Monday, April 16, 2012

Roan Highlands, A.T. Thruhike 2012

     Emerald green seas of grass, and endless views.
     The Roan Highlands proved to be an easy highlight of my journey!
     It started with a long, hard uphill, over Roan Mountain. Not much to see, a wooded summit with a historic site which Skyland Hotel once stood, catering to guests in the late 1800's and early 1900's.
     What followed was beyond words.
     After passing a gap, I proceeded to climb once again. This time, though, I was climbing a large, grass mountain.
     Once at the top, I could see in every direction, and at great distance. It was beautiful.
     This bald mountain was proceeded by another, and yet another. I spent much time gazing into the distance from a soft place to sit that afternoon.
     After departing the last summit, the trail dips back into trees, and eventually connects with a trail once used by local militia men, the Overmountain Men, to travel to and battle the British in the Revolutionary War. This bloody battle was a crucial win for the war, which these men fought using their own guns and provisions, and without the aid of medical or supplies.
     Turning down the side trail, I found myself walking an old gravel road to a big, red barn that has been converted into a shelter.
     It was early, and I had intended to walk further, but this ancient barn was too neat to pass up.
     I laid in the grass, soaking in sun and breeze.
     I was told by another hiker that it was haunted. It was also Friday, the 13th. An interesting night, to say the least.
     The next morning, I woke and was out in front of the barn before sunrise. I decided I would begin up Hump Mountain, another grassy bald, to watch the sun rise as I walked.
     I was in constant awe.
     The sun rose directly behind a distant mountain, filling the sky in many colors in a most magnificent manner. It was such an inspiring moment.
     I continued across balds, with expansive views in all directions. I could even see the shelter, that was once the barn for a small farm, nestled way below in a valley.
      I wondered to myself if the people who once farmed here appreciated this beauty. I felt they must have, it might be why they chose such a inaccessible location in the first place.
      They may have had much in common with me; a need and desire to be here. I wonder.

Unaka Mountain, A.T. Thruhike 2012

     The forests of the Southern Appalachians thus far have been a very unique experience for me. Having never hiked in some of these states previously, I was pleasantly surprised at how new and exciting the little things would be to me.
     In Georgia, the ground was not the Earth I am used to in the Northeast. Nor is it similar to that of the West. No, here the soil itself was a clay. A dark red clay that managed to stand out in contrast vividly to the greens and brownish-greys of the forest.
      Georgia also gave an affect of a jungle setting at times. With thick vines, vines that often outnumbered the trees; and waxy green leaves, thick and dominant.
     Since breaking into North Carolina, the vines and jungle characteristics gave way to thick forest of poplar trees and many small flowers and brush.
     An interesting feature once north of the Smokies is the American history lost to the woods... These forests are dotted with old grave stones, foundations, and many old fences just hanging precariously amongst young regrowth.
     What I have noticed thus far in Tennessee alone is an abundance of water. Falls, cascades, rivers and large streams have been a constant since walking through this fine state.
     There was a different feeling one day, a unique moment in these southern forests.
     I began climbing up Unaka mountain. A typical day, one where I sweat and push myself steadily uphill, reminding myself there will be a less exhausting yet joint-punishing downhill in the near future.
     As I close in on the top, a change begins to take place. The bare trees begin to form needles. The crunching leaves below begin to fade, along with the small brush plants and flowers; in their wake, a brown floor of needles take their place.
     I have walked into a red spruce forest. This is not a place typical of the south, it is instead a sky island of a forest more at home in the Northeast. A place more like what I have called home in recent years.
     The trail grows darker under the cover of branches thick with needles. The air grows moist. The air chills, and an icey breeze follows. Moss, thick and deep green, becomes dominant around tree roots and anywhere the brown needles on the ground give space. The birds sing different tunes.
     I have this to myself; nobody in front or behind me. I slow down, to take this experience in.
     I breathe deep, letting the cool, moist air caress my lungs. The scent of pine sap in the air.
     I close my eyes.
     I am walking an autumn afternoon, breathing deep the cool crisp air. I enjoy the act of hiking, the steady pace and constant changing scenery. The sound of the soft ground beneath my feet, a bed of needles and moss.
     I am in Maine, in the Maine woods. It is a beautiful afternoon, spent hiking as I often would. I am sore, and naturally tired; it has been a long day of hiking.
     But I am just here for the weekend, and my weekend is coming to a close. I will soon hop in my truck, my faithful little Chevy I have babied. I will have a pleasant drive, through the town of Monson and down winding scenic back roads. I will play my music I love.
     The dog will be so excited to see me, jumping and wagging her tale. I will crack open an ice cold drink, and put some meat on the grill.
     Checking on my vegetables, darn squash beetles on my cucumbers again. I will have to do something about them. I pick some lettuce, mustard, and some ripe tomatoes for a salad.
     I stop to grab any eggs out of the coop.
     Tomorrow is work. I dread the alarm, the monotony; but I do look forward to talking to friends and being productive.
     A warm bed tonight. A warm fire. A good book. Riding bicycles with friends after work, then laughing over some drinks downtown.
     I open my eyes.
     As I begin to descend Unaka, the branches grow increasingly bare, the sun beginning to warm the air. The soft ground slithers away, and I hear the crunch of dead leaves once again.
     The moss gives way to small stemmed plants. The moisture in the air leaves, and so does the cool breeze.
     I am in a typical forest of the Southern Appalachians once again.
     I walk, walking everyday. Every day. I wake in my tent, eat my oatmeal, brush my teeth, and proceed North. There is no truck, no dog. These woods are where I rest my eyes, and where I spend my days.
     I have many miles to go, and many experiences ahead.
     Both physically, and also within.

