I Just Called to Say I Love You
Mile 10.4 Horse Gap
Georgia Horse Gap isn’t an ideal campsite, the clearing we chose is on quite a slope. There is a forest road pretty close that apparently gets a fair amount of traffic, especially when a local Army unit is active. Impending sunset caused us to decide to make the best of it here. There are just six of us, and I think we all planned to spend our first night on trail at Hawk Mountain Shelter a couple miles back. This group coalesced there, all reticent to camp with the roughly 75 hikers already there. It is cold. A dusting of snow welcomed us this morning on Springer Mountain, and after it warmed considerably during the day, cold 50 mph winds are now whistling through the gap. All six of us set up our tents quickly, albeit laughably close together. “Magic Man” and “El Diablo” friends from a high school in Virginia, have been talking about the custom hammocks they were using. To my left is “Stretch” a 6’7″ ski instructor from Massachusetts, who was pretty quiet. Struggling to set up her Tarptent is “Boo” a diminutive recent college graduate from Oklahoma. She looks five foot nothing and weighing about a hundred pounds with her pack on. “Burgundy” is to her right, already in his tent. He is dressed in all black, has striking good looks, and said he is from Los Angeles. He admitted he had never slept in his tent before, nor had he cooked on his stove. He is no more inept than the rest of us. We rendezvoused on a log near the campsite, where we all attempted to prepare our meals. The combination of the slope we were trying to cook on, the mid 30’s temperatures, the 50 mph winds and the incompetence of the backpackers, made cooking dinner virtually impossible. Our flames kept going out, as quickly as our stoves were tipping over. Thirty minutes later, we were sitting on the moist logs, our half cooked meals before us, and getting to know one another. Our hands were freezing, and you could hear the crunching as we chewed our just moist, but not cooked freeze dried meals. “Burgundy”, whose real name is Ron, retreated to his tent, to make a cell phone call to his friends back in LA. “Hello” “Its Ron” “What’s up?” his friend answered. “I just want to thank you” “For what?” “I’m on the Appalachian Trail now, it’s my first night, and you really inspired me to do this. Hearing you guys talk about thruhiking this trail, it’s the reason I decided to quit my job and get out here and do it, so thanks.” “Are you high? Ron, we didn’t hike the Appalachian Trail! We hiked the Long Trail, and we hated it! It rained all the time, the bugs, we couldn’t wait to get out of there, but good luck out there!” He encouraged him. While Burgundy was having his soul crushed, Boo was chasing her tent down the side of the mountain. The wind had pulled her stakes from ground and the tent went tumbling down the slope. We all helped her retrieve her shelter, but this would be repeated a couple more times in the night. I laid in my tent last night and thought of what a monumental disaster this first day has become. I looked out at the other shelters, and wondered how many of us would make it to Maine. Everyone seemed to be in reasonable shape, but early returns are pretty unimpressive from this crew. I hoped Boo’s tent would last through the night, and I am hoping she can make it to Neels Gap safely. I drifted off to sleep with the dust bowl ballad “My Oklahoma Home” pulsating in my brain: “When they opened up the strip I was young and full of zip I wanted a place to call my own And so I made the race, and staked me out a place And settled down along the Cimarron………. It blowed away, it blowed away My Oklahoma home blowed away But my home is always near; it’s in the atmosphere My Oklahoma home that blowed away” I slipped into a deep slumber, either by exhaustion from the hiking, or knocked unconscious by the cold wind piercing my lightweight tent. I woke to the sound of a jeep in the road nearby, assuming it was nearly daybreak I turned in my cell phone to see the time: 1:25am !!! I am up. Just waiting for morning now. The day has been a disaster. Nothing seemed to go right. I broke my hiking poles before I got out of the parking lot on Springer Mountain. The campsite is terrible. Tents are blowing away. I ate an uncooked freeze dried meal for dinner. There is enough people at the first shelter today to fill the US Senate. Yet for some reason, I can’t wait for tommorrow to start. I want to know how it is going to turn out. Unwrapping a mystery, step by step. Good or bad, tommorrow is full of possibility. Some of us would make it to Maine, I think and some won’t. But there are no dead souls here. Everyone is still alive.
Neels Gap, GA Mile 31.7
Got a Wife and Kids in Baltimore Jack
At first glance, “Baltimore” Jack Tarlin wouldn’t strike someone as the greatest thruhiker in Appalachian Trail history. He’s older, larger, and not particularly tall. He hasn’t thruhiked the trail in many years, and now works at various outfitters and hostels along the trail each spring, mostly helping hikers make smart gear choices and dispensing advice when asked. Glance upon a picture of Jack in his prime thruhiking years, he seems like an everyman. He doesn’t look like an athlete, nor was he very young when he began his record string of 7 consecutive AT thruhikes. His total of 9 traditional thruhikes of the AT is also tied for the most with Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce. One appeal of long distance backpacking to me is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Jennifer Pharr Davis, set the Appalachian Trail speed record despite having no history of being an elite endurance athlete. She hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 46 days. Unlike previous record holders, who mostly ran the trail, Pharr Davis walked 3 mph over 16 hour days. I’m particularly drawn to this. I have no designs on any accomplishment other than finishing this trail, but that such things are possible. Jack Tarlin was a newspaper reporter, a businessman, who transitioned into thruhiking legend through sheer will. He also helped popularize thruhiking culture, and the sport itself as a lifestyle choice. He’s an iconoclast. In a culture of heavily left leaning “tree huggers”, Jack is a proud Republican. He is charismatic and opinionated, but rarely self promotes. He is a legend, yet hasn’t written a book or made a film. And he hates Bill Bryson. We arrived at Neels Gap, and spent the day at Mountain Crossings, the outfitter and hostel for which Jack labors. We conquered the first significant climb of the AT, Blood Mountain in the morning. The climb was not too difficult, it was long and gradual, and it was extremely cold, but took only about an hour or two. At the top is Blood Mountain Shelter, which is one of the few stone shelters on the entire Trail. It was cold, dark and dingy in there, definitely not a place I would ever consider sleeping, particularly considering the high level of bear activity in the area. Some in the area insist that Blood Mountain gets its name from a bloody 16th century battle between the Cherokee and Creek Indians to decide supremacy in the Georgia mountains. It is surrounded by Slaughter Creek, Slaughter Gap and Slaughter Mountain, so perhaps there is legitimacy to this claim. More recently, it was the site of the murder of a 24 year old female hiker at the hands of serial killer Gary Michael Hilton. Note: why do serial killers always have three names? If you meet a guy named Gary Michael Hilton, you have to know he is going to try to rape and murder you. The weather warmed up as we entered Mountain Crossings, the only building on the Appalachian Trail. We are pretty full of ourselves. We sat on the patio all day, drinking sodas, eating microwave pizzas, and sharing stories of our epic 30 miles in the semi wilderness. It was a good day with a lot of laughs and bonding. There is probably 30-40 people here and double that have passed through. One character who caught my attention was a gregarious middle aged woman, who is thruhiking the trail with her 2 sons and her 3 tiny dogs. I arrived at Neels Gap in the morning of my third day, and I’m no athlete. This heavy set woman, had been on the trail two weeks! Her pace (2 miles a day), her two grade school age sons, and her three dachshunds are not the most alarming traits of this woman’s hike. It is her pants. She wears run of the mill black nylon pants, which rode up high from her crotch over her ample belly to 6 inches below her robust, but sagging breasts. Apparently, at some point, the seams on her nylon pants gave way to intense pressure from her waistline, and she now employs a wide strip of silver duct tape running from below her crotch to her belly button area. This is not something you want to see, but somehow it’s absolutely mesmerizing. I couldn’t NOT look at it. After dinner we gathered outside of the hostel and listened to Jack answer questions and tell stories from his thruhikes. One story that caught my attention was when Jack got mistaken for a homeless person. Apparently, on one of his thruhikes, Jack had befriended a fellow hiker who was hiking with a cat. One day in town, Jack was in a grocery store, and had wandered into the pet food section and was browsing through the cat food selections so he could surprise his friends cat with a treat. While he was loading up on Fancy Feast, another thruhiker noticed him buying cat food. The thruhiker slipped Jack a $20 bill, mistaking his purchase with a desperate financial situation. “Nobody has to live like this,” Jack was told. At dark, I retired to the dark, dingy hostel for the night. Bunks are relatively cheap, but the place is full. There is already a couple of guys asleep in here. One is “Uhaul”, a very large older gentleman who is already snoring loudly. Zero chance I will sleep tonight. Things have gotten better since the first day and I like this crew I’m hiking with, but I think tommorrow I will separate from the pack for a short while. There’s a huge storm coming in a couple of days and I don’t do well hiking in freezing rain. It’s thirty nine miles to Hiawasee, the next good trail town, and I’d like to get there in a couple of days. Ahead of us is some of the most difficult trail on southern Appalachian Trail. I guess we will see what kind of hiker I am.
