My first trip on the Appalachian Trail like anything else new was a learning experience, but one I enjoyed and will do again. I have to say I thought I had it together and was prepared. My bag was packed. I had read everything I knew to read… packed my backpack with only the essentials. I am pretty in shape so I felt up for the challenge. Then the unexpected happens and you realize there are some things you can’t prepare for really and maybe what you read is not enough. In the end, I realize I didn’t have a clue, but I made it through.
We took off for a five-hour drive to do a leg of the trail a friend of mine had never done from Tennessee to North Carolina. I parked my car at the end point, and we drove down to our start point. The first thing I found out is that there are hostels on Appalachian Trail, which is where we parked our cars. My car was left at the Hostel in Hot Springs, North Carolina called the Laughing Heart Lodge. A hostel basically is a place that hikers can stay overnight, get a bath, do some laundry and have a decent meal before hitting the trail again. Kind of a community type place… buy a bunk bed for the night where it is warm and dry and maybe rest for a day or two before going back out on the trail. Very nice people.
We left the Laughing Heart and we drove down to Standing Bear Hostel, our starting point. We left the car and hit the trail about noon. The goal was to get to the top of Snowbird Mountain and down to the shelter before dark where we would make camp . I have to say this leg of the trail was rather difficult. Straight up the mountain going from about 1000 feet elevation to 5000 feet elevation. Not the worse ever, but not easy either. So here is where I learned my first lesson about backpacking. Only a half a mile or so in my back was killing me. Now don’t get me wrong the pack weighs 40 pounds, but I knew I shouldn’t be hurting like this so I said something. Thank goodness! Lesson #1… where the pack is located on the back is critical. The weight of the pack should be strategically placed in the lower back to carry the weight… not below it. So we took a few minutes to get my straps and metal frame adjusted. Next, we unpacked and repacked my bag to place the heaviest items closest to the back and make sure weight was equally distributed. This helped to keep the weight from shifting and creating a strain on my back. HUGE lesson learned. Making these adjustments made all the difference in the world.
Lesson #2… trekking poles have a purpose and you have to use them correctly. I learned how to use my poles to pull my self up hill and assist my legs… using the whole body to carry the weight up the hill and later how to use them going down hill to save my quadriceps from completely burning up.
Up the mountain we went, feeling much better with the load I was carrying. We passed several hikers coming down and about two miles in three hikers stopped us to say there are two bears just ahead near the trail… be careful. They told us they had blown their bear horns, but the bears had not budged. Not a good sign that the noise didn’t scare the bears. I have to say I became very nervous at this point. I took instructions from my guide and followed her lead. Lucky for us the bears had moved on and we had no major encounters, but boy did I pay close attention after that as we moved along the trail.
Lesson #3.. Being safe on the trail is critical. I had not come with any preparation to deal with bears… but my guide was well prepared. You can bet I will be reading more about bears before my next hike.
The first picture I took was at the top of Snowbird Mountain which is the opening picture to this post. The picture above is my friend and guide Stacy (She is on the right and I am in the sunglasses). It was gorgeous at the top, but just before reaching the top we ran into an unexpected hiker. He seemed to be a young boy and he had his dog. He was definitely overwrought and emotional. He said he was disoriented and really wasn’t sure which way he was going. I was a little leery and knew not to underestimate a person by appearance. Incidents of people getting attacked on the Appalachian Trail are small, but they can happen… not a time to be stupid. He asked where we were going and he asked if he could hike with us. I followed my guide’s lead and he tagged along with us. He seemed innocent enough and his dog’s name was Chaplain. She was a mixed boxer and a cutie. He talked a lot along the way and we learned a lot about Jose. He stated that he was 25, but I think maybe 18 or 19 at best. He was originally from Pennsylvania and his parents still lived there. He had set out in 2012 for Texas hitchhiking to live with some family. Once he arrived, he was unable to secure a stable job and became homeless learning to live on the streets. He eventually worked his way to Georgia and decided that if he was going to be homeless he should just hike the Appalachian Trail. He and “Chappy” had ended up living out on the trail since 2012. Lesson #4…be thankful for what you have and be kind to those who don’t have it. Jose and Chappy set up camp with us that night. We listened as he told us about his brother (from Foster care, I later found out) and his various “You Tube Videos” he had been making on the trail. He and Chappy climbed into their tent, snuggled up and soon were snoring. I realized he was homeless and just wanting company. He was harmless.
