Tuesday, January 05, 2010

post-trail notes

Even though these aren't quite done, here it is so far...

Sitting back in my DeKalb atelier, stuff strewn about on the table, half in and out of the hiking life. Packets of ramen noodles, oatmeal and macaroni and cheese in plastic bags, pop tarts. A gleaming, shiny, metallic pile of food. Knife open, summer sausage cut into, lies open unprotected on table. There’s no need to seal it away from small animals or bears.

I look forward to seeing the boy in a few hours. Going to walk over there instead of ride my bike. Or start the truck. Need to renew my license. The day is so bright and cold. A crystalline day. So cold icy fractal forms crawl across my window panes. When going from one warm place to another, cold has no power. Take the promise of heat and warmth away and cold is an imperious, insistent bastard.

The cold has been a predominant theme lately. I got off the Appalachian trail early because I was not able to comfortably or properly deal with the cold. If I could go back, I’d take more leg coverings, a warmer sleeping bag, and an air mattress. My foam pad, cut in half to be used unrolled as a frame for my GoLite Breeze rucksack, just didn‘t cut it. The ground, unless cushioned by a layer of dry leaves, is cold and cold-sapping. The whipping winter wind licks away warmth without a moment’s hesitation. Cold became personified, a malevolent, inevitable force to be dealt with through movement or insulation.

I was fine during the day. Day means movement, warmth, scenery, progress. Night means cold and boredom, the darkness interminable. Cold and darkness and too much solitude is what did me in. But I’d still be out there if I had the right equipment. That, and a greater respect for condensation and its ability to sap heat in its own way.

Wasabi warned me about the wet cold of the southeast. I got the full brunt of it. A couple of the nights, I set up camp in a fog. Taking my parka off at Blue Mt. Shelter and being enshrouded in my own mist, the steam of my body heat coalescing with the oncoming fog. And then to look up and see stars. Mama always said you had your head in the clouds…

In my own defense, I did face some gnarly weather, from torrential downpours to snow to low temps in the teens, gusting winds, only small snatches of sunshine, solitude in spades. For a few days, I liked the solitude. It is rare on the Appalachian Trail. But that, along with the sleeplessness and long nights, got to be a bit much.

I guess I’m a wuss. If this was a thru-hike, or I feel I had something to prove, or if this was anything else but fun and recreation, I would have stayed out there. And I admit a measure of regret for coming home early. I could have camped low for a day, caught up on some ZZZs and either kept hiking from where I was or skipped ahead. Guess I missed my family and network of friends too. I’m more attached to the creature comforts of civilization than the rugged image I have of myself is willing to admit. I’ve gotten soft.

But that’s just how I feel now, rested and recovered, restless again, agitated, ready for action. I’ll get some fresh air and exercise in a bit, and will be thankful to have a place to come in out of the cold. I know how hard it is to live without the promise of warmth.

I slept only briefly my night at Muskrat Creek Shelter. This was after a rough night’s sleep at the hotel in Hiawassee. All told, I probably got 4-5 hours combined sleep the two nights. I consulted the maps and knew that if I stayed on the Appalachian Trail, I’d spend the next 30+ miles above 4,000 feet. A storm was coming in. This I knew as well. And it promised to stay a couple days. Elevation and cold meant the precipitation to fall would most likely be snow. This is a benefit because it is easier to brush off snow and stay drier during snowfall. But if the trail accumulated more inches, it would make for slow hiking and feet that got wet early and remained so throughout the day. I brought neither snowshoes or crampons.

I now realize I was thinking too much like a thru-hiker. If elevation and cold are a problem, camp and hike lower. I didn’t have to be a purist. There are numerous other trails and forest roads, all on my maps. There were options I could have explored.

