Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ups And Downs

They say that the AT is a more difficult hiking trail than the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is longer, higher, has less water, and fewer trail towns. But on the PCT, you climb up to a ridge and follow it for miles. Not so on the AT; it's constant ups and downs. And of course hiking any trail is just like that. It's been a while since I updated this blog, so I'll try to give a few of the highlights and a few of the lowlights.

When I left Hiawassee on March 6, it had just dumped a good four inches on the mountains, and winds had drifted the snow tremendously. I've since found out that it was a really good decision to stay in Hiawassee that night. It got down to about 10 degrees with 40 mph winds. After everyone got soaked by a severe thunderstorm, they shivered through the night. Hikers have joked that we should all make "I survived March 6" t-shirts. Anyway, I did a few miles that afternoon and camped right on the Georgia-North Carolina border. It was an awful camping spot, right in the teeth of the wind getting funnelled through the mountain gap. However, it was the only level spot around for miles. The next day dawned clear and cold. Immediately I had about a 2000 foot climb; the elevation of Standing Indian Mountain was about 1000 feet higher than anything I had done in Georgia. Welcome to North Carolina! Unfortunately, the wonderful bright afternoon sunshine turned the AT into the Appalachian Lagoon. I quit early that day, right on the other side of the mountain, and dried my sodden shoes out so they wouldn't freeze into solid blocks of ice the next day. That worked fairly well, and I'm glad I got down the other side of the mountain, because all the slush and water I had waded through turned into a skating rink overnight. Going downhill on ice is NOT a pleasant experience.

A couple days later I had the opportunity to spend the day in Franklin NC with my Uncle Marc and cousins. We had a wonderful time, got lunch, saw quite a bit of the North Carolina countryside (what a different perspective to be looking up at the mountains instead of down from the top!), and switched out my sleeping bag for a bullet-proof -15 degree bag. And I thought I was done with the sleeping bag issue.

...until I tried to carry the thing. It was a little bit heavier than my old one, but more importantly, it was huge and didn't compress at all. I could fit it my pack, but after about a couple miles, it became clear that it weighted my pack wrong, and made it feel like I was carrying 60 pounds instead of 40. The next day, I had had enough of this new-fangled bag. I went to the next road crossing and miraculously caught a ride back to Franklin with a trail angel ("Vice", NOBO '99) who was intending on handing out food to through-hikers down a side road until he discovered the road was closed. So on the way to Franklin I munched on apples, bananas, and put away a few Cokes. He might have only done trail magic for one person that day, but he made a world of difference! At the outfitter, I had to make up with my old bag. I told her I was an idiot for breaking up with her, and that she was so much better than all the other bags out there, and if she took me back I'd never try to ditch her again. To my joy, she couldn't be happier to see me and down the trail we went, rather merrily. Of course, it didn't help that I bought her a snazzy new sleeping bag liner (which is what I should have just done in the first place!).

The next couple days were fairly good days. It was a little cold, but for the most part the weather cooperated nicely. That all changed the day after. They were predicting rain, but it basically just misted all morning as I walked through the clouds. But right around the time I hit a huge 4000-foot descent, the storm hit. I hate downhills to begin with (they're harder on your joints and give you blisters), and right about the time I thought "it can't possibly rain any harder", it of course rained harder. I took my first few falls of the AT over slick rocks and slimy mud.

The next day, I arrived at the Nantahalla Outdoor Center and took care of a few lingering gear issues. I also ran into HamBone, who I hadn't seen since Neels Gap, Georgia. It turns out that he's a Calvin grad and was a senior the year I was a freshman. We ended up grabbing lunch at the NOC, and then hiking out (this time 4000 up) together. For the past week and a half, we've been sleeping at more or less the same places every day. I'm always on the trail by 8:30 or 9:00, while he's invariably the last one out of the shelter, and somehow still always makes the miles.

I've run into a few more people on the trail. Samson is a really nice guy in his 50s who didn't even know what a thru-hiker was 3 months ago. He heard of the trail, decided on the spur of the moment to do it, went out and bought all the gear, and is doing great so far! Generally people don't endure the trail unless it's been something they've had as a lifelong dream, but he's making it work. Interestingly, he walks with a big of a limp because he hurt himself in skydiving (!) accident a few years back. Apparently he was parachuting at an Alabama-Mississippi State football game, and ESPN caught the carnage live on TV.

I've also been hiking with Punkin Pie (former Pennsylvania coal miner), Zhivago (pronounced as in "Chicago"), and Sandman (from Myrtle Beach) for the past week. Through the Smokies, staying at the shelters is required; no tenting. Because of that, a group kind of naturally forms as everyone really only has a couple options: either go 12 miles to the next shelter, or 20 to the one after that, for example.

The Smokies you say? Ah yes, they were wonderful. I was fully expecting an apocalypse of snow and general awfulness (I got blizzarded on a few years ago when I went to the Smokies on a spring break trip), but they turned out to be generally nice. The first two days were picture-perfect. It was clear as a bell and I could hike in shorts and a t-shirt. On the third day I went over Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park, and on the whole AT. It was windy, cloudy, and kind of chilly, but you could still see Mt Mitchell in the distance, 70 miles away. However, the snow was still sticking around at that elevation (5500+ feet), and it had all melted and refroze into an absolute skating rink. Knowing that the backside of Clingmans was steeper, and probably even icier, I decided that a bruised ego was better than a broken neck. I ended up roadwalking most of the way from Clingmans to the next gap instead of taking the AT. I did jump back on the AT for a few miles when I thought conditions would be better. I was wrong. There was still plenty of ice, and where there wasn't ice, there was ankle-deep water. The Appalachian Skate 'n Splash is just about the least amusing experience possible on the trail.

