An Incident on Mount Adams

Note: Some of you know that I like to do short backpack trips. I always stuff a journal in my pack, to record anything interesting that might occur. Maybe it’s a naïve hope, but I’d like to one day turn my experiences into a book. Anyway, last year I did a short hike on the Appalachian Trail in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. What follows is an incident that happened on one of the peaks, Mount Adams. If you feel inclined, let me know your thoughts. Your feedback improves my writing and motivates me to get closer to that elusive book.

The hikers become thicker as I near the base of Mount Adams. Most of them hike in groups. Occasionally, I move to the side of the trail to let them pass. Sometimes they glance up and acknowledge me. Other times they continue to converse with their companions, keeping their eyes on the ground.

Everyone’s different. Even at work, or at the gym, or in the park, some individuals never make eye contact. But at least out here on the trail, they’re not clutching their smartphones as a baby clutches a bottle.

Soon, I arrive at a large, open field. Off to the right are several worn footpaths leading to a rocky summit: Mount Adams. President John Adams always seems overshadowed by larger-than-life Washington and Jefferson, so I commit myself to climbing the summit in honor of our second president. Like Adams the man, the peak is small, but it’s majestic. A number of other hikers also scramble to the top. There’s no worn path, just a jumble of grey boulders to negotiate however one chooses. Unlike at Mount Jefferson, where I left my pack at the summit base, I haul my pack up Adams, which makes for a slow climb. But pretty soon, I’m at the top, surrounded by a mass of day hikers.

For the first time in a while, there are no clouds, and I’m treated to a panoramic view. The view isn’t as stunning as at South Twin Mountain a few days ago, but I also don’t have to deal with that day’s heat or exhaustion. Since it’s still early in the day, I linger here longer than normal. The Labor Day crowd makes for a buzzing social scene.

Back on the Appalachian Trail, at a large cairn signaling the mountain’s location, there was a bustling crowd of kids and adults. I figured it was maybe a church or civic group. Not long after summiting Adams, several of them make their way to the top. Immediately, I notice something a little different about them. The kids all have dark tans and very long hair. They wander by themselves, without adult supervision, and chatter excitedly. One of them, long-haired and lithe, looks neither boy nor girl.

Then a man bounces over the edge of a boulder, standing with his hands on his hips, scanning the crowd on the top. He’s wiry and healthy-looking, with a sandy brown ponytail that’s streaked with grey, and he has a beaming smile. I can’t tell his age. He could be in his late thirties, but with his greyish ponytail, he could instead be twenty years older.

“What an amazing view!” he exclaims with extroverted zest. “And all these amazing hikers!” I see him shoot me a quick, white-toothed glance.

He scurries around the rocks, taking in all the views. I sit on a rock in silence, observing two large dogs panting nearby. But my ears are open. Before long, the ponytail guy is carrying on a conversation with two young men. I overhear him say “Plymouth” and “Blue Bell Bakery,” or something. They chat for about five minutes, interrupted by the man’s gasps of amazement at the views. At the end of the conversation, I hear him extend an invitation to the two men to visit the bakery.

This is one of those times when I feel isolated. Like I don’t belong. I get this way occasionally. I’m not a shy person, in most situations. But in other situations, I have a difficult time opening up. It’s probably a combination of the loner in me, some bullying as a kid that made me wary of people, plus the social anxiety I’ve dealt with most of my life. These three people, after only five minutes, act like they’re old friends. Yet I can know someone for five years and still feel like a stranger.

I observe this ponytail guy like he’s a celebrity or something. He looks good, and there’s a magnetism about him. His wispy ponytail and extroverted manner remind me of certain freespirited hippies I knew back in school. They always seemed comfortable with themselves, and never took things too seriously. While I’ve always been drawn to these types, envious of them, I’m also always a little intimidated. For lack of a better word, they exhibit a “karma” that I don’t have, and probably never will.

Eventually, I zigzag my way down Mount Adams. The descent seems longer than the ascent. Which boulder should I choose to step on? This one. No… this crested rock is a good fit for my boot.

The two dogs and their owners quickly pass me by. So do the two young men. Ponytail guy is already at the cairn with his large group. I don’t see the kids anywhere.

I reach flat ground and angle toward the AT. But I deliberately taper my angle so I can pass by the cairn. I’m still curious about ponytail and his group. Maybe I can pick up some clues from their conversation.

As I get closer, I shoot a few glances out of the corner of my eye, hoping that I won’t appear nosey. But ponytail guy catches me looking.

“You’ve got a big pack there!” he shouts at me. “Where are you headed?”

I veer toward him. “Headed for Osgood Tentsite tonight,” I answer shyly. “Then my car tomorrow, and back home to Ohio.”

He asks me a few more questions, and before long, we’re into a free-flowing conversation. We talk about the White Mountains, Mount Washington, the scenery, the details of our respective hikes, and the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He and his group are doing a several-day hike. Then I see the long-haired kids. They drift in and out of the group. If their parents are here, I’m unable to determine who they are. The kids seem to belong to no one, and everyone.

Then I ask him his name.

“Shemet,” he says with a smile.

“Sh…Shemet?” I ask.

“Yes, Shemet.” Then he tells me it’s an old Hebrew name that he adopted a while ago. Suddenly, a young teenage girl approaches us.

“This is my daughter, Mehenomet.” Mehenomet tilts her head and smiles.

Hmm.

Shemet tells me that all the members of his group have adopted Hebrew names (despite the fact that they’re probably all Gentiles). He then tells me he used to work as a park ranger. He hints about certain unsavory activities he engaged in when he was younger. (“Didn’t we all!” I assure him). He and his wife divorced, and he eventually joined the group he’s with today. But he doesn’t give me the group’s name, or its purpose or affiliation.

I ask Shemet why he’s no longer a park ranger. It’s a career which I thought about pursuing when I was younger, and which I’ve always considered meaningful and fulfilling.

“I had no meaning or fulfillment,” he says. “I got tired of rattling on about birds and animals and lakes. There’s a bird, here’s a lake,” he says mockingly. “I didn’t want to serve nature anymore. I wanted to serve people!” he says enthusiastically, as if people and nature weren’t inseparable, and park rangers didn’t serve both wildlife and people.

His rock-headed revelation hits me like a right hook to the jaw. So much for that blissful “karma” I thought about on top of Mount Adams. His coolness quotient drops as precipitously as the mountain. But I guess I’d set myself up for this shock. I had it coming.

We continue to chat, but I slowly inch my way toward the trail. Then, a swarthy, dark-haired man approaches and introduces himself. It’s another Old Testament-type name. He hands me a pamphlet and tells me to read it at my leisure. I thank him, wave goodbye to Shemet and Mehenomet, turn northward on the trail… and feel like a leash has been removed.

I slip the pamphlet into a pocket on my pack, promising myself to at least glance at it later. After I return home, I do. The title is “The Twelve Tribes.” Just below the title is a watercolored illustration of long-haired stick people, children and adults. They’re holding hands and dancing in a circle. I read the bubbly, upbeat words inside the pamphlet. Later, I visit the internet and read more about The Twelve Tribes.

I try to be open-minded about things. And you can’t make snap judgements from a pamphlet, and certainly not the internet. But like so many other “clubs” that rely on dogma and a fixed set of beliefs and practices, what I learn about The Twelve Tribes convinces me it’s not for me, and it’s further proof of Shemet’s scrambled thinking.

Shakespeare undoubtedly had a pithy observation about all of this. In lieu of his words, I’ll go with someone more contemporary, like singer John Prine:

“It’s a big old goofy world.”

 

Advertisements

100th Blog Post

typewriter-2

I started longitudes to try to sell copies of my book (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”). Well, the blubber book sales tanked, but the blabbering blog has taken a life of its own.

