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Sucker-punched AGAIN -- but I survived

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On my last trek on The Trail -- which should have been a simple, 20-mile overnight -- I trusted the guide books that listed camping on Beautiful Spot GAP. On that one night out, I found no such camping areas on the GAP, at a time the wind was blowing hard and rain was threatening. So I just stealth camped, just off the trail, and got two hours of rain as I woke up.
Yes, there WAS plenty of camping sites on Beauty Spot itself, but a bald like that is NOT where you want to camp when the winds are blowing continuously, all-night, at about 30 mph. For me, a "tent site" MUST be surrounded by enough trees or bushes to shelter the site from a nasty storm. Yes, I and my gear COULD survive a storm in an un-protected field, but I don't WANT to do so intentionally when I know a storm is possible if not likely.

My plan this week was to hike south from where I had left off a few years ago -- Devil Ford Gap, planning to end at Hot Springs. My plan had enough flexibility to permit my body to determine how rapidly I did this. For over a decade I've known -- having learned the HARD way -- that it's no good to plan to hike further than my body can handle. I know I can't average a hiking speed of more than one mile an hour, nor hike much more than ten miles a day. Because I value reality more than bravado, I plan rather simple hikes.

Living in Philly means it was going to take me well over twelve hours of driving to get to a shuttle in Hot Springs. Since early afternoon on Sunday was the absolute earliest I could leave, that meant my hike would not start before about noon on Monday. This made a hike of over nine miles to Jerry Cabin a bit of a stretch, but POSSIBLE. I resolved to ensure I had a place to stop a couple miles before then in case my body, or the weather, told me I was being too optimistic.

Once again, the guide books said there was camping on Big Butt (yes, that's the name). Guthook's was a little more skeptical -- it shows none -- but a post on Facebook said that, indeed, there is camping in that area. I thus set out from Devil Fork despite predictions of nasty weather on that Monday night.
I got to Big Butt at about 7pm, not sure whether to make a charge to the shelter. Then the weather made up my mind -- rain started coming down in sheets, with (AGAIN!!) constant winds of about 30 mph blowing the rain almost horizontal. Fortuitously, this occurred while I was still among the trees of Big Butt -- if I had been out in the fields, I honestly think all my equipment would have been soaked on that first night.
During this time, I wondered if the trail itself would be a good place to "stealth" camp. I was in the trees, the wind wasn't too bad, and there was an area about the right size for setting up my tent -- and it was flat with no streams of water flowing along it. When the rain -- but not the wind -- stopped after about twenty minutes, I decided walking two miles in weather like this, through an unprotected area, was a chance I just wasn't willing to take. So I just set up my tent as fast I could, with almost none of my gear getting wet. I slept surprisingly well.

Note that ONCE AGAIN I trusted guidebook about the location of tent sites, only to be unable to find any as a storm came barreling towards me. Even after I resolved to NEVER make that mistake again!!

Next day was a decision -- hike almost thirteen miles to Hemlock Hollow Inn, or give up after nine miles, at Little Laurel Shelter? I decided to let my body make my choice.
When I body pooped out at the latter, I knew there was no way I was going to make those extra miles. Slowing me down QUITE considerably was the fact that my both of my big toes were had large, purple "blood blisters" under the nails. Thus, every step downhill was quite painful; meaning I couldn't make up for slow walking uphill by speeding up downhill. Indeed, my final walk down the hill into Little Laurel was some of the slowest walking I've ever done on the AT. I was almost in tears, as I wasn't sure I could complete this (relatively) simple back-pack trek this week.
My night at Little Laurel went fine, as I spent the night with a guy who was kind enough to refill my Camelbak bladder. He came back so quickly, I wondered how he could have gotten so much water through his Sawyer Squeeze. "I didn't filter this spring water at all!", was his reply -- and I decided to NOT look this gift horse in the mouth. Within a week I'll know if his optimism was justified.

The next day I found a way to lessen the pain of walking in my soaked socks & shoes, so I had another choice -- hike eleven miles on Wednesday and less than nine on Thursday, or vice-versa? At least I KNEW there was a tent site past the Spring Mountain Shelter -- Guthooks and the Nat Geo maps and the guide books showed one at Rich Mountain Tower -- so I decided to take better breaks and let my body make the decision again. The dry air allowed me to easily make the eleven miles with minimal trouble, and I had little trouble setting up my tent in twilight.

I also had two memorable animal encounters this day.
For only the third time in my life, I got stung by a bee. The advice I've following for almost sixty years -- "Don't bother bees and they won't bother you" -- jut didn't work; the darn bee just flew right towards my pack during a short break, and then landed right on my hand. VERY fortunately, I'm not allergic to these, but my past experience told me this was going to be painful. Amazingly, I was (apparently) able to remove the stinger with my clipper / tweezers before too much venom got into me, and I didn't even feel it after about an hour.
Just before Rich Mountain I saw a bear -- my seventh sighting while hiking The Trail. And this was the FIRST time the bear didn't immediately run off after I spotting it, so I got out my camera hoping to get a good shot. It was PROBABLY in my view-finder, but it's hard to see a black object in a dark forest as the sun is going down. Besides, I starting thinking about warning signs when meeting a bear: (1) the bear doesn't run away, (2) the bear looks at you (this one did) as if it's determining if you're a threat -- so I backed away without look directly at it as I got my camera ready. After I heard (3), the bear snorts at you, in effect saying, "Back away, buddy!!", I remembered that warning (4) is that the bear charges you. I decided that discretion was the better part of photography, and just quietly & slowly walked away.

Thursday was a seriously hot day during which, despite my cameling at Spring Mountain Shelter, I ran out of water. I was less than two miles from Hot Springs, so I knew I wasn't in any real danger, but coming down from Lover's Leap in this heat, without a drop of water, was not pleasant. When I got to my car in Hot Springs, I drank the water I always leave there; and headed home. I got back to Philly before dark on Friday, and am now planning my next adventures.

Despite this second "sucker punch" and my worse-than-typical toe pain, I survived this trip without one fall or one forgetting of my walking stick. Over the last few years I would sometimes add "and no insect bites," but this one was significantly worse than usual. The bee sting was actually minor, it was the mosquitoes and (probably) one tick bite (I got that sucker out as well) that did a number on me.