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.

 

Advertisements

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