And finally, the much anticipated update:

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Let us do our best to catch everybody up with what has gone down over the last three weeks: Coming off a visit from Brent’s parents, Jeff and Betty, it was back to the trail where we entered the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) portion of the AT, roughly 100 miles long. This was a beautiful stretch full of tourists on vacation, great views, plenty of campgrounds, restaurants, and daily wildlife sightings. It was all you expect from a National Park, except we got to see it beyond the car overlooks and picnic areas.

It was Monday evening, June 24th and we were within three miles of exiting SNP on the north end. We had the dogs on leashes during the entire stretch because of park regulations and also because of the cause for the regulations – the frequency we encountered wildlife (deer, bears, squirrels, etc.). However, for these final few miles we took them off leash to give all of us a break from being tethered to one another. We realized that was a poor decision once we met eyes with our next wildlife sighting: a cat of all things. No, not a bobcat or large feline of any sort, instead a very nonthreatening everyday house cat. Jack and Lewis disagreed with us on the level of danger the kitty cat posed, and immediately chased it up a tree in typical dog fashion. While the two knuckleheads barked from the base of the tree, the cat did exactly what we didn’t want it to do; pounced from it’s safe perch to the ground. We briefly laughed about the chances of the dogs having a cat to chase through a National Park, and then began to worry because the pups were not in their normal hiking form. In the days prior to entering SNP both of their packs ripped, making them unusable and therefore freeing the pups from carrying their share. They would have to be without packs until we could receive warranty-covered replacements from the dog gear company, RuffWear. Needless to say, this made for more of a challenge hiking through SNP. Thru-hikers are usually trying to shed ounces from their packs, and instead we took on pounds of dog food in addition to our own and gear. Jack and Lewis on the other had interpreted their days of hiking without packs as a vacation. Much like a sled dog knows it’s time to work when its harness is put on, our two pups came to learn that when the four of us put on our packs, our task had begun and it was time to hike.  

After calling for their return, along came Lewis out of the brush without Jack. This was weird because they both typically run stride for stride. We soon learned why as Jack returned to us at a slower pace, caused by a limp. We examined Jack’s back, right leg and discovered a wound. Knowing we were only 2 miles from our day’s destination (close by our standards), we did some quick first aid, leashed them back up and let Jack set our pace. Anger was probably the initial emotional reaction, and of course concern. Concern for Jack’s well being, for the distance that separated us from the nearest veterinary clinic, and in the back of our minds: concern for our hike. All of those thoughts were interrupted less than half a mile down trail from where Jack got hurt. We were suddenly eye-to-eye with a Mama black bear and her two cubs, a mere 10-15 yards to the right of the trail. We were noticed first, and it was the cubs scurrying up trees and the tug of the leash from the dogs that cued us in to what we had stumbled upon. Mama bear made sure her cubs made it up the tree and then just stared. The three of us parents exchanged a message of “We’ll protect our babies, and you protect yours” as we slowly continued on our way. Mama eventually took off away from us into the woods and we decided it best to move along as we watched her cubs cling to a tree top out of harms way. As soon as we were a safe distance away from the bears, we looked at one another and in unison exclaimed something along the lines of: “that was fricken’ AWESOME!” It was just the encounter we needed to remind us things happen for a reason. Had Jack not gotten hurt, our two 15-month-old pups would have still been off the leash and likely unable to resist the temptation of those cubs. It goes without saying that the outcome of that encounter would be more serve than the result of his cat chase. Shortly after we made it to the shelter and told the story to the fellow hikers we had been seeing quite a bit of that day.

When we examined the wound again at camp we began to wonder how deep it actually went. The next morning Jack didn’t want to put much weight on it either. We had less than three miles of trail to make it to the next closest town, where we initially planned on resupplying and now seeking out medical attention for Jack. After hitchhiking into town and getting advice from some nice locals at the visitor center, we got Jack an appointment at the local veterinary clinic. Initially the vet thought it was just going to be a quick stitch, but after taking off our bandages and cleaning it up, she was worried how deep the wound was too. She had a few concerns, infection, penetration to the joint capsule, and having a stick or debris still in his leg. So with all of that in question, she needed to sedate to take a look. Thankfully it did not hit his joint capsule and there was no visible debris in his leg. So she stitched him up, put a drainage tube in him to lessen the chances of infection, and told us to come back 2 days later to remove the tube and hopefully we would be back on the trail that same day.

