Greetings from the Great White North

Man, I was just reading through several of the past few blog posts here, and it reminded me why I don’t have any tattoos. I’m apparently unable to produce a single thought that isn’t embarrassingly cringe-worthy when I look back on it later. Thank goodness I haven’t ever inscribed anything permanently on my body. No doubt by now I’d be a glorious canvas of 90s rock, video game references, and insipid poetry, if I headed to the ink shop as soon as I was able.

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Too angsty?

I suppose I should apologize for not writing any updates on our life till now. To be honest, it’s weird and annoying to feel obligated to give anyone (and in this format, everyone) this window into our lives. It made sense when we were hiking. Our family got the news they cared about, our friends got some vicarious knowledge or thrill of what it was like to be profligates, and we had something to ease the boredom while hiking.

But then we finished hiking, and I kept writing. Jotted down a blog on our changing surname, another one about moving to Alaska, and now here I am with some kind of ultra-pretentious Facebook update replacement. It made more sense when we had an experience that was unusual. It’s getting difficult to justify, with no extraordinary circumstances to report, no expertise with which to teach anyone, no words of wisdom that aren’t just a mishmash of things smarter people said. It feels like an exercise in vanity.

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And I hate vanity.

But, luckily, I predicted that it would be exactly that, in my very first introductory post. So, since I like to write, and I know at least 2 people who want to read what I write (because they’re genetically predispositioned to endure all my crap), I guess I’ll write.

Life has been wonderful here in Alaska. I think it’s my favorite state in America so far. There are some things to get used to, of course, but it has been excellent, and right now it seems like our biggest problem is that we can’t seem to experience every good thing as fast as we would like.

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For instance, Connie got to build snowforts with the rest of the neighborhood kids.

 

For one thing, there are tons of moose. And bears. Of course, we saw a couple dozen bears while hiking in Virginia, but it’s one thing to feel as if you’re passing through bear country, another thing to feel as if you’ve settled down in it.

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Here are a couple of our neighbors to the south.

And the moose are adorable. They’re basically roaming, fearless, giant cows. We see them strolling across our yard, walking into the road, standing in bushes and nibbling on trees, walking into the hospital where Connie works. It seemed crazy when I read before moving here that an average of 2 people per year are trampled to death by moose in the Anchorage city limits, but at this point we’ve seen so many enormous moose that I could believe 2 people get casually sat on every time one backs up.

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Connie took this photo from the window of the hospital where she works.

The daylight here is every bit as crazy as everyone knows. Nothing too extraodinary that I can comment on, because it’s really impossible to understand what it’s like to be out walking along the ocean, passing children on scooters and old couples holding hands, watching the sun set, and then to realize that it’s after midnight. The word midnight is meaningless to an extent. It seems especially bizarre given that Connie and I have mostly kept to a night shift schedule. And winter wasn’t too bad. I constantly felt like I was waking up bright and early, before the sun came up. The day and night cycles here are just facts of science, but they’re constantly startling when you live them.

Our outdoor activity hasn’t been as extensive as Connie would like. I think that after hiking so much last year, I have a certain reluctance to go outdoors and do things as much as I used to. Truthfully, I enjoy it more when we do, but it’s hard to break the inertia. Life comes in seasons, and I think that right now is supposed to be a season of Jacob not hiking every weekend. That isn’t to say that we haven’t gone out and seen things, though. We have taken several hours- and days-long roadtrips, and they have all been fantastic. Driving in any direction longer than 20 minutes always yields scenery that reminds me of the times I’ve driven through the Rocky Mountains. The mountains are dramatic, with steep slopes and sharp edges. It always seems mythical to glimpse some of the valleys beyond the first lines of mountains, where everything remains frozen and unreachable.

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Or maybe just frozen, not unreachable.

We have done some hikes, don’t worry. We’ve seen a wildlife conservation center, eaten at the lodge in the shadow of Denali, drunk whisky at the top of one of the Chugach mountains, etc. As Connie likes to say, we’re not in a rush to be tourists. We live here, so we can take our time. Soon we’ll be showing my parents-in-law around, and a lot of the things we’ll be doing will be firsts for us as well, like seeing the Exxon Aquatic Center, taking an Alaskan cruise, walking along the Matanuska Glacier (maybe).

 

Speaking of living here, we’ve settled in very happily to our apartment here in Anchorage. A lot of people warned us about how expensive housing and the cost of living in general would be in Alaska, but the funny thing is, housing can be had for all sorts of prices, and when you’ve lived six months in a tent, you don’t need to spend a lot to feel luxurious. Much has been said about our generation, and how we millenials need to give up our avocado toast if we ever want to own houses. I won’t participate in a discussion made up of exaggeration and epigrams, so I’ll just stick with saying that Connie and I have no problems spending less than we make, and learning to talk together about money and how to use it to live the life we both want has been one of the most rewarding things we’ve done together. Plus, we know tons of different ways to make ramen noodles now!

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I love this ramen noodle dish. While the tenderloin is braising, you cook ramen noodles, then throw them out and give thanks you have beef.

And now it’s getting to be time to board our plane. We’re flying to Boston tonight, and then we’ll take a bus to New Hampshire and take on the remaining 306 miles of the Appalachian Trail. We have about 19 days to do it, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to knock it out this year. If not, I suppose it isn’t going anywhere, so we’ll just keep chipping away at it. I’m sure that hiking will catalyze me into updating this blog again, so I hope you all are looking forward to some more of Connie’s photos.

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Connie’s photos/photos of Connie

Cheers.

Boissons Chaudes

You know what I haven’t written about in a long time? Drinks.

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¡Las bebidas!

It’s been made clear to me in the past month that I’ve entered into some sort of obligation to my friends and family (more accurately, my wife’s friends, family, admirers and even distant acquaintances) to keep everyone continuously updated on our life. Since I am a person who rarely updates Facebook (which still says I live in Tennessee) and could do better to maintain communication with even my parents, hopefully you can bear with my lassitude.

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This is a latitude, which is different from lassitude. Still relevant, though.

Of course, since I have to write, I intend to write about the things that interest me. I will not sterilize for my audience, not when this window into my life is starting to feel like an imposition. So instead of treating it like that, I invite my readers to join me in discussing my interests and passions. Two of those I’m writing about today are traveling and drinking.

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Hasslehoff and I know that drinking and traveling are activities that go great together.

Connie and I will be moving soon (knowing my track record of posting blog posts in a timely manner, it may have already happened). We come from a cold place, but we’re taking on one even colder. With that in mind, let’s talk about hot drinks. Apparently Doug Ford of cold-glass.com thought it was a bit funny last year when I was making tiki drinks in contempt of the blizzard outside; perhaps he will find some more appropriate selections here.

Let’s start with hot chocolate. There a few lessons to be learned with such a common drink. In my opinion, it’s a drink that everyone loves, in spite of the fact that it’s often not very good. There’s no balance, and half the time there’s barely any flavor, just an impression of how good things could be. We drink hot chocolate (more commonly, hot cocoa) because it’s comforting. We drink it in response to outside conditions. So I have two observations before I give the recipe:

1. Any drink that is taken for granted is an opportunity and a challenge, if one applies time, skill and effort.

2. If hot chocolate is drunk in response to outside conditions, then I better have some good hot chocolate to withstand Alaska.

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If no hot chocolate is available, substitute one nephew-heater.

…If I didn’t mention, Connie and I are flying to Anchorage, Alaska on January 4, 2017.

Anu Apte’s Hot Chocolate

5 ¾ cup water
¾ cup demerara sugar
2 vanilla beans, split
6 medjool dates
zest of 1 orange
½ cup strong coffee or espresso
salt to taste
13 oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped
½ cup cocoa powder (not Dutch)

Combine water, sugar, vanilla, dates and orange zest in a saucepot and bring to a gentle boil. Remove from heat, cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes. When you are ready to make the drink, strain the mixture and bring the remaining liquid to a simmer. Place the dark chocolate and cocoa powder in a large bowl. Pour one cup of the simmering liquid over the chocolate and cocoa and wait about one minute. Whisk vigorously until the chocolate and water mixture is homogenous and smooth. Continue to add the water in one-cup increments, whisking after each addition, until all of it is incorporated. Add the coffee and salt to taste. Strain the mixture.

Ms. Apte adds an ounce and a half of Branca Menta to each cup to make a mint hot chocolate.

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Branca Menta is just one of many ways you can embellish this recipe.

So then, moving on, we come to some enhanced cider drinks. Living in Michigan, I have enjoyed an abundance of apples and related products, and I have made many a drink featuring apple. My first bit of advice when using apples is to make sure you actually understand what the flavor of apple is. It can be difficult to separate our notion of the way something tastes from its balance of sweetness and acidity, which is to say, we tend to associate apple in America with overwhelming sweetness, and it can be off-putting to taste it in a drier presentation, like certain Calvados.

It’s important, because if you try to feature apple in a drink when it’s already supplying a lot of sweetness, you have very little ability to add depth unless you only add bitter elements, or try to balance with something sour and risk smothering the apple. You see orange liqueurs around every corner, because the orange has such a strong trifecta of sour, sweet and bitter. The apple has not so firm a foundation on its own.

Luckily, Connie and I have an excellent foundation on which to build a home in Anchorage. Connie has entered into a contract with the Providence Alaska Medical Center for the next two years, working as a Registered Nurse in their Progressive Care Unit. The hospital has not only provided us with significant financial security while we will be there, but it has gone to extremely generous lengths to help us relocate up there. Our possessions are currently headed up in a truck, our car will soon be following on a flatbed, and our plane tickets are bought, all courtesy of Providence.

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Our house-hunting trip to Anchorage several weeks ago was also courtesy of Providence.

Curbside Cider

1.5 oz Rye Whisky
.75 oz Elderflower Liqueur (St. Germain, Pur, or d’Arbo syrup to taste)
.25 oz Fernet Branca
4 oz Hot Apple Cider

Combine all ingredients in a toddy mug, stir and serve. Garnish with fanned apple slices.

