I spent this morning trying to figure out how to get back on the trail from the hotel. Getting a ride from a remote mountain into a town - any town - isn't so hard, but getting a ride from that town back to the remote mountain is a little trickier. Shortly before my 11 o'clock checkout time, I threw my backpack on and just started walking out of Cherokee towards the parkway. A couple with three small children in a pickup truck let me ride in the back up the highway a little, but there was a miscommunication where apparently when you're in the mountains and you say, "Are you going to the parkway?" people don't assume you mean the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is obviously what you're supposed to assume. App people, back me up on this. So we zoomed past the parkway exit, and I tapped on their back window, and they let me out a visitor center where I saw a 3D map of everywhere I'd been, up and down and around the mountains. It took my fingers seconds to travel what I'd been walking for five days. There was a ranger heading to the parkway like I'd hoped, but it was taking forever, and then it was going to be another hour, and it was already noon, and I needed to get some miles under my belt, so I got a ride from a very friendly hippie traveling dude and he dropped me off in the middle of the woods, which I quickly realized was not exactly where I needed to be. Fortunately, and oddly enough, after I'd walked on this dumb gravel road for no more than 15 minutes, a very lost little Jetta trying to get to the parkway pulled up, and I climbed in and told them where to go. I got dropped off on the MST, they got to the parkway, it was a win-win experience. And then, for the first time, I got to walk on the MST that wasn't anything else - it wasn't the Appalachian Trail, it wasn't some weird weedy trail in the Smokies, it was just MST. And that was cool. Of course, when I got to the parkway I lost the blazes and got turned around and then wasn't sure I was headed the right way - but I was. Walking on the parkway was actually sort of really nice. It's smoother and flatter than trail walking, and you feel like you're in some kind of parade with everyone waving at you. I put flowers in my hair and got to see the mountain views at walking speed, which is even better than driving speed. I walked all the way to Waterrock Knob, where you could see Clingman's Dome. It was so far away, the farthest mountain you could see, and I'd walked from there.
And then things got interesting. I'd slung my pack down on a picnic table and was wandering around, trying to find water and use the bathroom and see if there was a place I could charge my phone for a few minutes, and these two guys pulled up in a red SUV. One wore sunglasses and had blonde hair and a very strong lisp, and the other had unwashed shoulder-length black hair. They let two dogs out of the car, and being dog-deprived, I waltzed over and asked to pet them. Their names were Cole and Roxy, and they were ancient and probably deaf and did not care about me one bit. The men asked where I was hiking, and that's when I learned an important lesson: you shouldn't always tell the truth. If someone asks what trail you're doing and whether you're hiking alone, you can lie all day. My intuition kicked in five minutes too late, when the one with long hair handed me two bottles of water and my mother's words came blazing into my mind: There's no such thing as a free lunch. "There's no such thing as a free bottle of water," I thought, and decided to eat my dinner and wait for them to hike up to the summit, come back down, and leave. They offered me a smoke, they invited me to come with, I said no to both and made my dinner. While all this was going on, a slew of people had shown up, and they were clearly setting up some kind of party. While I ate my couscous, I realized it was a surprise party, but I didn't know who it was for until a couple walked down the summit trail holding hands, and when they saw a photographer, they raised their clasped hands in victory, and I'm not much of a happy crier but suddenly I was all teary and everyone jumped out from behind a building and yelled surprise and blew bubbles and I felt so lucky to have witnessed such a huge outpouring of love and joy. BUT the two guys weren't back and it was getting later and later and after the party had settled and I'd thrown away the couscous I couldn't finish, I went up to a woman who had been glancing toward me the whole time and asked if the red SUV near the party belonged to them, in case I'd pegged the wrong car and had missed the guys leaving in the excitement. This was Tiffany, and she turned out to be one of the kindest people I've ever met. Trail angel doesn't even begin to describe it. I told her what had happened, and she'd seen the guys and agreed that they were sketchy, so she told me to join the festivities and that I could stay at her house and she'd drive me back the next day. My gut said yes and I said yes and my eyes said they were going to cry again, and they I ate some key lime pie to die for. I felt kind of bad - you only get engaged so many times and I didn't want to steal any of their thunder, but the new fiancees were so incredibly sweet, everybody was, and the guys left and Tiffany took me home. Her whole family could not have been kinder or more welcoming and Tiffany kept feeding me and I kept eating. I showered and washed AND conditioned my hair (heaven!) and did laundry and stayed up too late fiddling with my phone and talking to Tiffany and her husband and kids. The day couldn't have worked out better, and I am SO so grateful for trail magic.