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Amicalola to Rainbow Springs
Volume 32: Tue May 6, 2003
Yes, I have emerged from The Trail to tell wild tales I've encountered along the way. April 16th arrived, and it was time to head off to Amicalola Falls State Park and the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. Amanda was short on time, and couldn't actually see me off to the trailhead, however before she left, we met up with a local letterboxer, Mark for breakfast.
After eating, we headed out to a nearby grocery store where I could buy some food for my upcoming hike. As you might recall, I forgot it in the hustle and bustle of packing way back in California.
Amanda left for the airport, but Mark was willing to drive me to the trailhead at Amicalola Falls SP. We took a gander at the Visitor Center and figured out where the approach trail started for Springer Mountain, the official beginning of the Appalachian Trail.
Before I left, though, there were a couple of traditions that needed to be observed or my adventure would be cursed.
First up: Registering. It seems for all people that want to be officially recognized for thru-hiking the AT, they have to sign the register there. I didn't really care if my attempt was officially recognized or not, but it was a simple form so why not?
The guy working the desk also told us that so far, about 700 people have started thru-hiking from there so far this year. Only one in ten, typically, eventually gloat about succeeding. And of those, some are certainly lying, probably because of self-esteem issues. So ultimately, only a very small fraction of thru-hike attempts actually succeed. I'd like to think my odds are somewhat better since I do hike a lot on rough terrain, have experience with backpacking, and have done my research so I have a good idea about the trials I'll face, but then again, doesn't everyone that starts a thru-hike think they'll be different? Only time will tell if I'll succeed or not....
The guy at the counter also warned me of bears being a problem at the shelters near Springer Mountain. Do I have great luck or what? Most people hike the entire trail and never see a bear, and I might get a chance to see one on my very first night out! So far, about 14 hikers have had their food raided this year. Some call me cursed, but I think it's a blessing. =)
The second thing that needed to be done was the weighing of the pack. There's a scale at the visitor center that thru-hikers typically use to find out why their backs are hurting. And the final weight: 40 pounds. Including food and water for several days. It's a bit heavier than I was planning for, but I have little doubt the pack will get lighter as I decide to chuck the items I end up not using.
And the third thing that needed doing: Photo ops in front of the sign that says Mount Katahdin, Maine, is only 2100 or so miles away if you walk through the rock arch and don't stop for several months.
Pictures done, it was time to take my first few steps to Maine. Trumpets blared and angles sang—if only in my head. It was a momentus occasion.
Mark headed back towards Atlanta, and I was on my way to Maine. But to clarify, this was not the official beginning of the AT. This was the dreaded Approach Trail, known to break even hearty men and have them calling for mommie. Some people quit even before reaching the AT! One must wonder—what were they thinking?! It would be 8.8 miles to Springer Mountain and the first white blaze.
For those of you not familiar with blazes, the Appalachian Trail is marked with white blazes, small, rectangular patches of paint that lead to Mt. Katahdin. (Or Springer Mountain, if coming from the other direction.) Blue blaze trails are offshoots from it, frequently because it used to be part of the AT but the trail was rerouted for any number of reasons, and they slap blue paint over the white.
I'd be following blue blazes until Springer Mountain, where the white blazes mark the beginning of the AT.
Frankly, I thought the horror stories I've heard about the approach trail were highly exaggerated, since nothing I came to I'd consider steep. For Florida it might be steep, but by Oregon standards, it was practically flat!
So I whipped through relatively quickly and without incident. I admired some plants that I had never seen before—they looked like miniature palm trees about ten inches tall. Very strange. If anyone knows what I'm talking about and what they're called, please tell me, because I want to know!
I knew I must have reached the summit of Springer when I saw a group of six or so people sitting in a group. Most of them were thru-hikers that started the same day I did, the first of which I met.
There were the obligatory photos at the marker that marks the official southern terminus of the AT, right next to the first white blaze which I'd now be following for over 2,000 miles.
One woman walked up from the other direction getting the ranger's attention (there was a ranger named Gizmo there telling stories about the AT to the group of us) and saying that a dog had bitten her farther up the trail.
