Day 23 AT Miles Hiked: 10.7 Davenport Gap Shelter > Groundhog Creek Shelter 248.7 Miles Down, 1944.4 To Go
We were a little more quick in waking up and getting packed up this morning because we knew Fresh Ground was making breakfast for us at Davenport Gap just about a mile down trail. The Family and Toodles were raring to get there, so we still took a little more time than they did to leave the shelter so that hopefully we wouldn’t be arriving all at once. FG had told us in the past that he likes it when folks trickle in because it’s less stressful to feed a handful of people at a time versus an army. Relishing that last mile in the Smokies, we started making our way down to the gap, reflecting on the last five days and feeling excitement at the fact that we’d gotten through it with a good deal of luck on our side. Yes, it had been very cold at points, but at least we hadn’t gotten rained on. As we neared the Thru Hiker permit box at the northern boundary of the park, we very triumphantly and, with a touch of giddiness, dropped our permits through the slot.
We then proceeded to the spot where FG was parked and set up at the gap and hung out for quite a while as we chowed down. FG had some accidentally vegan pancakes (he’d bought a gluten-free mix for Starfish and they just happened to also be vegan) and fried potatoes for us. As always, everything was absolutely delicious! We also talked with him about his van build and power set up. He had great recommendations for us- we took lots of notes! Very grateful that he took that time to walk through it with us and share his insights and knowledge.
We left FG around 9:30am and hiked with Toodles and the Family over to Standing Bear Farm/Hostel, passing by a beautiful creek with a lovely little waterfall along the way. We got to the road and hiked the .2 or so miles up to the Standing Bear, which was tucked up in the valley. The hostel itself was very eclectic in nature, the aesthetic bespeaking of rustic Appalachian style of shabby chic. At the hostel, we got hand sanitizer and chocolate. They had all kinds of interesting things in their resupply store (including a rack of clothes that had what looked conspicuously like Goodwill tags on them) but no fuel. We were really hoping for good, four-season fuel because the canisters we picked up at the Marina in Fontana Dam just weren’t cutting it in the cold weather. Unfortunately, we forgot to ask FG if he had any canisters while we were at breakfast that morning. He carries things like extra fuel and such in case hikers are in need of non-food essentials, too.
After spending some time taking in the vibe at Standing Bear, we hiked on ahead of the Family and Toodles. Toodles (predictably) caught up to us in no time, even after having downed an afternoon beer at Standing Bear. We stepped to the side and let him pass as we struggled on the uphill. We had started the climb up to Snowbird, a particularly long stretch of continuous elevation gain made all the more challenging by the fact that the sun was relentlessly beating down on us through the leafless trees. After how cold we were in the Smokies, we never thought we’d be able to get warm enough. Now, however, we were downright hot and suffering on the opposite end of the temperature spectrum. Time seemed to crawl by at a snails pace as we used every bit of our energy to get up that mountain. It felt for most of the climb as if we were dragging our feet through molasses, that’s how much gravity was working against us in that moment. We were also, admittedly, still a bit tired from the 20+ miles we’d hiked the day before. Even though today involved less mileage, the elevation was definitely giving us an added challenge, and after such a big day less than 24 hours prior… But we made it to the top and enjoyed some amazing views as we leisurely ate our lunch.
Then we hiked down to camp. Toodles was there waiting for us and immediately told us about the bear activity at this particular site (which he’d seen posted on guthooks). Though the posts were dated for last November, we all decided then and there to be sure to take extra precautions and make sure ALL possible smellables went up in the bear hang.
Eventually, the Family rolled into camp and we all made dinner and got set up for the night. We told stories and hung out. We all got incredibly excited when Oak rolled in- we weren’t sure if he was going to push the miles to get to the same shelter as us today!
Once everyone had finished dinner and were done getting all set up for bedtime, Lily (whose trail name is now Narrator) read the first three chapters of the new book from the Brother Band series. While we were listening, we heard Bard Owls calling to a fro in the distance. The light continued to fade and the forest around us started to fill with the sounds of night. At one point, BAM!’s stomach growled loudly. Oak, who was sitting beside us on the picnic table, got wide eyed and looked around a little nervously. BAM!’s stomach gurgled a second time just a few moments later, causing Oak’s eyes to grow wide again, an even more frantic look etching itself across his face. Seeing that his tummy noises solicited this reaction from Oak a second time, BAM! leaned over to him and whispered (so as not to interrupt the reading), “It’s just my stomach- sorry!” Oak visibly relaxed, then burst into quiet fits of laughter, trying (but not really succeeding) to stifle his giggling (which, of course, sent us into giggle mode, too).
After the Brother Band chapters had been read, we all said our good nights and settled in for (thankfully) a bear-free night.
Day 24 AT Miles Hiked: 13.1 Groundhog Creek Shelter > Walnut Mountain Shelter 261.8 Miles Down, 1931.3 To Go
Well, we all made it through the night with no bear encounters! Phew!
Before we all hit the trail this morning, we agreed to meet up on Max Patch for lunch. Toodles and Oak got out of camp first, then we got on our way, the family and Janna following close behind.
We started the day with some elevation and then dropped into Brown Gap. The climb back out of Brown Gap seemed needlessly steep, as though the trail intentionally took the steepest route with no switchbacks even in areas where you could see a possible alternative route (just a hundred yards to the right) that looked like a much more pleasant gradient. Oh well! We kept climbing up to Max Patch and found Toodles and Oak having lunch near the top. We set down our packs and joined them. The sun was out and the views were magnificent, but it sure was windy. The Family rolled in shortly thereafter, and together we all enjoyed the sunny lunch spot with beautiful views.
We finished our lunch fairly quickly and kept on moving. We got to the top of Max Patch, took it all in, snapped a few photos, then continued on our way. The hike from Max Patch to Lemon Gap was quite pleasant – most of it just a gradual down hill. Hero had hiked this section with our roommate and good friend Heather last August for Heather’s Birthday. So, she was reminiscing on that hike and how different the forest looked in August than now.
We pushed up Walnut Mountain, which actually didn’t seem that bad, and got to the Walnut Mountain Shelter by mid afternoon. Toodles and Jersey were there as well as the two oldest Trout kids who had passed us just a bit earlier. We set up our tent and did a water run then cooked dinner and hung out with the crew. Narrator read a few more chapters in the book while we listened from the picnic table, and then we all went to bed, everyone feeling the excitement and anticipation of knowing we’d be getting into Hot Springs the next day.
Day 25 AT Miles Hiker: 13.1 Walnut Mountain Shelter > Hot Springs 275.3 Miles Down, 1917.8 To Go
It was such a nice morning- the temperature was warmer than it had been the last few days and the sun was shining. We were too warm in our puffy layers, so we took them off well before starting our hike. This was unlike our usual routine of waiting until the very last moment before taking them off, a strange feeling but one we reckoned we could get used to!
We weren’t in much of a hurry this morning as we only had 13 miles to get to Hot Springs and we were trying to time it right so that we got there when the brewery opened – 3 o’clock. We were the last to leave camp other than Jersey, who was just getting up as we put on our packs.
The hike today was pleasant, with some moderate but overall very reasonable elevation gain. We had a rather gradual accent up to Bluff Mountain, and then it was almost entirely downhill to Hot Springs. Even without trying, we were making really good time, going about 3 miles an hour. We arrived at Laughing Heart Hostel at 1:30pm, which meant we still had an hour and a half before the brewery opened. What do we do now?! Well, there were a few bottles of Stella marked as being free at the Hostel, so Toodles, Bad Santa and BAM! all had a beer! BAM! was kind enough to share a few sips with Hero (thanks, BAM!), but she was most excited for the craft beer that was yet to come. Then we started hiking into town with Toodles to check out Bluff Mountain Outfitter. As we were walking, we saw Cryptic! Apparently he was coming up to the hostel because he’d heard we all got into town. He took a zero today and would be heading back out on the trail tomorrow.
We all go to the store, and Hero and I grab some snacks and a CNOC water bag to use with our Sawyer filters because our Sawyer bags were springing leaks everywhere. Toodles was checking out the shoes but just ended up getting some super feet insoles. Cryptic perused the store and chatted with us. He did eye the backpacking umbrella by Six Moon Designs, seriously considering purchasing it. By the time we all finished up at the store, it was 3pm and time to head over to Big Pillow Brewing!
We got over to the brewery and found a table in the open outside area, then promptly went to get ourselves some drinks. After sipping on our beers for a bit, we ordered a boatload of food from the Grey Eagle Taqueria, which is housed at Big Pillow. The food was unbelievably good and we were absolutely ravenous! We sat, drank, ate and just had a grand time with our tramily! Eventually, our dear sweet friend Malarie showed up to give us (Hero and BAM!) and Toodles a ride into Asheville. It was hard to part ways with the rest of the tramily, but we were all certainly that our paths would cross again soon.
We drove to Asheville, where we continued to hang out and enjoy spending time with Malarie, her partner Graham, and Justine that evening before crashing out.
Days 26-28 (Thursday, March 11th, 2021-Saturday, March 13th, 2021) AT Miles: 0 Asheville, NC Layover
After a fun night with our good friend Malarie, we went and had breakfast at Biscuit Head with Toodles. Then we hung out at the West Village Market and worked on social media stuff for a bit. While sitting outside the store, multiple people came by and asked if we were Thru Hiking. Even a little ways off the trail in Asheville, people can still spot (or maybe smell) a thru-hiker a mile away!
The Incredible Justine picked us up from West Village and dropped us off at the grocery store so we could get our food resupply out of the way. Then we organized our food and hung out on her porch for a bit. After all of that was done, the four of us had an incredible pizza dinner at Grata housed inside of Upcountry Brewery. The pizza was so good, perhaps the best we’d ever had! After enjoying an out of this world delicious dinner and yummy drinks, Justine took us all over to our old house where we would be staying with our previous roommate and longtime friend Heather and her partner Joel. They made us feel like we were home again, and it was beyond wonderful to have that time with them. We spent the next three nights there enjoying their company and relaxing… and working a bit on Logistics and the Blog.
Friday afternoon, we went over to Highland Brewing and saw several MANNA Staff and Volunteers. It was inspiring and encouraging to see so many from our MANNA Community coming out to ask questions and talk about how they have been following our journey. We apologize for those of you who didn’t know we were in town and at Highland Brewing. We got in earlier than expected and weren’t able to get the word out as fast as we had hoped. If anyone has questions they would like to ask or just would like to say hi, please feel free to message us or comment below.
Our time in Asheville was rejuvenating! We are so grateful to our close friends who went out of their way several times to make our stay so relaxing and wonderful. We are also so very grateful for our MANNA Community who are still out there working hard every day to help put food on people’s plates. You all are heroes, and you inspire us to keep pressing forward.
We knew we had to get back to the trail. Usually after one zero day, we get to feeling restless and ready to go, but that was not the case in Asheville. It still felt like home, and it was hard to leave the community we love once again. But we are on a mission not only to get to Katahdin but to support our neighbors in Western North Carolina by raising money for MANNA FoodBank. We know that our community will continue be with us and cheering us on the whole way no matter how far from home we are.
Day 18 AT Miles: 14.9 Fontana Dam Shelter > Russell Field Shelter
We were all in good spirits as we began the day that would be our first day in the Smokies. It was a bluebird day, and the forecast was looking uncannily good for the Smokies for this time of year. Fresh Ground said he’d never seen anything like it! We got up early enough that we were able to enjoy sunrise over Fontana Lake, which BAM! captured in all its glory through a timelapse video. After packing up, it was off to the parking lot for breakfast a la Fresh Ground!
As usual, breakfast was wonderful and the group was abuzz with anticipation for the start of our Smokies adventure. People started heading out to cross over the dam and enter the park. We took a little longer to roll out because we were waiting for our power bank to charge off of Fresh Ground’s charging station. When we finally left a little after 9 am, everyone else was already gone except for Trouble who strolled in late. Before leaving, we heard some of his crazy stories from all of his time spent on the trail. The guy essentially lives full time on the trail these days from what he tells everyone, thought no one is entirely sure how he does this. Very interested and quirky soul!
