20 Miles through the mud, and loving it.

This past weekend (May 21) 9 of us headed up to Hampton, TN for an overnight hike in the rain. We didn’t purposefully hike in the rain, but when you’ve scheduled a hike for 3 months, you don’t let a little rain hinder your walking.

We met at the US 321 Crossing of the AT at Hampton, TN by Watauga lake, about 10 minutes before our prescribed time, and waited on our shuttles. And waited, and waited, and waited. After several tense phone calls with the outfitter in Damascus, we were told that the shuttle driver had taken the van to Wilbur Damn road, 40 trail miles away but 40 minutes up the road. They sent a new set of cars and took us for free. So by the time we hit the trail is was almost 1 in the afternoon. The only good part of that, was that we went ahead and ate lunch in the car and had to carry a little less food weight. We were dropped at TN91 – Cross Mountain Road (which you may remember from the trip where we got snowed on a few months ago)

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According to some thru-hikers we met along the way, it had been raining for days. One said they hadn’t seen the sun in 9 days. The trail showed the strain. Everywhere we stepped was covered in mud. The trail was sloppy, squishy and wet. Most everyone had mud halfway up their calves by the time we got any distance. It was cool, though, which made the walking easier. We soon began splitting into separate groups, intending on making Vandeventer Shelter by 6 or 7pm.

This trip sort of changed my outlook on thru-hikers. Not that I ever had any issues with them, but I’ve usually thought about trying to avoid the thru-hiking bubble. The woods are for peace and solitude, a place to relax and be alone with your thoughts. But meeting the thru-hikers was fun, and going south you get to meet lots of them if only for the few seconds you’re in talking range. Most of the interaction is limited to what’s coming up in your respective directions: Wheres the water? How far to the shelter? Seen any bears? Is the shelter full? There may be a little bit of extended talking at water spots or shelters, but that’s by choice.

We met a father-daughter team that had been on the trail about two months together, at Iron Mountain shelter. I saw a group of guys that had obviously seen each other several times. We all stopped at the only decent spring for a few miles, to filter some water. One of the guys (Eno or Emo – not sure exactly what his trail name was) looked to be about 150 pounds soaking wet, and talked about Trail Days and the fact he had to get off the trail for a little bit because he was so exhausted. Walking 30 miles a day for a couple of weeks, no wonder he was exhausted.

The only good part to come from starting so late, was that while we were sitting in the cars dealing with the shuttles by phone, it rained on and off several times, some times pretty good. Once on the trail it rained a little, only once really good enough to worry about putting on the raincoat. But the wind got up pretty good several times, so I was happier to have the jacket as a wind breaker than as a rain protection.

One problem with wearing a rain jacket while hiking is sometimes you get just as wet from sweating as you do from rain. But at least the raincoat keeps the wind off. One nice feature to have on a raincoat is “pit zips”. I just discovered my jacket unzips at the armpits. Two years. I’ve had the jacket for two years and I just figured this out by watching someone else. It was nice to unzip the jacket and stick my arms out, only keeping my torso covered for wind protection, but letting my arms cool off some.

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Our fortunes turned in the afternoon. About 5 we stopped for water at a pretty decent tent site. By now, Three of our group were 4 miles ahead at the shelter. Another three were ahead by a half mile or so, leaving me, Carol and Kim at the back taking it easy. This was supposed to be the last easy water until after the shelter. While we were stopped, Carol texted one of the others to ask about the shelter situation. We were told a group of boy scouts had been in front of us intending on using the shelter and the sites around it. Unfortunately, Vandeventer Shelter is on a ridge line, surrounded by rocky sections and lots of overgrowth and poison ivy. It’s not great for big groups wanted to spread out. The text came back: the shelter was packed full and all the space around it was occupied. The next four miles after it were ridge line too, with no way to tell where a decent site might be. So we made a decision to stop where we were for the night.

