Day 9: Appalachian FAIL

March 25, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

I have conceded. Damn you, mountains. You are better than me. With my knee still sore and the next two back-to-back obstacles being Rocky Mountain (4,017 ft) and Tray Mountain (4,430 ft), both of which are steep and rocky, I have decided to admit defeat. I’m sure I could make the climb up, but the rocky climbs down are what worry me. I don’t want to wreck myself at the top of a mountain where no roads go.

I’m far too stubborn to go somewhere if I don’t think I can get back on my own accord. I don’t like relying on other people. I have other adventures I wanna go on, anyways. Like, living in a van and driving across the country going to places I’ve yet to be. Or driving Route 66. Or both. Or neither. Who knows? That’s for life to decide.

Day 8: Zero

March 24, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

I didn’t hike today. In hiker lingo, I took a zero day. My left knee was bothering me a lot this morning and it was painful walking up and down the three flights of stairs at the hotel to do laundry. It has swollen and feels warm to the touch (like, it has noticeably more heat coming from it than my other knee) and kinda spongy when I push on the knee cap.

Before I left town, I bought a knee brace and some ibuprofen but they don’t seem to be doing much. Funnily enough, it was difficult finding a knee brace in the small hiker town and I had to walk quite a bit to find a store with one available. The Rite-Aid had everything except knee braces and the pharmacy/first aid area at the grocery store didn’t have any braces that I noticed. I ended up finding plenty to choose from at a small medical supply store that seemed to cater to senior citizens.

The group I was with yesterday is already back on the trail, though they said they were only gonna do a couple miles to the nearest camp. Some of the people I saw at shelters days ago have caught up to me here but most of the people are all new to me.

Anyone know why a knee would feel warmer than usual? Or what would make it spongy?

Day 7: Low Gap to Unicoi Gap

March 23, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

Miles hiked: 9.7

Today was spa day. No joke. I ended today in the hot tub.

Last night I accidentally pitched my tent on a slight slope and spent the night trying not to slide off my sleeping pad. If it wasn’t for the rain, I would have fixed my tent positioning but didn’t feel like getting soaked. I started the day at 8:15am, trying to push out of camp before the big rush of other people. Only a couple people packed up and got out of there ahead of me. It was 9am before the sun peaked it’s head through the clouds, though the valleys were filled with a dense fog long beyond then.

The terrain today was fairly flat for almost the entire 10 miles. Nothing eventful happened on the trail and I spent the day alone until I took a break at a shelter around mile 7.

My left knee has been extremely sore all day, and has been like that since Blood Mountain. Today it was very noticeable for some reason, despite the flat terrain. I’m in town tonight and walking around without a pack I’ve still been limping.

While at the shelter for lunch, which was a couple fruit snack packs and a Snickers bar, I ran into a couple guys headed into town. I was already planning on getting off the trail due to my knee, but sharing a hotel with a hot tub sounded better than staying in a cheap hostel. We spent about an hour at the shelter before hitting the trail and doing another 2.4 miles to Unicoi Gap. It was 1,000 ft elevation drop over the course of a mile at the end. It was not enjoyable. By the time we reached the gap, we ended up getting a total of six guys to go in on a room, costing us about $17 each. It’s a fairly large room and can easily sleep six people.

The town of Hiawassee is about 14 miles from the gap, so we had to hitch a ride into town. It took about 30 minutes, but eventually we managed to get a truck to stop and they were cool enough to let all six of us jump in the back. I can tell you first hand, six guys and six fully loaded backpacks in the back of a pickup that has one of those big toolboxes is a very tight fit. Totally worth it and honestly one of the best and most fun parts of this trip so far. I’m with a group of guys I just met getting a ride from complete strangers into a small town in the middle of nowhere and every one of us were having a blast in the process.

We got dropped off at the edge of town and walked until we found the hotel. We pretty much just dropped our gear and hit the street again walking to a place called Big Al’s Pizza Buffet. After walking the wrong street, I looked up directions and we had a 17 minute walk to get there on the outskirts of town.

