100th Blog Post

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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!

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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.

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On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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??

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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.

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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)

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The Rain, the Trees and Other Things

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Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones… God has cared for these trees… but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.

– John Muir, from Our National Parks (1901)

In Austin, Texas there’s a Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) called the Treaty Oak. Its branches stretch 127 feet across and it is believed to be over 500 years old. The tree was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes. According to folklore, Texas icons Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston paid respects here. In 1989, a vandal dumped buckets of herbicide around the base of the Treaty Oak. Two-thirds of this monumental tree is now dead.

In Trinidad, California a mighty redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) known as the Crannell Creek Giant stood for an estimated 3,000-plus years. Until a few decades ago, it was the largest living tree known to man, estimated at over 400 feet tall. But in the mid-1940s it was cut down by a logging company.

In Birmingham, Michigan, a patch of woods stood at the corner of Cranbrook Road and Lincoln Street… just across from Seaholm High School. In 1968-‘69, my friends and I box trapped small animals there. Some of these traps we built from scraps of particle board and coat hanger wire. Seaholm Woods was one of the few wild enclaves near our suburban Detroit neighborhood. We formed a “Safari Club” and spent countless hours scrambling through the hardwoods, feeling the scrape of briars on our skin, and peering into a small murky swamp abundant with strange, hidden creatures. But like so many other wooded glens in the ‘burbs, Seaholm Woods fell victim to a housing development. The raccoons, foxes, opossums, crows, grackles, and bullfrogs have long since disappeared.general-sherman

Tree and rock, bird and mammal, swale and swamp. Wild places provide nourishment to the soul. Fraught with hidden activity and complexity, the rainforests, alpine meadows, deserts and rivers also give us tranquility and space. Whether we realize it or not, wildness is an essential antidote to industrialization, commercial and residential sprawl, and an increasingly mobile and high-tech culture that seems to be dragging us further away from not only each other, but also the earth.

Long-distance hiker/folksinger/wilderness activist Walkin’ Jim Stoltz was once asked by the “Wall Street Journal” how he defined the term “wilderness.” Stoltz thought for a moment. He then offered this: “Wilderness is a place where things work the way they’re supposed to work.” I can’t think of a more appropriate definition.

But the term “wilderness” also has a legal definition, at least in the U.S. It was interpreted by Congress 50 years ago, on September 3, 1964. Although it took eight years to happen, eventually the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson. It established the National Wilderness Preservation System and declared that:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.wolf

The Wilderness Act is one of the most significant environmental achievements in the U.S., just as important as the national park system. It designated nine million acres for protection from commercial and recreational use. This has since expanded to about 108 million acres, managed (and sometimes mismanaged) by four agencies: The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

Designated U.S. wilderness areas contain 157 ecosystems with extensive flora and fauna, including such endangered or threatened species as whales, wolves, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, and numerous migratory birds. The ecosystems encompass national parks and forests, grasslands, wetlands, trails, wild and scenic rivers, monuments and cultural sites.

The 50-year-old Wilderness Act may not have saved the Treaty Oak or my own Seaholm Woods. Had it been around in the 1940s, though, it certainly would have prevented the murder of the Crannell Creek Giant.

But, as significant as the Act is, there are still millions of acres of mountain, forest, glacier, and other fragile eco-habitat without protection; magnificent public lands that are susceptible to drilling, mining, logging, over-grazing, damming, and road-building. And the money-changers won’t rest. If they can’t turn a profit by gouging the planet one way, they’ll find another.

So, if you’ve had the stamina to read this far, and value the concept of “wilderness,” try to make a difference. Sign a petition, make a donation, plant a tree, invest in a rain barrel. Trade in your gas hog for a fuel-efficient car. Avoid synthetic lawn chemicals. Cast a green vote.

America is blessed with some of the most awe-inspiring biodiversity on the planet. We all share the bounties of this ecological Eden: tree huggers, free-market junkies, Democrats, Republicans, top 1% and lower 99%. In the long run, it’s about our own physical and mental well-being, but it’s also about the other 21,714 vertebrates and plants in America who share our “home.”

HAPPY EARTH DAY!

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Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight

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In 1956 and 1957, a young, iconoclastic writer with a GI Bill education and an FBI dossier found employment as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in remote and desolate southeast Utah.  While working there, he lived alone in a trailer.  He met and conversed with tourists and a few rangers and ranchers, but he was alone for most of the time.  His solitude allowed him to do a lot of observing and thinking.  Ten years later he published a book about his time at Arches, entitled “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.”

I just finished reading the book.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read something as evocative and hard-hitting.  So I’m devoting this post to “Desert Solitaire” and the philosophy of Edward Abbey, who died 25 years ago Friday at age 62.

Wilderness is a necessary part of civilization and it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains.

Abbey’s writings contributed to modern radical environmentalism; he was a spiritual father to both Earth First! and Greenpeace.  But he was around long before the word “environmentalist” even existed.  Blunt in his opinions, a man whose pen was both poetic and fierce, and who raged against government, the military-industrial complex, unrestrained technology, industrial tourism, and agri-business, Abbey recognized as far back as the 1950s that America was rapidly losing large chunks of pristine wilderness areas… and that desert wilderness isn’t just barren wasteland, but it possesses its own unique vibrancy, mysticism, and spirituality.

Motionless and silent (the desert) evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed… Once caught by this golden lure, you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted.

cartoon abbeyAbbey found grandeur everywhere he looked: in the “red-walled canyons” and “smoke-blue ranges” that stretched out hundreds of miles around him; in the constellations that provided a canopy at night; even in a lone juniper tree that grew outside his trailer.  He was one of the last humans to raft the Utah stretch of Colorado River before “bureaucrats” and “pencil-pushers” erected Glen Canyon Dam so that motorboats could buzz over what used to be ancient grottos, natural tunnels, emerald pools, and the pictographs and petroglyphs of mysterious, indigenous societies of long ago.

Half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it is an integral part.  When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.

solitaireAt the end of “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey talks about meeting a park visitor who accuses him of being opposed to civilization, science, and humanity (familiar accusations levied at those of us who feel wilderness should exist on its own terms, and not on man’s terms).

We were not communicating very well.  All night long we thrashed the matter out, burning up half a pinyon pine in the process… With his help I discovered I was not opposed to mankind, but only to man-centeredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man; not to science, which means simply knowledge, but to science misapplied, to the worship of technique and technology; and not to civilization but to culture.

Regarding the difference between civilization and culture, Abbey offers some analogies:

Civilization is Jesus turning water into wine; culture is Christ walking on the waves;

Civilization is a youth with a Molotov cocktail in his hand; culture is the Soviet tank or the L.A. cop that guns him down;

Civilization is the wild river; culture, 592,000 tons of cement.

(Ed. note: regarding the second quote above, longitudes does NOT endorse acts of terrorism against living things)

There are many sections of “Desert Solitaire” that left me with my mouth agape.   I was astonished at the John Muir-like care and detail that Abbey took when discussing desert flora and fauna; what he termed the “rare furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning,” and “weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted and twisted as they are tenacious.”

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After burning up those pine logs and parting with his tourist friend, Abbey says the man disappeared from Arches sometime before the following evening.  But he did leave “a forged signature in the registration book which wouldn’t have fooled anybody – J. Prometheus Birdsong.  He won’t be back.”

Then Abbey closes the chapter:

“But don’t get discouraged, comrades – Christ failed too.”

Although Abbey may have sent this tourist packing with tail tucked between legs, I wonder how quickly the guy returned to his job in the city – emboldened with blueprint dreams of monolithic dams and soulless asphalt thoroughfares.

Regrettably, comrades, many are the J. Prometheus Birdsongs in this world.

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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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

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(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…

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

Big Cedar Mtn2

When I was about 15, my family went on a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  Our campsite was near where the Appalachian Trail climbed a mountain called The Priest.  We had some time, so my brothers and I attempted to climb it.  They were younger and became tired, but I managed to get to the top, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view.

While admiring the vista, I glimpsed a tall figure moving slowly along the path behind me.  It was a lanky man with a full beard, ponytail, and a huge pack on his back.  An Appalachian Trail distance hiker.  I watched him disappear from view as he slowly started to descend the mountain.

I never forgot the sight of him, and I swore that I would one day return to the AT to hike it myself.  It took 40 years, but a few weeks ago I finally did it.

***

The Appalachian Trail is a 2,100-mile footpath through the rugged Appalachian Mountains of the eastern U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine.  It was conceived in the 1920s by a bookish forest official named Benton MacKaye, who envisioned a series of hostels and wilderness workshops connected by a path.  A young Washington lawyer named Myron H. Avery, more pragmatic than MacKaye, advanced MacKaye’s idea without the hostels and workshops.  Today the trail is a monument to public activism and wilderness protection.  Though the route is continually changing, the terminus points now remain fixed at Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.

