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Exile's_Home ©1996 George Steffanos

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Then The Hail Came

Last updated 10/4/96


CHAPTER I

REALITY SETS IN

(Springer Mountain, Georgia to Franklin, North Carolina)

TUESDAY, 5/3/83, MILE 7.7 --- Temperatures dropped considerably last night when the wind kicked up and stayed down today. Rather late on a cool, damp morning, I set out from Frosty Mountain, having smoked my last two cigarettes with breakfast. Springer Mountain

I covered the last four miles of the feeder trail, arriving at the summit of Springer Mountain just before noon. I used my camera's self-timer to take a picture of myself standing next to the sign marking the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Although my body was stiff and sore from yesterday, my spirits remained high. The weather soon took care of that.

A chill drizzle began to fall not long after I had left the summit. It hung on strong all day, occasionally intensifying into major downpours. Today's cold, rain sapped my strength even more than all of the climbing.

At a spot called Three Forks, four miles from Springer Mountain, the Appalachian Trail crossed a fire road beside the convergence of three streams which had become raging torrents. A blinding mass of rain was creating a surreal, semi-aquatic woodland. At the height of the downpour, a strange, blurry vision coalesced out of the mists and rain: an older backpacking couple hiking with a teenage blind girl being led by a reluctant cat on a leash. Conversation was next to impossible above the din of terrestrial and celestial waters. We nodded to each other, and I kept on walking. The rain curtain closed back around me and I was alone with the falling waters and the forest. Several minutes later, I mumbled to myself, "Well, that was interesting," and retreated back into a warm, dry corner of my subconscious as my body continued to trudge the wet, weary miles.

I reached Hawk Mountain Shelter at about 6:00 this evening, having hiked the final four miles of the feeder trail and less than eight miles of the Appalachian Trail. It added up to 11.6 miles -- not a bad day considering my physical condition and the weather.

Having seen a few Appalachian Trail shelters before this trip, I had a general idea of what to expect. This place is typical: a three-sided wooden structure with a tin roof, log walls built upon a stone foundation, and a floor and ceiling constructed of wooden boards. The floor, which is the sleeping platform, is raised a few feet above the ground. A roof overhang shelters the open front of the building from most of the weather, and a large stone fire pit stands before that opening.

An older gentleman and his Indian wife were working to build a fire in that pit when I got arrived. A moderately heavy rain was still falling; all of the wood was completely saturated. Never having had anyone to introduce us to the art of woodsmanship, my brother and I jumped into backpacking on our own several years ago, discovering the basics through the difficult method of making huge mistakes and learning from them. Thus, I was fascinated by this process and somewhat skeptical about the outcome. The old man was shaving slivers of dry wood from the center of a wet tree branch and carefully arranging them atop the slimy mixture of water and old ashes at the bottom of the pit. I was deeply impressed when they eventually succeeded, and a roaring blaze arose steaming and hissing into the rain, creating an island of comfort in the dark, raw night.

I got into a long conversation with this couple. I told them of my relative inexperience and my ambitious goal of reaching Katahdin. I was just beginning to discover that the food ration I had brought with me was inadequate after only two days on the trail. Being extremely skilled and knowledgeable in the ways of the forest, they grew mildly horrified about what I was attempting, and, in their concern, they spent hours describing wild plants such as leeks and violets which are abundant along the trail and can be used to supplement one's diet. I think they knew as well as I that such advice would be useless to me -- I could no more tell the difference between plants growing wild in the woods than they could find the correct connections if turned loose in the New York City subway system at rush hour -- but they did their best to help the crazy city boy.

I don't blame them for thinking I was crazy. I am counting on a buried streak of stubborn tenacity to overcome my personal shortcomings ands lack of experience until I learn enough to grow competent, and they do not know me well enough to judge whether I have what it takes for such an accomplishment. For that matter, I do not really know the answer to that question, either, but I certainly intend to find out.

The only other occupant of the shelter tonight was a younger man who spent the entire evening wrapped up in his sleeping bag. He was in a tired, miserable mood, and I did not really get a chance to know him.


