Country Roads, Take Me Home

Way back in March, we made a bet on who would cry first and I swore up and down it wouldn’t be me, I’m not a crier. It was me. It was the fourth day in a row of pouring rain and I stood ankle deep in mud with a cold river of water running down my back and into the top of my waistband. Six more miles until the next shelter. I cried for about thirty seconds, out of breath from hiking and heaving like a fish out of water. Then I realized I wasn’t carrying enough water to lose precious hydration on my tears. So I sucked it up, yanked my boots out of the mud, and trudged forward. 
And trudge I did, for the next five months and one thousand miles, from Georgia to Pennsylvania. I hiked, I climbed, I sometimes even limped and staggered. Occasionally, I reached mountaintops and lifted my arms in victory, forgetting for a moment that my body was too weary to spend a little energy on celebrating.

 

Crossing the bridge into Harper’s Ferry

We’ve been home for weeks already, though it still seems as though I woke up in the woods this morning. Truthfully, I’ve been putting off this last post because it makes me sad to be finished hiking. I keep receiving updates from other bloggers posing at the holy Katahdin sign- a symbol of everything we worked for- and trying to come to terms with the fact that I will not be posting my own eagerly-awaited summit photos I had been looking forward to for so long.

 

Our very long awaited photos at the ATC headquarters in Harper’s Ferry

  
Though I am home now, I miss the home I’ve become accustomed to, the one with the sky for a ceiling and dirt for a floor. I miss having The Proclaimers, or Eye of the Tiger playing over and over in my head as I edged closer to the peaks. I miss the most basic hiker communication of rocks and sticks spelling out warnings of snakes ahead or celebrations of mileage. I miss the quiet of the woods, of hearing myself think and the chatter of chipmunks being the loudest noise I encountered in an entire day. I miss the surprise of stumbling upon a road after miles of rock trails- having forgotten already that some paths are smooth and level. I miss the giddiness of coming into town, the sheer bliss of satisfying an endless hunger at a diner. Hell, I even miss rolling out of the tent in the morning, leaning against a tree to push my aching body skyward and stretching out my muscles to discover which of my limbs decide to mostly function today.

 

Our last selfie, finally crossing the border into West Virginia

 

 

This little guy bidding us adieu

Though I miss lots of things, there are others that I’ll carry with me even when I’m not on the trail. I’m so glad I learned the kindness of strangers, often whose names I never caught, but faces I’ll always remember. I learned to rely on others, and mostly on myself, both my body to carry me without giving out and my mind for persuading me to push a little farther- to feel my lungs expand bigger than I ever knew they could. The trail taught me lessons in simplicity, of stopping to catch my breath and noticing a toad or a little bird sharing my path, of adapting to the quiet and listening to the animals and leaves rustling. If you think childlike wonder has been lost, you should see a grown, bearded man speak to a caterpillar or watch his eyes light up in the glow of a campfire when you offer to share a piece of chocolate after a long day of hiking. These are the things I will think of when I’m in my ‘happy place,’ the things I daydream of, and the things I reiterate when people ask me why I’d want to live in the backwoods for months. I tell them I loved spending time living without interruption, without stress or agenda, and realizing how fortunate I was to be allowed this chunk of time in which I had no worries or immediate responsibilities- that was for later. Now was the time for being present. And present I was, drinking in my surroundings, complete with challenges that I took in stride. Sure, it was hot, steep, buggy, rainy, thirsty, hungry, exhausting at times- ok, all the time- but never boring. Never unworthy of my time.

 

The real Washington monument, at last

 Of course, I couldn’t have done it alone. I had the help of family and friends encouraging me from home, the help of strangers who were willing to give me their food and their time, and most of all, my two hiking companions who were there to literally pick me up when I fell down and push me forward when I wanted to turn back. My tent mates, my campfire builders, my buffet destroyers, and spider web clearers. Even on the cruelest days we still laughed, usually at ourselves.

 

We toured DC, including visits to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History,

 

Hot and Juicy Crawfish,

 

The National Zoo,

 

And of course, the National Mall.

 

There was this one guy in particular for whom I was, and am, always grateful. He carried the heavier half of a tent he never slept in for a thousand miles for me. He fetched water when it was too far. He swatted mosquitoes I couldn’t see and told me I was still pretty even when I hadn’t showered in a week and was covered in welts from bug bites. He continued on a twisted ankle for literally hundreds of miles, partially of his own determination but partly because he knew I wasn’t yet ready to give up on this grand adventure. He was there every step of the way, from the valleys to the peaks, to share in the misery and the celebration. A lot of people told us backpacking together would be a test of our relationship, but I would never have considered doing it any other way. Who better to share this experience with than my best friend? 

Titanic Pose!

I consistently find myself doing the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I think it’s pretty great. It means you’re always getting stronger and challenging yourself in new ways. I highly recommend it. When I look back at the last thousand miles, what I see are opportunities in my future. If I can do this, I can do anything. Even though we didn’t finish the AT, the seed of exploration has been planted and continues to grow within me. When I read about other long distance trails, or traveling in general, I know now that I am capable of setting out on any quest I choose. You know how after a long day of driving you close your eyes to fall asleep and you still see the road? It’s what’s burned into your brain after staring at nothing else for so long. When I close my eyes I see the trees.

A look back at Day 1

Folks, it’s been a great adventure, and as always, it’s not over yet.

 

Oh, Shenandoah!

For the past several weeks we have done far more traveling on highways than on the AT, which quite honestly is terrifying after having traveled at an average speed of 2.5 miles per hour for the last four months. Riding in a car moving at 70 mph feels like traveling at the speed of light in comparison!
My family picked us up from Boiling Springs, PA in the last week of July for us to accompany them on their summer vacation- a vacation from our vacation, how lucky are we?? We went to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and then to Deal Island, Maryland, where we rented a house for the week and toured the small beach towns of the Chesapeake Bay. In the span of a day, the three musketeers found themselves plucked from the seclusion of the forest and suddenly facing the enormity of the ocean. What a world we live in, eh?  

  

Rehoboth Beach

 
 

Playing bocce ball at Dogfish Head Brewery

 

We rode home, crossing the border into Ohio for the first time in months. We visited with friends and family for a few days, until “visiting” and “resting our bodies” turned into settling back into our old routine of watching Netflix while slowly melting into the couch, and we came to the conclusion that we’d better get out of there before we got too settled in. So we loaded up my car and headed back down to Virginia, planning to complete the remaining 250 miles between Glasgow and Harper’s Ferry by slack packing.
Slack packing seemed like such an easy idea before we actually tried it. Our plan was to decide on a section for each day, then Shane and I would drop Travis off at the northern end, leaving him heading south. Shane and I would then drive to the southern end, park the car and hike north, meeting Travis halfway and handing over the keys. Travis would end at the car and drive back to the northern end to meet us at the end of the day, then we would find a camping spot nearby the road and start again in the morning on the next section north. 

This seemed like a great idea until we drove for over an hour on gravel roads to get to the first drop off point. It hadn’t occurred to us that, while the trail takes shorter miles up and over mountains, roads meander around them, often taking us for miles on single-lane forestry service roads carved into steep hills, without guardrails or road signs. We wasted hours just getting to the starting point on the first day, and to add insult to injury, Travis ended up hiking in the wrong direction when we dropped him off! Shane and I tried to call and text him to turn around, but there was no service in the mountains. We waited for him at the next road crossing, which was four miles away by trail and over thirty miles by road. By the time he realized the mistake, he had gone three miles in the wrong direction, then had to turn around and repeat the same three miles before continuing on in the right direction. We quickly realized that slack packing in this method was far more complicated than we had imagined.

Another unforseen problem: this road just ended abruptly into the woods, right after the GPS said “Continue for two miles!”

We decided to move north to Shenandoah National Park, which has about a hundred miles of the AT, and only one main road throughout the park. Skyline Drive runs north to south, parallel to the trail and crossing it every few miles, which makes it easy to navigate both on foot and by car. Slack packing here was a breeze! 

In between days of hiking, we visited a few places of interest along the way… We’re considering renaming this adventure The Great Appalachian Trail/ Brewery/ Mini-golf Tour of 2015.