We checked into a hotel room, and made sure Jack got plenty of TLC and that his brother Lewis was entertained enough to leave him to rest and heal. Two days later we returned to the clinic and the vet was grateful for what she saw: very little swelling and good color, so that ruled out infection. However, Jack still wasn’t putting weight on his hurt leg so she suggested we wait it out through the weekend to see if it’s just discomfort from the stitches, an outcome we were all hoping for. Being there for two days already just waiting, we were going a little stir-crazy so hearing it would be another four days was difficult news to receive. It wasn’t something we wanted to do but we knew Jack couldn’t hike in his condition. So we looked at our days ahead and wondered how we could possibly fill them without hiking, at all. We didn’t want Jack to do much so we did quite a bit of laying around, plus we didn’t want to spend much so we tried to leave the hotel room as little as possible. On Sunday night, the night before the Jack’s follow up appointment, we were invited to the veterinary’s house for dinner. This was yet another amazing display of kindness shown from people we hardly met – something we had come accustomed to happening along the trail. She wanted to see Jack right away, and was disappointed to see that he still wasn’t putting any weight on his back right leg. Within moments just from looking she was certain that it must be his ACL that was injured. She couldn’t confirm it, but her years of experience had her convinced it had to be his ACL. We quickly changed the subject to something else over dinner because none of us wanted to start thinking about what that outcome meant for our near future. It would be a sure end to our thru-hike for Jack, a long recovery time, and a dent into our hiking funds.

Going to the appointment the next day was a bit somber, expecting to hear the worse, that it was indeed his ACL that was injured. It’s a common injury in dogs, and we knew something like this could happen to any one of us while attempting our thru-hike. What went without discussion was if Jack’s results prevented him from finishing the AT, we would be all be putting our goal on hold. We said from the beginning none of us would be reaching the finish in Maine without the whole crew together. The many strangers we discussed our situation with while in Front Royal, VA commonly asked, “So how are you going to get Jack home?” always with the suggestion that we would go on without him. Those people obviously didn’t know how solid of a group the four of us had become. After three months of living, eating, sleeping, hiking, and just being together constantly it was difficult to imagine life on the trail without Jack. The thought of it still makes us sad, which brings me to the decision we had to make. The Veterinarian in Front Royal didn’t detect any injury to the ACL, but it was still obvious that Jack wouldn’t be putting in any 20 milers any time soon. She thought it might be a hairline fracture, or just tissue damage. Regardless, we left the office for the last time with what we discovered was worse news than a torn ACL, no news. No answers, no explanations, just left with the fact it was time to make a decision and move forward. After watching Jack hobble around for a week as we wasted our days away in a hotel room we felt as if we were left with no choice. Neither of us ever seemed to say what we had decided aloud, we just supported each other as we rented the car, merged onto I-80 south towards Alabama, and begun to pass exits to towns we had already hiked past in the weeks prior. That made it sink in a little stronger; our days of hiking the AT were on hold. No one knew at this point, but we knew family members and friends would be wondering. We made the necessary phone calls, but instead of telling them our grim news, we fibbed. That week happened to be the week of Brent’s family’s vacation in Northern Wisconsin. My (Alexis’) family was getting together for the annual Fourth of July get together near where we both grew up in Minnesota. The only people we didn’t fib to were Alexis’ Aunt Lola & Uncle Tom, and we entrusted them not to spread the news so we could pull off a pretty grand surprise. Back in March we drove Alexis’ car to Alabama, where her Aunt and Uncle live and agreed to store the car while we hiked.

Much to our own amazement, we pulled it off. After over 40 hours of driving, – Virginia to Alabama, Alabama to Wisconsin, and Wisconsin to Minnesota, and a car battery replacement, we managed to surprise everyone we encountered. Confusion was common reaction, and we had to explain that Jack wasn’t able to hike on which meant our thru-hike of 2013 had to come to an end. Emotions were mixed, as people explained how much they rooted for our success in hiking the entire thing, but there was also plenty of excitement and understanding to go around. So to all of you out there reading this now, sorry for the delay on getting you the details but we knew there was a long list of people out there we could surprise that were also hitting the refresh button on our blog.

