AT Thru-Hike #26 – Overmountain Man

“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” – Sydney J. Harris

Day 34

After a long, miserable night, I crawled out of my pungent tent, removed my nose plugs, and took a deep cleansing breath. I had survived and had learned a valuable lesson.

The Enchanting Unaka Mountain
The Enchanting Unaka Mountain

Powered by Darn Good Chili after shocks, I began the climb up the enchanting, extremely cool Unaka Mountain, which would turn in to my favorite forested summit hike of the first 400 miles. Half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina, it featured dense spruce and hemlock forests, grassy patches, and fog and mist. I kept expecting Frodo Baggins to emerge from behind a tree, on his way to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Near a campsite at the summit, around mile 355, I stopped to take care of AT Business #4…at the recently named Darn Good Patch.

Unaka Khan, Everybody, Everybody Naka Khan
Unaka Khan, Everybody, Everybody Naka Khan

I descended Unaka Mountain and then began a series of ups and downs, including the picturesque Little Bald Knob. After a 13.9 mile day, I rolled into the Clyde Smith Shelter with Tetris, Mumbles, and Old School. After the noises coming from my tent last night, I was surprised Tetris and Mumbles let me stay in the shelter.

Sunset at Clyde Smith Shelter, mile 368.3
Sunset at Clyde Smith Shelter, mile 368.3

Old School is a dentist from North Carolina who recently moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He began a thru-hike attempt last year, going from Harpers Ferry to Maine, and then heading southward from Harpers Ferry. Unfortunately, severe winter weather ended his bid, so he’s back this year to finish his hike to Springer. He got the trail name Old School because most of his hiking gear is from the late 70s/early 80s. In fact, he said he went into some museum along the AT that showed a sampling of hiking gear by decade, and several of his items were in the 70s and 80s cases. Around the campfire, he not only answered questions about brushing and flossing, but a series of questions about what we should expect in New Hampshire and Maine. He said the AT in those final two states is every bit as tough as hikers make it out to be.

Day 35

I awoke and added a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie to my usual pop tart breakfast lineup, because today we would climb the massive, 6285 feet, highly popular Roan Mountain.

Don't pay no mind to the demons, they fill you with fear...
Don’t pay no mind to the demons, they fill you with fear…

Roan Mountain can be divided into two sections, divided by Carvers Gap. Hiking from the south, the first section features Roan High Knob Shelter (the highest backcountry shelter on the entire AT) and the peaks Roan High Bluff and Roan High Knob, which are blanketed by a dense spruce-fir forest. Tollhouse Gap lies between these two peaks and features the Rhododendron Gardens, the largest of its kind in the world. The climb up to the summit was long, hot, and taxing…and the climb down was covered in foot-jarring rocks. Aside from the amazing Tollhouse Gap, I preferred Unaka Mountain over this first section of Roan.

Haynes & Janice Bringing the Magic
Haynes & Janice Bringing the Magic

As I descended the mountain towards Carvers Gap, I was tired, hungry, thirsty and my feet and left knee ached. It had been a beautiful, but rugged, several hours of hiking. I thought maybe…just maybe…there would be some magic at the Gap. And there was! Like angels sent from heaven, Haynes and Janice Miller from Bluff City and the Tri-County Church of God had set up a magnificent Trail Magic stop. Janice had been a life-long blood donor and that was an important part of her Christian faith and community service. Unfortunately, she suffered a stroke last Fall and her doctor told her she could no longer donate blood. He said she could find new ways to give her time and her money, so long as she didn’t donate blood. After doing some research and thinking about needs in their community, it dawned on them that perhaps they could serve the AT community as Trail Angels. They did research on things hikers crave, and this was their first day as Trail Angels. They nailed it! Comfortable chairs for multiple hikers…check. A variety of ice cold sodas…check. Grilled hot dogs with buns, homemade chili and mustard…check. Asking if the hikers are ready for another hot dog…check. Homemade brownies…check. A variety of bags of chips and sweets (like Ding Dongs)…check. Hand sanitizer and napkins…check. Trash bag for hikers to unload their trash…check. Good conversation and knowledge/advice about the upcoming towns and section of trail…check. Sufficient cold water for hikers to drink and fill their bottles…check. It was pure bliss and entirely changed my attitude and disposition for the day. The only thing missing was Haynes offering to give me a foot bath and pedicure, but if you’ve seen my feet, you know that’s a bridge too far.

Ahh, the Balds!
Ahh, the Balds!
God did this! (And Nesquick took the photo)
God did this! (And Nesquick took the photo)

With a full belly and a smile on my face, I continued on toward the second section of Roan Mountain known as Grassy Ridge. It is the longest stretch (7 miles) of grassy bald in the Appalachian Mountains, featuring Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald. And guess what else it is? Our new champ! Yes, I would place this section as my favorite section of the AT so far, surpassing even the section north of Spence Field Shelter in the Smokies. If you want to take the family on a day hike of the AT, park at Carvers Gap, head AT north toward the Balds, and thank me later.

Grassy Ridge Bald
Grassy Ridge Bald

On Grassy Ridge Bald I stopped and visited with day hikers Erik and Belle from Milwaukee along with their dogs, Bo and Gabe. We (the people, not the dogs) discussed my thru-hike attempt, and they suggested I pose for an “REI photo” on a rock ledge…so I did. I then took photos of them doing the same.

Hightop & his dog found a cave to sleep in
Hightop & his dog found a cave to sleep in

As I descended the Balds, I hiked along with another hiker previously mentioned in a blog, but I’ll protect his identity here. He asked if I had heard the rumor at Carvers Gap that a section hiker was bringing PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) to the Overmountain Shelter that night, and whether I drank alcohol. I told him I had heard the rumor but didn’t drink alcohol.  He asked why not.  I told him it was for a variety of reasons related to my faith, family history, and really just wanting to set a good example and have credibility with the many youth groups I’ve led over the past 2+ decades. I have many friends and family members who drink socially, I just think my life will be better off in the long run without alcohol and the baggage that often comes with it. In short, I don’t need it.  I get enough of a buzz hiking the AT, living in an RV, and being married to Lil Jan.

He then asked how long I’d been a Christian (was baptized in frigid waters at Dover (DE) Church of Christ on Christmas morning, 1977…age 11) and whether I had been raised going to church (yes). He told me he had an interesting story to share with me about his faith, but would save that for tonight’s campfire (he is a much faster hiker and was ready to accelerate). Sadly, that didn’t happen, but perhaps I’ll run into him again down the road so he can share his story with me.

Overmountain Shelter Up Close
Overmountain Shelter Up Close
Overmountain Shelter Farther Away
Overmountain Shelter Farther Away
Overmountain Shelter, Even Farther Away (Can you see it?)
Overmountain Shelter, Even Farther Away (Can you see it?)

After a 15.6 mile day, I stopped at Overmountain Shelter, a true AT classic. The shelter is a converted barn with a stunning view, the best shelter view on the AT. The barn appeared in the 1989 movie, Winter People, starring Kurt Russell (a widower) and Kelly McGillis (the unwed mother he loves). The area also has historical significance, as it was traveled by the Overmountain Men, frontiersmen who took part in the Revolutionary War. They are best known for their role in the American victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780.

I chose to sleep in the loft out of the wind, rather than down below to view the sunrise. Just when I thought there would only be a few of us up there, ten college students arrived, members of a recreation/hiking club from the University of Florida. I explained that I was a Tennessee Volunteer fan, an aspiring thru-hiker, and an Overmountain Man, and there would be no Gator chomps or Florida fight songs in the loft or by the campfire that night. They agreed.