Someone said that blogs… (the word “blog” is short for “web-log”)… have an average lifespan of 2 1/2 years. Longitudes is now over 4 years young. So I’m actually beating the odds, which is rare for me.

To recognize the insignificant occasion of my 100th post, I’m attaching links to six of my older essays. These essays either got a lot of response, or are special to me… or both.

Since I’m honoring myself, I’d like to thank everyone who’s “liked” my stuff or offered comments: Tad, Mary K, Brian, Neil, Frank, Phil, Rich, Leah, Thom, Dennis, Cindy, Dean, and everyone else who drops in for coffee.

Nobody likes writing in a vacuum, so it’s a huge thrill to know someone has read and been affected by something I’ve written. Some of my thoughts may have struck a nerve on occasion. While I think it’s important to express opinion, and while I may not respect certain views, I nevertheless try to respect the reader (it’s an alien concept in these days of instant communication, but it is possible). Anyway, I hope I’ve never offended anyone. If I have, I apologize.

So here are six blasts from the past… just click the titles. Thanks again, everyone!

quill-pen

It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Leaving (Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown)

I wrote this travelogue after visiting Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. I used the present tense because I wanted the reader to feel like he or she was on the journey.

The underlying theme is how one person’s hero can have little or no impact on someone else. Also, that it’s difficult or impossible to identify genius or from where it arises.

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

I sent this essay to a National Public Radio (NPR) show hoping they’d publish it. Too much competition, I guess. So I submitted it to longitudes, and it was accepted! It’s about our family dog, Brownie, a rambunctious Australian Shepherd who didn’t exactly endear himself to outsiders, but was totally devoted to the family. His sudden death brought a lot of tears, but he gave us many good memories. The top photo was taken just before he died.

America and Guns

The Sandy Hook tragedy hit me hard, as it did most everyone else. How can something so horrifying happen? The answers are very complex. But to deny that one of the factors is firearms, and America’s refusal to address why it leads the world in per capita gun violence is, to me, ridiculous.

Remembering Biff

After I write something I usually forget about it. But I keep returning to this essay. It’s a tribute to a friend from childhood that I’d lost track of for many years. Then I suddenly learned about him. He’d taken Horace Greeley’s advice and gone West, doing things I’d always wanted to do (“living the dream,” as the cliché goes), but for which I never had the courage or ability. Then his life was tragically cut short.

Visiting the past has opened a few doors for me. Such is the case with learning about Biff. He reminds me that life is momentary, and we need to (try to) live it to the max while we have it… as Biff evidently did.

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking Glass

This is about an Appalachian Trail hike I took, and it got more feedback than probably any other post (which isn’t saying much!). I guess it’s because people enjoy reading about adventure and unusual experiences. This hike wasn’t all that adventurous or unusual, but maybe folks found a certain vicarious thrill. A lot of the “likes” and “follows” came from people who have their own travel-related blogs. After writing this, I realized that there are many vibrant people around the globe who are in constant motion, immersing themselves in the outdoors and different cultures, places, and experiences.

The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things

I created a sub-category called “50 Years” to highlight people or events on their 50th anniversary (and also because the decade of the 1960s fascinates me). I’m also real big on conservation issues, and these things came together with this Earth Day essay recognizing 50 years since the signing of America’s Wilderness Act. The title is a pun on an old Cowsills song, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things.”

At one time, there was a lot of wilderness but only a few people. Now, it’s just the opposite, and this paradigm is too often taken for granted. I believe it’s crucial to protect as many wild places as possible, for our spiritual well-being in addition to the well-being of other species.

This essay didn’t get a lot of views (I have an annoying tendency to sound like I’m preaching – see above). But that’s okay. Maybe Henry Thoreau and John Muir gave it a nod of approval, which is reward enough.

typewriter-3

A Wrong Turn: The Haunting Disappearance of Inchworm

Trail leading to Winding Stair Gap2

On Monday morning, July 22, 2013, a woman named Geraldine Largay vanished while hiking the Appalachian Trail in southern Maine.

To this day, the details of her disappearance are a mystery.

Largay, whose trail nickname was “Inchworm” due to her slow hiking pace, was an intrepid 66-year-old grandmother from Tennessee.  She was also a veteran backpacker. She and a friend had started their hike at the AT halfway point at Harpers Ferry, WV.  But her friend had a family issue arise and had to bow out in New Hampshire.  She tried to talk Gerry into also quitting, but Largay insisted on continuing solo to the endpoint of Mt. Katahdin in eastern Maine. Her husband had driven their car and was periodically rendezvousing with her at road crossings.

The Maine section of the AT is known for having long stretches of isolated, rugged, and densely forested country.Print

On the night of July 22, Largay shared a lean-to just east of Saddleback Mountain with five other hikers. The following morning, one of them took her photograph. The photo shows a lean, muscular woman with a beaming smile almost as big as her backpack.

Largay was to meet her husband at a road crossing the next day. She was looking forward to a hearty meal and a soft bed. But she never arrived.

________________

After George Largay reported his wife missing late on July 24, the story spread like a brush fire. Hundreds of volunteers and search and rescue workers fanned out to search for her. The Largay family posted a large reward. But for over two years, there was no trace of Inchworm. Authorities were baffled. Although they publicly denied foul play, this was only because they had no tangible evidence. It was as if Largay had been swallowed by the earth.

Then, on October 14, 2015, an environmental impact researcher found human remains inside a tent in a thicket of woods near an overgrown logging road. The site was only a half mile from the AT. It was a hundred yards inside a restricted area of forest owned by the U.S. Navy. The navy uses this area for P.O.W. simulation training (and, according to the alternative Maine publication The Bollard, some of this training involves torture).

navy sign

(photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

Medical analysts eventually confirmed that… yes… the remains were that of Inchworm. Police say there was no evidence of crime (but after two years in the forest, how much evidence would there be!). Her death was officially ruled as “inanition.” It’s a rarely used term that means “a state of being empty.” Empty of food… or, perhaps, empty of will.

How could a woman totally disappear for over two years despite the largest manhunt in Maine history??

I ask this question because it makes no sense why Maine authorities could not rescue her in time, and her family should have to suffer so long without knowing anything. Their grief at her disappearance was bad enough without having a huge question mark hovering over it.

But I guess I’m also asking for selfish reasons. One is, I hate to admit it, morbid curiosity. But the other is that I plan to soon hike the White Mountains in New Hampshire, very close to where Inchworm disappeared. If (heaven forbid) something happens to me, I would want my family to immediately know the whys and the wherefores.   One of the appeals of solo hiking in the mountains is the challenge. Although not considered an “extreme” sport, there is an element of danger. But at the same time, I don’t want my family being interviewed by “Inside Edition.”

________________

Gerry Largay disappeared on a sunny day only three miles from the lean-to where she was last seen. The Maine Warden Service now believes she descended Poplar Ridge, crossed Orbeton Stream, then strayed from the main trail on either an old railroad road or logging path.

The AT guide that I own calls either the railroad road or logging path a “Woods road.”  It’s at the 1982.3 mile mark (northbound) on the AT.  The guide also has an instruction to follow this road a short distance east.  It’s not uncommon for the trail to coincide with a road like this.  But the Woods road soon veers north.  It’s possible Inchworm wasn’t paying attention, missed the sign to continue east on the AT, and followed the Woods road north a great distance.  Then when she realized there were no white diamonds painted on the trees, instead of backtracking she panicked and headed into the brush in hopes of a shortcut.  When a person does this in the unforgiving Maine woods, unless he or she is proficient with a compass, well…

The following day, Tuesday, July 23, it poured rain all day.

railroad road

Old railroad road that Inchworm may have mistakenly taken (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

If it’s true Gerry got lost, God knows the terrors she experienced while awaiting the end. She undoubtedly heard the helicopters whirring overhead. Maybe she also heard distant bloodhounds. Hopefully her final hours were peaceful.

