Looking Back

It has now been about 7 weeks since I completed the Trail. I have reunited with friends and family, and more or less have commenced the new chapter in my life called retirement. I doubt a day has passed without my recalling some AT experience.

A week after completing the AT, our entire family attended my grandson’s 7th birthday. It was certainly nice for all of us to be together as a family. I was fresh off the Trail. Many AT-related questions were asked and answered which made me “relive” parts of the Trail.

For the first 3 or 4 weeks after I arrived home, a good part of my brain was still on the Trail. I would at times dream I was on the Trail, and it was not uncommon for me to wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the hike I had ahead of me the next day.

Presently I have a couple reminders of the Trail: my weight and my toes. I lost 30 pounds on the AT and although I have regained about 10 of them, I haven’t been this slim in about 35 years. That’s a positive. On the other hand, about 8 of my toes have been quite numb since hiking Vermont and entering New Hampshire. From what I read this may persist for up to a year. My toes, which are now slightly better, have been my only physical issue during or after the hike.

Before I retired, my schedule basically ruled my life. I worked, and the days I didn’t work I always had something scheduled that had to be accomplished. The week after I retired, I was on the Trail and I basically hiked or “worked” every day except those days I took a zero. During the six months on the AT, the Trail schedule basically ruled my life. Now, for the first time in many decades, my schedule is what I choose it to be. I am still not used to this freedom.

About a month after I completed the AT, I gave a presentation of my AT experience to my former colleagues at Duke University Medical Center. I thought this would give me closure of that experience. Although it somewhat did, a good part of my daily thoughts continue to revolve around the Appalachian Trail.

A few days ago, Diane and I took down the posters my daughter’s children made for me on the last day on the Trail. For the last seven weeks, these posters have been hanging in our breakfast nook. Those posters meant much more to me after the hike than they did the last day of the hike. I guess my thoughts were overwhelming that day as I was emotional and did not appreciate the posters as much as I did the weeks following completion of the Trail.

Two days ago, I had my beard shaved (much to the delight of Diane) and although I still think of the Trail, I believe I am finally getting much closer to normal. At least I look like I am getting back to normal!

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was a tremendous experience. There were emotional highs and lows, physical challenges and amazing beauty. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have the good health that allowed me to undertake this endeavor.

I truly believe what got me through this journey were faith, family and friends. Diane, more than anybody, was instrumental and I know that, because of her, I was successful.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. There is so much for which I am thankful.

 

Georgia

It was great seeing Diane on Oct 4th. After breakfast on Thursday the 5th, Diane drove me to the trailhead at Dicks Creek Gap and I was hiking before 0730. As the morning progressed, I felt I was making decent time. Four hours after I began, I checked my distance and I had hiked 10.3 miles in four hours. I was very pleased with this, because I’m not sure I’ve ever averaged more than 2.5 MPH for any 4-mile consecutive stretch. This would have been impossible for me to do earlier on this trek. However, in the afternoon things changed. Either the Trail became more challenging, I became more tired, or both. In the afternoon I was clocking about 2.2 MPH.

The Trail in GA continued to be well maintained. I came across these Trail maintainers as they were manually sawing a pretty big tree.

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This photo is taken from Tray Mountain, where I had lunch.

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At the end of this 16.7-mile hike, Diane was waiting for me at the trailhead at Unicoi Gap, and we returned to our hotel in Hiawassee, GA. Later that evening we went out to a BBQ restaurant and enjoyed a meal on an outdoor patio overlooking a lake. It was a nice evening.

What a surprise! After I woke up on October 6th and organized my gear for the day’s hike, I went to the hotel breakfast area and my son Patrick was waiting for me.

He had driven in from Charlotte the night before to hike with me for the day. As far as I am concerned, this is the completion of a trifecta. Now all three of my children have joined me on the Trail. Diane drove us to the trailhead and we were hiking by 0730. The weather was cool and ideal for hiking. Our hike started with an 1100-foot ascent up Blue Mountain, and continued 15.2 miles to Tesnatee Gap.

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We stopped for lunch at a shelter. Most of our day was spent in a canopy with this sole exception.

SoleView

Patrick is a good hiker and did well. Even more impressively, he intentionally loaded his pack with heavy weights because he is preparing for an endurance and athletic competition. His pack weighed nearly 50 pounds! At the end of the hike, Diane was waiting for us and drove us back to the hotel. It was a special treat for me. I am so glad he made the effort to come and hike.

TessnateeDianePatrick

In the evening, we all went out to a restaurant and enjoyed a nice meal.

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Diane drove me to the trailhead early on Saturday the 7th, and I was headlamping by 0700. The weather was misty, very foggy and at times drizzling. I hiked 20.3 miles to Gooch Gap, and the weather at the end was no different than it was at the beginning. There certainly were no nice views. I climbed Blood Mountain and stopped in this shelter at the summit for lunch.

BloodMountainShelter

Diane met me at the end of the day and drove me back to the hotel. At that point, I was only 17.1 miles away from the end of the Trail. I could finish in just one more day. But Diane indicated she would prefer I split the 17.1 miles over two days. She has never asked me for anything regarding this hike, so I agreed.

The morning of Sunday, October 8th, Diane dropped me off at Gooch Gap. It was raining, extremely foggy but warm, about 70 degrees.

I hiked in dense fog and pouring rain all day. The volume of water that was dumped on the Trail was tremendous. The winds — remnants of Hurricane Nate –were quite strong. I was even more concerned with trees falling on the Trail (and on me) than I was with the rain.

