I finally plugged a hole in my AT Journeys this weekend. It was long, arduous, and somewhat painful, but I did it.
My original goal was Sam’s Gap (off I-26 at the TN/NC border) to Spivey Gap, which was only 13.5 miles. But that left 11 miles from Spivey Gap to Erwin, TN. So either I would have to come back for a long day hike or two short days to finish the other half. Then there was the shuttle – paying for two shuttles and using two weekends. The Hobbit said we could probably do the whole thing in two long days.
I usually shun summer hikes for a good reason: I hate bugs and heat. But – I figured the bugs could be dealt with permethrin and when I looked up the shelter weather it was supposed to be high in the 70s and overcast with possible thunderstorms.
I set off at 4am to go hiking, met with 2 others and we all headed to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel in Erwin, TN. The shuttle drivers are nice people, but the staff at the place rubs me the wrong way. After this trip, I was glad to put Uncle Johnny’s behind me.
The shuttle driver arrived and took us over to Sam’s Gap. It was the work of a few minutes to get suited up and ready to go. We had a heck of a thing ahead of us.
Our hike was to be 24.5 miles, total Ascents of 5374 feet, and total Descents of 7373 feet.
Right out of Sam’s Gap there are a series of upward climbs that really make you reconsider your pack weight and whether you brought too much stuff. From 3700 feet all the way to 5500 feet, there are several up and down stairsteps. But finally you reach Big Bald, which has some great views and wild blueberries.
By the time we reached Big Bald, my hiking friends were out in front of me. About the time I reached the post in the picture above, I was starving and out of gas. I plopped my pack down against the pole, leaned back and ate lunch. I was exhausted and hot, and couldn’t eat much. A woman and a much younger man came through, I assume mother and son. She asked me “Where does this trail go?”, pointing north. Confused, I replied, “Maine.”
I know it sounded like I was being a smartass, but it was true. I didn’t know what she meant. Who puts on a day pack and just wanders onto a trail? She then asked, “No, I mean, where does it go short term? Like, what’s that way?” So I pulled out my map and said there was another bald and then some woods, and eventually Erwin, TN. They walked off to the North. I finished what “lunch” I could eat – half a Bagel with some Nutella on it, and a few pieces of Jerky, along with a propel drink powder in water.
The rest of the afternoon I was on my own. It was some steep downs punctuated by steep ups, with more downs than ups. I have said it before – but down isn’t always better. Give me a gentle uphill slope over a steep downhill slope. Steep downs are hell on the knees and leave your thighs shaking and burning.
The last steep up of the day was High Rocks. It was a steep 250 foot route to a little peak with a side trail and some clifftop views. I skipped it. No, I don’t hate myself, despite what the graffiti on the sign said. I was hot, tired, and at the peak I was sucking on my water tube when I hit air bubbles. Oh crap.
Over the course of the day I thought I consumed plenty of water. I started the day with 2.5 liters in my pack. At each water source we came to, I drank some water and added to my pack. But, after Big Bald there were no more water sources, except for one which was a mosquito-laden patch of stagnant water. So now I had nothing, and I remember the shuttle lady saying that there might not be anything at Spivey Gap. I was hurting, out of water, with a mile to go.
After high rocks, I started down a steep place, and seeing the lush green vegetation in the valley, I started getting hopeful I would see a creek. I kept hearing what I thought was water but it was only the wind in the trees and the sloshing of my fuel bottle. The ATHiker App showed a water source ahead, and the first place was dry, a small place crossing the trail about 2 feet wide. The next spot farther down was dry as well, although I looked good in the stream bed for anything. The third spot was damp, but no running water. Finally I heard something for real, and found a place where a little trickling stream crossed the trail. It was about 5 feet wide but only 1/2″ deep across most of the trail, and it merged together on the downhill side. I sat on a wet rock on the uphill side of the trail, mouth dry and heart pounding.
It was all I could do not to put the first bowl directly into my mouth, but I knew I would have to wait just a few minutes. I use my dinner bowl, a squishy silicone bowl, to dip water out of a tiny pool about the size of a salad bowl, and poured it in my water bag. When I had about half a liter, I screwed the filter on and squeezed/sucked the water through. It tasted so good. I leaned back against my pack and let the water settle, because I felt nauseous. After a few minutes, I repeated the procedure. The water was flowing good enough that any sediment I stirred up was washed out of the way, so I had a nice clear pool to dip from. I did collect what looked like a shrimp, but I poured him out.
After I had two liters in my pack, filtered, and had filled myself up to as much as I could without puking, I walked on. I had to pee not long after, and what little there was, was orange. Definitely underhydrated. I started thinking I missed the campsite, as I was almost to the road crossing at Spivey Gap and hadn’t seen my friends. I started thinking about catching a ride to town. Screw this whole hiking thing. I was thirsty and nauseous, exhausted and smelled like roadkill. I could catch a ride, find a hotel, take a bath, order a pizza, maybe have a drink, and get a ride or even walk to Uncle Johnny’s tomorrow, and meet my friends there. Just when I had the plan in mind and could hear a car going by on the road ahead, I saw a familiar hat and bandanna on a tree next to the trail.
Damn. Hotel plans, ruined. No shower and pizza delivery for me.
I panted and huffed into camp, and waved at Praveen. I staggered around and found two good trees, and strung up the hammock. After laying in it for several minutes resting, I got up and finished setting up the tarp in porch mode, my underquilt to one side, and stripped most of my clothes off. I carry a “sleeping shirt” so I don’t stink myself out of the hammock, but I still smelled like a yak. My face was greasy and I was covered in dirt and leaf litter from sitting on the ground. I thought about eating, but it turned my stomach. I knew I would throw up if I ate, so I kept drinking water. I figured I would lay down and rest, and maybe eat later. It was 8:30 after all. It would cool off soon. The last thing I heard was the Hobbit saying, “I’m getting worried about Taco, I wonder where he is?” and Praveen saying, “He showed up, his hammock is over there.”
I woke up at midnight. Great, its pitch dark, I have to pee, and I haven’t even hung my bear bag. Getting out and hanging the bag was easy, and I was relieved I had to pee. It meant I wasn’t still bad off, although my mouth seemed always dry. I fell back asleep, intending on getting up at 6.
At 5:00 I woke up with a slight chill on my butt, reached under me and pulled the underquilt into place. I was almost instantly warm. The summer underquilt was a good choice for this trip, as was my fleece bag liner. I didn’t even bring a sleeping bag, just the liner and an emergency Costco down throw, in case it did get abnormally cold. The down throw wasn’t needed. I turned my alarm on for 7 and went back to sleep.
Sunday we woke up with 11 miles to go before getting a shower and food. As I was putting away stuff, we started hearing rumbles of thunder in the distance. I had just put my cappucino on when it started raining, of course AFTER i put my rainfly away. I threw the rainfly back up, and then my hiking partners were spontaneously ready to leave. I tossed most of my cappucino into the woods, chewed and swallowed half my bagel and jammed everything into the pack.
At that point, it began raining in earnest. It was okay, because we had an 800 foot climb in front of us, and the rain helped cool everything off. It rained for a good hour, soaking everything. A few miles on, it slowed and then finally stopped. Thankfully for the most part it stayed overcast, so the humidity wasn’t bad. Our last hill of the day was a 400 foot drop into Temple Hill Gap, then 400 feet right back up As we reached the bottom of the steep descent, Praveen and I stopped to check the map and have a snack. Hobbit had wandered off ahead, and we wouldn’t see him until the end of the day.
Praveen headed up while I finished my snacks, and then I started out. About 100 yards up the hill It started thundering and got windy again. within half a mile the rain started coming down HARD and blowing sideways. I didn’t care, it was washing the grime and grease off of me, and keeping me cool. There were a few more ups and downs, with a final push to the top, 100 feet up a steep grade. The rain stopped right around there, before I started down the other side.
Surprisingly, I caught up with Praveen on the down slope. He hates downs as much as I hate ups, and is even more cautious than I am. We had 1800 feet to go down before hitting the road. About 1/3 of the way down everything seemed to dry out, like the rain didn’t even hit that side of the mountain. A view opened up on the side, with a gorgeous post-rain view of Erwin.
I had to stop and get the phone out for a picture. Unfortunately this trip I didn’t get many pictures. at the last minute I ditched absolutely everything I didn’t think I would need. This included my waterproof camera and GPS. I saved over a pound, but when the rains came I had no camera, and the phone is sort of inconvenient anyway. So, there were nowhere near enough pictures for a video.
Once back at the Hostel, I paid for the second best $5 shower I’ve ever had. My legs were shaking so much I could barely stand up, after pounding down 1800 feet. I didn’t dare sit in the shower, and wind up with athlete’s ass, so I struggled through it and put on clothes that were fresh and dry. The staff at Johnny’s redeemed themselves, being friendly to grimy hikers buying showers.
I was still feeling sick when we reached Los Jalapenos, but I tried to eat the fajitas I ordered. I ate about half the meat, some of the chips and a little rice, and drank both sweet teas I asked for. I was really hoping for a pitcher and a straw.
What I learned on this hike:
Summer hiking is still not my favorite. Did I have a good time overall? Yes. I saw some nice stuff and had a good time with friends, but it was a bipolar trip. Either I was really enjoying it, or it sucked ass. There wasn’t much in between. On the good side, I slept in the hammock almost as well as the time I ended the night with a half percocet and a shot of rum. Exhaustion is great for sleep.
Lighter, lighter, lighter. I was 27 pounds out the door this time. Praveen was 19. I don’t know what 8 pounds I was carrying more than him, but I need to lighten my stuff. I could have gone stoveless. After all, I only heated up cappucino in the morning. I was too sick to eat anything else. I could have left my fleece shirt at home, it wasn’t cold enough and I had my down thing. I didn’t use my Grizz Beak because it wasn’t raining at night. So, I probably could have saved a pound or so.
Oh- I did pour out my stove fuel in the morning. It evaporates really fast, so I wasn’t concerned about it. I also poured out the 2 ounces of coconut rum I brought, since I didn’t drink it the night before, and every little bit helps when you’re trudging up a mountain dehydrated with no breakfast to speak of.
But that was my trip. 23.5 miles in two days was tough, but I’m glad I closed up that hole in my trail trips. Onward to Georgia and Virginia.
Don’t forget – I’m on amazon now.