Thursday, March 28, 2013

First Half of the Smokies

Taking a zero at Fontana Dam was interesting. The "Village" is a strange place. Its a resort, so it felt uncomfortable. The hotel was having a hiker gathering, which wasn't much more than just a few events planned. One was watching the Life of Pi. Another was Rock Band. Both if these things were almost stressful in an overwhelming sense and most definitely uncomfortable. There is something about being off the trail that makes you want back on. Then again, when you are on the trail, there are obvious reasons you can't wait to get to town.

One of these things is snow. Rain is worse than snow, until snow begins to threaten your life.

The day I set out into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it was drizzling rain. I fretted for an hour or so over trying to get a shuttle into town to reprint a piece of paper saying I paid money and was allowed into the park. I never could get a ride so I set out hoping the receipt was enough. It was, thankfully, and I hiked on to a shelter for the night.

That first day in the park, walking in the misty rain, was really rough. My pack felt so heavy and I felt so weak. I was also alone for the first time since the early days and it was sad. Hermes, Detour, the Almighty D, Clever Girl, Dumptruck and Apollo were all back in the Village and Movie Star was a day aead. Not long after I hit the shelter the rain really started coming down. By morning it was a thick blanket of snow. Maineiac and I set out for a 15 miles day in it together. We had hitched back to the shelter from the village together and walked into the Smokies on the same day, so we had been in tandem for a while in AT time. There was a lot of counter encouragement between us, being positive just for the sake of the other. Walking in ankle deep snow, while its still snowing, kind of sucks.

We made it to our destination and I could tell by the hiker logs I had been reading all day that Movie Star was only 2 miles ahead of us at the next shelter, but there was no way we could go on. Just a bit earlier as we were hiking, about 100 yards from the shelter I told Maineiac I was over it. I was nearly in tears. So cold, such wet feet, starving. Ten more steps over a ridge we spied the shelter through the snow storm and it felt like a miracle. Two more miles seemed impossible.

I sent a note with some hikers who hadn't done so many miles up to Movie Star at the next shelter letting him know that we were on his heels and to meet us tomorrow to get into town. Slowly, the shelter Mainiac and I were in filled up with some of the same folks we had been with the night before. We all commiserated with one another and bonded over the spirit breaking day. The rain had been physically tough (mud, wet, and sweat) but the snow was emotionally and mentally straining on top of the usual freezing temps and wet feet slipping all over the place.

We woke up the next morning and it was still snowing. 24+ hours into a winter storm. The entire shelter banded together and waited for everyone to get ready to go and we all set out together to climb over Clingmans Dome to Newfound gap, where 441 to town was. Maineiac broke the trail for us all. The snow was knee deep in most places by the time I got to it and I can only guess it must have been waist deep for him multiple times based off of the snow drifts. Even with 8 or 9 people in tow, it was very trying.

Before we even got a quarter of a mile from the shelter a figure appears ahead of Maineiac heading south bound. It was Movie Star, who had back tacked nearly two miles with a warming for us. The road to Gatlinburg, 441, was close off until Thursday at the soonest, a whole two days away, and the last weather report said the snow wouldn't stop until Wednesday night, another 36 hours away. He also said the shelter he had come from was better insulated and had a closer, more reliable water resource. The caravan followed his tracks all the way back to the shelter he had come from and gathered around to deliberate.

Movie Star had heard of a side trail down off the mountain that several people had bailed out on which took you to Elkmont Campground (I remember many family camping trips there) but it was 12 miles down and there was no promise of a ride to town. Our other options were to push on and risk overcrowding he next shelter, or post up in the empty shelter we had just arrived at.

We opted to stay put and everyone pitched in to collect fire wood and we had a roaring fire in no time. So far the only good thing about the Smokies is the fire place in the shelters. My childhood memories of this being a magical place have been shattered.

We woke up the next day and for the first time in three days it wasn't snowing. It started Sunday night and on Wednesday morning, it finally stopped. Everyone headed out in groups hoping to get to Newfound Gap and get into town. The fact that the entire world around us looked like a winter wonderland of Narnia proportions barely registered because of the drudgery of walking through it all. Every other step is a corrective step to save you from slipping and falling because of the poorly placed step before.