We speed-walked the road section only stopping to quickly use the bathroom at the visitor center (which were so nice). Neither of us are fans of road walking, so we were both grateful when we finally got to the trail leading into the Smokies, triumphantly placing our permits in the box and heading up, up, up, up… you get the picture- it was a whole lot of climbing!
We pushed up to Shuckstack and were rewarded with some Incredible views – yes we did go all the way to the top of that rickety fire tower! When we came back down we met Journalist and saw Betty White and Lost Bells and Honey Badger. We continued on after pouring some water in our Food for the Sole cold soak lunches. We hiked for about 30 minutes and then sat down and ate our delicious meal. We had been making a big effort to hydrate and eat more food today and our bodies were grateful for it.
We got to Mollies Ridge Shelter, our planned stopping point, but everyone had pushed on the extra 3.3 miles to the next shelter. We debated pushing on, too, then BAM! had to dig a cat hole. When he got back from that adventure we decided to keep going to Russell Field Shelter.
We both pulled up some music, put on our headphones and crushed out the 3.3 miles in an hour and 10 minutes. It actually felt pretty good to do that. This was our first time using headphones while hiking, and we liked it for the sake of cranking out some mileage.
We got to the shelter and everyone was there milling about. We got right to work setting up our tent, getting water, and starting dinner. We knew we didn’t have much daylight left and the temperature would drop as soon as the sun went down. While we cooked and ate, we hung out with Oak, who came to sit by us. We’ve been really enjoying getting to know him better and seeing his wonderfully hilarious personality come out! At one point, two Southbounders (Vogue and Veggietoons) came through and we asked them questions about their time on the trail. They seemed like they were feeling ready to be done by the time we met them. Who could blame them- they’d endured being out on the trail during the dead of winter, trudging through snow and skating over icy terrain! Both of them are serious champions in our book.
We ate two dinners because we had extra food thanks to Fresh Ground’s feast the night before (not complaining AT ALL). Then we hung our bags, went for a quick walk to warm up and snuggled up for the night. We counted our first day in the Smokies as a huge success.
Day 19 AT Miles: 16.4 Russell Field Shelter > Double Spring Shelter
We got up, had breakfast, and rolled out of camp around 7:50 am, which was good because we had a long day ahead of us. Fresh Ground had warned everyone that the second day going northbound in the Smokies was the hardest, so we were all bracing ourselves for that reality. To add insult to injury, we were all giving ourselves the added challenge of getting as close to Clingman’s Dome as possible so that we could wake up early the next morning for sunrise. To make this happen, we were going to try to go over 16 miles with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain.
It was a beautiful bluebird day, but still pretty chilly since we were heading up over 5,000 ft above sea level. We got up to Rocky Top and had beautiful views. The Family was up there at the same time as us, so we took turns taking pictures of each other. We continued over to Thunderhead which had no view and then down some before going up and down the rest of the day.
After nearly 10 miles of the up and down and all around terrain, we got to Derrick Knob Shelter and stayed awhile for lunch. The Family, Oak, and Chris were there, too, and we all reveled at the exhaustion we felt because of what we’d just been through. Eventually, we decided to push on. Shortly after bidding everyone else farewell and getting down the trail some, we put in our headphones and listened to music as we crushed the last nearly 7 miles to the shelter. We really wanted to make it to Double Spring Shelter as we were eager to join our friends for a sunrise hike up to Clingmans Dome.
We made it, but we were utterly exhausted, so we hurried up and sent up our tent and made dinner. The family trickled in shortly after us and BAM!offered Melissa (the mom) a trail name – Star Fish! He thought of the name because, as she is hiking up a steep mountain, she sometimes “starfishes” on the ground, but when she gets to the top with an awesome view, she jumps and “starfishes” in the air! She seemed to like it, and plans to try it out for a while.
After a little planning with the group for the early rise, we went straight to bed. We were very tired and tonight we would only have 8 hours to sleep as apposed to our usual 10. To be honest, we really don’t get a full 10 hours right now because of how often we wake up cold, or are jolted awake by intense wind gusts, etc… It happened to be a windy night, so sleep definitely didn’t come easily. That should have been a warning for the morning to come.
Day 20 AT Miles: 5.6 Non-AT Miles: 0.5 (to shelter) Double Springs Shelter > Mt. Collins Shelter
Somehow, after a very restless night (in which Hero at one point had to rescue the tent fly after a stake had been ripped out of the ground by the wind), we got ourselves out of bed for the sunrise adventure. We woke up to the sound of our alarm at 3:30 am, and as much as we were excited to experience seeing the sunrise from atop Clingman’s Dome, the wind that still lashed against our tent made us want to just bury ourselves deeper into our sleeping bag. Still, we got up and were actually pretty quick about it. We ate a small snack for breakfast and were on the trail by 4:25 am.
Hiking through the balsam forest in the dark was pretty cool and a little creepy at times. The quarter moon was out, but you couldn’t see it through the thick canopy for most of the hike. The wind was howling, but mercifully the trees blocked most of it. We hiked the 2.8 miles with over 1,100 feet of elevation gain up to Clingman’s Dome, arriving a little after 6am. Sunrise wasn’t until 6:53 am- plenty of time… maybe too much time. Scratch that- with the wind gusting hard enough to nearly topple us over, it was definitely too much time. Toodles, CVS, and Cryptic were already there getting bundled up in every layer they had- quite the feat of extraordinary determination considering that just about every piece of lightweight backpacking gear was liable to turn into a sail in that crazy wind.
Seriously, the wind at the top of the tower was gusting so hard we had to lean into it not to get blown over. We quickly wrangled on our puffy layers and our rain jackets for wind break… but we were still freezing! We tried to sit behind the wall for a wind break but we were already too cold. Toodles and CVS had pulled out their sleeping bags and now looked like fluffy multicolored Caterpillars sitting on the stone bench.
We decided we needed to move around for some heat, so we hiked back down the ramp and back up again… and again… and again…it helped a little. More people showed up: The Family, Batman, Betty White, Honey Badger, and Chris. Everyone was freezing and we still had 30 minutes till sunrise. We started dancing around. Bad Santa did laps around the tower, at one point yelling over the wind “GoPro, warm my feet!” (our GoPro is voice activated, so people have been coming up with funny alternate “commands” for it. Our favorite so far has been “GoPro, do my taxes!”). More people pulled out sleeping bags in an attempt to shield themselves from the relentless gale. Then Betty White chimes in and says “Wake up for sunrise they said, climb the tower they said, it will be fun they said” and we all have a little laugh at our collective misery.
But we stick it out and see the sunrise! Toodles even had “Circle of Life” from the Lion King cued up and ready for when the sun broke the horizon. It was beautiful, but most of us still aren’t entirely sure it was worth it. Everyone ran down from the tower as quickly as we could and started hiking to try and warm up. While most of the tramily was hiking further that day, we were glad that we were doing a Nero and only had a few miles to go to get to the Mt. Collins shelter. We were a little slower than usual because we were so tired (and we had an emergency cathole situation) but we still made it to the shelter by 10 am. Toodles was already there, along with Oak who stopped by before heading down to Newfound Gap for a ride into Gatlinburg.
The sun was hitting the grass in front of the shelter so we found a sunny spot and took a nap after Oak bid us all adieu. At one point, BAM! tried to make a fire, but without a whole lot of dry firewood (everything was frozen to some degree up there) options it didn’t persevere. But we had a chill day, and even though we got a little restless at points, we know our bodies were grateful for the rest. As we were settling in for bed, Fifteen came in- it was good to see him again. Since it was a big shelter and there were very few people, we decided to try out the shelter for the first time. It was nice not having to set up the tent, but we did miss the privacy of having our own space. And we noticed we slept a bit colder, too.
Day 21 AT Miles: 15.4 Non-AT Miles: about 1 (to a from shelters) Mt. Collins Shelter > Pecks Corner Shelter
Today we hiked to Newfound Gap and got resupplied by our dear sweet friend, Justine! We were so elated to be reunited with her, and so grateful that she drove all the way out to Newfound from Asheville to help us out. In addition to bringing us and Toodles our re-ration, she also had vegan breakfast bagels from Ultra- what an awesome treat! Toodles liked them, too, and was even excited about the fact that napkins came with the bagels. It seems like a silly thing to be excited about (and we all definitely got a good laugh out of that), but it’s one of those things you realize you don’t think about when you’re not thru hiking. As soon as you’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in an experience that limits the amenities that are usually so readily available in “the real world,” you start to get more of a grasp on the things you once took for granted.
Because it was a beautiful Saturday, Newfound was packed with people. But that in no way shape or form stopped us from embracing the “hiker trash” within and spreading out our re-ration in the grassy area next to Justine’s car. We sorted through our “loot” and organized it into our food bags before stuffing everything back into our packs. The crows of Newfound were very interested in our operation.
Justine had brought her boots and a daypack and hiked with us out to Charlie’s Bunion. The climb was pretty gradual with just a few icy patches, allowing us the opportunity to talk and enjoy each other’s company as we walked. It was so great getting to hang out with her- after the hard days we’d had in the Smokies leading up to this point, seeing and getting to spend time with her was so rejuvenating to our souls! Plus, Charlie’s Bunion offered us incredible views- one of our favorite spots on the trail so far!
It was beyond hard to say goodbye, but eventually Justine had to turn around and head back to her car parked at Newfound. We’re grateful that this was truly more of a “see you later!” since we’d be getting into Asheville for a few zeroes less than a week later. We then pressed on, walking along a ridgeline with astounding views on either side much of the way. Absolutely one of the most beautiful sections of the AT thus far.
We got to the Pecks Corner Shelter a little after 5pm and started setting up our tent and getting dinner going. Oak made it to the shelter a little late because his ride slept in… but he brought Toodles a Cherry Vanilla Coke and he shared it with us – it was AMAZING!
Day 22 AT Miles: 19.8 Non-AT Miles: 2.7 Pecks Corner Shelter > Davenport Gap Shelter
We woke up early this morning- 5:45am – because we had a long day ahead of us. It was the coldest morning yet, and everything was freezing as we took stuff out of our sleeping bag. Our water, our filters, our batteries, our phones, our hands and our toes… all of it started to freeze! At least, we thought to ourselves, it was not raining cats and dogs. Still, with how cold it was, we decided not to try to cook and just ate a cold breakfast so we could hit the trail faster.
Everything is harder when it’s cold. It still took us about an hour and a half to get out of camp. As we were getting ready and packing up, we had to stop every few minutes to rewarm our hands by swinging them rapidly or shoving them under our layers and pressing them against our bellies. The tent stakes were all frozen in the ground – we had to use rocks to knock them loose and pry them out of the ground. We left all of our puffy clothes on for the first half mile side trail back to the AT just so we could warm up. We managed to build some warmth, so we took off our puffy layers and continued on our way. It was still very cold. We learned later that it had gotten down to 15 degrees that morning and the windchill was likely in the single digits. The water in our water bottles continued to freeze as we hiked. We kept a brisk pace to keep ourselves warm.
The views were beautiful and we also went through more of the balsam forest blanketed in mosses. It was magical! But still very cold! BAM! took out his phone to take a picture. While doing so, his phone went from 52% battery life to 4% battery life- the cold just completely zapped the power. Our GoPro wasn’t working either because the SD card had an error, and Hero’s phone battery also dropped dramatically when she didn’t have it buried in her puffy layers. So, now we had no good way to take pictures. It was hard, but we had to release that impulse to capture it and just enjoy the Beauty in the moment. It was a stunning hike, a continuation of what when’d seen the day before.
