Posts Tagged With: Georgia

Final Musings of the GA AT

 

Sometimes it’s hard for me to reflect upon a trip and come up with words to adequately and accurately describe the experience to others. Experiences are living memories. People say, “Tell me all about it.” But in reality you’re trying to describe days, weeks, or even months in just a few minutes, and you realize that the experiences you have cherished, the ones that imprinted on your heart, are yours, and yours alone. They are the ones that made your life yours, and they are only relevant to you. (thought stolen from Ellie Cleary, Elephant Journal)

In an attempt to wrap up the AT posts, I’ve been reflecting on things that went well, things I’m glad I did, and things I would have liked to have done differently.

 

Trail Concerns: Were they Validated or Unwarranted? My top concerns prior to leaving for the trail included poisonous snakes, ticks (which are just the sickest creatures on the planet), spiders (Satan’s pets), mosquitoes, peeing in the woods after dark, leg stamina, and mental health. Oh… and always having enough water.

Secondary concerns included blisters, torrential rain, wet packs and tents, knees surviving, not killing my companions, and the heat/humidity.

In reflection, I’d say that my concerns were all valid. While I somehow escaped entanglement with Satan’s Arachnid Army, I did encounter poisonous snakes and watched a rather nasty spider try to attach itself to Scout’s backpack while navigating a downed tree. Surprisingly I did not encounter ticks (although Permethrin probably helped out here) and oddly escaped any blood-sucking mosquitoes (thank you rain). I only felt slightly panicked peeing in the dark, and somehow came through the trail with enough water and my physical and mental health in tact. Mostly. I did leave the trail with a couple of blisters and a swollen knee and hiked in torrential rain, but thankfully the Osprey cover kept my pack completely dry.

 

When I said yes to this trip I was under the impression that those I was joining had done something like this before. That was a false assumption which launched me into an insane amount of planning and a massive learning curve. The more I know the better I feel. That may not translate to practicality in the real world, but it’s how I tackle unknowns. The best way to conquer concerns, for me anyway, is to plan and learn as much as possible.

Conclusion? I’m glad I thought through so many different scenarios, so that I could be as prepared as I was. Although I still maintain that nothing could adequately prepare you for the AT.

 

Food. Did I make the right choices? Was it tasty? Was I starving or satisfied? I have specific food parameters I try to follow. I’ve been a vegetarian for several years, but I also usually eat gluten-free and dairy-free, and try to avoid most soy. I don’t put things in my body with ingredients I can’t pronounce. This makes backpacking a slight challenge. I really deliberated over what foods to take, how much, considered the weight of items, and paired it down. I was really happy with the Good-to-Go dehydrated food options, particularly the pasta. It really hit the spot. Amrita bars? If I never see another one of those it’ll be too soon. Kind bars are still my go-to and hit the sweet spot for me. Gluten-free pretzels were delicious in my trail mix but became slightly stale after a few days. I ate them anyway. By night three, we were at Neel Gap and had the opportunity to go into town for normal food. It’s amazing how after just three days on the trail all food parameters went completely out the window. Did I want some wine? Nope. I can drink that anytime back home. But I never buy soda at home. Or eat things like candy bars. I bet I haven’t had a real candy bar in over 7 years. Guess what my order included…

Conclusion? It’s okay to eat things you normally wouldn’t when you’re doing something you normally don’t. Each bite of that pizza, each nibble of that snickers bar, and each swig of that coke took me a little bit closer to nirvana. And Hiker Hunger? That’s a real thing. It’s indicated by eating anything in sight, or when you go out to breakfast and then immediately drive to a second place for lunch. Not that we did that.

Lessons and Observations.

Slow down and enjoy the scenery a little more. This is also known as the hiker’s rule of “take the time to actually see what you see.” I had problems keeping my mind in the present on this trip. For the first time ever while hiking, I felt it difficult to relax and enjoy what I was doing. This made it challenging to stop and actually see what was in front of me, other than to see it as a challenge. In hindsight, I wish I would have stopped at the rare overlooks more and taken longer rests to enjoy the views that I’d worked hard to get to. I loved watching the blue butterflies in several locations, the snails clinging to giant leaves or sides of trees, the variety of colors in the mushrooms, the trickling water or babbling streams we’d discover as water sources, the way the light filters through the leaves and how the fog wraps you in a mystical hug, the countless variances in the types of trail and the rolling mountains that would eventually come into view. I saw a lot. But I know I could have seen more.

