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Our departure from Harpers Ferry ignited a certain level of gloom that had been following our group since the Shenandoahs, a slight depression that had slowly grown as we began leave the big mountains and made our way in to the Mid-Atlantic flatlands. I saw that, out of all of us, it affected Buckets the most. We’d stop at a view, which were becoming more and more rare, and a strange look of sadness would come over his face as he watched the countryside gently roll off in either direction all the way to the horizon, constantly crisscrossed by a net of power lines and highways. We had started this Trail to see the mountains and, up until this point, we’d been scrambling over one after another. During breaks and at night before falling asleep, the four of us would recollect the great adventures we had fought through just weeks or months ago, talking as if years had past. We recalled the wandering mountains of Georgia and the flooded and frozen Great Smokies of North Carolina. We retold the stories of how the wretched, frozen fog on top of Roan Mountain in Tennessee had almost been the end of us or how we had slipped and slid our way down the rain-soaked Priest and then up the windswept southern side of Three Ridges Mountain in Virginia. The four of us had overcome, and in a sense conquered, the mighty and tall Southern Appalachians. We’re mountain climbers who whose need for wilderness and big climbs define us as thru-hikers. Now, as we stumbled across the flat, rocky terrain West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, weaving in-between houses, along railroad tracks, and across countless highways, we felt somehow unfulfilled as the miles went by.

Leaving Harpers Ferry was also a realization point for not only myself but for the group as a whole. It was quickly becoming apparent that my right knee was deteriorating with each passing day and that I would eventually have to take a substantial amount of time off the Trail. The many miles of denying there was a problem and the even more miles of hoping it would get better began to finally take their toll and as I awoke on the morning of April 30th, I could just barely move. I tried to tough it out but just eight miles in I found myself not being able to go any further. Jake told Veggie and Buckets to go on ahead while we would rest up at a nearby hostel and hopefully the next day I’d be better. An hour and a half later, as Jake and I were lying in our bunks and my knee was wrapped with an Ace wrap and ice, Buckets came bustling through the door saying, “I’ve walked a thousand miles with you guys. I ain’t splittin’ us up just ‘cus one soldier’s down.” We all laughed and I was glad to have both of them there but I knew that night was a last ditch effort to salvage my knee and thus salvage the trip as we had planned it. I spent the night worried, not only for myself but for my brother, for my newfound friends, and for the uncertainty that lay ahead.

The next morning my fears were realized when I stood up, hardly balanced and in a tremendous amount of pain. I gritted my teeth and bit my lip a million times that day as I took each step with deliberate tenderness and wincing pain. As night began to fall and we made our way to the shelter, I knew it was the end of the line for me. That night the air was hot and the roar of a nearby highway kept us all awake. I started playing guitar and the three of us sang every song we knew. By ten o’clock, which was way past our normal bedtime, I was playing “Rocky Raccoon” and Buckets was belting out the lyrics word for word. As his Jersey accent echoed off the rocks and the wooden walls of the small shelter we had to ourselves, he sang out “Rocky you met your match/And Rocky said, Doc it’s only a scratch/And I’ll be better doc as soon as I am able.” As strange as it sounds, I knew, at that moment, I’d try my best to be back. I hadn’t quit in Georgia like so many others had. I hadn’t given up when the razor sharp winds atop the high ridges of North Carolina and Tennessee cut in to my shivering self. I made the decision right there, in the darkness of a Pennsylvania shelter, that I would not give up, not yet.

So the next morning, as the invisible pins and needles began to stab underneath my kneecap, both Jake and Buckets helped me with every step as we made the three miles to Caledonia State Park, near Fayetteville, Pennsylvania. Jake and Buckets instantly got on the phone and Buckets arranged for a park ranger to pick me up at a nearby road. They went on ahead as a guy named Dwight picked me up and took me to the park office. Their secretary, Debbie, put me to work inventorying t-shirts, paying me in peanut butter crackers and homemade lasagna. A few hours later, Bucket’s father picked me up after driving three and a half hours across the nothingness that is western Pennsylvania. Neither one of us had ever met one another and to him I was a stranger, yet he showed me such incredible kindness when I was at one of the lowest points of my life. That evening we met back up with Jake and Buckets, went out to dinner, and said goodbye. For over two months the three of us hadn’t been more than a half mile from one another and now I was departing, unsure when or if I would return.

As Mr. Gersie, Mikey Bucket’s father, drove through the night, the woodlands gave way to the Philadelphia suburbs after a while we were in the heart of a city that went on and on for miles and miles. I saw the steps Rocky that ran up outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, crossed the Schuylkill River, and drove alongside the Delaware. I saw the Walt Whitman and Betsy Ross bridges as well as Broad Street where the Phillies and the Eagles play. That morning I had woken up on the Appalachian Trail and here I was cruising through one of the largest cities in America.

