November 18 ~ Stecoah Gap, NC at milepoint 2019.4 south, 159 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data - Day 156 AT miles hiked: 15.5 Miles left to go: 147.7 People we stayed with: Mitch People we saw on the Trail: 3 section hikers
Jake and I had a relatively easy day today. We slack-packed over the Stecoah Mountains, rising 2,000 feet above the area around Fontana Lake. Jeff Hoch kindly offered to drop us off at the Dam and pick us up in Stecoah Gap at the end of the day. This means we stay an extra night at The Hike Inn. But that’s just fine. The prices are reasonable and, more importantly, a snow storm is coming. I want to be indoors when it arrives.
Before our hike today, Jeff drove us to the Post Office and we got to see the tiny village of Fontana, NC. The structures were erected 50 years ago to house construction workers building the Dam. The alpine style architecture gives the village the look and feel of a ski resort.
Just off the Trail is a Trail shelter that hikers call the "Fontana Hilton," one of the nicer shelters on the AT. It certainly has one of the best views – benches on one side of the Shelter overlook the Lake.
Fontana Lake is a favorite fishing spot because it’s so clean. Its several hundred miles of shore line are National Forest on one side and National Park on the other – an unusual situation. With no homes abutting the Lake, and no industrial pollution, the fish are happy. Until they’re caught of course.
Meanwhile, the TVA’s turbine generators quietly crank out about $3 million worth of electricity each day at the base of the Dam, with AT hikers crossing over the top, on a mission to live with as little electricity as possible for six months.
I was a happy camper all day because Beth sent me some new tapes. Aretha Franklin, Little Feat, and Rory Block helped me up and over the first big climb.
Jake and I saw a bit of snow this afternoon – just a trace, enough to scare me a little. We’re counting down the days and the miles now, and racing against the weather. Ten more days of hiking lie ahead of us – less than 150 miles. The register entries in the shelters are filled with wonderment that we southbounders have come so far. It’s time to savor the moments, if the weather will only let us.
At 6 p.m. Jake and I reached Stecoah Gap, and Jeff met us in his pickup truck. Time to savor some dinner. Jeff drove us into Robbinsville, the same town we visited last night. The largest town in a very rural county, it features the following choices for dinner: Wendy’s, Popeye’s, Subway, and a pizza shop. Tonight we chose Subway, for a little variety.
Jake is eager to get back on the Trail. I can tell he feels cooped up, decadent even, in this motel room at Hike Inn. For me, I’ll settle for anyplace where the temperatures are warmer than what we have outside right now, which is in the 20s. Up on the mountain ridges, it’s probably 10 degrees colder.
November 19 ~ Sassafras Gap Shelter, NC at milepoint 2026.0 south, 160 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data - Day 157 AT miles hiked: 6.6 Miles left to go: 141.1 People we camped with: Tom (section hiker from Michigan)
The first serious snowfall of our hike kept Jake and me indoors this morning. We've had snow sprinkles here and there, especially in the Smoky Mountains, but today was the first time the Trail was covered with snow – 2"-3" mostly, but 6" in drifts.
Jake was raring to go all morning – the idea of hiking in the snow did not faze him in the least. But he reluctantly went along with my plan: wait til it stops, then we'll see whether it's a light enough accumulation to hike in. It snowed for several hours – the power at the Hike Inn (and elsewhere in Fontana) died around 11 a.m. This left us with no heat, no light, and soon no water at the motel. Without electricity, the Inn's competitive advantage over shelters in the woods was reduced. Everyone kept their spirits up, however; two guests made a snowman.
Just before the power went out, I called home. It was warmer in Massachusetts than here in NC. Beth was on her way out to work in the garden, while Jake and I were waiting out a snow storm.
By 2 p.m. the snow had tapered off. Jeff at the Inn agreed to take us back to the Trailhead but he doubted the wisdom of what we were doing. As we drove past the county sheriff, Jeff said "the sheriff would have a fit if he knew I was putting you guys out on the Trail." The sheriff, said Jeff, would be responsible for rescuing us if we got in trouble with the snow up on the mountain.
We, of course, were feeling very confident about our ability to deal with the snow and cold weather. Or at least Jake was. Jake is still wearing shorts and a T-shirt(!), while I am wearing long johns, long pants, and four layers on top. When I got to the top of Cheoah Bald, at 5,062 feet, my toes were numb and I began to think we were totally bonkers to trudge five miles up this mountain, even if the sunset was quite beautiful. We were looking out at rough-hewn mountain tops, sticking up through the clouds like islands in a light gray sea, and illuminated in the orange-pink glow of the setting sun. But who could fully appreciate such scenery when thoughts of dying in a snow bank on a remote mountain ridge are crowding the mind?
I fell only once, despite steep, slippery slopes up and down the Trail. It was like cross-country skiing, but without the skis. We slid down the hills, and planted our feet sideways to climb. When I fell, I was sliding down the snow, on my derriere, with the snow accumulating between me and my pack and forcing its way up and under my shirt – all in all, a memorable experience.
My one saving grace was that, because I was following Jake’s footsteps in the snow, I did not have to worry about looking for blazes on the snow-covered trees. To be sure, he could be leading both of us on a wild goose chase, but at least we’d be lost together. He stayed on the Trail, however. We did not see any wild geese, but we saw the three-toed imprint in the snow of wild turkeys.
We reached the shelter just after sunset. This was not one of the more elegant shelters. It’s tiny – big enough for four people at most – and the floor is barely higher than the snow. A good wind toward the open side of the shelter would bury us in a drift.
We shared the shelter with Tom, a section hiker, who sensibly called it a day at 4 pm and climbed into his sleeping bag at the shelter. I, too, climbed into my bag immediately and cooked dinner, and ate it, with my gloves on. I never actually got warm the whole evening, and I knew I would not get much sleep because of the mice. We thought they would not venture out into the snow on such a chilly night, but we were wrong. They began exploring our gear even before we had finished our dinner.