I’m a slow-to-warm-up person. Perhaps this is why I didn’t love the trail. I wasn’t on it long enough to find my comfort level, and I was too focused on the end point for each day, forgetting to stop more and enjoy the journey that got me there.

 

Don’t just see the trail, listen to it. You’ll be amazed at what you hear. The sounds on the trail are soothing. Total silence. Until you hear the slight rustling of the leaves. Then birds singing and chirping, owls hooting in the distance, the sound of rain falling and the wind blowing in the trees, allowing droplets to escape down. There’s a unique sound that’s made when the rain rolls through high above, bathing the leaves which provided protection for us walking below. The sounds your boots make as they’re thudding along on the trail, or the sound of your trekking poles digging into the rock to help you scramble upward. The internal groans your body makes on a steep descent down. The sounds on a trail are some of my favorite things.

 

Hike Your Own Hike with an open mind. We started out as a group of four. We were soon separated into pairs, which we assumed would happen based on our varying degrees of preparation for the trail. We hiked our own hike. They hiked theirs. One is not better than the other. Had we all stayed together, the experiences, the people we met, and the memories would be completely altered. Best laid plans are meant to be changed and altered.

Side Thoughts from the Trail.

  • Two is better than one. This applies to carrying an extra water bottle which was put to good use when Scout’s only bottle cracked on day one and I could give her my spare. It’s also true for hiking with a friend. Just make sure it’s a good friend.
  • Lighten the load. My world started revolving around ounces. Yes, it seems ridiculous, but those ounces add up. I’m still trying to figure out how to lighten the load of what I consider “essentials” but two areas I could have cut weight on were items that seem counterintuitive. Yet… water and food make up a huge portion of the load. By day two I felt comfortable in calculating my reasonable drinking rates with knowing where the water sources were, thus reducing the amount I was traipsing through the woods with. I also could have taken slightly less food, because on days one and two my body was in complete shock and I really wasn’t that hungry. I had to force myself to eat, and even then, didn’t consume all of my food for those particular days. Any hike lasting longer than 4 days could also utilize the use of a food-resupply station, which would have reduced weight as well. As for those essentials? I’m still contemplating what of those could be left behind.
  • If you want to earn a possible trail name of “Bear Bait” then bring along some packets of tuna or salmon. Our hotel room the first night smelled particularly aromatic when we discovered that Scout’s salmon packets had leaked during the flight and coated many things in the enticing salmon fragrance, leading us to wonder if this was really the secret to ensuring a bear encounter.
  • The more distance you have from a point in time, the easier it is to romanticize the experience. Blood Mountain doesn’t seem so challenging now that we’re several weeks removed from crawling over the miles. It’s a good thing I wrote down this quote from Scout: “I would do anything for you, but if you tell me I have to do Blood Mountain with you again, you are no longer my friend.”

 

As someone stated in the Appalachian Trail Women’s Facebook group, “The trail dished us a heavy side of suck alongside the smiles and coveted views.” It did, indeed. But we embraced the suck. And if you pause long enough to really absorb your surroundings, you’ll also discover abundant life everywhere on the trail, in both the grandeur and the small. You’ll also meet some really interesting people along the way, all of whom are woven into your unique experiences.

 

The characters from the trail that are intertwined into my memories include Captain Blue (aka Gladiator), the German kids Achilles and Foot Powder, Alan and Lemonade Stan, overly helpful Jonathon, the North Carolina Three, Adam the assistant principal from Texas, the two guys from the last day whose names I never got, the trail angel at Woody Gap offering us beer, Scott on Blood Mountain, Jason and Splitter at Neel Gap, Tina and Rob and the Far-Side character at the Hiawassee Lodge, and Ron, our shuttle driver and rescuer.

 

Christopher McCandless, an American Explorer and whom the book “Into the Wild” is based on, stated, “The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” Adventure is what drives us, challenges us, changes us, and makes us appreciative.

Happy Trails

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Categories: Appalachian Trail | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Day Four on the GA AT

 

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.

