Monday, August 18, 2014

Characterizing the AT, Part 2

(our story begins here)

“It’s the last time,” I promised Audrey, hoping her canine ears wouldn’t pick up the uncertainty in my voice.

It was the fourth time I’d traipsed her over the same, narrow bridge of three boards with cavernous gaps. Huskies hate uneven or oddly textured surfaces. Convincing her to go across once was difficult enough; two and three were a huge stretch; now, faced with the prospect of a fourth trip over the Scary Boards, she simply refused, forcing us to fjord a creek back to the trail junction where our new friends, Boy Scout Troop 767 were in respite.

We’d meet the guys about a half hour earlier when Lisa, our map bearer, had conferenced with the scout leader over some directional uncertainties.  Maps were compared, compasses were activated, and we were advised to go back from whence we’d come, across the narrow, gapped bridge. Only problem was, not once, but twice, we’d get a few hundred yards down the path and see a sign or marker that raised uncertainty. Twice now we’d retraced our steps back over the Scary Boards for yet another conference.

I had little to offer the Map Summits. I knew, in a general sense, that we were hiking the area around Grayson Highlands State Park and Mt. Rogers, the highest elevation in Virginia. Prior to this hike, I’d camped twice in the park, and had even scaled Mt. Rogers. Every so often, I’d gaze into the horizon and nod, thoughtfully, “I’ve been here before,” but that was about all I had to contribute.

In the end, Lisa concluded that her map was more accurate, and we went on our way. The Scouts evidently followed our lead, as they came up behind us about an hour later. “I see what went wrong back there,” the leader offered. He and Lisa started talking maps again, and then the conversation turned to gear, good places to camp, watering holes, and the like.

The Troop was subdivided into a fast group and a slow group. As the day continued, it was clear that we were keeping pace with the frontrunners (at one point, we were talking with the faster scouts as they waited for their stragglers, who, when they arrived were greeted with: “You finally caught up with the women”).  These meet ups would occur every couple hours, during which time trail news would be swapped: anyone see the twenty-something with the red ball cap who got separated from his group? Or the girl who got irritated if you spoke to her because she was “in solitude?” or notes compared: “did everyone get their fill of the wild blueberries?”

One particularly glorious break happened in the late afternoon at Massie Gap, a clearing favored by the most delightful characters on the entire trail: a herd of wild ponies. We’d been reclining against our packs, soaking in the scenes and sun when the herd emerged in unison, as if taking the stage for a scheduled showtime. 

After spending time enjoying the ponies, we realized we had about 2 miles left to get to some good camping and, apparently water, which was good because we were running low. Lisa and I had used some filtering equipment to drink from some creeks, and my sister was still in possession of a small amount of pool water.

The terrain grew rocky and steep, and the sun burned potent, deep afternoon rays. Horses grazed along the trail and in the thickets.We scaled rock formation after rock formation. We tunneled through a cavernous opening called Fat Man’s Squeeze. Somewhere along the way, Lisa lost her guidebook, but there was no going back.

We climbed and climbed for what seemed like miles, although we never arrived at the shelter that was supposed to be less than 2 miles from the pony show. The numbers seemed fuzzy, but, as I mentioned, the book was gone so there was nothing to do but go onward.

Finally we reached a clearing that looked inviting, and we simultaneously dropped our packs and staked our claim for a night’s lodging. Every bit of our water was gone, every last drop. My sister thought the promised shelter must be around the corner, so went to look, but came back forlorn and empty handed, finding nothing akin to a shelter or water.

Lisa was already pitching her tent, and I was assembling raw materials to try to rig mine up for use. Astute readers may recall that I snapped a tent pole on last year’s hike, and efforts to secure a new one had failed. Before we left home for this year’s hike, we attempted to patch up the pole, but the prior evening, it had snapped again, just before twilight slipped into dusk. A long line of paracord from Lisa and some quick thinking by my sister had secured the shelter enough to get through the night, but I knew I needed something with more stability, particularly as the trees in this camping area weren’t arranged as conveniently.

If I am going to be completely honest here, the tent collapse was one of the scariest things that has happened to me on any adventure, ever.  One of my big fears on the trail is losing my dog. Dogs go missing on the AT with some frequency, typically due to poor human judgment (for instance, dogs go missing at Massie Gap because they are off leash and fall in league with the horses). Although pictures will confirm my canine was always super-leashed, huskies fast, unpredictable, and prone to taking off after…anything. So the thought of being in the middle of the woods with my dog and no shelter was frightening enough to spur me into serious, tent-making action.

About that time, familiar faces came over the crest. The faster Boy Scouts had arrived, tired and also without water.  (At this point, can we all just collectively appreciate the full impact of the fact that hearty, teenage Boy Scouts and their Leader were on pace with us and without water: both are key points when assessing the veracity of our guide’s claim that he could walk our route in 2 days (we were NOWHERE NEAR the halfway point) and that we shouldn’t bother ourselves with carrying much water).

“That was rough,” the leader said, resting his palms on his knees and catching his breath.

“No kidding,” we agreed.

“Do you know how much further the shelter is?” my sister asked.

“We lost our guide book,” I offered.

“We have it,” the leader said, producing the book from a side pouch in his pack. Excitement coursed though the camp.

“Are you guys just staying here?” the leader said, surveying the scene.

“Yeah, we’re just done. We think we can make it until morning and I need time to construct my tent out of raw materials.”

“Let’s take a look!” he said.

About three minutes and a yard or so of duct tape later, my tent was probably stronger than the day I purchased it. (Side note: on future trips, I plan to wrap a few yards of duct tape around various cylindrical pieces of equipment: perhaps my mug, or even a tent pole—just to have it on hand).

“Would you like some food?” my sister asked, emptying out the contents of her backpack. We’d already decided that we were tired of carrying the food and had been actively looking for a place to ditch it. Two points here: never again will I criticize Katz in A Walk in the Woods for tossing his food, and, I can, evidently go for days with little more than a jar of Nutella and peanut butter.

We spread our food across the grass and, to our delight, the young scouts parsed out the goods. Everyone was exceedingly happy, albeit a bit thirsty. The scouts decided to go a bit further down the trail and we strung up our now-much lightened laundry bag of food and called it a night.

Tune in next episode when we'll meet the Creeper Keeper and a trail legend.

1 comment:

George Vacca said...

This makes for wonderful reading - now that I know you are home!


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