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WTF is a Sabbatical?

For me, it’s 20 days off from work

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Going on sabbatical scares me a little. In a prior professional life we all used to say, ‘if you can take two weeks off at once, we don’t need you.’

Now I’m taking 20 workdays off from work all at once. Wow.

I’ve decided to hike. This has been a plan for several months. When K2 and I first fell in love during our whirlwind courtship, we realized we both loved the outdoors.

Before we decided to live together, we backpacked. Live in a tent together first, see what happens, then cohabitate. Some free advice, y’all.

When we got married, we did a brief honeymoon because we had already started planning Appalachian Trail Adventure 2018. We will hike from Springer Mountain, GA to Hot Springs, NC.

I have been in a hiking club for 10 years now. We don’t hike as much as we used to though and we never we super serious. To be honest it was more of a drinking club with a hiking problem. [Fugowies Forevah!]

I have a home-based yoga practice and according to my Fitbit I’m in “excellent” shape for my age – whatever that means. Still I expect this trip to stress me in ways entirely different from the day-to-day stress of the life I lead today. Isn’t that the point of a sabbatical?

I want to be challenged and tap a new wellspring of resilience I can bring back with me. Hey, at least it won’t add any weight to my pack.

It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. – Sir Edmund Hillary

Last day on the trail

Tuesday started with a huge breakfast at Sunnybank.

While Elmer made omelets, Carter, the dog, watched closely from the sitting room across the hall from the kitchen.

When the chimes sounded we gathered together once more in the dinning room to feast.

After breakfast K2 and I packed up and settled up. Then we set out from the downtown trail heading north from Hot Springs for an out-and-back hike to mile 279.3 on the AT. This last trek of 9.6 miles would put me over 200 miles of hiking during my sabbatical.

Once the trail turned off the town road, it followed the French Broad River.

The trail left the river and took us up Lovers Leap Rock through some prime tent camping and through Pump Gap. Then the trail led us to a curious spring-fed pond, which also featured a helicopter pad.

We sat on a wooden bench to eat our last trail lunch before turning back to Hot Springs. The roughly ten-mile hike felt short compared to the 20+ mile hike the day before.

As we traveled southbound on the AT we handed the northbound thru-hikers heading to Maine fun-sized Snickers and Milkyway candy bars – a bit of trail magic. Here’s a pic of Caveman wearing his EMS pack in front of the pond…

The temps climbed into the upper 60sF as we headed back toward the Lovers Leap outcropping and the views of Hot Springs over the French Broad River.

From the trail we walked to the modest Hot Springs Resort and Spa. After we checked into our room, we promptly filled the heart-shaped hot tub with hot mineral water – from the springs that put Hot Springs on the map. Perfect end to 200 miles of hiking!

Slacking from Sunnybank

Sunday we rolled into Hot Springs, North Carolina, to stay with Elmer at the historic Sunnybank boardinghouse. Elmer, an 81-yr-old restauranteur, thru-hiker, and professor, has run Sunnybank for over forty years. Matt, trail name Zappy Tendrils, helped Elmer over these past couple seasons. Matt gave us a tour of this 1865 Italiante-revival style summer home that has welcomed boarders since 1912.

The aromas of the vegetarian feast permeated upstairs from the kitchen.

At seven o’clock a set of chimes at the foot of one of the staircases sounded to let guests know Elmer and Matt had dinner ready. We collected in a dinning room adjacent to the kitchen for a four-course meal. I ate seconds of soup, salad, main, and side – then excused myself from dessert. The dinner conversation enhanced the culinary experience. Not only a favorite meal during this sabbatical — one of the best meals of my life. If you are ever within 100 miles of Sunnybank, please call Elmer and ask him to cook for you. If you sign up over seven other people by 4pm-ish, then he probably will. Here’s a shot of the salad to tempt you…

After dinner Elmer and Matt served us mint tea to help us all sleep soundly. The peace of the place and the comfortable bed made a good night’s sleep very easy to find.

Monday K2 and I woke up early, skipped breakfast, and Matt shuttled us to the trail at Max Patch Road. Before we left, Matt made us coffee. I brought my cup out to the porch to sip coffee while I put on my gaiters and boots, but promptly sat down nearly on top of it, knocking it over. As I laughed at my own clumsiness, Matt asked the key question:

Did you spill coffee in your boots?

Luckily no, my boots remained dry and ready to go. I snagged myself another cup. Then we headed out in Sunnybank’s trusty Subaru.

K2 and I crested the summit of Max Patch by 8:30am. Sustained winds of at least 40-50 miles an hour greeted us as we crossed that high meadow (elevation 4,629′). According to AWOL’s Appalachian Trail guidebook, “‘Max Patch’ is a homophone that replaced the original name ‘Mack’s Patch’. The summit was cleared for cattle and is maintained as a bald.”

After about two miles we cleared the wind with the forest sheltering us once again. The trail zigzagged up and down over Walnut Mountain (4,252′) and Bluff Mountain (4,686′) through gaps and over creeks.

The last two miles of this 20.5 mile (33km) hike slid fairly steeply into Hot Springs, a true trail town, where the Appalachian Trail runs straight along the sidewalk of the tiny downtown. The view of Hot Springs teased us well before the trail delivered us back to Sunnybank. My strength and fitness certainly improved compared to the early days in this sabbatical back in Top o’ Georgia. Still I relished turning off the trail onto Walnut Street, returning to Sunnybank’s porch, and sitting to take my boots off.

The Bomb Diggity Smiggity!

She’s the bomb…strong like bull…she likes hiking…she has been in a hiking club for years…ahem…sort of anyway…hiking was how i got to know we were compatible in the first place…when the suggestion was made that we live together…my immediate reaction was that we go backpacking for a long weekend…if we still felt the same after that…then we’d cohabitate…

Insert obligatory old movie quote…March or Die…1973…Starring Gene Hackman and Terrence Hill:

“Some of you men will try to quit. Others will try to run away. No man in this command has ever succeeded. If the Legion doesn’t get you, the desert will. If the desert doesn’t, the Arabs will. And if the Arabs don’t, then I will. I don’t know which is worse.”

Plus i really wanted Jodie to have some of what i had…and i thought i could show her a smidgeon of what a true Appalachian Trail “thru hike” might be like…a thumbnail…or Reader’s Digest version to all you throwbacks from the wayback…so my thoughts were for us to cover…in some capacity…the first three hundred miles…start at Amicolola and climb Springer…do northern Georgia…some of Carolina Del Norte…then tackle the Smokies…and finish at the first trail town on the AT…Hot Springs…wooohaawooohaa!

Nother movie quote here….Platoon…1986…Charlie Sheen…Tom Berenger…Willam Defoe:

Y’all take a good look at this lump of shit. Remember what it looks like. You fuck up in a firefight and I goddamn guarantee you a trip out of the bush in a body bag! Out here, assholes, you keep your shit wired tight at all times!…And the next son of a bitch I catch copping “Z”s in the bush, I’m personally gonna take an interest in seeing him suffer. I shit you not. Doc, tag him and bag him.

It’s kinda hard not to underestimate the Appalachian Trail…it’s crazy beautiful…relatively accessible…and incredibly inviting…but also really…really…hard at times…some times i think it should be called the Appalachian Creek instead of Trail…then it snows or hails…or there’s a twist…or a stumble…or blister that derails momentum…and that godam backpack!…everything in that monkey finger represents fear… fear of freezing to death… fear of starvation… exposure… dehydration… sickness… contusion… laceration… not being able to rest… boredom… surprise squirrel attack… etc… and it weighs 20-40effinglbs…

The Matrix

Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

People ask about my “best” memories and i have these pictures…sitting on top of Blood Mountain…or Rainbow Trail…MacAffee Knob….and so forth…but that’s all they are really…pictures in my mind…things i remember best are the hard times…and the folks that went through them with me…like the 12.6 miles in the howling wind and rain when it was 34 degrees…or the 18m we did over Clings to get to Gatlinburg to beat the road closure…Boulevard Trail from LeConte to Icewater Springs in the deepest snow…

If—

Rudyard Kipling, 18651936

If you can keep your head when all about you
   Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
   But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
   Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
   And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
   If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
   And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
   Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
   And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
   And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
   And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
   To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
   Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
   Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
   If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run—
   Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!

The weather cooperates

Saturday K2 woke me at 6:30am determined to get an early lift off from Tri-Corner Knob shelter. We had a quick breakfast of coffee (of course) and oatmeal plus grits plus peanut butter. Then stuffed our gear in our packs, cinched up, clipped in, and trekked outta there at about quarter til eight o’clock. One of our best starts yet! Here’s what the morning looked like:

We started fairly high in the Smokies at an elevation of 5,895′. Then the trail skirted around Mount Guyot, the second highest mountain in the Smokies, taking us up to 6,302′ near the top of Guyot, which stands at 6,621′ (2,018m).

After Guyot the trail trended downhill for seven miles. The bitter cold of the past couple days relinquished its grip. Now a wet mist persisted – not cold enough to snow, not wet enough to rain – enough to keep everything damp. We did get a bit of sleet, but generally the weather cooperated. The melting snow slowly slumped off the fir trees. The snowy footprints in the trail turned to slippery slush.

The trail rose again to skirt Mt Cammerer. I love climbing uphill yet I tend to pace myself throughout each hike – especially these longer ones. Usually K2 and I hike very close together. Today, this last day in the Smoky Mountains, we chose not to take a 1.2 mile round trip to a lookout tower at the summit of Cammerer. Instead we would hike 15.9 miles today from Tri-Corner Knob shelter to Chestnut Branch Trail to our rental car parked at the ranger station. We would leave the AT today. As the trail came up out of Low Gap, K2 went ahead. He sprinted up the 704′ of elevation gain at Cammerer – the last uphill section before the long descent out of the Great Smokies.

We reconnected as we journeyed down Cammerer. Eventually the slush turned to mud then to rocky dirt. I removed my trail-given Yaktrax.

Chestnut Branch trail followed and crossed a rushing creek where trillium and other tiny flowers bloomed.

In the final stretch we put up our poles and walked hand-in-hand for the first time in four days. Once we reached the car the rain began.

Nothing like eating after hiking – we yelped for a nearby restaurant and landed on The Woodshed on Cosby Highway in Newport, Tennessee. We ordered too much food and brought a doggie bag to the mini fridge at our hotel. In another couple hours we ate second dinner. Hiker hunger is real, y’all!

A cold 12.6 miler

Even with the crowd at Ice Water Spring shelter our collective body heat succumbed to the frigid temps – probably a low around 9-11F (-12.8 to -11.7C). Cold may not compliment me, but it does make the Smokies even more fetching.

After our chilliest breakfast yet we left the shelter for Charlies Bunion Loop Trail – a tenth of a mile spur trail – to see this amazing rock outcropping that projects from the mountain side and its brilliant views.

After hiking 7.4 miles (11.9 km) we stopped on the snowy trail by a spring for lunch. With our packs off, we shifted our weight from one cold, damp foot to the other as we slurped hot coffee to wash down the last two bagels we had. The cold stiffened the peanut butter on those bagels making coffee a necessary lubricant to choke it all down. Sounds miserable and yet this lunch satisfied me so much. I felt very loved.

Then the caffeine kicked in and we found another gear to carry us the final 5.2 miles. That lunch pulled us out of Cooper Gap and fueled us for the climbs past Mt Sequoyah and Mt Chapman.

We made it to Tri-Corner Knob shelter before 5pm.

A few of the thru-hikers from the night before already settled in. As we fixed and ate our dinner more of that same crew rolled in until we had nearly a full house once again. A couple of the most hungover hikers complained and capitulated about hiking dehydrated.

I will never pack out a fifth again leaving town.

Oh, something tells me you will.

