Jolly and Jeff hit the AT at Wildcat Shelter, NY

It was one of the first weekends that was forecast above 45°F and I was jonesing for a hike on the AT and a comfortable overnight in my hammock.  Friday night and rain was forecast, so I went to bed sulking.  It hadn’t rained all week, and here we were looking at rain all weekend.

Saturday morning and I’m bouncing out of bed at 6:00am and check the weather – it’s raining outside and it’s forecast most of the day to remain the same. Decisions, decisions…

I group text the boys around lunchtime (Jeff, Anton, and Matt) asking if anyone would be up for an impromptu hike into Wildcat Shelter that afternoon for a quick overnight.  As always, Jeff answers first and it’s an knee-jerk “YES!”.  Brilliant.  He can’t make it until he finishes work, and I still have some packing/prep to take care of, so we schedule a meetup in a couple of hours.  I headed out at around 3:00pm and arranged to meet at the trail head where the AT crosses Rte 17a just north of Glenwood Lake, NY. (Google map coords)

Arriving at the trail head it had started to pour; this is going to be a wet hike, but I was excited to get onto the trail and nothing — not even some rain — was going to dampen my spirits.  Jeff rolled in about 20 minutes after me and we hoisted our packs and off we went, northbound on the Appalachian Trail.

As Jeff and I got caught up on life, thoughts of my time on the AT in 2013 came flooding in and I found myself grinning like the Cheshire Cat less than a few hundred feet in.  I love just being on he trail – it’s tough to explain to a non-hiker, but my outdoor brethren know exactly what I mean.

Through the rain we hiked and talked up a storm about life, work, and how things were now he’s an engaged man.  Jeff’s a typically happy guy on any given day, but he had an extra spring in his step for sure – ah, young love.  I’m stoked for him and Erin.

It wasn’t long before we came across Cat Rocks and Jeff fancied a scramble up the side to the top of this rocky outcropping which carries the AT up and over it.  The rocks were slippery given the downpour so I took the blue trail to the side and hiked around.

After rounding the rocks and hiking for another 20 minutes we arrived at the signpost nailed to a tree pointing us to go west for the shelter.  As we walked around the rocky part of this blue trail, the shelter started to come into view and our excitement built for sole ownership tonight of Wildcat.  As the shelter came into view, I noticed hiking gear inside.

Bollocks.

Two other guys were already situated comfortably inside the shelter, one warming himself inside his sleeping bag atop his pad.

“Are you gone in the head?!”, the bearded guy on the right bellowed.  “We thought we’d be the only idiots out in this today!”.

Ice breaker, these cats were cool.

wildcat_2Jeff and I threw our pack towards the back of the shelter and started unpacking our gear and changing out of our wet clothes.  After some half-naked one-legged stumbling in and out of clothing, we sat our asses down and hung out with our new friends.

One of the guys had an air of experience about him: epic trail beard, lots of gear, and an actual trail name: Chief Daddy.  Real name Joe Howell, Joe and his wife run an outdoor wilderness guide company called Wilderness Rocks that provides “immersive wilderness excursions”.  He was out with a client, a Ukrainian fellow by the name of Anton (are all Ukrainian men called Anton?).  As we made long introductions into who we were and where we were from, we broke open the libations: I’d brought a bladder from a box of wine (Malbec), Jeff, too, had brought some wine, and Chief and Anton sipped on some kind of whiskey.  Chief is a Double Crowner: he’s thru-hiked the AT and the PCT, and he has that typical “coolness” about him.  He’s calm, learned, enriched by the people he’s met while walking the miles.

The rain was still coming down well into the early evening, and I was undecided: shelter or hammock tonight.  I’d driven all this way and hiked in the rain for an hour; I was putting that bloody hammock up tonight if it was the last thing I did.

I pitched the hammock and tarp right behind the shelter as the lower area of ground to the side of the shelter and beyond was positively swampy.  As soon as I had gotten my gear set up, I went back to the shelter and continued to share stories and jokes with Jeff and our new friends.

I remember saying something about it being “hiker midnight” and I was out like a light.  I woke up in the middle of the night (someone was snoring, and it could have very well been me), and realized that I’d fallen asleep in the shelter.  I was having none of it, so I dragged myself up quietly, turned on the red light on my headlamp, and headed out to my hammock.

My head hit the pillow and I was gone – swaying in the air.

Wildcat Shelter, hammockMorning broke and the rain had stopped.  I love it when that happens.  I hauled myself out of my hammock — very reluctantly — and saw that the other guy’s had woken and started to make coffee.  To our surprise the fire was hot enough from the night before to roar again on this cold morning.

