Monday, October 7, 2013

Day 116: Gooch Mountain Shelter to Springer Mountain

Miles today: 15.8
Miles total: 2185.9

Currently sitting in my cousin's apartment...

It's over. I'm still waiting for it to sink in. No more miles to do, no more planning for tomorrow. I'm relaxing, clean, wearing "real people clothes" at my cousin's apartment in the foothills of South Carolina. I don't know what I'm going to do today, or tomorrow, or anytime. It's a novel feeling, but I'm getting used to the idea. Let's talk about today.

Like a kid on Christmas morning, I couldn't sleep once I initially woke up. I lay in my sleeping bag until I deemed it appropriate to start moving. I grabbed my food bag from the bear cables, took my pack from the peg on which it was hanging, and got ready as the sun began to cast its light into the sparse Georgia forest. Anxious to get moving, I had to wear my headlamp for the first little bit of hiking. It was probably light enough to see, but there was no way I was going to risk rolling an ankle on a stupid rock at this stage. Just because the mountains were morphing into foothills didn't mean I couldn't do some climbing. All my work was just to go up a little, then down a little. Repeat, repeat, repeat. To be clear, I'm not complaining, just describing. I was actually pretty sweaty when I got to Hawk Mountain Shelter. I had been seeing streams of people heading towards me from that area all morning. One of the hikers told me that all the campsites were full last night. I was secretly glad that I didn't have to deal with all the section hiker riff-raff. The shelter itself was located a ways off the trail, and my case of Springer Fever wouldn't allow such a diversion when The Mountain was calling from less than ten miles away. I opted to sit on a log near the trail and to eat my standard snacktime favorites. Using the gift of cell phone service that I was afforded, I texted my parents to let them know I was on schedule. I also got a surprise text from Pink Leprechaun! He was checking in to see how I was doing, and it was just a coincidence that he texted to today. I started to think of all the hikers I've spent time with on the trail. Up until now, I could always vaguely tell them I'd see them down the trail. But today is different; now that I've been spit out the other end of this odyssey, there's essentially zero chance I'll just bump in to one of these people on the street as I could on the trail. I shook off my emotions; there was still hiking to do.

After snack, I decided that it was music time. Combined with the much smoother terrain relative to the earlier section, this made for some very quick hiking. I only ran into a couple more hikers after my break, so I was on cruise control. Despite my thunderous footfalls and the persistent clicking of my trekking poles, I managed to sneak up and startle a guy hiking my direction. Humans have been the only animals that don't hear me coming. Due to a slight miscalculation, I arrived at the parking area way before I thought I would. As it turns out, I was averaging close to four miles an hour, which is unheard of for me. What am I doing, talking about something so mundane as my hiking pace on a day like today? I guess my point is that I was a bit excited to reach my holy grail. I popped out of the trailhead into the parking lot and immediately spotted my dad. We embraced and talked like it was any other day. I realized that the end wasn't meant to be a huge emotional release. I have been processing my feelings for the past week, so today wasn't going to be a surprise. My mom pulled up soon after, and we headed three headed up the gentle one-mile trail to the summit of Springer. As we walked, I thought about how it compared to Katahdin, the other end of the trail. If I had been heading north, my final climb would have been a 4000-foot ascent over five miles that many hikers call the toughest single effort on the trail. Springer, on the other hand, snuck up on me. I was explaining to my parents how I could tell that we were near the top because I could see the sky through the trees. As I finished my sentence, I saw the plaque. The southern terminus of the trail is marked by a plaque on a rock. I might have missed it if I was hustling. I was pretty surprised to just...be at the end. It didn't feel real. I pulled out my phone, where I had written a list of poses for a photo shoot at the end of the trail. Ever the photographer, my mom snapped picture after picture. The results speak for themselves. I signed the logbook, which was located inside the rock, and then I was done. "I guess it's time to go?" I asked. And that was that.

I'll get around to making a few more posts about post-trail life, gear advice, and stuff like that. I'm so grateful to everyone who has read this blog along the way. Your comments haven't gone unread. You've picked me up at my lowest points. I can honestly say that I don't think I would have finished without the support of my friends and family. Bye for now!

-Rooster

Pictures: on the way up; at the summit; rooster pose; AT symbol; lining up my golf swing; Tusken Raider; writing in my last register; view from Springer; me and the plaque.











Saturday, October 5, 2013

Day 115: Wildcat Mountain to Gooch Mountain Shelter

Miles today: 22.4
Miles total: 2170.1

My last full day on the trail. I couldn't have asked for a better one. I slept in as late as I could, then took my sweet time getting ready so that I'd be hiking in the daylight. I hiked over some bumps and down to Neel Gap, home of Mountain Crossings. At this point, only thirty miles in, about 15 percent of northbounders ditch out on their thru-hike attempt. That number never ceases to baffle me. This spot is also noteworthy because the AT passes through an archway in the building. As I arrived, word got out that I was a southbounder. One of the employees gave me half of an avocado, my most unique trail magic. It surprisingly hit the spot. I looked through my food bag and found I barely needed any resupply food. I went inside the store just to look around and find snacks for the moment. What I did find was a Mountain House meal. These expensive just-add-water meals are a section-hiker staple, but at seven dollars or more a pop, thru-hikers tend to steer clear. Tonight is a night for celebration, so I grabbed a mac and cheese packet. The girl who gave me the avocado took my picture for Mountain Crossings' Facebook page (check it out!).

Back on the trail, I realized that this weekend day would be full of section and day hikers. This was a good thing though; I didn't have a ton of miles to cover. I had plenty of time to talk to anyone who had questions. That's lucky, because pretty much everyone who found out about my thru-hike had a lot to ask. I was rocking the celebrity status today. A group of women tentatively asked, "Are you just out for the day? Or..." When I told them, they shrieked in excitement and took pictures with me. "Make sure his legs are in it!" I answered questions and thanked them for the congratulations. Within a few hundred yards, I was chatting with some teenage section hikers. I eventually made it to the top of Blood Mountain, the high point in Georgia. The area between here and Springer is a popular hiking destination, and boy did I know it. I didn't really have anywhere to be, though. I had set a good pace and would be at the shelter with plenty of time to do my evening chores. On the backside of Blood Mountain, I saw a figure approach that I recognized: Brightside the girl! The closure of the Smokies had forced her to flip down to Springer and start north, hoping the park would be open by the time she approached from the south. We caught up on thru-hiker happenings since we saw each other in Pearisburg, VA. She also warned me of a wasp's nest near the trail ahead. I am upset that the government shutdown is actually affecting us thru-hikers, who are almost as off-the-grid as you can get, but it was great to see Brightside again. I hiked a bit down the trail and of course didn't see the hive, getting stung on my calf. No big deal though. It's just a nuisance.

Climbing down from Big Cedar Mountain, I caught up to a girl who was hiking at a good clip, but still a bit slower than me. I came up behind her, but she didn't yield. She just picked up the pace a little. I didn't know if it was an issue of pride for her or if she thought I was going to assault her, but I backed off so I couldn't be called a creeper. I pulled up to the shelter around 5:30, and it has a comfortable number of nice people hanging around. I like that I won't be alone on my last night, but it's also nice not to walk up to an overflowing shelter. I'm just under sixteen miles from the end. Looks like I'll beat that dingus tropical storm after all! That would mean my last 350 miles were rain-free! Until tomorrow, my friends.

-Rooster

Pictures: Mountain sunrise; Neel Gap; trail passing through a building.



Friday, October 4, 2013

Day 114: Hiawassee, GA to Wildcat Mountain

Miles today: 31.4
Miles total: 2147.7

Currently laying in my tent...

My brain was up and humming early this morning, preventing me from sleeping in at all. I took this as a sign that today should be productive. I heated up the variety of microwavable breakfast foods that I had picked up at the grocery store yesterday. Not bad, I concluded. Kinda wish I had figured out this whole microwave scene sooner! I walked to the edge of town and stuck out my thumb as I backpedaled a little bit. Soon enough, a guy in a pickup truck pulled over. This time, I got to sit in the cab. Surprisingly enough, he was a former college professor and molecular virologist. Not someone you expect to pick you up in "Deliverance Country", as they sometimes call it. He was great, going out of his way to get me to the trailhead. This trail is still magical, that's for sure. No surprise, I was met with a climb away from the road. My legs were fresh from yesterday so these piddly ups and downs were alright with me.