Thankfully, as we finally scrambled up to the top of Clingman's Dome (the highest point in the AT) the sky opened up for the first time in days and we saw blue sky and sunshine. The full majesty of the snow laden landscape was shown before us as we saw a 360 degree view from the tower of the frozen over hell we had just come out of.

After a short time admiring, we set out for the gap another 6 miles or more away. I can't even explain how impossible and hopeless it feels to be walking like a drunken baby giraffe up and over snowy mountains for hours on end, but we eventually emerged, single file, 14 people strong, out of the depths of the artic and into the parking lot at Newfound Gap.

As we arrived, a snow plow driver told us the road had just been opened up, so we called a few shuttles and sat around in the sunshine waiting. Then the strangest thing began to happen. Slowly, cars began to trickle into the parking lot and children and grand parents and rotund couples began to meander about. They played in the snow and took pictures of the white capped mountains and some even asked to take pictures of us. It was so strange to see people frolicking in and gawking over what only a day before we had feared may have us stuck in a very dangerous situation.

Our shuttles came and pulled us back into the reality of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, if that's what you want to call this city. We all decided to zero here and recoup for a day but are headed back out into the snow tomorrow. I know it will be rough and suck a lot at many points, but with these people, living through this blip in history, I know I am living the dream; that this is what adventure means and this is what many of us came for. That and the beautiful people who push and pull you through it all.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Franklin, NC to Fontana Dam, NC

Time on the AT isnt measured in days like in regular life, its measured in miles. I walked out of my home state about 75 miles ago. I haven't worn a bra in about 50 miles. I'll be in the Smokies in about 10 miles.

That being said, I don't know the last time I updated except that it was in Franklin, NC. The day we got back in the trail, the terrain picked up again and the nice rolling laurel tunnels were no more.

A few miles after the drop off, Fresh Ground, who was providing trail magic at Woody Gap the day the Appalachian Shitstorm set in, was back to give us more and we all stopped for more of his wonderful food and spirit lifting energy.

Fresh Ground plans to follow this particular group of hiker as far up as he can and as we rolled up in the mid afternoon to stuff ourselves, he offered to make breakfast for anyone who stayed the night. The routine had been that by 5 or 6 most hikers were passed and he would clean up and prepare for the next day when they would start flowing in by 9 or 10. He was ready for a bit of company so Hermes and I and nearly 10 others camped in a rhododendron cove just beside the picnic area. That night we sat around the fire with an array of great characters. Clever Girl, Dumptruck, Apollo, and BP (broken pack) made for great new friends.

Unfortunately, Movie Star had gone on, missing the jiffy pop around the fire camaraderie because the food had done him too good to waste the energy on sitting around. The rest of us were captured by the idea of eggs and bacon.

Come morning, Fresh Ground had eggs and bacon on by dawn and a round of pancakes to top it off. It was a damp drizzly morning but I set off with a stomach of warm food. I took a break at the first shelter and discussed camping plans with Hermes. I was a bit down because it had been my first night on the AT not camping with Movie Star. I felt like I had lost a security blanket, even if I did still have Hermes, the other security blanket. So I put music in for the first time and realized that it is a hiking drug. I put down 10 miles by 1pm that day, in rain much of the way too, and as I strolled into the next shelter to stop for lunch, there was Movie Star. I berated him for being lazy and not making many miles and he questioned how I caught up to him so fast. 15 minutes later, Hermes shows up, also wondering how h never caught up to me, as the typical day is me catching up to him, leaving before him, and being passed in a matter of a mile.

After lunch at the shelter, we decided to stay because we knew thunderstorms were rolling in that afternoon. A pair of bromantic college guys stayed with us after they attempted to hike in the storm and turned back because of lightening and hail.

The next day we descended down to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, an outfitter, restaurant, convenience store with a hostel. On the way we crossed over the fire tower me and so many friends have hiked to on summer days after rafting the Nantahala. It was really amazing to come to it finally and think of all the other times I had been there and who I had been with.

