Friday, November 14, 2014

Her Side of the Mountain

Friends, many of you know that several weeks ago Glen and I traveled to Tennessee and Georgia to visit with friends and to attempt our first venture into hiking and backpacking.  Glen wrote his thoughts on our first hiking experience, which can be read at The Special of the Day. . .From the Orange Moon Cafe,  He encourage me to do so as well, so here it is... 

Glen & Frances' Excellent Adventure
Her Side of the Mountain

Our hiking trip did not begin with our departure for the Great Smokey Mountains. It began months before with all the reading, researching and planning entailed in a multi-day backpacking trip, especially for those who have never even hiked or camped before.

 I read countless reviews on various pieces of gear, compared backpacks and tents, stoves and sleeping pads. I poured over maps and read forums. I began to -- very slowly -- collect the smaller pieces of gear.  Each piece was measured, not only for weight (because when you carry everything on your backs, weight becomes a critical issue) but also for importance.  Was the item something we absolutely needed, might need or something we just wanted?  Or more importantly, was it something which could be left behind all together?

Since we were not even sure we would be fond of hiking once we finished our adventure, we rented the larger, more expensive pieces, from an excellent company in Arizona, LowerGear. For less than we could have purchased one single piece we were able to rent two backpacks, two sleeping bags and a tent, including shipping both ways.

In the days before we left, I amassed all our gear in the living room to divide it as equally between the two packs as possible.  Then the packs were loaded. How a backpack is loaded can be as important as the weight in the pack, as we were to learn practically on the trail.

Finally, we left for the Tennessee home for our friends, Tom & JJ, where we were to spend the night prior to starting our hike. Getting lost on the way to their house did not bode well for our navigational skills the next day.  

We hardly had time to visit with our friends before it was time for bed, but I slept only fitfully.  All the myriads of details I had studied over the last seven months started flooding my brain.  Did I forget something?  Was I sure I knew the route?  Would it have been better if we had practiced more with the tent?  They were like mosquitoes encircling my head.

Morning came and nervously I dressed.  It was a cold morning and we were layered pretty well for those living in the sub-tropics.  I almost felt out of place with the cold weather clothes on, but I felt out of place for more than just my clothes.

We had never done anything remotely like this.  We had walked literally thousands of miles between us in the last ten months.  We had walked all the hills available to us in town which at it's highest point is 240 feet above sea level. Most of our walking was done between our house (at 42 ft above sea level) and the downtown area (a mere 3 ft above sea level.)  Whether we were as prepared as we should have been or not, the moment was upon us.  Perhaps it was this uncertainty which led me to forgo breakfast.  

JJ drove us to the trail-head through the curving streets first in Maryville and then through the mountains themselves.  The roads revealed a gorgeous display of greens and yellows and golds all offering the promise of an even greater color show to come, but I was too nervous to notice much.  I was also hoping my nervousness didn't show.

When we reached the trail-head it was time to put on our gear.  I was pleased with the final weight of our backpacks, Glen's was 25 pounds and mine 24.  I felt this was the result of all the reading and studying I had done in the prior months. . .or had I forgotten something?  Maybe something really important?

 Backpacks on and trekking poles in our hands, we had to look around to find the path to the trail.  I had noticed another group of hikers heading toward one end of the  parking lot and followed their lead feeling  every bit the novice I was.   Soon we were standing at the marker for the Alum Cave Trail.

A few minutes into the trail and we both remarked how much we enjoyed it.  The weather was cold, the air crisp and thin (especially compared to the humid air from which we had come.)  This part of the trail was marked with very interesting geological features and the path relatively easy. Next to the path was a beautiful stream which created lovely little waterfalls here and there and added a soothing sound to the rhythm of our trekking poles striking the ground.  We crossed this stream, and others, over log bridges.  We entered a small arch which made a sort of tunnel in the rock and  climbed on steps hewn out of the rock.

We stopped at one point for a break and a bite to eat.  As we ate, we chatted with others who were also traveling up the trail.  Later we passed them and were passed by them as well.  There was not a soul we encountered who was not polite and friendly.

We made our way up to a part of the trail that gave exceptional views of the mountains in front of us.  Looking off to those peaks it was easy to understand why so many want to consider this part of the country their home.

For part of the trail, cables were attached to the rocky side of the mountain with huge eye-bolts.  While the trail was not really so difficult that the cables were needed here, they would become essential later on.

Eventually we made our way to Alum Cave, which is the turn-around spot for many who hike this trail 
and roughly halfway to the summit.  We met a very interesting man and his niece and she volunteered to take our picture, a picture which is now my favorite of us ever taken.

