Monday, November 16, 2009

Final Thoughts

Sea Monster already wrote an entry on Springer Mountain, so there's no real reason that I should as well, except that I feel like expounding a little bit on what the trail has meant to me. So this isn't a Springer entry, its just a trail entry generally.

Over the course of these last 165 days, the trail has had a lot of different effects on me. There was the initial, total elation: the inability not to smile when looking around, knowing I was on a cool adventure and further knowing that there was literally nowhere I'd rather be. I would burst into spontaneous singing, I'd run sections of the trail just because it seemed like it would be fun. But predictably, my passionate flame for such an outdoorsy lifestyle eventually cooled to a more temperate enjoyment. I'd still have moments where I was overcome by a view, or the fresh smells, or whatever... but I also got used to the reality that I was walking for 8 or 10 hours a day, and got really good at zoning out and daydreaming through the boring parts. The trail and I had our fights: there were certainly days where I felt like leaving altogether, days where the intensely close companionship with Sea Monster or the multiple days in a row of wetness or simply missing the companionship of my friends made me miserable. I specifically remember a period of about 3 days in northern New Hampshire where I was really considering quitting halfway, at Katahdin.

But fortunately I treated it as what it was - a spat, not a complete falling out. Maine was, in my opinion, the most beautiful and rewarding part of the trail. It was remote, and beautiful, and contemplative. The stars were unbelievable, the lakes were crystal clear (if somewhat leech infested, haha). And I fell in love again, and it was (if you'll excuse the cheesiness) a much deeper, less emotional, but more serious sort of love. We soon were hiking through super-long (and sometimes monotonous) Virginia. Here too, there were times that I was sure that as the summit date grew nearer I'd be nothing but thrilled to get home to material comforts and the people I love. But as it did get nearer, my emotional responses were not nearly so clear. When the end was still a full month away, I already found myself growing nostalgic. By the end, while I was (of course) very happy to come home, I also really missed the trail that I hadn't even left yet!

My favorite thing about the trail as a whole was the people: the hikers we met, and the trail angels from whom we always benefited so much. I've been so impressed, so often, at how kind some of these people are. Further, something about the trail seems to bring out the best in people. Maybe it's that people are naturally more contemplative in nature, or that they're more honest with the people they meet on the trail about themselves (after all, it's hard to feel judged by someone named Bacon). But it's hard to come off the trail without a general conviction that people are generally very good, and kind, and helpful once you get them to take an interest in something other than themselves. Maybe the folks on the trail have already taken that step, and that's why I feel like they're almost always so cool.

The trail was also really good for me in a whole bunch of ways. It's impossible not to think about more or less everything while you're hiking, and you can only think about movies and computers for so long. I really think its very healthy to spend some serious time thinking about the "important stuff," which is something that is easy to avoid in real life. I also am now totally convinced that most people, myself included pre-trail, spend WAY too little time outside. Screw skin cancer, there's something obviously very healthy about getting sun. That's my official pre-medical opinion, and I'm sticking to it. It's probably something very scientific, like the Vitamin D and a well-documented psychological effect, but I like it and am sure that everyone else would too if they spent more time outside. Though I am definitely getting skin cancer some day.

The other huge lesson we both learned was that we're living life NOW and if you want to do something, you should just make it happen. The trail wasn't even very physically challenging.  I mean, we burned a lot of calories, but I'm convinced that almost anyone could do it. The training is the first few weeks of taking it slow and easy, and then you realize that hiking is secretly just walking in disguise. And almost all of us are pretty good at walking! But that's a digression from the point, which is that we all find ourselves in a situation in which there's a "path" that everyone seems to follow, but that there isn't any terribly pressing reason that we all do so. I mean, we all go straight from high school to college to post-college/jobs to retirement. And there isn't anything wrong with that at all, of course, if its what you want to do. But we met some people (for example) that were taking a year between HS and college. Generally, they were discouraged from straying from the path, but I'm convinced that they'll know much more about themselves and what they want to do when they do enter the university. Again, not that taking a year off is better than going straight to school, but just that it's not necessarily better to go straight to college if, for example, you don't know what you want to go for yet. Take a little time, figure it out. We met plenty of middle-aged people who didn't seem to have a whole lot of cash, but lived the way they wanted to. A great example was a northbound friend of ours that lived in a van, but loved it: he got to drive around the world (he's from Holland, actually) and rock-climb all the time, finding odd jobs here and there to support the cheap but fun lifestyle that he loved. And for a final time, I'm not saying that this is better than the american dream... just that it's a valid alternative for a happy life, and if you want to live that way, more power to you. And generally, if you want to do something, whether its mainstream or not, you should 
do it.

I was never good at ending papers or essays or anything, but I guess that in conclusion, the trail was awesome. I'm glad I did it. The end.

