Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hike #3 - Parting Thoughts and Observations


I have thoroughly enjoyed having Bruce by my side for this part of my hike.  Being friends over the past 25 years we have been with each other through highs and lows that make the Georgia mountains seem puny.  Its hard for me to imagine trying to tackle life without friends like him by my side.  Whether he was spotting a rattlesnake in the trial or giving me some sound Monkey Butt advice... he was there for me as always.  Lucky for me he has already said he wants to join me on another hike real soon.


Hard to believe that a full year has passed since I first stepped on the trail.  We hiked 32.4 miles this trip. I have completed a total of 83.3 miles of the AT with about 2,091.7 miles left to go.  It doesn't take a son of a math teacher to calculate that at this pace I will likely finish up around age 70.  Is that a long time? Yes.  Will I make it to the end?  I don't know... but I'm sure going to try.  One thing is for certain... no matter how far I get... the journey will be well worth it.

Saying Goodbye to Georgia

The next day comes fairly early for us as we try to pack everything we brought with us inside of our hydration packs... no chance of leaving anything behind today.  We arranged for a ride from a new shuttle driver, Joyce, to take us back to Dick's Creek Gap since Gene had some prior plans and couldn't take us that morning.  She shows up on time (and is sober) so off we go to start our 15.8 miles hike back to Deep Gap.

Saturday's hike will take us 15.8 miles from Dick's Creek Gap back to our car at Deep Gap.  The terrain is the same as yesterday... up and down and up and down... repeat.  I'm also feeling a slight bit of accomplishment since we will be leaving Georgia and entering N.C. at about the 9 mile mark near Bly Gap. Although I have about 2,100 miles left to hike at least I can say that I have hiked all of Georgia...only 13 more states to go.

Overall, the day's hike is not too bad.  The temperature is kind of cool under the forest tree tops and we have plenty of water for the trip.  Yes, we still ache with each passing step, but with the end in sight our motivation carries us forward.
The picture above is the sign letting you know that you are now entering N.C.  My cousin Garyson told me that the sign was kind of a let down and he wasn't kidding.  Not sure what I was expecting as I left Georgia behind, but that wasn't it.

Monkey Butt to the Rescue

To say my body was sore from the day's hike is a huge understatement.  I was limping along like Festus from Gunsmoke for most of the evening.  I can withstand your typical aches and pains, but after hiking 16.6 miles in the hot August heat my gluteus maximus was toast.  Luckily there was a CVS close by and Bruce told me about a wonderful new miracle drug for an occasion such as this... Monkey Butt!
Never heard of it, but if it helps ease the pain... I'll try anything.  Bruce and I grab a few other necessities and gingerly make our way to the check out counter.  I try my best not to make eye contact with the lady that is working behind the counter this evening... "Welcome to CVS...did you fellas find everything okay?"  Her questions abruptly stop as she proceeds to scan our purchases for the evening... six pack of beer, a bag of cheese doodles, some Vaseline and a big bottle of Monkey Butt.  I'm tempted to give the young lady an explanation but I'm sure she has heard it all before. 
We grabbed some Chinese takeout and headed back to the room to get rested up for the next day's hike... we were wore out.

Marshmellow Hands

Bruce and I continue to push through at a fairly descent pace for the remainder of the day.  Being low on water, we made a decision to ration our water as best we can and try to make it to Dick's Creek Gap as fast as possible.  Along the way we come across a couple of side trails that supposedly lead to water sources.  The only problem with some of these side trails is that they can easily add an extra mile to your already long hike and you aren't guaranteed that there will be water there this time of year.  I kept thinking that if the trail actually crosses over a stream or creek that I would be tempted to drink the untreated water.  I never got that chance since we didn't see any viable streams directly on the trail the entire day.  We also didn't see many other hikers.  I think we passed a young couple and their dog going in the other direction, but that was about it.  This time of year, there aren't too many folks on the trail in Georgia since most of the "through hikers" started their hikes in early April and they are long gone by now. 

At one point during the hike Bruce told me his hands were swollen.  I was about to make a wise crack about his "marshmallow hands" when he told me to look at my own hands.  We both had marshmallow hands.  This was not a good sign...it was then that I realized this was likely a symptom of dehydration.  With less than an hour left to hike we both ran out of water.  I felt a since of relief once we finally came across the stake marker that Gene had told us about.  I barely had a phone signal, but was able to get Gene on the phone to let him know he can start making his way to Dick's Creek Gap to pick us up... and oh yeah, please bring some water!