Can it get worse than this – cold, with wet clothes from the snow, a dampened sleeping bag, and mice dancing circles around my backpack, just inches from my face? I don’t know, but with a cold wave expected to continue all week, I imagine I will soon find out.
November 20 ~ Wesser Bald Shelter, NC at milepoint 2038.8 south, 161 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data - Day 158 AT miles hiked: 12.8 Miles left to go: 128.3 People we camped with: just us People we saw on the Trail: 2 day hikers
I looked out at a frozen, snow-covered landscape this morning at 6 a.m. and decided that my only hope of getting warm was to begin hiking. But first I had to answer nature’s call, which meant donning my frozen boots and venturing out into the snow. This is more easily said than done – it was like trying to force my feet into wooden shoes made for someone else.
My water bottles were frozen but I made some oatmeal with water from a sack that I had tucked under my sleeping pad. I poured a little of the boiling water into each water bottle to defrost it.
One advantage of getting up before dawn is watching the sun rise. The shelters are usually tucked into the woods, down in a "holler" or gap. The Trail, up on a ridge, gave me a colorful surprise at about 7:15. Half an hour later, my feet were no longer numb – my boots had thawed and now my feet were merely wet and cold, rather than frozen.
There were animal tracks galore in the snow – turkeys, coyotes, and wild boar. Even a couple of people had ventured out into the snow. One set of people tracks suddenly and mysteriously stopped. I looked around, then up into the nearby trees. Was this person abducted by aliens, snatched abruptly from the Trail? Another unsolved mystery.
Jake and I encountered a sad marker on the Trail today. Halfway to Wesser, the mid-point of our hike today, stands a low stone pillar with a bronze plaque: "On December 7, 1968, 783 feet southwest from this point, Wade A. Sutton, North Carolina Forest Service Ranger, gave his life suppressing a forest fire that you might more fully enjoy your hike along this Trail."
At lunch time we reached Wesser, a remote outpost that straddles the Nantahala River. There's not much to the town except the Nantahala Outdoor Center, with a collection of buildings providing services for white-water rafters and kayakers. This is the last vestige of civilization on the Trail for the next 100 miles, and so Jake and I stopped for lunch. I used the laundromat to dry out my sleeping bag and Jake's socks, and made some calls. (Plans for re-entry into life at home and at work are underway.) For me, leaving Wesser was hard because we're heading into 6 days of very cold Trail, with nights in the 0 - 30 degree range.
Climbing out of Wesser -- 2,500 feet over 5 miles, through the snow -- was slow going. But the constant exertion warmed us. Jake was still wearing shorts, but he broke down and bought a fleece hat and gloves at the outfitter's short in Wesser. My moods seem to swing in direct proportion to my body temperature, so I was just fine until about 5 p.m., when the Trail leveled out, the sun was setting, the wind picked up, and a deep chill set in.
This evening I set up the tent inside the shelter to fend off the mice and give me some additional warmth. I am writing this journal entry with gloves and hat on, and almost all of me inside a down bag. Even with my several layers of clothing and the tent, I am cold to the point of distraction. Time to call it a night and pray for endurance.
November 21 ~ Andrews, NC at milepoint 2045.7 south, 162 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data - Day 159 AT miles hiked: 6.9 Miles left to go: 121.4 People we stayed with: just us
Today the cold became too much for me and I did something I had always hoped I would never have to do: I used the cell phone to call for help. Ridiculously cold weather had kept me up most of the night. I awoke just after midnight, shivering and wondering how I was going to make it through the night. I thought I could fend off the cold if I started hiking, with virtually no moon light and sub-freezing temperatures, that seemed too dangerous.
I decided to try an experiment: I tried to simulate the experience of hiking by doing isometric contractions -- tensing the muscles in my feet, my calves, my thighs, and so on, in sequence, throughout my body. This worked to a limited degree -- I got just barely warm enough to go back to sleep. I dreamed that Jake and I had gotten off the Trail only to find ourselves in an apartment building with no heat. In the dream I was walking around the building asking the other inhabitants how they managed to live in their heat-less apartments.
As I woke, exercised, and then drifted off to an unsettled sleep for a while, I was starting to feel panicky -- trapped by the unrelenting cold weather. I felt guardedly optimistic, however, that I would be OK once morning came and I started hiking again.
At 5 a.m. I decided it was time to get up and get moving even though it would be two hours before daylight. I tried to light our stove to make some oatmeal, but the butane lighter was too cold to light. I stuffed it between my glove and hand so that it would capture some warmth while I packed up my tent and gear. The lighter finally lit. My water bottles had frozen during the night, even though they were lying next to my sleeping bag through the night. I opened one of them, broke through the ice, and found just enough water to make oatmeal. Breakfast hardly put a dent, however, in the chills that kept me frantically packing my gear, trying to keep short the cold interval between being cocooned in my sleeping bag and the exertion of hiking.
At 6 a.m. I wrote out a note to Jake with a ballpoint pen that would barely write in the cold. I told him that I was FREEZING and therefore I was going to try to hike the 22 miles to US Route 64, which leads to the nearest town (Franklin, NC). I knew I could not spend another night like the one just past. I woke Jake and told him the same thing and showed him the note, in case he went back to sleep and forgot what I said.
Hiking through the snow, by flashlight in the hour before dawn, barely warmed me at all. I tried to distract myself from obsessing about the cold. I listened to the radio, hoping to hear an encouraging weather forecast. I climbed the 20-foor observation tower at Wesser Bald as the sky reddened and saw Franklin's lights in the distance.
