GA

The boundary differential

March 29

11.8 miles, 81.4 overall (Muskrat Creek Shelter)
As always I am up first in my room. I get fully dressed and am getting ready to head outside when Mr Incredible knocks on the door. “Housekeeping! You want mint for pillow?” he mimics from Tommy Boy. I go outside and meet everyone from the other room for breakfast. We go to a diner a block away and have a great pre-hike meal. When we return we only have a few minutes before the shuttle leaves so I rush to get packed. Despite my speed, by the time I am ready there are already too many people in the van. I will have to take the next shuttle at 11 with Ninja who was also late. If any 2 hikers could be left behind it is good that it is us because of our speed. We pass the time waiting by talking to the Georgia boys and some other hikers.

When 11 rolls around I am chomping at the bit to get going. I view the late start as a challenge – the hikers ahead of me are prey to be caught. When we reach the trailhead there is trail magic. A group of women has set up cakes and chili. Also at the trailhead are Passionflower and Allen (now Sparky) who I haven’t seen since The Night of the Great Snore. We catch up a bit before I leave. They are on their way into Hiawassee for a nero, so they are exactly a day behind me now. I have a piece of pound cake and thank the ladies but do not wait around for the chili to be ready. Ninja however cannot pass up the free food and waits. I finally hit the trail at 11:15.

The first few miles feel great. My knee warms up quickly and I pass a few hikers including the Georgia boys, who both still lack trail names. A few miles in I reach the side trail to the first shelter – Plum Orchard – as Mr Incredible and Elastigirl are leaving. I don’t think they see me as I take the side trail for a quick break and to sign the register. The shelter is lovely and, as happens to me many times every day, I find myself wishing I could spend a night here. However there are many more miles to be walked, so I push on.

On the way out I pass the Georgia boys on their way in for a break. Brad has been having trouble with his knee and it sounds like the same thing I have been struggling with – chondromalacia patella. He has fashioned a support strap out of his full knee brace and says it is doing much better. It seems it will last him until Franklin, the next trail town.

Having already spotted the first hikers from the first shuttle I am freshly motivated. I push on hard knowing I can overtake them within the hour. When I finally do Mr Incredible gives me a few choice words in jest as I go by. I smile but not for long – I am on a mission.

A short time later I catch up to Bunny who has stopped to have lunch at Blue Ridge Gap. It is about 1:15 and I have already covered 5.5 miles. I am setting a blistering pace. I catch Emily taking a break with several other hikers at a campsite a mile later. She informs me she has found a trail name – Peach because of how easily she bruises. It seems to fit, and later she mentions that she should get a picture eating a peach in every state.

I still have 5 miles to go and the terrain has become flat. I know that based on my pace I should hit the Ga/NC border somewhere around 3:00. I remind myself to start looking for it around 2:45 to make sure I don’t miss it.

As I hike I tend to think about a lot of random things. Song lyrics are usually repeating somewhere in my head. I think about the other hikers and where I think they are. I do mileage calculations in my head. Sometimes I consider what I would be doing if I weren’t on the trail right now. But mostly my mind is focused on the climb or the descent at hand, checking how my body is feeling, deciding whether I am bonking and need to eat or if I need some more water. It might seem like hiking would be a great time for the introvert in me, but in many ways it is more like work and doesn’t really fulfill that introvert need. I still feel myself wanting time away from people once in a while in camp to recharge my battery. Perhaps if I were hiking slower it would be more fulfilling for the introvert in me, but thru-hiking is a full-time job and I tend to approach it as such.

I turn around a bend in the trail and a large rock catches my eye. As I approach I notice a tree below it next to the trail that has a metal rod in the side. How odd! As I get closer I realize there is a sign as well. I check my watch: 2:45. I hit the border sooner than expected. I sit down and have a snack. I noticed that I was bonking about a mile back but I wanted to push to the border. I decide I will wait for the others to arrive so I can share the moment with them. The first to catch up is Emily. As she gets closer I tell her I’ve stopped for a snack. It takes her a few moments as she hikes up to realize that more than a snack is going on. Once she figures it out she laughs and we take turns getting each others’ pictures taken. Button is next and seems to almost cry as she crosses. She is battling some sort of quad injury she suffered earlier today so the border is great news in an otherwise crappy day for her. Bunny, Mr Incredible, and Elastigirl arrive a few minutes later. Bunny has the funniest reaction: an underwhelmed “This is it?” I manage to capture the moment in a picture. She is clearly exhausted from the mostly uphill day and we still have 3 more miles to go to the shelter.

