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Carey Belcher on the AT
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Let me just say up front, I am not cured of my addiction to the Appalachian Trail. This little jaunt actually made my addiction worse. Or is it better for me? All I know is I can't get enough of the AT. Last week I was happier than I have been in the fifteen months since I left the trail. I don't know why I'm so in love or how I'm going to make this work, but I need to do something to get back to the trail. There is real magic on the Appalachian Trail, and within five minutes of arriving, I experienced two forms of trail magic.
I exited Ron's shuttle at Woody Gap and stepped into freezing fog in the pre-dawn darkness. I used the pit-toilet bathroom, which has toilet paper and garbages (not often the case on the AT). I felt like a newbie in the dark because couldn't make my headlamp work. I stepped outside to see better. My foot slipped off the rock I braced against. It was coated in clear ice. White ice formed sideways fingers on every tree branch and plant, a result of the freezing fog and wind. A man's voice called from over by the picnic tables.
"Are you hiking?"
"Yes." I answered, still struggling with my headlamp. It was light enough by then that I didn't really need it anymore, but it worried me not to have a working light for the rest of my hike.
"Come on over for hot coffee and breakfast," said the voice in the fog.
Trail magic from a trail angel the moment I step foot back on the trail? I love this place. I hoisted my pack and headed over to see a man in down pants and jacket setting goodies all over a picnic table.
"I'm just doing a southbound section, not through-hiking." I said. "I don't want to use up supplies that the northbounders need."
"Don't worry about it, there's plenty. I've got two hikers warming up in the car right now." He stuck out his hand, "My name is Fresh Ground and I hiked a few hundred miles in 2012 before I got injured. I've been out here for a few days feeding hikers."
"I'm Carry-On and I through-hiked in 2012. It's nice to meet you, and thanks for doing this trail magic for us. I wish I lived near enough the trail to be a trail angel, too."
We shook hands and he offered me batteries for my headlamp, but I got it to work once I could see what I was doing. The two northbounders, a guy and a girl, emerged from the running car and we talked as we drank steaming coffee and ate pancakes and eggs, standing in the cold. After a few minutes the guy's accent finally rang a bell for me and I looked closely at him.
"Are you Candycane, from 2012?"
He stared at me. I pulled off my balaclava so he could see my curly hair.
"I'm Carry-On. Do you remember me?"
"Yeah," he said in his Tennessee accent. "Do you remember my old Kelty external frame pack? I hiked to Great Barrington, MA in 2013 and broke it, but I liked it so much I got another one."
"I do remember that pack, and I remember how you told me that moonshine should taste like gasoline, just like it used to, instead of all these newfangled sweet, fruity flavors."
"That's right." He said, with the grin I remembered.
What are the odds I'd meet someone I hiked with in 2012 the moment I step foot on the trail in 2014? This form of coincidence occurs so often on the AT that it is called trail magic (in this case created by the trail herself, so some call it the real trail magic). You almost expect it after a while. Hikers have a saying, "The trail will provide," we say. And it does.
We spent a few minutes reminiscing about 2012, but the cold drove us all to get moving. The girl was called Flashlight and I wished them luck as we washed our dishes in the buckets provided. We thanked Fresh Ground and they headed north as I headed south.
I stopped to take pictures of the icy trees before I left the parking lot. I was thrilled to be back on the AT, excited by the trail magic, and glad I had only planned 5.4 miles for the day. I knew I'd be stopping for pictures as often as I could stand the cold. I brought my five pound "Precious," a DSLR camera I carried on my entire through-hike on this trip, too. I had purchased a small digital camera to replace the big one, but couldn't stand the lower quality pictures and lack of control of the small camera compared to the heavy one. I guess I'll continue to suffer for my art.
"If I'm carrying it, I'd better use it" is my motto when it comes to anything backpacking, but especially my camera. I'm not a good example of lightweight backpacking, but I do use everything I carry, except sometimes I carry too much food.
