November , 2021
155 days, 2,193.1 Miles
On April 18, 2021 I sat on a wooden bench looking over the Potomac River in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It was a beautiful day and I was drawing a picture – the river, green hills in the distance, a bird sitting on the crumbling river foundations, and the railroad. The path that would lead me forward into something new and unknown was laid out in front of me. I wrote above my sketch, “It feels like my life is going to change as soon as I walk over this bridge”.
Five months later, after my extended summer break at home, I found myself back in Harpers Ferry. This time, my feet were pointing south. This time, instead of doubt and fear and insecurity I was filled with something else. Definitely excitement. Maybe even confidence? That morning I bought a bagel sandwich and sat on the same wooden bench and looked out over the same water. I watched a train pass, heading somewhere. Then I turned my back and I started heading somewhere too.
It took me two months to hike the remaining 1,025 miles from that bridge in Harpers Ferry to the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia. On November 10th, around 4:00 on a warm and stunning fall day I passed the sign “Springer Mountain, Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, 1 Mile ahead.” I felt numb. That last mile I kept taking these huge breaths, practically vibrating with excitement. Then, suddenly, I was there. I had done it. At that moment my mind went blank. I stared at that last white blaze. Maybe someday I will get used to saying “I have hiked the Appalachian Trail”, maybe someday it will feel real. Right now it still feels like a dream.
A lot of things were different about this half of the journey: it was uninterrupted by trips home, it included no time hiking with my family, I didn’t know anything about or hiked in any of these states, I was the same pace or faster than most remaining thru hikers, and instead of walking into summer I was now walking into autumn. But, the biggest difference was internal. I carried the confidence that I am prepared enough, clever enough, gritty enough to make it through to the very end. I was also physically stronger. The first couple weeks included a lot of reconditioning callous’ and building up endurance. Then I found my pace and was almost always the first one to camp out of our group. This has been the biggest surprise for me because I have never been a natural athlete, always the back of the pack, always the one getting an A for effort but never the one in front. On this hike I crossed some invisible threshold and suddenly I could fly down the trail with twenty five pounds on my back. Even difficult climbs felt almost effortless. I would work hard, but once I was over the hill or summit I wouldn’t need a breather or a break, my body would catch up in just a few steps. I can’t emphasize enough what a surreal and unusual feeling this is for me. It is pure power, tension and release and simple movement, day after day after day.
As I write this I have been off trail for around ten days. I’m back home in New Hampshire with my husband and my dog. Looking back at the last six months, time loses its structure. It either feels like I’m just starting out, like that day in Harpers Ferry was last week, or it feels like the whole adventure took years not months.
I’m not going to try to summarize what thru hiking the A.T. has been like for me. The feelings are either too massive and all encompassing, or too banal and miniscule. It’s the feeling of an open summit with wind in the grass and rocks, it’s standing perfectly still so as to not startle the doe and fawn in the brush, it’s the sun breaking through rain clouds, just for a second, it’s sipping my hot chocolate at the end of the day at a picnic table with friends, it’s the shower at the end of a long stretch, it’s the mist off a waterfall, the crunch of leaves, the most beautiful sunset, it’s making camp on a ridgeline knowing that there is likely not another soul within fifteen miles, it’s packing and unpacking my bag the same way every night, every morning. It’s awe inspiring and it’s boring. It’s a thousand tiny moments strung together to make something that is more than the sum of its parts.
For most of Virginia I was mostly alone. Then I started to make some friends – Jukebox and Brightside and Jessie Two Time (the best trail dog ever), No Box, the Candyasses. There’s an unofficial rule that you never say goodbye to someone because you never know when you might see them again. For example, I met two hikers in Waynesboro (Trail names: Flower Power and Dreamer) and we would see each other for a couple of nights then maybe the next week we would see each other again once or twice. This was always such a joy. I would walk into camp and see them and it was like I was seeing my best friend again after months apart. Eventually, we split up for real and I thought I would definitely never see them again on the trail. Then, four days from the end I woke up at Standing Indian Shelter to find that Dreamer had come in late and that Flower Power was camping close behind.
In Atkins, VA at the Long Neck Lair Alpaca Hostel I met Cactus, aka Melanie, then the next day while I was slackpacking I met Rippin Reils, aka Kevin. These two became my trail family for the remaining 500 miles of the hike. Melanie and I quickly realized that we’re on the same page about absolutely everything and started planning our days together. Being able to share in the misery or joy and having a sense of comradery with good people makes all the difference in the world.
The Forecast Calls for Rain
The rain on this half was scarier than it was in the northern half. Even in Maine when it rained it was an August or July rain, wet but not cold unless I was on a ridgeline. Even then, the temperature wasn’t dropping to an uncomfortable level. Even then, there was always a prmise of summer days ahead. Now, in October or November, when it rained it was a cold rain, followed by a cold night, often followed by several more cold and rainy days. I am well equipped to handle any weather. However, I reached a point sometime in October where I knew I could be fine camping, but I also knew that the promise of a warm shower and a warm bunk at the end of the day simply makes my life better. Rain is inevitable on the A.T. but if I can choose to escape it, I will every time.
Here are three situations when the forecast called for rain:
In Buena Vista, VA I was saved from two days of torrential downpour by the family of my childhood best friend – the Maconis! I hiked twenty miles and was picked up by the side of the road like a drowned rat and then took a zero mile day inside watching the sky open up behind the sliding glass doors.
Cactus and I were in the middle of the woods, it had been raining all morning so we were soaked and although the precipitation had stopped it was replaced by a cold wind.
We were cold, the kind of cold where you can’t stop moving, where it starts to feel dangerous. We decided on the spot that if we could find a hostel to pick us up on a forest road a little more than six miles ahead we would do it. So we desperately started calling every hostel within 30 miles and, eventually, we found one! Station 19E would come to the rescue, but we had to be at that forest road in two hours. So we booked it. It may be the fastest I’ve moved in my life. And it turned out to be the right decision all around. The combination of the cold and wet gave me the worst chafing of my entire hike – complete with rings of sores around my waist and on my legs. Even once I showered and was inside I was still chilled, I would have been fine in my tent, but I also would have been very uncomfortable.
The Station 19E hostel is known for its attached bar and music venue with a huge beer selection. If I was responsible I would have stayed in my bunk with a cup of tea and gone to bed early. However this was not a night for responsible action. It was a night for darts, beers, new and old friends, and live country music. The evening ended around 1 in the morning with six of us, each wrapped in our own sleeping bag, sitting around in lawn chairs on the patio outside.
Towards the end of the hike there was a stretch of two weeks where the weather was just miserable. Just so wet and cold every day, and the window of good weather kept being pushed further and further ahead. It was extremely demoralizing. There was the night in Walker Gap where I hid in my tent from 7pm to 10am without a break in the dounpout. There was a day where the entire trail was 6″ of flowing water. There were water crossings where you just leave your shoes on because, well, they aren’t getting wetter. But, with many hand warmers, hostel visits, and hot chocolate, I made it through.
Here’s the beauty of the rain, in the subtle way it casts a mysterious cloak over the trail. It’s quiet, or it’s filled with the deafening white noise of drops hitting trees, ground, raincoat. Sometimes it feels like the mist could be transporting me somewhere else, another time, another world, another universe, like the closet in Narnia it could be leading me away. The can is also beautiful in the way it makes me feel. If I walk in the rain for six hours I usually want to cry for five, then something changes. The absurdity of what I’m doing hits me. I ask the questions: Why am I even out here, in all this rain, hiking down a sodden trail? Is this fun? Is this what the experience of a lifetime looks like? I look at my wet shoes, wet clothes, wet pack, wet universe. And I can’t help but laugh, and I can’t help but be filled with pride at what I can push my self to do, and then I take another step.
If you’re hiking the AT you’re “white blazing” – as in, following the white rectangular blazes of paint that mark the trail. Blue blazing is taking side trails, yellow blazing is getting picked up and driving past portions of the trail, and platinum blazing is hiking the trail, but doing it in luxury, hitting hostels every night, eating out at nice restaurants, etc.
One thing I loved about the southern half of the AT is that there are hostels everywhere! So in the stretches of bad weather Cactus and I started to hop from hostel to hostel, sometimes spending a day camping out in between, often slackpacking so we could spend two nights in the warm comfort of a bunkhouse.