I made Jeff and myself a cup of Joe and I munched on two frosted raspberry Pop Tarts for breakfast – I’d brought oatmeal but I couldn’t be bothered to cook.

At about 8:30am we’d all packed up and said our farewells to Wildcat Shelter.  Chief had Anton continue hiking north to the falls and then to the next road crossing where he’d pick him up.  I’d agreed to drop Chief back at his minivan which was back towards Greenwood Lake.  Jeff and I bade or goodbyes and I drove Chief to pick up his wheels.

I was back on the road by 10:00am and home by 11:00am.  Rested, my AT/hammock desires satiated, and looking forward to the next time I can get on the trail with the lads.

An AT Mosey in New Joisey

Having packed the night before, I was on the road by 6:30am on Saturday; I was driving to an AT section trail head close to High Point State Park on the NJ 23 / CR 443 just south of Port Jervis, NY.  Friends and fellow backpackers/hikers, Jeff and Erin, were joining me for this weekend trip and I was excited for the time on the Appalachian Trail again.

Since returning home in June I think about my time on the trail quite often, sometimes just bringing up my blog on my iPhone while on the train and reading from a random day or two.  Good times indeed.  But what’s really special to me is the actual trail: the blazes, the mountains, the sights and sounds.  Unless you’ve spent [a considerable amount of] time on the AT it’s difficult to appreciate the gravity of how a life on the Appalachian Trail can change you.

As I arrive at the trail head parking lot I notice the temp has dropped to 27°F and the wind has picked up. Spotting Jeff’s car in the corner of the lot I parked up alongside.

Jumping out of my car and into the tundra was enough to send a jolt through my body; my god it’s freezing. After the cold meet and greet, we tied off our packs and slung them over our shoulders. There was a group of day hikers gathering near the start of the approach blue trail and I managed to finagle a group shot from one of them.

As we headed up the blue blazed trail our boots were sinking into the crunchy mud that had frozen during the night before. This made for challenging hiking as it was like we were walking through sand. After a few minutes we t-boned the AT and headed left, and southbound.

The wind had died down and we’d picked up a great starting pace so we warmed up pretty quickly. We were hoping the forecast was accurate and were looking forward to clear blue skies – no dice, cold and gray today.

The terrain became rocky underfoot as the trail headed south. We rounded and summited a section of rocky balds and stopped a while to admire the view.

A few snaps and we were off again, southbound with a spring in our steps.

I always like hiking with Jeff and Erin, a young couple that I’ve been friends with for a couple of years. I’d met them for the first time during a Catskills weekender that another hiker friend, Anton, had organized. They’re both heavily into the outdoors, fit, and I enjoy the pace at which they hike – swift. They’re also a riot to hang with, and it’s not long before we’re onto the topic of food; Jeff and I discussed the many ways one could prepare a burger – multiple cheeses and fillings, always good trail banter. .

Quickly we’re into our stride and we crossed Deckertown Turnpike — a winding country road that slices through the AT — and after a short climb beyond we hit Mashipacong Shelter and we had the whole place to ourselves.  We dropped our packs and broke out our lunches and discussed what we’d do afterwards.  We decided to continue southbound for at least an hour given we’d made such good time, but the remaining ~5.5 miles to Gren Anderson Shelter may run us into night hiking – which none of us really wanted to do.  Plus, the temps started to drop.  I reached for the trail journal hanging in a box in the far right corner of the shelter to see if I could find any names I’d know; sure enough, I found three:  Acorn, Nimbles, and one of my besties, Rainbow Bright.

So with full bellies and an invigorated spirit we hoisted our packs and headed south.  About a half hour in we came upon a pretty bleak looking stream which trickled from a stagnant pond – the water was orange, and none of us fancied using it to filter water for dinner tonight.

After some umming and ahhing we decided to head back to Mashipacong Shelter where we’d make camp, and hopefully, we’d still have the place to ourselves.  Once we got back we felt a tad bummed as fires aren’t allowed here – damn.  It was getting pretty chilly, too.  The sun had come out but we could feel Jack Frost’s bite rolling in.

I pitched my hammock gear in the woods a ways to the right of the shelter as I was hoping to sell some of it on GearTrade, so I needed photographs.  Once the shots were out of the way, I hoisted the hammock into the awning of the shelter — from left to right — while Jeff and Erin laid out their sleeping pads and bags inside on the platform.

