Monday, August 2, 2010

Cheez-Its on the Trail.

Today is Monday and we are officially back from our backpacking excursion on the Appalachian Trail (AT).  We hiked approximately 24 miles total in two days (9 miles on day 1 and 15 miles on day 2).  We had planned to hike on Sunday morning as well, but due to unforeseen circumstances, we had to be picked up early.

We left our house Thursday night because we wanted to get in as much hiking as possible on Friday.

We crashed at Michael's parents (about an hour from the trailhead) Thursday night and then got up Friday morning, hoping to get an early start, but it was not to be.

We ended up taking forever to get going in the morning.  We also had to stop at Walmart to pick up our trail food and at Cabelas to pick up a backpacking stove and a couple of freeze dried meals and some rope.  Then we got lost.  Several times.

We were trying to get "to 78" for about 45 minutes.  We followed all of the "to 78" signs, but 78 seemed to be nothing but a mirage as we chased it into the horizon and fields of "to 78" signs in each little town.

When we finally arrived at the trail head we found that we had to call the park peeps to let them know we'd be parking over night.  We used Michael's mom's cell phone and Michael called while I packed the food, etc. into our packs.

Finally, around 1 PM, we set off on the trail.

I was really worried that my back pain would screw up everything, but it didn't.  It actually seemed to help me to deal with the shoulder aches and back aches from carrying the pack.  All seemed normal to me!

On the first day we hiked awhile and then went to check out one of the AT shelters for backpackers and we met three thru-hikers (those who are doing the entire 2,000 miles of the trail  at once):  Rorschach, Mohawk, and Seven Dwarves (on the AT and other long trails, it's super common to have a "trail name" that you go by for the duration of your excursion).  We ended up passing one another for our entire trip, chatting at lunches, and rolling into the same shelter on the first night.  We learned a lot from them and had fun getting to know them and their stories.

Rorschach was a red-headed, full bearded American Irishman who was reserved for the most part and very reflective.  He was in his early twenties.

Mohawk was fresh out of college, an environmental science major with curly hair.  He was the party animal of the bunch, and the quickest paced hiker of the group.  He was packing in a trail guitar.

Seven Dwarves was a retired man hiking in a kilt who stopped at vistas to play his recorder.  A marathon man who planned to complete his bucket list asap - he was planning on skydiving for the first time the day after he finished the trail.

We had eaten lunch at Taco Bell before we headed out, after noting that it was past lunch time, so there was no lunch stop for us on the first day.  We hiked straight through to our night-time shelter with one major stop at a vista to get to know Mohawk and a couple of section hikers like us who were retired and full time RVers who were hiking sections of the trail as part of their newly discovered adventure-seeking lifestyle.  We noted on this first day that PA was VERY rocky, and learned from the thru-hikers that it's known as Rocksylvania.  There were several sections of the trail that were pure boulder fields, and there was no just walking along - it was all choosing a careful path from boulder to boulder - leaping from here to there - much tougher that we expected, to be honest.

Tons of paths straight up the sides of the mountain, crawling along ledges with careful feet, and Snickers snacking.

Part of the adventure for me was keeping us on the trail - finding the new white blazes when the trail turned on a new tree or rock, depending on the current landscape.

In the evening, we rolled in to the Eckville shelter.  Very atypical for the AT, it was kept up by a caretaker who lived in a house just in front of the actual shelter, which was a bunkhouse/shed with a hikers box and a nicely kept hiker's log.  The privy was very clean, flushable, and including a shower and dressing area.  (Normally, AT shelters are three sided wooded structures - some lean-to, some nicer, with a very primative privy, and a pumpable water source that needs purification.)

We left the bunkhouse to the thru-hikers and tented down in the field provided for the purpose.  Mohawk strummed his guitar while we chowed down on watermelon generously provided by the caretaker (an older man with a serious beard and rifles hanging prominently in his living room) and we gave away some of our over-abundant food.

After hanging out awhile, Michael and I headed down to the field to try out our new cookware and tiny backpacker's stove along with our freeze-dried dinners.  We realized our appetites weren't yet whetted as we expected.

