In mid-June, I catch up with the group again in Virginia, where they’re camped by a roadside deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the six weeks since I’ve seen them last, the Expedition members have hiked 800 miles. Today, they roll in at dusk, exhausted by a 27-mile day that took them over several big mountains. Nevertheless, they’re right on schedule: It’s June 15, and they’re camped by the Tye River, just like the schedule says.
The distance has not come easily. Hazel walked for a month with painful shin splints that turned her lower legs black and blue, while Carol is tending cadaverous-looking blisters on one foot. And the day I arrive, Greg is suffering from debilitating knee pain. “I took two aspirin,” he says in his Tennessee twang, “but it was like pissing into a forest fire.”
Amazingly, Jimmy is still here, having survived his trial by backpack. As soon as it ended, he bought two Rubbermaid bins for his food and gear, like the others. He seems at home on the trail now, relaxed and jovial, with a bushy beard. Even Doyle is starting to like him.
Everyone looks much thinner, especially Hazel, who has easily lost 35 pounds. Duane has also shed his middle-aged middle, and James, who started out thin, is now rail thin. But something different has happened to Dave. He’s lost weight like the rest, but his posture has changed: His whole body sags on his hiking poles, as if without them he might just collapse. He’s so hunched over, so lost in his own world, that when the trail passed under the Guillotine–a famous overhanging rock in Virginia–he didn’t even see it.
By this point, they’ve all acquired trail names: Eddie is “Eddie Bear.” Duane is “The Calculator,” because he always knows exactly how far it is to the next road crossing, overlook, or landmark. Hazel is “Hazelnut,” while her cackling cousin Cindy is “Sideshow.” Jimmy is “Stickman,” because of his attachment to an awkward, hand-whittled staff. (Doyle himself has never had a trail name.)
Only one person has quit: Debbie went home after two weeks. “She couldn’t handle the comfort level,” someone says. Or rather, lack of comfort: Tonight’s campsite is a lumpy roadside parking lot that smells distinctly of poop. (Only Greg and Lauren make the 100-yard hike to set up camp beside the lovely Tye River.)
Debbie’s departure isn’t a problem: Unsure of her commitment from the beginning, she hadn’t joined the Circle. The decision is voluntary. So while all of the hikers (except Jimmy) have been “eligible” to join the Circle since the the first couple of weeks, not all of them have. This morning, on top of Cold Mountain, James became the tenth person to join. The group hiked up in predawn darkness, with headlamps, and held a small ceremony on the peak, joining hands and sharing their thoughts, just after sunrise. Jimmy could be next. “I probably will join, to support my cousins,” he says.
That leaves only Eddie Bear. Though he’s one of the stronger hikers in the group, he has opted not to join the Circle. “I’m opposed to the concept,” he confides. “It makes the end result more important than the journey.” He says he’d still help out, by carrying an injured hiker’s pack, for example. “But this way, I have my freedom. I don’t want to be the one who gets hurt and ruins it for everybody.”
Nobody wants to be that person. As Doyle often reminds the group, “It takes all of us to succeed, but only one of us to fail.”
That’s one way to look at it. But a friend of Pokey’s who visited the group had a somewhat different take: “This isn’t a hike,” he’d said. “It’s a psychology experiment.”