But there are many gnawing unknowns. The Appalachian Trail is well-marked, and Inchworm was an experienced hiker, having trod the southern half of the AT and most of the northern half.  If she chose the wrong trail at some point, why didn’t she backtrack?  Didn’t she have a GPS, or compass and map to use once she got lost? Why did she pitch her tent in such a thick, inaccessible patch of forest? Didn’t she have enough food and water to last for at least several days, more than enough time to relocate the main trail? Didn’t she have dry matches to create a smoke fire? Was she able to write a last message? Have authorities kept this under wraps? Why didn’t they gain permission to search the military grounds?

Another mystery: at the beginning of the investigation, police reported a strange phone call to the Stratton Motel, where George Largay was staying. The receptionist claimed an unidentified person called saying that Gerry was delayed and would be arriving late. This call came on Wednesday, when only her husband knew she was missing.

map

And there was a police report of a man leaving threatening messages in AT shelter logbooks in Wyman Township, directly adjacent to where Largay disappeared. The police report was dated July 6… only twelve days before Largay went missing.

But most annoying is why the Maine Warden Service was unable to locate her in time. Largay’s remains were only thirty yards from the logging path. It beggars the imagination why search parties weren’t instructed to flare out from this path.

Mysteries have intrigued us for centuries. But some mysteries are more unsettling than others. Such is the case with Inchworm’s disappearance.  From all accounts, she was a wonderful person.  What happened just makes no sense.

largay_site

Location of Gerry Largay’s final campsite. The white cross was placed by her family (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

 

On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner (Part 2)

yogi_boo-boo

I pitched my tent at the Browns Gap campsite, only about 20 yards from the AT. Then unrolled my sleeping bag, and tossed it inside the tent, along with my nighttime needs: flashlight, foam pillow, some fresh clothes, my journal, and a yellowed copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

I set up my stove on a flat rock, and found a bigger rock to use as my dinner chair. Quickly got some water boiling, dumped in my packet of Ramen noodles, and hunched over the pan with my spoon poised. Then I heard a noise behind me.

Turning around, I saw a young woman come sidling down the trail, swinging two trekking poles. She either didn’t see me, or decided to ignore me, because she continued toward the road crossing a half mile away. It was getting near twilight, and I wondered if she’d be able to find a decent campsite, since I hadn’t seen much between here and Dundo Picnic Grounds several miles back.

Ramen noodles ain’t gourmet, but, for me, it was a feast. I’d covered over 17 miles that day, and I was as tired and sore as a pack mule. I also had some serious chafing on my inner thighs due to sweat-soaked underwear. After supper, I hung my bear bag high up on the log beam, and scrubbed my skillet, using just my fingers and a little water. I packed my skillet in my backpack, which I leaned against a tree. The skillet had a slight residue from the noodles. But I wasn’t too concerned.

Blackrock Mtn view2

Summit of Blackrock Mountain

I smeared some antiseptic lotion on my thighs, then crawled into my tent. Too tired for Huck and Jim, I waited for darkness to fall while laying spread-eagled on my back. Then clicked off my flashlight as a multitude of insects began their nightly symphony.

It was a long while before I fell asleep. I was buzzing from the day’s activities, and one alpha cricket kept an incessant screeching for hours on end. But eventually I fell into a deep, deep slumber.

At home I wear earplugs. They help me sleep more soundly. But I promised my wife I wouldn’t use them out here in the woods. So the sound that awoke me was loud and unmistakable.

Still spread-eagled on my back, in the midst of some weird, cozy dream, my eyelids suddenly shot open. “Oh, boy. That’s no cricket outside my tent.” It was a combination of sniffs, snorts, and grunts. Beastly and guttural. And it was right outside my tent’s mosquito netting, which was at my head. Later, I remember thinking it sounded like a gigantic pig. But there were no wild pigs in these mountains.

I listened to the snorting for a few seconds. “The only animal around here that could make those baritone notes is a large bear,” I thought.

I recalled something I’d read about loud noises helping to scare off bears.

“HEY, WHAT’S GOIN’ ON!!!?” I yelled in a shaky voice (not expecting a reply).

black bear

Ursus americanus

There was a spooky silence for about a second. Then what sounded like a locomotive crashing through the brush. Then silence again.

I lay still for about five minutes. I turned on my flashlight and glanced at my watch: 3:02 a.m. I think I was more sleepy than scared. The damn bear had awakened me from one of my best sleeps in days. But, eventually, I strapped my flashlight on my head, unzipped the netting, and stepped into the clearing.

I first checked my backpack, which was about 30 feet from my tent. “Looks ok.” Then I walked a short distance to the right, over to the bear beam. I shone my flashlight into a void of blackness. “Bear bag undisturbed.” Everything seemed fine. The cicadas continued their rhythmic drone. But there were no other sounds.

I ducked back into my tent, but not before pulling out an old fishing knife that was buried in my pack. I knew I’d probably never use it, but it gave me a sense of security. Didn’t help much. I remained wide awake until the first rays of sunlight

boo-boo2

I’m not sure why the bear got so close to my tent. Certainly he smelled me and my sweaty clothes and skin (if not the antiseptic lotion). Maybe he was attracted by my skillet. I hadn’t used soap on it, but it was still fairly clean other than the slight film on the surface, and I’d stuck it deep into my pack. He may have smelled my bear bag. All foodstuffs were wrapped in either plastic or foil. But supposedly a bear can detect human food from up to a mile away. So who knows?

I felt like a zombie from lack of sleep. But I knew that once I hit the trail, I’d be ok. After packing up my gear and chomping on a Pop-Tart, I looked around for telltale signs of my nighttime guest. The only evidence was a small patch of dirt that looked like it may have been clawed up. It was about 20 feet from the head of my tent. Hard to believe I was that close to the beast.

Big Meadows view2

Valley view from Big Meadows

As I started down the trail, I had a humorous thought: “It’s too bad I never saw him. We might have hit it off.” I wasn’t more than a hundred yards from my campsite when I heard the now-familiar crashing sound. I looked to the right and glimpsed a large, black form pounding through the undergrowth, over the hillside. He turned his head, once, then disappeared. I gripped my camera tightly for about five minutes, hoping he’d peek over the hill. But he never did.

Looking back, I’d probably invaded his feeding grounds earlier that night, and he was waiting for me to leave the next morning. The homemade bear beam was there for a reason.

So I did see him. And, he saw me. He was an adult bear, and black as the previous night’s darkness. He was the second bear I’ve seen in the wild. I saw one in the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado in 1983, while hiking with a friend. But that encounter wasn’t nearly as, shall we say, “intimate.” Now I can claim to have seen wild bears on both sides of the Mississippi. Could there be a grizz in my future?? Do I want one in my future??

boo-boo3

Three days later, on Labor Day, I arrived at Skyland, the end point of my hike. I met a lot of nice people between Browns Gap and there: Rob and Paul at rain-soaked Hightop Hut; the couple from Charlotte whom I met at Big Meadows Campground; Katie and her “pack dog;” not to mention the Honeymoon Hikers and Jackson. The Shenandoah AT around Labor Day sees many visitors, which is good in some ways, but bad in others. With the popularity of books and movies like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” more and more people are taking to the woods and trails. It’s great that folks are shedding the shackles and manufactured pleasures of the cities and suburbs, and finding some spiritual peace in places “where things work like they’re supposed to work.” But where there are crowds, there are problems. The trail litter I saw each time I approached Skyline Drive is ample proof. Not to sound preachy, but hopefully the Millennial Generation will use their smartphones to protect the wild places better than my generation and my parents’ generation did.

boo-boo5

At about 7 p.m. outside crowded Skyland Lodge, my driver Dubose Egleston Jr. pulled up, his yellow pickup plastered with signs advertising his shuttle service. I loaded my gear in the truck bed and hopped in front. Dubose was interesting. Short and pudgy, he talks with a sometimes incomprehensible Southern accent, and as if he’s chronically short of breath. Dubose relishes conversation (and Coors beer), and at one time he served on the Waynesboro City Council (“Ah never talk ‘bout national politics. Gits ya into trouble. But ah’ll talk yer ear off ‘bout local and state politics”).

