Day 3 on the AT.
Blood Mountain and Longest Day.
Friday, June 23.
Trail: Gooch Mountain Shelter to Neel Gap
Distance: 16 miles
We woke up to a small Appalachian Trail miracle – no rain! We were highly motivated with magic words and thoughts of a shower, bed, and booze, and so we set off with the mentality that we were going to conquer this 16 mile day.
Today was a confusing combination of both heaven and hell. It was both a grueling and beautiful day. After being blanketed for the last two days by tree cover that surrounded our bodies and minds, we finally were rewarded with some wondrous views of the rolling green and blue colored mountains. Stepping out into the openness felt like I was lifting my face for the first time since starting this journey.
We would crisscross paths with the two German kids most of the day. They set out ahead of us this morning, but we’d find them on the trail, taking a break, or waiting to show us something. The first time they stopped for us my stranger-danger paranoid trail companion was on high alert, and when they told her they were waiting to show us deer, she was unimpressed as we have plenty of those in Kansas, and she kept us moving along. I later learned they had actually seen bears – a mama and a cub – and they were waiting to show us the bears. They sound the same, especially with a German accent, right? Sure would have liked to have seen those bears. Foot Powder told me at the hostel, “We were waiting to show you the bears, but you gals seemed in a hurry.” If only you knew, Foot Powder, you-sweet-19-year-old-kid-you, if only you knew.
We would also meet a few locals, who would observe our massive backpacks and ask us where we’d started, and where we hoped to get to. When we’d tell them our plan of reaching Neel Gap by evening they’d look at us like we were a little crazy and try to encourage us to embrace a different option. Being Kansas born-and-raised, we took their dissuasion as a challenge and decided they simply didn’t know how determined, strong and tenacious Kansas gals can be.
When Woody Gap came into view we nearly squealed and rejoiced at the sight of one of the most marvelous modern day creations: a trash can. It’s the little things in life. And when you’re practicing the “Leave No Trace” principle of hiking, it’s a glorious moment when you can finally dump the contents of your bag and remove the trash that you’ve been carrying around for miles. What goes into the forest with us must come out of the forest with us.
(above: water sources on the AT)
At Woody Gap we also encountered our first real trail magic, with a kind man offering us some beer. We declined, as both of us try to remain gluten-free, but beyond that, we didn’t want to carry the extra weight. There was an abundance of tourists at Woody Gap who were stopping to see the views and hike to Preacher’s Rock, and stepping off of the trail and onto asphalt was one of the most disorienting feelings. My feet weren’t quite sure how to respond to flat, stable ground.
Trash disposed of and packs rearranged, we continued on our journey for the day, hiking up Big Cedar Mountain to the rock ledges and alluring views. Scout wanted to stop and enjoy the landscape for a while but since we’d just stopped at Woody Gap for a fairly lengthy rest, I pushed us on after a few minutes, knowing what was still ahead of us according to the map. We met the North Carolina Three on top of Preacher’s Rock and our paths would intersect the remainder of the day, merging at Neel Gap for the night until we’d eventually part ways the next day.
Along the trail a giant tree fell not too far from the path, which made us realize we not only had to be wary of deadly snakes, poisonous plants, and mama bears, but trees were also out to kill us on this journey of ours.
(above left: Blood Mountain Wilderness sign)
We stopped at Lance Creek to filter water and take a break. At this point we had 8.5 miles down and 7 still to go. Our legs felt like jello after the last mile, but we were slaying this trail today. It helps that we have figured out our water consumption needs and have plenty of water sources along today’s path, eliminating the rookie mistake of carrying more water (and weight) than necessary.
Lance Creek is also the base of Blood Mountain and the point at which we begin the rising ascent. Contrary to popular belief by looking at a map, it is not a gradual incline. At least it certainly didn’t feel gradual. We paused at Slaughter Creek Trail to filter more water with the intention of a longer rest and eating some food, but due to my hatred of all things insect related and they’re obsessive love for me, we didn’t stay long because I was getting swarmed.
Onward and upward. It was a brutal path to get to the top, covered with a multitude of rock sections that were either smooth and slick or giant boulders that needed scaled. Thankfully, Blood Mountain was one of the more rewarding views we’d have on this journey. The panorama from the summit was glorious, and the stone shelter was beautiful, perched high upon the mountain. We summited along with Gladiator who took our photos and enjoyed the vista with us before we started back on the path leading down to Neel Gap.
(above right: coming up to Blood Mountain Shelter and summit)
Snake sighting today was the every lovely venomous viper known as the Timber Rattlesnake. We had barely started on the trail’s descent when I heard Scout yelling my name and rapidly racing back up the trail.
