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Day 6, January 8

Low Gap Shelter to Tray Mountain Shelter

I woke 2 hours before daylight around 5:45 AM and we had an alarm set for 6. We had decided to do some night hiking due to the possibility of doing another 15.4-mile day to Tray Mountain Shelter or stopping short at Cheese Factory Campsite, which was the guys planned goal for the day. It was going to be my first night hiking experience! We packed up camp using our headlamps. Mom headed for the privy not bringing toilet paper with him due to yesterday’s find. He walked back down telling us it was gone. I thought maybe he just didn’t see it. I went to use the privy and I too couldn’t find the toilet paper. That was weird… Mom thought maybe someone came in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and took it or it blew down on the ground?

While we are on the subject of bathrooms and toilet paper, I forgot to mention every young guy I encountered and hung around long enough would talk about pooping in the woods. Big Guy was obsessed with pooping in the woods and found enjoyment out of it including sharing with those around him. Mom hadn’t pooped yet since starting the trail, so that was talked about as well. I, on the other hand, had no issues and would go in the privy in the morning. I didn’t even pack a trowel on this trip for that reason (not recommended for everyone). I usually carry one but decided to risk it due to limited space.
Anyway like three little ducklings in a row and our headlamps lit, we headed back on the trail to tackle the miles. Soon after, we had to stop and throw on our rain gear as it began to drizzle. Soon after the fog rolled in, it stole any potential views from sight.
The fog and dampness in the air provided for a dreary start to the day. This made me even more thankful to have some hiking companions. Again, we talked in more detail about members of our families, what everyone did in our families for a living, relationships in our families, how Jack planned to propose to his girlfriend, the engagement plans, and wedding plans. We didn’t exactly hike at the same pace. They pushed forward on the climbs until they reached the top. Not used to the elevation (2,000-3,000 miles higher compared to the NJ section of trail and many more ups and downs), I would stop to catch my breath. In an attempt to stay with the guys, I would push forward breathing hard. I began to feel a hot spot on my pinky toe. Instead of taking care of it, I decided during our first break I’d add moleskin to it, which didn’t come soon. By the time I was able to tend to my toe, it was now a blister. I could have easily stopped and repaired it but wanted to keep up with the guys. Maybe I also didn’t want to appear weak? Looking back, I just appeared dumb.
By 10:30, we reached Blue Mountain shelter, 7.3 miles, to have a long lunch. They had to cook their food and wanted to relax. Something I needed to learn to do. Mom went to go to the privy finally feeling like he had to go, which he did and took photo evidence of and tried to show me. I’ll spare you the descriptive language he shared with me. Backwards and I listened to music on his portable radio, ate lunch, and talked about how we used to play video games. Details I rarely share with anyone at home but felt so inclined to do so here. Mom FaceTimed his girlfriend, Erin. I sat shivering and elevated my feet. I could have hiked on, but I just didn’t.
We got back on trail around 11:45. This time we talked about childhood books like Where the Red Fern Grows, a 6th grade favorite of mine I was re-reading. It was Mom’s favorite too. We talked about different dialects. Backwards liked Scarlet’s Letter. I shared The Wish Giver in detail having read it with my students earlier that year, which was related to dialects. We shared other titles like  Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, A Brave New World, and 1984.
All of a sudden the fog seemed to have lifted or we had been walking in the clouds. We were dropping into the lowest elevation in Georgia, Unicoi Gap. Being faster at going down, I passed the guys and we met back up for a break at the parking lot. We chitchatted with some day hikers and I had hoped they would offer us ice cold Gatorade, which no one did. Could you tell I was thirsty? I got up first knowing the climb would slow me down and I really needed to refill my water. I put on some music and knew the guys would catch up soon.
I reached the water source, chugged a whole water bottle, and took a rest to digest all the consumed water. Still no sign of the guys. That was odd. At this point, the sun was out and it was hot. I was sweating and splashed my face in the water. I thought maybe they had stopped at the other water source, which was just a trickle not knowing there was a better source. If that was the case, it would take them forever to get water, which totally explained why I hadn’t seen them. Mom had said he had to go to the bathroom again and didn’t think it was going to be good. Maybe, it really wasn’t good and they had to stop? Was he dehydrated? With still more to climb, I pushed on. I stopped to take a quick picture of some scat I was seeing pretty frequently. I texted the photo to my dad so he could use his animal app to identify it. We didn’t think it was a bear. At the time, we thought it was a bobcat. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a bobcat.
