Hiking My Hike - Part 2
By Marcie Baria
This month - Marcie Baria tackles the Appalachian Trail solo again, this time with only her trusty dog, Oscar, for company. Click here to read Part One in our archives!
Of Husbands and Bears
He decides he will go with me.
The girls and I started at Dick’s Creek, about seventy miles from the beginning of the trail. I had decided I would like to do the first seventy miles up to that point. David begins re-deciding the part of the trail he wants to hike and all the other things that “David the-family-Travel-Agent” would normally decide. I do not like this—this is my pilgrimage.
Luckily for our marriage, he gets too busy to go, so it is just me (and Oscar) again.
The appointed day arrives. Oscar and I leave at six am, arrive in Hiawassee, Ga. around five pm. We check into a little mountain hotel, run into Hiawassee and I have my last, non-trail meal and margarita. Oscar contentedly waits curled up in the driver’s seat, enjoying my leftovers when I am through.
A Promising First Day
We are up bright and early the next morning, make (instant black) coffee out on our little deck beside the stream flowing outside our hotel door with my new (and previously tested) alcohol stove. We are at Sallie and Joyce’s by eight am. I leave my car at their house. They take me to the head of the trail and will pick me up when I am through.
Throughout this process, I have had a lot of people express their fears about being on the trail alone—“what about snakes, bears, crazy people…?” (I figured that (1) I have survived 24 years of law practice, so this should be a piece of cake and (2) as long as I didn’t see any lawyers, I would be fine, and just in case…I had bear spray.) As for snakes, I intended to make a lot of noise and keep my eyes open. As for bears, those on the Appalachian Trail are black bears, much less aggressive and dangerous than the Grizzlies out west. Most hikers never see one; they are notoriously shy. “I’m sure I won’t even see one,” had been my frequent refrain. And as for crazy people, I was hoping to avoid them; but, hedging my bets, I had Oscar, bear spray (much stronger than mace, capable of causing third-degree burns) and a good knife, the latter two I intended to keep in my Eno with me at night.
To psych myself up-- that I could in-fact sleep out in the middle of the woods all by myself--I (of course) did some more reading. Perhaps the most helpful book for me was “Untamed” by Will Harlan, about Carol Ruckdeschel, “the wildest woman in America and the fight for Cumberland Island.” Carol was a largely self-taught biologist who lived on Cumberland Island during the 1970s and 80s, off the coast of Georgia, establishing largely single-handedly that it was fishing (largely shrimping) practices that precipitated the ruinous decline in the world sea turtle populations. She managed this as a by-product of living (for the most part) in the wild, sleeping in the woods and on the dunes of Cumberland Island, dissecting sea turtles when they washed up, monitoring the invasive wild boar population during their night-time maraudings-- while continually subjected to their potential assaults—not to mention those of snakes and gators. Carol lived in the wilderness because she loved it and her discoveries were a result of her chosen way of life, not so much visa versa. Reading about her single-mindedness, fearlessness and wholesale disregard of convention gave me confidence that I could manage a few nights in the woods, on the relatively tame Appalachian Trail, by myself.
All of these thoughts about snakes, bears and crazy people are scrolling through my head as we head up the dirt forest service road that will get me to within a mile of the beginning of the trail. Oddly enough, there is no way to get to the head of the trail by car. You have to hike in—either six miles from a real road, or, you can use a forest service road that will get you to a point that is one mile down the trail from the start. This way you have to hike down the trail to the beginning, then retrace the mile you just walked, if you want to actually get to the beginning. I opted for the one-mile package.
As we round the last curve before my drop off, I see a baby bear waddling across the road, diving for cover on the far side as he notices us coming. So much for all of my predictions. I unload, say my goodbyes to Sallie, and Oscar and I take off at a trot. Despite the bear sighting, I am excited and ready to go. I do keep Oscar on the leash until we retrace our steps and then some from our drop-off point. We make good time, which is good, because despite our relatively early start, it was almost eleven am when we get on the trail.
The beginning of the trail is relatively busy. I pass several hikers who are starting out as well. Those that I stop to talk with are all planning several day section-hikes too. I figure that I will be seeing them again before long, when they overtake me.
