PCT Day 1 – 7.6 miles Southern Terminus to Random Campsite PCT miles remaining (approx): 2647.4
Highlights: – Delicious Breakfast at Scout and Frodos – Driving to the monument with our wonderful shuttle driver, Skywalker, from @pctsouthernterminusshuttle – Elaborate photo shoot at the monument featuring the @highlandbrewing Trailbound Hazy Pale Ale. – Sobering moment looking at the border wall – Starting the trail! Feeling giddy and excited – So much water everywhere – Lilac tunnels – Stopping for all of the interesting plants -Camp in a beautiful place with Heather, Eliza, Mags, and Audrey -Mason joins for post-dinner hangs and beer drinking, more Trailbound from Highland Brewing! – Great conversations with new friends
Keep following @hikingforhunger on Instagram for more updates and photos! You can also follow @hero_thru_n_thru and @bam_micah for even more pictures and videos from the trail!
The Hiking for Hunger Launch Event is coming up real fast, y’all! As Friday evening quickly approaches, we are excited to share a few updates and reminders with y’all 🥰
When: Friday, April 7th 6-8 pm, remarks around 7 pm Where: Mount Inspiration’s West Asheville location (444 Haywood Rd.)
🍻 Our friends at Highland Brewing will be sharing samples of their brand spankin’ new Trailbound Hazy Pale Ale. We’ve had the chance to try it and it is quite delicious! 😋
🥨 Light snacks are being provided by the one and only Red Fiddle Vittles – y’all it’s gonna be TASTY up in here!
🍀 We’ll be kicking off a fun little ✨giveaway✨ at the Launch Event this Friday. It’ll include some H4H swag and some goodies from the incredible humans of Mount Inspiration. The giveaway details (what’s on the line, how to enter, etc…) will be shared after the event on our socials and website, so fear not if you cannot make it to the Launch- we gotchoo 😉
🚙 A note on parking: Free parking is available in the lot behind Mount Inspiration. There is also free parking across the street at the old Asheville Primary School.
We are so so excited to see y’all this Friday! It means so much to be able to celebrate with y’all as we get ready to embark on this journey 🤗
Hey y’all we are working hard to catch up on our journal. Here are days 56-65 (Daleville, VA to the Southern Shenandoahs) Thanks so much for following along!
Day 56 (Saturday, April 10th, 2021)
AT Miles: 0
710.5 Miles Down, 1482.6 To Go
We let ourselves sleep in a bit this morning and our bodies needed it. Hero microwaved some of our leftover cheese-less pizza and we ate breakfast in bed. We started planning out our day as we ate. We needed to go to Kroger’s and get our resupply and we needed to swing by the outfitter to check if they had some things we were looking for. I also needed to hike down to the post office to pick up my new shoes!
We realized that the Kroger and the Outfitter were in the same strip mall and there was a coffee shop there, too. Unfortunately, the Outfitter doesn’t open until 10am and we are trying to get all of our errands done as early as possible so we can get some Hiking for Hunger things done today, too. We decide to start at the coffee shop! We start walking the 0.6 miles down the road. It is a little nerve wracking since there are no sidewalks and it is 4 lanes of traffic with a median. We walk down the shoulder of the road then dart across two lanes of traffic to the median, walk a little further and see an opportunity- we dash across to the other side. We get to the parking lot for the strip mall and head to the coffee shop. Hero orders a Chai Latte and I ask for a Dirty Chai, both with Oat Milk. They are ready in just a few minutes. We take a few sips – so delicious, such a treat!
With my Chai in hand, I start walking another 0.6 miles up to the post office while Hero heads over to Kroger to get our resupply. I have to dart back across the highway and walk along the road the whole way- still not a sidewalk in sight in this Roanoke suburb. I get to the post office and ask if they have a package for me – they do! A huge thank you to Tasmen for picking up the shoes from Outdoor 76 and shipping them to me so quickly, I am so grateful! They hand me the box and I walk out to the parking lot, open it up and put my new shoes on for the walk back down the road.
As I am lacing them up, a car pulls in and a lady gets out and looks over at me with a big smile on her face, “Are you a hiker?” she asks. “I am!” I say and she walks over and says, “I always love talking with the hikers.” We started chatting and get to know each other a bit. I eventually talk about our fundraiser and how Hero and I used to work for MANNA. When I say that, her face lights up, and she says “my niece’s husband volunteers for MANNA!” A bit shocked and surprised, I ask, “What’s his name?” She tells me and I realize that it is someone I have worked alongside in the MANNA Volunteer Center for the last couple years. It is just crazy and amazing that this person and I happened to meet each other and realized our connection during just a few minutes of chatting. After a wonderful conversation, I asked her to tell her niece’s husband I said “Hi,” and started walking back down the road.
With the new shoes, I felt like I was walking on clouds again. I get back to the strip mall just a few minutes before 10am when the outfitters are supposed to open. I text Hero to see if she is still at Kroger and she is. We meet up and finish shopping then go over to the outfitter. I wait outside with our bags of food while she goes into shop. A little while later she comes out wearing a brand new pair of shoes! She let me know that she tried them on just to see the difference between the new shoes and her old shoes. She realized that the cushion in her old shoes was completely compressed and she also needed new ones. I was stoked that we would both have fresh shoes for the next leg of the trail. Hero waited outside while I went in to look around a bit. I found a few things we needed like bug spray and permethrin now that the ticks, mosquitoes, and other bugs are out.
Afterwards, we headed back to the motel with all of our food. We got back then sorted and packed our resupply. We were feeling pretty drained and really just wanted to chill. We turned on the TV and stumbled upon a Hunger Games marathon while channel surfing and immediately got sucked in. We both realized we weren’t getting any more work done…
A couple of hours later, we were getting hungry and really wanted the Impossible Burgers we heard were at the Tavern in town, but it was almost 2 miles away and we definitely weren’t walking. I tried ordering through Uber Eats and I thought it was working but an hour passed and the app still said they were “making your order.” So, I called the Tavern directly and they said they had never received the order. They also told me Uber Eats dosen’t even work in this town (Sigh). I tried just requesting a ride from Uber to go down and pick up the food. To my surprise, I actually got a ride, but they were coming from the next town over and it would take 20 minutes fir them to get to the hotel.
They pulled up and I got in. I told the driver that I was just picking up food, and if he wanted to get a double fair he could hang out for a minute while I place another request and he could take me right back to the hotel. His response, “I’ll be long gone before you come back out.” I found this odd and kinda rude. I was just trying to make it worth his while to have come over this way by making sure he got at least two fares for his trouble. Oh well, we got there, I grabbed the food (which was ready to go) and was back out in less than a minute. True to his word, the Uber driver was already gone. I placed another request for a ride back but there were no drivers in the area. Frustrated, I started walking back in the direction of the hotel. It had rained and I was in my sandals with socks on m, and my feet were getting wet as I walked along the side of the busy sidewalk-lacking road. I just wanted to be back in the hotel room chilling with Hero- I really didn’t want to walk two miles on the road in my sandals. After walking a little ways, I tried requesting a ride again and to my amazement I got someone. They were over 20 minutes away, but I would rather wait than walk at this point, so I waited.
The second Uber driver showed up and was really nice. We chatted and they were also surprised that the other driver didn’t take me up on the double fare. They dropped me off, I thanked them for the ride, and went back to the room. The burger and fries were luke warm at this point and not the best we’ve had, but we still enjoyed them as we continued watching the Hunger Games.
Before we knew it, six o’clock had rolled around- we had dinner plans with our good friend Einstein, who is getting off the trail to go back to work. He accomplished more than he thought he would – over a third of the trail under his belt. He would stay on if he could, but as he kept saying he’s a word of his man and he was needed back at work. We all wished he could keep hiking with us, too, but since he had to get off we were gonna make sure we sent him off with all the love and support we could muster.
We had such a great night hanging out- having drinks, eating food, and just talking. The community he had built and become a part of in just a couple months on trail was truly amazing- almost everyone was there to say goodbye. He lives near the trail further north, so we all made plans to see him again when we go through his town. It wasn’t goodbye, just see ya later… but it was still hard. When you experience the challenges of the trail together and grow through the early trials, the bonds you create are strong – we’re family! We’ll see you again soon Einstein!
Day 57 (Sunday, April 11th, 2021)
AT Miles: 11.2
Daleville, VA > Wilson Creek Shelter
721.7 Miles Down, 1471.4 To Go
We went to bed very, very, VERY late last night. It was well worth it to have the chance to spend some good quality time with Einstein on his last day, but man were we feeling it this morning. We struggled to get up and moving, dragging our sluggish feet as long as possible.
We ran into Einstein as he was getting coffee in the hotel lobby. We said our last goodbyes for now. I tell myself that it’s just “see ya later” until we see him further up the trail when we get to where he lives in Massachusetts, but this does little to take the edge off of parting ways. Einstein has been my buddy since that fateful day at the very beginning when we all got drenched and then froze overnight. I’ll never forget meeting Einstein as we warmed our hands over one of Fresh Ground’s cook flames that next morning, both of us laughing hysterically at the absurdity of what we’d gotten ourselves into. Even in that moment, the trail had stripped us bare and we found ourselves talking about some of the deeper internal reasons motivating our hike- he’s the first person aside from BAM! that I opened up to in a beyond-surface-level kind of way. There’s going to be a big piece of the trail missing for me with his absence.
We start walking back towards the trail, grateful that we didn’t have to cross that crazy road again. It’s a bluebird day and already quite warm- we stop early on and I take off my light jacket and spread some sunscreen on my shoulders and face. We press on, our tiredness and the emotional struggle of parting ways with Einstein weighing on us heavily. Our pace is significantly slower than it usually is, and we decide early on that today is probably a good day to take it easy. It’s 11 miles to the second shelter, which feels like a good amount for today, as opposed to the 19 we’d originally been wanting to do.
We take a snack break at the first shelter five miles into our hike and after the biggest climb for the day. We stay there for a while, not really wanting to leave but knowing that we really should make it to the next shelter. After our break, we each put on an audiobook for the last 6 miles, which helps out a lot with the rest of the hike.
We make it to camp before 4 pm and get to work setting up right away. Tinman and Longshot were already here, along with some other folks we don’t know. BAM! meets a thru hiker named Grinder while getting water. I get the tent set up, making battle with the wind as it tries to turn the fly into a sail- I don’t really feel like going parasailing today. We have an early dinner. It’s the first night of a new ration so y’all know what that means- Mac n’ Torts, my favorite! Just the comfort food needed for an emotionally challenging day.
Still tired from not getting much sleep, I retreat to the tent well before hiker midnight. I’m not feeling very social, and I really just want to take a few minutes and close my eyes. After a while, I feel a little refreshed and decide that now is as good a time as any to work on some writing. While I do this, I take little breaks to take my phone off of airplane mode and text my dad. My excitement for seeing him and Janis and Tyler next Saturday is an antidote for my sadness. I can’t wait to see them- less than a week!
Day 58 (Monday, April 12th, 2021)
AT Miles: 17
Wilson Creek Shelter > Jennings Creek (random campsite)
738.7 Miles Down, 1454.4 To Go
We woke up early this morning planning to hike into the sunrise as we had a few days ago. That day had been so pleasant, and as the days start to warm up, the cool mornings seem to be the best time to push miles. There were several people camped around us, so we did our best to be quiet as most of them were still sleeping. As we were still packing up in our tent, another hiker woke up and started talking to someone else at full volume- you could hear them loud and clear throughout the camp. We were already awake, so it wasn’t a big deal for us, but we felt bad for those still trying to sleep. We continued packing up in silence.
As we were just about ready to start hiking, Wicked and Viking Man passed by and told us that Fresh Ground was just 3 miles down trail with breakfast. We just ate, but for Fresh Ground, we could definitely have second breakfast! We were pretty excited and hiked very quickly to Taylor Gap where we found Fresh Ground and enjoyed a stir fry breakfast and fried potatoes. He then told everyone that he would meet us for a late lunch down trail at Jennings Creek. That sounded wonderful! We thanked him, even though he told us to stop saying thank you, and told him we looked forward to seeing him later.
The hike along the parkway was beautiful. The trees were leafing out and the valleys were turning green. It seemed as if the bright light green of the new leaves were slowly creeping up the sides of the mountains. It was such a pleasant day- we crossed the parkway several times the terrain was fairly gradual. That along with full bellies and good company from that morning had us in such a cheerful mood.
We got to Jennings Creek just a little after two, and Fresh Ground made us vegan mac and cheese with fake bac’n bits. It was so delicious! We were planning to hike on and get futher down the trail, but then he then told us that if we stayed the night, he would make us dinner and have a movie for us to watch. He would also have breakfast for us in the morning. Well, we couldn’t say no. Fresh Ground smiled at us, knowing we weren’t going anywhere, and told us where we could set up our tent. Other people were rolling in, and since we had already eaten, we surrendered our chairs to other hikers and went to find a tent spot.
After getting set up, we came back out to the Leapfrog Cafe to hang out and mingle with friends. Fresh Ground had been trying to convince everyone to go swimming in Jennings Creek which was right next to the cafe setup. It was a nice day, but not hot, and when the clouds covered the sun it was a bit cool. Still, we weren’t opposed- it sounded brisk but refreshing. Eventually, Fresh Ground brought out a bucket of towels and led the way. He jumped in first and rallied several others to jump in after him. Hero went down with him and jumped in. I was on my way down to the river when it hit me – I had to go dig a cat hole, NOW! I ran over to my pack, grabbed the trowel, and hiked up the ridgeline behind the tent sites, through briars, in my sandals to find a spot where people couldn’t see me. By the time I got back down, everyone was out of the river and drying off near the propane burner.
Fresh Ground looked at me, “where’d you go?” “I had to dig an emergency hole”, I said. Hero looked at me with a smile and said, “I figured that’s what happened.” Then Fresh Ground asked, “you still going in?!” “Yes, of course!” I grabbed a towel and walked down to the river, took off my sandals, and jumped in. I swam into the current a little bit and then came back to shore and stood up. It was very cold, but refreshing- I decided to go again. I jumped back in, swam and dunked under water for a bit, then came back to shore – so refreshing! I put my sandals back on and hiked up to the burner to warm up and dry off.
After drying off, I decided I wanted to play my ukelele, so I went back to the tent and played a bit. Hero came and got me a while later because Fresh Ground had cooked our dinner first and it was ready. He made us Vegan Morning Star burgers, double patties for both of us – so yummy! Even though we had eaten so much food that day, we still scarfed them down with ease. The hiker hunger is real y’all. Then Fresh Ground brought out his laptop and a choice of two movies- we all picked a movie called something like “I Kill Giants,” I think. We sat down with the Cuatro Locos (Wicked, Viking Man, Tall Son, and Not Yet), Long Shot, Batman, Tenacious, and No Plan and watched the movie. It was hard to hear and a little challenging to see, but we just enjoyed sitting with friends and feeling like we were all just hanging out at home having a movie night. It was great!
A hiker and supporter of the Leapfrog Cafe named Rat Pack came by and brought Fresh Ground more eggs and ice. He also brought beer for everyone! This was such a wonderful surprise. We hung out and enjoyed chatting and having a couple of beers. The Strawbridge Family, whom we’d heard a bit about from Fresh Ground, showed up a little later. It was cool meeting them as they are finishing up the Triple Crown as a family. They just finished the CDT in November and hopped on the AT early March and were averaging 25 miles a day. Quite incredible- we enjoyed meeting them, although we didn’t get to talk too much that night as it was getting dark and we were all starting to head to bed as they came in. We hoped to run into them again down trail.
Day 59 (Tuesday, April 13th, 2021)
AT Miles: 21.1
Jennings Creek (random campsite) > Marble Spring Campsite
759.8 Miles Down, 1433.3 To Go
We were up before it started getting light, breaking down our home in the little “tent city” we’d been a part of at Jennings Creek. The promise of a Fresh Ground breakfast had us extra motivated to make good time this morning. We tried to be quiet and stealthy because the occupants of the tents around us weren’t awake yet.
The tent taken down and our packs mostly packed up, we left the little camping area and went out to the gravel parking lot where Fresh Ground was set up. As we walked the narrow path, we could make out the unmistakable bobbing of headlamps in the dark- the Strawbridges must be up and getting ready to dive into some FG breakfast. We walked out into the parking lot and sure enough, the family was up and hanging about. I looked over and saw that Fresh Ground was in a state of deep concentration as he worked quickly to prepare all the food involved in a classic FG breakfast. I’d seen him in this state before, and recognized it as his “leave me alone and just let me cook” mode. Fresh Ground likes to be ahead of the game, which I can completely relate to- whenever I feel like I’m even just a little bit behind on things, I tend to get anxious. I can imagine with how many people he had lined up to be fed this morning that Fresh Ground must be feeling like he really just needed to be able to hone in and get things done. For that reason, BAM! and I stood back and waited for the edge in his expression to slacken a bit before saying good morning. Eventually, I saw a window of opportunity and took my banana peel to the trash bag hanging off the side of the van. “Good Morning, Fresh Ground!” I said cheerfully. His eyes lit up a bit, and the corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly. “Good Morning!” He said, not taking his eyes off of the eggs he was scrambling, but his face nonetheless softening a bit. I smiled, asked him if he slept well, and he nodded and said “Oh yes, very well.” I beamed at him and went back to where BAM! was waiting on the periphery.
The Strawbridges ate quickly and were hitting the trail before most everyone else had even gotten up. As they cleared out, the rest of us who were already awake filled in the empty chairs that were circled around the cooking area. We drank coffee, ate fruit, and bantered while we waited for breakfast. Everyone was bracing themselves for a big climb up to the tops of Floyd Mountain and then Apple Orchard Mountain. We all knew it was going to be a slog of a day involving many miles of ascending. At least it was looking like the weather would be cooperative, and Fresh Ground told us he’d even be at the top with lunch!
When breakfast was ready, we ate quickly and then promptly got going, waving to Fresh Ground and saying “see you later!” The uphill started immediately, but the first bit just involved getting up and back down over Fork Mountain, small potatoes compared to the continuous climb which would begin thereafter. Still, we had only gotten a few hundred yards up the trail before we had to pull over and both dig catholes. Once that was taken care of, we made quick work of the bump up and over Fork Mountain. Before starting the “big one,” we stopped at Bryant Shelter for a snack break. We saw Wicked and Sprink there, and met a thru hiker by the name of Skelator. Eventually, we dragged ourselves away from the shelter and started the ascent.
I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of my pack being way too heavy, a sensation that felt exacerbated by the tough climb we were experiencing. How in the world did I make it this far? I recall thinking to myself. How did I make it through Georgia with all of my winter gear and way too much food? I had way more weight back then compared to now, and yet here I am feeling like my pack has never felt heavier. While I know that my pack is indeed heavy, I also sense that part of what I’m experiencing has more to do with the mental and emotional challenge of the trail. Back in Daleville, Fresh Ground had mentioned that we are now in the midst of what is considered “The Grind,” the middle third section of the trail where most people tend to feel wry strongly the mental and emotional game of the trail. I wonder to myself if my pack is really as heavy as I think it is or if my mind is just playing tricks on me…
No Plan was standing at the Apple Orchard Falls turn off when we walked up. He was determining whether or not he wanted to go down there, ultimately deciding to do the out and back in order to see the waterfall. While here, BAM! and I realized that we had indeed gone down to these particular falls before while on a mini Blue Ridge Parkway trip several years ago. For as much as today was taking a lot out of us, remembering that trip and having that deja vu moment got us reminiscing and put a little pep in our step- it helped motivate us up to the top of Apple Orchard Mountain!
We finally got to the top of Apple Orchard Mountain where a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tower that looks like a giant soccer ball is perched. We look around a bit, take in the views, marvel at the giant soccer ball, and then finally start descending for what feels like the first time today. We’re hungry and super motivated to get to Thunder Ridge Overlook where Fresh Ground said he’d be set up with lunch, so we fly.
We arrive at Thunder Ridge just as the Strawbridges are getting ready to push on- we say a quick hello before they take off. Then we are welcomed in and Fresh Ground is hustlin’ and bustlin’ and insisting that we eat a crazy amount of food (surprise, surprise). We grab plates and load up our gigantic, fried tortillas with lots of delicious burrito fixins. We drop into two of the camp chairs FG has set up, crack open a few sodas (tsssssss, ahhhhh!) and dive in. After what we’ve been through today, this moment is pure bliss- we are awash with a sense of complete and utter euphoria as we munch on our burritos and slurp down carbonated goodness.
It took some effort, but eventually we managed to pull ourselves away from the allure of good company and good food and continued on to Marble Spring Campsite. On the way there, we saw lots of Trillium in bloom for the first time on this trip! We both love trillium so much and can’t get enough of them as we walk down the trail. Perhaps we take a few too many photos along the way.
We get to Marble Spring Campsite and find Skelator hanging out in his tent. Up until this point, we’re not 100% sure if we’re going to stay at Marble Spring or if we’re going to try and push on a little further to be closer to the road where we’ll have to figure out a way to get into Glasgow to pick up our resupply box tomorrow. We’re both exhausted, so we decide to throw in the towel and stay at Marble rather than push to the shelter 2 miles from the road- it would be another 5.5 miles that neither of us want to do right now. We’ll just have to get up early and push some miles in the morning so we can get in and out of Glasgow and still have time to hike a full day.
With the daylight we have left, we get set up and make dinner. We chat with Skelator and then No Plan when he shows up. Batman and Tenacious roll up as it’s starting to get dark. I’m off in the woods digging a cathole when they show up, but I know it’s them because I hear a wolf cry that can only have come from Tenacious. I have to admit, he scared me for a second there!
The tiredness takes hold of us, and soon we’re saying goodnight and retreating to our tent. As we’re trying to fall asleep, a whippoorwill bird perched in a tree just above our tent starts to “serenade” us… sleep does not come easily.
Day 60 (Wednesday, April 14th, 2021)
AT Miles: 22.7
Marble Spring Campsite > US 501, then Reservoir Rd > US 501 (SOBO Slackpack)
782.5 Miles Down, 1410.6 To Go
We hiked out with the sunrise again this morning – so beautiful! After getting just a little ways down the trail, we called Stanimals, the hostel where we had shipped our next food box. We called at 7:05 am and they told us they were dropping someone off at the trailhead around 9:15 am and would bring our box if we could make it to the trailhead in time. We were 7 miles away and we had 2 hours to get there. I looked at Hero to see what she thought, she nodded her head and I told them we would be there.
