Table of Contents
Huffing and Puffing
Even though Springer Mountain is the official start of the Appalachian Trail, most thru-hikers start at the A.T. Approach Trail in Amicalola Falls State Park. Wow! The falls are impressive.
Chris Krejca drove me to the trailhead, and she was backpacking with me for the first two nights. For those who know my longtime caving friend Jean Krejca (a.k.a., Creature), Chris is her sister. These two women are total badasses. This past summer, we bagged several peaks around Mammoth Lakes for Jean’s 50th birthday (hiking 50 miles for her 50th). I was giving it everything I had while climbing the peaks, pushing as hard as I could, using up all my reserves. Meanwhile, Jean and Chris were casually talking to each other and leaving me in the dust, often little more than specks in the distance as I struggled to keep up. Total badasses.
But I digress. I highly recommend Amicalola Falls to everyone. The falls are amazing. They are incredibly steep, which makes for a gorgeous view and numerous photo opportunities.
Unfortunately, the stairs are also abundant and steep. I always yielded the stairs to people coming down, partially to be polite but mainly because I desperately needed to catch my breath. Thankfully, Chris graciously waited while I huffed and puffed up the extensive stairs leading to the top, never once mentioning how slow I was/am.
Springer Mountain: The Official Start
We hiked on. Beyond Amicalola Falls, human traffic reduced dramatically, but was still more than I was expecting in the winter. Eventually, we got to the top of Springer Mountain, the official southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
There were quite a few people at the top. One older couple had just finished their southbound (SoBo) hike of the AT. Another young couple had recently completed the PCT and were on the AT for just the night. They had actually passed us just before the summit due to a combination of their light overnight packs and my slow-ass pace. A few moments later, a family came up. They were locals.
...Then I Felt a Mouse Run across My Head
We hiked all day and for about an hour after sunset. The moon was bright, but eventually the canopy became so dense that we had to use our headlamps. We got to our destination, Stover Creek Shelter.
I have heard many stories of the mice in these shelters. Stories of mice chewing through backpacks and gear looking for food. People even hanging food on strings stretching across the shelter, and the mice scurrying across the lines like tightrope walkers and devouring the food.
There were several tents around the shelter, but no one was setup in the shelter itself. It was dark. No sign of mice. No obvious mouse scat. Plus it’s the middle of winter. The mice should be hibernating, right?
Oh, how wrong I was.
Since it was after dark and there was no apparent mice activity, we decided to setup in the shelter. We cooked a meal, setup our sleeping bags, and put all our food safely in the huge metal bear box. (Spoiler alert: the bear box was not so safe after all.)
We settled down to watch an episode of the 1970s series Kung Fu that I had previously loaded onto my phone (awesome philosophical series albeit the action scenes are ridiculously lame compared to today’s standards). But we were so sleepy that we couldn’t make it through an episode, so we drifted off to sleep.
Next thing I knew, Chris was waking me up talking about mice. I looked around and didn’t see any. I tried drifting back to sleep but kept hearing rustling near our gear. I kept shining my light on my backpack, and eventually caught sight of a mouse on top of my pack before it scampered down the wall and out of sight.
Crap! The mice are active even in the winter here! I thought that now perhaps the mice would be scared away, and laid back down. Then I felt a mouse run across my head.
WTF? These little bastards aren’t afraid of anything, This is war!
Chris took her backpack and put it “safely” in the bear box with our food. I covered my backpack in the huge trash bag that I used as rain cover, hung it back on the wall, and laid back down to sleep.
Still more rustling, this time amplified by the noisy trash bag. The mice were persistent, and even grew so emboldened that my light no longer scared them off. They found their way through the slit in the trash bag for my shoulder straps and were now rustling around inside.
I shook the pack, watched a mouse drop out from under the bag, waited to make sure there was no more rustling, then set about to securely encase my pack. I don’t want these little bastards chewing a hole in my pack or the shoulder straps or whatever and put an end to my trip on the very first night. I tightly closed the slit at the top, then wedged my inedible GPS/sat device between the slit and wooden hanger. Then I gathered up all the dangly straps and shoved inside the trash bag as I cinched it closed around the bottom of my pack.
