Four Pines Hostel

The view from the hostel includes a honey farm across the road. Four Pines is just .3 from the trail.
The view from the hostel includes a honey farm across the road. Four Pines is just .3 from the trail.
Inside the hostel
Inside the hostel

Four Pines Hostel is located near Catawba, VA.
Since owner Joe Mitchell and his girlfriend Donna took me to Trail Days in Damascus and back, I’m forever in their debt. I also stayed two nights, May 18-19, in their hostel, a converted 3 car garage with a bath, shower, 2 refrigerators, and a stove. If the 8 beds and 3 couches fill up, there’s two barns to sleep in as well. And it filled up both nights I stayed.
Sunday we drove back from Damascus, unloaded the truck and collapsed for the night.

Joe
Joe

Monday Miss Donna offered to slack pack me a fairly easy 6 miles from 311 southbound to the hostel. It was a good way to slowly get back into hiking.

While I enjoyed Joe, I really related to Donna. She’s witty (“if that’s true Joe, I’ll kiss your A** and give you a week to gather a crowd,”) and hard working. And I suspect she’s already dug the hole for the body of the first woman who flirts a little too long with Joe.

many thanks to them both. The hostel takes donations, which help keep it open. When I commented that you have to be a little crazy to hike this trail or take in people who do, Miss Donna said, “Ah, don’t fool yourself. Those are the only sane ones out there.”

While slack packing, I crossed the 700 mile mark!
While slack packing, I crossed the 700 mile mark!
The first half of the hike was a ridge walk. The good kind where you aren't climbing over rock out crops.
The first half of the hike was a ridge walk. The good kind where you aren’t climbing over rock out crops.
The other half of the hike was through fields or along streams. Very pleasant.
The other half of the hike was through fields or along streams. Very pleasant.
The tree canary is filling in, so most of the small forest floor flowers are nearing the end. Still some red Columbine.
The tree canary is filling in, so most of the small forest floor flowers are nearing the end. Still some red Columbine.
This is City Slicka with Daisy the Dog. City has given me lots of advice. He's a yo-yo hiker and is in his fourth continuous hiker. From Boston, he's about 40 and says before the trail he weighted 280 and sat on a bar stool all the time. We tell him he's a drunk with a hiking problem.
This is City Slicka with Daisy the Dog. City has given me lots of advice. He’s a yo-yo hiker and is in his fourth continuous hiker. From Boston, he’s about 40 and says before the trail he weighted 280 and sat on a bar stool all the time. We tell him he’s a drunk with a hiking problem.

My first zero day!

Hiawassee, GA (got off trail at Unicoi Gap, 52.9, day before).

This is my first zero day–a day with no trail miles. I’m staying in a Budget Inn in Hiawassee, GA and they will shuttle me to the trail in the morning. Of course I am doing some walking, mostly to resupply, eat and trade out gear. These rest days are critical to recovery, especially as I gain my trail legs.

My new best f
My new best friend on the trail, my new Catalyst pack which replaced my POS GoLite Jam. Notice the little monkey, made by my niece Adia.

GEAR

I really thought I had made good gear choices, but I’m finding that I need to make some serious adjustments. At Neels Gap I replaced my backpack and sent to storage about 3 pounds of unnecessary gear. My sleeping bag is simply not warm enough and I should have replaced it there as well. Instead I purchased a much better one  over the phone (from Mountain Crossings, the outfitter at Neels Gap) and it’s being sent ahead to a hostel at Dicks Gap. When I get the new one, I’ll return the older one to REI (Thanks for a wonderful return policy!). This will be warmer and save me almost a pound in weight. Today, I  got a 1 ounce knife to replace my 3 ounce Leatherman mini. I replaced my Snow Peak stove and windscreen for a Jet Boil system. It’s slightly heavier, but heats 2 cups of water in under 2 minutes, saving fuel and time standing around in the cold waiting for tea in the morning. Because I will only have to carry one fuel canister instead of two, it’s only a few ounces more overall.