   

A beer flight at Seven Arrows Brewing Company in Waynesboro, Virginia

 

Just when we were starting to get the hang of slack packing, it was time to head home again briefly, to work on our favorite food truck, Steamroller Bagel Sandwiches, for the Columbus Food Truck Festival. We were so busy over the weekend that we didn’t even have time to take any pictures of us working (or eating lots of sandwiches)!

We also stopped in Pittsburgh on the way home to bid farewell to my college roommate and friend Alice, who is currently on her way to start her own adventure in Madagascar!

More putt-putting, this time with Alice and Steve!

After much running around, we returned to finish Shenandoah. We experienced both sunny and foggy days here, which are characteristic of the mountains. We got our fill of beautiful vistas, and even saw a few more bears. Our closest sighting was actually in the car, when a small bear stood in the middle of the road and refused to let us pass!

   
    
  

The views in Shenandoah speak for themselves!

 

As we near September, we see fewer and fewer hikers, especially ones who are backpacking. Shenandoah has a few day hikers left who are finishing up their summer vacations before kids have to go back to school, but otherwise the trail is pretty lonely these days. As the days go on, the trail changes completely in the wake of disappearing visitors. It’s quieter, with more time alone and not as many friendly hellos and how-are-you’s throughout the day, which can be serene in certain ways. One of the ways it’s not so great is that there’s no one to clear the spider webs out of the way in the mornings! When we are the first people on the trail, we take turns walking in the lead so that no one has to endure walking face-first into webs suspended across the path all day! By the end of the day everyone is frantically grasping at their hair and arms, feeling like the invisible strands will never go away.

 

Trail Foe: Face Spiders

  

Hiker 101: Foggy days make webs easier to navigate because the dew clings to them, making them more visible before you plunge into them head-first. If it’s not foggy, simply swing your arms/ trekking poles in front of you like a crazy person in hopes of knocking them down.

  

Trail Friend: a velvet-antlered young buck, maybe ten feet from me on the trail

 

As the hot summer days are quickly fading into chilly nights foreshadowing fall, our trip is also waning. September has come upon us so quickly! It seems like only yesterday we were in Georgia, being novice hikers and learning the ropes of backpacking. Now here we are, a thousand miles wiser and looking toward our final week of the trail. We wanted to reach 1,500 miles, but we’ve run out of time and money for this year, so we’re settling for half of the trail instead and will be concluding our trip in Harper’s Ferry sometime next week. It’s disappointing to fall short of our goal mileage, but I keep telling myself that we’ve still made an accomplishment by coming this far. I look forward to pondering the many up and downs of these last five months as we wind down this week, and I’ll write one more post upon our conclusion. It’s been a great adventure, and it’s not over yet!

At last, North of the Mason-Dixon!

It’s been awhile since I updated! I would love to tell you that after leaving Daleville we suddenly became energized and motivated to pick up the pace, and hiked ourselves 300 miles upward, but alas, that was not the case.
It took us awhile to get up enough energy to pack up our things from the motel in Daleville and hike low miles out of town. On the second day, Shane wasn’t feeling very well, so we made the decision to road walk on the Blue Ridge Parkway for the day, since it would be a smoother, more gradual incline than the steep trail in this section. The BRP runs more or less parallel to the AT for awhile in Virginia, plus has more views than the trail, which only crosses the road occasionally at a few lookout points. 

  
We had planned to road walk for about 15 miles, but after only three, Shane felt too weak to continue. Luckily we were already on a road, so we stuck our thumbs out and the first truck that passed pulled over to pick us up. It was a sweet older man, who volunteered to drive us back in the opposite direction he had been driving because he was retired from the railroad and “not in a hurry to get anywhere anymore.” He took us to a clinic and even offered to wait for us while Shane had his appointment, but we insisted he go back home, and of course, he wouldn’t accept any money from us for his trouble. Once again, a prime example of a good samaritan willing to assist some struggling hikers!
The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with Shane, so we decided to let him rest for another day and head back out. The clinic was in Buchanan, which only had one motel, and it was booked for the busy Fourth of July Weekend. We asked around for the nearest lodging, and, much to our dismay, discovered that the closest hotels were in…Daleville. So, like in Groundhog Day, we returned to the vortex that we had escaped just two days before.
A few days later… We got a ride from Homer, a shuttle driver and former thru-hiker from 2002 who hiked with his whole family, including two children, who impressively completed the AT at the ages of 8 and 11 years old! Back on the parkway, we hiked for a few miles and came upon the Peaks of Otter, which is a park-type area surrounding three mountains, with campgrounds, hiking trails, a visitor center, and a lodge overlooking a lake. It was a very scenic detour, which required us to stop for lunch at the lodge, and eventually to stay the night, even though it was pricey compared to our usual digs.

 

The view from our room at the Peaks of Otter Lodge. We didn’t see any otters.

  
 It was at this time that we faced the ultimate conversation we had been avoiding for so long: we most certainly had a bad case of the Virginia Blues. We had read in recent previous shelter logs that many hikers were abandoning the trail because of this dreaded disease. Virginia is state with the longest trail section at over 500 miles, and it seems to drag on forever, creating an illusion that you’re not really making progress. We had been in this state for six weeks and we still had 200 miles of it left! Granted, we had been here for so long mostly because we couldn’t seem to drag ourselves out of the motels once we got into them.
It was hot and humid, we were hiking smaller miles than usual, and we were feeling very unmotivated to go on. Shane had been twisting his ankle on a regular basis, and was usually hiking in pain despite our many days off in town. We thought a change of pace might help. So, we hiked a few more days to Glasgow, VA, where Travis’s dad picked us up and drove us back to his house in Maryland. We said goodbye to Virginia- at least for now-and skipped forward over 200 miles to begin again at Harper’s Ferry, WV.

 

The James River Foot Bridge, the longest pedestrian-only bridge on the entire trail

  

It’s a hiker tradition to jump off of the bridge into the James River, but it was about to storm and we didn’t particularly feel like becoming lightning rods, so we decided not to jump.

   

Glasgow had a lovely free shelter for hikers, complete with an outdoor shower!

 

 

Glasgow also has a dinosaur…not sure why, but I’m not complaining.

 
 It was so nice of Travis’s family to let three smelly hikers take over their home for a few days! They fed us real food and we got to do our laundry over and over again (without having to put quarters in) until it no longer reeked of sweat and grime. We made yet another trip to REI, this time to switch out my brand new trail runners for boots again, since my feet had been aching for the last few days, as though the entire bottoms were bruised. It turns out trail runners really aren’t meant for backpacking with heavy packs, which I didn’t know. 

 

Yay food! Yay comfy beds! Yay DeFraites family! And look, you can see their faces now that they shaved off their four-month old beards!

 
Travis’s mom helped us slack pack from Harper’s Ferry to Pennsylvania, allowing us to cover the entire state of Maryland (over 40 miles) in just two days. We visited the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters in Harper’s Ferry and enjoyed the scenic trip through the historic section of town, which followed an old canal tow path for a few miles parallel to the Potomac River before crossing the border into Maryland. We stopped for lunch at Gathland State Park, which is the former estate of Civil War correspondent George Alfred Townsend.

 

The War Correspondents Memorial at Gathland State Park

 
We began our second day of slack packing at the original Washington Monument, which was not exactly photogenic due to a lightning strike a few weeks ago that cause structural damage. Unfortunately, we were not able to go up into it, since it needed repairs. We ended the day at Pen Mar Park, making it our longest day yet at 22 miles.

 

Washington Monument looking sad with orange cones

 
 

Finally made it out of the South!

 
  
Back out on the trail with our packs, we passed the marker for the 2015 midpoint, at 1094.6 miles. Even though this was not our midpoint since we skipped ahead, it still felt like a milestone. Just after the sign, we saw our first rattlesnake, who loudly announced his presence and meandered slowly across the trail while we stepped as far out of the way as possible. 

 

Here’s the halfway point sign, in all its glory.

  
 
We continued on the next morning to Pine Grove Furnace State Park, where the Ironmaster’s Mansion Hostel provided us with porch space to dry out our packs after hiking for several hours in pouring rain. We checked out the Appalachian Trail Museum and visited the park’s general store, which home to the Half Gallon Challenge, where many hikers attempt to eat a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate passing the halfway point of the trail. We did not participate, since a bucket of ice cream didn’t sound too welcoming at 9:00 am when we were soaking wet from the rain. We did, however, get a hot meal instead, and then the sun came out and it turned out to be a nice (very hot) day after all. We passed Fuller Lake and took a side trail to a view at Pole Steeple, where we talked to lots of curious day hikers about our trip. It felt nice to take our time and enjoy the park.

 

Ironmaster’s Mansion

  

Pine Grove Furnace

    

Pole Steeple Lookout


 …Which brings me to my final update of this post. We have done the math, and we would need to complete more than fifteen miles every day, not including any days off, in order to get to Katahdin by the end of September, which is when we would have to be done in order to have time to go back to the section we skipped in Virginia (Plus, we don’t have enough money to take any more time). It may be possible, but we have been moving slowly lately due to the heat/humidity and Shane’s ongoing ankle issues, and it doesn’t feel right to try to hurry just to get to the end. After all, the whole point of the AT is the journey, not the destination. 
My main goal for hiking was to see new things and travel to new places, which is exactly what we’re doing. Some of my favorite stops on this trip have been parts that weren’t technically on the AT, such as the blue blazed trails to side views and stopping in the parks along the way to learn about the historical significance of the areas through which the trail passes. If we hurry to keep up the pace, these are the moments which will have to be forgone in order to finish on time, and to me those are sacrifices not worth making. If lingering to take in the mountains a little longer means postponing the long-awaited completion of the trail for us, then I am willing to wait a little longer. We are having fun spending time together and being on an adventure, and while it is a bit disappointing to have Katahdin a little farther out of reach, it also feels as though a weight has been lifted off of our shoulders. We no longer feel the pressure from ourselves to finish this year, although we still have plans to complete it eventually. 
We are not quitting, but rather prolonging our hike. Our new goal is to reach the 1,500 mile mark, which will put us approximately on the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts, and then we will return to Virginia to do the section we skipped. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to come back out to finish the remaining 700-ish miles (some hikers call this a “thru in two” hike).
For now, we are looking forward to having my family visit this week and to reach our 1,000 mile mark soon! It’s been a great adventure, and it’s not over yet!

 

Our current location, beautiful Boiling Springs, PA.

  

And, just for fun, this little guy who was chirping under a log at our last campsite. 🐸

 

Might as well be walking on the sun!

When we left the Big Walker Motel in Bland, it was just beginning to heat up. The terrain was nothing new, rocks and trees and mountains, but this week there was a buzz on the trail because someone important was making his way north. Scott Jurek, ultramarathon champion/author/chef/all things über healthy is currently attempting to break the speed record for finishing the Appalachian Trail, which currently stands at just over 46 days (by Jennifer Pharr Davis in 2011). He once ran 165.7 miles in 24 hours, and on another occasion ran 100 miles in 15 hours and 36 minutes, not to mention winning about a bajillion long distance races all over the world, just to give you an idea of what kind of an athlete he is. So it came as no surprise when, on our 74th day on the trail, Scott passed us on his 8th. 

We came upon a road crossing where several groups of people were waiting for him to arrive. He’s sponsored by Clif, and has a photographer to document his progress. When he and the photographer finally emerged from the trees, I was surprised to see that he had a fan base of followers jogging behind him like Forrest Gump, many of whom had traveled from states away just to say they ran a mile with Scott Jurek. He stopped for a break then while we continued on, so I actually had the opportunity to be passed by him twice. The second time, I heard him approaching behind me and quickly scrambled up onto the steep side of the trail to let him pass me. I kept up with him for about 30 seconds before he disappeared down the path in front of me, but during that time he was very nice and asked me questions about my hike. I did not tell him I’d already been on the trail for nearly twice as long as he planned to take to finish the entire thing! He’s certainly an impressive and inspiring individual, though I could never imagine taking on this challenge in such a short amount of time- there are so many things you would miss!

A few days later, we came upon Woods Hole Hostel, about which we had heard great things from other hikers. Neville and Michael run the 1800s log cabin as a sort of subsistence farm and sustainable living model, complete with a rainwater catchment system, composting toilet, and wood heat for the cabin and the hostel barn. It’s very well organized, with designated spaces for small vegetable patches around the house, as well as integrated pens for goats, pigs, and cows free to roam the woods nearby.

 

The Woods Hole cabin

 
We arrived after 7:00, so we thought we had missed dinner, but we were in luck because just as we approached everyone was gathering in the yard for a big communal meal. We had salad freshly picked from the garden and pasta with an assortment of homemade sauces and pestos Neville makes herself. Everyone formed an assembly line to prepare plates, then chose a place to sit either around the massive sunken fire pit, on the wraparound porch with swings, or just in a sunny patch in the yard to enjoy their meals. Between the animals, gardens, flowers, views of the countryside, and abundant artwork of hikers splashed everywhere, there was much to look at and discuss.

 

Salads that haven’t been picked yet

  

The bunkhouse

  

The bunkhouse view!

 

The next morning, we shared another communal meal, consisting of sweet cardamom rice with Neville’s canned peaches and strawberries, watermelon, an egg scramble with sausage and veggies, and homemade bread with apple butter. It was easily one of the best meals we’ve had on the trail thus far. 

  
We enjoyed Woods Hole very much, but alas had to get back to the trail. Anthony, however, was a bit weary from hiking and enjoyed Woods Hole so much that he decided to stay behind and work there in exchange for stay for awhile, and eventually go back home to Ohio. So, here we are, back down to the three amigos.

 

Goodbye, Anthony!

 
It was a short 12 miles from Woods Hole into the town of Pearisburg, where we stayed for a few days to heal blisters and sore legs. During our time there we got to go to our first farmer’s market so far, which I had been missing from home. It was nice to be able to buy some fresh produce, especially after having gotten a taste of it at Woods Hole.
Leaving Pearisburg was when the weather really began to become unbearable, and for the last week we’ve done our lowest miles since we first started the trail, despite getting early starts to try to beat the heat. We just become exhausted so quickly that the miles have been taking much longer than usual. We have still been encountering dry water sources, so it has been a struggle to stay hydrated in these long hot spells.
The rocky trail coupled with the high temperatures and humidity have really been slowing us down. It’s already over 80 degrees by 9:00am, and when the sun gets high it becomes hard to breathe in the sticky air. Sweat runs down your chin, your neck, and into your shirt already heavy with moisture. Your back sticks your pack and your fingers struggle to keep a grip on your trekking poles. Your socks become wet and your feet blistery, slipping in your boots with each sweaty step. You ration your water supply, taking only sips when you could easily guzzle liters, because you can’t be positive if the next stream will be dried up or gloriously flowing. Basically, you feel like jumping off of the cliffs rather than climbing over them.
One day, my two liter water bladder sprung a leak, so I was left with only one water bottle until we could get into town again. I tried to drink as much as I could before we left camp, but several miles in I was already parched and out of water. The next two springs listed in the guidebook were bone dry and I was getting worried. I approached a gravel road, where there happened to be a couple who had pulled over to look at the trail, and they asked me how I was.

“Actually,” I said. “Not very well.”

Fortunately, they had bottles of water in their car and gave me two of them, which I immediately emptied. They also offered me an apple, which I took.

“I’m sorry the water isn’t cold,” the man said.

I told him I would’ve filtered the water out of mud puddle if there had been one, so he didn’t need to apologize! I was just glad I had happened upon them when I did, or else I would’ve really been in sorry shape by the time I made it to the next water source, which was still another six miles away. Plus, then I had the empty bottles to use to carry additional water until we made it back into town. Once again, I was saved by the kindness of strangers, without whom I’d probably be shriveled up like a raisin on the side of a gravel road somewhere in the backcountry of Virginia.

We ended up having to shuttle into Four Pines Hostel a day earlier than planned, because Shane twisted an already-strained ankle on a long section of slanted ridge line rocks. He iced it, wrapped it, and kept it elevated, and the next day he insisted we could hike. We decided to slack pack (hike without our packs) for the first time to try to ease the pain for him, plus we had heard that the upcoming stretch was a brutal climb of steep rock faces which could be dangerous with our packs. We left our packs at the hostel and got shuttled back to where we left off, planning to hike back there by evening.

