The Great Catch-Up: HIKER PIE! Neel Gap to Carter Gap.
My last post had me setting out from Springer Mountain with two new friends, soon finding I needed to set my own pace, and ended with me making it to Neel Gap. Follow along as I realize the trail provides and that hikers can do whatever they set their mind to.. including making pie on the top of a mountain. The Great Catch-Up continues…
After picking me up at Neel Gap my dad drove us to a lodge where we spent the night (and ate pizza and did laundry – such luxuries!). The next day, we had breakfast at the lodge and drove up to Walmart for some vitamins, trail mix and donuts. After that my dad dropped me off at Neel Gap once more. I was not feeling up for hiking yet, so I spent some time moping around, eating trailmix, wondering if I should spend the night at the hostel or if I should just hike on.
Someone just out of sight from where I was sitting was playing on a violin and for about an hour I just sat there, listening. I was stressed out, at first, feeling like I had to make up my mind – it was past noon already! I needed to figure out what my plans would be! But after a little while of just sitting there, listening, I realized it all didn’t matter that much. If I wanted to, I could just fill up on water right there and hike out until I was tired, then camp. I hadn’t yet camped completely alone yet, so sure, this was daunting.. but as a worst-case scenario, it could be a lot worse.
So I set out up the trail. At least, I thought it was the trail. It sure was the only trail I could find. After five minutes of not seeing a single white blaze, I panicked slightly. If only there was a way to check if I was on the trail or not.. And then I remembered someone talking about an app that used GPS to show you where you were. I walked back down the hill until I was in WiFi range and downloaded the Guthook app. With my new GPS powers I went back up the hill and checked my phone. Yep, I was on the trail! Not only that, but it showed that between Neel Gap and the shelter 7 miles out there was an unofficial camp site with a water source. That sure cut down on stress. On my way there I ran in to a couple of other hikers, one of whom had been aiming for the shelter but had since learned that it was another mile off-trail. I mentioned the campsite. It was beginning to look like I wouldn’t be camping alone, after all.
When I got to the campsite itself, it turned out there were others there already. There were two tents set up and the hiker I had just run in to, Four Years (though I tried to name him guyline because people kept tripping over his) as well as another hiker named Sunday were there setting up as well. Soon enough a group of of college-aged girls emerged from the tents to build a fire and cook their dinner. They were on a section hike during spring break and they would be finishing the next day. They, too, had trail names: Mom, Young Bear, Leafmonster and Fire Architect. Their interactions were hilarious to listen to.
As we all sat around eating our dinners and chatting, two more hikers arrived. They were also section hikers on spring break and we amused ourselves by watching them set up their tent and hang their bear bags (there was a lot of yelling and throwing of objects involved). I have to admit, there might have been some slight thru-hiker elitism there, probably because I was feeling good about myself as I had hung my bear bag in just one try. As a dessert I revealed the donut I had packed out. It looked horrible and mushed, but it tasted amazing. All in all the day turned out a whole lot better than I had expected it to. I think that is a recurring theme so far – rough starts but overall great days.
The next morning it stormed. When I woke up, everything was foggy and muddy and I stayed in bed reading my book until the rain subsided. Packing was wet and muddy and I did not feel up to the task of hiking at all. I didn’t end up hiking out until 11:30 AM so I knew getting to the shelter (another 7 miles) would be challenging, but I did end up making it in reasonable time. I had to take a couple of breaks because I just felt completely exhausted, plus my Achilles tendons complained a lot until I got properly warmed up.
Throughout the day I would run in to the two spring breakers from the night before and Sunday was at the shelter when I finally made it there. Another hiker I had met at Lance Creek, Ultraviolet, was there as well. From the shelter log I gathered that Ladybird had been there two days before together with Bambi. Because my tent was still wet from that morning’s rain I rigged up a clothes line and hung my tent out to dry before setting it up. The shelter and surrounding area were quickly filling up, so I used my backpack to mark my spot while I went to filter water and make some dinner. I didn’t stay up much to socialize that night, but read my book for a little while and then fell asleep. The trek through the mud had left me tired and I’d had enough socializing the day before.
