Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Blue St. Patrick's Day


Historically, blue was the color associated with St. Patrick in Ireland.  The color is still represented today in many places such as in the coat of arms of Ireland, the team colors of the University College of Dublin and the plume or hackle of the tall bearskin hats of the Irish Guards regiment of the British Army, as well as many other places.  The “wearing of the green” began during the middle 1700’s as local converts to the Christian faith wore shamrocks or ribbons of green on their clothing to signify their faith.  Over the years, the shamrock and the wearing of green on St. Patrick’s Day evolved into a celebration of Irish ethnicity as well as a Catholic feast day.  Today, well over 34 million Americans can trace their heritage to Ireland and I am proudly one of them through the McAlister clan of my great-great grandmother, Ezamiah McAlister.

This past St. Patrick’s Day was definitely more blue than green for me.  I awoke to the sound of voices outside my tent at the Blue Mountain Shelter on the Appalachian Trail.  I could tell from the amount of light in my tent that the sun was already shining brightly in a blue sky and it was going to be a beautiful day.  Beautiful as far as the weather was concerned anyway.

I had stumbled into camp about 6:30 the evening before very exhausted from the 7.3 mile day that was supposed to be an easy hike.  For the most part, the majority of the day was relatively level terrain and the weather was pleasantly warm with only a few wispy clouds high in the sky.  Pleasantly warm unless you’re humping a 30 some pound pack over the mountains which is much more pleasant in cooler temperatures. 

All was well though and the biggest concerns of the day were trying not to get sunburnt along the way and keeping the gnats and flies away from my face.   There’s no doubt that after my second day of not showering and not wearing deodorant, I smelled worse than a cow in the pasture and I began to wish I had a tail to swat the pests away as I continued along the trail.  Still, the bugs were a minor inconvenience and it really was a beautiful day.

That morning, the 16th, I had awaken with my usual morning stiffness in my lower back from the arthritis I have there, but with a couple of tablets of vitamin I (ibuprofen) and some stretching and movement to get things lubricated, usually within an hour, I’m up and running normally.  So, I continue my packing and trying to loosen the ole bones, but when I get down on my knees to roll up my mattress and then my tent, I suddenly find myself gripped with shooting pain across my lower back that paralyzes me into a worshipful bow to an unknown god.  The cramp releases shortly and I shake it off thinking to myself, “Whew…I’m glad that passed.  Thank Goodness this will be an easy day”.  And an easy day it was, that is, until the last mile and a half to two miles as I began the climb up Blue Mountain.

Now, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression about Blue Mountain.  It isn’t especially steep getting up to Blue Mountain from the south side as compared to say, Wildcat or Sassafras Mountains, although there are some steep sections.  It is one of the top 20 peaks in Georgia and tops at 4,020’ with the shelter being not quite at the top of the mountain.  The climb from the lower points in the area or the known prominence of the mountain is around 700’.  No, what makes Blue Mountain so tiring to climb is the rocks. 
 
Rocks add a different dimension to hiking.  Aside from the jarring impact to the knee joint as each step pushes back on the body and gives no cushion to the weight landing on it, there is the labyrinth of pieces, large and small, that must be accurately negotiated.  I was actually a little surprised that it was taking more time and increased caution to cross this path considering that many times the rocks were almost lying flat like a makeshift walkway that someone forgot to level.  There were many areas that I found myself climbing upward over rock “steps” that varied greatly in height and alignment.  Dispersed among the rocks were trees and their gnarled roots that provided another twisted obstacle to gyrate my foot around or over rarely with enough room to plant my entire boot down on a solid surface. 

All the while that I was intently focused on each foot placement, my pack pushes ever so slightly on my back like a bully threatening to knock me off balance.

My mind would wander back to my youth and remember days long gone by in which I bounded over similar rocky paths with the surefootedness and speed of a mountain goat.  I smile when I recall my mother calling from behind me, “You better slow down or you’re going to fall” and the youthful confidence I had that allowed me to seemingly float over these obstacles.

Now, I find myself echoing my mother’s words to myself, “Slow down…watch where you step…be careful.”  There was absolutely no way to rush over this twisted rock pile of a path as I carefully planted each trekking pole and foot to ensure that I didn’t twist an ankle or trip over a protruding shard to come crashing down on the unforgiving surface.  

My easy day was not ending so easily and I was getting more and more tired.  Where was the shelter?  It couldn’t be too much further.  It felt like I had been climbing for a long time and at my last mile marker check on my map, it should have only been a little over a mile to the shelter.  Was I really moving that slowly that I hadn’t covered the distance yet?  You try to judge your speed and distance with the time that passes, but it varies greatly with the terrain you’re on.
 
With my water and strength running low, I finally came across the next water source, a piped spring on the left side of the trail.  I dropped my pack to refill my bottle and sat there exhausted.  After swallowing some refreshing coolness, I looked up the hill and find the evening sun glowing off the roof of the shelter above.  FINALLY, I’m done for the day…just another 100 yards and I’m done.

