Announcing our PCT Start Date!!! We will be starting at the California-Mexico border on April 12th.
Today is also our Trailiversary! Two years ago today we started hiking the Appalachian Trail. Even though February 14th 2021 was a misty dreary day in Georgia, nothing could dampen our spirits. We set out on the AT with so much enthusiasm and excitement we practically ran up all the stairs at Amicalola Falls. lol 😆 I (BAM!) also remember someone asking us where we were headed and I quickly responded “TO MAINE!!!” so loudly and enthusiastically, it even caught me off guard… the people who asked just kept walking. Well, the enthusiasm is building again, this time in anticipation of the PCT!
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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.
Day 18 AT Miles: 14.9 Fontana Dam Shelter > Russell Field Shelter
We were all in good spirits as we began the day that would be our first day in the Smokies. It was a bluebird day, and the forecast was looking uncannily good for the Smokies for this time of year. Fresh Ground said he’d never seen anything like it! We got up early enough that we were able to enjoy sunrise over Fontana Lake, which BAM! captured in all its glory through a timelapse video. After packing up, it was off to the parking lot for breakfast a la Fresh Ground!
As usual, breakfast was wonderful and the group was abuzz with anticipation for the start of our Smokies adventure. People started heading out to cross over the dam and enter the park. We took a little longer to roll out because we were waiting for our power bank to charge off of Fresh Ground’s charging station. When we finally left a little after 9 am, everyone else was already gone except for Trouble who strolled in late. Before leaving, we heard some of his crazy stories from all of his time spent on the trail. The guy essentially lives full time on the trail these days from what he tells everyone, thought no one is entirely sure how he does this. Very interested and quirky soul!
We speed-walked the road section only stopping to quickly use the bathroom at the visitor center (which were so nice). Neither of us are fans of road walking, so we were both grateful when we finally got to the trail leading into the Smokies, triumphantly placing our permits in the box and heading up, up, up, up… you get the picture- it was a whole lot of climbing!
We pushed up to Shuckstack and were rewarded with some Incredible views – yes we did go all the way to the top of that rickety fire tower! When we came back down we met Journalist and saw Betty White and Lost Bells and Honey Badger. We continued on after pouring some water in our Food for the Sole cold soak lunches. We hiked for about 30 minutes and then sat down and ate our delicious meal. We had been making a big effort to hydrate and eat more food today and our bodies were grateful for it.
We got to Mollies Ridge Shelter, our planned stopping point, but everyone had pushed on the extra 3.3 miles to the next shelter. We debated pushing on, too, then BAM! had to dig a cat hole. When he got back from that adventure we decided to keep going to Russell Field Shelter.
We both pulled up some music, put on our headphones and crushed out the 3.3 miles in an hour and 10 minutes. It actually felt pretty good to do that. This was our first time using headphones while hiking, and we liked it for the sake of cranking out some mileage.
We got to the shelter and everyone was there milling about. We got right to work setting up our tent, getting water, and starting dinner. We knew we didn’t have much daylight left and the temperature would drop as soon as the sun went down. While we cooked and ate, we hung out with Oak, who came to sit by us. We’ve been really enjoying getting to know him better and seeing his wonderfully hilarious personality come out! At one point, two Southbounders (Vogue and Veggietoons) came through and we asked them questions about their time on the trail. They seemed like they were feeling ready to be done by the time we met them. Who could blame them- they’d endured being out on the trail during the dead of winter, trudging through snow and skating over icy terrain! Both of them are serious champions in our book.
We ate two dinners because we had extra food thanks to Fresh Ground’s feast the night before (not complaining AT ALL). Then we hung our bags, went for a quick walk to warm up and snuggled up for the night. We counted our first day in the Smokies as a huge success.
Day 19 AT Miles: 16.4 Russell Field Shelter > Double Spring Shelter
We got up, had breakfast, and rolled out of camp around 7:50 am, which was good because we had a long day ahead of us. Fresh Ground had warned everyone that the second day going northbound in the Smokies was the hardest, so we were all bracing ourselves for that reality. To add insult to injury, we were all giving ourselves the added challenge of getting as close to Clingman’s Dome as possible so that we could wake up early the next morning for sunrise. To make this happen, we were going to try to go over 16 miles with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain.
It was a beautiful bluebird day, but still pretty chilly since we were heading up over 5,000 ft above sea level. We got up to Rocky Top and had beautiful views. The Family was up there at the same time as us, so we took turns taking pictures of each other. We continued over to Thunderhead which had no view and then down some before going up and down the rest of the day.
