Days 9 – 11 (3/9/15 – 3/11/15)

Day 9, 3/9/15

Start: Unicoi Gap
Finish: Sassafras Gap
Miles Hiked: 10.4
Miles To Go: 2125.9
Overall Miles Hiked: 63.3

With fresh clothes and a stocked food bag, we left Hiawassee and headed back to the trail around 10:00AM. Our goal was to walk to the next shelter, but by the time we got there the weather was still cooperating, so we pushed on. Around 6:00PM we reached a campsite at Sassafras Gap. Just when we had a nice fire going, the rain moved in. It is supposed to rain all week, but temperatures should be nowhere near last week. Billy Goat and I get along well with John. Hannah’s hiking speed is very similar ours too, so it looks like the four of us will be traveling together for the foreseeable future. Although it was not my intention, hiking in a small group is nice. Morale is up and friendly conversation helps pass the time. John is now Mountain Blazer because he is the fastest of us all, even at 56. He likes to start off behind us all, but it is not long before he blazes past us. I’ve been on the A.T. for over a week now and things are going well, so far. I’m having a blast fulfilling this silly dream of mine and my body is doing okay. Everything hurts and I only have one blister. It is raining pretty hard right now, but I’m hopeful that it will stop before morning. Breaking down a wet camp is not fun, plus it adds a few pounds of water to your soggy pack in the morning. Oh, and I told my Unicoi Gap story to a few other hikers here at our campsite – poetry snaps all around! Life is good!

View from Sassafras Gap

View from Sassafras Gap

Day 10, 3/10/15

Start: Sassafras Gap
Finish: Dicks Creek Gap
Miles Hiked: 6.3
Miles To Go: 2119.6
Overall Miles Hiked: 69.6

After sleeping through never ending rain, we got lucky at day break and packed up in a light drizzle. Packing up wet gear sucks! After hiking through on-again, off-again rain, we arrived at Dicks Creek Gap where we decided to eat lunch. A highway crosses the trail here and we saw a sign… and what a beautiful sign it was! It read, “Top of Georgia Hostel.” We were all smiles. I was the only one who wanted to keep hiking, but the others were fixated on the part that stated there were 13 inch pizzas for $6.00. They didn’t have to twist my arm too hard. Top of Georgia Hostel is run by Bob Gabrielson, better known as Sir-Packs-A lot. After showering and settling in, Bob said that he offers free pack shakedowns. A shakedown is when a professional hiker, such as Bob, goes through your entire pack and determines what you don’t really need to help save weight. An older guy volunteered first. I had been talking to him earlier when he told me he wanted a shakedown. When no one was looking, I added two big rocks to his pack and made a quick getaway! When Bob opened the section of his pack with the rocks and pulled them out of the pack, the whole room exploded with laughter. I never fessed up either! He was convinced his buddy did it earlier in the week and that he had been carrying the rocks throughout Georgia. That will make for an interesting conversation  when he meets back up with his buddy in a week!

Top of Georgia Hostel

Top of Georgia Hostel

The crew staying at the Top of Georgia Hostel

The crew staying at the Top of Georgia Hostel

Day 11, 3/11/15

Start: Dicks Creek Gap
Finish: Muskrat Creek Gap
Miles Hiked: 11.8
Miles To Go: 2107.8
Overall Miles Hiked: 81.4

I was one of the last ones to wake up at the shelter, no surprises there. After eating my regular breakfast of Poptarts and Snickers, I did my own pack shakedown. I actually saved myself from carrying about 5 lbs. of unneeded food and gear, bringing my base pack weight (everything but food and water) to 21 lbs. and to 29 lbs. total with my food and water – Not bad! Keeping your pack as light as possible will save your body over the long haul. Billy Goat and I were going through our packs when the shuttle that we were supposed on be on with Blazer and Hannah pulled out. Oh well. We had to wait another one and a half hours for the next one. We knew we were going to be hiking 12 of the hardest miles yet and the loss in time could put us hiking in the dark if we didn’t hustle. It rained, heavily at time, which turned the trail into a soupy mess, which was not very fun negotiating. With daylight running out, Billy Goat and I were hiking fast. Well, I may have been hiking too fast because I had my first fall this afternoon. Luckily, it wasn’t too bad as I escaped with just a small cut on my wrist and a bruised ass. Just before the shelter was the Georgia/North Carolina border. We made it out of Georgia in 9 days, which I think was pretty good; One state down! Billy Goat and I high fived and moved on. We made it to the shelter at 6:30PM set up our tents, ate dinner and went to bed.

Muskrat Creek Shelter

Muskrat Creek Shelter

I made it to the GA/NC border!

I made it to the GA/NC border!

Billy Goat at the GA/NC border

Billy Goat at the GA/NC border

Georgia was hard. In fact, I’d like to start a petition to name it Loose Rocks. The trail was littered with 1 – 20 lb. chunks  on granite hiding just beneath the fallen leaves, their only purpose is to make you trip. Either way, after miles of it your feet begin to deteriorate. Due to all the rain and snow, it has been hard to keep my feet dry in Georgia and for several days I had a painful rash on my toes that burned with every step. Once I started keeping my wet socks in the sleeping bag with me at night, which would dry them by morning, the problem went away. Other than my feet, my knees and quads hurt the most. 80 miles of lunges with a 30 lb. pack will do that to you. All in all, Georgia was great.The people along the way have been very helpful and trail magic was plentiful. We hear the trail in Georgia is about 4 out of 10 in terms of difficulty (with 10 being the hardest.) We have also heard that North Carolina is a 7…Yeah! Can’t wait. Physically, I’m in a lot of pain. Mentally, I am good, though. I crack jokes, again no surprises there, which helps keep everyone upbeat, in turn helping me feel better.

Days 6 – 8 (3/6/15 – 3/8/15)

Day 6, 3/6/15

Start: Wolfpen Gap Country Store
Finish: Whitley Gap Shelter
Miles Hiked: 11.7
Miles To Go: 2150.8
Overall Miles Hiked: 38.4

Dan and I arranged for a 7:00 AM shuttle from the Country Store to Jarrard Gap, the base of Blood Mountain. Sam Duke, a local shuttle driver, dropped us off and wished us luck. From the base of Jarrard Gap, the summit of Blood Mountain is 1,211 ft. up a steep trail. After several breaks we finally reached the top. It was our highest peak yet and the view was amazing. The sun had just broken through the relentless fog. It was the first sunlight we had seen and more importantly felt in over a week. At the top of Blood Mountain sits the Blood Mountain Shelter. Built in 1934, the shelter is two stories and made of stone. Dan and I took a few pictures and headed down the trail.

The Freeman Trail skirts the summit of Blood Mountain, saving the hiker 700 ft up and down. We did not take it.

The Freeman Trail skirts the summit of Blood Mountain, saving the hiker 700 ft up and down. We did not take it.

Blood Mountain Shelter - Built in 1934

Blood Mountain Shelter – Built in 1934

View from Blood Mountain

View from Blood Mountain

 Top of Blood Mountain

Top of Blood Mountain

We were having a very intriguing conversation about the existence of Bigfoot when we realized we were off trail. We had been carefully navigating a very slick slab of granite and Dan was about 30 ft. ahead of me. While Dan was testing the theory of gravity, I slowly backtracked and found the trail. I thought it would take him half the day to get back up, but surprisingly within a few minutes he had made it back up to meet me. He was making a horrible wheezing, guttural sound as he gulped his water. Due to the way he got back up the mountain, how he sounded after and for other reasons unknown, I said he reminded me of a billy goat. A trail name was born and for hereafter, Dan will now be called Billy Goat. We were pretty beat by the time we made it down from Blood Mountain (especially with our unplanned detour) but soon realized we were staring at the “Tree of Lost Souls” which could only mean one thing…We had made it to Neel Gap, the spot where 20% of all thru-hikers call it quits. When a hiker has decided that he/she has had enough time on the A.T. and decides to surrender, they will traditionally throw their boots in the trees outside of Mountain Crossings, a hiker outfitter situated neatly in the Gap.

