Nature therapy — that is what backpacking is for me and my wife. The quiet time in nature, the conversations without interruption, and the physical challenge of completing a goal, all make hiking our get-away trip of choice. After Thanksgiving’s family crowd and stuffing our faces, we were ready to hit the trail and work off some of those added pounds.
My wife Denita and I took off early on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. We had spent the previous couple of days prepping for the trail. We had gone through the traditional ritual of gathering supplies and weighing our packs. Denita and I were both excited to try our new cold weather sleeping bags. I had to reassure her that we would not freeze if we kept moving through the day and dressed warmly when we camped for the night. She gets cold even on a regular day, so she packed clothing she could wear in layers and plenty hot chocolate. I brought some long sleeves and a jacket myself. We live very close to sea level and within a few miles of the North Carolina coast. Mountain weather is a welcome change, but it is also something for which we have to carefully plan.
We enjoyed the fall leaves as we traveled through SC and into GA. Once the road started getting steep and winding, we passed through Helen, GA which was decked out in all its Christmas finery. We planned to spend the night there after our hike, so the little Bavarian-style town gave us something else to look forward to after our 5 days on the trail.
This was our third Appalachian Trail section hike. Our first was from the approach trail at Amicalola Falls State Park to Neel Gap. We had ended our second section hike with our children in tow at the parking area of Unicoi Gap. There was Hogpen Gap, then up and over the mountain had been our last challenge on that fateful summer day. Now, for our start on this trip, Rocky Mountain was waiting for us. We secured our car at the Unicoi Gap parking area and hit the trail with enthusiasm around 2:00 pm. Our final destination for this section hike was Albert Mountain in North Carolina.
Talk about needing to re-gain our hiking legs. We were shedding layers of clothes and sweating in earnest despite the cold breeze as we ascended the mountainside. We noticed a few things right away that were unique to hiking in November as opposed to our previous section hikes in April and July. First, the fallen leaves obscure the roots and rocks along the path. Second, the leaves are slippery when you least expect it. Third, you can see out so much further without the sea of green all around you. Gone were the wild flowers and mushrooms also. Very few animals scurried along the leaf-encrusted underbrush and those few squirrels and birds that were there seemed to make much more noise.
From the crest of Rocky Mountain, we both looked out at the view and breathed a sigh of relief. The blue mountains that stretched to the horizon were the fulfillment of our frequent longing for the trail. We kept wanting to stop and take pictures despite the fact that we needed to log almost 6 miles before dark, to camp at the Tray Mountain Shelter.
We crossed a dirt road and continued along the trail where the bare, twisted rhododendron formed a kind of tunnel. We passed Andrew’s Cove and kept up a steady pace as the light began to fade. Once we reached the shelter, we hurriedly pitched our tent. The temperature seemed to plummet with the last vestiges of daylight. Denita was shivering and putting on every layer she brought. The wind felt icy as we ate a hurried supper. The shelter had bear cables and a convenient water source as well as a decently clean privy. Only one other hiker was there. He spoke English with a thick European accent and said he had been out on the trail for 2 months.
That night, Denita woke me up about 2:30 am. She heard some kind of animal scratching outside the tent. I listened carefully and knew that whatever it was, it was small. I fell back asleep after reassuring her it wasn’t a bear or wild boar or the like. The wind kept up a determined roar, but we were cozy in our tent. I actually got too hot in my Marmot sleeping bag. It is rated for 15◦ F. I started sweating and sticking to the interior lining. I ended up unzipping it at the bottom to allow some of my body heat to escape. Denita said she was warm enough, but the raccoon or mouse or whatever she heard kept her awake. At one point she unzipped the tent and stood her pack up in a different direction and made sure it was closed up tight. She said the little beast was just beside her head on the other side of the tent wall messing with the trash bag liner she had in the top section of her pack. She claims she saw little foot prints in the dirt the next morning.
We were a bit sore in the morning. The temperature was down around freezing, but because of the constant, dry wind all night, there wasn’t frost on our tent. We packed up as quickly as we could and re-filled our water containers. The creek had a concrete box with a water spout pipe. It didn’t take long to collect our water and hit the trail. We decided it wasn’t worth the effort to make a hot breakfast and just ate protein bars instead. We were on the trail again by 8:30 a.m. Our destination for that day was the Top of Georgia Hostel. We were anticipating the taste of frozen pizza baked in the hostel kitchen, always a welcome change to normal trail food.
The day was clear and chilly as we started toward the Swag of the Blue Ridge across the Tray Mountain Wilderness. We started to notice quite a few trees that were either uprooted or broken from high winds. Of course, we had heard about Hurricane Irma in mid-September. We had prepared for it to hit us. When Florida and Georgia bore the brunt of it, we had prayed for the victims and donated to relief efforts. We didn’t realize, however, that the storm had done such damage up here along the trail. We ran into a quartet of gentlemen who were volunteers on the trail around 10:30 that morning. They were hiking to a section of the trail where the leader had been assigned clean-up duties. We enjoyed chatting with them a bit about how this was a good time of year to see everything and how the weather was mild with highs in the 60s and lows still above freezing. Denita and I both felt gratitude for the volunteers. We saw plenty of evidence that the storm had devastated parts of the forest. Almost every tree had already been cut if it had landed across the trail. After passing the guys working, Denita and I both wished we lived close enough to work as volunteers on a regular basis. One of the gentlemen said he was a triple crowner, meaning he had successfully thru-hiked all three major long-distance trails in the USA, the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail, equaling a total of around 7900 miles.
Around lunch time, we stopped at the Deep Gap shelter to eat at a campsite. We pulled out our trusty Sawyer filter again and filled up on water from a creek. We made good time and enjoyed the quiet landscape. We saw a tree where a squirrel’s food bank had overflowed and a tree that looked like it had a face. There were look-outs where we saw the mountains dancing with shadows and the occasional fur, spruce, or holly tree brought some color to the grey and brown surroundings.
By late afternoon, we were really feeling the bodily effects of the hike. We were getting hungry again, but didn’t want to pull out supper since the hostel was near. Our shoulders and legs and feet were sore. This always happens since we section hike and only do regular exercise in between trips. My dad told me that I could wear my pack and work around his plant nursery if I enjoyed physical punishment so much. Denita and I both took some ibuprofen and endured this phase. Denita kept up a stream of chatter that kept us both distracted. When we reached Dick’s Creek Gap around 4:30 pm, we were happy to see the highway. We trekked along the shoulder of the road. To be honest the cars seemed too loud and fast as they zipped passed us after the hush of the forest that day. We reached the hostel in less than half an hour. Unfortunately, the owner had taken a couple of hikers into town to stock up on food. It took a while for them to get back. At least there were comfortable benches and a port-a-john at our disposal while we waited. The guy apologized and offered us free food and hot chocolate when he returned. We were happy for a bed and shower and hot food. The other hikers staying there were friendly. One was a recent Boston College graduate from Vermont who was finishing his South-bound thru-hike in less than a week. The other was a youngish disabled veteran with a service dog. We all enjoyed swapping trail stories, and we laughed about how much easier it was to hike without our kids, even though we missed them.
We started out day 3 feeling much more rested. Much of yesterday’s pain had dissipated, and we were ready to hit the trail again after a breakfast of cereal and hot chocolate. One of the nice aspects about staying at the hostel was the shuttle service to the trail head. The young thru-hiker was going to slack pack that day from Unicoi Gap back to the hostel since the shuttle service would drop him off at Unicoi. We just went back to Dick’s Creek Gap, which was only 0.5 miles from the hostel, but we appreciated the ride all the same. We planned to hike 11.8 miles to reach Muskrat Creek Shelter. The forecast was calling for scattered showers, so we were hoping the shelter would be available. We didn’t want to set up or take down the tent in the rain if it could be avoided.
