The Appalachian Trail: Georgia

Back in March I celebrated my 30th birthday with a 7 day, 70 mile hike through the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail. I’d said for years before this trip that if I wasn’t where I wanted to be in my career by the time I hit 30 I would quit my job and spend the first 6 months of my third decade on earth realizing my dream of one day calling myself a thru hiker. Fortunately-unfortunately I’d achieved several of my career goals over the past few years, and I’m now planning to stay in my current role for the foreseeable future. So that means spreading the hike out over the next handful of years by knocking out week long sections when I can. Our group of 4 included Greenlight (my Dad), Storyteller (Dad’s friend from Indiana), Traveler (Me), and Burning Man (my younger brother Steven) who got get his trail name near the end of day 2. There was debate in the weeks leading up to the hike whether we would start at the arch in the state park and complete the approach trail, or optimize our time on trail and start at Springer Mountain. I was adamantly against “wasting time” on the approach trail in our debates back and forth. But I’d been outvoted a week or so prior to the start of the hike so I went along quietly.

I’ll break the trip down into the first 3 days, and the last 4 days and give a quick recap of our experience before I share my favorite pictures below. I’m a firm believer in living your own adventure, so I don’t want to detail every minute of my experience, I’d rather share the best memories and maybe inspire someone to get out and see it for themselves.

Days 1-3: We took it slow during the first 3 days on trail, this was my little brothers first real hike and it absolutely wrecked his feet. By the end of day 1 we all had a serious respect for the approach trail (hundreds of stairs followed by a 9ish mile trail), and a new perspective on Springer Mountain. We got to experience rain, wind, hail, and dense fog on these days as well, really rounding out our weather experiences for the week. Burning Man, so named because of his fair skin and lack of sunscreen, was really hurting during the first 3. We took a slow pace and stopped frequently to let him rest. Rain on day 2 turned into hail at the end of day 2, then fog on the morning of day 3, followed by more rain. In those 3 days we covered 24.5 miles over a handful of smaller mountains. To our surprise, we’d kept pace with a bubble of thru-hikers and actually out-hiked a handful. Our experience at the shelters at the end of each day really made the trip special. The scenery and shared struggle on the trail really brings people together, but the shared stories and laughs you experience around the shelters are what make the misery so enjoyable. Even though the weather was against us, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with the hikers we met during the first 3 days on trail.

Days 4-7: Some time shortly after we broke camp and got back on trail on day 4 Burning Man decided that his time on the trail was coming to an end. He’d experienced the worst weather that we would see during our trip and walked over 24 miles in “terrible shoes”. He was tired, smelly and sore. My Dad, Greenlight, told Storyteller and I go on ahead. He was going to get my brother to an intersection so he could make plans to get him back to the D.C. area where they live. We parted ways and he promised he’d catch up to our planned stopping point by the end of the day. So Storyteller and I ripped down the trail. We’d been talking about the first “real” climb of the trip since day 1, and it was within our grasp; Blood Mountain. After consulting our trail guides we made set our lofty goal, 18 miles over Blood Mountain and ending our day at Mountain Crossings Hostel. We knew this would be a challenge, but we had spent the first 3 days suppressing the desire to run down the trail and knock out as many miles as we could. Now that we were keeping our own pace, we tore down trail. Partially driven by the desire to finally conquer Blood Mountain, and partially by the prospect of hot pizza and a resupply waiting at Mountain Crossings. Before we knew it we were encountering the long uphill that is the southern ascent of Blood Mountain. It wasn’t the beast we’d been anticipating, and while it was the largest elevation change we’d encountered to that point on the hike, it was drawn out over a few miles and really didn’t hurt as bad as what we were anticipating. The view from the top when we finally crested the summit (after checking out the iconic Blood Mountain Shelter) was incredible, and absolutely worth all of the miles we had put in up to that point. But even more memorable was the descent down the northern approach. While the path we’d taken to the top was long and full of switchbacks, the Northern approach was steep, rocky, icy and technical. It made for a memorable descent and made me glad we still had plenty of daylight left to get to the bottom.

By the time we got to Mountain crossings, my dad and brother had been there for several hours. The store was closed for the day, but the hostel still had room for 2. So we claimed our bunks and hitched a ride from a local trail angel that ferries people back and forth from the hostel to the gas station at the bottom on the mountain that makes “personal” pizzas that hikers consume in their entirety. Once we got back to the hostel, got our bunks made and took turns washing off 3 days of dirt and sweat in the communal shower, it was off to bed to rest up. Day 5 was challenging because Storyteller and I were still pretty tired from our 18 mile jaunt the day before, but Greenlight was fresh and ready to conquer some more mountains. We kept a reserved pace for most of the day. Greenlight would hike ahead full throttle then stop and wait for us to catch up to him. There are a lot of ups and downs in the Georgia section of the AT. Most of them have cool names, but there are only a few that are truly daunting. We ended Day 5 after 10 miles over a few of those lesser climbs. Day 6 we decided to let loose again and we tore through another 15 miles, over a handful of medium climbs. By the last 5 miles we were all exhausted. Green light was talking about calling it a day, but Storyteller and I wanted to get to the top of Tray Mountain and camp by the shelter. Tray is one of the bigger climbs and was pretty intimidating after the 10 or so miles we’d already put in. We finally convinced him to push through, he thanked us when we made it to the campsite before dark. Since we’d put in such a long day on day 6, day 7 was a short 10 mile walk back to our staged car at Dicks Creek Gap. The last miles seemed to stretch on forever, I’d felt great for the entire trip and kept a positive attitude even in the face of the hardest physical challenge of my life. But the last 5 miles really got into my head. But we made it in good time and after a short drive into town we threw ourselves into a quiet corner of a local Mexican restaurant and celebrated our success with beer and hot food. The actual Georgia border that we’d been aiming for is in the middle of nowhere, so even though we say we hiked the Georgia portion of the trail on this trip, we were actually about 7 miles short. Yet, at the end of a trip like this it’s really hard to be upset about something so small. During this week we hiked 70 miles and through 3 different hiker bubbles, making friends in the moment that we’ll probably never see again. The experience was genuine and wholesome, it changed my perspective of the trail and the crazy people that love it like I do.

If you made it this far, thank you. Our plan now is to pick up at Dicks Creek Gap in October and hike 96 miles to Fontana Dam over 7 days. That trip is coming up in a couple of weeks, and I hope to get a ton a great pictures. I’ll have a recap post like this in the weeks following the trip.   

Here’s the breakdown of our 7 days on trail starting from Amicalola:

Day 1 – Ended at Springer Mountain Shelter – 9 Miles

Day 2 – Ended at Hawk Mountain Shelter – 8 Miles

Day 3 – Ended at Gooch Mountain Shelter – 7.5 Miles

Day 4 – Ended at Mountain Crossings Hostel – 18 Miles

Day 5 – Ended at Low Gap Shelter – 11 Miles

Day 6 – Ended at Tray Mountain Shelter – 15 Miles

Day 7 – Ended at Dicks Creek Gap – 10 Miles

Traveler, Storyteller, Greenlight and Burning Man.
Amicalola Falls and the infamous stairs.
Goofing around on bridges.
Dry hammock views are the best views.
Trail conditions.
Hiking in the fog on Day 3.
One of our many rest breaks.
Hail at the end of Day 2.
Blood Mountain Shelter.
Mountain Crossings – many prospective thru-hikers call it quits here. About 35 AT miles in.
The view from the summit of Blood Mountain.
The Bunkroom at Mountain Crossing Hostel.
A sign perhaps?
Greenlight standing in front of the only portion of the AT that passes through a building.
Burning Man saying his goodbyes
On the way to Low Gap
One of the bubbles we hiked through.
Camping in a bubble.
The simple things mean the most out here.
One of my favorite pictures from the trip. Relaxing after the 15 miles day ending at the top of Tray Mountain.

Upper Loop Trail at Fall Creek Falls

A few weekends ago I got the opportunity for an overnight adventure, and I decided to check out the Upper Loop Trail at Fall Creek Falls. The Upper Loop is about 15.5 miles with the current detour, it’s lightly trafficked and rated as moderate on Alltrails.

As far as Tennessee trails go, this is less than extraordinary during the summer. There really aren’t any noteworthy views, it is very overgrown, spiders and webs are a constant battle along the whole trail, the bugs are much worse than other similar trails I’ve been on in the state and there are a TON of downed trees that require you to squeeze under or make wide detours off the trail. With that being said, the back country camping area was the one redeeming quality from my short weekend trip. The established fire rings and ample space close to filterable water made camping alone, since all the other camp sites were vacant on a Friday night, very enjoyable. I would recommend this trail in Spring, Fall or Winter when there is more to look at. But if you’re looking for a quick 15 miles or a manageable overnight trip. The trail camp sites here make it worth the trip, just make sure to pack a lot of extra bug spray if you go during the summer months. The chiggers are out in force.

