Last month, Donner, ThrillBilly, a new friend named Steve, and I went on a quick overnighter at Frozen Head State Park. Even though it was pretty warm around mid-day (especially on that dang Spicewood Trail), the weather was almost perfect. It was a low-mileage trip; roughly 6.5 miles the first day and 5.5 the second day. Don’t let the short miles fool you – there were definitely some difficult routes and elevation gain.
We started off from the Visitor Center – staffed by two very nice rangers – and walked the Old Mac Trail (rated: easy) a little less than half a mile. We then turned onto the Spicewood Trail (difficult). Hoo boy, it was a climb/scramble up 2.5 miles, with stops to catch our breaths and wipe the sweat from our eyes. I was told the trail is best hiked in the earlier spring, when all the flowers along the way are in bloom. It was still lovely, and a fun, technically challenging trek – as challenging as you can be outside the big mountains.
(Plants top to bottom: two pictures of ferns; spiderwort; autumn hawkbit; Indian pink. We also saw a lot of Jack-in-the-Pulpit.)
From there, we headed north on the Chimney Top Trail (difficult) for a mile, then the Lookout Tower Trail (moderate) for about 2.5 miles to the Squire Knob campsite.
It was fairly hot mid-day, but there was a PERFECT spring just a little before camp. Someone has built a little grotto for it, and it was clear and cool and so, so good.
The campsite was really nice – lots of places to setup tents, great trees for hammocking, tables (!), and an established fire pit with rock chairs. There was even a bear box, which I love because I am lazy.
We set out the next morning for about half a mile until we turned west on the Cumberland Trail (difficult) and hiked about 2.5 miles. We then turned on the Bird Mountain Trail (difficult) for another 2 miles and ended up at the big campground. One of the cool things about this campground is the gate at the end, also known as the starting point of the annual Barkley Marathons.
Even though this park isn’t as majestic as the Smokies or out West, and there aren’t any views, there was plenty of water, a nice breeze, relatively clear and well-blazed trails, and a good group of hikers to join on a walk in the woods.
(Me being my normal goofy self; Donner telling some story; L:R – Steve, Donner, ThrillBilly)
[This is long, so settle in. But at least there’s lots of pictures.]
After my ignominious defeat in July (read about it here), I regrouped and set out this past weekend for the next few sections of the Pinhoti.
On Friday evening I drove Adventuretruck from Nashville to the Bull’s Gap trail head where I left off last time. I reached the trail head around 9:45 p.m. There were a few other cars in the lot, which made me feel better about leaving the truck there for a few days. I locked the cab, crawled into my bed in the back – a trimmed down futon mattress – pulled out my sleeping bag, and dozed off. It was chilly out, but I managed to stay relatively warm in my Enlightened Equipment Enigma quilt. My base weight for gear was 17 pounds – not shabby for winter gear and rain pants included.
Day 1 (Saturday):
I set out from the trail head around 7 a.m. expecting the worst. The lack of water, thorns, brambles, 14-mile road walk, and erstwhile issues of my first trek on the Pinhoti were top of mind. I had two liters of water with me from home, because even though it’s fall and there’s supposed to be more water, I am now very suspicious of Alabama. It was bitterly cold for the majority of the day, but the terrain was much easier than I thought it would be. There was no bushwhacking, and there was an abundance of water.
My aim was 18 miles – the entirety of Section 4 – but I made better progress and finally set up camp at ~22.1 miles. Even though it was only 4:30 p.m., sunset this time of year is at 4:45 p.m., and I wanted to set up camp with the light I had left. I hiked in my Patagonia down sweater jacket most of the day, it stayed that cold; camp was no exception. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped, and it was not pleasant. As I started staking my tent, I hit something hard. I tried moving an inch or so, and struck something hard again. I brushed away the top layer of dirt to see how big the rock was, when I saw something curved and gleaming white.
Now, I have recently been listening to an unhealthy amount of the podcast My Favorite Murder, and not only is everyone you know a serial killer, you should never go into the woods, and every hiker always finds a dead body. There was a split second where I simultaneously thought, “Oh, please don’t be a bone,” and also, “PLEASE be a bone because that would be so cool and I would Nancy Drew this mystery.” Folks – IT WAS A BONE.
… Because, technically, a tortoise shell is actually several bones fused together. (See what I did there?) I dug a bit more an unearthed an intact shell, smooth white on the inside and caked with dirt on the outside. It was a bittersweet moment; my detective days ended before they could begin.
Dark came swiftly, and the temperatures plummeted to near freezing. The wind was nonstop, so I stayed huddled in my tent. Having learned my lesson a few years ago about skipping hot supper, I steeled myself for cooking. I cheated and did something you should not do – food prep directly outside your tent and eat inside your tent. But I am a weenie, and it was cold. I got everything set up inside my tent that I could – Knorr pasta side and tuna packets opened, water poured into pot, stove screwed onto fuel, lighter and bandana (my dish towel) on standby. I unzipped my tent door, and, using my boots as weak windscreens, set up and lit my stove. I zipped the door back around everything but my arms, and kept my lower half inside my sleeping bag. I looked like a kid pretending to be Jabba the Hut. I managed to cook my meal without knocking anything over and eat it without spilling anything.
