After a few days and some antibiotics, Rob is still tired but getting back on trail. He’s about 80 miles behind me now, and is hoping to catch up soon. His test was negative for Lyme disease, but since he caught it early on the test is only 30-40% accurate. He’ll never know for sure.
I just want to take a moment to note that a lot of the fears us hikers have are not over bears, creepy people, or getting lost.
Once Rob went home, we ended our slackpacking adventure prematurely. I am super happy about that. I went into this slackpacking thing expecting it to be a break for my back, and a fun change of pace. It ended up making me feel chained to the day’s plan. Unlike normal backpacking, where you can bail at any point and set up camp, we HAD to stick to the plan to get our stuff back at the end of the day.
Due to the heat wave, we decided to hike 8 miles and then reconvene to see if we want to hike any more. Rob seemed to be experiencing heat exhaustion, so we decided to find somewhere with AC. That somewhere ended up being the movie theater. We saw the Lion King (so lackluster!). He didn’t improve the following day, so we all moved into a hotel room. The day after that, with a fever as a bonus, he decided take the car home and get tested for Lyme disease.
The Pennsylvania section of the trail is known for only bad things: rattlesnakes, ticks, and rocks. These rocks, man. They’re killing me. People say that this is where boots come to die. But what I hate most, it isn’t the way the rocks tear at my soles, or the way they bruise my feet. It’s the mental stamina required to solve the constant puzzle of where to place my next foot.
Today I crossed mile 1,096, the halfway point of the trail. The second half, I’m told, should go faster now that I have my trail legs. This trail is starting to feel long. Like, really long.
At a camp store just past this point, there’s a big tradition called the “half gallon challenge,” where hikers buy a couple of ice cream tubs and dig in. Those who complete it get a little sample spoon.
I started this hike with a very poor knowledge of birds, trees, and flowers. A few days ago I hiked with Mad Max, who taught me a few trees, and today I hiked with another hiker, Yoshi, who taught me several more. Yoshi, I realized, often examines the flora while he walks, and stops when he sees something interesting. It’s obvious that he’s much more engaged with it than I am.
A few days ago, Rob’s mom picked us up from Hamburg, PA, and took us to their home for some excellent meals and TV time. From there, we took Rob’s old car and began our slackpacking adventure. Slackpacking is when you leave your camp stuff in a car or hotel, and just carry your day’s food and water. Our goal is to knock out big miles then go have fun in a pool somewhere.
I left DC on April 10 with a pack that felt heavy as hell, a pit in my stomach I would later call fear, and a heart full of nostalgia. Today, I returned to it much filthier, with my muddy pack slung over one shoulder. Coming out of the Woodley Park metro, my first thought was how beautiful DC looks in the summer. My second thought was that I wished I could pee behind a tree.
In my excitement to reach DC, and with Brad’s recurring, undiagnosed exhaustion, I decided to just push ahead of the others for the next few days. I’m aiming to reach harpers ferry by Sunday, where I’ll catch the noon train to DC.
There are pros and cons to hiking alone. The anxieties about catching up to others goes away, and I get to set my own destinations without debate. But the anxieties about getting to camp before sundown are amplified.
I SAW A BEAR! FINALLY! Given the bear population in the Smokies and Shenandoah, it has taken me an unusually long time to see one. It was a big cub, stumbling away from me on a side trail. I’ve been waiting to do an animal post until I’d seen a bear, so here it is.
We pet some wild ponies in the Grayson Highlands, which started out as adorable until we realized they would follow and harass us all night.
We’ve entered Shenandoah, the second and last national park along the AT. The trail zigzags across Skyline drive. The AT used to be go directly along Skyline Drive, but someone believed that the good views should belong to drivers instead. Lots of thru hikers dislike this situation. Some opt to “aqua blaze,” that is, raft down the Shenandoah River. Others just hike along the highway instead of the trail. I think I’m in the minority who enjoys it.
