November Shakedown: Springer to Neels Gap, Part 2

AT, Springer to Neels, Nov 2013, 12This is the second part of my three part tale of my shakedown hike on the AT. I start this section at Cooper Gap (AT mile marker 12.3) on day three,

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I slept better and was up earlier. By 8a I’d had oatmeal and coffee, was packed up and had hiked a half mile to stand on top of Justus Mountain, 300 feet higher than my camp. It was a gloriously easy downhill to Justus Creek (AT mile marker 14.9) where I got my first water of the day at a stream wide enough (and cold enough!) to make me extra grateful for the footbridge. I drink until I’m bursting, fill my water bottles and hike on.

Moldering privy
Moldering privy

I make it to Gooch Mountain shelter (AT mile marker 15.8) by 11am for lunch. There’s no sign of people so far today, but someone has left a cache of ramen noodles, soap and other items on the picnic table. Trail Magic! I only take 2 pouches of spicy tuna that should make the ramen noodles I’m carrying more interesting. After lunch I investigate the shelter and find a great pair of sunglasses someone left behind. I decided to take them, too.

I’m walking better today and I’ve been able to stretch my legs on gentle downhill grades. But I still simply crawl when going uphill. Eight miles is a big day and will be for a while. It’s warmed to 50F so I take off my shoes and socks to get a good look at my feet. They continue to do well, but I reapplied duct tape to the inside of each foot where it always gets tender. I have mole skin, but duct tape is my first defense.

AT, Springer to Neels, Nov 2013, 11Hiking from here is uphill again, but there are always delights on the trail. I find a small stand of blue flowers in bloom (see left. Anyone know what they are?). The squirrels are everywhere, busily preparing for winter. I hear them rustling through the dry leaves. As I get close they jump to a tree to hide, but often leave their bush tails sticking out. If I have the patience to wait quietly, their little heads peer around to see if I’m still there.

Tonight I want to make it to Woody Gap (AT mile marker 21) and have to push hard to make it. At Ramrock Mountain (mile marker 19) I stop for my main meal and eat it while sitting on a rock overlook. The view is spectacular. The trees are in peak fall color, but it’s the narrow path of bright green grass well below that I’m drawn to. Except for the single farm house, the flat field looks like a slow moving river of avocado green, winding between the feet of two mountains.

Ramrock Mountain overlook is as mile marker 19 on the AT
Ramrock Mountain overlook is as mile marker 19 on the AT

I take time on this break to go through my belonging for waste. Woody is my first chance to throw away trash. I’ve been carrying all my empty food packaging. I discard a few items I now find useless and even cut out the tags of my clothes. Ounces add up to pounds and I want to be as lightweight as I can. Tomorrow is Blood Mountain, the highest spot along the AT in Georgia.

Woody Gap (AT mile marker 21) is a popular place for people to get onto the trail and I’ve started several of my weekend trips from here. The parking area is large and you can leave a car overnight (relatively) safely. It has a waterless toilet, ample tent camping space and the water source is reliable. When I arrive I scope out the area. The two picnic tables are full and it looks like someone is set up to feel a large group. It’s awkward to camp with a large group when you aren’t a part of them, so I consider hiking on. I know the area and can probably set up a mile and a half further on. If only it wasn’t uphill! I’ve done 9 miles today and I am tired. I drop my pack and decide to get water. Whatever I choose to do, I’ll need that. But getting water requires walking almost a mile back and forth on a rocky footpath on tender feet. The spring is .4 miles off the trail. When I finish and retrieve my pack, I’m spent. I remember that there wasn’t any dew this morning, so despite the crescent moon rising in a clear sky, it’s likely to rain before morning.

I’m tired. I’m sore. I think all I want to do is set up my tent across the road, away from the man with the picnic table full of food who is likely to be noisy. But I could not be more wrong. I’m in need of a little trail magic and it’s all around me. This is when I meet Trail Angel extraordinaire, Fresh Ground and his Leapfrog Cafe. It’s the best trail magic I’ve ever experienced. And just as amazing are FOUR thru hikers, all who finished this year. They have staged a reunion and I’m the recipient of the over splash of their joy and goodwill. Within minutes I feel like I’ve known them for weeks, not minutes.

