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What a section hike of the AT taught me about myself

Last updated on July 26, 2019

Heaving, sweat saturating the entire surface area of my body, boots, socks, underwear, pants, shirt, and hat, with a sheen on my arms, neck, and face I was struggling with the whole Yoda thing. “Try not, only do.” I was with a group of guys, whom I am lucky enough to have as hiking buddies this past weekend as we were summiting the mountain of Spence Field in the Smoky Mountains on the first day of a three-day hike. Toward the end of the day, I was faced with the fact that I had let my cardio shape lapse into a normal human realm. It was more than enough to meet the demands of the Olympic Mountains in 2018 but I was running half marathons at the time. I’ve only been walking, hiking and riding my bike short distances for work lately. Friday, on the way up the mountainside for an elevation gain of more than 5000 feet truly humbled me. A seed of doubt had been planted as to whether or not I would have to bail on this trip and just go hang out at Elkmont campground while the guys finished the hike by themselves.

Myles, the main organizer for the Central Kentucky Backpackers Group, had reached out saying that his Buddy Aaron had an idea of hiking three days on the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies for a July getaway before he left for a two week trip in Alaska. I reached out to our mutual friend Paul and it all just sort of synced up. First off, I am not even an intermediate hiker at this point. I’m probably, an advanced beginner with four years under my belt now and some really great challenges met, but there is still so much for me to learn. That’s why I like hiking with these guys. I learn something new every time I go out with them.

Our route:

  • Day 1: Jakes Creek Trail to Spence Field Shelter
  • Day 2: Spence Field Shelter to Double Spring Shelter
  • Day 3: Double Spring Shelter, along the Little River, to Elkmont Campgrounds

On the way up we encountered a couple of rattlesnakes who were, thankfully, relaxed enough to just remain balled up slightly off to the side of the trail without becoming agitated. Wild turkeys, deer and, oddly enough, some super bold rabbits who just sort of hung out with us. Aaron however encountered a momma bear and her two cubs while the rest of us only saw fresh paw prints in the soft parts of the trail. After many breaks, I caught up with Aaron and the other guys. They never left me too far behind though, some of whom were struggling with either knee or foot issues. My struggle was mainly cardiovascular and muscular conditioning in nature, not joints or pain. Things I can control over time with training. But the thing that hit me hard was the lack of self-confidence I felt. That and the post heart attack reality I live day to day. The Yoda thing does not apply to me anymore. I have limits. We all do really but it takes something like an artery exploding to begin to fully embrace them. I have to prepare over weeks of training to achieve something like this, not just safely, but to build confidence in my ability. I can’t risk myself or others because of my circumstance. That’s the harsh light I was standing in, or rather, doubled over by heaving air sweating like a rain cloud dispensing sprinkles, on the path up to Spence the first day. Part of me knew I would make it that day. Slow and steady. And I did. But the next day? Well, that remained the question.

We made it to Spence shelter just before a night long thunderstorm hit. It just opened up, poured down and boomed all night on top of our mountain retreat. We were in the company of four other guys. Two of whom were in their late 60’s early 70’s. Old friends or brothers. We never found out. But the gear they carried was totally old school. Heavy as hell. I was impressed regardless. I want to be them in a decade or so. Still doing what I love even if my knees ache, my heart blows up again, and my VO2 max lags along with my muscles strength as I age. Slow is still movement toward experiencing life.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Paul using his water bag to collect rainwater from the drainage spout from the AT Shelter roof. Part of me was like no no no no no no… but I trust this guy’s experience completely and if it was good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me. Well, that and it meant I didn’t have to hike down to the water source in the rain to fill up. Sparing my legs. Myles joined in on that and filled his up as well. Aaron just drank directly from the source as he does not filter his water at all. Being a former AT through hiker, and long term outdoorsman, he knows more than I ever will about life outdoors. And yet, with all that experience, he’s one of the most humble, energetic and open guys I’ve met so far on the trail. Laidback but sharp. Just there doing exactly what he loves and, I think, laser cutting every moment into his brain because he really lives for this kind of thing. I walked away with a lot of admiration for this guy.

We all made our various dinners. Mine was one of those Packit Gourmet Dottie’s Chicken & Biscuits jobs which always reminds me of dinner with my best friend Doug back at Heart Lake the night we arrived. Cold and wet on day three of our trip through the Olympics last year. It just sort of tastes like that moment of comfort I guess.

I slept off and on that night in the top bunk level listening to the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof above all night and through the morning. The shelter was a wooden structure with three walls. Carvings from previous hikers everywhere and a guest book I should have read but was too tired to thumb through. The old guys were up at the crack of dawn and we eventually followed suit. We did around 8 miles the day before and had a 14-mile agenda for Saturday. Breakfast was quick. I neglected to bring coffee which was fine because I was still drinking a ton of water to re-hydrate from all the sweat I produced the day before. I was fine but just thirsty all the time for a bit.

Spence Field Shelter

As we packed up and left our campsite I was hearing the guys talk about how the trail ahead of us was not entirely easy. It ended up being a little more elevation gain than the day before actually. More on that later though. After a few miles of trail, I turned to Myles privately and in a nervous voice, shared with him my anxiety that I may not be able to do this trip and might bail. The other guys caught up to us, not far behind, probably taking pictures, and joined in the conversation. The problem with bailing for me meant that I’d have to go solo and my navigation skills are still underdeveloped. That and I hadn’t downloaded the GPS maps to my phone as the route was hard for me to conceptualize. Learning a lot here, but still, a novice.

What impressed me was that the guys did everything they could to accommodate me. Make me feel at ease and work through the options. Never once leaving me on my own. Just the opposite. I felt like I had three people who rallied around me. That gave me the strength I needed to make the choice to go on once we had reviewed the options. They even made me lead. Which meant going at the same painfully slow pace I was going at on inclines as we went up and down all day. Summiting Thunderhead and Rocky Top along the way. After we got to the point where we were 8 miles in and sort of in the clear and I was obviously able to handle myself, Paul and Aaron went on ahead while Myles lagged behind seemingly for his knee but I suspect, in part, to make sure I made it safely. It’s that kind of hiker empathy that makes me glad in my heart that I have a love for this form of experience. You get to see the very best part of human nature while enjoying the outdoors together. Completely different experiences and motivations but the same outcomes and moments of pure freedom that you can’t find anywhere else. Period.

We arrived at Double Spring Shelter at around 7 pm. Having started that morning just after 7 am, that made for a long day of hiking, climbing, contemplation and talking. Something that I won’t soon forget either. We were all pretty beat so we changed into our shelter clothes (except for Aaron who didn’t seem to sweat much at all). I had a pair of running shorts, my Columbus half marathon shirt and a pair of Zero sandals that I love. Again, Dottie’s for dinner. More water. I gave my overly heavy metal flask with whiskey in it to Paul and Myles to split. I figured I was still working on replacing water too aggressively to risk dehydration that night anyway.

Our shelter mates were four college seniors from Dayton Ohio that night. The contrast between that and the previous night was not lost on me either. In my group, I am the oldest at 51. The youngest in our troop is 35. Running into the seniors from last night and the younger folks on Saturday night was kind of a full-circle thing in my head. It made me think of the true draw of being outdoors has for people across so many different walks of life. The search for ourselves. A chance to leave day to day life behind and walk outside of the shelter in the middle of the night bare-chested in the mist as the moonlight beams down on you with so many stars peppering the sky that every tree around you just shines in this silvery light that seems to promise perspective itself. Those moments are the gems I am currently collecting. And, novice or not, I have already collected a large stock which makes me grateful for my ability to do the things I do. Yeah, it was hard, I could be in better shape, but I chose to go on with the benefit of the support of my friends. I learned that, even now, I can walk 35 really hard miles over three days. Do a 14,000+ foot elevation gain. Hike through some pretty brutally hot conditions (day one) as the country was in a heatwave at the time. Not so much as we gained elevation. It gave me a chance to step outside of myself again and just, well, breath.

Day three came too soon. We huffed it down the mountain pretty much for the first third of the hike toward the Little River Trail and then ultimately back out to Elkmont. I learned about this synchronous lightning bug light show from the guys. It happens in Elkmont every year for two weeks. When I got home I looked it up and found a video about it. Never heard of that before and after watching the footage, well it reminds me of when Myles told us about the Moonbow at Cumberland Falls. It’s those moments where nature is pretty fucking magical. So much more so that looking at a screen. Combine that and time with people who enjoy what you do? Well, damn, that’s the whole point of life I think.

The river was beautiful as we hiked along it on Sunday. We talked about the phrase hikers use “embrace the suck” that speaks to the torture you put yourself through to accomplish something more incredible than you knew before you started.

It ended all too soon for me. Even though it was challenging and I lost faith in myself momentarily, I found my center out there once again. Buried among all my internal noise. Yet, the suck stripped all that away and left me in the field surrounded by mist, moonlight, and stars. Grateful for my life. Grateful for my friends. Grateful to just be here in this moment making the choice to keep moving on.

I am going car camping again this weekend for a scheduled trip with some buddies out in Indiana but I plan to start holding myself along an axis of getting back in climbing shape with a training plan again. I want to complete the year out with the Dolly Sods, The Virginia Triple Crown, Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the Smokies and only 3 miles from where we were Saturday night but I was too exhausted to attempt it) among other places through the fall and winter. If anything, this trip, and the very real moments of doubt that reached up and grabbed me by the neck taught me something about who I am. Maybe, who I am continually striving to become?

At the end of this trail, I can say I was on the Appalachian Trail and walked through a part of the Smokies in the company of friends. A mantra I use all the time has been [breathing in] “I am” [Breathing out] “Enough.” That proved true this weekend.


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