I stood at the base of Mount Washington, one of the majestic objectives along the Appalachian Trail. I was wrung out. Exhausted. I could hike no further. Regardless where my heart was, climbing the summit and backpacking south would not happen for me. At least not this season. My ascent would come three years later. My heart was pressed by a bleak heaviness. I felt my stomach had been scooped out. There was a hollowness there, like the gaping maw of an infinite cavern. My emotional feet were pulled from under me, my physical endurance spent. A tempestuous sorrow nearly buried me, like the cresting wave at the seashore knocks over a little child. Vertigo. Even my 32 pound pack seemed like the 55 pound burden it had been when I departed Springer Mountain in Georgia. There was no compromise; no getting past it. “Not to be,” the summit seemed to say. “Not this day.” For all that, the depressing finger punched the chest of my psyche. It pointed and accused. “Failure!” I fended off the lie. It was the end for now, a bittersweet washout. I retreated in wisdom, with grace. The mountain, sheathed in lowering clouds, was inaccessible. But there would be another day.
Tag Archives: Springer Mountain
I believe in the power of the Appalachian Trail to facilitate healing at some level in most everyone who has hiked it. Please check out warriorhike.com to learn about this vital non-profit whose work is supporting wounded veterans who are in transition from military service. Some of those veterans are set to leave Springer Mountain for Katahdin. According to their website:
“In 1948 Earl Shaffer told a friend he was going to “walk off the war” to work out the sights, sounds, and losses of World War II. Four months later, Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
Recognizing the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of hiking the Appalachian Trail, Warrior Hike has partnered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to create the Walk Off The War Program. The Walk Off The War Program is designed to support wounded veterans transitioning from military service by hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
As a United States Navy veteran, I salute their cause and their efforts.
- Warrior Hike helping wounded veterans using Appalachian Trail (examiner.com)
- “Walk Off The War” Program (waronterrornews.typepad.com)
It would be pointless to try and review the stunning array of knife choices you face when selecting a blade for your backpacking trek on the Appalachian Trail. Rather than wade these waters, I will share my own experience and choices. I hope they usefully inform your own.
Like some backpackers, I probably own too many knives. Fixed-blade, folding, small blade, blades as part of a multi-tool. They’re good choices and I might use a different one for each trip, depending on circumstances and needs I foresee.
Let’s use the “If you were stranded on an island, and had to choose…” question.
Opinel (oh-peen-el) makes a wonderfully light, study folding knife that holds its edge a long time and has most often been in my pack.
- It’s easy to sharpen and keeps that edge for the duration of my trip.
- It is light.
- I prefer the comfort of a wooden handle.
- The blade locks easily with a “ring” device.
- Useful for delicate cutting, such as mincing onions and garlic.
- Reliable for tougher work, cutting cordage and wood.
Also, I include a small Swiss Army Knife, which has a small blade, a nail file, a scissor (really handy!), toothpick, tweezer. This fits in my first-aid kit and makes an excellent backup blade.
Think “light” when choosing your knife. Forget commando knives, Bowie knives, machetes (yes, I have seen them on the Appalachian Trail!) Make your choice based on practicality and not for fear of wildlife or unstable persons you might meet.
If a ghost is a memory that will not fade, then the Appalachian Trail is my own personal phantom. It haunts me in all the good ways a significant life experience can. If it’s a good thing to be visited by a spirit of achievement, then the AT is certainly among the finest one could ever envision.
I am haunted by the approach trail at Amicalola Falls, Georgia, which felt like a rite-of-passage backpacking to the start of something superb, difficult, daunting, and mysterious.
I am haunted by Springer Mountain Shelter, where I first dropped my backpack on the first evening of many I would spend hiking the trail. I remember the rugged reliability of a wooden refuge created by so many hands, by so many trail and maintenance clubs, who literally poured out their love in sweat and effort so that I might have a place to rest my head.
I am haunted by…
the tree at Bly Gap, where one crosses the border from Georgia into North Carolina. I can still see that ancient oak through a veil of mists on a chilly and damp April day.
by the descent off so many summits, and by the sound of road traffic – far off yet seeming so near – that signaled my nearing a road crossing where I could hitch into town to rest and resupply. In some ways those asphalt markers were as significant as the blazes on the trail itself.
by the Great Smoky Mountains. I am remember how easy the ascent to the main ridge line felt, and how grand it was to walk that long, high line of footway as the earth fell away to the east and west of me. If heaven has a hiking trail, it’s like the Appalachian Trail though the Smokies.
by the Nolichucky River in Tennessee, where I first rafted whitewater above class 6. The river was above flood stage due to rain, yet the guide took us anyway. I remember the awesome adrenaline flow and sense of achievement when I finally stepped from the raft to shore.
by the blissful stop at a grassy bald in the North Carolina highlands, where a couple with a picnic shared their white wine and strawberries, Virginia ham and baguette sandwiches. I remember their gentle honesty and genteel Southern voices. I remember how in love they were. I am haunted by their commitment.
by the practical kindness of strangers offering rides to town, by the “trail angels” who left food in shelters, soft drinks in cold streams, and who handed out warm cookies.
I am haunted by…
rainy, cold, muddy, sweaty, humid days where the footway was slippery and rocks were punishing to my boots.
by the harsh downhills which tortured my knees and made me curse under my breath.
by black flies which delivered a hellish bite, mosquitoes which nearly drove me mad, and yellow jackets which sprang from the trail and whose sting felt like having a hot nail driven into my arm.
by sudden slips and fall. There was no way to arrest those tumbles, and at times I felt I had broken a bone or sustained severe injury.
by exhaustion and summer heat so intense hiking was all but impossible from late morning until late afternoon. I remember how trying to put one boot in front of the other felt like wading through thick sap.
by the disappointment of a “reliable” spring which had gone dry due to drought, and how it became necessary to strain muddy water through a bandana just to get a drinkable amount.
“Spirits” – one and all, both good and bad – are welcome in my reflections, even to this day. For it was both the easy and the blessed, the hard and anguishing, which made the Appalachian Trail worth the while.
We all survived the night and “Night Hatchet” was gone by daybreak, but it changed my view of people who came to the Appalachian Trail and their purpose. There are —
Serious hikers and backpackers who intend to hike the trail.
Day-trippers and weekenders out for shorter hikes.
Locals or tourists taking a stroll in the woods.
Partiers who raid camps/shelters.
People like “Night Hatchet” whose agenda you cannot fathom and need to be wary of.
I did not see “Night Hatchet” again, but I did meet people and situations that “put my antenna” up. It’s important to keep in mind that most all the people you meet along the Appalachian Trail are solid, decent, friendly folks, many of who are extremely generous and will help you if you need it.
It is also vital to realize that while you’re not in some dangerous part of a city, mischief and crime do occasionally come even to the Appalachian Trail. Caution and discretion are merited.
Some situations which “gave me pause” include:
The aforementioned “Night Hatchet.” The key is to be polite but don’t let your guard down.
A few nights at shelters where locals came to party with lots of marijuana and booze. I moved on to another campsite. The key is to try and avoid campsites and shelters near roads on nice weekends.
People in vehicles who oversold how eager they were to give me a ride to town. My “gut” said to say “thanks but no thanks.”
When backpacking your senses will be keen and heightened. Extend their increased potency when dealing with everyone you meet. Help others and they’ll most always return the favor. Above all, don’t let yourself get so spooked you become paranoid. Use caution in all your dealings, and call authorities if you need to. Keep your hiking itinerary private, especially if you meet a stranger all too interested in where you’re going. Don’t hike alone in situations involving people who make you feel uneasy. Build trusting relationships with fellow backpackers you know to be on the trail for the right reasons.
Consider this the “Halloween” post for Write In Front of Me. It’s not my intent to fuel undue anxiety or alarm but I would be less than upfront if this side of backpacking the Appalachian Trail wasn’t addressed. Specifically, I’m talking about safety in dealing with other hikers and people you will meet.
First a tale…a true tale.
Cold Spring Shelter along the Appalachian Trail was home for the night for myself and a handful of other backpackers. We’d left Springer Mountain mid-April and were among the rear guard bound for Katahdin. Most of us were getting our “trail legs” and starting to feel we were managing the tests the trail set before us pretty well.
What we weren’t prepared for was “Night Hatchet.”
“Night Hatchet” was a young local man, about his early twenties, who was hitching from trailhead to trailhead, hiking in to shelters, staking a claim and mooching off backpackers. He carried little provisions and gear, and would ask for food and bum cigarettes. He was a “little off” to most of us, but we tolerated his presence, though it was clear he wasn’t a serious outdoorsman.
“Night Hatchet” had some…habits. One was discovered when another backpacker fetched water from the spring only to find “NH” had washed his dinner dishes in it. The water was fouled with pasta and goop and it took considerable effort to clear it to get decent water.
“NH” was drinking, too. Though his rucksack held few genuinely useful items he did have substantial alcohol, which fueled his mood which soured as the night settled upon us.
Then “Night Hatchet” tinkered with the fire. Oh, yes, the fire…
Most shelters have a modest fire pit, used for cooking, warmth, and camaraderie. “NH” thought it was his personal volcano, and by the time we had all retired into the shelter for the night, “Night Hatchet” had built it up so much that heat was blasting off the shelter walls. Those of us lying in the shelter – which was all of us but him – could see his shadows on the ceiling as he capered and danced about the blaze and we tried to sleep.
Oh, I almost forgot. Why he was known as “Night Hatchet.” It seems he came prepared to hack on anything wood, for he retrieved a sizable hatchet from his pack and started to hew logs for his fire.
Imagine how we all felt, lying there and looking up at the ceiling of the shelter, our last waking images being those of “Night Hatchets” shadow as he raised and dropped his hatchet and muttered to himself?
Now the tale is done…next I’ll elaborate on the main topic.