N.C. – Tenn. border

June 19-22 — Off…Hurt ankle.

On Monday my ankle hurt more. I could hardly walk on it. The folks at Standing Bear Farm were very nice, I got hot dogs and ribs at their five-year-old’s birthday party. The place was really backwoodsy—really Appalachian. Everyone smoked. Well, not the five-year-olds, but everyone else. In any case, by evening it was clear that my ankle was not getting any better. The pain was sharp, with no weight on my back. My first sprain I was able to hike through. With this one I couldn’t muster more than a hobble.

So I started making phone calls. Mind you, every call I made was calling card, so it entailed dialing at least 35 digits for each call. Do you think there’s cell service? Ha. I called my parents, our at-home health clinic (not helpful after hours), my uncle (a doctor), my uncle’s friends, both doctors, in Asheville (an hour off the trail on I-40), my uncle again, and then my parents. More than an hour later, I arranged for a shuttle to the city (Curtis and Maria, the proprietors of Standing Bear Farm, did not speak highly of the local hospital.) and went to bed with a new chapter to be written.

Curtis, the proprietor of SBF, is a nice guy, but, oh what a lush. I made sure to take an early morning shuttle, because of the number of beers I had seen him consume before his shuttle the previous afternoon. A couple folks were coming in for a shuttle down to NOC, 100 miles back by trail (and 75 by car) and it is not a straight line. Would you want to be driven on them by a drunk guy on sinewy roads for two hours? Anyway, Curtis wasn’t all too happy about having to drive all this way (even though he was getting paid for it) and at about 3:30 was sitting with me, saying “goddamn I don’t want to drive all this goddamn way” with a thick southern drawl, and knocking back a couple of Busch cans (they drink classy beer down here). Then his clients showed up and he took them for a ride. I assume they were okay because he was there to drive me the next morning. At 9 sharp. I didn’t want him to have the chance to drink any more. Talking with Mash in New Hampshire I mentioned Curtis and Mash went in to a great impersonation of Curtis driving a bunch of thru-hikers to the liquor store after a long day of drinking. Priceless.

The X-rays in Asheville were precautionary, and luckily did not show any fracture (it could have been a stress fracture with the symptoms but was not). Had it been that, I would be arranging flights back to Boston. I was given an air cast and told to stay off the ankle for a few days. Many thanks to the Garretts, who have taken me in as a trail refugee here in Asheville, and I have been able to stay here for a few days while I get back in to trail shape. It is not the best situation to have (a bum ankle) but it is a darn good place to have it in (I know no one for 750 trail miles to Washington, D.C.). So I plan to hike again on Friday. It sets me back a few days, and probably means I now have to average 20 miles a day instead of 18. I can do that. If I keep my ankle in good shape.

And again, a big thank you to the Garretts for hosting me in my time of some kind of need!

June 23 — 7.2 Miles today, 244.5 miles from Springer, 1930.1 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1000 feet. 
Climbs: 1, Wx: 70s, 10%, TRF, Shelter: 3, Dinner: -, Overall: 3.

After a week (well, most of a week) in Ashevegas, it is sure nice to be back on the trail. Of course, I’ve had better days. I set out from a ride given to me by Johnny (one of the Garretts), with my bag packed, hiking boots on, I started to climb. Within an hour, the rains hit. I slogged through rain, fog, mud and water in to darkness and finally got to a junction where I thought the shelter was. I didn’t check my book and followed a trail through the dark. It seemed a bit rough to be a shelter trail, and a bit long, and a bit muddy, but I just wanted to get there. When I got to a road, I knew something was wrong. Ugh! Back through the mud, over the stream, under the log, by the tree (I’m going on a bear hunt, I’m gonna catch a big on, I’m not scared …) to the trail.

