(We are currently well over 400 miles but due to logistics and simply being on the trail, we are a few weeks behind on the blog. But we have made it to Tennessee! Woohoo! Please also excuse any grammar or formatting errors)
Ron Haven is a name that kept coming up as we hiked our first few days. It was said he was a former thru-hiker that now helps out current hikers in the form of transportation and advice. Well that turned out to be true but he is much more than that as we would soon learn.
As we rode up and down the hills in Nature’s Own’s pick up truck the thought of BBQ sandwiches filled our minds. We were also slowly planning in our heads the order in which our “town time” would play out. We would like to use the restrooms, take showers, wash all our clothes including the ones we were wearing, make sure we have a place to stay, eat, find a place to resupply our food and essentials along with transportation to and from the food resupply. Restrooms and showers are in great need so we all agree to start with those. Nature’s Own hugs the road’s corners tightly and it is there when we see the cop car hidden behind some bushes. Our hearts race for a moment. Is hitch hiking illegal in Hiawassee? Should we not be in the back of the truck? Is Nature’s Own on the run? The car pulls behind us but never turns on his flashers. We pull into the Budget Inn and find a parking spot. There are about a dozen tents out on the front lawn along with a few pop up canopys. There will indeed be a party soon. The motel is a one story building with rooms that wrap along the front, side, and back of the building. The cop pulls in front our truck as we back into a spot and suddenly we get a sickening feeling. What did we do wrong? It turns out the cop just wanted to make sure we had enough room in the back of the truck and didn’t want to see us get hurt. He asked if we were thru hiking and we informed him that indeed we were. He said that was great and he hopes we enjoy the party tonight. What? Was that it?! We were in shock. We definitely felt like we would receive a stern talking to. But in this alternate reality the kind policeman simply wanted to make sure our hitch into town was a comfortable one. Off he went about his business.
Feeling like we had just won the lottery we offered Nature’s Own $5 to help with the gas. He kindly rejected it and said “I was a hiker once, I know every dollar counts. Keep it.” It turns out not all trail magic can be eaten.
With that he shows us to his room, still as neatly kept and in order from the moment he checked in and said if we needed anything he would be outside assisting with the food and festivities. We could not believe how well it worked out for us. We were beyond ourselves that we got into town, let alone scored a free shower and hopefully cheap laundry and a place to stay. We quickly grab our phones and batteries and plug them into nearby outlets. Unplugging microwaves and lamps are not out of the question to make more available outlets.
The Budget Inn can best be described as… a small town motel. It will not win any awards for interior design or rank on some diamond status board, but what it lacks in aesthetics and Trip Advisor support, it makes up in heart and charm. The room is climate controlled, has running water and plumbing. After a week in the woods this is the Ritz Carlton for us. Although we were only showering and not staying in the room overnight, it felt good if not odd, to be back in a normal setting. We work quickly and secure the $10 camping spot out in the front lawn which the kind front desk receptionist informs us that our money would go towards a place to camp, food, drink, beer, snacks, and live music. Washer and dryer would be a $1.50 each. We gladly accept and run back to the room for showers.
The feeling of re-entry that every backpacker goes through after a multi-day trip in the backcountry is always a feeling of relief and exhaustion, but the thought of being able to regroup yourself renergizes like no other. We have been on week long backpacking trips before but never over 7 days. However in those situations and in this, that first shower is unlike any other. We washed away all the dirt but also washed away were the doubts and fears leading up to the trail. We had done it. We were on the trail and it was happening. Something feels different in the air after that first shower. You come out more confident, more sure of what you’re doing, and even more ready for the adventure. It wasn’t a particularly hard week but it surely wasn’t easy. What we realized early on is that although the physical AT trail isn’t technically difficult (as in it is well marked, defined, and easy to follow) it’s how long and unforgiving it is that can be challenging. It does not care that you just descended off a mountain and your knees are wrecked. You will now climb 2000 feet in a short distance with no water sources. Then descend. Then back up. This sort of back to back, non stop hiking for 8-10 hours a day is what makes it difficult and sometimes frustrating. Coupled with meals that have a ton of calories but not nearly enough as you burn, you naturally end up exhausted by the end of the day. This makes an 8 day stretch beyond being tired and depleted but all the more fulfilling when you reach your destination for that day or week. There are no rewards without hard work. The shower ends and begins a part of that.
