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Ryan's Great Adventures
Volume 92: Monday August 11, 2008
Our hero battles mountains, roads, wind, and snow with one last push in his epic quest to reach Springer Mountain.
I have to admit, until a few days ago, I'd never heard of Dalton before. Mortis mentioned resupplying in Dalton shortly before we arrived in Cave Spring, and I asked him, "Dalton, Massachusetts?!"
The Appalachian Trail does run through Dalton, Massachusetts—I had a wonderful act of trail magic manifest itself in a heaping bowl of ice cream with syrup and rainbow sprinkles on a top there. No, I won't ever forget Dalton, Massachusetts, but who ever heard of Dalton, Georgia?
Apparently, it's not nearly as unknown to folks who live out here as it was to me. It's a sizeable city—easily the largest I've been in since Montgomery—and bills itself as the carpet capital of the world. I passed a couple of warehouses and what seem to be manufacturing facilities for Shaw (a company I know of only because it's owned by Berkshire Hathaway, of which I own one class B share). I assume this is where Shaw is based, or at least is where a good portion of their carpet business is run from. Who knew? =)
You learn a lot of things while hiking the trail, and I'm learning a lot about Dalton.
I had camped, I figured, about nine or ten miles before reaching town, and annoyingly, I could see civilization down there off the mountain ridge I followed for most of that time, while I grumbled about why the trail was following this ridge line instead of going 'down there' to Dalton. I wanted civilization!
The trail finally descended from Dug Gap, where a historical marker told about Confederate troops who defended the gap and Union troops who tried to take it over a couple of times.
The road emptied out at a busy on and offramp for I-75 with all sorts of wonderful establishments as far as the eye could see. Mostly gas stations, hotels, and restaurants, but they all looked so exciting and fresh.
My first order of business was lunch, so I hoofed into town far enough to pick up reading material—a USA Today with news of Charlton Heston's death on the front page—then to Taco Bell for lunch and a place to sit back, relax, and read my newspaper. Pure joy, you have no idea. =)
It always seems like you're the last person in the world to find out news while off in the woods hiking. I knew Heston was pretty old, so his dying wasn't a shock to me. (John Ritter, however, when I was told he died at a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, I thought was a stupid practical joke and didn't believe it until I read it in a newspaper two days later.)
But despite this long article about the life and times of Heston, I never saw anything about how he died. Was that already old news?
Very perplexing, so figuring out what day he died became something of a mission for me.
After finishing the paper, I walked back to a hotel, America's Best Inn, and checked into room 222. I asked the clerk behind the counter where the nearest place was for Internet access, and she suggested the library, but that, "It wasn't within walking distance."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Try me," I told her. "I walked here from Key West. You might be surprised at what I consider walking distance."
She figured it was about one and a half miles away. Indeed, easy walking distance. Perhaps a half hour walk away.
I went up to my room, took a shower, then hit the town. I figured I'd try the library first. I didn't know if they were still open or not (it was already 5:00 in the afternoon), but it didn't much matter. It would give me an excuse to walk around a bit and see some of the town.
The library, much to my delight, was open until 7:00, but it took me nearly an hour to walk there so I figured it's distance to be three miles away. Unless there was some other closer branch I didn't know about, which was entirely possible.
I was only able to use the computer for a half hour before it kicked me off, then I followed some back roads back to the hotel to make a proper loop of my walk.
On the way, I stopped at Big K figuring I could find a magazine or book that I could take with me on the trail, and ended up walking out with about $62 in junk. They had these ENORMOUS bags of peanut M&Ms with dark chocolate, and a lot of other junk food in bulk. Then, since I was already there, I figured I'd look at their shoes because hey, I was stuffing leaves into my current ones each night which struck me as a sign as perhaps they should be replaced.
I'm sure the shoes would have gotten me to Springer Mountain so I wasn't worried about shoes, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to look at their selection which is how I ended up with a nice, new shiny pair of shoes. They ought to last me for months after I finish my hike this time. (I intended to dispose of the Sears shoes immediately after finishing my hike.)
And I did buy a book—The Bourne Legacy, I think it was.
And finally headed back to my hotel having decided to zero the next day in Dalton, the carpet capital of the world.
The next afternoon was spent running around town, mostly sightseeing and relaxing. I walked to the library to use the Internet, then spent hours and hours reading through magazines like BuisnessWeek and Civil War Times. I'd never seen Civil War Times in a library before. Only in Georgia. =)
Interestingly, it had an article about fences. The fence posts would often be used as firewood by the roaming armies, and apparently it caused all sorts of problems for the south (where most of the fighting took place) since animals like deer were then able to eat the crops being grown. The article asserts that the destruction of fences was one of the factors that accelerated the south's defeat.
The part that amused me most, however, was that it mentioned a Confederate soldier in Dalton, Georgia, had used a fence post as an improvised bat for a game of baseball. What are the chances of that? I'd never heard of Dalton before, and now I read about it in a national magazine while at the main library in Dalton itself! Bizarre coincidence, but otherwise not really noteworthy.
In any case, I had a grand time, reading for hours on end and relaxing. I then walked to Walnut Square Mall where I hoped to see a movie, but alas, it didn't open until 6:30. Then it was back to the hotel.
That evening, Mortis and I headed to Cracker Barrel for dinner where we planned to meet with a few letterboxers including Ghopper, 4 Little Piggies, one-half of Two Wild Sisters, and Isabeau.
Mortis, not actually being a letterboxer, seemed to fit in surprisingly well and got a quick lesson in cooties, exchanges, and the usual stuff. I warned everyone not to leave any cooties on me since I would NOT carry them on the trail.
After dinner, Mortis headed back to his room at the hotel, to watch girls basketball or something. The rest of us decided to head out and find a letterbox at night at a park there in Dalton.
I had not come prepared to letterbox, and wore my camp shoes while my headlamp was still in my hotel room. The others had better shoes, but surprisingly few flashlights among them.
Without a light (or even the clue, for that matter), I didn't look particularly hard and instead focused my efforts into scaring everyone that the cops were after us. "Look!" I'd say, pointing to a car that pulled into the parking lots. "I bet its the cops! Hide!"
And all the flashlights went off. =) It wasn't the cops, though it could have been considering all the noise we were making crashing through the brush.
"Well," I told everyone, "I know my record is clean. How about the rest of you?" =)
Then there was some concern about poison ivy all over the place, growing three feet high, to which I replied, "That's okay, I'll just take a shower when I get back to the motel. The rest of you are screwed, though!"
I'm always so thoughtful. =)
Ghopper eventually found the box pretty much as everyone else finally gave up on it. We stamped in, then I was dropped back off at the hotel.
I washed my clothes in the sink figuring it was probably a good idea to get any lingering poison ivy residue off of them then hung them up to dry. The next morning, I used a hair dryer to dry what little wetness was left in them.
I checked out of the motel and started hoofing it east on Walnut Street. Ghopper and friends left me their clues for other boxes in Dalton, so I stopped by a park on the trail to find one then stopped at Walnut Square Mall—the very place I went the day before in the hopes of seeing a movie—where another letterbox was located.
The day's hike was all road walk. It started off relatively nice, with sidewalks and slow traffic. Shortly past that Walnut Square Mall, however however, the sidewalks left me and traffic speed picked up.
Eventually I reached an intersection that left me scratching my head. A sign had been erected for the Pinhoti Trail, pointing to the right. The directions I had printed out and had been following continued straight. Should I follow my directions or the sign? Hmmm....
I considered the consequences. My data was old—in fact, the date it was last updated, according to the last page, was in 1999. Almost a decade old. I had no doubt that meant the trail had been rerouted at some point and that the sign was correct.
But I had a couple of problems with that. One, I had no idea where the reroute went, and if just one blaze or turn was missing, I'd be pretty well screwed. Two, it seemed to go down a less busy street, so I suspected it might be a longer route that avoided the 'dangerous' road walk but ultimately ended at the same place my directions led to. Frankly, when it comes to road walks, I want the most direct route to get it done and over with. And third, those road walks on the road less traveled have their own perils—dogs. I'd rather take my chances with the cars.
So I blew off the sign and continued straight. It was the most direct route to the forest, and it was the forest I wanted to be.
The road wasn't terribly bad to walk on, with a wide shoulder that was easy to walk on in most places. The thing that got to me most was the heat, which I would later learn reached the high 70s, and my pack weight which was excruciatingly heavy since I loaded it up with ALL the food I figured I'd need to reach Springer Mountain—at least 20 pounds of food alone.
I finally reached the town of Chatsworth, which I figured was a respectable 15 or so miles from where I started in Dalton, and seeing as I only needed to average about 16 miles per day, I decided to stop there in town.
It's a much smaller town than Dalton, and a cashier at a gas station told me that a hotel was up the street, perhaps a quarter mile off the trail, so I walked over to it and checked into the Best Western, room 112. It was a luxury to be certain, costing $69 plus tax for the night—way more than I usually care to pay for a hotel room—but I so did not want to find a place to stealth camp since that's what it looked like I'd have to do in all this civilization, and I'm rather tired of camping outdoors anyhow at this point.
So I got the room. As an added perk, however, which practically made the price worth it, there was a computer in the lobby that guests could use for free, and I ended up spending about four hours on it trying to catch up with e-mail, message boards, and such. It was the most computer time I've had since Amanda took the laptop away in Andalusia.
I did not go out for dinner. I had carefully planned out exactly the number of meals I'd need to reach Springer Mountain—over 20 pounds of them!—and needed to eat the food in my pack.
So that's what I did. Figured it helps make up for the relatively expensive room by not eating out for dinner as well. =)
I expected to pick up the Pinhoti Trail again in Chatsworth, but I failed to find any blazes before getting my room at the Best Western or the next morning upon checking out.
Not one to worry about such things, I continued following Highway 52 east out of Chatsworth. That's what my directions said, so that's what I did, but still, there was no sign or blazes indicating that the Pinhoti was nearby.
The road walk wasn't particularly bad. The highway went into the mountains, so cars weren't able to speed at high velocities along the narrow, winding road. Nor was there much traffic to begin with—just enough, however, to insure dog owners didn't let their dogs run loose.
But the road walk was still a road walk, and I figured I'd be pretty much doing that for the whole day. Near the end of the day I expected to hit real trail again, and perhaps not even that given my late start in the morning. (Naturally, I had to use the Internet before checking out of the motel.)
Near the entrance for Fort Mountain SP, I stopped to eat lunch. Normally I eat snacks for lunch, but my pack was terribly heavy and I decided to cook a meal of rice, bean, and cheese burritos which, including the use of water to clean up with, I figured lightened my pack by three or four pounds. Still a heavy pack, though.
I passed by houses and lodges, skipping a restaurant (must eat food in pack first!), and was surprised when I arrived at an overlook at the Murray-Gilmer County Line to see a small trail, marked with Pinhoti blazes, entering the road. At last, I'd refound the Pinhoti.
But it bothered me that it came in on a trail from the woods. What the heck was I road walking for when there was a perfectly good TRAIL to hike on?
I continued following the road, wondering where the Pinhoti had meandered before reaching the road. Obviously, there had been a *substantial* reroute since my data sheet was created.
The trail soon veered off the left side of the road, even though my data sheet suggested I continue following the road. I hate road walks, though, and decided this time not to follow the directions on my printout. I tromped down the trail with no idea where it would lead.
I had another problem—I was running dangerously low on water. I used most of it while cooking lunch, but I used more than I anticipated to put out a small fire it had started. I'd been passing water sources all morning long and didn't worry about it, but following the road along the ridgeline, water sources suddenly disappeared.
I started to ration the water that was left, and figured following the trail down off the ridge would likely lead to more water sources than sticking with the road.
Eventually, I did come across a small spring. I heard it more than I saw it since the spring was down below the trail. No water crossed the trail at all, but I heard the drip, drip, drip of water nearby.
I dropped my pack on the trail and took out two water bottles, bushwacking with them down 20 feet or so down a steep slope where I found the spring. I drank all that I could, then filled up the water bottles.
Now that I'm in the mountains and have been finding springs and streams with beautiful, clear water, I've largely stopped treating water. The water in Florida I never really trusted—stagnant, smelly stuff. Even the occasional clear spring tended to smell like sulphur. So I've thoroughly been enjoying the natural mountain water and trust it enough to no longer bother treating it most of the time.
The trail continued meandering, eventually coming out to a dirt road, and I wasn't entirely sure which direction to follow it. I thought I had seen Pinhoti Trail blazes from higher up on the trail that went left on the road, but now that I was on the road, I only saw a single blaze that led to the right.
I followed the single blaze, which passed a small stream. Not sure if I'd be camping near water for the night and given how late it was in the afternoon, I filled up the rest of my water bottles.
Except for a one liter bottle whose cap I accidentally dropped in the stream and I sadly watched drift downstream out of view before I could get it. Damn.
I walked a bit further down the road but saw no additional blazes and started second guessing myself. Maybe I really was supposed to have turned left on the road?
So back I went. At the trailhead, I reexamined the one blaze that led me to the right, and decided to hike left a quarter mile or so to see if I could find any other blazes—particularly the ones I thought I saw from higher up on the trail.
But I found nothing, and returned back to the trailhead and back the way I originally started walking, grumbling to myself about wasting time by walking back and forth on the same road.
I knew I was on Conasauga Road since that's the name that was used on the mailboxes I passed, but that wasn't particularly useful information since my data sheet assumed I was still back on Highway 52.
Argh. Would it be so difficult to put in an extra blaze or two?
On the plus side, while walking past the stream I had refilled at, I saw a strangely uniform black dot in the water on the other side of the road where I had lost my cap. Surely I couldn't be so lucky as my cap getting stuck here on the other side of the road in plain view?
I had to bushwhack a bit to get down to the stream (stupid thorns!), and sure enough, it was my lost cap. So the backtracking turned out not to be a TOTAL waste of time.
About a mile down the road, I spotted new blazes leading up into the woods, which I followed happy to have finally confirmed I was headed in the correct direction.
With all my backtracking, however, it was starting to get dark. I kept my eyes open for a place to camp, and did so on a soft pile of pine needles about a mile away from the dirt road.
I wasn't sure exactly where I was, but I was pretty certain this trail I was following was considerably longer than the road walk would have been had I continued following the directions on my printout.
The weather forecast for the day included interesting adjectives such as 'severe' and ugly nouns such as 'thunderstorms.' It wasn't weather I looked forward to, but it was weather I'd have to live with.
My goal for the day was to reach the end of the Pinhoti Trail and the beginning (for me, at least) of the Benton MacKaye Trail. Originally, had I followed the original road walk described in my directions, I'd end the day six or seven miles down the Benton MacKaye. Not knowing where I was or how far away that trail was, I hoped to simply reach the Benton MacKaye. That would still put me within easy distance of Springer Mountain by the 16th.
The day started cloudy and stayed that way for pretty much the whole day. Eventually the trail reached the Mountaintown Trail, which thrilled me to no end since my data sheet had a line marked "Begin Mountaintown Trail" and I felt confident that my directions were now on course with the trail I followed. I now knew where on the trail I was, and the end of the Pinhoti Trail was another eight or so miles away.
I figured that would put me at the end of the trail—my minimum goal for the day—at close to 4:00. If the storm held off until later in the day, I thought, I could be in camp with my tarp set up before the first drops of rain hit me. And oh, would that be awesome!
So I hoofed on, reaching the northern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail a little before 4:00 that afternoon where it intersects the Benton MacKaye Trail. Despite the threat from the weather, I took a couple of pictures of me at the junction, then backtracked a hundred feet or so to a nice little place just off the side of the Pinhoti.
Knowing severe weather was in the forecast, I picked a high point a couple of feet up from the trail where it would be impossible to flood and strung my tarp between two stout trees—the better to hold my tarp in place if the wind really picks up.
It was an excellent location, deep in a valley and surrounded by trees where I would feel safe from the passing thunderstorms. When I know thunderstorms are in the forecast, I like to camp in low-lying areas rather than on ridgetops for obvious reasons. I also like to be surrounded by thousands of trees so they can protect me from severe winds and so I'm not camped under that single, solitary tree you always hear about. Nope, I want there to be thousands of 'targets'—the safer to hide out in.
So I was rather pleased with how well this campsite fit my criteria. My only complaint, and a minor one at that, was that I didn't see any water nearby. But I already filled up all of my water bottles not knowing if I'd be camping near water, so that wasn't an issue.
I set up camp and cooked a fine meal of rice, bean, and cheese burritos—finishing up just as I heard the first of the thunder in the distance. "The rain is near," I said to myself, and I quickly cleaned up the mess from dinner before it arrived.
The thunderstorm arrived with a fury, and a hard rain pounded my tarp, but I relaxed underneath reading the book I picked up in Dalton. No problem for me!
The storm passed by, but seemed to do so in a series of waves, each more severe than the previous. The first thunderstorm passed and the rain settled into a light drizzle before the second onslaught started a few hours later, and a third wave hit well after midnight with a crashing percussion that made my ears ring. From flash to boom, only a second or so elapsed. Unable to sleep, I stared at the roof of my tarp and timed the lightning to the thunder, more often than not thinking to myself, "Damn! That was close!"
The last of the thunder passed by, however, and I finally went to sleep for good.
The next morning, a light rain continued to fall, but I decided to wait it out for a couple of hours. The weather forecast predicted no rain for today—clearly wrong at this point—but I figured the chances of the rain stopping soon were better than average.
And the bet paid off. The rain stopped within an hour or so, and even the tree snot had stopped falling by the time I broke down camp.
I put on my dry clothes (except the socks and shoes, which were still wet from a stream crossing late the afternoon before), proud that I managed to spend the entire storm under the protective cover of my tarp. I couldn't have timed things better.
I followed the white diamond blazes, though at this point, I didn't know exactly what direction I was walking anymore. I was located north of Springer Mountain, so I'd have to hike south at some point, and I would be heading south on the Benton MacKaye Trail.
Most of the morning, the trail stayed well in the woods, but by afternoon, it started following dirt roads and meandering through a community I'd later identify as Cherry Log.
As far as road walks went, it isn't bad. The roads weren't busy and no loose dogs came after me.
At one point, I filled up a couple of water bottles from a stream that looked like it came in away from where the civilization was to make sure I'd have plenty of water overnight before reaching camp.
Water, I thought, seemed dicey at best here because of the civilization. Who knows what chemicals people were using on their lawns or houses, so I picked water up from a creek that—from my point of view—seemed to come in from above the civilization, but I couldn't be completely sure. I picked it up in case I would need it, but I hoped to replace it with a better source before the night was over.
As I started picking up my pack, a car driving by stopped, then backed up several feet to me.
A woman leaned out the window. "Do you plan to drink that water?"
"I hope not!" I replied, "But I will if I have to."
She leaned out the window with a small half-liter bottle of water. "Take this. Don't drink the water."
I took the bottle and thanked her, and she drove off into the sunset. I kept the water I picked up anyhow, however, since I needed a lot more than half a liter of the stuff, but I was glad to at least have that little amount of known safe water.
I stopped a few miles further, seemingly in the middle of Cherry Log, at a shelter. The shelter was in a strange location, with houses in view all over the place. I couldn't even find a place to pee that was completely out of view of all the houses. The shelter was much more public than I expected, but it was still a step up from stealth camping between houses.
A nice creek ran passed the shelter, but decided I liked the water I picked up from the questionable stream better than this creek which I *knew* ran through plenty of civilization.
I pulled on all my layers of clothes and prepared for what already was becoming a very cold night.
By now, I needed to average about 17 or 18 miles per day to reach Springer Mountain in time, which was nice. It meant I could sleep in in the morning and quit hiking early in the day, curl up in my sleeping bag, and enjoy reading a book and cook a hot meal.
So I lingered in the shelter longer than I normally would before hiking out the next morning.
I wasn't especially excited about the hiking, though. The day was beautiful and cool, but there would still be quite a bit of road walks which generally do nothing but depress me. As far as road walks go, it wasn't bad. Dogs didn't chase me along the streets, the roads weren't busy, and no policemen questioned me, and the surrounding terrain was quite nice—but I was thoroughly sick of road walks and dreaded them.
The trail got back into the woods after a few miles which I much appreciated, but I knew it was only temporary and that the trail would return to road walking later in the day, so for most of the day, I just felt blah. I wanted the hike to end.
When the trail returned to road walking, I stopped at the Riverside Restaurant for a late lunch, arriving 15 minutes before they closed. The restaurant wasn't open from 3 to 5, and I actually surprised myself by arriving before three. I'd been walking sluggishly because of my funk and didn't think I'd arrive before they closed.
Not that I needed to eat there—I still had plenty of food in my pack—but I liked the idea of sitting indoors and letting others cook a real meal for me. The one perk to road walking that I actually liked. =) I'd have still traded it away to have stayed in the woods, however.
By the time I left, ominous clouds had started blowing in. The weather forecast called for rain today the last time I had checked, and it looked like it could start at any time.
The trail entered the woods once again, and looking through my data sheet, it appeared my last road walk was now behind me. Nowhere were there instructions to turn on such-n-such road, or to follow a road. Several places it mentioned where I would *cross* a road, but nothing to suggest I'd actually have to follow one, and when I got off that last road, my spirits soared.
"No more damn roads!" I shouted with glee. =) What a relief to finally be done with them.
My pace picked up and I hiked a couple of more miles to a gap on a ridge with a spring nearby.
The wind was bitterly cold and surprisingly strong, so I set up my tarp alongside a log that could act as a wind break. I piled on all my layers of clothes and slipped into my sleeping bag. It was getting darned cold out, and my gut instinct told me this might be the coldest night I'd ever spend on the trail and a good test for the 20 degree bag I picked up after getting out of Florida.
Near sunset, I heard precipitation hitting my tarp. Frozen precipitation. I wasn't sure if it was actually snow or just very small pieces of hail, but there were only trace amounts of it and I put it out of my mind, curled up reading The Bourne Legacy until about 10:00 that night.
I stayed warm throughout the night, and the next morning I lounged around late not wanting to get out of my sleeping bag. "Damn cold!" I thought. "Damn cold."
Then the precipitation started again, this time I could see it was small flakes of snow swirling through the air. Nothing that stuck, but it seemed like Mother Nature wanted to remind me that it was cold outside.
Eventually my bladder forced me to leave my sleeping bag, then I quickly broke down camp and started hiking just to get warm.
The snow grew thicker as the morning progressed, then turned into small pellets of hail which did not immediately melt upon hitting the ground like the snow was doing.
But my spirits soared. I was having FUN again! =) I sang Christmas songs to myself and watched the snow flakes twirling through the air. It's like I could watch the wind itself rather than just the effects it has on the objects it connects with.
By late morning, some of the snow and hail started to collect on the trail, and my feet would make a satisfying 'crunch!' with each step.
The snow was something of a surprise to me since it was never in the weather forecast I saw. Rain the day before, yes, and bitter cold starting today, but it was supposed to be sunny and cold.
But I was glad for the snow. It was new, exciting, and different. I told Amanda before I even started my hike that there was a good possibility it could snow on me at least once once I reached the mountains in Alabama. I knew it could very cold in April in those mountains, and planned for it with warmer camp clothes and the new 20 degree sleeping bag. I was ready, and I was glad that extra preparation could be put to use.
And I much preferred the cold and snow to rain. I hiked all day without an umbrella, more wet from sweat than from the precipitation.
And, I thought, I should reach Springer Mountain the next day. My hike was nearly over. The theme song for Rocky ran through my head between Christmas songs as memories flashed through my head. Walking through water, hiking through fire. On roads and trails, over mountains and through air force bases. And now the trail had one last challenge to throw at me—snow.
The snow did stop briefly a couple of times during the day, to melt off before continuing again. But for most of the day, it came down in varying intensities.
I stopped for the night at Bryson Gap. There weren't any significant logs to block the wind or snow, so I carefully set up my tarp perpendicular to the wind, put on all my layers, and curled up in my sleeping bag. I expected another cold night.
The weather forecast, when I last checked it in Chatsworth the week before, predicated tonight would be get down to 30 degrees. That was in low-laying Dalton, however. I figured up in these mountains, it was probably 10 degrees colder than that, perhaps even in the high teens. Definitely a new record for the coldest weather I ever camped in.
But I stayed plenty warm during the night. With my old 40 degree bag, however, it would have been a truly miserable night. As far as I was concerned, that bag paid for itself these last couple of nights.
And tomorrow—if all went well, I'd be standing on Springer Mountain.
Summit Day. Who wouldn't feel ecstatic on Summit Day? The morning was bitterly cold, but I didn't care. The snow during the night melted upon hitting my tarp, then froze by morning, leaving a thin layer of ice which I crushed and broke apart as best I could while packing it. The ice that was left would melt during the afternoon, I knew, and eventually I'd have to pull out the tarp for drying and long term storage. If all went well, I would no longer need it. =)
Springer Mountain was about 12 miles away, but the Appalachian Trail was a mere five or six miles away. The Benton MacKaye trail, I knew, would intersect the Appalachian Trail several times those last few miles.
Shortly before the first intersection with the AT, I started slowing down, looking for the intersection ahead rather than blindly running into it. It probably sounds strange, but I wanted to savor the moment I stepped onto the AT. At that point, I will have walked the complete distance from Key West to Maine.
Not to mention that I have a soft spot in my heart for the Appalachian Trail. I spent half a year of my life hiking that trail, and had never come back to visit since I finished.
So I crept up the trail, looking for those famous white blazes, a signpost, or an intersection. I wanted to take a picture of the footstep that would combine my two big hikes.