Diane picked me up at Hightower Gap. I could not have been more drenched if you had thrown me in a lake. I was fortunate the weather was warm, because even at those temperatures I was chilled to the bone. We drove to a condo Diane had rented in Dahlonega, GA. When I walked in the door, my daughter and three grandchildren jumped out and surprised me. I had no idea they were coming! Once again, I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Kids Surprise

Pepere Surprise

My daughter told me she would hike with me the next day — the last day of my hike. Diane and the kids would join us for the final mile ascent of Springer Mountain. Now I understood why Diane wanted me to split a normal hike into two days! 

On Monday, October 9th, we had an hour and twenty minute drive to Hightower Gap. We got the kids up at 0600 and were in the car by 0640. Diane dropped us off, departed with the grandchildren, and my daughter and I were hiking by 0830.

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The weather was overcast, warm and misting. We hiked and talked along the way; she is always good company. We made decent time as we crossed various foot bridges and did some minor rock-hopping on swollen streams.

Elizabeth and Dad Bridge

Dad Stream1

For a short period of time it rained and we put on our rain jackets. But just a half hour later, the jackets were off and the hike continued with much better weather. We even got a few glimpses of our shadows — something I hadn’t seen in days.

At the 7.6-mile point we met Diane and three of our grandkids, and I was greeted with this enthusiastic reception. 

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Family Signs

We all had lunch and then headed out to do the last mile together. 

Family Beginning

Unlike Mount Katahdin in Maine, Springer Mountain is not an extremely challenging hike, but it is rocky. Due to the rains the previous day, the last mile was quite wet and slippery. The kids had a few slips and stumbles, but overall they did quite well.

Kids Trail1

While hiking the last several miles I had trouble coming to the realization that this 2,190-mile journey was just about over. During the last mile, as I neared the Trail’s end, it was even more difficult for me to comprehend. At the summit, we took pictures, I signed my name in the thru-hikers’ book, and then we began the descent back to the car. My thru hike was officially complete.

Dad Plaque3

Family Peak

Dad and Mom View

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The final blaze on Springer’s summit.

I felt blessed that my daughter and three grandkids accompanied me and Diane to the summit. In many ways, faith, family and friends played an important role in my journey. I am thankful to so many people for my success, no one more so than Diane: my wife, my teammate, my manager and my everything. In addition to all her logistical support, she visited me in Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Maine (twice), West Virginia, Virginia and Georgia. Without her, I doubt I would have completed this trek. Some time will be required for all of this to sink in and come into better focus. 

Diane and I headed home the next morning. I was on the Trail for 6 months. Now I have to figure out what retirement is, and how I am going to enter this new phase of my life. I will follow up with one final post within a week or two.

Tennessee and North Carolina – Part II

I enjoyed my Zero on September 25th even though Gatlinburg is such a schmaltzy town. There are tourist traps everywhere. I caught up on this blog, did my laundry, received my fix of Baskin Robbins Pralines & Cream and even took a dip in the outdoor heated pool of the hotel. I’m sure it wasn’t artificially heated, as it was in the high 80s. It was in the 90s the day before.

The shuttle driver arrived  at the hotel on Tuesday the 26th promptly at 0630. He drove me back to Newfound Gap, and I was on the Trail using my headlamp by 0700. About 8 miles into the hike I was at the summit of Clingman’s Dome. At 6,667 feet, it is the highest elevation on the Appalachian Trail. At elevation there was fairly significant cloud cover, but the temperature was ideal for hiking. Most of the hike was either in a canopy, cloud cover or both. It was 17.8 miles to Derrick Knob Shelter. This shelter is 2000.8 miles from Mt Katahdin, which is the distance I have hiked so far. The folks at the shelter that night included two local section hikers and the three Amish hikers I met a few days before. But the only picture I took was these “buckeyes.”

Buckeyes

The buckeyes grow on a tree in these capsules. If you break the capsule, you find one or several buckeyes inside. Neighbors and friends of ours are dyed-in-the-wool Ohio State Buckeye fans. Ann occasionally makes a candy treat called “buckeyes,” and they look exactly like these. I never knew there were buckeyes or buckeye trees. That night at the shelter, we spent far too much time throwing footballs into the buckeye tree to knock the buckeyes down.

Wednesday the 27th was a slow hiking day. I hiked from Derrick Knob Shelter to Mollies Ridge Shelter, which was only 12 miles. The biggest challenge was Thunderhead Mountain, which was more than 1,500 feet of elevation to start the day. An ascent like that tends to wake you up quickly.

When I reached an outcropping called Rocky Top — reputed to be the area referenced in the University of Tennessee song by Dolly Parton — the views were outstanding and I decided to stop for lunch.

RockyTop

RockyTop2

The three Amish gents have loosened up, as they haven’t objected when other folks have taken their picture. If you just take a picture they don’t mind, but they decline requests to pose or smile for a photo.

AmishCarpenters

Every morning and every evening they not only start a fire, but actually cook their food directly on the fire. They are all carpenters by trade.

On Thursday, September 28th, I did not expect this view. I was just hiking along in a canopy and all of a sudden the side canopy disappeared and this view was on my right. There were even large rocks to sit on and enjoy the view.

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That day, I finally finished hiking the Smokies, which end at Fontana Dam when hiking southbound. Here are pictures standing on top of the Dam looking north and south.

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On the northern view above, the ridge line you see in the back ground is the southern end of the Smokies.  I hiked right to left as you are looking at the picture.

FontanaDamSouth

After crossing the Dam, I went to the Visitors Center, bought a pint of ice cream, and sat in the shade on one of their rockers to enjoy my treat. The three Amish hikers were there as well. Their hike is finished, and their driver arrived to take them to Pigeon Ford. They are all excited as they are going there to see a stage production of the Hatfields & McCoys.

FontanaTreat

I hiked 12.6 miles and was picked up at a trail head by Jeff, the owner of Creekside Paradise on the AT.  He and his wife, Cynthia, have a beautiful and well-run B&B and hiker facility. The three of us went to a Mexican restaurant in Robbinsville, the local town. It was an enjoyable evening. By the way, Robbinsville happens to be located in the only remaining dry county in North Carolina. I didn’t know dry counties existed in North Carolina anymore.

