(We apologize for the long delay. As you can imagine, we are getting sucked into the trail. We are currently at mile marker 765 in Virginia, the blog post below is about our time at the 109 mark. There is something fascinating about writing it this way that was not intended. Being able to reflect back and look at things in the rear view mirror adds to the fun we are trying to create. We are doing our best to catch the blog up to where we currently are in real time and have a few more posts lined up once we edit them and add more photos. We also apologize for any grammer errors or headaches we may be causing you. We also realize we are jumping between present tense, past tense, and past progressive. Cultivating this through notes, spreadsheets, audio diaries and videos is producing some funky writing styles. That and we are not the best of writers. We hope you enjoy the content and journey with us regardless)
Many words have been published about the parallels between the trail and “real life”. The ups and downs, the relationships made, the lessons learned. You will meet people for a brief moment, maybe to hike a few miles with or even a few days, they come at the right time to help you get over that tough uphill climb or help sit out that unexpected snowstorm. It serves as a sort of microcosm for real life, life condensed into 6 months. The parallels are uncanny… the first couple of months everything on the trail is new. The first hill you climb, the first shelter you see, the first friends you make, the first hitch you make are all exciting and new. The next couple of months some of that excitement may fade a bit as it becomes the new normal. You are trudging along while still enjoying it but it may not have that same spark it once did. The last couple of months you relearn to appreciate everything. You are more confident in your abilities, you have wisdom, you slow down knowing it is not a race.
There are not many things to worry about on a journey like this, other than simply staying alive. In and of itself it is a simple chore. You wake up, feed yourself, pack up your home, gather water, hike, find a place to camp, eat, sleep, repeat. But as usual, and as in real life, these routine things can be more much more complicated.
We once read an interview with an old man that was days away from death. He was asked all sorts of questions about his life. Friendships, love, loss, but he was also asked if there was anything he would have done different. After some thought he said “I wish I would have worked less and spent more time with my family. I wish I would have traveled more”. He went on to say that instead of collecting things, he wished he would have collected more memories. This stuck with us and after our first few backpacking trips we realized that we were at our happiest, or extremely close to our happiest, when we were living as minimal as possible and on the trail. When everything we had to live with was on our backs. Living very primitively. And constantly on the move. We were creating memories that made us happy. It is a fulfilling thing to discover. Either it is working on a project, creating art, cooking that perfect meal, making music, or any number of things, it is important to discover that happiness. We felt like we had found ours.
But not everything can stay peachy and hunky dory forever. Routines that we have in regular life transfer to routines on the trail. Just slightly different. Successes and failures show up at every corner even when simply walking for months. There are challenges even in the most primitive ways of living. You come to realize a bunch of these things early on the trail but they continue to show up and have more significance when time goes on. As you walk and learn how your body and mind react, you become better equipped to deal with the everyday struggles. It could be simply moving faster and more comfortably. It could be the order in which you layout your food and items at the end of the day. Or totally reorganizing your pack. Whatever it is you make these small adjustments and in the end they make for a much more pleasurable and enjoyable experience.
No more than a week into our trip we were met with record thunderstorms, heavy winds, low temperatures and snow. It would slow our progress but luckily not our spirit.
As we left Hiawassee we had a sense of community and support. As promised a shuttle picked us up and dropped us back off at the trail where we left off, Dick’s Creek Gap. We jumped off the bus, looked over our gear, tightened our bag straps and up the hill we went. Our Neel Gap friends, the ones who raid hiker boxes and are not actually hiking, were camped near the trail head. We guessed they were moving from town to town.
It was not a particularly difficult day and after a few miles we celebrated what would be our first state crossing. We were officially in North Carolina.
We look over at each other and smile. The first of 13 state crossings. We do a little celebration dance and watch our new friends, Liz and Bradyon, cross over as well. We are all smiles and hugs. A sense of accomplishment fills the air. Although this would be one of the shorter stretches between state lines, we are excited to celebrate any milestone. After taking pictures and video we continue on to Bly Gap (Mile 78.3) A bit nervous because the word on the trail is that a huge storm will arrive in the morning. As we approach camp there are at least 15 other tents. One of the larger gatherings we’ve seen so far. We scout the area looking for available tent space. None are to be found. We head down a blue blazed path (these are side trails and/or accessible water trails) in hopes to find anything resembling a flat space for a tent. Nada. We make our way back up the trail towards the end of the campsite and see a spot that may work. It is near a large twisted oak tree.
We quickly make camp and then head out into the woods looking for a branch to bear hang. We notice a lot of campers eating right outside of their tents. There are varying opinions whether or not it is worth being concerned over bears this early on the trail but we figure it is good practice to still eat away from our tents and to bear hang, if only to keep small rodents out. We decide to eat underneath our bear hang in a patchy field away from everyone else.
With the large crowd of tents surrounding us and a looming storm we call it an early night and hope to wake up early before the first rainfall.
The first rays of sunlight hit our tent in the morning but then quickly disappear. It is enough to wake us up and get us moving. We waste little time, even skipping breakfast. Our hearts racing a little faster knowing that we would face our first real rainstorm while hiking. You can try to avoid these as much as possible but sooner or later you simply have to face them and walk. We’ve been through enough of them in our past backpacking trips to know that with a combination of weather apps, knowledge of the terrain and elevation, you can get a few miles in. But it is still a very real and very powerful thing that stirs up fear and panic. To know that ultimately you are in mother nature’s hands. We know this day we have an uphill battle as soon as we depart Bly Gap. After that it is somewhat smooth sailing. However our plan for now is to simply get up and over the mountaintop and if need be, we will camp.
Without warning the rain starts to come down as we are still putting away our tent. It rushes in as if someone hastily turned the shower knob. Our packs are wide open and we are caught deciding which to salvage, the tent or our packs. Events are happening quickly and there is not enough daylight to make much sense of things. Our headlamp’s beam is being overpowered by raindrops and fog, which has suddenly appeared. The fog overtakes the campground and we cannot see further then a few feet. We decide to finish the tent.
Somewhere in the course of a few months prior to our trip we made some major changes to our tried and true raingear. We have always been fans of Frogg Toggs. An extremely lightweight but complete head to foot rainsuit. We’ve used it on our camping trips all over Texas, New Mexico and Colorado and it has served us well. Keeping us dry while also being breathable and easy to carry. You would think it would be a no brainer to bring it along on this trip. But as it turns out we were still trying to find better ways to keep dry while saving on weight. Looking for that better piece of gear plagues many hikers and we are not immune to it. We began hearing about hikers completing the trail in only ponchos. This immediately drew our attention because it would mean eliminating our rainsuit, saving us half the weight. And hell, if thru hikers were making it in ponchos, so could we! So we ditched the rainsuit and traded it for ponchos. What most of these articles won’t tell you is that while a poncho may be fine during the summer months, when you might actually enjoy being cooled off by rain, in winter-like weather it is inviting pure mayhem.
Xavier also decided to ditch his pack liner (a plastic bag on the inside of your pack to act as large rainproof barrier between the elements and your items on the inside) a few months before. This was also a tried and true method over the years… overthinking some situations may cause more harm than good.
When it came time to get out of camp most of our gear was nearing wet. Obviously this makes things uncomfortable but also adds considerable weight to your items. We made our way through the fog and up the trail. The wind picked up. The rain fell harder and beat against our thin ponchos pinching our skin. We knew we didn’t have much time. But it was too late, the storm was directly on top of us and we were far from the top. Visibility was low due to the fog and communication was limited to hand signals. Thunder roared all around us as the wind tried its best to push us off the trail. The temperature dropped into what felt like the low 40’s or high 30’s. We stopped temporarily and looked over at each other. We gave each other a thumbs up, a signal to communicate that we were ok and to keep going. We both knew we had to get up and over quickly. We could turn back but the campsite we were previously at was at a higher elevation than our agreed destination for the day. And if this storm were to turn out worse, we certainly did not want to be on higher ground.
Minutes into fighting the storm we cursed the makers of the ponchos. Had they added a few more inches on the arms it would have saved our arms from freezing. A small pull string on the hood would have prevented it from flapping into the wind and drenching our faces, eventually soaking our shirts. A bit longer on the bottom would have prevented the wind from lifting the poncho over our packs, wetting our shorts and shirts every few seconds. Curse the articles that raved about the weight savings! Regret sets in and the thought of our full body rain gear sitting at home only frustrates us.
