"I'm going to do what I want, when I want, and you can't stop me". What an amazing start to the trip. Amanda and I are on an Amtrak train. She's sitting to my left (the window seat). Now I would like to describe to you who is sitting to my right. I don't know his name, and I don't know where he is from, but I do know he has had a significant amount of alcohol. How do I know? Well, let's just say I took a series of hints and put them all together.
1. He is currently chugging a budlight.
2. He opened his suitcase in the middle of the aisle and it was 50% beer by volume. He proceeded to ask me if I wanted a beer.
3. He pulled out a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels and said loud enough for the entire car to hear "Whoah, where did all this go? But look at me, I'm still standing!"
So I'm guessing he's probably drunk. Also, he keeps repeating over and over again "I'm going to do what I want, when I want, and you can't stop me" and I guess the Amtrak employees are just taking his word for it since they've walked by a couple of times to see his open suitcase and have said and done nothing. To top it all off, he is now screaming that he is a terrorist and that he can't wait for this train to flip over. He even has been mumbling about the twin towers some. I think the people on the train, under normal circumstances, would take him seriously, but he has currently slid down out of his seat and is laying in the floor. So I am now going to go to sleep thinking that there is only so much damage this man can do from the floor beneath his seat.
For all you who said the approach trail was intense, I agree. We were dropped off at Amicalola Falls Visitors Center at 8AM by Leigh from the 'Hiker Hostel". We did what all hikers do and weighed our packs on the scale attached to the corner of the building. Since the visitors center was closed there was no walking around inside. We fixed up our packs, made sure we had everything and said goodbye to the toilets, sinks, microwaves, and heating of the 'real' world. The skies were overcast and the temperature was 50 degrees F. By the time we reached the top of Amicalola Falls, we were in the clouds and it began to rain. We hiked the rest of the day in similar conditions. After 7.5 miles of very intense hiking we were nearing the top of Springer. Then, off in the distance, we heard the faint rumble of what all hikers fear as they are about to reach the summit of a very tall mountain: thunder. The rain intensified and the thunder grew louder as the storm drew near. We pushed forward toward the summit knowing that the safety of a shelter was a tenth of a mile past the peak. We passed the plaque signifying the start of the Appalachian Trail, but were unable to spend any time there due to the weather. However, I did take a second to forget about the storm and appreciate the fact that I was finally standing on the Appalachian Trail. It had been frustrating both Amanda and me that we were starting in the negative. The miles hiked on the approach trail are not counted as miles hiked on the AT. So after a grueling all day hike we had effectively hiked 0 miles. So I took just a second to appreciate the fact that this was no more and each step from here on out would count. Finally in the distance, shrouded by the fog and rain was the silhouette of a shelter. As we approached it, a bolt of lightening struck nearby giving off an ear shattering crackling rumble. We tumbled into the shelter, ate bread and candy bars for dinner and fell asleep soon thereafter. (Earliest I've gone to bed ever! 6PM)
The Coyotes are howling in the distance. They sound so playful. They have a lot more energy than we do at this hour, having hiked 11.6 miles today straight up and over mountains. Luckily for us the terrain didn't feel nearly as challenging as that of the AT Approach Trail. We started the day off by backtracking from the shelter to the summit of Springer Mtn, in order to sign the hiker registry. We read a few entries which were mostly funny, regarding being sopping wet and the thick fog (lack of view).
The weather throughout the day was gorgeous--sunny clear blue skies. It was 55 degrees F and we were hiking in shorts and a t-shirt. Lots of great views too... a welcome change from yesterday, when we weren't even sure that we were in the mountains because the fog was so incredibly thick.
Despite not training at all, we're not nearly as sore as we thought we'd be. At this point we've actually even passed two thru-hiking couples that started the day before us. We never thought that would happen, considering that I inherited 100% of my mom's athletic inability, and 0% of my dad's marine genes.
It's great to be on such an exiting journey and so far we're loving every bit of it. We're looking forward to the upcoming adventures as we trek northward!
Another tough day, but we are both doing great. We left Cooper Gap around 9:45AM. It's really tough to get moving when temps are in the low 20s. The ground crunched beneath us as we took down the tent. We set off over Justus Mtn and down to Justus creek. We filled up all our water bags and bottle and aquamirized them. We then began the climb up to Woody Gap. The views were spectacular! Nothing extremely exciting happened today. In fact, we haven't seen a single hiker in over 31 hours. The most amazing part about to day is where I am currently writing this journal entry. We found the most amazing tent site ever. For other hikers who may be interested in finding it, it is about 0.5m past Woody Gap. About halfway up Big Cedar Mtn there is a giant rock to your right with a phenomenal view of GA. You'll know it when you see it. There is a small side trail off to the left which will lead you to the tent site. I wish I had words to describe this view, but I fear such words do not exist. The GA countryside splattered with a thousand different shades of green. Forests and fields, mountains, valleys, and plains. It's all there. Off to sleep I go with the temps dropping into the 20s and the wind whistling, I should have no trouble sleeping tonight.
Today our biggest feat was climbing Blood Mountain--the highest mountain on the AT in Georgia, with an elevation of 4450 feet. According to The Thru-Hikers Companion book, the name supposedly comes from tales of the Creek and Cherokee in which the two nations battled ferociously on Blood Mountain until the ground was red and blood-covered. Josh and I wondered if the history behind the name was true/if they incorporate this story into their history, or if the name of the mountain was yet another savage Indian depiction. If the intention of the mountain's name is to pay tribute to this story and people, we also thought it should be named an Indian name.
Aside from our Blood Mountain climb, the day was mostly easy. We woke up at 7:45AM, and hung around in the sun at our gorgeous campsite location until we started hiking 2 hours later. Somehow we managed to hike 5.5 miles in the first 2.5 hours--lots of downhill. Towards the end of the day we ran into 2 thru-hikers (Kevin and Spencer) and a past thru-hiker (Gills) that was temporarily accompanying them. The three were practically running down the trail. We lost sight of them almost instantly.
Shortly after we made it to Neels Gap. I think I read somewhere that a mentionable percentage of people don't make it this far. As of right now we're still going strong! : )
For anyone interested in what we're eating--as thru-hikers we should be consuming 4,000-6,000 calories/day--here's what it's been so far: poptarts, trail mix, lipton noodles, instant potatoes, candy bars, crackers, bread, girl scout cookies, and my mom's perfect beef jerkey--our favorite! Tonight we grabbed hot dogs, summer sausage, and combos from the outfitter at Neels Gap... delicous. Josh has already started having dreams about food, but I'll leave that for him to share.
One thing we really started noticing today was how sparse winter wildlife appears to be. In 4 days of hiking we've seen 3 birds, and Josh saw a chipmunk. We also saw frog eggs and a spider nest/ball, but I'm not sure if those count. In the distance we've heard coyotes, geese, owls, and other miscellaneous birds, but mostly it's just us, the frigid wind, and the trees that creek like old houses.
My day started out on a funny note. In the process of breaking camp, I went to take down the bear bag from the tree (we hang our food up in a tree away from the ten to avoid any nighttime surprises from curious bears, etc.) and a man came walking briskly down the trail with his camera out and pointed at me. I was wearing all black, and he thought I was a bear.
Not long after we set out this morning the clouds rolled in and the rain began. After hiking a few hours without seeing anyone, I was incredibly startled to see a man emerge from the fog and gloom about 10 feet in front of me... with an axe over his shoulder. It was terrifying! He turned out to be "Old Graceful," a trail maintainer with a sparkle in his eye who finishes section hiking the AT this summer. The AT is possible due to volunteers who keep it clear and in great shape--their hard work is so appreciated. The other thing to explain is his name. AT hikers are given a trail name as they hike. I don't know the history of the tradition, but it's a tradition that everyone seems to embrace. Some people name themselves, others wait and give other people the privilege. Josh and I are still "nameless."