So by time I got to Newfound Gap (where US 441 bisects the park), I was feeling pretty miserable. Then my St. Patty's Day turned around in a hurry. Punkin Pie and Sandman saw me coming through and flagged me down. Two trail angels (Godspeed and Mountain Mamma) apparently come up to the gap on the weekends during thru-hiker season to do trail magic. They had sandwiches, chips, pop, cookies/brownies (!), and a great story of God's providence. They're some of the most special people I've met on the trail yet. Godspeed and their son actually finished the AT three years after the son was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. A miraculous recovery, and then to hike the AT? Incredible! I was also a tourist attraction for the first time in my life. Your typical touristy folks from California, Japan, and wherever else love to just drive through the park, stop and take a few pictures at Newfound Gap, and keep going, for whatever reason. Seems like a superficial and stupid way to see a park in my opinion, but that's just me. Anyway, they all love the chance to see a thru-hiker in its natural habitat and at one point I had a group of about 15 people standing around me peppering me with questions. People seem unable to grasp that this earthy neanderthal with trekking poles is a real person with a real life outside of the trail. Somebody asked me if I had heard of Lord of the Rings. Do they think I was born on the trail?

The next day, I was either going to have to do 12 or 20 miles because of the shelter situation. I left early, and was making good time (I was hiking through the clouds and wind all day so there was nothing to stop and look at). About a mile before the shelter, I slipped on a patch of ice and went down hard, right on my already-gimpy left ankle. While laying there trying to figure out if I alive or not, I started to hear thunder. Well that did it. I did the old hobble-sprint all the way to the shelter, and it took about an hour to do so. Fifteen minutes after I got to the shelter, the heavens opened. Over the next hour, HamBone, Punkin Pie, and Zhivago rolled in, in increasing stages of wet, cold, and irritable. I've never seen it rain so hard in my life, and it must have hailed for a half hour. Apparently Atlanta had tornadoes from the same storm system.

The day after was fairly nice, and I did my biggest day so far, 19 miles. I wanted to get to a hostel just on the other side of the northern Park boundary. My ankle hurt quite a bit, but at lunch I took a few ibuprofen and rode the sweet wings of Vitamin I all the way to the hostel. The hostel was a pretty unique place, and I don't mean in a good way. It was cheap and the resupply was very fairly priced, but the guy who ran it turned out to be an alcoholic with more than a dash of racism and sexism on top. I honestly felt dirty just being around his language and attitude. I highly recommend not staying at the Standing Bear Farm hiker hostel unless it ever gets new management. I did an easy 15 miles the next day, over Max Patch bald, with 360 degree panoramas  only limited by the horizon. It was cold and windy, but absolutely jaw-dropping. Precipitation was forecasted for the evening, so I opted to stay in a shelter instead of camp. That was a mistake. It's nice to not have to pack a tent up in the rain, but it didn't rain. It snowed. On the first day of spring, I woke up to snow blowing into the shelter onto my face. After trying in vain to stay dry by covering my sleeping bag with my tent fly. I ended up having a drenched down sleeping bag by 4am. I was so incredibly cold I got up and got on the trail by 5am, doing 18 miles before 2:00PM. I rolled into the first trail town, Hot Springs, and am in a hostel tonight, because my bag won't keep me warm enough until it dries out. The next few days are supposed to be cold as well. I cannot put into words how sick I am of snow, ice, and cold. This has been a historically terrible year for hiker weather, and even more people have dropped out than usual. The next few days are supposed to be more of the same. But, that's what comes with the territory.

Other disorganized, random thoughts: I got the trailname LarryBoy. I sing songs of all types to keep my mood up when I'm hiking alone. Apparently, I wasn't alone when I was singing "Oh Where Is My Hairbrush" over Standing Indian Mountain. The person hiking behind me listened for a good 5 minutes, unbeknownst to be, before breaking in to do Dr. Archibald's part.

Oh, the Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week? I met up with a group Yale students in Spring Break. Apparently being smart doesn't make you wise, though, as they were bringing along a glass jar of salsa to put on their beans and rice. The Dartmouth group that rolled in later had a good time mocking the Yale kids about that; they had beans and rice as well, but they were smart enough to leave the glass jar at home.

Grandpa and Grandma: You mentioned that Backpacker claimed that Georgia was the hardest section of the AT (I remember reading that article you lent me), and that's absolute hogwash. Maybe it is if you're 80 pounds overweight and can't live without a twice-daily hot shower, but honestly, the terrain is a lot tougher in most of North Carolina. I'm hoping though, with all the adversity NOBOs have been through with the weather and whatnot so far this year, we'll be less daunted by the really hard terrain and weather in Maine and New Hampshire.

Anyways, for the three of your who are still reading this dissertation, take care. It'll be at least a week before I update again, maybe two. I reserve the right to post irregularly, if at all. Hopefully pictures should be coming soon.

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