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…
  
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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.
 

 

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.

So long, Farewell, auf Wiedersehen, Adieu!

In addition to packing and getting our affairs in order for when we’re gone, we also made time to say goodbye to everyone in our lives before heading out for good. Though I’ve insisted that we’ll be able to stay in touch, when you tell people you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, the consensus is that you’re actually going out to live in the wilderness to chop down trees and scavenge for food like Thoreau or something.

Sidenote: If you haven’t read Walden, Thoreau’s “wilderness” was actually much like what my own will be…did you know he routinely went into town to visit his friends and gather supplies? What a hack (just kidding, Weaver). But seriously, that makes us pretty much the same, minus the cabin-building part. I have a tent. And probably cell service on most days. But otherwise identical, as it truly will be Life in the Woods. So anyways, my friends and family are convinced we’ll be Crusoe-ing it when in reality I plan to stay as connected as I usually am, which is not much.

We had some friends stay for a final weekend hurrah of beer and well-wishes, and even made a last-minute trip to Wisconsin and Chicago to see a couple of college roommates one last time. We finished up our jobs and paid our bills and cleaned up our house (thanks Kelley and Dasa for being adventurous like us and generous enough to let us keep our stuff there!) and made about a hundred trips to REI to pick up the little stuff we forgot. We said goodbye to our families and assured them we wouldn’t be carrying a gun (too heavy, duh) or be eaten by bears. I chopped off a foot of my hair so it doesn’t turn into dreadlocks by Saturday (hopefully). 

We broke a sweat jamming our packs into the trunk of Travis’ car and made the voyage to Amicalola, where his mom was kind enough to meet us in order to drive his car back home to DC.  She took the requisite arch photos at the visitor’s center and left us at the foot of the mountain with only the most basic form of transportation to carry us forward. We looked down at our feet in our boots in the red Georgia clay and up at the trees climbing high into the sky. And, after all of the months of planning, packing, and prepping, it was suddenly time to begin. 

 

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