by Ryan Jordan | 2001-08-13 03:00:00-06
I left the snow-covered mountains surrounding Montana's Gallatin Valley on April 24 on the sunrise flight to Atlanta wondering what kinds of adventures my return to the southern reaches of the Appalachian Trail would bring. I had the opportunity to hike a 40-mile section of the AT from Amicalola Falls to Neels Gap in October 2000 with John O'Mahoney, Ron Richards, and Ken Knight.
"JohnO" is a retired cop from Brick, New Jersey, with asthma and a well-known affinity for Little Debbies brand snack cakes. A federal government office worker, and affectionately known as "Caboose" among his closer acquaintances for presumably, his ability to anchor the rear position on the trail of his hiking party, Ron is somewhat of a self-proclaimed slowgoer on a footpath. Ken is legally blind and how he even manages to find the trail, even something as well-blazed as the AT ("I can't really see the blazes unless I'm looking up"), is well beyond the comprehension that even 10 years of post-secondary education in the American university system can provide.
Suffice it to say that I managed to kill an entire five days on that section of trail in a remarkable exercise in low-mileage patience that required two days to walk from the Amicalola Falls Visitors Center to Springer Mountain (a total of 8 miles) via the Hike Inn, a backcountry B&B off on a little side trail that offered beds with wool blankets and 7-course meals. I wondered on that trip if there were such things as "under-use no-stress" injuries, but they never materialized. After reaching the car at the end of my hike, I had to run a few laps just to make sure my legs had not yet atrophied and I vowed to come back and crank out some high mileage days. Fortunately, the company on that hike was excellent, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to spawn some new friendships, so all was not lost. Hiking an average of eight miles a day over mildly rolling terrain was not so bad, but I was still young, and I didn't want to make a pattern of that until I was either retired, afflicted with cataracts, or God forbid, well into a career with the federal government.
The Appalachian Trail
It was not until several weeks after that trip when I realized what a draw this trail has, for both its historical and social value. I think the AT is the only place in America where you can walk through 2,000 miles of forested wilderness corridor and manage to procure a better education on human social sciences than the best Ivy League colleges could provide. Then again, maybe it's just that the AT is something very different from What We Have Out West, and that it's just nice to get out of Dodge once in a while and experience some new things.
An alternative explanation that pops into my head now and again is that the Southern AT and its green tunnels provide some sort of inner reward (I know it's there somewhere) borne of the simplistic sort of exercise that requires little more than putting one foot in front of the other without distraction from switchbacks, stunning views, big game animals, or women in Lycra tights, all of which provide interesting if not mentally challenging exercises for the western hiker.
Here on the AT, life is simpler. You lie down and look up if you want a view and I think a switchback here is one of those knives you use to defend yourself against the residents of the Georgia outback. Big game is a squirrel with a bushy tail that you never see because it's running very fast from a hillbilly named Raymond with a .410, and the women hikers here wear hemp shorts and grow all of their body hair out (and I mean, way out) in an effort to commune with nature and stay warm on cool nights. It's just a different culture. And being an appreciative student of the value of observation and scientific analysis (in reality, a hopeless skill for making any kind of sense out of this trail or its hikers), I'm back.
My return to the AT this year would be a different kind of hike, something akin to a fleeting test of endurance rather than last year's walk, which felt probably like driving a NASCAR race with only two cylinders firing. I really wanted to push myself physically by cranking out the 73-mile section between Neel's and Wallace Gaps in about three and half hiking days. I also wanted a partner along that could keep this pace with me so we'd have a better chance of success by pushing (or pulling) each other along. This was to be my first high-mileage hike of the year, and I wasn't yet sure whether or not I'd hold up for three 20-mile days in a row, but I was eager to find out.
Dave Schultz (Tread Well) and Jeff Turner, with whom I've had the opportunity to establish e-mail relationships through an Internet listserv, have volunteered to ride the pain train, and I was looking forward to meeting and hiking with them.
Preparation and Planning
My initial planning brought me to various Internet-based weather reporting databases, where I reviewed historical averages and records of temperature and precipitation for cities in the vicinity of the Georgia and North Carolina AT, including the hamlets of Helen, Ga., Hiawassee, Ga., Franklin, N.C., and Cashiers, N.C. I suspected that Cashiers was probably most representative of weather on the southern AT, due to its relatively high altitude (3,500') and its location in the mountainous terrain of North Carolina's Blue Ridge. History revealed that high and low temperatures in Cashiers this time of year are typically in the 70s and 30s. In addition, the area is well known for its preposterous April rains that make the skies of the Northern Rockies appear perpetually dehydrated.
I fine-tune my gear selection based on these types of weather forecasts, usually reviewed the day before I leave. When I left Bozeman, the forecast for Cashiers would be better than average, with predicted lows in the coming week in the upper 30s to lower 50s and highs in the upper 60s and lower 70s, with partly cloudy to sunny conditions and no evidence on nationwide Doppler images that a storm system of any significance would develop during my hike.
So, based on this careful scientific analysis, and taking full responsibility for my planning as a thus well-informed citizen, I would choose equipment that is most suitable for weather that would be exactly opposite of the forecast.
I've learned time and again that billions of dollars of weather forecasting equipment placed in strategic locations across land, sea, and space, providing data to sociologically peculiar scientists (who the hell chases tornados?), and presented to the public by less interesting forecasters, really don't work all that well. Forecasters seem to report accurate weather only in real time, and even then, that is not often, because they often fail to look out the window of their studio buildings, relying instead on computerized databases of numbers that were something on the other side of meaningful not less than a few hours ago.
In retrospect, that forecast turned out to be right on the money, which of course is absolutely maddening for an analytical backpacker that depends on the inaccuracy of these forecasts for his careful planning. One peculiar difference between western mountain weather and eastern mountain weather is that in the east, nighttime low temperatures are approached gradually, often only sustaining themselves during the early morning hours just before sunrise. This is in stark contrast to weather in the Rockies, for example, in which the nighttime low is reached in about 2.4 minutes after sunset, and remains there until about 1.8 minutes after sunrise. This pattern provides a naturally perfect rhythm for backcountry sleeping, whereby you are lulled to sleep in a shivering frenzy and thrust awake in a sweating fit as soon as the sun hits your tent.
As is conventional these days, I was highly analytical about my gear selection for this trip, carefully calculating for weeks in advance the exact weight of my pack as a function of time and mileage as well as temperature, windspeed, dew point, and cumulative elevation gain. My predictions, in fact, are based on what I've found to be the only practical application of Fourier methods for solving differential equations, despite the fact that I wasted nearly 18 hours a week for an entire year studying them during graduate school.
Thus, my starting "dry" pack weight for this trip was to be 13.58 lbs. Add to that three and a half days of food, some stove fuel, and a pint of 12-Year Glenlivet (which incidentally, weighs about 0.04% more than the more expensive and mature bottlings), and my total weight came in just shy of 22 lbs. Of course, being April, the AT's springs and creeks will be flowing in full force (which to the western hiker must be interpreted as something akin to a 50-year drought). At any rate, water would be plentiful, and I never carried more than three pounds or so at a time so I was never lugging more than 25 pounds of gear on my back, and often less, providing an ideal cruising weight.