All goes well throughout the day. I feel good, my feet don’t hurt. My pack is heavy—heavier than it was with the girls. I have to carry everything this time, and I can feel the difference. But it’s still all right. Late in the afternoon, I scale a stiff incline and impress myself at how strong I feel and what a good pace I am keeping. This despite the fact that I am carrying two additional large bottles of water because there is a long stretch of trail just ahead with no water source.
I am thinking that all my scary-person beach hiking (especially my fourth-of-July hike down the crowded beach) was worth it after all. That is until I begin having some sort of serious arrhythmia at the top of the hill. I keep walking, slowing the pace a little, giving my heart a chance to calm down and get back on track. Well, it doesn’t. It keeps charging ahead like a team of spooked horses. Finally, I lie back, as best one can with a large back-pack still on one’s back, on a large rock and see if it if will abate. Finally, it begins to slow down--so much for over-confidence. I decided I should find a good spot and set up camp.
Horse Gap is the next eligible spot, lucky for me it is at the bottom of “Arrhythmia Hill.” I will have done eleven and a half miles. Not too bad for a half a day on the trail.
When I get there, the campsite is located right next to a forest service road. This is not indicated on the guide that I use as my trail bible. This is not good. It is not recommended that one, especially a lone female, camp at sites with road access. This is where people tend to run into trouble. Usually “trouble” in human form does not appear as a fellow hiker. (I mean, who wants to hike up and down a bunch of mountains and buy a bunch of expensive equipment to cause trouble when you can cause trouble without having to do all that crap?). “Trouble” most often drives to--or at least close to-- the trail.
That being the case, I am still done for the day and that’s that, road or no road. And to top things off, the only two trees that lend themselves to Eno set-up are right next to the road. Great. Up goes the Eno. Then, lucky for me, here comes another hiker down from the hill--a man, looking to be about 60. He asks if I mind if he sets up camp a little down from me. “Heck no!” Oscar introduces himself.
Using my new alcohol stove, I make my first lone dinner. All goes well. The guy down the hill and I find a sort-of suitable tree and bear hang our food. We are all ready to turn in now.
I have debated what to do with Oscar’s sleeping arrangements since he won’t have the girls to sleep with in the tent this time. I ended up bringing him a little blowup mattress that I will put just under my Eno. I also have a little tarp that I am going to hang from the Eno to act as a little tee pee to keep the bugs and rain off of him. I climb into the Eno and call Oscar to try to situate him on his little bed. He is having none of that. He puts his front feet up on the edge of the Eno and makes clear his intent to sleep in it, with me. “Ok, ok.”
In he climbs. Lucky for me, the Eno is a double one. Much to my surprise, Oscar makes room (and the Eno accommodates him) next to me and passes out. Oscar is a surprisingly good Eno mate. He adjusts when I adjust and moves out of the way when I need him to with a minimum of difficulty.
About two in the morning, I am awakened to hear something scuffling around on the plastic air mattress I put down for Oscar. Hmmm, I think. I lie there frozen for a few minutes. “Ok, first, that guy is right down the hill; second, it can’t be that big cause I am not that far off the ground; third, it is starting to get on my nerves…” So, I hit my Eno and make some noise to scare it off. It doesn’t flinch. I turn on my headlamp and press my forehead into the bottom of the Eno to scare it off with the light. Continue scuffle, scuffle. Hmmm. After a while, I deduce that it is not going away. Out comes the iPad and I read until I put myself to sleep. It is gone in the morning. Oscar never woke up.
Day Two - Making Good Progress
Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we are off the next morning. My campsite mate left before us but we soon overtake him and come upon a group of guys from Florida at a stream with large rocks creating a handy bridge across it. We all stop there to water-up and rest a while. The group from Florida is all discussing how much harder it is to climb these mountains than they had anticipated—particularly coming from the land of sea level and no hills. We are all in agreement on this. After a brief rest, Oscar and I hoist our packs and head on up the trail.
All day we make good time. We don’t stop for lunch but share some Cliff bars along the trail. All goes well on day two, we end up doing about sixteen miles, making it to Jarrard Gap. There we come upon a family with two young children and a dog named Rowan. Oscar is thrilled. We are late getting into camp and hurry to get set up, make it to the spring .03 miles down the hill and cook supper before dark. We just make it. All goes well—no critters come to visit, or if they do, they are quiet and we both sleep.
