Four Pines Hostel

The view from the hostel includes a honey farm across the road. Four Pines is just .3 from the trail.
The view from the hostel includes a honey farm across the road. Four Pines is just .3 from the trail.
Inside the hostel
Inside the hostel

Four Pines Hostel is located near Catawba, VA.
Since owner Joe Mitchell and his girlfriend Donna took me to Trail Days in Damascus and back, I’m forever in their debt. I also stayed two nights, May 18-19, in their hostel, a converted 3 car garage with a bath, shower, 2 refrigerators, and a stove. If the 8 beds and 3 couches fill up, there’s two barns to sleep in as well. And it filled up both nights I stayed.
Sunday we drove back from Damascus, unloaded the truck and collapsed for the night.

Joe
Joe

Monday Miss Donna offered to slack pack me a fairly easy 6 miles from 311 southbound to the hostel. It was a good way to slowly get back into hiking.

While I enjoyed Joe, I really related to Donna. She’s witty (“if that’s true Joe, I’ll kiss your A** and give you a week to gather a crowd,”) and hard working. And I suspect she’s already dug the hole for the body of the first woman who flirts a little too long with Joe.

many thanks to them both. The hostel takes donations, which help keep it open. When I commented that you have to be a little crazy to hike this trail or take in people who do, Miss Donna said, “Ah, don’t fool yourself. Those are the only sane ones out there.”

While slack packing, I crossed the 700 mile mark!
While slack packing, I crossed the 700 mile mark!
The first half of the hike was a ridge walk. The good kind where you aren't climbing over rock out crops.
The first half of the hike was a ridge walk. The good kind where you aren’t climbing over rock out crops.
The other half of the hike was through fields or along streams. Very pleasant.
The other half of the hike was through fields or along streams. Very pleasant.
The tree canary is filling in, so most of the small forest floor flowers are nearing the end. Still some red Columbine.
The tree canary is filling in, so most of the small forest floor flowers are nearing the end. Still some red Columbine.
This is City Slicka with Daisy the Dog. City has given me lots of advice. He's a yo-yo hiker and is in his fourth continuous hiker. From Boston, he's about 40 and says before the trail he weighted 280 and sat on a bar stool all the time. We tell him he's a drunk with a hiking problem.
This is City Slicka with Daisy the Dog. City has given me lots of advice. He’s a yo-yo hiker and is in his fourth continuous hiker. From Boston, he’s about 40 and says before the trail he weighted 280 and sat on a bar stool all the time. We tell him he’s a drunk with a hiking problem.

Finally well and hiking again!

I hiked through a lot of this through this section!
I hiked through a lot of this white stuff through this section!

As I type this, I’m at Laughing Heart Hostel in a Hot Springs. Today was heavy rain, but thankfully the worst of it came after I arrived at 2p. I’ll be taking a zero day here tomorrow and am grateful to be showered with laundry done.

DAILY LOG

Wednesday March 26 Standing Bear hostel 240.2 to Groundhog Creek Shelter 247.7

Flash and the Princesses dropped me off north of the Smokies at Standing Bear Hostel. Road closures through the center of the Smokies make it impossible to hike my plan through the Smokies and I’m just not willing to wait out the weather another day. I’m a hiker and hikers HIKE!

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Standing Bear Hostel: Box of goodies from my mother and niece. Adia had decorated a shoe box for me and she and Grammie had filled it with goodies. I ate the thin mints right away! Then I ate Reese’s for a snack that day. Shared zucchini bread with other hikers who were staying at the hostel. They were all quite jealous of my largess. Adia also made a lovely card for me AND included a four leaf clover which I will carry with me the rest of the way.

Snowbird Mt.
Snowbird Mt.

Standing Bear Hostel was fairly new when I came through a decade ago. Still owned by Curtis, but Rocket told me he has managed it for the last 3 years. They have a bunk house, private cabins, kitchen, laundry, shower and a small resupply store.

At the hostel: Facts was here (last time I saw him I identified him as a young Jewish man who tried too hard. Turns out he’s Protestant, son of a preacher. Oophs!) and Red Beard (we are both from Atlanta), Snorlax. The manager, Rocket, is a very thin, hard looking man, though he spoke kindly to me. The young men inside were thrilled with the availability of marijuana and the hostel has just also gotten a liquor license. Clearly not my kinda place. But I talked to others later who stayed there and found the place charming. No matter, I needed to move on and become a hiker again, regardless the amenities. It was only 10:30a and I needed to move. But there was also an amazing amount of snow ahead of me.

Groundhog Creek shelter is an older stone shelter.
Groundhog Creek Shelter is an older, stone shelter.

The hike to the next shelter was just over 7 miles, but the first 5 miles were up to a bald with an FFA tower, Snowbird Mt, 245.2. (From 1700 feet to 4300). It was a nice grassy bald, with posts lining the way, painted with the AT white blaze. Much more snow over the area than I’d expected, about an inch to three inches. The temperature did not get above freezing and the sky was partly cloudy, so there was little melting, except a bit on the trail where people were walking. So by 2p there mud to avoid. After the bald, the hike was straight down to Deep Gap. There must be a dozen valleys named a Deep Gap and the AT seems to plunge down through all off them. There are also too many places called “sassafras.”

imageI’m slow. Very, very slow. I hiked just short of a mile an hour (counting breaks). It was like starting the hike all over again. Wet, cold weather made it hard to take a break. Nowhere to sit that’s dry. And the wind is blowing so you can’t stop for long without getting cold.

I finally made it to Groundhog Creek Shelter. For an hour I was the only one at the shelter, an ancient stone structure that really needs attention. Then Bean Dip joined me (Australian, fast hiker) If I’d known she was coming I’d have stayed inside shelter, but I already had a tent set up. Bean Dip also brought me my bandana, which I’d dropped on the trail! She is excited about her mother coming to hike with her soon, though she plans to make several gear changes after her mom leaves, including a smaller tent and stove.

Bean Dip, eating her freezer dried meal.
Bean Dip, eating her freezer dried meal.

Very cold night. It had not gotten above freezing all day. Bean Dip updated me on several people. Radar and NORDO had passed me. Turkey Buzzard/Mickey has dropped out (she says this is his 3rd attempt, but it seems to me that his only issue is an oversized pack. A good outfitters could solve that in a couple hours!)

Thursday March 27 Groundhog Creek Shelter 247.7 to Roaring Forks Shelter 255.9

Not sure who postholed this section before me, but it was over a foot deep.
Not sure who postholed this section before me, but it was over a foot deep.

My tent was quite damp in the morning and it took me far too long to get going due to cold. Once again I threw up some of breakfast. Is this going to be every day? Also found a pair of socks that I thought Bean Dip had left (they weren’t hers).

Still hiking in snow most of the day and there are some places that someone, maybe 2 days ago, postholed through more than a foot of it. Their foot steps are frozen into the drifts. Whoever they were, I am grateful to them, though they have much longer legs than I. Very windy all day. Too cold to stop and rest for more than a minute at a time. Wore my rain jacket most of the day to cut the wind, adding my rain pants before lunch.

The style to Max Patch.
Entering Max Patch.

I was not prepared for the height of Max Patch Bald, 254.1, nor the wind. I had been walking up hill almost since I left Groundhog Creek Shelter and needed a break, but the climb was relentless, alternating between mud and deep snow. My hiking pole got stuck in one snow drift and I lost the cap to my pole. (I had a spare). When I got to the top I was able to lie down on my ground cloth and rest. As long as I stayed low I could avoid the wind and soak in a bit of sun. After walking in trees, the bald feels dizzying, wide and high. It’s like the opening scene of the Sound of Music where Julie Andrews sings, “The hills are alive……

Max Patch
Max Patch

It was dry most of the way to Max Patch, so as soon as I saw water I stopped. I met Jeff, who thru hiked 3 years ago. He will be working for the park service this summer in the Smokies. I wish him well.

Max Patch
Max Patch

From the bald it is down hill for several miles, but the temperature had at least inched over freezing. With the melting snow the whole trail was mud. Such a mess and my new shoes are not waterproof. I moved so slowly trying to keep my feet dry. I’d wanted to push past to the next shelter, but at 5pm, tired and muddy, I was the first to stop at Roaring Forks. A squirrel was scolding me from the shelter and I wasn’t sure I was welcome. Shortly after, Hopper and Bismarck came in. Then Grasshopper and Jump Up came. The four of them had stayed in a cabin at Standing Bear the night before. The first couple are very experienced AT hikers, but this was the longest day for the second couple. We all stayed in the shelter since rain was forecast. Right at dusk, Wrong Leg (a strong hiker with a British accent) came and filled the shelter. Jump up gave me the bandana that had been lost in the laundry at Top of Georgia hostel! He’d been carrying it all that time. Their bandana didn’t return from the laundry either, and were given mine.

No rain overnight, though it was forecast, and the temperature was mercifully above freezing, though the mud was a serious problem in the shelter area.

Friday, March 28 Roaring Forks shelter 255.9 to Dirt road 265.4

I woke in the dark hours to the sound of scurrying mice. It’s the thing I like least about the shelters and why I usually camp in my tent. But the mice didn’t seem to have done any harm. No rain overnight, but the gray skies look like I should get a move on! I added my pack cover and put my rain jacket and pants where I could get to them easily.

Things are beginning to green up!
Things are beginning to green up!