A couple thousand-foot climbs and drops brought me to Unicoi Gap, out of which I made my last real climb of the day. The next seven or so miles seemed to fly by, and I was at Low Gap Shelter, my intended endpoint, waaaay too early. I didn't want to just sit around and think about how excited I was, so it was a no-brainer to push on after a break and a water refill. Again, I put in headphones to drown out my own thoughts. A little excitement is fun and healthy, but I crossed that line a while ago. I think the same thoughts over and over: I'll be there so soon! Tonight I sleep out here somewhere, then tomorrow it's Neel Gap for resupply and sleeping at Gooch Mountain Shelter, then the next day it's Springer! Wait, that's not that soon. How can I wait that long? It's so long! AHHH!!! I attempted to stop the cycle with a few tunes. They helped for a while, but soon I found myself getting more and more excited, to the point of having physical symptoms. If I stopped walking I would rub my hair crazily. I guess excitement isn't exactly the right description. To tell the truth, there is no way to describe what I'm feeling. It sometimes feels incredibly sad, and other times it feels jubilant. It's like one emotion that looks different when the light hits it from different angles. My brain is having trouble processing this monumental achievement on the horizon, and it's short-circuiting. Towards the end of the day, I felt like I was going to burst. I was just hiking along on a typical, smooth section of trail, when all of a sudden I slowed down. I felt like I was being overtaken by it, but I didn't know what was happening. I found myself dropping to one knee, sniffling then sobbing. But what for? I couldn't figure it out. I kept hiking while blubbering (I am all about efficiency) for a couple minutes until I stopped the waterworks. I felt much better after the outburst. Still don't really know what that was all about.

Pretty exhausted from a long day and from my recent episode, I was ready to turn in. The next shelter I came to was 1.2 miles off the trail. I decided that the extra mileage defeated the convenience of a shelter, so I started looking for a place to pitch my tent. I didn't have to look long before I found a great spot on top of Wildcat Mountain. For some reason the quiet up here doesn't bother me like it usually does when I tent. Who knows, maybe I like the evening bugs all singing to me. I'm not complaining, man.

-Rooster

Picture: last time tenting.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Day 113: Standing Indian Shelter to Hiawassee, GA

Miles today: 16.7
Miles total: 2116.3

Currently laying in my bed at Hiawassee Budget Inn...

With today being my very last town day on the trail, I got all excited and was hiking by 6. I quickly decided that this would also be my last day of hiking before sunrise. It finally sunk in that hiking in the dark is no fun. Slow going, no scenery, no sun to buoy my spirits...forget it. It made sense today because every minute earlier that I started meant more time in town. So I sucked it up as I tried to roll my ankles on all the little rocks and made a few minor climbs before it got light. I said good riddance to the headlamp and  continued on as the sun cast its light over the adjacent ridge prior to its full arrival. Little ups and downs characterized the day. Around eight miles in, I went on high alert for the NC/GA border sign. As with all things on the trail, I thought I missed it until I walked right up to it. The sign is old, small, and unassuming, but I stopped to have second breakfast on some nearby rocks.  I allowed the moment to sink in. There are no more state borders to cross, no more hundred-mile markers to pass, nothing in between. All that's left is Springer Mountain. Sure, there's a quick on-trail resupply at Neel's Gap in a couple days, but that's it. The whole trail has been about me meeting intermediate goals because the overall challenge was daunting and massive. I don't know when, but somewhere along the line it started to sink in that the end was near and that I could focus on the whole picture. Now that I have, I've gone even crazier than I thought possible. I'm totally possessed by finishing. It's painful. I wish I could think about other things, but that's just the reality. My Springer Fever has reached its final unbearable stage.