Finally reaching the top, I decided to eat a snack, dry out my clothes in the sun, and admire the view. At any minute, the guys would catch up to me. Having spent 15ish minutes and the sun was hidden behind the clouds, I packed up my gear and decided to keep going. I was going to make it to Tray Mountain Shelter with or without them. Part of me couldn’t help but think maybe they didn’t want to hike with me anymore? Was I being annoying? I descended the mountain and ran into some day hikers, who stopped and chatted for a bit. At the base of the mountain and before the next steady climb up to Tray Mountain nearly just as high as Blood Mountain, I stopped to eat some gummy bears. I  was admiring the “praying tree” and down came Backwards and Mom from the trail. They stop and sit next to me. They inform me they stayed at Unicoi Gap longer than expected. They were hurting and wanted me to pace them up the mountain no matter how slow I had planned to go.
Pushing forward, I led the way up to Tray Mountain. We passed the Cheese Factory site and kept on going. It was a slow and steady climb reaching 4,430′. It was a rough climb and not a great way to end the day after climbing out of Unicoi Gap. Mom pushed forward. Backwards and I slowly crawled along until we reached the top where we met back up with Mom. It was cold and windy. I couldn’t sit long, snapped some pictures, and headed for the shelter knowing we were close by.
Slightly ahead of the guys and the shelter in sight, I noticed something in the shelter. An orange buoy? I don’t have the best eyesight for distance. As I got closer, I realized it was someone laying in their sleeping bag. This someone didn’t even stir when I walked up. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and still light out. What kind of etiquette was I suppose to follow if they really were asleep? I felt slightly alarmed and I tiptoed to backtrack to the guys.
Once I reached them, as if the person in the shelter could hear me, I whispered: “there’s someone sleeping in the shelter!” They thought nothing of it and walked right up to place their belongings down. This stirred the person. It was a guy. This guy who called himself Turtle had taken a zero there. He was a disabled vet suffering from PTSD. Why he was out there alone? I had no idea. He was from Florida and decided to hike a bit of the trail using his disability money. He eventually came out of his sleeping bag wearing sneakers, a cotton long sleeve shirt, and khaki pants.
On edge, he asked where we were from and what we did. Mom had answered and shared with him that he and Backwards were still in college from West Virginia and I was a teacher in grad school from New Jersey. Turtle said, “you’re a teacher? You must be really smart then.”
I responded with, “Smarter than a fifth grader.” After his comment, I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping next to this guy. I expressed this privately to Mom and Backwards. Mom planned to set up his tent to see how it faired in the wind and cold. Backwards set his tent up in the shelter due to the wind and predicted low of high twenties for the night. He didn’t have the best gear and we figured it’d be warmer in there. If anyone else would walk up, he would simply move his tent out. We moved my stuff to the other side and had the tent in the middle. 
However, we still settled in for the night grabbing water and making dinner. Turtle never made dinner. As I was snacking, I dropped all of my coconut chips on the ground. I was sad for two reasons: I lost my food, and this is why bears come. A SOBO thru-hiker named “Old Canadian” from New York stopped by to socialize and use the privy. He was pushing on to Low Gap for the night.
The temperature was beginning to drop and the wind was starting to pick up. We were in for a cold night. We hung our food on the bear cables. Turtle’s food was wrapped in two trash bags and sitting on the bench along the outside of the shelter on my side! I wanted to hang his food for him, but I let it go. No bear in their right mind would be up this high up in elevation due to the temperature and lack of food. Mom and Backwards were hanging out in the tent as I was laying in the shelter next to them. If I sat up the wind would be unwelcoming but if I laid down the wind barely bothered me.
A little bit later, Mom headed down to his tent. Backwards and I chatted for a little. He informed me that it was so warm in his tent. I responded with “it must be nice.” His rebuttal back to my comment was “I’d invite you in but you’re a girl.” I totally understood and endured the cold. The wind made it seem like a train was coming through all night long. Somehow the reassurance of there being no bears aided in my sleep until it got even colder.
Around 2am, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped even more. My body was warm but my face was cold. I lasted as long as possible without sticking my head in my bag in order not to create condensation and moisture from my breathing, a big no-no out on trail in cold weather. It was my last night on trail and figured it was worth the risk. Especially if that met I got a few more hours of decent sleep, which I did. The howling wind was somewhat soothing.