Upon arriving at Big Al’s, we were all greeted with disappointment to find out they’re closed Sundays and Mondays during the “off” season. Big Al, you bastard. Another 17 minute trek back into town. Yay.

We ended up going to Daniel’s All You Can Eat Steakhouse and each had multiple platefuls of food and desserts. The food wasn’t the greatest in the world and I was disappointed not to get pizza, but it was quite fulfilling nonetheless.

After going back to the room and taking a shower (separately, of course), we all hit the hot tub. The 10 mile day on the trail and miles of limping back and forth across town took a toll and it felt amazing to sit down and relax in the hot water.

My knee is absolutely killing me. I’ve been limping across town and I’m pretty sure I need a brace or something. I dunno, I’m not a doctor. This is the same knee I had x-rayed before I left and the one that “popped” when I was headed to Iraq in 2009. Not sure if I wanna hike tomorrow. My body is not used to all this “exercise” stuff.

The best moments of the past week have been hanging out in the shelters talking about nothing, complaining about feet pain, and spending time with strangers in the middle of nowhere. I don’t even care about the hike anymore, it’s 1,000 times more fun just hanging out with weirdos. I can see why Christopher McCandless enjoyed his travels so much (look him up if you don’t know who he is). Hitchhiking is a very interesting experience that I hope to do again.

Day 6: Neels Gap to Low Gap

March 22, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

Miles hiked: 11.5
Pack weight: 34 lbs

Today was rebirth. I got a late start today as I spent the morning switching out my shoes for something bigger. I ended up going from a 10.5 to a 12 and it made a world of difference; I’m no longer smashing my toes. There was a girl in the hostel taking a day off who I was talking to for a few minutes and both her big toes were completely black and bleeding. I wasn’t nearly that bad, as my right toe was just starting to get black.

Between yesterday and today, I also managed to drop a lot of weight from my pack, essentially ditching anything I hadn’t used since the first day. While I was at it, I upgraded my jacket and bought a belt. Sorry trail ladies, you will no longer be able to see half my ass as I walk. I’m sure you’re all disappointed.

After my gear changes, I grabbed a Powerade and hit the trail at 9:53am. I immediately questioned whether or not I was following the trail as I went 17 minutes without noticing a white blaze. They say of you go 1/4 mile without seeing one, you’re probably wrong. Luckily I kept going and within a minute a finally saw the little white stripe telling me I’m in the right place.

I hiked part of the morning with a guy I started the trail with six days ago. His name is Black-out (Matt) and we’ve talked about him at a couple shelters because of his story. When he arrived in Georgia last Monday, his pack did not arrive with him. Immediately, his mind went to the worst possible scenario – “my pack is gone.” He started hyperventilating and ended up blacking out, smashing his face against the counter at the Greyhound station.

Long story short, Greyhound somehow forgot to put his pack back on the bus at one of the pitstops but were able to get it to him by the end of the day. The black eye he got from smashing his face on the counter, that was just a bonus. For anyone thinking “so what? It’s just luggage,” imagine if you had $3,000 in the bank and had to live off it for six months. When you go to take money out, you’re told it’s not there. It’s gone. All of it. Now what do you do for six months? Even “cheap” gear can cost $2,000 or more. My gear is closer to $3,000 and some people spend as much as $4,000.

Anywho, after about an hour, Black-out stopped to rest and snack and I kept on pushing. I didn’t want to stop until my halfway point for today’s goal, right around mile six, which I reached around 1pm. I rested on a rock, took off my boots and socks, and sat there enjoying the quiet while eating a CLIF bar. Just as I was finishing, Black-out and another guy (“Chimney”) came chugging up the hill so we all walked together for awhile. Not too long after, a forth (“Too Loud”) joined our little train.

After about a mile, our train started splitting up and it ended up being me and Black-out walking the rest of the way to camp together. We arrived at 3:45pm and I had just enough time to set up my tent before the rain started. I’ve pretty much walked alone every day until today. It’s nice finding people that walk about the same pace. Tomorrow I’ll most likely be alone again, as I intend on doing 13 miles. And again the next day.

Today was the first day of hiking so far that, frankly, hasn’t sucked more than a cheap hooker on a Friday night. The new shoes and reduced pack weight has significantly improved my moral. That, or maybe it’s because I was able to get my ninja turtle recharge on with a delicious and nutritious pizza last night. It’s hard to tell.

I’m hoping tomorrow is a dry day.

Day 5: Wood’s Hole to Neels Gap

March 21, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

Miles hiked: 4.0

Today was rocky. With yesterday’s push, today was a short one that only consisted of tackling Blood Mountain, a mere 4,461 ft high bump on the earth.

It was a cold night and no one in the shelter wanted to get up, including me. I awoke before 7am and laid in my bag until almost 8:30 when my bladder forced me to finally get up. I left the shelter at 9:15.

My clothes were still wet from two days prior so I started the day wearing my long underwear and rain suit – by the top of Blood Mountain, I realized this was a bad idea as the temperature had increased significantly.

The climb up Blood Mountain was much easier than expected. I stopped at the top and took a few pictures, but they don’t come close to accurately presenting the view.

I also took a minute to change into a t-shirt. The climb down was extremely rocky and I noticed the impact on my knees a lot today. I reached Neels Gap at 11:45am. At Neels Gap, there’s an outfitter store as well as a hostel, which is where I’m staying tonight.

First task: getting a room and some real food. For $20 I got a room and some detergent to wash my clothes. I then grabbed two microwavable cheeseburgers, an apple juice, and a coke. After claiming a bunk, I sat down and immediately ate both cheeseburgers and a couple bags of chips that were left at the hostel by a church group. This was the greatest meal ever.

Second task: shower. It felt so great to wash the wretched gargoyle stench off. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any clothes to change into so I jumped back into my rain suit.

Third task: laundry. All of my clothes were soaked from the rain and sweat and smelled like monster funk. After washing everything and changing into some fresh, dry clothes, it made a world of difference. Not as much as eating real food, but still pretty nice.

I took the afternoon to organize everything in an attempt to drop some weight from my pack. The hostel has an oddly large collection of old VHS tapes so there was a series of old school movies being displayed on a gigantic 19″ screen. It was fantastic.

Day 4: Gooch Mountain to Wood’s Hole

March 20, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

Miles hiked: 12.8

Today was pain and that pain began at 8:19am. I had no intention of hiking over 12 miles when I woke up this morning. My original goal was to hike to Lance Creek and camp out like most of the people from the shelter last night were doing, as it’s only 8 miles. I didn’t take any pictures again today as it was misty almost all day.

I was making great time today and was very happy when I passed the 5 mile mark in 2.5 hours, only 3 more miles and I could be done for the day if I wanted to. I was double pleased that about an hour in I caught up with and passed the four Dartmouth girls who left camp almost 30 minutes before me. They are a group of hardcore ass kickers. I met up with them again at the 5 mile mark, where I was resting and taking a quick snack break. I took their picture for them and pushed on into the Chattahoochee National Forest.

The next few miles went a little slower, as I could feel my feet hurting. Oddly enough, I was able to ignore the pain as long as I was walking. It’s only when I stopped to rest or get a drink of water that I noticed how much they ached.

I arrived at Lance Creek around 12:30pm and foolishly decided to push on and try to make it to the shelter, which was more than four more miles. It was rough and slow going. It took me another hour and 20 minutes to reach Jarrod Gap, indicating I was halfway there. Most people avoid camping in this area because you’re required to have a bear canister between Jarrod Gap and Neels Gap, due to higher bear activity, and most people don’t.