Touchdown in Atlanta | Tread Well the Great
After arriving in Atlanta, gathering my luggage, and renting a car, I drove to Tread Well's home, arriving around 5:00 pm. My first impression of Dave was that of size. He's a big boy with an "aw shucks" attitude that seems out of place for someone both employed in the insurance industry and bred a Californian. Of course, at five-seven, I'm no epitome of grandeur, but I can see that I was going to have an aching neck by the end of the trip if I didn't pack along a stepstool for our conversations. He's six-foot-something (emphasis on the something) but one heckuva nice guy. I thoroughly enjoyed my time and conversation with him and am looking forward to spending more time with Dave in the future.
Dave lives in a three-story condo in a suburb north of Atlanta (Marietta). The hallway wall is decorated with an obscenely large wedding photo (a poster, actually, kind of like the kind you buy in a National Park Service gift shop) of him and his lovely wife, Christine. The picture is so big that it reminded me of a Stalin flag to the point that the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end when I turned my back to it--it actually kind of felt like they were watching me. Combine the size of Dave, his wedding poster, his sometimes booming voice and laugh, and the infinitely long sub sandwich he ate for dinner that night in two and a half bites, and you begin to realize that he's certainly not the most subtle person this side of Biloxi, but I'm glad to have him along as bear repellent.
In fact, now that I think of it, I didn't see any animals but gnats while hiking with him. And even the gnats seemed to follow him with caution.
The Approach | After-Hours Frustration at the Walasi-Yi
We began our drive north to Neel's Gap, stopping at a sub shop for dinner near Dawsonville, Ga. We continued to the gap, parked our cars down the road, and hiked up the highway a short ways to the Walasi-Yi Center, where the AT travels under a stone causeway (the only section of trail that is covered).
The Center is located at mile 30 of 2,100+ on the AT, the point at which northbound through hikers either spend a lot of money on all new (lighter) gear, or line up at the payphones to call their mom/wife/probation officer for a one-way ride back home. Needless to say, it's a great locale for an outfitter's shop and it always makes a nice diversion if you aren't concerned with trivialities such as credit card limits or tuition payments.
To my extreme dismay, we arrived well past the Center's closing hours, which was obviously a fate orchestrated by a loving God that is ensuring that I see to the financial needs of my family. However, I was disappointed at not having had the opportunity to catch up with Dorothy Hansen, the shop's co-proprietor and a terrific resource for boosting your self-esteem (for example, "You're hiking 75 miles in three and a half days on your first trip of the year? Oh…" (and then, very sincerely through squinted eyes and facial pain): "Good luck, honey. I'm sure you'll be fine.")
I filled up my water bladder and we began our hike at around 7:45 pm.
Mountains? | Bear Bagging 101
The trail out of Neel's Gap climbs about 600 vertical feet before topping out on Levelland Mountain. Dave, a transplanted Californian, and I were talking about the "mountains" out here and how AT veterans consider a 1,000-foot climb a "serious" undertaking. This subject provided great amusement on the trail for several minutes, but it did not relieve my apprehension of having to hike several of these 1,000-foot climbs over the course of the next 70 miles. In truth, the southern AT gains as much cumulative elevation in a given stretch as many of the trails that are considered "more difficult" in the west. Consequently, when hiking the southern AT, you remember climbing nothing substantial but tend to wake up the next morning feeling like you've made three ascents of Mt. Everest on the previous day.
We arrived at Bull Gap, our intended campsite, to find it occupied by several inhabitants already that included loud young kids and a pair of grown men clearly freaked out by recent increases in the local bear population. Conventional wisdom (which is what we call "recommendations" that might be wrong, it's just that two or more people will agree on it) dictates that you should hang your food from the branch of a tree at least 10 feet off the ground. Our Bull Gap residents had just finished (very successfully, I might add) hanging their food in a branch of an oak tree that was easily 40 feet off the ground.
I had to bite my tongue and keep some gorp from blowing out my nose as we pressed on when I overheard one of them say, "Wwweeellp…that oughta do'er." I wanted so badly to walk back, stand next to him, look waaayyyy up at his food bag, and say, "Ya think?"
Settling in at Swaim Gap
At 8:30 pm, we descended into Swaim Gap, which was to be our destination for the night. Swaim Gap is a pretty unspectacular place (and that is being awfully charitable), but as is the case with most of the lesser-known campsites on the AT, it was to provide solitude and peace for a good night's sleep. Tread Well was using a new ultralight hammock instead of a tarp or tent, and I was beginning to have serious doubts about how 1.5 lbs of equipment was going to suspend 220 something pounds between a pair of trees.
I actually found the hammock to be a shelter of wonderful and light design, and it was certainly the most comfortable hammock I've ever lain in, but I had my reservations that it was not the wisest shelter in which to sleep where the bear population was increasing, as bears are slowly recognizing that eating the contents of bags hanging from trees is correlated to feelings of appetizing satisfaction.
Tonight I would set up my tarp a little farther away from him than normal.
I made a protein drink and we chatted for quite a while about every subject imaginable, including vasectomy (and reverse-vasectomy) procedures, how it sucks to live in the city (and especially, in Atlanta), and our plans to try to reach Tray Mountain tomorrow, before turning in at around 10:30 pm on a crystal clear but cool night.
I Think the World is Now Coming to an End (Whoops, False Alarm)
I awoke at 1:30 am in severe distress with a chill running down my spine. The only other time I've really felt this was when I came close to a grizzly bear in the Teton Wilderness that I thought for sure was going to eat me.
I bolted upright in a panic, thrusting my head with such force into the low roof of my tarp that the two very expensive titanium tent stakes that were holding down the front corners flew back to the vicinity of Springer Mountain, gone forever. However, with the corners of my tarp now billowing around my waist, I had a much clearer view of my surroundings and I could now assess the situation with a bit more care and finesse.
Of course, I could see absolutely nothing because my contacts had slipped back to the rear side of my eyeballs when I frantically rubbed my eyes to speed the awakening process. Nevertheless, I heard the sound. A low, rumbling, grumbling, mumbling sound that could only be one thing.
My God, I really had no idea. Sure, I'd heard about it from Dave's other hiking partners. And yes, I've been around people who snore a time or two. But it simply does not register until you've actually heard the sound. This is not the sound of a bear or even a freight train rumbling through the night.
This is the sound of plate tectonics.
I lied awake sitting up, watching Dave sleep, in awe of a human body's ability to dominate the sounds of the forest, to which I paid keen attention to this night. But the sounds were strange, monotone, singular.
There couldn't have been another living creature within a five-mile radius of us.
So twenty yards away from the epicenter, I shook my head in disbelief, took a piss, repitched the corners of my tarp with another six bucks worth of stakes, popped in my earplugs, and crawled as deep as possible into my sleeping bag for the rest of the night.
Morning didn't come soon enough. Twenty yards of distance, the miniscule thickness of a nylon tarp, two inches of down, and two tiny pieces of foam simply are not enough to dampen the ground vibrations of this kind of snoring. So, when I awoke at 5:45 am, fifteen minutes before my alarm was scheduled to go off, I eagerly shot out of bed and got dressed.
For all practical purposes, I considered this "Day 1" of our trip, since this is where the real fun begins. Our plan was to hike 23½ miles from Swaim Gap to the Tray Mountain Shelter. A foolish endeavor for two hikers on their first trip of the season, but what the hell. I had Scotch if things got bad and Dave had Everclear if things got worse. Although the thoughts of physiological suicide loomed large in the backs of our minds, we really had no choice but to execute three twenty-plus mile days in a row if we were going to make it to Wallace Gap by 11 am Sunday. Besides, the Tray Mountain Shelter is supposed to be an astounding place to camp--with a view even--and I'll be damned if we weren't going to stay there and enjoy it. Of course, I was apprehensive about how my body would respond. I knew from the outset that I was not yet well hydrated, and would make it a point to drink at least eight liters today so that I would be in reasonable shape tomorrow to continue.
Last night's low temperature was 39 °F and it would prove to be our coldest night, although I remained reasonably warm in my ridiculously light down sleeping bag, which foregoes the down on the bottom layer to achieve a 19-ounce weight. In theory, the down on the bottom of a bag is compressed from lying on it and thus does not contribute much in the way of insulation. So, the manufacturer simply replaced the bottom down with a layer of open weave mesh. This is all well and good as long as you sit still on your back with your hands to your sides and your legs and feet together and straight. In this configuration, the soft and fluffy down top drapes over you not unlike your comforter at home and all will be right in your world.
However, in reality, I simply don't sleep like this. I toss, turn, sleep on my side, curl up one leg, etc. So, in practice, the sleeping bag acts not at all like your nice big bed comforter and more like an undersized baby blanket that is letting huge convection winds blow across your once warm ass, made possible by the brilliance of open weave mesh.
Knowing that last night was likely to be our coldest night, and further realizing that the weather forecasts were turning out to be dishearteningly accurate, I was now regretting bringing a fluffy Primaloft jacket that would probably get little more use than as a comfortable pillow. We packed up camp and hit the trail at 6:35 am. I was a bit cranky at wasting a pound of pack weight on the jacket that could have been replaced by 16 shots of Scotch, 48 cigars, 6 Little Debbie's Nutty Bars, a bunch of mousetraps, or even a hardbound copy of The Scarlet Letter.
Chattahoochee Headwaters | Water on the AT
We reached Tesnatee Gap at 8:00 am and continued on to Hogpen Gap, where we stopped for breakfast, about twenty minutes later. This was a decent walking pace (about 2.5 mph) that would pretty much reflect my hiking pace through most of the trip, knowing that I would have to keep my speed moderated to this range if I was going to have the energy for consecutive 20-mile days.
At Hogpen, we met a thru-hiker named Scott who was carrying a 35-pound load in a frameless, 13-ounce backpack that was threatening to melt into the ground behind him under the stress. It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which hikers will reduce the weight of their pack but still carry loads that clearly would be better suited in a pack with a bit more structural support. He left his camp at Hogpen limping (knee problems) as we began eating, and we'd catch up to him later, enjoying some very nice conversation with him and encouraging his way to Maine.
We left Hogpen at 9:00 am and continued cruising over what might be some of the easiest terrain in Georgia until we arrived at Chattahoochee Gap at 12:10 pm, where we stopped for lunch and to refill our water bladders.
The naïve AT hiker (as I was) should be wary of notes in AT hiking guides that indicate the following: "water is just down from the gap on a blue-blazed side trail."
The water source at Chattahoochee Gap was described by something similar and just as innocent sounding. However, if I were writing the guidebook, I would add one or two more sentences to the description:
Water at the gap is located on an ankle-breaking and eroding path that appears to have been cut by small children as part of an introductory class in use of dull pocketknives. The path knows nothing of switchbacks and dives head over heels downhill. Fortunately, it ends at a spring flowing from beneath the trunk of a large tree that will (likely) stop you in the event of a (more than likely) uncontrollable downward fall.
Once at the spring, you have the opportunity for creative problem solving: how to fill a 90 ounce water bladder from a pool of water less than a centimeter in depth and choked with little tiny bits of decaying leaves.
After you've been able to fill your bottle with no more than 7.4 ounces of wet leaves from the spring, you must then climb back up to the gap where you left the rest of your possessions. Of course, by the time you reach the white blazes of the AT again, you will have consumed all of your leafy sludge tea and must make a return trip back down the hill. A wise hiker would not end up in this foolish rhythm of up-and-down motion and should just pass up this water source for better ones ahead. However, in the event of exhaustion and dehydration coinciding simultaneously with darkness, there is a nice campsite at the gap that affords 360 degree views of famous Appalachian tree groves, and of course, a reliably flowing spring on the Blue-Blazed side trail just down from the gap.
And so, this spring marks the headwaters of the famous Chattahoochee River, a lifeblood waterway of the south that has a tremendous amount of rich historical and social significance. So much so, in fact, that entire volumes have been written about it.
But by the time you attempt to procure water from its headwaters, you really don't care.
After fetching water, I kicked off my shoes and socks and leaned against a tree, hoping to God that I would not become infested with chiggers or ticks or anger a colony of fire ants (animals that I'd been warned about by others). From Hogpen to Chattahoochee, we were pushing a pace close to 3 mph, but the terrain was mostly flat, so it felt good to have cranked out 13½ miles by lunchtime. We left the gap shortly after 1:00 pm on our northward journey.
Lolli and Pop | Fried Fender | Rendezvous with Jeff
The day was warming rapidly and we took another break at the Blue Mountain Shelter at 2:00 pm, where we stopped to chat with a volunteer from the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club doing some shelter maintenance. Also at the shelter were Lolli and Pop, some southbounders on the wrong side of middle age, wrapping up an AT hike they had started a few years ago. They were great fun to chat with, and although they appeared to be carrying older gear packed in external frame packs, it was clear that they were packing pretty light and doing just fine. Old Pop (the woman) had the legs of a marathon runner and I'm glad I wasn't trying to keep up with her. It was refreshing to see this couple, as they were a hallmark of simplicity and success. I learned from them, that just maybe, they were on the right side of middle age.
On the descent of Blue Mountain into Unicoi Gap, I pulled ahead of Tread Well and put my legs on "cruise control" during the steep drop to save my knees a bit. Just before the gap, I passed a very slow moving young woman ("Fried Fender") that definitely looked like she was living up to her trail name. She was attempting a northbound thru-hike, but her pack was heavy, her boots were heavy, she was tired, and her feet were clearly in pain. Remarkably, she was in positive spirits, and although I wasn't in the mood for chitchat, I stopped nonetheless to talk with her a bit (big mistake, as she was obviously a keen conversationalist). I couldn't take it any more (I really needed some solitude at this point) and just started hiking, allowing the distance to dampen our conversation as she tired of yelling at me down the trail.
I arrived at the gap by 3:00, where I met Jeff Turner waiting for us at the trailhead. Tread Well and then Fried Fender arrived shortly thereafter. She kept chatting to us as we all walked up the trail, but eventually the hill swallowed her conversation and began putting distance between us, to everyone's relief, as it was late in the day, we were tired, and frankly, none of us really felt like talking.
Jeff was another really tall guy. I couldn't believe my luck. I can't ever seem to pick short guys to hike with and it stresses me out, because I'm always jealous of their long strides (if I were to hike from Florida to Canada, my book would be called Fifty Million Steps).
However, Jeff turned out to be an unbelievably nice guy and I felt very fortunate to have hooked up with two great folks. Jeff was a graduate student in outdoor recreation at Georgia State College in Milledgeville and was engaged to be married. Not having the heart to tell him what he was getting into, I decided to reflect inwardly on the old days.
