Why the A.T.
I used to feel around with my feet for bullfrogs under the mud in the ponds in the woods behind my house. I spent most of my free time wandering through them, swimming the Pearl, wading through waist-high flood waters of its tributaries during cold spring floods, finding bob cat dens, snakes, making forts, sledding down big hills in the winter (the rare years there was snow) and testing out the ice on the ox-bow lakes when they froze over —none of which were particularly good ideas from a safety perspective—but I didn’t know any better and thankfully no one stopped me.
As I got older, I developed other interests, namely Kevin and cheerleading. Then came college (art school) and, for reasons that I will have to get back to you on (when I figure out what the hell I was thinking) law school. Twenty-four years, four children and one husband later (I mean, he’s still around), it dawned on me that I HATED practicing law—so much so that it (at least I decided “it”) was giving me chronic migraines. Coincidentally, I guess, I was turning 50—and I left the practice.
That year our sixteen-year-old, Bess attended a therapeutic wilderness program called Second Nature in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia along the Appalachian Trail. My husband and I visited her during her stay in the woods and we all slept under her tarp, on the ground. (She slept under her tarp on the ground for 11 weeks throughout the winter of that year. Much to her credit, she emerged from this program sane(r), happy (ier) and less omniscient than she went in.) I emerged with a need to go back to the woods myself.
I had never been much of a camper, just a woods day-wanderer. But somehow it began to come to me that I needed to be in the woods as a purgative to cleanse my innards of the toxic residue of twenty-four years of law practice and—maybe most importantly—I needed to go to the woods as a pilgrimage back to something I left behind in the Pearl River woods a long time ago.
While visiting my daughter, we had run into some Appalachian Trail - which, I came to learn, is commonly referred to by those in the area and those hiking it as the “AT” - hikers at the hotel we stayed in the night before we met her in the woods. The thought of actually hiking part of the AT occurred to me then, but seemed a little out there (not to mention, umm, scary). And those guys and girls were all twenty-something to boot. After our return home my desire to be in the woods only intensified and I began to give it some serious consideration.
Things were rather complicated because of the children, the youngest of whom was six, and David—my husband (who for years had encouraged me to go take “girl trips” to Gulf Shores and other similar condo zones—which just wasn’t me). But I knew that going to the woods was and I was going to do this.
I had been living in the worlds of children and lawyers since 1990, trying desperately to keep up with all that they entail for so long, I couldn’t remember doing something I wanted to do. Frankly I had pretty much forgotten how to want something. Being a mother and a lawyer is sort of antithetical to wanting anything for yourself. But this was clear, I wanted…needed to do this.
So Much To Learn
I wasn’t sure how to begin, so I set about reading—what I do in the face of—well, everything. I read about through-hikers who do all 2200 or so miles at once, about girls who did it alone, about Jennifer Pharr Davis who set the speed record for hiking the whole thing, covering an average of 47 miles a day, about Grandma Gatewood hiking it three times in her sixties and seventies with only keds, an army blanket, rain poncho and shower curtain, about Lucy and Susan Lechter, the sisters that hiked it barefoot, about Bill Bryson hiking it, hilariously. I figured if they could do it, I could do it too. I knew I didn’t have the time to “through hike”-- but I could hike some of it.
I started planning. I talked my two daughters, 17 and 16 into doing some of it with me. It was very reassuring to me that Bess had just spent eleven weeks primitive camping and knew a whole lot about living in the woods.
I perused all the “what you need to hike the AT” lists I could find in books and on line (always keeping in mind that Grandma Gatewood did it with much less). I researched backpacks, water filters, shoes, water bottles, tents, Enos (hammocks), hats, hiking poles, knives, blisters, bandages, first aid items, coffee, food, read review upon review of all the camping gear, boned up on how much weight you need to carry, how many cubic centimeters your pack should be, whether to buy titanium cook ware or aluminum, whether to buy the Jet Boil fancy deal or use an aluminum can alcohol stove…and much more.
During this research period, my two overriding concerns about the trail were—(1) coffee and (2) reading material. I knew this endeavor was doomed if I were to be deprived of (good) coffee and (plenty of) books. (Maybe I am beginning to see why I have never been a big camper before.)
