Chapter One: The Rookie Year ~ Our First Hike On the AT ~ According to Smitty

JUNE 1 – 7 2014 SPRINGER MOUNTAIN TO NEEL GAP (0.0 Mile to 31.7 Mile)

Prologue Sunday, June 1st, 2014, our adventure begins. We take our early morning trip to Slidell to meet up with Chris Thompson and his son, Blake. We are the rookies and they are the seasoned veterans, since they have two weeks on the trail under their belts and over 100 trail miles. Once at his house in Slidell, we load our swollen ALICE (All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment) packs into his Nissan Xterra and we begin our trip to Lawrenceville, Georgia, where Chris’ parents – Pop and MeMaw (AKA Robert and Margaret) eagerly await our arrival. But Pop and MeMaw will have to wait a little longer. Chris and I have a lunch date with our Brother-In-Arms, John “Gravy Train” Graves. Our fellow Marine has just finished a round of chemotherapy and radiation treatment to reduce a cancerous (Stage 3) tumor in his esophagus. He is waiting for a surgery date to be set to remove the tumor along with part of his esophagus. We have a terrific lunch in a local sports bar in Auburn, Alabama and the same old, worn out war stories are told with much laughter – as always. After our two hour lunch, there are hugs all around with heart-felt goodbyes. We then hit the road again, heading to Pop and MeMaw’s.

Chris, John, and Smitty

Chris, John, and Smitty

We arrive at the Thompson’s residence while dinner is still being prepared, greeted with hugs and kisses. We gather inside around the kitchen table as MeMaw starts laying out dish after delectable dish of southern food that would make Paula Dean proud: chocolate chip cookies; spinach and artichoke dip with assorted crackers and chips; shrimp hors d’oeuvres, to start with. Then MeMaw starts hauling out the heavy hitters: baked macaroni and cheese; green beans with bacon and brown sugar, and dinner rolls. Lastly, Pop brings the main course in off the grill – prime rib roast cooked to perfection. The food is blessed, and we all dig in to a meal sure to fuel at least the first ten miles of the rugged AT. When we think another morsel can’t be eaten, MeMaw offers the coup de grace – two scoops of vanilla ice cream with a warm, moist brownie. How can I say no? With my primitive hunter/gatherer instincts kicking in, I devour the dessert. With dishes put away and the kitchen cleaned, we retire to the living room and continue story telling. When eyelids start to get heavy, Julie and I head to bed, anxious to start our journey the next day.

Alarms go off at 0515 and we are up with a start – adrenaline already flowing, excited to begin the day, our first day on the AT. Reminiscent of my “bad luck” days in Desert Storm (which Chris is all too familiar with and are part of the old, worn out war stories), things start to go wrong immediately. I’m the first one up and ready with my pack all set to go. As I get ready to load my pack in the Xterra, I realize something is wrong – there shouldn’t be a foaming puddle under my pack. And why does my pack smell like the beach?? I quick realization and mental note was made: Do not bring aerosol sunscreen next year. Apparently, when I cinched my pack one final time, something pressed down on the can releasing the entire contents into my pack, covering most everything in it. With a heavy sigh and a few choice expletives, I commence to unpack one item at a time and rinse what I could and tossed what I could not. Finally, I dry up the puddles of sunscreen in my pack and began to repack. I lost nothing of importance, but had to live with the smell of sunscreen until other smells took over; that took about 48 hours. I only set the group back by about 30 minutes with my little mishap wondering what the second and third land mines will be – because they always come in 3’s! Once we are all loaded up, we head out around 0630 leaving Pop and MeMaw asleep in the house.

Day 1: Springer Mountain to Hawk Mountain (8.1 trail miles – 9.1 hiked miles) Before going straight to the trail, we decide to begin our trip by visiting the Amicalola National Park and viewing the Amicalola Falls – also seen by those who choose to hike the 8.8 mile approach trail to Springer Mountain, but not for us though. We hop in the Xterra and take a short drive from the visitor’s center to a parking area and then a short walk down to the falls.

