View Full Version : My first time (long read)

04-14-2008, 22:03
This is the latest entry into my blog. Understand that I'm not a writer but I like to write.


The Hike

Respect. It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot but its meaning is lost to many people. Sure we say we respect but do we really? Do we understand the very premise that respect is built on? I don’t think that most people do. I know I didn’t, until April 9th, 2008, 8:00AM. That’s when I stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail for the first time in my life on the south side of Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The GSM is a merciless taskmistress. If you’re not prepared for her she’ll chew you up and devour your soul. She’ll tease you with a short climb that winds around the edge of one of her many mountains only to bring you into view of the next uphill climb that’s much steeper and much longer. Once you do manage to get to the top, she’ll reward you ever so slightly with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and then punish you with a cartilage destroying downhill walk that almost feels like the mountain itself is pulling you down faster than your aching joints will allow. But after your journey is over, you will gain a sense of respect that most people will never experience. As I looked back at the mountains on my drive home I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and an equal amount of respect for the mountains that I called home the last 3 days.
My journey began months ago. We planned the trip and began preparations by buying gear, doing research, doing prep-hikes and getting into shape. I dropped about 20 lbs and put in countless miles on the new elliptical machine at work. I vowed to be ready. Our research consisted of books, the internet and the experience of others that came before us. We tested our gear on hikes around the area and ate the food we would be eating on the trail. We were ready.
I decided earlier that I would create an audio journal of my trip by using my MP3 player’s recording feature. I would then write my blog according to those recordings. Things went fine until day 2 when the battery ran out on the player. Very discouraged, I didn’t think about using my digital camera as a video camera until mid-way through the second day. All of my recordings and video will be available at the bottom of the blog. I’ll also post a link to all of the pictures that I’ve taken.
I awoke at 2:50AM Wednesday morning, sleepy but anxious. I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail and I was excited. I had everything packed and the only thing left to do was eat and go pick up Josh. I slept a little extra and I was a little late in picking up Josh. He called me while I was on the way, “Hey.”
“Hey,” I replied.
“Where are you?”
“About 30 seconds away.” Sure enough, I pulled up to his house in thirty seconds. He packed his stuff in and began to talk. For those of you who don’t know my brother, he likes to talk. He likes to talk a lot. Usually he’ll talk for a long time and I’ll interject every once in a while. We’re kind of like opposite sides of the coin when it comes to social interaction. He’ll talk to anyone right away while I’ll listen long before I get into a conversation.
So I listened and drove. We were to meet the rest of the crew in Maryville at the intersection of 129 and 411 across the street from an adult video store. I drove into Maryville following my freshly printed Google Maps directions. As I was driving I was looking for the porn shop as most of them are very “in-your-face”. I slowed to a near crawl through the town when I spotted a sign for 129 and almost simultaneously spotted the rest of the gang at a gas station. I whipped the truck across two empty lanes of traffic and pulled into the lot. Across the street was the adult store but it was very humble in it’s advertising compared to all of the other shops that I’ve seen. Sandy, Troy and Benjy all gave me the “watch tap”, a symbol of shame and humiliation for a person who is late. With a few waves and hellos, we began our trip to Fontana Dam. The plan was for us to all drive to Fontana Dam, pile in Sandy’s van and drive up to Clingman’s Dome. After the hike, Troy and Benjy would drive Sandy and Carl back to Clingman’s Dome for Sandy to retrieve her van.
US 129 is a small stretch of blacktop that connects Southeast Tennessee with North Carolina and also contains a section of road called Deal’s Gap. Deal’s Gap is an 11 mile section of 129 that contains 318 curves. It’s a haven for motorcycle enthusiasts who want to experience what their expensive sport bike can really accomplish. Do a quick search in YouTube for Deal’s Gap and you’ll see what I mean. The curves are so frequent that even the steeliest stomach can become jelly like in a matter of minutes. Josh is a car sick kind of person and I noticed that he had become unusually quiet.
“Do we have to come back out this way?” he asked with a slight quiver in his voice.
“To Clingman’s Dome?”
“Oh, no we’ll go through Cherokee. Once we finish the hike we’ll have to drive back out this way to get home.” I replied.
“Oh,” he said with much relief. “I was just imagining taking this road back out riding in the back of that van.”
After a little more driving we arrived at Fontana Dam and got out to get our permit and switch vehicles. We discussed earlier the fact that Fontana Dam was closed to foot traffic due to some sort of structural issue and were contemplating leaving our vehicles on the other side of the river to save us a little walking. We decided to leave our vehicles at the dam. Little did I know that this would set in motion the strangest set of coincidences that would make for the most interesting part of my journey. The trip up to Clingman’s dome was uneventful and we made it to the top about 7:45AM. On the way up the mountain we could see that the fog was resting in the valleys and the tops of the mountains were rising out of it like islands in the ocean. After we got out of the van, there was a brief discussion on whether or not we were going to take the by-pass trail or go to the top of the spire. I had decided that I would go to the top to take pictures. Troy and Josh decided to join me. Benjy, Sandy, and Carl told us that we would meet at a shelter assuming that the bypass trail would shave a good distance and effort off of their time. On the way up I made a few adjustments to my pack and passed Troy who started about 50 yards ahead of us. The top of the spire was amazing and I was so glad that I had taken the trip. I got as many pictures as could and we headed back down.