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Dubose has been shuttling hikers for 13 years, and estimates he’s hauled several thousand of them. On our drive back to Waynesboro, he told me about some of the more memorable ones: the guy he picked up at the airport who wore a three-piece suit and penny-loafers, and planned to buy all his gear at Wal-Mart (“He gave me the creeps”).

Also, the mysterious man who carried nothing but a white duffel bag (“He never said what was in it, and I never asked. He was creepy, too”). And the guy he called “Rambo,” who wore full camouflage, a handgun, and a knife the size of a bayonet (“He looked like he was goin’ into battle. We didn’t talk much. Just ‘bout the weather”).

I told him about my bear encounter at Browns Gap.

“Ah shuttled two young women from Wisconsin one time,” he said. “They were real ‘cited ‘bout hikin’, but tole me the only thing they were ‘fraid of was bears. They had convinced themselves they were goin’ to be attacked by a bear.”

I laughed.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

“I said ‘Lemme get some gas here, an ahm goin’ to set you straight.’ After ah got back in my truck, I tole ‘em ‘Black bears ain’t the same as grizzly bears. They don’t attack people.’ I said ‘There has never been a bear attack on humans in the state of Virginia.’”

“What did they say?” I asked.

“You’d a thought ah lifted five pounds offa each of their shoulders!” he said. “They were so relieved to hear that. They practically threw their arms around me. Ah don’t know what it is, but somewhere ‘tween the Midwest and here, people get this notion that black bears are vicious man-eaters. It just ain’t true.”

I asked Dubose if he heard from them after their hike.

“Yep. They couldn’t git over what ah tole ‘em ‘bout bears. After they got home to Wisconsin, they sent me a big block’a cheese. That was nice. But ya’ll take a look at me. Cheese is the last thing ah need.”

boo-boo4

On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner

yogi_sign

“Aren’t you worried about bears?” (my boss)
“Oh no. Now I have to worry. Aren’t there bears and wolves in those mountains?” (my mom)
“Why do you do these things to me?” (my wife)
“Are you gonna pack a sidearm?” (my friend Dave)

These are a few of the reactions I got this past summer when I announced that I’d be doing a solo hike through Shenandoah National Park, on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s something about camping in the woods that scares the bejeebers out of people. It might be the stories we read as children: Hansel and Gretel, Peter and the Wolf, Where the Wild Things Are. Later on came feature films: The Wolf Man, The Night of the Grizzly, The Edge. Be it bears, wolves, cougars, giant venomous snakes, bloodthirsty bats, witches, goblins, headless horsemen, Texas chainsaw killers… dense, dark forest has become a metaphor for danger and fear.

black bear

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The reality, of course, is that our cities – and increasingly, our suburbs – are far more dangerous. But humans can’t seem to shake certain embedded fears. And of all creatures in the woods, nothing seems to worry people more than bears.

Bears are big. An adult American black bear (Ursus americanus), averages 125-550 lbs. Its cousin, the more aggressive grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), averages 400-790 lbs. Some freak grizzlies grow even bigger. Both species are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. But a grizz standing on its back feet can reach over nine feet in height, and can take down large mammals such as bison, moose, elk, and caribou. His claws can grow to four inches in length.

Also, although extremely rare, bear attacks do happen. The most infamous occurred in Glacier National Park on the night of August 12, 1967. On that night, two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were dragged from their sleeping bags by two hungry grizzlies… unbelievably, in separate incidents nine miles apart. Their bodies were eventually located by searchers. Helgeson hung on for a few hours before succumbing to blood loss. Only portions of Koons’s body were found.

grizz

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilus)

But horror stories like this occurred back when little was known about bear behavior, and campground bears were still feeding at open-air garbage dumps. The two grizz that killed Helgeson and Koons were later tracked down. One had glass imbedded in its molars, and the other had a torn paw pad, probably from stepping on broken glass. Wildlife officials speculate they were in extreme pain when they attacked.

But I didn’t need to worry about grizzlies when I began my hike. The only grizz in the lower 48 are in Yellowstone and in small pockets of Montana and Idaho. However, there are a lot of black bears along the AT, particularly in Shenandoah National Park, which has a number of public campgrounds (“Hey, hey, hey Boo-Boo, do I smell a pic-a-nic basket?”). Like many people, I was hoping to see a bear on my hike. But I never thought I’d share my campsite with one.

____________________________

I started my hike at Rockfish Gap, outside Waynesboro, Virginia. The first day I covered six miles, some of which found me slogging through a relentless rainstorm. I camped near a large cairn at the top of Calf Mountain. It was a good campsite, right next to the trail, with good, flat stones for setting up my campstove, and enough tree branches on which to drape my soggy clothes.

I got an early start the next day. Watered up at a spring near the shelter halfway down the mountain. While filling my canteen, I met a hiker coming from the shelter. She was a middle-aged woman who was trekking 100 miles to Manassas Gap. She called herself “Owl.” Hmm. Shouldn’t she be hiking at night??

Sawmill Run Overlook2

Scenic overlook at Sawmill Run

At the base of Calf Mountain at Jarman Gap, I officially entered the park. It was at a fire road near a huge gnarled tree, maybe the oldest I’d see on the entire hike. Later, at Sawmill Run Overlook, I gobbled some trail mix and provided a curious spectacle to a few tourists who were cruising along Skyline Drive.

Then at Turk Gap, I met my first thru-hikers, a college-age couple who’d started way up in Maine months earlier. They were headed for the Springer Mountain trailhead in north Georgia. They represented the “advance guard” of southbound thru-hikers, and they had the lean, muscular look of swift, veteran hikers. Surprisingly, they gave off no odor, and they also looked really clean and manicured – even the man’s red beard looked shapely.

Near Riprap parking area I met a young woman. She was an emergency nurse from nearby Charlottesville, out enjoying a sunny day hike. Then I lunched at the edge of the parking lot, where I met another solo day hiker. I would bump into him again, the following day, at Loft Mountain campground. His name was Jackson, and he was a high school senior from Richmond, Virginia. He was just bouncing between campgrounds, doing short hikes on the AT, and squeezing in some summer kicks before the school year started. Nice kid, long blonde hair, really laid back. I noticed his truck had a plate that said “Don’t Tread On Me.” I wondered if his parents might’ve named him after exalted Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

As I approached Blackrock Mountain, I started to get really thirsty. Also, worried, since I only had a few drops left in my canteen. Two years earlier I’d hiked the AT through Georgia, and I’d crossed a lot of mountain streams and springs. But Shenandoah was extremely dry. Climbing the straight ascent up the side of Blackrock was taking a toll.

Blackrock Mtn summit2

Summit of Blackrock Mountain

Help came in the form of two more thru-hikers coming down the mountain. They were a married couple, the “Honeymoon Hikers.” They’d already done a northbound hike on their wedding honeymoon, and were now hiking southbound. Amazing! Mr. Honeymoon told me the summit wasn’t far ahead, and after that it was smooth sailing. He said Dundo Picnic Grounds was only a few miles ahead, and it had a water pump.

Blackrock Mountain summit was aptly named: huge, dark boulders stacked a hundred feet high, like a scene from Planet of the Apes. I rested on one of the rocks, then savored a smooth downhill trek into Dundo Picnic Grounds. At Dundo, I replenished my water at the pump, and took a refreshing sponge bath. There were lots of picnic tables here, but the only visitors were an elderly couple enjoying an early supper at one of the tables. Before exiting the grounds, they circled their car over to the water pump and kindly offered me some granola bars and bananas.

