On Thursday my meetup group headed out again to tackle another section of the Appalachian Trail. I had a few goals this time, one was to spend three nights in the woods, my longest yet. Another was to get a few more Geocaches, pushing me to a total of 600.
Neither worked. However, I did learn a few things which I will describe herewith.
Video is here:
AT Hike Hot Springs from Markus Amoungus on Vimeo.
Originally we had 6 people going, but one bailed on us the last minute due to illness. I mean, what’s more fun? Laying in bed with terrible headaches and a fever, or walking through cold winds up strenuous mountains for ten-thirteen miles a day for 3 days… You’re sick either way, right?
So, it wound up being 5 of us. Which was good, because the guy taking us to the drop off point only had a van capable of taking 5 people (I’m not sure why he said he could take 6 when I called. Were we supposed to sit in each other’s laps or something?)
We started early in the freaking morning from our usual spot, and drove to Hot Springs, North Carolina. Hot Springs is one of those unique trail towns where the Appalachian Trail comes out of the woods, runs right through town, and goes back into the woods. We started at Bluff Mountain Outfitters, which is on the same sidewalk with these AT Symbols
You can literally step off the Appalachian Trail right into the store. Location, Location. After an hour’s drive down to the AT Crossing under the I-40 overpass at the TN/NC state line, Dan dropped us off and we said goodbye to civilization.
Our first few minutes took us up and over a hill and back down to the same road we were just on. As we adjusted our packs and took off some outer clothing layers, a van drove by and we were encouraged to walk up to Standing Bear Hostel for pizza. We declined, needing to get under way and reach our shelter stop for the night on time, and some of the group had eaten a bit already. So it was up the hill again.
The first day, we had to climb a steady rate over 6 miles up 2500 feet. Quite tiring, to say the least. The view from Snowbird mountain was nice, and the mountain itself was pretty, with colorful flowers and an really interesting FAA VOR station on top.
On the ascent to Snowbird, we ran into another hiker named Raven, who had been on the trail over a month and had started in Georgia at Springer Mountain. We would hike with him for the next two days. After Snowbird, we descended 1200 feet over 2 miles or so to Deep Gap, and camped at the Groundhog Creek Shelter. Groundhog Creek was an old stonework shelter, and had a few groups there already. Thankfully there was plenty of open land around the shelter and we all found campsites. Myself, Paul and Scott camped down the hill away from the shelter, Cowboy (not being true to his name this time) stayed in the shelter with a few others, and Jim hung his hammock out back behind the shelter.
Paul and I cooked our food at our camping area, which had its own fire ring. After eating we burned our trash and some that was already in the fire pit that some slob hadn’t burned up. Our trash mainly consisted of paper towels and Clif Bar wrappers, things of that nature. It was my first time building a fire in the woods by myself.
I tried a new meal for supper. Normally I have some bagel or other bread, some mashed potatoes and maybe some beef jerky or something for protein, but this time I had brought an AlpineFaire meal, pre-divided into 3 portions using my kitchen scale. The Honey Lime chicken was GOOD. I would eat that at home.
There were a few smaller logs in a triangle already, and I put down a stick of fat lighter, a paper towel soaked in alcohol, and a bunch of twigs. Over that I stacked smaller sticks in layers going two different directions. I through a match at it and it went up with a whoosh, and kept burning for a little while, maybe 20-30 minutes. We let it go out and then poured water over it before bed. About the time I went to bed, I heard this god-awful noise like someone had opened a portal to hell and the demons were calling for us.
It turned out to be the bear cable pulleys. There was a rope and cable system for hanging food bags by the shelter, to keep food away from bears. The pulleys were a little rusty, and were screeching like banshees. Of course, everyone had to put up their food at different times so the screeching went on for a while. Since the night was supposed to be clear all night, I pitched my tarp really wide, and even used my trekking poles to hold up one side in “porch mode”. Hanging there I felt really exposed. Something could just walk right up to me. It was a bit unnerving, but then I started thinking that the whole sense of security is an illusion. Anything could rip right through tent fabric with almost no effort. Then the exhaustion of not sleeping the night before (I can never sleep before a trip), all the walking, and half a Percocet suddenly kicked in, and I fell asleep at 9. For the first time, EVER, I slept all the way through the night with no problem.
