Jarrard Gap to Springer Mountain! 26.2 mi (2192.0 AT)

May 24th, Georgia

For the second night in a row, and the last night on trail, I awoke to my alarm. I had a good idea how long the remaining 26.2 mile “marathon” would take, and I needed to start early to arrive before my scheduled pick up time, between 4-5pm.

There were a couple nice views this morning which I welcomed and tried to savor like the last bits of something special.

I also noticed the soil has started to become more consistently a familiar orange-red, which was a nice reminder I was on the path toward home.

With my decision to push for this specific finish date, I could feel the toll of high mileage days over the past couple weeks. I was tired throughout the day but kept on schedule. Today was happy. Today was melancholy. These feelings were mixed up together and stayed with me–alongside my full-spectrum tiredness. Despite all this, or maybe because of it, the miles flew along quickly–with my mind occupied with memories of the trail behind me, the shortening trail ahead, and a growing joy and satisfaction of it all.

Nearly at the end, the trail went right through the Springer Mountain parking area. I didn’t recognize any cars there so I knew I was early. I continued past the parking area up the last mile of trail, and arrived to the summit at 4:15pm.

I was up there all alone for some time. I rested, enjoyed the warm sun on a granite outcrop, and tried to let mind and body relax while I waited. A couple other hikers arrived, milled around, took pictures, and chatted. Then my little welcoming party arrived, bearing a nice late lunch and champagne in backpacks of their own!

We hung out up top for an hour or so, took pictures, and relaxed together in the late afternoon sun. I felt exhausted, full from lunch, and so very happy to be finished and reunited with some of my people.

And then, after 2192.0 miles of the Appalachian Trail behind me, there was just one more “bonus mile” left. We headed back down the trail to the parking lot.

In the quiet moments hiking back toward the car, my mind wandered back to the very beginning of this journey—to the northern terminus in Maine, Mt. Katahdin. Though I had documented my experience from the beginning, it didn’t seem quite right to post triumphant pictures of the first day of a very long hike. Who knew what would happen? Would I even finish?

So, now that I’ve finished and it’s all done, here is the photo of a past me, brimming with pre-hike excitement, nerves, intention, anticipation. I feel that my experience on trail, with its many ups and downs (the topological, physical, and emotional) is already calling me toward other trails, both long and short. But as this experience comes to a close, I feel it is more a jumping-off point than a conclusion. And, as I seek to make sense of this amazing journey, I remain hopeful that more long-trail experiences are in my future.

Mt. Katahdin, July 11th, 2018, on the first day of my SOBO thru hike.

Cheese Factory to Jarrard Gap: 30.0 mi (AT 2165.8)

May 23rd, Georgia

For the first time in forever I set my alarm. I wanted to make sure I got started around 6am in order to make it to Mountain Crossings at Neel’s Gap before they closed at 5pm. 

Today started overcast and stayed mostly cloudy all day. It even rained lightly a couple times which brought some welcome coolness to the afternoon.

I met three bears today: a medium, a small, and an extra small. I saw one early, one at mid day, and the other late afternoon. So it was an eventful wildlife viewing day, although all three ran as soon as we noticed each other.

I made it to Mountain Crossings around 4pm. I stopped in to get a drink and snack, and to fill up my water bottles. The trail actually goes right through Mountain Crossings, which is an old stone Forest Service building converted to an outfitter and hostel. 

After my stop I still had Blood Mountain, the highest point on the Georgia AT, to climb. The climb was steep in sections. The top was, off and on, solid granite and reminded me a bit of Maine and some other points far north.

There were views here and there and the rhododendrons, and some azaleas, up top were in full bloom.

I made my way across Blood Mountain then down the other side. In order to camp in the five miles between Neel’s Gap south to Jarrard Gap, you are required to have a bear resistant canister for food storage. So, without this, I continued down the extra miles to Jarrard Gap where there was a good water source and many tent sites. Because of the rules it seemed to be a well-used spot. Tonight I was there alone until another hiker called Shooter arrived around 8pm.

As I relaxed in my hammock it occurred to me that this was my last night on this AT thru hike, which seemed strange. It still hasn’t sunk in that this journey is nearly finished. 

Standing Indian Shelter to Cheese Factory, 29.7 mi (AT 2135.8)

May 22nd, 2019, North Carolina and Georgia

It was a bit warmer today with very little breeze. But otherwise it was another nice day. With a warm and calm day the insects were more active as well. I haven’t noticed mosquitos yet but there have been gnats, deer flies, and what might be midges. 

I was surprised today at the number of new people starting thru hikes. This morning I had breakfast at the shelter and talked to those who were there for the night. There were five thru hikers. And I passed more than that again today. 