Smiling faces of new friends warmly welcome me to our home for the evening.  They see that I am spent and quickly volunteer to help set up my tent in the blustering wind and Junebug even makes a run back to the spring to fill my other water bottles.  Trail camaraderie is amazing.  I make myself a quick meal of noodles and vegetables and the warm liquid helps me feel better in the cold wind that has picked up speed in the evening hours.  We witness a beautiful sunset and I begin to settle in for the night.

As I approach my pack which is leaning against a nearby tree and bend over to pick it up, I’m suddenly doubled over with pain.  It felt as if someone had decided to use my lower back for batting practice.  I fight back the tears that want to come and hope that no one is watching. 

These are the moments that test your resolve to complete the trail.  You have made promises to family and friends to be careful and to do your best not to get hurt.  You know that you will endure varying levels of discomfort on this journey due to the physical, environmental and emotional challenges involved.  You must listen to your body and know the difference between a temporary discomfort and when it is time to throw in the towel and leave the trail.  You consider the time and effort you’ve invested into getting where you are and weigh the costs of continuing.

The back spasm passes.  I finish unpacking, hang my food bag, visit the privy and go straight to bed.  I know that I plan to get a shuttle in Unicoi Gap just about 2.5 miles away and mostly downhill the next day.  I’m taking a short day and heading for The Blueberry Patch hostel hoping that my rest there will alleviate my back pain and fighting back the mental fear that I might not be able to continue my hike if the pain and spasms continue.

So, after the usual tossing and turning of the night accompanied by gusting winds and the endless sweating inside the down sleeping bag and shivering with chills from anything hanging outside the bag that makes you wonder if you might have a fever, I awake to the cheerful voices outside my tent and catch someone mentioning that it is St. Patrick’s Day.  Quickly I do a mental inventory of my belongings to see if I have anything green to wear.  Ah, yes, my Mountain Hardware fleece beanie is olive green; not the most festive of greens to be sure, but green none the less.  Good, that’s covered. 

I sit there a few minutes longer trying to wake up to the point of being sociable and begin the typical morning processes of changing clothes and donning shoes to take care of nature’s call.  It occurs to me that for the first time in 10 days, I didn’t wake during the night to relieve myself which is great on one hand, but also probably meant that I was slightly dehydrated which is not so good.
 
Again, I pick up on some of the conversation outside my tent.  I hear someone mention Sir Packs-A-Lot and a vaguely familiar male voice responds.  Could it be?  Is Sir Packs-A-Lot outside?  I certainly don’t want to miss the opportunity to meet this A.T. celebrity.  I finish dressing quickly and crawl from my den and sure enough, there stands Bob Gabrielsen, Sir Packs-A-Lot himself!

Turtlestone cheerfully greets me and comments on my green beanie being appropriate for the day.  Everyone is hurriedly preparing to leave camp and we say our farewells and see-ya-laters, as I am taking my sweet time nursing the stiffness and knowing I don’t have far to go.  I get a few minutes to chat with Bob alone and snap a picture before he and Next Wind take off down the trail.  I call The Blueberry Patch to discuss arrangements for a night’s stay and I call for a shuttle driver to meet me in Unicoi Gap.  I am alone for a very few minutes at the shelter before Paranoid and another gentleman arrive.  We chat briefly and I finish packing and head out.

Blue Mountain is slightly deceiving.  From the shelter it looks like you are on top of the mountain, but it’s a false top.  Further down the trail the mountain again rises, so you have to climb more before you start the 1050’ descent down the other side.  Thankfully, the descent wasn’t quite as rocky as the ascent and by 12:30 I reached Unicoi Gap. 

There are several hikers hanging around the parking area including Sir Packs-A-Lot and Next Wind who I am very surprised to see there because they left so far ahead of me and are much faster hikers than I am.  As I approach, Bob proudly announces that they called for delivery pizza from the nearby town of Helen, Georgia.  I inform him that I will be waiting for a shuttle into Hiawassee to go to The Blueberry Patch hostel. 

Within a few minutes, the delivery driver arrives with two large supreme pizzas and two 2-liter bottles of soda.  He gets out explaining that this is the longest delivery he has ever made and that the only reason he agreed to do it was that years ago he had been a boy scout and had to hike a week on the Appalachian Trail.  He said he remembered what that was like and was pleased to bring the pizza.  Then he insisted on taking a picture of the hikers with the pizza and said he would be posting it to Facebook.

So after climbing down Blue Mountain, there I sat under a bright blue sky enjoying delivery pizza and soda with a trail celebrity all while waiting to get a ride to The Blueberry Patch while trying not to feel blue about my back spasms which once again bowed me to the ground while reaching for a slice from Bob, all on a day that I thought was to be all about the green. 




Ironically, when I arrived at The Blueberry Patch hostel, it was painted green.

 

P.S.  I have been off the trail since my hike down Blue Mountain and have had a bit of the blues since; however, I will soon be returning to my hike and will continue my northward journey.  I have medication in hand to help alleviate any further spasms and will continue to Katahdin to the best of my ability.  Onward and upward!!