Thursday, 24 January 2013

Winter hike in the Appalachians: Alabama Pinhoti Trail

Cave Springs was the ideal little trail town. A nice cheap motel with wifi, 2 cheap restaurants, 2 food stores, a bank with ATM, a public library, a laundromat and a post office - all within 5 minutes walking distance. It doesn't get better than that. On my way out I ran into a group of trail volunteers who had actually been looking for me. It was great talking to them and I am always interested to find out what is going on behind the scene. They even gave me a ride back to the trail this saving me almost 5 miles off road walk.

The forecast was not good: although I started in Cave Springs in T shirt weather the temperature was predicted to drop dramatically - combined with 4 days of rain! This was bad news but at least the weather was going to hit me at the best possible time of this hike. In the upcoming section of there were shelters about every 10 miles and I was shooting for the first one on my first day out of Cave Springs. I arrived at the shelter before sunset and could hardly sleep in my warm quilt. As predicted right at midnight the train started - and every minute the temperature seemed to drop by one degree. A real deluge had started with thunder and lightning - and I started to wonder about the metal shelter roof. It just poured down but I was snug and cosy in the lovely shelter.

When it was still raining in the morning I decided to take it easy and just hike 10 miles to the next shelter. A procedure that I repeated the next day because the rain still continued. Hiking was plain miserable - wet and cold - and I was so thankful for the wonderful shelters. At  least I could hang my stuff there and had plenty of dry space. My clothes did not dry over night, but at least they went from soaking wet to just wet. On night 4 I ran out of luck. So far I had had the shelters all to myself but I had seen in the trail register that two guys where ahead of me and I would catch up with them that day of 17 miles. I hoped so much that they would be young and fit guys - and non-snoring! The trail was hard that day and I had to walk the last couple of miles in the dark hoping not to kill myself on the narrow and slippery trail. But when I finally arrived at the shelter in pitch darkness and totally soaked all my hopes were shattered immediately. Two middle aged and beer bellied guys in long johns were totally surprised to see another hiker. They were very friendly and immediately made room for me but they both looked like hardcore snorers. While eating dinner and still contemplating about what to do one of the guys feel asleep and immediately started to snore like a chain saw. When I remarked about it to his friend he confessed that he was snoring as well - and I was supposed to sleep between them to get the full stereo effect! No way! Although it was still plain miserable out there I decided that being in a wet and cold tent was still ten times better than being dry in the middle of a chain saw snoring massacre. And to the two guys big surprise I went out into the rain to set up my tent in which I spent a quiet and comfortable night.

Next day was predicted to be the very worst. Rain would turn into snow and the temperatures finally drop below freezing - and I either had to camp in that or hike 20 miles to the next shelter. I decided to go for the shelter. At least my snoring friends would not make it that far and I would have it to myself. Luckily it was easy hiking that day and I had a short and cold lunch break in a shelter. As predicted rain turned into snow around noon. I had hoped that the snow would be easier to handle but it was wet snow and after a while it drenched me like rain. I did not succumb to the temptation to camp early and pushed on - and really made it to the shelter with the very last light. I was happy to have made it and quickly changed into dry clothes watching the snow fall outside. For the third time on this trip one of the worst weather situations occurred. After a lot of rain (translate that into wet clothes) the temperature drops below freezing and you wake up to all your clothes and tent frozen stiff.

But I was not overly worried. The forecast predicted no more rain and even sunshine for the remaining 4 days of my hike. And for sure I woke up to a blue sky - and a frozen backpack. But spring seemed in the air and I greedily soaked up the sunshine. I needed to buy more snacks and was headed to a small country store roadwalking on a scenic byway. There was hardly any traffic but a Harley Davidson passed me. 15 minutes later it came back the other way and stopped. Would that be another deliverance experience? The driver was quite friendly and claimed to have walked on the Pinhoti himself. He explained in great detail how to best get to the country store and left - only to come back 5 minutes later. But still no Deliverance experience - only more directions. This is the South where even rockers stop to help you...

Jo Someday and Hillbilly Bart
Supplied with more chocolate from the gas station store I spent my first rain free night in a long time. Still my tent was frozen solid in the morning from condensation. Next day brought me to Cheaha State Park and a restaurant only a quarter mile from the trail. I had hoped to get there for dinner but meeting other hikers prevented that. I had finally run into Jo Someday and her partner who try to thruhike the new Great Eastern Trail. And as soon as I entered the State Park on a Saturday afternoon I met more hikers in two hours than normally in two weeks. I gave up on dinner in the restaurant which turned out to be a very good decision because the very same restaurant served an AYCE breakfast buffet. I dreamt the while night of crisp bacon strips... Overnight a bit of a breeze had come up and I woke up to a very nice surprise: a dry tent!

Cheaha State Park
I was the first guest in the restaurant and stayed for almost 3 hours eating probably a pound of bacon and drinking 6 glasses of sweet tea. Free wifi and recharching my phone delayed me as well.  But I was not worried: I had seen on the map that a forest road was paralleling the Pinhoti Trail in the next section. The Pinhoti Trail itself is rather difficult to night hike because very often  there is no obvious trail. But a broad forest road could easily be night hiked. A clear sky and a bright moon helped - I was followed by my moon shadow. Only my planned camp spot turned out to be the local garbage dump... but I found a good spot a bit later on. I repeated this strategy the next day. I took it easy during the day and enjoyed the sun and various breaks - and hiked into the night to make the miles.

Before I realised it my trip was over. I had expected to be very happy to be finished but on the contrary: I could have hiked on and on. But my winter hiking experiment ended on Dec 22 when Mother Nature's  Son's wife picked me up at Bull's Gap.

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