I'm writing about“The Worst Day Ever” to get it out of the way. We were recently asked what was the most memorable experience, and our immediate response was “Well, worst memorable experience or best memorable experience” because worst was easy. We are still scarred by it.
You must understand, every hiker ever, wherever they have hiked, has a horror story. Whether it is due to weather conditions, animal encounters, getting lost, or getting hurt, no one is unique in their bad experiences. We all tell the stories with the utmost detail and intensity, but we’ve also heard it a thousand times from others. I guess I’m suggesting that this story isn’t actually as badass as I make it sound as I tell it because we are not unique in the experience. But you know what, that’s crap. Just because so many people make similarly bad judgment calls and end up in a bad situation, it doesn’t make our particular experience any less intense.
It took place on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. We had just spent a night at an awesome bed and breakfast/hostel with two of our favorite southbound hiker friends. There were a couple of reasons why we set out that next morning in spite of the imminent bad weather blowing through. 1) The hostel didn’t have any space for that night and was in fact overbooked and 2) there were a few other hikers in the hostel that were driving us absolutely crazy. Sometimes you just meet people that you don’t click with and these people sucked. We even left the place a little earlier than we originally planned just to get away from them. (For the record, on the surface these people were perfectly nice. There were several things that just rubbed us the wrong way. But I feel bad complaining about them, I’m sure they are good people. But I look back on them with a lot of malice.)
(This is a photo I took of the hostel/bed and breakfast that was so great)
Anyway, we only had something like, 8 miles to go for this day. We were heading up to a shelter that we’d heard rave reviews about for hundreds of miles. It was an old barn that had been recommissioned as a shelter for hikers. It was supposed to have the best views and was so big it could sleep as many people as was ever necessary, which was great because space could be an issue in places that only slept 6-8 people. It was going to be a short day, which should have meant an easy day.
As you might expect, it was the opposite of easy. The last 2.5 miles of the hike that day was on a bald. A bald is a mountain that naturally doesn’t grow trees. In the southern Appalachians there is no treeline like you find in the north. So, the only times you get 360 degree views is when there are just meadows on tops of mountains, and these are called “balds”. What would have been an awesome view for over 2 miles turned into hell. There were 70 mph winds blowing sideways without trees to break it up. It was raining initially, but the windchill made the rain freeze to your clothes, hair and body. You were soaked within minutes because the wind drove the rain into you, all on one side (so really half of your body was dry for a while until osmosis took effect on the fabric of your clothing). I was bracing myself hunched sideways, my backpack acting as a crappy parachute trying to carry me away with the wind. My hands were so frozen that I couldn’t hold my hiking poles for fear of frostbite on my fingers, so I held them under my arms like a rifle. We were all running on the wet, icy trail and we could only see 15 ft in front of us.
This lasted for probably about 45 minutes, until we got to the shelter. When we got there we were all freezing, soaked and completely shaken up and it was only 2:30pm. There were two people already in the old barn. One was a guy who was doing a “wilderness experience” on the trail. He started somewhere in North Carolina, tried to live in the woods hunting and gathering but found it too difficult to sustain himself. He hiked north and stopped and worked at different hostels for room and board. He also hiked barefoot. He had a pair of Keene sandals, but those were just for emergencies. He had hiked in the day before when it was nice weather, saw the awesome view, took a picture of it (which he showed to us on his iphone...I know...wilderness?), and decided to not hike out when he saw how bad the weather was that day. In hindsight this guy was pretty wacko, but at the time it was awesome because he had collected a bunch of dry firewood and was an expert at making fires. The other guy was in his 60’s and from Alabama. He was clearly pretty well off and had a lot of adventures in his life. He had been hiking for 4 weeks on the trail north and planned to do one more week. He just arrived from the other directions, which was similarly horrible.
We all put on our dry clothes and set up our sleeping bags. Sol and I were the only ones with a tent, which we planned to sleep in to capture our heat. We were lucky, since this old barn had tons of cracks between the wood, and there was a big door opening that had no doors, which let in the wind (and by the morning, the snow). We all were sleeping on the second level. On the bottom level there was a narrow hallway and we set up tarps like walls on two sides to create a wind block and built a fire between them. We all hung out around that fire until dark, only leaving to get food or (god forbid) pee. We went to bed at like, 6, and used all of the tricks we had learned to save heat. We were wearing all of our dry clothes, we had our sleeping bags (at this time they were rated to 20 and 30 degrees but the temperature was well below that), and we lined our sleeping bags with trash bags that we kept in our packs for extra waterproofing to act as extra insulation. We had picked up some handwarmers from a shelter in Virginia a couple hundred miles earlier (you think in terms of miles, not time at the point), and we threw those in our packs. We also boiled water on our stove and put it in our water bottles and threw those water bottles in our sleeping bags. We were comfortable enough to sleep all night.
The next morning we woke and all of our stuff that was outside the tent was frozen. Solid. Our boots were frozen, our clothes were frozen, our packs were frozen, the condensation on the tent from our breaths = frozen. It had been lightly snowing and there was a film across most of our clothes as it blew into the barn. It was miserable. At this point, the guy with no shoes was calling people to get a ride off of the mountain and we were all ready to jump on that bandwagon. There was a hostel south of the mountain that offered rides to-and-from the trail that he had just worked at for a couple of weeks, and then there was the hostel just north of the mountain that we had stayed at the night before. In the end, it worked out that the hostel we stayed at was able to pick us up. The husband that ran the hostel/bed and breakfast was dropping off a truckload (literally) of hikers at the top of the mountain. Poor suckers. On his way back, he swung around and picked us up on a road that led up to just about a quarter of a mile from where our shelter was.
(We were afraid that our camera was frozen -and it was- but I took this one picture of the experience the next morning through that open doorway from the second floor of the barn)
We had an hour to kill, but we were in pretty high spirits at the promise of warm coffee and being inside. We all paced around the barn, with our frozen boots on, trying to thaw them out. It was the most painful thing I had to do. I was almost in tears, it was miserable. In the end we got our ride back to the hostel and it was awesome. There was one other hiker there already heading south who decided, due to the continually crappy weather, to solicit a ride to the next legitimate town along the trail. We decided to hop on that train, since we were more interested in forward progress than waiting around for the weather to clear up in a couple of days. We were broken and beaten and we just wanted to hang out in a hotel, with our own rooms. We ended up staying there for two days, drinking a ton of beer, watching a ton of tv and eating a ton of McRibs.
(This speaks for itself. Hotel. Beer. McRibs)
Other of our least favorite things:
-Getting a wet butt. This happened from the rain falling down my pack cover and dripping onto my butt or from my water bladder leaking from my backpack.
-Butt chaffing. The wet butt didn’t help with this.
-Putting on wet boots.
-Being cold at night. Waking up in the cold may have been worse.
-Bugs buzzing around your head all night, and people snoring all night and mice scurrying by your head all night.