Why I hike: the People

Gillis, atop Shining Rock.

There are things you do that you just don’t think about — you just do. Hiking is one of those things for me. Hitting the trail is just a part of life, as natural, nearly, as eating and drinking, sleeping and breathing. But every once in a while it’s not a bad think to look at why we do the things we do. For three days, I’m looking at what it is that makes me hike.
Yesterday: The Outdoors
Today: The People
Tomorrow: The Challenge

The dense heath community was choking the Art Loeb Trail making it nearly impassable on the climb up Flower Knob. I’d wondered why I hadn’t seen any hikers coming the opposite direction; as I covered my face and punched through yet another tight cluster of clawing berry bushes I was discovering why.

Then I suddenly came upon Gillis.

Gillis had found a small clearing and was taking advantage of the break to recover and take in the view of Shining Rock to the north and the Smokies to the northwest. He heard me approach (not hard to do), turned and said, “ ‘ello!”

“Boy, that was something!” I offered.

We compared notes about the overgrown passage, agreeing that the only reason we both knew we were on the trail was because our boots kept hitting solid ground. I asked Gillis where he was headed. “Shining Rock,” he said. “And maybe Stairs Mountain.” He nodded to his full pack and added, “I brought my tent just in case.”

It was Gillis’ first trip to Shining Rock and he originally intended to climb 6,030-foot Cold Mountain for the view, but his son had told him the top was covered in trees, there was no view. It’s true, I said. “Some good views along the Shining Rock Ledge, though,” I offered. “Not much water up here, though,” I added. “There’s an occasional spring right before Shining Rock Gap but it’s a trick to find.” I tried to describe its location, another trick.

The main reason some folks — a lot of folks — get out on the trail is to avoid people. Inquisitive people like me. One reason I love to hike is the people you meet on the trail. Unless someone is plugged in (headphones) I toss out a “Hi” as an overture. If they simply respond in kind, I smile and continue on. If they build on my greeting — “Gorgeous day!” “Heck of a climb!” “There’s a copperhead sunning just up the trail” — I seize the opportunity. That’s lead to all sorts of interesting conversations and revelations, most quite pleasant, some making me wonder if I’ll need to employ my emergency locator beacon.

After 10 minutes of chatting I still wasn’t sure whether Gillis fell into: Let’s hike together for a while or I’ll go this way, you go that way.
When Gillis finally said, “Well, you seem to be walking faster; I’ll let you head on down the trail,” I took it as a cue that our pleasant conversation was over. I can, now and then, pick up on social cues.

When I got to that well-disguised spring a half mile down the trail I decided to stop and point it out to Gillis. That wasn’t my entire motivation: frankly, I still had questions. For starters, he spoke with an accent. At first I thought he might be Canadian. Then, perhaps, French. At one point he sounded like Father Guido Sarducci. http://www.fathersarducci.com/ He appeared to be about my age, and while he was new to Shining Rock, I got the impression he spent a lot of time in the elsewhere in the wild. I’m always curious about what lures others into the wild.

“Hey! Here’s the spring,” I yelled from a swampy area just below the trail. If he wants to be alone, I figured, he’ll say thanks and keep walking. But if he wants some company —

“I’m about to stop for lunch at Shining Rock,” Gillis said. I interpreted that to be an invitation.

We spent the next four hours hiking together, during which time I learned: Gillis was French Canadian and grew up near Toronto. At 3 1/2 he got polio — at the tail end of the polio epidemic in North America — and was in the hospital for six months. He was lucky: the muscle in his right calf quit growing and he occasionally limps, but it hasn’t slowed him. In his early days he was a lumberjack and worked on a road crew. He lived in Maine for a while, then wound up in the Charlotte area where he ran a paint contracting business until the economy tanked in 2009. Today, he’s the head custodian at an elementary school, a job he loves because “the kids are funny.” He got out of hiking for a while, got back into it this spring doing five-mile training walks in an hour. One of his favorite spots is Stone Mountain. He also told me the ice on lakes in northern Maine can get 16-feet thick and shared stories of coworkers from his early days who drank themselves to death. He was 61, it turned out, four years my senior.

He told me he owned three trail guides for North Carolina, one of which was mine. He said his favorite was “Hiking North Carolina.” That one is not mine.

As we got back to the trailhead the storm clouds that had been threatening much of the afternoon were ready to get down to business.

“Maybe I’ll see you again,” Gillis said before turning for his truck.

“That’d be great,” I said. I was pretty sure I’d only scratched the surface of Gillis.

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2 thoughts on “Why I hike: the People”

    1. You don’t meet a Gillis every day, but you do meet a lot of interesting folks on the trail. And we’ll be sharing more of their stories into the fall.

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