Happy Trails!

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Day Three on the GA AT

 

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.

Happy Trails.

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Day 2 on the GA AT

 

The Day of the Ass Kickers.
Date: Thursday, June 22.
Trail: Hawk Mountain Shelter to Gooch Mountain Shelter
Distance: 8.0 miles

I’m pretty certain that Tropical Storm Cindy is trying to drown us. It poured rain all night long, and most of the day. After transferring our items to the shelter area so that we could repack and load up our gear we headed down to the water source to filter water for the day. Our friendly helper Jonathon was nowhere in sight, but we accomplished finding the “good water source” just fine on our own. I discovered how slippery a mud bank can be in the pouring rain, and not-so-gracefully took a mud slide just to round out the perfect morning.

 

Everything on the trail revolves around water. Where’s the next water source? Is it reliable? If not, how much do I have to carry? Today’s trail would involve a stretch of 7 miles over lots of PUDs (pointless up and down mountains) with no water sources. It was reasonable to expect that the army resupply truck would be at Cooper Gap, but we also knew not to rely upon that. Water collected, water filtered, water stored in the backpack. Ready for the day.

 

There are two weather elements that I love: a light rain and calming fog. I’ve never minded hiking in the rain. In Georgia, that meant that the bugs were away, the ticks weren’t out, the mosquitoes weren’t draining my blood, and the temperatures were cooler. I love the sounds of raindrops falling above in the tree canopy, bathing the world. And I love the fog. The demands to focus only on the present, the mystery it creates, the muffled quiet that blankets the earth. How it creates a magical passageway along the trail.

 

Ron had told us yesterday morning that after the end of the first day, the “vacation would be over.” He said day two was going to include a lot of ass kickers, and he was absolutely correct. The Georgia mountains were insanely hard today. Slick wet rocks on a steep trail made it grueling going up and treacherous going down. It didn’t help that at one point on a steep inclination the path diverged and no blaze was in sight. Scout thankfully picked correctly, and relief set in as a white blaze eventually came into view. At some point on a particularly boulderish area, I started yelling and hollering. “Whooo hoooo! We’re on the AT!!! Isn’t this fuuuun?!?” I’m pretty sure Erin thought I was losing it… and maybe I was, but I just needed to create a temporary break in the insane concentration it was requiring to put one foot in front of the other, and the hysterical laughing that ensued was good for our souls.

 

The trail was unrelenting in its steep climbs and sharp descents, unrewarding with no views for all the efforts that were being made. After countless vertical plunges and gains, we reached Cooper Gap and sat for a break. The army resupply truck had moved on, but we thankfully had enough water. Being the Navigator, I pulled out my map to see what kind of hell still awaited us.

Hey, Scout. You’re gonna be really excited about what I just figured out.”
Scout looked at me skeptically, not sure if I was being serious or sarcastic. “Really? What?!
You’re gonna be really excited by this news...”
Scout: “You’d better not be f%#king with me…
We just crossed Sassafras!!!!

 

Without even realizing it, we had triumphed over Sassafras Mountain. There’s a saying by locals: Sassafras kicked my ass. It’s also known as “kick-my-assafras.” You get the point. The F bomb was used countless times by both of us during the past 4.5 miles and we were elated to realize we had this beastly section behind us instead of in front of us.

 

At Cooper Gap it stopped raining and the trail finally became pleasant to be on, varying the views with twisty trees and vibrant green vegetation. The Justus Creek Campground area was an oasis with a flowing stream framed by beautiful trees and it beckoned us to rest. We stopped to filter more water, enjoying the sounds of the bubbling creek, watching little blue butterflies floating nearby and listening to the birds chirping high above. This was one of my favorite spots on the trail. Simplistic peace.

 

Today’s snake sighting was the Eastern Garter Snake. I nearly stepped on it which about caused a heart attack. As my foot was getting ready to land I realized there was a coiled snake in my step. Since I didn’t identify it in a split second, I thought my heart skipped a beat in fear it might be a rattler. It was rather pretty as it sat coiled, playing a game of flinch with me as I crept close enough to get some pictures of it.