Fresh Ground, cooking pasta at his makeshift (but perfect) Leapfrog Café. He's been feeding hikers since the spring and doesn't seem to want to stop.
Fresh Ground, cooking pasta at his makeshift (but perfect) Leapfrog Café. He’s been feeding hikers since the spring and doesn’t seem to want to stop.

I’ve eaten, but they invite me for hot chocolate and conversation. I get stories, clothing and gear tips and tales of hiking disasters–funny now that they have been survived. I forget about my aching feet. I’m no longer tired. I laugh and ask questions. No one seems to be sure of what they will do now that this big adventure is over for them, but they don’t really seem to care.

When you meet hikers, you seldom learn the names the rest of the world knows them by. Almost everyone quickly develops a trial name, their moniker for the trip and their alter ego for life. The most ebullient of the group is Roosta, a 20-something man from Rhode Island with wild strawberry blonde curls and full beard. He flip flopped, starting north from Georgia in early March, hiking to Damascus, VA. He took a break in the summer to work at a Boy Scout camp, then climbed Katahdin and hiked south until he finished. His love interest, Pancake, (who went through several monikers on the trail) is an exceptionally beautiful 24 year old woman with long, light brown hair. She finished the trail in about 4 months. She’s a marathon runner, great preparation for hiking. Shepard is a tall and thin fellow, His beard makes it hard to determine his age, but I’d guess he’s in his mid-20s. He is very self-contained and you can see he embodies the “hike your own hike” philosophy. Shepard hikes in a kilt and is devoted to sleeping in a hammock, even in the coldest weather. Rainbow Braid is quiet, but not shy. I suspect she is the one I’d have the most in common with and I’m sorry I don’t get to focus the conversation to her.

Left to Right: Rooster (from Rhode Island, finished the trail just days before this photo), Shepard (who sleeps in a hammock and hikes in a kilt) and Rainbow Braid (who was quiet and, to me, the most interesting and balanced of the group. Wish I'd have gotten to talk to her more.) At Woody Gap, November 2013
Left to Right: Rooster (from Rhode Island, finished the trail just days before this photo), Shepard (who sleeps in a hammock and hikes in a kilt) and Rainbow Braid (who was quiet and, to me, the most interesting and balanced of the group. Wish I’d have gotten to talk to her more.) At Woody Gap, November 2013

The thru hikers introduce me to down pants, the lightest, warmest clothing around. Perfect for cold March nights in camp. Roosta shows me his raingear, a “packa” that I instantly covet. (I’m in the process of ordering one.)

But the real mystery is Fresh Ground, our host. He’s done some AT hiking, but he’s not a thru hiker. He is from North Carolina and mentions that he started in spring feeding hikers and loved it so much he’s been doing it all summer, up and down the trail. After a few weeks, low on funds, he set up a donation jar which quickly filled up. He’s still working off that capital and won’t let me give him more. He’s here partly for a reunion with his four favorite hikers and partly to greet SOBO hikers who are finishing their thru now. There are far fewer southbounders, and because of weather, they start later in the year, typically June. He wants to make sure someone helps them through the last miles.

Fresh Ground has trail mix, fresh fruit, hot dogs, cookies, Rice Krispy Treats, sloppy joe’s, chips and lots of coffee and hot chocolate. He tries to feed me every few minutes. He promises eggs, bacon and fried potatoes for breakfast.

Though he doesn’t elaborate, Fresh Ground has had a personal tragedy. Feeding hikers is one of the ways he is dealing with it. I don’t get the details, but his brother has died recently and the circumstances may have been violent since the law seems to be involved. He’s single and I wonder if there’s been a recent divorce. His family doesn’t understand why he takes time off from work, living in a tent and the back seat of his car and spending all his extra cash feeding people he doesn’t know. They worry, but they love him. He looks like a happy man to me, though. And he is feeding and bringing joy to all comers: thru hikers, picnickers and casual day hikers alike. On the AT, we call him a Trail Angel and there is no higher compliment.

When I go to bed, it is long after dark. I’m happier than I’ve been since the start. My faith in my ability to hike the trail is high. My faith in the basic goodness of people, restored completely.

November Shakedown: Springer to Neels Gap, Part 1

526686196_447fd4c6a4_bNovember 3, 2013

Sunday morning and the prospect of a week of backpacking stretched out in front of me. I was excited. I also felt trepidation. My plans to attend a week long AT thru hike seminar had fallen through, so I made my own plan to prepare for next year’s thru hike. I decided to backpack the first 31 miles of the Appalachian Trail: Springer to Neels Gap. My initial pack weight was 30 pounds; including 4 pounds of water, 4+ days of food and all the gear I’d need for a winter hike. I hoped I was carrying more than I needed, since my pack weight goal is 25 pound. But then that’s what this hike was all about, really, finding what I needed to carry. The forecast said freezing overnight temperatures in the North Georgia Mountains and a good chance of rain by midweek. Perfect for testing my gear. And my abilities.

For the uninitiated a “thru” on the AT means walking from Georgia to Maine (or vise versa) for almost 2,200 miles and 14 states, following the “little white blazes,” trail markers on trees and rocks. I plan to do it next year and expect the journey to take all my energy and attention for 6 months. Maybe more. I expect to start April 1, 2014 and the weather will still be cold in the mountains, with freezing temperatures and perhaps a late snow. My winter camping experience is limited, so this was an opportunity to learn. To be fair, most hikers start in March. Some in February. And a few crazy souls start in January. What I was preparing for was really early season weather, not winter. I want to avoid the worst of the cold weather. According to statistics, the first week of November has similar weather conditions to the first week in April in the north Georgia mountains.

The drive to the parking lot at the base of Springer Mountain was lovely. The fall colors were at their peak, the day was sunny and lots of motorcyclists were testing the mountain curves.
The drive to the parking lot at the base of Springer Mountain was lovely. The fall colors were at their peak, the day was sunny and lots of motorcyclists were testing the mountain curves.

First I drove north from Atlanta to Suches, GA. The fall leaves were at their peak and it was a lovely, sunny day. I listened to a rebroadcast of A Prairie Home Companion until the station became static. I made a mental note to read more poems by the guest star, Billy Collins. I wonder if I could memorize poems while I hike? I turned onto the little road beside Tritt’s Country Store. The store hasn’t been open since I’ve been heading this way, but it’s been an AT landmark for decades. The Forrest Service road begins as 3 miles of winding, 2-lane blacktop. You pass small farms at a top speed of 35mph. The road abruptly changes to winding, single-lane, gravel, punctuated with sections of dirt and washboard surfaces. Top speeds of 20mph are rare for the next 16 miles. But that’s the way to get to a gravel parking lot at the base of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the AT. This is where I’d leave my car.

I hoisted my pack (ugh!)  and hiked south for one mile, to the top of Springer. I’ve been here before, but this time seemed ominous. Stretching north from my feet was an unbroken footpath to Baxter State Park in Maine. For northbound hikers (NOBO’s) the end of the trail is the holy mountain, Mount Katahdin. This was just a test trip, but the next time I stood here would probably be it. The. Real. Thing. I decided not to sign the hike register, hidden in a compartment in the rock. It seemed like my little test was too trite, too insignificant to document. “Next time,” I thought. “Next time it’s for real. “ I didn’t sign any of the shelter registers on the way.

There's lots of water along the AT, unless of course you need water. But the leaves were lovely.
There’s lots of water along the AT, unless of course you need water. But the leaves were lovely.

And then I took a bold step north and kept going. With the drive and backtrack up the mountain, it was now early afternoon and there isn’t much daylight this time of year. My plan was to bypass the tiny Springer Mountain shelter and hike just 2.6 miles to Stover Creek. It’s a gentle downhill all the way and the path was strewn with newly fallen leaves, like a child had tossed watercolor crayons about. Bright red oak. Light yellow tulip. Golden maple, a few still spotted with green. Russet pine needles. And like paints mixed too well, the colors were already beginning to muddled underfoot. Ocher, burnt sienna, coarse browns and grays.

