Powder River’s Appalachian Trail Journey from Georgia to Maine 2008

Archive for April, 2008

Almost Like I’m Back In Laramie

Day 28
Location: Deer Park Mountain Shelter, NC
Miles hiked today: 23
Miles from Springer: 267.5
Miles from Katahdin: 1906.5
Elevation: 2330′
Temperature: 30

It was extremely cold this morning when we woke up. It was a clear sky when everyone went to bed, but around midnight the heavens opened and the cats and dogs started falling. We got the works. Rain, thunder, hail, snow. There was one guy who was sleeping on the picnic table, with his earplugs in. He couldn’t hear the rain hitting his sleeping bag or the thunder, but he finally woke up because of the mist in his face and soon enough we were making room for him in the shelter. He was already pretty wet. When we woke up, there was ice coating our food bags and an accumulation of hail and sleet on the ground. It was too cold to do much more than pack up and get moving.

One of the places I have really been looking forward to for some time is Max Patch, and it really lived up to the hype. Max Patch is a man-made bald, which had been cleared for grazing cattle years ago by homesteaders. Today the ATC maintains the look by mowing and controlled burns. It looks like a soccer field set on a mountaintop. It also has its own weather, as there were 20 mile per hour winds on top but no wind down below. When I got there, the entire mountain was covered in snow, and the wind was whipping the snow around to push the wind chill down to about 17 degrees. There were poles with the white blazes posted on them, and they were all caked on one side with ice, while the other sides were clean. It reminded me so much of Laramie and I was enjoying the weather so much that I stayed up there for about 15 minutes until I couldn’t stand the cold anymore. There were beautiful views of the Smokies to the south and all the surrounding mountains. The top of the summit is so big that the guidebook says that small planes have landed on it. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about my visit!

Today was a very bizarre day. For one, I did 23 miles. That is the most miles I have ever walked in one day in my life, and it actually felt great. Back at Standing Bear we had been warned that two of the shelters had a bear nearby that was consistently stealing food from hikers. When I got to the first of these shelters, there was a couple there who warned us that there were some non-hikers squatting at the next shelter up and had really trashed the place. They said they seemed like real bad characters, and seemed to be hiding out in the woods from something.

When I got there, the three guys had already gone but they had made a real mess out of the shelter. There was enough trash there to fill three garbage bags. We found a dead snake that was skinned with its head cut off, a machette, and a whole bunch of pots. One of my friends, Top Shelf said he ran into them when they were still there, and they were throwing plastic in the fire and inhaling the fumes. They were giving each other tattoos, using something they cooked up in the fire.

My friend Springload said the first thing he noticed was that they had tattoos under their right eye of tears, which usually means that someone has lost a friend in gang warfare or that they had killed someone in prison. He also noticed immediately that one of them was missing all of his front teeth, and one of them was missing his right hand.

Anyways, I didn’t actually encounter them. As I walked down the trail a little ways, I saw their tent set up at one of the gaps, and could hear people talking inside but I walked right past.

When I got up to Bluff Mountain, I called the Forest Serivice and reported that some guys had trashed a shelter and where the guys who did it were camped. I figured that they would never be able to prove what they did, and the best thing they could do was ask them to leave.

Meanwhile, I still had a lot of miles to go. When I was on Bluff Mountain, it was 5:30 pm and I still had about 7 and a half miles to go. I wanted to get to Deer Park Mountain shelter so I could roll into town very early the next day, have breakfast and also have nearly a full day in town. My feet and legs felt good, so I pushed on. I did not get into camp until about 9 pm, by which time it was already dark. About 2 miles before the shelter I started seeing bear tracks on the A.T., which appeared to be going my way. There was no way to tell how fresh they were, but I was expecting that at any moment I would come around a corner right on a bear, and be way too close. I guess I kind of spooked myself about it because that last mile and a half or so I really flew.

