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.