The Hard Miles
May 22-24, 1994by Rodger Ling
1993--Freelance writer Joe Rada publishes a story in Southern Living about hiking a short section of the Appalachian Trail which he dubs the "hard miles."Long have we wandered since leaving the trail, accumulating possessions, bellies growing soft. Once, Terry and I were hardened veterans of the AT, making our way over the hills of north Georgia with stoic determination, daydreaming of the pizza and beer we might once again consume. Now, after far too many pizzas and an equal number of beers, the rigors of the Appalachian Trail have receded into the misty distance of nostalgia. For months we have mowed lawns, fought traffic, met deadlines. We're long overdue for a return to the woods.
For me, it is a double dose of nostalgia, for I have already hiked the first day of our three day journey from the Nantahala River to Fontana Dam. The profile map shows a nearly continuous climb from the depths of the Nantahala Gorge to the heights of Cheoah Bald, a climb I had made at the conclusion of a five day solo outing the year before. As we cross the railroad tracks at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and start uphill, I find myself perfectly capable of flooding Terry with the details of my epic: Here's a log where I stopped to rest, here's the spot where I fought an imaginary bear, here's where darkness and fatigue forced me to camp and endure my own cooking.
The trail winds among the trees which tower like canyon walls around us. Occasionally we pass through long, cool tunnels of rhododendron or scramble over weathered rocks. Moving steadily from switchback to switchback, we cross back and forth over the remains of the original trail, which ran straight up the hill. In the past, the trail was actually much more difficult than it is today; they called this part of the AT the "jump-up." Each year more trail "relo's" (relocations) are completed in order to bypass PUD's. What's a PUD? In the words of the weary, that's a Pointless Uphill Diversion--the trail climbs a hill and then immediately descends the other side without even providing a view. Veteran hikers who did it the hard way may sneer at these improvements, but Terry and I are perfectly willing to take advantage of them.
We are halfway up another long climb, my eyes focused only on the ground in front of me, when Terry calls out something about a snake. Sure enough, there is a large Timber rattler coiled in the leaves five feet off the trail behind me. With my sorry ears, I've walked right by it, whereas Terry had heard it a block away (I make a point of thanking him for his timely warning). A short distance up the trail, we are both startled by a large bird which suddenly flops onto the trail and front of us and then flutters forward, obviously wounded. It's a grouse, Terry exclaims, trying to lead us away from her nest.
We arrive at the weathered three-sided log structure known as the Sassafras Gap Shelter and stop to fill our water bottles. In the shelter's register is a long poem entitled, "Don't Quit." Elsewhere in the book, hikers speak of mice attacking their sleeping bags in the night and complain about PUD's, but most are stoic and determined. "Still putting one in front of the other," they write. My favorite is from a hiker whose trail name is the Zombie. "He is dead," the inscription intones, "yet still he walks."
We spend our first night high atop Cheoah Bald, rightly alleged to have one of the finest views in the southern Appalachians. A field of tall, waving grass leads away from our fire in the moonlight, the Nantahala mountains forming a dull blue horizon. Over our shoulders are the Smokies, our destination.
In the morning we descend the backside of Cheoah along a beautiful ridge of rhododendron and mountain laurel to make our way towards Stecoah Gap. Halfway there, we meet an older gentleman with a swing-blade, chopping back the summer growth along the trail. He has hiked the entire AT at least once and now spends much of his time maintaining this section. Every foot he climbs is recorded in his high-tech altimeter watch, every mile carefully logged in his daily journal. Clearly, he loves to talk about the trail, and he so engages us that we spend nearly forty minutes standing there, never even taking our packs off.
There are beautiful views, more long climbs, individual stretches of trail that blend together into a seemingly infinite pathway. With our water running low (we haven't filled up since the Sassafras Gap Shelter), we're extremely happy to find a new shelter and water source under construction. The outhouse is a particularly fine piece of work and a great place to stare out into the woods. The outhouse is far enough away from the shelter to be hidden from view, and it has no walls, just a simple roof over the throne.
A couple of miles later, at Low Gap, we stop for the night. A "swamp shower" consisting of pots full of water poured over my head feels absolutely great. In the morning we again hike steadily northward, dropping off the ridgetops to descend inevitably toward Highway 28 and Fontana Dam. When you cross the highway the first time, it's easy to imagine that you're almost home, but it's still two miles further to the hiker parking lot.
We relax for a few moments at the shelter thru-hikers call the Fontana Hilton, a beautiful structure of polished wood overlooking the lake with running water, bathrooms, and showers nearby. A small man with close-cropped silver hair and large pack appears in the doorway. Tom the Vet has arrived, and with very little persuasion begins to tell us his story. He lived for three years in a vehicle, an old truck with a wood heater inside, before walking down the west coast on foot, then heading east to look for his father in Florida and finding God instead. Unlike other thru-hikers, Tom has no packages of food and supplies waiting for him at post offices along the way. Instead, he forages for food--dandelions, mushrooms, clover--and tries to survive on a budget of about $50.00 a month.
Tom tells of traveling with a hiker named Nottley who had a tremendous beard hanging nearly to his waist. It seems that before retiring one night, Nottley had enjoyed a granola bar. During the evening Tom awoke to a tremendous commotion. Nottley was thrashing about, alternately tearing at his beard and beating his fists on the floor. Tom thought that the man had gone insane, but it was just the mice...in this case, the mice that had crawled into his beard and were nibbling away on the granola crumbs.
Whether this incident had any bearing on Tom's decision to shave off his own beard and cut his long hair is unknown, but by the time we meet him, Tom is again at military specs, clean-shaven and crew-cut. He is as unsoiled as anyone who lives in the woods for weeks at a time could expect. In the city he might be called homeless, but here, on the AT, he is always and forever at home.
We take showers and, not without some regret, roar off in Terry's red Honda into the much smaller world we call civilization.