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Hold the presses! We need a re-write on this blog!

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On the last day of my four-day section hike, with less than seven more miles to go on my 28 mile journey, I “knew” what I was going to write in my blog about this trek. It was going to be (pretty much) a repeat of one the themes I’ve used over the years: that the hike was quite uneventful, but that fact was due to having the same qualities of an expert pilot. Specifically, just as good aviators make their plans based on the weather, equipment, and skills actually present & available, they almost never have exciting stories to tell. In other words, not having a good story to tell is a sign of both a quality pilot AND back-packer.
But that blog had to end in the next hour.

Because this was only my second backpack of this year, after a VERY long lay-off, I intentionally chose to make it easy.
Day 1 was from Fontana Marina south to Cable Gap Shelter (5.6 miles, in case anyone is curious). After a shuttle from Dave Edwards (recommended, particularly if you want to know the history of the area), I left the former at about 8:30am, climbed the nearly 2000 feet to the “top,” and made the shelter by mid-afternoon. Problem was, I was pretty wiped by then, and had no intention of continuing. Shared the shelter with two others, and had no trouble with equipment.
On Day 2 I went to Brown Fork Gap Shelter (6.3 miles) and, upon arriving at mid-afternoon, I was AGAIN wiped. I spent the night alone (prefer doing so) but, since the first two days had passed without much of anything happening, I started mentally writing my Whiteblaze blog as a story of my smart planning making this a dull hike – and that being a GOOD thing. When a major downpour woke me up at about 2am, I actually felt smug about how smart I was to choose a shelter for this night.
Day 3 was supposed to be a 9.1 mile hike to the Sassafras Gap Shelter. I again thought how smart I was in learning not to attempt more than ten miles a day, based on my actual body endurance. In other words, just like good pilots never try to fly beyond what their planes are capable of traveling.
Problem was, after about six miles of walking, at mid-afternoon of THIS day, I was AGAIN feeling wiped. And not just physically – I was just as much mentally & emotionally spent as well. Since getting to Cheoh Bald would mean a 1300 foot climb, I knew I would never make the shelter that day. After that realization, I couldn’t help but think I was simply unable to do more than six miles in a day of back-packing – leading to my wondering if I would have to give up my dream of ever completing The Trail. It was almost a repeat of my first ever Whiteblaze blog, almost exactly eight years ago, when I was nearly in tears over my feeling that I wasn’t physically or emotionally able to handle this. That was over 1300 miles ago.
There’s an unofficial – but heavily used – camping area at Locust Cove Gap, 3.6 miles short of Sassafras Gap, so I just decided to set up my tent there. During another night of sleeping alone, I decided to write about this change as a case of my expertise as a “pilot” by simply noting that, due to equipment problems, there would be change in flight plans.

Since getting to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) the next day would mean a walk of 10.6 miles, I knew that using every minute of daylight was the key to success. When I awoke at 5am, I had a degree of optimism of leaving at the first hint of usable daylight, and did indeed start up the hill at 6:30am. Since I knew (1) most of the hike would be downhill and (2) it would not get really dark till almost 9:30pm, I concluded I had a good change of success. When I found that a full & good night’s rest made the initial climb bearable, particularly since the morning clouds were keeping the sun from heating the air too much, I felt even better.
About clouds: when you’re climbing to a high point AND you start to hear distant thunder, they cease to be blessing and start to be a cause for fear. Mainly, I was worried that this would the third time I had hiked in a major downpour, WITH LIGHTNING, hoping to get down to a shelter or trail-head. It started to rain when I saw a sign saying I was 1.5 miles from the shelter, so I got out my rain poncho and resolved to continue on. It was either that or go back down to Locust Cove Gap. Pretty soon, I was not “disappointed” in either the amount of rain coming down or in how the thunder was getting louder every minute.
Even as a child I knew to count the seconds between a flash and the roar of thunder, with every five seconds meaning one mile between you and the lightning. When the time was down to three seconds, the fact that I was walking in four inches of water gushing down the footpath was pretty much an minor annoyance. When one flash had a ZERO time gap between it and the boom of thunder, I knew that my only course was to continue down and get to the shelter. I also thought of how German reformer Martin Luther gave up being a lawyer in a storm like this
but decided I was not going to make any bargains like he had done.
When, a couple minutes later, a SECOND flash was instantaneous to the thunder, and was so loud that I literally ducked (as if that would have done any good), I had to think that maybe I SHOULD agree to become a monk.
Later that day, another experienced AT hiker pointed out that, any time you hear thunder, you’re still safe.
I arrived at Sassafras Gap at about 11am, with the lightning having passed but the rain still coming down in buckets. However, I knew I could at least put on some dry socks, get some needed rest, and just wait out the storm. It turns out I also needed some warm cocoa, as I began to feel a bit of a chill. When I left at 1pm, seven miles from NOC, I still felt confident about getting there before dark.
My confidence was well-placed, as the hike was almost entirely down-hill. Indeed, I was ready to claim that I had neither gotten an insect bite, nor fallen even once, in my four days on the trail – both numbers used to about once or twice a day. My ego took still another blow when the combination of a downpour on red clay made a steep part of the path almost like ice. Boom! – I was down even before I realized I was off-balance, and it took me almost five minutes to get back up because I couldn’t get any kind of traction between my feet and the slope. I actually had to slide further down just to use a tree as a stopping point.
To my great joy, and with much thanks for the blessing of safety in my journey, I arrived at NOC soon after 8pm. For the fourth straight day, I was wiped when got to the end, but decided to drive until I felt too tired to safely do so, and then make an online motel reservation. This took all of one minute (literally!), so I pulled over at my first chance and made a reservation just down the road. Got a good night’s sleep, then drove for thirteen hours to get back home at about 9pm.

Having been shut out of any serious amount of miles last year, I intend to be aggressive in getting them this year. I should be able to finish North Carolina, and get a few miles in the Whites, before the end of summer. Yes, I know I’ll have to plan days that are even wimpier than before.

But making plans based on you CAN do, instead of what you WISH you could do, is the sign of a good pilot!
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