Hiking With Hardtack: ‘The Hitch-in-the-Get-Along Gang’ hits The Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain
By Buzz Trexler | (email@example.com)
Sometime between a six-day hike along The Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the start of a planned seven-day hike from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Dicks Creek Gap, I tagged my hike team “The Hitch-in-the-Get-Along Gang.” It was meant as a fun, easy way to refer to our group without having to name them every time I penned a little something about our hikes.
It now seems prophetic.
Steven “Griz” Gilreath and Greg “Gypsy” Houchin and their wives — Karen and Bobbie, respectively — were to meet up with us around lunch Wednesday, April 3. However, there was a hitch-in-the-get-along as the Houchins were delayed by traffic and we weren’t able to leave Knoxville until around 3 p.m.
We checked into Amicalola Lodge around 6 p.m. and were quizzed by Ken at the desk.
“Did you register at the visitors center?”
“You really need to register at the visitors center,” he said with great concern. “They’re really checking people on the trail to see if they registered, because they found somebody dead.”
There was no explanation concerning the dead person, but since the desk clerk was concerned, I decided to be concerned as well.
“Great,” I thought. “Another hitch-in-the-get-along. Griz and Gypsy will never get onto the approach trail.”
Apparently mistaking my delay for apprehension, Ken said earnestly, “You really need to register. They will pull you off the trail.”
Griz, Gypsy, Daily Times Photographer Mark A. “Right On” Large and I piled back into a van and traveled down the mountain to the visitors center.
We found the register book in one of those outdoor displays where you see all sorts of handbills posted, including one that warned you need to have a commercial grade bear-proof food canister if camping along a five-mile section of the trail between Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap.
“Have you heard about this?” I asked Griz.
“Nope,” he said. “And I’m not going to worry about it.”
“Not like you’re going to go somewhere and buy one now,” Gypsy offered.
Two 20-somethings walked up and were looking for the register.
“Where you headed?” I asked.
One of them simply said, “Maine.”
“Did you know about the bear canisters?”
Before returning to Amicalola Lodge, we walked around to the back of the visitors center and mugged for the camera at the iconic arch marking the approach trail. While Right On and I planned to savor one last night in a warm bed at the lodge, Griz and Gypsy were chomping at the bit to hit the approach trail, meeting up with us at Springer Mountain summit.
“If I’d known this was here, we’d have brought our packs and headed out from here,” Griz said to Gypsy.
FOGGY MOUNTAIN BREAKDOWN
Back at the lodge, our wives — Donna, Karen and Bobbie, who have earned the moniker of “The Hitch-in-the-Get-Along Gang Logistics Team” — prepared to leave as Griz and Gypsy donned their backpacks and headed to the approach trail. Right On and I made our way to the dinner table where Josh “Hardtack” Lindamood was sharing a meal with family and friends before beginning his thru-hike the next day. Lindamood is the first Appalachian Trail chaplain commissioned by the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church and we planned to chronicle his first days on The A.T.
About 20 minutes after Right On and I sat down to eat, a dejected Griz and Gypsy showed back up.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We got to the approach trail and the rain started comin’ down hard, so we stopped to put on our rain gear,” Griz said.
“The wives passed us up and waved at us laughin’,” Gypsy added.
Griz said they were about a quarter-mile up the trail when they decided to turn around because the fog became a big problem.
“It was like one minute it wasn’t real bad and then FOOMPH!” he said.
It’s one thing to night hike with headlamps and another to be fogged in, particularly when you have a choice.
We picked up another room for the night.
WHERE’S THE TRAIL?
After getting settled in our rooms, we found Hardtack in a sitting area with family and friends.
“When do you plan on first meeting up with Josh?” I asked his parents, the Rev. Rick and Carol Lindamood, of Wytheville, Va.
“We’re not sure,” Rick said. “Maybe Erwin.”
“How much does your pack weigh?” I asked Josh.
“How many tune-up hikes did you do?”
“Twenty to 30,” he said. “Some were short.”
Bob Hayes, a retired United Methodist pastor from Maryville, then offered a theological perspective on Josh’s gear: “The one thing that God said to take on the trail he didn’t,” Hayes said, pointing to Deuteronomy 23:13.
Someone looked up the Scripture and everyone laughed at the preacher humor and concluded that Josh didn’t pack a latrine shovel.
Before heading to bed, I go to the desk to ask about a map to The A.T. crossing at U.S. Forest Service Road 42. If you choose not to hike the approach trail, with its mammoth staircase of 604 steps, the routine entry point is at this crossing. You park in a nearby lot, hike south on The A.T. about one mile to the summit, grab a photo or two, then take your first steps toward Maine. I had been told the front desk can provide a map to the crossing, but the person now manning the desk seemed unaware such a map exists.
Finally, a lodge worker who overheard the conversation said, “You just go up the road by the campground, and it’s less than 30 minutes away.
Right On and I go to our room and pull out our Appalachian Trail map. Looking it over, we agree: He was thinking we were looking for the approach trail, not the actual A.T.
The next morning, a worker at the front desk provides us with a map and the group of about 14 travels in a caravan of several cars to the crossing; Michael Feely and Annette Spence, editor of the Holston Conference publication The Call, ferries Right On and me. USFS 42 turns out to be a well-graded, but muddy and pothole-filled road.
It takes us a little more than an hour to get there.
A HARD DAY'S NIGHT
We get out of the vehicles at the USFS 42 parking area and are met by a cold wind.
Several of us put on the cold weather gear, but after donning my Frogg Toggs pants and jacket, I realize my gloves and toboggan are still in the warmth of a West Knoxville playroom.
I mention this and Feely gives me his fingerless gloves. Right On pulls out an extra toboggan.
I think, “Wow. I haven’t even hit the trail and I’m having to rely on Trail Angels.”
We head up the trail as the wind roars through the trees at about 30 to 35 mph. Griz’s high-tech watch shows a temperature of 34 degrees. Not surprisingly, the trees are covered in ice. Scattered about the trail are broken, ice-encased branches and pieces of ice that resembled perpendicularly sliced soda straws.
We hike 0.9 miles to Springer Mountain summit, an elevation of 3,782 feet, and take a few photos before Josh’s father reads from Joshua 1:6-9. We then pray before heading back to the parking area. After Josh gets a round of hugs and goodbyes, we leave the parking lot at about 9:50 a.m. Thursday.
We slog toward our first stop of the journey — Hawk Mountain Shelter, 7.8 miles away — and the wind increases as the temperature drops. Soon we’re making our way through a downpour that becomes freezing rain. Not quite 2 miles from the parking area, we pass a blue blaze that leads the way to Stover Creek Shelter. No one mentions the possibility of hiking the 0.2 miles to the shelter as we know there’s no chance of the poor weather breaking: the forecast calls for 100 percent chance of rain. We trudge along, everyone eating anything that’s easy to reach — for me, that would be dried fruit, nuts, and mini-Clif bars — as we hike along not wanting to stop for lunch. If we keep hiking, we stay warm; each time we stop, we begin to chill.
Even though my head is cast downward, eyes largely on the trail, I notice the white, diamond-shaped blazes that mark Benton MacKaye Trail, which meets The A.T., then follows along, departs, and meets again near Three Forks where Stover, Chester and Long creeks converge to form Noontootla Creek. The A.T. guide for this section notes that “noontootlah” is a Cherokee word that means “shining water” — an apt description of the ice we continue to encounter.
“I had a piece of ice fall and hit me on my head,” Gypsy says later, looking back. “I thought it was gonna put me down.
“It was this big,” he says, showing about a 3-inch diameter using his thumb and index finger.
Despite rain gear and pack covers, we’re soaked by the time we reach Hawk Mountain Shelter, about 3:30 p.m.
SHELTER FROM THE STORM
To say that Hawk Mountain Shelter is full this day is the epitome of an understatement.
The shelter, which has a loft, sleeps 12, but there are people bundled in sleeping bags on the porch and even one or two hikers beneath the shelter as they attempt to escape the weather.
We estimate about 50-plus hikers in and around the shelter. There’s a privy, bear cables, and water available at a stream several hundred yards away.
Three of us — Griz, Gypsy and I — are in Clark Jungle Hammocks, while Hardtack is using a tarp with ground cover and Right On is sleeping in a tent. We try to set up camp quickly, but I’m hampered by inexperience with the hammock system, compounded by fatigue and cold.
My mind keeps going back to the 50-year-old hiker they found dead at Tricorner Knob Shelter in January.