During the night, my friend Joe arrived at the B&B. It was great seeing him. This place is definitely off the beaten path and last night on the phone we wondered how, and even if, he would arrive. He had to drive at night on unpaved mountain roads with no cell reception. Anyway, he made it and will hike with me for the next two days.

After a good hearty breakfast on the 29th, we were driven to the trailhead and began a 14-mile hike to Stecoah Gap. Joe’s introduction to the AT was a 2,100-foot ascent first thing in the morning. He did just fine, and I’m confident he will do well tomorrow. This is one of the the few vistas we had, but it was a beautiful view.

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Later on in the day, Joe spotted a copperhead on the trail. I was hiking in front of him and never noticed it. I also never got a chance to take a picture, as he wriggled off the Trail (with a little coaxing from Joe’s trekking pole).

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Joe and I after our hike as we waited for our shuttle driver. Stecoah Gap is in the background.

 


When we returned to the B&B, we showered, ate, and drove into Robbinsville to buy lunch for the next day. After returning, we enjoyed some ice cream and spent some time in the outdoor hot tub. Then we had a beer and prepared for our next day’s trek.

It was a great day. We enjoyed each other’s company and had fun hiking together.

On Saturday the 30th, after another good breakfast at Creekside Paradise, Joe and I were driven to the trailhead at Stecoah Gap. Our goal was to hike about 14 miles to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The temperature was perfect for hiking: cool and breezy. We had been warned that this would be a challenging and difficult hike, but neither of us thought it to be so. Even the 1,900-foot ascent to start our day was not that challenging.

During our hike, we stopped briefly at Cheoah Bald to take this picture.

CheoahBald

Later on, we got off the Trail and found this spot to have lunch.

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Joe enjoying the view at lunch

As we continued to descend, we met a hiker who had started at the southern end of the AT and was hiking to Harpers Ferry. His pack was ridiculously large and looked like it weighed a ton. He told me it weighed 57 lbs, even though he had already decompressed it once. I told him he would have to do more to decrease the weight, or he would never complete his hike. When I asked him what his name was, he replied, “Too Heavy.” We all laughed.

Towards the end of our day, we spotted this black snake in the middle of the Trail. Black snakes are reportedly nonpoisonous and beneficial.

TrailSnake

We reached Nantahala Outdoor Center in good time, and relaxed by the river with a beer. 

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This large outdoor center offers canoeing, kayaking, rafting, biking, hiking, ziplining and other activities. It is quite the place. After showering, we went to the restaurant and enjoyed our last meal together. It was great having Joe, a good friend, accompany me these last two days. We hiked well together and had good conversations. I’m happy he took the time to join me on the Trail.

Early on Sunday, October 1st, Joe dropped me off at the trailhead and I was headlamping at 0630. He is such a nice guy. On no less than three occasions he offered to carry my Beast for an hour and a half this morning, as he knew I had a substantial ascent getting out of the gorge. This would have delayed his departure to go home by 3 hours. Of course I declined his offer.

I had a 3,300-foot ascent ahead of me, and it was not easy carrying the Beast. Here is one of the views along the ascent.

1001ascentView

I always try to have my lunch where there is a nice view. It’s not always possible, but fortunately it was that day.

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The first 4.5 hours of the hike was pretty rugged. Fortunately, the second 4.5 hours was much more reasonable. Here is a picture taken from Weser Bald.

WeserBald

The hike was 16.5 miles ending at Wayah Bald Shelter. The elevation was 4,700 feet and it was getting quite chilly.

It was very cold last night. Not a problem while I was snug in my sleeping bag, but getting out of it on Monday morning was no joke. I don’t know what the temperature was, but it was cold enough to see my breath.

Looking toward the east showed a very nice sunrise through the forest. Although very cold, I had the feeling that it would be a great day.

I hardly ever wear my fleece or toque while hiking, but on Monday it was required.

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About a mile after I began my hike, I climbed Wayah Bald. It was still early and the views were stunning.

WayahBald2

Later on in the day, looking for “the perfect lunch spot,” I took a very steep quarter-mile spur trail off the AT and through a meadow leading to Siler Bald. The visibility was about as clear as I have seen it since New England. If you’re going to have clear visibility, Siler Bald is an ideal location, because it is one of the most spectacular summits on the southern AT. Here are a few stills and a video. I could not have picked a better location for lunch.

SilerBald

SilerBald2

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At the end of the 14.7-mile hike, I was picked up by Colin, the owner of the Gooder Grove Hiker Hostel in Franklin, NC. 

Colin and I left the hostel early on Tuesday the 3rd, and we immediately drove to Burger King where I treated both of us to coffee and a breakfast sandwich. We ate on the go, and I was hiking with my headlamp on by 0700. The weather was not nearly as chilly as it had been the day before, so I wore normal hiking clothes. It was very overcast, though, and as I was ascending the first mountain, I was in a cloud mist within the first hour. The weather was great for hiking but not for photos. Six miles into the hike, I came upon a fire tower at the summit of Mt. Albert, but with the poor visibility, there was no point in climbing the tower. Later in the day, the sun burned off most of the cloud cover and I managed to get this picture.

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I finished the hike at 1600 and was quite pleased with my pace on this 21-mile hike to Deep Gap.  However, I was not pleased that Colin was not here to pick me up. After 50 mins he finally arrived without apology. Oh well.

Colin and I started out Wednesday the 4th the same way we did the 3rd: at Burger King. Then he drove me to Deep Gap, and I was hiking by 0800. At low elevation there was a thick fog, but as I hiked to higher elevations in the mountains, it was quite clear. However, most of the day was in a canopy. This was the only scenic vista I came across.

