|©1996 George Steffanos|
By the time we had hitched a ride back to the Appalachian Trail and begun hiking, it was 1:30 in the afternoon. A big thunderstorm had rocked Franklin late last night, and the threat of more rain persisted throughout today. Thus, we were determined to stay in a shelter tonight. Our problem was that the next two AT shelters were, respectively, four miles and sixteen miles up the trail.
Our recent first taste of big mileage had whetted our appetites for more. Yesterday's hike had been cut short after nine miles by an unplanned night in town. We had both badly needed that interlude, but how could we settle for a mere thirteen-mile cumulative total from two days of hiking? Four miles seemed a pitiful goal upon which to set our sights today. On the other hand, in just seven-and-a-half hours, the last glimmers of twilight would flicker out. The 16.2-mile hike to Cold Spring Shelter was only three-and-a-half miles shorter than what we had covered on Tuesday over an entire day -- our greatest day. Nevertheless, not all decisions are made rationally.
I walked non-stop for ten miles. The first six were on a stretch of pleasant, but uneventful, connecting trail similar to the tail-end of yesterday's hike. Along the way, I crossed a low point of the ridgecrest known as Swinging Lick Gap (I'm sorry, but I cannot touch this one -- it's too easy. You are welcome to write your own punch line). I also wandered a while along the wooded crest of a 5000-footer called Silers Bald before descending to cross a narrow strip of state road in Wayah Gap.
This mountain pass marked the onset of a long climb up to the summit of Wayah Bald which was the grueling climax of the ten-mile grind. Along the crest, the AT joined a paved road which had also ascended from Wayah Gap. The hard surface was not kind to my feet, which had been pounded by my non-stop marathon. The soles were twin masses of contusions not yet recovered from the effects of the 19.7-mile hike two days earlier, and the continually-abraded wound on my right foot was a hunk of raw hamburger. I have experimented with numerous combinations of moleskin, band-aids, and adhesive tape in an attempt to discover a dressing which will keep the wound covered for more than five minutes of hiking. Nothing works. Once the leather of the boot begins scraping against it and the mud and water start working in, everything dissolves rather quickly.
The road led to a parking area near the summit, next to an observation tower which featured a set of latrines -- a rare find in these primitively-accoutred southern forests of the Appalachian Trail -- and a sweep of mountain panorama from the Blue Ridge to the Smokies. I sat down at the top of the tower, absorbing the views and attempting to remember why a sixteen-mile afternoon had seemed like such a great idea a few hours earlier.
I resumed hiking after but a ten-minute rest, once I had discovered that my battered feet throbbed much more painfully when I was off of them. I had abused them so thoroughly recently that they became desensitized while walking. As I went along, the pain faded to a dull ache, but I knew it would return once I had stopped for the night.
As the days have drifted past, I have been gradually perfecting a method of turning off my mind to the complaints of my body and just sort of cruising along on autopilot. The final six miles of today's hike were nothing more than a hazy blur of fatigue. I can barely remember anything of the trail past Wayah Bald until I reached the stubbly crest of a ridge crisscrossed by logging roads four miles later. From there, the Appalachian Trail descended for almost a mile through luxuriant rhododendron thickets reminiscent of that portion of the Blue Ridge between Muskrat Creek and Carter Gap. I traversed a swathe of beautiful, savage-looking rain forest in a lonesome valley surrounding a stream which the AT crossed on a log footbridge.
In the deepening twilight, I stumbled across a wide, grassy meadow carpeting a mountain pass called Burningtown Gap in a demented, rubber-legged race with nightfall. The final one-and-a-quarter miles to Cold Spring Shelter were all climb, and a fairly substantial one. During that last stretch, had my legs possessed the strength, they would have been kicking me in the butt for what I had done to them. Although dazed with exhaustion, thanks to frequent brief standing rests, I made it to the shelter as the last feeble glimmerings of twilight flickered out.
Unlike most AT shelters, which are situated beside the path or off on side trails, Cold Spring sits directly in the middle of the wide old woods road which the Appalachian Trail follows over Copper Bald. It is high up the mountainside, near the 5000-foot elevation contour, about twenty feet below a point on the ridgeline not far from to the summit.
Dave had pulled well ahead of me during the final few miles, so he was already here. Too tired to fix dinner, he was laying atop his sleeping bag, moaning and groaning. I spread out my sleeping bag, peeled off my boots and socks, and lay down to add my own accompaniment to the chorus. We lay back for fifteen minutes, laughing about what complete jerks we were in our coherent moments between whimpers. I finally forced myself to sit up long enough to fix myself a cold dinner of crackers, cheese, and Pop-Tarts. I stood up one more time to hang my food from the roof and collapsed gratefully back onto my sleeping bag.
Although my legs are completely spent and my feet are certified disaster areas, I feel fine. The past three days have completely turned the tide of this adventure. The night in Franklin restored my soul and the solid food I got there renewed my body. The two long hikes sandwiched around that day are beacons of light in a long, dark, tempestuous night of self-doubt -- a glimmer of hope for this hopeless quest.
Needless to say, Dave and I slept in late this morning. After finally awakening, we dawdled shamelessly as we limped through our preparations for the day's hike. As a result, at about 9:30, we found ourselves surrounded by a hyperactive horde of seventh and eighth-graders from a local school. They were all congregating at our shelter, waiting for their teachers to catch up to them before beginning the next leg of their hike. Dave began cracking good-natured hillbilly jokes, at which I tried very hard, but unsuccessfully, not to laugh. When Dave brought my attention to five or six boys decked out in imitation army jungle camouflage fatigues and baseball caps which read "Green Berets," I finally had to let go.
Eventually, their teachers arrived, and the group began to move out about fifteen minutes before our own 10:00 departure. Once Dave and I hit the trail, we caught up to them fairly quickly. We soon found ourselves walking directly behind the Green Berets, who were forming the group's rear guard. One of the boys turned towards another and said, "Hey, Jethro . . ." Smiling, I turned to Dave and silently mouthed the question, "Jethro?" He grinned wickedly and began to sing "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from the television show "The Beverly Hillbillies." We walked along, giggling like little kids.
We got into a conversation with the Green Berets, during which one boy kept calling Dave "Dude." Dave was amused by that nickname, but also fairly irritated. He repeatedly grumbled to me, "I hate the name Dude." So, from now on, Dave calls me Bat, and I call him Dude.
The group was extremely large and had spread out over a considerable length of trail. It took us a half-hour to pass through the entire formation. They were a cheerful and friendly bunch, with a delightful sense of humor. Dave and I were also feeling rather silly today. I don't think we stopped laughing once.
The Appalachian Trail was a gently-graded path, meandering along wooded mountainsides, avoiding the summits of Tellico, Black, and Rocky Balds, but touching their ridgecrests occasionally. After a long descent into Tellico Gap, it crossed a gravel road amidst a dense cedar forest and began to climb Wesser Bald. Dave and I had hiked about five miles when we reached the quarter-mile side trail to Wesser Bald's firetower. It was old and half-collapsed, but 360-degree vistas of shadow mountains and fog-shrouded valleys were visible through the haze from the top. The air was almost completely saturated with moisture. I could not understand how the atmosphere could hold so much water. Fortunately, the rain held off, although the afternoon remained oppressively muggy.
The trail down from the summit of Wesser Bald into the town was rugged and difficult. The AT repeatedly ascended and descended over a series of abrupt knobs along the crest of a long spur ridge. There were a couple of nice viewpoints through the trees, and an exceptional overlook of the Nantahala River valley from a rocky outcrop just before the final plunge off of the ridge. This last portion was long and steep, scrambling down a series of awkwardly-placed stone steps.
At 3:30 p.m., we broke out of the woods into a breezy little clearing. There we found the A. Rufus Morgan Shelter. Located only 8/10-of-a-mile from Wesser, it made a convenient spot at which to spend the night. Our original plans had included obtaining a motel room in Wesser itself, but our unscheduled stop, a mere two days ago, in Franklin called for a modification of plans.