The far more experienced Griz and Gypsy created a great system of straps and carabiners for the Clark Jungle Hammock that allows you to set up the rain fly and hammock without having to tie a single knot. (I was never in the Boy Scouts, and only needed to know how to secure a jet with tie-down chains in the Navy.) However, between the need for training and the fog of fatigue setting in, Griz has to help me.
Once the hammock set up, I get into dry clothes and crawl into the bag, not wanting to emerge even for dinner. Yet, I know hot tea and a warm dinner will help.
“Did they ever decide whether it was hypothermia that killed him?” I ask no one in particular.
“Yeah, I think it was,” said Griz.
Not a comforting thought for me, and I start reciting the symptoms in my mind.
I finally emerge, make some hot tea and prepare a dinner of dehydrated mac and cheese before crawling back into the sack.
Griz is a retired Army helicopter pilot who still flies medical helicopters; Gypsy served as an Army Ranger. Both have spent their lives in the woods, so this hiking and camping stuff is first-nature to the both of them.
Me? Not so much, as they say today.
In previous A.T. experiences, I attempted to sleep in a tent with little or no success, which is why I decided to give the Clark Jungle Hammock a try. Griz and Gypsy were already hanging from trees with great, snoring success whenever we camped, and I wanted to do the same.
Knowing that we were likely to face cold weather with the early April hike, Griz bought Army style pauncho liners.
“These things are great,” he says as we’re setting up camp. “What I do is lay it in the hammock; lay my sleeping bag in the liner; and then fold it over, tying it together. It’s like a cocoon. You want the liner underneath the sleeping bag so it insulates.”
That sounds pretty easy, but I find that the liner keeps sliding all around the hammock.
“Your hammock is still pretty slick. After it’s used a few times, it won’t be ask slick,” Griz says assuringly.
When I finally get it straight enough to put the sleeping on the liner, they both slide around like bacon on a Teflon frying pan.
Having had enough of the cold, wet, windy weather, I crawl into my new sleeping compartment.
All 215 pounds of me seem to slide toward the foot end. I grab a loop that serves as a handhold at the head end, as I had been trained to do, and pull myself up.
Feeling as if I have the hang of this thing, so to speak, I settle in with a smile. “There. Comfy.”
It lasts all of 15 minutes before I feel the first cold on my sock-covered feet.
Then on my rear.
Then on my side.
I toss; I turn; I scrunch up; I stretch out.
As soon as I seem to settle into a comfortable position, I notice another cold spot and have to reposition the poncho.
The next morning, Griz and Gypsy both swear I was snoring in the night.
No way, I say: “If that’s the case, I must have been sleeping with my eyes wide open.”
“You sounded like you were rasslin’ hawgs all night long,” Gypsy says. “I thought we were going to have to put a bullet in you to settle you down.”
With an overnight low of 32, according to Griz’s watch, and a sleeping bag rated at 40 degrees, I would have welcomed the company.
HIKING IN THE NEED OF PRAYER
It’s tough to muster up enough get-up-and-go to crawl out of the sleeping bag Friday morning.
Even so, it takes us more than two hours to eat, break down the camp and pack up the wet gear.
My once 42-pound pack, now filled with waterlogged gear, feels 10 pounds heavier.
I can’t imagine how Right On’s pack, which initially weighed in at 60 pounds, must feel.
“I hate having to carry all of this water that I can’t drink,” I groan as we head up a soggy and slick trail.
We hike along what seems to be nearly level trail until we take a steep descent into Hightower Gap and my left knee starts to feel weak with a slight pain every once in a while. I try to block the tyranny of what-ifs that start to creep in. However, I find myself stepping more than carefully, which slows me down considerably as we continue a series of ascents and descents before dropping into Horse Gap (elevation, 2,673 feet). We then climb nearly 700 feet in a mile-long ascent of Sassafrass Mountain, where we break for lunch. We’ve been on the trail for three hours.
By now, the weather is beautiful and I empty my pack of wet gear, hanging it here and there as yard sale jokes sail around me.
While we’re eating, two Army chaplains in fatigues pass by on the trail, giving us a smile and brief greetings. U.S. Army Camp Frank D. Merrill is located just to the east and Griz and Gypsy, who later talks about seeing brass casings on the trail, reminisce about training in this area.
Griz had only planned for a half-hour lunch, but we take advantage of the now-decent weather to rest and let our gear dry out. We stay there for about an hour and a half.
