I saw Santa today. And Big Foot, too!
It was even better than the hallucinations I've had during the early morning
hours of 100-milers!
These guys weren't figments of my imagination, however. They were real, live
hikers, two of eight people I met along the Trail today (that's a week-day
record for me).
I think it was thru-hiker Dave Kelly back at Winding Stairs Gap who asked if
I'd seen Santa that day. Both men started their thru-hikes the same day I did,
April 30. Nope, hadn't seen him. Dave assured me I'd know immediately who he was
I did. I was admiring the view from the 5,062 foot summit of Cheoah Bald just
before noon today and this slim, Santa-like apparition came up the Trail.
I said, "I bet you're Santa!"
He laughed and asked how I knew his Trail name. I mentioned Dave and his
comment that I'd just know. He laughed again.
He was a jovial guy and we talked a bit. His real name is Jim and he's from
Santa petted Cody and said he missed his Labs, which he left at home. It is much
more difficult to take a dog on a traditional thru-hike than it is to do it our
way, staying in a camper. Other section and thru-hikers have enjoyed Cody's
presence because they miss their dogs. In fact, no one has shown any fear or
annoyance at Cody's presence so far. I try to keep him near me as we approach
hikers, and make him sit or lie down in the shade when I stop to talk to folks.
Gotta love a guy who gives himself the Trail name of Big Foot. He was taking
a break part way up a hill about two miles from Stecoah Gap today. Big Foot recognized
Cody right away - he met him Monday when Cody was walking up the Trail near the
Nantahala River with Jim to meet me as I made my painful way down with Lynn
DiFiore. But I hadn't met Big Foot (Gene) before.
He's a section hiker from Knoxville who has completed over half of the AT so
far by doing a week-long chunk at a time. This is the only way many folks can do
it because of work. He's 53, but doesn't look it. He walked up the remaining
hills today faster then me, then I'd run by him going down. So we got to chat
I asked Big Foot how he got his name. His trail shoes (not hiking boots)
didn't look so big to me. He said he was tired of getting black toenails all the
time (sounds like an ultra runner!) so a few months ago he went to an outfitter
who put him into shoes two sizes larger than he was accustomed to wearing. He
went from size 12 to 14, and hasn't had a problem with black toenails since.
MORE MILES, BIGGER SHOES
It's a lesson most ultra runners eventually learn. In 25+ years of road and
trail running, I've gone from a women's 9 to a men's 10 or larger running shoe. I can't wear women's trail
shoes any more because they don't come large enough.
For this trek I bought several pairs of Montrail Hardrocks and Vitesse in
men's size 10 1/2 because I knew my feet would appreciate the extra room. When I've
worn these down, I may have to order even larger ones. I'm grateful to Montrail's sponsorship of my adventure run because I'll be going through at
least five or six pairs of shoes with all the rocks I'm running over.
I wore the Vitesse today, a good choice for the 70% of soft trail I was on.
For the other 30% that was rocky and slick from yesterday's rain, the Hardrocks
would have been preferable. They aren't as cushy, but they have better grip.
Each day it's a toss-up which model to wear because the AT guides don't tell you
much about the Trail surface. But there's usually enough variety that either
model is suitable.
TODAY'S "EASY DAY"
The closest I came to making an itinerary for this trek was projecting the
first three weeks of mileages so we could get an idea about where to camp, when
to go home the first time, etc. It was never intended to be a strict schedule,
because I've never done an extended run like this before and had no clue how
much mileage I could do continuously.
I've already mentioned how amazed I am that guys like David Horton and Regis
Shivers not only made detailed schedules, but actually stuck to them for
two to three months!! How did they do that??
In my original schedule, I was going to run the 29.4 mile section between the Nantahala River/Wesser to the Little Tennessee River/ Fontana Dam in one day,
take a day off, then tackle the difficult first section in the Smokies (32.4
miles until the first road).