Julie and Smitty at the entrance to the AT approach trail

Julie and Smitty at AT Marker

Julie and Smitty at AT Marker Julie, Smitty, Thompson, Blake at Amicalola Falls

We leave the falls and Chris plots our course to the parking area on GA USFS 42 that is approximately one mile north of the starting point at Springer Mountain. We arrive a little after 1000 on Monday, June 2nd. We pull our packs out and I quickly realize land mine number 2 has detonated: Where is all this water coming from?, I ask. There is now a puddle of water under my pack and the entire bottom of the pack is wet. I remove the pack from the Xterra, and dig inside to find I had not tightly secured the lid on my water bladder. At least it washed a little of the sunscreen off – very little. I dry the water out best I can (cursing slightly under my breath and saying this is not the best start to five days in the wilderness), then I hoist the 50 pound damp pack, smelling of sunscreen, unto my back, thinking two land mines down, one to go. Yippee! Julie hefts her 30 pound pack onto her back and we are ready to go. As the old saying goes, “Every journey starts with a first step.” Here we are, ready to take that first step. We say our good byes to Chris and Blake saying we will see them Friday and we cross GA USFS 42, find the trail, and head into the woods.

Julie and Smitty... still happy

Julie and Smitty… still happy

Julie and Smitty, heading up Springer Mountain

Julie and Smitty, heading up Springer Mountain

Back tracking, we walk one mile south to the beginning of the trail at Springer Mountain, because we never considered the 8.8 mile approach trail from Amicalola National Park. Following Chris’s suggestion, we toss our packs inconspicuously on the side of the trail after about a quarter mile and head unburdened to Springer Mountain. Once there, we have our first spectacular view of the mountain range that is awaiting our footsteps. I wouldn’t consider it land mine number 3, but as luck would have it, our cell phones were back in our packs and the digital camera we brought began to malfunction. We were able to snap a couple of pictures of the Springer Mountain markers indicating the southern terminus of the AT (although the date stamp is way off).

Smitty at the start

Smitty at the start

Julie at the start.

Julie at the start.

We were really there, I swear.

We were really there, I swear.

After about 20 minutes of taking in the sights and fighting with a dysfunctional digital camera, we truly began our trek north on the AT. We travel the three quarters mile and gather up our packs. We hoist them on our backs and continue back to the parking area at GA USFS 42. After hiking two miles, and travelling one mile north on the AT, we pause around noon to eat a lite lunch and to contemplate our endeavor (mainly reviewing the maps, ignorant to the reality of what all those little ups and downs on the elevation map really mean). About seven miles and four hours later, we arrive at Hawk Mountain Shelter, the location of our first night in the woods. We choose not to stay at or around the shelter, but instead we pitch our tent next to the trail near the side trail leading 0.1 mile to the shelter. This did require a walk down past the shelter to a small stream to filter and refill our water supply, but without packs, the walk was relatively easy.

Day 1 Campsite... Hawk Mountain

Day 1 Campsite… Hawk Mountain

MRE dinner, Day 1

MRE dinner, Day 1

Day 2: Hawk Mountain to Gooch Gap (9.2 trail miles) Sore much? Why yes, thanks for asking! We gingerly crawl out of our tent shortly after daybreak to the sound of chirping birds and to a brisk 60 degree F chill in the air. Both of us rubbing our aching muscles in our legs, necks and shoulders, we begin what will become somewhat a morning routine come Friday. While I make my coffee and eat a little breakfast, Julie starts packing up the inside of the tent by rolling up the bed rolls, camp pillows and sleeping bags. Once I have my teeth brushed, we both break down the tent and put it away in my water proof bag. Julie eats a bite and then we head down to the stream to refill our water supply. By the time we pack up, it’s about 0830 and we are off again. While hiking on Day 1 consisted mainly of downhill Springer Mountain, Day 2 proved to be much more rigorous. With a steep climb up Sassafras Mountain (our introduction to real uphill hiking), followed by yet another climb over Justus Mountain, our resolve was tested. By the time we reached our goal destination of Gooch Gap, we had hiked 9.2 miles and were both ready to call it quits – for me, for the day; for Julie, for good. It was time to reevaluate our weekly goal of approximately 53 miles all the way to Unicoi Gap. We pull out our map and the table which lists all the locations with water sources and camp sites and came up with a new plan. The revised plan keeps Julie on the trail moving forward, but with shorter distances to cover each day, and leads us to our new final destination of Neel Gap. Once Julie is convinced she can handle the new walk load – including a measly 3.8 mile hike the next day – we pitch our tent, eat dinner and call it a night.

Campsite Day 2

Campsite Day 2

We're happy again!

We’re happy again!

Day 3: Gooch Gap to Woody Gap (3.8 trail miles) Day 3: to be forever known as, “The Day of Rest”. After a very challenging Day 2, Julie awakes invigorated knowing she only has to traverse 3.8 miles with no serious inclines. The routine commences, ends, and then the hiking begins. By lunchtime, we are exiting the woods, crossing GA Highway 60 and into what appears to be civilization: a parking area with a building containing chemical toilets (complete with toilet paper) and concrete picnic tables where we drop our packs. With a little exploring, I locate a small creek off a side trail about a tenth of a mile away. I rejoin Julie at the table and we enjoy lunch sitting down, but not on the ground. After lunch, we climb a little way up the trail and find a terrific flat spot to pitch our tent. The camp site has an existing fire ring and fire wood left by a Trail Angel. We put up our tent, I get the fire going and we lounge around on our bed rolls by the fire the rest of the day…or should I say, The Day of Rest!

Campsite at Woody Gap

Campsite at Woody Gap

Smitty starting a fire at Woody Gap

Smitty starting a fire at Woody Gap

Julie relaxing by the fire at Woody Gap

Julie relaxing by the fire at Woody Gap

Day 4: Woody Gap to Blood Mountain Shelter (8.2 trail miles) With somewhat refreshed bodies and minds, we are anxious to set off for what is planned to be a 5.6 mile hike to Jarrard Gap. At daybreak, the sky is overcast and there is an ominous wind blowing. Julie does a quick check of the weather forecast on her phone and our worst fears are realized – there is an 80% chance of rain starting at 0900 and increasing to 100% as the day progresses. It’s still early, before 0700, so we make the decision to get as far into the hike as we can before the rain hits, and if it gets bad, we will try to find a place to pitch our tent and ride it out. So our routine is quick and we are on the trail by 0800. Julie has a renewed vigor and knowing we are trying to outrun rain, we make good time. After 3.2 miles and still no rain in sight (and no way of knowing since there is no longer any cell phone coverage), we come to Lance Creek where a group of Boy Scouts are hanging out. They are headed south and are short on water and the troop leader with the filter has already moved on. I use my filter to help them resupply and as I am bidding them farewell, one of the troop leaders recommends we continue beyond Jarrard Gap and head to Slaughter Creek Campsite. He said there was a good water supply with beautiful waterfalls. Julie and I exchanged unspoken looks and pretty much agreed without saying a word that we would indeed head on past Jarrard Gap, assuming the weather cooperated.

We reach our initial destination of Jarrard Gap by 1230. We perch on a log next to a fire ring and eat our lunch. This is when we have our first encounter with Donna. An elderly, female hiker, she approaches our lunch spot asking how far to Blood Mountain Shelter. After consulting my map, I let her know that it is about 2.5 miles to the top of the mountain. She sat for a couple of minutes to empty some small rocks from her shoes and informs us that she is hiking without a tent and must make it to the shelter. She shared a couple of Snickers fun size candy bars with us and scampered back to the trail and disappeared into the woods towards Blood Mountain.

By now, the overcast sky was replaced with a bright sun directly above the canopy of trees. There was still a brisk wind, but not the kind that precedes rain. So believing we have been spared the wet weather and feeling somewhat refreshed after lunch, Julie and I confirm our earlier decision to continue on to Slaughter Creek Campsite leaving the climb up and then down Blood Mountain for Day 5. So we don our packs and start the extra 1.8 mile hike to Slaughter Creek. Little did we know, the extra 1.8 miles is just to a blue-blazed site trail which led an unknown distance to the campsite and the creek. By 1500, we reach the side trail. A turn to the left takes us down the blue-blazed side trail towards Slaughter Creek and a turn to the right takes us up about 3 feet of rock and the beginning of the ascent to the top of Blood Mountain.