Friday, April 13, 2012

What's In A Name? A.T. Thruhike 2012

     Sort of a right of passage, or maybe just more of a tradition...
     It has become a standard that a thruhiker be given a new, nontraditional name on the trail. It has been so for some time, and continues so every year.
     It is fitting. In a way, life on the trail is a whole different existence from life in general. You live differently, think differently; you make perfect sense to others out here in the woods, but become completely lost when you step back into society when you first arrive in town.
     For many, this may be a step away from "normal". For others, this is a whole new beginning. Thus it is fitting that we go by new names, at least while we walk the trail.
     Some people come to the trail with a new name already decided. I met "Bird Man", he goes by the name due to his love of birds, and his hobby is owning large birds. He goes so far as to carry a bird hat, and leaves bird stickers at shelters.
     "Runner" is called so because for many years he was a runner.
     Some of the best and most creative names come from the trail itself. Many thruhikers will just walk the trail, and let the others, who are a part of the experience, name them. "The Flash" got his name from heading to a tree to do his business at night, but forgeting to turn off his headlamp.
     "Steps" got hers because she was counting her steps for the first week or two.
     "Sleeping Beauty" got his name because he snoozed for 18 hours on a zero day.
     I walked onto the trail open to what would come for my name. I did write "Wanderer" initially, as I feel like that describes my outdoor personality. But when people asked my name, I used my real name, and said the trail hasn't named me, yet.
     Over the course of a few weeks on the trail, I have been given four names already.
     The first one was mentioned by K-Doe, who refered to me as "Main Man", in reference both to my home state of Maine and my being a friend. It was only mentioned that once, though, and did not stick.
     "Mainiac" was my handle for a little while. I do not recall who initiated it, but it was in reference once again to my home, and also my ability to hike far and fast.
     It was my name for a little while, but I did not care much for it. I didn't feel like a Maniac, it didn't sound right to introduce myself as Maniac, and also another person was being called by the same name this year.
     Runner, a great thruhiker whom I've had the pleasure of running in to a few times on the trail, coined the name "Walking Home". Since then, it has become my common trail name.
     I like it. It has a nice sound to it. And it is fitting, I think. It is also a nice conversation starter, since upon learning my name, one also has a sense I am probably from near the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
     At the Norris Hostel in Hot Springs, a discussion came up about my name.
"I like it." said one.
"But wait, what if you decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail someday? You would have to change your name." Said the other.
"You can't change a trail name! It stays with you forever!" Said the first.
     I ended the conversation abruptly. "Guys! How about I finish THIS trail before I even consider worrying about ANOTHER long trail??!!"
     And so, as I continue up and down these great mountains every day, I am known to those who walk with me as "Walking Home". With trekking poles in hand and a smile on my face, it feels right.