It seemed too soon that we began the trail to the summit.  This trail is a series of switchbacks, which are designed to make steep hills easier to climb and also helps protect the hill and the trail from excessive erosion.  Even with the switchbacks, the trail was much steeper than that which we had previously hiked.  

At this point, the cables in the mountain rock were essential because the trail was narrow, 
wide enough for one, but not for two side by side. The narrow path was  edged with a precipitous drop down the side of the mountain.  Frequently I noticed water dropping from the mountain side onto the trail, making the rocks on the trail much more difficult to traverse with sure footing.
Our path was also frequently blocked by fallen trees.  Some were small enough to step over.  Some were high enough off the path to step under.  For some, we had to remove our packs, drop them over the side of the trees and slide along the ground under the tree.

The number of other hikers on the trail was diminishing, although we did encounter a few every now and then.  The views from this trail were breath-taking, but I couldn't spare any breath for views, I was using more than my share for hiking.  I couldn't spare my eyes either, since the rocky path made it necessary to fix our gaze in front of us. 
View from Mt. LeConte

At one point I carefully planted my left foot on one rock and, what I thought, carefully planted my right foot on another rock.  But the second rock was wet and slippery and my leg shot out to the right over-stretching the muscles.  It wasn't long after that my right knee began to ache and sting with each step, especially the steps down.

This path was so narrow, and so steep, we had no place to rest or eat.  At one point we did stop at a hairpin turn in the path and rested for a few minutes.  Other hikers came by at that point and it was a challenge to find somewhere to stand so that we could be out of their way, but not too close to the edge of the path.

Before long we reached the Mt. LeConte Lodge and Shelter.  This was where we were originally going
Hilltops, the summit of Mt. LeConte
to stop for the night, but the shelter was closed for bear activity and the wait for Lodge reservations is well over a year.  There we encountered again two brothers we had met down trail.  As we chatted with them, I totally forgot this was the place to refill our water supply.  We trudged on up the trail and soon came to the anti-climatic summit of Mt. LeConte.  There is no view to be seen here, only a huge pile of rocks.   We had little time to congratulate ourselves on our achievement because we still had almost six miles to go before sunset, more than we had already hiked.

Our route to the summit of Mt. LeConte

We headed to the Boulevard  Trail, which shall forever be known in my mind as the Outer Circle of Dante's Inferno. 

Boulevard trail connects Mt. Le Conte and the Appalachian Trail. It is a rolling trail following a narrow ridge with steep forested slopes on both sides.  We saw only one other hiker along the length of this trail.  I'm glad, because I would have hated to have witnesses for the staggering, stumbling and slipping we did on that trail. . . and that was the good part!

Our route along the Boulevard Trail

The Boulevard trail is a series of ups and downs.  We rarely seemed to notice the downs, although I do remember quite a few deep drops.  At one point I decided it was better, with my aching knee, to just sit on the trail and go down on my behind (like a toddler going downstairs) than to try to negotiate the large step.

Somewhere along the Boulevard Trail, we had the conversation that we hated hiking.  In fact, I believe we repeated this mantra emphatically several times as our strength faded and our moods soured.  It reminds me of the verse in Psalms, "complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed."

About halfway along this trail, Glen began to have sudden, severe leg cramps. I watched in helplessness as he fell to the trail, his face twisted in pain.    He would manage to stand up again and another cramp would take him to the ground.  With his cramps and my knee, I wondered if we would just spend the night on this cold, rocky trail.  Then he realized his cramps were probably because he had not taken in enough water.  It is easy not to realize how much moisture one loses when breathing heavily, and I know I had been breathing that way for several miles.  He drank the remainder of one of his water bottles and felt better after a few minutes.  We started along the trail and again he was struck with painful cramps, though not as severe as before.  He drank the rest of his other water bottle. Thinking I could easily refill his bottles from the reservoir in my pack, I drank some water only to realize that mouthful constituted the last of our water.  We had miles to go and no water.

At this point, any time I stood still, which I had to do to look at the map, the muscles in my thighs would quiver and shake.  I realized we had three desperate needs and no way of meeting those needs ourselves.  We needed water, and the spring was miles away at the shelter.  We needed strength to even make it to the shelter as we were physically exhausted.  And we needed light to find the shelter.  I know Glen was fervently praying for these needs just as I was.

We continued on what seemed an eternity of inclines and ascents, twists and turns in the trail.  We just knew at the next turn the trail would level out and we would be at the Appalachian Trail.  Looking at the map though, it seemed we had as far to go as we had come.  At one point I remember making a desperate promise to the Lord, "Lord it you get me off this mountain, I promise I will NEVER set a foot on it again!"

