Friday, April 23, 2010

And there I was, in a cage with eight juvenile delinquents....

This update is about my time from Gatlinburg, TN to Hot Springs, NC (miles 200 to 270).  Right now I'm in Erwin (mile 340).  I will follow with details about Hot Springs to Erwin, TN later.  Sorry, computer time is limited and rushed always.

I left Gatlinburg in a hurry in an attempt to rush ahead of the party crowd.  It was getting to be a little too much.  I was more than happy to leave.  A Canadian hiker remarked that Gatlinburg is like "America-land", or how foreigners perceive America.  Overweight and tacky. So I left.  At Newfound Gap Hercules and I talked to some tourists who were amazed that we were hiking all the way to Maine.  I agree, I am still amazed too!

The rest of our time in the Smoky Mountains was wonderful.   I still can't believe that the weather was 100% perfect the whole time that I was there.  We had great views from the ridges, sun, and cloudless skies.  The last night in the Smokies was spent at the Davenport Gap Shelter, just a few miles from the park boundary.  I was sort of unhappy to be spending the night in a shelter that had a cage in front of it (to keep bears out or hikers in?) but I was with some great people.

As we were falling asleep I decided that I needed to pee. As I undid the latch on the cage, I looked out into the dusk (yes, we go to bed before dark) and saw a dozen people in prison uniforms walking down the trail towards me.  It was creepy- they reminded me of the others from the TV show Lost.  Turns out that they were part of a youth therapy camp from Alabama and were allowed to come to the Smokies as a reward for good behavior.  And they had a permit, while we didn't, so we spent the night packed like sardines in the cage with the juvenile delinquents.

The worst part of all was that I couldn't sleep because one of them was wearing perfume and after all of this time smelling trees and B.O., perfume makes me nauseated. And Day Tripper snored all night.  And so ended my experience in the Smoky Mountain National Park.

The following morning I stopped at Standing Bear Hostel to split a Digiorno pizza with HDMama.  Great breakfast.  It did a great job of fueling a mega uphill, but I was hiking with Day Tripper and with him time passes really easily even when the terrain is tough.  We talk about everything and sometimes nothing and that's ok.  I'm thankful for some good hiking partners.

The few days between Standing Bear and Hot Springs were a blur except for the sunset from the top of Max Patch- one of the top 10 moments of the hike so far.

We pushed into Hot Springs, mile 270, where Day Tripper had to get off the trail.  I did laundry and stayed at Elmer's Sunnybank Inn, a very hiker-friendly place that I definitely recommend.  We had a delicious organic vegetarian meal of vegetable curry.  I am generally opposed to vegetarian food but it hit the spot.  I also watched a movie for the first time in months and it was awesome.

What I/we have learned the past week or so: find people that bring out the best in you. I realized that while the guys I was hiking with had what they thought was my best interest in mind, in the long run it was good for me to branch out.  To be frank, I have been surprised about the alcoholism and drug use on the trail.  That's why we pushed hard away from a few people after Gatlinburg.  It's easy to stand my ground and I am slowly finding my niche here. 

Also, I'm 100% healthy.  No blisters, knees are great, I'm eating enough, and I'm wearing sunscreen.

More on Hot Springs, etc later hopefully! The line for the computer is long.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Clingman's Dome and I Hate Ramen

After organizing food from my maildrop and tightening the laces on my new shoes (see previous post) I walked over Fontana Dam with Kristen and Khakis (his new trail name is Studmuffin) and climbed into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Every thru-hiker's story I have ever heard about the Smokies includes terrible weather, but so far we have had nothing but sunshine, blue skies, and 75 degree weather.  It has been blissful and perfect walking weather to say the least.  Despite the 6 oz of sunscreen that I have been carrying, I already have a killer tan.  Some trees are beginning to bud and wildflowers are out, but we still have weeks before there is enough tree cover to prevent the major tanning that is going on.

I have been hanging out with "the fraternity" some and have met some other great characters.  This is partially because of the rules of the national park.  All hikers must stay in shelters or camp next to them, so people are concentrated in small areas.  It is obnoxious in terms of mileage because some days I have had to choose between a 12 mile day and a 17 mile day when I really want to go 15 miles, for example.  Also, some of the shelters have bear cages around them and can be dirty.  And not all of them have outhouses- gross! The just have large shovels and a designated "toilet area".  Double gross.

My mileage has slightly slowed, but it's not because I don't want to go faster.  My muscles could take it (they called me thunder thighs for a reason) but I don't want to put unneccessary stress on my feet and knees at this point.  I need to be conservative with miles here to increase my chances of making it to Maine.   I have seen too many people drop out already due to blisters, leg and foot problems, and other uncontrollable issues such as family emergencies.  Also, I want to enjoy the scenary as much as possible through the Smokies while the weather lasts.

One major thing that has changed is my appetite.  I cannot stop eating.  Someone who is a veteran thru-hiker warned me that last time his hunger started on his ascent into the Smokies and didn't stop for 5 months.  I'm right on schedule with that.  I have 5 days of food for the Smokies and finished all my lunch and snack food in 3 days!  That's the reason that I am in Gatlinburg now.  The Gatlinburg Food City was like heaven today.  Also, I'm trying to find ways to vary my diet.  Yesterday I had Ramen for breakfast and for dinner.  I don't even like Ramen anymore, and I'm pretty sure my sweat is starting to smell like it. 

Despite the regulations and my insatiable appetite, my time in the Smokies has been incredible so far.  I've walked along 5000 ft high ridges with sweeping views of nothing but mountains all around me.  There are still a few patches of snow that have been easy to navigate.  Also, I reached the highest point on the AT- Clingman's Dome! It's 6643 ft above sea level I think.  It's kind of a tourist eyesore because there is a parking lot 0.5 miles from the top, but fortunately they were paving the parking lot so I got to enjoy the views alone.  I have been spending more and more time hiking alone lately, and I generally enjoy it.  I always know that there is someone I know ahead of me or behind me in case something happens.  I am never lonely and always know that there will be smiling faces to great me in camp or along the trail.

Clingman's Dome also put things in perspective because of the crystal-clear day.  We could see some of the mountains that we had climbed last week and the week before.  And last night (April 11) we stayed at a shelter at mile 200.  I'm completed almost 10% of the trail already, which actually seems like a lot because I never want this to end.

That day I got to hang out with a southbounder named Lucky whom I met in Virginia at the beginning of March.  That was really cool because as I passed the ~200 mile mark he was passing the ~2000 mile mark.  I had a good time hearing his trail stories and his thoughts as his trip is winding down.  I also am glad that I chose to go northbound because of the weather and the camraderie. The one main point that I have been ruminating about lately and Lucky agreed with is that the trail is a great equalizer (TAKE-HOME POINT).  Out here the things that we normally use to judge people don't matter.  Money doesn't matter.  Cars and houses don't matter. Education doesn't matter- in fact, only two or three people even know that I have a Masters degree and I'm going to keep it that way.  Religion doesn't matter- most people here are Christians, some are atheists, some are in between but few are judgemental.  The thing that brings us together is  our love of the trail and our common goal of walking north.  It also seems like we're all out here searching for something.  Some of us don't know what and unfortunately I think that many of us with never even find what we're looking for, but here's to hoping.

Right now I am in Gatlinburg, TN.  I got a ride here from another thru-hiker whose husband came to pick her up at Newfound Gap.  I have avoided hitch-hiking (the universe provides!) We are anxious to head back to the trail early tomorrow morning because this town is terribly tacky.  The lights are blinding and the traffic is too much to handle after just a few weeks on the trail.  And the town is bringing out the worst in some of us- another group is not quite dissolving but morphing into something stronger and better. That's the way it goes out here.  After less than 12 hours here we are ready to go home to the trail.

My next major stop is Hot Spring, NC.  Talk to you then!


Crocs, Thunder, and St Lightning (aka Kristen) to the Rescue!

Right now I am updating from Gatlinburg, TN where I am taking a 1/2 day to resupply.  I'm dividing this updates into two posts for easier reading. So this one is information about the stretch of trail from Franklin, NC to Fontana Dam.

Our group left Franklin in good spirits but quickly dissolved.  The break-neck pace that we were setting was fun while it lasted but was unsustainable.  We had planned on 10-12 mile days, but have already learned that planning in futile.  The first day out of Franklin Nick and I had to hike 15 miles because the shelter we had planned to stay at was full and there was no water and the following campsite.  Fortunately, we found cold Pepsi that a Trail Angel left in a cooler at Burningtown Gap, where we spent the night. 

The next few days were moderate mileage days into the Nantahala Outdoor Center.  The Nantahala mountains are breathtaking and my trail legs were getting stronger each day.  The weather was awesome and I continued to meet people, but I had a major problem developing.  I was still wearing the shoes that didn't fit in the toes.  My feet were majorly swollen and I had some killer blisters on every toes.  So I basically hobbled 30 miles from Franklin to the NOC with nothing keeping me going but the promise of new boots and the possibility of an ice cream cone.