We get water just past the border and push on. Button has decided to push to the shelter rather than stop short. I pass her on a monstrous uphill (welcome to NC, here’s a giant mountain for you to climb!). After I do I feel bad about it. She is walking slow and I want to make sure she gets to camp ok. I turn around and hike back a short distance to find her. She does not like the idea that she is slowing me down, but I feel much better about this than the alternative and convince her to let me walk with her a while. A short time later we find the shelter.

Dinner is quick as we have arrived after 5:00. Bear bag lines go up quickly before the sun gets too low. By 8:00 everyone is in bed. We have suffered a couple casualties today and it looks like some might fall back tomorrow. Bunny has hurt her ankle and has it wrapped. Button is going to have to stop in Franklin to tend to her injury, and it may take her a few days to get there. Since we don’t plan to stop in Franklin this means she’ll probably fall out of the group, at least for a while. Before bed I get Bunny and Button’s contact info so I can be sure to reach them later. If I take a few days off the trail they could catch up to me and we could hike together again. So it goes on the Appalachian Trail.

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Categories: GA, NC | 3 Comments

The one where I get a trail name

March 28

3.6 miles, 69.6 overall (Hiawassee Budget Inn)
We plan to do a nero into town today so I wake up later than usual to begin packing – 6:45 instead of 6:30. By 8:15 I have packed, eaten breakfast, and had my coffee. I am surprised when at 8:30 the next 2 to be ready are Bunny and Button. As we are preparing to set off Emily arrives. We haven’t seen her in 2 days since Blue Mtn shelter. She pulled a long day yesterday and got up early today to catch us.

We get started with UV and Ninja close behind. It isn’t long before the three of us take the lead. The miles are short today but there are a few short ups. On one of them I make a racecar noise as I start up the hill. UV and Ninja get a kick out of it. On the way down later with UV hot on my heels I half-run down the hill with my arms out like a plane. By the time we get to the road to town they are discussing trail names for me. They suggest Cessna because of the airplane bit but I’m not a fan. Nitrous Oxide is suggested because of my speed up climbs and I kind of like it. It also pays homage to my background in science. I try it out for the rest of the day to see how it feels.

Once everyone gets into town we settle on rooms. I get a big room with Ninja, UV, Emily, and a hiker named Jay who caught us at the shelter last night. The rooms aren’t ready yet so we go to the all you can eat (AYCE) chinese buffet next door and for $8 we are allowed to demolish their buffet. I eat 2 plates and drink a coke by myself.

Once we’re done the rooms are ready so we take showers. We consolidate our clothes to save money on laundry. While the clothes are becoming magically clean again we mill about in rain gear and town clothes. It is during this time that UV discovers she can make a toga out of her sleeping bag liner. She likes it so much that she wears it the rest of the day.

After laundry we hit the grocery store for resupply. Between the leftover food I already have and my mail drop I do not need much, but others get full resupplies. After returning we pack it all up, preparing for our wilderness re-entry. Then we head to dinner – another AYCE buffet. I am not as hungry this time, eating only one plate and a small salad.

Tomorrow we return tithe trail. It should be about 5 days to the NOC, my next resupply point. The shuttle leaves at 9 to take us back to the Appalachian Trail!

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Categories: GA | 5 Comments

The climbing superiority

March 27

11.7 miles, 66 overall (Deep Gap shelter)
In the morning I am among the first to get up. I can hear others starting to stir, but I am the first out of my tent. I am packed before most have emerged. UV comes to get her food and together we struggle for several minutes to get the bear bag down. Because of the number and weight of the bags on the line the rope is so tight around the stick that we can’t untie it. We end up sawing the 2 sides of the stick right next to the rope so we can get the bags down. After they are down I still have to work for a few minutes on what is left of the stick in order to get the rope off of it.