Where am I? I wandered down the trail all of 25 yards and found another sign post, with an arrow to the shelter. Now it was pitch black, still pouring, and so foggy my headlamp did little more than diffuse the light amongst the water in the air. I managed to slip-slide my way down to the shelter, which had two sleeping occupants, and I put down my stuff and went to throw bear ropes. I got the rock stuck in a tree, took fifteen minutes or an hour to get it down, swore, and then went off to find another tree. They told me there were good trees near the water. So I followed a random trail, thinking it went towards the water. 200 feet out, I found some trees, but no rocks. So I looked around for a landmark and realized I was lost.

My heart started pounding. Here I was, in the middle of the woods, with a bag of food and a rope, lost. I started on an uphill diagonal towards where I knew there was a trail but I still felt, well, not too good. I found the trail (and was instantly relieved and excited) and ran/slid down towards the shelter. And I did something very bad. No more mucking about with the bloody bear ropes: I hung my food, surrounded by my jacket, in the shelter. It was windy, rainy and foggy. No bear in its right mind was going to come after me. I had had a late lunch and lots of snacks and was ready to go to bed. No dinner. And hopefully no bears. And a resolution: make it to camp by 8 p.m. Especially if it is raining.

June 24— 13.1 Miles today, 257.6 miles from Springer, 1917 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1410 feet. 
Climbs: 3,3,4,4,3 Wx: 70s, 40%, TR, Shelter: 4, Dinner: 5, Overall: 5.

My ankle, with 600 mg ibuprofen every 4-6 hours, felt pretty good today. It rained all night, but no Mr. Bear. I was relieved in the morning, and slept in after a night without much sleep (at every rustle of the leaves I awoke, mumbling “Is that a bear? No.” “Is that a bear? No.”). It was wet, but sunny, by 10 and I set off, with my ankle in an aircast in my sneaker. My hiking boots that my mother had sent were soaked through, and they do not easily become unsoaked. Which meant, of course, they were a heavy dead weight on my back. Back to the trail runners, which are much nicer, and create a cooler, nicer foot to boot (no pun intended). Plus they were dry. I really should never have let my mom talk me in to accepting the boots — the aircast gives better support anyway. So the ankle doesn’t feel great, but it is getting better, which is the proper trajectory.

The highlight of today was crossing Max Patch. Not a bald per se, it was grazed in the 1800s and is now a large field maintained by the Forest Service as such (oh the Forest Service). It was very nice, with good views of the mountains and the surrounding storms which were blowing in other directions. I saw some lightning miles away, but despite hearing thunder all afternoon I got only a few drops of rain. When that started I pulled out my pack cover and jacket, which I turned out not to need. Oh well. I got to a shelter well before 8 (yes!) with two nice gentlemen and the best-behaved trail dog I have seen so far (and probably the best there is). She was called Candy and when I approached lay perfectly still (no charge-and-bark to which I am accustomed), she would do things only when asked by her owner, she liked to be pet and didn’t make to bite my hand off, and was really quite nice. I also learned from her owner that if I am charged by a dog pointing to the ground and yelling “NO” will usually subdue it. Good to know with all the bloody dogs around. I had a good dinner and was asleep by 9. Oh, and I didn’t hang my food tonight. Since bears are hunted by dogs in these parts, they smell the dog and know to stay away. It’s nice when things work out like that.

June 25 — 13.1 Miles today, 270.7 miles from Springer, 1903.9 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -1935 feet.
Climbs: 3, Wx: 70s, 20%, TR, Shelter: -, Dinner: -, Overall: 5.

It rained again overnight. On the tin roof it sounded very hard, but it wasn’t too bad, and we stayed dry. By morning the rain had let up and it was cloudy and cool. I ate hot breakfast and was on trail by 8:40, not too bad for timing. My ankle was pretty good (again on painkillers), even across the switchbacks down the side of Bluff Mountain. They switchback everything down here, as opposed to New England, where they pretty much go straight up the fall line. The Carolina Mountain Club also needs to stop with the double blazes. They are fine for road crossings, or trail junctions, but some of these just announce another white blaze. We get it. I also was looking down at the side of the trail and thinking that it would only be a few more weeks until blueberries. And then: ripe blueberries! I was excited. They were good. I hope I find more before the bears do. Unlike in Blueberries for Sal, the bears ain’t friendly.