I started the morning 18 miles from Hot Springs and wanted to at least halve that distance today. I was the first out of the shelter at 8:15a though of course I knew everyone would pass me by lunch. We all took a break at Walnut Mt Shelter, 260.8. That had been my goal the night before, but it was such an exposed, windy spot I was glad I didn’t. Also there were 10 people, including Bean Dip, in that tiny space, according to the log. It must have been miserable. I drank the last of my water and intended to fill it, but found the trail to the stream a muddy mess. I decided to hike on to better, easier water.

A couple miles later I was getting water at a small spring and met No Poles, who hiked the AT last year. He was complaining at how slow he was, but I’m jealous of his daily distance. 10 miles is still a big day for me.

The tiny white and pink flowers are Spring Beauties.
The tiny white and pink flowers are Spring Beauties.

Much of the day was windy and my rain jacket went off and on. The skies threatened rain all day, but didn’t.

I really wanted to make it to the bottom of the mountain I’m on, another mile to an actual campsite, but my feet ached and when the trail crossed an old, flat road bed, I called it a day. I’m about 8 and a half miles from Hot Springs, mostly downhill. I am ready for a hot shower and laundry. I took a Baby Wipes bath, the best a camper can do!

Most hikers could have made it to Hot Spring in 3 days. It will take me 4. I am just not as strong a hiker. My short little legs just don’t move so quickly. I hope I’ll be able to increase my speed and miles very soon. While I try to remember it’s still early days, I am disappointed by my slowness.

Best things seen today: I saw tiny white and pink flowers, Spring Beauties, a sure sign of spring, which I’m longing for. Also the first leaves of Virginia Water Leaf. I heard an owl when I first stopped to set up camp and woodpeckers are constant much of the day.

Saturday, March 29 Dirt road 265.4 to Hot Springs (Laughing Heart hostel) 273.9

Well that was an odd night. About midnight I woke to the sound of a tractor and headlights blazing on my tent. I could hear two men talking from the vehicle, wondering who would be camping here. I suspect they had only seen the tent because of the reflective tape on the stakes and lines. Frankly, I was frightened. I could hear them talking, but could not make out what they were saying. They didn’t get off the tractor and I didn’t get out of the tent. Eventually they backed down and turned around. My heart had just about settled back to a more normal rhythm when they came back. This time they didn’t come nearly so close, but they sat there illuminating my tent for what seemed like an eternity. Then they finally backed up and drove off. I was frightened as it was obvious that there were at least 2 of them and just one of me. The only “protection” I carry is pepper spray. Later at the hostel people suggested that the men on the tractor had a still in the back woods.

This was not in my guidebook. Two graves, near Deer Mountain Park shelter. They were buried in 1944 and 1966.
This was not in my guidebook. Two graves, near Deer Mountain Park Shelter. They were buried in 1944 and 1966.

It was sprinkling when I woke up, but I managed to get my food bag down between showers and most of the tent packed up before it began to rain hard. By the second mile of the hike I was simply too warm to hike with a rain jacket. This is the first day that it was warm enough to hike in short sleeves. Spring is coming! And I saw other evidence of it too. One bloodroot just about to pop into bloom. The very first blush of a redbud. A tiny snake that I narrowly missed with my hiking stick.

Though the 8.5 miles was mostly down hill, it was still difficult and my feet are quite sore. While it’s clear that this shoe/insole combination is superior to the one I started with, there is no padding and my feet hurt every evening. My keg muscles recover overnight and my knees have no pain at all, but the ache on the bottom of my feet sometimes keep me from falling asleep. I hope that they will toughen up and also that I will continue to lose weight, making it less weight on them overall. I wonder how much weight I’ve lost. Perhaps 6 pounds?

My first view of the French Broad River and Hot Springs.
My first view of the French Broad River and Hot Springs.

It sprinkled off and on all day, but I mostly chose just to be wet. It began raining harder on the switch back decent of the final mountain. I could see the French Broad River and Hot Springs below more than 2 miles before I arrived. Cities look so peaceful, clean and organized from that height. I’ve found that when you can hear traffic noises, you are about a half mile from the road.

Laughing Heart Hostel is located on the edge of the AT parking lot as you drop into town. Very convenient. It’s run by former thru hikers Chuck Norris (he does look surprisingly like the actor) and Tigger. It’s got about 12 hikers tonight (most in private rooms) plus a few past thru hikers who promise trail magic tonight. I’m in the bunk room with 5 other young men including Goat, Money Maker (he’s raised over $5 thousand for a charity on this hike), and Snorlax,

The Princesses are here. They’ve been to Damascus, VA to drop off some resupply boxes. They were going to hike today, but wanted to avoid the downpour. Maybe they will hike tomorrow. I hope their return to hiking is better than mine. I feel as if I’m breaking in my trail legs all over again! This section felt like I was starting the trail from the beginning.