When I finally got in, I set up my tent and went straight to bed. No sense in cooking dinner because I was out of fuel, and at any rate I would eat a giant breakfast in town.



Groundhog Creek


Day 27

Location: Groundhog Creek Shelter, NC

Miles hiked today: 7.2

Miles from Springer: 244.5

Miles from Katahdin: 1929.5

Elevation: 2850′

Standing Bear was a hard place to leave. Since it was still raining in the morning, and because my shoes weren’t dry, and because my phone wasn’t dry, and because they had such great food it was very hard to go. Ultimately I knew I needed to go, but still the initiative escaped me until late in the afternoon.

I played two really good games of chess against Rockhound, the guy who lives there and takes care of the hikers. Last night we played a game that went very late, right down to both of us with just our kings and a few pawns, and a race of the pawns to get new queens. Today I played him in another long game. I used to play chess quite a bit in my “younger” years, and for some reason it has recently come back around to me as something that I keep encountering. I might have to find a portable chess set to fit in my pack!



Day 26
Location: Standing Bear Farm
Miles hiked today: 10.4
Miles from Springer: 238.3
Miles from Katahdin: 1937.9
Elevation: 1850′

This morning, I woke up with first light and went outside to use the men’s room. As I walked up the hill, I froze when I saw a rabbit just 2 or 3 feet away from the path. As I stood as still as I could, he studied me. After a little bit I noticed another rabbit, only 2 feet behind me. Suddenly there was a third, and this one seemed less concerned with me. He promptly started chasing one of the other rabbits in a tight circle. The third rabbit joined in the chase, but as soon as one circle was completed, everybody froze and looked at me. After a moment passed, the chase resumed, one circle, instigated by the third rabbit, and almost like someone turned the music off, they would suddenly stop, freeze and stare. What an entertaining game! This continued three or four times, and even though when they would freeze they would stare at me, their chase got closer and closer to me. Finally, the fifth time the chase resumed, two of the rabbits came right at me. I stayed as still as I could, not moving an inch. I felt the first one graze past my shin in mid-hop, and then a beat later I felt the second one collide with my ankle! He tumbled backwards into the undergrowth, but by the time I could turn and look at him he was already playing the staring game. After a little bit he hopped away, seemingly dazed but ok.

So that was my alotted wildlife encounter for the Smokies. No bears or elk (just recently re-introduced to the park). I suppose that in the end the rabbits are safer animals, and with what I saw they were more entertaining.

As I left the park I got as wet as I think it is possible to get. I had about a 10 mile walk to the hostel, but the first showers caught me before I was even down the mountain. The rain then stopped, and it seems I almost dryed out. Then I made the mistake of waiting for a few friends of mine in the open, instead of under the interstate overpass which would have been dry. I waited about 30 minutes, then decided to move on. As soon as I started moving the heavens opened, and before long I was wading in ankle deep mud and water. The trail in a lot of places is cut very deep, witch makes the trail itself somewhat like a small stream. Water seems to go straight through my pack cover and into my backpack, and even went through a ziplock bag to get my phone wet. As I write this later, I thought at the time that my phone was completely fried. It seems such a stupid thing now, in hindsight, to rely upon a single ziplock!

Standing Bear Farm hostel is one of a kind. Everything here looks exactly like you would picture a place to be in the backwoods hills of Tennessee. Every building is rustic and hand-built. One of the bunkhouses is built over the stream, so if you sleep there you can hear the water going under you all night. There is a seperate building for a kitchen, one for laundry and one for the store. The store is basically an open storehouse, with no attendant. You take what you need, eat it, and then write down what you used. When you check out the next day, you pay for everything you took. It is completely based upon the honor system. This is easily the most unique and interesting place I’ve stayed so far.

The next leg will take me to Hot Springs. I am really looking forward to it because it is a “true” trail town. In other words the A.T. actually goes right through town. It is also the favorite trail town of many hikers, so I can’t wait.


