Monday, August 23, 2010

The End of Hike #1 and the Woody Gap Banjo Club

Okay.  I'm going to attempt to be open minded and politically correct as I try explain my last AT experience on this inaugural AT trip.  During my entire time in the woods I was fearful of getting eaten by bears, getting the plague via mice, getting malaria via killer gnats, falling to my death, or even passing out from dehydration.  However, all of that pales in comparison to the one thing I did not prepare for... startling a couple of members from what I am going to call "The Woody Gap Banjo Club".  Let me explain... Here I am almost 1/4 mile from my exit point at Woody Gap when I see what appears to be two people on the trail ahead of me.  At first glance it appears that someone has fallen down on the trail and the other person is comforting them by rubbing their back.  However, as I get closer I realize that I have interrupted these two young men while they were boldly going where few men dare to go (enter dueling banjo music here).  Startled, their flight instincts kick in as one of them runs in the opposite direction on the trail while the other one makes a poor decision to jump off the side of the mountain.  I'm not making that part was one of the craziest things I have ever seen.  A dude tumbling down the side of a mountain while pulling up his pants at the same time.  I stroll by, look down at him resting awkwardly against a tree and ask him if he is okay.  He mumbles back that he is fine and I make an executive decision to take his word for it.  I just kept hiking as if nothing ever happened. 

The phantom banjo music ringing in my ears helps my tired legs move a little faster and I finally reach my car around 5:00 p.m. I feel a huge sense of relief and accomplishment.  Although I have hiked 28.9 miles total, 8.8 miles of that was just the approach trail. I've technically hiked only the first 20.1 miles of the AT...only 2,154.9 miles left to go. My body is very sore, but my mind is recharged and ready to go.  What a trip.  I can't wait to return.

Saturday Hike

Saturday, August 14, 2010 - My Saturday hike took me up and down several mountains that seemed a lot bigger than they probably were.  My hike for this day was going to be a little more than 12 miles and hopefully I would get back to my car at Woody Gap as planned.  I was alone on the trail for the entire day with the exception of one hiker going in the other direction and another creepy guy that was working on the trail (clearing brush).  He just stared at me when I spoke to him.  He was either deaf, non English speaking or a social outcast.  Probably all of the above.  I just kept walking and hoped that he didn't follow me.

I stopped at a couple of streams to fill up on water and enjoy the beauty that was around me for much of the trip.  It was also so very quite out there all by my myself.  Kind of nice.  I eventually started to climb my last ridge and I just knew that I was getting close to Woody Gap.  There were several spots to actually stop and take in the views (sorry - no pics). 

Hawk Mountain Shelter - Night from Hell

We all chatted for awhile and I felt good that I had such good company during my very first AT shelter experience.  We all prepared our dinners for the evening.  Hickory prepared some Ramen Noodles (why didn't I think of that) while the other guys and myself heated up water and used it along with our pre-packaged hydrated food pouches that we had brought with us.  My meal for the night was going to be lasagna.  How good can this be I thought as I poured hot water onto the dried up particles that was to become my dinner.  My lasagna actually wasn't that bad as I commented out loud that it was actually better than the lasagna that my wife makes.  Side note here: I was lying... my dear, sweet, beautiful wife makes the best lasagna on earth... I was merely making small talk in order to fit in with my new friends.  Happy Hour thought that was funny and he decided that my new trail name from now on should be "Lasagna".  I told him that wasn't going to fly since I would then have to explain to my wife how I got my name.  Nonetheless, he continued to call me Lasagna until we parted ways the next morning. After dinner we all placed our food bags on the bear cables that were beside the shelter and wondered why the bear cables were so close to the shelter.  If I was a bear and I came over to investigate the food smell and I saw that I couldn't reach the food I had smelled in the first place, I would then probably just go grab one of the idiots (that's me) that is sleeping in the exposed shelter just a few feet away.  The fear of a bear visit was soon to be the least of my issues. 

