June 24. The Day We Left the Trail.
Trail: Neel Gap to Poor Mountain and backtrack to Hogpen Gap
Distance: 11.5 miles
“Sometimes you have to earn the scenery, in a way. You have to work for it and go through some rough patches to get to the serene parts. It doesn’t all come right to you.” – Unknown
It’s day four of this adventure and we are rivaling a snail’s pace this morning. While it was nice to sleep inside a building at Neel Gap, I am convinced the hostel has black mold growing in the sleeping area. That was the most hideous air quality I think I’ve ever breathed for any lengthy period of time. I enjoyed it so much that my body tucked away some mold spores in my lungs and sinuses for souvenirs. At least that’s how I feel.
By mid-morning we were packed up and on our way for an 11.5 mile day. We started out in a steady rain again but I find that I don’t really mind it. I’ve always liked the rain, and usually it keeps the critters and ticks and snakes at bay. Usually. We’d been told that the trail out of Neel Gap was a gentle one. That is not how I’d describe it. About 200 yards into the day’s journey Scout and I looked at each other and had a very quick discussion about whether we should just call it good and get off the trail from Neel Gap. We brainstormed other options for our remaining days and when I felt myself slightly excited about the idea of shopping versus trudging up another hill, I should have known there was something seriously wrong with me. I hate shopping. Unless it’s an REI store.
We decided to press on, feeling that we’d regret ending this early, but our hearts just didn’t feel into it. Scout seemed to be having a really hard time this morning. Her pace was sluggish and slow and she carried a weight with her that I could feel for the first half of the day. We have hiked many miles together and for the first time ever I had to ask her to pick up the pace or let me lead. I think she was in absolute shock at my request. The morning felt oppressive… in energy, in topic of conversation, in pace, in nature. It could be that this was the theme for the day… oppressive and claustrophobic. The trail was dismally restrictive with no views through the trees, layered with thick fog and jungly paths. I wonder how much poison ivy I brushed up against and was thankful I always hiked in long pants or leggings, no matter what the temperature. Today was the first time I’ve ever felt slightly bothered by an enclosed trail – not because of the fog, which I dearly love, but by the narrowness and flanking overgrowth.
Today’s trail wasn’t easy by any means. There were lots of uphills in store for us and my knees were incredibly stiff after yesterday’s grueling 16 miles. From Neel Gap we climbed Levelland Mountain which felt like one continuously rising trail with a very deceitful name (shouldn’t the name “levelland” indicate a level trail?), and Wolf Laurel Top, where we met up with two guys. I don’t remember much about them except that they were friendly and didn’t seem to mind our unrestrained swearing. Our paths would cross a few times over the course of the day.
Today’s special snake sighting was the venomous but survivable Copperhead. Reaching the top of Cowrock Mountain after yet another challenging incline, we decided to stop to take a break, eat some snacks and enjoy the rare view of the rolling mountainside. An inviting stony perch on the giant rock ledge looked perfect for sitting and contemplating the day. Right when Scout was about to drop her pack I remembered posts from the AT facebook groups showing people sitting on rocks and looking down into the crevices and noticing copperheads joining them. Following my gut instinct, we relocated ourselves just a few yards over. As Scout was digging in her pack for food and I was reaching for my coveted and rare Coke, I looked up at the base of the perching rock and couldn’t believe my eyes. “Ho-ly Shit. You have got to be kidding me!” Two copperheads were snaking out from the cracks.
Adam, an assistant principal from Texas whom we’d met earlier on the trail soon arrived and was happy to pose for photos with the copperheads. The two guys from Wolf Laurel Top also came through as we were watching the snakes and declared us to be the snake charmers. While observing the creatures I couldn’t help but wonder why snakes are so scary and startling yet so beautiful and alluring to watch. With my coke and snickers bar consumed and fascination finally dwindling, we started to proceed on the trail. One of my favorite photos I took is a picture of the coke and snickers sitting on the rock trail with the rocky copperhead den in the background. I’ve captioned it as “things that never go into my body next to things that should never be near my body.” Gladiator caught up with us after a few minutes, again surprised to find us already. I told him about the copperheads and he delightedly dropped his pack, grabbed his camera, and went trotting back up the slope to get some pictures for himself.
The trail immediately after Cowrock Mountain drops 600 feet in elevation over less than a mile winding up at Tesnatee Gap. For non hikers, that translates to a steep downhill. No matter what we did, today felt slow; we ached and felt the exhaustion. From Tesnatee Gap it’s another sharp uphill to Wildcat Mountain before the trail finally levels off some with minor ups and downs. Regrouped with Gladiator we hiked down into Hogpen Gap, where we’d stop to rest again and filter water at the stream located a ridiculous distance from the road. It was here that I realized how swollen my knew was becoming. Pressing on, only minutes from Hogpen Gap it started to pour. And it poured torrential proportions. The trail turned into a river and it became nearly impossible to walk on any part that wasn’t drowning in water or sloshing in mud. It didn’t take long before my shoes became soaked. Not only was I worried about my knees, I was now worrying about how disastrous my feet were going to be from wet socks and blisters, as I could feel the skin pruning and rubbing raw. I was certain my feet were going to look like pickled ginger by the end of the day. Gladiator picked up his pace and we separated. We’d see him one last time on this trail.
A giant downed tree blocked our path and it seemed to leach all of our energy as we maneuvered our way through the limbs with our packs. Have you ever tried to squat and duck and crawl with a 30lb pack on your back? It’s not easy. On a rare gentle downhill we walked up on Gladiator who was taking another break. He let us know that we were 2.2 miles away from Low Gap Shelter, our intended destination for the evening. He packed up and headed out with some encouraging words and cheerfully said “See you there!” Scout and I set our packs down to reassess our situation. It had taken us two and a half hours to cover the 2.4 miles from Hogpen Gap to our current location, and we had another 2.2 miles to go. We looked at each other and in almost simultaneous desperation, called it. We both wanted off the trail. Both my knees were swollen, one twice the size it should be. Scout was having a gall bladder attack and feeling chest pains in addition to a knee starting to complain. Scout asked me what our options were as I whipped out my map and did some quick calculations. We had a few options to consider. We could continue to the shelter tonight and get off the trail tomorrow, with either a 4.6 mile backtrack to Hogpen Gap, or finishing at Unicoi Gap, another 14 miles away and our intended destination the following evening. Or we could say a quick prayer, hope for a cell signal, and see if our original shuttle driver and trail angel Ron could retrieve us yet that evening if we backtracked to where we’d just been at Hogpen Gap.
Once the idea had been planted that we were getting off of the trail, the choice was obvious. We wanted off, and we wanted off that evening. We created some trail magic of our own with an astonishing rate at how the end of the trail came about in such a short period of time. Cell signal doesn’t really exist in the forest, and coverage had been spotty this entire trip. But hiking a mere 50 yards back up the trail I had enough signal to call Ron. He answered, which is a miracle on its own, as he’s most often on mountain roads with no coverage. I told him where we were and asked him what our options were. He said he couldn’t get us the next day no matter where we made it to. I asked him about retrieving us yet that night, and he said he had an hour window before picking up his next shuttle client. One Hour. I told him we’d make it. Yelling back down the mountain to Scout, I told her to get her pack on and that we’d have to kick it in gear. She looked at me in disbelief. Her chest pain was flaring, my knee wasn’t bending correctly, but we took off like cheetahs. At the top of the hill I did another quick calculation and conceded that we probably couldn’t make it in an hour. It had taken us 2.5 hours to get to where we were from Hogpen. Granted, it had been pouring most of that time and the rain had now finally stopped, but I still didn’t think we could safely make it. I called Ron back, feeling the disappointment and desperation setting in.
- “I don’t think we can safely make it within the hour.”
- Ron: “How long do you think it would realistically take you?”
- Always the realist, I replied: “Since it’s not raining, I think we can make it in an hour and fifteen minutes, but I’m going to say an hour and a half to be safe. We have swollen knees, heavy packs, wet feet, and a gall bladder attack happening. We’re exhausted. If you can’t make it, we understand, and we’ll try to find a shuttle driver for tomorrow.”
- Ron: “I’m on my way to Hogpen and will be there waiting for you. I’ll call my next client and tell him I’m running late. Get there safely and I’ll see you gals soon.”
Ron’s ray of hope was the awakening we needed. We set a pace like never before, singing songs, hollering encouragement at each other, racing along like two limping hunchbacks of the Appalachian Trail.
Nature also blessed us as we mad dashed through the woods. We hadn’t seen the sun in days, but on our rapid race out of the forest the sun appeared, filtering through the canopy of leaves, shining down brilliant beams and lighting our way. And after hearing birds for days but never seeing any, a scarlet tanager appeared on the trail in front of us, flying into a tree nearby as we approached. We knew in our souls that we had made the right decision.
Beyond miraculous, even with stopping a few times to take photos, we backtracked that 2.4 miles in 55 minutes, feeling elated at the sight of Ron’s Toyota. I don’t know how we did it other than sheer motivation at getting off the trail. Our purpose on it had been served and we knew we were done for this part of the journey. Ron happily greeted us with hugs and lollipops and took us on a scenic drive back to our car, pausing several times to point out the mountains in the distance we had just conquered. He truly was the best trail angel we could ever have hoped for. Once we had cell signal again I also messaged Gladiator to let him know that we’d gotten off the trail and wouldn’t be seeing him at the shelter. I suspected he might worry if we just didn’t show up, and was glad we’d exchanged info the night before. We’d see him again, two nights later, when he reached Dick’s Creek Gap and we’d retrieve him for a memorable evening over dinner and drinks.
There’s a funny thing that happens when you’ve done a hike like this and finally are at the end. A weird combination of feelings emerge… the hatred, the determination, the challenge, the love, the nostalgia, the joy at leaving…. it’s overwhelming at times, and hard to process. And unless you’ve experienced it, the Appalachian Trail in any section, I’m not sure it’s something that can even be adequately explained. At least not by me. I’ll leave that for someone who is more gifted in writing than I.
What I do know is this. We hiked 45 miles almost exactly (45.2 for those who are slightly OCD like I am), over 4 days through a tropical storm over some of the most grueling terrain I’ve ever encountered. And I’ve hiked a lot of trails from the countless places in California, Oregon and Washington, to the Rocky Mountains, to volcanoes in El Salvador. Georgia is not for the weak. It is only for those strong in spirit and body, ready for a challenge and an adventure. In the end, we decided to listen to our bodies and called this journey done a couple of days early. It was time to get off of the trail. We navigated both timber rattlers and copperhead snakes and countless other things that weren’t friendly. We feel accomplished with what we’ve done, have laughed in delirium, cursed the boulder filled trail, and met some amazing people. What a journey. And I can’t imagine having done this with anyone other than my Scout.