Friday, April 13, 2012

Days 19-20: 31st Birthday (Zero Days #7-8)

I woke up at basecamp a year older this morning.  I hobbled up the basement stairs to the kitchen where I made my standard hiker breakfast of Quaker maple and brown sugar oatmeal and instant coffee.   My legs were still very stiff but everything, including my knee, felt better than it did during my last visit to basecamp.  To celebrate my 31st birthday, I did absolutely nothing.  And it felt glorious. 

When I finally decided to get motivated, I managed to turn on my computer and check Facebook.  GI Jayne and Giggles had friend requested me and Jayne had left a message.  Bad news:  They were both off the trail for good.  The trail was just more difficult than they had expected.  But the good news was that they were due to pick up a rental car from the Asheville airport around noon.  I shot a message back suggesting that we have one last lunch together.  They agreed, so we met up at Barley’s Taproom in downtown Asheville for some pizza and craft beer.  Since they knew it was my birthday, Jayne picked up the tab.  It was really nice to be able to do something with friends for my b-day.  As it turns out, everyone I knew in Asheville had prior engagements, so I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening vegging at basecamp, doing laundry and listening to music. 

Unfortunately, no one was available the morning after St. Patties to help drive me back to the trail.  So, I sat around some more and watched a couple adventure documentaries on NetFlicks.  Luckily, Jordan, my brother’s friend who dropped me off to begin the trail in Georgia, was willing and able to help me out the following morning.  NOC (Nantahala Outdoors Center), here I come.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Days 16-18: GA/NC State Line and 100 miles (Plumorchid Gap Shelter- Winding Stair Gap)

Days 16-18:  GA/NC State Line and 100 miles (Plumorchid Gap Shelter- Winding Stair Gap)
GI Jayne and I had breakfast together this morning.  Sue (“Giggles”) was happy to see me when she finally made her way over from her tent.  She and Jayne proceeded to tell me why they were delayed enough to be sharing a campsite with me.  I figured they had just been making low mile days and had met on the trail.  But as I thought about it, the math just didn’t add up.  They still would have been ahead.  Apparently, after I left GI Jayne in Neal’s Gap, she met Giggles and they hiked into Dick’s Creek Gap together.  They then shuttled into the town of Hiawassee where they both proceeded to come down with the same terrible stomach bug.  They joked about taking turns not being able to make it to the bathroom while they shared a motel room.  “So, we have bonded,” they surmised with matching smirks. 

I spent the morning hiking with the ladies and then pushed on for the next shelter, crossing the GA/NC state line in the process.  All there was to indicate that I had reached this major milestone was a small wooden sign nailed to a tree.  After a minute amusing myself by jumping from one state to the other, I pushed on the additional 2.9 miles to Muskrat Creek Shelter. 

As luck would have it, the shelter had enough space for GI Jayne, Giggles and me.  A younger female hiker, named Firefly, stopped in a little later with hair that looked like it had been dyed bright orange many days ago, as it was now faded.  She had the lightest pack I had seen yet… and she was carrying two full-sized paperback books!  From what I could gather, she was fully capable of making more miles, but to my delight, she decided to stick around for the night.  She was witty and talkative, so we enjoyed lively conversation all afternoon.  As the daylight dwindled, a number of other thru-hikers tented out in the area just around the shelter.  All in all, there were likely over 15 people in camp this night but I didn’t catch any of their names.

Normally, I stay up until around 10pm, either listening to my Ipod Nano, or watching the campfire die down.  This night, however, we were all in our bags and breathing heavily just after dark.  A couple younger hikers had a campfire, but that noise was silenced in short order.  After all, hiker midnight is 9pm. 

Out of the darkness, the sound of Santa’s sleigh?  What the hell?  I swear it sounded like a troupe of little gnomes all marching into camp ringing bells.  I pick my head off my fleece pants pillow to see what is going on.  Flood lights and a dog.  A dog with bear bells hanging all over him.  I wriggled to free my arm from my mummy bag.  “This must be the guy and his dog I ran into the other day”, I thought as I offered the dog my hand to smell.  I was back into my bag before the bright lights had reached the shelter and for the next 45 minutes, the dog’s bear bells were ringing constantly.  There were even a couple times where I could swear I hear the dog yelp from being smacked.  I could hear everyone uncomfortably shifting in their sleeping bags, but no one said anything.  Finally, silence. 

