Dateline Thursday, November 12.
It’s a long way to the AT when you have to get up at 4 freaking o’clock in the morning. But that’s what I have to do, in order to make it to our departure site at 6. Thankfully the car is packed, and I always shave and shower the night before. So after taking my brain pill and grabbing a pop-tart and my shoes, out the door I go.
The journey to the meetup group spot is long and dull unless there are deer out, and the journey from our spot to Hot Springs, North Carolina is always equally dull, until we get to Asheville, NC and take the wrong exit, which we have now done 100% of the time. But, despite all that, we made it to Bluff Mountain outfitters at our prescribed 9:00 shuttle time. Unfortunately it had started raining just as we got into town, despite being clear all the way from Columbia to Asheville.
Our shuttle driver dumped us ceremoniously out beside the road at Devil’s Fork gap, and said goodbye to us for 3 days. At this point, I made a grievous error, and attempted to take a “before” picture. I stepped off the road into a hole by the edge of the road, and almost twisted my ankle. 7 steps: Shortest hike ever. But, I caught myself and saved the day. The rain, which had turned to mist, had now almost completely stopped, and we set off into the woods.
Our first day’s trek was a nice 10 miles up and down hills to Jerry Cabin Shelter.
I was glad to see the majority of the leaves had either turned brown and fallen off the trees, because it kept the leaf-peepers off the trail, pretty much. However, the changing weather provided us with a constant blowing wind that at times dug in to my bones and wouldn’t let go. It was yet another hiking experience that boggles the mind: It IS quite possible to be sweating and freezing cold at the SAME time.
One of the more interesting parts of the journey was the fact we were walking the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina for a majority of the trip. Most of the time you simply cross a state line, usually along a highway where there’s some sort of sign. But on this hike along the Appalachian Trail, we were following it, one foot in Tennessee, and one in North Carolina.
Three miles in we stopped for lunch at Flint Mountain shelter. It was a nice little shelter right off the trail, with a convenient water supply. Water seemed to be everywhere along this portion of the trail. While stopped to eat, we ran into a trio of Southbound thru-hikers that were determined to make Springer Mountain by Thanksgiving, 300 miles away in 24 days. Some quick math told us that they would have some long days ahead through some rough terrain, but they were all young and seemed to be in good shape (who wouldn’t be in good shape after hiking 1800 miles straight?). We left the thru-hikers behind and headed on. At the Shelton Graves, I stopped briefly for a geocache and was passed by one of my hiking friends, and then soon after the thru-hikers sped past me, one after the other. Despite a little roller-coastering up and down the elevation gains weren’t too bad.
After Flint mountain there was a long uphill fight for the next mile and a half, which put us up around 4000 feet. The ridges were cold and windy, and it was nice when we would find ourselves on the lee side of a hill so we could enjoy a little respite from the breeze. Up and over a final push and we came down to Jerry Cabin Shelter, our home for the night. Jerry Cabin was on the slope of a hill near a saddle between ridges, which put it in an awkward position of being in a sort of windy spot. Because I’m slower than a herd of turtles slogging through molasses, I got into the shelter last. In addition to my three hiking partners, the three thru-hikers were there along with at least one person by himself. As I looked for a spot, and man and woman came up and began setting up a tent. I finally found a spot a little farther away from the shelter than I wanted, and hung my hammock. I faced the rainfly tarp across the wind, and put all my stuff up. Water was up a hill away from the shelter, but it was a good strong source, flowing out of a little pipe in the ground much like the average garden hose.
There wasn’t much to do after setting up but eat, and hang around in the shelter. Dark comes early in November, and before long it was time to head down to the hammock to try and entertain myself. The strong wind blowing across the hill meant there would be no fire, so those not sleeping in the shelter made for the warmth of their own tents.
I checked the cell phone for the third time that day, and had no reception. I set up my tent-within-a-tent.