View from Overmountain Shelter
View from Near Overmountain Shelter
Gator Fans in the Loft
Gator Fans in the Loft
I spy a dog...and a view
I spy a dog…and a view

Between conquering Roan High Knob, hiking the stunning Balds, devouring the fantastic trail magic, conversing with hikers and angels, and sleeping at the famous Overmountain Shelter, I would say Day 35 was my all-around favorite day on the trail so far.

Fob

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AT Thru Hike #25 – My Favorite Trail Things

My Favorite Trail Things

By:  Sir Fob W. Pot

Written:  At midnight at Kinkora Hostel, mile 418.2, with apologies to Julie Andrews

To:  All my fellow hikers…Keep hiking and never give up on your dream!

Switchbacks and privies and gaps with Trail Magic
Hitchhiking, hostels, Gold Bond for butt rashes
A trail town buffet that is all you can eat
These are a few of my favorite trail things…

Tortillas for dinner, with oatmeal cream pies
Nose ran so much that it drowned 2 black flies
Took Vitamin I for the pain in my knee
These are a few of my favorite trail things…

‘Twas cold in the Smokies, could not feel my fingers
Eight servings of chili, the pungency lingers
Met Lumpy, Ron Haven, and Bob Peoples too
These are a few of my favorite trail things…

Chorus:
When the bears bite, when my tent leaks,
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite trail things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Hiked 400 miles, every blaze, not a cheater
Map must be wrong, I’ve gone one centimeter
A family of field mice now live in my beard
These are a few of my favorite trail things…

Read Dave Miller’s AWOL, like it was the Bible
Slept in a barn’s loft, And it all felt so tribal
When I need water, I give Sawyer a squeeze
These are a few of my favorite trail things…

I pee in a bottle, at midnight and later
Eat spuds with my Ramen, and poop ’em out later
Katahdin is calling, I’ll hike til I’m thru
The AT is one of my favorite things…

Chorus:
When the bears bite, when my tent leaks,
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite trail things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #24 – Chile Bola De Fuego Nuclear

“As human beings, we are the only organisms that create for the sheer stupid pleasure of doing so. Whether it’s laying out a garden, composing a new tune on the piano, writing a bit of poetry, manipulating a digital photo, redecorating a room, or inventing a new chili recipe — we are happiest when we are creating.” – Gary Hamel

Day 31

I began this thankfully warmer day with a 1200-foot climb up to the incredible Big Bald, every bit as scenic as Max Patch. After taking a few photos, I descended toward Bald Mountain Shelter and felt nature’s call. As I approached the shelter, I asked a fellow hiker if there was a privy. He told me no. Bummer. So, for the 3rd time on my AT journey, at mile 325.3, I found a nice secluded spot behind a tree on a hill to take care of business. Upon returning to the shelter, that same hiker said, “Oh yeah, there is a privy…just found out. My bad.” Seriously?! Before departing, I renamed the area Mount Unnecessary 90 Degree Angle.

Fob Climbing Big Bald
Fob Climbing Big Bald

Just after noon, I descended into Spivey Gap and discovered some…Trail Magic! Yes, Trail Angel Bob was serving drinks and goodies, and my Coke and Twinkie hit the spot.  Thanks, Bob! A couple of hours later, I came to No Business Knob Shelter and visited with Poptart, SpongeBob, and GungaDan, who had stopped for the night. Poptart, a fellow Air Force retiree, was having the common hiker problem of too much food based on unnecessary or poorly timed food mailings. I ended up trading some of my tortillas and pepperoni to him for some of his excess electrolyte tablets and Gatorade mix. Lewis and Clark would have been proud of me.

With my legs feeling good and a trail town just ahead, I decided to push on. After hiking a personal best 20.8 miles, I arrived in Erwin, Tennessee and took a shuttle over to the Super 8. This economy hotel beat out camping by the river or staying at a hostel, because rain was in the forecast and I wanted a hot bath. As I was doing laundry, I noticed a hiker box, where hikers leave items they don’t want/need for others to have for free. In retrospect, I made one really good selection from the hiker box, and one really bad one. The good one was an unopened bag of Epsom salt, which I would use in three hot baths over the next 36 hours, much to the pleasure of my aching feet. The bad choice was the package of Bear Creek Country Kitchens Darn Good Chili Mix, 9.8 ounces, 8 servings. I’ll come back to that later.

Huddle Up!
Huddle Up!

After doing laundry, cleaning (back-flushing) my Sawyer Squeeze water filter, taking a shower and bath, and cleaning my cookware, I walked to Erwin’s Huddle House restaurant, adjacent to a gas station. I feasted on a rib eye steak, 2 eggs, hash browns, bread, water, and Mountain Dew. It was marvelous! Not wanting to walk further to the grocery store in Crocs, I got the few crackers, energy bars, and Ibuprofen I needed at the gas station, then returned back to the hotel. I then called my wife and both sons to check in and get updated on their lives. It was great to hear their voices and know they are doing well. I dozed off for a Super 8 hours of sleep.

Day 32

I began my zero day with the hotel breakfast, specifically a waffle, cereal, and several cups of coffee, milk, and orange juice. I then took another Epsom salt bath, blogged, and got caught up on the news. As a bit of a news junkie, I’m surprised I haven’t missed daily dosages of news, and I certainly haven’t missed politics and election coverage. I care about elections and world events, but hiking the AT consumes most of my physical and mental energy. Television wise, I’ve only missed watching some March Madness tournament games and watching Survivor with my wife while eating a big bowl of buttered popcorn. Oh, and I miss watching sappy Hallmark movies with Ken and Syndi Butler and saying “see, I told you so” when they invariably kiss at the end of the movie.  I finished off my day at McDonalds, where I consumed a high calorie large double quarter pounder with cheese meal, 10-piece McNuggets, and hot fudge Sundae. Lil Jan told me I need to eat more, so I’m just following orders.

Day 33

I packed up, caught a shuttle to the trailhead, and began the long climb out of Erwin. The first few miles featured several streams, springs, and footbridges surrounded by mountain laurels…really a pretty section. As I continued the climb, a 2700 foot elevation gain, I really felt the heat and the weight of my fully loaded, post-trail town backpack. Sweat poured off me and I was drinking a liter of water with electrolytes every 2 hours. Once again, I was glad that I had lived, trained, and ran in Florida for several years before my thru-hike attempt. That doesn’t make it easy, but you learn how to deal with and adapt to the heat by being out in it a lot.

At Beauty Spot Gap, mile 353.9, Tetris, Mumbles and I stopped for some…Trail Magic!  Brother Tom, a Trail Angel, hooked us up with some coffee, lemonade, and snacks.  Thanks, Brother Tom!

Trail Magic with Brother Tom
Trail Magic with Brother Tom

After a 12.3 mile, mostly uphill day, I tented at the base of Unaka Mountain, along with two twenty-somethings…Tetris (former auditor for the Department of Education in New York) and Mumbles from Lexington, Kentucky. Given the exhausting day and and my belief that my pack was too heavy, I decided to eat the heaviest food item I had. After reviewing all of them, the winning contestant was the previously mentioned (Day 31) Bear Creek Country Kitchens Darn Good Chili Mix, taken from the hiker box at Erwin’s Super 8. Weighing a whopping 9.8 ounces, and featuring three kinds of beans and a blend of spices, it seemed like a perfect choice.