In the morning, the mom of the family says that they had something scratching on the outside of their tent. Rowan slept through that too.
Day Three - An Unexpected Detour and a Midnight Marauder
Day three…we will make it to Neel Gap today! Thirty-one point 7 miles in! And at Neel Gap, there is a store and a shower! Before we make it to Neel Gap, we have to climb Blood Mountain. We begin the ascent; it is not too bad as ascents go. Before we know it we have reached the top. We find we have a lot of company. Blood Mountain is a popular day-climb from Neel Gap on the far side.
As we start down the other side, we are passing lots of day-hikers on the way up from Neel Gap. It is here that I learn that I can absolutely tell that these people have showered much more recently than I have. This gives rise to concern on my part. If I can smell them, they can probably smell me… they smell good…
We are not on the trail an hour before my feet start killing me. I mean killing me. I have already pretty much wrapped them in duct tape because of the blisters, but they are starting to swell, noticeably. And, of course, I begin feeling my shorts rubbing the insides of my thighs—and it hurts—like with every step. Oh great.
We soldier on, and as Murphy’s law would have it, the trail takes an immediate turn for the hellish. We climb incline after incline after incline but there is no good place to stop for the night.
My Xeroxed paper trail guide (pages from The A.T. Guide are my bible for how far I am from everything and where the next water is) has now gotten so wet—repeatedly-- it has almost disintegrated; there was no place on me to keep it that stayed dry and I had to consult it often, folding and unfolding it. I could barely still make out that the next shelter was at Whatley Gap, about seven miles past Neel Gap—making for about a twelve mile day. I press on, as fast as my lame feet will carry me. Finally, Oscar and I arrive, too close to dark for my tastes. The stream is .03 miles down the hill. We run down a couple of times to get enough water for cooking and drinking (putting in an extra mile or so just for good measure).
We just manage to get set up and eat before it gets dark.
As I take Oscar’s pack off, I see that it has rubbed him raw across his belly. In fact it has cut into him. I feel terrible. I am going to have to carry his pack for him tomorrow.
On the way down to Neel Gap, we had passed dozens of people. Since Neel Gap, we’ve seen about two, in over seven miles. Whatley Gap feels very remote, very quiet.
No one else is around.
Oscar and I retire to the Eno. I pull out my iPad, pop two Benadryl and read myself to sleep, managing to put the fact that I am in the middle of a lot of miles of inky blackness without anyone but sleepy Oscar around. About two am, I feel something scratching at the back of my head through my Eno. I am suddenly very awake. When panic subsides, I analyze the situation. Hmm. “Well, it doesn’t feel like a bear. After all, I am almost on the ground, I have hung my Eno low to accommodate Oscar….” “Ok, stop it!” I hit my Eno. It scratches my head again. I growl and make other (what I interpret to be) scary noises. It scratches some more. I keep trying the hitting, noises and headlamp things, to no avail. But, luckily, the other night when the critter was under my Eno, I thought that in the future I should put my hiking poles under me in case I needed them to fend off something in the night. Unluckily, I did not think to put them inside the mosquito net surrounding my Eno, so I would have to stick my hand down exactly where the critter was to retrieve said pole and risk being bitten by the rabid creature. So I opt to forego the poles.
This scratching thing went on for, oh, about an hour or so. Then the critter started licking my head. Great. I pulled out the iPad. I did my best to read between the licking and scratching. Finally, I was fed up. “Ok, I’m bear spraying it’s a**.” I pull down the side of the Eno, take aim directly under me and shoot. A strong blast launches from the can filling the air with hot pepper spray, but it’s not too bad inside the Eno. Silence…for about a minute… and here it goes again, scratch, scratch, dammit. Crap.
I give up and start reading. Oscar never wakes up.
The Slow Burn and Blisters
In the morning, I unzip the mosquito net and we crawl out of the Eno. Inspecting the turf below. I find that I have covered my hiking poles and water bottle in bear spray (which is oil based). Lovely. I make several trips to the stream to wash/scrub these off. (Another mile or so for fun.)
Finally after a protracted morning pack-up, Oscar and I set off down the trail—only to discover that the trail ends just past our campsite. “Wait a minute, I know this trail goes on for a couple of thousand miles…what is up with this?” We look all over, and the only way to go is back the way we came. It turns out that between my pain, haste and disintegrating trail guide, I have taken us 1 and ½ miles (downhill) off the trail to this shelter—three miles out of the way! (Not to mention the extra couple of miles I have trekked back and forth to the spring.) Cuss.
We climb all the way back up the hill 1 and ½ miles to the trail proper and proceed. Instead of counting today, I plant my poles to the chant of “dumb a**, dumb a**, dumb a**.”
As the day progresses, the palms of my hands burn, and burn and burn, thanks to my good aim with the bear spray. We come to a stream--I scrub them with sand. It helps some. Wiping my face with them, however, does not as my eyes start to burn like –well, like someone put hot sauce in them. My feet swell and swell some more. My shorts are rubbing the crap out of the insides of my thighs. Oh for some non-chafing cream! Oscar is limping now. Good Lord.
The good news is we have a long stretch of good terrain. After our initial climb, we jog about seven miles in no time. But it becomes more and more apparent as the day wears on, we are going to have to take a down/no-miles day tomorrow. I only have two days left to hike. If I take a down day tomorrow, then I will be getting back on and off the trail the last day. I don’t like this idea. I am thinking I may have to just get off tonight and stay off—come back for the next round. But, how to get off? Sallie and Joyce aren’t expecting me for two days. I will have to do seventeen miles to get to a road today and then, I don’t know if I will have cell service or be able to find a ride and it will be about dark.
Well, it’s our only option. We press on. I wrap my thighs in duct tape because I cannot stand it any more. This works until the duct tape comes unwrapped and becomes stuck to my pubic hair. Really!? What fresh hell is this?
At least we are getting close. The easy part of the trail ends. It starts up, down, up and up…. We limp. We sit. I lie down on my pack on the down-slopes. Oscar curls up at my feet on the trail. This has to be the last hill. It isn’t. Finally it was and down we went to Unicoi Gap, the road and a parking lot. Now, if I can just reach Joyce and Sallie. They answer, thank god.
Soon Oscar and I are ensconced in Sallie’s luxurious Subaru, on the way to my luxurious Prius and we have reservations at a “hiker hotel” in Hiawassee.
I have never been so happy to see a hotel in my life. To say that it was not luxurious would be a monumental understatement. But, it seemed pretty clean. (Admittedly, everything seemed pretty clean compared to us.) I cursorily showered, we go to get food and come back. I set about doctoring my feet, which have been reduced to one big blister. They are disgusting. The duct tape and dirt has formed a formidable sticky concoction that will not yield to soap, water and/or scrubbing. I will just have to live with them looking awful for a while.
I did what I could for them, cleaned Oscar up too and we climbed up in the bed and passed out.
The next morning we awoke, got in the car to go to the shipping store to ship my pack home (as we were now on the way to Massachusetts to pick Bess up from a summer camp at Amherst College and didn’t want to take it or ride with it in the car because it stunk, bad). As I pulled the seat belt across my shoulder, I winced. It hurt like crazy for the seat belt to touch my collarbone where my pack had been or to touch my hips where the pack sat. Every part of my body hurt. My feet were still swollen. I did not think I would ever recover.
But I did. Oscar and I made the trek to Massachusetts. I was surprised that by the next morning, I felt like a new person. I was not nearly as sore, and felt like I could have actually taken to the trail again. But, alas, children called.
My short stints on the trail were eventful, certainly challenging on many levels, fun, even. In hindsight, I undoubtedly pushed Oscar and myself too hard on our solo hike. Next time I will go easier on us. Next time I will not worry so much about being super woman and worry about looking around and taking a little more time. Even going too fast and doing too much, there was so much to see and so much to take in, so much that I did see and did take in. There was great challenge and gratification in having to make decisions and live with the immediacy of the consequences. There was a simplicity in this that is lost in my daily life.
But, perhaps the most significant thing about my experience was that being out there, doing something of my own, on my own, gave me back something I had lost in life’s maelstrom of finding a mate, establishing a career, having and rearing children and trying to do what I am “supposed” to be doing in life. The trail gave me back knowing there is a me outside children, husband and law practice…that there is a me that can aspire, that there is a me that can attain. My challenge now is to give air, light and voice to her, and not just on the Appalachian Trail.
Miss Part One of Marcie's AT Adventure? Click here.