I talked to many of the northbound hikers and collected information to follow their online blogs. They were happy to hear of trail magic ahead and hurried along. Ice drops formed on my eyelashes and eyebrows. I know because I took a selfie. Even with all the stops to take pictures I arrived at Gooch Mountain Shelter early in the afternoon. Spirit Walker was there, wearing a sign that said he had taken a vow of silence. I'm not good at charades, but we had fun trying to communicate. Soon others arrived and we claimed spots in the two story, three-walled shelter.
I heard once that you could start at Springer Mountain without gear and be completely outfitted by the time you hike 50 miles on the AT. Gooch Mountain Shelter proved this to be almost true. Abandoned there were an inflatable air mattress, a five liter Platypus water bag, an aluminum cookpot with lid, earbuds, and quite a bit of trash. The shelter filled up and at least a dozen more hikers tented in the area. We hung a tarp and my tent across the bottom section of the shelter to block some wind, but I could see gaps in the walls and between the floorboards. We all spent a cold night shivering in our sleeping bags.
In the morning I heard a couple of the guys say they had only 35 degree bags based on a recommendation from a big box outdoor retailer employee. Bad advice this early in the year. I had made a hot water bottle and had a 15 degree bag and still wished I had brought my Cocoon silk sleeping bag liner for that extra 9 degrees of warmth. Despite my discomfort I hadn't used the Hot Hands chemical packets I brought in case of real emergency. I was cold, but not in danger. I didn't know what the weather would do next, so I saved one and traded the other to Jeff, a NOBO who used it immediately.
After breakfast I convinced the guys to carry the trash and abandoned gear six miles to the garbage cans at Woody Gap. I carried out the pot, thinking I might keep it, though it was too big and didn't fit in my pack. Then I swept out the entire shelter and picked up litter around the area. It felt good, like I was giving back to the trail I love so much. A northbound couple stopped by for early lunch and he agreed to carry a second bag of trash to Woody Gap. It was sunny and I hiked in my shorts and T-shirt over Justus and Sassafrass Mountains. A dayhiking northbounder agreed to take the big pot so I didn't have to carry it for days.
Hawk Mountain shelter was packed and also surrounded by tents. I found a good spot near another tenter and he built a small fire. I hung out at the picnic table by the shelter, where the hikers had built a big fire and then gone to bed by 7:30pm. The wind blew over the improvised sheet metal heat reflector with a crash. I was warmer in my tent than in the shelter the night before and didn't make a hot water bottle that night. In the morning I saw trash all over the shelter, both garbage bags and loose litter. I left a grumpy note in the register about people cleaning up after themselves.
It was a grey, windy day. I wore my rain jacket and used a garbage bag as a wind/rain skirt and stayed warm as I kept moving. I met several 2012 hikers, some 2013 through-hikers, and some PCT through-hikers starting AT through-hikes. The memories flew fast and furious as I summited Springer Mountain once again. This time I was granted a view from the top, unlike on my through-hike. More trail magic.
It began to rain as I descended Springer on the blue-blazed Approach Trail. I didn't hike the Approach Trail in 2012 and I never regretted my decision, but it was fun to be on it this time, going down. The rain turned to sleet as I arrived at Black Gap Shelter. Sleet was better than rain, because my clothes stayed mostly dry as I ran down the steep side trail to collect water. The new NOBO hikers complained about the trail to the water source, but I didn't think it was that bad. They'll get used to much worse if they don't quit. They're not even to the white blazes yet. Not even on the Appalachian Trail and already complaining.
There was a girl at the shelter, section hiking north with her little weiner dog. She through-hiked in 2012 and though her voice seemed familiar we didn't recognize each other until she told me she had changed her trail name from 2012 due to other hikers bothering her about it. Her name had been Pothead, because she burned her lip drinking out of her pot while it was too hot. But other hikers assumed something else and tracked her down repeatedly, even getting upset with her for not being what they expected. I don't blame her for changing her name, but once I knew her former trail name I knew we had met, at the Karate Dojo in Bland, Virginia.