The Hired Goons Of The Smokies

Day 25
Location: Cosby Knob Shelter, GSMNP
Miles hiked today: 12.9
Miles from Springer: 226.9
Miles from Katahdin: 1947.1
Elevation: 4,700′

I can only spend so much time in the Smokies. Today is day number 5 here. While it has been a very beautiful hike with very unique landscape, this park is choking on rules and arcane beaurocratic regulations.

As a thru-hiker, I am treated like a second class citizen here. At the entrance I am required to get a permit to hike, which is a yellow scrap of paper that asks useful questions such as my name, address and make, model and license plate of my vehicle. If asked to produce this permit, I must have it on me or I face prohibitive fines.

Anybody hiking through the Smokies must carry one of these passes, but the regulations impose special hardships on thru-hikers. All hikers are required to stay at the shelters while on the A.T.; there is no tenting allowed anywhere else. However, now that they have concentrated all hikers at the few shelters sprinkled every 7 miles or so, they allow anybody who is not a thru-hiker to make reservations at these shelters. Thru-hikers are not allowed to make reservations. At each shelter, there are only four spaces available for thru-hikers. Any other thru-hikers who show up are told they have to tent, even though it might be raining. Contrast this with the rest of the trail, which operates on a first-come, first serve basis. When the shelter looks full, there is always room for one more.

The thing is, in my four nights here I have not seen a single non thru-hiker show up for their reservation. Yet every night we are harrassed by ridgerunners, to make sure that no one sleeps in any of the 8 empty spaces in the shelter. Last night, when it was threatening to rain, there were six of us at the shelter and he informed us that two of us needed to set up tents near the privy. The shelter was otherwise empty, and is built to hold 12.

This is the point where I had a very pointed question for him;

“Where do you sleep?”

“In the shelter,” he said.

“So when you come by to tell us the shelter is full, it’s because you’re here?” I asked.

“Huh?” he said.

Turns out, its true. While he did not stay at our shelter, (and we promplty ignored his demands after he left, and six of us slept comfortably in the big shelter.) he stayed at another shelter that night, taking one of the four available spots for thru-hikers. When I asked him if he would give up his spot to a thru-hiker, he said no.

So, essentially we are all trying to get out of this place as fast as we can. It is a real shame that the overall spirit of hospitality, generosity and accomodation that pervades the rest of the trail is violated here in the Smokies. At each shelter we are harrassed by ridgerunners and told we cannot sleep in the empty spaces, even if it is 8 pm and there is slim chance of 8 people showing up to claim their reservations.

Sorry for such a negative post, but I feel better complaining about it. Tomorrow by lunch I should be eating at one of my favorite establishments, Ryan’s Steak and Buffet! My People to People friends will know exactly what I am talking about.

And other than the harrassment we recieve at the shelters, I should be clear that I love the Smokies. This has been the most beautiful section of the trail so far. I will just have to come back when I am not a thru-hiker, and thereby retaining my full rights as a taxpayer.


Dolly Burgers


Day 24
Location: Peck’s Corner Shelter, GSMNP
Miles hiked today: 14.9
Miles from Springer: 214
Miles from Katahdin: 1,960
Elevation: 5280′

I overcame a great temptation today. There is only one major road crossing in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is US 441. In just a few short miles, a thru-hiker can escape all of this self-imposed misery and be among all of the glitter glam of a bona-fide tourist town, Gatlinburg. They have food, and showers I hear. The town has sucked in many a stalwart hiker, never to come out for at least 3 days. Like moths to a flame, hikers line up at the parking lot to solicit unsuspecting tourists for a ride into town, neglecting to tell them that they haven’t showered for 5 days.

One hiker went in and actually came back out the same day, which is no small feat. He said there was a t-rex, Herbie the Love Bug, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum and even a space needle. Who needs Clingman’s Dome when you have the Gatlinburg space needle? I’m sure it even has an escalator.

Ah, but I can resist such temptations. After all, I’ve seen t-rexes before, somewhere in the back roads of Virginia. However, there is also Dollywood. I have no idea where it is, but it is somewhere out there over them there ridges. There are rumors that they feed you whole chickens, as many as you can eat. Or is it they give you a live chicken, to carry around during your visit?

Whatever and wherever Dollywood is, we have determined all by ourselves that they must serve Dollyburgers. Of course, we have yet to check this against reality, but it only makes sense. Why would they build Dollywood but no Dollyburger? How would they get the hikers to come?

So, I found myself today at Newfound Gap, valiantly brushing away all thoughts of chickens and burgers and t-rexes and shouldering my pack, resigning myself to lipton noodles for another 3 days.

I put in at least 10 miles since Newfound Gap, and they were some of the best miles of the whole trail so far. For much of the way, the trail follows the knife-edge ridge, and at almost all times I had a spectacular view to the right or the left, and many times both at once. There were sections where the mountain dropped steeply off of both sides, and I could stretch out my hiking poles and hang both tips off of both sides. There was one place where the entire mountain had slid, and the trail workers had re-constructed the trail to hug the side of the cliff it created. I could see nothing but mountains in all directions. What a wonderful place!

“To get the most out of the Park, you must leave your car.”
-Sign at Newfound Gap


Clingman’s Dome

Day 23
Location: Mount Collins Shelter
Miles hiked today: 13.5
Miles from Springer: 199.1
Miles from Katahdin: 1974.9
Elevation: 5,870

Today I had one of those bizzare experiences where, as a smelly, disgusting hiker I am suddenly thrust back among the “civilians.” We reached Clingman’s Dome about 10 miles into the hike today, which was in the afternoon. Clingman’s, at 6,643 feet is the tallest point on the entire A.T., and not all that much shorter than Mount Mitchell, 75 miles to the east of here, which is the tallest point east of the Mississippi.

Apparently just for bragging rights, they have built a more than 50 foot tall tower on Clingman’s which artificially pushes it above Mount Mitchell. The monstrosity is one of the ugliest things I have ever seen, on top of a mountain or otherwise. They also built a paved road from the major highway, with a parking lot just .5 miles from the summit and a paved, gentle walkway from the parking lot to the summit.

All of this puts Clingman’s Dome within easy reach of scores of tourists from nearby tourist mecca Gatlinburg and elsewhere. The A.T. also happens to go right past the tower, which is where the surreal collision of hiker and tourist begins.

I have been hanging out with a couple of very entertaining older guys named Spirit and Wing Ding, who are from Canada and entertain us all because they are always bickering with each other. Spirit had hidden himself a food cache on Clingman’s, near the big tower. He even had a treasure map to find each cache, of which there were 3. The map had a bunch of squiggly lines, some x’s to mark the spots, and phrases like “look for the rock next to the tree trunk” or “cache is under the big log”. This in a section of forest that is more or less impassible off-trail, because there are so many fallen trees, rocks and big logs. By all appearances this was going to be entertaining.

Sure enough, it was. I was fortunate enough to be with them when they started their treasure hunt, and Spirit promised me a couple of candy bars if I tagged along. He proceeded to push his way through the thickest fir trees, and crawling around under every upturned tree on his hands and knees. Soon enough he was triumphantly holding aloft a very dirty and somewhat decayed parcel wrapped in multiple plastic bags that had been there since the previous September!

The one drawback to the scavenger hunt for me was that I somehow ended up with some sort of bird poop all over my hands as I pushed through all the trees. This smell was VERY strong, and would not come off. I tried two different brands of hand sanitizer, but nothing worked. So, like any hiker would I shrugged my shoulders and headed up to join the tourists on the tower.

No sooner had I joined the throngs of tourists did I overhear my favorite quote of the entire hike so far; there was a woman and her husband who were slogging up the gentle paved path from their car and I heard the woman say, “This thing could use an escalator!” If only I could, at that moment, throw my dirty sweaty pack on that woman’s back and let her hike up the entire mountain!