The tale of the Hiker Pie
The next day started off much like I’d come to expect – rough, with sore calves and tendons. The terrain should have been fairly easy, but I noticed that even the slightest bit of uphill exhausted me. I ran in to a familiar face from the ATKO a couple of times and by mid-afternoon it had begun to rain, with the promise of worse. It was a struggle to get up Blue Mountain to the shelter. There were a lot of rocks that were made slippery by the rain but I got there just before the worst weather hit.There were two other girls there who had also been at Low Gap and we sat at the table in the shelter, watching the rain fall and eating ramen to warm up.
Slowly but surely more people arrived. I was not looking forward to going back down the hill to get water, but just then the trail provided; two older hikers had decided they would hike down in to Unicoi Gap to get a shuttle.. and they had already gotten water. They gave me the water they didn’t want to carry down and it was just enough for me to cook with and to get to the gap the next day. Win-win!
During a lull in the rain and wind I set up my tent and talked to a couple of other hikers. One of them was the girl I had met first at the ATKO and had run in to during the day. The other was a hiker named Emrys. He was an odd character at first glance – thin, with scars and face tattoos.. and a tiny dog who he treated like a prince. He was definitely one of the nicest people I’d met so far and his dog was full of energy despite having walked 20 miles that day.
To keep my tent from blowing crooked in the wind I had to tie it to a tree on one side. It worked flawlessly and I was exceedingly proud of my own camping abilities. I was right on time – once my tent had been set up the rain started up again, so I went quickly back to the shelter and made my dinner. Some time after dinner it was mentioned that that day was Pi Day, or 3/14. Not just that – because it was 2016 3/14/’16 made it rounded-up pi day (since pi is 3.14159). Of course, you can’t have pi day without pie. But how were we going to get a pie when we were up on a mountain in a storm? Kirsten and I quickly emptied our food bags under the watchful eyes of several other hikers and began to discuss tactics. We were soon drawing the attention of the rest of the shelter’s inhabitants and I felt like the star on a cooking show.
We started off deciding we would use her cooking pot. I had a tall Jetboil and she had a wider cooking pot, so hers was better for pie. Next, we decided that we would heat up some of my coconut oil and oatmeal to make a ‘crust’. Kirsten had chia seeds and I had coconut milk powder, so we mixed that in my Jetboil with some water to make a coconut chia pudding to use as a filling. To add a little extra flavor we put some dried fruit on our crust before dumping on the chia pudding. Finally, we topped the whole thing with some granola from her food bag. It wasn’t pretty but we sure weren’t going to let that spoil the fun. Bravely, she took the first bite.. and grinned. Not only had we made a hiker pie for pi day.. it was good, too! Though we very generously offered others a bite, they refused.. so we ate the whole thing.
That was the night I learned that hikers can do whatever they set their mind to. Including make pie on the top of a mountain!
Later that night I got to talking to two guys at the shelter: Nightwhisperer, and he-who-would-soon-be-named Renaissance Man. Nightwhisperer was called Nightwhisperer because he talked in his sleep – still one of my favorite trail name stories so far. We started off talking about Doctor Who, and soon got kicked out of the shelter despite being not loud at all. We continued our conversation around the fire – well, we would have if we weren’t too lazy to actually build a fire. So we sat around the empty fire pit, pretending that there was a fire.
Renaissance Man had a lot of very strange stories about his time in Thailand as a marine and because he seemed like such a man of the world, we dubbed him Renaissance Man. We spent at least a couple of hours just chatting, and we had soon decided we were all bffs. We exchanged friend requests and numbers, and finally went to bed.
The next morning I once again got out of bed late. It was becoming a bit of a thing, but no matter how early I set my alarm I just could not get myself to get up in the morning. Whatever. It wasn’t like I had to be anywhere fast, was it? So I had my oatmeal in a nearly deserted shelter, chewing groggily while I witnessed two other hikers snap at each other about having to hurry and catch a shuttle at Unicoi. I wasn’t the latest one there, however, because by the time I had packed up and was ready to head out, Renaissance Man was just sitting down for breakfast.
