Appalachian Trail

009 All Who Wander – Trailfest Series: April Fools Trail Days Franklin, NC – Part1

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The first in a new series of shows in which Dana and I follow the migratory herd of 2011 Northbound AT thru-hikers from trail to trail town stopping off at the hiker festivals along the way. In this episode (AWW 009) and the next we visit historic Franklin, NC for “April Fools Trail Days” and Ron Haven’s Hiker Fools Bash. We meet old friends, make new ones and introduce you to some of the characters and legends of the Trail. If you’re anything like me, be prepared to see your wintertime blahs dissipate and Springer Fever awakened just a little early this year.

2012 April Fool’s Trail Days
 March 30th and 31st.
 
www.aprilfoolstraildays.com and
www.hikerbash.ronhaven.com

 

Undulations by Karen Thompson

www.karenonthetrail.com/
undulationskt@hotmail.com

 

Tents made by Judy “Heartfire” Gross

www.lightheartgear.com
heartfire@heartfiregowns.com
judygross@bellsouth.net
www.facebook.com/LightHeartGear

 

“The Packa” by Cedar Tree Industry
The Worlds ONLY Full Coverage Backpacking Rain Parka

Edward Hinnant
436 Cabin Fever Dr.
Marion, VA 24354
276.780.2354
www.thepacka.com

 

Greenleaf Canoe Company
Harold “Harley” Mo
828.524.6464
828.421.8826

or look for him on facebook by searching “Greenleaf Canoe Company”

 
Jenna Lindbo 
 www.reverbnation.com/jennalindbo 
www.youtube.com/jennalindbomusic
or look for her on facebook.

 

Me
david@allwhowander.us.

or look for me (as well as the All Who Wander fan page on facebook)

“It’s when you’re safe at home that you wish you were having an adventure. When you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.”

~Thornton Wilder

 

 

Trail-guide for the Soul: The Walk – Reflections on Life and Faith from the Appalachian Trail by Randy Motz & Georgia Harris

The melody lifted and soared as if born of, and upon, the wind itself.  Song formed from breath, shaped and made smooth and comely by the texture and soul of the cedar love-flute it flowed  through. I’ve been enamored with the first-nations love-flute from the moment I first heard it. This particular day we sat in the midst of a strange community of hikers pausing briefly on their pilgrimage to Katahdin to celebrate and rest. To our left along the grassy bank was a young  couple, he with long hair tied back, she with dreadlocks, in matching red raincoats. My eyes were drawn to them.  Something about their gentleness with each other, their smiles, their quiet laughter stilled and quieted my soul. To my right, just below the embankment was an average 50-ish man in jeans, t-shirt and round glasses sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed, posture perfect.  Directly ahead of me was another gray-haired, bespectacled 60-ish man sporting a ball-cap embroidered on the back with the name “Strider.”  One of my favorite characters in all of literature.  Was that his trail name? 

The place was Damascus, Va.  The event was Trail Days 2011 and we were all, amid the distractions that are part and parcel of a street festival like this, basking in the music of Wind-talker, Randy Motz.  For an hour or so, his flute-song created a small sacred space for us. Few words were spoken but it was clear, to me at least, that Wind-Talker and I had a mutual Friend…Maker, Graybeard likes to call him. Earlier, as Wind-talker was setting up his gear we shared a little conversation.  To be fair, I did most of the talking. Randy and his wife Georgia (“Mom” as she’s known on the trail) had done a thru-hike several years prior and in the process of asking him about his hike, I found myself confessing my own desperate longing to do the same.  Familiar phrases fell naturally from my lips as I described this haunting, “The woods have become my sanctuary, the AT my obsession.”  He spoke little, nodded much and told me I might enjoy the book he and his wife had written:  The Walk: Reflections on Life and Faith from the Appalachian Trail.  Afterwards I took him up on his suggestion and he generously signed the copy I hold now in my hands. 

I spend most of my days in sweltering heat, covered in sawdust, surrounded by screaming woodworking equipment.  Each morning before starting my day I show up a little early, find a spot to sit down behind the building and as John Muir puts it let  “…nature’s peace… flow into [me] as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into [me], and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  Occasionally I’ll read scripture or some other book.  The Walk became that book for a while.

I began The Walk with high expectations.  I longed to hear echoed in these pages that same melody that had poured forth from Wind-talkers flute.  That’s not what I heard…at least at first. What I was struck by was the Motz’s command of the written word. Their writing style clear and concise, their vocabulary expansive but unpretentious, there was no confusion as to what they were trying to say.  They said it well. I wondered though, as I read, if I had made assumptions about Randy based on our short conversation, that were incorrect.

You see, I’m in a different place than many people who might read this post. For the past several years I’ve been discovering what it means to abide, to sink deeper into my Abba’s Love for me, outside the walls of the institutional church. Because of my distance from the Institution, I’ve become hyper-sensitive to and agitated by what I perceive to be religion. That’s not necessarily a good thing. I often get it wrong. If I’m not mistaken, Randy and Georgia are, at present, part of an institutional community of believers.  Having said that, they strike me as a couple able to walk in complete freedom untainted by their affiliation with the System.  Love, hope, encouragement and freedom are found in the pages of The Walk.  I found myself reading with a pen in one hand and my journal in the other, scribbling down the inspirational and thought-provoking quotes that headed each chapter and are peppered throughout.  The Walk is liberally seasoned as well with native wisdom from the likes of Lakota/ Sioux Richard Twiss and other native sages. Scripture quotations are taken from Eugene Petersen’s The Message which lends to it’s conversational feel.  These along with the excerpts from their AT journal serve to transport the reader, vicariously, right to the Trail with it’s sounds, smells, tastes, beauty and pain.

Without doubt my two favorite chapters are 5 and 6.  The title of chapter 5, “Praise and Worship” , has mental associations for me of instruments, sound systems and compulsory singing and hand-raising.  There’s nothing of the sort here.  Randy and Georgia manage to capture the beauty and wonder of encountering God in what many would think an unlikely place, the wilderness.  They express with eloquence and emotion, the soul-gasp that seizes ones heart when you unwittingly stumble upon a thin-place in the midst of an old forest, or the undeniable sense of Presence when the rhododendron choked woods open to a breathtaking vista. There’s no religion here…only spontaneous gratitude…eucharisteo , no matter your spiritual leanings. Chapter 6 relates their journey into simplicity. Winnowing down your world to what you can carry on your back is wonderful practice for doing the same in your non-thru-hike life as well as your spiritual life. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process. Realizing how our possessions can possess us and taking steps to change that may be one of the most important things we can do to reduce the clutter, noise and distraction that impede our walk with God. Randy and Georgia not only give practical wisdom on how to take those first steps but are open and transparent with the naked truth of how they struggle with this themselves.
Honestly, with chapter headings such as “Family and Community”, “Praise and Worship”, “Pride and Humility” and “Service” something in my anti-establishment gut churns and braces to be guilted with a reminder of  duty and obligation and how I should just try harder. Probably just the last tendrils of religion still clinging to my soul.  Or maybe these headings are sheep in wolves clothing. Familiar phrases that evoke old pharisaical emotions but hidden inside them is the life-giving message of grace, hope and love.  Hope I didn’t just give away your secret, Wind-talker and Mom. Oops.

A Hiker-dad’s Wish List for Father’s Day (No underwear, socks or neck-ties! But maybe…just maybe…a kilt!)

 

Our recent “Hiker-mom Wish-list” was one of our most popular blogs to date so here’s the companion blog for Father’s Day. Enjoy! 

 

 

1.  Adventure Camera

Just before our hike through Grayson Highlands, VA last year, Dana and I clambered to find an affordable high-res “point and click” to preserve the memories.  The process went something like this:

 
1.  Spend hours online researching cameras with the features we wanted.
2.  Find a store that carries said camera.
3.  Either ignore pesky, omni-present, high-pressure salesperson or stand around looking frustrated while being smartly ignored ourselves.
4.  Settle for a model similar to what we were looking for because our choice isn’t available at said store.
5.  Take it home, try it out, experience profound disappointment.
6.  Return to store, go through the laborious process of getting a refund.
7.  Start over with step one and repeat until lithium is necessary.

Days before leaving we decided we had to have something and that something happened to be a Samsung SL605. Until this week (one year later) I couldn’t figure out how to pull off a decent close-up.  That and the fact that it didn’t use disposable batteries were the biggest reasons for my discontent. 2 days into our hike, the battery indicator revealed a fully charged battery.  I was impressed.  Then I shot a couple of short videos of the wild ponies and the camera was down for the count. No more pics for the rest of the trip.  Months later I discovered that there’s some weird issue with the battery contacts.  If I had known, I could’ve popped out the battery,  popped it back in and quite possibly been “good to go.”  Oh well.