I wanted to make it to Hot Springs before the storms, and almost did. But my last mile was in the rain, and I wandered in to the outfitter (and natural food store) wet. I got a waterproof food bag (no more soggy oatmeal bags) and some grub (including B&J Pistacio Pistacio and, avast! Cabot Hunter cheese!) and set off to Elmer’s for stay. For $15 I got a very nice room in a beautiful, 1840 (very early Victorian) house. Elmer’s politics are in the right place (from the web: “The commie kicked me and another hiker out after he heard us making fun of his anti Bush posters.” Serves them right.) and he seems like a nice guy. His meals are legendary, but because I was the only guest for the night he wasn’t cooking. Alas, I had lousy pizza in town (of course, it was filling) and went to my 10-foot ceiling room to sort out rations for shipment along the trail. Then, to sleep.

And I figured out why everyone down here smokes: A pack of cigarettes goes for under $3. Other states tax cigs. Do they have a credit here? That’s outrageous.

June 26 — Zero Day

I awoke today to heavy rain. Heavy. Gross. I went to the library. It looks like it will go all day. So I made a decision. I’ll give my ankle another day, then set off down the trail. No use getting sopping wet and miserable only to get 10 miles in to a shelter. I’ll be able to hostel hop for most of the next week, supposing my ankle feels better. I also will do a lot of 20+ mile days, including at least one marathon. The terrain gets considerably easier pretty soon, as I leave the topography of the Smokies and head in to the ridges of Virginia. There is a thru-hiker who just graduated Vanerbilt a couple days ahead of me but he has to leave the trail for a wedding, so maybe we will rendezvous at some point and can reel off some 30-mile days for a bit. I know I have taken a very short week, but I think I can still make Katahdin this year. Just no more injuries. And some common sense.

I called the Scarboroughs (cousins) who just got back to Asheville from Bucharest. They know Hot Springs well and are going to come up and join me for dinner this evening. It’ll be nice to have the company, and there are a couple nice restaurants in town. They know Elmer, too (his name is Elmer! I just get a kick out of that) and say it is a great place to stay. It is. So, now I go to the Post Office, then to Elmers to inform him I will be staying on, and then for some R&R. Because tomorrow is a new day, supposedly a drier day, and I will head off down the trail.

June 27 — 16.3 Miles today, 287 miles from Springer, 1887.6 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1375 feet.
Climbs: 2,2,4,4, Wx: 80s, 90%, Shelter: -, Dinner: 4, Overall: 5.

I wound up abandoning Elmer and staying with my cousins in Ashevegas once again. I awoke in Asheville after the best sunset of the trail (seriously) out of the Scarborough’s window. And got my pictures sent home on a beautiful, simple, fantastic Mac, with a better-than-phone-line connecetion. I showered (what a concept!) ate eggs, turkey bacon, tomato and avocado (what a concept!) and after taking cousin Jesse to an optometrist appointment made for the trail at Hot Springs.

Thus began an eventful, but overall good, day. First off, I had conveniently donated my Cabot Hunter’s cheese to the Scarboroughs (left it in their fridge) — so I stopped for cheese again. Cheese is great: 1800 calories per pound, it keeps, and man does it help adding some taste. (The maximum is a bit less than 4000 cal/lb for pure fat: butter or olive oil.)

The trail goes along the French Broad river for a while — which was flowing high and brown with the recent rains. It was over its banks and nearly on the trail, but not quite, which was good. Had it been a foot higher it would have been lapping the trail in places, three feet would have inundated it. But today, no rain! As it was, I walked along it. A bit later, the trail turned up the riverbank, which rose steeply up with great views along the river towards town. I hiked six miles to a bridge crossing US 25/70 and then uphill to a fire tower with nice, albeit somewhat hazy, views. Soon thereafter, I came upon a familiar and ghastly scene: horse tracks. Fresh, on the soft trail, they had really done a ton of damage. I pulled out the section maps I had obtained from Pisgah National Forest’s ranger station in Hot Springs, and they had the local number for the ranger station. I pulled out my phone, had signal and made the call to report the illicit usage:

Ranger: Pisgah National Forest. Hot Springs.
Ari: Hi, I have a question about the Appalachian Trail.
Ranger: Okay…
Ari: Are horses allowed anywhere in your district?
Ranger: Oh, no. Horses aren’t allowed anywhere on the Appalachian trail.
Ari: Well, there are fresh horse tracks north of Hurricane Gap.
Ranger: Okay, I’ll file a report.

I doubt they caught the guilty party, which turned on a side trail with a blatant “NO HORSES” sign, but I felt righteous for the day. Actually, I have to email the Carolina Mountain Club, too. I felt I was a trail steward for the day. I try to do something daily, whether it is swamping (moving off the trail) a stick or clearing out a clogged waterbar.

Right after I passed a shelter, I met a fellow, Charlie, who is section hiking southwards and in his second-to-last year. There are a lot of section hikers out these days. Charlie had a thick Long Island accent and I picked up on it, correctly, immediately. He was very excited to know the shelter was around the corner. I soldiered on, and my ankle was doing great (still with 600 mg of ibuprofen). Then I reaggrevated the bloody joint. And why? Because of a bird. It wasn’t even the illegal horse use which put treacherous holes in the trail. It was a bird. Some of the birds here have this annoying habit of taking off and flying low to the ground right as you pass by. This poor thing flew right below my right (uninjured) foot. I jumped to try to avoid him, but he flew right at my left (injured) foot. I fell on him (and killed him, I felt so bad about it) and wrenched my ankle. I killed two birds with one stone, so to speak. A pain swept up my leg. Profanities were uttered, and then yelled, and it didn’t feel great down the first downhill, but started to get better and was fine by the time I hung a left off the trail to a hostel.

I found my way (with some assistance, and a 50 cent ice cream sandwich) to the brand new hiker hostel at Hemlock Hollow where I was literally the first hiker housed. I warmed dinner in the provided coffee pot (my uncle Peter would be very proud). Screens, shower and electricity. Oh, my. Tomorrow: 24 miles. Then 27, a marathon, to Erwin. In theory, anyway. Oh, my.

June 28 — 24.8 Miles today, 311.8 miles from Springer, 1862.8 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1555 feet.
Climbs: 4,3,4,2,4, Wx: 80s, 90%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: +, Overall: 5.

A good day. I got a ride to the trail, which was very nice, and shaved off a half mile of hiking, but I still wasn’t on trail until close to 9:00. My ankle gaffe came early when I went down a slippery water hole (partially on my rear) and didn’t bring my poles. Lesson: bring poles to water holes (it even rhymes!). I have been very shutter-happy, god bless digital cameras. There were also some very overgrown sections (some areas are meticulously well kept, others need a bit of maintenance) which I had to plow through. At one point, the trail was (very) recently relocated on to the top of a ridge, so recently that it didn’t make it in to the 2006 edition of either of the hiking books. It may have, for all I know, added distance to the trail. It definitely made it harder — lots of rock stairs and climbs, although there were beautiful views in both directions as well as lots of almost-ripe blueberries. Soon. Very soon.