The Best Thing I've Ever Done

start: Gooch Mountain Shelter, GA
daily mileage: 15.1
total mileage: 2178.3

Waking up this morning was like no other day on the trail. The feeling of anticipation about finally finishing this thing was unreal. I felt like I was conscious of all the parts of the morning routine. This was the last time I'd be packing my sleeping bag, last time I'd be eating pop tarts, Nutty bars, and a fruit pie for breakfast. I felt like I was doing everything deliberately this morning, somehow that made it all have more gravity. Reading through the log book,the entries were all longer than usual, everyone leaving their final sentiments to the hikers behind them. After breakfast the only food I was carrying was some drink mix, 3 Jolly Ranchers and a little bit of instant potatoes. Both me and Disney marveled at how small and light our packs were, like the display pack filled with foam they have at outfitters.

Stepping out I felt like I couldn't walk fast enough to get to the end. Not that I didn't want to savor the last bit of trail but was like waking up on Christmas morning and then having to walk 15 miles to get to the presents. The mountains up to lunch were no big deal, easy rolling hills. At lunch we were again hoping No Money might catch us. Our lunch break saw the last water run, the last of the stove fuel, and the last use of and Appalachian Trail privy. Disney called his Dad, "You're still coming right?". Both our dads are coming to get us and we each got a chance to chat before we took off on the final stretch.

There were 8 miles to go after lunch. The first 5 were flat as can be, leaving a 3 mile climb to the top of Springer. Both of us were somewhat surprised at the number of tourists and day hikers we came across. Not that we aren't used to seeing other hikers but because it's Saturday and gorgeous out (oh, did I forget to mention we have marvelous weather for our summit) there are more people than average about. I think my perception was even more skewed because my frame of mind was so drastically different from all those that I passed. I was hiking along feeling epic, I was about to complete the most amazing journey of my life, and all these goofers are just out pokin' around in the woods for the afternoon. In my head I was almost thinking, "What is wrong with you people?! Don't you know what today is!?" We passed a number of trail signs informing us that the mileage to Springer was in the single digits.

.9 miles from the summit is a parking lot. This was the place our dads met us and with champagne in hand, all four of us set out to stand on top of the mountain together.

The phrase, "This cannot be happening" I think may be overused, or used in situations that might not require such dramatic phrasing. About 100 yards after the parking lot I whipped out my camera to get a shot of all of us climbing the mountain. I pushed the power button 6 times with no response; this cannot be happening. We traveled 2177 miles only to have the camera break 1 mile before the summit!? REALLY?! I had an extra battery in my pack, back in the car, and Disney's dad also had another camera back in the car. Disney and I ran back to the bottom of the mountain while our dads plugged on. The spare battery didn't help, and after scouring the entire car Disney's dad had clearly not pack his camera after all. Left with no other option we set out for the summit and hoped for the best.

The climb up Springer was no big deal and with our return trip to the car our dads easily beat us to the top. If you remember Disney's description of Mount Katahdin back in August, Springer is nothing like that. There is no rocky crag, no 360 degree view, and no sign quite so iconic as the one on Katahdin. For all the things Springer lacks, it was never the less the end of our 5 1/2 month journey and the best experience of my life. As soon as we got to the top a guy up there started to ask me a question about trail conditions or something. I hated to be rude but I had to cut him off, "I dunno dude, but I just got up here and I'm done with the APPALACHIAN TRAIL!" There were several people camping on the top and they all came around to congratulate us. The camera situation was solved by one of the guys letting us use his with my memory card. We broke open the bubbly and had a great celebration on top. After a bit we met some people who turned out to be No Money's family. We waited for a while to see if he was coming up but eventually had to head back to the car. By lucky coincidence, however, we ran into our friend at the bottom just as he was leaving the parking lot and heading up the mountain.

Driving off the mountain we needed two things, showers and food. We were headed to Cleveland, TN for a hotel and Outback Steakhouse. Unfortunately, a rock slide re-routed us way out of the way, and we settled for lodging in a town called Madison. We all wanted a nice steak dinner so we asked the lady at the desk for advice. She suggested a place just down the road. She warned us the it didn't have much for ambiance but the steaks are good. Well, we got down there and the freaking place was adjoining a gas station, oh, and also closed. From where we were it was a half hour drive in the wrong direction to get to Outback but we felt like a bit of an adventure so we went for it, woohoo!

We all got steaks which were delicious but a problem came during the drink order. Disney left his ID back at the hotel assuming he wouldn't need anything and no mater how many pleading stories we told about how we had just finished the trail, not to mention three of us are Eagle Scouts, they would not serve him. Dude, vision denied. After eating I think we all were pretty tired so we went back to the room for some well deserved sleep.

I guess this concludes the story of me and Disney's incredible adventure. Now that I'm home people ask me things like, "did you have a good time?" and I can never quite come up with an answer that demonstrated how much a question like that understates the point. Absolutely I had a great time, but there was so much. I mean the trail was not just a trip I was on, it was my life for 5 months. I lived in the woods just like anybody else lives in a town. Instead of being away at school or whatever, I moved (with admittedly few belongings) into the mountains.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is nearly always a transformative experience for anyone who hikes it. We heard a story about a man who walked out on the trail with a .38 and the intention to kill himself and was saved by his experience in nature and with people. I certainly cannot claim to have had the course of my life altered quite so drastically, but something is different. Even together with Disney as a constant companion, I found plenty of time to be alone in the woods, alone with my thoughts. I submit that it is impossible to have that much time for introspection and not discover something about yourself. Admittedly I only got off the trail two days ago and am defiantly still misty with romantic feelings for the whole thing, but I really feel like the decisions I will make concerning the course my life will take from here are going to be altered by my experience.

