Over the Hump – an AT Hike in the Roan Highlands

Over the weekend (Sep 24 and 25), our meetup group joined many, many other people in hiking part of the AT between Carver’s Gap (In Tennessee), through part of North Carolina, and ending at Mountain Harbor Bed and Breakfast, in North Carolina.

The trip became known as the “Five Guys and Burgers” hike. All the women dropped out one by one, so by the time Hiking day rolled around, there were only five guys left. At the end of the hike, we had burgers on the way home, thus the title.

I had heard of the difficulty and beauty of this section for a while. Uncle Johnny (of Uncle Johnny’s Hostel in Erwin) says it is one of the most beautiful sections of trail in the area. 5 Balds in 8 miles, or something like that. I was impressed, but I wasn’t expect near as much open area as we had.

Hikers generally refer to the A.T. as “The Green Tunnel”. Most of the time you’re walking along in shade, under a tunnel of greenery of some sort. On this hike, we wound up being in the sun more often than not, which lead to me getting somewhat sunburned in spots.

It started out easily enough. I got up at 4am and headed to Columbia SC, trying not to die in a car wreck in the dark after three hours of sleep. Then it was a nice easy ride to Mountain Harbor Hostel. Thankfully we got there at the same time as another group, and they piled us all in one van and drove us the 25 minutes to Carver’s Gap. If you have seen my previous hike starting at Carver’s Gap, this one was going North instead of South. Last time we went to Iron Mountain Gap. This trip was headed 15 miles back to Mountain Harbor, along TN Route 19E.

They dropped us at Carver’s and bid us Adieu. From the previous trip, we headed down into a valley. We didn’t get a lot of grand views and awesome scenery. This time however, we walked across a gravelly path and within a quarter mile we were standing on top of a bald mountain with incredible, awe inspiring views. And it only got better as the day wore on.

We ran into a LOT of day hikers and small groups. The guys we rode with in the van were headed to Overmountain Shelter, one of the most scenic and largest shelters on the AT. We were passing it by, headed to Doll Flats 12 miles away. It wasn’t long before we were up one bald, down into a saddle, and up to the top of another bald. There was a side trail to Grassy Ridge, but out and back it would add another mile to the trip, which our group skipped.

At this point we were running into fewer and fewer day hikers. Going down the trail into the valley beside Grassy ridge, I passed the last of the out-and-back crowd from the Carver’s Gap parking area. We stopped at Stan Murray shelter and had lunch with a father and son. From their accent I was guessing they were from the Boston area, but I didn’t catch exactly where. They had spent a few months walking south from Maine, and had around 350 miles to go before going back to the real world. The younger one reported being stung by yellow jackets the day before, but thankfully they were north of where we planned to be hiking. Bees were out everywhere, both bumblebees and honeybees. There was even a large contingent of flies, and around the shelters I could smell why.

Hiking takes its toll on an area. In the south, a lot more thru-hikers start than will finish. The trail is crowded enough in the spring and summer months, and add in the cooler weather of the fall, and there’s a whole lot of hiker poop buried in the woods close to the shelters. The area around Stan Murray shelter really kind of reeked. It was sad, really. I didn’t see a Privy (sort of a primitive poop/leaves compost system), so I’m guessing a lot of the smell was probably badly buried dung. 

After leaving Stan Murray, we went over Little Hump Mountain. I am guessing it is named such because it is slightly dwarfed by nearby Big Hump, but there was nothing little about it. We had something like 600 feet to walk up, a lot of it out of the trees, on dry trail surrounded by thigh high grasses and flowers buzzing with bees, in the sunlight with no breeze.

The A.T. is no Green Tunnel through this section. The views from the top of Little Hump were worth the climb, however. I was glad the temperature was tolerable. On an August day in the sun in the high 80s it would have been miserable. After Little Hump we passed Overmountain Shelter. I couldn’t see it from the trail, and I still had enough water to make Bradley Gap, so me and Jim passed the shelter without stopping to check it out.