Folks, the devil is always in the details. Fine print matters. As a sat there on a log, at the base of Unaka Mountain, starving and licking my salty face, I read the instructions. I noticed that it called for 7 cups of water, a 6 ounce can of tomato paste, and a simmer time of 20-25 minutes. Realistically, none of that was going to happen. That is why it was in the hiker box. That is why, if I could live Day 33 over, I would have violated Leave No Trace principles and chucked the Darn Good Chili Mix into the forest for the ants and squirrels to deal with. But no, not Fob! I was going to be creative, to adapt, to take matters into my own hands. I intended to eat those 8 servings of chili on my own terms, following my own instructions. Translation: all 9.8 ounces of the Darn Good mix, only 2.5 cups of water, no tomato paste, and just 8 minutes of simmer time. For you cooks out there, including my brother-in-law Scott, warning sirens are now going off. I had no clue. I was a stupid, exhausted, hungry hiker. And I was about to create what Hispanics call Chile Bola De Fuego Nuclear…the highly toxic Nuclear Fireball Chili! My creation smelled terrific, but was thicker than a DQ Blizzard made with 10W-40 motor oil and the brown sugar cinnamon pop tart sawdust at the bottom of my food bag. You could set fence posts with this stuff.  To make it just juicy enough to swallow, I added my final three packets of Tabasco sauce. If this were a movie, the scary music would be starting now.

Rocket Fuel
Rocket Fuel

As I slowly ate, a process that took 40 minutes (about 5 minutes per serving), I ignored the warning signs, including a mountain-shaking belch after every third or fourth bite. I was a hungry long-distance hiker, this was my own recipe, and I was going to eat it. All of it.  In retrospect, I was being Fobstinate.  As Tetris looked on, that’s exactly what I did. He remained silent, but had a concerned, “Is he really going to eat all that?” look on his face. A closer friend would have intervened.

(TMI Alert: Sensitive readers should bail out now.)

I finished off the last of the eight Darn Good servings, said good night, and crawled into my tent just after 9 p.m., hiker midnight. At 9:05, my stomach made the sound of a mother grizzly bear mourning the loss of her cubs.  I rolled over onto my stomach on the appropriately named air mattress. My opening salvo was a burst of about nine trouser clouds, as if to announce the arrival of royalty. I heard giggles outside and laughed myself. Then came a 7-second long, high pitched squealer that sounded like someone letting air out of a ballon. I had become a human fart app!  I could fart at will, but much more so when not willed.

Moments later, the partially cooked, partially digested, Tabasco-coated beans in my large intestine began colliding at high speeds, like atomic nuclei. My bowel matter was fusing quicker than I could say Darn Good Chili, and the highly charged particles were converted to photon energy. In other words, I had inadvertently created a nuclear fusion-powered wind tunnel in my digestive track. If I hadn’t donned my emergency travel Depends, escaping Darn Good beans would have been ricocheting all over the inside of my tent.  By 10:30 p.m. when I stopped counting, I had farted more than 220 times. Not just any farts…Darn Good ones.

As embarrassing as the noises were, that wasn’t the real issue. Pungent doesn’t begin to describe the smell in my tent.  I was nesting in a Chernobyl I had created.  Each time I raised my behind, I buried my nose further into my clothes bag. It didn’t work. Do I suffocate in my clothes bag, or die from toxic fumes?  What would they write in my obituary?  I considered opening the tent’s zipper to create a backdraft, but that could invite mosquitos, mice, and other creepy crawlies. (Although technically only the American cockroach could survive in such a toxic environment.) As the minutes passed and the salvos increased in frequency, intensity, and pungency, I became desperate. I didn’t want my thru-hike attempt to end this way. And desperate times call for desperate measures. In times like these, I ask myself, “What would Larry Alexander (my AT mentor) do?” And that’s when it came to me! I reached up with two hands, pulled both earplugs out of my ears, reversed them, and jammed them up my nostrils! Problem solved! Bear Grylls ain’t got nothin’ on Fob!

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #23 – Attack of the Killer Dogs

“We can’t expect people to act like Jesus when they don’t know him.” – Rachel Elizabeth Johnson

Day 30

I awoke to yet another cold morning and decided I was about ready for Spring to kick in. I heard from a fellow hiker, who heard from a foot guy at an Outfitter, who probably heard from an African witch doctor, that it takes 300 miles of hiking for your “hiking muscles” to form, and 600 miles for your “hiking tendons” to do the same. Having just hiked 300 miles, I was anxious to see if I noticed any difference in my hiking stamina.

After a few miles of downhill hiking, I saw a sign posted on a tree. It told hikers not to befriend or feed any dogs that they were about to see, and to even throw rocks at them if necessary. Apparently some dogs that lived there had followed some friendly hikers northward and never returned. It wasn’t five minutes later, as I approached a foot bridge over a creek, that I saw a pack of dogs barking and charging toward me from a distance. I have been bitten twice by dogs in my life, while jogging in Prattville, Alabama and Swansea, Illinois. I wasn’t about to be bitten again. Testing out my new 300-mile hiking muscles, I made an adrenaline-fueled 50-yard sprint for the footbridge, crossed over it, and spun around in a defensive position with hiking poles extended. My former colleagues at the National War College would have approved of this rarely used, single troop phalanx formation. As the sound of the pack of dogs drew near, the voice in my head said, “Spartans, prepare for glory!” The pack of six dogs arrived seconds later, barking ferociously at me from across the narrow creek. Their leader was a dirty poodle, flanked by a couple of schnauzers, an old hound dog with a limp, and two ugly mutts. I ran from these sorry misfits? Not a single Pitbull or German Shepherd or Doberman. I stood up, stared at my adversaries, and shouted, “Shut your pie holes, you sorry bunch of losers,” then turned and hiked on.

I climbed 4541-foot Lick Rock with a guy named Orange Pacer. He got that name due to a tendency to mix in a little vodka with his orange Gatorade. It helps him “set just the right pace”. I have no doubt. Later, I met 2 sweet ladies from North Carolina out on a section hike. They dream of hiking the AT someday and I told them to go for it. At Sams Gap, one of the ladies gave Orange Pacer and me her last two homemade chocolate chip cookies! Where there’s a gap, there’s often magic!

Gotta watch my hiking speed!
Gotta watch my hiking speed!

As I climbed out of Sams Gap, I was feeling pretty good about my stamina and 300-mile leg muscles. Then, from out of nowhere a young, blond, highly attractive gal zoomed passed me with a weiner dog in tow. I don’t mind being passed by a woman, especially one half my age wearing amazing, woman-smelling deodorant. But having a weiner dog with four 3-inch legs blow by you…totally demoralizing! If I had been carrying a bottle of mustard, I’d have squirted it down the length of his back as he went by. So much for having my trail legs.

After a 14.9 mile day, I tented with about 15 others at Low Gap, mile 321.3. There was good and bad around the campfire that night. The good…I met Cambria who not only is from my birth state, Delaware, but was born in the same hospital at Dover Air Force Base!  Since leaving Delaware at age 12, I’ve never met anyone from Delaware, much less from the same hospital where I was born. We shared a few stories and she brought me up to date on the football rivalry between Caesar Rodney and Dover High Schools and other important matters. It was great to meet her and talk to her.

Not so good around the campfire…the pot smoking, which was accompanied by heavy cursing. Several in this group were dropping F-bombs like a common adjective, with the frequency that most people would use the word “the”.  Drug use and cursing are really not compatible with my Christian faith. I don’t do it and I don’t like being around it. I also find it incredible, and a bit sad, that in an environment like the AT, with amazing sights, sounds, and sensations in every direction, that that’s not enough for some. They need additional artificial stimulation to enhance the experience, be cool, or perhaps escape something. I’m not judging them…God handles that and I need to worry about the planks in my own eyes. However, it’s my belief that the empty space in their lives that they are trying to fill with drugs can only be filled by a relationship with Jesus Christ. Such a relationship would likely do wonders for their vocabulary as well.  I didn’t make a scene or go all “campfire preacher” on them. I did decline their offer of drugs, and retired early to my tent where I said a prayer for them.