The camera I’d had my eye on is the Olympus Stylus Tough-6020.  They’ve recently released an even sexier version, the TG 810 which is 14 mega-pixel, shock-proof to 6.6 feet, freeze-proof to 16 degrees, waterproof to 33 feet and crush-proof up to 220 lbf.  I love the integrated GPS which allows you to “record landmark data in your image and then enjoy the photo surfing feature which lets you see exactly where your photos were taken by using a map display!” That’s freaking cool!  Since this beauty retails for $399.99, it looks like I’ll be sticking with “Sam.”  The good news is that Olympus no longer corners the market and recently several other manufacturers have followed their lead.  Hopefully this healthy competition will lead to even better features and more affordability in adventure cameras. The competitors?  I thought you’d never ask!  Two of the contenders are Fuji’s Finepix XP20 and the Pentax Optio WG-1. With any of the three I could save my zip-lock bag for tp and trailmix…I’d be happy!

2.  Warbonnet Blackbird

A couple of years ago for Father’s Day, Dana suffered from an episode of temporary insanity and bought me (what then was) the Hummer of hammocks, the Clark North American. I love it. The Clark enabled me to do what I’d never been able to do, sleep in the woods. I could rave about it’s many features but suffice it to say I bought one for Dana shortly after.  Several weeks ago I lost my mind and bought us each a new Deep Jungle hammock by Hennesy. We love these as well. We don’t need 4 hammocks but I can’t bear to part with any of them. Well, let’s take the insanity to an entirely new level: One of my goals for Trail Days was to try out and possibly purchase a Warbonnet Blackbird. I’ve heard so much about the Blackbird and have even been approved by the owner, Kenneth Waddy, to sell this amazing hammock…but I’ve yet to even see one in real life!  Sooo, not something I need but certainly something I’d love to check out! In case you’d like to check it out, go to www.warbonnetoutdoors.com.

3.  3 – Season Incubator Underquilt by Hammock Gear.

The one negative of hammocking is winter sleeping.  It’s very difficult to stay warm. The solution? An under-quilt.  An underquilt is just what you’d think.  It’s a quilt that attaches to the underside of the hammock where the fill maintains it’s loft and provides a barrier of insulation against the cold. Months of research led us to a near decision.  Over Thanksgiving I popped Adam (Stormcrow) at Hammock Gear an e-mail and he responded by calling me personally.  An educational 45 minute phone-call convinced me that when we were ready to buy, we would buy from Adam.  He says it better than I so check this out: 

The ULTIMATE underquilt for freezing weather… A full 12 oz of high quality goose down, the Winter Incubator provides unrivalled insulation to keep your back-side toasty all night long. Winter Protection to 20* (12* below freezing!) and only 22.5 oz packed!

For serious protection on chilly nights, trust your tail to the Incubator… it’s the full-length big-brother to the CrowsNest. This UQ will keep you warm and cozy, with 12 oz of Hungarian Goose down, and 9 differential baffles that run the length of the quilt. The differential baffles help keep down from shifting, providing more consistent warmth throughout the night.

The Incubator has a tapered cut, which not only reduces weight, but provides a more secure wrap around the hammock, eliminating drafts.The quilt is designed to mimic the natural position of the body as it lies in the hammock. Choose the Incubator for the ultimate in luxurious protection and comfort against the harshest cold, and keep yourself warm and cozy all night long! Comes complete with shock-cord suspension and stuff sack.   $239.00 from www.HammockGear.com.

4.   4 Season (4 Doors) Cat Cut Cuben Fiber Tarp by Hammock Gear

 Yeah, hammocking can get expensive.  Both our Clark’s and our Hennesy’s have sufficient tarps to keep out the rain, but…this tarp…this tarp…is the junk.  Dana and I were in Franklin, NC for the Hiker Fool’s Bash this year (basically a bunch of thru-hikers, past, present and future hanging out in a parking lot and swapping stories) when we were immediately approached and befriended by a hiker named Bat.  Bat introduced us to his friend Storm-crow who just happened to be Adam from Hammock Gear!  We sat and talked hiking, hammocks, under-quilts and tarps until the sun went down. (Watch for an upcoming podcast) Bat uses this particular tarp and brought this 8′ 6″ x 10′ 10″ tarp out in it’s ridiculously small stuff sack and I was shocked at how light it was (6.5 ozs!).
$309.00  from www.HammockGear.com.

5.  New Backpack

I picked up my present external-frame Jansport Ranier for $20 at Nanty-fest a few years back and despite a steady stream of mild-mannered-ribbing from more “progressive” hikers it’s been a great, dependable pack.  The only downside as far as I’m concerned is it’s annoying habit of snagging low-hanging tree branches.  My son Josiah finds this hilarious and nearly every time he has to duck, he stops, turns, waits and watches for the inevitable tangle.  Always good for a laugh. Oh, I should mention that I nicknamed my pack Squeaky. I guess that’s pretty much self-explanatory.  Usually a little soap gently applied to the strap connections quiets that right down.  Soooo, having said that I have been flirting with the idea of stepping into the 21st century by exploring the world of internal frame packs. I tried out the ULA Catalyst while at Mountain Crossings but after walking around the store with 30 lbs in the pack I decided it wasn’t for me.  I was carrying nearly all of the weight on my shoulders.  I prefer to have 75% of the weight distributed to my hips.  (I don’t have much in the way of shoulders.) A few weeks ago Josiah and I were hiking north on the AT into Damascus, VA when we encountered some thru-hikers.  One of these guys had a Catalyst.  I told him of my qualms.  He said he had the same problem but when he called ULA, they explained how to adjust and bend the stays to conform to his back so that the weight was carried on his hips.  He said it made all the difference and he loves his Catalyst.  So, maybe I should give the Catalyst a shot. This 47 oz pack has an overall capacity of 4.600 cubic inches…plenty!  You can buy it from www.ula-equipment.com for $250.  These are also available at a select few local retailers including Mountain Crossings at Wa-las-i-yi, Neels Gap, GA.

6.  Books

I’m a voracious reader. On any given week, I’m usually reading 4 or 5 books simultaneously.  When hiking I struggle to narrow it down to one lightweight paperback. Usually it’s my tattered, stained, patinated paperback of The Hobbit.

Here are just a few I can’t wait to get my hands on:

Auralia’s Colors by Jeffery Overstreet.  The third and final book in the Auralia’s Colors Trilogy.

The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard.  I’ve heard this book quoted by many of my favorite writers.  I think it’s time I scored my own copy.

Anything and everything by Frederick Buechner.  No, that’s not the name of a book.  I mean anything and everything.  I love Buechner and the local library’s patience with me is probably wearing thin.

Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart. This classic account of life among the people of the Southern Appalachians comes highly recommended from my friend and hiking partner, Henry “Graybeard” Mitchell.

Some more Annie Dillard.  I recently picked up Pilgrim At Tinker Creek from a used bookstore but I wouldn’t mind having everything she’s written.

One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.  I subscribe to Ann’s blog. Her writing moves me like nearly no one else’s.  Raw, poignant, relentlessly beautiful, lyrical and oozing with grace. I read an excerpt from this book on Amazon.com and was humbled to have glimpsed so deeply into another’s soul. She’s…amazing.
 

7.  Mountain Hardwear Elkommando Kilt

Damn right, I’m serious! I’m 44 years old, Anglo-Scot-Irish-Cherokee and I don’t give a crap! It’s light-weight, cool and incredibly…convenient, shall we say.  My frustration with pockets too small for a map or Appalachian Pages has soured my taste for hiking pants.  At Trail Days I spoke to a rep about my issue and he agreed but said that it wasn’t hikers who drive the market for hiking pants, it was ordinary consumers…consumers who apparently are more concerned about fashion than practicality.  I actually like the Utilikilt (www.utilikilts.com) a lot. Looks like something a Spartan might wear and can literally hold a 6-pack of your beverage of choice.  Gotta respect that!  Problem is the $400 price tag, not to mention the fabric.  Even the light-weight version is too heavy and contains 40% cotton, not apt to dry as quickly as synthetics.  So I’m looking at the Elkommando and the possibility of talking someone into adding some big ole pockets for my maps and guides…and maybe a stud or two just for effect! You can order yourself one through the REI affiliate link on this site for a much more reasonable, $75…and you’ll be supporting your favorite podcast!

8.  Puffy Down Jacket
     I know, I know.  sounds like something a 9 year old girl would want. I can hear it now, “That should go nicely with the skirt (#7)!” Yeah, yeah, yeah.  The Puffy Down Jacket has all but replaced the old fleece stand-by as the jacket of choice.  On average they weigh around half a pound, pack down to near nothing and have become the new standard of warmth for thru-hikers.  At the Hiker Fools Bash in Franklin this year nearly every hiker I saw was wearing and swearing…by their puffy down jacket.  So, I’m weighing my options.  The obvious choice would be Western Mountaineering’s Hooded Flash Jacket sporting 850+ fill goose down and weighing in at a whopping 9 ounces!  You can pick one up from www.westernmountaineering.com for around $260.00. 

