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In Sickness and In Health: A Shelter System Lovestory

Words and photos from Tina Haver Currin

How strange it is to pack up your belongings, leave your home, and hike into the woods for an indefinite and unknowable amount of time. How strange it is to pile everything you think you might need into a set of pods or a pack, hoping that you have the balance right. How strange it is to spend the daylight hours exercising and exploring, wholly ignoring everyone who was formerly around you, and, by the grace of God, the Internet, too. 

In other ways, though, it’s even stranger not to test your mettle, to remain ignorant to the true depths of your ability. Do you know who you are if you don’t know what you can do?  

Not knowing is a very mild way to live. It’s dull. 

Squarely in the camp of Not Dull? Attempting a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. At 2,192 miles, it rewards by way of lush, flower-spangled meadows, endless blue vistas, and some of this nation’s slowest and most satisfying climbs. The mountain chain, which stretches from the very top of Georgia to the innards of Maine, doesn’t sport the dramatic volcanic peaks of the Pacific Crest Trail or the desolate and rugged contours of the Continental Divide Trail. To the stately AT, though, these are but youthful follies, and it has no need for theatrical flair. While the Rockies have risen, eroded to dust, and risen again, the Appalachian Mountains have stood tall; indeed, geologists speculate that they were once more colossal than the Himalaya. To walk along the spine of the mightiest mountains on Earth, and to be a part of—if ever so briefly—their majestic and ongoing dance with Deep Time? There’s simply nothing like it. 

That’s how I felt roughly 400 miles into my trek across the eastern United States, hiking over Tennessee's famous balds on a crisp Spring afternoon. From afar, the vastness of the region gives the illusion that it is soft, supple, and forgiving. But up close and on foot, those gentle, rolling hills unfurl into a collection of increasingly steep pitches that are stacked like matryoshka dolls. The ground is punctuated by clods of dirt and rocks the size of toasters, so every step requires an adjustment or a reaction. And, rather than a continuation of the dense hardwood forest that encompasses the majority of the trail, these ecologically rare landscapes feature knee-high, kaleidoscopic grasses and views that seem to stretch on into infinity. It’s like gazing out at an ocean that’s somehow made of land. 

It had been a long day, and my husband, Grayson, and I had already ambled past our planned stopping point like lemmings blithely following an invisible herd. The achy, cavernous feeling in my stomach was a clear sign that my fiery metabolism was baiting me to eat, and we were beginning to lose daylight. Our trail map suggested a lone campsite on top of a bald about three miles away. One campsite? On a treeless summit? Three miles away?

And were those dark clouds in the distance, or was it just me?

An hour later, Grayson and I found the promised patch of grass and a makeshift fire ring perched atop the bald like a crown jewel. A stiff wind, whipped up by the front and amplified by the exposure and elevation, nipped at our faces. I quickly pitched our Echo 2 shelter and settled in for the weather show. The undulating peaks of the Blue Ridge created a spectacular backdrop for the evolving thunderheads, and the morning fog that followed made us feel like we momentarily owned a golden island in the sky.

But, like most things on the AT, the feeling didn’t last. Two days later, a gastrointestinal sickness took hold, leaving us both curled in the fetal position and barely able to suck water from a dripping stream, much less choke down whatever flavor of Clif Bar we happened to be carrying at the time. Stomach sickness is a common malady along the AT’s cramped and social early miles, and we knew contagion would keep us tent-bound for the foreseeable future.

But it was no matter. Our Echo 2 served us as faithfully in good times as it did in bad, whether we were clutching our nagging bellyaches, or watching the rising sun cut resplendent streaks across an open sky.

Carrying the Echo 2, I’ve hiked from rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon, bushwhacked my way into America’s least-visited National Park, and spent several freezing nights above the Arctic Circle with the neon green aurora dancing above my head. I hiked the first 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail with the Echo, too, because backpacking in our nation’s wildest places requires certainty—at least, as much certainty as one is willing to haul into the situation. I am almost guaranteed a solid pitch on any surface, and, thanks to its low profile and adjustable configuration, even a surprise rainstorm won’t carry unfortunate consequences. That’s all the motivation I need to finish out a hike or a climb, and my featherweight shelter compels me forward, rather than holds me back.  

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