Friday, October 21, 2016

Day 31: Springer Mountain, Georgia.

We are done. 
It took my pregnancy-compromised immune system 3 days to recover from whatever stomach bug I caught from another hiker. We were covering 18-20 miles per day, and were ready to finish ahead of schedule. Then I was knocked out of commission. A decision had to be made: We could both wait for me to heal, or Forrest could continue without me. As every Iditarod fan knows: "You win the race by the dogs you drop." 
Neither one of us wanted to prolong the finish by an unknown number of days, and we all know I am not a stickler for completing each and every footstep of the AT.
As Forrest marched on at his 25-30 mpd pace, my usefulness transferred to logistics. As my stomach healed, I procured a rental car in an obscure small town, got there to collect it, and needed to station it at the finish of the AT. 
I drove the windy mountain roads, getting lost and crossing the trail multiple times, checking on our lead hiker.
Seeing the small towns of northern Georgia was a mixture of bible meetings, rebel flags, single-wide trailers, gorgeous fall leaves, and then -- out of nowhere-- a little Germany. (The town of Helen, GA has enforced a strict Bavarian building code since the 1960s, all based on drawings from a soldier that was stationed overseas. The town has little to no German heritage, but they like to celebrate Oktoberfest.)
I learned that the first real gold rush in the US was in north Georgia. The rich gold deposits here caused a rush for land and claims, created many of the small towns, prompted the federal government to place a mint here, and led directly to the removal of the Cherokee via the more
famous "Trail of Tears."
Finding the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is no small task, and when I was well enough, I negotiated our oversized Chrysler down miles of bumpy dirt forest service roads, getting slowed by bumps, holes, curves, and covered wagon traffic. 
When the car was somewhere we could reach it from the end, I put my pack back on and hiked north to find Forrest.
We summitted Springer Mountain together, which really isn't much more than a hill.
We finished the trail from Maine to Georgia in 128 days total. Forrest walked each and every of the 2189 total miles. I walked just under 2000, about 400 of those while pregnant. We saw bears, moose, salamanders, chipmunks, squirrels, mice and way too many snakes. We went through 3 pair of shoes and 2 backpacks each.
It was difficult all of the time, and unpleasant most of the time, but we both have a lot of fond memories of things we saw, people we met, and experiences shared. For me, the highlight worth the blisters was watching Forrest strive and excel at something he's wanted since he was 12. His perseverance, skill in the outdoors, stewardship, patience, and helpfulness were inspiring and I learned more than I know from walking through this with him. Watching people we love succeed at their dreams has to be one of God's best gifts. 
Another of God's lesser gifts, a well-done brunch, is our next goal and I'm taking the Chrysler to Atlanta in search of it.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Day 27: Hiawassee, GA. 2119.6 miles from Katahdin, 69.6 miles from Springer Mt.

To exemplify the ironic laziness of long-distance hikers, we rented a golf cart to do our laundry at our last stop, rather than walk a half mile round trip to the laundromat. The next day, we got up, scarfed down pancakes, and walked almost 18 miles on the trail. 
We were cruisin' towards Georgia and just had one more resupply, which we had already shipped to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a white water kayaking and rafting destination right on the AT.
I had a great cheat planned that would cut out 15 miles of trail where the AT took a ridiculous bend, and another trail went straight across and connected. I was so pleased that my map (which Forrest does not think we need) was helping me outsmart the trail. Then I got a stomach bug. So, I walked to the nearest road and hitchhiked to town to rest. It is much less satisfying to outright skip days of trail due to being confined to a Holiday Inn Express than to sneakily skip parts on forest service roads.
Forrest marched on into Georgia without me-- I rode across the state line with a nice church lady whose good deed of the week was "rescuing" a pregnant lady from hitchhiking. Being in Georgia has already revealed two interesting facts: 1)chewing tobacco can be purchased by the half-gallon; and 2) my husband thinks that "Gone with the Wind" is an airplane movie.
We are shooting to make Springer Mountain before the week is out... We just have to keep our tobacco weight under control.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Day 22: Fontana Dam, NC. 2024.5 miles from Katahdin, 164.7 from Springer Mt.

