North Carolina

June 9 — 17.5 Miles today, 90.7 miles from Springer, 2083.9 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1140 feet. 
Climbs: 2,3,4,4, Wx: 70s-80s, 70%, Shelter: 4, Dinner: 5, Overall: 4.

Today was also not a twenty mile day but it was a climbing day, so all is well. I finished my first state, and also went over 5000 feet for the first time. Right at the NC-GA state line is a long upgrade which brings you up on to a high ridge, mostly above 4000 feet, all the way to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (usually called the NOC), where I’d be staying with friends from college. The trail to Standing Indian Mountain, the highest point to date on the trail, was an old road and quite easy. The only problem is I now have to go 43 miles in two days to get to NOC “on time” — when I said I’d be there.

There were two shelters at the Carter Gap, one old and one new. I could have had the old one to myself (no snorers), but it is supposedly mouse-infested, and looked dilapidated. The new one is of the “Nantahala design,” meaning it is half shelter and half covered-cooking-area and quite nice. With company, I camped there. Word on the street (trail?) from the folks I was staying with (mostly big trail maintainers from around the area) is that the trail was relatively easy the next day. I have just enough food, too, for two days, which means no side trip down to Franklin, N.C. for resupply. At the site we stayed was a church group of 18 (maximum group size in the wilderness is 10) who said they were four groups. The folks I was with were livid. They were bemoaning the trail ethic exhbited (or not exhibited) by scout groups and church groups. So far, I’d have to agree. They also claimed to snore. Compared to the scouts back in Georgia, they were silent. And my ankle, while still a bit swollen, feels much better. And is no longer purple.

Word on the trail is that trail numbers are down this year because it has been a while since Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods came out, but a movie, supposedly with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, is set to be made (as of 2013 it hasn’t, and Paul Newman died), Bryson didn’t do any hiking and just hung around at some shelters, and his friend Katz is made up. Or so these folks say. And that is all most people know about the trail. (Of course, Bryson is hilarious. And some of the experiences he conveys are spot-on. So maybe he did do some hiking.)

June 10 — 19.6 Miles today, 110.3 miles from Springer, 2064.3 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +30 feet. 
Climbs: 3,4,3,3, Wx: 80s, 70%, Shelter: 4, Dinner: 5, Overall: 5.

I was up early and hit the trail along with some folks who were calling me Macalester. They kept catching up with me whenever I stopped for lunch or a bathroom break. Although, granted, they were out for two days and twelve miles, and I was out for a bit more. After a steep climb up Mount Albert (with a nice firetower and view) I passed 100 miles on the trail. I stopped to throw away rubbish at a parking lot which had five cars: all SUVs, including three Suburbans. I was the hero of one of the idling vehicles occupants for hiking the AT. I showed restraint chipper in my response to his gasoline fumes. Why such restraint? Because people down here have guns.

The flowers along the trail have been very nice, but today was especially good. Lots of rhodendron, lots of mountain laurel, and a ton of orange and red flame azalea. The bushes, overhanging the trail, are dramatic and beautiful. I, of course, took lots of pictures. I also stopped to soak my feet in a nice, cold stream. For some reason, the water and flowers made me very hungry, and I ate well upon getting to camp. I stayed with a bunch of nice people, all from up north. Rene and Patrick (Rene LePlant, a great Hockey name) were film school dropouts from Easthampton (Mass., and I got a Sox update) and Chicago, and are hiking for a couple months so I might see them again. Fishman just retired from teaching aquatic biology or something at Auburn, but is originally from Duluth, and lived for three years at Summit and Dale in Saint Paul. So we talked Minnesota. And there was a mother-son group from Connecticut. Good conversation, and no junior Air Force ROTC t-shirts, either. Plus, Fishman builds amazing fires. Not that I have a problem with military indoctrination from an early age.

June 11 — 23.5 Miles today, 133.8 miles from Springer, 2040.8 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -2930 feet. 
Climbs: 3,4,4,3, Wx: 80s-60s, 60%, TR, Shelter: -, Dinner: -, Overall: 4.

23.5 miles is a long way to hike. It’s just shy of a marathon. Two miles in, due to all the beans I had eaten the night before, I stopped at a rather nasty john (but slightly better than digging a hole in the woods) with interesting graffiti. A Jesus-laden thing (‘we are all children of god…”) was right next to a “Jesus Freaks Go to Hell” comment (I cleaned up the language a bit). Open discussion. Still, why can bears take a dump right in the middle of the trail (they do) but I can’t? It’s not fair! I’ll stop whining.

The Azalea on one of the balds (I got to my first balds, they are weird — fields on top of mountains, and no one really knows why) were flagrantly fragrant (my phrase of the day) which was very nice. The last six miles were 3000 feet downhill, with stupid, pointless, angering (okay, I was tired and easily angered) little uphills. My knees were shot as I finished at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, whereupon I started looking for Macalester folks. I didn’t find any. I found a brochure with Laura Kerr in a picture and began showing it around to the folks working at the restaurant there, but no one quite knew where she lived. After a bit of driving around with a couple nice staff people, and not finding any Macalester folks, I crashed on a random bed. I was offered beer but just wanted to sleep. It is amazing, however, how generous people are along the trail — and how trusting hiking makes you.