Thankfully, it was mostly downhill to the road, we basically ran down the mountain, only stopping momentarily to take a couple of pictures of the flowers along the way. We always try to make time to appreciate the beauty around us. And we still made it by 9:00 AM! Strings, one of the guys who works for Stanimals, pulled up at 9:15 AM with our food box and a thru hiker named Yooper, the person they were dropping off. I talked a little bit with Yooper about my connection to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and then he was on his way. We dumped our box of food out in the parking lot… we had way too much food again and this time we had no way to get rid of anything. We sorted it out and packed it all in our packs. We were reluctant to get started with our now very heavy packs. We still had 15 miles ahead of us today with a giant uphill right out of the gate. The Strawbridge family got dropped off as we were finishing packing up. We chatted with them a bit before they took off down the trail. The dad had just dropped some of his winter gear and was pretty excited about how light his pack was. We were definitely feeling a bit jealous at this point, as we tested the weight of our own packs again – still way heavier than we wanted.
The Strawbridge family left and Stanimals pulled in to pick up Tenacious, who had just wandered into the parking lot. The two cars were full of our friends who were slack packing to the same place we were planning to go tonight. Hiking without our full, heavy packs sounded great. Zoomie asked if we wanted to join them- we didn’t need much coaxing. We asked if there was room for us. Charlie, the Hostel Manager, moved some gear around and pulled up another row of seats in the Durango and we hopped in.
Riding with the windows down and talking with friends, we felt a deep sense of relief that we didn’t have to hike with our heavy packs today. Definitely feeling grateful and pleased with our decision. They drove us to Reservoir Road so we could hike south bound back to the James River footbridge where we had hopped in the car. We would get picked up by Stanimals there and head back to the hostel for the night. We got to the trailhead, emptied my pack of what we didn’t need and threw in only what we needed for the day. Charlie said he would take the rest of our things back to the hostel. We thanked him, took a quick picture with the crew, and started hiking.
My stomach had been a little uneasy on the car ride, so I told Hero that I needed to find a spot to dig a hole soon. We were also out of water and there was a small creek just a half a mile in. We stopped and Hero said she would fill up while I went to dig a hole. I thanked her and ran off- I was getting a bit desperate at this point. I hiked up and away from the water and quickly dug a hole. As I was finishing up, I saw three ticks crawling up my shoe. Crap! I must have stepped in a nest of them. I pulled them all off then ran back down to Hero and asked her to double check my back to make sure I got them all. “All good”, she said. Relieved, we finish filtering water and got hiking again.
As we hiked, my stomach was feeling uneasy again. I wasn’t sure why, but less than 15 minutes later I had to go dig another hole and this time it felt like an emergency- I was really worried I wasn’t going to make it. In my haste to dig a hole, I cracked our plastic shovel. Thankfully, it didn’t break completely… I would end up digging 4 holes in less than 5 miles. Something was not agreeing with my stomach. We were now well into the afternoon and we still had over 10 miles to go. I was feeling a bit weak and my stomach was still uneasy. I was even more grateful that I didn’t have full pack weight than I was earlier, but now we were locked into finishing this section. We had to make it back to the pick up location because we didn’t have any of our camping gear. I put my headphones in and played some music, trying to distract myself from how I was feeling. We pressed on.
We saw the Family and Toodles coming north on the trail as we were headed south. They were surprised to see us going south. We explained how we had ended up slack packing SoBo (South Bound). It was good to see them all, we chatted for a minute then continued on. I was starting to feel a bit better and now just focused on crushing miles. We went over Bluff Mountain and Big Rocky Row and had some beautiful views. We took them in quickly and kept moving- both of us were ready to wrap up this day of hiking.
We called Charlie at Stanimals and told him we would be back at the James River bridge soon. As we neared the parking lot it started to rain lightly and it actually felt nice. We didn’t put on rain gear, just let the brief, light rain cool our skin. It didn’t last long- we actually would have welcomed a bit more rain. We sat down in the parking lot at the same exact spot where we had dumped out our food box earlier that day. We were exhausted and glad the day was over. My stomach was feeling better but my body just felt depleted. I still wasn’t sure what had made me sick.
Charlie showed up and told us that unfortunately he was not our ride- Strings would be along in a half an hour or so to pick both us and Tenacious us. Not long after Charlie pulled out of the parking lot, Tenacious strolled up. Strings should up a few minutes later and we piled into the car and made our way to the hostel. Once there, we took advantage of the shower, then Hero and I went back through our resupply. We sorted out everything we didn’t need and put it in the hiker box. Most hostels have a hiker box where people can leave unopened food or lightly used gear for other hikers to look through and take if they want. We got rid of a few pounds and were glad to be able to lighten our packs for tomorrow. We then ordered an extra large cheese-less veggie pizza from the local pizza place, each ate half of the pie, then crashed for the night. We were taking the early shuttle back to Reservoir Road in the morning and we needed as much rest as we could get.
Day 61 (Thursday, April 15th, 2021)
AT Miles: 23.5
Reservoir Rd > Spy Rock
806 Miles Down, 1387.1 To Go
It’s another restless night that goes by faster than I can believe. Before I know it, the alarm is sounding and it’s time for us to get packed up so we can leave Stanimals. The ride back to the trailhead is more eventful than we would like-
the car keeps overheating, which means we have to frequently stop, throw a wet rag on the radiator, and use water from our bottles to fill the radiator because it’s so low on coolant. It takes longer than expected, but eventually we get to the trailhead. We say goodbye to Charlie, the Hostel Manager at Stanimals Glasgow, and start hiking. We hope that he’s able to get the car back to town and to a mechanic before it completely gives out.
The first few miles features nice terrain in a beautiful forested area. At this lower elevation there’s so much lush green foliage, and signs of spring surround us. For a stretch, we are in an area that was once home to the Brown Mountain Creek Community. Informational signage posted near the beginning of the abandoned site lets us know that the remains of the buildings alongside the creek once belonged to a farming community of freedmen who lived there in the early 1900s. As we walk and listen to the gentle murmuring of the creek, we take in the stone walls being reclaimed by nature- moss and lichen stick out through the layers of stacked stone and ivy creeps up and along the length of the wall. We take it in and reflect on the small, paragraph-long snapshot of history we’ve encountered through this mile and a half long section of trail, our minds imagining and constructing scenes from over a hundred years ago.
We reach the point in the hike where we know we’re going to start pushing up Bald Mountain and brace ourselves for the climb. Soon the comforting sounds of the creek fall away and we leave behind the lush greens of the valley floor. For several miles we just keep gaining elevation, and the warm feeling of spring slips away. We find ourselves once again climbing back into winter, with trees bare and the surrounding area covered in crunchy, fallen leaves. Occasionally, a harsh wind cuts through us as we ascend higher up onto the ridge. I can’t decide if I want to throw on another layer or not. Whenever that wind whips through, it raises up goosebumps on my arms and sends a chill through my body, and yet for the most part while pushing up this crazy hill I’m dripping sweat and can’t stand the thought of more fabric against my skin. I clench my teeth and bear it, digging my trekking poles into the earth and willing myself forward.
I let out a sigh of relief when we reach the top of Bald, which turns out to not be an open bald at all. But Cole Mountain just ahead is a true bald, apparently, so we continue on in search of gorgeous views. And it is most certainly beautiful, a perfect place to have some lunch we decide, so long as we can find a spot with at least a little bit of wind block. We’re walking along the open ridge looking for a spot to sit and chill out for a minute when we come upon a group of people. They look like they all must be extended family having a little outing. They hone in on us as we draw nearer and greet us excitedly- they assume correctly that we are thru hikers. We chat for a bit and soon they are offering us clementines and Virginia grown peanuts- we gratefully accept the trail magic. They start to head down the trail, and we realize where we had run into them was a perfect spot for our lunch break. We settle in, throwing on some layers to help shield us from at least some of the cold, and start munching. While we eat, BAM! talks to his dad on the phone and I take a look at the mileage we’ve done so far and what we have left if we still want to make it to Spy Rock. I’m really determined to make it there- supposedly Spy Rock has incredible 360 views, perfect for sunset and sunrise. We’ve still got more than 11 and a half miles to go, though, and I’m worried we’re not going to make it. When BAM! gets off of the phone, I update him on the mileage. He still seems determined to get there, too, so we finish up with our snacking, get organized, and keep going.
The second half of the day consists largely of pushing miles so that we can get to Spy Rock in time for sunset. There aren’t a whole lot of views after Cole, so we’re able to power through some forest walking and put down some miles. We both agree that music is needed for this, so we throw on some tunes and motor. Three or so miles short of Spy Rock is the Seeley-Woodworth Shelter, and since we expect that’s where the Family and Toodles are staying we decide to pop in and say hi. As we thought, they are there and we spend some time catching up and seeing how everyone’s doing. We mention that we’re headed to Spy Rock, and they let us know that they heard from another hiker that a hunter ran into a bear up there earlier today. Apparently the bear was not the least bit intimidated by the hunter’s German Shepherd. Hearing this causes us to pause a moment. We look at one another and silently ask each other the “should we stay or should we go?” question through our facial expressions. We ultimately decided to continue on to Spy Rock, but as we start to walk away from the shelter, we come up with a plan of action in case we do run into the bear while we are up there.
We get to Spy Rock Road and the trail becomes a mess of small rocks that hurt our already sore and achey feet. The grade on this section is steep, adding even more insult to injury as we just plain fight to make it up to the flat camping area above. Around us, the sky is already starting to glow with vibrant pinks and oranges as the sun starts to bow off its daytime stage. We level out and the rocky steep grade is finally behind us. To our right, the campsites and the side trail up to the top of Spy Rock beckon. Our heads swivel about as we walk around the open camping area, picking out a spot for the night. It’s crazy windy and hard to hear anything over all of the gusting, but it doesn’t stop us from jumping a little at every little sound we do manage to hear. We’re both just waiting to see a black, furry, four-legged friend strolling up to us fearlessly. We get the tent set up, but realize that we’ve really gotta get up to Sky Rock quickly if we want to catch what’s left of sunset, so I don’t worry about getting the inside of the tent all put together. We take all of our food and “smellables” up to the top with us just in case the bear is in fact close by. It’s even windier up on top of Spy Rock, miserably so- I can feel my hands start to stiffen with cold even through my thick winter gloves (which I am so glad I held onto), and my puffy jacket is no match for the razor sharp, biting wind that threatens to knock me over. But we’re able to catch the last bits of the sun setting and it is beautiful- Charlie was right when he’d told us in the car earlier that this was not a spot to miss.
The sun has set and we are getting quite cold and hungry, so we go back down the side trail to our campsite. BAM! looks at me and says “Okay, so, the code for ‘There’s a bear here’ is: AHHHHHHHH!’” He smirks at me in his silly way and then scampers off to find a spot with some wind protection so that he can cook while I work on blowing up the air mattress and get everything else in the tent nice and cozy. When I’m done, I wobble my jelly legs over to the spot where BAM! is cooking. It’s definitely a lot more wind protected than the open camp spots where we’ve got our tent set up, but it’s still super cold. It’s dark, too, with just the bobbing of our headlamps for light. The darkness has heightened both of our jumpiness, and we’re both at the point where we just want to hurry up and scarf down food so that we can retreat to the tent. We do just that, though our bear induced anxiety and frigidness makes it feel like it takes us forever to eat and pack everything up.
We get the bear bags hung and race over to the tent and duck in for cover. We get settled in as the wind whips furiously and threatens to rip the fly clean off of the body of the tent. As I lie wide awake while sleep evades me, I wonder if the reason the tent hasn’t blown over the side of the mountain by now is because our combined body weight is keeping it grounded- that’s how hard the wind is blowing. I really don’t think we’ve experienced stronger winds while in our tent before this moment. It makes for a restless night, but at least the wind with all of its ferocity means that I can’t focus on anything that might possibly sound like a bear outside of our tent.
Day 62 (Friday, April 16th, 2021)
AT Miles: 17.7
Spy Rock > Maupin Field Shelter
823.7 Miles Down, 1369.4 To Go
The wind had been whipping through our tent all night and there were several times I looked up expecting our rain fly to be gone – ripped off by a gust of wind – yet somehow it remained intact and attached to the frame of the tent. We didn’t sleep very well, concerned about bears in the area and the effects of wind on our tent- our minds were racing most of the night. The whole reason we pushed to Spy Rock last night was to see the sunrise. Now with the cold wind still whipping around our tent and our bodies feeling lethargic and unrested, we were struggling to get ourselves up and out of bed on time.
We finally talked ourselves into leaving the tent, deciding to take our sleeping bag with us to the top of Spy Rock for the sunrise. Unzipping the fly, I could already see streaks of orange, deep purple, and pink pushing through the gray clouds around us. I went over to check on the bear bags and was glad to see they were still hanging on the tree where we left them and seemingly untouched – no signs of bear activity! That was a relief. With our food and sleeping bag, we climbed the 0.1 up to the summit of Spy Rock. The wind was cold and intense, bringing back memories of our sunrise experience at Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies. We layed out our sleeping bag and crawled back in, pulling it up around our shoulders as we sat up to see the sunrise. I grabbed our pop tarts and we tried to eat while still holding the sleeping bag up to protect us from the wind.
The sunrise was beautiful, although it took more effort than we had hoped to try and keep ourselves warm while we sat trying to enjoy it. This morning was a bit of a shock to our system, as it was the coldest morning we’d experienced in weeks- our bodies had gotten used to not freezing every morning. Even after the sunrise, we were a bit slow packing up and didn’t get out of camp until after 8:30 AM.
We got to Priest Shelter and decided to hike down to write in the log. We had told the Family last night that we would write in it and tell them if we encountered a bear. As we started to hike the side trail to the shelter, Bad Santa, Toodles, Narrator, and Destin came over the hill towards us. They asked us right away if we had seen a bear. We thought about leading them on with an elaborate bear tale, but then simply said “no bears, just lots of wind”. We could tell they were kind of bummed that we didn’t have a good story, but they also seemed glad we didn’t have any bear trouble. We all continued to the shelter to check out the log. Here at the Priest, it is a hiker tradition to write a confession in the log book. We read through to see if any of our friends had made a confession and found a few good stories. We then each wrote a confession of our own. Sorry, you’ll have to hike to the top of The Priest if you want to hear those stories.
We then started hiking down over 3,000 feet on our way to the Tye River. We got to the cascading Cripple Creek about two-thirds of the way down and the mountain side was covered with beautiful pink and white trillium. We took a moment to enjoy the beauty of this space then continued down the mountain.
A trail runner with banana print running shorts passed us on his way up and then again on his way down- he was cruising. We got down to the bottom and saw him catching his breath in the parking lot. We complimented his shorts and struck up a conversation. He had just run the FKT (Fastest Known Time) going up to Three Ridges down to the Tye River, then up to the top of the Priest and back down to the Tye River. That is over 3,000 feet of elevation gain each! We congratulated him on his record and he asked about Hiking for Hunger. He lived further north near the trail and offered support when we get to his neck of the woods, so we exchanged info. We then crossed the bridge over the Tye River and found the Family having lunch. We decided it was a good spot and sat down to join them.
We finished lunch, now we had to hike back up over 3,000 feet to the top of Three Ridges. The climb up was definitely a struggle, and there were several downed trees to step over to add to the challenge. About a third of the way up, we passed the Mau-Har Trail which bypasses Three Ridges and gets you to Maupin Shelter in half the distance with less than half the elevation gain. We looked at it for a moment, wishing we could take that route. But alas, the purist in us wouldn’t allow ourselves to skip a section of the AT. We pressed on up the mountain passing many weekend hikers who were doing the popular loop trail combining the Mau-Har trail with the Three Ridges trail.
We finally made it to the top of Three Ridges and were a bit disappointed because there weren’t very good views from the very top. However, after starting down the other side you come to Hanging Rock overlook which has excellent views! We hiked out on the rocks and took in our reward for a long hard climb. There was another hiker out on the rocks and we chatted with him a bit. He expressed how he wished that he had the time and resources to do a thru-hike like we were doing. We took that in and it reminded us of how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this. We were filled with gratitude in that moment and let our petty complaints of too much elevation gain, too many downed trees, and too many day hikers on the trail all melt away and just absorbed the beauty of the moment.
We then made our way down to the Maupin Field Shelter and found Toodles and the Family there getting started on dinner. There are several small groups of hikers spread throughout the campsite. We find a free tent pad and Hero starts setting up camp while I grab the food bags and head over to the picnic table in front of the shelter to start cooking. As I cook, a weekend hiker comes over and strikes up a conversation. The Family is nearby and we all chat about the challenges and the beauty of the day. I think back to that view at Hanging Rock and the hiker we met. I look around at all the people who are just out here for a weekend. Likely many are just trying to get a short break from their busy lives. Gratitude washes over me again, gratitude that I am able to be out here for several months, that I am able to immerse myself in this experience and be surrounded by the beauty of nature every day.
Hero comes over and we eat our dinner and hang out for a bit. Then we hang our food bags and head to the tent. As we lay down to go to sleep, I can hear people around us laughing and carrying on. I am glad they are enjoying their weekend out here.
Day 63 (Saturday, April 17th, 2021)
AT Miles: 6.5
Maupin Field Shelter > Dripping Rock, BRP 9.6
830.2 Miles Down, 1362.9 To Go
It’s cold when we wake up in the morning, but at least it’s not as unbearable as it was the morning before up at Spy Rock. We let ourselves sleep in a little later than usual, but try not to hit snooze too many times. We’re meeting my dad, my stepmom, and my brother today, and we’ve got about 6.5 miles to knock out before 10 am. I’m so excited to see them I can hardly wait. And yet the cold is definitely infringing on my ability to move as efficiently as I’d like.
We break down the tent, pack it up, and head over to the picnic table next to the shelter where we chat with Toodles and the Family while we eat breakfast. It’s somewhat of a relief to us that everyone else is feeling cold and sluggish this morning, too. I don’t really feel like eating, but I shove a couple of pop tarts down anyways so that I can take my daily vitamin without getting nauseous. I get focused on conversing with French Fry/Starfish and before I know it we’re just a few minutes away from the time we wanted to be “packs on backs” and moving out. Ahhhhhhh! I jump up and frantically start packing up, though my movements still feel painfully slow because of the cold- I can see my breath as I exhale, and my fingers don’t want to bend all the way. It takes longer than we’d like, and we’re definitely not leaving camp by our goal time, but soon enough we’re waving goodbye to Toodles and the Family and are on our way up the trail.
We’re cruisin’, making good time on this relatively gradual section of trail. We cross over the Blue Ridge Parkway a few times, snapping a picture at one of the pull-offs that has a view of Three Ridges in the distance. We love these moments where we get a chance to really look back and marvel at where we just came from. Three Ridges was no joke, so we take a minute to bask in the accomplishment of knowing that climb is behind us. Every step we take is a step closer to Maine… I don’t always think in this big picture kind of way because it can feel overwhelming, but in this moment looking back at a particularly challenging climb, it feels really good to remind myself of all that we’ve accomplished so far on our journey to Katahdin.
The 6.5 miles fly by and before we know it we’re rolling up to Dripping Rock. Like a train, we’re neither early or late- just on time. And there waiting for us are Dad, Janis, and Tyler! They climb out of the car, and we know despite the fact that they’re masked up that they’re all smiling real big- the eye crinkles tell all! We smile real big, too, then put our masks on and walk toward them, bumping elbows and exchanging enthusiastic hellos. Before climbing in the car, we apologize for our stink, which they wave off and say “Oh we know, that’s what febreeze is for!”
The plan is to go to Blue Mountain Brewery for drinks and lunch (recommended by Viking Man and Tall Son), but before we do that we decide to swing by Stanimals Waynesboro to drop off our packs. We get lucky and our private room has already been cleaned and is ready for us- the Hostel Manager, Pilgrim, tells BAM! that we can go ahead and throw our stuff, including the wonderful food Dad and Janis and Tyler brought us for our next ration, in the room. We want to maximize our time with our family- they only have a couple of hours before they need to start driving back to the DC area, so we don’t shower or start our laundry. Instead we just put on some “less stinky” clothes and head back out to the car so we can all go get some lunch.
We get to the brewery and there are lots of options for outside seating, which is a huge plus. We also get there right as they are opening, so there isn’t a huge crowd of people there yet. The temperature is slightly coolish, so we all throw on jackets, but otherwise it’s quite pleasant out and we feel neither too cold nor too hot. We’re chatting and catching up when the waitress comes up to see if we’re ready to order drinks- we haven’t even looked at the menu yet we’ve been so absorbed in catching up! We stop talking for a few minutes and get our orders in and then we’re back to conversational flow. It feels so good to be with them- the pandemic has made seeing each other difficult over the past year plus. It’s a brief amount of time together, but we’re beyond grateful for it and for the fact that they drove over two and a half hours just to see us for a few hours.
By the time we finish up with our drinks and food, the brewery is starting to get packed- time to make moves. We head out and start making our way back to Stanimals. On the way there, we stop at Rockfish Gap Outfitters. We notice as we pull up that the sign facing the road in the direction heading into town reads “Hi Hawk! Have a Good Time in Waynesboro!” On the other side of the sign facing the direction heading out of town it reads “Bye Hawk! Hope You Had a Good Time in Waynesboro!” We chuckle and tell Dad and Janis and Tyler a little about who Hawk is and note that he must have just gotten into town, too. Then we go into the store, and we’re greeted by some of the nicest people! The guy behind the register pegs us as thru hikers because of our distinct fashion sense. No way- my Melanzana dress, galaxy tights, calf high darn tough socks, and bright blue Birkenstock’s make me look like a thru hiker? Get outta here! (Haha!) I guess we do stand out a bit- we own it, though! He notices that our masks read “Hiking for Hunger” and he asks us if we’re doing a fundraiser as part of our hike. We nod enthusiastically and say “Yes! We are!” “Right on! That’s so awesome! Well let us know if there’s anything we can help you find.” We thank him and then look around the store. The most urgent thing we need is fuel, so we grab some of that. We can’t find some of the other things we’d like to have, like a lighter weight fannypack for me and some Exofficio underwear for BAM!, but those are things that can wait. We head to the register with our little can of fuel and set it on the counter. The guy picks it up briefly, then sets it back down on the counter and slides it towards us. “Y’all are doing a great thing by hiking for hunger- thank you for what you’re doing. The fuel is yours.” Our eyes get wide and we look at him in disbelief. “Really? Omigoodness are you sure?!” “Absolutely. Have so much fun on your hike, guys!” We’re stunned in the best of ways. We thank him profusely as we say goodbye and head out of the store. “Wow!” we just keep saying. My Dad and Janis and Tyler are blown away, too- they’re getting a taste of the trail magic and are loving it. I really enjoy watching other people experience AT culture for the first time- it’s a truly special thing to bear witness to, and it reaffirms for me how much I love the incredibly loving community that the AT nurtures. It’s amazing to me how something so seemingly small such as a little canister of fuel can restore your faith in humanity.