We drank wine and shared stories, and we laughed into dusk.  It was early when the sun hit the horizon, cold blue hues spreading out through the woodland.  It was bedtime, aka “hiker midnight”.  The second my head hit my pillow I was out, and the slight sway of the hammock was enough to rock me to sleep in minutes.  It was 8:00pm.

I woke to the sound of an owl echoing through the frigid night.  To my chagrin, I pressed the backlight button on my watch and found it to only be 11:00pm.  Good lord, it was going to be a long night.

Coyotes are bloody loud, and when they’re in a pack that sounds ominously close, it’s quite disconcerting.  Another glance of my watch and it’s 1:30am.  Come on, man.

I started to feel the cold in my arms and torso a little which was strange as I was wearing literally all of my clothes and covered by my 30°F bag.  Unbeknownst to me, the temps had dropped to a not-so-balmy 23°F.  Without a 2nd thought I hoofed my tired self out of my cocoon and tossed my bag onto my own sleeping pad which I’d laid out on the shelter’s inner platform “just in case”.  I threw down my pillow and climbed into my bag and off I drifted, a little warmer than I was earlier dangling in mid air.  My watch said 3:00am.

It was about 6:30am when I woke, and I’d been tossing and turning all night; I get pressure points on my hips and knees as I’m a side sleeper when I go to ground.  “This is why I sleep in a hammock”, I grumbled to myself.

Jeff and Erin stirred shortly after and we shared morning pleasantries.  We’d all heard the howling and screaming last night.  And some of us (read: me) had heard snoring all night, too (read: Jeff and/or Erin).  Water was quickly on the boil and we enjoyed warm coffee; I enjoyed a couple of frosted raspberry Poptarts with mine – ooh look, it’s in one piece!

Warmed up, fed, and ready to go, we broke down camp and packed our gear.  We were off my 9:00am and heading northbound in the cool wintery air.  About a half hour in we stopped to enjoy the view at a pipeline clearing and snapped a few shots.

The trail seemed more rocky today than it did yesterday, but we still managed to get a good pace going; we hit the side trail for Rutherford Shelter in no time and calculated we’d been hiking at 3mph.

We stopped at a bubbling stream about half way back to the cars and filtered some more water; Erin had a crack at using my new Sawyer Squeeze Mini and I think I have a couple of converts!

Shortly after filling our water bottles we pressed on and it started to drizzle.  Now I don’t normally mind the rain, but when it’s 30°F, it’s bloody uncomfortable.  We double-timed and made it back to the parking lot in no time.  Cold, wet, and shivering we decided to head for the Ranger station up the road to change into drier clothing.

Warm and dry, Jeff suggested we head on over to a local diner for breakfast – amen to that.  We woolfed down an appetite-busting biscuits, gravy, and corned beef hash.  Human food tastes so good after a good hike.

Great hike with great friends, and the weather played nice, well almost.

Hiking the West Rim Trail

Stretching along the western edge of Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek Gorge is the West Rim Trail, thirty miles of lush trail that stretches from Ansonia to Blackwell.  Offering many spectacular vistas and mild heart-thumping climbs, the WRT is a weekend backpacker’s dream.

Stink Bug and I took a trip to the WRT this past week and started our trip from the northern terminus at Ansonia and started out around 1:00pm.  We headed out at a solid pace and signed the register about a hundred yards in.  The day’s weather was clear and mild, and the forest had a glow to it which made the trail look as if it were taken from Middle Earth itself. It wasn’t long before we climbed up Barbour Rock to the set of four glorious vistas, all overlooking Pine Creek Gorge – it was simply stunning.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat here and afterwards pushed on to our camp for the night.

We’d hiked the WRT about two years ago so we knew about the campsite at mile 6 where Painter Leetonia Road intersected the trail.  The campsite sits alongside a healthy stream which makes it a welcome spot for hikers.  We quickly set up camp and halfway into hanging our hammocks another couple appeared from the south.  We learned that John and his [new] wife — I don’t remember her name — were hiking the WRT northbound and they definitely looked weary.  We offered them some space in our camp to pitch their tent, and we quickly acquainted while making a fire.  It was their anniversary so we offered our congratulations and shared stories of hiking and backpacking trips.

The night grew cool as the hours rolled by and our group of four talked and shared follies of trails and of life, and Stink Bug and I reveled in tales of the Appalachian Trail.

We hit our hammocks hard at dusk, and at just about hiker midnight — which was roughly 7:00pm that night — and the evening got the best of us.  No sooner had I pulled my bag around my feet and over my arms than I was out cold.  There must be something magical about mountain air because it’s like a sleep elixir – like a Tyson one-two punch.

Both nocturnal and a bird of prey, the owl and it’s solemn HOO was indeed a forest lullaby.  She rocked me to sleep with a metronome of owl song, such bliss.

Waking at 6:30am it was time for breakfast and breaking of camp.  I love my hammock and how quickly it packs away.  While I boiled water I packed away my hammock and tarp, and I was enjoying a Mountain House’s Breakfast Skillet rolled up in a delicious tortilla – make that two.

We were on the trail by 8:20am and had agreed that our day would be a rolling 17-miler.  Whilst the trail hugged the rim of the gorge’s canyon, our journey also took us inland and around valleys away from the views.  However, these miles were full of deeply colored tree cover and the trail laced with reds and oranges; it was gorgeous.

We stopped for lunch at mile 15 and hung our hammocks to enjoy some zeds; sleep on the trail shouldn’t just be for the nighttime.

After about 40 minutes we headed over and through the Bradley Wales Picnic Area and along a very dry seven miles to our next campsite at mile marker 23; not having the luxury of useable streams or creeks to refill our water bottles became a hindrance.  Even an October day can be warm, and this trip’s daytime hours didn’t disappoint with regard to temperature.  Reaching the mid-70′s and no water while maintaining a 3/mph hiking speed isn’t conducive to comfortable long distance hiking.  We arrived at camp around 4:30pm, and we were both starving.  A tiny trickle of a water source was enough for us to gather water for boiling to turn our freeze dried packets into 5-star gourmet meals.

We didn’t bother with a fire that night, and we were hanging in our hammocks by 6:00pm.  WHAT?!  Earliest I’ve ever been to bed on the trail.  Long day, though.

I was woken around 1:00am by a deer that came sniffing around my hammock — presumably trying to ascertain from where the smell of dirty human was emanating — and I shooed it with a grunt as I perched my chin over the edge of my hammock.

Poor deer.

The next morning was blue skied and chilly, a perfect start to a day for our final seven miles.  We hiked through a thick and narrowed rhododendron-trimmed trail; me at the front brushing the morning silky spiders’ webs/lines away from my face while pushing through the rhody brush.

Soon we came across the final vista on the trail (mile marker 27.5) after a few nice climbs and we took a short break of water and mini Baby-Bel cheese.

The next 2.5 miles were a treat: 1.5 miles of spruce forest and easy flat trail leading to a prolonged 1 mile downhill to the southern terminus at Rattlesnake Rock parking lot.  Reaching my car (Stink Bug’s was at the northern terminus in Ansonia) I changed into clean clothes and we drove north to pick up the other car and grab lunch.

Burgers at the Burnin’ Barrel Bar is what’s good in the world; meat, beer, and good convo.

The West Rim Trail is stunning, and if I get the time to hike it again in 2013 then I’ll be a happy man.

Olive Oyl reaches 1,417 and some trail magic

My old friend Olive Oyl (or Double Oh as I used to call her) and her hiking partner, Wet Bag, are hitting the NY301/Fahnestock State Park road crossing today, so I’m doing what any normal buddy would do: TRAIL MAGIC AND LAUNDRY/SHOWERS!

It’s a much nicer day than the last time I was here to see Stink Bug and Honey Bun; it was positively ~95°F. Today’s a manageable 75°F and low humidity, but I’m sure they’ll still smell like ass. It’s amazing to realize how much I must have reeked while I was on the AT, but I just never noticed. Those poor town folk in GA/NC/TN/VA lol! I’m sure hot showers and laundry will bring smiles to their faces… it feels really good to give back, and I’m looking forward to catching up with OO!

Trail magic: it feels good to give

I’ve been keeping tabs on quite a few AT thru-hikers through their journals, and amongst them, a good buddy by the name of Postman.

Postman and I met at Fontana Village and shared an outside table at the Wildwood Grill with Tye Dan and Captain Dan; burgers, fries, and beer – a proper hiker’s lunch.

I’d kept in touch with quite a few of my old hiker friends and had always said that I’d be happy to provide trail magic once they hit the New York section – specifically the Fahnestock / NY301 crossing at mile marker 1.417 – there’s a parking area by both entrances to the AT and it’s also pretty close to where I live.  Postman and I had kept in touch via text messages for the last couple of months so I knew both where he was, and what his ETA in New York was going to be.  I’d offered trail magic, and was proud to deliver.

As I rolled up at around 8:45am I saw him standing there, but a much skinnier and ripped version of what I remembered.  The epic Georgia beard was growing in nicely – we high fived, back slapped, and we wheel spun off the gravel and onto the Taconic State Parkway for food and showers.

