Thursday, April 23, 2015

The First 100+ Miles - Amicalola Falls to Franklin, NC

And we're off!  We left the lodge at Amicalola Falls on Thursday, March 19.  It was a cold and misty day as we started up the approach trail. We were excited, but nervous too. Our goal was about to do about 10 miles, and camp at a shelter about three miles beyond Springer Mountain.
Everything we had read about the approach trail was that it was a killer. It was a hard climb, but nothing more than we have done before. The rain held off as we climbed, but we did see a few big, fat snowflakes as we reached higher elevations. And soon we were there, Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
We stopped and took the requisite photos and, as you can see, it was pretty cold and damp. And that's when all the body heat sapped out of Jen, and she started shivering badly. She tried to sign the register, but could barely write. Fortunately, Springer Mountain shelter was just down the trail. We hurried there, quickly set up the tent, and dived into the sleeping bag to try to warm up. This was as far as we would make it the first day. After warming up, we quickly cooked dinner at the shelter, and went to bed before dark. 

The next day's weather was no better, cold and damp. We only planned to go eight miles, but even this turned out to be a trial. We were cold and miserable, plus Jen's feet began to hurt badly to the point where she could barely walk. This is when the doubt began to sink in. Why were we doing this? What was the point?  Honestly, we were ready to quit, only two days in. We knew we didn't want to, but we were in over our heads. We limped into Hawk Mountain shelter and decided that the next day would be our first zero day to reassess our whole plan. It would be a good decision. 

The next morning was bright and sunny. With no pressure to move on, we hung and dried out all our clothes and gear, chatted with other hikers who stopped for lunch, and lounged in the hammock. It was the perfect mental health day, and by the end, any thoughts of quitting had left us. 

The next few days went smoothly. Even though we weren't doing big miles, we were making forward progress. We fell in with a great group of fellow hikers who were at our same pace. We also experienced our first trail magic, people who come out to provide food and drinks to hikers at road crossings. Finally, we were rewarded with a beautiful day when we hiked over Blood Mountain, the highest point on the AT in Georgia. 
Soon, we were at Neels Gap and Mountain Crossing Outfitters, the first sign of civilization in a week. We resupplied our food stocks, and arranged to share a cabin with another hiker couple. We were in the Woodchuck Cabin. 
A warm bed and a shower never felt so good.  Back on the trail the next day, we continued to make progress, but our next trial would soon begin. 

We were just over a week into hiking the AT and had logged little more than 40 miles when my feet began to hurt. . . badly. It felt as though the ligaments in my feet were stretched to the limit, and my arches could collapse at any moment. Our plan was to go as far as Dicks Creek Gap at mile 70 before taking a break in the town of Hiawasse, but when we arrived at Unicoi Gap at mile 52, we decided to go to town from there. The fact that it was raining again and the temperature was going to dip into the single digits overnight made the decision that much easier. 

We spent two nights in town to let my feet recover a bit and wait for the temps to warm up. Then it was back to hiking. The next 60 miles went by much more quickly, taking only five days as opposed to the nine it took to hike the approach trail and the first 50 miles of the AT. The weather was relatively good during the days, though we did experience our first overnight thunderstorm at Sassfaras Gap. The highlight though was crossing from Georgia into North Carolina. We had just knocked the first state off the list. 

My feet were still hurting at the end of each day, and Jen's were beginning to ache again as well. Our next goal was to get to Franklin, NC and the outfitter, Outdoor 76, known by all who hike the trail for their expertise in feet and boots. The day before heading into town, we put in a 16 mile day, our biggest yet. It helped that the terrain was easy, and with our food almost gone, our packs were light. The next day we were in Franklin and at Outdoor 76. It's true that they are the foot experts. Jen and I spent four hours with them getting an in depth lesson on how feet work, and getting our foot issues diagnosed. It turned out that Jen's boots were a size too small, and the way I walked, my feet were not supporting my weight correctly. So, it was new boots for Jen, and new insoles for me. We spent so much time there that we decided to take a second day to take care of all of our other re-supply errands. 

Next up - the Great Smoky Mountains (or Great Soggy Mountains). . .

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Slacking from NOC to Fontana

At the Nantahala Outdoor Center, our friend Winston's friend Gutsy took our packs and a couple of Nantahala Brewing bombers in her van and drove them 13.4 miles to Stecoah Gap, allowing us to hike up the huge climb out of NOC in encumbered by the weight of our packs!

Muskrat and I had agreed at the beginning of our trek that we would not seek out or pay for "slackpacking," but if the opportunity presented itself, we would take it!  Boy was it blissful!! 

Before taking off, we hit the restaurant one more time for a big breakfast of eggs, bacon and sweet potato pancakes with real brewed coffee and orange juice! We had to start off fully fueled!

With 137 miles carrying our 30+ pounds under our belts, we felt pretty good hiking up the steep climb. . . We also felt guilty passing our friends along the way.

We had a daypack that we had borrowed from Gutsy, and we had packed some snacks and our water filter. The Miles passed quickly, and I hiked in my sports bra through the hot afternoon. It was a strategy to keep cool as well as a strategy to preserve the clean smell of my shirt for just one more day!

We rolled into Stecoah Gap that evening after passing one of our favorite hiker friends, Lightbulb! Gutsy was there with our packs and our beer!

We made camp on a grassy forest service road with Lightbulb, Moonbow, Lightning Bug and a few others who were all heading for Fontana in the morning! We cooked at a picnic table near the road, and met Cynthia, the proprietor of Paradise on the AT, where we would stay the night after tomorrow!  We retired to the campsite out of view from the road to enjoy our beers and commune with our fellow thru-hikers.

Sunrise, breakfast, and the arrival of some dawn hikers marked the morning. We sat and made oatmeal, catching up with some people we hadn't seen since our third day on the trail, before handing over our packs to Gutsy and heading north for Jacobs Ladder, another climb that would have taken twice as long with a full pack!

Again, we packed light, carrying only snacks, the water filter, headlamps, our wallets and first aid kit. Because of that, we learned a lesson that day... Whether or not you have a heavy pack, lunch is not an option, it's a necessity!! We gobbled all of our snacks quickly and found ourselves still starving!

We hiked through forests still mostly bare from winter, landscapes that had defined most of our hike since the beginning.  Odd to hike through leafless sleeping trees in heat bordering on late spring.

Late in the afternoon, we passed a cheap heavy tent pitched just off the trail with no one in sight. We had seen several abandoned campsites similar to this one since the start. They were always slightly creepy with their sealed up vents and quiet rustling nylon.

As we descended towards Fontana Lake and the docks where we would retrieve our packs, the whole world suddenly turned lush and green. It was as if we had hiked down the mountain into spring!  It was marvelous and beautiful to see plants springing up all around us and covering the floor of the forest!

We seemed to hike forever, a situation exacerbated by our hunger, before coming to the road crossing where Gutsy would be parked.  The sign for the docks had us whooping and trotting forward with renewed energy!

We had heard there was a bait shop here, and I had been fantasizing about all the snacks they might have for humans there... Heck, I may have fantasized about eating bait as hungry as I was!  When we came running down the steps from the road into the parking lot, we discovered that Gutsy was right where she said she would be, and the only thing available to quench my desire for snacks, was a soda machine. I purchased two cokes, and we sat chatting with Gutsy, who wanted to know if we had seen Winston, but we hadn't. 

Lightning Bug came out of the woods, and whistled for Moonbow who was coming behind her. They were going to take the shuttle into Fontana for resupply and a night out of the woods. I was tempted to do the same, but I didn't want to miss the fabled Fontana Hilton shelter and our reservation at Paradise on the AT the next night.

We learned from the guidebook that we would have to hike another 1.4 miles to get to the Hilton, named that because of the hot showers, flush toilets, beautiful lake view and large capacity at the shelter!  Ugh!! 1.4 MORE miles with PACKS?!  Gutsy offered to drive them to the shelter for us or to drive us to the shelter, but we didn't want her to leave in case Winston arrived, and we REALLY didn't want to skip 1.4 miles of trail.

Hiking with the full weight of the packs after two gloriously carefree days without them was a rude awakening. We switchbacked up from the parking lot and wound around the mountain above the edge of the huge beautiful Fontana Lake.

After many teaser views, we finally made it to the road and the shelter! The shelter itself was huge, and it was set right on the lake with a large patio, fire pit, water fountain, picnic tables, tenting platforms, and showers!!!

We claimed a tenting spot that just happened to be next to Evergreen, a hiker we met on our very first rain soaked night at Springer Mountain Shelter! She had just passed her dog, Karma, off to her family so that she could start the Smokies the next day.