After Jarrod Gap, I was pretty beat. I wasn’t looking forward to the next two miles, but it was far too late to turn around. I felt like I was taking baby steps, slowly but surely making progress. Finally, at 2:43pm I saw the sign for the shelter. I may have said some explatives out of joy at this point. I began walking the trail to the shelter, not realizing how far it was. The book says it’s 0.5 miles, but the book is a damn liar. It felt longer, though I may have just been tired.

It took me almost 15 minutes to actually reach the shelter. I immediately sat down and began changing into dry clothes. I also inspected my feet and noticed some new blisters (yes, plural).

Since I had the shelter to myself, I decided to stroll off, strip completely naked, and attempt to give myself a half-assed “bath”. The inside of my thighs were (are) chafed raw and bloody. My junk smelled like a rotting badger. After not showering for five days, I’m not too surprised.

I waddled back to the shelter (my feet REALLY hurt) and began to cook dinner (chicken pasta and tuna). I followed dinner with some pop-tarts and followed that with peanut butter crackers, dipped in peanut butter. Then I had some fruit snacks. I was quite hungry.

It took three hours before anyone else showed up at the shelter, a small group of four people just out here for a few days. They were at the shelter last night, but left to spend the night in a hostel instead since it was so packed.

Tomorrow is Blood Mountain, the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Frankly, I’m not looking forward to it. But Blood Mountain is all that stands between me and Neels Gap, a mere three miles away. If I can’t get new shoes there, I might be out of the game. I can’t keep going with these shoes.

Day 3: Hawk Mountain to Gooch Mountain

March 19, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

Miles hiked: 7.7

Today was wet. And cold. And miserable. I only took one picture today and that was from inside the shelter.¬† I’m sitting here now in thick socks, long underwear, a jacket, a hat, and I’m inside my sleeping bag and it’s still a little cold out. Most of what motivated me today was anger.

I started this morning at 8:15am, after packing up all my gear in the rain. It started raining around 2am, I think, as that’s when I first heard drops on the tent. It rained all damn day.

The first three hours were tough climbs in the rain, though I heard they were tough even when dry. I thought I was making really good mileage until around 11am when I saw a sign that indicated I wasn’t even halfway through today’s goal. This was a huge downer.

My feet were killing me and I was so pissed off about the mileage that I just started going as fast as I could, ignoring how much my feet didn’t want to walk anymore. I didn’t even stop to eat today, I was too angry and just wanted the day to be done.

There were six people already at the shelter when I arrived around 1:15pm. I immediately claimed a spot before they were all gone, because I did not at all feel like setting up my tent today. After claiming my spot, I sat down and ate to stop my stomach from screaming at me.

I’m not happy. The slightest touch on my right big toe feels like someone is smashing it with a hammer. My left foot hurts like there’s two thorns stabbing the ball of it. It’s 12 miles to the next shelter and I don’t at all feel like walking it in the boots I have.

The only nice part of the day is sitting around with everyone else at the shelters and listening to people complain about the same things. “I’m cold, I’m hungry, my feet hurt.” Yep, I feel ya.

I want a pizza. A large one. And I want to eat it all (if you can’t tell, I’m still hungry).

Day 2: Springer Mountain to Hawk Mountain

March 18, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

Miles hiked: 7.9

Today began a little before 9am and was significantly better than yesterday. The initial section of trail after Springer Mountain was very mellow and I was able to complete the first three miles in just over an hour.

Frequently through today’s miles I had to cross raging rivers (small streams), barely making it out alive. Some of the streams had cool log “bridges” built to get over them, others had real bridges to cross.

I also spent a good section of the morning criss-crossing the Benton MacKaye Trail, which also starts at Springer Mountain. For those who don’t know, Benton MacKaye is the guy who dreamed up the Appalachian Trail. For a short distance, both trails walk the same path.