Night comes early for hikers, but day comes even earlier. Headlamps were on around 5:30 in the morning, and by 6 I was out and moving around. I untied my bag from the tree (I avoided using the cables), made my water run (the water at the shelter was way off to one side), and fixed breakfast. I looked down at my selection, and decided to go a different way.
Normally I make grits, but the idea of eating grits didn’t fit well. I made some of the Garlic Mashed Potatoes I brought in case I hated my supper, and had some of the Fruit Loops I brought (because fruit loops are pure awesomeness). By 7:15 or so people were starting to pull out on their own. Paul left first, and I followed soon behind, although I didn’t see him the rest of the day.
That made me feel badly, too, because Paul likes to say stuff like, “I’m tired, I’ll be taking it easy today so don’t worry if I fall behind.” Then he disappears around the corner and the next place I see him is the shelter where we are sleeping. I followed the trail up 1500 feet to Hawk’s Roost, then down into Brown Gap a steep 500 feet, and right back up 1000 feet to Max Patch.
The fall colors at the higher points were just beautiful. We started at 1500 feet when we left I40, and by the time we hit Max Patch we were over 4500 feet. It sounds like a good bit on it’s own, but by the time we had walked up the equivalent of a 500 story building if you added all the “ups” together.
Somewhere in here Cowboy, Raven and Jim caught up with me, as they typically hike faster than I do, and we made it to Max Patch all at the same time. I really wasn’t that excited about going to Max Patch. The descriptions made it sounds boring. a big flat open bald top of a hill at 4500 feet or so. Whoopie do, right? Well, the first thing is, when you come at it from the south, there’s a gradual slope that suddenly turns steep, and you go up a set of water bar logs set in the trail like steps, and there’s this imposing hill in front of you. Then you see the land laid out around you as everything opens up and there are no more trees in the way. You think you’re on top and it just keeps going. Then you walk out to the crest of the hill and can see what seems like forever in all directions.
For us, there was the added thrill of a cold day amplified by a chilling blast of freezing wind and dark clouds from what looked like an approaching storm. It never rained on us, but it felt like we were going to be blown off the mountain. Raven took a picture of Jim, Cowboy and me, and we headed down out of the wind. After Max Patch, we had a 1200 foot descent over 5 miles to lemon gap (which I’m really not sure where it was, since there were no signs, just a spot on a map).
At Lemon Gap, we took off our outer layers and prepared for the next mile and a half. Back up, 1200 feet to Walnut Mountain Shelter. If you’re keeping count, since we woke up that morning, that’s a total of about 3750 feet of ups or so. Walnut Mountain Shelter was in a great spot. It was just below the tip of a semi-bald mountain, like a smaller version of max-patch. In the center of the hill was a lone apple tree. It was covered in apples but there were absolutely no leaves. Someone had thrown a bear bag rope over a limb, and by shaking it, you could get apples to drop and have fresh apples right there in the woods.
Unfortunately, the wind was bad here as well, and would whip over the hilltop and along the ridge where the shelter was. There were also some tents and another group of Boy Scouts already claiming some of the spots around the shelter. Jim had arrived before I did, having outpaced me on the clim up from Lemon Gap, and took a hammock site down the hill on the leeward side of the ridge, out of the wind. I followed suit and pitched near him. Paul, who came out of nowhere, put his tent right next to my hammock on one of the few good flat spots. Normally I like to be out and away from people in case they snore, I snore, or someone has to get up and pee or something. Later I would be glad to have the guys there.
Everyone walked to the top of the hill a few hundred yards away to watch the sunset. It was one of those magical trail moments. There was no cell reception, so there was no one on the phone. No one texting, no one even playing music. Someone had started a little fire on the hill (which we didn’t think was smart, due to the wind, but it was really small and everything was still pretty damp from recent rains), and we had a decent view. So there we were, mostly a bunch of strangers, all gathered together like primitive tribesmen to watch the sun set. Of course, we all had cameras or phone cameras and everyone was taking pictures. Because of the trees at the edge of the clearing, we all were pretty close together, but everyone was nice and civil and quiet. It was really a sort of a spiritual feeling, not in a religious way but just something out of the ordinary.
