Monday, January 1, 2018

FINISHING WHAT I STARTED...DAY 4: DOUBLE COLD SPRINGS SHELTER TO CLINGMAN'S DOME





It's hard to believe it's been six months since we completed our last section hike; and even harder for me to believe that it's taken every bit of that six months to finish writing about it.  I can't put my finger on just why, other than to say that the fact that the trail was unkind to me caused me to question whether or not I would return.  But, as 2018 came rolling in last night, I realized that I need a change of scenery; that I need to get back out in the woods and finish what I started.  I've never considered myself a quitter when it comes to hiking the Appalachian Trail, so it's time for me to let go of the hard times I had on this last hike and turn my sights to the next one...

For the first time in two days, the clouds parted, revealing the warmth of the sun to a shelter full of water-logged hikers...




Having made the decision the night before to end our hike a day early, our spirits were a bit lighter than they had been over the past couple of days.  I have to say that a part of me did feel like I was quitting, something I had never done on previous hikes, but I had to listen to my body as it told me, "It's time to go."  Thrilled to put on our one set of dry clothes, we packed our soaked gear into our muddy packs, put on our last pair of dry socks, then slipped into our wet boots.  The end was in sight, so the damp shoes didn't seem so bad.

While the trail had been unkind, the people we met along the way made up for it tenfold...

Marissa, Donelle, Debbie, Me, Goose, and Scott (rear)

This was our first experience sleeping in the shelters, so we really didn't know what to expect, but the time spent each afternoon with our fellow hikers is what made this trip so special.  I can only hope to be so lucky in terms of shelter-mates when I return to hike the second half of the Smoky Mountains.

I think what was most notable about this last day was the beauty of the terrain.  Double Cold Springs Shelter sits at roughly 5500 feet elevation, so we noticed a change in the foliage as we neared the shelter the night before.  But what met us on this last day was nothing short of breathtaking.  The almost sub-tropical undergrowth gave way to almost prehistoric-looking pines, filling the air with the smell of Christmas trees.  I was in heaven!  That being said, the trail still gifted us with more than our fair share of mud...








And, just like the three days before, the trail seemed to delight in going up...and not just in small sections...no, each step seemed to be at least a 20-inch step, forcing our already-tired leg muscles to carry us, and our packs, forward.  I think my comment was, "I am SO tired of going up!" 

We'd been told that views from Clingman's were rare, so we were thrilled when we neared the summit and the sky became clearer.  It was pretty cool to be able to put my right foot in North Carolina and my left foot in Tennessee.  I think it was my brother who made the comment that being privy to such amazing views is what made all that we'd been through worth it...





 I will never forget the joy I felt when we reached this point on the A.T.  My brother looked at us, as we contemplated whether or not to complete that .3 miles to the tower, and said, "Come on, let's do it!  We've come this far."  He was right.  We'd come that far!


 We passed numerous tourists as we traversed that final .3 miles.  They were all clean and fresh...full and happy.  Some were headed south on the trail, and hopefully headed our warnings concerning the treacherous conditions on the trail.  Knowing what we'd come through, seeing the mix of sneakers and sandals made it obvious to us that they were not prepared.  Sometimes, all you can do is try...

There really are no words to express how thrilled we were when the tower at Clingman's Dome finally came into view.  Of course, we had to take our exhausted selves up to the top...cause we'd come this far.  It was absolutely freezing up there, but worth the steps!




 Reaching the top of that tower empowered us with such a feeling of accomplishment!  Scott and I gave each other a "high five" and I think I might have even shed a couple of tears, because I'd truly given everything I had in me to reach that point...to be standing atop the tower at Clingman's Dome.  After a couple of photos and a minute or two to reflect, we slowly made our way down towards the parking lot.  Since we had a bit of time to wait, we sat in the sun, removed our wet socks and shoes, and just absorbed the warmth of the pavement under our feet.  We were completely exhausted, but proud of ourselves.  But, as we left Clingman's behind us, I truly felt that I would not be back.  And that feeling has come and gone in the days since...


