LIFE IS NOT ALWAYS LEVEL

October 8, 2014

Last week I finished another section on the Appalachian Trail, this time walking the section from Fontana Dam, NC, all the way through Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Davenport Gap (and beyond.) One of the things I have learned about the Trail is that it is not always level; sometimes the terrain has you walking a mostly level trail, but more often than not, you are walking downhill (to valleys, which are called “gaps”), and sometimes you are walking uphill (to mountaintops, which are often called “views.”

The Trail, while being well marked with white blazes spaced about every quarter mile or so apart, is still very much in wilderness, remote areas. What that translates into is few signs, which are not necessarily precise in terms of mileage.

One would think that walking uphill, with a 30-35 pound pack on your back, is hard, And it is. Breathing gets labored, your heart rate accelerates (you hear it in your ears!), your skin begins to leak, and it just gets difficult—especially when the terrain grows steep (as in the section called “Jacob’s Ladder” in North Carolina.)

And it stands to reason that if walking uphill is hard, then walking downhill is easy. Au contraire, mon chere. Last Thursday, after walking about ten miles, we hit a downhill section that was dropping like a rock in a bottle. After two miles of steep downhill, a solid hour of pounding, my ankles, calves, and quads were screaming for relief. It is as if with each step, you’re hitting the brakes, and trust me, the brake pads were begging for relief. By the grace of God, we hit a relatively flat section, and amazingly after about 100 yards, I was already feeling some recovery.

But even when the trail is level, it’s not always easy. While sometimes it is—as here:23 a Good Trail

It isn’t always easy. It may be level, but the surface is fraught with potholes, ankle-biters, and traps; like this boulder field I crossed last year: 28 Boulder field trail

But it takes effort, whether up or down or level, to reach some spectacular views. And reaching some of those high points on a clear day, when it seems you can truly see forever, is worth the effort. You forget about the pain, and are often stopped dead in your tracks, in slack-jawed, forget-myself wonder at the beauty of creation the Lord made. 33 Cheoah Bald view 2

So the next time you are feeling down and low, like you’ve stumbled your way to the bottom of life; and/or are slogging your way up through problems and people, remember that the views are at the top—not along the way—and once you get there, it’s well worth a break to soak it all in.

Lib & Chuck on the Springer Mtn summit

Lib & Chuck on the Springer Mtn summit

It sounded like a good idea at the time. At least it did to me.

Several months ago–in fact, around about this time last year, I asked my wife, Lib, if she would ever have any interest in going backpacking with me. It did not take much discussion, and she agreed to the idea. I would carry most of the equipment, all she would need to carry was her sleeping bag and mat, and very little else.

Over the last year I’d managed to nickel-and-dime things along until she was pretty well equipped: pad, sleeping bag, pack, a few other trinkets, but everything else, I had and we would share. I snagged a two-person tent, as I knew that as much as we enjoy each other, my one-man shelter would not cut it.

Then in May, she blew out her plantar fascia, partially tearing it (long story, but it involved chasing a school bus so it would not leave without a couple of kids; as Lib said, “The next to last day of school, you DO NOT want kids left at school at the end of the day!”); summer spent in a walking cast (all through Scotland), and rehab all fall turned 2013 into a wash. I got out some, but not with her.

Then along came Christmas, and a couple of days later, we were talking New Years Eve plans. Lib wondered about having people over, I posed the possibility of Springer Mountain. Shock of Shocks, she bit. Weather was clear, not too terribly cold, so the plans were on. It’s only a one-mile walk from a parking area to the summit, and we arrived around 3:30, making the camping area near the shelter by 4:00. We got the tent set up, then I walked Lib around to the summit, which hosts the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. After a few minutes of looking around, we made it back to camp; collected water, went to the tent and got our pads and bags laid out, then with dusk moving in, we started gathering firewood.

We’d collected a good bit, some we broke up, some we cut up (I carried a saw in, and had some troubles using it, which I could not understand, but do now), and started to build a fire. I had a couple of firestarters, and had humped in 4-5 small lumps of coal, so I set to light the fire.