The last five months have been incredible, and I think fully half of the wealth of my experience comes from the people I have met. I've met hikers, with whom I dearly hope to stay in contact (TRAIL DAYS '10!), and seen a truly beautiful side of humanity. Incredible trail people, from those who are gracious enough to open up their homes to dirty, bearded vagrants, to the people who stop on the road and let you and your gear into their car (sometimes fresh out of the rain), are what make the AT great. And lets not forget the volunteers that do the necessary trail maintenance to make the way passable for the rest of us, you guys rock! Thank everyone for taking the time to read out blog, its been laborious at times to compile and we hope everyone has enjoyed our work. I love the Appalachian Trail, and thank God for it.

One more dawn; one more day: one day more!

11-13-09 day 164
start: Blood Mountain Shelter, GA
end: Gooch Mountain Shelter, GA
daily mileage: 13.2
total mileage: 2163.2

We awoke to find our gear pretty saturated with dew (as expected), though somehow Sea Monster's sleeping bag still seemed dry. All five of us got moving at about the same time, though LB, Fiddler, and Tin Man are going 20 miles so they only have to go 8 tomorrow. Our dads won't arrive until later in the day, so there's no reason for us to  match them - we're just doing 13.

We all met up at the shelter 13 miles down the trail, us to stay there and everyone else to eat lunch. It was really nice to get in nice and early on the second to last day - gives us plenty of time to relax and enjoy the last of this nature experience. We said our goodbyes to each of them after lunch, as we probably won't see them again. So weird! We did hope that No Money would show up that night though (we'd heard he was summiting on tomorrow as well, and probably wouldn't want to go much more than the 15 that we were planning) but he ended up camping a few miles north. We ended up meeting up with him the next day, fortunately, but it was just Sea Monster and yours truly on our last night of the A.T. There was an enormous amount of nice, dry, dead wood all over (including several 2x4s and other pieces of scrapwood from who knows what), and we constructed a HUGE bonfire. There was a teepee inside a log cabin inside a teepee inside a log cabin. It was awesome, though we couldn't really sit by it because it was so scalding hot.

There was a lot of discussion about lasts. It was the last time we ate dinner on the trail, the last time we had a campfire, the last time we looked at the stars on the trail, the last time we fell asleep in our sleeping bags, even the last time we used our headlamps. It really is crazy.

Neel's Gap and Blood Mountain

11-12-09 day 163
start: Low Gap Shelter, GA
end: Blood Mountain Shelter, GA
daily mileage: 13.2
total mileage: 2150.0

The five of us (Me, Disney, LB, Fiddler, and Tin Man) all set out this morning heading 11 miles straight onto Neel’s Gap for lunch. Neel’s Gap, 30 miles from Springer, is the first big way point for northbound hikers. The fall out rate at Neel’s is big, and is typically the point where people who get on the trail with no knowledge of what they are in for decide that hiking isn't their think after all. The hike over to the Gap was fairly uneventful except for the conspicuous lack of blazing throughout. You would think that considering the high amount of traffic this portion of trail receives every year, the blazing would be impeccable, but what’r’ya gonna do? There where almost no white blazes anywhere and at one point there was a blue blaze, used to denote side trails, right in the middle of the AT. After walking for 30-45 minutes and seeing no white blazes you begin to question whether or not you slid of the AT somehow. Then seeing a blue your doubt kicks up more than a little. Never the less we found Neel’s Gap.

Neel’s Gap’s other claim to fame is that the trail runs “through the store”, the outfitter building that’s down there. While the trail actually runs through an outdoor breezeway thing, its still cool that it goes through a building. The outfitter is a great one and the guy who runs it has a deal for NOBOs where he will shakedown your pack for you, and let you know what you need, what you don’t need, and what you should be smacked in the head for even packing in the first place. This service is free but naturally if you seem to be lacking anything he has a fully stocked store to help you out.

After lunch we dawdled around the patio for several hours reading and what not. The factory laces on one of my boots finally broke and I used the down time to replace them with parachute cord. I want to digress for a minute to impress upon our readers how incredible these shoes are. I have a pair of Merrell Moab Ventilators, just cheap day-hiker shoes really. They are low cut, and not waterproof; just imagine beefed up running shoes. Honestly, I can’t imagine they designed to live much past 400 miles but I bought these things in Kent, CT, hiked to Katahdin, flipped back and have hiked the entire South on the same pair. That’s 1700 miles people! Admittedly there is no tread left and I can see my bare foot through the gaping holes in the side (my socks aren’t in great shape either), but never the less my “magic shoes” persevere. I think I’m gonna get these things bronzed, how’s that for a testimonial Merrell!

Four o’clock rolled around and we decided we should crank out the last 2.5 miles. Climbing Blood Mountain was a breeze, 1500 feet was like nothing. Blood Mountain Shelter, one of the oldest on the trail, is a neat old stone cabin with two rooms. As neat as the shelter is there is a mass of huge boulders right next to it and with the great weather we decided to cowboy camp on top. All 5 of us camped and the stars overhead are fantastic.

Bacon for lunch

11-11-09 day 162
start: Tray Mountain Shelter, GA
end: Low Gap Shelter, GA
daily mileage: 15.0
total mileage: 2136.8

Still cold and raining in the morning, so we weren't in much of a hurry to get going. Fortunately, the rain slacked before too long, and we got packed up and headed out. It was hilly terrain in the morning, and relatively flat in the afternoon. The trail was super wet all day long - it reminded me of parts of Maine where it could just be a swamp. We heard that 3-5 inches of rain fell overnight last night. At our lunch shelter, we found a whole bunch of food that some section hiker had left - drink mix, veggie sides (the expensive kind!) and even precooked bacon!

Otherwise, it was actually a pretty average day. Except for the fact, of course, that we're now only 3 days from Springer. Our proximity is feeling more and more surreal. I don't even know how I feel about it anymore... mostly a kind of disbelief. I'm really starting to look forward to seeing friends and family again.

Out of the Hotel and into the Rain

11-10-09 day 161
start: Holiday Inn Express @ Hiawassee, GA
end: Tray Mountain Shelter, GA
daily mileage: 11.0
total mileage: 2121.8

This morning we got to experience the incredible Holiday Inn Express hot breakfast bar. This bar really sets “the bar” for continental breakfasts, hot eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, as well as the regular assortment of cereals, pastries, and juices. It was great. Back in the room we packed up the food from our last trail re-supply and loaded our packs. After check out, it was out into the deluge courtesy of Tropical Storm Ida, and over to the library for the last trail blog update session.

Our friend Fiddler also maintains a blog of his trail adventures on the Trail Journals website
( This is where most of the AT bloggers upload their stuff, actually. While at the library we met a gentleman who is a regular hiker with his wife as well as an avid reader of Trail Journals. Simply by coincidence he had been reading Fiddler’s journal, complete with pictures, and then happened into town and hour later, only to run into the real Fiddler! He was a great guy and waited around with Fiddler and Tin Man at the Dairy Queen for them to eat and us to finish blogging then come over and eat. After all that, he drove us all back out to the rainy wet trail head.

The rain wasn't too bad from the start of our 11 miles but as we went along it got worse and worse. By the time we hit the shelter we were all soaking wet and cold. The three walls and a roof were a welcome sight. Not only did we have shelter, but who was there waiting but our long lost friend LB! We lost him back in VA when he had to go back home to OH for a few days. After getting back on trail he evidently turned on the jets and caught up with us. We found out from LB that he was planning on finishing the same day as us, and not only that No Money was right behind us and planning on the 14th as well. It looks like Disney and I will have company from those two as well as Fiddler and Tin Man in the final day.

Last state!

11-9-09 day 160
start: Muskrat Creek Shelter, NC
end: Holiday Inn Express @ Hiawassee, GA
daily mileage: 11.8
total mileage: 2110.8

After a restful night's sleep (only interrupted by the several occaisions in which Fiddler got up in the middle of the night to remove still-struggling mice from the traps and bludgeon them to death with rocks), we were pleased to discover that our worthy friend had set a new record for the number of mice caught at one shelter - 10! Such a prodigious feat required celebration, so we found all 10 mice scattered on the ground in front of the shelter and arranged them artistically near the fire pit. It was a beautiful thing: a bizarre, sort of post-modern cross between a monument to Fiddler's mouse-catching prowess and a morbid warning to the few remaining mice in the area. And a sickening sight for any other hikers coming after us!

We did 12 miles into Dick Creek Gap right quick, with almost no stopping. WE CROSSED INTO GEORGIA - OUR LAST STATE! It was an incredibly fast hitch into town (first car, Sea Monster wasn't even ready!) and hit up a Steakhouse for their $6 lunch buffet! Needless to say, for $6 unlimited steak was not on the menu. But we enjoyed it immensely nonetheless. We could tell it was Georgia immediately by the fact that literally everyone in the room except for us was drinking sweet tea. Awesome! Sea Monster tried some, and found it to his liking as well. Fiddler and Tin-Man met up with us, and we all discussed the fact that we'd heard it was supposed to rain heavily tonight and tommorrow (Tropical Storm Ida, I guess). We were going to "adventure sleep" under a pavillion somewhere or something, but we decided that between the rain, the fact we had 4 people, and the fact that we're almost done we might as well enjoy ourselves and get a room at the Holiday Inn Express! We got a good deal and sat around all afternoon watching movies and TV. I even jumped into their indoor spa for a little while. We got showers, did laundry, and did our last resupply late at night. We planned on updating the blog, but were too lazy... we'll do it tomorrow before heading out.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Short Cut

