AT day one —  part 2

Did you miss part one of this post? Click here.

Robot

I parked at the Laurel Falls trailhead in Hampton, TN. After getting Cash’s bags strapped on him and my own pack hoisted up and strapped on, I followed a side trail that would intersect with the AT. It followed a tumbling stream along steep cliffs for about a mile and a half.

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Approach trail at Laurel Falls.

I stood at the first trail intersection I reached and tried to get my bearings from the maps I was carrying. I’d been following blue blazes and completely forgot that AT blazes are WHITE. However, the first human I’d seen all morning came into sight just as I had decided on the wrong path. He was striding quickly and was prepared to pass me without comment. “Excuse me,” I said. “I know this might be a silly question, but I’m accessing the AT from a side trail and I’m a little disoriented. Am I going the right direction, northbound on the Appalachian Trail?” “Actually, the AT is over here,” he said, and he pointed to a small path I hadn’t even seen off to one side of the one I was on. “I’m heading north. Follow me.” Who knows how long it would have taken me to figure out my error?

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On the AT north of Hampton, TN

Robot was a thru-hiker from Germany. (Thru-hikers are people who were hiking the entire 2500-mile length of the AT, from Georgia to Maine, in one fell swoop.)  He’d started in Georgia on April 1.  In my short time walking with him, I learned that last year he thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. (Robot was his trail name; I’m sure it’s not his real name. I’m pretty sure it’s not polite to ask.)

Right away he commented on my pack size and proceeded to launch into a litany of opinions about lightweight hiking strategies. He was surprisingly fluent, and I politely nodded my interest. Robot was clearly going to be miles ahead of me by noon and we weren’t likely to meet again. I was right about that, although I saw his name on a couple of trail registers. (More about that later.) After we exchanged a few pleasantries, Robot took off at a brisk pace ahead on the trail. Thanks, Robot, wherever you are, for pointing me down the right path. I might be in the wrong state right now if it weren’t for you.

The rest of the morning was an uneventful walk in the woods. The path was covered with last year’s fallen leaves, making for a soft foot-landing.

Da Bears (almost)

I had chosen a beautiful stretch of trail along Watauga Lake as my stopping point for day one, about 11 miles of hiking total. I had day-hiked at the lake the last time I came to visit, and I knew there were beautiful campsites all along its edge. We stopped and ate lunch around 1pm, and Cash and I were already beat. After lunch I regretfully pulled my boots back on — blisters were forming already and my feet were ready to be finished. I was looking forward to this next segment, which would be relatively flat, and where we could pitch camp early, watch the sunset and enjoy a leisurely evening looking out over the lake.

Um, no.

As I approached the trailhead, I saw a sign posted that said “Bear activity has been reported in this area.” Bear activity… What’s that? Should I think mauled humans? Raided food bags? Or cute cubs doing arts and crafts?

The sign provided none of these helpful details, but it did say that the AT shelter along the segment was closed, as were all the campgrounds and picnic areas for the next four-mile stretch. It ended with a cheery note that the trail was open to AT hikers only. But “don’t linger” was the general idea.

I considered my options. I could bail and call my brother for a ride to his house and try a different segment tomorrow. But I was having a great time, and the evening camping was to be the capstone on my day.

Or, I could proceed and take my chances. It helped that I had a large dog (who happened to be already wearing a so-cute little bear bell on his mean leather-and-metal collar). Besides, bears along the AT were relatively harmless black bears, only interested in food. They were a common sighting among hikers.

Two male backpackers stopped next to me and read the sign, then proceeded into the woods. I took that as my cue. If I was going to thru-hike the AT someday, I wouldn’t let some silly “bear activity” signs deter me.

Cash and I hiked VERY briskly through that segment, for being so fatigued. I sang loudly, clicked my trekking poles on rocks and trees as we passed, and made as much other noise as I could to alert animals to our approach. (The smoked oysters I had for lunch were the fortunate fuel for some good loud belches, too.)

We saw no bears. I was glad. And also the teensiest bit disappointed.

Ending Day 1

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Entering Big Laurel Branch Wilderness, just north of Watauga Dam.

So, the tranquil lakeside campsite I’d imagined was not to be. Once we got past the restricted area, I was able to start watching for another campsite. But as we passed into the Big Laurel Fork Wilderness, the trail just went up. And up. And up some more.

If you’ve ever hiked on a mountain trail before, you soon discover that ALL UP = no campsites. The ground seldom levels out enough to provide a spot for a tent, without the danger of rolling down the mountainside in the middle of the night.

We had traveled 16 miles, about 5 miles further than I’d planned for our first day. My feet were very sore… the blisters I had noted at our lunch break were getting worse by the mile. I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. Sunset was approaching fast.

“Ok, God,” I said out loud. “Please either surprise me with a campsite in this unlikely terrain, or give me the energy to keep going.” At the top of the up, He provided. I spotted a small flat area on a side trail (ugh… more UP). The wind was picking up, so I was grateful for the presence of some large boulders to block part of the wind so I could set up my tent.

As I write this, the dog and I are snuggled in the tent, with him taking up most of my sleeping bag. The stove wouldn’t light in the wind; no hot dinner tonight. I shared a bag of beef jerky with the dog, and ate a couple handfuls of trail mix, washed down by the last of my water. Only with this fatigue will I have any chance of falling asleep tonight, much less staying asleep as the rain fly whips around in the high winds.

I have cell service here and was able to call Chuck and check in with him. He could barely hear me because of the wind whipping around my rainfly. I let him know the dog and I were doing fine, and sketched out the day’s events. I hung up from talking to him and almost before my head hit the pillow I was asleep.

campsite_day1
The view from my tent, sunset of day one. Big Laurel Fork Wilderness.