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.
AT Miles Hiked: 10.7
Davenport Gap Shelter > Groundhog Creek Shelter
248.7 Miles Down, 1944.4 To Go
We were a little more quick in waking up and getting packed up this morning because we knew Fresh Ground was making breakfast for us at Davenport Gap just about a mile down trail. The Family and Toodles were raring to get there, so we still took a little more time than they did to leave the shelter so that hopefully we wouldn’t be arriving all at once. FG had told us in the past that he likes it when folks trickle in because it’s less stressful to feed a handful of people at a time versus an army. Relishing that last mile in the Smokies, we started making our way down to the gap, reflecting on the last five days and feeling excitement at the fact that we’d gotten through it with a good deal of luck on our side. Yes, it had been very cold at points, but at least we hadn’t gotten rained on. As we neared the Thru Hiker permit box at the northern boundary of the park, we very triumphantly and, with a touch of giddiness, dropped our permits through the slot.
We then proceeded to the spot where FG was parked and set up at the gap and hung out for quite a while as we chowed down. FG had some accidentally vegan pancakes (he’d bought a gluten-free mix for Starfish and they just happened to also be vegan) and fried potatoes for us. As always, everything was absolutely delicious! We also talked with him about his van build and power set up. He had great recommendations for us- we took lots of notes! Very grateful that he took that time to walk through it with us and share his insights and knowledge.
We left FG around 9:30am and hiked with Toodles and the Family over to Standing Bear Farm/Hostel, passing by a beautiful creek with a lovely little waterfall along the way. We got to the road and hiked the .2 or so miles up to the Standing Bear, which was tucked up in the valley. The hostel itself was very eclectic in nature, the aesthetic bespeaking of rustic Appalachian style of shabby chic. At the hostel, we got hand sanitizer and chocolate. They had all kinds of interesting things in their resupply store (including a rack of clothes that had what looked conspicuously like Goodwill tags on them) but no fuel. We were really hoping for good, four-season fuel because the canisters we picked up at the Marina in Fontana Dam just weren’t cutting it in the cold weather. Unfortunately, we forgot to ask FG if he had any canisters while we were at breakfast that morning. He carries things like extra fuel and such in case hikers are in need of non-food essentials, too.
After spending some time taking in the vibe at Standing Bear, we hiked on ahead of the Family and Toodles. Toodles (predictably) caught up to us in no time, even after having downed an afternoon beer at Standing Bear. We stepped to the side and let him pass as we struggled on the uphill. We had started the climb up to Snowbird, a particularly long stretch of continuous elevation gain made all the more challenging by the fact that the sun was relentlessly beating down on us through the leafless trees. After how cold we were in the Smokies, we never thought we’d be able to get warm enough. Now, however, we were downright hot and suffering on the opposite end of the temperature spectrum. Time seemed to crawl by at a snails pace as we used every bit of our energy to get up that mountain. It felt for most of the climb as if we were dragging our feet through molasses, that’s how much gravity was working against us in that moment. We were also, admittedly, still a bit tired from the 20+ miles we’d hiked the day before. Even though today involved less mileage, the elevation was definitely giving us an added challenge, and after such a big day less than 24 hours prior… But we made it to the top and enjoyed some amazing views as we leisurely ate our lunch.
Then we hiked down to camp. Toodles was there waiting for us and immediately told us about the bear activity at this particular site (which he’d seen posted on guthooks). Though the posts were dated for last November, we all decided then and there to be sure to take extra precautions and make sure ALL possible smellables went up in the bear hang.
Eventually, the Family rolled into camp and we all made dinner and got set up for the night. We told stories and hung out. We all got incredibly excited when Oak rolled in- we weren’t sure if he was going to push the miles to get to the same shelter as us today!
Once everyone had finished dinner and were done getting all set up for bedtime, Lily (whose trail name is now Narrator) read the first three chapters of the new book from the Brother Band series. While we were listening, we heard Bard Owls calling to a fro in the distance. The light continued to fade and the forest around us started to fill with the sounds of night. At one point, BAM!’s stomach growled loudly. Oak, who was sitting beside us on the picnic table, got wide eyed and looked around a little nervously. BAM!’s stomach gurgled a second time just a few moments later, causing Oak’s eyes to grow wide again, an even more frantic look etching itself across his face. Seeing that his tummy noises solicited this reaction from Oak a second time, BAM! leaned over to him and whispered (so as not to interrupt the reading), “It’s just my stomach- sorry!” Oak visibly relaxed, then burst into quiet fits of laughter, trying (but not really succeeding) to stifle his giggling (which, of course, sent us into giggle mode, too).
After the Brother Band chapters had been read, we all said our good nights and settled in for (thankfully) a bear-free night.
AT Miles Hiked: 13.1
Groundhog Creek Shelter > Walnut Mountain Shelter
261.8 Miles Down, 1931.3 To Go
Well, we all made it through the night with no bear encounters! Phew!
Before we all hit the trail this morning, we agreed to meet up on Max Patch for lunch. Toodles and Oak got out of camp first, then we got on our way, the family and Janna following close behind.
We started the day with some elevation and then dropped into Brown Gap. The climb back out of Brown Gap seemed needlessly steep, as though the trail intentionally took the steepest route with no switchbacks even in areas where you could see a possible alternative route (just a hundred yards to the right) that looked like a much more pleasant gradient. Oh well! We kept climbing up to Max Patch and found Toodles and Oak having lunch near the top. We set down our packs and joined them. The sun was out and the views were magnificent, but it sure was windy. The Family rolled in shortly thereafter, and together we all enjoyed the sunny lunch spot with beautiful views.
We finished our lunch fairly quickly and kept on moving. We got to the top of Max Patch, took it all in, snapped a few photos, then continued on our way. The hike from Max Patch to Lemon Gap was quite pleasant – most of it just a gradual down hill. Hero had hiked this section with our roommate and good friend Heather last August for Heather’s Birthday. So, she was reminiscing on that hike and how different the forest looked in August than now.
We pushed up Walnut Mountain, which actually didn’t seem that bad, and got to the Walnut Mountain Shelter by mid afternoon. Toodles and Jersey were there as well as the two oldest Trout kids who had passed us just a bit earlier. We set up our tent and did a water run then cooked dinner and hung out with the crew. Narrator read a few more chapters in the book while we listened from the picnic table, and then we all went to bed, everyone feeling the excitement and anticipation of knowing we’d be getting into Hot Springs the next day.
