Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail | Longreads

I am still benefitting from my most enjoyable, 5 day walk on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.  The cool temps, abundant wildflowers, word-class terrain, challenging climbs, fragrant forests,  plentiful water sources, and the top-notch Kincora hostel all contributed to an experience that continues to enrich me, as I reminisce daily about that ancient path and the effect it had in uplifting my spirits.

In 1955, a most amazing story began to unfold, when a tiny, aged woman laced up her Keds and started walking from Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia.  Grandma Gatewood’s story needs to be heard today, when the complexity of one’s life begs for simplification.

This week’s Longreads Member’s Pick is the the opening chapter of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, the new book by Ben Montgomery about Emma Gatewood, the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone—and who did so at the age of 67.  I  opened the following link and ordered the book after reading the introductory chapter.  It is so well written.  Check it out:—>>Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail | Longreads.

Riding Mountain Bikes on Mt. Rogers, VA

Last weekend I was down in the southern Appalachians.  The first 5 days, I was there, I walked 90 miles of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.  It was glorious.  The wildflowers were in abundance,  and were prolific . There were times when I was backpacking, sometimes over 5,000 feet in elevation, while at the same time inhaling the intoxicating fragrance of woodland plants and trees. It was a healing experience.

Flame Azalea

Flame Azalea

Rhododendron in full bloom

Rhododendron in full bloom

After my backpacking segment, I stayed at my friend Mike’s mountainside cabin that I reported on in my previous post about my week down south.

 

One of the activities that Mike and I shared was a 14 mile mountain bike ride from the cabin through the Mt. Rogers Wilderness, where we pushed our bikes uphill toward the Grayson Highlands.  Our ride then followed an abandoned railroad grade to the top of our ride, where we intersected the Appalachian Trail at a corral known as the Scales.

The Scales

The Scales

The other geographical feature of this area are the Balds,  which are large mountaintops that are devoid of trees.  here’s a panorama of a bald that I visited.

Bald near Mt. Rogers

Bald near Mt. Rogers

Riding bikes here was a unique experience.  My friend Mike owns two Diamondback bikes.  He rode a later model with a front suspension fork, and I chose a 1986 vintage Diamondback Apex for the day.  I have an 1985 Apex at home, that I have converted to a road bike.  On this ride, I was forced to remember why modern bikes often sport front AND rear suspensions. The ride up was not so bad, because it was a steady climb of 1600′.  The ride down was a real suffer fest, due to the constant pounding of the front end on the numerous rocks and ruts that littered the trail.  My forearm and wrists were toast.

The next day Mike, his wife Susan and I went uphill again, walking a new route.  The real treat of the walk was encountering two black bears.  Mike’s Blue Heeler Jackson had run ahead of us and treed them.  The dog came right back to us when Mike called it, when we were able to watch this giant fat black bear drop like a stone down a tall tree with it’s little cub doing likewise on an adjacent tree.

 

 

Cabin in the Virginia Hills

Awoke this morning in Mike and Susan’s newly built cabin just one mile from the AT on the edge of the 150,000 acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. It’s way up at 3,500 feet bordering Federal Wilderness. The view is spectacular, and there are no light visible in any direction at night.

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A single solar powered light and an oil lantern illuminate the small cabin. It’s one open space on the bottom floor with a standing room loft that has a couple of hammocks strung up for sleeping.

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I met Mike in 2011, when we both worked at Don Kevilus’ Four Dog Stove booth at Trail Days. Don was the major sponsor of both my Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trail thru-hikes. Don believed in me. He poured encouragement, cash, and gear my way in 2010 and 2013.
Mike is an avid winter camper and made the trip to the Snow Walkers’ Rendezvous in Vermont the past couple of years. I liked Mike then and hoped to spend time with him in the outdoors for sometime. That’s happening right now!

Don and Mike share a love for mules. This part of Tennessee is one of the two major areas of the USA that celebrates the mule as a viable form of wilderness travel, and as a work animal.

Mike’s spot of heaven borders the Mount Rogers Wilderness, and is a stunningly beautiful situation. He harvested the trees to build his small off-the-grid cabin from white pine from the family farm, with his cousin milling the lumber for the cabin at his sawmill across the street from Mike’s actual house at a ridiculously low price.

In just two years, Mike and his wife Susan have created a sanctuary here that is heated with a wood stove, appointed with an outhouse with one of the best views in the Eastern US, and is supplied with crystal clear spring fed water that gushes from the slopes of Mount Rogers, at 5,700 feet, the highest point in Virginia.

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My stay at Mike and Susan’s was the crowning event of my week of hiking and mountain biking in the Damascus, VA area.

I slept upstairs in the loft, sleeping one night in a hammock and the other on a lush pad on the floor.

20140520-080246.jpgI got to use a vintage metal bedpan, giving me an authentic cabin experience. No traffic sounds, just owls hooting in the night. It was in the 30′s both mornings when I woke up. Guthook is now likely fighting the cold under his 48 degree quilt.

Mike and I share a love for the same type of music- old time Americana, brought to us this weekend by a superb local FM radio station hosted by a fellow with a drawling Appalachian voice that was so thick I only caught half of what he said.

The other treat for the weekend was the southern food that Mike’s mother, Susan’s mother, Mike, and Susan prepared for us, mostly cooked on the wood stove.

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The mainstay of the fresh food were the ramps that Mike, Susan, and I harvested. Ramps are a type of wild leek that we dug up beside one of the streams on the north side of his property.
The first night Mike and I ate them raw with home-made sauerkraut and sausages. The rest of the weekend, I ate picked asparagus, hummus, salsa, shelled beans, relishes, zucchini bread, tenderloin, berry muffins, free range chicken eggs, raspberry bars, coconut cheese cake, and several other scrumptious examples of local, real food. Oh, yeah- we went through a few growlers of artisanal beers. Most of the time, there was ancient soulful music echoing through the cabin as the whole deal was going down.

I bought a trail guide to Mt. Rogers and a High Country map at Mt. Rogers Outfitters.

20140520-080816.jpgI’ll be back!

A huge shout out to Susan and Mike, and to Don for hooking us up.

Day 6 Hiking the AT in TENN/VA

Guthook roused me with a “Morning, Uncle Tom”, on his way from the Abington Gap lean-to to retrieve his food bag, hanging from a nearby tree. I snapped open my eyes in the hopes that the deluge of rain that came in the night had stopped. It hadn’t.
My tent leaked in the thunderstorm last night. One thing that I hadn’t completed before this hike was resealing the seams on my Tarptent. There’s a lot of wear on gear that takes place on a five month thru-hike, and one piece of gear that suffers from neglect is a tent. The months-long packing and pulling on the tent seams wears off the coating over time, thus a leaky tent.

So Guthook and I shouldered our packs, and hiked 10 miles in three hours straight to hit Damascus. It was raining off and on the whole way, but warm enough that you could hike in shorts and a shirt and it was enough.

The laundromat in Damascus was closed. The closest one was in Abington, 18 miles away. Guthook, EZ Hiker and I ate ate breakfast at the Tastee Freeze and then headed up to Tent City outside of the downtown area where we scored a free shower and a fresh washing/drying of our clothes all courtesy of the Trail Days Ministry. I was pumped to run into Crazy Horse, my benefactor from 2007.

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At the Appalachian Trail Conservancy booth, I saw that Guthook’s AT App was now being promoted by the ATC.

Guthook was in the market for a super light sleeping quilt and four one that weighed about a pound. Here he is “field testing” it.

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How about some dehydrated beer?

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The rain came down even harder, and we huddled up with some other hikers under a tarp. So we got showers and clean clothes and the rain started to come down again. Our plan was to hitch 22 miles out of town to a cabin over by Mt. Rogers that my friend Mike had opened up for us.

When the rain abated a bit, the three of us started walking towards the center of town when an SUV pulled up and the driver welcomed our sorry wet selves into the dry interior of his vehicle.

The rest of the story is lifted from EZ Hikes’s blog.

20140518-175547.jpg He’s hiking with Guthook:

“We all climbed in and started introductions. The driver said ‘My name is Longhaul. I hiked in 2005′. I looked him and said ‘I hiked with a Longhaul in 2010.’ He replied ‘I hiked in 2010 and I remember you, EZ Hiker. So were do you guys need to go?’
I explained to him we were trying to get to a cabin near Troutdale.
He said, ‘I have a bunk room at my farm house. Come stay we me tonight and I’ll take you back to Trail Days in the morning’. “

Things worked out, again. We ate a huge amount of home made chili. Longhaul whipped up fresh omlets and bacon in the morning.

Day 3 Hiking the AT in Tennessee

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Profile from Huthook’s AT Hiker Guide, for iPhone (and Android), on the APP store.

The thermometer hit 87 degrees today. All the climbs, jumping off ledges, stepping up and over downed trees, black fly devils, andy sweat -drenched shirt were intensified by the heat of the sun.
In the forest, the deciduous trees up over 3,500 feet still have little damp, light green leaves, which do nothing to create shade below. The only respite from the brutal heat were the frequent groves of rhododendron, with their long, thick , dark green leaves. The ground below them was damp, too, further lowering the temps.
I had a bad night of sleep. My upper spine was aching all night long. I forgot to pack ibuprofen.
I left the Mountaineer shelter at 6:20 this morning. Ken, the richly tattooed hiker, was out first at 6. I passed 16 hikers and was passed by two today.
At the end of the day, at the Dennis Cove parking lot, I ran into Hippie Kippy, a fellow thru-hiker and friend that I met a few times while hiking around New England in 2011. Kippy asked me to bring Bob Peoples a big tray of trail magic enchiladas.

20140513-192607.jpg It was just a .3 mile hike up Dennis Cove Road to Bob’s place. The frozen casserole felt great pressed against my chest.
I completed the 16 miles by 2 PM, and arrived at Kincora Hostel in time to snag a spot in the upstairs bunkhouse. A number of the other folks that I’ve been staying the night with came by later. Squirrel, a petite young lady organized a group supper, and I volunteered to organize a breakfast for the eight of us. Bob drove us to Hampton for resupply for the next 50 mile segment to Damascus. I bought three and a half days worth of food.
I hung out with Bear and his wife, Honey, a couple from Andover, Maine, who have run the Bear’s Den Hostel there for the past 20 years. They were staying with Bob in their pickup/ camper combo. They are vacationing before the hiking season starts in Maine. They had been out to the PCT Kickoff in California and were winding their way back to Maine.
I’m thinking of hiking the 50 mile Maine section from Gorham, NH to The Height of Land just south of Rangely. Bear told me he is able to slack hikers through that whole section. He said he would give me a great time stay at the Bear’s Den.
Great communal feed of spaghetti, salad, watermelon, and ice cream tonight. I very much appreciated the hikers including me in their group, and plan to repay them tomorrow morning when it will be my turn to cook.
The hiking was difficult and relentlessly hilly for most of the day , but the hot shower and warm welcome at Kincora made all the hard-earned sweat go right down the drain with a pile of my fretting and cares.