Amongst all the thrill we never lost focus of what brought us home in the first place: Jack’s still undiagnosed injury. We took him to a Vet that had been recommended to us by many. After being brought up to speed on the history of Jack’s injury she began exploring around the wound and his hurt leg. For the first time in the duration of his injury he let out a big, painful yelp while she did her examination. He let her know, that he had indeed torn his ACL. Why the other Vet could not detect it we will never know, but we can only assume the wound near his ACL was too fresh for thorough examination or that she checked his ACL while he was sedated and unable to react. Although we waited far too long to learn this, we were relieved to know, and to learn that the cost of surgery closer to home was going to cost a fraction of what we were quoted out in Virginia. Jack will have his ACL repaired today, and then it will be weeks of recovery, and then months before he is back to his athletic self.

Are there dozens of things we wish would have happened differently? Yes. We’re bummed, heck even heartbroken that our thru-hike attempt came to a sudden end. But we aren’t devastated, not even taken by surprise. We never let ourselves get “Katahrted” (a play on the words Katahdin and retarded; referring to those thru-hiking that have the sole focus of reaching the finish, all while missing the beauty in the journey). All we did is take the days as they came, faced the miles ahead whether uphill or downhill, and enjoyed our time together, spent exploring one of the country’s oldest trails. The goal may not be met this year, but hopefully in one to come. Plus, we feel pretty good about where we sit – a few steps ahead of hopeful: experienced and determined.

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Are you feeling blue because you haven’t heard from us hikers in awhile?

Good, join the club: we’ve been getting “The Virginia Blues” a bit lately.

We’ve been in this state longer than anyone who doesn’t reside here should. The trail magic has come in abundance, the people have been so welcoming, and the towns are hiker friendly – why would anyone want to leave, right? It’s probably the 10 other states we have yet to hike through after this one that’s making us a little anxious to cross VA off the list. In all fairness, we were warned of this, warned that the time it takes to hike through the longest state on the AT is enough to discourage someone attempting a thru-hike.

In addition we’ve dealt with a couple set backs while passing through. Brent was sick when we reached Daleville, VA. Whether it was actually Norovirus or some waterborne illness we are unsure, but it left us no option but to zero three days we hadn’t planned to. Shortly after we were back on the trail we had another snag – literally. Both of the dog packs ripped, within moments of each other. What are the chances? 800 miles of hiking with them must have been their expiration, and we had to get creative with rope and zip ties so they could continue.

A welcome break from the trail came when Brent’s parents, Jeff & Betty, made the drive out from Minnesota to visit us weary hikers. The six of us spent our days together in a lodge not far from the trail. It was a great time for us to reorganize, cook and eat a bunch, and just relax. (Huge Thank You to Jeff & Betty!) Also, we were able to contact the company that makes the dog packs, Ruffwear. They were so helpful and honored the warranty on the packs, meaning the pups will have new packs for the second half of the trail. Only bad news was they would be without them while we waited for them to arrive -through our next week of hiking through the Shenandoah National Park. They had no trouble adjusting, it was us the bad news was for: we got to carry six days worth of dog food for two 75 pound dogs. As one could imagine, it’s not a light load.

Having these pups along does not make things any easier on us. But, like we often say, “We wouldn’t have it any other way!” And although Virginia has got us feeling blue once and awhile, it will undoubtedly remain home to some of our best memories from the trail. We’ve seen plenty of hikers leave the trail, and the initial ones we started with are spread miles apart. Days like today, when we pass the 900 mile mark, and see our third and largest bear on the trail we are reminded why we’re out here. The half way point is just ahead, and we’ll be proud to say we arrived by passing every white blaze before it, never once slack packing, south bounding, or short cutting. Then, we’ll make our plans to do the same for 1,092.9 miles more!

[?] What do you do when the weather turns for the worse?

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We get this question a lot, and there isn’t a simple answer. With over 700 miles hiked on the AT, we’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been caught in the middle of a soaker. The first thing it usually does is dampen our spirits, but our attitude on rain has changed since hot weather moved in these passed few weeks. Just the other day as we climbed to McAfee Knob, a rainstorm hit and we were relieved. It was a nice change to have our clothes dripping wet from rain instead of sweat. We didn’t get to see the most photographed spot on the AT in all it’s splendor but we did have it to ourselves. According to us, that is worth more than a good view on the often crowded trail. The weekend before, when weather was more ideal, a Ridge Runner counted 300+ visitors to McAfee Knob in one afternoon. Some Thru-Hikers waited for days in the shelter that came before just for a picture with a clear view.

The thing any hiker hates most though is wet gear, especially when it’s our home away from home – our tent. So, last night as it started to come down on us we decided to go against our no shelter policy. The pups are getting more comfortable to the point we trust putting a little distance between them and us overnight. We laid their mats underneath the shelter where they would stay dry and cool, and that was okay with Lewis until the early hours of the morning when he prefers snuggling. We never seem to get our best rest when we stay in the shelters, but waking up dry with little break down to be done is a nice consolation.

