Saturday, July 30, 2011

Trail Update No. 7 - The Finish Line

I left Monson on July 17 with Face, Spam, Windscreen, and Pants.  While I was feeling excited at the prospect of finishing, it was also sad saying goodbye to the Fellowship who had decided to zero in town.  Where the trail intersects the road we were greeted by a sign cautioning us that we were about to enter the 100-mile wilderness.  “The Wilderness” is touted as one of the most remote stretches of the entire trail – there are no paved roads and no ways to get into town.  Surprisingly, it also turned out to be one of the most crowded sections of the A.T.   We went to sleep that night with less than 100 miles to go.

We crossed the last stretch of difficult terrain before Katahdin during our first few days in The Wilderness.  On the 19th, the 150th day of my trip, I summited Whitecap Mountain and was rewarded with my first glimpse of Katahdin.  It is a surreal experience to finally see the finish line of such a journey after five months of slowly drawing nearer.  So the big-K really does exist!  After Whitecap the going got a lot easier, so we spent large parts of each day lounging on sandy beaches, swimming in pristine mountain lakes, and eating the first of the wild blueberries to appear along the trail.  Spam and I camped one night on a sandy beach that we had all to ourselves.  It was the perfect coda to the trip.

View of Katahdin from Whitecap Mtn.

Lakeside campsite.

On the 21st, two days before Katahdin, I wrote in my journal that I had expected “to be really hyped up and energized about being so close to Katahdin but I’m not.  I’ve just got the same ‘this is a grind’ feeling as usual.”  When I woke up the next morning it hit me for the first time: this really is it.  This is the end.  We hiked a quick 3 miles to Abol Bridge – the end of The Wilderness and the beginning of Baxter State Park – where we spent 6 1/2 hours celebrating at a picnic table by knocking back way more beers than anyone should probably drink in the middle of a day of hiking.  We then did the remaining ten miles to The Birches, our last campsite on the A.T.  I spent those several hours finishing the words to an A.T. version of “American Pie” that Spam and I had started a few days before.

Katahdin from Abol Bridge.

Pre-Katahdin celebration at Abol Bridge.

Katahdin near sunset.

I have told many people that, on a trip of this length, it is all but impossible to have “fun” every single day.  Even if you are glad every day that you are on the trail, some days are just downright miserable.  For months, the five of us had been looking forward to finishing the trail and enjoying all the comforts that come with the non-hiking life.  While cooking dinner on the eve of my Katahdin day, the feeling hit me for the very first time: “Oh no, maybe I’m not so ready for this to end after all.”  It was very sudden and a bit surprising because it was so different from my constant desire to just get the thing done.  Here’s an excerpt from my journal entry from that night:

“We have all been thinking for quite a while now that we know what a thru-hike feels like, that we know what being a thru-hiker is all about.  After all, we’ve done it all, seen it all, experienced it all, right?  Well, I’ve just realized that we still don’t know one important thing: what it feels like to finish.  And right now I feel like I’m being hit by a train.  This is a whole new ballpark than what we’ve been doing.  I’ve been looking at the photograph on the front cover of my guidebook (a close-up of a thru-hiker who has just finished and is resting his head on the Katahdin sign) for months now, imagining every single day what it must feel like to reach the finish line, but even after hiking all this way and experiencing all the ups and downs of a thru-hike (both geographically and mentally), I still didn’t – or couldn’t – feel that feeling depicted in the photograph until just now.  Now I feel it.  And it’s not so much a feeling of pride in the accomplishment like I thought it would be; instead, it’s a feeling of, ‘I can’t describe what it feels like to have been out here for this long, and I can’t believe it’s all coming to an end.’  Sorry for using the word ‘feeling’ so much.”

It was no surprise that I couldn’t sleep that night, but I woke up with a calm energy.  I spent some time at the ranger station where I signed the last trail register and read through the entries of the people I knew.  Then I hit the trail alone and so began the final 5.2 miles of the trail.  My parents and brother and sister surprised me on the trail about one mile into the day; of course, I knew they had come to Maine to meet me, but I hadn’t seen them yet and didn’t know when I was going to.  It was an emotional reunion and lots of tears flowed.  After taking a few pictures, they headed back to the trailhead and I continued my climb.

Signing the final trail register.

In retrospect, Katahdin was probably the toughest climb on the entire A.T., but on a day of that significance the difficulty of the trail was irrelevant.  I was flying up the mountain and passing hordes of day hikers who probably thought I was shot out of a cannon.  As I climbed that final mountain I tried to replay the entire trip in my head, but my mind was reluctant to focus on anything but the task at hand.  As I got nearer to the summit, I was suddenly able to see the sign in the distance, a sign that I had seen in literally thousands of pictures of past thru-hikers completing their trips.  There it was.  Face, Windscreen, and Yikes had already finished, and when I came into view they stood up and started cheering for me.  The last thirty yards or so felt like they should have been in slow motion, as they might have been in a movie for increased dramatic effect.  But, sadly, real life does not move in slow motion.  In a few normal-length seconds I covered the last few steps, and before I knew it or could savor the moment in waking life, I reached the sign, kissed it, let out a victorious yell, and it was done.  I wish – and will probably always wish – that I could rewind those last few seconds and relive them again and again.  We waited for Spam to summit so that we could take some group photos with the sign before starting back down.

Climb up Katahdin.

Climb up Katahdin.


So, there it is.  A week ago to the day I completed my thru-hike, and I still feel like it hasn’t quite hit me yet.  Then again, maybe I’m just waiting for a feeling of revelation that won’t ever come.  One of the most surprising things I’m experiencing is that I no longer feel that I can comprehend the trail as a whole – in fact, in a way I feel that I had a better view of the whole before I even started hiking.  Norman Maclean nailed it in A River Runs Through It when he said, “Sometimes a thing in front of you [or behind you, in my case] is so big you don’t know whether to comprehend it by first getting a dim sense of the whole and then fitting in the pieces or by adding up the pieces until something calls out what it is.”  I guess I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it is that I just did.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I think the trail has changed me.  It’s a question that I often asked myself before I started hiking and even while I was hiking.  Now that I’m finished, I don’t really have an answer to the question.  I mean, I’ve only been done for a week, so how should I know how I have changed?  Maybe I will have a better idea how to answer the question in six months from now, or a year from now, or five years from now.  Still, if I were to venture an answer at present, I would say that I think I have gained a calm, quiet stillness of spirit that I did not possess before.  For the past five months I have hiked through cold, rain, bugs, pain – all things that I had essentially no control over.  On the trail, when it starts raining you have little choice but to just keep walking.  As the days and months and miles progressed, I think I became less prone to frustration at the things that were beyond my control, and I hope that I can carry that sense of stillness into my non-hiking life.

When life rains on you, just keep walking.

As this final blog entry comes to a close, I want to thank everyone for showing me so much support during this journey.  Of the many feelings that I can’t adequately express right now, one is the happiness I have felt knowing that an entire group of family, friends, and well wishers back home have been cheering me on every step of the way.