My first zero day!

Hiawassee, GA (got off trail at Unicoi Gap, 52.9, day before).

This is my first zero day–a day with no trail miles. I’m staying in a Budget Inn in Hiawassee, GA and they will shuttle me to the trail in the morning. Of course I am doing some walking, mostly to resupply, eat and trade out gear. These rest days are critical to recovery, especially as I gain my trail legs.

My new best f
My new best friend on the trail, my new Catalyst pack which replaced my POS GoLite Jam. Notice the little monkey, made by my niece Adia.

GEAR

I really thought I had made good gear choices, but I’m finding that I need to make some serious adjustments. At Neels Gap I replaced my backpack and sent to storage about 3 pounds of unnecessary gear. My sleeping bag is simply not warm enough and I should have replaced it there as well. Instead I purchased a much better one  over the phone (from Mountain Crossings, the outfitter at Neels Gap) and it’s being sent ahead to a hostel at Dicks Gap. When I get the new one, I’ll return the older one to REI (Thanks for a wonderful return policy!). This will be warmer and save me almost a pound in weight. Today, I  got a 1 ounce knife to replace my 3 ounce Leatherman mini. I replaced my Snow Peak stove and windscreen for a Jet Boil system. It’s slightly heavier, but heats 2 cups of water in under 2 minutes, saving fuel and time standing around in the cold waiting for tea in the morning. Because I will only have to carry one fuel canister instead of two, it’s only a few ounces more overall.

My tent is the best piece of equipment I purchased. The Big Agnes, Fly Creek UL2 is one of the most popular on the trail. My down jacket, fleece cap and rain jacket have been lifesavers, but I threw out the Packa. Great concept, but it didn’t work for me.

HEALTH

I’m feeling better. This morning was the first that I didn’t throw up. As you can imagine, this has kept me from consuming much food at one time or drinking a lot of water. As a result, I may have dropped a couple pounds! But you can’t hike far unless you are hydrated and fed, so it’s slowed me down. Still not sure what the malady is, but I seem to be getting over it. Slowly.

Though I am a bit stiff in the morning, I have not been truly sore, probably because of the low mileage. It is critical to fully recover overnight and not push myself to the point of pain. These young men can tell themselves “No pain, no Maine” as much as they want, but that’s not a strategy for someone my age. For me, the key to finishing is to avoid injury and just keep moving forward at a pace I can maintain. The miles will take care of themselves as long as I don’t stop. It does not matter if I’m the last one to summit Katahdin. I just remind myself that if I allow myself to recover each night, I will be stronger by April and can increase miles then.

My Merrill's . I had replaced the insole with a thicker, cushier one, but now that my feet a swollen from walking, they get a bit tight. My solution, for now, is to cut out the toe section of the insole to give me more room.
My Merrill’s . I had replaced the insole with a thicker, cushier one, but now that my feet a swollen from walking, they get a bit tight. My solution, for now, is to cut out the toe section of the insole to give me more room.

The other key, IMHO, is foot health. I have dutifully stuck with the “duel sock method.” That means I wear a thin liner sock beneath a thick hiking sock. It reduces abrasion and I’ve had no blisters. I also inspect my feet each night before putting them in thick, warm, dry socks that I carry just for sleeping. This morning was the first that my feet were tender upon rising, but I did 3 miles of rocky trail at speed yesterday, in addition to my highest mileage day with no break. Considering, I think they are doing well. Wish I had gotten a half size larger shoes, because my feet swell and could use more room. But the style and performance of my Merrells is great. They’ve stayed dry and handle the rugged terrain very well.

I do have a few more bruises and cuts than when I started. A scrap across the back of my knee is a mystery, but I remember getting both the bruises on my upper arms as chunks of ice fell from trees overhead. THAT was a walk I’ll never forget. Glad I’ve been through it, but hope to never repeat it! Other than that, a couple small bruises that I can’t account for. Nothing major. I did have a bit of low energy today, but a zero day, hydration and a couple nights in a warm bed should cure me.

My new Jet Boil and tiny knife with scissors. They are small, but I used them to cut down my thick shoe insoles.
My new Jet Boil and tiny knife with scissors. They are small, but I used them to cut down my thick shoe insoles.

But I’ve discovered a new malady that I’ve not seen before–a dry, sore throat. It’s the cold, dry air combined with the extra breaths needed to hike. I’ve become a mouth breather! My throat is just a bit raw, but extra fluids and breathing through my nose made a big difference today.

SHOULDA, WOULDA, COULDA

A phrase you hear a lot on the trail! In hindsight, I wish I’d have dumped Sprint and gotten Verizon as my wireless carrier. Much better reception on the trail. While I can often send a text and check simple apps, I can almost never make a phone call. Hope the situation will be better farther north, but I doubt it.