The only problem: This was a two day hike of about 21 miles. We had done 7.6. The shelter was around 4 miles ahead, and the end of our hike was a little over 13 miles ahead. So the first three hikers had 4 miles on us, about 2 hours of hiking time. We had a great tent site, but would have to make it up in the morning. Thankfully, the way we drove up in small groups meant we could take one extra hiker in our car. The first three could leave when they got to their car.

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Night went very well. Surprisingly, the rain held off until we got camp set up. About 630 the rain started one again in earnest while I was eating supper. I recorded a complete “how to make supper in the woods” video for a coworker who was interested in that. After supper the rain sort of tapered off to a barely defined drizzle. The other three hikers showed up at this point. Up until now it had been just me, Kim and Carol at the campsite. Jim, Dorothy and Steve arrived and began setting up. Steve chose a solitary spot across the trail with a fire ring, because Kim and Carol took up the only flat tent spots right close to the fire rings on our side of the trail. It was my intent to avoid the inevitable depression from not being able to start a fire.

Steve, however, was a scoutmaster or ninja or something and started a campfire with wet wood in the rain. At first I thought he was just sending smoke signals but before long he had a decent little fire going. Unfortunately there was really nowhere to sit around his fire and I retreated to the hammock area, and partook of Carol’s Jamaican Rum with hot spiced cider. Not too long after that, it was bed time. I lay in the hammock only to find that apparently some application had been running the GPS all day and I was down to 15% on the phone.

No music, no games, no movies, no reading. Not if I wanted the alarm to wake me in the morning. So I lay back in my new hammock, only to realize I hung the thing on a slope and my feet were a little too high. I had a hammock made by a company that was going out of business. I sent them some tie-dyed fabric I did, and it turned out awesome. It has dual side zippers so I can sit in it like a chair, get in either side, and even reach out the sides to fix the under quilt or grab something from the backpack. I ignored the feet issue and tried to sleep.

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Unfortunately some people didn’t respect the traditional 9pm hiker midnight, and laughed and such until late. It was okay, though, because a Barred Owl started his call over and over. We hooted back at him, some a bit more, umm, alcohol-infused than others. He kept up his conversation for about 20 minutes until it started POURING RAIN. This quieted everyone down and finally we were off to sleep. It rained in fits and starts throughout the night, but overall it was one of the better sleeps that I’ve had. New hammock definitely an improvement over my too-short Hennessy that always cramped me in (I knew I should have bought the tall version). At 4:20 the rain returned with a vengeance, and stayed that way until about 6am. I finally got up, ate and began packing. 8% left on the phone!

We started drifting out of camp around 8am. Carol was first, and I followed a little after. Steve caught up with us at some point, and then we leapfrogged each other for a good while, meeting up at the Wilbur Damn Road access point. I sat for lunch for about 5 minutes before Carol and Steve showed up. We crossed Watauga Dam together, and I played with using my “stickpic”, a little plastic thing that turns a trekking pole into a camera mount. It seems to help smooth out some of the bouncing and jerking that walking while filming seems to plague my videos. My guess is the arm muscles help to form a simple kind of “stedicam” with the camera on the end of a long pole.

After the dam it was a rolling 3 more miles up and down through a section of trail that was known for bears. Simple instructions from the park service: Don’t stop, don’t hang around. Just walk straight through. I got a bit ahead of Carol and Steve, despite telling everyone to stick together. That was my bad… but I kept asking NOBO hikers about bears. No one had seen anything. Turns out I wasn’t far ahead. Carol and Steve walked out into the parking lot about 3 minutes after me. I had time enough to change my shirt and take off my “base layer” (what they call leggings for guys, so guys will buy something to keep their legs warm), and that was it. I was, however, exhausted. Jim, Kim and Dorothy walked out of the woods about 5 minutes later. We split up, and thus began the long drive home.