It was several minutes later I heard it. . . easily distinguished among the soft sounds of the mountain was the sound of running water.  I could tell a stream was running down the side of the mountain, but it was so steep I also knew if we somehow managed to bushwhack our way down to it, we would never have the strength to climb the ascent back up.  So we trudged on, we continued to slip, to fall, and to falter.  At one point Glen, now several feet in front of me, informed me that the trail ahead was "just another incline."  

I responded with a despondent, "I don't think I can take another step uphill."  But he shouted encouraging words. . . something to the effect that I had no choice. 

We continued on.

After a while, I not only heard the water, but I could barely make out the sparkling of it ahead.  I felt like Dorothy outside the Emerald City, "Oh, let's run!"  My exhausted legs would not let me come near a run or even a trot, but my pace did pick up heading toward that water.

Several feet later, we came upon a beautiful stream cascading down from the rocks in the mountain.  It pooled along the area of the path and then continued cascading downward.  I knelt down in the stream, not caring that my trail runners were being soaked, and easily filled the water bag reserved solely for water which needed to be purified.  We collected almost five liters of water.  It only took a few minutes to filter it, refill our water bottles and the reservoir in my pack.  The cold, fresh water tasted better than any other drink I could imagine. . .except for maybe a hot cup of coffee.

Refreshed with the mountain water, we continued on.  At each turn in the path I looked for a good place for us to camp but our path was on a ridge with no flat, rock-free place to pitch our tent.  The only flat place we had encountered was the stream.

Even with the water, I was quickly running out of strength.  Looking at the map, it seemed we had so much more trail to traverse before reaching our shelter.  I thought that at some time I would just drop on the ground and not be able to get back up.  At this point I was ahead of Glen on the trail.  It was then the simple chorus came into my mind.  I began to first sing it in my head:

"Lord, you are more precious than silver,
Lord, you are much finer than gold,
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
And nothing I desire compares with You."

Then I began to sing it aloud.  As I started each phrase, I planted both of my trekking poles in the ground and literally pulled myself forward with my arms. (Which explains why my upper abdominal muscles were so sore the next day.)  As I sang, I began to feel stronger.  As I felt stronger, I sang louder.  I could tell the Lord was answering another prayer. . .just as He had provided the mountain stream in an unexpected place, He was quickening our mortal bodies.  Now all we needed was enough light.

We made a hairpin turn in the path that was easy to recognize on the map.  The amount we had to go seemed significantly shorter now.  Then, almost before I expected it to be there, we came to point where the Boulevard trail meets the Appalachian Trail.  I have never wanted to kiss a sign more in my life.  Not just because it was the Appalachian Trail (which I have dreamed of hiking for years) but because it also said "Ice Water Spring Shelter  .2 miles."  

Only .2 miles to our rest.

Once we started on the Appalachian Trail, it was like night and day.  This path is well maintained, thanks to the  Appalachian Trail Conservatory and local groups and volunteers along its 2181 miles.  If our whole hike had been like this, I am sure we would have had a better experience our first day.

Ice Water Spring Shelter
Quickly we came to the shelter and as we walked up to the three-sided building a young lady informed us, "We are full here."  This shelter only sleeps 12 and there were quite a few people mingling around.  We had reservations for two spots in the shelter (actually only a wooden platform with a roof and three walls) but it had been my prayer all along that the shelter would be full and we could tent instead.

Two other tents were already set up in front of the shelter, so we picked the space between them.  I made the mistake of not looking the area over carefully and was to spend the night regretting my haste.

We pitched our tent without any problems, even better than we had done in our living room, in fact.  I told Glen that I would be glad to cook us some dinner (we had our own portable stove and fuel) but he knew I was exhausted.  We both agreed to eat our non-cook foods, so we had a dinner of granola bars, peanut-butter crackers and nuts.  We cleaned up, changed clothes and snuggled into our sleeping bags with plenty of light left.

Every need we had asked the Lord for, He had abundantly supplied.  We had collected enough water so that we didn't need to refill once we reached the shelter.  We made it to the shelter with plenty of strength to pitch our tent and prepare for bed.  And we had light even after we crawled into our sleeping bags.

That night there were many people sleeping well at the shelter.  I know this because I could hear them snoring.  I was not one of them.  It was not sleeping outside, or in a tent, nor even the chorus of snorers which kept me awake.  In fact, I quite liked the soft, rustling sounds of the mountain.  There were three other things keeping me from sleep.