There are different types of AT hikers: day hikers, overnighters, section and thru-hikers.  Thru-hikers are a breed apart.  They attempt to do the full 2,100 miles at once, which takes a lot of planning and about 4-6 months actual hiking.  Supposedly less than one-fourth of thru-hikers who start ever finish.

A thru-hike was not for me.  I decided to do a northbound (NOBO) section hike of Georgia.  Though most thru-hikers are NOBO, some begin in Maine and hike south (SOBO).  I would be hiking in early September, so it was possible I’d encounter at least one of these intrepid SOBOs.

After a nervous goodbye to my wife, I hopped a Greyhound from Cincinnati to Dalton, Georgia, where I met up with my shuttle driver, Ron Brown.  Ron’s an ex-park ranger and native of New Hampshire who now lives in Ellijay, Georgia, near the Springer Mtn. trailhead.  He makes his living shuttling people like me to and from various points on the trail.

I loaded my backpack in the back of Ron’s Toyota Rav4, and we set off in early morning darkness.  During the drive, he told me about some interesting people he’s shuttled, such as the guy who insisted on carrying his heavy, cast iron skillet.  Also, the obese man who managed only one or two miles per day at the start, but made it all the way to Mt. Katahdin.

“I know he finished because he sent me a photo.  I barely recognized him, he’d lost so much weight.  But it was him.  He was holding up the pants he had when he started, and you could’ve fit three of him inside.”

Ron had all sorts of helpful gadgets in his car, including a charger for my cell phone, and a GPS voice that groaned “Things are getting very strange” as we plunged deeper into the forest.

Ron dropped me off at a forest service road parking lot, 0.9 miles north of the trailhead.  I unloaded my pack, he filled my canister with camping fuel, and we shook hands goodbye.

On the hike south, I found a slightly bowed, chest-high tree branch.  I adopted it as my walking stick, and christened it after a childhood camping buddy.  I also passed a few hikers, the first being a blonde woman who said she was doing a short section to Neels Gap (wherever that was).  I arrived shortly at a large rocky clearing shrouded in fog: the top of Springer Mountain.

plaque

Appalachian Trail bronze plaque from 1933

This was it.  I’d dreamed about this place.  Sure enough, to the right was the 1933 bronze plaque showing a hiker with a hat and backpack.  On the left was a large boulder with a more recent plaque.  Inside the boulder was a metal drawer, which I opened.  I found a slightly damp notebook that contained brief entries of those who’d reached this spot.  I wrote a short blurb about my hiking inspiration and signed it with a trail alias.  Trail aliases are colorful names that hikers make up, or which are bestowed upon them.  I really liked the name that followed the entry directly above mine: “Rainbow Slug.”

Unfortunately, Springer Mountain was so foggy that I couldn’t take a photo of the view.  But at least it wasn’t raining… yet.

Man, it felt good to start hiking.  Just one foot in front of the other, get into a good rhythm, take in the mountain scenery.  I had nine days to reach my destination of Franklin, North Carolina, where I was to meet my wife and daughter, and I calculated I needed to do about 13 miles per day.  Easy.  Heck, my marathon training runs are longer and only last a few hours.  Of course – as I soon found out – hiking on rocks and roots for ten hours, up and down mountains, with 35 pounds on your back is a lot different than running a couple hours on a flat, paved bicycle path with nothing at your back except breeze.

I crossed the gravel parking lot where Ron had dropped me off, and saw a few other hikers unloading their gear.  After a couple hours, feeling pretty good, I started singing an old Neil Young tune.  I’d only done a few verses when (as always happens) I noticed someone close behind me, and felt slightly embarrassed.  Should I let him catch up, or keep walking?  What the heck, might as well be sociable.  I walked a little slower, then turned around.  It was a young guy with long hair.

“Thought I heard someone behind me,” I said.  “How far you headed?”

“I’m hiking to Neels Gap.” (Must be a popular spot, I thought).

“My name’s Pete.”

“I’m Dustin.”

“Hey, I like that name!”

Dustin was a 24-year-old from Augusta, Georgia.  Like me, hiking the AT was a dream of his.  His parents had dropped him off at Amicalola Falls, a park 8.8 miles south of Springer.  I later found out that Dustin enjoyed hunting, flounder fishing, and he made the best cherry-blackberry wine this side of Napa Valley.  He also had a girl back home who was pressuring him to get married!

We hit it off, hiked at about the same pace, so we ended up hiking together the next several days.

Continued…

Near Winding Stair Gap_1