A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – The Little White Dog

Long Falls

On Day 2 I encountered my first wild animal.  But first…

Dustin and I soon came to a beautiful waterfall called Long Creek Falls.  Four young guys had made this their own water playground, frolicking in the pool below and on the cliff above.  The water looked so inviting, after a hot, sweaty hike, but we had a lot of mileage ahead, so we moved on.  But I was able to rest my left shoulder, which was starting to get a little sore.

Eventually we came to a blue-blazed path (blue rectangles indicate AT side paths, while white rectangles, painted on trees or boulders every hundred yards or so, indicate the official AT).  The path led to our first shelter.  These are three-sided wooden structures that provide a sleeping platform and protection from inclement weather.  They’re located about a half-day’s hike apart, usually near a spring or stream, and they have overhead cables for “bear bags” (hikers are urged to put their food and waste in sturdy bags and tie them overhead at night, at least ten feet high and four feet from the nearest tree).

Here at Hawk Mountain Shelter we met three guys on a Labor Day weekend hike: Steve, his son Travis, and their friend Joe.  I talked with Travis and found out he played trumpet for his high school marching band in Gwinnett County, Georgia.  He reminded me of my son, Nick, at that age.  I also saw the blonde woman I’d met near Springer Mountain.  Her name was Sanna, and she and her husband lived in Ft. Benning, Georgia (her hometown was beautiful Lake Tahoe, California).  I asked her if she was the infamous “Rainbow Slug,” but she laughed and said she wasn’t much for trail aliases (Dustin and I had dropped ours, too).

We all had a nice respite at the shelter, and shared some trail mix and candy bars.  Sanna then decided to join Dustin and me for the remainder of the day.

Sometime in the early afternoon we got drenched when a thundershower struck while climbing Sassafras Mountain.  Rain has always plagued me when I camp.  It’s even more irksome on a distance hike, because it’s so difficult to dry your belongings when they’re stuffed all day inside a backpack.  My pack was an outdated outer frame model, at least 35 years old.  Maybe this is why everything inside got wet.  Cotton clothing is another problem.  I should’ve bought some good wool socks, because my white athletic socks became increasingly dirty and smelly, and never completely dried out the entire hike.

At the bottom of Sassafras Mountain, at Cooper Gap, we had a nice surprise: several plastic jugs of fresh water sitting in the shade.  I then remembered that Ron said he was going to put water out along the trail.  These small acts of kindness are referred to as “trail magic,” and those responsible are called “trail angels.”  Trail magic seems to happen randomly, but usually when it’s needed most.  We were pretty thirsty after Sassafras Mountain, and getting low on water, so the timing was perfect.  Great guy, that Ron.

By the end of the day Dustin figured out we’d covered 15 miles.  Tack on another mile for my backtracking from the forest road near Springer, and 16 total miles was pretty impressive – although I remember Ron saying to expect only seven or eight miles after the first day.We overnighted at Gooch Mountain Shelter, meeting up with Steve, Travis and Joe, as well as a few other hikers.  The shelter itself was full, probably due to Labor Day Weekend, so Dustin and I pitched our tents about 50 yards away.  He got a good fire going, where we attempted to dry out our shoes and socks, but all I managed to do was singe the end of one of my sneakers.

Dustin needed a bandana (a very valuable piece of clothing on the trail), so I gave him an extra one I had.  In return, he let me sample some of his homemade wine.  Wow!  Best vino I ever tasted.  There is nothing like a shot of cherry-blackberry wine after a long day of hiking.

I slept pretty soundly that night, which I attributed to my insomnia on the grubby Greyhound bus.  But a couple things happened overnight.  One was another rain shower, which drenched my backpack and all the clothing I’d hung out to dry.  Another was a chorus of noises in the darkness.  Bears?  Raccoons?  Wild boars?  Nope.  I’d read about them, and now I encountered them: AT shelters come fully equipped with extended families of mice.  And some of these vermin venture into the woods, where they know they’ll find bags filled with yummy food.  One of them chewed a hole in my bear bag (which doubled as my sleeping bag holder) and partially consumed one of my Nutri-Grain bars.  If the rain hadn’t interrupted his feast, it could’ve been much worse.  Not sure, but I think poor Joe lost even more food than me.  Though you wouldn’t guess it, because he always had a smile on his face.

Sanna got an early start in the morning, and Dustin and I pulled out just ahead of Joe, Steve, and Travis.  I felt pretty strong, at first.  Occasionally we passed day hikers, easy to identify due to their light packs.  Some had their dogs with them.  I was wearing an old marathon t-shirt, and a few folks asked me which was harder, marathons or AT hiking.  I replied “Well, it’s hard to compare, they each use different muscles.”  By the end of my hike I had a more definitive answer.

I soon noticed, though, that I was falling slightly behind Dustin.  Maybe 30 years does make a difference?  The last thing I wanted was for him to feel like some old guy was holding him back.  My biggest problem at that point was my left shoulder.  But I discovered it helped if I shifted the pack weight to my right one.  Also, reaching back with my left hand and pulling up on the frame eased the load a little.  You find little things to help you when you’re distance hiking.

If anyone lost a Jack Russell terrier, he's near the north face of Big Cedar Mountain, Georgia

If anyone lost a Jack Russell terrier, he’s near the north face of Big Cedar Mountain, Georgia

Somewhere near Woody Gap we encountered our first “wild” animal.  He was on a mountainside and staring a hole in us as we passed: a little white terrier.  I noticed a line of trail mix on the path, probably due to a leak in some hiker’s pack, and I guess this little guy was waiting for us to move on so he could continue licking up M&Ms.  Dustin and I both loved dogs, and we felt a little sorry for him way out here by himself.  But I guess it’s better than being tied up all day in a smog-draped city.  Whether he lived nearby, or was abandoned by a thoughtless owner, we never found out.

In the afternoon, while taking in the view on Ramrock Mountain, we saw Joe whisk by, grinning and swinging his walking poles.  I couldn’t understand him.  He looked like he was on a casual, mid-morning stroll across the hills of Tuscany!  I related more to Steve, who came by next.  He was suffering from awful blistering, as was I at that point.  His son Travis pulled up the rear.  At Woody Gap, we found out they had completed their hike and were shuttling home (Joe continued onward, and is probably still whistling along as I write this).  Before saying goodbye, Steve gave us some of his leftover food, as well as much-needed bandages and moleskin for my blisters, one of which had broken. I thanked him heartily, and told Travis good luck with his trumpet playing.

Just before climbing Big Cedar Mountain, we saw more trail magic: somebody had placed several candy bars on a large rock.  This carbo-load helped get us to our campsite at Woods Hole Shelter, giving us a daily total of 13 miles.  A slight dip, but I was still on target for NC, and the mileage was much better than Ron had predicted.

On the path to the shelter we met two new people: a real extroverted guy from Savannah named Thad, and his wife (whose name I never got, unfortunately).  Then at the shelter were two people from the previous night: a young woman from Orlando named Traci, and her friend, who had a foreign accent and a name that sounded like “Bouillon.”  This was a name just begging for a trail alias (unless Bouillon was already his alias).  Thad eventually tagged him “Gold Bond” due to some problems Bouillon was having with skin chafing!

I took a refreshing sponge bath in a cold mountain stream and boiled some Ramen noodles, then joined the others at the shelter as the sun was setting.  And hoping I wouldn’t get burdened with the alias “Ramen Noodle.”

Unlike Thad, I’m a little shy and awkward in social settings.  But I pushed myself to socialize.  I’m glad I did, because I discovered Thad grew up in dinky Mt. Gilead, Ohio, just a few miles from my hometown of Mansfield!  We commiserated over our hapless Cleveland Browns for a while, and I offered him an extra cigar I had (he declined – probably a good idea, since I discovered the tobacco was pretty cheap).

Next morning fared a little better: no rain, and no mice.  But I spent about a half hour swabbing and bandaging my blisters (wet cotton socks!), one of which was now an open sore.  Dustin and I were the last to vacate the shelter.  I felt a slight foreboding.  With this sore on my right heel, would I make it to Franklin, NC in time, or would Ron’s mileage prediction come true??


A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking-Glass

Big Cedar Mtn2

When I was about 15, my family went on a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  Our campsite was near where the Appalachian Trail climbed a mountain called The Priest.  We had some time, so my brothers and I attempted to climb it.  They were younger and became tired, but I managed to get to the top, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view.

While admiring the vista, I glimpsed a tall figure moving slowly along the path behind me.  It was a lanky man with a full beard, ponytail, and a huge pack on his back.  An Appalachian Trail distance hiker.  I watched him disappear from view as he slowly started to descend the mountain.

I never forgot the sight of him, and I swore that I would one day return to the AT to hike it myself.  It took 40 years, but a few weeks ago I finally did it.


The Appalachian Trail is a 2,100-mile footpath through the rugged Appalachian Mountains of the eastern U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine.  It was conceived in the 1920s by a bookish forest official named Benton MacKaye, who envisioned a series of hostels and wilderness workshops connected by a path.  A young Washington lawyer named Myron H. Avery, more pragmatic than MacKaye, advanced MacKaye’s idea without the hostels and workshops.  Today the trail is a monument to public activism and wilderness protection.  Though the route is continually changing, the terminus points now remain fixed at Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.

There are different types of AT hikers: day hikers, overnighters, section and thru-hikers.  Thru-hikers are a breed apart.  They attempt to do the full 2,100 miles at once, which takes a lot of planning and about 4-6 months actual hiking.  Supposedly less than one-fourth of thru-hikers who start ever finish.

A thru-hike was not for me.  I decided to do a northbound (NOBO) section hike of Georgia.  Though most thru-hikers are NOBO, some begin in Maine and hike south (SOBO).  I would be hiking in early September, so it was possible I’d encounter at least one of these intrepid SOBOs.

After a nervous goodbye to my wife, I hopped a Greyhound from Cincinnati to Dalton, Georgia, where I met up with my shuttle driver, Ron Brown.  Ron’s an ex-park ranger and native of New Hampshire who now lives in Ellijay, Georgia, near the Springer Mtn. trailhead.  He makes his living shuttling people like me to and from various points on the trail.

I loaded my backpack in the back of Ron’s Toyota Rav4, and we set off in early morning darkness.  During the drive, he told me about some interesting people he’s shuttled, such as the guy who insisted on carrying his heavy, cast iron skillet.  Also, the obese man who managed only one or two miles per day at the start, but made it all the way to Mt. Katahdin.

“I know he finished because he sent me a photo.  I barely recognized him, he’d lost so much weight.  But it was him.  He was holding up the pants he had when he started, and you could’ve fit three of him inside.”

Ron had all sorts of helpful gadgets in his car, including a charger for my cell phone, and a GPS voice that groaned “Things are getting very strange” as we plunged deeper into the forest.

Ron dropped me off at a forest service road parking lot, 0.9 miles north of the trailhead.  I unloaded my pack, he filled my canister with camping fuel, and we shook hands goodbye.

On the hike south, I found a slightly bowed, chest-high tree branch.  I adopted it as my walking stick, and christened it after a childhood camping buddy.  I also passed a few hikers, the first being a blonde woman who said she was doing a short section to Neels Gap (wherever that was).  I arrived shortly at a large rocky clearing shrouded in fog: the top of Springer Mountain.


Appalachian Trail bronze plaque from 1933

This was it.  I’d dreamed about this place.  Sure enough, to the right was the 1933 bronze plaque showing a hiker with a hat and backpack.  On the left was a large boulder with a more recent plaque.  Inside the boulder was a metal drawer, which I opened.  I found a slightly damp notebook that contained brief entries of those who’d reached this spot.  I wrote a short blurb about my hiking inspiration and signed it with a trail alias.  Trail aliases are colorful names that hikers make up, or which are bestowed upon them.  I really liked the name that followed the entry directly above mine: “Rainbow Slug.”