As we decided, we take the side trail towards Slaughter Creek. It’s a steep descent down towards the creek. After about a tenth of a mile, I begin to question our decision. The further we go down, the more uphill we will have to climb tomorrow morning before we even begin the uphill ascent of the mountain. After much deliberation (this is nice speak for arguing in the woods), we finally decide to reverse course back to the main trail and to make the 1.5 mile trek up Blood Mountain to the shelter. By this time, Julie is not a happy camper; she has already hiked almost 7 miles at a fairly brisk pace and is not mentally prepared for a mountain climb at the end of the day. But once she is became resolved to the fact that we are heading to the tallest peak in Georgia (at 4,450 feet), there is no stopping her. Now herself a seasoned veteran on these steep inclines, she marches on taking her occasional breaks. But now, those breaks are not as often as before and they are shorter in duration. Eventually we pass a privy and about 50 yards further, we enter into a clearing where the historic Blood Mountain Shelter stands.

Blood Mountain Shelter

Blood Mountain Shelter

And who do we see sitting on the front steps of the shelter all by her lonesome? Our elderly, female hiker that shared some fun size Snickers with us earlier that day at Jarrard Gap – Donna. She is sitting on the steps reading the journal that lives there. Hikers that stay in the shelter write down their words of wisdom the trail has imparted to them. Donna is overjoyed to see us; so grateful that we decided to continue to the top of the mountain. She was not looking forward to spending the night alone in the shelter. After saying our hellos and recounting our attempted trip to Slaughter Creek, Julie and I climb the out crop of rock that towers over the shelter. From this outlook, the view of the Appalachians is simply awe inspiring, breathtaking, magnificent. We are taking in the view of the mountain range from the tallest peak in Georgia.

Smitty on the top of Blood Mountain

Smitty on the top of Blood Mountain

Julie at the top of Blood Mountain

Julie at the top of Blood Mountain

We snap our pictures and sit and enjoy the view for a while, then head back down to the shelter and prepare our MRE dinner. As we sit and eat, we enjoy swapping stories with Donna. We learn that she is 75 years old and a retired nurse. After dinner, I help Donna hang her pack from a limb in a nearby tree to keep it out of reach of the bears – she still did have a stash of fun size Snickers that would be nectar to a bear.

As the day slowly wanes, something strange happens, although we didn’t realize how strange until after later retrospection. From the north appears a sketchy character: a grungy, twenty-something that looks like he just hopped off a skateboard; and did a poor job of it since he was sporting a pink cast with a black sling. He has long, stringy hair and a boy-beard just as long, a black tee-shirt, black denim shorts well down past his knees, and black, leather chucks with not a speck of dirt (and if you’ve hiked 10 feet on the AT, you know this is impossible), and let’s not forget the black sling on his right arm. He does not have a single piece of hiking equipment (except a half empty bottle of water). He could not have looked more out of place.

Strange follows strange. About 50 yards trailing, a second twenty-something appears around the shelter from the north. This one is more “normal” looking in a red tee-shirt and brown shorts, clean cut, but sans hiking gear – not even a half empty water bottle. My initial assumption is that the two are together. But I quickly began to wonder when “Black” asks me to snap some pictures of him on the lookout as “Red” strolls by without a word and then scampers up the rocks to the lookout. “Black” and I head to the top so I can take his pictures up there and “Red” scurries down by us, again without a word. After his photo shoot, we head back down to the shelter and I notice that “Red” is gone having never spoken a word to any of us. None of us asked “Black” if he knew “Red”, so to this day we do not know if the two were together. “Black” remains, however, and is quite the chatty Kathy. I am focused on handling e-mails since I now have a good signal on top of the mountain, so the conversation is between him, Julie and Donna and I just catch bits and pieces. Julie later recounted that he is an out-of-work drummer due to his broken arm; that he lives in his van; and that he used to hike up the mountain often when he was younger and that he wanted to relive the good old days. She said he asked strange questions about Donna’s retirement savings adding to the weirdness of the visit. Just before dark he leaves, but before he does, he snaps a couple of pictures of Donna’s pack hanging from the tree limb. Even with no pack and two good arms, it is a good 30 to 45 hike down the mountain to Neel Gap (the closest place to get to a vehicle). “Black” is making this hike with an arm in a sling (and we found out ourselves the next morning that the north side of the mountain is much more treacherous than the south slope), so we know he was going to finish his walk in the dark. That is when we began to think that maybe “Black” (and even “Red”) aren’t going all the way down, but maybe hanging around near the top to engage in later shenanigans after dark. The three of us start comparing notes and that is when we all realize just how strange the two young men are; especially with their visit coming so late in the day. Coincidence or were they casing us? To be safe, I recommend to Donna that we lower her pack and bring it inside the shelter. Better for her to deal with mice than to wake up and find her parachord had been cut and her pack stolen. As soon as we get her pack down and we settle inside the shelter for the night, a thunderstorm lets loose. We get our rain after all, just later than forecasted. Thunder and lightning, with heavy winds and rain blanket the top of the mountain. “Black” has been gone less than 30 minutes, surely soaking wet if his true course was to the bottom of the mountain… poor guy.

We pitch out tent inside the shelter to keep the mice from crawling over us and it also adds the extra benefit of staying dry since the storm blew in the open windows and door at times.  Sleep was thin. The storm lasts until midnight and shortly after the rain stops, we hear voices. But the voices belong to a man and a woman. The voices are coming from the north and soon they are right outside the shelter preceded by a flashlight beam dancing around the front of the shelter. I’m fairly certain these are not our “Black” and “Red” friends from earlier, but still it is very peculiar that hikers are out at midnight on top of the mountain.  As quickly as they arrive, they depart. We are not sure if they even knew we were in the shelter.

No other humans paid us a visit that night, but the mice in the shelter made their presence known. Their scampering and squeaking was non-stop during the early hours of the morning. We wake to find that they had raided Donna’s pack and polished off her remaining Snickers bars, a Cliff Bar, and a good bit of her oatmeal which she kept in a ZipLoc. Nothing in our ALICE packs has been touched by the rodents. It was a strange evening, and a somewhat spooky, sleepless night, but as it turned out, no danger ever presented itself.

Campsite in Blood Mountain Shelter

Campsite in Blood Mountain Shelter

Day 5: Blood Mountain Shelter to Neel Gap (2.4 trail miles) Donna was an early riser and while she was getting her gear together, Julie and I climb out of our tent to a foggy, damp morning. We want to make sure we see Donna off. The litter left behind by the mice is immediately obvious. Donna takes stock of her food and there is no serious damage to her supply, or her pack. She was smart enough to leave the pockets of the pack unzipped so the mice would not chew through the material to get to the food. Donna prepares a quick breakfast consisting of oatmeal and hot chocolate, says her goodbyes, then hits the trail. Julie and I are in no hurry with knowledge that we only have two and half miles to our final destination, and practically all day to do it. We are expecting Chris and Blake to pick us up around 1800. With the mountain top to ourselves, we climb the rocks to the top of the outlook with breakfast in hand. Before our journey, we were asked many questions in many different ways, but all the questions could be summed up in one word: Why? Well, when you can sit above the clouds, looking over the Appalachian Mountains while eating your Friday morning breakfast and drinking a cup of coffee, the answer should be obvious. And if the answer is not obvious; well, that couch is probably pretty damn comfortable.

After breakfast, we say farewell to the view, pack our gear, now much lighter since most of our food is gone, and start our walk down the other side of Blood Mountain. The north side of the mountain is much more difficult to navigate. Even though our pace is slow, we are grateful that we are headed downhill. An hour and half later, we exit the woods at US 129 into Neel Gap – the end of our week long hike.

Blood Mountain Sign at Neel Gap

Blood Mountain Sign at Neel Gap

Neel Gap Marker

Neel Gap Marker

Neel  Gap is not just a wide space in the road, but home to an outfitters store called Mountain Crossings, complete with toilets, electricity, Snickers bars, and cold drinks! And within our first five minutes there, we experienced each of these. We basically spend the day at the store relaxing at their picnic tables and watching the hikers pass through and chatting with the others who were also done for the day or week, waiting for their own rides to pick them up. Julie made the most of her time there by purchasing a new pack for next year – she had long since decided that the ALICE pack was not for her. About seven hours after arriving at Neel Gap, Chris and Blake arrive, looking just as weary as us. We load up and head back to Lawrenceville where Pop and MeMaw are preparing us a steak dinner to welcome us home.

Epilogue We arrive at Pop and MeMaw’s house around 1930 and they greet us outside with hugs, kisses, back slaps and rounds of congratulations. We are led inside to yet another treasure trove of food: more spinach and artichoke dip with assorted chips and crackers, mashed potatoes, MeMaw’s famous seven layer salad, garlic bread, and watermelon mixed with blueberries. And Pop has the steaks on the grill outside. Julie and Blake are first to the showers while Chris and I recount some of our week’s adventures. Julie and Blake emerge, so Chris and I then head to our respective bathrooms to wash off a week of trail grime. Once we are finished, we all settle around the kitchen table, Pop says grace, and we all dig in to some sizzling beef. After everyone has had their fill, MeMaw once again pushes the boundaries of our stomach capacity and offers up strawberry shortcake for dessert. It was delicious! Fat and happy, we retire to the living room and continue telling our respective trail stories. It doesn’t take long and eyelids start to get heavy. Once we all agree to sleep late in the morning (eightish), Julie and I head off to bed.

For those of you who have spent any length of time outdoors and have slept on the ground for many nights, you know and understand the simple, almost exotic pleasure of sleeping in a bed, on a pillow, under a comforter. I remember nothing after my head hit the pillow and my eyes did not open again until 0730, Saturday morning. Once up, I could not go back to sleep, so I shower and sit at the kitchen table with my trail maps, jotting some notes from our hike and even went so far as to plan out our hike next year. MeMaw joins me after a few minutes followed by Pop. Pop makes a trip to the store to try to find peach juice for Chris (apparently his favorite), but the store has none, so Chris has to settle for OJ like the rest of us common folk. You would think after the huge dinner we had late the previous night, breakfast would be small. MeMaw doesn’t do small when it comes to meal time! We enjoy a plethora of biscuits with jelly; a plate overflowing with sausage; a bowl full of scrambled eggs; then fruit, coffee and orange juice. We sit all morning listening to Pop and MeMaw tell stories of their family and of their ancestry, going all the way back to the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. We could have sat and listened all day, but we needed to get on the road back to Slidell, and then to Houma.

A little after noon, we load up the Xterra and say our goodbyes to Pop and MeMaw. As is the Thompson tradition, we wave out the windows all the way down the street as Pop waves back to us from the front of his house. And to complete the tradition, as we turn onto the main highway and out of view, Chris blows the car horn. While still in Lawrenceville, we decide to top of the gas tank. Let me pause here to remind the readers of my previous mention of my bad luck days in Desert Storm and how they seem to continue today from time to time. You the reader may be thinking, “He never had his third land mine detonate on him. He only had to deal with two.” Well, that kind of thinking could not be more wrong. As a matter of fact, it appeared that land mines 3, 4 and 5 were going to be tripped in quick succession. It seems that I have contaminated Chris with my bad luck.

So continuing, we stop at a gas station to fill up. We are both out at the pump chatting as Chris attempts to fill the tank. I hear splashing sounds and notice a flood of gasoline around our feet and draining away. (I can hear the explosion of the third land mine in my mind – delayed a few days, but it came after all.) I quickly jump back out of the gas and look under the SUV to see gas still trickling to the ground, but not from the tank itself. We pull away from the pump (somewhat hastily, since we have a couple of Georgia’s brightest lighting up a cigarette at the neighboring pump), and park to get a further look underneath. By this time, nothing is seen leaking from underneath the SUV and we know there is gas in the tank, so it must be some sort of problem with the filler hose. Chris puts a call in to Pop to see what auto shops are in the area and it turns out we have two options: the Nissan dealership and PepBoys. We pass the dealership first so we pull into the service department where we are promptly greeted by a lovely lady who immediately informs us that it would be at least two hours before they could even look at the vehicle. Without even considering that wait time, Chris said thank you very much and left for PepBoys. Same as the Nissan dealership, a gentleman by the name of Lenny quickly meets us as we pull into the parking lot, and after explaining what happened at the gas station, he suggest that it might be something as simple as the gas making its way up to and out of the air vents. There is a gas station next door, so we decide to do the test. With Chris at the pump and me on my hands and knees peering underneath, he squeezes the pump handle. He may as well have been pumping the gas directly to the pavement. At least we confirmed the gas was not going through the air vents. We piled back into the Xterra and cruised into the PepBoys parking lot once again.

Chris has a saying about me – “Smitty can make it rain.” – referring initially to the unusual rain we experienced in Desert Storm. When I had a series of unfortunate events happen to me over there after the rainy season ended, which I just refer to as “Smitty’s bad luck”, Chris would refer to it as Smitty making it rain. Now, one could say that the loud noise we all heard was the proverbial thunderclap preceding a “Smitty” rainstorm (I, of course, would say the bang was nothing more than land mine number 4 going off), but everyone else in the Xterra would agree the loud noise was the little white Nissan Sentra backing into Chris as he was backing into a parking spot at PepBoys. “Are you kidding me?!” resounds through the inside of the Xterra. Chris gets out of the SUV to survey the damage, greeting the female driver of the Sentra. The corner of her bumper is caved in pretty good, as well as the corner of the Xterra. Chris says he can push his bumper back out and that he sees no reason to contact the police. She is most grateful and gets in her car and drives away – while on the cell phone – just saying. By the time she left, the Xterra’s bumper all but healed itself. The caved in part of the bumper has popped back into place and there is hardly any sign the bumper has been hit. Looks like land mine number 4 turned out to be a dud.

We track down Lenny inside and inform him of the results of our test. He agrees that it must be something with the filler hose. He takes all of Chris’ information and says he will put it up on the rack as quick as he can since we have to travel back to Louisiana. We head to the waiting area and begin to do just that – wait. We are not there long when Pop shows up. Being the gracious host and loving father that he is, he offers his services to us. As we are filling Pop in on our recent escapades, Lenny comes over looking grim. I take a quick peek outside to see if rain clouds are forming; to see if more “Smitty” rain is heading our way. Lenny states that they haven’t had a chance to look at the gas hose problem, but once the vehicle was up on the rack they noticed a screw in the sidewall of the right front tire. Was that land mine number 5 I heard going off? Lenny went on to say that if the screw penetrated the sidewall, the tire could not be repaired and would have to be replaced, they would not know until they removed the screw. Nice! This land mine has a timer. Lenny said that it would be at least an hour before they could complete the work, so Pop volunteers to take us to REI to kill some time. Chris makes sure Lenny has his cell phone number and off we go. While at REI, we find current AT maps, so we buy sets for both of us that cover Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. We also look at potential gear for next year’s hike making mental notes. We are not there long when Chris gets a call from Lenny letting him know that the repairs have been made. When we get back to PepBoys, Lenny meets us with good news; sort of. First, the screw did not puncture the sidewall so the tire did not need to be replaced. Turns out that land mine number 5 is also a dud. But what we really want to know is the outcome of the gas hose. Lenny informs Chris that the filler hose leading to his gas tank has been sliced with a knife. Either there was an attempt to siphon gas or it was just plain vandalism. Apparently, while Chris was parked near the trail in North Carolina, the vandalism occurred and was not realized until we stopped for gas. PepBoys was able to repair the filler hose and the total bill came to a little over $100.

So, once again we say our goodbyes to Pop, thanking him profusely. We load up in the Xterra and head west, hoping we are leaving all land mines behind us. The remainder of our trip is uneventful. It looks like I had my set of 3 quota and 2 close calls – enough for one week – and enough to allow Chris to continue to claim that Smitty can make it rain. We had Arby’s for a late lunch (early dinner) and after a couple of gas / bathroom stops, we pull into the Thompson driveway in Slidell around 2100. Everyone being so tired, we just chatted briefly, used the bathroom, and headed further south to Houma. A little after 2300 on Saturday night, June 7, 2014, we pull into the Smith driveway and our first adventure on the Appalachian Trail ends.

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