Monday, April 30, 2012

Hellooooo Virginia!

Hiya, so last time I checked in I was in the silly town of Erwin, TN.  We hung out at Uncle Johnny's hostel most of the afternoon and finally hit the trail around 5pm.  Due to the late start our goal was only Curly Maple Gap shelter about five miles away.  The hike out of Erwin was pleasant, it followed a stream most of the way until we hit a stupidly steep climb right before the shelter.  Those climbs that are so steep, where the ground is in your face, suck all the energy out you.  When we got to the shelter, it was packed but luckily most of us were able to squeeze in.  Like towns, shelters are fun gathering places for hikers.  We spread out so much on the trail, but when you hit a shelter or a town sometimes you see hikers you haven't seen in weeks.  The next morning we were, of course, the last ones to pull the trigger and leave.  We hiked up to Beauty Spot, a grassy bald with a great view.  We spent 2 hours up there with Blues Clues and Lighthouse playing Ninja and sunbathing.  We still had Unaka Mountain to climb over.  I decided I didn't want to carry water up the mountain, as I knew there was a stream on top, and I also had about three pounds of gummy bears in my bag for our 'zero in the woods' day.....

We all decided in Erwin that we should take a zero in the woods (a zero is a day you hike no miles, a nero is a day you hike very little miles - at this point I consider any day below double digits a nero).  We normally take our zeros in town but we thought it would be fun to actually just sit and enjoy the woods for a day without the need to get up and hike.  We all agreed to pack in 'shareables,' so we could sit and eat candy all day long. We found a pretty little apple orchard with a stream, set up camp, and dumped pounds of food in the center for everyone to pick through as they please.  It was awesome.  I will definitely be doing more zeros in the woods, minus the gummy bears as they were horribly heavy and a hiker should never really choose gummy bears over water.

During the zero, while cooking dinner, Pac-man either knocked over his bottle of fuel or the log he was leaning against shifted - whatever the course of events - Pac-man started himself on fire.  The entire right side of his down jacket, including his hand, went aflame.  Luckily, Pants on Fire jumped on top of him before any damage was done while Hollywood and I put out the rest of the fire.  Other than that little incident, the zero in the woods was one of the most relaxing days I've had on this trip, and I've had a lot of the next day when we only walked three miles and ended up at some lady's house playing cards most of the afternoon and then getting shuttled to a Mexican restaurant.  Connie (or CC) runs a hostel in the middle of nowhere and will take hikers into town (I'm honestly not sure which town or state I was in) to eat.  Hollywood, Pants and I ended up spending the night at her hostel and hiking out to meet the rest of the boys the next morning.  Daystar had hiked ahead during our zero to meet up with a friend in Boone.

Unfortunately we woke up to some pretty shitastic weather.  We had a little over 16 miles to Overmountain shelter, and during my climb over Roan Mountain (which is known for it's cold temps) it started to snow on me.  Then it started to sleet on me.  We were frozen and soaked by the time we got to the full shelter, and it only got worse.  Overmountain is an old barn that has been converted to a shelter, so the top level is completely enclosed, but the assholes that were already up there set up their tents INSIDE the shelter.  They double sheltered, which is just a rude thing to do because it leaves less room for other cold wet hikers, like us.  We ended up have to sleep on an exposed platform under the barn.  It wasn't warm.  We woke up to frozen solid boots that took 15 minutes to pound out, frozen water bladders/hoses and our sleeping bags were dusted with snow.  It was blizzarding outside and I was seriously dreading hiking the nine miles in my ice block boots to the road where Daystar was going to pick us up, but I didn't really have a choice.

