Every White Blaze, Part One

First things first:  As I was driving backIMG_20141209_115509_511 from North Carolina, I learned that the story of my upcoming thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail to benefit Lyme disease research had been published on Kentucky.com.  It was featured in the Lexington Herald-Leader today, which was really special and exciting.  If you’d like to check out the story, click here.  And, if you’d like to read more about my Lyme disease fight, you can read this post.

Anyway, what I’d like to write about today was what took me to North Carolina.

There are as many ways to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail as there are thru-hikers.  There are hikers known as “purists” or “white blazers,” who insist upon walking every mile of the AT from Georgia to Maine.  There are hikers who are more lenient about the path they follow.  They might “blue blaze” by taking side trails, “yellow blaze” by hitchhiking to a town further ahead on the trail, or “aqua blaze” by paddling up the Shenandoah River rather than hiking through that park.  (Rumor has it that there are also “sky blazers,” who take the gondolas up Wildcat in New Hampshire, but I’ve yet to meet one.)

When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012, I made a point of walking past every white blaze, not because I thought there was something superior in that sort of hike but because I wanted to see the entirety of the trail.  When I got to Maine and broke my foot, I had to relax my guidelines; however, before that point, the only section I’d missed was 20.7 miles between Deep Gap and Rock Gap in southern North Carolina.

I’ve already written about the bitterly cold night I spent sleeping like a sardine in Muskrat Creek Shelter.  When that night finally gave way to dawn, I quickly packed up my gear and, after attempting to thaw myself by the fire for a little while, hiked on.

I’m generally not a hiker who enjoys spending a lot of time in trail towns; at this point, I usually sleep better in my tent than in a strange bed in a hostel or crowded hotel room.  But, that April morning, I knew that I needed to get myself to town to preserve my sanity.  As the section hikers and hikers with smartphones told the rest of us, the temperatures were only expected to drop in the coming 24 hours, which meant that I was in for another sleepless night, unless I found a way to get to town.

Checking the guidebook, I happily discovered that a shuttle to a local hostel could be procured at Deep Gap, only a few miles north.  Shivering, but with new-found enthusiasm, I hiked onward.

When I reached the parking lot at Deep Gap (a parking lot at the end of a 6.2-mile, uninhabited, gravel United States Forest Service road), I got my phone and guidebook out of my pack, found that I had a tidbit of service, and called the hostel.

“Good morning!” the owner of the hostel said enthusiastically.

In spite of the cold, I smiled at his energy.  “This is the hostel that picks hikers up from Deep Gap, right?”

“Well, normally, yep.  But, my wife and I are down in Florida.  I hear it’s real cold up there.”

Apparently, the cold brought out unusual persistence in me.  For the next half hour, I dialed number after number as I was referred to local trail angels and potential places to stay.  Had I been alone, I might have given up and just stuck it out, but groupthink is a powerful thing.  As I worked to find a ride out of Deep Gap, hikers continued to walk north and stopped at the Gap to learn about the results of my phone calls.  When I eventually reached Ron Haven — a man who owns several motels in Franklin, coordinates all sorts of hiker services in that town, and promised to come pick us up for $45 — eight other hikers planned to join me on the ride.

I was hiking on a budget, but I decided that $5 for the ride and $10-15 for a shared hotel room to avoid another sub-freezing night would be worth it.  At that point, I actually felt like getting warm was essential to my staying on the trail, and I wasn’t ready to give up my dream of thru-hiking yet.

So, an hour later, when Ron Haven pulled up in his big pickup truck, I climbed aboard, pulling my backpack onto my lap.  I shivered the whole way to town.

In Franklin, I got warm and caught up on sleep.  I purchased a neck gaiter and gloves, and I enjoyed a few baguettes and hummus.  (Because comfort food.)  When the next morning rolled around, I felt ready to brave the cold and hit the trail again.

I soon learned that I was in the minority.  A few of the hikers I’d gotten the ride to Franklin with were getting off trail for good, some were planning to stay in town for a while longer, and others were content in skipping ahead a bit, to one of the regularly scheduled stops of Ron Haven’s free hiker shuttle.  It turned out that I was the only hiker interested in going back to Deep Gap, which meant that I faced a $45 bill.

I deliberated about what I should do, but determined that skipping ahead would probably help rather than hurt my psyche.  You see, there’d been a hiker who’d been “pink blazing” me (i.e., changing his hiking plans to match mine and driving me crazy) since early on in Georgia.  He had decided not to stop in Franklin but was planning to wait for me that day.  I was anxious to lose his company, and I realized that I was being offered the opportunity to do just that.

And so, I skipped ahead to Rock Gap.  As a result (and because I stopped signing shelter registers for a while), I avoided my pink blazer and met the man who became one of my best friends and hiked 1000 miles with me.  Not paying for the ride to Deep Gap was one of the best decisions of my thru-hike.

However, after hiking the remainder of the trail (even the miles my broken foot had forced me to skip), I knew that I wanted to walk the 20.7 miles that I’d missed in North Carolina.  It was logistically complicated to do so when I lived in New England, but I moved back to Kentucky at the end of November.

Since I had the last two days off work, as soon as my shift ended on Saturday evening, I jumped in my station wagon and headed south.

To be continued…

5 comments

  1. Saw your story in today’s Lexington Herald Leader. CONGRATULATIONS !! My husband and I were in Asheville, NC last fall and hiked a little of the “AT” both at Natahala Outdoor Center and again in Hot Springs. We were thrilled to just go and take photos of the “white blazes” and say we hiked a little of the “AT”. We got the full hike book at the very fancy Grove Park Inn and chatted with some people who had been on at least part of the “AT”. The book is fascinating and has a lot of detail and maps, etc. I “NEED” a real bathroom, so hiking for 6 months is not for me…I am going to stay an “arm-chair hiker” and just live vicariously through real adventurers like you !! Thanks and good luck. God Bless you and keep you safe.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Liz! I couldn’t believe the coverage in the Herald-Leader; I was so excited to think about the awareness it was helping to bring to the fight of those battling Lyme.

      The NOC and Hot Springs are two favorite stops for many thru-hikers, and the mention of both of them definitely brings back memories. Many of my friends are also “flushie” enthusiasts; arm-chair hikers are special, too!

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