Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hike #2 - Parting Thoughts and Observations

I usually learn a lot on my hikes across the AT and this trip is no different.  First thing I learned is that Georgia is a beautiful state.  I love my N.C. mountains and think they are the most beautiful mountains on earth, but they had better watch out...the Georgia mountains could easily take that title away.  They are absolutely gorgeous and I can't wait to visit them again soon. We hiked 30.8 miles on this section which brings my total miles hiked thus far to 50.9.  Only 2,124.10 miles to go.

Another thing learned... I'm not as young as I used to be.  Those of you that know me well are probably saying, "Gee, Mike, you are just now figuring that out?".  Old age creeps up on us all and when you catch it doing so it usually is depressing at first.  Whether it was struggling to "converse" with some of the younger hikers or when I almost gave Grayson my cholesterol medication instead of the Advil he age was on full display for the entire forest to see.  It helps that there are hikers and adventurers even older than me out there doing their thing.  I'll definitely keep them in my mind as I plan the next hike.

My trail name?... well, I'm still working on it.  Grayson calls himself "Tin Man" and that is a fitting name since he is raising money for the Children's Heart Foundation and the Tin Man is a reference to the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.  That's a cool name and makes sense.  For me... well Grayson wanted to call me "Working On It" since that is what I continued to say to other hikers that asked, but that ranks right up there with "Lasagna" that the dude from my previous hike waned to call me.  I know the right name is out there somewhere.  Maybe I'll have a contest to see who can give me my perfect trail name.  Who knows?  If I don't find the right name soon... it is sure to find me.

I feel honored that I got to spend a few quality days with my cousin, Grayson (aka Tin Man), as he makes his way along the AT towards Maine. My uncle Larry and aunt Carolyn should give themselves a big pat on the back and be proud that they have raised such a well round and caring son as Grayson.  We shared many great conversations pertaining to just about everything there is to talk about.  It was great and I will never forget it.  I wish that I had a fraction of his determination and zest for life when I was his age.  There are plenty of people in my life to worry about, but Grayson isn't one of them.  He is going to go far in life and I can't wait to see what happens next as the "Tin Man" winds along his own yellow brick road.

Helen, Georgia

First of all let me say that Helen, Georgia can be a bit deceiving.  On the surface it appears to be the cutest little town on the face of this planet.  All of the buildings are structurally shaped like you are in the Swiss Alps complete with Christmas lights dangling from every roof top.  There are horse drawn buggies slowly meandering through town and outdoor musicians playing to folks as they eat at outdoor bistros.  I initially thought it would be a nice quite place to take my wife someday soon, but I now see that wouldn't be a fun trip with the wife.
As we quickly find out, Helen is very noisy at night.  It's like Blowing Rock on steroids.  Apparently this small town is very popular with loud partiers and the many bikers that I saw on the road earlier.  We find a hotel in town and quickly get cleaned up and head out for that steak and beer. Grayson and I would have normally stuck around downtown to explore a little more but we were too tired.  It was an early night for us both.

Saturday's Hike

Saturday, April 9, 2011 - Hiking 19 miles in one day over some of the roughest terrain in all of Georgia is not something that I hope to do again anytime soon.  My body felt just like it did when I ran a marathon 2 years ago.  It was brutal as I tried to keep up with the extra long steps of my 26 year old cousin.  All I could think about was how wonderful the steak and beer would be once we got into town.

We also met a very inspirational hiker along the way that day, named Flatbread.  Flatbread is 67 years old and she is out hiking the AT for her second time.  Normally that would be great all unto itself, but what really made it special is that she only has one lung.  She had one removed 2 years ago due to lung cancer.  Needless to say the thought of having her out there doing this made some of my own personal pain fade away.

We met a couple of fellow hikers heading in the other direction just as we made it to Hog Pen Gap.  They had just completed a small section hike and they were getting ready to hop in their car and head back to Atlanta.  I'm glad we stopped to talk to them because they ended up giving us some extra water and a few food bars they weren't going to need anymore.  A little "trail magic" to help us get through the day!

We made it to Low Gap Shelter around 4:00 p.m. that day.  We had decided to rest here for about 45 minutes and have some lunch.  It was a good call since my body was hurting very bad at this point.  There were about 8 other hikers that were already there at Low Gap and they were going to camp there for the night.  It was tempting to stay there too, but just as the Blues Brothers once said... "We are on a mission from God".