...but as I sat there last night, watching the ball drop as 2018 came rolling in, I felt that old, familiar longing in my heart...the A.T. was calling to me...and today, I can't wait to get back out there!

Happy New Year, everyone!  And, Happy Hiking!!!!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

DAY 3: DERRICK KNOB SHELTER TO DOUBLE COLD SPRING SHELTER

We woke on the morning of Day 3, hoping and praying that the sun would be shining.  But, the Smoky Mountains had other plans.  Still, there's a certain beauty in the fog and rain...

Because of my new-found resistance to anything sweet, we opted to make a bag of instant mashed potatoes for breakfast.  Ordinarily, that wouldn't sound good to me, but I was so hungry that I managed to take down an entire bag by myself!  Bellies full, we turned to the daily task at had: packing up all our gear and, like the morning before, changing back into our wet, smelly clothes from the day before.  It's absolutely essential that you keep a dry set of come kind of clothes to change into once you reach camp because when you're up at the higher elevations (once we made the climb out of Fontana Dam, we stayed well above 4,000 feet for the remainder of the hike), the air is thinner and cool.  So, off came the nice, dry clothes and on went the soggy ones...worse than putting on a wet bathing suit...but once they're on, you adjust pretty quickly.  This time, we put on our rain ponchos because we knew that, already being wet, we would most likely chill easily. 



Trying to maintain my sense of humor...

It didn't take long for the rain to start again, turning an already soaked trail into a treacherous, 18-inch wide mud puddle. The wind whipped around us, forcing us to put up our hoods.  Other times, I had to put the hood down because it interfered with my peripheral vision, something that could be dangerous.  We stopped in one shelter for a much-needed respite from the rain, and met up with a father and son team from a Scout group that was completing a training hike.  He said they'd opted to stay at that shelter rather than continue to Double Cold Springs because they were simply miserable.  Couldn't really argue with that logic, but our shelter reservations said we had to move on.  So, we loaded up and got ready to head out.  Just as we went to step out of the shelter, this group of younger people asked if anyone had a cell phone they could use to call for a pick-up at Clingman's Dome.  Apparently theirs was dead.  (Insert the sound of chirping crickets as we stood there, looking at them, trying to decide it we really wanted to unpack our bags just to get a phone.  Needless to say, we believe that you can't go wrong helping people out (especially common on the trail), so we dug my sister's phone out and let them use it.  Signal was spotty, so we soon had to move on, but told them if we saw them at the next shelter, they could try again.  And off we went...back out into the driving rain...






Because of my ankle, I was always a fair distance behind my sister and brother.  Sometimes it was almost more than I could stand, but I had no choice but to drive on.  At one point, the trail narrowed to go between some large boulders.  With my feet submerged in water and mud, I somehow managed to get my feet tangled in something, and I felt myself falling to the left, almost as if in slow motion.  I didn't have a lot of momentum really, but I knew I was going to hit the rock to my left with my left hip.  Once I stopped falling sideways, I began to slide down backwards until I found myself wedged between the rocks.  To ad insult to injury, my feet went out from under me and I landed on my butt, right in a puddle of water and mud.  I remember thinking to myself, "Could this really get any worse?"  I yelled for my sister and brother to help me, but by the time they realized I'd fallen, I managed to roll around in the mud and get to my knees, and then back up on my feet.  Other than a bruise on my hip, I wasn't hurt, so I was grateful for that.  I sucked up my hurt ego and moved on.

We arrived at the Double Cold Springs Shelter in the pouring rain.  I don't think I've ever been as glad to see one of those crusty old building in my life...






We proceeded with our typical camp routine...we got the water we'd need for that night and following morning and secured our spot in the shelter.  I had my pack cover on my pack, but thanks to my water-front seat in the mud, the bottom of my pack was filled with water.  Thank goodness I always put my clothes and stuff in waterproof bags inside my pack.  The very end of my sleeping bag somehow managed to get wet, but I spread it out and hoped it would dry before nightfall.  With the shelter full, there was no space to hang any wet clothes or gear, so we took the paracord that came with the bear bag and strung it up all across the shelter, making plenty of room for all of our fellow soaked hikers to hang their stuff.



As wet, cold, tired and hungry as we all were, I have to say that this night spent at Double Cold Springs Shelter was, by far, my favorite.  We'd been shelter-hoping with a lovely young lady named Marissa and a wonderful lady by the name of Donelle.  It was here that we had the pleasure of meeting Goose, a man that I can truthfully say completely rocked the male hiking kilt!  I remember him sitting at the table, quietly making his dinner as someone mentioned how great it would be to get a fire going in the fireplace.  He casually looked at us and said, "If you can get a fire going tonight, I'll name my firstborn son after you."  Goose's spot in the shelter was next to mine, so many more laughs were shared by all of us as we lay in our sleeping bags, trying to get warm.

The weather gods must have decided we had all had enough, because the rain suddenly stopped, giving us a much-needed, well-deserved break.  For the first time since we'd started our hike, the shelter area blessed us with a privy, set off the side of the structure, maybe 200 feet or so.  I grabbed my supplies and headed down the muddy trail.  Trying to keep my camp shoes as clean as possible (which was a lost cause, by the way), I wasn't paying attention to what was in front of me.  Next thing I know, I look up and there's a huge doe walking right down the trail towards me.  Now, I'm not afraid of deer, but just the fact that a large animal suddenly appeared in front of me startled me...




...and suddenly, I was given my trail name...by another hiker...just like I'd read about.  She said my trail name should be Headlight because of that "deer-in-the-headlight" look I had on my face.  Headlight...I would never have come up with that, but I like it.  I will be officially known on the A.T. as Headlight from that moment on.

I didn't get many pictures that day.  The rain and the poncho kind of made it impossible.  But I remember it well.  We made a group decision that night to call our shuttle and beg her to pick us up the next day at Clingman's Dome.  I felt like I was quitting in some ways...we had one more night left before our scheduled pick-up at Newfound Gap...but I knew it was time.  Between not being able to eat, the pain of my ankle, and just being demoralized by being soaked for two days straight...it was time to call it.  But our last night of this section hike was spent with a shelter full of amazing people...people who came in as strangers and left as friends.




Saturday, July 15, 2017

DAYS 2: RUSSEL FIELD SHELTER TO DERRICK KNOB SHELTER


After a restless night and little sleep, morning greeted us with fog, left over from rain during the night.  It was about 6:30am, the time that most hikers seem to start to stir.  I was filled with relief, knowing that I'd made it through my first night ever sleeping in a shelter with other hikers...and, truth is, it wasn't that bad after all!  I'm not sure, but I think the nighttime temps had dipped into the mid-50's so there was definitely a chill in the air (especially for us Floridians).   Climbing down from my spot on the upper platform, I stretched my aching muscles and wondered what the day ahead of us held in store.  We were excited because it was going to be much shorter than the day before, coming in at just under 10 miles. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal, and I should have figured it was going to be a rough day for me when me sudden distaste for all things sweet wouldn't allow me to eat very much of my breakfast.  I knew I need the calories for energy, but every time I tried to swallow a bite, I gagged.  I choked down what I could, then set about the task of packing up my gear.  The age-old saying that nothing ever fits back in the box once you take it out certainly holds true when it comes to re-packing my backpack.  For some reason, I always have trouble with it.  Still, I finally managed to get it done and before we knew it, we were ready to head out.  Derrick Knob Shelter was our destination that day.






