On Day 2 I encountered my first wild animal. But first…
Dustin and I soon came to a beautiful waterfall called Long Creek Falls. Four young guys had made this their own water playground, frolicking in the pool below and on the cliff above. The water looked so inviting, after a hot, sweaty hike, but we had a lot of mileage ahead, so we moved on. But I was able to rest my left shoulder, which was starting to get a little sore.
Eventually we came to a blue-blazed path (blue rectangles indicate AT side paths, while white rectangles, painted on trees or boulders every hundred yards or so, indicate the official AT). The path led to our first shelter. These are three-sided wooden structures that provide a sleeping platform and protection from inclement weather. They’re located about a half-day’s hike apart, usually near a spring or stream, and they have overhead cables for “bear bags” (hikers are urged to put their food and waste in sturdy bags and tie them overhead at night, at least ten feet high and four feet from the nearest tree).
Here at Hawk Mountain Shelter we met three guys on a Labor Day weekend hike: Steve, his son Travis, and their friend Joe. I talked with Travis and found out he played trumpet for his high school marching band in Gwinnett County, Georgia. He reminded me of my son, Nick, at that age. I also saw the blonde woman I’d met near Springer Mountain. Her name was Sanna, and she and her husband lived in Ft. Benning, Georgia (her hometown was beautiful Lake Tahoe, California). I asked her if she was the infamous “Rainbow Slug,” but she laughed and said she wasn’t much for trail aliases (Dustin and I had dropped ours, too).
We all had a nice respite at the shelter, and shared some trail mix and candy bars. Sanna then decided to join Dustin and me for the remainder of the day.
Sometime in the early afternoon we got drenched when a thundershower struck while climbing Sassafras Mountain. Rain has always plagued me when I camp. It’s even more irksome on a distance hike, because it’s so difficult to dry your belongings when they’re stuffed all day inside a backpack. My pack was an outdated outer frame model, at least 35 years old. Maybe this is why everything inside got wet. Cotton clothing is another problem. I should’ve bought some good wool socks, because my white athletic socks became increasingly dirty and smelly, and never completely dried out the entire hike.
At the bottom of Sassafras Mountain, at Cooper Gap, we had a nice surprise: several plastic jugs of fresh water sitting in the shade. I then remembered that Ron said he was going to put water out along the trail. These small acts of kindness are referred to as “trail magic,” and those responsible are called “trail angels.” Trail magic seems to happen randomly, but usually when it’s needed most. We were pretty thirsty after Sassafras Mountain, and getting low on water, so the timing was perfect. Great guy, that Ron.
By the end of the day Dustin figured out we’d covered 15 miles. Tack on another mile for my backtracking from the forest road near Springer, and 16 total miles was pretty impressive – although I remember Ron saying to expect only seven or eight miles after the first day.We overnighted at Gooch Mountain Shelter, meeting up with Steve, Travis and Joe, as well as a few other hikers. The shelter itself was full, probably due to Labor Day Weekend, so Dustin and I pitched our tents about 50 yards away. He got a good fire going, where we attempted to dry out our shoes and socks, but all I managed to do was singe the end of one of my sneakers.
Dustin needed a bandana (a very valuable piece of clothing on the trail), so I gave him an extra one I had. In return, he let me sample some of his homemade wine. Wow! Best vino I ever tasted. There is nothing like a shot of cherry-blackberry wine after a long day of hiking.
I slept pretty soundly that night, which I attributed to my insomnia on the grubby Greyhound bus. But a couple things happened overnight. One was another rain shower, which drenched my backpack and all the clothing I’d hung out to dry. Another was a chorus of noises in the darkness. Bears? Raccoons? Wild boars? Nope. I’d read about them, and now I encountered them: AT shelters come fully equipped with extended families of mice. And some of these vermin venture into the woods, where they know they’ll find bags filled with yummy food. One of them chewed a hole in my bear bag (which doubled as my sleeping bag holder) and partially consumed one of my Nutri-Grain bars. If the rain hadn’t interrupted his feast, it could’ve been much worse. Not sure, but I think poor Joe lost even more food than me. Though you wouldn’t guess it, because he always had a smile on his face.