You can find directions and more information on the Upper Loop Trail by following the following link. https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/tennessee/fall-creek-falls-upper-loop

As always, I’ve posted attached some of my favorite pictures from this hike below.

 

Hiking the Knobstone: Day 2

Little did we know when we began planning this trip at the end of August, that Indiana would be hit with an unseasonably warm spell at the end of September. As it turns out, the weekend we decided to hit the trail. We spent our time on this iconic Indiana trail alone due to the high heat and humidity. Temps were in the 90s and humidity was nearly as high.


Even being a hammock camper where you’re usually afforded the luxury of a gentle breeze throughout the night. Our first and what would turn out to be our only night on the Knobstone Trail was devoid of any breeze, while the temps never dipped below 78 and the humidity made for a very sticky attempt at sleep.

When morning came we broke camp with first light, I know I slept about 2 hours in total because I absolutely could not stop sweating the entire night, and I had somehow become covered with black ants during the time I set up camp. I don’t think Dad slept much more than I did. After breaking down camp and eating a quick breakfast I downed close to a liter of water  because I could already feel the dehydration setting in.


Once we started out in the trail it was immediately evident that I had no idea what I was getting into when I stepped foot on this trail.  The Knobstone is a relentless rollercoaster of steep climbs and fast descents. During the first hour and a half on the trail we progressed about 2 miles and finished nearly all of the remaining water we had on us while having to constantly swat down large spiderwebs that were strewn across the path as it seemed that we had been the only hikers on this portion of the trail in a few days. Luckily, a local trail club had anticipated a few hapless adventures taking on the trail in the current conditions and had stashed a few gallons of water at nearly every road crossing we came upon. 

We gladly refilled our water every chance we got  and continued on at a breathtakingly slow pace (my pace), taking every opportunity we had to drink water and attempt to cool down. Eventually stopping at a creek that I promptly dove into after stripping down to compression shorts. The temps were already into the high 80s and the humidity was stifling by a quarter after 10 and after slowly making our way another 2 miles we came to a road crossing that was stocked with more water gifted by trail angels. It was at this point, with sweat soaked through all of my clothing and my pack, having downed nearly 2 gallons of water in 8 miles on the trail and still feeling the effects of severe dehydration. Sitting on a log on the side of the road with my dad, I decided to end my trip on the Knobstone. At least this time around.

After getting a ride from a local thru hiker and retiree, getting some food and more water in our bellies and catching up on sleep that I’d missed in the sweatiest night that I’ve ever hammocked through. I saw the full scale of what happens when you sweat through your bug spray in prime chigger weather in Indiana.


All in all my first experience on the Knobstone was nothing close to what I was expecting it to be. But I had a good time hiking with my father and made some more memories that we can add to our future campfire stories. The Knobstone beat me down this time and left me with the worst case of chiggers that I’ve ever seen. But I’m not deterred, next time we set out to tackle this trail I’ll be better prepared for the hills, hopefully it won’t be this hot, I’ll overapply my bug spray and we’ll complete the whole thing.

We did get some cool pictures while we were out that I’ll post below.

If you’re interested in hiking the Knobstone trail, further information is available below.  https://www.in.gov/dnr/forestry/4275.htm

Happy Trails!

Hiking the Knobstone: Day 1

Well, more like day 1/4. After a morning of prep (and work for my Dad) and an hour and a half drive from Peru, Indiana to Bloomington, Indiana to meet up with Dad before rushing another hour down to Corydon to cache water and start our hike. We FINALLY hit the trail at a little after 6pm. We managed to make it a little past the 5 mike mark after hiking by headlamp for the greater part of an hour.


The first 4 miles of the trail are gently rolling hills, not too much of a bother. But once you get past the 4 mike marker the trail starts going up, and doesn’t stop for what seems like an eternity to an out of shape hiker that’s gotten used to the flat trails in Texas. So we have 1 “hill” down and so much more to go. Elevation profile added for dramatic effect.