Due to the pouring rain, we spent the night at Low Gap Shelter with Dave and Kat--both from the UK, Dave has thru-hiked in the past; Chuck aka Lazerchuck, who sails and is from eastern NC; and Peiper aka Piper Hiker (www.piperhiker.com), who has a special bandanna for hitch-hiking. In total there were six of us, and it was a great group. We all shared a laugh about how spooky it had been to see a man with an axe and a rake on a day like today. We were lulled to sleep by the glorious sound of rain drops falling upon a tin roof. Everyone was snoring by 6:30PM.
Calling today a tough day would be an understatement. We woke up this morning 26 miles from the road leading to Hiawassee, GA. Our Thru Hikers Companion tells us that there is a trout farm with showers, washing machines, dryers, beds, satellite tv, etc. (all the amenities of the 'real' world) The only catch is that you have to show up before 6PM and even then there is no guarantee that there will be an available cabin. So we want to make the 26 miles in a day and a half arriving at the road early Saturday afternoon. We left the shelter at 7:45AM and began to climb out of Low Gap. The terrain was smooth and steady, so we made good time. Once back on the ridge line we began the very repetitive process of dropping down into a gap and then climbing back up the other side. This abruptly ended as we reached the 4025ft tall Blue Mtn. The trail summited this mountain and dropped steeply down the other side. The trail then changed from smooth and leaf covered terrain to something you would see a magician walk across barefoot. Rocks were everywhere. Covered in green moss these rocks were not only slippery, they were painful to walk on. After what seemed like forever we made it down to Unicoi Gap and crossed over GA 75 (road leading to Helen, GA). Sunlight was beginning to fade as we reached the bottom of Rocky Mtn (our second 4000ft mountain summited). We were both pretty disappointed that we had only hiked 10 miles when our goal had been 15. Needless to say, making it to Hiawassee by early afternoon the following day was not looking promising. This is when we decided to do something we had not yet done.
WARNING: Please skip the next section of this entry is you are: my mother, father, grandmother, or grandfather, or Amanda's mother or father.
We put on our headlamps and hiked in the dark. With fog restricting our view to only about 10ft and the sound of coyotes emanating from the valleys we began to climb Trey Mtn (4430ft) in the dark. The fog thickened as twilight faded. We talked loudly to each other in hopes of scaring any wildlife off the trail in front of is. After an hour of struggling up our third 4000ft+ mountain of the day we reached a large rocky area. While unknown to us at the time, we had reached the top. It took a bit of searching through the dense fog to find the white blazes painted on the rocks leading us across the peak. We set off down the other side, passing by the sleeping hikers in Trey Mtn Shelter. It's amazing how difficult foggy night hiking can be. Amanda and I found ourselves hiking off trail several times, mislead by the many water runoffs. As the exhaustion began to set in the ground leveled off and we began to look for a campsite. This too was surprisingly difficult. We eventually settled with a semiflat, briar dominated area only a few feet off the trail I'm so tired I can barely move the pen, but I had to write this to let you all know that Amanda and I had our biggest day yet: 16 miles.
We woke up this morning to find that we were only yards from an incredible campsite... guess that's what happens when you're trying to set up camp and all daylight has faded. We got up and moving earlier than usual in hopes of making it to the nearby town of Hiawassee, Ga--we had big plans to stay at a trout farm hostel, and to make it to all all-you-can-eat (AYCE) buffet.
It had been 8 days since we'd showered--we weren't stinky yet though compliments of the cold and merino wool (best stuff on the planet)--and we were quite eager to make it to town. That really made hiking tough. We could even see the road into town a few miles before we were able to reach it. We were ready for a break, and my knee was giving me a good bit of trouble, so the steps were grueling. Alas, we made it to the road!
We were greeted by a Sheriff who was in the process of clocking the speed of cars. Josh asked him about the hostel, and whether hitchhiking in GA was illegal, to which he responded with a wink and a "yes, but it's not enforced." Hitchhiking is our mode of transportation into towns for the next 6 months.
While he was talking to the Sheriff I said hello to a man who had been doing trail maintenance. His name was "Tater" and he thru-hiked in 2000. Then came our first trail magic experience! Trail magic is something unexpected, an act of kindness performed by a trail angel(s). Tater invited us to stay at his cabin for free. We were concerned that his wife wouldn't be too keen on the idea, but it turned out that he frequently lets hikers stay over. When Diane showed up she wasn't the least bit surprised. They offered their home to us so generously... we were able to take showers, do our laundry, and they even insisted on driving us to a grocery store where we picked up pepperjack cheese, crackers, summer sausages, apples, dried fruit, and peanut butter amongst other things. We all shared a great meal at a local steakhouse AYCE as well. The night was incredible, and the people could not have been any nicer. It was so fantastic to see what such a simple common interest can create between people.
We loved hearing all of Taters stories about his hike, and seeing his pictures. He said that it has "gotten into [his] blood" and there was no doubt about that. His wife had great stories too about camping and other trail magic they'd performed, such as cooking hot dogs for thru-hikers--she said a man from the UK had eaten 9!
I can't say enough about the day or the people. Diane and Tater have given us memories of extreme welcoming and generosity that we will never forget.
We woke up this morning in an astoundingly warm bed, to the irresistible smell of bacon, eggs, and toast. Tater had fixed a glorious breakfast for us, and it even included apple juice, which I'd been craving! It was so appreciated.
We packed up and got dropped off at about 10:30AM where we'd left off. We decided to take it easy today, and intended to camp a few miles short of NC. The food and quality sleep really fueled us, and before we knew it we had accidentally passed the place we planned to camp at. To our surprise we came upon the GA/NC state line sign. We were all smiles--we had made it through Georgia!
In celebration we had a delicious lipton teriyaki noodles and thai lemongrass noodles meal, paired with a campfire. As soon as the campfire started we were met with unexpected rain. It has continued all night long... but hey, at least we're in our home state of NC!
We woke up this morning as we have so many mornings before: in a dense fog. This, combined with the cold, made it difficult to leave the tent. We eventually cleaned up the mess from the previous night's campfire disaster and left camp around 9AM. The fog was cold, dense, and relentless. It looked like it was going to be another day of climbing to the top of a mountain only to see the same view we saw in the valley: fog. Amanda and I found the twisted oak and I took her picture as she hiked past. We then began to climb. It was a steep climb with many switchbacks.
It was only about two tenths of a mile into the climb when it happened. It was an eerie sight to look all around and see fog, but to look up and see blue sky. We hiked a little higher and found we were above the clouds. It was a spectacular view. It was as if were were standing at the shores of some mystical white ocean. NC greeted us the rest of the day with a temp of 65 degrees F and clear Carolina blue skies. Amanda and I took it easy today and stopped just short of Standing Indian Mountain. We will leave this towering 5498ft mountain to be conquered tomorrow.
So here I sit in the shelter. Clouds are moving in and the temp is dropping fast. While in Hiawassee we heard a cold front is expected to push through the area tonight bringing much colder temps and thunderstorms. We hope the rain is done by morning so we can have another dry day.
This journal entry is going to be very short considering I can barely move my hands. I woke up this morning at around 5AM to the sound of rain dancing on the tin roof of the shelter. Then came the thunder. it's sound rolled through the mountains making it sound as if it was all around us. It took over 3 hours for the storm and rain to pass. We set out soon thereafter (around 9AM).
I have an amazing wife. She impresses me more everyday. in fact, even you would be impressed with her today. She hiked carrying 30lbs basically nonstop for 9 hours summiting two mountains both above 5200ft. She climbed rocks twice her height and is now braving the cold in a sleeping bag that's not keeping her warm. She is tough. Including the approach trail, we've hiked over 100 miles across seriously difficult terrain. She's simply amazing.