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ALMOST HIKING

Sometimes traveling is a bitch. Like right now. I staggered into what I thought was Tricities airport in Tennessee at midnight last night after two flight delays of 5 hours total and a reroute. I called the motel shuttle and was looking forward to complete collapse when I learned that I was at the wrong airport- Knoxville, TN. There are no direct flights from here up to Tricities. Being fried, I had no clue how to deal with anything.
I was one lonely ranger after 14 hours of riding, sitting, but mostly waiting. I spotted the glow of a Hilton sign in walkable distance and scored a room for 6 hours of rumpling the duvet that cost me $130.
The next morning I walked back to the United counter only to learn that a flight up the Tricities would cost me 9 more hours of waiting and another $730. Nope.
Enter Bob Peoples, from Kincora hostel. He called me back after I cancelled the shuttle I was to take from Tricities over to Carver’s Gap, where I had hoped to walk north on the Appalachain Trail for some 100 miles this week.
“I’ll come and get you, be right there, hold tight, ” he said. The man is an angel.
It’s a shaky start that may still see more changes in plans, with 70% chance of thunderstorms today. I was to start walking between 4,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation- a poor situation to deal with up there, with exposure, wind, rain, and lightening strikes adding to the zings I’m dancing around right now.
But the faintest glimmer in my heart rests on an image of Mr. Calm and Capable, heading my way right now.

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Triple Crown, elevation gain, and Maine

I’m stoked at receiving this bandanna! 

Yogi's Triple Crown bandanna

Yogi’s Triple Crown bandanna


At first I thought it was a misprint- 1,000,000 feet of  elevation gain?  That’s only 189.4 miles of uphills.  I thought it was more!

I’ve been thinking about walking on the Applalchian Trail  again this season, soon.  For readers who poo-poo the difficulty of hiking the AT, here’s a mess of facts from Whiteblaze.  The AT is tough.  There are 286.6 miles of AT in Maine, with an average of 242 feet per mile of gain and loss.  The article from Whiteblaze hot-linked above blew my mind.  The author took all the USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps for the entire trail and actually counted the contour lines the trail crosses, going both up and down.  New Hampshire is the hilliest, followed by Georgia, which might surprise some. 

While Maine’s state average is not #1, one must consider that doing the AT in Maine  is not a uniform task. The Northbound gain is 59,000 feet.   The 151 mile eastern most portion of the state is more moderate ( 5,200 average for that first four sections) , while the 50 mile portion from the New Hampshire state line to Rangley is a brutal 18,800 feet, and is the toughest part of the whole Trail.  

Order a set of Yogi’s for the Triple Crowner in your life!

From:  Triple Crown Bandana: Set of 3 – Red, White, and Blue — Yogi’s Books.

After the trail: The return of the existential despair

Occasionally I repost material written by others that I feel a connection with. Carrot Quinn has given us one of the best post-thru hike accounts of how it feels to stop walking after exercising 12 hours a day, for day after day, and months at a time.

photo by Carrot Quinn

photo by Carrot Quinn

It’s a bit long, but has good photos and deserves to be listened to.–> After the trail: The return of the existential despair.

I experienced some of this post hike depression in 2007 after I completed the AT. I was better after the 2010 PCT hike, and am almost back on track after completing the CDT this past September. I do have a great place to live, and a family and friends that love me.

It still feels feels selfish when I whine after being on “vacation” for 5-6 months a year, but thru hiking was definitely not a vacation. My MeGaTex buddies and I used to joke about how nice it would be to just be able to “camp” and walk a bit each day, but we were generally asleep after boiling up a pot of food, and staring at the campfire until the tiredness took us away into the darkness.

Gulf Hagas Winter Walk

Overlooking Pleasant River

Overlooking Pleasant River

I’ve visited Gulf Hagas a few times over the years, the last time in 2007, as I was finishing up my thru- hike of the Appalachian Trail.  Back then, it was a warm day in September, and we took a whole day to detour off the AT to explore what many consider ” a wilderness setting unsurpassed in the 2,000 miles of the Appalchian”.  General Lee, Bird Dawg, Richard Wizard, Queso, Life Traveler,  and I showered under Screw Auger Falls at the beginning, and then soaked in a giant pool at the Head of the Gulf that day.   We were the only thru-hikers that month who took the day off to check out the gorge’s 100 foot high slate walls. Everyone’s rushing lately, even hikers taking five months off to walk in woods.

