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Dragging myself away from Kincora

Pizza with Traffic Director
Pizza with Traffic Director

Shortest mile day ever, but what a great day. I had a hard time (just as in 2008) pulling out of Kincora, and ended up being the last one there who wasn’t zeroing. I had great conversations with Chupa, Ramblin’ Man, and Cargo—old Vietnam Vets who studied cool languages at the Monterey Institute. When I crawled out of Kincora, I was struck by blooms of my first azaleas and rhododendron of the year and meeting Wise Panther out dayhiking. On the uphill, I met Traffic Director, and we hiked together for a while and ordered pizza together from Pond Flats. He had lived in Japan for a bit, so it was cool to learn about how it was in the 1970s from a foreigner’s perspective.

My first Azalea on the AT
My first Azalea on the AT

We collected our pizza at the swimming area at Shook Road and I stayed there for a long time until crawling to Vanderventer. It was full, but with a good crowd of hikers and I cowboyed camped and watched the stars. Nice sunset, good views, fun day.

Reliving my worst day in history

Overland shelter barn nestled in the Highlands
Overland shelter barn nestled in the Highlands

April 29 last time I hiked was the coldest day probably in my life. It snowed, I’d sent home my cold weather gear, I was going over some of the most exposed highest elevation stuff on the trail, and was almost out of food (and was too cold to open it’s packaging or get water…dumb dumb Snorkel). This year, though, April 29th was great.I had a great view over Hump Mtn of Overmountain shelter and a nice (too long) cooking and coffee break in Apple Orchard shelter.

Jones Falls
Jones Falls

I met Velvet at Jones Falls and we had a nice conversation and then it was a not bad walk into Kincora. It reminded me of the miles I busted from Overmountain shelter to Kincora in 2008—my desperate last ditch effort to get food and prevent myself from dying.

Sign for Biscuit
Sign for Biscuit

In 2008, when I pulled in late, someone offered me a steak. This time, I pulled in late and got offered pizza by Red Stripe (who is from Asheville but drinks Red Stripe???) Bob Peoples was there was there (think I missed him for some reason in 2008), and was a cheery as one can imagine, and Baltimore Jack was there, too! What a fantastic place…in 2008 and now!

Around here, there is a bench in memory of a former hiker looking out at this beautiful spring view
Around here, there is a bench in memory of a former hiker looking out at this beautiful spring view

The coolest Hike-Your-Own Hike story ever

Biscuit the dog
Biscuit the dog

This is perhaps the coolest Hike Your Own Hike Story ever. I met Uhaul at Cherry Gap shelter–a guy who is hiking with a 100-pound pack and started Feb. 5th. I told him my pack weight and when I started and he looked at me and asked: “Are you having fun?”
“Everyday out here is the best day in my life!” I told him.
“Me too,” he said. We looked at each other, and realized we were both hiking our own hikes and having an awesome time. Yay!

Cabin Chimney remnants on the AT
Cabin Chimney remnants on the AT

At the same shelter, I met this ultra runner and his girlfriend and they had Mountain Laurel Design packs and ultralight stuff…”Ooh!” I thought, “Friends who can keep up with me!” but when I learned they were planning on staying at the next shelter instead of the next 3-4 shelters, the plan was ruined. Well, guess it’s back to being alone.

Flowering gnarly apple trees line the enchanted green path
Flowering gnarly apple trees line the enchanted green path

This am, I was so stoked to see the piped spring after Beauty Spot that I took a 2 hour cook and drink break and dried my stuff out post-tornado. Unaka Mtn was fantastic–it went so high up and it felt a bit like I was already in Maine at the top.

Near Hughes Gap, I met Biscuit, who had found himself a little dog. It looked a lot like the dog in a lost dog poster I had seen at Uncle Johhny’s yesterday, so I decided to call—except I didn’t have Uncle Johnny’s number anymore (as I had torn the page out of my guidebook to save weight). I didn’t have reception on either of my phones, either. I was willing to share my food, but all I had left was candy and coffee, neither dog appropriate. I told Biscuit I couldn’t help, and went on my way, only to realize the dog had decided to follow *me* instead of stay with Biscuit. I thought the dog wouldn’t be able to keep up with my 3 mile per hour uphill pace—I already only had 3 hours to do 9 miles and couldn’t wait for a dog. “Why does a lost dog decide to follow me while I’m trying to get the speed record?” I wondered. It’s former master must have been a woman, too The dog, surprisingly, was a fantastic hiker and was almost always ahead of me and could read where the trail twisted and turned better than some hikers.

