On April 20th I went on my first backpacking trip in a while. It was designed as an overnight with a short second day so I could get home before it got too late. It was my second solo trip, and provided me with some new experiences. “Solo” isn’t the best word for Spring on the Appalachian Trail. There aren’t many places you can go on the southern sections in April and be truly alone. I must have seen 25-30 people.
I get up at 330am and head to Georgia, to make my Shuttle ride with time to spare. I had to stop at a Wal-Mart for a couple of things outside Greenville, including Immodium because my stomach was not happy with me for some reason. Great – having the poops on the trail would be fun. It worked very well though, and stopped me up.
The shuttle driver arrived 15 minutes early, right when I was pulling into the parking area. I had to rush around to change and get the pack in her car, and in the process, lost my car keys. I did a thorough search, to no avail, and finally gave up and grabbed the spare key from its hidden spot. I always hide a key in a spot so hard to find it would take a thief forever to find it. That way even if I lose my pack in a river or an animal drags it off at night, I can at least break my window with a rock and go home.
After a short ride from Unicoi Gap to Dick’s Creek, she dropped me off and I realized that my pack was soaking wet on the back. I figured I had left my water bag valve open and it lay on it. No – by the time I walked over to the picnic table at the side of the road, I could smell it. It was denatured alcohol. I checked my stove fuel bottle, and sure enough, the lid had flipped open during the ride, and I was out of fuel. Thankfully, unlike water, it would all evaporate quickly, but now I was going to be trying to cook without fuel.
As it turns out, there were a few hikers at a van packing up to go somewhere. I yelled over to them and asked about fuel. One of them met me with a can of the same stuff I use from Wal-Mart, and gave me a few ounces to get through the night. As I finished up, another of their group ran over to me with a cardboard box, and asked if I wanted the last doughnut.
They say “The trail will provide”. Unanticipated luck, finding a ride at just the right moment, encountering someone out of nowhere that is able to help you, or having things suddenly go the right way is called “Trail Magic”. Sometimes people call Hiker Feeds “trail magic”, but that’s not really what the term was coined to mean. Having someone that just happened to have a big jug of the fuel I use… that’s Trail Magic. It was already raining lightly, so I got out my rain jacket, which was also wet from fuel. Great – very stongly scented clothing. I’m sure a bear wouldn’t find that interesting at all.
I started out at Dick’s Creek Gap in Georgia, heading south towards Unicoi Gap, a distance of right about 17 miles. I like going south against the thru-hiker attemptees. You meet more of them, and you don’t constantly play leapfrog with the same people all day. The first obstacle was Kelly Knob. This is the same hill that kicked my ass last year and made me give up and go to a hotel. This year, I was starting fresh, instead of being on Day 2 of an already tough trip. Its 1500 feet up from Dick’s Creek, and although its a four mile hike, there are some downs in there too, so the ups are steeper than a flat 1500 foot/4 mile climb. There are several places where rocks and logs are placed like steps across the trail.
I made it to Kelly knob, and stopped for a rest. It was nearly lunch, I was tired, and the rain had turned to a wintry mix of snow/sleet. There was a lull in the precipitation, so I pulled out my Ham radio and set it up, right there on top of the mountain, off the trail. I made a couple of contacts, so I know it works fine. I wanted to try to do a “Summit on the Air” activation, but this weekend was the Michigan ham party (called a “QSO Party”, where people in Michigan try to talk to as many other counties in Michigan as they can, as well as other states. The frequencies were clogged with people already using them. I finally found a clear frequency, and called several times. I couldn’t get an answer and it started sleeting heavy. With no way to keep all my stuff dry, I figured I would try again a little later. It was then that two guys in yellow traffic jackets walked up.
There was an injured hiker, they said. Someone had hurt their knee yesterday and was sheltering in place, but no one could find the person. Supposedly they were in a blue tent off the trail. I hadn’t seen a blue tent today, but I hadn’t gone off trail either. I hadn’t even got off trail to find Deep Gap shelter. I told them I would keep an eye out, and if I found them I could get on the ham radio again, if there was no phone service. Up until this point, phone service was okay. On most of the hills I had a signal, although right there on Kelly Knob, nothing.
So down Kelly Knob into Addis Gap, the heavy sleet had stopped and it turned into light snow flurries. It was strange because nothing was sticking, when it hit plants or the ground it would melt. But everything was muddy, slippery, and wet. Down through Addis Gap I saw the rescue truck on a forest service road, complete with a stretcher. I passed a few northbounders and let them know about the problem, and if they saw someone hurt just to relay it to the yellow coats people. One lady said she had seen a man hiking south that looked in bad shape, with just a mylar Space Blanket wrapped around himself. Hopefully he made it to the road or they had already taken him. I never saw him.
Down Kelly Knob, up Round top, across the “Swag of the Blue Ridge” and over to Tray Mountain shelter was another 1000 foot climb, and 6 miles of smaller ups and downs. The last push up towards the shelter was tough. I passed the same two yellow coats I had seen on Kelly Knob, again hiking north. They had been joined by two others and were convinced the tent was somewhere between Addis Gap and Tray Mountain. They told me the shelter was really full, and I said I was heading over the hill and down to Indian Grave Gap, wjhich would give me only 3 miles to do tomorrow. It was barely 5pm, and I had at least three more hours of daylight.