11-8-09 day 159
start: Rock Gap Shelter, NC
end: Muskrat Creek Shelter, NC
daily mileage: 24.6
total mileage: 2099.0

We had our nice short cut planned today that would cut the "24.6" trail miles down to 11 ( or so we thought, it turned out to be more like 15, but still). We made no hurry getting up and out. Because Fiddler wanted to be a purist, he had a big day planned that went all the way around so he'd be at the same shelter as us tonight. Tin Man came the short way with us. 2 1/2 miles after the shelter we ditched off the AT down a blue blaze that took us down and across the valley, across the Forest Service road, and back up Standing Indian Mountain where it rejoined the AT. The trail up Standing Indian as steep, overgrown, and paved with loose rocks covered with about 6 inches of dry leaves. No a super fun climb. The summit of Standing Indian was the highest we'll be for the rest of the trail, and the last point above 5000.

We made tracks Muskrat Creek Shelter and as we approached we could hear a penny whistle. Now, Fiddler had recently picked up a penny whistle, but there is no way he could have beaten us. Sure enough Fids was there and as we were lauding him for his ludicrously fast time he revealed he had in fact cheated worse than us. He'd realized with the late start his 24 miles was a bit ambitious and instead accepted a series of rides that cut it down to 10!

We built a nice fire and sat around cooking and reading. This is the new highest place we will ever be on the trail. Fiddler set the traps again and up to now we've got 8. One more and the record is broken, fingers crossed. Some coyotes are howling their insane screeching howl, what sounds like really close, its cool. 11 miles into Hiawassee and across the last border tomorrow for our last re-supply...crazy

Delicious food adventure

11-7-09 day 158
start: Wayah Shelter, NC
end: Rock Gap Shelter, NC
daily mileage: 14.8
total mileage: 2074.4

We walked a mile to the Wayah Bald Fire tower in the morning. It's a cool, stone one with a great view. It was Saturday (only 1 more week on the AT!!!) so I thought I'd call dad to make sure he was still picking us up in a week. He was still sleeping, so I called him back at lunch, where we confirmed that we had a ride back to Ohio. Lunch was awesome - we could have gone 0.5 mile off the trail to Siler Bald Shelter, but we had water and Siler Bald itself was a shorter side trail off the other side of the trail. We decided to climb up Siler Bald for lunch, where we ate and enjoyed a spectacular view in all directions. The weather has been glorious this whole past week.

The top of the bald had a little firepit someone had dug out, so we built our first ever afternoon fire to cook lunch on. We enjoyed sitting up in the sun eating lunch by our fire, leisurely reading our books for a while. During lunch, a little prop plane flew by. We waved, and he diverted his course to fly directly over us, and not too far above us at all! We could easily see him lean out the window to wave back. It would be awesome to have a pilot's license and a little plane!

We crossed several nice streams on the way to the shelter and washed out our faces and socks, which was nice. We finally got to the shelter and were sitting around getting ready to cook when we realized that a relatively nice forest service road was right by the shelter, and we weren't far from the town of Franklin! Maybe we could get pizza delivered to the shelter!

There was no signal at the shelter. Fiddler wandered all around for a while looking for some, but found nothing. But the idea of pizza was really in our minds now. I mean, we really wanted pizza. We were going to have our pizza. I pointed out that we had nothing else to do that night... screw it, let's hitch into Franklin!

Thus began our Franklin adventure. We got way out on the forest road and found some signal (and no cars). So we called all the pizza places in town. Noone delivered out that far. We called Google 411 and asked if there were any other delivery places in town, and called Chinese places, Italian places... none of them delivered way out to where we were. But we couldn't give up now, so we made a snap decision when we saw a single car drive down the road. We flagged it down and hitched into Franklin. Bear in mind, by now it was already dark. We knew going into this that we were going to get stuck in town, that noone in that whole town was going way out into the middle of nowhere late at night for us to get a ride with. But we wanted food.

So Fiddler, Sea Monster, Tin Man and I got into town, and ended up eating not pizza but Shoney's delicious sea food dinner buffet. When we finally got done, we called a Trail Angel listed in the book. He wasn't available. We asked around about a taxi, but there was none in town. We even called the police station, but they too were closed for the night. Yes indeed, things seemed dire for our young heroes.

Fortunately, a man who'd overheard our plight approached Sea Monster and said a family had offered to give us a ride. Some super nice people just decided to go way out of their way and drive us to the trailhead. We felt a little bad about imposing ourselves, but we've gotten kind of desensitized to it for better or worse... and made it back safe and sound. They kept saying they were glad to do it, that they were hikers too. So, safe and sound, we made it back to hike another day.

