Thursday, December 10, 2009

Appalachian trail journal Dec. 6, 2009

[Top picture is from March 31, 2000 and the one below it from Dec. 6, 2009, both taken at Raven Rock, near Muskrat Creek shelter on the Appalachian Trail]

I didn't sleep well last night and woke up in a depressive funk. Maybe it was the town food and bad television. Maybe it was the facts of the matter. I was a stranger in a familiar, but forbidding environment, dealing with cold and isolation, and aches and pains. Why do I continue to do this to myself?

But I'd follow my own advice to sleep on a decision to leave the trail. Give it at least 24 hours. Otherwise, I may regret leaving.

After coffee and a ride back to the trailhead, my mood had not lifted. As I hiked and climbed steadily towards North Carolina I replayed everything wrong in my life. Unemployment, stupid mistakes I'd made, lost marriage and other lost loves, and friends fallen by the wayside. But once I recognized this as an emotional funk, it strangely lost its power over me. There's something to be said about removing yourself from a situation in order to gain perspective. Long-distance hiking provides plenty of opportunities for introspection. Its solitary nature can lead to many keen insights, but honestly, for the most part it is mostly a lot of navel gazing. Enough self pity, I told myself. I don't want to be one of those types of persons. The brutal climb out of Bly Gap dispelled the gloom for good.

Above 4,000 feet, the trail is snowy. It's not deep enough to slow me down. It just means wet feet, which, interestingly, is a euphemism for nervousness. But I digress.

I made a series of Year 37 resolutions, including finishing a novel I've started and getting it published, losing 20 pounds, getting another teaching job (and being more selective about where I go), blah blah blah. Just a bunch of boring personal stuff I won't bore readers any further with.

All of these petty concerns were transcended by a sunset view from Raven Rock, near the Muskrat Creek Shelter. One of my favorite pics from the 2000 thru-hike is of Sidewinder standing at this very spot. The view was just as stunning tonight.

In an effort to keep warm, I gathered five bags of leaves and put them on the shelter floor, draped my tarptent over that, and sleeping bag on top of that. Someone left a poncho in the shelter. When I bed down for the night I'll drape that over my sleeping bag and keep it in place with my parka on top of everything. Temps are in the low 20s right now and it feels like it's getting colder. I don't want to sleep in this open, mouse-ridden shelter, but the ground is snowy and there's a dearth of flat spots. I hope this set-up works well enough to keep me warm. We'll see.

Appalachian trail journal Dec. 5, 2009

For the second time in four days, I broke my promise to not pay for housing and forked over $35 to stay at the Hiawassee Inn. I resolutely planned to head right back out to the trail, but stopped when I saw the sign on the edge of town. "Hiker rates," it advertised. I went inside to investigate and the manager told me he'd even bring back to the trailhead in the morning. Sold!

This decision guarantees me a ride and hours upon hours of trashy television (PBS notwithstanding, most of what passes for television these days is trash). Since 2000 I have not lived with television channels at all. I own a TV, but only use it to watch DVDs.

A sign that I'm in the south: Local businesses use faith as a selling tool. One local dentist advertises, "Our business is our ministry." I have absolutely no problem with anyone believing in a higher power. Faith is a wonderful thing. But using it as a selling tool strikes me as tacky. Didn't Jesus throw the merchants out of the temple? Religion and commerce have always gone together, and to me it seems an oily mix. On a funnier note, I saw a home repair truck go by. The name of the business: "Gutter done!"

Woke up at first light to the tinkling slide of snow down my tent fly. The world is draped in a blanket of white, fat flakes lilting on a light breeze as I set off. The weekenders expressed admiration at the speed in which I broke camp. Practice, I said. Plus, I have town fever. It takes me less than 10 minutes to get everything together and hit the trail.

On the short hike to Dicks Creek Gap I came across a hunter, a quintessential Georgian with beady, close-set eyes and a thick, barely understandable drawl. Despite our language difficulties, we shared a love for this beautiful landscape. He offered me a ride to town if I was still around when he got back.