I also met hikers named “Galant” and Heather who had stopped for water at the same place as I did.

Heather is section hiking and Galant is starting a thru hike. He has a strong accent, perhaps Japanese. He has already completed the two other long trails, the PCT and CDT, and is now trying to complete the AT as well. We talked for a while about his experience on the other trails before heading off. 

It was another long day and I was more tired today, probably because it was the third long day in a row. I made it to my campsite around 6:45 pm after 11.5 hours of hiking. According to the trail guide, this was the site of a former dairy farm from the 1800s—hence the name “Cheese Factory.”

Time for bed now…

Wine Spring Camp to Standing Indian Shelter, 31.7 mi (AT 2106.1)

May 21st, North Carolina

The day was clear as a bell and I felt fortunate to have such nice weather toward the end of my journey. 

Although there were occasional views, most of the day was spent under the shade of the trees. 

I kept moving today at a good clip, hopeful to finish the last 100 miles quickly. And sometime tomorrow morning I should cross into Georgia—and start the final 78 miles to Springer Mountain. 

Sassafras Gap Shelter to Wine Spring Camp, 26.2 mi (AT 2074.4)

May 20th, North Carolina

The birds woke me up as it was getting light this morning, right around 6am. This has been a fairly reliable alarm: enthusiastic bird sounds and early morning light.

I had a 6-mile hike down to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) for resupply before continuing on for the next several days. 

The trail downhill was awash in blooming mountain laurel. Amazing!

 I arrived to the NOC just after 9am. The trail crossed a bridge right in the middle of the complex. Unfortunately, the restaurants didn’t open until 11am so I just went to the General Store where I charged my phone and organized myself for the next several days. There was a limited supply of things I wanted, but I made do with what they had. I also bought a couple things to eat right away so I could start again on a full stomach.

It was a nice afternoon and the trail ascended to a series of “balds,” most of which were bald in name only. The final one, Wayah Bald, had a beautiful stone lookout tower with views in every direction. 

After a couple more miles I arrived to a nice little tentsite with spring. Again, I was the only one there. The bulk of the northbound hikers are well past me now. I still see a few per day, plus section hikers, but nothing like several weeks ago where dozens of NOBO thru hikers crossed paths with me daily. It seems I’m back to a fairly quiet hike. 

Fontana Dam Shelter to Sassafras Gap Shelter, 21.9 mi (AT 2048.2)

May 19th, North Carolina

After leaving the shelter this morning the trail followed the lake closely for a while then turned uphill and climbed a series of unnamed peaks and little “gaps” between them.

I walked by the marina but didn’t head down.

It was another nice and rather uneventful morning of hiking. A while after heading uphill from Lake Fontana, the trail merged briefly with the Benton MacKaye trail—named for the man who envisioned and advocated for the Appalachian Trail in the early 1900s. 

Eventually I passed an old log cabin style shelter where a guy called ChooChoo was sitting. He is hiking from Georgia to Virginia, but what I found interesting was he said he is a conductor on the fast trains in Germany, though he had an American accent. He asked some questions about the upcoming trail so I didn’t have a chance to ask him more about it. 

The trail went up and down, but mostly up today. The final peak was Chetoah Bald. There was a nice view and I might have camped up there for the sunset, but there was no water source nearby. 

So I just continued down the other side for another half hour to Sassafras Gap Shelter. It was close to the trail and had a nice water source. I was surprised to be the only one there.

I did my camp chores and routine while shooing and swatting some little gnat-like bugs (midges?) that follow you around and, if left alone, eventually bite you. So, after dinner I walked away from my hammock, ran back toward it to ditch them, then quickly got in and closed the bug net.

Tomorrow I will pass through the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) where I will pick up my final food resupply until Georgia. I am expecting perhaps 4.5 days from the NOC to Neels Gap. Neels Gap is well into Georgia and only around 30 miles from Springer Mountain—so probably just two more resupply stops to go, including tomorrow’s! 

Siler’s Bald Shelter to Fontana Dam Shelter, 29.8 mi (AT 2026.3)

May 17th, Great Smoky Mountain National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee)

I awoke at 6am and was the first one in the shelter to get up. It had been a fairly quiet night, with only occasional snoring from a couple different directions, and no mice. These shelters have two levels and I was on the top. I quietly packed up my sleeping stuff. Then it was a hop down to the lower level and a short step down to the ground. 

As I headed to my pack, I noticed someone had hung their pack over mine on the same hanger. While trying to get them both off the hook my pack fell to the ground with a quiet thud. This sound disturbed one hiker who, in half sleep, said “OKAY WHAT?….oh, it’s just a person… not a bear.” Then he promptly returned to full sleep.

Finally I went out to the bear cables to retrieve my food bag. It was still dark and I had my headlamp. As I reached the cable I heard a noise nearby and turned to see shining eyes maybe 50 feet away through the brush. The creature started huffing and puffing—the warning sounds a bear makes if you’re too close. I warily finished lowering my food bag then quietly retreated to the shelter, now fully awake and alert. As I finished up and ate some breakfast, a couple others started to stir and pack up. I warned them about the grumpy bear then headed out for my day.

I hiked along uneventfully all morning. At mid morning I passed by a shelter and there was a guy there hanging out. I said hello and asked where he was headed. It turns out David was a “Ridge Runner” hired by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) to monitor a certain area of the AT, and educate hikers on Leave No Trace practices, among other things. I had heard about these people but had never run into one. I think they are hired for the peak hiking season, and mainly in Georgia and North Carolina, the first two states for most AT thru hikers. 

At mid day I stopped at a shelter for lunch and a water break. There were three others there for the same reason. They were called Rooster, Bear Spray, and Bootlegger from northern Mississippi. This was the second group I have met from Mississippi in the national park. They had come last year to hike through half of the park and returned this year for the other half. We ate lunch together and talked before heading in opposite directions.

Because camping is so controlled and restricted inside the park, I took extra time during lunch to figure out my options for the night. I could reach the last permissible campsite in the park around 4:30pm, which seemed a little early to stop for the night. But the next site, outside the park, was at least 6 miles further, which also seemed like a stretch I would rather avoid tonight. So, I planned to hit the closer site and enjoy the extra time in camp.

As I got near the campsite, around 4pm, I saw a large bear hanging out right along the trail in front of me. I made noise to ensure he noticed me. He didn’t seem to care and just stood there passively, with his head hanging over the trail, staring at me. He wasn’t doing anything but waiting. It was almost like he was a toll collector with his paw out for a treat. 

I backed up slowly but he didn’t seem at all stressed by my presence, unlike the bear at the cables this morning. I made some more loud noise and annoyed him a little. He turned and moved a few feet, like he was deciding what to do. While I stood waiting I took a short video of him after trying to get him to move. Finally, I had to shift gears. I put my phone away and looked around. I was standing on a nice pile of palm-size rocks. I sent a few of these in Lazy Bear’s direction. The third rock came very close to him and he decided to move off. He headed away slowly, like it was his own idea. I threw a couple more stones as he went, just hoping he wouldn’t change his mind.

Not knowing if I would be sleeping alone at the campsite–so close to Lazy Bear–I easily convinced myself to continue the 6 miles downhill and out of the park to Fontana Dam Shelter. This shelter is nicknamed the “Fontana Hilton” because of the unique amenities it offers: bathrooms, trash cans, power outlets, and hot showers. This sounded a lot better than a night in the campsite with Lazy Bear, who at this moment was probably still hanging around there in search of treats.

The trail crossed Fontana Dam on the way, which was an awesome sight–way more awesome than these pictures.

I finally reached “The Hilton” around 7pm and found a nice spot to set up the hammock. I had made good time and finished the Smokies in three days, so I decided to take the next day to rest. Fontana Village, the nearby resort, provides shuttle service from near the shelter, which helped with the decision. Fontana Village has a General Store, a laundromat, and a couple restaurants and seemed like a great place for a rest. There should be time to take this “zero” and still make it to Springer Mountain by May 27th, my scheduled pick up day. 

Peck’s Corner Shelter to Siler’s Bald Shelter, 22.7 mi (AT 1996.5)

May 16th, Great Smoky Mountain National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee)

Very early today I saw a side trail to a place called “Charlie’s Bunion.” The name sounds repulsive, but I had read that it was a nice view and popular place for day hikes. The weather was beautiful which helped put me in the proper mood for a side trip. So, despite the name, I took the trail.

The side trail itself was magnificent. I marveled at the beauty and was grateful I had pried myself away from the main trail for a while.

It was early and there was only one couple up there already. I stopped and enjoyed the spot for a while—resting on the so-called bunion.

A little later in the morning I crossed paths with a hiker who stopped to talk. He asked about my hike, I think as a ploy to get me stopped, then proceeded to share the following details about himself: his trail name is “Blaze of Glory” and he is 63. This is his third time hiking the Appalachian Trail. The first time he took something like 15 years to finish everything. The second time he took seven years. Now he wants to accomplish the whole thing in 12 months. He is still working full time, but his boss lets him work three 10-hour days a week, so he gets a four-day weekend every week. He lives in Pennsylvania and goes hiking each weekend. He has already completed 1100 miles since November, so he is on track to finish in the 12-month period. His brother in law shuttled him down to Newfound Gap this time, about an 11-hour drive, and he started hiking this morning at 4:30am. After being regaled by his storytelling for some minutes that seemed like hours, I wished him luck and continued on. 

Just a little further on I was not paying much attention, probably still reveling in Blaze of Glory’s monologue, and stepped on a slippery log. I slipped, half fell, and my right leg made contact with some some sharp gravely rocks below the log. My leg got a few good, long scratches which stung like crazy. It smarted, but I was thankful it wasn’t worse.

Heading downhill, I started passing a lot of day hikers, maybe 100 total, coming up from Newfound Gap. My freshly scratched and slightly bloody leg did raise a few eyebrows on the way. One lady gasped and said, “Oh my! I have a band aid. Do you need it?” I thanked her but declined–because the scratches would have taken a dozen band aids, at least.

Then I reached Newfound Gap, an easy drive up Highway 441 from Gatlinburg, and apparently a popular place for a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Then a few miles further I took a short side trip to the lookout on Clingmans Dome, the highest peak on the whole trail. 

After a day of amazing views with some crowds, blood, and mind-numbing conversation mixed in, I eventually reached Siler’s Bald Shelter which was my goal.

The shelters in this park are large and well built with fireplaces, benches, and table-like spaces. There were only two people there when I arrived. I didn’t figure I could set up my hammock and claim the shelter was “too full” so I chose my spot inside. But by the time I went to bed at least 8 others had arrived. And a couple more arrived even later. So, in the end, the shelter did fill up… 

Standing Bear Farm to Peck’s Corner Shelter, 23.3 mi (AT 1973.8)

May 15th, North Carolina

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park begins less than two miles from Standing Bear Farm. The park requires a permit for backcountry camping. Everyone is required to stay inside the shelters—no other camp sites are allowed. And, for most backpackers, the shelters stays are by reservation. AT thru hikers must also have a permit and stay in the shelters, unless they are full; in which case you may camp in the immediate vicinity of the shelter. 

I planned to get my permit online then print it out at Standing Bear. But they didn’t have a printer. And they had no suggestions on how I could get it printed out. So I hope the pdf version on my phone is good enough…even though the instructions clearly say you must carry a paper copy. 

I headed out about 6:30am and it was a long uphill hike for most of the day.

In the morning I scared a bear who was digging insects out of an enormous tree trunk right on the trail. I couldn’t quite see the bear but it heard me and I heard it as it lumbered off into the brush. When I passed I saw the tree it had been working on—digging out insects. 

A little while later I met another SOBO who is back to finish this year as well. “Gringo Loco” made it to Pearisburg, Virginia last year and came back a few weeks ago to finish. He and I hiked part of the day together. He told me he and a friend, after they finish the AT in a few weeks, are going to start hiking the Continental Divide Trail sometime in June. 

Around 3pm most of the climbing was done and the rest of the park is mainly just following the high ridgeline through the park. At the end there will be a long downhill section to Fontana Dam just south of the park. 

I didn’t reach shelter until nearly 7pm. It was already full so I found a hammock spot and got set up for the night. 

“Grateful” from The Philippines (now Maryland)

There were a couple deer nonchalantly browsing plants in the camp in the evening. This one was right next to my hammock.

Mile 1950.5 (NC/TN): May 14, Max Patch to Standing Bear Farm

It was cold overnight up near the peak of Max Patch. Fortunately, the site I chose was well protected and out of the wind. It was foggy though, so I had no sunrise to enjoy as I re-crossed the peak heading south. 

I have noticed more older hikers over the past few days. I should say, it seems like the average age of hikers has been going up. Perhaps the younger ones are faster and are alread ahead of the slower crowd.

I also passed two hikers who were slackpacking. They asked about my orange tag. I asked what they were doing. One said he sold his house and bought an RV. And they are slackpacking every day and staying in the RV. 

And with the nice weather today almost everyone seemed happy. 

And at one point I came across a turkey on the trail. She was acting strangely and not the least bit afraid of me. I had seen this behavior before with a spruce grouse last year when her chicks were nearby. Unlike the grouse which acted injured and tried to lead me away, the turkey charged me with flapping wings and threatened to leap on me. I never even saw the chicks, but they were close. I heard them peeping in the brush. 

As I came down the final hill toward the hostel, I could hear the sound of the interstate highway below. But as I descended and closed in on Standing Bear Hostel the road noise disappeared. It was on a gravel road about 1/4 mile away from the trail. I understand this is one of the old, classic hostels. It was rustic and comfortable but with very simple amenities. There was a clothes dryer but the washing had to be done by hand with a washboard. The hot water is made using propane tanks. There was, of course, a bunkhouse. I chose a semi private room with two full beds and two twin beds in a loft. I was the only one there so it turned out to be a nice, big private room. 

Tomorrow I plan to head out and enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.