My tent is the best piece of equipment I purchased. The Big Agnes, Fly Creek UL2 is one of the most popular on the trail. My down jacket, fleece cap and rain jacket have been lifesavers, but I threw out the Packa. Great concept, but it didn’t work for me.

HEALTH

I’m feeling better. This morning was the first that I didn’t throw up. As you can imagine, this has kept me from consuming much food at one time or drinking a lot of water. As a result, I may have dropped a couple pounds! But you can’t hike far unless you are hydrated and fed, so it’s slowed me down. Still not sure what the malady is, but I seem to be getting over it. Slowly.

Though I am a bit stiff in the morning, I have not been truly sore, probably because of the low mileage. It is critical to fully recover overnight and not push myself to the point of pain. These young men can tell themselves “No pain, no Maine” as much as they want, but that’s not a strategy for someone my age. For me, the key to finishing is to avoid injury and just keep moving forward at a pace I can maintain. The miles will take care of themselves as long as I don’t stop. It does not matter if I’m the last one to summit Katahdin. I just remind myself that if I allow myself to recover each night, I will be stronger by April and can increase miles then.

My Merrill's . I had replaced the insole with a thicker, cushier one, but now that my feet a swollen from walking, they get a bit tight. My solution, for now, is to cut out the toe section of the insole to give me more room.
My Merrill’s . I had replaced the insole with a thicker, cushier one, but now that my feet a swollen from walking, they get a bit tight. My solution, for now, is to cut out the toe section of the insole to give me more room.

The other key, IMHO, is foot health. I have dutifully stuck with the “duel sock method.” That means I wear a thin liner sock beneath a thick hiking sock. It reduces abrasion and I’ve had no blisters. I also inspect my feet each night before putting them in thick, warm, dry socks that I carry just for sleeping. This morning was the first that my feet were tender upon rising, but I did 3 miles of rocky trail at speed yesterday, in addition to my highest mileage day with no break. Considering, I think they are doing well. Wish I had gotten a half size larger shoes, because my feet swell and could use more room. But the style and performance of my Merrells is great. They’ve stayed dry and handle the rugged terrain very well.

I do have a few more bruises and cuts than when I started. A scrap across the back of my knee is a mystery, but I remember getting both the bruises on my upper arms as chunks of ice fell from trees overhead. THAT was a walk I’ll never forget. Glad I’ve been through it, but hope to never repeat it! Other than that, a couple small bruises that I can’t account for. Nothing major. I did have a bit of low energy today, but a zero day, hydration and a couple nights in a warm bed should cure me.

My new Jet Boil and tiny knife with scissors. They are small, but I used them to cut down my thick shoe insoles.
My new Jet Boil and tiny knife with scissors. They are small, but I used them to cut down my thick shoe insoles.

But I’ve discovered a new malady that I’ve not seen before–a dry, sore throat. It’s the cold, dry air combined with the extra breaths needed to hike. I’ve become a mouth breather! My throat is just a bit raw, but extra fluids and breathing through my nose made a big difference today.

SHOULDA, WOULDA, COULDA

A phrase you hear a lot on the trail! In hindsight, I wish I’d have dumped Sprint and gotten Verizon as my wireless carrier. Much better reception on the trail. While I can often send a text and check simple apps, I can almost never make a phone call. Hope the situation will be better farther north, but I doubt it.

We’ve had our first 2 hikers leave the trail. Both are experienced long distance hikers–they’ve done the CDT and hiked the AT 3 times. He is having back pain and she wrenched a knee. Did I mention it pays to be lucky, too? I’m sure there are others who left quietly as well.

Just spent an hour talking to Katniss and her husband Ben, plus a new hiker, Tex. Tex is having knee problems and is taking his second zero this week. Before long, Katniss and I had stepped away from the boys to discuss the “special” issues women face on the trail. Menstrual cycles are a huge pain and you have to use special supplies that are biodegradable or pack everything out (the officially preferred method. Preferred by men, that is.). Chaffing is a problem! As gross as it may sound to you ladies I have found it impossible to wear underwear and hike more than a few miles without chaffing. I go without. Katniss was coming to the same conclusion. I carry baby wipes to clean up my privates every night. Katniss had just gotten some Vagisil wipes for the same purpose. She also has trouble with constipation, a common complaint. Men do have it easier. It would be so nice to stand up, with a pack on, to pee!

HIKER TRAITS

Did you know that hikers have their own way of blowing their nose? With all the cold air and wind, you can’t stop your nose from running. But you can’t carry a box of Kleenex either. Most everyone has a bandana, but it doubles as a neck warmer, washcloth and headscarf, so you don’t want to use it for your nose. Instead, you stop, bend at the waist, plug one nostril and blow off trail. Repeat other side. Really. You get good at it too.

REMINDERS

After theses days on the trail, I’m reminded how wonderful modern conveniences are. Being able to turn a tap for clean water, a machine that washes my clothes, and a heater that works with a single button, seem like miracles! We forget how lucky we are. Even that horrible sagging mattress made me smile last night.

The ability to just throw away trash is amazing. I have to pack out every Cliff Bar wrapper for days before I can get it in a trash can! It really shows you how much trash we create every day.

I’ve signed up for the 9a shuttle to Unicoi Gap, 52.9. My plan is to hike to Tray Mountain Shelter, 58.6. It’s only 5.7 miles, but straight up, straight down then up again. It will be tough enough for me! As I type this I’m listening to the young men outside my window brag about “big miles” and “no pain, no Maine.”  Let ’em talk!

Along the AT, Neels to Unicoi Gap

This is the "boot tree" in front of Mountain Crossings, the outfitter and hostel at Neels Gap, mikes 30.7. The entire area was quite frozen this morning. An ice storm came in over night and everything was covered in ice. I was lucky to be safe in the hostel that night, but had to hike out in it.
This is the “boot tree” in front of Mountain Crossings, the outfitter and hostel at Neels Gap, mile marker 30.7. The entire area was quite frozen this morning. An ice storm came in over night and everything was rimmed ice. I was lucky to be safe in the hostel that night, but had to hike out in it the next morning.

March 4: Neels Gap (31.7) to Hogpen Gap (38.6)

This is my coldest hiking day ever! It was icy but beyond beautiful leaving the shelter this morning. There had been an storm overnight and I was lucky to have been inside. Could not leave the hostel until 9a. A late start for me, but I had a few items that needed drying overnight before I sent them back to be stored (Thanks Sue for storing my stuff!!)

Frozen morning.
Frozen morning.

My new pack, loaded, now weighed in at 27 pounds and the fit was so much better (a loss of 3 pounds). I’d like to believe there is a pound less of me, too! Still the weather was down right frightening to hike out into. All the trees were coated with ice, some even doubled over with the weight.  Spiderwebs coated in ice were the prettiest thing I’ve seen in a long time. The frozen trail crunching under my feet was the only sound for the first 2 hours while I walked in a frozen fog. Though the forecast said it would warm, you couldn’t tell it by me. That’s the problem with forecasts written for the towns in the valley, while you are hiking 1-3 thousand feet higher in elevation. By 11a some of the ice was beginning to fall, sounding like shattering crystal hitting the ground. At first it was just small pieces, but as the day progressed they got much larger. It was also dangerous, and I got bruised on both arms from falling chunks of ice and limbs.