The Tree of Lost Souls

The Tree of Lost Souls – Do you see the boots?

Mountain Crossing at Neel Gap

Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap

After grabbing a quick lunch of ramen noodles, snickers and coke, we traveled on, but not before mailing ahead unneeded gear and food. I just saved myself from carrying  an extra 11 lbs! With lighter packs, we hiked the remaining 8 miles in short order. All we had left was a 400 ft. climb up a steep cliff riddled with loose rocks to the shelter. Well, about half way up we hit the wall. Every step was agonizing and the temperature was now around 25 degrees. To say we were miserable would be an understatement. I made it to the marker on the trail signifying the shelter first. I was shocked at what I saw. The trail marker said the shelter was another 1.2 miles off the trail… OFF. THE. TRAIL. After several expletives were exchanged, we made the walk of shame to the shelter, setup our tents and promptly went to sleep.

Snowing on our hike to Whitley Gap Shelter

Snowing on our hike to Whitley Gap Shelter

Day 7, 3/7/15

Start: Whitley Gap Shelter
Finish: Blue Mountain Shelter
Miles Hiked: 12.1
Miles To Go: 2138.7
Overall Miles Hiked: 50.5

We reached the 50 mile point in under a week upon reaching the shelter. So far, my only battle wound is a small blister on my right big toe. We are sore all over, but that was expected; our spirits are high. Today was pretty uneventful other than the awesome trail magic we received. By this time, Billy Goat and I had paired up with John and Hannah, a father/daughter duo from Maine. We were almost to the shelter when we literally heard music to our ears! There, in the middle of the woods, was a guy playing a pink ukulele handing out Dr. Pepper and donuts to all hikers! His name was Hermes and he had successfully thru-hiked the A.T. in 2013. He said he just wanted to see the white blazes again before leaving for the Army. The donuts were beyond stale, but nonetheless, tasted amazing and was just what we needed before that last push into camp. I setup my tent, ate dinner and was in bed by 9:00 PM, “hiker’s midnight.”

Day 8, 3/8/15

Start: Blue Mountain Shelter
Finish: Unicoi Gap
Miles Hiked: 2.5
Miles To Go: 2136.3
Overall Miles Hiked: 52.9

With going into town on our mind, Billy Goat, John, Hannah and I broke camp early and made the 1,000 ft. descent in about an hour and a half. Descending a mountain is faster than climbing it, but it is much harder on your body. Your toes, knees and calves are constantly being pushed to the max, so going slow is your best bet. We were really starting to feel it toward the end, so I decided to tell a little story to raise spirits:

The Legend of Unicoi Gap

Long ago, somewhere in these woods was a hidden pond. In that pond lived a single and most lonely koi fish. For thousands of years, the koi had no one to talk to…until one day, out of the fog, a beautiful unicorn appeared. The unicorn had become lost and desperately needed water. As the unicorn quenched his thirst, he was startled to see the koi just beneath the surface. After taming his inclination to run, the unicorn thanked the koi for letting him drink. After hours and hours of talking, the unicorn had to go, but promised to visit the pond once a week. And so, for the next 47 years, the unicorn and koi forged a beautiful friendship that would one day turn to love! Upon realizing their love for one another, they instantly became saddened because, as you know, a unicorn and koi fish could never be together. The prayed every week to the God of Blue Mountain until one day, their prayer was heard. The God of Blue Mountain granted them one night of union, but after that night, they would both perish. Without hesitation, the two lovers took the deal and spent a magical night together. In the morning, they were no more. The God of Blue Mountain was so moved by their love for one another that he decided to create a lasting symbol of their affection. And so, the Unicoi was born. To this day, the Unicoi (a koi fish with a unicorn) swims in the hidden pond, longing for the day a thirsty traveler finds its shore.

The End

The story was a hit and we talked about it the rest of the day. We managed to hitch a ride into Hiawassee, GA, where we resupplied our food, washed our clothes and booked a cheap room for the night.

