In just our first few steps on our 3-generation (Dad, Me, Will), 2-night hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT) the magnitude of the situation hit me: I’m sharing something I love dearly with my oldest son like my father shared it with me. It was nearly 30 years ago when my dad took me on my first hike. I’m not even sure I liked it then. Seeing my oldest child hiking with one of my oldest hiking partners made me full of joy and pride. It was one of those moments when you realize you are doing good in your life.
We left Fort Mill right after school, grabbed Jersey Mikes subs in Asheville and ate them in the car (not recommended -messy!) and arrived at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) near Wesser around 6:30pm. If there is a place on the trail that I know like the back of my hand it is the trail leading to and away from the NOC. We met my dad, exchanged gear from his car into mine and headed to the start point, Burningtown Gap, in my car. Burningtown Gap was above 4,000 feet, dark and slightly foggy when we arrived. It was also the terminus of a day of hunting for two bear hunters and their dogs. They were calling for one dog that hadn’t returned with them. We talked briefly, shuffled gear around, locked the car and headed north on the AT. Maybe five minutes later I turned around to see Will sitting head in knees in the middle of the trail. He hadn’t even asked for a break yet – that came after he sat. He was tired. My dad and I shared a look that said “this could be the world’s shortest hike ever.” But after about 30 seconds Will popped back up and was back at it. All we needed was 1 mile in the dark with our headlamps and we could call it a day. After about 35 minutes of uphill hiking in the moonlight, we saw the silhouette of the shelter. It was facing a different direction than I remembered. It looked occupied. Something was covered up in the middle of the shelter. That something was a stack of concrete mix – the shelter had been refurbished, turned and reset on new moorings within the past few days. Dad, who had been fighting a cold, unpacked and made some decaf tea. Will climbed into his bag – he was tired. After hanging the food and settling in a bit we said goodnight, I put in my earplugs and day 1 was over. Or at least we thought it was. At 3:30am Will’s pushing me to get up. There’s an animal in the shelter. A pretty big one! Actually there are multiple animals. Dogs! 4 hounds left behind from the days hunt crawled in and made themselves comfortable on Will and Dad’s bags (not sure what it says about me that they didn’t pick mine). They were cold and hungry and cold. We spent about an hour pushing them from the shelter (not an easy task given how strong they were) until we relented and allowed them in so long as they weren’t on our bags. They stayed with us until daybreak when we had to tie them up so we could eat our food in peace. Their owners came by, briskly untied them and moved on up the trail – not too pleased at our decision to tie these dogs up. That’s ok, I’m not sure I was too pleased at having to sleep with them.
Day 2 was dog-filled and beautiful. Will popped up, ate a nice breakfast and was ready to hike nearly an hour before Dad and I were packed up. His endurance seemed improved over the first mile he hiked the night prior as his time between breaks greatly increased. We came to 3-4 great views of the fading fall colors at around 4,500 feet that blew him away. At that moment I remember looking at my dad and exchanging the “he’s hooked” glance. We hiked to the base of our big climb for the day to the top of Wesser Bald and took a lunch break. Will ate heartily. During lunch we caught up with some friends hiking for 4-5 days – they were pretty impressed with Will – made me proud. After lunch we spent 35-45 minutes hiking up Wesser where we took another break on top of the Fire Tower. We could hear and see hunting hounds all around us – the view was amazing. We were likely a week past peak leaf season but still enjoyed unbelievable colors. It dawned on me that we don’t get to the mountains enough and especially not in the fall.
After this break and another snack we headed downhill to the first shelter of the day. This shelter was approximately 6-7 miles from the last one and one of the nicer ones I’ve seen on the trail. Big covered cooking table, bench with a back to sit on and fairly mouse-free. It also had cable pulleys for hanging your food at night. Swank. When we arrived at 2:30pm in the afternoon it was just us. My hardest part of this hike was ending our day after only 6-7 miles at 2:30 in the afternoon. I couldn’t bring myself to take my gaiters off and unpack until nearly 4:30pm. Normally 7 miles would be under halfway of a normal day but this was the right thing to do for Will. The last thing I wanted to do was take a really positive hiking experience and make it negative by pushing Will too far. That evening we were joined by one section hiker (Daniel from Jax) in the Shelter and 5-6 other guys section hiking from Atlanta and the Charlotte area. One of the guys was from Fort Mill – a few miles from our house! Small world. After the routine of pumping water, making freeze-dried meals and spending time around the ATL/CLT crew’s campfire (odd to have a camp fire while hiking) – we turned in for our last night. Temps dropped to around 35 with a slight breeze – just about the limit on my 1 pound sleeping bag I found.
The next morning we packed up to a very light drizzle but you could sense rain was coming. Hurricane Sandy was expected to make landfall later than night and the weather even in NC was starting to turn. We hiked for an hour reaching “Jump-Up” fairly quickly. The views from here are normally excellent but we were socked in. Will thought it was cool being in a cloud like we were. Going down Jump-up proved to be less tricky than the time Tom and I hiked it in the snow (over 15 years ago!) but still tricky enough that I was glad Cindy wasn’t there to witness what her 10 year old was hiking/climbing on. Another hour into our hike the rain came. A very steady, chilly rain that was definitely not a passing shower. We hiked a bit faster, with fewer breaks as I was worried about the waterproofness of Will’s winter coat. The cool part was that although the rain bothered me a bit (as it always does when I’m hiking), it didn’t seem to bother Will in the least. He was a trooper! We finished the 5+ miles shortly before noon at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and as fast as it started it was over. We quickly changed, drove the 14 miles to where we parked my car, said a quick goodbye to Dad and started our drive back home. All-in-all a great, great trip.
I’ve spent a few days trying to think of the way to convey how amazing it was to be hiking with both my 10 year old son on this hike and my dad (his “Poppy”). My heart was filled with pride during the entire trip and I was really impressed with Will’s resiliency. There’s something special about the relationship my kids have with their grandparents. Poppy is the ultimate neutralizer for Will and I. At times we are very alike which can stir up a bit of conflict. Such conflict rarely emerges when my Dad is involved with the activity. Watching them interact is priceless…there’s something very funny about the similarities between a 10 year old boy and a 65 year old man. It’s special but, like my inability to convey how hiking with three generations made me feel, I can’t convey what makes this so special. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter and I want to have the same relationship with my grandkids one day.