Coco & Earl – Days 1 through 7
On Saturday, Earl and I flew from Austin to Nashville where we would stay with our friends and accept their generous offer to drive us to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Originally, we were going to relax in Nashville for several days, but life had other plans and we needed to adapt. Rather than beginning on Wednesday the 12th (as we had registered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy — sorry! We really tried!) our new start date was Sunday 3/8. These fantastic friends fed, watered, and beered us to assist with our preparation. There is a common theme that has already emerged through friends and strangers and that is that people want us to succeed and are generous to a shockingly touching degree regardless of how closely they know us.
3/8/15 Sunday – Day 1
Springer Mountain to Hawk Mountain Shelter, 8.1 miles (though 9.1 hiked due to backtracking to Springer)
Still not feeling like anything more than an overnight camping trip, our friends drove us from Nashville to Big Stamp Gap. As with all our close friends, they are intelligent, creative, and hilarious. We couldn’t have asked for better chauffeurs. Many jokes about potential trail names. My personal favorite — Hot Pickle Honey Bun — clearly inspired by a gas station refill.
Since we started at the parking lot of Big Stamp Gap we were already a mile into the trail. All four of us (yay, friends!) hiked to the summit of Springer Mountain to make things official. Earl and I slackpacked by leaving our packs in the trunk. Once at the southern terminus, we signed the log and took obligatory pictures. Onward! Back to the parking lot to gather things, say goodbyes, and continue our long walk… and handoff Larabar wrappers so we wouldn’t have to carry them.
We had a late start at 1:30pm, but no matter. Exhilarating! Beautiful! Legendary white blazes! I think the late start was good for us as there weren’t too many other hikers on the trail. One image embedded in my mind was the Three Forks footbridge. It reminded me of a real-life version of one of my Grandma Hazel’s fiber optic pictures that was probably acquired sometime in the ’70s. Maybe not high art, but one of the most hypnotically beautiful things I had ever seen at age 6. It’s splendor lives on in my mind and I had the satisfaction of seeing the real version. Thanks, G-ma!
The late start did prevent us from lingering and exploring things such as the Hickory Flats Cemetery. Good thing we hustled. We arrived at Hawk Mountain Shelter at 6:15pm and performed our camp duties — set up tent, filter water, make and eat food. Then it was dark and we hadn’t bear bagged our food, yet. We did it in the dark. It wasn’t fun. We were only marginally successful, but no bears came! Sleep.
3/9/15 Monday – Day 2
Hawk Mountain Shelter to Gooch Mountain Shelter, 7.7 miles, 15.7 AT miles total
Here another pattern — rain! It let up early, though, and we enjoyed a gorgeous hike up a few intense climbs. Already we started seeing familiar faces but were still feeling rather insular and didn’t talk to many other hikers beyond general pleasantries.
Not long into our hike, we heard and saw a medic helicopter flying through the mountains and two coming back. It was a sobering moment that reminded us that all adventures pose their own set of risks. We’ve been very fortunate so far.
We made it to Gooch Mountain Shelter. Available bear cables! So grateful for these — no swinging of ropes and rocks necessary. The rain started again with threats of more. Having been almost solely fairweather backpackers, we adapted quickly. Pack covers on, packs upside down, in the vestibule, boots on top has kept our belongings dry and safe thus far.
3/10/15 Tuesday – Day 3
Gooch Mountain Shelter to Woody Gap, 5 miles, 20.8 AT miles total
With the rain, the fog rolling in front of us felt like walking through clouds. To pass the time, Earl and I have been telling each other about the books we’re reading. It’s become a daily routine that I keep looking forward to.
We encountered our first Trail Magic while actually on the trail. At Woody Gap, some 2013 thru-hiker attemptees were serving up hot breakfast, hot dogs, coffee, homemade brownies, among many other delights all under a canopy to save us from the rain.
Under the impression that a torrential downpour was imminent, we sought out a ride and bunk at Wolfpen Gap Country Store. Gas station + laundromat + convenience store + hostel. We took advantage of everything but the gas.
Not only did we enjoy laundry, pizza, and a shower, I had the pleasure of leading about half a dozen hikers in an impromptu yoga session followed with a beer.
Odie and Neema of The Hiker Yearbook stopped by to let us know of their project and provide much appreciated advice about thru-hiking. During our hangouts they learned that they just made Backpacker magazine. Congrats, guys!
And… it didn’t rain. But I did have a dream about Torchy’s Tacos.
3/11/15 Wednesday – Day 4
Woody Gap to Neel Gap, 10.9 miles, 31.7 AT miles total
So far! So much rain! So much fun!
Once again we received Trail Magic from the gents at Woody Gap — donuts! A fantastic start to the morning. We intended this to be a short day by hiking approximately 5 miles to Lance Creek, but we were too ready to go so we forged ahead all the way to Neel Gap. Why is this significant? We would be hiking up and down Blood Mountain due to some requirements of having a bear canister through a fairly long stretch. So, we hiked it with vigor.
The hike up Blood Mountain was challenging but so beautiful that it wasn’t at all intimidating once we were there. It was absolutely enchanting and with the rain, mist, and foliage, it felt like traveling through a rainforest. At the top we didn’t have the vistas associated with the summit due to the clouds and mist, though the experience we had was still phenomenal.
The path down Blood Mountain was so much fun. We nearly slid down baldfaces and climbed up and over mossy rocks. When we were about 1.5 miles away from Neel Gap we heard shouts from a hiker. She was lost which was easy to understand. Many of the white blazes down the mountain were painted onto the rocks and could be overlooked if you’re not looking for them. We helped her back onto the trail. Rescued! A bit shaken but doing well, we walked back with the hiker to Neel Gap.
The famed Mountain Crossings outfitter is located at Neel Gap. We were able to reconnect with some of the hikers we met the night before. One of them informed me he practiced some of the yoga poses from the night before and ended the day with little soreness — success!
That night I met Baltimore Jack and Rainbow Braid (fellow Trials blogger). Solid hangouts with a beer made for a very satisfying end of a very satisfying day: trail magic, Blood Mountain, hiker rescue, and at one point completing 1% OF THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL.
3/12/15 Thursday – Day 5
Neel Gap to Low Gap Shelter, 11.5 miles, 43.2 AT miles total
In the morning, Earl and I got a few things at Mountain Crossings. Baltimore Jack helped me find a better rain pack cover and Earl picked up a few things as well. I habe nothing but wonderful things to say about that store and their wonderful staff.
Regardless, I had a minor meltdown in the back of the store. My first and likely not my last on the AT. It was a combination of seeing that my pack weight (without water, rainfly, electronics, or camp towel) was 28.6 pounds and picking up a rain jacket that weighed less than 1/4 of my own. I lost it. The tears just came. Rather than feeling like an accomplished, strong, and resilient badass because that meant that I had hiked over a mountain in rain with over 35 pounds on my back, I felt defeated. (Have I mentioned that I am somewhere south of 5’2″ and weigh somewhere between 105 and 108?) There is no logic to my reaction whatsoever but my response was to cry and feel like shit. Even writing this now it makes me cry. I couldn’t tell you why I felt that way then or why it makes me cry now. I am fucking hardcore. (Excuse my language if you find it offensive.) Somehow it just wasn’t registering.
After a few moments with my incredibly supportive husband and our new pal, Heather, I was able to pull it together. I got rid of a few things — a Nalgene bottle and some hand and toe warmers (I already ditched my multi-tool, playing cards, and extra Emergen-C in Woody Gap) — and we moved on.
No rain at all! (Maybe that’s why I cried? Didn’t want to break the rain streak?)
Halfway through Georgia!
3/13/15 Friday – Day 6
Low Gap Shelter to Unicoi Gap, 9.7 miles, 52.9 AT miles total
Holy. Crap. Over 50 miles!
Discovery: oatmeal + vanilla protein powder = delicious.
This was our first truly cold day. We hiked through freezing rain for a great portion of the day. Ice pellets pummeling our hoods and anything exposed. We intended to have a shorter day and camp ay Blue Mountain Shelter, but it was at the top of the mountain and the wind and freezing rain were nearly unbearable. We were soaked with sweat and cold, so we decided to press on an additional 2.5 miles to the gap.
Once at Unicoi Gap, we hitched a ride (thanks, Heather!) to Hiawassee to a motel. Earl, Heather, and I celebrated our day with hot showers and a visit Monte Alban Mexican restaurant. (Side note: the night before, I thought Earl was crying in the tent but he was actually laughing about how thinking of chips and salsa made his mouth water. This anecdote and promise of margaritas kept us going.)
In the restaurant we spotted a man with a 2,000 miler patch on his jacket. Naturally, we interrupted his meal to chat. Not only was he extremely nice and welcoming, he is a ridge runner and Appalachian Trials blogger Sisu!
3/14/15 Saturday – Day 7
Mull’s Motel to Mull’s Motel, 0 miles
Sleeping, cleaning, laundry, and as little moving as possible.
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