Looking at the 40+ miles to go, and knowing what lays in store definitely gives me one of those “what the hell did I get myself into” frames of mind. But I’m determined to finish this hike while I’m back. I don’t know the next time I’ll get to hike with my father, and I want this trip to go successfully in the record books. We just happened to pick the hottest, most humid weekend of the year to accomplish it. But I guess the unforeseen challenges are what make it that much more memorable.
Anyway, after managing to set our hammocks up  by headlamp (kudos to Atlas Straps and aluminum carabiners) and sitting around a small fire to dry off and get the bugs off of us. We’re both ready to snooze in our hammocks. I know tomorrow will be challenging, but I hope I have the fortitude to overcome.

If you’re interested in hiking the Knobstone trail, further information is available below.  https://www.in.gov/dnr/forestry/4275.htm

Happy Trails!

The Lone Star Hiking Trail: Day 3

My third day on the LSHT ended up being my last on this particular trip. From the minute I woke up to the heavy tapping of rain pouring from the forest canopy onto my rain fly I knew that this day would be different than the past two. The ground at my feet was soaked, the temperature had dropped during the night and my gear and clothing was still damp from the day before. The worst of it all was the fact that I no longer had dry shoes or socks to wear, and my feet were worse for wear now. On the previous day’s pursuit of the 20 mile day I had neglected my feet for the entire second half of my day and I now had several large, painful blisters on each foot. I spent most of the first hour of daylight doctoring my feet with moleskin while I boiled water and cooked the mountain house meal that I had skipped the night before. Once I got my hammock broken down and stowed, cleared as much of the standing water off of my rain fly as possible and stowed it, I was on my way. After another 4 miles on the sandy, flooded trails that had swollen to a full blown creek with all the rain of the past 2 days the trail came out of the woods and followed a forest road for most of the next 4 miles.

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Walking on the forest road was much quicker than navigating through the underbrush and around dead fall blocking the trail in the forest, in a futile attempt to keep my already soaked feet as dry as possible. The down side to walking on the forest road was that with the absence of mental stimulus that comes with trying to find a dry, clear footpath in a rainstorm. I was now painfully aware of each and every blister on my feet, I was also becoming painfully aware of how hard it was raining on this day. That terrible, heavy rain that makes you think “I’ll wait this out, it can’t last forever”. The truth is that it doesn’t last forever, but sometimes it lasts all day. This was one of those days. I decided to listen to an audible book to help pass the time and keep my mind occupied. After a little over an hour and a few road changes I came back to a forest path that was mostly dry, but my feet were still wet, I was cold and wet and my spirits were in the tank. But  I kept on the path, a little while into the path I passed the 30 mile marker. That was a small victory for my morning. I tapped it with my hand as I passed, like I’d done with all of the others and thought “only 16 more for the day”, as I continued down the path.

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There were many stretches of trail over the next 5 miles that switched between dry pine needle strewn forest path and deep pools of water that required you to soak your feet up past your ankles or walk a good distance off the trail through the underbrush in order to keep your feet dry. At this point I was painfully aware of how badly I’d neglected my feet up to this point so I opted for the latter option. I had done a decent job of keeping all new water sources out of my shoes for most of the morning. That was until I got to the spillway. Out of the blue there is a portion of the trail where you come to a paved road and several houses. There are no tree markings at this point, just a T in the road. So after pulling out my trail map and finding where I was, I saw that I needed to go left about 200 yards to the pump house that sits on the “lake”. The trail map says that there is a hose behind the pump house where you can fill your water without having to filter. This was great news to me since I had been out of water for the last couple of miles. After a quick refill my spirits rose, for all of about 2 minutes, until I got to the path that crosses the spillway. At this point just a moss covered concrete slab with water rushing quickly over it. The moss made the path slippery so I had to move slowly to avoid being swept away in the current of water that was leading off into the forest to my right. The water was already ankle deep and fast moving. The combination of the two quickly soaked my shoes and socks once again.