It seems fitting to end this final blog entry by sharing my entry from the final A.T. register located at the ranger station at the base of Katahdin.  Here it is:

Well, here we are at last.  What a hell of a ride it has been!  During the course of this hike I have experienced profound loneliness and joyous fellowship, indescribable happiness and utter misery and everything in between.  To all those that have shared in this experience with me, I thank you for enriching my journey.  You know who you are.  With my final words in this register, I will share with you all a few verses by Townes Van Zandt, whose songs I have sung countless times during my hike:

Days up and down they come,
Like rain on a conga drum:
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away.
Everything is not enough
And nothin’ is too much to bear;
Where you’ve been is good and gone,
All you keep is the gettin’ there.

To live is to fly
All low and high,
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes.

GA => ME
2/20  -  7/23

(L-R): Windscreen, Yikes, Sensei, Spam, and The Face.

Trail Update No. 6

After spending two days with Face’s family in Long Island, we hit the trail in Jersey again on May 29.  I had been feeling a bit under the weather for a few days already, and during our first two days on the trail that feeling progressed.  My primary symptoms were a profound feeling of fatigue (more so than usual) and a loss of appetite for several days (which NEVER happens on the trail).  I began fearing Lyme disease, having pulled at least five or six ticks off me every day since northern Pennsylvania, so we did twenty miles into Vernon, New Jersey where I went to the doctor’s office.  The doctor felt confident that I had contracted Lyme, so she prescribed me a cycle of Doxycycline to take for four weeks.  I began feeling better in less than a day.  I’m lucky I caught it early – some of my fellow hikers contracted it with much more severe symptoms.

After our double zero in Long Island, Face, Spam and I were all feeling in a bit of a slump.  To give ourselves some extra motivation, we made it our goal to catch some friends that were a few days ahead of us.  We left Jersey on June 1st and booked it through New York; we caught our group of friends (Stormsong, Treebeard, Niners, Pants, Stillwater, Katmandu, and The Corsican) a few days into the push and had a merry reunion complete with pizza and beer at the RPH Shelter.  Windscreen joined our group here and hiked with us for the rest of the trail (group of four now: Face, Spam, Windscreen, and me).  We spent only four days in New York before crossing into Connecticut, the tenth state on our hike.  CT was mostly uneventful, and we spent only three-and-a-half days in the state before crossing into Massachusetts.

Group of hikers at RPH shelter.  Top row (L-R): Challenger, Stillwater, Pants, Thru, Niners, Kathmandu, Stormsong, The Corsican, Riverguide, Spam.  Bottom row (L-R): Sensei, Treebeard, Windscreen, The Face.

On our third day in Mass., we hiked into the town of Dalton where we met Tom Levardi, a bona fide legend and quite possibly the most angelic of all the trail angels in history.  He took us into his home, which is right on the trail, and let us shower, do laundry and stay the night.  He also cooked us dinner and drove us to the grocery store to resupply.  Spam had gotten sick a few days before and was about fifty miles behind, so we made the not-too-difficult decision to double zero in Dalton while we waited for him to catch up.

Again a group of four (Face, Spam, Windscreen, and me), we tore ourselves away from Tom’s house on June 14 and reluctantly hit the trail in heavy rain.  We summited Mt. Greylock (the highest point in Massachusetts) that evening and crossed into Vermont the next day.  Although the trail in Vermont is one big muddy, sloppy mess (earning the state the nickname “Vermuck”), it was nevertheless one of my favorite states on the trail.  The Green Mountains felt like the first real mountain range we had seen since we left Tennessee, and the change from deciduous to coniferous forests provided a welcome change of scenery.  On the 21st, my camera fell out of my pocket at some point while I was hiking, and I lost all my pictures from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

We crossed into New Hampshire on June 23 and we took a zero in Hanover the following day.  We were about to enter the most beautiful stretch of the entire A.T., so I made finding a new camera my first priority.  We entered the White Mountains on the 27th, a hundred-mile stretch considered by many hikers (including me) to be the most difficult part of the entire trail.  In the Whites, the trail becomes a steep, slick, rocky mess – indeed, at times it hardly resembles a trail at all.  There are no switchbacks in sight, so hikers are directed straight up and straight down every mountain.  Elevation changes of over 1,000 feet per-mile are the rule, not the exception.  In addition, the A.T. is often well above treeline, and sudden lightning storms are a constant threat.  In the mid-Atlantic states we had become used to knocking off twenty miles in six or seven hours of hiking, but in the Whites it became difficult to keep even a two mile-an-hour pace.  On most days it took us thirteen hours or more to complete sixteen or seventeen miles.  Despite all this – or perhaps because of it – New Hampshire was exceedingly beautiful, and I fell in love with the White Mountains right away.

Face, Spam, and Windscreen on the summit of Mt. Moosilauke, White Mts.
Yikes in white-out on Franconia Ridge, White Mts.
Crawford Notch, White Mts.

Mt. Jefferson, White Mts.

Windscreen nearing summit of Mt. Madison, White Mts.

Mt. Washington from the north, White Mts.

Leaving the Presidential Range, White Mts.

 We left the Whites and crossed into Maine – our final state line – on July 6th.  The first fifty miles or so of Maine were just as difficult as the Whites, but they were also just as beautiful.  By this point I was hiking in a consistent group of five: Face, Spam, Windscreen, Yikes, and myself.  On our second day in Maine we went through Mahoosuc Notch, a one-mile scramble over, under, and around boulders that is often considered to be the most difficult – or at least the slowest – mile of the entire trail.  We took our last zero in Rangeley where we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day of kayaking, canoeing, lounging, and drinking good beer.  It was there that Spam, Windscreen, and I experienced what was quite possibly the craziest hitch in the history of mankind: it involved two deranged old ladies, one of the most beat up sedans I have ever seen, a forty-minute ride into town that should have taken about five minutes, and a lot more off-roading than anyone should ever attempt in such a beat up old sedan.  In fact, it was such a bizarre experience that, were it not for my two companions that also witnessed the event, I might not be entirely sure that it all actually happened.  We left Rangeley on July 11th and knocked off the last of the really difficult terrain we will see before Katahdin.  On the 16th we arrived in Monson, the last town on the trail and the southern end of the “100-mile wilderness”.  Only 114 miles to go.

New Hampshire - Maine state line.

Spam enjoying himself in southern Maine.

Face admiring a view in southern Maine.

Mahoosuc Notch

Mahoosuc Notch

(L-R): Magic Bag, Spam, Niners, Pants, and Kathmandu
enjoying the festivities in Monson.