Being caught up in a world of 8-5 jobs, mortgage payments, and saving for my own kid's college education, sometimes I miss the times when the only thing that mattered was a good woman and a nice piece of backpacking equipment.
But the memories of being a young and destitute husband with nowhere to go but up are ones I will cherish, and it was nice having Jeff around to remind me that youth and naiveté have their rewards. I once wanted to pursue a career in outdoor recreation but was wise enough from the outset that I would not have been able to support my uncanny habits of accumulating new and unusual backpacking and climbing gear, let alone pay for lesser things like anniversary diamonds, baby formula, and healthcare insurance, so I opted for a career in engineering.
Unicoi was our 18-mile point for the day. We'd only have 5½ miles to go and I was still feeling great, although in retrospect, my high was due in large part to adrenaline and not much at all with physical prowess on the trail. We left Fried Fender near the gap at around 3:10, which didn't hurt our emotional well being, either.
Hitting the Wall
Rocky Mountain greets you with a solid 1,000-foot climb out of Unicoi that pretty much reminded Dave and I that we were not quite ready for a sprint to Tray Mountain, and it rapidly depleted any adrenaline or masculinity we thought we had.
A 1,000-foot descent brought me into Indian Grave Gap where I took a long needed rest to air my feet and drink some water. Jeff joined me shortly after, Dave passed through, and I left some time later to begin the 1,200+-foot climb up Tray Mountain. By this time (about mile 20.6 on the day), I hit the wall and was out of energy, with my pace up to the Cheese Factory Site dropping to an abysmal 1.5 mph.
I finally arrived there at 5:10 pm (Jeff was just behind me and decided to continue on rather than break here) where I found Tread Well at the spring, which he left shortly after my arrival. I decided to really "camel up" with water here (that's one way of saying, "I'm exhausted and cannot walk another step"), because I suspect that my lack of energy and my dehydration during the warm afternoon were related (one key way to rationalize my noticeable lack of masculinity at this time). I was also worried because my 15-minute resting pulse was 96 beats per minute, very high and a sure sign that I was dehydrated (there you go, physiological proof that I needed a nap).
I drank about 2 liters here and actually fell into a deep slumber for a few minutes. On awakening, I left the Cheese factory site at 5:35 pm. I was starving but out of lunch food save for a Carnation Instant Breakfast packet, and was worried that I wouldn't have the energy to make it up to the shelter in a reasonable amount of time. However, I mixed the drink and it really did the trick (as did the water, I suspect), and I motored up the final climb to the Tray Mountain Shelter.
"Presentation" at Tray Mountain
Arriving at 6:20 pm, I actually felt great and very happy to have ended my hike today on such a positive note. On the blue blazed trail to the shelter, I passed Tread Well leaning against a tree, white as a ghost. He was nauseous, wasted, and mumbling profanity. It seems that the long day, a light lunch, and dehydration had taken its toll on him, and he was trying to regain his composure before "presenting himself" (I think that's a southern thing) to the rest of the folks at the shelter.
I think this was wishful thinking, because I haven't met anyone yet that could "present themselves" after 23½ miles of walking. I said the hell with "presenting myself," left Dave at the tree, and walked to the shelter.
I found Jeff at the shelter as well as three thru-hikers (Pogo, a girl, and another guy). Dave "presented" himself shortly thereafter followed by one other girl (I think it was a girl-I couldn't really tell, actually-and the mere simplicity of this mental challenge amused me terribly) limping badly under a 50-pound pack. I had passed him/her struggling during my ascent of Tray Mountain, where I tried to strike a conversation several times, with absolutely no success. I trailed him/her for nearly 100 yards, chattering away, and s/he said ZERO words. I'm not kidding. This was an unbelievable sight. Then I was feeling really bad because I figured that I was talking to one of those deaf thru-hikers that you read about in Special Olympics magazines, when s/he stopped, took one step off the trail, gave me a glare befitting of Medusa, and motioned me past. Scared to death and about to say, "Yes, sir--er--I mean--ma'am--I mean…", I decided to just run. Needless to say, when s/he arrived at the shelter, s/he definitely did NOT present him/herself.
But no Fried Fender. Looks like she'd stop well short of the shelter for the night, and this was no surprise, given her earlier condition. Of course, this was great relief for us and we relished in contentment for some time over the situation, because we were all very tired and wanted very badly to go to sleep without having to chat the night away.
We set up camp and made dinner while watching a great sunset and once again admiring Dave's hammock. I mixed another stiff protein drink and checked my resting pulse again (now down into the 70s), so I felt confident in being able to chase it with a few drams of the Peaty Dew.
Then around 9:00 pm, we saw a bobbing headlight on the trail of a late arriving hiker. As the hiker approached, we heard an all too familiar voice yell "Hey Guys! I made it!" Our fears were realized and before I could figure out what to do or where to go or even flash a "what the?" look, Fried Fender was hugging me in some sort of congratulatory embrace for her arrival. She promptly left me (thank God) and made a beeline for the shelter and set her bed up next to Jeff, the lucky guy.
We all retired around 9:30 pm. This location is certainly one of the more beautiful camps on the Georgia AT, with a fast flowing piped spring (no, really, I'm serious) and remarkable sunrises and sunsets. It was my favorite camp location on this trip.
A Depleting Supply of Titanium Tent Stakes
At 3:00 am, I woke up in dramatic fashion and lost another pair of titanium tent stakes as I launched myself from my sleeping bag. After ritualistically rubbing my eyes and forcing my contact lenses to places unknown, I regained my bearings and pitched my tarp again with two sticks (I was now out of spare stakes), but not before throwing a rock that hit Tread Well square on his backside in his hammock. Neither the body nor the sound changed its evening rhythms, so I sighed and went back to sleep, piling at least a foot of leaves over my head in the hopes that it would make an adequate sound barrier.
I woke up, spitting leaves out, to a gorgeous sunrise at 6:00 am (43°F) and was on the trail ahead of the others by a quarter 'til seven. The Scotch must have worked its magic during the night, because I woke up with my resting pulse back in the 50s. My leg muscles were a little stiff but I wasn’t sore and I felt really good, so I was confident that I could stick to the plan for the next few days. But I knew that the true test would come as I started hiking, when pain seems to appear out of nowhere in all the wrong spots.
Degradation of the Body
Continuing my descent of the northeast ridge of Tray Mountain, disaster struck - a pain in my knee. This was the same pain that nearly debilitated me on my last few days in Montana's Beartooth Mountains last August, requiring me to hobble out, using my trekking poles as crutches. It’s the kind of pain that feels like there’s a little Smurf living in your knee trying to rake the underside of your kneecap with a rusty farm implement. The pain then spreads, making a brief and seemingly unnecessary visit in your groin en route to shooting out your nostrils like a rabid bolt of lightning.
I’d rather have my nipples pierced.
Add to that some mild shin splints, a few hot spots on my heel, and an unusual ache in my hip flexor. I was NOT a happy camper this morning. Downhills were the worst and my knee let me have it every step of the way. The hip pain went away as I became hydrated (I drank 2 liters in the first hour of hiking) and the tendonitis in my shins was tolerable, but my knee was painful.
I figured that this was it - stupidity yesterday would be paid for with an unfinished hike that might end today. Refusing to accept this as a consequence, I focused on my surroundings (by singing “99 Deciduous Trees in the Woods”) rather than the pain and kept forcing myself to drink water.
Love at First Light?
I stopped for breakfast at Sassafras Gap (8:10 am), after setting a 3 mph downhill pace. After more water, some food, and a few miles, feeling better about the chances of completing the hike, I resigned myself to just taking it one step at a time. Jeff and Dave soon showed up and it looked like Dave was doing well this morning.
At the break, Jeff told us of his night next to Fried Fender, “So she sets down her pad and bag and says, ‘OK guys, don’t freak out if I roll off my pad, but I seek warmth at night.’” By this time coffee is coming out of my nose and squirrels twenty feet away were picking up the remnants of partly-chewed granola as Jeff’s face underwent a painful contortion. He continued, “I scooted as close as possible to the shelter wall, but sure enough, I woke up in the morning with her rolled right up next to me - and I mean, like, RIGHT up next to me - way off her pad.” Jeff related his story with half a smile that said without words, “We are going to make it a point to hike a really long way today.”
And that we did. We never saw Fried Fender again.
I left the others at the gap at about 9:00 am, still laughing at the vision of Fried Fender all snuggled right up to our pal Jeff, with his fingernails dug into the rotting wood of the shelter.
Exit Stage Left
It is said that the climb up Kelly Knob is one of the harder ones in Georgia, but I was feeling better and didn’t mind it, despite its 800 feet of ascent out of Addis Gap. Far worse was the descent into Deep Gap and the subsequent long and arduous downhill that brought me to Dick’s Creek Gap at 11:15 am, where I decided to kick off my shoes and take a snooze in the warm sun while Dave and Jeff caught up. Jeff finally arrived at 12:05 pm and mentioned that Dave was probably shortly behind but was out of gas, not feeling well, and was considering stopping his hike at the gap.
Evidently, Dave had called his wife from his cell phone and left her a message telling her he was bailing out at Dick’s Creek Gap. I didn’t want Dave to leave us and was disappointed. He finally showed up after 12:30 pm and he said he was pretty wasted, slowing to a 1 mph pace on the uphills. I told him, “Dave, don’t be rash. Put your pack down, kick up your feet, drink some water, and you’ll be fine in an hour or two.”
He just replied with a shaking head (shaking the wrong way, mind you) and just mumbled, “Shit, man.”
I begged him to stay with us, and that we’d adjust our itinerary to accommodate a slower pace for the remaining two days - an idea he liked. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get cellular coverage to let his wife know that he wasn’t going to bail, and he didn’t want to leave her hanging, so it turns out that Dick’s Creek Gap would be the end of his trip. I’m sure he was more disappointed than anyone and I wouldn’t want to have been in his shoes dealing with bailout emotions. I had to do the same thing on a long hike in the summer of 1999 due to ankle problems and I hated every gut-wrenching minute of it. Men are absolutely not programmed to give up. When it comes to the point where you have to make such a decision, some might trade three inches of penis length for the opportunity for success.
I think Dave’s lack of energy stemmed primarily from dehydration and lack of nutrition yesterday. Twenty-three hard miles on five liters of water and half a pound of food during a warm day simply proved too much and it caught up with him today. In contrast, my weight is 150 lbs (vs. Dave’s 220+), I drank 8 or 9 liters of water, and ate a full pound of food during the day. I wasn’t feeling on top of the world physically, but I certainly wasn’t out of gas, either. Altitude acclimatization probably afforded me some advantage on the uphills as well, so we were in different physiological universes. All I know is that he looked like he wanted to puke and I wasn’t about to tow his huge frame up any hills.
Dave hitched a ride back to Hiawassee while Jeff and I headed north at around 2:10 pm. I arrived at Plum Orchard Gap at 3:10 pm, where I met two families toting some seriously heavy gear, including lawn chairs and double-burner Coleman stoves. These people were not backpackers. They looked like porters on safari. I chatted briefly with one of the fathers who appeared to be the leader, and he said this was an eye-opening experience for him. “Seeing all y’all thru-hikers with your laht-weight packs,” he vowed to go light on his next trip. On seeing my Spectra pack, he said “I ain’t never done seen no whayut (‘white’) pack, son. Did y’all go an’ bleach the piss out of it or whut?” I told him, “Yup, shore did. Turns out the dye in the fabric weighed a whole plum four ounces - sheeyoot, the whole thang weighs less than mah ahhh-Q.” He was quite impressed with this, eagerly shook my hand and wished me a merry trip. After hiking about 50 yards, presumably out of earshot, I heard the man yell to his wife, who was just returning from a nearby spring fetching water. “Hey, Ellen, that feller up there’s pack weighs less than than ’is ahhh-Q!” Ellen replied with an echoing “Mah, goodness, that mus’ be liiiight!” Of course, I was quite pleased with myself for nearly a mile. Then, overcome with guilt at having played such a cruel joke on an unsuspecting North Georgian, I spent the next two miles repenting.
I had just come from cold snow and rain in Montana and my heat tolerance was awful. So at 3:40 pm, with the temperature in the 70s, I was ready for a rest at Blue Ridge Gap. Jeff caught up shortly, followed by Pogo and “Sponge Bob,” a thru hiker with whom I’d share camp that night.
Now there was a new problem with my body - blisters - on the outside of the right heel. I knew darn well that if I didn’t get these under control soon, I’d be in no shape to hike another 20 mile day tomorrow. I applied duct tape slimed with Dermatone to keep the sock from rubbing off the tape. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring any compound tincture of benzoin with me and the duct tape didn’t really adhere. Later in the hike I switched to Spenco adhesive, which worked very well.
After leaving Jeff and soon passing Sponge Bob, I moseyed my way up and over Wheeler and Rich Knobs to arrive at the Ga./N.C. state line, where I snapped a quick photo before climbing the few remaining minutes up to Bly Gap. I arrived at the gap at 5:30 pm, no worse for wear, with a 19-mile day under my belt.
State Line Festivities at Bly Gap
It felt so good to have knocked off the Georgia AT. I now felt like a section hiker and was looking forward to seeing other sections of the trail. My love for this trail was now slowly sinking in and it was truly scaring the crap out of me. For years I wouldn’t touch a trail that didn’t offer a view or came within fifty miles of a redneck hamlet. Now I couldn’t get enough of this one despite the fact that it never seemed to leave the woods, which were undoubtedly occupied by humans that remain untraceable by the IRS or FBI. (You saw Deliverance too?)
At Bly Gap, I met the “Moon Man” (a middle-aged gentleman named John, hiking north until June), who was camping with a suicide-blue Stephenson tent, and I offered him some advice on pitching the tent (he forgot his stakes). He was a real estate agent with a few months off and looked to be enjoying his independence from a commission-dependent income. Pogo was already there, as was “Dr. Everlast,” another northbounder. Jeff and Sponge Bob showed up later. That would be our party for the night, except for a reclusive and unsocial family of three tents that immediately passed our raucous crowd and camped by themselves.
Jeff and I set up camp on the gap, as space was a little limited in the main camping area to the south. After pitching my tarp and hanging the bear bag, I returned to get water, cook dinner, and fellowship with the thru hikers. This bunch of folks was great fun. We enjoyed some hilarious conversation around the campfire, aided in part by a bottle of cheap (screw top) wine (courtesy of Sponge Bob), a box of Swisher Sweet Cigars (Dr. Everlast), and a tiny 2 oz airline bottle of Jagermeister (Moon Man's meager contribution) that provided us each with about 4 drops when distributed evenly.