We laid out our gear, settled in, and made dinner. At about 4:30, the massive thunderstorm which had been brewing all day finally struck. It spent itself rather quickly, though, and by 6:00 we had hung up our food out of the reach of small animals and were striding down into Wesser for a brief visit.
Heading north from Springer Mountain, Wesser, North Carolina is the first trail town through which the Appalachian Trail actually passes. This corner of town is a narrow strip along the floor of the deep, heavily-wooded, steep-walled gorge which the Nantahala River has gouged through the mountains. A line of railroad tracks and a sparse string of buildings are squeezed between the north bank of the river and the adjacent cliffs, and a two-lane thread of road fronts a few more buildings on the south side. The swirling rapids and scenic gorge form one of the most famous whitewater rafting centers in the southeast. Directly upon the AT's river crossing is the Nantahala Outdoor Center -- in fact, the trail passes over the stream on the small, wooden bridge along the driveway connecting their parking lot to US 19. They are major recreational outfitters whose facilities include a restaurant, a motel, and a large store featuring backpacking and rafting supplies.
Dave and I strolled around, absorbing the sights and sounds of the town for a while. It was a lively interlude from the relentless stillness of the forest. Exuberant rafters were milling around, laughing and shouting, riding their post-adventure highs. Trail towns are always an eagerly-anticipated blast of excitement for thru-hikers, but Wesser was something special for us tonight.
I stayed about an hour. Accumulated fatigue and an impending fair-sized walk back to the shelter pulled me away while the evening was still young. Clouds were also thickening once again. A pint of chocolate ice cream and an icy coke for my dessert helped ease the pain of separation. I raced back to the shelter in order to relax and enjoy them before turning in. Another big thunderstorm exploded just moments after my arrival. I kicked back on my sleeping bag, enjoying the fruits of my trip to the snack bar as I took in nature's light show.
I have recently developed another double blister on the sole of my left foot, between two of the toes, but all of the others have disappeared and been replaced by tough new calluses. This one, too, seems to be subsiding. With the exception of the mangled mass of pus and gore which used to be my little toe, my feet are beginning to become battle-hardened for the endless road ahead.
We completed our food shopping and moseyed on over to the restaurant. Dave selected their all-you-could-eat backpacker's special: a lentil soup, home-baked bread, and cheese. As usual, I was not feeling very vegetarian today, so I chose cheeseburgers and fries. The waitress looked at me like I was a maggot when she heard of the manner in which I was planning to pollute the temple of my body, but she thawed considerably after Dave had offered me a bite of that delicious bread and I asked her if I could buy some. It was a thoroughly pleasant meal. The great abundance of solid food which my body had been rediscovering lately contributed greatly to the expansiveness of my own mood.
The very casual, outdoors-oriented dining room featured huge glass windows looking out upon a lively set of rapids on the river below. We lingered there for a couple of hours, eating, writing letters, and enjoying the view of rafters and kayakers battling the racing waters. In addition, the place was teeming with those people who slightly resemble Dave and me, but tend to be smaller and curvier and a hell of a lot more interesting to look at. I seem to remember from a time in my life predating this adventure that they were called "women" or something like that.
We finally dragged our libidos, kicking and screaming, out of Wesser at 1:00. After crossing the railroad tracks, the Appalachian Trail began a major ascent, rising more than 3000 feet from the gorge. It was the biggest climb yet on the AT. Nevertheless, the trail was well laid out, and we were now LEAN, MEAN MILEAGE MACHINES, so it was no big deal. The ascent passed through vibrant jungles of rhododendron and hardwoods carpeted with moss and ferns and hung with vines and creepers.
We arrived at the shelter at 5:00, at the end of a short seven-and-a-half-mile hike from the A. Rufus Morgan Shelter. Sassafras Gap was by far the oldest lean-to I had yet encountered. It had been built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal creations. It looks every bit of its forty-four years, but, in these southern Appalachian rain forests, it is amazing that the place is still standing after all of this time.
An interesting old fellow showed up at the shelter not long before dark. He ate dinner and then presented to us a virtuoso solo acoustic rendition of the famous bean-eating scene from the Mel Brooks movie "Blazing Saddles" for the remainder of the night. Dave and I kept exchanging queasy looks and laughing as the shelter clouded up. Down, Mongo! Our own digestions were not being aided at all by his performance. Bad Mongo!
