“I’ve had a wonderful time. This wasn’t it.”
One of my favorite lines for horrible dates now has a new application – my 24 hours spent on the Pinhoti National Recreational Trail.
Before I go further, please understand – it’s not the trail’s fault. Some things just aren’t meant to be. It’s not the trail; it’s me. We just didn’t meet at the right time in my life. These things happen.
Tuesday afternoon: Wow, I unexpectedly have a few days to go do something! Where should I go hike? I’ve heard about the Pinhoti, and it’s only 4.5 hours of driving to the southern terminus at Flagg Mountain in Alabama. It’s a good thing I have a painstakingly curated gear room with my backpacking gear categorized and organized in a file cabinet, complete with five days of foodstuffs, ready to pack and go because I have life priorities, yo!
Tuesday, 10:30 pm: Wait, I don’t have a guidebook or any maps. Let me google this trail. Ah, I’ll just cut and paste directions from the text on the Pinhoti Trail Alliance website. No need to read them – I’ll just walk until I’m tired and camp wherever I stop and start again the next day. I’ll pack five days of food and be plenty fine. It’s a one-way trail, so I’ll just park at the trailhead and then… shuttle? hitchhike? back from wherever I end up back to my truck.
Also, Google tells me that “pinhoti” is Creek for “turkey home.” Cool. The trail symbol is a turkey print and it’s marked with light blue blazes.
Wednesday, 4:30 am: …ugh…
Wednesday, later that morning: Coffee! Chicken biscuit! Adventuretruck! Flying down I-65 listening to a great audiobook and the sun is shining and life is grand. Yay, nature!
Wednesday, 11 am: I’m thankful for Adventuretruck as I rattle and bounce up the hill to the Flagg Mountain Trailhead. There are no other cars here, and I’m worried about the security of my truck. I see a sign taped to the pavilion that there’s free parking for backpackers at the cabins back down the road, with a caretaker on the grounds. Sweet.
Wednesday, 12 pm: One of the coolest humans I’ve ever met, Sunny the badass caretaker, drops me back at the trailhead. He takes my picture at the first blaze. Sweat is now pouring over me because it’s Alabama in July and I obviously did not think this through.
Wednesday, afternoon: Nature is awesome! It’s super, super hot, and I’m drenched in sweat, but still, yay! Oh, I forgot my trekking poles in the truck… hmmm… well, that’s ok. It’s only five days without them, and it’s not crazy mountains like the main A.T. And, about 90 minutes in, I see a beautiful big tom turkey fly across the trail in front of me into the trees. Hooray, Turkey Home Trail! And there is a cool old stone tower, and a lovely walk through some long leaf pines. Neat stuff all around.
I fight a few thorns crossing a gully but emerge on a bald with a neat trail sign with a small cairn stacked atop.
A logging road appears. This will be a nice quick break from clearing a path, and then will lead back into those nice, shady woods.
After 5.3 miles (total from start) of walking, fewer than three hours, I come to a road. I glance at the directions and read “this is the end of the woods trail portion of section 1. Turn right on CR 56 and go .7 mi to the four-way stop in downtown Weogufka.”
Downtown Weogufka is a church and some old stores, one of which is flying a very large Confederate flag and another has a sign with “secede” in huge letters. Awesome. I look at the directions I printed out, and it appears there’s more of a roadwalk ahead. OK, not the greatest, and it hurts my feet, but I should be in the woods fairly soon and can crash as soon as I want. Set up camp, have hot supper, read some of my book…
Wednesday, 4 pm: I’ve been walking for a while, and it’s all been road walking. The countryside isn’t even pretty or unique. It’s just houses and occasional fields. I made the mistake of wearing my favorite shorts because I thought they would be cooler to wear in this heat, but had previously only worn them in pleasant weather. The heat was causing a lot of sweat, and that was causing my thighs to rub against each other quite uncomfortably. Oh well, I’ll just do a few more miles and change into camp clothes and then just not wear these shorts tomorrow.
Rain starts to slam down and I see an abandoned house with a huge carport. I sit under it, eat a snack, nearly finish my water, and pull out my directions. I start counting the road miles, something I hadn’t done yet.
From stepping out of the woods before Weogufka to the next time I’ll hit the Trammel Trailhead – the next bit of woods – it’s 14.4 miles of road walk. Holy Moses. And it’s already 4 pm and raining, and I’ve still got 10 miles until I hit the woods again, which will be the first place I can possibly camp.
The rain passes and a faint rainbow appears. I am not impressed. I am tired, and hot, and thirsty, and worried about the miles I’ll have to make with this 30 lb pack before I can camp.
The miserable road walk continues. I run out of water and start looking at houses and churches and other buildings to see if I can spot a water spigot. Surely they can’t turn away a thirsty hiker on a day this hot? But none of the buildings have one. And there are no streams, creeks, or even big mud puddles.