After the sunset, we retired to the tents to eat or rest for a bit, and around 9pm some of use ventured back up to the top of the hill to look at the stars. You could see city lights far off in the distance, to the north and northeast, but the stars were incredibly bright and clear so far out in the middle of nowhere. The swash of brightness across the sky known as the Milky Way was clearly visible out here. I could never pick it out very well before. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a camera with me capable of taking long exposures for stars, so I just had to look at them. But it was cold and windy so I went to the hammock for bed.
This was where things got scary. Again, pitching the hammock tarp in Porch Mode on the side away from the wind, and leaving the windward side down, I felt pretty exposed. Jim, Paul and I were down the ridge sort of by ourselves away from the main group. My bear Bag was hanging in a tree a hundred yards or so from me, even farther away. Something started moving around in the darkness down in the valley below us. At first I thought it was a small animal, but it seemed there were regular steps through the leaves for a while. I called out to Paul, in the tent next to me.
“Paul, you hear that?”
“Yes I do. I wonder what it is?”
“I hope we don’t find out, or that it walks the other way.”
Probably within an hour it stopped making noise and I fell into a fitful sleep. I woke up having to pee, and found out it was only 11:30. I peed quickly close to the hammock and got back in. Nothing had messed with my Ursack, and I looked around with my headlamp and didn’t see any eyes shining. In the morning everyone was still accounted for, and the food was untouched. It was the first time I was ever afraid of something in the woods.
I’m pretty sure it was a ‘squatch, but I’m not discounting a Bear, either.
Up at dawn, check the food, and start packing. I heard Paul unzipping his sleeping bag, and checked the clock. 6:15. A bit later than yesterday, but it works. Up at the top of the hill I can hear wood popping and smell the smoke drifting down on the breeze. Raven would later tell us how cold it was up top and that the Boy Scouts huddled together with their “cuddle buddies” to keep warm. Jim and I told him how much nicer it was down the ridge out of the wind. Scott would later confirm he heard the noises too, although Jim must have slept well because he heard nothing.
Right before leaving I had the sudden (and about time, too – it had been two days since walking the Brown Blazed Trail) and necessary urge to use the privy. The privy itself was a scary thing. Picture a good, old timey phone-booth sized outhouse. Now, take off the door (just face it away from the shelter). Remove all the wood on the sides between the floor and about a foot off the ground (like in a typical bathroom stall). Next remove all the wood from about chest high, up to the little roof. Chest high, from a seated position of course. You could probably side one of these things with a single sheet of 4×8 plywood and have wood left over. So its a challenge to crouch halfway down, lower your pants, and then sit and do your business, then crouch midway to a standing position, and pull them up, without someone seeing ALL of your ass. But, on the plus side, you can turn your head back towards the shelter and have a conversation with someone while you take a dump into a hole dug in the ground. Oh, well, google provided this, so there you go.
The final march was a 750 foot downhill over a mile, followed immediately by a 1200 foot climb right back up to the top of Bluff Mountain. The walk down was good, the sunlight coming through the trees was beautiful, and the walk limbered us up for the ascent.
I felt good keeping up with Jim for a little while. We would each take breaks and finally we reached the top together after leapfrogging each other a few times. There was no really good view from the top, no grassy bald, no placard or even a survey marker. The trail’s uphills just sort of petered out and then it started back down. A mile and a half later, We made it to Big Rock Spring and I went for water and Jim went on ahead. I wouldn’t see him until lunch.
Soon after Big Rock Spring, I felt another urgent need for a rather intimate bodily function. The privy was not enough, and two days worth of cliff bars, oatmeal granola, and beef jerky were wanting out. The problem was, I was walking downhill on the side of a mountain on a trail that kept switching back on itself. Plus, the ground was at a 20 degree angle in some places. I find it hard enough to squat and do my thing on level ground, much less throw in some extreme angles. Things were getting desperate until I finally found a flat spot about 100 yards down the hill, and ran pell mell through the briars and scrub brush, dumping pack and poles as I went. Sweat was beading up on me as I tried my best to dig a hole in rooty ground.