I join UV and Ninja for breakfast a few yards down the trail where they camped. We sit on a rock with views across the valley below and eat as the sun rises. I take the extra time to make coffee this morning, knowing that I’ll still start hiking before anyone else is ready.

As I prepare to leave another hiker named Steve is leaving as well. We hike together a few times over the course of the day and I learn that he is an actor/performer. Recently he has been working at Disney. I turn out to be a faster hiker than he is and I don’t finish the day with him.

The day begins with a long downhill followed immediately by a long uphill. The up isn’t so bad as it is lined almost the entire way with rhododendrons and mountain laurel, which create a cooler microclimate on the trail. I cruise up the mountain at an incredible pace, feeling really strong this
morning. At the top I take the time to give Christy a phone call, thinking that with the pace I’ve set there shouldn’t be any hikers close behind me. I’m a little embarrassed when one does come through a few minutes into the call and I find myself hoping I didn’t ruin his summit.

Down the hill is a shelter so I stop to use the privy and to get a snack. I leave a note in the shelter register and add a note of encouragement for Bunny and Button. We have a long day planned and I hope they can make the miles. I am really surprised when I leave and I pass Button on her way to the shelter. She insists she has not been going that fast and that she will not make it all the way to the planned shelter.

The rest of the day I hike mostly alone. I catch up to UV and Ninja just before the last climb of the day where they have stopped to eat. I push on with them not far behind me. When I start the final climb of the day – 1000 ft in 1 mile – they are right behind me.

On ups I don’t stop. I set a pace that I know I can keep based on the grade of the climb and concentrate on breathing. It works extremely well for me, and my breath seems to be my limiting factor where others say that their muscles are their limiting factor. It seems my pre-hike conditioning has paid off. When I reach camp UV and Ninja are several minutes behind. We sit around enjoying the afternoon for an hour before we see two more hikers walking in. We are pleasantly surprised when it turns out to be Button and Bunny, both arriving only an hour after us. Mr Incredible and Elastigirl follow another hour later and some other hikers trickle in late to make for a cozy but not crowded night at the shelter.

Among the group I am becoming known as the strongest hiker, usually leaving first in the morning and setting the fastest pace, especially on ups. I know at this point that I can do bigger mileages if I hike longer into the day since I am usually stopping around 2:30 and don’t always feel done. Tomorrow we will nero into Hiawassee and take a break for a day. We will get clean, resupply, rest, and eat. After Hiawassee I will have to make decisions about staying with the group or pushing ahead. I plan to get everyone’s phone number on the way into town so I can contact them if necessary while in town but also so that if I push on after the town I can reach them in the future. Perhaps after one of my planned detours from the trail I can reconnect with some of them who will have caught up during my time off of the Appalachian Trail.

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Categories: GA | 8 Comments

The velocity reduction

March 26

11.1 miles, 54.3 overall (Campsite on Rocky Mountain)
Morning comes quickly. I sleep well through the night and am awake at 6:30 once again. I begin packing and try not to wake Naked Ninja who is in the tent next to mine. I am not the first out of my tent though – I see other headlamps on when I emerge. By the time I have most of my packing prep done Ultraviolet is up as well and fixing breakfast so I join her for mine. Pretty soon others are up and I think maybe they’ll be ready soon so I start some water for my coffee while I wait. By the time I am done and packed several hikers have left but none from my group. Naked Ninja and Ultraviolet are both almost ready but they are fast hikers and I want to take it slow today. I know bigger mileage days are coming soon and I want to rest. Also, I enjoyed hiking with JB the other day and want to get to know someone else. Bunny is almost ready and a slow hiker. She expressed some concern yesterday about an 11 mile day. She’s one of my favorites and I’d like to keep her around, so I ask if she minds if I hike with her for the day. Pretty soon we’re off at what has become for me a slow pace of 2 mph.

