Cows and Bears and Ponies, oh my!

Day 53

Mile 533.7

So far the southern part of Virginia has been a return to better weather. Sunny days and cool winds ushered us through the Creeper Trail out of Damascus. Instead of schlepping through the hills, Tiger and I strolled the relatively flat walk by a creek for 10 miles which joined up with the AT later on. Technically this is called Blue Blazing (or cheating by the purists) because the AT which is marked by White blazes followed the same direction but is considered harder. I don’t really care though. I didn’t start this journey to walk every single mile of the AT but more to have adventures where I find them. If I hadn’t gone on the Creeper Trail them I would have missed one of the most bucolic parts of the trip so far.

After all that rain illustrated how poorly my tent protects against water I decided to have my hammock sent me and sent that bothersome tent back home. I am now a tree dweller, swinging in the breeze. I’m sure it will present it’s own issues but it sure is easier to set up!

Such sweet sleep to be had
In the pines

We stayed at a shelter that had been beset by food stealing bears. They even put an electrified fence around a bear box (where you store tour food overnight). I didn’t see any bears though and my food remained unmolested in the morning.

One of the highlights of the AT so far has been the hike through the Grayson Highlands. There a feral ponies everywhere that the park keeps to eat all the negative vegetation and maintain the balds. They run right up to you and start licking the sweat off your skin. I have a suspicion that it might have been some enterprising ponies that may have added to the bear’s bad reputation.

You also walk through pastures with cows idly munching grass. They don’t appreciate when you moo at them. That or I might have said something rude. My Cow is very rudimentary.

Such a fashionable pose

 

What did you say? Say that to my face!
Emo pony
Look at that fuzzy butt!

The walk through Grayson was a nice change in scenery as well. Most of the AT is a green tunnel where the things just seem the same mile after mile. It’s always a treat to come upon a view and in this case be out in the open. It was a gorgeous sunny day walking through blooming Rhododendrons and grassy fields. There was a rock tunnel you had to pass through called the Fatman Squeeze and I reached the 500 mile mark. All in all, this portion of the trail refueled my determination to continue the journey.

*photos of me taken by Tiger. There you go. There’s your credit.

I can’t stand the rain…on my thru hike

Apologies to Ann Peebles for the poor word play.

Day 48

Mile 470

The hike out of Roan Mountain TN was beset with gobs of rain and mud. I wasn’t too happy with the wet feet situation, again. But I signed up for this and the problems only heighten the more gracious moments. Moments that only happen in the trail after days and days of wondering why I am even doing this. I planned on doing an in more depth post about emotions, but for now it is suffice to say that the weather can directly affect how you feel about everything that day.

Pretty picture, but my feet didn’t like it.

The never-ending rain actually made the delicate scents more prominent. I’d been smelling roses for awhile but didn’t see anything. I began to wonder if I was having some sort of smell hallucination, perhaps yearning for cleaner drier times? Then I came over a hill and the entire field was laid out with what looked like wild Cherokee roses decimated by the weather. Their powerful scent still permeated the air. Laid underneath the rose smell was the earthy base of wet dirt and clay. Occasional notes of something bright, perhaps citronella, would enter the mix. All of these smells formed a perfume that you only get when you are wet and betrodden in the forest and I’m glad I was there to experience it.

The roses in question

Never ending fog and rain. Thanks Alberto!
Spooky trees
Mountaineer falls
Guardian bear

Just before Hampton TN it was a beautiful sunny day and the hike went by Laurel Falls and the river. The trail would been impassable the day before with all the rain. We went to a hostel to get dried and cleaned up. They only had tenting so I got that set up. That evening a huge thunderstorm came rolling through and got everything wet again. Womp womp.

That’s the Appalachian trail right there
Action shot!

The trail around Watauga lake was flooded so we were rerouted to the road for awhile. To honest I was fine with it because I didn’t bring my kayak. The day was mostly sunny with the afternoon bringing more thunderstorms. This time though I made it to the shelter just in time and stayed dry…mostly. A rainbow formed as the sun flickered through the clouds. It was quite the spectacle. Everyone came out of the shelter to look at it and that rainbow was probably the most admired for miles around.

