Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Final Practice Hike: McAfee Knob (Part 1)

Our last training hike was so big and so awesome that I’m going to break my post into a few parts…

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The 20-mile hike between McAfee Knob and Hay Rock is one of  the most photographed sections of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. I’d been looking forward to these views since the practice hike schedule was released in May—and after the fog of Three Ridges and the mostly-obscured views from Dobie Mountain and Torry Ridge, I was ready for some amazing views.   So did this hike live up to the hype? YES.

Freakin' amazing view

 My day started at 5:50AM… Friday morning.   After putting MA on the bus for kindergarten…

I wish my backpack looked that stylish

I went to work…
Another productive day
Got home from work, packed the car, and headed towards Salem, VA…with a pit-stop at Blue Mountain Brewery for some pre-hike prep with Di (note: we never did get the cases of beer they promised…whatever). 

The secret of my success
After some much-needed pre-hike hydration, we checked into our hotel in Salem—but it wasn’t the hotel that most of the team stayed at.  I feel a little guilty, but we're all responsible adults who could've read the Trip Advisor reviews before making the reservation, right?  (“Yuck! Run AWAY fast,” turned out to be an accurate review, but I’ll save that for another post).  Of course, I’m not even sure why we spent money on a hotel in the first place since I slept a total of ZERO minutes in that room.  Between the jet engine air conditioner cutting on every 3 minutes and the dudes playing basketball in the room above us until 1am—sleep was impossible.  

At 3am, we checked out and ensured that we'd avoid an early morning fight by being the FIRST hikers to arrive at the Ho Jo’s parking lot.

It was nice to start the hike with the team this time—but there wasn’t time to introduce ourselves to the new hikers. Corey rushed us into vehicles so we could make the trailhead by 4am because the sooner we finished, the sooner we could feast at the Homeplace. The man has priorities I can respect.

For those of you who don’t know what 4am looks like-- it's dark-- real dark.  Hitting the trail this early gave us an opportunity to practice using our headlamps before the big hike.   

Honestly, I’d rather do ALL the hikes in the pitch black.   Nothing is worse than being on top of a ridge or crossing a meadow with the sun frying your skin.  The sun is my enemy. 

I feel your pain, bro.

After a mile of hiking the access road, we followed Corey onto the Bizarro-AT.  Unlike the AT marked with giant, white blazes, the Bizzaro-AT is a totally unmarked 'trail' that takes hikers up a steep overgrown hillside, through a briar patch, and into a forest without a footpath.  We saw a few deer at the edge of the forest who looked at our group and thought, “WTF?!  How did you get lost on the most well-marked trail in the world?”--and then they retreated into the darkness in laughter.

Our nature hike on the Bizarro-AT

At first, I thought Corey may have been testing our survival skills, but later there was a confession that he was trying to make me look better by showing everyone how easy it is to get lost. Bravo, sir.  We all appreciated the extra mile of hiking in the pre-dawn darkness.

After acknowledging the absence of anything resembling a trail, we re-traced our steps back to the access road—this is where I met Dr. Dana Marie, Medicine Woman.  This was Dana Marie’s first hike with us, and she turned out to be my trail angel.  As a veteran climber of some of the world’s most treacherous mountains (Everest, Kilamanajro, the Priest), she knows a few things about blisters. After feeling a hot-spot after only a mile of hiking, I knew I'd be in for a helluva day—but Dr. Dana Marie voluntarily wrapped my feet and did an amazing job (Spoiler alert: no major blisters after 20 miles). 

After our maintenance stop, we continued our march up the road until we came to a sign marking the start of the real AT.

Corey, this is what the trailhead looks like
Remember those stupid white blazes from 3 Ridges?

The climb to McAfee Knob was easier than I expected because of the anticipation of finding an amazing view at the top.  Also, I was so determined to make it to the overlook before sunrise, so I really didn't pay attention to the difficulty of the trail.  

As a kid, I spent my summers at Camp Greenville in South Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. On Sunday, we'd attend service at the camp's chapel which was built on an awe-inspiring overlook- the view itself was a religious experience.  The place was so pretty that some of the region's wisest people named it 'Pretty Place.' (note: the name was chosen before thesauri were introduced to South Carolinians in 1982).  I have vivid memories of kids sitting along the wall of the chapel-- dangling their feet over the edge-- one small slip/push away from becoming a big splatter mark on the rocks below-- and to this day, I can't stand near an edge without thinking of the bloody mess I'd make if I tripped.  Di and I joke that the one thing keeping us from competing on the Amazing Race is our fear of heights.

Pretty Place

When we arrived at the top of McAfee Knob, I felt that familiar dread in my stomach.  Despite my fear, I wasn't going to miss this opportunity for a badass photo op.  Even though we didn't stand right at the edge, we were pretty damn close.  Di has come a long way since the time we drove to the top of the nation's highest road (elev. 12,183 ft) at Rocky Mountain National Park, and she begged me to turn the car around while balled up in the fetal position and crying in the passenger seat.   I couldn't believe it when she asked:   "Wanna stand closer to the edge for the picture?" Answer: hell no. I'm still taking baby steps.

Look at how close we are to the ledge!

Too dark for good pictures...but trust me, amazing views

Looking back at these pictures gives me a huge sense of accomplishment—later that day, we hiked to the top of Tinker Mountain (pictured below) and that was only the half-way point of our hike.  We hiked another 10 miles along a ridge behind Tinker Mountain too.  My brain still can't quite grasp how far we traveled in a day-- and how far we will travel on September 28.
Tinker Ridge in the distance (aka: The Halfway Point)
Hikers with a deathwish.

 After spending a few moments to appreciate the scenery and to catch the sun coming up over the mountains, Corey rushed us back onto the trail and we started on our journey towards Tinker Cliffs.  

Leaving the Knob

Starting our descent...and on to Tinker Cliffs

 4.4 miles (plus Corey's 1-mile detour) done… 16 miles left to go...our destiny awaited at the Homeplace  (to be continued….)


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