The Everything-Went-Wrong Trip

We’ve all had those days that go to hell, and you’re sitting on your couch mulling in your own mistakes. This trip was that, but for five days straight in the Georgia wilderness. Two friends and I embarked on the Georgia Loop for our spring break trip. We had the maps, the trail explanations, and our hearty gear (hefty bear canisters included). I was just getting back into backpacking after years not on the trail, and this was the first trip I’d go on without the guiding hand of my dad (also the self-proclaimed Pack Mule). My friends were using this trip as an introduction to backpacking, so we were all decently naïve about certain aspects. But after the picture at the trail head, we were all smiles, not having any idea of what was ahead of us.

2015-03-20 15.06.18

Georgia Loop Background

The trail begins at Woody Gap, a section of the Appalachian Trail, then moves onto the Duncan Ridge Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail, and back to the Appalachian Trail. It’s around 55 miles in total and listed as “strenuous.” Being in decent shape at the start, I can still say that I was huffing and puffing, especially on the Duncan Ridge section. The Outcasts Hike Again said “The Georgia Loop Trail is the “toughest” trail in Georgia…it is also called the “toughest” trail this side of the Mississippi.” So, we were clearly in for a challenge.

2015-03-20 14.35.14

Where am I?

All things were going well, until we hit a stream near dinner time. This is where mistake number one happened. To the left, there was a clearly defined path that seemed the obvious choice, but what we should have done was whip out the map and compass to justify our decision. We brazenly trudged forward until we noticed we were no longer passing the markers we had read about. If we turned around, there would be (embarrassed to say) hiking to our campsite in the dark. Down the path in front of us a bit, there was a road. We made our decision and plopped ourselves down on the road with our thumbs sticking in the air.

Lucky for us, a nice couple day hiking in the area took pity on us and threw our overpacked bags into the bed of their truck. They were surprised that we were making our way on the tough trail, and the man driving gave us his card to call in case we ran into another snaffoo. For all the scary stories my mom had told me in hopes I’d stay away from hitchhiking, this was the nicest interaction I could have had.

That night, we set up our tent too close to the trail. My friends were exhausted and done with the day which meant the steep uphill trek in front of us was not about to happen before bedtime. We nearly had room to sit between us and the trail. We were basically spooning the trail, and I don’t think it appreciated the unwarranted cuddles. It was a terrible choice, and we hoped to wake up before sunrise to make sure we spent as little time there as possible. We ate our Ramen as fast as we could and passed out.

2015-03-17 15.03.21

 

Faints and Fire

The morning was breathtaking because of the gorgeous scenery, but also the intense ascents and descents. We took on a military-like determination and focused on each step. I no longer heard the crunch of feet behind myself. It was just me and the wilderness, and everything fell into the background; it was like one of those movie moments where everything is muted except the actor’s breathing and the intricacies of their face. But then I realized I wasn’t in a movie—there were supposed to be breathing and crunching behind me. I looked behind myself to find one of my friends passed out in the middle of the trail.

We ran toward her and started taking her vitals, giving her water, and handing her trail mix to scarf down (luckily she regained consciousness very quickly). As we tried to hitch a ride from the nearby road, a group of firemen pulled up and gave us weird looks. They seemed to unsure whether they should approach, but they eventually did. They more intensely checked out our friend’s health before explaining that we had to get out of this section of the forest immediately. The area was about to have a prescribed burn. So, I guess it was lucky she passed out and we ran into them or else we would have been chased out by flames.

Take two of hitchhiking, we got in the car and the man immediately broke the ice with stories of shrooms and “real-life” accounts of Sasquatch. The man was a gentle soul, though, and seemed to help out a lot of hikers in the area. He dropped us off at an easy entrance to the Benton MacKaye trail where we soon set up camp.

2015-03-17 08.36.35

Why Everything Wrong Still Makes a Great Trip

Even though we shirked our duties as compass lovers, hitched a ride twice, and chose inopportune tent locations, there was an accomplishment at the end of the trip. We made it past those bad decisions and unfortunate situations. I was hesitant to write about this trip because I didn’t want everyone to find out that I was a complete mess (but also didn’t want to let my parents know about my hitchhiking escapades). But, moral of the story: LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES, PLEASE.

The trip was still amazing, fun, and well worth it. I’ve had quite a few more backpacking trips between then and now, and I’ve upped my skill set. Up next is a multi-month road trip to the U.S. National Parks and a March 2018 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. You have to learn at some point, and overcoming bumps in the road is key to building the confidence to let you do more rad trips in the future.

2015-03-15 09.38.59

 

 

5 Reasons Why Cold Vacations are the Best

 

I’m a little biased. Ever since we were 3, my brother and I have been skiing. Every spring break was spent out West with our family on the slopes. I’ve loved my travels to warmer places but, they simply can’t match the cooler experiences. Here’s why you should scrap the swimwear and don the down for your next vacation:

  • You Get Creative

You can’t just lounge at a pool all day with the newest romance novel. Unless you want to do nothing all day, you’re going to brave the cold and figure out some awesome activities to do. You can go skiing, snowshoeing or ice climbing. If you’re in Alaska, you can watch the dog sleds make their way to the Iditarod finish line. Also, you can’t forget the beautiful views of the aurora borealis. You won’t get that in Florida.

 

  • It’s Prettier

Did you ever wake up to a snow day as a kid? You look outside and the world is still and calm. The snow sparkles, untouched by any footprints or sled marks. Imagine having those feelings throughout an entire vacation. It is a more serene beauty that tropical climates can’t compete with.

BB6D22C1-7AB3-4B91-9478-E99DB266B0AC

 

  • It’s Quieter

Tourists tend to flock to the heat. People want to leave the dull monotony of their hometowns and explore exotic and colorful locations. It’s wild, warm, and welcoming. Lucky for you, cold weather lovers, wherever you go will most likely be less populated—you can gaze at the scenery without interruption. It’s a solitude (whether you’re with friends or not) that can be rejuvenating.

 

  • You’re Not Sweating Your Face Off

You know that feeling of the back-sweat drip, don’t lie. It hits the top of your shorts and can drip further in the slowest most uncomfortable way. Yeah, you could throw on your swimsuit and hop into the ocean, but then you have the whole sunscreen-on-top-of-sand issue which is a vicious rinse and repeat scenario. It’s just a slippery slope. In a cold weather place, the only sun you’ll get will be a google tan (hello skiers and snowboarders) and you probably won’t have the sweat issue (outdoor gear tends to be great about pit zips).

1012596_10203732166566766_2194797670391670786_n

(beautiful and fun, but a hot mess of sunscreen and sweat)

  • You Have a Unique Story

Everyone and their grandparents head to the beach for vacation. Half the population seems to have “winter homes” in the south. Heading to a colder place, you’ll meet cool people, have great experiences, and take amazing pictures.

 

Death by Travel Pillow

You think that a travel pillow would be your saving grace on a long series of flights abroad. It’s the shoulder support your neighbor does not wish to be. Which, in all honesty, I did happen to wake up on the shoulder of my neighbor on one of my flights over to Scotland (sorry, by the way). Learning from that mistake, I took out my memory foam travel pillow. I pictured my face resting on a cloud that would mold to the form of my face. You think that sounds like heaven, but it was death. I slowly began realizing that not only was the pillow making my neck reach forward like a pigeon walking, but it was also cutting off the circulation in my neck. I tore it off myself and ripped it to shreds in a fit of Hulk-like rage. Ok, just kidding. But we can use this as a metaphor for the trip. Expectations were different than reality. Happily, this was a good thing.

 

Day 1

I should say that I’m embarrassed with how my friend, Mer, and I ran to each other and squealed as she met me outside of airport security, but I feel no shame. After a day of long travel, though, there was some concern about staying awake and being ready to tour around. But thank goodness for the preflight shot of tequila and a little dose of NyQuil—those got me through the trauma of almost being choked by my pillow. I was completely jazzed and ready to go.

We took a saunter around town to check out the Necropolis which was an eerily beautiful combination of detailed stone work and history of loss. Working up an appetite on our tour, Mer showed me her favorite vegetarian place, Flying Duck. I’m not the picky, tell-everyone-I’m-vegetarian-at-all-moments type of vegetarian, but it makes me happy when I can have a fellow veggie show me where the good food is. A solid tofu sandwich and a smooth pint of stout was all I needed to prep for our night on the town.

With my smeared airplane makeup, we headed out to the bars to meet all the friends I had only heard about in stories. Placing names to faces was wonderful, but it was also a great time to discover where the different Scottish accents came from. But I suppose most of the focus turned to how much better Guinness tastes in Scotland than in the United States. I hung my head in shame as the people around me were shocked and disappointed in my vocalized distaste of the beer, but then they placed one in front of me. The first sip was pleasantly smooth and better than what I originally tasted in the States. As for the rest of the evening, it was just as smooth.

 

Day 2

Struggling to wake up to our over-eagerly timed alarm, Mer and I guzzled some coffee and caught a train to Edinburgh. As the man checking tickets approached us, my friend scrambled to find hers which had been lost in the sea of her purse. I was expecting him to be frustrated and whip out some New York accent saying “move it along, now.” The man patiently waited for Mer to find her ticket, and he then apologized to us. We were taking up his time, but he found it pertinent to say sorry. Nearly everyone I met seemed to have this level of politeness. It was refreshing, but I was taken slightly aback.

Mer and I trudged up to the classic Edinburgh Castle to capture the gorgeous view of the city from above. In the line for tickets we happened to hear some American accents and found out that our new acquaintances were from our hometown, Pittsburgh. It was the classic realization that “it’s a small world.”

Seeking out graveyards became more important to us, so we found Grey Friar’s Bobbie and went from there. Grey Friar’s Bobbie was the Friar’s dog, back in the day, that essentially laid on his master’s grave until he too passed away. We bypassed all the tours around us in the graveyard and beelined it for the most intricate headstone we could find. Clearly the aura of the graveyard came over me and I was caught looking nearly possessed (as seen below). Soon after I scared everyone with my face (I’ve heard that’s a normal thing for me apparently?), we hopped on the train back to Glasgow for a night in with the show Outlander. With semi-accurate Scottish history and attractive people in kilts, how can you go wrong?

IMG_3200

Day 3-5 (The Highlands and Isle of Skye)

I left my friend in Glasgow and caught a small tour van from Edinburgh in hopes of maneuvering through the rural areas of Scotland without being part of an obnoxiously loud and boisterous tour group. Success. Rabbie’s tour group was the perfect combination of fulfilling the tourists’ dreams of visiting beautiful sites and the wannabe-local travelers who wish to understand more about the people and culture. We stopped by places such as the Duone Castle (where Monty Python, Game of Thrones, and Outlander were filmed), Loch Lubnaig, and fields full of sheep.

Through blustery winds and pockets of torrential downpour, our van made it to Skye’s town of Portree. I was the only one from our tour staying at one of the local B&Bs. As I came in through the door of the cute tucked away place, the owner said “so you’re the single woman we’ve been waiting for.” Is it weird to spend some quality time with numero uno (aka myself) at a cozy bed and breakfast? I don’t know about you, but some time with freshly brewed tea and a hot bath is all I need at night. Plus, no one can make fun of me for laying on the floor and putting my feet up the wall for fifteen minutes. It’s a practice I keep for rejuvenation and to decrease inflammation in my feet after a long day of walking or travel.

In the morning, I had the chance to strike up a conversation with the B&B owner—a woman who has lived on the Isle of Skye for around 30 years. She described her favorite spots on the Northern edge of the island. Her face glowed as she spoke, and I got to meet her adventure pal, Kiwi the dog. It was great to see the pair get excited about the island (I assume from all the tail wagging that Kiwi was stoked).

As for our day of traversing across the island, it was combined with a bit of sun, buckets of rain, and around 60 mph winds. On the top of the Quiraing, it was so incredibly blustery that I couldn’t even stand still enough to snag a normal picture of myself (sorry, mom). Some volunteers fixing the trail on the top of the hill were nearly blowing around like tumbleweeds in the wind and eventual hail. Somehow, though, our little van seemed to find the small spots of sun throughout the day. We paused at the Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock, Stein Inn (the oldest serving inn on Skye), Fairy Glen, and the Fairy Pools.

I figured the Fairy Pools were just a Pinterest stereotype where the overly photoshopped pictures cannot compare to the duller real-life version. To my surprise, the pools were so clear that you could see the various colored stones on the bottom, and it was all wedged between mountains. Being in that valley was humbling as you realize how much knowledge and time the Earth around you had seen. I was fascinated by the sun setting behind me and the rainbow that appeared as I was hiking back up to our parking spot. I could easily say that being at the Fairy Pools was one of my favorite moments of the Skye tour. Not to get weird or anything, but If I could have just plopped myself on the ground and stayed there staring at the mountains for a few days I would have.

On the drive back to Edinburgh, we had a more relaxed vibe. We stopped at Loch Ness which was not too much of anything without the legend attached, but the mushroom pie I ate was worth the stop. We had the chance to tour the Eilean Donan Castle. A fully restored 13th century castle that was beautifully placed amid three conjoining lochs. It was a wonderful picture to have in my mind on the last leg of the van journey.

Day 6

Back with my Mer, we met up one of her friends for a classic UK brunch: eggs with beans, spinach, and sweet potatoes. It was the perfect way to refill and recharge from my trek on the island. It was good to have something in my stomach before we headed to a pub for a bit of whiskey tasting.

One of the people we joined at the pub plays the Scottish pipes which he brought to the pub. Some man sitting next to us looked at the elongated case and said “Well, I hope that’s not loaded.” Not thinking, I told him it was because obviously the case was full of something (you know, like pipes). I didn’t realize that he meant a loaded gun until his eyes nearly popped out of his head and he scooted away and out the door of the pub. I may have just caused than man an unnecessary stressful evening.

Day 7

The day was very relaxed, and mostly spent with me catching up on homework as I stared out the window into the rainy streets of Glasgow. My friend had rehearsals and sound check for her performance to happen that evening.

The traditional Scottish music performance was fabulous. Not just because everyone was talented, but because you could see the happiness and excitement in each performer’s eyes. I wanted to smile because they were smiling, and it made the music that much better.

Day 8

Day 8 was my flight home. I was reluctant to leave the beautiful place, and I am going through a little bit of the post-travel blues. Luckily, I know I have fond memories built up and my next adventure starts in May.