We quickly throw our clothes into the washer then the dryer while we wear our skin tight thermals looking for a place to setup our tent. In any other setting this would look out of place and those viewing would call into question our sanity. But here you immediately know that people running around in towels, wearing full rain gear on a sunny day, or wearing their thermals in 80 degree weather are simply washing their hiking clothes. Many of us do not carry anything extra or “town clothes” because this simply adds more weight for something with very little value or use. So walking around in skin tight thermals and fake crocs it is.
A man steps to the mic, proceeds to thank everyone for coming and recalls that the first Hiker Bash was thrown 14 years ago and was put together hap hazardly to help thru-hikers get through a historic rain fall that season. They were there to feed the hikers but also to give answers to any questions that current hikers had for former hikers. He also mentions that when we make it to Franklin, GA know that his shuttle will pick up and drop off hikers from and to the trail for free whether or not they were staying at his other motel in Franklin. We finally put together that this was Ron Haven. A former thru hiker but now owner of the Budget Inn in Hiawassee, GA and in Franklin, GA. We would later learn he is also a politician in Franklin. He helps build and keep the connection between new and former hikers. Not only that, but he also provides some of the first genuine help that you will continuously find from businesses and locals in “trail towns”.
We grab our BBQ sandwiches with baked beans, potato salad, chips and fruit while the bluegrass band turns out the tunes.
It’s a magnificent time, words and pictures cannot convey the happiness and appreciation we feel. There is a sense of unity and understanding that truly touches us all. We devour our food as soon as we sit to eat it. “Hiker Hunger” is a term that is thrown around in the backpacking community and it is a very real and funny thing. Because we are left to eating things that are mainly easy to rehydrate and weigh very little, we often crave “real” food and things with a lot of sugar and salt. Hiker Hunger usually sets in after a few days and it can affect you physically and mentally. You start to talk and dream of real food. Even food that you wouldn’t normally eat, namely fast food, starts to sound like the greatest thing invented in our lifetimes. The thought of a greasy double burger with cheese and curly fries makes you smile and hike a little faster.
Throughout the years on other backpacking trips we have experimented with different types of food setups. At first we tried bringing real food and cooking it on our trips. We immediately realized we did not like this method for several reasons. One being that it took way too long to cook after a long day of hiking. It also left us with dirty dishes that somehow had to be cleaned with limited resources and food scraps can not simply be thrown out if you follow “Leave No Trace” principles (rules or suggestions to leave the backcountry the way you found it or better) which we obide by. Cooking with fresh ingredients also weigh a lot more than other methods because most foods naturally contain water. This makes your pack for a multi day trip extremely heavy and with the limited amount of space in your pack, everything needs more thought out and considered.
However there are some very convincing benefits and some hikers we know love cooking with fresh ingredients. First and foremost, it simply taste better! Some people consider this a very important part of their trip and after a long day they want to sit down and cook a very fulfilling and nutritious meal. There is also an emotional aspect that connects you to home that no amount of dehydrated meals can achieve or reach. Some people love the challenge that backcountry cooking gives and to them we say more power to you.