9.  Back-country Boiler

I’ve known about chimney kettles for several years but due to weight, size and price they’ve always seemed impractical to me.  The pack-weight saved by using found fuel, didn’t seem to justify the loss in pack-space and the gain in stove-weight…until now.  The Backcountry Boiler from www.theboilerwerks.com is about the same size and weight as that Nalgene Baltimore Jack told you to get rid of. It can “depending on fuel and operator skill, boil 2 cups of water in under 5 minutes” using the stuff you’re clearing off the ground to make a spot for your tent.  That’s a big boast from a small kettle. I’d like to find out if it’s true. They range in price from $80 to $160, depending on the features.

10.  AT Thru-hike

Kinda hard to pick this one up at your local REI…but this is a wish-list, right?  If there were any method to my madness this would be number one on my list. If it were even a financial possibility I’d be happy to trade everything I’ve just rambled on about for an opportunity to “hike with spring” from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin in Maine. It’s my dream to make this 5 or 6 month pilgrimage with all of the joys and pains, thrills and monotony…and live to tell about it. This past spring I nearly threw caution to the wind, quit my job and left for Dahlonega. I had it bad. Until that day I’ll continue to dream and spend every moment on the Trail that I can.  Average cost?  6 months wages + $4,000.00…give or take.

Hope this little list was inspiring and informative.  (If nothing else…entertaining!) What say next year we get started a little earlier and you let me know what your Hiker-dad wish list looks like? I can’t wait!  Happy Father’s Day to my Abba, to my dad, Deyerle Ray Longley, the greatest earthly dad a guy could ever wish for and to all of the other dads and hiker dad’s out there. Be blessed and Happy Trails!

006 All Who Wander – Cimarron: A Tenacious 88 Year Old AT Thru-hiker on Life, Love, Trail Magic and the Curse of Hiawassee. Part 2

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Join Cimarron and I for Part 2 of this “Zero Day” conversation in Hiawassee, Georgia. Music provided by Under the Appletree

005 All Who Wander – Cimarron: A Tenacious 88 Year Old AT Thru-hiker talks about Life, Love, Trail Magic and the Curse of Hiawassee. A River Runs Through It

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Join 88 year old, veteran thru-hiker Cimarron and I for this “Zero Day” conversation in Hiawassee Georgia. 

Music provided by Under the Appletree:

 also on facebook!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

004 All Who Wander – Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs! Post-hike musings on snow, gear & trail markings.

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Join River (Dana), Scat (Chester), Ma Fred (Ma Fread) and myself for a lively lunch-time conversation about our overnight hike from Dicks Creek Gap to Deep Gap on the Appalachian Trail.

The Launch of a Dream: Life, Love, Mystics, Adventure and the Road Less Traveled in a podcast?

  

 

 

“A journey of 2,000 miles begins with an episode of insanity.”
I read this pithy proverb somewhere recently and whole-heartedly concur. There are few things I want more in life right now than to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Unfortunately, for all my love of spontaneity, I’m also a realist. It’s a mortgage that’s keeping me from that dream and it truly would require an episode of insanity to ignore that fact. I can’t deny, however, that it’s perfectionism keeping me from a dream of another kind.
Perfectionism is a terrible, terrible trait. I battle it daily. It’s latest manifestation is in my “failure to launch.” No, I left home years ago. Another kind of launch. A year or so ago a seed of an idea formed, gestated and grew until I knew had to do something about it. The idea was for a pod-cast; a sort of audio journal that would invite others along as I explored this path that has lead me beyond the walls of the institutional church and into the wilderness…literally…into the woods.As I dreamed, I discovered fellow travelers on my journey. Topping a long list are Thoreau, Muir and Annie Dillard. Their writing served to encourage me along the way. I’ve also discovered a company of others who are even now walking the same trail. Maybe you’re one of those.
I quickly found that creating a pod-cast was not nearly so simple as I’d imagined. I was constantly realizing that I needed to teach myself to use yet another piece of software and never quite content with the end product. Even now I’m dissatisfied with my Word-press site and struggle to make even minor changes. I tell you this as a sort of disclaimer. If I continue to tweek until it’s “perfect” it’ll never launch.
I often hear seasoned AT thru-hikers give aspiring thru-hikers a piece of advice: Don’t put your hike off until you’re ready…or you’ll never go. Just go for it. Nothing wrong with preparation but the little things you haven’t worked out will work themselves out along the way. Good advice. Here’s my episode of insanity! I’m going for it! I invite you into my mess, flaws and all, and hope you’ll enjoy the journey as this thing grows and evolves. It is most certainly not yet what I hope it will become but I think it’ll be fun to watch the transformation. Disclaimer out of the way, who should subscribe (It’s free, by the way!) to All Who Wander?
You!

If:

– You have a hankering for adventure

– You hike, backpack or want to

– You enjoy discussing the finer points of noodles vs. trail-bars

– You enjoy (or have at least heard of) Thoreau, Muir, or Annie Dillard

– You find something dark and squishy in your sleeping bag and test it to see if it is edible. (Thanks to http://outontheat.blogspot.com for this one!)

– You’re disillusioned with the institutional church

– You’ve discovered what appears to be bear poop containing small

bells and smelling of pepper and wonder if you should be concerned.

– You have a long commute.

– You stand in long lines

– You enjoy making fun of my goofy, white-trash southern accent

– You want to help a 44 year old man leave his day-job and thru-hike the 2, 175 mile Appalachian Trail!*

 

 

*Most websites feature ads. On our site you’ll find “ads” that are actually affiliate links. We make a little money every time you link to one of our hand-picked affiliates such as Amazon, REI, or Mountain Life. We make even more if you buy something from them! We chose these because we love, trust and buy from them regularly ourselves.

 

 

What’ll it be like?

My hope is that the pod-cast will become a mixed bag of “audio-hike” field recordings, discussions about gear, conversations with artists, writers, musicians and everyday people like you and I who are discovering what it is to walk with God outside the box of institutional religion…exploring the “thin places”, dreaming of what could be, and talking about people, books, films and music that have helped us along this path.

What can I do?

Listen. Enjoy. Tell someone. Give us a review in the I-Tunes store. Patronize our affiliates. Post a link to an All Who Wander pod-cast or blog by clicking on the facebook button at the bottom of each post. Become a fan of All Who Wander on facebook. Join the conversation by posting a comment at www.allwhowander.us. Let us know what you think or what you might find helpful. Tell us if you know of someone who’d make an interesting guest on the show. (Maybe that’s you!) We really, really look forward to hearing from you!

 

 

Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.                                        -Jeremiah 6:16.
 
“Not all those who wander are lost.”                                                                  -JRR Tolkien
 
 
 
 

 

How NOT to plan a dayhike

How NOT to plan a day-hike

 

Saturday night. (The Garrett house)

Dana: “Think we can do a day-hike next weekend?”

David: “Definitely. Really jones’in to get in the woods.”

Ma Fred: “Ohhh, I wanna go. Lemme talk to Chester.”

 

Tuesday (E-mail conversation from work)

 

Dana: “Thought any more about where we can go this weekend?”

David: “Let’s watch the weather and see how it goes.”

 

Wednesday (E-mail again)

Dana: “Have you heard anything about the weather?”

David: “Been slammed at work. Haven’t had time to breathe.”

Dana: “Me too. It’s crazy.

 

Thursday (Longley house)

Dana: “Know anything about this weekend, yet?”

David: “Called the ranger station. Looks like all the access roads for Jones Gap

and Caesar’s Head are shut down due to ice and snow. Not to mention,

I’ve already missed a couple of days this week and my deadline hasn’t

moved. I may have to work this weekend.”

In unison: “Uuuuggghhh.”

Friday around lunch (e-mail conversation from work)

 

David: “I hate it but the roads are still impassable. If it’s this bad here, I can’t imagine

what it’s like in North Carolina or Georgia. Maybe next weekend, huh?”

Dana: “Yeah.”

Friday around 2pm (e-mail again)

 

Dana: “I found a hike. There’s AT access near Hiawassee at place called

Dick’s Creek Gap.”

After a flurry of research, e-mails and phone calls I confirm that, somehow, the roads to this access are indeed clear. We can drive 2 1/2 hours south and get to a trail but we can’t get to one just up the road from our house. Go figure.

Friday around 3:30pm (telephonic communication)

 

David: “Fred, Dana found a day-hike. You guys in?”

