Appalachian Trail 2021, journal entry 2
Start: April 2, AT mile 1
End: April 3, AT mile 18.6
Outside the wind picks up again during the night, but bundled up inside the van we stay toasty warm, even when my small thermometer on my pack reads 27 degrees. Despite the warmth, I sleep poorly. I spend an hour or so debating about whether I have to pee badly enough to get up, knowing full well that whenever this debate outlasts a minute, the correct answer is yes, yes I do. Eventually I grab the empty Gatorade bottle from my pack, and kneeling in my quilt, pee into the bottle while Smatt sleeps beside me. When I tell him about this adventure in the morning he tells me, "Yeah, I heard that one."
We wake up with the sun before 7am, and when I take my thermometer outside, it reads 17 degrees. The wind has died down, thankfully, but it is still frigid. "When I thru-hiked," Smatt says, "all of the hikers grow out of Springer Mountain shelter by 7am." "I bet they're going to sleep in after a night like that," I tell him. Nevertheless, we get a round of hot chocolate started, heating a pot full of water, almond milk, and Swiss Miss packets. While we stand around the parking lot shivering we drink our own hot chocolate and give some to Mountain Squid, a trail angel also doing trail magic at the parking lot, handing out sugary juice boxes. "Zero percent juice, but pretty tasty," he tells hikers, and I remember getting one of these from him in this same parking lot back in 2011.
We hand hot cups to two shivering hikers who camped near the parking lot that night. "How did you sleep," I ask the woman. "I didn't," she says. "It was a miserable night." She sips the hot chocolate gratefully though, while continuing to shiver. "Can I get a picture?" I ask while she drinks the hot chocolate. "Absolutely not," she says, shaking her head. She is getting off trail, she says, quitting the thru-hike at mile one. She's from Florida and had never experienced cold like that before. Her friend, a man from New Hampshire, was less phased by the experience. "Oh, it was cold, but I survived," he says, planning on continuing his hike after seeing her safely off.
For the first 2 hours, all we see are hikers being dropped off in vehicles at the parking lot. Most of these hikers decline our offer of hot chocolate, having not yet been outside in the cold or hiked any yet. Eventually, after 9am, we decide to take the hot chocolate to the shelter, and see if we can warm up any of the hikers there.
We heat up a second pot of hot chocolate, pour it into the carafe we bought from Goodwill a few days before, and with carafe and styrofoam cups in hand, we set out on the trail south for the shelter.
On the way to the shelter we see Yeti, a tall, experienced hiker who has already hiked the PCT, and Dannielle, a short woman of about 30 bundled up with just her face peeking out of her layers of puffy clothes. Both of these hikers are much more enthusiastic about our offer, sipping their hot cups while we stop and chat with them. "That was my first trail magic!" Dannielle exclaims.
After the shelter, I see many of the hikers I met the night before, and they are all happy to see that we are bringing hot drinks. We manage to get hot cups and almost everyone's hands before running out of hot chocolate, squirting the last dregs into a cup for Randy, originally from New York but now from Florida, who is hiking with his sister and their friend. I don't see Dee anywhere, and start to get worried that she passed us on the trail while we were at the shelter. After chatting with the hikers still packing up at the shelter, we hustle back to the parking lot with the empty carafe and dirty cups.
I ask Mountain Squid if he's seen Dee. He consults his paper list. "Nope, not today." We hang out at the parking lot for another hour, packing up and getting the van ready for Smatt to take for the summer. The woman from Florida who is getting off trail sees us packing up, and Smatt offers to take her and her friend down into town for free. I give Smatt a hug, one of my first post-vaccine hugs, and then am alone again, hiking north to Maine.
Along the trail I meet Steven, a hiker I had seen at the shelter last night and again this morning, and we hike and chat together. He was a nurse in Hawaii before quitting his job to hike the trail, and reconnected romantically with a childhood friend in New York right before the hike. I pry, asking him about the difficulties of keeping a new relationship alive while hiking the trail. He shrugs, "We'll just see how it all works out." He continues on ahead when I stop to investigate an empty shelter and sign the log book.
Pretty soon I see Dannielle again, somewhat less bundled now that it has warmed up, and we hike together. Dannielle is from North Carolina, "the beach, not the mountains," and talks with a slight North Carolinian drawl. She was is a medic in the Air Force, before becoming a paramedic in civilian life, and is hiking to try to escape trauma, abuse and depression. I tell her my circumstances are different, but I am also trying to find happiness, and rekindle some of the peace and joy I found on my '11 hike. She tells me about some of the life challenges she's overcome, about her tiny 10lb dog and her boyfriend's three much larger ones. The largest dog is named after a female MMA fighter I have never heard of, but then I don't think I've heard of any MMA fighters, so this isn't saying much.
We walk and talk together for most of the afternoon, and when we are about to stop for a lunch break, we see a pickup truck with a trail magic sign on the side. "Are you thru-hiking?" a man asks us. "We have all kinds of snacks and drinks this way." As he leads us down the gravel road away from the trail, he tells us how the ATC has been taking down their signs for trail magic, even though they are set up on private property, and leave everything cleaner than when they found it.
At the bottom of the road we find a pavilion with a giant tent filled with candy, potato chips, and bars of all kinds, sodas in a cooler and Gatorade nearby. A half dozen men and women, most of them in their 50s or older, sit around a campfire while Dannielle and I take off our packs and survey the selection. We sit in folding chairs around the fire, eating clementines and drinking soda. We chat a little bit with the trail angels, who are part of a church group and have been doing trail magic the first weekend in April for more than 10 years now. I notice, however, that several of the cars in the campground have both Appalachian Trail and Trump bumper stickers. Between that and the smoke from the fire that keeps blowing in my face, the clementine starts to taste a little less sweet.
There is a crazy looking spinning seesaw near the pavilion. "I'll bet you won't get on their with me," Dannielle goads me. I don't need much encouragement, and while the logistics of us both climbing on simultaneously are somewhat challenging, both of us being short, once we are on we let one of the trail angels spin us, and the look of sheer exuberance on Dannielle's face makes the side trip worthwhile for me.
Back on trail we meet ridgerunner Moxie, the first other hiker I see on the trail wearing a mask. She is from Virginia but has moved around through ten different states since hiking the AT in 2014. "I've been everywhere, man," I sing to her, and she laughs. "Right. I love that song." The song is still stuck in my head when Dannielle and I continue hiking, but I can't remember any of the locations, so my crooning is short lived. "You really don't want to hear me sing," laughs Dannielle. "But I'll memorize the lyrics for you when I have service," she promises.
We decide to stop for the day at Hawk Mountain Shelter, an 8.1 mile day, not counting the two miles of trail magic hiking I did in the morning. The ridgerunner has advised us to tent as far from the shelter as possible to avoid the numerous and aggressive mice. Dannielle picks out the spot furthest from the shelter and calls to me that there's another spot right next to it, so I set up my new homemade tent for the first time there.
"Will you teach me how to throw a bear line?" she asks. "Sure, but they have bear boxes right there," I tell her, pointing. "Oh, not now, I mean when we get further north, out of Georgia."
We setup camp and then sit down at the picnic table by the shelter, where Steven is cooking dinner. We eat in relative quiet, decompressing from the day.
The peace of the shelter is broken by the arrival of a loud hiker with a raspy voice and a manic, hoarse laugh that I associate with homelessness. He looks like he could be in his late 50s, or an extremely hard-lived 40. He is apparently a thru-hiker, and wastes no time in regaling anyone who will listen with tales of the short section of the PCT that he has hiked.
While we eat, Danielle looks at me and asks, seriously, "How is your brain?" I think about this question for a few seconds before responding. "Well, one of the hikers at the shelter is really irritating it right now," I say. "That one?" Danielle asks, nodding to the hiker we later learn is called Eeyore, and I nod. "Yeah, he's bothering me too," she says. "But how are you feeling after today? A good day?" "It was a great day," I say. "I'm really glad to be out here. I'm glad we got to ride that whirligig," I tell her.
At the picnic table I show Dannielle and Steven some of the pictures from the day. In one, Dannielle sits across from me as we ride the whirligig, her hands stretched out in the air, her face gleeful. And in other Steven stands in a patch of sunlight with his pack on, looking at the camera. "Wow," Danielle says, looking at the photo of Steven, "that's a great camera." "No," corrects Steven, deadpan, "that's all me."
When Steven talks about his experiences being a nurse, I ask him, "So you must be vaccinated then?" "Yeah," says Steven, "I got my first shot back in December." "I'm not vaccinated," Danielle announces. "Because I didn't want to, not because I wasn't eligible," she adds. Neither Steven nor I say anything to this.