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After this my spirits were at an all time low. But I continued on into the forest until coming to parking lot 8 where the trail forks, one path leading to the highway and the other leading down into the forest. I took the path into the forest for about a mile before realizing that I couldn’t remember seeing a trail marker since leaving parking lot 8. As I was telling myself I would follow the path for a little longer to see if I could find a trail marker I came face to face with one of the only other hikers that I encountered on this trip. We exchanged “afternoon” before he let me know that I was indeed off of the LSHT and was currently on an ORV path. “Its a big loop I like to hike to add miles to my day hike” he told me before asking how far I was going today. After I told him that I was planning on thru hiking the trail he came back with “You know they’re calling for tornadoes tonight don’t you? I wouldn’t want to be out in the woods if one of them comes through”. After this I agreed that I, in fact, did not want to be in the forest if a tornado came through. Especially given my already miserable conditions. At this point I made the decision to hike the mile or so back to parking lot 8 and call for a taxi ride back to my truck, about 35 highway miles away. After fighting waterlogged fingers and a wet phone screen for about 10 minutes, I managed to get a  hold of a taxi company that knew where I was at, and managed to snap a crappy quality picture of what the trail looked like at this point in the afternoon, after over 24 hours of continuous heavy rain.

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In the end, the trail got the best of me on this trip. Both physically (feet) and mentally (rain). But I left trail head 8 happy that I had spent the time that I did on the trail and looking forward to coming back at a time when I can walk ON the trails instead of next to them because of all the rain, and without the fear of windstorms blowing over the tree that I’m attached to while I sleep. I’m looking forward to getting back out and finishing the rest of the trail, but next time I’ll take a few more pairs of socks just in case.

If you’re interested in hiking the Lone Star Trail, additional information and directions are available in the link below.                                                                                                      http://lonestartrail.org/

Happy Trails!

The Lone Star Hiking Trail: Day 2

 


Day two of my trip started out rainy, and the weather stayed that way. I woke up around 6 in the morning to the same sound I fell asleep to. The patter of rain on my rain fly (video above). I’ve camped in the rain dozens of times in my life, and I never get tired of it. Hiking in the rain on the other hand can be a real pain in the ass. Or pain in the feet as myself and so many others have found out the hard way. Once daylight hit I broke down my hammock and put it away, boiled water for coffee and a mountain house breakfast. I took advantage of the time my food was cooking to collect some rain water for later on the trail, since it was coming down pretty hard. I also grabbed my “lunch” of two nutrigrain bars and a few cups of GORP and put them in the waist strap of my pack. I don’t always feel like stopping to have lunch, depending on how hard the trail has been and how I’m feeling that day. So I like to keep my lunch in an easily accessible area, so I don’t have to dig into my food bag to find it. Once lunch was prepped and coffee and breakfast were devoured I took down my rain fly, shook as much of the rain droplets off of it as possible and packed it up.

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By this time, the trail has taken on so much rain that about 40 percent of the trail that I came across on this day looked very similar to the picture above. I spent most of my time finding flat, clear places to hike adjacent to the actual trail in a futile attempt to keep my shoes and socks dry. In the end they only stayed dry for about the first 5 miles. At around mile 4 I started to feel the morning coffee doing what morning coffee does, and just as I was lamenting the fact that I was going to have to dig a hole in the mud and try to answer natures call. I came around the corner of the trail to an empty parking lot and the glowing blue glory of a port-a-john. “Salvation!” was all I could think as I barrelled across the parking lot, stripping my pack off and grabbing my bio degradable wet wipes. Once back on the trail I took off across more sandy trail that was an absolute creek. About half way through the video below, as I was dreading the fact that the rest of the trail might look exactly like this, I realized that I had left my hat on a wooden pole next to the port-a-john when I had stopped.

 

So after a quick double back, I was back on the trail and making good progress. Eventually, I made it to dryer ground and saw some cool tunnels in the undergrowth and a steady, fast moving, if silty, stream that I could filter water at along the way. It kept raining consistently until around 1:30 in the afternoon when it finally let up and the sun peeked out for about an hour. By this time I had already put in 12 miles and was ready for a small break. After finding a nicely sized downed tree, I stopped for lunch, stripped my sock and shoes off, took the insoles out of my shoes to help them dry faster and began assessing my feet. If you’ve hiked any amount of distance, especially in the rain or in otherwise wet conditions. You know that taking care of your feet and paying attention to hot spots is an absolute must. At this point in my trip I’d been hiking in wet shoes and socks for about 5 hours. To my relief I only had a few hot spots, no true blisters yet. I let my feet dry out for about 30 minutes, threw some mole skin on my hot spots and put my semi dry socks and shoes back on.