Now it was time to find a campsite. I was hoping for a nice, quiet, trailside site similar to Calf Mountain. But at Browns Gap, where Skyline Drive again crossed the AT, there was just an empty parking lot and a couple lonely fire roads that meandered into the woods. It was getting late. A few cars whizzed by on Skyline Drive. I started to clear out a primitive tent site near the parking lot. But it just didn’t feel right.

When all else fails, hit the trail. So I started up another incline. About a half mile up… voila! There, on the left, was my home for the night: a clearing, moderately used, with flat ground for my tent. And at the far edge of the clearing were two skinny trees, about ten feet high. A horizontal log beam was resting on two forks carved at the tree tops. It looked a little like a pole vault bar. Someone had built this thing to hang his or her food bag so marauding bears wouldn’t get it.

Usually, backpackers will seek out a single tree that has a high, horizontal limb on which to hang their bear bags. So this designer bear beam was really convenient. Surely this construction project took a lot of time. But why would someone devote so much time and energy to building it? Maybe a ranger built it.

Was Yogi or Boo-Boo in the vicinity??

(end of Part 1)

boo-boo

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Reunion

Trail leading to Winding Stair Gap2

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime – Mark Twain

Kimsey Creek Trail started innocently enough; a wide path along a pretty stream.  But it soon became narrow, and for the first time I had to remove my pack and carry it.  The trail then emptied into a grassy service road.  I followed this until it merged with a paved road.  After 20 minutes without any blue blazes, I realized I’d made a mistake, and backtracked.  This involved maybe a mile of needless walking.

I returned to the grassy road and only then saw a blue blaze on a boulder, where an overgrown path was barely visible.  “Come on, folks, how ‘bout a little trail maintenance?!” I yelled to no one.

Just a little further, I descended into the largest grove of rhododendron I’d yet seen.  It was in a little glade right next to burbling Kimsey Creek, which was more like a large stream.  A great maple tree had fallen here, and there was a soft, loam clearing in front of the trunk, just big enough for a pup-tent.  Perfect riparian camping spot.  Though I’d intended to overnight at the public campground a few miles ahead, I couldn’t ignore this woodland haven.  So I became Bilbo Baggins, and pitched my tent in this secluded Shire.

I still wanted to call my wife as soon as possible, though, so I decided to walk – without backpack – the couple miles into the campground, and return later.  Heck, no one was coming by here anyway.

So I walked.  And walked.  And walked.

I’d violated my own maxim: ten miles on the bike trail back home is equivalent to one mile on the AT.

On the brink of a nervous breakdown, I gave up and – once again – retraced my steps.  Another half-mile of needless walking.

The good news was that this was my last night of sleeping on dirt and eating cardboard.  Formal Night!  I’d saved my best meal for tonight: Mountain House freeze-dried chili mac.  Oh yeah!

So I took a cold bath in the stream, then brushed my hair to make myself presentable.   Dipped my saucepan in the stream, then boiled some water, which I mixed into the chili mac packet, using my bandana as a potholder.  Then gobbled greedily while seated on a small birch log.  Hoisted my bear bag, smoked my last cheap cigar in the Gentlemen’s Club by the maple tree, made my diary entry, then crawled in my tent to read some Jack London by headlamp.  After about an hour I clicked off the light and listened to the calls of the wild.  Then drifted to sleep.

This was perhaps the best campsite I’ve ever had.  But the air here was so succulent with mountain dew, when the drops smacked the hard rhododendron leaves they sounded like tiny rubber bands snapping.  They were a most unusual alarm clock, and I was awakened long before morning light.

Since I was already familiar with part of the day’s hike, it went quickly: rhodo grove, then cascades, then yellowjacket bridge, then sign bridge, then railroad ties, then meadow, then… unknown.

The “unknown” turned out to be another endless slog.  At the end of a grassy road I saw an outdoor amphitheater.  But the trail curved left into the mountains.  Being a good boy, I followed the blazes and hauled my tired body yet another half-mile until – finally – I came to a road.  On the left the road disappeared over a river.  On the right it led to the campground.  I turned right to look for the campground office and pay phone.

It was surreal walking into this large open area filled with RVs.  Modern living once again.  A few early-birds were outside and tending small morning fires.  I imagined the others peering open-mouthed through their trailer windows, wondering about a bedraggled, wild-eyed mountain hermit who was probably looking for a free breakfast.  On the left I saw an elderly man in a white t-shirt, sitting in a lawnchair in front of a fire.  I approached him hesitantly, so as not to startle him.

“Excuse me, sir, but do you know where the campground office is?”

“It’s back that-away, other side the river.”

(Why didn’t this bit of information surprise me?)

“Oh, ok, thank you,” I said.

“You been hikin’?”

“Yessir, for about eight days.”

“Seen any bears?”

This is without a doubt one of the most common questions AT hikers get from non-hikers.

“No, but I saw some bear footprints, and bear scat.”

“Oh.  No bears though?”

Then the door of the camper opened and a pleasant-looking, silver-haired lady emerged, holding a cup of coffee.

campground1

RV comfort at Standing Indian Campground

“Would y’all like a cup of coffee?” she asked.

“Oh, no, thanks ma’am, I just needed directions.”

Then the man interrupted. “He’s been hikin’.  Ain’t seen no bears though.”

“You sure you don’t want a cup of coffee?” the woman asked.

“Well… sure, maybe I will after all!” I answered.  She handed me the Styrofoam cup and I took a long sip.  Just like Dustin’s wine, the best coffee I ever tasted.

“That tastes so good, ma’am, thanks very much.  I’ll bet I look a sight, though.”

“You look like you needed a cup of coffee.”

I backtracked again and continued on over the river.  Before long I saw a quaint little store with a cute perennial garden in front.  A sign on the door indicated it opened at 9 am.  I had about 20 minutes, so I slipped off my pack and plopped into a big wooden rocking chair.

Soon, a man came along to unlock the door (I’d seen him walking a little dog earlier).  Part of his face drooped, as if he’d had a stroke.  But he had a nice smile.  When I asked about the pay phone mentioned in my AT guide, he told me they’d removed it due to vandalism, but that I could use his cordless phone.  He asked how I’d arrived at the campground, and I told him about the trail.

“You know,” he slowly drawled, “if you’d have taken that service road by the amphitheater, you’d have cut off about a half-mile.”

I just took a deep breath and counted to five.

Well, I finally reached my wife, who was able to change the motel reservation.  I know she’d been worried, since she hadn’t heard from me in five days.  It was the longest we’d ever gone without talking to each other.

After hanging up, I had to practically force some money on the proprietor for the long distance call.  I left him and his buddy chewing the fat in their rocking chairs and headed up the campground road, where I picked up the AT again at Wallace Gap.  Despite our occasional disagreements, the AT and I by this point were like old friends, and if felt good and right to get off pavement and tromp on trail dirt again.

campground2

The last climb: Wallace Gap to Winding Stair Gap

From Wallace Gap it was just a couple easy miles to Winding Stair Gap and U.S. 64 to Franklin.  I left Biff 2 leaning against a rock wall; he’d make a superb companion for some future hiker.  I then hitched a ride with a friendly guy wearing an Ole Miss ball cap, who took me straight to the Hampton Inn.

Franklin is a town that’s used to seeing AT hikers, so the motel employees weren’t too freaked out when they saw me.  In fact, the desk clerk was extremely nice.  She went out of her way to be hospitable to a Neanderthal like me.  It took me a few hours to wash up, pamper my feet, get some real food – well, Taco Bell anyway – and dry my wallet contents, which were still damp from the first day’s rain shower.

