Musings of a Thru-Hiker
By Gary Shealy
Sassafras Gap to Cable Gap
It did not take long for my guilt over leaving the Orlando Boys out of the shelter to be overcome by sleep. My body was tired; the steady climb out of Wesser had been a challenge. I slept soundly only occasionally awakening to the sound of Dick Cate's and Scott's snoring, still it was good to be among thru-kikers. A misty rain greeted the early risers at the shelter and made for a damp breakfast. Behind the shelter I could see where the Orlando Boys managed to make camp. There was no sign of movement from their tent.
A traditional hiker's breakfast was the standard fare. I diligently ate my oatmeal as distasteful as it was. I had never acquired a taste for oatmeal to enjoy eating it, but I was concerned with calories and sustenance so I reluctantly choked the gruel down.
Bob headed out first, followed by Scott and me, and soon thereafter Al and Dick Cates. The morning mist slowly turned to a cold drizzle, visibility was limited, and rain gear became the order of the day. Within the first few miles we began to spread out, and each assumed his own pace. Bob was far ahead and pushing farther with each step. I stayed in sync with Scott. I was still tired and aching from the fall the previous day, and the climb up Cheoah Bald left me short. The others laughed as I mentioned the dire need for a few decent switchbacks.
It was perfect weather for GoreTex: forty degrees and raining. Dick Cates passed me and was now immediately behind Scott as I paused to fill my tired lungs with air. Scott ploughed on without paying much attention to the trail and missed a sharp turn, shortly both Scott and Dick Cates were looking down a rock face wondering where the trail went. I waited for them to backtrack and enjoyed the banter between them. Dick Cates intoned "I thought you knew where you were going, instead you wander off the trail down a drainage ditch." Scott was not to be bothered and told him not to follow blindly. It was at this juncture we noted the trail curved and proceeded uphill, and another truism of the trail was recorded: whenever in doubt, go uphill (ie. take the most difficult route).
The roller coaster ridges soon scattered us along the trail. The rain became heavier and cooler, and I finally stopped to put on my rain pants. My rain jacket covered my upper body and occasionally was opened to allow steam to escape from my polypropylene shirt. We pushed on for a couple of hours looking for the next spring and planning lunch. Sweetwater Gap had a small seep before it, and we decided to lunch there. Just as we approached the spring, a small patch of blue sky broke open in the clouds. The rain stopped as we filled our water bottles and sought a place to lounge for lunch. Dick Cates decided to push on while we were about the business of lunch.
Lunch is usually a light affair, but often it requires some work to properly set up. I sat on a log at angle leaning on a limb for a backrest with my legs slung over the another log in a slightly reclining position. My pack was open, and meals, and gear were spread out around me so that I could reach anything without moving. Just as I started eating, it began to pour down rain. The rain was even colder than before, and having no shelter we scrambled to re-pack our gear and choke down lunch in the same breath. With only the meager beginnings of lunch ingested, we were moving on down the trail looking for a better spot to resume lunch. It never came.
As we ascended the next ridge, the rain turned into a thunder storm. Lightning was crackling down around us. The wind blew furiously with still over five miles to go to Cable Gap. On one side of the ridge the air was hot and steamy; on the other side of the ridge it was cold and frigid. The edge of the front was stalled on the ridge line. The force of the winds was tremendous. Our speed increased as we frantically tried to get off of the ridge and away from the lightning. The trail did not cooperate. As we rounded Hogback Gap and continued to push on to Cody Gap, it began to hail. I was shivering increasingly as ice collected between my pack and my back. Without effort I repeatedly scooped handfuls of hail off the back of my neck.
Occasionally, it was necessary to remove my hood in order to attempt to regulate my body temperature. My head was cooking in a sauna while my arms and lower body were shivering from the cold. These episodes were very brief as hail would quickly fill the open hood and slide down the skin of my neck. This continued for over an hour and a half. We were getting closer to Cable Gap, and Scott had noted that the guide book did not mention water at the shelter, however there was a stream one tenth of a mile before the road crossing that was two tenths of a mile from the shelter. Neither of us had any desire to come back for water in this weather so we agreed to fill the water bags and carry them into the shelter.
When we reached the stream, it had swollen to a torrent from the rain. So much water was passing over the rocks, that the debris in the stream were clearly visible. The water was cloudy and muddy and ice cold. Within a few minutes we reached the road, and were anxious to get to the shelter. We walked for ten minutes and grew concerned. The shelter was supposed to be only two tenths of a mile from the road. Reluctantly we stopped and reviewed the guide books and the maps. We were cold, tired, wet, and afraid that we had missed the turn off to the shelter. After another ten minutes of hiking, it occurred to us that the shelter might have been down the road well off of the trail. The extra water weight was getting heavier by the step, and we contemplated going back to the road, but decided to push ahead once more. Finally we came to the shelter. Al and Bob were lounging around dry and warm. The shelter was one and two tenths miles from the road, and not two tenths of a mile as stated in the guide book. Even though it was not mentioned in the guide book a spring bubbled up in front of the shelter.
We quickly unpacked and sought dry clothes. I pulled on everything that I had including a stocking hat and polar fleece jacket. I changed my socks and hung my boots and gear around the shelter to drain. Half an hour later Dick Cates, who was ahead of us since lunch, showed up. He had been roaming up and down the road looking for the shelter since the guide book was wrong. Shortly three runners strolled into camp. One went for water, another went to the privy, and the third stood under the edge of the roof in shorts and soaked cotton shirt shivering in the cold. I offered him my jacket, as Bob fixed him hot chocolate and instant soup. In return we got fresh fruit.
The three were doing a thirty mile run. Last year in a weekend they covered the entire Smokies, over seventy miles of the Appalachian trail in a weekend. Of course they carried no gear, only snacks and water bottles. They had a ground crew that carried food, tents, and gourmet dinners. This time they were not prepared for the weather and were fortunate to find us. The one was close to hypothermic and needed hot food and dry clothes. They pushed on several more miles to Fontana, and left us finishing their fruit and eating our lipton dinners.
The three sided shelter was welcome relief from the cold relentless rain. It provided a dry place to eat, sleep, and be "sheltered." Although it was small and full, we were grateful to be there. Fontana in the morning.