For two days I stayed with Mr. Gersie at the George School, a Quaker school just outside of Philadelphia and during that time I could not believe the astonishing amount of compassion and benevolence the entire community showed me. They fed me, gave me crutches, and showed genuine interest and concern for my experiences on the Appalachian Trail. In addition, I could not imagine a more beautiful place to begin my recuperation. Their campus is strewn with stunning buildings, large, well-groomed fields, and massive oak trees where the squirrels and birds play. I can’t express just how thankful I am for Mr. Gersie and the George School for the incredible hospitality they showed a demoralized and injured stranger who had found himself all alone many miles from home.

After going to the doctor and talking to my parents, we decided that I should take the train to Durham, where they live, so that I can take as much time as I need to completely heal up. This morning I began physical therapy at Duke University and was told that I would not be at my pre-injury level for at least four to eight weeks. I guess all I can do at this point to work as hard as I can in order to cut that time down. Nothing would make me happier than to rejoin Jake and Buckets and to finish the Trail with them, even if it wouldn’t be as a thru-hike. I am, however, unsure about that possibility. What I am sure of is that I have not quit yet and I view this time away from the A.T. as simply part of my journey.

Jake and I set out on our thru-hike to go on an adventure. We thought that by going out in to the wild lands of this country, we would somehow experience the thrill of exploration and discovery. I look back now and realize that true adventure does not simply lie within the mountains or the deep valleys where we found ourselves. Rather, genuine adventure is found when everything goes wrong and you stray from whatever plan or expectations you had. It occurs in times of sickness, injury, freezing rain, and knee-deep snow. Times when your very survival depends upon what solutions you can find from within yourself. You discover what your limits are and are constantly testing them, taking them further and further. This purest form of adventure is dangerous, reckless, and wild, however it is the only way to find the true strengths and weaknesses within us all.

Since I am unsure about the possibility of when I will return to the Trail, I did not know what I would use this blog for in the future. So, at the suggestion of a few friends, I’ll be using this website to update Jake and Bucket’s progress, my progress with physical therapy, and to fill in the countless gaps in the story that I have yet to write down. Thank you all for your incredible kindness, support, and compassion that you have shown my brother and I as we made our way across America. Jake and Mikey Buckets are still out there hiking, getting nearer and nearer to New Jersey, and I’m sure they would greatly appreciate any encouragement you could send to them. Our story is far from over and, in many ways, has just barely begun. Once again, thank you all for everything and please check in every now and then for updates on our progress.

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The sun shone brightly from a clear blue sky as my parents dropped us off at the trailhead in Rockfish Gap. The breeze blew in from the Valley side as my brother and I kissed our mom goodbye and set off hiking, this time my dad came along for the first eight miles. We signed in at the southern entrance of the Shenandoah National Park and the five of us (Buckets, Veggie, Dad, Jake, and I) set off northward. The pleasant weather and easy terrain went on and on as my brother and I talked for hours with our dad about all kinds of stuff. Those eight miles seemed to be the fastest eight miles of the trip thus far simply because, if only for a moment, Jake and I weren’t thru-hiking. Georgia and Maine and everywhere in-between fled from our thoughts and for a few hours we were just out with our dad, something we’d done countless times growing up. In far too little time it was all over and my dad was standing at his pick up point with my mom and before I knew it they were driving off down the pitted dirt road through Jarmen’s Gap.

Just as the car slipped out of sight the four of us were forced back to reality when we heard the distant rumbling of far-off thunder. It was 3:00pm and we still had twelve miles to go. We would not get lucky that day and make it to the shelter before the rains came, rather we found ourselves soaked through and through. The rains did not stop and all the next day we were met with even more hard-falling, cold rain. That evening, which was Monday night, our good friend, as well as a 2011 thru-hiker, Paul drove in and then backpacked for a little ways to meet up with us.

The next morning I woke up shivering and utterly surprised to see that there was three inches of snow on the ground. You could sit there and watch the snow get higher so we decided to get packed up get out as soon as possible. We could not compete against the rising snow drifts and for twelve and a half miles we fought our way through the blow-downs and giant piles of freezing snow that had now overtaken the Trail, forcing us to cut our day short. We eventually made it to a shelter and tried our best to get as dry and as warm as we could.

By the next morning we awoke to find a freezing cold wintery morning with wet, heavy snow clinging to just about everything. The sun was out and the day slowly warmed up as we trudged the long twenty-five miles to Thornton Gap. There, a good friend of Jake’s named Chad Sims picked us up and took us in to Luray, Virginia. We drove out of the snowy mountains and stayed at his father’s hotel, the incredible Mimslyn Inn. The room was absolutely amazing and the hospitality was astonishing. Chad’s father was even kind enough to drive us back to the trailhead early in the morning after allowing us to stay the night at his fantastic place. It’s strange to think about how cold and miserable the cold, snowy morning was and by nightfall we were staying in the closest thing to a palace I’ve ever been in.