The firestarter caught, and started working on the smallest sticks, and I noticed they were not real quick to catch. As I kept breaking wood up, and arranged the stove to prep dinner, I was curious as to why the wood was not catching. I tried all my tricks. Firestarter, butane lighter, coal, leaves, everything. Even pulled out the firestarter that I’d saved for the morning, and NOTHING worked. NOTHING. I could not believe it.

We cooked dinner (Thank God for the stove!) and ate it, had dessert (Bananas Foster) and hot chocolate, all the while still trying to get the fire started. Finally we came to the sinking conclusion that it was not going to happen.

With all the rain we’ve had this fall, and a deluge the weekend before we hit the trail, everything was wet. To add insult to injury, it was below freezing on the summit. In other words, the wet wood was frozen (thus my trouble with the saw). We simply were unable to get enough of a fire burning to thaw out and dry out wood to burn, in order to get enough of a fire to sustain itself off frozen wood.

In other words, when the wood is frozen, the fire won’t burn!

I’ve learned a lesson–next time, I’ll hump in a little flask of kerosene, and maybe a hatchet to split the wood.

I bet no one else got in bed at 7:00 PM New Year’s Eve; that was the only way to stay warm!

Chuck and the Three Bears

September 11, 2013

 About a week ago, I was on the Appalachian Trail for a two-day, one-night trip. After meeting a shuttle driver at his office in Franklin, North Carolina, we drove to Bearpen Gap, where the AT crosses a Forest Service Road, and dropped my car there. Then he shuttled me around to Deep Gap, about 6.8 miles north of the spot where the AT crosses into North Carolina from Georgia, and also the spot where I’d left off back in July. 

  I stepped onto the trail about 11:00, and started walking. I was alone, a fact that created a little anxiety in my wife, none really in me, and in fact set me free to set my own pace, to walk when I wanted to, and stop when I chose. In about an hour I’d crested Standing Indian Mountain (5400+ feet), and motored on for a bit before stopping for lunch around 1:00. 

  The Trail on this section was and is remarkably good. Pretty wide, and even with the elevation changes (1000 feet at points, first up, then down), it was not really steep or challenging. The weather was warm, the skies were clear with a few dots of clouds. All in all, it was a great day to be out.

  I had plans to stop at the Carter Gap Shelter, which was giving me about an 8.5 mile walk for the day; given my late start, that was just about right. I would have just under six miles to walk on Saturday to make it from the shelter to my car. 

  As I moved along Friday afternoon, I was feeling pretty good, and was starting to think about pushing on beyond the shelter to a campsite a few miles farther along, simply to shorten my day on Saturday. I was evaluating how I was feeling, what my energy level was, how much daylight there was left in the day, how I’d spend time at the shelter if I stopped, etc. I was processing all of this as I came around a slight bend in the trail, when about 20-30 yards in front of me, this head popped up and looked at me. I froze in my tracks. 

  “Huh,” I thought, “someone is out here with their black lab.”

  Then the head turned, looking to it’s right, my left, and I thought, “That’s not a black lab.” As I followed it’s line of sight, standing stock still, my brain caught up with me and I realized I was encountering a black bear. Then, looking where the bear (which probably weighed 80-90 pounds) was looking, I watched as about 250-300 pounds of mama bear rose off a downed tree, looking at the “baby,” then turning to look at me. 

  “One is one thing, two is another,” I was thinking, as I watched the mother look from her baby, past me, and behind her and up. I followed HER line of sight, and saw a third bear, another baby (again, 80-90 pounds) up in a tree. 

  “I’m not a threat to you,” I was thinking. “I’m not between you and one of your babies, so no one needs to get all huffy.” Standing rock steady even still, I was thinking that with a 30 pound pack on my back, I was going to be out-nimbled if things got dicey. I thought about my phone in my pocket, but did not know if I’d have a signal, then I thought about the knife in my pack and realized the bears, if they decided to get aggressive, would likely not be interested in waiting for me to take my pack off and dig the blade out. Which left me with two aluminum hiking sticks. 

