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

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


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
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.
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
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!


Making our way through the rain & company joins us on the trail!

Rain, rain, PLEASE go away. That was running through our heads for about a week straight on the trail. After leaving Doll Flats (North Carolina/Tennessee border), the weather was not ideal. We entered Tennessee with wind gusting at about 30 mph and dense mist in our face. For much of the next few days/nights we would take down a wet tent and setup a wet tent – always fun. But the weather was not going to stop us because we had miles we wanted to put in over the days to come.
The stretch from Doll Flats to Hampton, Tennessee had several beautiful waterfalls including Jones Falls, Mountaineer Falls, and Laurel Falls.
The most memorable would have to be Laurel Falls because the rain was coming down heavy and the rugged, rocky terrain made it even more difficult to hike further into the beautiful scenery.
After leaving Laurel Falls, our mind was set on Laurel Fork Shelter where we hoped to find an empty, dry shelter where we could stay the night instead of setting up our wet tent. By our surprise it was not empty (everybody we talked to on the trail this day was taking a side trail into Hampton to get dry and stay at a hostel/hotel), but instead there was another man from Germany. Fortunately, he didn’t mind dogs so the three of us along with Jack and Lewis slept under a roof that night as it POURED down rain all night. The next morning we woke up with our sights on a 7 to 8 mile hike into town, over the Pond Flats climb. Resupply boxes awaited us and we wanted to sleep in a bed, dry all our clothes/tent/gear out, and get a greasy burger at What-A-Burger; something Alexis had been talking about for days as our food supply dwindled down to lower than usual. I’ve never heard of this restaurant but I was not going to say no to a burger, or no to hungry Alexis. Hiking into town the clouds broke up and sunshine peaked through – everything was looking up for us after being wet for the past three days! But then we got into the town of Hampton. The minute we stepped foot into the city limits with loud trucks passing by us continuously and drowning out our conversations neither one of us was feeling like we wanted to stick around for long. Just like that, within minutes we were already missing the serenity of the trail, and it was a humbling reminder of how good we do have it out in the woods, even if it means giving up other comforts. We got dropped off at a building that was literally a laundry mat, internet café, restaurant, computer repair shop, store selling assorted items out of zip-lock bags nailed to the wall, lounge for hikers, pool hall with smoking permitted, a hostel in the making, and also an auto mechanic shop. I guess they had it all, or were having a serious identity crisis? This place was interesting to say the least and the people were the same; we had trouble distinguishing owners from customers, and hikers from locals. I feel I needed a cigarette and a big cup full of sweet tea to fit in there. Don’t get me wrong, the people were friendly towards us but this just was not a place where Alexis and I wanted to spend $50/night to stay. So we got our resupply boxes of dog food, a wonderful box of goodies from Maggie May LaMaack, and a few other groceries to make it to Damascus, Virginia. We dried out our wet gear in the surprise afternoon sunshine, opted against a clean load of laundry from the cigarette smoke filled laundromat, repacked, and hit the trail along Watauga Lake. It was a nice evening to hike despite the 100% forecast of thunderstorms that never transpired. We quickly discovered there was going to be some off-trail hiking because the heavy rains from the last few days had created flooding along the lake shores. We managed to get around it and to our amazement somehow distract the boys enough to stay out of the tempting water. Once we reached the first shelter just a few miles out of Hampton we threw down our tent for the night. The next day we hiked through Watauga Dam which had some beautiful wide open views before returning back to the forest for a full day of hiking.
At the end of the day, the weather started to turn for the worse and get dark overhead. We were only 0.3 miles from the place we were going to call “home” for the night and we needed to get water. With rain imminent, we decided to quickly get our evening supply of water from the stream 0.3 miles from where we planned to camp. Of course that was the wrong decision; the rain came down in sheets as soon as we started hiking, along with some small hail as well. We finally got to the shelter where we were going to stay that night (well tent near it) and Jack announced our arrival to all the fellow hikers huddled under the roof of the shelter. It happened almost in slow motion, everyone saw it coming, but no one could stop him from doing the classic wet dog shake that likely managed to reach every individual in the shelter. Needless to say, we didn’t make friends quickly at that particular stop. Alexis, the dogs, and I decided we best hang out on the side of the shelter under an overhang as the rain passed. We waited it out and found a spot to setup our tent. Both of us wet and not in the greatest mood because of rain, we decided let’s just eat and go to bed, and hope we wake to better conditions in the morning. In the process of making our dinner of instant potatoes, our fuel for our Jet Boil ran out and we didn’t have a backup because the great want-to-be trail town of Hampton didn’t sell any of the commonly used canister fuel! Go figure! Let the good news keep on coming, right? So granola bars, pop tarts, trail mix, and snickers was our food until we could resupply. With 26 miles to go until Damascus, we decided we were going to get up really early and put in our first 25+ mile day to get there, something fellow hikers were dubbing the “Damasc-a-thon”, because of its close mileage to a marathon. There we could get picked up by Craig (who lives only 15 minutes away), dry out, and sleep in a bed! Our mood had changed and things were looking up as we settled in for the night with a goal in mind. But then 1 a.m. came around; I woke up with my stomach not feeling the best and quite nauseous. I decided go outside in the fog and mist and do what one needs to do in the woods (I’ll leave the details out of this for all your sake). Feeling slightly better after that, I attempted to fall asleep and instead just tossed and turned. Not even 30 minutes had passed and it was evident my stomach was not improving. I started to unzip the tent, quickly put my head outside and I let it roar. Pretty sure I probably woke up everybody who was sleeping in the shelter and tenting nearby. I’m also pretty sure Alexis thought I was going to die, because when I puke, by no means am I quiet. After those two fun experiences, I was ready for morning because I tossed and turned for the rest of the night (Alexis didn’t sleep much either I’m sure). Luckily, we had cell phone reception so we sent Craig a text to pick us up where the trail crosses a road near Shady Valley, Tennessee and he came to rescue! I was feeling better that morning, but I did not have 26 miles in me! The 5 miles we had to go were plenty for me that morning. I drank some water, ate a granola bar and sandwich at Craig’s, and took a short afternoon nap I was already feeling much better. I think it was just a little 24 hour flu bug because it went away quickly and I was only achy for that day. But having Craig and Lori’s place so close to where we were was very helpful and a bed felt good that night. The next day we got dropped back off where Craig had picked us up and needed to finish the 20 miles to Damascus. For that stretch of trail we had two extra guests along with us; he decided to join us along with his daughter Gracie. We’ll turn it over to Gracie, trail name: ‘Professor Awesome’, to share her experience hiking the Appalachian Trail with us:


