As many of you know, I am not able to hike for the remainder of the season. I have a stress fracture in my left foot. I’m disappointed, but I’m a realist. I could probably bind up my foot, take a lot of Vitamin I (Ibuprofen) and force my way to the end, but then I’d probably end up with a much worse injury. The trail will still be there and I need to concern myself with my long term health.
But I am simply not ready to leave the AT yet! Through the help of wonderful friends, I’ve found a place to work that will be near the trail. It is just a temporary position, through mid to late October, but it will allow me to stay close to the AT, meet up with people who I met while hiking, and give me time and a safe place from which to arrange my next steps. Plus, I’ve never been to Maine and I can’t wait to see it.
I will be working at the famed Appalachian Trail Lodge & Café in Millinocket, Maine. It is located near Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT. Don’t get me wrong, this won’t be glamorous. I be spending a LOT of time cleaning, doing laundry, making beds and sweeping. But I’ve helped out at several hostels along the way and am pretty sure I can manage. I will be out of this boot on my foot mid-week. The doctors say I can walk normally as long as I wear a supportive shoe, like my hiking shoes, Go figure. I am not allowed to hike, carry a backpack, walk over rocks, or run. But I can still work. Here is a link to the AT Lodge:
What I wanted was to hike all of the Appalachian Trail this year, but I did manage to complete 1,405 miles, which isn’t too bad. Less than 10% of those who start EVER complete the trail, so I knew the odds were against me when I started. This is not how I hoped the summer would go, but this is the best “Plan B” I think I could have found. It will also give me time to arrange an English teaching job overseas. If possible, I will get a position that will end in May/June and come back to the trail to finish. That may not be easy to arrange, but I’ve lucked out so far.
Thanks so much to all the people who have offered me a place to stay, a kind word and positive thoughts. So far, everything seems to be falling into place, but I may need your help in the future. It means so much that I don’t walk alone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!?!
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.
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
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
Hiking 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.