A brief break in the rainstorm is a welcome sight as we make our way up and over. It doesn’t last long but enough for us to talk about our plans. We decide to cut the day early and stop at the next shelter, Muskrat Creek Shelter. We would only end up hiking around 2.8 miles this day. We are disheartened by this and a bit upset at ourselves. But we are a muddy and wet mess. With the combined freezing weather and our ponchos doing absolutely nothing to keep us dry, the thought of setting up camp, drying up, and snuggling into our tent sounded like the best option.
We walk into camp and there are at least 8 other hikers standing in the shelter, protecting themselves from the storm which has started again. We take shelter inside as well and plan our next move. It is at this moment that we stopped physically moving that the realization of how cold it actually is sets in. Our hands are frozen stiff. Simply creating a fist is a battle. This causes a bit of internal panic so we make the choice to immediately start building our tents. We help our friends with their tent and they help set ours. The quicker we can setup, the less water can leak inside. Despite having hands that did not work 100 percent, it works as planned. Once in our tents we begin making our beds and get into our dry night clothes. We make mental plans to ship our full body rain gear in our next mail drop. This should help us during these colder months and once summer hits the ponchos should be fine again. The constant rain keeps us in our tents for the day. We luckily have books saved on our phones and they keep us occupied for the remaining hours and throughout the night.
Morning comes and rays of sunlight are beginning to shine through the campsite. We begin to hang our clothes and gear on tree limbs. The forecast is calling for clear skies so we are excited to get back on track.
With clearer heads and minds, we come to terms that the storm was not as bad as it could have been. However with the useless rain gear and the cold temperatures, it made for a hellish day. We hike onward with high spirits despite having a wet tent and soaked down-filled jackets hanging from our packs.
The weather remains clear throughout the day and we cross over several wonderful streams. We also hike over Standing Indian Mountain. It is beautiful. We end up hiking 12.5 miles and park it at Carter Gap Shelter. We begin to see the same familiar faces and it brings warmth and comfort to our hearts.
The next morning starts off as clear as the day before. Our plan is to hike another 12 miles and camp near a shelter. All is well for a few hours…
Then the earth decides to dump all its water in the tank onto us. Once again our ponchos decide to be useless and we are throughly wet. The temperature drops, the sky becomes dark, and we are hiking fast. The ground shakes every few minutes reminding us we are merly visitors on this beautiful piece of land. It was during this time Xavier discovered his pack was much heavier than usual. It turns out the pack liner he decided not to use this trip would have saved him some headache. Instead, all the contents in his pack were wet, save for a few items that were in individual sacks. The extra weight came from his wet down-filled sleeping bag, which was in a dry sack but not fully closed.
Soon we start to ascend a rock formation that reminds us of Enchanted Rock’s back side. (Enchanted Rock is a State Park in Texas)
We decide to move slowly. We were getting close to the Albert Mountain Fire Tower, which also meant we were nearing the 100 Mile marker! The fire tower was erected in 1951 in order to guard the Coweeta Basin. It is now recognized as a National Historic Lookout.
We make our way back down the mountain when suddenly we see what will be the first of many self made mile markers. Our first 100!
We take a minute to let it soak in. Sometimes in life you are so gleefully happy that “magic” or “magical” seems to be the only word to describe what you feel. Everything about it was perfect, for the moment at least. Lightining is seen through the trees, as if we need to be reminded.
We continue up and down mountains for several miles. The 100 mile high wearing off as reality once again sets in and we are cold and wet to the point of almost freezing. Starting to feel a bit defeated and a bit disappointed in ourselves for changing so many rain gear related items at the last minute, it was a complete welcome when Liz and Braydon texted us that they had reserved a room in Franklin for the night and we were welcome to stay with them. We had not planned on staying in a room until the weekend but morale was a bit low and the thought of a nice warm bed, a hot shower, and REAL food was all it took. We agreed to split the room with them. We would still need another 6 miles until Winding Stair Gap, the exit nearest town, but with new motivation we moved with purpose.
Staying in motels, hostels, or even private campgrounds, are common alternatives to camping on the trail for thru-hikers. Although camping on the trail is preferred by most, there is no definitive or one way to thru hike. It is commonly said… any type of thru hike is better than no thru hike. With that said… for budget reasons, wanting to stay in the woods as long as possible, or even simply challenging one self, many hikers try to stay on the trail for weeks at a time before sleeping off the trail. However other hikers aim for one “town” day every 7-10 days.
Hopping from one rock to another, jumping over creeks or sometimes even walking straight through streams since our shoes were already soaked, we were determined to make it in record time. The rain continued, pouring harder as if it was mocking us for leaving. “A little rain has you running to town?!” After being careless for a few miles with where we stepped we started calculating our footsteps, studying where each one would be placed since the ground was now a muddy pit. We slow our pace and make our way down the mountain a bit more cautiously.
Finally reaching Winding Stair Gap we walk into a public parking area, reserved for people who day hike.
We turn our attention to getting into town, which is still 10 miles away by road. We would have to hitch.
Hitchhiking is commonly used on the AT as a fair amount of towns near the trail can still be miles away from the trail. As time goes on, the process of hitching becomes easier and less intimidating, the first few times however can be nerve racking. Mallory decided to take a stab at it.
Within the first 5 minutes we had a car pull up.
As fate would have it, we had the nicest older couple we could possibly encounter on our first hitch. We quickly threw our packs into their trunk and jumped inside. We apologized for getting their seats wet and they replied “We’re sorry we don’t have a bigger vehicle!” They ask us where we are from and if we plan to goto Maine. “Texas. That’s the plan!” We genuinely meant it and we could sense the couple were also genuinely interested in us. They asked us what convinced us to do such a crazy thing. Although we had been asked this before, perhaps it was because of the rain and how grateful we felt for being picked up we replied “We wanted an adventure, we wanted to create memories”.
The amazing couple then proceeds to show us around Franklin. Weaving in and out of parking lots, giving us a brief history on the town, making sure we know everything it has to offer. We were curious and asked if the town enjoys having so many hikers this time of year or was it more of an annoyance. “Oh goodness, no. We love it. There is such a buzz in the town that isn’t normally here. We love seeing all these new faces and hearing all the stories. We just wish we had a bigger car!” We looked down towards the console and they were holding hands, as if proud of each other, excited for helping us out. They then asked us for our trail names. “We do not have any yet”. Xavier mentioned that a few hikers started calling him Foam Roller, but he was not accepting it.
Months before leaving for the trail Xavier’s left leg started making a clicking noise. This progressed to full on pain when walking down stair cases. After his first visit his doctor determined his knee cap was shifting out of place when walking downward and a foam roller would have to be used every night until the AT. After 2 weeks of doing this he went on a short backpacking trip to Caprock Canyon State Park with his friend Mark to test it out. A bit nervous but hopeful. His knee was still hurting. Seeing no progress he went back. The doc asked “How much time do we have until you set foot on that trail?” Two weeks Xavier replied. “Come here, these are the exercises you have to do 3 times a day. Every day. You are getting on that trail.” The doctor sternly replied. He proceeds to show him multiple foam rolling exercises. Xavier would continue to do these exercises, the last one being in Atlanta the night before hitting the trail. It worked. The pain was gone. He kept the foam roller on his pack in case the pain suddenly popped up again. It hadn’t yet but he didn’t want to take the chance. Hikers began to borrow it from him, each night at a shelter some poor limping soul would roll around on their thighs in hopes to fix an array of leg or knee problems. Thus… the name Foam Roller came to be. But he wasn’t accepting it.
The couple dropped us off at the Sapphire Inn. A small motel, very similar to the Budget Inn. Because Liz and Braydon had their dogs and the vehicle we flagged down was a small sedan, they had to hitch on their own. We say goodbye to the couple who picked us up and thank them over and over. They said they were headed back out to find more hikers. This makes us pause a moment because it is such a refreshing thing to hear. Back home it is normal to hear things like “Can’t wait for these out of towners to leave… hopefully they don’t stay here… Please look but don’t stay”. Granted Franklin doesn’t suffer from the over population like back home, but again, it is simply refreshing to hear residents welcome visitors with open arms.
