(Days 4 and 5 were a physical and emotional rollercoaster, so I’m covering both days in this post)…
My night on Poor Mountain was a little breezy, and I hung my socks on a tree branch to dry out overnight. But mountain dew trumps mountain breeze. Worse, a sudden squall hit while I was rolling my tent next morning. If I’d have stayed in my tent, I’d have remained dry. If I’d have rolled my tent five minutes sooner, there would be no soggy wet mess to carry.
I scribbled a note to my trail friends, sealed it in a baggie and stuck it on a tree limb next to the trail before hastily vacating camp. I cursed for the next ten minutes while sloshing through blinding rain, but fortunately it was only temporary – just enough to get me soaked. At Low Gap Shelter I filled my canteen and fixed some bitter instant coffee and hot oatmeal. This perked my spirits a little until I remembered I’d left my socks on the tree branch. Which meant I was down to my last pair.
Low Gap was a dark, wet, lonely place, so I didn’t stay long.
This day, Day 4, was undoubtedly the nadir of my whole hike. First, there was the downpour. Water is the most precious resource on a distance hike. To stay hydrated, I was drinking over two quarts of water a day. But I wanted water in my canteen, not my backpack.
Secondly, it was the only day in which I saw not one person all day. Nobody. Possibly the only time in my life this has happened. Late in the day I heard a plane overhead and thought “There are actually people up there.” We often play make-believe, but all humans have a burning need for other humans’ companionship. A few days’ solitude in dark, sprawling, mountain forest drives home that reality.
The third issue was the blister/sore on my right heel, which forced me to stop several times to change gauze pads. My hiking stride was now replaced by a goofy, one-legged tiptoe.
Worst of all, I encountered probably the most grueling portion of my entire hike late in the day. This occurred on the stretch between Chattahoochee Gap and Unicoi Gap.
Chattahoochee Gap was a slight upswing, since I was starting to dry out, and I treated myself to some protein-rich, sodium-soaked salmon (while battling a battalion of daddy-long-legs). A blue-blazed path on the right led downhill to Chattahoochee Gap Spring.
This spring was pretty remarkable. I’d never before visited the source of a major river. It was just a small pool poking out of Coon Den Ridge, no bigger than a shallow bathtub. But it trickled down the mountainside, and grew and evolved into the great Chattahoochee River that provided drinking water to all of Atlanta and half the state of Georgia. I straddled the stream and took a photo. For this brief moment, I was the King Neptune of Georgia.
But after Chattahoochee Gap I entered AT hell. The guidebook calls it Red Clay Gap/Blue Mountain. By the time I finished I was feeling blue and seeing red. I felt like a drunken mountain goat. Middle of a claustrophobic forest, side of a mountain, hundreds of feet of steep slope above and below. Trail was now not a trail, but a narrow, twisting rock slide. Swollen feet, blisters ready to scrape at every rock. Nobody to help if ankle goes one way and foot the other. Rattlesnake concerns. And once I conquered the rock slide, the trail descent into Unicoi Gap took forever, running parallel to a road but not veering toward it. I could hear an occasional car in the distance, but couldn’t reach the road!
There were a couple shelters at Blue Mountain, but I was so anxious to get to Unicoi Gap, I blew right past them. I left some trail magic on a rock for the folks behind me, since I knew they’d need it, and I plowed forward. Damn the torpedoes!
Rock bottom was when I was about a half-mile from the road. A massive tree was blocking the path (in hiking parlance, a “blowdown”). I had to hoist myself and my heavy pack on the trunk, do a balancing act for several yards, then jump. Not long after, I became so frustrated with the endless descent I jammed Biff into the ground. Too hard, it seems, because he cracked in two. Aaaargh!!
I’d had my walking stick since Springer, and I felt awful. He’d provided support, balance, rattlesnake detection (and a few palm blisters). I remember reading in the bestselling book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson that, after the author forgot his stick, his friend offered to backtrack four miles to retrieve it. And I can’t forget Gold Bond’s panicked look when he almost forgot his stick back at Walasi-yi. It sounds silly, I know, but you do become attached to your walking stick.