I reached Three Forks, the halfway point for today’s miles, right around 11am. Around mile five, the trail started to get a little tougher than the earlier section and my pace slowed a bit. It was right around this time that I ran into one of the guys who started at the approach trail with me the day before. We walked for about a half mile, then I stopped for lunch and he kept going.

It was around 1pm when I reached the creek that’s just before the shelter. My feet were pretty beat and I was quite happy to be at the end of my goal for today. I filled up all my water, sat down and drank an entire bottle, then filled up again before moving on. I walked into camp about 1:20pm.

Several people were already at camp. One of the more interesting groups were four college girls who traveled from New Hampshire down here to hike the Georgia section of the AT over their Spring Break. I just thought it was cool that instead of partying or going on some standard vacation, they choose to spend 10 days backpacking through the woods.

Another guy, an ex-Marine, started the trail back in February but broke his foot. He waited six weeks, even though the doctors told him to wait 10-16 weeks, and started hiking the trail again. The seal on his water bladder broke and later on he noticed his canteen was also leaking. I gave him the extra water bladder I wasn’t using. I need to drop as much weight from my pack as possible anyways.

There are some other people here with interesting stories about the Whites in New Hampshire and how fast the climate can change there. Luckily that’s a long way off and hopefully I’ll be ready for it by the time I get there, assuming I make it that far.

Got my first blister on the heel of my left foot, which is no surprise to me as it was the one bugging me most of the day. Just one more reason I need to get new shoes as soon as possible.

Day 1: Approach Trail to Springer Mountain

March 17, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

Miles hiked: 9.0
Pack weight: 46 lbs
Starting body weight: 212.8 lbs

I’ll flat out admit, today pretty much sucked. It was great, but at the same time it sucked giant donkey balls. With all the warm weather, my pack is loaded with all my cold weather gear and I think I’m carrying too much food, so instead of being 34ish pounds, my pack is a walloping 46 pounds! Now, some of you might think that’s not a lot, but when you’re carrying it on your back for nine miles up and down mountains, believe me, it is a lot.

I started at the approach trail this morning a little after 9:15. It’s an 8.8 mile hike from the start of the approach trail until you hit the first white blaze that signals you’re on Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It took me about seven hours to get there and set up camp.

What in the blue blazes?!

The approach trail is marked by blue blazes on the trees, though they are pretty sporadic; luckily, the trail is so obvious to see, you could do the entire thing without them (at least when no snow is on the ground). The approach trail begins by walking a short distance into the woods, where you then start climbing up a series of 600 stairs to get to the top of Amicalola Falls. I was honestly happy about the stairs, even though they sucked to climb up. It was a great way to warm up and get my legs in the game. This section of trail covered about a mile. Sweet, only 7.8 more to go!

From the top of the falls, you follow the trail back into the woods and merely walk. Don’t worry, there are plenty of ups and downs to traverse and according to my feet and shoulders, they all suck.

I got a small jolt of energy when I walked past a sign that indicated I was just over 5 miles into the trail. This was a great pick-me-up, but it didn’t last long.

I stopped and got water a little further up the trail at Black Gap Shelter. One of the people that started with me this morning caught up to me there and decided to just call it a day. I was determined to reach Springer Mountain today, so I pushed on for another 1.5 miles that seemed to take forever and a year. I was so tired by this point, that I wished I just stayed back at the other shelter.

And then I saw it. The first white blaze of the actual factual, no shit Appalachian Trail. I had made it. I snapped a couple pics of the plaques that are there and moseyed on another short distance as fast as I could to reach the shelter and campsite area. It felt so damn good to drop my pack.

It took me a little while to actually set up camp and cook dinner. Every part of my body was just screaming “I hate you!”

