The Home Stretch

Around 4PM, I began my climb out of Dick’s Creek Gap toward the top of Powell Mountain, fully stocked on snacks again (and sporting a brand new pair of Leki pokes), but all alone. After 3.5 miles, I stopped at Deep Gap Shelter to check it out. It was one of those shelters designed like an outdoor theater, with a wide stage on the front. I took off my shoes to let them air out and started on my snacks. I was listening to the new audiobook I had downloaded on Mama’s laptop at the Unicoi Lodge: Cory Doctorow’s For the Win. I wasn’t exactly expecting a YA novel, but I was getting into it a bit, just on the basis of the unusually multicurtural characters. Actually, I can’t remember another time I’ve read any other novel not largely focused on American characters. Oh, I remember one: Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. I’m getting off-track. So, yeah, I sat there on the bench on the front of the shelter for the brighter part of the afternoon before I finally decided to get going.

by Youngblood on whiteblaze.net

by Youngblood on whiteblaze.net

It was time to climb Kelly Knob, one of only four peaks over 4000 feet high in the Georgia section of the A.T. Not that I was intimidated by the fact: it was only a 300 foot climb from Deep Gap. But by the time I got over the summit and down to Addis Gap, the sun was already starting to set. I still had six miles to go to Tray Mountain. Well, no one can truthfully say I didn’t make the most of each day on the trail: when I needed to make miles, I ended up night-hiking more often than not. I turned on the afterburners.

Soon, I was passing through the swaggest gap on the Appalachian, whispering “Yolo!” to myself as I picked up the pace even further.

By 2013 thru-hiker Rock Steady (Mike Jurasius)

By 2013 thru-hiker Rock Steady (Mike Jurasius), so those are his poles, not mine. But mine look pretty similar.

I arrived at Tray Mountain Shelter an hour or so after full dark, and this time I didn’t get it to myself. Someone was in the shelter, so I put my headlamp on, and set quietly to work cooking my nightly Mountain House. Thankfully, the cooking platform is around the side of the shelter, so I didn’t really bother him that much. In the morning, he said he hardly even noticed I was there. We didn’t really talk that much.

By Ryan K

By Ryan K

The next day’s goal was a mere 15.5 miles to Low Gap Shelter. After breakfast and goodbye, it started with a short hike up to the summit of Tray Mountain. There was surely a view there, as it was the second of those four four-thousand-footers, but i didn’t stop to look at it. It was a beautiful, pleasant cool morning as I descended down and across Tray Gap, passing a woman out walking her dog. I said a few words of greeting to her and her dog and sped past until I came to the side trail to the “old cheese factory site”. Nowadays, there is a campsite, a spring, and a wide flat area where the building once stood, but once upon a time… here’s a quote from a guidebook whose name was not given in the forum post I took it from:

In the mid-1800s, an eccentric New Englander established a dairy
near Tray Mountain, about 15 miles from the nearest farmhouse. Other Georgians,
who received parcels in the mountains after a government survey of former Indian
lands in the 1830s, opted to sell their land to speculators rather than attempt to tame
the untamable. For several years, the man ran his dairy successfully and reportedly
produced a superior cheese that won several awards at state agricultural fairs. Little
evidence of the dairy remains today, although the spot is a designated campsite with
a spring.

I also found a description of the dairy in a letter written by Charles Lanman:

But to return to the dairy, which is unquestionably the chief attraction (though far from being a romantic one) connected with Trail Mountain. Heretofore a cheese establishment has been associated in my mind with broad meadow lands, spacious and well-furnished out-houses, and a convenient market. But here we have a dairy on the top of a mountain, distant from the first farmhouse some fifteen miles, and inaccessible by any conveyance but that of a mule or well-trained horse. The bells of more than half a hundred cows are echoing along the mountain side; and, instead of clover, they are feeding upon the luxuriant weed of the wilderness; instead of cool cellars, we have here a hundred tin pans arranged upon tables in a log cabin, into which a cool spring pours its refreshing treasure; instead of a tidy and matronly housewife to superintend the turning of the curd, we have an enterprising young Yankee, a veritable Green Mountain boy; and instead of pretty milkmaids, the inferiors of this establishment are huge negroes, and all of the masculine gender. And this is the establishment which supplies the people of Georgia with cheese, and the material out of which the scientific caterer manufactures the palatable Welsh Rabbit.

By the time I came back onto the trail, the woman and dog had passed me, and I passed them again below Tray Mountain Road near a culvert pouring water from the spring under the road. I don’t know whether she was surprised to be passed again, but I continued down toward Indian Grave Gap with little else said to her.

The next mile from Indian Grave Gap was spent climbing a thousand feet up Rocky Mountain, then another 1.5 miles down the same, and then another mile and another thousand feet up to the top of Blue Mountain, and one more mile on to Blue Mountain Shelter, where I stopped to take my lunch. These five miles were so easy and I was so engrossed in my audiobook that I hardly remember them. They probably took no more than two hours in total, and the largest part of my thoughts was focused on getting to the shelter so I could stop and eat comfortably, and be able to say I accomplished something.

I do remember stopping at Blue Mountain Shelter, climbing up inside and sitting there, putting together pepperoni and cheese sandwiches on my lap, all by myself, and just staring out at nothing. Staring out at nothing is a highly underrated activity in the go-go-go culture of the United States. I imagine all these studies showing that mindfulness meditation is an anodyne for stress and generally good for health are reflecting this cultural bias, and that a good sitting-and-staring session would work just as well. Indeed, I would expect the effect to disappear almost entirely in more relaxed cultures. But now I’m really getting off topic.

by Youngblood on whiteblaze.net

by Youngblood on whiteblaze.net

By the time I decided to get going, it was still reasonably early, but I only had seven miles to go. Nothing interesting happened on the trail. I think I killed the audiobook to think on things, and my thoughts may have made some headway without the distraction of sites to see, people to talk to, or words to listen to. I pulled up at Low Gap Shelter just after dusk and there were already two bodies on the shelf.

by 2011 thru-hiker Zachary Peltier

by 2011 thru-hiker Zachary Peltier

I sat down quietly at the picnic table but it was to no avail. Pretty soon one of the guys was getting up and coming out to sit with me. I apologized for waking him, but he said he was having trouble getting to sleep anyway. After we talked a while, the other guy sat up and chatted a bit as well. We talked about random trail stuff right through my cooking and eating my Mountain House and cleaning up and making a space in the shelter. But I wasn’t the last one to arrive that night either. Sometime in the middle of all this another southbounder pulled in, one without quite so much of a deathwish as the ones that I’d stayed with up at Sassafras Gap. He was actually a pretty interesting guy, and had been keeping a pace roughly like mine, or perhaps even slower. He had no particular need or desire to get to Springer on any particular date, but it had been a while since he’d seen another southbounder, because he’d gone to town briefly. He was having trouble deciding where to go the next day, and I must have made a pretty convincing case for Woods Hole Shelter, where I was planning on heading, because he decided to do the same. We easily found a place for him in the shelter, and finally got to sleep.

Since I only had 15 miles the next day, I had no reason to race out in the morning, but I did want to stop and get a hot bite at Mountain Crossings on the way, plus I had to climb Blood Mountain, the only difficult section of the AT in GA, so I didn’t waste time anyway. It was a wet morning, with low clouds, some fog at first, some patchy drizzle in some places that didn’t stick around.

I tuned out body, even though my feet were sore, and tuned into Mr. Doctorow’s book. I went over about four peaks and through a number of gaps with names, and never saw anything compelling enough to distract me from my primary goal: pizza.

When I guessed I was half an hour from Neels Gap, I stepped off the trail into a well-used unofficial campsite, and sat down on a log, and nibbled on a pastry crisp while my phone booted up. I wasn’t surprised to find cell service at the top of the ridge, but it was rather spotty. Still, I managed to get a call through to Mountain Crossings and they could understand me. At any rate my message was clear: I was a couple of miles out and would love to have a hot pizza waiting for me when I arrived. Was that something that would be possible? I’d never really spent any time with the Mountain Crossings crew, but I’d heard from a lot of people that they were generally pretty nice folks, so I had high hopes my plan would work out. I wasn’t disappointed.

Soon, I arrived at Mountain Crossings and dropped my pack against a wall on the porch in front of the bathrooms. I went inside the store, and my hot personal pepperoni pizza was ready to go. I grabbed a can of Mountain Dew to go with it and paid in cash. Sensitive to the delicate sensibilities of the average non-thru-hiker when it comes to odor, I took my meal out to the balcony and ate at the picnic table, trying to keep my back to a chill wind coming up out of the valley. I wish I’d known that just a short hike below the balcony there was a beautiful waterfall. I may have taken my food on the go just to see it.

The view from Mountain Crossing's balcony

The view from Mountain Crossing’s balcony

When I finished, I took advantage of a bathroom with running water and flush toilets to, among other things, wash up a bit and fill up my water bag. Then, I figured since I was at the famous Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi, I needed to get a couple more pictures. Obviously, I needed at least one of the famous boot tree. I took three.

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Of course, spending Hallowe’en afternoon at Mountain Crossings means I got to take in their wonderful autumn decorations. (For more on how life goes at the A.T.’s most popular outfitter and the only building through which the trail passes on its entire 2185 mile length, check out the book “Just Passin’ Thru” by Winton Porter, the store’s proprietor. I started reading this soon after I finished the trail, and it was quite a lot of fun.)

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Every hiker should have a hat this sexy

It was getting dark and the store had closed by the time I finished packing everything back up It wasn’t just the fact that it was well past 6pm that made it dark. In fact, those clouds were getting thicker and darker. A storm was coming in, and I had made sure of the fact by checking the weather report on my phone while I ate. I had another four miles to go to my intended resting place, and I hoped I’d be able to outrace the storm, since the forecast said I had more than an hour. I put my packa on my pack in preparation for the inevitable.

I guarantee you I climbed Blood Mountain as fast as anyone has with a pack on, yet the clouds opened up all the wall by the time I reached the exposed rock faces. It made it a little bit more difficult to climb with the water pouring straight down the smooth rocks, but I just became more vigilant, swinging my headlamp all around for the best foot placements, moving off the trail when necessary, and slowed down very little. I never slipped.

I couldn’t have been happier to crest the ridge and arrive at the huge rock structure that is Blood Mountain Shelter, the oldest all-rock shelter on the A.T. (though the roof is fairly recent) which stood at the summit of the southernmost peak on the A.T. that exceeds 4000 feet. I decided to celebrate my last four-thousander by stopping inside to see if the storm would let up at all while I made supper, even though my pizza lunch had only happened 2.5 miles before. Of course, a few minutes out of that driving rain was enough to convince me not to do the next 1.5 miles that night as planned. The rain did not let up all night.

Of course, I had a much better time at that shelter that night than I would have had at Woods Hole. The place had been entirely taken over by a group of Auburn students out on fall break. They had decided to celebrate by buying cigars for everyone, and it so happened they had an extra one, which I enjoyed with them after I cooked and ate supper. They also had hammocks hanging off of almost all the rafters in the back room. I made a place on the floor just far enough from the window, underneath one of the hammocks against the inside wall. By the time the cigars had all burned out and everyone was ready to sleep, it was clear our biggest enemy was going to be those huge open windows in the sides of the shelter. Who designed this thing anyway?

Blood Mountain Shelter

by Gene and Judi

The wind was bringing great torrents of fog in through the southwestern window which covered everything it touched with moisture, and made it quite impossible for the hammockers, who lacked underquilts, to get warm. So I got up to start solving the problem. Someone had brought a tarp, and I and one other hung it over the window using rocks and packs to pin it in place. Sure enough, though it billowed and rattled constantly, it warmed the place right up, and pretty soon we were all drifting off to sleep.

BANG! The wind was a bit too powerful for the rocks we’d used to pin down the top of the tarp, and it had finally worked a couple of them loose, so that they fell to the ground without warning. I don’t remember whether it was me who got up to fix it, but the eventual solution was to leave the tarp a little bit looser so that it merely redirected the wind to the side along the inside wall rather than blocking it entirely. In that state, it made it to morning.

At dawn, I was the first one up. I got ready and packed and tried not to disturb the others, and managed to leave by the time only one other had awoken. I had a reason to get up and get out early without dilly-dallying. The reason I’d been aiming for Woods Hole Shelter was that it was going to be a 20-mile day that day even if I didn’t. As it was, it would be a 22 mile day, counting the side trip to Woods Hole. So I was getting up early to make up the one mile that had been rained out the night before, and to start putting a dent in the following 20.

Plus, there was the fact that I had surely disappointed the other southbounder who’d expected me to show up at Woods Hole the night before, so I hoped to make it there before he left. So I mixed up my breakfast drink, but otherwise put off my morning routine until I’d hiked that first 1.4 miles. As it turned out, they were just getting up as i arrived. I went to use their privy, then sat at the picnic table with them to chat while they packed. “They?” There was one older gentleman there, just getting started on a section hike. He was worried about his snacks, since it was taking him longer than he expected, so I told him I had an extra package of Sandwich Thins I wasn’t going to be able to get to before I finished my hike. He seemed worried about carrying bread, thinking it would crush and get disgusting in his pack, but I convinced him by pointing out I had already separated it into tops and bottoms, all facing the same direction, so that they could get mashed together even if squashed, and eventually he accepted.

Well, it was time to set off down into the gap southwest of Blood Mountain, four miles downhill, none of it particularly interesting. A brief easy climb up to the summit of Big Cedar Mountain was just a preamble to the gorgeous view on a ledge just a few tenths down the far side. Locals have a name for this overlook, but I can’t remember what they called it. However, it was certainly a popular place to visit.

view from the overlook

view from the overlook

Folks and dogs hanging out on the ledges

Folks and dogs hanging out on the ledges

From there it was only a fifteen minute jaunt downhill to Woody Gap, and I did it with a alacrity, having heard someone was down there doing trail magic. Who would be doing magic in the south in November? I could only think of one person, and I was right on the money. If you being following this for a while, I bet you can guess who….

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Although I’ve seen him since, at this point I hadn’t seen Fresh Ground since April. It was sure strange to see him again after 7 months, along with the same poster with my trail name on it I’d signed way back when. Of course I stopped and had a hot dog and a soda and a bit of salad and chips and… well, everything, really. There were a surprising number of other hikers and friends of the trail around to chat with, and I had a few words with several of them about my hike and the usual trail stuff. Unfortunately, I knew I still had 13 miles to go and it was already well past 3 o’clock.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been to Woody Gap, by any means. I’d done the hike between Woody Gap and Blood Mountain at least twice on overnight hikes, the last time in fall of 2010, and the section south of Woody Gap I’d done back in 2005, though we did the part between Cooper Gap and Woody Gap without packs, and of course we’d gone the opposite direction. We’d seen wild turkeys wandering around near the trail, and I supposed it was the right time of year that I could see them again. My audiobook had reached a place where a significant portion of the book had been skipped between tracks, and I didn’t want to read ahead without missing anything, and my found mp3 player didn’t do radio, so I went fast and noiseless across GA60 and back into the woods, keeping my eyes peeled for those turkeys.

The trail went down from there, seven miles of downhill, crossing USFS42 at Gooch Gap, passing the side trail to Gooch Mountain Shelter, crossing Justus Creek, and arriving at the foot of Justus Mountain. I didn’t pause or bat an eye at the easy 1.5 mile thousand foot climb to the top as the sun disappeared, after which I dropped into Cooper Gap, which I remember as the place where Kane and I dropped our gear with the girls, within sight of USFS42, in order to hike the seemingly interminable 9 miles back to our car at Woody Gap. It didn’t really look the same as I remember it (perhaps because it was nighttime). This time it only took me three hours to cover what took an entire afternoon and evening then. After some searching, I figured out where the trail continued on the other side of the gravel lot the road had turned into there, and kept hiking.

From there, it was an annoying half-mile climb to the top of Sassafras Mountain. Annoying not because it was particularly steep and hard, but merely because it was late, I was hungry, and I really didn’t want to be hiking anymore, and it was the last obstacle between me and the apparently easy 3.5 mile run to Hawk Mountain Shelter.

Actually, the last few miles, following a bumpy ridgeline between Horse Gap and Hightower Gap, turned out to be far more annoying than I had anticipated. Somewhere among the endless short climbs and dips, I stepped off the trail and into a little primitive campsite, sat down on a log, and cooked a dinner that I had been waiting far too long to eat. I still had over a mile to go before I could sleep under a roof, but you can bet that with the weather so much improved over the previous night, I was tempted to just lie out under the stars right there.

Sleepy, but with enough nourishment to provide a second wind, I groaned and levered myself up onto my sore foot, slung my pack on, and finished the night. My fellow thru-hiking friend was already there, of course, but he claimed he hadn’t been there that long, having only arrived some time in the last half-hour. You might suspect that we were excited to be finishing our thru-hikes the next day, but I suspect the feeling was more of relief: he had places to be and people to see afterwards, and I wouldn’t be finishing until the following day anyway. Nonetheless, I offered him a chance to come to my End-of-Trail party.

There was no time for a pre-celebration. As soon as my bed was made, it was time for sleep.

The next morning, I was in no hurry to get out of camp. I only had 5.5 miles to go to get to the Springer Mountain parking area, and I wasn’t expected until midday or so. I couldn’t help waking up with the sun, but I took my time getting out of camp, as I knew that distance was easily hiked in two hours. Not something that would require an audiobook to get through. In fact, I would be in high spirits the whole way, and wouldn’t be able to prevent myself practically skipping down the trail. The first four miles were all level or downhill after all.

It was a very popular day to be out on the trail, probably because it was a Saturday. I passed quite a number of weekenders headed in both directions. I saw a whole family with a picnic in the Three Forks campsite and parking area. I also decided to stop in at the Stover Creek Shelter despite the noise I heard there. I had found I had a need for its privy. The place was mobbed, with an entire group of young boys, probably boy scouts, plus a handful of college age kids. I stayed and chatted with the leader of the boys, who soon abandoned the shelter to go play in the creek, hoping to pass a little more time so I wouldn’t arrive at my pickup too soon. Eventually, the kids returned and I had no stomach to stay any longer. I left and climbed the last 2 miles to the parking lot, sat down on the side of a hill, pulled off my boots to let my feet spread out again, and waited.

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And that’s where my mom found me a little while later, picked me up and whisked me away to the party cabin to prepare to receive my public, who would be finishing the trail with me the following day. But the rest of this day and the following day was so well-documented with photos that I’m going to have to save it for one more post, coming in just a couple more days. See you soon!

2 thoughts on “The Home Stretch

    1. quintopia Post author

      It’s kind of weak as novels go, even as YA novels go, though it has some interesting ideas. I can’t recommend it.

      Reply

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