Day 3: Hawk Mountain to Gooch Mountain

Date:       Monday – 21 April 2014
Start:
      Hawk Mountain Shelter                       8.1 miles                    Today:          7.7 miles
Finish:   Gooch Mountain Shelter                    15.8 miles                    Total AT:   15.8 miles

Today was a very  s  l  o  w  morning, even slower than yesterday. I set my alarm for 6am but didn’t actually manage to break camp until 9:20am. This is becoming a disturbing trend, as it marks the second day in a row I’ve hit the trail exactly three hours and 20 minutes after my alarm went off. I’m concerned I’ll need to set it for 3:00am if I ever want to start hiking before 7am.

By the time I crawled out of my tent, Pop-C and the North Carolinians were long gone, never to be seen by me again. Joan and Catherine left ten minutes before I did, and I didn’t catch up with them until that evening.

All in all it was a pretty lonely day on the trail, and most of the people I passed were heading in the opposite direction. I met a family of five, a retiree doing trail maintenance and an older couple wearing very crisply-pressed matching khaki outfits hiking southbound. The only three northbounders I encountered were two 30-something guys from Alabama out on a ~90 mile section hike and a thru-hiker named Rob Steady.

Mr. Steady was also using a ULA Catalyst, which thrilled me to no end because he’s already got his Triple Crown, and this will be his third AT thru hike. Clearly I, too, will succeed in all my hiking endeavors because we have chosen the same type of backpack.

(False equivalence? What are you talking about? Look, a cougar!)

The elevation map for this part of trail didn’t look that bad, but I found the ups and downs pretty grueling, particularly the section between Horse Gap and Justus Creek that crossed Sassafras Mountain (3342 ft) and Justus Mountain (3226 ft). I thought I took this picture from the top of Sassafras, but it turned out to be a particularly demoralizing false peak.

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The weather was cool enough that I kept my fleece on for most of the day despite all the climbing. That was probably a good thing, considering I fell down two more times. I’ve got another scrape on my left knee and a bruised right elbow, but I’m pretty sure the damage would be worse if I’d been in short sleeves. My forehead smacked right into the dirt on my second fall; I’m only grateful no one was around to witness this firsthand.

Fortunately, my spirit remained unbroken!

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One of the more frustrating things about being a novice hiker is how much I don’t yet understand about personal hydration and water management. I don’t know how my pace varies based on terrain, so I’m never quite sure how long it will take to reach the next water source. I also don’t have any idea how much water I  drink per hour on average or how that will change based on the weather conditions. I’m always either carrying too much water or too little, and I’m not even close to dialing it in.

Today was a “carry too little” day, and I didn’t realize there was an 8.3-mile section of trail without any water sources whatsoever.

Oops.

I ran out of water at Horse Gap, four miles short of the next stream, and was seriously considering sticking a pebble in my mouth to generate some saliva when I stumbled upon this cache at Cooper Gap.

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My first bit of trail magic! I was later told that local shuttle drivers do a water drop here every day during peak AT hiking season.

I sat down at the base of that tree and immediately chugged half a liter. I didn’t want to drink too much water out of consideration for other potentially thirsty hikers on the trail, but I figured taking half a gallon would be fine.

While I was sitting there, an extremely chatty section hiker came through heading south. This guy just would not stop talking.

His name is Danny and he’s from Florida and he’s in the Special Forces and he brought two knives with him, two big knives, one of them weighs a whole pound, and he could show them to me if I wanted to see them, but it was actually a mistake to bring them because he hasn’t used them at all and he’s only out for eight days but he’s ahead of schedule and he’s on his way back to his car now and he’s really loved the trail and is probably going to come back and do some more but not with his wife because she doesn’t like camping so he’ll bring his sister-in-law instead because she does like the outdoors and they do all sorts of canoeing and hiking and climbing together and he probably should have married her but she was too young so he married her sister instead and before he starts driving home tomorrow he’s going to come back to Cooper Gap to pick up a thru-hiker going by the trail name ‘Bear Grylls’ who is young and injured and has been making all sorts of foolish decisions and if I’m going to Gooch Mountain Shelter could I please give him a message because Bear is taking a zero at Gooch Mountain and needs to understand that the hike from there back to Cooper Gap is pretty hard so he should get an early start and am I sure I don’t want to see one of the knives?

I did a lot of nodding and smiling, drinking my free water and letting his words wash over me like gentle ocean waves.

When I finally reached Gooch Mountain Shelter, the first people I saw were Joan and Catherine.

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Then I spotted Mr. Grylls sitting in the shelter. Oh, where to begin, where to begin. Before I left for the trail, I read a lot of stories about underprepared hikers carrying inappropriate gear, but honestly? I thought a lot of it was exaggerated for comic effect.

I no longer think that.

Mr. Grylls, who will be turning 21 in September, weighs 310 lbs and started the trail in eleven-pound carpenter jeans and steel-toed work boots, although he was forced to cut out the steel toes on his third day after the blisters got too bad. He brought only power bars to eat, and he ran out of those on the second day. He had a tent, but it was too heavy so he dumped it in the back of a day-hiker’s pick-up truck at one of the road crossings. Now he stays in the shelters in his too-thin sleeping bag, which he bought from Wal-Mart and is probably only rated to 50 degrees. He’s got a machete, a $300 solar charger and he’s keeping a video diary, but he’s only got four dollars in his wallet to get himself to Maine.

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I actually really liked him. He’s quite charming and speaks very candidly about his lack of experience, and I could legitimately see him staying on the trail for a few months while relying on the kindness and generosity of strangers. I mean, let’s be real, there’s zero chance he’ll manage a thru-hike, but he could definitely live in the woods for awhile before heading back to his real life.

(Note: I had to ask the internet how to spell ‘Bear Grylls’ and, in doing so, discovered he has named his three sons Huckleberry Edward Jocelyne, Marmaduke Mickey Percy, and Jesse. Why does poor Jesse have such a short, pedestrian name?? I feel so sad for him.)

Rob Steady was also camping here, so the five of us ate dinner together and chatted. Bear Grylls told us about his time on the oil rigs, I interrogated Rob about all his fancy cuben fiber gear, and Joan told us she and Catherine had decided to get off the trail at Woody Gap tomorrow and make arrangements with the Hiker Hostel to slack pack the rest of Georgia.

I latched onto this idea immediately. I didn’t want to slack pack all the way to North Carolina, but I was sore from hiking and sore from falling, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tackle Blood Mountain with a full pack.

It’s 15.9 miles between Gooch Mountain Shelter and Neel Gap, the next convenient resupply point. Between 1 March and 1 June, the two shelters in that section of trail – Woods Hole Shelter and Blood Mountain Shelter – are closed to overnight campers unless you’ve got a hard-shell bear canister. The ominously-named Blood Mountain is 4461 feet high, and I’d heard rumors it was a difficult climb and an even more difficult descent. There are designated campsites at Lance Creek, about halfway between Gooch Mountain and Neel Gap, but I wasn’t sure if they had bear cables, and there were few enough people on the trail that I worried I might be the only person sleeping there.

More to the point, this was going to be my third night sleeping outside. I really missed hot water and flush toilets. This new plan meant I’d only have to hike 5.2 miles to Woody Gap tomorrow, could spend a glorious night on a mattress indoors, and then just carry a day pack over Blood Mountain. Thank you, Joan! You have the best ideas.

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