Days 1 – 3 (3/1/15 – 3/3/15)

Day 1, 3/1/15

Start: Amicalola Falls Welcome Center
Finish: Black Gap Shelter
Miles Hiked: 7.3

I left my parents at the Welcome Center after taking a picture in front of an A.T. plaque holding our local newspaper’s Travel section. My dad says he can send in this photo and maybe get me in the newspaper – I could be famous! I started walking at 8:00 AM and soon came to the dreaded, loathed and despised 604 steps at the base of Amicalola Falls.

Apparently only 175 of the 604 AT approach steps are strenuous

Apparently only 175 of the 604 AT approach steps are strenuous

After that kicked my ass, I had another 6.5 miles of pretty tough hiking – at least it was tough for me! There is still a lot of snow on the ground, which has now melted into a slick layer of ice trying to bring me down with every step…and NO I didn’t slip, but I will. Everyone does eventually. I noticed something after about a dozen hikers passed me throughout the day. You need to be young and skinny to hike fast; I am neither. After 7.3 miles and 6 hours of hiking, I reached a sign stating that a shelter was just in the woods to my left. My goal was to make it the full 8.8 miles to Springer Mountain the first day (the actual starting point of the Appalachian Trail), so I kept walking for about 100 yards and then turned around and went back. I was cold, wet and tired, so why be a hero on the first day? I was the second one to the shelter (I guess all the young, skinny guys were in Maine about now) and ate some crappy mac & cheese. After a few hours, 2 groups walked into the shelter. They did not know each other and all hailed from Maine; they were walking home! After cramming 9 people into a shelter made for 6, we went to bed around 9:00 PM. An hour later, a guy walks in, soaked to the bone wearing blue jeans (there is a saying on the trail “cotton kills” due to how poorly cotton handles moisture in cold conditions.) We literally had no room left in the shelter. This guy was carrying a tent, but he refused to set it up and said he would be fine. I went back to sleep and Blue Jeans guy woke up Spencer, another hiker staying in the shelter. The following is the (no lie!) actual conversation between these two: Blue Jeans: “Hey man, you awake? Someone is trying to kill me.” Spencer: “Ugggghh…” (white faced and speechless) Blue Jeans: “Yeah, I think my mom and dad said I might be schizophrenic, but I’m fine.” Spencer said he didn’t sleep at all that night. Blue Jeans slept on the picnic table.

Black Gap Shelter


Day 2, 3/2/15

Start: Black Gap Shelter
Finish: Hawk Mountain Shelter
Miles Hiked: 9.6 (1.5 to Springer Mountain and 7.9 to Hawk Mountain Shelter)
Miles To Go: 2181.1

It was a quick hike to the summit of Springer. After a few pictures of the real start of the trail, I moved on. There were signs in the area cautioning hikers about recent bear activity and the importance of hanging your food from a tree. I actually passed a tree that had bark scraped off 5 – 6 ft up. The bark was still on the ground and looked fresh, so I hiked fast! It was a long descent (about 1200 ft) and the hiking was rather enjoyable. There was still a lot of snow on the ground – It was awesome! I hiked most of the day with Sid. He got his trail name the night before at Black Gap because he built a fire out of wet sticks. Apparently, Sid is a character from Ice Age. I’ve never seen it, so I am unsure of the correlation. After 9.6 miles in 6 hours, I was beat, but Sid moved on. I’ll probably never see him again, but that is how the A.T. is. Unless you partner up, relationships are built around great campfire stories and camaraderie, but disappear fast as everyone hikes at a different pace. I’ve had a few opportunities to partner up with some really good people, but have chosen not to so far. It makes for lonelier days, but so far that is how I like it. After pulling into the shelter, I decided to put up my tent since the ground was pretty level. There was a lot of talk about bears, but all they really want is your food. I hung mine up on the bear line and went to bed. There was a 90% chance of rain and it rained…all night long. My tent did not leak, so I was dry, but cold. There was still snow on the ground, so I did the best I could along with the other 5 tents in our tent city.

1st white blaze for north bounders sits atop Springer Mountain

Bear or sasquatch? You decide.

