I lie awake the night of September 17th, 2012, thinking about the adventure that I was to begin the next morning….a 32 mile trek on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail. Covering the distance between the parking lot .9 miles short of the summit of Springer Mountain to Mountain Crossings at Neel’s Gap would take us four days if all went well. It was a hike that I’d been planning with my brother, Scott and my sister, Debbie, for months and now here we were….nestled in our warm (dry) beds at the Quality Inn, awaiting dawn’s arrival and the beginning of what would prove to be the most physically challenging four days of our lives.
Mr. Jack Bulleit arrived to pick us up right on time. We’d partaken of the hot breakfast served at the Quality Inn, doing our best to load up on the protein and carbs we knew a long-distance hike would require of us. We stood outside the hotel lobby, anxiously awaiting Mr. Bulleit’s arrival as we contemplated the task that we faced. The weather was not our friend that day, or at least not for most of the day, that is. It was cold and rainy, but we loaded our gear into the back of Mr. Bulleit’s truck and headed for the top of Springer Mountain via a forest service road that was well on its way to be washed out. It seemed the higher we went, the harder it rained and by the time we reached the parking lot, our kind transportation provider told us he was willing to sit up there with us for a while and “wait it out.” The offer was tempting, but we knew that we had miles to cover that weren’t going to walk themselves so we mustered up our spirits and jumped out of the truck, hoisted our packs onto our backs, and bade Mr. Bulleit a fond farewell, assuring him we would call as soon as we reached Neel’s Gap 4 days later. There was nothing left to do but put one foot in front of the other….our journey had begun.
It took approximately 5 minutes to soak us all the way through (and that was with rain gear, mind you). The trail was under water, standing almost ankle-deep in places. The higher elevation tossed a chill into the wind. Funny thing was…..I felt better than I had in months as we stood atop Springer Mountain, gazing at that small, bronze plaque that marks the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. I was finally living my dream….or a small portion of it anyway. I was hiking the A.T. Not even the inclement weather could dampen my spirit!
DAY 1: SPRINGER TO HAWK MOUNTAIN (8.1 miles from summit to Hawk Mtn + .9 miles from parking lot to summit of Springer)
I’ve already stated that we began our trek in the pouring rain. After spending a few minutes on the summit of Springer, we moved out towards our destination for the day, Hawk Mountain. Because my brother had never seen any of the area, we opted for a short detour to the Springer Mountain shelter so he could see what it was like. As we approached, we could make out several figures huddled inside the shelter. Trying to be courteous, we walked up quietly but did ask if the occupants minded if we took a break from the rain. We all struck up a conversation as we admired their “bear traps” they’d set up to alert them of any large “friends” that might have walked up on them while they were sleeping. We didn’t stay long, but I will say that these four young men became our trail companions for three days. It’s been a joke between my brother, sister and me that every single time these young men caught up with (and passed) us, we were eating. Having learned the hard way on a prior hike the importance of eating correctly, we had planned to stop for a hot lunch each day. Stover Creek Shelter (approx.2.8 miles from Springer) was our chosen lunch break for that day. There was a water source down the mountain (behind the shelter) and a privy. I believe this is a fairly new shelter and is in very good shape. We stopped for roughly an hour before packing up again and heading out. I have to say that on a scale of difficulty from 1 to 10, our first day on the trail rated about a 5….maybe a 6 since we live in Florida and have no way to prepare for the rocks and elevation changes….but looking back on it, we all agree that day 1 was relatively easy. We pulled into the Hawk Mountain shelter area around 6pm, bidding a warm hello to our 4 young companions we’d met that morning. We wanted to tent camp so we’d told them to take the shelter. Honestly, I’m not much for the idea of bugs and such running all over me while I sleep and the thought of having “walls” (so to speak) around me, gave me comfort. Up to that point, I’d spent a total of 2 nights in the woods. For those of you who have never spent a night in the woods, it’s nerve-wracking…..there are MANY things that go “BUMP” in the night….suffice it to say we got no sleep that night. We set up camp at one of the tent sites, had no luck getting a fire started…and had one heck of a walk to the water source…..but we did it. I laid in my tent that night, listening to the winds come through the tree tops as it blew in a cold front across the mountain. The night seemed to take forever to pass as we all lay there, listening to the nuts falling from the trees and waiting for heavy footsteps we were certain would come. Dawn finally broke, and after some coffee and breakfast, we packed up our gear and set out once again for Day 2 of our adventure.
Stover Creek Shelter
Campsite on Hawk Mountain, Sunrise over Hawk Mountain Shelter
DAY 2: HAWK MOUNTAIN TO JUSTIS CREEK (6.2 MILES OF BUTT-BUSTING CLIMBING)
When we set off, we had two possible destinations in mind: Justis Creek or the Gooch Mountain Shelter area. Still riding high off of our achievements of the day before, we were certain we’d have no problem at all making it to Gooch. Well…we were wrong. Very wrong. I’m not certain of the name of the first mountain that presented itself to kick our butts, but I believe it was Conner Mountain. The best we could do was take a few steps and then stop for a short break. We did this for hours. This was truly a day of climbing. It took its toll on us. My knees were killing me. Scott was wiped out. My sister was literally sick from the exertion of it all. So, when we finally reached the top of Justis Mountain, we knew we were stopping for the day. There is a campsite at Justis Creek….a very remote, lonely, deep-in-the-woods campsite. We were the only ones there, but it was amazingly beautiful and we were ready to stop for the night. While Scott and Debbie set up the tents, I trudged all the way back down to Justis Creek with our bladders to get water for our dinner and breakfast the next morning. As I squatted by the creek, filtering away, I looked up and it hit me how isolated we were. It instantly gave me the creeps but I worked through my fear of being watched by some giant beast who was licking his lips and waiting for just the right moment to eat me for dinner…..I filled the bladders and climbed back to camp. In retrospect, it seems that all the water sources were a hefty walk (after a long day of climbing anyway) from the camps. Because of the rain, we were once again unable to get a fire started so we ate our dinner….we use an MSR Pocket Rocket stove….and waited for darkness to fall. Just as dusk was taking over, we wearily climbed into our tents and settled in for another long night. The (not-so-silent) silence of the night was broken around 10pm by a thunderous crash and snapping of branches that came from the hillside directly behind our tents. I believe that I stopped breathing as I felt a fear come over me that I’d never known. I didn’t have to see what was out there to know what it was…..our camp was being visited by a black bear. None of us spoke….I can honestly say that I cannot remember being as scared as I was in those moments ever before in my life. I listened to our visitor make its way around the brush behind us and then it must have gotten bored and ambled off. The next morning, we were sitting there with our coffee when my brother said “Did you hear our visitor last night?” All of the pent-up adrenaline came rushing back as we talked about how each of us was feeling, knowing that something so big and potentially dangerous was so close. Needless to say, we kept a very alert watch of the area as we packed up camp once again. After having the crud beat out of us by the mountains the day before, we began Day 3 very slowly, knowing that our next stop was Lance Creek, 10 miles from where we stood that morning. There were doubts that we would make it after the day we’d just had but we set off with determination. One thing about us Keith’s: we aren’t quitters.
