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.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail

What is it?

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, commonly referred to as simply the Appalachian Trail or “the AT” for short, is probably the most well-known hiking trail in the United States. As such it inspires a few thousand prospective thru-hikers and (estimates say) close to 3 million visitors (day hikers, section hikers) to the nearly 2,200 mile footpath each year. Though less than half of the prospective thru hikers actually go on to complete the trek.

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Appalachian Trail Map (http://swling.com/blog/tag/best-radio-for-appalachian-trail/)

How do you thru hike it?

The AT is most commonly hiked from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire before travelers reach the northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Although many of those starting later in the year choose to hike southbound from Maine to Georgia to avoid seasonal closure in Baxter State Park that would otherwise prevent northbound hikers from actually reaching the summit of Katahdin if they run behind.

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Approach Trail (http://cnyhiking.com/ATinGA-SpringerMountain.htm)

Mt Katahdin

Mt. Katahdin (http://www.summitpost.org/katahdin/150219)

What’s the draw?

The Appalachian Trail is iconic and has been the focus of several books, documentaries and a mainstream movie. But what makes people want to start an undertaking of this magnitude? The answer to that question is very specific to the person that is answering. Many people want to say that they thru hiked the grandfather long trail, some want to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to survive in the woods for months at a time. Others are just looking for an escape or change of pace. But one thing remains the same, everyone that starts the trail finds the same rocky path, lined by seasonal flowers, rhododendron tunnels, mixed forest filled with fresh mountain streams and spring water sources, breathtaking mountain views and comradery that most never expect to find in the middle of nowhere.

How long does it take?

The average hiker takes between 4-5 months, or 165 days on average, to finish the thru hike. But it can be done in less time by those determined to skip zero days (a day that you hike 0 miles), and can take longer for those wishing to really experience everything there is to experience on the trail. Many of the trail towns hold festivals. Damascus, VA hold an annual festival dubbed “Trail Days” and offers an opportunity for vendors and past and present thru hikers to come together and celebrate the trail.

How much does it cost?

An AT thru hike costs an average of $4500-$6000 depending on the amount of time the hiker decides to stay in trail towns or in hostels along the trail. The biggest expense along the trail is food, as the average hiker needs to consume nearly 5,500 calories a day to maintain their weight while thru hiking the AT. This constant need for calories has also spawned dozens of traditional eating contests in trail towns along the way. From eating a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting to hotdogs and pancake eating competitions. Thru hikers know how to load up on calories whenever the opportunity is presented to them.

In addition to actual hike costs, prospective thru hikers will spend between $500 and $2,500 on gear before setting out on their epic quest, cost mostly depending on the brand of gear that is purchased. While it is possible to spend less upfront, outfitters like REI stand by the items that they sell and will send thru hiker’s replacement gear while they are on the trail if anything happens to fail.

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Additional Links:

http://blog.rei.com/hike/21-appalachian-trail-statistics-that-will-surprise-entertain -and-inform-you/

http://www.projecttimeoff.com/blog/things-do/more-walk-woods-what-you-need-know-about-appalachian-trail

What is a Thru-Hike?

What is a thru-hike?

This is a question that a lot of new hikers find themselves asking or googling after hearing the term in conversation. But there isn’t always a straight answer, especially depending on what company you’re with at the time. Oftentimes people will refer to themselves as bona-fide thru hikers after completing one of America’s “Big Three” long trails, in one setting. Of course I’m referring to the iconic Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles), the scenic Pacific Crest Trail (2,659 miles) and the mystifying Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles). If you ask someone who has hiked one of these trails what it takes to become a thru hiker, they will likely tell you that you have to hike the mileage of the trail that they hiked to earn the title, and rightly so.

But there are others in the sport that argue that completing any “long trail” in the United States will earn you the title. The truth is that it really depends on how you feel about it. Hike your own hike, if you complete a 100 mile trail in one setting and you want to call yourself a thru hiker, call yourself a thru hiker. As long as you feel comfortable with your accomplishments, that’s what the sport is all about. Getting to be one with nature, learning survival skills and bonding with new and old friends. You might not be a thru hiker to someone who has hikes one of the big three, but others who have hiked the trail you hiked might agree that you should call yourself a thru hiker. At the end of the day, it comes down to what you feel you are. If you feel like a section hiker, be a section hiker. If you feel like a thru hiker, be a thru hiker. Don’t base how you label yourself or your adventures on anyone’s views but your own. When it all comes to a close, you are the only person that lived your life and the only one who will remember how your adventures felt to you.

So whether you’re a day hiker, a section hiker, or a thru hiker. Enjoy the adventure and don’t stress over titles. Once you’ve gotten your trail name, you can revel in the fact that you’ve made it into a very prestigious group of people who care more for experiences than outward appearances and that is a very good place to be indeed.  Whatever you do, remember to hike your own hike (HYOH).

Happy Trails,

Aaron

*HYOH is a term also used to tell a fellow hiker that is offering unwanted advice to mind their own damn business*

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Government Canyon: Back Country and Nature Reserve

For the last month I’ve been itching to get my pack back on and put in some good miles. My wife Britni and I have both been putting in 60 hour work weeks for nearly the last two months. I’ve been listening to all of the thru hike audiobooks that I can get on Audible, and I reread Lost on the Appalachian Trail (my new signed copy) to try to get me through. But nothing but being out in the wood can get rid of a craving like this. Over the last year I’ve really grown to resent the city, modern conveniences are nice, but dealing with traffic, crime, and hoards of people all the time are enough to make anyone want to run for the hill. Both figuratively and literally. But since I’m still in peak season at work my weekends are reduced and my time off is next to non existent. Nonetheless, I was determined to put in some miles anywhere other than on the industrial concrete floors at work. So I decided to hit up Government Canyon yesterday and hike the biggest loop I could construct from all of its interconnected trails.

Since my foray into the Smokys I’ve redoubled my resolve to get back into shape and lose all the weight that I picked up in Alaska and shortly after separating from the Army. I’ve used hiking to destroy nearly all of my PTSD symptoms, aside from occasional nightmares that broke through even when I was heavily medicated, and seem to be commonplace for other sufferers as well. But hiking helps in that aspect and in the weight-loss department. I was about 285lbs when we made our trip to Tennessee to test ourselves against the mountains. They broke me off, bad. I left feeling demoralized and ashamed of what I’d let myself become. But I knew then and I know now that it wasn’t the last time I’ll be in those mountains, and when I go back, I’ll be taking on all 70 miles and not looking back.

Shortly after the trip to the Smokys, when my resolve was the lowest. I took a promotion that landed me in a huge Amazon building in Florida. I went from having a sedentary 10 hour a day job to having a heavily active (15-20 miles of walking a day) 11 hour a day job. This was all in preparation to launch a new warehouse in South Texas. Where I currently reside. It was hard at first to go from sitting in an office treating sick and injured employees to constantly being out trying to fix the problems before they happen. After my first month of walking close to 50 miles a week I was exhausted and every part of my lower body hurt. But after a while it started to hurt less and less. Now it’s routine, and instead of being a hefty 285lb hiker, I’m a streamlined 265lb hiker (kidding, but I really lost 20lbs from walking at work).

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So 20 pound lighter me decided to get back out on the trail yesterday. Government Canyon was my destination and I was determined to walk all over it. When I first got to the nature area there was no guard in the guard shack where they usually have you pay. It was a brisk 26 degrees in San Antonio and as far as I could tell all of the locals had begun to hibernate. I only encountered 1 other person as I was coming into the park. A lady looking to be a little older than myself was heading out with a day pack, I followed her to the Visitors Center where the only employee, a retiree aged woman was happily passing out park maps and car passes (so you don’t get towed for being in the park illegally). As I was waiting I glanced over at a small bucket full of walking sticks and began to wonder to myself if I should give one a try instead of my trekking poles. I’ve been carrying trekking poles since I started hiking again but I only ever use them in inclement weather, and even then I usually just use one.