The terrain for the first several miles is flat today. I start with my knee strap on but it hurts again and I quickly take it off. It remains in my pocket all day. We chat leisurely about family, friends, biology, geography, hiking, and anything else that comes up while we’re walking. Pretty soon we’ve bagged several miles and we’re both feeling good. Button catches up to us when we take a water break and hikes with us off and on all day. Button is a woman from Britain with a dry sense of humor (of course) but a fun personality.

Several of us lunch at Blue Mountain shelter: me, Jersey, Bunny, Emily, Button, Red Fury, and High Life. When Bunny takes her pack off this time she also takes off her shirt and is able to see the sweat stain for which she was named. She treats a bad blister that has formed on her small toe while the rest of us lounge around a bit. After a while we pack up and move on.

The day ends with a long down followed by a long up. The down isn’t so bad and Bunny and I catch up to Button at the bottom. We read some signs posted about the trail while we down some water, preparing for the massive climb we know is ahead: 1000 ft over 1.4 miles. We start just ahead of a day-hiking family and wonder if the 3 year old will beat is up the mountain.

On the way up we need to fill up on water. Everyone has planned to dry-camp on the peak of this mountain tonight. Halfway up there is a wonderful stream so we stop and fill up, adding several pounds to each of our packs. Button finds a huge millipede and Bunny has to take a picture. I take off my hat and shirt and douse them in the cold water. When I put them back on I am only cold for a few moments before my body adjusts. As we are doing all of this the family catches up to us and I notice the daughter take a picture of us – we have become tourist attractions!

We finish the climb but not without a lot of jabber between Bunny and Button about how terrible I am at estimating the distance remaining. I argue that they simply heard me wrong, but it is 2 on 1 and I have no witnesses. Once we do reach the top we have a short walk before we notice High Life, Red Fury, and Naked Ninja sitting in a clearing to our left. They have found our campsite for the night. It is 3:30 but we are done for the day. We put our packs down and claim our spots for the night.

Others roll in over the next few hours, some in our group and some not. The clearing fills until it looks like a tiny tent city. Before dinner Ultraviolet leads me, Naked Ninja, and Bunny in another round of post-hike yoga. We eat dinner in a large circle and visit with some of the newcomers. We hang our bear bags from only a few lines to save everyone the effort of finding a tree and throwing their own lines. We socialize some more before bed and while talking I realize that I still have some gorp in a side pocket of my pack. In true thru-hiker fashion I bring it to the group and suggest we all eat some so we don’t have to re-hang the bag. It is finished in short order.

Right around sunset we all retreat to our tents. Our plan is to put in some good mileage again tomorrow, setting us up for a nero (a “near zero” mile day) the next day into Hiawassee. I do wonder what will happen from there. Bunny and Button are worried about doing bigger mileage days because their legs haven’t strengthened up enough yet. Naked Ninja and Ultraviolet could both do longer days if they wanted. Mr Incredible (the name stuck) and Elastigirl (Bea’s name which also stuck and logically follows from them being together) are hauling massive packs and probably couldn’t keep up if we started really moving. It seems the group may break up a bit after Hiawassee. I’m caught between my fondness for the group and the desire to press on. I know I need to hike my own hike, but at this point I don’t know what my hike should be. What I do know is I have a schedule I need to stay somewhat close to following, but that I also want the interpersonal experience that comes with the AT. For now those goals aren’t clashing. Perhaps they won’t. We’ll find out soon enough as I make my way up the Appalachian Trail.

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Jersey coming down the trail through a tunnel of rhododendron

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A beautiful stream where we filled our water!

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Button (left) and Bunny (right)

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Tent city!

Categories: GA | 4 Comments

The patellar enhancement

March 25

11.5 miles, 43.2 overall (Low Gap Shelter)
We are all in bed by 9 and spend some time talking before turning out the lights. I wake to the smell of breakfast cooking in the next room. I am one of the first to get out of bed and observe the readying of our feast. As I do, I realize that the “breakfast bonus” may just mean that we get breakfast, not that breakfast is especially grand. It is a tasty meal though of pancakes and sausages. Everyone eats quickly and it is less of a social affair than dinner was, however during breakfast another hiker gets a trail name. Due to his ability to creep up on Button without her hearing him and his tendency to hike shirtless, we dub him Naked Ninja.

