I laid in my bunk till 9; waiting for Mountain Crossing to open. The woman who went with me to store the food the night before was the first to get up. She was ex-military and did not have a trail name just as the others didn’t. Her name was Maggie.
The rest of the group was one couple, Evan and Lucy. They had been students at a college in Tennessee. Evan was Australian too. Then there was Ale who was from Chicago and spoke with a thick ascent. He had finished commensal pilot school.
When I rolled out of bed the rest followed. I cooked some oatmeal, and pulled out my Awol. Ale came up to me and asked. “So where are you planning on going today?”
“I’m thinking Blue Mountain Shelter at mile 50.5.” I replied unsure.
“That’s 18 miles!”
“Yeah but that last 7 in the flattest ground we’ve seen. If I can get to Low Gap shelter by 3 o’clock I should be able to make it by 7 at the latest.”
“You’re going too hard Joe! We never did back to back long rucks in the military.” Said Maggie.
“Well this is life for now, and besides I’m caring a lighter pack.”
The outfitter Mountain Crossing had the best collection of gear I saw on the trail. However it was all priced to a high degree. I was there for Nuun Electrolyte tablets and another dry sack, and possibly a half a resupply.
I also looked at tents I wasn’t sure how well my tarp was going to protect me in a storm, and it offered no protection from bugs.
All but Maggie were in their just buying snacks and lunch to pack out. Maggie was looking for lighter equipment to replace her cook ware and tent. I decided to spend my money on lunch and a root beer along with the tablets and dry sack.
It was Ale, and Lucy who invited me to stick with them, after we finished our shopping. I don’t think Maggie and Evan wanted me around because I contradicted their hiking philosophy. Joining them would mean having a short day, only 11.5 miles, to Low Gap Shelter. At this time I was not self-loathing enough to turn down the invitation. I wanted some company for the day. And I liked how Ale and Lucy looked to me for advice.
Not a mile after we started the complaining started, at Bull Gap. There was a spring there and we had stopped to get water. Maggie, Evan, Lucy, and I all had the Sawyer squeeze as our filtration system and at this spring we all saw its limitations.
This spring was more of just a pool and the water had to be scooped out. The Sawyer system was not idle for this, since it involved filling plastic sacks that collapsed and only had a coke bottle top size opening. The Sawyer needed a flow to work. However Ale had a pump filtration system that could suck the water out of the pool. So he filled our supply.
At the top of the first climb, Levelland Mountain there was a view. It was nothing spectacular, really it only showed off the blue bird sky. The complaining switched from simple annoyances about equipment to talks of town. Longing for full mattresses and sugary drinks and fattening cheese burgers but I think showers are what everybody wanted more. The plumbing was down at Mountain Crossing and none of us were able to take showers.
We took lunch at Wolf Laurel Top. I had my salami and ham Italian sub I had packed out along with a bag of chips. While eating I noticed I would need to resupply within two days. If I continued at this pace I would have to resupply at Unicoi Gap and find a 9 mile ride to Helen GA, or a 12 mile ride to Hiawassee GA. But if I separated from this group and made it to Blue Mountain I could make it to Dicks Creek Gap and walk to a hostel just half a mile up the road marked by blue blazes and resupply.
I didn’t separate immediately from them after lunch I waited till next time we filed our water. By this time they all had injuries and tripped and stumbled in the manor Hardball had done just without as much cursing.
I filed my water fast and said I was going ahead and I would see them at the shelter. At that time I thought I’d leave them behind but when I reach the shelter sometime around three thirty, I thought to myself how much of a dick move it was to just leave without saying. It seemed cowardly to not confront them and tell I was separating.
At Low Gap shelter there was one man in his 60’s; he had a hammock set up and was not using the shelter. We talked while I ate a pop-tart for a snack.
“I can’t eat those anymore.” He said.
“I couldn’t till I started hiking now their great.”
“I lived off the Strawberry pop-tarts for four tours in Iraq, and Afghanistan, I can’t stomach them anymore.”
“Yeah, I guess that would get old. Thanks for your service.”
“Your welcome,” He said with a smile.
The man was a retired Ranger commander, who saw the beginning of the Iraq war. He resembled my grandfather when he was younger, except he was stocky not tall. We were soaking our feet in the spring downstream from where it broke out of the mountain. I could tell he had injured himself on the trail the way he would work his knee from time to time.
“Coming down Blood Mt was a bitch! It took my wife out she broke her leg.”
“Damn, is she off trail?” I looked around to see if I had missed somebody.
“Yeah, got her off at Neel Gap 2 days ago. Drop our bags and carried her, fucked up my knee as well.” The man pulled up his pants leg higher over his knee to reveal shrapnel scars. He would later reveal he had scars all over his torso as well.
“Bad ass man.”
“She wants me to finish the trail but I think I’m too old for it. I think I’ll hike through the Smokies and call it good.”
“Yeah to finish would be a long time away from her.”
“Yeah and I’ve spent too much time away.”
“So where are you coming from today?” He asked.
“Just Neel, Im taking it easy today.”
“How many days have you be?”
“This is my third day.”
“Keep this up you’ll finish quick.”
“Three months that’s what I’m hoping.”
Maggie arrived soon followed by the rest showed up soon after 5 they looked exhausted and collapsed in the shelter for half an hour before making their camp ready.
Maggie talked with me and the man but when he revealed the scars and said he was once a ranger she left. I think she liked to think she had the most experience with hard times.
Just before dark another hiker came into camp. His trail name was Geronimo. I could tell he had experience by the size of his pack and the way he walked into camp tired. He was a true Hiker and an inspiration to me.
Setting up camp was easy at the shelter. There were bear cables, and all I had to do was roll out my mat and quilt. We all talked by the blue lights of our burners. Most conversations were on complaints. But Geronimo was the exception. The vet went to his hammock at dark. And it was 9 when we all were in our bags. I slept between Ale and Geronimo, and a mouse squeaked.
“There’s my shelter friends.” Geronimo said.
“Two days and we’ll be at Hiawassee.” Ale said.
I listed to the mice squeak and run throughout the night. At every hour. The next day I would do 25 to Top of Georgia Hostel, but again I would do it without sleep.