Saturday, March 3, 2012

Five Bridges and a log

Long distance hiking, on the AT or otherwise, is all about managing the 'complaints' that your mind is constantly throwing at you. They can be caused by physiological issues such as foot problems, by dynamic influences such as rain, and by unexpected static conditions such as a stretch of unforgiving, ankle wrenching, rocky trail.

The hiker deals with all of these on a daily basis, sometimes with each and every individual step. And it can wear you down to the breaking point if you don't keep mentally loose - 'bend but don't break'.

Today the 'complaints' came on all fronts: Physiologically I have a typical laundry list of niggling pains that I won't bore you with. The weather changed from sunny and summer-hot to raking wind and bitter cold, and the change came with half a day of on-and-off rain. And then there were the trail conditions: Today I faced the usual assortment of rocky and rooty places where you have to pick your way forward step by step, eyes locked on the next foothold, of trail-bullying watercourses ranging from muddy bogs to downright torrents of flowing water on the footpath, of sudden scrambles up uneven, slippery bedrock, and, finally, of what seem like unreasonable, even capricious trail construction decisions.

Today's headline features the latter. There's a beautiful tributary to the Nolichucky River called Jones Branch, which the Appalachian Trail follows for well over a mile as it ascends from the river to Curley Maple Gap Shelter. Jones Branch is not a small stream - and after a winter of rains (including an all-night downpour two days ago), it was frisky and full of itself - a roaring, tumbling mountain deluge.

On its way up the valley, the trail crosses Jones Branch six times. Five crossings are on sturdy, well-constructed footbridges, all with the Tennessee Eastman club's signature stainless steel wire mesh making footing perfectly trustworthy. But the sixth crossing (second from the downstream end) offers the hiker two equally unreasonable choices: take your chances on the rounded, slippery, half inundated stepping stones, or risk crossing on a mossy, slippery fallen log.

Why no bridge? The curious, analytic mind (at least mine) just revolts - and the resulting 'complaint' threatens to unhinge all the equanimity I've carefully cultivated in order to tolerate all the other issues I face on this day. Why omit this one bridge, dammit?

I grabbed a couple of long, sturdy poles and made my way across the log, wet from the morning dew. Halfway across I almost slipped off when the current swept one pole aside. I let it go and made a desperate dash, a leap, and reached the far side, dry but rattled.

End of story, *except* ... as always, I'm doing every bit of the trail 'out-and-back'. So I faced the same crossing later in the day, this time with rain falling. I'm sure that thinking about revisiting that crossing amplified the issue in my mind - way out of proportion to its real significance. The one-way hiker quickly forgets obstacles like that, and faces each new one without preconception.

Finally I decided I was going to 'wuss out' on the way back: and straddle the log, making the crossing on my butt. And that finally laid to rest my psychological crisis for the day.

yes, long distance hiking is a constant challenge. Sometimes it helps to have 'wuss out' in your arsenal of responses.

Okay ... on to the bigger picture.

I hiked two out-and-back legs today (Friday, February 24th), starting at the Nolichucky River bridge outside Erwin, Tennessee. The northward leg took me a mile up the roaring Nolichucky to the campground and rafting launch point, then up Jones Branch, where the mild morning scent reminded me of the Hoh River valley in the deep rain forests on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Were it not for the log crossing event, it would have been a total delight. Finally the trail meanders and twists along the side of an ill-defined ridge with a couple limited vistas and a crossing of a stream with a delightful set of little cascades, until it emerges at 3300 foot Indian Grave Gap. It would have been nice to actually see an Indian Grave there, but no such luck. It was a 1600 foot climb from the Nolichucky Bridge to the highway crossing at Indian Grave Gap, and the latter was nearly the high point of today's hike - an interesting contrast since it was the the low point yesterday.

On the way back I met thru-hiker 'Fire Pit' with his friendly, dirt nibbling, blue eyed dog. Fire Pit is taking his time. He left Springer in November and just spent two nights at Uncle Johnny's rustic, cluttered Nolichucky Inn and Hostel, where he rebuilt the Fire Pit. That's what he does. Nice conversation, and we promised to meet on up the trail when I do my flip flop and start working north through Pennsylvania.

Then came the much shorter afternoon leg. Though shorter, it proved to be the more photogenic. The trail climbs Cliff Ridge - a knife-edge affair carved by the Nolichucky, which provides half a dozen heart-in-throat cliff-side viewpoints. Here's the pick of the litter.

In order to get back before dark, I gave myself a good cardio-workout to achieve the three miles horizontal and 1500 foot vertical climb to Temple Ridge summit. It never ceases to surprise me how the human body can muster the resources to do such a hard climb after already hiking 15 miles. On top of the physiological 'complaints' of that workout, the weather had turned biting cold, with strong winds raking the ridge.

Yes, long distance hiking is a challenge - but it has its rewards. At the end of a day like today, you can drift off to sleep with a real sense of accomplishment.


Here's the detailed track of today's hike, recorded by my GPS. Click the title below for a look at more photos and info.

AT Day 49 - Nolichucky River at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best hikes in California and beyond

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