May 20, 2017

A Young Friend's Appalachian Trail Hike...

In the mid-1970's, I was working at the Ingalls Shipbuilding Division of Litton Industries, in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  One of my colleagues was a gentleman named Paul Julius.  Paul was a retired Navy Warrant Officer, one of only a very few who had been selected by Admiral Hyman Rickover for the Navy's nuclear power program.  Paul and his wife Trudy had three children.  Their daughter had married and moved out of their home, so they had two sons still living with them -- Peter, a high-school junior when we first met, and a younger son, Paul, Jr.  Working with Paul Sr., I soon learned that Peter had an interest in backpacking.

A VW Thing similar to the one we drove
That Spring, I invited Peter to accompany me on my annual trek to the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia.  He accepted, and soon we were planning our trip.  Just a few days before we were to leave, the transmission on my trusty 1952 Pontiac decided to quit working and it was going to be several days before I could get the part needed to fix it.  It looked like our trip was doomed until Paul Sr. suggested that I borrow his Volkswagen "Thing" to take to our destination.  The trip was back on.  So on about the 26th of March, 1975, Peter and I headed for Dahlonega, Georgia, in his father's bright yellow Thing.  It was noisy, not very fast, and not real comfortable, but we were grateful to be going on our long-anticipated adventure.

The old Gooch Gap shelter, in which Peter and I
stayed, was torn down and replaced in 2002
We had decided to start hiking in Georgia because it was the nearest, most easily accessible portion of the trail.  We would park the car in the area around Suches, Georgia, and spend our first night in the Gooch Gap shelter.  After an all-day drive, starting in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, we stopped briefly in a general store in Suches.  We were told we could drive about three miles on Cooper Gap Road and we'd be within a couple hundred yards of the shelter.  Arriving right at dusk, we quickly made camp.  A couple of through hikers were already in the shelter.  It was chilly, so they had built a small campfire.  We sat around the fire until we were all too tired to tell any more stories and, after ensuring our gear was hung well out of reach of scavengers, we turned in for a good night's rest.

Peter and I planned to start by hiking over Blood Mountain to Neels Gap and then to return to our car.  We would then decide what to do next.  First, we had to hike from Gooch Gap to the intersection of the AT with Georgia Highway 60 at Woody Gap, a relatively pleasant hike of about 4 1/2 miles.  Then we'd begin the haul over Blood Mountain en route to Neels Gap, another 10 or so miles of rugged terrain.  We'd make camp somewhere on the approach side of Blood Mountain and crest the summit the next day, followed by the steep descent on the mountain's east side.  We had both heard of the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center, a small stone building located along US 19/129 at Neels Gapon the eastern side of Blood Mountain., where we figured we could get a ride back to our car, if necessary.

By the end of the day, we were about halfway from Woody Gap to the crest of Blood Mountain.  We found a flat area and made camp.  It was a beautiful evening where we pitched our tents and cooked our dinner.  After a great night's rest, we packed our gear, hiked to the top of Blood Mountain and enjoyed the views, and then descended to Neels Gap, arriving around lunchtime.  There, we saw the Walasi-Yi Center for the first time.

This building was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps who started construction in 1934 and finished in 1937.  By the time Peter and I arrived in 1975, it was being operated by a wonderful couple named Jim and (I think) Nona, whose last name I cannot recall.  They operated the place as a service center for hikers, providing a selection of groceries and backpacker's supplies, as well as spiritual counseling (They were deeply committed Christians.) and just a place to rest and regenerate.  They also offered a taxi service for hikers needing transportation.  After we had a brief rest and tour of their facilities, Jim ferried us to our car, which was still on the Forest Service Road near the Gooch Gap shelter.  We had decided to proceed next to the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City, North Carolina, on the Nantahala River.  I had heard that they had a motel, the old Tote n' Tarry, where we could get a room and clean up and then do more hiking.

We got to the Outdoor Center before dark.  It was basically a gas station with a small eatery and a hikers supply store.  Across the road was a small motel that included a dorm-like hostel room for hikers.  We rented a regular room for the night, got a quick meal, enjoyed showers, and crashed.  The next morning, we repacked our gear and headed out for some more hiking.  After a couple more days of hiking in North Carolina and North Georgia, Peter had made up his mind -- He was going to hike the entire Appalachian Trail as soon as he finished high school!

We returned to the Gulf Coast and I returned Paul's car to him.  Within the next couple of days, the wrath of Paul descended on me.  He was convinced that I had somehow planted the Appalachian Trail seed in Peter's mind.  Paul, who had never had the opportunity to attend college, had one primary goal for his kids -- they would be given the educational opportunity that he had never had.  And now, his oldest son was talking about a walk in the woods that would probably end his desire to return to school.  Peter's mind would not be changed, however, so throughout the next year, as graduation day approached, Paul became resigned to "the hike."