At 7 a.m., my feet began to thaw but my hands were still numb. The weather forecast came on: temperatures in the teens and winds increasing to 35 mph, with a wind chill advisory for the area. This forecast of harsh conditions in the valleys meant even more alarming weather in the mountains.
I had no drinking water, only ice. I put both of my water bottles under the front of my jacket to thaw them; this gave my torso an interesting shape. Slick ice, on the south facing slopes where snow melted during the day and froze at night, sent me flying and generally added excitement to my morning.
By 10 a.m., I was frozen. I had hiked seven miles, and my hands and feet felt numb, close to frostbite. The temperature, according to my pack thermometer, was 15 degrees; it had dropped 2 degrees in the last few hours. The wind was picking up and cutting right through me. At this point I had reached Burningtown Gap, where a passable dirt road dead-ends at the Trail. Lying ahead of me was 15 miles of Trail, with no assurance that I could get off elsewhere.
Jake had not yet caught up with me, but I did not think it was safe to postpone a call to 911 to find out if I could get off the Trail. I was very reluctant to call for help. I knew Jake would be appalled, and I did not want to disrupt our schedule or end our hike prematurely. But no hike is worth losing fingers or toes.
I was very relieved to discover that my tiny cell phone was still working in this cold and that I was in a decent zone for reception. The county emergency squad said they could get to me by noon.
I needed to stay warm for two hours. I found a patch of sunny ground and paced back and forth, periodically clenching my fists to warm them. While I paced, I looked up at the Trail, hoping to see Jake. I pulled a book out of my pack to read while I paced -- "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier. (Cold Mountain is less than an hour from Burningtown Gap.)
An embarassingly large contingent of rescue squad personnel (all volunteers) showed up around noon with a pickup truck and rescue van. I warmed up in the pickup while we all waited for Jake to show up. I knew he would come strolling down the Trail eventually, probably in shorts, and be astonished -- indeed, mortified -- by the commotion I had created.
At 1:30 p.m. three members of the rescue team suited up in their winter gear to go find Jake. Before they moved out, however, Jake appeared, wearing (thank God) long johns under his hiking shorts. I walked a few yards up the Trail to greet him and explained what was going on. Jake graciously agreed to join me in leaving the Trail. I have no doubt that he could have continued hiking -- he doesn't react to cold the way I do.
But even colder weather is on its way tonight, according to the rescue squad, who deposited us in Andrews, NC, where a motel took us in for the night. Members of the squad encouraged us to be careful about getting back on the Trail. Two hikers died from hypothermia in 1993 on the same section of AT that we were about to hike. We thanked them profusely; one of the drivers said: "Have a Jesus-filled day."
Down here in the valley, where the temperatures are ten degrees warmer and the winds milder, it's easy to forget how bitterly cold it was on the mountain ridges of the Trail. It's also easy to feel frustrated by the delay, which will almost certainly cause a change in our plans for a November 29 homecoming. But I also have to thank my lucky stars that Jake and I are safe and not braving the elements tonight.
November 23 ~ Carter Gap Shelter, NC at milepoint 2076.2 south, 164 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data - Day 161 AT miles hiked: 19.5 Miles left to go: 90.9 People we camped with: just us People we saw on the Trail: a few hunters and 2 section hikers
I woke up this morning with a smile on my face. Although the thermometer said it was below freezing, I was almost warm! I was rolled up in my new fleece blanket inside my sleeping bag. I had filled a water bottle with hot tea last night and buried it in my bag next to my feet. My boots weren't frozen, because I had wrapped them up, with my wet socks, in my pack cover and planted them under my head as a pillow. I wore my gloves and fleece hat all night; this has become my habit for about two weeks.
My only regret on this Thanksgiving Day was that Jake and I could not spend it with our family. Visions of stuffing and yams danced through my head all day.
At midday, Jake and I caught up to 4 other SoBo's (Rolling Stone, Huck, Big Guy, and Crazy Girl) at the Rock Gap Shelter. They had gotten off the Trail at Franklin, NC, and returned with ham, cranberry sauce, stuffing mix, and other seasonal fare. Rolling Stone, who had worked as a chef in college, was presiding over the early stages of food preparation. They invited Jake and me to join them for dinner, but we needed to press on. Before leaving, however, I had a taste of cranberry sauce, and a flood of remembrance of Thanksgivings past washed over me - a heavenly sensation.
This pilgrim has much to be thankful for today. In addition to the joys of living in the woods (more enjoyable on some days than others) and hiking with my son (which I always enjoy), we are nearing our goal, Springer Mountain. At lunch time we crossed the 100-miles-to-go line! I am also grateful for the wonderful support and encouragement that Jacob and I have received from our family and friends, my colleagues at Hill & Barlow, and from Trail angels along the way. It may seem like we are making our way down this ribbon of Trail by ourselves, but there are an awful lot of people whose good wishes and material support propel us along.
At dinner tonight we had Lipton's macaroni and cheese -- not exactly a traditional Thanksgiving meal, but a banquet compared with what people in many parts of the world are eating. And we are in a relatively dry shelter. The rain that is beginning to blow sideways across the face of the shelter is not coming at us. Jake and I are worried, however, about the predictions of continuing rain. Up here in the mountains that could mean snow, or sleet, or hail. With any luck we will cross the line into Georgia tomorrow, and that will be very exciting indeed.
A side note: this morning as I was hiking, I was watching my feet, my mind floating off into the ozone, and I nearly tripped over a camouflaged deer hunter who was crouching in the leaves at the edge of the Trail with his rifle. I was so startled and frightened I barely knew what to say. I asked him how he was doing. "Haven't seen any deer yet," he said. I said "good luck," but I felt like a hypocrite, because I hope (for the deer's sake) his hunting-luck was not so good.
A further side note: with the temperatures seldom rising above freezing these days, and privies seldom seen at the shelters in this area, I've had to develop a new skill -- finding a patch of unfrozen ground at the appropriate time. My orange plastic shovel (about the size and shape of a hand trowel) is no match for most of the frozen soil. But even on the coldest days, it is possible to find a spot where the sun shines directly and the ground is unfrozen. Perhaps there's a metaphor for life in there somewhere.
November 22 ~ Siler Bald Shelter, NC at milepoint 2056.7 south, 163 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data - Day 160 AT miles hiked: 11.0 Miles left to go: 110.4 People we camped with: just us People we saw on the Trail: 2 section hikers, two day hikers
With some trepidation because of the cold weather, Jake and I returned to the Trail today. We watched the Weather Channel inetntly at the motel where we stayed last night. A slight warming trend is predicted: lows in the 20s instead of the teens, with more precipitation possible, but not for a few days.
I did a few calculations before going to sleep last night and showed them to Jake: if we got some warmer equipment in the morning, we could go back to the Trail at lunch time and, with a few 20 mile days, finish on time. If more snow comes, all bets are off. Jake said OK, let's go for it.
I called the Wal-Mart in Murphy, NC, 15 miles away but the nearest place where we could buy fleece blankets, hand warmers, and heavier gloves. It was late, and I didn't think anyone would answer the phone, but I wanted to at least get a recorded message with store hours. Instead, I reached a person! The store is open 24/7, and my call was transferred to the camping equipment department. Yes, a friendly voice told me, they have the items I need.
At 7 a.m., with the sun not quite up over the mountains that surround Andrews, NC, I got out on the four-lane highway and started hitching. For half an hour the cars and trucks roared by. Then I heard a voice yell from a car at the intersection behind me: "you want a ride, come on down here." I ran.
The gentleman said that his name was Bill, and he too was going to the Wal-Mart. He works there. After I told him about hiking the AT, he said: "Didn't I talk to you on the phone last night?" It turns out he was the friendly voice in the camping department. We marveled at the coincidence, which somehow made us feel like old friends.
At the store Bill showed me where to find what I needed. I needed his help, as it turned out, because the store was cavernous -- there's a full-scale grocery store tucked into just one side of it. The store seems to sell everything except cars.
When I got back to the highway, I again waited for half an hour and once again got lucky. A sheetrock contractor and musician named Rick pulled over in his van. He and his assistant Jeff took me back to the motel and then offered to drive Jake and me back to the Trail.
We loaded up our gear, Rick stopped to pick up his 12-year-old son, and we were off. The drive up to Burningtown Gap was a bit of an adventure. The Gap is way up a dirt road, high above a remote "holler." Jeff knew the way, mostly. We stopped at a tiny country store in Nantahala to confirm the route. The store owner asked: ain't you the fellas that came off the mountain yesterday? Yes, that was us, I said. Evidently it doesn't take long for everybody to know everything that happens around here.
Rick's van almost made it to the top of the winding, icy, one-lane road that leads to the Gap. Soon the wheels did nothing but spin on the ice. Jeff, Jake and I helped Rick turn the van around. Once it was pointed down hill, we exchanged addresses. Rick and his son shook hands with Jake and me, and the two of them wished us well. (They reminded me of how Jake and I looked when we first started hiking together.)
Our hike up the last stretch of icy road was only about half a mile. Jake and I ate some lunch and then stayed close as we hiked the 11 miles to the next shelter.
Snow still covered most of the Trail. In a few spots, on south-facing slopes, the snow was gone; on the north-facing slopes, the snow drifted deeper. But the sun was out, and the weather was a bit milder than yesterday. As I pulled into the shelter and started dinner, I thought to myself: we might actually be able to get to Springer Mountain and home by 11/29, as planned.
A side-note: I've been hoping to see some of the wild boar that roam these woods -- preferably from a distance, because they have nasty tusks. We have seen evidence of their digging along the Trail. This evening I heard one in the woods but couldn't see it. The sound was very much like the snort of a pig. The boar are mostly nocturnal and tear up the soil looking for roots to munch on. Apparently they have no predators around here and are not scared of people. Maybe it's just as well that I wasn't close enough to see it.
November 24 ~ Muskrat Creek Shelter, NC at milepoint 2088.8 south, 165 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data - Day 162 AT miles hiked: 12.6 Miles left to go: 78.3 People we camped with: just us
Jake and I have been hiking through snow for the last 6 days. Whatever novelty or charm the snow added to our hike has worn off. The snow keeps our feet wet all day because it gathers on our boots, where it eventually melts because of body heat inside the boots. With temperatures in the 20 - 40 degree range, our feet somehow manage to stay warm enough while we are hiking, but are almost unbearably cold once we stop. In the evening, my feet look like prunes, and icy water pours from my socks when I wring them out. I have one set of hiking socks (always wet) and one set I sleep in (mostly dry). This morning Jake and I tried an experiment: to relieve the shock of putting on wet, cold socks, we "cooked" them on top of the lid of our cook pot by boiling water just underneath. This was a bit time-consuming and probably did nothing to improve the flavor of the food we cook in the pot. Moreover, the effect of putting on warm, wet socks was lost almost immediately when we put on our freezing cold boots, which made my feet feel like they were sitting in a bucket of melting ice. Tomorrow I am going to dispense with cooking the socks; I'll just grit my teeth and start hiking.
This morning we were about to pack up and hike when Jake pointed out that snow was beginning to fall. Jake has no raingear right now, having sent it home some time ago. I think he would send for it, if we could somehow get it right away. For the moment, however, we have decided not to hike in snow or freezing rain so as not to invite hypothermia.
We both settled into our sleeping bags to read for an hour or so. Then the snow stopped. We packed up; we cooked our socks. We got suited up for the cold. I had nearly hoisted my backpack when it began snowing again. At this rate, it was going to be a long day.
