Sunday, November 22, 2015

THE ART OF BEING GRATEFUL....



Whenever the holiday season rolls around, I often find myself filled with an overload of nostalgia.  I think of all the years gone by....those Christmases when I was little, filled with elaborate "Christmas Plans" designed to catch Santa in action as well as the customary trip to my grandparent's house in West Virginia...a trip that often took days to travel from whatever duty station we were at.  I think of how excited we were and how we didn't sleep at all on Christmas Eve.  My thoughts also venture back to those holidays when my own three children were little and I wonder if they felt that same excitement...if I made Christmas as special for them as my parents did for me?  I can only hope so.  Now there are some grandchildren in the family and the holiday story continues.

I also find myself dwelling on those things that I'm most grateful for.  At the top of that list is my family, of course.  I can't help but realize just how blessed we are:  no major illnesses to deal with, everyone has a job that provides a roof over their heads and food on the table.  While some of us aren't rolling in money, we have all that we need and I think that's more than good enough.  This will be our second holiday season without Mom and she is surely missed.  But we gather together and share the special times, just as we all know she would want us to do.  We truly are a family blessed and for that, I am grateful.

It wouldn't be a post from me if I didn't mention my A.T. hiking in some way, so here it goes.  Since I started section hiking back in 2012, each trip has come to mean more and more to me.  Life gets loud and crazy sometimes and hitting the trail is my refuge from all that noise.  Being out there where the only thing I have to think about is waking up with the sun, trekking through the woods to my next destination, and climbing into that tent as the sun goes down is a welcomed retreat from "reality," if you will.  It is also a time when I challenge myself and find out just what I can do.  I typically doubt my abilities on a day to day basis so each time I complete a section hike, I feel as if I've truly accomplished something.  Not much else that I do gives me that same feeling.  My love of the A.T. has introduced me to some amazing people both online and face-to-face.  I love to talk to fellow hikers about their trips!  I learn a lot from these determined people and hope that every now and then, they learn something from me.  Most of all, my time on the trail is usually spent with my siblings and that makes the time priceless.







Accomplished my goal!  Time to set a new one!

As the years since we started our section hikes have passed, things have started to change.  New interests have developed.  Jobs have become more demanding.  Life has gotten busier.  Time to hike together has gotten harder and harder to come by.  Nothing out of the ordinary really.  That's how life is for most of us.  I've had to accept that not everyone shares my love and excitement for doing these section hikes.  That's okay too.  We're all individuals with different demands and obligations of us that we must meet.  My point is that all of this makes me extremely grateful for the times we've been lucky enough to share. 

I've share this quote often, but I think it bears repeating at this particular place in this post:

                                        "The A.T. changes you and it fixes you...."

It certainly does those things for me and the memories I've made there will stay with me forever.  I consider myself lucky to be able to get out there whenever I can and do the things I do.

So, as this holiday season begins, I think it's the perfect time for each of us take a look around us and take stock of our many blessings...of all the things we are grateful for.  Being grateful is an art and it can definitely take some work because a lot of times, life just seems to be knocking us down but it can be done.  I know because it's something I try to make myself do often.  I make myself take time to notice the little things I have in my life...and sometimes those "little things" add up to be pretty big!  May you all have a happy and blessed holiday season!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING! 
 (photo taken atop Blood Mountain, 2011)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

ALMOST AT THE END OF OUR JOURNEY....


DAY 5: BROWN FORK GAP SHELTER TO CABLE GAP SHELTER - 6.1 MILES

We took our time breaking down camp on that 5th morning, knowing that our day ahead was relatively short...only 6.1 miles.  We planned it that way so that we'd arrive at Cable Gap Shelter area fairly early in the afternoon, giving us time to simply relax before making the final push to Fontana Dam the next day...the end of our journey.  Our trek on this day would mostly be downhill, something that is so much harder for me than going up can be.  Yeah...I know...that doesn't make sense...unless you do it day after day.  Then it becomes crystal clear.  Traversing an extended downhill section plays havoc on the knees and feet, as well as all your large leg muscles.  Taking "baby steps" hour after hour gets old quick!  But onward we went...northbound.






We were blessed with some pretty amazing views...




And, in my opinion anyway, cursed with more (and more and more) nasty rocks that were the trail...





Not only were we crossing huge rocks, there was a tree blown down across the trail with no way around it.  We had no choice but to go through it.  It wasn't easy.  Me, in all my grace, had to pretty much straddle it sideways to go over, catching my pack in the branches and over-stretching an already tender groin muscle.  Just as I brought my left leg over and attempted to stand upright, our beloved bottle of Advil slipped from the pocket of my pack and fell down between some rocks. (Insert the dead quiet with crickets chirping as we both stood, looking down at it.  I knew we couldn't leave it so I began the longest, deepest squat I've ever done in my life and snatched it with my fingertips.  Success was ours!  I don't know how, but I managed to save the Advil...we leave no one behind! 





About 3 miles into our day, we reached Cody Gap and stopped for a short break...





There's a camping spot or two at the Gap and a water source which we didn't take time to find but if one really had to, you could stop here for the night.  What we seem to find at these gaps is a sense of almost eeriness...something that would only be multiplied by darkness once it fell.  We don't typically get much sleep during our nights in the woods but that would be a given if we pitched our tent in one of these gaps.  Not really my style but always good to know about in the event that you truly needed to stop for whatever reason.

We continued on down the trail and I couldn't help but notice how beautiful the woods were.  I love the smell of the trees and such.  It just feels like you're breathing in clean, fresh air. 









If memory serves, we arrived at the Cable Gap Shelter area around 3:30 or so...


Everyone needs to take notice of this sign!





We chose to head downhill from the shelter to what appeared to be the perfect camping spot.  The water source was right there and the privy and shelter weren't too far away.  Upon closer inspection, we found it a bit tricky to find the right spot to put the tent.  There were lots of tree roots crisscrossing the area and the slant of the ground was much more noticeable than we thought.  We finally decided on what looked like a level spot...





The stream was just to the right of our tent area...






Turns out, we had the shelter area to ourselves that night.  Honestly, we were pretty beaten up, tired and sore...ready for a quiet afternoon that would allow us to just concentrate on the little things, like making what is affectionately known as our "little stick fire."  As luck would have it, there was no shortage of little sticks in the area so we were able to keep our fire going for a couple of hours or so.  We kind of just sat around, enjoying the woods and a cup of coffee (the one thing I will not hike without).







The sun finally began to set so we made our final preparations for the night.  This typically includes putting any valuables inside the tent and stowing away all food, trash, or items with any smell in our Op Sac odor-proof bags.  We are completely happy with and confident in the reliability of these bags.  Not once have we awakened to find them having been disturbed.  I should add that the one thing we are both pretty much anal about it food and trash storage.  We leave NOTHING out that would attract the nighttime critters.  If there's any doubt, it goes in the Op Sac.  As an extra layer of protection, we usually double the sacs.  I know food storage methods are a matter of personal preference but that's what we're currently using.  We've also carried the Bear Vault a time or two.  They're large but can double as storage in your pack if need be.  Anyway....we climbed into our tent for our last night out in the woods...









It didn't take long for us to discover that our tent site was not level.  My sister slid down and to her left and I had to make an effort to hang on to my sleeping pad so I wouldn't roll with her.  Because we wanted to cut down on the humidity inside the tent....it seems like even though we put on dry clothes once our camp chores are done and try to go to bed dry, I tend to be consumed by these giants shivers that start down in your toes and wrack your entire body...and it's not because I'm cold...we left the rain fly open up at the front of our tent.  One thing we learned a long time ago is to never go to bed without the rain fly on your tent.  Even if it doesn't rain, moisture will collect inside your tent.  Oh...and just because you don't think it's going to rain, doesn't mean it won't.  During the wee hours of the morning, we were both awakened by what sounded like either wind or rain.  "Let's give it a minute and see what it does," we said.  It didn't take but a minute for us to realize it was actually raining so Debbie did her best to climb up and close the rain fly.  We were on a slant and downhill from the shelter so we were hoping it wasn't going to be a deluge.  Our Big Agnes tent proved yet again that it is, in fact, waterproof, something we were immensely thankful for that night.  Much to our dismay, it was still raining when we woke up the next morning, which added a whole new level of trail experiences for us...breaking camp in the rain.  But that's a story for another day...tomorrow...day 6...our final day on the A.T.  In spite of the rain, we woke excited and with renewed energy.  Day 6 was the day we would be reunited with our beloved Diet Coke!