Hawk Mountain Shelter

Sid, the fire starter!

Day 3, 3/3/15

Start: Hawk Mountain Shelter
Finish: Wolfpen Gap Country Store
Miles Hiked: 12.7
Miles To Go: 2168.4

Woke up at 7:00 AM to a wet tent and it was still raining. It’s not fun breaking camp in the rain. After I did a wonderful job getting all of my dry gear wet and muddy, I headed out. With my rain gear on, I stayed pretty dry, but I was sweating through my base layers. I only had one mid-weight layer on under my rain gear and since I’m fat and out of shape, I was drenched (more so on my upper body.) Since all my clothing is wool, I wasn’t cold until I stopped for long breaks. With temps in the low 40s, it really wasn’t that bad. After leaving the shelter, I checked my trail book (2015 Northbound A.T. Guide) and saw my first two mountains coming up (Sassafras and Justus, 673.7 ft and 286 ft respectively.) I closed the book and started walking. After climbing up, the trail leveled and then descended. I said to myself, “one down.” After hiking up and up and up (with several breaks of course) I reached the top of the second summit. The incline kicked my butt and I was sweating profusely, but I was happy to have my first two mountains under my belt (or so I thought.) After slowly navigating the decline (which is hard work too!), I happily reached Cooper Gap. Note: Gaps are the low points between mountains and most are named just like the mountains before and after them. It was here that I found my first Trail Magic! A road was nearby and someone left 4 jugs of purified water. I topped off my 16oz bottle and took a picture (and don’t worry, I have another 2L in reserve that I refill with my Sawyer water filter about once a day.) Another group descended from the mountain and took a break. They moved on and asked me if I was ready for round two – I was confused. Even though I thought I had just tackled both mountains, I had only done one. Bummer. Even though Justus is only 286 vertical feet, it was at a very steep incline. It too kicked my butt, but I pushed forward. The rest of the afternoon was fairly easy. I reached Gooch Mountain Shelter around 1:00 PM and after 7.7 miles, I debated my next move as I ate a PopTart. With a forecast of thunderstorms the next day, I decided to press on an additional 5 miles to Woody Gap with hopes to get a ride into Suches, GA to dry out. After 2 miles of quick hiking, I came to Gooch Gap and found Fresh Grounds at his famous Leapfrog Cafe. Fresh Grounds attempted to thru-hike years ago. Although he didn’t reach Maine, he still wanted to be a part of the A.T., so he serves fresh coffee, hot dogs, fruit and other amazing items free of charge to all hikers during the A.T. season. After guzzling down 3 hot dogs, I moved on.

Leapfrog Cafe. Thanks, Fresh Grounds!

It wasn’t long after that I met SISU, a local ridgerunner. Ridgerunners are either volunteers or employed staff of the Appalachian Trail Conservatory who spend days or weeks at a time walking or hiking a stretch of the A.T. which can span 70 miles. They are responsible for checking on shelters, maintaining the trail and helping hikers. SISU went to Chalmette High and was nice to talk to. Several areas I had hiked through had trees and limbs all across the trail from last week’s snow storm. Within a few weeks, ridgerunners will have it all cleared away.

To all ridgerunners and A.T. caretakers: Thanks so much for the hard work you do maintaining the A.T.!

There had been rumors of a shuttle at 5:00 PM at Woody Gap which would bring hikers to a nearby hostel. I had to walk fast… and I did until a series of shorter ups and downs completely exhausted me. I stumbled into Woody Gap around 4:15 PM in the pouring rain. There was no one else there. I walked under an overhang and changed out of my wet clothes, no doubt giving a free show to the many cars passing by. I got out my A.T. Handbook and dialed. The Hiker Hostel – booked solid. I called another and was told Steve would be there in 15 minutes to pick me up – SWEET! He and his wife run the Wolfpen Gap Country Store and for $15/night you get a shower, bunk and access to soda and pizza! Plus, for an additional $5 you can do laundry. I met 5 people at the hostel and offered my remaining 3 slices of pizza to them… it didn’t last long.