After nearly 10 miles of the up and down and all around terrain, we got to Derrick Knob Shelter and stayed awhile for lunch. The Family, Oak, and Chris were there, too, and we all reveled at the exhaustion we felt because of what we’d just been through. Eventually, we decided to push on. Shortly after bidding everyone else farewell and getting down the trail some, we put in our headphones and listened to music as we crushed the last nearly 7 miles to the shelter. We really wanted to make it to Double Spring Shelter as we were eager to join our friends for a sunrise hike up to Clingmans Dome.
We made it, but we were utterly exhausted, so we hurried up and sent up our tent and made dinner. The family trickled in shortly after us and BAM!offered Melissa (the mom) a trail name – Star Fish! He thought of the name because, as she is hiking up a steep mountain, she sometimes “starfishes” on the ground, but when she gets to the top with an awesome view, she jumps and “starfishes” in the air! She seemed to like it, and plans to try it out for a while.
After a little planning with the group for the early rise, we went straight to bed. We were very tired and tonight we would only have 8 hours to sleep as apposed to our usual 10. To be honest, we really don’t get a full 10 hours right now because of how often we wake up cold, or are jolted awake by intense wind gusts, etc… It happened to be a windy night, so sleep definitely didn’t come easily. That should have been a warning for the morning to come.
Day 20 AT Miles: 5.6 Non-AT Miles: 0.5 (to shelter) Double Springs Shelter > Mt. Collins Shelter
Somehow, after a very restless night (in which Hero at one point had to rescue the tent fly after a stake had been ripped out of the ground by the wind), we got ourselves out of bed for the sunrise adventure. We woke up to the sound of our alarm at 3:30 am, and as much as we were excited to experience seeing the sunrise from atop Clingman’s Dome, the wind that still lashed against our tent made us want to just bury ourselves deeper into our sleeping bag. Still, we got up and were actually pretty quick about it. We ate a small snack for breakfast and were on the trail by 4:25 am.
Hiking through the balsam forest in the dark was pretty cool and a little creepy at times. The quarter moon was out, but you couldn’t see it through the thick canopy for most of the hike. The wind was howling, but mercifully the trees blocked most of it. We hiked the 2.8 miles with over 1,100 feet of elevation gain up to Clingman’s Dome, arriving a little after 6am. Sunrise wasn’t until 6:53 am- plenty of time… maybe too much time. Scratch that- with the wind gusting hard enough to nearly topple us over, it was definitely too much time. Toodles, CVS, and Cryptic were already there getting bundled up in every layer they had- quite the feat of extraordinary determination considering that just about every piece of lightweight backpacking gear was liable to turn into a sail in that crazy wind.
Seriously, the wind at the top of the tower was gusting so hard we had to lean into it not to get blown over. We quickly wrangled on our puffy layers and our rain jackets for wind break… but we were still freezing! We tried to sit behind the wall for a wind break but we were already too cold. Toodles and CVS had pulled out their sleeping bags and now looked like fluffy multicolored Caterpillars sitting on the stone bench.
We decided we needed to move around for some heat, so we hiked back down the ramp and back up again… and again… and again…it helped a little. More people showed up: The Family, Batman, Betty White, Honey Badger, and Chris. Everyone was freezing and we still had 30 minutes till sunrise. We started dancing around. Bad Santa did laps around the tower, at one point yelling over the wind “GoPro, warm my feet!” (our GoPro is voice activated, so people have been coming up with funny alternate “commands” for it. Our favorite so far has been “GoPro, do my taxes!”). More people pulled out sleeping bags in an attempt to shield themselves from the relentless gale. Then Betty White chimes in and says “Wake up for sunrise they said, climb the tower they said, it will be fun they said” and we all have a little laugh at our collective misery.
But we stick it out and see the sunrise! Toodles even had “Circle of Life” from the Lion King cued up and ready for when the sun broke the horizon. It was beautiful, but most of us still aren’t entirely sure it was worth it. Everyone ran down from the tower as quickly as we could and started hiking to try and warm up. While most of the tramily was hiking further that day, we were glad that we were doing a Nero and only had a few miles to go to get to the Mt. Collins shelter. We were a little slower than usual because we were so tired (and we had an emergency cathole situation) but we still made it to the shelter by 10 am. Toodles was already there, along with Oak who stopped by before heading down to Newfound Gap for a ride into Gatlinburg.