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My video is here:

My video of me cooking supper over my Fancy Feast cat food can stove, as requested by someone at work:

 

 

 

 

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Into the bubble

Over the weekend I got the chance to get back out into the woods. It had been about a month or so since my last hike, and it was time I found the comfort, solitude, and torturing pain of a backpacking trip.

Im a three season hiker – I prefer fall, winter, and spring. As the weather gets warm I start to shy away from doing many hikes, but the weather looked good, mid 70s at 6000 feet. Originally 9 or more people had signed up, but as is typical with trips, people started dropping out the closer we got to the hike. A few days before, the weather took a turn for the nasty: Good temperatures, but lots of rain. I said, “Screw it” and held fast to the idea of going. A few more people dropped out Friday afternoon. Saturday morning 3 of us showed up at the meeting spot, two drove direct to Erwin, and 1 failed to show up at all. Since I don’t usually drive, I drove our little crowd up to Tennessee. Jim, Paul and I met Bob and Laura at the Hostel for the drive up.

We started our hike in Erwin Tennessee, at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel (On the Nolichucky River, of course). There I got just a glimpse into the thru-hiker life. Back in February or March, people in droves started flocking north from Springer Mountain, Georgia, intending to walk five or six months to Mount Katahdin, in Maine. They spread out, but in general a big group of them spread out over a few hundred miles moving slowly north. This is called the “thru-hiker bubble”. Time of year and last month’s forest fires meant we were smack in the middle of it. A tent city had sprung up outside Uncle Johnny’s, not to mention a full parking lot of people in cars out for the weekend or section hikes. People were buying alcohol fuel by the ounce, getting mail drop packages from home, and were in all states of wear from fresh faced and clean to scraggly and smelly.

So we paid our shuttle fee* and followed the van up to Iron Mountain Gap, dropped a car and took a quiet but long van ride to Carvers Gap. There were lots of Bicycles out on the cool, misty, very windy morning. We hit the trails, which Jim said looked like the Pacific Northwest. Lots of tall evergreens blocked most of the wind and a lot of daylight. It was a nice medium “up” for the first mile, about 700 feet. I stopped to take a couple of pictures, fix my shoelace, get a little extra water, and take off my outer shirt. Jim, Bob, Laura and Paul went on and it was mid day before I saw them again. Hiking is like that, you can spread out and hike alone, while with your group.

It was lunch by the time I got to the turnoff for Roan High Shelter, the highest shelter on the AT at 6200 feet. I walked up to it and found a small group had already taken over for the day. They appeared to be staying there, even though it was just lunchtime. I went inside the bare room (which would have been great for filming a horror movie), sat down and ate my lunch. Bare floor, log walls apparently cut from local trees, with what appeared to be concrete in the log gaps to keep down the wind. The building was cool but it was out of the wind. The group I met had been hiking for a while, over 2400 miles across many different trails and states. They would hike a while, find work, make some money for food and gear, and hike more. It was a real nomadic life. It sounded sort of appealing, at least for a little while.

After eating, I said goodbye and wound up just down the trail at a beautiful bald area formerly occupied by the Cloudland Hotel. Nothing remained but a bit of driveway. I smelled someone down the hill in a parking area cooking hamburgers, but there was no sign for hikers, so no Trail Magic for me. Trail Magic is when, completely unexpectedly, someone will set up a hiker feed or offer to take a hiker to their house for a shower or whatever. The hiker culture is really weird, because everyone is generally so nice and helpful to each other. It’s kind of the way society is supposed to be.

I met up with the rest of my group soon afterward, sitting down to lunch in the middle of an incredibly green field of trillium and wildflowers. I kept up with some of them for a while and we began spreading out. It was a 2000 foot drop over 4 miles from our highest point of the hike to Hughes Gap. I stopped for water at one point and Paul went on ahead. Laura happened upon me as I was finishing up. We headed towards the shelter, looking for the other three of our group. Along the way we passed Little Rock knob, which had some beautiful views over the landscape. It was totally worth walking back up 1000 feet to see the view. The sun had come out and it was a little warm out by this point. Even though there were clouds in the distance, it was beginning to look like the weather was in our favor.