All the recent rain did me good, as well. I thought I was going to have to go off trail, past the shelter, to get to the only water source listed in the book for Tray Mountain. But, on the way up just past the rescue group was a spot where water drains off the higher parts of the mountain. These are often dry except during the wettest weather. Since my camelbak was empty and I was on my “reserve bottle” I keep outside the pack, the water was a welcome sight. I stopped and put 2 liters in my pack and headed up and over the hill.
Down Tray Mountain to Indian Grave was 2.5 miles and 1400 feet. It was a long grueling descent, painful on the knees and thighs. I stopped just after the peak and went off to the side to cook my supper. I was starving, hadn’t eaten much, and knew I needed the fuel so my wobbly legs didn’t give out. Afterwards, I ran into a few more people, but it was after 5 and most seemed to be stopping to claim camping spots. I ran into two women in their 20s going up the hill. When I stopped to let them pass, their dog found an interest in me. I told them, if they were going to the shelter, that I was told it was full. They said they were going to the top then back down to Indian Grave Gap to camp. I said I was thinking of camping there too, and they said “see you there!” and we all parted ways.
When I reached the bottom it was just after 6 and I looked at the trail. Only 2.5 more miles. I weighed my options. I could go ahead and stop and set everything up, in the rain. I have done rain and there’s no problem with rain, but I would be drying wet gear out all over the house. I knew I needed to get home as early as possible tomorrow as my daughter had a hospital thing to do early Monday. The thought of the dog running around the camping area wasn’t that thrilling, and there wouldn’t be a shelter or fire to sit around. The only obstacle in the way was Rocky Mountain. Although the trail was only 2.5 miles long (usually about an 80 minute walk), I had to go up 900 feet and back down 1100 feet to get to the car.
I hadn’t done a 17 mile day in a LONG time. It was also about this time that a notion formed in my head, and my brain convinced me it was true. So – when I returned to the car from the shuttle driver and lost my keys, my brain conjured up an image of me sitting the keys on the roof by the driver’s door. If that was true, anyone that found the keys would have a free car. Although Vandalism is always a possibility, a more likely scenario in my mind would be someone coming through checking doors to see if they are locked. So all that convinced me. Make a break for it.
Woe was me… Rocky mountain seemed a lot more brutal than I had figured. I had run through most of my water again, but I stopped 2/3 of the way up and just sat down right beside the trail to finish the last of my food (except what was cookable for breakfast) and drink from a spring off the side. It was everything I needed. I had looked at the elevation map on my phone 3 times and thought I would never make it. It was one of those trails that you think you’re almost to the top, you round a corner and theres a whole mountain still in front of you. And of course, every time there was supposed to be a good view, it was shrouded in mist.
After my rest break, it was only about another 150 feet to the top, all scrambling over wet rocks and trying to find the trail in the dwindling darkness. I told myself that if the other side of the hill was like this, I may have to give up and stop at the first trees I could find. It was nearly dusk and I didn’t want to get lost. The other side wasn’t as bad. When I topped the hill and started down, it was a good steep incline, but lots of regular trail with a few rock steps here and there. I turned on my headlamp about a mile from the car, as it was too dark to see clearly.
The mist and fog that held out all day long was still there, fogging my glasses and making it harder to see every time I breathed out. The landscape made for unforgiving camping, and there was a LOT of water rushing across the trail in spots. I could hear a nice creek nearby, but my crappy Lowes headlamp only let me see about 15 feet in front of me at any one time. It didn’t seem like a good place to stop unless you had to. The last half a mile was full on, black dark. I could hear cars going by and see headlights below, and I finally stepped out into the gravel parking lot.
The car was there!
I grabbed the key out the pack, started the car for some heat, and changed my clothes. Everything was wet, either from rain/snow or from sweat. I hadn’t taken my rain jacket off all day. I dug around and found some food in the car, some Toast-Chees or something, and I had my post-hike water in there as well. I texted the wife I was at the car and I would take a nap and then head home at first light. Once the car was warm, I leaned the seat back, pulled out my top quilt, shut the car off and fell asleep. I woke up at 2am thinking it was getting light, but no, it was the full moon out lighting up everything. I fell back asleep until 6, then drove home.
Even though I cheated and “car camped”, I was glad I did. Facing Rocky Mountain first thing Sunday morning would have been awful, with sore legs and a night in the hammock. Georgia is DONE. I’m glad, too, because everywhere in Georgia is so inconvenient for me to get to. I have two spots in North Carolina south of the Smokies that are the same way, but then anything else is up towards Virginia, and mostly interstate driving.
It was hiking in Beast Mode for sure. 17 miles for a weekender is no mean feat. I went up a total of almost a mile, and came down a total of just under a mile. And – I got to use my radio to actually talk in the woods, which was a lot of fun. Oh, and that missing key? It had fallen into that void between the seats. It took a really bright flashlight and five minutes of searching just to find it.