Deep Gap Shelter Mile 66.0
Get Off of My Cloud
I made it. I am sitting in my tent just a few miles from town, with the storm supposed to hit tommorrow morning. The section I just passed was brutal. I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that my entire day is going to be misery from the time I wake up, till the time I try to fall asleep. The mountains are steep, and constant. Aside from a couple mile stretch I went through today, I was either going up or down all of Georgia. I do feel accomplished that I am almost out of my first state. I’m mostly hiking alone, but the crew I had been with, will be in town tommorrow as well, just a little bit later. There is one guy who has been following me for the last two days, “Iago”. I have gathered that this young man made a lot of money in some sort of tech industry, and is semi retired. He has the absolute latest and greatest gear, and insists it be the main topic of conversation at all times. When he is not telling me how great his 12 oz tent is, he is playing a woodwind instrument that he straps to the back of his backpack. Frankly, the first time I saw it there, I thought it was a sex toy. As soon as “Iago” got to camp he will start playing his instrument. I hate it! When people play instruments on trail, do they think others want to hear it?!! So far I’m barely 60 miles in and I’ve heard a guitar, a recorder, a ukulele, and a Jews Harp. I just want to sleep when I get to camp. Hope I can lose this guy soon.
Franklin, NC Mile 109.8
Get Off of My Cloud
I lost Iago. After we crossed into North Carolina, we went by a water source that was 0.3 miles off the trail. One of the guys hiking with me, “Trail Blazer”, took the side trail to get water, so i waited at the junction for him to finish and took the time to call home. It took him 20 minutes, because it was a steep grade down to the water source. When he returned, Iago, had a change of heart and decided he needed water. “You guys mind waiting for me while I get water?” “Nah, go ahead” I told him. As soon he was out of sight, Trail Blazer turned to me, “I hate that fucking guy, you wanna get out of here?” “no question!” we hiked till 9 pm to make sure we put that guy behind us. Let me be clear. I’m no athlete. I have what some might call a weight problem. I’m not obese, in a Chris Farley way. I’d say it’s more of a Jack Black fat. I think I’ve lost about 10 lbs so far, but I’ve got a long way to go. I get by out here. I’m not as fast as some but I can stay on the trail longer than most. My strategy has been to hike 1.5-2.0 miles an hour for eight to ten hours a day. So far so good. I reunited with Boo, Stretch and Burgundy in Hiawasee for a little pizza party in a hotel room. They seem to be doing well, and I think they have what it takes to make it all the way. Everyone is excited they made it to the first town and are glad to sleep in a real bed. I think the hotel has bed bugs, because I have bumps all over of my legs. This a better fate than a thruhiker up the road from us, “Dump Truck”, who was staying at the beautiful hostel, The Blueberry Patch, and was bitten by a Brown Recluse Spider. He has a hole the size of 50 cent piece in his foot that is a quarter inch deep. It truly gruesome to see. He is going to be laid up for a while. I made it through Georgia fine. The trail has gotten harder in the past week but I’m holding up Ok. I’m in Franklin, NC at the Sapphire Inn while buckets of rain are coming down. I started the morning just a few miles from the road that leads 16 miles to town. I was told by other hikers that a shuttle bus comes to that road at 9 am and 11am to pick up hikers. I left camp at 7:30am and got to the road at 8:15am, excited to get out of the downpour. The shuttle bus showed up at 10:28am! I stood in that rain, with no umbrella, a flimsy ultralight raincoat, and my pack. I was shivering the entire time. I tried to call but my phone wouldn’t work because it was too wet. The Sapphire Inn is a place I would never consider staying in before I began this trail, but it’s more than acceptable now. I splurged and got my own room and am taking hot showers all day. If I can keep this pace I’ll be in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in less than a week.
Stecoah Gap, NC Mile 153.1
They Peed on Your Rug
We arrived at Stecoah Gap earlier than anticipated. There were picnic tables within a grassy area, before crossing the road and we headed straight for those. Strewn across the tables were oranges and apples along with a note, “to the thru-hikers of 2014, good luck on your journey!” It was trail magic. Trail magic is unexpected, serendipitous, acts of kindness that happen on the Appalachian Trail from complete strangers. We are 150 miles into this trail and this happened four or five times already. “Dobak” was tired and hungry. He was very low on food and his heavy pack was wearing him down. I’d been hiking with him for the past few days and he didn’t say much, but that was about to change. “I think we should set up camp right here” he continued, “I’m tired and I don’t think I have any more miles left in me today.” Given the traffic along the road and the proximity we were to the next campsite, I thought we should push on to the next official spot, Brown Fork Gap Shelter. “The next campsite is only two and a half miles from here, why don’t we just suck it up and make it?” I argued. Dobak relented, and agreed to move along with me, which probably wasn’t a good idea. We had already done the largest continuous climb of the trip so far earlier in the day, nearly 4,000′ from the Nantahala River. We had already gone 14 miles which is reasonable for a day this early into a AT thruhike. Additionally, his pack was probably twice as heavy as mine, roughly forty five pounds without much food in it. Those two and a half miles are supposed to be the toughest on the trail south of New Hampshire. Although only about a thousand feet of elevation gain according to our maps, this climb was a series of about a dozen of the steepest, calf burning, gradient slopes on the trail followed by short flattish stretches. This section is called “Jacob’s Ladder”. Dobak was fuming. He knew he shouldn’t have gone forward from the road and now his fears were confirmed. We would usually walk up about twenty steps and then have to stop to fight the burning in our legs, at which point he would turn towards me and glare with pure hate. I tried not to say much, because I thought there was a real possibility of a fistfight breaking out. Over two hours later we arrived at the campsite, which was teaming with a group of hikers that had acquired quite a reputation on the trail for their partying and rather tepid pace. Dobak was now really mad! We couldn’t really find a great site to set up our tents near the shelter so we set up down a hill by a dried up stream bed. We then joined the party crew up by the shelter around the fire ring, to cook our dinner. I had only an emergency wood stove, but for the most part I just ate cold food on the trail, it seemed a quicker, simpler way to live for me. I would eat usually, dried fruit, snack bars, crackers, cheese, bread, chips, etc . Dobak, a chef from New York, is down to his last meal before we get to our resupply the next day in Fontana Dam. He had a dehydrated meal cooking on his camp stove in front the fire, when one of the stoned party boys, got up and knocked his stove over and his dinner poured out over the ground. Dobak, gave me a death stare. I knew what he was thinking, “it’s 100% your fault.” The stoned out twerp apologized and offered a granola bar as substitute but Dobak was having none of it. Now he wanted to suffer, just to make me aware I had done by coercing him to move on a few hours earlier. There were fifteen to twenty hikers circling a roaring fire, and the party group began their nightly ritual. An attractive college aged girl stood up and said, “highs and lows!” The group then proceeded to go one by one around the campfire and each hiker would share the high point and low point of their day. Usually involved a high point of getting baked while looking at a beautiful vista and a low point of running out of weed. Suddenly the leader of this band of troglodytes pointed at the pissed off Dobak and asked about his highs and lows. “Well the high was everything that happened before a couple miles back,” Dobak offered. “And the low was walking into the camp and seeing you folks here.” It got real quiet, right then. To escape the tension now settling over the camp, I slipped away for the night to my tent. When I set up my tent earlier, another hiker, “Captain Jack”, came into the camp and put his tent up inches away from my tent, which made for an uncomfortable situation, which I let it go without comment. When I returned to our campsite, three feral cats scurried out of my tent. I rushed to my tent to inspect what had happened. The felines had chewed a hole in my screen door, ate a bit of all my remaining food, as well my toothpaste, and seam sealer I use to make repairs on my tent, which now had a few holes in it. To make matters worse, the cats urinated all over my tent and sleeping bag. It smelled horrible. I quizzed Captain Jack on the situation, “Jack, what happened?” “I don’t know, I didn’t hear a thing,” was his defense. “How could you not hear three cats having a orgy in my tent? You set up six inches away from me in a 550,000 acre national forest?” I was fuming, but I did my best to scrub my gear in a nearby stream, in the pitch black cold night. I will sleep tonight in a urine soaked tent, slip into my wet, urine soaked down sleeping bag, with no food, and try to fall asleep. The tent and bag will no doubt reek of kitty urine for another week, before I can properly wash my gear in Gatlinburg, TN! Fontana Dam, NC Mile 164.7 Dobak and I arrived in Fontana Dam excited to ressupply, to eat a hot meal, and for me to rinse out my cat urine soaked tent a bit more. Fontana Dam brings back memories of the first long hike I had on the Appalachian Trail. Before I was a thruhiker, I was a section hiker. That is, I was someone who hiked 50-100 mile sections of the trail whenever I could in an attempt to complete the whole thing. A few years ago I got February 14 to May 1 off of work, so I hiked the southern half of the Appalachian Trail in one long section. It was easier for me to do it this way. I live in Massachusetts, so it’s easy for me to get out and hike anywhere from New Jersey to Maine. But doing 50 miles in Tennessee or Georgia would be a lot of effort coming from Massachusetts. The year I left from Springer Mountain in Valentines Day, the south had been hammered by snow and by the time I got Fontana Dam things got a bit worse. A blizzard has blanketed the region. I arrived in Fontana Dam with reports that some of the drifts in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park being nearly impossible to get through. I poked my head in the Fontana Hilton, the beautiful shelter here at entrance of the National Park. There were 30 people already in there and it was only 2:00pm. I squeezed into the shelter and engaged in conversation with other hikers about their plans. Most were going to sit it out and wait for the weather to clear. Only two guys “Spangler” and “Crazy Joe” decided to push on. I followed them out in the morning. The wind was cold, and the trail was pretty deep with snow. I bought snow shoes off a guy in the shelter and they were helping making it up the mountain. Before I got to Shuckstack Mountain, a few miles into the hike, there was a massive tree blown down on the trail. At its highest point the tree was up to my chin and I couldn’t crawl underneath it or go around it. It abutted a rock wall and a cliff. The tree was slick to grab and I struggled to climb over it. I had to undo my snow shoes throw them and my pack over the blow down and then climb up and over. Well, this wasn’t easy and it took forever. I have the upper body strength of a twelve year old girl, and I was kinda glad nobody else came with me to see it. I finally made it over and proceeded to Mollies Ridge Shelter at 4:00pm. It took 9 hours to go 11 miles. I sat there for twenty minutes, and I knew this wasn’t going to work. I decided to turn back. At 2:00 am I arrived at the public bathroom at Fontana Dam. I’m freezing, so I decided to stay there for the night. It was quicker going back down from Mollies Ridge than going up. When I got to the blow down, I followed the same procedure by taking off the snow shoes and climbing over. This time I made a huge error. I left the snow shoes on the other side of the blow down. I just paid $100 for those the previous night. I wasn’t going back over twice though, not at nearly midnight! I ended up sleeping in that bathroom for a few hours. I then took a few days off the trail and let the weather clear and some of the snow melt. The section hike lasted another two months and I was able to piece together the trail over the next few years, but something about it all bugged me. I really wanted to do this trail in one season. I don’t know why, but it’s been calling me for years, and I don’t think I can quench that thirst without thruhiking. Maybe that won’t be enough either. Great Smoky Mountain National Park Newfound Gap, TN Mile 206.8 We have escaped the trail for a few days following the storm. Since we entered the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and the over 70 miles of the AT that passes through the Park, the weather had gotten ugly, again. The temperatures dropped into single digits and we were treated to a steady diet of high winds, rain, sleet and snow. We have ducked into Gatlinburg TN , which rests roughly at the halfway point of the trail passing through the park, at Newfound Gap. We arrived, cold, wet and exhausted, after facing the first big weather obstacles of the trail. We spent a “zero day” in Gatlinburg eating, sleeping, and cleaning our clothes and our gear. All of my stuff still had cat urine smell, so I was relieved to do these chores. Gatlinburg, a town with free moonshine shots handed out To tourists, wasn’t a likely candidate to have tremendous Chinese food. But it did Gatlinburg also had terrible pizza. I ate a couple of slices in town before we headed back to the trail and that backfired. About a mile into the hike north, I started to get diarrhea. I found myself jumping off the trail into the woods every quarter mile. I got so bad that I wasn’t get more than a couple feet off the trail and I would have Dobak stand guard for me.
Death by Whippoorwill
Hot Springs, NC Mile 273.9
A few days after leaving Gatlinburg, we camped near Roaring Fork Shelter a day before reaching our next town stop, Hot Springs, North Carolina. We hadn’t been sleeping well, because I still had a sore butt from the diarrhea and Dobak was on his third sleeping pad. He had a top of the line Big Agnes sleeping pad, and he was meticulous about caring for his things, and used a ground sheet in addition his tent floor to protect his inflatable pad. Unfortunately, his pads kept popping. We had a long, mostly uphill day hiking out of Davenport Gap at the edge of the Smokey Mountain National Park to Roaring Fork Shelter. We arrived as it was getting dark, and I was convinced that both us would be sleeping great that night. Dobak had picked up a new pad at Davenport Gap, that Big Agnes had graciously sent to him at no cost. He quickly went through his dinner routine and we both set up our tents about 20 yards to the left of the shelter. I was in my tent reading a book, getting mighty sleepy when I heard a loud POP! “what happened?!” I asked. “Man, that new pad popped already!” He angrily replied. This was why I had a foam pad, they aren’t as comfy, but they can’t pop and don’t need to be inflated at night. “I can’t win”, he seemed resigned now. “I guess I will have to get a fourth pad in Hot Springs.” Although I felt bad for Dobak, I was ready to sleep so I put my book down and closed my eyes. Then it began. “Whip-ooor-wiiiiiillllll” “Whip-ooor-wiiiiiillllll” “What the hell is that?” I asked Him. “I have no clue but it’s the loudest bird I’ve ever heard” “It’s a Whippoorwill” called out another thru-hiker, who overheard us talking. “They are loud and there’s a good chance you will be hearing that one all night.” We did hear that bird all night. It remained perched above our tents all night teasing us with his call till the morning light. I didn’t sleep more than an hour, and Dobak had barely slept that over a few nights with the bird and no sleep pad to protect him from the rocky ground. I shot ahead of Dobak early the next day in anticipation of reaching a town again. I strolled into Hot Springs NC, and the weather was finally taking a turn for the better. The sun was out, and there were a lot more smiles on the trail than I had seen yet. When I entered town, I saw Spanky sitting in front of the outfitter on a bench laughing with a group of hikers. He was holding a fish. “Digger!” He greeted me. “How’s it going?”, I answered “fine, what’s with the fish?” “I been fishing the last couple of days”, he replied. I was puzzled, internally my first thought was “how did this guy get here two days before me?” I knew I was hiking hard, and he had never passed me on the trail. I pursued him a bit, “how did you pass me on the trail?” “Night hiking!” He quickly answered . This line of questioning would repeat itself in Erwin Tn, when he beat me there by two days and again was catching trout when I arrived, in Damascus, VA, and in Daleville, VA. I laughed each time, Figuring, everyone has got to do what they feel is best for them. I had my suspicions that he was the most audacious “yellow blazer” I had ever seen. “Yellow blazing” is a term given to those who don’t follow all the white blazes up the trail, and instead hitch hike from town to town. Despite a twinge of jealousy, I was always happy to see the guy, he was always smiling, laughing and being social with other hikers. Spanky was a retired veteran, probably in his early 50’s, very rugged looking, handsome and always smiling. When it was raining and muddy, everyone around us would look like hell, but always looked good. The dirt would seem strategically placed on his tanned face. He was a real life Marlboro Man, a bigger, stronger, more manly, George Clooney. Hot Springs, is a cute little town, that can suck hikers into its charm, and it’s not unusual to see thru-hikers stay there, up to three days in town. The trail goes right into the town over the French Broad River, past 15-20 businesses, on Lance Avenue. You might see a dozen or so hikers a day on the trail after you get past the Smokey Mountain National Park, but when a thru-hiker arrives in a town like this, it’s not unusual to see six dozen hikers in a single day. I camped in town with Spanky on a grass field in town, waited for Dobak to show, which never happened. The next morning, Spanky and I grabbed an amazing breakfast at the Smoky Mountain Diner, before moving over to the Hiker Ministry, who were having a free hiker feed later in the day. At 11am there was already three dozen hikers strewn across the grass around the small prefab building the Hiker Ministry was operating out of. By 2pm, the crowd swelled to almost 100 hikers, including Dobak who finally dragged into town, with severe shin splints and fatigue from lack of sleep. He wouldn’t be moving on from this town for a few days. Following a beautiful meal, I departed Hot Springs, NC. The weather was good and it was finally feeling like I was having fun on this trail. That was until I lit myself on fire. Devil Fork Gap, NC Mile 308.9 The weather is starting to turn for the better, and i am hiking around some of the best people i had met. Boo, Burgundy and Stretch are a day or two behind me, and i find myself with a whole new crew of thruhikers. Jbone and Dirt are a couple of funny guys from Atlanta. Jbone did all the talking, and Dirt spoke only when necessary but was equally hilarious. They were long distance runners and are usually doing 25 mile days. Laughsalot, a college aged woman who originally in the party crew from the night the cats urinated in my tent, is around much to my delight. She has a legendary laugh, that echoes through the forest, and a smile as big as the sun. She can really hike. Although we hiked roughly the same miles everyday, she would often get into camp a hour or more before me at the end of the day. Today we all camped outside the Jerry Cabin Shelter in Tennessee, and in the morning i left early in hopes of getting to the town of Erwin, TN in just two or three days. About noon, i stopped by a creek in the full sun, and soaked my feet and began to prepare my lunch. Even though i regularly backpacked without cooking food, i did grab a titanium alcohol stove while in Hot Springs a couple days prior, because i was in the mood for some hot food. i also bought a bottle of HEET, a isopropyl product used to light my new stove. I prepared my stove to be lit, when Laughsalot came upon my lunch spot and sat down next to me to eat lunch. I must have gotten lost in my process, because i didnt notice when i went to fill more HEET into my alcohol stove, i didnt notice it was already lit (often times with fuel that burns really hot, the flame is low and invisible). When i began pouring more fuel into a already lit stove, the stove ignited the entire bottle that was in my hand! It blew up like a bomb, and my leg, my socks, my shorts, shirt, hands were all aflame! i was panic stricken but was able to throw the bottle of fuel into the river before a forest fire ensued. I rushed into the river soon behind bottle, which was fortunate i was so close to a stream! the bottle was floating on the water still lit, although fifty percent melted. I had many minor burns, but a really deep and painful wound on my hand and on my leg. Laughsalot was concerned, and helped me clean up the mess. I wrapped my hand in a spare sock after i washed it thoroughly in the river. I made my way down to the next road crossing at Devils Fork Gap, and i saw the truck of another thru-hiker’s husband. He gave me a lift into Erwin so i could get the proper medical supplies to wash out the burns and to cover them with good gauze wrap. I stayed in town for the night and the morning, another thru hiker’s wife gave me a lift back to Devils Fork Gap to get back on trail 6. I Ran a Marathon Once Erwin, TN Mile 342.0 Erwin TN isnt a terrible trail town, I think the town wants the hikers there, but the layout of the city in relation to where the trail is is kind of far off route. There is Uncle Johnny’s Hostel along the Nolichucky River that most of the hikers stay at when they pass through town. Johnny will take hikers into town at least once a day in his van. I stayed at the hostel with Stone Cold, Colonel, Surfergirl, Hawk, Littlefoot and Moneybags. Moneybags is a strong hiker. He was a Triple Crown Award winner, that was awarded to hikers who had finished all three of America’s premier long distance trails; the 2,186 mile Appalachian Trail, the 2,665 mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail. He was also know for having a whole in the crotch of his very high cut running shorts, which made for some discomforting chats around a fire in the early evening. The Triple Crown Award is a rare achievement. From what other hikers have told me, more people have been in space, or have stood atop Mt. Everest in Tibet, than the number of backpackers who have triple crowned. Moneybags sat around the fire at Uncle Johnny’s and answered questions about his various achievements: “Which trail is the best?” (The Pacific Crest Trail). “Which trail is the hardest to hike?” (The Appalachian Trail). “How do you keep in shape?” (He runs marathons). He even joked about how he had gotten laid on all three trails, which he felt was deserving of a special reward as well. Stone Cold, who is no slouch in the athletic realm, piped in on the conversation, “I ran a marathon once.” This wasn’t a surprise given Stone Cold physique and fitness level. He continued, “I had a girl I was training in my gym that said she was getting ready for the A marathon. I told her that sounded like a pretty cool thing to do so i asked her if i could sign up. She got me in and four days later i was at the starting line to a marathon. I figured i am in good shape, how hard can this be? I didn’t really train for it, and rarely had I run more than a couple of miles while i had the gym, I find running boring.” He continued, “So anyway, I come out flying, no problems at all. At the ten mile mark I’m among the leaders and thinking this sport is a joke. At fifteen miles I’m still doing quite well and on a very strong pace i figured id be done in about three hours maybe a bit less. Just after i passed the seventeen mile marker, my legs just stopped working. I wasn’t tired, not winded and my legs didn’t hurt that bad. They just stopped working!” He went on, “the thing was i couldn’t move my legs forward, but i could walk/jog kinda backwards, so i did that for 9 miles. finished in 5 hours.” That’s what i love about Stone Cold, most people would have just like “my legs don’t work anymore, i gotta quit,” but he found a way NOT to quit. I would see this determination and sense of fun and adventure plenty as we moved our way up the trail. I wasn’t the athlete that Stone Cold or Moneybags are, but felt like I am improving. I have lost 25 lbs already and I finally wasn’t completely miserable all day.
Damascus, VA Mile 467.8
I am getting stronger, and I can handle the constant ups and downs of the trail reasonably well by the time I reached Virginia. I don’t think about the 1,800 miles in front of me, but focused on the next trail town. I mentally focused on the roughly seventy mile stretches in the forest, and look forward to those trail towns that could provide a hot shower, an agreeable meal, and a real bed. Even a twelve hour stay in a trail town can provide a world of recuperation. Hikers have three choices when they get to town; get all the necessary chores done in town (laundry, resupply, recharge cell phone, gear replacement) and then camp right outside of town or in the town itself. Another option is to pay for a spot in a hostel. Bunk’s in a hostel are a cheap and sometimes comfortable situation, particularly in poor weather. A final option, and the one I chose most often, was to secure a hotel room, and then pack between four and eight hikers in a room. The room might cost $75.00, but divided several ways it was sometimes cheaper than the hostel. In Damascus, I got in late after hiking my first 30 mile day of the journey. It was no great hiking by me, it’s just the trail is remarkably flat and with a good track between Watauga Lake and Damascus. It was easy enough, I just had to stay walking for 12-14 hours and I’d get 30 miles. My late arrival meant I had to scramble for a bed, which was difficult. After a pretty intense search about town, I came up empty. I ended up sharing a twin bed with a fellow thru-hiker, “Babaganoush”. In the “real world” such an arrangement would be out of the question, but here it wasn’t preposterous and on a rainy, cold, night in very early May, it is very welcome. The reason I generally steered clear of hostels was hygiene. I don’t mind being dirty, but I’m obsessed with sleeping in dirty sheets, or using dirty bath towels and sometimes this became an issue. If four or five hikers got a hotel, the protocol was to usually let the women shower first. By the time I got my turn to shower, there were no clean towels left. I would simply try to ascertain which towel Boo had used, and use that. If I had to use somebody’s used bath towel or face cloth, she was by far the least disgusting person in our crew. There was a hostel a few hundred miles up the trail, that housed dozens of hikers at a time, and was a great time. It ran on donations, so it lacked the staff to “clean” the facilities. I got in at 8:00pm and I hurried to jump in the shower as soon as possible. Once in the shower I quickly ascertained that this was likely the grossest one in the AT. It looks like the shower got a once a month cleaning, which is frightening prospect given that it probably saw 20 disgusting thruhikers a day. When I reached out of the shower for a towel I looked at the shelf where they were kept. There was probably two dozen of them, each one more disgusting than the next. None had been washed in weeks. I looked for one that the girls might have used, but they all were the same. Drip dry was my choice. Laundry was a bit simpler. I washed my clothes once a week, at most. My socks I washed every chance I got, but the rest I didn’t care. I’ve cleaned my tent once in 500 miles. The whole prospect might seem disgusting, but this is the thru-hiker life. Sometimes these things are celebrated within the culture. It’s called “hiker trash”.
Pearisburg, VA Mile 631.3
Home Is Where The Heart Is.
I sleep warm. That is to say, I often feel hot in my sleeping bag at night. The nights have been in the low 50’s maybe high 40’s on a cold night, for the past couple of weeks. Summer is approaching, so I have decided to send my sleeping bag home. I have a liner, which is a sheet to place inside the sleeping bag to help keep it clean. I figured using this would be fine since its completely adequate for the temperatures we’ve been experiencing. It’s only gonna get warmer, right? Big mistake.
One day out of Damascus, and temperatures plummeted. The nights dropped into the low 30’s at night with wind chills going 10 to 15 degrees below that. I shivered in my liner every night for the next week. I probably slept eight hours in a week. The scenery did get prettier on the trail, though. In the Grayson Highlands of Virginia, we encountered the feral ponies of these lands. They are pretty, if a little bizarre looking. There are meadows appearing on the trail for the first time, and the inclines are a bit more forgiving.
I picked up the pace considerably. I hiked two 30 mile days after Damascus, mostly in desperation to get a warmer sleep system. The hike was easy, but my faster pace and big miles led to shin splints, which hurt badly when I descended off Clouds Rest into the small town of Pearisburg Va.
Pearisburg has little to offer for hikers. There is one place to stay, The Holiday Motor Lodge. This is not to be confused with Holiday Inn. It’s a place you stay when there is no other option. It’s not a place of Ill repute, it’s a place of last resort. I checked in for two days. I have spent the time hanging out with hikers, most notably; Boo, Ron Burgundy, Stretch, Tipsy and Aquaman.
There is not a outfitter in town but there was a Goodwill Store. I found a tiny micro fleece blanket that said “Home is Where the Heart Is” over it. It is completely inadequate, but it will have to do. The size is not ideal. It is only 48″ so you kinda are always battling to keep your shoulders and your feet warm. In the night, you pull it up, and it exposes your feet. For now, it will have to do.
Mile 780.0 Big Island, VA
What’s on Your Mind?
Between Damascus and the James River in Virginia, I have gotten my “trail legs”. This phenomenon is a description thruhikers use to describe the ability to endure long hiking days and sustained climbs with little loss of velocity and negligible physical fatigue. The mind is another matter. The excitement of the early trail is gone, as are most of the thruhikers. Those that remain have suffered through the physical pounding of Georgia and North Carolina, and endured the rain, sleet and snow of the Smokies. The strong have survived, and the six to eight hour hiking days are now ten to twelve hours. The body barely notices, but the mind absolutely does. Whatever music is loaded on your iPod or iPhone is now exhausted of its surprises, and audiobooks have been listened to. People who don’t thruhike think that all that time to yourself gives you time to work out the problems in your life and ascertain direction you want to go. It usually doesn’t work out like that. Keeping your mind in the game and motivated is a big challenge. I thought about food for hours at a time. What I was going to eat in the next town, wondering if they had a Waffle House, and I will share my thoughts with other hikers. Talking and thinking about food and pooping in a real toilet have occupied much of my trail thoughts! I will listen to music quite a bit as well. Burgundy was maniacal about his music. At some point on the trail, he had calculated that five songs on average amounted to roughly the time it took for him to hike a mile on the AT. Each morning he would review his guidebook and then calculate how many songs he would have to listen to till lunch time. Then count them down as he walked. He will occasionally remark, “96 songs till we get to town!” I adopted this strategy for short 1-2 mile stretches that I was trying to just get through. I would’ve gone crazy counting songs all day as he did. When I arrived at the James River, I joined a dozen or so hikers jumping off the 30 foot high bridge into the river. This was a blast, and marked a point in the trail when the camraderie of the hikers and the fun really began. That night at a campsite on the other side of the river, about 15 thruhikers set up our tents and had a great night of storytelling and laughter around the campfire. A couple of hikers told the rest of us of a bizarre encounter the day prior on the trail. As they approached the river there were large steep hills to their right. They walked along the trail, and heard a large boulder tumbling down the mountain and were quite startled. They saw the rock, as wide as their wingspan, roll down the mountainside and settle right before them on the trail. They stared at it for a moment and then were startled even more when it began to move slowly on the trail. “What the fuck is that!” screamed young woman in her early twenties. Birdman, crept close to it and saw this boulder had a head and legs. “Holy shit, this is a giant turtle!” They slowly moved around the creature in an attempt to get past it so they could continue down the trail. The turtle stared them down the entire way, turning its body to match their position, till they were past. Apparently, as they later learned from a local, this is the way the turtles can quickly return to the river. They can descend a mountain over an entire day or two by walking, but can do it instantly by simply hurling themselves off a cliff and using their shells to protect them. This blew my mind. I thought about the swimming I had done earlier in the day, which I wouldn’t have done if I knew there was dinosaur sized snapping turtles in the water! Apparently, the young woman learned, the turtles go lay their eggs high on dry land for protection, and that is why they were up high on those cliffs. This morning I injured my knee going over the steep descent of Punchbowl Mountain, when I stepped on a wet root laying across the trail. My left knee is badly swollen. I’m stuck in this flea bag motel in Buena Vista, Va wondering what to do, but I can barely stand.
