Monday, June 20, 2016

The One About the Foothills Trail

Let's just say that the Foothills Trail is an obstacle course. A 77-mile obstacle course...made of cobwebs. 

Cobwebs. Cobwebs as far as the eye can't see. And I don't think that it's an exaggeration to estimate that I ran my face into at least one thousand cobwebs, but I only (knowingly) swallowed one single spider. A considerable chunk of my time on the trail was spent attempting to release myself from cobwebs, the stickiest substance in the known universe; but hey, it's nothing that a dip in the Chattooga couldn't fix!

This is a story about 8 days and 7 nights and 77 miles. It's a story about my very first solo backpacking trip. It's a story about quads and calves, wildlife, water sources, thru-hiker magic, Facebook, slug hair, and emergency blankets. It's a story about a change of heart and an attitude adjustment. But most importantly, it's a story about cobwebs.

I couldn't really sleep the night before. I had spent the entire previous week in a stressful miasma of immigration paperwork in order to prepare for my big move at the end of the summer, and I was ready to get away. I had just driven 800 miles and landed at my best friend's house just south of Keowee-Toxaway State Park, snuggled up close with her and her three littles. Hungry, wired, and anxious, I wanted the ground below me and the stars above me and nothing else in the whole world. So when she dropped me off at the Oconee State Park trailhead, I took off like a bottle rocket, pressure finally being released. It was relatively easy, those first ten miles and some change. I wasn't alone; I came across some hikers and a little baby turtle (tortoise?) as well as hundreds of cobwebs. 

I did, however, run out of water that first day. This took me by surprise, because a month before in Alaska, my water bladder had lasted for a couple days worth of hiking; and these were Alaska, next-level types of hikes. For me, anyway. It became pretty obvious, though, that I was sweating a whole lot more in a Carolina June than I had in an Alaska May, and really needed to suck it down to prevent any inevitable spells of dehydration. I panicked a little bit and stopped just a fraction of a mile short of the day's goal in order to take some time to relax in the Chattooga and water up. 

That night, I fell asleep around hiker's midnight (7PM) and woke up several times to stars rising and falling around me. Being familiar with the night sky helped, as I kept time using the stars and rested easily underneath Mars and Saturn, who were resting easily in Scorpius. My easy resting, however, was cut short by the realization that bringing an emergency blanket instead of a sleeping bag was a terrible idea.

Just...a really terrible idea.

I thought I'd save space and weight, and I did, what cost? Turns out, emergency blankets do exactly what they're supposed to do. But when it's humid, and you're sitting pretty on the beach border between South Carolina and Georgia in the soggy Southern summertime, your blanket becomes a mylar rainforest. Having captured my considerable body heat and condensed it into tiny raindrops on the surface of the blanket, I tossed and turned in a sticky, shivery hell until first light. 

It was the worst.

But, I moved on. And several miles later, giggling because I had just pulled a giant slug out of my hair, I was getting the hang of this whole backpacking thing. For reference, here's a list of the stuff that I brought with me. Being my first time, I didn't bother with cookware because I thought I'd try to ask around on the trail and get some good ideas (mission accomplished) so instead, I brought bars and bags of soup/lentils contained within my super heavy duty Bear Vault 500. It worked, but it was heavy.

The pack: Ascend MSX4400 Mountain Series

The contents: 

  • Bear Vault 500
  • ~18 Clif Bars
  • ~9 Clif Builders
  • 6 pre-packaged Campbell's Soups
  • 3 pre-packaged Tasty Bite Madras Lentils
  • Personal First Aid
  • GoPro Hero
  • Phone, Cords & Batteries
  • Solar Charger (It sucks a little bit, but it worked for a couple days. I might just need to get the hang of it)
  • US Army Camp Towel
  • 7x7 Ozark Trail tent (Okay, I know. Way too big. But, it's the one I had!)
  • 7x7 tarp
  • Eagle Creek packing cube with 2 pants, 3 tanks, 1 sports bra, 5 panties, 9 socks, 1 Buff
  • Super fun lady stuff
  • Wipes and Hand Sani
  • Trowel and TP to-go
  • Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System
  • Coleman water bladder
  • FTC Guidebook and pen
  • Toothpaste, toothbrush, essential oils
  • Bug repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Climbing shoes (didn't need 'em)
  • Emergency blanket (aka Death)
  • Light My Fire Titanium Spork
  • Combination compass/thermometer keychain
  • Survival Bracelet (combination paracord, flint, knife, compass, whistle)
  • Bear bell
  • and obviously, Hiking shoes, steel-toed
The weight: I didn't weight my pack because I didn't want to know. But for reference, my pack turned out to be just about the same weight as my best friend's solidly adorable and adorably solid seven-year old.