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We walked down the trail a little way and saw the first sign that declared that we would be setting foot on the Appalachian Trail.

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Right before we got on the trail we met our first through-hiker. He was a tall, older gentleman who looked like we would at the end of our trip. He was also the most un-friendly person we would meet the entire 3 days.
“Through-hiker?” I asked.
“Yup, you section hiking?” He replied with what seemed like faint distain. “I noticed you looked pretty clean.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well you should go to the top of the spire. The view is worth it.” He simply nodded, took off his pack and began his walk to the top. We began our trip on the trail and I was ecstatic. We had only hiked for a few minutes when we ran into Benjy and Carl. Confused, I discovered that the by-pass trail was more strenuous than the hike to the spire and didn’t really shave off any time or distance. Benjy and Carl were taking a break and I looked down the trail to see a red-faced Sandy finishing the last few steps of the by-pass. After a few quick verbal jabs at Sandy (she’s probably the best sport when it comes to stuff like that) myself, Josh and Benjy headed out.
After about an hour we had passed about 10 hikers and they never seemed to stop. Some were old, some were young and they all had a very similar look. I believe now that I could spot a hiker very easily. By 10:00 we made it to our first shelter, Double Spring Gap. It was a very humble looking shelter that had chain link fence in front to keep out the wildlife. We had passed several hikers that mentioned another southbound hiker, a young girl named Mariah (apologies if it’s misspelled). At Double Spring Gap a man there said that the young, cute, red-head had just left not more than 5 minutes ago. That was all Benjy needed to hear because he left the shelter and took off. When Josh and I left he had to have been a good 100 yards ahead of us, in hiking distance that’s a lot. The trail began to climb steadily upward, Benjy had to slow his pace and we caught up to him.
“Couldn’t catch up to her huh?” Josh said with a smirk.
“I knew ya’ll would think that’s why I left so fast.” Benjy defended. “That shelter gives me the creeps and I had to get out of there.”
Benjy and Sandy had taken part of this trip last October but drought conditions had left them with no water and they had to turn back after spending the night at Siler’s Bald. During that trip they passed Double Spring Gap and saw the shadow of a squirrel against a tarp that had left Benjy a little unnerved. He has since regarded that particular shelter with an almost fearful reverence.
As we climbed the mountain we spotted a lone hiker headed south just like us. Benjy made a strange noise which I could only assume was an owl’s cry. She turned, looked back and hiked on. After a few more weird owl calls I told Benjy that he was beginning to creep me out so I couldn’t imagine what the poor girl thought. After a few more minutes we caught up with her. She mentioned that she was just finishing her lunch and that we should pass. We eventually made it to the top of the summit where we encountered a rock that had the white blaze pointing in both directions towards each other. I got out my camera just as the young girl arrived.
“You want me to take your picture in front of the rock?” she asked.
“Sure,” I replied.

