This was a training trip for my "big trip", and it definitely prepared me for a lot. I have a lot of mixed feelings now. I feel awesome physically. I was able to hike the steep inclines with not a lot of problem, considering the weight I was carrying on my back. Sections that I feared would be a difficult struggle ended up being very enjoyable. The part of the trip that I am not sure how to better prepare is mentally. People say that thru hiking the AT is 20% physical and 80% mental. I didn't quite understand this until this week. I definitely think I need the next few weeks to ponder about my trip. I want to do it. Can I do it? Do I really want to do it?? Can I handle being dirty and smelly for 6 months? What have I got myself into?
We leave the comforts of a hotel room in Dahlonega, GA (if you can call sharing one room with 3 hikers...one who snores all night..comfort), and head to the parking lot at Unicoi Gap. Here is where we will end our trip. We meet Sally Smith in the parking lot. Sally is a very colorful, energetic woman who has agreed to shuttle us to our beginning hiking destination. She shuttles all kinds of hikers, and has all kinds of stories. She tells us of many stories where she drops hikers off on one day for a scheduled 1 or 2 week trip, only to get a call the next day when they give up and need her to come get them. Some need to be rescued from injury or sufferings from many of the poisonous plants. "You guys won't have any problem, though", Sally tells us. "You are all in such good shape, I'm sure you will make it to your goal" As she gives us all a pep talk, she points out on the side of the road the places she saw bears just a few days earlier on this same drive. She also gives ample warning to the near drought conditions that the mountains have been experiencing recently. She tells us, carry at least 3 liters of water with you every time you fill up. As I sit in the front seat, I try to absorb all the information I can from Sally, and ask as many questions as I can. After about 90 min driving, we reach our starting point. Well, actually, we are about 0.9 miles from our start point.
Sally takes our pictures (we look better now than we will look for the rest of the week), and she points us in the right direction. We say goodby to Sally, thank her for her hospitality, and hike 0.9 miles to the Southern start of the Appalachian Trail. I have been here before by hiking from the other direction. It is really neat. We look at the famous plaques, take pictures and sign the hiking log that is hidden in a drawer built into a rock.
Our journey begins. We hike back the way we came, and stopped for lunch at the Stover Creek Shelter, where we met Jason. He was a nice guy with some interesting stories. He met up with us later as we continued to mile 7.8 and stayed the night at Hawk Mountain Shelter. There, we also met a father & Son team, and 3 men from Italy. Everyone was friendly, and discussed hiking plans as we ate dinner at a picnic table.
After a night with fairly good sleep in a tent with some very loud crickets and tree frogs (I sure was glad I brought earplugs), we packed up, said good morning to our new freinds, and had some breakfast. We had been warned about Sassafrass Mountain. Sally told us that rumor has it that "Sassafrass will kick your ass" We headed out. I was excited to get going and hiked ahead of Craig and Betty. As I waited for them at the base of Sassafrass, I got to call mom and tell her Happy Birthday a day late. Turns out Sassafrass was not a threat at all. I enjoyed it....Craig and Betty tell the story differently. haha The rest of the day consisted of lots of hiking in the woods. I spent most of the day on my own as I was a faster hiker than my buddies. It was nice to be in the wilderness and fresh air. We reached Gooch Mountain Shelter at mile 15.1, and decided we were home for the night.
There was a stream here, and I was able to take a quick, refreshing sponge bath and wash some clothes. Craig convinced me to stay in the shelter this night rather than my tent, as we were the only ones camping in this area. Big mistake! I love my tent! Without it, I didn't sleep a wink, worrying that I would have bugs and critters crawling on me...not to mention the possible larger animals that were possibly wandering around. We did hear coyotes in the distance.
This was a no good, very bad, horrible day. Well, I guess not all of it..
First of all, starting a 12 mile day on less than 2 hours of sleep is never a good idea, but I digress. Things were fine the first part of the day. I actually felt pretty energized and excited to hike my 3rd day on the AT. We made it to Woody Gap for an early lunch. There are picnic tables, a potty, and trash cans. This was the first time we have had to get rid of the trash we had been carrying out of the woods. That means lighter packs! We filled our water before leaving that morning, but all water sourced so far today have been dry. We were disappointed to find that even the water source at Woody Gap was dry.