The next morning, I am up at 6:30am making breakfast and putting my things in my backpack.  There were a couple other early risers that drifted in and out of the shelter to cook their breakfasts and make quiet conversation.  By 7:30, the conversation had gone from whispers to slightly less than hushed tones.  If you plan on sleeping in, shelters are not the place for you.  Apparently, however, that memo never made it to the owner of dog. 

The shelter was laid out with a sleeping platform and an extended roof that covered a cooking table and small dining area.  The dog’s owner had made his bed on the floor next to the cooking table.  Very suddenly, he stands up with his 4-LED headlamp on its brightest setting, shinning it directly into someone’s eyes, who was sitting on a bench on the far side of the shelter.  The younger male hiker looked familiar.  He had just started eating his oatmeal and had a fresh cup of instant coffee brewed.  He also had a half smoked joint in his hand.  “Are those illegal drugs you’re smoking?!” the dog’s owner boomed into the relative silence of the early morning stillness.  “Yes, sir”, the young hiker responded, taking another slow drag.  “I highly recommend that you put that out immediately” boomed the dog’s owner.  All 15 people in camp were now definitely awake.  “Aren’t you that guy I ran into the other day?” continued the young hiker, as he took another slow drag on the joint.  “I am most definitely not” the dog’s owner responded.  Calmly, the young hiker responded, “Oh man, I’m sorry.  Your dogs look almost exactly the same”, as he took the last drag on his joint.  “I didn’t mean to offend anyone”, the young hiker offered as he put the small roach out in the dirt below his seat. 

Then, nothing.  The uncomfortable silence continued until the guy and his dog packed up and moved on.  But not before leaving a huffy shelter journal entry and slamming the cover for good measure.  As soon as he was out of sight, everyone in the shelter converged on the shelter journal, snickering about the nerve of this guy.  In his entry, he complained that he had too much fun in Hiawassee and, therefore, had a late walk into camp that night.  However, he was woken up early at by a bunch of people carrying on loudly and doing drugs.  Then he complained that he finally had to say something after enduring this for an hour.  Here was a writer who enjoyed embellishment.  I noticed the young hiker grab the journal and add his own entry.  “This guy walked into the shelter last night at 10:30, with jingle bells-a-ringin on his dog for an hour. And he beats his dog.  Jerk.”  Then the young hiker loudly proclaimed that he had a new trail name for the rude pair:  “Police Dick and Jingle Bells”. 

GI Jayne, Giggles and I were more than a little shocked how rude and aggressive this guy had been.  I was actually really upset by all of this.  It had totally shattered my illusion of peace and my separation from the oppressive aspects of society. It killed my Zen.  In order to help cope, we began to review our understanding of shelter etiquette.   Our conclusions went something like this:

AT Shelter Etiquette 101:

1)      If you snore, you should make use of your tent. 

2)      Shelter space is available on a first come, first serve basis.  If it is full, don’t try to cram in.  Use your tent. 

3)       A person must be present to reserve a spot at the shelter (a faster hiker cannot reserve a spot for a slower group of hikers).

4)      If you have a problem with something that someone is doing, politely request that they discontinue or move their activity outside the shelter.  Don’t be a jerk. 

5)      Smoking in a shelter should only be done if you have asked those present if they don’t mind.  (To the young hiker’s credit, he had asked those who were awake if they minded.  We all said no… except the dog’s owner, who no one thought was awake). 

6)      Don’t make cell phone calls in the shelter.

7)      9pm is hiker midnight.  If you want to continue to chat, take it out to the campfire… not in the shelter.  When getting into and out of your sleeping bag between 9pm and 6:00am, you should be as quiet as you can possibly be out of courtesy to others around you.  (There is nothing worse than someone thumping around with heavy steps on the wood platform at 4am)

8)      Those who want to go to sleep in a shelter before 9pm or wake up after 6:00am, do so at their own risk.  If you have a problem with these quiet hours, maybe a tent is best for you. 

9)      If you stay in shelters, you should have a red LED feature on your headlamp and you should use it, especially after hiker midnight. 