For example, my schedule coming between Damascus, Virginia, and Hot Springs, North Carolina looked like this:
(Nights in a hostel are in bold text)
10/13 Lady Di Hostel, Damascus, VA – 16 Miles
10/14 Slackpack back to Lady Di Hostel – 21.5 Miles
10/15 Boots Off Hostel – 20.8 Miles
10/16 Station 19E Hostel – 19.5 Miles
10/17 Mountain Harbor B&B – 13.8 Miles
10/18 Slackpack back to Mountain Harbor B&B – 15.5 Miles
10/19 Cherry Gap Shelter – 19 Miles
10/20 USA Raft Adventure Resort – 15.8 Miles
10/21 Mother Martin’s Hostel – 19.2 Miles
10/22 Flint Mountain Shelter – 17.9 Miles
10/23 Spring Mountain Shelter – 22.6 Miles
10/24 Spring Creek Tavern, Hot Springs NC – 11 Miles
10/25 Slackpack back to Spring Creek Tavern – 20.6 Miles
Sometimes we would be lightly teased about taking it too easy, staying inside too much, but I have no regrets, and would do it the same way over again. I wanted to finish my hike in good spirits. I wanted to enjoy this adventure. Staying in hostels, escaping bad weather, and eating good food made the end of the A.T. an absolute pleasure.
Trouble in the Smokies = Party in Gattlinburg
Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains a 71 mile stretch of the AT. The trail is typically smooth dirt or gravel, often travelling up the sides of the ridge in sweeping switchbacks. But, the climbs are huge and portions of the trail on the ridgeline can be very exposed, and there are essentially no access roads or bailout points. The one big access point comes in the middle of the park at Newfound Gap. This is what we were shooting for, two nights out, then to Newfound Gap on the third day for resupply, and then back for one night and two days of hiking to reach Fontana Dam on the other side.
Unfortunately the weather did not agree, and it was calling for high winds, constant rain, and snow on the high peaks. So, we found an airbnb in Gattlinburg, TN and decided to split it among our tramily – Cactus, Ripping Reils, Etch-a-sketch, and Pep Talk – for two days to escape the rain.
The first hurdle came when our shuttle couldn’t make it up to Newfound Gap because the road was closed to traffic due to high winds. So Cactus and I waved down a very accommodating weekend hiker who was game to fill his car with thru hikers and bring us down the hill to safety.
Then came a very relaxing two days watching the rain fall outside, taking a bath, eating many vegetables, dressing up for halloween, and visiting Knoxville.
Fresh Ground’s Leapfrog Cafe is an Appalachian Trail institution. A white van, covered in stickers, with the smiling face of Tim “Fresh Ground” Davis behind the wheel. Fresh Ground drives up and down the A.T. and other long distance trails to cook homestyle breakfast, lunch and dinner for hungry hikers. And damn, it’s a welcome sight to pop out at a road crossing and see the cafe serving up big burgers, eggs and potatoes and bacon, fresh coffee, chili, brats, burritos, salad, or anything else he can dream up.
I first heard about Fresh Ground while I was hiking north but never caught him, but now Cactus and I were on his radar and managed to see him pretty often for a stretch along the TN/NC border. There are several times where I was saved from having a very very bad horrible no good day simply by a hot bowl of soup, a warm drink, and cheerful company.
After weeks of sub-optimal weather Cactus and I looked ahead and found a five day window of good weather between us and Springer Mountain. The choice was an easy one. Five long days of hiking in exchange for five days of uninterrupted beautiful weather. Over those five days we hiked 105 miles and reached Springer in the sun.
These sunny days were a gift. When the sky was clear day after day I shouted for the absolute joy of it; the warmth on my face, the tension easing off my shoulders, the dry shoes in the morning.
So this is the end of the journey. I walked for 155 days with my life on my back. I walked in snow, rain, and sun. I walked over mountains and through valleys. I walked until I bled, until I laughed, until I cried. I walked my way out of the deepest depression of my life. And now I’m on the other side. When I think about what I’ve accomplished, and how it was to be out there, I feel it in my chest like I’m about to laugh or cry. It’s almost painful and it’s hot to the touch. I hope I carry this feeling with me forever. And I think that is what makes this so special to me. It was the experience of a lifetime, but not one that I had and now is left behind on the final summit. It was the experience of a lifetime that will affect the trajectory of my life, rippling out in new and unforeseeable ways. I changed the moment I walked over that bridge in Harpers Ferry. How, exactly, I will continue to change is still out there for me to discover.