What could be more fun than hiking the Appalachian Trail? Doing so in a hurricane. We hiked into Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the eve on Hurricane Matthew pummelling the east coast. It's long arms of wind and rain swept all the way to the Appalachian Mountains. We had a little bit of shelter from the storm, thanks to your tax dollars.
GSMNP is America's most visited National Park-- reporting 9.5 million visitors annually. Nine million of those visitors never leave what the National Park Service calls "the front country" and the lay person calls "the road."  (Imagine driving a carload of children to a huge playground and never leaving the parking lot. I know a few six-year-olds that would call that crazy, but that's how most Americans treat our park system.)
Even the "few" half million visitors annually that make it into the "back country" at GSMNP create quite an impact, so the park service insists that everyone concentrate camping to 3-sided shelters-- these were blessed protection from inches of rain and strong winds.
The Federal Government, in their wisdom, has also redirected funding from trail maintenance (which is atrocious on the AT in the park) to ensuring the few privies (outhouses) at said shelters are handicap "usable." The result is a pit toilet in a wooden box large enough for a wheelchair, complete with stainless steel lift bars and handles. You would never get a wheelchair down the miles of trails to these privies, but perhaps even more short-sighted is they didn't even outfit the stalls with ramps.
I only got to analyse a few privies,because of a long-standing Tennessee law forbidding outhouses. This law was apparently made ages ago to encourage people to convert to indoor plumbing, it's current practice results in thousands of people forced to camp and shelter in the same areas with zero waste management plan.
If the government didn't give us enough to think about, camping with packs of strangers certainly did. When it was raining, we were the only people in the shelter to hang our food bag from a tree (a method used to keep bears from eating you in your sleep while trying to get to your peanut butter). We concluded that most Americans would rather risk attack to themselves and their neighbors by large wild animals than get their backpacks wet.
The highest mountain in Tennessee is located in GSMNP: Clingman's Dome (6655'). This is also the highest mountain on the Appalachian Trail. It is adorned with an ugly concrete tower, and no other commemoration of the walker's lofty accomplishment besides recognizing, by all the crowds, that one could drive here. At least we know in our hearts that it's all downhill from here. Too bad walking downhill while pregnant is pretty difficult.
Within 2 weeks of accomplishing our goal, I stand by my original claim that hiking the AT while pregnant is not worse or harder than hiking last year, but it is slower. I also really miss Aleve, which I popped multiple times per day to ease sore joints and feet, but cannot safely ingest right now. However, the trail is a great escape from random people touching my stomach, a particularly irksome practice of our culture that has, thankfully, not transferred to the hiking community. It could be because I smell so bad, but, so long as we hang our food, I can travel through the woods unmolested.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Day 16: Hot Springs, NC. 1914.8 miles from Katahdin, 273.7miles from Springer Mt.

Fewer than 300 miles to go, I have just entered my 3rd trimester, and, in my greatest coup to date, I am about to skip 33 miles of trail. The 3s are all lining up.
I made the mistake of picking up Forrest's pack at lunch the other day, just to move it. It was almost too heavy to lift, and only then did I realize how much of my gear he has sequestered into his pack. This guy can move uphill on rocks at a walking sprint; packs out every piece of litter he sees, even though his own pack is over-full; and, he is doing 100 push-ups per day because he is "not getting enough exercise" walking 16-20 miles daily. For these reasons, we both agreed I would take a day of rest while he stomps out an "easy" 33 miles in just over 24 hours.
The Appalachian Trail in the South is much easier trail than in the North-- less steep climbs and descents and better groomed trail, for the most part. We have been walking the spine of the Blue Ridge that separates Tennessee and North Carolina and are about to plunge into the Great Smoky Mountains, the country's most visited National Park and site of a continual eating competition between obese Americans and American Black Bears.
Forrest's pack belt keeps getting smaller and smaller, and mine keeps getting bigger. I
 get lots of entertaining reactions from other hikers when they notice my belly:  from squeals to "you are so brave" to "do you drink a lot of beer or are you pregnant?" 