What we didn't see coming was the four miles of exposed balds we had to walk over in the 40mph winds.  That four miles was probably the most exciting/terrifying on the trail.  It was impossible to walk straight as the wind bitch slapped us over and over again, and you couldn't see more than a few yards in front of you, I just followed the frozen footsteps of the hikers from the day before.  We got to the road and were immediately escorted to the Best Western in Banner Elk by Daystar and her awesome friend Monica for hot showers and a sandwich party.  The hike from Banner Elk to Damascus (where I currently am) was a tough one.  The weather was still being an asshole and we put in a lot of long days.  I hiked my longest day at 22.6 miles.  I am also officially done with TN, my least favorite state so far.  VA is going to be a lot easier than what I've hiked, so I am excited to get up to 30 mile days!  I never thought I would be able to hike that much so it feels great that I am getting to that point.  I'm going to be in Virgina for the next 550 miles or so.  I'll be coming back to Damascus on the weekend of the 18th for Trail Days, the annual hiker festival. The big park turns into 'Tent City' as thousands of current and previous thru-hikers gather here to drink, eat and be merry for one awesome weekend and I can't wait. Sadly, Hollywood, Flugelhorn and Pac-man got off the trail yesterday to go do some trail work in Arkansas for a week.  I hope they can hike fast to catch up with us when they get back on because we will miss them!! 

But for now I'm gonna go grab some lunch with Daystar, Gribley and Pants and hike out of here, 5 days to Atkins.  Tomorrow I will be hiking through Grayson Highlands State Park, where there is a herd of wild horses I plan on finding.  I've got carrots:)   Miss you all!  Kisses!


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

No Bourbon in Erwin

It's been a few days since leaving Hot Springs, NC - by far my favorite town thus far.  I am currently in Erwin, TN.  When I asked the guy running the hostel how he liked Erwin, the first thing out of his mouth was that it was the most horribly racist place, but great if you like outdoor adventure.  The town is resting on the Nolichucky River so there are lots of options for rafting and kayaking.  The population of Erwin is 5,500, and there are 66 baptist churches to choose from.......since Hot Springs was in a dry county we were unable to resupply our whisky bottles and the motto of the five day hike to Erwin was "No Bourbon till Erwin."  Imagine our disappointment when we came to learn Erwin is also in a dry county:(  You can't even get wine here.  They do however have a vast array of Bud Light, of course.

The first two days out of Hot Springs were pretty easy.  We experienced the best trail magic thus far on the hike at Allen Gap.  A sign directed us to walk 300 yards up the road to a house where we would be fed.  Even though we had just had breakfast, a thru-hiker never passes up a free meal.  We approached a wood cabin when an older man named Hercules came out to greet and hug us.  He and his wife thru-hiked in '99, loved the area, came back and bought a cabin near the trail.  Every spring they post a sign directing hikers to their house where they cook them Belgian waffles, stew, and brownie sundaes.  Since they bought the house, they have served over 3,000 hikers. 

Trail magic is one of the most awesome things about the trail.  The best magic comes from previous hikers.  Around our 100 mile mark, a former hiker who is also a park ranger rigged a pully system in the middle of the woods and hung a plastic bin of homemade cake along with a very encouraging note.  Every week this person is lugging out food for hikers she will never even meet.  I have experienced more random acts of kindness from complete strangers in the one month I have been out here than I have in my entire lifetime. 

It was a slow climb out of Allen Gap due to all the food I had just consumed with Hercules. We made it to Jerry Cabin Shelter and for the first time the shelter was empty.  The crowds are finally starting to thin out.  The seven of us plus Blues Clues (he's a hiker hoping to take his therapy background and combine it with wilderness therapy, nice guy) had the shelter to ourselves, but most of us still set up our tents.  We got going pretty early (9am, early for us) because we had plans to meet friends of Pac-Man and Flugelhorn (formerly Ranger Steve, he changes his name more than Puffy) at Devil's Fork Gap.  We got to the gap at around 1pm, but they didn't arrive until 4:30, so we ended up having one of the best lazy afternoons on the trail, chilling in a field by the side of a rarely driven road, playing cards and listening to music and eating all of our food.  Luckily, their friends rock and rolled up with 2 buckets of Bojangles (the best chicken in the south), another whole rotisserie chicken, a ton of fresh fruit and 6 bottles of wine.  Yes we lugged all this up a mountain and proceeded to have an awesome night camping with a great view.  Lighthouse (a young Scot with the brightest headlamp known to man that he always forgets to turn off), hiked by later and decided to stay and join the festivities.  Eliza, Reed, Dylan and Scot are a fantastic group of people and I am so happy to have met them.  (Check out their website to learn about this phenomenal non-profit they started this year, 