Dannielle, having gone back to her tent, comes back to the picnic table distressed, with her sleeping pad in hand. "Portrait, help!" She cries. "I've tried blowing this up twice already, but it won't hold air. What do I do?" Eeyore comes rushing over to try to help. "You've got to dunk it in water to find the hole," he declares, pulling the sleeping pad from Danniele's hands while she looks stunned into silence. "I think the stream is this way," he says motioning for her to follow him down the blue blaze away from the shelter. "Wait," cries Danielle, "is that the only way...?" "Trust me, this will work," says Eeyore. Dannielle looks at me plaintively. "No don't," she pleads to Eeyore, "I don't want to get my sleeping pad wet if I don't have to." "Don't worry it will be fine," he assures her, heading off with the sleeping pad to the stream. I stand up from the table and hold my hands out. "Woah, whoa, whoa," I say gently, like you might to calm a startled animal. "She just said she didn't want to put it in the stream," I tell him. Eeyore turns to me, annoyed. "Fine," he says, walking past Danielle to shove the sleeping pad in my hands, "you figure it out then."
I hand the pad back to Dannielle, and we both examine the pad. I quickly find a surprisingly large gash on the top of the pad. "I think that the other side is supposed to be the bottom and more resistant to abrasion," says the ridge runner, who has come over to assist. Dannielle uses a piece of tenacious tape to seal the hole.
As the evening starts to get colder, we head back to our tents. "Tomorrow I was thinking we could either do an 8 mile day to the shelter or hike a little further to the gap at..." She catches herself. "I mean, if we choose to hike together, it looks like the options are 8 or 10 miles." I tell her we can play it by ear, and leave it at that.
I sleep in my homemade tent for the first time, having never before set it up outside after finishing making it in the rainy hours before leaving home. It works surprisingly well, at least on flat ground without wind or rain, and I am relieved that there are no glaring flaws yet.
As I lay in my tent, I feel the beginnings of a knot of anxiety forming about the day to come, and try start to unravel it. In 2011 I almost always hiked solo, often hiking alongside one or another hiker throughout the day, but never part of a close trail family -- "tramily" -- that would hike and make decisions together. I always felt partly jealous of hikers with these tramilies, but also always valued my independence enough, and for most of the trail hiked too fast, to make joining one a real possibility.
The night is cold, and it is a novel experience to tuck my hands inside my quilt and not write anything in my journal. Every night on my 2011 thru-hike, I finished my journal entry before sleep, and now it feels like an illicit treat to be able to lie down and let sleep come as it may.
I am able to sleep, in short stretches, curled up on my side. My 22 degree quilt isn't quite as warm as I had optimistically hoped -- coupled with an UberLite at least I'd rate it to 32 degrees -- but with the addition of all of my clothing it's just warm enough.
Dannielle wakes before I do, saying good morning as she heads over to the shelter and I'm just waking up. I pack up efficiency in the cold and start moving. At the shelter Dannielle is cooking oatmeal and Eeyore is talking loudly. I wave to all the hikers there. Dannielle asks, surprised, "You don't eat breakfast?" "I like to warm up in the morning first", I say, "but I'm sure I'll see you after soon." The truth is that I do always eat breakfast on the move, but I feel a sudden pang of guilt for not having given Dannielle a heads up.
"How far are you going today?" asks Steven. "Somewhere less than 10 miles from here," I reply. Steven and Dannielle both nod indicating some level of similar intent. "It looks like there is either a shelter or a gap a little bit after that." "Right," Dannielle adds, "I think there's a 14 mile gap between shelters after that." It seems strange to think about a 14 mile gap large hurdle to overcome, but given my desire to keep my mileage to single digits, this has some level of pertinence. However, unlike most new AT hikers, I'm comfortable finding and making stealth camp spots, so don't require a known destination for each day.
As soon as I start hiking I warm up, and quickly have to stop to shed layers. It is nice to have some solitude, for one of the first times on this hike.
I consider how well my gear has worked so far. My backpack and camera bag have worked great. This is the first hike I've had my camera easily accessible and front of me, and while I have to be careful that it doesn't swing and hit me in the chest, it acts as a convenient speed limiter, making sure I take small, easy steps. My tent worked great last night, though the real tests will be wind, rain and longevity.
My last minute pants have been great also, keeping my legs much warmer, although still not exactly warm at night. If this "barely good enough" sleeping system seems ill-advised, it is at least intentional. My goal was to carry just enough to be able to sleep on the coldest night. Given that it's impossible to predict just how cold it will be, this is a bit of a gamble, however my plan is to be flexible about how much mileage I do and when I go into towns, as when I changed my start date to avoid the rain, wind and cold.
When I stop to take a photo of a section hiker from Texas named Tex, he asks me, "Is this some kind of project for the AT, to take pictures of every hiker?" I tell him it's just for fun. "Well you've got a real positive energy about you, Portrait." I don't mention that a big part of my taking photos is to force myself out of my comfort zone, introducing myself to hikers I otherwise wouldn't, and mediating the initial ice breaking interaction in a way that gives me something to do and helps me feel more comfortable.
I hike by myself all morning, making good time. At 11am I come to a large creek, the first water crossing that cannot easily be rock-hopped. A tall log spans the creek, more than 10 feet above the water. Two hikers on the other side call to me that they walked barefoot, but their friend was able to shimmy across the log. I study my options and decide to go the barefoot route as well. Slower, but less risky, and my feet will get a nice rinse.
As I'm slowly drying my feet on the other side, another hiker comes to the creek and decides to walk through with his shoes. One of the shoes gets fully immersed, and the other only partly. "Oh well," he says, tramping off with wet feet.
Less than a mile later I come to another water crossing, this one almost looking rock-hoppable. As I stand there contemplating, loath to remove my shoes a second time so soon, another hiker comes in the opposite direction. She is wearing a mask so I guess immediately that she is a ridge runner, and am correct. As she walks across, one of the rocks tips, and while she is able to keep from falling, she gets her feet wet. She spends a few minutes trying to stabilize the rock, and when this doesn't work, pushes it under the water out of the way, where it will be less of a temptation to hikers. We talk for a few minutes by the stream. She is also a triple crowner, having finished the CDT last year, during the pandemic, with her boyfriend Sidewinder.
"More than 50 people camped at Gooch Shelter last night," she tells me, shaking her head. When I tell her that I'm planning on camping at the gap or a little beyond, she nods approvingly. "There is water just after the gap," she says, "and a few stealth spots with views after that. I don't normally send people that way, but if you're planning on hiking past the shelter, that would be a good option. Just be careful if you make a fire -- there's no water up there and there's high fire risk tonight." I don't tell her that in all my nights of solo hiking, I've never made a campfire. When she leaves, I make a leap to span the missing rock and am able to keep my feet dry as I cross.
I get to Gooch Shelter, home to the purported 50 hikers the night before, and find it almost entirely deserted. There are just two guys there, an older man doing trail maintenance, Smokestack, and a day hiker with a dog. I am in between the bubble of hikers who, this early in the hike, still like to camp mostly at shelters and designated tent sites and so cluster up on the trail. Smokestack confirms that there are good stealth spots at the top of the climb just north of the parking lot.
On the empty shelter floor I try to do my stretching routine that I had been so diligent about performing in the months leading up to the hike. Now that I'm actually hiking and the stretching is more important than ever, I find it difficult to perform them effectively with the timing of empty shelters throughout the day and using just my foam massage ball and the shelter floor.
When I head back up the trail, I see Tex again. He has just completed an MBA, and is hiking in the few week break he has before starting a job at Ford. Since he just got an MBA, I talk personal finance with him. "You haven't opened up a Roth IRA yet?" I ask him. "You should definitely open one -- if you do it before April 15th you can still contribute for last year."
At 2pm I get to the gap, a road crossing with parking and car-accessible camping, having hiked my 10 miles for the day. I plan to stealth camp away from the road, up on the mountain with a view, but first I fill up water at the creek and hang out at the road crossing to wait for Dannielle and Steven.
While I'm waiting I see Kaylee and Mack, the two barefoot stream crossers, who are going into town to replace their broken tent. When their shuttle driver arrives I hear Kaylee explaining that they're just friends, and that she's actually dating his brother. It sounds like a clarification they feel the need to make often.
I dry out my tent in the sun, the bottom damp from condensation the night before. After a couple hours of resting I see Dannielle come down the mountain towards the gap. "Portrait!" she calls warmly, but when we talk, I can tell that some of her overflowing bubbliness from the day before has mellowed into a more subdued though still friendly tone.
"A group of us hikers are planning on resupplying at Neel Gap and then going in to Helen a few days later," she tells me. "I was planning on just going into Hiawassee," she says, "but Steven convinced me that the Guinness in Helen was worth it. We might even zero!" I tell her I'm planning on walking the trail through Neel Gap soon like everyone else, but remain noncommittal, as I so often am, to further plans.
I tell Dannielle that I'm planning on camping on the ridge above the gap, where the ridgerunner and trail maintainer said there were spots. "I usually try to avoid camping by roads on weekends," I tell her. "Oh yeah," she says, "I guess today is Saturday."
She decides to camp at the gap anyway. "I find that I can't relax until my spot is picked out and my tent setup," she says, pitching her ZPacks Plexamid tent before joining a group of hikers around the fire ring.
I join them as well, and decide to test the pot and alcohol stove that I borrowed from my brother, having only ever eaten cold food or cooked quesadillas on the trail.