Galax, in spring bloom. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Galax, in spring bloom. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The smell in the air was of low-growing galax, a shiny evergreen which will bloom in the spring and make me sneeze. Even this late in the fall, the scent made my nose run, though I suspect it was only mental suggestion. Galax is one of the few things I seem to be allergic to. I preferred it when I rounded a bend in the trail and saw a hillside covered in American Ginger.

I was at Stover Creek shelter in no time and decided immediately that I’d fix my biggest meal and push on. I don’t like to cook in the same spot that I’m going to sleep since it attracts animals. Though I’ve never seen one in Georgia, there are bear in these woods. I like to believe that the reason I don’t see them has less to do with their low population and elusive behavior and everything to do with my precautions.

Stover Creek shelter.
Stover Creek shelter.

At the shelter was a man taking photos. He turned out to be from the Hike Inn, located behind me, near the start of the AT. As the name implies, it’s a hike of five miles from the top of Amicalola Falls State Park to the front porch of the Hike Inn. I stayed there once and loved the sustainable, spare accommodations. The eco-friendly hotel sports solar electricity, composting toilets and family style dining, with the leftover food scraps consumed by worms. Obviously, I’m OK with “back to nature,” but I won’t pay over a hundred dollars a night for a place with a shared bathhouse. Which explains why I’ve only been once.

The man from the Hike Inn was soon joined by his boss and they explained that they were documenting a gift package, to be auctioned off for charity. The package would include a guided hike on the AT and lodging at the inn. The organizer of the charity auction was Ted Turner’s daughter. As they were hiking out, two men from Melbourne, FL walked in. They said they had started at 4am and were much more tired from the drive than the short hike. I could believe it. It was great entertainment for my simple meal of spicy ramen noodles. The men pitched their tents while I visited the moldering privy. They looked like strong hikers and I fully expected to see them the next day, overtake me. (I didn’t!)

I camped that night just north of Three Forks (AT mile marker 4.5), alongside a stream. It was good water and in July I might have bathed in it, but now it was much too chilly to consider a dip. My new collapsible bucket and Sawyer squeezable water filter worked well in these conditions. I was feeling good after my 6 miles (counting the hike up Springer Mt and hike into/out of Stover Creek shelter) but I tried not to be smug. Except for the first mile, the hike had been entirely downhill, at a gentle grade with no rocks, switchbacks or streams to ford. I’d hiked only about 10% of the distance I needed to cover. Tomorrow I’d climb 800 feet. And since this was the AT, I could count on climbing it several times. Oh joy.

This was only the second time I’d set up my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 tent and I was a bit clumsy. I’d made a last minute decision to switch to the two-person tent after a backyard test of the UL1 (Ultra light, single person). It was a bit tight to change clothes in and the vestibule didn’t quite have enough room to shelter my backpack (GoLite Jam 70) and shoes (Merrell, trail runners) while still affording a view outside. But mostly I feared claustrophobia in the event weather stranded me in the tent all day. But the two person tent also meant adding another 6 ounces of weight. I hoped I’d made the right decision.

While I enjoyed the ease of close water access, I was conscious that this would not have been a good spot in the rain. Low as it was, I’d be sleeping in a mud hole after even a brief shower. And it was likely to become a pocket of moist, cold air in the freezing temperatures forecast overnight. But the sound of water bubbling helped lull me to sleep and I told myself it was a better test of the tent’s ability to hold in my body heat.

Monday, November 4

I was up at about 7am, dawn. I didn’t sleep well, but that’s not unusual on the first night of a trip. Somehow I still feel pretty rested. I heated water for instant oatmeal and coffee and pack up.

I’m out by 8am. I climb 700 feet in the next 4 miles to reach Hawk Mountain shelter (AT mile marker 8.1). My long strides of the previous day are contrasted by slow, uphill plodding today. I am a flatlander at heart and it will take quite a while, much longer than I have on this hike, to accustom my body to walking up. A few sections are steep and I take several “ten steps/10 second stop” to catch my breath. The leaves are tumbling in the wind, hiding the trail. They cover roots that catch my toes and cause me to stumble. There are loose rocks that roll when I step on them. I am grateful for my hiking poles which save me from falling more than once. It was freezing overnight and the temperature doesn’t climb over 50F today.

