Date: Thursday – 24 April 2014
Start: Neel Gap 31.7 miles Today: 7.8 miles
Finish: White Oak Stamp 39.5 miles Total AT: 39.5 miles
My plan this morning was to get up at 7am, have a leisurely breakfast of cold leftover sandwich (mmmmmm, so disappointing), and take my bag of extra gear over to the outfitters to ship home.
I debated whether or not to set an alarm, but the bunks are in a windowless basement room, and I didn’t want to accidentally oversleep.
Sam had left bright and early, but mystery sleeping hiker from the back corner was hanging out on the couch when I went out into the common area. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see it was Bear Grylls. Long time no see, Bear! He’d slept for 17 hours.
We started talking about traveling, and he told me he’d been to every continent except Africa through the Merchant Marines. He has had such a busy life for someone who’s not yet of legal drinking age! All that time on the oil rigs, plus the Merchant Marines, plus all the other random stuff he’s talked about, like hitchhiking through Brazil and getting partially blinded by shrapnel in the Middle East… that’s a lot to cram into two and a half years.
I don’t want to imply I didn’t believe him, except that I totally did not believe him. I was ready to excuse myself from the conversation, as there’s only so much grandiose bullshit I can listen to before 9am, but then he suggested I look into joining the Merchant Marines because they’re always looking for smart people and I’m, what, 25 years old? 27?
Oh man, that kid is now officially my favorite person on the trail. I’ll listen to you lie about whatever you want, buddy! Just promise you’ll never leave me!!
After I wiped my eyes and stopped wheezing, I noticed the outfitters had finally opened, so I took over the stuff I was shipping home to be weighed. The box came to 4.9 lbs, though in my defense, most of that was gear I never intended to carry past Neel Gap.
I wasn’t sure which camera I wanted to use, so I brought two – a mirrorless micro 4/3 system and a waterproof point-and-shoot. I didn’t know if I’d want a Kindle in addition to a tablet, so I brought ’em both. I’d put my backpack in a duffel bag when I checked it at the airport and wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to quit before I shipped it off.
There were a few things I’d brought “just in case” that didn’t make the cut – gaiters, extra Compeed, the Aqua Mira Pop-C had scared me away from using – but most of what went into the box was planned deadweight.
One of the things you can ask for at Neel Gap is a pack shakedown, where one of the shop employees will sort through everything in your pack and tell you what to take out to lighten your base weight.
I’d briefly toyed with the idea of submitting my pack for review, but the guys working that day really put me off. I heard one of them make the same joke about losers carrying iPods and iPhones and iPads and iTouching themselves around the campfire three different times.
Look. We get it, dude. You’re a pearl-clutching purist who thinks technology is ruining the backpacking experience. Maybe you could just buy a t-shirt with, like, a laptop in a red circle with a diagonal slash over it. That would get your point across just fine. Nobody wants to hear you make the same bad joke over and over again. I wasn’t even in the store that long!!
I just don’t have the patience to deal with hardliners anymore, and as much fun as a good snipefest might have been, I didn’t feel like wasting both our time on an ultimately pointless exercise. YOU WILL PRY MY TABLET OUT OF MY COLD DEAD HANDS. Plus, hey, my pack is now only 28 lbs including food and water. That’s not bad!
At 9:30am the Hiker Hostel shuttle showed up to drop off Joan and Catherine. I asked about Nae-Nae, but apparently she’d decided to take a zero to rest up before tackling the next section.
The Appalachian Trail runs right through the center of the building here before heading into Raven Cliffs Wilderness.
I’m all for poetic license, but these grim signs are bringing me down. Blood Mountain, Raven Cliffs, could we please have Sweet Puppy Meadows or something?? It would be a nice change of pace.
There’s a trail map posted just before the Raven Cliffs sign, and when I started climbing Bear Grylls was just standing there staring at it. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s probably not going to do any hiking today.
Not that I can really blame him. After a day of slack-packing my regular backpack feels like it weighs a hundred pounds. I had to give myself a few extra pep talks just so I wouldn’t turn around and go back to the hostel.
This is a reasonably close approximation of my internal monologue that day:
Once you’ve hiked this section, you never have to do it again. I will never ever make you come back and hike this part again. You just have to get through it once. Come on! Don’t think about your feet. Just look at the view.
Wait. No. Stop looking at the view. Go back to looking at and thinking about your feet. Otherwise you’re going to fall down again. Don’t fall! Keep going! Move! Move! Move! Ok, never mind, take a break. Everything will be better after another break. No such thing as too many breaks!
Coming down from Cowrock Mountain into Tesnatee Gap I met Wayne, a very friendly day hiker from Atlanta. He passed me heading southbound.
Then he passed me again going northbound. Then I ran into him again at Hogpen Gap.
Over the course of these three encounters, he offered me the following:
- Fig Newtons
- a gallon of water
- a bottle of beer
- an extra stove and fuel
- a bag of coffee beans from a local roaster (“You don’t have a grinder? Well, maybe if you used a rock? Some people eat the beans whole!”)
- a new 1 lb sleeping bag
- a different set of hiking poles
- a brand new super fancy Lightheart Solo tent he had in his truck
- a paid-for hotel room in Helen GA so I could clean up and sleep indoors tonight
I said yes to some Newtons and water, but turned down everything else. He left a few of the smaller items out for other hikers, so hopefully they found good homes.
I regretted not taking him up on the hotel room offer when another hiker, Cheryl from Buffalo, passed me and mentioned the forecast called for rain.
At some point right just north of Hogpen Gap, you leave Raven Cliffs Wilderness and enter… Mark Trail Wilderness.
Good lord, this is not an improvement. The woods in a Mark Trail comic strip are really dangerous!!
There are killer bears…
So much for Sweet Puppy Meadows, I guess.
According to my guidebook, there wasn’t another campsite until Low Gap Shelter, 4.6 miles past Hogpen Gap. For five beautiful minutes I genuinely believed I could reach it before dark, but then I did the math: I’d been averaging about one mile per hour, and it was already after 5pm, so I wouldn’t get there until close to 10pm.
Yeah, that’s obviously not going to work. I decided I’d hike for an hour to get away from the road crossing and then set up camp on the first reasonably flat spot I found.
This seemed like a good bet. I had plenty of water, thanks to Wayne, and if I worked quickly I could get my camp set up before the rain hit. I even spotted a good tree from which to hang my food bag. (It’s not as close to the tree on the left as this photo makes it appear. I was careful with placement, I promise!)
I felt so accomplished! My first night camping alone nowhere near a shelter! Check me out! I’m a brave outdoors woman now.
Literally five seconds after I gave myself a high five, I heard a growling noise behind me. I dropped my spork, my heart started pounding and I got a tremendous adrenaline rush before I realized that it was just an airplane flying overhead.
I’m a brave outdoorswoman now!
There. I fixed it.