Justis Creek Campsite
Our bear bag at Justis Creek
DAY 3: JUSTIS CREEK TO LANCE CREEK (10 Miles)
I suppose the “hiking gods” were shining on us this day because we kicked butt and took names as we tore across various ups and downs. By this time, we had come up with a nickname for the look we all would get as we hiked down the “easy” part of the terrain into the gaps. We called it “Gap Emergence Face” because we quickly learned that what goes down must go up. And go up it did! We were blessed with a few amazing viewpoints as we made our way across the mountains….and it was those places that made all the hard work so worth it. A little more than halfway, we crossed a road into Woody Gap. There’s a trash dump spot there as well as a privy with actual walls surrounding it. I pointed out that if we wanted to end our adventure, we had to do so at that point or there was no turning back. It didn’t take long for Scott to say “I’d like to try to make it.” My sister answered, “Let’s do it!” So off we went…tired, beat up, but ready to do what we came to do. Leaving Woody Gap, we still had about 3.8 miles to go before we would arrive at Lance Creek. Thank goodness the terrain eased up on us a bit and we finally made it to Lance Creek around 6pm….we’d covered 10 miles in about 8 hours, including an hour stop for lunch. Yeah…we were proud of ourselves for that one! Lance Creek is in the process of undergoing a shore restoration project so much of the area was roped off but we chose a tent pad not far from the A.T. and set up camp. The creek was running, but it was easy to imagine that it would be dry if it hadn’t been for the rains from a couple days prior. Once again, our attempts to start a fire were unsuccessful so we ate and prepared to retire for the night when dusk fell. I don’t think we’d been in our tents 5 minutes when a gosh-awful scream echoed through the woods….obviously some animals in a fight. I think my words were “any ideas on what that was?” None of us knew but also, none of us were going to get out of the tent to see. By the 3rd night, I was completely exhausted and prayed that sleep would come, camp visitors or not. I think I dozed in and out until maybe 5am when I heard my sister say “Stay where you are.” Yep….there was a visitor outside. This time, however, I think exhaustion beat out my fear…I rolled over and tried to just sleep. We followed what had become our morning routine once dawn came, and then headed out for Neel’s Gap….knowing we still had Blood Mountain ahead of us. I’ve climbed Blood Mountain before….I knew it was going to be a formidable opponent.
Our view from Woody Gap
Our tent pad at Lance Creek
Our Lance Creek home for the night
DAY 4: LANCE CREEK TO NEEL’S GAP ( 7.4 Miles)
We set off on the trail that day with thoughts of getting our hands on an ice-cold diet coke once we reached Mountain Crossings. We also started our day with a climb out of the gap….so our Gap Emergence Face came on early that day. It proved to be another day of butt-busting climbs but we finally reached the base of Blood Mountain. Now, Blood Mountain is a popular tourist spot, so we encountered a couple of families with small children. At one point, I overheard one of the kids asking their dad how we had walked so far. I felt myself swell with pride…yes, I had just about hiked 32 miles carrying between 35 to 45 pounds on my back. Yes, I had just spent 3 (very long) nights in the woods. Yes, all my planning had paid off and we had everything we needed to complete our adventure (and then some). Yes…I was just about to complete a portion of my dream of hiking the A.T. Yes…we still had to climb Blood Mountain and then traverse the rocky descent before our day was over. We were beat. We were tired…our bodies ached…my knees and feet hurt….but as we sat atop Blood Mountain later that day, looking out across the mountains….I had never felt better….my spirit was truly free! Let it be known that the descent of Blood Mountain is treacherous and one must use extreme caution to prevent serious injury. That being said, when we crossed the road and walked into Mountain Crossings….which is the only place the A.T. actually passes through a man-made structure….I felt like I’d truly accomplished something. I’d done it! We’d done it! We were now experienced hikers who lived to tell about the journey!
Our view from the summit of Blood Mountain
Still smiling atop Blood Mountain (Day 4)
We did it! Neel's Gap at last!
I reached the end of this adventure...but not the journey!
2.5 MONTHS LATER: BACK IN TAMPA, FL
All I can say is that I will always be grateful for the time I got to spend with my brother and sister, proving to ourselves just what we were capable of doing when we put our minds to it. To many, our accomplishment might not seem like much and it pales in comparison to those who have walked the entire 2200 miles of the A.T., but it’s a start….and I can only hope to continue what I’ve started in the near future. To quote John Muir: “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
While this was not taken on our hike, I think it's a fine example of our "Gap Emergence Face"