Saturday, rainy Saturday

It’s my last day in Damascus and I’ve bumped into a lot of my old trail friends: Bitter Goat, Rainbow Brite, Mr. Cleveland, Willow, Stupid, and some others I recognized (yet not hiked any miles with) – Mountain Man, Nomad, Stupid, and more.

I’ll be honest, I’m having mixed emotions being down here. Maybe it’s because there are so many people here (literally thousands of hikers), or it’s trail nerves given I haven’t hiked for three weeks. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t feel super pumped for some reason; that bothers me. I don’t have the spark in my belly like I used to. Could also be due to the fact that I just spent three weeks off the trail.

I’m trying to keep focused and spend time consciously thinking of being back on the AT tomorrow morning with Tie Dye. I’m looking forward to hiking with her again, but I’m second guessing my decision to not return to Hemlock Hollow.

I took another walk through the vendors again first thing and said threw a “mornin’!” to AWOL as I passed his tent. I met him yesterday, quiet fella, very humble. He’s a bloody AT legend and he talks in a soft voice with such a “good guy” mannerism. I liked him a lot, and it was a thrill to meet him in person and get a handshake. Instead if asking for a photo opp — like I usually do — I asked if he wouldn’t mind signing my cap: he did, gladly, and said it was the first time he’d signed anyone’s hat before, and let out a grin as he autographed my ball cap.

I’m sitting in my hammock next to the river by Damascus Old Inn with my tarp in porch mode, looking out to the waterfall to my right and flowing to my left. It’s gorgeous.

Stink Bug and Honey Bun mailed back their tent today as they’d both bought new Snipe hammocks from Wilderness Logics – they have a vendor tent here, too, along with ZPacks, Hennessy Hammocks, Osprey, Black Diamond, and many more

I managed to find a spot yesterday that had three trees in pretty much of a perfect triangle shape. We set up out hammocks and tarps here last night and all slept soundly.

I’m nervous about tomorrow and what the days ahead will bring.

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Damascus and Trail Days

Quick update: hanging (literally) with Stink Bug and Honey Bun in Damascus. Convinced them to ditch their tent and buy hammocks. We’ll be hanging in our hammocks by the river tonight. Done with my tent so I can mail that back home. Thank god.

Ice coffee for now, and I’ll hit the post office later today.

Road trip, friends, and Virginia

After many conversations with family and friends, I have decided to rejoin the AT with my hiking buddies Captain Dan, Tank, and Camel in Virginia, and a touch north of Damascus.

My original plan was to return to where I left the trail at Hemlock Hollow, and just pick up my hike from there and head north.  The purist part of my brain was 100% sold on this, and it just made sense to start where I left off.  The only negative about being I’d be ~170 miles behind my friends whom, until my departure, had played such a large part in my own journey; I considered them family.

Plan B was to rejoin the AT at Cap’s current location, which is a little north of Damascus, about 466 miles from Springer.  To be honest, I think I’d rather just hike the trail as a normal backpacker than partake in the truck slack packing, but at this point, I’d prefer to just be with my friends again.  Familiar faces and the tightness of our bonds, it’s a no brainer.

Virginia it is.

You may be asking yourself what I’m going to do about the ~170 mile gap that I’m leaving out.  Those I’ve spoken with of my decision, some wondered if I’d just leave them be and not bother walking those miles.  Not at all.  My goal is to complete the rest of the hike to Katahdin then return to Hemlock Hollow and complete those miles and my Appalachian Trail thru hike.

I am choosing to drive the 633 miles and a 10 hour road trip to Tri-Cities Regional Airport on Thursday morning; this local airport is the closest rental car drop-off point to Damascus, and it also means that I can spend a day (or two, depending on when I leave to join the boys) with Tie Dye and Obie.  I haven’t seen Obie since she left Neels Gap with Turtle on March 21st and it will be great to see her again and catch up in person.  It will be the first time all three of us will have been together in around six weeks – crazy.

After my Damascus merriment I’ll take a shuttle to join Danny and the lads on the trail and start hiking the Virginia trail – the longest part of the entire AT, 550 miles of it.

Hot Springs, halle-effing-luljah (273.9m)

Six o’clock and I figured it was a good time to get up. Cap shouted across to see if I was awake. We’d expected rain through the night but it never came; it was pretty windy most of the night, though, and it ripped out one of my stakes in the early hours, turning one corner of my tarp into a loud flapping cuben flag.

Tie Dye headed out onto the trail at 6:30am as she’d not slept, and Cap, Tank, and I were on the trail by 7:30am – the earliest we’d broken camp since starting our thru hikes.

We had 7.6 miles to get to Hot Springs and our pace was quick out of the gate; we got to Deer Park Mountain Shelter — 4.3 miles away — in a little less than an hour and a half. Steep climb to the top of Deer Park Mountain and then a long 2.4 miles downhill to Hot Springs.

Have I mentioned how much I hate downhills?

After being dropped off on the outskirts of town by the trail, we followed the white blaze across the street to a set of steep (and slippery) stone steps leading down to the main road through town. Looking left we could make out the “AT” tiles laid into the sidewalk. It wasn’t long before we rounded a corner and saw the restaurant: Smokey Mountain Diner. Tank, Cap and I took a table and ordered coffees and food; both lads ordered their “hungry hiker” burgers and I opted for their “skillet breakfast” – our plates were cleaned with ease. Camel and his son Alfalfa made it into town shortly after and joined us for breakfast. Tie Dye had been in town a little longer and had already paid a visit to the outfitters to collect her packages. She joined us for breakfast, too.

After breakfast I walked over to Bluff Mountain Outfitters and picked up my packages; one had some awesome goodies all the way from NY: a new Sawyer Squeeze filter (my original one had frozen on night #1 at Hawk Mountain Shelter), a nice sheet of Polycryo, and some post-it notes with cute messages on them!

I picked up some XS sized nylon stuff sacks for my first aid kit and other gear that I’d kept in the small cuben sacks I’d ordered from ZPacks. As it turns out the cuben used for the small stuff sacks isn’t that “thru durable”, and certainly not long distance worthy; there are small tears appearing in all the sacks I’ve been using.

I also picked up a new pack, a ULA Circuit. I’ve been using my Six Moon Designs Swift pack for some time before the AT, and it’s a great weekender. What I found to be a negative on this long distance thru hike is that the hip belt has no real benefit. 99% of packs have wraparound waist/hip padding that provides support and comfort, then the hip belt pockets are attached to the belt. With the Swift, the pockets are the hip belt. No matter how tight I pull them around my waist they’d always end up slipping down. Another negative that had recently started happening is that both shoulder strap buckles don’t hold the webbing as firmly as they used to. I’m constantly retightening and retightening. It’s annoying and frankly it’s just not an appropriate product for my needs. Oh, and the left sternum strap webbing has come loose of the buckle when trying to adjust the height. I’m pretty dissatisfied with it.

After being measured and fitted for the Circuit by one of the outfitter’s specialists, I feel it’s going to provide me with a much sturdier ride, and the popularity of the ULA line with thru hikers is also very encouraging.

Captain Dan’s good friend, Ken Jolley was picking us up from the outfitters and driving us the ~90 miles to Dan’s cabin in NC. We’re taking a zero there and I’m hoping that I can rest up my ankles again.

The skies opened and it bucketed. We threw our packs inside large plastic sacks that Ken had brought with him and tossed our gear in the flat bed. Four guys on the back seat, Cap riding shotgun, and Tie Dye straddling the console. Sardines.

The rain was torrential the entire trip to Cap’s cabin and eased off later in the day.

His cabin is fantastic and had an almost Aquone Hostel feel to it. Completely open concept inside, 60″ flat screen, awesome kitchen with a massive butcher’s block island, and two bedrooms. There were two large leather sofas which were so comfy; I baggsied one right away.

By early evening we were all starving again so we made haste for a local Italian restaurant: Tuscany. Plates piled high with different types of pastas and sauces along with 25 wings, there was little left after our wolfing. Dessert followed, and with full hiker bellies we retired back to the cabin and chilled.

The sofa was hella-comfy.

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Zero #2 in Newport TN

I took another day off to rest my left ankle and a tendon on the top of my right foot; I was also expecting a package from home which had my Warbonnet Blackbird hammock and UQ – so excited to hang again.

Nothing really to report other than I did a little more laundry after a hot and sticky 3 mile walk to the post office to mail my tent etc back home. I was totally not comfortable sleeping on the floors in the shelters, so I can’t imagine I’d be any happier in the tent – I just can’t sleep on those NeoAir pads, they’re too thin. I got a hair cut, also – #1 buzz cut. Perfect. I picked up some tortillas and Babybel cheese from Walmart on the way home.

I joined Tie Dye, Captain Dan, and Tank (formerly just Tom – another hiker I named!) for dinner at a local steakhouse and we polished off an entire plate of ribs each.

I called Melissa to confirm a time for a shuttle back to Davenport Gap: she’d be at the hotel at 8:30am. Sweet.

I got to have some time with my honey over FaceTime, and I loved it. I’m glad I’m done with the Smokies and the lack of cell signal; it’s nice to be able to call home and chit chat with my better half; I miss us.

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Zero #1 in Newport, TN

I must have slept like a rock as I woke up in the same position as I’d fallen asleep – on my back, one arm on top of the sheets, the other underneath. My watch told me it was 7:15am, and I had no mouse shit by my head – brilliant.

Sweeping back the curtain I gazed upon the 6,000’+ Smokies ridge lines in the distance; my arms goosebumped, I couldn’t believe I was hiking on top of them only 24 hours ago. Majestic, they looked down upon on my humility with a nod of completion. I could stare at them for hours, they’re beautiful, but I’m glad they’re behind me.

My ankle took quite a beating over the last couple of weeks, and I’ve been nursing it like a baby. One thing I’ve learned very early on is that my feet are the only things that are going to get me to Katahdin. I can work through the mental stress, and the athletic requirements are becoming easier each day I’m out on the trail; I can’t believe how fit I’m feeling.

I emptied my food bag on the bed and went through everything I have; three days of food, that’ll get me to Hot Springs with no problem. Wifey is sending me some more food items like Ramen and taters so I’ll be set for another couple of days beyond that. I’m also getting my hammock back, this time opting for the Warbonnet Blackbird. I figured I may as well go for the WBBB now as its getting warm and it has the built in bug netting. It also has the foot box in the bottom which I’m really looking forward to; it means I can lie on a diagonal and sleep soundly and comfortably.

Tie Dye and I headed to Sagebrush steakhouse and pounded some appetizers while we waited for Captain Dan; he was on his way.

Seeing Cap walk through the door was awesome – I hadn’t seem him in three days, he’d lost a ton a weight – and looked really great.

Sat here with my two friends, I’m reminded why the AT holds such sentiment for many: it’s the people. Everybody is going through this; the pain, the aches, and getting in our own heads. It’s tough, but it’s so bloody rewarding – and when you can share that with someone you trust, well, it’s pure unadulterated friendship.

I also got to FaceTime with my wife, a complete and utter treat. Each day brings a heavier heart, new thoughts of her, of us. I can’t believe I’m away from our life together in NY; I feel responsible for what she’s going through. Like me, she’s going through her own journey and it’s difficult to know she has bad days – there’s nothing I can do to abate those feelings. Well, there is actually… I could get off the trail. Ironically, she’s one of the main reasons that I’m still on the AT. Her constant and unwavering support is extraordinary, as strong as oak, and she lifts my spirit with her positivity.

My spirits are lifted after speaking to her. We were in great moods.

I’m going to hit the sack very comfortably tonight. Wife, friends, a full belly, and a clean bed sans mouse poop.

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Zero in Gatlinburg

St. Croix, B Rocket and I headed out for the ACE (all you can eat) breakfast at Bennett’s down the street around 9:00am. I hit the buffet like a bull in a china shop and walked back to our booth with a plate high and wide with sausage, bacon, eggs, biscuits, gravy, and some other fixings; large glasses of OJ and water, along with cups of coffee filled the remaining space on the table.

Breakfast woolfed, we headed down the main drag to Walgreens and picked up some essentials: toothpaste, razor and shaving foam (I was ridding my face of everything except the stache again), an AC/USB plug for my iPhone, and some other crap.

Onto the NOC to pick up some trail food and new socks (I’ve lost a small clothes bag which contained my Marmot mittens/gloves, two pairs of socks and a pair of skids; Steve’s (Aquone Hostel) bandana was also in that bag, so I’m f*cking livid.

We checked out of the hostel — given it’s a dump — and checked into the Park Place Condos next door where Tie Dye, Cap, Mike, and Tom had gotten a room. The rooms were amazing: laundry room inside each condo, two separate bedrooms (one with two twins, the other with a king), two bathrooms (the master had a jacuzzi), larger living room, full kitchen with dishwasher and fridge, stove and plenty of cupboards. All the balconies backed onto a gorgeous river which flowed right through the town. It was a far cry from the previous night on in the hotel where nothing worked. I baggsied the king to myself.

Dinner was a feast of Pizza Hut, and all four of us pounded our pies: St. Croix actually finished an entire large sized (14″) “Supreme”. I got the meat sweats with two slices of my “Meat Supreme” to go and almost passed out.

A rain storm blew in and turned the street into a river. Walking back in the rain we threw our wet clothes in the tumble dryer back at the condo and hit the sack after some final food bag tweaking. B Rocket’s flip flops has turned into skis on the wet pavement, fun times.

Tomorrow we are getting a lift from Dave “Griztrax” Landreth back to Indian Gap Road.

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Out of town

What I’m learning very quickly is that while the trail towns are a total convenience for resupplies and much needed rest, they can also be a hindrance; one can become quite comfortable in a local hotel with a plethora of restaurants within 1,000 yards radius.

I did laundry today and shipped my hammock gear back to NY.

I’m excited to get back on the trail, and timely delivery pending, it’ll be tomorrow; I’m waiting for my tent, and it should be arriving tomorrow – the sooner the better.

A real treat after having dinner with the boys at Fatz was speaking to my baby at home. Although the conversation got a smidge stressful, I’m glad I managed to hear her voice for half an hour tonight.

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