We pressed on and finally arrived at Unicoi Gap around 8:30 p.m. as it was getting very dark.  It was great to be back at the car.  Now on to Helen.

Now What?

Our new friend, Rolling Stone, was going to hike 1 mile back to Mountain Crossings and restock up on food supplies before moving on for the day.  We probably would have done the same thing if we didn't have Grayson's food bag to share.  Having just lost all of my food to a bear, I suddenly had a great idea... we will hike 19 miles all the way to Unicoi Gap, get in my car and drive to Helen for the night, thus taking another bear attack out of the equation.  It would be a very tough hike but the thought of having a nice bed to sleep in and a nice dinner in town was very motivational.  Our original plan was to hike just 14 miles and make camp on Saturday night at a place called Chattahoochee Gap, but luckily Grayson was up for the extended challenge.

Uncle Larry's "Gold Mine"?

It didn't go unnoticed that this bear totally ignored Grayson's bag.  After the shock wore off of seeing what was left of my bag, my thoughts turned to "why" Grayson's bag was untouched.  After all, Black Bears typically eat about 40 pounds of food each day and they will eat just about anything they can get their paws on.  Grayson's bag was still hanging on the rope well within the bear's reach.  What did Grayson's bag have in it that ours didn't?  All he had was the food that his dad (my Uncle Larry) had made for him.  I'll admit that initially I had a few doubts about Uncle Larry's homemade, farm-grown, organic, freeze dried, dehydrated, vacuum packed trail food especially since it was still a suspect in Grayson's Woody Gap spewing bout the day earlier.  At this point it would be very easy to make a joke about how Uncle Larry's food is so bad that even a hungry bear wouldn't eat it, but I honestly don't think that is the case given what is known about a Black Bears appetite.  Grayson had even shared some of it with me earlier in the day and it was pretty good stuff.

My only logical conclusion... Uncle Larry has unknowingly developed the very first trail food that is totally resistant to bears!  Could this be the "gold mind" opportunity that he has been searching for his entire life.  His trail food is light, healthy, tasty and now "field tested" to be totally ignored by bears.  With Grayson's knowledge of hiking and Larry's secret recipe of trail food I think the manufacturers of trail food are about get a new industry leader.  Please sign me up for some of that food for my next trip!

Grandpa Must Have Missed One

We all retire to our tents and try our best to get some sleep.  I don't know about Grayson and Brandon, but I didn't get to sleep until about 2:00 a.m. as I lied there staring at the top of my tent while caressing my own BFK which was resting on my chest.  I was very still and thought silly thoughts such as how my small one-person tent probably resembled a giant burrito and if BFB even liked burritos.  Luckily I did finally manage to get some sleep.
The next morning I am the first one up (go figure) and I meander down the path to check on our bear bags.  I don't have to go very far before my jaw drops and my mind screams... WTF!  (no, that doesn't stand for Win-The-Future).  When I was younger, my aunts and uncles would often take us kids on a late night stroll through the woods in an attempt to scare the snot out of us.  This stroll was referred to as a "bear hunt" and we would all chant the chorus line of "There ain't no bears out this night, Grandpa shot them all last night" as we nervously waited for one of the older adults to jump out of the woods and send us all running back to the house vowing never to go into the woods late at night all alone.  Well, all I have to say is that apparently Grandpa missed one!  Our camp had been invaded over the night by one or more very smart bears.

Upon approaching the "crime scene" I noticed that there was one bag still hanging.  Who was the lucky winner?  You guessed it... not me.  For some reason the bear didn't touch Grayson's bag.  Instead it totally destroyed my bag and Brandon's bag.  Nothing was left except a bunch of trash with a heavy presence of bear slobber all over it.  The bears are now clever enough to figure out how the bags are hanging outside of its reach.  It had clawed at both lines which lowered the bags just enough for it to grab whatever it wanted.  I think its not too long before the bears figure out how to quietly unzip tents and drag hikers off into the woods.  Anyway, we picked up our trash and then sat down to reassess the situation.