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She snapped a picture and commented on how the arrows seemed to indicate that the Appalachian Trail simply ended at that particular point. After some small talk we learned that she had recently graduated from the University of Georgia and was working at a hostel in Hot Springs. She had been on the trail for 8 or 9 days and was trying to make it to Hiawassee. We chatted for a while and started back on the walk. We came to the second shelter, Siler’s Bald, at 11:00am. This was a much nicer shelter and we stopped for a break. After a quick bite to eat we lugged our gear and hiked on. Benjy dropped off to take a breather and Josh eventually stopped to tend to his feet. Feeling good, I pressed on. This was really the first time that I had been alone on the trail. I wasn’t afraid but I did constantly scan the brush for dark shapes. I hiked on, snapped some pictures and ate on the move. I wanted to see what kind of time I could make the first day so that I could gage my progress for the next 2 days. As the day wore on I became more and more tired. I could tell because I wasn’t picking up my feet and I kept stumbling over rocks and roots on the trail. Finally I arrived at a sign that said “Derrick’s Knob .3 miles”. Renewed by being so close to my goal I pounded the trail uphill until I arrived at the shelter at 1:18pm. I had taken me about 5 hours to go 10 miles and I was ecstatic. I took off my pack and claimed my spot on the top bunk. After a few minutes Josh and Mariah showed up. An hour after them Benjy and Troy showed up. All that was left now to do was wait on Sandy and Carl. And we waited, and waited, and waited. I was seriously beginning to get worried when the clock rolled around 5:00pm. As the clock began to roll around 6:00pm more doubt began to creep in.
“You don’t thing she turned around do you?” I asked Benjy.
“No, she’s too proud for that. I got a dolla says she’ll be here. Any takers?” Before anyone could answer we heard a familiar shout of “Boucher!” which was Benjy’s trail name. “Dang it! Ya’ll shoulda made dat bet.” Benjy cursed as he went out to meet Sandy. Nothing had happened to them as we learned. They had just taken a slower pace than us which was perfectly fine with me. I hiked for time; they had hiked for the scenery. “To each his own” was the theme of the trip and everyone was fine with it.
The next morning I woke to sounds of much bustling and chatter. It seemed that everyone was awake except for me. We had a full shelter the previous night and several more though-hikers had to tent camp outside. I did not sleep well. The wind was blowing constantly and blew straight through the cracks in our shelter. My sleeping bag was almost too warm yet anything exposed got too cold to be comfortable. I spent the night alternating between laying on my back and my side. If I lay on my back, my exposed face would become too cold so I would wake up and turn on my side. Once there, I would stay until the pain in my knee woke me up and I would begin the cycle again. I got out, ate, went to pee and packed my stuff to get ready for the next day. We had learned the previous day that today would be the hardest of our trip. Several extreme elevation changes lay ahead of us before we would be at the next shelter. My knee was in pain from the first day so I popped a couple of Advil to help it out and started out.
I discovered in the first few steps that my MP3 player’s battery had run out and I was without a journal. I was upset. I really wanted to capture the entire journey on digital recordings to be able to write about the whole trip. Now I had nothing to do that with. After a few hours and some particularly difficult uphill climbs I remembered that I could use my digital camera as a video recording device. I switched on the camera and began my journal anew. By this time I was headed towards Thunderhead Mountain. It would be the highest peak from now until my hike’s end.
It’s interesting when you’re hiking up and down mountains. You hike down a trail and it seems to lead straight into the base of another mountain. You think to yourself, this can’t go up that mountain, can it? But it does and you hike up, get to the top and hike back down. Once you’re at the bottom, you see the next mountain in the distance and begin the thought process all over again. This was my second day in the Smokies. Thunderhead rises 5500 feet into the air and it feels like you climb every single foot. When the Appalachian Trail turns south at Mollies Ridge the trail winds gently around the edges of the mountains, coaxing the hiker ever so slowly down. The summits between Thunderhead and Rockytop sneer at gentle. The trails doggedly plow straight up the mountain and plummet straight down. There is no nonsense on these mountains, no scenic route, no meandering. It’s as if the first person who blazed the trail decided to make a straight line through the most difficult part of the mountains. At the top of Thunderhead I pulled off my pack and took a quick break. Josh, Benjy and Mariah showed up soon after and we took a few pictures. A few steps off the top we were treated to a beautiful view of Cade’s Cove and another, more intimidating view of the tops of the mountains that we would be soon hiking up.