We begin packing and making preparations for the day. I buy a bottled water both to supplement what is in my hydration pack and to get a new bottle to replace the one I’ve had since day 1. The plan among those in the hostel is to make it 11+ miles to Low Gap shelter. It would be a big mileage day for many of us. Although I have already pulled a 13 I am hesitant to push myself too hard. Others have maxed out around 8 to 10 and are nervous about upping the mileage. Still, it is already a tight knit group and everyone seems willing to give it a shot in order to stay together.

I hit the trail just before 9, hot on the trail of Ultraviolet. The climb out of the gap is tough. It is extremely windy and a bit cold this morning, and my legs feel sore and tired from the last 2 long days. On the way up I run into JB who is on his way back to Neel’s. He has decided to do the pack shakedown and I wish him luck.

My knee begins to hurt on the first climb. However it hurts on the opposite side of where it used to hurt when I originally injured it. I decide perhaps the support strap is the cause of my discomfort and I remove it. Soon after my knee feels fine. Although I mentally check periodically whether or not any pain has returned, I do not find a need for the strap for the rest of the day. It seems my hiking legs may be coming in a bit early.

The trail follows the ridgeline, offering views to either side through the trees. A few miles in I see a side trail and when I look over I see High Life and Red Fury enjoying a view. I decide I could stop for a minute so I go to join them and find Naked Ninja and Ultraviolet there as well. We grab some food and rest a bit before continuing on. Ultraviolet is he first to leave, followed by myself and Naked Ninja. He takes the lead down the mountain and with the pace he sets I wonder how I ever caught him. We leapfrog back and forth for the next several miles as he takes breaks and I pass him.

After the descent into Tessantee Gap I take a moment to look around before I hear hikers yelling at me. They are on the ascent out of the gap and I think they are just saying hi so I wave back. When they yell again I realize they are pointing to my left – trail magic! A case of Rolling Rocks is waiting for me. I stop to enjoy one while Naked Ninja observes. Then we begin the awful ascent and I find out how I was able to catch him. I am able to power ahead and get some separation. At the top I find Gumpy and Peeper enjoying the view with Ultraviolet. I hike with them for a while until I refill my water at Hogpen Gap.

From there the hiking is much easier. The trail follows the ridgeline a bit less, is well-graded, and less rocky. It reminds me of the portion of the trail in Shenandoah. I make great time here and arrive at the shelter before everyone else around 2:30. Ultraviolet and Naked Ninja are close behind. NN and I take advantage of our trailblazer status and tent near the shelter. Soon after the others from the hostel start to arrive. High life and Red Fury are first followed by Button. Then Emily, IBS (who the group has renamed Jersey), Brian and Bea, and finally Sam. When Brian and Bea arrive they inform us that Sam is now named Bunny. Apparently during the day she took her pack off and she had a sweat stain on her back that formed a perfect rabbit head and ears. We all agree that in addition to this fortuitous accident the name actually fits her and it sticks.

I eat 2 dinners tonight, one when I arrive in camp and one when everyone else eats theirs. Even though both fill me quickly, they also digest quickly. I assume the infamous thru-hiker appetite is soon to follow.

The evening is spent eating, doing yoga (some of us, led by Ultraviolet), and chatting. During the course of conversation we are making fun of Brian for holding down one side of a lopsided picnic table. He calls himself fat but a passerby says he looks muscular. The dichotomy reminds me of Mr Incredible so I suggest it as his trail name. It may stick, we’ll see tomorrow.

Tomorrow we plan another 11 mile day but the terrain looks incredibly flat. The only worry is whether there will be enough tent spots at the place we are targeting which is not a shelter location. We’ll see, it’s not the worst problem to have when you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail!

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Naked Ninja enjoying a snack

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A view from a summit

Categories: GA | 5 Comments

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