Friday, June 24, 2011

On-Trail Update No. 6

Day 125 Miles Completed: 1,739.2 Miles To Go: 441.8

I am writing this update on my cell phone so it will have to be brief. I am in Hanover, New Hampshire with Face, Spam, and Windscreen. We will be leaving town tomorrow to enter the White Mountains, a section many hikers consider to be the most difficult but also one of the most beautiful of the entire A.T. Since my last post, we have crossed through New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. I came down with Lyme Disease in Jersey but all is well now. Face told me to say that he has "slayed the beast and won the fair maiden's heart." I will write a longer update as soon as I can.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

On-Trail Update No. 5

Day 98     Miles Done: 1,313.7     Miles Remaining: 867.3

After zeroing in Waynesboro, Virginia on April 27th to avoid a system of tornadoes, I entered Shenandoah National Park accompanied by Face, Ghost, and Face Jacket.  The "Shennies" finally offered what we expected to find upon entering Virginia: easy hiking on well-graded trails.  We covered the 100 miles of trail inside the park in five days, and it almost felt like a vacation compared to the difficult section of central Virginia we had just crossed.  Ghost and Face Jacket went their separate ways on day two in the park, but Face and I continued hiking together as we have since Springer.  We met a fun group of other thru-hikers on our first night in the Shennies (Teddy, Kodiak, D'Artagnan, and The Corsican) and we hiked with them through the whole park.  Highlights in the park included amazing blackberry milkshakes at park waysides and shelter mice that performed amazing feats of acrobatics - including crawling upside down on the ceiling over our heads - in order to get inside our packs which were hung on the walls.  Shenandoah was by far the most crowded section of the trail thus far, as the weather was finally warming up and tourists were out and about.  We crossed several areas full of people "car camping" and we were envious of the luxury they were enjoying.

Shenandoah National Park

The Corsican

Teddy enjoying some dinner
The sixty miles between the northern boundary of the park and the West Virginia border passed quickly.  May 5 was a day of big milestones: we reached our 1,000th mile, and after a month in Virginia, we finally reached West Virginia - our fifth state.  Later that day I hiked into the town of Harper's Ferry, the location of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters, with Stillwater, Kathmandu, and Niners.  At the ATC we signed the thru-hiker's registry and had our pictures taken for their records.  We zeroed in town the next day.

Stillwater, Niners, and Kathmandu

Virginia/West Virginia border

Getting picture taken at ATC headquarters in Harper's Ferry, WV
After resting up in town, Face, Spam, and I hit the trail again and soon crossed into Maryland, state number six.  With only forty trail miles within the state, we figured we would make it into Pennsylvania in two days, but Spam started feeling sick and we ended up doing two short days with him into the Free State Hiker Hostel (going slow in Maryland ended up being rather enjoyable, since there are numerous Civil War historical sites along the trail in the state).  Once at the hostel, Spam visited the doctor and learned he had contracted Lyme Disease from a tick bite he had sustained while in Shenandoah.  Spam spent a day resting before hitting the trail again (he is a tough guy), so Face and I continued on one day ahead of him, entering Pennsylvania (our seventh state) on May 11th.

Original George Washington Monument, Maryland

Face at Maryland/Pennsylvania border
Hikers have given Pennsylvania an affectionate nickname: "Rocksylvania: the place where boots go to die".  Fortunately, the first hundred miles or so of the state are actually pretty enjoyable.  On May 13th Face and I crossed the official halfway point of the trail - 1,090.5 miles - and hiked into Pine Grove Furnace State Park to attempt the legendary half-gallon challenge.  In celebration of reaching their halfway point, thru-hikers stop at the park and attempt to eat a half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting.  I had been pondering my strategy for weeks and decided to attempt using cookies 'n' cream.  Face, Corsican, and The Cops joined me in the challenge, choosing Neapolitan, "Moosetracks", and Mint Chocolate Chip, respectively.  After thirty-two minutes of constant shivering and dairy overload, I completed the challenge and was inducted into the half-gallon club.  My trophy: a tiny wooden spoon - the kind that look more like tongue depressors - with "Half-Gallon Club" printed on the spoon in red ink.  Unexpectedly, I was still hungry after eating all that ice cream, so for "dessert" I had two hot dogs, a grilled ham and cheese, and french fries.  Face and Corsican also completed the challenge, but The Cops eventually had to throw in the towel.  "Mint was a bad choice."
The official halfway point.  Onward!

Face, Sensei (me), Corsican, and The Cops
attempting the Half-Gallon Challenge.

The last bite!

Being knighted/inducted into the Half-Gallon Club.
A proud day.
For the rest of Pennsylvania, we saw nothing but rain.  After the half-gallon challenge, we hiked in the rain for eleven out of the next twelve days.  To make matters worse, we finally started getting into those notorious Pennsylvania rocks.  They weren't quite as bad as I had imagined, but there were still isolated stretches of several hundred yards in which the trail was entirely rocks and no dirt.  Spam finally caught up to us in Port Clinton where we took an unplanned nero.

Rocksylvania: the place where boots go to die.

Despite all the rocks and the rain, Face, Spam, and I were hauling for the last three days in Pennsylvania.  The climb out of Lehigh Gap was a particularly notable event, as it felt more like a rock climbing expedition than a long distance hike.  Also notable was the sudden profusion of ticks along the trail: I found nine on me in thirty-six hours.  I now perform a full-body tick check every night and check my legs about every five minutes while hiking.

Spam during the climb out of Lehigh Gap, Pennsylvania.

Spam on the trail in northern PA.
On May 24th, the three of us reached the Delaware Water Gap on the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  We hiked for a day and a half into New Jersey - all in sunshine - before being picked up in Branchville by Face's parents.  Most of Face's family lives in Long Island, New York, and they invited Spam and me to join them for two zero days during Memorial Day weekend.  So here I am, sitting in a comfy chair and knocking back beers while enjoying my longest break since beginning the trail in February.  We will hit the trail again tomorrow and plan on doing big miles until we reach Vermont.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On-Trail Update No. 4

Day 66     A.T. Miles: 854.0

Wow.  Where to begin?  It has been almost a month since I've lasted posted an update.  To those of you who thought I may have dropped off, fear no more!  I have just been having a stretch of very bad internet luck.  I'll spare you the details and get down to business.


I hiked out of Hot Springs, NC on March 21 after recovering from a bout of stomach something-or-other.  Face, Guido, and J.T. Hill pushed on the day before, so it was just me and Delaware Dave hiking together for a while.  At this point I began to gradually up my daily mileage bit by bit, making 15's about the average.  On the second day out of Hot Springs, we came across a sign inviting us to the home of Hercules and Fal, two past thru-hikers, for some wonderful trail magic: hot coffee, Belgian waffles, pork stew, and banana splits.  On the third day out we caught up with White Wolf and Jellypants and hiked with them into Erwin, TN.  On the 24th I did my first 20-plus-mile day, aided by my new secret weapon: the 6th packet of oatmeal for breakfast.  I felt like I had a rocket on my back for the first half of the day.  On the 25th we did a 6.3-mile nero into Erwin where we stayed at Uncle Johnny's Hostel (the site of my last blog update).  We caught up with Face, Guido, and J.T., who were taking a zero there.  From my journal entry for that day: "I'm starting to crave the simplicity of the trail every time I go to town.  Town days are largely spent doing chores (resupply, bathing, laundry, repacking, etc.).  When I go to town I can't wait to eat, but as soon as I'm full I'm ready to leave again for a place where life is simpler.  It's going to be hard to re-enter civilization after I'm finished."

On March 26, the whole gang (Face, Guido, J.T., White Wolf, Jellypants, and I) left Erwin in the late morning.  Delaware Dave decided to stay an extra day in town.  Face and I were hungry for miles, so we immediately began to push farther each day.  Guido and J.T. wanted to go slower, and we haven't seen them since.  Last word on the trail that we heard was that they made it to Damascus, VA.  For the next several days we had very cold weather with daytime hiking temperatures in the mid-20s.  In this weather, otherwise simple chores become increasingly complicated (such as retrieving your bear bag, for example, when the cord has frozen to the tree).  On the 30th we spent the night at Kincora Hostel with Jellypants, White Wolf, Girl with Four Dogs (yes, she is hiking with four dogs), Granny Rocket, Trainwreck, and Two Medicine.  I washed clothes for the first time since Hot Springs (after hiking 140 miles in the same pair of socks).  Face and I left the next morning with White Wolf, but Jelly stayed back to zero.  We continued to hike in cold, snowy, and rainy weather.  In the end, we saw much more nasty weather than good weather in North Carolina and Tennessee.  April greeted us with fresh snow and more daytime temps in the low 20s.  In that kind of weather, just stopping for breaks becomes painful.  I ended up taking my food breaks standing up with my pack on.  A lot of hikers talk about "walking with spring" on their way north, but so far it feels like we have been walking with winter instead.  On April 2, day 42 of the trip, Face and I made it to our fourth state: VIRGINIA!!!  We did a surprisingly quick 18.5 miles into Damascus and zeroed there the next day.  The zero felt good after doing 120 miles in seven days, our best average up to that point.

Face and I had packages waiting in Bland, 120 trail miles north.  We left Damascus on Monday the 4th, and we wanted to push ourselves to try to get there before the post office closed for the weekend (it was open for two hours on Saturday morning), so we set ourselves a goal: 120 miles in five days.  That five-day period has since become known as "The Bland Death March."  On the second day out, we crossed Mount Rogers and the open and exposed Grayson Highlands in the worst weather of the entire trip: heavy snow and sleet, daytime temperatures in the lower 20s, and sustained winds of perhaps seventy miles-per-hour.  On the top of Whitetop Mountain (a bald, no less), the wind was so strong that the snow felt like a sandblaster and it was literally impossible to stay on the narrow trail.  The wind would change directions and hit you in the face and it would literally take your breath away.  Of course, I wanted to get my camera out to document this insanity, but at that point my only concern was safety, and the only safe thing to do in those conditions was to keep moving and get to lower elevation.  I can't even venture as guess as to how cold the wind chill was.  It took over eleven hours to do our 23 miles that day.  Fortunately, for the rest of the Death March we had great weather.

The difficult terrain and consecutive high-mileage days thoroughly exhausted us by the time we reached Bland, but we did manage to make it in time to visit the post office on the morning of the 9th (though we had to wake up at 5:15 and do a bit of hiking in the dark in order to make it).  At the post office, a trail angel named Frances approached us and invited us to her home.  She fed us breakfast, let us shower, do our laundry, and then fed us lunch before giving us a ride back to the trail.  Trail magic doesn't get much better than that, and it came at the perfect time.

After our exhausting march to Bland, Face and I took the next several days easy, averaging perhaps 14-15 miles per day.  We took a nero in Pearisburg (mile 627.2) before resuming our natural pace, which has settled into consistent 17-22-mile days.  Spam, who Face and I met briefly in Damascus, caught up with us a few days north of Pearisburg, and we hiked as a trio until we reached Daleville where we split a motel room for the night.

Ever since Daleville we have been cruising, doing over twenty miles every day except for a resupply day in Glasgow.  We have about 160 miles of trail left before we reach Harper's Ferry, WV, the psychological - if not exactly geographical - halfway point of the trip.

Friday, March 25, 2011

On-Trail Update No. 3

Day: 34     A.T. Miles: 339.9

Howdy, everyone.  I'm chilling at Uncle Johnny's Hostel in Erwin, Tennessee, enjoying a pint-sized PBR and some good R&R.  Since I have been unable to keep up-to-date with my journal entries, and because I don't think that will be improving anytime soon, I have decided to change up the format of my posts a bit.  Instead of posting an entry for each day, I will instead be summarizing different sections of the trail in each post.  I will highlight what I think is the interesting information - good views, significant weather patterns, people, life on the trail - while omitting all the redundant information (my feet hurt, I climbed lots of mountains today, etc.).  This way, I might be able to post updates more frequently (keyword: might) and I can refrain from spending three hours of each nero or zero sitting at a library computer.  Plus, I think most readers will find the new format easier to read and more entertaining.  Since I left off in the middle of the Smokies, I will finish that segment with daily journals, and I will begin posting in the new format upon my exit (or escape) from the national park.  Also, a word about pictures: after failing repeatedly to find a computer that is compatible with my camera (probably since I am a Mac user), I decided to mail my full memory card home to my parents who have agreed to upload my pictures to my Flikr account (thanks, Mom!).  Once they are on Flikr, I should be able to post pictures to the blog without difficulty.


3/15/11     Day 24     Miles: 12.9
Weather and trail conditions VERY nasty for the first half of the day.  Rain, snow, sleet, and high winds.  Cold, but temperatures just above freezing so the trail was an ankle-deep slushy, muddy river.  After lunch the precipitation stopped, the trail was a bit drier, and we dropped in elevation enough to get out of most of the snow.  Still not sure how far Guido Blanco and J.T. Hill are behind us.  Staying at Cosby Knob Shelter with Face, Delaware Dave, Treebeard, and Stormsong.  Got a fire going.  It feels nice after some of the nastiest weather of the trip.  Leaving the Smokies tomorrow!!!  It really is BEAUTIFUL here, but conditions on the trail have been rough, and it will be nice to get away from the crowds and snow and back onto some solid ground where we can push mileage.  The Smokies have been a big landmark in the distance since the start of the trail.  Now that they're almost done, one thing is looming in my mind: Virginia.  Almost exactly halfway there.  Heading into hostel tomorrow.  Looking forward to some real food and dry socks (my feet have been soaking wet all day for six straight days).  Honestly, I don't really care that much about taking a shower.  I stopped caring about being dirty a while back.  I just want food.  Rationing food takes a lot of will power - most thru-hikers I have talked to agree that at any given time they could open their food bag and keep eating till there is nothing left.  You really never stop being hungry out here.  Have I mentioned that yet?  I am HUNGRY!!!

3/16/11     Day 25     Miles: 10.4
Quick, easy day today.  Did last 8 miles to Davenport Gap rd which marks the end of the 72 A.T. miles inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I am very happy to be out and check them off the list.  We then continued 2.4 miles to Standing Bear Farm hiker hostel.  Needed food after crossing the Smokies without resupply, plus I heard good things about the hostel. so I decided to stay the night and head back out in the morning.  I am aiming to be in Hot Springs (where my bounce box is waiting) by early morning of the 19th (P.O. is open 8:30-10:30 AM on Saturday).  I hope to nero and update the blog there if the library is open.  At hostel: Face, Guido and Hill (did 14 + 18 milers to catch up), Treebeard, Stormsong, Delaware Dave, Cosmic John, Victus, Space Cowboy, and Young-Un (met the last three at a shelter a few nights ago).  I feel like everyone is really starting to bond.  We are even sharing food!  Woah!  This is a big deal for thru-hikers, who usually guard their food bags like a bear guards her cubs.  Everyone has many of the same acquaintances and experiences.  News is passed up and down the trail through fellow hikers, hostel operators, and shelter registers.  Life on the trail is becoming more and more fun everyday.  It is hard to find fresh produce/healthy food here.  For dinner I ate a 9-piece chicken tenders meal, fries, a biscuit, a microwave chimichanga, a banana, a large bag of chips with Tabasco sauce, oreos with peanut butter, and a slice of pizza.  I washed my socks on a traditional washboard.  Picked up a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring at the free book exchange here; I'm looking forward to reading it for the first time in ten years.


