North Carolina

Fast Friends with Fanny Pack

When I set out on the Appalachian Trail in 2012, fully knowing what I was getting into, I pledged to thru-hike the trail.  However, less than two weeks into my hike, I seriously considered changing my plans.

One of the milestones on the southern AT is the Nantahala Outdoor Center, “The NOC,” in North Carolina.  The day I descended to the NOC, I was high on life.  I spent the afternoon cooling my achy feet in the Nantahala River, sharing photos from some of the beautiful places I’d seen with friends online, talking to a self-proclaimed “Bronie” who was wearing a Rainbow Dash shirt, collecting and organizing my mail drop, and satisfying my hiker hunger in the restaurant in the adventure village.  It was a warm, sunny afternoon, and, while I was a bit overwhelmed by the flurry of activity in the gap, I was thrilled to have made it so far, so fast.

That night, I slept in an otherwise-empty bunk room.

The next morning, I hit the trail at 8:00, embracing the 5000-foot climb that began immediately.  At 8:08, the skies opened up.

It wasn’t just any thunderstorm.  I’m from Florida, and it was one of the angriest thunderstorms I’ve experienced.  The rain fell hard and quick — until it became hail.  Thunder resounded through the forest.  I kept walking.

Through eyes squinted against the water, I saw the silhouette of another hiker ahead, standing still.  As I passed the old man, smiling ruefully and making some comment about the storm, he grumbled back at me (for no apparent reason other than — just like him — I didn’t have the sense to get out of the rain), “You’re an idiot.”

That wasn’t exactly motivating.  In the time that I’d been on the trail, I’d had so many people make discouraging comments about my hiking.  Other hikers suggested that I only section hike (rather than thru-hike) or told me that I needed to hike fewer miles each day.  Even park rangers and ridge runners told me that my aspirations were too great.  Apparently, “little girls” like me just couldn’t hike the whole trail, let alone hike it quickly.  I’d been rolling with the punches, but the combination of the man’s comment and the storm were too much for me that morning.

After I’d hiked past him, I started to cry.  Suddenly, everything was wrong.  I was going uphill in the rain in the wrong frame of mind, and I wanted desperately to quit the whole endeavor.  I considered turning around and heading back to the NOC, but my cell phone reception had been abysmal there, so I hiked onward in the hopes that some elevation would help.  On three different occasions during my ascent, I set down my pack, took out my phone, and tried to keep it dry enough to insert its battery and turn it on so that I could call my mother and ask her to pick me up.  Every time, I decided against it because I couldn’t seem to keep the phone satisfactorily dry.

DSCF0483

A wolf tree in the fog

Eventually, I made it to the top of the climb.  I enjoyed an overlook from which I saw the clouds racing by below me, and then I kept walking north.

Soon, I could barely see 40 feet in front of me.  The forest was shrouded in a thick mist, and I hiked through the dense fog, mildly disoriented.  As cold and dispirited as this young biologist was, I couldn’t help appreciating the way the mist seemed to celebrate the dramatic statures of wolf trees.

Soaked through and shivering, I stopped at a shelter for a snack break and a chance to sit somewhere dry.  There, I found two hikers, one of whom had waited out the storm in the shelter.  As per usual, we started chatting about the trail and the woods ahead.  I conversationally mentioned that I needed to make it through the Smokies in four days so that I could attend my sister’s graduation; my plans were immediately scoffed at.  Since these male hikers wouldn’t be hiking that quickly through the Smokies, there was apparently no way that I could either.  I stuffed the remainder of my snack in my pack and headed back to the trail, thoroughly fed up with mansplaining.

DSCF0490

Fanny Pack admiring a tree

The fog and light rain persisted for rest of the day, and, having not seen other hikers since leaving the shelter, I was cold, wet, and alone.  In [title of show], a fun and clever musical, there is a wonderful song about the “vampires” that attack us when we are at our most vulnerable and work to drain and discourage us.  I had a whole host of vampires walking with me that afternoon, and I knew it.