AT Miles Hiker: 13.1
Walnut Mountain Shelter > Hot Springs
275.3 Miles Down, 1917.8 To Go
It was such a nice morning- the temperature was warmer than it had been the last few days and the sun was shining. We were too warm in our puffy layers, so we took them off well before starting our hike. This was unlike our usual routine of waiting until the very last moment before taking them off, a strange feeling but one we reckoned we could get used to!
We weren’t in much of a hurry this morning as we only had 13 miles to get to Hot Springs and we were trying to time it right so that we got there when the brewery opened – 3 o’clock. We were the last to leave camp other than Jersey, who was just getting up as we put on our packs.
The hike today was pleasant, with some
moderate but overall very reasonable elevation gain. We had a rather gradual accent up to Bluff Mountain, and then it was almost entirely downhill to Hot Springs. Even without trying, we were making really good time, going about 3 miles an hour. We arrived at Laughing Heart Hostel at 1:30pm, which meant we still had an hour and a half before the brewery opened. What do we do now?! Well, there were a few bottles of Stella marked as being free at the Hostel, so Toodles, Bad Santa and BAM! all had a beer! BAM! was kind enough to share a few sips with Hero (thanks, BAM!), but she was most excited for the craft beer that was yet to come. Then we started hiking into town with Toodles to check out Bluff Mountain Outfitter. As we were walking, we saw Cryptic! Apparently he was coming up to the hostel because he’d heard we all got into town. He took a zero today and would be heading back out on the trail tomorrow.
We all go to the store, and Hero and I grab some snacks and a CNOC water bag to use with our Sawyer filters because our Sawyer bags were springing leaks everywhere. Toodles was checking out the shoes but just ended up getting some super feet insoles. Cryptic perused the store and chatted with us. He did eye the backpacking umbrella by Six Moon Designs, seriously considering purchasing it. By the time we all finished up at the store, it was 3pm and time to head over to Big Pillow Brewing!
We got over to the brewery and found a table in the open outside area, then promptly went to get ourselves some drinks. After sipping on our beers for a bit, we ordered a boatload of food from the Grey Eagle Taqueria, which is housed at Big Pillow. The food was unbelievably good and we were absolutely ravenous! We sat, drank, ate and just had a grand time with our tramily! Eventually, our dear sweet friend Malarie showed up to give us (Hero and BAM!) and Toodles a ride into Asheville. It was hard to part ways with the rest of the tramily, but we were all certainly that our paths would cross again soon.
We drove to Asheville, where we continued to hang out and enjoy spending time with Malarie, her partner Graham, and Justine that evening before crashing out.
Days 26-28 (Thursday, March 11th, 2021-Saturday, March 13th, 2021)
AT Miles: 0
Asheville, NC Layover
After a fun night with our good friend Malarie, we went and had breakfast at Biscuit Head with Toodles. Then we hung out at the West Village Market and worked on social media stuff for a bit. While sitting outside the store, multiple people came by and asked if we were Thru Hiking. Even a little ways off the trail in Asheville, people can still spot (or maybe smell) a thru-hiker a mile away!
The Incredible Justine picked us up from West Village and dropped us off at the grocery store so we could get our food resupply out of the way. Then we organized our food and hung out on her porch for a bit. After all of that was done, the four of us had an incredible pizza dinner at Grata housed inside of Upcountry Brewery. The pizza was so good, perhaps the best we’d ever had! After enjoying an out of this world delicious dinner and yummy drinks, Justine took us all over to our old house where we would be staying with our previous roommate and longtime friend Heather and her partner Joel. They made us feel like we were home again, and it was beyond wonderful to have that time with them. We spent the next three nights there enjoying their company and relaxing… and working a bit on Logistics and the Blog.
Friday afternoon, we went over to Highland Brewing and saw several MANNA Staff and Volunteers. It was inspiring and encouraging to see so many from our MANNA Community coming out to ask questions and talk about how they have been following our journey. We apologize for those of you who didn’t know we were in town and at Highland Brewing. We got in earlier than expected and weren’t able to get the word out as fast as we had hoped. If anyone has questions they would like to ask or just would like to say hi, please feel free to message us or comment below.
Our time in Asheville was rejuvenating! We are so grateful to our close friends who went out of their way several times to make our stay so relaxing and wonderful. We are also so very grateful for our MANNA Community who are still out there working hard every day to help put food on people’s plates. You all are heroes, and you inspire us to keep pressing forward.
We knew we had to get back to the trail. Usually after one zero day, we get to feeling restless and ready to go, but that was not the case in Asheville. It still felt like home, and it was hard to leave the community we love once again. But we are on a mission not only to get to Katahdin but to support our neighbors in Western North Carolina by raising money for MANNA FoodBank. We know that our community will continue be with us and cheering us on the whole way no matter how far from home we are.
Thank You All So Much!
Hero and BAM!
AT Miles: 14.9
Fontana Dam Shelter > Russell Field Shelter
We were all in good spirits as we began the day that would be our first day in the Smokies. It was a bluebird day, and the forecast was looking uncannily good for the Smokies for this time of year. Fresh Ground said he’d never seen anything like it! We got up early enough that we were able to enjoy sunrise over Fontana Lake, which BAM! captured in all its glory through a timelapse video. After packing up, it was off to the parking lot for breakfast a la Fresh Ground!
As usual, breakfast was wonderful and the group was abuzz with anticipation for the start of our Smokies adventure. People started heading out to cross over the dam and enter the park. We took a little longer to roll out because we were waiting for our power bank to charge off of Fresh Ground’s charging station. When we finally left a little after 9 am, everyone else was already gone except for Trouble who strolled in late. Before leaving, we heard some of his crazy stories from all of his time spent on the trail. The guy essentially lives full time on the trail these days from what he tells everyone, thought no one is entirely sure how he does this. Very interested and quirky soul!
We speed-walked the road section only stopping to quickly use the bathroom at the visitor center (which were so nice). Neither of us are fans of road walking, so we were both grateful when we finally got to the trail leading into the Smokies, triumphantly placing our permits in the box and heading up, up, up, up… you get the picture- it was a whole lot of climbing!
We pushed up to Shuckstack and were rewarded with some Incredible views – yes we did go all the way to the top of that rickety fire tower! When we came back down we met Journalist and saw Betty White and Lost Bells and Honey Badger. We continued on after pouring some water in our Food for the Sole cold soak lunches. We hiked for about 30 minutes and then sat down and ate our delicious meal. We had been making a big effort to hydrate and eat more food today and our bodies were grateful for it.
We got to Mollies Ridge Shelter, our planned stopping point, but everyone had pushed on the extra 3.3 miles to the next shelter. We debated pushing on, too, then BAM! had to dig a cat hole. When he got back from that adventure we decided to keep going to Russell Field Shelter.
