It’s been one year since I called up Stewart and asked him to teach me how to backpack. One year since my first hot, humid, miserable trip on the Cumberland trail. On that trip, I struggled and huffed and crawled my way inch by inch up the trail, trying to do 8 miles in a day. My pack was heavy and my feet hurt and when I finished I thought, “well, I think I like backpacking, but I really don’t know.”
And as you know, I went on another trip with Stewart in the Smokies a few months later. My pack was stupid light, because I had a summer weight sleeping bag for freezing temperatures, but I fell in love. And that was where I first set foot on the AT, and met a woman at a shelter who asked me how I liked backpacking. “I love it,” I replied.
“You could hike the Georgia section of the AT,” she said,” but I’d do it southbound.” We sat in front of the fire and went through her guidebook, going over elevations and possible supply points.
And the thought stuck with me and grew into 130 miles from Tellico Gap, NC to Springer Mountain, by myself, in January. And the people I met there, Carpenter and yes, even Gonzo, as much as I sort of hate to admit it now, have shaped me into the hiker, the listener, the friend, the woman, the person I am now.
So of course I had to plan a trip with Stewart on the one year anniversary of our first trip. That’s where it all started. We’ve gone in different directions since then: I love the AT and the towns and people and structure. He loves the wilderness areas like Cohutta. But for this trip, I asked him to join me on the AT for a section filled with water and streams that I thought he would enjoy.
The plan was for me to park my car at 19E on Thursday night. I’d camp there, and Friday I’d hike NOBO 25 miles to Dennis Cove. I’d meet Stewart there that evening and we’d night hike to a tent site. Saturday we’d hike 16-20 miles SOBO, then finish up at 19E and my car on Sunday. I’d be doing a long out and back of about 50 miles. Stewart would be hiking 25 miles total.
It started out fine. I got to 19E, parked, set up my tent, and went to sleep (for a while; I’ve got to quit camping by 19E. It’s too loud!).
In the morning, I woke up to a slightly wet tent and started my hike. It felt good to have so many miles in front of me. I hit a blowdown early on, and clambered over it.
The day was overcast, but that didn’t stop me from raiding the blackberry bushes when I got to the top of the meadow. They were just ripening, and I let the tartness burst in my mouth.
This meadow had been so special to me when I came through here before. I had done 74 miles in 3 days. Two long days of 27 miles, and then 20 miles on the last. When I hit this meadow, I remember my feet hurting and my pace slackening. I came to the break in the trees at golden hour, with the light bursting through the clouds and on to my face. I’ll never forget that feeling.
I walked on.
At Sugar Hollow I met Jack. Jack didn’t have a name yet, but he came right up to me. He followed me down to a water source after I gave him a bit of a fuss, and there I gave him some of my beef jerky. He was so small and skinny. He gobbled it up, nipping my fingers.
I thought he would stay there. I did. But I started to walk on, and…he followed me. His little kitten legs couldn’t keep up, so eventually we worked out a system.
Jack and I stopped for lunch at Mountaineer Falls shelter. Jack ate some more jerky and had some water out of my cup, and then he promptly fell asleep in my lap.
After a nice break, we packed up and headed out again. Jack cleaned himself up on my pack, then took another nap.
After a mile or so, jack decided he’d gone far enough. He hopped down and settled himself in the pine straw. I gave him some beef jerky to go and hiked on.
The miles slipped by. I stopped to dry my tent in the sun for a few minutes (and eat). I sat at Moreland Gap shelter when I heard thunder but nothing came of it, so I headed out. I was trying to time my hike so that I would get to Dennis Cove around 8:30, but it appeared I’d get there a little early.
And then, wouldn’t you know, things changed.
I was just on top of a ridge when the rain hit. I thought I’d hike on because my rain jacket is mostly wetted out now and not really effective, but then the skies opened up. And then the wind came.
I ran to a rock with a decent overhang and pulled out my rain jacket. The wind picked up and the trees were all pulling down towards me. I scooted further under the rock. I turned my phone on and had LTE, so I sent a text to Gambit.
Me: I’m 4.5 miles south of Dennis Cove. I need you to check the weather.
Gambit: I’m on it.
He called me minutes later. “Lindsey, you need to run. There’s a hostel at Dennis Cove. I know you can do 3 miles per hour the whole way there. Just get to Dennis Cove and go to Kincora Hostel.”
“Gambit, I don’t think you understand what these trees look like right now. I’m afraid they’re going to fall on me.”
“I’m looking at the weather and I can’t guarantee you’ll get a break. If you hear a cracking sound, look behind you, up the trail, and run. 15 seconds is enough time to get you out of the way of a tree.”
We hung up and I strapped everything down, then left the safety of my rock. The wind was intense, the rain washed the salt off my face and into my eyes, but I trusted my legs and ran down the trail. There were trees down already, giant trees with limbs and braches and leaves that slowed my progress. One tree had tipped over and taken rocks with it, leaving a deep gaping hole in the trail. The storm quieted, giving me time to sprint across flatter sections of trail.
Of course, when I came to an open meadow with standing water on the trail, lightning struck, with three close booms of thunder that cracked something.
But I made it to Dennis Cove in the damp, humid aftermath of the storm. 4.7 miles in an hour and a half. I walked the .5 miles to Kincora, but found a large branch had fallen on the hostel at some point and there was no electricity. After some hemming and hawing, I decided to hike back to the other hostel and try my luck there.
Another mile or so on the road and I was at Black Bear resort just as dark was settling in. I had seen trees down in most yards, and electric lines dangerously low. I suspected there wouldn’t be power here either.
Sure enough, the owner ran out with a head lamp on, but offered me a bed in the bunk house, where there were a few other hikers staying. I asked for a working phone, since there was no cell phone reception, and left Stewart a voicemail. Hopefully he’d find the place; if not, we’d meet up in the morning, I guess. I started the long business of drying off and trying to hydrate. I didn’t eat dinner.
The other hikers were…not thruhikers. I suppose they were LASHers. They knew love and ditto and hazmat. I’m not certain how much longer they were going to stay on the trail, but I liked them all a lot.
I fell asleep waiting for Stewart.
He woke me up at midnight. The roads had been difficult to navigate with downed trees, but he had gotten my message. We chatted for a minute, then went to sleep.
MVP: Rock or Jack
LVP: hole in the trail
In the morning, we all woke up to the sound of four wheelers. The hostel owner’s kids were driving around picking up branches and limbs and being generally incredibly industrious for 9 year olds. I suppose I would be too if I got to drive a four wheeler.
The water was an issue. I guess the hostel had pumps or wells for water, so the toilets didn’t work. Enter Ms Mechanical Engineering Student over here; I told a lasher who needed to make a woodland deposit to grab a bucket of water from the stream and pour it into the toilet after he was done; that would flush the toilet. Everyone was SO impressed and the hostel provided buckets for the toilets. Killing it.
Stewart and I headed out (I got everyone No Electricity discounts, too) and finally, finally started hiking at 10. Good grief Charlie Brown.
So here are some things we saw:
The rock I hid under
Random park bench (I love this bench)
I treed a bear cub!! His brother ran down the hill but this little guy went up the tree. I saw mama bear a mile down the trail. She was NOT expecting me and ran out of a tree and down the hill when I was about 25 feet away. Scared us both. Bears are so funny.
Finally, stopped at Mountaineer Falls shelter. We had dinner and chatted and went to bed, just us in the shelter.
Until 10:30, when I was roused from a deep sleep by a night hiker. Who had no manners.
I glared in the dark and went back to sleep.
LVP: night hiker
We woke up Sunday and I had no compunctions about waking up the night hiker too. Besides, it was 7:30 already.
She was a lasher, and she didn’t apologize or act at all abashed for having come in late.
She was also not great at directions.
“We’re hiking south. We came from Dennis Cove, 16 miles North of here,” we told her.
“So did y’all have to hike over that huge tree in the trail that’s like south of here?”
…. We looked at her, and then I patiently explained cardinal directions.
“I can’t figure out why there are so many trees and limbs on the trail. I guess it’s like maintainers are like…not doing anything. It’s crazy. Hey did you guys here that crazy storm yesterday? I kept hearing all these trees cracking.”
I stared at her.
Perhaps that explains Stewart’s face in this picture, which she took as we left the shelter. He didn’t have much confidence in her ability to take a picture.
We headed out, and I expressed my frustration about idiot hikers by throwing massive branches off the trail. It helped.
The last few miles sped by. We climbed over blowdowns
We relaxed at Sugar Hollow, where tiny minnows nibbled at my feet.
We hiked and watched the miles slip by under our shoes
And eventually we ended up at 19E. Another section done, another year gone.
LVP: that girl
In another week (because I’m so late posting this), I’ll be flying to New Hampshire to hike with Carpenter.
I can hardly wait!!