We finally arrive at Dick's Creek Gap and Gene arrives shortly thereafter.  He hands each of us a huge cold bottle of Gatorade...it was good... real good.  Bruce and I are both relieved that the first day is finally behind us.  We had a hunch that this section of the trail was rather tough and it surely didn't let us down. 

Clarence and the Rattlesnake

video
There are a lot of God's creatures that call the Georgia mountains home and I hope to see most of them... next time I visit the zoo.  Meeting up with them in their natural habitat sure sounds thrilling, but I can now honestly say that coming face to face with a creature that can kill you isn't my idea of fun... and I love animals.  The trail is usually very narrow so you have to follow behind one another and I had been leading the way for most of the day.  Around the 7 mile point in our hike, Bruce asked if he could lead the way for awhile and I gladly obliged.  Heck, I had been getting hit with all kinds of webs that spiders had made across the trail the night before, so why should I have all the fun.  Less than one minute after Bruce takes the trail lead from me he jumps back knocking me backwards in the process.  Stretched across the trial in front of us is a 5 foot long Timber Rattlesnake. 

It isn't moving and its so long we can't even see its head that is covered by the brush on the right side of the trail.  It is the biggest snake I have ever seen.  Not really wanting to walk around it by going through the thick brush that surrounded both sides of the trail (it might have friends out there), I decided to grab a very long branch and see if I could get it to move along.  Apparently he wasn't ready to move and it proceeded to curl up into the strike position and sounded off with a rather loud and continuous rattle.  I grabbed my camera for a few pictures and even caught a little of it on video.  Eventually we were able to jump around the left side of the trail and keep hiking... with all eyes wide open.

Some of you reading this may already know this about me, but I am red-green color blind.  Its hard to explain but the best I can tell you is that sometimes I have trouble distinguishing between certain colors or shades of colors.  Usually the worst case situation for a disadvantaged guy like me is getting laughed at for wearing two different colors of socks.  I was about to see that wasn't the worst thing that can happen...with the heavily shaded forest floor, that Timber Rattler looked just like a log in the trail to me.  I even had a difficult time finding it as I looked through my camera to take a picture.  I have no doubt that if I had been leading the way when we met that snake, I would have either stepped on or directly over it and our hike could have turned out differently than it did.  Do I have a guardian angel or was it just random luck that Bruce took the trail lead when he did?  In the famous movie, It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey had Clarence looking after him... so why not me? All I know is I am enjoying my own "Wonderful Life" and I'm thankful I get to experience a little more of it.

The Mistake

I've learned that there are lots of things that can harm you while out on the AT and at the top of that list is stupidity.  Let me explain... when hiking the AT in the middle of August your top priority is staying hydrated and having access to fresh water.  This is why I carefully plan out each trip to make sure I don't forget anything important.  After hiking about 5.6 miles we finally stop for a short break at the Tray Mountain Shelter. 

I have always heard that this time of year you need to fill up on water any chance you get since many of the water sources that are listed in the guide books may be dry.  I unzip my pack to get my water filter out and my heart skips a beat... it's not there.  I had inadvertently left it back at the hotel room.  I break the news to Bruce and he reassures me that we will be fine.  We each only had about half of our water left in our hydration packs and 11 miles left to hike.  I really felt like I had let us down big time by endangering us to dehydration... a bad thing to encounter in the middle of nowhere.  Bruce, always the optimist, insisted we would be okay and I decided to take his advice... what other option did we have?  If we get desperate we could always drink directly from a water source along the trail and just risk all of the bad stuff that can happen by drinking unfiltered stream water.  It was my mistake... one that I will never let happen again.

Friday's Hike


After a very restless night, we wake up around 7:00 a.m., take a couple of Advil and wait for Gene to take us to Unicoi.  In preparing for Friday's 16.6 mile hike we actually don't have to take everything with us since we will be returning to the hotel that evening.  Our main gear for the day is our hydration packs filled with cool water and some energy bars.  Gene arrives right on time and we take off for Unicoi Gap.  Having walked these local trails many times before, Gene tells us that he has actually placed a stake in the ground about 30 minutes before our exit point letting hikers know that spot is the last place you can pick up a mobile phone signal before getting to Dick's Creek Gap.  We tell him that we plan on arriving at Dick's Creek Gap by about 4:00 p.m. but we will call him from that marker so he will know exactly when to pick us up for the day.  It's around 8:30 a.m. and we finally head out for the day's hike.
This section of the trail actually contains some of the longest climbs and highest peaks of the AT in Georgia.  We climbed up to 4,430 feet in elevation on top of Tray Mountain and as low as 3,113 feet at Indian Grave Gap.  Pretty much we went up and down fairly steep mountains for the entire day.  We both quickly realized how glad we were that we didn't have to do this section with 35 lb. packs on our backs. 

Sir Mix-A-Lot and Senior Night at the Bear Meadows Grill

If the title of this entry doesn't grab your attention... nothing will.  After getting settled into our room, we decide to walk about a mile into town and eat at a Mexican Restaurant that Gene had recommended to us.  It was an okay place to eat but Bruce and I were mainly interested in sitting in a sports bar, watching highlights of the PGA Championship and catching up over a cold beer.  After a quick Google search on my phone, I find a place called the Bear Meadows Grill located down the street from where we are and they are still open.  Not having many options, we head over to check it out. 

Timing is everything as we arrive just as Karaoke Night is kicking off.  The place is packed with the exception of a small table in the back.  Bruce and I realize that the sports bar thing isn't going to happen for us so we decide to grab our table in the back and make the most of it.  A quick scan of the crowd gave me another realization... it must be "Bring Someone on Medicare" night at the Bear Meadows Grill!  Just then a nice older gentleman named Russell scooted by our table with his oxygen tank in tow.  He was making his way up to the microphone... he was up next.  What could his karaoke selection possibly be?  A little Sinatra perhaps... Jack the Knife?... I Did It My Way?... no, he proceeds to belt out a Barry White song. 

You can't buy this kind of entertainment so Bruce and I order a bucket of beers and watch the show.  After our second bucket, our judgement was getting lax as we jokingly promised our waitress that we will most definitely get up there to help her sing a song before the night is done.  It was almost closing time when we heard those dreaded words from the Karaoke DJ... next up...Bruce and Mike. Being put on the spot, we followed some of the wait staff up to the stage curious about what song we would be singing.  My guess was something country... maybe a little old school Hank Williams or Garth Brooks.  Our carefree attitudes quickly turned to embarrassment when we saw the song on the screen we were about to sing... Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back.  Of all the MTV videos I watched as a youth... that was not one of them.  What occurs next can only be imagined... there are no words that can describe the debacle that unfolded on that stage.  As we began to struggle through the words to Baby Got Back and settle into our more appropriate role of back up singers, an older lady that was out celebrating her birthday was coerced by her husband and friends to get up there with us and dance around.  I was thinking... why should we be embarrassed.... no one here knows us...what happens in Hiawassee stays in Hiawassee...right?  Just then I realized that one of her friends was video taping the entire event on her mobile phone.  Perfect...knowing my luck we will be a You Tube viral hit by morning time and booked on the Today Show by Labor Day.  As you can tell, not all of the interesting stuff happens while on the trail.  The towns I visit and the characters that call those towns home are a welcome part of my AT adventure.

The Hiawassee "Budget" Inn


As we drove through town on our way to the Hiawassee Inn, we passed a nice Holiday Inn Express as well as a Ramada Inn.  They look nice, but the Hiawassee Inn got several "thumbs up" from other AT hikers so I figured it was the place to stay if hiking the trail.  As we turn into the entrance of the Hiawassee Inn, this was probably the first point of the trip that Bruce finally began to quietly question my superb planning abilities.  Why again are we not staying at the Holiday Inn Express?... Well, this place only charges $40 per night for hikers and my shuttle driver knows where it is... it has met all of my requirements.