One was the continual pain in my knee.  My mummy-style sleeping bag made it difficult for me to position my leg in any way that was comfortable.  Every turn was incredibly painful.  But I had to change positions often because the other two things keeping me awake were two rocks under our tent positioned right under my hips.  I know I could have just turned around in the tent, but at that time I was in too much pain and too exhausted to even consider that an option.

We woke early to a cloudy start to the next day.  The view from our tent reinforced that we were in the
View from our tent
"Smokey" mountains.  We changed clothes and I made coffee for us.  It was the most delicious thing I had put in my mouth in 24 hours.  Then, being the good southern girl that I am, I made grits.

After we had eaten, we packed up our gear.  Glen mentioned that his pack had been really putting pressure on his shoulders the day before which told me the contents of his pack needed to be adjusted.  I had meant to do that before we started, but just forgot about it in the excitement of getting on the trail.  I rearranged the contents of his pack, which he said made it feel much better.  It was a amazing to me, that I never had any perception of the my 24 pound pack being heavy.  I don't even think I thought about my pack much at all.  I think that speaks well of the construction and quality of backpacks today.

I could not say the same for my own body.  When I stood to walk, I couldn't bend my knee.  I had to have Glen walk beside me because I was afraid if I tripped on a root or rock, I would fall.  When we returned to the tent, we had to kneel down to remove the poles and dismantle the tent.  In doing so, the muscles in my injured leg started to stretch out.  When I stood, I could not only bend my knee, but I could walk much more easily.

By the time we had packed up all our gear, all the younger people who had stayed at the shelter had left.  All that was left were us "older folks."  Among these were a set of three brothers who were hiking together.  When we told them what we had done the day before, they told us that was a difficult hike for even experienced hikers.  That made me feel much better. . .if it was difficult for people who knew what they were doing, no wonder it was so brutal for us!

We had already decided to change our hiking plans.  Originally, we were going to go northbound on the Appalachian Trail for three more days and JJ would pick us up at Davenport Gap.  But we didn't know what my knee was going to do, and we didn't know the difficulty or steepness of the trail ahead.  This was our one opportunity for making changes.  If we continued northbound we would be bound to continue for the whole three days.

If we headed southbound, however, we would have about three miles until we reached road access where JJ could come and pick us up at Newfound Gap.  One obvious benefit of this plan, besides sparing my knee, was that we would have two more days to visit with our friends.

We decided on the southbound route towards Newfound Gap.  This was like night and day from the
Appalachian Trail
day before.  Again, I felt like Dorothy, "Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."  In fact, not only were we not in Kansas, we were in two states, actually walking the ridge with one foot in North Carolina and one foot in Tennessee.

Although not necessarily easy, this part of the trail was nothing like the Boulevard Trail.  It was so pleasant that we both commented we actually liked this type of hiking. Just as we had repeated the negative mantra the day before, we repeated the positive one now.   The changing leaves provided a golden canopy above us and the fallen ones a soft cushion beneath our feet.  If I had to sum it up in one word it would be "delightful."   

Stopping for a bite to eat

Since we weren't pushed to make so many miles, we were able to stop and eat (which we did very little of the day before) and enjoy the beautiful views.

This part of the trail is also a frequent trek for day-hikers looking for the many scenic overlooks along the way.  With our loaded packs, we looked the hiker part.  One group of people we passed along the trail said, "You look like professional hikers."  I chuckled at the hilarity of that statement and replied, "It's just a facade!"

Later we met some experienced hikers who wanted to know where we had started.  We told them our trek of the day before and they reinforced what we had heard earlier in the morning, that we had covered a very difficult hike.  When Glen told them it was our first experience hiking, one of them looked at us and said, "You are my heroes!"  They will never know the encouragement those four words gave me.

They went a long way to making, me at least, feel much better about the day before. While we had
clearly bitten off more than we could chew, we had attempted something very difficult and we had succeeded.  I told my friends at work (labor & delivery nurses) that it was the hardest, most strenuous physical thing I had ever done --including childbirth.  If anyone understood the implications of that statement, it was them.

The closer we got to the road access at Newfound Gap, the more people we encountered on the trail.  Many wanted to know how far we had hiked, or what the trail was like ahead of them.  Now we were responding like experienced hikers, even though the experience was very little.

The end of our hike at Newfound Gap
When we came to the parking lot, we were surprised at how many people were there.  And we were the only ones with 20+ pound backpacks.  Several wanted to stop us and talk to us and we happily chatted.  Well, if you know us you know Glen did the chatting, and I just smiled a lot.

Then like true hikers who carry everything on their backs, we found a piece of ground, planted ourselves down, fired up the stove and made some hot chocolate to sip on while we waited for JJ to arrive.  

Our hiking was over for the day, but our adventure had only begun.

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