Like the rest of society, the AT has its good and bad.  Fortunately, my experience to date, including interactions with other hikers, has been overwhelmingly positive.  Positive interactions with attacking dogs…not so much.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #22 – Peasants in Scotland Get Awful Hernias

“Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.” – Edward R. Murrow

Day 28

Refreshed and recharged, I crossed the French Broad River, hiked along it for a few hundred yards, and then climbed the mountain out of Hot Springs. At mile 278.5 I came across Dammed Pond, the first mountain pond on my journey. It was the kind of place where you’d want to get engaged, catch a fish, or spend a Sunday afternoon reading a book.

Dammed Pond
Dammed Pond

At Tanyard Gap I passed Tree Hugger as he stopped to pray and hug a white-blazed tree. If he completes his thru-hike, he will have hugged 165,000 trees and offered 165,00 prayers in about a 6-month period.  Let that sink in for a moment.  A while later, I came across several miles of a controlled burn area on the west side of the trail. Controlled burns are a technique used in forest management to reduce fuel buildup (leaves, brush, dead trees, etc.) and decrease the likelihood of serious hotter fires. It also stimulates the germination of some desirable trees, thus renewing the forest. I was impressed to see hundreds of square miles of burned forest to the left of the trail, while the right side was untouched. I was also impressed with the placement and wording on several tombstones/memorials at scenic spots along the ridge.

Lots of Graves & Memorials on the AT
Lots of Graves & Memorials on the AT
Gaining Elevation
Gaining Elevation

As the day progressed, the temperature dropped and light snow began to fall. At Allen Gap, near the conclusion of a 14.8 mile day, I headed .2 miles west on NC 208/TN 70 to get water under a bridge at Paint Creek. (That’s just water under the bridge now.) I found a campsite nearby around 5:00 p.m. and checked the forecast. The snow had stopped but, here at lower elevation, rain was expected in 15 minutes. Three minutes later, as I was unpacking my backpack, the rain started to fall. Quickly setting up a tent in the rain, while keeping your gear as dry as possible, takes some practice and precision. The goal is to get your tent, gear, and self under the rain fly as soon as possible. I did fairly well but will become more proficient with practice. I sat there in my tent, feeling cold, wet, and alone…holding my food bag as a special invitation to bears to come get me. Fortunately, I had warm, dry clothes to put on and a warm sleeping bag to crawl into.

Day 29

I awoke to a cold, wet, see your breath inside the tent kind of morning. Just a few hundred yards into my climb out of Allen Gap, I came across some…Trail Magic! Yes, the good people of Chuckey (Tennessee) United Methodist Church had placed a cooler of ice cold Gatorade along the trail which gave me a much needed morale and electrolyte boost. Less than a mile later…more Trail Magic! Someone had placed a pile of oranges on the trail. With the cold temperatures, I wasn’t quite ready to take my gloves off and peel an orange, so I placed it in my front pants pocket. As I hiked, the single orange swayed back and forth, reminding me of what it must feel like for my youngest son, Kyle, to hike. (Inside family joke involving… “imbalances”. Guess it’s not so inside any more!)

On the trail, snow is glistenin'...
On the trail, snow is glistenin’…

At around mile 296, I began a stretch of beautiful, scenic, rocky, and strenuous cliffs…specifically, Blackstack Cliffs and Big Firescald Knob. I took a quick break on Howard’s Rock and read his story.  (I invite you to do the same…see photo.)  The section along Firescald involved a brief hand over hand scramble, the first since Albert Mountain.

Howard's Rock
Howard’s Rock
The Story of Howard's Rock
The Story of Howard’s Rock

After celebrating the AT mile 300 milestone with a Snickers candy bar, I climbed over Big Butt Mountain. (I liked Big Butt, I cannot lie.)  Shortly after, I met two section hikers from Alabama…Hiccup (who does so after eating trail mix), his unnamed friend (who works for NASA), and their dog, Blaze.

From Big Firescald Knob
From Big Firescald Knob
And another...
Snow on various mountains

As the afternoon progressed, the temperature dropped and there was light snow on the ground. To pass the time and keep my brain from freezing, I began brainstorming what the Pisgah in Pisgah National Forest stands for. I came up with…

– Perhaps I Should Garner A Heater
– Place I Should Generally Avoid, Honey
– Peasants In Scotland Get Awful Hernias
– Pastor In Skivvies? Gross! Avoid Him
– People In Straight-jackets…Great AT Hikers

I welcome your own “Pisgah” acronyms.

Shelter Journal Note from Rocky, a Section Hiker
Shelter Journal Note from Rocky, a Section Hiker

In addition to playing mind games like what Pisgah stands for, I also pondered other questions like:

– Is there a Guiness World Record for “Longest Running Nose”?  (By that, I mean duration of drip, not size of probiscus.)  Mine has been running virtually non-stop for 29 days.

– Given the popularity of the movies/books Wild and A Walk in the Woods, what percentage increase (if any) will there be in attempted AT thru-hikes this year?  Also, will the 20-25% success rate remain the same?  (I predict a 15% increase in attempts and a similar success rate.)

– Percentage-wise, how much of a successful AT thru-hike is physical and how much is mental?  (For me, so far, 70% physical, 30% mental.) How much does that vary between hikers, and does it vary by month on the trail?  (I’d say wide variance between hikers, with the physical % increasing with age.  I’m guessing mental percentage increases during the middle third of the trail…then back to more physical for New Hampshire and Maine.  We’ll see.)

After a long, cold 17.9 mile day, I arrived at the Flint Mountain Shelter with several other hikers. We built a huge campfire and gazed up at constellations in the clear night sky. Just before dozing off, I pulled the orange out of my pocket, pealed it, and ate it. Because nothing takes your mind off the cold better than sticky hands that reek of citrus.

Fob

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Living Single, But Married!

I guess it’s about time I chime in on the blog with what the last month has been like for me while Steve’s (or should I say, Fob’s) been hiking.  I can guarantee you that I haven’t hiked any tall mountains, or slept in a tent, or slept with a bunch of strangers in one room!

As stated in an earlier blog by Steve, we had a terrific weekend in Blue Ridge and Springer Mountain, GA for the big send-off on March 12th. It was wonderful to be surrounded by family and friends, which helped me to not totally lose it mentally as my husband of 28 years takes off down a path to Maine ALONE! I can’t really describe what I was feeling inside, but I was definitely having two very specific thoughts…”I am immensely proud of my husband for sticking to a goal he has had for quite some time.” and “I am very sad that he’s leaving me and heading out ALONE!”  It was at that moment that I truly wished I was going with him.  Unfortunately, that’s not something you can decide at the last minute and fortunately, for me, I came to my senses very quickly!! I prayed, and have prayed over and over during the last month, that God will keep him safe, sane and healthy!

After the group watched Steve head up the trail, we all hugged and said our goodbyes as everyone headed back to their destinations.  My sister, Carol, and I had our own adventure ahead of us as we were heading to Florida to attend a friend’s wedding. So, after the 30-minute drive down the worst road I’ve ever been on and sharpening my Mario Kart skills, we reached the bottom and headed South for 10 hours! My sister and I had not been on a long trip together in a very long time and really hadn’t had a lot of time with just the two of us in years. I can’t say that anymore!  For the next 4 ½ days, we were going to have plenty of time to talk, sing, sleep, and enjoy just being together!

We arrived in Brandon, FL at our friends, The DeBoef’s, about 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. We were welcomed by the 3 DeBoefs and my son, Jason and his wife, Rachel. Carol and I were both tired from our day of driving, but it was wonderful to see all of them and catch up just a bit before heading to bed. Jason and Rachel were staying for church the next morning and then heading off on Sunday afternoon. It was great to see them and hear all that’s going on in their lives in the big city of Dallas. One of the many blessings in my life is watching my children become the men that God is molding them to be and watching them love the women in their lives the way they’ve seen their daddy love me. Playful and teasing, but loving and honoring at the same time. I also enjoyed seeing friends that I miss since we left this past summer. Going to church that morning at Bell Shoals was truly like a little slice of a heavenly reunion. The wedding of our friends was on Monday night on the beach in St. Pete. It was a sweet, beautiful ceremony and I am so happy for both of them. We had fun after the ceremony with good food, good fellowship and a lot of laughter thrown in! To the new couple, Bobby & Brittni, I pray that your union will be blessed everyday by the love you have for each other and for God!

Meet the Wilkinsons!
Meet the Wilkinsons!

As we prepared to leave Florida on Tuesday morning, Carol had a “bucket list” item that she wanted to try to complete. It wasn’t quite as drastic as Steve’s bucket item and I thought surely I can make this happen. Carol wanted to go on an airboat ride and see some gators! So we headed to Tom & Jerry’s Airboat Rides on Lake Panasoffkee, FL. It was a warm, beautiful day and the scenery was great, but better yet, Carol got to see a gator up close and personal….looked him right in the eyes.

Carol Wrestling a Gator
Carol Fondling a Gator

Once we arrived back in SC, I began to settle into a regular routine of what life was going to be like as a “single, but married” woman. I kept myself busy during the day doing a few projects for the wedding and helping my niece get her house ready for new renters. Of course, in the evening we played lots of cards (Hand & Foot and Pegs & Jokers), but at the end of the day, I had to go to bed alone. I must admit, the first few days weren’t too bad, but as the days went on, I really missed that man snoring in my ear and taking up my bed space! It just doesn’t feel right! But I must look on the bright side, at least I’m sleeping in a nice, comfortable bed, unlike Steve.

Pegs & Jokers Night!
Pegs & Jokers Night!

My next adventure was a trip to Harding University in Arkansas for Spring Sing. I rode out there with my niece, Dana, and her family. Their oldest son is planning to attend there in the Fall and I played tour guide and entertainment coordinator for the weekend. Many of you know that I LOVE Harding and always get very excited about being there. This was a whirlwind quick trip, but still it was “great to be at Harding” (this is their cheesy slogan, but I truly believe it)! I was able to spend some time with Kyle and Laci and Jason and Rachel, along with seeing some other friends that were there. All in all, it was a great weekend and I hope that I was able to help my niece and her husband feel a little more comfortable sending their “baby” off to college 12 hours away from home. Being there with them and witnessing their feelings of letting their son go, brought back lots of memories of just a few years before when I was doing the same thing. My advice to her was, that it’s okay to be sad and to miss him, but letting him go and grow on his own is what you’ve raised him to do. Things are forever changed when they leave for college, but change is not always bad. Embrace the changes and develop a deeper appreciation for who they are as their own person…not just your kid! Having said that, I cried like a baby when I dropped both of mine off there and I expect she will do the same!!

Fobless Johnson Family at Harding University
Fobless Johnson Family at Harding University

After returning back to SC from Harding, my days have been spent with my family. I have enjoyed just hanging out and being a part of their daily routines and getting to know their church families. Everyone has been so sweet and always asks how that husband of mine is doing. I usually respond, “He’s still walking and as far as I know he’s still having fun!” My middle sister, Cathy, came down from Virginia for about a week and that was fun having us all together again under the same roof. We reminisced about old times, had chocolate gravy for breakfast, went shopping, played games and then I got to do something that I had never done. My brother-in-law, Scott, took us girls to the shooting range. I was the only one in the group that had never been shooting, so Scott gave me the short tutorial of what to do and what not to do (like don’t point the gun at anyone) and then we started shooting a variety of different guns. I have never really been a fan of guns, but I do now at least understand the thrill of pulling a trigger and hitting a target! It was actually a lot of fun and wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. Of course, in silly “Climer” fashion, we had to take a funny picture to commemorate the day.

"Scott's Angels"
“Scott’s Angels”

The last little bit of excitement this month is that I met some of my old Middle School and High School girlfriends for dinner in Spartanburg. I have reconnected with several of them through Facebook and wanted to take this opportunity to get together. I’ve done this a few times when I’ve come to town and it’s always such a treat to see them and relive some old memories and just catch up with what’s going on with each of them. One of them told me the other night, that when I moved from here in the 11th grade, she was afraid she’d never see me again and she was grateful that has not been the case. I’m grateful for that as well! There’s been a lot of water under the bridge and changes in my life (for the good and the bad) since I was in Middle School, but these girls are part of who I am and of my past and I think it’s good to remember that.

Catching Up with Longtime Friends
Catching Up with Longtime Friends

Well, I’ve rambled on quite enough. I am very excited about my next trip because it will bring me back in the arms of my loving husband (after he takes a shower, oh ok probably even before!!) I plan to pick him up near Hampton, TN, and take him to a secluded cottage near Lake Wautaga for a few days. I plan to pamper him and feed him lots of good, fatty foods! So for at least a few days, I won’t have to be a “single, but married” woman and I’m going to really like that!

Lil Jan

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AT Thru-Hike #21 – Zeroing in on Hot Springs

Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, and vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” – Samuel Ullman

Day 26

I awoke, packed up, and began the 7.8 mile descent into Hot Springs. Or should I say, Hot Springs!!! A couple of miles out, I passed a rare Privy Tree that I named Deuce McLarty. They really should plant these about every 10 miles along the AT for hikers on the go.

Rare Privy Tree
Rare Privy Tree

I arrived at the Hostel at Laughing Heart Lodge just after noon. Tie, the amazing caretaker, welcomed me and gave me a tour of the place. There is a nice lodge, perfect for romantic getaways…along with a hostel, perfect for hikers who just need a shower, bed, hot coffee, and some food. The first order of business was to get my mail. My wife, Lil Jan and sister, Ellen, had both sent me care packages! Among other things, I was blessed with homemade cookies with Hershey kisses on them (thanks, El!), beef jerky, gummy bears, cards, and notes. After reading Lil Jan’s encouraging card, I kept hoping Survivor’s Jeff Probst would pop his head in and tell me I had a special visit from a loved one. That didn’t happen…but will soon.

My Big Sis Helpin' Out a Brother
My Big Sis Helpin’ Out Her Brutha

After showering, I walked a half mile to take care of the usual trail town business…doing laundry at the Wash Tub and resupplying food at Bluff Mountain Outfitter. Several hikers, including Stitch, Orbit, Mom, Moses, Deadwood (and his visiting parents) and me gathered at the Spring Creek Tavern for some food, fun, and story telling. Oddly, it felt like a family reunion. I devoured a giant cheeseburger with jalapeños and French fries, in an attempt to slow up my weight loss. I learned that Moses melted his insoles while drying them by a campfire, and that Jenga (who wasn’t with us) earned that trail name after getting drunk in Franklin and toppling over. I also learned that, sadly, a sight-seeing helicopter had crashed in the Smokies on April 4th, killing all 5 people on board.  What I didn’t know, yet, is that Deadwood’s parents would be bringing Trail Magic donuts to the hostel while I was in the shower!  Well done, Mr. and Mrs. Deadwood!

Breaking Bread
Breaking Bread

I was especially glad at dinner to sit next to Fisherman, aka Fernando, one of the Hikers Formerly Known as ABBA. He got delayed in Hot Springs waiting on a late-arriving hammock that he ordered…and plans to crush some big mileage days to catch his Swiss hiking partners. He confirmed for me what I had suspected…that Switzerland, Sweden, and Swaziland are, in fact, entirely different countries. He is a Swiss architect specializing in mountain chalets, and said he’d hook me and Lil Jan up in one next time we’re in Gothenburg. I’m holding him to that.  He also loves to fly fish and ties his own flies (thus the trail name), and plans to do some fly fishing along the AT. His favorite Swiss food is fondue and his favorite American food is steak…which costs $60 and up in Switzerland for 12 ounces. By the end of the night, he was my best Swiss friend ever.

AT Burger
AT Burger

Day 27

I had three priorities on my zero day in Hot Springs. First, I made several phone calls to the family to let them know I was alive and well. It was great to hear their voices and get caught up on family matters. Talking to my wife is like Ramen noodles with potatoes and Tabasco sauce for my soul.  My dad continues to adjust to life without mom, and I’m proud of him.  I also got to FaceTime with Mrs. Wilkinson’s class back at Foundation Christian Academy (where I used to teach).  They are one of two classes following my journey and doing various assignments related to it.  It was fun to talk to them and answer their many questions.

The Original Hot Springs Resort
The Original Hot Springs Resort, circa 1884

Second, I decided to invest $20 for a 1-hour soak in a hot spring-fed hot tub/whirlpool at the Hot Springs Resort. After walking there for my 3:00 appointment, I realized I had no swim trunks and none were available at the front desk. The lady told me, “You won’t need any swim trunks.  You’ll be alone and the tub has three sides to it, with the open side right on the river.” I looked at her and in my best Austin Powers voice said, “Oh, behave!” Based on her reaction, either I do bad impressions or she hasn’t seen the movie.

The attendant then led me to the river, turned the jets on, and handed me a towel. As I stripped down and lowered myself into the wondrous tub of healing waters, I got that feeling you get when you’re naked in a hot tub in the woods. (If that’s not on your bucket list, it should be.) As my bare behind submerged and then floated to the top, I wondered if the local Boy Scouts ever canoe down this river. (“Look away, Joey, that’s not a rare albino manatee, that’s Fob’s behind!”)

I decided to send a hot tub selfie to Lil Jan, but only from the shoulders up.  In light of FCC Rule 438-09-b, Obscenity on Commercial Airwaves, and National Forest Service Pamphlet 10-8, Sexting from the AT, I had to be very careful what I sent. Even my chosen pose was arguably “overly sexy” and in violation of federal law.

Sadly, Only Ate Half
Sadly, Only Ate Half

After my 1-hour relaxing soak, I got dressed and walked to the Smoky Mountain Diner for a large, supreme pizza, my third priority for the day.  For the first time on my AT journey, I was unable to finish a meal.  (An embarrassing shame for a long distance hiker.) As I returned to the hostel with half a pizza in a box, I saw two tired, weary young hikers descend from the mountain and approach the hostel like I had done the day prior. I asked if they wanted half a large, still warm supreme pizza. Their faces lit up and they said, “Are you serious?  Absolutely!”  Watching them close their eyes and gobble it down in under 3 minutes, it felt good to be on the giving end of trail magic for a change. In fact, as awesome as it was to get the two care packages, I felt an even deeper satisfaction watching those two guys smile and devour that pizza.  Perhaps that’s the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #20 – The Return to Max Patch

The reward of a thing well done is having done it.  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Day 24

I awoke with the weird sensation of being in a bed…because I was! The first voice I heard was my tibial collateral ligament telling me we were taking the morning off. One thing I’ve learned out here is to listen to your body. You have to be able to hike with a certain amount of pain, but you also need downtime to rest your body and mind and regroup for the next section ahead. Over the long haul, I’m not going to be able to out-tough or out-ego the AT. It is far superior on the toughness scale. But as a 50-year-old, I may have a chance to beat it by making wise choices related to rest, nutrition, hydration, mileage, and weather. That’s really my only chance.

As I rolled out of bed, I also realized that we were out of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Bubble was about to burst. Some folks (Orbit, Mom, Stitch, and Deadwood) were departing that morning. I was departing mid-afternoon and still others (like NesQuick) were taking a Lumpy zero. On top of that, Princess Elle and BooknBoot had been sucked into the great Gatlinburg vortex, and Master Wayne was at home eating Cheetos and watching Netflix. Such is the nature of hiking bubbles…you love them, appreciate them, and ride them while you can. And if you’re lucky, you’ll cross paths with one or more of your friends again further down the trail. I also found it interesting that in 5 days in the Smokies, under tough conditions, I had learned more about these people than many of my casual acquaintances back in the real world. You can learn an awful lot about a person during a 5-hour, uninterrupted hike with him or her.

I gave Lumpy a final fist pump, thanked him for his hospitality, and coveted his beard a final time. His parting words to me were, “In case anyone hasn’t told you lately, I’m proud of you.” While I suspect those are his parting words to all his customers, he sounded sincere and I appreciated them. In fact, I may have gotten a little lumpy in my throat.

I got back on the trail about 2:30 p.m. After a 5 mile, 2500 foot climb, I was standing on the beautiful grassy bald of Snowbird Mountain. I looked up and saw a really interesting facility. It looked like a building one would enter in order to solve a puzzle and unlock a new world in the computer game Myst, one of the most popular PC games of the 1990s. I was tempted to enter, throw some switches, and be instantly transported to Katahdin. Unfortunately, it was just an FAA Control Tower, with a warning sign that if you mess with anything, people could die.

Myst Station?
Myst Station?
Got It!
Got It!

After a 6.9 mile afternoon, I arrived at the Groundhog Creek Shelter and set up my tent nearby. As I cooked my 2.5 servings of New Orleans-style Rice with Shrimp and Ham, I became acquainted with a whole new cast of characters, including…

– Lindsay and Patrice – 2 ladies who are making a movie about women thru-hikers entitled Thru. Be sure to check out the trailer at thruatdoc.com. I told them that if they changed their minds and decided to include a token man in the film, I would like the character Fob to be played by Bear Grylls.

– Little Bear, Squirrel Nut, and two friends both named Tyler who made great fires.

– Tree Hugger – a man who wears the same hiking shirt as me along with a kilt. He literally stops and hugs every tree with a white blaze on it, and says a short prayer asking that God will protect him and keep him on the right path. That’s a lot of trees, folks…and a lot of prayers. I can only remember hugging one tree…a double blazer at Quesalupa Gap, but that’s ground we’ve already covered.

Day 25

I got an early start this morning and was thankful the pain in my left knee had subsided. As I began the descent into Brown Gap, I came across an old man with a white beard just wandering along the trail. He had no pack or gear and we were several miles from civilization. We exchanged hellos and he smiled and told me he was fine. I found it kind of odd but I hiked on.

About 10 minutes later, I caught up with Lindsay and we discovered some Trail Magic! Yes, there was a case of cold Cokes along the side of the trail by a tree.  I can’t be certain but I believe the bearded man was a Trail Angel who had hiked way out into the wilderness carrying a case of cold sodas for me and my fellow hikers. I suspect he wasn’t looking for praise, which explains why he had walked southward from the Cokes. His reward was intrinsic, because he knew that he had refreshed and encouraged some hikers. That might also explain the big smile he gave me as I passed by.

View from Max Patch Bald
View from Max Patch Bald

The highlight of the day came at mile 253.9 when I summited Max Patch Bald. Several years ago, my family decided on a Christmas vacation in the mountains. I insisted we take a day trip to Max Patch, a place I had read about in various AT books. The family was reluctant to say the least, but I told them the view would be well worth the 30 or so minute trip to get there. It ended up taking an hour and a half to get there. When we arrived at the parking lot, the temperature had dropped to 20 degrees and the winds were gusting. Half of those in our group refused to get out of their cars. The other half begrudgingly followed me up the bald. With each step, the temperature dropped a degree and the wind picked up. At the summit we all were frozen to our core and looked like Jack Nicholson in the maze at the end of The Shining. We took a two second look at the view (which was spectacular!), and then rushed down the mountain to get in our cars to warm up. The family was not happy with me. I knew this because they told me so. I was the butt of jokes for the rest of the vacation and still get grief over Max Patch. So it was great to return on a somewhat warmer, low 40s, day and think about my sweet family.

