Wandering for 165 Days and Nights – Chapter 4 Sample
Appalachian Thru-Hike in the Winter
If our feet could talk, they would have said, “There was never a dull moment!”
I wore a 35mm camera around my neck and had to get used to it bouncing off my chest with every step. If I put it away in my backpack, I would invariably come upon a scenic overlook and would end up having to stop to retrieve my camera from my pack. I found it best to keep it out and let it beat my chest into submission.
During the first couple of weeks of our hike, we broke our bodies into the routine by taking it slow and only walking 7 to 13 miles a day. The trail has three sided, lean-to type shelters, generally set a day’s hike apart from each other, which provided a roof over our heads and a sleeping platform to keep us up off the ground. We utilized these shelters especially when rain threatened. On poor weather or overcast days, the next shelter was always the carrot stick dangling in front of us, the target that we greeted with a sigh of relief when we threw our gear and tired bodies under cover, safe from the elements. I found myself playing a mental game of noting how far we had walked each day, how many miles we had accrued since Springer Mountain, and how many miles left to the big prize, Mt. Katahdin. It was part of my goal-oriented psyche.
We found the trail in Georgia to be surprisingly rugged. To us, mountainous terrain meant the peaks and valleys of New England with the well-known ski runs and famous mountains. Killington and the Presidential range in the White Mountains come to mind. By contrast, in Georgia, it seemed as soon as we arrived at the top of the mountain, we were headed right back down again. This section of the trail was actually hilly, as opposed to mountainous, and the only thing beyond one hill was another hill. Even with the foliage off the trees, I don’t remember many viewpoints. Right out of the gate, this was a grueling test of how fit we were and how strong our desire was to hike for the next five months. White 2×6 inch paint marks on trees delineated the trail. These blazes were our visual guide and constant companion, and as long as we followed them like optical breadcrumbs, they were confirmation we were on the Appalachian Trail. Double white blazes signified a potentially confusing change of direction. Any blue blazes on trees denoted a side trail where water, trail access, scenic overlook, or shelter might be found. At trail junctions, there was usually a sign post to denote mileage to other significant points, much the same as mileage signs on a highway.
The trail skirted the North Carolina/ Tennessee border and remained a challenge. Although we planned to do this trek together, Johanna’s knees and feet gave out, and sadly our dream of a joint hike fell apart. After limping the trail for days, and then hiking for a day in wet snow, her misery factor increased exponentially, and we made the decision for her to leave the trail. I would carry on solo. She rejoined me for a hike through the Shenandoah’s, but I hiked the remaining 1,800 miles alone. It was certainly a big disappointment that we wouldn’t complete this together, but it cemented my determination to see it through to the end.
I enjoyed hiking in North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was an easy hike, and was literally “a walk in the park.” Gentle grades, nice open forests, and stone shelters with a chain link fence across the front to keep bears out, or perhaps to keep the hikers in, although I never saw any signs “please don’t feed the hikers” posted anywhere. The only stone shelter I used in the park was shared with the company of a group of guys who kept me well entertained for the night. Being stone, it was cold and damp, but it had a fireplace in which to build a warming fire on that rainy night.
The woods at morning, noon, and night was the perfect place to encounter wildlife. Deer, porcupine, and a few stray and friendly dogs became company. Johanna was with me in one of the earlier shelters, a beautiful stone building on top of Blood Mountain, when we had a memorable animal encounter. Since this particular night was relatively nice, we decided to sleep outside, but close to the shelter in case the weather turned on us. In winter, I found any stone building was damp and cold, and I would choose to sleep outside unless forced inside by weather.
Not long after we settled into our sleeping bags, we became aware of an animal scampering by. I grabbed my flashlight, and in the probing beam of light, I saw the characteristic white stripe of Pepé Le Pew. One would think with the sleek white racing stripe, he would’ve been anxious to leave once we were on to him, but he was in no hurry. We made the wise decision not to bother him, and in return, he left us alone. Later that night, we did have to move into the shelter when a passing shower came through and sure enough, Pepé was rain-averse too and joined us in the stone.