In January, it’s a completely different experience.  It was Bonelady’s day off from cooking meals at Little Lyford Camps and Lodge, so we were able to hike the 10.4 mile round trip together. We left at 9:30 am and were back by 2:30. Snowshoes were lashed to our day packs, but we never used them.  The rains and warm temps of the last week lowered the snow cover to about a foot.

Head of the Gulf

Head of the Gulf

The first two miles of trail were flat and hard-packed, due to the relatively easy access to the Head of the Gulf, where most of the LLC guests stop and return after viewing the winter watercourse of the West Branch of the Pleasant River.

Bonelady points out feature

Bonelady points out feature

The view today featured ice, and the roaring cascades of  unique, light brown-tinged water that is characteristic of the iron deposits within the bedrock here.  The canyon itself is three miles long, with a trail that ascends and descends a few hundred feet, mostly along the top of the cliff alongside the raging waters below. This is the third winter that Bonelady has worked at Little Lyford Camps and she said she’s never seen the water this high. This week, five inches of rain and unseasonably warm temperatures have released unimaginable amounts of water from the melting snow cover.

Close-up of Billings Falls

Close-up of Billings Falls

Billings Falls was most spectacular.  Massive sculpted mantles formed a horseshoe of greenish ice that reached twenty feet from the top down to open pool of frothy churn below.  No summer rafting here- due to the numerous waterfalls over the 600 foot drop in elevation along the watercourse.  You can here it briefly here:

I’m not sure one could get through here today without traction devices.

Standing above Screw Auger Falls

Standing above Screw Auger Falls

Long way down

Long way down

I wore a pair of Stabilicers and Bonelady was sporting her Kaltoonas. There were three steep, icy pitches on the walk where I was super careful not to fall. Thank God for vegetable handholds in the form of exposed roots and saplings.  On the way back, the firm cover had started to melt, welcoming us to post holing through to our shins, with no cuts or bruises.

By the time I made it back to LLC, I was seriously beat. This woman can move.  My right little toe was sore, but thankfully not blistered.  I am not used to walking this distance in LL Bean winter, rubber-soled boots.

I am staying in an empty bedroom in staff housing for the next two nights.  The building has been partly renovated this summer with a new wood stove and bathroom with flush toilet and hot water, heated by a Rinnai on-demand wall unit.

The rest of the day was laid back.  I took a hot shower, meditated for half an hour, and then hung out on the couch- reading, writing, and chatting with Bonelady.  After it got dark, we took a short walk onto the frozen surface to watch the full moon rise on one end of the pond, with Baker Mountain looming up on the other end. None better.

Then no rush getting over to supper of Alfredo pasta with chicken, broccoli, fresh bread sticks, and carrot cake for dessert.

The wood- fired sauna had been heating up all afternoon, so a couple of sweat sessions at 180 degrees made up the after dinner program.

I fought to stay awake unit 9 pm, when I trundled my way upstairs where I pulled back the curtains and threw open the window to let in the refreshingly cool night air.  A giant skylight hovered above me, flooding the full moon’s magic into the room.  Into the Silence I went.

Liking Little Lyford Cabins

I  left the house at 9 AM and rolled into Greenville down past the Indian Hill trading post exactly at 11. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, the view of Moosehead Lake unfolding downhill stuns me.  Today, the surface of the lake is covered in standing water, with the temperatures above freezing after some 5 inches of rain and a unexpected thaw. It’s eerie.

I grabbed a quick lunch of corn chowder and a hot dog, then drove out of town past the airport along the Katahdin Iron Works ( or “KI road”) for ten miles or so toward increasing wilderness and the Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins winter parking lot at Hedgehog Gate.  It didn’t take long for me to become terrified. It was steadily raining now, and any sand that had been spread over the thick ice on the road had long been washed away.  The roadway is essentially a lubricated, smooth ice-rink. But ice rinks are flat, and this goes up and down and pitches from side to side.  The only reason I didn’t skid off was 4 newly studded winter snow tires on my 2000 Plymouth Voyager.  Even so, I was so anxious and hyped up that I settled myself by “pranayama-ing” along, with one hand up on my nose, alternating yogic nostril closures while the other hand gingerly worked the steering wheel at 20 miles an hour. I knew that one mistake would skid me into the deeper snow on the side of the road, and so far there was no one else dumb enough to be out here. There were also no ” rescue me” Verizon bars showing on my iPhone.  I was definitely on my own, creeping and sliding.

Toward the end of the road, I saw my first and only vehicle- a white 4 wheeled drive pickup traveling in the same direction way up ahead. I thought that if I could catch it, they would see me behind them, and rescue me if they watched my head lights flash sideways if and when I skidded off.

I knew I was in trouble as I advanced up the last long uphill.  I was coming up the hill faster than they were to the point where I had to start slowing dow or I would run into them- uphill!   Why were they going so slowly?  Momentum was the only way I could make it up.  If I had to stop on the hill, I would not be able to start uphill again, and would likely have to back all of the way down to a flat spot and try again. Miraculously, I crept to the top behind them, and there was the sanctuary of the parking lot.

The lot itself was so icy that I had to put on my traction devices just to unload my gear, including my Pugsley.  The three guys in the truck were also headed into Little Lyford. You unload your gear here into a little kiosk where a snowmobile trailers it into LL at 2 pm every day, allowing the unfettered guest to ski or snowshoe 6.2 miles into camp.

The driver of the truck was shocked to hear that my vehicle was not all wheel drive. They were experienced outdoorsmen, and worked in the military- aviation mechanics. I learned why they were moving so slowly. This was their second attempt at coming in this morning. The first time, they actually turned around and went back to Greenville where they bought  chains to attach to the wheels. The slow speed was necessary to prevent centrifugal force from stretching the newly-installed chains.  Slow and steady worked for them, as it did for me.

I am definitely an oddity with my bike here.  In fact, I had to get permission to ride to LL this winter season.  Yes, I’m the first fat-tired bike rider to cruise the winter road to LLC.  I gambled that the surface would hold me up and won. The other three Bangor guys walked in with the aid of traction devices, taking them two hours and 45 minutes, an average time for foot travel.  I, on the bike, clocked in at 1 hour and 3 minutes.  All my practice with recent ice riding trips in midcoast Maine for the past two weeks paid off.  Using my studded 45N tires made a fall-free entrance possible, running 3.5 psi front and rear.  I had a blast.

I’m here at the invitation of my new Triple Crown backpacking friend Bonelady, who is the head cook this winter, her third in a row. We had been Facebook CDT 2013 Group acquaintances until we met face to face on the Continental Divide Trail this season.  I have wanted to stay here for a few years now, but it has never materialized.  Turns out, the guest count is nonexistent at mid-week , and I promised to be no bother.

I’m staying in Little Lyford’s littlest cabin tonight.

My cabin

My cabin

I overheated it.  Bonelady warned me that it would probably be too warm, but even with a one stick stoke at 4 pm, by my bedtime after 9, it must have been over 80 degrees inside. The log walls and metal roof hold the heat.

A wood stove and a water basin are just fine

A wood stove and a water basin are just fine

One bed- propane lights illuminate ( and heat up)  the spaceOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s a coupe of propane lights on the wall with an ancient outhouse out back.

My very own outhouse

My very own outhouse

Little Lyford camps have been in this exact location since it was started up as a lumbering camp in 1870. The Appalachian Mountain Club has owned it for the past 10 years. It is a thrill to experience this setting.

Main lodge- dining room and library

Main lodge- dining room and library

And yes, the food is superb, and plenty of it.

To read more about Little Lyford check out Village in the Woods from the January 2014 issue of Downeast Magazine.