Sometimes “Plan M” Looks Pretty Good

I knew it was going to be straight up before I got there. I knew because when my friends and I came out at Unicoi Gap a few weeks ago we climbed straight down for almost a mile, scrambling over, around and under the numerous blow-downs left by Hurricane Irma. I looked across the parking lot as we wrapped up that trip and thought, “Oh no, that’s going to be a rough one”

Now we were back, ready to head out on the trek from Unicoi to Deep Gap in North Carolina. That first big up, the one I’d be dreading for a month, wasn’t as bad as I expected. We were fresh and well rested at 8:30 in the morning. It was cold out, about 34°, but once I got moving the brisk air was refreshing.

Feeling Good

It usually takes me a good 30 minutes to get my trail legs warmed up on my training hikes. I was feeling strong as we climbed up Rocky Mountain, gaining 1000 feet in elevation over a mile and a half. My friends and I believed the 13.1 miles we had planned for the day wouldn’t be a problem–after all, we’d covered nearly that distance before.

Even when we crossed the forest service road and started up 4400′ Tray Mountain, I still felt energized. My pack was a little heavier than usual with four days of food, but the 27 pounds was carrying well. The landscape around us changed quickly, and I was enjoying the varied scenery.

It wasn’t until we reached the Tray Mountain shelter (which is all blue, surprise!) in the early afternoon that we started to question our plans. We took a short break for water and lunch, wished “Happy Thanksgiving” to a fellow hiker who was resting in the shelter, and headed on our way.

Looking at the elevation maps I copied from my guidebook and consulting my new Guthook app, I was excited to see that the big ups were behind us. We would be bumping along for a while with little ups and downs taking us gradually downhill for most of the afternoon. Or so I thought.

Evil Leaves

The idyllic footpath called the Appalachian Trail was covered with autumn leaves as we walked. Lovely as those leaves look in photos, I soon learned to hate them. The soft bed of leaves was 2” or 3” deep, concealing a nasty mix of evil rocks and roots.

I tripped and broke my left foot back in July. The bones healed well, but the tendons and ligaments are still on the mend so I was wearing my Merrell Moabs, which are a little sturdier and more supportive than my Saucony Peregrine trail runners.

On an average day, I love my Merrells but today they worked against me. They just couldn’t grip the damp leaves and about every third step I would slip, catching myself right before the fall. Thank God for trekking poles.

Step, step, slide. Step, step, slide. My pace slowed to a crawl.

By mid-afternoon, we dialed back our 13.1mile plan to get to Deep Gap shelter and agreed we could stop two miles sooner at Addis Gap, if necessary. Michelle needed to meet her shuttle driver before 1 pm on Saturday, so we had to make a total of 32.5 miles before Sandy and I continued on to Bly Gap for the night, then to Deep Gap (NC) on Sunday.

Step, step, slide.

My foot was killing me. Every step down that didn’t land on level ground, my tendons screamed. As I slid downhill, my feet slid forward in my shoes, smashing my toes. The heel lock lacing I used wasn’t working the way it should. My tootsies were toast.

Michele and Sandy tried to keep up their pace, but there was no denying my slow crawl was holding them back. When I limped into Swag of the Blue Ridge, they were sitting on a log waiting for me. In my mind, I had spent the last hour cursing the leaves, angry with my body, wondering why the hell I ever thought I could do this.

I sat down and gave in to the emotions, tears in my eyes. “There’s no crying in baseball,” I thought, “but backpacking is a different story.”

“Let’s get going,” I said, and we lumbered on.

Water and Wondering

By now we were looking for water, knowing the stream at Addis Gap was 0.4 miles downhill (which naturally means another .4 back up!) I had started the quest back at Steeltrap Gap, searching for a spring that was supposed to be 0.1 miles down the hill. Eventually, I lost the blue-blazed trail and didn’t see the spring so I gave up and rejoined my friends, knowing there would be water ahead.

As we hiked and the sun got lower, we discussed our plans. Would my foot hold up? Would it be better to climb Kelly Knob (800′ in one mile, straight up) in the twilight or tomorrow? If we stop at Addis Gap, we’ll face that climb first thing.

I’m not down for night hiking, especially when it’s so important for me to tread carefully. I don’t mind rising before the sun and hiking out early, but my confidence was waning. Could I keep up with our aggressive plan?

About 5 pm we got to Sassafras Gap and stopped for water. I headed down to John’s Spring, a really steep trek leading to an old, eroded tree that looked like it was peeing fresh water into a tiny creek. Sandy joined me and we filled our bottles. As we climbed back up, I asked, “Where’s Michelle?”

She was setting her tent. The decision was made to stay here at Sassafras, making camp before dark. We’d enjoy the Thanksgiving dinner we brought to share, then rest up for the next day with 15 miles in store.

Contemplating Plan B – or C, D, E?

After our tents were set and a campfire warmed us, we heated up turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and sausage balls. It was hard to feast after our exhausting day on the trail, but we were thankful for good company and all the blessings that led us here.

With daylight savings time in effect, dark came quickly. We retreated to the relative warmth of our tents by 7:30 pm. It seemed like 5:15 am arrived in a minute and we began to discuss the day, tent to tent as we resisted leaving our snug little beds. By now, Michelle doubted our plans for a 15-mile day, especially one that started with a strenuous uphill hike to Kelly’s Knob. I was dreading it, too.

We debated the options and finally decided. Instead of hiking 15 miles on Friday, camping and doing another 6 on Saturday morning to get Michelle out at Deep Gap, we would do just 7 miles on Friday, taking us to Dicks Creek Gap where Michelle could exit early. From there, Sandy and I would continue on, or if my feet were still bothering me, we could leave with Michelle and share a shuttle back to our cars at Unicoi Gap.

As we tracked up and down Kelly’s Knob we met some other hikers who were moving much faster. One man was wrapping up a weeklong trip, he came from Tray Mountain that morning. Another group of girls who looked like they were on college break passed by on day 7 of their trip. Yes, we were slow.

Tapping Out

I haven’t been backpacking for long, but I’ve gained enough experience to know that one of the most valuable skills is to understand the limits of your ability. By early afternoon, I knew I had to tap out. I really wanted to hike on, but my feet simply weren’t cooperating. The muscles in my hips ached, and my calves cramped tighter by the minute.

The tantalizing idea of leaving kept chipping away at my resolve. It was time. We were all disappointed to regroup, turning our 3-night trip into an over-nighter. Plans A, B, and C through L were out the window, so Plan M sounded pretty good. We started calling shuttle drivers and made arrangements for a pickup at Dick’s Creek Gap.

The downhill hike after Kelly’s Knob was beautiful, and much better for my feet than the day before, but I wanted to be safe and work up to the miles. I wanted to go home, take a hot bath, and reflect on my lessons learned. (Chiefly, that mountains look a lot smaller on paper!)

Benefits of a Jump Start

Right now I’m in what I call the “jump start” phase of my thru-hike. My miles on the trail are within the 12-month window the ATC establishes to complete the 2190-mile trek, so they count towards my total hike.

When my “official” start date rolls around next spring I won’t have the luxury of opting out when things get rough. I’ll have to zero or nero to nurse my sore feet. I’ll have to pull big miles to finish at Katahdin by October. That’s ok. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

In the meantime, I’m thankful I live close enough to the AT to get in some good practice, working out the kinks and developing my own hiking style. There’s simply no substitute for getting out on the trail to discover how strong you are, what scares you, and all kinds of other valuable lessons.

I’m getting there, and I’ll be back on the trail soon to finish Georgia.

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