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About a mile down the trail from where I stopped for lunch I came up on a decent size lake. Well, really a big pond. But where I’m from we call most stagnant bodies of water bigger than something that you’d have in your back yard a lake. This particular body of water was lined with people fishing and had two or three watercraft on it when I went by. The trail skirted the water for most of the next two miles before meandering back into the woods until it came out into an established camp ground. It was pretty barren on this particular rainy Monday in January, but there were still 3 or 4 older couples with campers that were out and about. I was a little disappointed to find a water spout in the middle of the camp site. I’d spent nearly a half hour filtering 4 liters of water earlier that morning. I hadn’t been checking my trail guide since I got to the trail and found how well marked it was, so I had forgotten that it mentioned running water this early in the trail. Once out of the campground the trail followed a paved road for about the next mile. It was great to be on dry level ground again, but about the time I’d hit the campground it had started sprinkling and clouding up again.

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Once I got back into the woods I found myself on trail that was between 1-2 inches of standing water. My shoes didn’t stay dry for very long and my mood started to dampen a bit with them. I knew coming into this trip that the weather was going to be an issue, but being drenched from head to toe and walking all day has a way of bringing you down to a low spot, especially when you’re on the trip by yourself. By 3:30 in the afternoon I’d gone 15 miles, even through the rain and the soggy trails I was still close to putting in my first 20 mile day. So I buckled down, started my war chant in my head and started knocking out the miles. By mile 18 I was aching everywhere, my feet felt like they were worn down to blister covered bone. But putting in 20 miles in a day was something I knew I had to do if I was going to finish the trail in my allotted time, so I kept my war chant going in my head and kept plugging away until I found myself staring down mile marker 26, letting me know that I could, in fact, walk 20 miles in a day while carrying a (probably 40 pound when soaked with rain) pack and battling wet feet.

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It was around 5:45 when I finally found a suitable place to set up my hammock, the area around mile marker 26 is rife with standing dead trees and I knew that strong thunderstorms were incoming. So I wanted to be as far away from any potential widow makers as possible. There was quite a bit of undergrowth that I had to clear from the space before I could get the hammock up comfortably and set the rain fly. Doing this in the rain isn’t the most fun thing in the world when you’re racing quickly fading light. I set up the rain fly first so that I could get my hammock up without getting pelted by rain. I ended up setting up the hammock by head lamp. At this point I was so exhausted that I skipped dinner, stripped out of my soaking clothes and climbed into my hammock to call my wife before calling it a night. I promised myself a nice big breakfast after my phone call as I laid up in the hammock, listening to an audio book as the wind rocked me into a trance before more heavy storms rolled in. This day was miserable for the most part, but I proved to myself that I can do 20 miles in one go, and that meant the world to me at that moment.

If you’re interested in hiking the Lone Star Trail, additional information and directions are available in the link below.                                                                                                      http://lonestartrail.org/

Happy Trails!

The Lone Star Hiking Trail: Day 1

What had originally been planned as a thru hike of Lone Star Hiking Trail this past week ended up being cut short by almost half, due to my own “series of unfortunate events”, though not quite as intense as the Lemony Snicket story. I knew going into the hike that I’d be fighting the weather for most of the trip. I would like to have scheduled the attempt at a thru hike here for another time. But because of work, birthdays, an anniversary and having our house built this was the only time until late spring that I would be able to take that kind of time off for a hike.

96 miles in 5 days was my goal, a lofty one for sure. One that would mean hiking 20 miles a day for the duration of the trip. Something that I had yet to accomplish on previous hikes. But the Lone Star Trail is notoriously flat and 20 miles is not an out of reach goal for someone who had been hiking frequently for the past year. So I set out. After a 3 and a half hour drive to drop my truck off at the eastern terminus of the trail, my friend and work colleague “honey badger” and his wonderful lady drove me the additional hour to the start of the trail. By the time we got to trail head 1 it was 3pm and with the sun setting at 5:30 at this time of year I needed to get a move on. 16114364_396976823974494_6081444669369267212_n

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After a quick goodbye and thank you to my friends I set off down the trail. Full of anticipation and excitement, I covered the first miles quickly. Much of the first 3 miles was through area that had seen a substantial wildfire in the last 2 years, based on the charring of the trees and the level of undergrowth in the area. It clearly hadn’t happened this past summer, but possibly the summer of 2015.

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One of the first things I noticed was that this trail seemed over marked. As my trip went on through the first 38 miles I would find portions of the trail that went several hundred yards without any marking and other that had 4 t0 5 trail markers on a single straight of the path. On day 1 I was excited to be back in an area that has an abundance of tall piney trees. The trail was a blanket of pine needles from prior seasons that cushioned each step and spurred my forward. After finishing 6 miles by 5pm I decided to find a suitable place to put up my hammock and make dinner before the forecasted storms rolled in and drenched me. I’ve been hammock camping for long enough now that it didn’t take long to find two suitable trees and get my Clark NX-270 and my rain fly up. The most difficult part is finding a space that is free from dead wood and widow makers in case the storms produce strong wind. Nothing gets your blood pumping more than hearing a massive old growth fall close to you in the middle of the night.

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As it turned out, I got my rain fly up in perfect time. Not long after I fastened the last rope the first sprinkles started falling. In areas like this that allow off trail camping in other than specific designated camping spaces I like to get far enough off trail to ensure that I have my privacy and that no one will wander across my camp site while I’m in it. After a quickly prepared mountain house dinner I was in my hammock enjoying a slight rock from the wind that had picked up as storms rolled into the region and the rhythmic tapping of rain on my rain fly lulled me to sleep.  My first day, and my only dry day on the LSHT during this trip, quickly came to an end.

If you’re interested in hiking the Lone Star Trail, additional information and directions are available in the link below.                                                                                                      http://lonestartrail.org/

Happy Trails!

Appalachian Trail: A Brief Adventure in the Great Smokys

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The Appalachian Trail, a thru hike of the granddaddy trail has been something that my father and I have talked about doing since I was a kid. So when we started hiking seriously at the beginning of the year making a weekend trip to this hiker’s Mecca was at the top of our list. We finally got things planned out and days off that would accommodate our trip this past weekend. So we piled on the car on Saturday and made the 6 and a half hour drive from my home in Central Indiana to the Newfound Gap Trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee / North Carolina border.

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When we pulled into the parking lot after an hour of driving through the beautiful scenery of the National Park seeing the trail was like coming down the stairs to find presents under the tree as a kid on Christmas Day. Little did I know at the time that the next 24 hours would show me just how much I underestimated this fabled trail and overestimated where I need to be physically before I attempt a thru-hike. I’ll give a little bit of background for perspective before I go any further with the story of our weekend. When I started hiking at the beginning of the year I was coming off a very hard year, I’d had serious relationship problems that nearly led to a divorce. I was struggling with PTSD from my time in Afghanistan that was exacerbated by frequent 1st to 3rd shift changes at work and to top it all off, I’d gotten to the fattest I’ve ever been in my life at nearly 300 pounds. I’ve always been a big guy, I was in the 180-200 range when I wrestled in high school and even through Basic Training and AIT when I was in the best shape of my life I barely touched 175. But a combination of depression, sleep problems and bad eating habits had landed me at a new personal low (and high).

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When I found my love for hiking at the beginning of the year I saw it as my way to beat my personal demons and get myself back to where I should be physically. I knew it would be frustrating, that I would hurt, and that it was going to be a long arduous road. But like any hiker will tell you, the best way to conquer a mountain is one foot at a time. So with my dad and later my wife by my side I started hitting trails every weekend. Week after week I started feeling better (without prescription meds), losing pounds here and there, and getting myself back into shape, taking out 6-10 mile trails in a handful of hours each and every weekend. So after 4 months of this I felt like I was ready for a weekend of hiking on the trail that inspired me to start this journey.

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So we set off at around 4pm on Satuday, we started walking up the trail talking about how great it was to be out here doing this and how much fun we were going to have over the next few days. We were so happy that we made it half a mile into the trail before we realized that we were headed in the wrong direction. We had set a plan to head south, had reserved shelters and arranged pick up to the south… and we were heading north, oops. So we laughed it off and started back down the trail we had just come up, through the tourist crowded parking lot full of people that had just watched us walk up that same stretch of trail 10 minutes ago, then across the street to the hidden marker that let us know we were heading the right way this time.

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Once we got on the southbound portion of the trail we started rolling. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful and the first couple of miles were relatively flat. We had reservations at the Mt. Collins Shelter for that night, which meant that with our added mile, we’d be going right around 6 miles that day. Which was great until we went a little over 3 miles into the trail, met our first thru-hiker of the trail. A skinny redhead girl named “firecracker” who was slack packing to Newfound Gap. Then the trail started uphill, and kept going uphill, and uphill. This was also the first time I’d carried (in retrospect) a way too heavy pack over rock scrambles.