From Rockfish Gap Outfitters we head back to Stanimals where we come face-to-face with the heartbreaking challenge of saying goodbye to Dad and Janis and Tyler. It feels like our time with them has flown by faster than imaginable, and I’m reluctant to let them go. Because of how hard this past year has been and because of the fact that BAM! and I are in the middle of “the Grind,” it’s harder than ever to part ways with our loved ones. I remember how hard it was to say goodbye to Breece and Ben and Magnolia, and I’m once again overcome with emotion. I try not to let it show too much as we stand out by the car and say goodbye because I know that this isn’t just hard for me. I want to be open and honest and vulnerable, but I also don’t want them to worry. I need to keep on with this hike- no matter how homesick I feel for the people I love and miss, I’ve gotta keep going.
We wave goodbye as they get back in the car and then I retreat to our room in the hostel. I feel a few hot tears roll down my cheeks as I plop down on the edge of the bed, my shoulders slumping forward. BAM! walks in and he sits down next to me, wrapping his arms around me and pulling me in. We sit there for a few minutes in silence. I pull away after a while and look at him, “It’s just so hard sometimes. I know this is where I need to be right now, and yet, it’s so damn hard sometimes…” He looks at me, smiling weakly. He brushes a stray strand of hair away from my face, tucking it back behind my ear. “I know,” he says gently, “it’s hard for me, too. I’m grateful for the time we just got to have with them, but man it went by so quickly.” I nodded in agreement. “Way too fast,” I said. We take a few more moments to just be with how we’re feeling, reminding ourselves that we might be able to see them again soon after we push a little further north. We take a few deep breaths and shift out focus to all that we need to accomplish with what’s left of the day.
We work on Hiking for Hunger stuff the rest of the night, focusing on catching up on writing for the blog. We’re both a bit behind on our writing, and tonight we’re both feeling tired and drained, which is less than ideal for getting work done. We do what we can while also planning out what kind of daily mileage we want to do while in Shenandoah National Park. Our goal is to get to Front Royal, VA by next Friday or early Saturday so that we can hopefully see Dad and Janis and maybe even Tyler again. Front Royal is a much closer drive for them than Waynesboro, so we’re hoping it will work out if we can crush out the mileage. We’ll have to average twenty mile days to pull it off- we feel optimistic that we can do it, especially after seeing how mellow the terrain looks compared to other sections of the trail we’ve already been through. This might even prove to be a good opportunity to push some higher mileage days in preparation for the Four State Challenge, which we’re planning to do as a fundraising push for MANNA on May 1st.
I get to the point where I’m just plain feeling done for the day- I’m tired and ready to curl up and relax. The private room we’re in at Stanimals has a TV and Roku, so we throw on our go-to show (You guessed it: Schitt’s Creek) and relax before our exhaustion takes the wheel and drives us to sleep.
Day 64 (Sunday, April 18th, 2021)
AT Miles: 19.7
Dripping Rock, BRP 9.6 > Beagle Gap
849.9 Miles Down, 1343.2 To Go
Waking up in a bed this morning was so nice! That combined with knowing we didn’t have to carry full pack weight and that we would be coming back to this bed put us in a cheery mood. We grabbed the few things we would need for our slack pack day: snacks, an extra layer, our trowel, and water filter. We heated up our leftover cheese-less pizza and ate it for breakfast. Another hiker named Task Master had offered to take us back to Dripping Rock this morning. He showed up and we headed out to the trail.
We had good conversations on the way over and learned that a series of unfortunate events had kept Task Master in the area longer than anticipated. So he just started helping out at the hostel until he could get back on trail and keep moving on. We got to Dripping Rock, thanked him for the ride, wished him luck on getting back to the trail and started hiking. Hero and I were determined to knock out these nearly 20 miles quickly so we could get back to the hostel and get a few more things done tonight.
We started with some uphill to Humpback Mountain where we got some nice views. We took a few moments to take it in and get some pictures then scurried on down the trail. We were moving quick with almost no weight on our backs. This also meant less impact on our feet and even though we were hiking it felt like a break for our bodies. We caught up to Monarch a little ways into our hike. She was slack packing, too, and had a friend with her who had hiked the trail a couple years ago. They were taking their time and trying to identify some plants along the trail. After chatting for a moment, they stepped aside and let us pass since we were pushing a faster pace today.
We came to the Paul C. Wolfe Shelter and pushed right past it. We got about 0.4 up the hill beyond the shelter when it hit me – I should have stopped to use the privy. There were lots of hikers on the trail today and the woods along the trail were full of thorns and briers and didn’t offer much coverage. I decided it would be best to run back to the privy at the shelter. I grabbed the soap and water then took off back down the trail while Hero waited with the packs. It felt so much farther going back, but I finally made it. I walked past the front of the shelter where three hikers were eating lunch. I said “howdy!” but kept walking quickly towards the privy. I made it! Afterwards, I gave myself a good handwash and walked back in front of the shelter and said “have a good day” to the hikers finishing their lunch. I hiked back up the hill to Hero feeling much better.
We came across the Lowe family cemetery. They had been settlers in the area, and most of the headstones were just stones from the forest around us. While some stones may have had names scratched into them at one point, the rain and wind had worn them smooth again. A little later, we came to the remains of an old cabin, just an outline of a rock foundation and a crumbling chimney. Sites like these often get me thinking about the history of the land that the trail traverses. If I was in this spot 50, 100, or 1,000 years ago what would it look like? Who would be here? What would life be like in this spot at that time? The history of some of the spaces we have gone through and will go through holds such gravity. I would like to learn more about the diverse history of these spaces.
We stop for water at a beautiful little stream that is flowing through mossy rocks. Monarch and her friend catch up to us and we talk about the beauty of the day. Flowers are blooming and trees are leafing out! We are surrounded by the fresh bright green of spring with a smattering of purple, blue, and white flowers here and there. Color is coming back to the forest and it feels more alive than ever.
We push on through Rock Fish Gap to the entrance of Shenandoah National Park. We fill out our backcountry permit at the self-service entrance station and attach a copy to our pack. We only have about four miles to Beagle Gap where we plan to get picked up. We call Stanimals and let them know our ETA is about 3:30 PM, then we press on. We get to McCormick Gap and I notice a white can and a granola bar sitting in the grass next to the trail. The can is a trail magic PBR! I take the beer, but decide to wait to drink it until we finish our hike at Beagle Gap. I leave the granola bar for the next hiker because it wasn’t vegan friendly.
We get to Beagle Gap early and take a seat in the grass to wait for our ride. I crack open the PBR and ask Hero if she wants some, “no thanks”, she says. She isn’t a fan of PBR, l but it’s kind of nostalgic for me since its pretty much all I drank in college at NMU. A mini van pulls into the parking lot – it’s our ride. A man named Rumble is driving and lets us know that he is picking up a couple of other hikers as well. So, I take my time finishing my beer and we chat with Rumble as we wait. The other two hikers show up a bit later and we all head back to the hostel.
We quickly do our “chores,” a term hikers use meaning laundry, shower, resupply, repacking packs, and whatever else you need to do while in town before you can fully relax. Then we head over to Scotto’s, the Italian Restaurant across the street because Hero was really craving some spaghetti. As we near the restaurant, we’re overcome with that same sensation of deja vu we had at the Apple Orchard Falls trail intersection a few days earlier. We realized we had eaten at this restaurant before during that same mini Blue Ridge Parkway trip. Wow! We were back at this same spot, completely unintentionally, only this time we had walked here from Georgia… what a crazy feeling!
At the restaurant, we get a table and start looking at the menu when Fresh Ground, Tenacious, Pippin, and Aspinock show up. “Can we join ya?!” Fresh Ground says more than asks with a big grin on his face. “Of Course!” we say, always grateful for good company. We enjoy a hearty spaghetti dinner and good conversation with friends. Fresh Ground snuck off for a moment, and then as we were leaving we realized he had picked up the tab for all of our meals. We thanked him and let him know we really enjoyed hanging out and appreciated all he does to support us hikers.
He then offered us a ride over to the grocery store. We had planned on walking over to get a few thing but admitted a ride would be nice. He dropped us off and we told him we could walk back, but he insisted on waiting and giving us a ride back and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so we agreed and told him we would be quick. We had been craving vegan ice cream, so we grabbed some for dessert tonight. We then found something we could eat for breakfast in the morning along with some kombucha. We checked out and found the Leapfrog Cafe van in the parking lot and hopped in. FG drove us back to the hostel and we expressed our gratitude then said goodnight.
We went up to our room, hopped in bed, turned on the tv, and opened up our ice cream – time to chill. We finished our ice cream and watched a couple episodes of Schitt’s Creek before crashing out for the night. We were planning on taking the early shuttle back to Beagle Gap in the morning.
Day 65 (Monday, April 19th, 2021)
AT Miles: 28.4
Beagle Gap > Pinefield Hut
878.3 Miles Down, 1314.8 To Go
It’s early when we get going this morning- the shuttle to Beagle Gap is set to leave at 7 am sharp. This works for us since we’re trying to hike over 28 miles today and we need as early of a start as possible. Last night, we picked up some vegan-friendly microwaveable breakfast meals from the Neighborhood Walmart a couple of blocks away from the hostel (thank you again to Fresh Ground for driving us there and back to the hostel). We each get two of these meals, plus we add some rice into the mix and it makes for a very filling breakfast. Good, we need all the extra fuel we can get for the day ahead of us.
We grab our packs, strap on our shoes and head to the red jeep. Outside it is raining, though the forecast has promised that it’s supposed to subside by 9 or 10 in the morning. We’ll see… Once we’re all in the car, Prilgrim backs out of the driveway and heads down the alley towards the road. We take one last look at Stanimals before the old brick house disappears from view.
The wipers click back and forth steadily, the rubber blades squeaking against the glass as they clear away beads of rain. We start winding our way up the road towards the Parkway junction. At one point, we pass by the “Bye Hawk!” sign outside of Rockfish Gap Outfitters and I smile remembering when we stopped by there the other day with Dad and Janis and Tyler.
We arrive at Beagle Gap where we encounter a man waving frantically as we pull into the parking lot. It turns out his car battery is dead and he’s in desperate need of a jump. Pilgrim tells him that he’ll be right over to help him out in just a few minutes. He then turns his attention to all of us being dropped off and thanks each of us individually for staying at Stanimals, telling us all how much he appreciates us. There’s such a genuine warmth in his voice, and I can really feel that he means what he’s saying. For however stressful his job may be, Pilgrim is so good at making sure that thru hikers feel cared for, that the stress of Hostel Manager logistics never translates into strained interactions with the hikers. He’s so steady and so good with people- I wish we’d had more time to get to know him during our stay. I hope that our paths cross again someday.
The pouring rain from earlier this morning has transformed into a much lighter and gentler pattering that hits the tops of our rain jacket hoods with a softness that feels soothing rather than threatening. Perhaps the forecast was accurate and this rain will dissipate shortly. We wave at Pilgrim one last time as he is getting ready to help the stranger with the dead car battery, and then we’re putting one foot in front of the other and starting up the trail again.
There’s a feeling of serenity about the forest this morning, no doubt in part because of the gentle pattering of rain as drops hit the earth. We must get pulled into the peacefulness of the moment, because after sometime we look up and are startled to see a deer standing in the middle of the trail. We stop in our tracks and for a few moments we all three just stare at each other, transfixed. It’s the kind of moment that makes you feel that connection to the natural world that all too often can be taken for granted in day to day life. We allow ourselves to just be in this moment, allow ourselves to be with this pure being in the middle of this wild and beautiful place. We know we need to keep going, though, so eventually we start walking again, but slowly so as not to startle the deer too terribly. The deer stiffens a bit, but doesn’t budge, so we start talking and gently try to coax them off the trail. We get near enough and the deer finally runs off trail and joins a few other deer 50 or so yards away in the woods- they all stare at us as we pass by.
We keep trekking, and as we do the rain starts to fizzle out. Around the time that the rain is starting to let up, we come upon a tent set up a few yards from the trail and a short distance from the creek that runs through this section of the trail. As we near the tent, there is a sense of familiarity I can’t shake. I furrow my brow and the realization hits me. “Micah, I think that’s Batman’s tent,” I say just above a whisper (Often, when it’s just Micah and I, we refer to each other by our off trail names). BAM! looks at the tent and scrutinizes it. Then he stops in his tracks just shy of the tent. He draws a deep breath, then: “Nuhnuhnuhnuhnuhnuhnuhnuuuuuh… Batmaaaaaaaaaaan!” A beat or two of silence, then a familiar voice from the tent exclaims “What are you two doing?” It’s Batman alright. We laugh and then talk to him for a few minutes. He’s not feeling like pushing the big miles we’re trying to do today, so we make plans to try and meet up in Elkton tomorrow. BAM! and I have to go into town to pick up a box from the outfitters and it sounds like Batman will need to pick up some more food for the second half of the Shenandoahs. There’s a brewery in town that all three of us are interested in trying out. We say “see you later” to Batman, who is going to watch a little more Netflix on his phone before packing up, and continue on.
In no time the rain is completely gone, the clouds have rolled out and the sun is beaming down on us. We have stripped down to our short sleeves and tank top and sweat is starting to bead on our foreheads. We’re making great time, no doubt in part because the terrain is so gradual and kind in nature. Just beyond Turk Gap, we run into Happy the thru hiker- he’d just been dropped off by Stanimals. I’m glad we ran into him- back at the hostel he’d said in his very Happy way “now don’t you two go passing through Turk Gap before I get there!” We said hello briefly, exchanged Instagram info, and wished him good luck on his hike knowing that this might be the last time we’d see him. We pressed on.
We stop for a quick lunch break at Blackrocks Hut- at 15.2 miles, we’re a little over halfway through the days hiking. We try not to spend too long at the hut since we still have quite a few miles ahead of us. We snack and fill up on water and keep moving. Soon we are at the top of Blackrocks, one of the highlights of Shenandoah National Park. It’s a bizarre sight- you’re walking through forest and then suddenly there’s a giant pile of boulders reaching 50-100 feet tall right in front of you. The trail actually cuts through this massive boulder pile- sloping downward to our left are another 100 or so feet of giant rocks and scree. We crane our necks and look at the Boulder pile overhead as we walk the trail, which loops us around the topmost portion of the pile and back into the forest. At one point BAM! exclaims with his signature silliness “these rocks aren’t black- they’re light grey!” I shake my head and chuckle.
We keep pushing, determined to get to Pinefield Hut before dark. During these later-on-in-the-day miles, we are pretty much in a zombie like state as we walk along. Every so often we are shaken out of the state by a beautiful view or a wildflower that we haven’t seen yet on trail, but for the most part we are focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
28.4 miles later, we are at the Pinefield Hut. We have just completed our highest mileage day of hiking on the trail and we’ve done it in less than 12 hours including breaks. We’re tired, but not completely dead on our feet, which we consider a win. We walk up to the hut, which is a little ways off the trail. Two men are sitting in the shelter, their legs dangling over the edge of the platform. We introduce ourselves and learn that their trail names are Leaky Boots and Dahdi. We exchange pleasantries, find out that Dahdi just started his thru hike a few days ago and that Leaky Boots is joining him for his first few days through Shenandoah National Park. After a little bit of small talk, I excuse myself so that I can start setting up the tent with what little light we have left in the day. BAM! grabs what he needs to start making dinner and we both get going on our in-camp duties. I have a bit of a challenge to work with: the tent pads in Shenandoah don’t appear to be quite wide enough to fully accommodate our three-person tent. The body of the tent fits fine, but when I start to fit the fly on and stake it out, I run out of room- the tent pad ends abruptly and there’s a foot or so drop down to the ground below the pad. I scratch my head, trying to figure out how to work with the space I’ve got. I look around and spot some two foot long branches on the ground- a few look pretty sturdy. I take the side of the fly and stretch it out, measuring approximately where it needs to be staked out. I dig a hole in the dirt at the spot I measured out and stick the sturdiest looking of the branches in the hole- I pile rocks around it to reinforce it a bit. The branch acts as a makeshift extended stake. I loop the end of the fly door over the branch- it’ll do! Pleased with my creative problem solving, I finish setting up the inside of the tent. Then I head back down to the picnic table outside of the hut where BAM! is cooking dinner.
We eat our signature first night of the ration meal- Mac n Torts. We try to be as quiet as possible because Dahdi and Leaky Boots have already gone to bed. Then we are off to bed ourselves, fully ready to crash out after a big miles kind of day out on the trail.
Day 51 (Monday, April 5th, 2021) AT Miles: 19 Wapiti Shelter > Narrows Rd Parking Area (Angels Rest Hiker Haven) 637.2 Miles Down, 1555.9 To Go
Motivated by the promise of getting to Pearisburg today, we were up and at it by 6 am, getting ourselves together efficiently so that we were leaving camp by 7:35 am.
We had a rough uphill push to kickstart our day, and we thanked ourselves for not pushing further than we did last night when we were dead on our feet. We got up onto the ridgeline and encountered some rocky outcroppings. The views were pretty, but hazy for some reason. While we walked the ridgeline, we talked and dreamed together. It’s funny to think that this is exactly how Hiking for Hunger came into being- over the course of so many of our hikes and adventures, countless hours of being each other’s soundboards and creative collaborators. Something about being in the wild really gets the gears turning for us.
About seven or so miles into the day, we encountered a private firefighting team felling trees, possibly for a prescribed burn that the Forest Service would be conducting. We wound up waiting for a while as they were getting ready to take down a tree, jumping on the opportunity to grab some snacks and water and chat with the firefighter nearest to us to pass the time. Soon enough, the tree was down and we were given the all clear and proceeded.
A few miles further along, we arrived at the Doc Knob Shelter where we decided to sit down and enjoy some lunch. It turned out to be a really nice shelter, complete with a whole deck area in front of the shelter and lots of bench seating. We didn’t draw lunch out terribly long, setting ourselves a firm 30 minute limit. We were still determined to get to Pearisburg between 3:30 and 4:00 pm so that we’d have time to get a resupply, shower and do laundry, work on the blog, etc…
There were lots of fallen trees through this second half of the day. When we’d crane our necks and look up at the trees, it literally just looked like all of their small to medium sized branches had been wiped clean off. And the evidence was all on the trail we walked. As we stepped over, under, and around countless blow downs of varying sizes, we accepted that this was what it was going to be. We were also simultaneously grateful that we hadn’t been coming through this section when the storm had ripped through and caused all of this mess. We imagined branches hurdling through the air and violently crashing down to earth- quite the opposite of ideal hiking conditions.
A couple of people we had met heading southbound recommended that we stay at Angels Rest Hostel while in Pearisburg. We gave them a call to check their availability while we had service up on the ridge and secured a shuttle. We started hiking again, but then had to stop because BAM!’s shoes starting to go out and he needed to tape them up. Before he threw tape on them, we took pictures of the holes starting to form and the ones that were expanding. With that done, we kept pushing knowing that beautiful views were up ahead.
Angels Rest (a spot on the trail which the hostel is named after) offered great views of the surrounding mountains, the river, and Pearisburg in the valley below. After taking a few photos there, we began the treacherous downhill into Pearisburg. Our knees really felt it on that one! We made it down though, got picked up by Pan at the Narrows Rd parking area, and rode the short distance to Angels Rest Hiker Haven. On our way there, we asked Pan, who helps run the hostel, about the closure we’d heard about north of Pearisburg. He gave us some more details about why it was closed- the power lines that had been affected by an ice storm that had come through and all of the work being done to get that section of trail opened up again. He said that not only were there a lot of downed trees, but they were doing blast work to be able to pour new concrete for the power towers, and there were live wires on the ground near the trail in sections. A hiker who decided to disregard the closure apparently had to take a trip to the ICU because of electrocution via ground current- that’s what we were told, at least. Hearing all of this, we felt pretty certain that we’d be saving this section for later on when we could come back to it.
We got to Angels Rest and found Tenacious, Wicked, Viking Man, Not Yet, and Tall Son already there, and heard that Einstein, Honeybadger, and Batman were all making their way there, too. We were so excited that so many of our trail friends were going to be in one spot! After getting some showers, getting some laundry started, and feeling so fresh and so clean clean in our funny loaner clothes, we were ready to put down some food. We went to the Mexican restaurant for dinner with Wicked, Viking Man, Tall Son, Not Yet, and Tenacious and ate so much food. Between the mismatched loaner clothes we were all wearing and our ravenous appetites, I’m sure our waiter had us pegged as thru hikers.
Immediately after dinner, I headed to Food Lion to grab a few things we still needed for our resupply while BAM! headed back to the hostel to get to work on the blog. I got some funny looks from people while I loaded my little basket with an absurd number of Larabars, unfrosted pop tarts (the frosted ones contain gelatin, unfortunately), a bag of flour tortillas, salt and pepper, propel packets, peanut butter. I’m sure my whacky outfit and knee high socks/Birkenstock’s look was causing the double takes. Before heading to the register, I grabbed two bottles of Kombucha- gotta get those probiotics while in town!
Back at Angels Rest, I sorted through all of our food and divvied it up between our food bags. I checked on the laundry, which was becoming quite the ordeal (the machines were overly thorough), and got our tent all set up. There had been no private rooms left, only tenting options, but with how beautiful it was weather wise we were actually quite alright with setting up our tent and doing that for the night.
BAM! was still hard at work on getting the blog composed. He said he didn’t have a whole lot left to do, so I decided I’d call it a night- I was pretty wiped out at this point. I got myself situated with my layers and everything I needed for the night. Snuggling up in our sleeping bag, I stared up at the sky above me. We had left the fly off of our tent, so I laid there and enjoyed falling asleep to stars overhead.
Day 52 (Tuesday, April 6th, 2021) AT Miles: 12.4 Stony Creek Valley (VA 635) > War Spur Shelter 649.6 Miles Down, 1543.5 To Go
Beep Beep Beep Beep! A truck backing up is what woke us from our comatose state this morning 30 minutes before our alarm was set to go off. I tried to go back to sleep, but the truck kept backing up over and over again. After laying there awake for a bit, we decide to get up and get going for the day. We have a shuttle at 8:30 and we need to get packed up and have breakfast before we leave.
I sit up and realize that our sleeping bag is soaked on top. Because yesterday was so beautiful, I had insisted on leaving the rain fly off for the fresh air and the stars. It was nice initially, but it got colder than we thought it would and Hero was cold and didn’t sleep that well. Not to mention the heavy dew had settled on our sleeping bag. Thankfully it was going to be another beautiful sunny day. I laid the bag out while we packed up other things and ate breakfast hoping it would dry a little before we left.
While eating, we talked with Einstein and Tenacious C trying to figure out how far they wanted to hike today. Einstein has to get off the trail once we reach Daleville and go back home for his job. We decided we would hike the rest of the way to Daleville with him and see him off. They settled on doing a shorter day than we have been doing recently, just 12 to 13 miles. That sounded good to us, we didn’t mind slowing down a bit. Also, there was that trail closure just north of Pearisburg, so we would be skipping ahead nearly 20 miles. (We hope to come back and hike these miles once they reopen that section of trail.) This meant we were ahead of schedule to get to Daleville.
We finished packing up our stuff and ran to the shuttle just in time. Two other hikers that we had just met at Angels Rest were shuttling with us, Monarch and Trail Mix. We chatted with them as we took the 25 minute drive to the north end of the closed trail. Once there, we say thanks and wave goodbye to our host and shuttle driver, Pan.
I was in such a rush leaving the hostel that I hadn’t put my gaiters on or tied my shoes yet. So, I took a little time to do that in the parking lot. Trail Mix was ready to go right away. Hopping out of the shuttle he said “I gotta get moving” and started hiking down the road. I thought this was odd because I was pretty sure Pan had told us to go up the blue blaze trail to get back to the AT. But I hadn’t looked at our guide yet and wasn’t sure, so I kept quiet. A minute or two later Monarch says, “Where is he going!” Hero and I both look at her puzzled and say we don’t know. “Well, I guess he’ll figure it out,” she says and starts walking up the blue blaze trail.
I finally get myself ready to go and am about to put my pack on when Trail Mix comes walking back saying he just had tunnel vision and thought Pan had said 0.1 down the road. “At least I’m warmed up now!” he said, and we all had a good chuckle. He kept walking by us and up the blue blaze trail.
We started hiking shortly after and caught up with Trail Mix just a little ways down the trail. We would leapfrog back and forth a few times today. We saw Monarch for a brief moment again as she was taking off some of her morning layers. We passed her and then stopped to do the same and she passed us again.
Only two miles into our day, we came across some trail magic. Biscuits and Roo Dog were set up near a river crossing with everything from candy to sodas to hotdogs and beer. He even had wine and s’mores available complete with a fire ready for roasting. Trail Mix and another hiker named Traveller were there and they all invited us over. We helped ourselves to some snacks and soda then started talking with Biscuits and Traveller. It was so nice! We put our packs down and just took in the moment. We enjoyed their company and had good conversations. We played with Roo Dog and just hung out for a while.
We were there for over an hour before we finally pried ourselves out of conversations and slipped away over the bridge. It was after 11am now and we still had over 10 miles to go. It was totally worth it though! Hero and I both felt like it was the trail’s way of telling us to slow down and take it in, enjoy all of the little moments out here- after all, the community of the trail is what it’s really all about.
Now we had to push up some steep terrain to get back onto a ridge. We get up there and I am just dripping sweat from the climb. My body isn’t used to the heat with temperatures nearing 70 today. We passed Trail Mix again then stopped a while later to replenish our water. Hero took her pack off to get the water filter and exclaimed, “Where’s my stuff!” I looked at her quizzically. “What stuff?” I ask. “My melanzana, jacket, and butt pad… it’s all gone!” It had all been strapped to the top of her pack, but nothing was there now. We both looked with disbelief as we realized it must have fallen off at some point and we had no idea how far back it was. Trail Mix showed up at the water source and said that he hadn’t seen anything, so everything must have fallen off since the most recent time that we leapfrogged. Hero just looked at me and said “Well, I guess I’m hiking back to find it.” “I’ll stay here and watch the packs and filter water… I hope it’s not too far back.” She started jogging down the trail. I started to filter the water and I’m quickly joined by a small cloud of gnats. I finished the water and sat down to write a bit while I waited for Hero to return. The gnats joined me even though I tried (to no avail) to shoo them away.
About 40 minutes went by when I hear someone hiking up the trail. I look over expecting to see Hero and there’s Hawk. He just says, “I saved her about 2 miles.” “Oh nice, thanks!” I say. Everything had fallen off over 2 miles back. Hero had gotten over a mile back before she saw Hawk, and he had picked the stuff up at least a mile before that. Hero walked up just a bit after Hawk and expressed her gratitude to Hawk again. We all chatted for a bit then Hawk continued on. Hero took a moment to get a snack and some water since she had just run an extra 2 and a half miles. We both put all of our extra layers on the inside of our packs just to be safe, and then we continued on.
Some time later, we arrived at Wind Rock and met some picnickers. We chatted for a bit, took some pictures and then continued on- we were ready to get to camp. We got to War Spur Shelter and Hawk was there. We chatted as we made dinner and talked about his experience on the trail – this is his seventh AT thru hike. He gave us some insight into what was ahead of us and shared with us some good views to check out and told us where to stay in Daleville once we got there.
Uphill showed up and we talked and shared stories. After dinner, we still had some daylight so I decided to play the ukulele since it had been a while. As I played, Batman arrived and a little later Tenacious rolled in. We were all wondering if Einstein was going to make it or if he had gotten too caught up in the trail magic earlier in the day. Finally, he walks in just as we are losing daylight. We were all excited to see that he had made it to camp safely. After hearing about his day and chatting a bit, we headed to bed.
Day 53 (Wednesday, April 7th, 2021) AT Miles: 18.4 War Spur Shelter > Niday Shelter 668 Miles Down, 1525.1 To Go
The quiet sounds of packing up camp woke me this morning. Zippers on tent doors zippering, poles clacking together as they are being folded up and stakes clinking as they are thrown into their bag. The snapping of buckles as packs are closed up tight, then footsteps pounding earth, loud at first and then dissipating as the humans they belonged to started down the trail. Hawk and Uphill, I assumed, were getting up and out of here so they could knock out a 30+ mile day. Our crew, on the other hand, had a much more leisurely start to the day, most of us not leaving camp until about 8:20 am. We decided on where we wanted to meet up for the night, settling on a shelter a little over 18 miles away. One by one, we began to leave camp.
The day started with a push up to a spot called Kelly Knob. It was a bit more intense than we were expecting, but altogether not a bad way to kickstart the days hiking. We got up there and decided to take advantage of the view and the little bit of cell reception we were getting. We snacked, checked in with family, and worked on a few of the more pressing Hiking for Hunger tasks that needed to be taken care of. At one point, Batman showed up and we all got a photo together on the rocky outcropping. Batman leaves, and not long thereafter Tenacious and another thru hiker named Just Brad (JB) show up and take in the views. After about an hour of taking care of business and getting our snack on, we started to make our way down off of Kelly Knob.
We filled up on water at the bottom of Kelly knowing that we wouldn’t run into another water source for about 8 miles. From there we pushed on, first through thick rhododendron tunnels, then forest with spaced out pine trees that led into wide open farmland, then up onto a rocky ridgeline. As we were transitioning into the rolling fields of farmland, we took some time to admire the largest living oak tree found along the southern half of the AT. At 18 feet in diameter at its base, the Keffer Oak is massive and awe inspiring, with long limbs that stretch for what feels like miles in either direction. Craning my neck to take it all in, I couldn’t help but imagine those limbs coming to life, gently motioning and waving like a hula dancer. I wanted to throw off my pack and curl up in a little nook at the base of this majestic being. But we had to keep pushing- we were starting to run out of water and still had a climb and a ridge to walk to get to the next water source.
We’d no sooner said goodbye to the tree than we found the trail ahead blocked by about six calves and a full grown mama cow. Batman was just ahead of us, trying to shoo the mooing blockade away. We lined up behind him, and together the three of us slowly started to walk through the field of cows. The calves had scampered off, their initial bravery dissipating after their mom walked away. They had joined with more cows out in the field, which we were now unintentionally herding up the trail as we cautiously maneuvered around the more courageous cows who were stubbornly staying put and mooing their disdain for our presence as we passed by.
Getting to the other side of the field and through the turnstiles without incident, we faced off with our next big uphill push. Where we had felt strong going up Kelly Knob this morning, this ascent was taking a lot out of us. We’d already covered about 10 miles and our bodies were starting to feel it. Plus, we were conserving water on a day when the sun was beating down on us with unrelenting force. We were sweating profusely, salt droplets dripping from the tips of our noses, perspiration collecting above our upper lips. Our pace was steady and we didn’t stop to take a break until we were up on that ridgeline we had worked so hard for. After taking a few conservative sips of our water, we started down the rock strewn path ahead of us.
The ridgeline was rocky but beautiful. We were absolutely dead on our feet and verging on dehydration, yet we were grateful for the views as we pounded down the trail, that next water source front and center in both of our minds. We got to the Eastern Continental Divide and the trail began to veer to the right and downhill. As we descended, we could feel ourselves nearing the water source and, just beyond that, the Niday Shelter where we’d be staying the night. We passed by Sunrise, a flip-flop thru hiker who started in Harpers Ferry and was heading south to Springer. Once she completes the southern half of the trail, she’ll flip back to Harper’s Ferry and start heading north. She let us know that the spring we’d been longing for for so long was just a few hundred yards away. We thanked her, wished her luck, and pressed on, a new pep in our step. Sure enough, the spring appeared and we hooted with joy! We each filtered a half liter and immediately downed it before continuing to filter. Once we were back up to capacity on water, we threw our packs back on and knocked out the last mile to camp.
We made it to the shelter and found thru hiker Trail Mix! Commiserating together, we shared stories about the challenging day. Then BAM! and I got to work on our routine. I found a lovely tenting site nestled amongst a grove of pine trees and settled on a relatively flat spot. The smell of pine is nostalgic for me, taking me back to my grandparents house when they lived just a few blocks from the beach in South Carolina. I can, with vividness, conjure up memories of stepping out onto the screened-in porch and filling my lungs with the comforting scent of pine, the smell of my granny’s blueberry buckle wafting out from the open kitchen window and joining it. Home for the night amongst these pine trees filled me with a warmth that felt so needed.
One by one, people start rolling into the shelter: JB, then Batman, then Tenacious, then Einstein. We all share in our misery- turns out everyone found the day challenging. We eat food and hang out, and then we do what we always do as hiker midnight sets in- we crash out and try to get as much sleep as possible before doing it all over again the next day.
Day 54 (Thursday, April 8th, 2021) AT Miles: 22.7 Niday Shelter > VA 311 (Four Pines Hostel) 690.7 Miles Down, 1502.4 To Go
We decided last night to get out early this morning to try and miss the rain that was expected to start late afternoon. Our alarm went off at 5am. I hit snooze then wrapped my arm around Hero and closed my eyes again knowing that it would go off again in 5 minutes. It has become our routine to set our alarm at least 15 minutes earlier than we plan to get up and hit snooze at least twice. We cuddle and try to enjoy our last few minutes of semi-sleep before we start packing up for another day of hiking.
This morning, we do better than most and only hit snooze twice before sitting up, turning on our tent light, and starting to pack up. Part of this can be attributed to the pleasant temperature this morning – we weren’t freezing! We only take an hour to pack up, eat breakfast, and get ready to go. We start hiking out of camp before sunrise. Batman left a little before us and Tenacious was awake and packing up and we passed his tent, but Einstein seemed to still be asleep. As we hike, the dusky grays of early morning are giving way and color starts to return to the forest with the morning light. Through the trees we watch as the sky brightens to a fiery orange and yellow glow. Meanwhile, the birds whistle a cheerful chorus. We both feel a sense of awe at the beauty and serenity of this moment.
We try to take it all in as we continue hiking and we both agree that we should try to do more early sunrise hikes because this morning was just so pleasant. Only about 2 miles in, we come to Craig Creek, one of our last water sources for nearly 7 miles, so we stop to filter and top off all of our water bottles. While we are stopped Hero realizes that she needs to go dig a cat hole. I start filtering water while she hikes away from the creek and into the woods to find a place to dig. When she gets back, it hits me and I have to go, too. So, I hike back into the woods and try to find a good place to dig. I hit rocks on the first 6 or more tries before finally finding a soft enough spot that would allow me to dig the needed 6 to 8 inches deep.
When I get back to Hero, Tenacious is coming over the bridge and heading our way. We had spent way more time there than we had planned and felt like we had lost some of the advantages of our early morning start, but we tried not to get discouraged. We had filled our water and emptied our bowels, so we were ready to crush out some miles. We followed Tenacious down the trail for a while. He too planned to fill up his water before the seven-ish mile section without a source, but he had Gut Hooks which was much more specific about where the last available water source was. After crossing over a handful of small streams, he finally stops and takes his pack off. As we pass I ask, so is this the last water source? It is, he says. Alright, we will see you down trail, we say as we continue the climb up towards the Audie Murphy Monument.
We get to the top and check out the memorial for the most decorated World War II veteran. Hawk had told us about a view to the right of the monument, so we went down a little trail and found a bench overlooking the valley. We sat down and enjoyed the view while we had a snack and a drink (but not for terribly long, because the bugs started to descend). Then we hiked back to our packs, which we had left at the intersection for the blue blaze trail up to the monument. We don’t carry our packs any further than we have to these days. We put the packs back on and headed down the gradually descending path. We now had to go back down the 1500+ feet we had just climbed up and then go back up over 1500 feet to Dragons Tooth.
We got down to Trout Creek and as we began our ascent up to Dragons Tooth, we saw a sign that said “Dragons Tooth 4 miles.” We both looked at each other and were thinking Nice! We’re making good time- that’s not too far. Then we checked out the trail guide to confirm and it said it was actually 5.4 miles to Dragons Tooth. We were disappointed, but this made more sense with our pace. We expressed our frustration with the sign and continued on. It wasn’t the first sign on the trail to short change the mileage, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. The ridgeline leading up was very rocky with large boulders covered in moss, ferns, and sometimes trees strewn about. We would hike by them and between them and over them. It was a cool scene, but not easy hiking and my feet were aching. I had gone nearly 600 miles in this pair of shoes and all the cushion that used to exist was compressed and I felt every rock and stick I stepped on. We hike by a group of baseball sized rocks arranged into “700” – Wow! That’s pretty incredible! We’ve hiked 700 miles on the AT! We took a few pictures and continued on. If those rocks were placed accurately, then we should have just over 2 miles to the top of Dragons Tooth.
About a mile later, we see a pack down at the base of a large boulder near the side of the trail. We look up and see Batman taking pictures. We say hi and ask what he’s doing. He says, “This must be it, right? The tooth!” We tell him that we think it is another mile down the ridge and we’re pretty sure these are just some random boulders… although they are pretty neat. He seems bummed and comes down and hikes on with us. The ridge seems to continue on for what feels like another 2 miles, and now we are beginning to think the guide is wrong, too… the Tooth must have been at least 7 miles from Trout Creek- it sure felt like it at least. We finally get to an incredible view along the trail that Hero recognizes as the view just 0.3 miles from the Dragons Tooth. Batman takes a picture of us and we take a picture of him then take in the view for a moment. We continue on, eager to finally get to the top of this mountain and see what all the fuss is about. We come to a sign telling us that it is just 0.1 mile further. We walk down to see these large angled slabs of rock sticking straight up into the air. They are pretty neat!
Hero and I were hoping to have a nice relaxing lunch here, but the gnats were out in force so we had to keep walking around as we ate to try and keep them off of us. Batman didn’t stick around too long- he needed to go to the store for a resupply and wanted to get down to the road. We stuck around a little longer, ate lunch, and took a few more pictures. We started hiking down and there were several day hikers coming up- we noticed they all seemed very winded. On our way down we realized why- it was a rock scramble! Our poles didn’t help much- several times we had to try and hold both poles in one hand as we used the other to help climb down the rocks. At one point, Hero looks down at an 8 to 10 foot scramble, throws her poles to the bottom then climbs down using both hands.
We finally get to the bottom and cross the road where you would go in to the hostel and the store, but we are hoping to get another 6 miles in today before we head back to the hostel. So, we push on to the VA 311 pick up location. It was a challenging rocky ridgeline, especially after doing Dragons Tooth, but worth it to set ourselves up to get into Daleville tomorrow and have a full zero day.
Ryan, the shuttle driver, picked us up and took us to 4 pines. Einstein was already there hanging out. It was bittersweet knowing that this would be our second to last night hanging out with him before he got off trail. We went to the store, grabbed some beers, and just sat and talked for a while- reminiscing about the journey we had experienced and how it had changed us and brought us all so close together. We made plans to see him when we get further north since he lives in a town near the trail. And we told him we looked forward to hanging out in Daleville in a couple of days to send him off and celebrate his hike. I was only able to have a couple beers before the day caught up with me and I needed to crash.
Day 55 (Friday, April 9th, 2021) AT Miles: 19.8 VA 311 (Four Pines Hostel) > US 220 (Daleville, VA) 710.5 Miles Down, 1482.6 To Go
After a fitful nights sleep, we were beyond ready to move on from Four Pines Hostel and get back on trail. It had been nice to have some extra time with Einstein by staying there, but the hostel as a whole had a vibe that made us feel a bit uneasy. We’re glad we stayed for the experience, but were also grateful to be back at the McAfee Knob parking area on 220, especially after what was a real abdominal tightener of a car ride, if you catch my drift.
It was a foggy and overcast morning. BAM! and I jumped out of the car along with Zoomie and Halo and we all bid Ryan the driver goodbye. He peeled out of the parking lot, wheels kicking up chunks of gravel as he whipped back onto the highway. Gotta love it. Zoomie and Halo took off immediately, so we hung back a little bit to give them time to cover some ground. We bided our time by calling ahead to the Super 8 in Daleville to reserve a room for two nights. We knew a lot of thru hikers were planning on making it to Daleville to say goodbye to Einstein, plus it was a weekend- didn’t want to risk not being able to get a room.
After taking care of the hotel reservation, we got moving and started heading up the trail. We had thought based on the AT Guide that the terrain was going to be more challenging, but it proved to be not terribly difficult leading up to McAfee, certainly not compared to what we’d been through going up and down Dragons Tooth the day before. We went up about 1,400 feet in elevation, but the trail had lots of nice switchbacks and the grade was totally reasonable. Plus, the overcast morning was really working in our favor in terms of temperature- it was actually perfect hiking weather.
Unfortunately, the overcast, foggy weather which was so nice to hike in meant that we got no views up at the iconic McAfee Knob. We would have loved to see for ourselves that view which we’ve seen in countless photos, but we still enjoyed the cool, eerie feel created by being completely socked in. We got a few photos courtesy of a really nice couple we met while up there. We stuck our arms up and twisted our torsos in funny positions, playing up the goofiness- in the photos, you can only really make out our silhouettes through all the fog, so might as well do it up, right?
We had lots more miles between us and Daleville, so we bid McAfee goodbye, promising to come back again someday for the view. The terrain continued to be kind to us until we started heading up to Tinker Cliffs. By the time we get to the cliffs, the fog has somewhat lifted and we’re able to get some little bits of view. We stop and take a snack and water break, but the bugs are absolutely terrible. I have to walk around as I snack in an attempt to evade them for a few seconds at a time. They don’t seem to be bothering BAM!, which I find very perplexing. On the plus side, by getting to Tinker Cliffs we have just successfully completed the Virginia Triple Crown! (Dragon’s Tooth > McAfee > Tinker Cliffs)
At this point, we’re about halfway through our hike to Daleville and we can hear the shower and cushy king sized bed calling our names. We continue on to the next shelter to get water, enjoying about a half mile of walking along the cliffs before the trail turns to the right and starts winding downhill. We get to the shelter and Batman and Tenacious are there, along with a thru hiking couple named Mike and Kathy. Batman and Tenacious stay a few minutes longer to catch up and ask how our hostel adventure went. Then they start back up, and we all say see ya at the hotel. As we finish filtering water, we chat with Mike and Kathy who share that they had started thru hiking last year and got about 400 miles in before jumping off trail due to COVID. They figured they’d just hop back on where they left off and were maybe considering redoing those first 400 miles after reaching Katahdin. “Mayyyyybe,” they emphasized with a chuckle. It was nice talking to them, and our water filtering took a little longer than usual because we enjoyed their company. But alas, we felt again the call of town just nine miles away, so we said goodbye and got back into a rhythm with the last few miles that stood between us and our much needed zero.
We crank out those last nine miles, and we’re even treated to some beautiful views of a reservoir as the cloud cover and fog starts to lift. It turns out to be one of those unexpected wow moments, not at all what we were expecting as we neared the hustle and bustle of the Roanoke suburbs. Eventually, we start descending off of the ridgeline and the views of the reservoir and surrounding mountains are out of sight. They are soon replaced by the sounds of traffic and chaos- Daleville is near!
We emerge from the woods out onto a busy highway. Despite the sounds of traffic that get steadily louder as we near, in theory preparing us for what was on the other side of the woods, it’s still incredibly jarring to suddenly have dozens and dozens of vehicles frantically speeding past us in both directions. Not only that, but we’ve got to cross the highway to get to the Super 8, and there are no crosswalks in sight. There’s a blind curve to our left, and just when we think we can cross to the median, cars come whipping around the corner at ungodly speeds. We finally get an opportunity and make a break for the median, where we have to stop and wait for traffic coming in the opposite direction before making a second mad dash. We make it, but we’re both very acutely aware of how overwhelming all of this new and intense stimulation is after the relative calm of being in the woods for days on end.
We get checked in, running into Batman in the hotel lobby- we’re all so grateful to be in town and can’t wait to shower and do laundry. And this shower truly is one of the best by far- the temperature gets real nice and hot and the pressure is absolutely on point! BAM! jokes that were there a seat in the shower, he’d stay all day, but as it was, he was pretty much done being on his feet. I couldn’t have agreed more.
The rest of the evening involved lots of pizza while watching one of our favorite shows, Schitt’s Creek. We’d been channel surfing and it happened to be on- there was no question that we were done with our search. It took us back to the Asheville house, watching endless hours of Schitt’s with Heather, all of us cozied up and snacking and laughing. It made me feel warm and fuzzy and homesick all at once. I snuggled up to BAM!, grateful that we have each other to lean on during the tough emotional moments that inevitably come with hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Day 46 (Wednesday, March 31st, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 0 Layover in Marion, VA – Hiking for Hunger work day 534.3 Miles Down, 1658.8 To Go
It was nice to be in a hotel and wake up warm and dry this morning. We didn’t sleep in much as we had lots to accomplish today. After a lengthy internet search, I concluded that there were no restaurants nearby that had anything we could eat for breakfast. I then went down to see if the complimentary breakfast had anything we could eat, hoping at least for some fruit. No fruit, but I did make some toast and grabbed some jelly. That along with some weak coffee and some orange juice from concentrate was our breakfast… we also ate a bar or two from our rations.
Then we got to work writing, organizing photos, and checking emails. Several hours went by when a text from Tenacious C interrupted us. He wanted to know if we wanted to get lunch at the Mexican place down the street. This was a welcome invitation- we were getting pretty hungry and were ready to get out of our hotel room. He also let us know that Einstein had rolled in and would be joining us for lunch. We were stoked – it had been a while since we had seen him and we knew he had to get off trail soon for work so we were grateful to have more time with him.