Of course the libations were sucked and smoked in an instant and were all but gone when Jeff joined us around the campfire a while later. We all felt so bad about not waiting for him that none of us had the heart to even tell him what we’d been enjoying, rapidly burning the cigar wrappers and hiding the empty bottles.
The talk eventually degraded into one of those serious “Why do you hike the AT?” conversations that demands far too much introspection after a long day. When my number came up, I told the other thru-hikers that after an awful hike last year I decided to say the hell with the rest of the AT and just hang out at state lines during the thru-hiking season to enjoy all the parties. They thought I was dead serious until I couldn’t hold it in any more and lost three precious drops of Jagermeister through my nostrils, which of course, blew my cover.
'Thar's Freaks in a North Caroline' Night
After my dinner and a 100g-protein drink that raised everyone’s eyebrows and curdled the wine in their stomachs, I said my goodbyes to the gang and headed up the hill for bed at around 9:30 pm. By 10:00, I was greeted by a mouse (no shelters for miles, mind you) that was not a fan of my LED headlamp, so I left it on all night, shining the floodlight across the head area of my sleeping bag for protection. I kept hearing him scurry to the edge of the light and then run away. Petzl Mouse Magic, I call it. I turned my light off at around 3 am because it created a scene in which moths were reenacting a Civil War battle, and slept peacefully the rest of the night, save for the bizarre moaning and screaming of some seriously sick wild animals. A very sensitive thru-hiker fellow told me later in a serene voice that those were the “contented callths of owlths that call the Appalathianths their home, and that we mutht learn to rethpect their privathy and let them enjoy their night-thssss.” I was hoping he couldn’t discern the severe pain in my wrinkled face as I shot him a “What the?” look. I was at a loss for words, and in a fitful loss of control, I responded in a Georgia accent with “Ah heard it takes double-ought buckshot to bring down a’ ole’ owl.” His eyes grew to the size of golfballs and that was pretty much the end of that relationship.
I’d slept totally oblivious to nature’s sounds on the previous two nights and missed the chatterings of crickets, birds, and assorted small mammals crunching through the leaves. So I said a prayer for strength and deafness for Tread Well’s wife and rolled back over to sleep.
I woke at 5:15 am to a balmy 52oF morning. I couldn’t believe it. I'd slept out of my sleeping bag most of the night. When I left Montana high temperatures were in the 50s. Now I was cursing myself for not bringing a half (elephant’s foot) bag, which would have saved me another half pound. The routine repeated itself: 8 shots of Scotch…4 Nutty Bars…maybe even Wingfoot's AT guide...nah.
It would be another beautiful day and, I hoped, not too warm. I woke up Jeff, packed and was on the trail by 6:05 am. North Carolina immediately greets you with a nice steep climb out of Bly Gap to the summit of Sharp Top. They should hang a “Welcome to N.C.” sign half way up just to freak out northbounders brainwashed with the notion that the Georgia AT is tough. The climb ended about 600 vertical feet later on Courthouse Bald.
I passed the Muskrat Creek shelter, where I met a chap who introduced himself as “Balu” and two others that were still buried in their sleeping bags. These were a young woman named Anna and another guy (I don’t remember his name) who reminded me of Eddie from Eddie and the Cruisers. Not wanting to wake the others (OK, definitely wanting to wake the others, because I saw a few pieces of neat gear that I wanted to ask them about, but restraining myself in fits of consideration), I left Balu and pressed northward.
After taking a 10-minute break at Deep Gap at 9:00 am, I continued on up to the Standing Indian Shelter, arriving at 9:30 after getting water from the stream just to the north (Little Lyman Prong).
I’m so used to western geographical names like col, creek, stream, river, peak, mountain, pass, microbrewery, etc., that I’m always leery of the terminology over here and what it actually means. I’m learning about gaps, tops, balds, homesteads, stills, and huntin’ areas, but “prong” was a new one. I’ve only seen the one so far (Little Lyman Prong near the Standing Indian Shelter), but I’m gathering that a prong would identify the following if it were described in a southeastern U.S. geography book:
“Prong: emanates from a spring; feeds a creek; choked with grass, mud and silt; flow is nearly undetectable and the wise hiker will be cautious about the array of pathogenic organisms that undoubtedly survive in its anaerobic waters by accepting the consequences of dehydration and passing it up as a reliable water source. Getting to a prong usually requires travel down undetectable game trails subject to erosion that end in a marsh of knee-deep mud.”
Of course, most AT guidebooks referred to Little Lyman Prong in the following manner: “Good water source located on a well-traveled side trail just down from the shelter.”
I met two section hikers (husband and wife) at the shelter as they were just leaving to the north. The man turned out to be the only other person I’ve met that has backpacked to the Thorofare region of Yellowstone National Park, the most remote backcountry location in the lower 48. We were both pretty jazzed about sharing our Thorofare experiences, and I enjoyed our conversation. Of course, the conversation eventually turned to gear when he discovered that I was a lightweight backpacker and I freely offered my negative opinions on what I learned later included just about every item of gear in his pack. This was my only case of foot-in-mouth disease that surfaced on this trip, so I wasn’t feeling too bad about it. However, as I was at the crescendo of my diatribe, the poor woman knew that a fog of doom and poverty would eventually descend on them, as my lucky friend was already planning a trip to see the kind outfitter folks at Neel’s Gap on the way back to Atlanta to purchase all new gear.
I help when I can.
A Real Live Local
Jeff and Balu arrived at the shelter not too much later, and left before me. I really took a lazy break here, taking my sweet Carolina time for a nice morning crap (which made it much easier for me to “present myself,” mind you), ate a hearty breakfast, and flossed and brushed my teeth TWICE to try to remove some beef jerky. My oral hygiene was quite a show for another passing hiker, clearly a local, who stood less than five feet away but still shouted at me: “Hooo weee, lookatchoo, takin’ good care o’ them tayth! Good ferrrr-yyyou!” This reaction, and the smell emanating from his own stained teeth that were only half-filling his mouth, scared the hell out of me and I hit the trail running at 11:10 am, faintly hearing in the background, “Hooo weee, y’all got someplace to git to in a hurray, don'tcha?”
Yep, I shore do.
They're Dropping Like Flies
I passed Jeff at the Lower Trail Ridge trail near the summit of Standing Indian Mountain, where he told me he was going to Blue Blaze it to Rock Gap for the night and meet me at Wallace Gap in the morning. He didn’t think he had enough in him for another 20 mile day, so we said our temporary goodbyes and I marched on, now alone in my journey.
Now I was stressed. I had no safety net. No big guy like Tread Well to defend me from social outcasts that undoubtedly frequent the trailheads with cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon. No smart guy to reassure me, like Jeff, who’s spent enough time on the AT to know that it’s probably a pretty harmless place. So, when Jeff and I parted ways, all sorts of weird daydreams began running their courses. They focused primarily on savage wild boars, armies of fire ants, dread-locked thru-hikers that have adopted eco-terrorism as their religion (God save us all), and of course, the guys named Raymond: the local hillbillies that are genetically predisposed to a very high tolerance for grain alcohol (and not genetically predisposed to much else, for that matter). Of course, I realize much later that most of these things were mere figments of my wild imagination. I’m freakin’ out, but I march on.
Carter Hilton? Super 8? Anyone?
Standing Indian Mountain was high (5,400+) but all in all, a pretty uneventful climb. The trail was wide, heavily switchbacked, and thus, not particularly steep. So, I skipped taking a break at the top and motored on ahead to Beech Gap for lunch, arriving there at 1:05 pm. Balu arrived about 15 minutes later, and I left again shortly after 1:30.
I took my next break at the the old Carter Gap Shelter at 2:45 pm, where I redressed my blisters, had a snack, and drank lots of water. Balu, Anna, and “Eddie” joined me in a long break at this real dump of a shelter, which was quite ironic, because I met several southbound hikers that mentioned how nice the Carter Gap shelter was.
Carter Gap is a beautiful, if not heavily overused, location, but the shelter attracted more flies and graffiti than a Yankee Stadium restroom. It was not until I left (at 3:40 pm) that I realized there was a beautiful, brand new shelter only 50 yards northbound on the other side of the trail. They say that hiker trash uses the old shelter, and most people use the new one. I believe it. Read the graffiti. I found a classic, “For a good time call Sweet Suzie at 555-3928,” which I assumed of course, was left by one of Susan’s friends playing a practical joke. However, when I saw that the last two digits of the phone number were crossed out and reorganized as “-82” with the note, “You idiot, get my number right—Suz” then I began to get seriously worried.
I think Anna and Eddie might have been OK with a hiker trash label. They had tattoos and earrings in unconventional places. But I still found them nice to talk to, enjoyed their company, and wouldn’t have had a problem sharing a hiker trash shelter with them. It was exciting to actually talk to people with tattoos, which are pretty rare in Montana (unless they’re on the bicep and say something like “I love Wilma” or “In Honor of My Thirty Point Buck”). I really felt like I was living life on the edge now.
What the? Light? A View?
At 4:20 pm I ran into an “engineered” view from the trail—an open spot on a ridge that had been cleared by a machete. I found the view to be spectacular (which was a sure sign that I’d been on the AT far too long already), even if the only things I could really see were more trees and more hills. However, I appreciated the effort someone took to manufacture a vista. They should do that more often on the AT. It’s like letting a prisoner out in the yard for his 15 minutes of external stimulation from the outside environment. Of course, the view was short lived. I returned to the forest and thoughts of wild boars and endless more miles of leafy boredom.
Big Butt Fun
At Mooney Gap, I passed Julie and Kevin Kraus, a really nice newlywed couple from Ohio on their northbound thru-hike attempt. They started April 11 and were making very slow progress (about six miles a day) with very heavy packs (that included 14 days of food) but they appeared to understand the need to lighten up. I hope they didn’t give up. They plan on undergoing some serious changes (including shortening their resupply times) in Franklin, N.C. If they don’t they’ll be lucky to finish by Easter…2002.
I was going to rest somewhere around Bearpen Gap before my climb up Albert Mountain, but I was so pumped from hiking the precipitous trail that runs along the cliffs of Big Butt Mountain that adrenaline kept me going. The Big Butt trail was awesome. There is a cliff on the downhill side that drops 50-100 feet vertically to a circumstance of certain dismemberment if one were to slip. A best-case scenario in a fall would be the loss of several pints of blood that would result on reaching the bottom after getting torn to pieces by the blackberry vines. Seeps exploding from the uphill side fed moss growing on the rocky trail so that footing was something less than optimal. It was actually kind of dangerous. And very cool. But I’m convinced that this trail would be hell on earth and downright risky if it was snowing and blowing in an early season storm.
I was so excited at this mental stimulation that when I got around Big Butt, I sprinted to the base of the climb up Albert and came to a grinding halt. I tilted my neck and looked upward until the top of my head was somewhere between the shoulder straps of my pack. This was going to be a very steep trail.
I had hiked 21.2 miles and the final 0.3 miles up to Albert’s summit seemed like some kind of sick joke.
The trail climbs 500 feet in this short distance and rivals the Pike’s Peak Incline or the Olympic Mountains’ Lake Constance Trail for absurdity. There are places where log steps have been built to control erosion or purposefully impose calf strain on unsuspecting hikers. The concept of a switchback is obviously foreign to the local trail club. You have to climb up the faces of huge boulders, grabbing cracks in the rock or treelimbs for handholds, and pray to God (who probably occupies a throne somewhere near Albert’s summit) that your feet don’t slip out from under you as you place weight on them. Surprisingly, I found this trail incredibly fun, because seeing this kind of challenge on the AT in the midst of what is pretty easy terrain was a refreshing break. It took me about 20 minutes to climb this section, but it was exhilarating to end the day on such a cool trail. Unfortunately, it is pretty short (0.3 miles) and I don’t expect that it gains too much notoriety as a killer climb.
There is a hydrogeologic experiment station (locals call it the “farh-tow”) at the summit of Albert, from which you can get 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside. This is far and away the best view on the AT I’ve seen to date, and the climb up the tower was well worth it. At the top of the tower I met "Slow Motion," an elderly gentleman named Gordon from Dexter, Maine, hiking 'til June (“however far I get”). It turns out that Slow Motion and I have a common acquaintance back at Montana State University whom I’ll have to call when I get home and tell him we met.
Slow Motion is probably not the speediest duck crossing the street and his trail name is an apt one. I figured he’d reached the base of the tower sometime back around President’s Day, and only today climbed the final few steps to the top. Like me, he hates shelter mice, loves Montana (he spent some time at the Air Force base in Great Falls), appreciates simple, light gear, and also has an affinity for Vigo Red Beans and Rice (one of my favorite trail foods as well). We hit it off very well considering that I was young enough to be his grandson.
On Trail Angels...
I finally arrived at Big Spring Shelter at 6:25 pm. I couldn’t believe it; the shelter was empty! I was looking forward to some fellowship on my last night on the AT and was hoping that it would be a packed house. After reading the shelter register, it appeared that everyone continued on. It also appeared that I had just missed a trail angel with meat sandwiches!
Trail angels are one of the most bizarre and welcome species on the AT. Where else can you go hiking and unexpectedly meet people in the middle of the woods eager to give you cold sodas and endless servings of homemade chicken and dumplings? It’s an incredible experience to receive this kind of “trail magic.” If you suddenly meet someone on a trail in the West, and that someone doesn’t necessarily have the look of a fellow hiker, there is a good chance that you’ve accidentally trespassed on private property and are about to have your nuts blown off by shotgun-toting landowner. They sure as hell won’t feed you chicken and dumplings.
Needless to say, the whole concept of a Trail Angel took me some time to get used to.
...And Shelter Registers
Shelter registers are an AT icon. They usually take the form of a spiral bound notebook stored in a Ziploc bag, and offer hikers the ability to communicate with each other by leaving notes regarding their location, itinerary plans, and states of gastrointestinal distress. They are often found in AT shelters, which provide an additional benefit, because one can get a sense of the degree to which mice, rats, hillbillies, and even bears, frequent the shelter. One memorable entry from a register at the Hawk Mountain Shelter in Georgia read: “The mice were relentless, like Children of the Corn.” On perusing the register at the Big Spring Shelter, I began to realize that a similar mice population existed here, and I vowed to locate my camp uphill and fifty yards away.