Still the mice tried and tried to enter my pack, with me repeatedly shining my headlamp at them until I somewhat assured that they couldn’t get in and didn’t seem to want to chew through the thin trash bag.
Eventually, I fell back to sleep.
The next morning, Chris got our food and gear from the bear box. While getting ready for breakfast, Chris noticed chew marks on her food bag. Turns out that the bear box at Stover Creek Shelter has a rusty hole in it that the mice can easily crawl through. Fortunately, they didn’t chew all the way through her bag. As I discovered shortly there after, that’s likely because they filled up on my bag of almonds—about a quarter pound of almonds.
These mice are tiny. That bag of almonds was bigger than several of them combined. No way they could have eaten them all. So they likely spent all night running almonds back and forth from the bear box to their nest. By the time my bag was empty, they were too full and/or tired to bother with Chris’ bountiful stash. (I hope you appreciate my sacrifice, Chris.)
The moral of the story is the mice infestations are true. No more sleeping inside the shelters for me. Also, check your bear box for holes.
Snowshoes in Georgia?
We left Stover Creek Shelter with the goal of getting to Gooch Mountain Shelter, which was just a few miles from Woody Gap, where Chris was scheduled to be picked up at 10 AM the next morning by a shuttle to return to her car Amicalola Falls.
For those who don’t know, AT shelters are a wooden building with a large sleeping platform and one side open, usually with the roof extending over a covered patio. They are every few miles in this section of the AT. They are a great place to stop and take a break from the trail. Some have picnic tables. Some have a loft. And as far as I know, they all have privies (open pit toilet), bear boxes where you can store your food, and are usually close to a stream where you can collect water. However, there is no electricity, no running water, no WiFi, and rarely any phone signal. Plus, there is the huge problem of mice infestation.
The weather was threatening to rain all day. Occasionally it would rain for a few minutes, but the trees mostly shielded us. Eventually though, it would continue to rain, so Chris would stop to put on her rain jacket. Every time she did, the rain would stop, then she would get hot, take it off, but then sure enough it would start to rain again. Oh, Mother Nature, you are such a practical joker.
I didn’t bother with my rain jacket. Those of you who have caved with me know that I run hot. And I sweat when I exert myself. A lot of sweat. Like ridiculous amounts of sweat. Like the rain didn’t make a difference to me because my shirt was already soaking wet. I have no idea why I have stayed in Texas for so long with its humid 110°F summers.
We decided to take a break and eat lunch at Hawk Mountain Shelter. That’s when we saw snowshoes.
Here is where we met Gabe. Like me, he doesn’t have a trail name yet. (Trail names are nicknames you either give yourself or that others give you because some humorous folly. Chris is thinking “Sir Sways-a-Lot” for me because my pack sways back and forth when I walk.) Also like me, Gabe planned for a winter hike and purchased things like snowshoes. Unlike me, he brought all his winter gear with him to Georgia.
The things Gabe brought were astonishing. Wood-burning stove (practically worthless in these wet conditions) instead of a much more common isobutane stove. A huge bag of chewable food tablets—I didn’t even know there were such a thing. Apparently they are just sugar and protein, have no nutritional value, and taste disgusting. Dehydrated meals for eight people. Metal water containers instead of lightweight water bottles. A camera and also a GoPro. A huge medical/toiletry bag filled with things like a hundred Q-tips.
All of this was sprawled across the entrance to the entrance to the shelter. Chris and I stepped over it all to get out of the rain and take a seat in the shelter. CJ was also there. He’s a volunteer for the AT who we met at Stover Mountain Shelter earlier that morning. He had apparently already been discussing gear with Gabe and suggesting that Gabe stop at Mountain Crossings on the trail at Neel Gap. This is the first outfitter on the trail, and lots of people stop there for a pack shakedown, to resupply or get new gear, and to mail excess back home. Gabe had lots of mailing to do.