It was actually kind of fun to mingle with a group like that when smelling like bat guano. I noticed that no one got too close to me, and I even encountered the escalator woman and her husband who wanted me to take their picture. So, I happily took their camera and took their picture, though I’m not sure whether any of the smell actually transferred to the camera.

Another hiker had a great story as well. There was a 7th grade girl’s choral group on the mountain, who were on their way to Gatlinburg for a concert. My friend Corey was standing nearby with his pack on, and several of the girls were standing not far away in a little huddle and one of them said, “Someone has a serious case of B.O!” As they puzzled about which among them it could possibly be, Corey decided to help them out and announced that it was he.

As for the hike today, it was gorgeous. The morning started out with more miles of picturesque forest with a grassy floor covered in wildflowers. At some point, there was a transition to firs and pine trees, and suddenly it looked just like I was home in the Big Horns! The last 6 or so miles have been like that, and tonight I will sleep well smelling that familiar pine tree smell.


Ol’ Rocky Top

Day 22
Location: Derrick Knob Shelter
Miles hiked today: 11.7
Miles from Springer: 186.6
Miles from Katahdin: 1,989.6
Elevation: 4,880

I am really amazed that I have been in the Smokies for two days so far and I still have not been attacked by a single bear. According to one of the Inn owners near Fontana Village, you can expect the bears here to swipe the pack right off of your back and sooner or later you will be charged by a 450 pound wild hog.

It seems that the bear hysteria gets stepped up a notch here. Today I saw a shelter that had a chain link fence across the entrance, essentially turning it into a cage. All the shelters in the Smokies used to be like that, but they are slowly removing them and this is the last one. It is like some sort of bizarre reverse zoo where the people are in the cages and the bears walk around with ice cream cones and tell their young not to get too close.

I saw a comment in that shelter’s register where one of the “cage people” had come up with a name for the people who choose to sleep outside in tents as “bear-itos,” and anybody who goes out to the woods to pee at night as “decoys.”

There are still supposed to be a lot of bears around here, but I haven’t seen one yet. Hopefully I’ll get to see a tame one from a good distance away, but still close enough to photograph and with good lighting…

I just learned today that we’re already in Tennessee. There was no sign, but according to the map we picked up the state line just after Shuckstack, and have been following it ever since. The trail actually follows the state line, and for the most part when you are walking the trail your left foot falls in Tennessee and your right foot falls in North Carolina. The trail will switch back and forth between the two states until it reaches Virginia.

Today I climbed Rocky Top! Rocky Top is definitely one of the marquee mountains I have been looking forward to for some time, largely thanks to the song. It did not dissapoint, and from the top I could make out Fontana Lake, Cheoah Bald, and I even thought I could see the sillouette of Standing Indian Mountain, way down by the Georgia border.

Just for fun, I sang the song from the top in my best Osborne Brothers voice.

Rocky Top
By the Osborne Brothers

Wish that I was on ‘ol Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top
Ain’t no telephone bills

Once I had a girl on Rocky Top
Half bear the other half cat
Wild as a mink but sweet as soda pop
I still dream about that

Rocky Top you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ‘ol Rocky Top
Rocky Top Tennessee
Rocky Top Tennessee

One time two strangers climbed ‘ol Rocky Top
Looking for a moonshine still
Strangers ain’t come down from ‘ol Rocky Top
Reckon they never will

Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt’s too rocky by far
That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar

Rocky Top you’ll alway be
Home sweet home to me
Good ‘ol Rocky Top
Rocky Top Tennessee
Rocky Top Tennessee

I’ve had years of cramped up city life
Trapped like a duck in a pen
All I know is its the city life
Can’t be simple again

Rocky top you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ‘ol Rocky Top
Rocky Top Tennessee
Rocky Top Tennessee