Day 2 of the ATC Biennial Conference for me: An eight-mile hike, nearly 3,000 feet of downhill over six of those miles, eager to complete this little bit of the AT down to Nantahala Outdoor Center and be back at the conference center for supper. Today I was a co-leader on this straightforward shuttle hike. I volunteered to be the sweep (last person). I did not realize how long I would have to carry that broom…
Our hike started from Tellico Gap, same as yesterday, and headed northbound on the AT. First stop: Wesser Bald lookout tower for a fine view of this part of the world. Clouds were moving around like they do in the hot summertime and we hoped to finish before late afternoon thunderstorms that had plagued the week.
Drippy melted candle wax-looking fungus
Ten minutes into the hike I noticed that two women were extremely slow, chatting amiably and strolling up the trail. I stayed a few dozen yards back. They didn’t speed up when the rest of the group disappeared from sight. I got closer and discerned from their conversation that they were not old buddies, they had just met. One woman (let’s call her Mary, not her real name) seemed unsteady on her feet and the other woman was kindly keeping her company. I joined the conversation and the other woman eventually pulled ahead, leaving Mary and me, who then told me about numerous health problems and the fact that on her hike the previous day the leader had turned her back, and she was very disappointed and offended. She was very determined to complete today’s hike. The two of us arrived at Wesser Bald tower about 35 minutes after the group and I knew I was looking at a problem.
At the tower I chatted with some of the participants, including a congenial fellow named Howard whose accent was familiar to me. Turns out our families are from the same county in Southside Virginia and we swapped memories of rural country life and family connections. Small world!
Howard and me on top of Wesser Bald lookout tower
I talked with my co-leader and then we had a conversation with Mary. We were concerned that she couldn’t complete the remaining 6.5 miles of the hike, despite her good attitude. Her balance wasn’t good, she was very hesitant going over obstacles (which included every rock and root). But she seemed so disappointed at turning back that, in fairness to the rest of the group, I agreed to hike with her and let the others go ahead. Howard became the new sweep and Mary how had herself a personal guide. We never saw the group again that day.
I shepherded Mary for the next six-plus miles. She did not increase her speed, continued to have balance problems (that she denied), was carrying so much weight (water, Gatorade, a Diet Coke, food) that I took some from her, fidgeted and stopped about every 100 yards, and drove me crazy. Every time I encouraged her, she lit up and pushed a little, but soon fell into her pattern of hesitancy over every obstacle. While she expressed much gratitude for my personal services, I felt a little like she expected it also. She was pleasant to talk to and did not complain about the trail conditions or being physically challenging. She seemed oblivious to time. My mood swung back and forth between a compassionate appreciation for her effort and homicidal fantasies.
A brief rain blew through and as I pulled my rain jacket out of my pack, my first aid kit fell out and rolled down a steep embankment. If any of you see it, let me know. I wasn’t going after it.
When we stopped to put our rain jackets away (too hot to hike with them on) Mary’s camera fell out of her pocket and rolled down another steep embankment. I did go and fetch it. Is there combat pay available?
The only other photo all day: at The Jumpoff
All together our hike took 8.5 hours, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The hike leader and one other participant were waiting for us. (To be fair, two other participants were slow finishers as well. I think the larger group finished about 3:30, the other two at about 5:00.) We all missed supper.
As we finished the hike, I congratulated Mary on her accomplishment – after all, she did walk eight miles. However, I told her, although she was able to do it at her pace and to her ability, it was not appropriate for her to sign up for group hikes. I don’t think she heard anything I said past “congratulations.”
So I learned a huge lesson as a hike leader, that I will not ever hesitate to turn someone back again. I had no way to assess Mary’s abilities and she certainly did not assess herself accurately and completely disregarded the hike’s rating of very strenuous. Fortunately for both of us, she didn’t fall and have an injury due to her poor balance.
Still, it was a beautiful day to be outside. And tomorrow I’ve committed to co-leading another hike…
"I'm a slow walker, but I never walk back." ~Abraham Lincoln