The night was long and cold.  We had sleeping pads but no sleeping bags - just a thermal blanket for the both of us.  I had to pee several times in the night and woke up Michael because I didn't want to make the trek in the dark by myself.

We were up at 7 AM and chowing down Clif bars and peanut M&Ms and then packed up and back on the trail at 8.

Our goal was the Allentown shelter - 7.5 miles from Eckville - as our lunch stop. 

The 7.5 miles seemed FOREVER.

Field after field of boulders and more boulders.  No straight up hiking - just boulder fields totally lining the trail.  Blazes on the rocks.  Clamboring and leaping.  Our legs were aching.

We stopped at the first vista when we heard recorder music floating out over the boulder field and found Seven Dwarves lounging on precarious rocks with his instrument and a snack, half-eaten.

We joined him and shared his peanut butter candies (homemade by his sister and sent to him in one of his mail drops) and ate our own candy bars while we chatted about the trail so far and his experiences.  The view was breathtaking.

All too soon we were back to moving along the trail.

Mohawk and Rorschach caught up to us a little after the vista, asking if we had any idea how much farther it would be to the shelter.  We had no clue - and kept imagining it to be around every turn.

They left us quickly in their dust, both planning to do a 17 - 24 mile day today.

When we finally found the shelter we were more than ready for a rest.

All three thru hikers were already there, eating and lounging.  The shelter was nicely constructed.  Mohawk and Rorschach had their boots off with their socks hanging on the picnic table nearby.  I stripped off my shoes and socks as well, then dug into my pack for food.  Cheez-its were becoming a favorite staple.

Conversation turned to Mohawk's eating contests back at home in Boulder, CO and it made him hungry for a burger.  Their thru-hiker's trail guides said that there was a B&B about 5 miles down the trail with food and rooms, so Mohawk headed out for some "real lunch".  Rorschach napped in the shelter's bunk and we chatted with Seven Dwarves about Michael's work and airplanes and life, then SD headed back out on the trail.

Michael and I both paid a visit to the privy and asked Rorschach about his plans for the day as he bailed himself out of the bunk.  He said he was going to try and stop at the B&B and maybe crash there for the night.  The other two had expressed that the $90 per night charge was way too steep for their wallets at this point, but Rorschach had been saving up for a day just like this one to splurge on a hotel room and hot shower.

We headed back to the trail before him, but he passed us within a mile.

We planned to hit up the B&B for some water, as the pump at Allentown was dry, and moved on.

The B&B was near a road and easy to spot if you knew what you were looking for.  We grabbed water from their outdoor spigot and Michael went inside to be sure we were grabbing it from the right place.  Our three thru-hiker friends were having beers and cheeseburgers at the bar.  The B&B owner was non too happy that we were just passing through for water and really wanted to sell us a beer and some dinner, but we had no money and had to keep moving.

It was the last time we saw the three thru hikers.

Our plan for the night was to camp at the Tripoli Campground.  We imagined it to be a shelter without the building - a place with hikers in tents and a water source and maybe a privy.  When we saw the sign for the campground we were more than ready for a hot dinner and a rest in the tent, so we followed it immediately.

And followed it.

And followed it...

It was at least a quarter mile straight down hill until we came upon a flat area with a huge fire pit and cigarette butts, broken glass, and remnants of parties and cooked out meals that folks hadn't been careful about cleaning up.  There was a water source by no privy.

After some thought, we went ahead and set up our tent and cooked dinner, but as the sun began to fall in the horizon we both felt nervous.

There were no other hikers and we had heard none passing by.  The place was obviously frequented by locals for carousing and not so much by thru hikers and section hikers who were looking for a place to sleep and have their meals.  We felt exposed and decided to clean up and head out.

I was hurting a lot from the hike and in need of rest, but I wanted to get out of there.  Stories of murders on the trail paraded through my  head.  We decided that once we got to the top of the hill and back to the trail, we would decided to either turn back and go the 2 miles to the B&B, hang out there and call for a ride back to Michael's parents, or we would hike the 4 miles down the trail to the next shelter, where we felt our three thru hiker friends would be bunking for the night.