The old guy was heading southbound from the Great Smoky Mountains, and his dire warnings about the lingering cold up there began to trouble me. He told us that people were compelled to wear wool hats, down coats, and all of their clothes to bed each night. I had expected it to be chilly in those mountains due to the extremely high elevations, but I am not prepared for an arctic expedition. All I have with me in the way of warm clothes are a pair of long pants, a chamois shirt, and a wool sweater.
I relaxed considerably when he lay down in his sleeping bag for the night, still wearing his wool hat, his long johns and his parka. Dave and I are lying in our own bags wearing nothing but our underwear, and we are just a little too warm. It is the warmest night we have yet experienced on the entire trail.
A steep climb from the shelter brought us to the summit of Cheoah Bald, which was surrounded by a sprawling open meadow. The entire mountain was wreathed in dark clouds, so we missed out on some promising views, but I did enjoy the experience of meeting a large group of nice people who were camped in tents near the top. They were volunteer workers from a local Appalachian Trail club who were clearing the trail of brush and blowdowns, spending their weekend performing a great deal of hard work for no pay in order to make the trail more enjoyable for hikers like me. That is the manner in which most of the 2000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail are maintained. The AT could not exist were it not for the efforts of people like this.
The sun emerged on the ensuing descent, which was steep and muddy, making it tough to concurrently move fast and stay on my feet. When that was over, the AT traversed a group of very rugged knobs before descending to a road crossing at Stekoah Gap, where I caught up to Dave. We relaxed for a while in a roadside field. The grueling 6.3 miles I had just walked had chewed up almost three-and-a-half hours. The stretch of AT between Wesser and Fontana Village is reputed to be one of the most difficult sections of the entire trail, and it lived up to every bit of its reputation today.
We did not linger long in Stekoah Gap. The sun had disappeared again and a cold steel wind began lashing stinging splinters of mist across the meadow. The weather had turned schizophrenic; the warmest night of this adventure had been followed by the coldest and most blustery day. We quickly became chilled and were forced to move on in order to warm up.
An icy gray rain began to fall as we left that field. The top inch or so of clay beneath our feet turned into something resembling Vasoline. The trail we were hiking appeared to have been laid out by a psycho. It soared straight up for what seemed an eternity. Then, almost immediately, it lunged down a sharp, neck-breaking declivity, along which we gave back all of the altitude we had just struggled so hard to gain. At the bottom, we crossed Sweetwater Gap -- a razor-thin strip of level ground -- and began the worst ascent of the entire day.
For the next half-mile, the Appalachian Trail climbed a nightmare grade up a smooth slope lacking in bumps or rocks to utilize as handholds or footholds. I had to strain upward on tiptoes with my weight as far forward as possible. It was like an enormous demented treadmill designed for building huge thighs and calves.
At the end of that terrible climb, I turned to Dave and asked, "What would you do if some guy walked up to us right now and said, 'Hi! How did you fellows like the trail I laid out?'"
Dave was all for shooting his kneecaps off and then forcing him to carry our backpacks up that hill. Dave is a sick man. I merely wanted to squeeze the guy's neck until his veins popped out, his face turned purple, and his tongue swelled to the size of a grapefruit.
You don't have to be psychotic to hike the AT, but sometimes it helps -- for guys like Dave and me, anyway. There was one last similar climb along the remainder of today's hike. To employ a phrase I once read, "the air turned blue with profanity all around us" as we covered it, but it would be pointless to write down all of our remarks on that ascent. They might also be used against us someday in a court of law.
It was still fairly early in the afternoon when we stumbled into Cable Gap Shelter after 14.7 miles, but we decided to stop for the night. Cold rain and killer climbs had quelled our enthusiasm for any additional miles today.
Here at Cable Gap, Dave and I have caught up to, with the exception of Russ, the only thru-hikers that we had met thus far on the AT. They are known in the registers as Ron and Sonny the Wonder Dog. Ron is a dark-haired, heavily-bearded man who looks to be in his thirties. Sonny is a large, black mixed-breed resembling a Doberman whose ears and tail have not been trimmed. They are presently traveling with another dog -- a little white mongrel stray who followed them out of Wesser.
Ron broke out some good salami, and Dave turned us on to several joints of good pot. We all got very high and giggly. When thru-hikers get together, we love to share stories, and, God knows, we all have some good ones. We have been spinning tales all night as the rain patters down off the shelter's tin roof.
Ron said that he shocked his entire family when he told them he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. Previously, he had always been one of those people who jump into their car to travel one block to the store. He had never backpacked in his life before this trip. He had us rolling on the floor with anecdotes about his early misadventures with all of the unfamiliar new equipment he had bought for this hike. Having thrown away all of their instructions unread, he found himself on the trail, unable to pitch his tent or to run his stove. Fortunately, he had started on the AT in the middle of April, at a time when a lot of other prospective thru-hikers were heading out. There was always somebody around to help him, and he gradually learned everything he needed to know as he went along.
Ron has a great attitude and seems to be enjoying himself immensely. Out to have a good time, he has set no goals for himself concerning how far he intends to go on this trip or how fast.
Sonny is also a character. A large, mean-looking dog with an authoritative bark, he is, as Ron fondly informs us, an incredible coward who tends to cringe between his master's legs on those frequent occasions when something frightens him. Ron had a number of funny stories concerning the many near-tragic experiences when Sonny attempted to perform this maneuver while Ron was hiking. Needless to say, Ron has his hands full with Sonny. He is hoping to find someone to take that little stray off his hands in Fontana Village.
It is time for me to end this. I want to go rejoin the fun, and I am too stoned to write, anyway. Another trail town awaits tomorrow.
The onslaught continues unabated this morning. None of us are going anywhere just now -- beyond these walls lies nothing but misery.
As havens go, Cable Gap Shelter is something of an armpit. Rather than the usual wooden floor, it has a dirt one -- which is mud today. The sleeping arrangements are four ancient wire bunks in various stages of collapse attached to one of the side walls. There are numerous small leaks in the roof, and one major gusher. Dave discovered it last night when it caressed him awake with a soothing faceful of ice water. Despite all of the rain, the stream which runs alongside the shelter is a thin, dirty trickle, at which I needed two minutes to fill my canteen by scooping water into it with my coffee cup. It tasted rather foul, but I did not begrudge the effort. I learned my lesson about being finicky towards water back in Georgia. My lips are still black-edged and shredded.
Our enforced captivity has led to another round of stories. Ron mentioned to us this morning that he was supposed to be accompanied on this hike by a friend. They had planned this adventure while both were going through divorces, but the other fellow reconciled with his wife just before they were to leave. Ron tells us that she was just a little ticked-off when he asked her husband, "Does this mean you're not going with me?"
On a more serious note, Ron said that, back in mid-April when he started on the AT, he shared a shelter with fourteen other people -- all prospective thru-hikers. They were packed inside like sardines, and many were forced to pitch their tents outside. That makes me happy I started when I did, after the early crush. Ron now sees only four or five of their names still in the registers -- a grim example of the drop-out rate in Georgia.
The rain is tapering off. Perhaps we will make it to Fontana Village today, after all . . .
AFTERNOON, MILE 165.9 --- FONTANA DAM --- The rain continued to slacken, finally tapering off by midmorning. We had a late start to Fontana, but it was only a seven-mile hike.
The sun began to break out as we climbed the Yellow Creek Range. The trail was not overly difficult, and the afternoon turned out to be a pleasant one. At one point along the ridgecrest, I got a great picture of Fontana Dam and the huge lake it has formed, with the Great Smokies rising like blue-gray giants as a backdrop. Their summits were wreathed in clouds, but what else is new? That is how the mountain range got its name. Everywhere else I looked, the sun was brightly shining. [An omen whose significance escaped me completely -- see next chapter.]
A long descent brought us to North Carolina 28, the small, two-lane highway connecting Fontana Dam with the village. We dropped our gear off at the Fontana Dam Shelter, and are about to go into the village. More later.
7:15 P.M.--I am sitting in the Fontana Dam Shelter, known to backpackers as the Fontana Hilton. Constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (a federal agency which administers the nearby dam on the Little Tennessee River), on their grounds here for the use of long-distance hikers entering and exiting from the Great Smoky Mountains, it only superficially resembles the rustic, three-sided shelters provided for us along the rest of the Appalachian Trail. This place is a palace. It has beautifully finished hardwood floors, hardwood walls, hardwood ceilings and hardwood sleeping platforms, of which any homeowner would be proud. It is big enough to sleep twenty, and Dave, Ron, Sonny and I have it all to ourselves so far tonight.
I have just returned from Fontana Village, an expensive mountain resort community that originally was the housing for the construction workers when the dam was being built. It was three miles each way by road from the shelter, and I had to walk them all. Expensive resort communities make lousy areas in which to hitchhike. Yuppies don't like to have white trash backpacker scum in their shiny new BMW's and Mercedes.
In Fontana, my first stop was to pick up my supply package from home at the Post Office. It contained food and a clean towel, along with the Tennessee/North Carolina guidebook, all of which I placed into my backpack. I put my old towel, the Georgia/North Carolina guidebook, and the first three chapters of my journal back into the box, sealed it, and mailed it back home. I went next door to the grocery store and bought Pop-tarts, crackers, two boxes of Lipton Soup, a small jar of Tang, a small box of tea bags, and a copper pot and pan scrubber -- which hopefully will not rust like the steel wool pad which I had been using. Finally, I went next door to the laundromat and washed all of my clothes.
Everything in Fontana Village was too damned expensive -- the place is a resort trap for the rich. If I ever thru-hike again, I will use Wesser as a supply point. The Nantahala Outdoor Center in that town receives and holds packages for Appalachian Trail hikers.
The little mongrel following Ron and Sonny stayed in Fontana Village. I hope he finds a home with somebody. I am told that there are abandoned dogs in these mountains who work a stretch of trail between two towns, latching onto and mooching off of hikers as they pass between the towns, and then catching someone going the other way -- another sad story of life along the Appalachian Trail.
Back to the Fontana Hilton: there are real flush toilets in a rest room about a hundred yards down the road from this place, and free public showers a quarter-mile down the road at the dam. Both are very welcome. I have been on the trail for almost two weeks, now, and have only seen toilets three times and showers twice. There have not even been outhouses at the shelters this far south. Had I not stayed at the Walasiyi Inn on the trail in Georgia nor hitched into Franklin, North Carolina, where I lodged at Henry's Motel, things would have been even more grim in that respect.
Dave and I happened to run into a National Park Service Ranger in Fontana Village. She gave us the necessary thru-hiker permits, which allow us to use the shelters and campsites in the Great Smokies, so we are all set to enter the park tomorrow. We have eight days and seven nights in which to pass through. Ron and Sonny are getting a ride around the Smokies, where no dogs are allowed, but we will probably run into them again in Hot Springs, North Carolina. That will be the first town heading northward along the Appalachian Trail which is not located in a dry county, so just about every thru-hiker spends at least one night there.
An indispensable tool for thru-hikers is the ten-volume guide book set sold by the Appalachian Trail Conference. Fontana Dam marks the spot where Volume 2 takes over. After all of the troubles and tribulations of Georgia and parts of North Carolina for northbound thru-hikers, the feat of having walked your way through your first guidebook can be a momentous occasion -- for some more than others. Ron tells us that he met a man in Fontana Village today who was strutting around with the Tennessee/North Carolina guidebook (which covers the Appalachian Trail between Fontana Dam and the Virginia state line) in his hand, loudly proclaiming, "THE RED BOOK!! THE RED BOOK!! M_________er, we are in THE RED BOOK!! Throw away the m_________ing blue book! We are in THE RED BOOK!!"
I interrupted Ron's story to mention that the cover of the Tennessee/North Carolina guidebook was purple. "He didn't care," Ron told me. "To him, it was THE M_________ING RED BOOK!!"
I think I know exactly how that guy felt.
|©1996 George Steffanos
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