The problem with trail magic is full bellies make for slow hiking.  The next morning after saying goodbye we made it about three miles to a shelter where we set up shop for about two hours to relax, and eat again. We eventually made it another six and camped by a stream.  Yesterday Daystar and I decided to hike the 20 miles to get to Erwin last night, while the boys stayed in the shelter six miles out because they didn't want to hike in the rain. It's still raining. I am going to hang out at Uncles Johnny's hostel till 12:30, then get shuttled to the all you can eat Pizza Hut buffet, hit up the grocery store and hopefully hike out after everyone else gets here.  Lighthouse went to the all you can eat KFC buffet (yes, that exists in the south) last night and gorged himself to the point of no return.  As he laid on the bed next to me while his giant food baby digested he just looked at me in pain and said "How do fat people do this?  They must always be in pain."  Welcome to America buddy.

One thing I have been doing less and less of is planning out my days.  I used to look at the elevation profiles every morning and try to figure out where I would stay for the next few days, but plans always change.  I'm not even living day to day, I'm living moment to moment and it's awesome.  One minute I'll be hiking thinking about where I'm going to sleep that night, and the next I'll be in some old guys house being served a belgian waffle.  The elevation profiles I'm carrying have been helpful (it's nice to know what's coming), but it's becoming kind of redundant.  Every morning someone exclaims, 'Oh we have a fat climb today!' We have a fat climb everyday.  I'm never going to look at the profile and be like 'What's this?  I'm climbing a mountain today!? Did NOT see that coming."  Remember when we thought the earth was flat? Wasn't that a lovely concept.....  I think instead I will enjoy my morning poptart and instant coffee in peace, my legs blissfully ignorant of the elevation changes they are about to make. 

Speaking of legs, they are stiff.  My knees and ankles are really starting to get sore.  Mentally, I am not all tired of being a vagabond, sleeping somewhere different every night, hiking everyday is gorgeous and awesome.  If you were to ask my knees they would completely disagree. Stairs are my arch enemy, I can hear my knees screaming at me every time I go down stairs and my ankles yelling at me every time I go up them. I hope I am not doing any permanent damage to my body even though as I write this I know that I am.  This experience is worth it though.  As the thru-hiker mantra goes, "No pain, no rain, no Maine."

The next for sure town I will be in is Damascus, VA some 125ish miles away.  I might need to pop into Elk River to re-supply, but we'll see. To anyone hoping to get a phone call from me, I'm not getting cell service in Erwin so you will have to wait. Sorry. But I am planning on taking a few days off in Damascus so I can hopefully catch up with everyone then.  Lot's of love!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Smokies

Hey everyone!  Last time I checked in I was in Fontana Dam, NC gearing up for my hike through the Smokies.  The Smokies were by far the prettiest part of the hike thus far. Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the country, so it was a bit crowded.  Permits are required in order to stay in the park, and everyone is required to stay at the shelters to help minimize the impact on the environment.  Section hikers and weekend warriors are required to make reservations at the shelters, luckily thru-hikers are exempt from this.  I was a bit hesitant about the mandatory sheltering, as up until then we had mostly been stealth camping in the woods (my tent is much more comfortable than the shelters-check out the photo of the sleeping arrangements in the shelter and you will understand). 

Our first day in the Smokies was a slow start, mostly due to the last minute swim Hollywood and I decided to take in Fontana Lake, and then the subsequent sitting around the lake all day that followed.  Hollywood, Ranger Steve (formerly Kobe) and I didn't head into the park until 3:30.  Tired and dehydrated, we made it about 4 miles before we stopped at the first and only campsite in the park.  The next day we made it a little over 10 miles before it started hailing on us and we set up shop in Spence Field Shelter.  Camping on our own for so long and then being thrown in a tiny shelter with families and children was at first awkward (thru-hikers and children don't seem to mix), but after a never-ending game of Ninja (don't ask me to explain) and a push-up contest we quickly became friends:)

Our fourth day in the Smokies we climbed up Clingman's Dome, the highest peak on the AT (6643ft).  Unfortunately is was also insanely cloudy so we couldn't see anything.  It was also full of tourists.  This was another weird interaction as the clean, fat tourists who drove to the top of Clingmans (well to the parking lot 1/2 mile below, at least they make them walk a bit) gawked at us dirty thru-hikers like we were a zoo exhibit.  While 6 of us were sitting at the base of the observation tower, a women walked by, took one look at us and yelled back to her husband "Give these hikers some jerky!" Afterwards we were invited down to his truck in the parking lot for some Bud Lights.  As I was skipping down the hill I realized I was about to walk a mile out of my way for a can of Bud Light.  I don't even like Bud Light. Not only was I walking a mile for a Bud Light, I was REALLY excited about the Bud Light. It's amazing the things that get you excited when you've been exisiting off of hiker food and water for so long.

The Smokies is also where our hunger really started to set in.  Everyone is always hungry all the time.  The hunger took over when we were in the parking lot drinking our beers when a guy offered to hitch us into Gatlinberg in the back of his truck.  We spent 30min in a truck bed in the rain and were transported to the tackiest town I have ever visited.  Hollywood, Ranger Steve and I accidently spent 2 nights in the home of Dollywood USA.  The second night was so that we (meaning I) could recover from the first night.  The only good thing about Gatlinberg is that Ryan (re-named Pac-Man) re-joined us after being off the trail for 10 or so days resting his knee.  Some trail angels shuttled us back to the top of Clingmans so we could continue our trek through the Smokies, which was gorgeous and beautiful the entire way:)

The four of us started hiking with another small group, Daystar, Gribly and Pants on Fire and we are currently in Hot Springs, NC after a few below freezing nights on the trail.  We pulled almost 20 miles to get to town last night to avoid sleeping in the cold again.  And also we were hungry, of course.  This is my favorite town so far, the trail actually walks right through it, down it's main street.  Daystar and I are staying in an old Victorian mansion that has been converted to a B&B while the boys do work-for-stay at another hostel. I feel rested, clean, healthy and excited to start getting into bigger mile days.  My back is pretty tore up from my pack but other than that I'm still in pretty solid shape.  I have accepted that I will be permantely sore the entire trip. 

I'm also ready to start doing bigger mile days to get farther north.......I have finally hit that Bill Bryson wall where I no longer wish to be in the south.  I will preface this by saying that everyone I have met has been extremely sweet and nice, and you really can't beat how gorgeous it is here. But, the bars don't sell liquor, there are bibles EVERYWHERE (just today I found one in the bathroom at the diner, and in the doctors office.  Not the waiting room, the office) and I have been craving sushi like crazy and I'm not sure they know what that is.  But unlike Bryson, I will not skip ahead, I will simply smile and walk away the next time a complete stranger whose employer I am certain does not offer dental walks up to me to inquire if i'm a Baptist.  The trail has been flirting with the NC/TN border for awhile, but we are about the head into Tennessee, and then it's off to Virginia!

I've got 273.9 miles down, 1910.3 to go!

PS. I added a couple of other hikers websites as well. Be sure to check out Ryan's (Pac-Man) site, instead of journaling he is drawing a cartoon of his hike as he goes and it's awesome:) He also made all of his own equipment.  I can't even sew the hole I tore in my sleeping bag during a minor freak out when I thought it was trying to strangle me.

PPS.  If you were wondering, my trail name is Tater Tot. This is what happens when one explains tater tot hot dish to a bunch of southerners.  People were also calling me Deep Fry for awhile after a State Fair discussion, but Tater Tot won the vote.        

Monday, April 2, 2012

I'm alive!

