About Last Night…
Day 5- 11.4 miles- Mountain Crossings to Low Gap Shelter
Day 6- 8.4 miles: Low Gap Shelter to Stealth Camp on Blue Mountain
Day 7- 10.9 miles: Stealth Camp on Blue Mountain to Swag of the Blue Ridge Campsite
Day 8- 7.5 miles: Swag of the Blue Ridge to Dick’s Creek Gap
Full disclosure- I just turned the thermostat up to 72 and climbed beneath a set of clean sheets atop a freshly made bed. I’ve got a full belly of pub food after a fine meal at the Universal Joint in Clayton, Ga. and I’m feeling safe and sound. But about last night…
Day 6 had been our best one yet as Sapling and I (more on trail names in the next blog) enjoyed glorious 55 degree weather and stunning views that won’t be available in a couple weeks when the trees finish leafing out. Her knee was seemingly on the mend and though she still made a wise decision to maintain a throttled back pace, her pain was significantly less. We decided to take a long lunch break on a ridge the trail crossed offering panoramic views to both the east and the west.
Our chosen site conveniently had two fallen trees that paralleled the trail and allowed us to face each other as we pulled out the Jet Boil and heated up water for coffee and thought about our lunch options. Up to this point we had only heated water at camp in the morning and evening, but this felt like a special moment. All was well and we needed to enjoy the moment to its fullest. I ended up selecting Mountain House Chicken Alfredo and Sapling made her Peak Refuel Pesto Chicken Pasta.
Now if you decide to essentially turn the AT into a table for an hour on a lovely day in mid-March you’re bound to have a few visitors walk across it. One of them was a lone southbound fellow who I greeted as he came close and asked how he was doing. He replied, “Not bad for a blind guy hiking… I am going North aren’t I?” as he looked me dead in the eye. I almost busted out laughing before Sapling said, “Really??? That’s soooo amazing!” That made all of us chuckle once she figured out she’d been played. Next up was a sturdy looking college-aged kid on a mission. He was friendly but breezed right through and was quickly up the trail and out of sight.
And then came Second Thought, who decided to join us at the “table”. She was just about Sapling’s age of mid-twenties and came from Nashville, TN. I immediately sensed Second Thought was good people. She had a smile and calmness about her that belied the enormity of the challenge she had undertaken. Second Thought had begun the trail a couple weeks previous to us but, like Sapling, developed pain in one of her knees. Hers got worse instead of better and she was forced to take a week off and rehabilitate back home. Now she was back on day one of the re-do and she still felt the pain. It didn’t seem to affect her mindset though as she got up and moved on while we wrapped up our lunch.
Just before setting back off ourselves we had a visit from two of our favorite hikers, Slacker and Slow & Steady. These guys are also good people. They dutifully checked in on Sapling’s knee and then we talked about the weather, which is more than just small talk on the AT. A rainstorm was in the forecast for the evening and they were heading for the Blue Mountain Shelter. As they began walking away Slacker turned to us and said, “Ya know, they say the Trail isn’t a race- but if it was we’d be winning!” A lunch bookended by comedians!
I have not wanted to stay in a shelter thus far on our journey and had no intention of staying at Blue Mountain. But most AT shelters have privies (that’s a toilet for you muggles) and Sapling needed to make a pit stop. When we walked up we saw Moxie the Ridge Runner again. Ridge Runners are the Po-Po of the trail, and though Moxie is the only one I know I’m confident she’s the best. We saw her on day negative 1 when she issued us our Thru Hiker tags and got us signed in, back when we were complete novices. Well now I had 6 days under my belt and it was time to talk shop as we chit-chatted and I waited for Sapling. We spoke about hanging bear bags, stealth camp sites, and what to do about knee pain- which seems to be rampant among the 2023 crowd right now. She pointed us toward a nice stealth site about a mile away and we bid Moxie adieu.
Rookie Mistakes 101
The stealth site was well protected from wind but not from rain and fog. When we awoke on day 7 the misery began to unfold. Packing up a wet tent while getting rained on is no fun, but it’s pretty straight forward. Like the Nike Slogan says, just do it. But the real trick is trying to keep both the inner part of your tent, your sleeping quilt and your camp clothes dry; especially since the temperature forecast after this full day of rain was going to be down in the 20s. The first mistake I made in my personal series of unfortunate events was that I forgot to wrap my quilt into the waterproof liner bag I had purchased specifically for this moment. That was just the first of many to come.