Saturday, November 14, 2015

TRAVERSING JACOB'S LADDER


DAY 4 SASSAFRAS GAP SHELTER TO BROWN FORK GAP SHELTER (9.1 MILES)

Dawn broke brightly over the Sassafras Gap shelter area.  We'd been up for quite a while, knowing that we had a bit over 9 miles to go that day.  We'd opted to cut our day a bit short when we'd arrived at the shelter the night before, exhausted from the climb out of the NOC.  Doing so meant adding miles to day 4 but having the chance to relax the night before was definitely the right decision for us.






Preparing for the day ahead typically consisted of changing back into the damp clothes worn the day before, attempting to run a brush through my thick, knotted hair and that was about it...trail beautification process complete!



Of course, there was always a moment or two spent taking time just to stand and enjoy the beauty of our surroundings before getting down to the task at hand.





Before long, we were back out on the trail, our sites set on Brown Fork Gap Shelter.  By day 4, we are use to the stiffness we always feel when first starting out and it takes us a while to get our "hiker legs" back.  We didn't get much sleep the night before thanks to whoever left all that trash in the fire pit.  There were animals of some kind out rummaging through it most of the night.  Have I said that at night in the woods everything you hear sounds huge?  Like a bear?!  Most likely it was just masked bandits.  We didn't get out of our tent to check.  Yeah...we're brave...I know it.





Somewhere along the trail, a very nice older gentleman passed us as he headed south.  We stopped to chat for a moment and he informed us of a yellow jacket nest that was right in the middle of the trail.  Dead center, to be exact, and he said they were angry when he went by.  He explained how he'd put two sticks in an X formation on the trail as one approached heading north.  We thanked him for the head's up, making a mental note of his marking so we'd know what to look for.

We'd gone about a mile and a half before reaching Cheoah Bald, where we decided to take a short break.  What an amazing view we had!

Cheoah Bald






While we were taking our break on the bald, a very energetic young man came bouncing in off the trail.  He asked us how far the NOC was cause he was "ready to sit down!"  We told him it was a few miles and he said, "Oh, I'll make it," as he headed off down a path to the right of where we were standing...only the path he chose headed somewhere off the Bald and I'm pretty sure a decent size drop off.  We called after him and got him safely back onto the A.T.  The moral of the story here is:  STAY ON THE TRAIL!  His enthusiasm almost got him in trouble...we got a good laugh out of it all.  Soon after he departed, a young lady approached heading south.  She was wrapped up in complete winter gear:  long john's, a down jacket, a big scarf and a hat (it had to be every bit of 80 up on that bald, in full sun).  Come to find out, she managed to step right into that yellow jacket nest we'd been warned about.  She said she'd dropped her pack and ran but the angry bees still got her about 10 times.  She'd gone back and recovered her pack, taken some benedryl and then put on all her winter gear...she called it her "bee suit."  We assured her there were no other nests in the direction she was going so she shed the extra clothes.  We stayed with her for a bit longer just to make sure she was okay before loading up and heading out again.  We hadn't gone very far before we came across this sign:



Our final destination still 20 miles away...

We still had a long day ahead of us and that bee's nest was weighing heavy on my mind.  I did not want to get stung!  We continued on till we hit Locust Grove Gap before taking another short break.  We find that doing so about every couple of miles renews our spirits and gives our legs a much-needed rest.  We always feel better after shedding those packs for a few minutes.










I suppose to the naked eye, this spot might not be very appealing but to us, all we see is a nice log to sit on and a spot to camp if we absolutely had to.  There's supposedly a water source here at Locust Grove Gap but we didn't take time to find it.  We had miles to cover (and a bee's nest to navigate)! We left the gap and proceeded with caution.  Lo and behold, my sister was actually able to spot those two sticks in that X formation lying right across the trail.  Honestly, I wasn't sure we'd be able to notice them...I mean...come on...two sticks laying across each other on the trail...not exactly an uncommon sight...but our fellow southbound hiker had found two fairly distinctive sticks to use and we plainly saw them.  So...this meant going off trail to circumnavigate that nest of (still) angry bees.  The vegetation was fairly dense so it wasn't exactly easy going considering our packs and all but we did finally manage to emerge on the other side of the nest with only a couple of scratches to show for it.  We found two large branches and left a mark for those heading south to see.  Hopefully we saved a few hikers from the fate of being stung and chased.  We found the nest about halfway between Locust Grove Gap and Simp Gap for anyone who wants to take note.  I'm fairly certain it will be there for quite a while so beware when going through this section!








