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.

Into My Own

350px-Rainy_Blue_Ridge-27527One of my favorite poets is Robert Frost (Pulitzer Prize winning American poet, 1874 – 1963). Everyone quotes “The Road Not Taken” and that seems a perfect metaphor for my upcoming Appalachian Trail journey. “Two roads diverge in the yellow wood….”

Except, I’ve always been drawn to “Into My Own” one of Frost’s early poems, written when he was a young man and published in a collection called A Boy’s Will. It’s not as well. known. The title of the book mystified me initially, but I think I understand it now.

The poem talks of a line of “dark trees” that are “So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze.”

I should not be withheld but that some day

Into their vastness I should steal away,

Fearless of ever finding open land,

Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,

Or those should not set forth upon my track

To overtake me, who should miss me here

And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—              

Only more sure of all I thought was true.

(Italics are mine)

But I will be changed. Only in youth do you think that you will take on the world, conquer it and that life will not alter you. Only when you are very young do you think you have all the answers. The wise know better. You are forever changed by challenges. You get a different perspective, come across better information and discover new truths. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon the beliefs of your youth. But you just may find that it makes sense to do so.

And when you are very young with energy to spare, you may see everything as a battle. It’s like the old adage, if the only tool you know how to use is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Hiking is like that too. You don’t beat the mountains. You don’t conquer the trail. These will still stand when you are gone and forgotten. You put one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Like life, it’s a journey. And you will not be the same, should not be the same, once you’ve finished.

I wonder what changes are in store for the next 2185 miles….

No turning back now

I’ve given my notice at work and will be leaving my day job on January 31. I’m not leaving for another job, however. I’m preparing for an adventure!

imageStarting March 22, I will hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, GA to Mt Katahdin, MA, through 14 states. It will take 6+ months and almost 2200 miles. I’ll live out of a backpack and sleep in a tent, with weekly stops to civilization to resupply (and hopefully a shower and laundry).

(NOTE: I later moved the start date to March 1)

Answers to obvious questions that usually come up at this point: I’ve wanted to do this since I was 12. Yup, this is crazy.

When I finish the trail, I plan to come back to Atlanta briefly. Not yet sure where I’ll start, but I plan to travel the world by teaching English, plus some writing/blogging/travel services and whatever comes up.

I’ll probably never again own much more than what will fit in a couple suitcases, but I will have a rich, interesting life. Please, follow along right here. I expect to be able to post periodically as I hike. If you’d like to support me, here’s a list of things you can do.

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.

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.