I had found that even under the tarp and bundled up, sometimes my face would get cold, especially on really cold nights or in windy conditions. Before I left the house this time, I thought about making an “over cover” for the hammock, something common in very cold areas, but I didn’t want to have to carry MORE weight, when I JUST dropped about a pound of stuff from the pack. I realized what I really needed was half a cover, since it was only my face. So – I used what I already carry with me, my hammock chair. At home, I sewed a little 3/8″ grosgrain loop in the middle of each side of the hammock chair. One loop, I slipped onto the hammock suspension up by where my head goes. The other loop I tied onto a small string, which I then tied with a sliding knot to the ridge line of the hammock. The ends of the hammock chair hang off either side, and their suspension loops have enough weight to hold them in place. This left only a small hole opening down around my chest (when I’m laying down).
In the woods, after pulling the “roof” over my head, I take my kilt and throw it over the ridge line, and pull it across me through the hole, thereby completely sealing me in. The hammock chair fabric seems thin enough to let moisture out, but while holding some of the wind off of me. I didn’t get condensation problems.
I pulled my phone case off, ran the ridge line through it, and put it back on, suspending my phone over me. Doing that allowed me to watch The Hobbit hands-free. Somewhere around 8:30 or so I fell asleep. I slept fitfully on and off, and finally got to sleep really well about 3 or 4am. At 6 I could hear bear cables squeaking as they always do, telling me someone was up for food. I tried to get up and was too damn cold. Jim’s water had partially frozen overnight. Instead, I held off for another hour, and most people had taken advantage of the light and left. I finally walked out of camp alone, having availed myself of the nearest privy while being confident no one would walk up on me.
Day two was murderous, and would be one of my toughest challenges. After roller coastering for a few miles we came to the exposed Firescald Ridgeline, totally worth the hike to see. about a mile of exposed ridge line right on the border, it involved some of the most rugged, breathtaking scenery I’ve seen to date. There’s even a bypass trail for bad weather, because you don’t want to be up there during a terrible storm. The unceasing wind was back, but otherwise the sky was blue and the temperature was brisk.
After coming off Firescald, I realized (much like my partners ahead of me) that I had taken WAY too long at this point and really had to make up some miles. Six miles from breakfast was Little Laurel shelter, where I stopped for a snack, having already had lunch coming off Firescald. I ran into Jim, Colby, and Thomas, my hiking partners. The rest of the group we met at the Shelter were long gone. A pair of women going the other way said there was very little water over the next 8 miles to Spring Creek. Little Laurel had a decent water source, but it was at the bottom of a hill, of course, like most hillside shelters are. I filled up my 2 liter camelback, and took a reserve liter just in case, for the rest of the hike. The rest of the day was a punishing descent from 4750 feet down to 2240 feet over five miles, then a punishing up and down finally getting to 3550 feet to Spring Creek shelter. The ups were steep and never-ending, and the downs were just as steep and painful. The only level spots seemed to be slippery and muddy.
At some point during this day we ran into Raven who was going Northbound, after having taken a two week break in Hot Springs. It was good to see a familiar face. I pushed on, falling behind my group. I was constantly cold and hungry, it seemed, despite eating snack regularly, and drinking a lot of water. I even ate some gatorade squares and mixed up some Propel sports drink powder to help balance my electrolytes.
The final push up to Spring Creek shelter did me in. After 12.5 miles, The final bit was a mile and a half of what seemed to be 45 degrees up for 500 feet, then down 250 feet, then finally back up for around 300 feet. I had given my last full measure of devotion to the trail. Some 200 feet from the top of the hill I collapsed against a tree, cold and out of water. I filtered my reserve bag into the pack, drank and ate what I could, and tried to let my pounding heart settle down. Finally, with the knowledge the shelter was about a quarter mile away, I got up the energy to climb the hill, cross over to the downhill slope, and walk the saddle between ridges. I found the shelter much like Jerry Cabin, a hilltop affair in the wind. But, there was a nice valley running downhill towards the water source, so I pitched my hammock out of the wind and went for water.
This is where things got interesting. I was completely exhausted by this point, and doing the smallest activity made my heart race. Putting up camp was a struggle, and walking back uphill (of course) to the shelter to even fix my food was a pain in the ass. At the point I had walked up to the shelter, if Colby had said, “You know, there’s a group of topless Victoria’s Secret models two miles down the trail handing out cold beers”, I would have said, “Go on without me”. That’s how tired I was.