We arrived at Tri Corner Shelter six miles into the hike and ducked in to get water and use the privy. We made the stop quick because we were already getting cold. Oak came in as we were about to head out. He decided to make himself some oatmeal because he’d skipped breakfast earlier as he hurried to get hiking. While we were all there, it started to flurry snow. Oak looked at us with a distressed face and said – “Y’all, we gotta get out of here!!!” We chuckled at that. Then we got moving and said we hoped to see him at Davenport Gap tonight.
We hiked hard and fast and made good time. We unknowingly passed Toodles who had left the shelter before us that morning. He was having lunch at Cosby Knob Shelter and got going again shortly after we had passed by. He snuck up behind us with Jersey (not to be confused with the Jersey boys) and passed us as we got water.
We had a moment of reflection when we got to the point where the trail intersects with the Mt. Cammerer trail. We’d done the section from Davenport Gap up to Mt. Cammerer and back as a training hike back in November, so we couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as we looked back at how far we’ve already come on our journey. Hero remembers being at that same section months ago reveling in the fact that in just a few months they’d be back in the very same spot as a thru hikers. It was a powerful moment, to say the least.
We didn’t see Toodles again until we got to the Davenport Gap Shelter, where we also met Travis the park ranger and showed him our permits. He was really nice and talked with us a while before going on his way. He also let us know that Fresh Ground was at the road!
The Family showed up and told us Fresh Ground had texted them and that he had dinner for us if we wanted to hike the 1 mile down to the gap. Obviously, we all hiked down to the gap and enjoyed a wonderful dinner, not minding at all that we then had to hike back up to the shelter to spend the night. Absolutely worth it!
That evening, with our bellies full of delicious Fresh Ground dinner and the promise of a lovely FG breakfast just a couple Zs away, we all settled in for our last night in the Smokies. One of the Trout kids has been reading aloud from a story called “Brother Band” every night right before bed. We enjoyed listening to her read to us, the kids of our eyes growing heavy as the witching hour of Hiker Midnight drew near. We went to bed grateful for all the experiences we have had so far on the trail, all of the incredible people we have had the chance to call tramily.
Day 13 AT Miles: 11 Winding Stair Gap > Wayah Bald Shelter
We really enjoyed our zero in Franklin, NC. Our bodies desperately needed rest, and our souls needed nourishment, too. We spent the evening we got into town as well as the evening of our zero with friends at the Lazy Hiker. The first night we spent time with Tasmen, and the second night we hung out with Tasmen and Felicia (Franklin locals who are friends of Hero’s) as well as a lot of our tramily that we hadn’t seen in a few days (Einstein, Oak, Honey Badger, Toodles, Wicked, and Batman). BAM! gave Holly her name that night (Wicked). He had been thinking about it since the last time we were all together at Blood Mountain Cabins, and presented the idea to her at LH. She seemed to really like it, accepting the name almost immediately.
The tramily all planned to take a full zero, and as tempting as it was to take another zero to stay with them, we felt the need to get back to the trail. We were feeling well rested, had our new shoes with better arch support, and trimmed down on our food weight. Feeling more confident with our revised plan to dial down the mileage and take things a little slower, we caught a ride to Winding Stair Gap via Macon County Transit.
It was raining lightly when the transit bus rolled up to the hostel. We went ahead and threw on our rain gear, knowing the precipitation was only going to intensify as the day progressed. The driver couldn’t make change, but was kind enough to drive us to a coffee shop so we could buy coffees and get change back- after that was done, we were on our way to Winding Stair. We got back to the gap and ran into Chris and Cu while we were finishing our coffee- we always seem to meet them in parking lots, haha! They were planning on hiking to the same shelter as us today, but were moving a little slower and offered to let us get out ahead.
We left the parking lot and were welcomed back on the trail by a beautiful little waterfall. It was nice to be back in the woods, even in the rain. The day was challenging with lots of mud. We found ourselves sliding around a lot and had to go slower so we wouldn’t fall. The temperature seemed to cool down significantly as we went up Siler and then Wayah Bald. We tried not to stop too long or too often because we needed to keep producing body heat and avoid getting cold too quickly.
In the end, we got completely soaked through with no reprieve in the downpour (except for while on top of Wayah Bald, which was completely shrouded in a dense fog). Today was definitely one of the harder days, what with how constant the rain was. There were some moments early on in which Hero was focused on and able to reframe her thinking about the rain and even enjoy it a bit- the soothing sound of the soft pitter patter on the hood of her raincoat, reminiscing about how fun it was as a child to pull on rain boots and go splashing around in puddles. This worked until about the time that the water soaked through her rain gear and the layers beneath, all but draining the warmth out of her as every inch of her body was no longer dry but covered in a layer of cold, dampness. As she trudged along through the thick, slippery mud which coated the trail, she prayed that the waterproofing on her pack was holding up, that everything inside remained dry.
After 11 miles of sloppy trail and a nearly constant downpour, we made it to our home for the night. We camped next to the Wayah Bald Shelter, where there were quite a few other people staying for the night: three friends (Paul, Andrew, Kyle) on a weekend trip, Chris and Cu, Nick (Leto), and Fifteen. We were the first ones to reach camp, so we took advantage of having the empty shelter to ourselves. We started by peeling off our soaked through top layers and replacing them with warm dry layers. Mercifully, the waterproofing on our packs (mostly) held up. BAM! had to help Hero get things out of her pack because her fingers had become so cold during the hike- she had virtually no dexterity with which to unclip the clasps on her pack! After warming up our core and getting some blood flowing to our hands and feet by shaking out our limbs and dancing around, we went about erecting our tent in the dry refuge of the shelter. This genius idea is courtesy of our friend Einstein- the idea to set up tents under the cover of a shelter when it’s raining is actually how he earned the name Einstein! After getting the tent set up, rainfly and all, we carried it to the nearest tent pad and staked it down (thank goodness for our free standing tent, which made it possible for us to use Einstein’s trick). We went back to the cover of the shelter and got ready to cook an early dinner so that we could be out of peoples way as they started to roll in for the evening.
The three friends showed up as we were getting ready to start dinner. We all hung out under the shelter out of the rain, but were able to maintain space. It was fun talking with them- close friends who had known each other forever but now lived in different parts of the country and were trying to find a way to safely see each other during the pandemic. They figured a weekend of backpacking and being outside would be a great and safe way (COVID-wise) to see each other after not being able to for more than a year. We wish they’d gotten a less rainy start to their weekend reunion adventure!
Eventually, Leto showed up, and we realized that we had met each other our first day as we were getting ready to begin the Approach Trail at Amicalola. It was cool to see him again this far down trail! Sometime later, Chris and Cu showed up, with Fifteen close behind. By the time Fifteen rolled in, we were ready to go back to our tent and get out of our soaking bottom layers.
We’re in our tent right now and it’s still raining. Hero’s doing everything in her power to quell her bladder for as long as possible until she absolutely HAS to go out for her last pre-bedtime pee. She figures if she waits until it gets dark out, she can stay closer to the tent rather than frantically stumble around to try and find a tree up the hill to hide behind for privacy (which would equate to more time outside getting more soaked- no thanks!). Neither of us are trying to get more damp than we already are.
We’ve actually been quite productive with our forced tent time, looking ahead at the days to come and forecasting our mileage and thinking through logistics. As the light outside of the tent is beginning to fade, we can feel the approach of hiker midnight, and are preparing now to try and catch some Z’s.
Day 14 AT Miles: 10.6 Wayah Bald Shelter > Wesser Bald Shelter
We slept in a bit this morning. We were waiting for the rain to stop and knew we weren’t trying to go crazy making miles, so there was no need to rush. We were awake just listening to the wind intensify around us for a while. The rain had pounded on our tent most of the night, and there were moments we thought we might get lifted into the air Wizard of Oz style the wind was blowing so hard. Later, we realized that we were both just waiting for a tree to crash through our tent- the gigantic one just outside our synthetic, domed habitat had been creaking and swaying threateningly whenever a significant gust blew through. Thankfully, it didn’t and we rolled out of bed in a not tree flattened state and started packing up. It had stopped raining, but some water was still falling from the trees whenever the wind picked up. Needless to say, we were grateful for the drier morning.
We were slow to get out of camp, in part because everything was so wet and every fiber of our beings resisted putting cold, damp shirts back on! But we were also slow to leave camp because of the great company of the folks who’d weathered the storm with us at Wayah Bald Shelter the night before. In such a short time, we’d grown fond of the new friends we made, and we all had a great time eating breakfast and talking about how grateful we were that we made it through the night. Each and every one of us hoped that the sun would make a guest appearance today.
We finally started hiking around 10 am. The rain seemed to try to make a comeback a couple of times, but then the clouds started to lift and the air warmed up to a very pleasant hiking temperature. The sun tried to peak through a few times, but the clouds remained prominent. Overall, we got better views today than the day before, and just in general had a great time walking the 10ish miles to Wesser Bald Shelter. The observation tower on top of Wesser offered impressive 360 views- we spent a chunk of time there before making our way down to the shelter area.
In the evening, we had a great time hanging out with folks. We met Thru Hiker Cryptic and cooked and ate dinner with him and Leto. Then Paul made a little fire and we had some good conversations with him (he’d been dubbed Hot Chocolate because the hot chocolate he was cooking with his pocket rocket the night before bubbled over and burned such that now everything he cooked tasted like hot chocolate), Kyle (dubbed Sporkless, because he didn’t bring a utensil to eat with and tried to make do with a few makeshift backcountry “chopsticks”), Andrew (managed to avoid a funny trail name by not committing any faux pas), and Betty White, a Thru Hiker we met today, too! Lots of great laughs and conversation- such a fun way to wrap up a great day!
Meeting folks like the people we’ve met the past few days is one of the things we love most about this trail. The community that is brought together by the AT…there’s just nothing like it!
Day 15 AT Miles: 12.8 Wesser Bald Shelter > Sassafras Gap Shelter
Had such a great day today! We started it off in camp with our new friends, and then worked our way down to the Nantahala Gorge nearly 3,000 feet and 5.9 miles below us. The views going down were stunning- definitely one of our favorite sections of the AT thus far. It was hard not to stop every few minutes for a photo it was just that awesome! Hero snapped a great one of BAM! looking off into the distance from a spot called “the Jump-off.” As we traversed the ridge line, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were on a quest of sorts, journeying through Middle Earth or Skyrim.
After about 3 hours of hiking, we sauntered into the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) campus- about 11:30 am. Not only were our new friends there, but so were a bunch of other AT Thru Hikers- people we’d met before along the trail as well as people we had heard about who we knew were just slightly ahead of us. It was fun to chat with folks, laugh and commiserate. As we were getting caught up, Toodles showed up! He was flying solo because Wicked stayed in Franklin while her dad was coming down to pick up Maverick. Poor pupper just wasn’t adjusting to Trail life, so Wicked decided to have him go home. Can’t begin to imagine how hard of a decision that must have been for her. We really hope despite the time that she’ll be off trail that Wicked will be able to catch back up with the tramily!
We discovered while we were at NOC that the River’s End restaurant had some absolutely awesome vegan food. We each got a jackfruit bbq sandwich with fries and shared an appetizer of buffalo cauliflower bites (YUM!!!!). We were so hungry and so excited to be eating such delicious food! We got super stuffed, though, and tried to give ourselves a little bit of time before starting our climb back up out of the Gorge to Sassafras Gap Shelter.
We left NOC a little after 1 pm, a bit sad to be leaving behind some of the thru hikers who were taking a Nero/Zero there, but excited to keep pressing on. It took us about 3 and 3/4 hours to hike the 6.9 miles to Sassafras Gap. The elevation gain up to Swim Bald was crazy, and there were moments that we couldn’t do anything but just stare at our feet as we shuffled up that crazy mountain- looking up would have meant having to acknowledge what was still left to climb. Plus, our delicious food from NOC was still digesting, and as tasty as it was it wasn’t aiding our ascent.