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As the Trail continued, I came across this sign. Should the PC police be looking into this sign? I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw it.

ChunkyGalTrail
Really?

The first half to two-thirds of the hike that day was extremely slow due to 30 or 40 huge trees that had fallen onto the Trail. Here are two examples.

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The downed trees were probably due to recent hurricane and storm activity. But the obstacles required me to go over, under, around or through, and it was very time consuming. Then something interesting happened. I passed this sign:

NCGAsign

Once I entered Georgia, there were no more downed trees blocking the Trail. Furthermore, there was evidence of many trees that had been cleared with saws and power equipment. For whatever reason, Georgia has done an excellent job clearing the Trail, but North Carolina has not. At the end of my 15.8 mile hike, the best shuttle driver I have ever had, Diane, was waiting for me.

Tennesee and North Carolina

It was great seeing Jonathan pull into the hostel. I hadn’t seen him since April, because when I went home for a few days in August after Maine, he and his family were at the beach. We started Tuesday, September 19th with a superb breakfast at the main house of the Mountain Harbour Hostel. The owners, Shannon and David, were very kind and accommodating.

After breakfast we were driven back to the Elk Park trail head, where I had ended my hike the previous day. We enjoyed good weather as we hiked the 13.6 miles back to the hostel. Here is a picture of the hiker hostel.

MtnHarbourHostel

During the hike, we took a spur trail to Jones Falls, where we ate lunch. You can’t tell by the picture, but those Falls were amazingly high.

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As we continued down the Trail, we came upon this dead tree. Jon remarked that it looked like it could have been used in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

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Towards the end of our hike we enjoyed these wonderful views.

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Jonathan and I got up early on Wednesday the 20th and were on the Trail before 0700. We head-lamped for about 25 minutes as we started a 2700-foot ascent up Hump Mountain. There aren’t very many 2700-foot ascents on the AT. The slope wasn’t bad, but going up that much in elevation for 5.5 continuous miles can be challenging. I was a bit concerned about Jonathan but he did just fine. I didn’t have anything to worry about regarding Jonathan’s hiking ability. We continued on 14.8 miles to Carvers Gap.

Shortly into the hike, I saw this sign stating that we were in North Carolina. This is somewhat misleading, as the entire Smokies snake their way in and out of both states on ridge line borders. Most of the time you don’t know what state you are in. So, until I reach Georgia, these posts will be labeled Tennessee and North Carolina.

NCsign0920

The hike offered beautiful 360-degree views from Jane and Round Balds. We were both very impressed. This was a gorgeous part of the Trail. Fortunately, the weather was good throughout the day. Here are some views that made our hike memorable.

BaldView

HikerJon

The barn in this picture is privately owned, but hikers are allowed to use it as a shelter.

BarnView

When we arrived at Carvers Gap, we were shuttled back to Mountain Harbour where we picked up Jon’s car and drove to Erwin, TN. We went out to eat and then settled in to our new hostel, Cantarroso Farm.

CantarrosoFarm

CarversGapView1

CarversGapView2

On Thursday the 21st, I was up at 0530 and made coffee. Jon and I, each morning, could star in a remake of The Odd Couple. One of us is organized with a purpose and the other is not. Regardless, the shuttle driver did not wait too long and we were soon on our way back to Carvers Gap.

We began our 16-mile hike to Iron Mountain Gap at 0730 with good weather, but first we climbed Roan Mountain with an elevation of 6200 feet. This is one of the highest elevations on the AT.

On Roan Mountain, we passed the former site of a three-story luxury hotel in the 1880s called The Cloudland Hotel. Logistically, it is hard to imagine how anything could be built up here, let alone a luxury hotel. The only remnant was this fireplace/chimney which presently sits in the middle of the Trail. 

CloudlandRuin

Half of the hotel was in Tennessee and half was in North Carolina. Apparently there was a white line across the dining room floor indicating the state boundary. This was important because at that time, it was legal to drink alcohol in Tennessee but not in North Carolina. It was not uncommon for a North Carolina sheriff to be present, making sure guests did not cross the line. Room rates were $2 per night, $10 per week and $30 per month!

This picture was taken from the site of the hotel:

CloudlandView1

We had lunch at Little Rock Knob amidst these beautiful views.

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After lunch the hiking was easier, and we made good time as we descended to Iron Mountain Gap. We were shuttled back to Cantarroso Farm, where we showered and went out to eat. Upon our return, we started a fire in the fire ring and enjoyed a cigar and some scotch. Both Jon and I enjoyed our cabin at Cantarroso Farm and agreed that it had been an extremely enjoyable day.

The weather on Friday the 22nd looked promising. I was so happy we had nice weather during Jonathan’s stay. It was our last day of hiking together, and we were on the road heading to the trail head at 0700. We hiked 11.8 miles to Indian Grave Gap in Erwin, TN.

During the hike we ascended Unaka Mountain. On the summit there was a dense spruce forest. This certainly is unusual, and walking through it was peaceful and at least ten degrees cooler.

SpruceForest

Here is a picture of Jon on one of the balds, and pics of both of us at various points in the day.

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OldGuyandJon

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Fortunately, it was a short hiking day. When we finished, we drove to a hotel west of Asheville, which is about half way to the Trail Head where I will resume my hike. After reaching the hotel we went out to enjoy a Japanese meal, a cigar and a scotch before we called it a night. 

Jonathan was a trooper. He got up early on Saturday, September 23rd, brought me to McDonald’s so I could get a breakfast sandwich and coffee, and then drove me about 45 minutes to the trailhead at Davenport Gap.

After we said our goodbyes, I grabbed my trekking poles and went on my way. I will miss Jon. It was good hiking with him. We hiked 56 miles together, and I am confident he had a fairly good taste of the AT. We both enjoyed our time together, and it was a special week, one I will never forget. Thanks for coming, Jon!

DavenportGapGoodbye

The hike that day was strenuous, starting out with a 4,800-foot ascent at the northern entrance to Smoky Mountains National Park. Essentially, the entire day was uphill. I was pretty much beat carrying the Beast on the Trail from 1,439 feet to over 6,300 feet. Once I arrived at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, I ate, got water for the next day, and headed for bed.

One of the criticisms of the Trail is that there is little diversity; the hikers are essentially all white. Rarely do you see minorities. This, unfortunately, is true. But that night in the shelter, along with other hikers, there was a German and three Amish gents. Although these folks were white, it was certainly a different mix of hikers.

The Amish hikers all had blue long-sleeved shirts, black suspenders, grey dress slacks, beards and straw hats. They were from southern Indiana, and were section hiking. The Amish hikers interacted very little with us, but they were all soft spoken and polite. One of them asked me if it would be OK to build a camp fire. I said that would be no problem and it would probably be appreciated by everyone.

The German, Simon, was from Trier. He is a SOBO thru-hiker. He told me when he left Germany, his goal was to complete the Trail in 100 days. But if he remains on his present schedule, he will actually complete the Trail in 95 days! He said he planned on hiking 29 miles today, and this is definitely not the most hiker-friendly terrain. I find these fast hikers to be amazing. When Simon left the next morning, I knew I would never see him again.

The Amish hikers and I leapfrogged a few times on Sunday the 24th, and we had a few short conversations. I asked if they would mind if I took a picture of them, but one of them simply said, “We don’t allow pictures to be taken.”

The hiking that day, as well as the Smokies so far, was more difficult than I anticipated. Many elevations have been in excess of 6,000 feet, and there have been many challenging ascents and descents. However, the AT in the Smokies offers fantastic views. Although the Smokies have many hiking trails, I think the AT in the Smokies is in a league of its own. At times I felt overwhelmed by the beauty. Here are a few examples.

SmokiesDay2View2

SmokiesDay2View5

I ended my day at Newfound Gap. This sign is another indication that you really can’t be sure what state you’re in.

Newfound Gap

I hitched a 15-mile ride into Gatlinburg. An elderly couple picked me up, and on the way to town they pointed out the devastating damage done by fires the previous year. Once in Gatlinburg, this nice couple drove me directly to the hotel Diane had reserved. I was tired, my feet were sore, and the usual chores of battery charging, laundry and resupply need to be done, so I decided to take a Zero the following day.

Tennessee – Part I

Last fall, I hiked a stretch on the AT of about 110 miles. I have no intention of repeating this section. So when I get to Erwin, TN, I will skip forward 110 Trail miles to Davenport Gap, which is the northern entrance to the Smokies.

Diane warned me that I would have to slow my hiking pace somewhat, as Jonathan, our oldest son, is joining me on Monday, September 18th for five days of hiking. She said if I continued at my present pace, I would end up repeating a section of the Trail that I had already hiked last fall. 

So on Friday, September 15th, I hiked 6.5 miles, which definitely qualifies as a Nearo. But fortunately the day started out with decent weather and only got better.

As you can see by this picture, leaves are beginning to fall on the Trail. It’s that time of year.

TrailLeaves2

Soon I came to a couple of miles of Trail that had a tremendous amount of work recently done. It was such a pleasure to see all of this work, and even more of a pleasure to hike it. I wondered how so much manpower was found to do this work. As I continued hiking, I met up with a couple of crews of trail maintainers. I complimented them on their work and they told me that recently 125 Appalachian State students volunteered to help for a couple of days. One Trail maintainer told me that was a helluva lot of hard hats, pick axes and shovels to come up with. Water bars, step and gap dams were created and/or repaired as well as cutting vegetative encroachment of the Trail. The outcome was amazing. These activities occur throughout the entire AT. The Trail would deteriorate and cease to exist in short order without these selfless volunteers.  Here are several pictures of work completed and in progress by these volunteers. 

TrailUpkeep1

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If there were an AT Hall of Fame, Bob Peoples, above, would be in it. He is a trail maintainer and has averaged 300 hours per year forever. He also gives a course every year on trail maintenance. For the last two decades, he has run the Kincora Hiker Hostel not far from Hampton, TN. He is legendary on the Trail, and well known for his storytelling talents. If Bob ever entered an Einstein look-alike competition, I believe he would be the winner.

A couple of miles after meeting and complimenting the working crew, the Trail left the woods and came out to this pasture. Note the cows waiting for me on the other side of the stile.

TrailCowsCropped

Although it was a short hiking day, it was very enjoyable.

I feel so fortunate to have good health that gives me the opportunity to have this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

On Saturday the 16th, Diane dropped me off at the trail head before 0700. The weather appeared promising. This huge tree fell across the Trail and when Trail maintainers cut it, they decided to carve in the AT logo.

ATtree

Another huge tree that recently fell was probably a victim of Irma. The root ball on the right still has fresh green leaves as do the branches to the far left. You can’t see the left but, trust me, there are fresh green leaves. 

Tree2cropped

This was the only scenic view. The weather was a bit hazy and prevented great photos.

view0916

Diane dropped me off at a trail head near Watauga Dam on Sunday the 17th, and we said good-bye. Before she drove home, she took my gear to the Mountain Harbour Hostel, which is where I will be meeting Jonathan tomorrow. As usual, I will miss Diane and all she does. I do the hiking, but she does all the planning. She did a lot of that for the days Jonathan will be here, arranging all the shuttles and hostels. Most days require 2 shuttles: one for drop off and one for pick up. She is the best!

I hiked 13 miles to where we’d stayed for the prior 2 nights: the Black Bear Hiker Hostel.