Then I re-read the section in Horton's book where he wrote how difficult this
section was (see quote at beginning of this page) and revised my plan to do the
Wesser-to-dam section in two days. Now since I also have to factor in my
trick knee, it was a good decision.
So before I hit the Trail today, I've been referring to these two sections as
"easy" days before I enter the Smokies.
Only an ultra runner would consider today's 13.6-mile section an "easy" day.
I laughed about this up several steep inclines today and over the
First thing this morning I faced the ascent from the Nantahala River (1,740
feet) to Swim Bald (~ 4,700 feet) in six miles. Most of the Trail was good, but
it was unrelenting. I could run some of the switchbacks that were at an easy
grade and not too rocky, but there were plenty of straight-up-the-mountain
Then I had a nice mile of gentle downhill running to the Sassafras Gap
shelter trail intersection. This was the last available water of the day. I thought I had enough
water for Cody and myself, so I by-passed the shelter.
As I ran past it, I heard someone yell "Hello." It turned out
to be Santa, who caught up with me in the mile to the top of Cheoah Bald,
today's high point at 5,062 feet. Although the first 1/2
mile was an easy grade, the last 1/2 mile turned more grueling. I truly enjoyed the
vista from the top as I caught my breath.
The remaining 5.5 miles were down, up, down, up (in ad finitum) but mostly
down to Stecoah Gap at 3,165 feet. The longest drops were 1,262 feet from Cheoah
Bald down to Locust Cove Gap and about 600 feet down the last unnamed mountain
to Stecoah Gap.
So on my "easy" day, I covered over 7,000 feet of elevation gain and
loss in thirteen miles!
Since I did only a portion of this section today, and was out from only 8:00
AM to 1:38 PM, it did seem easier than some previous days. When Horton
did this section, it was only part of a tough 41.5-mile day for him. And he did
it on his 4th day on the AT - here I am on my 12th day!!!
The section obviously wasn't "easy," but it didn't kick my butt either. I thoroughly enjoyed today's run. Although it got hot by afternoon, the
morning was quite tolerable. It's the earliest start I've gotten.
Cody and I walked across the flag-adorned pedestrian bridge over the
Nantahala River at the Outdoor Center and headed into the lush forest above the river
gorge. The valley was totally fogged in, but we could see about 400 feet in
either direction, at least when my glasses weren't too fogged up from the 101%
The mist was cooling and ethereal. I love running and walking in fog. It
wasn't raining, but I could hear yesterday's raindrops falling from the leaves
all around me, and I was soon wet from brushing against wet leaves drooping into
Until I got up to 3,000 feet at Grassy Gap, I felt like I was in a tropical
forest. It reminded me of the rain forests in the Pacific Northwest.
I'm glad some other folks were out ahead of me and got all the spider webs
first! I saw plenty of webs glistening in the mist along the side of the Trail
this morning, but didn't get any in my face. Jim did, running a beautiful trail
in the Tsali Recreation Area adjacent to our campground.
About 1/2 mile up the lush trail above the Nantahala River Gorge, I rounded a
bend and had the first of two "drop-dead beautiful" views of the day.
There were several large flame azaleas in bloom. I'd already seen a few pink
azaleas just beginning to open this morning, but they weren't as brilliant or in
such profusion as these bright orange flowers. Of course, I had to take several
pictures. If I'd been running downhill and saw this gorgeous display of Mother
Nature, I would have come to a screeching halt and taken just as many photos.
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MILES
If I were writing a book about this experience, which I'm not, that would be
the title. Sort of a take-off on Lance Armstrong's, "It's Not About the
Bike." This adventure run is at least half about experiences like these -
the views, nature, history, the people I meet. The other half is the athletic
Jim has told me several times he admires what I'm doing, but he could
only do a long trail run like this if he were attempting a speed record or going
for a certain time, like Regis did. And he has no desire to do it. I, on the
other hand, feel sorry for anyone running the AT so fast they can't enjoy
the experience the way I'm doing it.
I feel like some sort of weird "hybrid" runner-hiker. People hike and run
this Trail in a number of ways, from purist thru-hiking where folks think it's a
sin to go into town more than necessary to pick up their drops, to thru-hikers
who love the town experiences and sleep there as often as the shelters, to
hikers who are crewed to various extents, to fast-packers who try to run or hike
the Trail very quickly and sleep in shelters or town, to someone like Regis or
me who is running-hiking AND crewed/camping, and to speed-setters and wannabes
who do mega-miles every day to get from Point A to Point B in the shortest time
I'm on the scale closer to the running end, but no one I have heard of has
done the Trail like I am, at a more leisurely pace than Regis did it. I think
more people would do it like this if they had the time and other resources.
I'd venture to guess that many ultra runners are physically capable of
running-walking the Appalachian Trail the way I'm doing it.
MEMORIAL TO A HERO
Somewhere on the long trudge up to Swim Bald (which isn't bald, so I never
was sure when I got there), I stopped to read and photograph a nice memorial to
Wade Sutton, a forest ranger who died suppressing a fire nearby in 1968, so
"that you might more fully enjoy your hike along the Trail."
It made me think about all the time, effort, and sacrifice the forest service
folks and trail volunteers make to keep this long, linear Trail open all the way
from Georgia to Maine.
I saw the usual mix of flowers as I ran and hiked up and up, especially above
3,500 feet. The sun began penetrating through the fog around 9:30
3,700 feet, but it took me another 40 minutes to climb up to a clear vantage
point above 4,500 feet where I could look down on it.
My second "drop-dead beautiful" photo op came near the top of Swim Bald when
I finally found a rock out-crop to look down into the valley above the Nantalaha
River Gorge. Wow! Just what I love about being in the mountains after a storm: a range of mountain tops poking up through a sea of white clouds!
I took about five minutes to fully absorb the beauty of this scene and take
photos. No matter how well the photos turn out, they won't do justice to what I
saw. The only thing that ruined the drama was the noise of traffic below in the
Gorge, penetrating up through that thick blanket of clouds.
I thought I'd escaped civilization by then!
ALL IN ALL, A GREAT DAY
My sore quad/knee didn't bother me until the last mile, and even then I was
able to continue running with only a little hobble to protect it. My knee isn't
swollen a bit. I'm continually icing it following my runs. It appears that I'm
good for about 12 to 13 miles, then it starts to hurt. I should be able to get
through tomorrow's 14+ miles, but might run into problems on the lengthy first
Smokies leg Friday.
Back to the people I met today: I saw one 60-ish male day hiker, a young
couple hiking for the week, and three middle-aged section hikers along the way,
but just exchanged courtesies with them. Only two of today's eight hikers were
female. I've seen very few women out here, even on the weekends. Female
thru-hikers are even more rare.
I again had good cell reception all day, and called Jim a couple times to
give him a better idea of my progress so he wouldn't waste time sitting at the
pick-up point too long. When I got to Stechoah Gap, he was reading Horton's book
in the truck, which he'd parked in the shade. Cody was as happy to see Tater as
I was to see Jim.
Jim got to meet another thru-hiker I've sort of been chasing since April 30,
a young fella named Andrew who I haven't seen yet (I'd remember the lip ring!).
Santa was looking for him today, but was several miles behind. Jim scored big
points by offering Andrew a cold soft drink, and we gave Big Foot plenty of cold
water to last him another hour or more. Both were hiking further today.
I should see those two, as well as Santa, again tomorrow even though they are
staying in shelters closer to Fontana Dam and will reach it before I do. How?
Because the downhills are a problem for me right now, I'm reversing direction
for tomorrow's section and eliminating the huge downhill to the dam. I'm
deliberately going UP a 3,310-foot ascent over the first five miles and another
1,000-foot ascent later on (plus the inevitable other ups and downs every day)
to avoid having to go DOWN them with a sore knee.
So by going "backwards," I'll cover the same territory, see my new friends
again, and save my knee some agony.
My momma didn't raise no dummies!