Monday, March 26, 2018

AT in NC: Dear Diary, It's Thru-Hiker Season - Devil Fork Gap to Low Gap

AT in NC – Dear Diary - Devil Fork Gap to Low Gap Campsite – 4/10/17 – 12.1 Miles

Home from Grayson Highlands, one night in my own bed, a clean set of clothes, and I’m ready for another overnight on the AT.  This time the weather forecast looked perfect. Food resupply, no cooking, so I left the stove and fuel and packed a peanut butter sandwich for supper, grapes, cheese cubes, crackers, a hardboiled egg, Clif bars, Kind bars, a little trail mix.  Good to go.

I felt some butterflies about hiking solo (I always do) despite my bravado when telling others that it’s no big deal. Actually, walking up and down mountains is something I really enjoy doing by myself.  That is a big deal. My insecurity kicks in at the end of the day:  where exactly is the campsite? Who else will be there (or who won’t be there)?  Will I like those people, will they be quiet or rowdy, personable or distant? So that part feels like a big deal.

And remember my last solo backpack, the AT from NOC to Fontana Dam (November 2015) when the weird southbounder rolled in at 2:00 a.m. where I was camped alone?

This time I am carrying a huge canister of bear spray.  Does that make me feel better?  Nope. And yet… “The mountains are calling and I must go.”  That is a big deal of the third kind.

Doug, my shuttle driver, was super nice and started me off on a positive note – literally.  At Devil Fork Gap, I headed across the road toward the AT blaze -- in the wrong direction.  Doug hollered at me and turned me around. 

The trail trended mostly up, following the ridgeline (also the NC-TN state line) of the Bald Mountains, three ups, three downs, in total about 3,000 feet elevation gain. Less than a mile from my start, I stopped by a stream crossing to make adjustments, zip off pants legs and take off long sleeves and apply sunscreen.  A northbound thru-hiker was also paused by the stream.  He introduced himself as Slow & Steady, recently retired, round belly, long blonde-brown ponytail, big smile – a gregarious, chatty fellow. I left him intently shooting photos of emerging spring flowers beside the babbling brook.

A quarter-mile later I came to a cascade upstream, noted in the guidebook, unnamed and very pretty.  I walked up the side bank for a closer look.  When I turned around to go back to the trail, I slipped in the mud, caught myself with my right forearm, but cracked my right elbow pretty hard. Once I regained my footing, I took off my backpack and noticed blood streaming from my elbow where I couldn’t see.  Along came Slow & Steady.  He took a photo of my elbow so I could assess the damage and then he applied a band-aid. Trail magic – provides what you need when you need it.

At Sugarloaf Gap I met another northbounder who called himself Bad Santa and he looked the part – big belly, white beard, some white hair on his head, otherwise a bit disheveled as thru-hikers are.  Onward.

Northbounders hike from Georgia to Maine and southbounders hike from Maine to Georgia. Going between Devil Fork and Sam’s Gap (with a kink in the trail at Big Flat) everyone walks a little bit backward as the AT makes two u-turns.  On this pleasant sunshiny day I was in the zone, passing the turnoff to Hogback Ridge Shelter because .1 miles is too far to go off trail to see another shelter.  

The AT descends to Sam’s Gap and crosses beneath I-26 at the Tennessee state line; the cars are a noisy intrusion into the peace of the trail. There is a small parking area but not much else.  I sat down in the shade of a bush to eat an energy bar in preparation for the last climb of the day.

A hiker taking a nap at the edge of a meadow – 
tomorrow’s challenge, Big Bald, looms in the distance

My destination was a campsite, not a shelter, which can be nerve-wracking to find as twilight approaches.  Will I miss a side trail or signpost?  But tonight’s campsite at Low Gap was obvious downside on trail left, tents already up, a fire blazing. Eight people were milling about, all thru-hikers.  How will they like me?  I walked up to the fire ring and asked with a smile, “Is there room for one more?”  One young woman pointed to a couple of suggestions, neither of which looked very good.  I pitched my tent as close to a tree as possible on what looked like level ground (but wasn’t). Late to the dance, beggars can’t be choosers, etc. I knew I would have trouble sleeping.

I’d run out of water just before I got to camp, so my first task was treating water at the piped spring a few yards from the fire ring. I treated one liter, then a second and a third, poured the first two into my Camelback for tomorrow, and drank from the third one. The thrus were busy with various end-of-day chores of cooking/eating/housekeeping.  The campfire was a welcome touch, a little surprising, as most backpackers don’t bother with building and tending fires.  One fellow said the fire ring was still hot when they got there, they will be sure to put this one completely out (I liked the sound of responsibility).  I walked/sat around the outer edges of the circle, feeling a bit like an outsider (which I was) but eventually I asked the names of a few.  Most were young (20’s, 30’s, my kids’ ages), a couple were older men (still younger than me, but late 40’s, early 50’s). The younger ones were friendlier.  Most of the conversation was about food. One guy between high school and college, The Dude, was talkative and we shared a bit of conversation.

Names I remember:  The Dude (although there was no Big Lebowski in him), Hodgepodge, Turtle, Chernobyl (a young woman between high school and college).

As we sat around the fire, several more thru-hikers passed by without stopping, pushing out a few more miles. One guy stopped to eat quickly from his huge jar of peanut butter, then took off again chasing those who had passed.

I asked my new campmates if they hang their food in trees out of the reach of animals or sleep with it, to which they replied, hang it, definitely (whew).  When several of them spread out in the waning light to hang bags, I asked The Dude if I could piggyback on his line since I don’t have a good throwing arm.  Turns out everyone’s default method was to throw ropes over tree limbs and let the bags hang straight down, even though they may still be close to the tree trunk.  I showed The Dude how to hang between two trees and pulley up – they were appreciably impressed.  I had brought a skill to the game after all.

About 7:30 p.m. Bad Santa rolled into camp, definitely rough around the edges even for a backpacker, conspicuously spreading out his gear and magnanimously sharing his expertise.  He said he always sleeps with his food because bears are afraid of people.  The others just smiled and rolled their eyes.

At 8:00 The Dude bade a good night and crawled into his tent about 10 feet from the fire circle. By 8:30 p.m. the fire was extinguished and everyone was bedding down.  Sleeping was difficult on my slippery slope.  I wedged my backpack between my body and the lower tent wall to try to stop my downward slide, partially successful.

 During the night an owl festival broke out. Awesome. How lucky am I?

“Don’t be scared to walk alone.  Don’t be scared to like it.”  ~John Mayer

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