Despite my aching knee and shins, I was feeling at the top of my game, so to speak, with 22 miles down and plenty of energy for more. I came very close to continuing on to meet Jeff at Rock Gap (only another five miles) but opted to stay. I had a feeling that sharing the evening conversation with Kevin, Julie, and Slow Motion, would be worth it. I was right. They were a great bunch.
This camp should be renamed Prostatitis Shelter for the dribbling piss of a spring it offered.
I had been looking forward to the famous Big Spring for the whole hike, and was thoroughly disappointed. It turns out that it’s been a pretty dry year and the piped spring was only trickling out the bottom of the concrete basin, with not a drop exiting the pipe. If this is the “Big Spring” in April, the southern AT is going to have big water problems this summer.
Slow Motion, Kevin, and Julie arrived within an hour or so. After setting up camp (Kevin and Julie in a tent, Slow Motion in a hooped bivy sack, and me in a tarp) near the main trail, we returned to the shelter to cook and shoot the breeze.
The evidence of very poor crapping practices at this camp turned our conversation to intestinal disorders, hygiene, and backcountry water treatment. We had plenty to talk about, since this is one of my research interests. Kevin is a nurse knowledgeable of a variety of parasitic infections, and Julie was suffering with a tapeworm infection from drinking untreated spring water south of Springer Mountain after their water filter failed. I advanced my opinion on why I’d never drink untreated water from an AT spring (throwing in plenty of detail about the life cycle of selected parasites), capturing the awe and attention of all. Old Slow Motion was turning white as a ghost as he finished his cupful of untreated Big Spring water. I think he will get a filter at his next resupply stop and possibly a week’s worth of antibiotics, just to be safe. He mentioned something about a Clorox bath as well.
Kevin and Julie had been using a chlorine dioxide chemical treatment kit since Neel’s Gap, and they were the first folks I’d ever met on any trail that used it. Being a huge fan of chlorine dioxide (I think it kills a wider range of microorganisms than any other chemical treatment), I congratulated them on their wise decision. I’m guessing that Julie will likely have to take a break for a week in Franklin while she gets treated for her tapeworm infection. I gave them my name and number so they could keep me posted on her diagnosis and progress.
We all turned in by 9 pm. I stayed up a while and read the maps and data book pages until 10:00, mainly because I had a double shot of coffee for dinner and couldn’t sleep. At sunset, some huge thunderheads formed to the south, with booming thunder in the background. I thought we’d be in for a doozy; alas, no. It would be a clear and cooler (46°F) night, and I was glad once again to have brought a decent sleeping bag instead of a half bag. My pillowed jacket was now a welcome luxury.
The Home Stretch
I survived my final 20 mile day and it looked like I would finish my planned walk. I was bruised and battered though, and I wouldn’t have been able to maintain this pace for many more days if it were a longer trek. I think repetitive use injuries would have caught up with me, especially my knee, and possibly my shin splints (which were getting dramatically more painful on the right side).
A Quiet Departure
I woke at 6:15 am, and for the first time on this trip actually ate breakfast in camp and not on the trail. I packed for the last time, walked down to the shelter to sign the register, and was ready to hit the trail at 7:20 am, before anyone else was awake.
I was a little worried about Slow Motion after watching him drink that untreated water (since there were piles of toilet paper not far above the spring), so I quietly walked over to his bivy sack and tried to listen for signs of life. I heard him grunt and fart - welcome sounds from senior citizens, since it indicates to the rest of society that they are still alive and will continue to draw their well-deserved social security checks. Eventually, however, the aroma began to wilt the aluminum stays in my pack frame so I began walking north.
The Warmth of the AT
This morning the trail wandered through some very pretty evergreen forests complete with cascading creeks. I supposed these would be considered “old growth” for the East. It reminded me of the Olympics and Cascades, the mountain ranges of my childhood (“I am reminded of my youth” as Flip Pallot would say). So I took my time, squinted my eyes like my grandpa used to do when absorbing the finer things of nature, and tried to enjoy the beauty through tiny slits. Grandpas can be just plain weird sometimes, I guess.
The AT is so devoid of views of the horizon, and I’m so used to the “Big Sky” and open spaces of Montana and the Rockies, that 100 miles on the trail has finally forced me to appreciate the serenity of these woods. Failure to do so in the early stages of a thru-hike would undoubtedly send one to an asylum before getting to Fontana Dam. I am learning to appreciate the AT for what it is (a walk in the woods) rather than chastise it for what it is not (a walk in the mountains), and despite the fact that there are stretches of trail here that will drive one to insanity stemming from boredom, those stretches seem to be getting shorter every day. Perhaps it’s not the trail that’s changing…
Chocolate Éclairs and Hiawassee Stuffin'
My only break this morning was a short one north of Glassmine Gap where I met “Two Hats” (Ellen), a woman in her 50s(?) doing a section hike. She has a daughter in Butte so we had a nice chat about Montana. I reminded her that I was from Bozeman, a more upscale village, and really had little reason to be associated with such a raucous mining town like Butte. It was great fun and she had a bright and cheery attitude.
I arrived at Wallace Gap at 9:40 am to find Jeff already there napping against a tree. He had spent last night at Rock Gap Shelter with a large crowd of Boy Scouts (which explained his sleepy disposition), so he only had a very short (0.7 mile) walk this morning.
"POG" (Karen) arrived around 10:00 with better-than-sex chocolate éclairs and cold Cokes, which I eagerly devoured. Karen is an area trail angel, recently transplanted from Atlanta to Asheville, and she had a bubbly personality with an infectious laugh. She’s been an excellent resource for our trip and was very familiar with the southern AT.
We drove into Hiawassee and had an early (11:00 am) lunch buffet (fried chicken, what else?) at Daniel’s Steakhouse, which served the best stuffing I’ve ever had. The three pieces of peach pie were a treat as well.
Foolishness Overcomes the Educated Man
After lunch we drove back to my car at Neel’s Gap where I wandered through the Walasi-Yi Center. I finally got the chance to chat with Dorothy there and we caught up on my trip to Switzerland last fall. She really wants to see a picture of me under the Matterhorn so I’ll have to send her one. I bought a shower, did my laundry, and managed to escape the Center without spending a dime on gear. This was unusual but, surprisingly, not very hard. I was sure I’d stop back through on my drive down to Atlanta from North Carolina a few days later. As it turned out, I intentionally drove right by in an incredible display of self-control and, in retrospect, utter foolishness. It was, after all, a gear shop.
After a few days of decompression it was clear that I caused some damage to both my knee and shin tendons that would not be repaired by a day of rest. The tendons in my right shin, even two days after the end of my hike, were debilitating. I don’t think that it was anything more than a mild overuse injury, but it’s not something I could not have returned to the trail after only one or two town days if I were on a long distance walk. I also suffered some pretty serious burns on the insides of my thighs from chafing and have contracted a weird sort of itch. It might be a Tinea cruris (jock itch) infection, but what if it’s poison ivy or an allergic reaction to chiggers or fleas or some Godawful hillbilly disease contracted by shaking hands with the locals? At any rate, I was happy to be off the trail with ready access to clotrimazole, aloe vera gel, and various sterilization agents.
Three days later, I was rocking on a cabin porch in the Blue Ridge during a North Carolina thunderstorm, my body nearly fully recovered, finding myself aching to get back on the AT. I miss the trail, its hikers, and yes, even its hills.
"A Westerner's Weekend on the Appalachian Trail," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00025.html, 2001-08-13 03:00:00-06.