Day 36 – It’s Tough

We interrupt this regularly scheduled post to bring you an important announcement about upcoming weather on the AT:

Rain and more rain. RV’ers east of us are being evacuated right now as rain continues. We’ve been hiking in it three days and were glad when Wingman told us there were bunks still available at Greasy Creek Hostel. We cut our hike short a couple miles and took the side trail .6 miles to the hostel, and we are drying out quite nicely. Stud has his truck here, so he took us to a diner where we filled up on a good hot meal and came back to a fire in the wood stove and movies on roku in CeeCee’s main house. CeeCee even offered free glasses of Merlot. Great idea!

Tomorrow we plan to slack pack 12 miles and stay here again as the rain is predicted to be even harder and all day.

Slack packing is when you take only what you need for a day hike and a shuttle picks you up and brings you back to your stuff. At this hostel, they drop you twelve miles north and you hike southbound back. It’s much faster, and we are excited to have a chance to make miles in less time.

I can now say only 6 days of the 36 I’ve hiked have been the kind of weather someone at home thinking of hiking would actually say “Yes, let’s go for a hike!”

There were two nice days I was off trail to meet Melynn and to watch my niece, Charlotte (#17), play lacrosse at college not far from the trail. They are first in their conference and whooped the opposition. Great game! The other 28 days…. let’s just say if I invited you to hike any of those days you would have said “Heck No!”

Never the less, most thru hikers still come to camp happy they are hiking the AT and I am definitely in that group!

I just know the trees on top of the mountains will eventually leaf out with warm spring days. Right now the trees are not even pushing bud. One day soon I won’t believe it was cold for so long, but now the last freezing night was only five days ago when we awoke to 27 degrees, frozen water bottles and wind so cold and harsh I thought the left side of my face was heading for frostbite.

So, the rain is terribly unpleasant and it’s hard not to be too cold or too hot as you fend off rain in rain jackets and pants, while your inner core temperature shoots up with the effort of hiking mountains, but… it hasn’t been lower than 43 degrees or so since that last very cold night five days ago. The “warmer” temps give me hope we will soon be hiking in sunny days with spring all around us.

In the meantime, I hope Melynn isn’t too bummed out about the rain as it looks like we have a few more days of rain before the sun will come out and give us a day anyone would be glad to say “Yes, let’s go for a hike!” If anyone else wants to join me for a few fun days in the trail, check out my tracker on the mail drops page and let me know when to look for you!

Day 27 – The Hitch

Hitchhiking is normal for thru-hikers. Often you arrive just a few miles from town and you haven’t had a way or desire to set up a shuttle, because you don’t know exactly when you will arrive or you don’t want to spend the money. Since timing your arrival at a road crossing is very challenging, many hikers will hitchhike on into town.

There are places where it’s known to be in “easy hitch” which just means that the town is so used to thru-hikers needing a lift, that the people are willing to pull over. Other areas are more challenging for hitch hiking.

When we arrived at Newfound Gap, Mexican Mainer and I were planning to hitch to Cherokee. We had heard there was a transit service from Cherokee to Newfound Gap, but when I had cell service for moment I found out there was not. There were plenty of free shuttles to Gatlinburg in the opposite direction, but we didn’t want to go there. We wanted to go to Cherokee.

We popped up into the gap and found it was a major tourist parking area for day trails and some good views. It was so foggy that day we didn’t really have any views, but as I came over the road a man asked if I wanted coffee and donuts. His name is Ed and he was a trail angel with a car full of wonderful treats and hot beverages!

Our friend Boorah had already been trying to hitch a ride for a couple of minutes. Boorah put his thumb out again and the second Mexican Mainer waved at the same couple in a truck, they immediately stopped.

We convinced them Cherokee was the very next town in the direction they were going and they let us pile into the back of their truck. It was pretty cold, so we bundled up and huddled together for 20 mile drive into town.

It was such a wonderful feeling to catch a hitch so easily and know we would have no trouble going to the town to stay overnight. We needed to resupply and the weather has been really awful the last few days so it was exciting to know we were going to be -in a warm clean bedroom with real sheets and hot cocoa and coffee in the lobby anytime we wanted it. We saw leafless trees whizzing by, winter was still there, and suddenly Mexican Mainer started singing a song of thanks to the great spirit in both Spanish and English. It was beautiful and I managed to pull my cold fingers out of their gloves and press the record button.

When they stopped to let us out we learned they didn’t even realize we were hitchhiking at first. They stopped because they thought something was wrong as there were so many people gathered around that parking area! Once they realized we were thru hiking though, they didn’t mind giving us a lift and had been talking about other people they knew who did long hikes. We spent about 10 minutes visiting with them after, answering questions about hiking and then getting their advice on hotels and restaurants to have stayed at in Cherokee.

When it’s just a short distance, it’s worth asking for a hitch. When you need to be certain of your ride, like I do next Saturday when I going to meet Melynn who is flying in to join me for a few days, then it’s worth setting up a shuttle and waiting a couple hours if you arrive early. Setting up a shuttle is usually not that difficult, but I haven’t managed to set up Saturday’s yet. No worries – there are plenty of shuttle drivers in Erwin and I will be able to get one last minute if I need one.

Coming back from Cherokee took a little longer, but we had two great people stop and give us rides, which took us back and the Baptist Church from another town had just arrived with its shuttle and set up another trail magic spot. So, before we took off on the day’s hike we had more coffee and donuts and put some candy bars in our pockets along with an orange and went on our way.

Day 21 – Shelter in a Storm

Many of my fears came true over the last three nights. My worries of hard rain and wind, followed by freezing temps, while in the Smoky Mountains far from a road or help came true.

Friday started fairly warm and partly sunny as we left Fontana Dam at 1782′ elevation and headed into Smoky Mountain National Park with Millie’s Ridge Shelter as our destination 12 miles away. At 4582′ elevation, the weather can be much colder and by the time I arrived there at 4:00, the rain had begun again and the cold and wind were coming.

The Smokies have extra rules about camping: thru-hikers must give up space to registered section hikers at the shelter, yet they MUST stay in the shelter unless it is full. So, thru hikers go to the shelter and wait to see if section hikers come and kick them out. (Some section hikers don’t carry a tent because they know they have a guaranteed space at the shelter.) If kicked out, a thru hiker can pitch their tent nearby, but only at a shelter site. Most of the time it works fine, but when the majority of AT thru hikers start in March/April, it can be a problem.

As I arrived and looked into the shelter for Blue Jay, the RidgeRunner there, who assists hikers and enforces rules, told me the shelter was already reserved fully, however since bad weather was coming it might turn out some would not arrive and I might have a space. It wasn’t likely, as about seven thru hikers were ahead of me in line for a twelve person shelter. He did not want us to pitch a tent as the shelter wasn’t sure to be “full” yet.

The rain was coming steady and the last thing I wanted was to wait a few hours – without setting up a tent or eating – to find out if I was in or out of the shelter. A couple men were setting up tents anyway, but when another hiker told me Blue Jay had gone ahead 3.1 more miles to try for that shelter, I decided to hike on in the rain, too.

I made it to the Russell Field Shelter and there was space for me at the moment. Seven section hikers had reserved, but only two had shown up and it was just past 6:00. Thirteen total people were in a twelve person shelter and they were willing to squish together to make room if a couple more showed up. I was excited to be inside because the rain was pouring down hard minutes after I arrived. I cooked, steam-baked muffins for a few hikers, and was about to sit down and read trail notes at dusk when a couple hikers walked in the shelter drenched. They were quickly followed by another three. These were the five remaining reservations and it meant I was out in the rain and dark to pitch my tent. Did I mention the temp had dropped into the low forties by then?

Some of the other hikers asked if they were the section hikers and before I could digest I was about to be booted out, the top row of people split up and moved over to each side as tight as they could and asked if the five could fit in the space they created. They said sure and I was able to stay in and stay dry! It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to panic about going out in the downpour to put up my tent. The next morning one of the men said many of us had expressions of shock as they walked in and we realized how many of them were arriving so late. You can believe that was true!