Another dam walk
Me enjoying a nature show
The rainbow

The next day was an epic thunderstorm that flooded the trail again. I don’t know why I bother trying to keep my feet dry. I stopped by this monument to a hermit.

Uncle Nick Grindstaff
“Lived alone, suffered alone, and died alone”
Everything looks like a Dagobah swamp

Made it into Damascus out of the rain and I got a care package from my friends from roller derby. They sent me a card with words of encouragement that really lifted the spirits and Twizzlers! I stayed at a nice little B&B called the Lazy Fox inn which was appropriate because my roller derby name was Foxfire. Now I’m dry, clean, rested and ready to head out into Virginia.

Thanks ladies!!
Not a lazy fox. But close.

Make it rain on dem hikers

Day 41

Mile 394.8

It was oddly hard to get back into my mental hiking groove after leaving Uncle Johnnys hostel in Erwin TN. I suppose it was had something to do with my pack being weighed down with 20 pounds of food. I went a little nuts at Wal-Mart.

Even in the woods trains slow you down!

After so long you’d think it would be easier to jump back on the trail. I’ve noticed it usually takes me about half a day to return to Hiker mode. This stretch seemed different and I came up against my first real mental wall. I’ve joked on bad days that I was “this close to quitting” but I never really meant it. I fought through my little mental hissy fit and trudged on, but something hasn’t sat right with me since.

Just waiting for the perfect opportunity to trip me

Then Unaka Mountain happened. I camped just before it so I was fresh on my climb up. The top was covered with thick spruce firs making it seem like evening rather than daytime and a mist curled through the trunks. Occasionally spikes of sunlight would shoot down from the treetops. It was soothing and I guess I found something there. Im not sure what, but it was easier going after that.

Rain has been threatening my hike for the past few days because of the tropical storm. It finally hit when I was going up to Roan Mountain. I’m sure it would have been a beautiful walk but I was too concerned with getting somewhere dry.

This “rain jacket” did very little protecting, just kept the sweat in.

At some point on the balds after Roan my feet were so wet it was ridiculous to try and walk around the water so I started plowing through the mud. Even with that I fell twice and bonked my head on a fallen tree limb. I suppose I looked like a turtle trying to get up with my water logged pack.

On top of a bald
Looking back on Roan Mountian

Finally I got to Overmountain Shelter which is a repurposed barn. Predictably it was packed with hikers. When I took off my shoes my feet were wrecked. But luckily I found a dry spot to hunker down for the night.

The last day before going into town was actually quite nice. It started out cloudy but by the time I got to Hump mountain the weather had cleared up and it was a beautiful climb.

This rabbit stayed on the trail for awhile and let me take a picture.

And so finally I got to 19E where my little group went to a hostel with craft beer. Also I’m finally done with North Carolina.

Good riddance

Now I get to go deal with this finger of mine. I think I got a splinter in my fingernail and it’s created an abscess. It’s funny because one guy said I should go to a doctor about it. I think I can handle it. Just have to get all wilderness first aid and boil my knife. What I wouldn’t give for a scalpel and a suture removal kit right now!

You see all that pus just waiting to be expressed?

I took a zero here in Roan Mountain TN, and honestly Tiger didn’t have to work too hard to convince me. I’ve found I really don’t like walking up mountains in mud rivers. But I suppose I’ll have to be doing more of that soon. Onward to Damascus.

Interlude: All your questions answered

Some of y’all are asking questions so I thought I’d put them all in one spot.

Why?

Short answer, because it’s there.

How long will it take?

Usually about six months. I have to get to Mt Katahdin before they close the state park in mid October.

Where do you sleep?

In my tent or a shelter, whichever one is easiest at the time. In town, hotels and hostels.

My tent

A shelter

What do you eat?

Thru hiker nutrition is interesting in that you have to balance calories an weight. Also you can eat like a campground raccoon and not suffer the usual consequences. Most thru hikers burn about 4000 calories a day so you look for food that is easy to carry and high in calories.