At the NOC, we ate real food and drank lots of beer, then caught a ride into Bryson City to resupply and stay the night. The next day, I had already decided to take a zero at the NOC to rest an ailing Achilles' tendon, a common hiker over use injury. We got breakfast with BP, who always takes his time about getting on the trail in the morning, and PrayerWalker, who was also planning to take a zero. By the end of breakfast, Hermes had decided to stay as well since he has done this all before and is in no rush.

Movie Star hiked on and Hermes and I spent the day eating junk food and drinking wine. We also sown a lot of time talking to PrayerWalker, who is a 64 year old woman who is hiking because God told her to. She is fascinating and so inspiring and ended up buying dinner for Hermes and I when we asked her to join us at the NOC Restaurant.

Heartbreakingly, two days after this night Hermes informed me that PrayerWalker was getting off the trail. That the ice and snow were too much for her, too dangerous. It was hard to hear but I am so inspired by how far she had come and I know she has made a huge impression on the 2013 hiker crowd already. She is the sort of spirit that will be very missed.

Heading out of the NOC I did a 16 mile day. To be truthful, I was Party Blazing Clever Girl. She, Dumptruck and Apollo were planning to have a birthday party for Clever Girl on Friday at Fontana Dam. I made it to the shelter, leaving Hermes at the last campsite back, to find Movie Star. It was the second time I had caught up to him.

The next day we made to to the Fontana "Hilton", a shelter that holds 21 people and has showers. Upon arriving, Clever Girl shoves an ice cream bar and a beer I out hands. Dumptruck and Apollo show up with hog dogs and tons of beer soon after and the party begins. Hermes rolls into camp jut about this time and tells me about Prayer Walker. I was excited to see him because I had missed him when he stayed back, nursing blisters from new shoes, but I was sad to hear the news. The party was a wonderful distraction. It was beautiful to sit around with so many hikers and enjoy non-hiker food and beer. Clever Girl, Dumptruck and Apollo are saints for bringing together such a gathering.

Right now, I am taking a zero here at Fontana Dam. Almost everyone I know is doing the same. Clever Girl, Dumptruck, Apollo, BP, Hermes, Maniac (who we met yesterday because he heard about the party and hustled to make it), and even Detour and the Almighty D. In his typical style, Movie Star moved on, but maybe I will catch him again.

Starting the Smokies tomorrow. It will be a wet an cold week to come.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Since leaving Hiawassee, things have before more routine. Trail life is becoming normal life and while that doesn't mean we don't constantly dream of food or complain about rain, it does seem as if we have fallen into the swing of things a bit.

Movie Star, Hermes and I came into Hiawassee from Unicoi Gap and we would have been much smarter to come in from Dicks Creek Gap, just two more days up the trail. So upon leaving, we had a six day food supply to get us to Franklin, NC. This means a really, really heavy backpack! Hermes and I opted to leave four days of food with Garry at the Blueberry Patch Hostel, who is so kind he willingly dropped it off for us at Dicks Creek was we passed through.

The weather has been pretty good for us since the snowstorm. One morning, we woke up to an incredibly foggy day and knew rain was coming later in the afternoon, so we packed up camp and hiked 3 miles to a shelter to wait it out. Even though it made for a long day, sitting in our sleeping bags for nine hours, trying not eat all our food and then laying in our bags all night, fighting off mice, it was a very good decision that saved us from being miserably wet for several days.

Side Note: That night, I unknowingly left a Snickers in my backpack that was quickly found by the mice. The next day, when I pulled it out during a snack break, I discovered that it had been compromised. I ate it anyway. If a thief steals a bit of your gold, there is no use in abandoning the rest of it.

The highlights if the week were reaching North Carolina on Tuesday the 12th, our ninth day on the trail, and reaching the 100 mile marker on Thursday the 14th, our eleventh day on the trail!! Super exciting achievements!!!

We have also picked up Bobaba as a part of our ragtag group. He is killing time before he starts a contraction job in South Carolina and chose to spend it on the trail. He is a far and wide traveler of the states with many, many great stories and a happy spirit. He is strange strange in that way that makes you think maybe he is blessing the ground as we sit down for lunch but in reality he is just sprouting quinoa for his meal. We loose him soon, as he hitches out to Asheville when we all leave Franklin, and it will be sad to see him go. Besides the fun and laughter he brings, there is also the dumpster dive meals he provides while in town. Six day old yogurt for breakfast is ok if it's free, right?