The reunion with my wife and daughter later was pretty special.  Hugs and kisses everywhere.  It was so good to see them after eight days in the woods.  We later treated ourselves to an all-you-can eat dinner at a nice restaurant.  The only thing missing for me was some cherry-blackberry wine.

***

No, I didn’t see any bears.  Didn’t even see a thru-hiker.  But I hiked over 90 miles, traversed over 20 mountains, and averaged 12.5 miles per day while carrying my home on my back.  I saw beautiful mountains from the inside, bathed in mountain streams, and visited scenic waterfalls, a river source, and trees so ancient they sent chills up my spine.  I saw bear tracks, a red salamander, an Eastern fence lizard, a dead timber rattler, a flock of wild pheasants, heard three barred owls, a whippoorwill, a lonely raccoon, saw exotic plants, colorful mushrooms, and met some interesting people.  Oh yes, and saw a little white dog.

Though, like author Bill Bryson, I’m no mountain man… I’m glad I did it.

AT_symbol

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – The Old Man in the Clearing

Bly Gap and historic oak

Today was to be the culmination of my hike.  The zenith.  The raison d’etre.  So in my excitement, I didn’t sleep well at Wheeler Knob (my sticky, salt-encrusted skin was another reason).

I rolled out of my tent at first light, quickly packed my belongings, and slung my pack on my back.  Actually, “slung” isn’t correct; my technique by then was to prop my pack against a tree or boulder, plop my butt on the ground in front, slip my arms through the shoulder straps, then lean forward and slowly hoist myself erect – carefully, or my oversized sleeping bag would spill to one side – then buckle the belt, which became increasingly loose as my waistline shrunk.

After leaving camp, it was a brisk two-mile jaunt to the state line.  I almost missed it.  The indicator was a large tree at the edge of the trail.  It had a rusty metal tube nailed to it, and a simple wooden sign no bigger than a shoebox with “NC/GA” carved in it.

I’d made it!  Goal accomplished.  What a huge relief.  I’d hiked 75.2 miles for this.  The rest of my hike would be an afterthought.  There was a small, worn area opposite the tree where previous hikers had rested or celebrated.  I stood here and took a photo to commemorate the occasion – my own quiet ceremony.  Then I continued on to Bly Gap, just 0.2 miles away.

Bly Gap was on a slight incline at a fairly open trail intersection. About 50 yards from the intersection was a large gnarled live oak tree with its trunk stretched on the ground, as if tired from holding its heavy load.

According to my guide notes, this tree is believed to be the oldest in the Carolinas, used at one time “to spot the line between Georgia and North Carolina.”  I later learned that the colonial line was drawn in 1663.  My God… before the founding fathers were even born!  Two years after Charles II restored the English monarchy.  During the French reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Goodness knows how many years the tree had lived before 1663.

The old fellow allowed me to prop my pack against his withered trunk, and I sat down to savor the moment.  I’d been pushing myself for days, had only occasionally stopped for reflection, so I devoted some time here.  A large meadow dipped into a valley in front, and the sun came streaming in.  A few feathery clouds graced the blue sky.  I thought about the old oak, and the thousands of AT hikers who’d also rested here over the years.  I also thought of how lucky I was to be healthy enough to get this far.  Most of all, I thought of my dad, who’d been gone for almost seven years.  I don’t think of him as much anymore, but I still miss him greatly.  He liked camping and history, also.  I know he’d be pleased with my small achievement.

Just a modest wooden sign in the middle of the woods, but for me it signified 75 miles of hard hiking

Just a modest wooden sign in the middle of the woods, but for me it signified 75 miles of hard hiking

Just before being transformed into Rip Van Winkle, I said goodbye to grandfather oak and immediately began another ascent.  This one was very steep, and I had to stop at least a half-dozen times to catch my breath.  One thing I noticed in NC was the sudden disappearance of poison ivy, a plant for which I held great animosity, and which was all over the Georgia AT.  I wondered if the NC trail volunteers sprayed the poison ivy with herbicide.  But I’m sure this was forbidden.

I eventually reached the summit – the last major summit of my hike – and soon entered Sassafras Gap, a long, flat stretch with lots of overhanging rhododendron that offered a nice, shady canopy.  This tree was pretty common throughout my hike, but it often proved troublesome, because the low-lying branches continually snagged my pack.

Feeling good, I started singing again.  I think I’d already sung the entire second album by The Band (“When I get off ‘a this mountain, ya know where I’m gonna go…”).

Near Muskrat Creek Shelter I took a couple photos, one looking down on a scenic Carolina valley town, and another of the southern range of mountains I’d recently traversed.  All I could see was a sea of blue-green peaks and valleys, stretching ever southward into the mist.  I couldn’t believe I’d covered all that distance in seven days.

But the AT wasn’t going to let me down easy.  After Muskrat Creek I hit another stretch of jagged rocks, which conjured memories of the rock slide at Red Clay Gap.  Near the beginning of this headache, I heard some voices up ahead.  It was two young guys on a SOBO section trek to Tray Gap.  I told them I’d come from there, and that they were the only people I’d seen other than Chester (I later calculated this distance at 25 miles).  They were surprised, telling me they’d hiked the AT once before and come across “hundreds” of hikers.  Go figure.

Another thing I hadn’t seen in a while was a mirror.  I remembered a scene in the Steve McQueen prison escape movie Papillon, and I jokingly asked them how I looked.

“Ya look pretty darn good!!” laughed the one guy.  This made me feel a little better.

Just a few miles ahead I reached USFS 71, at Deep Gap, and had lunch at a small parking lot.  A lone SUV with Orange County, Florida plates sat in the lot.  I assumed this might be the guys I’d just met.

I pulled out my guide and studied the remaining mileage.  Standing Indian Campground was 3.7 miles ahead, at the end of a blue-blaze called Kimsey Creek Trail.  The AT itself, however, looped northeast 21.8 miles, taking in both Albert Mountain and Standing Indian Mountain before joining the campground road.

It was a no-brainer: follow Kimsey Creek.  I’d reached my goal of completing the Georgia section.  I was bruised, burned, blistered, dirty, smelly, and I missed 21st century comforts.  I’d be finishing a day early, on Saturday.  But if I could contact my wife, maybe she could change motel arrangements.

Pretty ground cover

I saw a lot of this attractive ground cover, dark green with beautiful vein patterns. Does anyone know the name?

I popped open my cell phone and again saw “No Service.”  I was running out of time.  This meant waiting till I reached the public campground, which according to the guide had a pay phone.  I’d brought my cell phone only reluctantly, for emergency purposes.  But this was a minor emergency, wasn’t it?

Fiddling with my cell phone, I thought of certain hikers who had no qualms about hauling their electronics with them on the trail.  Here’s my view on that subject:

I understand the mantra “Everyone has their own hike.”  And I know that devices that keep us “connected” can be beneficial.  But some hikers carried not only cell phones, but smartphones, tablets, GPS… one guy even had a laptop computer so he could immediately update his blog!  Doesn’t this compromise the purpose of the wilderness experience?  Isn’t the idea to jump off the grid?  To have a more organic experience by getting closer to nature and celebrating simplicity?

Maybe this isn’t a priority with some hikers.  Maybe for them it’s about the exercise, physical challenge, or scenery.  I think the Appalachian Mountains, and the trail that runs through it, are about this too, but also a lot more.  I was anxious to return home, but while here I at least wanted to blend with the environment.  Not snub it.

I’m not a purist.  Some modern conveniences are almost essential (stoves, fuel, flashlights, packaged food).  And a camera is nice for capturing memories.  But it’s not essential to be “wired in” all the time.  Earlier I touched on my feelings of solitude.  But solitude isn’t the same as loneliness.  It’s part of life, and it’s good because it teaches us to be alone without being lonely.  But constant media diversion diminishes our capacity for healthy solitude.  That’s one of the reasons I did this hike.