It’s true that this drink can threaten to be too sweet, so have a light hand with the liqueurs. The Fernet Branca is the truly clever touch that elevates this drink beyond a spiked apple cider with its herbal influence and hint of menthol. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the elderflower liqueur is only there to save the cider from losing dominance to the herb bomb that even a quarter ounce of Fernet brings. It bridges the two without having too loud a presence, and its vague, citrus sweetness and acidity lend a little depth to the cider. The rye whiskey is the backbone of the drink, but don’t be too heavy with it. Heat makes alcoholic drinks taste more strongly of alcohol, and the cider should be bracing, not abrasive.

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Bracing, not abrasive.

Sometimes an apple cider drink is meant to showcase the apple. Other times, cider makes up the body of the drink to contrast and highlight other flavors, a bit like reverse drawing, or erasing a portrait into a canvas of charcoal.

In many ways, we intend for Alaska to be the canvas on which we draw the scenes of our next adventures. In case you haven’t figured it out, Connie and I both love the outdoors, and we love to discover new vistas. Alaska provides that in abundance, from the Pacific Ocean just beyond the Cook Inlet, to the Chugach Mountains that are a magnificent backdrop to most of Anchorage, to the wildlife and endless sunsets and nights. We are excited to see places that we haven’t, and to do things that we couldn’t do anywhere else. We are ready to make new friends, build on our shared experiences, and grow in our relationship. It seems like a lot of people that we talk to can’t imagine why anyone would ever go to Alaska, particularly in the dead of winter. I don’t think I can make you understand if you don’t already, but here’s my best try: We seek experience and adventure. What we will get by seeking those things will not be necessarily a better life, but it will be different. We choose the highs and lows, not the comfort and safety of familiarity.

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Mountains before and behind.

Bourbon Furnace

1.5 oz Cask-Strength Bourbon
.5 oz Allspice Liqueur
5 oz Hot Apple Cider

Combine ingredients in a toddy mug and stir. Garnish with a decorative apple slice.

As you can imagine, the cask-strength bourbon shines through this drink, in spite of the earthy spice of the liqueur and 5 full ounces of apple cider. I prefer Booker’s, because it can be found nearly everywhere. Considerations like that become more important when you travel.

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These Bourbon Furnaces kept us warm at a time when we had no other furnace.

So there you have it. A quick report on our lives and what the future holds, and a few tools in my arsenal to keep us, not just alive, but thriving, in Alaska.

Pilgrims

Connie and I are changing our name. Rather than one of us taking the other’s surname, we will both be changing our last name to “Pellegry.” It is an anglicization of a Catalan word meaning “Pilgrim.” We have a few different reasons for doing this, mainly too personal for a blog like this, so instead I’d like to talk about why we’ve chosen this particular name.

Dictionary.com defines the word “pilgrim” as “a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.” One of the first things we both looked at, when thinking of a new surname, was Henry David Thoreau’s excellent essay on walking, with his long discussion of the etymology of “sauntering.” He described a purposeful manner of walking, walking toward a goal, the “Saint-Terre,” or Holy Land, in the case of the “saunterer.” I think that resonated with both of us.

Many people have asked my wife and I how we changed from hiking the Appalachian Trail, and it’s been hard for me to explain to them what they’re asking. You can’t take a regular person, put them through an experience like that, and then measure for the result. People aren’t static characters in a novel. More importantly, many people resist change, and are extraordinarily resilient in their resistance. And the truth is that the Appalachian Trail might not change you at all.

All of that to say, Connie and I did not choose a name meaning “Pilgrim” simply because we were hiking the Appalachian Trail. It was a good experience for which we are very grateful. But life is long, and it would be very sad if that hike was the defining feature of our lives. Not to belittle others’ experiences, but the trail isn’t holy land. More to my point, I can’t imagine any walk so important to my experience in this world that I would name myself after it.

One of the first things I told Connie when we first started dating was that I wasn’t a good man. But I promised that I would try to always do better (in C. S. Lewis’ words, “better than I used to be; not as good as I will be”). I’ve long held the belief that complacency is worse than willful failure.

And that is touching on what we mean when we call ourselves Pilgrims. We are journeying, not toward a physical place, but towards a constantly-improving state of being. There is always an opportunity for better thoughts, better words and better deeds. And we intend to strive to be better, even if it’s only one small step at a time. I’ve heard it said that the only true way to fail as a parent is to stop wondering if you could be doing any better for your children. I believe that one of the worst ways you can live life is to stop wondering how to be a better person.

I don’t believe there is any holy land in this world. I don’t think pieces of earth have any special properties from one place to the next. Maybe my lack of faith comes from my technological generation, absorbed in our artificial places and disconnected from, as Pearl S. Buck would call it, the Good Earth. Maybe it comes from my heritage as a descendant of the white invaders of this continent. Maybe it comes from my Christian faith, which teaches that everything will ultimately be destroyed and recreated. I don’t care why, to be honest. I don’t see it as a problem and therefore don’t try to find a solution.

The word “holy” literally means “set apart,” usually in reference to God. It has an implication of being not of this world, not made from the same stuff or belonging to this human experience. Connie and I are Christians, which means we try to emulate our God, Jesus Christ. Since we are trying to be like something which is definitively different from the way we naturally are, I feel that journeying toward a holy land is an appropriate metaphor for our intended way of living. There is an implication that we will never arrive, since we will be pilgrims as long as we live. But there is also a promise that we will never stop moving forward. As Dan Haseltine has said, “Even though I barely move, there’s no turning back.”

And so here we are, declaring ourselves to be pilgrims. We may find a home in this world, maybe even soon, and become established. But our journey will only end when we arrive at death.

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I’m glad we have each other.

Ithaca

Hey everyone.

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Remember us?

I know that it’s been a while. If you only knew the trouble I’ve had writing this blog post…between a lack of time, a lack of cell service, a phone update that made me unable to write on my only writing tool, two false starts, and a nearly-finished post that was somehow deleted…well, it’s been a challenge. I apologize. Please bear with me as I write this; I usually prefer to talk about events when they’re fresh in my mind, and the events I need to record here get less fresh every day.

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If you look closely, you can see that I am rapidly becoming an extremely old man.

Connie and I flipped in Massachusetts. At Jerusalem Road, in Tyringham, Connie’s mother, sister, and our new nephew came to pick us up and drove us to Maine. On September 11, we climbed up Katahdin, touched the iconic sign, and continued our now-southward journey. Katahdin was our first true experience in the alpine zone above treeline, and it left a deep impression on both of us. We were not at all prepared for the weather and conditions we encountered there, and it taught us some fundamental lessons about, as one teacher of ours would charactize it, “unreasonable fear versus reasonable fear.”

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From Katahdin we continued South through Maine. Maine finally replaced Tennessee as Connie’s favorite state of the trail, with magnificent views almost the entire length of our time there. Maine was also, for us, by far the hardest state of the trail to traverse. We had reached a level of conditioning where pure physical exertion never bothered us. But the terrain in the North is much more akin to an obstacle course many times, and in particular the smooth, slanted rock faces that you have to climb up and down constantly in Maine were the biggest delay for us. It was on one of those faces that Connie slipped and sprained her ankle, just before Rangely, Maine, and it was the constant pressure of standing on the slants that made her develop new blisters on her arches that worsened every day until she was hiking on bleeding feet.

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The beer helped, at least.

It seemed like Maine didn’t want us to leave. While we never again encountered anything as difficult as Katahdin, the terrain seemed to just get harder and harder as we got toward the South, and we were delayed much more than we had hoped. But eventually we came to the border of New Hampshire. Suddenly the trail was easier, and we were hopeful that it wouldn’t be much longer till we were done. The final major obstacle was a hundred-mile section from Gorham, NH, to Glencliff, NH. In that section lay the White Mountains, with notoriously bad weather and a few tricky sections.

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Pictured: A “tricky” section.

We arranged with a hostel in Gorham to drop us off at Pinkham Notch, in order to hike North back to Gorham and not have to carry 8 days of food from Gorham to Glencliff. We hammered out that section pretty easily, in sharp contrast to just a few days earlier, when it took us 10 hours to finish a 6-mile day (the Mahoosuc area). This was very encouraging. But the weather on the Presidentials was turning.

Mount Washington, highest of the Presidentials, has a weather observatory on its peak. It is famous for its terrible weather, called the worst in the world. Until very recently, it held the record for the highest windspeed ever recorded, at more than 230 miles per hour. Winds higher than 100 mph are common, and on neighboring Mount Madison, the wind only rarely drops below 40 mph. Because of how quickly the weather can change in an alpine zone, our hope was to pass through the 13 miles above treeline in a single day, from Osgood Tentsite to Mizpah Shelter. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the hostel where we stayed, we were able to wait for a day of good weather. It took almost a week to find a day with winds under 100 mph, but by then it was too late.

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We didn’t encounter this sign until on our way down.

Starting out at Pinkham Notch the day before our supposed good weather, it was ominous to see snow at only 2,000 feet. We made it to Osgood and settled into the snow for the night, still 4,000 feet below our goal.

The next day started off with the predicted good weather. We had sun and mild breezes until we got on Madison. The sun remained, but it couldn’t fend off the cold. Apparently it’s extremely rare for the wind to abate on Madison along the ridgeline, even for a moment, and that day had a reported -16 degree windchill. I’ve lived in Michigan for many years and dealt with windchills much lower than that, but never had I experienced a wind like that: just a constant pressure of cold, hammering into the right side of my face so firmly and evenly, without a single pause. It was as though acid were quickly eating through the skin and settling deep into the bones of my face. The wind made your eyes tear up constantly, then instantly froze the tears.

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It instantly froze the snot, too.

The heavy, frozen snow made our progress up Madison very slow and full of slips and falls. This was especially tough for me, since 2 days earlier I had broken 2 ribs in a fall at the hostel. We reached Madison Hut, 3 miles from our start that morning, at 12:30 PM, and I knew our attempt was finished. The day before, while trudging through the snow at Pinkham Notch, Connie had looked around a moment, then asked me if we were being idiots. “We may not succeed,” I replied. “But I promise that we’re not going to die up there.” We both recognized at Madison Hut that the conditions required different gear than we had, if we wanted to survive. We admitted defeat, took a side trail straight down off the ridgeline, and hitched a ride back to Gorham.

