Winton and Lisa take us back to the trail. We say 'see you next time' and again disappear into the green tunnel of the Appalachian Trail. We have to walk for three days to Franklin where we get a visit from Simon, Olivier's brother who comes to walk with us for three weeks. We notice that our body is tired when we walk 27 kilometers on the eighth day. On the bicycle we take a rest day every week, now we have been walking for eight days without a break. We are on the move for as many hours every day as we are on the bike, but we use very different muscles. For the first time in a long time we have muscle aches in our buttocks and calves. On the ninth day we descend to Winding Stair Gap where we look for a hitchhike to Franklin. We arrive around one o'clock in the afternoon and are just starting our lunch. Two minutes later an old white van stops in the parking lot. The window opens and an arm sticks out with two bottles of beer.
"I don't drink" says Zoë.
'Then you're lucky', the man laughs and gives Olivier the two bottles.
"Do you have trail names?"
"The dust and the Wind" we say proudly.
'Great song' and he drives away again, as fast as he came.
These little moments are called trail magic. It happens unexpectedly and the effect is always amazing. The joy of finding a bag of energy bars or a can of coke after a long descent is indescribable.
In the thru-hike season, which starts in March, this happens much more often. People drive to a parking lot and prepare lunch for passing hikers or the local church offers free breakfast with pancakes. The thru-hikers are three months ahead of us, but we still occasionally find a little moment of trail magic on our path. That makes the AT extra special.
The white van has just left and another car stops. The window opens and behind the wheel sits an older man with white hair. "Zoe?" he asks. "I am Donn." How is this possible. We stay in Franklin with Donn and Sandi, two warmshower hosts. We wrote an honest message that we are cyclists who walk 1,000 kilometers from the AT. We asked if they would host us for a night, including Simon who would arrive in Franklin today. We were more than welcome. Donn had just finished his work in the garden, his pants and shirt seeing brown-red from the dirt. He felt like having a ride and came to check if we had already arrived. What a coincidence. While Olivier talks to Donn, Zoë chats with two other hikers who also came off the trail. They have walked for seven days and are finished. They are waiting for their hitch to the hotel. Zoë talks about our trip and records a video message for the couple's children. In the meantime, the sky turns dark and the first raindrops fall. We say goodbye to the couple and get into Donn's car. There is no telephone signal at this point so we don't know anything about Simon. Is he he already in town?
Donn and Sandi live a few miles outside of Franklin. The last part is on an unpaved road that brings us to their country house. The location is beautiful, surrounded by forests overlooking the green hills. We connect the phone to the internet, but there is no message from Simon. He won't be there yet, we think. We sit down for a late lunch, sandwiches with homemade sauerkraut, pineapple and chocolate humus. Suddenly we receive a message via Facebook 'we are with your brother'. It are the two hikers that we spoke about half an hour ago in the parking lot. We let them know that we will pick up Simon at six in the village. "We will take him to a restaurant," they send immediately afterwards. He is in good hands. At six o'clock we park with Donn and Sandie in front of the restaurant. Inside we find Simon at the table with the two hikers, just finished his hamburger. What a fantastic reunion! Olivier and Simon always greet each other with a Bolivian greeting, followed by a hearty embrace. We don't have time to hear the whole story of the day because we have to get back to the car quickly. Together with our hosts we go to a cooking club that meets every month. The theme is 'favorite summer food and ice cream'. There are about thirty people and there is a lot of ice cream, which Olivier is already looking forward to. Simon can finally tell his story.
He arrived in Charlotte last night, three hundred miles from Franklin. A few hours later, Simon had a train to a city closer to Franklin. There, Neil was waiting for him, a friend of our trail coach Winton, who brought Simon all the way to Franklin, a 100-kilometer-long hitchhike, without any return. Simon wanted to give something back. "Can I pay the gasoline?" asked Simon. "I have great mileage deals” Neil winks. Also offering a coffee was not successful and so Simon got acquainted with American hospitality and helpfulness on the first day. Simon was already in Franklin at eight in the morning. He caught up some sleep next to the river and then waited all day for a message from us. When he was wandering in the center, a car stopped. "Do you know where we can eat something?" they asked. "No idea, but I am looking for my brother and his girlfriend,” Simon replied. She immediately recognized Olivier, because they look a lot like each other, and the accent sounded European. 'Jump in the car. We have seen them on the trail. Not much later the message on Facebook followed. All coincidence, or trail magic? They say that you should not expect trail magic, but that the trail always brings what you really need.
