Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hiking in the Rain

It was good to get out of town and back on the trail. I bought a new pair of boots in Gatlinburg, TN as I just wasn’t feeling it with my last pair. They weren’t bad, but not great either. And when I am walking all day, it is nice to have a super comfortable pair of boots. The problem with boots that are comfortable is that they generally don’t last long. I am OK with that though. I shouldn’t have much trouble getting another pair in a couple of weeks. It’s not like when I was in Nepal and my foot exploded out the side of my boot while hiking the Annapurna Circuit. I had to hike through the Himalayas for a almost a week with duct tape wrapped around my boot. Even the Sherpa were laughing at me.

It seems that luck has been on my side, sort of. The night before I got back on the mountain, the storm of all storms rolled through. The roads were covered with downed branches and leaves. As it turned out, the mountains were riddled with hail, some of which still remained when I got back on the trail at noon. I was glad to have missed that. I still managed to get 20 miles in for that day. I finished up at 8:30 and just in time as some heavy rain started coming down. My luck would only hold out so long though.

I have to preface the next story with the description of a "bald". A bald is essentially a spot on top of a mountain that has been clear cut of trees and given a name so as not to be called "some mountain that had all the trees cut down" It seems that down south people have an inherent love of balds. I however seem to have to cross them in the most inhospitable weather. In this instance it was worse as the Appalachian Trail had been lengthened by four tenths of a mile to meander all over the bald. Sure, four tenths of a mile doesn’t sound like much, but when I am getting pounded by hail and rain on pretty much the tallest mountain in the area and it being completely devoid of trees, it’s far. I also didn’t think wind would be a factor while hiking, but I was blown all over the place as I tried to hurry across the bald. I already saw the headline of the following days newspaper: May 11, 2008, Some Idiot Killed on Bald by Lightening. It wasn’t the smartest move I had ever made, but I managed to literally run across the bald. Had I a map, I would have routed myself around the bald, but I made the decision before I started on the trail to forego maps.

It seems that the weather has been less than ideal for the last week. Most days have been overcast with a light drizzle on and off all day. I have had several other days of heavy wind and rain. I experienced one of my worst nights out in the woods of all time on a particularly windy and rainy night. Rain was just blowing right into the shelter. I pulled my pack liner, a.k.a., a garbage bag over the bottom part of my sleeping bag, but it was of little use. Worse though was that just before I was ready to go to sleep, a tree of about 10 inches in diameter came crashing down not 15 feet from the shelter. Fortunately the tree fell away from the shelter and not in the direction of it. Sleep was fleeting that night.

On another evening I arrived in a shelter to a bunch of written warning notes left by previous hikers. The warnings were of a bear stalking the area and had a taste for "people food" One of the written warnings used several expletives and damned more than one deity just to get any other hikers to turn the page and read his suggestions of keeping their food safe. I generally hang my food in a tree as one is supposed to do, so I was just certain to take extra care and hang it properly. It was also one of those nights with a heavy, heavy rain, so if anything I thought the bear would be grabbing a mate and making for the ark. I woke up more than a few times hearing things that went bump in the night. In the morning when I went to check on my food bag, it was no longer hanging where I had put it. I only had a one day walk to a town, so I could go a day without food, but as it turned out, with all the wind, the trees swayed to the point of snapping the cord I used to tie my food bag between two trees. My bag was on the ground and no worse for the wear other than being a little wet.

Later that day I discovered why I wasn’t harassed by the bear. The bear had moved to the next shelter along the trail, about ten miles on. There was a family camping there whose food was taken. I would later find out that on the following night another hiker would have his food taken, but the bear’s appetite not sated it was about to walk into the shelter looking for more, before the hiker yelled and scared it off...for the time being. It’s sad to say that something has to be done about the bear as the problem is chronic. It is just a matter of time before a person gets hurt, or worse.

I am currently averaging 20 miles/day hiking. My longest day was 32 miles, which ended crossing a bald in the rain (surprise, surprise). It was so foggy that I could barely see the trail. There were at least a few times where I had to backtrack. I thought about ending my day at 22 miles, but I met two people on the trail that wanted to do some night hiking, so we set off together. Hiking at night gives an entirely different perspective on the trail. Many of the nocturnal animals are out and the forest just looks and sounds different. I didn’t really see much other than the three feet of the trail that was immediately in front of me. I will definitely do some more night hiking, but when the weather is better and I have some moon light.

Some people on the trail ask me how I can enjoy my hike while putting in so many miles. I just couldn’t imagine hiking for four hours and then just sitting around. One couple said I must really be missing things. They hadn’t left camp until noon that day. How do they see anything just sitting around? I don’t think I am missing much by putting in the miles. I walk the same trail as anyone else hiking the Appalachian Trail, whether 10 miles a day or 20.

I am currently in a small town in Tennessee where I have actually heard the people say "blowed up" "we was" and "dis-encouraging" I have met some interesting people hitching rides into towns. People have been so friendly, kind and helpful. I don’t know if it is that people are just different down south, but in the span of five minutes, I know their whole life story. On my bike ride I postulated that misfortune begets misfortune and I have had further examples today. One gentleman was going to the doctor to get an injury checked out. He had a shotgun shell explode in the gun, burning his hand and face. He also had two brain surgeries prior to that, not to mention that one of his children was shot to death on a playground at age 10. Another woman, who was married at 15 only spent six of the eight years of her marriage with her husband, being that he was in prison for the rest. Here daughter just got pregnant at 16 and her sons wife just walked out on him and his two children. Oh, and she got a traffic ticket that morning. I don’t know if it is more unbelievable that all of these things have actually happened to people or that I learned it about the person in a matter of minutes.

I am on the trail again tomorrow and hope to make Damascus, Virginia in about a week. In the mean time, lets review the dumb things I have recently done. I don’t carry a map. I don’t have a tent and I cross open mountaintops during thunderstorms. Lets see if I can find some rattle snakes to play with for next time.

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