Day 14: Standing Indian to Betty Creek

Date:       Friday – 2 May 2014
Start:
       Standing Indian Shelter                86.3 miles                   Today:            11.3 miles
Finish:   Betty Creek Gap                              97.6 miles                    Total AT:       97.6 miles

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Day 13: Bly Gap to Standing Indian

Date:      Thursday – 1 May 2014
Start:
      Bly Gap                                            78.6 miles                    Today:              7.7 miles
Finish:   Standing Indian Shelter               86.3 miles                    Total AT:      86.3 miles

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Day 12: Dicks Creek Gap to Bly Gap

Date:      Wednesday – 30 April 2014
Start:
      Dicks Creek Gap                          69.6 miles                    Today:            9.0 miles
Finish:   Bly Gap                                         78.6 miles                    Total AT:      78.6 miles

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Day 11: Deep Gap to Dicks Creek

Date:      Tuesday – 29 April 2014
Start:
      Deep Gap Shelter                          66.0 miles                    Today:           3.6 miles Finish:   Dicks Creek Gap                           69.6 miles                   Total AT:      69.6 miles

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P1000781             P1000820

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P1000800    P1000680

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P1000805   P1000811

 

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Day 10: Tray Mountain to Deep Gap

Date:      Monday – 28 April 2014
Start:
      Tray Mountain Shelter                    58.6 miles                    Today:             7.4 miles
Finish:   Deep Gap Shelter                             66.0 miles                   Total AT:      66.0 miles

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Most crowded shelter yet:  Dayglo, Bluebird, KO, Butterfly, Nebraska, Zebra, 44, Obi Wan, Robert Redford, Fifty, Chutki, Titan, Jared, Trooper, and me

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Day 9: Unicoi Gap to Tray Mountain

Date:       Sunday – 27 April 2014
Start:
      Unicoi Gap                                         52.9 miles                    Today:             5.7 miles
Finish:   Tray Mountain Shelter                    58.6 miles                   Total AT:      58.6 miles

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Day 8: Blue Mountain to Unicoi Gap

Date:       Saturday – 26 April 2014
Start:
      Blue Mountain Shelter                      50.5 miles                   Today:           2.4 miles Finish:   Unicoi Gap                                          52.9 miles                   Total AT:     52.9 miles

 

It’s taking me longer than I’d like to write and edit these entries, so I’m going to throw up some placeholder entries with photos and fill them in, slowly but surely, over the next few weeks.

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Day 7: White Oak Stamp to Blue Mountain

Date:      Friday – 25 April 2014
Start:
      White Oak Stamp                             39.5 miles                   Today:          11.0 miles
Finish:   Blue Mountain Shelter                    50.5 miles                   Total AT:      50.5 miles

I went to sleep thinking it was going to rain.

When I got up in the morning, I packed up in a hurry and put on my pack cover because I thought it was going to rain.

Allllll morning I thought it was going to rain.

Did it rain? No. No, it did not rain. This was the first of many times I got bad weather information from a fellow hiker. I finally stopped paying attention to most of what I heard second- and third-hand unless I got confirmation from at least two other people, and even then it was only right about 40% of the time.

The weather honestly couldn’t seem to decide what it wanted to do today. It’s bright, it’s overcast, it’s bright, it’s overcast, it’s bright, it’s overcast, back and forth ad infinitum. I spent a lot of time pushing up and pulling down my sunglasses.

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Catherine passed me while I was sitting on a log near the trail to Low Gap Shelter; her mother passed me a few miles later when I’d stopped to eat near Cold Springs Gap. They were both still slack-packing with the Hiker Hostel, and I’m not ashamed to admit I was bitterly jealous.

Today was the first day I started photographing the guidebook pages instead of just ripping them out and sticking them in my pocket. The pages were disintegrating faster than I could hike through them, possibly because I’m one of those hikers who likes to know where I am and how far I have to go at all times, so I’m constantly pulling out the map to double-check the upcoming landmarks.

P1000606My original goal for the day was to reach Unicoi Gap by 5pm and get a ride into Hiawassee. The elevation profile that section looks so easy – no big climbs, no big descents until the very end, just past Blue Mountain – I figured it would be a piece of cake.

But the cake was a lie.

Maybe I was just worn down from sleeping badly? Or I wasn’t eating enough food? Or the right kinds of food? I don’t know. I just had no energy at all.

Around mid-afternoon I ran into Wayne again. He’d met two section hikers who needed a ride from Unicoi to Neel Gap and had immediately volunteered his services. He was jogging back to Hogpen Gap, where he’d parked that morning, so he could collect his truck and drive up to meet them. When I mentioned I was also planning to go to Unicoi, he offered to come back and give me a ride or call a taxi on my behalf, but I passed. Too much pressure. My phone didn’t have any service, so I wouldn’t be able to call and let him (or a taxi) know my ETA, and I didn’t want to give up the option of quitting early.

Which is exactly what I ended up doing. Best laid plans, etc.

I had no energy, the trail got progressively rockier, and I kept running across diseased rodents and creepy insects and spiders. By the time I reached Blue Mountain Shelter, it was after 6pm and I was done.

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I assumed I wouldn’t see too many people at the shelter because most would be pushing on to Unicoi, but I was wrong. All told, there were two guys from Ohio doing a section hike, a couple and their dog hiking southbound for the weekend, a semi-homeless guy drifting up and down the trail who made me nervous until we chatted for a few minutes, and a thru-hiker from Oklahoma named Trooper who warned me the temperature was supposed to drop down to the low 40s that night.

Nobody was socializing that evening, so I pitched my tent across the clearing from the shelter, sat on a log to cook my sad little dinner, and got into my tent around 7pm.

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Trooper did not lie to me about the temperature. It was very cold and very windy all night long. I put on all my layers, my gloves, and my knit cap with attached balaclava and curled into a ball underneath my sleeping bag while desperately wishing I’d gone with the solid interior for my Tarptent instead of the mesh liner. At one point I thought I heard footsteps outside and became convinced the semi-homeless derelict was coming to bash my head in with a rock and take my gear, but then I realized it was just the wind rustling the leaves outside.

It took ages to fall asleep, and my night was restless and filled with weird dreams. In one, Ashton Kutcher had a clone who’d been raised as an amoral killing machine and was trying to infiltrate the Emmys in order to assassinate Brad Pitt. I remember earnestly arguing with his handler that this plan was stupid and doomed to fail because Brad Pitt had no reason to attend the Emmy Awards.

Don’t even ask me where that all came from. I have no idea.

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Day 6: Neel Gap to White Oak Stamp

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?

Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha
hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah
ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah!!!!!

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!!

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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.

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The Appalachian Trail runs right through the center of the building here before heading into Raven Cliffs Wilderness.

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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.

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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!

Etcetera, etcetera.

Coming down from Cowrock Mountain into Tesnatee Gap I met Wayne, a very friendly day hiker from Atlanta. He passed me heading southbound.

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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
  • almonds
  • 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.

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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.

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Good lord, this is not an improvement. The woods in a Mark Trail comic strip are really dangerous!!

There are killer bears…

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and kidnappers…

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AND WOLVES!!

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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Day 5: Woody Gap to Neel Gap

Date:      Wednesday – 23 April 2014
Start:
      Woody Gap                              21.0 miles                   Today:          10.7 miles
Finish:   Neel Gap                                  31.7 miles                    Total AT:      31.7 miles

Woke up, ate breakfast (waffles instead of pancakes this time), shoved the bulk of my hiking gear into a duffel bag and packed what I’d need for the day into my borrowed orange daypack.

When I wandered outside to wait for the shuttle, who should I find smoking on the porch but Mr. Bear Grylls. He’d met up with Danny, gotten a ride into town, had his knee examined by a doctor, hitched to Wal-Mart, collected $50 from Western Union, and convinced a guy in the parking lot to give him a ride to the hostel. I think he was hoping to finagle some work-for-stay, but there wasn’t any room, so after his cigarette he headed down to the main road to try to get a ride to Neel Gap.

Joan, Catherine and I were joined in our slack-packing adventure by an older woman going by Nae-Nae. (Or maybe Nay-Nay? Neigh-Neigh? I don’t know, it’s what her grandson calls her, and spelling conventions cannot be applied to what comes out of the mouths of toddlers.)

The shuttle dropped us off at Woody Gap, where I was immediately confronted with this evocative sign:

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“Blood,” “mountain” and “wilderness” are not words that inspire a lot of confidence.

But look how tiny that pack is! It’s so light! A baby could carry that pack! Or a little dog!

After five minutes Joan and Catherine were nothing more than specks in the distance, but Nae-Nae and I leapfrogged one another for most of the ascent. She’s the first hiker I’ve met with a slower pace, but she’d pass me whenever I took a long break.

I took a lot of long breaks.

The weather today was fantastic – clear and sunny, but with a cool breeze – and I didn’t see the point of rushing. I stopped for snacks. I stopped to read. I stopped to take photographs. I stopped whenever I saw a particularly nice flat rock begging to be sat upon.

I spent 45 minutes on top of Wildcat Mountain airing out my feet and admiring the view.

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Again, it was a pretty deserted morning. I met one new thru-hiker around 10:30am, a guy fresh out of the army going by Freestyle. He did 20 miles yesterday, so I feel confident I will never ever see him again.

I also met John! John lives in the Yahoola Valley, takes history classes at the local college for fun, and volunteers to do trail maintenance on the AT. I was really excited to see a blaze being painted, so John was kind enough to pose for a few action shots.

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I almost asked if I could paint a blaze myself, but I thought that might be pushing it.

This energetic trail-running couple passed me twice today (and twice yesterday).

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Trail running looks like magic to me. How do they keep their balance? Why don’t they fall? Their knees don’t even look scarred. Is that because they usually wear pads? Are they witches?

About a mile before the summit of Blood Mountain, there are some side trails leading to various campsites. It is incredibly obvious these are side trails, yet I still managed to get lost on one somehow. I’m walking, I’m walking, the trail is getting narrower, I’m still walking, the trail is no longer going uphill, I’m walking, I’m walking, now there’s all this underbrush I have to push through, I’m walking, I’m walking, hmmm, something doesn’t feel quite right…

“It’s impossible to get lost on the AT,” they said. “Every junction is so clearly marked,” they said.

Uh huh.

I dragged myself back to the main trail just as Nae-Nae was passing, and she laughed at me for a good two minutes.

By the time we reached the summit, there were a lot of people. I think I counted at least a dozen, mostly college kids and families out for a day-hike.

Blood Mountain Shelter is the first stone shelter I’ve seen. There’s a fireplace inside!

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I took a photo of Nae-Nae with the valley in the background before starting my descent.

Going uphill is bad, but downhill is almost always worse. In this case, a lot of the trail went over bare rock.

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It doesn’t look that bad, but I felt like I was going to slip and fall at any moment. I have great respect for all the hikers who tackle this mountain in bad weather; I can’t imagine what it’s like in snowy or icy conditions. (Actually, that’s not true. I can totally imagine what it’s like in snowy or icy conditions. It is a death trap, is what it is.)

Never have I been so happy to spot a paved road through the trees, and I did an embarrassing jog-shuffle down the last quarter mile of trail.

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Neel Gap is home to the Mountain Crossings Outfitter, where you can replace whatever gear you’ve grown to hate since the start of your trip, resupply your food bag, ship home via UPS all the extra stuff you’ve realized you really don’t need on the trail, and, for only fifteen dollars on a first come/first served basis, spend the night in the welcoming embrace of the Historical Hiker Hostel, open every day but Christmas.

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I was so engrossed in reading the Blood Mountain interpretive sign I almost didn’t notice the shoe tree overhead.

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The Hiker Hostel had dropped off my regular backpack that morning, so I went into the outfitters to collect it and see if they had a bed available. I was a little concerned they might be full, but instead it was practically deserted.

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Joan, Catherine and Nae-Nae had all gone back to the Hiker Hostel for the night, so it just ended up being me and two other people in there that night. One guy I didn’t even see until the next morning because when I checked in he was already asleep in the very back corner of the bunk room and didn’t stir all night. The second guy was an uncommunicative college junior, Sam from Massachusetts, doing a seven-day section hike over his spring break. We exchanged, at most, a dozen words over the course of the evening. The hostel has a big selection of VHS tapes, and he popped in The Empire Strikes Back, watched the first twenty minutes, went outside to make a phone call, and was in his bunk by 8pm.

I spent most of my night sitting on the couch in the common area using the wifi and separating out what I wanted to ship home while shivering under my sleeping bag because it was absolutely freezing in there. To add insult to injury, right next to the couch was a large sign that said “ATTENTION! NO GEAR WITHIN 6 FT OF HEATER” hanging over an empty fireplace screen.

There was no heater.

It was all a cruel joke.

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