I was sore and tired from the miles, and the sleeping bag felt so warm, and the wind and cold kept trying to get me. I decided to read a little bit and then go to sleep. I checked my watch – 44,490 steps for the day. Also… it was only 6:50 p.m. Yikes. I read my book (my one luxury item), listened to the coyotes howling in the distance, and fell asleep.
I woke up a few times throughout the night cold because I got twisted up in my sleep sack inside my quilt and the opening of the quilt ended up at my side instead of under my back. This was my first time using the silk sleep sack with a quilt; lesson learned. Even with wool base layers, exposure to the air outside of my sleeping quilt was chilling. I adjusted everything – including my beanie and the buff I had pulled up into a balaclava, and slept a deep, tired-body sleep.
Day 2 (Sunday):
I woke up with my watch alarm at 6 a.m., but I was warm, and it was still not light outside, and I turned it off. I woke up again after 8 a.m., and though part of me is always competitive with myself (you could’ve already been four miles down the trail!) I am also getting very good at telling myself to shut it. As daylight grew, it got warmer, the wind died down, and I got moving. I break camp quickly in the mornings; after about 6 weeks on the A.T., I stopped eating hot breakfast, and it’s been strawberry Pop-Tarts as I walk the first mile ever since.
The terrain was rougher, with one stretch comprised of 14 different rock gardens. In the middle, I almost stepped on a snake. I’m not afraid of snakes and didn’t jump away, but I was surprised – snakes aren’t usually out when it’s this cold and overcast. I took a picture, stepped around it, and moved on. There was very little wildlife otherwise.
The rock gardens slowed me, as did the more numerous uphills (as always). But the weather was pleasant – hovering around 50 degrees, and by mid-day I was down to my short sleeve layer and making good time. There were more views, although still no great overlooks, and the path was decently blazed. There weren’t many water sources, though, and by mid-day I was out of water. I neared a road crossing and saw a cache of three one-gallon jugs of spring water. Thank you, trail angels. Of course, fewer than two miles after filling up with that water, I was at a decent stream.
A few miles after finishing Section 5, I reached a good site around 4:40 p.m. and knew I’d better hurry up and pitch my tent. The weather was much nicer and there was no wind. It looked to be a very nice evening. I snuggled in, planning to read a bit to kill time and then cook supper. Around 6 p.m. the wind started to kick up. I decided to go ahead and cook, and the wind got stronger. I finished supper and retreated into my tent. I nixed the silk sleep sack that I had been tangled in the night before and instead wrapped it around my clothes stuff sack that I use as a pillow. This was my smartest decision of the entire trip.
The wind started to pound on the tent, reminding me of the Cinco de Mayo blizzard that hit me on the A.T. I had cell reception, and texted Thrillbilly to check on the wind gusts (he tracks that sort of stuff for his paragliding) – currently around 24 mph. Even though I had carefully studied the tree branches above before setting up my tent below, this wind was far more powerful than I expected. I heard pops and snaps, and the sound of sticks hitting the ground around me. One struck the side of my tent. I can deal with snakes, bears, coyotes, and cold, but storms frighten me because there’s really nowhere to go. I tried to read my book as a distraction, but my nerves got the better of me and I read the same page multiple times. I realized I had to accept the wind to get any rest. I started to doze off, and then the rain came.
It was an absolute downpour, and the temperature dropped. Rain pelted my tent. Another stick struck the tent wall and (unbeknownst to me at the time) must have knocked the guy line off of the stake. But I had faith – I’ve been through rainstorms before, and have only had to seam seal my tent once along the top. Once I resigned myself to being safer inside my shelter than out, I fell asleep.
Day 3 (Monday):
I awoke to a steady drip of water on my face. The rain had continued through the night and showed no sign of abating. I tried to go back to sleep, but got paranoid about other potential leaks. As I opened my eyes, I noticed the fly on one side was plastered to my tent wall; it was completely saturated and dripping. I sat up, still in my sleeping bag, and saw a puddle of water at my feet.
My Big Agnes tent is one of my favored pieces of gear. I even wrote a glowing review of it, because I really, truly think it’s a great tent. This is the first time it’s ever let me down – and I do hold some of the blame. Even though I’ve seam sealed the tent previously, I’ve never re-waterproofed it, which is something Big Agnes recommends with the amount of wear I place on my tent. That still doesn’t explain the great puddle of water at my feet, but it does explain why the fly didn’t hold up to the rainstorm.
Sitting atop my raft/Thermarest foam sleeping pad, I assessed the damage. Rosie was soaked on one side (this is why we store toilet paper in a Ziploc, folks). Most of my stuff sacks had been spared, or were only slightly damp, and my book and my SPOT GPS were dry. The foot of my down quilt was damp, but not soaked. The vestibule had successfully protected my Lowa boots, and they were cold but dry.
There is a very specific way that I pack Rosie when I break camp – everything has a home, and I know exactly how it sits inside the pack. I decided to forgo my normal system in order to keep things as dry as possible. After pulling out my rain gear, I shoved all the stuff sacks into my pack. I braved the cold and packed my quilt into my Sea to Summit dry compression bag and threw it in. The last thing remaining (other than the sopping wet tent itself) was my foam pad. I crouched on a dry spot near the entrance and slowly rolled up the pad. Water dripped from it, and the majority of the tent floor under the pad was soaked. I strapped the pad to Rosie’s base and pulled on my pack rain cover.
Donning my rain jacket and rain pants, I exited the tent into the pouring rain. I looked for a dry spot for Rosie but gave up. I tried to wring out the tent as I packed it; it was a futile gesture because the rain kept coming. I managed to lash the poles to the side of my pack, but the tent was too big and I ended up just resting it on top of my sleeping pad within the rain cover.
When I started this trip, my goal had been to reach the Cheaha trail head by Tuesday morning. Since I covered more miles than planned on Saturday, I was only about 8.5 miles from the trail head; I could be there by 1 p.m. or so. I decided I was cold and soaked and at my goal anyway, so I would get a ride back to my truck when I reached the trail head instead of pushing on another day.
It was slow-going – the terrain would be challenging even in dry weather. There were several rocks, and fallen leaves were plastered slick over them and the trail. The rain was pouring down, and the blazes through this section were rather faded, so they looked like streaks of lichen instead of light blue rectangles. I got turned around three or four times due to the rain, faint blazes, and various small trees and limbs down from the storm that looked like they were blocking off certain areas to redirect the trail. By now, the entire trail was a stream, and I tried to pick my way across the rocks and sides to keep my boots drier.
My rain pants held up for about four miles, but they got saturated and soaked my hiking pants beneath, chilling me. It started to remind me of my fun trek up White Mountain when I became near hypothermic. The only difference this time was that there was no shelter ahead, no other hikers around, and my tent (which normally you can just pitch trail-side and crawl into to warm up) was sopping. Super. The temperature was in the mid-40s, the wind was driving stinging rain into my face, and the trail head seemed a hundred miles away. I keep my map for the day in a Ziploc bag in my pocket so I can look at it in the rain, but the directions for the Pinhoti aren’t as refined as others, and it can be hard to determine to which stream crossing, campsite, or signpost they might be referring.
I eventually found my way to the trail head and – hooray! – had cell signal. This was good, because I was soaked to the bone and starting to shake. I sent a text to my shuttle to see if he could come get me a day early, and then called, but didn’t get a response right away (understandably). The only shelter around was the tiny slant of roof on the trail head info sign, and that didn’t stop the wind. I needed to get warm.
So I started thumbing for a hitch. This particular trail head was very nice, with a wide, paved parking lot and located on a large curve. A Baptist church bus came along… and kept going. So did the Senior Living bus, multiple trucks and cars, and a Jeep. A few people waved, at least, acknowledging that they could see my body shaking, teeth chattering, and soaked clothes. I was out there for probably 15 minutes when a nice Lexus pulled up, with a couple in their late 40s. They rolled down the window, and asked where they could take me. I told them any nearby gas station, restaurant, or other building I could go inside would be perfect and I could work on getting a shuttle or other ride back to my truck. The husband jumped out, picked up my pack like it weighed nothing and put it and my trekking poles in the trunk while his wife put towels down in the front passenger seat. He insisted I sit in the front – where his wife had cranked up the heat and their seat warmers.
I was so thankful I thought I might cry. I was still shaking as we drove off, thanking them over like a broken record. They asked where my truck was; I told them it was about a 40-minute drive away but I would be thrilled if they could just get me to a gas station. They refused and said they would take me the entire way back to my truck. They were only out driving around, anyway, and doing a bit of shopping.
We spoke on the drive there, and I began to thaw out. It turned out the husband was recently retired from a career in the Army. It was Veteran’s Day, so I told him I had reason to be doubly grateful. He laughed and said he’d been out in the cold, miserable, windy wet with a heavy pack so many times that he didn’t even need to imagine how I felt – he knew. When we reached my truck, they refused to take any money and wished me well.
I drove to the nearest town, changed out of my wet clothes in my truck in a McDonald’s parking lot (sorry, family in the minivan that pulled up next to me), and pointed Adventuretruck north to Nashville.
Pajamas. Couch. TV. Ibuprofen. Food. Rinse. Repeat.
There will never be a pack like my beloved Rosie, but the thru-hiker funk refuses to dissipate, no matter how many times I wash her and how strong the chemicals. She’s being retired, and for my upcoming birthday I am treating myself to a new pack.