As hurricane season hits we’re watching the weather even closer. Stories from 2011 Thru-Hikers who were caught in Hurricane Irene’s path are nothing to take lightly. We didn’t sign up for this because we were promised it would be sunny and 65 degrees everyday. Taking the conditions as they come is part of the challenge and the beauty. Some of our greatest memories yet have been watching threatening weather move in from the top of a bald or drinking coffee under the roof of a shelter waiting for the rain to pass. So, to answer the question, we hike rain or shine. Sometimes we wait it out for a few hours, sometimes we luck out and are in town, but we have yet to get off the trail solely when faced with bad weather. Days like this make the days of sunshine and cool breezes that much more wonderful. 20130608-085026.jpg

Answers to all your questions:

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Thousands of people have both attempted and completed an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike. One thing all of us have in common is the questions we receive from family, friends, and strangers before, after, and durning our journey. We found this list humorous, inspired by all the frequently asked questions us hikers receive. Have a question you don’t see answered above? Let us know!

Also, check out lowriderpress.com for a wonderful assortment of stickers like the one photographed above, inspired by hikers and life on the trail.

Damascus and Back Again

IMG_7894 After our rainy welcome into Damascus, VA accompanied by Craig and Gracie, we headed home with them for the weekend. Lori came and picked up us drenched hikers and we told her all about our adventure on the short drive back to Glade Spring, VA. Brent and I were so grateful to be headed towards a hot shower instead of crawling into a wet tent that night.

We spent a couple of days at the “Hammond Inn” (as us returning guests like to call it) then the trail was called us back. We returned to Damascus where we left off, the four of us officially crossing under the town’s signature trail welcome sign. Still having the town to walk through, the trail following the sidewalk and streets from end to end, we took our time returning to the woods. The town was preparing for Trail Days, scheduled for that following weekend. We knew we’d be back for it, along with thousands of others, so we enjoyed the calm before the chaos. All our pits stops were equally necessary; fuel canister purchase at the outfitters, and an ice cream cone from a local shop before getting on the trail. IMG_7895
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IMG_7928 The type of country we saw north of Damascus was beautiful. Whitetop Mountain, Mount Rogers, and Grayson Highlands were among the highlights. My birthday came on a perfectly clear day when we planned on hiking up Whitetop Mountain. I got spoiled with breakfast in tent from Brent, and we broke down camp at a leisurely pace. That day, May 14th, is still the best weather day we’ve had yet. That helped, because our climb was a bit more strenuous than anticipated. Brent was a little antsy to get to the top, but cautious not to rush me on my day. When we arrived to the clearing near the top I soon discovered why, as Brent pulled a big bag out from behind Buzzard Rock. IMG_7910 When one spends day after day in the woods, sights like a large bag that isn’t our packs is enough to equal parts confuse and excite a hiker. He placed the bag in front of me to examine, and I quickly learned it was filled with goodies. Specifically, Birthday goodies he had arranged with Craig and Lori to be brought to the trail, all without my knowledge. I skipped over any credit he may have deserved and instead was in disbelief that they took the time to pick up and deliver these wonderful treats. We inhaled a feast of Big Mac’s, fries, sweet tea, birthday cake, red wine, and all the ingredients for some s’more making. 20130603-104149.jpg Between turning the big 2-5, the ideal weather, clear views for miles, and our rare on trail food coma it is sure to remain one of the most magical memories of our thru-hike. Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest elevation point, was next and unfortunately was overshadowed by the excitement of entering Grayson Highlands State Park just ahead. Wild ponies roam throughout the park and we were a little nervous to see how Jack & Lewis would interact with them. These ponies are not bashful and accustomed to hikers passing through. Silly us, thinking our pups would spook them – instead they did quite opposite and sparked their interest. The first one we encountered trotted up to Lewis like he was a distant relative he hadn’t seen in awhile, eager to say hello. Dog and pony went nose to nose until Lewis snapped, realizing he was not related to this hoofed creature with a long face and mane. We caught it on video and we hope to share it with our followers when have the resources. Despite all the excitement, we were thankful no ponies or puppies were injured durning our visit to Grayson Highlands State Park.
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IMG_7994 After we completed that popular stretch of the AT it was nearly time for Trail Days Festival, taking place back in Damascus, VA. Our guide book called it the largest event on the Appalachian Trail and us Midwesterners figured we better attend while we were this close. Craig came to pick us up at Dickey Gap, about 60 miles north of Damascus by trail. Many of this years attempting thru-hikers (AT class of 2013) had hiked past and then hitched back for the festivities. The other thousands in attendance were a mix of former thru-hiking alumni, section hikers, gear reps, locals, church groups, and basically anyone who has a desire to have a good time with a bunch of smelly hikers. A veterinarian was doing free check ups for trail dogs Friday morning and we made sure to pay him a visit. He reassured us they were in great shape and told us that dogs hiking the trail are usually the healthiest and happiest dogs he sees in his line of work. Ours in particular have age on their side – being just over a year old and overflowing with energy. But, as we’ve been told many a times, the percentage of completion for dogs attempting a thru-hike is far less than the 25% success rate for human attempts. As frustrated as they make us some days, we’re grateful for each and every mile they complete with ease and happy to have them along. The vet sent us on our way with reminders to keep them well hydrated, take care of their paws, and monitor them extra closely in the heat that would fill our days ahead. 20130603-103945.jpg
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20130603-104212.jpgWe only stuck around Trail Days that Friday. That was enough time to catch up with other hikers we had met earlier in the trail, get free haircuts, fill up on free food, and visit the gear reps. We left with a brand new Therm-A-Rest air mattress we’d traded our defected one for, refreshing hair cuts, and the motivation from so many other hikers to keep pressing on. The remainder of the weekend we stayed back at the “Hammond Inn”, missing the parade and the unfortunate situation that arose in the midst. For those of you that didn’t catch it, an elderly man plowed into spectators during the parade on Saturday. The shocking story of people being pinned under the car and injuring many made national news. Last we heard it was a medical condition that caused the driver to lose control, and all hospitalized were released and recovering. Overall, it was shock to the crowds of people in attendance but all seemed grateful it wasn’t the worst outcome it could have been.

It ended up being a nice weekend to be off the trail. Thunderstorms and plenty of rain moved through the area and we didn’t end up returning to Dickey Gap until Monday afternoon. When we did return we hiked the 14 miles to Partnership Shelter in no time and set up tent. The shelter has amenities like showers and a sink in it, and is a popular stop because hikers can get pizza delivered to the trail there, it’s location being just off a road. We knew we were coming off of being spoiled by the Hammonds when we opted not to order a pizza for dinner. We have been so lucky to have their help and been able to enjoy their hospitality and company through Southern Virginia and even before. It made it a little bittersweet to be continuing down the trail. We continued further into Virginia knowing there is always a visit to Craig, Lori, Gracie, Charley Ann, and the rest the family in our future!IMG_8035

First bear sighting on the AT!

After sixty some days on the trail we finally had our first bear sighting! It was yesterday morning around 9 am, about 20 miles north of Pearisburg, VA. Our pups, Jack & Lewis were leading us down the trail that morning when both started acting strange. Stopping in their tracks and spooking at the break of a twig we were getting frustrated with the inconsistent pace they were setting. I went to take the lead and sure enough, spotted two little round ears of a black bear sticking out over the shrubs only 20 yards up the trail. I turned back to Brent and mouthed the word “BEAR” as quietly and calmly as I could, gesturing to get the pups on leashes ASAP! As we did the bear must have finally spooked and we heard it scurry downhill. We continued downhill, pretty certain no bear cubs were present, but still proceeding with caution. What came next was a switchback in the trail, leading us right back to where the bear had gone. As we crept further down trail we heard more clumsy rustling in the shrubs, and there it was again, this time above us, just a big black mass watching as we continued on with our hike. No bear spray used, no lives threatened, and none of our food was eaten. Exactly the type of bear encounter we want to experience on the trail! If only we had the photo to prove it, but our hands were a bit busy with a tight grip on our dogs leashes. Instead, here’s a photo of the view where we’re posting from today!

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A quick hello from the trail!

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Wanted to wish all our followers a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day Weekend! The four of us are going to spend it doing what else – hiking! Word on the trail is temperatures are dropping down in the 30’s tonight for us south of Pearisburg, VA. After days of heat and rain a little chill will be nice overnight. Also, we are happy to announce we officially passed over the 25% point! Mile 546.5 marked a quarter of the trail complete for us! Even though we’ve been here hiking each and every mile, we surprise even ourselves when we cross off these milestones. Happy trails!