We arrived at Gooch Mountain Shelter and had the place to ourselves for a while which felt luxurious. This meant we’d be able to sleep in the shelter instead the crazy small tent. We unpacked our bags, hung up wet gear to dry, and used the picnic table to try and sort our lives that had been reduced to items that fit in a large backpack. A couple of hours later two 19-year-old German kids joined us, both of whom were carrying a ridiculous amount of items in their packs, making them equipped for anything that ranged from needing an axe to bury a body to giving Emeril a run for his money in a campground cooking competition. Foot Powder and Achilles would be our companions for the next day and night, along with Captain Blue, who was next to arrive at the shelter. We eventually renamed Captain Blue to Gladiator, because he has done the AT four times and he slays the trail like no one else. Gladiator is an outdoor adventure expert and felt like a kindred spirit. A calming presence entered camp the moment he arrived. Another hour later we were joined by Faith and Dreamweaver, as well as Stan and Alan from the previous night.

 

I haven’t been drinking or eating enough, and am exhausted and dehydrated. I am forcing food because I know I need it. Physically, I’m surprisingly feeling pretty good after all the strenuous miles. I have some tender spots on my feet and body but that’s to be expected. Thankfully, no blisters so far. Collectively, the four Kansans have decided to split up the next day. Faith and Dreamweaver are wanting to go slower, only doing around 5-8 miles a day, and Scout and I are hoping to make it back to the rental car on schedule. That means a lot of longer mileage days for the two of us. We are embracing the hike-your-own-hike philosophy.

 

The night would be another restless night. It feels like the jungle it’s so humid. I can honestly make that comparison, because I’ve been to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador and stayed several nights with no air condition. In addition to the humidity, we also realized we were sleeping with mice. Mice have never been creatures that bother me, but I certainly don’t want one completing a marathon around or over my body. Battling paranoia over a mouse joining one of us in our sleeping bags, trying to drown out Alan’s insane decibel snoring level, a giggle fest around 12:30a at the absurdity of our situation, a mouse running in close proximity to my head, a major thunderstorm and down pouring rain… there just wasn’t a lot of sleep to be had. Did I mention it was excruciatingly humid?? There is just no way to get comfortable out here. I try to stay focused on the positives: I am dry. I am not sleeping in a tiny tent. Mice are not the worst things I could encounter out here. I have slept in more humid conditions than my current situation. I will survive this.

 

Gladiator said over dinner, “Everyone has different goals on a hike.” That is such a simple yet absolutely true statement. It’s important to know your goal so you can hike your own hike. I’m not sure I went into this trail with a clearly defined goal; certainly nothing profound or life-changing. I wanted to experience my first multi-day hike. I wanted to see a new part of the country I hadn’t yet hiked in. I wanted to see if I could push my physical boundaries while putting one foot in front of the other. Ultimately, I wanted to try something new, because it’s only through new experiences and challenges that we really learn more about ourselves.

 

Today we hiked just 8.0 miles. It was a shorter distance day but possibly one of the more grueling days. We know that tomorrow won’t be any easier, as we’re hoping to double the distance and tackle a difficult 16 miles to make it to Neel Gap and the hostel. Motivation is high when it comes to magical words like “shower” and “bed” and “pizza” and “beer.” And when there’s motivation like that, I don’t think there’s any stopping us.

Happy Trails.

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Day One on the GA AT

 

Date: Wednesday, June 21.
Trail: Springer Mountain to Hawk Mountain Shelter.
Distance: 9.5 miles.

I started this trip exhausted. Probably not the best way to start, but I hadn’t slept well in weeks. No matter how much planning and preparation had been done, and no matter how much Tulsi Holy Basil I consumed, I could not seem to shut down my subconscious mind and the anxious feelings I had about my first ever multi-day hike. The rainy and balmy morning in Hiawassee as we packed up our final bits of gear did nothing to calm my nerves.

 

We drove to Dick’s Creek Gap where we’d leave the rental car and meet Ron, our shuttle driver to Springer Mountain. Ron jubilantly drove up, loaded our packs, and off we went…. the point of no return quickly disappearing with a backward glance at the car. Flowing from Ron’s lips in a torrential flood was all of his years of local knowledge and experiences, which left us feeling thoroughly terrified of what was to come. Four Kansas girls rode in the Rav4 trying to absorb as much as possible, in hopes we each could remember the key things that seemed to be high on the life saving scale. I think we were all wondering if we were really going to die.

