Happy Labor Day

I am celebrating Labor Day in Monson, Maine, with a couple scoops of Maine Black Bear ice cream and some local beer by a pristine Maine pond watching the sun set. I guess this holiday is not meant for me though. It is meant for people with jobs who are supporting the economy and keeping the country running while I'm out walking around in the woods and swimming in waterfalls. Fair enough. So I'll just say I'm celebrating the fact that it is Monson Monday, a holiday I just made up, and I can do that because when you don't have a job you can celebrate any day you want for any reason you can think of.  Happy Labor Day to you productive members of society, and happy Monson Monday to you hickers and other forms of degenerates. 

That's a nice round number.  

That's a nice round number.  

Maine has been the most beautiful state that I have ever been in. The weather has been perfect, the ponds have been abundant, the mountains have been beautiful, the sunrises have been huge. I had heard from many former through hikers that Maine was their favorite state. I completely understand now. The entire state feels wild, natural, and simple. Barely touched by people and unchanged since the glaciers receded after the ice age and created thousands of huge, cold, and crystal clear "ponds" that are way bigger than any pond I have ever seen. 

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The only thing missing so far is a moose. I still have hope because there is moose poop everywhere. You know the old saying, "Where there is moose poop, there are meece." I've been waking up early to try and catch one eating some breakfast at a pond, but no luck yet. Soon though.  

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Tomorrow I head into the 100 Mile Wilderness. The most isolated stretch throughout the entire 2,200 mile trail. It is supposed to be the culmination of all the best and worst parts of the whole trail: mountains, boulders, mud, views, ponds, rocks, roots, rain, isolation, swamps, wildlife, berries, sunshine, and friends. It's what I've been preparing for the last 5 months. I think I'm ready. 

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In one week I plan on being on top of Katahdin posing in an epic way with that famous sign. I have no idea how I will feel. Right now I am very excited to get into The Wilderness and see the mountain that I have been chasing for so long. 

Happy Labor Day or Monson Monday depending on where you are in life right now! 

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Maine is friendly. A little game of cribbage with your friend to pass the time while doing your business? 

Maine is friendly. A little game of cribbage with your friend to pass the time while doing your business? 

New Hampshire

New Hampshire has crossed my mind about a total of twice in my lifetime.  Now I am leaving the state tomorrow, and it's bittersweet. I had no idea how mountainous and beautiful this state is. 

I have seen an Ivy League school, vertical rock climbs that last for miles, picturesque sunsets upon mountains, the most amazing stars peaking through mountain fog in the middle of the night, sunrises through dense clouds with 50 mph morning wind, long waterfalls, ice cold swimming holes, treacherous downhill climbs, presidential mountains, and warnings of death due to the worst weather in America. 

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New Hampshire is now home to the most difficult hiking I have ever known. I have fallen on my ass and my head more in the last 8 days than I have in the previous 133. The amount of miles I have been physically able to do has been cut by a third. It is humbling.

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It is also so rewarding. The environment is so cool. The mountains are so grand and bare due to the elevation that you can see for miles. It's like looking into the past. As you look behind you, you see the mountains you have previously conquered in the past 2 or 3 days. It looks like they are RIGHT THERE! Yet it's three full days of hiking ago. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment. 

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So it is with a great sense of sadness and relief that I am heading into Maine. New Hampshire has definitely moved up my list of favorite states. Now I'm ready to see what the last and arguably most beautiful state of the Appalachian Trail has to offer. Let the good times keep on rollin'. 

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The Real World

It's so easy to forget that there is still a world outside the rhododendron tunnels that I walk through every day. Beyond the mountains and over the sunset, the rest of the world is still continuing on as if the AT is just a trail in the woods through the mountains that people can hike. And they are right. 

It's nice to be in the mountains and not hear about pointless crimes taking place all over the country. I can hide out in nature and see all the beauty of the world. The majesty of mountains at sunset, the smells of a forest just after a thunderstorm, and the truly wonderful people you encounter. It makes me feel invincible. Like the world is all good and nothing bad can reach me out on the trail. But even in a place as happy and beautiful as the Appalachian Trail, sad news can still reach you.  

It can make it even worse when you realize you are so far away and in the middle of nowhere. You can feel very helpless and selfish for being out on such an adventure when others are hurting. 

The only thing I know to do is to continue hiking. To realize I am extremely lucky. To not take any sunrise or sunset for granted. To be kind to friends. To be grateful to every generous stranger that I come across. And to enjoy life to the fullest for all those who can not. 

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The March

10 days, 226 miles, 3 states, 1 case of Lyme disease, 1 case of Giardia, 1 bee sting to the eye. The last 10 days have been a grind. It has been the toughest stretch I have endured on the trail so far. I have hiked from Port Clinton, Pa, to Pawling, NY in the last 10 days. 

Highest point in New York

Highest point in New York

One of the best things about being on the trail is the freedom from schedules and obligations. Unfortunately, I was on a tight schedule to get to Pawling to take a train into New York City today to see a good friend before he sets off on his own adventure. I had plenty of time, but the procrastinator in me and the relaxed hiker mentality tricked me into hanging out with friends, eating pizza, and having beers for too long. It was totally worth it, but before I knew it I had to go 23 miles per day for 10 days to get to NYC. It seemed difficult when I did the math, it was nearly impossible when I was actually walking it. It started with a slightly hung over walk up a mountain out of Port Clinton and ended with police woman pulling us over while sitting in the back of a truck with one hiker clutching his swollen eye. And a lot of walking in between.  