I made my way up the rest of Blue Mountain and then down in to Unicoi in a downhill that lasted slightly less long than Blood Mountain. I could see my dad’s camper waiting at the bottom of the gap, but it didn’t seem to get much closer. Finally, after many, many switchbacks, I made it down.. and found half of the people who had been at the shelter waiting there. Apparently a couple of people were planning to get a ride in to either Helen or Hiawassee. Nightwhisperer and Maine Mike, another hiker who had been at the shelter, were two of those looking for a ride, so we drove them up to Helen (after I had had my donut – see a theme?). Afterwards, my dad and I went to Unicoi State Park to camp, shower and do laundry. When that was done we built a fire, drank cider, ate cookies and steak and planned a slackpack the next day.
Slackpacking gone wrong, or trail angels to the rescue
The next day we had pancakes for breakfast and went to Helen for gas and candy. We offered Maine Mike and Nightwhisperer a ride back to the gap, but Nightwhisperer was staying in Helen with some trail angel friends of his, so we just picked up Maine Mike. We did get to meet a trail angel, Brave, who I realized later I had been following on Instagram for a while. We went back to Unicoi Gap and I slackpacked over Rocky Mountain, eating Sourpatch Kids all the way (yay American candy!). I was planning to meet my dad at Tray Gap, but when I was just past the gap before that, Indian Grave, I got a text from him saying that he was stuck and that I should probably find a ride in to town because he was not sure how long it would take.I had left most of my things, including my money, in the camper, so I panicked a little. Finally, I realized that I had the phone number of someone who was hanging out in town – Nightwhisperer’s . I texted him to ask if there was any way for me to get a ride while I backtracked to Indian Grave Gap. He said he would try, so I hung out there for a while.
It was there I met the other Dutch person on trail. His name was Jelle, and I had heard of him before every time I mentioned my nationality – what a chance meeting! And there was Renaissance Man, too. After about half an hour, Nightwhisperer arrived with a trail angel named Eric (also known as Forward). He gave me an apple and handed out some trail magic to the other hikers at the gap (including leaving a single can of coke for them to fight over), then loaded my stuff in the small, heavily loaded down car. I was surprised that it had made it over the bumpy, unpaved road at all.. especially when we had to cross through what was essentially a river.
Eric and Nightwhisperer dropped me off at the Budget Inn at Hiawassee because it was somewhat of a hiker hotspot. Sure enough, there were other hikers sitting at the picknick table outside. I joined them, talked about the quality of gas station boiled peanuts (apparently bad). After a little while my dad showed up. He had walked down the road and found a man sitting in his car, eating lunch – apparently just out of cell range so he couldn’t be bothered by his employees – who was willing to give him a ride in to town. From there he had organized for the truck to be moved, and had finally driven it back to Hiawassee. Completely done with the day we went to Helen, resupplied in a quaint little store and went to the Super 8 Motel. I splashed around in the pool with another girl who was thru hiking, had a shower and icecream, and went to bed.
After filling up on the motel breakfast buffet we went back to Indian Grave Gap. There was an oddly familiar tent there, and I soon realized it was Renaissance Man who had failed to get a shuttle the day before and had just decided to camp. My dad gave him a ride back to town and I set back out on the trail. I was soon passed by a ridge runner who told me Trey Mountain, the one I was just going up, wasn’t too bad, but that Kelly Knob was worse. After going up both I decided I didn’t like either, but I agreed that Kelly Knob was worse. Every time I thought I was almost there I would find out that I still had a long way to go. There were a lot of ups and downs that day and I ran in to quite a lot of people, most of which talked about camping at Sassafrass Gap. I also ran in to my gaiter-twin, Beaver, an early high school graduate who was outpacing everyone:
When I got there I decided to hike on to the shelter. I wrote down that between there and Deep Gap Shelter I had “beautiful, almost religious views”. With that I mean that when I reached a ridge or the top of a hill, the sun would illuminate the landscape, a breeze would pick up and I would feel elated in what I can only describe as a spiritual way. Like I was being smiled at by the very landscape I was crossing. At one point I could look out between the dead trees and see all the hills I had hiked over that day laid out in front of me. It seemed like such an amazing distance and the fact that I had walked that.. I’ll be honest, it kind of brought me to tears. I was in a very introspective mood and just so very impressed with how far I’d come in life and how happy I was with where I was (I was also listening to this song, which really helped).
After a lot of playing leap frog with a hiker named Dave (we kept passing each other whenever we would take breaks) I made it to Deep Gap Shelter. It was very busy there, but I still managed to find a nice flat spot for my tent and a place at the table for dinner. It was a very sociable dinner and there were a bunch of nice people there. Some of the names I remembered were Firecracker and her brother Simba, and a girl with dreadlocks named Get Weird.
The next morning I set out from Deep Gap Shelter on an uphill. I was beginning to learn that any shelter with the word ‘gap’ in its name meant an uphill in the morning. I took a LOT of breaks getting up the tiny but steep slope that was Powell Mountain. I made it to Dick’s Creek Gap soon enough and my dad was waiting for me there. We went to the supermarket, drove around looking for a nice campsite, and finally decided to go all the way up to Blackrock Mountain State Park. I ate my weight in guacamole & chips, then had dinner to boot. The hiker hunger was making itself known.
I showered in the morning and, once again, had pancakes for breakfast. My dad dropped me off at the gap again and surprise.. there was trail magic there! A group of college-age people, an older man and their adorable Newfoundlander named Katie were making hotdogs for hikers.
That day was not an easy one. I pushed through what felt like sheer exhaustion twice, but I persevered with the help of a ton of breaks. I ran in to two hikers, a couple, named Take Your Time and Andiana a couple of times, and soon realized I had met them at Deep Gap Shelter too. I met them again at Plumorchard Gap Shelter, a shelter hidden in a gap and surrounded by bushes and creeks. The ridgerunner I had met before, Bill, was there as well, as were a section hiker and two older Australian men I had seen before. We all had dinner together.
I was having a much easier time socializing than I had before and felt much more at ease with my fellow hikers. I think it was because I was starting to feel like a “real” thru-hiker, finally. The “Fraud Police”(also referred to as ‘impostor syndrome’) was leaving me alone. For those not in the know:
The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of ‘real’ grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying:
We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY. (Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking)
Once I had decided that surviving this long meant I was doing something right, I kind of let go of most of the stress and anxiety of whether or not I was ‘really’ a hiker or not. I embraced the concept of ‘hike your own hike’ and decided that you know what, if I need to take a break every couple of steps up a hill, that’s cool as long as I make it up that freaking hill. Other people had quit already and I was still on the trail, so I had every right to be there (I just needed to remind myself, sometimes).
Anyway. We had a lot of fun, just hanging around the table. Andiana and Take Your Time had packed out cheese, as well as an entire box of wine in smartwater bottles and were having a ‘wine and cheese’ course, which I thought was amazing. However, at one point the two Australians told us to leave the shelter because it was past eight and they wanted to sleep. Rather annoyed, we complied. It was 7:30 PM and still light outside. So we grumped and left and grumped some more. Finally, I laid in my tent, listening to Take Your Time reading Harry Potter to Andiana.
I was the last one out of the shelter after a sociable breakfast. I took a lot of breaks heading back uphill once more and continued to do so for the rest of the day. Ladybird had texted me, saying that North Carolina was easier than Georgia and I was excited to find out.. I would be crossing in to a new state that day! The hike to the border was not bad at all, though the cold and wet weather didn’t help much. I passed the border rather unceremoniously. I had planned to take a break, but I hadn’t been the only one and to avoid having to introduce myself to a whole bunch of grumpy looking hikers I just snapped a picture and hiked on. The weather made a turn for the worse. The temperature dropped and it began sleeting. I quickly moved my water filter to my pocket, having heard that they shouldn’t freeze.
The terrain got worse, too; I was soon climbing hills that had steps made for giants. Thankfully, the weather soon calmed down again once I reached a gap. I met another hiker there named Denise and we both complained heartily about the hill we were climbing up. A little later, I found an odd-looking tool laying on the ground. It was small and looked like it was used for carving, so I put it in my pocket. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later Andiana was walking down without his pack, searching the ground. The tool was his! When I finally reached the top of the hill both he and Take Your Time were waiting for me with chocolate bars as a thank-you for me finding the tool. It was exactly the pick-me-up I needed. I knew for sure that I liked my new friends when I had gone slightly off-trail to look at a view and heard them coming up the trail. They couldn’t see me and were talking about hikers they had met.. and then I heard my name. They sounded a little disillusioned with the other hikers they had met, but then mentioned that they thought I was nice. It made my day.
We all finally made it to Muskrat Creek Shelter. It was a nice location because the trail there was downhill and then flat.. which meant no immediate uphills the next day! It crossed a stream right before the shelter so water was close by. I set up my tent and made my dinner as it began to snow. Hanging out at the shelter was a lot of fun. Take Your Time and Andiana were there, was was Beaver, my gaiter-twin who I thought was far ahead of me (a recurring theme). There was a family with kids and a girl with her dad. The girl had made a fire, and the whole family was gathering firewood as well. Everyone was very friendly. As a special treat for dinner I ate a Mountain House dinner I had gotten from a finishing section hiker at Plumorchard Gap. It truly felt like a meal I had earned; I had hiked through the cold and the wind, crossed in to a new state, and had arrived at the shelter in high spirits. Once most people had finished dinner the snow picked up and everyone scattered to hang their bear bags and crawl in to their tents. It was still light out, so I read for an hour or so before falling asleep – making sure to keep my filter in my sleeping bag with me so it wouldn’t freeze.
I woke up at 2 AM, wide awake.. and with a full bladder. After some careful deliberation (I hadn’t gotten out of my tent in the middle of the night before) I decided to brave the cold. The snow had stopped, and everything was covered in white. The moon was full and moonlight reflected off the snow, so it was surprisingly light out. It was beautiful. It took me some time to get back to sleep after that, so I just read. I woke up the next morning feeling more refreshed than I had in a while. After I had gotten up I was a little amused with myself. I had left tracks in the snow that night, and could see exactly where I had walked off to to do my business. Oh well. Hikertrash has no shame, right?
Beaver and I were the first ones up and we had breakfast together. I didn’t feel at all inclined to be the first to find the trail in the snow, however, so I waited until more people were up and moving before heading out (after a second breakfast with ramen noodles).
I was in a really good mood that day and had a lot of fun trudging through the snow. The trail had been cleared by the people who had walked through in front of me but there were snowbanks on either side that turned out to be quite deep in some places. So, like any fully functioning adult, I amused myself with stabbing them with my poles. It was more fun that it sounds. When I got to Deep Gap (yes, another Deep Gap.. there must be millions of them) I stopped for lunch. A lady who was seeing her husband off on his hike offered me a banana and an orange. Trail magic! It felt like the universe was smiling at me.
Take Your Time and Andiana showed up soon after and we all sat and had lunch together. They were getting a little tired of carrying their bottles of wine so I offered to take about a cup’s worth off their hands. I felt like the epitome of class that day, having a cup of wine with my peanutbutter/rice crispy tortilla.
Together we headed up Standing Indian. It wasn’t as tough as other uphills had been, though that might have been the wine. I soon got ahead of TYT & A and was at the shelter before I knew it. Deciding I had some more miles left in me, I decided to be adventurous and push for the next. I asked one of the people staying at the shelter to pass on a message for me, then hiked on. Standing Indian was not bad at all – just long. At Beech Gap I ran in to Dave, Maine Mike and Nightwhisperer. They tried to convince me to camp there with them and I almost did, but decided I was too restless. I made it to Carter Gap Shelter just before dark. Truly, the universe was smiling at me, because I found a place to set up my tent that had cell reception. I got water and chatted with my boyfriend while eating dinner. I hung my bear bag and went to bed, thoroughly exhausted but feeling accomplished.
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