General Observations:

  • My pack no longer hurts — it’s just there. Either that, or everything hurts.
  • My body is very happy to use real toilets instead of privy fly traps or holes in the ground. It will wait a day (or two) if it knows flushing is in the offing. And, indeed, real toilets are actually the best way to practice Leave No Trace (LNT).
  • Pudding is great. Especially at 5000 feet 20 miles from the nearest road.
  • The trail brings swift punishment for those who make too much food for dinner. As my dad says (as did his father to him): you will get it tomorrow, in a sandwich.
  • The way everything — plants, animals, the human body (even the bloody left ankle) — has evolved is amazing. How everything works together and seems to have its evolutionary place. How a simple activity like walking has so many intricate moving parts. [Full disclosure, I thought of this in Tennessee, so in order not to be arrested there let me reword this statement: The way everything was created 6000 years ago and has stayed exactly the same since then.]

June 12 — 0 Miles today

I woke up early, about five miles from the NOC base at staff housing. I had been told the night before to go out to the road and stick out my thumb for any blue NOC bus that might come by, as that was how staff traveled. Lo and behold, the first bus by pulled over, and five minutes later I was at the NOC. I took a day of lounging around the NOC, using their staff computer (I felt okay about that — I did know four staff members and we had a bit of a Macalester party) and eating copious amounts of prepared foods (including some AYCE — All You Can Eat) us Mac-ites made our way to Ingles. Ingles, (who’s Hispanic community affiliate is called “Spanish” … sorry), is the local grocery store. Even though we were in Podunkville, NC (aka Andrews, NC) I was amazed at all the food in one place. After an armful of food (it is amazing how I never get a basket when I need to), including Ben and Jerry’s new Vermonty Python (I don’t care how much the Kahlua costs, bring back White Russian!) I was satiated. At least for a time.

The NOC is a pretty fun time. The culture there, especially if you are a paddler, is a blast. The facilities for the staff, however, leave something to be desired. Even after a week of shelters and privies. The bathrooms are outhouses with running water (and lots of bugs since there are no screens), and the decor of plywood and plasterboard is, well, not quite quaint. Of course, they pay something ludicrously low for housing, so I guess it’s not that bad. And for me, it was free.

I skimmed Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which is sort of about the AT. He didn’t hike much of the AT, but some parts are side-splittingly funny. Here’s my big question: A lot of people start the AT in February or March and plan to get in shape on it. In the mean time, they get snow, sleet and rime ice for their first two months, not to mention packs laden with winter gear. My question is: why not start later (April) and get in shape at home, without the pack and weather? Reading the log entries from March (they had snow, I hear, in the Smokies in May) it sounds pretty miserable. Things like “It snowed again today. And sleeted. I made eight miles in twelve hours and am glad not to have to camp out tonight.” Somehow, it makes me glad that I started when I did. Now if I only had stronger ankles.

June 13 — 7 Miles today, 140.8 miles from Springer, 2033.8 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +2590 feet. 
Climbs: HC, Wx: 70s, 10%, R, Shelter: 4, Dinner: 4, Overall: 4.

I slept in (10:30) today and then did laundry and rode in the back of a pickup (first time I’ve ever done that!) to the NOC where I ate, sent stuff home (pack weight: lower) and chilled for a while. And I kept losing things. Wallet, phone, books, socks, shoes, everything. When I am on trail, everything goes nicely in a bag. In other places, I keep leaving things out, and they just go, well, wherever. The NOC is a huge rafting center and outfitter and in their pamphlet they talk about how, situated on the AT, they are a hiking mecca. The do gloss over the fact that either direction out of NOC is a 3000+ foot climb up. And even with my very late start, I was destined for my longest climb yet. In fact, the biggest climb until New England, when I climb 3700 feet up Moosilauke. And that is a long way off.

Leaving at 3:00, I knew it would be a short day. Seven miles to the first shelter, with a bit of a climb. The climb was gentle, and I felt good when I arrived to find Fishman sitting outside the shelter. It is nice to have company! Being back on trail is nice, too. NOC is swell, especially with running water, flush toilets, ice cream, and a seemingly endless supply of food, but the quiet of the woods is great. It is also nice to have clean clothes. I bleached the heck out of my underpants (semper ubi sub ubi). Several days and they get gross. I think now I’ll have a town pair and a trail pair so at least I can feel clean some of the time. Tomorrow I may go 22 miles to Fontana. Or not. But 10:15 — way past bedtime.