As we hiked, we noticed an unusual smell and began to see blackened trees. The wild fires that had raged during the early autumn of 2016 had affected this area more than we had anticipated. The hostel owner had commented about the fires. He said the trails had been closed for a while and that investigators were still looking for an arson suspect. Irma had caused a lot of damage as well. We couldn’t believe how many trees were down.
The day passed pleasantly despite the scars on the landscape. We reached PlumOrchard Gap and kept moving briskly. At one point, a stream crossed the trail, and we filled up our water bottles. The leaves in the water gave the liquid a brownish orange tent. We trusted it was clean because of our trusty filter, but it did feel a little like we were drinking dark pond water.
Five miles in, we passed Blue Ridge Gap. The trail was fairly smooth going with a few large boulders along the way. We saw an abandoned hornets nest much like the one which had caused us so many problems on our hike with our daughters back in the summer. We were grateful for the lack of bugs all around. It also felt like we were gaining elevation. The surrounding mountains were higher than we had seen so far on the Appalachian Trail.
In the early afternoon, we made it to the GA/NC state line. That was a good feeling. Even though I was born in SC, I have lived the majority of my life as a North Carolinian. My wife has had family in NC since her Scotch-Irish ancestors came in the early 1700s so she says her blood is Carolina blue. She has never lived outside of the state and is fiercely loyal to it. We ate snacks at the state line in celebration and took pictures. As we were finishing up, a lady named Ghost Hiker stopped to get a photo too. She was thru-hiking the trail and told us she had passed another thru-hiker named Ms. Joy that day. We then wished her good luck and decided to keep moving. The only problem was that we weren’t sure where the trail went a few hundred yards later. We discovered that we should stick to the left and climb up the stairs. Then the trail went to the right.
As a reward for making it up the stairs, we were able to see “The Twisted Tree.” The tree itself has an almost horizontal trunk about 5’ long that then spreads skyward. Part of the trunk is hollow, and it has been taken over by fairies. And, man, let me tell you, those fairies have a quaint place. As a kid who always wanted a tree house like the one in Swiss Family Robinson, I would settle for a fairy flat as an adult.
Talk about a challenge. Bly Gap was followed by a steep climb. It might have been ok if it were not for the rain. What started out as a drizzle soon became a cold shower. I actually didn’t mind the cooler temperature since the climb had my sweat glands in hyperdrive. My wife, however, donned her rain jacket and still felt chilled. We only had 3 miles or so to go in the next couple hours before dark, but the rain made the daylight dim. Shortly thereafter the fog drifted in and settled around us. Right about that time I slid in the mud, and one of my Black Diamond hiking poles decided it couldn’t hold my weight and it snapped in two on the lower section. Dang it! Now I was muddy and without one of my hiking poles. To smooth over the sticky situation, Denita started singing to keep our spirits up. Everything from Maroon 5’s “Maps” to Rogers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite things.” It worked as we trudged along in the wet semi-darkness.
We were a little worried that we would miss the shelter if we didn’t pay close attention. Luckily, the shelter was clearly marked ahead to the right. We happened to meet Ms. Joy there. She was already cozy and settled in the shelter, but she had no qualms with sharing the dry, wooden floor with us. Denita was freezing cold so she changed into dry clothes while I set up supper. The hot food was welcome. I also changed and we settled in for the night. The shelter didn’t have a bear cable so I put our food in the rafters of the shelter’s porch, under the overhang. The rain continued most of the night. Denita was afraid of wild animals despite my reassurances that the shelter was just as safe if not safer than the tent. Eventually she was able to sleep. Once the rain stopped, the large drops sounded like animals walking around in the dark, to her. I was a little too warm again in the sleeping bag, but we were dry, well fed, and off our feet. The fog surrounding us caused a shroud of darkness, that made seeing even a couple of feet beyond the shelter walls difficult through the night.