Once hiking things always seem better. The heart starts beating faster if you’re climbing and that warms you right up. And if you’re descending you’re so focused on not falling you’re too distracted to realize your teeth are chattering. I also heard a vibrant voice echoing in my ears, “Embrace the suck”- right on Socrates!
However, a few minutes into our long, wet and perilous descent toward Unicoi Gap we met the yin to Socrates’ yang. This hiker remained nameless to me, but he was heading upward with a stick in one hand and a camera in the other. I sarcastically said, “Nice day, huh?” to which he gave a most profound reply. He said he was a photographer and that days like this provided his greatest opportunity to capture the beauty of nature. Well that changed my outlook! I ended up taking 3x more pictures with my phone that day, especially shots of a lovely grass framing both sides of the trail, and dramatic images of fog shrouded trees. I wondered why I had never noticed that yellowish grass on the previous days, when suddenly I realized I had. It was just a deeper shade of green when dry and looked more like a weed you’d pull from a lawn. Thanks for the perspective- I’m giving the photographer the Trail Name “Yin”.
As the trail zig-zagged towards the bottom of the mountain into Unicoi Gap we had a most unpleasant sight. Second Chance was in the parking lot with a wet blanket and leaning against the trailhead sign. She was being attended to by a fellow hiker. As we approached she pointed upwards and warned us that she had slipped on the wooden steps which began the loooong accent of Rocky Mountain. Thank goodness it wasn’t a couple miles farther up! She heard her knee pop and was in pain. A shuttle had been called and pulled up as we were still with her. They drove Second Chance off towards the nearest Urgent Care. Best wishes to Second Thought- she’s good people and deserves a Third shot at her thru hiker dream.
More Than a Coincidence
After Rocky Mountain made mincemeat of our calves we had another long descent and then our next challenge was bigger than the last. The top of Tray Mountain stood at 4,398 feet, roughly 1,300 feet higher than at its base. The rain really picked up through here and though I was still taking photos and selfies, embracing Yin’s attitude was becoming more like “fake it till you make it”. Near the top of Tray Mountain I saw my first sign from the heavens- literally. When I first met my gruff and tough father in law as a 21 year old kid I was pretty intimidated. Over time that subsided but the tough in him was always there to be seen. He passed away a few years ago now. Though his name was Peter he had long since tattooed his nickname to his arm, “Dink”. Passing by a National Forest sign I felt the urge to look back and saw the back of it had been tagged “Dink”. I felt tough enough to finish this day off, and it gave Sapling and her limp that strength too.
Rookie Mistakes 201
In hindsight my second big mistake was not stopping at Tray Mountain Shelter a half mile down from the top. When we arrived there was a couple we had camped next to a couple nights back. Also Annie and Mamsie. The rain was more than steady now and the temperature had dropped. It was about 4 o’clock when we arrived. We fired up the stove and made our “big” meals, meaning they packed about 1,000 calories each. As the water boiled I offered the couple Trail names. She loved hers… Songbird, because she was always singing and serendipitously a bunch of small birds were bouncing about in the rain beyond the roof of the open sided Shelter we were standing in. He didn’t love his, though Songbird did think it fit him well. The jury is out on if he’ll take it. Out of respect to him I’ll keep that a secret… What happens at the shelter stays at the shelter ya know.
Rookie Mistakes Master’s Program
We pushed on a further 3.5 miles beginning around 4:45 pm. Because daylight savings time has extended the Sunset, it seemed reasonable. I hadn’t factored in the day’s grey skies which basically took that hour right back. When we finally arrived at the small Swag of The Blue Ridge campsite we were thankfully the only ones there. The rain was down to a drizzle. We made what I now consider the next mistake, I’m losing count, by deciding to set up both tents; but for me to join Sapling in hers for the night. We (erroneously) figured two bodies in her tent would keep it warmer, while we’d use my one person tent to stage our wet packs and extra gear.
We worked quickly as we were now shivering. Once the tents were up we rolled out Sapling’s sleeping bag and my down-stuffed quilt, which to my horror I discovered was sopping wet in places because of mistake numero uno. We took turns shutting our eyes tight as we stripped out of our wet clothes and fought our wet bodies into what had previously been dry. At this point the frustration was palpable and both Socrates and Yin were distant memories. Mistake number next was letting Matter overcome Mind and curling into fetal positions to get warm. And it worked! We did get warm(er) relatively quickly and, still full from the Tray Mountain Shelter supper, just went to sleep. Though I didn’t sleep much my body knew it wasn’t getting any better than that so I nestled my head deep into the quilt, occasionally poking it out for a breath of fresh air. Sapling had a warm, dry bag and surprisingly reported a decent night of sleep.
Frustration Sets In
Unfortunately the temps matched the forecast that night. When we awoke at 7 we made oatmeal and coffee in the tight confines of the tent. Our first sign of trouble was all the ice visible on our clothing sitting in the vestibule, which is the covered area between the inner and outer tents. After polishing off breakfast we found it impossible to pull up the zipper to exit the tent! It was completely covered in ice. We ended up tugging the frozen tent stakes from the ground and climbing underneath to get out.
My tent and the packs were even worse off. With no body heat in there overnight they just froze up. We had made the decision to push on this far to give ourselves a decent shot of catching the free shuttle to Clayton that day at Dick’s Gap. We needed to be there by 3:30. I’m proud of how we both handled the rest of the morning, and it wasn’t easy. With frozen fingers we managed to slowly pack. We had to shake some suppleness into the icy tents and clothing in order to stuff then into our inflexible backpacks. But we did it.
Then the biggest problem of all presented itself- our hiking shoes. They were completely unwearable. Sapling had the idea to heat up boiling water and fill the shoes to thaw them out. But I’d already struggled to pack up the stove and voted to just wear our camp sandals up to the top of Kelly Knob from there. That’d take an hour and change. We’d hang the hiking shoes off the pack and allow the now shining sun to make them wearable. In the end it worked, though with a do-over I’d go with Sapling’s idea.
Fool Me Once…
Do did I learn anything? Of course, a ton.. cliches are born from truth and an ounce of prevention would have saved a pound of cure. But by this time we were happily hiking in our shoes again and marveling that we had arrived at Dick’s Creek Gap at 3pm- thirty minutes before the shuttle was due to arrive. And oh yeah- to put a bow on this story someone pulled up and told us the free shuttle from Outdoor 76 in Clayton didn’t run on weekends!!!!!
“The Trail Provides” is a mantra out here. Two groovy fellows running pick-up for the Around the Bend hostel agreed to drive us there so we could use their WiFi and arrange a ride to Clayton. When we went into their amazing hostel we were super jealous of everyone staying there because it was THAT cool.
Sitting on a couch next to a bona-fide real wood burning fire, with banjos and guitars and colorful mountain artwork hanging on the walls, was Chuck. We’d met him twice along the trail with his brother Ken. Turns out Ken was the only one of the two actually thru hiking and Chuck was done with the hiking and just enjoying the hostel and hanging out with Ken that evening. He kindly offered to drive us the dozen miles into the town of Clayton, Ga.
We’d made a friend named Zohan, an amazing young man with no plan for the night other than to get off trail. He rolls like that. He decided to book the Days Inn like we had and Chuck was happy to oblige him too. During the ride we learned Chuck, like me, recently retired from a High School Theater teaching career in Kansas. He had driven over to be with Ken at the start but was going to drive back to Kansas the next day. He hoped to join Ken in several months in Maine so maybe, just maybe, we’ll see him again.
After bidding Chuck farewell we checked into the hotel and then Sapling, myself and Zohan went out to eat at the Universal Joint in downtown Clayton. We discovered the source of Zohan’s name. He’s a dead ringer for the Adam Sandler character.
While waiting for our table we crossed the street to Outdoor 76, another amazing outfitters on the trail. I especially like that they serve beer, which I happily quaffed… Papa Steve was running the store and treated us well by giving us free Buffs and having us sign the 2023 Thru Hikers banner and taking our pictures.
Supper was excellent and while Day 9 would be a zero for Sapling and I, Zohan was going back on trail via a ride arranged for him by Pappa Steve. As I’m now finishing this blog entry on the zero day we went to breakfast with Zohan and learned his cool story. He’s a proud and smart young man of 22 who has dual citizenship and served in the Israeli Army. We hope to see him up the trail, but even if we don’t it was a blessing to meet him and have these days together.
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