What’s our obligation to our fellow hikers?

We first noticed the couple because of their pack. “Love the external frame,” Allison said.

“We’re old school,” said the man. He was dressed in all camo, standing next to his wife, who was bent over a small trickle of water filtering water into a half-dozen empty soda bottles.

We were on the Appalachian Trail in the Standing Indian area of far southwestern North Carolina, heading into Beech Gap. As we talked, we gathered, we think, that the couple may have started at Springer Mountain, the AT’s southern terminus, but that they were not thru-hikers.

“We need to get back home to Virginia, to our cats,” said the woman. “How much farther to the road?” she asked.

There was a gravel access road about 7 miles ahead which lead to the Standing Indian Campground, but I assumed she meant U.S. 64. “If you mean the road into Franklin, it’s about 12 miles,” I said.

“Oh, we’ll never make that today,” said the woman. Added the man, “We call ourselves the Virginia Creepers, because we go so slow.” The couple appeared to be in their mid-70s.

Midway into Day 2 of our three-day hike we’d encountered a surprising number of northbound thru-hikers, maybe 20, 25? Surprising, because most thru-hikers start in mid-March and are well past this point, about 90 miles into the trek, by mid-April; it was nearly May. The folks we’d encountered had long-since worked out the kinks of distance hiking and seemed to be operating lean and efficient. These folks hadn’t reached that point.

I asked, “Are you looking for a shuttle into Franklin to resupply?”

Yes, said the man. “That last climb out of Georgia kicked our butts and we’re about out of food.” He said they had some oatmeal and a few snacks left.

They did not ask for food, only information. Despite being nearly out of food and apparently unaware of where they were, they were in remarkably good spirits, didn’t seem out of sorts in the least. 

“We’re running ahead of schedule,” I said. “In fact, we may hike out tonight,” which was true, and we ended up doing so. “I’ve got some food you can have.”

“Me, too,” said Carrie. With that we loaded the couple with tuna packets, fig bars, power bars. They were extremely grateful. We spoke for a few more minutes, then the three of us continued on to Beech Gap.

The encounter raised a myriad of questions. We had extra food, they needed some. Any backpacker would have done the same. But was there more we could have done?

I was worried about how prepared they were. They were nearly out of food with at least two days on the trail to go. Were they lacking other necessities — like a map? Allison had noted that they were using a syringe, usually used to clean a water filter by backflushing it, to draw water from the trickle — a trickle that fed into an accessible running stream just feet away. Later in the conversation, we got the impression that the couple needed to get to Franklin so they could get a ride home to their hungry cats in Virginia — at least 300 miles away by trail. Did the Virginia Creepers think they were going to make it from Springer Mountain to Virginia in two weeks? Should we have asked a few pointed questions, at the risk of offending them, to make sure they were safe?

That evening when we got back to our cars I thought about driving the forest service road to where the AT crosses at Mooney Gap and intercepting them, then taking them into Franklin. But finding them in the dark seemed futile. Besides, we had just done a 14-mile day in full packs, and I was beat. And I was low on food.

I trust the Virginia Creepers made it to Franklin and are perhaps back in Virginia with their cats by now. There were certainly enough helpful hikers on the trail who would lend a hand, if needed. Still, I wonder: Did we do enough? 

And perhaps more to the point, what exactly constitutes enough?

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