From Little Hump, we went down into some scrub brush and trees, and there was a trickle of water coming from a spring. I stopped at this point, since I had only a little left in my bag, and it was a few miles to our planned stop at Doll Flats.

I was tired and a little hot when I dumped my pack at the spring. Calling this trickle of water a “spring” was greatly overstating it. There was a bit of liquid seeping through some rocks onto the ground on a slope. Someone had dammed up a little puddle and stuck a 2 inch PVC pipe in it about 3 feet long. The other end of the pipe (thanks to the slope) was about 6 inches off the ground. A trickle of water was coming out the end into a larger puddle a few inches deep and barely large enough to stand in, before the puddle ran down the hill. A couple with a pump filter were trying to pump the puddle dry, but the filter kept clogging. They finally pulled the pre-filter off the end of the hose and sucked up about a liter of liquid before the filter gave up and started squirting water out the top.

They wished me luck and started packing up. I walked over and plunked my Squishy Bowl under the pipe and let it start to fill up. I had clear, dirt-free water to pour in my bag to gravity filter it. The guy’s mouth dropped open, like “I could have done that”. Live, learn, and work smarter. They wandered off. I got about a liter and a half over ten minutes or so, and walked on. The trees and brush opened back up to a grassy field, and there it was in front of me. Hump Mountain.

Normally I don’t get to see the mountains I’m about to climb. They’re shrouded in trees and bushes, obscured from view. This one was laid bare, a victim of it’s own height and weather. Another 600 feet or so to walk up. At the top however, was a 360 unobstructed view. I could see my hiking partners as little dots, already a ways up the side of the hill. I took stock of the one thing I couldn’t replace: Time.

There is a tendency for hikers to beat themselves up making miles, especially on weekend hikes. I’m a victim of it myself. Turn a leisure hike into a Death March, and wind up at camp at 3pm with nothing to do. That’s what I was worried about on this one. I was estimating my arrival time at camp to be around 5pm, much earlier than I really needed to be there. I decided then and there to take it easy, enjoy the hike, and get to camp probably just before dusk.

So that’s what I did. What happened next can only be described as something akin to a religious experience, at least as close to a religious experience as a Rastafarian can get (R’amen). The journey was a pilgrimage of sorts. There I was, a solitary traveler, a stranger in a strange land. As far as I could see in front of me, there was no one. As far as I could behind me, no one. Maybe it was the view, the extraordinary scenery, or something inside me that connected with the earth at the moment. Or maybe I was dehydrated and low on calories. Whatever it was, it was pretty intense. I finally reached the top, only to find the water-pumpers there ahead of me with three other people, stretched out drinking beer.

I understand wanting to have a drink in the wild. But beer? Look, you’re carrying like 92% water. Water! What carry all that extra weight? Bring Jack Daniels. Then you’re carrying a lot less water weight – only 60% water. Too each his own. I stopped for a snack halfway down the back side of Hump Mountain, at a GeoCache called “rattlesnake playground”. It was aptly named, for it was buried amid a big pile of snaky-looking rocks. I poked it with my pole, but I didn’t stick my hand in to open it up. After that it was mostly downhill to Doll Flats camping area.

Doll Flats is HUGE, and it’s mostly flat. The picture below is looking back south from the edge of the woods where the trail continues north. It was our view the next morning.

At Doll Flats we ran into some very loud, rambunctious boy scouts. Thankfully they pretty much kept to themselves. I set my hammock up and went for water. I asked my group how long they had been there, and they said “about an hour”. By the time I set all my stuff up and ate, it was starting to get dark. The scouts managed to build a fire in the fire ring and were having fun exploding acorns by tossing them into the fire. The scoutmaster said he knew about “hiker midnight” and would calm them down. True to his word by about 9 they were quiet and settling down.

I was missing Claudia’s mixture of Bailey’s and Vodka, but I had brought my own drink, just a little bit of brandy made from Muscadine grapes (the only true American grape, native to the southeast). It warmed my insides a bit and I went to lay down. It’s nice to sip a half ounce or so of something to help relax after a hike.