Roan Mountain balsam firs
Roan Mountain balsam firs

I tried calling my dad for an hour without enough reception for a real phone call and gave up and texted my boyfriend, who is the only person I know who is technologically present enough to be texted a weird situation without a phone number for a random place, find the number online, call the place, and text me back the results in 5 minutes. The owner got notified, and I got the dog to Roan High Knob shelter where another hiker agreed to take him on. Then, I busted out the last 5 miles from 7:20 to 8:50, enjoying the beautiful Roan balds at sunset–a special treat.

 

Tornado a-blowing

Wind blowing on top of Big Bald
Wind blowing on top of Big Bald

 

It was a crazy day where I was determined to do big miles to get to Erwin and get out. The elevation profile indicated that the day would be mostly downhill, so after a stormy an and super windy (I almost got blown over) exciting travel over Big Bald, I rushed onwards. I was in and out of Uncle Johnny’s—package (which they couldn’t find until I looked at their list myself and found my name…oh, Uncle Johnny’s!), showered, ate a ton, repacked all in 2 hours 15 minute. The weather looked horrendous and everyone was talking tornadoes.

Blooming Apple orchard sunrise
Blooming Apple orchard sunrise

I pushed on, and when I got to Curly Maple shelter, met Jesus and Satan who told me that the trail does nothing but go up, a tornado is coming on, and if I kept moving, I’d die. If a tornado came, I knew I’d be just as unsafe at a shelter as in my hammock, so pushed on.

Appalachian Spring
Appalachian Spring

It was super windy and rainy that night, but I was chatting on the phone (since I got reception on the hills outside of Erwin, but not actually in town…grrr) way past hiker midnight. Suddenly, the totally devastating process of having to get out of the warmth of my sleeping bag to readjust my tarp in the rain and wind felt more like a minor inconvenience than a trip-ending disaster. Fixing my bathtub-turned hammock was more like letting the cat out than fixing a life ending disaster. Funny how talking to people who aren’t hiking can sometimes make the hard parts of hiking easier.

Union soldiers from Confederate states
Union soldiers from Confederate states

 

 

Bear!

 

Stickin’ to the White Blazes
Stickin’ to the White Blazes

Woke to a bit of rain and headed off to Little Laurel shelter. Got there after a mile and was stoked for water. I was a bit paranoid about taking the good weather route over some of the exposed cliffs, but did it anyway, On the walk over the White Rock Cliffs, I met Chaco and Sketch. Chaco hiked in 2008 (same as me) and has probably the saddest story I’ve heard on the AT. In 2008, he hiked with his wife, Injinji until they got off because she broke her leg on the NY/NJ border. In 2009, they went to restart the trail, but got off after 50 miles to find out she had leukemia. Now, in 2011, he is hiking to Maine to spread her ashes on Katahdin. I was blown away by how sad his relationship with the trail is, yet how upbeat and happy he seemed to be out here.

I saw a bear near Hogback Ridge shelter–my first of the trail!

It isn’t a thru-hike if you don’t live it up

My friend Erin drove up from Asheville to grab lunch with me in Hot Springs
My friend Erin drove up from Asheville to grab lunch with me in Hot Springs

What a great feeling to wake up in Elmer’s amazing hostel and eat a wholesome breakfast over discussion of philosophy. Since the pair of shoes I got in the mail in Fontana Dam ended up being too small and giving me a huge blister, I’ve decided to bite the bullet and buy a new pair of shoes at the Hot Springs outfitter. My feet went from a women’s size 9.5 to a men’s 9.5! I wasn’t anticipating this big of a foot size increase this quickly.