Unfortunately, Springer Mountain was so foggy that I couldn’t take a photo of the view.  But at least it wasn’t raining… yet.

Man, it felt good to start hiking.  Just one foot in front of the other, get into a good rhythm, take in the mountain scenery.  I had nine days to reach my destination of Franklin, North Carolina, where I was to meet my wife and daughter, and I calculated I needed to do about 13 miles per day.  Easy.  Heck, my marathon training runs are longer and only last a few hours.  Of course – as I soon found out – hiking on rocks and roots for ten hours, up and down mountains, with 35 pounds on your back is a lot different than running a couple hours on a flat, paved bicycle path with nothing at your back except breeze.

I crossed the gravel parking lot where Ron had dropped me off, and saw a few other hikers unloading their gear.  After a couple hours, feeling pretty good, I started singing an old Neil Young tune.  I’d only done a few verses when (as always happens) I noticed someone close behind me, and felt slightly embarrassed.  Should I let him catch up, or keep walking?  What the heck, might as well be sociable.  I walked a little slower, then turned around.  It was a young guy with long hair.

“Thought I heard someone behind me,” I said.  “How far you headed?”

“I’m hiking to Neels Gap.” (Must be a popular spot, I thought).

“My name’s Pete.”

“I’m Dustin.”

“Hey, I like that name!”

Dustin was a 24-year-old from Augusta, Georgia.  Like me, hiking the AT was a dream of his.  His parents had dropped him off at Amicalola Falls, a park 8.8 miles south of Springer.  I later found out that Dustin enjoyed hunting, flounder fishing, and he made the best cherry-blackberry wine this side of Napa Valley.  He also had a girl back home who was pressuring him to get married!

We hit it off, hiked at about the same pace, so we ended up hiking together the next several days.


Near Winding Stair Gap_1

There is Nothing Wrong With Your Television Set…

50 yearsouter limits2

… Do not attempt to adjust the picture.

We are controlling transmission.

These were the ominous words of The Control Voice.  They were delivered with the authority and cold austerity of an Orwellian manipulator or Soviet Gulag director.  You did not dare touch the TV and defy The Control Voice.  The monsters and terrors encountered during the coming “great adventure” were intended for you and you alone.

Some people have Star Trek.  Others have The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, or The X Files.  For me, the most intriguing science fiction and/or horror show ever on U.S. television was the original run of THE OUTER LIMITS.

THE OUTER LIMITS was a black-and-white, hour-long show that ran for two seasons on ABC in 1963-65.  It returned sporadically for syndicated reruns, and was resurrected (disappointingly) in 1995 as a totally new, colorized series.  Because September 16 is the 50th anniversary of the airing of the pilot of the series (“The Galaxy Being” starring Cliff Robertson), I’d like to pay homage to this offbeat but very influential TV show.

What was happening in September 1963?  Well, John F. Kennedy was U.S. president.  Nikita Khrushchev was Soviet Communist secretary.  Civilization was only 18 years from WWII, Nazism, and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The U.S. had fought a war in Korea, undergone McCarthyism, and was jacking up a military presence in Vietnam.  The superpowers were also beginning to explore the frontiers of space.  Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin had completed the first orbit of the Earth in 1961.  A year later, President Kennedy promised that America would beat the Soviets to the moon “in this decade.”

So while there was heady excitement over the space race in 1963, there was also concern about the nuclear arms race.  The U.S. and Soviet Union were at the height of their Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis only narrowly averted in ’62.  It was against this backdrop that creator Leslie Stevens and producer/writer Joseph Stefano unveiled THE OUTER LIMITS.

galaxy being

The Galaxy Being

Stevens, a one-time night attendant at a mental hospital, had been writing for theatre and the screen since 1954.  He envisioned a show that had the acuteness of “The Twilight Zone,” but darker, with less plot-twisting and a larger dose of science-fiction, horror, and social commentary. He wanted to explore issues like warfare, atomic energy, totalitarianism, mind control, space exploration, etc. in the guise of a small morality play.  Like “The Twilight Zone,” THE OUTER LIMITS would be an anthology, and with alternating writers, directors, and actors for each show.