Georgia/North Carolina state line. I look so beat because it was rough terrain and the hostest day we've had so far. I made as many people as I could take their shirt off and swing them around their heads like a helicopter... but I can't remember who made that song.
This is at the top of Albert Mountain in NC. The NC terrain is over all much easier than GA but this mountain was the most technical climbing we had done thus far. At several parts I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get my pack through, over or onto the rocks. But at the top was the 100 mile marker!!! From left to right we have Guard, Movie Star, Ian, tiny little me, Hermes, Detour and Bobaba.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Initiation Week on the AT

Today is the last day of my first week on the trail. It has already been a wild journey. Here's a run down. 

I started hiking the Appalachian Trail on Sunday March 3rd, 2013. It snowed the night before I set out, so I hiked out in the slick left overs and fresh mud. By the time I hit the top of Springer Mountain from the bottom of the approach trail, the afternoon light was quickly waning and I had to choose between a windy cold night in the shelter on the top of Springer only a few tenths of a mile away or pushing on to the next  shelter two miles away at Stover Creek. Thankfully, at the summit I collided with two hikers who had opted out of the taking the approach trail and had come from the parking lot a bit further up the trail. We three decided that the second shelter was the better choice and set off together.

One of the hikers, Leo,  was in his seventies and had come from Canada to hike the trail. He was very knowledgable and gave you that easy going feeling of being around your grandfather. After all, the first thing he said to me at the summit of Springer was "I am trying to take a photograph but it won't turn on." And holds an iPhone out to me. He then asks me how to send the photograph to his son, saying something is suppose pop up on the side. I hear him ask several other people this question over the next few days before I finally sort out that he wants to post it on his son's Facebook. Leo moves fast for and old guy. He wakes up early and for several days in a row I pass him during the mid afternoon, snacking or napping right off the trail, before I loose him altogether.  Maybe he will turn up again.

The shelter that night is crowded, but I slip in, despite arriving almost at night fall, and go to bed with only a granola bar for dinner.

The next morning we all wake up in a domino effect by 7:30. That happens in shelters. The first person gets up and more and more follow suit until its just the only option. This first shelter experience was interesting and awkward. Being the only girl and alone probably accentuated that. I made some small talk but headed out fairly quickly.

I remember as I began walking on that first full morning on the AT being amazed as I walked through a snow covered rhododendron tunnel with the early morning light cascading through the leaves. It was a reminder of one of the many reasons I was here.

I stopped for lunch at a shelter a few miles up the trail a ended up meeting Movie Star, who was still a few days away from ditching the name Francis. Movie Star is from Little Rock but was raised in Miami. He's stoic. I never hear him complain of anything and only rarely does he speak out loud about the beauty of the landscape or the thrill of hiking. We end up camping together every night and because we have a similar pace, we also end up using each other as hiking pacers eventually.

At lunch on this cold, yet sunny day, Movie Star and I also meet Free Man. Free Man is from Maine and took a bus down to Atlanta only days before. He older, 60's maybe, with a long white, scraggly beard. Free Man was the real deal. He appears to have dry little gear and what we do see is repurposed or handmade. He tells us a tale of trying to find his way through Atlanta once he arrived. From the choppy parts of the story, Movie Star and I later pieced together that he walked out of Atlanta and, at some point we hope, hitched a ride up to Amicalola Falls. Through the rest of the week we hear stories of other hikers encounter with him make the similar amazement but never can quite catch up to him.

That night I am the last to arrive at the camp sites at Justius Creek. Leo and Movie Star have beat me there, as well as Detour and the Almighty D, who I had briefly spoken with at the shelter that morning. At this point Detour is still trying to make people call him Hi-Five but he eventually earns his current name a few days later. He is from Chicago but just finished up school is Manhattan. He is a chipper sort, maybe a bit on the side of your typical college aged guy. I could see his former live including copious video games, YouTube and Reddit. The Almighty D on the other had is meat and potatoes kind of guy. His pack weighs over 60 pounds and he has everything but the kitchen sink, including a Wilson volley ball some one bought him as a joke as a departure gift. He has done several tough mudder's and says they should change the name to the more suitable "irritating mudder". The Almighty D is a good guy but over the week I fear for his happiness. I fear he sees the trail as a challenge to defeat rather than an opportunity to greet.