It was dark by 5:30 pm in the woods. Lesson # 5… I learned how to make camp for the night… hang a “bear bag” with all our food, pitch my tent and settle in for the evening. Exhausted I fell asleep early. I was startled awake by a crazy noise in the woods…. a screech-owl. I just about shot through the rough of my one man tent. I lay extremely still allowing crazy thoughts to run through my head. I heard Jose and Chappy snoring, my guide hadn’t moved so I lay there listening. Lesson #6.. there are lots of noises in the woods and animals move at night. I woke up on and off really hating my cramped quarters. Lesson #7… a one man tent may not be the best choice if you have a touch of claustrophobia. Finally, out of complete exhaustion, I went back to sleep. Only to be awaken several times later by the gentle tapping of rain on the roof of my tent. Great! Rain was not what the forecast had stated, but nothing I could do so back to sleep I went. Awake early around 6:30 am, I stepped out of my tent…..
It wasn’t rain it was snow and probably a combination of freezing rain. Hmmm.. not sure how I felt about this. It was still snowing when I got up so I turned on the iPhone and hoped for a signal. I got it and saw that a front had come in unexpectedly and snow was the result and would continue until noon that day with freezing temperatures, 28 degrees. I pretty much panicked. Getting snowed in the woods was not my idea of fun. Of course I had heard horror stories about campers stuck in the woods. My friend and guide came out from under her tarp and immediately saw the look on my face. Without questioning, we began to pack up and get ready to move out. Jose and Chappy got up too following our lead to pack up camp.
We all had a long talk and decided that the best choice at this point and quickest way out was back the way we had come. Too far and too many days to make it to my car. The biggest reason for hiking out was my fear that we couldn’t make it. I was pretty scared. Stacey was awesome and knew the last thing she needed was a panicked hiker on her hands.We filled up with water and headed back up to the top of Snowbird Mountain. Of course the higher we moved in elevation the more snow there was on the ground and the more snow that was coming down. I have to say the woods were beautiful. The frozen mountain laurel made beautiful tunnels along our trek. It was cold and the wind was tough. But I had one thing on my mind … get out to warmth and coffee.
We of course made it out. In hindsight there was probably no major threat, but for a first time hiker it was scary. Most experienced hikers would have hiked on through with out a care in the world. For me, hard. I have plans to do it again in the late spring. I will make sure my pack is lighter and I am more prepared . Lesson # 7… I packed way to much food. You eat minimally on the trail. Food makes your pack heavy so lots of bars and dehydrated packs of food is the way to go. I packed tuna in packs, but they were heavy. I also packed tortilla wraps with packs of honey almond butter. The wraps were heavy. I also packed a lot of little personal things that added up… deodorant, hair brush, lotion and too many clothes. I could have lightened my bag by ten pounds without this stuff. The truth is you change shirts and underwear about every couple of days. Pants get about four days wear out of them and you wear the same outer clothing day in and day out. It is definitely different. Wash your face, put your hair in a ponytail and hat, brush your teeth and move on. A minimalist lifestyle in the woods, but there is something soothing about not worrying about what you look like.
In the end we took Jose and Chappy to eat with us at Waffle House for a huge hot breakfast, swung by picked him up a jacket and gloves and got Chappy some dog food. We left them at the Laughing Heart Hostel for a paid warm night of sleep for him and Chappy both. An opportunity to rest well for at least one night. They knew him there and confirmed he was homeless. Sad, but true. He had a Facebook page and a phone his brother pay for to keep in touch with him. He is now my friend on Facebook and I am trying to encourage him to go home. His brother called and they spoke the day we left him. Hopefully, he will try to make it back home. He has Chappy so he can’t get a bus ticket and he can’t leave Chappy. This trip gave me an opportunity to meet a neat kid and I will pray for him daily to get home where his family can take care of him. I am thankful for the opportunity that God provided me through this trip. I learned a lot, but tonight my thoughts are on Jose and Chappy hoping that he stays around the Laughing Heart Hostel for Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday.
All in all it was a good trip and God blessed me once again.
More pictures along the way: