Final Journey – Day 9 – October 27, 2013

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Completion of AT

Day 9
Hawk Mountain Shelter to Nimblewill Gap
North to South
10.4 miles

Today was the day a 28 year journey would come to an end. I awoke and sat up in my ground pad/lounger, waiting for the sun to rise above the ridge and bring daylight to our camp. At 7:00, it was still mostly dark when we heard the legions of scouts walking past our tent, heading north on the AT to end their weekend excursion. So good to see kids out in the mountains. Nature is such an underrated stimulant to the imagination.

Now the clearing was left to the two old guys and our neighbor, the north bounder, whose presence was periodically announced by a hacking cough. I fired up the coffee and oatmeal water and pored over the map and guide.

AT Guidebooks

AT Guide book and mapThe AT guidebooks are tangible examples of extraordinary dedication. I had the great fortune to work on the Maine trail guide a few years ago, so I have first hand knowledge about what it takes to create one.

There are 11 Official Appalachian Trail Guides. Each one is produced by the trail’s maintaining clubs. The clubs revise their guides to reflect updates to the trail (re-locations of sections, for example). The proceeds from sales of the guides support the protection, management and maintenance of the AT.

Generally, the guides consist of a book, with way finding descriptions of the trail organized by sections (e.g., Woody Gap (GA 60) to Hightower Gap – Section 16 – 11.9 miles) and corresponding maps. The maps provide both a topographic view of the trail (the trail is shown as a solid red line and side trails as dotted lines) and profile view, which give you an idea of how much climbing and dropping you will be doing in a particular section.

I carry my map and guide in a holster pouch on my pack’s waist belt. I find it annoying to have to take my pack off during the day unless it’s to rest. Having the holster lets me carry the book, map, a compass and my camera within reach. I wouldn’t dream of heading out on the trail without a guidebook, not only for way finding, but because it provides critical info in the case of someone getting injured or needing to find an alternate route out.

Whenever I’m out in the woods, I carry more than my pack. I carry a responsibility to know how to help myself or others if needed. If I can’t readily figure out an evacuation plan or provide my location to search and rescue teams, I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. Increasingly, and disturbingly, we encounter people on the trail that aren’t carrying maps and guides. I don’t understand this at all.

For example, on the south side of Blood Mountain, I met a north bounder who stopped and asked me about side trails that would allow him to avoid climbing the mountain via the AT (because he didn’t want to do “a hard f***ing climb like he had to do the reach Springer Mountain”) and let him rejoin the trail at Neel’s Gap. Of course, I don’t mind providing helpful information to anyone out here, but it makes me cringe to think how much reliance on others this approach requires. What is he going to do, rely on south bounders (if he can find them) all the way up the trail?

Back in the tent, I looked at the profile map for the 7.6 miles between us and Springer Mountain. I knew that the miles would fly by today. It’s always that way toward the end of a trip – finally in trail shape and carrying a pack that was just about as light as it would get. As an added bonus, most of the first 4.5 miles would be gently rolling terrain.
I ducked out of the tent to scope out the weather. It was overcast and chilly, but no threat of rain, true to the forecast. The fellow camper was gone. We didn’t even hear him leave. We packed in a hurry and started up the trail.

Reflecting on this day, the thing I remember most is wearing a perpetual smile. I was in full information receiving mode – those aching muscles from earlier in the trip weren’t a primary concern and I was free to simply enjoy my surroundings. The leaves underfoot had lost some of their vibrancy during the week. The kaleidoscope was still beautiful, yet muted. The leaves were still mostly green overhead, but the change was undoubtedly happening. More yellows and rusts were mixing in.

I felt fantastic. There was no bittersweet mixed in as there was on my last day on the Pacific Crest Trail 30 years before. Back then, I was getting off a trail that had been my daily home for 6 1/2 months. This time was different. Maybe it’s because it hadn’t yet sunk in that I was really finishing the trail. I wondered if it would take until next winter, when there would be no section to do next year.

Three ForksWe dropped down to a gorgeous place called Three Forks – where the convergence of three streams form the Noontootla River and a virgin stand of hemlocks towers above. Nearby USFS road 58 provides access to this beautiful river walk along an abandoned dirt road. There were lots of people out enjoying this autumn Sunday.

As we climbed out of the gap and left the weekend crowd behind, the trail took a couple of hairpin turns. I briefly wondered whether Wayne would make them all. In one place, it looked like the trail continued straight on the dirt road we were on. Only a downed tree across the path indicated it was the wrong way. (This is a frequent method of marking that you shouldn’t proceed, but sometimes it’s easy to think that the tree is simply a blowdown from a storm.)

Meanwhile, I began the initial climb of Springer Mountain. Partway up, I met a north bound marine in full camo, asking about places to camp. He had a really sore foot, so I suggested he pass some time at Stover Creek Shelter to recoup. It wasn’t long after we parted ways that I heard him talking to Wayne – who had obviously navigated the hairpins. Wayne caught up to me and asked me if it was ok to talk the rest of the way to Springer or whether I wanted contemplation time. I said it was ok to talk. We did chat a bit, but it wasn’t about our adventures on the trail. That would come later, I guessed.

(C) Josh Layman, Wikepedia

As we ascended the mountain, I heard the jungle cry of a Pileated Woodpecker, followed by three very loud knocking sessions. I smiled, knowing that I was being chaperoned to the end of the trail by one of my favorite birds, the giant among woodpeckers. While I had seen wood shavings indicative of Pileated visits earlier on the hike, I had only seen and heard smaller woodpeckers. Now one of the big boys was out, most likely looking for ants under the bark of a tree.

Springer Mountain

20131108-150150.jpgCompared to its terminus cohort, some 2,141 miles away, Springer Mountain is remarkably accessible. While you don’t reach Katahdin without a concerted hiking effort, you can drive to within less than a mile of the top of Springer Mountain. In fact, the trail crosses through a large dirt trailhead parking lot .9 from the summit.

We briefly stopped (while still wearing packs) to look at the kiosks, brimming with info and maps. A few people were milling about, either just returning from or just setting off for the summit.

It was our turn. As we hiked up toward the top, I was thankful that it was another dry day. “It may not be sunny, but at least it’s not drizzle or worse- pouring rain”, I thought. We’d certainly been fortunate this trip.

A few tenths of a mile shy of the summit, we came to the junction with the Benton MacKaye trail. Named for the visionary who birthed the concept for the AT, it departed for its 300 mile trip through Georgia and North Carolina to arrive at the northern edge of the Smokeys.

We decided not to stop, nor take the side trip to the first (or last) shelter on the AT. We could hear a gathering of people there and preferred to keep our completion ceremony short and private.

Hiking along, I climbed a small hill to find three women taking pictures at a trailside boulder. “You’re almost there!”, one said. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that this phrase can mean anything from being accurate to being several miles off, so I tended to think I was still a ways from the top.

Boy, was I wrong. I literally walked 50 yards into a clearing and there was the summit plaque. “Appalachian Trail – Georgia to Maine. A footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness. — The Georgia Appalachian Trail Club.” I was stunned. The ending stood in stark contrast to the 28 years it took to get here.

Appalachian Trail summit plaque on Springer Mountain

I took my pack off, flung my arms into the air, then walked over to give Wayne a hug. He asked me to put my hand on the plaque with him, then offered a toast.

Amazing. 28 years worth of memories flooded through me like a fast speed slide show. A devastatingly hot hike through the Shenandoahs in May, the hard earned granite summits of the Whites, the high mileage jaunt through Massachusetts and Connecticut, meeting Helen twice at her Port Clinton Hotel in Pennsylvania and so much more. Every trip had its own character. Every section its own charm. And now, at 2:35 on this October afternoon, it was complete. Wow.

We got chatting with a college student named Corey, who graciously offered to take our picture. After 20 minutes or so of discussion and general celebration, it was time to go. We still had an 8.7 mile hike ahead of us to reach the end – the visitor’s center of Amicalola State Park.

The Hike Out

We still had some work to do, namely to get down to park headquarters and get a ride to the Gainesville Amtrak station between now and tomorrow night at 9:00 p.m. If we got in a few more miles today, we’d be in good shape. 1.5 miles down, we hit the junction for Black Gap Shelter. It was pretty busy for a Sunday night. I could smell the campfires long before we saw the tents or the trail to the shelter.

Water filterOpposite the shelter trail, there was a trail to a spring. We ditched our packs and walked way, way down to the spring below. “Damn that filter”, I thought. “I need to replace that cartridge as soon as I get back. At least it’s the last time we’ll need it.”

The walk back up, even without a pack, was a drag. It seemed to take forever. I half wanted to just find a flat spot and call it a day. We took out the trail guide. There was a flat ridge just over one mile away. We went for it.

Yes, it was flat, but there weren’t any established camp spots there. We were loathe to create a new one. We soldiered on. We crossed a dirt road 2.8 from Springer’s summit in Nimblewill Gap. Someone had parked a black Chrysler there. Must have been some of the campers from Black Gap.

We tried to find a flat spot for the tent. The pickings were scarce. We noted how many sites we had seen from Springer Mountain north and how few between Springer and here.

We climbed a woods road and found a spot that looked passable on the right. When we got the tent set up, however, it was awful. Not flat enough.

One of the great things about the Pleasure Dome, is that you can move it intact to a different location. Wayne climbed the ridge across the street and I passed the tent up to him. We set it down in a better location. “That’s it. Camp is established.”

What a day! 6.0 to hike tomorrow and then to find a ride.

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