  With that, the mama bear spun around to her right, as baby #1 ran towards her and baby #2 slid down the tree. Before I could take another breath, they were hightailing it down the mountain, away from me. I stood there, banging the hiking sticks against each other to make noise, and dug my whistle out of my pocket and gave a few blasts on it. 

  And I stood there for another moment, and thought, “Wow. I did not know that at (almost) 56, my heart could beat 300 times a minute.”

  Then I motored on, blowing my whistle every so often, and occasionally glancing back over my shoulder. About 30 minutes later, I was at the shelter, and given my excitement for the day, decided to call it a day.

  No other excitement the rest of the trip. The three bears were a first for me; I suspect, as I continue whittling away at the AT, this will not be the last. 

  Oh, yeah; sorry, no pictures. there simply was not any time to pull my camera out, and ask the three of them to pose before running away. Maybe the next time?

In October of 2012, I headed out from Springer Mountain, GA, with the intent of hiking all of the Appalachian Trial in Georgia. There are 78.5 miles of the Trail in the state, and Springer Mountain is the southern terminus of the trail. Parking about .9 miles from the end, I walked (with friends) south to the end of the trial, which is marked by a brass plaque (I’m REALLY glad I’m not the one who chose the short straw and had to lug that huge chunk of metal up the mountain!), took a few pictures, then headed back down the mountain, north to the state line between Georgia and North Carolina.

As I wrote last Fall, I was sidelined on the fifth day by blisters that started the first day, and by Wednesday were simply crippling. In November, 2012, I went back and checked off another section of the Trail, picking up where I left off. But since then, the final 8+ miles have been nagging at me.

So I decided it was time to put it to rest.

Last Friday, March 22, I rolled out of bed, bot dressed, and drove north two hours to Dick’s Creek Gap. When I arrived around 8:00, it was grey and cold, about 35 degrees. I shouldered a day pack with some water and a little food (and some emergency supplies—once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout!), and stepped onto the Trail.

I passed a couple of thru-hikers as I made my way north, and saw some folks camped along the Trail, not yet out of their tents. I felt good, was equipped appropriately, and was confident.

About three miles in, I felt a bit of a hot spot on one foot, and stopped to apply a little tape so I would not get a blister (I was wearing relatively new boots, and had not yet been off-road with them.) I motored on.

I reached the marker that points out the state line in a little under four hours, stopping to take a few pictures,Chuck at GA-NC line and chat with a thru-hiker whom I’d passed but caught up when I stopped. “Bones” (his trail name) took the picture for me.

I reshouldered my pack, and headed back to my car. As I headed south, I encountered more and more people; some thru-hiking, some college students from Maryland on spring break, some folks out for just a couple of days. Some of the thru hikers were better prepared than others, I might add.

I did fine until I hit about the 13.5 mile mark of the day, and realized I was getting tired. Confident that I was equipped to spend the night on the Trail if need be, but even more confident in myself (“I’m not built for comfort, I’m not build for speed. I’m built for power and endurance,” I kept saying to myself.)

In retrospect, I did not drink enough (I had plenty of water), nor did I eat enough (I came home with food uneaten); I think I simply was running out of gas. I made the return hike in about the same time as it took me to reach the state line, despite flagging energy and stopping (to rest?) to talk to thru hikers. I reached my car (the ChuckWagon, my 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe), shed the pack and jacket, switched from boots to my Crocks, and headed for home.

I was BEAT. I stopped after about an hour and bought some VitaminWater, and it was all I could do to get out of the ChuckWagon, go in the store, and get back in the ChuckWagon and head back towards home. I pulled in the garage right at 12 hours after I’d left it.

Saturday and Sunday, I was dragging, and everything from my hips to my toes was sore. Here I am 6 days after reaching my goal, and while the soreness has gone, I was aware when on my bike this morning that I am still a little sluggish.

It really did seem like a good idea at the time. While I was in that last section, about the last three miles of the day’s walking, I was really questioning my wisdom. But when I awoke Saturday morning, in my own bed, with my wife, and coffee ready to brew, warm and dry on a cold rainy day, I was glad I’d not spent the night on the Trail.

But here’s the thing; having bagged Georgia, I’m now thinking—seriously—about North Carolina.

It seems like a good idea now . . .