I headed over Georgia's famous little, steep climbs and soon enough I was at US 76. I got a hitch from maybe the fifth car to drive by. Luckily, it was a pickup and I just climbed into the bed for the eleven-mile slog down into Hiawassee. I was uncomfortable with the idea of stinking up the cabin of a car for that amount of time. Even better, I got an air bath on this comfortable, sunny day. They dropped me off right in front of the Subway, and I got busy eating lunch. I checked in at the Budget Inn next door, then walked up to the grocery store for a resupply. I overbought as I always do, and now I'm struggling to eat all the food I have. Not a bad problem to have. The rest of my day consisted of laying in bed and occupying my mind with TV until it was time to go back over to Subway for Round 2. I'm such a bum. Anyways, three more hiking days after today. And they honestly can't come soon enough. The butterflies in my stomach aren't leaving any room for food!!

-Rooster

Pictures: yeah that is really the name of that trail; twisty tree; the last state border ever.



Day 112: Siler Bald Shelter to Standing Indian Shelter

Miles today: 27.7
Miles total: 2099.6

Currently laying in the shelter...

Pretty much your standard trail day. I was on the road by 7 and headed downhill for about four miles. I climbed up and over some unnamed mountain, but what struck me was how well-graded the climb was. It wasn't even a challenge. The rest of the day proved to be the same way, with really gradual climbs and descents that made for easy cruising. My morning snack was at Rock Gap Shelter, where the trees were inexplicably dripping the whole time I was there. There hasn't been any rain lately and it wasn't a hazy morning, so I really can't explain it. The drippiness contributed to the run-down look of the shelter, but it was a good place to sit and inhale calories. Once on the trail again, I got warnings from two different section hikers about the rocks on Albert Mountain. One claimed it was the steepest and rockiest section of the trail that he'd ever seen. The other had used the bypass trail to skip the peak all together. I knew I'd be sticking with the AT's route, but I was a little curious. I made the climb without incident and as pleased to find a fire tower. I liked the moment because I got a great view and this summit marked only 100 miles left on my trip. It's a good thing too, because I'm just about ready to be done. I think it's a phenomenon similar to how you feel when you have to go to the bathroom really bad and you're almost to the toilet. You could wait longer, but it doesn't feel like it. That comparison really does no justice to the AT. Anyway, I found those rocks on the backside of Albert Mountain, but they only lasted for a quarter mile. I sighed and continued on my smooth sailing.

My stop for Second Lunch was at Carter Gap Shelter, which immediately preceded a long (but very easy) walk over Standing Indian Mountain. My mind had been wandering too much to the finish line, so I played some music again to drown it out. Today we had Arcade Fire followed by Bon Iver's Bonnaroo set. That got me to within ten minutes of the shelter, which peased Lord Rooster immensely. I got water, located the privy for the morning, and now I'm in my bag after having dinner. Not much else to do but daydream about going into Hiawassee tomorrow and fall asleep! Maybe I'll find a way to have one more hotel stay. Hmmm...

-Rooster

Pictures: 100-miles-to-go celebration on a fire tower; my last 5000-footer.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Day 111: Nantahala Outdoor Center to Siler Bald Shelter

Miles today: 23.3
Miles total: 2071.9

Currently sitting at the picnic table...

After arriving at the NOC so late last night, I permitted myself time to sleep in. I didn't even wake up once until 7, and even then I went back to sleep. There was no point in getting an early start; nothing around there opened until 9 AM. I thought I might be able to do laundry early, but the only detergent available was from the outfitter and I didn't have quarters for the machine anyway. It was actually really nice to take my time getting ready in the morning without every second counting. I took the time to make coffee and hang out in the dining room before moseying over to the main office. I was still early, so I sat outside the outfitter like a puppy. The guy in charge explained that they were training someone and that they would be late opening up. I ran across the street to the general store to buy most of my food before checking back in. By that time, the outfitter was open. I waited (I hope patiently) as the main guy explained to the trainee how to ring me up as well as every other possible aspect of the checkout computer. By the time I had my laundry started, it was 9:30. The silver lining here was that I had found a couple off delicious-looking frozen burritos in the general store, so I had plenty of time to microwave and savor them. I also allotted a healthy amount of time to yelling at the washing machine to be done. By the time I had changed into my dry clothes, it was almost 11. I consoled myself with the thought that I wouldn't get done any later than last night. I hiked into the woods from the NOC feeling a little bit sad that I couldn't have stayed longer. It seems like a really cool place, not just for hikers but for kayakers and fisherman and apparently for underwater rescue teams. I saw them practicing while wearing wetsuits.

I started off with my last big climb of the whole trip. It's getting a little sad to recognize I'm doing things for the last time. Nostalgia usually hits me pretty hard; just a forewarning. There wasn't much to say about the day. I hiked quickly to beat nightfall this time, stopping only for lunch at Cold Spring Shelter. After that, I popped in my ear buds for some music. First it was Coldplay since I'd had a few of their songs stuck in my head for a while. That was over pretty quickly, and I don't like reaching back for my phone to pick out new music all the time, so I chose to listen to Radiohead's 2.5 hour Bonnaroo set from last year. I wasn't disappointed, and I have no idea where the time went. I was up around 5000 feet quite a bit today, a luxury I won't enjoy for much longer. In fact, a day hiker on Wayah Bald thought I might have been standing on the highest point for the rest of the trail. I think he was right. Georgia's highest point, Blood Mountain, is only around 4400 feet. It's all downhill from here, right?? Wrong. Radiohead closed their set right as I embarked on the climb up to Siler Bald. It was really gentle, a kind gesture by the trail at the end of my day. The shelter unfortunately lies a good distance off the AT...miles I don't get credit for. I grumbled as I walked down the side trail. But there are things to be happy about, like having only 114 miles to go! I'm projecting a Sunday finish unless I take a zero or cut a day short. Five days of hiking remain...

-Rooster

Pictures: stuff around the NOC; a couple views from a very worthwhile trip up a lookout tower.



Monday, September 30, 2013

Day 110: Fontana Village, NC to Nantahala Outdoor Center

Miles today: 27.3
Miles total: 2048.6

Currently sitting in the common area's kitchen...

Late start today! I decided that I didn't really care how far I got today and that I would join Mercury and Danko for a farewell breakfast. Those two have plans to finish on the 9th, which will put their average pace at a leisurely 16.5 miles per day. I'm not tied to a date yet, so I'm going to let my antsy self keep boogying on down the trail. By the time I had said goodbye and was on the road, it was almost 9:30. I had originally thought I might make it to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) tonight, but I put that idea to bed. Unwilling to rely on a hitch, I walked the two road miles to the trail. The first bit was a climb out of the gap. The pressure on my right big toe was pretty severe today, so I took a break to finally give myself that pedicure. I cut the dead part of the nail off, which was basically the whole thing. It had started behaving like a foreign body and was decimating my cuticle. With my nail looking disgusting but fabulous, I turned back up the trail. I had solved the problem, so today's hike went much more smoothly than I had expected. I traversed the ups and downs, of which there were many, with gusto. I stopped at Brown Fork Gap Shelter to have lunch and pulled my phone out of my bag. Service! I decided that if the NOC could accommodate my arriving late, I would consider pushing on tonight. I made the call, and it came down to me having to make a reservation (read: pay for my stay ahead of time) in order to arrive after 6. I hesitated, then went for it. Walking out of the shelter, I realized what I had done. I wouldn't get there until 8, even if I didn't stop. There wasn't a deadline other than the setting sun, but it just seemed so late.

I started to hustle, big time. I ran into a couple of section hikers who were, of course, chatty, then I rocketed off. I was impressed by my pace even as I made the climb up to Cheoah Bald, which was alright as balds go. I took a picture but hurried on to conserve daylight. After Cheoah, it was almost all downhill to the NOC. I tried to hurry within reason, not wanting to risk injury just to save two minutes. I finally had to give in and strap on my headlight, which I didn't want to do because that meant opening up my bag. The silver lining to this ordeal was that I got to root around in my food bag, retrieving an apple fritter thing I had bought in Fontana. Yummy. I soon heard the whoosh of the Nantahala River and saw the twinkle of the lights from the NOC, allowing me to breath a sigh of relief. I was there! I grabbed my check-in packet and slogged back across the bridge to my bunkhouse. I wish I had gotten here during the day; it looks like a really cool place. I still have to do laundry and resupply in the morning, so I'll get to check it out in more detail. I will report findings on the other side.

-Rooster

Picture: Cheoah Bald overlooking the Nantahala Gorge.