That’s why, when I rounded a bend and found a tall and friendly hiker I’d seen a couple days earlier in town, I stopped to join him in his standing break.  That’s also why, when he asked me how I was doing, I blurted out, “Not so good.  I’m actually having a really bad day.  I got poured on earlier and this old guy told me I was an idiot and no one thinks I have any business being out here and I can’t seem to find anyone who hikes at my pace or who I want to hike with and this other guy won’t leave me alone and I just think I might actually go home soon but I really don’t want to.”

He invited me to take the lead and walk with him for a while.  As the trail turned rocky, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since hiking in Pennsylvania the year before, I did everything I could to keep up the pace on the rain-soaked, slippery rocks.  If anything, I hiked faster on the wet rocks, even though I was tired and hungry; I wanted to demonstrate that I was a worthy hiking companion, one who wouldn’t slow down a fast hiker.  In retrospect, I don’t think that was necessary.

DSCF0602

Quiver and me

In our first two hours together, Fanny Pack (as my companion was known at that time) and I discussed politics, religion, our families, relationships, sexuality, aspirations, and other assorted topics that one is not usually advised to broach with new acquaintances.  When we came to a road crossing before Jacob’s Ladder, Fanny Pack decided to make camp.  I asked whether I could join him for the night, and he welcomed me.  As the rain continued to fall, we continued to talk, him in his bivy and me in my rain gear, outside my little tent.  I planned to head out the next morning alone so that he wouldn’t feel obligated to hike with me, but it was readily apparent that we were fast friends.

I woke up the next morning to a beautiful sunrise, the vocalizations of turkeys, and a “good morning” from my new friend.  Quiver, as I renamed him (because his homemade pack looked more like a quiver than a fanny pack), and I would spend the next 1000 miles together.DSCF0491

Wordless Wednesday: More from North Carolina and Tennessee

A panorama from my favorite bald

 

DSCF0736

The southernmost trailside pond

DSCF0728

Looking back toward Hot Springs, NC

DSCF0759

One of the ubiquitous grasshoppers, perched on the scaffolding of a mountaintop tower

DSCF0753

The view from the grasshopper’s tower

 

Shelter Pizza Triple Crown

A thru-hike involves several months of backpacking through beautiful places and meeting interesting people. It may seem counterintuitive that, when asked what they thought about in a given day, most thru-hikers mention daydreams or extended thoughts about food. One ubiquitous food craving among backpackers is that for pizza.

DSCF0504

Sunrise at the Fontana Hilton

Most of the time, pizza can only be obtained when hikers get off the trail and head into town; unlike a surprising number of dishes, it’s difficult to replicate pizza on a backpacking stove. However, there are a few shelters along the Appalachian Trail where hikers can get pizza delivered. Some of these shelters are familiar destinations for local pizzerias, but others are more unusual. Inspired by a supper of pizza at a shelter in Pennsylvania in 2011, I created the notion of the “Shelter Pizza Triple Crown” during my thru-hike. Always up for challenges and games, thru-hikers shared the idea and embraced the challenge. And, of course, I worked to earn the title of Shelter Pizza Triple Crowner myself.

The first pizza delivery was perhaps the most difficult to arrange. I’d read that some pizzeria delivered to the last shelter south of the Smokies, the Fontana Hilton, which I’ll describe in another post. As a result, I planned to spend the night at the shelter and looked forward to a cheese-less pizza topped with pizza sauce, broccoli, and spinach for days before arriving there. I was, therefore, more persistent than I might have been when I got to the shelter, called the pizzeria whose number was written on the shelter floor, and learned that they did not deliver to the shelter. I called a local trail angel who shuttled hikers around and asked him if he’d be able to pick up pizzas for the shelter. He seemed to think it would be a fun mission and, after some difficulties getting the orders right, pizza was finally, blissfully enjoyed around 8:00.

Because of the difficulties involved in arranging a delivery to the Fontana Hilton, I considered it a bonus shelter in the Triple Crown.