BlackBearResort

The weather was very good for hiking. Pond Mountain was a 1700-foot ascent and descent which got my attention, but it was sunny with temperatures in the low to mid 70s. Here is a picture, taken from elevation, of Watauga Dam.

WataugaDamLake

Here are a couple of foot bridges I crossed today. They are typical of larger footbridges throughout the AT.

 

Creekbridge

WataugaBridge2

This is Laurel Falls. Although you can’t see them in the picture, there were many people present and enjoying this area. These Falls are about a 2-mile hike from a trail head and parking area, so they are easily accessible. Folks simply carry a day pack, hike out and have a picnic. 

LaurelFalls

I’ve noticed a new annoyance on the Trail: acorns. They are naturally falling all over the place, and at times there are so many, it’s like walking on marbles. I slipped numerous times. There really isn’t anything to do about it but try to be more careful. Unfortunately, I anticipate a future fall happening. Not an encouraging thought. Another negative of the acorns is that they also fall on your head. Those folks like me with no hair know what I am talking about. Those of you with a lot of hair should be thankful for the protective cushioning effect your hair provides you. Although I do wear a hat, it feels like someone is throwing darts on my scalp.

But I’ve also noticed something positive: nobody is passing me on the Trail anymore, but I am passing numerous hikers. This never happened during the first half of my trek. Most folks develop their “hiker legs” somewhere around 500 miles. For some reason — maybe my age — I really didn’t develop them until about 1000 miles. Regardless, it’s something to feel good about.

Sunday was a very enjoyable hiking day. For those of you who are asking, “is he having fun?” Well, he did that day. The only downer was Diane leaving that morning.

On Monday, September 18th, I was on the Trail by 0730. With just a short 11 mile hike, it would be nice to meet up with Jonathan at the end of the day. And after the bad weather in Damascus due to Irma, these shorter days are welcome.

Within the first 5 minutes on the Trail, I came across this old rotted structure. I am not sure what it was in its heyday, but it did look interesting. 

OldShelter

This guy spooked me more than I spooked him. He was standing in the middle of the Trail. When I realized he was there, I was startled. He just stood there while I took his picture.

DeerOnTheTrail

Lastly, I was happy to note that acorns were not a problem. I guess this section of the Trail had fewer oak trees. Fine with me.

When I reached the USFS gravel road, the shuttle driver was there waiting for me. We proceeded to Mountain Harbour Hostel. Jonathan and I will be shuttled back here in the morning, and we will hike back to the Hostel.

Virginia – Part VI

The early mornings have been quite chilly for the last few days, so I start out with three layers of shirts. But by the end of the hikes, I’m down to one short-sleeve hiking shirt. For reasons I don’t understand, my legs have not been cold, so I just wear simple hiking shorts.

Most of Saturday, September 9th was spent under a canopy, and the Trail was rockier than I would have liked, but I did make good time, and hiked over 19 miles.

The only scenic view I had was this picture. There was a sign that read, “View of Walker Mountain.” When looking at the view or the picture, nothing really stands out, so I am not sure where Walker Mountain is or what is so special about it.

I hiked 22.2 miles to Wise Shelter with the Beast on Sunday the 10th. It was chilly enough that I wanted to wear gloves, but I couldn’t find them. It had been quite awhile since I wore gloves, and they had hidden themselves in the Beast. So I started the hike with pretty cold hands.

I was also concerned about water availability. I did not meet any hikers that were going NOBO that I could ask about the water situation they faced. But Trail Magic can, at times, be amazing and unexplainable. Seeing a box on the Trail later that day, I opened it and found two items in the box: a 12oz Dr. Pepper (which I drank in a heartbeat) and a pair of gloves. Amazing, considering I was concerned about beverages and my hands were cold!

These guys were grazing in the Pine and Stone Mountain area. They were very friendly and came right up to me. After scratching them on the forehead, they followed me down the Trail for more. 

Monday the 11th, my goal was to hike 24 miles, which would leave only 9 miles to Damascus, VA. That way, I hoped to avoid the worst of Hurricane Irma’s winds and rains that were expected on Tuesday. I was looking forward to arriving in Damascus as we have friends in nearby Bristol. They had invited us to stay and had planned to pick me up the next day.

The day’s hike took me into Grayson Highlands and along a long exposed ridge line above 5,000 feet. This was the first time I had been at such an altitude since New England. The wind was whipping as I hiked in the clouds with no sun, and it was miserably cold.

Grayson Highlands is described by all as being absolutely beautiful with panoramic views. Disappointingly, there were no views that day.

Nine miles into the hike, it was difficult to take any more of the 48-50 degree weather with 35-40 MPH winds, along with the very moist cloud cover. I came to a trail head and met two hikers who told me they were also bailing from the Trail due to the weather, and were waiting for a shuttle to bring them into Damascus. I invited myself along and offered to share the shuttle fee. 

We waited over an hour for the Damascus shuttle. You know it must be bone-chillingly cold when three men crowd into a 6×6 public bathroom rather than be outside!

When I got to Damascus, I was very hungry and randomly chose a restaurant to eat. When I entered, I heard, “Hey, Old Guy!” I looked and saw a couple of hikers I had previously met on the Trail. Within the next half hour, two more hikers came into the restaurant that I knew, including Little Bear Stumbles. She was with her mother and husband, who left Florida to escape Irma. It was as if a message had gone out to hikers that said, “Get off the Trail and get into town.”

My friend Ron picked me up and brought me to his house, where I was soon warm and dry, enjoying a wonderful meal and conversation with him and his wife, Brenda. The next day’s weather was predicted to be the same, with the addition of rain. Every hiker I knew, including me, was planning on taking a Zero.

It was hard to believe that it was the 16th anniversary of 9/11. It doesn’t seem that long ago.

I spent my zero on Tuesday the 12th catching up on news and enjoying time with Ron and Brenda. They are such wonderful and gracious people. Brenda went above and beyond by cooking delicious meals and insisting on doing my laundry (that alone deserves an award).

I also spoke to my oldest son, Jonathan, and made plans for him to meet me the following week. We will hike together for several days, and I’m really looking forward to it. It’ll be a lot of fun.

On Wednesday, September 13th, Ron and I got up early and were on the road by 0600 to Damascus, as I slack packed a 15.2-mile section NOBO.

I finally left Jefferson National Forest. It seemed as if I was in this National Forest for a couple hundred miles. But during the day’s hike I entered Cherokee National Forest and crossed into Tennessee.

That hike may have been the easiest 15 miler I have done on the Trail. Afterwards, it was good to see Diane waiting for me at the trail head. We proceeded to Ron & Brenda’s house, where we had a wonderful time. What a great visit and what hospitable folks!

Ron and Brenda

On Thursday, September 14th, Diane and I got up at 0430 and tried to make as little noise as possible as we left Ron and Brenda’s house and drove to Elk Garden trailhead, back in Virginia. This is where I bailed from the Trail Monday the 11th because of Hurricane Irma.

The weather was extremely foggy and stayed that way the entire day. It drizzled about 7 of the 11 hours it took me to complete the hike. The Trail was a bit rocky and extremely wet. But I was impressed with the abundance of water. The folks further north would love these streams.

This 24-mile hike was the longest stretch I have done on the Trail. I was pretty much spent by the end of the day. But finally, I was done with Virginia. It seemed as though I would never reach Tennessee. Virginia is so long, well over 500 miles. Some hikers talk about the Virginia Blues and I have to admit: with rain, canopy, wind, low temperatures, fog and combinations of these, I have experienced these Blues. Good bye Virginia!

Virginia-Part V

On Saturday, September 2nd, I stayed in a not-so-nice hotel run by a very nice woman in Pearisburg, VA. I was fine with that, though. Because of the previous day’s hike in grueling weather and the probability of rain continuing, I decided to take a Zero. Hopefully, all the rain will help the water sources on the Trail.

I have to admit that Notre Dame playing their first game today made the decision to take a Zero a bit easier. I enjoyed the game and was left with the feeling that the Irish are going to have a decent year.

I had a 1700-foot ascent to start the day on Sunday the 3rd. It was chilly and the cloud cover was very thick. By about 11 AM, it had burned off and turned into a decent day.

A good part of the day was spent hiking through rhododendron tunnels. These appear quite frequently in Virginia. It’s significantly darker and quieter when walking through these tunnels, and some of them were between a quarter and a half mile long.  I am told that when they are blooming, the tunnels are a stunning sight. 

RhododendronTunnel

That night I stayed at the Woods Hole Hostel. The owners, Neville & Michael, live sustainably through beekeeping, farming, organic gardening, pottery, yoga and massage therapy. It was quite an experience and quite a place. I doubt I could live the way these folks do, but it works for them. They keep animals; they grow a lot of their own food; she meditates religiously and frequently, and they run the hostel. Michael’s thought seem to echo Neville’s, and they fully support each other. Earlier in the day, they trimmed their goats’ hooves. Later on, I saw these peaches in the back of the house.  

NevillesPeaches

On Monday the 4th, I hiked a little over 15 miles. I got a late start, because I wanted to have one of Neville’s well-known breakfasts. She served crepes, spinach, eggs, ground sausage, fresh peaches, homemade bread with homemade butter and jam, plus coffee and orange juice. I have to admit, it was delicious. Neville also made five extra loaves of bread and gave one to each of us as we left. She is such a nice person.

Most of my day was under a canopy of trees which included at least three more miles of rhododendron tunnels. At the end of my hike there was a combined grocery store and restaurant a half mile from the Trail. I stopped and ordered a meal. While I was eating, an older gent looked at me and asked, “You going south?” When I told him I was, he simply said, “Ain’t a drop of water on the Trail. You’ll have to wait till ya get to Bland.” Bland, VA was my next destination. I had sent the Beast ahead to a hostel there in order to slack pack the following day.

Here are a couple of mushrooms I saw on the Trail today. The birdbath-looking big guy was at least 15 inches high, and the hand-grenade-looking little guy was about 4 inches high. 

birdbathmushroom  HandgrenadeMushroom

Some hikers know the difference between good and bad mushrooms, and are not reluctant to eat them if they judge them to be good. I am not knowledgeable on that subject and eat nothing from the Trail other than apples and blueberries.

Before turning in, I enjoyed a beer and half of Neville’s loaf of bread.

When I got up the morning of Tuesday the 5th, I had to hike a mile to get to the Trail. It was an 18.4 mile hike to Bland, and I started early with a head lamp. It was extremely clear, and the millions of stars in the sky made a very impressive sight. When light began to come through the canopy, I startled several dear and a bear cub. The animals immediately ran away when they heard me. I was a bit concerned about baby bear because I thought mama might be nearby. But if she was, I never saw her. It was a good day for hiking, with cool temperatures and a constant breeze.

I stopped for lunch at a campsite and polished off the other half of Neville’s loaf of bread. At the end of the day, my shuttle driver, Bubba, was waiting for me and drove me into Bland, where a hostel and the Beast were waiting for me.