Fred: “Where? What about the roads? Lemme talk to Chester.”

 

Friday evening on the drive home around 5pm (telephonic…)

Chester:Hey, yo….ho…hey, who is this?

(just something you have to go through with Chester)

David: “Chester…you called me.”

Chester: “What?! Uh, yeah. What ‘chu doing, Da-vid”

David: “Chester, are you guys in or what?”

Chester: “Whuh? Where? What time?”

Dana: “Tell them they don’t need to know anything. Just say yes or no.”

I give the details to Chester. He says he’ll call me back. He calls me back. They’re in.

We rush home and start to throw our gear together. It’s just a day-hike so Dana pulls some stuff out of her bag to lighten her load. Hours later she’s packed and re-packed several times. I try to leave my bag packed and ready to go. It’s just simpler that way. If I’ve brought something I don’t need…big deal, it’s just a day-hike; what’s a little extra weight? At some point I post our plans on facebook, just in case someone’s interested in a last minute hike. Anticipating tomorrows adventure, neither of us get much sleep.

We rise early, pick up Fred and Chester and point the Montero toward Georgia. We grab a biscuit in a drive-thru and become so lost in the near chaotic level of banter we missed our turn-off twice. (Okay, I missed the turn-offs! But I was distracted.) Somehow, in the midst of this insanity Dana manages to work into the conversation, “The shelters are supposed to be really, really nice.” Within minutes the ridiculous and corporate decision was made to spend the night in the shelter. I surmised while this was taking place that “really, nice shelter” looked completely different in the girls minds than it did in mine. I was thinking “not filthy, less than 50 years old, and maybe not infested with rats…maybe.” I’m pretty sure they were thinking, “fully-enclosed, well-insulated, with a fireplace and dare to dream…a hot-tub.” (maybe that last one wasn’t fair but I was on a roll) Due to my in-attentiveness we actually ended up driving to Franklin, NC. Since we were in town we decided to pay a visit to Three Eagles Outfitters where Dana and Fred loaded up on Yaktraxx, socks, mole-skin and various and sundry other items necessary for our expedition. A trip to Ingles for grits, bacon and a bottle of wine and we were on our way.

Once on the right road, true to our intel, the access point for the Dick’s Creek Gap trailhead was easy to find. We parked, scarfed down a roasted chicken I’d picked up at Ingles and a little over an hour later we were on our way.

We crossed 76 and stepped immediately into 4 or 5 inches of snow. Within a hundred feet or so, the trail began to gradually climb. The higher it climbed, the deeper the snow.

About 45 minutes into our ascent Dana had to stop and care for her feet. Despite having spent an obscene amount of money on blister prevention…she already had a blister. This in addition to (and possibly, in part, because of) a pair of new Asolo’s we’d bought at the REI Garage Sale just weeks before. Will we ever figure out her feet? A hiker’s single most important asset and her greatest and most troublesome Achilles’ heel.

One of my favorite things about winter hiking is tracking. The snow-blanketed ground is like wet clay: the perfect medium for critter-prints. All that’s required is to slow down and pay attention. Within the first mile we saw: rabbit, deer, some sort of wild-cat, raccoon and wounded dog prints. Before you get too concerned, a little CSI AT-style and we discovered the source of the bloody paw-prints. At some point the curious hound had set his foot down on a holly bush and spent the rest of his hike spreading his DNA all over the trail. Creepy and a little painful I’m sure, but I think he’ll live.

As we wound our way slowly out of the gap, we watched through tangles of rhododendron tunnels as the sun began it’s descent. The twisted web of shadows played across the pristine, sparkling white. It was beautiful. One of the other benefits of winter hiking are the views afforded by the lack of foliage. It was a crisp, clear day and you could see for miles…maybe tens of miles. Who knows? I really need to work on my map and compass skills. I see peaks on the horizon and have no idea what they are. I’d love to be able to point out a particular mountain or even be able to identify this range or that valley. This inability to navigate can bring an element of anxiety into a hike. Depending on terrain the average person walks at 2-3 miles per hour. This bit of knowledge can be extremely helpful in determining just how far you’ve traveled. However, hiking with a full pack, uphill through snow (Sounds like my Mom’s childhood trips to school…but I’d have to add “barefoot, both ways!”) has a tendency to change that. So it becomes tricky to determine just how far one has gone…or has yet to go. . Case in point: this hike. As the sun began to set I found myself second-guessing as to whether we’d even gone the right direction on the trail. Since trails rarely travel in a straight line but instead meander, snake around, and often double-back in the opposite direction it’s not nearly so simple as checking a compass. At any given moment you can find yourself traveling south on a north-bound trail, or west or east…well, you get the point. The AT is actually marked fairly well and regularly by 2″ x 6″ white rectangles called blazes. Even so, knowing you’re on the AT doesn’t tell you where on the AT you might happen to be. This topic of discussion has the unpleasant habit of rearing it’s ugly head on nearly every hike. I am of the camp that feels the onus falls upon the walker to hone his ability to read map and compass. My beautiful bride, on the other hand, has set up firmly in the other camp…the camp of those that believe something should be done by the trail maintainers to make it easier to get ones bearings: more signs, or perhaps some sort of mile-marker within the blazes. ‘Tis a “camp divided.” Needless to say this often leads to, shall we say, heated discussions. On this particular trip, as my quads began to burn from tramping uphill through what was now 8-10″ deep snow drifts, and I had no idea if we were even near the shelter, I’m not proud to say, I was edging toward the other camp.

We finally reached the summit of Powell Mountain and stared down a long, snowy descent. I ran…in long, loping strides. Dana sort of “ski-ed”. I think Fred and Chester shuffled and finally, finally we reached a sign pointing toward the shelter. I trudged down the trail and 1/4 mile later finally reached the 3-sided structure, pulled off my pack and collapsed on the gapped, wooden planks. No hot tub. Certainly wouldn’t have minded being wrong on that one. After resting for a few minutes I headed back to meet Dana and carry her pack to the shelter. “I’ve got it, ” she said with a smile. Wow. Cool. Unfortunately, once she arrived and sat down her body temperature began to drop and she quickly became chilled. She feared it was mild hypothermia. Fred layered sleeping bags on her and made her a steaming mug of hot tea. That seemed to do the trick. Since Dana hadn’t brought her hammock we surrendered the lower level to Fred and Chester where they were able to hang theirs. We took the loft. I spread my emergency blanket over the frigid wooden planks in hopes of blocking some of the nor’easter that was blowing up through the cracks. I draped an abandoned sleeping bag over the railing in an attempt to provide an additional wind barrier. We made our bed and prepared to sleep in it. It was around this time that I heard some of the most wonderful words I’d ever heard. It was Fred. She said, “Pass this up to David.” I was clueless until Dana placed in my freezing, trembling, bright red fingers…fresh from the pot, a steaming, hot dog, nestled in a soft, warm bun. I didn’t even realize they had bought them but I devoured two in less than a minute. I could’ve eaten an entire pack. We eventually settled down to a shivering, uncomfortable, restless night.

In the morning we made breakfast, visited the privy, packed our gear and stepped once more into the snow for the “back” portion of our “up and back.” A short stop at an icy, trickling spring refreshed our water supply for our return trip down the mountain. While the climb up had been 75-25 ascent to descent, the opposite was thankfully true for the descent. It made for a much easier and much more pleasurable hike. Nonetheless, by the time we’d arrived back at the car we were ready for a hot meal, prepared by someone else and with more than two ingredients! After asking some locals in Clayton where we could find a steakhouse with a salad bar we learned we’d have to settle instead for a “Mom and Pop meat and three” that offered a Sunday buffet. As is usually the case after a hike, all bets are off and I cast off restraint, quickly surrendering to the baser urges of my monstrous appetite. Fried chicken and macaroni and cheese it is! Chester witnessed in abject horror (and maybe a little respect) the ugly scene of me tearing through two huge plates of Southern ecstasy before his sandwich even arrived. It might not have been pretty but it was oh so good.

As I drug the napkin across my grease covered face and settled back in my seat with a satisfied groan, Dana said, “I thought for sure you’d have broken out the field recorder.” “Awwwwww, man!” I had completely forgotten! So I retrieved it from my pocket, gingerly balanced it on the table and we enjoyed a “lively” discussion about our trip. Stay tuned for an upcoming podcast for that conversation.

003 All Who Wander – AT Hike (Dick’s Creek Gap to Deep Gap)

Play

Climbing Powell Mountain from Dick's Creek Gap

Join River (Dana), Ma Fred (Ma Fred), Skat (Chester) and myself  in this “audio-hike” episode of All Who Wander on a “day-hike gone awry” as we tramp through snow drifts up to 2 foot deep in an attempt to reach the shelter before night fall. Layer up, strap on your boots, get ready for adventure and a laugh or two as well on this winter misadventure on the Appalachian Trail.

