The best laid plans are just a starting point. Life requires flexibility. Hiking the A.T. is a life experience. The first week everything goes like clockwork. My plan seems perfect. Unexpected conditions pop up during week two and acceptable alternatives are easily substituted to keep me on track. Week three, things unravel quickly amid snowfall that just won’t quit. Adjustments now require reconfiguration of my two-year plan, a disappointing but unavoidable part of the deal. Nonetheless, I’ve chalked up 174.9 miles and look forward to Section Three. Here’s my account of Section One.
On March 8, my son’s 24th birthday, I drive to Amicalola State Park in northern Georgia with Allen Sweetser, who will take my car back to his and Susan’s house. I check in at the lodge and go to the park’s visitors center to register as an A.T. thru-hiker and knock off the first 1.2 miles of the approach trail — the hardest part, 604 steps climbing the side of the falls. With only my camera and Humphrey in tow, it isn’t as daunting for me as those who carry a full backpack. I return to the lodge at sunset for a buffet dinner. This weekend is the lodge’s annual “ATKO” Appalachian Trail Kick Off event, with various speakers and gear demonstrations. It’s crowded. I stop in briefly but soon retire to my room. At this point, there is little I can learn that will be helpful in 12 hours.
Day One, Mar. 9: 10.4 miles. The journey begins in earnest after breakfast. I hike the remaining 7.6 miles up Springer Mountain, arriving before noon. The approach trail edges around the top effectively sneaking up on the rather small wooded summit, where a large plaque and trail register (tucked in a metal box on the side) overlook the famous A.T. marker bolted to the bedrock, the initial white blaze, and the first of many scenic views to come. I set Humphrey near the marker for a photo and eat lunch. Most of the people appear to be day hikers from the parking lot one mile up the A.T.
At 12:30 p.m., I step forward on the actual Appalachian Trail with Stover Creek Shelter (2.8 miles) as my destination. The trail starts off rocky with patches of ice from a winter storm earlier in the week. I pass the southern terminus of the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) at mile two. One day I’ll do this trail. The A.T. begins as a descent from Springer Mountain. Three people without packs pass me at a fast clip. In a few minutes I come upon them gathered in serious discussion. The man looks at me and says, “I have what may be a stupid question.” “Maybe I have a stupid answer,” is my reply. They’ve come from the parking area, and he wants to know if they are headed in the right direction to reach Springer Mountain. I say no and encourage them to continue to Maine instead. They laugh and turn around.
I reach Stover Creek at 2:00 p.m. It’s a two-story shelter built in 2006. The lower platform is divided into two sections with a center access aisle, a clever design idea. There are wood batten windows on each level that can be opened for air flow. A large picnic table sits within the shelter’s generous covered porch, and benches line the porch railing.
A family of six from Seattle is spread out here eating, playing, writing. The four children are home schooled, and the A.T. is to be their classroom for the next several months. Two boys, “High-Five” and “Road Kill,” must be about 5 or 6 years old. A young girl with Down’s Syndrome, Virginia, is probably around 8, and the oldest girl may be early teens. Mom is the most unflappable person I’ve seen. Dad is along for the ride until he has to return to work. Then Mom will go it alone. She says they hiked across England one summer, and she believes they can hike the A.T. in 203 days. I don’t doubt her fortitude, but I do think she’s crazy. They are tent camping, and after much wrangling and noise, they pack up and move on.
Most A.T. hikers prefer their tents or hammocks to sleeping in shelters, especially if the weather is at all cooperative. Tent cities spring up by late afternoon, colonizing every semi-flat piece of earth within a shelter’s proximity. Stover Creek sleeps 16, but there are only three people in the shelter and at least a dozen in tents. Since Stover Creek is so nice and new, I’m one of the three tonight along with Bill from Dallas and “Double Dare.” However, I will quickly switch sides in the coming days.
The night is quite cool, and hikers MUST build a campfire. Sitting around the fire, I meet two guys retired from the military on disability. “Lucky One” was shot in the face in Iraq, though he is quite handsome and I can see no evidence of such trauma. His friend “Narnia” seems to have gone ‘down the rabbit hole’ rather than ‘through the wardrobe,’ if you know what I mean. They have brought all kinds of electronic gear — gaming systems, iPads with movies and TV shows — and solar chargers to keep them running. Both are heavy smokers.
Two other young men, Josh and Scott, buddies from college with no trail names yet, are there. Josh, Scott and I will see each other with regularity over the next two weeks and become friends. We do not see “Lucky One” and “Narnia” again and often wonder how they are doing.