I didn't need his assistance. I kid you not, less than 10 seconds after I got to the road, the first vehicle to appear pulled over and gave me a ride. This has to be the fastest hitchhike in trail history. Inside the truck were three college students from nearby Young Harris College. The driver is an avid backpacker and has hiked most of the AT in Georgia. They dropped me off right at the post office in town.

I picked up my maildrop, loaded 6 days of food into my pack (no easy feat), went to Mickey D's for breakfast and hung out there with the senior citizens until almost noon, reading and journaling. After an AYCE at Daniels that I didn't do justice to (the hiker hunger hasn't kicked in yet), I was ready to head out of town. But I saw the hotel sign and descended quickly, fixating myself on pixelated stupidity. I also talked with Esther and Jonny for awhile and did some reading. I later went to the grocery store and bought some fresh fruit and potato chips. Yum!

Appalachian trail journal Dec. 4, 2009

I was a little sore and creaky after yesterday's 18 miles, but got moving as soon as possible because I knew today would be tough and full of breath-taking climbs and knee-jarring descents.

Today did kick my ass, but for the first time in days the sun appeared -- for all of five minutes. Its timing was great. I was standing at the high point of today's hike, the summit of Tray Mountain. For most of the day it was cloudy and cool, with high temps in the 30s. Breaks were hurried affairs. I have a more accurate gauge of temperature now because I found a clip on thermometer and compass in Low Gap Shelter.

Great views today, the best so far on the trip. To trail designers' credit, there were no PUDs (pointless ups and downs) today. Even the final climb of the day, up from Addis Gap, gave me a sunset view of distant peaks and the lights of Hiawassee below. I started the day in fog and all of the vegetation was covered in rime ice. As I descended, the ice fell off the trees in crackling lumps, startling me each time one hit the bill of my hat.

For the fourth day in a row I didn't see any other hikers on the trail. But as I took a side to Deep Gap Shelter, I saw a campfire in the distance. What a welcome sight! I talked awhile with the two section hikers. They'd hiked 3.5 miles up from Dicks Creek Gap, and were headed south. They marveled at my lightweight pack and the mileage I covered today. They were planning to spend the next two days covering the same distance. I didn't think the distance (15.3 miles) so great, but warned them that the trail is ALL up or down, a very tough section (or, as trail signs note, "strenuous"), but worth it for the stupendous views. I told them if they were lucky they'd be able to see Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia, from on top of Tray Mountain, and to be prepared for a cold night if they planned to stay at Tray Mountain shelter.

I crawled into my sleeping bag shortly after dinner and fell asleep within minutes. I can't remember the last time I fell asleep so quickly. To quote Sisu, "the soreness has come and I am humbled." Yes, I am sore. But I have no blisters. I'm also sore in a unique place. I think I pulled a muscle in my ass! My right gluteus hurts, especially on climbs.

I came across a sign on the trail, "The Swag of the Blue Ridge." What the heck is a "Swag?"

From Hikes in the southern Appalachians: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee By Doris Gove:

"The AT goes along the almost level ridgetop and then down smooth, easy trail to the Swag of the Blue Ridge (3,400 ft., 4.5 mi.). This gentle depression in the midst steep rocky mountains (like the swag, or hanging fold, in a velvet theater curtain) was a rallying point for the GATC [Georgia Appalachian Trail Club] and the coalition of conservation groups that worked for so many years to save this high ridgeline trail from road builders. When Earl Shaffer, the first recorded Georgia-to-Maine thru-hiker, came through the swag in 1948, cows, pigs, horses, and sheep grazed in the woods. He found many of the shelters on this trail occupied by cows."

From Lapine Glossary in Watership Down:

Rah -- a prince, leader or chief rabbit. Usually used as a suffix. E.g. Threarah = Lord Threar.

Roo -- used as a suffix to denote a diminutive. E.g. Hrairoo.

These definitions make my trailname, Raru, appropriate for the AT, because it is a combination of superlative (up) and diminutive (d0wn) suffixes. That's what the AT is all about -- ups and downs. Rahs and Roos. Raru. Ha!

Appalachian trail journal Dec. 3, 2009

In all truth, I write the account of this day on Dec. 5, sitting in a McDonald's in Hiawassee, Ga. It feels good to have hot industrial food in my belly and to be warm and indoors. But back to a couple days ago...

I left the hostel at Neels Gap in a raging wind and fog. The mist moved wraith-like through the trees. Very creepy and ominous. But my heart was in a joyful mood and steps quickened by a couple cups of really strong coffee.

I made good time. After a couple decent climbs and descents, the trail from Hog Pen Gap is almost PCT-esque as it gently rolls along the sides of the mountain. I felt a little low myself when I reached Low Gap Shelter for a break. The skies were still dark and cloudy and since leaving Gooch Gap Shelter I haven't seen anybody on the trail. I had hoped to immerse myself in the trail culture a little bit.

There was also a slight urgency to my steps. Sleeplessness and bad weather slowed my daily mileage enough that I needed to put on some big miles to make it to Hiawassee before the post office closed on Saturday. Luckily, the trail from Low Gap is easy as pie as it moves on an old tote road. All of the trees in this section (and, quite honestly, a vast majority of the AT) are second or third growth. The only challenge on this tote road section is getting around the countless waterfalls and stream crossings. But I love this, the white noise, the mossy boulders, everything.

The wind let up as well, and I could see blue skies overhead and dappled patches of sunlight in the valley. But the sun never shined on me. To the west was a dazzling line of silver, a brilliant buffer between the clouds and blue-tinged mountains. The Blue Ridges are appropriately named, and my mood lifted at the sight.

I used up all available light and made the beastly climb to Blue Mountain shelter at the end of the day. As I made dinner in the shelter, a mouse came right to my side and squeaked hello. My presence did not keep him from inspecting my spoon. Cute little bugger.

A heavy fog rolled in as I donned my headlamp to look for a flat spot to lay my tent, making the search all the more difficult. As I gathered leaves (5 kitchen garbage bags full) to lay on my tent pad, I noticed a bio-luminescent glow on the ground. Adding to the magic, just before I crawled into the tent, a nearly full moon rose, orange and haloed in its own light, above the mist, shining on peaks below that looked like upside-down cones suspended in the air.

Appalachian trail journal Dec. 2, 2009

As predicted, a tent-flap-flying fierce storm blew through. The rain fell hard and wind howled. I woke up briefly and checked to make sure my stuff was dry. The pile of leaves under me raised the floor of the tent enough to keep to the outside any rain that did come through.
An inability to keep out rain is a major drawback to the tarptent. It's single wall and has mesh openings on all four sides. It is essentially a tarp with bug netting and a floor attached. I like its light weight (34 ounces), but miss the confidence I had facing storms in my old Kelty Zen tent, which weighed almost 5 pounds. Is there such a thing as a lightweight bomb-proof tent?
It was still raining hard when I woke at first light, but I packed up, anxious to get moving after 13-14 hours lying prone. My sleeping bag was moist at the foot, but otherwise dry. I also kept my turtleneck and a pair of socks dry.
The trail was long and rolling up to the base of Blood Mountain, the highest point on the AT in Georgia (4,458 feet). Even in the hard, driving rain, mist and gale, parts of the trail looked familiar. I took the Freeman Trail, an alternative bad-weather route that goes around the side of Blood Mountain, instead of up and over it. Parts of it are a boulder field and today the boulders ran with countless streams and waterfalls. It was quite beautiful, despite the treachery of traversing it. When I rejoined the AT, it was easy trail all the way to the Walasi-Yi Inn at Neels Gap. It is here that many a prospective thru-hike has ended and/or countless pounds of gear mailed home or given away.
I stepped dripping into the outfitters and saw a familiar face and trail notable, the infamous Pirate. I got quarters for the dryer and debated staying at the hostel, which Pirate runs. Staying would go against a rule I set for myself -- to sleep outside each night -- but some rules were meant to be broken.
I write this sitting in a recliner. Pirate is off to bed. He said he didn't feel well, It's still raining outside and a soupy fog reduces everything to ghostly shadows. I made a good choice to stay here. I'm behind my so-called schedule a day, but the forecast calls for clear weather the next couple days. Besides, I set the schedule and can go as fast or slow as I want.
I'm the only one here at the hostel. Hiking the AT in the off-season makes me realize how much the hiker community makes this trail special, Seeing Pirate and the other hikers who live and/or work here has been good for me. Don't get me wrong. Solitude is nice. It's what I seek when I backpack just about everywhere else. But on the AT, and, to a lesser degree, the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails, there is a mobile community of hikers, supporters, wannabes, and other fellow drifters in the stream.
The hostel walls are plastered with photographs of people who have stayed here. Seeing these faces makes me realize all the more that these hikes on the major long trails are as much about the people as the scenery and connection to the natural world.

Appalachian trail journal Dec. 1, 2009

Last night, before bedding down, all of us at the shelter heard a flurry of automatic gunfire on the other side of the mountain. The muzzle flashes reflected off low-hanging clouds, Camp Merrill is nearby. Many hikers have encountered soldiers lost on manuevers.

Today is my 37th birthday, and except for the morning, when I said goodbye to the southbounders, I spent the day alone. I didn't sleep a wink last night. I was in the shelter's loft and the night was cold and windy. No matter what I did -- heating a bottle of water and wrapping my feet in my parka -- I couldn't stay warm. The cold wind robbed all accumulated warmth. It snuck in from all directions, creeping through gaps in the shelter walls. I know I wasn't alone in my insomnia. One of the hikers farted frequently and got up often to walk around. The moon was full and bright. I watched the shadows of the trees angle and lengthen throughout the long, long night. Low temps were in the teens and my food bag was caked in frost when I recovered it from the bear cable this morning.

Today's weather, while quite cold, was at least sunny and dry. Good views and relatively easy trail with only a few breath-taking climbs. I keep a fast enough pace to keep breathing through my nose. I even match breathing to my pace, inhaling in 2, 3, or four steps, and exhaling in time as well. If it gets too hard to manage breathing through my nose, I simply slow down. On steep climbs I count my steps and stop for 10 deep breaths every 200 paces. This makes long climbs manageable. I also try to look around at the scenery each time I stop.

The recent rain made the exposed rocks on the mountainside glisten. The sun and lack of foliage made hiking on the sunward side of the mountain a bright and warm experience. Maybe I'll get a tan.

I was about 3-4 miles from Woods Hole Shelter, my planned destination for the night, when I noticed a creekside camp site downhill off the trail. At the same time I looked down on the trail and found a dime. I picked it up, tossed it, and placed it on my palm. Heads I stay. Tails I go. Tails it was, but I stayed anyways. I was too tired to depend on chance. Besides, it's my birthday.

I forgot to mention earlier that one of the southbounders gave me his fleece blanket when he heard about my sleepless night. Even though he didn't know it was my birthday, it was nice to get a birthday present from a total stranger.

I was determined to have a warm nights' sleep. I gathered a huge pile of leaves and placed them on my tent pad in the hopes it would insulate me from the cold ground. It also makes soft bedding. I set my tent up and reinforced the stakes with rocks to keep them secure. I'd heard on the radio a gulf storm was going to blow through, bringing 2-4 inches of rain and strong winds. I hoped my creek side camp was low enough to avoid the brunt of the wind. After dinner, a fire, and reading some Watership Down, I bedded down before dark. I managed to stay awake until darkness, but fell asleep shortly thereafter, around 6 p.m.

Appalachian trail journal Nov. 30, 2009

There's a bunch of reasons why I decided to do this section hike of the AT. One reason is I recently immersed myself in reading the two-volume, 2009-page Hiking the Appalachian Trail, edited by James R. Hare (note that last name because it connects with the proceeding). Reading accounts of early thru-hikers makes me realize that, while times, fashions, and gear change, the essential experience of long-distance hiking remains the same.

But what struck me about these early accounts are people's fascination with snakes. There are at least 100 documented snake killings in these books. I've never killed a snake, despite numerous encounters on the AT and PCT. I've always thought it best to give rattlesnakes a wide berth and leave them in peace. These early hikers believed they were doing a service to fellow travellers by destroying snakes. This mindset is anathema to the Leave No Trace philosophy. The only justification I can have for killing snakes is if I find one nested in my dwelling. That's my environment and no other critters are allowed. But out here is their environment.

So, here I am sitting in the loft at Gooch Gap shelter listening to hikers below me talk about, what else, snakes. A section hiker from New Hampshire with a thick accent told the Sobo brothers about a huge ball python belonging to his friend. The snake was so big that it fed on rabbits, and it was a terrible thing to behold because rabbits scream like a human being when they are in danger. The New Hampshire man said he could hear the bones crunch when the python put a rabbit in its grip. And here I am reading an account about rabbit society in Watership Down.

It rained all day, a driving, sideways, wind-blown rain. Gusts sound like a banshee or some emissary of death. The rain stopped just before I got to the shelter, but the wind still roars and rattles the ridge line trees.

I met my first southbound thru-hikers today, Jellybean and Ledge. Jellybean already finished the trail, but went back up to rejoin Ledge for his finish. Ledge plans to bike back to Millinocket when this hike is finished. They were relieved when I told them they would eventually regain feeling in their toes.

We talked for about 15 minutes on the side of the mountain while a storm raged on us. The encounter reminded me of being 17 years-old and marching in the Cavaliers drum and bugle corps. After shows and at other times, we would play four-square in parking lots and sit around on the concrete talking. I remember someone saying that they've never just hung out sitting in a parking lot, that this type of thing could only happen in drum corps. The reason I remembered this so well is that it is only on a long-distance hike people stop in a driving rain to talk and pass the time, oblivious to the weather. In town, I'd dash for cover, umbrella blown inside out, in such conditions. But not out here.

Sassafras mountain was the major climb of the day, the wind growing in ferocity with each switchback. I half-expected the rain to turn to snow once I got to the top. Marble abounds in these mountains. There was a moment of disgust, looking to a hillside and seeing a jumble of white. From a distance, it looked like garbage strewn about, but as I got closer I realized they were marble rocks. On the drive to Amicalola Falls, Biloche pointed out three marble mining operations, the piles of stones illuminated by spotlights. The errant rocks exposed on the mountain look like mastodon skulls.

Left Stover Creek Shelter in mist and fog, the hemlocks and rhododendron carrying me back 10,000 years to a time when mastodons roamed the earth. Forest primeval. Ascending Justus Mountain, the primitive motif reinforced by a rock ledge overhang, a respite from the storm. No petroglyphs could be found.

I couldn't get "Fountain of Lamneth," an obscure song from Rush's Carress of Steel album, out of my head, in particular the lines:

"Yet my eyes are drawn toward
The mountain in the east
Fascinates and captivates
Gives my heart no peace
The mountain holds the sunrise
In the prison of the night
'Til bursting forth from rocky chains
The valley floods with light

Living one long sunrise
For to me all things are new
I've never watched the sky grow pale
Or strolled through fields of dew
I do not know of dust to dust
I live from breath to breath
I live to climb that mountain
To the Fountain of Lamneth"

Went to a spring to get water and see the late day sun shining above me on the trees on the ridgeline. Something about that moment, getting water from its source, direct out of the mountain and seeing the sun for the first time all day, albeit indirectly, seemed a most holy and transcendent moment.

Appalachian trail journal Nov. 29, 2009

[I am back from a section hike on the Appalachian Trail and am posting my journals here and at . Enjoy!]

I'm sitting at a picnic table next to the Springer Mountain Shelter and listening to the bug-searching thumps of a woodpecker. This place feels so lonely because the last time I was here in March 2000 it was very crowded.

