One two, skip a few, 99, 100

Since I last wrote, I walked through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and into Pennsylvania.
I passed pretty much everyone I know except for Achilles, a Naval officer and ex-finance guy with whom I’ve been hiking for about four weeks. We’ve gotten into a consistent and efficient groove that makes the sort of everyday update I’ve been writing boring.
Here’s what we do: first, we’ll say I’m at a hotel in a trail town after I’ve done a long section and I’m showering, doing laundry and resupplying my food. Now I begin to set my sights on the next “full stop,” which will generally be between 150 and 200 miles away.
Between here and there I’ll have to find at least one “half stop”; that is, somewhere as near the trail as possible where I can get in to buy food and get back to hiking quickly. It may seem easier to just carry all my supplies I’ll need until the next full stop, but packing this way allows me to carry a much more manageable load of food — three days, or 75+ miles, only weighs about 10 pounds. Carrying a smaller load allows me to go farther each day, which let’s me string together longer sections.
For planning, I use the Thru-hiker’s Companion, a data book with spreadsheets that detail the possible stops where I might find coin laundry, a shower or food, which is going to either come from a long-term resupply (e.g. a grocery store) or a short-term resupply, often more of a convenience store sometimes stocked specifically for hikers.
A suitable full-stop location will have groxeries/shower/laundry, a restaurant, and hopefully an outfitter or pharmacy if I need anything from either of those. There will also likely either be a post office nearby or the hotel/hostel where I’m staying will accept mail, if I have any.
Knocking out such large chunks makes me flexible in terms of what I need to accomplish each day and it ensures I always have a plan and know what’s coming. Also, when you look at the trail as a series of 200-mile chunks, it becomes more manageable: I have less than 6 chunks left.

Day 21 to 31

HOT SPRINGS, N.C. — We took another zero in Hot Springs and, as it turned out, Asheville, N.C. Mark it as hospital visit No. 2.

It was Sam’s feet again, this time a new problem in her new shoes. The problem area was slightly behind the tops of her toes. She’d complained of a burning feeling that wasn’t bothering her too much — until the morning after our zero day in Hot Springs. We hardly did any walking that day, but by that night there were two puffy white dots amid a reddened section behind her big toe on one foot. She showed it to some folks stay at the hostel who figured she might have a stress fracture.

So with stress in her mind and her feet, she went to bed that night figuring another hospital visit in the morning. And when she woke up, it wasn’t any better. She couldn’t put her shoes on, so she walked barefoot into the car of a nice former thru-hiker who was going into Asheville anyway and offered to give us a ride to an orthopedic sports doctor.

In Asheville, a real city about 35 miles from Hot Springs, the doctor took her in, took an X-ray and determined there was nothing wrong with the bones. It was something to do with then tendon or ligament, and she gave Sam a boatload of patch and pill steroids to take and didn’t even try to recommend she stop hiking.

One of the managers of the Laughing Heart Hostel in Hot Springs was to be in Asheville anyway a few hours after the appointment, so we went to REI, where I picked up a new shirt and Sam bought yet another pair of shoes, and then a local tavern before heading back. That night we bought some beers and hung out watching movies with G, Kristo, Trip and Cactus and had a good time.


Day 22

After enjoying another heaping breakfast at Hot Springs’ Smoky Mountain Tavern and resupplying, we hit the trail again and left the town behind in the afternoon. We went a pretty uneventful 11 or so miles up a steep hill on an exceedingly hot day to the first shelter and set up our tents. G turned up later on and made a good attempt at breaking the record for the most pasta cooked at one time in a Jetboil over a fire he built at the shelter. While practically an entire box of angel hair pasta cooked in his pot, he sauteed some diced onions in olive oil and added them in with some tomato sauce he was heating up (it’d been packed in double Ziplock bags among his foodstuffs).

I told you these veteran thru-hikers eat well.


Day 23 and 24

We woke up to a phenomenally loud thunderstorm that didn’t seem that close by but made more racket than I’ve ever heard. It was around 6:30 a.m. when it started, with a drawn-out roaring boom that made me think a jumbo jet had crashed nearby. When lightning struck it was like a flashbang grenade went off in my tent, even though it was a handful of seconds before the corresponding thunder sounded.

We waited it out, packed up our stuff and left camp about 9:30 a.m. G, who was cowboy camping next to the fire, was rudely awoken by the storm and got an earlier start, since he was then forced to get moving.

We caught G eating and listening to music at the first shelter, then he moved on while we ate. We caught him again at the second shelter doing about the same, and we left together. Sam stopped to take a break and G and I hiked together to the third shelter, where we ate dinner and Sam turned up before long. Along the way, G told me all about a job he had working on a fishing boat in Alaska, where he stayed in a cabin on the beach alongside dozens of grizzly bears in an area where bald eagles were like pigeons. It sounded great and he said he’d made enough money that he’d been traveling since.

Sam and I left the third shelter, about 22 miles into our day, planning to go a mile or so further to a campsite. Still feeling good when we got there, we decided to press on a little further and camp once we got tired. We crossed a road after about another 8 miles and were paused in a field when we heard G let out another COO-wee from the woods across the street.

G had been talking about hiking as far as he possibly could — maybe through the night –  to try to get to the next city, Erwin, Tenn., where his buddy Safari was ahead of him. When he came up on us, Sam offered him the 48-hour challenge, which was an idea we’d planned to execute much later on as training for the Death Race. The idea is pretty self-explanatory: attempt to hike for 48 hours straight as a simulation of the hell that was going to be unleashed on us at the end of June in Vermont when we tackle the Death Race.

To get to Erwin from the shelter we woke up at was 57 miles. That wasn’t actually going to take a full 48 hours, but it was still a hell of a day.

“If we did do it — I mean, I’ve never heard of anyone doing 57 miles,” said G, whose personal best on the Pacific Crest Trail was back-to-back 45-mile days.

Even after we convinced ourselves we were going to try it, most of the talk about the feat was phrased like that. “If we really do do this…”

We hiked literally straight through the night and even felt good for the majority of the time, until somewhere around mile 45. We’d gone up and over countless mountains at this point, but we knew after we crossed a deserted road and faced a sign that let us know it was 4.9 miles to the next shelter that the trail was about to go straight up.

I was leading the way this whole time. At first G was saying that he was glad I was leading because he would have been going faster and likely would have burned us out. But by this time, I was waiting at the tops of hills for Sam and G to catch up, while Sam was calling me the Energizer Bunny and wondering how I still had so much energy.

Facing the 4.9-mile sign (which actually meant we had about 13 miles left, since there was another 8 to go into town after the shelter), they both showed for the first time real thoughts of stopping. Someone asked whether we’d be able to keep going through to the shelter. It was just after 5 a.m. now and we were at the peak of our weariness.

I said we should at least go to the shelter, and once we got there we could sleep as long as we wanted — if we wanted — and then go the rest of the way when we woke up. And so we slowly pushed on.

As the sun came up and we were nearing the shelter, we were both energized by the light and the ability to turn off our headlamps and — at the same time — so, so tired. The last two miles, when we were walking along the edge of a few mountains and kept turning the corner to see a scene that looked almost exactly like that path we’d just trodden, seemed to take forever. At one point in my weary state, I swore I saw a cooler sitting on the trail and wondered what sort of deliciously cold beverages might be inside. Some caffeinated soda? Orange juice? Beer?!

It was a cooler-shaped rock.

Likewise, G swore he saw the shelter a half-dozen times before we actually got there. When we did arrive, we proudly scribbled something in the logbook that preserved our feat and then rested, ate and stretched our legs for about an hour. I was getting antsy, since we were so close to being done but were now sitting still, and soon we started off again.

At first, we were all taking tiny, aching steps and were surprised with each footfall at how the fatigue had overtaken us. “So this is what it feels like to be 80,” I said. After a while, we were back to almost our regular gait, although markedly slowed and pained. G spun ahead and was waiting for us at a hostel at the bottom of an enormous hill that led into the outskirts of Erwin. The descent offered a number of lookouts that made you feel like you could reach out and touch the town, but in reality it wound us slowly down the side of the mountain probably 100 different ways and took an hour to get to that spot that seemed so close.

The wind picked up in a threatening way maybe 30 minutes before we got to the bottom of the mountain, and the sky opened up about 5 minutes before we were finished.

People called the hostel Uncle Johnny’s, and a guy whom I’m guessing is Uncle Johnny came out to see us when we were all together again sitting on his porch. We asked him how much a shuttle into town, about 3 miles way would cost. He paused and gazed out into the rainy street then slowly answered that it would be $15 for the three of us. We politely said fuck no and ended up walking not 100 feet before a trail angel named Rob Bird picked us up in his van, gave us all sodas, advised strongly against walking 57 miles a day and gave us a free ride to the Huddle House, where I ordered a hearty breakfast and a brownie sundae a la mode.

Later that day, we did laundry and eventually walked 1.5 miles to a Mexican restaurant to meet up with Mariposa, Scorch, Dune and others who couldn’t understand how we’d caught up to them after spending 72 hours in Hot Springs.

I woke up the next morning at the extremely unfriendly Super 8 feeling surprisingly good and hit the trail that afternoon after resupplying. Sam said she was going to wait for Cactus and follow behind the next day.

I walked nearly halfway back to the trail before I got a hitchhike and only ended up doing about 14 miles before I camped solo in a beautiful pine grove on top of Unaka Mountain that night.


Day 25

From Unaka Mountain I went 21 miles to the highest shelter on the Appalachian Trail, Roan High Knob Shelter, at 6,275 feet. I stopped to eat breakfast and clean out my stove at a water source at the first shelter I passed that day, Cherry Gap Shelter — apparently a family’s worth of Velveeta is just too much pasta for me to cook in my little stove. Some burned to the bottom and I spent some time scouring and scraping to get it all out. But the birds seemed to like it anyway.

I heated up some water in hot coals that were left at the firepit and made coffee, and before long Mariposa, Scorch and Dune came along with surprised looks on their faces that asked, “How did you get in front of us again?” They camped somewhere just before me the night before, and I have no idea how I didn’t come across them, since I checked out every campsite looking for something suitable in the few miles before I stopped.

They were also planning on going to the Roan Mountain shelter and arrived there a few hours after I did, when everybody on the first floor of the fully-enclosed cabin shelter was going to sleep. I met Hawk and Canadia there and cooked some instant potatoes, covered in olive oil, to warm myself up after a chilly climb. I kept thinking in my T-shirt and shorts that the shelter must be right around the corner and was trying to hold off changing into my warm clothes until I got there, but I eventually broke down and changed along the way.


Day 26

It did indeed storm overnight, and the trail going down from the shelter was nothing short of a river. I hopped from rock to rock for maybe 15 minutes going about 0.5 mph before I gave up all hope, intentionally dunked my feet in the icy water and tromped coldly for the next mile or so until the river continued straight as the trail cut to one side. All along this way, too, were long sheets of sheer ice that made me sad to see. On the bright side, I won’t be at such a high elevation again until I reach Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

Two older guys in the shelter were joking before they went to sleep. Person A said the only louder snorer than him around was Person B, and Person B contested vice versa. I sighed and put my ear plugs in, which proved to be extremely helpful. Scorch, who was staying upstairs and could clearly hear the snoring contest, couldn’t believe I was able to drown out the roar.

Scorch, Mariposa and Dune were talking about staying at a hostel around 16 miles away and I said I might meet them there. When I got to the hostel, the guy that answered the door was exceedingly awkward as he eventually got to his point: there was one bed left that I could have if I wanted. It was only about 3 p.m. so I decided to take a $4 shower and keep going.

The shower was especially nice because of what I’d been through earlier in the day. In the 11 miles after Roan High Knob shelter, there are a string of bald mountains — they aren’t tall enough to be above the treeline and scientists don’t fully understand why they’re bald — perhaps because of early settlers or some Native American ritual ground? Anyhow, the weather up there is severe. Most of the people I talked to afterwards estimated the winds were probably 60 or 70 mph, and hikers that went through that day were subjected to this for maybe an hour at a time as they walked in a cloud with almost no visibility over the peaks.

I had to lean at a 45-degree angle into the wind just to stay upright, and at one brief moment when the wind actually died out I almost fell over because of the stance I’d adopted. Luckily the hood on my raincoat can be tightly adjusted, because the way I originally had it set up it was making a thunderous racket as the wind blew the far side around.

At one point a blew a snot rocket straight down that, I swear, went 40 yards after it was taken sideways by the wind.

So after I got out of that mess, I stopped at the hostel and was happy to shower and wash my wind-burnt face. I ended up going 25 miles in all to Mountaineer Falls Shelter, a new, three-story deal where I met up with Canadia, Mumbles, Teach and Birdman.


Day 27

I got started real early and was the second one out of the shelter and the first one to arrive at Kincora Hotel, a donation-based place run by a trail legend named Bob Peoples. Being the first person there, I took an uncontested shower and washed all my clothes before the masses showed up and waited in line for each.

Bob takes everyone into the small town of Hampton, Tenn., to resupply at a small place called Brown’s Grocery. He’s got a full-size, old pickup truck with a cap on the back and three sheep-skinned bench seats bolted down in the bed. We literally crammed 15 people into the truck and held on as we wound down the mountain into town.

Brown’s Grocery didn’t have any of the fresh produce I was really craving, and six people got frozen pizzas and again lined up to cook them in the lone oven when we got back. This time I was at the back of the line, but that was OK because I got to eat a whole pizza all by myself. I stayed there that night with everyone whom I mentioned sleeped at the Mountaineer Falls Shelter the day before.


Day 28

I was the last person to leave the Kincora Hostel in the morning, sleeping in later than everyone and then eating all their leftovers after. I had four eggs and a few pieces of Texas toast, not quite satisfying my insatiable craving for eggs every time I go to a town.

Despite my late start, I ended up pulling into the same Iron Mountain Shelter (24 miles) that the whole crew was staying at.


Day 29

After waking up at Iron Mountain and leaving late again, I went another 24 miles to a spot just a mile and a half outside Damascus, Va., where I camped with Canadia and Achilles, with whom I ate lunch and met at various times throughout the day. Damascus is the town where Trail Days are held and we chatted about the the great stuff we were going to do once we got there in the morning.

Virginia is known to be the place where you start to see some big snakes, and I talked with Snowplow Man and Skitter who said they saw a three-and-a-half-foot-long rattlesnake just over the border.

Safari came cruising by around 9:30 p.m., the first time I’d seen him since Erwin, talking about how he was rushing down to catch a basketball game on TNT. He did 50 miles that day. G, I later learned, did something similar, except that he was around 7 hours behind Safari.


Day 30

Something happened along the way and I was off by a day. I think it might have been during the Smokeys? Everything in this post, I’m pretty sure, is a day behind what it should be.


Day 31

Canadia, Achilles, Red and I came down a short way into Damascus looking for a place to eat breakfast. We stopped first at the Blue Blaze Cafe, which had a yellow-and-red sign outside with streamers that said BREAKFAST. Their breakfast menu was that of a lunch-and-dinner joint that was taking the materials it already had an fashioning breakfast out of them — the first things listed are various subs with breakfast foods in them. The other options is pancakes: two, three or all you can eat (with no sides whatsoever). Red was appalled and said exactly what I was thinking: “I don’t want this. Where can we get some real breakfast?”

We walked to the other side of the town to the Country Inn, which had exactly what we wanted. The manager brought us over a complimentary dish of scones — “Where are y’all from? … Down here, we start with dessert.” — and followed with huge plates of breakfast and a few pots of coffee that almost satisfied us.

All we wanted after that was ice cream — it’s 10:30 a.m. at this point — from the place next door by the same owners. So the manager, Robert, opened up the ice cream store, made the three of them milkshakes, and made me a waffle cone with Moose Tracks, and sent us on our way, having had everything we wanted.

On the way back into town, we stopped at both outfitters — I got a new winter hat to replace the one I lost and a new pair of socks to replace the pair I wore holes in already — and then at the post office, where Canadia and Achilles picked up packages impressively stuffed with food and goodies.

Snowplow Man and Skitter walked by on a mission to find a fabled brewpub and I joined them. It turned out it doesn’t open until 6 p.m., but we stopped at the nearby Food City and resupplied anyway. When I got back into town, I found G again who hadn’t yet slept and was planning on passing out in his tent on the lawn of The Place, a donation-based hostel where he was staying. I unpackaged the huge amount of food I bought and then came over the library, where I’ve now been tying for the past hour and 45 minutes.

NOTE: Now that I’ve caught up on my journaling, I promise to be more prompt in the future. I’ve also got a number of ideas for fun posts detailing stuff that I find to be actually interesting that I hope I’ll be able to bang out in the near future.

UPDATE: Days 19 and 20

Day 19

We left the Standing Bear Hostel and went about 15 miles to Roaring Fork Shelter. I hiked by myself and for a second with Yo Teach, Birdman, Canadia and Shybear while Sam hiked all day with Mariposa.

I made really good time going by myself and thought mid-day that I could reach Hot Springs (30 miles) if I pushed on until 10 p.m., but there was no point to that because I needed to wait until Monday or maybe Tuesday for packages I had sent to the post office in Hot Springs.

I got to the shelter around 3 p.m. and met a couple former Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers who were eating there, G and Safari. They were waiting for a guy named Cactus, but he didn’t show up. Safari left and a few minutes later G left and let out a booming COO-wee — an aboriginal call used to let friends know you’re there. After a few seconds a reply echoed back from a hundred yards down south on the trail.

G turned around and hollered to the people in the shelter. “Was that you guys?” We replied no.

That’s when Cactus turned the corner and came to the shelter to cook, and G decided to stay a bit longer with Cactus. Cactus cooked a great-looking grilled cheese in olive oil on his skillet covered in pre-cooked bacon. All the veteran thru-hikers eat so well.

That night all the people we stayed with at the hostel stayed at the Roaring Fork shelter with me. Most people arrived before the torrential rain started, but Sam got caught in it because she was behind with Mariposa. Everyone squished over to make room for Sam.

Scorch, who has a radio built into his mp3 player, was listening to the weather and said there was a winter weather advisory for all points about 2,500 feet — that included us — starting around noon the next day. We figured we’d be OK, since we’d be hiking, warm and descending into Hot Springs by then.

As it turned out, the weather, again, came much earlier than we expected. I awoke in the middle of the night to a frosty gust of snow blowing over the bit of my face exposed by my sleeping bag. I turned away from the gapped logs that comprised the sides and back of the shelter. I awoke again a few hours later to find all the stuff I’d spread around my head covered in a thin sheet of snow. as well as the foot of my sleeping back caked in the same.

I guess the bad weather didn’t end with the Smokies. Again, though, we lucked out by being within range to hike into town the day after the storm.

We descended into Hot Springs to found groups of people drying their stuff out on the lawn on the Laughing Heart hostel, where we decided to stay — we did the same with our wet stuff, put our clothes in at the laundromat and went to the Spring Creek Tavern for lunch.

After lunch I picked up my packages at the post office, all four of which came in right on time. I got new shoes (mine were old when I started and my feet were busting out), a replacement for my defective sleeping pad, an advance copy of the Spartan Up! book sent to my by the good folks at Spartan Race and a letter from a friend.

UPDATE: Days 16-18

Day 16

We knew the Smokies were going to throw some of their characteristically unpredictable weather at us, and we thought we had a plan to dodge it.
The only way out from the 70-mile section of the Great Smoky Mountains comes around mile 40 at Newfound Gap, which has a road that leads to Gatlinburg, TN. We expected to be hit by extreme winds, single-degree temperatures and, of course, snow on Tuesday night going into Wednesday. As we set in on Monday, we figured we could knock out a pair of 20-mile days, get a shuttle to Gatlinburg on Tuesday night, and spend the worst of it in a hotel in the city.
On Monday, we went 16 miles and climbed more than 5,700 feet before we quit, setting ourselves up for a long but doable Tuesday to get into the city.
On Tuesday morning, we awoke to about 3 inches of snow on the ground. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
We adapted and went to plan B, which was to trudge through the snow for 24 miles and then warm up after in that same hotel in Gatlinburg. So we didn’t dodge the snow, but at least we could still get around those single-degree temperatures coming at night.
It was going well for a while. We weren’t having much trouble with the snow and we figured we were being more productive than most other people who were scaling back their plans or sitting still and waiting out the weather — I mean we’re coming from New Hampshire, what’s a little snow?
At first it was relatively warm and calm while more snow floated down. Then it got dark and windy. Then icy sleet mixed in with the snow, and the wind blew around drifts that left us trudging through 3 feet of snow in places. We were about 4 miles away from Clingman’s Dome — the highest point on the AT the about 6,700 feet — when the wind and sleet really picked up.
Gusts rushed relentlessly from one side of the trail and covered half my beard in a sheet of ice while we pushed on wondering how much worse it would be at the peak.
We later learned that a pair of hypothermic section hikers were hunkering down at about this time in a tent that was quickly being buried in snow on top of the dome. They called 911 and from what I’m told a pair of thru hikers found them barely clothed inside the tent. The thru hikers practically laid on top of the section hikers to keep them warm, according to someone who said she knew the thru hikers, and a ranger came shortly to drive all four off the mountain.
Then we came traipsing through, lost the trail for a second — it’s hard to see white trail markers in a blizzard — then made it to the summit and carried on another four miles. We didn’t make it to Gatlinburg on account of the only two roads going up into those mountains being closed off until midway through the next day because of the weather.
We pulled up 4 miles short and stayed in a shelter, sleeping with our bags huddled together to keep warm. It was 15° in Gatlinburg and we were 4,000 feet higher than that. Someone looking at an after-the-fact weather report said it was around zero — we’re using 20-degree sleeping bags.
A few minutes after we arrived at the shelter, shedded all our stuff and got into our sleeping bags to warm up our freezing fingers and toes, a couple of day hikers, Grant and Sarah, arrived from a 5-mile trip up from the gap. They were decidedly more comfortable than us in their several layers of down, winter sleeping bags and multiple sleeping pads. The next day they generously offered to drive us into Gatlinburg, and we caught up to them in the parking lot just before they were about to leave — we started 20 minutes later because our shoes were frozen solid and we had to sit on them to thaw them out. The ride ended up being even more helpful than we knew, since the park gate was closed off, meaning we couldn’t have gotten a shuttle out until the parks service deemed the road safe enough to travel on.
A few gear notes: Those weren’t the worst possible conditions for a March thru hike, but they were close to it. I wore a pair of mesh sneakers and two pairs of socks, and never wished I had gaiters or boots. I wore thin liner gloves, liner mittens and rain mittens and my hands were cold, but I probably could have ditched my trekking poles and just put my hands in my pockets. I never during the day was cold enough to want to put on my down jacket. It’s amazing how warm you can keep as long as you keep walking ahead.


Day 16

We got a ride down from the mountains from Grant and Sarah, and noticed once we dropped about 3,000 feet that all traces of snow were pretty much gone. They dropped us off at the Nantahala Outdoor Center outfitter, where a half-dozen thru-hikers were sitting in rocking chairs on the porch wondering how we got down from the mountains with the road closed. They all wanted to head back up after a stay in Gatlinburg, but couldn’t until the road was reopened.

We got lunch at a dive bar-looking place called Howard’s after an employee standing outside hollered something about a $6.99 cheeseburger with handcut fries. The meals were cheap and pretty generous, but in that tourist-trap style (I’ve heard Gatlinburg best described as Hillbilly Disney World) they got us on two of Sam’s cravings: first, mozzarella sticks (at $8.99 for six) and then a decadent piece of cake that they fetched from the restaurant next door that ended up being $10.

In Gatlinburg we looked at all the touristy stuff, which reminded me of Hampton Beach, N.H., without the beach, and went to a moonshine distillery. Gatlinburg has two distilleries where you pop in and stand around a table where a performing employee tells the crowd all about the different flavors and then pours eight free thimble-sized samples in hopes that you’ll then go buy a $25 mason jar of the stuff. They can really make moonshine taste like anything — my favorites were lemon drop and blackberry.

We also went to the aquarium there, which was pretty cool. We both touched jellyfish.

For dinner we went to the Smoky Mountain Brewery, where we found a guy in his 60s wearing a Buff on his head. Assuming he was a hiker, Sam went over and invited him to sit with us. G Walker was his name. He asked us all about our hike and ourselves and how he could stop sweating so damn much while wearing his rain jacket. He was lucky to be wearing it when a waitress at the restaurant bumped into someone and poured a soda all over a kid and splashed a bit onto G Walker.

We went to the Melting Pot for dessert, since Sam had been talking about it recently and we were both surprised to find one downtown, and ate enough brownies, rice crispies, fruits and more dipped fondue-style into melted chocolate that we both felt sick afterward.

We took two showers each and were headed back onto the trail the next morning.


Day 17

We had trouble hitchhiking back to the trail, but eventually met a group of dayhikers after walking a mile to the visitor center who allowed us to smoosh into the back of their red Pontiac Grand Prix.

The trail was extremely icy after the storm and we did a good deal of slipping and sliding. We had planned to go about 11 miles from Newfound Gap and stay at a shelter there, but when we arrived there were already about 25 people, meaning the shelter was full and some were already setting up tents on the wet ground.

We decided to push on to the next shelter around 7 miles further and pulled in just before sunset to find we’d caught up to a group of people we were hiking with before, including Yo Teach, Birdman, Mariposa and Looper.


Day 18

We went downhill all day and ended up staying at the Standing Bear Hostel, which is a rustic campground-style hostel about 200 yards off the trail.

Its manager, Rocket, found us and showed us the grounds, which included an outdoor privy, a hot shower with one wall made out of recycled beer bottles that formed the shape of the AT logo, the 14-bed bunkhouse, a community kitchen, the locked-up beer fridge, a small resupply room and the owner’s cabin.

The resupply was fairly priced and had a bunch of the type of snacks we like to eat and some toiletries and things like that. It’s all based on the honor system: Rocket gives you an envelope, you write your name on it and keep track of all the things you buy, and before you go you let him know how much you spent and settle up. The only thing that you couldn’t help yourself to was the beer cooler, which he happily unlocked for just about everyone.

When we got there we grabbed a pizza out of the freezer and threw it in his dedicated pizza over, making us the second of five consecutive pizzas to be cooked by hungry hikers.

Sam tried to build a fire and Rocket teased her as she had trouble getting it started. He gave her an old egg carton filled with wax that did the trick, and the hostel supplied enough chopped firewood that we sat around the fire and talked until much past our early hiker bedtime. Sam, Mariposa and I snuck into the bunkhouse after 11 p.m. to find everyone sound asleep. Rocket said he was going to give Sam her fire-starting badge, but I don’t think he did.

In the morning I cooked myself three eggs over easy. They’re always the thing that I miss most.

During the course of the day we officially exited the Great Smoky Mountains national park and let out a sigh of relief, assuming we’d just put the worst weather conditions behind us. Most people seem to really like the Smokies, but neither Sam nor I were big fans, mostly because of the weather. We missed out on what was probably the best view on Clingman’s Dome because we were being pelted by such dense snowfall and winds that we couldn’t even see 50 feet in front of us.

People left trail magic at the end of the Smokies in the form of a bag of sodas right by the first road, then as we went another tenth of a mile down to the road itself there was a small creek running by the trail where I saw what I initially thought was a ton of littered cans stuck in the rocks. I went down to investigate thinking, “What if they’re full?!” and found there was indeed a bunch of juice boxes, Mountain Dews and Budweisers lodged strategically in a rocky section that allowed the river water to keep them cold.