We took over the conversation with memories and updates about the rest of each of our hikes and those we hiked with. It was amazing how connected I felt with her, though we had never actually hiked together. One of the NOBO guys said, "You two sure seem to remember every detail."
"It's because we think about it every single day." She said.
I nodded and said, "It will ruin you, this through-hiking thing. You won't be able to stay away. Look at us, back on the trail again."
The NOBOs were silent after that, perhaps wondering what they had gotten themselves into, but hopefully not entirely afraid. It's a worthy addiction. Soon the-hiker-formerly-known-as-Pothead and I got the guys to help us hang tarps and tents to block the wind and rain. We pretended for a while that we couldn't see our breath in the air, but we could. We still agreed that it was warmer than without the wind blocks.
Rain pattered gently all night and I slept well after realizing my attempt to dry sweaty hiking clothes between my sleeping bag and air mattress did work, but also made me very cold. It works much better if you put the wet clothes between your sleeping pad and the wooden shelter floor. Then the wood absorbs the moisture.
In the morning we said goodbye and they all headed north as I headed south for my last day of hiking. I was sad to end my trip, so extended it by taking the Len Foot Hike Inn loop recommended by my shuttle driver, Ron Brown. That added about two miles to my day and I got to use a bathroom and wash my hands. The awesome staff at the Hike Inn also gave me free coffee, so I added to the tip box. Thanks guys!
I went down the stairs at Amicalola Falls and took obligatory pictures. The sun burned away the clouds as I set up my tent in the area reserved for Tent City by the Visitor Center. As my hike ended I realized I love my Patagonia Drifter ACs. They were perfect for everything I encountered. I didn't get them soaking wet, so I don't know how quickly they dry, but they were comfortable, warm, supportive and I didn't get any blisters or hot spots. That's an A+ as far as I'm concerned. I'm in love with my shoes.
I was grateful for the free shower available in the bathroom near the Visitor Center. I did hiker laundry in the shower by wearing my hiking clothes and washing them on my body with Dr. Bronner's soap. Then I removed them and washed them again, and then washed myself. I used my camp towel to dry myself and my clothes as much as possible, and then put the wet clothes back on and wore them dry as I did my camp chores in the late afternoon sun.
Many of the occupants of Tent City were about to leave on their through-hikes and couldn't stand to waste such beautiful hiking weather sitting in a workshop. We hung out around the fire pit after the Friday night presentations and several of them decided to start their hikes Saturday morning. Tent City was sparsely occupied. Though I had been told it was fully reserved it never filled up. I know of some mix-ups, but maybe there were also other hikers who never showed and just went hiking instead.
Saturday was the big day for the ATKO. It was easy to get a ride up to the lodge from Tent City since many of the occupants had driven their cars. I enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the Lodge. I spent time browsing booths in the back room and meeting people, some who I knew on Facebook before getting to meet them in person. The presentations were generally interesting and I had a great time.
Gene Epsy, the second man ever to through-hike the Appalachian Trail, congratulated me on my through-hike. AWOL gave me some book recommendations to improve my writing for the AT book I'm writing. I saw an owl close-up.
Everybody came down to tent city Saturday night for the fire pit. Sir-Packs-Alot tried to keep us organized and interested. I'm sure it was like herding cats. Or herding hikers. I saw a shooting star in the clear sky. A southbound hiker called Prada finished his hike walking to the fire pit as we all gathered. We treated him like a celebrity and gave him food and alcohol, which he seemed to appreciate. That must have been a magical way to finish a lonely, winter SOBO hike started in August in Maine. Welcome back, Prada!
Sunday concluded with my favorite presentation of the whole weekend by Miss Janet. What did she speak about? Trail Magic.
You can also follow my new AT blog with pictures, tags and edits over at carryonadventures.blogspot.com
Here's my blog post from a year ago, on the Appalachian Trail.
I finished my thru-hike Dec 9, 2012. It's been less than a year and "real" life seems more normal, but not entirely. I have regular flashes of gratitude for all the luxuries of running, clean water; hot showers; electricity. FOUR walls! Space heaters and swamp coolers. A washing machine and dryer in my own house! Anything that isn't outside is a luxury and a prison in some way. I get sucked into taking things for granted, but I don't stay there. I can just get in my car and drive anywhere I want to go. It's magic.
It's educational to live with only what you can carry on your back. You discover that you can survive with very little. You appreciate basic things like shelter, protection from the elements, clean water, enough food to fuel your body to keep moving. You are moved to tears by the pleasure of an orange, a hot shower or an icy fountain soda. That was my experience anyway.
I want to buy and move into an RV with my pets. I resent property. I don't like maintaining it, grooming it, being responsible for it. My rental house feels huge and sucks me dry. It takes so much energy to keep it clean and organized, heated, rent paid, weeds pulled/mowed. The cats and dog don't help with the chores at all.
I don't need all this space to prevent me from being outside. It's also really expensive to heat, so I'm only heating one room with a space heater. The animals and I pile on the bed in the indulgent heat and I feel lucky to be so warm. 66 degrees (F) feels awesome in my sweat pants, wool socks and warm hoody. I don't even need gloves yet, but it's not really winter yet. My one room is bigger than most of the shelters on the AT.
I finished my hike in the winter and was cold for more than two months. I read somewhere that getting cold enough to shiver burns fat cells, so, to make up for the ten pounds I've re-gained post-hike, I sit in the unheated living room and shiver while online. I figure it keeps me tough and acclimatized to the coming winter and outdoor adventures. Or maybe I'm a little strange(r) now. Unsocialized. Partially feral.
I didn't mean to, but I returned to my adopted little town which I love, floundered for a few months and then got a job at an outfitter. I also returned part-time to my old company and work double shifts several times a week. I started choir practice in September for the Christmas concert where I am singing a duet. Singing makes me happy and it's one thing I do entirely for fun.
I sleep less than I want, hike on my days off and sometimes am so desperate for a long trail that I want to run away to any trail, anywhere, I don't care. Then I take deep breaths, exhale, regain my senses and tend to my animals and responsibilities the best I can while planning a big new adventure/project.
I have changed since I went on my AT thru-hike. I don't intimidate easily anymore. I'm not sure why. Maybe because-after hiking 22 miles over mountains with a 42 pound pack in a cold winter rain, three hours of it in the dark with a dying headlamp while climbing over trees blown down by Hurricane Sandy-bossy, grumpy, rude people just don't seem that scary.
I thought I would die a few times on my hike and I had some perilously close calls, but was never seriously injured. So now I believe I am lucky. Others were injured by their falls. I wasn't. Pure luck. I have a bigger perspective and certain things don't scare me any more. However, I'm still scared of spiders.
I'll have to save more money before I go on my next adventure, because I ran out of money with 600 miles to go. My friends and family and complete strangers/trail angels helped me finish. Without you I would not have been able to complete my thru-hike. Our thru-hike. Thank you all so very much. I can never thank you enough for supporting me, encouraging me, helping me and most of all for loving me. I love you, too.
I'm writing a book and taking writing classes. I'm learning more about photography and getting some great pictures on my weekend hikes. I'm going to finish updating the pictures to my new blog and catch it up to the present. I'm planning either an ultra-marathon or maybe the Colorado Trail in 2014 or 2015. Then the PCT by 2018 (probably in 2-5 sections).
My advice to you, returning thru-hiker, is to write everything you didn't already write down. Edit and label your pictures with dates and locations. Keep writing and exploring what happened. Stay in touch with your hiking buddies, even if you have different politics/religions/beliefs. Or make new hiking buddies. Go hiking regularly, even just for a mile or two. It really does help with re-entry. Find a new goal or passion that makes your heart catch fire, and follow it.
Here is a blog post from March, where I talk about how my thru-hike changed me. Re-entry is hard and we're changed forever and it's totally worth it.
I was inspired to write this after reading an amazing blog post by a 2013 thru-hiker home for two weeks. I understand and agree completely with her about pretty much everything she wrote. Read it here.