Front Royal to Duncannon

Appalacian Trail

I say goodbye to Shake n Bake at the trailhead. As always, I feel a little lost as I head out alone. I’m not sure how many miles I want to do: I feel slow and sluggish the way I always do leaving town. I pass two section hikers. “Are you Fun Size?” They ask. Scratch is a few miles ahead and told them to expect me. Suddenly I have purpose again. I put my head down and charge.

I catch him around 3pm. We hike together on and off, stopping for breaks on our own schedules. There’s trail magic by a highway and I grab a soda for the morning. I hit the shelter 24 miles from town at dinner time. Face Plant is already there and Scratch rolls in behind me. I’m glad for their company: it would be easy to be lonely tonight. There are section hikers there too, and, as always, I am the only woman. 

One of the section hikers gets up to pee multiple times in the night. I don’t think anything of it, but I notice when I’m a little ways from the shelter that my poles are bent. He obviously accidentally stepped on them during the night and didn’t bother to say anything. I’m extremely grumpy about this- I have over 6,000 miles on these poles. To make matters worse, it’s snowing and I’m about to hike something called the rollercoaster, which is probably not named that because it’s a lot of fun.

I pass a guy who I assume is day hiking shortly after. He offers me a Gatorade and I turn it down since I have trail magic soda left from the day before. I joke about the sign saying to leave some for Scoutmaster. Turns out this guy is planning on meeting Scoutmaster the next day. I say goodbye with instructions for him to tell Scoutmaster to hurry up  and don’t think much more about it.

I grump my way down the trail, past the thousand mile marker, up and down the rollercoaster hills. The snow moves in enough that I don’t want to stop for lunch, which also makes me grumpy. Then, I climb up to Bear Den rocks. “You made good time!” It’s the man from earlier. “Did you eat lunch already?” There’s a bag of Gatorade and bananas with a cheerful “save one for Fun Size” written on it, but he has something special just for me. He hands me a bag with Chick Fil’a in it. I sit with him on the rocks and chat while I wolf it down. Then, he hands me a bag of cookies to share with the others at the shelter. 

My mood does a 180 as I’m heading out and I practically dance down the trail. Face Plant catches me a few hundred feet from my lunch spot, so I put him in front of me so I can chat with him. We’ve been going for a few hours when he lives up to his name and falls over quite spectacularly.

“I’m ok! I’m ok!” He starts to pick himself up. He goes to grab a water bottle that’s fallen from his pack. “Oh no. I don’t have time for this.” His little finger is bent oddly, obviously dislocated. He swears a few times. I’m already thinking about the road we just passed and how fast we can get help, but he just reaches over with his other hand and pops it back into place. He apologizes for slowing me down, while I crow about what a badass he is all the way to the shelter.

It’s an easy, but rocky, 8 miles to Harper’s Ferry in the morning. I race the boys, hiking through the historic town to the ATC office. A lady there smiles at me, tells me where to charge my phone, and takes my photo to add to the collection in their log book. It’s an AT rite of passage. She also numbers it. I’m the 7th northbound hiker to come through this year.

We get lunch with Scratch’s friend who has driven from DC, and then I go pick up my package. My friend Liz has mailed me a fruitcake. It takes a little hunting: it’s not at the hostel it was supposed to be at, but it turns up at the post office. I take it back to the ATC. A brand new flip flopper is there, so nervous he is shaking. I share some fruitcake with him and Face Plant and he calms down. It’s good fruitcake- good enough to even cure first day jitters, apparently.

I head out with Face Plant, hiking easy miles along a canal until we climb away. We reach the shelter and find 4 people already there. One of them has his tent set up inside. “Room for two more?” I say, nicely letting them know I’m planning on sleeping there. “Actually, I think we’re full.” One of them says. I’m flabbergasted. “There’s only four of you right?” He nods. “This is a six person shelter. We’ll fit.” The one guy takes down his tent and everyone moves over, but my love affair with shelters is definitely coming to an end.

Maryland and the start of Pennsylvania bores me. It’s flattish and a little rocky, but there’s no challenge. I do 25s with Face Plant and Scratch and we still find ourselves sitting in the shelters by 6pm. We tick off new states and cross the halfway point, but the trail mostly winds along flat ridges, dropping down to manicured state parks. I get better cell service in shelters than I do in town. I miss the wilderness.

Still, the weather has drastically improved. The sun beams down and flowers unfurl. Butterflies flit in the breeze. I’ve mostly forgotten how to hike when it’s not 40 degrees. I sweat salt streaks onto my dress and struggle to drink water. I take breaks and realize I need to actually find motivation to move on- there are no shivers to prompt me to start hiking again.

After a few days of this, I say goodbye to Face Plant, who is feeling the milage and staying in Boiling Springs and head out alone. A mile down the trail, a non-ultralight tent is set up. “Hiker or homeless?” I think, as I always do when something looks a little out of place. But there’s a woman standing out front with muscular legs and bright sunglasses. She says goodbye to whoever is in the tent, and comes towards me. And I see that it’s the woman from Shenandoah, the woman I am pretty sure is Anish.

She falls in maybe 50 feet behind me. I hike fast, trying not to embarrass myself. She catches me quickly, so I let her pass and try to keep up. She comments on my dress and we chat a little about hiking.

I want to ask if she’s who I think she is, but Anish is one of my heroes and I’m shy. Most people outside of the long distance hiking world have never heard of her. Even a lot of thru hikers don’t know who she is. But, as the current PCT speed record holder and the former AT record holder, she’s one of the strongest, fastest hikers on trail. She was my favorite person to mention when guys made comments about women not being as good at hiking (now, of course, I just out hike them).

But I remember Shake n Bakes message this week that our mystery military official in Shenandoah was Paul Selva, a General in charge of the air force and the second highest ranked military official in the US. And I talked to him. Anish is just a woman with holes in her shirt and dirt caking her calves. I can do this.

“I don’t want to be creepy, but are you Anish?” She confirms that she is, so I introduce myself. “I thought you were, but I didn’t want to be creepy either.” Anish replies. Anish knows who I am?! She says she has seen my register entries and saw my photo at the ATC. I think about how I know all of the other hikers, especially women, on trail in front of me. It hadn’t occurred to me that others might do the same. She asks where Shake n Bake is, and we chat more about hiking. I have to jog a little to keep pace. After a half mile or so, I’m getting tired, so I tell her I can’t keep up any more and she vanishes around a bend in the trail.

I pull into Boiling Springs around lunch time. Scratchs family is meeting him there and they’ve left trail magic for us. Anish, Anish’s fiance and Now or Never are there and I chat with them a little before going to get lunch. I leave town during the heat of the day. It’s 14 flat, open miles to the next shelter.

It’s mostly through farmland. I should be bored, but it makes me nostalgic for the CDT. Cows watch me, eyes dumb in the heat. At the end, I take a break in the shade before the climb to the shelter. I’m filthy- the parts of me not covered with heat rash are caked in dirt, but I’m suddenly wildly happy again.

Weather moves in overnight. It’s cold and drizzly as I knock out the 11 miles to town. I lose all feeling in my fingers. It takes an hour of gripping a hot coffee mug before they work properly again. But I don’t mind too much. After all, I have new shoes here, which I will need for the infamous rocks of Pennsylvania.

