Disclaimer: this trip report was put together mostly for the sake of friends and family, so it is not technical or specific in the way trip reports usually are. Hope you like it anyhow! Please post questions: just too lazy to fill in all the details. My gear list I am trying to attach now to my profile. Happy Trails!
Maybe it wasn’t the smartest way to plan a major trip, but that’s the way it happened. Every year, the first weekend of May, some friends and I go camping up in Algonquin park for 4 days. It is a real crap shoot about what kind of weather we will get. Some years it has been sunny, clear, and warm. This year, quite simply, it was not. We got rain, and then more rain, and then hurricane type winds mixed with rain. And, the temperature was hovering most of this time somewhere below 10 degrees Celsius. But we paddled and portaged and tried to keep the fire going at camp, and generally had a good time. By the time I got home though, I was quite sick. Nothing dangerous, but a full on miserable cold had set in, and my energy was zapped. I had no appetite, no power, no mind. All this is not such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that I had planned my time off such that only 2 days after returning from this canoe trip, I was supposed to be leaving on my real big trip - 12 days of hiking the Appalachian Trail solo, from the beginning of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park (GSMNP) all the way to, well, to wherever I would finish. I expected about 150 to 200 miles, and I had arranged a flexible shuttle to and from the Knoxville, TN airport. I had connected with this guy through the Whiteblaze.net forum, a site built around the Appalachian Trail (AT), and he turned out to be a real angel.
The Appalachian Trail, or AT, just so you know – is a 2,200 mile foot path stretching from Georgia all the way to Maine. Incredibly, many people attempt to hike the entire trip in one season, leaving around March and finishing near September. Many thousands more hike sections of it. A huge, free, well kept trail, it is easy to plan, brainless to navigate, and beautifully roams the Appalachian mountains. I was looking very much forward to hiking one of the most famous sections of this trail.
However, the morning I was supposed to fly out, I almost cancelled my trip. I felt absolutely terrible, and had not been able to eat the night before, and was not exactly in any shape to start a very demanding multi- day hike. In the end, I decided that I would go, and simply adjust my itinerary so that I could stay in a motel for the first day or two while I recuperated. I had packed my backpack and trekking poles into a large luggage and the deal was that I would stay at the motel, and when leaving, would simply leave my extra clothes and carry-on luggage in the suitcase, and my shuttle friend would pick them up for me later in order to meet me with them at the end of the trail. Talk about nice!
When I arrived in Knoxville, my gracious shuttle angel gladly drove me to a motel in the small town of Townsend instead of to the start of the trail, and I picked out a lavish $30 room and settled in.
The next morning, I realized that I felt significantly better. The flight had somehow managed to clear my sinuses, and I managed to hold a good dinner and breakfast. Eager to get on the trail, and not wanting to push my hiking back too much, I set out, figuring I would simply take it easy the first days. I managed to hitchhike out of Townsend with another roadside angel who drove me to a place called Cades Cove. Well, that alone meant 7 less miles to hike that day, so I knew I would be OK. I got a scenic tour by car of the Cove, and then set out. Or set up, I should say. I had not realized it, but the 4 miles or so from the cove to the AT is virtually a direct vertical climb. Hours later, when I finally reached the AT at the top of the smokeys, I fearfully thought that if the rest of the trip was that kind of climbing, I was a goner. Luckily, it is the entrance to the park which is the worst – some say the most difficult part of the AT. Coming up over a sunny, open patch of grass dotted with blossoming trees that looked as gorgeous as cherries (turns out to be something called ‘Service Berry trees’) I came down around the curve and found a site for sore eyes – the Spence Field Shelter www.flickr.com/photos/craigj/891994108/.
If you haven’t camped in a shelter before, it is an interesting experience. Feeling terrible, and on top of the fact that the SMD Lunar Solo that I ordered many weeks before leaving never arrived ( and thus packing only a tarp) a large shelter with room to spread out and cook is divine thing in the middle of the woods. I know that purists disagree, but on this trip, shelters were a godsend. The first hiker to show up after me was a thru-hiker named ‘Pullup’. Thru-hikers are people attempting to hike the entire length of the AT (2,200 miles) in one season. There is a tradition that these hikers are given nicknames which are, as I learned, not just nicknames but replacement alter egos that even the motel and hostel owners now know to use for reservations and billing.
“Like, ‘Pullup’ your shorts?” I asked.
“No, like the exercise, doing a pull-up.”
“Why, are you good at them or something?”
“I do them in the shelters.”
I did not quite understand until he pulled out of his pack an actual set of gymnast rings, and proceeded to climb the shelter beams in order to install them and set about heaving himself up and about like some young Olympian.
“You don’t burn enough calories hiking all day; you need to do this all evening?” I gaped.
“It is just something to do….” he replied matter of factly.
Yes, Pullup was appropriate.
The shelter filled with about 6 other men that afternoon and evening before we experienced one of the noisiest nights out ever – rain on the tin roof, 3 guys in a snoring competition, followed by good ole’ hail on that same tin roof. Yessir. In the morning, we believed one guy to have left at 6am, only to find out that in the middle of a downpour, he had actually left the shelter to pitch his tent on the bald just to get away from the snorers that had encircled him. One of the men there was wearing a 60lb pack full of gadgets, among them a SPOT GPS, which I found very interesting, but a bit bulky for what it does. Neat little gadget, though.
That morning I set out for a moderate 12 miles, and had the next shelter at Double Spring gap all to myself that night. The following night was interesting in that shortly after 4pm, the “bottom dropped” out of the temperature, to borrow a line from Snapshot, one of the thru-hikers, and the 10 of us in the shelter cooked dinner out of our sleeping bags as the wind cut through the makeshift tarp set in front of the shelter and brought the mercury well below freezing. The next morning we awoke to snow on the ground, and only 2 hikers, me and Pullup, actually left the shelter that day. The other thru-hikers actually pulled an unheard of and embarrassing ‘zero day’ in the shelter. Thru-hikers measure their days in miles logged, and generally, zero days are meant for those much needed days in town where you stay in a cheap motel or hostel while you restock your supplies and counter the calorie deprivation from the previous week on the trail. This bunch sure got the gears from other hikers who caught up to them the next day! To their credit, it was a miserably cold, wet morning, with furious winds at 6000 ft that not long after leaving, sucked Pullup’s pack cover off and sent flying. I fished it out with my trekking pole, and tried to catch up to him for the next week, but never saw him again. His pace was amazing. I wore literally every piece of clothing that I packed that morning and I think that moving quickly down the trail saved me from a rotten day stuck in a shelter to eventually and good day of walking. That evening was spent at the truly beautiful Peck’s Knob shelter, set in its own little glen. If you are passing through, do yourself a favour and stay there instead of the infamous next shelter, Tricorner knob, which hosts acrobatic hungry mice.
Here is a poem I composed about this part of the hike:
I hear the rain
or perhaps mice
a man made shelter in the woods.
Or is it just my mind
after a long day?
After the next night at Cosby Knob, into which squeezed about 16-18 hikers (max room: 12), I hiked down to the Standing Bear Hostel with a couple other thru-hikers. Long Man Walking, Seadog, and Snapshot were good fun that afternoon, and the hostel was a welcome break. They set almost immediately into frozen pizzas, and I enjoyed both a hot tea and shower. Curtis, the owner with a cold, ex-army captain façade and a heart of gold, drove us later into ‘town’ (I have no idea what it was called, but it was really just a truck stop) and I got a take-out veggie burrito that, after a week of trail food, was indescribably tasty. Other hikers dropped in to the hostel, which basically just has few farm like bunk houses, an outhouse, and a open cooking area, and soon there was about 10 hikers putting up the $15/night to sleep on a mattress and have running water. Which, by the way, is about as much as you are going to get at Standing bear. There is a cute little shack that he uses as an honour system resupply store, but don’t count on it to get you anywhere past Hot Springs, 2 or 3 days further, unless you are picking up a parcel of personally delivered food there, like I was. It is a quaint place, but is still essentially a dump seen with modern eyes. But, its location is ideal, and it’s a perfect place for a good night’s sleep, although not for a zero day, in my books. I got out early the next day as many of the thru- hikers were planning to rent a car and go up to Damascus for Trail Days that weekend. Trail Days is the annual enormous hikers convention in Damascus VA that coincides approximately with the time the majority of thru-hikers will be passing through that area. Curtis said that he has seen already 900 hikers come through so far, as of May 16, and at many times that amount had not stayed at his place.