We cooked dinner at a picnic table near the lake, and chatted with other hikers.  Then, I went to snag a hot shower!!  Muskrat decided to forgo a shower one more night, because we had just showered at NOC two days ago, and we would be at Paradise on the AT the following morning. I wanted to shower because I will never ever embrace the dirty hiker trash role, and because it was novel to be able to shower at a shelter!

The water was FREEZING!!  At least I still felt clean and smelled good as I went to sleep.

Morning came, and we immediately checked the weather, as we had heard there were morning storms predicted. There was a big mass of red coming out was on the radar, several severe thunderstorm warnings and lightning just a few miles out. As if on cue, thunder rolled ominously.

We snapped awake and broke camp in record time! We just finished snapping our packs shut when the first drop of rain fell.  We ran for the shelter to wait for the storm to start and wait for our 9am pickup to Paradise.

A few drops of rain, some scary looking clouds and an early pickup later, we were settling into our room at the B&B. A hot shower, breakfast and good conversation distracted us from the fact that the storm never actually happened.  Mountain weather is so unpredictable!

We shuttled into Robinsville, NC for groceries with no hope for any NC craft beers, because it's a dry county. They must hate tax revenue there, because it's not like people don't buy alcohol elsewhere and bring it home. 

A little later, our friends, GI Jane and Mushu, and their dog, Luna, arrived to stay at Paradise as well! Then a father and son who would be section hiking also arrived! Full house!!

Cynthia decided that we should all carpool over to Slickrock Grill at the Tapoco Lodge for beer and burgers and pizzas! Everyone agreed!

It was a great evening dining on delicious food and $5 craft beer (soooooo cheap!!) on a patio next to a rushing river with great company.  Back at the lodge we capped off the night standing around the kitchen talking and passing a bottle of Jameson between the 8 of us until after midnight... Real midnight, not hiker midnight!

The next morning, we said our goodbyes to GI Jane and Mushu as Cynthia dropped them off to slackpack to Fontana, before skipping the Smokies. We didn't know if we would see them again.

She dropped us off at the Hilton, and we milled around talking with Mike & Jade, the Gentlemen, Shane and Akela who were all either zeroing or contemplating zeroing at the shelter.  After catching up, we finally headed across the Fontana Dam on our way into Greak Smoky Mountain National Park under glorious blue skies!

The First State Line and Beyond to NOC

We arrived at the Georgia-North Carolina border on a GORGEOUS sunny afternoon! The occasion was marked by a wooden sign nailed to a tree and a crowd of hikers sitting alongside the trail cooking and eating lunch at the day's most important landmark.
We needed water, so we continued a bit north of the border to a stream and campsite at Bly Gap, where we made tuna wraps and sat in the sun!

When we continued up the trail, we discovered that North Carolina had a very straightforward way of getting over mountains. Straight up. Straight back down. Repeat. That was the first few miles anyway!  Oddly enough, I discovered on a map later that almost as soon as we got into NC, we turned south and hiked back towards the Georgia line before actually heading north!

Once we got over the initial steep climbs in NC, the terrain settled down a bit! We camped that night at Standing Indian Shelter, just before Standing Indian Moutain, our first climb over 5,000 feet! 

We woke to great weather after a slightly rainy night, and headed up the mountain. It was a surprisingly mild and fast hike to the top! We dropped our packs and took a side trail to the summit for the views and a snack!
Then it was a nice easy day to Carter Gap Shelter. The weather had stayed sunny and mild, so I did a little camp laundry and washed my hair with the camp shower before cooking dinner and hanging out with some new hiker friends around a really great campfire, made by a guy named FireDevil.

Even with fire and good company, Muskrat and I were beat once the sun dropped below the ridges. The next day we had the climb up Albert Mountain AND our 100 mile mark to think about! The views from the fire tower were rumored to be amazing!

We wouldn't know anything about that though, because we summited Albert, a steep rocky spike of a hike, in thick fog, wind, and rain.  We did get enough cell signal there to book a rental car and a hotel room for Franklin the next day though, so it wasn't a total loss! Also, 100 MILES!! What a milestone!
No, we didn't climb the fire tower. It was closed due to the high winds.

We had planned to stop at Rock Gap Shelter that night, then push on to Winding Stair Gap in the morning to meet Enterprise and go into Franklin for boot assessments at Outdoor 76, laundry and resupply. We were down to 2 packets of oatmeal and 2 bullion cubes in our food supply!  We ended up in a great conversation with a guy named Which Way, hiking with his wife and dad. He and his wife were married a week before we were. He was fast, and with the light load of no food, we kept up all the way to Rock Gap.