Wow! Can you believe it? An injury on the trail, and I had absolutely nothing to do with it! The ranger applied something to sterilize the wound, bandaged her up, and took notes so he could file a report on the incident.
I signed the register at the top of Springer and waited to watch the sun set. It was a beautiful late afternoon, and it looked to be a good one.
Then it was time to set up camp. By now it was semi-dark, but I managed to set up my tarp and cook a delicious quesadilla for dinner. And then it was time for bed. The next day I planned to hike 15 miles, and I'd need an early start!
With the bear warnings in mind, I put all my food and other smelly items into a bag and strung it up on cables overhead that were set up for just that purpose, rolled out my sleeping bag, and hit the sack.
The next morning I woke up bright and early to a beautiful sunny day. Unfortunately, it didn't last long, since before I even finished packing up camp it started raining. Time to pull out the old umbrella.
The hike that day was roughly level with only slightly perceptible ups and downs. Maybe the mountains are still up ahead, but so far this hike was far easier than I expected. Any horror stories associated with this part of the trail were obviously created by those that dropped out since they needed to fabricate an excuse for quitting so early, if you ask me.
I stopped at a shelter, the Hawk Mountain Shelter—which was about the halfway point for my day's hike—to eat lunch out of the rain and rest a bit.
This was the first shelter I actually stopped at. I'd already passed several on my hike, but never actually stopped in any of them. It was the standard structure with three walls and a roof with one side open. A 64 year old man was there, a thru-hiker believe it or not, that warned of a mouse problem. From what I've heard, ALL shelters have mice problems. The guy had a whopping 80 pound backpack and after three days of rigorous hiking, he managed to cover seven miles. That day he'd be taking off because it was raining, and he didn't want to hike in the rain. There's a saying on the trail, "If you don't hike in the rain, you won't make it to Maine." I was pretty sure I wouldn't be seeing this guy at the top of Mt. Katahdin, despite his claim to be a thru-hiker.
I didn't see any mice, although I had little doubt they were there, watching. Waiting for me to drop a piece of food. Another couple was there that spent the night at a shelter five miles back and were taking a lunch break as well. They asked if I saw any bear activities at the Springer Mountain shelter area when I was there, but alas, I did not. They did have some bear activity at their shelter, though.
While eating lunch, a guy walked up wearing fatigues and face paint to warn us about some military training going on in the area. It seems special forces train in the area, and you can hear them shooting off bombs and guns in the distance. If I died there, it wouldn't be bears or falling off cliffs, but rather get blown up by our special forces by accident.
Seeing as it was only noon, I decided to push on to the next shelter about eight miles away. I didn't get ambushed by the US Special Forces, fortunately. After the first four miles, the weight of my pack really started catching up to me, but due to the rain and very wet ground, I wasn't going to stop until I reached the protective shelter. By the time I reached the glorious sight of the shelter, I was hurting pretty bad, but I made it.
When I arrived, eight people had already arrived to set up camp in the shelter. We were going to be a very close group before this night was over! The others were in awe of me after telling them I hiked in from Springer Mountain, since all of the other took two days to cover that distance.
Looking at the 'competition', I think my odds of completing this hike are far better than these cigar smoking folks. I've read that 20% of thru-hikers never even make it as far as North Carolina. I can believe it. One fellow going by the name Fishin' Fred (http://www.fishinfreds.com) had a huge backpack on, and I said, "Good Lord! How much does that pack weigh?!!!" He told me that it was about 75 pounds at which point my eyes popped out again and I jokingly asked, "Did you pack a television set in that thing?!" at which point he admitted that, yes, he did bring a portable television set. Later I found out he also had a full-sized roll of paper towels, which did come in handy for one person, but come on, a roll of paper towels? These people were an embarrassment to themselves, and I had many nights of fun talking with folks with lighter packs about all the junk some people were carrying.
One person told me that a guy had left behind a great 4-season tent—probably cost him at least $300—because he was tired of carrying it around. Another hiker came up and gladly packed it up, carried it to the next post office, and sent it home for later use. Stories like this are legendary on the first 30 miles or so of the trail. I've heard about stories like this, but I'm absolutely amazed at how common they actually are!
Around dark, I saw the infamous mice that take the term 'shelter' seriously. There was a little excitement, but they left me alone and I had no surprises running across my stomach in the middle of the night. A few people decided to set up a tent in the middle of the night due to one particularly loud and persistent snorer, which the next day we nicknamed Chainsaw, because that's what he sounded like. It was a 12 year old boy, and I swear I've never heard anyone snore so loudly—before or since.
Day 3 I woke up to fog, but fortunately the rain stayed away the whole day. My goal was an 11.9 mile hike to Wood's Hole shelter, which didn't include a two mile detour (one way) to my first mail drop: Suches, Georgia.
Legend has it the place got its name because the locals would say, "Well, it's our town, such-es it is." More likely, it's probably named after some Indian word meaning 'gutter'. Just kidding.... Honestly, I wasn't expecting much, but it was a cute litle town with wonderfully built houses.
When I reached the road that led to Suches, it was quite a shock. The road was paved. It was the first paved road I'd seen since I left Amicalola Falls, and I wasn't expecting a REAL road. While walking the 1.9 miles to town, I noticed a large number of people riding motorcycles. I hadn't seen so many motorcycles since I was in Turkey!
Getting into town, the first establishment I saw was a motorcycle resort. How about that? I never knew such a thing existed, and one of the locals explained that they're located all over the south. How interesting.
First stop was the post office where I picked up a lot of heavy food that I really didn't need. I had gone food crazy while shopping in Atlanta, and now I'd be carrying enough food for a week, far more than necessary.
Then I wondered over to the only public pay phone I could find in town to discover it didn't work. I wouldn't be calling anyone that day.
I met up with Chainsaw and his son at the post office. They decided to hitchhike into town for lunch. At the gas station market, we discovered they had mousetraps and promptly bought one for each of us to compete in who could catch the most mice at the shelters. We hung out for awhile and finally the three of us hitchhiked up the steep road to the trailhead. Much nicer that way than hiking.
And then I hiked out to Wood's Hole shelter without any unexpected events.
From Wood's Hole, I hiked through some wonderfully inspiring areas with such names as Slaughter Gap and Blood Mountain, in tribute to the thru-hiker massacre of 1953. Okay, not really. The names came from a particularly vicious battle between two Indians tribes long before us white guys ever appeared and killed them all.
At the top of Blood Mountain is a beautifully built shelter, now about 70 years old. Until then, all the shelters I had seen were built of wood fairly recently (within the last 15 year or so), but this one was built from solid rock and looked like a little home with chimney and all.
Due to a fire ban in the area, the chimney was filled full of rocks and is no longer useable. And despite its charming looks, the place reeks as if it's 70 years old. And after factoring in the lack of a nearby water source, I was glad to just be passing by.
The trail followed a rocky outcropping which soon became rather steep and sketchy, nothing like I'd seen on the trail before. A little ways later the trail headed into the woods, but the trail was less defined and it had been awhile since I saw a white blaze. After a little thought, I decided I must have gotten off the trail somewhere, and headed back up to the top of Blood Mountain.
Back at the top, two other were heading down the rock I just did a short while earlier and I flagged them down warning that wasn't the trail. I wasn't the first person to miss the turn, and I know I won't be the last.
Another mile later, I reached the thru-hiker mecca at Neels Gap: Walasi-Yi Center. This center has the unique oddity of being the only building that the AT passes through. Actually, it doesn't pass through rooms or anything, but rather through a covered walkway that connects the two ends of the complex.
And the place is built for thru-hikers to load up food and water. Buy some sodas and sandwiches. You can take showers and wash your clothes. There's even a hostel for folks that don't want to spend another night in the outdoors.
The first thing I did was weigh my pack to learn it was down to 35 pounds. Cool. I made use of the shower—my first since leaving Atlanta—but skipped the laundromat. Bought lots of food and drinks to pig out on. Called home to let my mom know I was doing okay. But there were still daylight hours left for hiking, so I moved on. Weighing my pack again, I sadly learned it gained five pounds during my stop.
