It’s late afternoon of day # 4
We stroll into Low Gap Shelter after a beautiful 13-mile hike. To this point, all hiking has been done in shorts and t-shirt. I have what could be considered the ginger version of a tan. After four consecutive days of averaging 10 miles up and down strenuous terrain with 35 lbs on my back – I feel surprisingly fresh. I have zero blisters (Hi-Tec FTW). Nature and I are doing a mental love tango. I’m smiling unconditionally.
Life is good.
Then, just prior to dusk, comes the cold front. After a hurried dinner (pasta + spices = barf) due to not being able to secure a spot close enough to the fire, I’m in my tent by 7:00pm because my Euerka sleeping bag (the anti-hypothermia zone) is the only place where I can retain feeling to my appendages. I can see my breath from inside of my bedroom – and the sun has not yet set. It’s going to be that sort of a night.
Although my body is fatigued enough to induce slumber, the repetitive intake of dry ice is less than conducive for rest. Finally I secure a spot that allows from momentary bouts of sleep: sleeping bag wrapped around my head with a 1-inch gap to let oxygen in, face down to let my breath reflect off of my sleeping pad and let the warm air back onto my face.
After a night of 15-minute naps which accumulated to maybe three hours of sleep, I am confronted with the task of getting out of my sleeping bag to put on slightly damp hiking clothes to prepare for the 15 miles that lay ahead of us for the day. I go from really effing cold to outer space cold when I enter into my layer of stanky wet clothes and my only pair of hiking socks (because I’m dumb) (don’t worry Mom, more are on their way). Although this might sound horrible to the inexperienced backpacker, this is actually good news since the ensuing physical activity is my only escape from the bone chill I’ve been battling the previous 10 hours. I make extra effort to ignore the fact that my rain fly is covered in frost, quickly and sloppily pack up my belongings, and get started with my day.
It only took about 30 minutes of hiking before I’m out of my John Candy hat – and back into my natural state – shorts. Fifteen miles to Tray Mountain Shelter was -again- easier and far more enjoyable than I had imagined. When you enjoy the process it’s not work. My “job” is to walk through the United States’ oldest mountain range. Compared to most, what I’m doing, again, is not work.
The campsite at Tray Mountain is positioned at the mountain’s summit. The view from my tent overlooks undulating terrain a hundred miles to the east. Although, a little chilly (maybe 50 degrees) the air is completely still – it’s either the most peaceful night we’ve experienced yet, or it’s the calm before the storm.
Turns out it was the calm before the storm.
Whoop and Badger have 11 miles to our next destination, Dick’s Creek Gap, before we can hitch a ride into the closest town, Hiawassee, to shack up in a hiker hostel for the night. Relative to the previous days, we had anticipated 11 miles to fly by. What we didn’t account for was 1) it being the most intense up and downhill to date, and 2) a downpour, 40 windy degrees, and of course a lightning storm.
Now I don’t have waterproof pants because most of my wet days will be in Virginia where it’s 50-60 degrees and raining. Doing that in full waterproof gear doesn’t allow for heat to escape your body. Essentially you turn into a self-sustaining sauna. On a day like this, however, staying dry would have been a nothing short of glorious. On the uphills, although I can feel my body roasting from the inside, the outside is freezing – I can’t tell what I am. The downhill is cold- only cold. There’s a puddle in each of my boots. I can both hear and feel the heavy slosh with each and every step. I use my Tech4o Trail Leader to give me an indication of how far away I am from the 11-mile mark, but the slippery terrain and increased slopes have done serious detriment to my pace. I stopped one time to urinate, and immediately regretted not using the warm fluid on my own body (just kidding- not really). Just one day ago the miles were flying by. Today, barely creeping.
Finally, after the longest four hour hike of my life – we arrive at Dick’s Creek Gap where we can now finally call the nearest hostel to come pick our miserable asses up.
One problem – turns out there’s no cell service (Hiawassee is 10 miles to the east). Shit. It’s okay though, we’ll hitch into town. Although we have yet to attempt this, everyone has assured us it’s easy as can be.
Problem number two. A group of hikers who had just come in from Hiawassee inform us that all of the hostel and inn rooms are booked out through Monday. Turns out this is the busiest year on the Appalachian Trail to date (I’m assuming this is because everyone was inspired by my AT prep videos), and that no one wants to be outside in cold + rain. The perfect storm for being stranded in a storm.
Whoop and Badger, share the same mindset at this point, “ehhh, fuck it. Let’s give it a shot.” Within 5 minutes, a “trail angel” (a person who delivers “trail magic” – more explanation in a future post), offers us a ride to the Hiawassee Inn – a hiker friendly, low-rate motel. Totally booked. The Holiday Inn is booked solid too. The gentleman at the office desk suggests to give the Ramada a shot. We do. They have two rooms left. At this point our hands look like blueberries in yogurt – stark white with tiny spots of blue. “YEAH, YES, YA WE’LL TAKE IT.”
[This is where I would insert a picture of our miserableness – but I was far too busy expending all of my energy on staying warm and hate.]
We get to our room, dump our muddy crap all over the bathroom and carpet (sorry Ramada), and take a second of silence to appreciate something we haven’t had in almost 24 hours – warmth. I thought the previous hot shower was the best of my life, I was way off. This one was at least a googol (foreshadowing much) times better. The shower-head had eight different settings, none of which were freezing rain. There was free hot chocolate in the lobby, cable and wi-fi in our room, and cheap laundry on our floor. We called a shuttle service aptly named “Gene Shuttles” to see how much a ride to the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet (a thru-hiker staple) would be. Gene answers his cell phone:
Badger: Stunned by the informal greeting, “uh, ya, hi, is this the shuttle service?”
Gene: “Oh, uh, ya, I can shuttle.”
Badger: Slightly confused, “Cool. How much would it be to Big Al’s Pizza?”
Gene: “Pizza huh? I could go for some pizza. Don’t worry about it, what time do you want me to pick you up?”
Badger: “In 30 minutes?”
Gene: “See you then.”
Turns out Gene was just a super awesome retired guy who picks up side jobs not because he needs the money, but because he’s looking for something to keep him busy. He took us out for an all you-can-eat-pizza buffet that I will never forget, gave us a brief tour of the Hiawassee, and gave us a ride to the grocery store so we could stock up on beer (the next day was Sunday, no beer sales [insert sad face]) – all for free. We got lots of beer. Too much beer.
In a 48 hour span I went from high as a kite, to a miserable cold low, back up to a high equal to Tray Mountain’s summit, back down to an even lower low, and then finally to a state of pure euphoria. Then to a free Don Williams concert – true story (people over 40 and country music fans know who this is).
This monster really is a mental roller coaster- and keep in mind this is just a 48 hour span in the first week of a half year adventure.
I’m loving every minute.
As long as you ask me at the right time.