After staying the night at Standing Bear Farm, the whole group woke up early for a quick three-day hike into Hot Springs, where most of us were planning to take a nero.  We started out the morning right: everyone pitched in some money for food, and Stormsong

The next day was much of the same - beautiful weather, beautiful hiking.  I learned that instant grits are disgusting.  We camped that night three miles outside of Hot Springs with the intent of reaching town early the next morning.  That night was probably the worst twelve hour period of my entire life.  I woke up at 12:30 in the morning with the most painful stomach cramps of my entire life.  It felt like my entire abdomen was caught in an ever-tightening vise.  Eventually the pain became so severe that I resorted to sticking my hand down my throat to induce vomiting.  I did that twice in an hour and a half or so without relief before I began vomiting and dry heaving uncontrollably, which lasted for the rest of the night.  To make things worse, the cramps were coupled with severe shifting hot and cold spells: within minutes, I went from burning hot to shivering cold and back again.  Since I was vomiting so frequently and was too weak to keep crawling in and out of my tent repeatedly, I spent the majority of the night lying on the ground in the fetal position out in the woods next to a pile of my own puke.  It was bad.  And if that wasn't bad enough, it started raining on me while I was lying out in the woods.  I wanted to wait until sunrise to head into town, but at 5:30 I couldn't wait any longer.  Delaware Dave insisted on hiking with me into town, and he even carried a few of my heaviest items to make the hike easier.  By the light of his headlamp and my micro LED that I held in my mouth (I had inconveniently left my headlamp in the shelter the previous night), we hiked slowly through the dark - me stopping when necessary to throw up - until we finally reached Hot Springs in the meager light of the early morning.  I sat outside the medical clinic until it opened.  They weren't sure exactly what was wrong, but they gave me two bags of IV fluids to replace what I had lost and a shot in the butt to keep me from vomiting.  I stayed there until noon.  At some point while I was at the clinic (the shot they gave me knocked me out pretty well), Victus, Space Cowboy, and Young-Un stopped by to see me.  They had heard through the grapevine that I was sick and wanted to see how I was doing before hitting the trail that afternoon.  This was quite touching to me, as we had only seen each other on two previous occasions.  It was just one more example of the strong bond that thru-hikers share.  We look out for each other.  After leaving the clinic, I checked into the Sunnybank Inn, located in a beautiful historic Victorian house built in 1875.  For my fellow musicologists out there: this was the very house in which Cecil Sharpe (in 1916) recorded over sixty songs sung by Mrs. Jane Gentry, many of which were included in his English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians.  The shot and IV fluids helped immensely, and I continued to improve for the remainder of the day, but I decided to take an additional zero day in town to fully recover.  Face, Guido, Hill, Treebeard, and Stormsong pushed on after one night in town, but Delaware Dave really enjoyed the Inn and decided to stick around for an extra night.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On-Trail Update No. 2

2/26/11     Day 7     Miles: 9.5Relatively short day but felt like toughest so far.  I can tell my legs are tired since I am slipping and tripping more than usual.  Tomorrow's nero will come at the perfect time.  I'm still hiking with Face, Guido Blanco, and J.T. Hill.  We ran into two hog hunters from "No-Colina" w/ pit bulls right on the trail.  They use the pit bulls to hold the hog down while they slit its throat with a knife.  Dogs get gutted and killed on a regular basis when people use them to hunt like this, and I honestly don't know how it is still legal.  These guys' dogs were in pretty bad shape.  We also ran into two scout troops on the trail.  knees hurting pretty bad, swelling worse than ever.  Climbed Kelly's Knob today, 1,000-foot elevation gain in under a mile, the toughest climb for me so far (probably as much mental as physical since we are so close to our first town visit).  I think lots of people out west underestimate how big these mountains are.  The Southern Appalachians are FOR REAL, people.  Staying tonight at Deep Gap Shelter, leaving a short 3.5-mile hike into Hiawassee tomorrow.  Temperature dropped below freezing for the first time last night.

2/27/11     Day 8     Miles: 3.5
Woke up early and headed into Hiawassee to stay at the Blueberry Patch hiker hostel.  Owners Gary and Lennie Poteat are wonderful people who open their home to tired and hungry hikers out of the goodness of their hearts.  There is no fee to stay at the hostel - you are free to either leave a donation or to work for your stay.  The hostel had a box of old clothes for wearing while ours were in the laundry, so we went into town looking... interesting, to say the least.  I was wearing camouflage pants about ten sizes too big held up with parachute cord and a red t-shirt two sizes too small with a picture of a train on it.  J.T. Hill was wearing a pair of black jean cutoff shorts (held up w/ parachute cord) that looked like the legs were gnawed off by a raccoon.  Face and Guido looked like Eastern European and Italian mobsters, respectively.  We hitched a ride into town where we absolutely demolished the China Buffet AYCE (all you can eat, a favorite term among A.T. hikers).  We then hit up Dairy Queen for blizzards and the grocery store for resupply.  I have given up on wearing contacts on this trip; it is just too difficult to keep your hands clean when putting them in/taking them out, and I have heard some horror stories about nasty eye infections on the trail.  I also mailed home my sunglasses.  I iced my knees tonight at the hostel, but I am not sure how they will hold up.  They are swollen pretty bad, and the package with my refill of anti-inflammatories has not arrived yet (I will have to have it forwarded to Fontana Dam).  Also, the doctor refused to give me a brace for my left knee since I only saw him for pain in my right knee.  This is beyond frustrating.  I had my first shower in eight days and my first clean clothes in twelve days.  The Face summed it up when he said, "I feel like a human being again."  I can't wait to sleep in a bed tonight, even though it is technically just a wooden bunk with egg-crate foam on top.  Headed back out tomorrow morning.  Some pretty bad weather forecasted for the next few day: thunderstorms, 30-60 mph winds, large hail and heavy rain, possible tornadoes.

2/28/11     Day 9     Miles: 4.5
Got a late start, had to hitch back into Hiawassee to go to the post office (closed yesterday - Sunday).  Sent my bounce box ahead to Fontana Dam.  Breakfast at the Blueberry Patch was AMAZING: pancakes with blueberry sauce, eggs, sausage, hashbrowns, biscuits with sawmill gravy, coffee and orange juice.  Hit trail at 12:15 and decided to stop early at the Plumorchard Gap Shelter to ride out the worst of the storm.  Heavy rain, hail, lots of lightning right now.  Met Coach and Professor tonight, both are trying to finish their thru in four months and are averaging over twenty miles a day already.  Their feet look pretty bad; I don't know if they will be able to keep up the pace at this rate.

 3/01/11     Day 10     Miles: 12.2
NORTH CAROLINA!!!  We reached our second state at around 10:15 this morning.  It was awesome; checkpoints like this make you feel like you are really making progress.  The climb out of Bly Gap (the GA/NC border) was insane, so steep that I almost had to drop my poles and start using my hands.  It was almost like a big "Welcome to North Carolina, suckers!"  Got started early, around 8:15 AM.  Starting to become more streamlined and efficient setting up and tearing down camp.  Staying at Standing Indian Mountain shelter tonight.  Beautiful weather today.  Built a HUGE campfire tonight with a local named Keith.  My appetite is continuing to increase - I am starting to eat enormous amounts of food without ever feeling full.  I am going to have to start making more room in my pack for food.  I have also stopped noticing how bad I smell for the most part.  I feel like I stink the worst for the first day or two after a shower, but then I either stop noticing or just stop caring (although to non-hikers I'm sure that my stench is immediately apparent).  Tonight is supposed to be the coldest night so far.  I have two small blisters, one on the front of each 2nd toe, but neither is serious or even particularly painful.

3/02/11     Day 11     Miles: 11.3
Cold morning, slept in a bit.  Started hiking around 9:30.  We were in no hurry today, so we just took our time.  On the trail, you are almost never in a rush to get to any particular place - you are just walking.  Took a short side trail to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain, the tallest mountain in the area with a beautiful view..  On top I got out my iPod for the first time and listened to a piece by Native American composer and flautist Douglas Spotted Eagle; it provided the perfect soundtrack for thinking about the Cherokee who once lived here.  It was one of the most powerful moments of my trip so far.  Now that we are in our second state, the scenery is gradually beginning to change: there is more mountain laurel and rhododendron here, and we are also starting to see our first pine trees.  The trail is not as well-maintained north of the state line: lots of blowdowns crossing the trail, and many of the blazes are faded and difficult to see.  I zone out a lot while hiking; it is a lot like driving on the highway.  You're thoughts are not focused on staying on the trail (or road), so you just allow your mind to drift wherever it likes.  I think about lost of things: I replay movies and books in my head, think or sing songs in rhythm with my hiking pace, think about the past, the present, the future.  I feel absolutely NO STRESS while on the trail.  All that really matters is eating, finding water, staying healthy, and finding a good place to camp.  It is wonderful.  We are tenting at Betty Creek Gap tonight.  Total trip miles so far (including approach trail): 104.3 miles.  This is already the longest trip I've ever taken by far and I am still less than 5% done.  There is a small and pleasant creek a few hundred yards from our campsite, and I sat there alone for twenty minutes or so just watching and listening to the water.  I like to imagine where I would hike if I were a brook trout.  My feet hurt all the time from the constant pounding, but this is something that every thru-hiker experiences.  Pain is simply an unavoidable reality on the trail.  I am still in great spirits.

3/03/11     Day 12     8.4
Could have easily made it into Franklin today, but took it easy because I didn't want to spent any money on lodging after being in Hiawassee so recently.  Climbed Albert Mountain today and it was quick but absolutely insane - an elevation gain of 500 feet in three-tenths of one mile.  I had to put my poles down and climb with my hands at several points.  The 360-degree view at the top was incredible, though.  I was bonking before lunch today (bonking refers to the lack of energy as your body runs out of fuel.  It makes you feel like one of those wind-up toys that needs to be rewound).  You really begin to appreciate out here that food = fuel.  Even a quick energy bar makes a huge difference.  Staying at the Rock Gap shelter tonight.  Took a side trail after reaching the shelter to see the second-largest poplar in the United States.  With a circumference of 27 feet, it was easily the biggest tree I have ever seen in person.  My left knee was the worst it has ever been today, and I walked with a bad limp the last mile or so to the shelter.  Supposed to be cold again tonight with lows in the mid-twenties.

3/04/11     Day 13     Miles: 4.7
Hiked 3.8 miles to Franklin to resupply today.  The guys at Outdoor 76 outfitters were amazing: they picked us up at the trail, drove us to their outfitter in town, drove us to the restaurant and grocery store, and drove us back to the trail - all for free.  They are very intent on helping hikers and I will recommend them to everyone I meet.  Ate ridiculous quantities of food at the Shonie's AYCE buffet: fried chicken, fried fish, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, corn, cornbread, shortbread cake with fruit and whipped cream.  Then went to DQ for a second dessert.  I am amazed at how much I can eat now without feeling full; when I stop eating, it's usually either because I've run out of time or because I've just gotten tired of eating.  After hanging around town for a bit too long, we hiked out 0.9 miles to a tent site, carrying a 12-pack of Yeungling beer to enjoy at camp.  It rained on us for most of the day and it is supposed to continue for the next several days.  It looks like our stretch of amazing weather is about to end.  Apart from the knees, I'm feeling good physically, and I will try to start picking up the pace soon.  I wanted to make sure to avoid injury by giving my body time to acclimate to all-day and everyday hiking.  The saying is true that the only way to get in shape for a thru-hike is to do a thru-hike.  A few hours at the gym everyday is simply not going to cut it.  It feels like the "Gypsy Caravan" (a term coined by I'm not sure who to describe the group of me, Face, Guido, and J.T.) is beginning to bond more closely than before.  We are all excited about reaching the Smokies, which will be coming up in about a week.  I might try to drop a bit a few more unnecessary items from my pack in Fontana Dam.

3/05/11     Day 14     Miles: 10.1
Woke up to rain this morning, packed up and left camp around 8:30.  It hasn't stopped raining for a second all day long.  I feel like we have finally been "initiated" as A.T. thru-hikers: I have now set up camp in the rain, torn down camp in the rain, and hiked all day in the rain.  Rain makes EVERYTHING more difficult; even otherwise simple tasks like eating lunch become logistical nightmares as you try to keep everything as dry as possible.  Even so, I was in my highest spirits of the trip for most of the day, but the rain began to wear on me by the end of the hike.  There is a common saying on the trail that "nothing is waterproof on the A.T.," and that is proving to be true.  Although I was wearing my raingear all day, I was soaking wet by the time I reached Wayah Bald Shelter at 1:30.  Some water also got through my "waterproof" pack cover and my "waterproof" pack, so I will have to start using a trash bag as a pack liner on rainy days.  I still feel fresh, and I am anxiously awaiting some better weather so that I can start upping my daily mileage.  The rain is pouring outside as I am writing this, and I am very happy to be sitting in a shelter right now.  I reached the first two balds (unique mountains with treeless tops that are common around the Smokies)  of the trip today, but there were no views to enjoy due to the heavy fog.  Met three local day hikers on the trail today with a friendly golden retriever that jumped up on me and tore two holes in my rain jacket which I will have to patch up with duct tape.  Stayed in shelter tonight with the Caravan plus J.C., a very friendly retired English fellow who was born in India, educated in England and Switzerland, and now resides in Louisiana when he is not traveling around the world and hiking the A.T.

3/06/11     Day 15     Miles: 10.6
Rained all night last night, woke up this morning to a snowstorm.  Putting on a wardrobe of soaking wet clothing is not fun.  Snowed, rained, and sleeted alternatively for most of the day.  To a certain extent, though, weather doesn't really matter to a thru-hiker - after all, it's not like you're going to wait for the next sunny weekend to do your hike.  You just keep walking.  Met White Fang this morning, a thru-hiker who is otherwise studying to be a personal trainer at the University of Georgia.  Super nice guy.  The temperature plummeted into the low to mid-twenties in the early afternoon.  The good thing about snow is that it doesn't get you as wet as rain when it is falling.  Rain is worse while it is falling, but snow is worse once it is on the ground.  I can't remember ever seeing nonstop precipitation for two straight days.  I summited Wesser Bald in the afternoon, but visibility was only thirty feet or so - no views again.  It's kind of cool hiking through such dense fog, though; since you can't see anything in front or behind you, it feels like you are hiking from nowhere and going into nowhere.  The forecast said it was supposed to clear up this afternoon but it never did.  I passed through a burned area in the early afternoon, and the fog seemed to make all the colors - blacks, greens, oranges, browns, and yellows all covered in frost - seem all the more vibrant.  Several miles of the trail were overtaken by springs and runoff, which made hiking literally like walking up a creek.  In some places the water was so deep that you could have literally filled your water bottle in the middle of the trail.  Staying at the Wesser Bald Shelter tonight with the Caravan plus J.C. and White Fang.  The rain finally ceased in the early evening, and there was a good supply of dry wood under the shelter, so we were able to get a fire going to dry out some of our clothes.  I bought some portable speakers for $20 at the outfitter in Franklin (a half-pound of shameless luxury), and I used them tonight to introduce my fellow hikers to Townes Van Zandt, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, John Prine, and Old Crow Medicine Show.

3/07/11     Day 16     Miles: 5.7
Last night was the coldest night on the trail by far.  When I woke up my socks, shoes, bandanas, pant legs, and two of my water bottles (the ones I didn't put in my sleeping bag with me) were frozen solid.  Hiked a short day into the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), will spend the night at their hiker hostel and take the rest of the day to dry out all my wet gear.  Saw the sun this morning for the first time in four days.  Enjoyed some high-elevation ridge walking today where the trail followed a narrow ridge with steep dropoffs on either side.  It was clear up high, but the fog was still settled lower down, making the tops of the tallest peaks look like islands in a sea of clouds.  I came to a gorgeous view at the perfect time, and it was one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip so far.  Although I was eager to get to the NOC to dry out, I lingered at that spot for a long time.  Such places are hard to pull yourself away from, but as a thru-hiker I know that hundreds more equally beautiful places await me.  What a wonderful feeling.  I reached the NOC around midday.  Had a burger, fries, and icecream at the restaurant, set out my stuff to dry, washed my clothes, and took an exceedingly long shower.  I have never felt so clean.  Face, J.T., Guido, White Fang, and I then hitched a ride into Bryson City for dinner and resupply.  We bought some Fat Tire and Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA and brought it back to the hostel to enjoy.  Spirits seem high all around.  White Fang is pushing to reach Fontata Dam one day ahead of us, but I hope we meet up again at some point in the future.  We are all looking to finish in the same time frame, so a reunion is a definite possibility.  Since hikers all move at different paces and stop at different towns, a lot of leap-frogging occurs on the trail.  Between that, the shelter registers, and stories from other hikers, you begin to get a pretty good idea of who the hikers are around you.

3/08/11     Day 17     Miles: 10.5
Woke up at the NOC, had an enormous breakfast of bacon, eggs, homefries, grits, biscuits with gravy, sweet potato pancakes, and coffee.  Hit the trail around 10:00.  Could make Fontana by Wednesday night but wouldn't make it in time to resupply at grocery store and don't want to spend money on another night in town so soon.  Tenting at Locust Cove Gap, will make Fontana by Thursday morning.  Big climb out of the Nantahala Gorge today - over 3,300 feet in 7 miles.  Felt very strong and energized today.  A few good meals and a night indoors make all the difference.  Also, I listened to my iPod while hiking for the first time today and it was almost like aural adrenaline.  I flew up the climb, feeling the best I have physically felt on the entire trip.  Summited my first bald in clear weather: Cheoah bald, with great views to the southwest.  White Fang pushed ahead, trying to reach Fontana ASAP for new sleeping bag (had been using an old 30-degree  bag that was not cutting it in the cold weather).  J.C. decided to stay an extra night at the NOC to zero.  It started raining tonight around 7:00, and it is supposed to continue all night, all day tomorrow and possibly the next day before clearing up for a few days.  I am crossing my fingers for good weather to start the Smokies!

3/09/11     Day 18     Miles: 11.6
 It rained hard all last night, and the downpour didn't slow until around 2:00 PM today when it finally and suddenly stopped.  Guido has been picking up flood warnings on his portable radio and I am not surprised.  It rained so hard that I was soaked to the bone in less than twenty minutes despite wearing my raingear all day.  We all were.  The term "waterproof" does not exist out here; being wet is simply a part of life on the A.T.  We camped with some spring breakers yesterday.  They were nice enough guys, but the presence of spring breakers gives us a sense of foreboding since the Smokies might quickly become crowded.  Hikers are required to stay in shelters while in the national park, and we have all heard horror stories of thru-hikers getting crowded out of Smokies shelters by crowds of drunken college students.  Had lunch at Brown Fork Gap Shelter to escape the rain for a bit.  staying tonight at Cable Gap Shelter.  Supposed to be more rain until Friday.  Face's sleeping bag got completely soaked despite being packed in a waterproof stuff sack in a waterproof backpack with a waterproof pack cover.  Fortunately, it is not supposed to freeze tonight.

3/10/11     Day 19     Miles: 6.6
Ate a dry breakfast to save time and got on trail to head into town.  Just as nothing stays dry here, nothing dries out here once it is wet.  You can hang up wet clothes for a week, but it hardly matters, as they will be just as wet when you put them back on.  The new "100% waterproof" bear bag I bought at Neel's Gap to replace my old bag that was only "water-resistant" had a pool of water in the bottom this morning.  Fortunately, all my food was in ziplock bags so none of it got wet.  When we arrived at Fontana Dam, we received the frustrating news that the grocery store was closed and wouldn't open for another three weeks when the tourist season began.  Luckily, a really nice guy named J.P. (an employee at the Fontana Village Resort) offered to drive us to Robinsville (40 miles away) to eat dinner and resupply.  Since he couldn't take us until 5:00, I spent the downtime visiting the post office and finding a computer to post a blog update.  At the post office I went through my bounce box, filled my bottles of soap and water treatment, replenished my medications, and picked up my heavy gloves and anti-inflammatories (mailed by my parents).  I also shipped home my baseball cap (hadn't worn it), book (hadn't read it), and most of my maps (I decided to cut out the elevation profiles and mail the rest home since that was the only thing I have been using).  I had lunch at a gas station where I tried to cram the most calories into my body with the least amount of money possible: I settled on two chili-cheese hotdogs, a bag of chicharrones, a 600-calorie honey bun for 69 cents, and a powerade.  In addition, my grandmother sent me some cookies in the mail, so I had about a dozen of those.  Once in Robbinsville, I bought enough food to make it all the way through the Smokies without resupply - about 72 miles of trail.  I still probably bought too much, so I will be eating like a king for the next week.  After returning to Fontana Dam, J.P dropped us off at the trail around 8:00 PM, and we did a quick 1.1 miles in the dark and light snow to the next shelter.  Hikers have dubbed it the "Fontana Hilton" since it is a huge shelter that sleeps 24 people and is located a few hundred yards from public restrooms with running water.  Four or five other hikers were already asleep there when we arrived.  Before we left Fontana, J.P. told us that the surrounding area has received over four and-one-half inches of rain in the past 48 hours.  After hiking through all of that rain, I definitely believe it.