Recently we’ve had much better luck with the weather. It’s been raining at night and been clear and warm during the days. After some consistent, big-mile days we made it to the West Virginia/Virginia border and thus broke through the 1,000 mile mark. After a nine mile hike from a shelter in to town, we made it to Harpers Ferry, WV. There we signed in at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, becoming to 28th and 29th thru-hikers of the season, and the rented a cabin at the KOA campground here. Seeing we needed to resupply and taking pity of us, an incredible girl named April drove us from the campground to the Walmart and back in order to resupply on food and supplies. It was a true selfless act of kindness and the only payment she asked for in return is that we “pay this good deed forward.”

Tomorrow we plan to set out early and make it deep in to Maryland and then Pennsylvania shortly thereafter. All four of us are staying in good health, however my right leg has become extremely painful, especially my knee and calf. While we are now over a thousand miles, there is still a long way to go. Soon we will be at the halfway point (roughly four days) and will hopefully make it through Pennsylvania without incident.

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An early morning chill hung low over Pearisburg as we slipped from the motel to the Trail. After walking about a mile or two of Main Street, we took a sharp left through town and ended up following the white blazes in-between houses and through backyards until we came to the Senator Shumate Bridge which crosses the dark, ancient waters of New River. As the cars of  U.S. Route 460 sped by, from the thorny roadside grasses, littered with broken glass and Dairy Queen cups, came a very small dog with so much mud on him it was hard to spot his eyes. The little dog bolted from the ditch and straight in to sixty-five mile an hour traffic, weaving the thundering tires of passing cars. After a full ten minutes of coaxing the dog by waving a granola bar, I was able to snatch him off the road and carried him across the massive bridge. When we reached the other side, the Trail quickly turned off and I set him in the grass. Even though we yelled at him to go away, the little dog began following us up the Trail, probably expecting more food. Mike “Buckets” dubbed the stinking stray Baxter after Will Ferrell’s dog in Anchorman.  After about an hour, we left the short-legged creature when we crossed a stream he was too small to cross. For about a hundred yards we could hear Baxter barking at us to come back so he could keep following us.

As the days continued to pass, the weather became increasingly warming and clear. Before we knew it, we were in Catawba where my good friend Andrew Sunderman picked us up and took us in to Blacksburg. Not long after coming in to town, we were eating at D2, an all-you-can-eat dining facility on campus. It was half embarrassing and half impressive at the shear amount of plates began to stack up on the table. After almost two ours of eating, we left and were driven over to the G.E.R.M.A.N. Club guesthouse where we stayed the night. It was incredible seeing all of my wonderful friends after being gone from school for so long. The next day we sadly had to leave and my good friend Jay Tucker not only drove us back but also hiked up McAfee’s Knob with us.

Within a few days we found ourselves in a small crisis. Mike “Buckets” had somehow gotten a stomach sickness that stuck with him for a few days. He decided to tough it out and after a few days it went away. My brother, however, got a little bit more sever version of the same sickness and was so sick he could barely hike at one point. After a few days of talking to other hikers, it appears that a similar illness is spreading rapidly through the thru-hiking community and seemingly everyone has had it except for me. After watching both Mike and Jake go through it, I am taking every precaution I can against it so hopefully I do not get it.

It seems that our time in Crozet, at our own house, has gone by far too quickly. I remember studying the guidebook in Georgia thinking how long it would take to get to where we are now. It seemed almost strange that I was able to see my family, my friends, and even play a short concert with my good friend Josh. Image

My time spent off the Trail and at home has been both positive and negative in terms of the thru-hike. I was thrilled to see so many people that I love and have missed but I am not even halfway done hiking and have many more miles to go. Saying goodbye will be just as hard today as it was in Georgia and we have more distances to cover and will have more obstacles to overcome before we can return. Whatever it is that lies ahead, we will continue to try our best and do what it is we set out to do.

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It’s been quite a while since I’ve last written a post and there are many reasons for it, the biggest one being the shear amount that has happened between then and now. I guess the place to begin is on the bridge out of Hot Springs, North Carolina. Jake’s friend, Alex, dropped us off just as the sun was setting in-between two western mountains. We hopped the guardrail and were back on the Trail, heading upstream of the French Broad River. The water was a solid brown but as the sky lit up in a clouded spectrum of oranges and pinkish hues, it was reflected off the river as dusk slowly turned to night. The climb out of the little town was very steep and followed along the edge of a granite and limestone outcropping, making for dangerous, yet incredibly exciting, near-night hiking. That evening was our first warm, dry night in quitte sometime and we set our tents up right as the last rays of sunset slipped behind the mountains.