Fun Size and Shake’nBake, off on another whirlwind adventure: Waynesboro to Front Royal

Appalacian Trail

I poke my head out of the hotel room long after hiker midnight. A car pulls into the parking lot and a familiar head leans out of the window. “First star!” Shake n Bake shouts. 

We spend most of the day resupplying, and shuttling Shake n Bake’s car 100 miles down the trail. He tells the shuttle driver his bear arms joke and it’s like no time has passed since the PCT. We are dropped back at the trail, where it’s a short seven miles through the sunshine to the first shelter. It’s a Saturday, so tents are everywhere. I am the only thru hiker, but still feel like I’ve stepped back into the bubble.

Lucky charms and nutella hot chocolate

Shake n Bake is notoriously bad at mornings, so I give him a break. We sit and drink coffee under my tarp until almost everyone else in the shelter has headed out. We’re only planning on 13 miles to the next shelter anyway. I struggle behind Shake n Bake on the hills: I’m still exhausted from my big section,  and his long legs eat up the ground.

We pass a parking lot and I hear a shout. “Hey!” It’s Young Blood, a CDT friend, out for the weekend and hoping to run into me. We catch up on the side of the road and then it’s time to hike some more. We reach the shelter before 3, beating everyone who left before us. We chat as they trickle in. One of the section hikers is some sort of high up military official, who has body guards tagging behind, but he and his wife are very down to earth and planning on thru hiking in a few years. As always, the people are what really makes the AT interesting. We bum Easter candy from the body guards while Shake n Bake tries to get me a job. They ask if I can shoot a gun and drive a car more than 100mph. Since I don’t even carry pepper spray and 3 miles per hour is my top speed, this obviously isn’t going to work.

Like taking candy from a secretive government agency

We do slightly better leaving in the morning- we do have more miles to make today after all. We climb up and drop down in the way the AT does, bumping into Leapfrog and Safety Pin time and time again. They are slack pack section hiking southbound, sometimes with their dog, Aspen, and sometimes without. We stop for a nap, and still make the shelter before 6. A mouse rustles next to my head half the night, before I get fed up and grumpily move away from it.

It’s cold in the morning and we’re slow to leave. I’m still sleepy. It spits rain after lunch, so we stop early, curling up in a shelter at 2pm for naps. CT, who will soon be called face plant, shows up again. He’s a flip flopper who started at Waynesboro and he’ll keep pace with us for the whole section.

Spot my Ursack. Hint: it’s not the white one.

It spits rain in the morning, but we head out anyway. We need to make up some of the miles we sacrificed yesterday in favor of naps. The trail is mellow: Shenandoah is flat by AT standards. We have one good rain shower, and then the wind blows the clouds away.

And the wind keeps blowing. My dress spends half the day fluttering around my waist (good thing I prefer walking in the back). We climb up to Stony Man cliffs and the wind almost knocks me over. We pass Leapfrog and Safety Pin’s van, where they have left us cokes under the front tire.

We see Leapfrog and Safety Pin talking to Face Plant (who earns his name on this stretch by going head first into some rocks and receiving a nasty gash) at the shelter we’d planned on stopping at. They recommend pushing onto the next shelter and it’s clear why. The wind howls directly into the opening of the shelter, and I’m instantly cold. Pushing on means a marathon, and Shake n Bake is fighting toe blisters. We don’t have much choice though, and Shake n Bake is a trooper, not complaining even once.

We’re a little lazy in the morning. It’s cold, so I give Shake n Bake a break from his normal Fun Size alarm clock. “At least it’s not cold enough for our water to freeze!” I’m chipper as ever. Shake n Bake opens a bottle and watches as ice crystals immediately form, his water turning to slush. He shoots me a very unimpressed look.

Can you see Shake n Bake?

We pass Leapfrog and Safety Pin. They’ve taken to giving us a little trail magic every time they see us, and this morning they hand us candy bars. Then, it’s less than a mile to a wayside, where cheeseburgers and coffee are calling our name. 

After lunch, a woman who I’m pretty sure is Anish (former AT and current PCT speed record holder) passes us, slack packing. I know she’s trying for a calendar triple crown this year. We leapfrog back and forth, but I’m too shy to ask if she’s who I think she is.

We reach a shelter just 3 miles from town. We sit on the porch, eating dinner and watching the sun set. Deer come down and rustle in the leaves behind the shelter, watching us eat. I tie our Ursacks to the bear pole (I’m much too short to be able to hang them the way they are supposed to be). We turn in, but I can’t sleep. I lie awake, listening to the deer, when I hear something hit the bear pole. I wake Shake n Bake and he peers over the railing. Raccoon! Well, it wouldn’t be a hike with him if we didn’t have to fight our old nemesis. Shake n Bake goes and hangs our bags well out of the reach of clever paws. In the morning, it’s just a few miles to town and my first full zero in over 400 miles.

Pearisburg to Waynesboro

Appalacian Trail

Handy is a fantastic host at Angel’ s rest, shuttling us around and feeding us. We can only stay for the night though- we have 24 miles to crush. We get a late start: 9:30 by the time we’re on trail. Scoutmaster and Old Soul got off trail earlier than Overhill and I (who I might have accidentally called Underhill in my last blog, oops), so we have two separate starts. I hike slow with Overhill, talking about life and the PCT. We don’t remember meeting on trail, but we know so many of the same people and we swap stories

We take a break at the first shelter, and after 20 minutes, Scoutmaster and Old Soul roll up. We hike together along a ridge, then drop down to a road. There’s a short, sharp climb up to our home for the night- a thousand feet in just a mile. A section hiker is there with a fire going already.

In the morning, Overhill tries to talk me into hiking with him. He’s going 27 miles today, but we’re only planning on doing 20. Bigger miles are always tempting, but I like my little trail family, and we’ll split up soon enough. Old Soul is getting off trail in Catawba, Scoutmaster is meeting his wife there for a few zeroes, and I have my own plans for the week after.

As far as days go, it’s pretty straightforward. We have some nice climbs- we climb 2,000 feet in two miles. Old Soul and Scoutmaster drag a little: we have significantly increased our mileage lately and it’s starting to show on them. I take the lead on the last section, hugging an ancient oak tree before our last climb of the day, where I quickly lose the others. I wait at the top for a minute, but the temperature is dropping fast and I’m quickly chilled. I run to the shelter, throw down my sleeping bag (which dampens immediately in the mist) and crawl inside to shiver.

I wake up to snow. Ugh. Just a little was forecast, but when Old Soul goes to use the privacy, she tells us it’s pretty deep. Great. It’s cold, so we’re slow to pack up. I lead the charge, breaking trail. On the top of the ridge, it’s almost a foot deep. I lose the trail as it goes over some rocks, so Old Soul takes over leading.

And here, the trail turns to garbage. We’re high on a ridge, made up of steep rock slabs. With almost a foot of snow on them, the slabs are almost impassable. We take turns slipping, slamming hard into the rock and sliding into the bushes below. Poor Old Soul is leading and takes the brunt of the falls. It’s slow going. We’re doing less than a mile an hour and it’s some of the most dangerous snow hiking I’ve done. Not in a fall to your death kind of way, but the potential for a twisted ankle or broken bone is high. And in this temperature, hypothermia wouldn’t be far behind. 