I also got my trail name- THUNDER.  I love it.  Long story short, after some of the guys had been joking that my nickname should be thunder thighs, one of them (Tree) thought he saw me on the trail.  He called "Yo Thunder Thighs" up the trail

After an agonizing 3000 ft descent into the NOC, I arrived at the Outfitter just before closing time.  And.... not a SINGLE pair of shoes in my size.  Seriously? I wear a women's 8.5 or 9, which is average.  I did need wide shoes, but they didn't even have any none-wide ones for me to try on.

So I thanked the guy working there, and walked outside to where my friends were sitting and tried to pull myself together. No luck- the first major breakdown of the trip occured.  I burst out crying in the middle of the parking lot.  Fortunately I had some great friends there to console me, and although I felt a little foolish for crying, I wasn't the only person crying about something that day.  So it was ok and there was a very wonderful solution- my good friend Kristen from Utah volunteered to bring shoes to Franklin- more on that later.

The high point of the hike so far came later that evening, after I had a hamburger with Silent Bob from Pennsylvania and was sitting with my feet soaking in the Nantahala River.

And I hiked 25 of the next 27 miles in my pink Crocs.  Seriously, it was amazing and all of my blisters healed in three days!!  Despite a scary thunderstorm on a ridge after Stecoah Gap, those miles were awesome.  I started hanging out with a group of guys dubbed "The Fraternity".  They include characters named Superman, Cope, Grizzly, Hercules, Sockeye, etc.  They are somewhat rowdy men in their 20s and 30s who hike hard, party hard, and go to bed when I tell them to.  Most importantly, they are always looking out for me, and I am very, very grateful for that.

So the hike to Fontana was awesome, and it was then that I first felt like a thru-hiker.  I visited Fontana Dam on a geology fieldtrip in 2005, so it was the first place on my thru-hike that I had visited before.  I remember seeing the AT there in 2005 and knowing that someday I would return as a thru-hiker, and I did!

We took a shuttle into Fontana Village and ate hamburgers.  We washed up in secret showers that we found in the rec room of a hotel in the Village.  I had no soap so I filled my shoe with handsoap from the bathroom and took it to the shower.  I dried myself with paper towels.  Then I did laundry in a bucket at the carwash.  Seriously, the universe provides.

Then the long-awaited moment- Kristen drove all the way to Fontana from Birmingham Alabama!! She braved a rockslide and 7 hours in the car to bring me 8 pairs of shoes to try on! I found the perfect ones, and have had no blisters since.  She also brought hot dogs, donuts, and beer for me and all of my friends!  She stayed at the fancy shelter with us and hiked into the park with me the next morning.  It was wonderful to see her and I am so grateful to have such a wonderful friends.  The guys started calling her Lightning, and then St. Lighting- patron saint of vagrants and hobos.  She was a big hit because they hadn't seen a clean, pretty girl in a while.

So I set off into the Smokies with new shoes, new friends, and a huge smile on my face.  I'm going to find some ice cream in Gatlinburg now and then I'll be back to write a post about the first half of the Smokies.

The take home point of this section of the trip- the universe provides.  Everytime I have needed a person to give encouraging words, a water source, a sunny day, or a little bit of inspiration, there it is.


ps- Supposedly I have a theme song- "Thunder" by ACDC.  I have never heard it but people sing it as I enter or leave camp.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Free and Easy Down the Road I Go

Happy Easter! I'm in Franklin, North Carolina taking my first "zero day" of the trip.  My legs feel great but the pace we have set so far has been blistering (higher than my expected average for the whole trip!) so we are going to slow down a bit.   This entry is sort of disorganized but so much has happened already and I have limited space, so here it goes:

Will (trail name Bloody Nose) drove me to Springer Mountain on March 27.  It was a beautiful day to start a 2175 mile hike.  We hiked the 0.9 miles south to the top of Springer, I signed the register, we took the obligatory pictures, and I was off.  It was actually pretty anticlimatic.  Will and I stopped at the first shelter where he passed out some beer and soda to thru-hikers, and he hiked a few more miles with me to Three Forks, where we said goodbye.  I thought I would be sad at this point, but by this time I had met so many people that I already didn't feel alone.  I was really grateful that he could share the beginning of the experience with me and look forward to seeing him later down the trail.

The first day I hiked with Gutsy, an amazing 60-yr-old women who has already thru-hiked the AT, PCT, and most of the CDT.  She gave me tips on hiking alone, doing multiple 20 mile days in a row, and in general being a badass.  I enjoyed hiking with her so much that I went an extra 4 miles to camp with her at Cooper Gap.  This was an awesome decision because there was a "trail magic" event going on.  Trail magic is basically any help that a hiker gets from other people, or "trail angels".  Some 2009 thru-hikers had set up a grill and were passing out burgers, hot dogs, and beer.  I got some great advice from past hikers and made some great new friends on the first day on the trail.