About four miles after I run out of water, I cross over a one-lane bridge. Under it flows a small creek. The water isn’t moving very quickly, it’s tepid, and it’s probably got all sorts of runoff, but it’s wet. I drop my pack on the side of the deserted road and climb down into the steep ditch to reach the water. I take my Sawyer bags and filter and a ziploc bag. The water is so shallow that I have to scoop it with the ziploc and then pour that into the Sawyer bag before filtering that water into the “clean” bag. It takes a while, and daylight is burning.
My feet hurt from the walking. My shoulders hurt from my pack straps, which aren’t as padded on this Granite Gear pack as they are on others. My back hurts, and my thighs are majorly chafed. I have a headache from dehydration, and I’m starving.
I keep walking. I walk past homes where people are grilling out for 4th of July in their yards. I walk past peals of laughter and splashes of water from a backyard pool party. I keep walking as fast as I can. I finally reach the woods after 8 pm. There has been no water since the small stream I filled up at earlier. The sun is fading.
Wednesday, 8 pm: I enter the woods past the Trammel Trailhead sign. Finally. It’s getting pretty dark, so I turn on my headlamp. My everything hurts. The directions say there is a boggy area off the trail in about half a mile that has a spring. This spring has dried up. I see that in another .7 mi there may be another spring. It is also dried up. There is no water.
Wednesday, 9 pm: As much as I hate to, I make the decision to skip hot supper in order to save the little bit of water I have left for drinking. I can’t spare any for cooking, and I don’t know when the next chance to get water will be. I stop looking frantically for water and start looking for a flat spot to set up my tent. I search in the darkness for what seems forever, but was only about one mile. I set up in the first flat spot I can find, a washout slightly off trail. It’s a bit slanted, but not too badly, and I’m too exhausted to care. I set up camp by headlamp and crawl into my tent. I strip down and wipe off with wet wipes and see that I have a horrible rash all around my ankles, apparently irritated by sweat and the nonstop road walking. I see my inner thighs have been rubbed raw and are bleeding. I have mosquito bites all over because I kept sweating off my bug spray due to the heat. My shoulders are sunburned because I kept sweating off the sunscreen.
I eat a supper of cheese crackers and a granola bar, take a few precious sips of water, and then crash from exhaustion. The tent is stifling, but the forecast calls for rain so I keep the fly on, trapping the heat. I start to drift off and then wake in the darkness to what I can only assume is a group of hillbillies with machine guns. It takes me a moment to remember that it’s the 4th of July, and people all over are shooting off fireworks.
Thursday, 5:30 am: I awake, hot and sweaty and sticky. I slept on top of my sleeping bag all night because of the heat. I eat a granola bar, drink all but the last drops of my water, strike my camp, and begin walking around 6 am.
Thursday, morning: Even though it is incredibly humid, it is a bit cooler in the shaded woods, and I’m thankful to not be road walking. Soon after leaving camp, however, the trail gets increasingly harder to traverse. There are downed trees, which I navigate without much issue.
Then there are the briars. These sharp thorny vines are everywhere, all over the trail. Sometimes you can’t see the trail – you just make an educated guess and pray to see a light blue blaze once you head that direction. It takes forever to pick my way through, and my legs are destroyed by the thorns and other cutting plants. I spend hours and miles bushwhacking, with no water in sight.
Thursday, late morning: I bushwhack through thorns and stumble into a clearing that I realize is the trail intersection with White Gap Road, a logging road that appears to be used to access a cell tower. As I cross over the road to continue on trail, I notice “H2O” painted with yellow spray paint and an arrow pointing off trail. I follow it for about a quarter of a mile and then see a faint trickle across the path I’ve followed. It is probably a decent stream in the spring in fall, but now is a trickle that collects in little pools the size of my palm, cascading down the side of this slope. I spend about 15 minutes there with my ziplock bag, scraping along those little pools, and manage to get just under a liter of water. It tastes bad even after the filter, but I’m thankful for it. I get back on trail.
The thorns aren’t as prevalent now, and soon give way to a nice, wide, flat path through the woods. I should be enjoying this, but by now, every step is agony. My feet are destroyed by Wednesday’s 21.6 miles in 9 hours, with the majority as road walk. Everything itches, everything hurts, everything is sweaty.
Thursday, 12 pm: I reach the Bulls Gap Trailhead, consider my situation and things I could (and probably should) be doing with my current time instead, and throw in the towel. I get shuttled back to my truck, telling myself I will return to pick up where I left off, but in cooler weather. The 5-hour drive back home has air conditioning, cokes, Reese’s Pieces, and audiobooks. I almost cry with joy.
So I’m not done with the Pinhoti. We’re just on a break. There’s no ill will, and I totally plan to reconnect later. But don’t call me – I’ll call you.