Lessons learned:

  1. My shoes are entirely too small. Every downward slope, my toes were just slamming into the front of my shoes. If I don’t switch them out soon, I have no doubt I’ll lose a toenail very quickly. Unfortunately, it’s 21 miles to the next town and I don’t know what they’ll even have available.
  2. OMG, chafing, OMG.
  3. I need a belt.
  4. My BearVault has gotta go. With all the extra weight of the cold weather gear, the extra 2.5 pounds the BearVault weighs is not worth it. It, along a few other things, will be gone once I hit a town.
  5. Eating pizza and cheeseburgers while sitting around for the past six months was apparently not sufficient “conditioning”. Who knew?!

Day 0: Getting to the Trail

March 16, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

Hiking the Appalachian Trail will in no doubt be a large task to accomplish, but before that can happen, I had to actually get to the trail. This wasn’t extremely difficult, but it’s more cumbersome than one might think, especially if you don’t live in the area. I came in from Wisconsin, so it’s not like I can just have a buddy drop me off. “Hey, wanna drive 2,000 miles round-trip to abandon me in a park? Do ya, do ya, do ya?! I’ll buy you lunch!” Any takers? NOPE!

First task: Getting to Georgia. This was fairly easy, as there is a Greyhound station not too far from where I live. I choose to take a bus because it was the cheapest option. The downside of being cheap is it was a very long, very uncomfortable trip, as I’m not exactly a short person. The other downside is it only got me as far as Atlanta – which is about 80 miles away from Amicalola Falls State Park, where I plan to start my hike.

There are two places you can start the trail in Georgia: 1) Springer Mountain, the actual southern terminus, which is only accessible via an unpaved forest road (Forest Service Road 42) followed by a mile hike or 2) you can take the “approach trail” starting about 9 miles south of Springer in Amicalola Falls State Park.

Conveniently, there is no public transportation to either of those two locations. So this means you have to either pay for a very expensive cab ride, find a shuttle service that might get you there for over $100, try to hitchhike your way, or rely on a “trail angel” to give you a ride. I’m not gonna try to hitchhike 80 miles and I’m just as uncomfortable with “trail angels”.

Originally, I had another Greyhound ticket that left Atlanta to go to Gainesville, which is as far as Greyhound will go and is still about 36 miles from where I needed to be. However, Greyhound only does two trips to Gainesville each day and my bus to Atlanta arrived just after the last bus to Gainesville leaves. That means that I’d have to spend the night in Atlanta, take the bus to Gainesville the next morning, and from there take a taxi to Amicalola Falls. All-in-all, it would take me two days of travel, plus about $180 dollars to cover the stay in Atlanta plus the taxi to the park, where I would arrive too late in the evening to begin my hike, forcing me to camp there for the night and start hiking the next morning – three days after I left home.

Then magic happened. I learned about HikerHostel.com which offers a “Thru-Hiker Special” (not sure if they do it every year). The special runs from February 24th until April 20th and costs $80. Not only do you get a place to sleep, but you get a ride to the hostel from the North Springs MARTA Station or Gainesville, a free breakfast, 8oz of white gas or denatured alcohol, and a ride to¬†Amicalola Falls State Park or the Springer Mountain parking lot the next morning. Say whaaaaat?!

That was too good of a deal to pass up. Not only was it saving me money, but it was saving me an entire day of travel time. Getting to the trail a day sooner, now that’s just pee-in-your-pants fantastic! I ditched my bus ride to Gainesville and instead went to the Garnett MARTA station, directly behind the Greyhound stop, and took the Red Line to North Springs, costing a mere 350 pennies. The Hiker Hostel shuttle picked me up there and took care of the rest. There were seven of us that got picked up, and another seven that were already at the hostel ahead of us. They seem like an OK group, not sure how many I’ll keep seeing along the trail. Three people at the hostel flew all the way from Germany to do this hike.

By no means am I saying this is what you should do if you are hiking the Appalachian Trail, but this is what I found best for me. If you’re fortunate enough to arrive in Atlanta (or wherever) with time in the day to hitch or just take a shuttle directly to the trail, to me, that’s the way to go. If you live close enough that you can have someone just drop you off, even better – I’m totally jealous.