It was only about 9:30am by the time we got back to my place and I handed over a fresh towel so he could shower – I remember how amazing they felt after hiking in your own filth for days at a time.  We headed out to a local diner for burgers and fries after that, and then back to my place to get his laundry sorted.  We caught up and shared trail stories whilst watching episodes of Top Gear (British version of course) – it felt great talking about the trail again and hearing of his adventures.  Postman is the most northerly AT friend I have, and I am very proud of him and his achievement thus far – incredible.

After laundry we hopped back in the car and it was another drive back to NY301 and back to the AT for Postman.

I have to say, I’m totally envious of him, and I let him know.  Not in a jealous way at all, but envious that he has experienced so much more of the trail than I have – and given the ~330 miles of my own were the best times of my life, I can only imagine how life altering those extra miles would have been for me.

You can show your support of Postman and his journey by following his Flickr journal here.

Holy heat, Batman!

There are few things that put me off hiking, but right up there at the #1 spot is humidity.

I’m glad to be home and not on the trail having to hike through the dense “green tunnel” that is Virginia in this heat, it’s brutal – and I understand that it’s been raining down there a lot, too.

I miss my friends and the hike in general, but this weather… nope.

A Jolly good journey

jaunt [ jawnt, jahnt ]
noun
1. a short journey, especially one taken for pleasure.
verb (used without object)
1. to make a short journey.

Bubba was arriving at 6:30am to pick up our little group and drop us at the trail head for our first day back with our full packs.

I called shotgun as he pulled up; it was cold and grey outside and I’d outgrown my excitement for riding in the back – the novelty had worn off.

I couldn’t put my finger on it but my head was elsewhere this morning. I lacked any excitement for what was ahead: a glorious hike through the Virginias on the Appalachian Trail. According to AWOL’s guide, today was going to be quite easy by comparison. Relatively “flat” with rolling hills and little real work; well, except for the first climb.

Working our way down the gravel road and over the overpass, we came across a small campsite by the trail’s forest entrance, and sitting atop a parked car was a white foam cooler. I peered in through the dense, damp tree line close by and spotted tents of various size camped by a small creek. A voice shouted, “Take a soda! They’re in the cooler, help yourself!” I recognized the person, she was a friend of Stink Bug’s that I’d met at Trail Days. She is a former thru hiker and she is slack packing her husband, with her newborn in tow. I forget her name, but I remember her being very cool.

Red Specs pulled out two Dr. Peppers and handed one to me. Oh yes, I’ll take one of those gladly, mein freund. The cold sugary goodness melted away the humidity, if only for a short minute. Last night’s rain lay thick across the forest and trail, slowly rising as the morning temperature increased. It had also turned the low points of the trail into muddy quagmires.

The next hour was uphill. A narrow green corridor of no particular allure. Jesus it was humid. My clothes were soaked after only a few minutes, and I was wiping away spiderwebs from my face every 10 feet. The ones at shin level looked like tiny tripwires that the woodland animals had laid out to ensnare their human prey.

I’d chosen to hike on my own this morning, and was making a great pace. I could feel my body “remembering” how this works: one foot in front of the other, breathing deeply and uniformly (in through my nose, out through the mouth), and I’d gotten the rhythm back with my trekking poles – I felt strong again. I’d missed this feeling.

The miles burned by and so did the morning – by 9:00am I’d cleared 5.5 miles and I decided to break for a quick bite: Babybel cheese, a granola bar, and a poptart followed by 3/4 liter of strawberry flavored water.

I’d slung my pack half way over my back and I spotted Red Specs coming down the hill. “Guten morgen!”, I shouted, and I got a great guttural one in return – it was a thing we did when out hiking together.

I started out and he followed for maybe a minute or two and said that he was going to stop for a break himself. I wanted to keep going so I offered him a “cheerio” as I faded into the forest ahead.

I’d been listening to music since early morning, and with it I can fly through the mileage – house music was always my favorite for getting the blood pumping.

Something caught my eye, a chipmunk or squirrel darting through the undergrowth, so I pulled out my earbuds and stood still. All was silent except for the occasional birdsong.

It was at that moment that it struck me: I didn’t want to be here. I gave it a few seconds thinking it was just my aching body that was doing the talking — it wasn’t.

Coming back to the trail had been a mental struggle of where exactly I should restart my journey; Hemlock Hollow (the place I left the trail), to join Cap and crew and slack pack / car camp the whole AT, or rejoin Tie Dye at Partnership Shelter in VA. I chose #3, and I’d been happy with that decision – until now.