According to all the people who seemed to know what they were talking about, the number one concern you should have as you prepare is weight—keeping it down—‘cause you will be climbing straight up a rocky-ass mountain with whatever you take on your back. The super hard-core backpackers cut the handles off of their toothbrushes and the like. Undeterred by these, whom I would characterize as going-slightly-overboard on-the-weight thing enthusiasts, I decided that the best “books” option for me was bringing my iPad—with my kindle app on it, that way I would have lots of reading material (in the event I was so scared at night that I could not sleep at all and needed to read A LOT). Of course, charging it was an issue but I found that you could buy an effective solar charger for MOBILE DEVICES at REI—a big outdoor outfitter. There was one in Atlanta, so I decided we would just swing by there on the way to the trail and pick that up.
After much research on hikers’ coffee presses, cowboy coffee, instant coffee (au contrere) and milk-based creamers, I decided on (au contrere) Starbucks Via packs—yes, instant. They were the best choice weight-wise and they were actually good. The sacrifice I did make was drinking my coffee black— but I girded my loins in the face of this adversity and continued preparations.
Having resolved the two make-or-break issues, I started shopping for gear--I shopped on eBay, on Sierra Trading Post at REI, at Dicks, you name it—wherever I could find the best deals. It took me the better part of three months to do the research and the ultimate purchasing for a three-person hike. Before long the items were making a pretty good pile in our downstairs hall closet in anticipation of our early summer launch date.
My oldest daughter was graduating from high school in May, so things were a little hectic up until the end of school. The first week of summer vacation, our entire family was heading to North Georgia so that David and the girls could raft the Chattooga River while Max (the six-year-old and I did some other things). Then the girls and I were staying to hike.
Well, as ours are wont to do, the plans changed. Our oldest heard she had an audition for something in New Orleans the next week and “could not miss it.” I had sensed a complete lack of enthusiasm on her part for the whole hiking thing and think this was, ahem, a convenient and welcome excuse.
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So, we all drove back home, reshuffled the plans so my sixteen-year-old, her friend, JoJo, Oscar (our dog) and I could go instead.
The Friday before we were going to leave on Monday, we met at our house, laid out the stuff and divided up our freeze-dried camp meals including Katmandu Curry, Beef Stroganoff, Huevos Rancheros, Granola with blueberries and powdered milk, Pasta with pesto, New Orleans Red Beans and Rice, mixed veggies, cheesecake, chocolate mousse and apple cobbler.
Bess and I both had heavy, large packs. Jojo had a small backpack and was just going to carry some of the food and water. Bess designated me as “medicine man”, meaning I had all the blister stuff and other first aid supplies. Bess carried our “tool kit”—all the patching, cutting, extra-this-and-that bag and we divided the other stuff as best we could between the three of us.
While we had been in Georgia for the rafting trip, there had been some heavy rain. I had been planning on doing the primitive thing and just sleeping on the ground under a tarp in a sleeping bag, but after the rain, I panicked. The thought of lying on the ground all night long, soaking wet—and all my stuff being wet—and being awake for all that—was more than I could take (even if my iPad was working). The girls would be sleeping in a tent. So, I figured they could weather nights pretty well with the gear we had.
As for moi, I headed straight for Dicks Sporting Goods to the “Eno” section. Enos are the new cool thing for hikers. They are lightweight hammocks easily attached to trees so that you can sleep up off the ground. They also have mosquito nets that can enclose you totally and a rain tarp that will keep you dry (all sold separately, of course). In my panic, I dropped a bunch of cash for the entire Eno set-up. I felt better.
For cooking, I had ordered a dragonfly camp stove from eBay. I had not managed to purchase the gas canisters required to go with it, (much less test it out) but figured I would pick the canisters up on the way at REI along with the solar charger for the iPad and phone.
Oscar, our two-year-old part Border collie was going too and needed a backpack in order to carry his own food and water--another item we would pick up at REI in Atlanta. Hitting the Trail - Day One
Sunday arrived and my plan was to pack the car, attend a graduation party in the next town over (in the direction of the AT) for a friend of the children’s Sunday night along with Bess and Jojo, let Oscar stay in the car and get a start that night so that we would knock some of the ten hour trip off before morning.
We had a five-mile hike in to our first campsite the next day, so we didn’t need to get to the trail late. I hoped to get there by about two pm so that we could take our time hiking in and setting up camp.
But again the plans changed. Bess begged to go back home after the graduation party, get up early and leave… “I will drive and you can sleep…I promise.”
We started at about 4:30 the next morning. Bess drove for thirty minutes until it started pouring rain on I-10 and she flipped out. I drove the rest of the ten hours while she, Jojo and Oscar napped a lot.
We made our planned stop in Atlanta at REI. Since we were running late, we ran in, I grabbed the solar charger I had researched on line, Bess grabbed the Oscar back-pack and a warm jacket because the girls were short on warm clothes. Even in the summer, it gets cool in the mountains at night.
We checked out quickly and were on our way.
On the road I started calling services to pick us up from the trail and transport us back to our car at the end of our hike. I found one, Sallie and Joyce. They say they will pick us up in five days at Albert Mountain Bypass--thirty miles from where we start.
I had set a goal for us of about seven miles a day. I heard this was reasonable…so…. I figured we could do about that for the next four days and meet up with them on schedule. They tell us that we may have some cell service when we are pretty high up on some of the mountains and to try to call them to let them know about our progress along the way so they can gauge when we will be getting out.
A couple of hours up the road, we realized we had forgotten the gas canisters for the stove. This was only a problem with our freeze-dried food and only if we didn’t want to eat it dry. What was a problematic, was, our food, with scant exception, was all freeze-dried. To make a long story short, we took a hour detour and ended up at a Walmart that didn’t have what we needed. We decided we would just have to build fires—if we didn’t want to eat dry freeze-dried food.
Now we were really late and didn’t get to the trail until 6pm—yes, pm. I figured we had about two hours until dark. We were getting on at Dick’s Creek Gap in North Georgia, (about seventy miles north of the beginning of the trail back at Springer Mountain), just south of the North Carolina border.
We park at the little roadside lot at the Dick’s Creek AT entrance, strap on our packs, strap on Oscar’s, he doesn’t even blink, take a couple of pics and head up into the woods on the trail. Bess takes the lead, Oscar next, then Jojo. I bring up the rear. The trail starts out up a gentle hill then tracks level along the side of a easily sloping mountain. This is good. We can make good time. We are jogging so that we can make it the five miles to Plum Orchard Gap before we lose daylight.
The trees arch cathedral-like hundreds of feet above. It is still a bright sunny day back out on the road, but as we push into the woods, the colors go deep and the air becomes a luminous green, it smells green. The path is soft and brown under foot. It’s quiet and still but for our steady plodding.
Down at the bottom of the hill’s incline, there are large rhododendrons—which Bess calls “rhodo.” These are one of the most prolific plants along this part of the trail. Rhododendrons are the wild cousins of the ubiquitous southern azalea. While Bess was there during the winter, they used them as thermometers, when the temperature reaches freezing, the evergreen leaves roll into long protective tubes. They also grow where there is a water source, another helpful indicator in the woods. Lucky for us, they bloom later than their citified azalea cousins, the ones on the lower mountains bloom in June and those at higher elevations, significantly later in the summer. Its pink and white blooms appear here and there as we hurry along.
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The trail is, well, a trail-- basically 12 inches wide, which is a little surprising. I guess I expected something bigger. And someone has been through just a head of us with something (like a sling blade? :/ ) cutting prolific amounts of poison ivy that had apparently been growing out into the trail. It is lying all over the path. I mean lots of poison ivy, for miles. Yikes.
We keep jogging. Bess, Jojo and Oscar are troopers. Oscar trots ahead, not questioning his new gear or our mission, just glancing back at me every few yards. He is very glad to have a job to do.
After a relatively short time and while there’s still light, we descend to the base of the mountain we have been travelling along, coming to a wide place under a tall canopy of pines, the ground spread with an even carpet of pine needles. The trail branches out into another trail to our right and we see a sign. Plum Orchard Gap. We made it, quicker than we thought we would.
For all of our planning, or lack thereof, we did not bring water for this first leg of the trail. We have our filters and plenty of water bladders and bottles for the rest of our time, but…. We are really thirsty when we got here and all head down the trail to the shelter and to water.
We find our first “stream” here-- more what I would term a“trickle.” But, it works. A lot of these streams have pipes inserted (perpendicular to the stream bed) allowing water to flow into it at one end and out the other over the edge of that particular level of the stream, creating a little water faucet. This did not seem particularly useful or necessary to me until we came to some of the streams without a pipe. I discovered it’s pretty dang hard to fill water bottles in these very shallow streams and nigh-on impossible to fill a bladder (flexible water containers), of which we had a bunch we needed to fill to make camp each night. These pipes, it turns out, are both useful and necessary.
We fill our bottles from the cold stream, drink a few of them through the screw-on water filters that we attach to the mouths, and climb up a ways further on the trail to find the shelter.
The AT has established shelters at approximately five-mile intervals (give or take a lot). Hikers are requested to stay at the shelter areas or at other designated camping areas along the trail to avoid trampling and/or damaging vegetation and habitat all along the trail. The shelters are usually three sided wooden affairs built up off the ground that you can roll out your sleeping bag on and spend the night (and stay dry if the rain isn’t blowing sideways).
The problem is that during the spring, there are lots, I mean lots like thousands, of people that start out hiking the AT. Most of these have the intention of “hiking through” to Mount Katahdin in Maine. (A lot don’t make it, but that’s another story.) But enough make it far enough along the trail to leave a lot of food and waste as they go. Being resourceful critters, the woodland mice and rats have figured this out and have scoped the shelters out as good places to hang out. For this reason, we opt to camp near, but not in, the shelters.
Oscar inspects the Plum Orchard Gap shelter We find the Plum Orchard Shelter atop a low hill, canopied by trees, like the rest of the terrain we have been traversing. It looks a little like an enchanted cottage from a fairy tale, possessed of more architectural character than I had been anticipating. There are four college guys there with their Enos set up on the front side of the shelter. There’s ample camping area and a cowboy pit (established fire pit, usually ringed with rocks, that are ok to use to build fires in) on the backside, so we say our hellos, claim that for ourselves and begin set up.
Bess assumes Captain mode and starts directing us as to what needs doing first. “Mom, go fill all the water bladders for supper and clean up.” “Jojo, unpack the tent and start setting it up.” “Then everybody start wood-collect before it gets too dark to see.” “ Jojo, you filter the water Mom brings up for our drinking water for tonight and tomorrow.” Bess takes over fire duty and during short breaks, sets up my whole Eno contraption, which is sort of complicated. In the meantime, Oscar makes the rounds chasing scent trails into the woods and acquainting himself with the four guys on the other side of the shelter.
Before long we have everything in order, tent up, Eno up, fire going and water boiling. We won the race against dark. We, including Oscar, collapse by the fire and choose from our smorgasbord of dried food. I choose Katmandu Curry. Bess and Jojo have the Pasta with pesto. We all share the chocolate mousse. Amazingly, the food is good—really good. We feed Oscar from his pack and he snacks on a few almonds (his favorite).
One very cool thing about hiking the trail is that most people burn at least 5000 calories a day. Of course the amount varies from person to person, with the amount of weight you carry, the terrain you encounter and the distance you go…but we took heart at the news that we were part of the burning-huge-amounts-of-calories-club and decided that (even though we had only gone five miles that day) we could still eat whatever we wanted.
After supper we all lick our dishes clean, not because we don’t know better, but because that is a “thing.” Throwing out food along the trail, as discussed, attracts mice—and larger varmints—including bears. So it is not advisable to be throwing food scraps out around your campsite; thus, the licking your plate clean thing, and the “bear-hang” are trail necessities.
Once we lick our dishes clean, we wash them as best we can, throw the dirty water a ways away from our campsite, collect all “clean” dishes and edibles, put them in a couple of large stuff-sacks and string them up in a tree as far away from your campsite as you can manage after dark—which inevitably turns out to be a lot closer in the morning than it was the night before. That way, hopefully the varmints head for your bear-hang and not you, if they happen along at night.
By the time we get this done it’s about nine o’clock--midnight-thirty trail time. Bess and Jojo retire to their tent. I climb in my Eno for the first time—since I hadn’t set it up or tested it out (either) before we left home. It’s pretty comfortable. When I climb in, the parachute material rises way up on the sides, I can’t see out, and Oscar can’t see in. This, he does not like. He stands beside me, I pull the side down to see him staring intently at me. I assure him I’m ok, he’s ok. He’s unconvinced. I lie back down. He whines and scratches me. “Oscar, it’s ok.” Whine. “Oscar.” Scratch. Good Lord.
After doing a little wandering around, he settles down and lies right under my Eno but the bugs are after him. He keeps flapping his ears. Finally he has enough, goes to the girls’ tent and scratches to get in. Smart dog.
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Day 2 - The Going Gets Tough
We wake up in the morning to the sound of the guys in the front of the shelter heading out for the day. We take our time building another fire, making breakfast, packing up and refilling our water bottles.
Around 10:30, we are ready to hit the trail.
The trail starts out up a pretty steep incline. We make it up that ok, but, I feel every bit of my 40-or-so pounds of pack. I have hiking poles that help immensely. Serious hikers debate the use of poles, some arguing that it is better (for some reason) not to use them. I think they are smoking something. I could not have made it without them. Not to mention the fact that they are life-savers when it comes to helping steady and balance yourself over incredibly rocky and uneven terrain, they allow you to use your upper body strength to actually assist in climbing these mountains--and I needed all the strength I had anywhere for that.
I must digress here to try to communicate the difference between the abstract thought of “climbing a mountain” while walking along at home on the (very flat) beach and the actual act of climbing one with a forty pound pack on your back. There is a lot of just straight-up rock climbing involved—ok, rock stepping. But they are big rocks, bigger than stair steps and they keep on going a lot longer than any stairs I have yet to encounter.
The climbs are so much harder and more intense than I have imagined them I resort to counting to ten, only articulating the odd numbers in order to save my strength, with each plant of my poles. This helps to keep focus on the task at hand, helps me not quit and make me feel as though I have accomplished something each time I get to ten, small “something” though it is. It becomes so steep that we all take breaks every few minutes. Oscar, on the other hand, is doing just fine, turning around panting and watching patiently while he waits.
I should, in the spirit of full disclosure, mention the sweat. The temperature is in the 80s out in the sunlight. But the trail is almost entirely fully shaded and it is very pleasant, there are even cool breezes that grace us every few minutes. At night it is downright cool, high fifties. But the minute we start an ascent, it is as though someone turned on a mister all over my body and it feels HOT. Sweat begins running into my eyes, dripping steadily off of my chin onto my map wallet, which is attached to the chest strap of my pack. Within a few minutes, my hair and clothes, all synthetic, quick-dry clothes are soaking wet. I brought a hat, but it too gets soaking wet and it is too hot to wear it.
As the trail continues its upward trajectory on day two, Bess, who has taken the rear, falls behind. I didn’t really think about it (it’s hard to pay any attention to what anyone else is doing when you are at the point that you are only able to say the odd numbers when counting to ten). She falls even further behind once the trail becomes so steep that it turns into a set of switchbacks up an almost vertical incline.
Jojo, Ocar and I make it up a pretty good way when we hear Bess “blowing her emergency whistle.” Her pack is equipped with one on the shoulder strap in handy proximity to your mouth if you turn your head in its direction. I unload my pack on the trail (which is still only about twelve inches wide and barely clinging to the side of this vertical incline), Jojo and Oscar sit down on the trail, as best they can, and I start back down for Bess.
I find her a surprisingly long ways back, plodding, head hanging, shoulders slumping, blowing her whistle rhythmically with every other step. “Bess, what the heck!” “I can’t do it. I have to stop.” Eye roll. “Give me your pack.”
The End of the Trail - sort of
We continue, “camping” the Appalachian Trail for a grand total of four days and three nights. We experience a serious rainstorm on night two. I learn that my Eno does not leak, a welcome discovery. I learn that you start to smell really bad really quick when you don’t bathe and you sweat more than I thought humanly possible (and you have one set of clothes). I learn that I stay awake a lot at night listening for stuff so my iPad is a good call. I learn that “you” should test stuff out before “you” come out on the trail…like your stove, your solar charger (apparently I grabbed the wrong charger in our haste at REI) and your dog backpack (which was too big for him).
I learn a lot from Bess about how to manage things in the woods, I learn to tell white pines from yellow pines, I learn what hemlock looks like, I learn that you can make great kindling from the twigs.
I learn that Oscar is a great trail dog, that Bess does not really want to hike so much as camp, that Jojo is a trouper, no muss, no fuss, and I learn I need to go back, spend more time in the woods, as soon as I can.
Next month - Marcie returns to the trail - ALONE