Right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Waynesboro, sipping a chai latte and picking at my chèvre toast as I write. Turns out, Waynesboro is a millennial haven, complete with a Kombucha taproom, cidery, and beer garden. It also turns out that I really missed that stuff. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m getting closer to DC or because I’m entering week 10, but I’ve been missing the comforts of the real world lately.
“Some days seem to drag on forever (hello rain) while others end too quickly. After awhile they all start to run together and, despite having evidence (photos, journals, etc) that each actually happened, it becomes hard to believe how much time has passed and how many miles were walked.”
Today we conquered the last big climb until Massachusetts. The past few days have been long and hard for us. As we neared the end of our break at the base of the last 3000’ gain, I read aloud an old note I found on my phone from 2015:
I probably got this list from the internet somewhere. In practice, I’m motivated at different times by different reasons. Sometimes I’m fueled by some adventure I have planned up ahead.
So the AT isn’t very diverse. At least not racially. I’ve only met a handful of people of color. I’m more likely to see Anglo and German hikers here on visas. Appalachia probably isn’t the most obvious choice for hikers of color. While the thruhiking community has built an intensely welcoming culture, the towns it passes through have not. As 2017 thru hiker Rahawa Haile points out, we hike 670 miles before we reach a county that didn’t vote for Trump.
On one call to my grandma, she asked me “Do you ever just take it in?” I replied “Not usually.” She said she doesn’t either. Most days I just try to get the miles over with. I’ll hike anxiously towards camp to beat sunset, or to get a spot in a shelter on a rainy day, or to not fall behind my group. I’ll reframe it as “I’m gonna go knock out this hill,” or “let’s crush some miles.
“Wow my chafing is NASTY!” I exclaimed to Rob in the middle of a crowded hostel. Every head that heard me turned and nodded in agreement. We’ve been hiking in the rain for four days now, and I think it’s starting to turn our skin raw. We all have red little bumps all over our outer thighs and backs. No one warned me about this part of the hike!! This is my warning to you all!
Last night we played cards on the edge of a shelter, trying to avoid the rain. I kept getting distracting, staring out at the trail. Just before dark, my boyfriend and two friends emerged, carrying four large pizzas and three cases of beer. They drove from DC to the remote coordinates I gave them and walked a mile uphill in the rain, ready to lift our spirits with precious calories and great attitudes.
My phone is my greatest multitool. It’s my guidebook, Kindle, camera, iPod, journal, and means of communication. While I’m hiking I’ll frequently check my guidebook app to see where I am and what to expect. I’ll also pull my phone out to keep me company on hikes and listen to music, audiobooks, and podcasts. At night I’ll often read or journal. In town I update this blog, Instagram, and make calls.
Everyone gets injuries out here. Mostly they’re mild. At this point, I could ask any hiker how their body feels and they’ll tell me which of their muscles and joints ache the most. The trick is knowing when to stop and deal with pain, and when to push through it. As for me, I have some little inconveniences: my left hamstring and knee, the top of my right foot, a cracked right heel, and itchiness everywhere from bug bites.
I’d like to issue a correction. I wrote on May 1 that I’ve never been tied to other people for as long as I have with my tramily. My twin sister, Annie, pointed out that we have been tied for much longer. To be fair, I don’t remember the nine-months of being wombmates. It was still an important time in my life so, sorry Annie.
Anyway, the tramily is still going strong.
I called my grandma today, standing inside of a dollar general to avoid the rain. She walks 2 miles everyday, rain or shine. She told me that she think about me a lot, and how she’s so glad she can go home at the end of her walk when I can’t. I assured her that you get used to that feeling, and begin to embrace it. Right when we hung up it started to hail.
I am very far from being a clean person, right now. I’m not sure what is a tan line and what is dirt. On a normal day, I’ll Purell my hands a few times, rinse my face and feet, and maybe scrub down with a wet wipe. I might take a real shower 0-2 times per week, and laundry even less. More often, I’ll wash myself and my clothes in streams (without soap of course, because that’s bad for the fishies).
