Haze on the Trail: Week 1
Wednesday, 2/23: Amicalola Falls Approach Trail to Springer Mountain Shelter (9.1mi)
The approach trail was absolutely brutal; starting at The Arch at around 9:45 a.m. and got to the Springer Mountain Shelter at about four in the evening. The falls were beautiful, but the seemingly ever-climbing remainder of the Approach felt like a shock to the system.
Three of us rolled into the shelter area at about the same time and chatted a little here and there after setting up camp: Carlos, another hammock-camper from Miami on his first extended backpacking/camping trip, and Brian, a young guy who recently got out of the Army and is planning to move to Massachusetts after the trail. We talked about the surprising difficulty of the Approach Trail while cooking dinner, and mused at how few people were at camp before we parted ways to rest up.
Around 6:30 p.m., more and more people started arriving at the Shelter and the surrounding area, and I was quite glad I had been able to set up camp when I did. Otherwise, it was a quiet night and I got OK sleep.
Thursday, 2/24: Springer Mountain Shelter to Hawk Mountain Shelter (8.1mi)
Woke up at six a.m., ate breakfast and got water, did my morning “chores”, and got back on trail before eight a.m. in the light rain. Met an adorable family of four at the first road crossing a couple of miles before Three Forks– they chatted with me for about five minutes about how much purple was in my kit, particularly my bright purple pack rain cover. The older of the two kids noticed that I also had a Frogg Toggs jacket, and my trekking poles were very similar to her mom’s, and she seemed to decide that made me cool– neat!
After chatting gear with them, I headed on– the stream walk and rhododendron tunnels on the way toward Three Forks were absolutely beautiful. (In hindsight, I still think this was one of the prettiest days I’ve had on trail, and I’d absolutely go back there for a day hike or to explore more in the future. I can’t even imagine how lovely that portion of the trail must be when the rhododendrons are in bloom come the spring.)
The latter half of the day– the ascent to Hawk Mountain– was largely nondescript. Got to the Shelter around 2PM, which felt too early to call it quits for the day, but I didn’t want to push on either. Ate a super early dinner, wrote some trail notes, and hung out in my hammock until it was late enough to sleep.
Friday, 2/25: Hawk Mountain Shelter to ‘Stealth’ Site ~1mi past Woody Gap (~13.1 mi)
Up at 5:30 a.m. & was on trail by seven, did a really long day (a little over 13 miles, I think)—fairly heavy rain in the morning, which l had prepared for the night before (and was glad that I did). Stopped in at Gooch Mountain Shelter for a quick lunch and to dry out my gear, arriving at about the same time as Leapfrog, Silas, Carlos, and Sunny. Sunny chatted with us briefly before meandering down to the camping area to set up for the evening.
After my tarp, rain gear, and feet had mostly dried out, I decided that it was early enough that I would continue on for the day. The other three made the same call, and passed me quickly on their way forward.
Upon crossing the road before the Woody Gap campsite, I decided to take my chances and try to find a stealth site further from the road (and parking lot) than the listed campsite. The topography in that ridge-y area was a challenging one for campsites, but my map showed what looked like a fairly flat (or at least hammock-friendly) area a little ahead, so I headed there.
Brian had found the same area, so I asked him if he minded if I set up nearby (of course, he didn’t). It was getting late and starting to get cold, so I made quick work of dinner, finding a place to hang my bear bag, and setting up my hammock. By then it was time for bed, and I fell asleep HARD. The wind overnight was constant, but relaxing. I opened a Hot Hands to keep me cozy through the fairly chilly night, and got moderately good rest.
Saturday, 2/26: Stealth Site to Woods Hole Shelter (5.9-ish miles)
A slow start to my morning, but an ultimately pleasant day. I was feeling the higher mileage the day before (despite what had been comparatively tame topography), and knew a shorter day was the cards, instead of trying to push over Blood Mountain and into Neels Gap. I gathered my bear hang, made breakfast, and broke camp at a leisurely pace. My feet were killing me.
The topography was fairly mild again (though perhaps a bit less so than the day before, considering I went over Preachers and a few other respectable ups) and I arrived at Woods Hole Shelter before two p.m. Only two people were there— Kelly and Julyan, a mother-daughter duo who had passed me on one of the hill climbs earlier in the day, and who eventually gently convinced me to spend the night in the shelter in a bid to not have to pack up in the rain before hiking over Blood Mountain the next morning.