Hawk Mountain shelter
Hawk Mountain shelter

I reach Hawk Mountain shelter by 11a, drink all the water I have with me while eating lunch, use the privy, and refill my water bottles. The good news is that for the first time I’ve got a tiny bit of connectivity on my phone when I turn it on. I send a short email to let my mom and a friend know I’m safe.

Glad I’m not stopping at this exposed spot overnight. The wind is relentless and blows almost directly into the shelter’s exposed side. As soon as I stop, I trade my light ball cap for a fleece hat, put on my down jacket and cover it with my rain jacket to block the wind. I’m chilled before I hike on an hour later.

One of the keys to cold weather hiking is staying dry–which includes not sweating, or more practically, sweating as little as possible. Once the mercury drops below 55F, your constant focus is on maintaining temperature control of your body. I can’t stop sweat forming on my back where the heat is trapped by my pack, but I try to maintain the rest of the body. Rolling up or down pant legs, zipping open a jacket or wearing it backward to block the wind. Covering or uncovering my neck with a bandanna. Hiking faster in blowing wind and slower on the leeward side of a mountain. I keep gloves handy, but only need them briefly.

Time equals distance to a hiker, but it’s easy to lose track of both. My only timepiece is my phone. That’s a mistake I need to fix because I have to keep the phone off most of the time to save the precious battery. I’m shocked when I’m only at Horse Gap (AT mile marker 10.5) since it felt like I had been walking so long. But it’s only 2p and I’m actually in good shape. Nightfall is around 5:30p this time of year and I’ll need to have found a campsite and set up before then. My goal is to camp about 2 miles away at Coopers Gap. That means a 600 foot climb over Sassafras Mountain. I decide to stop for my main meal and give my feet a break. I play the hiker game of “what’s the heaviest thing in my pack?” which turns out to be mac and cheese.

As the water begins to boil, a young southbound (SOBO) hiker approaches wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt. Even in this sheltered spot, I’ve got my down jacket on. But he is making great time and probably generating a lot of heat. Hikers usually stop when they see another person going the opposite direction, if just for a moment. It’s a courtesy to make sure the other hiker is alright and it’s a great way to assess the conditions ahead. Is there water near here? How far to the next shelter? But, I suspect, it is also out of loneliness. This young man is excited to share. He’s seen a group of “weekend warriors” on practice maneuvers. As a former military man he cautions me not to engage any of them in conversation and get them in trouble. They are expected to stay off trail, but I might get lucky.

I wouldn’t call what I saw lucky, or at least the young man in camouflage that I caught squatting probably didn’t think so. The falling leaves gave me a fairly long range of visibility and he wasn’t as hidden off trail as he would have been just a few days before. As I topped the mountain, I saw him stand and pull up his pants, turning his back to fasten them. He pretended not to notice me. I pretended right back, just to be polite.

I was at Cooper Gap (AT mile marker 12.3) shortly after 4pm. It’s an uninteresting, dry spot along the gravel road I took to get to Springer. There was another hour of daylight, but my energy was low and I decide to save the 300 foot climb up Justus Mountain for morning. A party of three are camped on one side of the road, possibly a father and his 2 sons. They had a large campfire going and I found the smell comforting, though I never have one myself. But there is nothing like a fire to bring comfort on a cold windy night. Fire chases away the fears.

I cross the road and erect my tent just down a rise, giving me protection from the wind and making me invisible to road traffic.

My feet are weight weary and aching. It is easy to forget how difficult this trail is. I’ve only done 8 miles, but I’m tired. Still, I’m grateful not to have any blisters (except for the 3 week old blood blister I got from a new pair of dress shoes. Go figure.). Supportive, well-fitting shoes are worth their weight in gold on the trail and that’s about what they cost, too. I’ve gone with the tried and true, two-sock method to protect my delicate feet until they toughen up. I wear a thin liner sock next to the foot with a thick, hiking sock over. The system keeps me blister free for the entire trip.