Finally, we are off of the slabs and just on to normal, run of the mill, AT rocks. We pick our way down to Niday shelter, where someone has left us trail magic. There’s a road another mile down the trail. The idea of freezing in the shelter, with all of our wet stuff, is not appealing, so we head to the road. There’s not a lot of traffic.

The first car to see us stops. It’s one of the weirdest hitching interactions I’ve ever had. The guy tells us how far we are from anywhere, that he’s just going to walk his dog and that he can’t help us. His words don’t faze me- I’ve hitched from far more remote spots with far fewer cars (thanks for the confidence boost CDT!) But he takes about ten minutes to tell us all of this, and I’m terrified another car will come along and not stop because of him. Finally, he leaves. Two minutes later, another car comes along, stops, and we all pile in. Only 30 minutes later, we’re at a hotel, heat cranked as high as it will go, wet sleeping bags and socks draped over every surface.

Scoutmaster’ s wife and mother in law show up over night. They shuttle us back to where we got off trail. It’s only 8 miles to the next road crossing, where they will pick us up. Uphill is fine- we follow Overhills footprints. Downhill is harder though. I break trail and some of the drifts come to mid thigh on me. They are starting to set like concrete and they rob me of my momentum. Then, we are back at the car. We eat dinner at the Home Place, a restaurant just a few miles from the trail.

The next day, we southbound the Dragons Tooth. It’s the first place on the trail with rebar to climb, and is scrambly. Northbounders are supposed to climb down the sketchy stuff, but considering it’s still snowy and we have Scoutmaster s wife to shuttle us around, it seems safer to climb it instead. 

The climb itself is fun, though the rebar is a little disappointing. We detour to check out the tooth itself, then it’s back down. Down is not fantastic. The drifts are deep and I am tired. It’s still fastest for me to break trail though, as Scoutmaster and Old Soul lag behind, and I’m already thinking about beating the next storm to Daleville.

We meet Mrs Scoutmaster at the bottom, where she has Chick Fil’a waiting for us. Then, they drive me back to where we started this morning. Scoutmaster is going home for a few days and Old Soul is leaving for a few weeks. I say goodbye, and then I’m alone. Suddenly, despite the hordes of day hikers coming back from McAfee knob, I am deeply lonely. 

I reach McAfee knob. So many places are overhyped, but this is one of the best views of the trail so far. Three guys are hiding in the bushes, to take photos of a proposal happening in a few minutes. I persuade one of them to take my photos, and then I’m slogging my way to the shelter.

There’s already five people in the shelter. One of them, Roub, ushers me inside, even as he tells me two more people are on their way. “There’s always room for one more in this weather!” Almost everyone there either thru hiked in 2015, or is a long section hiker. Cruise and Roll Around show up to join me, Roub, Dirt Time, Cider, Splash and Sticks. It’s only a 6 person shelter, so we get very cozy, very quickly. Everyone else had been planning to hike to Daleville, but is bailing with the storm approaching. They offer suggestions on restaurants in town, and then I ask where to stay. “We’re at the Wildwood Inn,” Roub says. “You could stay with us, but you’d have to sleep on the floor.” Everyone giggles a little and I know I’m missing something. Then Roub calls his wife to let her know to expect a houseful of hiker trash and the joke is clear. Roub gives me his number with instructions to let him know when I’m close.

I pack up fast in the morning. I throw my steripen in a pocket- I need to get water before I leave and I don’t want to be repacking in the crowded shelter. Roub comes over and gives me a litre, so I roll out. A few miles down trail, I stop for breakfast and go to stow my steripen. All that’s in my pocket is the cap. The rest is gone. It feels like someone has punched me in the stomach. I’ve put 6000 miles on that steripen. Thruhiking teaches you that possessions aren’t important, but when you have so little, you tend to get attached.

I make my way along icy tinker cliffs and drop down. I fall once, and manage to roll both my ankles. It’s one of those days, I guess. Still, I make good time. Roub picks me up, drives me to his house where everyone else is hanging out. He keeps accidentally calling me Fun Times, which mortifies his wife. After a shower, we all drive to The Home Place, for my second visit.

Roub drives me back to the trail early in the morning. I have miles to make- I need to be in a town on Friday, but I’m already hoping to miss Thursday nights thunderstorm. The snowstorm has hit mostly to the south- we only have an inch or two here, so I make good time. I stop at a shelter after 25 miles.

I’m up early. I’ve got a big climb up over Apple Orchard mountain and the shelters are weirdly spaced. I can do 18… or 30. Well. Let’s see how this goes. I climb up and up, the snow getting deeper as I climb. There are footprints to follow though, which at least removes the mental fatigue of trying to find trail. Then, suddenly, the climb is over. I drop down, fast as I can through the snow. Then I’m at the shelter, just 20 minutes before dark. Twisted, a yoyo-er is there, with his tiny Chihuahua, Baby. I eat my dinner in an exhausted stupor. 30s are so hard on the AT.

I’m up early and leave the shelter fast, but I’m dragging from the effects of the day before. I cross the James river, and then I’m climbing again. The elevation change this section is staggering- massive climbs every 20 miles or so, which, of course means every day. It rains a little as I climb, so I throw up my umbrella.

I go to stow my umbrella half an hour later, but it won’t close. It’s starting to break, so I just tug on it a little. It folds up and I see the layer of ice on it. Uh oh. Soon the rocks are coated too. For every step I take, I slide back a few inches. I climb a few hundred more feet and give up and put on my microspikes.

The wind is howling. My hands are cold and numb, and soon they stop functioning all together. I have to paw at my snacks, unable to press my fingers together with any strength. My head feels foggy and I just want to stop and sit down. I start to realize: this is the beginning of hypothermia.

There’s nowhere to warm up and no more layers to put on though, so I just keep going, fighting the urge to take a break. I crest the top of bluff mountain, and then I’m dropping down. I’m out of the wind and it warms as I lose elevation. Soon, my head clears and feeling returns to my hands.

I reach a shelter with a few section hikers. I had planned on pushing on to the next one, but it’s even higher than Bluff Mountain and I’m not eager to get that cold again. One of the hikers gives me some homemade dehydrated meals. He warns me that they are big portions. I dump a bunch of olive oil in them and eat two without pausing for breath. He watches me with big eyes. “Well, big portions for a section hiker, I guess,” he chuckles.

I have another day of massive elevation change, so I leave the shelter before it’s even light out. I turn my headlamp off just as I begin the climb proper. Up and up I go. Dark clouds build on the horizon. I get a little service as I crest the ridge. I check the weather- no thunderstorms, but my heart still pounds.

It’s up and down, up and down all day, until I make the summit of the Priest. I stop in at the shelter there- it’s traditional to confess your sins in the logbook there. Then, it’s a long way down to the river below. The next shelter is another climb and I’m running on empty, so I throw up my tarp and camp for once. It rains a little during the night, but I stay dry in my little rhododendron grove.

