Chapter 2 Hostel Takeover May 31- June 5 2015 Neel Gap to Deep Gap

*This section is Dedicated to the Memory of my friend and Marine Corps Brother, John “Gravy Train” Graves. Semper Fidelis!

Prologue

A year of anticipation; anxiously awaiting the time when the four of us (Chris and Blake, Julie and me) can set out once again to take on the challenge that the Appalachian Trail offers.  But just one week before our scheduled departure, I get a call from Chris informing me that Blake has been offered an intern job in the Florida Keys.  As a recent graduate from LSU, this was an opportunity that he could not pass up.  The decision was made for Chris and Blake to miss a year.  This would give us an opportunity to catch up with them as they started their section hike of the AT several years before we did.

We prepare and pack for our solo trip to Lawrenceville, Georgia.  We are no longer carrying those swollen, bulky ALICE packs.  We now have new modern Osprey packs that are lighter and slimmer and much more comfortable.   We have also shed a lot of pack weight by switching food types.  We are no longer packing MRE’s but have switched to Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry dehydrated packages.  We have also included instant oatmeal for breakfast and a variety of cheese and peanut butter crackers and granola and Clif bars.  Saturday, May 31, 2015, we begin our journey to Lawrenceville, Georgia, where Chris’ parents – Pop and MeMaw (AKA Robert and Margaret) eagerly await our arrival.

It is an uneventful eight and half hour drive to the Thompson’s house with just a few stops along the way.  We pull into their driveway around 1730 and once again we are greeted with hardy hugs and handshakes.  Dinner is underway inside and, as usual, is nothing less than spectacular.  As last year, Pop brings Prime Rib Roast in off the grill and MeMaw serves up baked asparagus with seasoned new potatoes, dinner rolls and a side salad that consist of peas, white corn, green beans, onions, red bell pepper tossed in a vinegar/sugar mixture.  And for dessert, MeMaw’s nearly famous Caramel Cake with pecans.  After all the dishes are put away, we retire to the living room to catch up.  We mainly just talk about Chris since he isn’t there to defend himself.  Our talk is short since Julie and I have to get up at 0315 in order to meet our shuttle at Deep Gap by 0700.

Last year, Julie and I had the benefit of being dropped off at our starting point and Chris and Blake had to coordinate the logistics of parking their vehicle and getting shuttle service.  Chris had parked his vehicle at their starting point and after hiking their portion of the trail, arranged for a trail shuttle to bring him back to his vehicle.  This year, Julie and I decided to park our vehicle at Deep Gap, North Carolina (our planned end point) and have a shuttle bring us to our starting point (Neel Gap, Georgia) on Day 1 and we then hike back to our vehicle.  Really adds an element of Commitment!

We had made arrangements with a shuttle driver, Ron, earlier in the week and we decided to meet at Deep Gap at 0700 in an attempt to be at our starting point by 0900.  It is about two and half hours from the Thompson’s house to Deep Gap and we wanted to have time for our Waffle House ritual, so thus the 0315 reveille with a goal to leave the house by 0345.

Alarms go off at 0315 and the adrenaline is already flowing.  We gather our things, fill up our water containers and we are out the door by 0350.   We have a little over three hours to make the trip to Neel Gap with a quick stop at Waffle House on the way.  Although it rains most of the drive there, we still make it to Deep Gap just before 0700.  Ron, texts to let me know he is picking up another hiker and that he will be a little late.  No worries. Julie and I have time to contemplate our upcoming adventure and to take a deep breath and survey the woods around us – the woods we will call home for the next six days.  Unlike last year when everything that could go wrong did as we tried to leave the house and hit the trail, everything went smooth this time around.  Maybe everything will go smooth this whole trip, I think.  And for the most part, it did – with one huge exception!

Day 1: Neel Gap to Low Gap Shelter (11.5 trail miles)

Ron arrives at Deep Gap at 0715 and we load our packs and walking sticks into his Toyota Rav 4.  The road into and out of Deep Gap is a six mile, one lane, winding dirt road that takes about 20 minutes to traverse until you hit blacktop.  Ron’s other passenger is a female hiker named Marsha.  She is dropped off at Hogpen Gap which is a few trail miles north of Neel Gap and on the way to our starting point.  We arrive at Neel Gap right at 0900 and after snapping a few pics of the beginning of this year’s adventure and securing our packs on our backs, we begin the first steps through the breezeway at Neel Gap to begin our six day journey.

Our first day is anticipated to be our hardest since we plan to hike 11.5 miles to Low Gap Shelter – the longest daily distance out of all six days.  And the route has multiple elevation changes (ups and downs) until we descend down into Low Gap.  We are hiking without incident putting the miles behind us averaging about a mile every 40 minutes, but as the day progresses and the adrenaline fades, Julie has a stumble. Her foot catches on a protruding root and she takes a tumble forward falling on her right side, the weight of her pack on top of her.  Luckily she doesn’t sustain any serious injury.  She is shaken up and has some scratches on her right leg, but is otherwise OK.  But this has set a very bad tone for the rest of the hike!