It was just a dream…



It was just a dream. No, not even a dream. Just a spark of a notion. I’m not sure where it came from. I guess, in part, it was a longing born of desperation. Josiah was now in high school. Graduation, with whatever that entailed, loomed ominously on the horizon. I’d become acutely and painfully aware of the passage of time and like a lot of dads, I imagine, wanted to carpe’ the remaining diems we would share together before he launched out in pursuit of his own dreams.

The idea was insane, really. Though, as a family, we’d spent many a night on the banks of the Chattooga and Chauga rivers, the idea of strapping 30 pounds of gear on my back and taking a walk had never even entered my mind as something remotely appealing. But that niggling spark wouldn’t leave me alone. So when Dana, Jo and I happened across the old stone building in Blairsville, Georgia I was unprepared for the way the tinder would ignite as wind blew across that spark of a notion.

Swinging aside the old wooden door, (not unlike Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) my senses were awakened by air rife with the smell of leather and gear, the frenetic motion of an outfitter in peak season and the almost tangible excitement that swirled like an enchantment in the electrified atmosphere populated by that rare breed of creature, the Thru-hiker. It was magic. I was under it’s spell. I wandered, dream-like, through the old store and ended up, somehow, at the back counter. A voice, “Hey man, can I help you?” The eyes of the forty-ish, unshaven, slightly rotund guy behind the counter sparkled behind John Lennon spectacles with the light and wonder of a little boy. If there were such things as “old souls” I’d encountered a young one. I struggled to push out the words but the spark wouldn’t be ignored, “I…it’s kinda crazy but…my boy is graduating in a couple of years and I…I wanna hike the Appalachian Trail with him.” This really was crazy as I had somehow, for all of my 42 years, remained oblivious to the trails 2,175 mile existence. After a whisper of a silence he looked directly at me, smiling, seemingly at the spark within me and said something like, “That’s not crazy at all. I’ve thru-hiked it seven times myself.” I imagine my jaw became unhinged as he introduced himself as “Sunshine” (at least that’s the way I remember it). He spent the next half-hour or so encouraging me to “Just get out there and start walking.” He scribbled down several websites he thought would be of help and as I walked out the door I knew that his impish grin and infectious passion had ignited that spark into a flame. The chill October air swept across my face and I turned to see a mischievous smile plastered on Dana’s. “Guess where I just was.” I shrugged. “On the Appalachian Trail.” “Uh-uh!” Jo and I took off up the stairs, ran up the hill behind the building and saw for ourselves the white blazes marking the old footpath. We ran ahead, kicking up in our wake the red and yellow, orange and brown leaves that blanketed the trail. After traveling maybe a half mile or so we stopped to catch our breath, imbibing the brisk, earthy, intoxicating mountain air. “Dad?” “Yeah, buddy?” “Let’s keep going.” God, I wish we had.

We didn’t leave the mortgage for the bank to contend with. We didn’t walk away from our jobs, commitments, obligations and responsibilities (though my heart screamed that was the only reasonable thing to do). We did, however, start to walk and to dream. The forest became, for me, a sanctuary; the AT an obsession. I read everything I could get my hands on…especially narratives. I read of real-life characters like Earl Schaffer, AWOL, Jennifer Pharr Davis, Warren Doyle (who’s hiked it 16 times!), Granny Gatewood, Bill Bryson and Katz, Future-man and Apple-Jack. Nearly mythical creatures such as Bombadil and Baltimore Jack, a hard-nosed, hard-drinking veteran of the AT infamous in his distaste for Bill Bryson, evidenced by his t-shirt that reads “Bill Bryson is a pansy.” Honestly, how much of what is told of Jack is true and how much is legend may never be known. But we didn’t just read, we grabbed every available moment to actually walk the AT, overnighting when we could, day-hiking when we couldn’t. Every time we passed by that outfitter, which we learned was called Mountain Crossings we’d stop in and say hi to the proprietor, Winton Porter and his crew. Never again did I see “Sunshine”. I guess it never occurred to ask what had happened to him.

One day last winter, Chester (aka Scat, aka Forest Dump) and I spent a frigid night on Blood Mountain after trekking through snow drifts nearly three feet deep in places. We rose early and began our slippery, ice-covered descent into Neel’s Gap. Despite my lack of sleep I felt like a kid at Christmas. I’d watched the sun set from Blood and was about to introduce one of my best friends to Mountain Crossings, the catalyst for my obsession. Once again, as I had dozens of times since that fateful day, I swung open the old wooden door. Always we’re greeted by the smiling faces of the staff, often Winton himself. Today, however, was different.

There, standing before me was…Sunshine?! What was his name? My mouth fell open. I stammered, “It’s you!” “You did this!” Grinning, he struggled to make sense of my jabbering. “I mean, you’re the one that started all this…this hiking thing.” Funny thing is, he looked at me as if he knew me as well. With both my hands clasped around his in gratitude, I just asked, “What is your name?” He answered, “Jack.” I looked at him quizzically, “Jack?” He elaborated, “Baltimore Jack.” “Whuh?! You…you’re…THE Baltimore Jack?” “Pretty sure. Yeah.” At this point he removed a well-worn Zippo from his pocket as ID. He held it up for me to see. I was a little too dumbfounded to focus but I did read the words, “Baltimore Jack.” I hugged him. (I don’t think anyone had ever done that to him before. He handled it pretty well, considering.) I reminded him of how we’d met and thanked him for fanning that spark into flame. We talked like old friends for a half an hour or so when Dana walked up. I introduced him, to her surprise, as the guy who’d started all of this and the legendary Baltimore Jack. Her jaw dropped. “No way!” He went for his lighter again. We ended up exchanging mutual invitations, him to South Carolina (Other than Florida, the only state he’s never visited) and us to Vermont. Dana said to him, “Don’t tease me. We’ll come.” He assured her the invitation was genuine. Maybe we’ll just take him up on that one day. As we headed back down the mountain towards home, I started laughing hysterically as I recalled that on our first meeting I had reached for a copy of Bryson’s “Walk In the Woods” and Jack had taken it away from me and put it back on the shelf saying, “You don’t want that.” He really does hate that guy!

Just over 2 hours south of The Shire (The foothills of South Carolina) lies this gateway to a land of myth and magic, mystery and adventure where tales abound and many more are waiting to be written. How it is that I grew to be in my 40’s before discovering this land is a mystery in itself. Perhaps I was not so different from the Hobbit himself, grown fat and content with my pipe-weed, seed-cakes and tea. For adventures are “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner.” But thankfully, not long ago, as it happens, a mysterious bearded man placed a queer mark on the door of my hobbit hole and Adventure was unleashed upon my mundane little life. I’ve yet to walk The Trail from end to end, but that niggling spark became a flame, the flame burns stronger still, and like Bilbo I’ve tasted of adventures…nasty things. Unlike Bilbo, I’ve been swept up in their enchantment and one day soon I’ll leave Springer Mountain for Neel’s Gap. I’ll swing open that old wooden door once again, step back into the woods and walk till I see Katahdin. Because, you know…it was just a dream, really. No, not even a dream. Just a spark…

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 6




Day 6 (June 30)

Only 6 miles left of our adventure. With an odd mixture of sadness and exhilaration we broke camp and joined the families of cyclists moving down the trail to Damascus. Dana had switched to flip-flops by this point, which were rubbing brand new blisters in brand new places but she trudged along like a champ. We took our time, stopping occasionally to play in creeks, set up cairns and take pictures. Around 10:00am the white blazes led us out of the woods, onto US 58 and into the city limits. At this lower elevation, we found the flora ablaze in color: Snow white blooms, rimmed in threads of red trim, vivid pink and deep orange flowers and yellow golden-rod looking plants that stood nearly 4 feet high. Best of all? Blackberries. Growing wild by the side of the road were patches of juicy, ripe blackberries. With just a little effort we were able to find handfuls of ripened, delicious blackberries which we ate right off of the vine, er…bush. Trail magic of the highest order!
Walking into Damascus felt fantastic. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine this thrill as part of a thru-hike. I got lost for a moment as I was swept up into my daydream. I was stirred from my reverie by shouts of “We made it!” We saw the first “Welcome to Damascus” sign. Fred collapsed in the grass and we took turns recording the moment, photographically, for posterity. We laughed and played our way into town, feeling, looking, and I’m sure, smelling like real hikers. We had an early lunch at a local restaurant, stuffing ourselves on giant cheeseburgers (No wonder I put on weight when I’m hiking, huh?), french-fries and ice cream for desert. We donned our packs, once again, and savored the remainder of our walk to Mt. Rogers Outfitters. I brought in my water filter and the owner happily repaired it free of charge while I watched. Good as new. More trail magic. We hesitantly loaded our packs into the van and navigated twisting, turning mountain roads to find our way to the cabin where we’d enjoy several days of lazy, restful, recuperation. Like our walk in the woods these blissful, laughter-filled days became blurred and soft around the edges…kind of like stepping unexpectedly into the mist-muted morning light of a grassy, mountaintop meadow. Maybe this was one of those thin places as well.

“Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.” – Celtic saying

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 5



Day 5 (June 29)

Once comfortably burrowed in my sleeping bag, the night before, I realized I’d not hung my food bag. I could not imagine leaving my cozy nest to stumble through the darkened downpour and hang a bag of food. Hey, Warren Doyle has hiked the AT 17 times and has never once hung a bear bag; I’d take my chances on one rainy night. I survived and so did my food. Due to my laziness I enjoyed the direct benefit of having breakfast in bed. I woke up, while remaining firmly ensconced in my bag, lit my stove, fried up several slices of bacon, boiled water for grits and coffee and managed to pull off some reasonably un-charred toast. Woohoo! I broke camp and headed off, past a girl scout troop, down the trail to the spring. I filtered enough water for everyone, which was no easy task since the handle had broken off of my water filter the day before. I came back to the shelter to find everyone packing up and Dana bandaging her feet. They were a mess. Something would have to be done. Just not sure what yet. We sat down, consulted our maps and guide books and discovered that the AT wasn’t the only trail that led to Damascus. According to what we read there was a trail called the Virginia Creeper Trail that was very nearly flat and traveled adjacent to a river all the way into town. This had to be the answer. As much as we wanted to take the AT all the way in, this was the only logical option. Just so happened we were less than 2 miles from the juncture. It was settled then. Virginia Creeper, here we come.
On our way up and around Whiteside we had met an older fellow whose name (of course) eludes me. He told me that he drops his wife off at an AT trailhead, allows her to hike for several days then picks her up at a pre-arranged location. I asked him why he didn’t join her and he told me he just couldn’t sleep on the ground. Being the hammock-evangelist I am, I regaled him with stories of how hammocking completely changed my wilderness life. I couldn’t sleep either…but I do now. He promised to check into it and told me to keep an eye out for his wife. Her trail name is “The Old Grey Mare.” Well, guess who we ran into! We immediately hit it off and hiked together all the way to the junction of the AT and Creeper Trail. She had taken the Creeper in last year and came back this year to get it right. AT all the way. Gotta love the Old Grey Mare…she ain’t what she used to be. She’s a lot better.
We crossed a set of twin creeks (Whitetop and Green Cove?) and when we stepped on the bridge got a little confused about which way to go. We asked a construction worker if he could help us out. He did. And better yet told us that just a short way in on the Creeper was a little cafe with burgers, fries and milkshakes. This was obviously confirmation that we were headed in the right direction, Oh yeah! We took off with newfound purpose.
The Creeper was everything we’d hoped for except for the fact that it wasn’t exactly a trail. It was more of a nicely graveled road more appropriate for bicyclers than hikers. Apparently it was built along the path of an old railroad, crossing multiple trestle-bridged creeks and rivers along the way. But with thoughts of burgers and fries and lunchtime rapidly approaching we couldn’t find that cafe quick enough. Finally we began to see little signs, “10 minutes to the snack bar”, “5 minutes to concessions” etc. Maybe it wasn’t an actual cafe but, heck, at this point anything was better than mashed potatoes and trail bars. We saw it and Jo and I broke into a run while Dana hobbled slowly in our direction. As we approached we saw more little signs that read, “OPEN.” YES!!! We made it! Then we saw it. Closed. We walked all the way around the little building. Closed. Freaking closed. We were so disappointed. Jo got up, ran back down the trail and knocked over all the “OPEN” signs so Dana didn’t get her hopes up just to be let down again. Chester, Fred then Dana slowly filtered in. It was 11:30 and my belly confirmed it so I boiled up some noodles. We munched on bars while we bemoaned our bad luck and especially the evil concession stand owners. After a short break we got back on the trail and dragged our feet slowly, dejectedly toward Damascus. Every few minutes we’d have to step aside to make way for cyclists. That combined with Dana’s tortured feet and the big bag of “let down” we were dragging made for slow going. It seemed like we’d been walking for hours since leaving the concession stand. In reality it’d been maybe two miles when we came upon what looked like a little town. “Is that what it looks like?” I was staring at the backside of some sort of little building with picnic tables behind it beneath a shelter of some kind. Bikes were parked everywhere and people were…eating? Was it a church picnic? A cook-out? I walked slowly around the building. It was a restaurant! This was the cafe’ we’d been told about! But we’d just eaten…awwwww, who cares?! Wooooohoooo! We dumped our packs, found an entrance and ran inside to find Chester already in line to order. He’s like the Toucan Sam of greasy spoons. He’d followed his nose! Short version? We feasted. I mean FEASTED! Burgers, cheese-fries, milkshakes, the works. Then we loaded up on junk-food for the night. What an oasis. That made our day.

Bellies full and hearts content, we sauntered lazily down the trail through rolling hills and lush farmland. It was around 1:30pm so we walked another 3 or 4 hours till we found a perfect campsite next to the river. The girls bathed in the river, we filtered water (just upstream), set up camp and feasted once again. We spread out our sleeping pads, sat down in a circle, dumped out our food bags and helped ourselves to a backpacker’s smorgasbord: potatoes and gravy, bacon, Chester’s ever-present summer sausage, chips, cookies, candy-bars, coffee and anything else we could find. After two lunches, how we found room for it all is a mystery but we did…and it was wonderful. We laughed and talked around the campfire till well after dark, crawled into our respective hammocks and slept like well-fed babies. Ahhhhh.

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 4

Day 4 (June 28)

We awoke to overcast skies in a mist-shrouded forest. After a quick breakfast we broke camp and were back on the trail by 8:45 a.m.. 25 miles to Damascus. I’m not sure I can explain why but there’s little I enjoy more than walking through deep forests, cloaked in mist in the early morning hours. I was in my element. We walked in relative quiet, shaded by a canopy of birches, pines and fir trees. It was like walking through a fairy tale forest. Less than an hour in, with no warning, we stepped from our fairy tale forest into the mist-muted morning light and found ourselves breathing in the crisp, undiluted morning air of a grassy, mountaintop meadow. Words cannot come close to expressing the wonder of that moment. When we finally managed to stammer out a few syllables, they were only gasps and “Ohhhh,” and “I…I…ohhh.” I felt joy and freedom and gratitude like I haven’t since I was a little boy…and I wasn’t alone. Each of us simultaneously experienced the same exhilarating thrill of childlike freedom. It was a gift….from the Gifting Giver. We lingered and basked in the glow of the moment. Surely this is one of the thin places spoken of by the ancient Celts.

We reluctantly made our way down the trail to cross VA 600 (Whitetop Rd.) to a parking area where a huge group of hikers from a local church were resting after spending a week on the section of trail we were about to step onto. We dropped our packs, said our hellos and swapped stories. As the conversation reached a lull, I opened my guidebook to discover the magical place we had just encountered, as well as where we were now sitting was known as Elk Garden. From here the trail ascends 380 feet in 3.2 miles…in the rain, to Buzzard Rock. Well, maybe not always…but for us, it was raining. It actually started while I was precariously balanced on a rock in a creek trying to filter enough water to get us through lunch. I leapt from my perch, donned my rain gear and stretched my rain-cover over my pack with ninja like grace…right. Well, I got it done, anyhow. Buzzard Rock is an enormous boulder that juts out of the southwest side of Whitetop Mountain. I’m told it’s a great place to watch hawks spiraling up on thermals and a well-known stop on the AT. Most everyone who passes this way has their picture taken while standing on the outermost point of the projecting rock. We arrived to discover that another uber-large church group had taken up semi-permanent residence on the rock with no intention of moving. We dropped our packs and stretched out in the meadow at the base of the boulder while Dana doctored her mangled feet. We gazed down the trail ahead of us and noticed a hiker heading North, climbing the hill we were resting on. He looked to be in his sixties, military cut, stocky-build and calves like grapefruits. This guy was a hiker. He plopped down next to us and as we got to know one another he pointed to a spot on a mountain way off in the distance and said, “There’s my house right over there.” Apparently he lives locally and hikes this section several times a week…which explains the grapefruit. We realized we’d met his hiking buddy on our way up and around Whitetop. His friend started hiking South while he hiked North and they planned to swap vehicles and meet up down the mountain. Pretty good plan, actually.
We said goodbye, started our descent and realized the trail had become a narrow gash through a briar patch. It was literally 6″ wide and about a foot deep, covered in “ankle-breakers” (rocks about the size of a softball) some partially embedded, some loose. This was hands-down my least favorite part of the trail. Without the extra stability of my poles it was inevitable that I would fall…and I did. Fortunately, I didn’t hit the ground…the briars broke my fall. Well, I recovered virtually unscathed and carefully and slowly, painstakingly picked my way down the mountain.
We planned to camp at Lost Mountain Shelter which was 4.7 miles away but nearly all downhill. We had reached VA 601 (Beech Mountain Road) by 3:30 pm and were feeling pretty good about making it…until the sky suddenly turned dark. Not a good sign. Chester and Josiah were way out ahead and I had been laying back to make sure the girls didn’t get separated from the rest of us. At this point I figured it was time for a change of plans. I ran nearly a mile back down the trail, grabbed Dana’s hammock and then charged back up from whence I’d come. My plan, however flawed, was to make it to the shelter and put up both hammocks before the rain hit. Somehow, I pulled it off…just barely. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a spring shower. This was a thunder-boomer of epic proportions. I dropped my pack and barreled back down the trail, grabbed Dana’s pack (due to exhaustion and hamburger feet she was barely moving) and ran it back to the campsite. By the time she arrived at the site, emotions had worn thin and the weather wasn’t the only thing in turmoil. We ended up in an epic thunder-boomer of our own, yelling, screaming and crying. It was awful. Each time we tried to talk it out, it only got worse. We went to our separate corners: she to the shelter and I to the hammock. 20 minutes later, in the midst of the torrential rain, explosive thunder and crackling lightning, Dana left her warm, dry shelter to stand beneath my tarp while we worked past the raw emotions, found and offered forgiveness and resolve. Physically as well as emotionally spent, I drifted to sleep in the heart of the storm, at peace.