We all met out in front of the hotel and walked the 0.2 miles up the road together. At the restaurant they sat us and immediately set chips and salsa on the table – great service! Thru hiker approved! We ordered lots of food and it came out quickly. We also enjoyed having margaritas and good conversation. We were almost finished eating when Hawk came in (we had met him back at Uncle Johnny’s in Erwin, TN). We waved and he came over and sat with us.
After lunch, I walked to Walmart to get our resupply while Hero took a cab to the outfitter with Einstein. We needed fuel and a small resupply and she needed another pair of socks and was hoping to find some camp shoes. The Walmart was small and the options were limited but I was able to make it work. As I was heading out, Hero texts me saying the outfitter doesn’t have fuel. I go back inside to see if there is fuel in the outdoor sports section. Once there I ask an employee. They seem slightly baffled by my inquiry, but finally say, “Oh, do you mean Coleman fuel? It’s all in that aisle over there (as they point non-discriptly two to three aisles down). I say thanks and start to walk in that direction. I start to walk past the aisle he had meant and he yells out “you passed it, that one right there!” I nod my head and wave as I mouth thanks and walk down the aisle.
I find the fuel, but they are all out of small and medium canisters, all they have left are large. The large canisters are a full pound, and we don’t need or want that much fuel. I debate it for a second and then text Hero. She is back at the hotel now, so I ask her to check how much fuel is left in the canister we have. She shakes it and listens but its hard to tell. I ask her to fill the sink and see how low it sits in the water. I recieve a picture of the canister in murky water in the sink along with a text that says “Sorry, I was soaking our socks in the sink so I just used that water.” No worries, that works, I reply, smiling to myself. We decided we could probably get two dinners out of that canister and would try to find fuel later down the trail.
I grabbed our reration and set off back to the hotel. Once there, we divided it up and packed it away into our Ursacks. Then it was back to writing and uploading pictures. As it got late, we got hungry again. I had hoped to find some vegan microwaveable meals at Walmart, but no luck. And I already knew the Mexican place was pretty much the only place with vegan options in town… that is except Burger King. With so few options and with our hunger increasing, we went for it and got Impossible Whoppers. They were ok, but still not our first choice if we have other options.
We stayed up later than we wanted working on things. When we finally went to sleep, I was out like a light. We were both ready to get back on trail in the morning, grateful that we were inside for the rainy day.
Day 47 (Thursday, April 1st, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 23.9 Pat Jennings Visitor Center > Bear Garden Hostel 558.2 Miles Down, 1634.9 To Go
Groggy from a less than restful nights sleep, we extracted ourselves from the comfort of the cushy mattress and got to work getting organized and packed up. The motel room looked a bit like a bomb had gone off, with gear hanging up to dry and our sink-washed socks drying out by the heater. For as much as it all felt like a cluster (to me), we were able to get things packed up fairly quickly, and before we knew it, we were bidding our home for the past few nights adieu.
We got to see Fresh Ground ever so briefly in the parking lot before boarding the Marion Transit bus that would take us back to the Pat Jennings Visitor Center. He’d just returned from shuttling another hiker back to the trail, so there was really only time to say a quick hello and grab a clementine for the road. Wish we’d had more time to really hang out with him- we hadn’t seen him since we left the Smokies what feels like forever ago.
The drive back to the visitors center was short- within about 15 minutes, we were back at the spot where we’d been picked up just a day and shall prior. As soon as his feet hit the pavement, Hawk was flying- we waved goodbye and wished him well. Then BAM!, Einstein, Tenacious, and I set off as well.
It was cold, and the wind up on the ridgeline as we got started made my eyes water. We had intermittent snow throughout the day, but it wasn’t anything that gave us concern. It was just enough to be pretty and also not really stick where we were. Throughout the day, we traversed ridges and passed through rolling hills and open fields of farmland. We crossed lots of little roads and at one point even walked beneath an I-81 underpass. At one point, the trail took us right through the parking lot of a gas station, so naturally we stopped in to use the restrooms and grabbed ourselves a soda- Cherry Coke for BAM!, Cherry Vanilla Coke for hours truly. It’s the little things, y’all!
Something about walking under I-81 filled me with a sense of longing for home. Not necessarily any physical home, per se, so much as people who feel like home. I guess this was spurred on by the fact that I’ve taken I-81 numerous times when traveling from Asheville to Northern Virginia to visit my dad and my stepmom. As soon as we crossed into Virginia, I had this intense feeling of walking towards my loved ones, just like I felt as we hiked towards Asheville and saw our framily there when we were just getting started with this journey. Just like I felt as we hiked from there to Abingdon, where we had that wonderful visit with Breece and Ben and Magnolia. Now we’re walking towards my dad, my stepmom, my brother, and I’m finding myself, at times, overwhelmed with emotion as I think about seeing them. I love being on the trail, but I also miss the people in my life who feel like home.
We got to the spot where we thought me might camp for the night, right around the 18 mile mark. We got there around 3:30/4 with plenty of daylight left, so we decided to push. It was pretty cold, too, which was extra motivation to keep moving. Einstein and Tenacious had been talking about getting to Bear Garden Hostel in anticipation of a cold and possibly snowy night, so this became our new goal. The hostel was still about 6 miles away, so we “hit cruise control” and started motoring down the trail.
When we got to the hostel, we thought it might be deserted- not a soul in sight as we approached the property. We were debating what to do when Oak and Toddles popped out of the Bunkhouse building. It was a brief exchange- they were both heading a ways down the road to the small house they were staying in with the Family. It was nice to see okay again- it was the first time since we all left Damascus.
The woman who runs the hostel showed us around and gave us a rundown of rules and whatnot. We let her know that two other hikers would possibly be showing up in the next hour. She asked us to relay what she had told us to Einstein and Tenacious when they arrived. After that, we started getting settled in the small bunkhouse and got going on some dinner- Mac n’ Torts!
About an hour after we arrived at the hostel, Einstein and Tenacious stroll up and get set up in the bunkhouse with us. We all stayed up way past Hiker midnight talking about most everything and reminiscing on the hiking we’ve all done so far. Einstein is approaching the time when he’s going to have to come off trail to go back home, so we’re trying to enjoy every little bit of time we have left to hang with him.
Finally, it was time for bed. Because BAM! and I have a double sleeping bag and this particular hostel doesn’t provide sheets, we had to squeeze in together on a bottom bunk. It was definitely snug, but not as cramped as it could have been. Honestly, after the big day we had, I think I could have slept just about anywhere.
Day 48 (Friday, April 2nd, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 22.3 Bear Garden Hostel > Jenkins Shelter 580.5 Miles Down, 1612.6 To Go
We left the hostel later than we wanted. It was super cold outside, about 18 degrees when we woke up, so none of us were in a big hurry to get going. We also had to wait for the owner to come down so we could settle up before we left. While we waited, Hero and I had a quick breakfast – Pop Tarts again – but they had a toaster at the hostel so we treated ourselves to warm Pop Tarts! It’s the little things.
We paid for our night’s stay, some sodas, and a small can of fuel. We were so grateful that they had fuel, otherwise we would have been in a tough spot. Eventually, we started hiking, around about 9:30am. As we got to the trail, the Family was hopping out of their shuttle along with Toodles and Oak. They had all stayed just up the road. Not wanting to get delayed any further this morning, we said a quick hello as we kept hiking and told them we would see them further up the trail.
We had heard that about four miles down trail we would have to wade across a river because the bridge had been wiped out during a flood last year. Needless to say, with the temperature barely over 20 degrees, this was not the day we would have picked to go wading through a mountain stream. We got there and were glad to see that the water level was lower than we had expected. It looked like we would only get wet up to our knees and not mid-thigh unlike some people we knew who had crossed earlier in the week. We took off our packs and began to prepare for the short trek across the water. We pulled off our shoes and socks then rolled up our leggings above our knees. As we sat there, we could see what was left of the bridge laying on the far side of the river.
Ok, let’s do this quickly! Our feet were already getting cold just being out of our socks. We stuffed our socks in our packs, tied our shoes on top, then threw our packs back on. There was ice along the shoreline, I walked through it and into the river letting out a loud “OOOHHH! WOOOOO!” I kept moving steadily, my gaze fixed on the far shoreline. After a few more loud cries, I made it to the other side my feet numb from the cold. Hero came after me, letting out a few hoots and howls of her own. We sat down and started putting our socks back on, grateful for the bit of sun shining on that side of the river which added a hint of warmth to the air.
As we were putting our shoes on, Toodles, Bad Santa, and Stumbles appeared on the other side. After asking us how it went, Bad Santa and Toodles started taking their shoes off too. We watched and encouraged them across as more of the family showed up along with Oak and Einstein. Bad Santa went back and forth a few times, shuttling some of the other members of the family who weren’t as keen on crossing by foot. We decided that rather than watch everyone cross, which could prove entertaining now that our feet were dry and warm again, we should probably keep moving.
We had a pretty significant climb ahead of us – over 2,000 feet up to Chestnut Knob. As we neared the top, we entered a high field and had views of nearby ridgelines and valley farms in the distance. At the top was an old stone shelter and beautiful views into this crater-shaped valley called Burkes Garden. Several farms dotted the valley surrounded by the stoney ridgeline. We would follow along the southeastern ridge for the next several miles, navigating over and around beautiful white rock outcroppings the whole way, every once in a while getting another view of a crater-like valley.
The trail was rocky and challenging at times, with lots of trees down from previous storms. So, it took us a little longer than we had hoped, but we were enjoying the views. There was no water on the ridge and we were running low. There was an unreliable source listed on the guide in a couple miles, but it was at least .3 miles down a side trail and down in elevation. This would mean at least an extra .6 to hike, which on a day when we were planning on doing over 22 miles didn’t sound enticing.
About a mile before we would have to decide to go down to get water or not, we crossed a gravel road and someone had left a case of bottled water near the trail. We were so grateful fir this trail magic! We each took one bottle and poured it into our smart water bottle then left the rest for others who might need it. Sitting near the water was a hiker named Second Step. We introduced ourselves and started talking with him as we got the water. We were trying to figure out where to shove the empty plastic water bottles in our packs when he offered to take them and any other trash we had on us. We asked if he was sure and he said that he was getting picked up from that spot so a friend could hike with him a bit and he didn’t mind taking it off our hands. We expressed our gratitude and chatted a while longer, learning that he had started in Harper’s Ferry and was flip-flopping. We told him we hoped to see him up north after he finished the southern half, then continued on our way.
We pressed on to Jenkins Shelter, still debating if we wanted to go further tonight or wake up super early to get to Bland, VA before the post office closed at 11am. We sent ourselves a resupply there thinking we would arrive on a weekday and that the sparse weekend hours wouldn’t be a problem. However, we took an extra zero for bad weather, and another for a Hiking for Hunger workday. So, now we found ourselves having to race to the post office again.
We strolled into Jenkins Shelter at a quarter to 7pm and Wicked, Viking Man, Tall Son, and Not Yet were all there. We decided we would at least make dinner and hangout for a bit. Shortly after that decision, we both agreed that we would rather get up early than hike in the dark tonight. Hero started setting up the tent as I finished making dinner. We both enjoyed chatting with our friends over dinner. Then we headed to bed knowing we needed to try and get as much sleep as possible – 4am was gonna come quick. As we were heading to the tent Einstein hiked in followed closely by Tenacious C. We said hi and were glad they made it, then we crawled into our sleeping bag and crashed out.
Day 49 (Saturday, April 3rd, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 17.5 Jenkins Shelter > Random Stealth Camp 598 Miles Down, 1595.1 To Go
We were up by 4:15 am this morning and leaving camp just an hour later. A resupply box was waiting for us at the post office in Bland, VA, where Saturday hours are a mere 9-11 am. We had a two hour window to get in and get our box, and 11.3 miles to cover to get to the road where we’d be picked up and shuttled in- hence the early start.
This morning happened to be one of the coldest we’ve experienced while on trail, very reminiscent of some of the frigid days we had while hiking through the Smokies. It was a struggle to get packed up and going, and a struggle to stay warm while hiking pre-dawn. And after doing two big back-to-back days before this particular morning, we were both feeling pretty depleted as we started up the trail. Nevertheless, we marched on, crunching the frozen leaves with our heavy footfalls, the rounded white light of our headlamps bobbing up and down ahead of us in tune with our footsteps.
While a lot of this morning’s hike truly felt like a head down slog to get to post office in time, there were some moments that lifted that feeling, even if only briefly. I’ll never forget, for example, how absolutely uplifting it felt when, as we were winding along the side of a mountain, we rounded a corner and were suddenly awash with sunlight. It caught us off guard in the most beautiful of ways, those dazzling rays seeming to give our faces sweet little kisses. It lasted only a few seconds, and then we walked back into a section of trail that was still cloaked in shadow this early on in the day. I remember immediately craving the sensation again, so much so that my pace quickened, eager to get to the next sunny spot, where ever it may be. Though the sunny spots proved to be few, the power that they held in helping us move forward this morning was pretty remarkable. I felt so grateful for the sun’s warmth today, so grateful for the way that it energized me to keep going when it felt extra challenging to do so.
With our brisk pace to match the brisk morning air, it only took us four hours to hike the 11.3 miles from Jenkins Shelter to US 52. As we were approaching the highway, BAM! called the shuttle driver to let him know we were arriving a little earlier than expected. Bubba didn’t answer, so BAM! left a message. We got to the picnic tables outside of Brushy Mountain Outpost, which as it turned out was not open today- contrary to what our guidebooks indicated, the outpost wasn’t open over the weekend. I shot Tenacious a text to let him know the outpost was closed today- he’d been planning on doing a small resupply there so he could make it the rest of the way to Pearisburg. After waiting about ten or so minutes and not getting a call back from Bubba, we were starting to contemplate calling again or trying to hitch into town. Just as we were debating what to do, Bubba drove up!
Bubba agreed that he would not only shuttle us into town, but since we were really just picking up a box from the post office, he’d also bring us back to the trail. This was a relief, knowing that we wouldn’t have to figure out a way ride back to the trailhead. The drive into Bland was only 3 miles, so I was able to very quickly grab the box from the post office. As we were leaving, BAM! remembered that we might need some more fuel- Bubba was kind enough to take us to a gas station where he was pretty sure he’d seen fuel on the shelves before. While BAM! went inside to grab fuel and some snacks (of course!), Bubba and I talked. I got a glimpse into some of what he’d been through recently, and I was left in awe of the resilience of this man. We didn’t get to talk for very long, as BAM! and I were pretty efficient getting everything we needed from Bland, but I felt enriched by the conversation and inspired by his unshakeable demeanor.
Bubba drove us back up to the trailhead. We thanked him profusely and bade him farewell, waving as he drove away. To our fellow thru hikers who may be reading this: if you’re near Bland, or anywhere between Damascus and Pearisburg and you need a lift, we can’t recommend Bubba enough.
The sun (that glorious, wonderful SUN!) was now fully casting its warmth across the picnic tables at Brushy Mountain Outpost. We sat down and basked for a few minutes before getting to work on our resupply box and some much needed snacking. With this resupply plus the leftover food we still had in our bags, we were more than set for the couple of days it’ll take us to get to Pearisburg. In fact, we know we’ll have extra food, which will mean not having to do as big of a store buy. Despite having extra weight, we’re grateful knowing we have plenty to eat. After thoroughly enjoying our downtime while munching on snacks and organizing and packing up our resupply in the sun, we rally- we’ve got to at least make it up to the first shelter before calling it quits for the day.
We get to the first shelter (which is 0.3 miles off trail), not sure yet if we’d be staying the night but certainly that we would need to fill up on water while we decided on next steps. There wasn’t a lot of water marked between the first shelter and the one nine miles further up the trail, so we wanted to make sure we had enough to get by if we decided to push on but not all the way to the next shelter.
I wind up doing the water run, which turns out to be a doozy. To get to the water source, it’s a 0.3 mi steep, switchback route complete with downed tree hurdles in the middle of the trail. Once you get to the water source, there’s no really good pour over spot to fill up the bucket, at least not a spot that doesn’t involve teetering on a precarious ledge or standing in the streambed. I opt for filling the bucket in the deepest spot I can find, trying hard not to fall in as I do so. From there, it’s back up that 0.3 mile steep, switchback trail, only now I’m carrying 7 liters of water- you know, for that extra fun challenge… ha! As I finally reach the top, I pass by the two guys who were sitting at the picnic table by the shelter when I started down the trail. “Boy, that must have been a ways down there,” the older of the two says. “Yep,” I say, “try to avoid that one if at all possible!”
I get back to BAM! and we start filtering water and decide on whether to stay or go. We both feel like pushing on a bit longer, but we’re not committed to the nine miles it would take to get to the next shelter. We really want to find a spot about four miles up the trail and call it quits while we still have some daylight. We figure we can rest up a bit, have an early dinner, and catch up on some writing before we crash out. At this point, we’ve already hiked 14 miles, so it’s not like we’re slackin’, right?
As we’re getting packed up, the two guys who’d been by the shelter area come by and we all chatted for a bit. We believe the older of the two might be a section hiker, most definitely an avid hiker/backpacker, because he had some stories about the trail that he shared with us. One included a night in the Smokies with a severe thunderstorm that sounded a lot like the one we’d just had up in the Grayson Highlands. Only he and his trail friends were in the shelter, and it happened to be the shelter that has a chain link fence across the front, the idea being that you have all of your food and stuff in the shelter with you and lock yourself in. On the night of this severe storm, the lightning was flashing so bright that it would light up the entire forest beyond the shelter. Well, on one such occasion when the lightning flashed, he and his buddies saw a bear on its hind legs outlined by the flash of light- and they realized that the bear was pushing against the chain link fencing trying to get into the shelter… YIKES! Fortunately, the bear did not get in, although apparently a skunk did at one point! We talk so more with the guys and then they head out. Soon after, we do the same and keep truckin’ north.
We only hike for another hour and a half. We’re both feeling sluggish and thoroughly ready to just be done for the day. We settle on a spot somewhat off trail, a flat-ish section that looks like it may have been a roadbed long ago. We start settling into our home for the night by pulling our shoes off, taking our sweaty stinky socks off and letting our feet see daylight- I relish the feeling of wiggling my toes and letting them breathe! It’s amazing how warm it is now compared to this morning- it’s nearly 40 degrees warmer, almost 60 degrees outside! After taking some time to give ourselves a break, I dig out the different parts of the tent and let them air dry for a while before setting it up. BAM! gets rolling on an early dinner. We’re both so happy we’re not hiking anymore today. Even when we see Not Yet, Wicked, and Viking Man (Tall Son must have lapped us when we were at the shelter that was 0.3 off trail) pass and kinda wish we were going to the shelter they’re headed for, we still are ultimately glad we’re stopping here for the night.
“Do you have a permit to camp there?” BAM! and I both sat up a bit in the tent and looked at each other a little wide eyed. “What….?” We couldn’t see who was talking to us because they were concealed by the tent. It was still light out, and we were working on some writing after our early dinner. “Do you have a permit to camp there?” The voice repeated. I wasn’t sure whether to try and pretend whoever was talking to us was imaginary and hopefully they’d go away or to start freaking out. The rule follower in me was silently thinking “Oh no! Permits for this area? How did I miss that? Oh no oh no oh no what if we have to move camp? Oh please no.” My more rebellious, not about to get walked all over side was thinking “Nuh uh, I am not movin’- good luck buddy! Also, you don’t need permits for this section of the AT- who do you think you are trying to tell me to move?!” While all of this was happening in my head, a look of humored recognition crossed BAM!’s face. He yelled out to the disembodied voice, “Tenacious!” But of course it was him, that stinker! I poked my head out of my side of the tent and sure enough, there he was, trouncing down the trail with just his trekking poles and a bottle of Gatorade in hand. “You had me going there for a second, Tenacious!” I yelled out to him. We spent the next few minutes updating each other on trail things. He was doing a SOBO slack pack from roughly 3 miles north of where we were camped back down to US 52 and would be staying in town with Einstein and Honeybadger. Neither of them slackpacked with him, so they’ll be behind us all tomorrow. He also had been reunited with his missing trekking poles and was soon to be reunited with his Croc that fell off of his pack while he was hiking yesterday. We let him know that we successfully got our box in Bland. We bade him farewell and told him we’d see him out on the trail tomorrow. He went on his merry way.
We’re settled in for the night now, BAM! looking ahead at mileage options for the next few days and me catching up on writing. Think we’ll probably call it a night soon- it’s been a long day. A good day, in the end, but a long day. Tomorrow we are looking forward to warmer temperatures and our dear old friend the sun.
Day 50 (Sunday, April 4th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 20.2 Random Stealth Camp > Wapiti Shelter 618.2 Miles Down, 1574.9 To Go
Gosh, 50 days on trail and over 600 miles of the AT hiked. Feeling pretty accomplished! We are finding our groove and feeling good hiking about 18 to 20 miles a day.
This morning we slept in a bit, just feeling cozy in our sleeping bag and having a hard time convincing ourselves that we needed to get up and hike another 20 miles. We did finally get moving just a little before 7am and started getting packed up – we were hiking by 8:30am. About 200 yards down the trail we see this nice grassy spot with a view. We both look at it and think the same thing – that would have been a nice spot to camp last night! We had stayed on an old grown over logging road covered with leaves. We shrugged and said oh well where, we were last night worked just fine.
We were both feeling a little sluggish today and seemed to be moving a bit slower. Part of this may have been slight dehydration. Since we stealth camped on the ridge last night, we didn’t have a water source near our campsite. We carried some extra water with us from the last known source but were doing our best to conserve what we had, which meant drinking less. There was a stream just about 3 miles down trail, but it was marked “unreliable” on our guide so we weren’t sure if it would be running. We got there and the water was low but still running. We were able to use our trusty PVC pipe to help create a spout to fill our bag then filtered the water.
We then pushed to Jenny Knob Shelter and stopped in for a brown blaze (going to the bathroom), then had some snacks. We were both feeling a bit emotional today and talked out some things that were on our minds and ended up staying there longer than expected. Then Ninja Feet showed up followed by Narrator, Destin, Stumbles, and Blade. We talked with them for a while, then realized we needed to put some miles behind us and said goodbye. When we hiked back to the entrance to the shelter, the rest of the family was there with Toodles. We stopped and talked with them for a while, too. Then we realized it was after 12pm and we still had about 15 miles to hike. We said goodbye and pushed on.
As we got a little further down the trail, we picked up some of the conversations we had started before the family joined us at Jenny Knob. I am so glad that I have Hero out here and that we are able to talk about the things that come up for us. Now that we have our “hiker legs” the physical challenges of hiking the trail aren’t the hardest we face. Now we are experiencing greater emotional challenges. The trail is revealing more about ourselves, maybe more than we would like to know at times. It isn’t comfortable and can be very emotionally exhausting, but it is ultimately good and it provides opportunities for us to grow, which is one of the main reasons we love the outdoors and wanted so badly to do this thru hike.