Laura and I found the rest of the group getting water just half a mile or so from the shelter. We walked on as a group and found that the thru-hikers were laying siege to the area around the shelter. We found several decent tent spots and began setting up. I went for water, which was a heck of a clog down the hill and back up, but the water was cold and clear and flowing pretty well from a pipe stuck into the side of the hill. I ate dinner and got my stuff prepared for rain, because during dinner we heard some rumbles of thunder. We started a small fire right about 6:45, immediately followed by the rain beginning in earnest. I lay down and relaxed in the hammock while it rained.

I had a cellular signal and posted a few hiking pictures, although Jim was 75 feet away and had no signal. The mountains are strange that way. Along about 7:45 the rain eased off and several more people showed up, setting up tents in between the rest of us. I got up and walked around a bit. One grizzled older man walked up to me and just said, “Mountain Man” and confused me, until I realized it was his trail name. “I’m Taco”, I said. He looked at me confused and I pointed at the hammock. “Because I sleep in a bear taco”. By 830 the rain started back and I went back to lay down, intending on sleeping. The people in the tents right next to me were planning there hike for the morning and the sound was carrying right through the tent walls. I tried to rest, and soon they got quiet. It started raining like crazy, and rained on and off all night. I slept pretty well. The temperatures were perfect and the rain was soothing.

At 5 am I woke up and couldn’t stand it any more. I HAD to pee. I moved around and got redressed in the hammock, got up and went just outside the tent area to pee, and started putting aways some of my stuff around 5:30 By 6 I was mostly packed and sat around and ate breakfast. Oh, yeah, and it was still raining. The nice thing about an overnight trip, is you don’t really have to worry about wet stuff. Keep your sleeping stuff dry and everything else just gets jammed in the pack wet. By 7 I was done with eating and was packed, and looked over at Jim and Paul. Paul was about to put his pack on, and Jim was right behind him. Laura and Bob hadn’t packed up yet, but they were driving separately.

I shrugged on the green beast and walked off down the trail. After about a quarter mile I realized I had on too much stuff and that it stopped raining. I took off my jacket and over shirt, and braved the woods in just my shirt. The wind would occasionally shake the trees and drop some water on us, but the rain seemed all but done. The weather made the woods very misty and otherworldly. It would have been a beautiful forest to film movies about elves and dragons and stuff like that. The rain made the browns deeper, the greens really showed up, and the light filtering through the mist was really nice.

Jim and Paul caught up to me after a while, and we stuck out the rest of the day together. It was only 6 total mile to the car from the shelter, mostly a series of tough ups followed by tough downs. Overall it was downhill to the parking lot, by close to 1000 feet, but we paid for that downhill with lots of ups. It rained on us a bit on the way to the car, but not hard enough to get out the jacket again. After all, there were warm dry clothes in the car.

We left the trail around 10:30, took a tour of the backwoods of TN wile finding the interstate, and headed home. A quick stop at a seafood place later, and we were home. It was nice hike, although I have the “hiker hobble” today.

My hiking video is below.

 

*A note on shuttle fees: We talked about this at length on the trail. So many people sign up to these things, then drop out at the last minute. This often causes problems for people that want to go but can’t because a hike is full. Also – no shows are a big problem, because if I schedule a shuttle for 9 and show up with 5, they charge the same rate as they would have for the 9. Its just how shuttles run. So the 4 that dropped out just cost the 5 that showed up extra money. In the future my rule will be something like this:

I will schedule the shuttle when I arrange the hike. You get a spot on the hike when you PayPal me some money for the shuttle. Anyone unpaid a week before the hike gets dropped. Anyone who drops out less than a week before the hike may not get a refund. No shows don’t get a refund. When you show up for the hike, I’ll take care of the shuttle at no additional cost for you.