It’s hard to believe we’ve hiked nearly 200 miles since we left Hot Springs, NC; passing our 300 and 400 mile markers in the meantime. Before we cross the 500 milestone and pass into another state on the AT, we thought it best we update our loyal followers:
A lot of talk about a nasty virus named Noro had everyone cautiously proceeding down the trail away from Hot Springs. An influx of cases had been reported between there and Erwin, Tennessee as the bulk of northbound Thru-Hikers passed through the area. (I’ll leave out the details of what effect the virus has on a person, and save that for your own Google or WebMD searching.) But regardless, it was not something any hiker wanted to contract, and we did our best to keep our distance from shelters and other areas of high hiker traffic.
The first day back on the trail we ran into a fellow Thru-Hiker ‘Sherwin’, then set up camp near him (once we were certain he was Noro free) and enjoyed a chilly evening next to the warmth of a fire. All of us stayed up way past our hiking bedtimes exchanging stories and finally getting to know one another better after weeks of running into each other along the trail. This is quite typical, for it to take time to learn someone’s story along the trail. The AT hiking community is a respectful one for the most part when it comes to one another’s personal space. Off the trail when you meet someone for the first time you likely know their name, occupation, education level, relationship status, and so on within moments of shaking hands. Here on the trail, you can give yourself a trail name (or take the risk of receiving one from others) that protects your identity, and then head into the woods without ever needing to volunteer much more information about yourself. Our conversations with fellow hikers are dominated by talk of milage, food, water, weather, animal encounters, and gear. The dogs aren’t able to avoid any prying on the trail, almost everyone we encounter on the trail wants to know their life story. Luckily it’s a short one, and we answer that they are 14 month old Goldendoodle brothers from the same litter a dozen or more times a day!
The following days we had fair weather and the hiking came easy through scenic terrain. We camped near a babbling brooke one night and received trail magic (ice cold Coke being chilled by a spring) another day from a man named ‘Lord Willing’. He had joined his son on portions of a thru-hike the year prior, and just enjoyed supporting those of us on the same journey. It was fun to hear stories about the trail that lay ahead, in particular Maine. Remote, rugged, and the final stretch of trail that will stand between us and our finish, Mount Katahdin is something we think of often with a mix of anticipation and intimidation.
Our last full day of hiking before reaching our resupply in Erwin, TN we were drenched from afternoon showers. We watched the storm roll in with perfect panoramic views on top of Big Bald.
Nothing, we discovered is completely waterproof; or if it is, chances are it’s too heavy or bulky to bring along on a long distance thru-hike. When it comes to lightweight rain gear, being both waterproof and breathable is a myth created by the outdoor gear world. If our gear is succeeding at keeping us dry, our bodies are making sure to compensate until drenched in sweat inside our waterproof jackets. Luckily, we caught a break from the constant drizzle before sunset and were able to settle into our tent for the rainy night; damp but cozy in the company of two wet dogs.
The next day we descended into Erwin, TN. Wish we could say it was with ease, but the switchbacks seemed never ending and Alexis wasn’t feeling the best so we took our time reaching our destination. The plus side was wonderful weather and the views down to the Nolichucky River were spectacular. As we inched along at what was likely our slowest pace yet thoughts of Noro crept into our minds. When we reached the bottom, the Nolichucky River, we walked the couple hundred yards to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel. With prime real estate on the AT and a sign out front that reads “40 cent Snickers!” it’s tough for a hiker to pass. So, we set up our tent for the evening in the yard of the hostel and Alexis crawled in right away, hoping that a little rest would have her feeling like herself again.
It was that evening we learned the heartbreaking news that Brent’s Aunt Ruth had passed. We were thankful to be off the trail and able to quickly make arrangements for Brent to travel home to be with family. Even more so, we were thankful to be in close proximity to friends Craig & Lori, who didn’t hesitate to help us out in a hurry. From there we stayed with them a night and the next morning Brent flew home while Alexis stayed back with the pups. Despite unfortunate circumstances, it meant a lot to Brent to be with his family, if even briefly and for both of us to receive the overwhelming and gracious help from Craig & Lori, and his parents Bobby & Ellen.
When we planned to get back on the trail we were going to pick up exactly where we left off. We consider ourselves purists; no short cutting to make up for lost time, every white blaze will be passed.
A thru-hike to us is about taking things as it comes, and making the most out of. If one were going it solo they may by able to more easily set and keep a schedule of some sort or make quick decisions without lengthy contemplation and conversation. For our thru-hike, the progress falls on the shoulders of four separate individuals, and the accountability we have to one another is monumental. We wouldn’t have it any other way though, and we took off from Erwin, TN with full packs and a refreshed perspective after time spent away from the trail amongst others who shower regularly. Day two out of Erwin, TN we passed through Unaka Mountain, a dense spruce forest that was almost eerie in the morning fog. Alexis thought it was one of most beautiful places we’ve passed through, where Brent has more of a thing for balds where he can catch views that go for miles. Both would agree that the true splendor is in the diversity; the change that comes with elevation, latitude, and season all make the experience of hiking the AT unforgettable.