The first official shelter of the Shelter Pizza Triple Crown was Partnership Shelter in Virginia. Quiver and I arrived at Partnership amidst pouring rain in the middle of the day to find at least a dozen hikers inside. Uncharacteristically, they were unwelcoming (other hikers reported receiving the same feeling from that group of people), so we pressed on to the visitor center where pizzas would be delivered anyway. I shivered and tried to dry off inside the ranger’s station, where I looked at the books and taxidermy collection while I waited for the pizzas to arrive. When they did, the rain stopped, and Quiver and I lunched outside. While I’d only had a small pizza at the Fontana Hilton, I finished the greater portion of a large pizza near Partnership Shelter and packed the rest of it out with me for dinner.

Next up in the Triple Crown was the 501 Shelter of Pennsylvania, which is a sizable bunkhouse next to a home. The bunkhouse was once a pottery studio, and it has a lovely glass dome in the center of the ceiling, through which sun and moonlight stream. Several restaurants deliver to the shelter, and, both times I’ve stopped by, I’ve sincerely enjoyed the conversations and hospitality from the shelter’s neighbors. (Conversational blue blaze: When I arrived at the shelter in 2011, it was after some fast, big-mile days, and I was utterly exhausted. I collapsed on a bunk in the mid-afternoon and woke up to find a semi-circle of empty folding chairs assembled around me: Booksmarts, a thru-hiker who’d been hiking near me, had arranged them while I was sleeping as a practical joke. I have very fond memories of that shelter.) From the 501 Shelter, it’s only a few days and a few million rocks before hikers arrive at another pizza-friendly shelter in Pennsylvania.

The final jewel in the Shelter Pizza Triple Crown was Eckville Shelter, a shed-turned-bunkhouse on private property — private property that, I recently learned, once belonged to the author of Journey on the Crest (a book about the PCT). Getting pizza delivered to this shelter is as easy as getting it delivered to the 501 Shelter. And, so many hikers order pizza at Eckville that it’s easy to find people to share pizzas and delivery costs with. The picnic table and bathhouse feel like the perfect complements to any Shelter Pizza Triple Crown finale.

All that said, when I thru-hiked, I came across another shelter or two where I heard that roundabout pizza deliveries could be procured. Hikers, have you come across other shelters that I should add to my list?

Wordless Wednesday: More from the Smokies

DSCF0578

The vantage point offered by Charlie’s Bunion, which is located down a blue-blazed trail off the Appalachian Trail, was spectacular!

DSCF0592

“Walking north with springtime” prolonged the season and delayed my hike, as I wanted to stop and photograph every new floral species I saw.

DSCF0596

The trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was well-trodden and made for easy hiking.

DSCF0570

Having been familiar with the high peaks of New England before hiking the Appalachian Trail, I was astounded by the lack of an alpine zone on the higher mountains of the South. Nonetheless, their tree-clad beauty was remarkable in its own right.

Every White Blaze, Part Two

A few days ago, before the local cell phone tower went down and plunged my work-life (at a wireless service provider’s store) into chaos, I wrote about why I missed 20.7 miles of the Appalachian Trail during my thru-hike in 2012.  This past Sunday and Monday, I returned to North Carolina to hike those miles I’d skipped.DSCF7670

Being the early bird that I am, I was too tired after my shift ended on Saturday evening to drive all the way to the trail.  Instead, I pulled up to a trailhead in southern Kentucky, where I slept in the back of my wagon.  (My first car was a tiny two-door convertible.  My 1992 Honda wagon makes a much better mobile home.)  The sun hadn’t broken the darkness the next morning before I was up and driving south again.

I pulled up to the parking lot at Winding Stair Gap near Franklin, NC, around noon.  As I needed to get to Deep Gap, I gathered my belongings, stood next to the road, and stuck out my thumb.  Almost immediately, I was picked up by an Episcopalian minister in a muffler-less truck.  He’d only been planning to drive one mile up the road, but he offered to take me all the way to the intersection of US 64 and USFS 71, the 6.2-mile, uninhabited gravel road leading to the Deep Gap trailhead.  Along the way, he told me about a 60-year-old female southbound thru-hiker who attended church service that morning with her section-hiking friend.