Buena Vista, VA Mile 806.2
The Kids Call Him Jimmy The Saint
I limped along Route 60 past the Autozone, heading towards the trailhead of the Appalachian Trail about 6 miles ahead. I was trying to hitchhike back to the trail, but i wasn’t having any luck. In some trail towns, hitchhiking is easy, the local community welcomes the hikers and see them as a economic and cultural asset. Buena Vista is not one of those towns. It’s a depressed rural town along the James River, and although it is easy to access from the AT (folks in the hiking community refer to the Appalachian Trail as the “AT”), the locals here mostly are indifferent to the Trail’s existence. I was limping because yesterday I fell running down Punchbowl Mountain, and my knee was now the size of a football, and won’t bend at all. I probably shouldn’t have been heading back on the trail, but i am sure i do not want to stay in Buena Vista any longer. Buena Vista had little to attract a hiker, much less a tourist, with Subway and Huddle House being the finest dining options in town. After 20 minutes of futile hitching and limping along, a familiar pickup truck pulled over to the side to pick me up. It was a Trail Angel named Jimmy. Trail Angels are folks who help the hikers with favors such as rides to town, food and drinks along the trail, counsel, a bed to sleep in, etc. These Trail Angels seemed to appear when you need them most, and at this moment i needed to see Jimmy. He happened to be driving another thruhiker, Stone Cold, to breakfast. Jimmy was driving up the along the Appalachian Trail’s entire length, supporting his wife Sherry, who was attempting a thruhike of the trail. Jimmy is a retired fireman from Louisiana, who i have been seeing often in the past month or so. He has gotten quite popular with thruhikers over the past couple months and when you see Jimmy’s truck it was usually jammed with a half dozen hikers who he was helping by driving to the supermarket, laundromat, the airport, a motel, etc. His cellphone was always buzzing with texts from hikers, some with requests for a hand, many from hikers he had helped in the past, checking on Jimmy to see how he was holding up. Hikers were ecstatic when they saw Jimmy’s truck when they got to a road crossing. He always had his tailgate down and a cooler of water, Pepsi’s, and other drinks sat on ice. He also had plenty of fold up lawn chairs, which are a great luxury to hikers, who rarely get to sit on anything better than a rock or a log. Since he retired from the fire department back home, Jimmy missed the camaraderie of life in the station. On the AT, Jimmy has found it, and he loves it. “What’s up with knee, pardner?” Jimmy asked. “I don’t know, i woke up this morning and it just was blown up” I replied. “Well, it don’t look like you are going too far on that right there, why don’t you climb into the truck and lets see if we can figure out what to do about this here” he graciously offered. I climbed into the truck and I rode with those guys for an hour or two while Jimmy made various stops for other hikers; a pharmacy for one, a supermarket for another, the Dollar General for Stone Cold, and stopped by a hostel to check on a hiker he had helped a few days earlier. I just sat in the truck and talked with Jimmy and Stone Cold while they tried to encourage me into doing the smart thing, which was have it looked at. Eventually, we visited the local hospital where they took X-Rays and an MRI which revealed i had tore a chunk of cartilage off the front of my knee and strained some ligaments on the fall on Punchbowl Mountain a day earlier. The doctor had told me to forget about thruhiking the trail this year, and that i need to go home and have my knee cleaned out and rest it. I was upset by the news and was trying to think of a way i could finish. I thought about going home, getting it fixed and hiking the trail from its northern terminus to Buena Vista in the fall. That might have worked, and it was surely what Stone Cold and Jimmy counseled me to consider as we drove back from the hospital to the Buena Vista Motel. I simply won’t commit to anything like that yet, because I gave up my job, my career, so that i could finish my Appalachian trail thruhike. I wasn’t quitting in Buena Vista, VA of all places. Talk about a major buzzkill. I spent the next couple of days in the Buena Vista Motel with some of my favorite people on the trail that year; Boo, Burgundy, Stretch, Tipsy a young trapeze artist from Las Vegas, Aquaman, a truck driver from Boston, and a father and daughter No Name and Smiles. These folks and I had a great couple of days in that motel while a rainstorm enveloped the area. Jimmy squired us about town, as went out to eat, shopping, went to a carnival and saw a play at the local theater. It was so small town America, and it was so fun, even if my leg remained in much pain. After a couple of days, everyone headed back on the trail, and Jimmy asked what my plans were. I told him my plans were to give it a try, even if it meant just a few miles a day. I had just walked 800 miles to get here and it took a couple hard months, and i wasn’t looking forward to coming back here next year to hike those same 800 miles over again, because at this point i was certain that my goal was to simply hike the trail from Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the majestic finish and magnificent mountain that lies at the completion of this journey. Jimmy is skeptical of my chances, considering my knee is still quite swollen, and I just started to put weight on it this very morning. “Well, Digger, i will tell you what”, Jimmy offered. “I can drop you off at the trail this morning, and there is a hostel just 6 miles up the ways north, i just dropped “Long Story” off there early this morning. If you can make it that far, you can stay there and i will stop by in the evening to check on you” he graciously asked. “Sounds good pal” I agreed. Before i got out of the truck at the trailhead, Jimmy said something that puzzled me, “when you get to the hostel, see Tony” or the name might be Toni with an “I” I’m not sure. I really couldn’t tell.” That puzzling comment aside, i did okay. My knee is responding reasonably to the prescription i received from my Orthopedist back home. It is aimed at reducing the swelling in the area, and as long as i could handle the pain, i could move forward on the trail, if not efficiently as i had prior to the fall. The 6 miles went by without much incident and i arrived at Hostel, and saw fellow thru-hikers Long Story and Microsoft immediately. The host came out to great me and i got a glimpse of what Jimmy was alluding to. Standing before me with an large outstretched hand was a muscular, 6’3″ person who said in a slightly feminine voice “Hi, i’m Toni!” I tried not to stare, but it was impossible. In the first hour i was bopped looking at her, a half dozen times. I couldn’t help it. She wore a blouse and a pastel blue pant that ran mid calf. I was pretty sure she was a guy, but was living as a woman, a very large muscular woman. Its not what you expect to see in rural Virginia. Jimmy stopped by later and asked me what her name was, and i said,”I’m pretty sure she said Tina, but i got all nervous when she greeted me that i kinda stopped hearing. ” Tina over the next day, treated me great. We enjoyed a wonderful barbecue out on the porch with the other hikers and shared things about ourselves. She noticed my headphones had broken after dinner and went into her bedroom and returned to me a pair she had. Tomorrow I’m off, confident that I can make these 2,186 miles.
Waynesboro, VA Mile 857.8
The Book of Duderonomy
From Pearisburg, I hiked with mostly the same hikers I’d been around since the beginning. Boo, Burgundy, Aquaman and Tipsy, are all hiking the same pace as I do, although Tipsy and Aquaman tend to hang out in town a little longer than the rest of us. I also met a new friend in the past few weeks; Shaky. We met one night when both of us were doing a 30 mile day in effort to make a “trail magic” that was happening on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We didn’t make it but did forge a good friendship.
The trail has leveled out and my knee is doing better. We have gone through a few decent towns since Damascus, but none are real “trail towns”. Daleville was fun, and has some nice eating options including the fabulous “Little Pigs BBQ”. Of course, Buena Vista was a disaster.
We arrived in Waynesboro, VA on the doorstep of Shenandoah National Park, with a huge group of hikers. There are at least a dozen of us checked into the Quality Inn, that I consider good trail friends. In town we do the usual stuff, go to Dollar General and buy groceries for our next stretch of the trail. It’s 100 miles to our next resupply and I’m thinking I’d like to do that in 4 days. We pack into the “posh” hotel room, 4 to a room and spread our groceries all over the place. Instant mashed potatoes, Oreos, bagels, cookies, tuna packets and candy bars all over the room. Clothes drying on the backs of chairs and hanging from lamps. Tents and sleeping bags draped over a shower curtain. The smell is atrocious. When you open the door to the room, the scent assaults you and leaves an unforgettable sense memory. It bothers nobody in the room. Burgundy has a backpack that has the most horrifying smell. It smells like Brie that’s been left in hot car for a week.