Truly, Ron is an amazing informant… however, after the onslaught of information during our two hour drive we had little confidence of making it to North Carolina, let alone surviving the first day. By the time we reached our starting point we were all just hoping we’d make it to Neel Gap. Ron offered us some encouragement and comfort, insisting we check in with him when we got off the trail so he’d know we were okay. He likes to keep track of “his” hikers. This trail angel, sporting glasses and a mustache driving a trusty Toyota, also assured us that if we needed to get off of the trail early, for any reason, he’d either come find us or help us locate another trusted driver. Ron was the best find for this whole trip.

 

Once we were dropped off, we became a SOBO hiker for one mile. That’s “South Bound” hiking, for non hikers who are wondering. The southern terminus is not accessible by a road or parking lot, and so hikers must go south for one mile to the famous plaque and official start of the Appalachian Trail, unless you decide to come from the difficult and lengthy approach trail through Amicolala State Park. We had opted for the shorter option, hiking south for the first mile, feeling excited and accomplished upon reaching the spot that thousands of people have traversed, taking the required photos before turning around and officially becoming a NOBO (north bound) section hiker. That first mile should have been an indication of what was to come, but we were too euphoric for the implications of the rocky terrain to really sink in. There were too many beautiful trees and blooming flowers and colorful mushrooms and adorable snails to keep us distracted from the reality of what was to come. Ignorance and distraction are bliss. If only that bliss could have lasted!

 

Along the day’s trail we crossed over a footbridge at Three Forks and a dirt road which led to a cemetery, pausing a moment to wonder how many spirits might be roaming the trail with us. This is a trail, after all, that has seen some horrible battles – places like “Slaughter Creek” don’t get named for the warm and fuzzy moments in history. We took a small detour at the blue marker to see Long Creek Falls which was well worth the minor deviation.

 

Every day on the trail would bring a snake sighting for me. Perhaps I should embrace my Chinese Zodiac and feel more at peace with the slithering creatures, but so far, they succeed in startling me almost every time. Because it was rainy and somewhat cool in the sun’s absence I wasn’t expecting a little black snake to be occupying space in the same area as my intended footstep. At least it was harmless.

The first day felt strenuous. Perhaps it’s because the first day of any trip is always the most tiring. I mean, Lao Tzu even says that “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Starting can be hard. Maybe that first day felt challenging because the pack was at its heaviest, and we were carrying too much water due to unfamiliarity with how much we’d really be consuming between water sources. Possibly it’s because I was exhausted and sleep deprived going into the day. Or could it be due to the thousands of boulders and rocks I hiked across before reaching the shelter and campground? Whatever the reasons, the day was tiring. My left hip hurt the majority of the miles and my feet were really fatigued by day’s end. Thankfully I didn’t have blisters. But that hip? That would prove to be challenging the remainder of my time on the trail, eventually causing my knee to swell. But those are details for a different day’s summary.

 

We reached Hawk Mountain Shelter for the night, utterly exhausted, and met Jonathon, Stan, and Alan, three guys who we thought were traveling together, but came to realize they’d also only just met. We would meet a lot of different characters in our short time in Georgia, and that’s part of what makes the trail special. Our lives would never have intertwined without this crazy Appalachian Trail.

 

After unloading our packs and setting up the tent, we made our dinner and drank the small bottles of wine we’d carried. Not because we wanted the alcohol, but because we no longer wanted to carry the weight. I now think in terms of ounces, and every ounce counts. By 8pm I was needing sleep, so we climbed into the most ridiculously small tent that two people every tried to occupy. It’s a good thing I love my friend dearly.

 

Despite the exhaustion, the night would not permit much rest. One thing I learned about my friend on this trail: she has insane stranger danger paranoia. Many times throughout the night she’d whisper to me, “Do you hear that? There’s someone out there.” No, Erin. We are not sleeping with a murderer. But on second thought, maybe we were. Jonathon was a bit of an odd character and a little creepy at times. I didn’t get a bad vibe from him, and I’m usually really accurate at reading people. But he was a little too helpful which set off some red flags. It didn’t help that he was covered in tattoos… and not the “oh, that’s an awesome looking sleeve” but the kind that made us wonder what cell block he’d been on when he got those. Particularly the ones on his face. Jonathon insisted he was a converted Buddhist from Brooklyn, who felt called to help with trail maintenance out of the goodness of his heart. Yet he was not employed or associated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. He kept telling us when we were ready to find water that he’d show us “the good spot” to get the water from. Um, no thanks. I’ll locate it just fine on my own. He also refused to have any pictures taken, which started making us think he was hiding from something. And besides, what Buddhist doesn’t know of Thich Nhat Hanh? Apparently the Buddhist Jonathon isn’t well versed in the global leaders of mindfulness.

But I digress. Because we’re best friends, Erin and I had made a pact to pee together at night, in the brave stance of mitigating any potential night-time harm. Because that’s what best friends do, right? You pee together. In the dark. Bears, snakes, giant spiders, losing sight of the tent, Jonathon wandering around with a gun… let’s be honest. Peeing at night in the woods in a strange place is just downright scary. I mean, who knows what the heck was out there with me? And where did the damn tent go?!

 

In addition to my feverishly paranoid friend, the miniature sized tent, and pitch black pee excursions, we also had a moment with a claustrophobia attack, condensation build up from high humidity accompanied by pouring down rain, and a thunderstorm. Hawk Mountain Shelter transported its GPS coordinates to somewhere in the rainforest, I swear.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the middle-of-the-night wake up calls of machine guns and mortars. Because that’s exactly what one should expect on the Appalachian Trail, right? Thankfully our all-knowing trail angel Ron had let us know that the Army Rangers were possibly in the area doing covert training. This meant two things to us: if we heard the machine guns, we could possibly count on a water resupply tanker at Cooper Gap, breaking up the really long stretch of no water sources on the AT between Hawk Mountain and Justus Creek. It also meant that if we went to relieve ourselves in the woods, there could be a pair of eyes on us, without us even knowing. How comforting.

My friend’s fiancé gave us the theme for the trip: Embrace the Suck. It was a perfect theme.

Day 1 was the “easy day” and yet we were all hurting by nightfall. We embraced-the-suck when moments required us to do so. And honestly, given that Tropical Storm Cindy had moved into the area and the morning started out with heavy rain in Hiawassee, along the trail we surprisingly had a perfect weather day.

The day also brought about our trail names. My friend, who is always in the lead when we hike, was named Scout. I am Navigator, making the plans and reading the maps and knowing what’s ahead. Our other two trail companions are Faith and Dream Weaver. We would only be with them for part of the trip before Hiking our Own Hike and going our own pace, but we started together, and Embraced the Suck together, completing 9.5 miles on the first day.

Happy Trails.

Categories: Appalachian Trail | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NOBO Section Hike on the Georgia AT

 

I’m still trying to find an adjective that will accurately summarize how I feel about the 45 miles I hiked on the Appalachian Trail in Northern Georgia. Words seem to fail me. One of my friends offered me the word “Adventurous” – and that probably is as good of a descriptor as any.

I’m a realist. Most days I’m a positive realist, but on the Appalachian Trail, my positivity was probably absent from the realism during a lot of miles. I didn’t come home feeling like this was a life changing experience. I didn’t feel like it was the most fun or rewarding thing I’d ever done. But I also didn’t go into this trip with the expectations of either of those things. I knew it was going to be challenging. And it definitely was. It was probably the single most challenging thing I’ve ever done – both physically and mentally. No amount of preparation could have adequately gotten me ready for this trail, but I’m really glad I had trained as much as I had or I’d have probably quit on the first day.

Am I glad I did it? Yes. I enjoy challenging and pushing myself beyond my limits and seeing where I can grow. I enjoy physically knowing I can conquer just about anything I set my mind on. Do I hope to one day be able to section hike my way through completing the entire AT? Definitely no. I’d like to go back for another 2 nights and 3 days to finish the Georgia section, but if I never make it back to do that, I won’t lose any sleep over it. I feel proud of what we accomplished, the miles we put in, appreciate the new experiences I had, and am happy to say I still love my friend who I went on the trail with. However, this trail confirmed what I already suspected: I am firmly in the camp of happily being a day-hiker. That’s just what I like. I like a lodge and a bed and a hot shower at the end of a really long day on the trail. This doesn’t mean I’ll never camp or shelter sleep again – I’m certain I will. But I’m not longing to sleep in a cramped tent anytime soon.