I planned to spend the night at Whitley Gap shelter—that is until I reached the intersection for the trail to the shelter that said it was 1.2 miles away. What crazy idiot thought we would want to hike an additional 1.2 miles—ONE WAY—after hiking all day with a 40 pound pack?
The next shelter was 4.4 miles away, and that was my next destination. If I had to walk another 1.2 miles, it was going to be on the AT, not a side trail!
It was after 7:00, but I finally limped into Low Gap Shelter with excruciating pain of 15 miles of hiking that day—my best but most painful day yet.
Getting into the shelter so late, I was rather dismayed to learn it was already full. The weather forecast for the night was looking like rain, and I sadly set up camp under the darkening skies. I didn't actually set up my tarp, hoping there was still a chance that it wouldn't rain, but it did. Plan B went into action: I threw the tarp over myself and my backpack and went back to sleep.
Despite the rain, it was actually a very good night for me. I threw down my camp in the piles of dead leaves on the ground which provided plenty of cushioning and insulation that I hadn't had so far. I left my sleeping pad at home to save space in my pack, and sleeping on the wood at shelters or the compacted dirt at established campgrounds is hard without cushioning.
And because I wasn't in the shelter, I wasn't woken up by wandering mice or snoring hikers. All-in-all, I had a very good sleep despite the rain.
The next morning I packed up and headed off again. There's an awkward gap in the sheltering system where the next shelter was 7.2 miles off—not really much for a day's work, but the one after that was 7.7 miles further, nearly 15 miles from where I started. I wasn't sure I could pull a second 15 mile day; my feet still hadn't recovered from the first one, and my blister—named Moe—may not appreciate my hard-working efforts.
A couple miles later I came to Unicoi Gap, where some trail magic hit me big. A wonderful old couple had driven out and brought fruits, sodas, water, and even colored Easter eggs to surprise thru-hikers with. (It was Easter Sunday, a fact that had slipped my mind.) I ate an orange, an egg, and a soda. And took another egg, an apple, and a cookie for further down the trail. They were wonderful.
A few more miles down the trail, I met a couple of other folks that were giving out oranges to thru-hikers. This day was getting better and better! These two fellows had thru-hiked back in 1996 and liked to get out and meet prospective thru-hikers while handing out oranges.
They said a couple of other people were seen setting up a BBQ with desert pudding for thru-hikers earlier in the afternoon. With this hopeful imagine in mind, I continued on to Tray Mountain Shelter, but alas, the two angels of dinner had already packed up and left. I wanted to cry.
This shelter had no cables to hang food bags from, so I had the distinct pleasure of pulling out some rope and finding a suitable tree to hang it from, tying a rock to one end, and throwing it over a branch. Tied off the end to the trunk and hit the sack, hoping my food would still be around the next morning.
April 21st was a sad day on the trail. It rained and rained and rained. The trail climbed high into the mountains while thunder could be heard rumbling in. I smartly carried two lightning rods, one for each hand. Technically one was called an umbrella and the other was a trekking pole, but near the top of a mountain in a thunder storm, I thought lightning rod was more accurate.
I made it to Deep Gap shelter, at which point I stopped for lunch and to dry out a bit. I got so cozy, in fact, I decided to stop my hiking for the day and sleep there that night after a measly 7.1 miles on the trail.
I staked out my spot by laying out my ground sheet and sleeping bag, prepared a delicious lunch, and chatted with the other folks that had stopped for lunch. A couple of them also decided to spend the night.
From the registry, I learned that the shelter was supposedly haunted, although nobody actually mentioned details about the story behind the haunting. But then a strange thing happened. The rain stopped. The clouds parted. My spirits soared. Why the heck am I stopping after only 7.1 miles and before noon even struck?!
So I packed up all my gear and decided to rush to the next shelter of Plumorchard Gap 7.8 miles away. I didn't leave Deep Gap until 2:30, so knew I'd really have to hustle to make it before dark. But if anyone could do it, I could, I thought confidently.