We also talked about Angel the dog. A few days ago, I walked by a guy with a dog. The dog, which was leashed, started at me, and its owner yelled at her. After a cursory apology, he went on to hit the dog. I walked away, he did not look like the type of fellow I wanted to turn to and yell “What the hell are you doing you maniac?” So I walked on. Fishman was talking about spending the night with a creepy guy with a dog who talked about his time spent in jail and who, while vague, gave the impression that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. I asked if the dog’s name was Angel. Yup. He is skipping the Smokies (no dogs allowed — Angel’s owner had some choice words for the National Park Service) and we both hope we never see him again.

And because I seem to be the last Northbounder (NOBO) of the year, Fishman started calling me Caboose. (It didn’t stick.)

June 14 — 15.2 Miles today, 156 miles from Springer, 2018.6 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -1450 feet. 
Climbs: 4, 4, Wx: 80s, 80%, Shelter: 1, Dinner: -, Overall: 1.

Fishman and I awoke to the sound of Coyote pups. Well I didn’t know what it was. But he shined his light, they dissipated, and we went back to sleep. After two nights with four walls (and an excuse for screens in the windows) I was very easily spooked by any sound, especially coyotes and what may have been bears. So I slept in fits.

The terrain down south is very different that in New England, and it is due mainly to one thing: glaciers. Or lack thereof. So because there were no glaciers, the area between the hills was never scraped flat. There are less huge climbs — except where you have to cross a big river like the Nantahala, but it also means there is very little which is flat. It also means that there are no ponds or lakes. Minnesota, which was glaciated, has something like 15,000 natural lakes. Virginia, which is about the same size, has four. The trail today had no big climbs, but it was relentless. And hot.

In any case, my lack of sleep and the up down up down slowed me down, so by around 7:00 I was nearing a shelter short of Fontana. I was feeling, well, okay. I had felt ducky for the first four miles, but then slowed down appreciably. Less than half a mile from the shelter, smelling victory — or at least a place to sleep — I felt a prick on my ear, and then pain on my hand, and shoulder. Bees. I up and ran. A hundred paces on I stopped and examined my injuries. The stinging seemed unprovoked, although I probably stuck my pole in a nest. Ick. The blood was pumping and the stings wearing off, but it was still not the most pleasant of occurrences. I pried a bee out of my shirt, shrugged off the stinging, and soldiered on.

But the bees were strike one. Upon arriving at the empty shelter, I proceeded to try to throw bear ropes at this cable-free shelter (It is called Cable Gap, but obviously not for good reason), and promptly got one stuck in a tree. Really caught and tied up. I could do nothing but swear and cut the rope. Damn. Strike two. Then for dinner, I made up some rice and beans and put in some TVP (Textured vegetable protein). At least it was labeled TVP. But it was, in fact, rancid dehydrated turkey. (This marked the end of the dehydrated turkey experiment) My parents, insistent on labeling everything, mislabeled the turkey and TVP. So I threw away perfectly good TVP (marked turkey) at NOC and now ruined my dinner with rancid turkey. I was angry. I was hungry. I was tired. And I was beestung. Not a good combination. I built a fire (I know, bad LNT, but, goddamnit, I had a bad day). After reading a magazine left at the shelter for a few minutes I retired for some sleep, with more coyotes, and rustling, and a lot of hoping there were no bears. I may or may not have burned my rancid dinner.

June 15 — 17.9 Miles today, 173.9 miles from Springer, 2000.7 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1690 feet. 
Climbs: 3,1,3,3, Wx: 80s, 100%, Shelter: 4, Dinner: 5, Overall: 5.

I’ve been working on the bear ropes, all through the day
I’ve been working on the bear ropes, just to pass the time away.
Can’t you hear the rock a flying, whizzin’ through the air?
Can’t you hear the people shouting: “Throw it over there”
And singin’ “bear do not come here, bear do not come here, bear do not come here tonight
Bear don’t eat my food, bear don’t eat my food, and we’ll be all right.”

(Pitiful)

So, I definitely saw a bear today. He (or she) was standing in the trail sixteen miles in to an eighteen mile hike. More on that later.

I started late. No bear overnight, but more coyotes. I was on trail and at Fontana Dam for lunch. It is a damn big dam, the biggest east of the Rockies. And while dams are not terribly ecologically sound, they are not all bad. Fontana, like most of the dams in the area, is a Tennessee Valley Authority project. The TVA’s dams do have some things in their favor: they provide flood control (even if it is to backwater cities like Chattanooga), they provided economic stimulus to areas which were very depressed in the depression, the provide power to millions (and aluminum plants which helped win WWII) and they provide recreation, on lakes and whitewater, which helps the economy of the region today. Granted, Fontana flooded part of the smokies, is rather ugly, killed a beautiful valley and probably drowned out several species unique to the area. So it is by no means perfect. But it sure is big.

The dam also has a snack bar (another plus). I had a Coke (YUM!) and some ice cream and other food that I didn’t have to carry. It was nice. I met folks there who said the same thing everyone does: I’d love to hike the AT, but I can’t find the time.

I then continued my first real road walk across the dam and up to the beginning of the trail, where I made my way up in to the Smokies.