The day has been hard, but there are also rewards. The red headed woodpecker that kept flitting from tree to tree, staying just ahead of me for a quarter mile. The 4-point buck that was startled, but not really frightened of me. He took a long look before effortlessly leaping a fallen tree and sauntering off, sure-footed down the side of the mountain. Oh how I envied his nimble feet. The grouse that burst into the air when I was only 6 feet away. I could feel the wind from his beating wings and still taste the adrenalin long after my heart beat returned to normal. And on one ridge I looked up into a sky so blue and clear it looked like it would shatter if only I could throw a rock high enough.

The Best Laid Plans…..Trust and the Trail

View from Rimrock Mountain, Georgia AT, November 2013.
View from Rimrock Mountain, Georgia AT, November 2013.

I had planned to go to a five-day Appalachian Trail Institute the first week of November, put on by infamous AT hiker Warren Doyle. Doyle has hiked the entire AT 16 times and I figured I could learn a LOT from someone like that. To be fair, I had doubts, though. Serious doubts. I’ve met Warren twice on the trail. I won’t go into detail, but the first time he acted like a bully and the second time like a hurt child that no one wanted to play with. Let’s just say I think the man could use some social skills. But I reasoned that he could still teach. I’m a student at heart and I wanted to learn.

So I signed up, paid my deposit, got time off from work and counted down the days on the calendar.

Roughly a week before the institute, I got an email from someone named “Sandy.” I have no idea if this is a man or a woman, but Sandy said s/he wanted to “share” a ride to the program in Damascus, VA. It became clear that what Sandy really wanted was for me to do all the driving AND to go out of my way to Toccoa, GA to pick him/her up. No mention of sharing the cost of gas.

Sandy knew my name, where I lived, my email and where I was going to be for a week. And I didn’t know Sandy. Creepy. So I emailed back asking if Mr. Doyle had given out my private information without my permission. I copied Warren and he responded that not only had he shared my info, but that he had been sharing other people’s info for 24 years and no one had a problem with it.

Well, I had a problem with it. I had been on the fence before and now I was sure I didn’t want to work with this guy. Giving out personal information is unprofessional and possibly illegal. Not only did I not know Sandy, but Warren didn’t know him/her either! It shows a total lack of concern for my privacy and my personal safety. So I emailed that I wouldn’t be coming and that I wanted my deposit back. He agreed to this request (though I’ve not seen the money yet).

*Sigh* It’s almost impossible to get vacation time back once it’s in the system at work. And I had so been looking forward to the time off. I wanted to get both mentally and physically prepared for the trail.

But wait! I still could. What would be better preparation for the trail than a hike? The first week of November should be similar weather to the first week of April, when I plan to start. I could seriously use more cold-ish weather hiking (OK, so most people start in March. Some in February. Not me. Call me chicken if you want, but I’m not crazy about hypothermia.).

So I made plans. I’ll report on the successes and failures of the trip, but I’ve updated my backpacking gear spreadsheet, if you are interested.

Also, I’m not the only one who finds Warren a challenge to work with. Madman Walking?: A Profile in Backpacker Magazine. This would not be my kind of hike.

Oakland Cemetery 2013 Ghost tours

This is an event I try to hit every year. It’s a big fundraiser for Oakland Cemetery and it takes them months to stage. But remember: tickets always sell out and often early. You won’t be able to buy them at the gate.  This is an ATL tradition you must plan ahead for. Each year, the “ghosts” of some of the historic cemetery’s residents come back from their graves to tell you about themselves, sharing Atlanta history in the process.

Our guide for the evening
Our guide for the evening

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Oophs! Bet that was cold!
Oophs! Bet that was cold!

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This is what I want on my tombstone.
This is what I want on my tombstone.
One of the unknown soldiers who died in the Civil War.
One of the unknown soldiers who died in the Civil War.

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The Lion on Atlanta
The Lion of Atlanta
He told the story of the great train theft during the Civil War.
He told the story of the great train theft during the Civil War.

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Atlanta Botantical Garden: Scarecrows!

A visit to the Atlanta Botanical Garden as the seasons change is a must in the ATL.  For Halloween, the scarecrow decorating contest. I came on a day when there was a children’s event. The kids were adorable in their costumes, but the worn-out, harried parents and their huge strollers were a Halloween nightmare on Piedmont! Still, lovely day in the Garden. But see for yourself below.

Coming up next: Garden Lights, the annual Holiday Lights display.

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