We unload our gear and remind Gene to pick us back up in the morning around 8:00 a.m. for the 8 mile ride over to the beginning of our hike, Unicoi Gap.  Bruce and I make our way into the "office" of the hotel which at first seemed rather deserted.  After a minute, out comes the "manager de jour" in charge of the Hiawassee Inn.  I tell the manager that I called a couple of days ago and made a reservation for two nights.  This is usually the point that most front desk clerks begin frantically typing on their keyboards for 5 minutes before eventually handing over the swipe key cards to the room... that didn't happen.  He simply said, "uh...okay, are you paying with cash or credit card"?  Although I typically use a credit card in these situations, I suddenly had an eerie thought of spending several hours on the phone with American Express trying to identify all of the extra charges that were on my bill. It only took me two seconds to respond... "Oh, I'll be paying cash for both nights... it's $40 per night, right?"  Here is where he really got me thinking...  The manager responds, "Yeah, but I tell you what... since you are paying cash, I'll take $100 total for both nights".  I then proceed to stare at the manager for about 7 seconds while I wait for him to figure out that $40 x 2 nights = $80.  If you have never stared at someone for 7 seconds in complete silence... try it sometime... its longer than you think.  After all, he obviously doesn't realize who he is dealing with... I'm the son of a math teacher and the proud recipient of a solid "C" average in every math course I ever took.  I then calmly respond, "I think $80 is better".  As I hand over my $80, he mumbles something about the lady that took my reservation must have given me the "winter" hiker rates so he will honor what she told me.  Easy mistake... after all it is August.  We collect our key and head over to our "Presidential Suite".
Here is a helpful tip for any of you that research the internet looking for that perfect hotel... if "private bathroom" and "hot water" are listed as amenities... keep looking.  I'm surprised they didn't go ahead and list "beds" and "electricity" as some of the other amenities.  Oh well, we are only staying two nights... how bad can it be.



Welcome to Hiawassee


After a nice drive through Franklin, NC, Bruce and I finally located the turn off for Forest Service Road 71 that would take us to the area of the trail known as Deep Gap.  The map indicated that FSR71 was a small gravel road that would eventually end up at a small parking area at Deep Gap.  It didn't say exactly how long the gravel road was which had us questioning ourselves after the first 3 miles or so.  Turns out is was a little over 5 miles which on a small, twisting, gravel mountain road seems like 20 miles.


As soon as we get there we see our shuttle driver, Gene, waiting already for us.  He was on time, sober and didn't appear to be a serial killer... all of the qualities I typically look for in an AT shuttle driver.We quickly put everything we need for our two day hike into Gene's car and head out.  Gene was a semi-retired older gentleman and he was very receptive to us asking him lots of questions about the area.  It was actually Gene's idea for us to stay in Hiawassee, GA on Friday night instead of going all the way into Helen, GA as originally planned.  Not only was Hiawassee closer to the beginning of our Friday hike, but I figured that by staying in the sleepy little town of Hiawassee instead of staying in the bustling town of Helen, I would greatly reduce the probability of me having to hike with a hangover the next day.  As I would find out later, being in Haiwassee apparently only reduced those chances by about 1%... hanging out with Bruce regardless of the location still left my "hiking with a hangover" chances at well over 90%.  Bruce and I don't get to hang out that often so when given the chance to catch up over a beer (or twelve) we usually take it.  Anyway, after a nice scenic 30 minute drive, we finally arrive at our glorious accommodations for the night, The Haiwassee "Budget" Inn... emphasis on "budget".

Hike #3 - Unicoi Gap to Deep Gap


Thursday, August 4, 2011 - I made a strategic and wise decision for this particular hike.  Rather than lug a 35 lb. pack up and down tremendously steep mountains in the hot August heat, I decided to "slackpack" the two-day 32 mile hike that would take me from where I last left the trail at Unicoi Gap all the way into North Carolina to an area known as Deep Gap.   What made my anticipation for this hike even greater is that my good friend, Bruce Bullock, agreed to join me. It is always nice to share time on the trail with others, but having one of my life long friends join me for two days of hiking was exceptionally nice.


To say that these hikes require planning is a bit of an understatement.  Let me explain the plan for this particular trip... Bruce, who lives in Pinehurst, would drive to Clemmons and pick me up around Noon on Thursday.  From there we would drive about 4 hours towards Franklin, NC and attempt to locate a gravel side road (U.S. Forest Service Road 71) outside of Franklin that would take us to a parking area next to the AT called Deep Gap.  Hopefully the "shuttle" that I had previously arranged with a guy named Gene would be there at 5:00 p.m. to drive us into Hiawassee, GA where we would spend Thursday night.  Friday morning, Gene would hopefully arrive and take us to Unicoi Gap where we would begin our Friday hike.  We would then hike 16.6 miles on Friday to Dick's Creek Gap where Gene would once again pick us up around 4:30 p.m. and take us back to our hotel in Hiawassee.  Saturday morning we would get another shuttle ride (this time from a lady name Joyce) back to Dick's Creek Gap where we would hike the ramaining 15.8 miles back to our car at Deep Gap.  Hopefully we would arrive back at our car around 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and if our car was still there we would then drive home.


How can anything go wrong with a detailed plan like that?