We’ve had our first 2 hikers leave the trail. Both are experienced long distance hikers–they’ve done the CDT and hiked the AT 3 times. He is having back pain and she wrenched a knee. Did I mention it pays to be lucky, too? I’m sure there are others who left quietly as well.

Just spent an hour talking to Katniss and her husband Ben, plus a new hiker, Tex. Tex is having knee problems and is taking his second zero this week. Before long, Katniss and I had stepped away from the boys to discuss the “special” issues women face on the trail. Menstrual cycles are a huge pain and you have to use special supplies that are biodegradable or pack everything out (the officially preferred method. Preferred by men, that is.). Chaffing is a problem! As gross as it may sound to you ladies I have found it impossible to wear underwear and hike more than a few miles without chaffing. I go without. Katniss was coming to the same conclusion. I carry baby wipes to clean up my privates every night. Katniss had just gotten some Vagisil wipes for the same purpose. She also has trouble with constipation, a common complaint. Men do have it easier. It would be so nice to stand up, with a pack on, to pee!

HIKER TRAITS

Did you know that hikers have their own way of blowing their nose? With all the cold air and wind, you can’t stop your nose from running. But you can’t carry a box of Kleenex either. Most everyone has a bandana, but it doubles as a neck warmer, washcloth and headscarf, so you don’t want to use it for your nose. Instead, you stop, bend at the waist, plug one nostril and blow off trail. Repeat other side. Really. You get good at it too.

REMINDERS

After theses days on the trail, I’m reminded how wonderful modern conveniences are. Being able to turn a tap for clean water, a machine that washes my clothes, and a heater that works with a single button, seem like miracles! We forget how lucky we are. Even that horrible sagging mattress made me smile last night.

The ability to just throw away trash is amazing. I have to pack out every Cliff Bar wrapper for days before I can get it in a trash can! It really shows you how much trash we create every day.

I’ve signed up for the 9a shuttle to Unicoi Gap, 52.9. My plan is to hike to Tray Mountain Shelter, 58.6. It’s only 5.7 miles, but straight up, straight down then up again. It will be tough enough for me! As I type this I’m listening to the young men outside my window brag about “big miles” and “no pain, no Maine.”  Let ’em talk!

It begins! And it’s a rough start

The marker at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Springer Mountain.
The marker at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Springer Mountain.

For those just joining us, I’m about to hike the Appalachian Trail–Georgia to Maine, almost 2,200 miles.

Standing on top of Springer Mountain is awe inspiring…. and a bit humbling. Facing north is an unbroken footpath stretching all the way to Maine. It’s like being 8 years old, standing on top of a long slope after the first snowfall, a blanket of white stretching beyond, unsullied by a single footprint. Like a calendar without a single day crossed off.

For the next six months, time will be measured, not in minutes and hours, but in steps. The day’s difficulties will be rated by the mountain peaks I need to ascend, not the mountains of paperwork I have to turn in. While I have backpacked before, I know this will be new. This will be different. This is adventure. It will be difficult. It will be a privilege.

A fire the first night at Stover Creek Shelter was a pleasant surprise.
A fire the first night at Hawk Mountain Shelter was a pleasant surprise.

March 1: I had imagined what this day would be like. But it wasn’t like that. It was just another day. No hoopla, no feeling of grandness. It was good, but it doesn’t quite feel real. Yet. It was after 2p before my dear friend Michael and I we were at the top of Springer and I signed in at the resister. Michael drove me to the trail and hiked the first mile with me. Thank goddess for friends!

I started the day with one less toenail. An injury over a month ago didn’t seem so bad at the time. But putting on my socks this morning, Pop! Off it came.

I passed several day hikers going in the opposite direction, they looked at me oddly. I imagined that they were a bit in awe, as if it were obvious that this lone woman was starting a momentous thru hike. Only later did I realize that the right side of my face was smeared with the glaze from the donut holes I’d cramed into my mouth as I left Michael at the Springer parking lot. I only walked as far as Stover Creek shelter, mile marker 2.7. There are a dozen thru hikers here. My favorite is Rambo (who did 1,400 miles in 2012) and his partner Tim (who I’ve tried to call The One They Call Tim, after a Monty Python movie). They must be around 20, very laid back young men. There’s also Pack Rat who seems odd. He says this is his 3rd thru hike attempt and that he’s done all but the last 500 miles. But his gear is all new–he’s never even set up the hammock before and he claims his pack is 70+pounds. I am skeptical, but he’s told stories of running all the downhills, night hiking, falling snakes and taking 2 months of zero days. It’s hard to believe, but I’m in no position to call him a liar.

Cold, probably only 40 degrees F today and cloudy. Will drop well below freezing tonight. Adding layers to sleep in.