Right was the B&B.  Left to the shelter.

At the top of the hill, decided that the trail had been relatively easy since the B&B and it was likely to continue in that fashion, we turned left.

Night was falling.

We were moving quickly.  Michael was carrying my pack, hoping it would help me to make it the extra and unplanned four miles.  In spite of the pain in my legs, I was leading the way at a good clip to try to beat the encroaching darkness.

About a mile down the trail, boulder fields.

We hopped from one to the next, hoping that any time now the rocky section would end, and we would be back to hiking on plain old trail, but it was not to be.  I felt dismay as we came to a huge rock pile with blazes up the sides.

With a deep breath, we ascended to the top of the ridge.  There were drop offs to the very bottom of the mountain on both sides and the rocks were precarious on one another.  Blazes seemed to be mocking us over high piles of rocks.  We crawled on our hands and knees, clung to precipices.  About half way through we looked at one another and smiled as we shared this crazy adventure.  So much for the trail to the left being easy as it had been.  We were both glad we had been able to experience the ridge climb.

When we came down, however, the sun had sunk below the horizon.  We knew we only had about 25 minutes of civil twilight before it was completely dark.  We had no idea how far we'd come.

Our next landmark was a road, one of the pick-up points Michael had given to his parents.  The shelter was about a mile beyond the road.

At every turn  we expected the road to appear.  The trail twisted and turned and no road.  No other hikers.  Silence.  The occasional cricket.  Frogs.  We picked up the pace.  How far had we come?  Where was the road?

By this point, both of us simply wanted out of the woods.  Neither of us was keen on hiking through the darkness over unknown terrain in bear country with all of our food and trash still on our backs.  We decided that we would never make it the extra mile to the shelter once we found the road.  It was too dark already.  We called Michael's dad and asked him to meet us at pick-up point two: the road.

When we finally came to the road, the white blazes continued into a parking lot across the street, where we decided to stop walking.

We put down our bed rolls and Michael made green tea while we waited for his dad.

There were a few cars in the parking lot and day hikers were emerging from the woods and heading home every few minutes.  As stars appeared and the sky turned from grey to black, we were alone.

It was cold.

I wrapped myself in one of our fleece blankets and tried not to be scared or to panic.  Michael's dad would be there in an hour and a half.  I hoped he wouldn't get lost.  I longed to see another hiker with a backpack.  I wished we had been able to make it to the shelter before night fall, where we would now be snacking and chatting and bedding down.  I was tired and sore.  I imagined human shapes in the woods.  Stalking us.  Waiting to attack.  I stood and paced.  I felt crazy.

I wanted to thru-hike the AT.  It was on my bucket list.  I felt like failure for being afraid.

Michael tried to take my mind off of things.  Eventually it worked.  About the time a car pulled in (it was almost 11 PM).  A guy and girl went and parked at the edge of the lot to smoke pot.

A few minutes later a gang of drunken teenage boys parked at the other side of the lot and shined their flashlights in our faces for several seconds and then commented loudly about our presence.

I prayed that Michael's dad would get their soon.  Locals were way scarier to me than other backpackers.

Finally,  my father-in-law's headlights shone brightly over the ridge before us, and he appeared in the parking lot.

I was relieved, but a little sad.  I had hoped to finish our hike.  I had hoped to sleep in the shelter and have that experience.  And I felt like I was a scaredy-cat.  Someone who couldn't ever thru-hike.  I couldn't even handle a few hours in a parking lot.

Looking back, it was an amazing experience.  A fantastic adventure.  I wouldn't trade our choices for anything, for now we have great stories and have learned an enormous amount about ourselves and backpacking.  Both of us look forward to doing it again, to facing our fears, and to moving through them together.

If you ever get to hike on the AT - I highly recommend it.  There is a culture on the trail like no other, and you will accomplish tough hiking feats and learn about yourself and those around you.

As I nurse sore muscles I know that I will someday be labeled "a thru-hiker".  I look forward to it - whether in three years with our kids or in sixteen years without them - we will be one with the trail and take a victorious photo at the top of KatahdinBucket list #1.

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