Being a hammock camper, I’m not very equipped for shelter stays, but I laid out my underquilt protector and underquilt as a wind-break (the gaps between the floorboards of this particular shelter are noticeable, and the shelter log held multiple entries warning about very cold, windy nights). My quilt and liner would be enough to keep me warm, even if the floor was going to be hard.
More and more people began to join us throughout the afternoon and into the night, including Moxie the Ridgerunner who has an effervescent personality and was a wealth of information. Passing the time was swell; lots of laughter and fun. Looking forward to pushing through to Neel Gap, and the shower & resupply I had planned for after.
Sunday, 2/27: Woods Hole Shelter to Neel Gap (3.6mi)
Knowing I had a shuttle to catch at one p.m. and that my pace on some of the steeper uphill climbs had been slow (I’m talking under-1-mile-per-hour s l o w), and that the rain was intensifying— my anxiety got the better of me and I was up, out of the shelter, and back on trail by 7:30 a.m.
At the top of Blood Mountain, I stepped inside the old stone shelter to get my bearings and dry out a little before heading down the other side, and chatted a bit with a local man and his two kids who had spent the night in the shelter and were having their morning tea/cocoa before heading out— they took an interest in asking me about my thru-hike, where I was from, and telling me about their adventures on the southern 100miles of the AT last summer.
I could have stayed up there for hours talking with them, but after 15 or so minutes, I gave them my thanks, made a joke about my snail’s-pace hiking speed, and got back on my way. (I thought he looked vaguely familiar the entire time we talked, but I didn’t learn the reason until days later— I had been talking to Alan Kay, the Season 1 winner of Alone. Wow.)
The southern side of Blood Mountain was a healthy ascent, but nothing unbearable. But the northern descent? Grueling. Even with being exceedingly careful about my steps, I slipped at least three times and emerged at Mountain Crossings covered in mud and with my left pointer finger swollen almost twice its usual size from a hard jam on my trekking pole.
Bare rock faces were constant, and the overnight rain that continued into my morning had small rivers cascading down all around me. It became less terrifying for the last mile when the trail semi-flattened into a stream-like puddle that had my shoes flooded and feet thoroughly soaked through. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as relieved to see the road as I was coming down the last stretch into Neel Gap.
Seeing the shoe tree outside of Mountain Crossings was odd— I couldn’t imagine quitting now (so early) after all of this planning. As relieved as I was, I knew I was only just beginning.
I dropped my pack near the hiker box, hit the bathroom (and got intimately familiar with the hand drier trying to get warm and de-prune my fingers), and went into Mountain Crossings to get out of the wind and resupply. After a few days on the trail (and shaking with cold), the inside of Mountain Crossings was a shock to the system— just about everything a hiker, camper, or generally-outdoorsy person could want was in seemingly every corner of the store; an absolute paradise.
Moss, Katie from WI, Julyan, and I all found ourselves standing in a loose huddle near the door at one point, each in our own states of confusion and looking like deer caught in the headlights. Hey, at least I’m not alone.
I struggled to remember what I needed in the overwhelm, but managed to get myself together and make a purchase eventually. Rain over-mittens, a short-length Nemo Switchback (for shelters and for stretching), an AT Passport, and a few other things made it into my bag along with my resupply. While a lot of people were shaking-down, I was chilling out a little bit from my fairly streamlined kit and added things here and there that felt worth their weight. Interesting.
Shortly before my shuttle driver was scheduled to arrive, Ryan and I touched base. The hotel I had a room at was now fully booked-up and he was still looking for options. I offered him the spare bed in my double room before we got separated in a wave of chaos as more hikers rolled through.
Jeff the Shuttle Driver swung by to pick Miss, Kate, Speedo, and me up in his Blue Jeep and we all road into Blairesville chatting about the trail and (less cheerfully), the goings-on in Ukraine. He gave us a quick drive-by ‘tour’ and some useful tips about town, but my murky brain didn’t process much— I just wanted a warm shower and to dry out.
Luckily, as we were waiting for rooms to be ready to check in, Ryan hopped out of another shuttle and I was able to ask the concierge desk to add him to my room with just about perfect timing. A moment or two later, we stumbled onto the room and were able to start the process of laying our things out throughout the room and it’s balcony to dry. I’m glad it worked out for Ryan to hop in on the room— We got along well, and it was much more fun to spend the afternoon washing and repacking gear in good company.
Monday 2/28: Neel Gap to Low Gap Shelter (11.2mi)
Helped push a car out of the mud behind the back building of Mountain Crossings almost immediately after Jeff dropped us off around nine a.m. I had noticed the small Nissan stuck in the mud with two employees(??) trying to get it out. After the three of us tried to push it, one of them went to get cardboard to help the process and I went up near the hiker box to see if any other hikers would help out— Freedom and a few others joined me and it became a delightfully simple process. Not the way I expect to hit the trail, but hopefully it gave me some good energy to spread around. 🙂
I met up with Georgia just before Hogpen Mountain, and we ended up hiking together pretty much the rest of the day through to Low Gap. She decided to start calling me Haze (short for ‘Purple Haze’ due to all the purple I wear). The first suggested trail name that I’d actually really liked— I accepted it!
Low Gap was cool— More people tenting and camping there than I’d ever seen in my life. (Not necessarily in a bad way— folks spread out into groups and were very respectful. But it sure was a lot.) I slept without my tarp over my hammock because the trees I hung my hammock on were slightly too close together and I’m so glad I did— It wasn’t a cold night, and the stars were the biggest I’ve ever seen. Absolutely stunning.
Tuesday, 3/1: Low Gap Shelter to Cheese Factory Site (13.4mi)
I left fairly early (after helping Kate rescue her food bag from the overloaded bear cable that was catching on the line next to it, lol!) Today’s hike was pretty challenging— Several mountains (including Tray Mountain), and Unicoi Gap (which is beautiful, but certainly one of those areas where you have to watch every step.)
Hiked with Gazelle early in the day until he realized how many miles he was aiming for and peeled ahead. Enjoyed that conversation immensely.
I hiked up to Blue Mountain Shelter and ate lunch with Tim, Speedo, Gazer, Ranger, Sue, and a couple of others. Thought about ending my day there, but didn’t feel as though I’d done enough miles and it was still too early.
Potentially not the best call… That afternoon were some of the most difficult miles of my life. Sometime just past Unicoi, I even had a small moment of anxiety feeling like I still had too far to go until a decent campsite and was going “too slow”. I decided on the Cheese Factory tentsite and didn’t want to stop until I got there. I got to camp a bit later than I would have liked, but hung my bear line, had a quick dinner, and headed to bed.
Getting into my hammock that night, my bug netting at the head end of my hammock ripped with such suddenness that I actually fell onto the ground. It was awkward and confusing, and I still don’t really know how or why it happened. Even sleeping with my electronics (heck, even if I slept with my entire pack), I’m over 100lbs below the max weight rating, so user error doesn’t really seem to be a likely factor. The failure was frustrating, but non-structural— while not how I wanted to end a difficult day, it wasn’t catastrophic.
Wednesday, 3/2: Cheese Factory to Deep Gap Shelter (9.2mi)
Hiked out from camp fairly early and made my way to Tray Mountain Shelter to take a pack break and get water and ended up crossing paths with Ryan who was just heading out for the day. We chatted for a couple minutes before he hit the trail and I made my way down to the spring.
Cowboy came down shortly after me, so we talked for a little while, and leapfrogged each other on trail most of the morning.
Slightly shorter day, but the elevation gains and descents were a doozy. Kelly Knob was the last big uphill and it was ROUGH. Got to Deep Gap and talked with Gazer and another section hiker (wish I had caught his name) about knots and hitches for a while. Gazer is a really cool guy— we’ve crossed paths a number of times now but this was our first substantial conversation— he thru-hiked the AT 19 years ago and is out here doing a week-long section. He plays a wooden flute at camp in the evenings; just lovely.
An odd, but good-spirited energy at camp tonight. Bear box has a bunch of mouse poop in it, so we all commiserated about having to go out and hang our bear bags. Bummer. Easy day tomorrow— Just a four-mile mostly downhill jaunt toward town according to the cool section-hiking couple I met on my way toward the shelter trail. That sounds nice.
Planning to Nero tomorrow and take my first real zero the next day camping at the Hostel Around the Bend, since they’re pretty fully booked up. I’m worried the zero will set me back since I’ll have already taken a couple of neros. But I had also planned on only doing about eight miles per day for the first week or two on trail, and I certainly haven’t been doing that… I do need to get rest and take Zeros, even if I’m slow, and I’ve heard great things about these folks.
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Oh so well written, just had to subscribe. And your T-Name, HAZE? What a perfect and simple, simply great name.
So proud of you and love to read about your adventure!! Hope you are staying safe and can’t wait to read more about this experience. love you and stay safe!!
So proud of you and love to read about your adventure!! Can’t wait to read about the next segment of your adventure! Lots of Love, Keeping you in mind.
LOVE how you write…the detail makes it feel like I could be there myself! I hope your bug netting on the hammock gets fixed before the bugs really become a nuisance! Love the trail name HAZE…it’s perfect!