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Archive for March, 2012

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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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The First 70 Miles

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Leaving Springer Mountain was awesome. It was great to have our parents with us as we set out on our journey and to finally begin hiking after years of planning. After setting out, we hiked around 8.7 miles to the Hawk Mountain Shelter where we ran into a fellow Virginian, and from Charlottesville no less, named Andrew who was thru-hiking as well. He told us that he was trying to average around 25 miles a day in order to finish in around three months.

From Hawk Mountain Shelter we hiked a 21.1 mile day all to way up to one of the AT’s oldest shelters (1934), standing firmly on top of Blood Mountain. It was Jake’s 22nd birthday and to hike as far as we did in such wonderful weather and pretty country was a fantastic way to celebrate. The next morning, however, we awoke to find a wet, cold fog rolling in through the windows of our shelter, dampening every piece of gear we had. We got up though and hiked only a few miles before coming to Neel Gap where an outfitter, Mountain Crossings, is located. We resupplied on food and got a whole bunch of useful tips and information from the staff who were working there.

Only about a mile after leaving Neel Gap, we were going up a steep section of trail when, up ahead, I heard “Hokie Hokie Hokie Hi, Tech Tech VPI!!” I looked up and standing there was an older man with a Virginia Tech hat almost identical to mine. We talked for about five minutes or so and I learned that he was a 1975 alumnus and that he lived near Hiawassee. He invited Jake and I to his home but we respectfully declined because our schedules did not match up. I was very appreciative and we ended the conversation with him saying “next football game, you stop by our tailgate and we’ll set you up right.”

That day was a misty, drizzly day where neither of us could see more that 25 yards in front of us. Due to the weather and the time we wasted on resupplying, Jake and I decided to set up camp after only 13.9 miles of walking, near Low Gap Shelter. There was terrible weather that night. The wind blew as hard as I’ve ever seen or heard it blow and the thunder roared every few seconds as we tried to stay dry in our separate tents. After a few hours of incredible winds and bursts of lighting, the storm subsided suddenly and I was able to sleep the whole night through.

The next morning, the weather had returned to near perfect and we hiked on, climbing three or four mountains that were higher than 4,000 ft. and completing a near 21-mile day. We were exhausted, however, and that night, which was last night, we were once again hit with a series of terrible thunderstorms. Early this morning, we got up and hiked only 6.3 miles to Dicks Creek Gap where we caught a rickety old shuttle in to Hiawassee, GA and booked a $39 room at the local Budget Inn.

After doing laundry, cleaning out a China King Buffett, and eating a chicken strip basket from Dairy Queen, Jake and I resupplied on enough food for the next six or seven days (enough to get to the Nantahala Outdoor Center and hopefully Fontana, NC). We also showered and cleaned most of our gear. Tomorrow we will cross into North Carolina and, in a few days, will be in the Great Smokies. The two of us are tired but are as energized and as motivated as ever to keep going. We both cannot wait see what lies ahead.

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