Eventually, we made it to the shelter. The Family and a Thru Hiker named Gangster were already there, as was another Thru Hiker named Lost Bells. As we were setting up our tent, Toodles showed up, and a little later on during dinner two younger guys who were hammocking rolled in. We caught up for a bit with the Family and Toodles, and got to know Gangster a bit.
Now we’re back in the tent, settling in for the night and mentally bracing ourselves for the fact that it’s going to start raining early in the morning and last through at least the early afternoon. We’ve been joking that our tent fly dried out after getting rained on last night just in time for it to get soaked again when the rain gets started early in the morning! Ha! You can’t beat it, we’re tellin’ ya!
Side Note: Thank you shout-out goes to Andrew from Hero for the ear plugs- they are insanely effective! Thank you thank you thank you!
Day 16 AT Miles 12.2 Sassafras Gap Shelter > Cody Gap
I (Hero) can’t remember when exactly the rain started last night, but I do remember the feeling of dread that overcame me as it began to mercilessly pelt our rainfly. Meanwhile, the wind rattled the walls of our tent and there were moments I seriously worried the rainfly would get ripped clear off, exposing us to the elements. BAM!, of course, in his reassuring way, insisted that we were fine.
Tearing down the soaking wet and cold tent certainly wasn’t my favorite part of the day. Luckily, the continued precipitation only helped to motivate me to pack it up faster! Despite the speedy tent breakdown, we were a little slow getting out of camp this morning. We were almost the last ones to leave camp, except that Lil and her mom had come in late and had slept in. They kind of scared us last night as they were shining their headlamps around looking for a tent spot, the light creating a strobing effect within our tent. We had spent some time sitting up rigid and tense trying to figure out who was outside our tent and if they were friendly or not.
One of our favorite moments from today was from early on. The view on top of Cheoah Bald, where the clouds started lifting as we emerged out of the rhododendron thickets onto the bald, was absolutely beautiful.
We’d describe the section of trail we hiked today as being reminiscent of a rollercoaster, but not one you get to sit back and enjoy so much as work your butt off for. Jacob’s Ladder on the other side of Stecoah Gap was a TOUGH climb. We climbed (aka shuffled very slowly) up Jacob’s Ladder to Cheoah Mountain (Cheoah Bald’s sister peak), but it was a white out so we just continued on. Shortly after we passed Brown Fork Gap Shelter, Gangster snuck up behind us saying “sorry, not trying to scare you but…” He did scare us a bit as we were zoned in on the trail. But then we all hiked and talked for the next 2+ miles to Cody Gap and it was really nice.
Toodles was waiting for us there and already had his tent up. He heard us talking as we descended into the gap, so he positioned himself in the middle of the trail, arms crossed against his chest with a fake serious expression across his face, soliciting chuckles from all of us! We chatted and set up camp. Cryptic strolled in not long after and we all enjoyed a nice evening together. It started to get cold after dinner so we all retreated to our sleeping bags well before Hiker Midnight. Tomorrow, we’re off to Fontana Dam, and the next day the Smokies!
Day 17 AT Miles: 9.9 Cody Gap > Fontana Dam Shelter
We woke up around 5:45am and ate a cold breakfast with no hot drinks this morning. We had scheduled to meet our friend, Vance, at noon for a ride to the post office, so we needed to get going and knock out the 8 or so miles ahead of us. We watched sunrise with Toodles and Cryptic, with Gangster making an appearance towards the end. Gangster’s tent was actually right in the sight line for the rising sun, so he got out of his tent a little shocked by the fact that all of our faces were turned in his direction. A smile stretched across his face, giving us all a good laugh.
We were the first ones out of camp (which was new for us). But don’t worry- Toodles caught up pretty quick and passed us, haha! Shortly after, we had to Brown Blaze into Cable Gap Shelter (brown blazing is when you run into a shelter with the sole purpose of using the privy). We were quick and got right back on trail because we really wanted to be on time to meet Vance.
At one point as we were talking, we heard a voice from further down trail: “BAM! Hero!” and a moment later we were face-to-face with Vance, who’d arrived early and decided to climb up the trail to meet us- he must have been cruisin’! It was so great to see him and we were so grateful for his support! We chatted all the way back to his truck about MANNA, life on the trail, etc…
We got to the parking lot and Toodles was waiting for us. We did quick introductions, put on masks, threw our dirty stinky packs in the bed of Vance’s truck, and made our way to the post office and laundromat. Vance hung around while we washed clothes and sorted our food. His help made our day so much easier! He also brought us a super yummy treat from his wife, Ginny- two big bags of homemade (out of this world delicious!) vegan granola!!! Thank you so much, Ginny!!! Toodles found some vegan-friendly Ramen in the hiker box at the post office- what a find! We had a serious hiker trash moment as we sprawled out our stuff and sorted through our new ration in the parking lot of the post office. We were somewhat grateful in that moment that the little village of Fontana was such a ghost town!
Vance drove us back to the trail head and we all said farewell. We went with Toodles down to the marina to get fuel and see if they had any vegan snacks (slim pickins for sure). Then we hiked the 1.2 miles to the Fontana Shelter. It was a luxurious shelter (hence the nickname “Fontana Hilton”) and even had showers a short walk up the trail! As a bonus, the clouds had parted and we were able to dry everything out while we basked in the warmth of the sun. Despite the spaciousness and air flow of the shelter, we still decided to set up our tent. But we stayed close to the shelter so we could be near our tramily.
As we were enjoying the sunshine and thinking that the day simply couldn’t get better, Hero looked up at the trail and saw a familiar face walking our way. Her jaw dropped and she exclaimed “Is that who I think it is?!?!?!” Indeed, it was Fresh Ground!!! We couldn’t believe it- he had found us again, and right before we were all about to begin our journey into the Smokies.
That evening, Fresh Ground cooked up a delicious spaghetti dinner and we all hung out in the parking lot eating and chatting and enjoying every last minute of the sun’s warmth before it vanished behind the treetops. It was so insanely wonderful! Before heading back to camp, we signed the inside of FG’s van, which is covered with the trail names of hikers he has helped over the past eight years. We then took showers and went to bed knowing we had a big day ahead of us going into the Smokies.
Though the rest was very much needed after our first few days on the trail, it was time for us to move on from Neel Gap. We had one more Fresh Ground breakfast and then hit the trail by 8 am.
It felt REALLY AWESOME to be back on trail. We were feeling really strong and eager to make some miles. It was foggy, cold, and windy, so we kept a brisk pace while simultaneously enjoying the “Glass Blown” Forest that surrounded us, a slightly different variation of the Crystal Forest from a few days back. We marveled at how every time we hiked on the west side of the ridge, the forest was covered in this wind blown ice. But then as we walked along the east side, the wind all but disappeared, the temperature warmed, and there was no ice on the trees. With such dramatic differences on either side of the ridge, it felt as though we were weaving back and forth between two different worlds.
It was only 1 pm and the sun was just starting to peak out when we got to the first of the camping options we had looked at, Low Gap Shelter. With a spring in our step, we continued down trail, telling ourselves we’d stop at Poplar Stamp Gap (option number two) just a few miles down the trail. We didn’t wind up seeing Poplar Stamp Gap. We assume we must have blown right passed it as we were pelted with ice chunks being blown off the trees by the wind that was whipping across the ridgeline. It was a pretty humorous moment, and reminded us a bit of the trees in the Wizard of Oz that started throwing their apples at Dorothy and Scarecrow, though luckily the ice chunks weren’t quite as big as apples.
When we realized we must have passed the campsite, we continued on until we found a good spot just off the trail. As we were setting up, Ultra and then Sherpa passed by on their way to Blue Mountain Shelter, another 4+ miles away. Though part of us longed for the company of trail friends, we also enjoyed having an evening to ourselves.
Day 7 AT Miles: 12 (approx.)
The trail was abuzz today with day hikers and weekend warriors, all of whom were taking advantage of the blue skies and (slightly) warmer temperature. We didn’t run into too many people initially, but the numbers really picked up once we reached Unicoi Gap, where we once again found our dear friend Fresh Ground set up.
Seeing us walk up, Fresh Ground ushered us over and began his signature rapid fire questions: “How about some coffee? There’s water and koolaid over there in the coolers. And snacks- don’t forget those! Now go on and getcha some hand sanitizer- no hand wash station today, it’s too cold, I won’t do that to you. How about some vegetable stir fry for my very special people?” We spent about an hour with Fresh Ground, soaking up the sun that graciously filled the parking area at Unicoi Gap. We even got to talkin’ to Smooth Sailin’, a former Thru Hiker and friend of Fresh Ground’s, one of the original crew who convinced Fresh Ground that he should make the Leapfrog Cafe Hiker Feed a permanent enterprise.
After a nice long break in the sun with good company, we braced ourselves for the next leg of the trail, which involved climbing two peaks back-to-back: Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain. We were stuffed and sluggish after our heaping plates of vegetable stir fry, so we took it easy as we trudged up Rocky Mountain. We stopped to admire the view and socialized a bit with Trouble (a Thru Hiker who says he has pretty much lived nearly full time on the trail since 2016) and some weekend warriors out of Atlanta, but then continued on down into Indian Grave Gap and then up, up to the top of Tray Mountain. We really enjoyed the view up there on Tray, and so we took a nice leisurely 30 minute snack break, talking with a gentleman from Athens who joined us for a bit and kindly took a photo of us. (See photo at beginning of day 7)
On our way to the Tray Mountain Shelter where we’d be staying for the night, we ran into Ultra and Sherpa, who had hopped forward to Dick’s Creek Gap further north and were now SOBO slackpacking to Unicoi. We all got a picture together, along with the incredibly friendly dog who belonged to the guy who took our photo, and then we parted ways.
We got to the shelter and claimed a beautiful tent site with a spectacular view overlooking the valley- we were really quite pleased with ourselves for finding such a beautiful, serene spot. And then the weekend warriors started trickling in, and some other thru hikers, and then the Family. All of these people started trickling in towards dusk- by the time Hiker midnight hit, there were at least 25 people in the area surrounding Tray Mountain Shelter. It was the exact opposite of the peaceful night we’d had the night before, that’s for sure! While it was fun to socialize around the fire and catch up with the Family who’d just crushed out their first 15 mile day, we were wiped out and in need of some good sleep before the 11 miles that stood between us and Dick’s Creek Gap, where we’d jump off trail to head into the town of Hiawassee, Georgia for a resupply.
Day 8 AT Miles: 11
We enjoyed a gorgeous sunrise as we packed up and ate a quick breakfast. We’re realizing that we like to do a cold breakfast with a hot drink in the morning, rather than a hot drink and a hot breakfast- it’s saves time and fuel to eat something that doesn’t require cooking. We were pretty psyched at our timing, that we’d managed to pack up, eat, and leave camp by 7:50 am. Not 30 minutes later, we had to jump off trail to frantically dig ourselves catholes and fill up on water. So much for efficiency, right?!
After our pit stop, we powered through the rest of the hike to Dick’s Creek. At one point we caught up to Sonar, whom we had met the night before at Tray, and the three of us finished out the last stretch to the gap together…
…where we were greeted by none other than (you guessed it!) FRESH GROUND!!! For our seventh meal with him, we had delicious tacos and sweet tea and snacks. As more hikers started to trickle in, we sat off to the side and waited for Smooth Sailin’, who we had seen out on the trail. He and his wife, Casual, offered to give us a ride into town in the back of their Tacoma, an offer we readily jumped on. Smooth and Casual dropped the three of us (Sonar hopped on board, too) off at the Holiday Inn Express in Hiawassee. It was a little pricier than we were hoping for, but we figured it would be nice to have a night that would allow us to relax and take a nice hot shower (great pressure! Oo la la!) and get some laundry done while we waited for the post office to open the next day. We made phone calls, worked out logistics for the next few days leading up to getting to Franklin, NC, and half watched Indiana Jones while trying to eat down what was left of our ration. While we thoroughly appreciated being spoiled by Fresh Ground so frequently, we did not eat nearly enough of our own food, haha!