I took stock of my utter contentment as I got out of the minister’s pickup and began walking down USFS 71.  While the temperature was only hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the sunlight shone on the corridor of the road, making the day feel pleasant.  All around me, yellow birches and rhododendrons stood magnificently, and a roadside stream quietly gurgled.  It was picturesque, and I was completely satisfied to be in the woods once more.

DSCF7680After I’d walked maybe 3.5 miles down the road, a Toyota came rumbling up behind me, the first car I’d seen heading toward the trailhead.  I smiled wryly and stuck out my thumb, and I was soon riding toward Deep Gap with a middle-aged man and his chocolate lab, Jenny.  Jenny got the front seat.

As we pulled into Deep Gap, I felt as though I was transported back in time to the spring of 2012.  The parking area and the trashcans in it were smaller than I’d remembered them, but all of the thoughts I’d had and emotions I’d felt when I’d arrived at the gap after my night at Muskrat Creek Shelter came rushing back to me.

I thanked my ride and hit the trail, taking far too many pictures in the first several miles of my hike, as I marveled at the beauty around me and the well-constructed (and so very not-New-England-style) trail.  Before I knew it, I’d climbed to the top of Standing Indian Mountain, where I enjoyed feeling the sun on my face in a grassy clearing that offered views to the distant mountains and undulating valleys below.  It was undisturbed, unadulterated, quiet, and perfect.  I walked on.

DSCF7714That night, after gathering water from a cold little stream, I made camp in a rhododendron glen at 4200 feet, one of the lowest elevations I would descend to during my hike.  I was sheltered from the wind, but the night was still frigidly cold — and exceptionally long, given that the solstice is fast approaching.  But, I think I’m tougher than I was at the start of my thru-hike, and I didn’t have a problem toughing it out until morning.

Still, as soon as the sky began to lighten, my bag was packed and I was hiking, hoping to warm up under all of the clothing I’d brought with me.DSCF7707

That morning, my solitary hike became social, as I met southbounder after southbounder.  I think I might have freaked out a certain pair of older hikers when I mentioned the Episcopal church they’d attended the day before.  And, then, I surprised myself when I stepped aside to let a southbounder pass and then realized that the hiker I was looking at was the man who’d taken my picture atop Katahdin in August.  The trail is long, but it is very narrow.

Albert Mountain is the most dramatic climb in the early section of the trail, and it is infamous among thru-hikers, so infamous that several hikers got off trail in 2o12 because they’d been intimidated by the thought of climbing it.  Spending so much time hiking in the White Mountains seems to have warped my perception, since it seemed to me that I was atop the foggy summit with little effort.  I kissed the golden USGS marker on the high point, thrilled to see finally see it after 2.5 years.  It was too cold and windy to linger at the summit for very long.

Leaving Albert, the walking was incredibly easy, and time passed too quickly.  With less than one mile to go, the trail rounded a bend and I suddenly found myself in the wide-open, understory-less, leaf-strewn valleys that I picture when I think of North Carolina.  Thinking about all that the trail has meant to me over the last few years and about how much I’ve changed and grown since the first time I saw the sort of valley I was walking in, I found my eyes blurring and a knot forming in my throat.  And then I quickly recovered, as I saw a horde of south bounders walking toward me.  Amazed to see a northbounding hiker, they stopped to ask my itinerary; our conversation ended with congratulations all around.  It was in this happy head space that I arrived in Rock Gap and saw the sign I’d seen two years ago when I got back on trail.DSCF7828

I reached into my pack and brought out an Appalachian Trail pendant I’d been waiting to give myself once I’d really completed the trail.  Finally, I had done it.  I had walked past every white blaze between Georgia and Maine.

On the long drive home, I began earnestly planning my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.