It was only 3:15 when we arrived, and we felt great, so we continued another four miles to a campsite just beyond Winding Stair. It made for a 16 mile day, our longest yet!  Now, we would only have to walk a few tenths to get to our rental car pickup in the morning!

The big draw of Franklin is an outfitter, Outdoor 76. They are known as the boot specialists of the AT. People come to them with 110 miles worth of foot ailments from the trail, and they magically unite them with the right boots, insoles or shoes to keep them walking towards Maine. With Muskrat's foot pain continuing, and mine only moderately better, we were very excited to get there. Oh, and they have a craft beer bar IN the outfitter, so that's fun too!

When we hiked out to the parking lot at Winding Stair in the morning, there was a very sweet local guy with a breakfast spread on the tailgate of his pickup! He had coffee, orange juice, fresh fruit, and homemade banana bread!

We ate and chatted with him for awhile. We also called Enterprise to let them know that they could come get us early if at all possible!  The trail angel was a great guy from Franklin who enjoys helping out the hikers with some good food now and then. We couldn't thank him enough.

The minutes ticked by, and shuttles from town and hotels came and went with hikers, and Enterprise was nowhere to be found. We called again, and they said that the guy was on the way, then that he might be lost. The trail angel offered us a ride down if they didn't show, and I wasn't going to turn it down!  Finally, 40 minutes late, the Enterprise guy arrived in a black pickup and took us into town.

Enterprise gave us an upgrade to a Nissan Xterra, which we drive at home, to make up for being late to pick us up.  Once we had the car, we rushed to check into the hotel, shower and hit the laundromat, which was conveniently located next to a bbq restaurant! We stuffed ourselves full of brisket and fries while we cleaned the hiker stink out of our clothes!

When we were finally in our freshly laundered town clothes, we headed to Outdoor 76 for what turned out to be a 4 hour shoe fitting! Muskrat got new insoles for his Asolos, and I was forced to retire my 11 year old Asolos. I mailed them home to my mom, and I left wearing a new pair of Salomons a full size and 1/3 bigger than my old boots. It turns out that I have really short toes, which make the overall length of my foot fit into a European 39, but from the heel to metatarsal heads, my foot is a size 41, so wearing a 39 crams the metatarsal heads into the toe box of a shoe, causing the pain I was feeling while hiking. Problem solved.

We ate dinner at an awesome restaurant just down the street from the outfitter called The Bowery. I highly recommend it, if you find yourself in Franklin, NC!
They love hikers here!!

The one thing we hadn't gotten done was grocery shopping, so we decided to stay a second night. Also, we wanted to go to the hiker feed that Outdoor 76 was having the next afternoon!

In the morning, we went to the baptist church for pancakes and bacon, but we missed the pancakes, because the flyer we saw was unclear about the ending time. We did get bacon, coffee, orange juice and the opportunity to send a note and a photo to my mom!

We got our groceries, packed everything up, and headed to the cookout! We saw many hiker friends at the feed, and we stuffed ourselves with hot dogs, chips, sodas and beers.

That evening we walked across the street from our hotel with another hiker, Harley, and I put away enough salad for the next five days of hiking. . . Or so I thought! I was starving in the morning!
After a hotel breakfast, we met some other hiker friends, Mac & Pace, to drop our rental cars and share a shuttle back to Winding Stair. Time to hike again!

Back on the trail, we were aiming for a meadow with a stream and tent sites at Wine Spring, just a quick 9 miles ahead. First we climbed up Siler Bald! Our first Bald!! The AT skirts the summit, so we left our packs and hiked up the side trail to the views above!
Hooray for another fine weather day!

We chatted with some other hikers at the foot of Silers Bald, and it sounded as if most people were heading for the meadow at Wine Spring, though some were contemplating staying right there because it was so beautiful.

We hiked on, and the trail paralleled a dirt road that we could see through the trees. There were more cars on it than I would have expected.  I was feeling pretty beat by the time we climbed up to a road crossing with a piped spring next to the trail. I was telling Muskrat that the road might have trail magic! I was imagining all of the delicious foods I would want to eat before the steep half mile up to the meadow.

We popped out of the woods onto the road, and there were two hikers, Moonbow and Lightning Bug sitting by the spring. They told us a car had just stopped and had given them a ton of Starburst jelly beans, because it was Easter. They offered us the handfuls that remained, and we gladly ate them!

The four of us dragged our tired selves up the hill, fueled by the sugar rush. We found what appeared to be the side trail to the campsite, but there was no water source as promised in the guide, and the meadow was right on a road that led to some communication towers. It's advised that camping in view of roads can be dangerous, and we needed water. Lightning Bug and Moonbow decided to push on, and a few others who had joined us stood discussing what our best options were. The next shelter was another 3 miles, and it was after 5.

We, along with, Mac and Pace, decided to move on to that next shelter, which meant climbing Wayah Bald. I wish I had more jelly beans!

We hiked at a pace that was much faster than our normal pace, breathing more heavily than usual as we navigated the rocky trail. The climb up Wayah Bald wasn't as challenging as we had anticipated. In fact, some of it was paved, and there was a parking lot that people could hike walk from to visit the stone tower atop the bald.  My mind turned to trail magic again!

The stone tower came into view, and there were tons of hikers gathered around a fire. There were coolers with string cheese, a guy cooking bacon, a gigantic bag full of Easter candy, and the makings of s'mores! With daylight slowly fading, and another mile to hike, we stopped and ate our fill! We took photos, enjoyed the company of other hikers and left with bellies full of bacon and sugar.
On the way down from the bald, I found a fleece hanging from a branch on the side of the trail, and picked it up in case someone at the shelter had lost it.  It's common to bring found gear to the next shelter in case someone left it by accident. It's also sadly common for people to discard gear in random places.

We did manage to make camp before dark, but we cooked, ate and cleaned up by headlamp.  I found the very grateful hiker who belonged to the fleece and was happy to be reunited with both his jacket and the cough drops in the pocket of it!  After the extra miles, it hardly mattered that our campsite was on an obvious incline. 

The following day was rainy and mild, and we were headed for Wesser Bald Shelter, just 10.5 miles away. Along the way we discussed our plans for Nantahala Outdoor Center or "The NOC."  We had called about rooms a few days ago, but were told they were full except for bunk space. We were unsure of tenting options in the immediate area, but we had to stop there long enough to get a box we had sent ourselves, purchase a canister of stove fuel, and partake in the pizza and beer at the restaurant.  Seriously, hiker hunger is REAL.

We found a spot with signal, and called about the bunk room spots only to find out that they didn't provide linens and that wouldn't work with our one double wide sleeping bag, because men and women have separate bunk houses.  The man in reservations offered us a room in a cabin that was being remodeled, and we jumped on it.  Now we had a confirmed place to sleep at NOC!

The hike to Wesser was uneventful and soggy. The shelter and tenting areas were packed when we arrived to make camp, so we ended up on a tiny tilted spot of ground on a steep hill. Wet and chilled, we cooked at the shelter and talked with other hikers as we ate.

Warm and dry in our tent, we slept uncomfortably with gravity pulling us down into a corner of our tent. At least the next night, we would be in a bed.

The morning was foggy and damp, but the clouds were higher with the promise of an at least drier day than the previous. We were excited to go fast and get to the NOC quickly, as it was only about 6 miles away and all downhill.

Ugh. The downhill was 6 miles of rocky, rooted, muddy, slippery, narrow trail that required carefully placed steps. We were moving at a crawl. We could hear the river rushing below for the longest time, but it seemed like we would never get there.  At least we had beautiful views!
We finally made it to NOC after what felt like days!  We checked in, got detergent, quarters, our box of supplies, and got the lay of the land!

The NOC is an outdoor playground where hikers, mountain bikers, and kayaker come to do their things! The Nantahala River runs right down the middle of the complex, which features a restaurant, bar, outfitter, general store, and accommodations ranging from a bunkhouse to private cabins.  They do wilderness rescue training and all sorts of other classes there. It's a place we would love to visit again.

We did our laundry, hung our tent to dry, and met up with Mac and Pace and Mike and Jade, two couples we had been hanging with since day three at Hawk Mountain, for pizza and beer by the river. We put down three large pizzas and ordered desserts! We were joined by another friend from Hawk Mountain, The Gentleman, and Akeila, a woman from Belgium.

Once all of the food was gone, and hiker midnight was sneaking up on us, we said goodnight to each other and to the other hikers at other tables and headed for bed, because we had all seen the elevation profile for the next day, and it was going to be a hard one, climbing from 1749ft. to 4710ft. in about 6 miles.

In the morning, we packaged our bounce box to ship to Damascus, and packed our gear for the long uphill day.  We went to the outfitter to get a hip pocket for my pack and a fuel canister. Then we planned to eat breakfast, buy a bomber of Nantahala Beer for the road (Muskrat promised to carry it, because he didn't get it before the general store closed the night before.), and head out! 

That was when Winston and her friend Gutsy, who wasn't hiking, but was running support, having thru hiked years ago, approached us in the outfitter with an offer we couldn't refuse! Did we want to put our packs in Gutsy's van and slackpack to Stecoah Gap tonight, then do it again the next day all the way to Fontana Dam a day early!? YES! 

Thru to Through and Back Again in North Georgia

After our delayed start at Amicalola, we hiked optimistically out into a foggy rainy morning to pick up the approach trail where we had left off. We were all wrapped in our rain gear and ready for adventure!

The hike up to Springer was challenging, but it felt good! It was windy and we saw the occasional snowflake mixed in with the rain, but hiking upwards kept us warm.

We had grand plans to summit Springer, sign the log, take some photos, and hike another 2.8 to the Stover Creek Shelter for the night. That wasn't to be though.

We made it to Springer, fogged in and without a view beyond the immediate area. The wind whipped us as that first white blaze came into view and tears of overwhelming emotion spilled down my face and my hands froze, stiff, clumsy and useless.

The first Appalachian Trail shelter was less than a mile, and we practically ran for it, over rocks and roots and mud!  We pitched the tent efficiently for it being the first time we had done so outside of our bedroom back in DC, and we huddled inside of our double wide sleeping bag until the shivering stopped and we drifted into a mid-afternoon nap.

We woke and cooked dinner of soup mix and rice in the shelter alongside several 20-somethings and their nervous parents. I have to admit that I was more than slightly jealous as the parents walked around in the fog searching for cell signal to arrange for their shuttles off the mountain the next morning. It was more of a shock than I expected to leave the comfort of a warm dry lodge and be tossed into the cold wet wilderness less than a mile into a 2189.2 mile journey. It was all a little overwhelming, and i felt deeply doubtful and sad.

The next day was slightly warmer and not quite as wet. It was a beautiful stretch of trail too, lined with leafy rhododendrons that reminded me of North Carolina. If the rain hadn't soaked us just a mile outside of camp, and if the painmy feet hadn't  slowed me to a hobble, I might have felt better. I might not have declared the thru to be through, but I did.

I spilled every doubt I had kept silent since our troubled test hike back in August, and I declared that the 12 year old girl who dreamed up this stupid idea was an idiot, and the 38 year old woman was going to end this crazy adventure right here before we got any wetter or colder or more miserable!

Muskrat listened and agreed to let me toss my long held dream away after less than 48 hours, but only after we had hiked the 31 miles to the first "town," Neels Gap.  He also wisely suggested we take the sunny next day to stay right where we were at Hawk Mountain Shelter, rest our feet, dry our gear, and relax after the rough start.

That turned out to be the perfect reset button on my mood. We spent the day lounging in our hammock while our gear and clothes dried in the sun and new faces drifted in and out of the shelter area.

By the end of the day, I wanted to hike to Maine again. We planted the seeds of our first real trail friendships, and we took what we learned during our first Appalachian Trials and made plans to deal with wet weather and pain in the coming miles.

More wet weather followed us the next day, but it didn't bother me the way it had. My boots felt ever so slightly better, and we hiked our fifth morning right into our first trail magic experience at Gooch Gap! There was a huge tent with a breakfast spread that was amazing even after just a few days on the trail!  Later that day at Woody Gap there was more magic in the form of homemade chili with soda, fruit, chips and cookies!  The sun was shining and my enthusiasm for the trail was restored completely!

The next days we saw a lot of the same faces as we all moved north at beginner's pace. It felt good to have new friends and a shared experience.

The day we climbed Blood Mountain, we leapfrogged with two other couples we'd met, setting out from Lance Creek at dawn, watching the sunrise through the trees. The six of us ate lunch atop the highest peak on the Georgia section of the AT, and descended into Neels Gap, where the trail passes right through an outfitter and hostel called Mountain Crossings. We rented the "woodchuck cabin" at Blood Mountain Cabins for the night and enjoyed frozen pizza, sodas and the company of new friends while the proprietors did our laundry!

It seemed to take forever to travel the 31 miles from Springer to Neels, but as long as I didn't think about the remaining 200+ miles, I was proud and happy to have made this milestone, where apparently, 20% of thru-hikers quit.

Leaving the warmth of the cabin in the foggy mist the next morning was difficult and accompanied by anxiety and stress, but all of that melted away as the sun came out and the woods took us back in.  I wondered if we would ever get comfortable leaving the conveniences of civilized stops.

That evening, after we filtered water for cooking, we crossed the road at Hogpen Gap and passed a group of bearded hiker dudes with coolers in the parking lot at Hogpen Gap. They told us that there wet nice tent sites just ahead and that once we were settled, we were welcome to come back down for some Busch, Bush Light, whiskey, or "Mer-LOT" or "Pee-NOT NO-r" from a box! We couldn't turn that down!

We pitched our tent and headed back to hang out with the "trail devils," Willie, Lone Wolf, and Pirate. They were kind, generous, hilarious and full of great trail advice from their multiple thru-hikes! "Watch for roots, rocks and mud. If you see something you want to look at, stop. Then look. And if you go more than a week without having any fun, go home, because if you don't, you may never come back out."

Other hiker friends gathered and joined the party, and the devils brought out a little grill, charcoal a huge package of hot dogs and some bbq chicken. The rating and drinking continued until there was no thing left and raindrops started to fall.

We raced back to the tent in the fading daylight and retreated to the dry confines, content to fall asleep with the sun.  It amazes me how quickly it became our pattern to sleep and wake with the natural rhythm of the sunrises and sunsets. "Hiker Midnight" is usually about half an hour after sunset, and the shelter areas become quiet except for the soft snoring of sleeping hikers.

Our first real town stop was a few days later when we came down into Unicoi Gap on a wet, cold, windy morning and were greeted by a crowd of hikers under a tent where a church group was serving hot coffee, hot chocolate, chips, candy, granola and freshly grilled hamburgers with all of the fixins! Heck yes!! Breakfast burgers!!

We had intended to push on two more days to Dicks Creek Gap before catching a shuttle into Hiawassee, GA, but talk amongst the hikers and a check of the weather had us considering an early town stop. There was a freeze warning for towns down off the ridges, and temps were expected in the teens and single digits at higher elevations.  Even with our 30 degree bag, the liner, and shared body heat, we decided indoors would be the better option.  We called the Holiday Inn Express, hopped in the $5 shuttle, and headed to a luxurious two night stay in the climate controlled, king size, whirlpool tub room they gave us!

Hiawassee also meant resupply at a real grocery store, hotel laundry, watching Jeff clean his plate at a Mexican restaurant for the first time, and dinner at a place that boasted "one of the largest craft beer selections in  north Georgia!" They had four. I feel sad for north Georgia, except the beers were only $5!

After hearing reports of 9 degree temps on the mountain and teens in town, we were glad we had bumped our town stop up a few days!  When it came time to leave though, we were both still anxious and stressed.  Our shuttle driver, Sally, was super sweet and put us at ease though!

The days after Hiawassee found us more and more comfortable in the woods. It was starting to feel more like home than indoors. We were learning strategies for keeping comfortable and dry, like having a set of hiking clothes and a set of camp clothes. Camp clothes have become sacred. They stay as clean and dry as possible, because they are the haven where we escape the wet and cold and sweat of the hike and get comfortable to relax and sleep.  We got faster at our setup and takedown of camp, faster at cooking and cleanup and generally happier in the woods.

We weathered our first thunderstorm of the trail one morning at Sassafras Gap, and it was incredible!!  The wind and rain lashed violently at our little tent, while lightning and thunder flashed and boomed simultaneously around us!  It was thrilling!

What wasn't thrilling about this stretch was that Muskrat's feet had begun to bother him quite a bit. I had developed strategies for keeping the pain in mine at bay, at least until we could walk to Outdoor 76, an outfitter with a foot and shoe guru in Frankiln, NC at mile 110, still 32 miles north of the GA/NC border!  Poor Muskrat was popping ibuprofen like candy to keep him arches from screaming with every step.

We kept plugging away at the miles slowly, working on getting our "trail legs," which they say takes about 300 miles.  I tried to keep from thinking about Maine and how impossibly far it was from us, keeping my eyes instead on more tangible goals, like Plumorchard Gap Shelter. . . Our last night in Georgia!