Those 226 miles were actually really beautiful. We had the rocks of Pennsylvania, the climb out of the Lehigh River, a superfund site where zinc mining had contaminated an entire town, boardwalks of New Jersey, swamps, the Hudson River, Bear Mountain, beaches, lakes, farms, and berries. Oh, the berries. So many berries. 

Blueberries

Blueberries

Wine raspberries

Wine raspberries

There were definitely casualties too. On day 4, Icarus was feeling especially exhausted. We assumed it was the fact that we hiked 30 miles the day before. While waiting for him at a tower I got a text saying he wasn't going to make it. He went into a nearby town and found out he had Lyme disease. He was going to take medicine and rest for the best week and meet us in NYC. So then there was one. 

Luckily for me, Boris had Giardi! Which meant that he had been sitting at a hostel for multiple days trying to do as little moving and eating as possible. I caught him going into New Jersey when he was feeling better and we hiked the rest of the way to NY together.  

When we finally reached the road to take us into the town of Pawling, we tried to hitch hike the3 miles into town even though we knew it is illegal in New York. We weren't very successful. I guess the drivers knew it was illegal too. After a minute a small pickup truck pulls over and one guy leans out of the window with what I thought was an eyepatch. That was a good sign. Usually anyone with an eye patch is willing to pick up a couple hitch hikers. As I looked closer I realized the pirate was Detox. He had been stung in the eye by something and flagged down a truck to get into town. He saw us on the side of the road with his good eye and asked the nice gentleman to pick us up too. Extremely lucky for us, not so much for Detox. As we made our way into town we immediately got pulled over by a cop. They take hitch hiking seriously here I guess. Once again the swollen eye came in handy and we got off free. Thanks for taking one for the team Detox. 

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These 10 days have really worn down my body. My legs are tired. I physically can't walk faster than 2 mph. That's not very fast for those of you who don't measure your walking speed on a daily basis. This meant that in order for me to do 23 miles in a day I had to wake up as soon as the sun rose and start walking. Is finish as the sun was setting and the mosquitos were coming out in full force. That's at least a 13 hour work day.

This is the trail? 

This is the trail? 

I made it though with just the usual aches and pains and swollen, blistered feet. I feel lucky since there was so much injury and illness around me. It was challenging and I'm happy it's over. Now I get two days to rest in New York City. And by rest I mean walk miles and miles around the city in the heat trying all the food. 

Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson River

Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson River

The Big Cities

I'm on a train leaving Philadelphia right now. Heading back to the trail after my longest break from hiking in almost three months. It's been a full week since I've been home in the mountains. I've been on vacation in Philly and Vegas for a wedding and 4th of July and World Cup soccer. It's been tons of fun; I've met great people, had amazing food, and taken like 10 showers. 

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Before leaving the trail I was wondering how I would feel being away for so long. I thought the bright lights of the big cities would be fun to see. It turned out to be a good distraction and a sensory overload, but in the end I did miss the dim light of a campfire slowly burning out just outside my tent as I lay down for the night or the seemingly impossibly bright light from a full moon on a clear night spotlighting my tent all night. It's almost like trying to sleep with your bedroom light on.  

I missed the views, the relief of climbing the last uphill of the day, the disappointment of realizing that there was still another uphill after that, the comfort of knowing or at least recognizing every person that you see the whole day, the kindness of strangers, and the weight of my pack. I have serious pack separation anxiety. 

There are great things about being in town that I had forgotten about though. People watching is a sport that I had thoroughly enjoy. It's much easier when you see more than 20 people in a day. Vegas is one of the best places to people watch out there, so I had a great time sitting at a pool with a $7 beer and watching the chaos of bachelor parties ensue. The Canadien ones are the best.  

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Walking around with the ability to take different routes is a convenience that I have not had in a long time and didn't even think about before arriving in Philadelphia. On the trail there are not a lot of options as far as paths to take to Maine. You have to follow the white blazes or be lost are your two options. Walking around a big city with people speed walking in every possible direction at the same time was fun and seemed kind of dangerous. But I had a great time randomly strolling through the streets of Philly running into historical landmarks and delicious food stands.   

Elfreth' Alley - the oldest continually residential street in America

Elfreth' Alley - the oldest continually residential street in America

I had a wonderful time with family and friends but after almost a full week off, several cheesesteaks and pizzas and beers later, I'm ready to get back on the trail.

Rocky statue in front of the art museum in Philadelphia

Rocky statue in front of the art museum in Philadelphia

Bad habits?

On the trail we develop habits. Some may call them bad habits, buts that's only when they are in the context of society. On the trail they are more like necessary survival skills. Obviously you have to eat that Jolly Rancher even though it fell in the mud or you will most likely starve to death before you can get to the next all you can eat Chinese buffet. In the real world that might be frowned upon. In the mountains, Jolly Ranchers are valued just below toilet paper and just above tortillas. So a little mud isn't going to stop anyone from enjoying the treasure that is a Jolly Rancher. 

I've talked with fellow hikers many times about what life after the trail will be like. Nobody really knows. I hope I will be able to take some of the things I have learned out here and apply it to my life every single day. No matter where or when I might be. I have learned so many things about myself and others. About nature, endurance, kindness, generosity, flexibility, resourcefulness, perseverance, and attitude. I want to take the best of all these things and carry them with me wherever I go just like my heavy, smelly pack. 

Talk about perseverance, the half gallon challenge was TOUGH. Completed in 1 hr 20 mins.  

Talk about perseverance, the half gallon challenge was TOUGH. Completed in 1 hr 20 mins.  

 I was talking to Not Swedish about how quickly we adapted to life out on the trail. It wasn't long after leaving Springer before we were setting up camp, cooking with a cat food stove, and hiking up and down mountains with relative ease. We are very comfortable in a tiny tent and if we can find some flat ground we are living life in luxury. I've realized that it takes very little to make me happy right now and because of that I am ecstatic so much more often than I ever used to be. It's really incredible. 

Adapting so quickly and easily to this new lifestyle is both amazing and troubling. On one hand, I am very glad I was able to adapt quickly because it was necessary. I had no other options once I started walking north from Springer. Maybe that is why it was easy. On the other hand, maybe people are always quick to adapt to their surroundings. Whatever the surroundings may be. In that case, if I'm not careful, returning to a life full of unnecessary and wasteful conveniences will lead me to forget how I was living out here and return to my pre-trail self. I have to make a deliberate and concious effort to not adapt back to a life that is unappreciative of the little things that fill me up with so much joy out here in the mountains.   

Katman and Weeble Wobble crossing a river.  

Katman and Weeble Wobble crossing a river.  

I'm going to work on that very hard when I come back from the mountains, but I'm sure I will bring back some of my "bad" habits too. So if you see me eating things off the floor, putting trash in my pocket, or putting anything and everything into a tortilla to make a kind of weird burrito, feel free to laugh or make fun of me. You might see me walking everywhere I go, going outside to pee, or forgetting to flush the toilet because I'm not used to indoor plumbing. Please politely remind me I am back in society. If you see me carrying around my own toilet paper and hand sanitizer everywhere, wearing the same clothes everyday even though my shorts might be slightly inappropriately short, refusing to shave, shower, or wear deodorant, just pretend you don't know me when we are in public together. My ability to be embarrassed has greatly diminished, so you may hear me singing loudly at the supermarket, trying to talk to everyone I walk by, or practicing my whistling everywhere I go. Just have some ear plugs handy. 

I've developed so many more "bad" habits from sharing food, drinks, and utensils, to asking for second opinions on how bad my clothes smell to see if I really need to do laundry. I mean a rain storm is kind of like laundry and a shower right?  And for free! 

Re-entering society will be a challenge, but so was leaving it. 

Not acceptable in the real world Selfy.  

Not acceptable in the real world Selfy.  

The Food

I just ate an entire bag of family size jalepeño kettle chips for lunch, and my only regret is that I wish I had gotten two bags. I'm not going to lie; one of the things that convinced me to hike the trail was the ability to eat as much of anything as I could eat at any time. This has proven to be true, and it makes me so happy. 

Hikers spend A LOT of time talking about food. I mean at least 50% of the words spoken are about food you crave, food you miss, new trail recipes you have made up, the worst trail food you've had, how sick you are of certain food, where you plan to eat while in towns, what you would have for your last meal if you could choose, or what animal you would choose if it was the only animal you could eat for the rest of your life. The debate continues on that last one. 

So food is a huge part of thru hiker life. Some people are very creative; some people eat mac and cheese every day. Some people carry just enough to survive to save on weight; some people might as well be carrying whole watermelons in their pack. No matter the style though, it is all gone by the time you reach the next town.  

Hikers can eat more than normal human beings. Retaurants in trail towns are very aware of this fact too. At all you can eat buffets, they always reserve a section of the restaurant specifically for hikers. Usually close to the buffet, but always away from normal people to keep them from being trampled in the hiker stampede to the food like Mufasa. Too soon? Sorry. And the nice waitresses always bring two glasses of coke because they know you will drink the first one in less than two minutes. I've known hikers that have stayed at a buffet long enough for the table of civilians nearby to be cycled through new people more than once. 

My favorite meal I have had so far was one morning at Kincora hostel. I was on my way to the restroom when I was distracted by Heidi eating a half gallon of Neapolitan Ice Cream at 7am. To my delight she apparently does not like chocolate ice cream though, so there was a perfect 1/3 portion of the ice cream bucket left. As the kind gentleman I am, I helped her out and ate all the chocolate ice cream for her. Next up was the cinnamon rolls we had bought the night before. I had a couple of those around 7:30am. And then, just before we left another hiker passed around an entire pizza that he had just cooked and needed to finish before getting back on the trail. So I had a third of a gallon of chocolate ice cream, a couple cinnamon rolls, and some pepperoni pizza all before 8am. That was a good day. 