My lack of sleep at Muskrat Creek Shelter was caused by a number of factors. First, I gathered wet leaves to make a cushioned bedding. My body heat melted the snow until it accumulated enough to freeze. So what started out as a soft, warming cushion, quickly became rock-solid and cold-sapping. I took my ¾ length ridgerest (but really a half length because I cut about a foot away from it so it could act as frame support for my Go-lite Breeze pack) and laid on the shelter floor. It was not a very windy night, but a gentle breeze sent little fingerlets of cold into my bag at each opportunity. Wearing all my clothes, with the bag zipped tight and drawstring around the head tugged tight enough to just leave an opening for my eyes and nose, my feet and butt, the two extremities, could not stay warm. I lay in what I call the funeral pose, on my back, legs extended, hands crossed across lap, and still those two places got cold.

One problem is the foot of my sleeping bag was still moist from the night before. The other was all I had for leg warmth was a pair of long johns and my rain pants. And I really, really regretted not taking an air mattress. Even though it leaks and weighs three pounds, my 2-inch thick almost 10-years-old Thermarest Luxury LE Long would have added immeasurably to nighttime comfort and spared me the effort of fetching leaves.

The next time I winter camp I will take my first backpack, the REI Wonderland Trekker (10-years-old, same one taken on 2000 AT thru-hike). Of course, the shoulder straps, frayed and repaired with dental floss, will have to be replaced. I will also patch up as best as possible the Thermarest (bought in Hot Springs, NC in 2000), and bring my camp pants and two extra pairs of long johns. In lieu of buying a $600 -40-degree rated 900 fill down bag, I’ll use my fleece liner inside my decrepit 30-degree bag inside my equally, if not more so, and feather-flying, 15-degree Marmot Sawtooth down bag. The Sawtooth has been used for 300-400 bag nights without washing. I’ll wash it before I use it again and hope that restores loft. All of these changes will be tested in cold weather conditions BEFORE I embark on a trip to guarantee they will work.

Another extra weight I will take on my next winter excursion is the Kelty Zen tent in lieu of the Tarptent. For one thing, the Tarptent, no matter what preventive measures I’ve employed, leaks water on the floor in a rain storm. Although I will have to take extra time to seam seal the Zen and it has lost total storm proof capabilities over the years, it has always had great ventilation and proven to warm substantially and retain body heat.

My attempt to winter backpack using the GoLite Breeze rucksack was successful in Arizona in December, a dismal failure on the southern AT in December. Valuable lessons learned from shivering sleepless nights.


My last moonlit night on the trail, a couple hours before the dawn, I lay shifting and shivering in my bag, finally dozing into some kind of almost dreamy stupor, when I hear the leaves crunch in front of the shelter. It looked like a big rat by its black outline. I think it was an opossum by its size, gait and long tail. Either that or a humongous rat. In any case, its passing kicked off the excitement. A coyote howled, then an owl let out a long series of whoots, loud enough it seemed right next to the shelter, confirmed when I heard the whoosh of wings, another whoot, then a spine-tingling scream as some rabbit (or maybe the leaf-crunching rat/possum) met a taloned demise.

The next morning I put my frozen shoes under the bag for 20 minutes and burned off knuckle hairs warming my hands by the licking flames of the alcohol stove. The sun was still rising when I began to hike. I had no watch or phone to tell time, and considered its non-necessity a luxury.

What motivated me to get off the trail is I knew the AT would stay around 5,000 feet elevation for the rest of my hike, and knew I did not have the right gear to camp comfortably in the cold. Although it was a nice, sunny day, there were streaky clouds on the horizon, and I knew from the radio that lots of precipitation was imminent, meaning snow at my elevation. The promised dip in temperature clinched it. I had to escape the cold.

I almost took the Chunky Gal Trail to Hwy. 64, but wanted to get a good glimpse of Standing Indian Mountain, so took the AT to its base where FR 71 has a turnaround. I sat in the sun, and ate a candy bar, enjoying the soft cushion and warming fragrance of pine needles. I found a capo for a guitar (it works!) and a quarter on the ground. I got a liter of water from the first stream I crossed. Although I brought a bottle of Polar Pur (iodine), I only used it once or twice. Even on the heavily-used AT, I consider almost all spring water and most mountainside streams to be okay and had no stomach ailments this trip. But that’s just me. My stomach is probably a little more acculturated than most.