So I tried to eat my food, but it just made me sick to look at it, so I tried drinking hot cocoa and the leftover warm water from my mug. I packed my food bag, tied it to the tree, and took my spare water with me. I laid down in the hammock and tried to relax. Then things got interesting.
There’s a point where you feel sick, and then there’s a point where you’re sick where you think, “You know, I’m feeling really sick.” After that there’s a point where you think, “I’m going to throw up unless I lay here really still and no one messes with me,” followed usually quickly by, “I’m going to throw up, it’s inevitable.”
At that point, faced with the prospect of spew inevitability, you just hope it hurries up and gets over with. Because the only thing worse than throwing up, is feeling like you are going to throw up at any point. The throwing up itself is actually a relief, because it’s almost over.
That all happened with about two minutes of me laying down in the hammock. I felt awful, figured I could rest it off, realized that wasn’t going to happen, and then suddenly I knew I was about to lay down a thunder-chunder trail pizza. Thank goodness I hadn’t set up the trail roof over my head yet, because I had about a 4 second warning so sit halfway up, pull the side of the hammock and under quilt close to my chest, and stick my head out just enough to miss everything that would go back in my pack in the morning. I really wish I could have done all that standing up with someone nearby holding a measuring tape, because I’m sure the overall distance would have been really impressive. Five blasts later and I was empty, dry heaved once, and flopped back into the hammock.
At home, there’s usually someone around to help with a wet washcloth, but all I had within reaching distance was my “spare clothes bag”, so I wiped my face with yesterday’s underwear. The trail can be an utterly magical place, sometimes. I actually had a cell signal, and texted a few people that I was sick. My wife encouraged me to seek help. Although I was an 8 mile walk from town, so help would have been far away. After ten minutes or so, I felt MUCH better, I was drinking my water, and didn’t throw up any more. Thankfully the wind and cold kept down the smell of what was under me, although I was now worried I just laid out some bear bait. I stuck my .38 in the hammock next to me, just in case, and was soon asleep.
Then I was soon awake, at 1am, and had to pee, so I knew I couldn’t be too dehydrated.
At 6 the next morning I began the tiring process of pre-warming the clothes (by stuffing them in my sleeping quilt), putting stuff away, getting dressed, and packing up. It felt less cold than the previous day, but once on the ridge line by the shelter it was clear the wind would be with us again.
Five miles I walked, mostly behind everyone, still exhausted from the day before and now suffering a nutritional debt from throwing up yesterday’s food and not eating supper. Going up seemed to take forever, and then it was right back down for another up. 5 miles into the hike I approached the Tanyard Gap bridge. It was after a series of downs that I stopped at the bridge and sat down for a snack and a look at the GPS. I was less than halfway done with the hike, and I was exhausted. Like last night, the stuff in front of me made me ill to look at it. I felt hungry and thirsty but I didn’t want to eat. I was facing another 300 foot climb, a little roller coaster of ups and downs, and then a steep 1250 foot descent into town. I could probably do it, but my friends were way out in front of me and would be stuck waiting for a few hours.
But there was the road. 3.5 miles of flat, paved goodness. Downhill on a gentle curving grade all the way into town. It didn’t take long for me to decide, to heck with this trail. The worst part was the climb down to the roadside along the hill next to the bridge, but once I swung over the guardrail onto the pavement, I was relieved.
The walk into town was surprisingly easy. I dumped out most of my remaining water to lighten my load, and had a nice quiet easy stroll, although now there were no trees to buffer the wind. I made it to Hot Springs and went down by the bridge over the French Broad River, took a few pictures, and then went to the BBQ place for a large sweet tea and a plate of fries. The sugar and starch did me good, and I got to surprise the crap out of Colby and Thomas, who couldn’t believe I passed them. Seriously, they didn’t believe it, so I confessed. Around 30 minutes later, Jim arrived and I fessed up to him, too. It was now 12:30, and everyone was happy to be together for lunch at the Spring Creek Tavern. I had a hamburger but skipped the fries since I already ate them.
The ride home was easy, I fell asleep on the way. Overall I was happy with my pack improvements, but I could kick myself for not making better food choices, nor exercising much at all since the previous trip. Maybe next time I ‘ll plan shorter days along some smoother terrain.