It was exhilarating to hike without a pack, but just with a small bag of food and water for the day. We zipped over the mountains, feeling weightless and naked without our turtle shells to slow us down. We had done ten miles before noon, and we weren’t even winded! I was especially grateful to be without it when we descended from Dragon’s Tooth, which had areas so steep that there were rebar rungs drilled into the rocks to use like a ladder, over distances of more than ten or fifteen feet sometimes. Even without my pack I was nervous, checking and rechecking my footing to make sure I didn’t send myself pitching over the mountainside and into the trees far below. It was easily the most treacherous section we’ve done so far, and I’m very glad we didn’t try to push onward on the day that Shane twisted his ankle.

We were planning to slack pack again from the hostel into Daleville, where Shane’s mom would be meeting us soon, but after the rock climbing at Dragon’s Tooth, Shane’s feet were sore again and Travis’s blisters had worsened, so we decided to zero another day at Four Pines Hostel, and continue onward after our visit with her was over.
She picked us up at the hostel and we took a trip to the REI in Richmond to replace our broken gear and get a few new things… It feels so nice to have pants that fit again, rather than my ‘clown pants’ -as Shane called them- that have barely been held up by a belt for the last several weeks! And we all traded in our worn-out boots for lighter trail runners. 

It was lovely to be able spend time with someone from home, even if it was just for a short time. Shane’s mom said goodbye to us and dropped us off back at the trail so we could slack pack our second day. We finally hiked a twenty mile day for the first time! We made it to McAfee Knob, the most photographed spot on the trail. It was scary climbing out onto the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley, but it was a beautiful view and a great photo op. We took our time and even stopped to pick and eat wild blueberries and black raspberries growing right beside the trail.

 

There I am!

    

Wild blueberries

 

It’s hard to see us way out there, but that’s Shane and me out on the ledge.

 

Here are some other fun pictures from the last couple of weeks:

 

We camped near this suspension bridge that swung when you walked on it!

  

Not a very private privy… I was standing on the trail when i took this picture!

  

Keffer Oak, the largest tree on the southern part of the AT, over 300 years old and with a circumference of over 18 feet!

    

Selfie! Shane let me put flowers in his beard because we’re big hippies.

  

And another…

    

🐌🐌🐌🐌🐌🐌🐌🐌

  

Look how strong I’ve gotten!

 
 

Ponies, and cattle, and bears, oh my!

Everyone who told us Virginia is flat was a big fat liar. So far it’s been mountainous and rocky, and my knees are not happy about it. Upon leaving Damascus, Anthony, Shane, and I took a little detour by hiking about five miles on the Virginia Creeper Trail, a popular Rails-to-Trails bike path which runs parallel to the Whitetop Laurel River in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. It was an easier and more scenic alternative to the AT in this section, although trail “purists” (cough, cough, Travis) won’t stray from the white blazes and continue over the few small mountains on the trail instead. We met back up with him at Lost Mountain shelter that evening, along with a Sprite from the Creeper Trail Cafe, where we had stopped for lunch along the way. Travis’ biggest craving out here is Sprite, and it has become a running joke to point out the frequent Pepsi logos at places we stop to eat. 

Creeping on the Creeper Trail

 

A few days later, we skirted Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet, and continued on towards Grayson Highlands, where we had been looking forward to seeing the wild ponies for weeks. We were surprised when we came upon a group of them before we even reached the park, just outside of Thomas Knob shelter. There were twelve ponies, including two foals, grazing in a clear, sunny patch between the surrounding forests. They were smaller than I had imagined, only standing at my shoulder height. Some shied away from us to continue  nibbling on the grass, but most of them approached us with curiosity. They surrounded us and began licking our arms, extracting the salty sweat from our skin. We laughed at their tickly tongues and shooed them away from our packs, where some were munching on the straps and hip belts. The babies laid in the grass on their sides, soaking up the sun. We didn’t try to pet them, since their mothers were standing protectively nearby. Of course, we took lots of pictures! 

This was one photogenic pony.

  

  

Bad pony! Don’t eat our packs!

  

So little!

 

   

Just takin’ a nap in the sun

   

The next day we continued into Grayson Highlands State Park, which had beautiful views from the rocky cliffs of flowering orange and pink bushes descending into the valleys of the Highlands. Later we passed a migrating herd of longhorn steer, and read that the original purpose of clearing the Highlands was for logging long ago, and then eventually to graze cattle. In the 1960s, the park service introduced the ponies as a land management tactic, so that they would eat the low brush and help keep the land cleared on the balds. Here their descendants remain, save for the ones that have escaped through downed fences to live in secluded, truly wild tribes, like the ones we first met.
Though we did our usual number of miles through Grayson Highlands, we were exhausted and sore by the end of the day due to the extremely rocky terrain, which taxed our feet and knees. As the sun began to set, I hobbled up the final mountain of day, drained. I wasn’t even paying attention to a crashing sound in the woods when a small black bear darted onto the trail in front of me, ran down the trail for a bit, and back into the trees, scared by my presence. He was so fast that the only part of him I really saw was his fluffy behind as he scampered away from me. I laughed and turned back toward Anthony and Shane, who had just missed him. Seeing my first bear took my mind off of my screaming feet for the rest of the evening, and I was relieved that it had not been a more intimidating encounter.
Two days later we made it to the much- anticipated Partnership shelter, which is near the Mount Rogers Visitor’s Center. This shelter is highly discussed among hikers because the visitor’s center is on a main road…and that means pizza delivery!! I am ashamed to say we each ate 3/4 of a large pizza, and donated the leftovers to some other hikers. It turns out that eating mass quantities of food is not as fun when you still have to hike eight more miles that day. We rested a bit by checking out the little museum inside the center, and even learned from a student display what equipment a thru hiker needs to complete the trail! Then we reluctantly hit the trail again, with too-full bellies and groaning on the uphills that we would never eat again.
The next day we hiked into Atkins and had a lunch buffet at a restaurant called The Barn before stopping for the evening at a motel. We had also passed a restored schoolhouse that morning called the Lindamood School, where several church groups routinely leave trail magic for hikers. We had snacks, resupplied small toiletry items, and admired the antique desks where hikers sometimes sleep during storms. On the way out of Atkins, we took a detour to the Davis Valley Winery, which was only a mile out of the way and perched atop a hill with views of the valley. We did the wine tasting and decided to stick around to wait it out when it started pouring down rain. The rain lasted for awhile, and it would’ve been rude to loiter without purchasing anything, so… We bought a few bottles of wine and made an afternoon of it.
The next few days were slow-going over lots of small mountains and one large one, Chestnut Knob, climbing over two thousand feet in elevation in just a few miles. We took Bubba’s shuttle into the aptly named Bland, Virginia, where we’re currently staying at the Big Walker Motel. No laundromat, so we had to improvise:
 

Look at that water! ‘Clean’ is a relative term out here.

 
Looking ahead at the AWOL guide, the terrain seems to be relatively flat for the next seventy miles, so maybe we have some easier trekking to look forward to, providing the trail isn’t as rocky as it was in the Highlands. At any rate…
  

Virginia is for lovers (of the AT)

Shane’s friend Anthony came to hike with us for awhile, but first we had to go to the infamous Trail Days in Damascus. Anthony’s parents picked us up in Elk Park, NC and drove us an hour away (five trail days, in our language) to the self-proclaimed “Friendliest Trail Town,” which hosts the annual hiker event. When we arrived, the festivities were already underway, with gear and food vendors lining the town park and hundreds of visitors camping out in Tent City for the weekend. 

Tent City, with our tents in the foreground

 

For 362 days of the year, Tent City is nothing more than a barren field and a bit of woods near the river and out past the ball fields on the outskirts of Damascus, but for the glorious weekend of Trail Days, the trees come alive with the sounds of hundreds of past and present hikers reuniting over campfire food, tambourine music, dancing around bonfires til the wee hours, and of course, copious amounts of booze. When we arrived, the shady spots along the river had already been claimed by the early birds, leaving us with a scorching spot in the middle of the field to place our tents. We strung up a rain fly for a bit of shade, and carried beer and half-melted ice from the nearest gas station back to our home base to enjoy in the lazy hot afternoons while we listened to roaming guitarists and watched dogs and kids chase frisbees across the field.
 

An amateur flame thrower/hiker, Trail Days entertainment

 
  
Back in town, we visited the gear vendors (I bought a Hennessy hammock setup) and perused the fried food vendors. The local fire department had a benefit lunch which featured a half chicken per person, as well as baked beans, cole slaw, a dinner roll, and sweet tea- a classic southern cookout, in which we obviously participated. I could go on with a list of the other foods we ate that day, or even over the course of the weekend, but you know by now that it is long and filled with embarrassing amounts carbs, and lots of meat. Suffice it to say that Anthony, who had not yet hiked, was mortified to be seen with us as we purchased fourth, fifth, and even sixth meals of the day. He just didn’t know yet what the insatiable hiker appetite is like after coming down from the mountains.
 

The 40-foot long charcoal grill at the Damascus fire station, where our chickens were cooked

 
After a long and restful weekend at Trail Days, we shuttled back to Elk Park to pick up where we left off, this time with a fourth person in tow. We hiked a short six miles in the rain for Anthony’s first day, and then a brisk fifteen the next day…hey, we’ve got miles to make! We hiked two miles into Hampton, TN to resupply, and he decided to stay for the night at a hostel owned by Bob Peoples, who is famous along the AT for his trail maintenance work and generosity to thru hikers. We agreed to meet up with him the next day further down the trail, where Bob would drop him off. The three of us were offered a ride by a nice couple at the Dollar General where we resupplied, so we gladly threw our packs into the bed of their pickup truck and hopped in after them, grateful to avoid walking the two miles back to the trail along the hot and dusty road.
The next day we hiked down to Watauga Lake, where we ate lunch by the water and once again got a great view of the mountains when we crossed over Watauga Dam. Here there was a shelter that was closed for the season due to bear activity last year. Because of the bears, hikers were not allowed to camp, picnic, or even loiter within four miles of the lake. We hightailed it through those four miles! We still have not seen any bears, although this time we did see some evidence of one right beside the trail.
 

Watauga Lake, no bears in sight!

We also saw the perhaps inaptly-named Hardcore Cascades

  
We did a couple more fifteen mile days, and finally our second-longest day yet, at seventeen miles, to get back into Damascus. We even had to climb over fences and hike right through a cow pasture! Although he had some blisters, Anthony kept up. We didn’t tell him that we only did eight-mile days during our whole first week! We also officially finished North Carolina and Tennessee this week, and finally crossed over into Virginia, where we will be for about the next 500 miles.
 

This is what a hiker looks like:

 
 

Baby cow!

  

Back in Damascus for the sunrise

Back in Damascus, we stayed at the Hikers Inn, where Travis and Anthony got to stay in a sweet vintage Airstream.
  
Usually when we do laundry at a hostel or a laundromat, we have to wear our rain gear until the laundry is done because we don’t have any other clothes to wear. When it’s hot out, it can be very uncomfortable to wear a rain jacket and rain pants with nothing underneath. However, the Hikers Inn cleverly bought thrifted scrubs for hikers to wear while they waited for laundry. We wore these outfits all day in town, and one person even asked us if we were in med school! We made the most ragtag bunch of doctors I’ve ever seen! And on that note, we’re off again to make our way further into this new state.
 

Drs. Crosby, Richmond, DeFraites, and Day, Hikers M.D.

 

I’m feelin’ Hot, Hot, Hot Springs

They told us it would be hard to leave Hot Springs, and they were right. We stayed for one night at Laughing Heart Hostel and just didn’t quite feel rested after a full day of running errands, so we decided to stay again, this time at Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn. Elmer’s is an historic house dating back to the 1800s, and Elmer has furnished it with antiques and an eclectic mix of artwork, framed poetry, and an extensive library of books ranging in subjects from Buddhism to the Appalachian Trail to vegetarianism and cookbooks. Sunnybank has been hosting thru hikers since long before Elmer owned it, in fact hosting the very first thru hiker to ever complete the entire AT, Earl Shaffer, way back in 1947. The room Earl slept in was marked with a plaque, and happened to be Travis’ room while we were there, which is surely good luck.  

Sunnybank Inn

    

Smokin, one-eyed guard cat of Sunnybank


Guests could sign up for Elmer’s famous gourmet vegetarian meals, which of course, we did! He made a hearty squash and mushroom stew, a huge salad with vegetables we hadn’t even seen in weeks, let alone eaten, an enormous spinach and cheese lasagna, and lemon blueberry pie for dessert. Buffets may be tasty, but this meal was satisfying in a way four plates of biscuits and gravy never will be- it was real, homemade food with nutrients and vegetables we had been seriously lacking.

This day was also the last day of the music festival I mentioned before, so we made a trip down the railroad tracks to check out the bands and have a few beers with the hikers who were stealth camping at the festival grounds. Usually we’re in bed before dark when we’re hiking, so our 10:30 return to Elmer’s was a late night for us, and let’s just say we were not exactly feeling at 100% hiking capacity the next morning… So we decided to stay one more night at Elmer’s! His breakfast of fruit, granola, and homemade biscuits and mushroom gravy was just what we needed.
  

Shane found his dream van at the music festival!

  
Elmer has a few helpers at the inn, and two of them were guys our age who were starting a small farm on a piece of property Elmer owns out in the mountains. They offered to show us, so we hopped in the bed of their pickup and rode out to Elmer’s second piece of heaven in North Carolina. The boys lived in an off-the-grid cabin Elmer built long ago, and were working hard to clear the land and grow vegetables for the farmer’s market. It was a nice day trip that made me want to get my hands into the soil to grow something of my own again.
 

Elmer’s off-the-grid cabin

  

Their little farm

 

When we returned to town, we visited the hot springs of Hot Springs, since it was about the last thing in this town we hadn’t yet done. There was a spa that had secluded outdoor hot tubs that were fed by the natural hot water from the springs. For an hour you could sit in the tubs of warm water (supposedly with healing minerals) and look out over the river, which was a nice way to wrap up our time in Hot Springs.

When it was finally time to head out, we packed up our things, said goodbye to Elmer and Smokin, made our last walk down the main street, and up out of town. Hikers always say leaving town is so hard because your pack is heavier from resupplying food, and it’s usually uphill since towns are generally located in valleys. Hot Springs was especially bad, partly because we’d taken three days off and mostly because the next ELEVEN miles were uphill, and it was hot out for the first time. My shirt was soaked through with sweat in less than half a mile, and all I wanted to do was go back to Elmer’s!
But as usual, we got back into the swing of things pretty quickly. The next few days were the warmest we’ve had thus far, and we had a scare one morning when we had camped with little water and were counting on hitting a spring within a mile of our campsite the next morning. Though it was listed in our guidebook, all of the springs on the mountain seemed to be dried up, and it was already more than 80 degrees at 8:00 am, with the sun rising higher and us with less than a liter of water between the three of us for six miles until the next shelter. We had begun to enter panic mode when we finally found the stream, much farther down the mountain than listed in the book. We learned then to fill up whenever possible at water sources, even if it means carrying the extra weight for most of the day, just in case.
The day before we reached Erwin, TN, we hiked our longest day so far, pulling in 19 miles…so close to the coveted 20 mile day! And we sort of did it by accident. We hiked 16 miles and only wanted to go a little farther, but it turned out the next three miles were nothing but ridge line, without a single flat spot to speak of. It ended up getting dark just before we reached a gap with a campsite, and by then we had gotten out our headlamps to continue on in the dark. It was a long and tiring day, and we just wanted to set up our tents as quickly as possible in the dark and sleep, but wouldn’t you know it, a very noisy bird was perched directly above us and decided that 2:00 am was a great time to practice its mating calls… FOR FOUR HOURS STRAIGHT. We later learned that it must have been a whippoorwill, which makes me understand that Randy Travis song much better. I guess he couldn’t think of any lyrics that rhymed with ‘incessant obnoxious chirping.’ I don’t know if whippoorwills are protected in this area, but if it was up to us, it would be open season all year long.
It was a relief to make it into Erwin after a sleepless night. We took a zero day at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel, where we had a cabin with a VCR and a collection of VHS tapes. We spent the afternoon watching cinematic masterpieces of Men in Black, Terminator II, and Kindergarten Cop. We also met our new friend, Wolfy, the likes of which I’m glad I haven’t seen in the backcountry yet, even though I know they keep the pesky bugs away!

 

Our new buddy, Wolfy the wolf spider

  

Uncle Johnny’s also had a guard, but I think he would’ve lost in a fight with Smokin.

 

On our zero day we rented bikes from Uncle Johnny and took the bike path into town. We rode along the river and then took a little detour down a few backroads, over some railroad tracks, through a vacant lot of bushes, and voila! We were at the KFC Buffet! It’s funny how we always seem to end up at a buffet one way or another.

How adorable are they?

   

KFC at last

 

After the buffet, we rode down Main Street in town, where nearly everything was closed because it was Sunday. We went to the Capitol Theater, which is an historic movie theater maintained as it was when it was originally built- they only had two movies playing on the small screens, but it was a neat experience. We saw the new Avengers: Age of Ultron movie, and it felt strange to be back in an air conditioned theater eating candy and reclining in leather seats when yesterday we had been hoofing it  up a mountainside.
  

The Capitol Theater

  

We also stopped by the post office to shed some unnecessary weight. Shane and I mailed home winter clothes, and Travis sent back 8.5 pounds of camera equipment that he wasn’t using often enough to justify carrying the extra weight. He’s practically skipping down the trail now that his pack is so much lighter! Even the 2.5 pounds that I sent home feels like a big difference in my pack weight. Speaking of weight loss, we have lost a combined total of over 60 pounds since we summited Springer seven weeks ago, and surely gained lots of muscle in its place. We’re just zipping along now!
It was so hot the next day that we decided to wait until the afternoon to leave Uncle Johnny’s. A few short thunderstorms rolled in and passed, and it cooled down a bit, so we left, thinking the weather would be nice for the rest of the evening. We were wrong. Only a couple miles out it stormed with torrential downpours, thunder, and lightning as we made our way up to the nearest shelter five miles away. My boots squished out water with every step, and it took them three whole days to dry out. I got some nasty blisters despite stopping every few miles to take my boots and socks off to let my feet air out… But nothing compared to Travis’ feet! He has had blisters since we began, and rather than callous over, they seem to be getting worse, growing smaller blisters on top of bigger ones. He officially lost his first toenail this week. During a break when we had our shoes off one day, a German hiker who hardly speaks any English leaned over Travis, snapped a picture of his feet with his camera, and said, ‘I take photo of that.’ If you’d like to see them for yourself, scroll at your own risk… It’s pretty graphic.
 

Ah! The Horror!

  

Now you’ve seen what the German saw.


While our feet were horrendous this week, the views from Round Bald and Jane Bald made up for the pain. The wildflowers continue to bloom and fill the air with their sweet aroma, which is nearly enough to make you forget about the skin peeling off of your heels and toes with each step. The Highlands of Roan were as majestic as their name implies, with views of the surrounding mountains stretching for miles into the horizon in every direction. It felt like being on top of the world, which is how I usually feel out here, even when there aren’t any views.
 

 

The Good, The Bad, and The Great Smoky Mountains

Let’s see…where did we leave off? We left the B&B in Robbinsville and finally had a beautiful day to hike, starting with a six hundred foot climb in less than half a mile called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (think the bipedal version of Lombard Street in San Fransisco). The next day was rainy and we needed to catch the shuttle to Fontana Lodge to check for Shane’s package, which had not yet arrived. Well we were already there, and they had a restaurant, so of course we stayed for lunch. And then we overheard some other hikers discussing an upcoming storm with supposed gale force winds and golf ball-sized hail. Well we were already there, and they had cheap rates for thru hikers! We got a room in the lodge, which was fancy by our standards, and waited out the storm.

Fontana Dam behind Travis and me

 

The next day we crossed Fontana Dam and officially entered Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which includes a 75 mile section of the AT that requires a permit and must be completed within 8 days. There’s only one official camp site within this area, and otherwise hikers are required to stay in shelters. You are only allowed to set up your tent if the shelter is full, which it always was, with one exception. At Spence Field Shelter we arrived before the shelter was full, and slept in it with about ten other people, side by side in our sleeping bags on two levels of wooden bunks like we were kids at summer camp.

Back when the AT was less popular than it is today, I imagine most people slept in the shelters along the way. I’ve read that some hikers did not even carry tents because they could always rely on sleeping in a shelter. These days that is no longer the case. Every shelter we’ve been to has been full, with many people setting up tents where there didn’t used to be campsites. Sleeping in shelters is more convenient than tenting because you don’t have to pack up much in the mornings, and if it rains, you don’t get wet! Some shelters, especially in the smokies where it’s usually cold, even have fireplaces built in and tarps hung as a fourth wall, which is cozy. It’s a more social atmosphere than tenting, which some people enjoy. However, more people in a tight space also means more noise, which is why I prefer to sleep in my tent. During our one night in the shelter I woke up every time someone snored, rolled over, or got up in the middle of the night. Plus, shelters have a reputation for attracting mice that may chew on your gear, and we even passed one infested with five- to six-foot long black snakes writhing beneath the floor of the shelter, presumably feeding on those very mice.

Hikers seem to be divided into two camps (pun intended): those who prefer tenting and those who prefer shelters, if they can get into a site early enough to claim a place in one. Regardless of preference, hikers this year are acknowledging one thing in common: shelters and campsites are consistently filled beyond capacity. Bear bag lines are weighed down with hundreds of pounds of food, likely putting them within reach of most bears. Privies are filling too quickly to compost properly. When good tent spaces are taken, tents are put up in new, virgin areas, mashing down grasses and wildflowers to make room for more people. Even in the backcountry, there is still overcrowding. There are many volunteers who work hard to make these sites and the trail safe and comfortable places for hikers, and I’m sure they too are perplexed by this dilemma. Of course it’s great that so many people are showing an increased interest in the parks, the trail, and in appreciating nature in general, but when does the influx of visitors impede the wildness of the wilderness?

GSMNP is the most visited of all national parks, so it makes sense that there are more regulations here than for any other portion of the AT. Shelters had signs saying bears had caused injuries and death in this area, so we made sure to follow all of the guidelines designating where we could cook and eat, so as not to leave any traces or smells of food near our tent. We also saw lots of signs saying ‘keep bears wild’ because the issue with bear attacks is not that black bears are vicious human-seeking creatures by nature. Rather, humans have entered their habitats so often and left so much trash and food waste that the bears have learned that humans are a source of food. I learned a lot about the parks system and about the effects of human interference while in the smokies, which has made me really appreciate Leave No Trace practices and efforts by park employees and volunteers to keep the parks wild.
 

Warning signs in the shelters

 

We really did have a wonderful time in the Smokies. The park is actually considered a temperate rainforest and averages 55 inches of rain annually, but fortunately we did not see any! We had great weather the entire time, cold but bright and sunny, which allowed us to experience the best views of the mountains. We hiked through pine forests and grassy balds, and experienced the peak of wildflower season. At first glance it appeared as though a light dusting of snow covered the forest floor, but upon closer examination, one could see that thousands of tiny white and pink striped wild flowers, called spring beauties, were blooming in unison. There were trillium in varying shades of pink, white, and wine red, yellow buttercups, violet dwarf irises, pink lady slippers, and tiny bluets everywhere, blanketing the ground. Spring had sprung in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Spring Beauties everywhere!

 

Shortly after entering the park, we summited Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point in elevation on the entire trail, at 6,655 feet. We arrived from the trail while tourists walked the paved approach from the parking lot huffing and puffing about how steep it was. If only they knew!

At Newfound Gap we were greeted with trail magic in the form of sandwiches and a ride into Gatlinburg from some very kind ladies from Noah’s Ark Widow’s Ministry. The town was much different than I recalled from my childhood. It was almost as if the boardwalk from Myrtle Beach had been plucked from the beach and nestled between the Smokies instead. It was the antithesis of the trail: swarms of tourists crowding the sidewalks, t-shirt shops, bars blaring country music, candy stores, moonshine tasting tours, putt-putt courses, and about two hundred places where you could have your photo taken while wearing old-fashioned clothes and poised with a plastic revolver in front of a saloon backdrop. It was overwhelming after having been in the woods for so long. The only trees visible from the main strip were miles off in the distance. Where were the chipmunks and the wildflowers? Didn’t people visit this area to see the scenery? The raw beauty of the mountains seemed to be lost on the tourists.

The one thing we could not find in Gatlinburg  was a grocery store to resupply. We ended up having to take the last trolley of the evening (yes, they also have trolleys) to a store miles away and walking back to our hotel after dark and carrying arm loads of food for the upcoming week of hiking. When all was said and done, we’d probably walked over ten miles throughout the day. So much for our Nero day. We were more exhausted than when we’d arrived in town, and decided to stay another night for only our second actual zero day of the entire trip.

The second day was much more relaxing than the first. We showed a breakfast buffet who was boss (is four plates of biscuits and gravy too many?) and even caved in to the tourist atmosphere and played mini golf alongside the visitors. We only got a few sideways glances at our hobo-esque baggy, permanently dirt-stained hiking clothes.
 

Shane and Travis enjoy a bit of beer in Gatlinburg. Also, Shane’s beard has a mind of its own now.

  

Time for some tourist activities!

Making time for what’s truly important: Big Buck Hunter

    

Oh did I mention the giant donuts? This was after the breakfast buffet.

Back on the trail, we prepared to amp up our mileage, traveling out of the smokies and nearly 70 miles in the next five days. We had increased our daily average to 14 miles per day, which was a big improvement from the 8 we averaged in our first couple of weeks.

On our way to Max Patch we ran into trail magic from a blues band called The Accomplices, comprised of some thru hikers from 2008. They were visiting the upcoming trail town of Hot Springs, NC for a music festival and had food and beer from their hometown of Savannah. It was a grand party, where we stayed for over an hour catching up with hikers, eating, drinking, and listening to the band play. Then on to Max Patch, which is a grassy bald with a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains.  It would’ve been a beautiful place to camp for the night, but we decided to push onward a few more miles so that we could make it into Hot Springs a day ahead of schedule.

And here we are! We were lucky to get a room at Laughing Heart Hostel, considering most every place was booked on account of the music festival. For those of you keeping track, we’ve now hiked 274.4 miles, which leaves only 1914.8 to go!

  

Rain, rain, go away, come again…never.

Our first big milestone was leaving Georgia and entering North Carolina. Shortly after, we  reached our second milestone by hitting the
100 mile mark at Albert mountain fire tower, where the final quarter mile was so steep it was more like rock climbing. In some places I had to throw my trekking poles up and over waist-high boulders and hoist myself over them by using tree trunks for support.

The next day we stayed in Franklin, NC at the Sapphire Inn, which was booked with hikers who were all there for resupply, laundry, and a bed for the night, just like us. With one washing machine to share among many, we had to keep checking to see when it became available, and when it was empty, we literally ran to collect our dirty clothes in order to race other people to the machine, and as soon as we inserted our quarters, two other out of breath hikers entered the laundry room with arms full of clothes. Ha ha! Success! We took Ron Haven’s shuttle to the grocery store to resupply and ordered Chinese delivery to our hotel room, for the first time greatly overestimating how much we could eat. I briefly considered taking the leftovers with me, but decided against it when I imagined the possible consequences of eating two day-old lo mein in the backcountry and ended up leaving it instead.

Upon returning to the trail from Franklin, we entered a long rainy period which dampened our spirits for the next several days. We worked hard to hike uphill in the rain to get to our first bald (a mountaintop without tree cover, so you can get a 360 degree view), and when we got to Wayah bald it was so foggy we couldn’t see a thing. So much for our first bald view. 

One bright spot was reaching the NOC, Nantahala Outdoor Center, which was a bustling hiker haven in the middle of a dreary, wet day. I felt bad when I entered their store because my clothes were so wet that water was dripping steadily from my sleeves and pant legs onto the floor. The clientele seemed to be half tourists (one told me I ‘looked like I could use a hot cup of tea’) and half hikers as dirty and wet as I was, so I guessed it was ok. We perused their outfitter and ate a hot meal at their restaurant before bidding farewell to the other hikers who were staying at the NOC hostel for the night. We decided to save money and hike on, which we immediately regretted two miles later in rain pouring down so hard it was difficult to see to walk. We had to stop at an unnamed campsite to set up our tents in the downpour, and despite our efforts to set up quickly, our tent had half an inch of standing water inside by the time we attached the rain fly. What wasn’t totally soaked was damp, and it made for an uncomfortable night.

Unfortunately the next day was no better. Putting cold, wet clothes on in the morning when it’s already raining is no fun. By this time it had rained so much that the trail was mostly a river of flowing water and mud ankle deep in most places, which made for wet, blistery feet and the potential for developing trench foot, not to mention straining knees and leg muscles to avoid falling on the slippery surfaces. And avoid it I did not. On a section of large rocks coming downhill, my poles slipped and I pitched forward, the weight of my pack forcing me towards the ground at an alarming speed. My wrists were wrapped in the straps of my poles and so I was unable to put my hands out to brace my fall. Somehow I landed on my side and luckily did not smash my face on the rocks. Once down, I felt like a turtle on its back, writhing to get to a position in which I could gain some leverage to push myself back to a standing position beneath the weight of my pack, which seemed enormous now that it rested on top of me. Once I regained my footing, I moved as slowly and carefully as I could. At the end of the day, we reached Stecoah Gap, where we thought there were campsites but in fact there were signs saying ‘no camping allowed.’  We walked a little farther and camped on a gravel access road. And guess what? It rained all night.

We had planned to go another day into Fontana because Shane had a package to pick up, but when we called they were booked. We were grumpy from the rain, plus we’d been pushing higher miles for the last few days and we could feel every extra step in the form of new aches and pains. My toes had been pruny for three straight days. If we had to go into town a day earlier than we’d planned, I wasn’t going to complain. Just then, a lady pulled up to the gap and got out to empty the trash bins by the side of the road. Her name was Cynthia, and she belonged to several hiking clubs in the area and volunteered to do trail maintenance in her free time. She had a hostel, but hers was booked too. However, she said she had a friend who had a bed and breakfast, and she could drive us into town. What’s more, she was going to the grocery store, and she could wait for us while we resupplied! It was already shaping up to be a good day- and today was Travis’ birthday, so we planned to pick up some beer to celebrate… Well, just our luck, Robbinsville is in the only dry county in the entire state of North Carolina.

Cynthia’s friends, Rob and Robin, did in fact have openings at their B&B, and drove us there from the grocery store. We drove farther up into the mountains for twenty miles, until we were on dirt roads which seemed to lead nowhere. Suddenly we arrived at Buffalo Creek B&B, which really was a little slice of heaven in the mountains. Their log cabin was only feet away from a babbling brook, and ringed by blooming flower bushes and potted plants. They had chickens for laying fresh eggs, and in the yard two young cats chased butterflies (seriously!). It was picturesque, and Rob and Robin only made it more welcoming by making us feel at home. They grilled burgers for dinner and we had cake for Travis’ birthday. Rob even had a brewing hobby, so we got to have beer after all! We were warm and fed and dry and today felt like such a turnaround  from the last few days of rain. The icing on the cake was getting to rest our sore muscles in the hot tub on their deck that faced the wandering brook, lit up with twinkling lights. It was the perfect end to the perfect day. 

Travis’ birthday celebration


In the morning, Robin cooked us a full country breakfast, complete with fresh eggs, bacon, grits, toast, and fruit. We were reluctant to leave, but they told us to call them to come pick us up if the weather got bad once we returned to the trail, because they were worried about dangerous storm conditions in the forecast. It turned out to be unnecessary because it was actually nice out for once, but it was a generous offer. We’ve been lucky to meet such nice people along the way! It’s people like Rob and Robin that make our families feel better knowing that there are kind strangers out there who will care for us in times of need. In a world in which we are often taught to be wary of strangers, it is refreshing to be reminded that there really are lots of good, neighborly people all around us.

P.S. I’ve been a bit delayed in posting because of some internet issues. We are currently halfway through the Smokies, so I’ll be posting about that next!

 

Lessons Learned in the First 10 Days

Pre-Approach Trail…not even sweaty yet!

The day before we officially began our trek, we stayed at the Amicalola Falls Lodge, which required a 3/4 mile steep uphill climb on a breezeless 80 degree day. We stumbled over rocks, wiped sweat from our eyes, and adjusted our too-heavy packs every couple hundred feet. We hadn’t even made it to the unofficial start of the trail and we already felt like we were being pushed to our limits. What had we gotten ourselves into?

The next day, Day 0 (since the trail doesn’t actually start until the summit of Springer Mountain) proved to be more strenuous, of course, since it was 8 miles of literally climbing to the top of a mountain. It was a tough day with a rewarding view from the summit (see above). We had finally made it to Mile 0! We set up our first camp near the summit and realized maybe we should’ve ‘practiced’ camping a bit more…We had a lot of logistical questions that we had never considered. Should one wash out a cooking pot with sterilized water? How far away should we walk to brush our teeth? Can bears smell Chapstick? Luckily we weren’t the only unseasoned hikers. In the end, we decided to put anything remotely scented into our bear bags.

We woke to a snow-covered ground. Travis’ thermometer read 18 degrees, for which we were unprepared. Packing up our gear in freezing temperatures is infinitely more difficult than in nice weather, but not quite as bad as packing up in the rain, which we would soon learn.

Our muscles were already sore from one day of hiking. We were later told by a park ranger that the approach trail is really just to weed out the early quitters, and I believe it! It certainly was not easy. We met our first Trail Angel, Mountain Squid, at the base of Springer, where he was giving out juice boxes. He said many people had already asked him if he would drive them into town because they were leaving the trail for good, before it even really began.

Day 1– We hiked through a section of a fairly populated park where we detoured a bit to see a Long Creek Falls. We stayed at Hawk Mountain shelter, where there were so many hikers that the bear bag lines hung so heavy with food bags that they were only suspended ten feet off the ground-I presume easily reachable by any bear who could stand on two legs. Lesson learned: if there are enough people camping to populate a small town, bears probably won’t come close.

Day 2– We hiked up and over Sassafras Mountain, and at the bottom were met by Courtesy, another Trail Angel who had set up a food station with snacks, hot drinks, and weather reports and maps for the few miles we were about to enter. We were quickly learning that Trail Angels can really make your day! We stayed at Gooch Mountain shelter, where it poured down rain overnight. Our stuff was dry, more or less, but Travis had lost his tent poles the day before and his makeshift shelter had proven itself unseaworthy.

Day 3– Woke up with one boot filled with nuts and shredded paper…maybe a mouse home for the night? Lesson learned: even forest critters need somewhere cozy to get in out of the rain. With wet gear and cold, damp clothes, we caught a ride into Suches, GA, where we stayed for the night at the hostel at Wolfpen Gap Country Store. We got to shower and do laundry and eat pizza and play with kittens, which of course made it a good day!

Day 4-We did a fairly easy 7 miles down to Lance Creek, where we had to bear bag our food without pre-assembled lines for the first time. Travis and I watched (and filmed) as Shane repeatedly attempted to suspend our likely 30 pounds of food on a one-inch wide branch, bending the tree itself down to nearly ground level-We must’ve been in the only section of Georgia without horizontal tree branches-but eventually he succeeded, and yet again we awoke to food bags unravaged by any critters. Hey, this camping thing’s not so hard!

Day 5-“Hiker Appetite” starting to set in. For breakfast, Shane made a concoction consisting of a 12-inch flour tortilla stuffed with Nutella, peanut butter, and a two-pack of mashed up chocolate fudge Pop Tarts neatly rolled into one diabetic nightmare burrito, later claiming it “might’ve been a little much.” We hiked up Blood Mountain, which had a beautiful view, and back down to Neel’s Gap, which is the only section of entire AT where the trail actually runs through a building. They have an outfitter, a hostel, lots of friendly thru-hiker employees to give you advice, and of course, food. As we stocked up on candy bars for the evening, someone told us that the ‘hiker appetite’ doesn’t really set in for another week or so on the trail. Uh-oh.

The hostel was booked, but they were nice and let us camp on the edge of their property with lots of other hikers, and we had nice bonfire and sat around talking for the night. It had been a full day of hiking, but it still felt like a day off when we got to relax for a while.

Day 6– We did our longest day yet-nearly twelve miles-into Low Gap. It was a dreary day of not-quite rain, since we were so high in the mountains that we were actually just in the clouds. Wetness permeated through every layer in a dense fog, rather than actual droplets falling. It was beautiful and eerie, as I couldn’t see more than fifty feet or so in any direction, and even when I could hear voices of other hikers nearby, I would turn around and see no one. The day was broken up by more Trail Magic, this time from King Tut, who had hot drinks and knitted hats made by local church ladies. They’re ‘breathable yet warm,’ and since then I’ve seen lots of hikers with these identical hand-made hats in many colors.

We got into camp later than usual, and fell asleep immediately after getting out tents set up, sleeping from 7pm to 8am. Nothing like a full day of backpacking to ensure a good night’s sleep, even when you’re soaked through!

Our shantytown setup to dry out our wet gear

Day 7– A warm and buggy day, we hiked our 7 miles to the shelter quickly so that we could start a fire to smoke out the gnats that clung to our faces when we stopped to catch our breath. We spent the afternoon hanging out our wet gear to dry, looking forward to going into town the next day.

Day 8– We took the shuttle to the Budget Inn in Hiawassee from Unicoi Gap, and showered for the first time in 6 days…lukewarm water never felt so heavenly! I watched bits of leaves wash down the shower drain, wondering how much extra weight in dirt I’d been carrying on my person all week. We had meant for this day to be a rest day…but we saw that there was a pizza buffet a little over a mile and a half away from our motel. It was hot, we were already famished, and we got sunburned on the walk to the restaurant, but it was totally worth it. After eating our weight in pizza we nearly fell asleep at the table from our calorie-coma, then dragged our tired bodies back to the motel with our bellies full. Lesson learned: Let’s be real, there was no lesson here. We will always walk miles out of our way for a buffet.

Day 9– Shuttled back to Unicoi Gap and hiked over ten miles, which was relatively easy since we were still coasting on yesterday’s calories for energy. The forecast predicted rain, and sure enough, when we awoke on Day 10 all of our stuff was wet again. (We do keep our clothes and gear in dry sacks, but when it’s damp out everything seems to get wet no matter how hard you try to keep it dry.)

Day 10– Less than half a mile out of our campsite, we stumbled upon the biggest Trail Magic we’ve seen yet. At Addis Gap we were greeted by a host of jolly and boozed-up campers known as ‘The Home Team,’ who had camped there for the whole weekend and traveled from states as far away as Wisconsin. They had a roaring fire and an entire kitchen tent, where they were frying up eggs and pancakes, and brewing coffee for anyone who wandered down the half-mile trail to their site. Some hikers had camped there the night before and enjoyed homemade stew and whole roasted turkeys and hams for dinner! If only we had continued a little farther last night, we could’ve joined in on the fun! Lesson learned: if you stick it out long enough, something good will come your way, even in the rain.

We continued on down into Dick’s Creek. Somewhere along the way I brushed against a tree branch hanging in the path, and absent-mindedly said to it, ‘excuse me,’ which made me chuckle. Lesson learned: If you stay out here long enough, you really do become one with nature-either that or you start to go a little crazy.

Has it really only been a little over a week since we began? It feels like a lifetime. I really do learn new things every day, some small things and some more profound. Overall, I try to remember that the rainy days will eventually give way to sunny ones, and all uphills must eventually come back down. I can feel myself getting stronger (or at least my pack doesn’t feel quite as heavy, hopefully it doesn’t have a hole in it) and I’m always excited to see what’s around the next bend.