My bus ride to Marietta, Ga., was uneventful. Trail Angel Biloche, who answered my request for a ride at, was true to his word and awaited me at the Greyhound station in Marietta. He was going to take me to The Big Chicken, a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Marietta that has a big chicken head peaking the top of the building with a mechanical beak that opens and closes, but I had said in an earlier correspondence that I wanted to try an authentic southern barbecue, so that's what we did instead.

After a rack of ribs, we stood in the parking lot outside for about 15 minutes, looking to the sky to see if we could see the international space station fly by. Biloche had information that said the satellite would be visible about 10 minutes to 6 p.m. As we stared up, others walking by looked up too, not knowing why we were looking up. For some reason, I thought that was hilarious.

We never did see the station pass by and hit the road about 6 p.m. It gave me a sense of relief when Biloche's wife called a couple times en route to Amicalola Falls. Here I was using an online ride board for the first time, not knowing anything about this person giving me a ride. And his wife was equally as worried about me, checking up on the safety of her husband. As it turns out, nobody needed to worry.

I got to the visitor's center at Amicalola Falls a little after 7 and said goodbye to Biloche. I asked him about his trailname. He said Biloche means "bowling" in Spanish, and is also a name given to shreds of tobacco left over from making a cigar. We said goodbye and I wished him good luck and godspeed on his prospective thru-hike of the AT next year.

I camped alone in the Max Epperson shelter behind the visitor's center and slept very well, awaking refreshed at first light eager to hit the trail.

The approach trail is just as ass-kicking as I remembered, even moreso because in 2000 we began our thru-hike at the top of the falls. I wondered about the truck chassis and bumper underneath the stairs leading up the falls. Bet there's a good story behind that.

I made good time and got to the summit of Springer Mountain by noon. As I write this, I'm already caked with salty sweat and taking on the all-too-familiar hiker funk,

The sun keeps playing hide and seek. There's very little breeze and the forest is quiet, but for the occasional leaf rattle from a squirrel or bird call, and the hollow whoosh of aircraft. I'm debating pushing on to Hawk Mountain Shelter or to just stop in a couple miles at Stover Creek. Someone left a bottle of Jack Daniels in this shelter and with each pull Stover Creek is looking like the more viable option.

Got to thinking and figured out the only piece of gear I have with me now from the last time I was here in March 2000 is the map. Oh, and my polypropylene long-sleeved turtleneck shirt. Times change, and so does gear.

I did stop at Stover Creek Shelter. The hemlocks and rhododendrons, along with the distant white noise of the creek were too enticing. I also love the Nantahala Shelter design. This would be a wonderful place to wait out a rain or snow storm. Alas, I am camping alone for a second night in a row. There were a bunch of people on the approach trail doing a weekend loop hike with the Len Foote Trail, but the only couple I saw on the AT went the wrong way on the Benton Mackaye Trail in their search for Long Creek falls. Solitude on the AT? What a concept. I noticed in the shelter registers that a bunch of southbounders have finished in the past couple weeks. I hope to run into a few stragglers. Their entries are enjoyable, wistful and exultant. I remember well that feeling of being at the end of a long trail, joyful and relieved, but also concerned and depressed about returning to the so-called "real" world.

The fire is finally going good after smoking for about an hour. Just as I'd given up and moved away from it, it sparked into life. Guess it was shy about being stared at.

Here's some quotes from Watership Down, by Richard Adams:

"Creatures that have neither clocks or books are alive to all manner of knowledge about time and the weather; and about direction, too, as we know from their extraordinary migratory and homing journeys. The changes in the warmth and dampness of the soil, the falling of the sunlight patches, the altering movement of the beans in the light wind, the direction and strength of the air currents along the ground -- all these were perceived by the rabbit awake." (53)

"A hlessi is a rabbit living in the open without a hole... which I have rendered in various places in the story as wanderers, scratchers, vagabonds." (135)

"During the last 50 years, the silence of much of the country had been destroyed. But here, on Watership Down, there floated up only faint traces of the daylight noise below." (136)

"The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine and pain a few days.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong
Incapacity is worse.
No one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes."

Robinson Jeffers, Hurt Hawk, as quoted in Watership Down.