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Just looking at this photo makes me shiver.

We decided that the weather was not likely to take any major turns for the better, and so we skipped the 68 miles of trail between Pinkham Notch and Glencliff. We did this with the open and honest understanding that we were forfeiting the title of “through-hiker.” I still believe from the experience of climbing Madison that terrain-wise, it was relatively easy after Maine, and that with weather-appropriate gear we wouldn’t have a problem. But to completely overhaul our gear–a four-season tent, a warmer sleeping bag, boots for Connie, coats for both of us, appropriate gloves, balaclavas, crampons for both of us–would easily cost us in the thousands, and we decided together not to sacrifice the future plans we had after the trail in order to make up for starting the trail late.

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We did attempt to continue on from Glencliff after that. We had the hope that the snow and cold would be less severe at the lower elevations after the Whites. On the first day, we were soaked in a rain that froze that night. We were anxious at seeing snow still at 2,000 feet. And finally, I lost the impetus to continue suffering through the final 240 miles back to Massachusetts. I could have endured much more, I think, if it were in order to succeed. But after skipping the Whites, I couldn’t justify the misery anymore, not if it still resulted in not finishing. On the third morning after Glencliff, Connie and I had a talk about this, and eventually agreed to end our hike for the year. We hiked to Lyme-Dorchester Road in Lyme, New Hampshire, called a shuttle, and stayed at an inn that night. The next day we rented a car and came back to Michigan.

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Obviously, we returned home with the panache befitting a Pirate and Wildflower.

We walked 1,890 miles of the Appalachian Trail this year, leaving 299 miles left to walk. As I have said elsewhere, we are undeniably disappointed that we didn’t complete the entire trail in one go. We started too late and hiked too slow. But I am extremely grateful to have spent the last six months in a way that few can. I have been humbled by the extraordinary beauty and vastness of the world that I have seen during our hike, and I am incredibly privileged to have spent that time in such close proximity with the woman I love. I have been left with many thoughts after this hike, and I think I will try to organize some of them into some future posts. But for now, all I want to say is that Connie and I are thankful to all of you for your support, for the prayers on our behalf, and the constant encouragement.

It may take us a while, but we will finish the trail. For now, though, we turn our attention to the next adventure.

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Even the cold just made her more beautiful.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

-Ulysses (excerpt), Alfred Lord Tennyson

Our Appalachian Soundtrack

I bet some of you are wondering, “If Connie and Jacob’s through-hike of the Appalachian Trail were a movie, what songs would be in its soundtrack?”

No?

No one wonders that?

Well, we do, so we’ve taken the time to think up some songs. I doubt anyone besides my sister-in-law will actually listen to them all, but that’s okay. We’re being selfish in this post. Connie and I have both really enjoyed spending time picking out songs together while we walk, so honestly it’s been more of an exercise for us, to combat boredom.

If you are at all interested in giving any of these songs a listen, let me first assure you that a LOT of thought went into every single choice. The tone is important, the lyrics are all important (and free of vulgarity); no detail of any song was overlooked. I’ll put in explanations for each as well, and pictures and such.

*Songs with an asterisk are still free of explicit lyrics, but may be louder or more “hard rock” than some people prefer to enjoy. I still highly recommend that you give them a listen anyway.

1. Jacob the Wet Blanket (“Nude” by Radiohead)

My wife is an optimist. Most mornings, I wake up, and she’s been up for an hour already, looking through the guide book, and trying to figure out how to convince me that this day is the day that we finally pull our first 30-miler.

Now, most people who know me don’t think of me as a morning person. So generally, my response to Connie’s grand designs goes a little bit like—

“Don’t get any/ Big ideas…”

2. Bipolar (“Skyrim: Song of the Dragonborn” by Jeremy Soule/”Sad Clown” by Jars of Clay)

This one has two alternate tracks. These songs illustrate the way we feel when we leave our tent in the morning. Basically, when the weather is nice, we step outside our tent and feel ready to climb mountains, fight dragons and Fus Ro Dah black bears into the stratosphere.

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Pictured: Connie pushing two mountains apart so she could pass through.

But if we have to leave the tent in the rain? Basically there is nothing worse in this world that I have ever experienced. Mornings like that make me wonder if heroin really is the answer after all.

3. The Deadline (“Hysteria” by Muse)*

This one might be hard to understand even for fellow through-hikers. But here’s the deal: Connie and I are currently jobless, homeless, and newly-married. We do not know where we will live after we finish hiking the trail; we don’t even know what state. Many people seem to think of hiking the AT as a vacation from the boring routines of everyday life. We, on the other hand, have no solid idea of what life will be like when we finish, and that’s REALLY exciting. Imagine you have nothing better to do all day than plan out your dream home, your future career, the names of your future Saint Bernards. Then spend four months doing that, all the time. We do enjoy the hike and the present experience. But the future?

We want it now!

4. 3 MPH (“Mombasa” by Hans Zimmer)

3 mph is deceptive to non-backpackers. Runners think 6 mph is jogging speed, bikers laugh at a twenty-minute mile and most cars can’t detect such a low speed. I got the hiking merit badge in Boy Scouts, and on my required twenty-mile hike, 3 mph was my baseline. It was embarrassing to go under that.

But that was without a pack. That was on even ground. That was a single-day effort. Toss on a 30-pound pack, get out in 90+ degree heat, clamber up and down boulders and mountains, and maintain a 3-mph pace the whole time. I promise, it’ll feel like you’re flying.

Or it’ll be easy and I’ll look like a loudmouth weakling. One of the two. Either way, this song illustrates how we feel when we’re cruising along at 3 miles per hour.

5. Gettin’ Sweaty (“Gasoline” by The Dead Weather)*

There’s no polite way to say this. My wife and I stink. The smell of my socks at the end of a day could probably actually kill an oenophile. When my wife and I get a rare night in a hotel room, after breakfast, we both gag the minute we return to our room and smell our sundry clothing and backpacks. What I’m trying to say is, we sweat a lot.

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Steve was actually crying in this photo because of how bad his daughter smells.

This has the effect of making us pariahs, to a certain extent, when we are in Civilization. We know we smell bad, when we’re sitting in fancy New England cafés and Holiday Inns. So it’s bred a certain affinity in me with the sweat. We have embraced our “status” as people who see sights others don’t, and hike miles others won’t, and consequently we consider the sweating to merely be the worthwhile price we pay for entrance to our own society. We work hard, together, and neither of us cools our engines for the other.

6. The Ascent (“One Final Effort” by Martin O’Donnell)

This song is all about the climb. Most of the time on the AT, if you’re not descending, you’re heading up. Not every climb leads to a peak, but on the other hand, it’s rare to see a peak that you don’t go right over. To illustrate this, have a look at this photo Connie took from a bridge near Palmerton, Pennsylvania. See the mountain? Guess where the trail leads.

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No joke, this was immediately after Connie asked me, “Who would do this for fun?”

Here’s another picture, about an hour and 2.7 miles later. See that bridge, 2.7 miles away and 1,600 feet below? If you look really close (and go back in time one hour), you can just make out two poor luckless fools who were hoping the uphill was over for the day.

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Shirley Manson would say, “It’s all over but the crying.”

But honestly? The uphill isn’t that bad anymore. Sure, there was a conditioning period in the beginning where we gasped and slowed to a crawl and cursed every uphill. Now we barely slow down, and we anticipate the really good views some peaks have to offer. It’s still hard work, and we always pant and drip with sweat, but it feels good and purposeful and accomplishful. Turns out there’s a really good song that gets what I’m struggling to say, so you may as well give it a listen.

7. The Descent (“Take It All Away” by Red)

The descents break us. This is another thing that non-hikers can know in their heads but never truly understand. The downhill parts of the trail are the hardest, physically. One long downhill can completely derail our plans for a day. The toll that it takes on our knees and feet is devastating. Words don’t really encapsulate how I feel about descending terrain, so I’m going to let the song speak for me. Pay special attention to that relentless drum, and imagine that instead of hearing it in your ears, it’s emanating from your knees. You begin with the whispered pleas to the trail for the downhill to stop, but it won’t and doesn’t, it just keeps going, and your legs start shaking, and the pain in your joints builds, and the balls of your feet can’t keep taking the impacts, and—

(Connie’s Note: Jacob is curled up in a ball, rocking back and forth and whimpering.)

8. Filthy Casuals (“We Are Not Your Kind of People” by Garbage)

All right, so in this section, I’m in danger of, as Connie calls it, “gettin’ all ranty.” I’m going to do my best to remain civil, but look, I’m only human.

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The secret’s out.

There’s a very specific sort of person that you encounter occasionally on the trail; often this person has not themself hiked the trail, but has a relative or friend who has. For whatever reason, these people believe themselves to be trail gurus, and Connie and I, as aspiring through-hikers, are practically obligated to report our progress, receive their critique of our progress (always negative), and are highly encouraged to think about whatever issue they feel ought to be on our minds. Earlier today, a very concerned man assured me that we were in no way prepared for the White Mountains, that he had been blown off the peak of Mount Garfield by a 95-mph gust of wind, that we would never make it in time, and that we had better be very careful because the last six miles of Connecticut had absolutely no water, not a drop. I could have taken the time to explain that we had just fully hydrated and had a full 3 liters of water with us, that we were flip-flopping and so time constraints aren’t an issue, and that it was obvious he was just trying to alarm us about the Whites (sorta like when a woman is pregnant, and every mother in the city has to tell her horror stories about pregnancy), but why waste time? It was so apparent that he had no real desire to communicate, he just wanted to appear informed.

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One time at a supermarket, an elderly woman shuffled up to us, shouted “Check for ticks!” and then shuffled away before I was sure of what she said.

I think my absolute favorite must be when I have my headphones in, and a passing casual hiker ignores that and starts talking at me, because they are sure that I’m desperate to learn every last detail of the next three miles. Or when someone asks where we’re staying for the night, and we answer vaguely (because we don’t tell total strangers where we plan on sleeping), and so they begin telling us about all the campsites and shelters in the opposite direction of where we’re headed…halfway through the day. They think they are helping in the best cases, in the worst I’m certain it’s just people who crave that feeling of superiority that comes from knowing something someone else doesn’t.

Every time I meet one of these filthy casuals, I have this song running through my head for hours afterward.

9. Food Packaging (Cannot Withstand Us) (“Rules of Nature” by Jamie Christopherson)

Connie has a full-tang sheath knife with a 5″ blade that you could shave with…to open her packages of cheese. I have my bare hands.

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And this tiny spatula.

What I’m trying to say is that we’re complete savages when it comes to getting at our food. It’s frightening to watch. The frail wrappers don’t stand a chance.

10. Pumpkin Time (“Lozenge of Love” by Radiohead)

There comes a time, every day, when Connie decides that we’ll never make our goal and we might as well give up. It’s important to note that this happens whether or not we’re on pace or behind schedule, and it comes between 6 and 7 at night like clockwork. I call this “pumpkin time.” Much like Cinderella’s carriage, for whatever reason, Connie’s gumption ceases to function at this magical hour. Luckily, Connie has me, to keep us moving at this crucial junction (in the same way, we would never even leave the tent in the morning if I didn’t have Connie). And luckily for me, Radiohead wrote a song that perfectly illustrates what Connie sounds like when the day is winding down, her gumption is slipping away, and pumpkin time is upon us.

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There are a few antidotes to pumpkin time, like sharing milkshakes along the Hudson River.

Our Daily Adventures

Hey! So the most recent blog post was kind of a bummer, and I thought it might be nice to lighten things up and talk a little bit about our crazy life right now. Ever wondered if birds of prey are a problem for us? Or wanted to know what our secret to weight loss is? Well, wonder no longer. I’ve put together a quick post to help you get to know our daily schedule, and some of the routines and realities of life on the Appalachian Trail.

 

Beginning Bothers

Our days start around 6:00 AM when my first alarm goes off. I have another alarm that goes off at  6:30 as well, but I always let that one go off too, because Connie and I are honest with ourselves these days, and we know that a few minutes of wakefulness don’t always guarantee a successful launch from our campsite.

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Honestly, describing anything we do as a “launch” is probably exaggeration at best.

Basically, all of my least favorite parts of an average day happen in the first half hour. Perhaps it’s merciful that I experience these dark moments in a haze of sleepiness, but I dread them all the same. The first and worst is putting on my pants. The revulsion I have for this process cannot be overstated.

This is not an exaggeration. My pants have been washed a grand total of three times since beginning this hike. That means that on average, they’ve been worn for almost a month between washes, a month of strenuous, daily exercise. When I take them into my hands in the morning, I’m always struck by the thought that they feel similar to playdough. One time recently, we were hiking near Mount Vernon, and got caught in a sudden and torrential downpour. I noticed after it subsided that I had a sort of whitish paste streaking my pants. Connie thought that it might have been pollen getting pulled down by the rain, but upon close inspection, we realized that it had to be sediment left behind by my sweat evaporating. It was so thick that I could scoop up a decent amount of the sludge in my hands and smear it on tree trunks as we walked by.

All of this to say: My pants are truly vile. Putting them on every morning is a psychological ordeal. Connie can attest that sometimes the process takes several minutes, with many disgusted looks and groans and pauses at the ankles, knees and hips.

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My wife has her own ways of dealing with sweatiness.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, my shirt is always just as sweaty as my pants. But I don’t have to put it on before leaving the tent, and once outside, my shirt becomes my refuge from cold, rain, or mosquitoes, and so the psychological trauma is lessened.

The second torture I face every day is something that affects Connie as well, and seemingly every other hiker we’ve seen in the mornings. Stiff feet. It’s hard for me to explain to someone who hasn’t felt it, because it’s always expected now, but always surprising in its intensity. It also carries the paranoid fear that now you’ve really done it, the hike is over, your feet are ruined. And it hurts, in case you missed that part.

Inevitably I am forced to endure it in the morning when I have to go out of the tent to pee. Slipping on my socks and shoes gives no hint that anything is wrong. But the first step feels like I spent the previous day playing hopscotch on a vast pile of Legos, barefoot. It rarely lasts much more than twenty steps or so, but every time, it makes me wonder, for just a second, if I can stomach another day of getting my feet tenderized. Connie and I instantly recognize other hikers in towns when we see them hobbling around like they’re walking on coals. As I said, it usually lasts just as many steps as it takes to stretch out the arches that have stiffened over the night, but it’s a painful process that I dread every morning.

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Human heels aren’t supposed to look like this.

 

 

Hydration Headaches

A lot of people have asked me what we do for water, so I suppose I’ll take a moment here and talk a little bit about how we go about obtaining water.

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We don’t. I only drink rum.

We’re pretty comfortable going up to 10 miles between water refills, provided that we start that distance fully hydrated and with full water containers. For most of the hike, we carried 3 quarts of water at maximum, but for a section from Pennsylvania through New Jersey, we carried a full gallon at all times, due to the scarcity of water sources along the trail. For the same reason, we’ve both gotten pretty good at gulping down water quickly. There was a time, going through Pennsylvania, when it wasn’t uncommon for me to drink a half-gallon of water in a single go at a water refill.

The amount that we both sweat on the hot days is just unbelievable. Annoyingly, our bodies have adapted to the need to cool down quickly, and so we both start sweating profusely these days at the slightest hint of exertion; I can only assume that we’ve trained our bodies to expect a lot more heat at the first sign of any. It’s handy on the trail, but not so much when climbing down the stairs at a hotel makes you soak through your freshly-laundered clothes.

 

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I got this sweaty just from carrying the plates to the table.

 

As for actually getting the water, well, we pump it through a filter. The AT is just lousy with streams and springs, so until recently, it was actually pretty unusual to go more than 4 miles without any kind of water source. And we have access to two excellent guidebooks that list water sources along the trail, how long until the next one, what sort of source to look for, and whether or not we need to treat the water. Lots of methods exist to make water potable, but Connie is a nurse, so we use what would probably be considered the most stringent. We have a Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter that we use to pump water out of whatever source we find and into our clean bottles. On top of that, we’re fairly picky about what sources we’ll draw from, though we don’t always have the luxury of choosing (especially lately). We have once had to resort to pumping water out of a ditch next to a road, replete with floating trash, and we just hoped that it wouldn’t give us dystentery. Thankfully, it didn’t, so we get to carry on trekking up the Oregon—er, Appalachian Trail.

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“Oh no! A falcon took yer kids!”

 

Digestion Dilemmas

We generally plan to have our lunch around 11 AM. The actual time varies based on whether or not we started the morning with water available, whether or not we got an early start, and especially whether or not we can find a nice, comfy log or rock to sit on together. Our current lunch is one jar of Nutella, that we share together with a spoon, and about 500 calories each of carbohydrates. For us so far on this hike that means bagels, crackers or cookies. Sometimes we’ll toss in some raisins or a beef stick for some variety, but the Nutella is the crucial calorie anchor. At 2,000 calories of sugar and palm oil, it’s the element of our meal that keeps us full for hours and allows us to power on till dinner.

Dinner is usually around 5 PM. Again, it’s subject to basically all the same variances as lunch. Currently for dinner, we eat about 1,800 calories of Peanut M&Ms, and little else. That has all the protein of a comparable serving of peanuts, and even more calories, which are the biggest concern while we’re hiking.

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In case you’re not jealous yet, you should know that we’ve both lost about 10 pounds on this ‘diet.’

Other than our two mealtimes, the only real reason that we’ll stop during the day is to refill water. So we fall into a nice rhythm of taking breaks every two hours or so, and in that way the day passes pretty pleasantly. Typically, I enjoy listening to podcasts or music earlier in the day, and then later on Connie and I pass the time by discussing what I listened to, or whatever is on our minds. When we were just planning the hike, I was often concerned that boredom would be a big struggle on the trail, but that hasn’t been the case. Generally, there are so many different logistical things to think about all throughout every day, that having time to think about other things at all isn’t easy. We’re constantly preoccupied with thoughts like, “How did the previous section of trail affect our pace, and by extension the likelihood of making our goal?”; “Will the water at the next shelter be dried up?”, or “Does that rock over there look shady enough and large enough for us both to sit for lunch?”

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“Are you sure this boulder won’t crush me?”

 

Evening 

So the end of the day comes around, and our thoughts turn toward finding a campsite for the night. We have never stayed in a shelter while hiking on the trail, and at this point, I am certain that we never will. Connie is terrified of mice, and they are basically considered a given at every shelter. For every hiker who is responsible and packs out everything they carry into the wilderness, there are at least a dozen who behave like children and consider the trail to be a magical place where they can throw trash on the ground and never worry about it again. Obviously this means that the shelters along the AT are well-known to all the vermin in the area as a plentiful supply of human food scraps (and sometimes to the bears, too).

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Thought I was kidding about the childishness?

And so Connie and I usually find a spot somewhere else for our tent. The vermin problem is so bad at the shelters that we usually don’t even like to set up our tent near one, but in some states, no camping is allowed except at approved sites, so we’ve done it plenty. Our preferred spots are far from other people, away from streams, and in high places. There are good reasons for each of those criteria, and believe me when I say that we’ve learned all of the reasons the hard way. Whether waking up to a tent that’s become an impromptu waterbed, staying up all night courtesy of a fellow-hiker’s music, or being awoken by deer loudly coughing as they come for a drink, the trail has been nothing if not educative.

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I don’t always want to learn what it has to teach.

And once we’re in the tent, that’s our “free time” for the day. That’s when I try to put some work in on this blog. Connie likes to use the time to talk to her family or play Angry Birds. That’s exactly what time it is right now as I write this, and it’s nice. You really learn to appreciate the places where you lay your head when they come at the end of a very long walk.

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Or sometimes halfway through a long walk.

And there you have it. That’s our life at present. It’s hard, and it has a lot of unexpected privations, but we’ve come to peace with it.

In closing, let me leave you with a story. Not long ago, while refilling our water from a stream halfway down a steep, rocky descent, we met a man who was hiking the opposite direction, who told us he lived at the bottom of the mountain. The heat index that day was over 100 degrees. As he passed by, my wife turned to me and said, “What kind of crazy person does this for fun?”

And on we walk.

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The woods are lovely, dark and deep,/ But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.

We Swing Both Ways?!

Connie and I have decided to flip-flop.

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And that’s the end of the blog post, folks!

…Whew, this is going to be a tough post to write. I need to make sure everyone knows what a “flip-flop” is, the pros and cons of doing one, and why we’ve decided to do it, which will also touch on some of the reasons we’re doing this hike in the first place. I usually try to be informative and interesting, and I may need to sacrifice one of those facets of my writing in service to the other, but I’ll do my best, I promise.

 

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Connie is ready.

Hikers develop a sort of vernacular borne out of the fact that most of what we think and talk about are trail-related subjects. After a certain amount of immersion in this culture, I have to remind myself to define the slang to ordinary people who don’t instantly grasp terms like “yellow-blazing,” or “Nobo,” and similar pieces of through-hiker parlance. So let’s start with the basics.

The Appalachian Trail stretches from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. It’s my understanding that the majority of through-hikers begin at Springer and go North toward Katahdin, but there is no set beginning or end. The Northward trek is more popular for a number of reasons, but they mostly have to do with weather and difficulty of terrain. Basically, starting in the North and heading South means that you have very little time to get in hiking shape before tackling the White Mountains of New Hampshire, generally regarded as the most difficult part of the trail. It also means that you must start later in the year, since Baxter State Park (where Katahdin is located) doesn’t open until the end of May, and most Southbounders start closer to July.

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In fairness to Southbounders, July is my birth month, so it’s hard to go wrong there.

Many people travel from Springer to Katahdin, and likewise, many people travel from Katahdin to Springer. Then there are those who get even more creative. Some people start from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (about halfway), head from there to either of the termini, then drive to the other terminus and proceed back to Harper’s Ferry (called a “Wraparound”). Others start at one end, hike to Harper’s Ferry, then “flip” up to the other end and hike the opposite direction back to the ATC. This is called a “Flip-Flop.”

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And this is called “fun.” We hikers are a funny lot.

 

 

 

 

All of this to say, many people have found many different ways to walk along the Appalachian Trail. The ATC considers every method of through-hiking the trail legitimate, in large part because they rely on testimonial evidence to determine who has hiked it (and honestly, the benefits of hiking the trail are fundamentally tied to the experience itself; most people have very little to gain in comparison from just claiming to have finished the trail). Actually, the ATC doesn’t just consider each method legitimate, they encourage a variety of different hiking routes, since that will ultimately cut down on the sizes of various groups of hikers along the trail, and lessens the impact that we have on the wilderness.

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In an actually serious picture, this is what happens when “trail magic” goes wrong, and the trail suffers.

Connie and I began our hike with the intention of beginning at Springer Mountain and hiking North to Mount Katahdin, in a continuous Northward journey. There were a number of reasons we wanted to do this.

The Northern part of the trail is reputed to be hard, in every sense of the word. There is a high chance of injury in some of the rougher parts of the Whites. A slower pace is necessary, even after 3 months of conditioning. The North is also reputed to be beautiful. Many of the accounts given by people who have finished single-segment Northbound hikes talk about the incredible climax of seeing Katahdin days before reaching it, then finally arriving and climbing to the top to see the famous sign that has featured in so many emotional photos.

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This is a totally unrelated sign, but it was emotional for us nonetheless.

We wanted to give ourselves the best chance at succeeding in this endeavor. We also wanted the best experience we could glean. To us, starting from Georgia and heading North to the harder and more rewarding sections seemed like the obvious choice.

Unfortunately, due to a situation Connie had with her job, we started our hike on May 2nd. That is unusually late in the Spring for a Northbound through-hike. Baxter State Park, in which falls the final 14.4 miles of the AT, closes on October 15, or the first major snowfall of the Fall, whichever comes first. Starting out, Connie and I had a pacing guide that was very useful, which guided us through the initial mountainous regions in the South, our slow conditioning phase, the flatter and faster portions in the mid-Atlantic, and finally lets us slow down in the North. The only flaw with our plan? We started one day late, and had less than no room for error. The guide is accurate, maybe a little too accurate to our abilities.

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Oh sure, pacing guide, like we’re going to make good time on THIS section.

As I write this, we are 110 days into our hike. 46 days ago, we lost two more days on top of the day behind with which we started. For every one of those 46 days, we have tried and failed to make up enough extra distance to balance out the progress. And the most frustrating part is that 2 of the 3 days we’re behind came from circumstances totally out of our control. And realizing that caused us to understand the reality that in these next 800 miles, we are likely to come up against another situation that costs us time, whether injury, bad weather, or just the logistics of getting transportation in and out of tiny towns for resupply.

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Luckily, if we get in trouble, we have all these different numbers we can call, depending on the emergency!

The probability that we would fail to reach Katahdin before October 15 is probably the most compelling reason why we’ve decided to flip-flop (especially since our schedule didn’t even account for the possibility of an early snow). But the decision to abandon our goal of through-hiking in one segment was hard for another, more powerful reason: Pride.

The truth is that I’ve never once doubted that Connie and I could finish this journey. Sure, injuries happen and bad luck is a thing, but as far as quitting goes, well, I’d much sooner break both my legs on purpose than admit to my wife that I wanted to quit. I’ve heard it said that stubbornness and masochism are extremely common traits in successful through-hikers, and I don’t doubt it for a second.

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I am basically a hiking machine.

But somewhere along the way, I narrowed my definition of “success” from “hike the entire Appalachian Trail in a single year” (which is the ATC’s definition of a through-hike), to “hike the entire AT from Springer to Katahdin by October 15.” A large part of that narrowing was caused by other people, I’m sorry to say.

For one thing, all AT hikers are certain that their way is best, to the smallest detail. Even people who should know better will say casual things like “if your pack weight is above ‘X’ number of pounds, you’ll never make it,” and other absurd opinions, presented as fact. And worse, people who have never hiked the trail, but only know of it casually, seem to be the most eager to pass judgment on every decision we’ve made from the first day. Sometimes it’s easy to shake off, but often it’s extremely frustrating. I can recall a specific example of a lady who was helping her parents run a hostel near the trail. She didn’t know much about the trail itself, but felt the need to let us know that we probably wouldn’t finish in time, since most Northbounders had already come through. I don’t want to get too much into ranting, but when a person has a dream that will take months of work to accomplish, perhaps the best thing to do is not flippantly mention that you doubt they’ll succeed, especially when you don’t actually care one way or the other about their success, and your opinion wasn’t sought in the first place.

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I would rather squeeze through this a hundred more times than hear one more person say, “You know, I’ve heard that some people flip-flop,” as though it isn’t the only thing we think about every day.

In any case, to some degree we’ve tied our success in finishing the trail in a single Northward hike, to our overall success, and it has taken a major toll on us. We haven’t taken a single day off in almost two months. We have skipped some scenic sections and local attractions that are typically a part of the trail experience. We have been in danger of reducing the Appalachian Trail through-hike to nothing more than an ordeal to be endured and accomplished, instead of an experience to be lived and enjoyed.

Perhaps the strongest reason I have found for flip-flopping is that it takes pressure off our relationship. We’ve realized that we’ve fallen into the mindset of prioritizing our goal, our ambition, above our marriage. If this were a career, or a hobby, or working toward some material possession, it would be a clichéd movie about rediscovering the importance of family. This hike is no different—a life goal, a dream…but nowhere near as important as my relationship with my wife. And I refuse to let it be a reason for the straining of that relationship, anymore than I would a job or other goal.

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We’ll leave the speed records to other people. We’re having more fun anyway.

Anyway, I hope that somewhere in all my rambling you were able to understand the important bits. We do not think that we will be able to reach Katahdin in time to avoid the deadline of the park closure. In order to keep that from preventing us from finishing our hike, we will be driving up to Maine in early September, climbing Katahdin, and then hiking South from there until we reach the point at which we flipped (likely Vermont).

This does not make the hike easier. It also doesn’t remove all time constraints. Winter is coming. We have to hurry if we want to avoid the onset of cold and snowy conditions. But it will give us the ability to finish, and the freedom to avoid injury or dangerous weather.

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Still walking.

Virginia Is for Lovers (of Animals)

In the last 24 hours, I have stayed a night in a resort, had two glasses of Glenfiddich, listened to live music, and variously eaten a blackberry ice cream pie with meringue and blackberry compote, a blueberry danish, a piece of coffee cake, a basket of fries, a honeybun, two bagels, nearly an entire jar of Nutella, and a lot of hot coffee. So I’m in an exquisitely happy place right now. Let’s talk about animals (and Virginia)!

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It’s almost worth hiking the AT just to be able to eat an entire jar of Nutella in one sitting. Hurray for 2,000 calories in only 13 oz of weight!

It’s kind of crazy to say, but we have almost doubled our total miles since the last blog post. Virginia is the longest single-state portion of the Appalachian Trail, taking up almost a quarter of the distance at more than 500 miles. Apparently it has a reputation for being the place where the honeymoon phase of the trail wears off, the excitement dulls, and hikers enter what’s known as the “Virginia Blues.” Connie and I have avoided that malaise so far (and Virginia is nearly over now), I think because to us, Virginia has been so varied in terrain and scenery. We also think that it’s been substantially easier, in general, and it’s been nice to start easing into our first twenty-mile days. Our new minimum pace is 15 miles per day.

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So fun and easy, I haven’t broken a sweat in 400 miles!

Now before I go on, I feel compelled to mention the whole “Virginia Is Not Flat” thing, because I think it’s hilarious. Connie and I keep up with several different trail journals and blogs from other hikers on the trail, and at every mention of Virginia, it seems like everyone is tripping over themselves in their need to sagely warn others that “Virginia is NOT flat!” One person I’ve read actually exhorted me to punch someone in the face if they dare tell me that Virginia is flat, and another reader opined that perhaps the myth about Virginia’s flatness arose from more experienced hikers trying to haze the newbies. The part that I find so funny is that I have never, ever encountered anyone who actually does insist that Virginia is flat. I mean, we’re on the Appalachian Trail, which follows the Appalachian Mountains…I guess what I’m trying to say is that if your hike gets ruined because you were counting on the flatness of Virginia, then I’m not entirely sure how you’ve made it through Georgia, North Carolina, or Tennessee.

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“Flatter Than Disco’s EKG Readout!” “Flatter Than a Micron-Thick Pancake!” “Flatter Than a Plantar Worm!”

But anyway, no one reading this cares about the flatness or lack thereof. So let’s talk about animals. Instead of trying to break down day-by-day how Virginia has been, I think I’ll go animal-by-animal. So, much like Virginia itself, let’s start with…

 

Ponies!

So, Connie remains loyal to her beloved Tennessee mountains, especially Roan Mountain, but I’m not afraid to join the crowd and say that I loved the Grayson Highlands, in the beginning of Virginia. Lots of bare rocky outcroppings, a gorgeous sunset while we were there, rhododendrons in bloom, high winds, and wild ponies everywhere. Apparently  the ponies are somewhat regulated by the National Forest Service, which rounds them up every year, checks their health, and sells off a few if there are too many for the park to sustain. But for the most part, the ponies are completely wild, and many signs around warn that they will bite, kick, and eat sweaty clothing left out overnight. All those warnings are totally in vain, though, because the minute you see a proud little pony stallion standing on the trail, all you know anymore is that it’s adorable and probably wants you to braid its mane.

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Look at his widdle pot belly.

The ponies are everywhere in the Grayson Highlands. They graze away the thistles and keep the trail clear of overgrown plants, and in return they keep it…well-fertilized. Connie and I did our very best to follow the rules and keep the wild animals “wild,” but eventually reached a point at which a beautiful pony came right down the trail at us and we had absolutely no choice but to give it a little lovin’.

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Oh, I know what the ladies like.

So, Virginia started off with a bang with the ponies. That right there pretty much set the bar for all the other states so far. But Virginia wasn’t done. Even with mundane animals, they’re just better in this state, apparently. Like…

 

Deer!

Connie and I have been seeing deer ever since starting the trail; they’re nothing new. But even compared to the deer in the Smokies, we’ve never seen such tame, docile deer in all of our lives, particularly once we hit the Shenandoah National Park.  Pictures still tend to be difficult to get of the deer, but more than a few times now, we’ve gotten pictures of deer that we realistically could have tackled to the ground if we felt like being monstrous people.

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It’s hard to tell from this photo, but this deer was honestly no more than 10 feet away.

The craziest thing to me is how disdainful all the deer seem. They really seem annoyed at us for obligating them to “flee” from us, which usually leads to a single half-hearted jump a few feet away, and then they just give us a hard stare as we pass.

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Much like this.

One time near the Blue Ridge Parkway , we actually came across a young buck that was lying down in a hollow in the grass. He was a 4-point, and we at first thought that he might be injured, since he basically had no reaction to us. But then, after we’d stopped and stared for a while, he very slowly got to his feet (hooves?), itched behind one ear, and gave us such a disinterested look that we immediately moved on. He never moved a step while we watched, and I’m pretty certain that he just laid back down the second we were out of sight.

 

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Basically this.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that the deer in Virginia have all apparently decided to fake it till they make it as apex predators, and they do pretty good about strutting their stuff and not fearing anything.

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“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of deer, my friend: Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. Non-Virginia deer dig.”

 

Turtles!

So, I really only bring up the turtles because it’s actually kind of marvelous to climb up a mountain and find, at the top, a little slow turtle. And therefore Connie and I have decided that these “mountain turtles” are our mascots. They move agonizingly slowly, they carry their homes on their backs, but they still, against all reason, make their way to the tops eventually.

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He is a symbol for all of us who don’t care about Ultra Light backpacking.

 

Snakes!

Connie is usually the photographer extraordinaire, so you’ll have to forgive us for the lack of photos of snakes, but take my word that the snakes are very prevalent here in Virginia. Connie would take photos, but typically it’s quite a while before she wakes up from fainting after seeing a snake, and the opportunity for picture-taking is past. Still, we have a few. We did see an impressively large rattlesnake, sunning itself after what was obviously a very big meal, but when I tried to step close enough to snap a picture, it’s tail started rattling pretty alarmingly, so just imagine it.

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Photo provided to assist with your imagining.

So that was exciting. But by far, the snakes that have Connie the most excited are the ones that are adept at climbing up tree trunks.

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“Beware! Beware! Beware! The bolt of Tash falls from above!”

Connie is pretty certain that their ultimate strategy is to climb up into the trees, stalk her through the woods, and then fling themselves onto her. Her reaction to a stick falling onto her from the arboreal vendace is pretty identical to a TSA agent discovering a 4-oz perfume atomizer in a carry-on bag. Luckily, most of the snakes we actually come upon just want a spot in the sun, and they have no problem slithering to the side while we pass.

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This guy just kept moving farther up the path…no one said snakes are brilliant.

 

Cows!

Not actually a lot to say here. There have been cows in various fields that we’ve passed through. They’re cute, usually shy, and their leavings make the trail a sort of obstacle course. Connie is also scared of them. I just wanted to toss them in here to make a point about being body-positive. They may not be adorable ponies, but…

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#StillBeautiful

Black Bears!

Up until Virginia, I was starting to get disappointed by how few bears we’d seen. Actually, saying “bears” in the plural wasn’t correct before Virginia.

No longer.

Connie and I will pass into West Virginia tomorrow, and unless we see another bear in the morning, our final count of bears in Virginia is 22 bears, 17 adults and 5 cubs. Virginia has been absolutely lousy with bears. At one point, while passing a fellow hiker in Shenandoah, we warned her that there was a black bear just about 30 feet off the trail a tenth of a mile behind us, and she smiled at me, said, “yeah, they’re everywhere here,” and put her earbuds back in. And these bears have been something like the deer; they simply don’t care about us in the slightest. We follow the correct procedure when encountering a bear: we yell, wave our arms, stick together, try to appear large and intimidating, and leave the area quickly. And pretty much we’re lucky if the bear will even raise its head up long enough to see where all the noise is coming from, before going back to eating beetles or mushrooms or whatever bears eat.

We still take bear encounters very seriously, and so we have very few photos, once again. Generally, the rule of thumb is that if you’re close enough that the bear changes from its usual behavior because of your presence, you’re too close. So we do have a few “spot the bear” pictures. Please don’t wear out your eyes.

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I call this one “Big Bear 2 Face.”

The only bears that consistently acknowledge our existence are the three mama bears that we’ve stumbled upon. And that is extremely unnerving. Even when the cubs are totally oblivious and a long ways away, the attention that the mama focuses on us is laser-like. It usually inspires some very fast walking on our part, in spite of the temptation to stop and adore the cute cubs. And a mama bear was the only one that we’ve actually seen stand up on her hind legs, which is probably the most I’ve ever truly feared for my life.

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I call this one “Bear Bum Cheeks.”

Connie and Jacob!

The final animals that I’ll talk about are my wife and I. We’ve hiked more than 1,000 miles together now, and we are still loving it. We are precisely on schedule for reaching Katahdin by October 15, we’re fully injury-free, and we have gotten very encouraged by the lack of disruptive hikers and easy terrain. Virginia may not be flat, but it’s by far the easiest portion of the trail thus far. We appreciate the love and support of everyone that’s been following along, and we hope that this animal-centric post will be fun to read through. Several other blog posts are in the works at the moment, as our life on this hike becomes more and more of a consistent routine. So hopefully those will be out soon. Big thanks to Warren Doyle for his totally selfless help and enormous hospitality in dropping his evening plans at our phone call, putting us up for a night at his folk school, and helping us find a replacement water filter cartridge when ours broke. Big thanks also to our cousin Tess for taking a weekend off and showing us how to really hike. We are considering putting your morning habits into effect and seeing if we can start the day before 10 AM. Results are uncertain. Everyone else, thanks for the support. Until next time, on we hike.

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Look at Virginia, pretending to have a difficult section. Isn’t it cute?

No Use Crying Over Spilt Tea

I’m back, writing again! Two blog posts in less than a month; you lot sure are lucky. Unfortunately, this freedom to write comes at a price that we have to pay, a loss of time and miles. But, since I’m sitting in a house, drinking hot jasmine tea and not hiking the trail, I figured I’d make the most of it and give everyone an update on how things are going. Actually, I was going to sleep in, but Connie is making me write this, and sitting next to me, folding toilet paper into squares, to make sure I follow through.

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A soothing cup of jasmine tea.

Anyway, as of this writing, we are just now beginning to emerge from somewhat of a slump in our progress. For various reasons, some outside our control, some not, we have struggled to get our daily miles in. But in the midst of some trying circumstances, we have been greatly encouraged by some excellent friends, so there is always something for which to be grateful.

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Excellent friends, and a very suspicious dog.

 

On June 2nd, a Thursday, Connie and I emerged from the woods after a steep three-mile descent into the roads surrounding Erwin, Tennessee. Connie assured me that she had arranged things for us to meet and be picked up by her good friend Caleb there, and for us to stay the night with him and his wife, Katie. Now Connie had failed to actually mention to Caleb when we would finally exit the woods that evening, instead assuring me all day that he got out of work around 6 (she also didn’t know where he works or what exactly he does), and so when he called at 3 PM and let us know that he’d arrived, we were still 3 miles away and had to hustle a bit to get there.

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“Let’s take a break,” she said. “We have plenty of time,” she said.

But once we did, it was a wonderful night. We each took showers (our third shower in a month of strenuous exercise), had our clothes washed, and ate a huge meal of spaghetti that Katie made. Later that evening we went to Cookout for some milkshakes, taught Caleb and Katie how to play euchre, and stayed up past midnight enjoying the company of friends.

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The girls were unlucky in cards. Must be because they’re so lucky in love.

The next day, after enjoying a nice cup of chai masala…

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…Katie dropped us off at Walmart to restock our groceries. After that, we were picked up by Connie’s former coworker Lynn Steelman (true to form, Connie accidentally sent her to the wrong Walmart at first), who took us to breakfast at Shoney’s and then dropped us off back at the trailhead in Erwin.

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Lynn is one of the few people who actually reads this blog, and we really appreciate her.

And then our week of trials began.

To start with, we didn’t get to start hiking that day until after 2 PM. Now, ordinarily, we allow for shorter mileage on the days when we resupply, but we had only made about 9 miles the day before when we reached Caleb, so it was a bit discouraging to only have time for a short hike. And then that short time was diminished further when Connie got the news that her sister had just had her first baby, and phone calls had to be made, of course. I have three nieces, but this was my first nephew, so it was good to hear from family about the birth. The time spent on the phone cost us, though, and we ended the day with just under 7 miles hiked. We promised each other that the next day would be better, and went to bed.

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But you can’t call it a bad day when it brought this guy into the world.

The next day, in spite of our intentions, we got off to a slow start in the morning. About an hour into the hike, we ran into a man called ‘Brother Tom,’ who apparently sets up a sort of rest station for hikers that pass through Indian Grave Gap. We’d seen so-called “Trail Magic” before, but usually in the form of coolers left along the trail, invariably full of trash and little else. Brother Tom certainly raised the bar, offering us our choice of sweet tea, coffee, water or lemonade, as well as homemade brownies, banana bread, apples and oranges. He told us that he was there, at that gap, every weekday from February until December, offering hikers a surprise snack and a chance to sit in his camp chairs under an umbrella. He kept an enormously fat Boxer next to him named “Moses,” and sat reading a book while waiting for hikers to come through.

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Trail Magic: It means that at any moment, a stranger could leap from behind one of these trees and thrust a Nutter Butter into your hands.

We very much enjoyed Brother Tom’s generosity, and stayed talking with him for a while, then started off again. Unfortunately, once again, it cost us time, and that night we had to cut our hike short before sunset to avoid sudden and heavy rain. So that day we only managed 9 miles (our minimum daily goal at the time was 10 miles). We promised each other again that we would do better the next day, and went to sleep.

The rain continued unabated all the next day. Now, there are some people, I’m sure, who are unaffected by the rain and proceed at their normal pace. We are not at all those people. We started slowly, in the hopes that the rain might slacken off for a bit and give us a chance to take down the tent without soaking the inside, but we waited in vain. Then we set off, trudging through the downpour in our rain coats, with enough uphill exertion to make us sweat so profusely that it soon felt like it was raining inside our coats as well as outside. During the portions when the rain let up for a bit, we marched through poorly-maintained sections of trail, with an abundance of long, wet grass which soaked our shoes and feet far more thoroughly than the rain ever could. It was a miserable day. It was also one of our first encounters with a particularly obnoxious Boy Scout troop, something that thereafter became a daily occurrence. We had seen a troop earlier, right after the Smokies, but they were polite and well-managed by the leadership. None of the other troops we have seen have been anything but loud and annoying, and the few times that we’ve had to camp by them have been stressful nights.

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An empty trail is a beautiful thing.

 

We arrived that evening at a shelter around 6:30 PM, and were glad to have a chance to eat dinner out of the rain for a bit. The shelter was full (by the 5 PM, all the shelters are full, even when we haven’t seen anyone all day), but everyone was very friendly. They were all surprised that we weren’t staying the night there, but we assured them confidently that we hoped to make another 3 miles in the remaining daylight, and set off.

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And we might have made 3 miles, if Connie would stop posing.

We got about a mile before the rain picked back up pretty fiercely, and we decided to just call it for the night and set up our wet tent and bear bag, and went to bed in the damp to the sound of rain. We had gone 11 miles that day, but were still disappointed, being so behind on mileage for the week. We really needed to pick up the slack the next few days in order to make it to our next meeting with friends, in Hampton, Tennessee. We told each other we’d do better the next day, and went to sleep.

The next day, we woke up sick.

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Preach, Iroh.

Connie complained of stomach troubles right away that morning, and I mentioned that I was feeling a bit nauseous as well. Undaunted, I ate almost a whole bag of Hostess Donettes anyway, while we planned out our hike for the day. About twenty minutes later, just after we finished taking down the tent, the  donettes made a reappearance in spite of my best efforts. The most disconcerting part of the whole thing was how completely unchanged the flavor of the donettes was, going down and coming up.

After that, we carried on, but made very slow progress. Connie was hesitant to eat or even drink very much, and at one point we laid out a tarp and rested for a while. The weather was fitfully sunny, until the evening finally turned clear and quite chilly. We were hoping to reach Roan Mountain that afternoon, and Connie even posted on Facebook saying we would be on the mountain that afternoon in case any of our friends in the area wanted to join us for a hike (Connie has lived in North-Eastern Tennessee for the last 7 years). Luckily, no one took us up on that offer, because we didn’t reach the Roan section until early evening that day, and when we came to the Cloudland Hotel site, with its beautiful and much-appreciated bathroom facilities, we decided to set up our tent early in a grove of trees less than a hundred yards away. We had traveled 6.2 miles that day.

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Maybe we could have made more time if I hadn’t pushed over that tree.

 

 

At this point, Connie and I were quite discouraged. It was starting to seem as though we couldn’t get out of our slump and have even one good day. It wasn’t working anymore to promise each other and ourselves that the next day would be better, when we didn’t believe it. It seemed like if we had the resolve, bad weather would sap it away, and when that subsided, sickness came to take away our strength. We really needed for things to turn around and stay good in order to make it to our friends when we had promised to meet them.

That night, a heavy mist rolled in and soaked everything around us, reminiscent of our time in the Smokies. It wasn’t a good association.

When I awoke in the morning, things didn’t seem particularly cheerful from inside the tent. It was quite cold, for one thing, which always slows down our morning routine. I was a bit late getting out of the tent first thing (I always get out first to retrieve the bear bag while Connie puts away our sleeping setup).

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This guy is supposed to take down the tent, but he sure takes his time about it.

To my surprise and delight, it was a beautiful day. It was extremely windy, with gusts reportedly as high as 40 mph, but the sunshine was more than enough to fight off the chill. Somehow, we had managed to camp our tent in a lone shady spot. I called out to Connie to hurry up and get out of the tent, because it was so nice, and she didn’t believe me.

Roan Mountain is the last time the Northbound Appalachian Trail climbs above 6,000 feet until Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Supposedly, for every 1,000 feet you gain in elevation, the climate will resemble that of environments 400 miles North. I don’t know how accurate that statement is (an old retired forest ranger told it to me), but Roan confirmed it with its sub-alpine forest, an ecosystem apparently only found in the Canadian forests and some mountaintops. Connie has visited the mountain several times, and considers it to be one of the most beautiful sections of the entire AT.

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We had a wonderful hike on Roan that day. It has many great views from its windy balds. After passing the main part of the mountain, we came across several smaller balds and Hump Mountain, which had probably the most picturesque climb of the day and one of the best views of the entire hike.

We hiked 14.4 miles that day, not our longest day, but more than double the day before, and exactly the encouragement that we desperately needed. I was really hoping that it was the start of a turnaround and not just a fluke, because I was beginning to get worried at how discouraged Connie had become.

We also hiked out of North Carolina that day for the last time at Doll Flats. Our second state down, and one of the longest.

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Complete with embarrassing photo.

The next day, it was quite hot, and we made slow but steady progress. We had lunch at the beautiful Jones Falls, then walked just far enough to get past where another loud and annoying Boy Scout troop was setting up camp, and quietly set up our tent near another tent we found, its occupants already asleep. We hiked 11.6 miles that day, enough to keep the positivity going.

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Two beautiful sights in one picture.

We got off to a slow start the next day, Thursday. Connie had been having some continuing stomach troubles; apparently she is just becoming less and less able to constantly eat the same foods, day after day. She choked down a single bagel, and we carried on from lunch, but she started to feel pretty bad, and eventually I suggested that she might feel better after a quick nap. So we set out the tent tarp and she slept for half an hour. She felt better after that, but we were beginning to feel discouraged again, since it was already afternoon and we’d only gone about 3 miles.

But Connie turned up the pace, and by sunset that night, we’d gone 14 miles total. Our only problem was that we were out of water and 2 miles away from the next source. So we put on headlamps and decided to just make a really good mileage day of it. We hiked until about 9:30, got water, and set up camp in the dark at Dennis Cove, 16.5 miles from where we’d started.

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Don’t strain your eyes, just trust me; it’s a long way.

And that put us only 9 miles away from the spot where our friend was picking us up on Friday. We got started decently early that morning, passed Laurel Falls (which is actually where I proposed to Connie in the Spring), climbed up and then down Pond Mountain, and came to Lake Watauga, where our ride was waiting for us. These friends have basically been Connie’s adoptive parents while she’s lived in the South, and it was a huge relief to be able to relax with them for a bit.

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They fed us so well and pampered us that somehow we ended up taking a zero day on Saturday with them, and not until Sunday morning did they finally return us to the trail. What heavy rain and sickness could not do, these friends did, convincing us to remain in place for a day and not hike. And we are very glad we did not waste that spare day wallowing in the damp or sickness, but instead got to enjoy excellent fellowship. Since then, we have been reenergized, and on we hike.

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“Life is like this waterfall. Eventually, we all flow down into the river below, but sometimes Connie and Jacob get stuck halfway because it’s wet and they’re sick.”

A Walk in the Park

So, on May 17, we entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail leads through the park for 68 miles before carrying on through the Eastern boundary. Connie and I have both been to the Smokies before, as part of a Youth Group camping trip, but this was obviously a bit different.

How to say it? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

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See what I mean?

 

In the Smokies, we encountered probably the best scenery yet of the trail, but also probably the worst weather. We set our current record for miles in a day, but also took our first zero day. We made some new friends, but struggled to get away from some people we didn’t particularly like. We both have very mixed feelings about the Smokies, I think.

On May 17, we arrived at the Fontana Dam around noon. We’d held off eating until then because the visitor center supposedly had a snack shop, and it was a perfect day for ice cream, hot and sunny. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the visitor center was open, but the snack shop was closed, because why would it not be, at noon on a Tuesday (the hours were 10am-5pm, clearly posted, but I guess they were more like guidelines). I’m still bitter. But one beautiful thing they did have was showers, and so Connie and I took our second and last showers of the month. We have no towels, but it didn’t take long to dry off in the sun.

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The back of the Fontana Dam. The water rises only about 50 feet below the top of the other side.

So, freshly clean, we ate lunch and set off across the dam. Naturally, Connie needed to stop for at least a hundred photos, but I’m pretty used to it by now. When we got off the dam, we followed a small gravel road up a ways, then turned sharply right and sharply uphill and voilà! We were in the Smokies.

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The hat hides the weariness in my eyes, thankfully. I don’t love selfies.

To hike in the Smokies, you need a backcountry pass, registering either as a camper or thru-hiker. If you’re a camper, you reserve spots in advance at all the shelters where you plan to stay, but if you’re a thru-hiker, you can stay at any of the shelters, with the caveat that if the shelter is full, the campers get to kick us out. And no camping is allowed except at shelters. That rule quickly became annoying.

Connie and I had our passes printed off at the outfitters store at Wesser three days before, because my wife is much more talented than I at having affairs in order. We deposited half the slips in the drop box at the entrance and stepped into the Smokies.

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Smoky indeed.

The entry trail was tough. At Fontana Dam, signs told visitors of all the activities in the area, but recommended against hiking except for experienced hikers. Shuckstack Mountain was steep, and it didn’t let up for about four miles. By the time we got over it, we were ready to take the first allowable campsite we found. That was a place called Camp 113, the only non-shelter approved campsite on the trail in the park. And there we met the Wolfpack.

Technically we met them about a mile before the camp. They were wandering up and down the trail, attempting to find black bears. Apparently sometime just before we arrived, they scared one out of some bushes next to the trail, and it ran off. I just caught a glimpse of its rump, as it ambled off pretty unconcernedly. Then we followed them into camp.

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Allow me to reiterate.

The Wolfpack, as they call themselves, is a group of young 20-somethings who are all travelling together. They can manage a very fast pace, it seems, but also appear to get slowed down by the comforts of towns, and we’ve kept even with them, much to Connie’s dismay. They are loud and a bit inconsiderate of “quiet time” (i.e., playing Pink Floyd long into the night). They are mostly harmless party kids, who like to sit around campfires and smoke weed. Ordinarily we couldn’t care less about the habits of other people on the trail, but the Smokies’ rule about everyone needing to camp at the same sites really forced us to constantly hang out with some folks we’d rather not.

At the same campsite, we ran into another group we’ve dubbed the Hobos, and they also have kept pace with us pretty evenly. They share the Wolfpack’s love for marijuana, but instead of being rich kid hippies, they all seem to be ex-military or authentic, long-bearded, train-riding hobos. I talked with one, hoping he’d share my enthusiasm for Tom Waits, considering he hops on trains all over America, but all he wanted to talk about was Pokemon, for whatever reason. Not joking.

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Classic hobo topic of conversation.

Anyway, with the Wolfpack and Hobos in tow, we made our way through the Smokies. I suppose we were technically in tow, or sandwiched between them. The Wolfpack has the bizarre power to stay up later than everyone else, then wake before everyone else, and is usually gone before we wake up (admittedly around 9 every morning). Then they finish hiking for the day by 3pm or so. The hobos, meanwhile, wake early enough, but don’t seem to start until noon at least, and several times didn’t stumble into the shelter until 9:30pm, after dark. I suppose we’re all hiking our own hikes, I just wish everyone would shut up after dark and let others sleep. I can’t believe that on the Appalachian Trail, I have been kept awake by a loud conversation about whether Butterfree is better than Beedrill.

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On the other hand, having people around means every photo of us doesn’t have to be a selfie, so there’s that.

We also met a pair of foreign girls who were hiking together, Snail and Caterpillar (Snail was ironically a good deal faster than her friend, but her friend was appropriately a very hungry caterpillar). We got along with them very well, probably because they gave us donuts and Oreos the first night we met them. Unfortunately, they only went as far as Hot Springs, NC, before real life called them back.

Because we were only allowed to camp at the shelters, planning each day became difficult in terms of progress. Right now, Connie and I have a 10-15 mile per day minimum/maximum. It’s a nice thing to have, to avoid hurting ourselves but also to avoid unacceptably short days, and it allows us to feel good about days that were good. That can be difficult to do when the looming deadline of October 15 seems close and the 1900 miles to go seem far. And for those who question if our pace is fast enough, let me assure you that people much more knowledgeable than us helped to set it. We will not be hiking the entire trail at the same speed; Shenandoah is nothing like the Smokies in terms of terrain. But during the Smokies, we still needed to hike ten miles each day to feel satisfied (if not thrilled), and the shelters seem placed perfectly apart to all be either too far apart, or too close together. Many times we had to choose between a 7 mile day and a 13 mile day. And on some of the hardest terrain we’ve encountered, it got very difficult to predict how the day would go even just a couple miles down the trail.

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There was no way to know I’d be climbing over this rock that day.

Because of the shelter constraint, we ended up hiking 17.2 miles on our second day in the Smokies, which was and remains our longest day so far by nearly three miles. Not only was it long, it was through a very difficult section of trail, so by the time we staggered into the shelter, it was dark and we were pooped. The next day, we hiked 13 miles, putting us 4 miles away from the access point to Gatlinburg, TN, and our weekly resupply.

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There were plants and birds, and rocks and things, there was sand, and hills, and rain (for the longest time, Connie thought this song was called “A Horse With No Legs”).

At Newfound Gap the next day, we found a ride very quickly and got into town. For those who have been to Gatlinburg, you know what it’s like. For those who haven’t, well, the entire town is basically an outdoor shopping mall. We were very saddened to see that the Shoney’s there had closed down, so instead we went to Five Guys for lunch. Apparently we blew the cashier’s mind when he warned us that a large fry was meant for several people, and then we each ordered one as well as burgers.

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Great. Now I’m hungry as I write this, and all I have is a Clif Bar.

We got our grocery shopping done and got a ride out of Gatlinburg, but not until 8:30 did we arrive back at Newfound Gap, due to a mix-up with the taxi company. We only made it a mile and a half before the oncoming heavy rain and darkness forced us to call it for the night, and we set up camp and tried our best to sponge the inside of the tent with my socks and shirt and settle in to sleep.

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It was like this, only cold and wet and sort of like everything hated us.

The day before, I’d noticed my right knee starting to hurt pretty badly towards the end of the day, just above the joint, like I’d pulled a muscle. Considering that we’d only walked about six miles on our resupply day in Gatlinburg, I was hopeful that it had been rested enough, but the next day, Saturday, was even worse. We ended up only hiking 9 miles before settling into Peck’s Corner for the night in the early evening, and by that time, every step hurt and I was limping pretty badly (it didn’t help that it rained all day, very cold). The downhill was indisputably the hardest. Connie and I talked it over, and decided to take a rest day on Sunday, May 22. It put some stress on our food, and Connie went a little insane from boredom, but with card games and some treats we got from Gatlinburg, we made it through a day in bed.

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I wanted Scotch, but nooooooo…

The next day, Connie wrapped up my knee with an ace bandage, and we set off on what would either be a five-mile day, or a thirteen-mile day, thanks to the shelter spacing. I felt pretty good all day, so we took a chance and made the thirteen-mile goal, and it was good to get right back on pace. The next day, I felt totally fine, and took the wrap off my knee around noon. I’ve had no problems with it since, for which I’m very grateful.

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This isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Er, wait…

The next day we hiked right out of the Smokies, crossing I-40 and only just seeing the very poorly-marked stair that led back to the trail on the other side. It was a relief to be out, honestly, and not to feel rushed from shelter to shelter. We made our week deadline for the Smokies, in spite of our zero day, and our food didn’t run out before we got to Hot Springs. It’s annoying that we had to lose some of the progress we’ve made on our schedule, but considering how my knee felt last Saturday and how it felt this Saturday, I’m confident we made the right decision.

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Of course the weather turned beautiful as soon as we were on the way out.

And to celebrate leaving the Smokies, we stopped at a hostel just .2 miles off the trail outside the park, and pigged out on donuts, nutty bars, snickers, and a pizza each. It was a wonderful place.

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This is more beautiful to me than all the scenery in the Smokies.

So overall, I suppose I have a negative outlook on the Smokies, as a through-hiker. They were beautiful certainly, with lots of scenic balds and the iconic omnipresent mist. We saw the most wildlife of our trip, from the black bear to a few deer, some turkeys, rabbits, and mice. But the icy rain became hard to stomach after a time, and the mist drenched everything as well. The peaks were the highest on the entire trail, over 6,000 feet, but the terrain was extremely treacherous. Usually the ascents and descents were either sharp, loose stones, or obnoxiously widely-spaced log steps, and it is on those logs that I blame my hurt knee. We met nice people, like Snail and Caterpillar, and even the Wolfpack and Hobos were fine, really, but it was impossible to get away from them due to the stricture of staying at shelters (both groups actually stayed an extra day in Gatlinburg, so we actually remained synced up with them until Hot Springs). We were unable to adopt the pace we wanted, and surrounded by tourists and fellow hikers all the time, which was a new experience for us on the trail, and not one we enjoy. All in all, the Smokies, like Gatlinburg, seem to be for the tourists, and Connie and I are glad to be through them.

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Connie’s pathological need to take pictures of everything made her take a picture of a typical shelter’s privy. I am using it to express my overall impression of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.