Just like in everyday life off the trail, plans can change quickly. Ours just happen to be heavily weather/mood/hunger/health dependent, and oftentimes fluctuating hourly. Some days we don’t think it’s so grand when we’re soaked and a dozen miles behind our so called “schedule” for that particular stretch of trail. But, some days we hike an extra six miles up two big climbs to make for a 20+ mile day total and feel pretty pleased with ourselves. The particular day I’m referring to is when we crossed Roan Mountain, the three balds following, Little Hump Mountain, and Hump Mountain.
All six peaks reached a few hundred feet above or below the 6,000 foot elevation mark and all but Roan Mountain were exposed to the harsh winds of the day. Once we reached Doll Flats, our campsite for the night (and the point on the trail where we cross the North Carolina/Tennessee border one last time), we were happy to have it behind us as bad weather moved in overnight.
With two states officially behind us we had to stop and recognize the feat we’ve accomplished. Two states may not seem like much when looking at the big picture (the AT runs through 14 states total), but it is two more states down than when we began this journey. Just a small stretch of Tennessee remained and we began to mentally prepare ourselves for Virginia; the state that encompasses the most mileage of any on the Appalachian Trail.
We have new pages to announce! Along the top left you will see the new additions Glossary and Track. Click on Glossary to learn a bit more about the trail through definitions of the lingo we hikers use and check into the Track page often to see our progress as we report each days mileage. We’ll be updating them both periodically so check back!
Views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Brent’s breathtaking photography. Check out that wingspan!
Alexis hiking through the fog and wet terrain of GSMNP.
Views from Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail.
Views from Clingmans Dome.
Views from Clingmans Dome.
The two of us without our canine companions at Clingmans Dome.
Breakfast and camp breakdown one foggy morning at Icewater Spring Shelter. The views from here were spectacular the evening before, the site of where we were reunited with our hiking stick, Nobo.
Views of GSMNP.
Fellow thru-hiker, ‘Ace’ snapped our picture during our climb up to Clingmans Dome on a clear day.
Clingmans Dome lookout.
Surprises along the trail, keeping us moving.
Our one stay in a shelter at Silers Bald Shelter. That’s our packs and sleeping bags in the bottom right of the photo.
If we were southbounders this would likely be an important white blaze, signifying 2000 miles hiked on the Appalachian Trail. For us northbounders it meant we had the “and some” of the “two thousand and some miles” completed. It’s the little things, if you consider 185.9 miles a small feat.
Brent directing fellow hikers just outside GSMNP, minutes away from reuniting with our boys.
Most thru-hikers attempting to cover the entire length of the Appalachian Trail become more efficient as the miles build. The nomadic lifestyle we have adopted has more rhythm and structure to it than an outsider would assume. Our visits into town (the few we’ve had thus far) seem to be where we struggle to keep ourselves on schedule. Between satisfying cravings, running errands, and tending to personal hygiene we need a strict schedule to get everything done and back to the trail in a timely fashion.
Knowing this, we planned accordingly before reaching our next town stop: Hot Springs, North Carolina. The official trail runs right through it’s downtown, the concrete sidewalk stamped with the AT symbol the whole way. I say the whole way but the truth is that the entire town runs only 0.7 mile long. On any given day it’s rare that a thru-hiker would just pass through town without stopping, likely unable to resist the ice cream shop and hiker friendly businesses. The weekend we planned on reaching Hot Springs happened to be Trailfest, the towns festival inspired by their close relationship with the AT, something we didn’t want to pass up. We called a week ahead and booked ourselves a room for two nights at the Hostel at Laughing Heart Lodge. Dog friendly, the right price, and a bonus was our welcoming hosts ‘Tigger’ & ‘Chuck Norris’ – former thru-hikers of course.
Thankful for our reservations, we got into town as the rain started to come down. We dropped our stuff and sorted our belongings for the laundromat – everything totaling one medium sized load. In the interest of staying on schedule, we ventured out in the rain to pick up resupply boxes and wash the clothes that were already smelling up our room.
The responsibility of having dogs along seemed to weigh heavier on us when wet. We were faced with signs everyone reading “No Dogs Allowed Inside” – apparently weren’t the first to consider bringing our pups into the unattended building while we waited for clean laundry. With other little options for shelter from the rain we settled for the benches under a less than sufficient awning at the laundromat. The frustration with the rain and our list of things to do was immediately forgotten when we laid eyes on the contents of our resupply boxes. For the first time what was inside was a surprise, and better yet, assembled by our Moms. Never has candy, goodies, hand written notes, and dog treats brought us so much joy! Jack & Lewis perked up at the scent of dehydrated chicken liver despite the persistent drizzle and the two of us devoured Tootsie Rolls like we’ve never had one before.
The remainder of the weekend was spent resting, recovering, and taking in all the Trailfest activities. It seems the entire town is a big bubble of trail magic, Trailfest intensifying the feeling of course. Brent was one of three hikers that ran the 5K race and actually tied with another hiker for 1st place! He spent the rest of the weekend being congratulated wherever we went, and I teased that he was probably Mayor of Hot Springs and he didn’t even know it. We celebrated with ice cream, attended a potluck dinner at our hostel, and exchanged stories from the trail with fellow hikers. The town remained filled with hikers through the weekend and was obviously well stocked with residents who shared the same appreciation for what we’re all out there pursuing.
We were back on the AT by mid-day on Sunday, after cashing in Brent’s winnings (a $15 gift certificate) at the local mini dinner located in a convenience store. It tasted more amazing than most of those reading could possibly imagine. The hike felt good and a true sense of accomplishment set in as we distanced ourselves from the town of Hot Springs we had heard so much about. It is one of those towns that define the trail, a Trail Town in the truest sense, and they are lucky to catch thru-hikers a couple miles in while they’re still optimistic and eager.
After reaching Erwin, TN we received the unfortunate news from home that Brent’s Aunt Ruth passed away on Thursday night. She will be remembered as so much more than a wonderful Aunt; a loving sister, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. Deeply missed by all, but we trust she is at peace and will be an extra pair of eyes watching over us on our thru-hike journey. Brent is flying home to be with family during this time, and we have friends Craig & Lori to thank for all their help and generosity amid these unfortunate circumstances. Alexis and the pups will be staying in Southern Virginia at Craig & Lori’s and when Brent returns the four of us will resume the hike from where we left off in Erwin. This is a time to reflect, hold your loved ones close, and celebrate a life lived with laughter, kindness, and sincerity.
We have to admit we crossed into Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) with a grudge. Without our dogs for the first time on the trail, and paying $40 for our “backcountry permits” that required we stay in poorly dispersed shelters along the trail was not exactly a winning combination. In turn, we cranked out the mileage – covering roughly 75 miles in five days*!
*Correction, it was more like four days – three full and two halves! Brent wanted to make sure I was clear on that – haha!
The toughest moment on the trail thus far came when Curtis, the boys sitter for the week, rolled up to the Fontana Marina trail crossing. The four of us piled into his Subaru and traveled the two miles up to Fontana Village Resort, where final goodbyes were exchanged, tears were fought, and Lewis wailed and whined as they drove away without us. The good news was we were at a resort that doesn’t allow dogs but is kind enough to offer a significantly discounted rate to thru-hikers. So, we took advantage of the situation, showered multiple times, and ate from an extravagant breakfast buffet before hitting the trail.
Leaving Fontana Dam and entering GSMNP was a whole lot of what we had already seen, and we joked often that we “expected the Smoky’s to be a little smokier than this!” Down the trail we would soon encounter just that, but beforehand the weather had to change to wind and rain; ultimately driving us into a shelter for the night. It was our first experience staying in a shelter, nearly 200 miles in the trail, and we weren’t exactly looking forward to it. Luckily, a familiar face, ‘Ace’ was there, and quickly made room for us on the bottom bunk next to her. We survived it and were happy the next morning when we weren’t packing up a wet tent. Between the snoring strangers and visiting rodents we’re not eager to do it again anytime soon.
The further we hiked into the park the more beautiful the terrain and views became. Towards the center is Clingmans Dome, which is the highest point we’ll cross on the Appalachian Trail at 6,655 feet above sea level. The weather was ideal when we reached it and we were able to take in grand views in every direction, especially of the smoke billowing in from the east. The northern end of the park was even more impressive. The trail would weave into dark, dense, lush forest one mile, to an exposed rocky face complete with incredible views the next. Not only the views, but the intense scent from the spruce trees was so refreshing and memorable. We recently learned that GSMNP has more varieties of trees than all of Europe. With the inspiration of reuniting with our boys we achieved our first 20+ mile day while in GSMNP. Afterwards, at camp that night, we consumed three separate dinners and an Aleve for dessert!
Overall the Smoky’s were enjoyable but disaster did strike at one point. While taking a rest at Newfound Gap our hiking stick (which we have named NoBo, short for Northbound) went missing. We were both devastated by the discovery, and thought the worst as dozens of tourists came and went in their cars. After frantically searching for it we had to move on, hiking three miles uphill in silence and with great distance from one another. Sure, it was just a hiking stick not something we relied on heavily like our water purifier but it is what it symbolized that was so upsetting. We were randomly gifted it, by someone who only knew us a few brief moments and had entrusted us to take it the length of the entire trail. By the time we reached camp for the night both of our spirits seemed beyond repair until we spotted NoBo, laying there amongst a pile of trekking poles. Luck was on our side, that a hiker instead of a tourist picked it up, certain he’d find it’s rightful owner heading north somewhere down the trail. We both agree, that was probably the best trail magic we’ve received yet.
Additionally, it was impossible not to notice there was a general sense of urgency amongst Thru-Hikers to put this leg of the AT behind them. We thought we would be alone in our desire to move through GSMNP quickly, knowing we could be with our dogs on the other end as soon as our feet would allow. Some blamed the regulations that came with the park, others feared bad weather, but most, as well as ourselves, felt the weight of what finishing the GSMNP leg of the AT signified: we northbound thru-hikers were now over 10% done with the trail.
We descended out of the park to a pile of trail magic: sodas and assorted packages of treats. Pausing only briefly to consume what we’d been anonymously gifted, we speed hiked the three additional miles past the park to where our boys had been staying. The reunion made all the soreness and long days put in worth it, even if peeing all over us is the boys idea of showing how much we were missed. We both are relieved knowing they won’t be leaving our sides again until the final day of hiking the trail, when we enter Baxter State Park in Maine and climb up Mount Katahdin.
Below is all the pictures we are able to share for now – watch for a follow up post of more GSMNP photos to come.
Yesterday we started the day with the pups but unfortunately didn’t end it with them. They got picked up by their babysitter for the next 5 or 6 days while we’re in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We already miss them and it has just been less than 24 hours! It will be so weird on the trail and at night without them- now I will be forced to talk to Alexis! Haha. We did just buy a deck of cards though, so that will help provide some entertainment when not hiking.
But here’s a little rundown from the last week or so while we air out all our stuff…
•Still eating well. Our food dehydrator was a wise purchase! Breakfast is the only meal we’re struggling with- oatmeal gets old. We both miss breakfast burritos. But I must say my good, strong coffee is a good way to start the day (Alexis agrees- she turned down coffee at the NOC because it wasn’t as good as mine).
•Meeting all kinds of unique people and enjoy hearing about all their stories. Age groups go from fresh out of high school to retired men and women (personally I enjoy hearing from the older crowd).
•My body is finally coming around to being close to 100%! Alexis is close behind too I think (her knee and shin still bother her from time to time.)
•We both like hiking uphill rather than downhill which all other hikers probably think we’re crazy. I feel it’s easier on our bodies going uphill… Although many times I’ll look back and Alexis face won’t exactly show “I’m enjoying this!”
•Had a little weather the other night but nothing major. Just some heavy rain, thunder, and lightning. I did all the necessary precautions- told Alexis to run to the top of the open part of the mountain and hold the tent poles. Haha I’m kidding of course! Overall we’ve had pretty good weather so far besides the ice storm that we were welcomed into North Carolina with and the good old fashioned thunder storm.
•I am proud to report that I have used a finger nail clipper twice in the last week or so. I’ve had the bad habit of chewing my finger nails my whole life and told both my mom and dad that was something I was going to try and break because both suggested I bust the habit now. My finger nails aren’t the cleanest on the trail as you can imagine!
•Foods we both crave on the trail are Snickers (Alexis), Skittles (Me), salad, any greens/veggies, apples/oranges, biscuits (Alexis), and spicy foods!
•Things we’ve concluded about Jack and Lewis after more than two weeks on the trail together:
Jack is not done growing – we think he’s gaining more on Lewis each day. Both boys are getting better on the trail and learning new commands – one we’re impressed by is simply saying “I lead” and the two reposition themselves on the trail like soldiers behind us in a matter of moments. Jack has more puppy in him than Lewis. Lewis has his sights on Mt Katahdin (we call him MVP because he’s leading the way all the time). Finally, as much more work as they may be on the trail, it’s totally worth every curse word and penny to have them along.
•We both took 2 showers yesterday and never cleaned ourselves so thoroughly. Guess some dirt builds up when not showering in 9 days. It felt amazing.
So here we are ready to hit the Smoky’s! Both of us are excited for them but even more excited to get through them and back to the dogs. We’re both a little frustrated they can’t be with us for them as I’m sure you can tell! But we’ll enjoy the scenery and hike regardless (just might do it quicker than usual). We will cross the highest peak of the entire AT, so thats something to look forward to along the GSMNP stretch. I might go take another shower now just because I can! Happy trails as usual!