WEDNESDAY, 5/4/83, MILE 16.7 --- I went to bed right after dinner, but was not destined to get much sleep. Somewhere around 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, the stillness of the mountain night was broken by the long, eerie shrieks of mortars plummeting to earth and subsequent loud explosions. I had read that the U.S. Army Rangers use the Chattahoochee National Forest for combat training; last night they played G.I. Joe until dawn. I was amused by the ridiculousness of the situation more than annoyed by the loss of sleep. I had only been on the Appalachian Trail for one day, and already it was so much stranger than I had imagined.

The surly camper at the shelter last night turned out to be a good guy when I talked to him today. Hell, I don't blame him for being miserable on a day like yesterday. It turns out that he is also attempting to hike the entire Appalachian Trail this summer. He is Dave Malone: an athletic-looking twenty-eight-year-old with a crew cut from Hamilton, Ohio. He told me that he had recently quit his job as a high school teacher and football coach, and was using this opportunity to try an AT thru-hike. He may have to drop out early if one of his job applications works out. Like me, he plans to work himself into shape and quit smoking on the trail.

As we were striding along, early in the day's hike, Dave turned to me and asked if my bag was wet. I told him not to get personal. For the remainder of the day, he would occasionally look at me, mutter, "Don't get personal," under his breath, and shake his head with a little smile. Hey, it did strike me as a fairly rude question.

Dave and I only made nine miles today. We were tired and sore and got off to a late start this morning. The terrain was heavily wooded with no real views, although there were some steep climbs. At Gooch Gap Shelter, where we are staying tonight, we met a twenty-year-old North Carolinian named Russ, who is also attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. He is in much better shape than Dave and me -- especially me. We are going to try to hike with him tomorrow. I don't know.


THURSDAY, 5/5/83, MILE 31.6 --- Dave, Russ, and I started out together this morning, but I fell behind somewhere in the middle of the day. It had been a good effort for me to have hung with them that long, and keeping up with them for a while allowed me to make much better time than previously on this trip. Dave is in much better shape than I; he managed to stay with Russ for the entire day, while I plodded along well behind them at my own pace.

After seven miles of ups and downs, with a decent view along the way from Ramrock Mountain's ridgecrest and some excellent vistas from the summit of Big Cedar Mountain, we hit a stretch of continuous climbing for the next six miles. That was where I lost Dave and Russ for the remainder of the day -- or, rather, where they lost me. It was a comparatively gentle climb for the most part, but I have a long way to go before my body is truly ready for this adventure. The day was sunny and hot, and I ran out of water about halfway through the climb. The heavy backpack I was carrying and the extra pounds of my overweight body had taken their toll on the soles of my feet, which felt torn and bleeding by the time I reached the end of that climb on the open summit of Blood Mountain. The best views thus far on the trail in Georgia picked up my spirits a bit.

I wanted to stop for the night at the stone shelter on top of Blood Mountain, but I was dieing of thirst and there was no water. I was left with no choice but to push on. In Neels Gap, two miles from the summit of Blood Mountain, there is a place called the Walasiyi Inn offering limited groceries and lodging. Only the vision of a cold coke and a hot shower carried my body limping down that final descent to the Inn.

The Walasiyi Inn has a measure of fame in hiker circles as being the only building on the entire Appalachian Trail through which the trail actually passes. It follows a path beneath a wooden arch connecting two sections of the building on its way back into the woods after crossing US Routes 19 and 129 in the bottom of the gap. I ducked inside the store, bought two packages of peanut butter crackers and two bags of m & m's, and immediately wolfed them all down. Then, I obtained a room for the night with a bath for fifteen dollars.

Dave and Russ, who were already here when I arrived, acquired a double room with no bath (they had to use mine) for nine dollars each. I stood under a steaming shower for a half-hour, washing my hair four times. I washed all of my dirty clothes and my cooking set in the sink, and I shaved. There is a flush toilet in my room! I have not even seen an outhouse since Amicalola Falls State Park.

I hiked 14.9 miles today -- my best hiking day by far on this trip. I will be able to enjoy the company of Dave and Russ at the beginning of the hike tomorrow. These are my two rewards because, for once, I did not know the meaning of the word quit.


FRIDAY, 5/6/83, Mile 42.6 --- I awoke this morning in a bed, feeling great. After that, the day went quickly downhill. Having foolishly started on the Appalachian Trail carrying no solid food, I was intending to remedy that situation by purchasing some at the Inn before leaving this morning. I forgot, and now the next store on the AT is 105 miles away. Nice going, ace.

I shot a bunch of pictures yesterday, on Big Cedar and Blood Mountain. My camera also received heavy use today, as I traversed another group of scenic ridges with equally picturesque names: Wolf Laurel Top, Cowrock Mountain, Corbin Horse Stamp. . .

The initial six miles of trail featured a long uphill climb similar to yesterday's and some steep downhills, but most of the trail was nicely graded. Dave and I completed that section around 11:00, Russ having long ago left us both in his dust. This was the point where my day began to fall apart. Once again, I did not have enough water. Russ had told us that water was to be found right on the Appalachian Trail, six-and-a-half miles from the Inn, at Whitley Gap Shelter. When Dave and I reached Tesnatee Gap after hiking those first six miles, I double-checked the guidebook and discovered that both water and shelter were on a side trail involving a three-mile round trip off the AT.

A United States Forest Service sign on the floor of the gap informed us that water was available on a trail down the side of the ridge. Dave and I elected to go for that. The sign said it was 2/10-of-a-mile. The sign lied. We had crawl and slide down an extremely steep slope for about a half-mile before we found the spring: a slow, muddy, shallow trickle. I was only able to coax about a pint of dirty water into my bottle, and then faced a daunting climb back up to the Appalachian Trail. I probably lost more than a pint in sweat climbing back up.

When we made it back to the AT, another very steep half-mile climb up out of the gap was followed by a short descent and yet another climb. Absolutely no breeze stirred the hot, muggy air. I managed to stretch that pint of dirty water for five miles to Low Gap Shelter, where the next water along the AT was located, but only at the expense of a moderate case of heat exhaustion and a bad case of chapped lips. By the time I arrived at the shelter, they were desiccated and cracking, and hurt like hell unless constantly kept wetted down with water. They are going to take a long time to heal.

I am going to pay much more careful attention to the location of water along the trail from now on. I am also going to be less finicky about that water when the situation demands it. I could have filled up my water bottle from that dirty little spring in Tesnatee Cap by catching it in my cup and pouring it into my bottle, but the water looked so unappetizing that I just did not bother. It was looking pretty damned tasty a couple of miles further down the trail.

I had once again fallen behind Dave on those final, parched miles, but I caught up with him at Low Gap Shelter at 4:00. His condition was almost as bad as my own. We are both spending the night here, having hiking eleven miles today. Russ had come by this place at 2:30, leaving a note for us in the register which said that he was moving on another six miles tonight to the next shelter. I guess we have seen the last of him. He was really much too fit for Dave and me to have hiked with him for long in this stage of our conditioning -- especially mine.

My spirits revived quickly as I lay back on my sleeping bag and sucked down cold water. I could almost feel my tissues re-hydrating as a coolness diffused throughout my overheated body. Dave and I have become fast friends over these past three days, and our joking and laughter tonight are helping me to forget the disillusionment of those last few miles. I feel exited and optimistic once more.


SATURDAY, 5/7/83, MILE 55.9 --- . . . And then, disaster struck. Last night, swarms of mice, the only permanent inhabitants of almost every Appalachian Trail shelter, staged a mass assault upon my backpack. Just as twilight faded away, I began to hear them rustling around in my pack and munching away at my precious and dwindling food supply. Dave, more experienced than I, had put his food in a stuff sack and hung it from a nail projecting out from a rafter beneath the shelter roof. I stood up, chased the little ba_____s away, and attempted to hang my entire fifty-pound backpack from another nail. The nail spun around just as I let go of my pack, sending the whole thing crashing down several feet onto the little toe of my shoeless right foot. Blood instantly began gushing out and I knew right away I was screwed. It was very dark, and I was very tired, so I merely wrapped the toe up with gauze, hung my pack on another nail, and left the wound to be attended to in the morning.

Those mice were incredible! I saw one shimmy down from the roof along the string of Dave's stuff sack and gnaw his way into the bag. By that time, we were simply too tired to care.

In the morning, I cleaned the toe with an alcohol prep pad, treated the wound with antibacterial ointment, and wrapped it in a Band-Aid and adhesive tape. About a square half-inch of flesh was missing from the toe, cut almost down to the bone. Every step I took today in those leather hiking boots was another adventure in pain.

Thru-hiker friendships are predicated upon the slower hiker being able to keep pace with the faster one. There is nothing personal about that. We are all of us on a mission, that mission being the center of our lives at the moment, around which all other considerations must revolve. Dave and I had become friends, but I would not have slowed down for him, and I did not expect him to do so for me. Dave was shooting for a fifteen-mile day to Montray Shelter, and I tried to stay with him. I tried. I did not quit. Damn it, I did not quit, but I failed. I struggled on through a haze of pain and fatigue until almost dark, but I only made thirteen miles to a campsite located on the site where an old "cheese factory" once stood, high on a ridge well up the slopes of Tray Mountain.

I don't know how I can go on now carrying 230 pounds of me and 50 pounds of supplies with merciless leather boots scouring the gouge in my toe, but I cannot quit. Damn it, I can't quit. Especially not now. Not this early. But how the hell can I go on?


SUNDAY, 5/8/83 ---
1:00 P.M., MILE 63.4--
Awakening in my tent just after midnight, feeling the need to go pay a visit to a nearby tree, I instantly felt a vague sense of uneasiness rippling through the dark forest. Outside, the air seemed leaden and dead. The evening breeze had died, and the gorgeous starry canopy beneath which I had gone to bed had faded to dark grays and black. Standing in the murky stillness on Tray Mountain, I gazed out over black, lifeless valleys. A tiny cluster of electric lights flickered along the far eastern horizon -- the first I have seen thus far from the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. I turned to the west and watched as the distant sky was briefly lit by a flash of lightning many, many miles away, beyond that horizon. Dead silence. A somewhat eerie beauty, with ominous undercurrents. It appeared that I had picked a bad night to pitch a tent.

I awoke to a deluge of biblical proportions in the morning. There is nothing like trying to pack up everything you own in a downpour. My sleeping bag was soaked, my tent was hopeless; everything was drenched. Adding insult to injury, the rain came to a dead stop about five minutes after I had finished.

I am writing this entry at Addis Gap Shelter, seven-and-a-half miles further up the Appalachian Trail, where I have stopped for lunch. My backpack must be ten pounds heavier than yesterday just from all of the water which has soaked into my belongings. I feel a desperate need to keep driving myself now. My boots feel like sandpaper against that deep wound. Fourteen miles remain in Georgia, and I hope to cover five or six more of them this afternoon before I call it a night. It hurts like hell, but for once in my life I have to find a way not to quit.

Someone left a plastic container full of caramel corn at this shelter. My supply of solid food is extremely low and I am constantly hungry, but it would be disgusting to eat food like that when you don't know where it has been, right? Hey, it was delicious. You do what you have to do to survive.

NIGHT, MILE 68.8--My tent is pitched in the woods just past Dicks Creek Gap less than nine miles from the North Carolina border. Once again, I pushed myself past sunset in an attempt to make decent mileage in spite of all of my physical infirmities. I can't let myself wimp out. My new mantra.

In addition to the chunk missing from my little toe, I have developed huge blisters between the big and second toes on both of my feet. They each compete for attention with the scattered blisters on my soles and heels in the symphony of pain which walking has become. To top it all off, while driving myself beyond exhaustion yesterday in an attempt to catch up to Dave, I took a violent header and came down hard on my left knee; it was swollen and throbbing all day today.

I had a faint hope of catching up to Dave, but obviously the thirteen miles I eked out were just not enough. Tomorrow night, barring further catastrophes, I will be in North Carolina. Thank God. Georgia has been rough, and my luck here has not been all that great.