I usually carry hard cheese, summer sausage, peanut butter crackers…just a whole bunch of snacks basically. I try to eat every two hours or so and have a larger meal when I stop. In the morning I like to make my “Go Juice” which consists of:

1 packet Carnation Instant Breakfast

1 packet instant coffee

Handful of Chia seeds

All mixed up and washing down my vitamin pill. This isn’t a new invention, I’m pretty sure I read it somewhere. But it really does get me going.

I noticed a difference in my hiking day when I go for the sugary junk food option over something a little more healthy.

Where do you get food?

At the store like everyone else. I’m not foraging for nuts and berries or anything like that. I usually carry 3-5 days worth of food and then resupply at the next town.

How do you cook your food?

I have a little stove that attaches to a bottle of fuel. I can boil a cup of water in about 2 minutes.

Where do you get water?

At the water store.

No, there are creeks and a springs all along the trail. Some enterprising individuals even piped some of the springs for easy fill up. Most people filter or chemically treat the water. I use Aqua Mira (Chlorine Dioxide) which kills everything bad, but I still end up with little bits of moss in my water. Good fiber?

Best tasting water

When do you shower?

In town, and it is glorious. You just start to own your stink, because it just doesn’t go away. And everyone else stinks too.

Where do you pee and poop?

In the woods.

How far do you walk in a day?

From start I was only doing 7 or 8 miles because I didn’t want to injure myself. Now I try to do at least 10 to 15 depending on the terrain and weather. In Virginia when it gets easier you can start doing 20 mile days.

How did you train?

I went on a few shake down hikes, but otherwise I didnt really. I was working too much to really get free time to do a bunch of long backpacking hikes. Essentially the trail gets you in shape. Now that’s not to say that fit people don’t habe a it better, it’s just not really something you can specifically train for.

Who do you hike with?

I hike by myself during the day (everyone does) and meet up with people at shelters and campsites. I had a trail family but everyone split up. Two had to quit and two moved on up the trail. That leaves old Tiger as my hiking companion, with whom I make plans to share stopping points.

I think those are the most common ones. Any questions you dearly need answered, just let me know!

The (Circadian) Rhythm is gonna get you

Day 36

Mile 343.7

It’s been five days of sporadic thunderstorms and 1000% humidity. Everything is damp or on it’s way to being damp.

On the way up to Max Patch

I made it out of Hot Springs NC into a wiltingly hot climb in the steamy sauna of the mountains and have now made it to Erwin TN.

Goodbye Hot Springs
Hello Erwin

I’ve worked the night shift for the past four years or so and am also a bit of a night owl. It’s really hard to sleep during the day because, duh, sunlight. One of the many benefits of this journey is a return to a natural sleep cycle. I go to sleep when it gets dark and I wake up with sun. WITHOUT AN ALARM! I feel all kinds of productive.

The downpour, from a dry spot thankfully

I don’t really have much else to report. Trees, trail, and trekking. It all kind of blends into the same story.

Finally some sun

Although I did have to go around a downed tree and almost fell into a ravine. Thankfully I caught a tree branch to steady myself. But other than that…just a bunch of walking and being damp. So here are some pictures.

You’re the only Ten I See: The Smokies

Day 19

Mile 180.4

The Smokies are a National Park that encompasses both Tennessee and North Carolina and the AT actually straddles the border between the two states. I hated the NC portion of the AT so much I consider ALL of the Smokies to be only in Tennessee and you cannot convince me otherwise. I say this because you can tell an immediate difference in the condition of the trail when you enter the Smokies. The grades are gentler and the trail itself seems in better shape.

The views are as advertised and you think oh that’s why they call them the Smokies!

Today I went on a side trip to the Shuckstack. You can see it from Fontana Dam and it gives you perspective on how far you’ve walked.

There is the Shuckstack, see it? The highest stick?
Here’s a close up

The Shuckstack is an old fire tower next to the ruins of a caretaker’s cabin.

The start to every horror movie
This is where the mole people steal your snacks from

It doesn’t appear that the tower has been maintained in any significant manner which gave me some reservation about climbing it. I did it anyway with the possibly misguided thought of well you’ll probably never get to do this again. So I went for it….very carefully.

Yeah I climbed that creaky shit
That’s where I climbed from
On the Shuckstack

Day 20

Mile 189.4

Today was a rough one, so I didn’t get very far. The day started out rainy and windy which also put a damper on my progress. When I ascended Rocky Top there was zero views, just more wind and white fog everywhere. Despite this I still feel good about my climbing. I see a difference now and can get to the top without stopping.

Day 21

Mile 199.3

Today was a Julie Andrews hike. The birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and the GD bees were buzzing. It was a total movie moment.

In the higher elevation the forest turned Alpine and looked like the Pacific Northwest. I kept getting confused about where exactly I was hiking.

Clingmans Dome is the highest point on the AT with and elevation of 6658 feet. The climb weaves in and out of cool mossy forest and rocky hills baking in the sun. At the top is a tower for you to admire 360 degree views of the entire Smoky range. Seeing where I came from and knowing that I actually walked that far was another special change of perspective.

From this point me and Uncle Tiger tried to hitch into Gatlinburg without much success. Finally we got a ride down to Newfound Gap where we found more options to get down the mountain.

Day 22

Mile whatever

Gatlinburg is a weird tourist trap of a town. It’s like Panama City Beach in the mountains. Everything is old timey and log cabins. The strip has these weird animatronic attractions to get you to shoot guns.

This was the from from the balcony. About as far as I got from the bed.

I was more interested in the bed I slept on. It was DRY, LEVEL, CLEAN, AND STAYED THAT WAY ALL NIGHT!!! So I mostly spent my zero day wallowing in the comforts of civilization which included sleeping when I wanted, indoor plumbing, and soap. It’s the little things.

Day 23

Mile 210.4

I got back up to Clingmans Dome with some severe reservations. That bed I spoke of earlier was still as comfortable as the previous day and I’m really missing flushing toilets. It seems every time I go into town I get tempted by the lures of civilization.

But when I get back on the trail I remember why I started this and forget about the inconveniences.

Today the walk was just as beautiful as going up Clingmans. The woods were soothing with the bird song and soft green light. The air created a soft blanket that felt like an outdoor hug. I really like the Smokies so far. Also I made it to Mile 200.

Day 24

Mile 223

Today started out a little rainy but then once again the Smokies deliver with the views and the good hiking. There was a little side trip to Charles Bunion where I crept to the outcropping and DEFIED DEATH WITH MY BRAVERY! Nah, really it was just a little bit of careful maneuvering. (I promise I’m not being an idiot, Mom).

The ever present threat of thunderstorms dogged me all day. At one point in between mountains I was treated to an amazing meteorological show of rain sweeping through a far off valley.

Day 25

Mile 237.6

I’m kind of sad to be leaving the Smokies. They’ve been what I thought Hiking (with the big H) should be like. A little bit of drama, a mix of challenges and pleasant strolling, and of course The Views.

Today I took a side trip to Mt Cammerer to see the fire tower built by the CCC in the 1930s. Unlike the Shuckstack this tower has been renovated and kept up.

At the fire tower I decided to eat a Payday in which the peanuts kept falling off. I noticed an inquisitive nose in the crack between the building and deck so I moved the peanut closer. This little mouse darted out and claimed his prize.

Also some dude bros arrived to the tower after me, one of whom was trying to tell the story of how FDR died. All I heard was “Colorado” and “bedpan” and knew this guy was speaking of some other President. It went something like this:

Dudebro: Yeah FDR was dying in Colorado and the nurses…

Me: FDR?! As in Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

DB: uh… (now looking at me like I’m a weirdo and probably wondering why this red faced sweaty chick loves FDR so much)…yeah?

Me: (very authoritatively) Because FDR actually died in Warm Springs Georgia of a sudden stroke.

DB: Well maybe it was Eisenhower?

Me: I don’t know anything about Eisenhower.

DB: uuuuhhhh… yeah so anyway blah blah blah….