If Watching Moustraps Go Off is a Rousing Evening...You Might be an AT Thru HIker

11-6-09 day 157
start: Nantahala Outdoor Center, NC
end: Wayah Shelter, NC
daily mileage: 16.3
total mileage: 2059.6

We woke up with the sun to find our sleeping bags and gear soaked with melting frost. They don't call it adventure sleeping for nothing! We stuffed our gear in our packs and skedadled without incident. There was an open bathroom across the street, attached to the General Store, so we popped into to find it was heated and there was a bench. Seizing the opportunity we ate breakfast and repacked out stuff in there.

We made some nice early miles and while waiting at a shelter for Disney, Fiddler and Tin Man showed up; they'd been a the NOC in a cabin last night. A map at the shelter of the southern Nantahalas revealed a great short cut opportunity. I copied the map down so we could reference it later when the time came. Just after lunch we came upon one of North Carolina's many fire towers. The view from the top was great, 360 degrees and out in the warm bright sun. All four of us plugged along to the destination shelter and met a new Southbounder named "Statesboro". A while back Fiddler picked up some mouse traps and we had some good sport watching Darwin's forgotten children wander to their doom. "Oh, here comes one...there he goes, 'im" Awesome.

Adventure Sleeping!

11-5-09 day 156
start: Brown Fork Gap Shelter, NC
end: Bridge @ Nantahala Outdoor Center, NC
daily mileage: 16.0
total mileage: 2043.3

We've both begun experiencing some frustration at having to hike with so many leaves on the trail. The trail is often cut into the ground, and acts as a natural leaf-collector. Leaves are frequently up to the tops of our shoes, and the many layers of leaves are very slippery. It makes walking much harder when one's steps result in slipping backwards as much as they result in pushing one forward. Uphill is very much harder, and downhill feels like you're going to die. But it was a pretty uneventful hiking day. The trees are now almost totally bare so you can see much farther in every direction in the woods, but our hiking is so noisy because of the leaves that it's hard to imagine seeing many more bears.

We'd planned on getting to the NOC for a resupply and then hiking the 1 mile out from there to the shelter, and all was going according to plan. We arrived at this little outdoor center around 4:30, and approached the general store. But what is this? Closed for the winter! This is something that really should have been mentioned in the companion.

Fortunately, we run into a kindly guy who says he'd be happy to drive us 15 miles into the nearest town (Bryson City) so we can get some food, and then he'd even drive us back! This guy really saved our butts: it can be quite difficult to get a ride back from a big town to the little middle-of-nowhere places that the trail goes through. This guy's name was Jerry, but he went by Honest Abe. He was incredibly talkative, and about somewhat strange things... by the end of our adventure, he'd mentioned that he was telekinetic and could use a dousing rod. But whatever, he was a great guy. We grabbed some Arby's on the way back to town (it's now 5 for $6.95??? What's happened to the world since we've been gone?!?) and he dropped us off back at the NOC.

It was of course dark by now, but we were still going to walk the 0.9 miles to the shelter when Sea Monster suggested "adventure sleeping" somewhere in the middle of the outdoor center, and then just getting out of there before they opened up the next morning. I agreed, and suggested that if we were going to adventure sleep, we might as well do it in style... right in the middle of the Nantahala River, on the footbridge that is technically the AT. This was one of the more conspicuous places to cowboy camp, but the stars were gorgeous and it was the place with the least tree-cover where we could enjoy them most. And we figured we would probably not get arrested just for sleeping in the middle of a busy footbridge on someone's private property, just kicked off. Most likely.

The stars were really awesome - the Milky Way was crystal clear and we saw several shooting stars. Another lovely night on the AT.

I Missed Naps at Lunch

11-4-09 day 155
start: Fontana "Hilton" Shelter, NC
end: Brown Fork Gap Shelter, NC
daily mileage: 12.7
total mileage: 2027.3

I spent all last night tossing and turning. I don't know why I was so restless but I think the lack of sleep made breakfast that much more appreciated. Ox and Hopeful whipped up a big mess of pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Tons of food put us in a great, warm, full state. We sat around chatting for awhile and got a late start. We hiked half our miles before a late lunch. After lunch we got sucked into reading and both of us passed out into dreamland. Disney in the shelter, and I chose a nice sunny spot out in the dirt. After a 2 1/2- 3 hour lunch we got up and started down the old dusty trail. It was just like old times! The effect of daylight savings did, of course, put us into the shelter at dark. The only real adventure today was scrambling down the embankment to the water source. With a foot deep of slippery dry leaves and a 70 degree incline we would probably have been better off just sitting down and letting gravity take over.

Hiker Feed!!!

11-3-09 day 154
start: Mollies Ridge Shelter, GSMNP
end: Fontana Dam Shelter (Fontana Hilton), NC
daily mileage: 11.3
total mileage: 2014.6

In part because we wanted to make up mileage from our Gatlinburg stay, we were planning on getting to Fontana Dam Shelter by lunch and then power on to Cable Gap Shelter for a respectable 18 mile day or so. We knew about the hiker feed going on at Fontana Dam... we were just hoping that they'd be there for lunch. We had a great morning with the woodland critters, especially Sea Monster. He saw some little black things up on a ridge running away - when he got a good look at them, he realized they were wild boars! Awesome! Later, we both saw a bear that's been hanging around the trail for a while (in fact, he's been a subject of hiker trail buzz recently). Sea Monster snapped off some great pics of him right in the middle of the trail, up close and personal.

We met the guys running the hiker feed (Ox and Hopeful) just north of the dam. They were going into the woods to do some trail maintenance, but talked about all the wonderful food they'd be serving that night and the next morning... it was just something we couldn't pass up! You can't let hiking get in the way of your trail experience, you know. So we decided to stay. Ox gave me the keys to his truck (he was going to be doing maintenance for a few hours) so we could grab soap and shampoo and towels for the showers at the Fontana Dam visitors center. We had a lazy afternoon at the trail shelter there, which is one of the nicest on the trail. It's even nicknamed the "Fontana Hilton." Fiddler and Tin Man joined us later in the day, and Ox and Hopeful got back and cooked up an AMAZING dinner with red potatoes as a base, and sausage, peppers, onion, butter, sour cream, salsa, and some spices for flair. MAN SALAD! Then we built a giant fire with the absurd amounts of firewood they brought in their trucks and stayed up late chatting around the fire. An awesome night.

Disney and Sea Monster, Fresh New 2000 Milers!

11-2-09 day 153
start: Siler's Bald Shelter, GSMNP
end: Mollie's Ridge Shelter, GSMNP
daily mileage: 17.2
total mileage: 2003.3!!!!

Our new pilot friends seemed to be in good spirits this morning although their original plan of 15 miles or whatever turned to a discussion of whether or not it would be too much trouble to walk the 5 miles back to Clingman's Dome to their car...

All and all the morning was fairley uneventful but today was still a red letter day because...we crossed 2000 miles! Now that we are 2000 thousand milers we can get the patch from the ATC and go home, just kidding. We hit the the 2k mark just north of Russel Field Shelter, and for me anyway, the occasion was marked by seeing a huge black bear off in a Rhododendron thicket. I was starting to wonder whether we'd see any bears in the park but there it was.

Later on at Mollie's Ridge we met a lady out for a week with her 9y/o daughter. The girl was...very excitable, to put it mildly. We also met Snail Mail who was out from the Fontana Dam Shelter spreading the word to hikers about the "Feed" going on down there. Two guys are cooking breakfast and dinner for hikers. Unfortunately we aren't going to hit it around dinner time so hopefully they'll be around during lunch...

Crazy airline pilot adventures!

11-1-09 day 152
start: Grand Prix Motel @ Gatlinburg, TN
end: Silers Bald Shelter, GSMNP
daily mileage: 12.5
total mileage: 1986.1

Well, we really felt like we should leave Gatlinburg this morning but had a latish start, and Daylight Savings Time means that it now gets dark around 6:00 (ugh) so we settled on doing just 13 miles. We walked out to the road leading up to Newfound Gap and waited for quite a while to get a hitch (I don't think most of the tourists want to give rides to such scruffy bearded men) but we eventually jumped into the back of some guys pickup truck and started the long ride back to the gap (the traffic was awful out of Gatlinburg on a Sunday). When we finally got there we made the easy climb up Clingman's Dome. Clingman's Dome is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail at 6,643 feet, and though it isn't bald, had an observation tower with a spectacular view. The tower itself was pretty cool, first of all: it is a giant concrete structure that is only accessible by a huge, wide, gently sloping concrete on-ramp for people. There were a lot of people up there, but the view really was cool: to the east all was clear and you could see for dozens of miles, but to the west low clouds blanketed the entire landscape all the way to the horizon, with mountaintops peeking through like islands.

At lunch, we hit the 200-mile-to-go mark (awesome!) and just afterward I impaled my face into a fallen tree branch about a centimeter above my right eye. It punctured the skin just above my eyebrow, which bled freely for a few minutes... I'm very glad it didn't poke my eye out, as it definitely would have destroyed it. Just as we were approaching the shelter we hit a really great sunset, which is now easily visible most nights as the tree cover is thinning considerably with autumn. The whole western horizon was a burning orange color for almost 180 degrees, while there was a full moon rising over the cloud-filled valley in the east. We finally got to the shelter where we met with our friend Nexus and three completely crazy airline pilots.

These guys were awesome, though not necessarily the spitting image of airline pilots. They pulled out entire, giant glass bottles of Scotch, Tequila, and red wine. They shared well, but while we drank in moderation they proceeded to get completely wasted. Falling down, they told stories of their adventures with airline stewardesses and sounded shocked when we mentioned that we didn't know that they spent much of their time in the cockpit sleeping and watching movies. Remind me not to fly Delta in the future! Nexus, Sea Monster and I went to bed a few hours after dark but they stayed up drinking and falling and yelling joyfully at one another until well into the morning...