Sanna got an early start in the morning, and Dustin and I pulled out just ahead of Joe, Steve, and Travis. I felt pretty strong, at first. Occasionally we passed day hikers, easy to identify due to their light packs. Some had their dogs with them. I was wearing an old marathon t-shirt, and a few folks asked me which was harder, marathons or AT hiking. I replied “Well, it’s hard to compare, they each use different muscles.” By the end of my hike I had a more definitive answer.
I soon noticed, though, that I was falling slightly behind Dustin. Maybe 30 years does make a difference? The last thing I wanted was for him to feel like some old guy was holding him back. My biggest problem at that point was my left shoulder. But I discovered it helped if I shifted the pack weight to my right one. Also, reaching back with my left hand and pulling up on the frame eased the load a little. You find little things to help you when you’re distance hiking.
Somewhere near Woody Gap we encountered our first “wild” animal. He was on a mountainside and staring a hole in us as we passed: a little white terrier. I noticed a line of trail mix on the path, probably due to a leak in some hiker’s pack, and I guess this little guy was waiting for us to move on so he could continue licking up M&Ms. Dustin and I both loved dogs, and we felt a little sorry for him way out here by himself. But I guess it’s better than being tied up all day in a smog-draped city. Whether he lived nearby, or was abandoned by a thoughtless owner, we never found out.
In the afternoon, while taking in the view on Ramrock Mountain, we saw Joe whisk by, grinning and swinging his walking poles. I couldn’t understand him. He looked like he was on a casual, mid-morning stroll across the hills of Tuscany! I related more to Steve, who came by next. He was suffering from awful blistering, as was I at that point. His son Travis pulled up the rear. At Woody Gap, we found out they had completed their hike and were shuttling home (Joe continued onward, and is probably still whistling along as I write this). Before saying goodbye, Steve gave us some of his leftover food, as well as much-needed bandages and moleskin for my blisters, one of which had broken. I thanked him heartily, and told Travis good luck with his trumpet playing.
Just before climbing Big Cedar Mountain, we saw more trail magic: somebody had placed several candy bars on a large rock. This carbo-load helped get us to our campsite at Woods Hole Shelter, giving us a daily total of 13 miles. A slight dip, but I was still on target for NC, and the mileage was much better than Ron had predicted.
On the path to the shelter we met two new people: a real extroverted guy from Savannah named Thad, and his wife (whose name I never got, unfortunately). Then at the shelter were two people from the previous night: a young woman from Orlando named Traci, and her friend, who had a foreign accent and a name that sounded like “Bouillon.” This was a name just begging for a trail alias (unless Bouillon was already his alias). Thad eventually tagged him “Gold Bond” due to some problems Bouillon was having with skin chafing!
I took a refreshing sponge bath in a cold mountain stream and boiled some Ramen noodles, then joined the others at the shelter as the sun was setting. And hoping I wouldn’t get burdened with the alias “Ramen Noodle.”
Unlike Thad, I’m a little shy and awkward in social settings. But I pushed myself to socialize. I’m glad I did, because I discovered Thad grew up in dinky Mt. Gilead, Ohio, just a few miles from my hometown of Mansfield! We commiserated over our hapless Cleveland Browns for a while, and I offered him an extra cigar I had (he declined – probably a good idea, since I discovered the tobacco was pretty cheap).
Next morning fared a little better: no rain, and no mice. But I spent about a half hour swabbing and bandaging my blisters (wet cotton socks!), one of which was now an open sore. Dustin and I were the last to vacate the shelter. I felt a slight foreboding. With this sore on my right heel, would I make it to Franklin, NC in time, or would Ron’s mileage prediction come true??