Gutsy tried to persuade me to push 20 miles with her the next day into Neel's Gap, but I knew that would be reckless.  So I hiked alone for an hour until I met up with Nick from Georgia and his dog Jamie.  It was raining (with intermittent hail) all day so we hiked 15 miles to the Wood's Hole shelter.  We hunkered down and shared the space with four other hikers and began our routine of going to sleep at approximately 7:30.

The next day we did a short 4 mile day over Blood Mountain (no view) and went to Neel's Gap, where they have an outfitter and a hostel (and free hamburgers).  At the outfitter, Mountain Crossings, the employees go through thru-hikers' entire packs to help them shave weight.  Ryan (trail name Squirrel) helped me, and after telling me I needed to discard one tent stake, a Nalgene, and one pill bottle he said that it was the best pack he has seen all year!!!!!!  The total with no water and two days of food was 21.5 pounds. Sweet, no wonder my knees feel great so far.

Nick and I spent the night at the hostel, where we meet Nat (trail name Ice) who has since joined our group. Miss Janet and Baltimore Jack are some local legends who run the place, and they are awesome.  We also met an interesting skinny Asian 20-some-yr-old who was hiking in all wool and 6 pound boots. I gave him his trail name- Dry Clean.

The next morning Dry Clean, Ice, Nick  and I set out on what turned out to be a 22 mile day.  We didn't mean for it to be at first, but we started hiking and kept going!  The terrain wasn't bad, and at the end of the day I was tired but not exhausted.  It was at this point that we realized we could push hard and make it into Franklin for the Annual Hiker Bash this weekend- so that's what we did.

After a 16 mile day we stayed at the Blueberry Patch Hostel in Hiawasse, GA, which is run by a Christian couple.  The next day we crossed our first state line and were suddenly in North Carolina.  That was another 16 miler but the roughest day we have had.  The trail was suddenly much steeper and there was a controlled burn in the area so there was a lot of smoke and ash in the air.  At this point our "group" consisted of Nick, Ice, me, and Tyler aka Khakis and this is how it has stayed since.  Then came the second 20 miler as we pushed past people who had already been on the trail for two weeks. We were the only ones crazy enough to do two 20+ miles days in the first 7 days.

We made it into Franklin yesterday morning for the Hiker Bash and some much-needed rest.  Our plan is to slow down a bit, but we'll see.  Once I get going I like to keep going.  The thing limiting me now is definitely my feet.  My shoes are too small in the toe box so I have blisters on my toes.  The outfitter in Franklin is terrible and did not have a single pair of wide women's shoes are small men's shoes, so I'll have to make due and hope that the outfitter in 30 miles has a pair that will fit.

Franklin has been great- most of the people that we've met so far are here.  I told the group today that we are going to start the tradition of buying a lottery ticket in every state we hike through.  Nick won 40 bucks today.  We have been eating our share because the food we carry on the trail isn't great, but I haven't gotten sick of Ramen yet.

Other random tidbits- 
1) I don't have a trail name yet.  There have been suggestions including "Legs", "Gingerspice", "Not Ginger", "Thunder thighs", and some very inapprorpiate ones, but none have been fitting.  I'll let you know as soon as I accept one.

2) One highlight of the trail has in fact been the people.  After a week I already have some amazing friends.  The trail does "fast forward" friendships because it is a foreign environment and our daily struggles are the same.  There are some strong personalities, but I haven't met one person I dislike.
3) I don't have a schedule, but I will definitely be in Damascus, VA for Trail Days in May even if I have to find ride back. 

4) The weather has been amazing, minus one day of rain and hail.  It has been really warm my 20 degree sleeping bag has been very cozy at night.  I am looking forward to seeing the trees bloom as I "walk with spring" because there is no shade this time of year and my skin is suffering.

5) I have been taking pictures but have no way to upload them until I get to Catawba (600 miles from here).

The plan now is to leave tomorrow morning and arrive at the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center) in a few days.  We only have 60 miles left before Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is going to be rough.  There is still snow there and the rules about where to camp our pretty strict.  I don't know when my next update will be, but I will definitely update in Hot Springs (160 miles from here).  The elevation changes from here to the Smokies are brutal, but I think my legs can take it, especially since we are going to slow down.

Take home points:  The trail rocks, I'm healthy, and I have honestly never been happier.   Despite my big mileage I have not struggled much yet, and I know that will come eventually when the terrain gets harder, the weather gets bad, and some people go home. But for now it's springtime and the livin's easy here in North Carolina.