Halloween in the G-Burg

10-31-09 day 151
start: Grand Prix Motel @ Gatlinburg, TN
end: Grand Prix Motel @ Gatlinburg, TN
daily mileage: 0
total mileage: 1973.6

The fact that our plans are always subject to change was never more evident than in the proceedings in Gatlinburg. Yesterday we were going into town for an hour than back on the trail. Of course vampire movies sucked us into staying. No problem, we'll just get up early and crank out 19 today. Or sleep in 'till checkout and cut it back to 13. OK, 13, solid plan. We packed up and set out into the rain and over to the outfitter to give Steve and Wendy a call in order to get a lift back up to the Gap. We couldn't get a hold of them right away and it was raining pretty bad and it was suppose to clear up tomorrow and we were going to be on the much anticipated Clingman's Dome we found ourselves back at the Grand Prix checking in for another night. 0 in Gatlinburg!

First order of business was to go up to the room and explore Halloween Special opportunities on television. We watched the Munsters, Halloween, and assorted other mindless schlock. Truly it was a lazy day and very little was accomplished. After a certain point we decided to check out exactly what Gatlinburg had to offer. We walked down the strip and perused a number of stores where we could outfit ourselves with ninja equipment, awesome. Back at the motel we had an unexpected surprise, our old friend No Money was checking in! After loafing around all afternoon and evening we picked up some Halloween beer and chilled out while we got sucked into a 3+ hour Nicole Kidman/Hugh Jackman movie called Australia. After the film it was time to suit up and hit the town to see what G-burg Halloween scene had to offer. I say suit up, but Disney hit the sack, and No Money didn't have a costume, so I was alone as the prettiest princess in Gatlinburg. I'd spent the afternoon altering the 8 year old's princess dress I'd picked up.

Me and No Money had a good time at the bar. I spent most of my time scoring 1/2 price and, indeed, free drinks by telling the female waitresses and bartenders, "Baby, I just walked here 2000 miles from Maine to see you and you won't gimme a drink deal?!" Sweet. All in all good night and seriously we are getting out of this town tomorrow...

Gatlinburg sucks us in, Part 1

10-30-09 day 150
start: Ice Water Spring Shelter, GSMNP
end: Grand Prix Motel @ Gatlinburg, TN
daily mileage: 3.0
total mileage: 1973.6

 We got up nice and early this morning with big plans: we were going to hike 3 miles into Gatlinburg, resupply, and then hitch back up and hike 4.5 miles out that day. It's tough to make big miles on a resupply day, but this was a reasonable plan, right?

We made it to Newfound Gap where we met lots of day hikers and tourists. We really impressed one couple who met us just as we were coming out of the woods into the big parking lot there... they took our picture and everything! Then we met up with a nice guy who turned out to be the pastor of a nearby church, and even though he wasn't headed to Gatlinburg he gave us bunches of snacks and gum and fancy flavored water. Cool! It took a little while to find someone to give us a hitch, and when we finally did it was with a great group of people who went a bit out of their way to get us into town (they were really headed to Pigeon Forge).

We explored Gatlinburg for a little while before settling into a Shoneys for lunch (we hit it at just the right time when they had their lunch buffet out but hadn't taken in their breakfast buffet yet, so we got 2 for 1!!). Gatlinburg is very weird. I don't actually think I like it very much - I don't know, it's just pretty bizarre. I guess it became such a tourist town because of the smokies, but it didn't seem like many of the people there were the outdoorsy type. In fact, the town is not at all outdoorsy - it's really just a mega tourist mecca. But if you want Old Timey Photos or ninja gear, this is the place for you. There were about 7 or 8 separate shops for each... not joking. It seems like people now come primarily because of the touristy stuff, which is a bit odd... it's this town tons of people come to visit all the time, but only because there is lots of touristy stuff which is only in that location because people visit it all the time.

Anyway, we enjoyed walking around and finally took the cheap and convenient trolley up to the library, way up on the other end of town. The librarians were dressed up as vampires for Halloween: very startling. After spending several hours there updating the blog (and letting much of the day pass us by), we figured it was really time to get going if we were going to hit the trail. But then, we saw the poster.

Vampire movie night, tonight at the library! Interview with a Vampire, and (more importantly) Dracula! Wow! I had just read Dracula, and Sea Monster was in the process of reading it at the time. We clearly had to stay just one night to attend this cinematic tour de force. The vampire librarians were very helpful at finding us the cheapest hiker motel, and after going to the grocery to resupply we got a ride there from some great trail angels named Steve and Wendy. Soon we were getting our first motel room on the whole trail. The Grand Prix was pretty great, and we enjoyed our showers and laundry. We watched some of the Munsters (which is hilarious) and soon departed for the vampire movie night.

The library was at the complete opposite end of town, and the map of town is NOT to scale, so we spent about an hour walking most of the distance there because we thought it would be faster than riding the trolley. Of course, just as we were getting to the library, the trolley arrived just in time to beat us and rub it in our faces. We watched Interview with a Vampire (good, if pretty weird) and were all excited for Dracula when we realized that the trolley would stop running before the movie was over! We really didn't want to walk all the way back to the motel, so we had to skip out early and make it back to the motel. It was pretty great laying in bed watching movies and TV shows until the wee hours of the morning, though...