The weather forecast calls for 60% chance of scattered thunderstorms every day of the week.  And this Sunday, our first day of the hike, proves to be no exception.  Early afternoon, the rolling thunder can be heard through the mountains and shortly thereafter the rain begins to fall.  This routine is repeated everyday – some days worse than others – with the exception of Day 6, our last day of hiking.  However, although the showers are fairly significant, we find that the canopy of the trees we hike through protect us from most of the rain.  We simply don our pack covers and decide not to wear the ponchos we brought and we remain mostly dry until we reach the shelter.

After about eight and half hours on the trail, we reach Low Gap Shelter.  Two other hikers are already there, but are setting up there hammocks in nearby trees, so we have the shelter all to ourselves.  We learned last year that the mice in the shelters can be ridiculous, so just as we did last year, we pitch our two-man tent in the shelter to prevent the mice from climbing over us as we sleep.

After a hot meal and a field bath with a few wet wipes, we retire for the night. As we lay there in the tent looking out into the woods, we start to spot flickering lights floating just outside the shelter along the edge of the woods: fire flies!  A sight we both were used to seeing as kids but the opportunities to see at this point in our lives are few.  As the sun is setting and dusk and then nighttime falls upon us, we lay there watching the fire flies float among the trees.

The night is chilly due to the rain and dampness in the air.  Typical temperatures get down into the low 60’s oF, but the temps drop down into the upper 50’s.  We already decided after one night that we need to upgrade our sleeping bags (since they are rated for 60 oF).  Sleep eluded both of us, but otherwise, it was a quiet night.

There is a stream that runs about 30 yards in front of the shelter.  This provides a quick, convenient source to filter and resupply of our water before we begin Day 2.

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Day 2: Low Gap Shelter to Blue Mountain Shelter (7.3 trail miles)

Our morning routine is completely different than last year, mainly because of the food prep.  Instead of tearing open an MRE pouch and digging in, we took the time to use our new camp stove to boil water for our dehydrated food and coffee.  But same as last year, we fell into our designated roles: Julie would break down the tent and roll up the sleeping bags and I would boil the water and prep the food and filter and refill our water supply.  By 0900 we are done eating, packed up and on the trail.

This is by far our easiest day and is so by design.  After hiking 11.5 miles the day before, we knew we would need a shorter day so as not to get burned out early in our adventure.  The elevation changes are not nearly as severe as the day before and we finish the 7.3 miles easily by 1500.  And we only had a brief, small shower that sprung up that afternoon that hardly necessitated the use of our pack covers.  However, later that evening and on into the night proved to be a different story.

As we approach the turn off to the shelter, we spot a small stream tricking down into the woods.  We identify this as our water source to resupply for tomorrow’s hike.  When we arrive at the shelter, there are already four hikers bunking down for the evening.  We have come to know these four guys by their trail names (well, at least three of them): Axe and Pyro are thru-hikers who started on the approach trail to the AT the week before and Kermit and an unknown hiker are section hiking like us.  Since the shelter is nearly full, we decide to pitch our tent at a campsite about 30 yards from the shelter.

Once our tent is up, we do a quick check of the weather forecast since we are not under the cover of the shelter.  And sure enough, there is nearly a 100% chance of rain to begin around 1900 and lasting through the night.   We prepare and eat our dinner and then get all our gear to the tent in preparation for a wet night.

And wet it was!  The rain started around 1930 and pelted our tent for hours.  At some point I fell asleep listening to the crack of thunder all around us and then hearing it echo and roll across the mountain tops.

As nerve racking as it is sleeping in a tiny tent on top of a mountain in a lightning storm with torrential rain, it is nothing compared to waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of some large, lumbering beast tramping through the underbrush in the woods behind our tent.  Apparently the noise had awoken Julie some time before it stirred me awake, because when I asked in a somewhat frantic voice, “Did you hear that?!”, she responds, “Yeah!  I have been trying to wake you for a while!”   And awake I was now, with my heart pounding and my adrenaline flowing listening to the only sound that could be heard in the quiet of the night after a rainfall:  the cracking and snapping of small limbs and branches as something slowly moves through the woods – the sounds seem amplified now that there is no other competing noise.  All we can do is try to track the noise to see if it is getting closer or further away.  It is hard to tell.  We are totally encapsulated inside our tent with our rain flaps all down and zipped up.  It is easy to let your imagination run wild and imagine the noise getting closer to the tent, but I focus on the sounds and confirm the sound is staying behind us in the wooded ravine behind our tent.

And the moment when I contemplate opening the tent and having Julie bolt for the shelter with a flashlight and me in tow, we hear a sudden snap and crash of a small sapling.  A sound so much louder and ominous than any other that proceeded. This isn’t a twig being snapped.  We hear the loud crack of a small tree and its crash to the forest floor and then the continued slow movement of whatever creature made that small tree fall.  We opt to stay quiet in the tent and we continue to listen to the creature’s movement.  After sometime, the noises it is making become harder and harder to hear and I begin to feel some comfort that it has moved on away from our campsite.

Sleep is now a distant cousin that will not visit for quite some time.  We both lay there for hours just listening.  I do fall asleep at some point, because the crack of thunder jolts me awake and I realize it is pouring down rain again.  I look at my watch and see it is past 0330 – over 3 hours since we heard the visitor in the woods.

The remainder of the night is littered with broken sleep. And as with every morning in the woods, I resurface from restless slumber to the sound of birds chirping – the rain has ended and a blanket of fog covers the campsite.  Everything is muddy around our campsite, but our bodies and our gear remain dry – a huge win.

We quickly break down camp and using washcloths and wet wipes, we clean as best we can the mud and grime that covers the bottom and sides of our tent.  We are not sure if more rain is on the way so we carry all of our gear to the shelter to continue packing. The other four hikers are just starting to rouse from their sleep.  As we pack, I ask about the noise in the woods last night and not a single one of them heard a thing.  I recount my tale but not a one heard what we heard.  Surprisingly, they were so annoyed with the mice all night that between the mice and the rain and thunder, they apparently heard nothing else.  In retrospect, a night with mice would have been much more preferable.

Day 3: Blue Mountain Shelter to Tray Mountain Shelter (8.1 trail miles)

Although Day 1 was the longest, we expect today to be the most challenging of our six day hike.  It begins with a mile and a half sharp descent from the top of Blue Mountain down into Unicoi Gap and then an immediate mile and half climb to the top of Rocky Mountain (elevation of 4,000 feet) and then back down into Indian Grave Gap.  But then it’s not over!  What follows is a two and a half mile climb to the top of Tray Mountain (elevation of 4,400 feet).

Neither one of us got a very good night sleep the night before, so we begin Day 3 tired and not in the best of spirits.  After resupplying our water, we load up our packs and begin the hike around 0830.

One would think a descent down from the top of a mountain would be a respite from the drudgery of going uphill, but one would be thinking incorrectly.  Going downhill, especially the steep descents, offers their own challenges and in most cases are just as slow going. And this proved to be the case as we descended down into Unicoi Gap – a descent that took us over 1,000 feet down and lasted about one and half hours.

At this point,  mood swings and attitudes are all over the map after reaching the bottom of Blue Mountain and crossing Georgia Highway 75 that comprises Unicoi Gap.  For once you cross the highway and pass the rock marker pictured above, you immediately enter the woods and begin a steep ascent up Rocky Mountain.  And pack covers are out in full force. Yep, that’s right!  More rain!

It was while sitting against the rock marker that Julie was presented with the option of calling our shuttle guy, Ron, for immediate extraction (since road crossings are few and far between).  But she grits her teeth, gives me a few choice words, throws her pack on her back and says, “I got this!”, and we commence one of the toughest climbs of that week.

She perseveres and by early afternoon, we are headed down the other side of Rocky Mountain with one last hard climb ahead of us before our day is done – our march up Tray Mountain (elevation of approximately 4,400 feet).

The ascent up Tray Mountain is not quite as bad as the climb up Rocky Mountain (although Julie may debate this point).  The two and a half mile climb up Tray offers a couple of plateaus that provide some relief before reaching the pinnacle.  And once there, oh what a view!  The pictures below are good, but do not come close to capturing the beauty of the mountains that stretch out to the north and south of us as we are basically headed east on the AT at this point.

After reaching the top and enjoying the view for a few minutes (and catching our breath), we begin a little over half mile descent down the other side to Tray Mountain Shelter where our third day of hiking comes to an end. When we get to the shelter (around 1600), we are the only hikers there.  This is great since it affords us the opportunity to claim some real estate in the shelter to pitch our tent (mice protection).

Shortly after arriving, two more hikers approach, but decide to take one of the campsites on the approach to the shelter.  The two stayed to chat for a while and we learned they were from Germany here for a few months to thru-hike the AT.  It should come as no surprise that their trail names are Hanz and Franz!  As we chat, a third hiker approaches and he does decide to bunk down in the shelter.  We learn his trail name is Flash and we later understand why – he covers trail miles in a flash.

I head down to the stream which is about 250 yards behind the shelter to filter and resupply our water. We pitch our tent and prepare our dinner and then we sit back and take in the quiet beauty around us.  We had a hard hike with many challenges but we are rewarded with a tranquil evening with no rain and a shelter to help with the cold.  And Flash was a pleasure to talk with.  He is a young man who is between jobs and decided to thru-hike before he begins another job. I told him that it was a wise decision not to pass on the opportunity, because once life took hold, another opportunity may never arise – and then you may find yourself staring down 50 and having to section hike a week at a time.

Day 4: Tray Mountain Shelter to Dick’s Creek Gap (TOG Hostel) (11.0 trail miles)

After our best night sleep so far (but still too cold for our liking), we break down camp and prepare our breakfast – instant oatmeal right out of the package.  Just boil a little water and pour into the oatmeal package and enjoy!  This served as our breakfast all week with a granola bar or Clif bar as a snack later in the morning.

It is our intent as we begin Day 4 to hike a little over eight and a half miles to a campsite at McClure Gap, leaving us two more days in which we will have to cover a little over nine miles each day.  What we intended and what actually happened was not one and the same.  I can honestly say that the day started off good and it ended even better, but the in-between was dicey.  Here is the story:

We set off from Tray Mountain Shelter around 0815 (about 30 minutes after Flash) with some pep in our step.  We are immediately heading downhill and the terrain in front of us for the next two or three miles is not intimidating.  We do realize that after about five miles into our hike, we have one of the steepest climbs of the week to the top of Kelly Knob. We are tackling each small uphill as they come – treating each one as a challenge and we treat Kelly Knob no different – it just takes a little longer for us to get over the top.

About 1330 and after descending Kelly Knob, we reach a side trail that leads to Deep Gap Shelter and a water source.  We have a little less than a mile and a half to McClure Gap and the thunder begins rolling in the distance, just as it has done every other afternoon before.  It’s decision time. We can either 1) hike the three tenths of a mile down the side trail to the shelter to ride out the rain knowing we are still a mile and half from our planned stopping point (which will become closer to two miles since we will have to hike the three tenths back up the side trail to the AT), and this decision creates more miles for us to cover our last two days; or 2) race the rain and continue on to McClure Gap and hope to pitch our tent before the rain falls. To steal a line from Indiana Jones and Search for the Holy Grail, we chose poorly.  We decide to pass on the cover at Deep Gap Shelter and continue on.  Why? Well, it is too early in the day to stop hiking and I loathed the idea of adding miles to our already long mileage assigned for our last two days.  Plus I remember saying, “It might not even rain”. I could not have been more wrong! At one point, Julie made me stop stating things like that out loud, because it seemed like my proclamations just jinxed us.

So, just like the afternoon of every day before, the thunder resounded louder and louder and shortly afterwards the rain starts falling – this is around 1400 – we are just a couple tenths of a mile past the Deep Gap Shelter side trail.  But just as before, the canopy of the trees protects us from most of the rain shower – at first.  We realize we are getting close to McClure Gap and the rain starts falling harder.  We both express our concern of opening our packs and pitching a tent in the pouring rain.  How about this for my next proclamation, “The rain will end by the time we get there!”?  That was nature’s cue to rain harder.  And she was right on cue.  The good news is we never saw the campsite location at McClure Gap to even consider stopping and pitching our tent in the rain. (Gives you an idea of what passed for good news that day.)

The previous afternoon showers lasted only an hour or so and they were not they heavy.  But not today!  It has been raining for over two hours now, and the tree canopy is no longer providing much protection.  Conversely, the rainwater has now collected in the leaves of the canopy and large droplets of water are falling down on us.  My map shows no obvious campsites or water sources after McClure Gap.  We have no choice but to keep moving forward and hope the rain relents so we can eventually pitch a tent without getting our gear and the inside of our tent soaked.

The rain doesn’t relent.  We have now been in rain for about four hours.  We do pass a couple of small campsites on the side of the trail, but it is just raining too hard to try to make camp.  We eventually decide to keep moving forward to Dick’s Creek Gap at US Highway 76, about two and a half miles further than what we set out to do.  Similar to Unicoi Gap, Dick’s Creek Gap opens up after exiting the woods onto a highway and immediately across the highway the trail picks up and ascends out of the gap.  My map says that there are picnic tables there and I am keeping my fingers crossed that there will be makeshift campsites where we can pitch our tent.  We just need the rain to cooperate.

And you probably have guessed by now that the rain does not cooperate.  It is almost 1830 when we reach Dick’s Creek Gap and we have been in the rain for almost four and a half hours.  When we exit the trees to cross the highway, we no longer have any protection afforded by the tree canopy.  We are in the open and it is pouring.  We dash across the street to an AT visitors sign that has a small roof.  We can at least get out of the rain until we decide what to do.  We drop our packs and I run around looking for a place to set up camp.  I do spot one area near one of the picnic tables (although not ideal), but it is still pouring rain and would be impossible to set up camp with hopes of keeping vital clothes and gear dry.  I rejoin Julie under the roof of the visitors sign and we decide to make a few calls to see if there are any rooms at the nearby hotel and hostel that I have information on, assuming they will come and pick us up.  It is a long shot, but our options are limited.  Only other option is to stand under the tiny roof of visitors sign and wait for the rain to end so we can pitch our tent.

The hotel we contact has rooms but no one to shuttle us there – so sorry they say.  Next, Julie dials the number to the hostel listed in my notes.  It is three and half miles away according to the information I have.  No one answers.  Our last idea is to text Ron, the guy who shuttled us to Neel Gap.  He immediately informs us that there is a brand new hostel a half mile down the road and he provides the phone number – a spark of hope.  I keep my expectations tempered because with most hostels you have to make arrangements earlier because they fill up and they usually stop providing shuttle service after 1800.  Julie calls and they say they do have room and yes, they can come pick us up.  By the time we hang up and get to our packs, the van pulls into the parking area.  It is about 1845.

We throw our packs and walking sticks into the back of the van while the driver’s shaggy dog watches us.  I never did get the driver’s name but he did tell us he thru-hiked the AT with his shaggy companion.   We are only on the road for a couple of minutes when we turn into the drive of the Top of Georgia (TOG) Hostel.  We pull our gear out of the van and trudge to the front door, instructed to drop our packs and take off our shoes – no arguments from us!

We enter into the main building where meals are served and there is a place to relax and watch TV.  All Julie and I can do is plop ourselves down on two benches and look around dazed like two wet rats.  The other guests who have been there for hours start to mill around:  Axe and Pyro appear, followed by Hanz and Franz, then around the corner enters Flash. If you recall, Flash was our companion at Tray Mountain Shelter the previous night.  Flash left the shelter that morning about tthirty minutes before us and said he got to TOG about 1330.  That’s how he got the trail name Flash!

TOG’s matron, Buttercup, walks over and welcomes us to the hostel.  She has a litany of rules and instructions for us and slides us each a sheet of paper we have to fill out with some our names and such while she continues to go on and on and about what is allowed and what is not allowed.  We miss most of what she is saying because it just doesn’t apply to us since we got there so late (but also because we are both just amazed that a few short minutes ago we were in the pouring rain and now we are under a roof about to shower and sleep in a bed).  Buttercup admits that most of what she is telling us doesn’t apply, but she has a routine and she is sticking to it.  What we do hear is shower and bunk bed!  Purchases at the hostel are a la carte:  Night in the bunk bed is one price; shower has a price, dinner (which we missed) has a price; breakfast; laundry service – you get the idea.  Julie and I chose two bunks for one night with two breakfasts.  Since we missed dinner, she offers us a frozen pizza (Tombstone) which we gladly accept.  We decline laundry service since we both have a change of clothes for the last two days of our hike.   And they provide shuttle back to Dick Creek’s Gap at 0800 and 0900.  The grand total for both us is $91.16!  I would have paid much, much more.

After settling our bill, Buttercup escorts us next door to the bunkhouse, which is divided into three bunk rooms, a kitchen and one full bathroom.  Julie and I are shown our bunks and we stow our gear away.  Everyone else in the hostel has been there for hours and they are clean and fresh, and Julie and I smell something awful.  There is only the one bath, so Julie is first to shower while I preheat the oven in the kitchen to prepare our pepperoni pizza.  Everyone now is in the bunkhouse gathered in and around the kitchen area and we have a great time swapping trail stories.  Julie comes in while the pizza is in the oven so I make a mad dash to the hot shower awaiting me.  Clean and fresh ourselves now, we sit in the kitchen and devour our pizza. After we are done, Hanz graciously offers me a Cosmic Chocolate Brownie!  I graciously accept.  We continue to swap stories about each other’s trail experiences knowing that after tonight, we will never see these guys again.  But for that one evening, we all shared a common bond and talked as if we had been friends for years.

It’s getting late (2100 is late by trail standards), so we head to our respective bunks.  We each have a bottom bunk in one room that has three bunk beds.  We are sharing the room with Axe who is in the bunk opposite Julie (#6 in the picture above).  The bunks are just wooden frame beds with a plastic covered mattress.  No linens or pillows, so we pull out our bed roll, sleeping bag and camp pillow.  We both settle down for the night, so glad that we have one night we don’t have to be worried about inclement weather, bears or mice.  And the hostel also provided two other items we very much need:  1) Electricity! We are able to fully charge both of our cell phones and external chargers.  No more worrying about dead cell phones if there is an emergency; and 2) Fresh water.  We top off all of our water bottles. No filtering required!

One of the many rules Buttercup made sure we heard was that breakfast is promptly served at 0700 in the main building.  If you show up at 0705, you will not eat (but I think this was more bluster than anything).  But not taking any chances, we set our alarms for 0620 and immediately start putting our packs back together so we can be ready for the 0800 shuttle after breakfast.  Only three of us have opted for breakfast – Julie, me and Axe.  We walk in the main building promptly at 0700 and there are three place settings and as soon as we sit down, we are each served a large portion of scrambled eggs with three link sausages and toast and all the juice, milk and coffee we want – a great way to start our second to last day on the trail.

After breakfast, we gather our packs and make sure everything is ready to go. It is a beautiful morning and our stomachs are full.  We spend a few minutes relaxing out front of the TOG Hostel and visiting with Buttercup before we load our gear in the van and head back to Dick’s Creek Gap.

After a round of hugs goodbye, Julie, me and Flash climb into the van for our ride back to Dick’s Creek Gap.  Axe and Pyro are staying another night and Hanz and Franz decided to take the 0900 shuttle.  So a little after 0800, we scramble out of the van and don our packs and prepare for our next day of hiking. We say our good byes to Flash wishing him good luck knowing we will never see him again.

Day 5: Dick’s Creek Gap to Bly Gap (9.0 trail miles)

The unforeseen benefit of walking that extra two and half miles in the rain on Day 4 was not only the fact that we were able to stay in the hostel, but now the distance we have to cover in our last two days of hiking is less, giving us options.  We look over our map as we stand in Dick’s Creek Gap and we decide to cover nine miles so we will have a shorter day tomorrow (6.8 miles). In so doing, we should have plenty of time to make the drive back to Lawrenceville in time for dinner.   Covering the nine miles also gets us to Bly Gap – the first campsite after passing the North Carolina / Georgia border.

I break the nine miles down for Julie into five uphill “challenges”.  This seemed to work well for her on previous days.  After each challenge is complete, there is typically a downhill or somewhat flat distance to cover that provides some recovery.  So we begin our hike with the first of five challenges – the climb out of Dick’s Creek Gap.

The day is going by smoothly.  Julie is tackling each challenge like a pro.  Just as the previous four days, we begin to hear the distant rolling of thunder in the early afternoon, and sure enough, a shower begins to fall.  But the rain is light and short lived.  We hardly get a drop on us.  We begin counting down that last mile to Bly Gap knowing that right before the gap there is a placard of the Georgia / North Carolina border.  The mile seems to stretch on forever, and suddenly up ahead we spot a sign attached to a tree.  It’s a simple wooden sign screwed to a tree indicating the North Carolina / Georgia state line.  We have officially hiked out of Georgia and into North Carolina!photo8

We now know that Bly Gap is a short walk away.  We go about two tenths of a mile and we can hear a flowing stream and then we see the campsite areas – we have made it to Bly Gap.  We are so grateful that the water source is only about 30 yards from campsite. We set up camp and I am able to start a fire for the first time all week.  It has not rained much here and there happens to be a dead branch lying nearby.  I gather up some twigs and dry leaves for kindling and I break the small limb up into short pieces. Before long we have a small camp fire going using some fire starter sticks we brought to get the kindling lit.  After carefully placing the small broken limbs on the fire, we soon have a nice size camp fire that helps remove the evening chill.

After we get settled in at our campsite, Julie and I notice something somewhat strange: a boy about the age of ten or eleven comes walking down into the gap by himself.  He has a nearly shaved head and an air of confidence that is kind of spooky for such a young boy alone in the woods.  He strolls up to our camp and Julie says hello.  He politely responds and Julie asks him if he is all alone.  He immediately responds by letting us know that his parents sent him ahead to scout out a good campsite.  What a relief!  I was beginning to think “Deliverance” (you know the kid with the banjo?) or maybe even “Lord of the Flies”!   A few minutes later the mom and dad come strolling down into the gap (dad shirtless with his pack attached to his back – weird).  They settle on another campsite about thirty yards from ours but it is in a lower and wetter area.  Another couple hiking with them soon joins them and after about thirty minutes of fighting flying insects in their boggy area, they elect to break camp and relocate to higher ground heading out of the gap.  This leaves Julie and me alone with peace and quiet – except for the occasional stroll by one of the four adults who either want to do their laundry, brush their teeth, or take a field bath in the stream in the exact location I filter my water!

After dinner, we retire to our tent and, after checking the weather forecast, we are confident that no rain will fall during the night, so we leave our packs outside and the tent open to the night air.  We have a peaceful night (although still a little too chilly – those new sleeping bags will be a must for next year!).

Day 6: Bly Gap to Deep Gap (6.8 trail miles)

It’s Day 6, our last day, and only 6.8 miles to reach our vehicle.  But this is going to be a tough 6.8 miles.  We study the elevation map and see that we have two very steep hills to climb immediately upon leaving Bly Gap. The two hills are short in distance but are a couple of the steepest inclines we have faced so far. In all, there are five hills to climb before we begin our descent into Deep Gap where our Tahoe sits.  So Julie has her last five “challenges” to conquer.

We get up a little earlier and break camp.  We are anxious to get on the trail and see our vehicle.  I am estimating that we will be at Deep Gap no later than 1500.  That gives us seven hours to cover 6.8 miles.  This would be our slowest pace yet, but we have not faced anything as steep as what we are about to climb.  So I am giving Julie plenty of time to take breaks and not feel rushed.

After eating our oatmeal breakfast, we hoist our packs on our backs and hit the trail a little after 0800 and immediately start going uphill.  The trail at this point has been turned into a series of stairs – one flight of stairs after another resulting in a climb over 600 feet over a distance of about six tenths of a mile to get to the top of our first hill.  The second hill is just as steep, but a little bit longer in distance.  Julie’s stamina is truly being tested and so is mine, but we make it over the top and averaging just less than one mile per hour in the process.  We are counting down – two challenges down and three to go.

The next three challenges aren’t nearly as tough as the first two and we have easy down hills and areas where the trail is nearly flat in between climbs, so we are able to make good time.  After passing the fifth and last hill, it is only 1315 and all we have left is a 1.1 mile downhill into Deep Gap.  We figure we will coast downhill into the gap and to our vehicle by 1400, an hour ahead of schedule.  But the AT had different plans for us.

The last mile is some of the most treacherous downhill we had to navigate to date.  Of the 80 plus miles we have covered so far, we have seen many varieties of downhill trails.  We have seen the smooth dirt trail that gently drops in elevation (or at least these have been rumored to exist); we have seen the steep drop in elevation where the trail is made up stair steps using logs and rocks; we have seen down hills with no structured staircase, but littered with various size stones where foot placement is very important; we have seen down hills where tree roots are protruding up and across the trail making tripping a common occurrence; we have seen the wet, muddy descents where the trail becomes a bog. What we encounter that last mile is a combination of all of the above (with the exception of the rumored smooth dirt trail).

To the bitter end, I say.  We go from rocks to roots to bog and then back again, then in some different order, but always with irregular shaped rocks (sometimes wet, sometimes dry), gnarled roots and muddy, bog-like conditions.  We usually make up time on the down hills, even the ones we considered tough, but not this mile.  It took us over an hour to navigate down that mile.  But finally we emerge into an opening and there is our silver Tahoe right where we left it six days ago.  It is nearly 1430 and our hike is over!  We have plenty of time to make it back to the Thompson’s house in time for dinner.

The couple with the small boy that joined us at Bly Gap is there in Deep Gap waiting on us to reach our vehicle.  We had been leap-frogging them all day and they knew our hike ended there in Deep Gap.   They snapped the picture of our finish and we said our goodbyes and they continued their trek up and out of Deep Gap.

Julie pulls the truck keys out of her pack and hits the engine start button and the engine comes to life – a beautiful sound.  I have to admit I was a little nervous that the truck might not start or possibly be vandalized somehow.  But neither was the case.  The truck was covered in little pink flowers that would not brush off.  They were stuck on like papier-mâché.  This was of little concern to us – nothing a car wash couldn’t fix.  We threw our packs, walking sticks and muddy, stinky shoes in the back and I climbed in behind the wheel and headed out of Deep Gap – on four wheels.

Epilogue

We heard a lot about Helen, Georgia from other hikers while on the trail.  The town is somewhat modeled after German/Bavarian/Swiss architecture and the shops, restaurants and taverns present a “German” feel (I guess, unless you are actually from Germany – Hanz and Franz visited Helen and thought it was a joke).  So we decide to set our GPS to take us down the main street of Helen, GA.  Fortunately for us, it is somewhat on our way back to Lawrenceville.

The town is small and quaint and very “touristy”.  The closest thing I know to compare it to is Gatlinburg, TN.  If you have walked the streets of Gatlinburg, you know what I mean by “touristy”.  Outside of Helen, we locate a car wash and drive through, coming out flower free!  All detours complete, we set the GPS to the Thompson household and head towards a shower and dinner.

We arrive at Pop and MeMaw’s a little before 1800.  MeMaw welcomes us inside as she is busy cooking dinner.  Pop has been out of town on business for a few days and will not be home for another hour or so.  In addition, MeMaw tells us that Chris’ sister, Julie and his brother-in-law, Tim, and their two children, Maggie and Michael, are on their way.

Julie heads straight for the shower while I fill MeMaw in on some of the highlights of our hike.  MeMaw hears from Pop and he is running a little late and then she gets word from Tim and Julie that they are stuck in traffic and will not be there until much later.  This gives Julie and me plenty of time to get cleaned up and time to relax at the dinner table enjoying a couple of beers with some chips and salsa and fresh chocolate chip cookies as MeMaw puts the finishing touches on dinner.

Pop arrives but we hear that Tim and Julie will not be there until after 2130 (the Interstate stopped due to a burning vehicle).  So we go ahead and serve up dinner: stewed beef with gravy over rice (not mashed potatoes!), her famous green beans, and baked macaroni and cheese.  And dessert was outstanding:  Strawberry cake made with real strawberries!

After dinner is complete, we retire to the living room and Julie I and continue to regale Pop and MeMaw with our trail stories.  Before we know it, Tim, Julie and kids arrive and we all greet each other once again, since the last time we met was at Chris’ 40th birthday party.

We talk and laugh and reacquaint ourselves to the point where Julie and I can no longer hold our eyes open.  We say our good nights and head off to bed.

Everyone sleeps a little late that Saturday morning (except Tim – he went on a five mile run!).  We are in no real hurry to leave since all we have is about a nine hour drive home.  MeMaw puts together another spectacular breakfast consisting of biscuits, ham, grits, a variety of jams and jellies and watermelon with blueberries.  After breakfast is complete, we gather our things together and prepare for our long trip home.  Before we go, we snap some pictures of our “second family”.

We say our goodbyes and head out from the Thompson’s driveway a little before 1100.  For the most part, it has been a smooth week.  No “land mines” like last year.  But remember earlier when I wrote that everything pretty much went smooth this trip with one huge exception?  Well, the one and on only land mine waited to detonate on us on our drive home.

The first six hours of the trip was uneventful – a stop for gas here, a restroom stop there, even a long lunch at Cracker Barrel.  Each time the stop is complete, we climb back in the Tahoe and resume our trip home.  Until we didn’t!

We are in Laurel, MS, less than three hours from home.  One last gas stop before we reach the house.  I pull up to the pump and fill the tank as I have already done twice before on this return trip.  But this time is different.  I jump behind the wheel, put the key in the ignition, turn – nothing!  Try again – Nothing! And again – Still Nothing!  Julie and I just stare at one another in disbelief.  We have driven for hundreds of miles and have made multiple stops with no issues.  How can the battery just go dead?  I’m sure there are mechanics out there that can enlighten me on how this can happen in the blink of an eye, but I was befuddled.

We brought our jumper cables, so all I had to do was find someone to provide a jump.  In case I had no success, Julie got on the phone with Roadside Assistance.  We had this covered.  He pulled his little Kia over and we hooked up the cables.  I was sure this would work, but it didn’t.  A little juice to the battery, but it would not turn over.  We let it run a while to see if it would charge.  While waiting, Julie told me that Roadside Assistance informed her that they are sending someone to our location within the hour.

After letting the vehicles run for a few minutes with the cables connected, we tried the key again, but still not enough to turn over.  A friend of the guy helping us offered another set of cables to boost the power to our battery.  Never tried this before, but we hooked up both sets of jumper cables to his Kia and to my Tahoe – still would not crank.

Another gentleman driving a large pickup truck was pumping gas at the neighboring pump.  I ask if he minds if I try using his truck instead of the Kia.  He is tentative, but relents.  While hooking the cables to his truck and mine, a third friend of the original guy comes over in his pickup truck offering his help and we hook one set of cables to one battery and the other set to the other battery and then to mine.  If two truck batteries cannot provide enough juice to start my Tahoe, then I do not know what to do next.  The cables are connected, the engines are revved, and I turn the key.  It still will not start.  I had four guys around me offering their assistance and they started muttering “alternator”, “starter” and various other maladies that I didn’t want to think about.  I shake each of their hands and thank them for their assistance and tell them that Roadside Assistance is sending someone and that they should arrive in about 30 minutes (since it was 30 minutes ago that Julie had spoken with them).

We wait, not sure what the guy from Roadside Assistance can do if it cannot be jumped.  The 30 minutes pass and still no sign.  Julie calls Roadside Assistance back and tells them we have been sitting for over an hour and still no word from the help that is supposed to arrive.  Roadside Assistance tells Julie they will look into it and after a few minutes Julie gets a call from the guy who is coming.  Nice guy; does his shopping at the Wal-Mart.  He informs Julie that he is bagging his groceries at “the Wal-Mart” and will be there in a few minutes.  Infuriated, Julie calls back Roadside Assistance to inform them of the call she just received from the help they are sending.  They could not believe it, either.  While Julie is having a back and forth with Roadside Assistance, our Knight in Rusty Armor finally arrives in an old beat up Ford diesel pulling and even older wooden trailer (an hour and half after Julie made the call) and with family in tow!  We are in disbelief!  What we first believe to be his three daughters are in fact his girlfriend (age 21- looks no older than 14) and her two daughters (2 and 5) – Julie learns this from the two year old who she basically babysits later in the evening.

He cannot be older than 23 or 24.  I inform him of all the attempts made earlier to jump the battery.  He is driving a heavy duty diesel and he is confident it will work.  We connect the cables and Julie tries the key and gets the same response as before.  His idea is to let it charge for a while so I say what the heck.  Thinking that it will not jump, I ask him what the plan is in the event it can’t be started.  He points to the old, rickety trailer he is pulling behind his truck and says, “We load ‘er up on the trailer and take ‘er to our shop.”.  “Terrific.”, I mumble back and I head inside the gas station to pee and cry a little in private.

When I return from the bathroom, I see Julie laughing and doing a jig – Good News!  Sure enough, he was able to get the Tahoe started while I was in the bathroom.  He feels fairly confident that that the battery is dead and will not hold a charge and advises that we follow him to his shop where he will put in a new battery, for a nominal charge, of course.  Our options are limited.  I am not about to get back on the Interstate only to have the battery drain and leave us on the side of the road, so I agree to follow him to his shop.

It is about a ten minute drive back the way we came.  Once there, I think this ought to be quick.  I’ve changed batteries before – it doesn’t take that long.  Fast forward two hours and I am still helping him change the frickin battery while his “girlfriend” is watching us and Julie is in the waiting room babysitting Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Once he got the battery replaced, he checked it and everything seemed fine.  I started it, killed it, started it, and killed it again, then started it again, now feeling confident that we could get home.  Now it was time to pay.  He had quoted me a price of somewhere around $185 before starting the work.  While changing the battery, he realized he quoted me a price for the wrong battery and that the one he was installing would be more.  Of course it will.  So we go back to the main office to settle up on payment with my credit card in hand.  To my surprise, he tells me the cost is actually less – the total is a little over $175.  I go to hand him my credit card feeling pleased when he surprises me once again by saying, “I’m gonna have to text my boss your credit card information.  I’m not authorized to use that equipment.” I immediately hand him two, one-hundred dollar bills and he promptly asks, “Do you need exact change?”, to which I quickly respond, “No! Keep it!”.  I shake his hand, tell him thank you, and we quickly depart before the weirdness starts to feel normal.

The rest of the drive home was uneventful. Well, we did try for a late night stop at a McDonald’s but as our luck would have it, we choose one that is currently being visited by 500 people!  A local dance recital just let out and Micky D’s seems to be the place to go.  So after that useless stop, we cruised on home to Houma, LA without dinner (unless you count a left over cornbread muffin from Cracker Barrel and one of MeMaw’s chocolate chip cookies which she packed in a go-box for us along with some of her Caramel Cake).  We pull into the Smith driveway a little before midnight – only four hours later than planned.

It seems like we are not able to make a hiking trip without experiencing some sort of calamity.  Maybe next year will be different.  I’m sure it will! Oops!  Gotta watch those proclamations!

Until our next hiking adventure!

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