After a day of rest at Donn and Sandie’s house we head back to the trail. Simon is eager to get started and even the grey sky and rain showers don't change that. The entire Appalachian Trail is full of dangers. Poisonous snakes such as copperheads and rattlesnakes, aggressive wasps and yellow jackets, ticks with lime disease, viruses in the water, large spiders, poison ivy, limited drinking water, mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, extreme thunderstorms, getting lost in the endless forest, moonshine drunk hillbillies and hungry bears. With the exception of the bears, we have never worried about these dangers. Cycling on public roads is probably much more dangerous than all the dangers of the Appalachian Trail combined. When Olivier's mother heard that there were bears, Simon was barely allowed to come. There are three million people walking part of the trail every year, and in the last 20 years there have been two fatal attacks by a bear. That is a 1 in 30 million chance. Since 1974, twelve people have been killed on the trail, not by a bear, but by another person. That is a greater danger than a bear, but still much smaller than in any American city. We think we are safe on the trail, especially with the three of us little can happen. "We still haven't seen a bear so we experience that scoop together," says Olivier as we walk the first few meters with Simon on the trail. Until now we only saw a deer, a snake and many small salamanders. The dense green forest makes it difficult to see wild animals. We have the greatest chance in the Smokey Mountains where two bears live every square mile, but first we have five days of hiking.
On the phone, Simon said that he had hardly done any sport in recent months. The completion of his doctorate took all the time so he was a bit worried about following us. We have already had nine days, and many thousands of kilometers by bike in our legs. However, we were not very concerned about that. Simon is a walker in heart and soul with an enormous perseverance.
From the first climb in the forest we can see that he will manage. Simon flies up and we have to speed up to follow him. Everything that has become self-evident on the trail for us is still new to Simon. The discovery of the white blazes on the trees, the green nature, the colorful insects on the ground, counting in miles and peanut butter on the bagels. The latter is not his favorite. Olivier never liked peanut butter and couldn't even stand the smell. Two years of world travel completely changed that. These days it is Olivier who eats the peanut butter spoons directly from the jar and scrapes out the last leftovers. Zoë still has to laugh about it and Simon also looks with astonishment that Olivier has taken the last step to become a real Dutchman. The rain has stopped and after lunch the sun shines through the trees. We walk thirteen miles (21 kilometers) and find a camping spot next to the trail. The first day after a supply is always luxurious. Then we usually eat pasta with cream sauce and lots of vegetables. Simon doesn't yet have the walking hunger that we have from cycling and walking, so after two bowls he is full. "In a few days you will crave more," laughs Olivier, enjoying his third bowl. The sky suddenly turns dark and wind is blowing. "Thunder is coming," says Zoë, looking at the sky. We throw the rain cover over the tent and ensure that the backpacks are dry. Not much later the thunderstorm starts. From inside the tent, rain and thunderstorms always seem ten times worse. Raindrops clatter on the tent with a deafening sound, trees creak and seem to fall. A branch that falls down sounds like a large tree trunk that breaks off. The lightning illuminates the tent better than the flashlight and the thunder crackles so hard that Zoë even shouts. It is raining so hard that the falling raindrops are splashing along the bottom of the tent. Our face becomes slightly wet. We check whether the backpacks are safe and see that the entire ground around the tent is a large pool of water. After an hour the thunderstorm stops, but the wind keeps blowing hard all night. We sleep light and measure the damage in the morning. There are branches everywhere and the tent is dirty from the splashing rain on the sandy ground. Simon crawls out of his tent with sleepy eyes and a smile. "We can walk again!" he laughs. We tie the wet tent on the backpack and a short while later we walk again with the three of us along the narrow path of the Appalachian Trail.