- “There’s a snake, a snake, a snake…”
- Me: “What kind of snake?”
- “The bad kind of snake.”
- Me: “Which one?”
- “Pretty sure it’s the Timber Rattler.”
- Me: “Holy S&#t! Is it safe for me to go check it out and get pictures?”
- “Sure! It’s out there on the rock in the middle of the trail.”
(above: do you see the timber rattler?)
So I gingerly started down the curvy path but didn’t spot the snake in any obvious locations. The rocky artery was flanked on both sides with shrubbery and overgrowth acting as a barricade for anyone ever considering a detour. Fear kicked in and I was nearly yelling at Scout to find out how far she’d gone because by this point I was starting to freak out with not knowing where the creature was and envisioning it coiled up within inches of me. Just as I was about to keep going and step over a rock ledge, I saw the rattle sticking up and jutting out from underneath. Sure enough, a timber rattler, and a good sized one, at that. With nothing else to do but stand still and watch it as it moved itself off the trail and into the bushes, Gladiator came up from behind us, surprised to find us so soon and wondering what we were doing. He was thrilled when we told him what we were watching, and came close to get some photos of his own. We all watched it move off the trail until we deemed it safe to pass by and continued on our way dropping down into the tree line and continuing into the pits of craggy hell.
(above: the blazes moved to the rock trail; the path descended into that hole in the trees)
The trail, if you can even call it that, soon became littered with bouldered giant rocks of massive proportions and it was like the gods just dumped a bunch of rubble into the mountainside. The trail was excruciatingly slow-going on the down hill, trying to be safe and sure of our footing. At one point Scout looked up at the path, exasperated, and proclaimed “What in the actual F&#! is this?” We burst out laughing in delirium and exhaustion, and of course, I told her to smile so I could take a picture of the insanity. This was fun, right?!
(above left: that white mark on the tree? That’s the blaze indicating the trail)
Along this section we met Scott, who was a chatty local hiking up to do some trail maintenance. I think he would have talked for an hour if we’d have let him, but I was already exhausted, had no energy to spare with being social, and prodded Scout along. Self-preservation for a true Introvert. Plus, we were standing on some very awkward boulders as we introduced ourselves and made small talk, and I was really wanting some level ground. This challenging section lasted nearly a mile, before it finally smoothed out and descended into Neel Gap.
(above: Erin on top of a boulder; descending into Neel Gap)
I have very little recollection of how we got off that mountain, and somewhere in the last mile I lost my smile. Sixteen miles of grueling trail and I was simply spent. Scout seemed to get more and more jubilant the closer we got to Neel Gap, as she was incredibly motivated by getting to hitch a ride into town for provisions. We dumped our packs, claimed our plastic covered mattress beds, I kicked off my boots, and I sat in a stoned-like trance trying to figure out if I even had enough energy to eat. Scout went into town with Gladiator and Achilles to get food and adult beverages, I took a shower, and by the time food arrived, I was ready to consume an entire gluten-filled dairy-addicting large pizza all on my own. I also had Scout pick me up something I never buy at home: Coke. Oh my word. It was like being reunited with a drug that would turn me into a sugar-consuming gluten-loving junkie. This was the beginning of my descent into nutrition purgatory as I continued to consume things I never should for the next several days. Coke? Yes, please. And I’ll have a Snickers candy bar to go with that. In fact, make it two…
We had a fun night sitting around a bizarrely low table, pulling up anything that resembled a chair, talking and getting to know each other over pizza, beer, wine, and coke. We enjoyed hearing how the German boys “almost” have girlfriends back home, laughed at how resistant they are to medical suggestions (Achilles has achilles-tendinitis), and were all thoroughly entertained to watch Scout drink wine straight from the bottle. Who needs glasses? Oh wait… there weren’t any around.
Even though the hostel was less than ideal conditions, it was nice to be inside, out of the pouring rain which had started back up, laughing with our new friends, and feeling a little badass for conquering the day.
There was a lot of trail cussing today. It was the most hideous trail, the hardest miles, the most mentally challenging path I’ve ever been on. I later found a note I had jotted down on my phone, summarizing the first three days so far: “For those thinking of doing this, be warned that there are very few straight and level, gentle paths. You are either climbing up or creeping down.” A friend of mine who has hiked the majority of the Tennessee AT section summed it up best by saying, “It was the most miserable experience with moments of beauty. I didn’t come back changed, just really appreciative of things.”
Yep. I’m feeling the same way.