The sounds of empty coal cars thundering down some nearby railroad woke us up early and we set out on our way. Near midday we stopped for lunch at a shelter and from a few hundred yards behind us came a “hey boys” in a thick and very distinct south Jersey accent. We turned to see Mike “Buckets,” the thru-hiker we’d met back at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The three of us have been hiking together ever since.

After just a couple big-mile days, we were in Erwin, Tennessee staying at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel, a nice little place with showers, laundry, and cheap bunks. We resupplied and left the next morning in a hail storm. After knocking nearly twenty miles, we settled down in a place called Cherry Gap and called it a night.

Long before I began thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, there were a couple of backcountry trips that stuck out in my memory as the worst. The next morning began a day that surely topped any experience I’d had before and it has grown in infamy between the three of us since. It started off bitterly cold with a drizzling rain made worse by a wet, claustrophobic fog hanging low over everything. Hiking through the heavy air was exhausting and our visibility throughout the day never grew more than twenty-five feet. It seemed to grow colder with each passing hour and the farther we went, the wetter and muddier the three of us got. All time and sense of distance or direction was lost in that frozen, wretched fog. I would check my watch and hike for what I thought was an hour and look down to realize only ten minutes had passed. You could have considered the terrain easy on any other day but the shin-deep mud and constant beatings from a cutting wind made the miles drag slowly by. The three of us eventually made it to large, cabin-like shelter on top of Roan Mountain where we tried our best to get as dry and as warm as we could. That night we shivered ourselves in to what little sleep was possible.

While it was a struggle, before we knew it we were in Hampton, Tennessee and a little over fifty miles away from the Virginia border. We resupplied at a Dollar General and slept at Bob Peoples’s hostel, Kincora, which was amazing. That night, “Buckets” and I sat up and ate sixteen hot dogs in just over an hour. The next morning we followed the Laurel River for a ways before climbing back up in to the northern Tennessee mountains and somehow made it to Damascus in two days. Worn out and beat up from our two back-to-back marathon days, we did a zero-mile day there and my good friend from high school, Tyler, drove down and spent the night in the local hostel with us. That night there was a blues musician playing at a local bar and we spent the night listening to some real Southwest Virginia pickin’. I have never felt so happy to be back in my home state until now.

All too soon, Jake was knocking at the door at 6:15am and we were back on the Trail, hiking through the chilly, misty dawn. That afternoon, thunder roared and a little bit of lightning shot across the sky. Halfway up Whitetop Mountain, marble-sized hail began pummeling us from above, leaving whelps up and down my arms and shoulders. By the time we made camp, the mountainside was a shining, glassy mess of white ice. We had finally made it to the Grayson Highlands, a place where the windswept mountaintops roll in to one another and wild horses roam free over craggy rock scrambles. The weather was as near to perfect as it could be and for as far and as wide as our eyes could see was revealed the shear immensity of the land we were now venturing through. The three of us had one of our most enjoyable days of the trip so far.

Over the next few days, our group of three grew to five, including “Patches,” a school teacher from New Hampshire and one of the few female thru-hikers we’ve met so far, and Matt “Veggie,” a quiet but sincere western Massachusetts man who is hiking to his college graduation. Together we have covered incredible distances in only a few days, enjoying one another’s company all along the way.

Two days ago, the five of us practically had to drag ourselves through twenty-four miles of rain-soaked trail on a day where there was no sun, making the entire day a constant battle against the cold. By the end of the day, we were utterly exhausted and a few of us were low on food. The next morning was a frosty spring morning but the red sun coming up in the east quickly turned to a warming orange and the sky became a clear, cloudless blue. For some reason unknown to me, our energy swelled and we kept pushing on and on down the Trail. Finally, near the twenty-four mile mark, “Patches” mentioned something about there being a full moon that night. After discussing it briefly and throwing a good bit of our better judgement to the wind, we set off once again for a high ridgeline on what was sure to be a below-freezing April evening. By midnight our energy finally gave out and we pitched a tarp and all huddle underneath, having completed a 32.6 mile day. The night was a bone-chilling cold and the wind whipped relentlessly through the leaf-less trees but we were warmed by the knowledge that we had ventured far past our limits and somehow come out okay. The shear rawness of it all, the utter reality of what we had just done, all of it made the settling frost and the biting cold just a little bit more bearable.

We woke up early this morning to another sunny day and we set out for Pearisburg, Virginia early. Due to the night before, we were only about nine miles away and made decent time, pulling in to town around 11:00am. One-by-one, we descended on a local chinese buffet and, after about two hours, we had eaten so much food that the staff were doing everything they could to run us out except ask us to leave, including putting the same song of repeat for fifty minutes.

So here we are, nearly six weeks and six hundred thirty miles in to our hike. In all that I had read or heard about long distance backpacking, I had grown to expect some great change within myself, some overwhelming realization of who I am and what it was I wished to be. It is true, I have grown far more confident in how far I can push myself and what I am capable of. However, my own personal enlightenment has escaped me. It is within those whom I’ve met along this journey where a true understanding has come to develop. This Trail has shown me hundreds of miles of land where countless people live who are willing to help a fellow when they desperately need it. It may sound strange, corny, or crazy but the shear amount of kindness we’ve encounter both on and off the A.T. would make even the most stone cold, cynical person smile at a stranger. I’ve had food, rides, places to sleep, equipment, and words of encouragement offered to me without cost or conditions from all sorts of people. There’s still many miles and many months of trekking ahead but it makes the traveller’s weight a little easier to carry knowing there are still those out there willing to lend a hand when it is needed most.

Our next stop is Blacksburg, Virginia, my second home. We should be arriving on Wednesday, April 11th and my good friend Andrew Sunderman has offered to pick us up and take us in to town. After so many miles of unfamiliar countryside, I can’t wait to spend a night or two in a place and a people as close to my heart as Blacksburg. More to come in a few days from the heart of the Hokie Nation.

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Thunder boomed through Gatlinburg as we walked through town, long before the cheap arcades and dinky rides were open. The same streets that had been bustling with people the afternoon before were now completely barren as the first few rain drops fell. The dark clouds in the distance had swallowed the mountains surrounding us and we watched as lightning zigzagged across the sky. By 9:20am, we were sitting in the backseat of a van and our full-blooded Cherokee driver was telling about past hikers he had picked up and their stories. As we climbed out of the valley and back in to the mountains, the storm grew worse and Jake and I grew more and more nervous with each passing mile. As we came around the last few turns of highway before we were to get dropped off, however, the sky began to clear and by the time we started hiking the sun was shining and the sky was a deep blue.

As the hours past and the miles stacked on top of one another, we once again saw storm clouds on the horizon and somehow made it to a shelter right as the rain and hail began to come down. It was a short little building, made of stone on three sides with a tin roof. There was a fire place in the corner where a glowing orange fire made the entire place very dry and smell of woodsmoke. By the time we got there it was packed full with hikers but somehow we managed to squeeze in two places to lay down on the two tiered wooden sleeping platforms. The Swiss couple we had met earlier were there, a man from Australia, two Hampden Sydney guys, a couple other thru-hikers, and two guys from Petersburg, Virginia were all sitting around the fire, cooking their meals and talking about the worsening storm raging overhead. After a little while, I pulled out my guitar and the two men from Petersburg stood around me, throwing out requests and listening to me play. As we talked, I learned that the two of them had started at the Gulf of Mexico and had hiked to Springer Mountain and then had begun hiking the Trail. As I look back now, I realize that they were two drifters, probably homeless, escaping the real world for that of a life on the Trail but I didn’t feel the least bit uneasy around them. One of the guys called himself Pilgrim and my sleeping pad was laying right next to his. As it began to grow dark and the flashlights of the other hikers began to turn off, signaling that they were trying to sleep, I put my guitar away and laid down, trying to sleep as the rain pelted our roof with increasing force. Pilgrim climbed into his tattered sleeping bag near me and, in the dim firelight, I saw him pull out a very large and gleaming knife which he stabbed into the wooden floor next to his head. Strange as it seems, I was too tired to care and I once again pulled my sleeping bag over my head and tried to sleep through the thunder and hail. After a few hours, I awoke to an overwhelming smell drifting over from where Pilgrim lay. I slowly slipped my head out from beneath my covers and saw plumes of smoke coming out from his sleeping bag. I didn’t know what to do except watch and, after a few moments, I saw his head emerge and in his hand a small glowing pipe. Looking back on it now, I find it strange how little concern I had about the fact that I was sleeping next to a homeless guy, in the middle of the woods, with a massive blade sticking in the wood between our heads, who was smoking some unknown stuff in his sleeping bag in the middle of a thunderstorm. I just rolled over and closed my eyes and fell right back to sleep.

The weather was clear by the next morning and Jake and I woke up early and were the first ones out of the shelter. The entire day we followed a spectacular ridge line and for most of the day walked above the clouds. That day we left the Great Smokies National Park and hiked down to where the Trail intersected with I-40. From there we hiked out of a deep gap and up another two miles, nearing where we had planned to camp, completing a 20+ mile day of hiking. However, with a mile left, the rain once again began to fall and within minutes we found ourselves caught in a very violent thunderstorm. We found ourselves sprinting the last mile or so, desperately looking for the nearest campsite we could find. Soaked, shivering, and very tired, we hastily pitched our tents in a gully with two small creeks running on either side of the campsite. It turned out to be a big mistake and within an hour there was nearly six inches of flood water flowing freely through the bottom of our tents. By the time it was dark, everything I had was drenched and I’m sure the two of us were near hypothermia. It was the longest night of the trip thus far.

Once again, the sun was shining as we crawled out of our tents. We packed up and started moving and, within a few hours, were both almost dry. I realized then that there are few things worse than walking on wet feet for hours on end. That day, we climbed two amazing mountains with huge meadows on top, known as balds. The second of which, named Max Patch Mountain, had a parking lot near the top and was full of church groups and day hikers. We were told it was St. Patrick’s day and celebrated by sitting in the warm and drying sun for almost an hour. We then finished our day by hiking another ten or so miles to a rickety looking shelter, deciding to pitch our tents instead. We had finished up earlier than expected so I had time to light our first campfire of the trip.

Rain, our most persistent and seemingly ever present companion these last few days, once again pattered our tents the next morning and we got up and started moving as fast as we could. We were scheduled to meet one of Jake’s friend, Alex, fourteen miles down the Trail in a town called Hot Springs, NC in a few hours so we decided to do the entire distance without breaks. It took only four and a half hours of walking through the rain and fog to get in to town where we were greeted by Alex who then drove us 45 minutes into Asheville, NC. We ate at Taco Bell, loaded up on groceries, showered, and did our laundry, as well as had time to cook a whole bunch a cheeseburgers. It was a great night here in Asheville and we’re trying to get back on the Trail again sometime tonight. Our next resupply is in 70 miles at Erwin, TN where I will be able to register for classes for this coming fall. From there, we have another 85 to hike to our next resupply after that in Hampton, TN and then only another 42 miles until we are back in Virginia. All in all, we hope to cross the Tennessee/Virginia border in the next eleven or twelve days (March 31st).

Thank you to everyone who has contacted us and helped us along the way so far. Your words of encouragement and acts of friendship mean more than you know.

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206.8 Miles Done

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We left Franklin, North Carolina a week ago but it seems so much longer than that. The Trail winded up and out of a place called Wallace Gap and Jake and I found ourselves traversing more and more rugged terrain with each passing mile. Up until this point, neither one of us had been very sociable with the other thru-hikers on the Trail but as the mountains grew steeper and the towns grew fewer and farther between, we began to get to know more and more of them. We met “Buckets” from New Jersey, “Plus 3″ from Maine, “Strollin’” from Florida, “Napoleon” from Louisiana, “Swiss Miss” and “Alien” from Switzerland, and a few other people from all over. It has certainly been nice talking to someone other than Jake for a change.

After a few days, the two of us found ourselves walking down to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a whitewater rafting and hiking place with a little general store, some bunkhouses, and a restaurant. We got to do our laundry and eat some great, inexpensive food, as well as shower for free. When night time came, we were invited to a guide school graduation bonfire party which was awesome. There we met two guys, Ross and Johnny, and they offered to pick us up from the Trail and take us in to town once we got to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It was tough leaving the N.O.C. but we both felt healthy and wanted to knock off some miles as fast as we could.

About ten miles past the N.O.C., a tired and obviously dehydrated dog trotted up behind us and we phoned its owner (it had a collar) who told us that they’d pick it up at the next gap. So for about eight miles, this dog, who looked identical to Shadow from Homeward Bound, followed us down and out of the mountains and in to the truck of its thankful owner. A few other thru-hikers had walked the dog down with us and together we left joking about how we had all hoped we’d come out of the woods to see the smiling owner standing next to a charcoal grill, cooking up hot dogs and burgers as a reward for saving his dog.

The day after leaving the N.O.C., we found ourselves standing on Fontana Dam, the southern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains. Staring out across that man-made lake, we saw the highest mountains on the Appalachian Trail, as well as rows upon rows of endless ridge lines, infamous for their insolent and unpredictable weather. At this point, we had been very lucky with the weather in Georgia and North Carolina so far. Other than low temperatures and some light snow, we had experienced mostly warm days and sunshine. Our second morning in the Smokies, however, we awoke to find a damp, wet mist clinging low to the ground and a light rain falling from sunless skies. The Trail quickly became a flowing stream and the slippery mud made hiking even more treacherous. As the day wore on, the rain and wind picked up and we found ourselves cold and soaking wet, as well as being continuously whipped by an unrelenting crosswind. By the time we finished our day, the two of us stumbled in to a shelter packed full of day hikers who had built a fire and offered to dry our clothes, get us water, and even gave us a little food. They we’re certainly great people and that night we slept warm, dry, and comfortable.

By the next morning, the weather had only gotten worse. Days before I had been completely overconfident in my food supply and, by this point, found myself almost completely out. So we set off, twenty miles from the next town, with very little food and in horrendous weather conditions. At one point, the storm got so rough and visibility was so terrible that I walked straight in to a tree on the side of the Trail. It was certainly a miserable time for the two of us. Within a couple of hours, however, the storm suddenly ceased and the North Carolina sky opened up to reveal a glorious blue sky and a warm sun that quickly dried our clothes. Probably looking like we had just come out of a war zone, Jake and I stumbled upon a shelter with a young couple from Memphis, Tennessee sitting out in front of it. After talking to the man for a little while he offered me a bag full of sugared dates and, oddly enough, some OxyContin. Regretfully, I only accepted the dates.

We then proceeded to climb Clingmans Dome (6,643 ft.), the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. Other than the mud, it was a fantastic climb up to the top where we found a swirling concrete ramp leading up to an observation tower. From there we were shown the true ruggedness of what we had just travelled across, as well as what we still had left to do. So, down to our last few pepperoni slices and spoonfuls of peanut butter, we set off for the last eight miles of the day. On the way, we called our whitewater rafting guide friends from the N.O.C., Ross and Johnny, and they said they’d drive an hour to pick us up from the next gap and take us into Gatlinburg, just like they had promised. So we raced down Clingmans Dome, trying to get there as fast as possible. In those few hours of amazing weather that we had, the true beauty of the Smokies became evident. Up where we were, the evergreen forest grew thick and dark green moss covered everything. The whole Trail smelled like Christmas and the needled trees grew so thick, you could only see about ten feet in to the dark woodlands on either side of the Trail. As we were coming down, we hiked through about a mile of wild bore sanctuary, as well as numerous flowing creeks.

By the time we made it to Newfound Gap, we were exhausted. We had raced through twenty miles in one day on very little food through some very harsh weather conditions. There were quite a few people who had driven up there and a bunch of them came up and asked us about our journey, many giving us pats on the backs or offering us words of encouragement. Then we saw a most gorgeous site. Rumbling up the paved mountain road came a big white truck with Johnny at the wheel. They pulled up and we couldn’t stop thanking him and Ross as we loaded up our stuff and climbed in. They drove us all the way to Gatlinburg and we took them out for burgers and then found our hotel. We walked in to the lobby and were taken away by a massive mural of Jesus kneeling down and kissing the Liberty Bell with an American flag and bald eagle in the background. It was a little strange but, tired as we were, we just went to our room and fell asleep.

This morning, we decided to take a zero-mile day and we resupplied and I got a new, very nice and durable raincoat. Walking around Gatlinburg was strange after being in the woods for as long we have. It is like the entire town is a carnival, each shop selling henna tattoos, air soft guns, or other stuff like that. As we were riding the trolley through town, however, I met a Korean War veteran who was passing through town with his wife when their camper had broken down. After talking for a little while, he realized I was a thru-hiker and we leaned in and began talking as if we were old friends, right there on the moving trolley. He told me that he had come home from Korea and, only a week later, him and his brother started hiking the Trail. Together they hiked close to four hundred miles before he was forced to get off due to appendicitis. His brother past away in a car accident three years later and he had never been able to bring himself to try it again since. He said, now that he was as old as he is, not going back to finish was the single biggest regret of his life. He also said that he and his wife were staying in a motel and the camper had been fixed so Jake and I could stay in it if we needed to. I told him we already had a room in town but that I deeply appreciated it. He smiled and wished us luck, begging us to be safe but to never give up and to make it all the way to Maine. Our stop came and I shook his hand and left, realizing that neither one of us had asked one another’s name.

So tomorrow we set off for Hot Springs, North Carolina which is about a seventy mile journey. We have plenty of food and are well rested so we plan on it taking about three and a half days. Jake’s sickness has long since left him, however his knee is still giving him trouble at times. I am doing great except for my left ankle has a tendency to ache in increasing intensity as the days wear on. The weather forecast shows warm weather but terrible thunderstorms heading our way for the next four days so this next stretch will certainly be challenging. However, with our new gear and gained experiences thus far, I’m confident we will make it to Hot Springs without incident. More to come as soon as I can.

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The day we left Hiawassee, GA was the day Jake and I crossed the Georgia/North Carolina border. Georgia, however, did not give us up easily. The Trail went up and up at an astonishing rate but the weather was clear and warm so we made fantastic timing, despite the terrain. After about nine miles of hiking, the two of us found ourselves standing by a lonely oak tree with an old weathered sign nailed to it simply say “NC/GA.” The two of us took a short break and snapped a few photos and kept going.

There was no easy welcome in to North Carolina either and we gained so much elevation in just a few miles that we went from hiking in t-shirts and shorts to near full cold weather gear. We quickly found ourselves on an exposed ridge being brutally cut into by a biting crosswind. We finished the day though and found ourselves making camp by a shelter at 4,580 feet.