Further down the trail, we crossed paths with a flip-flop hiker named Blue Ray. He was really nice and gave us some info about the trail ahead of us, encouraging us to take a moment by the river to soak our feet. We thought that sounded nice on this day where we had temperatures near 60 degrees. So, we decided to forgo hiking the 0.6 miles to see Dismal Falls and instead found a nice spot along the riverbank to soak our feet and eat our Food for the Sole cold soak lunch. The foot soak was more like a quick rinse though. Even with the weather warming up the mountain stream still felt ice cold.
It was getting late and we both just wanted to be at the shelter now, but we still had 6 miles to go. We were grateful that the terrain was pretty flat- hopefully it would go by quickly. We crossed the river several times over little foot bridges. We had been on ridgelines a lot lately, so hiking through this river valley was a refreshing change of scenery. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a large bird flying low in the trees. I turn my head to see an owl land on a dead tree limb about 50 yards from us. I point it out to Hero and we both watch as the owl turns its head searching its surroundings, occasionally pausing while looking in our direction. After a few minutes, the owl opens its wings and glides through the forest and out of sight. We both look at each other and express our awe at the beauty of what we just witnessed. We love owls and it was quite a treat to see one of these elusive nocturnal creatures during the day.
With the owl gone, we pushed on with a little more vigor – only about 2.5 miles to go. It felt like a long couple miles, but we made it to Wapiti Shelter. We thought maybe some of our friends would be there but the shelter was empty. We read the log and learned that they had all pressed on down the trail. We debated staying in the shelter, but noticed crusty food from people eating in the shelter and plenty of signs of mice. We decided tenting sounded better than sleeping with the mice.
As we were getting set up and making dinner, a section hiker named Victory Girl hiked in. She was tired and took a moment to catch her breath and settle her thoughts, then we chatted for a while. She was really nice and we enjoyed talking with her. We wished her well, said goodnight, and crawled into our tent.
We have raised $8,508.30 for MANNA FoodBank and only have $263.70 or 66.1 “miles” left to meet our original goal and for the Donors to complete the Fund-Racer to Katahdin! Keep it going – you all are Amazing!
You all, as donors, are way ahead of us as we are just now coming up on the one quarter mark of the trail with 534.3 miles hiked!
Day 40 (Thursday, March 25th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 0 Layover in Abingdon, VA
Our bodies let us sleep in ‘til 7:30am, but that was it even though we had stayed up way past hiker midnight the night before. So, Hero and I got ourselves out of bed and started trying to catch up on some of our journal entries. Not long after, Breece and Magnolia got up. Noli had slept in until 8am which was not usually the case, so Breece was grateful for the additional rest today.
Once Magnolia was awake, Hero and I had no chance to work on our blog or anything else for that matter (not that we were at all upset about this). Every couple of minutes, Noli would come up to one of us and say something like “Come here, wook! Come over here!” And just like that, we would be pulled away to check out one of her toys or to color or paint with her. We were such push overs and we didn’t hate it. We really enjoyed playing and hanging out with this adorable little human.
While we played, Breece made us waffles complete with fresh strawberries and vegan whipped cream! They were so good and it was nice to sit and enjoy breakfast with Breece while Magnolia watched Daniel Tiger and ate her waffle. The rest of the morning we were at Noli’s behest, going from the play room to the living room looking at toys and playing with dolls or stuffed animals. All the while, Breece is in the background saying “you can tell her no thank you if you just want to sit and relax.” But we were enjoying being led around the house by this sweet, spirited toddler.
We were ready for a break, however, when it was time for Magnolia’s nap. While Noli slept, Breece treated us to an in home Spa Day. First, we had a foot soak with eucalyptus bath salts complete with a pumice stone to rub the dead skin off of our calloused feet. We then washed our faces, spritzed rose water on our cheeks, and put on red clay facemasks. While we let the facemasks dry, Breece made us delicious matcha lattes. We were feeling so pampered and refreshed! We finished our lattes and rinsed our faces then Breece set out a wonderful veggie and nut platter for lunch, which we devoured.
Then nap time was over for Noli and we were back at it, ushered around the house by a 2 and a half year old. She is so dang cute we just couldn’t say no, and we enjoyed playing and just being goofy with her.
Ben got home from work and we grilled vegan Beyond Brats and Burgers. Noli went to bed, and we watched Adventureland while we all ate, Hero and I both crushing a pint of ice cream each for dessert. The hiker hunger is something fierce right now, and we’re taking every opportunity during our zeroes to eat as much as our bodies can stand.
Feeling sleepy and full of yummy food, we bade Breece and Ben goodnight and very quickly fell asleep.
Day 41 (Friday, March 26th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 14.9 Damascus > Lost Mountain Shelter 486.7 Miles Down, 1706.4 To Go
It was really hard to say goodbye to Breece and Ben and Magnolia today. I could feel myself dragging this morning, and I know that had a lot to do with the inevitability of parting ways. I know BAM! was feeling that way, too, and I think if we weren’t in a rush to get out the door so that Ben could get to work on time (he was kind enough to drop us back off at the trail on his way to work- thank you, Ben!), we might have taken Breece up on staying another day. “I can stop deflating this air mattress right now if you want!” she said a bit hopefully. We were mighty tempted, but we both got in our heads about “needing” to get back on trail. So, after a gut wrenching goodbye with Breece and Magnolia (who does not like goodbyes, not the least bit), we jumped in the car with Ben and were off.
We had a nice drive back into town with Ben. He took the backroads, winding through valleys and farmlands dotted with cows and goats and leash-less dogs. Eventually, we rolled into town, and Ben pulled up to the Damascus Diner where we hoped there might be some WiFi we could use to work on and publish a new blog post. We thanked Ben, exchanging hugs. He wished us luck and then we were on our own…
…until we walked into the diner, where we found Oak having breakfast! Seeing one of our favorite trail people was just what we needed in that moment- it took some of the edge off of how much we were already missing the friends we’d just parted ways with. He waved us over and we joined him at his table. Though we’d already had breakfast back at Breece’s that morning, we decided to look over the menu. It didn’t look like anything on the menu was vegan-friendly, an intuition which was confirmed by the waitress when we asked. We settled for coffee, which worked out just fine anyways because we’d need to find someplace else for WiFi access.
We sat with Oak while he finished his breakfast, half working on some of our blog writing while we did so, but mostly catching up on everything since the last time we’d seen him. Around 9:30 am, Batman strolled in- we were so excited to see him as it had been a few days since we’d last crossed paths. He let us know that Tenacious Hot Cakes and Einstein were going to be joining him around 10 am, so we decided to hang out a while longer so we could see them, too. They showed up, Tenacious Hot Cakes with a quart of Oreo ice cream that he intended to use as a topping for his pancakes. This is his signature “last breakfast before leaving town” move, and how he got the “Hot Cakes” part of his trail name. We said hey, briefly caught up, and told them we’d see ‘em out on the trail. From there, we’d be going to the Broken Fiddle Hiker Hostel where Oak had stayed the night before. He said we could hang out there and use their WiFi to finish up our blog post. Awesome, we thought! We’ll get it done real quickly and get back on trail before by noon latest.
Well, noon came and went, and we were still sitting on the porch at the Broken Fiddle trying to get that post up- it was taking forever! We had gotten behind on the blog and were trying to get all caught up before we headed back out on the trail. Because of that, we had a pileup of days. Not only did we need to flesh out and tweak our writing, but we also had to go through the process of getting photos downloaded off of the GoPro and uploaded onto the blog. Sounds like it should take no time at all to do such a thing, but believe me- it took an excruciating amount of time to do so and synthesize it all. While we were working on this, Oak had gone back into the hostel to shower and get ready to go back on trail. It had been a few hours since he’d gone to do this and we were still right where he left us on the porch. As he rounded the corner, we heard him say “please tell me y’all still aren’t here working on that blog!” We both gave him sheepish grins.
In the end, we didn’t roll out of Damascus until about 3:30 pm. We published the blog, grabbed a few things we needed from Sundog Outfitters, and were finally back on trail. It took about an hour for my body to readjust to having a pack back on, but then I started feeling strong and BAM! and I cruised along the section of trail leading out of Damascus. The sun was out and beating down on us- it was so warm I was wearing the tank top I’d just acquired at the outfitters.
Because we didn’t get on trail until much later than expected, we planned on going to the first shelter 9ish miles in rather than the second shelter about 15 miles in. However, by the time we got to the intersection and realized we’d have to hike 1/4 mile off trail to get to the first shelter, we were feeling good and decided to press on. By then, the sun was no longer beating down on us, and we were hiking in what may have been some of the nicest temperatures we’d experienced on trail thus far.
The light started to fade quickly, and eventually we had to pull out our headlamps for a bit of night hiking. The moon was stunning and nearly full, but we still needed our headlamps in order to see and avoid the roots and rocks protruding from the trail. I was a little nervous about night hiking, but we talked and kept each other company and that helped to curb the fear. It helped, too, that the sounds of the river and streams we walked alongside during this stretch made me feel more tranquil, less anxious.
After roughly 5 and a half hours of hiking, we rolled into camp a little after 9 pm. We tried to be as quiet as possible, knowing that the Family and Toodles must be sleeping in the shelter. We walked behind the shelter to see if we could find a good camping spot. “I see your true, colors…” someone started to sing from the woods we were headed for. We paused for a second. “Are you an alien, or a thru hiker?” the disembodied voice now said. We chuckled, now knowing exactly who we were hearing. BAM! responded in a semi-whisper, “Actually, we’re hikers from another planet!” “Oh! Alien Thru Hikers!” Laughing, we approached the spot where we’d heard the voice coming from. Two tents were set up in a nice, flat, forested area just beyond the shelter. “Hi Tenacious, Hi Batman,” We said, “It’s BAM! and Hero.”
There were plenty of nice spots for us to get set up, so we got right to work with our camp routine. Within an hour and fifteen minutes, our bellies were full of delicious food and our heads were hitting our lightweight inflatable pillows.
Day 42 (Saturday, March 27th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 12.3 Lost Mountain Shelter > Thomas Knob Shelter 499 Miles Down, 1694.1 To Go
The alarm went off at 6am, but my mind woke me up several minutes earlier. After getting in late last night, we had only gotten 7 hours of sleep and our bodies were telling us that they wanted more. But the weather forecast had thunderstorms rolling in around 2pm, and we wanted to get over the highest peaks before the storms came through.
So, after taking 5 to 10 minutes to convince our bodies that we needed to get up and going, we turned on our light and started packing. The morning was pleasant, not too cool and clear skies. We could hear the Family and Toodles packing up in the shelter nearby and went over to say good morning. They let us know they had a similar plan for today and would be trying to push to the next shelter before the storm hit.
We finished packing up and got on the trail just a little bit after the Family left. We were having a hard time pushing ourselves to hike quickly, though. Our bodies were feeling a bit sluggish and both of us were thinking about how we would rather be back in Abingdon with our friends instead of dodging thunderstorms in the highlands. But we pressed on, and it really was a beautiful morning. The clouds started to fill in the sky, a warning of the coming storm, yet it was a pleasant temperature and calm in the forest. The birds were chirping and we passed several trickling springs. I was trying hard to focus on the natural beauty around me and remind myself of all the reasons why I love being out here. Mentally, today was harder than most.
It didn’t help that we had a long climb up nealy 2,000 feet of elevation gain. It wasn’t steep or even that strenuous, but it was long and seemed to drag on for hours. We finally got to the top and were treated to amazing views at Buzzard Rock. The Forest Service had recently done a prescribed burn and we could see the storm clouds building in the distance. All of this made for an eerie but captivating scene. We didn’t linger for long, though, because we were trying to stay ahead of those thunder heads building behind us.
We got to Whitetop Mtn. Rd. and saw the Family in the parking lot. For a moment, we thought there was trail magic and we got excited. Then we realized they were just getting resupplied. So, we said a quick hello and told them we would seem them down trail.
It had already started to sprinkle a bit when we got to the Elk Garden parking lot, somewhere around noon. Hero noticed the bathroom and decided to take advantage. She walked over, but the door was locked. We took our packs off and hung out under the tiny awning next to the info sign and had a snack. The shelter was only 4 miles away so figured we should be able to make it before 2pm when the storms were really supposed to hit- surely this little bit of rain right now was just a precursor. We threw our packs back on, crossed the street, went through a gate, and started towards a large open bald – FLASH! Lightning lit up the sky followed by booming thunder only a couple of seconds later. We looked at each other then at the open hills ahead of us and back at each other. “That doesn’t feel safe- let’s head back to the parking lot.” We went back through the gate, crossed the street, and back under the info awning. The rain started coming down harder. Then Hero said, “we could go to the awning by the bathroom, there is more space.” We ran over there, set our packs down and turned on our phones to check the weather.
This wasn’t supposed to start until 2pm! When I checked the radar, we could see the small cell that was moving over us. Behind it was a much larger cell, and we determined that we would have a small window of time, but probably not enough to get 4 miles to the shelter. Lightning flashed again, two seconds later – Crack! The storm was right on top of us. For now we were staying put…
…10 minutes later the Family and Toodles hiked down into the parking lot. They came over to the bathroom hoping they could squeeze under the awning, but there wasn’t enough room for all of us. The rain was dying down at this point, so we all started talking about our plan. We were all trying to figure out how to get over the open fields ahead of us and to the next shelter safely. Bad Santa asked if anyone had a satellite image of the trail to the shelter. I did and I pulled it up. We looked at it and noticed that the open field was only a half mile long and then we would be in tree cover nearly the whole way to the shelter.
Being under a uniform canopy of trees was a lot better than being in a high open field during a thunderstorm. This gave us some comfort and the confidence we needed to press on. The first smaller cell had passed, so this was our window. We all took off up the rolling hills as thunder boomed in the distance, it seemed further away at this point. Hero and I were moving at our faster pace again- it’s amazing how a little extra adrenaline can motivate our tired muscles.
We made it to the treeline and we all felt a little relieved. Now we had to try and push the next 3.5 miles before the bigger storm hit. It was muddy and rocky, but we were cruising. We were in the front of the pack with Toodles, Stumbles, and Ninja Feet. We had been hiking for about an hour and Ninja Feet turns around and says “Quiet, Toodles this is the moment you’ve been waiting for… the first ponies of the trail!” Sure enough through the trees we can see two little ponies. We all get pretty excited, and for a moment we forget we are trying to outrun a giant storm. The trail takes us closer to the ponies and we realize there are 5 or 6 in this field. Oh of course we have to get pictures! They come right up to us and start licking our legs – they love the salt on us sweaty thru hikers. As I was taking a picture, one of the ponies went over to my trekking poles and started chewing on the straps – I quickly pull it out of its mouth.
We hear thunder and remember the coming storm. We rush out knowing the shelter shouldn’t be too far away. We get a view out over the mountains and can see the menacing storm heading our way. It looks so cool – I have to take a picture. The wind picks up and we watch as dark clouds literally engulf us. Moments later the rain starts. Now we are almost running, and it starts to pour! We see the shelter, but it is packed with boy scouts! We squeeze under the awning and out of the rain, but still feel the cold wind. There we wait with our packs on for the storm to pass.
We were glad to hear that the 30+ scouts were moving on after the storm. This meant there would be more options for us to find camping, maybe even consider the shelter if it was just tramily members.
After what felt like hours of waiting, the Boy Scouts cleared out and the shelter still seemed pretty cramped. We thought hard about cramming ourselves in there with Toodles and the Family, but then determined that our double sleeping pad was going to take up too much room. We opted for a tenting spot nearby in the spruce forest. It wound up being a good option as it afforded us more space and privacy. We just hoped that the tent would hold up okay during the storms headed our way. We were experiencing what felt like the cliched “calm before the storm,” which made setting up the tent a lot less stressful.
We ate dinner, and afterwards I played a little ukulele. With all the people around, I was a bit nervous and it didn’t so much feel like I was just practicing for fun- it felt like more of a performance. But I guess people liked what I played. I didn’t realize it at the time, but apparently French Fry (who might be Starfish again?) was recording me while I played!
After a while, we could feel the winds start to shift and we knew by the intermittent rain drops hitting the ground that the storm was approaching. Hero and I said goodnight to everyone, quickly packed up our things, and headed to our tent. Settling in, we spent the rest of the evening thinking through a plan of action if we needed to jump ship because of the weather. We made sure anything we really didn’t want to get wet was up off the ground (in case the bottom of our tent filled up like a bathtub) and hunkered down.
We waited with bated breath as round two of the storm started to close in…
Day 43 (Sunday, March 28th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 4.1 (backtrack miles) Thomas Knob Shelter > VA 600, Elk Garden 499 Miles Down, 1694.1 To Go
We were woken up throughout the night by one of the most intense storms I’ve ever encountered in my life. Without a doubt it was the most nerve-wracking storm-related night in the outdoors I’ve experienced thus far. The rain battered our tent from dusk til dawn while thunder shook us and lightning cracked across the sky- our closed eyes were no match for the intensity of its too-close-for-comfort flash. More than once, lightning would brighten the inside of our tent and only a second later we would hear the accompanying thunder, meaning it likely struck less than a mile away from us. Though sleep was hard to come by, I silently gave thanks anytime I was jarred awake to the spruce forest we were nestled in, for our tent that held up and kept us dry, for the inflatable sleeping pad between us and the earth, giving us at least some protection from potential ground current.
Rain still pattering on the tent fly, we checked the radar as soon as we awoke this morning. Although the storm that rocked us throughout the night had all but dissipated, another severe one was on its way. Rain was guaranteed throughout the day, with a likely chance of thunderstorms starting in the afternoon. The next section of trail we had ahead of us would traverse through the Grayson Highlands, which included several stretches of wide open fields and balds with little to no tree coverage. Not only were we not very keen on walking along high elevation balds in the middle of thunder and lightning, but Grayson Highlands was also one of the sections of trail we had been most looking forward to. We didn’t want to pass through the area in a hurry with our heads bent and spirits low.
We weighed our options and decided to text Breece and see if she’d be able to help us out. As it turned out, she’d been worried about us last night as the storm raged violently at their house down in the valley- if it was bad where they were, she was certain we must be having a real time of it up on the ridge. Absolutely she would come and get us! We were so relieved and full of gratitude- now we just had to get to a spot where she could pick us up. We wanted it to be as easy as possible for her to scoop us, which meant we would need to backtrack about 4 miles to VA 600, Elk Garden parking area, the spot where we’d huddled under the bathroom awning less than 24 hours prior. It would mean doing that stretch along the trail three times- yesterday afternoon when we were being chased by the storm, today as we backtracked to Elk Garden to meet Breece, and tomorrow when we would be coming back through to push on. It was hard to feel like we were moving backwards mileage-wise, but ultimately we knew that it would be well worth it so that we could dry out and not freeze overnight, spend more time with Breece and Ben and Magnolia, and save Grayson Highlands for a sunnier day.
We packed up quickly, thoroughly motivated by the promise of a warm, dry car just a few miles back down the trail. We had a window of time in which the rain stopped ever so briefly, granting us the opportunity to get the tent taken down without getting the inside of the body completely soaked. After doing this, we rushed under the awning of the Thomas Knob Shelter and scarfed down some breakfast, chatting with the Family and Toodles and updating them on our plans. They were planning on zeroing at the shelter, possibly considering a night hike once the storms passed by. The forecast was indicating that the temperature would drop into the low 20s after the storm had passed- no one seemed keen on getting soaking wet and transforming into popsicles overnight.
Waving goodbye to everyone, we set off on the trail. Only, it didn’t resemble a trail anymore so much as a river. We tried to rock hop for about the first minute or two before we realized our efforts were going to be fruitless- our feet were going to get wet, and that was that. And so we trudged, making our way back down to the parking area. We got there early and immediately ran for cover under the awning in front of the locked bathroom, causing us to feel a sense of deja vu. We huddled there, dancing to keep warm while we waited for the blue Subaru. At one point while we waited, Tall Man showed up, and we all commiserated about the weather and updated each other on our plans. He was planning on moving on to Thomas Knob where we’d just come from. We wished him luck and hoped that he had some warm and dry layers for the night ahead.
After some time, we heard that familiar “beep beep beep beep beeeeeeeeeeeep!” and there was Breece! We hopped in the car and sped down that mountain back towards civilization.
After that, the rest of the day was all about eating delicious hot food and chillin’, two things we were beyond stoked for. I took what was one of the best showers of my life and felt like a queen as I slipped into fresh, clean clothes. When Magnolia woke up from her nap, we half watched Moana while we played. Once again, she was chock-full of little kidisms and hilarious one-liners. At one point while she was watching Daniel Tiger, Breece remarked that the show was somewhat of a modern take on Mr. Rogers. Without skipping a beat, Magnolia exclaimed, “Yeah, it’s modern!” We all cracked up hearing the word “modern” coming from a precocious two and a half year old. After Magnolia went to bed, we ate some of the best chili while watching one of the dumbest rom-coms. All in all, it was a day well spent in the company of some of our most favorite humans. We’re so grateful for the way it all turned out, so appreciative of the caring people we are so lucky to call our friends.
Day 44 (Monday, March 29th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 20.2 (4.1 repeat, 16.1 new miles) VA 600, Elk Garden > Hurricane Mtn Shelter 515.1 Miles Down, 1678 To Go
We were so grateful to have been inside and warm last night, and 6am felt like it came way too quickly. We gave ourselves 5 more minutes, but then we had to get up and get ready to head back to the trail. Ben would be dropping us off in Damascus to catch a shuttle before heading in to work.
We quietly packed up our stuff, careful not to wake the sleeping toddler in the next room. We had a big breakfast and some coffee, which we transformed into mochas with our hot cocoa packets (Swiss Miss makes a non-dairy cocoa mix these days at it is deeeeelish! -Hero). Breece gave us big hugs before we left. It was hard saying goodbye again, and this time Magnolia was still asleep so we didn’t get to give her one last hug- it broke our hearts not being able to say goodbye to her. That little girl brings so much joy into our hearts!
It was nice talking with Ben on the drive into Damascus, and we were so grateful for the ride. We got to the shuttle and Batman and Tenacious Hot Cakes showed up a couple minutes later and we all went out to Elk Garden parking area. From there, we started hiking those 4 plus miles to Thomas Knob for the 3rd time. But today it was sunny and pleasant – we weren’t dodging thunderstorms or walking through a river on the trail. We were pretty excited that we would be going through the Grayson Highlands on such a beautiful day!
We got back to Thomas Knob and took it in with fresh eyes. On Saturday and Sunday, the place had been bursting at the seams with everyone who stayed there. Now, we were the only people there. We checked the log for a tramily update and Hero wrote in it. After a quick snack, we continued on to the Highlands.