The sun was hitting the grass in front of the shelter so we found a sunny spot and took a nap after Oak bid us all adieu. At one point, BAM! tried to make a fire, but without a whole lot of dry firewood (everything was frozen to some degree up there) options it didn’t persevere. But we had a chill day, and even though we got a little restless at points, we know our bodies were grateful for the rest. As we were settling in for bed, Fifteen came in- it was good to see him again. Since it was a big shelter and there were very few people, we decided to try out the shelter for the first time. It was nice not having to set up the tent, but we did miss the privacy of having our own space. And we noticed we slept a bit colder, too.
Day 21 AT Miles: 15.4 Non-AT Miles: about 1 (to a from shelters) Mt. Collins Shelter > Pecks Corner Shelter
Today we hiked to Newfound Gap and got resupplied by our dear sweet friend, Justine! We were so elated to be reunited with her, and so grateful that she drove all the way out to Newfound from Asheville to help us out. In addition to bringing us and Toodles our re-ration, she also had vegan breakfast bagels from Ultra- what an awesome treat! Toodles liked them, too, and was even excited about the fact that napkins came with the bagels. It seems like a silly thing to be excited about (and we all definitely got a good laugh out of that), but it’s one of those things you realize you don’t think about when you’re not thru hiking. As soon as you’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in an experience that limits the amenities that are usually so readily available in “the real world,” you start to get more of a grasp on the things you once took for granted.
Because it was a beautiful Saturday, Newfound was packed with people. But that in no way shape or form stopped us from embracing the “hiker trash” within and spreading out our re-ration in the grassy area next to Justine’s car. We sorted through our “loot” and organized it into our food bags before stuffing everything back into our packs. The crows of Newfound were very interested in our operation.
Justine had brought her boots and a daypack and hiked with us out to Charlie’s Bunion. The climb was pretty gradual with just a few icy patches, allowing us the opportunity to talk and enjoy each other’s company as we walked. It was so great getting to hang out with her- after the hard days we’d had in the Smokies leading up to this point, seeing and getting to spend time with her was so rejuvenating to our souls! Plus, Charlie’s Bunion offered us incredible views- one of our favorite spots on the trail so far!
It was beyond hard to say goodbye, but eventually Justine had to turn around and head back to her car parked at Newfound. We’re grateful that this was truly more of a “see you later!” since we’d be getting into Asheville for a few zeroes less than a week later. We then pressed on, walking along a ridgeline with astounding views on either side much of the way. Absolutely one of the most beautiful sections of the AT thus far.
We got to the Pecks Corner Shelter a little after 5pm and started setting up our tent and getting dinner going. Oak made it to the shelter a little late because his ride slept in… but he brought Toodles a Cherry Vanilla Coke and he shared it with us – it was AMAZING!
Day 22 AT Miles: 19.8 Non-AT Miles: 2.7 Pecks Corner Shelter > Davenport Gap Shelter
We woke up early this morning- 5:45am – because we had a long day ahead of us. It was the coldest morning yet, and everything was freezing as we took stuff out of our sleeping bag. Our water, our filters, our batteries, our phones, our hands and our toes… all of it started to freeze! At least, we thought to ourselves, it was not raining cats and dogs. Still, with how cold it was, we decided not to try to cook and just ate a cold breakfast so we could hit the trail faster.
Everything is harder when it’s cold. It still took us about an hour and a half to get out of camp. As we were getting ready and packing up, we had to stop every few minutes to rewarm our hands by swinging them rapidly or shoving them under our layers and pressing them against our bellies. The tent stakes were all frozen in the ground – we had to use rocks to knock them loose and pry them out of the ground. We left all of our puffy clothes on for the first half mile side trail back to the AT just so we could warm up. We managed to build some warmth, so we took off our puffy layers and continued on our way. It was still very cold. We learned later that it had gotten down to 15 degrees that morning and the windchill was likely in the single digits. The water in our water bottles continued to freeze as we hiked. We kept a brisk pace to keep ourselves warm.
The views were beautiful and we also went through more of the balsam forest blanketed in mosses. It was magical! But still very cold! BAM! took out his phone to take a picture. While doing so, his phone went from 52% battery life to 4% battery life- the cold just completely zapped the power. Our GoPro wasn’t working either because the SD card had an error, and Hero’s phone battery also dropped dramatically when she didn’t have it buried in her puffy layers. So, now we had no good way to take pictures. It was hard, but we had to release that impulse to capture it and just enjoy the Beauty in the moment. It was a stunning hike, a continuation of what when’d seen the day before.
We arrived at Tri Corner Shelter six miles into the hike and ducked in to get water and use the privy. We made the stop quick because we were already getting cold. Oak came in as we were about to head out. He decided to make himself some oatmeal because he’d skipped breakfast earlier as he hurried to get hiking. While we were all there, it started to flurry snow. Oak looked at us with a distressed face and said – “Y’all, we gotta get out of here!!!” We chuckled at that. Then we got moving and said we hoped to see him at Davenport Gap tonight.
We hiked hard and fast and made good time. We unknowingly passed Toodles who had left the shelter before us that morning. He was having lunch at Cosby Knob Shelter and got going again shortly after we had passed by. He snuck up behind us with Jersey (not to be confused with the Jersey boys) and passed us as we got water.
We had a moment of reflection when we got to the point where the trail intersects with the Mt. Cammerer trail. We’d done the section from Davenport Gap up to Mt. Cammerer and back as a training hike back in November, so we couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as we looked back at how far we’ve already come on our journey. Hero remembers being at that same section months ago reveling in the fact that in just a few months they’d be back in the very same spot as a thru hikers. It was a powerful moment, to say the least.
We didn’t see Toodles again until we got to the Davenport Gap Shelter, where we also met Travis the park ranger and showed him our permits. He was really nice and talked with us a while before going on his way. He also let us know that Fresh Ground was at the road!
The Family showed up and told us Fresh Ground had texted them and that he had dinner for us if we wanted to hike the 1 mile down to the gap. Obviously, we all hiked down to the gap and enjoyed a wonderful dinner, not minding at all that we then had to hike back up to the shelter to spend the night. Absolutely worth it!
That evening, with our bellies full of delicious Fresh Ground dinner and the promise of a lovely FG breakfast just a couple Zs away, we all settled in for our last night in the Smokies. One of the Trout kids has been reading aloud from a story called “Brother Band” every night right before bed. We enjoyed listening to her read to us, the kids of our eyes growing heavy as the witching hour of Hiker Midnight drew near. We went to bed grateful for all the experiences we have had so far on the trail, all of the incredible people we have had the chance to call tramily.
Though the rest was very much needed after our first few days on the trail, it was time for us to move on from Neel Gap. We had one more Fresh Ground breakfast and then hit the trail by 8 am.
It felt REALLY AWESOME to be back on trail. We were feeling really strong and eager to make some miles. It was foggy, cold, and windy, so we kept a brisk pace while simultaneously enjoying the “Glass Blown” Forest that surrounded us, a slightly different variation of the Crystal Forest from a few days back. We marveled at how every time we hiked on the west side of the ridge, the forest was covered in this wind blown ice. But then as we walked along the east side, the wind all but disappeared, the temperature warmed, and there was no ice on the trees. With such dramatic differences on either side of the ridge, it felt as though we were weaving back and forth between two different worlds.
It was only 1 pm and the sun was just starting to peak out when we got to the first of the camping options we had looked at, Low Gap Shelter. With a spring in our step, we continued down trail, telling ourselves we’d stop at Poplar Stamp Gap (option number two) just a few miles down the trail. We didn’t wind up seeing Poplar Stamp Gap. We assume we must have blown right passed it as we were pelted with ice chunks being blown off the trees by the wind that was whipping across the ridgeline. It was a pretty humorous moment, and reminded us a bit of the trees in the Wizard of Oz that started throwing their apples at Dorothy and Scarecrow, though luckily the ice chunks weren’t quite as big as apples.
When we realized we must have passed the campsite, we continued on until we found a good spot just off the trail. As we were setting up, Ultra and then Sherpa passed by on their way to Blue Mountain Shelter, another 4+ miles away. Though part of us longed for the company of trail friends, we also enjoyed having an evening to ourselves.
Day 7 AT Miles: 12 (approx.)
The trail was abuzz today with day hikers and weekend warriors, all of whom were taking advantage of the blue skies and (slightly) warmer temperature. We didn’t run into too many people initially, but the numbers really picked up once we reached Unicoi Gap, where we once again found our dear friend Fresh Ground set up.
Seeing us walk up, Fresh Ground ushered us over and began his signature rapid fire questions: “How about some coffee? There’s water and koolaid over there in the coolers. And snacks- don’t forget those! Now go on and getcha some hand sanitizer- no hand wash station today, it’s too cold, I won’t do that to you. How about some vegetable stir fry for my very special people?” We spent about an hour with Fresh Ground, soaking up the sun that graciously filled the parking area at Unicoi Gap. We even got to talkin’ to Smooth Sailin’, a former Thru Hiker and friend of Fresh Ground’s, one of the original crew who convinced Fresh Ground that he should make the Leapfrog Cafe Hiker Feed a permanent enterprise.
After a nice long break in the sun with good company, we braced ourselves for the next leg of the trail, which involved climbing two peaks back-to-back: Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain. We were stuffed and sluggish after our heaping plates of vegetable stir fry, so we took it easy as we trudged up Rocky Mountain. We stopped to admire the view and socialized a bit with Trouble (a Thru Hiker who says he has pretty much lived nearly full time on the trail since 2016) and some weekend warriors out of Atlanta, but then continued on down into Indian Grave Gap and then up, up to the top of Tray Mountain. We really enjoyed the view up there on Tray, and so we took a nice leisurely 30 minute snack break, talking with a gentleman from Athens who joined us for a bit and kindly took a photo of us. (See photo at beginning of day 7)
On our way to the Tray Mountain Shelter where we’d be staying for the night, we ran into Ultra and Sherpa, who had hopped forward to Dick’s Creek Gap further north and were now SOBO slackpacking to Unicoi. We all got a picture together, along with the incredibly friendly dog who belonged to the guy who took our photo, and then we parted ways.
We got to the shelter and claimed a beautiful tent site with a spectacular view overlooking the valley- we were really quite pleased with ourselves for finding such a beautiful, serene spot. And then the weekend warriors started trickling in, and some other thru hikers, and then the Family. All of these people started trickling in towards dusk- by the time Hiker midnight hit, there were at least 25 people in the area surrounding Tray Mountain Shelter. It was the exact opposite of the peaceful night we’d had the night before, that’s for sure! While it was fun to socialize around the fire and catch up with the Family who’d just crushed out their first 15 mile day, we were wiped out and in need of some good sleep before the 11 miles that stood between us and Dick’s Creek Gap, where we’d jump off trail to head into the town of Hiawassee, Georgia for a resupply.
Day 8 AT Miles: 11
We enjoyed a gorgeous sunrise as we packed up and ate a quick breakfast. We’re realizing that we like to do a cold breakfast with a hot drink in the morning, rather than a hot drink and a hot breakfast- it’s saves time and fuel to eat something that doesn’t require cooking. We were pretty psyched at our timing, that we’d managed to pack up, eat, and leave camp by 7:50 am. Not 30 minutes later, we had to jump off trail to frantically dig ourselves catholes and fill up on water. So much for efficiency, right?!
After our pit stop, we powered through the rest of the hike to Dick’s Creek. At one point we caught up to Sonar, whom we had met the night before at Tray, and the three of us finished out the last stretch to the gap together…
…where we were greeted by none other than (you guessed it!) FRESH GROUND!!! For our seventh meal with him, we had delicious tacos and sweet tea and snacks. As more hikers started to trickle in, we sat off to the side and waited for Smooth Sailin’, who we had seen out on the trail. He and his wife, Casual, offered to give us a ride into town in the back of their Tacoma, an offer we readily jumped on. Smooth and Casual dropped the three of us (Sonar hopped on board, too) off at the Holiday Inn Express in Hiawassee. It was a little pricier than we were hoping for, but we figured it would be nice to have a night that would allow us to relax and take a nice hot shower (great pressure! Oo la la!) and get some laundry done while we waited for the post office to open the next day. We made phone calls, worked out logistics for the next few days leading up to getting to Franklin, NC, and half watched Indiana Jones while trying to eat down what was left of our ration. While we thoroughly appreciated being spoiled by Fresh Ground so frequently, we did not eat nearly enough of our own food, haha!
Day 9 AT Miles: 16.7
We woke up plenty early so that we could be at the post office the second they opened at 8:30 am. Because it was under my name, I (Keeka) went in to pick up the box. Before the postal worker handed it over to me, he set it on the scale, raised his eyebrow and said “Darlin’, you’re about to add about 19 more pounds to your pack with this.” Sheepishly, I mumbled that the weight would be split between two packs and hurried back outside with it. “19 pounds, Micah, 19 pounds!” It was entirely too much food for the four days we were expecting it to take us to get to Franklin, but we had a shuttle picking us up in less than 30 minutes which gave us no time to properly sort through it. Instead, we shoved it all in our packs with barely a glance.
Our shuttle driver, Grace, picked us and Sonar up and took us all back to Dick’s Creek Gap. It was starting to rain ever so slightly, but knowing that the forecast was calling for much more we went ahead and threw on our rain gear. Then, after mentally preparing ourselves for the soggy cold to come knowing that the clouds would part in the afternoon, we started our trek.