My slow walk down the forest road was something of a depressing death march. I kept admonishing my stupidity (or is that cupidity?) with gear choices. For the first couple miles the road gradually climbed as it skirted the side of a long ridge, descending as it rounded a corner. There was nothing spectacular about the scenery, just white boulders, algae, rushing streams, creeks, seeps, and rolling forested mountains. Beautiful enough to fill me with regret for leaving early and inspire me to return.

Of course, after the road cut through a ridge and really began to descend, further signs of forest service development appeared. There were more numbered roads going up various creek beds, but they were gated off for the winter, beer cans on the ends of tree branches, oil bottles, the usual industrial dreck that welcomes a road walker back to civilization. I passed by a hunting camp, big honking trucks, a canvas covered hut with a smoke-spewing wood chimney. That was the only sign of life. Warm, I thought. That’s going in style. Cots and coolers. Comfort. But their hogan had no windows. I imagine they don’t hunt too long after dawn or dusk, so this makes for a long time spent in the lamplit confines of the hogan. While an inviting prospect, I’d rather be mobile and more in touch with nature.

Further descent, littered road and creek side campsites. Small tree stumps, stickless forest floor, garbage-strewn firepits, toilet paper, and some fool laid out a roll of carpet. Signs near these eyesores indicate the creek is a natural trout habitat and to please “keep it clean.”

The forest road parallels Hwy. 64 the last mile or so, a roaring creek and steep embankment separating them. I was tempted to bushwack across, but didn’t. Where I emerged on Hwy. 64 is a good place to get a hitch. It is on a rise with a clear view a half mile or more to oncoming traffic. They can see you a long ways off and have plenty of shoulder to pull over. I only waited about 5 minutes for a hitch.

There was a family of four in the mini-van with three rows of seating. A husband and wife sat in the front two seats, the husband’s brother next to me, and, quiet as a mouse, so quiet I didn’t even notice her until she was introduced, was a little girl, about four or five. Everyone except myself and the little girl smoked cigarettes. At least they opened the windows a crack.

The brother/uncle talked almost the entire time. He told me he picked up an AT hiker near here named Mr. Zip, a 64-year-old retired postal worker, who took this guy’s name and address, and told him he’d write to him when the hike was over. Brother/uncle said of course he forgot all about it until around Christmas time when Mr. Zip sent this guy a summit photo from Katahdin. I’m no Mr. Zip. Not only did I not get an address, I forgot the guy’s name.

I emerged from the van, streaming smoke a la Fast Times at Ridgemont High, at the Franklin Inn motel. The family wished upon me the blessings of Jesus Christ. I thanked them and wished them Happy Holidays, then wished I‘d said Merry Christmas. In the lobby was the owner of the hotel. I forgot his name too. He owns two hotels in town. I explained to him that I would need a shuttle ride to the nearest Greyhound station tomorrow and that the 2009 AT Companion book pages said this hotel offered hiker shuttles. He assured me he could arrange everything. Swipe of a card ($45, ouch) and I’m in what’s probably the crappiest room in the entire hotel. I’m used to this and don’t mind. Trail proprietors know hikers are easy to please and put out horrible odors that take time, cleaning solutions and ventilation to get out of a room.

After a shower and change into far less offensive smelling camp clothes (a long-sleeved turtleneck and full zip rain pants that still make me look like a dork), I went for a walk in search of fast food. En route I crossed the Little Tennessee River and read an informational placard about the Nikwasi Mound, an important meeting place for Cherokee Indians. I walked back through the downtown and read a long, two-paneled account of the BATTLE of ECHOE. Check out the following site about the Bartram Trail for more information about this battle, but the gist of it was stupid, haughty, imperial powers being thwarted by superior guerrilla tactics of the native population, but then later being overcome by sheer numbers of imperial invading force. This area is full of Cherokee lore, the most mentioned tribe by those claiming some scant native American heritage.

Still more to come... including the adventures on the Dirty Dawg, a.k.a. Greyhound.

1 comment:

Greg Locascio said...

Um... yeah. What he said.