Thoughts running like the waters of the river over the folds of my mind. Too many to count and too much to try and keep up with. This is going to be harder than I thought. To post up the experiences and thoughts of this one trip. This will be little more than a trip report of sorts. I will have to sort through so much more and process so much more before I can post further and in more depth.
First, as a section hike, this was a miserable failure. I’ll explain as we go and hopefully it will make sense. As a hike/camp to think on deeper issues in my faith and life, it was an unqualified success. This will be explained later in other posts.
The trip started with such promise and anticipation. Sitting in the airport in my home town waiting to catch a flight that would take me farther away from the AT to ultimately get me closer to the AT. This is the nature of modern, post 9/11 air travel. I had to fly from MS to Houston to get to Atlanta. Metal meat tubes more than rapid transit. Shoved together like sardines surrounded by impatient, irrational, self-important grouses. I forgot how much I hated air travel. I calmed myself by doing a mental count down of the hours when I would be on a trail, THE trail, with no one around. Just the sound of my feet, the wind and the woods. The thought was transcendent. Landing in Atlanta, waiting another 45 minutes to get my pack, which thankfully, made it without issue or blemish, I was continually asked about my kilt. One guy asked where’d I get it. Another lady asked if I got asked, well, “the question” alot. I told her there were two standard responses to “the question”. First, “There’s nothing worn down there…everything is in perfect working order.” and lastly, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Admittedly, not a proper response from a Christian male, but I admit that I’m fallen and only use it when I know I won’t be taken up on the offer nor will it embarrass the quixotic too much. Seriously, why do women feel they can ask such a question of a man in a kilt. I’d get slapped stupid-er, asking that of women. Just one more of life’s nagging questions. I even had one chap ask me if I was in the military and British. No, just a civilian and Scots-Irish. He still liked the look.
Got picked up promptly by my ride. I highly recommend Ron Brown’s shuttle service. He is timely, knowledgeable and a kick in the pants to talk to. He won’t do you wrong. Tell him the guy he shuttled to the NOC that looked like Stone Cold Steve Austin recommended him. He’ll get the joke and a laugh.
With all the flight delay, luggage delay and traffic in Atlanta delay I was, you guessed it, delayed in getting to the trail when I had hoped. The original plan was to get to Sassafras Gap Shelter, just under 7 miles, by sunset or really close to it. I got to the NOC a little before 6 p.m. Having only about two hours of daylight left I was determined to get as far into the trail as possible and see where I was from there to get to Fontana Dam by Sunday.
Let me first say that I have read dozens of AT Thru hike books. Most are really good. My respect level for these persons who have gone from Georgia to Maine in a single season was very high. These are rock stars to me. They are other worldly in their stature and lore now.
The climb out of the Nantahala Gorge is, in a word, steep. I have no other reference except to say it’s like climbing stairs in a 300 story building, minus the nice steps. Unless you consider rocks and mud and roots “nice steps”. Also minus the air conditioning and cover overhead and anything else remotely resembling the marks of civilization. Now before you think me a complete idiot given to irrational justification of conditions to be expected on the trail, it was everything I expected and wanted it to be, only more. Let’s say by a factor of 7. Beauty that I cannot give words to. The scale of it all was beyond my imagination. Photos are not worthy of it. The climb out. Exhausting. I managed to get about a mile and a quarter in about an hour and a half. Winded doesn’t describe it. I’d have sworn I could do a COPD commercial on the spot. Elephant included. I think he was hiding in my pack. I found a small spot on the ridge where I could hang my hammock. I didn’t put up my tarp or hang my food. I didn’t even eat. I went straight to bed and slept from around 8 p.m. until about 5:30 a.m. the next day.
This was my fault. I should have stayed at the NOC that night and gotten a fresh start the next day. Still, I was on the trail and happy about it. The next morning I was determined to make up ground. I wanted to get to Sassafras Shelter and then get to Brown’s Gap Shelter or as close to it as I could. Problem 1? I’m still going up. At least to Sassafras, then it would be basically down hill from there. Problem 2? I would have to do close to 14 miles that day to meet that goal. That is insane for a novice on day two of the trail he is supposed to be having fun on. Problem 3? It hurts. I figured it would be my knees who would betray me. Maybe even the high ankle sprain I had a few weeks prior to leaving. Neither of these were an issue. Not even my feet gave me trouble. The hips. At one point it felt like a hot piece of rebar had been inserted into my hips longitudinally. Burning pain with every step, out of wind, and out of time. I was reduced at times to hiking to the next switch back for a goal. Or the next blaze or the next flat spot. Mostly 150 to 200 feet at a time, rest, pray, buck up, hike another 200 feet, repeat. I got to Sassafras Gap Shelter around lunch. I ate, got water, and thought, alot. Too many miles to get to Fontana in my condition, or should I say lack of condition. Too little time to get where I wanted to be and too little known about how I might get off the trail to meet the wife and kids by Sunday for the vacation with them. I had passed a couple small campsites coming into the shelter back up the ridge. I decided to hike to one of those spots, hang the hammock, eat and sleep. A fresh mind and perspective would yield the proper answer in the morning.
Luckily I had hung my tarp this time as a sweetheart of a thunderstorm rolled over the mountains that night just shortly after I went to bed. The wind blew hard swaying the trees but rocking me gently in the hammock. Thunder and lightning crashed but I was protected under the ridge from any real danger and the rain, in just a few short minutes played me a lullaby as sweet as mother’s milk. A fine deep sleep, as always, in the hammock.
The next morning had me thinking fresh thoughts and coming to grips that Fontana was not going to happen with my hips in their current state. I decide to head back to the NOC and see what I could do there to salvage the trip. I had about 5 miles to go and almost all of it down hill. I nearly lost it a few times because of the slick trail from the previous nights rain but the better part of caution, my hiking sticks and the grace and mercy of the Lord God Almighty kept me from injury and any real peril.
As I was hiking the last half mile into the NOC shortly after noon, at the base of the ridge about twenty feet up from the river was a campsite. Open with a fire ring and trees that looked just far enough apart for me to hang my hammock. I had decided to go to the NOC, see about a campsite or cabin and just camp for the next day until my family could pick me up on Sunday. First order of business…FOOD. I had eaten my own cooking for just a couple days and it was good. Really good. But I wanted something more substantial. Something someone else had made for me and not in a freezer bag. Pizza at the River’s Edge was the right salve to sooth that ache and I took my time with it. It was glorious. Next out the door and across the street to the General Store to inquire about campsites. To my surprise the clerk stated they didn’t have campsites on the campus to offer. I asked about the site I had seen back up the river a bit, whether it was part of his lot and he said no. That was all I needed to hear. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to camp. Just a few yards from the river up on the bluff overlooking. Covered but not so much so that I couldn’t watch the rafters and kayakers float by. I’d have give anything to have a banjo to play as they floated by.
So, as I said, as a section hike, an utter failure. I still had an excellent time. Truly, sincerely, an amazing time. For all the pain, unrealized expectations and logistical issues, it was something I will never regret. I had mentioned in other posts that this was a test of sorts. To see if I had it in me to do a through hike. I discovered I am a hammock camper, not a hammock hiker. I could day hike the devil out of the AT if I lived closer and may yet get the chance to do that. Who knows what things God has in store for this soul. However, multi-day hikes on a trail of this caliber is not in my cards.
When my wife met me on that Sunday, the kids running up to hug daddy, an awesome event in and of it self, she asked was I okay. I was. Physically I was still sound if not worn and I was good otherwise too. I had come to grips with some things on the trail. I told her she wouldn’t have to worry about me doing another hike like this on the AT. She was so gracious. She didn’t dance on the grave of my dream. She knew that was what it was. A dream I had held for some time and now it was not going to be the same. She’s a good woman, my wife. She let an old fool chase another woman called the AT and still return home when he learned she was a bitter mistress. Not fond of old bones and poor conditioning. She welcomed me home to her embrace with grace and dignity and allowed me to keep my dignity. She was sorry for my loss. She understood my simple sadness. Later we would laugh together at the trials of the trail and how much I had learned in those four day.
So now I’ve spent nearly 2000 words telling you how hard it was. What will I say about it all to sum it up? GO!. Do it! Even if it hurts, it’s worth it. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Be in shape. Don’t push too hard in the early stages, but go for it. The AT in the southern vernacular is a Heifer. She will break you. Maybe not physically. Maybe mental. Maybe emotional. But she will break you. In the brokenness there is something far more valuable. There is wisdom, clarity, peace, understanding. God used the AT to humble me in ways I needed to be humbled. I praise Him for it. I know myself better today than I have in the past decade. What an amazing God, who creates the mountain to inspire and to teach. To break down and to build up. To humble and to strengthen. To strip away the duff to reveal the granite of a life built on Him.
So there ya go. The trip in a nut shell. Now what? Now, go take a hike.