By 11 a.m. the snow seemed to be taking a long enough break to warrant hiking. Jake and I made plans to meet at each shelter along the way because more precipitation was predicted. But with our late start we were able to bang out only 12.6 miles before dark, instead of the 20 miles we had planned. The flurries and drizzle that dogged us all day turned into serious rain after we reached this shelter.
As we made plans for hiking tomorrow, we both had to admit that we will not finish the Trail on 11/29 as planned. Rain is predicted for the next 3 or 4 days. There are not enough hours of daylight between now and 11/29 to get to Springer Mountain and then to the Atlanta Airport if the rain and cold weather continue. We will probably take a bus home and get there a few days later than planned -- not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But I feel badly about the delay because my sabbatical ends on December 1. Another lesson of the Trail: equanimity in the face of changing circucmstances.
Just after lunch, I caught up with two weekend hikers -- Mark and Louie -- who stayed at a shelter near ours last night. They decided to head home to Florida because the weather was so miserable. At a road crossing, where they had parked their SUV, they bestowed a little Trail magic on us by offering us their extra provisions. As a result, we had an excellent dinner this evening: spicy rice and beans, with Monterey Jack, rolled up in a spinach-flavored wrap, thanks to our Trail angels. The extra food will help us ride out the coming storms -- our next mail drop is 50 miles from here.
Although the weather has been throwing obstacles our way, the Trail is getting a little easier. Today we crossed our last 5,000-foot mountain -- Standing Indian Mountain. The terrain has also become less rocky since we left the Smoky Mountains, although now it is covered with snow.
This evening, just before reaching the shelter, I smelled a fire. I could see through the trees two campers sitting next to a tent and a campfire, about 30 yards off the Trail. I found the side trail to their encampment and asked them if they know about the weather forecast (cold rain, possibly heavy, through the night and tomorrow). I said that the next shelter, where I was headed, was only a half mile away. The young couple said they preferred tenting. The young man mentioned that he had hiked the AT last year -- his Trail name was Alpine, so he probably knows something about camping in the snow. Alpine and I felt an immediate rapport as we talked about the Trail. It was as if we were members of the same tribe, but different clans: he knew one set of hikers and I knew another.
As I think about the days ahead, after this hike is over, I know I will feel somewhat exiled from both the tribe and the clan. I will be rejoining my family, with whom I have closer ties. But there is an intensity of experience I have shared with the other members of our tribe on the AT that I will probably never replicate, and I will miss that a great deal.
November 25 ~ Plum Orchard Shelter, GA at milepoint 2096.1 south, 166 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data - Day 163 AT miles hiked: 7.3 Miles left to go: 71.0 People we camped with: 2 weekend hikers from Georgia
Jake and I crossed the line into Georgia today! The line is marked by a tiny, unobtrusive wooden sign that says simply "NC/GA". I would have missed it but Jake was setting up our camera for a picture and called out to me.
A few minutes before, I had stopped at a gnarly oak tree that stands in Bly Gap, which is where I thought the Georgia state line was located. I closed my eyes and let my mind roll back the tape of our hike through the other 13 states, ticking off the highlights, but in reverse order: the Smokies, Max Patch in NC, Tinker Cliffs and the Shenandoahs in VA, Harpers Ferry, the MD challenge, Palmerton and the rocks of PA, Delaware Water Gap, the unforgettable mosquitoes of Pochuck Mountain in NJ, the Graymoor Friary in NY, Bear Mountain in CT, blueberries in MA, endless rain in VT, Franconia Ridge in NH, Mahoosuc Notch, Chairback Mountain, and the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine. Then, of course, there was Katahdin. When I opened my eyes, I felt dizzy. I looked back up the Trail that led us here, astonished at the distance we have covered.
I was halfway expecting that when we reached Georgia the sun would come out and our surroundings would display a peachy glow. But the rain that started last night and continued through most of the day left a residue of fog that gave the woods a dark, spooky look.
Jake and I almost took a "zero" today because the rain was so unrelenting. We spent most of the day at the Muskrat Creek Shelter, reading and barely getting out of our sleeping bags. I felt a little decadent, but with temperatures hovering around 40, we were inclined to stay put until the cold rains stopped. By early afternoon, however, the rain tapered off to a slight drizzle, and several hikers showed up at the shelter: Rolling Stone and 4 weekend hikers. Their industriousness shamed Jake and me into doing some hiking. We looked at our maps and decided that, even though it was 2:30 p.m., we could make it to the next shelter, seven miles away, before dark. We even speculated on how, with luck, we might crank out a series of 20+ mile days and still make it to the Atlanta Airport by 11/29.
Out on the Trail, almost all traces of the recent snow storms had melted away in the rain, except that the leaves, both on the Trail and off, were now packed flat, like a collage with lots of contrast but no texture. The Trail was harder to discern with the surrounding leaves looking as beaten as the path.
A little after dark, when we got to the shelter, a tall post-and-beam structure with two sleeping lofts, we chatted with a friendly married couple who were out for a few days of hiking. They were awfully good natured, considering that we had awakened them, and asked us a lot of questions about our hike.
When I see couples on the Trail, I always feel a particularly strong pang of homesickness. As I curled up this evening in my sleeping bag, which has become increasingly damp during the cold, soggy weather, I imagined myself at home, in warm, dry surroundings. I opened the closet in my bedroom and found my slippers and a wool sweater. I walked through each room of the house, trying out a comfortable chair or couch here and there. But I felt a bit like an outlander. As I did this imaginary ramble, I wondered if my first days back home would find me aching to burst outdoors and get back into the woods.