Iimage was grateful for the two young men on top of Cowrock Mt, or I would have lost my way. The path makes a U-turn, and isn’t well marked at all. I did briefly lose the path going down to Tesstatee Gap. It was a huge decent, my toes sore from hitting the ends of my shoes. When I finally was at a low enough level I actually got below the cloud (basically a frozen fog). The temperature dropped enough to cause the trees to drip. It was the first blue sky I’d seen for 3 days. I had to put on my rain jacket and pack cover, there was so much water! Ice was falling everywhere. At the bottom were 2 Trail Angels serving snacks and hot chocolate. One called himself King Tut and was very talkative and funny. After that morning, I could really use a laugh and some encouragement. The other man barely spoke, but he mixed me some hot chocolate that was as welcomed as the other’s words of encouragement. But the falling ice kept plopping into my cup from the trees overhead. Ended up with a bit of the drink on my shirt.  The men were from a church group and offered colorful hand knitted beanies. I didn’t take one, but saw them in use for weeks after along the trail

Climbing out of the gap was tough. Very tough. Straight up I walked, 7 steps and rest, the whole way. It was only supposed to be .7 miles and I was sure I had passed the entrance to Whitley Shelter. I’d committed to hiking on if I passed it–I could not even think of backtracking. When the sign for the shelter appeared I realized it was 1.2 miles additional into the shelter off the trail! Someone had crossed that out and written in 2.1. That decided it. I walked down the hill to Hogpen Gap. It was bound to be a degree or two warmer at a lower level, too. I found good water and a grassy area not beneath the trees, which were still dropping ice and occasionally large limbs. Though I would not usually have stayed so close to the road, it seemed safer than under the trees. Two young men also camped there with me, one not yet trail named (we later named him Tweedle Dee) and his buddy Long Stride. It was a bit breezy for my preference, but the wind had been going since afternoon. Several cars stopped to see if we needed help. Gotta love Southern hospitality!

imageThe truth is, this was my coldest night outside in my life. It was colder than my 25F rated sleeping bag. I added a liner and almost every piece of clothing I had. Even stuck the foot of my sleeping bag into my backpack. It was hours before I was finally warm enough to sleep. Though the spot looked flat enough when I set up the tent, it turned out to be at a slight slope and I kept sliding. I couldn’t seem to find a comfortable position and tossed all night, listening to the ice falling in the woods. Wasn’t comforting either.

March 5 Hogpen Gap 38.6 to Low Gap Shelter 43.2

Cold. Very cold packing up. I had not slept well and that didn’t help. It was 40 minutes until I could feel my feet. The first 2 hours was dodging falling ice. I’m sure I have a another bruise on my arm from a large chunk. (Actually I have bruises on both arms) I had to walk carefully over the piles of ice to not slip. Not a good day to make up for lost time walking. A young man in wild, colored patch pants (he said he got them in Africa) had stayed in the Whitney shelter, the one I bypassed the night before. He said it was every bit of 1.2 miles to walk in–miles that don’t count because they are off trail! He barely got any sleep for cold temperatures and ice falling on the metal roof of the shelter. He said the wind blew right into the sleeping platform, so he got up twice in the night and did jumping jacks and push ups to warm up.

So today was a short day, less than 5 miles. I made it to the shelter just after 11a. The sun finally came out at 1p and I took a nap in my sun drenched, solar heated tent, truly warm for the first time since I left the hostel at Neels Gap. I had plenty of time to hike on, but no energy. I hope the extra rest and sunshine will restore my health.

I love staying at the shelters. Actually, I still camp in my tent because it’s warmer, cleaner and you only have to listen to your own snoring. But hiking is a fairly solitary activity. Staying at a shelter is a social event. Tweedle Dee and Long stride (20yo, best friends) worked for hours to start a fire, but Fireman’s Daughter (roughly 15, section hiking with her parents) got it going in minutes. Such a great group at the shelter and the fire was welcome on such a clear cold night. Surrounding it were a few characters: Sunrise is a married 20 something who recently quit her full time sales job in radiology. She’s also a part time REI employee with a leave of absence. A beautiful, thin blonde bicyclist, she had to work for 2 months to gain 7 extra pounds to start hiking! There’s a problem I don’t have. She is up by 4:30a most mornings and out of camp 30 minutes later. The sun doesn’t come up until 7a. Sage is a very handsome, black haired guy in his early 20’s. I later found he was carrying a huge loaf of banana nut bread. Sage is hiking with Jemima, another mid-20 yo, and a man despite the handle. He wears a red bandana to keep the sweat from his eyes. He’s a very pale blonde. When asked about the bandana, he said he was going for a rapper look. Someone replied he looked more like Aunt Jemima. This is how trail names are born!  Columbus and his fiancée Queen Izzy (formerly just Queen) didn’t join the fire. An odd, but intelligent young Jewish man, with no trail name yet, joined the group. He was trying a bit too hard to fit in, but did have some great jokes and puns. (Michael–you would love them. All real groaners!)  Happy and his 2 hiking buddies dropped by just before my nap. He had colorful dreadlocks–yellow, red, and blue mixed with his black hair. Happy used to weigh 400 pounds, but is now below 250 and hiking strong. (Skittles–Huge calves! Reminded me of you). Tweedle Dee and Long Stride plan to meet their girlfriends on the NC border soon, so they will be doing big miles from now until then. Not sure they will finish, but it’s clear they are having an adventure and learning outdoor skills. My favorite is Mr Blue Sky. He started a southbound hike from Mt. Katahdin, Maine, last year in mid-June. In December he got off the trail in Damascus, Virginia. Now he’s finishing by starting at Springer Mt., the southern trail terminous, and hiking north. Great attitude and full of the information that thru hikers (a scant week into their adventure) crave. Canary got her name because she was singing on the trail to brighten her mood. She is hiking with a girlfriend who has rejected several trail names. Though no one had seen her since Neels, everyone was still talking about the girl who hiked the PCT last year and this year was carrying a 14 pound pack–that includes water and food! She carries an umbrella that attaches to her pack strap, presumably for rain and sun. There was a lot of discussion about how she would make the transition from Pacific Crest trail to AT. I think she’s doing just fine! There was a single hiker I met called Tracks. She’s the only mature, solo female thru hiker I’ve met. But she didn’t join the fire circle. Said it was a tough day and she needed to turn in early. Hope to see her again, though she may be a stronger hiker than I am, and she may just pass me by. That’s the hard part for me. I’m just not moving at the same rate as most of these hikers, so I may never see them again.

I turned in long before the circle broke up. Walking to my tent to turn in, I could see the sparks of the fire flying up to meet Orion and the crescent moon. I’m tired and not yet feeling strong, but I feel privileged to be out here.

imageMarch 6: Low Gap Shelter 43.2 to Unicoi Gap 52.9

This was my biggest mileage day so far, but that wasn’t the plan. Guess it’s no surprise my trail name is Plan B.

The wind started sometime in the middle of the night. According to the weather app on my iPhone, it would be warmer than the freezing temps I woke up to, but rain was coming in mid afternoon, changing to freezing rain then snow overnight. Oh joy. I decided to leave early, by 7:45, and make sure I could get floor space at the next shelter, Blue Mountain, 7.3 miles away. According to the guidebook, topography was the flattest seen yet–though there is nothing flat about the Georgia AT. I hiked strong for the first five miles, mostly because I was trying to get out of the bitter wind. It’s the first time I’ve hiked almost the entire day with a winter hat, gloves and a rain jacket to cut the icy wind. It was too cold to stop for a rest. When I grabbed my water bottle for a drink, it had ice around the rim. The apricot Cliff Bar was so frozen I had to hold it in my mouth for a minute before I could chew. At the five mile mark, those who stayed in the shelter with me began to pass me. I was slowing down. Those last 2.3 miles were at a snail’s pace and though they were mostly on the leeward side of the mountain, it was still breezy and very rocky.

Art along the trail
Art along the trail

When the shelter came into view I was so happy. The water was on the trail just as the shelter came into view, so I downed what little water I had left and refilled my liter bottle. But my smile faded the closer I got to Blue Mountain shelter. The view from the front was beautiful, but the bitter wind was blowing directly inside. Shelters are just three walls and a roof, with one side completely open with no door to close it off if the wind or rain is blowing in. I’d been fighting against the wind since morning, but this was the most exposed spot I’d seen all day. There were 7 people in the shelter when I arrived at 12:30p, all people I’d met over the last 2 days. They were discussing what to do. For me, it was no question. This was not a safe place to stay. I had only enough phone service to send a text. I couldn’t make a call. (Note to future thru hikers: Verizon is the only phone service that seems to work on this section of the AT. ) Canary had a phone that worked and I called the Budget Inn in Hiawassee, GA. They would pick up all 8 of us, free of charge, but we had to hike to the bottom of the mountain: 2.4 more miles.  I was tired. I had hiked over 7 miles with no more than a 1 or 2 minute break because it was too cold to stay still. And they wanted to pick us up shortly after 2. It’s was a Plan B, but not an easy one for me. Everyone else was a stronger hiker than I, plus they’d had a rest break.

I was the last one down that rocky mountain, but I made it before the shuttle. Though Sunrise had joined the other 7 there at the base, she decided at the last minute to hike on. I worry about her now as I listen to wind and rain.

The hotel is completely filled by thru hikers. I’m relieved to see many of them here, safe and warm. As I type this I’m freshly showered, my laundry is clean and the freezing rain has already started out my window. I am safe and warm and I’ve even had pizza! Lying in a sagging, cheep hotel bed never felt so good.

So with six days in, I’m at 52.9 official miles. Slow progress, but it’s progress.

Into My Own

350px-Rainy_Blue_Ridge-27527One of my favorite poets is Robert Frost (Pulitzer Prize winning American poet, 1874 – 1963). Everyone quotes “The Road Not Taken” and that seems a perfect metaphor for my upcoming Appalachian Trail journey. “Two roads diverge in the yellow wood….”

Except, I’ve always been drawn to “Into My Own” one of Frost’s early poems, written when he was a young man and published in a collection called A Boy’s Will. It’s not as well. known. The title of the book mystified me initially, but I think I understand it now.

The poem talks of a line of “dark trees” that are “So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze.”

I should not be withheld but that some day

Into their vastness I should steal away,

Fearless of ever finding open land,

Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,

Or those should not set forth upon my track

To overtake me, who should miss me here

And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—              

Only more sure of all I thought was true.

(Italics are mine)

But I will be changed. Only in youth do you think that you will take on the world, conquer it and that life will not alter you. Only when you are very young do you think you have all the answers. The wise know better. You are forever changed by challenges. You get a different perspective, come across better information and discover new truths. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon the beliefs of your youth. But you just may find that it makes sense to do so.

And when you are very young with energy to spare, you may see everything as a battle. It’s like the old adage, if the only tool you know how to use is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Hiking is like that too. You don’t beat the mountains. You don’t conquer the trail. These will still stand when you are gone and forgotten. You put one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Like life, it’s a journey. And you will not be the same, should not be the same, once you’ve finished.

I wonder what changes are in store for the next 2185 miles….

No turning back now

I’ve given my notice at work and will be leaving my day job on January 31. I’m not leaving for another job, however. I’m preparing for an adventure!

imageStarting March 22, I will hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, GA to Mt Katahdin, MA, through 14 states. It will take 6+ months and almost 2200 miles. I’ll live out of a backpack and sleep in a tent, with weekly stops to civilization to resupply (and hopefully a shower and laundry).

(NOTE: I later moved the start date to March 1)

Answers to obvious questions that usually come up at this point: I’ve wanted to do this since I was 12. Yup, this is crazy.

When I finish the trail, I plan to come back to Atlanta briefly. Not yet sure where I’ll start, but I plan to travel the world by teaching English, plus some writing/blogging/travel services and whatever comes up.

I’ll probably never again own much more than what will fit in a couple suitcases, but I will have a rich, interesting life. Please, follow along right here. I expect to be able to post periodically as I hike. If you’d like to support me, here’s a list of things you can do.