March 2: From Stover Creek shelter (2.8) to Hawk Mountain shelter (8.1).

Stover Creek shelter
Stover Creek shelter

The start of things is often messy. This hike is truly showing me my limitations. Today did not go well. I was up early enough, but had trouble with my stove and drank my tea lukewarm. Then when I went to pack up the tent I barely had time to take a step to the side when I threw up. Five times! I felt fine after, but knew I didn’t have enough liquid for the day in my system. Yet I was afraid to do more than sip water. I did fine hiking until I hit an uphill patch, when I moved pitifully slow. I got to Hawk Mountain shelter and decided to cook my big meal and take a rest. After an hour and a half, I felt better and decided to put in 2 more miles. But I wasn’t paying attention coming out of the shelter. The AT turns, but I followed an unmarked trail straight up a huge hill. I went a mile before I realized it, walked around trying to find the trail. Finally gave up and retraced my steps. Energy and self esteem depleted, I decided to stay put for the night. This is a rough start. I was sick last week, but hoped it was only nerves. Today it seems like more than that. No energy. Can’t eat or drink much at one time. Must go slow. Good thing I have an extra month to hike.

Decided to take a nap. Sipping water, but can’t eat. Must be 3 dozen hikers here. Dinosaur is from Germany. A NC couple are Columbus and Queen. I have mild diarrhea overnight, fortunately before the rain started.

March 3: Hawk Mountain Shelter (8.1) to Horse Gap.

Hawk Mountain Shelter.
Hawk Mountain Shelter.

This has not been my best day ever. Heavy rain last night and by mistake I left 2 shirts outside in my vestibule So it was wet clothes and a wet tent to pack up this morning. Rained until noon and then the temps dropped. It was heavy fog, so nothing was getting dry. Still not able to eat or drink much at one time. Moving very slowly. But I threw in the towel at Horse gap when my pack broke. I was able to call for a shuttle to the outfitters and hostel at Mountain Crossing. Time to re-assess my gear and replace the pack. It’s been painful and ill-fitting.

A young man named Will helped me pick out a new, better fitting pack and went through all my gear. I’m sending home about 3 pounds of stuff! Did not need to resupply because I’ve barely eaten anything, but did order a pizza, take a shower and did laundry. It’s the little things that bring joy!

If I were a purist I would take a shuttle back to Horse Gap tomorrow. But I’m not going to. I’ve done this section lots of times, the last time in November. Gonna skip it. As slowly as I’m moving I could use the extra time.

I’ve been sick. I’ve had to replace gear. It’s colder and wetter than I’d expected (mostly because I planned to star a month later). I know this sounds like a very bad beginning, but I’m not daunted. I’ll make the adjustments I need and keep moving forward! I believe I can go all the way to Maine. The only way to know is to try.

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November Shakedown: Springer to Neels Gap, Part 3

 

This is the third and final part of the three part tale of my shakedown hike on the AT. I start this section at Woody Gap (AT mile marker 21) on day four.

Wet leaves make for a slippery walk.
Wet leaves make for a slippery walk.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of rain. By morning everything is wet. The fog is so thick I can’t see across the road. At 6:30a I pull my backpack into the tent with me. The vestibule has kept the backpack and my shoes dry, despite high wind. There’s enough room in the two person tent that I can pack up inside, keeping key items completely out of the elements. The additional weight of the two person tent seems well worth it at this moment! While the clothing I hike in will certainly get wet if this rain continues, I can keep my camp clothes dry to sleep in overnight. And it’s essential that my down sleeping bag (Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite Rated to 26F for Women) and the air mattress it lays on (Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66) stay dry if I want to sleep warm tonight. Down is worse than useless if it’s wet. I keep these critical things that must stay dry in a trash compacter bag at the bottom of my backpack. I’m not carrying a backpack rain cover since I’ve had little luck with them. The backpack (GoLite, Jam 70L) sheds some water and all items are in Sil-Nylon stuff sacks, but it’s the trash compactor bag I count on.

A hostel isn't much really. This is the one at Mountain Crossing. But it's dry and clean. And both a shower and laundry facilities are available.
A hostel isn’t much really. This is the one at Mountain Crossing. But it’s dry and clean. And both a shower and laundry facilities are available.