The way to Hot springs was not nearly as challenging as the Smokeys and I put in 17 and 20 mile days back to back. It was in this section that I definitively learned the uselessness of a poncho as rain gear. On top of Max Patch (famous hilltop – google it for nice images) in high winds and thunderous downpour, I got wet virtually everywhere using just my poncho, even though I strapped it down as best I could. My pack stayed dry, but otherwise, when the rain is blowing sideways and upwards, no way. I have never used one before, but wanted to give it a good try, due to them being so versatile. But I will not bother to bring one again, unless as an emergency extra miscellaneous item. This area is also famously bad for bears, and I gave a afternoon’s worth of food to one hiker I met up with who had just had his food bag ripped right down from the line in this area. When he reported it to the Outfitters’s in Hot springs, they said he was the 42nd person this spring to have his food taken! At the shelter he stayed at, someone left a funny postcard addressed to Momma and Poppa bear from baby bear. It went something like this:
“ Dear mom and pop, don’t worry about me. I am having a great time here near the Walnut Spring Shelter. All the hikers are really nice to me. Every night they leave out big piñatas full of food so I can swat them down. I am eating great! Love, baby bear.”
In this section, I also found a man who was camped out at a small 3 person shelter and looked like he has been living there for some time. Apparetnly, this is not unusual, and legally, a person is allowed to stay in a shelter for up to 14 days. This guy was probably doing so.
In Hot springs, I stayed at the famous Sunnybrook Inn, usually known as Elmer’s place. This was a paradise for me: all vegetarian meals, and a communal bookshelf of more zen/ Taoism books then I even knew existed. In my room, Leaves of Grass sat on a small writing desk, and I really felt at home. My luxurious afternoon was spent reading a favourite poem, ‘Song of Myself’ in the sun. Nice.
At this point, I had really learned a huge amount not just about hiking, but more amazing to me, about the sub-culture of AT thru-hikers. What is most astounding to me is that the AT is so popular that small communities exist solely to cater to hikers. Consider Hot Spring, NC. With a population of approximately 700, it boasts 3 motels, 2 hostels, 1 real hotel, 2 restaurants, and Bluff Mountain Outfitters, a camping goods store that is far bigger and better than the one found in my home city of 300,000. Apparently, this is not uncommon. Small communities line the AT and its small businesses are kept going almost entirely by thru and section hikers. Amazing! I had no idea so many people hiked. But, it is the most popular hiking trail in north America, and it is the long trail most accessible to like ¾ of the population of the USA, so there you go. But I am still amazed. I took a zero day in Hot springs, watched some hikers eat monstrous meals and put back pitchers of cheap Guinness (yes, pitchers of Guinness, and cheap? How about like $11? To a Canadian, this is feverishly cheap, I have to mention.) and headed out in the rain of the next morning.
I received some encouraging gear comments on this trip. I feel that I was really well prepared, and I am really happy about the gear I packed. I pretty much needed all of it at some point, but kept my weight decent while being comfortable. In the smokeys, a guy asked me, “Hey, is that your pack or just your food bag?”. That was an ultra-lighters dream comment. Moreover, upon leaving Hot Springs, a girl actually gawked and exclaimed, “Look how small and light your pack is! How do you do that?” Frankly, I am not even ultra light. I am just lighter than these people who bring the kitchen sink. My base pack weight was just over 18 lbs. That’s good for me, anyhow.
It is interesting how soothing, how truly reassuring the monotonous routine of waking, eating, sleeping becomes. The towns had no appeal. Even the scenery was secondary. It became a walking meditation, a daily exploration of the soul, a necessary filling of my cup of solitude. I barely even looked at a map. The white blazes are so clear, the path so well trodden, it is nearly impossible to get off track. And you can sleep wherever the heck you want to. None of this ‘book a site’ business like most places. Just stay at a shelter, or pitch your tent on some open space beside the trail. Water is everywhere – I mean really, you have to walk over it multiple times a day – so what is there to think of? Gratefully, nothing.
Do we realize what luxury there is in not having to think? I don’t think so.
I tried not to think at all. And after a while, I simply didn’t. And I must say, that the most important part of my trip was that in this way, my spirit was truly restored.
A few days later I was picked up by my faithful shuttle and taken back to Knoxville airport. When the airport customs official asked what goods I was bringing back from my trip, I told him ‘Nothing’. “12 days and you didn’t buy anything but food?”
“12 days and barely saw civilization, my friend.”
And that, really, was the whole point.