A bit of history: The first hiker to complete the trail, in 1948, was Earl Shaffer (wiki). He encountered a very different trail than today. In places, especially the non-long trail part of Vermont, it was overgrown as maintenance had been deferred for years during the war. It was poorly marked, followed lots of roads and went through lots of towns and 200 miles shorter. Still, he completed the hike in 124 days, just a bit longer than the pace I hope to set. The Appalachian Trail Conference thought it was impossible to do such a “thru-hike” and his trail name was “Crazy One” because they thought he was crazy, setting an example for the 10,000 crazy thru-hikers since. He southbounded (he didn’t like it as much) in 1965 and then northbounded (NOBOed) in 1998 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his trip, finishing, at age 79, in 174 days (he died a few years ago). During the rains in Hot Springs, I read the book he authored in 1998, The Appalachian Trail, Calling Me Back to the Hills. Anyway, old Earl liked the trail better in ’48 than now. It was shorter (just over 2000 miles instead of nearly 2200, and it seems to grow every year with various relocations), easier, and went through more towns. Since then it has been relocated to more mountaintops and ridges and bypasses more towns. So Earl would not have been happy with this ridge top relo which definitely makes the trail harder. He was most angered by the trail’s relocation to a set of rocky ridges in Pennsylvania. Considering how much everyone seems to hate this section, I think the ATC should look into moving it back. But I will have a more formative opinion later on. Earl, however, seems like a cool guy.

He would have liked the next section: three miles on an old jeep road. Level, fast and easy. I was able to jog quite a bit of it and by the time I was refilling water, I had gone 8.7 miles in 3:25, not a bad pace at all. It looked like I would do my 24.8 (about 25, eh?) miles for the day. I paused to take some pictures of a picturesque cascade, and then raced up the hill to the last shelter. I knew it was near, and my adrenaline was pumping, and I took my heart rate. After 24 miles, I spent 20 minutes with my heard pounding 140-160+ bpm, about 70-80% of max. I was in camp at 8:45, threw my ropes, greeted the folks there, made my dinner on a horribly slanted picnic table, ate (it was great, probably more than 2000 calories of squash, cheese, olive oil, rice, more rice, sauces and whatever else I had) and then went to sleep. The problem was, with my heart still pounding, I had trouble falling asleep. Also the meal and run had dehydrated me, it was a haul to the nearest water, and I finished all of mine by bedtime. I actually woke up and stole some from the other fellows there overnight. I had hoped they’d treated it.

June 29 — 26.9 Miles (MARATHON), 338.7 miles from Springer, 1835.9 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -2535 feet.
Climbs: 2,4,4, Wx: 70s-80s, 100%, Shelter: -, Dinner: +, Overall: +.

Ah, what a great, superb day!

I was up at 6:10 and, after a trek for water, ready for breakfast. I usually get my water after breakfast in order to digest, but today, because I was so thirsty, I got it before. I actually carried the activating Aqua Mira down to the water so my water would be ready that much (five minutes) sooner. I felt like an alcoholic waiting for the bars to open on Sunday. 6:31: I can drink! The spring was a trek (glad I didn’t do it at night) but otherwise nice. My trail stewardship thing of the day was shimming up the table with some flat rocks from the fire surface, and I was rewarded with a balanced breakfast, or at least a balanced surface to cook on. I got to hear, from a colorful fellow hiking with his son, about working as a disaster-relief construction worker in the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Hugo (wiki) in 1989. In a year, he made $120,000 doing work there, which is, according to the BLS (don’t ask me why they house the government’s online inflation calculator) $196,000. Not bad, eh? He talked about flying down with 800 pounds of tools and the guy waving him, and his “luggage” through when he heard where he was going, and coming back with $70,000 in cash. Of course, I’ve learned that anything people say on the trail deserves at least a grain of salt.