Liz and Braydon show up shortly after and one by one we take showers, which once again feels like heaven. We had been hearing about an all you can eat Chinese buffet so this immediately became our next goal, only problem was that it was a mile and half away. Sure, we had just hiked a hundred miles and you would think a mile and a half would be a walk in the park but we are beat and walking at this point isn’t at the top of our list. Liz had walked outside minutes earlier and she suddenly busted the door open and exclaimed “Get your stuff, I got us a ride!” While we were inside the room plotting how to get to the buffet, Liz talked a pizza delivery driver who was delivering pizza to the room next to us, into dropping us off at the buffet since he was headed that direction. “Hurry, hurry! Buffet! ” she yelled. We grabbed our money, leaving behind our phones and jackets and ran out the room. The delivery driver opened the camper shell on the back of his truck and said it would only be a 5 minute ride. He had an assortment of boxes, tools, and tires in the back. We looked at each other and said… OK! We cram into the back trying our best not to break anything or get stabbed by anything. He pulls away, sending boxes shifting from side to the other. We are all in awkward positions but are laughing at absurdity of the situation. The driver gets us there in record time and we hop out. Although he does not ask for it, we give him $10 for his time. The buffet is everything we hoped it would be and we stuff our faces with calories. With full bellies and no one in sight to offer us a ride we decide to walk back in the drizzling rain. It is a good night.
Morning comes and we are glued to the TV. Severe thunderstorms, wind, and a snow storm is expected in the area. We quickly decide perhaps it is better to stay indoors for the day. Our first zero. With this knowledge and knowing we can come back to sleep, Braydon and Xavier decide to goto a local church that is offering free all you can eat pancakes for hikers. There is a free shuttle offering rides to the church and the guys make the pick up time within seconds.
There is a room filled with tables and hikers. Everyone is all smiles as they stack pancakes with butter and syrup. On the walls are banners with signatures of previous AT Hikers listed by the year. They ask us to sign the 2017 banner, if we wish.
The Pancakes are delicious and we are floored by the generosity of the church members. The preacher sits next to Braydon and Xavier and asks how the trail is going. They reply that it is wonderful and are extremely thankful for all the assistance they have been receiving. They exchange stories and talk about family back home. After a cup of coffee the preacher thanks them for attending and invites them again tomorrow if they wish, same time. They tell him they just might!
The only thing the church asks is for hikers to send a hand written letter home, to inform family or friends that they are doing fine. “As parents, we know someone out there is worried sick about your well being. Tell them you love them.” With that, they each write a letter home. Church members also offer to take a picture and print it. There are envelopes on all the tables and they inform everyone once they are finished writing the letter, they will mail it off. In less than a week, Xavier’s parents receive this…
The renewed faith we spoke about a few posts ago was highly influenced by this moment and this town. A renewed faith in people and even country. Perhaps this is what the church intends. To show strangers that there is still good. Sure the pancakes were delicious, but it was the gesture, the care, the love shown to complete strangers that was remarkable. We make note of this church and plan to send a handwritten letter with pictures once we get back home.
The rest of the day is spent restocking on food, eating at a Mexican restaurant, and watching Forrest Gump. We send Chelsea, who is now a few days behind us, a picture of Lt. Dan fighting the sea.
Liz and Braydon decided a few days before to send their dogs home. They had noticed a few temperament issues with them and they speculate it could be the hard miles and harsh weather affecting them. As much as they want to be with them, they feel it is more important for the dogs to go home. Braydon’s sister comes to pick them up. They seem to be having hard time saying goodbye so we leave them alone for a few hours.
Overall in Franklin we feel we have done good on the trail. Our bodies feel good and spirits are once again high. The Appalachian Trail Roller Coaster, that is the ups and downs of different emotions you feel in a short time, are in full effect. Although we are a disappointed in ourselves for changing our rain gear before the trip, we learned it is ok to be wrong. It is ok to have tried something new and realize it may not work. We have 6 months to get it right.