Day 9 AT Miles: 16.7
We woke up plenty early so that we could be at the post office the second they opened at 8:30 am. Because it was under my name, I (Keeka) went in to pick up the box. Before the postal worker handed it over to me, he set it on the scale, raised his eyebrow and said “Darlin’, you’re about to add about 19 more pounds to your pack with this.” Sheepishly, I mumbled that the weight would be split between two packs and hurried back outside with it. “19 pounds, Micah, 19 pounds!” It was entirely too much food for the four days we were expecting it to take us to get to Franklin, but we had a shuttle picking us up in less than 30 minutes which gave us no time to properly sort through it. Instead, we shoved it all in our packs with barely a glance.
Our shuttle driver, Grace, picked us and Sonar up and took us all back to Dick’s Creek Gap. It was starting to rain ever so slightly, but knowing that the forecast was calling for much more we went ahead and threw on our rain gear. Then, after mentally preparing ourselves for the soggy cold to come knowing that the clouds would part in the afternoon, we started our trek.
Between the pouring rain and cold and packs that were much heavier than we wanted, the day was a struggle. But Keeka was leading the pack with a positive attitude and a spring in her step. Sonar was brainstorming names for her like Mush or Iditarod because she was fast and a good leader but there was more to it than that… then he said “Hero”. Keeka didn’t say anything right away, but she pondered that name for a while. At first she was hesitant to accept it but then she realized that this was a name she wanted to grow into, to be her own hero. So now she is Hero!
Despite feeling sluggish and achey as we trudged through the last miles of Georgia, our spirits remained high. We all kept each other company and stayed focused on how excited we were to be crossing our first state border. For Micah and I, crossing into North Carolina felt extra special, as it holds for us the power and draw of home. The sign for the NC/GA border at Bly Gap is so unassuming that in my head-down-make-miles trance I might have walked right by. Luckily, the Jersey Boys (a group of three recent high school graduates from New Jersey) were taking a little siesta at the border, which helped draw my attention to the sign hunkered in the tree. I waited for Sonar and BAM! to catch up, and then we all three stepped into North Carolina together.
Grinning from ear-to-ear, we took pictures with the little sign in the tree. Then, filled with triumph and resolve, we continued to push on. The elevation gain just past Bly Gap was staggering, and the cold and wind and sleet did not translate to the warm North Carolina welcome we were hoping for. But we bared down and did our slow march up to the top. At one point, I got brought down by a Rhododendron tree whose branches were jutting out into the trail. I didn’t see it because my head was down to keep myself as dry as possible, but I sure took notice of it once it grabbed my legs and introduced me to the muddy ground. It was actually pretty funny, and I laughed, only slightly saddened by the fact that no one else was there with me to join in on the hilarity.
I caught up to BAM!, and as if on cue, the clouds started to roll away as we neared the top. At last we were treated to that spectacular North Carolina welcome we’d been longing for.
BAM! and I had been planning to stay at the shelter about 12 miles from where we started that morning. We got there and sensed that Sonar, whose on a tight deadline to finish the trail by the beginning of July, wanted to keep going. We said our see ya laters, but then BAM! discovered that the tent sites at the shelter were basically puddles. This plus our desire to stick with Sonar plus the sun being out led us to the conclusion that “Hey, we could do another 4.9 miles, yeah, let’s go!”
We only had about an hour of sunlight left when we rolled into Standing Indian Shelter, but we made it! After our highest mileage day so far (16.7 miles), we felt drained but accomplished, and ready to nom down on some delicious food. It was windy and cold, but we were having the time of our lives.
Day 10 AT Miles: 16.2
Feeling well rested, strong, and excited after the miles we tackled the day before, we weren’t as hesitant to trying and knock out some similar mileage. We were motivated to keep up with Sonar, too, who was looking at another big day. It took BAM! and I a bit longer to get going in the morning, so we told Sonar to go on and we’d catch up. As it happened, we wouldn’t catch up to Sonar, because after a while our bodies really started to feel the mileage we’d done the day before. By the time we got to the shelter 16.3 miles away from where we started, Sonar wasn’t there. Apparently he felt strong and decided to push on to the next shelter 3.5 miles further north. Our bodies were so done by then- there was just no way we were going to be able to push another 3.5 miles that day.
Despite the fact that we were on our own and a bit achey for most of the hike, we had an absolutely gorgeous day on the trail. For the first time since we started our thru, we were able to hike most of the day in our tees! Even on the crazy ascent up Albert Mountain we had a blast, fueled by the exhilaration of approaching our 100th AT mile- how accomplished we felt!
Day 11 AT Miles: 7.2
We awoke feeling a little worse for wear. The past few days of pushing 16+ miles back-to-back had definitely caught up to us. We could tell by the aching in our feet that we needed to pump the breaks a bit. Thank goodness Winding Stair Gap, our gateway to Franklin, NC, was less than 10 miles away.
We had a ride lined up with a friend’s mom, so we ate breakfast, packed up camp, and started down the trail. It was a beautiful, warm, sunshiney morning, and despite the fact that our feet were hurtin’ pretty good by this point, we were in good spirits knowing that civilization was oh so near.
After getting a ride into town, we got settled into a private room in a hostel and then moseyed into town. We hopped over to Outdoor 76 for a few items we needed, and also decided to check in with them about some of the aches and pains in our feet. And of course, we signed their AT Class of 2021 banner!
We also signed the AT banner at Lazy Hiker, where we met a friend for drinks in the evening. It felt great to go to a local brewery, sitting outside by the fire pit in the cool night air.
Day 12 Zero Day
After talking with some folks at Outdoor 76 regarding the aches and pains we’ve been feeling in our feet, we decided to stay another day and night in Franklin. We realized that in our excitement at feeling strong and alive on the trail, we were pushing ourselves a bit too hard with the the back-to-back 16+ mile days. It seems obvious now, that “duh!” hindsight is 20/20 thing which makes you feel kinda silly for thinking you could push harder than you should. But we’re trying to be kind to ourselves and cut ourselves some slack- we got caught up in the thrill and exciting brand new-ness of being on trail. At least we’re correcting course early on.
The zero is also giving us time to catch up on all the Hiking for Hunger stuff that tends to build while we’re out on trail. Still figuring out that balance, and I expect we’ll continue to “figure it out” throughout the entirety of our journey. For all the planning you do, and all the things you say you WILL undoubtedly make time for, the trail truly teaches you to let go of all those preconceived notions. The expectations we bring out with us, we’re beginning to realize, are much like the excessive amounts of food in our rations, all the other things we’ve been carrying with us which, simply put, are unnecessary. We shed literal physical weight and mental heaviness with each step we take.
Thank you all so much for following along and supporting our journey.
We have had quite the time during our first five days of thru hiking. We’ve encountered rain, ice, snow, and thick fog. We’ve been freezing cold trying to pack up camp and sweating profusely as we hiked up mountains. We are here for it all!
It started with a misty morning at Amicalola Falls State Park, where the Approach Trail to Springer Mountain begins. After getting some pictures at the iconic stone arch, we said goodbye to Mama Grant and officially began our journey. Giddy doesn’t begin to cover how we both felt as we essentially pranced down the trail- even trudging up the infamous 600-step stairs couldn’t get us down! Yeah, they were tough and certainly got our blood pumpin’, but it was worth it for the view of the falls. Even shrouded in heavy fog and mist, they were a sight to behold.
After those crazy stairs, we still had some tough butt-kickin’ elevation to climb to get up to Springer. We’re telling ya- that Approach Trail is no joke! But it was completely worth doing for how gratifying it felt to get to the top of Springer- it really felt like we had earned that summit, like it was the right way for us to start the trail. And boy, the pure elation we felt when we saw our first white blaze and the plaque indicating we were in fact standing on top of the southern terminus of the AT… nothing like it!
We took the obligatory photos and video while on top of Springer, of course, and signed our names in the register. It was pretty cold and windy and spitting rain, though, so we started heading in the direction of the shelter where we intended to set up camp for the night.
When we got to Stover Creek, there were already a few thru hikers there. Since we were planning on not staying in the shelters anyways during our thru, we went ahead and set up our tent close by. At some point, the sun peaked out and graced us all with its presence, a nice treat while cooking dinner. Eventually, even more thru hikers would show up for the night, including a family of seven! We went to bed a little after Hiker Midnight (aka when the sun goes down), savoring the excitement of our first day being on trail.
Day 1 Mileage Approach Trail Miles: 8.8 Appalachian Trail Miles: 2.8 Total Miles: 11.6
Our second day on the trail washed the honeymooning glisten of the first day right off of us. We knew we’re going to be seeing rain showers during the day and braced ourselves for it. We got through most of the day before the downpour really hit, but then we were really feeling it. We endured, but with how cold it was on top of the wetness, it truly was an “embrace the suck” kind of experience.
With our heads down basically just trying to make it the thirteen miles to Gooch Mountain Shelter, we were surprised when we came to a road crossing and found a white van covered in stickers with tarps rigged around it. Could this really be the infamous Fresh Ground, our wide eyes and dropped jaws seemed to be saying to each other. Sure enough, we gingerly walked on up to the van and a man jumped out of the driver’s side exclaiming “They didn’t tell me y’all were comin’! Y’all want some food? I’m gonna make y’all some food!” Literally day two of our thru hike and we’re being treated to some of the most iconic trail magic on the AT. We had heard about Fresh Ground from so many other seasoned thru hikers, and were just thrilled beyond belief that we’d run into him. We didn’t think we’d see him so early on! He cooked us up some delicious vegetable stir fry and homemade french fries before sending us on our way. That delicious warm food coupled with him telling us that he’d be at the road crossing just beyond where we’d be camping that night to cook all of us breakfast gave us the energy to rock out the last 3.5 miles to camp.
We reached the shelter to find a whole group of awesome thru hikers staying for the night. They had also experienced the incredible Fresh Ground trail magic and were equally pumped for breakfast the next morning.
That night was hard, as it was still cold and raining and beyond difficult to keep ourselves and everything we had with us even remotely dry. Frankly, it was impossible. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to be damp for the night, and just did what we could to dry things in the sleeping bag with our body heat as best as possible.
Day 2 Mileage Appalachian Trail Miles: 12.9
It rained most of the night leading into day three. The rain stopped early in the morning, but it got colder as dawn approached. When we awoke, everything was frozen, including our tent fly which was essentially a sheet of ice. Packing up was beyond difficult as we were cold beyond belief. A lot of our gear was still damp, making it hard to warm up before getting back on trail. If you’ve never had the pleasure of trying to shove your frozen feet into frozen boots with frozen hands, we highly recommend doing whatever you can to avoid such an experience altogether. Eventually, we got out of camp and started the 1.4 mile trek to the breakfast spot where we enjoyed yummy warm food and coffee and some great company with fellow thru hikers who also survived the crazy wet cold night- some much needed laughs were had before we started our journey for the day.
Hiking brought us warmth, which made us feel human again, which in turn made it possible for us to enjoy the beauty around us. Overnight, the woods had been transformed into what Micah referred to as a “Crystal Forest”- it literally felt like something out of a Dr. Seuss book! After what was an incredibly rough start to the day, we enjoyed our favorite day of hiking on the trail thus far!
We had the choice to hike further than we did that day, but decided to stop early at a campground with lots of sunshine and warmth and some of our new Hiker friends. It was still early, so we were able to lay out all of our wet stuff and dry things out. Despite the fact that we were a little further away from Blood Mountain, the peak we’d be summiting the next day, we felt good about our decision. We had such a good time getting to know some of the other hikers, relishing the good energy of the people we’re starting to sync up with. It was cold that night, but we were dry and feeling grateful for a beautiful day on the trail.
Day 3 Appalachian Trail Miles: 8.3
We woke up excited for what we knew in our hearts would be another great day on the trail. For starters, it was amazing to wake up warm and DRY, unlike the morning before. Everyone we stayed with at Lance Creek was in great spirits, soaking up the beauty of a stunning sunrise and getting excited for our ascent of Blood Mountain, the highest peak in Georgia on the AT.
Though we were the last ones to leave camp that day (walking away from Lance Creek Campground at 9:15 am) we were cruising and knocked out the 4.9 miles to the top of Blood in 2 hours and 10 minutes. It was a bluebird day and the views on top were spectacular. We so enjoyed spending time up there with our new trail friends, basking in the accomplishment of knocking out one of the harder summits in Georgia. While on the summit, Micah even got his trail name! He described to our new friends how, when he was working in wilderness therapy, he would get the kids attention by saying “BAM!” whenever they’d come across a stunning view. The kids, jolted from their heads-down trudge, would look up saying “What?!?!” To which Micah would respond, “BAM! Beauty Appreciation Moment!” Micah told this story, and Sherpa immediately said “BAM! That’s your trail name!”
After a nice long break on top of Blood, we made our way down to Neel Gap. We’d already decided that we would be taking the next day off in anticipation of the thunderstorms coming through, but hearing that all our new friends would also be taking a zero the next day, we were all the more motivated to have a day to regroup. From Neels, it’s a short walk down to Blood Mountain Cabins. We arrived and found that dear old Fresh Ground would also be spending a few nights to feed our little group during our off day. We ended the day reveling at the serendipity of it all, absolutely astounded at the magic we were already experiencing on trail.
Day 4 Mileage Appalachian Trail Miles: 7.3
Day Five We’re taking our zero day to get everything in order before we hop back on trail tomorrow. The thunderstorms came through overnight, and we felt grateful that we weren’t in the middle of it getting drenched. We know that we’re going to run into rain on the trail- what we have to watch out for is rain followed by freezing cold temps. There are times that you can be cold and wet and be miserable but safe, and there are times that you can be cold and wet and it can be dangerous. We made a judgement call based on the rain and the freezing cold to follow it and decided a zero was called for. It has also given us the opportunity to write up some blog content for you fine folks!
While we’re excited and grateful for this time to regroup and bond some more with our Hiker friends, we’re also itching to get back on the trail. We’re excited to strap on our shoes and throw our packs on our backs again tomorrow and keep heading north!
Well, tomorrow is the day. The day we start our journey north on the Appalachian Trail.
In actuality, the journey started months ago for us, back when we decided we would be hiking the trail and that we would be doing it as a Fundraiser for MANNA FoodBank. Our journey so far has been exciting and hectic. Sometimes it feels as though this day could not have come soon enough, while on others it felt like we would never have enough time to be fully ready. We have already experienced many challenges along the way, but even more so we have experienced SO MUCH Love & Support from friends and family- our whole community! We can’t thank you all enough. We wouldn’t be here without each and every one of you. We can’t make it to Maine alone, so thank you for joining us on this journey of a lifetime.
Earlier this week we left our Pennsylvania homebase, a.k.a Momma Grant’s house, where we had been doing final preparations while enjoying some long overdue family time. We can’t thank Momma Grant enough for letting us store our junk and explode our hiking gear all over the house. She also drove us all the way down to Georgia- thank you mom!!!
On our way down, we stopped to see a few friends in the D.C. area. We enjoyed some porch visits and tea, and walks in the park with our beloved people whom we haven’t seen in over a year. It was rejuvenating to be able to see old friends before embarking on this long trek.
We then continued on to our old stomping grounds and the place we still consider home – Asheville. Here we swung by MANNA to see our work family and weigh our packs before heading to Georgia to officially launch our fundraising campaign. That being said, we have already seen tremendous support and raised over $1,920 for MANNA! And we haven’t even stepped foot on the trail yet – you all are incredible!!! Don’t forget to check out or “Donate Page” to learn more about our “Fund-Race” to Katahdin. 😉
Here in Asheville we have been blessed with an incredible community of friends. We were grateful to see many of them again as we passed through. They lavished on us encouragement and support- we know all of this would not be possible without them.
We know for certain, even now as we embark on our first thru-hike, that no one can do this alone. It takes a community to do a long hike like this and we are so grateful for the community we already have and community we know we will continue to build along the way.
So here we go! We would be lying if we told you we weren’t nervous. We have had the full gambit of emotions these last few days. From pure excitement and giddiness to extreme stress and near panic. But tomorrow the hiking starts. We have planned for this, we have trained for this, and we have a ton of people supporting us through thick and thin. (We also had a little scotch tonight to calm the nerves. 😁) So, no matter what comes our way, we are ready and confident that we will be able to press forward, and take it one step at a time.
Thank you all for following along. We will try to post something at least once a week while on the trail. This will be determined by available service and wifi, so it might be sporadic at times. We will try to update our location as often as possible, too, so keep an eye on the maps- the one where we track our current location AND the one where we track those donations as they roll in!
Hello all and Welcome to Our AT Journal! To officially kick off this journal, we thought we’d start by putting together a compilation of all the training we’ve been doing to prepare for our big adventure. We’re not including every hike, but we are including all of the hikes we have done with full backpacking pack-weight where our focus has been to train for the AT. We started doing this on Labor Day Weekend when we Thru-Hiked the Art Loeb Trail.
Here are our stat totals for our AT Training Excursions between Friday, September 4th 2020 and January 30th 2021
⛰ Total Training Miles with Full Pack Weight: 150.2Miles
🥾 Total # of Training Days: 12 Full Days (6 or more miles) & 4 Half Days (6 or fewer miles)
🇺🇸 States Where We Hiked For AT Training: Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee
If you’re just looking for the highlights, cool! Look no further. Buuuuuuuuuuuut if you’d like to read more about each of the training adventures we’ve embarked on, please keep on a readin’!
This post is kinda long as we wanted to catch you up on all we have been doing. So please feel free to take breaks and come back to it if need be. Rest assured, future posts will be a bit shorter since we will be on the trail and have to post while we are resupplying or going through towns.
We hope you enjoy all of the pictures, videos, and stories below!
Art Loeb Thru-Hike – 34.1 Miles
Friday 09/04/2020- Monday 09/07/2020- Three Night Backpacking Excursion (Art Loeb Trail Thru-Hike)
🇺🇸 State: North Carolina
We had quite the adventure out on the Art Loeb Trail! This one had been on both of our bucket lists for quite some time, and knowing that we needed to hit the ground running with our AT training, we figured a backpacking trip on the Art Loeb would be a great place to start. We wound up doing the whole Art Loeb trail plus a jaunt up to the top of Cold Mountain so we could enjoy a beautiful sunrise on our last morning.
We kicked off our adventure the night of September 4th, 2020 the Friday leading into Labor Day Weekend. We dropped our car off at the northern terminus of the trail at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp in Canton, NC. Our dear friend, Justine, met us there and drove us in her car to the southern terminus of the trail located at the Davidson River Campground in Pisgah National Forest, NC. We shoveled down some delicious wraps from Gypsy Queen Cuisine before bidding Justine adieu and kicking off our adventure. Since we were heading out in the evening after a full workday, we stopped for the night just 3 miles in at a small random campsite just off the trail.
🗺 09/04/20- Davidson River Campground > Random Campsite – 3 miles
The next day, we hiked roughly 13 miles. Our legs were already feeling it as we hit the toughest section of elevation gain near the end of the day – climbing Pilot Mountain was no joke!
We did it! We certainly were hurting, but we made it down the other side of the mountain, up over little Sassafras Knob, and found ourselves a quiet campground at Farlow Gap. We still had lots of daylight to work with, so we were able to cook a yummy dinner of Backcountry Gado Gado (Micah’s specialty) and enjoy a lovely late-summer evening.
🗺 09/05/20- Random Campsite > Farlow Gap – 13 miles
We woke up sore on Sunday, but nonetheless determined to tackle some more of this crazy trail. We had another high mileage, super intense elevation gain kind of day ahead of us, as we were determined to hike from Farlow Gap all the way to a spot just below the Cold Mountain summit. It. Was. Brutal. But also super fulfilling and included some of the most beautiful views from iconic WNC spots such as Black Balsam, Tennent Mountain, Shining Rock, etc…
By the time we got to Shining Rock and took a second longer break, we weren’t entirely convinced that we’d make it all the way to Cold Mountain like we’d hoped. Somehow though, we were able to push ourselves beyond Deep Gap and up onto Cold Mountain stopping just below the summit. We scored a beautiful campsite, cooked us up a delicious spicy rice and beans dinner as the sun set through the trees, and read a few chapters of “The Unlikely Thru Hiker” by Derick Lugo before crashing out.
🗺 09/06/20- Farlow Gap > Cold Mountain – 13 miles
We awoke before dawn on Monday, gathered our stove and breakfast fixins, and made our way to the Cold Mountain summit. After all of those crazy miles the past few days, we were treated to a gorgeous sunrise in the Shining Rock Wilderness- spectacular doesn’t begin to cover it! It was a peaceful start to the last day of our Art Loeb Adventure, as it was both serene and oh so beautifully solitary!
When we got back to camp, we finished packing up and then started the 5 or so mile hike down, down, down to the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp to retrieve our car…
… BUT our car wasn’t there when we got to the trailhead!!! AHHHHHHH!!! Ensue the panic! We were so consumed by the fact that our car, which we’d last seen Friday night when we dropped it off, was not where we had parked it, that we didn’t get to fully relish the accomplishment of having completed the Art Loeb. Long story short, our car was towed on the grounds that it supposedly would have obstructed an ambulance from getting down the road along which it was parked (beg to disagree, since everyone else parked there, too- we just happened to be on the end), and was towed Friday night. Luckily, we were able to get in touch with the towing company, and after securing a ride with a friend, picked up the car that same day. Suffice it to say, it was not the ideal ending to our journey, but now that some time has passed we are able to truly appreciate tackling the Art Loeb and all the good that did come out of it.
🗺 09/07/20- Cold Mountain > Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp – 5.2 miles
Here’s a breakdown of our stat TOTALS from the Art Loeb trip:
🥾 Total Miles 34.1 🥾 (31.1 on the Art Loeb + 3 out-and-back on the Cold Mountain Trail, according to the Hiking Project App)
⛰⛰ Total Elevation Gain ⛰⛰ 8,590 feet (7,578 on Art Loeb + 1,012 on Cold Mtn Trail, according to Hiking Project App)
Graybeard Mountain – 9.4 Miles
Saturday, October 31st- Day Hike with Full Pack-weight (Graybeard Mountain Trail)
🇺🇸 State: North Carolina
By Halloween, it had been a while since we’d last trained with full packweight on our weekend backpacking extravaganza out on the Art Loeb trail. Of course, this doesn’t mean we didn’t hike at all between Labor Day and Halloween- hardly! We got in plenty of day hikes with “normal” day hike packweight. In fact, we did a ton of hiking while out in Colorado during our late-September Honeymoon. Lounging around on a beach just isn’t our style. Being that we seem to be gluttons for misery, our Hike-A-Palooza in Colorado included a rather technically challenging 18 mile-long 14-er called Long’s Peak (14-ers are peaks that are 14,000 feet or more above sea level). We did over 5,000 feet of overall elevation gain and our lungs weren’t fully acclimated, we definitely had our work cut out for us on that one!
So, it’s not like we had been completely slacking off between Labor Day and Halloween, which is when we threw on our backpacks and trudged up Graybeard Mountain for what has become our annual fall hike up the peak. That being said, it had been some time since we’d trained with our full pack-weight, so we were eager to get back and focus on getting in shape for the AT. Despite not hiking with full pack-weight for a month and a half, we felt strong on this hike and enjoyed beautiful views out at Walker Knob and at the summit of Graybeard (although the summit itself was pretty much shrouded in clouds most of the time – so we didn’t get any pictures).
The views aren’t everything that we love about this hike. The journey of this hike is what brings us back every autumn, how lovely the lush reds, oranges, and yellows of fall color look amongst the tunnels of dark green rhododendron. We love, too, the gentle murmuring of the creek you cross a few times on your way up to the cascading Graybeard Falls. Though a mountain’s summit no doubt can fill you with a sense of awe-inspiring grandeur, so, too, can the tranquility and quiet of the forest enliven and enrich your soul.
Here are our stats for the Graybeard Hike:
🗺 Parking Lot > Graybeard Summit > Walker Knob > Parking Lot
🥾 9.4 miles roundtrip
⛰ 2,368 ft of elevation gain
⏰ Roughly 5 hours
Mount Cammerer – 11.6 Miles
Saturday, November 28th 2020 – Day Hike with Full Pack-weight (Appalachian Trail, Northern Smokies Section)
🇺🇸 State: North Carolina
For this day of training, we hopped on the AT at Davenport Gap and headed southbound on the trail into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We climbed and climbed and climbed some more on this one! We were grateful to have the latest addition to our gear repertoire for this one: our new Black Diamond Ergo Cork Trail trekking poles! Lightweight yet extremely durable, they make hiking with full pack weight a heck of a lot easier! Our knees were thanking us on the way down.
After 5.2 miles of hiking (all uphill- though we’d remind you in case you forgot, haha!), we came to a trail intersection where we had the option to take the 0.6 mile spur trail to the top of Mt. Cammerer. We figured we’d gotten this far, so why not? We took the Cammerer trail and were so glad we did, as we were treated to a magnificent view from atop what was an old fire watchtower. We even met a guy at the top who said that Cammerer was his favorite spot in all of the Smokies! We were both really happy with our decision to venture down the Cammerer Trail offshoot.
In all likelihood, we will be racing through the Smokies when we come through during our thru-hike attempt. You see, thru-hikers only have eight days allowed on their permits to hike the 72 miles of the AT that traverse through GSMNP. This may seem perfectly doable, and yet the Smokies present some of the most challenging terrain you find on the AT, boasting the highest peak found along the trail, Clingman’s Dome (6,644 feet above sea level). Not only that, but the Smokies are notorious for having unforgiving weather at best- we’re talking about the possibility of serious snowfall as late as May, friends!
After a quick snack at Cammerer peak where we also enjoyed the warmth of the noontime sun, we started making our way back down to Davenport Gap. We’re tellin’ ya- those trekking poles were EXTRA AWESOME going back down those crazy mountains! Even with a 20 minute stop at the Davenport Shelter (the last shelter along the AT at the northern end of the Smokies) to write in the shelter book, we made it back to our parked car within 2 hrs and 30 mins of leaving Cammerer peak- we were cah-ruisin’, y’all!
Here are our stats for the Mount Cammerer Hike:
🗺 Davenport Gap > Mt. Cammerer > Davenport Gap (Out and Back)
🥾 11.6 miles round trip
⛰ Roughly 2,600 ft of elevation gain
⏰ About 6 hrs with breaks
Tanyard Gap – 11.8 Miles
Saturday, December 5th 2020 – Day Hike with Full Pack-Weight (Appalachian Trail, Hot Springs)
🇺🇸 State: North Carolina
For today’s long hike training, we did a section of the AT starting in the trail town of Hot Springs, NC. After parking our car out front of what is now Big Pillow Brewing Company (definitely stopping there on our way through to Maine now that it’s open!), we crossed over the (Dirty) French Broad River and followed the trail up, up, up steep switchbacks to a rock outcropping known as Lover’s Leap. From there we continued on all the way to Tanyard Gap, where we turned around and made our way back to our parked car.
For this hike, we added extra weight to our packs to try and simulate full pack weight right after a hefty food re-ration. We want to try and get our bodies acclimated to our heaviest pack weight before we start our thru-hike so that we have a good foundation going into hiking everyday. During this hike, we also had an opportunity to test out some of our layering systems as it was quite chilly! Hot Springs had a low of 34 degrees/high of 48 degrees while we were out there, and the wind chill made it feel much colder at times.
Knowing that we’d be coming back through this section right after a layover day in Asheville on our trek north, we scoped out some spots within the first few miles of the hike where we could possibly make camp. There’s something special about walking through a space that you know you’re going to return to, and that when you do return, you’re going to be on the journey of a lifetime.
Here are our stats for the Tanyard Gap Hike:
🗺 Hot Springs > Tanyard Gap > Hot Springs (Out-and-Back)
🥾 11.8 miles round trip
⛰ Roughly 2,000 ft of elevation gain
⏰ About 5 and a half hours with breaks
Rich Mtn Fire Tower – 5 Miles
Saturday December 12th 2020 – Day Hike with Full Pack-Weight (Appalachian Trail, North of Hot Springs)
🇺🇸 State: North Carolina
The hike we did from Tanyard Gap to Rich Mountain Lookout Tower was a shorter one. This was in part because Keeka was working in some new hiking boots and started to feel some pain on the side of her left arch, and in part because we still had SOOOO MUCH to do with regards to the holidays and getting ready to move out of our house in Asheville in less than a month, etc… To say that we were feeling a little stressed out would be an understatement.
Despite it being a shorter hike, we thoroughly enjoyed the views from atop the lookout tower- even the crazy, cold wind couldn’t get us down. And of course, we always love any opportunity to be on the trail and feel the stirrings of adventure within us! As we get closer and closer and countdown the days ‘till we set foot on the Approach Trail in Amicalola Falls State Park, our excitement (and nervousness) is mounting!
Here are our stats for the Rich Mountain Lookout Tower Hike:
🗺 Tanyard Gap > Rich Mountain Lookout Tower > Tanyard Gap
🥾 5 miles roundtrip
⛰ 1,236 feet of elevation gain
⏰ About 2 hours
Lane Pinnacle – 11.6 Miles
Saturday, December 19th 2020 – Day Hike with Full Pack-Weight (Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Rattlesnake Lodge Area)
🇺🇸 State: North Carolina
After a shorter hike the weekend before, we figured we were overdue for a high mileage, significant elevation gain training day. We decided on a hike along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, starting between Craven Gap and Bull Gap with Lane Pinnacle as our turn-around spot.
About a mile or so into our hike, we passed Rattlesnake Lodge, one of the more popular spots to hike to in the Asheville area. Before today, we hadn’t ventured past this point, so we pushed on before the crowds of people looking for a quick Saturday hike started to converge on the space. As we got into higher elevations, we realized it must have snowed at some point during the week before this Saturday adventure, so we were treated to what remained of some beautiful snow-clad forest scenery. At one point, we paused to watch bits of melting ice fall from the branches of trees as a series of high winds blew across the ridgeline, making a tinkling noise as they hit the ground.
We had a quick lunch break at Lane Pinnacle in a nice sunny spot (you may have noticed a theme here- we love our winter afternoon sunshine!), featuring some amazing homemade Chai Peanut Butter energy balls from Ultra Coffeebar (nom nom nom). Then we started our descent, treading carefully as we went downhill on the steep, slushy terrain.
Here are our stats for the Lane Pinnacle Hike:
🗺 Bull Gap > Lane Pinnacle > Bull Gap
🥾 11.6 miles roundtrip (guestimate)
⛰ Roughly 2,000 feet of elevation gain
⏰ About 5.5 hrs
Roan Mountain with Laura and Heather!!! – 5 Miles
Sunday, December 27th 2020 – Day Hike with Full Pack-Weight (Appalachian Trail, Roan Mountain Area)
🇺🇸 State: Tennessee
We’re really lucky to have been able to cultivate an incredible community while in Asheville. As much as we love Asheville for how cool of a place it is to live, it is truly brought to life for us by the friends and framily (friends who are also your chosen family) who call this place home.
On this particular day we got to hike with two of our phenomenal friends. One of which you see in the picture above (center). Heather is our longtime roommate and a big part of our framily in Asheville – we love her so much! The other is working her magic behind the camera – the incredible Laura Sparks! We met Laura while the three of us were all working for MANNA. Though all of us have now moved on from working at MANNA, our friendship has endured. And how could it not? Laura is one of the most hilariously wonderful and unique individuals that we’ve both had the pleasure to know. She absolutely cracks us up, has quite literally had us on the floor laughing so hard it hurts! At the same time, the three of us have had some deeply profound conversations, the kind where time and everything else seems to just fall away.
Laura is also one of our creative friends. A photographer by trade, Laura has done both our engagement and elopement photos (which we are thoroughly obsessed with). Being the generous soul that she is, Laura offered to do a Hiking for Hunger photoshoot with us so that we could get some professional photos up on our website. We had such a great time hiking and sliding around on the Roan Mountain balds (the trails were SUPER icy) with Laura and our other dear sweet friend, Heather. Laura captured some great images while we were out there, which we immediately used to bring our website and social media images up a level.
We really cannot say enough good things about Laura, both as a friend and as a creative partner. If you haven’t had the opportunity to check out her work yet, go do it… right now! ….
In all seriousness though, if you’re in the market for a photographer who will literally climb mountains for you, Laura’s got you covered. Go check out her phenomenal portfolio if you don’t believe us!
Here are our stats for the Roan Mountain Hike:
🗺 Carver’s Gap > Grassy Knob > Carver’s Gap
🥾 5 miles roundtrip
⛰ 500+ feet of (icy) elevation gain
⏰ 3 or so hours (this was a more relaxed occasion)
Washington Monument SP and Annapolis Rocks – 18 miles
Tuesday, January 19th 2021 – Thursday January 21st – Two Night Backpack with Full Pack-Weight (Appalachian Trail, Washington Monument State Park)
🇺🇸 State: Maryland
Because of the times we find ourselves in (that whole pesky pandemic thing), we wanted to take every precaution before going to our new home base in East Stroudsburg, PA, a.k.a. Keeka’s mom’s house. Out of an abundance of caution, we got a PCR COVID test before heading there, which meant that we had a few days of wait time before the results were expected to come in. Well, what do you think we did to bide the time? We went backpacking, of course!!!
Having just spent a few days in Harper’s Ferry, WV, we decided to find a spot on the AT a little further north for our “Winter Backpacking Shakedown”. We wanted to be in a good position to hike back to the car as soon as we got our test results and not be too terribly far from East Stroudsburg, PA. At the same time, we didn’t want to pick a spot on the AT in Pennsylvania due to the fact that current PA COVID regulations for out-of-town travelers are that you either 1. Need to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival or 2. Have proof of a recent, negative COVID test. Based on this and the fact that we wanted to try and do a social distance hike with Keeka’s dad who lives in the DC area (and, thus, needed to find a spot that wasn’t too far of a drive for him), we found a section in Maryland, starting in Washington Monument State Park (WMSP) with a turn around at Annapolis Rocks, ending back in WMSP.
For the first day of our two-night backpack (which was really just a half day), we got started late (around 3 pm) and only hiked about 3.8 miles from the hiker parking lot in WMSP to the Pine Knob Shelter. We hastily set up camp and got dinner rolling since the sun was already beginning to set. Though we were surrounded by trees rather than up on a 360 view ridgeline at this campsite, we did get to enjoy a spectacular sunset that blazed through and lit up the surrounding forest. We marveled at how long the vibrant colors lingered… Still, it couldn’t last forever, and soon enough we found ourselves submerged in darkness.
We ate our dinner and cleaned up our “kitchen” area, threw our Ursack Bear-Resistant Bag up on a bear hang pole, and proceeded to get all bundled up and snuggled in for the cold night ahead. We read the last few chapters of “The Unlikely Thru Hiker” by Derrick Lugo, which we’ve taken turns reading aloud to each other, typically while we’re out in the backcountry. There wasn’t a dry eye between the two of us as we read about the moment when Derrick touched the iconic sign on top of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT. We’d been “along for the ride” in the literary sense, so to speak, for months now. Because of his phenomenal writing style and the way he could make you laugh one moment and cry the next, we really felt like we were living parts of his experience, too. Needless to say, we felt a bit overwhelmed when we got to the end of his journey, especially as the beginning of our own is just around the corner.
