Read the Abbreviated Version first, and if you want more punishment come back here!
Cathy and I recently went on a two night/three day backpacking trip along the Appalachian Train, from Three Forks up to Neel Gap. I blogged about my thoughts before the trip HERE. Overall, I enjoyed the trip, but we did run into some difficulties and trials.
The Good: Beauty. The Appalachian Trail really does travel through some beautiful areas. There were numerous wildflowers in bloom. Even the mushrooms were beautiful! Trail information. The reports I studied on water availability and other trail features were accurate. Our conditioning. Cathy and I were conditioned beforehand and the trail, while not easy in some places, never got the best of us. We were able to hike surely and confidently even when we had to go further than our original plans called for. Cathy especially has come so far, has worked hard to overcome her knee pain, and following her on the trail and watching her confidence in her ability now compared to times past was particularly gratifying. Kindness. As discussed in our pre-trip thoughts, there was a sixish-mile waterless stretch that we knew about and were prepared for. As we entered Cooper Gap, roughly halfway through this stretch, some kind soul(s) had left gallon jugs full of water for thirsty hikers who may not have known about that particular stretch. Thank you whoever you are! (See my note about trail grace below.) Mutual enjoyment. I really enjoyed being out there with Cathy and sharing all the beautiful scenery and even the toil of the trail with her.
The Bad: Blisters. Sore feet. Tired legs. These kinds of things are most likely unavoidable on a journey like this, but they are unpleasant and have to be dealt with and accounted for. Inconsiderate hikers. Just because YOU like a certain type of music or song doesn’t mean EVERYONE wants to hear it. Get some ear buds please, and don’t broadcast your choice of music for the world to hear. There is no need to yell or whoop unless there is an emergency that calls for it. Be respectful of other people’s experience. These types of inconsiderate behaviors make for a less than pleasant experience out on the trail. Heat and humidity. We expected it to be this way, but expecting something and living through it are two different animals. Our conditioning played a big part in overcoming this! Thundershowers. We expected these as well. The same idea of expectation applies- plus the fact that I didn’t properly prepare for the second storm. Reliance on technology. We had an app we were using to track our progress and plan our stops and refills, but it didn’t always work correctly. I had to use my faulty memory to fill in the gaps at times.
The Ugly: Campsites and other areas that had been left trashed by previous hikers. It’s one thing to inadvertently drop something, but you could tell that people had been deliberately leaving their trash behind. It was somewhat disheartening. Attitude and emotional control. I really need to work on the way I respond to stress, especially when I’m tired after a long day of hiking. When I let my frustration show overtly, that affects Cathy’s emotional state as well. Again it’s a matter of expectations vs. actual experience.
Lessons Learned (or reinforced): Attitude. It’s not always roses and daisies. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. When they don’t we have a choice about how we respond. I didn’t respond properly at times, and this made for a less than pleasant experience at those times for both Cathy and I. I really need to work on this. Preparedness. Because Cathy and I have been training consistently and strenuously, the physical part of the hike, while certainly no cakewalk, was not too difficult. We were able to keep moving up the steep hills and maintain a steady pace the whole time without pushing ourselves too hard. It was gratifying to see the hard work in preparation pay off when it mattered most. Also, we planned out our meals and decided which gear to bring and not to bring, based on prior (and admittedly limited) experience, and we were well prepared in those areas as well. Off the top of my head I can’t think of anything we forgot to bring that we needed out there. (The possible exception being some Parmesan cheese to put on our spaghetti Friday night. Everyone KNOWS you NEED Parm on your spaghetti!) Trail miles. How many miles between points on a map or in a guidebook and how many miles one actually walks between those points is two different things. The point-to-point info doesn’t take into account any side trips, detours or zig-zags and apparently Cathy and I made plenty of those, because our Garmin said we walked quite a bit further than the maps and guides did. (26 miles reportedly, 33 miles actually). Pitching tarps. When you know there is a good likelihood it will rain, pitch your tarp accordingly. On Friday night I pitched our tarp in “fair weather” mode despite the chance of bad weather, and when the rain started it blew in on us and Cathy particularly got wet. I can make excuses like sheer exhaustion, and we were both very tired, but it was a matter of laziness and denial on my part.
The People: Between Three Forks and Blood Mountain, we saw very few people. A couple of the people we did meet are worth mentioning. The first day, about four miles into our hike, we met a man from Florida at Hawk Mountain Shelter when we stopped there for a break and to filter some water. Ironically, he had been in the Marines during the same time as me, 1985 to 1991. He had planned a ten day hike from Springer Mountain to Franklin NC where he would rendezvous with his vacationing family. But before the first day was over, he found out his ankles weren’t going to hold up. So, instead of hitching to a nearby town and incurring the expense of a hotel, he was going to camp at Hawk Mountain shelter for the remainder of the time and have his family pick him up at nearby Hightower Gap on their way through to NC. He was a nice guy, he seemed like he was in good shape and we really felt bad for him, but he assured us that he was prepared to wait it out and had plenty of food. The two lessons I carried away from our encounter with him were: (1) you shouldn’t just throw on a pack and hit a trail like the AT for a without some physical preparation (unless you are prepared to be stuck in the middle of nowhere like this guy was) and (2) lighten your load as much as possible. This guy was carrying a pack well in excess of 50 lbs. Had he trimmed his pack weight by 15 or 20 lbs he may have been able to carry the load better and his ankles may have lasted longer.
Thursday evening as we were crossing Justus Creek and preparing to find our campsite we saw a mother and son who were out hiking together. We saw them again the next day and talked with the mother a little. Her trail name was “Believe” and his was “Grasshopper”. It turns out that Believe has had multiple back surgeries and open heart surgery. Her attitude was “don’t tell me what I can’t do!” It was inspirational that she was out on the trail. We saw them a few times between there and Woody Gap that day. I hope the remainder of their hike went well!
The Trail: There are ample sources to research on the AT all along its length so this will be a down-and-dirty review from my perspective. The trail was pretty easy from Three Forks to Hightower Gap. Immediately after Hightower Gap, it got pretty tough. The ascents up from the gaps were steep and it was a rollercoaster all the way to our first night’s stop at Justus Creek. After that first day, the trail seemed to get a little easier. But, on our second day of hiking, we just couldn’t seem to find a good groove. We would mean to stop for a few minutes but the stops would stretch out, and next thing you know a half an hour or more would be gone. Then around noon we were caught out in a thunderstorm, and we waited for it to play out at Woody Gap. Initially we had planned to stay at the Lance Creek Restoration Area, but as we approached that area we heard people already there yelling and generally being obnoxious. So, we filtered enough water and headed out to find another camp site, eventually deciding to stay on top of Burnett Field Mountain. In hindsight, I’m glad we pressed on, because that was about another two miles that we didn’t have to walk the next (our last) day.
The final day’s hike to Blood Mountain was relatively easy as well, and even the ascent although challenging wasn’t overly strenuous. The views on top of Blood Mountain were spectacular. The hardest part of the last day was the descent down Blood Mountain into Neel Gap- it was rocky and challenging and LONG! By then our feet were sore and it was punishing to walk down all those rocks and steps. Embrace the brutality!
The Views: The Appalachian Trail is sometimes referred to as “the long green tunnel” and in the Georgia summertime it certainly lives up to its reputation. Even at the very top of most of the hills and mountains we crossed there was little to be seen but leaves, although hints of beautiful vistas could be glimpsed from time to time. The first far-off views we experienced were on the morning of our second day, 15 or more miles into out hike. They were worth the wait! The views from the knob before Ramrock Mountain and then on the mountain itself, while limited, were beautiful. Then, after we crossed Highway 60 at Woody Gap (and after being stuck there in the rain) we ascended to preacher’s rock, with a nearly 180 degrees southerly view. After that the next far-off views weren’t available until Blood Mountain, the highest point on the AT in Georgia. They were stunning!
The Features: One of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing Balancing Rock, just south of the junction near Neel Gap of the AT, the Freeman Trail, and the Byron Reece Memorial approach trail. I couldn’t resist clambering on top for a quick photo. Neat!
One thing about the trail: at times we would walk along the trail for hours, hardly speaking with one another yet aware of each other’s presence, and I never got bored, or wished I wasn’t right where I was. Just being there, walking with my wife, was enough for those times.
There are always weird and cool trees to see, but this one- I have no clue how this came to be!
All told, even though the trip wasn’t perfect, and there were trials and tribulations along the way, I really enjoyed the trip and am thankful I had Cathy with me to share the experiences both good and bad. If you get the chance, I recommend you prepare for and make a similar journey.
P.S. Trail Magic vs Trail Grace- Most hikers refer to acts of kindness from strangers as trail magic. These acts can take many forms- hikers helping other hikers through tough stretches, strangers giving hikers rides into nearby towns or letting them stay in their homes, etc. We had an experience like this on this hike, where someone unknown left jugs of water along the trail in the middle of a dry stretch.
I prefer the term “Trail Grace” to “Trail Magic”. No one snapped their fingers or said some incantation to make those jugs of water appear. No, they had to procure the jugs, fill them with water, and ride down a long and dusty road to deliver them to that section of the trail. These people did this for others who they don’t know, who they will probably never meet, and who will never have a chance to repay them for their act of kindness.
Grace is showing unmerited favor to someone who doesn’t deserve it without expecting anything in return. These “Trail Angels” are practicing “Trail Grace”, not trail “magic”.