I think the first time I remember having my breath being taken away by nature was approaching the Grand Tetons from Yellowstone on a road trip my mom and I took in 2006. Every time I drive north towards the Appalachian Trail and see the peaks on horizon, I feel myself take a little gasp.
Anyone who knows me knows my obsession with endurance/survival stories. I love reading anything to do with conquering physical challenges and the bigger/longer, the better. I've read multiple books now about people hiking the AT and am fascinated by how many humans are drawn to this challenge on a yearly basis.
It's kind of surprising that while I done a number of trail runs and hikes on the AT, I had yet to do any proper camping. So being a complete newbie at anything beyond car camping, I thought I would take baby steps in this adventure. I decided on 2 days/1 night of running/hiking/camping. The "plan" slowly came together and I knew a lot of the adventure would just be deciding how I felt at the time. I borrowed a backpack from Megan and a sleeping bag from Dan and bought a bear vault to store my food.
I got up at 6 on Wednesday morning and had a quick breakfast before hitting the road to Unicoi Gap. My plan was to run south on the AT from Unicoi and aim for about 20 miles total. 10ish out and 10ish back. I knew the first climb would be tough and the elevation profile heading back would prove challenging on tired legs. But the purpose was to spend some time on the trails and get some ultra training under my belt.
The morning was unseasonably cool and I was super comfortable in a tank and shorts. I contemplated bringing a 3rd water bottle for my pack, but ultimately decided against it due to the weather and my water filter.
From Unicoi, I began my adventure. The first mile was indeed a beast. Around 1000' of gain in a mile. I barely ran 10 steps and instead power-hiked for about 20 minutes.
Fortunately, it leveled out a bit after a mile and then I enjoyed a nice little decline for a short while as I approached the Blue Mountain shelter. It was a bit rocky and technical so I just took my time as I traveled down the south side of Blue Mountain. Once I got to mile 3, I came upon a really beautiful descent full of ferns, greenery, and smooth single track. If you are a trail runner, you know this paradise is what we live for!
Luckily, I hit those last 5 miles pretty smoothly and managed to do a short parking lot loop to hit 23 miles total on the day.
Tumbled down the mountain.
Like Plinko, it knocked into trees as it rolled easily down.
I threw my pack off and tried to listen for it as I awkwardly "chased" after it. The side of the trail was very vertical, very covered in thorny underbrush, and very hard to navigate. I went down about 1/10th of a mile and the very vertical trail dropped straight down. The only hope I had was that it might have landed in front of a tree. Except I couldn't even see my own feet because the underbrush was so thick.
I stood for a moment. No food. 26 miles on my legs. 3 miles from my car.
I hiked back down the mountain. I went through the stages of grief about the stupid vault. By the time I made it to my car, I was laughing at the stupidity of my situation. Though I wasn't smart enough to pack food in various places in my pack, I was smart enough to have a bunch of stuff in my car. So I opened up my camping chair and used potato chips as a spoon for a tuna pouch. Because my damn spoon was in the bear vault.
As I was sitting in my chair, a thru hiker who set up camp a feet away came over. His trail name was Pudge and he had just graduated college. We ended up have our weird dinners together. He had a Lipton rice/noodle thing and I had my tuna pouch/potato chip dinner. I was covered in mud up to my knees and I am fairly certain he probably hadn't showered since he left the prior Saturday. But somehow we don't even notice these things. We talk about our significant others, hiking, running, food, life, etc. I tell him about my bear vault (and he offers me food!) and how I am going to need to go back up the mountain at least partially so I am not car camping. He tells me that bear vaults are not really needed after June 1st. Or at least that's what he'd read. Doh!
After about an hour, I start to pack up my stuff again and offer him a mandarin from my cooler. I remember reading that many hikers crave fresh fruit because it is so hard to carry on the trail. He was thrilled at the offer.
As I shoulder my pack again, I tell him that I will leave my spare key in the gas cap for him in case he wants/needs anything from my cooler or the myriad of weird stuff I keep in my car. I tell him to use my camping chair as long as he'd like and just toss it in the car either that night or when he breaks camp in the morning. He seems shocked that I am trusting him with my 12 year old car after our brief encounter, but I think how the value of human experience is worth more than any junk in my car/including my car.
I head back on the trail and am comfortable hiking in my long sleeve. Oh wow. June. Georgia. And I am wearing a long sleeve. I make it to a clearing on saw on my initial ascent/descent and decide to set up camp.
I drove back to Unicoi Gap and then refilled my pack. I planned to hike the mile section of trail I had missed between Unicoi and Indian Grave and then play the rest of the day by ear. I saw an adjunct trail on my way up and remembered seeing the same trail name on my run earlier in the day. I used my map to find where it might intersect and headed that way. It was starting to get hot and I was glad when I finally found the the tree-covered trail again.
This was about a mile from the finish. I had to get back to my car so getting to 50 miles was inevitable.