Between the pouring rain and cold and packs that were much heavier than we wanted, the day was a struggle. But Keeka was leading the pack with a positive attitude and a spring in her step. Sonar was brainstorming names for her like Mush or Iditarod because she was fast and a good leader but there was more to it than that… then he said “Hero”. Keeka didn’t say anything right away, but she pondered that name for a while. At first she was hesitant to accept it but then she realized that this was a name she wanted to grow into, to be her own hero. So now she is Hero!
Despite feeling sluggish and achey as we trudged through the last miles of Georgia, our spirits remained high. We all kept each other company and stayed focused on how excited we were to be crossing our first state border. For Micah and I, crossing into North Carolina felt extra special, as it holds for us the power and draw of home. The sign for the NC/GA border at Bly Gap is so unassuming that in my head-down-make-miles trance I might have walked right by. Luckily, the Jersey Boys (a group of three recent high school graduates from New Jersey) were taking a little siesta at the border, which helped draw my attention to the sign hunkered in the tree. I waited for Sonar and BAM! to catch up, and then we all three stepped into North Carolina together.
Grinning from ear-to-ear, we took pictures with the little sign in the tree. Then, filled with triumph and resolve, we continued to push on. The elevation gain just past Bly Gap was staggering, and the cold and wind and sleet did not translate to the warm North Carolina welcome we were hoping for. But we bared down and did our slow march up to the top. At one point, I got brought down by a Rhododendron tree whose branches were jutting out into the trail. I didn’t see it because my head was down to keep myself as dry as possible, but I sure took notice of it once it grabbed my legs and introduced me to the muddy ground. It was actually pretty funny, and I laughed, only slightly saddened by the fact that no one else was there with me to join in on the hilarity.
I caught up to BAM!, and as if on cue, the clouds started to roll away as we neared the top. At last we were treated to that spectacular North Carolina welcome we’d been longing for.
BAM! and I had been planning to stay at the shelter about 12 miles from where we started that morning. We got there and sensed that Sonar, whose on a tight deadline to finish the trail by the beginning of July, wanted to keep going. We said our see ya laters, but then BAM! discovered that the tent sites at the shelter were basically puddles. This plus our desire to stick with Sonar plus the sun being out led us to the conclusion that “Hey, we could do another 4.9 miles, yeah, let’s go!”
We only had about an hour of sunlight left when we rolled into Standing Indian Shelter, but we made it! After our highest mileage day so far (16.7 miles), we felt drained but accomplished, and ready to nom down on some delicious food. It was windy and cold, but we were having the time of our lives.
Day 10 AT Miles: 16.2
Feeling well rested, strong, and excited after the miles we tackled the day before, we weren’t as hesitant to trying and knock out some similar mileage. We were motivated to keep up with Sonar, too, who was looking at another big day. It took BAM! and I a bit longer to get going in the morning, so we told Sonar to go on and we’d catch up. As it happened, we wouldn’t catch up to Sonar, because after a while our bodies really started to feel the mileage we’d done the day before. By the time we got to the shelter 16.3 miles away from where we started, Sonar wasn’t there. Apparently he felt strong and decided to push on to the next shelter 3.5 miles further north. Our bodies were so done by then- there was just no way we were going to be able to push another 3.5 miles that day.
Despite the fact that we were on our own and a bit achey for most of the hike, we had an absolutely gorgeous day on the trail. For the first time since we started our thru, we were able to hike most of the day in our tees! Even on the crazy ascent up Albert Mountain we had a blast, fueled by the exhilaration of approaching our 100th AT mile- how accomplished we felt!
Day 11 AT Miles: 7.2
We awoke feeling a little worse for wear. The past few days of pushing 16+ miles back-to-back had definitely caught up to us. We could tell by the aching in our feet that we needed to pump the breaks a bit. Thank goodness Winding Stair Gap, our gateway to Franklin, NC, was less than 10 miles away.
We had a ride lined up with a friend’s mom, so we ate breakfast, packed up camp, and started down the trail. It was a beautiful, warm, sunshiney morning, and despite the fact that our feet were hurtin’ pretty good by this point, we were in good spirits knowing that civilization was oh so near.
After getting a ride into town, we got settled into a private room in a hostel and then moseyed into town. We hopped over to Outdoor 76 for a few items we needed, and also decided to check in with them about some of the aches and pains in our feet. And of course, we signed their AT Class of 2021 banner!