Arrival at Bull Gap

We finally arrive at Bull Gap around 7:30 p.m. It is a nice open level spot that has plenty of room to set up our tents.  There is a stream down the hill where we can get more water and a fire pit that others have used where we can finally make a campfire for the night.  We see a few more hikers pass through on the trail before one of them decides that he will stay at Bull Gap too.  He says his name is Brandon (no trail name yet), but in my mind I refer to him as "Bear Option #3".  Grayson and I are glad to have him join us for the night.  Brandon is only about 23 years old, but he seems very well traveled.  I later decide that I have a trail name for him... Rolling Stone.  Since he gets around a lot I think that name fits him perfectly.  To my surprise he loves it and so I get credit for giving him his official trail name.  Heck, I don't even have one yet.
The last order of business for the night is to rig our bear bag system so just in case a bear is nearby, he will not get our food.  Brandon seems very confident that he has the perfect system.  He uses about 100 feet of rope and has two seperate lines tied to two separate trees.  The idea is that if the bear cuts one line the food bags will not fall since the other line is a backup line.  Since Grayson and I are new at this, we take Rolling Stone up on his offer to rig up our bags for the night.  Every single food related item goes into our bags including cooking equipment, toothpaste and anything else that would have a scent attached to it.  Its getting dark as we finally get the rope slung up over a high branch and our three bags are lifted 25 feet into the air.  Now all we need is a good night sleep.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Decision

It's around 7:00 p.m. as Grayson and I are headed down the path away from Mountain Crossing.  We briefly stop to chat with a few other hikers that are debating where to hunker down for the night.  The thought of setting up camp close to the hostel instead of hiking another mile to Bull Gap is starting to cross our mind.  The only problem is that the hostel is full and there isn't any more room to camp in the immediate area near the hostel. 

One guy in particular (a self proclaimed "trail rat") that was dominating the discussion is giving unsolicited advice to everyone standing around (to say this guy was "cocky" is a gross understatement).  We mention that we are planning to camp at Bull Gap which promps him to tell us that we are crazy to camp there since heavy "bear activity" has been reported in that area.  Grayson jokingly shows him the 12 inch hunting knife he is carrying and comments that bears won't be a problem.  This guy then tells Grayson that he doesn't need that "BFK" when hiking the AT... it's too heavy.  We quickly do a mental translation of this guy's trail jargen and realize the "BFK" is short for "Big F'n Knife".  As you can probably tell at this point, when you are hiking the AT, the weight of your backpack is topic numero uno and all other concerns (including bears attacks) are a distant second.  Grayson thanks him for the recommendation of losing the BFK, but decides he will keep it with him a little while longer since he may need his BFK to fend off the BFBs! 

Despite the warnings, Grayson and I decide to push on to Bull Gap and set up camp as originally planned.  Having watched way too many Scooby Doo shows growing up, I think to myself that this is the point that Shaggy and Scooby would be requesting some Scooby Snacks before they move any further.  Realizing that I don't have anything remotely close to a "Scooby Snack" with me, we catiously move on. After all... we're AT hikers... masters of our own domain... we hike our own hike... we create our own destiny.  What could go wrong?

Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi

After hiking about 2 miles further, we finally get to one of the most popular spots on the trail, the Walasi-Yi Center.  The AT path actually passes right through a breezeway in this building.  Being the marketing major, Grayson quickly quipped, "Now that's what I call capturing your target market".

This oasis in the mountains is not only a hostel, but it is a very nice outfitter store where you can reload on supplies or stock up on equipment that you may need.  They also had some food for sale, which we took full advantage of for our dinner.  I don't think the FDA had approved the hot dogs that we ate, but they were pretty good going down.
There were old hiking boots thrown into several tall trees.  I guess if you are going to buy new boots at this outpost then its tradition to sling your old pair up into this tree for yard art.  Some of the boots looked rather new.  I guess those belonged to some hikers that had second thoughts about hiking any further.  After a nice break we put our packs back on ready to hike the last mile to our Friday night camping spot.

Blood Mountain

After about 8 miles of hiking we finally reach the top of Blood Mountain which actually has a very old hiker shelter built on top of it.  It is probably one of the spookiest buildings I have ever seen.  It didn't help that the clouds had moved in on us (we were at 4,400 feet) and provided an eerie ambiance to being up there.  I'm sure the views are spectacular on a clear day, but we couldn't see much at all due to the cloud cover.
Several other hikers are at the shelter area resting and swapping tales from the trail.  Another interesting hiker that we met was named "Scope".  I was wondering to myself why he had the trail name of Scope.  Was he a proctologist or did he have a thing for really fresh breath?  Turns out I was wrong on both accounts... his family makes rifle scopes for a living.  The interesting thing about Scope was that he was hiking in a Scottish kilt.  That normally would be acceptable, but Scope didn't have an ounce of Scottish in him.  I guess he just thought it would be cool to hike in a kilt.  I'll be curious to see how long that experiment lasts.  We also heard that there has been some recent "bear activity" at this shelter with some hikers reporting that a bear actually tried to get in the shelter one night.  The open windows of the shelter have several loose boards and rocks piled up in them as if someone had placed them there to act as a deterrent for a bear to get in them.  My personal thoughts are that if you are crazy enough to spend the night in that creepy old shelter you get whatever is coming to you. 

The mountain is actually named after a very bloody battle between two rival Indian tribes in the late 1600's.  After seeing the shelter and hearing tales of the bear activity, I have my own hypothesis on why it is called Blood Mountain.  After a short break we pack up and head out again.

Friday, April 8, 2011...We Have Lift Off

Friday, April 8, 2011 - Its around 8:30 a.m. and we finally hit the trail ready for whatever lies ahead. My pack weighs about 36 lbs. and Grayson's pack weighs a little over 40 lbs.  They don't feel that heavy as we start out, but that would soon change.  We pass through many gaps and over several mountains as we grind our way towards the highest elevation point of the day... Blood Mountain.

The temperature is about 75 degrees and overcast which is perfect hiking weather.  We are fortunate that we get to see a few great views from some of the spots on the trail.  We decided to stop for lunch and to refuel our water supply at one of the shelters on our path that day, Woods Shelter.  As we quickly found out, some of the shelters are a good distance off of the main trail.  Woods Shelter was located half of a mile down a side trail.  It was nice to finally sit down and eat a light lunch but neither of us appreciated the extra mile we just added to our day.

We also filtered some more water for our canteens since some of the water supplies on the trail can be unreliable certain times of the year. Staying hydrated out here is the name of the game. As we refilled our canteens, a few more hikers met up with us.  One of them was a French-Canadian who we soon referred to as "Crazy Dave".  He spoke in broken English with a thick French accent.  He was hiking with his dog, Micah.  Not sure why we added the word "crazy" to his name.  I guess with that crazy accent he just seemed a little "off".

We finally push on and head towards our climb up Blood Mountain.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Hiker Hostel

We arrive at the hostel and Josh informs us that someone will be taking us to the Walmart in Dahlonega soon so we can resupply on anything that we need.  Grayson stays behind at the hostel to collect his thoughts as I head into Dahlonega to get us some dinner and a few extra things that I forgot to bring.
I return with one of Subway's best $5 foot long subs for Grayson.  He is still kind of quite, but I think he enjoyed every last crumb of that sandwich.  After dinner, we get to know our new surroundings and try to find out a little bit about some of the other hikers that are bunking with us for the night.

Grayson and I are staying in a small room that has two bunk beds in it.  Our fellow bunkers are Bill (from New Jersey) and Ollie (from Munich).  There are also others from such places as Kentucky, New York, Indiana and South Carolina.  Most of the hikers are young, energetic twenty-somethings (like Grayson). But there are also a few "seasoned" hikers there too... one lady was probably in her mid 50's and couple of other dudes were well over 60. 
Later that evening as I sat outside and socialized with some of the other hikers I almost forgot that I was probably considered an "older hiker" to most of them too.  I said I "almost" forgot but reality quickly slapped me in the face as I attempted to join in on the conversations.  There was a hiker named  "Turtle Shell" explaining that her hike that day was "dope" and another guy from Long Island explaining how "sick" his back pack was.  I just smiled and nodded as if I knew what was going on and occasionally threw in phrases like "yeah... word" and "that's bogus".  I eventually stopped embarrassing myself, made some coffee and went upstairs to hang with Grayson and do some reading.
Next morning I was the first one up.  Thanks to my restless 4 year old daughter, my internal alarm clock is forever set for about 5:30 a.m.  I really didn't mind getting up that early since it gave me first crack at getting a hot shower and gave me time to make sure my backpack was ready for the day's hike.  Josh and Leigh (the owners of the hostel) had breakfast ready for everyone by 7:30 a.m which meant that most of my new young "peeps" rolled out of bed around 7:29 a.m.
We all ate like kings and soon loaded up the shuttle for the quick 7 mile ride back to Woody Gap for the start of our hike.