10)   All smellables should be stored properly.  If bear cables are provided, they should certainly be utilized. 

After a 4 mile morning hike, GI Jayne and Giggles decided to get off the trail at Deep Gap for a road hike out to a shuttle.  Police Dick and Jingle Bells were already resting at the forest road crossing when we arrived.  As we walked up, we broke into song, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…”.  Maybe we went a little too far, but it was hilarious to us at the time.  He had nothing to say to any of us as we said our goodbyes and I continued to push up the trail.

For lunch, I stopped at the top of Standing Indian Mountain on a patch of exposed rocks.  I took off my boots and layed my socks in the sun to dry out while I chowed down on a Cliff Bar and took a look at the map.  It wasn’t long before I could hear jingle bells ringing.  It made me squirm.  I sat with my back to the trail, in hopes that I could avoid any uncomfortable eye contact.  However, he stopped and, without getting into it too much, he apologized for being loud and cranky that morning.  He actually turned out to be a pretty nice guy and ex-police officer.  Maybe his new trail name was a bit much.  He left with a handshake and a smile.  I could feel my Zen returning. 

Without warning, the sky started to turn dark.  I quickly gathered my things and put on boots.  I had just gotten my backpackers poncho on when the rain started lightly falling.  Thunder boomed in the valleys surrounding the tall mountain and ridge I was hiking on.  Probably not the best place to be.  But I felt safe for the moment. 

It was a 6 mile hike into Carter Gap Shelter from Standing Indian Mountain.  Somehow hiking in the elements made the time go by quickly.  Sipsey and Animal were in the shelter along with a large man named “Tom for now”, who had started the trail at a weight of 450lbs!  Arriving not too far behind were a group of hikers in their early 20’s with names, “Spoon”, “Cheese”, and Gail, who did not have a trail name yet.  Other “Birdman”, who started on March 1 and is much older than myself, complete with a white beard and friendly smile, also found his way into camp to tent out.  A couple middle-aged women, named “Huff” and “Puff” found a spot to set up tents as well. 

Just before we were ready to settle down for the night, the younger hikers were hanging out around the campfire.  All of a sudden, a loud “SNAP” came from the shelter.  “I got a mouse!” Tom for now exclaimed.  It turns out that he had set a couple of traditional wooded mouse traps around the shelter, as he does every night.  To all of our surprise, however, what he caught was not a mouse.  It was a flying squirrel.  Welcome to North Carolina. 

The following day was becoming a pretty typical day.  Roughly 50 degrees when getting up.  Warming up into the high 60’s, low 70’s during the day.  But today I had something to look forward to. There was a small note in the shelter that said, “Trail Magic:  Rock Gap, Friday afternoon 3/16”.  I had heard of other hikers finding trail magic in the way of BBQ’s, coolers with sodas, and even a Tupperware container hanging from a tree with a chocolate cake inside. 

As I hiked that morning, I passed the 100 mile mark at the top of Albert Mountain, where there is a firetower that you can climb up for a spectacular 360 degree view.  After a lunch break there, with Spoon, Cheese and Gail, it was off for trail magic at Rock Gap.  When I arrived, I was greeted with a table of donuts, fruit, cookies, juice and other assorted goodies, along with a couple familiar faces:  Spoon, Cheese, Gail, and even Firefly were there, amongst many others (probably 20 hikers).  With my car only another 4 miles up the trail and my stomach filled with all sorts of power-packed goodies, I didn’t hang out too long at Rock Gap before pushing on to Winding Stair Gap for my exit. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Day 15: Nighthike (Dicks Creek Gap- Plumorchard Gap Shelter)

Day 15:  Nighthike (Dicks Creek Gap- Plumorchard Gap Shelter)

I could stand it no longer.  I had to make miles whether my knee was ready or not.  The problem was, it did not seem to be ready at all.  In fact, it seemed like everyday I was off my feet, the tighter my legs and knees became.

Pulling on my knee brace, I hobbled up the stairs to load my car, ignoring my reservations.  By the time my Asheville friends had arrived, everything was loaded up and ready to go.  In fact, it was a little late already.  We got moving in our 2 cars towards Franklin, NC, where we would later drop my car and continue down to Dick’s Creek Gap in the other car. 