As we proceeded north, we began to notice a bit more of the Fall colors....





We arrived at Stecoah Gap exhausted and ready to stop for the night but unfortunately this Gap encompasses a paved road and is not set up for camping.  There are picnic tables and if memory serves...which it often doesn't....there might have been trash cans.  I honestly can't remember.  We were tired and cranky with almost 3 miles to go to Brown Fork Gap shelter.  We asked a couple who had pulled up on a motorcycle what time it was....found it it was 4pm...and knew that we had to pick up the pace so we could reach the shelter with daylight to spare for setting up camp.  We're not much for doing that in the dark, by the way.




I'd noticed on my guide book page something that said "start of Jacob's Ladder."  Neither of us knew what that was.  We speculated as we set off up the hill (of course...every gap has an "up" to get out of it) as to just what this might be.  We were already traversing some pretty steep elevation but nothing any worse than what we'd already done over the last three days.  We'd even comment now and then that if this is all Jacobs Ladder was, it wasn't too bad.  Guess what?  Boy, where we WRONG on that one!  Without notice we suddenly found ourselves walking practically up at a 90 degree angle...not steps...very few roots to gain our footing on....just straight up dirt, with a switchback every now and then.  We went up in elevation 600 feet in .5 miles.  At one point, my sister said she didn't think our pace was even registering on the speedometer scale!  If I've ever thought I truly wasn't going to be able to make it to the top, this was it.  We passed a few southbound hikers and I honestly don't know how they were staying upright going down what we were going up.  I could feel my heart pounding in my face and there wasn't a stitch of dry anything on me....but after what seemed like forever, we finally reached what we knew had to be the top of Jacob's Ladder!


Ranks up there with the WORST pictures of me EVER!

Once we reached the top, we had a little under a mile of ups and downs to go before finally pulling into our stop for the night...





Upon our arrival, we were greeted by two other male hikers who had stopped to take a break while deciding if they were done for the day or moving on.  One was very quiet and said little but the other guy joked with us about the climb up Jacob's Ladder and how tough it was.  They went on.  We went into the shelter area.

Brown Fork Gap Shelter

Another older gentleman had beaten us there and already had his hammock hung, tucked away in a corner inside the shelter.  I know there are some hikers out there who think putting a hammock or small tent up inside the shelter is like committing a cardinal sin but in my opinion, if no one else is there (or if they are and really just don't care) or if you're willing to move out of the shelter at any time during the night should the need arise, then it doesn't bother me to see someone set up inside there.  By the time I get to the area, I'm usually so tired that all I want to do is take my pack off and relax.  I'm not saying I think it's okay to push people out of the shelter who might not have an alternative place to sleep.  All I'm saying is I don't get my proverbial panties in a wad if I arrive and find someone in there.  I've even done in once or twice when no one else showed up.  No big deal.

Anyway....we talked for a while with the guy who was already there and we were soon joined by another hiker.  When he came in he said, "I've been trying to catch up with you two all day!  Someone told me there were two twins hiking ahead of me and I wanted to catch you."  Okay...first of all...we're not twins.  There's just shy of 3 years between us....but we found it flattering in an odd sort of way that news of us hiking together had been passed on between fellow hikers.  That's one of the things I love about being out on the trail.  You meet all kinds of super people out there...all with that one screw lose that makes someone want to go out and punish themselves to exhaustion hiking in the mountains and living like homeless people (with very hi-tech, expensive gear, I might add).  It's great!!!  Even "Scary Scott" as we now call him from back at the Wesser Bald Shelter was an okay guy.  He just didn't have much of a filter on what he thought was appropriate to say.  The fellowship found on the AT is like no other!

The ground up around the Brown Fork Shelter is fairly rocky and filled with tree roots so we headed down into the little valley below it and found a great spot to set up our tent...





We were close to the water source and later that evening when I went down to collect our water for dinner, the guy who had been trying to catch us was there and after talking for a few minutes, he actually said he was proud of us for just getting out there and doing what we were doing.  While we didn't really think we were doing anything all that different, come to think of it, two women our age out hiking the AT isn't typically the norm of what you see.  I think all total in all of our section hikes, we might have passed 2 or 3 women our age out hiking, usually with their spouse.  We've encountered two young women maybe in their early twenties out hiking it alone.  Other than that, the majority have been men of all ages, including teen boys.  Hhmm...maybe we are doing something different after all.  Ha!

When we climbed into our tent, we were hoping for a very peaceful night...only someone forgot to tell all the wildlife in the area that we REALLY needed to get some sleep.  The first few branches we heard crack, of course, sent our minds straight to bears but as the hours wore on, we decided it had to be deer or some other animal out scouring for all the acorns and walnuts that were constantly falling out of the trees.  This went on all night...on both sides of the little valley we were nestled in...to the point where we wanted to get out of the tent, spread our arms and say, "Alright already!  Could you just stop now!"  Needless to say, we didn't sleep much that night but at least it wasn't because we were scared of what was out there in the dark.  Again...the woods is a very noisy place at night!



I always love it when the sun breaks over the horizon, bringing a new life to the woods around us.  Those creatures who ramble at night bed down for the day and are quickly replaced with cute little chipmunks and the like.  I can handle those.  We took our time getting ready to go that morning, knowing that we had a relatively short day ahead of us.  Cable Gap Shelter was our next stop, a mere 6.1 miles.  We could have pushed on to Fontana Dam but we wanted to have time to enjoy our last night out.  After a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, we packed our bags once again and set off...feeling stronger than ever and eager for whatever the day had in store for us.  We were almost there...we'd almost accomplished our goal for this particular section hike.  Spirits were high in spite of our tired bodies.  Onward and upward we went!


Monday, November 2, 2015

TOUGH LOVE...A LESSON FROM A MOUNTAIN



I do not consider myself to be an accomplished backpacker.  In the great scheme of things, the miles I've put behind me are few.  I go out once a year and spend a week "living" in the woods, enjoying everything such an experience has to offer me...both good and bad.  There are many who probably think, "What kind of a vacation is that?"  For me, the answer is simple:  when I set foot on the trail, I leave the noise of "reality" behind me.  Instead of those mundane moments that rarely differ from one another, I never really know what lies ahead for me...what challenges I'll have to face...what fears I'll have to conquer...or even what breathtaking views might be hiding around the next bend in the trail.  The mountain does not judge or make fun of me when I take something that should be so simple and make it into something hard for me.  If I'm afraid, the mountain keeps my secret.  If I feel like standing on the mountain top, screaming, jumping up and down, I could...if I wanted to.  The mountain takes me as I am.  It accepts me, weaknesses and all and gives me one opportunity after another to prove to myself just what I'm made of.  That's the key....the only person I have anything to prove to is me.  The mountain doesn't feel sorry for me...doesn't feel bad when it's pushed me to the brink of exhaustion when I still have miles to go before I can stop.  It's always there to cheer me on...whether it be through a bird singing its song loudly or a little chipmunk scurrying past, its cheeks full of nuts.  It's always there to give me my share of hard times as well:  a yellow jacket nest right in the center of the trail or a patch of slippery rocks or boulders that I'm forced to traverse.  In short, the mountain brings with it the entire package:  challenges and hardships coupled with unconditional acceptance of your personal best, whatever level that might be.  I speak of a mountain as if it were a living, breathing entity...because it is all of that and more.  I cannot complain about what life has handed me.  In fact, I consider myself to be extremely blessed.  But the one thing the mountain offers me that I don't feel I find every day is that feeling of accepted as I am, not as how others think I should be...when I leave the mountains, I feel like I've truly accomplished something.  So yes...a mountain gives you a lesson in "tough love" but the rewards are given back tenfold because all you really have to do is be you...be who you are...do what you can...challenge yourself...and hopefully walk away knowing you did your very best.  There is no such thing as "failure" out on the trail...it's more like, "Next time...till we meet again."