November 26 ~ Blue Mountain Shelter, GA at milepoint 2118.6 south, 167 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data - Day 164 AT miles hiked: 22.5 Miles left to go: 48.5 People we camped with: just us People seen on the Trail: one day hiker (not a conversationalist)
Today was a LONG, hard day of hiking. Jake and I are sticking to shelters because of the cold weather, and our choices today were the shelters located at 8, 15 or 22.5 miles. We chose the long hike because, with the snow gone and an improved weather forecast, we now consider it possible to bang out three big days and finish on 11/29.
Jake and I are anxious to finish for many reasons, not the least of which is that we are freezing our buns out here. Finishing on 11/29 will also enable me to honor my commitment to return to work on 12/1, when my sabbatical ends.
To hike the 22.5 miles meant stopping at none of the shelters along the way -- unusual for us. We usually like to check the shelter registers and get the latest Trail news. But the shelters were each on side trails that would have added even more distance to our day's hike. I hiked the last hour by flashlight, up and over Blue Mountain. I am amazed that I have become relatively comfortable hiking in the woods at night. I remember back in Maine being quite frightened about Jake's hiking the last three miles into Monson in the dark. Now I am joining him on these night hikes.
It was also a day for climbing mountains. In addition to Blue Mountain, we climbed Powell Mountain, Kelly Knob, Round Top, Tray Mountain, and Rocky Mountain -- most of them 4,000 feet or more.
At the top of Rocky Mountain, the sky was clear enough to see Blood Mountain, which we will climb in a couple of days, and Springer Mountain, where our hike will end. That was very exciting.
I also saw the sun -- or at least its rays -- for the first time in a week or so. From the mountain top I could see several round columns of light shining through the clouds, illuminating a dozen fortunate spots below -- my own little spot not being one of them. The columns looked like beams from a set of stage lights, moving across the stage in sync with the wind.
In one of the gaps -- the valleys between the mountain peaks -- I saw a large expanse of the red clay for which Georgia is famous. The slightly warmer clime is evident from the increased number of birds we are suddenly seeing, and from patches of a bamboo-like grass, its pale green contrasting with the otherwise bleak fall colors. The trees, nearly monochrome and shorn of their last few leaves by the snow and strong winds, look particularly spindly and forlorn. Only by approaching do we see the subtle nuances of color in the lichens, fungi, and other miscellaneous growths that encumber these trees.
In the shelter this evening Jake and I found a register filled with entries from SoBo's reflecting on the near-at-hand conclusion of their adventure. One hiker anticipated feeling depressed about leaving the Trail. I know I have been feeling nostalgic about the SoBo's we've met along the way. Most of them have spent at least one night with us at shelters along the way. The ones who are ahead of us include:
- Nimblewill Nomad - Banjo Bill - Batteries Included - Merlin - Frog - Leap_Frog (a couple) - Crazy Girl - Huckleberry - Big Guy - Garbage Man
The ones behind us include:
- Krusty - Alan - Lazy Boy - Gecko - Moss - Smoky - Willow - Turtle - Mother Goose - Rabbit - Ripshin - Blue Light Special - EZE - John the Baptist - Sweat Box - Old Man Sam - Rockhopper - Mr. Blond - Mr. Pink - Mr. White - Li'l Debbie - Candy Man - Fairweather - The Kid - Crazy Joe - Moon Dance - 5th Wheel - AYCE - Mr. Clean - H-Monster - Wet Foot - Rolling Stone - The Rooster - Shaker - Fluffhead - Gizmo - Blue Gnu Canoe
And there are several -- such as Footprints and Martha Stewart -- who got off the Trail but are very much a part of our memories of the Trail. Each of these fellow pilgrims enriched our hike. I sent them our regards in the Register, naming each one. I hope the Trail has been as rewarding for them as it has been for us.
November 27 ~ Campsite near Blood Mountain, GA ... in North Carolina-Georgia - map at milepoint 2135.5 south, 168 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data - Day 165 AT miles hiked: 18.8 Miles left to go: 29.7 People we camped with: Huckleberry, Crazy Girl, Big Guy People seen on the Trail: one day hiker
Only two days until the end of our hike! We are camping out tonight with three of our fellow SoBo's, and the excitement around the campfire is palpable.
A Delta Airlines pilot, Jim Guess, who is doing the AT a little at a time, hiked up from Neels Gap to this campsite with us. He asked us about equipment and the experience of thru-hiking, and we grilled him about his experience flying planes.
Although the weather is still cold -- 35 tonight, with a wind chill of about 15 -- it is nothing like the temperatures Jake and I were dealing with last week, when we got off the Trail for a day. The wind chill factor then was -17 degrees and the forecast called for it to drop to -27.
I have been trying to think positively about the cold weather, even though I hate it. Surely there must be some advantages, as well as disadvantages, to hiking in winter weather. Here is a list that I came up with:
Disadvantages: - Hypothermia - Toothpaste won't budge from tube - Impossible to wash dishes - Butane lighter doesn't work, making it necessary to bang rocks together to light a fire - Frostbite in certain areas when answering nature's call
Advantages: - Frozen Snickers - No bugs, no slugs, no snakes - Impossible to wash dishes - Banging rocks together is a good way to generate body heat - Feeling invincible because of enduring extreme conditions (n.b. this is also a symptom of hypothermia)
But I shouldn't complain. The sun was out most of the day today for the first time in two weeks. As a result, Jake and I were able to see a little of the surrounding countryside through the lingering haze. We are on a mountain ridge, nestled in a sea of other mountains, but there are a few scattered farms tucked here and there into the valleys. At lunch time, I stopped by the side of the Trail and just basked in the sun.
At the end of the day, we reached the Walasi-Yi Center (pronounced wall-us-SEE-ya), an outfitter shop located in Neels Gap. The Center is famous on the AT for two reasons. First, it is the only place where the Trail goes right through a building. (The Trail passes through a stone archway that separates a small hostel from the bathrooms and the shop.) Second, located just 30 miles from Springer Mountain, where 90% of thru-hikers begin their journey, the Center is the place where fledgling NoBo's retool their gear -- typically stripping down from 60 to 45 pound packs. (Many of the folks who make it all the way to Katahdin eventually go lighter even than that.)
While at Walasi-Yi, Jake and I reconnected with Huckleberry, Big Guy and Crazy Girl, whom we had not seen since Thanksgiving. Also, Dorothy Hansen, co-owner of the Center, let me use her clothes dryer to dry out my sleeping bag, which had gradually become so damp during the past week that its insulating value was badly compromised. (Unlike synthetic bags, down bags become almost useless when they get wet.) And, we got our last mail drop! In addition to food, it contained mail from home, including this item from T.S. Eliot, which Beth sent me - very apropos for the end of the hike:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploration Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
November 28 ~ Sassafras Mountain, GA at milepoint 2156.1 south, 169 days since start of hike, averaging 12.8 miles per day
Trail data - Day 166 AT miles hiked: 18.7 Miles left to go: 11.0 People we camped with: just us People seen on the Trail: one day hiker, two hikers out for a week
With the end of our AT hike so near at hand, my ambivalence about leaving the Trail may have led me to turn in the wrong direction this morning as I was leaving our campsite beside the Trail. I accidentally headed north instead of south. Was it a Freudian slip of some kind, or just my usual befuddlement? I don't know.
But when I turned around and headed south toward round-topped Blood Mountain -- our first summit of the day -- I was astonished at the deep reddish orange of the mountain in the early dawn light. The name of the mountain, however, evidently comes not from this glow but from a more grisly source. Many years ago, a battle between two Indian tribes at this mountain left so many dead and wounded that when it rained the next day, the water running off the mountain was blood red.
This morning Blood Mountain was quite peaceful. So much so that, in spite of the sub-freezing temperatures at the top, I sat for a while at the summit, enjoying the view and meditating with the sun on my face and the wind at my back. Below, rolling hills and then a broad, flat plain stretched toward the South. Later in the morning a day hiker showed me where to look for the skyscrapers of Atlanta, and I saw them -- like the fingers of a faint gray hand way off in the distance.
As we get closer to Springer Mountain, Jake and I are reading the shelter registers with ever greater interest. The register entries from the SoBo's finishing their hike are becoming more philosophical. The blister-plagued NoBos' entries are entertaining too, with much discussion of rain, sore legs, and mice.
It is very exciting to be so close to completing our journey. We set up camp this evening -- just the two of us -- atop Sassafras Mountain in a small clearing just off the Trail. Jake's tent and my tarp are next to the camp fire, burning gently through into the night. It feels cozy. It feels like a good final memory of camping on the Trail.
With only eleven miles to go, I am trying to be extra-careful not to twist my fragile ankles or trip and fall, which I have been prone to do throughout the hike. This is no time for a serious injury. As I am hiking, I often think of my friend Daniel Bowling's comment about why he loved to watch Michael Jordan play basketball: because if the Chicago Bulls were behind, he had the ability to focus his intention on simply winning the game, often relying solely on his own efforts and overcoming whatever the defense threw at him. When I am hiking down hill, I think about that quality of focus and intention and try to "will" myself out of harm's way on the rocks.
The mixture of emotions that swept over me today as Jake and I completed the next-to-last day of our thru-hike is hard to describe. Elation, mixed with a heavy dose of ambivalence, captures some of the feelings. And, gratitude for the wonderful support I have been given at home and at work, and for the good fortune that allowed me to hike the Trail with my son.
November 29 ~ Springer Mountain, GA at milepoint 2167.1 south, 170 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data - Day 167 AT miles hiked: 11.0 Miles left to go: 0! People seen on the Trail: 0
"Sometimes the light's all shining on me Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been.
Truckin' - I'm a goin' home. Whoa, whoa baby, back where I belong. Back home, sit down and patch my bones, And get that truckin' on." - Grateful Dead, "Truckin'"
Yee-haw! We made it to Springer Mountain! Jake and I climbed the summit today at about 12:30 p.m. It was so foggy, we are not sure if the pictures we took will come out. With temperatures in the 30s, our fingers were so cold we could barely operate the camera. A light but chilling rain was falling, but it hardly dampened our mood. I can't speak for Jake, but I was elated -- also, a little astonished that we had actually completed our journey.
Springer Mountain is, in some ways, the opposite of Mount Katahdin (the northern terminus of the AT) in Maine. Springer is tree-covered; Katahdin is bald. Springer is unpretentious; Katahdin is a commanding presence for almost 100 miles in all directions. Springer's summit is marked with two bronze plaques set tastefully and unobtrusively into stone; at Katahdin's summit, there's a tall, broad wooden sign that no one could miss.
The hike to Springer Mountain this morning began at 6:30 when I left our peaceful encampment at the top of Sassafras Mountain. No light was visible in the east but I woke Jake: "I'll meet you at the shelter just before the summit," I said softly, and he whispered back "OK." (For some reason, we talk softly to each other early in the morning, even if no one else is around.)
I walked for half an hour by flashlight, down a steep, rocky slope that reminded me not to hurry. Eleven miles to go: don't blow it. Clouds and then a light rain hid the sunrise from view. Fog shrouded the mountains.
By 9 a.m. I could see enough of my surroundings to remind me of the beauty that drew me to the Trail in the first place: banks of tall rhododendrons flanking a graceful, clear-running stream; a wide path paved with pine needles, winding through the forest; a red-crested woodpecker dashing from tree to tree; and a surprisingly tropical looking stand of bamboo-like grass swaying in the breeze.
By 11 a.m. I was starting to feel weary. Time to turn on some music to keep my feet moving. My Walkman belted out the title cut of Little Feat's album "Feat Don't Fail Me Now," which propelled me to the Springer Mountain shelter, just 2 /10 of a mile from the summit. Jake arrived a few minutes later, and we climbed to the top together.
This hike to Springer Mountain really began many years ago when Jake and I started hiking in the White Mountains and met our first thru-hikers. I sensed that there was a hidden dimension to the journey, beyond the enjoyment of being in the woods and beyond the excitement of a momentous challenge. For many, myself included, the AT is a sacred path. People of all kinds hike the Trail, and not all of them are seekers. But many are. As I hike the Trail I think about them -- the fellow pilgrims who have hallowed this path with their quest for a spiritual fellowship with the wilderness. I think it is difficult to hike the length of this Trail without sensing that the spirit that dwells here dwells in each of us as well. I take from these woods and this journey a renewed commitment to honor that spirit in my life.
On a more mundane level, I learned some practical lessons for my life: get more sleep; simplify; don't try to do two things at once (such as looking at a Trail map while hiking); worry less about what other people think; take a break every so often; look for private places outdoors to meditate and rest; find an interesting challenge in life and pursue it with tenacity.
* * * * *
At 1:00 p.m. Jake and I descended from the Mountain for our rendezvous with Tony Sousa (trail name "Portugee"), an Atlanta-based section hiker we met at the Kincora Hostel in Tennessee. Portugee had offered to give us a ride to the Atlanta Airport, and we called him last week to accept his offer. What a guy! He not only drove 2 1/2 hours to meet us, but he brought a cooler with sodas and a bottle of champagne that we opened when we stopped for lunch. Toasts to hiking and to Trail angels passed across the table, as we drank our champagne, feasted on fajitas, and took a few pictures to commemorate the completion of our adventure.
On the way to the Airport, Portugee took us to his house so that we could shower before getting on the plane. (After riding with us in his car for a few minutes, he probably would have suggested this if we had not brought up the subject first.) Jake and I put on the cleanest clothes we could find in our packs, which were none too clean. At the airport, Delta personnel crammed our unwieldy packs into big cardboard boxes. When the pilot announced that our flight time to Boston would be just under 2 hours, I was struck by the contrast between the slow world we had just left this morning and the jet-paced world we are re-entering. We will cover almost the entire distance of the Trail in an eye-blink -- 1,600 times faster than our pace in walking it. But as they say, it's the journey not the destination.
"Ripple in still water Where there is no pebble tossed Nor wind to blow.
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty. If your cup is full, may it be again. Let it be known there is a fountain That was not made by the hand of man.
There is a road, no simple highway Between the dawn and the dark of night And if you go, no one may follow That path is for your steps alone."
- Grateful Dead, "Ripple"
Postscript 12/13 - Boston, MA - Two weeks after the hike
Several people have asked Jake and me to include in our journal a postscript with a few comments about life after the hike. Re-entry was indeed a bit of a shock. First, however, there was the joy of being reunited with family. Beth greeted us at the airport, and then we stopped at Bertucci's, Jake's favorite pizza shop.
At home, I felt a bit lost -- I had trouble finding the everyday objects that I needed: electric razor, street shoes, keys. On the Trail, everything I needed fit in my backpack, and was always near at hand. I had trouble getting back into the rituals that enable me to get from bed in the morning to the commuter rail in about half an hour; a couple of times I forgot to shave. On the Trail there was no need to shave, and my morning rituals were quite different, involving tents, sleeping bags, replenishing my water supply.
At work I received a very warm reception, along with about six months worth of mail, email messages, and inter-office memos. My colleagues had weeded out the junk mail, but there was still a ton of news and communications to sort through. Some people go on the Trail to decide whether they are doing the sort of work that suits them; I was not one of those people. I love my work - serving as a mediator and arbitrator, helping people resolve difficulties, and occasionally representing people in court.
Do I miss the woods? You bet. Almost every night since I've been back, my dreams have been set on the Trail. I miss the simplicity of living in the woods; I miss the scenery, the exercise, and the solitude. I also miss Jake; he and I had reached the point where we could finish each other's sentences.
But like life, which acquires much of its preciousness by virtue of being finite, the hike needed to come to an end. I need to work to make a living, and even if I didn't, I missed the rest of my family too much to continue hiking indefinitely.
Would I do this again if I had the chance? Definitely. It was one of the best things I have ever done in my life. The impact of this hike will be with me for a long time.
I could not have done this hike without a lot of help. I sometimes wonder if I would have stayed the course if I had not been hiking with Jake, whose determination and energy often propelled me through the low spots on the Trail. I am very grateful to him for agreeing to spend 5 1/2 months in the woods with his father. I am also enormously grateful to my colleagues at Hill & Barlow, whose generous sabbatical policy made this hike possible; very few law firms have such a policy, which, in an increasingly competitive commercial world, speaks volumes about the firm's commitment to a balance between work and life outside the office. Jake and I also owe a big thank you to the many Trail angels -- whose names are sprinkled throughout our journal -- who helped us along the way. Their unexpected acts of kindness taught us a lesson about the power of giving. Jake and I also appreciate Wingfoot's hard work in creating and maintaining the Trailplace web site, which allowed our family and friends to keep track of us, and our volunteer transcribers -- Rick Towle, Joan McGilvery, and Susan Boquist -- who turned our scribbles into journal entries.
The biggest thank you, however, goes to my wife, Beth Andrews, for putting up with this nutty idea of hiking the AT. Her support for this idea was unflagging. She sent us our food packages, helped with all kinds of emergency logistics (from hiking boot returns to upgrading our supply of protein bars), and handled all of the jobs at home while continuing her busy practice as a therapist. How she did all this I will never know; it makes me tired just thinking about it. But what a gift to Jake and me - a gift I will never forget.
Last modified Thursday July 25, 2002