I was ~250 miles north of where I should be. My days of hiking up here didn’t feel accomplished. I was forcing myself to walk every day. Before my injuries pulled me off the AT in April, I loved whipping out my AWOL 2013 AT Guide and planning the next day’s hike. I wasn’t doing that anymore, and it’s because I felt I didn’t deserve to be this far north; I hadn’t earned this mileage.

I started walking again and regained my composure, but these thoughts were filling my every step. Soon I reached the next gravel road about eight miles in and I starred into the forest ahead of me at the trail as it curved away, fading away from me into the thick green woods.

I wasn’t taking another step. I’ve hiked my hike.

I was on my own and I hoisted my pack off my shoulders and onto the ground. Again I looked into the trees ahead of me and a wave of certainty engulfed me: I missed home. I missed everything about home, and I missed my wife the most. Without a second thought I took out my phone, took it off airplane mode, and called Bubba for a ride off the mountain.

After I’d scheduled my shuttle — which would be arriving in 30 minutes — I felt at peace. For the first time since returning, I felt completely happy.

It wasn’t too long until Red Specs came into view and I told him of my new plans. His shoulders slumped and face dropped in disbelief. Tie Dye came walking down shortly thereafter and I dreaded telling her, I knew how she’d react. I explained how much I missed home and she understood. I wasn’t in any physical pain, and I was leaving of my own accord.

Tie Dye had been my closest friend throughout my hike, my confident, my journey’s companion. A woman of such positive mental fortitude, and I’d had the good fortune to hike these incredible miles with her. She never complained about the trail, instead she found ways to positively describe the roughness of a particular spot, or she’d examine ways of tackling it in a different way. She was the most positive person I’d ever had the pleasure of knowing – and it rubbed off on everyone, including me. We hugged and cried a little, and her hug felt genuinely embracing. I’m going to miss her the most. She waited for a while as I made another call to my wife to break the news. We hugged again, and I made her promise me to keep in touch and send me plenty of pics. In honor of our friendship — and just because she’s silly — she skipped and danced onto the trail ahead of me and slowly blended into the dense woods. I beamed a beaming smile as a thousand memories flooded my mind at a million miles an hour; it was hard to not lose my shit right there and then. I’m really going to miss her.

My outlook on life and my own existence had gone through the wringer on the trail. Questions, semi-answers, more questions, doubts, and all balanced by daily bouts of elation. The AT will make you look at yourself in ways you never would in the “real world”, as it forces you to open up your heart as you stroll along its 12″ wide dirt path. The AT will get to know you, you will have no option but to open up, to reveal yourself completely. You will become utterly vulnerable.

One thing I learned very quickly is that there’s no faking it on the Appalachian Trail. It’s tough. Very tough. And it’s daily, pounding your muscles into lactic acid-hardened pieces of meat. My 40-year old joints felt like they’d aged 20 years in two months. For many long distance hikers, taking on a journey of this magnitude is oftentimes a battle against the trail, its terrain, and the ever changing weather. It wasn’t like that for me: it was a lesson in who I really am, what makes me happy / sad, and what stuff I’m really made of.

I’m strong, and not just physically. My mental fortitude is way stronger than I imagined, and my desire to make others happy around me became abundantly clear. “Jolly” wasn’t a bad name for me after all.

Everyone knew me, even people I’d met only once remembered me and my trail name. I’d have moments of singing while I’d hike solo; today in fact I was singing along to “What a Fool Believes“, and let me tell you, Michael McDonald can really hit those high notes. I always give it my best shot, but not being able to hear my own voice, I doubt I sounded any better than a dying cat. But it was who I was out here, and I f*cking loved every minute of it.

I’ve hiked 326.5 miles, walked through four states, crushed the Smokies (although they crushed me in return), taken ~750,000 steps, and had the good fortune to meet some of the finest people in the world.

More importantly, I found myself, and I am returning home with exactly what I wanted out of the Appalachian Trail: the real me.

Thank you to everyone that sent me their best wishes and comments, they were way more helpful than you’d ever know.

Zero, semi productive day

My knees were pretty bashed up this morning, and the right one was noticeably swollen. The guys went ahead without me today which is totally fine, I’ll rejoin them tomorrow.

Got a package from home today which contained my hammock bug netting, the Jacks ‘R’ Better tarp tensioners I’d ordered, a Union Jack patch, and some other goodies – including a small coin-like token with an angel stamped on it; my very own trail angel.