Topographic maps helped us appreciate the kinds or terrain
that Peter was traversing each day.
By the Spring of 1976, we had topographic maps of the entire 2,000-mile AT posted on our office wall, replete with special markings indicating where the grocery "drops" would be shipped.  A schedule of overnight objectives was marked in pencil.  And Paul even began to brag a little about how hard Peter was training for his hike.  Peter's teachers let him take some of his final exams early so he could start his hike in early May, before the rest of his classmates would graduate.  So it wasn't too long before the entire Julius clan headed for North Georgia in Trudy's Oldsmobile station wagon to deliver their eldest son to the elements in which he would spend the next several months.

I had suggested to Peter that he might want to start slowly to allow his feet to toughen up and break in his new equipment.  He chose to start out aggressively and soon was stuck at a roadside picnic area with blistered feet and an infection.  Fortunately, a doctor was among those who stopped to see if he needed help.  He got some antibiotics and within a few days was headed north again.

Whether Peter knew it or not, he had a "Command Post" in the Wet Dock Building of Ingalls Shipbuilding.  Every day, we got the official update from Paul.  "We got a  phone call last night from a pay phone near the trail.  He was going to be spending the night at the so-and-so shelter."  We'd all witness the moving of the red push pin on the giant wall-covering map.  The scale of the composite topo map was too large to fit from floor to ceiling, so in our world, the Appalachian Trail ran from left to right for about thirty feet!  We monitored every weather report, Paul's updates, the food drops, letters describing new friends, trials and tribulations.  Peter never slowed down -- until he got to New Jersey.

At some point in the 72 miles of the trail that traverses northern New Jersey, Peter got into some contaminated water.  He tried to keep hiking, but between heat and diarrhea, he got badly dehydrated.  He had to leave the trail and ended up in a hospital.  Soon he transferred to a hospital in Connecticut near some family members.  I heard from him by phone at one point and his morale was devastated.  We talked about his options.  He made a decision to do what I thought was his best choice -- He would take a bus to Maine, restart his hike at Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail, and hike south.  When he reached the point where he had left the trail, he would qualify as an end-to-ender!  The reason he couldn't simply continue the northward trek was that the Park Service closes down access to Baxter State Park's Mt. Katahdin after a certain date because of severe snow conditions.

So the next time we updated the map, the red pin was in Maine, moving south.  Several months before, I had promised Peter that if he actually did the whole trail, I'd meet him in New England and hike the last couple hundred miles northward with him.  Now that he was headed south, that plan would no longer work, but I still wanted in some way to honor his effort by hiking with him.

My brother Bill and I often went to Hershey, PA, in October to attend the giant antique car show and flea market put on by the Hershey chapter of the Antique Automobile Club of America.  In 1976, we had decided to rent a Winnebago camper for our trek.  It occurred to me that Bill could drop me off near where Peter was hiking and pick me up a few days later on down the trail.  On Sunday, 26 September, 1976 (which happened to be Bill's birthday), he dropped me off near the Beaver Brook shelter near Kinsman's Notch, New Hampshire.  Peter and I had prearranged this meeting point and he was waiting where the AT crossed the highway.  As the Winnebago lumbered up to the rendezvous point, Peter was beaming, eager to see a familiar face from home.  To make our first night in the shelter even more memorable, I had packed fresh fruits, cheese, and some big steaks for the feast!  Peter looked fantastic after over 1,500 miles of hiking -- lean, muscular, and very tanned under his enormous pack.

Beaver Brook Shelter (photo courtesy
Bill exchanged a few words with Peter and soon he headed toward New York state where he planned to visit some friends.  Peter and I headed for the Beaver Brook shelter, which we reached in less than an hour.  I was finally getting to participate, even if briefly, in Peter Julius' great Appalachian Trail adventure!

Mt. Washington, in the distance, seen from
the crest of Mount Moosilauke
Over the next few days, we climbed Mt. Moosilauke at over 4,800 ft. elevation, passed through the town of Glencliff, where Peter retrieved a huge food cache from home, and stayed at Lonesome Lake Hut, one of the shelters maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

A few days later, when my brother picked me up at a trail-highway crossing, I was tired and sore, but I had experienced one of my favorite hiking memories.  I'm still immensely grateful to Peter for letting me share a part of his hike.  And only a few weeks later, he finished his through hike in New Jersey and joined an elite cadre of hikers who have completed this inspiring adventure.

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