UPDATE: Days 5-13

Day 5.
We got a shuttle out of Helen, GA, back to the trail and went 17 miles to a point just past the next major road. Sam was reduced to a sad hobble by the end of the day and it became clear we were going to have to do something different to take care of her blisters.
Day 6.
We decided to go to a short while backwards to Dick’s Creek cap to take a zero and fix Sam’s feet. She couldn’t even put her shoes on it hurt the blisters on her heels so bad. When we got down to the gap a church group was doing trail magic. Three women there jumped to give us a ride 10 miles into town and dropped us off at the hospital there.
The Thru-Hiker’s Companion said that hospital is renowned for its blister treatment, so we were hoping to learn something besides the various tid bits of voodoo we had heard — pop it, don’t pop it, put moleskin around it or on it or on it with duct tape over it, or using other fancy or stick-on solutions –since none of these we’re doing any good.
Sam asked me to note that it was my idea to go to the hospital. I said if we’re taking a zero we might as well go since the supplies they are likely to give her would cost more than the $20 copay, which turned out to be exactly true.
When we got to the emergency room they didn’t live up to their reputation for being blister gurus.
“What do you want the ER doctor to do about your blisters?” asked a guy whom we’d later learn was the ER doctor.
But when he came into the room it was a different story. He gave Sam a large-gauge sterile needle to drain her blisters, a tube of Vaseline to put on the blisters with moleskin around it and the secret antidote: benzoin. This stuff, he said, is used on amputees to toughen up their skin, which would of course also help Sam, and it’s sticky as hell and proved to be the one thing that kept her mole skin on.
When we left, we left behind our two friends we’d been hiking near because one of them went to the hospital and was told he’d have gotten the pneumonia if he hadn’t. We haven’t seen them since but we heard they’re four or five days behind us.
Day 7
We got back on the trail wishing immediately that our zero head come on this day. It was pouring rain and it never stopped and was barely 40 degrees and its warmest point. Even I was chilled to the bone — Sam was shaking — by the time we got to Plum Orchard shelter only about 4 miles into our day.
We were lucky that this was one of the nicest shelters we come across because about a dozen people who stayed there the night before hadn’t yet moved and weren’t planning on it. They moved over to squeeze us in and we ended up making friends with a big group about our age for the first time. A guy we haven’t seen since was reading tarot cards for anyone who cared to ask him a question in an effort to kill the miserable day. Among the people we met were a 20-something-year-old girl called Legs, who is hiking with a beautiful 3.5-year-old German shepherd named Naila, and Santa, who was wearing his red-and-white hat when we arrived. It was good to meet a large group around the same age as us.
A trio of guys with eating some delicious looking concoction of food it really opened my eyes to some new possibilities. But hiking as a big group generally means moving slowly and we passed them after the next day and didn’t see them again until we stayed still for 30 hours enjoying the heavenly weather at the Nantahala (NAN-tah-HAY-lah) Outdoor Center.
Immediately when we got back to the trailhead that day, we ran into the same women from the church would giving us a ride into Hiawassee the day before. They asked all about Sam’s feet and our health before sending us off with some warm hot dogs. They were stationed at the trailhead getting hikers sodas, hot dogs, chili and other good stuff o warm them up on an especially cold and rainy day.
Day 8. We pushed on from Plum Orchard shelter much earlier than most of that group despite continuing rain that morning. It quickly warmed up and was nowhere near as miserable as the day before and we had fun hopping to avoid puddles.
Sam tried to follow my path skipping from rock to rock in a wet area and failed, falling harmlessly on her side in the mud. I would have bet $1 million I would have been the first to fall. I did also fall later that day when my foots get it out while I was ducking under a branch.
Today’s hike  all in all, was great and maybe the first time Sam was able to go all day without her blisters or feet bothering her. We went about 20 miles to a shelter where we met Critter and Owlbear. Sam slept in her tent because she thought the shelter was gross. Legs and her crew arrived by headlamp just as we in the shelter with falling asleep.
Day 9.
We went 17 miles, including some amazing views from 5,000+ foot heights. Very early on we stopped at a lookout to find ourselves way above the low-hanging clouds from the past few days of rain. The peaks of only the tallest mountains poked out of the blanket of clouds for a stunning view.
Later that day we literally climbed using our hands to the top of Mount Albert which has an unsettlingly tall fire tower at the top of it that offered another great view. We passed a woman called Left Turn, who has been one of our most frequent acquaintances, drying out her tent at the top of the mountain. She camped near Mooney Gap, which according to the guidebook is one of the wettest places in the United States east of the Mississippi River. We also hiked that day with an English teacher called Yo Teach who is a really cool guy.
Once we got to the road that would take us into Franklin, NC, we tried to hitchhike into town. I cursed the minivan that didn’t stop for us and then there were a few minutes when no one else was going our direction. When the next car came by, its driver, a young girl, stopped to get us at the same time that the minivan, which had turned around, wheeled around to pick us up. The driver of the minivan was a professor from a North Carolina university and was headed to Franklin anyway so we went with him and he dropped us off next to the 76 Outfitter , where we had an amazing experience and Sam got shoes that actually fit her.
Day 10.
We got a ride back to the trail from a couple of older guys we met at the outfitter who were starting a section hike. We later learned that one of them, a big fella by the name of Cub Scout who hadn’t been hiking since he was in the scouts, dropped out. We met the other guy at the NOC while we were taking a zero day. We ran into a Left Turn again, Sam fell again, we laughed as Critter literally keeled over going up a steep hill (and laughed a bit harder when we later learned that he was it that was an effort not to puke in front of us). We each ate ready to eat backpacking meals that night that we bought in Franklin and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Day 11.
It was a perfect day and we hiked 12 miles down hill to the NOC. We got there around 1 p.m. and found our friend Looper drinking a beer and relaxing on a bench while watching kayakers of different abilities attempt to simply navigate and perform tricks in the rapids. It was flawless weather and we were so happy to relax in a small area that had everything we needed within a stone’s throw of the trail. There’s a general store, an outfitter and a restaurant: the hiker’s Holy Trinity. We used all three before staying at a hostel that night.
Day 12.
When we woke up this morning both feeling somewhat sick (we both ordered the same thing for lunch and shared a pizza for dinner) we were already thinking twice about heading up the steep hill that was our next day on the trail. Then we learned it was going to be 70 degrees and sunny and we waved goodbye to our ambitious comrades who were going to leave the heavenly confines of the NOC.
We decided to stay until our stomachs settled, while also soaking up the sun and waiting for Legs and friends, who were due to arrive that day. We did just that, and the whole group from Plum Orchard and even more characters arrived to entertain us and enjoy the weather later on. We camped in the perfect weather by a campfire built by a guy who spent months hiking south in Maine in the dead of winter.
We met a guy named Cristo who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail two years ago and shared some of his knowledge with us.
Day 12.
In the morning we were terrorized by a horribly unruly dog but lovable stray dog. Cristo awoke to the dog nipping at the under quill of his hammock. I awoke to find the stuff sack for my tent missing. Sam watched this little devilish bastard of a dog steal her ground sheet as she was busy packing up her tent. The dog picked up the thin sheet of plastic and took off, only to turn around to see her reaction 30 yards later. She yelled at him and acted like she was going to come after him and he ran even farther and tore her ground sheet in half.
I went down to a different camp looking for my stuff sack and found the dog had actually willingly brought it to them, only partially torn apart. They happily give it back to me and one camper held up his single shoe and asked that I let him know if I came across its counterpart, which the dog had stolen.
We waited for the store to open and I bought some new tent stakes, since I broke one and needed more to begin with, as well as some toe warmers to use as heat hand grenades in my sleeping bag for cold weather in the Smokies.
After that we took off and ended up doing our longest and strongest day yet, 28 miles in about 12 hours, arriving at Fontana Dam, NC, by headlamp and completing three days of hiking in one day. The shelter at Fontana Dam is supposed to be great and it’s called the Fontana Hilton, but it was packed and everything was taken by that hour, so we camped by the side of the road.
Day 14.
Sam’s tent fell over twice during the night and all her stuff got drenched. We had plans to start the Smoky Mountains today but it was pouring rain all morning and when we caught the shuttle into town to resupply we decided it was better to stay a night at the resort there rather than starting into the Smokies with wet gear, expecting 10 degree temperatures and snow two days later. I’m writing from the hotel where we’ve dried out, done laundry, resupplied and boosted our morale by meeting up with a bunch of others who are doing the same. I took a thermal shirt from a hiker box here, which will be a welcome addition and we face our worst conditions yet in the Smokies.

Giving back and getting more

Sam and I have been shocked and a bit perplexed by the generocity of the people we’ve met — whether it’s stopping to give us a left into town or surprising us with cheeseburgers fresh off the grill as we reach the top of a hill.
So when we were sitting at an all-you-can-eat pizza restaurant in Hiawassee, GA, the other night and saw someone in need, we jumped to help out. In the middle of a busy buffet hour at Big Al’s pizza one of the front desk staff quit and walked out. This left one woman, the supervisor, literally answering the phone, taking orders, cleaning up and working the cash register all at once.

The woman in purple insisted on buying our meals for us.

The woman in purple insisted on buying our meals for us.

Two tables in the back, one of which had a party of 10, were covered in dirty plates, glasses and scraps and the woman couldn’t find a second to clean it up. So we finished what we were eating and started collecting all the dishes and bringing them toward the kitchen. The woman in charge noticed but was too busy with other things to acknowledge us until later, when she was almost overly grateful for the small amount of work we did.
Another woman who was finishing a meal with her friends also noticed what we were doing. She came up to us.
“Are y’all hikers?” she asked.
I think she could tell by our practically matching down jackets. Or maybe our smell.
After talking for a minute, she insisted she was buying our meal for us.
It seems we just can’t keep up with the southern hospitality.
As we were walking out the guy who we think it was the owner, Big Al, practically chased us down. He wanted to give us another large pizza to take home. We brought that back and left it with our friends who were staying at the same motel as us — one of them had been diagnosed with the sort of pre- pneumonia earlier that day and had to stay put for a while.
I think this is one of the ways this trek is going to have a permanent impact on me. If I were to see a similar scene at home now I wouldn’t hesitate step in and lighten someone’s load. I don’t know with just for hikers or this is truly house southerners always treat each other. If it’s the latter we up north to take a few notes about our about kindness from our neighbors to the south.

Day 1 through 4 = 61 miles

HELEN, Ga. — First it was 75 degrees, sunny and beautiful. Then last night it dropped to about 10 degrees with 40 mph winds and sleet.

In our first four days on the trail, we’ve seen a good amount. From near-constant Trail Magic to on-the-verge-of-a-thunderstorm winds.

As we set out on day one, the woman behind the desk at Amicalola Falls State Park Visitors Center presented us with a choice: If we didn’t want to take the 604 stairs up a couple thousand feet of elevation, we could drive that section and still have 8 miles of of approach trail before we even made it to the start of the Appalachian Trail atop Springer Mountain.

Naturally, we chose to take the stairs. “Spartan training!” Sam called out. We walked out the back of the Visitors’ Center, up the 604 stairs and about 16 more miles before we camped at the Hawk Mountain shelter, where we found more people than I’ve ever seen on the AT congregated in one place. Many of them had taken two or three days to get there, and many others chose to skip the approach.

By the end of the day, someone counted 46 tents popped up around the shelter, which also holds 12+ people. I wish the best of luck to everyone, but I also wouldn’t mind if the 90 percent of people who end up dropping out of their AT thru-hikes did so sooner rather than later.

On day two, we kicked up the distance even further — maybe a bit too far. We pulled into Neel’s Gap after 23 miles just before 9 p.m. with headlamps on. We heard the weather about halfway through the day, calling for huge winds and torrential rain the next day, and decided we didn’t want to be going over our biggest climb yet at Blood Mountain in the middle of that. So we tacked it onto day two, but the descent of that 4,458-foot mountain took longer than we expected.

There’s a hostel at Neel’s Gap, but as has been typical so far it was full when we got there. It seems the only way to get into shelter when the trail is this packed is to hike for about 5 hours and set up camp. That doesn’t jibe with the nearly 12 hours we put in on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, we pulled in early to avoid the whipping winds and threatening sky, as well as to give a break to the blisters covering Sam’s feet. By 7 p.m. it was so cold that we didn’t want to be anywhere outside of our sleeping bags, and later it turned out the sky wasn’t just threatening — it opened up with driving sleet carried by 40 mph winds.

Sam's tent is in front and mine is in back. She's real quick at setting hers up now.

Sam’s tent is in front and mine is in back. She’s real quick at setting hers up now.

The Helen, GA, grocery store has lots of old fashioned goods.

The Helen, GA, grocery store has lots of old fashioned goods.

We wore pretty much everything we brought with us into our sleeping bags and waited it out. Sam had the help of eight toe warmers that she deployed in her sleeping bag. When we woke up, it was still biting cold with winds that would cut through anything except our rain shells and we stayed basically wearing everything we brought until we got to Unicoi Gap, only about 10 miles. There a shuttle picked us up and brought us to the Helendorf Motel in Helen, Ga., which we didn’t know was actually a touristy replica of a Bavarian village in Germany.

We heard there was some apple pie in this town that’s flown in specially from Germany, but we couldn’t find it. All we know for sure is that the restaurants are excessively expensive and a woman at the grocery store was wearing an outfit that was far too revealing.

Tomorrow we’re catching a shuttle back to the trail and planning an 18-mile day now that we’ve cleaned ourselves, our clothes and gotten our blisters patched up.