We both pulled up some music, put on our headphones and crushed out the 3.3 miles in an hour and 10 minutes. It actually felt pretty good to do that. This was our first time using headphones while hiking, and we liked it for the sake of cranking out some mileage.
We got to the shelter and everyone was there milling about. We got right to work setting up our tent, getting water, and starting dinner. We knew we didn’t have much daylight left and the temperature would drop as soon as the sun went down. While we cooked and ate, we hung out with Oak, who came to sit by us. We’ve been really enjoying getting to know him better and seeing his wonderfully hilarious personality come out! At one point, two Southbounders (Vogue and Veggietoons) came through and we asked them questions about their time on the trail. They seemed like they were feeling ready to be done by the time we met them. Who could blame them- they’d endured being out on the trail during the dead of winter, trudging through snow and skating over icy terrain! Both of them are serious champions in our book.
We ate two dinners because we had extra food thanks to Fresh Ground’s feast the night before (not complaining AT ALL). Then we hung our bags, went for a quick walk to warm up and snuggled up for the night. We counted our first day in the Smokies as a huge success.
AT Miles: 16.4
Russell Field Shelter > Double Spring Shelter
We got up, had breakfast, and rolled out of camp around 7:50 am, which was good because we had a long day ahead of us. Fresh Ground had warned everyone that the second day going northbound in the Smokies was the hardest, so we were all bracing ourselves for that reality. To add insult to injury, we were all giving ourselves the added challenge of getting as close to Clingman’s Dome as possible so that we could wake up early the next morning for sunrise. To make this happen, we were going to try to go over 16 miles with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain.
It was a beautiful bluebird day, but still pretty chilly since we were heading up over 5,000 ft above sea level. We got up to Rocky Top and had beautiful views. The Family was up there at the same time as us, so we took turns taking pictures of each other. We continued over to Thunderhead which had no view and then down some before going up and down the rest of the day.
After nearly 10 miles of the up and down and all around terrain, we got to Derrick Knob Shelter and stayed awhile for lunch. The Family, Oak, and Chris were there, too, and we all reveled at the exhaustion we felt because of what we’d just been through. Eventually, we decided to push on. Shortly after bidding everyone else farewell and getting down the trail some, we put in our headphones and listened to music as we crushed the last nearly 7 miles to the shelter. We really wanted to make it to Double Spring Shelter as we were eager to join our friends for a sunrise hike up to Clingmans Dome.
We made it, but we were utterly exhausted, so we hurried up and sent up our tent and made dinner. The family trickled in shortly after us and BAM!offered Melissa (the mom) a trail name – Star Fish! He thought of the name because, as she is hiking up a steep mountain, she sometimes “starfishes” on the ground, but when she gets to the top with an awesome view, she jumps and “starfishes” in the air! She seemed to like it, and plans to try it out for a while.
After a little planning with the group for the early rise, we went straight to bed. We were very tired and tonight we would only have 8 hours to sleep as apposed to our usual 10. To be honest, we really don’t get a full 10 hours right now because of how often we wake up cold, or are jolted awake by intense wind gusts, etc… It happened to be a windy night, so sleep definitely didn’t come easily. That should have been a warning for the morning to come.
AT Miles: 5.6
Non-AT Miles: 0.5 (to shelter)
Double Springs Shelter > Mt. Collins Shelter
Somehow, after a very restless night (in which Hero at one point had to rescue the tent fly after a stake had been ripped out of the ground by the wind), we got ourselves out of bed for the sunrise adventure. We woke up to the sound of our alarm at 3:30 am, and as much as we were excited to experience seeing the sunrise from atop Clingman’s Dome, the wind that still lashed against our tent made us want to just bury ourselves deeper into our sleeping bag. Still, we got up and were actually pretty quick about it. We ate a small snack for breakfast and were on the trail by 4:25 am.
Hiking through the balsam forest in the dark was pretty cool and a little creepy at times. The quarter moon was out, but you couldn’t see it through the thick canopy for most of the hike. The wind was howling, but mercifully the trees blocked most of it. We hiked the 2.8 miles with over 1,100 feet of elevation gain up to Clingman’s Dome, arriving a little after 6am. Sunrise wasn’t until 6:53 am- plenty of time… maybe too much time. Scratch that- with the wind gusting hard enough to nearly topple us over, it was definitely too much time. Toodles, CVS, and Cryptic were already there getting bundled up in every layer they had- quite the feat of extraordinary determination considering that just about every piece of lightweight backpacking gear was liable to turn into a sail in that crazy wind.
Seriously, the wind at the top of the tower was gusting so hard we had to lean into it not to get blown over. We quickly wrangled on our puffy layers and our rain jackets for wind break… but we were still freezing! We tried to sit behind the wall for a wind break but we were already too cold. Toodles and CVS had pulled out their sleeping bags and now looked like fluffy multicolored Caterpillars sitting on the stone bench.
We decided we needed to move around for some heat, so we hiked back down the ramp and back up again… and again… and again…it helped a little. More people showed up: The Family, Batman, Betty White, Honey Badger, and Chris. Everyone was freezing and we still had 30 minutes till sunrise. We started dancing around. Bad Santa did laps around the tower, at one point yelling over the wind “GoPro, warm my feet!” (our GoPro is voice activated, so people have been coming up with funny alternate “commands” for it. Our favorite so far has been “GoPro, do my taxes!”). More people pulled out sleeping bags in an attempt to shield themselves from the relentless gale. Then Betty White chimes in and says “Wake up for sunrise they said, climb the tower they said, it will be fun they said” and we all have a little laugh at our collective misery.
But we stick it out and see the sunrise! Toodles even had “Circle of Life” from the Lion King cued up and ready for when the sun broke the horizon. It was beautiful, but most of us still aren’t entirely sure it was worth it. Everyone ran down from the tower as quickly as we could and started hiking to try and warm up. While most of the tramily was hiking further that day, we were glad that we were doing a Nero and only had a few miles to go to get to the Mt. Collins shelter. We were a little slower than usual because we were so tired (and we had an emergency cathole situation) but we still made it to the shelter by 10 am. Toodles was already there, along with Oak who stopped by before heading down to Newfound Gap for a ride into Gatlinburg.
The sun was hitting the grass in front of the shelter so we found a sunny spot and took a nap after Oak bid us all adieu. At one point, BAM! tried to make a fire, but without a whole lot of dry firewood (everything was frozen to some degree up there) options it didn’t persevere. But we had a chill day, and even though we got a little restless at points, we know our bodies were grateful for the rest. As we were settling in for bed, Fifteen came in- it was good to see him again. Since it was a big shelter and there were very few people, we decided to try out the shelter for the first time. It was nice not having to set up the tent, but we did miss the privacy of having our own space. And we noticed we slept a bit colder, too.
AT Miles: 15.4
Non-AT Miles: about 1 (to a from shelters)
Mt. Collins Shelter > Pecks Corner Shelter
Today we hiked to Newfound Gap and got resupplied by our dear sweet friend, Justine! We were so elated to be reunited with her, and so grateful that she drove all the way out to Newfound from Asheville to help us out. In addition to bringing us and Toodles our re-ration, she also had vegan breakfast bagels from Ultra- what an awesome treat! Toodles liked them, too, and was even excited about the fact that napkins came with the bagels. It seems like a silly thing to be excited about (and we all definitely got a good laugh out of that), but it’s one of those things you realize you don’t think about when you’re not thru hiking. As soon as you’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in an experience that limits the amenities that are usually so readily available in “the real world,” you start to get more of a grasp on the things you once took for granted.
Because it was a beautiful Saturday, Newfound was packed with people. But that in no way shape or form stopped us from embracing the “hiker trash” within and spreading out our re-ration in the grassy area next to Justine’s car. We sorted through our “loot” and organized it into our food bags before stuffing everything back into our packs. The crows of Newfound were very interested in our operation.
Justine had brought her boots and a daypack and hiked with us out to Charlie’s Bunion. The climb was pretty gradual with just a few icy patches, allowing us the opportunity to talk and enjoy each other’s company as we walked. It was so great getting to hang out with her- after the hard days we’d had in the Smokies leading up to this point, seeing and getting to spend time with her was so rejuvenating to our souls! Plus, Charlie’s Bunion offered us incredible views- one of our favorite spots on the trail so far!
It was beyond hard to say goodbye, but eventually Justine had to turn around and head back to her car parked at Newfound. We’re grateful that this was truly more of a “see you later!” since we’d be getting into Asheville for a few zeroes less than a week later. We then pressed on, walking along a ridgeline with astounding views on either side much of the way. Absolutely one of the most beautiful sections of the AT thus far.
We got to the Pecks Corner Shelter a little after 5pm and started setting up our tent and getting dinner going. Oak made it to the shelter a little late because his ride slept in… but he brought Toodles a Cherry Vanilla Coke and he shared it with us – it was AMAZING!
AT Miles: 19.8
Non-AT Miles: 2.7
Pecks Corner Shelter > Davenport Gap Shelter
We woke up early this morning- 5:45am – because we had a long day ahead of us. It was the coldest morning yet, and everything was freezing as we took stuff out of our sleeping bag. Our water, our filters, our batteries, our phones, our hands and our toes… all of it started to freeze! At least, we thought to ourselves, it was not raining cats and dogs. Still, with how cold it was, we decided not to try to cook and just ate a cold breakfast so we could hit the trail faster.
Everything is harder when it’s cold. It still took us about an hour and a half to get out of camp. As we were getting ready and packing up, we had to stop every few minutes to rewarm our hands by swinging them rapidly or shoving them under our layers and pressing them against our bellies. The tent stakes were all frozen in the ground – we had to use rocks to knock them loose and pry them out of the ground. We left all of our puffy clothes on for the first half mile side trail back to the AT just so we could warm up. We managed to build some warmth, so we took off our puffy layers and continued on our way. It was still very cold. We learned later that it had gotten down to 15 degrees that morning and the windchill was likely in the single digits. The water in our water bottles continued to freeze as we hiked. We kept a brisk pace to keep ourselves warm.
The views were beautiful and we also went through more of the balsam forest blanketed in mosses. It was magical! But still very cold! BAM! took out his phone to take a picture. While doing so, his phone went from 52% battery life to 4% battery life- the cold just completely zapped the power. Our GoPro wasn’t working either because the SD card had an error, and Hero’s phone battery also dropped dramatically when she didn’t have it buried in her puffy layers. So, now we had no good way to take pictures. It was hard, but we had to release that impulse to capture it and just enjoy the Beauty in the moment. It was a stunning hike, a continuation of what when’d seen the day before.
We arrived at Tri Corner Shelter six miles into the hike and ducked in to get water and use the privy. We made the stop quick because we were already getting cold. Oak came in as we were about to head out. He decided to make himself some oatmeal because he’d skipped breakfast earlier as he hurried to get hiking. While we were all there, it started to flurry snow. Oak looked at us with a distressed face and said – “Y’all, we gotta get out of here!!!” We chuckled at that. Then we got moving and said we hoped to see him at Davenport Gap tonight.
We hiked hard and fast and made good time. We unknowingly passed Toodles who had left the shelter before us that morning. He was having lunch at Cosby Knob Shelter and got going again shortly after we had passed by. He snuck up behind us with Jersey (not to be confused with the Jersey boys) and passed us as we got water.
We had a moment of reflection when we got to the point where the trail intersects with the Mt. Cammerer trail. We’d done the section from Davenport Gap up to Mt. Cammerer and back as a training hike back in November, so we couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as we looked back at how far we’ve already come on our journey. Hero remembers being at that same section months ago reveling in the fact that in just a few months they’d be back in the very same spot as a thru hikers. It was a powerful moment, to say the least.
We didn’t see Toodles again until we got to the Davenport Gap Shelter, where we also met Travis the park ranger and showed him our permits. He was really nice and talked with us a while before going on his way. He also let us know that Fresh Ground was at the road!
The Family showed up and told us Fresh Ground had texted them and that he had dinner for us if we wanted to hike the 1 mile down to the gap. Obviously, we all hiked down to the gap and enjoyed a wonderful dinner, not minding at all that we then had to hike back up to the shelter to spend the night. Absolutely worth it!
That evening, with our bellies full of delicious Fresh Ground dinner and the promise of a lovely FG breakfast just a couple Zs away, we all settled in for our last night in the Smokies. One of the Trout kids has been reading aloud from a story called “Brother Band” every night right before bed. We enjoyed listening to her read to us, the kids of our eyes growing heavy as the witching hour of Hiker Midnight drew near. We went to bed grateful for all the experiences we have had so far on the trail, all of the incredible people we have had the chance to call tramily.
Hero and BAM!
Blog, Days 13-17 (Franklin to Fontana)
AT Miles: 11
Winding Stair Gap > Wayah Bald Shelter
We really enjoyed our zero in Franklin, NC. Our bodies desperately needed rest, and our souls needed nourishment, too. We spent the evening we got into town as well as the evening of our zero with friends at the Lazy Hiker. The first night we spent time with Tasmen, and the second night we hung out with Tasmen and Felicia (Franklin locals who are friends of Hero’s) as well as a lot of our tramily that we hadn’t seen in a few days (Einstein, Oak, Honey Badger, Toodles, Wicked, and Batman). BAM! gave Holly her name that night (Wicked). He had been thinking about it since the last time we were all together at Blood Mountain Cabins, and presented the idea to her at LH. She seemed to really like it, accepting the name almost immediately.
The tramily all planned to take a full zero, and as tempting as it was to take another zero to stay with them, we felt the need to get back to the trail. We were feeling well rested, had our new shoes with better arch support, and trimmed down on our food weight. Feeling more confident with our revised plan to dial down the mileage and take things a little slower, we caught a ride to Winding Stair Gap via Macon County Transit.
It was raining lightly when the transit bus rolled up to the hostel. We went ahead and threw on our rain gear, knowing the precipitation was only going to intensify as the day progressed. The driver couldn’t make change, but was kind enough to drive us to a coffee shop so we could buy coffees and get change back- after that was done, we were on our way to Winding Stair. We got back to the gap and ran into Chris and Cu while we were finishing our coffee- we always seem to meet them in parking lots, haha! They were planning on hiking to the same shelter as us today, but were moving a little slower and offered to let us get out ahead.
We left the parking lot and were welcomed back on the trail by a beautiful little waterfall. It was nice to be back in the woods, even in the rain. The day was challenging with lots of mud. We found ourselves sliding around a lot and had to go slower so we wouldn’t fall. The temperature seemed to cool down significantly as we went up Siler and then Wayah Bald. We tried not to stop too long or too often because we needed to keep producing body heat and avoid getting cold too quickly.
In the end, we got completely soaked through with no reprieve in the downpour (except for while on top of Wayah Bald, which was completely shrouded in a dense fog). Today was definitely one of the harder days, what with how constant the rain was. There were some moments early on in which Hero was focused on and able to reframe her thinking about the rain and even enjoy it a bit- the soothing sound of the soft pitter patter on the hood of her raincoat, reminiscing about how fun it was as a child to pull on rain boots and go splashing around in puddles. This worked until about the time that the water soaked through her rain gear and the layers beneath, all but draining the warmth out of her as every inch of her body was no longer dry but covered in a layer of cold, dampness. As she trudged along through the thick, slippery mud which coated the trail, she prayed that the waterproofing on her pack was holding up, that everything inside remained dry.
After 11 miles of sloppy trail and a nearly constant downpour, we made it to our home for the night. We camped next to the Wayah Bald Shelter, where there were quite a few other people staying for the night: three friends (Paul, Andrew, Kyle) on a weekend trip, Chris and Cu, Nick (Leto), and Fifteen. We were the first ones to reach camp, so we took advantage of having the empty shelter to ourselves. We started by peeling off our soaked through top layers and replacing them with warm dry layers. Mercifully, the waterproofing on our packs (mostly) held up. BAM! had to help Hero get things out of her pack because her fingers had become so cold during the hike- she had virtually no dexterity with which to unclip the clasps on her pack! After warming up our core and getting some blood flowing to our hands and feet by shaking out our limbs and dancing around, we went about erecting our tent in the dry refuge of the shelter. This genius idea is courtesy of our friend Einstein- the idea to set up tents under the cover of a shelter when it’s raining is actually how he earned the name Einstein! After getting the tent set up, rainfly and all, we carried it to the nearest tent pad and staked it down (thank goodness for our free standing tent, which made it possible for us to use Einstein’s trick). We went back to the cover of the shelter and got ready to cook an early dinner so that we could be out of peoples way as they started to roll in for the evening.
The three friends showed up as we were getting ready to start dinner. We all hung out under the shelter out of the rain, but were able to maintain space. It was fun talking with them- close friends who had known each other forever but now lived in different parts of the country and were trying to find a way to safely see each other during the pandemic. They figured a weekend of backpacking and being outside would be a great and safe way (COVID-wise) to see each other after not being able to for more than a year. We wish they’d gotten a less rainy start to their weekend reunion adventure!
Eventually, Leto showed up, and we realized that we had met each other our first day as we were getting ready to begin the Approach Trail at Amicalola. It was cool to see him again this far down trail! Sometime later, Chris and Cu showed up, with Fifteen close behind. By the time Fifteen rolled in, we were ready to go back to our tent and get out of our soaking bottom layers.
We’re in our tent right now and it’s still raining. Hero’s doing everything in her power to quell her bladder for as long as possible until she absolutely HAS to go out for her last pre-bedtime pee. She figures if she waits until it gets dark out, she can stay closer to the tent rather than frantically stumble around to try and find a tree up the hill to hide behind for privacy (which would equate to more time outside getting more soaked- no thanks!). Neither of us are trying to get more damp than we already are.
We’ve actually been quite productive with our forced tent time, looking ahead at the days to come and forecasting our mileage and thinking through logistics. As the light outside of the tent is beginning to fade, we can feel the approach of hiker midnight, and are preparing now to try and catch some Z’s.
AT Miles: 10.6
Wayah Bald Shelter > Wesser Bald Shelter
We slept in a bit this morning. We were waiting for the rain to stop and knew we weren’t trying to go crazy making miles, so there was no need to rush. We were awake just listening to the wind intensify around us for a while. The rain had pounded on our tent most of the night, and there were moments we thought we might get lifted into the air Wizard of Oz style the wind was blowing so hard. Later, we realized that we were both just waiting for a tree to crash through our tent- the gigantic one just outside our synthetic, domed habitat had been creaking and swaying threateningly whenever a significant gust blew through. Thankfully, it didn’t and we rolled out of bed in a not tree flattened state and started packing up. It had stopped raining, but some water was still falling from the trees whenever the wind picked up. Needless to say, we were grateful for the drier morning.
We were slow to get out of camp, in part because everything was so wet and every fiber of our beings resisted putting cold, damp shirts back on! But we were also slow to leave camp because of the great company of the folks who’d weathered the storm with us at Wayah Bald Shelter the night before. In such a short time, we’d grown fond of the new friends we made, and we all had a great time eating breakfast and talking about how grateful we were that we made it through the night. Each and every one of us hoped that the sun would make a guest appearance today.
We finally started hiking around 10 am. The rain seemed to try to make a comeback a couple of times, but then the clouds started to lift and the air warmed up to a very pleasant hiking temperature. The sun tried to peak through a few times, but the clouds remained prominent. Overall, we got better views today than the day before, and just in general had a great time walking the 10ish miles to Wesser Bald Shelter. The observation tower on top of Wesser offered impressive 360 views- we spent a chunk of time there before making our way down to the shelter area.
In the evening, we had a great time hanging out with folks. We met Thru Hiker Cryptic and cooked and ate dinner with him and Leto. Then Paul made a little fire and we had some good conversations with him (he’d been dubbed Hot Chocolate because the hot chocolate he was cooking with his pocket rocket the night before bubbled over and burned such that now everything he cooked tasted like hot chocolate), Kyle (dubbed Sporkless, because he didn’t bring a utensil to eat with and tried to make do with a few makeshift backcountry “chopsticks”), Andrew (managed to avoid a funny trail name by not committing any faux pas), and Betty White, a Thru Hiker we met today, too! Lots of great laughs and conversation- such a fun way to wrap up a great day!
Meeting folks like the people we’ve met the past few days is one of the things we love most about this trail. The community that is brought together by the AT…there’s just nothing like it!
AT Miles: 12.8
Wesser Bald Shelter > Sassafras Gap Shelter
Had such a great day today! We started it off in camp with our new friends, and then worked our way down to the Nantahala Gorge nearly 3,000 feet and 5.9 miles below us. The views going down were stunning- definitely one of our favorite sections of the AT thus far. It was hard not to stop every few minutes for a photo it was just that awesome! Hero snapped a great one of BAM! looking off into the distance from a spot called “the Jump-off.” As we traversed the ridge line, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were on a quest of sorts, journeying through Middle Earth or Skyrim.
After about 3 hours of hiking, we sauntered into the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) campus- about 11:30 am. Not only were our new friends there, but so were a bunch of other AT Thru Hikers- people we’d met before along the trail as well as people we had heard about who we knew were just slightly ahead of us. It was fun to chat with folks, laugh and commiserate. As we were getting caught up, Toodles showed up! He was flying solo because Wicked stayed in Franklin while her dad was coming down to pick up Maverick. Poor pupper just wasn’t adjusting to Trail life, so Wicked decided to have him go home. Can’t begin to imagine how hard of a decision that must have been for her. We really hope despite the time that she’ll be off trail that Wicked will be able to catch back up with the tramily!
We discovered while we were at NOC that the River’s End restaurant had some absolutely awesome vegan food. We each got a jackfruit bbq sandwich with fries and shared an appetizer of buffalo cauliflower bites (YUM!!!!). We were so hungry and so excited to be eating such delicious food! We got super stuffed, though, and tried to give ourselves a little bit of time before starting our climb back up out of the Gorge to Sassafras Gap Shelter.
We left NOC a little after 1 pm, a bit sad to be leaving behind some of the thru hikers who were taking a Nero/Zero there, but excited to keep pressing on. It took us about 3 and 3/4 hours to hike the 6.9 miles to Sassafras Gap. The elevation gain up to Swim Bald was crazy, and there were moments that we couldn’t do anything but just stare at our feet as we shuffled up that crazy mountain- looking up would have meant having to acknowledge what was still left to climb. Plus, our delicious food from NOC was still digesting, and as tasty as it was it wasn’t aiding our ascent.
Eventually, we made it to the shelter. The Family and a Thru Hiker named Gangster were already there, as was another Thru Hiker named Lost Bells. As we were setting up our tent, Toodles showed up, and a little later on during dinner two younger guys who were hammocking rolled in. We caught up for a bit with the Family and Toodles, and got to know Gangster a bit.
Now we’re back in the tent, settling in for the night and mentally bracing ourselves for the fact that it’s going to start raining early in the morning and last through at least the early afternoon. We’ve been joking that our tent fly dried out after getting rained on last night just in time for it to get soaked again when the rain gets started early in the morning! Ha! You can’t beat it, we’re tellin’ ya!
Side Note: Thank you shout-out goes to Andrew from Hero for the ear plugs- they are insanely effective! Thank you thank you thank you!
AT Miles 12.2
Sassafras Gap Shelter > Cody Gap
I (Hero) can’t remember when exactly the rain started last night, but I do remember the feeling of dread that overcame me as it began to mercilessly pelt our rainfly. Meanwhile, the wind rattled the walls of our tent and there were moments I seriously worried the rainfly would get ripped clear off, exposing us to the elements. BAM!, of course, in his reassuring way, insisted that we were fine.
Tearing down the soaking wet and cold tent certainly wasn’t my favorite part of the day. Luckily, the continued precipitation only helped to motivate me to pack it up faster! Despite the speedy tent breakdown, we were a little slow getting out of camp this morning. We were almost the last ones to leave camp, except that Lil and her mom had come in late and had slept in. They kind of scared us last night as they were shining their headlamps around looking for a tent spot, the light creating a strobing effect within our tent. We had spent some time sitting up rigid and tense trying to figure out who was outside our tent and if they were friendly or not.
One of our favorite moments from today was from early on. The view on top of Cheoah Bald, where the clouds started lifting as we emerged out of the rhododendron thickets onto the bald, was absolutely beautiful.
We’d describe the section of trail we hiked today as being reminiscent of a rollercoaster, but not one you get to sit back and enjoy so much as work your butt off for. Jacob’s Ladder on the other side of Stecoah Gap was a TOUGH climb. We climbed (aka shuffled very slowly) up Jacob’s Ladder to Cheoah Mountain (Cheoah Bald’s sister peak), but it was a white out so we just continued on. Shortly after we passed Brown Fork Gap Shelter, Gangster snuck up behind us saying “sorry, not trying to scare you but…” He did scare us a bit as we were zoned in on the trail. But then we all hiked and talked for the next 2+ miles to Cody Gap and it was really nice.
Toodles was waiting for us there and already had his tent up. He heard us talking as we descended into the gap, so he positioned himself in the middle of the trail, arms crossed against his chest with a fake serious expression across his face, soliciting chuckles from all of us! We chatted and set up camp. Cryptic strolled in not long after and we all enjoyed a nice evening together. It started to get cold after dinner so we all retreated to our sleeping bags well before Hiker Midnight. Tomorrow, we’re off to Fontana Dam, and the next day the Smokies!
AT Miles: 9.9
Cody Gap > Fontana Dam Shelter
We woke up around 5:45am and ate a cold breakfast with no hot drinks this morning. We had scheduled to meet our friend, Vance, at noon for a ride to the post office, so we needed to get going and knock out the 8 or so miles ahead of us. We watched sunrise with Toodles and Cryptic, with Gangster making an appearance towards the end. Gangster’s tent was actually right in the sight line for the rising sun, so he got out of his tent a little shocked by the fact that all of our faces were turned in his direction. A smile stretched across his face, giving us all a good laugh.
We were the first ones out of camp (which was new for us). But don’t worry- Toodles caught up pretty quick and passed us, haha! Shortly after, we had to Brown Blaze into Cable Gap Shelter (brown blazing is when you run into a shelter with the sole purpose of using the privy). We were quick and got right back on trail because we really wanted to be on time to meet Vance.
At one point as we were talking, we heard a voice from further down trail: “BAM! Hero!” and a moment later we were face-to-face with Vance, who’d arrived early and decided to climb up the trail to meet us- he must have been cruisin’! It was so great to see him and we were so grateful for his support! We chatted all the way back to his truck about MANNA, life on the trail, etc…
We got to the parking lot and Toodles was waiting for us. We did quick introductions, put on masks, threw our dirty stinky packs in the bed of Vance’s truck, and made our way to the post office and laundromat. Vance hung around while we washed clothes and sorted our food. His help made our day so much easier! He also brought us a super yummy treat from his wife, Ginny- two big bags of homemade (out of this world delicious!) vegan granola!!! Thank you so much, Ginny!!! Toodles found some vegan-friendly Ramen in the hiker box at the post office- what a find! We had a serious hiker trash moment as we sprawled out our stuff and sorted through our new ration in the parking lot of the post office. We were somewhat grateful in that moment that the little village of Fontana was such a ghost town!
Vance drove us back to the trail head and we all said farewell. We went with Toodles down to the marina to get fuel and see if they had any vegan snacks (slim pickins for sure). Then we hiked the 1.2 miles to the Fontana Shelter. It was a luxurious shelter (hence the nickname “Fontana Hilton”) and even had showers a short walk up the trail! As a bonus, the clouds had parted and we were able to dry everything out while we basked in the warmth of the sun. Despite the spaciousness and air flow of the shelter, we still decided to set up our tent. But we stayed close to the shelter so we could be near our tramily.
As we were enjoying the sunshine and thinking that the day simply couldn’t get better, Hero looked up at the trail and saw a familiar face walking our way. Her jaw dropped and she exclaimed “Is that who I think it is?!?!?!” Indeed, it was Fresh Ground!!! We couldn’t believe it- he had found us again, and right before we were all about to begin our journey into the Smokies.
That evening, Fresh Ground cooked up a delicious spaghetti dinner and we all hung out in the parking lot eating and chatting and enjoying every last minute of the sun’s warmth before it vanished behind the treetops. It was so insanely wonderful! Before heading back to camp, we signed the inside of FG’s van, which is covered with the trail names of hikers he has helped over the past eight years. We then took showers and went to bed knowing we had a big day ahead of us going into the Smokies.
Hero and BAM!
AT Miles: 15.2 (approx.)
Though the rest was very much needed after our first few days on the trail, it was time for us to move on from Neel Gap. We had one more Fresh Ground breakfast and then hit the trail by 8 am.
It felt REALLY AWESOME to be back on trail. We were feeling really strong and eager to make some miles. It was foggy, cold, and windy, so we kept a brisk pace while simultaneously enjoying the “Glass Blown” Forest that surrounded us, a slightly different variation of the Crystal Forest from a few days back. We marveled at how every time we hiked on the west side of the ridge, the forest was covered in this wind blown ice. But then as we walked along the east side, the wind all but disappeared, the temperature warmed, and there was no ice on the trees. With such dramatic differences on either side of the ridge, it felt as though we were weaving back and forth between two different worlds.
It was only 1 pm and the sun was just starting to peak out when we got to the first of the camping options we had looked at, Low Gap Shelter. With a spring in our step, we continued down trail, telling ourselves we’d stop at Poplar Stamp Gap (option number two) just a few miles down the trail. We didn’t wind up seeing Poplar Stamp Gap. We assume we must have blown right passed it as we were pelted with ice chunks being blown off the trees by the wind that was whipping across the ridgeline. It was a pretty humorous moment, and reminded us a bit of the trees in the Wizard of Oz that started throwing their apples at Dorothy and Scarecrow, though luckily the ice chunks weren’t quite as big as apples.
When we realized we must have passed the campsite, we continued on until we found a good spot just off the trail. As we were setting up, Ultra and then Sherpa passed by on their way to Blue Mountain Shelter, another 4+ miles away. Though part of us longed for the company of trail friends, we also enjoyed having an evening to ourselves.
AT Miles: 12 (approx.)
The trail was abuzz today with day hikers and weekend warriors, all of whom were taking advantage of the blue skies and (slightly) warmer temperature. We didn’t run into too many people initially, but the numbers really picked up once we reached Unicoi Gap, where we once again found our dear friend Fresh Ground set up.
Seeing us walk up, Fresh Ground ushered us over and began his signature rapid fire questions: “How about some coffee? There’s water and koolaid over there in the coolers. And snacks- don’t forget those! Now go on and getcha some hand sanitizer- no hand wash station today, it’s too cold, I won’t do that to you. How about some vegetable stir fry for my very special people?” We spent about an hour with Fresh Ground, soaking up the sun that graciously filled the parking area at Unicoi Gap. We even got to talkin’ to Smooth Sailin’, a former Thru Hiker and friend of Fresh Ground’s, one of the original crew who convinced Fresh Ground that he should make the Leapfrog Cafe Hiker Feed a permanent enterprise.
After a nice long break in the sun with good company, we braced ourselves for the next leg of the trail, which involved climbing two peaks back-to-back: Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain. We were stuffed and sluggish after our heaping plates of vegetable stir fry, so we took it easy as we trudged up Rocky Mountain. We stopped to admire the view and socialized a bit with Trouble (a Thru Hiker who says he has pretty much lived nearly full time on the trail since 2016) and some weekend warriors out of Atlanta, but then continued on down into Indian Grave Gap and then up, up to the top of Tray Mountain. We really enjoyed the view up there on Tray, and so we took a nice leisurely 30 minute snack break, talking with a gentleman from Athens who joined us for a bit and kindly took a photo of us. (See photo at beginning of day 7)
On our way to the Tray Mountain Shelter where we’d be staying for the night, we ran into Ultra and Sherpa, who had hopped forward to Dick’s Creek Gap further north and were now SOBO slackpacking to Unicoi. We all got a picture together, along with the incredibly friendly dog who belonged to the guy who took our photo, and then we parted ways.