MONDAY, 5/9/83, MILE 80.7---
1:45 P.M., MILE 77.5--BLY GAP, NORTH CAROLINA--
Dicks Creek Cap, in which I camped last night, is the point where the Appalachian Trail crosses a lonely stretch of US 76. I made my supper in a roadside picnic area at the crossing. While it was cooking, a backpacker came stumbling across the road: Dave. It seems that he got a very late start yesterday morning, trying to wait out the rain, and I passed the side trail to Montray Shelter before he had set out. It appears I will have some company again for a while, after all -- if I can keep up.

We made camp a short distance from the roadside. A blaze of light woke us up at about 1:00 in the morning. A car was parked in the picnic area facing the woods around our tents and people were thrashing around at the edge of the parking area. We met the car's occupants when we made our breakfasts in the picnic area this morning. Two guys had become lost on the roads, and found themselves driving in circles through the mountains. They saw the picnic area, drove in, set up a tent by the light of their car's high beams, and then decided they would rather sleep in the car. Sounds like they had a pretty good buzz going.

I awoke this morning at first light. The temperature had dropped down to near freezing and the breeze had died. A heavy, gelid mist hung suspended in the still, frosty air. Like most of the forests through which I passed in Georgia's Blue Ridge, this one was a maze of vines and creepers draping down from gnarled, moss-covered trees. I was an alien from a far distant country called New England. The cries of strange birds filled the air. I was less than one hundred yards from a road, yet it was an intensely primeval setting.

Once we had climbed above the valley fog, an awesome spectacle awaited. The sun was just below the ridges to the east. A long, broad valley buried beneath a motionless mass of low clouds cut through the mountains like a flash-frozen whitewater river. Low peaks near the edges rose above the stationary rapids like small islands. Long vapor waterfalls streamed down the surrounding slopes. The entire river tableau lay frozen in a split-second of time until the sun appeared and slowly began to stir the placid morning air.

Dave and I are now having lunch in Bly Gap, just across the state line into North Carolina. One state down and eleven to go. A large meadow runs down the side of the ridge from the crest here, with an excellent view of the valley far below. It is a gorgeous afternoon: gauzy fair-weather clouds streaking across a soft blue sky. I am just going to lie in the sunshine and enjoy it for a while. My shoes, socks, tent, sleeping bag, and towel are all spread out on the grass next to me, finally beginning to dry out from all of that rain. Soon, Dave and I will go to find the water that the guidebook tells us is located here, and we will tank up for the afternoon portion of today's adventure.

Dave just asked me again if my bag was dry. I again told him it was none of his business. I guess experienced hikers must ask each other deeply personal questions like this a lot. He is looking at me, shaking his had, and muttering again.

NIGHT, MILE 80.7--There was no water to be found in Bly Gap, and Dave and I were counting on it. One of the two springs mentioned in the guidebook was dry, and we could not find the other one. The guidebook's directions to this second spring were fairly vague. We gave up after wandering for more than a half-hour on unmarked side trails. Therefore, we were compelled to make the steep, one-mile climb up Courthouse Bald beneath a blazing sun with absolutely no water on a muggy, subtropical afternoon.

Stretches of that climb were almost vertical. Near the top of one of the worst of these, Dave's canteen fell out of his backpack and slid all the way to the bottom. Dave later told me that he almost cried when he had to go back down to retrieve it. I think he was joking. I was not there when it happened. Once again, I had fallen way behind.

I almost began to whimper when I finally caught sight of a gushing piped spring ahead on the trail near Muskrat Creek Shelter; it was such a relief to see some good drinking water. My already-damaged lips had been devastated, attaining the appearance and feel of old, cracked leather, and turning black around the edges. Needless to say, I am now one handsome dude. I was feeling completely done in from the effects of dehydration, killing what was looking to be a good day for mileage. Dave and I stopped for the night at Muskrat Creek Shelter. It was just 4:00. We had hiked twelve miles today, with only three of them coming after our lunch break at Bly Gap.