And I saw it. The trail I followed reached a T-intersection, and a signpost had been erected that read, "Appalachian Trail" with arrows pointing in both directions.
It was an emotional moment for me, and a rather anti-climatic location for it. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about this intersection, and in fact I didn't even recognize or remember it when I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail five years before. My eyes started tearing up, and I felt like a sap for it. I didn't expect this particular intersection to affect me as much as it did, and I was glad no one was around to witness my sentimentality. =)
I took out my camera and took pictures of my feet as I stepped that last footstep connecting my two hikes, and touched the sign marking the Appalachian Trail.
After a short rest, I continued south on the Appalachian Trail and on to Springer Mountain. The Benton MacKaye followed the AT for about a mile, then would veer off on its own, intersecting the AT a couple of more times before ending near Springer Mountain.
So for a mile, I got to hike on the Appalachian Trail, and I was positively giddy about it. =) I hoped I would bump into some thru-hikers heading north—a very real possibility at this time of year.
I only crossed paths with one other hiker, a section hiker from Florida using the trailname Back In the Day. He was a firefighter and hiking with three other younger co-workers, and I guess he always made references to how things were 'back in the day.'
They were out for a few days, but Back In the Day left the Springer Mountain shelter before his companions and was waiting for them to catch up, so we chat for the better part of an hour. It was the first hiker I'd seen since Mortis in Dalton, and I liked the company. =)
I continued on, noting a sign that showed Springer Mountain being 4.1 miles ahead. I was still following the Benton MacKaye trail, however, which my notes showed required a six mile hike to Springer.
Kind of ironic, I thought, since I always considered the AT an incredibly windy path that rarely went anywhere fast. Who knew there was another trail that was even worse?!
When the AT and Benton MacKaye split, I was torn. I wanted to continue following the AT. It was calling to me, but I followed the Benton MacKaye instead with a twinge of guilt and regret in my heart. I was anxious to reach the next intersection with the AT. =)
At the next intersection, I found four prospective thru-hikers taking a short break nearby and practically pounced on them to get their stories. =) There were three girls and a guy—an unusual sight on the trail and a very lucky guy! ;o)
They were all planning to go to Maine, and I automatically started sizing them up trying to guess which ones would be most likely to make it. Their packs looked respectable. Not extremely light, perhaps, but not shockingly heavy either. The guy seemed a bit heavy, but I'd seen people who overweight than him make it to Katahdin. And they all seemed young, strong, and healthy.
I suspected they were all physically capable of making it the whole distance. If any of them quit, it would be because they were tired of the hike. I didn't tell them that, however, and encouraged them in their hike.
When I told them about hiking in from Key West, one of them shyly said they felt a bit 'inadequate' compared to me, which I thought was amusing. "Not to worry," I told them, "you'll get there! I just got a head start! You'll be looking like me in no time."
Thinking about my thick, crazy beard, "Well, maybe not EXACTLY like me," I told the girls as I stroked my beard. "I hope not, at least!" =)
We eventually parted ways, and I headed up the Benton MacKaye once again.
The trail intersected the AT one last time, but I didn't see any hikers at this one, and finally dead-ended at the AT 0.2 miles from Springer Mountain. I'd reached the end of the Benton MacKaye. Now I could stay on the AT, which is where I wanted to be anyhow.
I started creeping up the trail again, like I did when I first reached the AT, wanting to savor that moment when I reached Springer Mountain and the plaque that marks the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
It wasn't nearly as emotional for me as that first intersection with the AT, however, although I expected it to be. I reached the summit after three and a half months of hiking, nearly 1,900 miles from Key West, with this point as my goal. My hike was officially over.
It was a beautiful day for a summit. Not a cloud in the sky with views that extended for what seemed like a hundred miles.
The only witness to my finish was a caretaker at the top. He held a little yellow notepad where he kept track of the thru-hikers leaving for Katahdin, but made a note of my arrival from Key West. He told me this was his third year as a caretaker, and I asked him how many others he'd met who had hiked in from Key West.
It didn't surprise me, but the answer did remind me at how utterly lonely most of my hike had been.
But I made it and was ecstatic—positively jubilant. My hike was over.
After finishing the trail, I flew back to San Luis Obispo and was in serious need of a haircut. I'd been called homless, Grizzly Adams, and one person on my flight back to California asked if I was Amish. I needed a haircut in a very bad way, and you might enjoy seeing the process.....
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