Meeting up with Grayson

As we arrive at Woody Gap I see several very tired hikers resting under some trees and I'm relieved when I recognize one of them as being +Grayson.  +Grayson and I greet each other and wait for Josh to determine if he has enough room in his "shuttle ride" for all of the other hikers that are wanting to go back to the Hiker Hostel for the night.  I notice that +Grayson doesn't look too good and he tells me that he got a Migraine headache a couple of miles back but it should pass. 

As we both gaze at the wonderful view from the Woody Gap scenic overlook, I can't help think that our conversation over the next few minutes could have been a scene from National Lampoon's Appalachian Trail Vacation (if they ever decide to make that movie).
Mike: Sooo Grayson, you had a good hike?
Grayson: Yeah, it was great... umm... I think I'm gonna puke.
Mike: If you are indeed "thinking about it", may I suggest that you go ahead and commit to doing it now because you will surely loose it with the way this maniac drives.
There is a moment of silence as Grayson bends over and rests his hands on his knees. I pat Grayson on the back as I peer out over the wonderful scenic mountain view.
Mike: Grayson, there's nothing quite like hiking the AT... don't you agree?
Grayson: Blaaaaaccccchhhhhhh! ... yeah...
Mike: (still peering out over the mountain view) How can anyone ever question the existence of God after seeing a view like this?
Grayson: Blaaaaacccccchhhhhh! ...huh?...
Mike: Well, it looks like you feel better already.  Could it have been something you ate?
Grayson: I doubt it. I mainly just ate some of my Dad's homemade organic, farm-grown, freeze dried, dehydrated, vacuum packed trail food mix.
Mike: Surely it wasn't Uncle Larry's homemade organic, farm-grown, freeze dried, dehydrated, vacuum packed trail food mix.  It had to be that darn Migraine that triggered this.
Grayson: Yeah, you are probably right. I'm pretty sure it was.

As we climbed into the shuttle, I couldn't help but think that there is a lot to take away from my recent visits to Woody Gap, but my main bit of advice to anyone visiting the scenic overlook at Woody Gap, Georgia... stay in your car!  The view is just as nice from there... trust me.

The Shuttle Ride

I arrive at Unicoi Gap just fine.  There are already several AT hikers at Unicoi Gap taking a rest or waiting for a ride into the nearest town (Helen, GA) for more supplies or perhaps a good night sleep at a hotel.  Helen, GA was about 9 miles down the road and it appeared to be a very popular place as I drove through it to get to Unicoi.  I hoped to be able to spend more time there once the hike was finished. 

Anyway, at about 4:15 p.m. a "very used" 1990's model Ford Expedition pulls in to Unicoi gap.  The driver introduced himself as Josh and several of the hikers that were there seemed to know him.  I quickly surmised that Josh is the owner of the Hiker Hostel and I'm sure that many of these hikers actually stayed at his place before they set out on their own hikes.  We throw my gear into the back of his Expedition and we head out to Woody Gap to pick up Grayson and any other hikers that wish to stay at the hostel Thursday night.

I quickly determined why people call this a "shuttle" since it was probably the same feeling as riding an actual Space Shuttle.  Josh proceeded to drive like he was late for his own wedding.  You see, the roads in this area are very popular with bikers due to their ever twisting turns and Josh seemed to know them well... too well.  I hung on for my life as Josh attempted to drive while returning several text messages he just received.  I thought about my wife and kids a lot during that ride.  Not necessarily that I may never see them again, but rather how the smell from the inside of this vehicle would have been if they would have been riding with us (their stomachs don't handle fast, twisting mountain roads very well).  After a few tense moments, I relaxed a little bit and decided to enjoy my "ride".  After all, I get to experience one of the most thrilling rides in all of Georgia and I didn't even have to wait in line at Six Flags to do it.  We finally arrive at Woody Gap and I resist the urge to kiss the ground.