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Day 12: Erwin, TN. 1846.3 miles from Katahdin, 342.9 to Springer Mt.

"I can't read, so I don't bother with signs." This is what our hitchhiking ride informed us as he drove us into town to buy supplies, where the TN/GA football game was on big screen and loud speaker at the Food Lion.
Every valley in this part of Tennessee is called a "hollow," but pronounced "holler." We've heard tales that each holler is occupied by a different family, usually feuding with the family in the next holler, Hatfield & McCoy style.
We are now picking our way along the Tennessee/North Carolina border, staying as far above the hollers as possible, except when we descend for supplies.
Fall is coming: the leaves are just beginning to change and the sky is raining acorns and chestnuts, one of which beaned Forrest, a direct hit from a mischievous squirrel.
As painful as the AT is, there are some redeeming qualities: the food, the kindness of strangers, and the appreciation it gives you for the overlooked. 
Hiking and camping for days, carrying everything you need with you, gives you a new appreciation for how wonderful a well-prepared meal is (like this one, at Mountain Harbour Hostel), or the luxury of a warm clean bed, conveniently elevated above the ground. Things we take for granted have again, after less than 2 weeks of hiking, become sources of joy-- maybe this is why many religions advocate fasting.
Appreciation of all the luxuries in our life, no matter how small, is something of which we all could use more. Today, as we trudge on, I will appreciate the ability to read.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Day 9: Roan Mountain, TN. 393 miles from Springer Mountain


Guess what the temperature is in the south in September? About the same as the South most of the time: hot with a side of humid. The locals keep threatening it will cool down, but probably not enough to make walking uphill with a pack less than sweltering.
Tennessee is chuck full of black bears and also chuck full of people and vacationers that see no reason to keep their food and trash far from the Bears. Generally, people don't want to be around hungry bears. But, if you continually feed animals, they will hang around-- look at dogs. Much of the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee struggles with so called "problem" bears and there are warnings and closures to hikers.
Since being in Tennessee, I have been convinced to buy "southern" hiking socks, crossed paths with a 5-foot black racer snake, stayed in the world's grossest hostel with 14 resident cats, and been bit in the leg by a tiny dog.
The only thing keeping me in this is my talent for cheating at long-distance exercise. With a few map reading skills, I am able to shave off a mile here or there while my partner diligently walks each and every step of the trail even faster than I can skip parts.
Forrest is carrying the majority of the load and spurring us onward to victory (or at least completion), and I am ready to move onward, at least to another state.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Day 4: Damascus, VA 1719.9 from Katahdin, 469.3 from Mt. Springer

The human mind is amazingly forgetful. Women say childbirth is extremely painful, but then all sorts of people have multiple children. Well, I have been saying for the past year how painful and unpleasant the Appalachian Trail is, but was able to forget that enough to come out here again to try to finish. Guess what? It's as miserable as it was last time.
We are on the cusp on leaving Virginia and entering Tennessee. The last 60+ miles have been views of wild flowers and wild ponies, paved with wild rocks and wild roots. Our feet are blistering up and our appetites are growing.
I've changed a little bit of the hiking formula to accommodate being pregnant. First off, I got a "go for it!" from my OB doc, and a "proceed with cautionary measures" from my midwife. I'm hiking fewer miles per day (currently about 15), drinking a lot more water (thanks to a friend's hydration bladder I can just wear and drink from constantly), and wearing compression socks on my calves to help circulation. Downhills are even harder than they used to be, and downhills were never fun. The biggest difference is for Forrest-- if he sees me struggling, he takes my pack on his front (with double packs, going downhill with no view of his next footfall, he is still faster than I am).
I have to stop and pee about every mile. So, 469 more pee breaks and we'll be done.