After getting a late start, having lunch, getting gas, etc… it was a little late to be starting on the trail at 5pm.  Luckily, the clocks had recently “sprung forward”, so I had an extra hour of daylight to hike in.  I left my Asheville friends behind as I started my warm-up hike in the late afternoon sun.

One foot, carefully, in front of the other.  Slowly, carefully, repeat.  I know at some point I would have to turn on my headlamp if I wanted to sleep in a shelter that night.  It was a little more than 4 miles and I simply didn’t have enough daylight.  Concentrate.  Be careful. 

Shortly before dark, I sat down for a snack and map check @ (XXX).  To my disappointment, I still had XX miles to go until I reached the first shelter.  Pulling out a cliff bar and mini-slim jim, I started munching.  Being off trail for 6 days robs you of your trail legs and stamina.  In a daze, I look up and see a dark-colored dog way up the trail.  I look hard for a hiker, but no one is in sight.  Double-checking to ensure I wasn’t seeing things, I looked for the dog again.  Now he was approaching the campsite.  Slowly.  Carefully.

I’m not sure if it knew that I had spotted him.  I was sure he could smell my food though.  I waited for him to come out from behind the last tree but he lingered at the edge of the site.  Just out of view.  Surely, he was mounting his final attack.  I braced myself, though I had no idea what I would do.  My hiking poles were stuck in the ground yards away. 

After a few tense moments, a voice broke the silence.  “Hey!  What do you think you’re doing?”  The dog appeared and bashfully looked over its shoulder at its owner, who had just appeared around the corner.  Though the jolly, middle-aged hiker was calling HER name, she casually walked over, totting her doggie backpack, and gave me a good once over.  She even stopped to smell my hand, which I had offered in hopes of making a fast friend.

She walked back to the edge of camp just in time to join her owner as he made his way over, already profusely apologizing for his dog.  He introduced himself and his companion, but my mind had already returned to making it to the shelter.  I made some friendly conversation, as he was more than happy to talk my ear off.  I loaded up my pack all the while and was on the trail within minutes.

Darkness fell quickly.  First, everything is still visible, but bluish in tint.  Then grey.  Monotone.  Then the shadows start to creep in.  And your eyes start to play tricks on you.  Its very difficult to perceive the depth of each step.  To recognize and then avoid each obstacle.  Time for the LED headlamp. 

With my Ipod Nano now playing tunes in my ears, I didn’t feel the rest of the hike.  I floated there on a wave of the new found energy.  With just a small spot of light to guide me, I didn’t so much look for the white blazes, as followed the contour of the trail on ground.  The Trail has a certain look in the light of a headlamp, the way it casts a slight shadow on either side. 

When I arrived at (XXX) Shelter, it appeared there were only 2 guests in the double-decker.  The up-stairs guest was awake and journaling by headlamp.  The lower-tier guest looked to be trying to sleep, already wrapped up in their sleeping bag.  As I dropped my pack and began to unpack, the upstairs guest started some friendly conversation.  The basics:  “Where are you hiking in from”, “Are you thru-hiking”, “What’s your trail name”, “When did you start?” 

I had just finished explaining why I had taken 6 zero’s when the lower-tier guest sat up.  “Who is that?” she asked.  Instantly, I recognized GI Jayne’s friendly voice.  I put my light in her face and teased, “You don’t recognize this voice?”

“…Birdman?  Is that you Birdman?” still shaking off the drowsiness from her nap. 

“What’s up, Jayne?!”  I said, smiling broadly. 

“Birdman!  I seriously never thought I would see you again.  I was sure you were through the Smokies and halfway to Maine already.  Sue is here.  She’s going by Giggles now.  We should get her up!” she poured on loudly. 

It was only then that I realized that there was an additional loft right above my head.  I coule see the feet of a couple sleeping bags and some gear hanging up.  The whole time, I thought their loft area was just a roof on the table/ dining area of the shelter.  Oopppsss…

Jayne and I seemed to realize our mistake at the same time and quickly quieted back down to a loud whisper.  She joined me for a late dinner and wed talked into the night about trail gossip and whatnot.  I was so glad to find her, of all people, on my first night back on trail.