Sunday, September 16, 2012

Victory on the Appalachian Trail

Well, we finally did it! I don't know if anyone has noticed, but since my disastrous day on the AT in July, there haven't been anymore hiking posts. There has been one hike since then, but not until last week. It was a nice hike, but really just a warm up for yesterday's scheduled "redo" of the previously attempted hike from Clingman's Dome to Newfound Gap.

I swear I think I had a little touch of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the ordeal on the AT in July. If you haven't read about that hike, you might want to go back to those two posts in July about that trek. It was a mess. I was a mess! I simply couldn't bring myself to don my backpack and head up into the mountains again after such a debacle--for almost six weeks!

Last Saturday, even though there was a good chance of rain, we headed out for a short adventure doing the Old Sugarlands Trail and Twin Creeks Trail, finishing up with the Gatinburg Trail for a total of about 8 miles in low altitude conditions just in case storms moved in. The weather was muggy, but the hikes were pretty and proved to be a good re-entry into the world of hiking for me. It was great to be with my hiking buddies and out in the wilderness again.

Yesterday, we suited up, drove one car to Newfound Gap, continued on up Clingman's Dome Road, and were met with spectacular vistas from the parking lot! Azure skies streaked with jet streams contrasted over the cotton candy clouds creating a sea below us punctuated with mountaintop islands. Those views alone did much to encourage us and lift our hopes of a different type of day on the AT. Still, I perceived that we were all a little tentative. We were deliberate in deciding which of the three short connector hikes to take. Even with maps in hand and our experienced leader in the pack, the trailhead signs and map of this area are still somewhat confusing. We took the Forney Ridge path out of the parking lot to the connection with the AT skirting around and passing underneath the observation tower. When we came to the sign where we made our fateful wrong decision last time, we stopped for a photo op, consulted our maps once again, and then turned RIGHT on the Appalachian Trail--"right" in both meanings of the word!

Once on the trail in the right direction, we settled into our usual hiking rhythm with Kirsten and Andrea leading the group followed by Jennifer and me a little further back. We hike together for the most part on the flats, but on the extreme ups and downs, the pace I keep is a little slower than the two leaders. This part of the AT is, I believe, fairly typical of the AT in Tennessee. It's rough with rocks and roots; stairs of logs are laid into the path frequently with irregular rises which make passing up or down them difficult and hard on post-surgery knees. I have grown to hate those steps! Those steps were my nemesis on the previous AT disaster, and I have no greater love for them after yesterday's hike. However, I do appreciate those trail maintenance volunteers who worked so hard to put them in place. Without them, the trail would probably be impassable in places. So that is what I ended up thinking about as I climbed or descended them yesterday even as my knee was screaming at me with each step.

Rather tenuous footing on the AT
I've been reading a book titled "AWOL on the Appalachian Trail" by David Miller. In this rendering of one man's thru-hiking journey along the AT, he states that the White Mountains are the toughest part of the trail since he left Tennessee. That makes me believe that our version of the AT is about as tough as it gets along this wilderness highway. I know it defintely has its tough spots. I've only hiked about 23 of the 70 miles that stretch through this state. That may change next summer if I can get myself in shape mentally and physically for the challenge. Our little group is talking about hiking all of the AT through Tennessee during our summer break (we are all teachers), or at least the miles we haven't already done.

One of the varieties of Gentian that blooms up here
The exquisite views that greeted us on this day did foreshadow the type of hike we would have. The path was bordered in many places with the early fall wildflowers, such as gentian, white snakeroot, and black-eyed Susan's.

The wall at Newfound Gap skirted with
Pale Jewelweed 
Temperatures were perfect with just enough fall chill to keep us briskly moving along the trail. This section of the AT is an excursion with short elevation changes; enough climbs to get the heart rate up and keep it up for a few minutes, but not steep or long enough to make you wonder why you are even doing this. In fact, I had much greater trouble with the extended downhill sections towards Newfound Gap. Much of the last two or three miles are significant declines which really worked on my knees. But the variety of wildflowers and mushrooms helped distract me from the pain in my knee. The last mile or so was prolific with both pale and spotted jewelweed (aka touch-me-not) allowing lots of opportunities to stop and take photos.

Spotted Jewelweed

I ended this hike victorious--victorious over the part of me that was crushed on that fateful day in July which had prevented me from coming back to my mountains. Victorious over the section of the AT that had intimidated me for 6 weeks. I was also victorious over my inexperience, having
learned valuable lessons and survived
virtually unscathed. Here's to perseverance! Here's to great friends and hiking buddies! Here's to victory!

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