May 15, 2017

A Very Special Spring Hike...

The bronze placard at the southern terminus of the
Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain, GA
In 1970, I found myself longing for the hiking that I had enjoyed while a member of the Boy Scouts of America in the 1950s.  I purchased the book "The Complete Walker" written by Colin Fletcher and originally published in 1968, at that time the Bible of backpacking lore.  Soon thereafter I joined the Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI) co-op.  After consuming every page, I followed up by purchasing just about every bit of recommended equipment touted by Mr. Fletcher.  And I began hiking (with my shiny, brand-new backpacking gear) in easily accessible hiking spots in or near the Norman, Oklahoma, where I was living.  

I can still remember many of the items I acquired at that time -- my REI pack, the Svea 123 stove that burns "white gas," a Swiss Sigg nesting cooking pot set, Raichle Rotondo boots, Nalgene water bottles, Ensolite sleeping pad, long underwear, down vest, a special no-leak fuel bottle, a plastic egg holder, countless packets of freeze-dried foods (Colin Fletcher says they make you "fart like a bull."), compass, visqueen to use for a shelter (I still hadn't decided on a tent.) -- The list went on.

I had also been reading extensively the experiences of Appalachian Trail through-hikers.  I joined the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) and even toyed for a while with the idea of hiking the entire trail.  And, I acquired several of the sectional guide books and topographic maps of many segments of the trail.  Sometime during this period I got the idea of taking my nephew David for an AT hike.  He turned 9 years old in September and was learning to love the outdoors.  When I went to my Brother's house at Christmas, we began planning for a hike that would take place over the Easter holiday in 1971.  Easter was to occur on April 11th.  We could go up on the Thursday before.  I would fly to Chattanooga and meet David there.  He would be flying in from New Orleans where his father was a pilot for Delta Airlines.  I'd fly out of Oklahoma City.  I could rent a car in Chattanooga and we'd head for the mountains with all our gear.  Let the planning begin.

I needed to know how to drive to a point near the southern terminus of the trail on Springer Mountain near Dahlonega, Georgia.  I got the name of an Atlanta dentist who was the head of the Georgia AT Club.  He mailed me an instruction sheet which I wish I still had.  The on-line instructions to drive to a point near the southern trailhead haven't changed all that much in the last 44 years:  "From Dahlonega, travel west on Highway 52 for approximately 9 miles.  Turn right at an old store with a partial sign saying Store…this will be near mile marker 5.  There is also a sign for Nimblewill Baptist Church.

Travel for approximately 2 miles, then turn right (before church) onto Forest Service Road 28-1. (At this turn, there is a brown/cream sign saying Nimblewill Gap/Jones Creek/Camp Wahsega).  In approximately 2 miles (after you cross the bridge), the road forks.  Veer left onto Forest Service Road 77 and travel for approximately 5 miles to Windingstair Gap (intersection of Forest Service Road 77, Forest Service Road 42, and Forest Service Road 58).

At Windingstair Gap, turn left onto Forest Service Road 42. In approximately 1 mile, the Benton MacKaye Trail crosses this road at Big Stamp Gap.  Travel for another mile and you will see a parking area on your right.  The Appalachian Trail crosses Forest Service Road 42 at this point."

In the weeks leading up to this epic expedition, David and I talked on the phone about the maps and trail guides I had acquired from the ATC.  We tried to decide which direction we'd hike and how far.  We planned a four- or five-day journey.  Maybe a circular route using some side trails of paved roads might be better.  Maybe we'd just make up our minds when we got to a starting point.  And, of course, there was always the unknown of how far we might be able to hike with no mountain hiking practice and all new gear.

I practiced packing my gear to see if it would all fit.  It was a real challenge, but on the day I flew to Chattanooga, every item was safely stuffed into my large and heavy (probably 40-45 pounds) pack, which I checked as luggage.  I had even filled my egg carrier with fresh eggs so David and I could eat a really great breakfast on the trail.  When I arrived and caught up with David, we proceeded to the baggage area where, much to my dismay, eggs were oozing out of the top of my large frame pack.  We proceeded to the men's room, where for the next hour we cleaned up the mess.  The eggs had been crushed and leaked all over my clothes, sleeping bag, and other carefully-packed items.  We were not off to a good start.

I picked up our rental car, a 1970 Plymouth Valiant, got our gear safely in the trunk, and we headed for Georgia.  It was close to noon.  Within a couple of hours, we grabbed a bite of lunch in Dahlonega and headed out to find the Nimblewill Baptist Church listed on my directions.  By about 3:30 PM, after an exciting drive on Forest Service Roads 28-1, 77, and 42, we parked in a small parking area near the top of Springer Mountain and close to the Appalachian Trail.  We decided to hike to the Springer Mountain Shelter, which was only about a mile south to spend the night.  We donned our equipment and proudly took our first steps together on the trail.

Our first "home" on the AT --
the Springer Mountain Shelter
We arrived at the shelter in less than an hour, after a fairly easy hike, but both straining under our way-too-heavy backpacks.  There were already a couple of hikers in the shelter, but there was room for two more, so we unpacked our sleeping bags and pads and claimed part of the floor.  The folks we were sharing the shelter with were starting out to hike the entire trail!  We had inadvertently chosen to do our hike at the height of the season during which northbound end-to-enders would be starting out.  We encountered several during the next couple of days.

David and I lit my new stove and prepared our freeze-dried delicacies, topping the meal off with hot cocoa, drunk out of our new stainless steel Sierra cups.  We sat around a small campfire with our new hiking friends, who now numbered about a dozen including all the later arrivals, and we enjoyed the stories of how each had decided to "do the trail."  Soon, we all turned in and got a good night's rest.  We learned that the shelters are well-populated by critters.  Every time I woke up I could hear the skittering of tiny feet and chomping on crunchy something by our furry friends.  Fortunately, we had all heeded the warnings and suspended our packs from tree limbs far out of reach of these and other unwelcome scavengers.

We awoke to the reality that it can get darn cold in April in north Georgia!  We wasted no time in getting several layers of clothes on after we reluctantly exited our sleeping bags.  Soon, everyone in and around the shelter had gotten up and the hissing of our small stoves filled the air.  I had replenished our egg supply in Dahlonega, so we enjoyed some fresh eggs and other goodies we had packed in.  Our beverage of choice was Tang, "the drink of the Astronauts."  And again, we topped everything off with hot cocoa.  Soon, we had all of our gear packed up and we headed north on the Appalachian Trail!  We really had no distinct plan other than to reach our car by one route or another by Tuesday to head for Chattanooga.

The weather was perfect for hiking.  By noon, we were in our t-shirts.  The temperature was in the low 70's.  All was well with the world.  We hiked somewhat more slowly than most of the through hikers, so we got to meet quite a few during the day.  Many said they were going to spend the night at the Hawk Mountain shelter, which was about 8 miles from where we had spent the night.  Once we realized that we were making about one mile per hour, that seemed like a good objective for our first day.  We stopped along the trail near a small stream to make our lunch and I recall thinking, "This wouldn't be a bad place to pitch a tent."  We ate and drank plenty of liquids and were soon on our way again.

The Hawk Mountain shelter came into view around 4:00 PM on Friday.  There were already quite a few folks there, but many had pitched their tents nearby and didn't plan to sleep in the shelter.  David and I were able to claim enough floor space for our sleeping bags and we got introduced to our new friends, most of whom were planning to hike the entire AT.  They were all young, eager, and excited about their intended 2,000-mile adventure.  Soon, we were all sitting around a newly-built campfire, the sun was setting, and dinner was on the many stoves.   David and I sat quietly hearing the optimistic excitement of the newly-minted end-to-end aspirants.  This was in a time when only a few dozen people attempted to hike the trail in a given season.  In 1972, only 23 people completed the 2,000-mile hike; In 2015, the total was 1,000!  It may be a commentary on the improvement in lightweight backpacking equipment or on the amount of leisure time we have available.

We got a good night's sleep and soon were packed and resumed our northerly hike.  We decided we'd try to reach the shelter at Gooch Gap, a distance of about 7 miles (This shelter, which I later stayed in on many occasions, was torn down in 2001 and replaced by the present-day Gooch Mountain shelter.  The old shelter was very close to a forest service road that led to Suches, GA.  It apparently had become a favorite gathering place for party goers since it was so easily accessible.).  We had rapidly concluded that our pre-hike anticipation of covering 15-20 miles per day was really a bad assumption.  These hills were steep!  And we were not equipped physically to cope with the strenuous hiking and the 3,000-foot elevation.  We also wanted to enjoy our time and not feel like it was a marathon.  So we reached our next shelter by mid-afternoon and we were the first ones to lay claim to a space on the floor.  We hung our packs up and did a little day-hiking in the area before returning to the shelter to meet some new friends and prepare dinner.  Again, most of our shelter mates were intended end-to-enders.  The conversation during the evening tended toward physical ailments, underestimates of the trail's difficulty, and equipment issues.  Some folks were ready to shed considerable equipment to get rid of weight.  Others regretted not bringing certain items.  Lots of people already had sore knees, ankles, and feet.  And much conversation centered on the care and treatment of blisters.

David and I decided that the next day we would resume our hike by heading South in the direction from which we had come.  We would try to hike past the Hawk Mountain shelter to the site of a small stream we had seen.  We would pitch our "tent" (really a visqueen tarp suspended between trees) and sleep in the outdoors with no permanent structure around us.

The next day was another gorgeous hiking day and we had no trouble reaching our destination camping spot.   I had acquired some clever tarp tensioners that involved wrapping a small rubber ball in the part of the tarp you wanted to attach to a tensioning line.  Then you used a small keyhole-shaped ring that tightened the tarp around the ball and acted as the attachment point.  The tarp never needed to have a grommet installed but you could suspend and stretch it out to serve as a shelter.  I had a 12 ft. x 6 ft. tarp that I turned into both a ground cloth and a roof for the night, open on three sides:

Using the visqueen tarp as a lightweight shelter
We built a small campfire and cooked some more of our freeze dried food.  The trail was not more than thirty feet away where it crossed a small stream using a log flattened on its top side.  A few late hikers ambled by as we were setting up our camp, all northbound, but after dusk, David and I had the place to ourselves.  It wasn't long after the fire went out that we were sound asleep.

We woke up early on Monday to the sound of hikers walking by, got our breakfast, washed up, packed our gear, and soon were on our way to the car.  We had hatched a plan.  What if we got to our car early today, drove to Dahlonega and shopped for groceries -- hot dogs, hamburger, buns, onions, cheese, mustard, ketchup, potato salad, beverages, ice -- and drove on forest service roads to a point adjacent to the Hawk Mountain Shelter.  We could be back by mid-afternoon if we moved quickly, and we could treat a bunch of end-to-enders to an unexpected banquet!  So that's exactly what we did.  Within only a couple of hours, we had reached the car.  An hour or so later, we were buying groceries.

The Hawk Mountain Shelter (photo courtesy of AtlantaTrails)
I had figured out the layout of the fire service roads in the area, and had determined that we could drive to within about one-half mile of the Hawk Mountain shelter (This shelter is being or has been torn down due to overuse and is being replaced by a tenting site somewhere nearby.).  We drove there and started to lug our supplies to the shelter just as some hikers arrived.  In no time, with their help, we had unloaded everything at the shelter and began cooking.  As new hikers arrived, we treated them to burgers and hot dogs with all the trimmings, chips, and beverages with real ice.  We had garbage bags at the ready to ensure we would leave not a trace.  And later, to top it all off, we made s'mores around a campfire.  Needless to say, the hikers all expressed their thanks and surprise at such a wilderness feast.

Everyone got a great night's sleep after we suspended all the garbage from a nearby tree.  The next day, David and I had to get back to Chattanooga to check in to a motel, clean up, do our laundry, and repack everything for our return flights on Wednesday.  We got up early and ate another trail breakfast topped off with Tang and strong coffee.  The other hikers helped load the trash into our car, which was easily accessible.  After a few grateful goodbyes, we were headed down the winding gravel forest service road to civilization.  Not long after we hit pavement, we were on our way to Chattanooga.

We spent the night at a motel unpacking, cleaning, and repacking all our gear.  The hotel had a laundromat that we made good use of.  The next morning we headed for the airport where we returned the very dirty rental car and found David's departure gate.  After I saw him off, headed for Louisiana, I went to my gate where the flight to Oklahoma would leave a couple of hours later.

David and I took other hikes on and off the Appalachian Trail over the ensuing years.  We hiked with other people -- Jim Schmidt, Bill Clancy, Peter Julius, and others -- but I think that this foray remains my favorite, and I think his as well.

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