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After climbing steadily uphill for miles we came to a portion of the trail that dipped downhill before heading back up. My legs were exhausted at this point, my knee started getting this achy feeling on the downhill portions of the trail and I had that all too familiar “copper penny” taste in my mouth from sucking in more air on the uphill that a hoover vacuum at a hybrid pet / furniture store. We were heading down hill at a quick pace as the sun was getting low in the sky and we really wanted to make it to the shelter and secure out spots before sundown. It was when all this was happening and with the days finish line in sight that I took a wrong step, slipped my foot off a loose rock and turned my ankle. I cringed for a second when I felt it happen, it stung but was no where near the worst pain I’ve felt even from similar injuries. So we continued on at our steady pace for the last mile into the shelter just as the sun was setting behind the mountains. 12919614_10153973860690767_3590228466849547661_nWhen we got to the shelter it was pretty crowded. There were a handful of thru-hikers eating dinner, more that were already asleep and another handful of section hikers like ourselves that were getting ready to bed down for the night. So we hung our packs, changed out of our sweaty clothes, and warmed up a quick dinner before raising our food bags up the bear cables. We made smalltalk with a few of the hikers that were still awake, warmed up by the fire that was glowing in the fireplace inside the shelter. Then rolled out our sleeping bags and called it a night. (Picture is from the “top bunk” of the shelter as the fire was dying).

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The night went by quickly, I had underestimated how much colder it would be in the mountains and hadn’t brought quite enough warm weather gear. But my 0 degree sleeping bag kept me warm through the night and the tarp run across the front of the lean-to shelter kept the 40 mile an hour winds that we experienced that night at bay, apart from sounding like it was going to tear the roof off the shelter. Once we got up we had a quick bite to eat, packed up our stuff and said goodbye to the other hikers at the shelter. From here we started the 3 mile climb up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky’s and the second highest peak east of the Mississippi. It was during this (for me) grueling uphill climb that I really started to feel the effects of my misstep the previous day. The achy feeling in my knee and soreness in my ankle exacerbated by the extra weight that I was carrying. Both in my pack and on my still very far from average frame. It was disheartening, but even at the slow pace that we were going we still reached the summit well before noon. We paused at the tourist trap for a little while, admired the scenery, then started back on the trail toward the shelter we were supposed to stay at that night. Still well over 10 miles away.

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Now that we had made it to Clingmans Dome we got to enjoy 2 miles of gradual decline. Killer on the knees but a great break for your lungs, quads and hamstrings. Once we had gotten about a mile into the 2 miles of downhill, we were walking at a steady pace when we came across a very muddy portion of trail near a spring. As we were maneuvering around the deepest part of the mud my foot slipped and I jarred my leg hard enough to turn my slight aches and soreness into screaming protests up and down my entire left leg. From this point our progress was slowed to a crawl. We hadn’t been going much faster on the uphills, but it was definite downgrade in speed. We decided after this that we would very clearly not be making it to the shelter we had reserved for the night and given the circumstances and the fact that you cannot off trail camp outside of reserved shelter in the Smokys unless you are a thru hiker, so we made a plan to get to the next shelter and attempt to call the shuttle service to see if they could adjust the pickup. When we finally made it to the Twin Spring Gap Shelter, dropped our packs and refilled our water. The shuttle service let us know that they could adjust the pick up but the only place they could pick us up was 3.5 miles back up the trail to Clingmans Dome. So once we let them know the situation and that we would be moving rather slow, we started back up the mountain sore, tired and (for me) slightly disheartened.

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On the shuttle ride back to Newfound Gap, exhausted, in pain, and having gone just about 15 miles in all I came to the realization that I have a long way still to go before this dream to thru-hike the AT can become a reality. If just over 24 hours in this terrain could leave me feeling the way I was there was no way that I could survive 5-7 months of this day after day. But sometimes it takes an experience like this to show you how important something really is to you. Yes, this was a low point when I grossly underestimated the trail while at the same time overestimating my own ability. But it gives me a renewed sense of determination, the trail may have beaten me this time. But I’ll be back, skinnier, healthier, and with a vengeance.

If you’re interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail, more information is available in the link below.                                                                                      https://www.appalachiantrail.org/

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An AT adventure in the great Smoky Mountains. From Newfound Gap to Twin Springs Shelter.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, April 4, 2016