The two tall mountains we summited are Standing Indian Mountain (5498ft) and Albert Mountain (5250ft). As a general rule of thumb, you would expect the taller mountain to be more difficult. not true in this case. We flew over Standing Indian with no problems. When we approached the top of Albert we were greeted with rock climbing and what felt like a million wooden steps. In fact, we passed by Zeus on our way up and hung out with him for a little while before continuing to the top. Once again, a view of nothing but clouds was our reward once we reached the top. Exhausted, we hurried down the other side and stopped at the Big Spring Shelter. The sun hadn't even set and it was already 28 degrees F. It began to snow and sleet as we unpacked our sleeping bags. It's cold, so off to bed I go. Goodnight.
Lessons learned when hiking in 10 degree F weather
1. It's really cold
2. Water freezes really quickly. I was smart enough last night to sleep with our two nalgene bottles so when we woke up they had not frozen. Both of our packs have holsters on the side for holding the bottles. The positioning of these holsters combined with a slightly leaned forward hiking posture means the water is constantly sloshing against the inside of the lid. 30 min down the trail and we stopped for water. It took everything I had to pry open the top. Once open, I saw that a half inch thick layer of ice was standing between me and my water. I broke out the knife, chiseled through, and we drank out of what felt like a sippy cup.
3. It's really really cold.
4. Unlike the water bottles, I forgot to sleep with our contact cases. Good thing I brought glasses, because when I want to put my contacts in, I found them suspended in a block of ice. The thought of chiseling them out with my knife did cross my mind, but I decided to wait and let them thaw out slowly. And yes, this turned out to be the best choice since apparently freezing contacts doesn't destroy them as I am wearing them now.
5. It's really really really cold.
6. Toothpaste can in fact freeze. We went to brush our teeth and basically had to stand on the tube to get anything out and when we finally did get something out it felt like your were brushing your teeth with a small white pebble.
7. It's really really really really cold.
8. It is possible to make a brick-like material by taking a pile of baby wipes, placing them in a ziplock, hanging them from a bear bag line and turning the temp down to 10 degrees F for approximately 10 hours. I'm certain you could build a house with what this recipe creates. It could be the building material of the future! (It has been sitting in a toasty hotel room for a few hours now and is still pretty solid).
9. It's really really really really really cold.
10. Finally, the funniest lesson learned is that a pile of poop doesn't stink once it has been chilled down to 10 degrees F. Frozen poop doesn't stink! Eureka! Or at least the moldering privy at Big Spring Shelter didn't smell and it smelled some kind of badly like poop the night before.
Amanda woke me up around 6AM this morning saying we had to go. She was cold and hadn't slept much all night. We set off around 7AM and it was so very cold. My breath kept fogging up my glasses making it nearly impossible to see. We were hiking through a winter wonderland which at first sounds great, but when it is 10 degrees F, you can't see out of your glasses, and about every 30ft or so the top of your pack snags an overhanging branch dumping yet another truck load of snow on your neck, winter wonderland becomes snowy sadistland. We saw some boar and raccoon tracks in the snow. This is as close to interesting wildlife we have come on this trip so far. In fact, when people ask us if we've seen any animals, we reply: "Yes! 5 dogs, 3 birds, and 1 squirrel" (and most of those were in NC. Have GA hunter's really killed ALL the animals?). We made our way down the mountain and crossed over Old US 64. I know Amanda has already introduced you to trail magic. if you think it is a joke, guess what happened at Old US 64. An older couple asked us if we wanted to go back with them to their cabin! I am still astonished at people's generosity. Sadly, we had to tell them no because we had a lot of errands to run in Franklin and we didn't want to burden them.
We hiked on another 3 miles to the new US 64 and hitchiked into town with another very generous man named Paul. Even after working in drywall all day, he was willing to drive a good bit out of his way to take us to the Microtel Inn and Suites in Franklin, NC. This hotel is great and I recommend it to all hikers. My dad was generous enough to do the research, make the reservation and even pay for the room. Thanks dad! Shoney's is about a 3 min walk away and it has a tasty lunch buffet (I am about to explode). I can see a Winn Dixie down the road and there is also a Wendy's and Arby's. As for the outfitter, I didn't really find it that helpful. It looks more like a clothing store with a handful of sleeping bags and thermarests than an outfitter. Well now I'm off to put all these journal entries online (the hotel has a computer with internet).