As I descended toward Lemon Gap, I entered a beautiful section featuring rolling hills, stream crossings, birds chirping, and mountain laurels. I remember thinking that the place looked like how I would imagine the Garden of Eden. Ironically, not even 5 minutes later, I came across my second AT snake! He was a little fellow, scurrying across the trail. Had he offered me an apple, I would have been really tempted to go for it.

AT Snake #2
AT Snake #2

After a personal best tying 18.4 mile day, I stopped at a stealth camping site on a ledge by a stream. I was alone, but fortunately Rocky, a really cool section hiker, strolled by to snap a photo of me and the site. I dozed off to the sound of the stream, with visions of Hot Springs dancing in my head.

Fob

Fob on a Ledge
Fob on a Ledge

 

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AT Thru-Hike #19 – Lumpy’s Compassion


“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”     – Edmund Hillary

Day 22

It was another interesting night at the shelter, featuring a conglomeration of humanity brought together by a love of hiking. In addition to our core Great Smoky Mountains Bubble, we were joined by…

– John E. Just from Peoria, Illinois – he’s out here attempting a thru-hike to draw attention to a rare genetic disease that he has. It’s called Fabry disease and it affects 1 in 40,000 people, including 6 in his family. To stay alive, he has to get an IV transfusion every 2 weeks for life. And he’s hiking the AT! After each transfusion, he begins working the logistics for the next one. (And here I am complaining about a sore knee.). He said, “Fob, I hope my hike sends a message to people with this disease and others that you can still get out and do things and enjoy life. I want to raise awareness.” Message received loud and clear, Mr. Just…hike on!

– Kole McKeown from Union, SC, where Janet’s family is from

– A couple and their young daughter who mistakenly thought that when they reserved the shelter, they would have it to themselves. The mom was not a happy camper when she realized their family getaway trip would be shared with a dozen stinking hikers. They brought a guitar and a telescope but no sleeping pads…all marks of section hikers.

Ahh...the Smokies
Ahh…the Smokies

The weather was slightly better for today’s hike. It was arguably the best day in the Smokies in terms of stunning, mountaintop views…Charlies Bunion, The Sawteeth, Bradleys View, Eagle Rocks, etc. At Copper Gap, mile 218.9, I stopped and reflected on having reached the 10% milestone. That seemed like an awfully low percentage for what I had been through.

The heavens declare the glory of God...
The heavens declare the glory of God…
Over and over...
Over and over…
And over again!
And over again!

After 12.1 miles, I arrived at the Tri-Corner Knob Shelter (elevation 5897 feet) for another fun night with The Bubble. Deadwood and Nesquick began doing Monty Python movie impressions, and soon everyone was saying those phrases and using those accents around camp. As the wind picked up and temperature dropped, we all worked our way inside the 3-sided shelter to eat and share stories. Oddly, almost everyone had some form of potato, including the highly popular Ramen Bomb (Ramen noodles with potatoes). At one point the sweet, kind, mild-mannered Master Wayne stepped just outside the hand-hung tarp which comprised the shelter’s 4th wall. He then ripped the loudest, bat cave-shaking fart I had heard since the one Daniel, my brother in law, launched during Christmas week of 2012. We all started laughing and applauding Master Wayne for his Master Piece, even while he remained outside to compose himself and assess the damage to his hiking pants. It was unclear why he felt the need to step outside, since we are in a hiking environment where such grand noises are not only allowed, but celebrated.

The Bubble at Rest
The Bubble at Rest

Day 23

We awoke to yet another very cold morning. Despite my love for the Smokies, it was time for me to end this relationship and move on. I looked at my guidebook to see how far I’d have to hike to get to a hot shower. The answer was 18.4 miles, to the Standing Bear Farm Hostel. Game on!

After an initial climb, I began a long descent down to Camel Gap. At mile 225.9, I passed the barely visible plane wreckage of an F-4 Phantom jet that crashed in 1984. To date, there have been 54 plane crashes within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are usually private planes flying in bad weather. The pilot becomes spatially disoriented, not knowing up from down, and hits the side of the mountain or trees.

As I hiked that afternoon, the weather continued to improve, but I was growing weary. My feet ached and pain was shooting across the front of my left knee. At mile 236 I sat down on a log with Master Wayne. He was preparing to take a side trail and head home, as his section hike was over. Physically, I had bottomed out, but still had four miles to go to exit the park and get to the hostel. I wasn’t in a good place. After a long break, with 2 hours of daylight remaining, I said a prayer, popped 3 Advil and stood up. I put my backpack back on and it felt like someone had added 2 bricks to it. I then slowly put one foot in front of the other and continued my descent, eventually walking under Interstate 40. After a tough, painful final mile, including some killer stairs, I staggered into Standing Bear Hostel just before sunset.

image

Standing Bear Hostel is a really odd place. It’s managed by Lumpy, a legitimate mountain man who’s a mix between Swamp People, Duck Dynasty, and Deliverance. It’s a wonder they aren’t already filming a reality tv series based on Lumpy and this hostel. With a long beard and slow, drawn out speaking style, it almost seems like he’s playing a movie character…but he’s not. He’s the real deal.

After a brief tour of the place, Lumpy and I sat down on the porch of the old wooden bunkhouse for a chat. I learned that he got that nickname because he was a “fat kid”. I told him I really liked his beard, and hoped that one day the mangy crop of Spanish moss on my chin would grow into something that impressive. He then proceeded to tell me a true story about his beard. Years ago, Lumpy agreed to let a local organization use his famous beard for a fund-raiser to raise money to pay the hospital bills of a sick child. The organizers used an auction format, and the highest bidder would get to decide whether to cut Lumpy’s beard or preserve it. After several minutes of competitive bidding, a local businessman ultimately won out with a bid of $2800…and wanted the beard cut off. As Lumpy talked in his slow, Lumpy voice, I thought it was such a cool, heartwarming story of rural compassion. I loved how he willingly used one of his greatest assets, his beard, to help a sick child in need. But Lumpy wasn’t through yet…not by a long shot. In fact, his tale was just getting started. He continued… “They brung me and my beard over to the gal with the scissors who would do the cuttin’.” He paused for a moment and smiled. Then, in a higher octave, excited voice, he declared, “and that gal had the biggest hooters I’ve ever seen!” (He gestured just how large so I could get the magnitude and longitude.) I was speechless. We had reached the purpose for the story…the main take-a-way. It didn’t end with a sick boy in a wheelchair being wheeled across the stage to hug and thank a teary-eyed Lumpy. Rather, it ended with a well-endowed country gal taking Lumpy’s beard, but giving him a thrill in return.

As for the hostel, your $20 gets you a bunk bed with a foam mattress and linens. There’s a resupply store with reasonably priced, mostly not expired food (including pizza!) and other hiker amenities. There are laundry facilities…well, 2 tubs, a hose, a washboard, and soap to hand wash clothes, and a normal dryer. There’s also the option to tent camp for a lesser rate, although at least 2 of the tent campers were drinking, smoking pot, and had taken 6 consecutive zero days in Gatlinburg to party, recover, and party some more. No thanks.

I soon learned of 2 downsides to this place. First, the hot water was out, so my only option was an ice cold shower that took my breath and other things away. A hot shower, the very thing I had hiked a personal best 18.4 miles for, simply wasn’t there at the finish line. Second, the port-a-john had not been emptied since Nixon was President, and was literally filled to the brim. Truly disgusting. Thankfully there was a privy by the camping area that could be used. (As I exited the next day, the new port-a-john was arriving.)

After showering and doing old-school laundry, I ate a large supreme pizza, 2 cherry pie packets, a Gatorade, Diet Coke, Mountain Dew, and package of string cheese. I then shot a video clip, available on my Facebook page, of Lumpy and my hiking buds quoting Monty Python lines. Before going to bed, I weighed myself, and discovered that I had lost 31.6 lbs! I had reached my weight loss goal for the entire trip in just 23 days! It was a bit of a psychological boost to realize that I was no longer carrying around a “frontpack”.

As we laid there in our bunks and started to doze off, a rooster started crowing loudly. Lumpy yelled, “Sorry y’all…the bird gits his nights n days confused sometimes.” It was the perfect way to close out a peculiar evening at a peculiar place. It will also be how we close each episode of the new reality tv show, “Lumpy at Standing Bear.”

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #18 – Rock Stars and Princesses


“I had come to realize that this whole place and experience is what you make of it. Your attitude and frame of mind determined everything. It wasn’t hard to see how this undertaking could be the worst or best experience of a person’s life.” – Kyle S. Rohrig, Lost on the Appalachian Trail

Day 20

The cold, windy and rainy night carried over into a cold, windy, and rainy morning. I didn’t sleep well because one of my shelter mates (whose trail name I won’t mention but it sounds like one of the seven dwarfs) snored loudly and non-stop from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m. It sounded like a freight train had gotten off track and was loose in his nostrils. Had he been next to me, I would have shoved a hiking sock down his esophagus. Of course, I would have used one of Deadwood’s socks in order to maintain my innocence. Deadwood would gladly take the fall for his beloved Ironman.

RV Christmas Tree
RV Christmas Tree

We hiked about 6 miles in the nasty weather and sought refuge at the Silers Bald Shelter. It was so cold that Stitch decided to build a very rare, midday fire inside the shelter. As we huddled around the fire, we checked the weather radar. A line of heavy thunderstorms was closing in…perhaps about 30 minutes out. Decision time: stay at Silers Bald by the fire and call it a day…or make a run for Double Spring Gap Shelter, just 1.7 miles away? I took one more glance at the radar and said, “I’m going for it!” I then took off hiking/running as fast as I could, with a few others behind me. We got to the shelter just as the thunderstorm hit. We were cold, tired and a little bummed over the wimpy 7.4 mile day. We were also very thankful to have dodged a massive thunderstorm.

Day 21

We awoke to yet another very cold, rainy/foggy day. I heard a few grumblings that folks were already sick of the Smokies and just wanted to get through them. That was a shame because the Smokies are a beautiful, magical place. It’s just hard to appreciate that when your hands and face hurt and visibility is only 30 feet.

Elle, the late 20-something engineer who is part princess, part trail diva, and self-described “adorable,” was one of the first out of the shoot, and I was a few minutes behind her. Despite the crappie weather, I was looking forward to climbing Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT.

Marvelous View from Clingmans Dome
Marvelous View from Clingmans Dome

Towards the end of a long ascent, in the vicinity of Mount Buckley, I spotted something in the woods out of the corner of my eye. It stood out because it was Aqua colored and only about 15 feet off the trail. As I got closer, I realized (to my horror) what it was. It was Princess Elle, embracing a thin tree, assuming the 90 degree position, and taking a dump! Yikes! Gracious sakes alive! Katy bar the door! I looked away, following the lead of a nearby squirrel, and hiked on. But the scene kept running through my mind, haunting me. First of all, I didn’t even know princesses pooped. (Cinderella? No. Snow White? Absolutely not. Ariel, Princess Jasmine, and Sleeping Beauty? No, no, and no. Peach? Technically no, she only drops bananas from her Kart to slow down Bowser. Middleton? Unlikely, she’s not the Duke of Earl. Fiona? Okay, I’ll give you that one but she’s an ogre.) And why so close to the trail, Elle…behind a small pooplar tree? Some things defy explanation.

God did this.
God did this.

As I neared Clingmans Dome, there was a fork in the trail and I mis-read the poorly worded and positioned sign…and entirely missed the single white blaze down low and off to the left on a rock. Turns out half the hikers in our group would do the same and wrongly veer right, adding an unnecessary quarter mile round trip to the parking lot. We all agreed this fork could use one of those warning double blazes common elsewhere on the trail. Clingmans Dome is always impressive, but I’m glad I’d been there before on a day that wasn’t cold and rainy with poor visibility. I walked around the top with BooknBoot and a friend who met her there. Eventually Princess Elle arrived, smiling, as if a heavy load had been lifted. As she talked on the phone with her dad, I interrupted and called her out for what she had done to that poor tree. She’ll be getting the bill for my eventual therapy.

With the ice having been broken in a most unfortunate way between Sir Fob and Princess Elle, we decided to hike together for the next few hours. I learned that Elle would be meeting her boyfriend at Newfound Gap in order to spend some time together in Gatlinburg. We brainstormed some April Fools jokes we could play on him, like having me arrive first to tell him she had met another guy and decided to stay at the last shelter. As the day wore on, Elle sensed that my 50-year-old body was starting to tire. So she began singing a series of Jack Black songs to motivate me. I wasn’t familiar with any of them but appreciated her efforts. At the Road Prong Trail parking lot, we stopped with Master Wayne to rest and dry out our socks on a grassy slope.

Drying Out with Princess Elle
Drying Out with Princess Elle

We eventually arrived at the popular, touristy Newfound Gap, a mountain pass dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. After so many days of solitude in the wilderness, it was odd seeing so many cars and people there. One person not there was Elle’s boyfriend, but I defended him and assured her that he was probably in town making preparations.

Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap

I have read many, many books by AT thru-hikers and several of them talk about the “rock star” treatment that aspiring thru-hikers get at points along the trail. I hadn’t experienced any of that until Newfound Gap. As we organized our backpacks, dumped our trash, and ate a snack, several families and individuals approached us like you might approach a wild, smelly emu. “That’s a thru-hiker, dear,” whispered one mother to her young daughter, as she held on to her to keep her from getting too close. “Aspiring thru-hiker,” I clarified. “You don’t earn the thru-hiker title until the final summit in Maine.” From a variety of young and older folks, we got the usual questions about where we began, how far we had gone, and whether we had seen any bears. I so wanted to answer, “No, but I saw a princess poop in the woods this morning.” I showed restraint, not wanting to cause confusion for the young tourists and aspiring princesses listening and staring.

Roosevelt Memorial, Newfound Gap
Roosevelt Memorial, Newfound Gap

Honestly, after hiking 207 miles, recently in the cold and rain, I appreciated the rock star treatment, even though I’m just a smelly hiker. It brought back memories of the last time I had felt that way. I was on a plane full of troops on our way to Afghanistan. We stopped to refuel at 1 a.m. at Bangor (Maine) International Airport. As we exited the plane and walked down the ramp for a 2-hour break, we saw rows of people lined up on both sides, 25 to 30 of them…clapping, shaking our hands, and patting us on the back. It was 1 a.m., most of them were elderly, and we hadn’t even stepped foot into a combat zone. They handed us cell phones to use and had snacks and drinks set out for us. I felt like a rock star, even though I hadn’t done anything yet. And I felt so very honored to be among these troops, some of whom had been on multiple deployments…perhaps a few of whom would be called on to give their last full measure of devotion on this deployment. I truly appreciated the kindness and appreciation of fellow Americans that night (you can read more about them at http://www.flybangor.com/troop-greeters )
And I appreciated the kindness and interest shown on my hike by those at Newfound Gap. Memo to self: Do as much as you can, as often as you can, to make those around you feel like rock stars.

Striking a Pose, Icewater Spring Shelter
Striking a Pose with Master Wayne, Icewater Spring Shelter

I said farewell to Princess Elle whose boyfriend would arrive just after I left. I hiked uphill a few more miles and settled in at Icewater Spring Shelter along with the rest of the Great Smoky Mountains Bubble. It had been another cold, rainy 13.4 mile day…and yet a wonderful day. As thru-hiker and author Kyle Rohrig once wrote, “Your attitude and frame of mine determined everything.”

Fob

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