I don't get to eat so amazing every day though. There are many days that consist solely of pop tarts, crackers, cheese, peanut butter sandwiches, tuna and ramen. But even on those days, I am so content because I am eating my plain peanut butter sandwich on top of a mountain, or next to a perfect stream, or sitting on a bridge with my feet dangling off, and this makes the food taste so much sweeter. 

I think I'll go find something to snack on now. That entire bag of chips was not enough.   

Avocado, cheese, and goldfish crackers sandwich  

Avocado, cheese, and goldfish crackers sandwich  

Two months and a few days in

Over 800 miles. 65 nights. That's how long I've been out here. We celebrated our two month anniversary a couple days ago, and I feel like we did a good job with it. It involved calzones, hotel beds, and an entire ice cream cake which we did not bother cutting into slices. 

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It takes about this long to finally feel like you know how to be homeless and live in the woods. It takes about this long to lose all sense of social norms. It takes about this long to have an idea of wether you can make it to Katahdin or not. Thanks to the people I have met and the things I have learned, I like my chances.

Here are a few things I have noticed or realized in the past month of hiking.  

The woods make weird sounds at night, and owls sound like monkeys. 

North Carolina had an absurd amount of crickets. As soon as we crossed the state line, the crickets disappeared. I can't explain that one.  

There are parts of my legs where the hair is gone. I couldn't figure it out for the longest time and then I realized it was from sitting indian style so much. I guess I haven't sat like that very much since kindergarten.  

Speaking of legs... My legs are huge. I brought some long johns with me. At the beginning of the trip they were a little loose. Now I have to stretch and pull to get them over my calf and thigh muscles. They are skin tight. I mean I didn't know calves were even supposed to look like this....

https://instagram.com/p/3wJxsZwLaW/.  

My beard is getting super long. I now make a point of shampooing it. And if I find conditioner.... Wow, it feels great.  

There have been more animal sighting lately. So far I have seen 3 bears (5 if you count while driving in a car around Gatlinburg), 50 deer (including 2 little baby Bambi's with spots and all), 1 turtle, 2 bunnies, 5 snakes (no rattlers), and 1,628,283,378 flying, biting insects.  

My sense of smell has improved dramatically. Maybe it's just more in tune with my surroundings, but I can smell the faintest fragrances in the air. I can smell fires from half a mile away. I can smell food from any distance. I can smell day hikers before they turn the corner in the trail. And I can smell the most amazing smelling flowers when walking through the woods.  

Not having anything to do all day but hike may sound like you have a ton of free time, but I have found that I have almost no free time at all. There are so many things to do when you get to camp or towns. Going to bed at 9:00 doesn't help with the free time either, but I'm exhausted by the time it's dark. One thing you do have time for is thinking. You have almost unlimited time for thinking. It's basically the only thing you can do while simultaneously hiking. I enjoy it tremendously. Although I need a break from myself every once in a while.  

Having really close friends on the trail is amazing. It's weird though to not know their names. Everyone goes by trail names so it's funny to have people that you consider family around you everyday and not actually know their name. It works though. I love the people I have met out here.  

2 months down and hopefully a few more to go. Headed into Shenandoah National Park now.  

 

 

Not all mountain views and honey buns

Warning: Pretty gross photos of feet to follow. 

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I'm laying in a hotel bed of a Howard Johnson in Daleville, Virginia. I know that HoJo hotels aren't known for having the most comfortable beds in the world, but this must be a special Howard Johnson because I cannot motivate myself to get out of this pile of blankets and pillows. Even if it is for a slice of pizza that is just 10 feet away on the table.  

I am taking a zero today, and it's only half because I want to. The other half is because it is totally necessary. Walking up and down mountains for 730 miles takes its toll on your body. There isn't a hiker out here who isn't ailing in some sort of way. Knees are hurt, ankles are sore, hips are bruised. For me, it's the feet. They are swollen, blistered, and rashed. Rest is necessary. 

I can't complain though. At least I'm still out here. Our friend Sparrow broke her hip and was carried out of the woods on a makeshift stretcher made out of a sleeping bag and tree branches. She had surgery the next day, and I wish her all the best.

Injury is such a sad reason to have to get off the trail, but it happens. I'm going to do my best to make sure I avoid that as much as possible. So I will lay here the rest of the day and watch Dumb and Dumber. Not a bad day.

 

Ouch

Ouch

Foot surgery

Foot surgery

Virginia is for Hikers

I have only been in Virginia for a grand total of 43 miles, but I have had more awesome times, met more amazing people, and have had more pure luck in the last week than I have had along the entire trail so far. Georgia, Tennessee, and especially North Carolina can take a hike; Virginia is the best!

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When we were back in soggy NC, Icarus and I told each other tales of how amazing Virginia was going to be. In Virginia the weather was always going to be sunny, the mountains were more like hills, and there was trail magic  at every gap and summit. Mostly we were just trying to trick ourselves into leaving the shelter and heading out into the rain. Our made up, exaggerated stories turned out to be more true than we could have imagined. 

It started in Shady Valley, which is actually Tennessee, but it was a pre-Trail Days celebration so I'm counting it for Virginia. We came over the hill in a perfect, green, sunny field to find Riff Raff doing the best trail magic we have ever seen. We were greeted with a yell and cheer of "Hikers!" and fellow hikers immediately met us with chicken sandwiches hot off the grill and ice cold beer. Our plans of a big 20 mile day were immediately derailed as we hung out for 9 hours eating hot dogs and burgers and drinking beer while playing Polish Horshoes (my new favorite outdoor drinking game). The beginning of a sweet week.  

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Next up was actually getting into Virginia and into Trail Days. I wrote a little about Trail Days in the previous post so I'll just say that the festival was a perfect combination rest, hammocks, beer, free stuff, food, whiskey, old friends, new friends, sun, parades, water guns, fire, and general shenanigans. Thanks for the good times Damascus!

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After leaving Damascus, which was not easy by the way, we were greeted with easy trails, nice riverside camps, great views, and constant trail magic.  

A couple of nights later Icarus,Hulk, and I were about to stop for camp. Icarus and I went ahead to find a spot while Hulk stayed to filter water. A few minutes later Hulk walked up to camp carrying plastic bags filled with groceries. We were a little confused until we saw the Riff Raff guys coming up behind her with even more good stuff. Double trail magic from Riff Raff! Hot dogs, potatoes, marshmallows, and soda. We had an amazing time hanging out with Superman, Soul Flute, Delicate Magma, Hairy, Hollywood, and Orpheus. 

Next on the tour of the wonderful state of Virginia was the Grayson Highlands. I can't explain or capture in pictures how amazing it is to hike in such a beautiful place. The weather was perfect, the terrain was super cool, and the ponies... the ponies!! 

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The last few days have been more easy trails and trail magic. Virginia is all I could have dreamed it to be. Although I still have 437 more miles to go in this state. 

We hit 500 miles in the Grayson Highlands too! About a quarter way through the trail. I don't know what I thought it would be like to walk 500 miles, but it took that long to feel like I have accomplished something. It also took that long to feel like I know what I'm doing out here. I've gone through lots of ups and downs, both figuratively and literally, and it's been a hell of a ride. 

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Trail Days

Feels like I'm finally getting somewhere. Virginia is not just a short walk around the corner, let me tell you. The reward for walking 470 miles: Trail Days.  

Trail Days is a festival held in Damascus, Virginia, every year around this time. It at least quintuples the popuation of the town. It's not often you get to be part of a festival in your honor. There was free food, showers, gear giveaways, hiker parades, talent shows, music, a prom, and all around good times. 

Damascus is known as the friendliest hiker town, and it did not disappoint. So many happy faces and good people. It was great to see hikers that I had not seen in weeks who all made it to Damascus for the festival. 

Now we all head back to the trail where we came from, but not before we had a time at Trail Days. So many cool things this weekend. Tent City, fire dancing, drum circles, and giant fires. 

Favorite part of the festival: all the shaved ice that I had. I did not exactly budget for spending $20 on shaved ice, but it was totally worth it. 

It's getting about that time to head back out. Here are a few pictures, and I'll update again soon. 

Hiker parade

Hiker parade

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Gene Espy - the 2nd person to thru hike the AT

Gene Espy - the 2nd person to thru hike the AT

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Dog hikers welcome too

Dog hikers welcome too

One month in: thoughts and observations

April has just flown by, but has taken forever to do it. We've been out here for 29 days now. A lot of days run together. I mean it is walking in the woods everyday. It can be a little monotonous. But I have so many great memories and stories through just the first 350 miles. I know the next 1850 will be even better. 

Walking through the woods everyday gives you more time to think, reflect, and observe than you know what to do with. Here are just a few things that I have noticed in my new mountain life.  

The sound of cars makes me hungry.  

For living in the woods, I haven't pooped in the forest nearly as much as I thought I would. There are lots of privies, hostels, random establishments along the trail. Kind of disappointing.  

Through the Smokies, the Appalachian Trail is literally the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. It is pretty cool . Depending on how I'm feeling at the moment, I can either step off to the left and pee in Tennessee or turn right and go in North Carolina. If I'm really aggressive I can try to pee from one state to another.  

After the Smokies the trail wanders in and out of the two states. It is weird to not know what state you are in for days on end. I mean waking up in another state after a long night is one thing. After a short hazy moment, you can figure out what state you are in at least. Not the case out here.  

Fall is not the only colorful time of year. Spring in the mountains is really beautiful. The leaves paint the mountains all kinds of colors ranging from light green to red to white to yellow to orange to forest green. 

Sound travels far in the mountains. A good thunderstorm is amazing to listen to while dry in your tent.  

Communication is done old school. You can't text, snap, Instagram, Facebook, or call anyone while you are in the mountains. The best communication is done through handwritten notes in shelter logs.  

Staying connected with the world is impossible. Every time I get into a town and check Facebook or the news I have no idea what anyone is talking about. I'm sure I've missed at least two socials fads already. I'm okay with that.  

My underpants radius has increased dramatically. In Franklin, NC, I did all my shopping at a dollar general wearing only long john bottoms, a half zipped fleece, and sandals. 

Eating M&M's in the rain turns your hands all kinds of cool colors. 

I know. Really deep stuff in the first 350 miles. There will be plenty more where that came from. Don't worry.  

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The Simple Life

I'm on a computer right now, and it is super weird. We spent the night in Hot Springs, North Carolina, last night. It's a really cool place. The Appalachian Trail goes down Main Street. There are hikers everywhere you go in town, so needless to say, the whole place smells kinda funky. The locals don't seem to mind though.

Leaving a town is always difficult. When you leave a town your pack is always heavier and it's always uphill. There is hot food made by someone else, showers, bathrooms, beds, beer. All things that I greatly appreciate now more than ever. Maybe that's why I'm procrastinating by writing this blog instead of heading up the mountain 10 miles to my home for the night, beerless.

Once you get over the initial pain of leaving town and accept the fact that you will be without a shower for the next week, a good feeling comes over you. It's like returning home after a weekend getaway. It was a nice little vacation away, but it is nice to come back home.

It is a much more simple life on the trail. A life where your job everyday is to get to the next campsite. A life full of chores; filtering water, cooking dinner, cleaning your cook pot, setting up and taking down your tent, and constantly packing and unpacking everything you have in your pack. It is a life where the bartering system is very much alive and well and spam packets are more precious than cash. A life where you have to come up with your own form of entertainment. The Guess The Names of Family Members game has been a big hit. A life where saying, "It's a long story" is not an excuse. We have nothing but time.

Speaking of time, I suppose I should be on my way. Back to the simple life. Maybe a beer for the road first though.

The Race

I woke up yesterday for about the eighth time that night, which is normal, and could feel through the tiny hole in my sleeping bag left for my nose to breathe that it was the coldest morning on the trail yet. Even cuddling with 15 of my closest new friends in a three sided shelter on top of a mountain in the Smokies couldn't prevent the cold from creeping in. I convinced myself that the roar I heard outside was the roar of the nice, warm sun trying to fight through the night, not the frigid wind beating the sides of the stone shelter. We were on a mission this morning.

It was about 4:45am when we got up the courage to get out of the safety of our sleeping bags, and that's when the race was on. The previous night we camped about three miles south of Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. We wanted to celebrate the occasion by hiking to the top of the mountain to watch the sunrise. 

Once out of the sleeping bag I checked the sky to see what kind of view we would be working with this morning. Best night sky I have seen in a long time. In just a few minutes I had seen four shooting stars. It was a clear, crisp morning. I knew it was time to go.  

With frozen hands I packed up all my belongings as fast as possible, scarfed down a frozen snack bar, put on wet boots and started up a mountain in the dark. Once Selfy found the right trail, we were off. 

The thing about racing the sun to the top of a mountain is that the sun never stops to take a break, drink water, or gets lost down the wrong trail. We guessed it would take a little over an hour to reach the summit. Apparently hiking in the morning in freezing weather with ice and mud and complete darkness slows you down a little bit. 

The sky slowly went from black, spotted with countless stars, to a magnificent shade of purple, to dark blue, red, blood orange, and every color in between. It was beautiful. But as it got brighter, I knew time was running out. I had to get to the top before the sun.

After what seemed like way too long of an uphill, I passed a sign that told me it was 0.3 miles to Clingman's Dome. In that last 0.3 miles, there was much more sprinting than hiking going on as the sky continued to get brighter and brighter. All I could think about while running up the mountain was that I was not going to let Mother Nature win again, not after she had been kicking our ass with wind and rain for the last week. It was my turn for a win. 

I got to the summit, threw my pack down without slowing down, continued sprinting up the ramp of the tower atop Clingman's Dome as other hikers who were already there cheered me on, and got there just in time to see the most amazing sunrise I have ever seen. I won. Mother Nature: like 16, Me: 1. But a really good one. 

The pictures don't do it any justice, but photo creds go to Icarus as my phone was dead. 

 

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Damn you Neil Diamond

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I blame Mr. Diamond for making me believe North Carolina was going to be so sweet.  

The feeling of crossing a state line by foot is pretty cool though. It was awesome to see such a tiny little sign posted inconspicuously on a random tree in the middle of the woods letting us know we walked from one state to another.  

The high was short lived as NC welcomed us with rain, fog, and steep climbs. So far in NC it has rained every day. 5 days in a row. And a big storm coming tomorrow too. It's really not too bad though. You just learn to live with the elements. Can't do anything about it so you embrace and enjoy it the best you can. 

I have only seen 3 views so far of NC. Granted they have been pretty grand.  

Even with the rain and fog, it's still great to be out here. Wouldn't change it for the world. But some sun would be nice.  

Hopefully Ol Caroline will be a little sweeter to us soon.  

 

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A Perfect Start

As soon as we stepped out of the truck at Amicalola Falls State Park, the rain started. The rain couldn't stop us though. It was finally go time.  

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The first week on the trail has been everything we expected and everything we could never have imagined.  

We knew weather would inevitably be a factor, and it was. Quickly. We knew the trail would be difficult, and it is. Continuously. We knew that the scenery would be breathtaking, the people would be friendly, the woods would be soothing. All of those things have proven to be true. 

There are other things that at I didn't expect or even think about before hitting the trail. I didn't realize how quickly I would become super efficient at setting up and breaking down camp. I guess trying to race a storm will do that to you. I didn't think I would be able to understand my body like I do know. I can tell when I am running out of energy and need some fuel. Before, I would eat when I was hungry or when it was just a normal time for people to have a meal. Now I have a better understanding of when and what I need to eat to get over the next mountain. I didn't know that going downhill is soooo much worse than going uphill. That shocked me a bit. Uphill is a workout, and it's hard. Downhill is like when the doctor uses that rubber mallet thing to hit your knee to check your reflexes, but instead of a doctor, it's the devil, and instead of a rubber mallet, it's a sledgehammer. 

I think the happiest surprise is how quickly friendships form along the trail. Thru hikers are one big family. You got your crazy cousins, weird aunts, cool uncles, big brothers you look up to, and little sisters you try to take care of. No matter who you meet along the trail, they are immediately part of the family, and you do whatever you can to help them. It's amazingly refreshing to be part of a community where everyone tries their very best to help everyone else in any way they can. 

We have met so many wonderful people in the first week on the trail. Selfy, Chezwick, Swayze, Quebec, Spuds, Foxfire, not Rue, Psych, Waterbed, Bear, Frank the dog, not Red, Wizard, Possible, Twanda, Boomer, Jumanji, Crunchy, Lucky Charm, Rosebud, Bubbles, and so many more. Knowing someone on the trail is something like dog years. One day on the trail is like seven days off the trail. We've been hiking with Selfy for four days now and it feels like a month. In a good way. 

By the way, my trail name is Juice and Brandon's is Icarus.  

We are here in Hiwassee tonight. It has been nice to be back in society for a while. Feel air conditioning and beds again, have a toilet surrounded by four walls readily available for peeing. After a strenuous 19 mile day, I didn't know if I would be ready to get back on the trail. Now I'm laying in my bunk surrounded by lots of new family, and I am itching to get out of these walls and into the woods again, where it is considered irresponsible to pee in the toilet. 

 

 

Trail magic

Trail magic

Neels Gap

Neels Gap

Wizard and friends

Wizard and friends

French Canadien friends

French Canadien friends

Rosebud and others watching the sunset

Rosebud and others watching the sunset

Selfy. (Obviously) 

Selfy. (Obviously) 

A.T. Eve

April 6th, 2015, is a day that has been constantly in the back of my mind for many months now. And now here we are, just minutes from that much anticipated day. That giant mess of scattered gear and clothes in the attic has turned into a very tightly packed backpack that weighs in at 32 pounds and will pretty much become a part of me. I've tested and re-tested all my gear, I've packed up all my belongings into boxes, I've said my goodbyes to great friends, and now I'm sitting here, just waiting as I've done for months now. Waiting for the little clock on the bottom right of the screen to read 12:00 AM 4/6/2015. 

That's my date. A date I will always remember, like Christmas or my birthday. And it is kind of like a birthday. It's the first day of a new life chapter. A chapter that I can't wait to start, and I am curious to see how it ends. I was going to write 'can't wait to see how it ends', but then I realized that I can wait. I am going to enjoy every moment as it happens. 

I guess I should be trying to get some sleep before The Day, but sleeping is hard when you have so many thoughts running through your head! Good thoughts though. I should probably be trying to get as comfortable as possible in my big comfy bed since it's the ground for me for the better part of six months, but I just feel like pacing around. And I know that walking around the house is the worst idea because all I'm going to be doing for the next six months is walking, but I do it anyway. 

Even though it's only a few hours, it still doesn't feel like it's real yet. I don't know when it will hit me, but I imagine that when we take a few steps into the trail and turn around to see my dad and our ride no longer there, it will seem pretty freakin' real. I am nervous excited to get started. 1% nervous, 99% excited. Most of my thoughts are all about how amazing this is all going to be, but there is that 1%. It's usually when I'm talking to someone about the trail and it's like some part of my brain hears me for the first time and says, "Wait, I'm doing what?!?" Don't worry about it brain, it'll be fine.

32 more minutes until The Day. 

Seven days to go

 Down to one week before setting off on an adventure I've been planning for 4 months, an adventure that will last 6 months, but most importantly, an adventure that I will never forget. One week. Just one week until I see this plaque...

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on this mountaintop...

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Just seven days until I'm homeless. Just three days until I'm jobless. And I couldn't be happier.

I feel prepared and ready to go. At least as much as you can be prepared for something like this. I've definitely been way less prepared for a major endevour before and somehow survived, some might even say thrived, not many but some. So that makes me feel optimistic. 

I've prepared in all kinds of ways. A couple nights ago I slept in my tent in below freezing weather where I learned that on a cold night, all I have to do is drink many beers, stay up until 4am, walk out to the backyard, climb into my tent and sleeping bag, and I will sleep like there's no tomorrow and won't notice the cold at all. A couple of weeks ago I got my wisdom teeth pulled in order to shave an ounce or two off my weight and avoid a Tom Hanks in Castaway scenario. A few months ago I learned how to avoid altitude sickness when way up in the Andes by chewing coca leaves. A few years ago I practiced rationing water over a few days when you mistakenly mix up camp sites with available water sources in a very dry and hot Australian summer. 

Ok, so maybe none of these are really going to translate too well out on the AT, but you never know what skills might come in handy when you least expected. 