We also signed the AT banner at Lazy Hiker, where we met a friend for drinks in the evening. It felt great to go to a local brewery, sitting outside by the fire pit in the cool night air.
Day 12 Zero Day
After talking with some folks at Outdoor 76 regarding the aches and pains we’ve been feeling in our feet, we decided to stay another day and night in Franklin. We realized that in our excitement at feeling strong and alive on the trail, we were pushing ourselves a bit too hard with the the back-to-back 16+ mile days. It seems obvious now, that “duh!” hindsight is 20/20 thing which makes you feel kinda silly for thinking you could push harder than you should. But we’re trying to be kind to ourselves and cut ourselves some slack- we got caught up in the thrill and exciting brand new-ness of being on trail. At least we’re correcting course early on.
The zero is also giving us time to catch up on all the Hiking for Hunger stuff that tends to build while we’re out on trail. Still figuring out that balance, and I expect we’ll continue to “figure it out” throughout the entirety of our journey. For all the planning you do, and all the things you say you WILL undoubtedly make time for, the trail truly teaches you to let go of all those preconceived notions. The expectations we bring out with us, we’re beginning to realize, are much like the excessive amounts of food in our rations, all the other things we’ve been carrying with us which, simply put, are unnecessary. We shed literal physical weight and mental heaviness with each step we take.
Thank you all so much for following along and supporting our journey.
We have had quite the time during our first five days of thru hiking. We’ve encountered rain, ice, snow, and thick fog. We’ve been freezing cold trying to pack up camp and sweating profusely as we hiked up mountains. We are here for it all!
It started with a misty morning at Amicalola Falls State Park, where the Approach Trail to Springer Mountain begins. After getting some pictures at the iconic stone arch, we said goodbye to Mama Grant and officially began our journey. Giddy doesn’t begin to cover how we both felt as we essentially pranced down the trail- even trudging up the infamous 600-step stairs couldn’t get us down! Yeah, they were tough and certainly got our blood pumpin’, but it was worth it for the view of the falls. Even shrouded in heavy fog and mist, they were a sight to behold.
After those crazy stairs, we still had some tough butt-kickin’ elevation to climb to get up to Springer. We’re telling ya- that Approach Trail is no joke! But it was completely worth doing for how gratifying it felt to get to the top of Springer- it really felt like we had earned that summit, like it was the right way for us to start the trail. And boy, the pure elation we felt when we saw our first white blaze and the plaque indicating we were in fact standing on top of the southern terminus of the AT… nothing like it!
We took the obligatory photos and video while on top of Springer, of course, and signed our names in the register. It was pretty cold and windy and spitting rain, though, so we started heading in the direction of the shelter where we intended to set up camp for the night.
When we got to Stover Creek, there were already a few thru hikers there. Since we were planning on not staying in the shelters anyways during our thru, we went ahead and set up our tent close by. At some point, the sun peaked out and graced us all with its presence, a nice treat while cooking dinner. Eventually, even more thru hikers would show up for the night, including a family of seven! We went to bed a little after Hiker Midnight (aka when the sun goes down), savoring the excitement of our first day being on trail.
Day 1 Mileage Approach Trail Miles: 8.8 Appalachian Trail Miles: 2.8 Total Miles: 11.6
Our second day on the trail washed the honeymooning glisten of the first day right off of us. We knew we’re going to be seeing rain showers during the day and braced ourselves for it. We got through most of the day before the downpour really hit, but then we were really feeling it. We endured, but with how cold it was on top of the wetness, it truly was an “embrace the suck” kind of experience.
With our heads down basically just trying to make it the thirteen miles to Gooch Mountain Shelter, we were surprised when we came to a road crossing and found a white van covered in stickers with tarps rigged around it. Could this really be the infamous Fresh Ground, our wide eyes and dropped jaws seemed to be saying to each other. Sure enough, we gingerly walked on up to the van and a man jumped out of the driver’s side exclaiming “They didn’t tell me y’all were comin’! Y’all want some food? I’m gonna make y’all some food!” Literally day two of our thru hike and we’re being treated to some of the most iconic trail magic on the AT. We had heard about Fresh Ground from so many other seasoned thru hikers, and were just thrilled beyond belief that we’d run into him. We didn’t think we’d see him so early on! He cooked us up some delicious vegetable stir fry and homemade french fries before sending us on our way. That delicious warm food coupled with him telling us that he’d be at the road crossing just beyond where we’d be camping that night to cook all of us breakfast gave us the energy to rock out the last 3.5 miles to camp.
We reached the shelter to find a whole group of awesome thru hikers staying for the night. They had also experienced the incredible Fresh Ground trail magic and were equally pumped for breakfast the next morning.
That night was hard, as it was still cold and raining and beyond difficult to keep ourselves and everything we had with us even remotely dry. Frankly, it was impossible. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to be damp for the night, and just did what we could to dry things in the sleeping bag with our body heat as best as possible.
Day 2 Mileage Appalachian Trail Miles: 12.9
It rained most of the night leading into day three. The rain stopped early in the morning, but it got colder as dawn approached. When we awoke, everything was frozen, including our tent fly which was essentially a sheet of ice. Packing up was beyond difficult as we were cold beyond belief. A lot of our gear was still damp, making it hard to warm up before getting back on trail. If you’ve never had the pleasure of trying to shove your frozen feet into frozen boots with frozen hands, we highly recommend doing whatever you can to avoid such an experience altogether. Eventually, we got out of camp and started the 1.4 mile trek to the breakfast spot where we enjoyed yummy warm food and coffee and some great company with fellow thru hikers who also survived the crazy wet cold night- some much needed laughs were had before we started our journey for the day.
Hiking brought us warmth, which made us feel human again, which in turn made it possible for us to enjoy the beauty around us. Overnight, the woods had been transformed into what Micah referred to as a “Crystal Forest”- it literally felt like something out of a Dr. Seuss book! After what was an incredibly rough start to the day, we enjoyed our favorite day of hiking on the trail thus far!
We had the choice to hike further than we did that day, but decided to stop early at a campground with lots of sunshine and warmth and some of our new Hiker friends. It was still early, so we were able to lay out all of our wet stuff and dry things out. Despite the fact that we were a little further away from Blood Mountain, the peak we’d be summiting the next day, we felt good about our decision. We had such a good time getting to know some of the other hikers, relishing the good energy of the people we’re starting to sync up with. It was cold that night, but we were dry and feeling grateful for a beautiful day on the trail.
Day 3 Appalachian Trail Miles: 8.3
We woke up excited for what we knew in our hearts would be another great day on the trail. For starters, it was amazing to wake up warm and DRY, unlike the morning before. Everyone we stayed with at Lance Creek was in great spirits, soaking up the beauty of a stunning sunrise and getting excited for our ascent of Blood Mountain, the highest peak in Georgia on the AT.
Though we were the last ones to leave camp that day (walking away from Lance Creek Campground at 9:15 am) we were cruising and knocked out the 4.9 miles to the top of Blood in 2 hours and 10 minutes. It was a bluebird day and the views on top were spectacular. We so enjoyed spending time up there with our new trail friends, basking in the accomplishment of knocking out one of the harder summits in Georgia. While on the summit, Micah even got his trail name! He described to our new friends how, when he was working in wilderness therapy, he would get the kids attention by saying “BAM!” whenever they’d come across a stunning view. The kids, jolted from their heads-down trudge, would look up saying “What?!?!” To which Micah would respond, “BAM! Beauty Appreciation Moment!” Micah told this story, and Sherpa immediately said “BAM! That’s your trail name!”
After a nice long break on top of Blood, we made our way down to Neel Gap. We’d already decided that we would be taking the next day off in anticipation of the thunderstorms coming through, but hearing that all our new friends would also be taking a zero the next day, we were all the more motivated to have a day to regroup. From Neels, it’s a short walk down to Blood Mountain Cabins. We arrived and found that dear old Fresh Ground would also be spending a few nights to feed our little group during our off day. We ended the day reveling at the serendipity of it all, absolutely astounded at the magic we were already experiencing on trail.
Day 4 Mileage Appalachian Trail Miles: 7.3
Day Five We’re taking our zero day to get everything in order before we hop back on trail tomorrow. The thunderstorms came through overnight, and we felt grateful that we weren’t in the middle of it getting drenched. We know that we’re going to run into rain on the trail- what we have to watch out for is rain followed by freezing cold temps. There are times that you can be cold and wet and be miserable but safe, and there are times that you can be cold and wet and it can be dangerous. We made a judgement call based on the rain and the freezing cold to follow it and decided a zero was called for. It has also given us the opportunity to write up some blog content for you fine folks!
While we’re excited and grateful for this time to regroup and bond some more with our Hiker friends, we’re also itching to get back on the trail. We’re excited to strap on our shoes and throw our packs on our backs again tomorrow and keep heading north!