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Once I left the Visitors Center, put the car pass in my windshield and got my pack on I had to fight the urge to run down the trail. After about a quarter mile of walking along the access road I hit the trail head and started down one of the many connected trails that I would be on today. The access trail was just a gravel road, like most of the trails that I’ve been on start out. But once I got to the trail I was surprised by how rocky it was. The other portion of government canyon in the front country had been a flat dirt road. The back country was undeniably “hill country”. I haven’t been on rocks like this since the Smokys, it definitely wasn’t as steep as our ascent to Clingman’s Dome, but there were some decent level changes for being in Southern Texas.

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The main trails were all rocky like this and had a few steep climbs leading up to some spectacular views of the surrounding area.

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Once I got back to the nature trails (only open October-May) the rocky terrain changed into soft dirt roads and overgrowth. You could immediately tell that this portion of the trail see’s significantly less traffic. Besides being off limits most of the year, the trailheads to these specific trails are 7 and 8 trail miles into the forest respectively, so most hobby hikers don’t want to put in the extra miles when they get to them.

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The best part about the entire trip, aside from getting to spend 5 hours out in nature, was that this was the first time I’ve ever completed a 15 mile hike and felt like I could have kept going. As it turns out, walking 15 miles a day and climbing countless stairs for 11 hours a day 5 days a week actually translates hiking fitness.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/texas/government-canyon-loop

Happy Trails,

 

2016 Hikes: My Favorite Pictures

We had a very active year in 2016, logging hikes in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee/North Carolina and Texas. We put hundreds of miles on our trail shoes and even more knowledge in our heads. These are just a few of my favorites from the hundreds of pictures that we took during all of our hikes.

Be sure to follow our social media links to see the rest.

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

Measuring up?

IMG_1700I was listening to thru-hike audio books in the car before and after my first hike on the Appalachian Trail, trying to figure out why this is so important to me. It’s the question thru-hikers get all the time from admirers but also from detractors. “Why are you doing this?” Ultimately it’s a statement, heavily underlined, that defies the nature of the question. The true meaning stems more from the person asking than it does from some inherent cliche or from the hiker being asked. Maybe the heavy underline contains more of the answer than does whatever answer lies atop. Grandma Gatewood was asked that question a thousand times and gave a different answer each time. She hiked the AT the first time when she was 67. Then she thru-hiked it again. Then she section hiked it a third time. Then she hiked the Adirondacks. She took seventeen pounds of equipment with her, slung over her shoulder in a sack. That made her not only one of the first thru-hikers, the first woman ever to thru-hike the trail, it also made her the first ultralight thru-hiker and even the first ever woman ultralight thru-hiker. She just got up each morning and walked the blazes. Earl Shaffer hiked the AT to put WWII behind him. The upswell of thru-hikers every year since the Sixties attests a simple truth. We need these wild places. And we need people willing to put aside conformity to love them not by reading articles about them in Outside magazine or Sports Illustrated, but to make all other considerations secondary for a time and love them with their feet. With their whole soul…by doing something amazing. Becoming something just a bit beyond ordinary. The people who have thru-hiked a long trail were already a bit beyond ordinary. The youngest thru-hiker was six when he started. The trail has been thru-hiked by a blind man and by old men with no cartilage in their knees. It’s been hiked by people dying of cancer and people healing from physical and sexual abuse. I think, and this is just my own opinion, the the AT, or any such undertaking, is something we measure ourselves against. Knowing that we are two completely different things, us folks and the mountains, and that the hills will outlast us in the end, but just for a season we outlasted the hills. That is a measurement to be recorded on paper for a time through shelter logs and ATC certificates, but forever in the heart or the human spirit or whatever sappy else you might want to call it. I am not yet a thru hiker. I’m just a middle aged man who loves to hike and camp, and my reasons for hiking are my own. But I will measure myself against the mountains, and one day soon I will measure up.