Hi, I am Gracie Hammond and I am a 12 year old girl from Virginia. This is the story of when I hiked 20 miles on the Appalachian Trail. When I got home from school, Lori told me that my dad was going to hike a 20 mile stretch from Shady Valley to Damascus. I thought about it and I TOTALLY wanted to go. So I begged and pleaded to Lori and she said I have to ask my dad. When my dad got home I waited until he started eating his pork chops to ask him. After a long time of waiting he FINEALLY told me I could go. Dusty, a man that works for my dad, dropped us off at Shady Valley on Thursday (I got picked up early from school). We walked through a cow pasture and saw a lot of calves. They were so cute. We walked and walked and walked. I saw a lot of pretty views. We stopped at a shelter because it was raining. But as soon as it stopped, we kept going. We could see the South Holston Lake for miles. And after a long ½ day of walking and climbing we stopped and set up camp a little ways off the trail. We walked about 6 miles that day. I had Robin Noodles for dinner and after dinner we made a fire and had smores! They were REALLY good!! The next morning we were off again. I had 2 pop tarts. We walked to a shelter where we stopped to eat lunch. My dad went on so we could get water. We walked about 2 miles and finally saw him. We walked and I was relieved when I saw the sign that said we were 4.5 miles away from Damascus. But when we were about 3 miles away from Damascus, it started to POUR THE RAIN!!! We had to stop under a tree. And after a while of sitting and getting rained on, we had to keep going, though it was still really raining. I was just happy that we didn’t have to set up camp with everything wet. When I saw the sign that said we were finally in Virginia, I started to walk really fast (I was exited to get in a warm shower at home though I HATE showers.) I saw the town of Damascus, but what I saw deceived me because there was a lot of twisting. And I finally saw the road. We had to wait in a shelter for Lori to come pick us up. When I got home I headed straight to the shower (I was soaked anyway). Though I was sore and soaked I was really proud of myself for walking 20 miles in 1 ½ days. It was a experience of a lifetime. I would defiantly do it again but I would rather not get so wet. Thank you Lexi and Brent for taking me and my Dad on this awesome adventure!!!!


The last of the North Carolina/Tennessee border straddle

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.