We weren’t into our hike very long before we hit the 500 mile mark. Elated, we took a few photos and enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that came with reminding ourselves that we’d walked here from Georgia.
It wasn’t long before we emerged from the spruce forest out onto the rocky balds. We technically weren’t within the park boundary yet, but the other worldly feel that we’d been told about was already starting to take shape. Indeed, the rock formations had the look and feel of something you might expect to see on another planet.
We crossed into the park and there they were: ponies! A few were congregating near the informational signage, probably hoping for snacks or a salty leg or two to lick. We read some of the informational signage before carrying on, certain that we’d see more of the funny creatures.
Sure enough, we hadn’t gone half a mile before we were enthusiastically greeted by what appeared to be a younger pony. It trotted right up to us, whinnying and tossing its mane with gusto. After it had stood there for a few moments and we clearly didn’t have any treats, it whinnied again, let out a disgruntled snort, turned right around and trotted away. The trot turned into a full on gallop with several sassy whinnies thrown in- such a dramatic pony! Hero was overwhelmed with pony-induced joy.
We kept going, enjoying the Highlands and saying “Hello, we love you!” to all of the ponies we passed. Eventually, we crossed over the state park boundary and though we had a few more miles of seeing ponies, we soon were beyond the Highlands altogether, a.k.a beyond the “pony zone.” We focused then on making miles to Hurricane Mtn Shelter where we planned to stay for the night.
We arrived at the shelter and it was completely empty- not what we were expecting based on word that had traveled down trail indicating a whole bunch of the tramily intended to stay there. I guess plans changed and they decided to push on to Dickey Gap where they could get a ride into town.
Though we’d hoped to see some folks, we also were kinda stoked to have room in the shelter for the night. Plus, Tenacious and Batman were planning on staying here for the night, so we figured we’d probably get to see them.
As we were getting dinner ready, someone we hadn’t met yet strolled into camp- he introduced himself as No Plan. Fond of hammocking, he went about getting set up while there was still some light in the sky. Soon Tenacious arrived, and Batman not long thereafter, although he ultimately decided to camp a little further away down the hill. We talked with No Plan and Tenacious until hiker midnight. Then, we got settled into our sleeping bag and crashed out.
Day 45 (Tuesday, March 30th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 19.2 Hurricane Mtn Shelter > VA 16, Pat Jennings Visitor Center 534.3 Miles Down, 1658.8 To Go
Slept right through the alarm this morning, but our bodies woke up on their own only about 30 minutes later. Sunrise colors were starting to fill the sky, and we had a great view as pinks and oranges highlighted the ridgelines in the distance. Even though we had some miles to make today, we were sluggish in getting going. We took our time, in part because it was quite cold and we had to shake out our hands every so often to warm them up.
The terrain and our surroundings today were a lot less “wow!” than yesterday when we were hiking through the Grayson Highlands. No more ponies either, which was a bummer (I really loved those ponies). We had to do some road walking because of a re-route, which was less than ideal. But the weather was on our side, especially as the sun climbed higher into the sky and the cold air of the early morning slipped away. It wasn’t a day filled with the “oooos” and “ahhhs” that tend to accompany gorgeous mountaintop views or magical moss covered spruce forests. But we found moments here and there as we crossed through grassy fields and got little glimpses at farmland in the valleys below, as we walked through tunnels of rhododendron and listened to the burbling of streams we crossed.
It was a little after 4 pm when we reached the Partnership Shelter right before the Pat Jennings Visitor Center. We were delighted to see that Wicked, Tall Man, Viking Man, and Not Yet were all there! We spent a little bit of time catching up with them, asking them how they had faired through the storms. After a bit, we said goodbye and moved onto the visitor center where we called for a cab. While we waited, we let our new thru hiker friend No Plan charge his phone with our power bank so he wouldn’t have to go into town just to juice it up. The cab took a while to show up, but we were okay with that because it gave Tenacious some time to catch up. He made it just in time, and we all jumped in the car and wound our down the windy mountain road into the town of Marion.
The cab dropped us off at the EconoLodge. We went ahead and booked a room for two nights knowing that we’d be taking a zero tomorrow to have a Hiking for Hunger work day. The bright lemon walls and lime green accent wall smacked our eyeballs as we walked into the room. Home for the next two nights- gotta love it.
We were wiped out from the day and desperately in need of sustenance, preferably the kind that could be delivered right to our peeled-paint motel door. There wasn’t much in the way of vegan-friendly food, let alone vegan-friendly food that could be delivered. We settled on a cheese-less veggie lovers pizza from Pizza Hut with a side of breadsticks sans butter (we think we may have detected a hint of Parmesan cheese, though our stomachs didn’t protest so we’re holding out hope that it was just our overzealous imaginations at work). Despite being unsure, we ate every last bit of it- hiker hunger is for real, y’all!
Too tired to put any real effort into working tonight, we flipped through the channels and landed on the tail end of the original Jurassic Park. Our eyelids grew heavy as animatronic dinosaurs galavanted around and frightened humans haphazardly escaped the doomed island. I remember thinking at one point “wow, this movie felt way scarier two decades ago.” Then sleep got it’s way, and I was out like a light.
Hi friends! Before we dive into the Blog for this next section of our AT adventure, we wanted to give y’all a heads up about some changes we’ll be implementing.
The first is that we will start posting the most recent fundraising updates at the top of each Blog Post moving forward. While we try to update the fundraising on the home page and donation page whenever we get updates, we hope that adding it to each new Blog Post will also be helpful. So, without further ado, the latest fundraising update is as follows:
Our Goal: $8,772 (4 dollars per mile of the 2,193 mile long AT) Dollars Raised: $8,065.30 or 2,016.33 miles down! Which means all of you donors out there are past Stratton, Maine! That is incredible, and we are so grateful knowing that with what you all have contributed so far, MANNA can help provide food for over 32,261 meals! Meanwhile, we just got to Damascus, Virginia with 471 miles hiked. We are still truckin’ along, but y’all are way ahead, and to be honest we’re not too upset about that- not upset at all! Only $706.70 to go to meet our original goal!
The second change we wanted to remark upon is that the format for journal entries on the Blog will be changing slightly. We’ve decided that we (Hero and BAM!) will alternate who will write the journal entry for a given day. Up until this point, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to synthesize both of our writings during our zero and nero days into the posts. It takes a lot of time, and so in order for us to be more efficient and maintain our sanity, we’re going to try out this new way of going about doing the Blog. We figure it’s a great way, too, for us to focus on our individual writing styles and showcase what we each have to offer to the Blog on a more individual level. So, each day will have a main contributing writer, with the option for the other person to add a footnote at the bottom.
Day 29 (Sunday, March 14th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 15 miles (approx.) Hot Springs > Random Campsite North of Allen Gap 290.3 Miles Down, 1902.8 To Go
We woke up bleary-eyed after a less than restful nights sleep. For whatever reason, we tend to get butterflies in anticipation of hopping back on the trail after a zero day (three zeroes in this case). Add to that the lost hour resulting from daylight savings and you’ve got two groggy thru hikers struggling to get going in the morning. It took us some time to get organized and packed up. Somehow, even with all of the time we had in Asheville, it still didn’t feel like enough, and we were scrambling to get ourselves together. I think, too, a part of us was struggling with leaving. Asheville was our home, after all. We’d just hiked 275 miles, got home, and now we were hiking on?!? It seemed a little convoluted, not to mention emotionally challenging, to push on. Hard beyond belief to say goodbye to our Asheville framily (friends who are family).
Eventually, we got ourselves together. We said goodbye to Joel, and hopped in the car with Heather to drive the 50 or so minutes to Hot Springs. At one point during the drive, the song “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and The Heart came on and we all felt a wave of emotion overcome us. This particular song is one that talks about how life can sometimes take us away physically from the people we love and care about, but how we can still find and come back to those people (“Rivers and roads, rivers and roads, rivers ‘till I reach you!”). It’s a song that we listened to the night before Micah and I left Asheville, left the home we’d shared with Heather for years. There was not a dry eye between the three of us that night two and a half months ago, and I could start to feel the tears welling up now as we wound our way through the mountains towards Hot Springs.
We made it into town, parking close to Big Pillow Brewery where we’d had tacos and beers with the Tramily before heading into Asheville. It was funny to be in Hot Springs early in the morning, the eerie quiet of the little trail town a stark contrast to the more lively scene we’d been immersed in just a few days prior.
We all got our packs out of the truck of the car, BAM! and I wrangling our Hyperlites and Heather strapping on her daypack. We were so excited that she was joining us for a little stretch on the trail. It gave us more time with her and made it a little easier to transition back into being on the trail. We started walking, crossing the bridge that extends over the French Broad River. We walked along the edge of the river for about half a mile, and then we started to go up, up, up to the spot called “Lover’s Leap.” I kid you not, my calves were tighter and more achey on that little stretch of switchbacks than they had been on any other point of the trail we’d experienced so far. I don’t know if it was because of my muscles not being warmed up enough, or having just had three zero days, or not doing enough stretching, or a combination of all of those things. But man, I felt like my calves were on fire! Luckily, that super steep stretch didn’t last forever, and though we continued to gain elevation for some time, it was manageable.
At the top of Lover’s Leap, we met a Thru Hiker by the name of KC Cajun, and a little further down trail we ran into Fifteen and another Thru Hiker named Polka Dot. Fifteen was so surprised to see us- he thought for sure we’d be long gone by now! We explained that we’d taken some extra zeroes while home in Asheville since we were ahead of schedule. It was great to see him and we were excited that he seemed amped to be back out on the trail after a well deserved day off.
When we reached the north intersection of the Pump Gap Trail, we took a nice long break with Heather to have some snacks and water and get in that last bit of time together. We kept finding ways to stall the inevitability of goodbye. It reminded me of the stories my mom would tell about how her grandmother (my great grandmother) would delay her family from leaving after a visit. Apparently, she had a real knack for finding reasons why my grandparents and my mom and her sisters, who were little girls at the time, just couldn’t leave, not until such and such was done (much to the chagrin of my very punctual and efficiency-oriented grandfather). “Doris, you can’t leave yet- you have to curl my hair first” was her go to tactic that always seemed to pull on my grandma’s heartstrings. I smiled as I realized we were employing stalling tactics that would have made my Great Grandma Lessmann proud. In the end, we said our “see you laters”- Heather started making her way down the Pump Gap Trail as we continued on down the AT.
We got to the point on the trail where you have the option to take a .3 mile side trail up to the Rich Mtn Lookout Tower. Though we’d been up the lookout tower before during one of our training hikes, we took the time to “do it for the BAM!” anyways, knowing that the view was well worth it. And indeed it was with its 360 views of the surrounding Western North Carolina mountains! We stayed up there for a little bit, chatting some with a dad and his kids out for a Sunday hike. On our way back to the AT, we met a hiker whose trail name is My Way. He told us that he got his trail name because, although he is indeed hiking from Georgia to Maine, he’s not necessarily doing it strictly on white blazes. “I’m doing it my way,” he said to us “which means I intend to take any path along the way that calls to me.” Naturally, My Way went up to Rich Mtn Lookout Tower to enjoy those gorgeous views.
Until we passed the offshoot for the Rich Mtn Lookout Tower, we were making our way through sections of trail that we’d trained on. After that, we were on unexplored trail, which filled us with excitement. Around Hurricane Gap, we ran into a friendly gentleman with a Jeep who was super interested in our thru hike attempt. Come to find out he’s a big backpacker himself and often will cook for thru hikers around the Max Patch area. He was excited to hear that we were using our hike as a fundraiser for MANNA, so we told him how he could follow along with our journey. Super nice guy- we’re so happy we ran into him!
We continued on, stopping briefly at the first shelter to grab snacks, drink some water, and talk to the handful of thru hikers staying there for the night before moving on. We knew we weren’t going to make it to the next shelter, but we were still determined to hike a few more miles to get as close as possible to our goal for the day (15 miles). And we made it just about that, finding ourselves a nice little stealth campsite for the night thanks to a kind trail maintainer who let us know as we passed him that we were in spitting distance of one.
At camp, I turned to BAM! and said “I’ll build you a house,” to which he responded “and I’ll cook you dinner.” And so we set about our routine, me setting up the tent and getting our inside space organized for for the night and BAM! cooking up a delicious lentil dinner. We brought tortillas out with us for this ration, so we even got to make a few lentil burritos- yummy!
After dinner, we got everything cleaned up, put up the bear bags, and started settling in for the night. As I have been working on this entry, I’ve been treated to the sounds of BAM! practicing ukulele. He picked up his uke while in Asheville- I’m glad that he’s already using it and getting in some music time this evening!
Well, it’s starting to get late, and I suppose I have written rather extensively about the day. Good night for now!
Day 30 (Monday, March 15th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 22.7 Random Campsite North of Allen Gap > Random Campsite Near Sugarloaf Gap 313 Miles Down, 1880.1 To Go
The goal today was to close the gap between us and our friends. So, we were planning to do a 20+ mile day. We woke up in the dark and packed up camp using our headlamps- we planned to be hiking by first light. We were pretty close and got on trail early.
We pushed up camp creek bald, our first big climb of the day, but there weren’t any views up there and the fire tower was closed to the public. We then came to Big Firescald Knob. There was a bypass trail we could take in case of bad weather but the sun was out and we were excited to see this section, so we continued on the main trail. We hiked up onto the rocky knife edge ridge with views for miles in every direction – it was so beautiful! As soon as we got up there the wind hit us and we realized why there was a “bad weather” route. The wind threatened to push us over with our packs acting as sails, we had to lean into the wind gusts to stay upright. We tried to take a selfie using the voice command on the GoPro but the wind was so loud it couldn’t hear me. So there I was on top of Big Firescald yelling “GOPRO, TAKE A PHOTO” at the top of my lungs over and over again… and got one picture. We originally wanted to have lunch up there but we had to hike down to eat lunch because the wind was just too intense. As we hiked along the ridge we went between two rocks and there in between (enjoying the wind block) was a little garter snake. We took a picture and then it slithered under the rocks and we continued down to find a wind block of our own for lunch. Shortly after lunch we hit the 300 mile mark and were feeling really accomplished!
We got to Jerry Cabin Shelter and saw notes from our friends saying they hope we catch up soon! We would see similar notes at several shelters along the way. This was so encouraging and we continued to try and push miles. When we got to Flint Mountain Shelter we met some of Wicked’s friends (Viking Man, Tall Man, and Not Yet). We debated staying the night there, but since we had only done 18.5 miles we decided to press on!
We got water for the night from a stream and pushed on passed it to look for a spot to camp. The sun was going down and we would soon lose daylight. We found a nice spot at Sugarloaf Gap and Hero started setting up the tent as I started cooking a quick dinner. The wind picked up and it started to rain very lightly. We asked the storm to hold off until we finished setting up and ate dinner. And the rain did stop! But the wind continued and it made setting up the tent very challenging. It took both Hero and I several minutes to wrangle the tent back to the ground as it tried to take off like a sail in the wind. After securely staking down the tent, we scarfed down vegan “tuna” Mac n’ Torts, then promptly got in the tent and out of the crazy wind. We learned before going to bed that Toodles and friends did a big day, too, so we didn’t make up as much ground as we had hoped.
Day 31 (Tuesday, March 16th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 25 Random Campsite Near Sugarloaf Gap > No Business Knob Shelter 338 Miles Down, 1855.1 To Go
The pitter patter of rain on the tent and howling of the wind that accompanied it came in spurts throughout the night. It died down a little bit just as we needed to get up and get going for what we hoped would be another high mileage day. We had a window of opportunity and gleefully took it, working fast at packing up our belongings and scarfing down some breakfast. We threw on our rain gear, strapped out packs to our backs, and hit the trail just as the rain and wind started to pickup again. Talk about good timing, huh?
Years ago when I was thinking about hiking the AT by myself in 2016, I prescribed to a lot of “purist” notions about how one “should” go about thru hiking. Such notions ranged and included things such as “it’s not a true thru hike if you slack pack,” or “your thru hike doesn’t count if you skip sections and come back to them.” I shake my head a little bit and chuckle when I think back on the rigidity of my mindset at that time. Now don’t get me wrong- my type A still comes out and can contrast pretty strongly with BAM!’s more easy going and relaxed demeanor from time to time. I’ve eased up a bit, but then again, BAM! also knows he can count on me knowing what our pace is at any given moment because of the frequency that I check the time and calculate how many miles we’ve done throughout the day.
Anyways, all of that is to say that the purist notions regarding thru hiking which I clung to years ago have slowly begun to lose their hold on me. One such of these purist notions is the idea that one should not listen to music while hiking. I felt so strongly for such a long time that it just wasn’t right to have headphones in while I was out enjoying the wonder and the beauty of the natural world. What was the point of being out there if I was depriving part of the sensory experience? This made so much sense to me while on the sacred weekend hikes, which felt like such a treat and a rejuvenation of the soul after a long work week. Thru hiking is different from those once or twice a week hikes. You’re in it everyday, and for as much as you love what you’re doing, sometimes you crave those little reminders of the world beyond the AT. I still mostly like to hike without listening to music or a podcast or an audiobook, but I also appreciate having those listening options at my fingertips for the days when I need an extra boost.
All of this is to say that we desperately needed a little extra “music boost” at the end of the day today. We had a lofty goal of getting to No Business Knob Shelter, a whole 25 miles away from where we woke up at Sugarloaf Gap this morning. We were pushing such big miles because we wanted to catch up to the Tramily. We hiked 22.7 miles yesterday and knew going into today that a 25 mile day right on the heels of another day of more than 20 miles was going to be challenging. Still, we felt driven and motivated by the idea that maybe we could catch up to our friends in just a few days rather than a week or more. By the time we reached the 20 mile mark, we were just about out of steam and seriously thought about calling it quits earlier than we’d planned. But we got ourselves motivated, putting in our headphones and finding some tunes to give us that extra spark we needed. It worked so well- the music revealed that we did indeed still have a little extra gas in the tank that we could use to push out that last few miles to the shelter!
There was barely any light left in the sky when we finally got to the No Business Knob Shelter. We were so relieved to get there, so grateful that there was only one other person occupying the six-person shelter. Setting up the tent so late in addition to getting dinner ready did not sound appealing to either of us, so we were very much okay with a night in the shelter. The Thru Hiker already at the shelter when we arrived was curled up in his sleeping bag but still awake listening to an audiobook before bed- he introduced himself to us as Tie Dye Willie. We realized we’d seen his name before, in shelter logs and on some of the Thru hiker signs in trail town outfitter stores and breweries.
As I organized our space in the shelter and BAM! got dinner rolling, we chatted with Tie Dye. Conversation flowed effortlessly with him, and the time it took for us to eat and get ready for bed essentially flew by. We turned in for the night feeling grateful that the trail had brought us to this time and place in which we were able to meet this kind and thoughtful human.
Day 32 (Wednesday, March 17th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 6.2 No Business Knob Shelter > Uncle Johnny’s Hostel 344.2 Miles Down, 1848.9 To Go
We were slow to wake up this morning after our long day yesterday we treated ourselves to sleeping in for an hour an a half and didn’t get out of bed until 7:30am – which was real nice! We then had a leisurely morning eating breakfast and chatting with Tie Dye Willie as we packed up. We had to meet our friend Crazy Heart at noon and only needed to go 6 miles se we figured we could leave at 9am and be fine… I’m still slowly getting the final things in my pack when Hero says “its nine thirteen” – oops I guess I was being a little too leisurely. I quickly finish up and we say goodbye to Tie Dye and then start down the trail.
We hiked at a brisk pace, wanting to get in a little early to sort through what was left of our food before Crazy Heart got there. He was planning to take us into town to resupply. As we got closer to Uncle Johnny’s we had some beautiful views of the Nolichucky River and we had to slow down a bit for the BAM! After a few photos we pressed even more quickly than before trying to make up the time we spent admiring the view.
We stroll up to Uncle Johnny’s and see that Oak and Wicked are there!!! We are so excited to see them!!! And the we realize that Crazy Heart is already there too. So we just start chatting with everyone catching up with Wicked and Oak while we sort out our food and talking with Crazy Heart about the bad weather forecast the next two days. We had planned to continue hiking that day and get another 4 miles out to the next shelter but after a long talk with Crazy Heart about and seeing that Wicked was staying the night, we decided to stay and hike out in the morning.
So, we got a private room and threw our bags inside. Then Crazy Heart drove us into town to the Food City to get our re-ration. We had some good vegan finds like non-dairy hot cocoa and vegan Mac and Cheese. We were pretty excited! He then took us back to Uncle Johnny’s and offer to keep half of our resupply so we would only have to carry 2 days of food. He could come and pick us up at one of the gaps on Friday night – when it was supposed to be super cold – and take us back to his house to stay warm and dry out (because it was going to rain). We are so grateful for his support! We split up the food and leave half with him and take the rest. We say goodbye for now.
The rest of the evening was pretty chill, which was nice after back to back 20+ mile days. We hung out with Wicked and several other hikers we had recently met at the picnik tables and ate snacks we had gotten at the grocery store. We also took showers! Then Uncle Johnny’s had a shuttle going into town for dinner so we hopped on that and went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner and since it was Saint Patrick’s Day we figured we would celebrate with a Margarita!
The shuttle picked us up after dinner and took us back to the hostel. We realized we needed to get organized so we went back to our room and tried to get our gear and food sorted out a bit. Then the rain started and people had been talking about hanging out by a fire but now we all just hung out in our rooms. We stayed up a little later than we wanted to working on downloading pictures and route planning. When we did finally lay down for the night we were pretty happy to be in a comfy bed with a solid roof over our heads and some heat as the rain pelted the roof and the wind gusts increased outside.
Day 33 (Thursday, March 18th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 17.2 Uncle Johnny’s Hostel > Cherry Gap Shelter 361.4 Miles Down, 1831.7 To Go
We both decided early on today that we wanted to listen to audiobooks while we were hiking. This was the first time that we hiked with our headphones in for the majority of the day rather than just at the tail end when we needed an extra surge of energy to get us to wherever home would be for the night. Though I’d been the one to suggest this, I also had mixed feelings about it- perhaps that little “purist” demon sitting on my shoulder was stirred by this, whispering in my ear that I wasn’t doing it right if I succumbed to the thrall of media. Whatever, I thought to myself, this is what feels right in this moment.
I’m so happy I went with my gut. It felt so great to dive into a beautifully crafted story- “There I Am” by Ruthie Lindsey. I appreciated that I could be absorbed in her narrative, soaking in every word, while also still basking in my surroundings and enjoying the day of hiking on the trail. There were moments, too, that Ruthie’s voice and her story had me so enraptured that I was able to push through some more challenging moments with relative ease. I felt like she was just as much with me on my journey as I felt like I was with her and she told me all about hers. Authors like Ruthie can make you feel like they’re one of your dear friends- I really appreciated feeling that out on the trail today.
