Thursday, August 23, 2012

Appalachian Dreams - Part III

Eisenhower, Monroe & Washington beyond laid themselves out before me like a promise. And, the 360 degree, 100+ mile visibility of the surrounding Valleys allowed me to see just how far I’d come in my quest to make that promise a reality. The trail stretched out across the ridge like only Able Crawford could have imagined. With some 12 miles to go, and countless views to devour, “before I sleep” I hopped, skipped & jumped back onto the trail and made my way to my next destination - Lake of the Clouds.

Lake of the Clouds
The excitement of being part of the Alpine Zone “playground” gave a real boost to my confidence (and my pace). As a result, I pulled into Lake of the Clouds Hut only about an hour after coming over the top of Pierce. I grabbed a Powerbar, some lemonade (as the day was starting to heat up) and re-filled my hydration pack before heading back out to tackle the “Ole Rockpile”. I’ve been to the top of Washington probably a dozen times, but this proved to be the best day yet for a summit attempt. Unfortunately about a thousand people, or so it seemed, had the same thoughts!

Despite the incredible views in every direction it’s always a bit of a let down to make it to the peak of Washington only to see it over-run with people – most of whom didn’t get there under their own power! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the Cog Railway or the Auto Road. Heck, the first time I came up to the top was on the Cog as a kid.  But, now that I’ve actually climbed the mountain, I’m always a little disappointed to see the Disneyland like atmosphere at the summit. Imagine hiking Everest and finding a McDonald’s at the top. It’s kind of like that!

The Presidential Ridge
Anyway, I did my obligatory touch of the summit sign and quickly retreated to comfort of the trail - away from the throng of wide-eyed tourists. I said farewell to Crawford’s Path and made my own across the earthly moonscape of the Presidential Ridge. I hopped from rock to lime-green rock. I zigzagged from cairn to blessed cairn. And, I carefully picked my way over each boulder and along the edge of each sheer precipice - soaking the entire heavenly panorama in.

As I made my way along the Gulfside Trail I felt something I had never felt before at this high elevation. Hot! I’d been on the Presi Ridge many, many times but this was the first time I’d ever had the good fortune of such a clear and wind-less day. But, with this climatic anomaly came the burden of soaring temperatures and glaring sun. And I was starting to feel its draining effects. By the time I reached Sphinx Col it felt like I was crossing the Sahara itself!

Sphinx Col
It was during this stretch that I took a tumble coming off of Jefferson. Fortunately I wasn’t going too fast and was able to catch myself before I smashed my head against a rock. But my knee, and hands were scraped up pretty good, I was bleeding and a little shaken. It was the first real “digger” I had taken all trip and certainly brought me back down to earth in a hurry. I tended to my wounds and tentatively continued along the trail to my next stop – Madison Hut.

I reached Madison around 4:30pm. I was so tired at that point that I didn’t even attempt to summit the last two 4000 footers. I reached the front steps of the hut, dropped to the ground and slumped over my pack. I was at a crossroads – literally & figuratively. Do I head South to the Osgood tentsite and the Wildcat Ridge beyond as originally planned? Or, do I continue North down to Appalachia and an “early” exit from the AT? I had hiked 69 miles in 3 days and I wasn’t sure I could go another step.

Madison Spring Hut
My decision was made a little bit easier by the weather report I read inside the hut. A storm front was forecast for tomorrow and the visibility (not to mention good footing) would be limited, to none, at best. The 75% chance of strong thunderstorms and lightning sealed the deal. I would eat a good meal, head down to lower elevations via Valley Way, get a good nights sleep and then connect with the AMC Hikers Shuttle in the morning (one day early) for the trip back to my bike -  and eventually my car.

The decision to cut my trip short was a sound one and paid dividends immediately. Without the weight of 1 more day (and 24 miles) looming over my head, I felt happy and free to enjoy my last few moments above tree-line. I explored the new, improved and, dare I say, luxurious Madison Spring Hut. I chatted with other hikers about their AT experiences. And spoke to yet another thru-hiker who exclaimed, “This place is like heaven on earth and there’s no place else I’d rather be!” And, while I couldn’t completely agree with what he said, I sure as heck understood the sentiment!

Home Sweet Home
As the sun started to settle into the horizon, I turned my back on my favorite High Mountain Hut and slunk down below the protective canopy of the trees one the last time. Eventually I found a good spot to hang my hammock - between two trees which sat on a small outcropping just above Tama Falls (near the bottom of Snyder Brook) and about a half mile from the road. I peeled off my hiking boots and soaked my battered feet in the cold but refreshing waters that spun in the pool at the base of the Falls.

I sat on a large rock next to my rustic encampment and ate a bran muffin that I’d purchased earlier at the hut. I called my wife (who was in Canada visiting her family) for the first time since I’d begun my journey. But, when I started to tell her about all that had transpired, I could sense she was worlds away. I asked her to give the kids a kiss for me and crawled off to bed. As I drifted off to sleep, I contemplated the sheer magnitude of a 2,184 mile, AT thru-hike. The 72 miles I’d just done had taken a huge toll on me and I couldn’t fathom doing it 30 more times!

Made it!  Sort of.
Wake-up came well before the 8:40am arrival of the shuttle, so I slowly packed up camp and leisurely strolled down to the Appalachia parking area below. The sounds of the cars, SUV's and logging trucks screaming up and down down Route 2 was a sharp contrast to the quiet few days I had just spent in the woods. The arrival of the bus finally saved me from this automotive cacophony. When I climbed in I was a little concerned about the fact that my ride reservation was actually for the following day. But a short explanation of my sudden change of plans was all that was required to secure a seat. The nearly 3 hour ride back into Lincoln gave me plenty of time to read, relax and otherwise reflect on my trip. 

I was disappointed not to have completed the full 96 mile G2G. But I knew that another day on the trail would have ended badly. The sleepless night on the ridge had taken a bit of the wind out of my sails and I couldn't quite recover from it. In the end I knew that I had given it everything I had (and then some) but came up a day (and 24 miles) short. This fact was highlighted once more by the 2 hour trek (in the rain) back to my car with my beat-up, one-geared, no-brake, mountain bike which left me completely exhausted once again!

I arrived home a few hours later to find the house completely empty. At first I was disappointed there was no one around to share my experience. But, it was probably for the best as I was too tired to go through it all immediately anyway. I felt blessed to have spent spend 3 glorious days on the trail, but now, all I wanted to do was rest. Too pooped to unpack and too lazy to fix dinner I collapsed in a heap on my bed. I slept all night but it was a restless, uneasy sleep of a semi-defeated man. Tossing and turning. Half awake and half asleep - drifting in and out of Appalachian Dreams.

The Route


  1. Sounds like you had a great experience out there and cutting the hike short by a day was a good decision. I've been thinking a lot about doing some AT sections hikes. Reading this makes me want to do it even more. ....but I won't start in the Whites!

  2. Nice job with all that hiking. I enjoyed reading your commentary, it is much easier and quicker than getting out there myself.