I know it has not been that long since I have communicated with you, but I may not have access to a computer for a long while, and I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. I am back at my friend Darry Wood’s house near Hayesville. Now, don’t think I have not been doing anything. The Appalachian Trail does a strange thing in this area: it loops around, goes south, and then turns back north again. You end up almost where you started! You see, when they laid out the trail back in the 1930′s, they did not try to find the fastest way to get to Maine. Instead they tried to find the most dramatic and naturalistically significant route. The 32.9 miles I have walked over the last 3 1/2 days have taken me on a dramatic study of watersheds. For a good portion of the way, I have been walking the Continental Divide of the Eastern United States. On this particular route, if I looked to my left, all the springs, creeks, and rivers drained into the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Hiawassee, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers. If I looked to my right, all the water drained into the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Tallulah River, to the Savannah River, and then on to the Atlantic Ocean at Savannah, Georgia. Boy, I really felt like I was on top of things during this time!
After my last email, my friend Darry drove me back to where the Chunky Gal Trail intersected with Highway 64 between Franklin and Hayesville, NC tadacip cipla. I was concerned about the 5.5 miles I had to hike back to the Appalachian Trail. I knew from the day before that it consisted of a lot of extreme ups and downs, scrambling over rocks and fallen trees, and trying to find the trail itself! The day before, coming down the trail, I made a point of dragging my feet and hiking poles to disturb the leaves so that I could find my way back. It was a little like Hansel and Gretel, but not quite. But I was a man on a mission! I turned myself into “The Little Engine that Could.” I huffed and puffed up those hills! One time as I rounded a bend, I was met by a giant roaring noise. I nearly jumped out of my skin! It wasn’t a bear. It was a ruffed gouse, a bird much large than a quail but smaller than a wild turkey. After this, I could hear ruffed grouse doing their mating dances in the woods. Spring fever has come to the Appalachians! During their dance, these birds spread their tails, puff out their chests, and make a peculiar kind of noise. This noise can travel for a mile or more and sounds like someone starting up an old tractor. For my Indian friends who are reading this, this dance of the ruffed grouse is where the Chicken Dance comes from. Well, really the Chicken Dance comes from the Prairie Grouse a close cousin of this bird, but the dance is the same!
I got back to the AT in record time, collapsed on a hillside and had a lunch of pita bread and gnawed off bites of a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese. At that moment a hiker passed by on the trail. I hollered out a hello and met Floater, a 66 year old thru-hiker from New Orleans. Floater got his trail name because, days before, during all that rain down in Georgia, he almost floated away in his tent. Floater and I hit it off big time. Even though I hiked at a much faster pace than he did, he hiked with steady determination. I would get to the next camping spot, and two hours later, Floater would arrive. We hung together for three days and learned much from each other. I taught Floater how to start a campfire by using paper thin peelings from various birch trees. Floater taught me about courage. You see, I have been camping at shelters with plenty of other people for most of the last two weeks. I told myself that I liked to do this because of the socialization possible at the shelters. But there was another reason: I was scared of bears. The thought of camping on my own out in the wilderness without the help of others to fight off herds of attacking bears, scared me . . . to death. But Floater had been doing this the whole trail. Floater talked me into camping in the wild. We took precautions. We cooked and ate away from our tents. We hung up our food bags and packs on high tree limbs. And I slept with my pocket knife under my sleeping bag. The only bears I saw were in my dreams, a lot the first night. The second night, not a one.
The bears actually have a challenging life in this wilderness. Last year, in the county I have been hiking through (Clay County), 86 bears were legally taken by hunters. Even now, I have been running into bear hunters in the woods. They turn their dogs loose with radios on their collars and hang back and listen. If a dog finds a bear, it makes a certain kind of bark, the rest of the dogs join in, and the pack of dogs tree the bear. The hunters then move in. But now, this is just practice. Bear season runs from October through November and again from January through February, with deer season in between. So there’s no doubt about it, the bears are out here. One hiker I ran into named Early Bear is actually from Durham. Early Bear was laid off from his job at a chemical company and decided that hiking the AT would be a good thing to do. I asked Early Bear how he got his name. He told me that he had stopped for the night around Woody Gap in Georgia (Wait a minute, I had just been through there!). He was cooking his dinner and had left his camp to find a place to hang his “bear bag.” When he returned to his camp, he found a bear waiting for him. The bear was attracted by the smell of food. Early Bear spread his arms out wide, made some noise, and scared the bear off. He earned his trail name by encountering a bear on the third day of his thru-hike!