I had decided to sleep inside the shelter for the night (where Hickory was staying) rather than set up my tent (like the other two guys were doing) because it was threatening to rain and I didn't want to go through the hassle of carrying a wet tent with me.  Despite the stories of mice running amok and giant owls flying into the shelter to get the mice, I still decided to stay in the shelter (obviously I was losing my mind).  Sleeping on a very hard surface is one thing, but I made things worse by zipping myself up inside of my nice sleeping bag.  It was only 80 degrees outside and about 180 degrees inside my bag.  I was hot but at least the mice will not get me.  It only took about 5 minutes after dark for the first mouse to scamper past my head.  I was wide awake at that point and praying for morning light.  I finally was drifting in and out of sleep when I heard what can only be described as a farting bear with a chain saw trying to saw down a tree.  It turned out that Hickory was quite the professional snorer.  Perfect.  I eventually slept on top of my sleeping bag and didn't care about the mice or the snoring.  I think I went to sleep but I'm not sure how much.  The next morning we all packed our stuff up and parted ways.  I thought of Hickory and the fact that my journey was just beginning while his was about to end.  I will likely be just like him in about 20 years as I near the end of my own AT journey. 

Arriving at Hawk Mountain Shelter

I finally made it to my Friday night destination (Hawk Mountain Shelter) around 4:30 p.m.  Unfortunatly I erased some of my pictures from my trip, so you will have to use your imagination as you read about the rest of my adventure.  However, I did find this picture of the Hawk Mountain Shelter online so you can see what it looks like.
When I arrived at the shelter there was one hiker already there setting up his spot for the night.  His name was Hickory.  Hickory was a retired principal from Indianapolis, IN (probably 60 years old) that was leap frogging the AT.  That is similar to section hiking but it means he spent large chunks of time on the AT at one time.  His current hike started in Virginia back in early July and he was about to complete his journey the next day when he would arrive at Springer Mountain.  He seemed rather melancholy about finishing the AT.  Although he didn't say it, I thought to myself that he probably will miss being out there (in a weird kind of way).  He pointed out the side trail that leads to the water source and told me that a couple more hikers were already down there and they would be staying at the shelter too.  The other two hikers turned out to be the two guys that I wondered if I would catch up to (Happy Hour and Big Chief).  They are my age and they are old army buddies.  Happy Hour is from Charleston, SC and Big Chief is from Helen, GA.  They are section hikers much like myself that are trying to complete the AT in tiny sections whenever their busy lives will permit it.

Springer Mountain

The path up to Springer Mountain was somewhat rocky and went up hill a great deal (duh?), but overall it wasn't too bad a hike.  I did come across this plaque that told of a plane crash that occurred on the spot I was standing on back in 1968 (almost one month after I was born). The plaque was in memory of a guy named Richard Shoolbred that died in the plane crash.  He was only 33 years old.  This reminded me that life is indeed short and gave me a little boost in energy to continue on with my journey.

A strange thing that happened shortly thereafter... I stopped for a water break and glanced at my watch.  It said the time was 9:15 a.m.  That usually would not cause alarm except for the fact that I had started my hike well over an hour ago at 9:00 a.m.  In fact, I had glanced at the time at a previous water break and my watch said it was 9:30 a.m. at that time.  I would normally blame a slow watch battery for the error, but that doesn't explain how my watch was showing me a time that was prior to what I had seen previously.  Did I just step into some time warp?  I reset my watch to the proper time (10:15 a.m.) and gave a quick nod of my head in recognition to the spirit of Mr. Shoolbred that was surely playing a trick on this new AT hiker. After all it was Friday the 13th and I am hiking alone in the Georgia mountains... if anything strange happens to me I surely deserve it.

Around Noon I finally arrived at the summit and sat on a rock near the famous plaque that marks the Southern terminus of the AT trail.  I had a quick lunch and wrote a small entry in the spiral notebook that was located inside a metal box near the plaque. There were already a lot of entries of the many others that had passed along the same path I am taking.  I noticed that 2 other hikers (Happy Hour and Big Chief) were not that far ahead of me on the trail and they were heading in my same direction.  I wondered if I would catch up with them at some point.  It didn't seem like there were many others out there better yet anyone going in my direction.

Attack of the Killer Gnats!

Friday, August 13, 2010 - After a very nice breakfast at the Hike Inn, I said my good-byes, loaded up my pack and headed off towards Springer Mountain.  I was well prepared for my 4 mile hike up to the summit but I was not prepared for the attack of the killer gnats.  Those tiny, nearly invisible pests buzzed my head and ears for the entire hike.  I was even forced to get a little creative with my insect repellent wipes.

I know I looked like a complete moron with the wipes hanging off of my ears but desperate times call for desperate measures.  Besides, who do I have to impress out here in the middle of the woods (besides those sexy looking squirrels I saw a few miles back).  My mind was already playing tricks on me as you can tell.

The Hike Inn

I had read about a place called the +Len Foote Hike Inn ( that was located on a side loop trail off of the main approach trail.  From what I had read it seemed like a great place to spend my first night and rest up for the longer hikes that lay ahead.  It did not disappoint me.  This eco-friendly, oasis retreat is located about 5 miles into the middle of the woods.  When I arrived (about 6:00 p.m.) there were already about a dozen others already there along with a staff of about 4 people.  I checked into my bunk room for the night (there are about 20 bunk bed style rooms) and looked for the shower room right away.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a nice bath house complete with a hot shower and towels.  They even had eco-friendly toilets that were like port-a-pottys but only nicer.  After my shower, they rang the dinner bell and everyone came to the dining hall for a very nice family style dinner.  It reminded me of being at summer camp.  I sat at this long table with the other guests and ate until I couldn't eat any more.  The food was actually very good.  Being an eco-friendly place they made a point of telling us that if you put the food on your plate then you need to eat it (don't waste food - bad for the environment).  After dinner I take a small tour of the grounds to learn a little more about my surroundings.
The picture above shows a little sitting area complete with a solstice sun thing that can track the position of the sun after the sunlight passes through the hole in the rock and it is marked on the wall of the dark cave area behind the rock.  Interesting, but I wasn't sure if later that night some druids were going to come get me and make me some type of sacrifice.
They even had a nice relaxing "hang out room" that featured lots of books, games, guitars and places to sit and relax.  No TVs, computers, phones or other modern day evil devices allowed here.  It was nice.  I thought to myself that this would be a great place for a Deal family gathering or a York family retreat.  As you can probably guess... I thought of my family often on this trip and how lucky I am to have them all.  Funny how spending a lot of "alone time" can do that to you.  Okay, enough of the mushy stuff... on with the rest of my trip.

Those D**n Steps!

When you first read about there being 604 steps to the top of Amicalola Falls it doesn't really seem that big of a problem.  Throw a 30 lb. pack on your back and suddenly your mind screams "Houston... we have a problem".   I know the falls are pretty but let me be the first to say... they aren't that freakin' pretty!  Best advice to others... get a ride to the TOP of the falls and just visualize what the biggest waterfall east of the Mississippi looks like.  You will thank me later.  I stopped at least 4 times and went through over half of my water supply before finally making it to the top.  Small children were pointing at me and asking their parents why the crazy man has his head tilted forward leaning on the wooden rail.  Is he praying?  Yes.. I was praying and cursing at the same time (if that is allowed).

The Approach Trail

In my pre-planning for this trip I decided that I would hike the 8.5 mile approach trail that leads to the official starting point (Springer Mountain).  The approach trail begins at Amicalola Falls which is a state park area complete with a ranger station, camping sites and a lodge.  Of course it is also home to the largest cascading waterfall this side of the Mississippi.  Who doesn't want to see that... right?

The Shuttle

When I arrived at Woody Gap I decided to call the folks at the Hiker Hostel to check on my ride. A lady there said that my driver should be there shortly and his trail name is "Nature Boy". I hang up and for a small moment I think how cool it would be if Rick Flair would actually pull up as my shuttle driver while letting out a big "Woooooooo". Nature Boy arrives and although he isn't Rick Flair he seems very nice and knowledgeable about the AT and hiking in general. I throw my gear in the back of his truck and off we go to my starting destination of Amicalola Falls. Nature Boy is full of good advice since he has completed the entire AT and many other top trails in America and I take advantage of this opportunity to ask him a lot of final questions. My biggest question for Nature Boy is if there is a method to choosing my very own trail name since I don't have one yet. His only advice is for me to make my own name before others give me one (I will find out later how true this is). We finally arrive at the ranger station at Amicalola Falls and we part ways. Thanks Nature Boy!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hike #1 - Amicalola Falls to Woody Gap

August 12, 2010 - I drive 5 hours from my home in Clemmons, NC to the Woody Gap overlook area located near Suches, GA.  This is my end spot destination.  My plan is to leave my car at Woody Gap, get a shuttle ride to my starting point at Amicalola Falls and hike 28 miles back to my car at Woody Gap.  I hope to be back at Woody Gap by early evening on Saturday August 14th.  I have arranged for someone from the Hiker Hostel ( located in Dahlonega, GA to shuttle me from Woody Gap to Amicalola Falls.  Here we go...