Walking Home

Hot Springs to Erwin, A.T. Thruhike 2012

     Hot Springs, North Carolina is a wonderful little mountain town. I had a wonderful time. I enjoyed large portioned, delicious meals at the Smokey Mountain Diner, the best chai latte at Artisun, saw the Easter Parade, and soaked in natural hot spring water with fellow thruhikers.
     While staying at the hikers hostel just off the trail, I ran into several other fellow hikers I have met at various points along the trail.
     I was happy to see Coffee2go again, someone I thought would be far ahead of me since I detoured to climb additional mountains in the Smokies. Unfortunately, he was having a difficult time. He was tenting a few miles back, and was busy doing something, when a dog decided to turn his tent into a bed! By the time anyone noticed, the tent was destroyed! The dog's owner was apologetic, but there was little that could be done.
     In Hot Springs, there is an outfitters. Unfortunately, the tent options were not only expensive, but heavy. In this world, every gram matters.
     In an effort to ease his stress, I suggested we order a tent online, tell them the situation and request they rush it to the next town. I offered to share my shelter from here to Erwin. It is easily roomy enough for two.
     He liked the idea, ordered his tent, a Zpacks Hexamid, and we hiked together for the next few days.
     It started with one last good breakfast at the diner. Nothing fuels you up those mountains better than a good hot meal.
     And off we went. The trail follows a fast moving river, than climbs up over Lovers Leap Rock, which offered a great last view of friendly little Hot Springs.
     Later that day we arrived at Rich Mountain Firetower, and we climbed it to enjoy lunch and nice views.
      Shortly into the next day we arrived at a second fire tower.
     It was a nice change of pace to hike with someone, especially someone who has a lot we can talk about. Being from another country, and having many differences yet many things in common, we kept ourselves entertained in conversations.
     We clearly had different hiking styles, and it took a couple days for us to get a system down that catered to us both. We did it though, and had a good few days of hiking.
     There was a section which required some true climbing up onto an exposed ridgeline. The rocky path was long and hard. It reminded me of some of the trail I have seen up North. Challenging, but offering outstanding views the whole way.
     I stopped for pictures at a cliff, and a fellow thruhiker, Plus2, stopped as well and asked me to take his picture. He asked my trail name.
"Walking Home" I replied.
     Realizing I am from Maine, he exclaimed he was as well. We got to talking and it turns out he lives just minutes from me in the next town! A small world.
     We came across a young woman who is thruhiking who I met several times already, Phoenix, only this time she was extremely dehydrated and having a hard time. She twisted her ankle and was slowly crossing the ridgeline, and has been out of water for some time.
     Coffee2go gave her a liter of his water. She was so relieved. In the end, we all have family and loved ones somewhere, but on the trail we only have each other. As hikers, we need to be there for other hikers. It's a wonderful community.
     That eve, I got to see the Shelton Graves. Here lies two southeners who joined the Union. Upon returning for a family event, they were ambushed by Confederates near here and killed. So much history along the trail!
     Our final night sharing a tent was at Whistling Gap. We had a nice campsite near other friendly folk who had a nice fire going. We all shared some laughs as we cooked our dinners, enjoying a nice campfire experience. We crawled in our tents early, as the night was growing colder. This was the first night below freezing on our trip.
     The next morning, Coffee2go was very eager to take off to Erwin and get his tent. Despite the cold winds, he was up and ready earlier than usual. We agreed on splitting up, that he should head into town while I finished packing. He could reserve me a spot at the Hostel there.
     It was a pleasant walk that day. I enjoyed listening to the birds, and walking alongside streams as the trail descended into town.
     Arriving at the Nolichucky Hiker Hostel, I prepped my bunk, enjoyed a shower, and watched Coffee2go set up his newly aquired tent. He seemed very happy. I know I was.
     The next morning, I rose about 6 am, and was ready to head back on the trail by 7. He was not, and chose to remain in town for a while. Ah, the freedoms of having your own shelter.
     So we parted ways, and I began walking North once more. With a chill in the air, and the sun just starting to peek over the mountains, I smiled as I joined the forest as one, once more.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Max Patch, A.T. Thruhike 2012

