It’s 8:00 AM and the sun is shining brightly. It’s still cold outside, but at least it looks like it’s going to be a sunny day. I’m gazing through the sheers from a table in the lobby of the Best Western in Helen, waiting for a shuttle back to the trail. I’ve begun my day with a huge breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast, jam, and coffee. I’m seated near the fireplace. A small fire burns. Now I’m ready to hike.
Carol Powell , the owner of the Best Western in Helen, graciously shuttled 10 hikers back to the trail beginning at 10:00. One other hiker, Cole from Texas, also was returning to the trail at Hogpen Gap, so we were dropped off together. Cole attended three semesters at Texas Tech before deciding to take some time off to hike. When we hit the trail just after 11:00, I quickly pulled away, knowing that I’d see Cole again “somewhere up the trail.”
The trail today consisted of several ridge lines with views to the east and west. I stopped often to take pictures and just enjoy the vistas. Snow and ice remained in some areas while others had converted back to mud. The abundant level sections afforded some faster miles. I’ve come to call this my cruise mode. On the climbs I “work hard” much like I did when hill repeats and track intervals were a part of my preparation for getting ready to run a road race a couple of times a month. On the descents I “go slow” since it’s these sections that present the greatest possibility of falling. Then when I hit those level places, I cruise.
Early in today’s hike I made really good time. I reached Low Gap shelter, at the 4.6 mile mark at 12:45. Even though the path down to the shelter was a quagmire, I wanted to sit at the picnic table and enjoy my lunch. I had decided to “eat fresh” today, having bought a footlong subway melt this morning before leaving Helen. I declined “making it a meal,” so only had water to drink. When I reached the shelter, a hiker I had talked to on the trail yesterday, Mark from Chicago, was there with his Jack Russell terrier, Hero. As we chatted Cole walked up.
Shortly after leaving the shelter I met two older hikers hiking SOBO (southbound). Leap and Faith were getting off the trail because one of them has a knee issue. I don’t remember who was Leap and who was Faith, but it was the lady who was injured. I wished them well after telling them about my website. A little later I came across two section hikers, Kyle and Jake, a dad and son from that town in GA just south of Chattanooga, which right now I can’t remember how to spell. They were getting ready to hike off the AT at the blue blazed Jacks Knob Trail and return home.
Just before reaching the Blue Mountain shelter, I encountered three hikers taking a break. Early yesterday I had passed the trio of Mei Mei, Rosy, and Highlighter, but had not stopped to talk. Today I did. Recognizing that they were tired and cold after spending consecutive nights in the frigid woods, I suggested that they consider a town night. They were mulling over my recommendation as I hiked onward. After separating myself a good distance from the group, I took a brief break to finish off the other half of my subway.
On the downward approach to Unicoi Gap, numerous rocks of varying sizes required a more concentrated descent. Although I slipped a few times, I managed to cover the 14.3 miles today without a fall. Hoping for a hitch at Unicoi Gap, I noticed a white pick-up in the parking lot as the road came within view. Robert, vacationing in Helen with his 12 year old daughter Victoria, was more than happy to offer a ride. He smiled when I told him he was now an official Appalachian Trail Angel. Robert calls Cape Coral, FL home, but says he loves the mountains. It was a real pleasure riding back into Helen with the two.
After showering I walked down the road to have supper at Wendy’s. Just as I was entering, I spotted Mei Mei, Rosy, and Highlighter in line. They had taken my suggestion. They said yes with smiles when I asked if we could dine together. They seemed much happier than they had been a few hours earlier, clean and enjoying town food, ready again to continue their quest of thru hiking the AT. I felt their enthusiasm.
Today’s hike rewarded me with many special moments. Of them all, however, I think the most special was getting to see Hero again. Don loved dogs. Even though he and Lisa had not owned a dog recently, two neighborhood dogs had taken up dual residency at their home. Don fed, bathed, and provided a comfortable pillow to relax on for Buster and Chautsey. Don would have really loved Hero. As I hike each day, I continue to be reminded of my brother’s kindness. He was a compassionate man in many respects. I could imagine him bending down to pet Hero before walking on up the trail through a place he always felt at home, the woods.