We spent a great dinner at the Ming Garden. It’s an all you can eat Chinese place that is very popular among thruhikers. I’m I must have eaten 10 plates of food, and saved plenty for dessert. We had all of our crew at one big table and just laughed and talked for two hours. We then headed over to Wayne’s Lanes, the local bowling alley.
Wayne’s Lanes is a small town business with 6 lanes, and a bar, all run by one employee. We had a dozen of us there playing two strings. The cost was $2 a string. We had a great time. Boo somehow failed to make contact with a single pin till roughly halfway through the first frame. Tipsy and Aquaman were phenomenal bowlers. Peter Pan, who was there before we got there, was mostly drinking beer. Most of the scores were in 60-90 range, which isn’t very good. One of the bowlers was “Blue”. I didn’t know him that well, but I knew he was running out of money, and would soon have to stop his thruhike attempt. Before the last ball was rolled on the evening I offered him a proposition.
“Bowl a strike, left handed, right now, and I’ll give you $100 cash.”
Blue wasn’t a very good bowler right handed, so I doubted he had much of a chance. A crowd surrounded his lane as he rolled the ball. Roll might be exaggerating. Blue basically dropped the ball in the center of the lane and we watched it slowly glide down toward the pins. It took forever, which only heightened the anticipation.
When the ball struck the center pin, it looked like explosives were set off, as he scored the miraculous strike. The crowd erupted and people were jumping around, so happy for him. I laid the money down, gladly. The kid deserved it.
I went to settle up at the bar, and was shocked when the bartender hit me with the tab.
“The 24 strings at $2 a pop ones to $48.”
“And the beer comes to $130?” We had a few $6 pitchers, that’s all.” I pleaded.
“Well that feller right there, he been here all day.” He said pointing at the obviously hammered Peter Pan.
We stumbled home, (mostly Peter Pan), and now are settled in at the hotel. Very excited to enter the Shenandoah, and see all the bears!
Bear at Camp
Big Meadows Lodge VA Mile 920.3
I shot ahead of the pack coming out of Waynesboro. Tipsy and Aquaman were planning to stay in town another day and I was hoping to catch Dobak, Stone Cold and Stretch, who have been ahead of me for a few weeks. I caught Dobak about ten miles into the Park, and we hiked together from that point. I generally hike alone during the day, because I believe everyone has their own pace and stride and efforts to conform to someone else’s walk usually leads to injury or misery. This is not much of a problem with Dobak. He is pretty slow. I can stay behind him and let my mind go. We soon bumped into Stone Cold and Stretch and set up camp near Blackrock Hut. We hung out late, not going into our tents till after 11. I woke up 2nd the next morning. Bamboops woke up first. He is another hiker I met in Georgia who was going at our pace. This was amazing and encouraging because he is an amazing athlete. He hikes at 4 mph and bounds up and down mountains with little effort. Anyway, when I woke he said he was feeling very ill and was headed straight into the town of Elkton. I wished him well and went back to breaking down my soaked tent which had been drenched in the overnight rain. I then went over towards the proper campsite where the food bags were hung from 12′ high bear poles. In the center of the camp sat a large fire ring. In the fire ring sat the largest black bear I have ever seen. He was squatting in the ashes, with a fully erect back. His massive paws were patting the ground for left over food. His head was the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. I have never encountered a black bear that didn’t retreat at the sight of a human. This creature didn’t flinch. In fact, his eyes tracked my movement intently. To get to the bear pole, I had to go around him. I was so afraid I walked a 100 yards into the woods and did a 15 minute reroute to approach the food bags from the opposite direction. I retrieved only my bag and headed quickly out of camp. I didn’t alert the others.
Thirty minutes later I received a text from Dobak.
“Thanks for the heads up on the giant killer bear in our camp!”
About 5 miles into the day I began to feel very sick and struggled and scraped my way to Big Meadows Lodge over the next 36 hours. Every mile felt like five and there was 40 miles. I wanted to die. A fever overtook my body and I hurt badly all over. I checked into the Lodge and I’m here to recover. I paid $135 for the night, and that includes no cell phone service, no wifi and no cable television. Total scam. These places in National Parks are bid on by large food and hospitality corporations that are strong on cash and weak on delivery of service. Delaware North has the contract here and in many National Parks. They have tremendous buying power so they purchase food and beverage at much lower costs than anyone else in the industry. It is not uncommon for the cost of goods to be half what a typical food service company might pay. The Buffalo based company, is marked by its low wages, poor service and terrible food. I hated giving them my money, but I had no other option.
I’m spending the night here with Dobak, and I’m hoping to get out of the Park tomorrow. Good riddance. We have our tents draped all over the room drying out again. All I’ve been through on this trip and I’m not even halfway done!
Long May You Run
Penn Mar, MD
Heading out of the Shenandoah National Park, the trail has gotten easier. Even though the weather has been rainy lately, I’ve enjoyed having big towns every couple of days as I move north. Harper’s Ferry was a beautiful place, although a bit pricey. Some hikers got off to take a one hour train into Washington DC, but I decided to check into a local motel. Harpers Ferry is a town, and also a National Historic Park. Situated on the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, it’s mostly known for abolitionist John Brown’s raid of the armory there in 1959. He was captured and tried for treason and subsequently hung in nearby Charles Town. I soaked up the history and the colonial architecture, but struggled walking it’s streets. Harpers Ferry is built on a slope. There is no rest from the trail on those streets.
Coming out of town many hikers try to do a 40 mile day. The trail is flattish, and the path is clear. I didn’t go for it. Just getting over the sickness that afflicted me in the Shenandoah, it wasn’t wise to push it. I hiked into Crampton Gap yesterday and today into a park at Penn Mar, which sits on the border of Pennsylvania. A few people came through today shooting for the forty mile day on the 4 state challenge (hiking from Virginia through West Virginia, Maryland and into Pennsylvania on the Appalachian Trail can be done in 44 miles.) This is a psychological relief after 500 miles traversed in just Virginia. Pennsylvania, just in front of me, has over 230 miles of the AT running through it.
There are a few in our pack that could do this hike. Boo, for certain, could make this but I doubt would see the need to do so. Bamboops, for sure, if motivated. Stone Cold, has the ability and the motivation to test himself at all times, but chose not to. We sat at camp tonight discussing challenges like this. Stone Cold, offered a startling story.
“I ran a couple of Marathons.”
This is not surprising. Stone Cold is chiseled specimen. He is a great athlete, and perhaps his military background has given him a no excuses, just get it done attitude.
“A couple of years ago I was working out at the gym with a girl, and we got to talking, and anyway, she says she is training for a marathon. I get interested, so I ask her when this marathon is that she is training for and she says the following week. No problem, I think. It’s low intensity exercise, I’ll just cruise for a few hours no biggie. So I go out and train like 4 times. I run 10-15 miles each time, no problem and I got plenty left in the tank. Race day comes, and we start and I’m doing great. Fifteen miles in, I’m up with the leaders and I’m thinking, I’m a real athlete, this is kids play for me. Then around 18 mile mark, my legs stop working. Literally I can’t move them forward. I wasn’t even tired or winded, I just stopped. ”
“So you made it 18 miles! That’s good for basically no training,” I complimented him.
“0h, no, I finished.”
“I ran backwards the last 9 miles. It was slow. I came in at over four hours, but I finished.”
I just shook my head. Who would run backwards 9 miles? Seems crazy. He can’t lose. It’s just the way the guy is wired.
Stone Cold is certainly an interesting guy. The lightweight backpacking movement has not affected his hike for sure. He always had an excess of food. He has rarely complained about his pack weight and he almost always carried two pints of Jim Beam in his pack. He calls it “medicine”. When leaving town a six or twelve pack of Coors Light will regularly make its way out with him. He is tough, but kind. Stubborn but friendly. He is apprehensive about accepting his redneck label, but he does a lot of rednecky stuff. He loves to needle other hikers, push them to succeed or hammer them if they complain too much. Being from Boston, I appreciate someone who busts balls and Stone Cold is good at it.
Boiling Springs, PA 1117.5
You belong to the city
I’m a huge town guy. Anyone reading this can probably ascertain that. Some thruhikers avoid town, they want to have a nature experience. I love nature. I mean wildflowers are cool and mountain views are nice. I’m just a town guy. If there was not a town 3 or 4 days ahead of me, I’d have never made it this far. I love the accomplishment of hiking fifty to ninety miles to the next town. I love the motels, the hot showers, the grocery stores, the burgers.
As thruhikers move north the towns get less spread out and then you can eat town food every one to three days. I’m in Boiling Springs, PA. It’s one of the nicest towns on the trail. I was able to escape to nearby Carlisle today and go resupply and have breakfast at Waffle House. I’ve been thinking about Waffle House for 200 miles. I had a big breakfast: 3 eggs over medium, hash browns with cheese and onions, wheat toast, OJ, a coke, tea, bacon and two pork chops. I really enjoyed that meal. I followed that up with a chocolate cream pie for dessert. The waitress said nobody had ever ordered dessert after breakfast before. I inhaled that pie. After breakfast, we rented a car and went out to nearby Gettysburg to see the battlefield and national cemetery.
I had never been before, but Gettysburg is just a bunch of fields. A thousand yards in every direction of grass. It’s hard to imagine that several hundred thousand young men died on those fields over a few days. I walked the battlefield with Shaky, and was three hundred yards from the parking lot when it hit me. A drop of sweat fell from my temple, and my stomach turned violently. I was “shit struck”. I knew it was gonna come out and I had only seconds. There was a family of four pretty close to us so I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t run 5 feet, never mind 300 yards to our car. I just dropped my pants and squatted. It was the chocolate cream pie I thought. It poured out of me. Shaky fell to the ground laughing. The family shrieked in horror, trying desperately to shield their children’s eyes from the ghastly sight. I had desecrated a national monument.
“Shaky, you got any paper on you?”
“No, man, I don’t have anything to wipe with.”
I proceeded to wipe my ass by scooting along the grass, butt to the ground, arms behind me like a crab. This hideous sight drove Shaky over the edge again. He was writhing on the ground in ecstasy as the family ran to the parking lot.
“Shaky, I think we best get out of here asap. I bet they have all kinds of surveillance cameras around here.”
We quickly headed back to the trail.
Back in Boiling Springs, I connected with an old friend I had known for a few years. We had pizza at Aniels. It’s a nice place in town popular with hikers. She introduced me to her soon to be husband and step children. It was wonderful, but the whole time I was super paranoid that I smelled like poo. When you have an accident it infiltrates your soul. The smell is as much mental as anything.
After dinner I headed back on the trail, and made it about 5 miles to an area adjacent to a large cornfield, where I’m camping tonight. The distance between Boiling Springs and the next town Duncannon is 25 miles. It’s also reasonably flat. A few years back I was part of a hike here. It was called the Duncannon 24. The object of the hike was to hike from Boiling Springs to Duncannon in a single day. While consuming 24 beers. When the event went off, it was a cold, wet April day. A dozen of participants left Boiling Springs that day around 8am. I had a strategy. Drink 2 beers an hour while hiking as fast as possible. I hoped to have 18 beers done in 9 hours and drink the final six at the precipice of Duncannon as the trail meets the road in town. Things started off very well. I was cruising and the 12oz Coors light, didn’t have too much of an effect on my sobriety. I was hiking with a guy named “Tank”, who I knew was a strong hiker and an even more formidable drinker. As he hiked you could hear jingling in his backpack.
I asked Tank what was that sound, and he told me that he had been hiking with 24 glass bottles of home brew. 12% alcohol he said. I knew that this guy wasn’t making it. I loved the hustle, though.
By 6pm I was 22 beers in and one mountain climb away from being the only finishing hiker.
The rain poured down on me as I grew more cold and more tired. I strongly considered laying down on the side of the trail, I was so tired. I never really got drunk, I just went straight to hungover. I focused on one white blaze at a time and slowly moved up the trail. Darkness fell over the forest as I stumbled across the shale rock on the descent into Duncannon. I reached the trailhead at 8:30pm and took a seat and began drinking my final beer. My hands shook violently as I sipped in the last of the Coors Lights. I could see several headlamps coming at me. Some folks had left the bar at the Doyle Hotel to come look for me. They were concerned I wasn’t going to make it. They walked me back to the Doyle, and I changed my clothes and went straight to bed. I shivered the whole night.
I quit drinking a few weeks later.
Shaky and I made it into Duncannon through a pretty good rainstorm. The skies cleared up as we were entering the downtown. Like Hot Springs in the south, the trail runs right through the center of the town. Unlike Hot Springs, this town has no obvious charm. I made it into the Doyle Hotel which is a century old hotel in the center of town that services mostly backpackers. The bar downstairs serves some of the best food on the Appalachian Trail along with reasonably priced beer. When I checked in, the proprietor, Vicki, let me know they still have my beer helmet on display from the Duncannon 24 years earlier.
The Doyle Hotel, is not a hotel you would expect to stay in if you weren’t on a thruhike. Walking into it, your first thought is “flop house”. The twin mattresses are easily 20 years old. Sheets are old and don’t match. Vacuuming doesn’t happen. The bathroom ceiling leaks. Despite all this I love the place. It’s cheap, at $20, that it’s not a budget breaker. The bar is good and they have a great deck out front where we can see the Junianta River.
The Doyle is a legendary place amongst thruhikers. The current owners are friendly to hikers and have cultivated a great relationship with the town. They have also improved the building and its reputation among the hiking community. It took years to overcome the poor reputation of the place, mostly due to an incident where the most famous thruhiker found a corpse in one of the rooms.
In the summer of 1999, Baltimore Jack Tarlin checked into the Doyle upon arriving in town. The hotel at this time was not under the management of the current owners. He was given a key to his room in the bar and proceeded to climb the stairs to the floor his room was on. Upon arriving at his door he noticed a very strong odor on the floor. He opened up his door and went into his room and put his pack down and fiddled around for a bit. As the sun warmed up the rooms, the smell grew stronger. He went into the hallway and noticed the smell was unbearable near the door of the room adjacent to his. He knocked on the door and listened through the thin wood paneling. He could hear flies buzzing around in the room. He proceeded to report his findings to the owner downstairs at the bar. The Doyle Hotel traditionally serves thruhikers and locals on longer term leases. Older men on fixed incomes, out of work laborers and general degenerates were most of the weekly or monthly renters at the time. The owner was not able to open the door to the room because the heavy set man who had expired, was leaning against the door. The owner coaxed Baltimore Jack to climb a ladder from the street to the window in the room and climb into the room via the window. Once in the room, Jack yanked the feet of the corpse, and pulled him away from the door. Baltimore Jack proceeded to projectile vomit all over Main St, Duncannon, PA.
Once the sun has set, I went down to the bar to talk with hikers and have a burger. I sat at the bar next to Shaky on my right and a local town guy on my left. The local didn’t look like a hiker. He wore battered denim pants, with a wallet held on to his belt with a chain. The belt was fastened by a buckle that claimed, “I’d rather be fishing”. He sported a cammo sweatshirt and a Marlboro cigarette baseball cap. He was unshaven and sported four or five teeth, max. I was sitting at the bar talking with Shaky and this gentleman interrupted.
“You a thruhiker?” He asked
“I hope so.”
“Well I’m a section hiker!” He claimed.
“Oh really? That’s good.”
“Yea I try to do a section pretty much every day for the past ten years.”
“Wow, that’s dedication,” I complimented him, “what sections of the AT have you done?”
“I do the section from my house down the road, to the bar here, I figure I’ve done this section over 1,000 times!” He elbowed his buddies, proud that he hooked another thruhiker with his story.
“Congrats,” I muttered.