Spent most of today watching TV and resting. I sewed on the patch and it looks great.

Back to resting.

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Climbs, smiles, and ~15 miles (566.5m)

I rolled out of bed at around 6:00am and Specs was still asleep (we’re sharing a double room to save money), so I tended to my morning doings in a quieter fashion than normal.

Teeth brushed I opened the front door and spied the sunrise; and it was stunning. The sun was just above the horizon and was throwing yellows and oranges over the Appalachians in the distance. The hills were still blanketed by rolling mist as the humid forest floor shed its moisture from the downpour the day before.

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It wasn’t long before Red Specs and Tie Dye emerged, and we were also joined by Double Dare — a class of 2003 AT thru hiker — and breakfast was on the cards. There’s not much to do in Bland, VA – a Dairy Queen, Dollar General, a gas station, and a Subway. We hit up DQ and pounded breakfast sandwiches and burritos. Specs, Tie Dye and I saved some of our burrito breakfast to take on the trail for lunch.

We headed back to the motel where Double Dare was being picked up for his shuttle to the trail — a spot farther north than we were heading today — and Bubba rolled in at around 8:30am. Bubba provides a shuttle service for hikers in and around the Bland area.

We had to wait until Bubba returned for our shuttle to Walker Gap. We were on the road by 9:30am, and I hopped in the back of his truck as Tie Dye and Specs shared the cab up front. How often do you get to ride in the back of a pickup truck?!

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It took literally 45 minutes to get to the trail head at Walker Gap, and the ride trough the mountains albeit bumpy and long, was gorgeous. I spotted three deer (one of which stood majestically, and starred at me as we followed the forest road) and the smell of freshly dewed fauna was spellbinding. We arrived and hopped out of Bubba’s truck like three teenage gymnasts – we were ready to take on the day.

We’d decided to slack pack and flip flop today as the elevation map looked a little kinder southbound than going north. Our goal was to reach VA 610 where we had finished yesterday, 14.9 miles away. Given we were staying at the motel again tonight (I’m expecting some packages on Wednesday), it didn’t make sense taking a full pack; slack packing is easier on the body, and bigger mileage can be enjoyed with less stresses on the muscles and joints.

I led our trio up the first climb (remember, there’s always a climb out of a “Gap”), and I was going great guns. The 1.3 miles and 890 feet of elevation gain was easy, making the summit in 20 minutes. It felt great to get so much clean trail air in my lungs. At the top was Chestnut Knob Shelter, a fully enclosed concrete block shelter. The views from the summit were, as always, beautiful. We snapped away before heading out.

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A slowly descending rolling hillside was gorgeous to hike trough, and views to the east were plentiful. We passed many AT hikers going north and most of them looked wiped out; their climb (our pending descent) was a lung busting 4.4 miles over a 2,077′ elevation gain – ridiculous.

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We took our sweet time going downhill, and we spent at least a couple of hours making our way down. We stopped by a small stream to refill our water bottles and grabbed a bite to eat: burritos! They were cold but a couple drops of Texas Pete’s hot sauce turned them into gourmet food.

We came to a gravel road (VA 625) and Soul Sister was here talking to some section hikers. It was nice to see her and she and Tie Dye caught up. Photo op and we continued on.

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The trail was muddy and wet as it wound through the forest alongside creeks and streams and I pretended to be a tightrope walker along many of the notched log crossings. I was having a great day.

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Slight descent for about a mile and we came upon a gorgeous footbridge which crossed the wide and deep Lick Creek. We stopped and took some more photos and enjoyed watching the abundance of small fish swim about.

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From there we had a pretty steep and long climb, and the day had become very warm – it was at least 80°F and humid. For 1.2 miles we climbed 736′ and the heat was brutal – the cork handles of my trekking poles were soaked and slippery with sweat which had rolled down my arms and over my hands.

Once we got to the top of Lynn Camp Mountain we realized that we’d taken our sweet time all day – not starting until 10:40am didn’t help, either. We’d scheduled a 4:00pm pickup with Bubba from VA 610, 7 miles away, and it was 2:45pm. We were not going to make it, not a chance. Tie Dye called him and we were given a 5:30pm alternative. Chugging what water we had left, we ran — and I mean ran — down to Lynn Camp Creek. I was down in 15 minutes and my ankles, knees, and everything else was holding up nicely. Then came a 2.5 mile climb to Brushy Mountain – we didn’t think to stop at Knot Maul Branch Shelter to say our hellos to two other thru hikers – we were on a mission. The climb was long, humid, and prolonged. It completely kicked my ass and drained whatever was left in the tank. I was spent. I took some video while descending through open meadows and without the tree cover it was awfully hot.

O’Lystery Pavilion was at the bottom and to the side of VA 42, and the trail continued on the other side. The trail was level for the next mile, then it went up, and I had nothing left. Absolutely nothing, my body yearned for the hike to end. I bumped into Nutella as I climbed — I’d met her a few times before, nice girl — and asked how far the road was. She was it was “just up there”. I hate it when people say shit like that. I need to learn to stop asking stupid questions like these, because it’s never just up there or just around the bend.

I had to climb over another two stiles, which at this point of the day felt like climbing over giant wooden ladders. They weren’t, they were only 5-6 rungs at most. The meadow by the side of VA 610 came into view, as did the road shortly thereafter. I let out a WHOOP! and with my head down and body aching, I made my way to the road where Bubba was waiting. One more stile to climb over, I seethed in disgust. It took all I had left to pull myself into the back of the truck, and my knees were completely shot. They throbbed, and I had a headache, too. Tie Dye and I exchanged some conversation in the back as we headed “home”, and I fidgeted the whole trip trying to find comfortable positions for my beat-up legs.

Red Specs raided the hiker box inside the motel office and finagled some shower gel, which is a luxury out here.

Showered, changed, and smelling like “fresh mountain spring”, we took a (painful) walk down to the gas station to pick up a 12-pack of Heineken and I ordered two large pizzas and garlic bread for the three of us. We enjoyed the rest of our evening woolfing pizza and beers outside on a picnic bench in the parking lot and watched the night roll in.

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With full bellies we turned in. My right knee feels swollen, and I intend to zero if I’m in worse shape in the morning.

I was out like a light.

Miles hiked today: 14.9

Hiking in the rain clears the head (551.6m)

Waking up in a bed after two nights in my hammock didn’t feel right; it was like cheating. But, to put it frankly, it beat trying to pitch camp in the pouring rain yesterday. The pizza was bloody amazing, too.

Anyway, up, shower, blah blah – nothing new to tell you.

TD, Specs, and I went across the street to the Barn Restaurant and treated ourselves to a breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns, home fries, and a biscuit. Coffee and ice cold water was also enjoyed by all.

It was late when we headed out onto the trail, nearly 10:30am – the latest I’d ever started. It was already raining when we climbed through a very gentle incline through meadows and knee high grass. Passing through a cow pasture we stopped to make “mooing” noises as several of the bulls enjoyed a nice morning shag. Lovely.

Onward and upward we climbed through dense undergrowth, and then the heavens really opened. At one point I said aloud, “are you taking the piss?!” as the downpour turned the trail into a creek. The day went on, and so did the drenching. At one point I thought it was slowing down so I started to sing: “I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain! What a glorious feeling, I’m on the trail again!” – then it pissed down so hard, like the man upstairs decided that my singing voice was worth drowning out, literally.

Whatever; I kept singing, and Tie Dye joined me.

We stopped at a couple of places to eat a quick bite – we couldn’t stand still for long because it was just too wet and raining hard, and stopping walking would lead to cold muscles.

The rain did subside at about 2:30pm so we broke for lunch, and I precariously tried to pull apart my stuck-together tortillas – I laid out some cheese singles on one of them, three slices of ham on top of that, and slathered on the Cholula Hot Sauce — utterly delicious — I was about 10 seconds from heaven. My fingers were still wet and puckered, and as I went to put down the bottle, the f*cking thing slipped out of my hand and shattered on the rock I was sitting on. Hot sauce explosion, everywhere. On the rock, all over the forest floor, and all over me and my rain kilt. I looked like a proper tw*t.

The others felt it necessary to point and laugh, then take pictures.

Shit, just goddam shit.

I cleaned myself up and slung my pack over my shoulders and off I went – with my long face.

Tie Dye had called Bubba’s shuttles from the guide book — after her fair share of laughing and pointing — and we had our ride into Bland, VA.

It was about 3:20pm when we got to VA610, and Bubba rolled up at around 4:00pm. We all hopped in the back of his truck and laughed and took pictures the whole way.

I have a cheeseburger with my name on it. My stache is also coming along nicely again. And I realized tonight looking in the motel room mirror that I’ve put back on some of the lbs I’d lost before I left at Hemlock Hollow. I’ll work on that over the next few days/weeks I’m sure.

My ankle feels strong. These shoes are awesome. I ordered some new ones, a half size bigger, and they should arrive at the motel day after tomorrow.

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