Tuesday morning, Leo books it out of camp early and I walk off before most of the other guys had eaten breakfast. It's damp and begins to rain on me a bit and I am really feeling myself drag as I head to Woody Gap. The grits I made for breakfast aren't holding me over well and I am noticing a pulled groin from a particularly rough mountain the day before. I feel weak and know there is a bathroom at the Woody Gap with an over hang where I can lean against the wall oh of the rain. The thought is delightful but it seems I will be walking forever. At long, long last, I drag my boots into Wood Gap and see a tarp set up across the street in the parking lot and hear some one yell "Hot Coffee!" My spirit soars and some how I find the energy to hustle over to the tarp. I take a seat at a picnic table under the tarp and receive a styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. I make the salmon and barbeque wrap I had planned for the wall under the over hang and afterwards take a cup of chicken noodle soup as well. Fresh Ground is my first taste of Trail Magic! He hike Springer to Damascus a whole back and was here at Woody to help out this years new crop. He was an amazing person. So much warm food and warm drinks for all! He heads back into town for a resupply of food for us, bringing a few hikers to a hostel on his way, and comes back with hot dogs. By this time Movie Star has shown up and we both fill out stomach for the first time in days to help with the hike up to Lance Creek where we plan to camp.

I leave Movie Star behind to finish eating, as we haven't synced up yet, and I have a new found spring in my step. I walked into that gap desolate and craving a wall to lean against and something simple as warm food and some rest made me suddenly want to sing while I hiked.

The happy feeling didn't last too long. A few miles up the trail I found myself walking through my first thunder storm. A few miles after that, I found myself pitching a tent in that thunder storm. It was doomed from the time I threw down my tent footprint in the mud. The bottom of my tent was wet from the rain soaking up through the footprint and what snuck in before I could eat the poles and rainfly up. Everything else I owned was sitting on a muddy slope waiting to be put in the tent. It took a while to set up everything is a way to keep the wet and dry separate but eventually I was nestled in my dry clothes, deep in my down sleeping bag.

The next morning, I awoke to a snow storm. All the caked on mud and rain of the day before had frozen. I knew that Neels Gap, and in particular Mountain Crossings, was only 8 miles away (though a tough 8 miles) so I broke down camp as fast as I could considering I had to defrost everything. My tent parts were frozen together so I shoved it all into its sack in a whole piece. The tent poles required me rubbing them with my hands to be able to break them apart. My bandana I use to filter my water was a frozen mud block, so I didn't have clean water besides what had frozen over the night. I also made the mistake of only eating half a clif bar as I set out into the snow to hike to the hostel at Neels.

The lack of food, water and the wicked weather made for a horrific day. The wind was so strong that I had to stand still against its force many times. The snow stung my face and I soon began to feel weak against the rough weather. I began to get scared because I was still so far out. I stopped at a shelter in the way and all I could muster to do was make hot water, so I drank a few cups to crunchy, but hot water and headed on my way. At this point, Movie Star had caught up and passed me and as I turned off the side trail to the shelter I saw him standing on the tail ahead of me. I was elated!! To see another human made the daunting task of submitting Blood Mountain and going down the other side to the Mountain Crossings hostel a little bit more possible. (Blood Mountain is the highest peak in GA on the AT. You can read about a practice hike I took there over the summer in this same blog.) The snow got deeper as we got higher up the mountain and the wind got harsher as well. As we got to the top of the mountain, we saw another couple who were just leaving the Blood Mountain shelter. One was wearing only a sleeping bag and a blanket and the other had all of their belongings wrapped up in a tarp that he planned to sled down the mountain on. Movie Star and I moved on and began the treacherous decent down the mountain. Much of the south side of the mountain is exposed rock and the white blazes on these parts are painted directly on the rock. Unfortunately for us and our timing, not only does snow make the blazes hard to see, it also turns to ice, which is dangerous. We spent a fair amount of time deciphering the direction of the trail and sledding down on our packs until the trail turned back into an actual trail. From there on out it was still slow going because of the snow and ice. After what seemed like forever, we finally arrive at Neels Gap! 

As soon as we walked in, we discovered the power had been taken out by the storm. This meant no shower, no laundry and no running water because the water pumps as Mountain Crossings are electric. Still, this did not deter us from happily getting a bunk for the night, as four walls and a roof were an unimaginable luxury at this point. We sat with other hikers in the darkened store and made a late lunch with Hermes, who started his hike the same day as us at Stover, and Chewy, a girl who had been held up a Neels for four days due to a knee injury. When the electricity came back on they allowed everyone down into the hostel. We sat around chatting with other hikers. Chewy and her brother, Ambassador, debated which actor Movie Star looked like, thus his name. That night a college church group provided a spectacular dinner for all the hikers, which at this point includes Detour and the Almighty D. We are all surprised to hear that the Almighty D got a shakedown from the folks up at the store (which is where they go through your pack and help you cut down on weight) and he only cut down to "just over 50 pounds". Everyone in the hostel has they tents hanging out to dry that night and the next morning most are on their way by 10 or so, reluctantly leaving the comfort of Mountain Crossings. 

Movie Star and I head out a bit before Detour and the Almighty D. We stop at the top of Wild Cat Mountain, a relatively small mountain that is nonetheless made of absolutely grueling switch backs, for lunch with several other hikers. The Almighty D shows up as we are leaving asking if we have seen Detour, that he had been hiking in front. We tell him we hadn't and tell him not to worry, that he's surely doing fine. We hike on to that nights shelter and as the Almighty D rolls in he asks about Detour again. We tell him we haven't seen him since Neels Gap this morning, but that he probably stopped that the last shelter we all passed because it was a mile off the trail. He accepts this answer but I can tell he is worried about Detour. The next morning we only have a short 7 mile day to the Blue Mountain shelter which will leave us with easy access to Hiawassee, GA for the next day. It's a half day in the eyes of Movie Star, Hermes and I. Along with Highlander, who is the second of the two hikers I came across at Springer the first day, we spend the day conversing with a son and father who do a yearly hiker on this portion of the trail. Of all non-thru hikers, they have been the most fun to have around. The 13 year old son was a master with fire and the father was a very smart guy who educated us all about the upcoming changes in the health care system and energy efficiency. The Almighty D eventually makes it into camp with is pack in the high 50s and takes out his phone and tells us to gather around. 

There is a Message from Detour: "Hey, Donny... It's Daniel, DJ. Just wanted to give you a call and let you know... I, uh, lost the trail. But then I found it! But, then I lost it again... And, I, uh, found a house. And they took me to town to by a compass. They're dropping me off at Tesnatee Gap. So, uh, you know. I'm not dead. See ya." Thus we named him Detour. 

The next day we wake up and Movie Star, Hermes, Highlander and I head down the mountain to Unicoi Gap to hitch a ride into Hiawassee. Garry from the Blueberry Patch Hostel picks us up and takes us to his place. He and his wife have a tiny house behind their own tiny house for hikers to stay in. They do their laundry for you and provide clean clothes to wear while its washing and have an amazing little out house out back and its all on a beautiful little plot of land in a valley of some mountains. They are incredible people!! Highlander's mother came up from Alabama and took the guys into town for all you and eat buffet and I waited for my own mom. She and I went to eat with another hiker, Dirty Bird, who is on her 10 year anniversary hike of the first time she hiked the AT and has also done the PCT. After dinner, we dropped Dirty Bird off at Dick Creek Gap and went back into Hiawassee so I could resupply. 

Tomorrow morning we will swing by the Blueberry Patch to pick up Hermes and Movie Star and we will hit the trail again. Our packs will be weighed down with six days of food to get us to Franklin, NC. It will be a rough haul for a few days until they lighten back up. 

Excuse the long post, they will get shorter, I am sure, as I will become less motivated to add in all the details. It just so happens that every single day on the trail is an adventure worth writing about!!