3/11/11     Day 20     Miles: 13.8
Today was the longest day of the trip so far and we did it through 1-2 feet of snow.  Go figure.  I left the Fontana shelter in the early morning, crossed Fontana dam, and entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park at around 9:00.  It immediately looked like a different world.  We had a few inches of snow before the Smokies, but I feel like I suddenly walked into a winter wonderland here.  I'm not sure why this is; the elevation isn't any higher, and the topography doesn't look much different, but the Smokies are covered in snow while just a few short miles away the mountains are clear.  Had over 2,000 feet of climbing in first three miles out of Fontana.  At the top, I came upon the first good view in the Smokies, and just as I turned the corner to see the view the sun came out for the first time in four days.  It happened as if on cue.  For the first half of the day I postholed through someone else's footprints.  At lunch I passed a few other hikers.  They seemed pleased to let me pass - it was my turn to break trail.  Breaking trail through snowdrifts - often up to two feet deep - is much more difficult than following in someone else's footsteps, and even that is much harder than hiking on solid ground.  The snow takes a lot out of you.  However, there is also something fun about breaking trail, almost like being the first skiier to cut through fresh powder.  I had a big goofy grin on my face for most of the day.  It is bone-chillingly cold right now and is supposed to remain below freezing all night, but it is supposed to warm up a bit at some point tomorrow.  Another long day ahead.  Staying at Russell Field Shelter tonight (hikers are required to stay at shelters in the Smokies).

3/12/11     Day 21     Miles: 9.2
It froze last night, and when I woke up this morning my socks were frozen stiff like boards.  I had to wear a clean, dry pair because I couldn't get them on my feet.  My shoes were also frozen solid, and I had to work them with my hands for about five minutes to make them malleable enough to allow me to shove my feet inside them.  Today was the toughest day of the trip so far.  It took 6.5 hours to do 9.2 miles (that is slow).  The trail featured lots of big, steep climbs and descents today, and all of them were covered in a foot or more of snow.  By the afternoon, the sun had melted some of the snow so that the trail turned into a big slippery river of water, mud, and slush.  Staying tonight at Derrick Knob Shelter.  The park requires that hikers stay in shelters each night, but they are not spaced out well - they are either 2 miles or 15 miles apart with not much in between.  The rest of the Caravan went on to Siler's Bald Shelter (another 5.5 miles), but it was getting late and I did not want to hike in the dark.  I'm a morning person - I'd rather wake up at 5:30 AM and make up the distance then.  Big day tomorrow.  I hiked a lot with a section hiker from Austin today (trailname Lucky).  I made a fire tonight at the shelter tonight to dry out our socks, and as a thank you she made me hot chocolate.  Meeting other hikers is part of what makes the A.T. so special.  Hikers here all share a common bond.  Really, it's like we are one big family (cliche, I know, but true).  I have resigned myself to the fact that it is literally impossible to carry enough food to keep muself from being hungry all the time.  Hungry, wet, tired, smelly, sore - all are unavoidable aspects of an A.T. hiker's daily life. 

3/13/11     Day 22     Miles: 13.2
Big day of milestones today: I completed my 200th A.T. mile, I bagged my 3rd state (Tennessee), and I reached the highest point on the entire trail, Clingman's Dome (6,643 feet).  I felt AWESOME today, completely opposite from yesterday.  It was my best physical day of trip despite being one of the toughest.  I woke up before sunrise, added an extra outmeal packet to my breakfast (up to 5 packets per meal now), and hit the trail at 7:18, just before sunrise.  I reached Siler's Bald Shelter before the other guys left and hiked with them for much of the day.  The snow/slush didn't seem as bad today, but the going was still pretty rough and strenuous.  Heavy fog rolled in just as I reached the summit of Clingman's Dome, so I didn't get any views there.  Oh well, there will be other views tomorrow, and the next day, and the next...  Saw lots of bear tracks on the trail today.  Supposed to start raining tonight and continue for the next three days.  I hope it doesn't slow us down much; I want to try to make it through the Smokies as quickly as possible.  Apparently daylight savings time started today, but it doesn't really matter much out here.  Regardless of the time on the clock, hikers get up when the sun rises and go to bed when it sets.  It's pretty nice, really.  I used my new portable speakers to introduce everyone at the shelter to Ravi Shankar tonight.

3/14/11     Day 23     Miles: 14.9
Raining when I woke up.  Supposed to rain all day, so I wore my sweaty rainsuit all day, but not a drop fell on us.  I'll take it.  Got down to some lower elevations today and saw the ground for the first time in the Smokies.  About half of today's hike was on solid(ish) earth and the rest was on snow.  We descended to Newfound Gap and crossed the road that leads to Gatlinburg (a super touristy town near the park boundary).  It was kind of bizarre seeing so many people all of the sudden.  Even all the towns we have been through have been relatively quiet.  I'm sure all the tourists thought it was equally bizarre seeing me - sweaty, covered in mud, rain suit patched all over with duct tape, with a dirty bandana wrapped around my head.  After about a week on the trail, you completely cease to care about how you look and how you smell.  Good weather today allowed me to push on to Peck's Corner Shelter, Face is with me.  Word reached us on the trail that Guido and J.T. Hill decided to hitch into Gatlinburg for some real food.  We met up with Stormsong and Treebeard at the shelter tonight who we haven't seen since Hiawassee.  They were a few days ahead of us but got forced off the trail in the Smokies due to bad weather (80 mph winds and chest-high snowdrifts).  Also met Delaware Dave tonight, super cool guy, very energetic, talkative.  Full bottle of Jim Beam left at the shelter tonight, some of my first trail magic of the trip (trail magic refers to a tradition in which non-thru-hikers, referred to as trail angels, do nice and unsolicited things for thru-hikers.  Trail magic often comes in the form of food and drink left on the trail).  Great view today at Charlie's Bunyon, one of best views of trip so far.  Another full shelter tonight (same as last night).  Starting to see more and more spring breakers with each passing day.  Delaware Dave had a good idea for getting more calories: he eats tubs of icing with a spoon.  He told us about a small, thin thru-hiker he met who had to resort to eating sticks of butter to keep from losing too much weight.