Hey everyone!  Sorry it's been awhile, I've been enjoying being a bit off the grid for awhile, plus I was having a great time meeting all the other hikers on the trail and getting used to shitting in the woods.  I promise I will try harder from now on:)  So far this journey has been totally amazing.  After waking up on the 15th at the Hiker Hostel in Dahlonega, GA, my dad and I were shuttled along with 6 other hikers to Amicalola Falls State Park, the base of the approach trail.  I got to start my 2,184 mile wilderness walk with 604 metal stairs, but it was gorgeous walking alongside the falls, so I'm glad I did.  My dad, "Steamer"  (formerly George, stayed at the hostel with us, and has been hiking with my dad since) and I made it to the top of Springer together, the official start of the AT.  We wanted to stay up there and celebrate the start of our adventure a bit longer but battling the entire gnat population of planet earth forced us to move on.  We camped on Springer mountain the first night, where I experieced my first lightning storm in a tent on top of a mountain, so I guess I can go ahead and check that off the bucket list. After that first night, the number one spot on the list of shit I'm afraid of out here was officially awarded to lightning.  The wind was circling the summit and sounded like sharks circling their prey.  Even though the first night was a bit terrifying, the 25+ hikers camped at the top awoke excited to start the hike, as did I:)

The trail is more crowded than I ever imagined.  It is starting to thin out a bit as people spread out or drop out (at least 2 from the group I got shuttled with have already gotten off the trail due to injury. One guy in the group of six I've been hiking with since the start had to take a break as well, but he's jumping back on the horse soon:).  I love the vartiety of people that are attracted to the trail, one of the first guys I met was a dude hiking with skinny jeans and a machete.  I also saw a guy with a HARD cooler strapped to his pack.......don't know where they are now..... but I am currently in Fontana Dam, NC, some 164.7 miles from the start.  I've been hiking with an awesome group of guys who have become my 'trail family' for the time being.  Met them on the first day at Springer and have been hiking with them since, though we have lost a few along the way. We were a group of 6 that has now been reduced to 3, one (Chill Cruise) got off the trail due to injury (but hopefully coming back this week:), and 2 others, Rayo and Capslock (he is the loudest individual I have ever met) have moved ahead of the rest of us. This morning Pete (aka "Hollywood" - if you met him you would understand why), Stephen (trail name TBD - though we like calling him Kobe) and I are set to head into the Smokies. Hollywood has hiked this entire section and knows what's coming.  It's gonna be pretty streneous but gorgeous so I'm excited. This is also bear territory so I better see one (haven't yet).  I just hope the weather lady is lying when she says it's gonna rain for the next 6 days.......

Overall my body and gear are holding up great. I'm sore everywhere a lot of the time, my ankle and knee are a bit stiff (mostly do to a fall I took while night hiking a few days ago).  We all have little welts on our hips from our packs and numerous discolorations/bruises/rashes/bites that I have no other explantion for other than that is what one acquires when living in the woods. My right arm is a different race than the rest of my body since it is constantly in the sun while hiking.  My shoulders have finally accepted the weight of my pack and no longer scream at me when I put it on.  By far the hardest physical limitation is getting enough calories.  I feel like I'm always hungry.  I devoured mulitple pounds of chinese food at our first town stop.  My gear has held up great in a few storms, including setting up camp in the rain.  I feel as ready as I can be for the next 2,019.5 miles:)  I think one of the best things about the trail so far is the amazing support and help you get from complete strangers out here. I love that I get to be on top of a mountain everyday and am ok with the fact that I have to climb it to get there.  Life is simple out here and I am loving every second of it.

I promise I will get better at blogging and posting pictures - I have surprisingly NO personal space or privacy (except when I am hiking) on this trip.  It's hard to find time to journal when you're sharing a small campsite/hotel with 5 guys.  But I'll update more soon I promise - I've also uploaded all my pics thus far to flickr.  If anyone wants to hear about anything particular - more about the AT, how we set up camp, people etc...let me know, I'll post about anything:)  Otherwise I'll see ya in the Smokies kids.