While there, I tried to make reservations for Thursday night, the 7th, at the Appalachian Dreamer Hiker Hostel. I spoke to the gent that owns and runs the place, and he told me he would be closed that day due to medical appointments in Raleigh. I asked him if there were any other sleeping options in his area, and he told me it was very rural and there were no other options. This news made me worry, because of the lack of water right now on the Trail. A half hour later, he called me back, saying he was aware of the water situation and concerned for me. He told me if I wanted to, I could come to his house and he would leave the screened-in porch unlocked. If it was raining, I would be protected, and he would also leave a pitcher of water for me. He expected to be back home anywhere between 4 and 9PM, and if he was admitted to the hospital I could simply use my sleeping bag on the porch. I told him I would probably come. The only disadvantage is that his hostel is 2.5 miles from the trail head. These rural roads have very little traffic which makes it difficult to hitch a ride. But what a kind and concerned person to call me back and make such an offer!

Bubba dropped me off at the trail head at 0645 on Wednesday, and it had already been raining for well over an hour. My goal was to hike 15 miles with a full pack to St Luke’s Shelter. The hike started with an immediate, very tough 1600-foot ascent. The fog was amazingly thick. My headlamp could only provide visibility for about three feet in front of me. If I tried to look ahead on the Trail all I could see was fog, much like using high beams in your car during foggy weather. It continued to rain for three and a half more hours.

When the rain stopped, the Trail was incredibly silent and stayed that way for several hours. I was over 4,000 feet in elevation with temperatures in the mid 50s, and even a small breeze while being wet made me very chilly. At the end of the day, a driver picked me up at the trailhead to take me to St Luke’s Shelter.

Upon arrival, I was offered beer and whiskey while still in the car! A party-like atmosphere is high on the priority list of St Luke’s laid-back staff. Unfortunately, serving a timely breakfast is not — I did not begin hiking the next morning until 0800.

Well into the hike, I came upon Chestnut Ridge, which gave a commanding view of Burkes Garden, VA. Locals told me that Burkes Garden was Vanderbilt’s first choice for the location of the Biltmore Estate but he could not get all the property owners to agree to sell their land. This area is a 4- by 8-mile crater-like area formed by a giant limestone sinkhole, and is affectionately called “God’s Thumbprint.” If you enlarge the picture, you can see the crater aspect of it below.

BurkesGarden
View of Burkes Garden from Chestnut Knob

There’s also a unique shelter named Chestnut Knob Shelter. It’s basically a cabin with a picnic table inside. It was a former fire warden’s cabin and is a great shelter.

ChestnutKnobShelter

When I reached the trail head, I had already hiked 18 miles, and began the 2.5-mile hike to the Appalachian Dreamer Hiker Hostel. For ten minutes, not one car came in either direction. Then I heard one coming, stuck out my thumb, and bingo! A young guy with a souped-up Mustang stopped and picked me up. He drove me two miles to the road where the hostel is located. After taking a look at the narrow, steep, rough gravel road, he told me he was unwilling to drive his car any further. The hostel was still a half mile up, on top of the ridge. I thanked him for saving me two miles of hiking, and began a very steep hike up the gravel road.

About halfway up, a pickup truck approached from the opposite direction. An elderly gent was behind the wheel, and we engaged in quite a conversation.

Gent: You doing OK?

Me: Yes, just going up to the hiker hostel. It’s supposed to be on top of the ridge.

Gent: You want a ride?

Me: That would be nice.

Gent: Let me go down and turn around and I will give you a ride up there.

Several minutes later he returned and I climbed in the truck.

Gent: Are you thru-hiking?

Me: Yes, I started the first week of April. I really don’t know anybody from here, but I have to admit I’ve already met two people who have been kind, you and a young guy who gave me a ride when I was hitch-hiking from the Trail. Also, even though I haven’t met him, the guy who owns the hostel was very kind and generous to me when I spoke to him 2 days ago.

Gent: Folks around here think he is difficult to get along with.

Me: That may be, but he was very nice to me when I spoke to him.

Gent: That’s good to know.

Me: It really is beautiful on this ridge.

Gent: Sure is. Well, here’s his place.

Me: He told he might not be home until 9PM or possibly not at all. I was told I could use his back porch and he would even leave some water for me.

Gent: Well, let’s see.

I opened the screen door. The gent reached inside his pocket, got a key, and unlocked the house door. He smiled at me and said, “Come on in, I’ll show you around.”

I have to admit, I was taken hook, line and sinker. He had been heading down the gravel road to look for me.

The gent’s name was Mack. He is 75 years old and runs an immaculately clean hostel. The interesting conversations, that night and the next morning, revolved around life, current events and religion. After saying a blessing, we shared a meal. His food was delicious.

Mack has goats, donkeys and chickens, and hiked the Appalachian Trail about 10 years ago. He makes everyone show an official picture ID and sign a lengthy waiver/release. It even states that he may, if he thinks it is necessary, run your license through law enforcement agencies. He simply states, “If you want to stay, you have to sign the form. If you don’t want to sign the form, no hard feelings and I will drive you back to the trail head.” Mack said that this protects not only him, but any other hikers who are staying.

It was one of the more enjoyable stays I have had at a hostel. Here are a couple of views from his house atop the ridge. Also, a picture of his canned fruits and vegetables.

MacksView1

MacksView2

IMG_1611

The following pictures are from his website.  Mack and his wife run this hostel as a ministry, and request only a donation from hikers. He designed and built the hostel himself with help from his church. Providing a service and spreading “the Word” are his goals, and he does it with a hearty laugh and good sense of humor.

mack
Mack and one of his goats. He takes very good care of his animals and treats them to animal crackers. His donkey brays to remind Mack that it’s time for a treat!
macksroom
Mack’s hiker dining room, complete with barber chair and 50’s/60’s music on the jukebox.


The next morning, after pancakes, coffee and conversation with Mack, he drove me to the trail head. We shook hands and went our separate ways. I could go on about my stay with Mack, but this is lengthy enough. Suffice it to say this was a unique experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. There should be more Macks in this world.
I spent the next 5-6 hours reflecting on my stay at the Appalachian Dreamer Hiker Hostel as I hiked to Atkins, VA.