No matter how congenially hikers congregate at night, the next day they splinter into their own little worlds and hit the trail solo or in their respective pairs. Greetings are exchanged when passing along the trail, but rarely do folks stay in sight of each other for long, much less earshot. Even pairs separate. Josh is a stronger hiker than Scott, and he would usually arrive well before his buddy. Everyone has to hike his or her own hike. Going faster or slower than you’d like adds unnecessary difficulty.
Day 2, Mar. 10: 13 miles Daylight Savings has seriously effected mornings. It is barely light at 7:30 a.m., and even though I’m one of the first to leave, I don’t get on trail until after 9:00. The first six miles are fairly easy, some of it along a gently graded dirt road. I see the Seattle family, kids running around their tent site near a stream. For a bit, the A.T. and BMT coincide on the old road until it ends and each diverges on its own narrow footpath through the forest. The trail becomes a jagged series of ups and downs, lurching from mountain to gap and back again. Some are quite steep. Sassafras Mountain and Justus Mountain with Cooper Gap in between are particularly trying. I play tag most of the day with a very large group of Southern Illinois University students on spring break.
Fort Benning, a training base for Army Rangers, is nearby. Rifle and artillery fire can be heard throughout the day. Even remote wilderness trails have a functioning news “grapevine.” Word spreads that evening maneuvers are planned. Two Army vehicles, one a field ambulance, are parked in Cooper Gap. Hikers after me would see soldiers in the woods and late in the day one officer warned two hikers to vacate the area quickly before the exercises begin.
The trail smooths out past Justus Mountain, but I’m ready to call it a day. Gooch Mountain Shelter is my goal, and I begin looking for it long before I reach it. It is already crowded and many more arrive to set up tents. One couple, “Odometer” and “Gutsy,” is looking for two spots in the shelter. I move so they may be together. “Gutsy” is quite a talker who likes to direct other people. She seems nice enough, but some of us begin to think “Mouthy” or “Bossy” might be a better trail name. It isn’t as chilly tonight, but a fire is built anyway. I set Humphrey on a log around the fire to take his picture. One of the hikers offers him a snack as I snap the photo! This is the first shelter journal where I draw Humphrey’s face as part of my (our) regular entries.
I wind up sleeping between a deaf old man and an older woman. Both snore. The old man wakes in the middle of the night to pee in a bottle. I’m petrified he’ll spill it.
Day 3, Mar. 11: 8.5 miles Packing up in the morning is awful. The shelter is very small and most of the space is taken up with a huge picnic table. Everyone is trying to fix breakfast and pack at the same time. Some people occupy an inordinate amount of space. It is quite a relief to hit the trail. It’s easy going most of the way except for Big Cedar Mountain, basically a large, steep boulder field.
The weather has been sunny and mild thus far. Today that changes. It is cool and very windy with dense fog. Georgia Highway 60 at Woody Gap is cloaked in fog making the road crossing more dangerous. Rain is expected by late afternoon. Fortunately, I have a short day planned. This year the U.S. Forest Service requires anyone camping between Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap, a five mile stretch including the Woods Hole and Blood Mountain Shelters, to have a hardshell bear canister for food. I stop at Lance Creek, a campsite two miles from Jarrard Gap, rather than force an impossibly long, hard slog across Blood Mountain. This proves to be a very smart move.
I arrive at Lance Creek at 1:30, set up my tent, filter water, and prepare for my evening meal and bedtime. A father and son set up next to me. They are the ones who had hiked the wrong direction to Springer Mountain my first day. Bill, the dad, hiked the A.T. last year and his son, in his 20s, is trying it this year. Dad is accompanying him to Fontana Dam. Bill and I talk a bit. He’s retired from the Army and has just bought land in West Virginia for a sustainable farm.
It begins to sprinkle at 3:30 and is raining hard by 4:00. Rain doesn’t stop until 11 p.m. One end of my tent pulls loose during the night relaxing the fly enough to allow some condensation to drip inside. Thankfully, it isn’t too drippy!
Day 4, Mar. 12, 11.6 miles This morning the wind is howling, and it is very cold. The end of my tent is whipping around. Bill re-stakes it for me and gives me some advice on tensioning the guy lines. Conditions are so bad, I skip breakfast and pack quickly to get on the trail and warm up. My hands are nearly frozen from the wet and wind. Gusts have to be more than 30 mph.