I’ll spare you further details but it was epic and when it was over I was exhausted and had to tighten my pack belt another inch. I collected my stuff and wandered in a dazed exhaustion back up the hill and found the trail. It was another punishing downhill mile and a half to Garenflo Gap. I passed an old logging road and sat down with the last of my water to have a snack. Finally I heard someone else coming and thought it would be the last member of our crew, Scott. It was a 20-ish woman in the brightest, shiniest blue/purple spandex leggings I’ve ever seen, with a large pack. She looked at me sitting alone on a log and glanced around at the strange oddity of a four-way intersection of overgrown formerly dirt roads in the middle of nowhere.
“Where’s the trail?” She wondered aloud. I pointed to a little gap in the trees across from me, she thanked me and headed off. I started hearing what sounded like hunting dogs off in the distance, and was just finished packing up when Scott came out of the woods. Now firmly in last place, I headed off with him. He asked if I saw spandex girl and I said, “She’s like five minutes in front of us”. He nodded and said they were trail buddies for about a mile and then added, “If I were younger, I’d marry her.”
He said they talked as they walked, and she had come from the shelter before the one we spent the night, at Roaring Fork. She had really made some miles since morning, and was already out of sight. We roller-Coastered up and down some hills and I was alone again by the time I got to Deer Park shelter. I passed Spandex Girl once more as she was now taking a break to eat, and I was the one looking for the trail as it passed through a large cleared area with a campsite in the middle. Seeing my confusion, she pointed to my right and I wandered off up the hill. I made Deer Park shelter just as Jim and Cowboy were leaving from lunch. They said they would be at the van behind the outfitters when I arrived, and I nodded in hunger and exhaustion. I went for water and was very disappointed.
The water at Deer Park isn’t really AT deer park, but about 1/4 mile away in the wrong direction. It was flowing through a fetid ditch of moldering leaves and smelled like B.O. and butthole, but I was almost out and couldn’t make it another 3.5 miles on nothing. So I filtered it and hoped for the best. It still smelled, but I was at least comfortable that it wouldn’t contain bacteria. As I got back to the trail, Spandex Girl came by. I told her if she needed water that they made you work for it and it wasn’t the best. She said she would just try for town.
I went up to the shelter to rest a bit and eat lunch, and Raven was there. He said he was spending the night there instead of heading to town. He was expecting a package in a few days that would help him make it to Virginia, and he wanted to rest for a day or two and wash clothes. His attention drifted and he stopped in mid sentence and stared off into the distance, eyes glazing over. “Dammmmmn” he said.
I turned around. It turned out that spandex girl had NOT gone into town, but had come to the shelter and was walking off towards the Privy. “I passed her a few times,” I said. “She said something about going to town, I thought she had gone on.” When she came back, he struck up a conversation with her. It turns out that she had been hiking since July, had gone from Virginia to the Northern end, in Maine. Then she had gone back to Springer, the Southern end, and started North. No wonder she hiked so fast, she was REALLY in shape after all those miles and months.
I finished my lunch, filtering my water, and had packed up. I had 3.2 miles to go, so I said goodbye to Raven and wished him luck. It was fun meeting someone new on the trail, but I wonder about them now. Will he finish it all? Will he make it to Virginia? What about Spandex Girl (whose trail name I never got)? So close to the end… how will her hike play out? They are out there right now, in fact, somewhere near Hot Springs. I don’t think I could ever do the whole trail like them. I enjoy my time in the woods, the views are great, the people are interesting. But the day to day pains and troubles and the pure exhaustion… I don’t think I could do that for a few weeks, much less months. The people that do it really have my respect. After all, they don’t have to. They can quit any time.
There was a final punishing 500 foot climb out from Deer Park, and then it was downhill the rest of the way. The long downhills were just as bad as the uphills, it was a constant fight not to go too fast or fall over. By the time I saw Hot Springs, it was WAY down into the valley. I stopped and stared. “I have to walk all the way down THERE! Shit!” I said to the birds. Pounding step after pounding step, my feet hit the ground in front of me. I was tired, my feet were burning, and every time I went around a corner I either sweated in the sun or froze in the cold blast of wind on the other side. Down I went and finally came out of the brush onto pavement. I was done in the woods.
Now here I was, a smelly, sweaty guy in a backpack and a kilt, with three days facial hair growth and greasy hair, walking down main street alone in a strange town. I made it back to the van and found that somewhere along the way Scott got in front of me, and I was the last to arrive. The trip was over. After a quick sort-of-supper at the BBQ place behind the parking lot, we were on our way back home.