“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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