Gabe said his pack weighed 50–60 pounds (23–27 kg). I was dubious about that. Gabe is carrying WAY more stuff than me, and my pack weighed 47 pounds (21 kg) as we left the car. Mine is definitely not ultralight, but ultralight for me. I’m used to carrying 50 pounds of camera gear through crawly caves, hoisting it over rocks and shoving it through tight squeezes. 47 pounds in a comfortable pack is easy for me.
Plus, I am carrying about two weeks of food because I bought a lot of freeze-dried meals months ago thinking that I would try them and find ones I liked. Unfortunately, I never got around to actually preparing any. Also, based on the few that I have had so far, I think I hate all freeze-dried meals. They’re like eating mush with rubbery bits, even ones with all the flavors that I like. The only one I can tolerate so far is mac & cheese.
Once my overzealous food supply is gone, my winter pack will likely be under 40 pounds (18 kg). Summer pack will probably be less than 35 pounds (16 kg). Still heavy for some ultralight backpackers, but surely still lighter than Gabe’s even after he trims back.
Chris and I continued to Gooch Mountain Shelter. We got there well before dark, setup our tent far away from the actual shelter next to a bear box without a mouse hole this time.
Gooch was a maze of flagging. Huge portions were closed for revegetation lined with ropes to create narrow intersecting paths. Even though our tent, the privy, and the shelter were all within sight of each other, we got lost more than once navigating the maze of roped paths. Totally frustrating to see your destination and be blocked by some dinky rope. But we were good environmental stewards and backtracked to the correct roped path instead of cutting across the revegetation areas.
At the shelter, we met Michael (no trail name yet), and Point 7. Point 7 got her trail name because she answered distances with a .7 at the end. (E.g., “How many miles do you think we’ve walked so far?” “5.7 miles.”) Gabe eventually arrived at camp shortly after dark and started setting up his hammock.
Chris and I turned in early because we needed to wake up early to hike the several miles to Woody Gap for her 10 AM pickup. It rained off and on throughout the night, everything was damp from the humidity, but thankfully we managed the night with no mice. In the morning we packed up early, got lost twice in the maze of roped paths, then ate breakfast at the shelter and hurried on our way.
I'm Losing My Toe Nails and Other Injures...
Despite leaving a tad late, we made good time and arrived at Woody Gap seven minutes early. Chris’ ride arrived one minute later. Perfect timing! We have a brief discussion with her driver, in which I learned that Mount Katahdin might be closed when I get there. Uh oh. I might need to make some adjustments to my plans.
Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus for the AT. It closes from October to usually around May. For the record, I actually had learned about Katahdin’s winter closures long ago. Hence, my original plan was to start with my Triple Crown with the PCT. However, I later learned that supposedly only two people have ever completed a winter thru-hike of the PCT. Thus, I decided to start with the AT, having completely forgotten about Katahdin possibly being closed when I arrived. And if that’s the case, I’ll figure out something. Maybe a stealth summit? Maybe go as far as I’m allowed, then make a return trip during the summer just to finish the last few miles? Hmmm…sounds cheaper and quicker to do a stealth summit run and possibly pay some fine than to book roundtrip airfare back plus arrange transportation to and from some distant major airport.
So now my grand notion of doing a Calendar Year Triple Crown as a true thru-hike without flipflopping (i.e., when you skip a section and do it later) is possibly shattered. Meanwhile, Chris departed, leaving me alone on the trail. The weather was 100% chance of rain. What a perfect time to focus on my misery.
What I haven’t mentioned thus far are all the injuries that I’ve sustained in my mere three days on the trail.
First of all, my right knee. I had problems with my knee before. I’m frankly concerned that it might end my whole CYTC attempt. It was painful the first day, but I’ve had it in a brace and it hasn’t hurt the subsequent days.
Secondly, having rained so much all three days so far, plus the amount that I sweat in these humid conditions, my shoulders have developed a rash under my backpack’s shoulder straps. They’re all red with little blisters. This makes it extremely uncomfortable to put weight on my shoulders, so I’ve been putting all the weight on my hip belt. But then my hips get extremely sore and irritated, so I have to shift the weight back to my pained shoulders. Repeat ad naseum.
But worst of all are my big toes. I am currently hiking in a pair of La Sportiva hiking boots. These did great in Alaska on snowy hikes and even snowshoeing. However, on the downhill slopes of the AT, my big toe has been jamming against the front of my boot. It’s so bad that it appears to have actually damaged the inner bed where the nail grows. It’s swollen and red, and the nail seems slightly raised, like it’s loosing cohesion with my toe. Supposedly, when your toe nail falls off, it doesn’t hurt. But I can tell you that it damn sure hurts right now. Constant throbbing pain. Every step is painful. And now my right has started doing the same thing, although to a slightly lesser degree.
My plan is to persevere and try to find a different pair of shoes. Fortunately, at Neel Gap is the outfitter Mountain Crossing. They’re small, but they’re directly on the trail and hopefully will have an alternative for me. If not, I might be hiking in my Xero sandals for a while.
Check my future posts for what happens with my toe nails.
UPDATE: After several comments, let me say for the record that just days before this trip, my toenails were short and very neatly trimmed. The reason this toenail looks so gnarly here is because it’s being pushed forward and out of its nailbed. Think about your couch. Probably looks nice and clean until you lift a cushion.
Thunderbolts and Lightning... Very Very Frightening
But back to my story of poor little miserable me alone on the trail in the rain. Actually, it wasn’t raining yet, but forecast said 100% chance of rain. 100%!!! For sure gonna rain. And 100% tomorrow, too. Gonna be a miserable two days.
Despite not raining yet, I was drenched with sweat. I stayed at Woody Gap too long and started shivering. But I was basking in cell service and planning my stops. I came to the glorious discovery of Blood Mountain Cabins & Country Store. They promised cheaper thru-hiker rates, hot showers, WiFi, free laundry, and even pizza!
And so my goal was set. A hot shower and pizza. Despite having only hiked three days, I might even take a “zero day” (hike zero miles that day) to stay in town, dry out, and avoid the storm.
Unfortunately, without Chris hot on my heels, my pace slowed significantly. I planned to stop at Wood Hole Shelter to eat a full meal right before the climb up Blood Mountain. Consequently, I didn’t stop for lunch and only snacked on the trail, which in turn caused me to run out of energy. By the time I got to the Wood Hole side trail, I was exhausted.
I started hiking toward Wood Hole Shelter. And I hiked. And I hiked. Eventually, I started questioning where this shelter was, cursing whoever placed it so far off the trail. Still I hiked. And hiked. I finally came across a miserable trickle of water that was the apparent water source for the shelter. I hiked more and rounded a corner. No shelter as far as I could see.
At this point I was yelling profanities. I pulled out my phone and checked my Farout app. That water source I just passed was only halfway to the shelter. More profanities. I decided to bail on the covered shelter and its privy that I so desperately wanted to use. Screw this long, out-of-the-way hike. I’ll just cook my meal at the campsite that was right off the trail. And right then, a burst of rain started. Never mind. Shelter it is.
The rain stopped as quickly as it started, but it motivated me to double-time to the shelter. I got there right before the deluge started. 100% chance of rain was absolutely correct.
Unfortunately, although Wood Hole Shelter provided protection from the rain, the shelter itself was drenched. The picnic table under the covered patio was sopping wet with pools of water covering its uneven surface. The sleeping platform, while not sopping wet, was definitely dank.
I found the driest spot that I could and started heating water for my last freeze-dried mac & cheese. Oh, and phone service! Yes! Something to do while I wait out the storm.
I ate, checked social media, and eventually the rain died down enough for me make a trip to the privy. I briefly contemplated staying in the shelter overnight to wait out the rain, but the lure of a hot shower and pizza spurred me on.
As I started the climb up Blood Mountain, the rain became a downpour. The trail itself became a river. I tried to avoid the deep patches but sometimes the water filled the entire trail. Light was fading as the storm blocked what little light the impending sunset offered. By the time I got to Blood Mountain Shelter at the summit, it was pitch black. I was thoroughly soaked.
I took refuge in the shelter and pulled out my headlamp. The shelter was wet and drippy. Again, I briefly contemplated waiting out the storm, but again the thought of a hot shower and pizza spurred me onward. Also, the storm now had occasional lightning and thunder, and I didn’t think it was smart to stay on a mountain top during a lightning storm.
Hot shower and pizza were only a mile and a half away. I should be there in less than an hour.
Unfortunately, the trail down Blood Mountain is extremely hard to find at night in a rainstorm. The Appalachian Trail is normally marked “white blazes”, which are white rectangles usually painted high on a tree side where it can be seen from far off. But the summit only had dense bushes, so the white blazes were painted on rocks. Many were rubbed off and barely visible, and even the newer ones were often only visible from a certain position. And there were long stretches where there were no blazes, and I had to hope that I was still on the path.
And remember the rivers as I climb up on the other side? Those were just a trickle compared to the torrents now. I tried to avoid the really deep pools, but eventually my boots became so saturated that I could feel water sloshing around in them.
Finally the descent began to level out. I could see some lights in the distance and occasionally hear cars. Yes! So close to a hot shower and pizza!
But I hiked and hiked, and as my hour timeline approached, still no sign of Neel Gap. I pulled out my phone and checked. It took me an entire hour just to gain a half mile. I still had another mile to go. Then I began to worry. It was already 7:15 PM. This stop is just a tiny place on a mountain pass. How late do they stay open? Hopefully until at least 8. If that’s the case, I should be able to get there and order a pizza before they close for the night.
I booked it, forsaking my toes and inflamed shoulders and delicate knee. Hot shower, pizza, and warm bed await this waterlogged, weary traveler.
Hot Shower and Pizza...Denied!
I finally got to the intersection of the AT and the highway. Only a half mile down the road to a hot shower and pizza. I press on.
What I am about to tell you is one of the most demoralizing events to ever happen to me. They were closed. No afterhours number to call for a room. Not just that, but it was Tuesday. They had a sign posted that their winter hours were closed all day Tuesday and all day Wednesday. So even if I found some wet, miserable place to sleep overnight, they still wouldn’t be open the next day.
I was heartbroken.
I sat on a chair on their covered porch while the leaky roof dripped water on me. The nearest campsites were either the shelter back at the top of Blood Mountain or another 7 miles down the trail. The latter means either an extra 14 miles roundtrip to MAYBE find some new shoes, or suffer with the ones I currently have for countless more miles. Bye bye, toe nails!
The nearest towns were a dozen miles or more away. Would maybe one of the AT shuttle services driveway out here on short notice at night to take me into town? I consulted my A.T. guide for options.
Low and behold, the guide had options for nearby hostels and B&Bs that catered to thru-hikers and offered free shuttle to and from the trail. I tried one number. No answer. I tried another and got an answer. Unfortunately, my phone speaker apparently had water in it and I could barely hear them, but I negotiated a room and a shuttle in 15 minutes.
Paul and Bonnie, I love you! I had my hot shower, a hot meal, and a dry bed. They are so kind and generous, doting on their guests. I am so thankful they opened their home to me that night. Thank you, thank you, thank you! (P.S., Apple ][ assembly language rules!)
Back on the Trail...
And so with an early zero day, a full belly, and clean clothes, I am now back on my journey. Hopefully the outfitter on the trail will have some alternative shoes that will allow me to keep my toenails and not hike in pain. If not, maybe I’ll hike in my sandals for a bit. There are always options. I’ll make do with what comes my way in life.