking at me. “You going to eat that, Mike?” “I don’t have a spoon,” he shot back. No problem. I grabbed an extra one from my pack and handed it to him. He sat back on the log and started eating. It was a few minutes later before either of us spoke.
After cleaning up camp, I was headed off to bed and Mike stopped me. He was reaching around in his duffel bag and brought out two fried apple pies — the kind sold 2 for $1 at gas stations. I didn’t waste any time grabbing one and stuffing it down my craw. It hit the spot and I was amazed at both the fact that Mike had apple pies on the trail — and that he shared them with me.
On Tuesday morning, we tore down camp and headed out for a grueling 16-mile hike that would take us past Blood Mountain and end at Neel Gap. The weather cooperated and we continued making pretty good time on our trek. As we came to the top of Big Cedar Mountain, the clouds had parted and the sun was shining down on a majestic view. It was the perfect opportunity for a photo and I asked Mike if he’d snap one for me as I handed him my phone. “Sure, just show me how it works,” he said of the most universally well-known device on earth. “You don’t know how to work an iPhone, Mike?” “Nope. Don’t have a phone.” Thankfully he was a quick study.
Mike & I started passing folks on the trail that second day who started where we did a day or two earlier and were in awe of our progress. That’s completely due to the fact that Mike was hiking with me. He was a phenomenal hiking partner, never stopping or slowing down unless he had to wait for me. No doubt his cross-country bicycle trek prepared him for the journey a bit better than my treadmill training in the air-conditioned gym at work. Mike also never drank any water. Ever. His 1.5-liter Mountain Dew bottle of water was still ¾ full. He was like a camel; meanwhile I had guzzled 6 liters of water since we started.
We climbed over several mountains and were getting close to Blood Mountain when we ran across some Trail Magic. Someone had placed a large bag of peanut butter crackers, oatmeal, jelly, and pop tarts on a stump on the right of the trail. It was a welcome sight and I jumped on the chance to grab a couple bags of instant oatmeal. Mike was excited, too, and was looking over the bag when he started to put the whole thing in his pack. I guess it’s much more efficient to grab it all instead of sorting through it!
By the time we reached Blood Mountain, I was pretty exhausted. The long miles of pointless ups and downs (PUDS) had taken their toll and my feet were starting to develop some blisters. But a Southbound hiker told me there was a BBQ joint just a mile or so down the road from Neel Gap, so we were determined to put Blood Mountain behind us!
We reached the summit at the peak of the afternoon sun and were greeted with an amazing view in all directions. We checked out the shelter, took some photos, and exchanged pleasantries with some other folks at the top.
Everyone we encountered seemed puzzled after sizing us up. “How long have you known each other?” “Are you hiking together?” I gave up on trying to impress people and started getting a kick out of telling fellow hikers we had known each other for about 24 hours. Sometimes I’d also prompt Mike to tell them how he got to the trail and watch their faces contort in wonder. We were an odd hiking duo and most people were happy to get past us as quickly as possible. This was a new experience for me and I started to relish in it.
The backside of Blood Mountain proved to be our most challenging section yet. Somewhere down the rocky decline I stopped for another break. As we sat there, Mike grabbed a 2-liter of Mountain Dew out of his bag and offered it up. There was precisely one hiker that packed a 2-liter of Mountain Dew in their pack on the trail. I was happy it happened to be my hiking partner! We took turns taking swigs and enjoying the jolt. Three days prior I wouldn’t even take notice of a homeless person; now I was sharing warm soda out of a bottle with one.
It took a couple hours to get down into Neel Gap. It was already 7:30 and the hostel there was full. We inquired about a BBQ joint and the closest town and were disappointed with the answer. The nearest town was Blairsville and was about 15 miles away. My blisters were becoming a real problem, I was gassed, and I really needed a good night’s rest. So I called the Best Western in Blairsville, booked two rooms, and found a guy to give us a ride into town.
We checked into the Best Western, I gave Mike a key to his room, and we agreed to meet back in the lobby in 10 minutes to grab a bite to eat. One minor problem: It was past 9:00 (a.k.a. Small Town Midnight) and everything was closed within walking distance. Lucky for us the lights were still on at Huddle House and we grabbed a booth. A friendly server delivered us triple cheeseburgers, chili cheese fries, and half a dozen refills of strawberry lemonade. It was heavenly. Well, heavenly for a Huddle House.
The store was open when we arrived and we took the opportunity to buy some more protein bars and look at their gear. I had Mike go with me to look at hammocks and asked him what color he wanted. “Why? Do you want to buy one of these for me?” he asked. “Absolutely. Now what color?” The truth was I didn’t want to see Mike lying on the ground again under that tarp. I also thought a hammock might make him a more welcome guest at shelters and campsites if he looked the part. We got him a blue one and headed out.
The first few miles to Whitley Gap were pretty easy and we hiked them before noon. Unfortunately, the PUDS picked up in intensity from there and the terrain became more challenging. I also started taking a few more breaks to air out my feet and tend to my blisters. Mike continued to encourage me to push harder in his unique way. “Well we won’t get to North Carolina by sitting here” or “I’m surprised you made it so far being as big as you are and not getting any exercise at work” were two of my favorite motivational lines.
We shared the lead with a couple of hikers who were new to us, John & Haley. Both in their 20’s and both had started out the same day. Haley was planning on completing about 250 miles of the AT before she headed out for the Peace Corps. John was planning a thru-hike. All four of us were tackling the trail at the same pace thus far. Like others, John and Haley were hesitant at first to accompany Mike and me. But they seemed to grow more comfortable with us as the day dragged on and we all planned to make it to Low Gap Shelter for the evening.
We were the first to arrive at the shelter and we quickly laid out our sleeping gear to claim a spot on the wooden platform. The threat of rain and storms lurked and we were all happy to have a spot under the roof. We heated up some freeze-dried meals, added some powdered Gatorade to our stream water, and shared stories of the trail. It was nice to share the experience with some companions and it was wonderful to enjoy some new conversations.
The next morning brought the forecasted rain right on schedule at 7:00 am and it picked up steadily as we watched it from the shelter. Haley was determined to get her day started early and she took off around 7:30, with John following shortly behind. Mike & I watched the rain a bit longer, trying to find our motivation to hit the trail. Eventually we did and we started out about 8:30.
The day was wet, cold, and windy. But we were motivated by the prospect of a good dinner again, so we put down the first 4.9 miles to Chattahoochee Gap by 11:00 despite the relentless storms. We caught up to John, but we were soaked. The rain gear helped to keep our upper bodies dry, but it did very little to keep our legs and feet from getting wet. Boots became heavier with each step and a cold chill tried to set in with every break in the action. We carried on to Unicoi Gap and got to work arranging a shuttle to Top of Georgia Hostel. As luck would have it, we got their last three bunks!
Hostels are typically associated with below-average accommodations and Top of Georgia did a good job of living down to those expectations. Each guest was assigned a bunk and given a towel to dry off after a hot shower in the community bathroom. The food was crappy and the place stunk like wet hikers and dogs, but I would have paid $200 for the privilege after the day we had. So we settled in, grabbed showers, and threw all of our laundry in a basket to be washed. I threw every last garment in, down to my underwear. The hostel had a solution though. They provided guests with a pair of hospital scrubs to wear around the property. There were 5 or 6 of us in them, so none of us felt out of place.
As usual, hunger had set in. The hostel had a solution for this too and they offered a shuttle into Hiawassee. There, we found a buffet at a steak place for $8.95 and I’m pretty certain we got the better end of that deal. Fried okra, mashed potatoes, ribs, fried chicken, and a host of dessert options. It was a Hillbilly Hiker paradise and it really hit the spot.
If I thought Mike got his fair share of odd looks on the trail, they increased exponentially when we walked around town. Remember those hospital scrubs we were in? Yeah, we wore those into town due to a lack of options. They reminded you of a doctor’s office in some circles, but when Mike & I donned them after a few days on the trail, we looked more like prisoners on an inmate work assignment. People crossed the street to the other sidewalk as we approached. Most people avoided eye contact. When we went to a few different stores asking for postcards, employees got noticeably nervous and you could see them trying to recall their emergency lockdown operations in their heads. While I was cognizant of the situation and offered up my nicest smile to people, Mike went about his business unfazed. I’m sure he’s used to being scrutinized by the eyes of strangers by now.
The next morning seemed to come quicker than it should’ve and we got shuttled back to where we left at Unicoi Gap in freshly-laundered clothes. Despite my best efforts to dry them out, my boots were still soaked. When you have blisters, the last thing you want to do is hike in wet boots. So I called an audible and wore my flip flops as we started out. Now I was the reason for the goofy looks.
We set a goal of making a 13-mile hike to Deep Gap shelter and our plans were immediately put into question as we hit a steep incline up Rocky Mountain. We had a small down section and then went right back into a long incline. We had arrived at PUDs headquarters and it was brutal. Luckily, my flip flops stood up to the challenge and they made it the whole way, allowing my feet and blisters to stay dry another day.
Mike and I had gotten to know each other quite well over the course of these past few days. He knew about my family, understood how much it meant to me to honor my friend on this hike, and listened to me boringly describe my job. I also got to learn more about him and his story. “Hey Mike, there’s probably a little bit of money in Colorado ranchlands and cattle. Are you sure you don’t want to do that?” He’d smile and tell me how he didn’t like being a rancher and didn’t like staying in one place. And he told me several times how his parents told him he wouldn’t amount to anything in life. Deep down, I think he was trying to prove to everyone that he could live his life on his terms and be just fine. I had to give him credit for being true to himself even though it came with a huge opportunity cost.
We pushed through to Deep Gap shelter and were happy to find Haley already there. She, too, had departed the trail at Unicoi Gap the night before, but she opted for a personal room at the Budget Inn. John joined our group again as well and I was happy to have my trail friends together on my last night on the AT. I still had a bunch of freeze-dried MREs, too, so we cooked them all up and enjoyed a little potluck dinner. John and Haley got a fire going and we talked about our journeys and the days ahead.
I had a decision to make. I could set out in the morning and hike 3.5 miles to Dicks Creek Gap to get picked up at the road crossing, falling short of my goal of reaching North Carolina. Or I could hike 8.8 miles to the NC border and then backtrack three miles to Blue Ridge Gap and try to arrange a pickup there. As I laid in my sleeping bag debating the options in my head, my wife sent me some photos of our kids over text. I knew I’d be taking the 3.5-mile option in the morning so I could get home sooner.
Mike and I headed out in the morning after refilling our water supplies. Haley had beat us out of camp again and we knew we’d never see her again. I mistakenly thought John had already left as well and left without saying goodbye. It was just Mike and me again.
The hiking to Dicks Creek Gap wasn’t easy. The trail had already taken a real toll on my body and I was running out of energy. Mike remained a loyal companion throughout the trek though and he pushed me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Once we made it to Dicks Creek, I knew I wanted to keep going. I owed it to my late friend, Ryan, and his family. I owed it to my family. And I owed it to myself.
We plowed ahead through tough terrain and eventually made it to Blue Ridge Gap Road. A quick scan of the road tells you it’s inaccessible by most vehicles; in fact, it would be a good challenge for a 4-wheel-drive too. I wasn’t sure my ride could make it, but it was my best option.
I told Mike to take off his backpack and lay it down. He looked at me a bit quizzically, and I explained to him that we were going to switch backpacks. I’d put all my gear in his Nike bag and hide it in the woods near my pickup point. He’d be the new owner of my pack and water filter and he’d carry my water up the mountain. It was truly a win-win. He got sorely-needed upgraded gear and I got to hike the remaining few miles to NC carrying just my trekking poles and a small urn of Ryan’s ashes.
It was funny watching Mike hike with his new pack. He was having trouble adjusting the straps to get it to fit just right and he was going at a slower pace. All of a sudden he was feeling my pain of working different muscle groups and carrying the giant pack up the mountain. He started drinking water more frequently. And he started taking breaks. I had a good silent laugh and snapped a couple photos of him lugging along.
When we arrived at the NC border, we were greeted by a sign on a tree marking the line. It was a blissful moment. I had achieved my goal and Mike had helped me the entire way. I pulled out a Cuban cigar I had brought along for the occasion and Mike helped me smoke it. We were sitting on some rocks passing it back and forth before I realized how fitting the scene was. Mike was sitting on a rock in North Carolina; I was sitting in Georgia. It was a humorous representation of how different our lives were and the different paths we were taking.
We took some photos, shook hands, and wished each other well. Candidly, I was sad to see Mike go and I was worried about the rest of his adventures. Would he find another hiking partner? Would people take him in at shelters? Would he be able to get food?
It dawned on me that while I had set out on this adventure to honor an old friend, I had gained a new one in the process.
Will Mike ever amount to anything in this life? I suppose that’s a matter of perspective. But I can tell you that he sure made one hell of a positive impact on my life and I’ll be forever grateful to have met the Colorado Drifter.