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 2



Day 2 (June 26)
We awakened early to break fast with the complimentary “continental” version, checked-out and met our shuttle-driver for a long and winding trip to the trailhead. When we arrived back at Mt. Rogers we discovered that we would be sharing the ride with two other hikers who were able to enlighten us even more as to what lay ahead. Upon reaching the trailhead we snapped a couple of pics of our new friend the shuttle-driver, dragged our packs from the van, said our goodbyes and began to strap on and fine tune our equipment. Immediately Dana discovered that the locking mechanism on one of her trekking poles had failed. I spent around 10 minutes trying to do a temporary fix. (Thank God for duct-tape, huh?) Not a great way to start a 5 day hike…but at least we were starting a 5 day hike! We snapped a few more pics and then June 26, 2010 at 8:30 am Dana, Fred, Chester and I followed Josiah into the woods. Wooooohoooo! It begins.

Oddly enough, I felt a little disoriented. Up until this moment every AT section hike we’d done had been north-bound. At the advice of several, more experienced hikers we decided to do this section south-bound due to the preponderance of north-bound PUDS (Pointless Ups and Downs) and also due to the fact that we all love ending our hike in a trail town. Damascus, Virginia is widely hailed as THE trail town. Even so…it just felt weird.

My nostrils welcomed the dizzying, earthy scent of the woods and The Trail welcomed us with a glorious display of blooming rhododendron, groves of birch trees standing straight as soldiers, myriad fungi of tan and brown and orange and the ever-present white blazes leading us south.

We all enjoy stopping at the shelters along the way. They serve as bite-size goals, a place to rest, re-fuel, refill our water supply, hang out with other hikers and peruse the trail-journals found safely stored in zip-lock bags, usually in the eaves of the structure. We reached our first one, Old Orchard (a mere 8.3 miles in on what would be a 40.7 mile hike) around 10 am. Perfect time for a snack…and (as my dad would say) “Lo, and behold!” trail magic! Sitting in the shelter was a nearly full bag of the most delicious, scrumptious trail magic I’ve tasted as of date…True North Blueberry Nut Clusters. If you’ve never had the pleasure of indulging in this decadent treat, go right out and buy a bag (but only eat while hiking!) Most shelters are “decorated” with graffiti of some sort. This one had served as a canvas for a hiker/ artist who, apparently, had decided packing in their acrylics was worth the weight gain. Nice work, so I’d have to agree.

Lunch time found us resting near the top of a small mountain, playing on boulders, enjoying a snack and, for Josiah and I, exploring a gorgeous meadow just beyond the beaten path. We ran and played among Fraser firs on grassy hills and stood atop Volkswagen sized rocks. We watched, as in the distance, horses and their riders trotted towards us and waved while passing. We climbed back through the stile to join the others back on the trail. Not long after, we entered the “Crest Zone” of the Mount Rogers National Recreation area on Balsam Mountain. We weaved our way through thickets of what I assume were mountain blueberries. Unfortunately and fortunately they were far from ripe. Unfortunate because we couldn’t enjoy freshly picked mountain blueberries. Fortunate because local bears couldn’t enjoy them either! The thickets opened into a spacious, grassy clearing at the foot of Stone Mountain. The trail actually went, via a stile, through a corral where a large group of teenage scouts were taking a rest from the blistering sun in the scant shade offered by a kiosk. We joined them. A sign in the shelter informed us that we were at “The Scales”. According to the sign this was once the site of a large set of scales where cattle were weighed before being shipped to market. Today, the corral is still used by locals for round-up. The ladies were grateful to discover that there were also bathrooms in the corral. Guess they potty-train their beef in the Crest Zone.

Around 2:30 pm we began an ascent that would lead us to the top of Stone Mountain. As we started our walk we were flanked on either side by meadows filled with wildflowers: tens of thousands of nearly identical leafy, green-stalked plants, nearly three feet high, with small, bright red blossoms. The overall effect was dizzying…like looking at one of those 3-D graphics that reveals a holographic image. We found a shade tree part way up the trail and waited for Dana and Fred to catch up. The view of the valley and corral, where we’d just been? Striking.

By now the sun was directly overhead, shade was rare and we were feeling, well…broiled. At the top of Stone Mountain (4,800 feet) we found a small grove of trees and sat down to cool off for a few minutes. Moments later we were joined by Dana and Fred and we continued to the summit. Nearly flat and well-populated by other hikers (and their dogs) shade was still hard to find. We pressed our tired bodies against a rock outcropping, guzzled sun-warmed water and tore into our food bags like half-starved grizzlies.

We had heard rumors of a creek-side campsite just a couple of miles down the hill. Our guidebooks seemed to confirm this and we decided that, considering how much company we had on the trail, we’d be wise to find something and set up camp early. We quickly made our way through the forest and down the mountain, nervously smiling as we passed other hikers.

We passed through another stile which marked the beginning of the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness Area. This is where we hoped to spend the night, just outside of Grayson Highlands State Park. We weren’t disappointed. Within minutes we were welcomed by the delicious melody of water dancing over rocks and spotted, nestled in a glen, a nearly hidden campsite just to the left of a small meadow. It was perfect. We dropped our packs, picked out our trees and strung our hammocks.

Before the trip I had decided to try my hand at cooking on a wood stove. I found some plans on the internet, bought a can of pineapple juice, and in short-order had crafted a decent looking wood stove. I couldn’t wait to fire it up. With a pile of moss, pine-needles, sticks and twigs piled to my left, dehydrated ground beef, dehydrated spaghetti sauce and penne pasta on my right, and a generous cloud of smoke surrounding my head, I set to cranking up my kitchen. It didn’t take long for me to develop a new appreciation for my iso-propane hiker stove. I’m pretty adept at starting a fire but keeping a high enough, hot enough fire going for long enough to boil pasta…well, let’s just say that I humbly begged my hiker stoves forgiveness for my infidelity. She graciously took me back…and helped me finish dinner! After burying the leftovers a long way from camp, Chester and I collected and bundled together the food bags and went in search of a tree. This proved to be the days most tiresome task. Out of exhaustion and frustration we settled on hanging our bear bags from branches we optimistically thought would be just out of reach and hoped for the best. Ahhhhhhh, bed-time.

AT Hike Fox Creek to Damascus Day1

Sometimes, with the passage of time, our memories of cherished events become…blurred, soft around the edges. Details that seized our attention at the moment of occurrence dissipate into a dreamy haze over the years. In June of this year we experienced this very phenomenon but instead of occurring naturally it seemed to be cast upon us, like some awful enchantment. Here I sit, months later, wishing with everything in me that I had bought that little waterproof journal I’d seen in the outfitters…to have some written record of those few short days spent walking the Appalachian Trail through southwest Virginia. So, instead, I wander the trails of my mind, sort through snapshots of those recent days and try to recall the emotion, the pain, the wonder…and I end up with well, snapshots.