There were so many questions that I worked through as I was planning this trip. Things I’d never before contemplated….

  • What is a gap?
  • What do I do with toilet paper?
  • Should I take a pee rag?

Logistics questions that took some pondering…

  • How do we get to the AT?
  • How do we get back to civilization?
  • Do we need shelter reservations/permits?
  • Can we pitch a tent anywhere?
  • Can I really do this?
  • How much food do I really need?
  • What kind of hiking shoes do I need?
  • How much is this trip actually costing me?!
  • What am I going to wear?
  • Do I need a bear bag for my food?

And topics that I wish I didn’t have to learn about or prepare for…

  • Ticks
  • Bears
  • Snakes – venomous vs “safe” ones
  • Bugs
  • Peeing at night
  • Poison ivy and poison oak

My vocabulary exploded with so many new acronyms…

  • Slackhacking
  • AT
  • Bald
  • NOBO/SOBO
  • Section Hiker
  • Trail Magic
  • Cat Hole
  • PUDs
  • LASHer

My skills have expanded to now read multiple kinds of maps and life-saving symbols. I’ve learned how to read blazes, what the different blaze markings mean, and the different colors for off-shooting or intersecting trails.

A friend asked me “what was the best part of the trip?” I really had to pause and think, and I’m still contemplating that question. My first answer was to say “Springer Mountain and the Southern Terminus.” Because it was only 1 mile into the trail, and I felt my strongest and freshest, and it was exciting to finally begin the adventure. But honestly, my favorite moment was probably the last 2.2 miles of the journey, when we had decided to end the trail. Not because I was finally getting off of the trail, but because of the way things lined up to make it happen. It was nothing short of miraculous, and for the first time, sun streamed through the trees providing sun beams as we raced those last two miles to make it to our exit point in time. There was a feeling of euphoria at both the beginning and the end.

That same friend also asked “what was the worst part of the trip?” This was easier for me to answer. My answer was “Somewhere on Sassafras Mountain.” Those pointless ups-and-downs (aka PUDs) and ass-kickers were brutal, and we didn’t even know we were on Sassafras, but at one point we lost the trail markers. That is the most uneasy feeling you can have out on the trail, thinking you’re going the wrong direction. While I distinctly remember struggling over those PUDS, the real answer was “Coming down from Blood Mountain.” I know it says Blood Mountain is a gradual incline, and comparatively to the 800 ft elevation gain in less than half a mile of Sassafras, it probably is gradual. But it didn’t feel gradual. And coming down felt just down right awful. Nearly 3/4 of a mile of giant Hercules-sized boulders to climb and scale and navigate along with sections of slick, sheer rock trails were enough to tax every ounce of reserve I had in my body. By the end of that 16 mile day, I was simply done. Somewhere on that last section of the trail I lost my smile, felt unsure of my legs and footing, and just wanted the day to end. That might have been the worst part of the trip for me.

Any trip is going to have high points and low points. And the further out from the trip we get, the more nostalgic we become. But I’m realistic enough to know that the words “that was the greatest trip ever” are not going to come out of my mouth. For a lot of reasons but also because I’ve had such spectacular trips to other places in my lifetime as well.

We conquered 45 miles of excruciatingly hard trails over the course of four days, hiking through Tropical Storm Cindy, making it from Springer Mountain to Hogpen Gap. We survived a lot of things that are designed to cause you harm or kill you: venomous snakes (both Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads), bears (we didn’t see them but they were around), poisonous plants, killer trees falling from the storms, torrential downpouring rain, thunder and lightning (and thus electrocution), and who knows what else. I am incredibly proud of what we accomplished, how we handled the trail and each other, and the decisions we made along the way. The trail doesn’t call to me… yet. And I do hope to finish those final few Georgia miles. But if it doesn’t happen, I’ll still be living with no regrets.

 

Happy Trails.

Categories: Appalachian Trail | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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