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. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Days 9- 14: Doctors, Physical Therapists, and Knee Braces (Zero Days #1-6)



Days 9- 14:  Doctors, Physical Therapists, and Knee Braces (Zero Days #1-6)

On the way back to Asheville, my ham strings were cramping up in the car.  It didn’t matter how I stretched them.  When I finally stepped out of the car at the Asheville house, which I will refer to as “basecamp”, I could hardly use my right leg.  My knee was stiff and my whole leg was sore.  I literally limped inside.  Then I realized that my room is in the basement. 

I had never really paid attention to those 14 steps before.  I never really thought much about steps in general.  Now I would rate them as, “strenuous/ difficult”, if they had to receive a trail rating.  Each down-step started with my left leg bending in order to lower my right foot while keeping my knee straight.  Then stepping down with my left leg.  Repeat x14.  Reverse for up-steps.  I felt elderly. 

The following day, Erik got in touch with me and confirmed that he would be getting off the trail for a few days to rest his knee.  I did not want to take too much time off the trail but my knee was still very sore.  So, like all other times in life when you’re unsure of how to proceed, I inquired with the oracle that is Facebook, specifically calling on my athletic friends for advice.  Pretty much everyone, including a former thru-hiker and a couple long-distance runners, told me to take at least a week off.  This answer was completely unacceptable.  A couple friends even suggested I quit or do it another year because it was not worth the pain and/ or potential for permanent injury.  

Over the next few days, I heard the same thing from the orthopedic doctor, massage therapist (also a long distance hiker) and physical therapist #1:  stay off it for at least a week.  It was clear that I was just going to have to buckle down and take a few zeros.  You would think that this would be relaxing, having nothing to do but rest.  However, trail anxiety crept in quickly.  I wanted nothing more than to use my knee.  To make miles. 

The orthopedic doctor confirmed my mom’s initial diagnosis of patellar tendonitis, an inflammation of the patellar tendon due to repetitive stress.  The patellar tendons are the connective tissues which run over the kneecap that join the quadriceps musculature in the upper leg to the tibia bone in the lower leg.  Tight ham strings and quadriceps can exacerbate this condition.  Both my legs felt like rocks, they were so tight.  Typically, complete rest of the knee for at least 3 days is required, followed by 1-2 weeks of very light activity (no athletics).  Treatment is the basic “RICE” method:  Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.  Training can resume slowly after the symptoms begin to resolve, first addressing predisposing conditions such as tight quadriceps and ham strings, typically returning to desired activity levels within 1-3 months with proper care.  Bracing is not required and does not necessarily provide quicker resolution, however, certain braces may provide relief through compression and/or pressure point(s) on the tendon.  (If acute pain is continuous during rest, or is debilitating for light-use, a medical professional should certainly be consulted, as there may complicating factors and/or a more acute injury)

We also discovered that I have a slightly outward rotated lower right leg.  Luckily, however, it seems that both my knees are still pointed forward.  When I was just a little kid, I caught my leg in a bed rail while falling out of bed, braking my leg.  I guess I used to roll around in my sleep.  The radial fracture of my tibia caused my right leg to grow ¼” longer than my left and my right foot to rotate just a little to the outside.  To see if this was going to be a problem over the long haul, I scheduled to see a 2nd physical therapist that specializes in long distance running. 

Miriam Nelson (MPT, COMT, OCS) with Southern PhysicalTherapy in Asheville is amazing.  She performed a full assessment of my gate, including a slow-motion video analysis.  This further confirmed that my right foot rotates outward when I walk.  Additionally, the frame-by-frame analysis revealed that I am rolling across my instep and big toe as my right foot leaves the ground, instead of across the ball of my foot and all 5 toes evenly, as was the case with my left foot.  This made it important for me to ensure that my knee cap was tracking properly, as we did not want it tracking to the outside due to the torque in my lower leg and causing/ increasing sub-patellar inflammation and pain.  This was achieved through a special knee brace with patellar tracking support on the outside and lower patella tendon pressure point.  She also gave me a simple foam heal lift to correct the leg length problem, though she didn’t think it was a primary concern. 

6 days of rest(lessness), 2 physical therapy sessions, 2 knee braces, 1 heal lift, 1 orthopedic doctor, 1 massage therapy session, and 11 new pills later (to add to the 7 I was already taking), I was ready to hit the trail again. 



Footnote: 

As long as this is practically a technical article, the following is a list of the pills I’m currently taking:

Breakfast:

-          Ortho Molecular Products, Ortho Biotic for gastrointestinal health

-          Ortho Molecular Products, Traumeric for musculoskeletal health and anti-inflammation

-          Walgreens, Glucosamine Chondroitin Complex w/ Chinese Skullcap root and Black Catechu (x2) to help rebuild cartilage and lubricate joints

-          Xymogen, ActivNutrients w/o Iron (x2) for multi-vitamin

-          Xymogen, CoQmax CF (CoQ10) for cellular energy and cardiovascular health

-          Xymogen, IgG 2000 DF (Immunoglobulin concentrate) for immune system boost

-          Xymogen, OmegaPure 600 EC (fish oil) for optimal joint function and cardiovascular health

-          PRESCRIPTION, Meloxicam 7.5mg for anti-inflammation

Dinner:

Ortho Molecular Products, Soft Tissue Support Pak (containing 8 pills) for musculoskeletal health and anti-inflammation

Monday, March 12, 2012

Days 5-8: Is is really snowing? (Neels Gap to Dicks Creek Gap)


Days 5-8:  Is it really snowing? (Neels Gap to Dicks Creek Gap)

This morning we wake up to our last breakfast with Josh and Leigh.  Everyone seems to have put the tornado scare behind them already as we gear up for the next multi-day section.  Another curvy drive, this time with Leigh driving at a casual pace, puts us right back at Mountain Crossings.  We hurry for the door to the outfitter because it is so cold and windy outside. 

GI Jayne and Azalon decide that they want to take advantage of the Mountain Crossings backpack shakedown.  We had been hiking with Azalon this whole time, so Erik and I didn’t want to leave him behind.  We spent the morning shooting the breeze with the Mountain Crossings staff and other thru-hikers.  Noreaster, Matt, Victor, Dragons Tail, Half Moon and the Lancaster Twins were all there at one point or another.  Apparently, there had been some trouble with a couple of the guys staying at the Mountain Crossings hostel that night.  Turns out, Papa Hix wasn’t fooling around at Blood Mountain Shelter when he said he was gonna get drunk at Neels Gap.  No one seemed to be amused or well rested.  I had another Hot Pocket. 




A little after noon, we said our goodbyes to GI Jayne, who is taking a “zero day”.  A zero day is a day in which you do not hike any miles on the AT.  There are many reasons to take a zero day, such as rest, resupply, injury, partying, side trip, etc.  There is also something called a “nero day”, in which you may only hike a couple miles on the Trail.  On the way up the hill out of Neels Gap, Azalon admitted to purchasing a new 1-man tent.  Gone were his tablet, solar panels, and trusty ‘log’.  He seemed light on his feet with his new pack weight of 31 lbs (including food for 4 days:  ramen noodles for dinner and a snikers bar for each breakfast and lunch). 




At 12:30, the strong wind was still bitter cold at near 40 degrees.  The day dragged on.  We just weren’t making the miles we had been making the past few days.  It seemed like we had been hiking forever and had not made the shelter, so we finally chose a small campsite to set up our tents a couple miles short of the Low Gap Shelter.  A small campfire helped us ignore the dropping temperatures into the evening. 

The next morning, it was FREEZING outside!  My water bladder looked like a slushy and the hydration system hose was frozen solid.  Boiling water and pouring it in the bladder had little effect.  Warm oatmeal and hot chocolate really hit the spot on this 20 degree morning.  We hit the trail early to ensure a spot at the next shelter. 

Another day of hiking in the bitter cold.  The temperature did not get much above 30 degrees all day and the wind continued to blow.  The real problem is that when you hike on one side of the ridge, you get out of the wind and end up getting warm enough to shed layers and/or sweat a little, and then you pop back over the ridge and freeze your buns off.  At one point, the snot in my left nostril was frozen solid.  I had to put my wool buff over my face and warm up, as that was my first taste of the wonders of frost bite.  With the wind chill, it was in the single digits all morning. 



Around 1 o’clock, I arrived at the Blue Mountain Shelter along with 2 new characters, Ryan and Dan.  Both in their 20’s and also from Florida, we immediately gelled.  Shortly after, Victor (the 20-something from Singapore), also dropped his gear for the day.  His dad had left him to continue at Neels Gap.  Erik and Azalon, who were taking it a little slower today, crawled into camp next.  Erik seemed to be having trouble with his knee and Azalon just seemed tired.  After a little while, Dragons Tail also walked into the shelter and layed out his sleeping bag, completing our crew for the evening. 

This was the first time everyone in camp was in their 30’s or under on this trip.  And we are maybe just a little more industrious than the older crowd.  We split up into teams to find firewood, build the initial fire, and get other things done around camp.  It happened all very naturally and, as a result, it ended up being quick, easy, and lots of fun.  In the middle of it all, we noticed something falling from the sky.  “Is it really snowing?” I blurted out in disbelief.  Its funny, because you have to picture 4 Floridians and 1 guy from tropical Singapore, who had only seen snow once only a couple weeks before, looking up at the sky in wonder as the snow flurry became very visible.   What an unlikely bunch.  I thought about catching a snowflake on my tongue. 



That night was particularly cold.  The coldest yet.  As far as actual temperature, it was warmer than the previous night, but staying in a tent adds some wind and thermal protection.  Staying in a 3-walled shelter was definitely colder.  Sometime in the middle of the night, Azalon got up and left without saying anything to anyone.  Erik said he thought someone was moving to a tent at like 12:30, but thought it was Dragons Tail.  So far, no one knows exactly what happened.  Could have been that he got really cold and had to get moving down the trail to warm up.  Could have been that the cold got to him and he gave up and hiked out.  Erik jokes that it must have been that horrible snoring noise that Dragons Tail was making right in Azalon’s face that night… “that would have made anyone want to quit”. 


Today is a little less windy, but not much warmer.  However, both Erik and I are having trouble with our knees.  Dan, Ryan and Victor hike out front this morning.  We don’t see them until we reach Tray Mountain Shelter, where they have already strung up a temporary 4th wall with a discarded tarp they found inside the shelter.  Still no sign of Azalon.  Ryan, Erik and I relegate ourselves to our sleeping bags to keep warm.  Erik jokes that he is trembling like a Chihuahua, which makes us laugh very hard.  Erik and I begin talking about taking a zero or two to rest our knees when we reach Dicks Creek Gap the following day.  Out of nowhere, Orange Lightening arrives at the shelter and we proceed to chat for hours.  Such a nice guy and full of positive energy.  Even though he is a bit older, he fits in famously with our group.  Dragons Tail arrived a little while later and, having heard Erik’s frank commentary on his snoring, gracefully tarp-tented just outside the shelter. 



The next morning, my knee is really stiff and sore.  Erik and I are slow to get out of camp, as Ryan, Dan and Victor get an early start.  We say our goodbyes to Dragons Tail and Orange Lightening and hobble out of camp, stretching regularly.  This stretching routine had become pretty standard at every break over the past couple days and was more and more becoming the reason for a break, rather than us being tired.  To Erik and my amazement (and embarrassment), Orange Lightening would later pass us on a steep downhill section, larking like a little sprite, as he skipped down the hill.  It was amazing to see an older guy with such indestructible legs.  I remembered him saying something earlier about ritualistically taking glucosamine with chondroitin.  Definitely buying some of that on my zero day. 



The hiking day was relatively uneventful.  We passed by the Deep Gap Shelter trail without taking a 2nd look, as the shelter sits .3mi off the main Trail.  When Erik and I reached the road crossing at Dicks Creek Gap, Ryan, Dan and Victor were already trying to hitch a ride.  Dan even had the brilliant idea of writing, “Hiker to Town” in big bold sharpie on one part of his tyvek (sp?) ground cloth and, “Hiker to Trail” on another part.  I told them they would be more successful if they showed more leg. 