I met my friend/old housemate/climbing buddy/fellow policy scientist, Erin, who drove up from Asheville for lunch. We had a great time catching up and drinking beer at the Rock Bottom Cafe. I putzed around town for a couple more hours, fooled around on the internet, and finally dragged myself out of town. One of the best things about hiking the AT for the second time is getting to confusing roadwalks and intersections and remembering which way to turn without having to double check the blazes. This wasn’t the case on the way out of Hot Springs and I ended up walking a bit past the blaze and having to back track. Oh well!

As the sun sets, the night hikes begins…
As the sun sets, the night hikes begins…

At 3:30, the climb out of Hot Springs was brutal, especially since it was so hot. I met DVD by a spring where I made a point to eat a ton of my food to lower my pack weight (always a great strategy). By the time it cooled down a bit, I headed past Spring Mtn Shelter (which was full, of course), and night hiked a bit with Mark Trail. He stopped at a campsite with many other people from the hostel. They had a fire going, food passed around, and were having a great time, and it took all my willpower to drag myself away from them and continue hiking alone in the dark.

I downed some caffeine and set off to finish my miles for the day to Little Laurel Shelter. It was a weird experience of feeling very fast and energized, but motivated by adrenaline and a little bit of fear. I kept thinking about what would happen when I got to a road crossing and a car saw me, Would I get killed by mountain hicks? What were all these lights I was seeing in the distance? Headlamps of crazed axe murderers? (Actually, pretty sure they were houses). I became pretty paranoid and by the time I lost my fear-induced wind, it was 11:30. I did a poor job of setting up my hammock and called it a night, eventually giving up on my hammock and sleeping on the ground under my tarp, hoping that those clouds wouldn’t mean rain. A weird night, but totally worth it for the fantastic time I had in Hot Springs.

All’s well that ends with Elmer’s

Sunrise on Snowbird Bald
Sunrise on Snowbird Bald

As I expected, today was the best day on trail ever. I *love* the section from Standing Bear over Max Patch to Hot Springs. If there were a heaven and if I were to go there, I would just do this section over and over again. 30 miles through a botanical garden of flowers of all colors and sizes…views on what I still think is the most incredible “mountain” on the whole Triple Crown–Max Patch…ah, what a spectacular day. And it was only made better by the delicious wholesome All You Can Eat vegetarian meal at Elmer’s amazingly home-like antiquey Sunnybank hostel.

I left Standing Bear at 5 after making myself some eggs (apparently, they are microwave-able) and made it up to the top of Snowbird, a beautiful, grassy Southern bald, for what I imagine was the most beautiful Easter morning anyone could have. I felt so fortunate to be on the trail, so lucky to be hiking, and so special to see the Smokies and all the mountains lit by an emerging pink sun.

Brown Gap Trail magic
Brown Gap Trail magic

On the way down, I saw a sick weekend southbound hiker, and since there was no one else about at that hour, helped him up Snowbird until we found his friend an hour later.

There was incredible Brown Gap trail magic led by the Rat Pack (super trail maintainers). My friend Pi got my into the idea of offering the best food in my food bag to trail maintainers as thanks…what these guys were doing trying to feed me was beyond my comprehension! This was all you can eat eggs, bacon, grapefruit juice…mmm.. To make it better, someone left sodas 3 miles from Brown Gap for the last bit up the mountain.

Max Patch lived up to my memory of it—the most beautiful place in the world. The only bummer was that the new shoes I got in Fontana were a bit too small for my now swollen feet and I’d gotten a blister on my pinky toe. I took a break at a campsite, dreaming of Leukotape (sports tape that sticks forever…and is only available online) and getting new shoes in Hot Springs. Miraculously (more trail magic!), a weekend hiker saw my blister and offered me as much as leukotape as I wanted!!!

One of 273 photos I have of Max Patch
One of 273 photos I have of Max Patch

The rest down to Hot Springs was prety fun and I got into flow and ended up going much faster than normal. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t eaten since Brown Gap until it’d been almost 7 hours since my last meal (bad, bad hiker). The last uphill before Hot Springs was a bit tricky, but all was better on an easy downhill right into delicious food…

What a spectacular day! This trail is so incredible. I can’t wait to get off the computer and hike some more!

Dinner at Elmer’s
Dinner at Elmer’s

Lessons from Canada

Last views from the Smokies
Last views from the Smokies

There were so many people in the shelter, I apologize if I woke anyone up when I got up at 6!

It took me a long time to find the way back to the AT in the dark, but I finally was on my way at 6:45 after wandering back and forth and probably waking up the poor tenters!

Super chill day with a nice downhill. I walked for 4 hours with Eh?, from Canada, and learned all sorts of cool things about Canadian history and politics. That’s why I love the trail—where else can you be exposed to so many people with different experiences and outlooks on life in a safe/friendly atmosphere where everyone has enough time to chat with you for 4 hours???

Everyday I’m out here, I’m so happy that I feel like I’m dancing up and down the trail. I’m doing what I love and it’s awesome. I can’t get over how great my life is!

AT Maildrop at Standing Bear
AT Maildrop at Standing Bear

Got in at noon and made phone calls for 3 hrs by the side of I-40 (I knew there was no reception a mile up the hill at the hostel). Already made my reservation for Easter dinner at Elmer’s in Hot Springs. Great weather forecast for tomorrow–the day I’ve been looking forward to for 3 years—going back to Max Patch, quite possibly my favorite spot on the entire Triple Crown. I am *soooo* stoked!

Seeing old friends in odd places

With Cimarron–attempting to be the oldest person to thru-hike the AT.
With Cimarron–attempting to be the oldest person to thru-hike the AT.

Wow–just calculated the mileage for this section and it was a lot longer than I thought! As I hiked this yesterday, I thought it was 23 miles and a grueling 23 at that. Good to know that feeling came from some extra miles instead.

But I met all sorts of famous and familiar hikers today–so it was totally worth it!

Which way is the white blaze? Almost an exact replica of the photo I took here in 2008.
Which way is the white blaze? Almost an exact replica of the photo I took here in 2008.

Finally figured out how to use the delayed timer on my camera to grab a photo of myself at this boulder with two whites blazes–arrows pointing at the other blaze. I thought it was funny in 2008 and took a photo there–and that photo is the “AT photo” I’m using for the Triple Crown ceremony. I think this one might have even turned out better!

Newfound Gap is the place to yogi if you’re a thru-hiker
Newfound Gap is the place to yogi if you’re a thru-hiker

Since I heard rain on the shelter and thought today was a short day, I slept in today and didn’t leave until 7. Turned out it was just misty and cold–warranting a coffee break at Icewater Spring Shelter! The climb up Clingman’s Dome wasn’t bad—and I actually got really happy and excited doing it because I could smell the Balsam Fir. It looked and smelled like the AT up in Maine–how amazing the forest ecology of the Smokies that it can have such a diverse distribution of awesome plants!

No view (or bathroom) on Clingman’s Dome. Hard to say which I was more bummed by.

Around Newfound Gap, I ran into two packless people who identified me as a thru-hiker—pretty amazing I thought given the tiny size of my pack. They ended up being AT thru-hikers, too–Wild Child and Dash who I met on the PCT in 2009!! I guess some time on the PCT gives people an eye for tiny-packed, smelly folk like myself. They may have left some trail magic (thanks!!).

Shameless state line photo. Also a replica of a 2008 thru-hike photo, except without Johnny Thunder and the Thundercats
Shameless state line photo. Also a replica of a 2008 thru-hike photo, except without Johnny Thunder and the Thundercats

I hung around the Appalachian Trail information board at Newfound Gap that visitors use to learn about the trail, the history of the park, etc. A large group approached me asking; “Are you a thru-hiker?” And we chatted for a while and I even got invited back to their cabin for a night of being warm (it was freezing at Newfound Gap!), dryness, plenty of beer, food, and internet. How it killed me to decline. Another kind family brought me over to their car and gave me Gatorade and cookies–the dad is hiking part of the trail in June and was thoughtful pack snacks in case he ran into thru-hikers during his family vacation!

Met the famous hiker Cimaron, an 88 year old guy setting out to be the oldest thru-hiker. He was super nice and I even got a photo with him–I wish him the best of luck!

Had a snack break with Shutterbug and her awesome friends (sorry I can’t remember you—you had a Jerry Chair, though!). They were hammock gear heads and made me feel pretty pathetic in the knowing-how-to-use-my-gear department. Awesome what I learned and all the cool gadgetry they had!

As the clouds lift, the Smokies are enchanting
As the clouds lift, the Smokies are enchanting

Lastly, I met Squatch, the famous thru-hiking documentarian at Tri-Corner Shelter. He remembered me from the PCT Kick Off and seemed quite impressed that I’m 25 and a Triple Crowner. He, a 17 year old thru-hiker (!!!) and I were sitting around the campfire, and they were both pressuring me to go to Trail Days, and I kept saying no, no, I can’t…until I finally just told them that I am going for the unsupported female record (at least what I’ve read the record to be), so I can’t. That finally convinced them that maybe Trail Days wasn’t going to happen, but then Squatch wanted it on film, and it was all dark and smoky and happened so quickly and next thing I knew, I had agreed and there it was. So, the cat is out of the bag. He also mentioned that the girl featured in his first documentary, “Walk,” who wanted to be the youngest Triple Crowner at 20 didn’t end up doing it. He said there’s a good chance I might be the youngest woman Triple Crowner, though I hope that honor goes to Salamander, who is one of the coolest people I know and I kind of hope I end up becoming her when I grow up.

Sweet return to the Smokies

Wildflowers in bloom in the Smokies
Wildflowers in bloom in the Smokies

Woke up to the sound of rain on the shelter. But what better place to have to wake up to the rain than the Fontana “Hilton?” I grabbed my stuff in the dark and was able to pack up under the dry comfort of the Hilton’s eaves. I made it a whole 100 yards to the restroom at the Hilton, where I drank in luxury two cups of hot coffee (made with hot water from the faucet)!

I strolled out at 6 am for the road walk. I’m a little sketched about walking on a road in the dark as a little girl all alone, but didn’t see anyone about. I wasn’t sure where to get my permit for Smoky Mtn Ntl Park, but the coffee hit my system, and I headed towards the bathroom at the Visitor’s Center. At 6:30 am, they were locked, but in a desperate attempt to try out multiple bathroom door entrances, I found the permit station tucked away in the back.

Hikertrash breakfast
Hikertrash breakfast

I’d been dreading the climb up Shuckstack Mtn–2000 feet straight of gain that I remembered as being never-ending from my 2008 thru-hike. I walked it with C-Bass and an older guy whose trailname was given to him decades ago by his best friend who died in Vietnam. We camped at Birch Spring Tent Site, where my hammock turned into a bathtub and I told myself I’d quit the AT if I had one more night like that. C-Bass’s positive attitude kept me going…and look at me now! This time, Shuckstack Mtn was super chill–I got to the top and was like: “Oh, I’m already here.” FYI–it’s a way harder climb on the BMT.

Grasslined path in the Smokies
Grasslined path in the Smokies

Didn’t see anyone until I took an hour long break at Mollie’s Ridge Shelter and as I was leaving, Kentucky Greybeard (the ridgerunner) came by. He said he’d never heard of anyone making it to Mollie’s Ridge from Springer in 6 days before and he hadn’t heard of someone attempting to go from Fontana Dam to Siler’s Bald Shelter. I was quite touched.

Saw Jaybird and Booberry (?) from Gardinerville, NV—I used to drive through there on my way to Lee Vining all the time! They were super nice and I had a great chat with them and Blairfoot.

View of the distance mountain the Smokies
View of the distance mountain the Smokies

The weather was spectacular for photos on Thunder Mtn where Tin Man (hiking for heart charity) took my photo. The climb to Derrick Knob Shelter was totally ass kicking. I loved seeing it again (I stayed there in 2008 and had a fantastic time with Johnny Thunder and the Thundercats there—we hoofed it to a crazy night in Gatlinburg–what fun!)

On the way to Siler’s Bald Shelter, I met OWF and OWF’s Keeper—who are from Norfolk, CT and worked at Great Mountain Forest and had played beerpong with Star Childs (kind of the unofficial mascot of forestry school). What a small crazy world! We chatted about delicious New Haven food all the way to Siler’s Bald…where we ate our hiker food. A beautiful and rewarding day with great people. I really do think the Smokies bring hikers together…what a socially and ecologically beautiful place.