We awoke to a frozen morning and the air was so cold that my teeth would begin to ache if I breathed through my mouth too long. We packed up our camp as fast as we could and hit the Trail quickly in order to warm up. That second day in North Carolina has probably been my favorite of the thru-hike thus far. Jake and I hiked over Standing Indian mountain, where we gained and then lost 1,200 feet of elevation in only a few miles. As the day went along, it warmed up quite a bit and we decided to make our camp in a place called Betty Creek Gap. The campsite was in a low, sheltered spot with a trickling, half-frozen stream about twenty feet from our tents.

Jake seemed to be feeling somewhat sick that evening as we climbed in to our separate tents for the night, battling to stay warm. When we woke up the next morning though, he had a fever and his right knee was hurting him so bad that he almost couldn’t walk. We had to get to Franklin, NC but due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of where we were, we planned on hiking 12.2 miles to Winding Stair Gap where we could hopefully hitch a ride in to town. Our first climb, up Albert Mountain, came quickly and we probably gained 600 feet of elevation in a half mile. I was nervous Jake would not be able to make it in his condition due to the drastic straight upwardness of the terrain but we took our time and eventually made it to the top. On the summit, there was and old fire tower that stood high above an exposed cliff and we climbed the thirty or forty feet up it and tried to get in but it was locked. The view for those tower stairs atop Albert Mountain has been the best of the trip so far.

Up there on the top of the mountain, I started making phone calls to the local motels and they all had open rooms but now way to get us off the Trail. For the next few hours, we had no idea what we were going to do but our best bet was to keep going and we did until, about an hour later, we came upon a Tupperware bin on the side of the A.T. with a nice note and telling us to eat up. When we opened it, we found it filled with dozens of little Ziploc bags with brownies in them. It was a high point of the trip thus far.

As the day progressed, Jake began to worse and his leg was hurting him even more. We found ourselves covering barely 1.5 miles per hour and we knew it would be dark, and much colder, by the time we would be able to attempt to hitchhike in to town. Earlier, however, one of the motels gave us a list of volunteers from the Nantahala Outdoor Club who maintained the A.T. and sometimes would drive hikers to where they needed to go. I searched and searched until I got my one bar of service and the first number I dialed, a man picked up the phone. I told him who I was and he introduced himself as Ron. After I told him our situation, he told us to stop at the next road crossing (a rare thing in the North Carolina mountains) and that he would come and pick us up, saving us three miles of walking and possibly being stuck out in the cold. Within twenty minutes he was there and he cranked up the heat as we climbed in to his minivan and off we went. He was an extremely nice, older man, as well as a fellow Virginian (Richmond) who explained to us that, since he retired from 35 years working for the railroad, he had dedicated his life to maintaining the Trail and helping those who hiked it. We were endlessly grateful for his aid and when we offered to pay him, he would only take a dollar or two to cover gas. He most certainly saved us a lot that day.

We got a room at the Haven’s Budget Inn for only $35 for two of us and we went inside and took showers and rested for a while before going out to find food and medicine. After Jake got all situated and was resting, I decided to walk around Franklin, NC by myself as the sun was fading. As I went down Palmer St. I decided to call my mom and I kept walking and talking until I found a bunch of thru-hikers standing in a line with a sign that said “Free Dinner 6pm.” Well, I didn’t think much of it and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and got into the back of the line. Standing there talking on my iPhone in my fluorescent orange, down Patagonia jacket I realized that I was in line at the Salvation Army and that these were not thru-hikers, rather the local homeless. Feeling like an idiot, and a little uneasy, I took two or three steps backwards before turning around and making my get-a-way. As I kept heading down this road, I decided to go into the only grocery store within walking distance of our motel; La Mexicanita Grocer. I opened the door and, sitting at a table, were four Hispanic men playing dice and three women speaking to one another in Spanish. When the little bell on the door rang, they all turned and stared at me and the women went silent. All seven of them just sat there and watched me as I moseyed around the store, trying to see what they had. I quickly realized there was nothing there that I needed and the little group of dice players, as well as the women next to them, stared me down until the door shut behind me as I left.

I got back to the motel room and I was laying around the bedroom and talking on the phone when I put my fingers through my hair and found it to be sticky and twisted together. I had somehow managed to get a piece of gum from somewhere in the motel room stuck in my hair. Another great part of the motel room was when I opened the cabinet underneath the television set only to have five or six roaches come skirting out in all directions. I guess that’s what $35 a night gets you.

So now we are sitting around the motel room, taking our first zero-mile day of the thru-hike (and hopefully our last for a long while). Getting Jake out of the cold and into a bed has really brightened him up and we found him a knee brace at the local drug store. We talked about it and we hope to be hitting the Trail again early tomorrow, hopefully catching a “complimentary shuttle” offered by the motel up to the trailhead. We have 30.6 miles to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, 57.9 miles to Fontana Dam, NC, and 100.1 miles to Gatlinburg, TN. Now that we are starting to gain our “trail-legs,” we hope to begin cranking out 20 or so mile days each day once Jake gets better. More news to come.

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