Here are our stats for the day:
🗺 01/19- Washington Monument State Park > Pine Knob Shelter
🥾 3.8 miles
⛰ 428 feet of elevation gain
⏰ Less than 2 hours
We woke up before dawn, knowing that we were scheduled to meet my (Keeka’s) Dad at the I-70 Footbridge parking area by 9 am. We stared at each other for a few minutes after our alarm went off at 6 am, silently asking each other if we really, truly wanted to drag ourselves out of the cocoon of warmth we were snuggled in. Outside, we could hear that the winds had picked up- the abrupt thrashing against our tent made the prospect of going outside even less enticing. Somehow we mustered the wherewithal to sloooooooooowly begin layering up and organizing our belongings within the tent. After some time, Micah had gotten organized to the point where he could go down to our “kitchen” to get breakfast started. I finished up with organizing our gear inside the tent, packing it up, and then clumsily breaking down the tent with numb fingers. Mercifully, the sky started to lighten, and we could turn off our headlamps. While we were eating breakfast, it started to lightly snow. We looked at each other with deer-in-the-headlights expressions on our faces. Nooooo…. thankfully, it only lasted for a few minutes.
We reached the parking area where we were supposed to meet Dad about half an hour early. By this point, I had some serious “stirrins” (how Micah and I communicate in the backcountry that we have to poo) and the ground all around us was frozen solid, meaning that digging a cathole would be a nearly impossible endeavor, especially given my now desperate state of having to go. I turned to Micah and told him “I gotta go!” and just started running back to the Pine Knob Shelter. I had noticed a privy was onsite when we camped there the night before, but I stuck my nose up and told myself I wouldn’t use it. Now I was all about it. Luckily, the privy was well-cleaned and clearly hadn’t been used in a while (well, duh, it’s freezing, late-January in Maryland). I kept my mask on and did my thing and sheee-shooooooo what a relief! As a bonus, the privy not only was stocked with toilet paper but hand sanitizer, too! (I had brought some sani along, but was grateful to be able to save it and use the privy-sani instead) To my surprise and then my delight, the hand sanitizer sang to me when I pushed down on it- can’t say I had experienced that before! I didn’t recognize the song, but it had a Winter Wonderland kind of vibe to it.
I got back to the parking area expecting to see Micah and my dad chatting while they waited for me to return, but my dad’s little yellow Fiat still wasn’t there when I returned. I called Dad to figure out what was going on. Apparently, Waze took the coordinates I sent him and decided that he should go to Eastern Maryland rather than Western Maryland. We determine that GPS sent him to the same address but in Ellicott City, MD rather than Myersville, MD. Good grief! Well it took some time, but we figured it out, got Dad to the trailhead, and were able to proceed with our hike! Out of an abundance of caution, we all wore our masks whenever we were within a few feet of each other to keep each other safe.
We had such a great time hiking with Dad. It was awesome getting the chance to catch up in person, and it was such a treat to be outside together on a hike, something we hadn’t done all together in quite some time. We hiked out to Annapolis Rocks where we took in the beautiful views and ate a quick lunch before the cold winds forced us to keep walking for warmth. Even though we knew we’d be hiking back to Annapolis Rocks later to set up camp, Micah and I hiked back down to the parking area with Dad to maximize our time with him. It was hard to say good-bye, but we’re so glad we got that time together in the first place.
After parting ways with Dad, Micah and I hiked back up to the Annapolis Rocks campsite area. We found ourselves a nice spot that wasn’t too far from the water source and began setting up camp. Knowing that this night was going to be even colder than the previous one, we added a layer of leaves to the ground as extra insulation for the spot where we ultimately set up our tent. After getting our home for the night situated, we got rolling with dinner (spicy, chili lentils and rice). We watched the sunset as we ate our dinner. It struck me, as we sat there, essentially freezing our butts off, how incredible it is that we humans never seem to grow tired of the allure of a deeply aesthetic sunset, how each time you experience one it somehow is not quite the same as the last. Perhaps a sunset is a bit like a fingerprint, each one unique, though at times you wonder how exactly does each one feel different and new when they can also feel so similar. Does that make any sense? Share your experiences in the the comments below.
After the sun had set, we did our best to prepare for the cold night to come. Tonight was going to be 10 degrees colder than the previouse night and we felt cold in our tent last night. So we wanted to take a few extra measures to make sure we stayed warm tonight. After we had read to each other for a bit and determined we were ready to hit the hay, we scarfed down a go macro bar (to give our bodies fuel to create heat through the night) and then jogged for a bit around camp to build up heat before getting back in the tent. I will remind you that we had also added a layer of leaves under our tent for insulation from the ground. Doing this combined with good layering of gear meant that we not only survived the cold night, but we were warm and toasty through it!
Here are our stats for the day:
🗺 01/20- Pine Knob Shelter > I-70 Footbridge Parking Area > Annapolis Rocks > I-70 Footbridge Parking Area > Annapolis Rocks Campsite
🥾 8.6 miles
⛰ 1,034 feet of elevations gain
⏰ Who knows…? (:D)
“Ahhhhhhh, we maaaaaaaaade it!” That’s what I first heard from the Micah-lump next to me as the warmth of the sun began to permeate our tent. Indeed, we survived the night. It dipped below 20 degrees and yet we not only survived but stayed toasty, comfy warm the whole night. As a person who struggles severely with staying warm, this felt like a breakthrough! Overjoyed that “we maaaaaaade it” as Micah put it, we started to leisurely pack up camp and get breakfast started. We took our time getting ourselves organized that morning, enjoying the pleasant weather and good spirits borne out of a successful night of sleeping and waking up warm (I’m tellin’ y’all, going to bed warm and waking up warm can make ALL of the difference!). Eventually, we had our breakfast, got packed up, and started to head to ‘the Rocks” one last time to enjoy some views before heading back in the direction of Washington Monument State Park. We weren’t exactly sure what our plans were exactly, but that quickly changed once we realized that both of our COVID tests that we’d been waiting for had come back as negative! With that news we had a renewed energy and a lightness in our step that propelled us forward towards our parked car some 5.6 miles away.
Because of our determination to make miles and get to the car as fast as possible, we didn’t do a whole lot of stopping and admiring of the views- definitely more of that “head down makin’ miles” kind of trekking. We did, however, take pride in our hiking speed and were beyond stoked when we got to the hiker parking lot and our dear ol’ RAVY (we have a Toyota RAV4) was still parked there (the towing situation at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp scarred us for life). We jumped for joy and then jumped right on into the car to knock out the 3 and a half hour drive to East Stroudsburg, PA.
Here are our stats for the day:
🗺 01/21- Annapolis Rocks > Washington Monument State Park
🥾 5.6 miles
⛰ 408 feet of elevation gain
⏰ 2 hours and 15 minutes
Sunfish pond and Kittatinny Mountain – 14.3 Miles
Monday, January 25th 2021 – Day Hike with Full Pack-Weight
🇺🇸 States: Pennsylvania & New Jersey
Well we are settling into our new home base in PA. We will be here until we head down to Georgia to start the trail in mid-February.
We are just 10 minutes away from the AT trailhead in Delaware Water Gap! So, today we hopped on the trail and hiked north into New Jersey. We did 14.3 miles in 6.5 hours with full pack-weight! Suffice it to say, we are feeling strong.
The section we hiked was lovely, albeit rocky, with beautiful views and a frozen lake (Sunfish Pond) that was making all sorts of fun noises (think along the lines of the storm trooper blaster sounds in Star Wars) as the sun started to warm it up. We also saw a beautiful ice flower (also known as Needle Ice)… they are so cool!
After that we summited Kittatinny Mountain and had beautiful 360 degree views of the surrounding ridgelines and the Delaware River. We had ourselves some lunch and took in the views and then headed down the other side. Today we were excited because we didn’t have to do an out and back and could continue pushing forward on new terrain. Big thanks to Suzanne (Keeka’s mom) for the shuttle- you’re the best, momma!
Here are the stats from our Delaware Water Gap hike:
🗺 Delaware Water Gap (Hiker’s Parking Lot) > Millbrook-Blairstown Rd (Parking Area)
🥾 14.3 miles
⛰ 1,782 feet of Elevation Gain
⏰ 6.5 hours
Kirkridge Shelter Out and Back – 12.4 Miles
Wednesday, January 27th 2021 – Day Hike with Full Pack-Weight
🇺🇸 State: Pennsylvania
While we may have been the first humans on the trail today, we were not the first beings. One of my (Micah) favorite things to do growing up in Michigan was to go exploring after a fresh snow fall. You can see all of the tracks of creatures that you rarely get to see. The forest comes alive when you realize how active the environment really is.
Today we had ourselves a snowy AT training hike consisting of an out-and-back in the Delaware Water Gap area. We hiked 6.2 miles south on the AT before turning around at the Kirkridge Shelter, for a grand total of 12.4 miles.
We hiked a bit more slowly today because of the snow (12.4 miles in roughly 6 hrs and 20 mins). As Micah put it, snow hiking does two things to slow you down: 1.) You’ve gotta watch your footing a bit more carefully in certain sections because of the slippiness and 2.) a snowy trail brings to life the activity of a forest, which results in the “look, nature is so cool!” effect, which means stopping to take more pictures.
Here are the stats from our Delaware Water Gap hike:
🗺 Delaware Water Gap > Kirkridge Shelter >Delaware Water Gap
🥾 12.4 miles
⛰ 1,364 Elevation Gain
⏰ 6 hrs 20 min
Wind Gap – 16.6 Miles
Saturday, January 30th 2021 – Day Hike with Full Pack-Weight (Appalachian Trail, Northeast PA, Wind Gap)
🇺🇸 State: Pennsylvania
After looking over our AT Guide and determining that this hike would involve less overall elevation gain, we decided that this could be a perfect opportunity to push our mileage with the goal of completing 16.6 miles. We did just that, hiking from the Fox Gap parking lot on PA 191 to the Smith Gap Rd. parking area 16.6 miles away. Despite not having too crazy of a time with elevation, we did encounter lots and lots of rocks all along the trail (hence the nickname for Pennsylvania: Rocksylvania), most of which were caked in snow leftover from a dusting from a few days prior. Did one of you slip and fall, you may ask? To which we can say why yes, a Keeka did indeed take a tumble (Thanks for that one, Rocksylvania!). It was more funny than anything- it’s too bad Micah wasn’t fast enough to capture it in all it’s goofy glory on our new GoPro. Alas…. next time perhaps!
While this turned out to be more of a “head down, makin’ miles” kind of hike, we got to appreciate some of the views from Wolf Rocks and Hahn’s Overlook, and a nice, warm, sunny spot to have lunch, which was much appreciated given that when we started it was 15 degrees Ferenheit with a wind chill that made it feel a ton colder.
Special thanks to Momma Grant, who met us at Smith Gap Rd. and shuttled us back to Fox Gap, where we left our car. She’s notorious for bringing along water, chocolate, and snacks when she comes to pick us up, which we have no problem with whatsoever!
Here are the stats for our Northeast PA (Wind Gap) hike:
🗺 Fox Gap, PA 191 (Hiker Parking Lot) > Smith Gap Rd.
🥾 16.6+ miles
⛰ 860 feet of Elevation Gain
⏰ 7.5 hours
If you have gotten this far, you are a CHAMP! Wahoo!
Thank you for following along with our adventure thus far, and most of all, thanks for your interest in Hiking for Hunger!
Remember to check out Our Cause page to learn more about why we are hiking to support MANNA FoodBank. And please consider donating to MANNA as part of the Hiking for Hunger project. 100% of all donations go directly to MANNA. With every 4 dollars donated equaling 1 mile on the trail – we will see who makes it to Katahdin first! If you have already donated thank you so much – you are making a big difference in the lives of so many in WNC!
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