Stefano had written the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous film “Psycho,” so he knew horror.  He led a cast of scriptwriters that included sci-fi novelist Harlan Ellison and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”).  The other key ingredients were Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, who specialized in the shadowy camera techniques of film noir, and composer Dominic Frontiere, whose creative music scores provided bold dramatic coloring (his music has since been released on CD; AllMusic critic Bruce Eder called it “the best music ever written for television”).

A number of young actors used THE OUTER LIMITS as a launching pad.  They included future stars Martin Landau, Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Robert Duvall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp, Sally Kellerman, Ed Asner, etc.

Martin Landau as Andro in "The Man Who was Never Born"

Martin Landau as Andro in “The Man Who was Never Born”

Others had been major stage and film stars and were on a career downswing, such as 1930s-40s star Miriam Hopkins, B-movie queen Gloria Grahame, and venerable actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, whose last role was in the episode “The Forms of Things Unknown.” The big attraction for an impressionable kid like me was the monsters.  Although the costumes and makeup were primitive by today’s standards, some of these creatures could be literally nightmarish.  In fact, the monster created for one episode, “The Architects of Fear,” was considered so frightening by some ABC affiliates that they blackened it out!  Stevens and Stefano deliberately utilized these creatures, which they collectively called “the bear,” to create atmosphere and as a springboard for plot development.

A total of 49 episodes were created over the show’s two-year span, with the best airing during the first season.  After this, ABC in its infinite wisdom decided the show was too opaque and cynical for audiences, so they dumbed it down with simpler plots, more low-tech sci-fi and less true horror.  They also replaced Frontiere’s majestic scores with more mundane music and added a gimmicky Theremin sound device.  Producer Stefano, not surprisingly, resigned in disgust.  There are a few second-season shows that stand out, however, notably the Ellison-written “Demon with a Glass Hand,” the space-themed “The Invisible Enemy” (with Adam West), and “The Duplicate Man,” which features a good “bear” in the alien creature the Megasoid.

Here are a few of my favorite episodes (all from the first season):

Nightmare (starring Martin Sheen): a coalition of international astronauts lands on the black planet Ebon, hoping to rescue an earlier flight crew with whom Earth lost contact.  eboniteThey immediately become imprisoned by frightening Ebonites, and start behaving very strangely.  Are they truly prisoners of the Ebonites?  Or are they guinea pigs for sadistic torture experiments guided by their own leaders?  Does Dick Cheney know the answer?

The Guests (starring Luana Anders and Gloria Grahame): a drifter stumbles into an old house where the inhabitants never age.  Upstairs lives a massive alien blob that searches their brains for the “missing part of the equation.”  guestsWhat is the missing part?  Will the drifter and his new love – Tess – escape from the house?  Or will they forever be playing cornhole in darkened hallways?

The Zanti Misfits (starring Bruce Dern): a runaway criminal and his moll tumble upon a spaceship in the middle of the desert.  The craft is filled with hideous insect creatures, prisoners shipped from the planet Zanti, who escape and go on a rampage.  Is Zanti using Earth as its own little penal colony?  zantis2How should a society deal with the problem of overcrowded prisons?  Has Zanti ever considered decriminalizing soft drugs like marijuana?

Note: TV Guide selected this episode as one of its 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.

The Sixth Finger (starring David McCallum): a scientist creates a machine to speed up human evolution.  A dim-witted coalminer becomes his first test case, and evolves into an arrogant creature that has the ability to read people’s minds.  sixth fingerHow far should science go before man is playing God?  If the human hand does eventually develop a sixth finger, what new gesture will we use when someone cuts us off in traffic?

We now return control of your television set to you… until next week at the same time, when The Control Voice will take you to…

outer limits2