Day 1 (June 25)
We arrived in Damascus and headed straight for Mt. Rogers Outfitters where we’d leave our car for the duration of our hike. Meandering through the store, we talked to locals about mountain weather conditions which can, we discovered, change on a dime (Sweltering heat can instantly become a deluge which can give way to night-time lows we’d only experienced in winter months.) I’d hoped to leave behind some of my base-layer and maybe my sleeping pad…drop a little weight. No such luck. Better to be prepared (as the boy scouts say) , so it looks like 35 lbs is as low as I’ll go. Josiah dragged me out of the outfitter and into a creepy little thrift shop next door. We sifted through what was mostly junk and quickly decided to make our exit from the “Tarantino-ish” atmosphere. Upon reaching the door we discovered it had been locked behind us. Whuh?! As panic crept up my spine, one of the employees came to the door with a key to let us out. Creeeeepy. Did I mention…creepy?

Since the Mt. Rogers hostel was closed for renovations we had to make other arrangements for the night. We located a Days Inn on the outskirts of town, rented a room, unloaded our gear and realized quickly that not only was the AC not working but our mexicano neighbors bought their beer in bulk, iced it down in sidewalk coolers and liked their music blaring from their pick-up radio. Nice enough guys but we were hoping for a little creature-comfort before starting our trek. A visit back to the hotel office gained us a new room with cooler air and a little distance from the “fiesta.” Now for dinner. Cracker Barrel seemed our best option and I enjoyed, appropriately enough, the “Campfire Chicken and Vegetables.” Delicious. Back to the hotel to catch a few winks in “civilization” before our adventure begins.

Blue Ridge Journal Day 7

Day 7

Friday

Didn’t sleep much the night before…an hour, maybe two. Got up at 4:45 am, woke up Josiah and we backed quietly out of the drive and pointed the Sports Utility Van toward Springer Mountain (the start of the Appalachian Trail)…or so we thought. After logging over 2 hours of driving, most of which was dusty gravel back roads, we came to the end of our directions and realized we were nowhere near where we wanted to be. Jo rummaged around in the dash and found some similar directions that stated we were supposed to head in the complete opposite direction at a particular juncture. No one, I repeat, no one is conscious in Georgia at this time of the morning so I couldn’t even break the male-stereotype and ask for help. After back-tracking 10 or 12 miles we were once again on course and finally found the parking lot on Springer, which was empty except for one lone black Jeep. Jo and I donned our packs; I slipped into my Father’s Day present (Dana bought me a pair of waterproof Northface hiking boots at a really cool gear shop in Blue Ridge) and after making a quick “wilderness deposit” we sprang toward the white blazes with vigor and excitement. We chose as our destination the first shelter on the trail, Black Gap. We were finally here. Though we were only doing a half-day hike we were stoked to be doing it on the AT. Josiah remarked that though he had been excited at the possibility of one day doing a thru-hike, after having actually set foot on the trail it seemed like something we were supposed to do. It’s what I’ve felt for a while and it was great hearing him say it. The AT was clearly marked and, at least on this section, easy hiking but due to our excursion yesterday I was having some pain in my big toe on my right foot. I’m not sure what it is but it flares up anytime I hike on uneven terrain. About an hour in we arrived at a small footbridge that crossed a little creek. I needed a break so I sat down, pulled off my new boots (which had worn a blister on my pinky toe…same foot) and changed into my trail running shoes. I scrounged around in my pack, found a Zip-lock bag of Advil and munched a handful. It was at the precise moment I swallowed that I thought, “Advil aren’t pink.” Oh crap. No, Advil aren’t pink…Benadryl are. I freaked. Jo said, “Let’s turn around and go back.” Sage advice. Sage advice I’d have to ignore. We’d waited too long and traveled too far to turn back this close to our goal. I examined my options, which were few. The only sensible thing seemed to be getting the pills back up. So while Jo turned away in pity I jammed my ample fingers down my throat. Now, it’s probably important to note here that I absolutely hate throwing up. I can’t stand it and will avoid it at all costs. Just the sensation of feeling my own wet, throat flesh closing around my fingers should’ve been enough to trigger the desired effect…but it wasn’t. After struggling unsuccessfully for several minutes I verbally kicked myself and hopped back on the trail. Crazy enough, within minutes we saw a sign for the shelter. We made it to our goal. After snapping some pics, reading some of the entries in the guestbook and making an entry of our own we started back for the parking lot as the effects of the little pink pills settled in. I honestly don’t remember a whole lot of our trip back up the mountain or our van ride back down the mountain for that matter. I do remember waking up 5 hours later in my bed at the cabin feeling groggy but rested. I was greeted by my beautiful wife who said, “Hey, the dam released. You up for a paddle?” Sure, why not. After a peaceful trip (our 4th this week) down the Toccoa we returned to the cabin where Keith built a campfire of such blazing magnitude it was near impossible to approach with a skewered marshmallow. As if the Smores weren’t enough we followed our bonfire feast up with a visit to a local Dairy Queen the Bigos’ had scouted out earlier in the week. Adventure comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s a pecan cluster Blizzard with extra pecans.

Blue Ridge Journal Day 1

Day 1

Saturday

Went to Fred’s house the night before for C-mans 4th b-day party and ended up getting in so late that we didn’t load the van till this morning (Saturday). After piling a weeks worth of clothes, mountain-board, canoe, fishing gear and a freshly laundered Scooby Doo we headed out…sort of. We stopped at Bob Poock’s Hardees for a new creation; I had them combine the the breakfast bowl with the low-carb breakfast bowl for something that probably had about 18,000 fat grams…energy for the road, right?On the way we stopped at one of our favorite stores on the planet, Mountain Crossings at Walasi-yi. It’s a popular stop on the Appalachian Trail which if you haven’t noticed, has become an obsession with me. We didn’t encounter any thru-hikers but greeted several section hikers, most of whom had just completed 30 miles or so. While Jo and I were lusting over the gear and amazing t-shirts Dana took Scooby and beat me to the trail. And when she saw us again, believe me, she took no small pleasure in letting us know! So Jo and I took the leash (with the dog) and set-out. Within the course of a matter of minutes we found our first white blaze! We were stoked. (Blazes are just strokes of paint on trees used to identify the trail you’re on. The AT, which stretches from Springer Mountain, GA to Mount Katahdin, Maine..approximately 2175 miles…this year, is identified with white blazes.) Before we found the blaze I told Jo that we’d just walk until we found one. I kept saying, “just a little further.” He said, “Let’s just go. Let’s keep walking.” I was tempted. Later he chuckled and said, “It would make a great book: Woman’s husband, son and dog set out for short walk and don’t come back…for 5 months!” I mused, “Hey babe, we’re in Maine. Come get us, would you?” The appeal of the trail has now become almost mystical for me. Near the white blaze was a tree that Jo, of course, had to climb. As he was monkeying to the top my gaze was drawn back to the path. The allure of the beautiful trail stretched out before me seduced me once more. I reminded myself soon…soon.Once we arrived and got unloaded we looked up the number for the Swan Drive-In. One of the more significant losses I’ve seen in my lifetime is the extinction of the Drive-In movie. When we discovered that one of the rare survivors of the VCR/DVD revolution was just down the road from where we were staying we determined to make a visit. Dana and I as well as Keith and Michelle all have fond memories of the inimitable Drive-In. It’s something we’ve longed for years for Jo to experience. As we were digging up the number we talked about what movie we’d like to see. All of us agreed that either Kung Fu Panda or the new Indian Jones would be fantastic. Dana said, “Wouldn’t it be great if they were showing a double feature?” A feeling of wonderment came over me. Double-feature. A term that from the advent of digital recording technology, had been deleted from our lexicon. While we waited in the stifling heat of a local restaurant for our food to arrive (Apparently the AC was down) Dana made the call to see what was showing. She erupted in a blood curdling scream. I honestly thought we’d won the lottery…even though we’d never played. She informed us that tonight the Swan Drive-In would be showing a double-feature. Yep, you guessed it. Kung Fu Panda and Indiana Jones. We were all pretty worn out but couldn’t pass up a chance like this so we loaded up and headed for the Swan. One of the things I miss the most about the demise of the Drive-In is the pre-film activity. At the Swan, like our own beloved Augusta Rd. Drive In, families gathered in the patch of grass before the giant screen for Frisbee, football, tag, hide and seek and various and sundry other activities. We had a blast. Keith brought a Frisbee and before long kids were gathering from everywhere. The infamous flying disc made it’s long and seemingly random circuit repeatedly, interrupted on occasion by the tag football game which would barrel right through the crowd. It was chaotic, it was crazy and it was beautiful. As nightfall approached we made our way to our camp chairs, opened the back of the sports utility van and cranked up the radio to 101.5 fm. I’m sure the giant soft drinks, corn dogs, nachos and funnel cakes were partially to blame but we all found ourselves nodding out during what were probably two pretty good films. It was never really about the movies anyway. Good times.