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.