You can't plan for everything, and if you could, wouldn't that make it so much less exciting? The thrill of conquering something that you had no idea was even going to be an obstacle or how to get past it is such a "Hell yea! I'm awesome!" feeling. The only way to get there though, is to put yourself in that uncomfortable position. It's totally worth it. 

One Fortnight Out

And it's beginning to look a lot like spring.

Before we go any deeper, a fortnight is two weeks for all those who are not British, or history majors, or born in the 19th century. And continue...

Two weeks away and I feel completely ready. I want to hit the trail tomorrow. I've done as much preparation as I am going to do. Not as much as I could do, but as much as I'm going to do. I had an epiphany a little bit ago. It came to me when I was about to go for a run. I mean, I enjoy running and it's a perfect day. I stepped outside all geared up, but for some reason I said out loud, "screw it." I went back in, opened a bottle of wine, poured half the bottle in my wine cup (aka giant to go coffee mug), walked to the park, sat down and began writing this. Don't regret a thing. Check out the view.

There's not much I can do in the next two weeks that is going to make much of a difference in my trek. It's the previous weeks and months and scores (how many ridiculous measurement of time can I put in this post) of days that I've spent preparing physically and mentally to become the person that I am right now that is going to make the difference. 

My goal for the next two weeks is to enjoy the moment. Enjoy the roof I sleep under that keeps my bed dry. Enjoy the fact that I can eat anything I want within one hour. Enjoy not having to dig a hole before pooping. Most of all, enjoy hanging out with friends and family. 

I just returned from Dallas yesterday where I got to see some great, old friends, and I wish I could have seen more. I saw my mom and brother, and I would have loved to stay and hang out with them longer. I mean, not too long, let's not get crazy. There's going to be a lot of people I don't get to see for a long time very soon, so I'm going to do my best to take these next two weeks to enjoy the moment and the people in them. 

Without people, moments are just time; with them, they are memories. Without people, a place is just a location; with them, it can be a home. I've had a home in Texas and in Alabama and hopefully I'll find a home on the trail. 

The Trials

I've been reading as much as I can about anything and everything on the Appalachian Trail. I've read about the physical challenges, how to train, what to buy, what to eat, where to stay, how to get food, the best places to take awesome pictures, and how to not smell like a hobo (impossible).

One of the most important things that hikers tend to overlook is the mental aspect of the hike. Most thru hikers quit while still physically able; they are mentally done. And that makes sense. Being in the middle of the woods by yourself trying to dodge lightning while the frozen wind blows heavy drops of rain straight through your waterproof jacket and trying to ignore the rumbling in your stomach because all you have is peanuts and easy mac when you arrive drenched to the hole riddled shelter in another seven uphill miles isn't what people dream about when deciding to hike the AT. All the more reason to prepare for this inevitable scenario.

I'm currently reading Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis, a former thru hiker. He suggests answering a few questions before heading out on the trail because these are questions you will be asking yourself when you're out there. Writing them down and keeping them with you to remind yourself during the rough times may be the difference between quitting and carrying on. So here's my initial shot at it:

I am thru hiking the AT because...
          - It is a physical challenge and I love competing, whether against myself or a five year old girl in a game of one on one, make it take it bball.
          - I will get to hang out everyday with one of my best friends that I don't get to see nearly often enough.
          - I wake up everyday with the possibility of seeing beautiful and natural and majestic scenery that can only be seen and appreciated by doing what I'm doing.
          - I want to see a bear and a moose! Not too close up though...
          - I will get in amazing shape by doing something so much better than running around in pointless circles.
          - I will get to eat anything and everything I want all the time. Trying to eat 5,000 calories a day is another challenge I look forward to undertaking. 
          - I want to meet interesting people, hear their stories, and make some new friends in the process.
          - I know that it's time for something new in my life.
          - Going to an office and sitting for eight hours a day at a cubicle is much worse than the worse day hiking in the mountains.
          - I love seeing and experiencing new things, and the AT will bring new and unexpected adventures everyday.
          - The AT gives you total freedom.

When I successfully thru hike the AT, I will...
          - Have a sense of accomplishment that will last forever and no one will be able to take away.
          - Have stories that I will never get tired of telling, even if others may get tired of hearing...
          - Know that there is no physical challenge I will not be able to conquer. 
          - Be more confident in all things because I've done something physically and mentally more challenging than most people have ever done.
          - Know how to live with less. 
          - Not take seemingly simple and obvious things for granted, such as indoor plumbing and microwaves.
          - Return to loved ones triumphant and proud. 
          - Put that shit on a resume.
          - Have the freedom in my life and career to go and do anything, anywhere and feel really good about it. As loose as a life plan as I have right now, getting to Mt. Katahdin is my one set goal. As long as I reach that summit, even though I may have no idea what I'm going to do next, I will still feel like my life is on track. 

If I give up on the AT, I will...
          - Always look back and regret it. Always.
          - Feel a sense of shame when seeing friends and family that I told I was hiking the entire trail even when they inevitable told me, "It was a good try. You did the best you could." Not good enough.
          - Know that this is the first time that I failed to accomplish something that I really, really put my mind to.
          - Want to try again, but this most like will be my one and only chance.
          - Miss out on a lot of beautiful and awesome people, sights, sounds, and experiences.
          - Still not have been to Maine.