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We walked on. Josh and I eventually got ahead of Benjy and stopped off at Spence Field shelter to rest. I was able to get a cell signal and call Haylee and talked to her and Gage for a minute. I unrolled my pack and closed my eyes. When I awoke it was 1 hour later and Troy had just shown up. We chatted for a minute while I got my stuff together and we eventually moved on. The last leg of our trip seemed to be the most difficult. I think it was just a combination of the heat, fatigue and lack of rest that made it seem that way. I can most assuredly say that the last 2 miles were all uphill. At every switchback my heart sank just a little more. When we finally came into view of the shelter I was so relieved that my knees nearly buckled. It was 6:00pm. We trotted in just in time to see Benjy with his pack on talking to an elderly gentleman.
“This guy wants to talk to you about our reservations.” I was told. Apparently the gentleman was a ridge runner. His job was to maintain that particular part of the trail and keep everything in line. He took my reservation papers and got on his radio. I was a little concerned but I had followed all the parks procedures and I knew that we had done everything we were supposed to do. The man came back a few minutes later and told me that our reservations had been entered for a week earlier. I politely explained to him that we were all working a week prior and it would have been impossible for us to have made reservations for that week. He said it was no big deal and I began the task of crawling into my sleeping bag. A few more hikers showed up later on including Sandy and Carl. They showed up about 9:00pm. I slept better that night, not good, but better than Wednesday night. I must’ve been pretty out of it because someone managed to snap a shot of me sleeping with my own camera and I didn’t even flinch.

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The next morning I was energized by the fact that I would be home and I could get something to eat that wasn’t trail mix, freeze-dried or dehydrated. I would also get to see my wife and kids. I set out alone at 8:00am and didn’t look back. It would stay that way for the rest of the day. At 9:00am I made it to the Gregory Bald Trail which was 3 miles from Mollie’s Ridge. That’s 3 miles in 1 hour. Needless to say I was renewed by the fact that I was making such good time and plowed ahead. The day was extremely warm and as I descended the air became warmer. I made it to the Birch Spring Gap campsite at 10:30am and left a message for my fellow hikers that would come by that way.

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Billy Badcock is my trail name. How I came by will be another story for another time. I’ve always been fascinated by premise of trail names and wondered why people would choose to go by a different name on the trail. The best I can figure is that people want to assume a different persona on the trail than they would in real life. They know no one knows them on the trail and they want to escape the “real world”. What better way to do this than changing their whole identity while hiking. It’s said that some people will go for weeks without knowing another hiker’s real name. I met many on the trail that introduced themselves by their trail name; Sky Hiker, Sunshine, Brownbag, Greybeard. Most people introduced themselves by given name though.
I made it to the top of Shuckstack by 12:00pm and it was here that I made my first big mistake of the hike. I chose not to go to the top of the fire tower. From the top of Shuckstack I could see Fontana Dam and knew that my goal was in site. I wouldn’t have even noticed the tower if it hadn’t been for a lone northbound hiker that pointed it out to me. He was shrugging off his pack to take the walk up to the tower while we were talking. I had just finished a strenuous climb and had a bad case of the get-homes. I looked back at the tower, decided to forgo the short trip and began my final plunge. In retrospect, after seeing the ascent the man had just completed and still had the drive to go the extra .1 mile to the tower, I am now disgusted with myself. I’ve always been able to draw on the fact that I’ve pushed myself, physically, when I could easily give up. This time I didn’t and not going to the top of that tower is going to bother me for a long time.
After several miles of joint jarring downhill trails I finally made it to the bottom of the trailhead and exited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I looked at the map of the by-pass around the dam and set off to find the blue blazed trail that would lead me home. After my second big mistake I made it to the right path and got on the correct trail. It was a difficult hike to the top of a logging road over downed trees, through old government shooting ranges and past in-use logging equipment. I can’t explain to you the frustration and despair of being able to see your truck across the river and not being able to get to it. To add to everything I was running out of water. Finally I made it to the bottom of the road and on to the paved highway. I was spent. I didn’t want to walk anymore and I was out of water. After a brief rest on the grass, I put on my pack and began walking down the road to the bridge. I spotted a TVA policeman and strolled up to his running, air-conditioned SUV.
“Hi,” I greeted. No answer, just a nod from the cop. “Can I ask you a question?” Another nod. “Can you give me a ride to the visitor’s center?”
“Weeeeeeellllllll, I’m pretty full up in here, so probably not,” he replied.
“Ok, have you got any water?”
“Ok, thanks anyway.” I was crushed, but pressed on. As I neared the bridge, a small Honda CRV pulled up and a man got out wearing hiking boots. Like I said before, I had passed about 100 hikers in the last 3 days so I kind of had an eye for hikers.
“Goin’ hiking?” I asked. My goal was to strike up an immediate kinship with this man so that I could get a ride to the dam.
“Actually I was going to meet someone but I’m going to do a little hiking before. I’m meeting David Horton. He’s an ultra-runner.”
The name rung a bell with me. “Has he ever competed in the Barkley?”
“He won the Barkley back in 2002,” the man exclaimed. My jaw dropped. While doing some research on local hiking areas I discovered that an ultra-marathon is held every year at Frozenhead State Park in Wartburg. Frozenhead is very close to where I live and I’ve been there many times. The Barkley is a 100 mile race through the mountains of that park and is considered the most difficult ultra-marathon in the world. To date, there are only 7 people on the planet who have even finished the Barkley and he was going to be at the very spot that I was. After some more small talk I finally asked for a ride and the man, Terry Grey, agreed. It was one of the best moments of my life. I got to my truck, thanked Terry profusely, and immediately went to the gift shop to buy a cold drink. Sprite was my beverage of choice and a soft-drink has never tasted so good. I walked around for about 20 minutes and decided that I should drive down the hill to pick up anyone else that had made it off the mountain. On the way back I spotted Terry’s car, he honked at me and stopped in the middle of the road. I stopped and saw Josh pop out of the passenger side. Apparently he had met Mr. Grey as well and received the same courtesy that I did. We talked excitedly about the fact that someone who won the Barkley would be at the trail and we drove back down to the base of the blue blazed trail to see if Benjy or Troy had made it yet. We spotted Terry walking down the road down toward the trail almost the same time we spotted a small SUV drive by with the license plate on the front that said “D HORTON”. I said that’s him! We told Terry to hop in the back and sped off to intercept. When we ran into David Horton he and Terry introduced themselves, apparently Terry e-mailed David and David invited him to see him off before he began a marathon through the Smokies on the Appalachian Trail. I asked if I could snap a picture and just like that, I had the most interesting part of my trip recorded on digital film.

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We waited about 30 minutes for anyone else but the thought of hot food was too much to stand so we drove away. All the way back we talked about the trip as we probably will for years to come and we constantly glanced back at the mountains that we had a new found respect for. I found a Mr. Gatti’s Pizza and we decided that a buffet was too good to be passed up. We stuffed our faces with as much as we could stand and drove back home to assimilate back into the real world. A few phone calls on the drive home confirmed that everyone was ok but not without a little confusion. Sandy and Carl arrived at Fontana while Benjy and Troy were getting a beer at a local store. Sandy was a little concerned for a minute but Benjy and Troy showed up and all was well at the end of the day.
I opened the story with the mention of respect and I want to finish there. After 3 days on the Appalachian Trail I made a new friend and met many more that I would consider friends if I had known them longer. I have nothing but respect for those who wish to challenge those mountains. As much respect for the people as for the mountains themselves. I also have a new sense of respect for myself and that might have been the most important part of my journey.

04-15-2008, 08:49
Post this in TJ maybe? Or trip reports?