The precipitation, wind, and cold have left white rime ice on every twig and branch. As the morning brightens, this wintry scene shines and sparkles through Jarrard Gap. It’s lovely.
I make it to the top of Blood Mountain at 12:00. Skies have cleared, and the sun is shining, but the wind is still strong and gusty. The summit of Blood Mountain is a beautiful geologic wonder. Massive boulders, from car to house-sized, are jumbled up there allowing any number of perches and nooks for lunch and views. The shelter is a four-sided stone structure set among the boulders. Rock Tripe Lichens cover the rocks. Juncos are flitting about. I find a spot out of the wind and in the sun to dry out some gear and eat a big lunch. I had snacks on the way but must compensate for that missed breakfast.
Descending Blood Mountain is even more adventurous than climbing it, scrambling down chest-high boulders. At the base is Neel Gap and Mountain Crossings, a full service outfitter. This is the first opportunity new hikers have to make gear changes based on the trail’s reality. There are campsites, a restaurant, laundry, and bunkhouse here too. During yesterday’s rainstorm many hikers who got caught on Blood Mountain sloshed into the store drenched and freezing.
I shipped a small resupply here before leaving home and add it to my food bag. Nearby is a small cardboard box labeled “Trail Magic” with candy bars, sodas, and water bottles inside. I spy a Butterfinger but decide not to indulge empty calories — a mistake. I’m looking for a campsite, Baggs Creek Gap 4.2 miles away, and it is too cold to stand still.
The Miller “A.W.O.L.” trail guide features a running profile of the trail. It’s easy to see the big elevation changes, less so the smaller ones. Even short climbs can get to you, especially near the end of the day. I need to cross over Wolf Laurel Top before reaching Baggs Creek Gap. Every incline seems like Wolf Laurel Top until I finally do reach that small rise. I feared not being able to find this campsite. “A.W.O.L.” doesn’t show it, but the A.T.C. books do. Some gaps are noted with signs; some aren’t. Baggs Creek isn’t, but I find it anyway thanks to the slight trail leading left to a tiny spring. The campsite is relatively smooth and flat, a good place to stop for the night. The next shelter is 2.5 miles away and an additional 1.2 miles off the trail. It’s after 5:00 now. I’ve got evening chores to do.
My tent dries in the fading sunlight. The wind isn’t too bad during the evening and night. Temperatures are expected to dip into the upper twenties in the valley. This means it will be near 20 degrees up here.
There have been few people on the trail, and I don’t know if I’ll be alone or not. Two guys I met at Gooch from Connecticut just hiking for a week walk by and see my tent. They decide to stop here too. My plan, and theirs, is to hike to Blue Mountain Shelter tomorrow, a shelter renown for its raw exposure to cold winds. They’ve heard the temperature will be 10 degrees colder tomorrow night, and make phone calls to arrange a pickup in the morning. Their sleeping gear isn’t suited to these winter conditions.
I prepare everything for a quick morning including my breakfast — granola with powdered milk and 16 oz Nuun drink. I stay surprisingly warm in my tent, noting a chill around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.
Day 5, Mar. 13: 14.6 miles Thanks to my preparations last night, I can dress, eat, and pack in my tent. I’m ready to go in record time. It’s a chilly start but I warm up crossing Cowrock Mountain, Wildcat Mountain, Poor Mountain, and Sheep Rock Top. At 1:15 p.m. I stop for lunch at Low Gap Shelter (7.3 miles), the last good stop before Blue Mountain, another 7.3 miles. Josh and Scott have just finished their lunch here. They are going to Blue Mountain.
At Low Gap I meet “Maine-iac,” a college-aged nordic ski instructor from Maine. He’s hiked a long way already and is staying here for the night. Ned, a young man from Wales with a six-month visa to hike the A.T., is nursing a sore knee. I consider stopping here, but Low Gap seems pretty darn cold and windy, so I wish Ned and “Maine-iac” well and push on. Nearly four miles of the trail ahead is an old roadbed with good footing and gentle grade. I buzz that 3.9 mile stretch in 90 minutes!!
At the end of the road, the trail goes up and over a small ridge line plunging straight into the teeth of winds still gusting over 30 mph. Parts of the trail are steep or challenging to negotiate, traversing rock slides and boulder fields where the path is nothing more than a jumble of big rocks and small boulders. This 3.4 miles takes over two hours to cover.