We have found for our purpose and style, dehydrating meals before hand or meals that can simply be rehydrated in a bag with hot water, works best for us. Back at home we cook more than what the two of us need for a dinner then throw the left overs into our dehydrator. After it has run its course we then throw it into a vacuum sealer. We write down the name and date of when it was sealed. This type of preparation of course only works when Mallory’s mom sends us a mail drop with some of this food. We decided early on however that we did not want to live and die by mail drops because this would then trap us into a schedule of being at a post office or place of business that receives mail (most businesses or hostels near the trail accept mail drops) at a certain time or day. Most small town post offices are only open for a few hours a day and are closed on weekends. Part of our trip that we were most excited by is not having to live by a schedule so this method did not line up with that way of thinking. Instead we decided to resupply our food in small towns at their local grocery store or even at small dollar stores since the trail eventually leads to or near a small town once every week or so. They have plenty of ready to eat meals or foods that are cooked by simply adding hot water to them. Think pastas or Ramen or single serving pouches of tuna or chicken. After you are done simply throw the bag that you cooked the food in into your small zip lock trash bag and you’re done! We fell in love with this method and use it on this trail. We left Mallory’s mom a few of these dehydrated meals that we made and even some from an Austin business called Pack It Gourmet and when we feel the time is right, we ask her to send a box with this and other small items that we crave to a location that we know we will be at in the next few days. We of course thank her oh so much!
So by the end of a week with this type of food, a plate full of hot BBQ is heaven. As soon as we are done with our meal we decide now is the best time to do our food resupply. Google Maps informs us there is a grocery store about a mile and change away. We quickly do the math, around a 30 minute walk. No transportation needed. Sounds good! We leave the party but know it will go deep into the night so we are not worried about missing anything. As we get up to leave, the man himself, Ron Haven, walks up to us and asks if we are having a good time. We tell him we are. He then thanks us for attending. This makes us pause for a moment. This man who is clearly not making much money from this at $10 a tent, or making anything at all, thanked us for attending. We should be thanking him! But that is what happens here. People give to see others happy. We smile and tell him thanks for the good times.
We quickly make our way through town. The town feels small and we must have walked the length of it in a matter of minutes. It is charming and we tell each other it has a small town movie feel. Picture perfect.
We quickly grab what we need and the cashier asks if we are thru hikers. We tell them we are. “Going to Maine?” they ask. A question that will be asked a dozen times in the future. “That’s the plan!” we respond. We decided early on to not respond directly with a firm “yes” . Although we are fully committed to seeing this trail to the end, life has many surprises and plans don’t always go exactly as you want them to. We decided to leave room for the unexpected and to be happy with wherever life decides the end of the Trail for us will be. Either that is in Maine or otherwise. We are simply fortunate enough to be here.
With hands and arms full of grocery bags we scurry back to the party. Our first resupply done! Not as scary as we thought and practicing at home in our local dollar stores saved us a lot of time.
We forgot to mention earlier that Liz and Braydon have their two dogs with them on the trail. We are ever so happy to have some four legged friends with us because they remind us of Wolfie. Liz and Braydon tell us it is ok to use them as our surrogate furry family members. When we return to the party more tents have filled the lawn. Liz and Braydon take their turn to run down to the grocery store as we watch their dogs. Chelsea and Aaron decide to do theirs the next day as they will be taking a zero.
We begin to organize our food in the order in which we’ll consume them and pack it into our odor proof bear bags.
Once everyone has completed their resupply we sit around the campfire as former thru hikers tell their stories of the Trail. It is heart warming to hear some of the struggles they endured because we are experiencing the same ones. Although some completed their trek 20 or even 30 years ago, their eyes and voices recall it as if it was only yesterday.
We laugh as story after story is told. Later in the evening Ron Haven informs everyone he has to leave as his shuttles start at 8am. Yes, he drives them personally. The crowd moans then excitedly ask and beg for him to tell a story. He is infamous for these. After much begging he obliges and starts his tale.
We end the night as the 6 of us huddle around our tents. We have completed our first week. Although a small feat we nonetheless have a sense of accomplishment. The trail is real and the dreams we held of it for years are real. It is everything we hoped for it to be and more. We tell each other that although it has only been a week, we already have a lifetime of memories. If this was it, we would all be completely satisfied. But it is only the beginning and the thought of what the trail has in store for us let’s us sleep through the night like no other. The honeymoon phase is in full effect but in a few days the harsh realities of the trail will rear its ugly head.
Although we meet Ron Haven again we will soon meet many more “Rons”. They are out there everyday and although we may not agree with everything they have to say, they make this world a much better place.
Ron Haven (R) – Macon County Commissioner