As I look back over my adult life I can remember saying I would do one thing or another one day. Somehow that day never quite gets here or I simply forget about it and move on to something else. I read somewhere that “Life is like a roll of toilet paper, the closer to the end you get, the faster it goes”. Lately that is how I have felt. There is so much left to do, and time is running out. My wife calls all this a mid-life crisis. She could be right but I prefer to look at it as waking up and facing the fact that if it is going to get done in my lifetime, the time to do it now.
One of the many things I have started over the years is hiking the Appalachian Trail. Now I have to admit I’m not the oldest on the trail, but then again I’m not the youngest. When I started the trail I estimated it would take between twelve and fifteen years to finish it in sections. At that time I was fifty-three and with simple math you can see how reality has hit me square between the eyes. Each year will be a little harder and I will be a little slower until I finally climb that last summit in Maine. This has made each chance to hit the trail an important part of my yearly goal. In the spring I have a great time hiking with the new “Class” of thru-hikers. Some are faster and put in a lot more miles a day than me but I can hold my own with most and that gives me a chance to meet new friends and enjoy their company as we advance up the series of hills that make-up the “Green Tunnel”. After all one of the biggest attractions to the AT is the social aspect.
In the fall, the trail is a little lonely. I can hike for miles on the footpath that is crowded in the spring but now is all but deserted. Yet I still go with a couple of friends or my son and mark off another section of the trail towards one of my life long goals. This fall had a number of disappoints for me. The first was when my favorite hiking partner, my son, called from school and backed out on me. I understood his reason. He had a chance to certify as a backpacking instructor at the Appalachian State University for their outdoor program. He wanted to start carrying crews on weekend treks and pick-up a little change for doing something he would be doing anyway. How could I argue with that? I spent the last twenty years as a firefighter because it was job I would have gladly done for free if someone had paid my bills. Heck that’s the Nantahala Outdoor Center motto, “find a job you love and you will never work a day in your life”.
Okay I still had a trip planned in November with Gary (my boss) and Brian (my son-in-law). Well that’s how it started out until Brian got tickets to an App. State football game. One down and one more to go.
So Gary and I began to plan our trip. Now this trip was originally an extra. We were hiking a section I had already hiked at least once and some parts twice. Gary had tried twice to do this area and both times came home unsuccessful. The first time it was foot problems. His feet looked like rats had gnawed on them. To top it off, a tendon in the bottom of his foot became inflamed. The second time his hiking partner, T-bone bailed after one day. That was when I offered to hike the section with him. I assured him I would make the entire trip from Dick’s Creek Gap to Fontana. Even if it was a repeated section I was excited about the hike. After all I could try out some new gear that had been collecting dust for too many months.
As the big day approached I hurried to get my gear ready. I packed and rearranged gear several time to make sure my new ULA Circuit was balanced and as light as I could get it with food for six days. I applied fresh waterproofing to my boots and checked the condition of my rain gear (the mayor in Atlanta was praying for rain). As extra insurance that nothing would go wrong I told Gary to just carry his food, sleeping gear and clothes. I’d haul the rest. Even at five years his senior I hike more and can handle the extra weight. My pack with food and water came in at twenty-eight pounds. Heavier than I wanted but about half of that was food and water giving a base pack weight of under 15 pounds. I was expecting each day to get a little easier as I ate my way through all the vittles I was carrying.
I checked Gary’s pack and I got the shock of my life. He was bursting at thirty-four pounds. “I don’t know what I can leave out”, he said as I shook my head and headed home to tell my wife good-bye. He did find a couple of things to dump because when he stopped at the house to pick me up he was at twenty-eight pounds also.
The trip to the Hike Inn near Fontana was interesting. First we had to stop at REI in Greensboro, NC. Gary had a broken valve on his water bladder. Fortunately I had purchased it on my membership and the store simply gave us another one. Later when we decided to stop for a burger, I suggested Wendy’s. I pointed to the up coming exit and told Gary I ate at that one a couple of weeks ago. As we approached the restaurant it looked closed. It was. Closed due to fire. I would think at this point any sane person could see that this trip was headed south and I’m not referring to us going to Georgia.
At last we make it to the Hike Inn. Nancy met us at the door. “Eleven-o-clock, just like you estimated”, she said to Gary. We settled our bill for the room and shuttle to the trailhead and then dove in the bed for some much-needed sleep.
Six AM came all too quick. I boiled some water and made oatmeal while Gary ate a pop tart. We checked to make sure all our gear was packed and met Jeff in the parking lot for the hour-and-half ride to Dick’s Creek Gap. Jeff was a lively talker and I enjoyed our conversation. He gave us the latest information on water in the area. He even explained how the hostel was cutting water consumption. Then he got to my favorite subject, bears. I told him in all the miles I had hiked in the area including the Smoky Mountains I had never run into a bear on the trail. His response was “be careful what you wish for”. We all laughed and continued talking about how mountain life was changing with all the land developers taking over.
At last we arrive at Dick’s Creek Gap. It’s a crossing on Georgia 76 just east of Hiawassee. The weather was clear and cold for this time of year. Jeff cautioned us that the lows were expected to be in the teens over night. I felt confident we would be fine even if my bag was only rated at 20 degrees. We hoisted our packs on our backs and began the climb toward the NC state line.
I quickly set my normal pace and made a decent size gap between Gary and myself. I can never stand to have someone walking on my heels. I was also hoping Gary’s stair master walking would help pick up his pace but I soon discovered I was going to have to slow down. I turned to check on him and he was nowhere in sight. Just then I heard a rustling in the bushes up ahead. Jeff was right about wishing. There was a 250-300 pound black bear running as hard as he could – away from me. No time to get a picture so you’ll just have to take my word for it. As Gary caught up I told him about the bear. I said, “My trip is complete, I’ve seen a bear in the wild”. At the time I didn’t realize that would be the high point of the trip.
The morning hours were mainly uphill. We took a quick side trip to Plumorchard Shelter. It’s a really neat post-and-beam structure built by the Georgia Trail Club and air dropped by the US Army. Having three separate levels for sleeping a lot of hikers can be accommodated. However the shelter has the worst infestation of mice of any I have ever seen. The night I slept here there were so many mice just the sound of their little claws on the wood was loud enough to keep five warn out hikers awake most of the night. One by the name of Pete, a former army ranger, decided at three A.M. he had enough, packed up and started hiking in the dark.
As we approached the shelter I took note of the flow of the stream. It was a fraction of what I remembered from my last visit. In the shelter someone had left some gear and a book they had been reading. We took a short break and started back to the trail. Another hiker was coming to the shelter and we exchanged greetings but continued north without really stopping to talk. My goal was to make Bly Gap by lunch. That way we could rest a little before climbing Sharp Top and Courthouse Bald.
At Blue Ridge Gap we met two SOBOs who were headed to Hiawassee for the night. Their trail names were Lunar and Solar. Turns out they had spent an evening with two friends of ours that had completed a north bound trip in October. They remembered Ox and Nuclear and were glad to hear the two had made it to Katahdin. It turns out Lunar and Solar were newly weds on their honeymoon. They made it to Springer a few days later.
As we walked up the final hill in Georgia I suddenly turned and told Gary we were in two different places. He looked at me puzzled and asked what I was talking about. I replied, “You’re in Georgia, and I’m in North Carolina”. He had finally after four trips completed the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.
We walked up to a small camping area for lunch. The spring was bone dry. I was glad we had not counted on it for water. I unpacked a lunch of dried tuna and red beans. With a little mayonnaise and relish it’s tasted a lot like tuna salad. It also has a load of carbs to help with the afternoon hike. Along with a piece of string cheese, crackers and crystal light tea mix it made a hefty lunch. I glanced over at Gary as he downed a milk and cereal bar. It was feeling colder so I added a jacket and quickly packed up so I could get moving again. In the Gap there is a rather distinctive tree. I climbed part the way up and got Gary to snap a picture.
Now we started the first climb in North Carolina. Sharp Top was steep but did not take very long. The bugger was Courthouse Bald. The trail was one switch back after another. It seemed that each one was steeper than the last. I remember yelling down to Gary, “Even the switch backs need switch backs”. Just before the top there was a tree across the trail. As I straddled it I removed my jacket and drank some water. I called out to Gary a couple of times but got no response. I figured he had stopped to take a quick breather. When I was re-shouldering my pack I heard him calling, “Are you at the top?” “No, not yet!” was the reply.
While the distance from Bly Gap to the top of Courthouse Bald is only a mile-and-half it seemed a lot longer. At the top I dropped my pack and pulled out a Milky Way bar while I waited on Gary. He took a short break with me and ate some dried pineapple. He also mentioned his calves were starting to cramp. Soon we headed out with a break planned at Muskrat Creek Shelter.
I decided to let Gary set the pace since I kept getting so far ahead. He was getting slower and slower as the afternoon progressed. About a half mile from the shelter he asked me to go ahead and I did. I told him I would have water filtered by the time he got there. When he arrived it was about 2:30 PM. I was drinking another bottle of tea and had collected water for his bladder. Gary showed up saying he was still cramping and wanted to spend the night here.