Blue Mountain Shelter sits astride a narrow ridge at 3,906 feet elevation and faces east. Someone hung a large tarp across the middle of the opening, and I set my gear directly behind it. Josh and Scott are here along with “Sour Patch,” a young man who brought two pounds of Sour Patch candy in his pack and ate it within the first two days! Blue Mountain has one of the cleanest privies I’ve seen, but the water source is quite a distance back down the A.T. and is just a tiny trickle.
I use Platypus’ GravityWorks to filter water. It’s a good system but a bit unwieldy for one person. Several of the springs have been so small and low, it has been hard to fill the “dirty” bag slowing down the process. The combination of wet hands and cold wind makes my fingers burn like fire. It is extremely painful. By the time I get enough water for my pack bladder and meals, I’m near tears.
By now we are used to dirty hands, cleaning utensils with spit, and smelly clothes. In weather this harsh, nobody cares. Just fix some food and go to bed. Josh says, “It’s amazing how quickly your standards lower out here!” Ha, ha! How true.
“Sour Patch” builds a small fire, but it does little against the frigid air. At dusk as the three of us are ready to retire, three more people arrive. They are not A.T. hikers, just locals out for a few days. They express surprise at how cold it is. Two of them set up tents, the third declares it is too dark to set his up so he’ll sleep in the shelter. “I’m a snorer,” he declares. “Fair warning.” Not only does this inconsiderate jerk rattle the rafters all night, he gets up at 4:30 a.m. stomping around packing up…not because he is leaving but because he only sleeps seven hours and doesn’t want to just “lie there.” I want to strangle him.
I wear every stitch of clothing I own, put an emergency blanket under my sleeping bag, and lay my tent rainfly on top. I place my water bladder in the sleeping bag dry sack, wrap it with another emergency blanket left in the shelter, and tuck my tent fly around it too. The wind is not bad, but anything exposed freezes. A pack thermometer registers 15 degrees. We think that is high.
Day 6, March 14: 12.8 miles The morning is brutal. The jerk’s friends do get a roaring fire going for which I am grateful. We watch the sun rise while eating breakfast. My toes and fingers are so cold and hurt so badly, I can barely get moving. Rhododendron leaves are drooping pitifully in response to the cold. Clusters of curled ice needles protrude from the ground. It takes a long time to get warm. The misery is so intense, I can easily see why some people give up. However, the sun is shining, the temperature moderates as I descend to Unicoi Gap, and birds are singing. Josh and Scott hitch a ride into Hiawassee at the gap. Scott’s knee has been bothering him since Blood Mountain.
“Sour Patch” has a bum knee from Blood Mountain as does Ned, the guy from Wales. All of these young men are limping on bad knees that particularly object to even a gentle downhill. All of them got off to a hard, fast start and bumped up against the reality of a young, healthy body unused to this type of physical stress. I’ve been cruising past people my age struggling with the physical exertion, their faces blank and staring, and these young men hobbling on protesting legs and feet.
I climb Rocky Mountain and descend to Indian Grave Gap where I stop to rest and eat snuggled against a tree in the sun. Despite my initial success on trail, I’m feeling a bit worn out today. I had a long day yesterday and did not sleep well last night. A red pickup truck wheels into a tiny parking area off the gap’s gravel road. Two guys get out, but I can’t see what they are doing. They walk over and peek around the tree at me. “Are you a thru-hiker?” I nod yes and they say, “We’ve got food for you if you are interested. Pizza, chicken, candy bars, beer, water, soft drinks.” The truck’s tailgate is down and there are three boxes of hot Bojangles fried chicken and biscuits. I choose a drumstick and take a bite. Oh My God. Warm, greasy goodness fills all my senses, and I find myself sucking every morsel off that leg bone and licking my dirty fingers. “Would I be a pig if I had another piece?” “Help yourself,” they say. I grab a thigh and tear into it like a half-starved animal. Then I eat a big biscuit. I really want a third piece of chicken, but I don’t want to be greedy.
These purveyors of Trail Magic are “Fish Hook” and “Panda.” They thru-hiked in 2011 and are here to support their friend “Thunderfoot” who has begun his third attempt at a thru-hike. They share some great stories from their time on the trail, and I get their picture with Humphrey.
It’s time to move on. I’ve been here too long and am getting cold. I thank them profusely and begin my ascent of Tray Mountain feeling very refreshed. That bit of chicken grease powers me 7.7 miles (3,600 feet in elevation change) in four hours!