While I'm getting my pot set up, a man who is car camping nearby walks over with a beer in his hand and sits down next to me in a camp chair. "You a girl or a guy?" he asks me in a thick Georgia accent, guffawing at his own question. I realize that my facemask covers my sizable beard, and when I don't immediately respond he asks again, "You a guy??" "Most of the time," I tell him and he snorts and goes back to his beer.
I realize while I am heating my noodles that I have forgotten to pack a spoon, never having used one hiking before. I remember Smatt talking about carving his own wooden spoon, so I hunt for a suitable scrap of wood with which to fashion a makeshift spoon. Before I find one I use a twig to stir the noodles, and almost immediately dozens of tiny fragments of black bark fall off of the now hot twig to mix themselves into my noodles.
I recognize one of the campers from the night before. He is driving around car camping with his dog, but was at the shelter talking with Eeyore yesterday evening before leaving to go back to his car. He is in his 50s, and maybe it's just the association with Eeyore, but I keep my distance.
Nevertheless he sees me making a Knorr Side and chuckles. "Now isn't that just the sorriest looking excuse for dinner," he tells the group. "The Cheesy Noodles are great," I tell him, "I eat these even when I'm off trail." "It is much better with milk and butter," another hiker adds. "That's just sad," Timber says, "having to eat food like that. I like to make real food, steak, potatoes."
He turns to Dannielle, who has spilled her ramen noodles into the dirt and is trying to pick them up. "Ramen noodles? Now that's almost as bad. Now missy, when you come through Damascus I'll cook you up a real nice meal. You're just the kind of hiker I like, small, young, and cute. You just go to the hostel and tell them you're looking for Timber, you hear me, they'll know how to find me. Sorry fellas," he tells the rest of us, laughing, "only got room for one."
"I'm not that young," replies Danielle, "I got out of the military 6 years ago. "A military gal, I like that," he tells her. "Remember, Damascus, tell 'em you're looking for Timber. It'll be a mighty fine meal."
I think about the kind of casual sexual harassment that Danielle must experience constantly, and I wonder if the other car camper would have backed off so easily if I had been a woman. Would he have attempted to badger me until I came out of my shell, or given me the same treatment that Timber just gave Dannielle? I picture the quickdraw knife that Dannielle keeps ready at her shoulder, and wonder if I would carry one too.
Dannielle, shifting the conversation over to finding a trail name, says, "Maybe I should be called River, since my Therm-a-Rest was almost dunked in the river last night, right Portrait?" She laughs at the memory. Two of the other hikers in the circle remember the interaction as well. "Man," one of the hikers says, shaking his head, "that guy was pissed that you didn't let him dunk your sleeping pad." "Yeah," the other hiker adds, "he was really mad."
My noodles are delicious, bark and all, though I'm still not sure the whole cooking thing is worth all the work. I head down to the creek to wash my pot, another chore I'm not used to having to do. I walk with Steven, who has just arrived and still needs to fill up on water. Steven seems tired from the day's hike, but in good spirits.
I tell Steven that I am hiking a little further, generally trying to avoid road accessible campsites on weekends. "You mean because of that," he says, nodding his head back toward the group of hikers. "Yeah, that, and the noisy college kids who like to show up with a case of beer at midnight."
I tell the hikers around the fire ring that I'll see them up the trail and start heading straight up the mountain. The first two tent spots I pass are already occupied, but when I get to the top of the ridge I see multiple established tent spots with only one of them taken. As I survey the available spots, I say hello to White Wolf, who is eating dinner quietly outside his tent. He seems to be one of the calmest and most serene hikers I've met yet, and I am grateful for the companionable silence.
The biggest, flattest tent spot is closest to the fire ring, but with White Wolf eating dinner and other hikers unlikely to arrive after sunset, I decide to risk it. Shortly after I set up, I am dismayed to see White Wolf come over to start a fire. "I just hope the sparks don't burn holes in my new tent," I tell him as he gathers wood. He studies the wind. "You should be fine," he says. He piles the kindling and drags some large logs so they overhang the fire. The fire starts pretty quickly, with glowing red coals from the smaller pieces of wood, but the large logs are slow to catch, smoldering and smoking but not leaping into flame. He eventually gives up on the fire and heads back to his tent.
"Should we put this out, just in case the wind picks up?" I call to him. "Nah, that thing couldn't get going if you tried," he says, heading in for the night. I spend 10 minutes trying to smother the flames with dirt and stones anyway, and when I finish, I can see from the light of my headlamp that my fingers are covered in dirt and soot.