Now you're probably thinking that I didn't make it, but I did. I stopped to chat for rather a long while with a father-daughter pair from Michigan that were out backpacking for a couple of weeks. Their inspiration: A Walk In the Woods. There are a lot of people on this trail because of that book, and we three weren't the only ones! I actually met them earlier in the day on the trail, and crossed paths a second time at Deep Gap, and this was the third time I bumped into them. I really enjoyed talking to them, but I still needed to get to the next shelter and pushed on.
I wandered into the shelter at about 7:00 where I confidently asked the others there if they had dinner ready for me yet. They laughed. I think they thought I was joking. I was, of course, but I was hoping one would 'jokingly' offer their own dinner. Oh well.
For the first night since my first night on the trail, it did not rain. The next day I woke up to sunshine that stayed all day long, and I was feeling pretty darned good. With the wind, it was a bit nippy, but nothing too bad.
And as if that was enough to make a thru-hiker's day, I reached a momentus milestone: North Carolina! I hollered with joy when I reached the sign proclaiming the end of Georgia and the beginning of North Carolina. I firmly planted one butt cheek in Georgia and the other one in North Carolina as I drank some water and ate some snacks.
Moving on, I discovered that the folks that maintain the North Carolina part of the trail seem to have no concept of switchbacks. Immediately upon reaching the state, the trail pointed directly to the highest point on the horizon and went straight up. It was a painful hill, I'll admit it.
Fortunately, once I passed that first great hill the rest of the day's hike was non-eventful. I even got to chuckle wondering what the story behind the Chunky Gal Trail was as I walked past.
Since the weather reports said there's not supposed to be any rain for at least the next few days, I stopped at a small clearing at Beech Gap for the night. There wasn't a shelter there, but it looked like a great place to spend the night.
It was a cold night, and I pretty much hit the trail at first light just to warm up. I ambled along for a few hours, over Big Butt Mountain, before crossing paths with another thru-hiker named Nova at the base of Albert Mountain. I was rather fascinated because she was going alone, something that seemed odd but gave me a feeling of 'Yeah! Go get 'em and show those men they've got competition!' In any case, it was rather inspirational to see a woman not afraid of conquering a traditionally male endeavor. I've seen several other women thru-hikers, but they've always had a boyfriend or husband along for 'protection'. It was still early in the hike, but I really hope she makes it the whole way.
Then it was up Albert Mountain and another case of North Carolinians forgetting about switchbacks on their trail. This was the steepest stretch of the trail yet requiring a rock scramble to the top and the occasional help of a tree to pull myself up. My trekking pole was worthless on this stretch, and it was the first time on the trail I didn't make use of it.
At the top of Albert Mountain I got my best view yet. I've passed many supposedly scenic viewpoints, but have been foiled by rain or fog or even the endless bare trees. But this day was beautiful and clear, and even better, Albert Mountain had a fire lookout tower which I climbed up onto and checked out the tortuous path I've been following. I was at one of those parts on the trail which actually takes you in nearly a loop, a 15 mile loop, and ends *almost* where it began. Thru-hikers cursed the extra miles when they realized more than a dozen miles could easily have been skipped had it not been for the tortuous path the AT follows.
With such a great place to hang out, I ate lunch before continuing my hike. I stopped at Rock Gap where a kindly soul that had thru-hiked back in 1981 offered to give me a ride to Rainbow Springs Campground.
That night would be my first in civilization since my journey began. There was a camp store where I gorged on a 12" pizza, 3 Musketeers bar, and an ice cream sandwich, which I downed with a 20 oz bottle of Coke. I had no idea I was so hungry! I paid with a sopping wet traveler's check. The clerk didn't mind. In fact, she had a 'clothsline' set up to dry all the wet bills that had been coming in from thru-hikers!
The place is labeled as a campground, but most thru-hikers stay at the bunkhouse, a cheap option considerably better than truly roughing it. It had a frig and a wood stove to keep us warm. The warm part was a contributing factor for me, because the night before it had gotten down below freezing—about 30°F, which is bearable if not comfortable in my 40 degree bag.
There's more to write, but my library time is limited and you'll have to wait to hear the rest later. Adios!
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