We got to the shelter and claimed a beautiful tent site with a spectacular view overlooking the valley- we were really quite pleased with ourselves for finding such a beautiful, serene spot. And then the weekend warriors started trickling in, and some other thru hikers, and then the Family. All of these people started trickling in towards dusk- by the time Hiker midnight hit, there were at least 25 people in the area surrounding Tray Mountain Shelter. It was the exact opposite of the peaceful night we’d had the night before, that’s for sure! While it was fun to socialize around the fire and catch up with the Family who’d just crushed out their first 15 mile day, we were wiped out and in need of some good sleep before the 11 miles that stood between us and Dick’s Creek Gap, where we’d jump off trail to head into the town of Hiawassee, Georgia for a resupply.
AT Miles: 11
We enjoyed a gorgeous sunrise as we packed up and ate a quick breakfast. We’re realizing that we like to do a cold breakfast with a hot drink in the morning, rather than a hot drink and a hot breakfast- it’s saves time and fuel to eat something that doesn’t require cooking. We were pretty psyched at our timing, that we’d managed to pack up, eat, and leave camp by 7:50 am. Not 30 minutes later, we had to jump off trail to frantically dig ourselves catholes and fill up on water. So much for efficiency, right?!
After our pit stop, we powered through the rest of the hike to Dick’s Creek. At one point we caught up to Sonar, whom we had met the night before at Tray, and the three of us finished out the last stretch to the gap together…
…where we were greeted by none other than (you guessed it!) FRESH GROUND!!! For our seventh meal with him, we had delicious tacos and sweet tea and snacks. As more hikers started to trickle in, we sat off to the side and waited for Smooth Sailin’, who we had seen out on the trail. He and his wife, Casual, offered to give us a ride into town in the back of their Tacoma, an offer we readily jumped on. Smooth and Casual dropped the three of us (Sonar hopped on board, too) off at the Holiday Inn Express in Hiawassee. It was a little pricier than we were hoping for, but we figured it would be nice to have a night that would allow us to relax and take a nice hot shower (great pressure! Oo la la!) and get some laundry done while we waited for the post office to open the next day. We made phone calls, worked out logistics for the next few days leading up to getting to Franklin, NC, and half watched Indiana Jones while trying to eat down what was left of our ration. While we thoroughly appreciated being spoiled by Fresh Ground so frequently, we did not eat nearly enough of our own food, haha!
AT Miles: 16.7
We woke up plenty early so that we could be at the post office the second they opened at 8:30 am. Because it was under my name, I (Keeka) went in to pick up the box. Before the postal worker handed it over to me, he set it on the scale, raised his eyebrow and said “Darlin’, you’re about to add about 19 more pounds to your pack with this.” Sheepishly, I mumbled that the weight would be split between two packs and hurried back outside with it. “19 pounds, Micah, 19 pounds!” It was entirely too much food for the four days we were expecting it to take us to get to Franklin, but we had a shuttle picking us up in less than 30 minutes which gave us no time to properly sort through it. Instead, we shoved it all in our packs with barely a glance.
Our shuttle driver, Grace, picked us and Sonar up and took us all back to Dick’s Creek Gap. It was starting to rain ever so slightly, but knowing that the forecast was calling for much more we went ahead and threw on our rain gear. Then, after mentally preparing ourselves for the soggy cold to come knowing that the clouds would part in the afternoon, we started our trek.
Between the pouring rain and cold and packs that were much heavier than we wanted, the day was a struggle. But Keeka was leading the pack with a positive attitude and a spring in her step. Sonar was brainstorming names for her like Mush or Iditarod because she was fast and a good leader but there was more to it than that… then he said “Hero”. Keeka didn’t say anything right away, but she pondered that name for a while. At first she was hesitant to accept it but then she realized that this was a name she wanted to grow into, to be her own hero. So now she is Hero!
Despite feeling sluggish and achey as we trudged through the last miles of Georgia, our spirits remained high. We all kept each other company and stayed focused on how excited we were to be crossing our first state border. For Micah and I, crossing into North Carolina felt extra special, as it holds for us the power and draw of home. The sign for the NC/GA border at Bly Gap is so unassuming that in my head-down-make-miles trance I might have walked right by. Luckily, the Jersey Boys (a group of three recent high school graduates from New Jersey) were taking a little siesta at the border, which helped draw my attention to the sign hunkered in the tree. I waited for Sonar and BAM! to catch up, and then we all three stepped into North Carolina together.
Grinning from ear-to-ear, we took pictures with the little sign in the tree. Then, filled with triumph and resolve, we continued to push on. The elevation gain just past Bly Gap was staggering, and the cold and wind and sleet did not translate to the warm North Carolina welcome we were hoping for. But we bared down and did our slow march up to the top. At one point, I got brought down by a Rhododendron tree whose branches were jutting out into the trail. I didn’t see it because my head was down to keep myself as dry as possible, but I sure took notice of it once it grabbed my legs and introduced me to the muddy ground. It was actually pretty funny, and I laughed, only slightly saddened by the fact that no one else was there with me to join in on the hilarity.
I caught up to BAM!, and as if on cue, the clouds started to roll away as we neared the top. At last we were treated to that spectacular North Carolina welcome we’d been longing for.
BAM! and I had been planning to stay at the shelter about 12 miles from where we started that morning. We got there and sensed that Sonar, whose on a tight deadline to finish the trail by the beginning of July, wanted to keep going. We said our see ya laters, but then BAM! discovered that the tent sites at the shelter were basically puddles. This plus our desire to stick with Sonar plus the sun being out led us to the conclusion that “Hey, we could do another 4.9 miles, yeah, let’s go!”
We only had about an hour of sunlight left when we rolled into Standing Indian Shelter, but we made it! After our highest mileage day so far (16.7 miles), we felt drained but accomplished, and ready to nom down on some delicious food. It was windy and cold, but we were having the time of our lives.
AT Miles: 16.2
Feeling well rested, strong, and excited after the miles we tackled the day before, we weren’t as hesitant to trying and knock out some similar mileage. We were motivated to keep up with Sonar, too, who was looking at another big day. It took BAM! and I a bit longer to get going in the morning, so we told Sonar to go on and we’d catch up. As it happened, we wouldn’t catch up to Sonar, because after a while our bodies really started to feel the mileage we’d done the day before. By the time we got to the shelter 16.3 miles away from where we started, Sonar wasn’t there. Apparently he felt strong and decided to push on to the next shelter 3.5 miles further north. Our bodies were so done by then- there was just no way we were going to be able to push another 3.5 miles that day.
Despite the fact that we were on our own and a bit achey for most of the hike, we had an absolutely gorgeous day on the trail. For the first time since we started our thru, we were able to hike most of the day in our tees! Even on the crazy ascent up Albert Mountain we had a blast, fueled by the exhilaration of approaching our 100th AT mile- how accomplished we felt!
AT Miles: 7.2