The cold and the distance – and perhaps the hangovers – subdued this merry clique of thru-hikers. The scene at Tri-Corner turned 180 degrees from the one at Icewater Spring. All hikers took to their bags by hiker midnight: 7:30pm. A very quiet night.

No hill for a stepper

At breakfast the announcement came – we received a total of 13″ (33cm) of snow and temps still held at 11F (-11.6C)

We dallied a while drinking the tepid coffee because of the cold as well as the beauty.

We knew we had to push on -back to Appalachian Trail – via an 5.5 mile trail with an inviting name: The Boulevard.

Did we find a Boulevard? No, we traversed a narrow thread with wire guides bolted into cliff faces as handholds. We cut fresh tracks in snow over a foot deep and drifts past our knees.

Gotta hike it all.

It won’t hike itself!

We left the lodge about 10am and arrived at Icewater Spring shelter on the AT at about 3pm. Even with the snow we made decent time considering we blazed trail for two or three miles. Then we met only one other hiker going the opposite way. After passing him we had his footprints to follow in the fresh snow.

As we made dinner a group of nine thru-hikers collected. This bunch connected earlier while hiking the trail as individuals and couples. The snowstorm stranded them in Gatlinburg. When Highway 441 re-opened, they rallied with a few shots at a pub, stopped by the liquor store for a fifth of Fireball cinnamon whiskey, and then journeyed the 3 miles from Newfound Gap to Icewater Spring shelter. Let’s say the first of this bunch to arrive hiked in while the last this bunch stumbled in.

The shelter buzzed with energy and joviality. Most of this boisterous group exploded their packs while toying with the idea of dinner. A couple of them tried to smoke cigarettes inside the shelter. One of them passed out in his damp hiking clothes not on his sleeping pad. Another smothered the small fire with huge wet logs, but only after falling down outside the shelter. Good times!

Our detour

Wednesday I woke up before the alarm and tiptoed to peak out the curtains of our hotel. Yes! Snow was falling downtown – an inch already iced the cars.

Highway 441 was closed. Getting back on the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap would mean a long hike via pavement.

K2 and Lost and Found had other plans. The snow created vacancy at a popular and historic wilderness lodge atop Mount Le Conte. Jack Huff, the lodge founder, began building the lodge in 1926 before the Smoky Mountain Nation Park existed. After two subsequent changes in ownership the lodge still remains open to guests willing to hike up to stay there. Willing we were!

Stefan, another guest at our Gatlinburg hotel who approached us at breakfast the day of our zero to discuss hiking, brought us to the head of Rainbow Falls trail about 3.5 miles from downtown Gatlinburg. He helped us out tremendously. We also enjoyed talking with him about our hike and K2’s thru-hike. [Stephan, do it, man!]

We hiked 6.5 miles to LeConte Lodge via Rainbow Falls trail with snowfall the whole way as we gained 3,820 feet of elevation. That trail winds back and forth across a creek and by a 75′ waterfall (nearly 23m), the namesake of the trail.

For the last third of the trek we hiked with a ranger, Nick, who had 35 pounds of CPR gear in his backpack so that he could train the LeConte Lodge staff in CPR. He happily let us go ahead on the trail to make first tracks in the snow. Our boots sank nearly ankle deep as we marched up to the lodge.

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At dinner one of the staff announced the temperature stood at 11F, the lodge had received 6 inches of snow so far, and snow continued.

After dinner we gathered in the lodge office sitting with other guests in rocking chairs, which circled a big gas stove.

After the CPR class, Ranger Nick joined us. He had the best stories. He told one from this past Valentine’s Day….

As Nick hiked on a less-used perimeter trail, he hadn’t seen anyone else. He was in the zone. Suddenly he rounded a bend in the trail and he saw another hiker wearing only a fanny pack and a smile. He insisted to Nick, “I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy.” And Nick figured the jury was still out on that one. He let the hiker have that back-to-nature experience, but the ranger did radio in the unusual incident. Apparently one is free hike in the buff in national parks as long as others are not offended.

Don’t ask me what kinda shoes he had on. I kept eye contact. I didn’t look down.