It can be difficult to make decisions as a group of five. Yesterday, before being completely sucked in by the vortex, we had trouble admitting that we didnt want to hike anymore. MJ dubbed it “my day” so I got to make all of the decisions. I decided to stay. Out here, “hike your own hike” is a common mantra. But for the next few days, we’re going to hike each other’s hikes.
Going into town can be a vortex. For example, yesterday we stopped by a hostel that sold $3 milkshakes. Then we realized that they had a smart tv, and stuck around to watch the first two episodes of GoT. By that time, we had to cut our plan of 20 more miles down to 11.
Today, we hiked with the sunrise to make up those miles and get to Damascus (hello VA!
James didn’t show up at the shelter last night. It seemed odd that he hadn’t shown up soon after me, since I had just passed him an hour earlier. I figured he decided to stealth camp just south of us, and I decided to go check. Brad came with me while his dinner cooled. We hiked a half-mile back and still no sign. We were getting hungry and cold, but we kept walking.
It’s Saturday night. The hikers are all back at tent city, still drying out from the a line of parade goers water guns. Right now, it’s a full moon, the paths are torchlit, and tents glowing neon lights surround us. The steady rhythm of the drum circle rings throughout camp, while the sporadic howling and mini guitars fill the space. There’s no litter, no fights, no sexual harassment. We recognize many hikers, and we’re excited to compare trail experiences.
Trail Days is an annual thruhiker festival in Damascus, VA that lasts all weekend. We were 75 miles south on the trail, so we got a shuttle ride in yesterday. Most hikers stay in tent city, a makeshift campground behind some baseball fields. This weekend is filled with trail magic. I’ve gotten a foot massage, sunglasses, bandana, sunscreen, gear repair, and tons of free food. There are representatives from outdoor companies, food trucks, live music… I even got to meet Jennifer Pharr Davis, who set the record in 2008 for hiking the trail in 57 days.
You meet a lot of different people with different motivations on the trail. Here are a few people I’ve met so far:
Godspeed graduated high school a semester early, and is now hiking the AT. He’s taking a break later on to take his girlfriend to prom. Whenever he meets a thru-hiker they usually respond, “I’ve heard of you!” I’m not sure whether he’s best known for his age, cool demeanor, or for performing CPR on a man suffering a heart attack on Clingman’s Dome.
I got my resupply package, plus some extra gifts! I’m super excited to change up my food game this week with Harmony House dehydrated meals and RXbars! I also picked up a mini guitar. I started this trip with the idea that I should carry a certain set of pre-approved, lightweight items. Now, I’m getting into the mindset that this is my life now, and I want music and veggies in it.
Rob and I split from our group for the next few days. MJ has an appointment in Charlotte, NC tomorrow to get fingerprinted for her Canadian visa. Brad and James went with as well. We’ve been pushing 20 mile days to get them to a good jumping off point for renting a car.
Without them, Rob and I are changing things up and slowing down. Tonight we’ll sleep in a barn shelter, and tomorrow at a hostel.
There were six of us in the shelter. Five of us were lying down, when we hear Achilles yell “what the FUCK?” It was a mouse that had run out from where MJ and Brad’s pack was hanging and into his.
“MJ! Why did you have to share hangs with me?” MJ had, in fact, thrown her pack on with his without asking.
She fired back, “Wait, do you have bagels in your pack?
So I’m guessing the machete man story is getting national attention, given the uptick in “are you alive?” texts.
Here’s my perspective of the story: On day 10, a hiker named Sun Drop told us about a sketchy guy with a machete and a dog calling himself “sovereign.” She warned us that he was far ahead of us, but to just watch out. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about creepy hikers, but this was the first news of a violent one.
Sometimes my water bottle will fall out of the easy-to-access pocket on my pack. Today, my water bottle decided to repeat this stunt down into a 30’ valley. I just watched it roll down into the ravine, as MJ and James did the same behind me. Reluctantly, I set my pack on the side of the trail and set off to grab the bottle. My pack also heard the call of the abyss and tumbled into the ravine as well.
I cook with a Jetboil, which is really only good for boiling, but others have camp stoves and pots. We can eat a hot meal when we’re near a water source and not in a hurry. In general, hiker breakfast is either hot or cold, hiker lunch is cold, and hiker dinner is hot.
Food weighs a lot. I tend to carry 2-5 days worth of food at a time, depending on where I plan to stop next.
I don’t really eat meat, and I’ve never been conscious of protein intake. At home, I mostly eat produce. That doesn’t work so well out here. What matters out here is getting the most calories for the least weight. And that the food is indestructible. There are some staples: oatmeal, tortillas with tuna or peanut butter, knorr and mountain house meals, mashed potatoes, and ramen. It’s a bonus if you can just add hot water into the bag and avoid cleaning your pot.
Hitching is normal in trail culture. Say your most convenient resupply option is 15 miles from town. Uber isn’t an option. Hiking 30 extra miles isn’t an option either.
To get back to the trail from Gatlinburg, MJ and Brad spent 30 minutes with their thumbs out while Rob, James, and I hid in the woods. An SUV pulled over and didn’t mind cramming all 5 of us and our packs in.
On the AT, it’s important to manage your body and log zero-miles of hiking. Rob thinks he’s developing tendinitis in his ankle, so we decided to give ourselves our first “zero-day” in Gatlinburg, TN. What a bizarre place. It’s like a boardwalk town without the beaches, in the middle of nowhere. While it’s great to be back in society where I can eat whatever and shop whenever, I mostly just miss the trail today.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of two national parks the AT passes through. It climbs from 1727’ to highest point along the AT at 6643’, Clingman’s Dome. And it has some of the most interesting terrain yet. Across the elevation, I noticed a few obviously different microclimates. Turns out, according to the NPS, there are 5 types of forests in the park. At the bottom of the mountains, on the shady sides, we see Hemlock forests, which suffer from an infestation of a non-native pest.
Day 17: We met our first SOBO (southbound) hiker today. Her name is Comics. She started in June but took a break to recover from a stress fracture, and is now only 190 miles from finishing. She thinks she might be getting another stress fracture, but she plans on powering through it. SOBOs tend to start in the summer, while NOBOs tend to start in the spring. NOBO is more popular.
It’s pretty crazy to think that, for now, I spend 24 hours a day with these four other people. I’ve never been tied to anyone for as long as this. We only talk for a small portion of the day. Mostly we move together: hiking, stretching, camp chores, etc. But in this series, I’ll profile the people I meet along the trail. Everyone on the trail adopts a trail names, but we’re still working those out.
Out here, It’s easy to feel like you deserve a beer at the end of the day. The only troubles are the beer’s weight and southern counties’ prohibition-era laws. There are only a few AT shelters where conditions are right: close to town, on a lake, with running toilets, showers, and trash cans. In the rare these conditions are met, it inspires someone to bring some beer.
One such shelter is called the “Fontana Hilton,” and the scene resembled a music festival.
I ,apparently, hike fast. My whole group does. Excluding our off day, our max is 18 miles, min is 9.1, average is 13.4, and median is 12.3. Our muscles feel stronger every day, but we know not to push our joints. It’s common to see hikers push too hard in the beginning and injure themselves. Our pace has been consistently a little faster than 2 miles/hr.
We usually get out of camp between 8AM-10AM.
I don’t get much news. I heard about the fire at Notre Dame and Herman Cain’s withdrawal from the Federal Reserve nomination - only because people texted me about it. I’ll read anything Elaine Godfrey writes, too. Otherwise I’ve been off the grid, man.
The news I get now is all about the trail, and it mostly arrives via word-of-mouth. Weather, difficult terrain, bear-heavy areas, shelters with sketchy people hanging around, the best spots in town, etc.
Fun fact: a psychic once told me that she saw “dehydration” in my future. No idea what that meant, but I think about it all the time.
On the A.T., we get water from streams. I pass at least 2 marked ones each day, and there’s usually one at camp. But since it’s the rainy season, I often pass more. Because of the abundance, I only carry a liter. Hikers generally try to “camel it,” i.
I slept on a bed last night. A bed with a mattress and a comforter. Sure, I shared a double with a woman I met days ago. I still slept wonderfully. After breakfast, we went to an outfitter/bar to wait out the rain before we hit the trail again. I spent the hour trying to play along with the bar music on their loaner guitar. Our shuttle driver, Santa Mike, took us to Walmart to get food.
Rob and I have been hiking with three others lately: Brad, James, and MJ. We’ve sort of formed a tramily (trail family). Good timing, too. Trail wisdom says it’s best to hike the upcoming Smokies section in groups - better for scaring off bears.
Today, with this group, I experienced some of the biggest ups and downs yet.
Up: We crossed into North Carolina!
Down: We hiked 11 grueling miles in a chilly rain.
I don’t think it’s hit a lot of thruhikers that we’re really here doing this. It’s kind of difficult to comprehend the scale of our goal. I tend to break it into smaller goals: the next peak, next camp, next town with a shower and real food, next state. I’m always “almost there”.
Some people don’t operate like this, they’re more about wandering. I met someone who is just hiking until June, and a retired woman who has planned this trip her whole life and wants to take it very slow to enjoy it.
I’m starting to get to know some of other hikers. I might stay at a shelter with a person one night, then catch them the next day eating lunch on some peak, and so on until we’ve remembered each other’s names. Rob and I hiked with two others today, and we ended up at a crowded campsite with people starting a fire, playing ukulele, hanging a birthday banner, and playing with THREE dogs.
I slept like a baby! Must have been too tired to be scared, or maybe I wasn’t scared after all. TBD
Today was really beautiful, and had some of the best views yet. Rob and I climbed the tallest mountain on the Georgia section of the AT, got our first resupply just off the trail, and hiked 18 miles in total! Big day. I don’t have any blisters or big aches yet, just sunburn.
My editor told me to put more emotion into these. I told him that it’s hard to think of much else besides “stay warm” when it’s cold and raining. But today was nice, so here we go.
The first emotion that comes to mind is fear. I’ve been pretty afraid of being alone in the woods at night. The idea of it might sound idyllic to some, but to me it makes me think of bears, coyotes, widow makers (aka trees that fall on you), creepy people, and the cold.
It wasn’t raining when we woke up, so we decided to just brave the possible tornado. We got about a mile in before it started to pour. It didn’t let up for about four hours. Fun fact: the Appalachian Trail is sometimes also a stream. I pretty much refused to sop, lest I get cold by not moving. We got to camp around 3PM.
Rob and I walked briskly to the summit of Springer Mountain and just took it in for a moment. We were finally here.
Shortly after, a ridge runner ran up and informed us that we had better find shelter tonight; there were tornado warnings for the following morning. So then we walked even more briskly. We secured spots at a shelter and only woke up a few times to the sound of rain slamming down on the roof.
Here’s most of my stuff! Altogether I’d put it about 18lbs, 35lbs with food, water and fuel. I’d honestly rather not know the exact weight so I can convince myself that it’s lighter than it really is.
That trowel? That’s for burying human waste. Millions of people make a number-2 in the woods every day, and that’s probably a fact. So why bury it? Poo decomposes a bit underground where the critters are.
This is my AT blog. I’ll use it to keep y’all updated. Andrew Nguyen will do the actual uploading. Maybe he’ll even make some graphs, even though they won’t be nearly as good as mine. Many of you have asked me how he feels about this. Let’s ask him:
“I’m happy that she’s pursuing her dream, but I’ll miss her in DC.”
Here are some other FAQs: