Saturday, December 20, 2014

Trail Angels and Trail Magic

You've planned for the 100 Mile Wilderness. You've got 10 days of food and all the gear you need for a thru-hike. You're excited to start and bit nervous. There are other wide eyed, clean shaven kids ready to begin the same day as you. You set off. After a grueling two long days of hiking, you finally come to a sign that says "Welcome to the 100 Mile Wilderness. You should have 10 days of food before entering." Wait what!? You thought... damn. You only have 8 days of food left. You push as fast as you can trying to make up days but are still shy a day of food. Then one couple who had prepared a bit better gives you a full days worth of food. That, my friend, is Trail Magic. And those lovely people, Drew and Christine, who have now become close friends, are Trail Angels. 

Trail Angels take many different forms and preform all kinds of Trail Magic. They pick us up when we need rides. They leave coolers full of sodas on the trail for hikers to take. They pick up your tab for you. They sometimes even bring you home and let you take a shower and sleep in a bed. We met a lovely couple on the trail named Jim and Jocelyn. They were out hiking for the day and invited us back to their place for a shower. After dinner, they rolled out a huge comfy mattress, rearranged the living room so it would fit, and offered us a reprise from the tent. They're both amazing musicians and Jim was so kind as to play us a tune on the piano before bed. Jocelyn is the drummer for a band named Pearl and the Beard. Check them out!

Some Trail Angels do so much trail magic that they have nick names that hikers call them. The "Ice Cream Man" Bill Ackerly has a sign on the trail pointing toward his house. He gives thousands of ice cream sandwiches away every year and requires you to join him fir a game of croquet before headed off down the trail. The "Breakfast Lady" rings a bell from her front porch as you pass inviting you in for a cup (or 3) of coffee and breakfast. There was another guy who drives to various points on the trail with a small BBQ pit in the bed of his truck, cooking hikers hot dogs as they pass. A guy named Rob drives a white van named Casper. He rescued us from a freezing snowing night, gave us a place to sleep, and took us out for all you can eat wings. 

We met a guy named Richie who couldn't believe Holly was out here living in a tent. He stopped by our table on the way out of the pizza joint, handed me a $100 bill, and said "Go take her somewhere nice."

We were hiking in the Whites in New Hampshire. We climbed Mt Madison which was a beast of a climb. We finally hit to ridge line and were supposed to stay at that elevation for 12 miles up over Mt Washington. As soon as we hit the ridge line, a thunderstorm came rolling over Mt Washington right at us, so reluctantly, we started back down another side of the mountain trying to get below tree line. We came across a small cabin who's caretaker, Adam, was a former thru-hiker. He gave us a free place to stay, cooked us fat pork chops, and offered wine and good music. What began as a terrible day ended up being one of the many highlights of our trip. 

We met a section hiker in New Hampshire who told us to give him a call when we got to Tennessee. Said he had a place right off the trail. He drove an hour and a half from Asheville to meet us on the trail, took us to his gorgeous vacation home in the mountains, and spoiled us for a day. We ate some amazing stew, relaxed, and soaked in a hot tub over looking some of the most beautiful mountains on the trail.

We were so lucky to be in the right place and the right time. Without even planning it, we happened to be in Hot Spring NC, near where my Aunt Judy and cousins Callan and Maggie live, during Thanksgiving. We had been hiking through freezing temperatures and lots of snow for nearly a month and were extremely worn down. Callan picked us up and took us to the house, where we spent 4 days recovering, eating LOTS of wonderful food, and enjoying some amazing company.

Then there are the people from home who send you care packages along the way.  Our wonderful friends and family spoiled us with packages full of our favorite trail treats. Thank you so very much Chris & Renee, BJ & Allison, Jody & David, Joe and Darlene, Bevans and Anne, Grandma Broussard, Corinne, Aaron, Jameson, Christy & Jeff, and Ron and his wife! The food you sent helped fuel us along our way. Beau's parents were a huge help not only because they became our pup's caretakers (as well as Lizzie & Aure) while we were away, but also by sending us care packages, taking care of tasks we were unable to complete while away, and managing all of the gear we sent home.  The letters of support we received from Jameson, Aaron, Renee & Chris, Christy, and Corinne came at particularly well timed moments to encourage us along our way.  We also want to thank Jen and Skeeter for letting us crash with them in Boston twice! Your hospitality is greatly appreciated! And then we can't forget all of the people who supported us by leaving comments on our blog and on facebook.  Thank you guys!  You made us feel like rockstars and we truly hope we were as inspiring as you all said we were.  

We met many beautiful people on our trip, but two of our favorites are Drew and Christine.  We hiked the 100 mile wilderness together then met up with them in Virginia and hiked the rest of the trip together.  Thank you guys for all of the laughs and encouragement on those frigid days!  We will never forget waking up to snow for the first time, our "Mexican Standoff" in the Smokies, Drew and Beau's bromance, Holly being trained with tootsie rolls, and so many other hilarious memories.  We hope we get to see you guys again soon and congratulations on your engagement!  Fair Weather Friends for life! :)

Because of the help and encouragement we received along the way from all you lovely trail angels we finally crossed the finish line on December 15th with Drew and Christine.  It took us a total of 6 months and 2 days.  The day we finished a couple of other close friends (Mellow and his dog yellow) surprised us by waiting for us at the top of Springer with hugs and home made cookies in hand.  They made an already amazing day more special with their presence. The sky was blue, the air was warm, and we had butterflies when we finally made it to the top.  After summiting we started down the approach trail to meet up with Christine's Uncle Dan.  We popped open a bottle of champagne, Dan passed out beautiful engraved champagne flutes, and we toasted to finally being done!  What a finish!  Thank you Uncle Dan and Lori for braving that horrible back road, the beautiful champagne flutes, your hospitality, and all of your kind words.  

Now we are back home with our sweet dog trying to make sense of life in the real world. We have friends to see, a house to arrange, and thank you cards to create.  Life back home is a tad overwhelming compared to trail life, but we are making an effort to keep the tranquility we found in the woods present.  Overall, we are extremely grateful for the experience and the lessons it taught us along the way!

Friday, December 5, 2014

All You Need to Know About Bears

One of the first questions everyone asks us out here is, "Have you seen any bears?" Nope. "Don't worry," they say. "New York has tons of bears. You'll see one there." We didn't. "Definitely New Jersey though. New Jersey has the densest population of black bear on the East Coast." Nope. "Well, for sure the Shenandoah National Park. The bears there aren't scared of humans and many know how to get your bear bag down." Not a one. 

We came to one shelter in the Shenandoah that had a problem bear. This bear attacked a hiker's tent while he was in the privy, popping his blowup mattress and stealing his clothes bag. It stole other hiker's food as well. The rangers trapped the bear the day before we got to the shelter and shipped it far away. No bears for us. Not in the Shenandoah. 

We came to a 35 mile section of trail in Tennessee that was closed to camping and even 'lingering' due to a problem bear. We lingered, ate lunch, hiked slow... didn't see her though. 

The Smoky Mountains are notorious for bears. Each shelter has warning signs and bear cables to hang your food out of bear's reach. This section has the highest elevation of the entire AT, so we were expecting freezing temperatures and lots of snow. Other southbounders who crossed the Smokies before us had to trudge through 2 feet of snow... we did not. In fact, the Smokies were the ONLY place since November 1st (Bland, VA) that we have NOT seen snow! It did rain on us everyday, but the temperature was mild never getting colder than the low 40s. Did we see any bears? No. 

We've seen just about every other animal though. Our tent was nearly stepped on by a momma moose and her calf... while we were in it. A baby lynx tried to follow us down the trail. We nearly stepped on a baby white tail deer that was so young (and scared?) that it didn't even move when we pet it. A luna moth spent 1 day of its 1 week adult life with us. A porcupine waddled nonchalantly away while we passed. Grouse seemed to think they owned the trail in Maine (I thought they were trail chickens).  A red fox tried to steal a chicken from a farm we stayed at. Hundreds of neon orange salamanders littered the trail in Vermont. Herds of wild ponies live on the trail 5,000 feet up in the Greyson Highlands. Squirrels, chipmunks, and mice tried to steal our food nightly. We've seen just about every animal out here except for bears. 

I'm kinda bummed. I'm starting to think it's not going to happen. Holly says we've seen plenty of bears. Seeing two bears in the Bear Mountain Zoo does NOT count, I say! You would think that living amongst an estimated 300,000 bears for 5 months, we would see at least 1... just 1... that's all I ask. 

Other hikers claimed they saw plenty of bears and recorded they're experiences for us in the trail logs. From them we've learned quite a lot about bears. I will share some of that knowledge. 

Bear Fact #1: Bears love techno. As lovers of techno, I assume I've scared most of them away since I've been listening to a bunch of bluegrass and singing Up On Cripple Creek at the top of my lungs. 

Bear Fact #2: Bears were the first to wear coon-skin hats. It wasn't until years later when Daniel Boone picked up the fashion that many bears stopped wearing them because coon-skin hats became too hipster. 

Bear Fact #3: Bears' favorite drink is hot chocolate. I'm starting to question this fact because we've drunk hot chocolate nearly every night and not a single bear came to join us.

Bear Fact #4: When greeting someone, Bears prefer to give hugs rather than handshakes, even when they've never met you before. This is where the term 'bear-hug' comes from. 

Bear Fact #5: Bears despise selfies. They'll tell you it's because they don't like being placed in the same category as teenage girls, but I know it's really because their arms are too short for a good shot. 

So, the next time you're hiking in the woods, remember these important facts and you'll be fine. Crank up the tunes, offer up some hot chocolate and brace yourself for the biggest, most satisfying hug ever, and you're sure to have a new friend. Whatever you do, Don't Run! 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Throwing in the Towel

I wanted to include this post to remember some of the more difficult times as well as show that it is not just Holly has had moments when she is ready to quit.. I hit that point a few days ago as well. 

I sprained my ankle a couple weeks ago while sprinting down a mountain and have been hobbling on it for about 200 miles now. One of my trekking poles broke so I've been walking with a 'cane.' I hurt my neck and can't even take off my pack without Holly's help. We were expecting to see a few days of snow in the Smokey Mountains; instead, we've hiked through snow every single day of November. We've been freezing night after night and haven't even reached the Smokies yet. Our sleeping bags are rated for 20 degree temperature and we pushed that limit one evening. And I've had a head cold. The following is from my journal entry a few days ago. 

"I'm so sick and tired of snow. I'm tired of being hurt. I'm tired of waking up to frozen shoes. I'm tired… just plain exhausted. I barely slept a wink last night as I was shivering constantly. We set up our tent on the snow and it felt like I was sleeping on a bed of ice all night long. I don't know how much more of this I can take." 

I feel better now. It rained the following day and instead of walking in it (which would have probably sent me over the edge) we decided to take the day off and zero in one of the shelters with friends. Friends help as well. 

Holly has been extremely supportive and helped push me when I was ready to quit. We've also been hiking with another couple for a while. Drew (trail name: The Runaway) and Christine (trail name: Mononoke) have been an absolute pleasure to hike with. We actually started the trail on the same day as them and hiked all through the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine together (which is still one of the most memorable parts of the trail). They got ahead of us when we went home for my mole removal, but we were able to catch back up with them nearly 4 weeks ago in Virginia. We've been hiking together ever since. 

Hiking together with another couple has really helped motivate us to keep going. We've been snowed in together for days at a time and have kept each other entertained playing speed scrabble and reminiscing about the trail. When one or two of us don't feel like hiking, the others encourage us to keep moving. And I feel more confident that if we hit multiple feet of snow and/or super freezing temperature in the Smokies, we'll be safer in numbers. They've truly become close friends. 

We have now taken several days off for Thanksgiving celebrating with my aunt and cousins in Marshall, NC. I feel rejuvenated and excited that we only have 14 days of hiking left! So close! We got this!

Monday, November 17, 2014


"Oh, you won't have to worry about the snow," they said. "It doesn't get really cold until January." Hmm... Why do THEY always lie. 

We woke up the morning of Halloween to snow covering everything. We ran 12 miles as fast as we could to the nearest town to find some respite and waited for the snow to melt. It didn't. Then it snowed again... and again. We've been walking in snow nearly everyday since Halloween. It has been so abundant us southbounders have taken to calling each other Snobos. 

Luckily there has been an abundance of hostels and towns well spaced out. Some days we've had to push pretty big miles to make it to them, but 23 miles is totally worth sleeping indoors when possible. We've been able to warm up many nights, but not always. 

A few days ago, we pushed 21 miles in the freezing rain to make it to a hostel, but no one was home. We were soaking wet and the temp was dropping fast, so we checked every building on the property trying to find somewhere to hunker down. We found a shed that had a set of bunk beds in it and decided to stay. Holly and I shared the bottom bunk while three other people we've been hiking with crowded in with us. There was just barely enough room for everyone to lay down. 

The next morning, the thermometer inside the shed read 25 degrees. Our water bottles were frozen, our socks were frozen, even our shoes were frozen solid. We had to 'crack' our shoe laces and tongues, and could still barely get our shoes on to hike out. 

We learned a few tricks in order to stay warm. The most effective advice is Don't Stop. As long as we're moving, we're fine. The moment we stop, the cold takes over FAST. Luckily we're in good enough shape that we can walk 20+ miles without stopping. The other trick is plastic grocery sacks on the feet. We're hiking in breathable mesh trail runners that get soaked when walking through the snow. By putting our feet in grocery sacks before putting on our shoes, we're able to keep enough snow out to keep our feet warm... warm enough. 

We are currently stuck in a lovely lady's house who lives a half mile off the trail. There are seven hikers sleeping all over her house trying to avoid this crazy weather. It snowed all day today and tonight the temp is dropping into the single digits with a high of 20 tomorrow. Of course, it's our luck that we are hiking in the Appalachian Mountains when record breaking lows hit the East Coast. 

It's not all bad though. The snow is absolutely stunning when the sun comes out and we're high on the mountain tops. Guess its just all part of the experience. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Trail Challenges

Hiking the 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail is a challenge enough as is, but some hikers, bored along the way, decided to come up with additional trail challenges. For the gamers out there, these challenges are kind of like achievement points. They don't really count for anything, but perhaps you can brag about completing them to other thru-hikers. 

Maine is still the most difficult section of the trail we've completed. We were just getting our trail legs under us and conditioning our feet to the rough terrain. The climbs were steep, there were rocks and roots everywhere, and the river fording was quite dangerous at times. Some of the rivers came nearly chest high and we heard of at least one southbounder who got swept downstream. There were laminated paper signs everywhere in Maine asking us to keep a look out for a 60 year old lady who disappeared last year and most likely was swept away by one of the rivers. This is where we learned about the first trail challenge (really more of a tradition). National Hike Naked Day.

June 21, also known as the summer solstice as well as our wedding anniversary, is the day the hikers across the nation take off their clothes and hike in their birthday suits. Unfortunately, this day turned out to be one of the hardest days of the entire trip. We hiked all day over very difficult terrain. Our knees were hurting, our feet were hurting, and we didn't get to the shelter (which was half a mile off the trail) until 8:30 that night. Too tired to set up the tent, we decided to risk sleeping in the shelter (which turned out disastrous). Unable to sleep because of the shelter shaking snorer next to us, Holly rolls over with tears in her eyes and whimpers, "Next year we're going to be on a beach somewhere." 

Pennsylvania was flat. In fact it was the flattest section of the entire trail, but it was very rocky. None of the rocks would lay flat either. We could do bigger days because of the lack of elevation change, but our feet were killing us after 20 miles of waking on the points of rocks all day.  Pennsylvania did offer us a wonderful milestone though - the halfway point. There was a convenient store near the halfway point that was the home of the Half Gallon Challenge. I was shocked at how many people were able to eat a half gallon of ice cream, many completing it in under 40 minutes. All the ice cream was gone by the time we arrived so I had to complete it later on at a DQ - 27 min - yum!

There are some crazy trail challenges as well. Instead of sleeping in the shelter, the Snoopy Challenge involves spending the night on top of the shelter. The 24 Challenge involves a difficult set of 24s. Walk 24 miles in 24 hours while drinking 24 beers... I would fall off a cliff. 

Virginia was full of challenges. As soon as we crossed the border into VA it started raining and didn't stop for a week. Then we faced monster climbs the likes we haven't seen since New Hampshire (although not nearly as steep). Fall left nearly 6 inches of leaves on the trail. Our ankles and toes had a blast finding all the hidden rocks and roots. The most difficult challenge of this section is the sheer size of Virginia. With over 530 miles in this one state, it seems like we'll never get through - especially on the heals of the Mid-Atlantic. The Four State Challenge demonstrates this difference well. 

The goal of the Four State challenge is to hike in 4 different state in one day. The trick is to camp just inside the Penn border and start walking in the wee hours of the morning - maybe 3am. Cross the border into Maryland, traverse the entire 40 miles of the state, run through the 3 miles of West Virginia and take at least one step in Virginia before the end of the day. A surprising number of people completed this one as well. We did not. 

After all the challenges we've faced thus far, we still have one of the hardest challenges to date - snow. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Don't Forget Your Umbrella!

At the time I began writing this post, we were in the middle of a week of non stop rain in the Shenandoah. We have since passed the rain and are now south of the Shenandoah, but I will leave the following paragraph in the present tense...

We've been walking now for four days in nonstop rain. Our feet are wet, our clothes are wet, our tent is wet, our sleeping bags are wet, our packs are wet... everything is wet. The bottom of our feet look like dried prunes, blanched of all color. We don't mind walking in some water for a day, but when you're unable to get dry for days on end, it's tough to keep going. Unfortunately, there's two more days of rain in the forecast and we are in one of the most beautiful sections of the trail... supposedly. We've walked through half of the Shenandoah National Park and haven't seen further than 50 yards at any given moment. Luckily for us, we brought our umbrellas!

Most people look at us inquisitively and comment something along the lines of "I've never seen a hiker with an umbrella." True, it's not common, but it should be. Most hikers carry a rain jacket or poncho, but unless it's freezing outside, many won't use it. Climb a mountain in a jacket and you'll quickly understand why. It doesn't matter if its raining or not, by the time you reach the summit, you'll be soaking wet from sweat. Then, as the mountain top breeze hits you, your body temperature drops and you're freezing as you descend. Solution - an umbrella!

The umbrella is the most versatile piece of gear we carry. Naturally, it's primary function is rain protection. It is the most breathable form available, keeping you dry and relatively warm as you summit a mountain. It also sends water to the outside of your pack keeping your straps and back pad dry. This in itself is enough for me to yell "I love my umbrella" to no one in particular while splashing through puddles days into a downpour.  But the many uses of an umbrella don't stop there. 

We keep our umbrellas on the outside of our packs. We can grab them and "re-sheath" them without stopping. So, when a cool breeze chills you out, instead of stopping to put on a jacket, pop out the umbrella and use it as a shield instead. How about shielding your stove from the wind while cooking? Or you head from the sun? Guys. Don't be afraid of the word "parasol." It's 10 degrees cooler under this thing which not only means more immediate comfort but also less water consumed which means less water to carry. I use my umbrella nearly everyday! 

Umbrellas are also excellent to use while hitch hiking. In fact, Douglas Adams got it wrong. The most important item to bring with you while hitch hiking is not the towel but  the umbrella. To get a hitch, it is helpful to convince a potential ride that you are in fact not homeless but simply on vacation. This may be difficult as a thru hiker since upon first glance, there is no difference between you and a homeless person. This is where the umbrella comes in handy. If you are sporting an umbrella while extending your thumb, a driver may look at you and think, "That poor gentleman has lost his razor. Luckily, he still has his umbrella. Perhaps he needs ride to the barber" and will be glad to assist. Or someone may think, "That poor lady. Her clothes are torn to shreds. Luckily she still had her umbrella. Perhaps she needs a ride to the store." You have now communicated effectively with a potential ride without saying anything. And the driver will have supposed rather correctly. You do, in fact, need a ride to the barber. Not to trim your beard but to cut your hair short so you can spot and remove tics more effectively. And yes, I would like a ride to the store not for new clothes, there's nothing wrong with the holes in my shirt, but to get a complete and nutritious supply of pop tarts and honey buns. If simply using your umbrella still fails to work, you can turn it into a hitching sign clearly announcing to drivers that you are in fact a Sobo, not a hobo. 

So, next time you are hiking or hitch hiking, just remember this one thing: Don't forget your umbrella!

(Note: your best choice is the GoLite Chrome Dome. It weighs 8oz, has a Mylar coating with excellent UV protection, and we've used it in 50mph winds with no problem.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Not an Option -- Injury Update

     We have been getting many questions and well wishes about my knee injury so I thought I'd update you all about what happened.  The day I wrote about being injured we set out to hike in the rain. We were still in Vermont and only about a quarter of the way done with the trail.  Everything was slick and muddy.  Within 15 minutes our shoes and socks were soaked and I had tears in my eyes.  I felt defeated.  My knee was still swollen even after a couple of days of rest and every step hurt.  Around an hour into our hike I slipped and landed face first in a mud puddle.  I lost control of my frustration and let everything come out.  I cried about missing my dog.  I cried about being hurt. I cried about being extremely uncomfortable. As I sobbed, Beau sat by my side and reassured me everything was going to be fine.  Eventually I calmed down enough to keep hiking and we made our way to Kid Gore Shelter.  It was there I met the angel who saved my hike!

     J-Bugg strolled up to the shelter in the evening while we were cooking dinner.  We ran through the normal introductory questions and quickly discovered she was a former thru-hiker. She was now out hiking a section of the Long Trail which intersects with the AT.  Almost immediately she felt like a friend.  One of my favorite parts of the the trail is the community of fellow hikers.  Just about everyone we've met wants to hear your stories and share a few of their own. We are all quickly bonded by the shared experience of living in the woods and J-bugg fit into this pattern nicely.

     After spending some time eating dinner with our new friend, we retired to the tent where Beau and I proceeded to have a heart to heart.  He was trying to support me by telling me it would be fine if I left the trail.  He knew I had been having an extremely tough experience.  It seemed like the only option to make me happy again.  I agreed.  At that point I had just about made my mind up to go home.  I kept thinking "I am just not built for this". All of my injuries had convinced me I should not keep going.

     The next morning while enjoying a hot cup of coffee I worked up the nerve to ask J-Bugg if she ever felt like quitting during her thru-hike and what she did to work through it.  She smiled a half smile and dove into her breakdown moment.   When she was in New York she went through a similar experience as me. She called her mom and told her to come pick her up. She was DONE.  She said she cried and felt defeated, much the same as I did that very moment.  As for what helped her to keep going, she cited her mom's encouragement and unwillingness to let her quit as an important part of it.   I then told her Beau had given me permission to quit and she looked at him and told him to NEVER do that again.  Quitting is not an option.  Take it off the table.  She went on to tell of the wonderful boost of self confidence and pride she felt when she finished her thru-hike.  The way she spoke about the benefits of finishing sparked desire in me.  I wanted to feel that way.  I wanted to feel more sure of myself.  I wanted to know I can finish what I start. I wanted to finish!

     And just like that, I found my motivation again.  J-Bugg also gave us the helpful suggestion of listening to books on tape to break up the monotony of hiking. This has been a huge help!  She also suggested we take a day or two off to dry out and regroup.  We just so happened to be heading to Lock'n Music Festival in Virginia shortly thereafter.  We spent eight days off relaxing and listening to beautiful music while also giving my knee a chance to heal.  I have also started to take daily fish oil supplements to help with the inflammation and have noticed a big decrease in the swelling in my hands, feet, and knees.

     After returning to the trail from our "vacation from vacation" the days have been passing more smoothly. I find myself  comfortably caught in the simple rhythm of waking, eating, walking, sleeping.  Worrying does not fit here.  If a problem arises, we fix it.  There's no point thinking about what could happen.  There is only what IS happening...  moment to moment, day to day, step by step.  Now that we have passed halfway, I have mixed feelings.  Part of me is ecstatic about being in the last of half of our adventure and getting to go home soon.  The other half is going to miss the simple beauty of this lifestyle.  I find myself bursting with gratitude during the simple moments we experience.  Watching the leaves fall all around us, observing birds flying overhead, watching the camp fire flicker, listening to a fellow hiker play his ukulele, the happy whimpering of a hiker's dog when she spots us coming up the trail, countless gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, the smiling faces of our friends we've met along the way....  I am grateful for it all.  I now realize I cannot entertain the idea of quitting, no matter what happens.  I will finish.  We WILL finish!