In September of this year I went on a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. I had been preparing for this trip for many months researching routes, running 15 miles a week in the early morning hours before work and other similar activities. I had some friends drive me from the NOC (Natahala Outdoor Center) down through the backcountry of North Carolina to an empty section of highway where the Appalachian Trail crosses highway 74. There they dropped me off at Winding Stair Gap, one of the many road crossings of the AT. From there I walked northbound back to the NOC. It’s not the longest time I’ve been in the woods but the 27.5 miles is the furthermost I’ve gone on a single hike.
In the beginning, I was bright eyed and bushy tailed to get on my journey. The first day, however, turned out to be one of the most brutal hikes I’ve made. The first day was mostly up hill as I had to climb two big mountains. The worst of which was the second one to Wayah Bald. To make matters worse the trail to the bald was mostly parallel to a road. I kept thinking of the non stop parade of cars rumbling up the road to get the view I was hoping to be rewarded with without having to “pay” for it. Once I got to the top I was too tired to care about all the loafers.
On the peak of Wayah’s Bald there was a stone tower with a platform on top. This picture is taken from that spot. The tower originally had a roof on it but much of the bald burned in the wildfires of 2016 and the roof was burned away. Only three blackened wooden stubs remained. There were a number of young men at the top from a teen challenge program. Teen Challenge is a faith based substance abuse program. It’s not actually for teens, it just started that way and they never changed the name. The majority of those in the program are adult age. The guys were very curious about my experience on the trail. We spoke of that and I asked them questions about how they were doing. The conversation turned to my nephew Ben who is lost to the world of substance abuse, some of them were on the streets far longer than Ben has been and they insisted that he is NOT beyond Gods reach. They said they would pray for him by name and I believe that they will. Who better to pray for a drug addict than someone who has lived it and been saved out of it. After taking a long break at the top I went about a mile down hill to the shelter for the evening.
Wayah Shelter is one of the hundreds of shelters scattered down the Appalachian Trail. They almost all have a water source nearby and many have a “privy”, essentially an outhouse. I normally don’t sleep in the shelter unless there is a massive storm situation due to the rats and bugs that also call these shelters home. The shelters are also a very social environment, the majority of hikers on the trail spend the night in or near these shelters. There was already a hiker there when I arrived. I later learned he was a Hare Krishna Monk from Connecticut who had started a through hike on the northern end after having his Visa Expire in India where he lived in a Monastery for 12 years. He went by the trail name of “Wondering Snail”. For those of you not familiar, a “trail name” is something given to those who “through hike”, a hiker who tries to do the entire AT in one year. These names are normally given to them by other hikers. I am not a through hiker but what they call a “section hiker” which is someone who hikes only a section. Section hikers normally do not have a trail name. Mr. Snail looked about as you would expect for a Hare Krishna monk, totally bald, somewhat pudgy, minimalist in gear and clothing. In fact, he wore something like a Kilt or a cloak. Upon returning to the USA which was now very alien to him he felt like living on the trail most resembled life at the monastery, few possessions, rise with the sun, sleep when it gets dark perform tasks in between.
Not too long after getting on the trail I realized I’d forgotten to pack my extra fuel canister for my stove. I had hoped the canister I had would last the trip but my hopes were extinguished when I attempted to start my stove only for it to immediately flame out. Fortunately, the kindly monk gave me one of his that was almost spent. It got me through dinner and breakfast the next morning. I offered the guy money for the fuel but he would have none of it. Sharing stuff is commonplace on the trail, what goes around comes around so to speak.
The following morning I continued on passing cold spring shelter. In front of the shelter was one of many water sources which amount to a spring where someone has hammered a PVC pipe in the ground.
Day two was easier than the first day with only one big hill to climb. At this mountain top I was treated to an even more impressive view at the top of a fire tower. This view you cannot get from a car as it is only accessible by trail. This is the view fromWesser Bald.
Upon finishing up the day down the hill to Wesser Shelter I found the water source. Apparently, the regular pipe was missing and someone had improvised a solution. Improvising is a necessary skill on the trail as things always go wrong and you cannot go to Wal Mart to deal with it. At the spring someone had taken the leaf from a Mountain Laurel tree which is fairly stiff and waxy and mounted it with a stone to make a water spout from which one can fill one’s water container.
With no fuel and in the spirit of improvisation I lit a small fire to heat my water for dinner. This worked fine for dinner but unfortunately the next morning there would be no time to repeat the task to make coffee. Alas improv can only take you so far and on the trail sometimes you just have to do without.
That evening at the shelter I met another southbound through hiker originally from Georgia his trail name was “Foghat”. He had retired at 61 and decided to do the trail before he got too old. We spoke for a while before it got dark. Interesting fact, his son who is also a backpacker was an extra in the Robert Redford film “A Walk in the Woods” about a man and his friend who attempted to walk the Appalachian trail. Early in the film while the two main characters were at Apalachicola State Park in Georgia he was seen in the background, first going into the lodge and later as the main characters ate breakfast he was one of several hikers eating at a table behind them.
The next morning as I descended down the mountain in the early hours of day three I had this view of the tops of the clouds down in the valley
Finally, I came to the end of my journey back at the NOC, I was pretty beat by then and the sight of the hiking and kayaking outfitter was definitely a welcome sight. I treated myself to a big greasy hamburger as I had only had a power bar that day. All in all the journey was everything I hoped it would be but it was even more physically challenging than I expected. The prep work I put in really did pay off. My legs were a little sore but at no point did the soreness become an issue. After eating lunch I relaxed with my feet in the Natahala river. The Natahala is exceedingly cold since it’s fed from the base of a lake many miles up stream. Nothing could have felt better on my feet. You learn many things on the trail but the primary lesson is that when things go wrong, you just have to keep going. You can’t worry too much about your next meal, because one way or another God will provide.