Oh, Shenandoah!

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

  

Rehoboth Beach

 
 

Playing bocce ball at Dogfish Head Brewery

 

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

 

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

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

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

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

   
    
  

The views in Shenandoah speak for themselves!

 

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

 

Trail Foe: Face Spiders

  

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

  

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

 

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

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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 ΓΌber 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!

 
 

The Good, The Bad, and The Great Smoky Mountains

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

Fontana Dam behind Travis and me

 

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

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

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

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

Warning signs in the shelters

 

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

Spring Beauties everywhere!

 

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

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

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

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

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

  

Time for some tourist activities!

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

    

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

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

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

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