It didn’t take long – between the brandy, the 12 mile walk, and 4 hours of sleep I might have had the night before, I fell asleep in the middle of texting my wife and kid. I actually had pretty good signal from Doll Flats. I stayed that way until 3:30, when I woke to the sound of something walking through the woods. I assumed a scout had to pee, and went back to sleep. At 6 I woke up again, and lounged around. It wasn’t quite light yet, but by 6:30 I was packing my stuff and prepping breakfast from the hammock. As my cappuccino cooled off, I walked out with my camera and took the above picture of the meadow. By 7:30 I was waving bye to my friends. I had enough water to make the Hostel, only 3 miles away downhill.

The trip out was non-eventful, all downhill in the cool morning. Until I fell. I fell hard on my side when a foot shot out on the edge of the trail. I skidded down the trail on my side, getting dirt all over my thigh and backpack. But after laying there for a minute I realized my pride was hurt more than anything. I got up and headed on out, a little more cautious. By 9 I was sitting in the parking lot at Mountain Harbor, and within half an hour we were back in the van heading out.

Unfortunately we made such good time that Los Jalapeños in Erwin wasn’t open yet, so we ate at Fuddrucker’s in Asheville, NC.

But, we had 15 miles of trail under our belts and were back in columbia before supper. It was a good weekend to hike, with great company.

Our Movie:

 

 

 



It’s alive, It’s ALIVE it’s ALIVE…

So it turns out the TimeTrax thing on my computer just needed a few things. The first was a working driver for the Serial-USB chip on the board, a Texas Instruments 310. IF you have this issue, just Google TUSB310 and there’s a windows 8 driver that works fine.

The second was the fact that after about 10 seconds of being powered on, Windows thought TimeTrax was a mouse. So, I had to wait for the precise moment the “mouse” popped up in Device Manager, and click “disable”.

After fixing the drivers, boom, TimeTrax was back and blinking. Next, I had to add some cables for the XM Radio. You can see here a long black 2-wire cord running across the whole thing. It leads from the back of the front panel jacks into the XM radio under the plate. That way, the internal radio passes through the same resistors that the old external radio did.

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With everything working on the hardware side, it was time to fire up SXMRecorder. Unfortunately, the old version wouldn’t work. Thankfully although the program is years old, and run by one guy, he had an updated version that works just fine on Windows 10.

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I was glad to see everything was still working as it should. Now I can let the computer once again do its job of steadily plugging away and making MP3 files for me at its leisure. Next up, downloading a new copy of WonderFox DVD ripper/converter. With a faster processor, maybe it won’t take a full day to convert a movie to something I can watch on my iPad.

The XM-Enabled computer.

I’m rebuilding parts of my PC (Beavis is his name), which hasn’t had a major update in a dozen years or so. While cleaning it out and re-running some wires, I think I accidentally fried one of the best inventions of all time: my TimeTrax Recorder.

TimeTrax was a hardware and software interface for the XMDirect receiver, which came out around 2004. It was originally marketed as a DVR for XM Radio. Going to be at work while an artist interview is on? The “Garth Brooks: Crap Live Retrospective” is on at 3am? No problem, record it and listen later! The problem was, the thing recorded every song off whatever XM Channel you set it to, and made MP3s out of them. Naturally, the RIAA freaked the hell out. It wasn’t long before TimeTrax was run out of business.

But – the cat was out of the bag. Basically the hardware is just a fancy serial-to-USB converter with a little blinking light and a software suite. The software servers having long ago shut down, TimeTrax programs were replaced by enterprising programmers who made their own standalone versions for free.

I won’t be able to tell if I accidentally killed my TimeTrax unit until I can get Windows up and running, but I figured I would go ahead and work on integrating an XM receiver into the computer itself. Worst case – I have to replace the TimeTrax board with a serial-USB cable and wire a 9-Pin DIN plug to hook onto the radio.

After 10 years with a fan sucking air through the case, the TimeTrax board actually doesn’t look too bad. The black and white wires are power from the PC. The huge grey thing to the left is a front panel USB plug, not related to TimeTrax (I bought the front panel USB bay mainly to cover a hole left by a DVD player. The TimeTrax mounting came later). The green board screwed to the old Radio Shack breadboard is the TimeTrax unit, sans case. You can see the black power connection on its top left, and the old style square female USB plug housing in the middle.

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The front of the computer is below. The TimeTrax board protrudes through the front, with its wacky 9-Pin plug to match the one on the XM radio. To the right of the plug are the audio ports for the radio. The red light was supposed to signal power available, and the green light was power on to TimeTrax, controlled by the little switch on the upper panel. The red light never worked, I think it burned out. But the green light would blink when the unit was operating, as it was wired in parallel with the original light on the TimeTrax unit itself.

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I removed the USB cables and cleaned the board as best I could. There was just enough room under the mounting plate to bolt on an XM unit. In this view you can also see the audio cables. They are separate from the TimeTrax unit, but when I originally installed it, the XM radio line-out levels were too strong for the computer’s sound card. All the MP3s were “clipped” on the louder sounds. They sounded like crap. So, I ran the audio through two variable resistors (in blue on the bottom left, soldered to the board). The resistors were adjustable through a pair of holes on the front of the PC, but once I set them the first time, I never had to mess with them again. The audio cable runs through the inside of the PC, out the back, and plugs into the sound card Line In port.

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To make it easy to assemble the unit onto its plate, I removed the TimeTrax breadboard and flipped the whole assembly upside down. I drilled holes and used hard drive screws to secure the XM unit to the underside of the breadboard mounting plate – temporarily the top. The sheet metal on the underside of the USB bay was just thin enough that the hard drive screws self-tapped and held pretty well. Any good computer nerd has plenty of drive mounting screws lying around.

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After it was mounted, I reinstalled the TimeTrax board, the USB cables, and re-wired the front panel switch (the front panel with the switch isn’t installed in the below picture, for clarity, and because I forgot to take a picture). I moved the whole USB/Timetrax/XM thing up a bay, and mounted the switch plate under it. I love these snap-in bays. Screw two rails to something and slide it in until it snaps. Best computer case, ever.

img_4702The only thing sticking out of the front panel is the pink antenna access port. I don’t want to leave the antenna hard-wired all the time, and I don’t want to have to open the case to remove it. 

Several things to do before I finish this build:

  1. Test TimeTrax once I finish my reload of Windows. Right now, nothing works because the PC has no OS, just 4 blank drives waiting on data. I can’t remember if TimeTrax is dependent on the USB working before the blinking light comes on, or not.
  2. If TimeTrax works – solder new audio cables to the back side of the existing ports, to hook onto the radio inside the PC without some weird cable monster sticking out front. Unfortunately, the 9-Pin plug is where it is, and I can’t change the orientation of the whole board. So, I’ll have a cable snaking out from beside the DVD drive and plugged in the front.
  3. If TimeTrax DOESNT work – I’ll still have to fix the audio cables. But, I’ll have to remove the TimeTrax board and build a new Serial-USB cable interface to go inside, and tie it to the spot where TimeTrax used to sit. Thankfully, Serial-USB cables and drivers are really easy to find on Amazon. I have the pinout diagram for the XM and it’s serial interface, so all I need is a male plug with solder cups on it, also easy to find on Amazon.

The only nice thing about removing TimeTrax would be removing the cable from the front. With a USB-Serial cable, everything would be inside the PC except the antenna cable. Also – it would remove my dependance on this piece of unavailable hardware, because once I construct a working adaptor, it’s something that could be rebuilt in the future.

The best thing to all this is, back in 2004 or so, there was a big car computer/XM culture of hackers that wanted to build computer stuff into their cars, before in-dash nav and entertainment systems were standard in the car industry. They figured out how to do all this stuff; How to take an XM radio and build a custom cable that Windows would recognize, which pins went where, and how to supply power to the whole thing without blowing up computers or the radio. So, hats off to the car geeks and Google images.