So Floater has helped me with my courage. I am going to have to get used to occasionally camping alone. Floater and I experienced an amazing examples of Trail Magic. Yesterday, as we were approaching the sharp climb of Albert Peak, we passed by a camp on the side of the trail and were hailed to come over. A guy was standing in front of a table with a propane stove on top. “You want some breakfast?” he asked. Floater didn’t eat so much, but I had three fried eggs, three pieces of bread, a bunch of bacon, a hot dog, a cup of coffee, and a can of pop. It beat the heck out of the energy bar I had had earlier! My doctor said I could eat anything I wanted to on the trail Think about it. Americans are encouraged to get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day. I am getting 5 to 7 hours of aerobic, heart pumping exercise a day. Cholesterol doesn’t have a chance! I visited with this Trail Angel for almost two hours. He told me an amazing story. His trail name is Fishin Fred. He lives in Royal Oak, Michigan. In 2005, Fishin Fred was on his first thru-hike of the AT. Near Unicoi Gap in Georgia, he hurt his foot. He continued to hike the 47 miles to the spot we stood on right then. On that occasion, a couple of guys were camping there and welcomed him in. They fed him. They let him sleep there, and they looked at his foot. They convinced him he needed medical attention. They arranged to get him to a doctor in Franklin, NC, where it was determined the foot was broken. Fishin Fred had to “leave the Trail” at this point. But the Trail has become a big part of his life. Every year, Fishin Fred returns to the spot on the Trail where he was helped by others. He sets up camp for days at a time and hosts every thru-hiker that comes through to all amounts of kindness. It turned out that Fishin Fred is a harmonica player just like me. I asked him if he had a C harp, the only one I had. He pulled out a case of a dozen harmonicas. Fishin Fred and I ended up jamming on harmonicas by ourselves, and once we found our groove, we entertained thru-hikers as they ate their hot dogs and honey buns. I had miles to go to reach the camp location Floater and I had agreed on, and Floater had left an hour ago. It was an emotional goodbye between me and Fishin Fred. We had only known each other for a little bit, but we found ourselves to be brothers of the Trail.
Last night, Floater and I ended up near Rock Gap and camped with a new group of hikers. One of these was a young guy named Privy. Privy can’t be any older than eighteen, and he is incredibly immature about almost everything, but he has an innocent enthusiasm for life that I have seldom seen. Privy did not get his trail name from the privies or composting outhouses that are at most of the shelters on the trail. He got it from a play on words as in: Are you privy to this information? Anyway, Privy came on the trail with horrible hiking shoes, and he had not been taking proper care of his feet. He will be taking a couple days off in Franklin to heal his feet and get new boots. But Privy had a wildlife experience yesterday that none of the rest of us witnessed. He saw a group of wild hogs. The males are referred to as wild boar. Wild hogs came to be in the mountains during the 1800′s when long haired, tusked Russian hogs were introduced into the hills by the mountain folks. They were turned loose to feast and fatten on the chestnuts and acorns in the woods. Periodically, the mountain folks would hunt them down for food. Well, they are still running loose in the woods 150 years latter! The strange thing is any domestic pig that escapes in the mountains can join up with the wild hogs. Put a regular, cute little Piggly Wiggly pig into the wilderness, and in a matter of a short time, this pig will find its ancient relatives, cohabitate and all that. In a matter of a couple of generations, all the Piggly Wiggly is gone, replaced by a very formidable beast. Wild boar can be more dangerous than bears!
Floater and I had an emotional goodbye at Winding Stair Gap this morning. Floater is going to rest up in Franklin for a couple of days. I am going to spend a night with my good friends Darry and Barbara Wood and head out in the morning (most likely in the rain), well fed and rested, on my way to where the Trail crosses the Nantahala River at Wesser, NC, on to Fontana Dam, and then on to the Smoky Mountains.
I am picking up my pace a bit. I am resolving to start averaging ten miles a day instead of my usual eight. In two more weeks, I am going to kick it up to fifteen. I think I have it in me.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles