Or; how I learned to avoid bears (and other bad things) on the Appalachian Trail.
Almost a week ago I went for an eight mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. I’ve always enjoyed being out in the woods, around streams, trees , and rocks. We frequently go to the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area for vacation, and although the rest of my family does not enjoy hiking (unless it involves outlet malls), I made it a goal of mine this year.
So I announced my plan.
Saturday morning I was getting up early, taking the van and going hiking. They could feel free to sleep in. They could walk down the street to the Log Cabin Pancake House for breakfast, then walk on down to the Parkway in Gatlinburg. They could browse the shops if they wanted, and then go to the Aquarium. I’d pick them up when I got back into town, which I expected to be about 2pm.
They thought I was nuts.
So I got up, got dressed, grabbed my backpack, camera, and an extra sweatshirt, and drove off. I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap to Charlie’s Bunion and (preferably) back. It should total about eight miles. Being a type 2 diabetic I have been worried about my stamina. Although I only turned 45 about three weeks ago, I have noticed the past 2-3 years that my stamina has decreased, so eight miles was going to be rough.
I arrived at the Newfound Gap parking area at about 8:40. There were a few cars there already, but not many. After a couple quick photos and a bathroom stop, I hit the trail. It was chilly, in the mid forties, and I had three layers of clothing, a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, and a sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. I had been debating for weeks about wearing hiking boots. I have a pair, but I’ve never felt overly comfortable in them. I’m much more sure-footed in my grungy old sneakers. They’re also much lighter, which I felt would be important over eight miles. I didn’t have to worry about getting my feet wet since I’d be hiking a ridgeline, so I opted for the trusty old comfortable sneakers.
Almost immediately it got difficult. The first almost two miles were uphill. This was going to be harder than I thought.
I am in better shape than I have been in a few years, and have been trying to get out and walk regularly, but it was hard. I’m fairly fit, 150lbs, 5’4″, so I’m not horribly out of shape, but I was sucking a lot of wind, and quickly.
I kept plugging on. I was hiking alone, but this is one of the more popular hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so I wasn’t really alone much. Every 10-20 minutes I would encounter other hikers, mostly by catching up with them. I began to suspect part of my problem was that I was going too fast! I tried to pace myself, but was also afraid of breaking the rhythm I had going. It was cold but soon I was sweating and had to take off the sweatshirt and stow it in my backpack. I took the opportunity to take my first blood glucose check.
9:23 am: 130
OK, I was pleased with that, I just wanted to make sure I didn’t get too low. I pulled a Mariani Honey Sesame bar (God I love those!) out of the backpack, unwrapped it, and marched on. It was hard to eat while moving because I would get out of breath. Occasionally there would be a break in the trees, and I would be rewarded with an incredible view. Every so often I would have to stop for a quick breather, and a sip of water.
Eventually I reached 1.7 miles and the junction with another trail, the Sweat Heifer Creek trail, which was the first real landmark. It is also basically where the trail levels off a bit, more or less. I felt energized, not having to fight gravity quite so much. The next “landmark” was the Boulevard trail at 2.5 miles. The trail was well marked, with the white rectangular marks that designate the Appalachian Trail, so I had no worries about getting lost. The trail itself was much rockier than I expected, and required attention for every step. as a matter of fact, as I was beginning a downhill leg towards the Ice Water Spring shelter, I had a mistep, and fell. I ripped my jeans and bloodied my left knee slightly, and scratched up my left wrist. I was otherwise OK. I realized I was very lucky, it could have been a lot worse. Breaking an ankle or a leg out here would be bad. I took a short break to collect myself, then pressed on, a little more cautiously.
It was mostly downhill now. I passed the shelter, and the spring it gets its name from. It really started being downhill now, and rockier. After about a mile it leveled off. I realized this section would be no fun on the return trip! The trail leveled off and was less rocky now. I was obviously on a spine of a ridge line now with steep, wooded drops on both sides. Then there was a sign.
I can’t imagine dragging young children out here, but whatever.
I MADE IT!
I went down the short side trail to the rocky outcropping they call Charlie’s Bunion, and was astounded by the view. Wow. I’m just a simple boy from Indiana, I’m used to cornfields, not 1000 feet drops on three sides! It was great. Well worth the effort. After snapping some photos, I found a nice spot on the trail looping around to the right, and sat down for a rest and a blood glucose test.
Ok, I’ll take that. Time for lunch, which was a couple of granola bars and an apple, washed down with water.
It was a very pleasant spot for a rest, but after a while I knew I had to get moving again. I said goodbye to Charlie’s Bunion.
I was right about that section going back not being any fun. It was hell. But I did it. It seemed a lot longer going back up than it was going down. There were more people on the trail now also, all on the way to the Bunion. I had just missed the crowds. I was surprised at the number of people who looked like the were dressed for the mall, and not for the woods, four miles from civilization. And by the older guy who had a baby in a pack on his back. What if he fell?
By the time I got to the last downhill section, which was 1.7 miles, my knees were starting to ache. Soon I was wishing I hadn’t forgotten my Ibuprofen. Each step down hurt. I didn’t remember the trail being so rocky, I guess it was more noticeable as you went down.
By the time I got back to the parking lot, I was ready for the adventure to be over. It also started to rain a bit. It never did clear off, it was cloudy and cool the whole time. My hands were cold, I wished I had thought to take gloves.
I didn’t see any bears during the hike, although I swear I heard them stalking me from just out of sight in the woods about a dozen times.
When I had safely waded through the crowds at the Newfound Gap parking lot (they were oohing and ahhing over the views, with no idea what they were missing), and sat down safely in the van, I took another blood glucose reading.
I did it. I was very sore; my calves and my knees ached, and I needed a nice warm shower and some ibuprofen, but I did it. And I’ll do it again, as soon as I can. I’ll keep walking. I’ll keep exercising. Next time I’ll be in better shape.
I did it.
I hiked eight miles on the Appalachian Trail.
I survived the bears and my own stupidity.
I learned that Diabetes can’t hold me back.
Twenty minutes later, I was back in Gatlinburg, and the sun had come out.
Mistake #1: I forgot to tell my family EXACTLY where I was going. They knew about when I hoped to be back, but that was about it.
Mistake #2: I only took two bottles of water. I had to ration it too much, and therefore I didn’t hydrate like I should have. Three would have been better.
Mistake #3: I was too eager to get on the trail and didn’t eat a proper breakfast.
Mistake #4: I was too eager to get on the trail and didn’t aquire a proper lunch.
Mistake #5: I didn’t have gloves.
Mistake #6: I forgot Ibuprofen.
Mistake #7: I forgot Kleenex.
Mistake #8: Maybe shoes/hiking boots would have been better, for ankle support on the rocks, because a couple of times I slipped, and could have easily sprained an ankle. And that would have been bad.
If you haven’t read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, you need to go do it. Now.