In a perfect world, I’d like to make it to the hostel at Neels Gap tonight, Mountain Crossings. My AWOL Trail Guide says it’s 10 miles. The signs say 11. (But I trust AWOL!) The distance is bad enough, but the first 8 miles is almost entirely uphill, to the peak of Blood Mountain, the highest spot on the AT in Georgia. And I’m a flatlander. There is an historic stone shelter, built by the CCC, on top, but it has no water. To make matters worse, the Blood Mountain shelter is, IMHO, the coldest spot in Georgia, being very exposed. (Aside: I stayed there one clear Fourth of July night and nearly froze. Atop the huge boulder beside the shelter you can watch three fireworks displays from nearby towns, but by the time it’s over, it’s too dark to hike down the mountain. I had a summer weight sleeping bag and the temperatures had been near 90F at the base of the mountain that afternoon. Who knew?) I don’t want to stay there, so I either need to camp short of the summit, or I go all the way into the hostel. Since I’m trying to pace myself, I decided my goal will be the Woods Hole shelter (AT mile marker 28.1). That puts me at a leisurely (<cough>) 7.1 trail miles for the day, even if it is all up hill.

This was a safe and completely do-able plan. And I really, really should have followed it.

But first, I need to say goodbye to Fresh Ground and my new friends at the Leapfrog Café. There’s fresh coffee and new stories. There’s bacon and eggs and fried potatoes. I hate to pull myself away from these lovely people. This was my latest morning start yet, but the slowest hiker on the trail needs to get moving. The rain was slackening by the time I left, but it was afternoon before the first rays of sunlight came out.

It had rained part of two days, but it was still beautiful on the trail.
It had rained part of two days, but it was still beautiful on the trail.

Despite the hills, I make fair time. This is the section of the AT that I know best, having hiked it a dozen or more times. This summer, most of my overnight camps started from Woody Gap. But the woods are always changing with the seasons and the weather conditions. The rain brought out so many snails. I stepped over a dozen of them today, though I’d not seen a one earlier in the week. Other detritus feeders included huge, red millipedes and a couple slugs. I also saw a very tiny salamander. His waistline must have been an eight of an inch around. It was cold enough that he was easy to catch. He seemed to like my warm hands.

And there’s a surprising number of people to meet. I stood on the trail for 15 minutes talking to a southbound hiker, Pivot Dude, who would finish his thru hike the next day. There were three different groups of retirees out to enjoy the day and each talked for a few minutes with me.

I kept my rain jacket out the entire day, but not really to protect me from rain. I used it to stop the brutal wind. You are constantly moving from windward to leeward side of the mountain, from exposed to sheltered area. I quickly began wearing the jacket backward when needed, so I didn’t have to stop and take my pack on and off. Not a fashion statement, but effective.

These are a little difficult to make out, but most shelters in the south have cables like this. You hang your food, or even your entire pack, to keep it away from bears or other animals.
These are a little difficult to make out, but most shelters in the south have cables like this. You hang your food, or even your entire pack, to keep it away from bears or other animals.

By 3:00p I’d easily hiked my 7 miles and made it to Woods Hole shelter. Or should I say the path to the shelter, because it’s a half a mile off the trail. I’m not alone. There are three men already setting up space in the shelter. But they are a friendly group and offer to fill my collapsible water bucket for me while I set up my tent. Chivalry is not dead! Just as I get the tent set up, they come back saying that the water source is dry. I’ve had my main meal of the day so I don’t need a lot of water, but I’ve only got about 16 ounces. I consult my trail guide and see that the next water source is a half mile farther on. I decided if I have to walk a half mile out of the shelter and another half mile farther north, I don’t want to turn around and hike back here. I’m going to take down the tent and keep moving.

So that’s what I do. Except the second water source is also dry. At this point I’ve hiked a total of 8.5 miles with my pack. I’m roughly at mile marker 28.5 and my trail guide doesn’t indicate any more water between me and my final destination. This is one of those good news/bad news situations. The good news is that the hostel is just 2.5 miles away. It would be a long mileage day, but I could stay at the hostel in a bed tonight and even get a shower. The bad news is that it’s now about 4pm, I have only an hour and a half of daylight left and Blood Mountain stands between me and the hostel. I can hike 2.5 miles, but I just don’t know if I can hike uphill anymore today.

So here are my options: A. Camp near where I am now or B. start hiking and probably make it to the hostel after dark, using my headlamp.

I should have chosen A. I stupidly choose option C. There’s a side path called the Lemrock Trail, what we call a blue blaze trail. I consult my trail guide which says simply it “by-passes Blood Mountain” rejoining the AT past the shelter on the other side. Whoo Hoo! A shortcut! I don’t have to hike over the mountain!

Except it isn’t a shortcut at all. it turns out to be a FOUR mile, rock strewn, poorly marked, narrow path on the side of a mountain! But I don’t know that. YET. I start boulder hopping and it never stops. I’m trying to move carefully among the loose rocks and wet, slick leaves. I also need to move quickly because nightfall is approaching and I don’t know how far I have to go. (I only find out it’s four miles after I get home and look it up.) There is no flat ground on either side of the trail. It’s straight up to my left and straight down to my right. The path is hard to follow when it goes through boulders or where the leaves are thick. Those blue blazes are few and far between, too. I breathe a sigh of relief each time I see one. I’m grateful that a recent hiker had been eating pistachios. Whoever heard of following a trail of pistachio shells? I keep moving. This trail has to join up with the AT soon, right? Right!?!

Wrong.

I’m tired and my feet were tender before all these rocks. Now, every step hurts. I slip and scrap my leg. My hiking poles save me several times, but there’s one fall–entirely in slow motion–where I go completely down to the ground. Finally, I almost face-plant into a boulder. I’m relieved my arms are strong enough to brace me in a fall, even when wearing a backpack. But my thumb is numb for the rest of the evening.

This was so stupid. Nothing in my guidebook said this was a shortcut. I assumed it would be both short and easy. Idiot. Now I’m off trail and if I hurt myself and can’t walk out, no one will know where to look for me and this trail isn’t heavily traveled. I can’t fall again. And frankly I don’t have time to keep falling…..er….walking. I look at the sky and estimate I have 15 minutes of daylight. It’s time to make a new plan. Quickly.

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, set up on flat land.
Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, set up on flat land.

I can’t set up a tent on the side of the mountain because the angle is too steep. I can’t set up among these huge rocks either. I can’t hike in the dark through boulders and loose rock on a trail I can’t see, even with a headlamp, and besides I’m too tired anyway. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have a semi-freestanding tent and I find a 6 foot section of the path that doesn’t have any boulders on it. I move aside the loose rocks and set up right on the trail. The path is about the width of my shoulders, or roughly the width of my sleeping pad. I can’t stake the tent, but the rain fly attaches directly to the tent in three places. It’s not ideal, but it will work. I’ve never loved my portable shelter more! By the time I have the tent up it’s too dark to hang my food bag properly, but I take it well down the trail, away from my tent, in the direction I’ll hike out in the morning. I hang the bag on the highest limb I can reach without stepping off the trail into thin air. Or at least that’s how it seems. I’m using my headlamp but it’s the weakest link in my equipment. The light isn’t strong enough to reach the ground. It’s too weak to be useful except to read a book with.

I crawl into the my shelter, such as it is. The only level floor is my sleeping pad, but it’s enough room to sleep if I just don’t roll off.

And here’s the kicker: I’m not lost. I can’t see headlights through the trees, but I can hear the cars on the pavement below. I can hear people talking in the shelter above me. I’m safe. I’m warm and dry. I’ve got food and a little water. It’s actually a bit warmer this evening and I’m sheltered from the wind. And when I turn on my iPhone I have two bars and 3G! I’m able to send an email to my mother saying cryptically, “I didn’t quite make it to the shelter this evening, but I’m safe in my tent on the trail.”

Well, it’s true. I would never lie to my mother.

I drink half my water and save the other half for morning. My feet ache for 2 hours before I can fall asleep, but they are not blistered. The scrap on my leg is superficial. Even when it starts to rain, I stay dry, though the sides of the tent are quite damp by morning since the rain fly isn’t staked properly.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mountain Crossing, Neels Gap
Mountain Crossing, Neels Gap

I wake before dawn and pack up. I hoist my backpack and start walking. My food bag is still where I left it. And that’s when I realize just a few more steps beyond is the end of the blue blaze trail. It was too dark with my poor headlamp to see it last night. I rejoin the AT and stride the gentle 1.5 miles downhill to Mountain Crossing. I’ve made it! It starts to rain again, but I don’t care. I’m at the only section of the AT that’s under roof, the breezeway between the hostel and the outfitters.

The outfitters isn’t open, but the ladies room is. I clean up as best I can and change into my camp clothes which are marginally clean, or at least less sweaty and smelly. I eat the last granola bar. By 9am I figure it is not too early to call for a shuttle driver. Ron promises to be there in 35 minutes. Just enough time to replace that headlamp at the outfitters. As a reward, I buy an individual chocolate pie for breakfast.

What I Learned/Remembered

  • Don’t push yourself too hard on any individual day. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The key to finishing is moving forward consistently.

    DSC_0390
    Frogg Toggs. They are lightweight and cheap.
  • Don’t be an idiot. Stay on the trail.
  • I was carrying an emergency bivy sack and an extra set of clothes. I didn’t need them. Dropping these items, along with a handful of other small things, will save me about 3 pounds. This brings my winter pack weight (not counting the clothes I’m wearing to hike during the day) to 27 pounds (includes all gear, clothing, 4 pounds of water and 4+ days of food). I’m getting closer to my 25 pound pack weight goal.
  • I’m investigating some new rain gear call the Packa. I think this might be an improvement to the Frogg Toggs,
  • This thru hike will be difficult, but within my abilities. I can do this.

If you’d like to see my full list of the gear I’m carrying, check out my Appalachian Trail Hike tab. For the most detailed and up to date info, check out the backpacking spreadsheet on that page.