But when at rock bottom, things can only get better. I found another stick when I reached the road at Unicoi, this one even smoother and straighter. I named it “Biff 2.” On the other side of the road, about a half mile up, I encountered a mountain brook with a water pool just big enough for my bathing needs. As it was getting dark, I pitched my tent on a slight slope right next to the trail, then broke out the biodegradable soap for a refreshing bath. I had to hoist my bear bag in darkness, but things were looking up. It had been a rough day. But as I crawled into my sleeping bag, a barred owl sounded out its eight ghostly syllables as if to say “You’ll be snoozing soon.” He was right. Along with the babbling brook, his singing lulled me to sleep.
Day 5 broke beautifully. The sun poured in, and my bear bag, which hung directly over the AT, was undisturbed. I decided that, as long as the ground was fairly level and smooth, mountain streams offered better camping facilities than mouse-infested shelters. I didn’t need a campfire, and I made sure I adhered to the Leave No Trace ethic and left these areas clean and undamaged (other than forgotten socks on tree branches).
I hiked up and over Rocky Mountain feeling rejuvenated. Despite yesterday’s trials, I’d still done almost 12 miles.
On the descent from Rocky Mountain, I stopped to take a photo, and bumped into my first person since the hammock duo. He was a retired fellow named Tom, from Huntsville, Alabama. Tom was real friendly, and we had a nice chat. He and his wife had a condo in nearby Helen, Georgia. Tom enjoyed taking short day hikes, on the condition that he accompany his wife on shopping trips!
He was curious if I’d seen any bears, but I told him I’d only seen paw prints. He told me, just the day before on a non-AT trail, he came upon a mother bear and her cub encircling a campsite. Seems the campers were careless with their food, and the bears were simultaneously attracted by the smell but afraid of the campers!
Tom and I talked for about 15 minutes, then shook hands goodbye. On the other side of Indian Grave Gap, I came upon a large water pipe jutting from the mountainside at about chest height. I slipped off my bandana, soaked it in the water stream, and doused my upper body. The cold water felt incredibly invigorating after hiking uphill in the heat. My guidebook said there was an abandoned cheese factory nearby. Some expatriate New Englander had established it many years ago. Maybe the pipe was a remnant, but I never saw any factory ruins. I’ve heard that some New Englanders can be a little eccentric, but why would a guy build a cheese factory in the middle of the Georgia mountains?!
Soon after, I crossed paths with a middle-aged, redheaded guy on a southbound section hike. He told me he’d recently done a section in the Smokies. Evidently his wife shuttled him to various points on the AT for his hiking pleasures. Lucky guy! I tried, but I couldn’t envision my wife agreeing to something like that.
Then at the base of Tray Mountain, near a forest service road, I met a young couple who’d done an overnight hike (today was like a Turkish bazaar compared to yesterday). Tray Mountain summit offered a gorgeous panoramic view. I took a photo, ate some tuna and trail mix, aired my feet, and moved on. On the Swag of the Blue Ridge I kept seeing dug up earth on the side of the trail, and wondered if these were indications of bears digging for grubs. Then on a long, flat stretch I thought I saw yet another hiker ahead. But as I got closer, I discovered it was an old winter parka draped over a large log. Some overheated backpacker had probably discarded it in the spring or previous fall. But it was a little disturbing. This was the middle of nowhere. Who was the owner? Could he be lurking in the woods? I half expected the coat to rise up in the air and start dancing around.
I quickly snapped a photo then skedaddled, occasionally turning around until the spooky coat disappeared from view.
As evening neared, I set up camp at the bottom of a long graveled fire road near Addis Gap – another convenient site alongside a clear mountain stream (oh, sweet mountain water!). No owl here, but I heard a raccoon trilling in the distance, and a curious squirrel almost joined me for Ramen noodles before dashing away. “Wait, come back! I was going to make espresso!”
Eleven miles total for Day 5. Other than burning my thumb knuckle on my camp stove, it had been a good day. These were the days that made Appalachian Trail hiking special.