Elevation Changes Dictate the Hike--April 4
It would seem that people who are doing nothing more than taking a walk in the woods would have all of the time in the world to write in their journals, read a book, or just relax. Such is not the case on our Appalachian Trail hike.
A recent day will give you an idea of why this is. We started in the morning beside the Pigeon River at an elevation of 1,400 feet above sea level. Rising on the pathway that was sometimes going uphill at more than a 25% grade, we gained almost 3,000 feet in elevation to top out on the 4,263-foot summit of Snowbird Mountain. Soaring views of the highest peaks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park enticed us to linger before continuing. We lost 1,300 of those hard-gained feet by descending into Deep Gap before rising once more to 4,629-foot Max Patch Summit.
This vast change in elevation permits us to experience two seasons in just one day. As we drop into the gaps and valleys, we see evidence that spring is on its way. Some of the trees and underbrush have small leaves spreading their fingers out from the branches to catch bits of sunlight. Thousands of spring beauties spread across the forest floor, almost giving the impression that the ground is covered by a light dusting of snow, while bloodroot, rue anemone, and trillium line the pathway in fewer numbers. Ramps, those Southern Appalachian delicacies that have spawned a multitude of stories about their heady taste and odor, are growing in such quantities that large patches of hillsides are covered by their distinctive green fronds. However, once we rise back onto the ridgetops, the flowers are nonexistent, the trees are winter bare, there is little hint of green, and temperatures are definitely a few degrees cooler.
At times, the elevation changes also seem to transport us farther north than we really are. On the climb to the open summit of Big Bald near the North Carolina/Tennessee border, a cold, windy, and rainy day brought us through a woodlands of weather-gnarled birch and beech, trees more often associated with New England than the Southern Appalachians. It will feel like the Great North Woods again tomorrow when we stride across the top of 5,180-foot Unaka Mountain, which is covered by decades-old spruce and fir trees.
The vagaries of weather also determine how our day goes. In my last report to you, I said we had only had two days of precipitation in two weeks. The last three weeks have been full of rain, with one stretch where it rained sometime during the day for six straight days. These are the times that try a hiker's resolve--having to pack up in the rain, putting on the same wet boots and socks, walking for hours on end without being able to take a good break, and then, at the end of a long day, having to set up camp and cook in the rain. Add 20-mile per hour wind gusts into this and you have a day where you feel like you are not much more than a pack mule just putting in the miles.
Even when Laurie and I are having what we feel to be a bad day, MacAfee of Knob, the Amazing Appalachian Bouncing Dog, appears to take it all in stride. Rain or shine, he's always a few steps ahead of us, tail at full curl and eager to move on down the trail. He also seems more adept than we are at taking advantage of any comforts the journey may offer. When we take a break on warm days, he finds a bit of shade to curl up in and take a short nap; cold days he lounges in the sunny spots. The temperatures were unseasonably warm last week, reaching into the upper 70s and low 80s, but Mac knew just what to do. Leaving the small town of Hot Springs, North Carolina, the trail brought us along the French Broad River where he didn't hesitate to take a swim in the same water that kayakers and whitewater rafters were paddling in. A few miles later, he spent more than 15 minutes dog paddling around a small pond as spring peeper frogs filled the air with their shrill serenade. The next day we came around a bend in the trail to find him floating in the pool at the base of a gushing waterfall.
Even though we are deliberately going slow and hiking 10 or less miles a day, the journey is progressing faster than we would like. We have already been on the trail for more than a month and Georgia and most of North Carolina and Tennessee are behind us. Our feet and leg muscles have taken us across more than 300 miles of the trail's undulating terrain. Less than 1800 miles remain.