The next day was nice enough, but I was tired from 19 straight days of hiking and only made it 9.4 miles to Derrick Knob Shelter. The next one was 5.6 miles farther and I couldn’t do it in daylight, plus the predicted freezing rain and snow with temps in the teens seemed to be about to come true. I asked the RidgeRunner there if I had a spot and she thought I might. Many thru hikers ahead of me for that shelter were going on as it was only 3:00. I was willing to pitch my tent, but she advised me to wait. The low temp expected was 18 degrees and the cold was already setting in.

I made an early dinner and checked around 5:00 with the RidgeRunner to see if I could put on dry socks and go to sleep. There were three more section hikers expected, and we were already seventeen in a twelve person shelter, but she said okay as we had made room for all of us and two had come after me. Those two would be first out. By 7:00 the rain was beginning to freeze and two of the three other section hikers arrived. The last two thru hikers moved down to the bench in front of our sleep area because one left his tent in the last shelter by accident. No way he was going outside, nor would we want him to go. Even the dirt floor between bunks and tarp wall would be better.

At 8:30, the last section hiker to arrive wondered where his friend was and worried aloud because the friend had no headlamp or tent and it was dark. There was ice forming everywhere, on the bear cables, tree branches, and ground. Another hiker who was experienced in winter hiking took his backpack, cook stove, and headlamp out into the storm to search for the friend of the other hiker. He found him half a mile away where he was struggling to see the trail with his phone flashlight and about to give up and put his sleeping bag by a log and try to wait it out. It was hard to believe he thought that a better option than to continue looking for the path, as he would not have likely lived through it since the rain would have soaked him in his bag before freezing.

We had twenty in the twelve person shelter and a little fire burned through the night. Again, I was just fine after all.

Here’s the thing that struck me the most: several people DID set up tents and weather out the storm with no problem, both storms even. I was so scared to be out there, but the hiker I’m sharing a hotel room with tonight was one who set up her tent for both. She is a slower hiker and didn’t even check the shelter the second night as she knew it would be full. Her trail name is Mexican Mainer (from Mexico and lives in Maine). She believes the trail will provide what we need, and so far it has. Today I spent with her and we are treating ourselves to a night in the hotel since it snowed again at Mt. Collins Shelter last night, too.

I find it very motivating to see her just keep going until we are wherever we need to be. Maybe I won’t worry quite so hard about being out in the cold, rain, snow – or all of those put together – now that I’ve seen it can be done by someone a lot like me. There are almost 2000 miles to go. I’m sure to have another chance to weather out a storm.

Day 16 – Food

Pretty much the only things we think about while hiking are: where is the water, where should we camp tonight, and food.

We are always thinking about food. One reason is we need to eat so much to hike like this every day. We’re not just hiking 11 to 15 miles a day; we’re hiking over mountains. We’ve hiked over 24 mountains so far and that doesn’t even include the peaks called knobs or tops – some of them are pretty darn close to as high as the mountains.

We need about 3000 to 5000 calories a day to keep our energy up. Whenever we are in a town we load up on big meals, but that’s only every 3-5 days. We keep protein bars, dried fruit, and high sugar high fat snacks easily accessible during the day, and generally cook breakfast and dinner in our backpacker stoves.

Food is heavy. We carry about 2 pounds per day. Today I picked up my mail drop, which had what I thought was 4-5 days food and I swear to goodness it weighed more than 10 pounds. It probably did. I started eating dried fruit and beef jerky while rearranging my pack to hold it all. Thankfully, Blue Jay received a new bear bag today which can hold some of my food too, because mine far overflowed the bear canister and stuff sack I usually use.

Everyone else felt the weight of their mail drops too. We all sat in the sun by the laundromat waiting our turn to do laundry while sitting and packing food. Finally I had all mine in my backpack, and could almost close the cover over it.

Then we hiked a mile uphill to our campsite. I fantasized about eating the heaviest items first all the way up that hill.

It’s good to be loaded down with food though, especially as we head into the Smoky Mountains tomorrow. It will be 41.9 miles before we cross a road and can hitch a ride to Gatlinburg or Cherokee for resupply. By then, my pack will be at least 6 pounds lighter.

If you are planning on sending us a little treat for the trail, don’t worry about weight. There are plenty of hungry hikers willing to help lighten our loads and we all love treats!