While having lunch, we ran into one of our our Italian friends, Peter, who we met the first night. He had separated from his group, gone to the post office, and had planned to stay at a hiker hostel 7 miles down the road for a rest day. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to hitch a ride, so he decided to hike with us the next 7 miles to the shelter we were planning to stay. Turns out that is where his friends had headed as well. On we go into the Blood Mountain Wilderness.
Peter was a great hiking partner for me. We were matched up well in speed, and it was fun to have someone new to talk to for a while. After a while, I decided to stop and wait for Craig and Betti to catch up. Peter waited for a while too, but I let him know that we might be waiting a lot during the day as Craig and Betti were a bit slower, so he agreed to meet us at the shelter. Craig and Betti caught up, and we hiked together again. After a while, we came upon a very large rattler snake. An eastern diamondback, to be exact. The largest of the 32 species of rattle snakes! Anyone who is close to me knows I am severely afraid of snakes. I don't even like worms. Well, without publicly bantering my dear friend, Craig on my blog, I will not go into depth how he managed the situation. Lets just say he made this snake really mad. So mad that me and Betti were unable to safely get past him on the trail for 15-20 min. I was in a near full blown panic attack. I don't think I showed much on the outside (however I may have had words come out of my mouth that usually don't), but on the inside, my heart was pounding out of my chest. At this moment, I was thinking..."there is no way I am cut out for a thru hike". Extreme doubt set in, and for the rest of the day, I couldn't get past it.
About 15 min later, Craig stepped on a wasp nest, and got stung twice. My first thought was, "huh...karma! for messing with the snake, and risking our lives" (sorry Craig...but I am still mad at you)
I hiked ahead of my friends for a while to have some time to think. I was getting so depressed, and feeling like I was about to give up on a dream I have been preparing for for the last 9 months. It is all I have talked about, all I have spent money on, and now I am thinking I won't be able to do it. Then something happened. I saw not one, but two blue salamanders. I couldn't even find it on google, but I remember reading about it in "A Walk in the Woods" This guy wanted to see one so bad, and never did. And I just saw 2! This lifted me up a little, for some reason. Mostly because it was funny to me.
The next time Craig and Betti caught up, they were tired. They told me I should just go ahead and hike to the shelter. They didn't want to hold me back, and they knew I was tired of being on my feet too. We were 3 miles from the shelter, and had still not found a water source. I decided to hike on. In about a mile, I came across a camping area called Jarrard Gap, and thought, I bet Betti is going to be mad we didn't stop here to camp tonight. But still no water, so I kept moving. Soon, I made it to the shelter with a realization that put a huge lump in my stomach. It was empty. No Italian friends. Quickly, I realized that they must have moved on because the water source at the shelter was dry too. Peter had told me earlier that they were not hiking with filters, only purifying tablets. This means that it was even more difficult for them to get water from dried sources. At least we could dig a hole in moist ground, and eventually reach some water to suck out.
The shelter was a half mile off the AT trail. I decided staying there was useless (also, as I read in the log book, there were a lot of entries about animal activity), and I hiked back to the trail. I sat down an waited. Soon I realized that we had been hiking near lots of berry patches, and I had seen some bear tracks and scat. Probably not a good idea to sit alone quietly. I started blowing my whistle every few minutes to make sure wild life knew I was there. I also was hoping that my friends would hear my whistle, and give me a sign back that they were close. I started getting nervous that Craig and Betti had stopped at Jarrard Gap to camp, thinking that I had caught up with the Italians. I wasn't ready to spend a night alone in the woods yet, it was 6pm, and I was getting a little nervous. Finally, a little prayer that my friends were close, and I blew my whistle one more time. Then I heard a return whistle from my friends, and was so excited! Of course they wouldn't leave me on my own...(but a little Birdy told me that the option was brought up. hahaha)
Once they arrived, I explained the shelter situation and we agreed to keep moving. There was a water source ahead...hopefully there was water. There was! Not much water, but it was at the top of another trail, called Slaughter Creek Trail, that led down a little canyon. We hiked about a mile out of our way into this canyon, and found a very nice source of water. Thank goodness. We also found a little campsite, though surrounded in Poison oak, ivy, and sumac, it was our home for the night.
Once safe at camp, with water to hydrate ourselves after a 14 mile day, (remember, it was only supposed to be 12 miles...) I realized how stressful the day had been. Long hours on our feet, many miles, deadly snakes. How could I ever think about living in survival mode for 6 months? It this what it is going to be like? I can't do it! I won't do it! I called Chris. I wanted to hear a friendly voice, and vent some frustration. As soon as I heard his voice, something happened. I couldn't help it, and my eyes were immediately bulging with moisture. I thought I was dehydrated...what the crap is this?? I couldn't talk to him long. I agreed to call back when I was in bed.
I have talked to thru hikers before and all have said that every thru hiker cries at some point on their journey. Multiple times. Here I am on day 3...crying. OMG, I am such a girl!! It didn't last long. I gave myself a baby wipe bath, drank some electrolyte water, and ate a lot of food. I talked to Chris again (boy was I missing him that night). Then, I slept. I slept hard.
After a great night sleep, I felt better. I was again talking about the possibility of me continuing on with my thru hike...but still calling it an "if" I do my thru hike. Big step up from last night. Today was great! We got to hike up the last mile of Blood Mountain. It goes from an elevation of 3724 ft to 4461 ft in less than a mile. What a climb! I thought this would kick my butt, but it was awesome! It was the approach to this that killed me the day before. Now, we get to see awesome views, and it was exhilarating. Me and Betti were already planning our next trip there. Blood Mountain Shelter was awesome. 2 rooms, one with a fireplace, and it is made of stone. It is at the top of the highest point on the Georgia section of the AT. I can't wait to go there again. Hiking down was difficult, but fun. Once at the bottom, we hit Neels Gap and the Walasi-yi center. This is an awesome hiker store and hostel. I took a $3 shower, did laundry, and ate a bean burrito fresh from a microwave. :-)
We didn't stay at the hostel, we decided to get some more miles in before night time. On our way to camp, we had a deer cross our path...even stop and look at us for a picture. She was beautiful!
We reached camp at Wolf Laurel Top (mile 34.2). It would be easy to miss, but there is a little trail at the top of the mountain, that takes you to "a room with a view". What an amazing place to stay. We had a great fire, roasted some marshmallows, and I slept in my tent without the rain cover. I was able to sleep under the stars and trees with just basically netting which protected me from all the bugs. I had another amazing nights sleep.
Today was another long day. We hiked over 12 miles, and again, the water was sparse. However, we found 2 good water spots, one 3 miles in, and one 2 miles before we stopped. We stopped at Low Gap Shelter for lunch. I arrived 1st and hiked to the shelter so I could use the privy. I thought I heard my friends walking around while I was relieving my bladder. Once I came out, I didn't see anyone. I read in the log book, and there were only complaints about the wildlife. The shelter was a disaster. Turns out Betti and Craig never even walked down to the shelter, they were having lunch back on the trail. A couple hours later, another hiker told me he also stopped there for lunch, but left because there was a bear at the shelter. Hmmm...I guess that's what was walking around while I was trying to pee. Comforting. The hike wasn't too rough, it was just long. Everyone was a little on edge by the end of the day. We camped at Chattahoochee Gap, Mile 46.4. This was our last night in the woods, and Craig and Betti have gone half crazy. I stayed up listening and laughing at their banter for hours. Ahh, the memories.
Today is our last day in the woods and we only have 4.5 miles to Unicoi Gap, where we left the car. We hike together for most of the 1st mile, and I decided to go ahead for my last chance at some wilderness solitude. It was a nice hike, and I was tired. I was ready for some rest. I have lots of bug bites and swollen feet by now. I make it to the car about 45 min before my friends and talk to some other hikers who have just finished as well. It felt good to be done. A guy pulled up in the parking lot and warned me that there was a bear just a quarter mile up on the side of the road, eating some berries. It dawns on me that we are the only hikers we met that did not see a bear this week. I feel a little left out...even if I did have on spy on me while I peed...I wanted to see one.(from a safe distance, of course) No such luck.