Within 10 minutes, my mom and stepdad had arrived in their car.  Apparently, the satellite tracking device I have been carrying (http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0qtQZntGbdILkDfJBP3oBQxdB8xa810To) is doing a good job of enabling us to time these pickups.  They were nice enough to offer the guys a ride into town and Erik a drive back to his place in Franklin.  When my mom got back from driving Ryan, Dan and Victor into Hiawassee, she noted that Erik and I smelled much better than the other guys, who had been wearing underarmour.  Merino wool > synthetic

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day 4: Slackpack Blood Mountain (Woody Gap to Neels Gap)


Day 4:  Slackpack Blood Mountain (Woody Gap to Neels Gap)

This morning I woke up starved.  Good thing there are pancakes and eggs for breakfast again.  Today the plan is to slackpack through the area with the bear restrictions.  Slackpacking is when you leave a portion of your gear at a base camp of some kind while you hike a section.  After you are done with the section, you return to your gear/ base camp.  Typically, a slackpacker carries only enough water, food, and layers to get them through 1 day of hiking. 

The drive to Woody Gap was pretty knarly.  A heavy fog had set in and the roads were damp and curvy.  It seemed like Josh really knew these roads as he would dive into each corner and precisely navigate through the apex like a race car driver, though he was driving a 15 passenger van.  The fog was still very dense as we jumped out at Woody Gap and walked into the woods. 

The trees were releasing beads of condensation in a very slow drizzle even though it wasn’t actually raining.  This, combined with the dense fog, gave everything a very peaceful, almost hypnotic quality.  The first five and a half miles of our 10.6 mile day went by very quickly.  The ground was soft from the moisture and the terrain was reasonably flat.  Both factors made this first section easy on the legs, not to mention we weren’t carrying the normal 30+lbs on our backs. 

Once we got up a little higher, the winds picked up and the temperatures dropped a bit.  Combined with the moisture and the tougher terrain ascending Blood Mountain, I was beginning to get a chill.  I was only wearing my merino wool t-shirt up to this point, and now that it was wet, I was determined to get to the top and change it at Blood Mountain Shelter.  The only problem is that in order to keep warm, I needed to hike much harder.  The last 300 yards to the top, I was nearly in a full-out sprint in order to shake off the increasingly stronger cold winds.  Just before the top, I quickly met and passed Dragons Tail, who had run out of steam climbing the unrelenting uphill section. 

Upon reaching Blood Mountain Shelter, I dropped my pack, shed my wet t-shirt and threw on my dry merino wool base layer and primaloft top.  Instant warmth.  I looked around for somewhere to hang my wet shirt, but there were no nails or strings to speak of.  Just the rafters overhead.  I remember thinking, “I’m going to leave my shirt if I put it up there.”  So, I looked around again for a spot to hang my shirt (this is a $50 merino wool shirt, BTW).  No luck.  Finally, I just slung it over a rafter and sat down for some gorp.  Gorp is short for “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts” and applies for whatever trailmix you may carry, whether homemade (I will disclose my recipe in a future chapter) or store bought.  Papa Hix (44, Michigan), Animal (Texas), and Half Moon were already inside the substantial 4-walled, 2 roomed stone shelter.  Half Moon and Animal were gone before we had even settled in.  Papa Hix, a questionable-looking but nice enough guy, was rolling his own cigarette and saying something about getting drunk at Neels Gap.  While we were making nice with Papa Hix, Mike (28, NY) briefly popped in to ask where the Trail continued, as there were multiple footpaths leading away from the shelter and none of them seemed to have a white blaze.  We pointed the way the Trail appeared to continue and Mike disappeared with a quick pace. 

In just a few minutes, the rain began to come down in sheets.  We jumped into our rain gear, did a quick visual check to ensure we hadn’t left anything behind, and into the deluge we went.  I decided not to put rain bottoms on but to just tighten my gaiters to keep water from running down my legs.  For some reason, having the cold rain soaking my shorts and hitting my legs felt really refreshing as we hiked the last long downhill section.  It was not until halfway down the mountain that I exclaimed, “SHIT!  I left my t-shirt at the top.”  Erik sarcastically asks, “Do you want to go get it?  We’ll, wait for you at Neels Gap.” 

Neels Gap is home to the Mountain Crossings (www.mountaincrossings.com) outfitter.  Kinda hard to miss the place, as it is the only covered structure you’ll ever have to walk through on the AT.  The historical building was completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps the same year the AT was completed in 1937.   Mountain Crossings is famous for doing AT backpack shakedowns.  A shakedown is where a hiker empties their backpack and allows someone (generally a former thru-hiker or more experienced hiker) to make suggestions on how they might drop weight and/or retool their camping system.  Mountain Crossings claims to shakedown over 500 packs and send home roughly 9000lbs of gear for hikers each year.  They will also hold maildrop packages full of supplies for hikers, like many outfitters and hostels along the Trail.  I received my first maildrop here (I will go over maildrops in another chapter). 

Though Mountain Crossings also operates as a hostel, our gear was back at the Hiker’s Hostel, so we had some time to hang out before GI Jayne caught up with us.  We decided to make ourselves comfortable next to the Mountain Crossings main desk and register.  Half Moon and the “Lancaster Twins” (I didn’t manage to jot their names down… so this is just the name I gave them b/c I remember that they are both from Lancaster) were also there, along with a bunch of old timers that were gathered in a corner chatting for a while.  I was introduced to the original creator of Whiteblaze.net, though his name escapes me.  And I’m fairly certain that AWOL (author of “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” and the widely used “AT Guide”) was there, though I didn’t recognize him at the time.  Turns out there was an AT festival at Amicalola Falls that weekend and some of the various trail businesses and personalities were in town. 

Shortly after GI Jayne arrived, the shuttle also arrived.  With a warm pepperoni pizza Hot Pocket in hand, I jumped into the Hiker’s Hostel van and we raced back to the cozy log cabin.  I had only just started to reorganize my stuff next to my bunk when Erik whispers to me from just outside, “Birdman, I think AWOL is downstairs.”  “How do you know?” I replied.  “He’s downstairs talking to the owners.  I’m trying to hear what they are talking about so I can be sure,” he said.  I grabbed my camera and head down just as AWOL had gone into the bathroom.  I looked at Josh and asked, “Is that…”  He interjected, “Yes, and yes I can take your picture.”  I guess this is not unusual… lol.  (Pictures have been sent to Miami… so you will just have to wait for this one). 

Tonight, we decided dinner would be simple.  Subway 12” sub sandwiches were the winner.  Everyone seemed to gravitate towards their bunks early this evening.  I was up late (10:00) still organizing the food I had just received in my maildrop.  Due to the slackpacking and some changes in food strategy (e.g. 1 oatmeal in the morning, instead of 2), I had some extra food to send back home.  Rain had started to fall outside and the winds were picking up.  Suddenly, a loud crack of thunder rocked the building as the power flashed off and then quickly back on.  Within seconds the owners were in the main living room watching the local radar on tv.  At the same time, I became aware of the faint cry of a tornado siren in the distance.  Moments later, another closer siren started screaming as the tv announced that there was a storm system with substantial upper and lower level rotation headed directly for us. 

Josh and Leigh looked up at me and said, “Okay, everyone in the basement.”  Erik and Azalon, already awake after that one loud thunder crack, did not need anyone to tell them twice.  They had already woken our 4th roommate (all the way from Hawaii) and began shuffling quickly downstairs.  As we went through the basement door at the bottom of the stairs, we could see that everyone staying in the basement had already crowded into the hiker’s kitchen area, as it was furthest from any windows.  GI Jayne, Sipsey, Orange Lightening, and Joe were all there along with a section-hiking father/son team and a couple cyclists.  As usual, I had to joke, “Well, thanks for coming to get us guys.”  To which GI Jayne reflexively replied, “Sorry.  We thought you were gonners,” with a grin growing across her face. 

The owner’s dog Maggie, a golden retriever, was terrified of the storm.  Running from one person to the next for some reassurance and attention, she was visually trembling.  Leigh is intensely listening to the crackling voices emanating from a handheld HAM radio.  Everyone else is fairly quiet and either watching or listening to the violent winds pushing around the trees outside.  One or two people have lied down on the floor and shut their eyes, but are not asleep.  Erik, seeing a stash of unfinished Bud Light in the fridge, says, “Hey, we’re up.  We might as well drink,” as he pops a bottle top. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Day 3: Food Porn Already? (Hawk Mtn Shelter to Woody Gap)


Day 3:  Food Porn Already? (Hawk Mountain Shelter to Woody Gap):

This morning was typical for the past few days with temperatures around 55 degrees.  There was still a little moisture in the ground from the night’s rains, but the sky was clear. 

Due to restrictions further down the trail (at Woods Hole and Blood Mtn Shelters) involving bear activity, the next day’s options were, 1) camp at Woody Gap, 2) get a shuttle back to Hiker’s Hostel and stay there, or 3) hike all the way through to Neals Gap.  Staying at the Hiker’s Hostel was a no brainer for me, as there were more storms expected and an additional 10 miles to Neals Gap was just too much.  Plus, a mattress and shower seemed like a pretty good idea. 

Azalon, Erik, and I stopped at Gooch Mountain Shelter for a leisurely lunch.  Also stopping in were Half Moon, Always Fine, Matt, and Mamma and Papa Bear.  After some boot drying and clumpy protein drink drinking, we continued hiking with Matt in tandem.  The 2nd part of the hike dragged on much longer than we would have liked… and it was HOT.  My thermometer read 82 degrees (in the sun) at one point.  We were chatting about any number of things to get our mind off the heat and the miles.  Cars, sports, gear, women… and then it happened.  Out of nowhere Matt said the word, “Brats”.  I’m fairly certain I heard all 4 of our salivary glands begin pumping uncontrollably.  Immediately we were diving into all the things we were going to make at the Hiker’s Hostel that night.  Matt finally stopped us and said, “Oh no. Food porn already?! We’re in trouble.”  Ultimately, we decided that I would make my famous mustard and pepper steak along with some beer brats for anyone that was interested.

Further down the trail, filling their water from a cruddy-looking spring, we found GI Jayne and her hiking buddy Sipsey.  I was very happy to run into GI Jayne again, as I had not seen her since I left on the Approach Trail and she went ahead to Springer.  She is my mom’s age, short, and with a buzzcut of short grey hair (thus her trailname).  But she has the gleam in her eyes and enthusiasm of a playful young girl.  We told her of our plans to stay at the Hostel again that night.  She seemed happy see familiar faces and even happier to hear I was cooking dinner.  Before we were out of earshot, she had already ordered a steak and salad. 

Not too much longer and we had arrived at the road crossing at Woody Gap (Ga 60).  Matt went to hang out with Todd, who was also tenting there for the night.  We went over to see Always Fine and the large-framed man he was talking to.  “HT1”, a military acronym for Hull Maintenance Technician 1st Class, had what looked like a Marine drill sergeant’s full-brimmed green felt hat on.  Vincent, who seems to keep to himself, also wandered across the road and set up his tarp tent in the trees.  Soon enough, GI Jayne and Sipsey would join us as well.  Sipsey is an older gentleman from Alabama sporting a snow white beard, quick wit, and friendly sense of humor.  His trail name is derived from the Sipsey Wilderness area near where he lives. 

Man, the dinner we cooked.  They will be telling stories about it up and down the trail.  1 ribeye and 3 sirloin steaks.  10 beer brats.  12 Heineken.  Lettuce and spring mix salad with sliced tomatoes and Italian dressing.  Buttered corn cooked in husk and foil.  Steaks prepared with powdered yellow mustard, Worcestershire sauce, white pepper, and lime and cooked on a cool grill and splashed with Liquid Smoke.  I started marinating the steaks while everyone else showered.  Once everything was on the grill, I was able to take a glorious shower as well. 

It is unbelievable how ravenous hikers can be after just a few days in the woods.  HT1 finished his steak with no problems.  Even GI Jayne killed her ribeye without remorse.  Not to be outdone, I struggled to put the last tasty morsel in my mouth after 2 sittings, a salad, spicy sausage, and a brat.  Azalon, on the other hand, saved some for steak and eggs the next morning and Erik just ate a few brats.  Other Hostel guests nibbled on this and that as well. 

If you know me, you know that I love to grill out for people. It has been one of my favorite things to do for years now with my Volkswagen friends.  The feeling of community and camaraderie is always heightened when a group is well fed, even when they are basically complete strangers.  Even though I received multiple compliments and thank you’s for my cooking, I don’t think they really realize how much I loved doing it for them.  We had such a great time!