     After leaving the Great Smokies, and stopping to resupply at Standing Bear Farm, I began hiking along a section of the trail that meanders along the North Carolina/Tennessee border. It was a long, hard uphill, climbing thousands of feet in elevation. I was sore, stiff, and tired. After thruhiking the Great Smokey  Mountain National Park, I was starting to be ready for a break.
     But not today. No, today I pushed on through the pain, for today I would fulfill a dream.
     I have dreamed of this long hike for many years. I remember reading of, seeing photos of, and watching in documentaries a particular place, a bald mountain called Max Patch.
     I told myself that if I do end up out here, following this dream, that I would camp atop Max Patch, and enjoy 360 degree views.
     So here I was, walking along the famed Appalachian Trail, just mere miles away from Max Patch. If I pushed, I could make it before the sun would set.
     The woods here were interesting. Old remnants of former settlers checkered the forest. Foundations, many old, weathered fences, and even a few gravestones can be spotted between Davenport and Hot Springs.
     After some hard miles, I emerged from the woods, and began up the grassy hill. I was there, standing on Max Patch.
     I quickly set up my shelter, which handled the strong winds well. I kicked off my shoes, enjoying the soft grass on my sore feet.
     I sat, and I stared out over the mountains to the west. The sun began to dip behind them, and the sky filled with color.
     I could see the distant horizon in all directions. The Smokies to the south, Mt. Mitchell way off to the east, and where the trail continued to the north.
     As the night went on, the colors grew denser and more vibrant. Words cannot tell you how incredible this scene was, nor the feelings I experienced within. It was simply perfect.
     As the sun finished setting, the sky filled with stars. I gazed above for an unknown amount of time. I then crawled into my tent and slept deeply, and dreamt vividly.
     My wristwatch alarm beeped in the early morning, and I emerged from my tent. I sat on the dewy grass, this time facing east, and watches as the sky filled with a spectrum of colors once again.
     The experience was simply magical. The simple act of setting a tent on this grassy hill, by my lonesome, and just sitting and watching the simple things that slip by us every day, will prove to be one of the greatest moments of my life.

Climbing the Smokies, A.T. Thruhike 2012

     I rose to my feet early in the morning, and enjoyed a big breakfast with some fellow thruhikers. They could not fathom why I was about to climb many miles that did not count towards the A.T.
     I couldn't fathom why not.

     I can't walk within miles of this impressive mountain and not yearn to climb it. It captured my interest and sparked a burning crave from within. It must be that part of me that just truly loves to climb mountains and roam deep forests with just what I can carry on my back. This part of me is what initiated my dream to be out here on the Appalachian Trail in the first place.
     I said my goodbyes and proceeded south, and then began west on Boulevard Trail. Unlike the meticulously cared-for A.T., this trail was rougher, and required some climbing over and ducking under logs.
     As I climbed, heavy fog once again rolled in. It created an eery feeling. As I climbed higher, and the trail became steeper, it created the affect that the cliffs dropped endlessy.
     They may not be endless, but the cliffs were indeed high. Mt. Leconte has the greatest vertical elevation east of the Mississippi. What this means is while it isn't the tallest mountain above sea level, it is has the most elevation from its base to summit.
     A hard climb, my excitement drove me on. It made me feel good to break away from the A.T. for a bit, to climb a mountain just for the pure desire.
     It also peaked my passion to think that this mountain is taller than any point on the A.T., and would certainly be a highlight.
     Eventually, I came to the top. There were trails leading in various directions. I first followed them to the cliff tops, but there were no views, just thick cloud. Again it felt like if I were to jump, I would fall endlessly.
     Exploring this unique summit, which is home to many rare alpine plants including a few located nowhere else, I followed a trail that led to the Leconte Lodge.
     The lodge looked like a fantasy setting, old log buildings engulfed in fog. It was built long ago to help convince those in power that the beauty and uniqueness of the Smokies should be protected under the status of a national park. It obviously worked.
     Today, the lodge offers people and escape from modern society. One can reserve a place high atop the Smokies, in old log cabins adorned with antique furnishings. With no electricity, oil lanterns are used for light. It seems like a wonderful place to maybe invigorate one's mind. There were llamas tied to posts, which they use to bring supplies once a week. A visitor must hike to come. I like this place very much!
     I walked into the dining area, and learned that a weary hiker could enjoy a lunch, and a bottomless cup of hot chocolate. And so, being a weary hiker, I did.
     During my lunch, I learned that several staff members had thruhiked the A.T., or at least attempted. The cook did it in the '70s. I find it interesting; I think it takes a special breed to want to thruhike, and these particular folk who caught the bug went on to choose to live on a remote mountaintop for an entire season.
     Finishing my cocoa, I stepped back outside. The clouds began to clear as I walked the trails. I proceeded to walk, and the views became breathtaking. I had time, beauty, and miles of trail before me. I am loving life.
     Eventually I made my way back to the A.T., and stopped by the shelter. Greeted once more by fellow friends who are walking the trail too. I decided to push on north, not feeling the day was done, and did another 8 or 9 miles of the A.T.
     My last full day in the Smokies was full of mixed emotions. It was a beautiful walk along ridges and mountaintops, with incredible views of serene nature. I was proud and excited that I was able to complete a notoriously difficult section of the A.T., through thunderstorms, hail, and mud.
     And yet, I was also a little sad. I was amazed, I always desired to hike here, and it was beyond all expectations. But now it was about to come to an end. I am going to miss the Smokies.
     I promised myself I would return someday, to hike more remote stretches of this awesome place. I also was quickly reminded of the many amazing miles I still had to go. Many things to see, and experiences to be had.
     And so, I walked north along the final miles of this park. Distant thunderstorms echoed loudly throughout the valleys, as they did almost everyday here. It is as if the mountains, standing tall and mean, were calling out, making it known their menace and might.

"I fell in love...", A.T. Thruhike 2012

     ....With the Smokey Mountains! That's right, those mountains were easily a highlight in my adventure thus far.
     After crossing over Fontana Dam, which felt almost like I was crossing over into another world, I began past the sign designating the woods I was about to enter as the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
     Leaving behind the pristine lake, I started my climb. For a good part of the day, it was a long continuous uphill. Climbing thousands of feet, I watched the flora change from vibrant green and flowering to mostly bare and just budding. The temperature dropped noticeably, both from oncoming cloud cover and the higher elevations.
     When I reached my first peak, there was a side trail to an old metal fire tower. Excited for my first great view from within the Smokeys, I excitedly ran towards the tower!
     Just as I reached the tower... BOOM! CRACKLE CRACKLE... The thunder began. Realizing a bare mountaintop and a metal tower was probably the worst place to be in a lightning storm, I very quicky scurried back down the side trail.
     Adorned in my complete rain gear, the next few hours I marched through dense, pounding rain. I got to experience the crazy weather the Smokeys are known for right off the bat.
     The trail became a stream of water and mud. The clouds so dark one would not think it was afternoon. Lightning streaked and the thunder was some of the loudest I have ever heard... Almost deafening.
     This was the welcome I received from these mountains. And I accepted this greeting with a smile and a soul yearning for this wild frontier.
     I continued to climb higher. Then began across a wooded ridge. All of a sudden, it hit; very large gusts of wind brought with them the clouds. I was now walking through intense fog. I was walking along the Appalachian Trail, unable to see more than a few feet in front of me. It was incredible... A strange setting, one that felt like it couldn't be real.
     Eventually the clouds ceased, and vision returned. A very muddy, soaked version of myself emerged from the woods and into a clearing. That clearing was known as Mollie's Ridge. It is named so after legends of a woman whom froze to death here, in search of a missing hunter. They say she still haunts the ridge, calling out for the hunter. This was where I set up camp.
     Later that eve, as I sat eating my warm dinner, two deer appeared in the clearing. Showing little fear, they walked within yards of me before scurrying away into the forest. 
     The next day, I awoke to wet air. It wasn't raining, but a fog hung still in the air, and everything felt moist. I packed my gear, enjoyed a warm breakfast, and continued north.
     These woods are like no other. The ground covered in small white flowers, unique trees, and an always moist appearance. The consistent clouds and fog that earned its name of "Smokies". The pristine forest, kept so through strict regulations. It was such an experience and a privilege to walk these trails.
     I climbed Rocky Top by midday. The sun was shining, and the afternoon was gorgeous. I was met there by some fellow thruhikers, and we sat for lunch. You could see so far.
     The trail followed an exposed ridgeline, offering expansive views, and then climbed Thunderhead.
     That night, as the rains were beginning again, I chose to sleep in a shelter for the first time this trip. Offering a couple walls and a roof, they aren't usually much to look at. But they do offer a quick escape from the rain.
      The following day I was a little tired in the morning due to lack of sleep. While I did make use of a few more shelters in the Smokeys, I much prefer using my tent. It offers me my own little space, a home away from home.
     I made good miles nontheless, proceeding to do a lot of climbing once again.
     After days of solitude, hiking alone with the sounds of birds and rustling leaves, I was in a bit of a shock when I arrived at the top of Clingmans Dome. I emerged from my own world of quite green, and onto a concrete sea of people.
     I felt immediately out of place. It took some time to adjust... Eventually, I came to terms with the new environment. It gave me a lot to think about in the coming days, just about people, conformity, and life in general. Why did I feel so odd? I am out here, choosing to do what I love, be it normal or not, why would I care?
     I climbed the winding road to the viewing platform, a crowded loop that offers views in all directions. From this "touristy" peak, that also marks the highest point of the A.T., I looked out at the tall, amazing peaks the Smokeys offers all around.
     And then I saw Mount Leconte, an impressive mountain, mean and menacing, standing tall and proud before me. I decided then and there, I would climb it.
     And so I pushed some big miles, so that I could camp not far from the trail that would take me there. I left the crowds of people behind, drifting back into my world of dirt and green.
     I love these Smokey Mountains.

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