Thursday, January 08, 2015

As Promised...

I know it's been a long time, and yeah, I've had the writing itch, but y'all know how life can get in the way.  So much has happened in the past year and and a half and there has been so much chaos, boredom, frustration, happiness, etc. etc. etc.

For those that don't know, I am no longer living in Tennessee, and I ended up living outside of Ft. Myers, Florida, in a nifty little community called Cape Coral.  I thankfully no longer have that horrible job at Comcast that I hated so much, and I'm lucky to have a fun job working at the airport.  But I'm on a seasonal contract, so chances are very high that once the busy season moves on, so will I.  So my life is still a bit unsettled, to say the least.  I have no idea where I'll be living six months from now and I don't even know if I'll be working for the same company. I just have to ride it out.

But I'll fill in the details as I can. In my head I've played out all the different scenarios hundreds of times, and like an equation with too many variables, it's an unsolvable problem right now.

In the meantime, I realized that my last post from May of 2013 talked about a Memorial Day weekend trip and the chances of me winning the $600 million Powerball.  Well, I took the trip, but didn't win the lotto.  And as promised, what follows is what I said I'd write way back then...

Weekend in the Mountains

I hated my job--it was just a means to an end, and I took advantage of every chance I had to get away from that toxic environment.  I had scheduled five days away over Memorial weekend--usually it was a camping trip with family and friends on tap, but this time around, I had a grander scheme in mind.

I'd gotten into hiking and backpacking, and had been planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail for 2014.  But I'd never really been tested on a long trip all by myself.  I had all the gear, read all the books, taken a few short overnight trips and done lots of dayhiking, but I wasn't sure I had what it took to do actual backpacking. So instead of the usual  car-camping trip with the hippies, I decided to head for the Georgia mountains for a few days to see about this whole Appalachian Trail thing for myself.

It's about a four-and-a-half hour drive from Nashville to my dad's house on the outskirts of Atlanta, and on my first day off I slept in, made a pot of coffee, and loaded my new Osprey backpack with all of my latest gear, plus food for four days on the trail.

I left Nashville around 11:00 that day, which in hindsight was a mistake--that put my in Atlanta at the peak of rush hour.  I totally remember sitting in traffic that day, as the XM satellite radio was featuring an all-Tom Petty station that week.  So I spent the entire drive listening to nothing but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

I had dinner and a nice visit with my dad and step-mom, and the next morning my dad drove me about 45 minutes away to the visitors center at Amicalola Falls State Park, the gateway to the Appalachian Trail.  I signed in at the ranger's station, and weighed by pack.  With all my gear, food, and two liters of water, I would be carrying 37 lbs with me.

My pack hanging from the scales at the beginning of my adventure.

After changing out of my street clothes into all-synthetic hiking gear, we drove around the park a bit to take a few photos, plus the requisite picture of me under the arch at the beginning of the Approach Trail.

Your humble scribe at the Arch.  I had no idea what I was in for.

Amicalola Creek,  below the falls. It was absolutely gorgeous.

What is the Approach Trail, you ask?  Well, the actual Appalachian Trail (we'll call it the AT from now on) starts at the summit of Springer Mountain, Georgia, which is eight-and-a-half miles uphill from the Arch, which is just outside the back door of the aforementioned ranger station.  My plan was to hike from Springer to a place called Neel Gap, which is 32 trail miles away.  I knew I didn't have enough time to add another eight-plus miles to the hike, plus I just didn't want to climb all 600 stairs up the side of the falls, not to mention a full day of nothing but uphill hiking.  Deep down I knew I just wasn't in good enough shape for it.

You can still get to Springer without walking all the way, as there is a dirt Forest Service road that will get you almost to the top at a place called Big Stamp Gap.  I'd arranged for a shuttle driver to pick me up at the ranger station and drive me up as close as I could get.  Now, it may be an eight-and-a-half mile walk, but the road doesn't go that way--it has to wind all over the surrounding mountains to get to Big Stamp Gap and it's a 45 minute drive up a steep and narrow dirt road that's carved out of the side of the mountain.

My shuttle driver, Ron Brown, showed up as promised, so I said goodbye to my dad, with plans to meet up with him the following Sunday afternoon at Neel Gap.  It was an interesting drive with Ron--he told me all about his experiences on the AT and the people he met while running his shuttle service.  Plus he had every phone charger ever invented wired into the dashboard of his vehicle, so I charged up my iPhone one last time while we drove.

We got to the turnout at Big Stamp Gap a little after 10:00 am, I paid him his $60 and he pointed me in the right direction.  I stopped to take a picture or two, stretch, and chat with a couple of other hikers, and then I was off.

Now, the BSG parking/drop-off area is right on the AT, but you have to backtrack almost a full mile to get to the summit of Springer Mountain  (9/10ths of a mile according to the data book).  Everything I'd read about it said that it was 'an easy walk, shouldn't take more than twenty minutes or so', and even my shuttle driver said it would take no more than fifteen minutes to get up to the top of Springer from parking lot.



It took me over 45 minutes to get to the summit.  It was no easy walk--it wasn't that it was so steep, although it was all uphill.  It's just that it wasn't a smooth easy path in the woods like I'd been led to believe.  In a lot of places it was rock-strewn gulley, and with all the loose rocks, one has to pick their way across carefully and pay attention to each step, especially if one is not a seasoned hiker. Luckily I was using trekking poles (absolutely essential!), but it was exhausting and mentally taxing to just do that first mile--you couldn't just hike along and enjoy the scenery, you were watching your feet the whole time and concentrating on the next step so that you didn't turn an ankle, trip and fall, or blow out a knee.

The trail heading south to the summit of Springer Mountain.

I don't think the pictures do it justice, but imagine doing that with almost 40 lbs on your back.  I'm not gonna lie--I stopped to rest several times.  Plus, my backpack was brand-spanking new--I'd just gotten it a few days prior, and I had to adjust it constantly.  It was a difficult first mile, and I realized just how tough it was going to be.

Eventually I made it to the summit, and I was thrilled to be there. I'd heard so much about it while doing my AT research, and it seemed like some far-off place where amazing adventures began, yet there I was, at the Southern Terminus, thinking that if I just followed this trail long enough, eventually I'd end up in Maine.

The summit.

This is one of my all-time favorite pictures--my foot at the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, right next to the first white blaze.  The trail is 'blazed' on trees and rocks every few hundred yards all the way from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine.  No map needed--just follow the white blazes.

I spent a little time at the summit, taking pictures, signing the register that's hidden under a rock, and resting.  I had a snack and drank some water, chatting with the occasional hiker who happened by, a couple of which had come up the Approach Trail from the south.  After my brief rest, I hauled my butt up off the rock I was sitting on, strapped on my pack once more, and headed back down the mountain the way I came.

Getting back down was a little easier than coming up, although not exactly easy.  Climbing up is tough on the heart and lungs, climbing down is tough on the knees and ankles.  About that time I realized that listening to nothing but Tom Petty for the entire drive down was a bad idea--I had 'You Wreck Me' stuck in my head all day, which was oddly appropriate as I picked my way slowly down the mountain. When I finally got back to the parking lot where I started, I tossed my pack on the ground up against a large boulder, pulled out my water bottle, and laid back and dozed in the sunshine for almost a half an hour.  I was beat and hadn't even gone two full miles yet.  I had no idea how I was going to make it to Neel Gap in three days, or even four if I had to.  My only option was to just get up and walk.

From Big Stamp Gap, the trail is much easier for a couple of miles.  Flat, smooth, and it was a nice sunny day, not too hot.

Looking back, I should've appreciated it more, because the AT in Georgia is almost never smooth and flat.  But it was a great day to be hiking and I was happy to be alone in the woods, enjoying the sights and sounds of the forest.  Even though I'd run into hikers at the parking lot and at the summit of Springer, while walking along the trail for those first couple of miles, I didn't see another soul for a couple of hours.  But then I happened upon this:

There on the side of the trail, hanging from a small tree, was a mesh duffel bag.  I stopped and looked around, thinking it belonged to somebody who might've been off behind a tree taking care of business, but then again, I could see a roll of toilet paper inside the bag.  Investigating further, I could see that there were some weird odds and ends inside--cans of tuna, toiletries, a pair of socks, and random other assorted goodies.  Not knowing what to make of it, I just shrugged my shoulders and hiked on.

My original destination was a place called the Hawk Mountain shelter, which was seven-and-a-half miles from Springer, meaning an eight-and-a-half mile hike.  I was already exhausted and knew there was no way I was making it to Hawk Mountain that night, so I set my sights on a place called Stover Creek.  It was only a four-and-a-half mile walk, and I knew I'd be good and ready to call it a day when I arrived.

There was a fairly new three-sided shelter there, with bear cables, a picnic table, along with a water source nearby.  A moldering privy completed the list of amenities.

The Stover Creek shelter

My favorite thing about this shelter was the fact that it had a bench with a back on it.  It's amazing what we take for granted in civilization, and seats with backs on them is the first thing I realized was an ultimate luxury.  Resting on  logs and rocks is nice, but after a long day of walking, nothing beats a chair with a back on it.  Nothing.

There were a couple of guys there at the shelter already when I arrived, although it was only around 2:30 in the afternoon.  I dropped my pack and took advantage of the bench.  I was spent and didn't move for almost a half hour.

My shelter mates were friendly guys--one guy was a chain smoker carrying a 45-lb hockey bag as a backpack.  He told us that he'd just heard about the Appalachian Trail a week earlier, decided he'd had enough of working for awhile, turned over his stucco business to his daughter, and then went to Walmart and bought everything he thought he'd need from the sporting goods section the next day.  He'd driven up from Florida and left the ranger station at Amicalola Falls at 6:00 pm the night before, hiked all night, and got to Stover Creek a few hours earlier.  He said he was too tired and out of shape to keep going at that point, so after sleeping for a few hours, he decided to rest for another day before continuing onward.

Turns out that he was the one who left the goodie bag on the side of the trail that I'd seen earlier in the day.  He wanted to lighten his load and figured other people may want tuna and toilet paper...  He also told us that he was down to his last pack of cigarettes and that he was going to stop smoking while out on the trail.

The other guy was about 5-foot 4 inches tall but had legs like tree trunks.  He introduced himself as 'Littlefoot', being a section hiker from  Pennsylvania.  He'd hiked the entire trail in sections, all two-thousand-plus miles of it, over the past three years, and wanted to come back and do it again.

We hung out and talked for awhile, and once I had the energy, I started doing camp chores.  Instead of pitching my tent, I decided to just sleep in the shelter that night, giving me an earlier start the next day,  so I inflated my mattress pad and rolled out my sleeping bag in the corner of the shelter.  While doing that, a couple of women came by saying they were missionaries of some sort, and dropped off all kinds of stuff in the shelter for other hikers to take as they pleased.

Some stuff was useful--I pocketed some Werther's candy and a couple of granola bars, but I didn't understand the pair of jeans and the large bottles of hand lotion.  And our buddy who was on his last pack of Marlboros helped himself to a bag of loose tobacco and a packet of Zig Zags.

As the afternoon wore on, more and more hikers showed up to stay for the night. Most tented or hung up hammocks, but a few opted for the shelter because there was plenty of room--it even had a loft that could hold about eight people if needed.

One thing that's always needed while hiking is water--but at eight pounds a gallon, it sucks to carry.  So one always has to be on the lookout for good water sources throughout the day.  Luckily, a place with a name like Stover Creek has good reliable water nearby. So I headed down to the creek that afternoon with my filter pump and water bottles to resupply.  The creek isn't really that far from the shelter, just down the hill behind it, but it offered a bit of solitude compared to the activity of a couple dozen hikers milling around up at the firepit and picnic table.

As I was sitting there pumping my water, I felt like I was being watched, and sure enough, I looked up and about twenty yards upstream, the fattest deer I'd ever seen was staring me down.  I said hello (really) and went back to filtering my water and she went back to drinking.  Once I finished, I watched her watching me as she circled around behind me and headed up the opposite hill.  We must've watched each other for twenty minutes or so.

I headed back up to the shelter and told everyone about my encounter as I cooked my dinner.  Mealtime is a nice time in camp, usually because it's the social hub of the day.  You may not see anyone all day long while hiking, but people congregate around shelters and water sources, (and comfy places to sit!), and mealtime is a natural gathering time.  Conversation was of course about gear--that's a given, but everyone at the shelter had walked by the mysterious bag hanging from the tree, so that drove the discussion, too.

I boiled my water for my Mountain House freeze dried chili mac, and I was extremely popular because I had spare packets of Tabasco sauce I'd been lifting from Panera Bread for months, and everyone loves Tabasco sauce to spice up their bland pasta sides or freeze-dried boiled dinners.

'Tree Hugger' filter water for cooking.

Food bags were hung from the bear cables with care, in hopes that hungry critters wouldn't be there...

I met a lot of interesting people that night, including a couple of kids from New Jersey who were carrying 70-lb packs, most of which was food.  After a day on the trail, they realized the folly of their ways and started giving it all away. I availed myself to a ziplock bag of trail mix, while others helped themselves to a few granola bars and such. Most people didn't take much--it was the first day on the trail for almost everyone, and food bags were still pretty heavy all around.

Once the sun goes down, pretty much all activity at the shelter ceases.  They call it 'hiker midnight', and everyone is just so exhausted that sleep is the only thing anyone wants to do.  It took me a couple of hours of tossing and turning to get comfy on the hard wooden floor of the shelter, even with my inflatable mattress pad, but I eventually dozed off for several hours.

Some folks were up before dawn, cooking breakfast or making coffee, trying to get a head start on the day.  I kept the hood of my sleeping bag over my head to filter out the light from the headlamps and also to muffle some of the conversation, but it was a losing battle.  Eventually I decided to get up.  Breakfast was a Clif bar and a packet of hot chocolate mixed with some Starbucks Via.  I honestly had no appetite for the actual breakfast I'd packed, but knew that I needed to eat something--I'd need the energy.

After waiting in line at the privy to do one of the three S's, I packed up all my gear, did a few stretches, and headed off down the trail. A word about the wilderness privies--they're not nearly as gross as I'd imagined.  They're basically a raised outhouse with a huge bucket of mulch and wood chips next to the hole, so it's kind of like a human-sized litter box.  And there's usually a broom handy, so there aren't many spider webs and other nastiness you'd expect, either.

It seemed to be a pretty nice day--there was plenty of sun out, but it was quite breezy.  The first part of the trail goes downhill for a bit, then a rockhop across a good-sized creek, and then mostly it's small ups and downs for a couple more miles.  A few people passed me because I'm the slowest hiker in the world, but I was enjoying myself, if a bit sore.

They call the Appalachian Trail the Green Tunnel, and with all the rhododendron blooming everywhere, it's easy to see why.  Many times I was walking in a dimly lit path that was completely covered overhead.

It was kind of eerie at times because I was out there in the middle of the forest all alone, just imagining what kind of large furry claw-having critter might be walking through there, too.  After a couple of miles,  I came to one of my favorite spots, Three Forks.  The trail crossed a pretty big creek on a large wooden footbridge, and then crossed over another Forest Service road.  It was a great place to stop and rest, refill my water, and look at the data book again.  I remember thinking how awesome it would be to camp there, and told myself that next year I'd stop there instead of Stover Creek.

After Three Forks, the trail started to climb.  Again, everyone said that the first eight miles to Hawk Mountain was an easy stroll and again they lied.  It wasn't that steep, but it was constant uphill and it didn't seem to end.  I found myself gasping for breath and wishing to stop and rest, but the wind was just relentless.  It seemed like a warm day, but I was freezing because of the breeze.  And as much as I wanted to stop and rest, it was just too cold to stop moving.

Eventually, after what seemed like forever, I saw the turnoff for the side trail to the Hawk Mountain shelter.

The exit ramp to Hawk Mountain

I walked that last two-tenths of a mile to the shelter, thrilled to reach it. It seemed like I'd been walking all day, when in truth it was only about five miles.  And I couldn't stop shivering.  My teeth were chattering, and I could barely function.  Luckily, the two guys in the picture sitting at the picnic table were 101st Airborne out for a weekend of hiking, and as soon as they saw me, they sprung into action, insisting that I get in my sleeping bag, put on a hat, drink something, and eat as much trail mix as I could.

Even though it was 70 degrees outside, I was suffering from hypothermia.  I'd heard of people getting it in warm weather, but I never imagined it happening to me.  I was sweating a lot from the hiking and climbing, the wind was blowing so hard that it was cooling me off really fast, and I was running a huge calorie deficit, so my body just couldn't keep up.

I literally spent almost three hours in my sleeping bag, and it took almost an hour to stop shivering.  I'll admit I was a little concerned, but after drinking a bunch of water and getting some protein in me,  I started to feel better and actually got a nap.

My hypothermia selfie.

I wasn't able to sleep for very long, as there was a large lump in the corner of the shelter who started snoring like a freight train in the middle of the afternoon.  Once he woke up and realized I was awake, he refused to stop talking.  He seemed like a nice guy, but he was a genuine weirdo.  Once I was feeling good enough to get up, I gathered all my stuff and set up my tent out behind the shelter in one of the several tenting areas.  I later found out that hikers along the trail that week referred to the guy as the Mayor of Hawk Mountain, because he'd been living in the shelter for at least nine days. 

It turned into a nice afternoon, and once I got my tent set up and water refilled, I laid back down for a bit until I got hungry enough to make dinner.

My one-bunk Hilton
Eventually, more people filtered in to camp, and there was quite a gathering of cool people around the campfire.  I met some really nice people from a church group in Tennessee, and an attractive girl who had thru-hiked the Pacific Coast Trail (2700 or so miles) the summer before.  She was just starting her AT thru hike that day, and had left from the arch at the park that morning, doing in one day twice as much as it had taken me two days to hike.  I was impressed, and she had a lot of great stories, too.