The next day starts with, surprise surprise, another climb, up Three Ridges. The weather is changing. Today is hot and humid and I sweat as I climb, chugging water. I don’t remember how to hike in the heat at all. After the peak, it’s a gentle downhill and then a long, rolling, mostly flat ridge to humpback rocks, where the trail drops down. I stop at a shelter just five miles from town.

It’s an easy walk to the road in the morning. The trail comes out just by the interstate and hitching looks terrifying. Luckily there is a list of trail angels who will give you a ride posted at the trailhead. The 4th one I call answers, and twenty minutes later, I’m speeding towards town in his big yellow truck.

The amazing snow slackpacking: ┬áMassie Gap to Pearisburg

Appalacian Trail

The AT hasn’t had a lot of trail magic yet. At least not the organized kind- I’ve been given Mountain Houses by section hikers and found beers in shelters. But the trail magic I have found is exactly where I need it- a tote of food when I am running out in the Smokeys, and a few days of slackpacking so I can sleep in the warm during more than a week of cold and snow.

We zero in Damascus, waiting for the storms to blow through. Hikers trickle in and pile up- no one wants to head out in the snow. Scoutmaster talks to his family and makes a plan. They’ll be here on Monday, can take us back to Massie Gap, and slackpack us. The thought of more time in town chafes, but it’s supposed to snow a little more each day, with nighttime temperatures in the low 20s. My sleeping bag can barely handle that and the skin on my feet is red and sore from the cold. I’m worried about trench foot. It’s the smart thing to do. I did my suffering on the CDT and I have nothing left to prove.

Emmett and Sherrie pick us up at 7 and drive us up to Grayson Highlands. The windy road makes me feel sick and the snow deepens as we climb. By the parking lot, there’s a good 6 or 7 inches. We head out. The trail is a little challenging to find at times, but we stay on it. 

We pass a shelter, and suddenly there are footprints! I duck inside and check the register: Old Soul was here! She can’t be far ahead, and sure enough we find her just down the trail. She falls in behind us as we try to convince her to come to town. Her budget is tighter than mine, but we talk her into it. No one wants to be out in this snow.

We hike and talk, hike and talk, then before we know it, we’re back at the truck, where there are snacks and soda. We stand around shivering for a little, then all pile in for the run to town

We head out early for more of the same. It’s cold and snowy, which has quickly become our new normal. There are lots of rhododendrons to bash through. I’ve taken to calling them slowdodendrons- the snow bends down the branchs and you have to knock it off before you can pass. It’s impossible to knock it all off, and without fail some of it will fall down the back of your neck. It’s almost as slow going as the snow drifts that are blowing across the trail.

Emmett and Sherrie meet us with pizza at lunch and then Emmett heads out with us. He talks with Scoutmaster, but I’m starting to get sick of slogging. I put in my ear buds and have a dance party at the back of the group. By the time we make it to the highway, we’ve done 25 miles through the snow and it feels like nothing.

We leave a little later in the morning. Emmett and Sherrie drive us back to the trail and we say goodbye. Almost immediately, we are slogging through knee deep snow drifts, trying to spot blazes and the occasional visable bit of trail. Sometimes it’s little more than an indentation in the snow that lets us know which way to go. It’s only 15 miles to the shelter, and we make it with plenty of time. It’s supposed to get cold, so we huddle in our sleeping bags, making fun of Scoutmaster for everything from falling over to letting his fame go to his head.

It’s bitterly cold in the morning. We all sit around moaning about it and collectively decide we’d rather nighthike when it’s supposed to be a little warmer. I leave first, and am slowed down by the rhododendron enough that everyone else catches me. Im a few miles down the trail when I see it. “Bear, bear, bear!” I yell. A cub scampers up a tree. We look but we can’t find mum anywhere. We bushwack to give baby plenty of room and then we’re past him.

We climb up and up, taking turns to break trail. In places it’s drifted past my knees, and firm enough to posthole. It starts to get dark when we’re 3 miles from the shelter. I’m the most confident navigator, so I lead. The snow covers everything- we look for blazes, but mostly, I feel where the trail goes in my soul. You learn the personality of a trail: the AT charges along the tops of ridges, rollercoasting up and down and hugging rocky outcroppings. When in doubt, I pretend I am a trail designer. I don’t get us lost, and we make the shelter with less than an hour of Night hiking. We’ve only done 20 miles, but it’s one of the hardest 20s I’ve ever done.

Tarps are the best shelters

I’m up and out before every one else in the morning. The cold has thrown my hiker hunger into over drive. I have double dinnered, double breakfasted and eaten all my snacks. Now, I am pretty much out of food. I bum some peanut butter from Old Soul, eat a cliff bar, and then I only have one Lara bar to get me to town. It’s 12 miles, and the snow is mostly melted out. I fly- 3mph and I’m at the little store just outside of Bland for lunch. I eat a cheeseburger and a mound of fries. Scoutmaster and Old Soul show up and order and I get a grilled cheese to keep them company. Then, an ice cream the size of a small child and I’m finally done. In fact, I feel a little sick. We roll out of town and climb to the shelter, clutching our stomachs and groaning the whole way.

Underhill shows up just before dark. We chat- we both hiked the PCT in 2016 and we know some of the same people. In the morning, we all roll out separately. I follow Underhill’s tracks through the snow drifts, as we leapfrog. Underhill and Scoutmaster detour to a store half a mile off trail, but I keep going. 

I do stop at Dismal falls, a little off trail. I sit down and take a break. A man comes up to me and asks if I’m hiking as part of a group. I tell him I am (which would of course be my answer even if I wasn’t.) Then he asks “Are you Fun Size?” I’m a little freaked out. It turns out he watches Scoutmasters videos and recognized me. I’ve had in depth conversations with Scoutmaster about how he feels when strangers track him down and recognize him (for the record, he’s fine with it), but the idea of people doing to me is not something I’m comfortable with. Luckily this guy is super nice and not creepy at all, but it still weirds me out.

I talk with this guy for a while, then head down the trail. I catch Scoutmaster and Underhill, who passed me while I was off trail, and then we find Old Soul too. The sky turns dark above us and Thunder starts to roll. A half mile from the shelter, the rain pours down and lightning flashes. I feel like the AT has helped with so many of my CDT issues, but my fear of thunderstorms is still strong.

Another storm rolls in around 10:30. I pull my sleeping bag over my head, shaking and hyperventilating til it passes. In the morning, we talk about Wild and people hiking to heal themselves. I joke that I’m hiking to heal myself from my last trail, but it’s not really a joke.

It’s 20 miles to Pearisburg and I fly. I’ve eaten all my food again and I’m hungry and eager to make the most of the sunshine.

Not so dismal

Skunks and Snow: Watuaga Lake to Massie Gap

Appalacian Trail

I spend the day at Boots off hostel mostly in bed, trying to feel better. Scoutmaster shows up around dinner time. My zero let him catch back up and I’m so happy to see a friendly face.

In the morning, Scoutmaster has a slackpack set up back to the hostel. His trail fame gets him a lot of free stuff and this is one of those things. I decide to ride his coat tails- this will give me two extra nights inside. I started this trail with a cold that lingered for a month. Part of the reason for that, I’m pretty sure, was the constant cold and damp of the trail. Hopefully this time I can beat it.

We get dropped off 20 miles from the hostel and hike fast through the drizzle, keeping up a steady stream of chatter. Scoutmaster loves to tell stories, and today he tells me about his Scout troop at home. We’ve done over half our miles for the day when we see Old Soul. We mess with her a little, telling her she’s going the wrong way

It’s an easy day hike and we make good time back to the hostel. We don’t see any other thru hikers and no one has shown up at the hostel. Lonely section of trail.

In the morning, it’s spitting snow. We climb into the truck and head back towards the trail. As we go up, the snow thickens. It’s 22 miles to Damascus. I do not want to camp in this. We start hiking. The wind strips all the warmth from my body. There’s only an inch or so of snow, but it’s enough to soak my feet. We run and run, and then we’re crossing the state line into Virginia. A quick round of photos, and then we are heading into Damascus, where there is a warm hostel.

We leave Damascus early, heading out into more snow. It thickens as we climb, with flurries coming down. Soon my feet are soaked again. We hit a shelter after 16 miles, where the snow is 4 inches deep. It’s supposed to get down to 23 overnight, so I wear every piece of clothing I own.

My feet ache with the cold all night, so I don’t sleep much. It feels like it’s around 20 when I finally get up. Both Scoutmaster and I are slow, hesitant to get out of our sleeping bags. It’s COLD! 

I head out a few minutes before Scoutmaster. There’s fresh snow on top of the tracks of a section hiker, Snail Pace, who is just ahead. I climb up as the snow deepens. Luckily, Snail Pace has been breaking trail for me. The drifts are to my knees in places. I meet some section hikers who are excited to hear Scoutmaster is just behind me, and then, at the top, I pass Snail Pace.

Now I’m breaking trail through six inches of snow. It’s slow going. The AT is covered in rocks and roots and is trecherous at the best of times. Add a few inches of snow and staying upright is almost impossible. I reach a road and eat lunch, where everyone catches me.

After the gap, we climb up and up, slogging through the soft snow. It’s another 5 miles to the shelter we’d hoped to reach, but we’re exhausted from the snow. I go to get water and come back to four wild ponies who have decided to come to the shelter. They are obviously used to hikers and one of them nuzzles me. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself: I pet him.

A few weekend hikers show up. I pass out, exhausted from slogging through snow and a bad nights sleep. Then, WHACK! I’m woken by Scoutmaster banging his hefty foam roller on something. Wha…? I startle into wakefulness. Some kind of large rodent is coming out of the rafters, making runs at our food bags. He’s black and white, but he doesn’t have the skunk pattern. Some kind of weasel?

He tests me and I thwack him a few times with my trekking poles. He is utterly unafraid of us and hitting him barely deters him. Then he makes a run at Snail Pace. Snail Pace is having none of this nonsense. He gets to his knees and chases the rodent around the shelter rafters, jabbing at him. Snail Pace corners him, stabs at him a few times, and then an awful smell fills the shelter. Google will tell us later that this was a spotted skunk, something none of us had ever heard of before. He spends the rest of the night terrorising us. We try to hit him with our poles just enough to keep him away, but not so much he’ll spray us. It’s a rough night.

In the morning, the wind is howling and it’s snowing like crazy. We’re exhausted, all our shoes and socks are wet and we smell terrible. We corner the weekend hikers and ask them where they’re getting off trail. One of them tells us he’ll take us where we need to go.

It’s a rough few miles to the parking lot. We follow Anthony, our weekend hiker savior, but he keeps losing the windblown, snow covered trail. Scoutmaster keeps using Guthooks to find it- without the app we’d still be wandering. Finally, we pile into the car, stinking of skunk, for the long ride back to Damascus.

Hostel hopping- Erwin to Watuaga Lake

Appalacian Trail

There’s a quiet beauty to the AT that doesn’t translate well in photographs. It’s the way the light plays on the clouds, beams streaming through the layers. It’s the way the mist caresses the hillside, moving in and out. It’s the pine forest, air so still and heavy that even the light seems trapped, moss growing on everything. And I’m starting to appreciate it just as much as the towering spires of the Wind River Range and the Sierra Nevada.

I’m antsy in the morning as always, leaving the hostel in Erwin before 8. There’s a storm moving in as always, and a long climb that will be even worse in sweaty rain gear. It spits rain as I head across the bridge, but my umbrella keeps it at bay. I pass the first shelter and the wind picks up, so I throw on my rain coat.

I climb up and up, over beauty spot and a quiet, pine tree covered mountain. We’re gaining elevation- close to the height we were at in the Smokeys. The sleepy trees we’ve seen so far have mostly been oak, still leaveless, but I love these high elevation pines. I drop down and find Old Soul, stopped on a switchback. She’s headed to the same shelter, so I fall in behind her so we can chat.

We wake up to rain. I have a choice- a big day that will put me on top of Roan Mountain, in the highest shelter on the AT, in rain that is supposed to turn to snow. Or seven easy miles to Greasy Creek Friendly, a highly recommended hostel. It isn’t much of a decision. 

Old Soul heads out first. Scoutmaster and I dilly dally- there’s no rush with such low miles. It starts to rain heavily as I make my way down the side trail to the hostel though, and I wish I’d hurried a little more. Still, we are welcomed with hot showers and hotter coffee. There’s a town shuttle to an all you can eat buffet. I don’t need to resupply- I have enough food to get past Damascus, but the hostel owners need to run some errands, so we drive around town. By the time we get back to Greasy Creek, the wind has picked up and it’s pouring rain. I check the weather forecast- high wind warnings tomorrow and a low of 23. With wind chill, it will be below zero. I have an elderly 10 degree bag. This isn’t going to work. But there’s a hostel in 28 miles. I can make that, right?

I don’t sleep well. Both my ears and my throat hurt and it keeps me awake, so it’s easy to get up at 6am. Two cups of strong coffee later and I’m ready to fly. I leave as the sky is lightening. Just a few hundred feet above the hostel and there’s a dusting of snow.

I climb up Roan Mountain as the wind picks up. It blasts one side of the mountain as the trail switchbacks around: the other side is sunny and calm. I alternate between freeze and thaw, until I am high enough that the wind scours everything. There’s ice covering the trail and I stop to throw on microspikes and all of my layers. Then I crest the top. The wind is relentless, blasting the pines, so they shake and moan. It must be below zero up here with wind chill. I can’t stop hiking for fear of hypothermia, and my water freezes.

On the way down, I run a little, trusting my microspikes to catch me on the ice. This works well until I punch through a puddle, soaking one foot and then the other. Great. Now I have no choice- I have to make the hostel or risk frost bite. The trail leaves the pines and climbs up Round Bald, and then Jane Bald. I run a little- I can feel my shoes freezing, which is disconcerting, but my toes inside are warm enough.

I drop down, past one shelter and then another. It’s warm enough to stop for a few seconds, so I grab a honey bun and eat as I walk. I don’t dare sit down. I climb back up, over little hump and towards big hump. The wind has picked up again, and it blasts at me as I cross the saddle and climb towards the summit of Big Hump. I can’t stay on the trail as it gusts and I realize I must look drunk, staggering against it. A few hundred feet from the top, I can barely stand and I think I may have to crawl. Then, somehow, I am over, dropping down the leeward side of the mountain, literally running the last five miles to town.

I make it to the bar in Roan Mountain at 5:30. I open the door and am met with cheers. Everyone inside had known I was on my way and was betting on when I’d show up. The owner hands me a free beer and tells me only one guy made the same run last year- and he didn’t show up til 7:00. 

I wake up sick in the morning. My cold is worse, and I’m seriously dehydrated from the day before. I think back- I drank less than a liter, didn’t eat lunch, and only sat down for a second to put on my microspikes. No wonder I feel so bad. I sip water, and by the time everyone is ready to go to breakfast, I feel well enough to head out. It’s an easy enough day- flat by AT standards, with lots of waterfalls to look at, but I’m dragging. I stop after just 12 miles, pitching my tarp under a rhododendron in the most protected spot I can find. It’s supposed to get to 23 again, so I wear every stitch of clothing I own.

I barely sleep. I’m so congested I can hardly breathe and my feet ache from the cold. At 6, I give up, packing everything away, shivering in the morning chill. All my stuff is covered in frost. I cough and wheeze my way up the trail. There’s a hostel in 21 miles. I’ll feel better if I can just be warm, right?

It’s going ok, until I hit a root. My ankle gives out and I go down. There’s no pain and I’m not injured, but I stay down for a few minutes, crying a little and feeling sorry for myself. I was eating a bar when I went down, so I keep eating while I cry and it suddenly strikes me how ridiculous this is and my tears turn to laughter. Why do I do this to myself? I pick myself up and keep going, down to spectacular Laurel Falls. I leapfrog with Scratches, who’s getting off trail at the hostel, a little.

I drag myself up and over Pond Mountain, a pointless, viewless lump that deposits me by the hostel. I shower and sleep and in the morning, I don’t feel any better. It’s the last good weather day for a while, but I know when to push and when to back off. It’s time for a zero.

┬áHot Springs to Erwin

Appalacian Trail


I’m the only hiker in Hot Springs. There’s no one to hang out with, eat with or joke with. This makes me a novelty- one man asks if I’m SoBo and can barely believe I’m NoBo. Everyone is fresh faced and enthusiastic about hiking season. I can only imagine how burned out everyone will soon be.


I do my town chores: buy food, new shoes, drink water. Then there’s nothing to do but eat and read. I sit at the bar with a patio over the creek and read the books that normally make my heart hurt- A Walk in the Woods, Wild, Thru Hiking will Break Your Heart. I read one book on a zero on the PCT, but normally I don’t have time. The long nights on the AT have given me plenty time. Then Zack and Achilles show up. They’re about to take two days off and I know I won’t see them again for a while, but it’s nice to hang out with them. Zacks dad shows up to pick them up and brings Tank the dog with him.

I get breakfast before I head out in the morning. I’ve successfully stuffed myself over the past 24 hours and as the trail climbs, I drag myself up the hill, sweating in the heat and struggling with my motivation.

I’ve being doing about half a mile an hour, so it doesn’t take long for Scoutmaster to catch me. I tuck myself in behind him, and chatter away as we climb. My mum watches his YouTube videos, so I’ve heard of him a little. We make it to the shelter at 3. It’s too far to make it to the next shelter and the weather is supposed to turn, so we sit at the picnic table and tell stories. Some guy, Ken, has left some stuff at the shelter and a SoBo has told Scoutmaster weird things about him, so we make up outlandish tales about Ken, scaring ourselves a little. 

Ken doesn’t show up during the night to murder us, but a mouse spends the entire night scampering. I can’t really sleep, and I’ve come back on trail after two bad nights sleep, tossing and turning in a bed that’s too soft. I’m still up at the crack of dawn though, packed and ready to go while Scoutmaster is still in bed.

I drop down then climb up. After lunch, the trail splits. There’s an “exposed ridge” trail and a bad weather trail. I look at the clouds. Ok, let’s do this. The trail is fun, on a tight little ridge with plenty of rocks to hop over. Someone on Guthooks described the trail as a dangerous rock scramble, but my palms don’t even get sweaty once.

I come down off the ridge and nap a little in the sun. I won’t make it to the far shelter, so what’s the rush? I rouse myself when dark clouds blot out the sun. More bad weather. I hustle to the shelter. I’ve been sitting waiting on Scoutmaster for an hour or so when Valium and Tarheel roll in. They are occasional section hikers who live near by and are out for the weekend. Tarheel hands me a beer and Valium shares some wine with Scoutmaster. The guys stay up late with a fire, but I’m worn out from bad sleep and the beer, so I tune out their chatter and sleep hard.

It’s raining in the morning, so we all hang out til 9. Valium gives me a breakfast mountain house and offers to take my trash, including the ridiculous Valentine’s day balloon I found on the side of the trail. There’s hardly any organized trail magic this early, but this unexpected kindness is far more genuine.

I don’t know why this is sideways, sorry.

Scoutmaster and I head out together, climbing Big Butt mountain and dropping down to climb back up, the way the AT does. In real life, Scoutmaster is a prosecutor, and he tells me stories from his cases which are far more interesting than any podcast. I fall a little behind to eat, then further behind when I get service for the first time in a while, high on a ridge. By the time I’m hiking again, I’m chilled. The temperature is dropping fast.

It rains in the morning, but I head out anyway. I drop down under the highway, then climb up and up to Big Bald. The clouds have come down, despite this supposed to be one of the better weather days. I think it might break as I crest Big Bald, but it’s too cold to stop and wait for better weather.

I drop down into the trees and out of the wind. I’ve just finished eating when Squatch, a SoBo, comes up. We exchange the normal niceties, then, “Do you really think you’re going to make it?” His tone is derisive. Normally, I’d give a flippant answer about going to try (I know too many people who’ve quit within a 100 miles of finishing to think of anything as certain) but this guy has got my hackles up. “Well, this is only my third long distance trail.” I start putting on my pack as he starts to mansplain shelters to me. I don’t have time for this, so I tell him I’m getting cold and channel my anger into climbing the hills as fast as I can. My first AT jerk. Well, I’d been warned they’d be out here.

It sleets a little as I drop and climb, drop and climb. Then the weather breaks and I dry out just as I reach the shelter. It’s crowded, with SoBo section hiker Guru, Scoutmaster, and Old Soul, a hiker who got on trail in Hot Springs.

The temperature drops overnight and it’s hard to get out of my bag. But it’s only 7 miles to Erwin, where there’s an all you can eat pizza buffet.

The Smokeys (Fontana to Hot Springs)

Appalacian Trail

I wake sweating in my sleeping bag. I don’t need to look outside the shelter to know ragged clouds are racing across the stars. I push my bag to my waist and try to sleep. The storm is coming.

I leave the Fontana Hilton in the morning. It’s the nicest shelter on trail so far,  featuring hot showers, a flush toilet and a solar charging station (it doesn’t work, but the thought is nice). From here, the trail climbs to Clingmans Dome, the high point of the AT, some forty miles away. And all 40 of those miles seem to be uphill. 

I’ve left before the boys, so I have the trail to myself. I climb the first big hill, stopping to check out the fire tower. The wind howls, clouds racing. I put my head down and walk hard. The first shelter is 12 miles in and I reach it just as the rain starts. Research is there, eating lunch and I chat with her for a while, til the boys come up. We’d only planned on another 3 miles to the next shelter (in GSMNP, thru hikers have to stay in shelters), but Research is planning to do another six. I decide to go with her- I’ll see the boys again the next night.

We hike fast in the rain, mostly dry under our umbrellas. The shelter is mostly warm and dry, but loud. The rain pings off the plastic roof and the tarp flaps in the wind. I think it will be too loud for me to sleep, but of course I do.

It’s nice in the morning, despite the weather supposed to continue to be bad, so I linger over coffee with Research, chatting. We head out into the mist (This is, of course, the AT definition of nice) Its not too wet, but the wind screams like a jet engine. It starts to rain a little, but it’s too windy for umbrellas. I put on my mostly nonfunctional rain jacket and hope for the best. The boys pass us in a blur, and the rain strengthens, so I put down my head and charge after them.

We all stop for lunch at a shelter, but my jacket is already soaked through and I get cold quickly anyway. I shovel down my bagel and head out into the storm alone. My world shrinks to the 20ft I can see in front of me, and the wind. I hike fast for seven miles, not stopping to eat or drink, until I get to the shelter we’d all planned to stop at. I duck inside just as the rain starts to pour. The boys limp in just as I begin to get bored, and Achilles doggedly tries to start a fire.

The rain falls all night. In the morning, I get up to pee, slide my bare feet into my shoes and squeak a little. They are frozen. My bear bag, hung high, is also frozen, and it takes me 15 minutes of pawing at it and warming the knots with stiff fingers, to slide a pack of M&Ms out. I grumble about knowing how bears feel, and Zack jokes about having to hang food higher to keep it away from me. 

I head out first, climbing on the icy trail. Clingmans appears almost deceptively easily, and by the summit, my bag has thawed enough for me to be able to eat a more substantial breakfast. I descend on icy trail. The weather has broken completely and I almost dig my sunglasses out of my bag. I dry my wet things at lunch and do food math- I’m a little short to get to Hot Springs, but there’s a hostel where I can at least buy Snickers bars, though I don’t want to stop.

I pass the highway where you can hitch to Gatlinburg and it is crawling with tourists. But there is a tote of food- trail magic! My first of the trail, at mile 200! I eat a banana and drink some apple juice, but there is resupply food too. I take a few things- hopefully enough to get me all the way. The trail provides!

I cross the North Carolina – Tennessee border. I’ve actually been crossing it all day, but this is the first time it’s been signed. Families huddle around it, taking photos, so I don’t stop. The trail to Icy Springs shelter is equally crowded, but I don’t care. I got trail magic!

The weather moves back in overnight. It’s misting as I head out, past socked in Charlie’s bunion, and onto the ridges beyond. The wind is roaring though, and it strips all the heat from my body. I hike fast and don’t stop, not even for lunch, til I get to the shelter. The boys are close behind, then Giggles, a Southbounder, then Research. Dear, sweet Research cooks stuffing for dinner and gives me half the pot when she can’t eat it all. Maybe I do have all the food I need, if I fly.

I say goodbye to everyone in the morning. Research is getting off at Davenport Gap to get her dog, and Zack and Achilles are doing the same in Hot Springs (Just my luck to hike with people who normally hike with dogs in a National park!) So our little group is breaking up. Freed from trying to stay with my friends, I need to do big miles to make it before my food runs out.

The day is downhill, at least to start. I practically run, dropping below the clouds to the sunshine. I detour 0.6 miles to a firetower, with views over the valley below and my first cell service in almost a week. I check the weather. Thunderstorms are forecast tomorrow. Crap. Tomorrow I have Max Patch, a famous bald. My Guthooks description basically just says “Don’t be up here in bad weather.” I do some mile math. If I do 25 miles today (26.2 really, with my firetower detour), I can hit Max Patch around 10am. Okay. Time to run.

I drop down to the interstate. Of course, what goes down on the AT must come back up. I climb a few thousand feet. I sweat in the late afternoon sun. It’s over 70 degrees. I reach the shelter within seconds of needing a headlamp. My first AT marathon.

I wake at 4am with a dehydration hang over. Ugh. You’d think I’d be better at hiking by now. I sip my water, sweating in my sleeping bag. Part of me is tempted to just start hiking, but I feel awful. By 6:30, I feel a little better. I pack by headlamp, heading out just as the sun touches the clouds racing above.

One day the CDT will be this well marked

It’s a long climb to Max Patch. I look at the clouds through the trees. The Smokeys behind me have a wall of black above them and it’s racing my way. I hike fast- after Max Patch, there are gaps where I can hide if I need to.

I crest Max Patch before 10, then drop down and down. I watch the sky carefully. There are two lines of dark clouds on either side of me, but above me, only sun. This isn’t the CDT, I remind myself. The AT has training levels. I climb Bluff Mountain, fear pounding in my veins that the clouds will shift, that I’ll hear the awful reverb of thunder. I think I hear it in the bass notes of the wind, the sound of distant airplanes, but the sky itself is silent.

The trail drops for 11 miles from Bluff Mountain to Hot Springs. Fatigue makes my feet heavy. 25s are hard on the AT, and following my longest day so far with an equally challenging day is exhausting. Now the thunderstorm danger has passed, the thought of town food keeps me going. I reach hot springs an hour before dark, where a shower and a cheeseburger wait for me.

Hiawassee to Fontana

Appalacian Trail

We leave Haiwassee as the sun comes out. It’s only a few miles to the North Carolina Border, where Bolt and I take photos. It’s too windy to stop for long though, so we climb steeply until we find a spot out of the wind for lunch. Then, it’s up over standing Indian Mountain, to a grove of rhodendrons to camp. I stick my head out from under my tarp and watch the stars, while coyotes yip.

I leave before Bolt in the morning, on the long climb up Albert Mountain. His heels are raw and bloody and his knee is bothering him. I know our days hiking together are coming to a close. He catches me at a rock gap shelter, just five miles from Franklin, where I’ve stopped early for the night.

We make it to Franklin in the rain. The second car to pass picks us up. Bolt chatters to the lady in front, while I pet her sweet dog. In town, I check the forecast. Rain and thunderstorms. I think about hiking in that, shudder a little, and go to the brewery with Bolt instead

I spend a day in Franklin, jittery on a couch. I just want to hike! But I know I should hike smart, and the CDT has left me with fears deeper than I realized. Then, the weather breaks. I say goodbye to Bolt, who is staying to rest his knee, and catch a shuttle to the trailhead. 

I climb in the clouds, leapfrogging with Mark the dog and Mark’s  Mom. I say goodbye to her after Wayah bald, where she is camping. I hike another 5 to Cold Springs shelter and my first night alone on trail. I’m getting better at ignoring the shelter mice: one bops me on the head and I barely wake up to swat at him.

I pass Santa first thing in the morning and get to check out his sweet hammock set up. Then I drop, almost 4,000 feet to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. I stop in at the outfitter to print my Smokeys permit, and then I have to climb, another 4,000 feet to the ridges above.

I stop at a shelter 7 miles in. Achilles and Zach are already there, trying to start a fire. A mouse runs across my sleeping pad, then leaves me alone all night 

I say goodbye to the boys, who are only planning on doing 9 miles, and head out. It starts to rain and I unfurl my umbrella, as I cross Cheaya bald. I drop down, but I am tired, so tired. As always, these big climbs leave me drained. I stop at the shelter 15 miles in, a little disappointed, but so sleepy. I remember Thatch telling me that some days on the AT, 16s are harder than 30s. He was so right.

I’m just getting ready for bed when Achilles and Zack roll up. They did a big day after all! We all pile into the tiny shelter, where the mice harass Zack all night, but leave me and Achilles alone.

It’s early and I’m messing on my phone, trying not to wake Achilles and Zack. I try to blog a little, but end up accidentally deleting my post. No! If you’re wondering why this entry is a little sparse, that’s why. Frustrated, I make my coffee and hike out the five miles to the highway. It’s another few miles, on a closed highway, to my resupply point, where I’ll see the boys again. From here, I head to the Smokeys. Rain is forecast, and there, on the highest point of the AT, that might mean snow.

The beginning (Amicalola to Hiawassee)

Appalacian Trail

I stay with Meg, and Corey’s parents, in a house outside Atlanta on Lake Lanier. Corey’s parents are section hikers, and open their home to me. 

Meg and Candace hike with me from Amicalola falls. I go into the visitor center to register. The woman there asks if I’m thru hiking. She sounds unsure. “Yes?” I answer. I’ve never had to answer questions when starting before. I hike through the arch and onto the approach trail. For about 200ft. The trail that runs by Amicalola falls is closed. We take a side trail that reconnects just above the falls. 

We hike quickly, laughing and chatting. The trail goes over every lump on the way to Springer and my calves burn a little. We see day hiker after day hiker, but no other thru hikers. It’s cold- too cold to hike without my puffy, but not so cold I don’t sweat on the uphill. I guess it’s going to take a little while to figure out AT layering.

We crest Springer and take another round of photos. I’m finally on the AT proper. A mile later and I say goodbye to Candace and Meg at the parking lot. I hike fast, happy to be alone for the first time in weeks. Soon, I see my first thru hiker. He’s very young and I identify him by the orange tag on his pack which matches the one the visitor center handed me. He looks like a kid on his first day of school and I know how he feels. Will I make friends? Will I learn what the AT has to teach me? We leapfrog a little- his name is Austin, but then I lose him on a long uphill.

I reach Hawk Mountain Shelter a little before dark. It’s a long way to the next one and it’s supposed to rain. Four brothers are there for the weekend, trying to light a fire. I find a corner and I cook my little dinner. Austin shows up and takes another corner. We’re about to fall asleep when a nighthiker comes in. I can see by the light of his headlamp he’s not like the others. Huge beard, tiny pack: he is one of my people.

Unfortunately, he’s going the wrong way. Big Tex is almost done with his SoBo thru hike and will be heading to the PCT. We swap stories and I’m so happy to be around other hikers.

I wake up before it’s light. Rain patters on the shelter roof, but the trees look strange in the half light. Snow? No. Ice! All three of us take turns sitting up, groaning, then laying back down. I’m on my second cup of coffee when the freezing rain lessens enough for Big Tex to head out. Austin follows, but I’m struggling with my motivation.

Both Austin and Big Tex asked me why I’m hiking. I gave them a cop out answer- to finish out my triple crown. Its bugging me a little as to why I’m hiking though. Both the CDT and PCT went to areas I really wanted to visit. The AT just wanders in the woods.

I head out. The rocks and roots are coated in ice, but the leaves still offer plenty grip. I pass Austin before lunch, then wait for him at Gooch Gap shelter while I eat. I like this leapfrogging. I get the solitude I want, but not too much.

After lunch, I’m walking through the mist when a huge owl swoops overhead. It lifts my spirits and I am so happy to be out here. I wind through the forest to a campsite by a creek. I still have an hour of daylight, but the next five miles there’s no camping unless you have a bear can and I don’t feel like solo night hiking over spooky blood mountain. Another thruhiker, Jersey, is there too. He tells me he started the day before me. I’d been feeling a little glum about my weather induced 16s, so this cheers me up a little.

It’s cold and windy in the morning, so I pack up fast, skipping breakfast. I say goodbye to Austin and Jersey and start the approach to Blood Mountain. A few hundred feet up, everything is coated with frost. I put in my headphones and hike fast, dancing a little to stay warm.

I’ve just passed a shelter, when I hear a noise behind me. Startled, I turn and meet Bolt (who I will officially bestow with a trail name later in the day). He’s hiking even faster to stay warm, so I let him pass me. I climb through the frost and the ice until I reach the summit. Bolt is standing on a rock there and he beckons me up. “This is the best view in all of Georgia,” he tells me.

We hike down together, chatting in that easy way thru hikers have when they’ve just met. We hit Mountain Crossings, a tiny store, before lunch. I buy a microwave cheeseburger, then a sandwich. The cold is kick starting my hiker hunger.

We hike out together. Bolt is a little faster on the up (I am still terrible at hills) and I’m a little faster the rest of the time, but we both compromise to have someone to chat with. I share some CDT horror stories and he tells me about being struck by lightning as a kid. Bolt seems fitting.

We come into the shelter to a fire and a group of six hikers. Including my first other female hiker! I’m excited and so is she- she’s been the only woman for a while too. We sit around and chat til after seven- hiker midnight is early with these dark winter nights.

Bolt and I head out together in the morning, quickly losing the others. 8 miles passes quickly and before we know it we’re at the next shelter for an early lunch. The morning has been flat by AT standards, but now we drop down to Unicoi gap, climb a thousand feet, drop and do the whole things over again.

Still, the miles speed by and we find ourselves at the next shelter before 3. An older gentleman is there- he introduces himself as Loner Boner and I immediately get creeper vibes- something that never happens with other hikers. I’d been pretty sure I wanted to push on to the next shelter, but now I am certain.

I talk Bolt into continuing on with me. It’ll give us a 23 mile day on day 4. I know I can do it no problem, but it’s not something someone just starting out should do. Still, he’s game, and we keep on going. 

I’m a little behind when I roll my ankle. I put all my weight on my trekking poles and curse for a full minute. I slowly put my weight on it. It hurts but I can walk, though it will bug me all afternoon. We reach deep gap shelter just before dark. We’re just 4 miles from the road to Hiawassee and it’s supposed to rain all day.

The shelter is mouse infested and I hear them rustle all night. I get up at 2am to pre and find one has made a nest in Girl Pack. Out of my bug net. Damn. I shake it out and hope for the best- I should be able to sew up the holes in my net and I won’t need it for a while anyway. In the morning, it’s an easy 3 miles to a hostel, where I can grab a few things. I hadn’t planned on staying, but it’s raining and my cold is getting worse instead of better. Oh well.