The one bright spot this afternoon and evening is Muskrat Creek Shelter itself. It is unique: an attractive and large wooden A-frame structure hidden in a dense, tangled mass of rhododendron. I have never before seen these plants growing as trees, and here all around me is an entire forest, resembling a tropical jungle. With all of this exotic beauty, it is hard for me to believe that some jerk has ripped most of the nice wooden roofing tiles off of the shelter to use as fuel for his fire. The place has been wounded, but retains its charms; I am happy to be staying here tonight.


TUESDAY, 5/10/83, MILE 100.4---I fell asleep last night still feeling a little discouraged by a day which initially seemed so promising for mileage and then had ended so badly. My stomach was increasingly grumbling about the prolonged lack of solid foods in my diet.

I have resolved to carry plenty of these from here on, and never again to run out of water. Dave, who is more experienced than I, had brought solid food with him on the trail, but has now almost run out. As a result, the two of us spend a great deal of time after dinner sitting around the shelters, reminiscing fondly about steak, pizza, bread, fresh fruit, our favorite restaurants. . . It is mildly amusing, the way our conversations manage to suddenly find their way to the subject of food from any and all topics.

I felt unbelievably run-down and sore when I awoke today. One of the large blisters between my toes now had a smaller blister growing directly out of it, and that smaller blister had an even smaller blister growing up out of it. The deep wound on my little toe was becoming severely infected. I was one sorry specimen. Looking at myself, I could not imagine how I could go on even one more day.

Five minutes after beginning my hike, it was obvious that this was finally going to be my breakthrough hike. For some reason, after I started moving I felt wonderful. All of the injuries still hurt like hell, but did not seem to matter. That was just background noise. I could feel the reserves full of power and sense the incipient strength of my will. For the first time on this quest, finally, I knew I could touch greatness.

The air was cool and fresh; the scenery was an attractive mixture of rhododendron thickets, ferns, moss, and leafy woods; and the trailsides were covered with legions of tiny, brilliant blue flowers called bluets which have brightened the Appalachian Trail from the start back in Georgia. I saw a white-tailed deer crashing through the woods. A squirrel ran along a log past my feet and I laughed. The trail itself was a piece of cake. I felt lighthearted and indestructible.

As I was cruising along, near Wateroak Gap, I met an older gentleman strolling down the trail from the opposite direction. "You must be a thru-hiker," he said to me.

I laughed. "You mean you can smell me from there?"

I cannot explain it, but we hit it right off. We stood and chatted for a while like old friends, and then he said, "I'm in the homestretch, myself. I started from Katahdin thirteen years ago," looking at me as if I was supposed to be as thrilled and as happy about his imminent victory as he was.

And, strangely, I was. It touched something in me, and I grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously, feeling as proud and joyous for him as if he were my oldest and best friend. We both laughed at my enthusiasm, and he said, "Good luck. I hope you make it."

How could I let him down? Perhaps for the first time in my life, how could I let me down? After that chance meeting, how could I not be great today? I was so psyched for him that I was able to put that adrenaline rush to work for me. I averaged more than two miles per hour all day long, compared to a one to one-and-a-half miles per hour pace that I had been running on this hike. Something kept haunted me. A look in his eyes. A sense of peace and of growing triumph. I wanted that look. A dim mental image of my own distant moment of imminent victory began to take shape in my mind.

I stopped for the first time today after five miles at Standing Indian Shelter. Dave, who had been a little behind me leaving Muskrat Creek Shelter this morning, caught up to me there. He was feeling as great as I was, and we decided to each go for our biggest day yet together.

The trail up to the top of Standing Indian was so well graded that I was able to cover the entire two-mile climb in less than an hour, without stopping for breaks. The summit was partially open, with a 360-degree view -- the best yet on the trail. Standing Indian is known as the "Grandstand of the Southern Appalachians" because of its central location in that intricate maze of mountain ranges. Towering heights carved by green valleys stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction.

The trail down the other side was fascinating. We followed wide, grassy paths (old woods roads) along a frequently narrow ridgecrest through countless thickets of rhododendron. There were some inexplicably barren sandy and rocky patches in the midst of all of that lush foliage. We had already covered almost ten miles when we stopped for lunch in a clearing at Beech Gap, three miles past the summit.

The next portion of the hike was every bit as scenic as the morning's had been. It was mostly sidehill trail, well down from the ridgecrest. The Appalachian Trail journeyed through a landscape of twisted masses of rhododendron jungles breached by small, rocky streams bordered by profusions of growth, even wilder and more densely entangled. At times, the trail was a tunnel, completely encircled by rhododendron, their thickly interwoven branches forming walls and a roof.

After a while, I was making my way across a slope halfway up a ridge which formed part of the encirclement around a remote mountain valley filled with thickets of dense rhododendron and other lush vegetation. I came around to the head of the valley and encountered the stream whose roar had been audible across the valley floor the whole time, although the stream itself had remained invisible beneath the riot of foliage. The headwall was a neat little spot, where a small but lively stream formed small cascades through and around a jumble of rocks and tree roots. Large trees draped with thick vines and covered with moss rose beside the banks amid the rhododendron.

After that, it was two miles to Carter Gap, a good deal of the last mile-and-a-half being along the ridgecrest once again. From the gap, the Appalachian Trail left the Blue Ridge and swung around the bases of a couple of mountains to the beginning of the Nantahalas, a cross range which it would follow westward towards the Great Smoky Mountains. When I reached ridgeline in the Nantahalas, the crest was narrow and the trees small, allowing constant partial views into the adjacent valleys. A great viewpoint of the surrounding mountains with haze-shrouded valleys had been cut out of the forest at the end of a short side trail along the crest of this ridge.

By 4:30, when I reached Betty's Creek Gap, I had already surpassed my previous longest day, having hiked almost seventeen miles. At that point I caught an intense second wind and made the ensuing two-and-a-half-mile ascent of Albert Mountain without a stop. The Appalachian Trail climbed diagonally across a steep mountain slope through dense thickets of rhododendron and other trees with a precipitous drop often only inches away to my right and vertical rock walls rising to my left. I crossed a gravel United States Forest Service road a couple of times before the steep, rocky quarter-mile scramble over giant boulders to the summit and its firetower. There were some great views from the sun-warmed rocks around the summit, and the firetower provided us with vistas which eclipsed those we had experienced this morning on Standing Indian.

After our break atop the firetower, all that remained for Dave and me was a half-mile hobble to Big Spring Shelter, where I discovered amazing new frontiers of pain the moment I removed my boots and full circulation of blood returned to my feet. They were brutally bruised and battered by the miles. So were Dave's. We didn't care. We had come almost twenty miles today and passed the hundred-mile mark on our hikes.

We collapsed upon our sleeping bags, too tired and sore to fix our dinners right away. We lay there, moaning in pain and basking in our own glory. We rode a soaring emotional high all through the night, joking and giggling like little children. I proclaimed us both "LEAN, MEAN MILEAGE MACHINES." A night such as this makes all of the days of pain and fatigue worthwhile.

I can do this. I finally know that I can do this.


WEDNESDAY, 5/11/83, MILE 109.5 --- I slept late this morning; it was past 10:00 when I hit the trail. The footway was once again carefully graded. The miles drifted by pleasantly. After hiking five-and-a-half miles in just over two hours, I took a leisurely break at Rock Gap Shelter, relaxing and reading the shelter register.

Registers are an interesting facet of Appalachian Trail life. They began as terse forms, where hikers would sign in with their names and the date, along with their starting point and intended destination, enabling authorities to gauge the density of trail and shelter use, while, at the same time, providing searchers with an idea of the last known whereabouts of missing hikers. Today, hikers and trail clubs leave thick spiral notebooks in each shelter, where backpackers write often lengthy entries which include notes to other hikers, comments on the trail, helpful information for fellow hikers, and the occasional humorous essays. They have become the best source of information and entertainment on the Appalachian Trail, as well as a link to other hikers.

Some of the thru-hikers up ahead on the trail are almost beginning to feel like friends from my constant reading of their thoughts and plans. I made my own entry for the entertainment of those who follow.

It is amazing to me how many prospective thru-hikers who started on the trail this spring have already dropped by the wayside. The attrition rate in Georgia alone must have surpassed fifty percent. I am still here, though.

When I left that shelter at 12:45, the sky showed vague signs of possible rain, but the threat never materialized. The next four miles were basically connecting trail, as the Appalachian Trail descended to cross Old US 64 in Wallace Gap and then wound through quiet woods, crossing several streams. I encountered a group of women from the local trail club doing trail maintenance and stopped to talk with them. Dave, who had left the shelter much earlier than I this morning, had left a message with them, informing me that he would be hitching a ride into Franklin, North Carolina from Winding Stair Gap, up ahead on the trail. He needed to call home and ask his family to send some new boots to his mail drop at Fontana Village, fifty-seven miles up the AT. He also asked the ladies to tell me that he would meet me at the next shelter tonight.

When I reached Winding Stair Gap, I found a parking area by the side of the new US Highway 64, a main thoroughfare in these parts. At the edge of the parking area, a pipe jutting out from a large rock formation was gushing out delicious, cold spring water. I filled up my water bottle and sat down to drink my fill before continuing on the Appalachian Trail.

I was extremely envious of Dave for being in a town. I was dirty and sweaty from six days on the trail, and my stomach was crying out for real food. Wesser, North Carolina, the first town on the AT, was still two days' hike away, and that seemed like forever at that moment. I was tempted to try my luck, too, but it was 2:00, and Franklin was a fifteen-mile hitch from that spot. It is always difficult to obtain a ride when carrying a large backpack.

As I sat there feeling sorry for myself, a pickup truck containing an older couple pulled into the parking area. The lady in the passenger seat rolled down her window and asked me if I needed a ride into town. What was I going to say? No? The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the bed of that pickup, rolling down US 64 into a lush, green valley filled with the vibrancy of spring and the promise of cheeseburgers.

They dropped me off at the local Hardees. When the smoke had cleared, my stomach was the happy new owner of two quarter-pound cheeseburgers, a large order of fries, and a chocolate milk shake. Back outside, the world was all rosy and my stomach had shut up for the first time in days. I bumped into Dave walking down the street, and we decided to get a room in town tonight, seeing as how we were both already here.

A local resident told us about a motel owned by an elderly lady who was partial to hikers, so we went over there to check it out. She told us she would give us a room for twelve dollars if we wanted to share a bed, or we could pay fourteen dollars for two beds. I laughed and said to Dave, "I don't know about you, but I think I'll go the extra dollar."

A laundromat was directly across the street, and so, within an hour, we were luxuriating in clean clothes and bodies. Rebirth.

Tonight Dave and I visited a steak house. I feasted upon a fourteen-ounce steak, garlic toast, and a baked potato with sour cream. It was a sublime experience. All of the steaks on the menu had cutesy little western names. I felt foolish talking like that, so I attempted to order my steak by the description rather than by name. It was of no use. I wound up confusing the waitress, who finally blurted out, "Oh! You mean you want the Bat Masterson." Dave got a real kick out of that incident and has persisted in calling me "Bat" ever since.

After dinner, I stopped at a supermarket to finally obtain some solid food for the trail. I picked up Pop-Tarts, crackers, and cheese. I will never again be without on this trip.

It was 10:00 when I finished shopping. The streets were deserted except for me and some crickets. The store had been the only business in town still open, and it was just closing. I stopped to buy a coke from something labeled "Talking Vending Machine."

Dropping my coins in the slot, I was treated to the tinkling notes of a music box playing the song "Home On The Range."

The voice sounded like Carlton the Doorman on the T.V. show "Rhoda."

"Thank you for choosing the Talking Vending Machine. Please make your selection."

I obtained my coke, the machine thanked me again, and I said, "You're welcome."

The Appalachian Trail is a universe unto itself. Turning away from 1983 cutting-edge soft drink vending technology, I returned to the slumbering streets of a backwater mountain town. Strolling back to Henry's Motel, I mused upon the strange variety of experience which the journey had already provided. I had been out for ten days. It is a weird and wonderful trail.

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©1996 George Steffanos

gsat@skwc.com

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