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!!