Sometimes I think I’m living out of time.  But even 24-year-old Dustin was amazed at how many of his friends back home regularly disappear into their gadgets.  Talking with him made me feel like I’m not the only one, and it’s not just an age thing.

Anyway… off my soapbox and back on the trail.  My new goal was Standing Indian Campground.  And blue-blazed Kimsey Creek Trail would lead me there.  It looked like an easy hike.  Probably a wide, flat path across a few fields.  I’d be like smilin’ Joe with his trekking poles.  Then again, more than a few of my assumptions had already exploded.

Continued…

AT_symbol

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Chester and the Waterfall

Campsite at fireroad near Addis Gap2

The fire road campsite at Addis Gap was my best yet, and Day 6 of my hike dawned with promise.  My goal was Plumorchard Gap Shelter, just under ten miles away.  But this was minimum.  I discovered that the AT lulls one into progressively shorter daily mileage.  I’d started at 16 miles and had dropped to 11.  I was worried I wouldn’t make Franklin by Sunday evening.  So I decided to strike back.

After Addis Gap, I climbed steep Kelly Knob, where the summit offered a breathtaking view of three states: Georgia at the base; Standing Indian Mountain in North Carolina to the northeast; and Table Rock Mountain in South Carolina in the misty distance to the east.  I took a photo, but my camera couldn’t capture the awe-inspiring distant peaks.  As the saying goes, “You just had to be there.”

The highlight of Day 6 occurred at Dick’s Creek Gap.  A two-lane highway passed through here, connecting Hiawassee to the west and Clayton to the east.  I approached this gap via a series of switchbacks, which are zigzag trails on the side of a mountain – easier to negotiate than straight ascents and descents, but very time-consuming.  I saw a couple monstrous trees here, one of which had knife carvings so old they were indecipherable.

Just when my sore shoulder was at screaming point, I came upon “Carnes’ Cascade.”  This was a little postcard oasis on the right side of the trail, tucked away in a grove of rhododendrons.  A small, green, wooden bench sat in the shade and faced a miniature waterfall.  A little wooden sign identifying the spot sat tilted in some rhododendrons on the hill above.  The scene looked like a slice of real estate plucked from a miniature golf course, but without the putter, ball, and green felt.

After resting my shoulder, dipping my bandana in the cascade, filling my canteen and munching some trail mix, I thanked the mysterious Carnes and continued to U.S. Rte. 76, about a quarter-mile further.  Although this was still rural Georgia, I heard a lot of helicopters.  The distant airplane on Day 4 was somewhat comforting, but what was up with this racket?  It seemed a real intrusion on the peacefulness of the forest.  In the back of my mind I wondered if my wife had reported a missing husband.

This worried me.  So at the gap I slipped my pack off and tried to call her, but got “No Service.”  Oh well.  Let ‘em keep searching.

As I was scanning my guidebook, I saw a guy on the other side of the highway, reading the Nantahala Wilderness kiosk near the trailhead.  He had a fairly large backpack, drab clothing, bushy hair and a dark beard.  Hmm.  I might meet my first thru-hiker.

I crossed the highway at the same time as the hiker dipped into the woods.  I was afraid he’d get away, since he was the first person I’d seen since the couple at Tray Gap, and I craved some conversation.  But instead of following the trail, he seemed to be flitting back and forth in the woods.

dick's creek gap

Boulder at Dick’s Creek Gap, with AT logo

I nonchalantly approached the kiosk, and out of the corner of my eye noticed the hiker had seen me.  He immediately descended into the clearing.

“Dude, I’m glad you’re here, I think I got dropped off in the wrong spot!” he said excitedly.

He looked really young, maybe 19 or 20.  He had a black, Amish-styled beard, contrasted by a wispy, dirty-blonde moustache.

“What spot are you looking for?” I asked.

“Dick’s Creek Gap,” he replied.

“Well, this is it.”

“Really?  I can’t find the shelter.”

I told him that not all gaps necessarily had shelters.  We chatted a little, and he told me he needed to get to Henson’s B&B to pick up a supply package.  But he didn’t know where it was.

I looked at his map, which was not very good.

“Wait a second, let me get out my trusty whiteblaze.net guide,” I said, as I once again unloaded my pack.

“Dude, thanks man.”

We read the information for supply and mail locations near Dick’s Creek Gap, but Henson’s wasn’t listed.  I was worried that maybe his mail drop wasn’t legitimate.  I read the instructions on his map.

“Ok, it should be here.”  I pointed at a spot in the air just off his map, and just this side of the well-known Blueberry Patch hostel.  “Your place isn’t on the map, but it should be located here, according to your instructions.”

“I swore I went that way, but didn’t see it,” he said.  “Is that the way to Hiawassee?”

I pointed westward and told him, yes, Hiawassee was 11 miles that direction.  I made sure I pointed him toward Hiawassee.  I told him do not go eastward, or he’d end up in Clayton.  “That’s where that banjo picker in Deliverance lives,” I said.  But he was too young to know what I was referring to.

“Why is the direction arrow for the trail going this way?” he asked, pointing to the AT logo on a nearby boulder.  This logo was an upside-down V with a T underneath.

“That’s the AT logo, it’s not a direction arrow,” I replied.

“Dude, I didn’t know that!!”

We talked a little more, and I learned his name was Chester and that he was from Tyler, Texas.  When I asked if he was a thru-hiker, his face lit up.

“No, but I plan to do one!  This is just a 13-day hike for practice.”

If he’d been hiking less than 13 days, he must have been cultivating his beard long before he started.  Probably to look the part, I guessed.  I wondered what Chester’s home life was like.  I then told him I hoped to soon meet my wife and daughter at a motel in Franklin.

“I stayed in a motel a few nights ago and didn’t like it,” he said.  “The air conditioning was way too cold.  I prefer being out here.”

I thought about asking why he didn’t just turn the knob on the register, but I kept quiet.

“Have you gotten lost yet on the trail?” he asked, explaining that he, too, was northbound, but that he’d had some difficulty back at Blood Mountain.

“No, but I’ve heard complaints about the blazes on Blood Mountain,” I answered.

dick's creek gap2

Clearing at Dick’s Creek Gap, where I met Chester

“Yeah, they need to do something about that, man!”

I told Chester I’d love to join him on the trail, but I had to make time and needed to move on.  After we said goodbye, I watched him walk toward the road, hoping that he’d point his thumb in the right direction.

I thought Chester was a really nice guy.  I also considered him brave for striking into the wilderness at such a young age.  But I couldn’t help thinking that section hiking, let alone thru-hiking, maybe wasn’t the best idea for him.

***

It wasn’t long before I arrived at a large opening in the woods, with a shelter sign pointing to the right.  Plumorchard Gap.  It was getting late, and I was torn between staying here and moving further.  I decided not to water up at the spring, but see if any people were in the shelter, then push on to Wheeler Knob, about two miles further.  Supposedly there was a campsite and water there.

At the base of Wheeler Knob I crossed a gravel road, and heard a vehicle crunching gravel in the distance.  Hunters, maybe?  I disappeared into the woods just before the vehicle arrived.  It felt good to see some conifers growing here; a sure sign of North Carolina, which was just a few miles ahead.  The campsite on Wheeler Knob was in the middle of a large arc, on the left.  I pitched my tent in a hidden area toward the back, and headed toward the water source.

But the water was merely a slow drip emanating from a small pipe.  My washcloth absorbed more mud than water.  It was a big letdown, since it had been a hot, sticky hike, with numerous spider webs stretched across the path.  If anyone would’ve seen me they’d have thought I was touched in the head, because all day I was swinging Biff 2 up and down in front of me, like a magic wand, to knock down these pesky webs.

Fortunately, I had just enough drinking water in my canteen till morning.  After burning my thumb once again on my stove, I turned in for the night.  My goal… the Georgia-North Carolina state line… was only two miles away.

Continued…

AT_symbol

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Of Water and Walking Sticks

Chattahoochee Gap2

(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.

Low Gap Shelter, where I ate breakfast.  Not exactly Denny's

Low Gap Shelter, where I ate breakfast. Not exactly Denny’s

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.

Spring at Chattahoochee Gap, source of the Chattahoochee River

Spring at Chattahoochee Gap, source of the Chattahoochee River

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.

Rock slide at Red Clay Gap.  And they call this the Appalachian Trail?!

Rock slide at Red Clay Gap. And they call this the Appalachian Trail?!

***

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.

Spooky coat at Blue Ridge Swag

Spooky coat at Blue Ridge Swag

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.

Continued…

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – A Celebrity at Neels Gap

Wildcat Mtn2

Day 3 of my Appalachian Trail hike held the specter of Blood Mountain.  The name alone scared me.  At 4,458 feet, this was the highest point on the Georgia AT.  Dustin had dropped the name several times, in a voice filled with trepidation.  He was a native Georgian, and he had me convinced Blood Mountain was Georgia’s equivalent of New Hampshire’s unpredictable – and sometimes deadly – Mt. Washington.

But the northbound hike up Blood Mountain was actually quite easy, albeit steep.  In fact, I soon found that, although tiring, mountain ascents were much easier than descents.  Maybe something about the physics of the human body, a heavy backpack, and the slope of the ground.  Ascents seemed more natural to my sore, tired feet than descents, where my feet always seemed to be dangling in mid-air.

Dustin had a good lead on me, but he waited for me at the rocky peak.  Here, there was an impressive shelter made of stone.  It looked like a fireplace had once even graced this sturdy domicile.  I opened the shelter journal, leafed through it, and saw an August entry from three college guys who were thru-hiking – “Dirty Mike and the Boyz,” they called themselves – and whose blog I’d occasionally read back home.  Their entry was pretty vulgar, but Dustin and I had a good laugh.  These journal entries covered the gamut.  Some were matter-of-fact, others crude, humorous, religious, philosophical.  I tried out various types, but could never find my own voice, and eventually gave up writing in them altogether.

As with Springer, Blood Mountain was too foggy for a view.  Nature was calling me, so I suggested Dustin go on ahead and I’d catch up with him.

Well, the descent was a different story.  Twisting, turning, with scattered boulders everywhere.  The white blazes, normally pretty reliable, seemed to go every which way.  It was also busy due to a stream of Labor Day hikers.  One hiker was a really fit, white-bearded man about 70 years old.  I learned he hailed from the Ozarks and had hiked all the way from Fontana Dam, west of the Smokies: 90 miles (145 km).  This was the greatest distance of any hiker I’d yet met.

I survived Blood Mountain, entered Neels Gap, and found out why it was so special: a highway, and better yet, a hiking-related store that had food, supplies, and even hot showers!  It was a converted Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) facility called Mountain Crossings at Walasi-yi, run by Winton and Marjorie Porter.  Other than an occasional road crossing, this was to be the only slice of civilization on my entire trip.  The whole gang was here: Dustin, Sanna, Thad and wife, Traci, and Gold Bond.  Sanna, Thad and wife were all shuttling home, so we said adios, and I joined the others on a large patio next to the store.

This store had everything related to hiking: boots, socks, non-perishable food, gifts, mail supplies – even designer walking sticks.  It also afforded tourists the opportunity to gawk at the exotic species known as AT distance hikers.  Here, we were celebrities.  I remember looking up from my sandwich and seeing one woman beaming at me as if I was Robert Redford.  Being an AT distance hiker is the only time I know when you can look and smell like a pig, yet still get treated with admiration.

Well, the hot shower was a godsend.  Afterwards I called my wife, who’d been worried about me.  I told her I was doing fine and had met some people, which made her feel better.

Dustin was the first to leave Walasi-yi, with Traci and Gold Bond following soon after.  I held up the rear about ten minutes later.  The trail passed under a stone arch of the building, then along a wide pathway, then up another steep slope and into the woods.

Something about moving again just feels so good.  And now that I was fresh and clean, it felt that much better.  Just north of Neels Gap I met a nice woman from nearby Blairsville who was on a casual stroll.  She wanted to know all about my hike and assumed I was a thru-hiker, I guess due to my large pack and beginnings of a beard.  After her, the only people I saw had backpacks, and even these were thinning out.

Near Wolf Laurel Top I rested, took some photos in a sunny clearing, and met a guy in a black t-shirt who was half-hiking and half-jogging.  He had a slightly concerned look on his face.  Odd.  We chatted briefly, and I found out he was impatient to get to Tesnatee Gap because he had to work the next day.  Poor guy.  What’s the use in trail-hiking if you can’t enjoy the trail?

I was moving pretty swiftly, and at Baggs Creek Gap I suddenly heard my name called out.  Looking to the right I saw Dustin, Traci and Gold Bond.  They were pitching their tents, even though it was only four o’clock.

I think Dustin wanted to milk his Appalachian Trail sojourn.  He’d taken almost a week off from work, had already extended his hike, and we’d made such good time that he faced the very real horror of daytime talk TV if he returned home too soon.    Half of me wanted to join them.  But there were still over three hours of daylight left, and I had my goal of Franklin prodding me, so I told them I’d see them further down the trail (knowing that this was probably unlikely).

Descending into Tesnatee Gap I saw something all backpackers dread.  The path at this point consisted mainly of rocks.  About halfway through, I noticed what looked like a large shadow on a rock, about 20 feet ahead.  As I got closer, it was unmistakable: a snake.  And no ordinary snake.  A timber rattlesnake – Croatalus horridus – which, along with the eastern diamondback and eastern coral snake, is the most venomous reptile in the U.S. southeast.  Ironically, the timber rattler is a handsome snake.  Thick black stripes on a sleek, silver-grey background.  I’d seen a western diamondback once while visiting Colorado, and this snake was much more colorful.  However…

Timber rattlesnake.  My rattler at Tesnatee Gap resembled this one

Timber rattlesnake. My rattler at Tesnatee Gap resembled this one

My shock was relieved a little when I saw he wasn’t coiled.  Neither did I hear the distinctive rattle.  To make sure he was no threat, I poked him with Biff.  No movement.  Since the rattler looked freshly killed, I wondered if Mr. Impatience maybe encountered him, and left his conquest on display for all to admire.  It then occurred to me that, just before leaving home, I’d opted to wear my comfortable running shoes instead of sturdy, high-topped hiking boots (hey, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy had said this was ok!).  I resolved to henceforth employ Biff at every step.

Hogpen Gap had a nice spring, and I filled my canteen here just as my thirst was peaking.  Two middle-aged guys had arrived just before me.  The one man appeared to be holding sentry duty at the head of the blue-blazed trail.  I said hello and commented about the spring being a lifesaver, but he said nothing.  The other man was near the spring, covered in sweat and only slightly more friendly.  He told me they’d covered an exhausting 12 miles that day.  He couldn’t wait to get his hammock strung up and plop down for a rest.  The sentry-duty guy then quietly slipped by to set up his own hammock.  I had the feeling that, maybe in their fatigue, they’d had an argument.

A couple miles later, on Poor Mountain, I found an open camping area next to the trail and broke camp just before nightfall.  I’d forgotten to call my mom at Neels Gap, so after my mac and cheese dinner, I called to assure her I hadn’t been eaten by a psychotic bear, or a confused wolf that had drifted from Yellowstone.  I was surprised that I still had cell service.  This would soon change.  I was heading deeper into the mountains, and eventually there would be no connection to the outside world.  Also, Labor Day weekend was over, and a lot of the hikers had returned home.

Well, I wanted a mountain man experience.  I soon got one.

Continued…