I'm not sure how long we'd been walking, but we stopped to catch our breath after a particularly long, taxing climb.  Out of breath, we didn't speak.  After a couple of minutes, we were ready to start out again, so we turned and took a step.  Suddenly, we realized that we were not alone!  Off to our right came the deepest growls I've ever heard!  Startled, my brother, who was in the lead position, began to bang his trekking poles together as he yelled, "Go on bear!  Get out of here!"  The bear, as startled as we were, continued to send us those deep warning growls as he ran down the slope of the mountain.  Ironically, just that morning my brother has said the he wouldn't mind seeing a bear, but only from a distance.  Ask and you shall receive!  He got to see the bear's butt as it ran away from us.  While we're certain that we heard other bears over the trek, this was the only one we actually caught sight of!

As we approached Rocky Top, after a climb that seemed to go on forever, the terrain opened up to beautiful flowers and grasses:








Once we reached Rocky Top, the weather changed quickly, the clouds rolling in across the mountains and chilling our sweaty bodies to the core.  There's a certain beauty in the power of the mountains...they "make their own weather," as our shuttle driver had told us.  One very valuable lesson we learned was that in the Smoky Mountains, you need to be prepared for any kind of weather!




Still trying to keep a smile on my face

I'm not sure what exactly was going on, but my boot seemed to hit the top of my left ankle with every step I took.   Uphill wasn't as bad as going down, and there was no blister, but the pain was often almost enough to stop me in my tracks.  Looking back, all I can figure is that having my left foot on the inside of the trail and often close to the mountain itself must have caused me to pronate my foot inward, thus pounding the boot against my ankle.  Nothing I did relieved it so all I could do was drive on.  The thing is...once you're in the Smoky Mountains, there aren't all the forest service roads we'd come across on prior hikes, so there's nowhere along the way to stop, call, and get picked up.  I certainly wasn't going to call the Back-country office and have them come get me so I just kept on walking...sometimes moving at a pace slower than anything I'd even call a walk.  What else was there to do?
The calm before the storm...



We tried to eat something as we took a much-needed break up on Rocky Top, but all I was able to get down was not even half of my Big Sur bar.  Before long, the wind picked up and we decided to move on.  We barely got started down Rocky Top before the rain hit.  And it hit hard, complete with thunder and all the fixings!  Instantly soaked through to the bone, we opted to push on without undoing everything to get our rain gear.  We were already soaked...it wouldn't have made one bit of difference.  Crossing Thunderhead Mountain, the trail was instantly transformed into a rapidly-running river, making traversing the descent treacherous at best.  I'm still not sure how I managed to get down that mountain without serious injury.  I'm not stable on rocks and frequently slip in mud, but somehow, I managed to stay on my water-logged feet.

I honestly didn't think it was possible for the trail to be any harder on me than it had been the day before...on all of us, really...but that 9 miles was far worse than the 13.5 we'd logged in the day before.  By this time, I'd hiked two long, difficult days on very little food, in constant pain, and was almost beyond what I'd call exhausted...but I couldn't quit.  I wouldn't quit.

I think I almost cried when the Derrick Knob Shelter came into sight at last...


Several other hikers had beaten us to the shelter, so there was very little room to hang any wet clothes but we were just so glad to finally be in out of the rain, that we didn't care.  We claimed our spot in the shelter (on the lower level this time) and then changed out of our cold, wet clothes.  A cup of coffee, some dinner, and a shelter full of other amazing hikers helped to make us feel better.  Thankful that I was able to keep my dinner down, I was more than ready to climb into the warmth of my sleeping bag at what couldn't have been much later than 7:30.  Using my rain poncho as a cover to protect my head from bugs, and whatever else might crawl around inside the shelter at night, I remember being amazed at just how comfortable my little 25"-wide blow-up sleeping pad was.  For the first time since early that morning, I was finally warm and it didn't take long for sleep to overcome my exhausted body and spirit.  I didn't have time to contemplate what lay ahead of us the next day.  I had no idea when we'd set out the day before just how deep down within myself I'd have to dig just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

DAY 1 IN THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS: FONTANA TO RUSSEL FIELD'S SHELTER

     Today is July 8th, and I've been home from my Appalachian Trail section hike for a month but still haven't really been able to put the experience into words.  Like one young lady I met along the way put it, I didn't really go out on the A.T. to discover the meaning of life or anything....but I did learn a few things about myself. 
     I can't really put my finger on why I felt different going into this hike.  For two years, we'd been talking about heading into the Smoky Mountains...