So I guess have to back and thank all the school field trips to the Little White House for informing me about this one thing so I could shine bright and tell dude bros what’s what. I hope I haven’t spent all my FDR currency too soon.

On my way to Davenport Gap shelter which is nearly then end of the National Park, the sun dappled through the green leaves. Little pops of white and purple dotted the slope and a cooling breeze drifted through the canopy.

And then in all this sweetness I kept twisting my ankles on the damn rocks. A fitting goodbye from Smoky Mountain National Park.

Hot Fontana Dam

Day 18

Mile 165.3

I must revise my opinion of the North Carolina portion of the trail. Two words: it hard. Georgia was tough but had manageable climbs and descents. Mostly they were short and to the point.

NC is all about the pointless never ending climb where your nose is practically parallel to the ground and interminable descents that destroy your knees.

This is the AT. Right off that cliff.

Also for some reason they are hell bent on not maintaining the trail itself. At one point I was “walking” on the “trail” that was less than a foot wide and you could look straight down and see the bottom of the mountain.

I was too damn hot and tired to enjoy this view on Cheoah Bald.

Oh but then we got to Fontana Dam, which is the southern gate of the Smokies. It was built during WWII To aid in energy supply and is the tallest dam east of the Mississippi. The trail runs right over it.

But before I got to the dam there was a marina shop full of ice cold beverages and the most delicious microwaved burger I’ve ever had. Well it’s the only one actually. But still it was a taste treat.

We spent the night at Fontana Dam. I pitched my tent on a slant and ended up sliding down onto the tent pole which collapsed the tent onto me. I was not as they say “a happy camper” in the morning.

A sunrise over Fontana Lake

I got over my upset after a quick dose of coffee and the realization that the Smokies were coming up. Also the flushing toilets were nice too.

North Cackalacky

Day 10

Mile 85.7

I entered North Carolina agog that I actually made it. This whole trip is starting to become a real experience, not just some far off fantasy. The miles go by and my feet keep moving. Not once have I wanted to stop and give up, even when it gets super hard. It’s a nice feeling, when you can surprise yourself.

Still technically in Georgia

Rain started up promptly AGAIN after Bly gap. Everything was bathed in an creepy fog glow. I stupidly kept pushing forward and almost gave myself hypothermia.

Spooky tree
Entrance to an 80s movie witch lair.

Day 11

Mile 102

Albert Mountain was a sum’bitch to climb. It a straight up rock climb. At the start you see a fire tower way high up and wonder how long that will take. It is so far away. Then stop at the steepest incline that never ends. Apparently it takes about 45 minutes of sweating and cursing as I found out. The view from the top was literally breath taking…there was yet another climb up some carney-esque stairs to the fire tower.

Shortly after the mountain I made it to the 100 mile mark. Someone artfully positioned some sticks into a mile marker. I’m getting new shoes. Mine suck.

Looking down from the fire tower
5250 feet up

Feels like I’m walking on broken glass

Day 8

Mile 65.4

The downs are as hard as the ups. Trudging up these eternal inclines, my lungs shout at me. Going down, my left knee which has an old derby injury, makes it’s complaints known. All the while my feet bark at me. People talk about getting your Trail Legs like it’s a magical event. ***Like you wake up one day and the Trail Fairy has been by to drop off your legs. If it was only that easy.

When I get to the top there are these stretches of flat straight aways that are surrounded by pine and cedar. The path is soft as Berber carpet from the previous years leaves and needles. Up there the smell of trees is undiluted and I swear there was some cardamom nearby because I kept smelling winter drinks. These are my favorite parts of the trail. With the mountain ridges in the distance, it feels like you are in the clouds.

So there I am huffing the air like it’s going out of style and come around a corner to see two black bear cubs! We all stop for a moment and then one of them makes an Aaaack! noise like those Martians from Mars Attacks. They both take off down the hill like rockets and I make steps to get out the area in case Mama Bear takes offense. The adrenaline made that pretty easy. I can just see the cubs going back to Mama being all “We were just enjoying the pine smells and this stinky human had to come and ruin it! ”

Day 9

Mile 73.5

It rained all day yesterday and my feet are still soaked. Even though the day is mostly dry, my feet have swollen up and stayed damp. This in turn has created a very painful situation that make it fell like I’m walking on razor blades. Appropriately Annie Lenox’ s “Walking on broken glass” popped up in my head radio and would not shut up! My brain thinks it’s being funny.

No one said anything about swimming the AT

My feet started hurting so bad I stopped early at a shelter while the rest of my trail family pushed on to a further campsite. I’m sitting there, mercifully off my feet and feeling pretty crappy that I can’t keep up when loud clanking comes from the trail. Wok (the guy who fed us at Neel’ s gap because it was his birthday) shows up with a full sized grill strapped to his back. He brought hot dogs, burgers, and beer to the shelter.

Wok hoofed this thing 2 miles up a mountain

I perked up quickly after that! Haha! Who’s the sad sack now? I’ve got hot dogs! He also started a fire and the little shelter group sat around and ate and talked. That’s another nice thing about the trail: there is rarely cell service at the shelters. So everyone actually talks to each other.

*** Clarification: I stole this from Uncle Tiger and he wants me to let you know that. I REGRET NOTHING.

Let’s talk about you and me, Let’s talk about all the hygeine

Day 6

Left Neel’s gap yesterday, where a nice young man had a cookout with hot dogs and beer because it was his birthday and we were all invited. So a bunch of thru hikers sat around till almost 9pm (!!late!!) and actually talked to each other. Not a cell phone in sight.

Dahlonega in the distance

Today I made it to Unicoi gap where a lovely group of people were handing out cheeseburgers and drinks in the rain under some tents.

They are what are known as Trail Angels. I met one yesterday at Tesnatee gap who was handing out oranges and waters just before the Hogpen mountain climb. It’s like ole Roy knew that climb would suck…a lot.

Today the fog and rain moved in with reports of a downpour tomorrow. My group decided to shuttle into Hiawassee and get a motel room for a nearo and a zero day. Respectively those are days where you don’t put many miles in and rest and when you don’t hike at all.

I’m glad for it because I GET TO TAKE A HOT SHOWER AND WASH MY CLOTHES! I’ve never paid much special attention to hygiene. Just wash things when they are dirty, then done.

Obviously when you are in the woods staying clean becomes a little more difficult. I don’t mind the dirty clothes so much, although I would pay good money for a fresh sock delivery service. It’s the dirty hands and booties that get me. I feel like Howard Hughes all: GEEEEERRMS! There is a reason hikers don’t shake hands or eat each other’s food.

Nicely delineated trail

I had to stop and get some actual soap. Hand sanitizer only does so much. My health is directly tied to the state of my hands for obvious reasons and I don’t want to come down with some 18th century bacterial disease.

A water source, not near poo

Privies are just as gross as you think. What is even grosser is that there is a mountain of poo down there with no toilet paper. Again, don’t shake hands with a hiker. Of course I brought my own TP and if you can get past the smell it’s actually kind of nice to take your morning constitutional outside. Your butt gets a nice breeze.

You have to dig a “cathole” if you are gonna actually poop outside. Very annoying. Who knew the ground was full of rocks and roots and stuff? If you come across two sticks crossed on the ground, just keep stepping. That was someone else’s cathole.

A view from my tent…not a cathole

And now all the dudes can stop reading…really. This is the end of this update.

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I’m not kidding, it’s about to get all lady talk in here.

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Are you sure?

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Well you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Okay so for those of us with vaginas: you know what really sucks? Starting out a huge adventure and then starting your period the next day. Yaaay. Now you’re probably saying “But Cheryl you didn’t know this was coming?” To which I reply, my period is ornery and stubborn as I am. That bitch has never been regular.

So there I am in a forest full of bears and sharks and now I get to deal with Aunto Flo’ s visit. I found out though, that apparently when you’re walking up and down mountains that cramps become a minor irritant. So there you go ladies. Next month instead of hot packs and Aleve, go huff it up a mountain.

Your welcome.