That was a great night but again, a half hour after the sun went down, everyone was in bed and fast asleep, even though the Army Rangers were doing full-on mountain warfare training in the area, gently lulling us to sleep with machine gun and artillery fire for several hours.

That next morning, I still had no appetite, but I forced myself to eat two Clif bars with my hot cocoa and coffee mixture.  It took me a lot longer than I expected to break camp, too.  I think I got moving by like 9:00 am that day.  It was Saturday, and I was now under a time crunch.  I was 24 miles away from where I was supposed to be the next afternoon, and there was no way I was gonna make it.  I knew that the trail crossed the Forest Service road a few times that day, and if I could just make it a few more miles, I might be able to get a hitch.

So I started walking.  Hightower Gap was only a half mile down the trail, but it was too early to catch a ride, so I kept walking, and climbing, and descending till I got to a place call Horse Gap.  I was pretty tired by then, so when the trail popped out at the road, I sat down on my pack to finish off one of my bottles of water.  I could hear the sound of a truck coming down the road, so I stuck my thumb out.

I needed a ride to Neel Gap, but the guy was only going to Dahlonega.  I took that, and he was kind enough to drop me off on the side of the road that lead to Neel Gap about a half an hour later, and I stuck my thumb out again.  It only took about five minutes for a kind soul to take pity on me, and I had a ride.

Neel Gap is a very famous place on the Appalachian Trail.  It's the first 'civilization' on the trail, and the trail actually goes right through the building.  It's a general store/outfitter/tourist attraction on one side, and a bunkhouse/hostel on the other.  The establishment itself is called Mountain Crossings, and every single hiker on the AT has to pass through it.

I went inside and secured myself a bunk and a shower for $15, and then a hot dog and a coke for a couple bucks more.  I went downstairs to the hostel, peeled off my stinky clothes, took a luxurious hot shower, and then laid down on my bunk and dozed for a bit.  I had no idea that the trail would be as hard as it was.  It was *all* hills, and walking a mile in Georgia mountains with a 37-lb pack is not one bit at all like walking a mile around the office park on your lunch break.  I was completely exhausted.

A little while later a group of loud, stinky hikers came tramping through, and high-fives and greeting were exchanged as we'd all met earlier in the week.  Stories of the weirdo at Hawk Mountain were shared, along with stories about the bear that came into camp up on Blood Mountain the night before.  It was getting late in the afternoon, and while all those guys were getting cleaned up and settled in, I took my pack upstairs to the outfitter for a free 'shakedown'.

Josh from Mountain Crossings gives me the shakedown. I feel bad for the guy, because everyone that comes in has gear with at least three or four days worth of trail funk stinking it up...

Basically they dumped it out all over the floor and gave a little tough love about stuff I could change for lighter weight or didn't need at all.  It's a humbling experience because there's usually several other people watching.  But he said mine wasn't so bad--I only had about 2-3 lbs worth of stuff I could change out.  There was one guy there who had a 70 lb pack and was carrying three full jars of Ragu sauce in his food bag, among other ridiculousness.

That evening a local church group brought over dinner for all the hikers--mac and cheese, potatoes, and pulled pork BBQ.  It was awesome, and a great time to sit around with all these other people who where complete strangers earlier in the day, but due to bonding of shared experience, were now fast friends.  After dinner, the caretaker of the hostel, 'Pirate' took the padlock off the beer fridge, and several of us sat around till the wee hours drinking cold PBR and passing around the flask, telling tall tales and listening to Pirate's endless supply of stories of people who'd passed through.

It was a great time.

I crawled back to my bunk sometime after midnight, a little tipsy, extremely tired, and much wiser about just what kind of experience hiking on the AT was going to be.  I couldn't wait for the next nine months to pass...

The bunkroom at the hostel. Just be glad this picture isn't a scratch-n-sniff.

My trail buddies--Ragu, Tree Hugger, Jackrabbit, McSomething, and Huggy Bear. They bestowed me with the name Blueberry, but that's a story for another time...


Post Script: To this day, every time I hear 'You Wreck Me' I think of this weekend...


Unknown said...

It is very nice to see you back. Great writing!

Dave T said...

Excellent Mikey, Its good to have you back.

THOMAS said...

great to have ya back writing...i read your stuff on the blueberry blog as well...keep it up!

Rick D said...

You just have a way with words. I don't care what you write about -- you make it entertaining!