 ...but as we sat in our room at the Hike Inn, Fontana Village on the night on 6/2/17





 I found that my stomach was tied in knots and my mind was filled with doubts:  What would it be like to sleep in the shelters with 9 other hikers?  Would we encounter any black bears along the way?  What would that first climb out of the Fontana Dam area be like?  The night passed quickly, and before long we found ourselves loading up our gear into the back of our shuttle driver's SUV.  As we traveled the short distance to the trail-head, she gave us the customary "critter talk."  That mile across the dam itself only served to add to those butterflies in my stomach. 

And suddenly, we were there:


Renee waited patiently as we situated our packs and said our farewells.  There was nothing left to do but put one foot in front of the other and begin our 40-mile trek that would take us from Fontana Dam to Newfound Gap, NC.  Day 1 loomed largely ahead of us, packing in almost 14 miles to the Russel Field Shelter.  Within the first 5 minutes, I was huffing and puffing as we began our ascent to the Shuckstack Fire Tower.  It didn't take me long to figure out that I the Smoky Mountains are no joke and that I was extremely ill-prepared physically for what lie ahead of me.  Still, I did my best to keep a good attitude despite the way my body kept reminding me that I was a little bit short of being crazy to think I was ready to take on this hike. 

Stopped for a break!



Because the mountain wasted no time with kicking my butt, I didn't get very many pictures on the first day of our hike, but the woods did open up a couple of times to provide us with some amazing views:


Still managing to smile!
 I did take the side trail to the Shuckstack Fire Tower, but chickened out once I got up to it!  There was only one side-rail and I just couldn't make myself do it!  I did, however, take a few shots of the beautiful flowers along the way!



Taking time to enjoy the little things!


The trail went on.  The trail went up.  The trail was relentless, kicking butt and taking no prisoners!  Thinking back on it now, I don't think I've ever felt the multitude of physical, mental, and emotional feelings that I experienced on that first day.  I'm not sure what came over me, but I found myself suddenly unable to eat the Big Sur bars we'd planned for our lunch.  The snacks (meant for quick energy) also made me gag after a bite or so.  So, I pretty much was unable to eat anything other than breakfast and dinner each day.  Exhausted from the lack of calories, I didn't think it could get much worse...but I was wrong.  I'm not sure how far away from the Russel Field Shelter we were, but I had to stop suddenly because I felt like I was going to throw up (although I'm not sure what would have come up as my stomach was empty).  This continued on for the rest of the hike actually...

Before we started the day, we were certain that we would be the last hikers to arrive at the shelter.  Turns out, however, that we were the first! 

Russel Field Shelter
We claimed our spots, and I had to sit down.  Typically, I volunteer to go get the water for the night, but this time, I simply couldn't.  I had nothing left in me.  My brother and sister graciously offered to go fill everything up, and while they were gone, I had to visit the "toilet area" (there was no privy), where I finally did throw up the contents of my empty stomach.  By the time they returned, I felt a little better.  We did our best to relax and enjoy a cup of instant coffee before making dinner.  The ever-famous "hiker midnight" came around 7:30, as well all (and I do mean all 12 of us) slowly began to climb into our sleeping bags.  We drifted in and out of sleep, making sure to get up to pee one last time before darkness finally set in.  I have to say that everything I've ever read about the snoring in the shelters is absolutely true, but I didn't mind.  The noise brought some much-needed comfort from the thought of hearing the black bears raiding our camp.  As I lay there in the dark, those voices in my head were saying, "Great job today, Domingo!  You made it through Day 1!"  I drifted off to a restless sleep, wondering what Day 2 would hold....