I was out at 7:30, and soon was at Sam’s Gap. The gap, at 3800 feet, is home to the country’s newest stretch of rural interstate (I think) and also, I believe, the highest stretch east of the Rockies, where I-26 (wiki) crosses the Appalachians. It seems, however, somehow unnecessary. Supposedly, it allows truckers to bypass some Atlanta traffic to create a corridor from the Great Lakes to the Southeast, and the old, winding US 23 (wiki) had 9% grades. Still, when I went by it, at 8:30 a.m. on a weekday, it was oddly quiet, with a truck or car every minute or so, quiet even for a rural interstate. It was also very costly, with an 11 mile stretch costing more than $300 million (mostly funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission). (More info on I-26.) So I wandered along the quiet road and then up in to National Forest land, through a chain link gate (first I’ve seen on the trail) and past a campsite where a couple fellows were just rolling up camp. I stopped about ten minutes later to look at the guide book for a sec and they came strolling by. We talked for a bit and then started walking, and they kept a good pace, so I would have hiking buddies for the first time on the trip. Hurrah!

The guys, both of whom go to East Tennessee State University, which has a four year Bluegrass program (really), the only one in the country. These boys are both in an Old Time band, the The Halfrunners, with Brody on the fiddle and Tim on the Guitar. Pretty cool, eh? In fact, Tim had done trail work with a guy I know from college. Small world. We hiked up, up, up to the summit of Big Bald, which the Forest Service keeps a bald by mowing, as we observed when we arrived. The winds were out of the north and the weather was superb. Views were great in all directions, and I could see Mount Mitchell, which at 6684 feet is the highest peak east of the Black Hills, although the AT does not cross it. We lounged on the summit for a while and I mentioned that I was trying to make it to Erwin to go to Erwin Burrito, which they highly recommended. I was told, however, that they kept strange hours. So we decided to call ahead. The promise of burritos would keep us going. I called my dad, who looked up their number, and called back with the information. The reception was bad enough that we waited for better service a bit later to call, but found out they would be open until “Oh, eight-thirty or nine tonight.” Yippie. Off we went.

I was very impressed with the trail today. It wound through varying areas, forest types, and wasn’t all on ridges. There was one great spot along a beautiful stream. Though the company kept me moving I stopped for a bit for pictures. We took a break for lunch (at 4:30) and then pushed, with the promise of burritos, to Erwin. We were off the trail at 7:00, which means I hiked a marathon-plus in 11:30, with stops. It won’t qualify me for Boston, but how many marathons require a 25 pound pack, are run on rugged trails with several thousand feet of elevation gain? I climbed Heartbreak Hill a dozen times today. Or more.

We wandered around on the road for a bit before trying to hitch to town. The first car, not 30 seconds later, pulled off and gave us a ride. Ten minutes later, we were at the funky Erwin Burrito (in an old, tin-ceiling building in a quaint, old downtown) where we had good Burritos. Anna’s they weren’t (Anna’s, by premelting the cheese, gets the burrito so much better, not to mention their crispy, melty, quesadilla, which is unbelievable), but satiating they were. I had two. And a trip to the restroom (running water! yay!). I then walked over to Miss Janet’s, a hostel downtown. It is a great place, with DSL internet, and so far, a bunkroom to myself. I have the run of the fridge (with orange juice and ice cream, two necessities) and a laundry. It is now time for bed, though, and I think I’ll take an easy, afternoon 16 miler tomorrow. In the past two days, I’ve made up about a day’s worth of deficit. I need to average 18.3 miles per day from June 4 to finish September 30, and I am still 135 or so miles off pace, mainly due to my time in Ashevegas. Of course, if I can pull 24 per day for a month in Virginia and Pennsylvania, I’ll be right back on track. And it gets easier up there — if I can put in days like today I should be able to make 30 a day.

Oh, and the Red Sox just won their 12th straight. The last time they did that was in 1995, and they won the AL East that year. And they tied a MLB record with sixteen straight errorless games. Wow. These are the Red Sox, for crying out loud. Plus they are four games up on the Yankees. This could be an October to remember.

And, my dad got a new iMac! Intel chip and all. He is going to migrate Photoshop over to it, and I look forward to putting ArcGIS on it when we get home. Should be fun.