While the ascent of Sassafrass Mountain was steep, the descent is even more steep as we drop about 500 feet in a little more than a half mile into Cooper Gap, where the trail crosses USFS 42/80. I start to say something about broken glass on the trail when I realize it is, in fact, mica deposits.
We start the climb up Justus Mountain, but I find myself slowed by worrisome knees and a heavy pack.
Hardtack stops ahead of me. When I reach him, he says, “You want to pray?”
“Absolutely,” amused that I’m the newly commissioned chaplain’s first A.T. congregant, so to speak. On the first night, he offered me a dry toboggon; now, he is offering prayer.
TORTOISE AND THE DARE
Through-hikers pass us throughout the day, often sporting light gear and iPod earbuds as they hop along at a fast clip, which makes this nearly 57-year-old novice feel like the proverbial tortoise. But ascending Justus Mountain (elevation, 3,224), we come across an even slower species: A 60-year-old through-hiker by the trail name of Sharky and his companion, Seeker.
The two are resting on a rock at the turn of a switchback.
“You need to go on ahead,” Sharky says. “I’m the slowest guy on the trail.”
I tell him that’s not a safe wager when I’m on The A.T.
“No, I’m not kiddin’,” he says in a tone that makes me wonder if I’ve challenged his lineage unaware.
He then goes on to colorfully explain that he didn’t care how long it takes him to get to Maine, even if it’s two years. Sharky plans to take his time, and no one should dare to rush him along.
He seems to take this whole thing rather seriously.
I look at Seeker’s gear and there’s no apparel that suggests he planned a through-hike. For instance, instead of boots or hiking shoes, he’s wearing loafers and dress socks. When I ask whether they are working for him, he maintains they’re quite comfortable.
Something just does not seem right.
Still, The A.T. is no place to make judgment calls, so I move on.
Sharky and I leap-frog each other throughout the remainder of the day, the last being when we pass the two of them setting up camp at Justus Creek. Whenever we leap-frog, Sharky always seems to be complaining about something. Toward the end of this particular day, it’s about the lack of a water source — which is strange to me, because it water seems to be everywhere.
We mention that it might be a bit cool camping overnight so close to a fairly sizable creek, but they gleefully dismiss us. (We later learn they moved on to another campsite.)
We hike on, passing another beautiful rushing creek, Blackwell, before ascending to Gooch Mountain Shelter.
About 30 minutes into the hard climb up Justus Mountain, Griz sends Hardtack and Gypsy on ahead to scope out a campsite around the shelter.
WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GOOCH ...
We arrive at Gooch Mountain Shelter around 5:20 p.m. to find we are still riding a wave of through-hikers. Again, there are 50-plus camped in and around the shelter. Except, this time the shelter is surrounded by laurel thickets. We find Gypsy and Hardtack have secured an area that has a large enough level space for the tarp and tent, but find locating the perfect hammock-hanging trees a bit more challenging. With a little work, though, we get it all done.
Erecting my rain fly and hammock is a little easier this time, but I still have to summon Griz.
We make our way to the water source, which turns out to be a piped spring, then return to make dinner.
Notorious among the gang for not eating enough on the trail, I had been doing better on this hike and was looking forward to the Enertia Trail Foods Veggie Pizza Pasta. In preparing, I misread the directions (blame it on the encroaching darkness) and thought it said to use 4 ounces of boiling water.
“There isn’t even a 4-ounce mark on this package,” I complain.
“I never did care for that expensive stuff,” Griz said, shoveling in a mouthful of AlpineAire Foods Western Style Tamale Pie With Beef.
The main reason I went for Enertia products was because of the single serving. Most other trail meals come in a two-serving package, which is a bit much for me.
Remembering a past trail meal where I had put too little water in the pack and not let it cook long enough, I decide more water would be OK.
About 15 minutes after putting in the last ingredients, I put the first spoonful in my mouth, and nearly gagged.
The noodles were still crunchy, and the meal was dry as toast.
“This is horrible!” I said.
I knew I needed to eat, so I foraged onward, but it nearly came upward.
“I can’t eat this,” I said.
“You want some of mine?” Griz offered.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s no problem.”
I seal up the uneaten Enertia pack — aggravated that I must now pack out inedible food -- and take him up on the tamale dish; however, I still can’t eat it all, so Griz finishes it off.
We then walk up a trail to where the bear cable is located so we can hang the bear bags, only to suffer another hitch in the get-along: Griz’s parachute cord spool gets hung on one of the pulleys secured to a cable about 15 feet up. After a few unsuccessful tries at freeing it, Griz finally gives up and we hook our bags to others, making it heavy enough that it takes two of us to hoist the bags.
We return to the campsite and Griz reads a devotion from Romans 6 and Psalm 138. We then call it a night.
I make my way to the privy and nearly get lost coming back in the dark. I keep scanning the woods for Nite Ize glow-in-the-dark tie downs that secure our hammocks and finally see them.
Reaching my hammock, I prepare for another night of “rasslin’ hawgs.”
BREAKDOWN AT WOODY GAP
The next morning as we head out of camp, Right On seems to be wearing down. What started out as a 60-pound pack had likely not lessened a great deal.
“Man, I’m really starting to feel this in my knees,” he said.
I can tell he was struggling and eventually convince him to use one of my two trekking poles.
My knees are no worse and no better than the day before. My right knee is braced pretty well with a borrowed knee brace. It’s my left keen that has me concerned, but one pole will do for me.
Right out of the shelter, we begin a descent toward Gooch Gap where it crosses the now-familiar USFS 42. As we approach, I see of all things a FedEx van scoot past.
Griz, Gypsy and Hardtack are moving on, but Right On and I are continuing to lag behind, even though the trail is not that tough. Even though they are out of sight, there is the occasional “WHOOP!” and “What about it!” that we use to mark distance and positions so that no one is left behind.
As we begin the slight climb to the 3,200-foot summit of Ramrock Mountain, I tell Right On to stop.
“We’re not going to make Dicks Creek in seven days,” I say with regret. “We’re holding them back.”
We compare ailments for a couple of minutes, then continue on at our own pace for a little more than 2 miles. We soon catch up with Griz, who has hiked back a quarter-mile without his pack to check on us. We then find Gypsy at Ramrock Mountain summit, who tells us Hardtack has been sent on to the shelter.
We stop at a rock overlook at Ramrock Mountain summit where the view is spectacular.
Already well behind schedule, we nonetheless decide to drop packs, stay a while and shoot some photos. The peace and beauty are just too tempting to pass up.
While there, a ridgerunner named Razor arrives and asks us a few questions, doing his duty at monitoring A.T. usage and seeing if anyone needs help or information.
“There’s only two of us south of the Smokies,” he says, explaining that they are stationed in environmentally sensitive areas.
Asked about misuse, abuse and litter on The A.T., Razor says, “The worst ones are the male 20-somethings. They think, ‘Momma’s just down the trail.’”
Razor says the abuse and litter from such hikers ends somewhere between Georgia and Franklin, N.C.
“They either learn or are forced off. The greatest pressure (to take care of the trail) is from other through-hikers.”
A few minutes later Dr. Pepper, his granddaughter and son-in-law show up handing out “Trail Magic” in the form of a plastic bag containing candy, raisins, a Rice Krispies bar and a Christian tract.
Dr. Pepper tells us he has been doing this sort of thing for three or four years.
“I just enjoy hiking, so I put together something to do,” he explains.
We talk for a while and then decide it’s time to move on up the trail.
Along the way, I stop Griz to tell him I’ve made a decision.
“We need to get off the trail at Woody Gap.”
In preparing for the hike, I mapped four take-out points where we could be picked up by the Logistics Team if someone needed to be taken off the trail. Woody Gap, one of four possibilities, is now just a mile and a half up the trail.
Disappointment reigns among the group, but Right On’s knees are breaking down and I’m mentally caught up in my own ailments.
Hardtack has already been sent on ahead to Woods Hole Shelter, our next planned campsite that’s about 8 miles down the trail.
“You guys can hike on with him, if you want,” I tell Griz and Gypsy. “I can make arrangements to pick you up at Dicks Creek.”
“We came because of you,” Gypsy says.
Tough as it is, I contact the Logistics Team and am informed it will be the next day before we can be picked up.
We reach Woody Gap and called Wolf Pen Gap Country Store and Hiker Hostel for a courtesy pickup.
About 20 minutes after we settled in, a familiar face comes through the door.
“I told you I was slower than you,” Sharky said.