When Allen and I drove to Amicalola, we saw a large plume of dense white smoke rising in the distance. I saw it from Sassafras Mountain March 10, and it is plainly visible again today from the top of Tray Mountain. It’s obviously a fire, but no one seems to know the cause. It could be a controlled burn. Temperatures and precipitation have been favorable but certainly not the winds. I can’t find an explanation.
I’d love to get to Deep Gap Shelter, but it’s an additional three miles and 2,000 feet in elevation change past campsites at Sassafras Gap. I run out of time if not chicken grease. However, I’m pleased to be here. It’s a wide level area with several good tent spots. I choose one well off the trail. A sign points to water on a blue blazed trail to the right. It’s a steep trail down about a tenth of a mile or so into a pretty little cove. The spring, “Johns Spring” according to the sign on a tree, is one of the best I’ve encountered thus far. The tree sits squarely in the crease of this tiny cove, and the water emerges clear and strong from the tree’s base. I walk down the next morning just to take a picture.
Tonight I’m ‘cooking’ for a change. Rather than just boil water, I will simmer cheesy noodles and broccoli with beef jerky to insure the noodles hydrate and cook fully. It’s a disaster. Distracted by other chores, the pot boils over coating my Pocket Rocket stove and fuel canister with cheesy broccoli bits. It burns on the bottom of the pot. A boiling drip hits my pants and melts a small hole in the leg. I put too much red pepper in my beef jerky and that ‘fire’ simmers into the noodles making them almost too spicy for my taste buds. Thank heaven I’m staying in Hiawassee the next night so I can clean up this mess!
Someone is setting up a tent a short distance away. It’s “The Postman,” a retired postal worker from Illinois. After Tray Mountain, I saw this man up ahead and plotted when I should announce myself so as not to sneak up on him. That happens a lot out here. There doesn’t seem to be a particular protocol. Most people say something when they are a few feet away. Others say nothing and startle the crap out of you. One guy clicked his hiking poles at me like I was wildlife to shoo off. “Postman” and I were just starting an uphill, so I decided to wait and see if I would still overtake him. I was looking down when I just about ran into him. He had stopped to catch his breath. I scared him silly and felt so bad. We talked a bit, and I told him about Sassafras Gap. Apparently, he decided to stop here too. I walk over to say hello and point out the spring. I’m comfortable with camping alone but am still glad to have another soul nearby. He calls me “Sprout G” instead of “G-Sprout.”
It’s not as cold, but the wind continues to roar all night. It dies down briefly, just enough to let me appreciate the silence, then it begins to build again, getting louder and louder, like some beast crying and moaning in the distance. It wears on me mentally. I use ear plugs to tamp it down enough to sleep soundly, otherwise it would wake me through the night.
Day 7, Mar. 15: 6.3 miles Today I come off the trail and overnight in Hiawassee, GA, where a major resupply, warm room, soft bed, and real food await. I’d confirmed a reservation at The Budget Inn yesterday on top of Tray Mountain. (AT&T service on Georgia mountaintops is surprisingly good…for a change.) With 6.3 miles including Kelly Knob to hike, I won’t make it to Dicks Creek Gap in time for the 11:00 a.m. shuttle, so I call about halfway to arrange a 12:30 pickup.
As I’ve noted so often on this Smokies blog, expectations can do a number on me. I’m ready to hit town, but Kelly Knob stands in the way and works me over good. It’s a one-mile, 900-foot climb out of Addis Gap, and the sucker goes STRAIGHT UP. I don’t think there is a single switchback. After Kelly Knob is a maddening series of little ups and downs before the final descent to Dicks Creek. I make the gap at 12:15 exhausted.
The shuttle arrives at 1:00. The young man driving is a true Georgia good ol’ boy, interested in trucks and cars. So we talk vehicles during the drive to Unicoi Gap and finally the town. I’m starving. We pass Zaxby’s and Dairy Queen before pulling into the motel. The proprietor tells me of a popular all-you-can-eat buffet 0.9 of a mile away. I don’t have that much energy left. It’s a Zaxby’s chicken club and french fries for lunch followed by a quarter-pound Dairy Queen cheeseburger and onion rings for dinner.
I spend the rest of the afternoon airing, cleaning, and drying gear, doing laundry (I’ve worn the same shirt, undies, and socks for an entire week!!), making phone calls, and restocking my food bag after a long, hot shower. I check the weather forecast for southwestern North Carolina. Another rain storm and cold snap are predicted. Valley temperatures could hit the upper teens Wednesday night. Ugh, not again! Tonight, though, I rest quietly in a warm bed and dream of spring.