As we neared Indian Grave Gap, we ran into Wicked heading in the other direction! She’d been dropped off at the gap and was heading southbound, semi-slackpacking the 8 or so miles back to Uncle Johnny’s where she’d stay another night. When we’d left UJ’s that morning, she hadn’t planned to hike at all that day, citing the threat of severe thunderstorms. But, seeing that the worst of the weather was actually going to hold off until later in the evening, she decided to go ahead and get a shuttle up to Indian Grave Gap so that she could knock out a few miles while the sun was out. We said “hi” briefly and hugged, not knowing when the next time would be that we’d all see each other again. I sure do hope we all are able to hike together again, soon.
Two of my favorite spots on trail today were Beauty Spot and the dense (magical!) spruce forest atop Unaka Mountain. We were lucky that the clouds cleared up at least a little bit while we were on top of Beauty Spot, a bald that not only had incredible views of the surrounding mountains but also happened to be an area where the forest service frequently does prescribed burns. In fact, they had done a controlled burn just a few days or so before we arrived today- the burn was so fresh you could still catch the scent of char wafting about.
We stared in wide-eyed, childlike wonder as we passed through the moss covered spruce forest of Unaka, taking a moment for a late lunch before a burst of too-close-for-comfort thunder chased us down the mountain. As we descending the mountain, it started to hail! It started off as teeny tiny little pebble sized hail- not too bad, but we had a feeling that more of the stuff in a larger size might be on the way. Sure enough, just as we ducked under some trees for extra cover and grabbed our butt pads to use as hail umbrellas, we started getting pelted by marble-sized balls of ice. Despite the “ouchie” moments, it was super cool! The hailstorm didn’t last too long, but even so, the aftermath was a trail littered with all these little chunks of ice.
We were able to continue on, crunching along the path as we made haste to the shelter. We weren’t sure if the hail and thunderstorming had entirely passed yet and wanted to get to the shelter sooner rather than later. It didn’t take us too long at all to arrive at Cherry Creek Shelter, where Zoomie and Halo were already set up for the night. Worried that there might be more hail to come, we decided we’d stay in the shelter for the night- hail punching little holes in our tent, although unlikely, was not something we wanted to even be a possibility. After a while, Tie Dye Willie (whom we passed earlier as we ascended Unaka) showed up, then a woman named Regina with her dog, Happy. It was a little more snug in the shelter than we would have preferred, but given the threat of storms overnight, we felt that the shelter would be the best route for the night.
Day 34 (Friday, March 19th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 19.1 Cherry Gap Shelter > Carvers Gap 380.5 Miles Down, 1812.6 To Go
When we woke up, everyone else in camp was still asleep. We tried to be quiet and kept our red lights on. We got out of camp before anyone else woke up 7:45am. We hoped to get to Carver’s gap by 4pm so we could relax and spend the evening with Crazy Heart who was planning to pick us up for the night.
It rained all morning just a light drizzle but it seemed neverending. The fog accompanied the rain limiting our views to the 30 feet around us. As we gained elevation it got colder so we just kept hiking as fast as we could to maintain our body heat. We were crushing miles and making really good time.
As we approached the top of Roan High Knob the rain finally stopped and we realized it had been snowing up at the highest elevations and we found ourselves walking through a beautiful snow covered spruce forest. The branches were weighed down with snow, looking like lattice work and hanging down over the trail. We were in a winter wonderland of beauty even the ice chuncks hitting our heads as the wind swept through the trees didn’t distract from our awe and amazement. The slushy mud and ice did slow us down a bit as did the many pictures we were taking.
As we were hiking down to Carver’s Gap Crazy Heart met us on the trail and we hiked and talked the rest of the way to the car. We were so grateful to be headed to a house for the night especially since we were very wet and the temperatures were going to be in the low 20’s that night. On our way back to Crazy Heart’s house we stopped by The Station at 19E. As we had predicted most of our Tramily was there. We said hi and caught up a bit as we drank a beer. Then continued on to the house.
Once at the house we were greeted by the wonderful Gwen and their adorable Corgi puppy, Kip! The first order of business was showers and laundry because we were wet and a mess. Then we got back downstairs and Gwen had made a delicious dinner with fresh veggies for us. We enjoyed good conversation with Crazy Heart, Gwen, and their daughter Anna.
We can’t even express how grateful we are to be dry and warm tonight! And Crazy Heart offered to slack pack us to The Station at 19E tomorrow! This means we get to hike with minimal weight… basically like a day hike.
Day 35 (Saturday, March 20th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 14.8 Carvers Gap > Station 19E 395.3 Miles Down, 1797.8 To Go
I must have passed out just moments after my head hit the flannel snowflake-print pillow last night. It had been a push yesterday, getting from Cherry Gap Shelter to Carvers Gap in time to meet Crazy Heart. As it was, we were running late, resulting from being slowed down by the climb and the snow we found atop Roan. The rest of the day post-hiking was such a blur, and I was beyond ready for bed when we finally got to that point.
As the alarm sounded at 6 am, I noticed that just about every fiber of my being wanted to stay curled up in that absurdly comfortable bed. It was so soft and warm and snuggly and I think I could have stayed there forever. I heard BAM! stir in the twin bed next to me and knew we had to extract ourselves from the warmth and comfort of this beautiful climate controlled bliss- we had to get up and get back out there.
We got going, gathering up our things and getting organized. We made our way downstairs, where Crazy Heart was in the kitchen- he had set out bananas and apples and tea for us! We each sipped on coffee as we ate breakfast and made sure we had everything together. Outside, sunrise was beginning to creep over the ridgeline on the horizon- we stole glances at it as we drank our coffee and munched on BoBo’s pop tarts. By 7:30 am, we ready to go and loaded our packs in Crazy Heart’s car. From there, we drove to the Elk Park post office where we picked up a giant, twenty-three pound box of our re-ration food. Oh no- way too much! But we’d deal with it later once we were done hiking for the day. We dropped off the mega box and our backpacks at Station 19E, only taking what we’d need for a day hike and putting it all in the daypack Crazy Heart was kind enough to loan us for our slackpack (“smartpack” as Crazy Heart called it).
From there, Crazy Heart drove us to Carvers Gap so we could pick up with where we left off with the trail. Though windy, it was sunny as can be up at , Carvers, promising a beautiful day of hiking in the Roan Highlands. We thanked Crazy Heart profusely, got a picture together, and parted ways. Then we were off, and though it was a bit icy on the trail with an extra helping of mud, we essentially glided down the trail, our unencumbered backs thorough enjoying the break from schlepping our packs.
It was a great day of hiking. Highlights included the views atop Little Hump and Hump Mountain. We took a longer break on Hump Mountain along with some friendly weekenders- even saw a Bald Eagle circling the summit! A not so great moment during the day was when a random guy made a sexist comment about me carrying the pack. BAM! had carried the pack for the first half of the hike, and we’d just switched so that I could carry it for the second half. We’d gone no more than 10 minutes before a random day hiker took it upon himself to say to BAM! “How’d you get her to take the pack?” Oh, that made me so mad! Not just because of what he said, but because he didn’t even say it to me. I could see that BAM! was choosing his words and like me wasn’t completely sure in the moment how to respond. “We take turns carrying the pack,” is how he responded. The guy whispered something inaudible to his friend. We kept going.
Eventually we started working our way down, even jogging for a bit (maybe not best idea we realized after the fact). We made it to the road and just decided to walk to Station at 19E- it was only about a half mile up the road. Once we got to the hostel, we started unpacking and sorting through the crazy re ration box we’d dropped off earlier. We were able to cut down a lot of what was in there and even have a three day ration sent ahead to a town further down trail.
After getting organized and working on some writing, we enjoyed hanging out with the Tramily while eating pizza, drinking beer, and playing cornhole. Crazy Heart and Gwen stopped by to pick up the day pack, so we got to see them one last time, too. We are so incredibly grateful for all of the support they gave us through this section, the way they opened their home and their hearts to us. Thank you Crazy Heart and Gwen- we will carry your spirit of kindness and generosity with us as we move forward on the trail.
Day 36 (Sunday, March 21st, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 18.4 Station 19E > Moreland Gap Shelter 413.7 Miles Down, 1779.5 To Go
Our alarm went off early and we both had not gotten as much sleep as we would have liked. We snoozed the alarm once but then dragged ourselves out of bed and turned on the light. We needed to finish up work on a blog post and get some social media posts up before we left along with the normal pack up and breakfast.
Hero packed up quickly and then went down to the hostel’s kitchen to make us some ramen for breakfast. We had leftover dinners and didn’t want to waste it, plus we were both wanting a hot breakfast and oddly craving Ramen. I finished packing up and joined her downstairs. I worked on finishing the blog while we ate. The Station at 19E is such an eclectic place and they cater to whatever a hiker could need. I even saw foot soak bins available and our host, Which Way kept the place spotless and made sure everyone had what they needed.
Einstein was up early too so we chatted with him as he had his morning coffee. We finally finished our media posts and our breakfast and got our packs on then said goodbye to a few friends before heading out the door a little before 9am. We still had to walk the half mile along the road back to the trail. As we hiked the road we saw a rainbow and were feeling pretty good about the day. We were getting a later start then we wanted and we were going over 18 miles but we had been told the terrain was pretty easy.
As we watched the rainbow, we missed the trailhead and continued onto a side road thinking the trail must follow the road a bit. Then Hero sees white blazes on both sides of the road and we realize we missed a small section of trail. We were frustrated but we hiked the trail south until we got to where we had missed the trailhead and then turned around and hiked the small section north. It was only .2 miles of trail but we wanted to make sure we hiked it.
From there we had what we thought was our only significant climb of the day. We powered through it and enjoyed some beautiful views from the grassy ridge on the top. It was a pretty cold morning and was windy so we didn’t linger continuing down the other side. I rolled my ankle on a root and was worried initially but kept hiking and it seemed to be ok. Hero later started feeling some pain in her right leg and was concerned it might be the start of shin splints or a high ankle strain. We kept hiking but went a little slower and took a few extra breaks.
The day was proving to be more challenging then we expected and the miles seemed to just drag on. I’m sure the couple extra beers and little sleep contributed to our sluggish feeling. We pressed on and reached the 400 mile mark and we were exited about that but also knew we needed to still go 13.7 more miles. We both put on an Audio book and tried to get in the zone and crank out miles. But Hero’s leg was still hurting and I was still feeling slow.
We took a break at Jones Falls and had some lunch hoping that the food would energize us a bit. It helped some along with the beautiful falls. But today was just a hard day. Our bodies and our minds were not in it and we had psyched ourselves out by thinking it was going to be super easy. But we had packs with a full food resupply for the first time in a few days and while there were few long elevation gains, the trail just kept going up and down in short steep bursts.
We rolled into camp at a quarter to 6. Sweet Corn was there and we chatted a bit and realized she had similarly been having a challenging day. It was nice to know we weren’t the only ones struggling. We set up camp and made food while Slippers, Yard Sale, and Cured Ham all got to the shelter. We chatted as we ate and I really enjoyed the conversations they seemed to help restore some positivity and resolve in me. People sharing in the struggles of the trail while knowing this will pass and there will be more good days ahead, can be healing and was very supportive. I am so grateful for the company we had that evening. After dinner we cleaned up and then went to bed, hoping for a better day tomorrow.
Day 37 (Monday, March 22nd, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 24 Moreland Gap Shelter > Vandeventer Shelter 437.7 Miles Down, 1755.4 To Go
It’s late now, about 9:30 pm, and I am absolutely blown away by the fact that we pushed 24 miles today. If you had told me at this time yesterday that we’d be getting as far as we did today, I would have said no way, not with how my right leg was feeling as we got ready for bed last night.
This morning before we broke down the tent, Micah wrapped my foot with KT tape to help give it some extra support. I’m hoping that it holds up, that I can make it through this day without it feeling like it did the day before.
The section of trail we walked in the Pond Mountain Wilderness took us by surprise. It’s not an area that anyone had really talked up before, so as we started to make our way into the canyon where the magnificent Laurel Falls gushed, we were a bit taken aback (in the best of ways!). We didn’t spend a lot of time at the falls because we know we needed to press on, but they were a sight to behold.
We kept going, skirting around a section of trail that had been carved out of one of the canyon walls. When we got to a calmer section of the river with a spring filtering into it, we jumped at the opportunity- it was a perfect water source to fill up and a lovely sunny spot for a snack before conquering Pond Mountain. Sitting by the water made us feel awash with tranquility- BAM! even took off his shoes and dipped his feet in for a minute. I decided not to do so, worried that it might lessen the adhesive quality of my KT tape.
Eventually, we moved on from our peaceful spot by the river. We enjoyed a few more minutes of relatively flat terrain before the trail curved upwards and our big climb for the day began. It was a push, but we were feeling strong and powered up it. We were grateful that this ascent consisted of a lot of switchbacks, which always save the day on the really tough climbs. The sun’s heat was oppressive in nature, and yet it did not slow us in our pursuit (although BAM! got some good “salt sweat art” on the shirt he was wear from all the perspiration). I’m so grateful that we were feeling so strong on this stretch going up Pond Mountain. After how sluggish we felt yesterday, we needless his boost. It felt good to feel powerful going up that mountain- whenever we’d see another uphill section emerge, rather than thinking, “Oh great…” I got to actually saying out loud “Oh yeah, bring it!”
Even though we’d heard great things, we decided not to stop on at Boots Off Hostel. We were worried about getting sucked into a potential vortex, and with our goal of getting to Damascus in the next few days, we were determined to make more miles. So, we pressed on, following the trail down the road, crossing another road, finding ourself on a section that wound its way around Watauga Lake. The lake was such a gorgeous, clear, pristine blue, reminiscent of what Fontana Lake had looked like when we passed through on our way to the Smokies.
After some time, we got to the Watauga Dam and crossed over it. For a half a mile or so, we were walking on pavement, which neither of us were super stoked about. It’s funny- I used to run almost exclusively on sidewalks and asphalt when I was in college and at my peak for marathon running. I rarely, if ever, ran on earthen trails when I lived in city environments, thriving instead on hard, man made surfaces. Now, I can barely stand to walk on anything but trail, especially when I’ve got a pack strapped to my back.
As we were pushing beyond the Wilbur Dam Road, we met a southbounder who goes by the trail name Frosty the Sno-bo. He was slackpacking and would be staying at Boots Off Hostel for the night. Before parting ways, he was kind enough to check his guthooks app for us to see if there were any campsites with a water source nearby that weren’t documented on our AT Guide. Alas no- other than the stealth camp right next to Wilbur Dam Road (which had no water nearby) there was just a water source three miles in and the Vandeventer Shelter 1.7 miles beyond that. We thanked Frosty, wished him the best of luck with completing his hike, and pressed on, initially thinking we’d just get to the water source and make a campsite happen, but then deciding that no, we’d push on to the shelter.
After a grueling end of the day uphill trudge, we made it to the water source, where a hiker named Boondock and her dog, Billygoat, were setting up camp. We all realized that we’d run into each other further back on the trail, a little over 100 miles ago. She then told us she was doing a flip flop hike that involved a lot more flipping and flopping that a conventional flip flop, so she was running into folks again further down the trail with some frequency. We told her then that we were planning on getting to the shelter tonight and asked if we should go ahead and get water here at this water source, even though that would mean having to carry it the 1.7 remaining miles. “Yes, most definitely, the water source at the shelter is TERRIBLE,” she say told us. We filled up quickly and kept moving, saying our farewells to Boondock and Billygoat and wishing them the best of luck on their travels.
We pushed the last 1.7 miles, getting to the shelter where there was a pack but no one in sight. We set our packs down, going around the back of the shelter to check out the view that was promised in our guidebook- wow, that was going to be a beautiful sunrise spot in the morning! As we were coming back around to the front of the shelter, we heard someone say “BAM! and Hero- I thought that might be you guys!” It was Batman! He had his water bottle in hand and looked a bit out of breath, which he promptly told us was because of the .3 mile trek down to the water source, followed by the .3 mile trek back up the steep terrain- Batman’s experience sure made us feel glad that we took Boondock’s advice and filled up earlier. Batman then showed us a video he made to remind his future self that he should take advantage of getting water before getting to shelters where the water source is more than a few yards from the shelter and down a steep hill.
It was fun hanging out with Batman that evening, though it was short lived because the hour was already pretty late by thru hiker standards (that whole thru hiker midnight thing, you know!). We all got to work setting up and cooking and eating food, then got settled in for the night.
Day 38 (Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 22.8 Vandeventer Shelter > Abingdon Gap Shelter 460.5 Miles Down, 1732.6 To Go
This morning we treated ourselves to an extra 30 minutes of sleep since we hiked so far yesterday. So the two of us and Batman woke up at 6:30am and started packing up. I already knew that I was going to need to dig an early cat hole so I quickly got ready and out of the sleeping bag. I looked east over the ridge and saw that the sky was starting to turn orange – I was looking forward to watching the sunrise this morning! I went and got our bear bags and brought them back to the shelter then told Hero that it was time for me to go dig a hole. Truth be told, it was a little past time and I had to run and find a place to dig and quickly! The first try there were too many rock – shoot! Second try luckily was better and everything worked out just fine. Afterwards I hurried back to the shelter to watch the rest of the sunrise and eat breakfast.
While we ate and watched the sun come up we talked about the next section of trail with Batman. It was 33 miles to Damascus, VA and Batman was thinking about trying to go the whole way! We had just done 24 miles yesterday and felt pretty good so we entertained the idea for a while. The terrain didn’t look too bad on paper – no super intense elevation gains. We figured we would shoot for a more reasonable 23 mile day to Abingdon Gap and then see if we felt like pushing further.
After our sunrise breakfast we finished packing up. Batman headed out and then we got going about 20 minutes later at 8:30am. It was a little later than we wanted to get out but we really enjoyed the relaxing morning hanging out and chatting with Batman. Now it was time to make some miles!
We left the shelter with determination and vigor thinking about the zero day ahead of us with our wonderful friends. We hiked at a brisk pace looking to either side of the ridge every once in a while to enjoy the beautiful views. A ways down the trail we caught up to Batman, who commiserated that there were more ups than he had bargained for and was wondering where the flat ridgeline was that everyone told us we would be on. We agreed and validated his comments then shared encouragement as we passed him and pressed forward. We got to Iron Mountain Shelter and refilled our water – we were making great time! I was feeling some tightness near my shins and decided to try putting on some KT Tape for support while Hero filtered water. Batman showed up filled his water and continued on as we were still finishing up.
I was getting a little concerned about developing shin splints. I had them before in college and I knew how debilitating they could be. I hoped the tape would help but it didn’t stick well to my hairy legs and proved ineffective. I tried to adjust my stride a little to put less strain on my lower legs but that wasn’t easy while also navigating the terrain and rocks. We snuck up on Batman again, he had his headphones in and didn’t notice us right away. As we passed him he jokingly shouted “slow down!” We made it to double spring shelter and got more water and ate lunch. Batman caught up to us again there and chatted for a bit then continued on… exclaiming “see you in 5 minutes!” as he left. But we wouldn’t catch up to him again that day.
We had 8.3 miles to go and we already hiked 14.5 – our legs were getting tired and our earlier resolve was wearing thin. But the promise of a shorter day tomorrow and getting into Damascus for lunch then being picked up by our friends for a relaxing zero motivated us to keep going. The terrain wasn’t bad some small ups and downs but nothing sustained. Still our legs and feet were aching and we could feel ourselves slowing down. We took regular water breaks to make sure we were hydrated, give ourselves a small break, and encourage each other that we could make it to the shelter – at this point pushing on to Damascus was out of the question.
We made it to Abingdon Gap Shelter by 5:30pm which was great and meant we had plenty of daylight to make dinner and do some self care like making tea, rolling out our feet, and stretching. We were the only people there so we stayed in the shelter.
Day 39 (Wednesday, March 24th, 2021) AT Miles Hiked: 11.3 Abingdon Gap Shelter > Damascus, VA 471.8 Miles Down, 1721.3 To Go
I jolted awake at around 3:15 this morning. The forest was dead quiet. The wind that had been blowing and tickling the leaves on the trees when we went to bed last night had stilled. It was unsettling. “Micah, are you awake?” I whispered nervously. He shifted a little in the sleeping bag. “Yes, yes I am.” “It is way too quiet right now.” “It really is,” he replied. The silence was broken by the sound of mice scurrying atop the roof of the shelter. We were afraid for a minute that it might be something bigger, but after listening for a few moments we felt a little more certain that it was just the usual suspects. Regardless, we weren’t excited at the prospect of mice running across our sleeping bag. Suffice it to say, it was hard to get back to sleep. We must have, though. I apparently slept right through my 6 am alarm- it was 7 am when BAM! woke me up.
Despite waking up a little later, we hit the trail by 8:30 am. We were so stoked to be getting into Damascus, so ready to see and spend time with our dear friends Breece and Ben and their adorable two-year-old daughter, Magnolia. We were so excited that the ten miles from Abingdon Gap Shelter into Damascus only took us a little more than 3 and a half hours to complete.
We walked around town for a bit before getting picked up, in the process discovering that most of this iconic trail town wasn’t really open yet. May is when the big “hiker bubble” will come through, and a lot of the restaurants don’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to open up shop before then. In the end, after walking up and down the main drag a few times, we found a spot at the park to hang out while we waited.
After a while, we heard a succession of car honks and both of our heads popped up, tearing our eyes away from the phone screens. The blue Subaru pulled into a parking spot and out jumped Breece with her signature hands-in-the-air-like-ya-just-don’t-care “HELLOOOOOOOOOOO!” No one, and I mean no one, quite knows how to greet a friend after time apart like Breece- her enthusiasm is so uniquely her and makes you feel the utmost of warmth! Big hugs were had all around- Breece and Ben and Magnolia had all come out to pick us up! Then, we drove to a little restaurant in Abingdon where we had a delicious lunch. It was such a blast hanging out with Breece and Ben, and Magnolia was full of sweet toddler one-liners (she started saying “Dip it up, Dad!” to Ben as he was dunking French fries into ketchup). After a scrumptious meal, we ran by the grocery store, grabbing things for dinner and simultaneously knocking out our re-ration buy.
We got back to their house and settled into an evening of catching up, playing with sweet Magnolia (we pretended to be bunny rabbits, walked like crabs around the house, put marker caps on our fingers, etc…), and relaxing. Breece cooked up some delicious vegan friendly spaghetti, and once Magnolia had gone to bed, the four of us watched a movie. It was the perfect end to the day, and we went to bed feeling overjoyed by the fact that we got to have this time with our friends, both today and during our zero day tomorrow.
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.