Nina Baxley: AT Thru-Hiker

One Step at a Time

December 1, 2000

I turned back. Once I reached the cover of trees, I decided to wait for Matt and walk across the bald with him. I munched on Nip-Chee crackers (one of the many delicacies we enjoy out here!) while I waited. But I started getting cold. I knew I needed to start moving again.

As I set out to cross the bald a second time, I thought to myself: "I'm a thru-hiker. I hiked here all the way from Maine. I can DO this!"

I assumed my course over the frozen, tentacle-like grass, plowing my poles into the ground to keep from being blown away by the wind. But my intuition, the little voice that had turned me back before, fought against my determination. "You're being stupid!" it said. "Now get your butt back under those trees!"

Still, I kept walking. I was shivering and felt nauseated. I knew I'd be fine once I reached "treeline," but I didn't know where "treeline" was. Visibility was about 10 feet; "treeline" could be 100 yards away, or it could be more than a mile. I kept walking, fighting the wind that tried to knock me over. I had now gone a half-mile or more. My intuition was screaming for me to go back. I stopped, considered it, and kept walking.

"I'm a thru-hiker. A SOUTHBOUNDER. I can DO this."

"Go back, you idiot!"

I kept walking. Then the wind knocked me over. As I was getting back up, it knocked me down again. I managed to stand back up without slipping on the ice. When I started walking again, it was back toward the trees where I had started. I knew that, if I were to fall and hurt my ankle—or worse—I might find myself stuck there in below-freezing weather, exposed to high-level icy winds.

"I'm a thru-hiker. But Springer isn't worth risking my life."

I hurried back. When I reached the trees, I found Matt preparing to cross the bald.

"It's dangerous out there," I said. "I'm thinking about going back to the road."

Matt said he would see how bad it was; if he couldn't take it, he would turn back, too. I decided to hike with him. Safety in numbers. Plus, if he could do it, so could I.

We got to the gate with the icicles, and I suddenly felt the exhaustion resulting from my two forays out onto the bald. Matt went through the gate. I didn't.

"I'm sorry," I yelled over the wind. "I can't do it. I'm going back to the road."

Matt looked uncertain. I could tell that he wanted to keep going. I told him to keep going and not to worry about me, and we agreed that I would wait for him at the shelter near the road. If he didn't show up in a half-hour, that would mean that he kept going to Overmountain Shelter.

I headed back down the mountain alone—back through the snow, back through the ice-covered rocks. All the way back to the bottom. Hump Mountain and Bradley Gap would have to wait.

I didn't regret my decision to turn back, but that didn't stop me from feeling like a complete loser and a coward—things we all sometimes secretly fear that we are, I guess. I cried the whole way down the mountain. I HATED turning back. I felt defeated. I don't like feeling defeated. And I didn't like the idea of having to re-climb the mountain the next day.

I waited for Matt at the shelter, but he never showed up. So I walked out to the road. There, I met a guy named Tim who was waiting for a friend of his who had stayed at Overmountain Shelter the night before. She wasn't due to emerge from the woods for another hour, so he kindly drove me to a phone. I called Bob from Kincora and arranged for him to pick me up at the trailhead.

Meanwhile, Tim gave me a cheeseburger and a Diet Mountain Dew. I love trail magic!!

I was sad, though. I hate feeling defeated. I'd like to think of myself as someone who overcomes adversity without batting an eyelash. I hate being scared of things.

Still, I think I did the smart thing in turning back. The weather improved the next day, and I was able to hike on. I later learned that several guys had taken a zero day at Overmountain Shelter. They had planned to hike down the mountain to the road the same day I turned back, but had decided the weather was too risky. That made me feel better, to know that GUYS had found it too dangerous as well!

The woman that Tim was waiting for at the road had not crossed the bald either. She had taken an alternate route down the mountain in search of a house so she could get to a phone.

Now, after several days of cold-weather hiking and a short break in Erwin, Tennessee, I'm living in luxury at the Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs. I know how tough the trail can be, and I know it's not going to get any easier—especially with the Smokies on the horizon. I've hiked nearly 1,900 miles, yet I still don't feel like Springer is within reach. Still, I know that if I just keep walking and manage to make good decisions regarding the weather, I'll get there. One step at a time.

Check out Nina's gear list and pack weight.
See the trail dispatch archive for previous weeks.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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