Now to be honest I am one of those hikers who likes to set goals and then hikes until the destination had been reached. Besides stopping before 3:00 P.M. was going to make for a long evening. After discussing all this with Gary he agreed, especially about the long night. So we decided to go on to Standing Indian Shelter just 5 miles farther up the trail. Looking back may be I should have given in. Gary was having a rough time of it and I knew the next part of the trail was a rocky walk. But I had been looking forward to pushing myself a little on this trip and extending my daily mileage. I had spent a lot of time evaluating my gear and cutting weight as much as I thought I could safely for this time of year.
The rest had helped. Gary set a good pace for the next couple of miles. I was impressed at the ground we were covering especially for late in the day. But as we started the climb over the Yellow Mountains, Gary started to slow down. The trail became cluttered with loose rocks and exposed roots making walking difficult even for a rested hiker. I was okay but would be glad to get off my feet. Gary was really fatigued. When we reached the ridge I decided to check for a phone signal. There was a weak one so I attempted to call home. Wouldn’t you know it? There was no one there. I did receive a message that I had voice mail. I caught up with Gary and started looking for the forestry road into Deep Gap. As soon as I saw it I pointed it out to Gary hoping it would encourage him to keep moving. When we got in the Gap I stopped to dump my trash in a can supplied by the forestry service. We also read the warnings about an aggressive bear that had been stealing packs. Then we started the climb up Standing Indian Mountain to the shelter for the night.
With less than a mile until we reached the shelter, I was getting really optimistic about how the hike was going. The first day is always the toughest for me and I was feeling pretty good after seventeen miles of some of the roughest terrain on the whole trail. As we approached a little bridge I started coming back to reality. Gary stopped suddenly and said, “You go on ahead and I’ll catch-up with you at the shelter. I just need a short break.”
I didn’t argue but I thought about it. I mean it was not that far to the shelter. Why stop now? Just make it to where we are spending the night and collapse. So I hiked on without a word and made my way up to the shelter. I was surprised that there was not a sole around. I didn’t expect a crowd but had thought there might be one or two other hikes spending the night here. I dropped my pack on the wooden platform and got busy preparing for the over-night stay. The first project was a bear bag. I went behind the three-sided lean-to and surveyed the trees for a suitable limb. I spotted one about twenty feet off the ground and with two throws had a cord in place to hang the food bags after supper. Next was to arrange my sleeping area. I have a Nunatak Back Country Blanket and have found that the longer it lays out, the higher the loft. The way the temperature was dropping I had a feeling I was going to need every bit of the 20-degree rating.
Soon Gary showed up. I could tell he was exhausted. I told him to get warm and watch the packs while I went for water. He volunteered to go but I told just to rest. As I walked down to the small creek that runs nearby I started to worry. All I could find were a series of puddles. I was thinking it’s going to take a while to soak up these mud holes to fill my empty bladder. I walked farther down hill finding more puddles and finally a spring running into a tiny stream. The PVC pipe coming out of the ground was frozen with a chunk of ice hanging on the end where water should have been flowing. I slid the pipe out of the ground and broke off the ice. After a couple of tries I got it in a good position and weighed it down with a couple of rocks. I filled my water bag/filter and made my way back to the shelter, my home for the night.
By the time I got back Gary had changed clothes and had crawled into his sleeping bag. He pointed to a pile of wet clothes and asked, “How can I get them dry?” Gary is cold natured and had worn a jacket all afternoon. As he sweated the vapor collected under his jacket and soaked everything he was wearing. Fortunately everything was polyester or nylon so we laid them out hoping they would dry before the sun went down. But because the temperature was already below freezing all his clothes froze. I had hiked the last few miles without a jacket and had only a damp spot where my pack rode against my back. My shirts where dry in a very short time. Gary attempted to dry his clothes by placing them between his sleeping bag and pad but they would still be wet in the morning.
I started filtering water with my gravity filter and curled up on my sleeping pad to rest before supper. It wasn’t long before I heard Gary snoring and I was sure I was not far behind him. So I got up and measured out two and a half cups of water in my MSR kettle and poured 20 ml of alcohol in the stove. The stove primed and I warmed my hands over the pot as the heat rose above it. A few minutes later I poured the boiling water into a mixture of freeze dried chicken, peas, gravy and stuffing (one of Sarbar’s recipes). Gary pulled out a single serving bag of freeze-dried lasagna. We both downed our meals and I hung everything on the bear line (PCT style) headed to bed.
I checked my cell phone since I was curious about the voice mail. It was my sister wishing me a great trip. She also asked me to keep an eye out for her son but his location was up near Asheville, NC. I called home again and this time my wife answered. She was glad to hear everything was going well in spite of the cold weather. I told her goodnight and I would call in a couple of days.
I emptied the water filter and put it down in the sleeping bag with me. I blew air into the tube of my hydration bag to keep it from freezing and wrapped the bladder to minimize the effects of the cold. I pulled on long john bottoms, dry socks, a thin fleece shirt and a fleece cap for the night. I woke-up a couple of time a little chilly but never shivering. I found if I put my whole head in the bag the warm air I exhaled helped. At first light I heard Gary stirring around in his bag. I got up and started getting dressed. I was anxious to hit the trail. I had a vision of twenty miles and it would take most of the available daylight to travel that far. We would be on a ridge along the Standing Indian Basin and except for Albert Mountain the hiking would be much easier today.
It was still very cold. I spilled some water while getting breakfast ready. It froze in a matter of a couple of minutes. The hot oatmeal with raisins and walnuts tasted great and warmed me inside out. Gary had a couple of packets instant oatmeal. I finished up breakfast and packed my cooking gear. Moments later I had my pack ready to go but Gary is still in his sleeping bag.
“Did you get a signal last night on your phone?” inquired Gary.
“Yea, why? Do you need to call Gail (his wife)?” I replied.
“Joe, do you think Jeff would come pick us up at Deep Gap?” asked Gary.
“I think Jeff would do most anything for $100.00, why do you ask?
“My clothes are still frozen and I’m so cold. I just can’t take the cold like you. I need to go home. I think I’m getting a chest cold.” Gary said with a few coughs thrown in.
“Well, we have other options. We can hike part of the day and have Jeff meet us at the Standing Indian Campground or we can hike to Rock Gap and have him pick us up in the morning. Let’s give it another day and see how it goes. It’s suppose to warm-up today.” I said hoping to change his mind.
I told him to think about it awhile as I headed to the privy. When I got back I heard the tail end of a cell phone conversation that went something like “we’ll see you in two hours.” My heart sank. While the thoughts of spending the weekend at home with a warm fire sounded good, I had so looked forward to hiking this challenging section of trail. Well at least I had not elected to do a mail drop at the NOC. I left Gary at the shelter while I hiked part the way up the mountain. That was mostly to get the blood flowing in my feet and warm them up. I was cold too, but I knew the more I moved the warmer I would be. When I had gone far enough I returned and Gary and I started down to the service road in Deep Gap. I killed the extra time filling the trashcan with litter left by other hikers. When Jeff arrived there was some talk about how we might of packed too light for conditions. I didn’t buy a word of it. I was already evaluating the performance of what I carried and how to make it even lighter.
About halfway home I looked at Gary and said, “If I could of figured out a way home I would have stayed on the trail and hiked by myself.”
He replied, “I would have come to pick you up.”
Now he tells me!
So what worked on the trip?
1. The ULA Circuit with 28 pounds total was very comfortable. I don’t think I would push it over 30 pounds.
2. Breathable jackets do not breathe. I think another thin fleece for a third layer would have kept me warmer and allowed the sweat to migrate easier to the outside. I’ve been experimenting with layers at night when my dog and I go for walks. So far the best combination is a micro fleece shirt under a wool sweater in temperature down to the upper 30’s.
3. Wear the minimum amount of clothing you can stand. You can add clothes when you stop to eat but start shedding them to avoid wetness. Sweat is designed to cool the body and it works well in the 35 to 45 degree range.
4. I keep seeing where other hikers swear by long pants. I’ll stick with zip-offs with the legs reserved for camp. It cuts down on moisture in that most sensitive area.
5. A 20-degree bag supplemented with thermals works adequately in cold weather down into the teens.
6. Make hanging the bear-bag a priority before dark. Looking for a good limb at the right height with a headlamp is near impossible. I’m glad I didn’t wait.
7. Black bears for the most part are more scared of us than we are of them. Make enough noise so you don’t surprise them and they will not surprise you.
8. There is a lot of truth in "Eat to hike; Hike to eat". Where else can you load up on fats and carbs and not feel guilty?
9. Going home before reaching your destination is a drag. Especially when it’s someone else’s idea.
So you’re probably asking if Gary and I are on good terms yet. Sure we are. However the next time we go hiking I’m driving and he can wait on me to finish the section if he bails early. One of our co-workers has dubbed Gary with a fitting trail name. He will now and forever be known as “Day Pack”. As Chad said when he came up with the name, “no longer than he stays on the trail at a time a day pack is all he needs.”
Day Pack and I will be hiking from Hot Springs, NC to Damascus, VA starting May 13th until the 24th. May be we’ll see you there!