Monday, September 17, 2012

Chapter 1 - The South has a lot to teach

I have finished hiking the Appalachian Trail, as you know if you've been following this site. However, in the entire ~150 days I posted only a handful of pictures.

I want to publish a few posts reflecting on the trip, as well as showing the pictures and telling the story thru the pictures. Pictures are worth a thousand words, as the cliche expression goes, but it is true that a picture will jog the memory, even a blurry one (don't worry, I will let them jog away, but won't bore you with those!).

I began in Georgia, as that is where the Appalachian Trail begins (or ends). My brother and his girl-friend Jen drove me down and dropped me off. I stood at the Southern Terminus on a cool spring morning full of anticipation with maybe a little trepidation.

Left alone, I began hiking. My excitement level was through the roof! I came to the first shelter and found a pile of junk people had lugged only this far before ditching. Someone had written a sign: 'Free to a Good Home'

In my excitement I hiked 16 miles! Much further than I should have. I would pay for my exuberance for weeks afterwards. I developed a fairly painful tendon in my right knee from over-use, going downhill became quite painful. All the way through the Smokies I would still get pings of pain.
The first couple nights I camped in stealth sites, not at shelters. I was a bit in shock after my initial happiness wore off. I started to comprehend the monumental task still before me, I began to feel the loneliness and the want of the company of home. The first few nights I slept well, though away from other people. I had big plans to stay out of towns, not stay at shelters, and be strong and resilient and alone. I wasn't against meeting people, I just wanted to prove to myself, at least this early in the game, that I could do it and not fall into a group as many were around me.
I viewed the sights by myself, and had only me to enjoy the breadth of the land below me from the top of Blood Mountain.
the Privy was the cliff?
The same day that I was at the top of Blood Mountain was also the same day I became extremely low. I made my way down the mountain to Mountain Crossings in Neels Gap. I picked up a drop box of food that contained 7 days worth of food. I made a huge error. The 7 days worth of food could've ended up being enough food to feed 2 people for 14 days! I had over-packed so much! I didn't realize it until that evening. I carried a nearly 50 pound pack over several mountains, I did 16 miles that day, over half with the massive heavy pack. Exhausted, at another campsite alone, having a couple other hikers pass me like I was standing still, with a dinner that I had no appetite for that could have fed four people. I was lonely, had no cell phone signal to say "hi" to Cara. I was very frustrated. After burying a few dinners (I know, not LNT!) and leaving some bars at Hogpen Gap for hikers that may actually be hungry, I began making mental lists of items in my pack I no longer wanted to carry. Three days in and I was already dreaming of a light pack. Even in the nice weather I was having I was struggling up and down the Georgia mountains! I was not is shape for this, and though I did eventually got in better shape, I always dreamed of a lighter pack!

Blue Mountain Shelter was the night I decided to stay near a shelter, and glad that I did. I talked with people, I made friends in common misery, I found other hikers much more ill prepared than I, and I heard about some Trail Magic  happening at Tray Gap the next day. Being around other hikers was a balm. I still, thankfully, had enough sense to stay out of the shelters. I did eventually stay in shelters during this trip, but only a handful of times, and most of those times I regretted it!
First stay at a shelter area
The following day I made it to 'B' Team - a support team for a group of section hikers called the 'A' Team. Armed with a pancake breakfast I was well armed to continue a long day ending over a very steep mountain (Kelly Knob) at the end of the day.

I ponder whether I have 'Swag'

Of those times that I spent in shelters, one was right after I did a few monumental things in one day. I made mile 100 at Albert Mountain! I hiked in a hail, rain, and lightening storm! I hiked an 19 mile day! I also talked to my folks and setup a time for them to come and meet me on the Trail, after 8 or 9 days without a real resupply, day off, bed, or shower, I was in desperate need of any one, or preferably, all of those! Another hiker said, "Wow! We've been to every town in Georgia!" to which I said, "There's towns in Georgia?" I didn't stop at any.

Raining hard whilst I'm dry in a shelter

View from Albert Mt fire tower... post thunder storm!
I met Hotshot, with whom I jumped and was passed by later on at Siler Bald Shelter. He and I would hike together at the end of the Smokeys and beyond. I would also see him again in Monson, ME after not seeing him for months! Also from this time was a hiker by the name of Teddy Bear - I would see him coming south bound at the end of August! The community and familiar faces that cropped up at unexpected times was heart-warming and one of the best parts of the Trail.
After Albert Mt I was feeling like a big man, getting my Trail legs and ready for a big day. I decided to hike to the NOC and do a 23 mile day, by far my longest day. I made good time, by late in the day I was standing on the brink of a long steep down hill into the rafting resort. I was exhausted but I figured all down hill wouldn't be bad. The Trail followed a ridge, going up steeply, before losing the altitude, only to gain it back. I was so frustrated! The Trail finally descended down into the valley, I went as fast as I could, imagining burgers and a bed waiting for me. As I crossed the road I noticed that the 'Open' sign on the restaurant was extinguished - aghast I hurried over and dropped my pack. They had closed 5 minutes earlier!! But, being hiker friendly, they still served me a burger! I inquired about lodging and was told they had no vacancy (FUTURE THRU-Hikers TIP: come to find out later this was untrue - if you ever find yourself at the NOC and need a room, go to the dorms and look for an empty bed knock on doors, I spoke with several hikers that slept in rooms that had 3 empty beds!). Mark, my server, offered me a spare bedroom at his place, he has a hot-tub and beer on tap! I accepted his most gracious offer and was rewarded after a very difficult arduous and trying day!
My parents came and met me at Stecoah Gap a day after; we got a motel room and took me to a buffet. They sent some items home for me and we got some needed items from stores far from the Trail. The next day they hiked with me to the part of the Trail known as Jacob's Ladder before turning back. I was very happy to see familiar faces and to be able to include them in the journey. They were both very supportive of this trip. My dad would follow me daily using my SPOT GPS to track me, if I skipped a day or forgot to turn it on I would get a text message soon after, "People want to know where you are, Jon".
I made it to Fontana Dam and stayed at the Lodge there. I was finding that, (FUTURE THRU-Hikers TIP:) if the opportunity presents it self and you are in a position to afford it, stay in comfort, there are plenty of days to sleep in the woods! The next day Jimmy (aka Flip) left his car in Hot Springs, NC and got a shuttle to Fontana to hike the Smokeys with me. It was quite a nice change to have a hiking partner! The Smokeys were high, tough mountains. We faced blowing flurries, hail the size of golf balls, and winds that knocked over a dozen trees on to the Trail. At the time I figured the Trail was going to be this spectacular most of the time, I took for granted what the Smokeys were, the difficult terrain and high mountains wouldn't be seen again for over a thousand miles! Flip came prepared with gourmet foods and it was a great motivator to be hiking with a friend. Looking back, that time on the Trail was one of the best sections of the trip. We also had great views from Clingmans Dome... just hours after Hotshot, who had no views at all.




During this time I was suffering from my second ailment of the trip: shin splints. Going down hill was torture and really slowed us down. We still made a solid 17 mile day in the Smokeys, and by the last day I had finally pushed through the painful swelling and got relief. After we hiked triumphantly from the National Park we got a shuttle from Standing Bear Hostel back to Hot Springs and we drove to Asheville for some R&R.
Back on the Trail alone, I ran into Hotshot almost immediately and we hiked together for the next few days.


Between the edge of the Smokey's and Hot Springs I had changed batteries (might I add expensive) on the Steripen, and it stopped working. I had spoken with several other people who had similar experiences. I went in the outfitters in Hot Springs and they said they had stopped carrying Steripen for awhile because every one they sold was returned! Wow, not good P.R. I bought Aquamire chlorine drops and used them for the rest of the Trail with ease. Every outfitter everywhere carries Aquamire (except REI for some reason!!), and the drops lasted nearly a month and were cheap and light weight, they didn't have a strong after taste either.

Hot Shot on Max Patch

While on the border of NC and TN I stayed in my first hostel: Hemlock Hollow. The place was run by a retired couple, very nice once you got to know them. I got the impression that often times hikers had acted like they deserved special treatment and they were wary to open up, but once they found they could trust you they became a lot more pleasant. I did a my first (and only until Pennsylvania) slack pack. Slack packing is leaving your pack and doing a day hike back to where you started. The draw back of slack packing is that it burns through cash - 2 nights at the same place, plus shuttle rides two days in a row. I did enjoy doing 19 miles without a pack on though!


On the road back to Hemlock Hollow
 I had gotten away from Hotshot at Hemlock Hollow, he had to go home for the day to take care of some business, and I was looking forward to hiking alone again. I was trying to push myself to get to Damascus to meet my friend Dan, who wanted to come hike with me. The Trail was good, spring was blooming all around me, really showing its gorgeous face. The sights were pretty, I was going over those awesome southern balds, my Trail legs were getting stronger, and I thought I was adjusting well. Little did I know my body was still in shock from the adjustment of hiking every day. My weight was plummeting and my energy levels would soon be following...