Friday, February 17, 2012

Art Loeb Trail, part three

After breakfast on Sunday, we commenced with striking camp and stuffing our packs.

As I worked I noticed that unlike typical cold days when you exhale and watch the “smoke” float away; I exhaled and the air was so dense that my breath just hung in the air at my face, very slowly dissipating.

We tried to work in lockstep with our packing so we would be ready to leave at the same time so that neither of us would have to stand idle in the cold. At one point Marcus clutched his hands, put them between his thighs and said that his hands were so cold that he was going to cry. I’m no expert when it comes to men, but I do know that men never, ever confess they’re about to cry unless something is seriously wrong. Alarm bells were ringing for me now, so I jump to action. I offered Marcus my mitts to wear. He wouldn’t accept them no matter how much insistence I added as I shook them at him. I hadn’t even been using them and didn’t feel the need to, so it was beyond my belief why he wouldn’t take them.

At 7:45 we were ready to hike. When we reached the little forest road before Rich Mountain Marcus was still suffering from the pain of cold hands and cold feet. He described them as footballs. They ached. I offered my mitts again. This time he took them. We easily popped up and over Rich Mountain. By the time we descended to Gloucester Gap I had started asking questions about how much water Marcus drank the day before. He basically drank one liter for the ten-miles we walked on Saturday, and used a half liter to three-quarters of a liter the night before, largely to prepare dinner. Comparatively, I drank at least 2.5 liters for the hike on Saturday and drank most of another liter after we arrived at camp and throughout the night.

At Gloucester Gap I insisted that he drink water, but he argued that he was too cold to drink cold water. He said he just wanted to get to the shelter at Deep Gap and make a hot drink. I said I wasn’t going to move until he drank water. He still resisted. I told him to at least eat something, and knowing that he wouldn’t want to stop to eat any of his food, I gave him one of my bars. He ate it and said later I tricked him into drinking water by giving him such a dry bar. Nevertheless, the fuel and water did start to improve his condition. (I suspect he was approaching hypothermia, as dehydration will advance its onset.) As he realized he was feeling better he continued to drink his water as we climbed the steep tread of Pilot Mountain. His hands and feet started to regain feeling, too.

When we were at Gloucester Gap, I offered for the second time that day to bag the trip due to cold. I felt like I’d rather be smart than driven by ego or macho expectation to complete the trail we started. It’s also part of assessing the safety of any situation, like having an “emergency exit” when driving. Marcus declined turning back the two times I mentioned it.

We moved slowly as we progressed up Pilot. I knew it was a difficult climb. Andy had warned me. The guidebooks said the switchbacks get progressively steeper and shorter the closer you get to the top. They got shorter and steeper and I thought we had topped out. We dropped briefly in elevation and I thought we had reached Deep Gap (turns out we weren’t there yet). Marcus and I spent a little time scouting the gap for the shelter and spring here but never found either. We sat to eat an early lunch at 11:30. By noon we reassessed our situation. Marcus had no water. I was really low. The hikers the day before didn’t reliably tell us there was water at Deep Gap or farther north, and we started to question the reliability of water sources in the Shining Rock Wilderness. The kicker was that we had only traveled at a pace of one-mile-an-hour or less to our current location; yesterday we had traveled at a two-mile per hour pace. We weren’t making good time and there was no telling if that trend would persist as we muscled up toward the Parkway and the more remote sections of the trail. It felt sketchy to proceed. This time Marcus proposed returning the way we came. The decision was a double-edged sword. We would travel farther in the reverse direction to get water we were assured of than water ahead of us that we weren’t sure about. It would mean we wouldn’t get to hike the remainder of the Art Loeb on this trip which was disappointing to both of us. It also created a scenario where we weren’t hiking to a car but would have to rely on a hitch out of the trailhead at 276. We were also turning around a smidge beyond mid-way, so we would actually hike a mile further to return the way we came. Ultimately though, the decision took into consideration Marcus’ dehydration, and the safety of proceeding on the trip for both of us. This, we both felt good about.

We reversed course. Pilot Mountain. Gloucester Gap. Rich Mountain. Our camp spot. Chestnut Mountain. We arrived at Butter Gap Shelter around 3:30. We refreshed empty water bottles. We cooked hot food. We drank lots of hot liquids. It was really windy at the shelter, even on Sunday once the wind advisory had passed. The day was still as bitterly cold as the day before. After an hour we felt we had sufficiently refueled, we continued south on the trail at about a mile to the water source and campsite we recalled seeing the previous day.

We set up camp as night fell. We were close enough to the creek that it was more moist terrain. Moisture makes you colder. The highly impacted campsite was barren, so there was little insulation between our mats and the cold hard ground. Nevertheless, we were grateful that it wasn’t as windy as the night before. I had a more difficult time regulating my comfort in two sleeping bags throughout Sunday night. Most assuredly one wouldn’t have been enough, but two was almost too much. My sleep was a bit more restless than the colder previous night, but I still managed to sleep a good bit. When you go to bed with the sun and wake with it, especially in the winter, your apt to get lots of hours of rest.

Over breakfast I drank two cups of trail coffee, Starbuck’s VIA. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to decent coffee on the trail, and I’ve tried everything – seriously, everything! I’ve tried Folgers singles coffee bags, but they’re too weak. I’ve done the obligatory tests of standard freeze-dried coffees that don’t even taste like coffee. When I thru-hiked the A.T. I mixed ground espresso beans, hot cocoa powder and water in a small peanut butter jar with a lid so I could shake it to create a cold mocha-java thing; it was pretty good but it’s not hot. I don’t care to pack out the grounds to do a sit-on-top drip coffee or a French press, and my LNT ethics won’t let me bury them, so those options are off the table.

There’s just something sophisticated about a cup of hot coffee on the Trail – a good cup of hot coffee. A cup of hot tea is equally sophisticated, for that matter. My hiking buddy Morph is so routine with his morning Starbuck’s VIA – in his preparation of the cup, to the stir, and the tap of the spoon on the rim of his plastic travel cup before he takes his first sip. When we hiked the A.T. together he drank a cup of Stash Chai tea every night after dinner; the smell of that particular brand of Chai tea still brings me back to my trail memories.

The same year I hiked the A.T. there was a woman named Sheep Stuff who hiked, too. Wherever she was at 4 p.m. every day, she stopped to prepare a cup of tea. How sophisticated is that? I love the idea that nothing is as important as stopping to honor break time, teatime. It seems like a communion of sorts. Even though hiking seems like a relaxed and enjoyable activity, long distance backpacking can be hard work. It’s sweet to think that we can take a break from anything, enjoyable or challenging, to honor the quiet space of sitting.

These were the kinds of things we were talking about over breakfast at camp on Monday morning. I jokingly suggested that if we really want to hitch a ride when we get to 276 that we’ll take the sophisticated approach by pulling up to the wayside, getting out our camp stoves and making coffee. When someone approaches to ask what we’re up to we can simply invite him/her for a cup of coffee and ease our way into a ride home.

The laughter and stories over breakfast strung on late into the dawn as we avoided the inevitable of packing the warmth of our sleeping bags and deconstructing our temporary homes.

By 8:30 we had done the inevitable and were on our way toward Sandy Gap. Catpen Gap. Chestnut Knob. Stoney Knob. Neil Gap where we ate an early lunch. Past the junction with FS 5002 that I led us astray down on Saturday. Past the views of Brevard that you miss when you’re climbing the ridge instead of descending it. We walked right down to the Davidson River, and crossed the red bridge at 12:45, a minute after a man and his dog. Marcus and I had an unspoken agreement to hasten our pace to catch this man and ask for a ride to town. When we got to the wayside, the man had just put his dog in his car.

I greeted him “Good Morning”
“Good Morning”
“Could you give us a ride to town?”

He said he would but his dog is nippy. I quickly rescinded our interest in a ride due to the dog, and he suggested that he would go drop his dog at home, then come back and pick us up. He actually drove us the entire way back to Asheville. We had a great time talking to him, Lee Griffin, about music, hiking, technology, and growth in WNC, among other things. I tried to give him money at the end of our ride. He wouldn’t accept it. Instead he gave us an awesome CD of his music. It’s this kind of thing that reinstates your belief in humanity while you hike. Kindness of strangers. He went out of his way to help us, and that’s really precious.

It was a super satisfying backpacking trip. We didn’t reach our intended destination, but I enjoyed the hell out of being outside, surviving the elements, getting a bit of sun, and hustling through the woods with nothing but a pack on my back. I’m already ready to plan my next Art Loeb Trail hike. Soon. Soon.
Until next time, hikers!

No comments: