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.

 

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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.

 

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.

An Introduction to the Odyssey

If you’re reading this and you can’t say you know me very well, it’s probably because I don’t like to publish my daily thoughts and activities on social media like so many are wont to do these days. Of course, if you do know me then you already knew this. Perhaps this is why it has taken me months of planning a blog in my head before I actually committed to posting…at least once, anyway. Nothing like waiting til the last minute to get the ball rolling! I am a person of slow build-up in nearly every capacity, I suppose. I don’t make hasty decisions, no matter how small. I need to read the entire menu before deciding what to order, I don’t like to be in charge of what to watch on Netflix, and usually I take too long to offer up my opinion during conversation because I want to be sure of my own thoughts before I put them forth for others to ponder. Please don’t ask me about my five-year plan…we could be here for days! But this, this blog and my reason for writing it, is somehow different.

We had tossed around ideas of an adventure for a while last summer, wondering what we were capable of (half physically and half financially). Maybe we should buy a camper and drive across the country? That seemed poetic but a little too cliché, and besides, I’m fresh out of VW vans in working order (the only acceptable mode of cross-country travel for Shane). Continue reading