Within the next few days, I made some trail buddies and learned how to keep up to date with my hydration. I revised my sleeping situation and ended up using my tent's rain fly as a secondary blanket, which made my sleeping situation slightly less sticky. I learned that thru-hiker etiquette dictates that I ask about health status and destinations first, water sources second, names later, maybe never. I stumbled upon my first "thru-hiker magic," a cooler full of Cherry Cola and ice donated by "Taz." Rest assured, Taz, that this offering was deeply, widely appreciated! I was thoroughly unfazed by the two Black Bears that I saw, the first a little more "derp" than I had expected, though he caught me by surprise. He had been eating a snack right next to the trail, but didn't want to stick around to tell me about it. I found his scat about half a mile later, so he had been coming towards me the whole time! The second bear came as no surprise at all, as we heard each other coming. We kept our eyes on each other and kept going our separate ways, no drama, and thankfulness on my end that Black Bears are generally flight bears. 

In addition to the bears, I also saw loads of bees. Rather, the bees saw loads of me! Since the spring blooms had greened out, the bees turned to me as a possible source of nectar. Silly, really, but if they would take sweat instead, then they ended up with the better half of the deal! I was licked up and down by sweet little honey and bumble bees for nearly the entire hike. That, and pecked at by fish, who would eat the dead skin off of my feet as I stood in streams at the end of the day. I loved it; it was just like a spa day!

Throughout the trip, I camped on the bank of the Chattooga, then somewhere about 3 miles west of Sloane Bridge, then in the Nantahala National Forest, Bearcamp Creek Campsite, Toxaway Creek Campsite, the top of Laurel Fork Falls, and finally somewhere about 1.3 miles from Hwy 178. I didn't have trouble with any of these sites, and all came with a proper water source and, sometimes, friends! I met Bill and Gary while camping at Bearcamp Creek, and we ended up as neighbors at Toxaway Creek as well. I learned loads of valuable information from them, as they're a bit more experienced than I am. They helped me determine the sorts of cookware I might want to buy for next time, and we swapped stories from other trails we had conquered. 

The last night, with about 13 miles more to go the next day, I had dehydrated and heat-exhausted and it was my own dumb fault. I was stubborn and I just wanted to get to camp before what I thought might be a rainstorm, but it thankfully never came. I was down to reserves when I found a small spring as well as a water cistern, gratefully filled up, and pitched my tent expecting to cry myself to sleep, exhausted, scrolling through Facebook and missing my friends and family. But then, two hikers around my age came up to my tent, asking to share my space. Just seeing them lifted my spirits, and we spent the next several hours talking about the universe (as suggested by our bag of dehydrated Thai Curry) and sharing the first hot food I'd had in a week. With the sounds of cicadas and owls surrounding me most nights, I had very little reason to feel frightened of anything. However, having Charlie and Desiree sleeping soundly next to my tent, I felt an extra sense of security and camaraderie. The next morning, I set off at 8AM carrying leftover lasagna and a re-energized sense of determination, refreshed by my new friends.

I made excellent time to Sassafras Mountain, and continued on, pushing myself to beast those last four miles into Table Rock State Park where I met up with my best friend. Hot, tired, thirsty, and proud, I finally had the chance to take a proper shower. A storm came just one hour after I got off the trail, and if that isn't grace, then I don't know what is.

Returning to the "real world" is an odd concept, because I am always so much more in tune with the Earth on the trail than I am off. And if the worst part about the trail was the cobwebs, well then, that's a pretty good hike right there. I remember wondering what this week's Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla story would be, what would be the Facebook sensation of the day that I had happily missed, and I was deeply saddened to learn that it was a massacre in Orlando. So while I was running into literal cobwebs on the trail, blissfully unaware of the world's disintegration, loads of hostages were ensnared in a web of their own. And really, we all are. 

Maybe I needed a change of heart, certainly I needed an attitude adjustment. I needed to chill out and remember to give as much grace as I frequently receive. But I know that no matter how much I hike and how forward I keep moving, I've spun my own webs in this life. And one of the things that I wanted to do was to refocus, regroup, and maybe work backwards just a little bit. I've been in transition for the past couple of years, and it often makes me very ornery. Those that know me know that uncertainty can be like a drug for me; getting high off of the unknown keeps me going on some days. But, it also gets very old very fast. I become restless and pushy and irritable. And when I'm feeling these things, sometimes the only solution is to walk it out. Travel, but travel by foot. Walk until I can't walk anymore, or until I've seen the things I needed to see, or until my heart switches its perspective and its priorities. Walk until I've spun myself a web that I can work with, that I can work out of if I need to. Walk until I've spun a safety net. Walk until I figure it out.

Walk until the trail ends. Walk until I make it.

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