401 Miles In and I’m Having a Blast

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Rock City, Snackx, Hatchet, Privy Creeper, me (Hey Girl) and Apple Cheeks at Standing Bear Hostel in Hartford, TN for a hiker barbecue and evening of music and camping in mid-April.

As of April 30, the end of my first month as an Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hiker, I have hiked to mile 401.9 on the AT heading northbound from Georgia towards Maine. This is roughly 1/5 of the 2,190 mile trail. And, I am having an absolute blast and coming to know myself, the trail, new plants and trees, fellow thru-hikers, people and towns along the trail, and life as a thru-hiker.

An unofficial 400 mile marker on the trail in Tennessee!

For these 28 days as a thru-hiker on the AT, I have spent 21 nights sleeping outside in my tent, two nights cowboy/girl camping in my sleeping bag under the stars, five nights indoors at hostels or budget hotel rooms in towns along the trail –Helen, GA, Franklin, NC, Fontana Dam, NC, Hot Springs, NC and Erwin, TN).

Patriot, Hatchet and I at the Overmountain Shelter near the Roan Highlands in North Carolina, we cowboy/girl camped under the stars with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

 

For the last 28 days my routine as an AT thru-hiker has been somewhat routine. Here’s how it goes and will probably continue to go, with some variety.

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Ron Haven’s Budget Inn in Franklin, NC. This place and its owner are legendary.

I wake up in my tent at 6:30am, unzip my tent to go grab my bear bag, come back to my tent and eat my breakfast (Clif bar and Kind bar), deflate my sleeping pad, pack my sleeping bag, take my backpack, sleeping bag and sleeping pad out of the tent, take down my tent, pack everything into my backpack.

Just another lovely campsite in Georgia for the night. It took Patriot and I about 30 minutes to start a fire this night,but we were newbie thru-hikers at that point. Now we start them faster, unless there’s rain and then it’s usually a wash.

Next, I hydrate for the morning and drink a 1/2 Liter of water, go to the bathroom; then it’s time to get moving. I strap on my backpack and start walking either on my own or with any one, two or three folks who have become dear friends and  hiking and evening camping pals–Patriot, Pantry, Apple Cheeks, Earnhardt, Privy Creeper, Tailspin and Hatchet. As a sidenote, these of course are their trail names, and mine is “Hey Girl!” Nearly everyone on the trail thus far has a trail name. Trail names are one of the great traditions of thru-hiking. They can be self-nominated or given by your hiker friends for any number of reasons–an endearing quality, a funny or embarrassing incident on the trail, etc.

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Some hikers have multiple trail names. But for all the friends I’ve met on the trail, I know nearly no one’s birth name. We call each other by trail names exclusively and many times you learn about another hiker ahead or behind you on the trail by their trail name either from someone’s anecdote, a message being passed on, or a note in notebooks along the way. Sometimes a trail name is so descriptive of a person that you know as soon as you meet them. For instance, my friend “Patriot” who I have known and hiked with since day 3, wears all red, white and blue gear. He also happens to be is from New England and is a Patriots fan.

Back to the daily routine–Most days I usually am hiking on the trail between 7:15 and 8am. There have been a few very early mornings, like a 4:45am wake up to hike under the stars and see the sunrise over Clingman’s Dome in the Smokey Mountains; and there have been a few later mornings to share a morning coffee with other hikers or to warm up around a morning campfire. Also sometimes when getting to town it’s common to wake up early so you walk into town when breakfast starts to be served. We do look forward to meals that vary from nightly camp meals.

We woke up before sunrise to hike to the top of Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Clingman’s is the highest point on the AT.

I usually hike for two and a half hours each morning, following the trail’s white blazes painted on trees to guide hikers on the trail. Sometimes I hike alone and other mornings I hike with one to two people from camping the night before or hike for a bit with other thru-hikers I meet throughout the day. It is very common to see anywhere from 5-25 other northbound thru-hikers in a day. Ninety percent of fellow thru-hikers are friendly and say “hello,” and introduce themselves if you don’t already know one another.

hoursA couple hours into

my hike, I stop at the nearest stream to filter water and fill up my Platypus water bag –which includes a drinking hose which allows me to drink while walking–makes it easy to drink from. I usually eat a snack, like a a Clif bar, and take off my backpack for a few minutes. A couple minutes later I  strap on my backpack again and get to walking for another two and a half hours. Around noon I break for lunch (a tuna packet, a tablespoon of peanut butter, and either another snack or piece or fresh fruit, if I have it. (Note: Fresh fruit can often be quite heavy to pack, so it is a luxury and something to look forward to when coming into towns).

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Hatchet (back) and Patriot (front) walking through the balds of the Roan Highlands.

After lunch I usually hike another two to four hours, breaking to filter water again and maybe eat another snack.  I also always will stop to enjoy views, to catch an extra lie in the sun, or to climb a tree or still my feet in a stream or river. Sometimes I’ll run into a fellow hiker too and chat for a few minutes and another spontaneous reason to pause comes up.

By afternoon I usually make it to a campsite or shelter for the night. I collect and filter water for dinner and to hydrate at night. I set up my tent, or sleeping bag if cowboy camping, change into Crocs, clean up a bit, and then usually find the campfire or friends to make dinner and sit with. Most of the time a campfire or evening chats last until 8 or 9:30pm, depending on how tired everyone is from the day, plans for the morning or the weather (if raining, there’s usually less chatter) and then most hikers head to their tents, hammocks or the shelters to sleep.

Each night I spend the last moments in my tent before sleep by listening to the owls hooing, sharing a few pictures from the day on Instagram and journaling on the day’s events. When journaling I record the miles walked, the campsite and the day’s events. Doing this has been a joy and helps me remember all I’ve seen and done in a day. While we are mostl walking for 8-10 hours a day, each day is packed with so many memories me moments. It is a way to remember moments with people I may know for a couple of days, weeks, months or years and to share my memories with the family and friends at home supporting me. The trail really does light up all your senses and emotions and that too is so important for me to remember.

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Climbing a beautiful birch tree during an afternoon hike in North Carolina.

Usually once a week I also interview someone for the “Sounds of the Trail” podcast which I am an AT contributor for. If and when at a hostel, I do laundry, resupply for food for the trail, check email, call my mom, brother and friends, check the news and charge up my iPhone battery. Sometimes these tasks  all happens when staying overnight at a hostel and other times simply when passing through a town for a few hours.

Going into town usually involves a shuttle or a hitch hike, and when there a shower, a resupply of food at the local grocery store, picking up a mail drop package of food sent from home (thanks mom!) and a fresh meal or two at a local restaurant, and maybe a beer or cup of coffee depending on the day.

Even though my schedule is fairly routine, the range of sites, emotions, rhythm of each day, natural beauty and people can keep me writing each night.

While the primary focus each day is hiking, eating and setting up or breaking down camp, each day is incredibly unique, spontaneous and rich in new and different experiences, sights, smells, lessons and people. It is also incredibly important to me to take time to appreciate, stop and soak in parts of the trail when they compel you to do so.

Taking off my pack a few times a day is part of the snack, lunch and enjoy-the-view moments on the trail.
Taking off my pack a few times a day is part of the snack, lunch and enjoy-the-view moments on the trail.

Some days the weather is sunny and ideal; on others it is raining or cold. Some days my body feels strong and unstoppable; on others it feels tired sore. Some days the miles feels easy and on others they feel like a slow and steady race. Some days everyone is happy and on others someone needs a boost.

The sights and sounds of the AT have changed dramatically from the early weeks of April when temperatures were  cool when I hiked most days  in long pants and long sleeves to now warmer days when I hike in short sleeves and a pair of pink Patagonia baggie shorts (I love them!). The flowers are starting to bloom and the deciduous trees have begun to grow their green leaves again. The birds have migrated back from their winter spots and the crickets are starting to chirp.The terrain from Georgia to North Carolina to Tennessee has varied, too!

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Despite rain, foot pain or otherwise most days on the trail feel like this and provide incredible views and moments like this one on Jane’s Bald in the Roan Highlands.

We have walked through tunnels of hundreds of thousands of large rhododendron bushes, affectionately known as the “green tunnel,” when and where they hug and frame the trail like a tunnel; we have climbed up and over  grassy balds, through forests of evergreens and deciduous trees first without their leaves and now with their leaves from spring time. We have seen azaleas, triliums, trout lillies, buttercups, hydrangeas and other more blooming from one day to the next.


I continue to be with a great crew who already feel like longtime friends– Hatchet, a great guy from Western PA who carries a hatchet in his bag and cuts wood every night for campfires; Patriot, a nice guy from CT (we have hiked together since day 3 on the trail); Privy Creeper, a 33-year-old friendly New Jersey fellow (picture a nice, friendly red-headed Tony Soprano personality); Tailspin, a nice 27-year-old guy from Cincinnati; Apple Cheeks, a 26 year old gal from Montana; and Earnhardt, because he looks like Dale Earnhardt Jr. We sometimes hike together, separate, in pairs or threes. It often varies but between every couple of days we meet at a spot to camp together; and if we lose track of each other for a day or two, we meet up.

Patriot (left) and Panty (right) posing for a photo in North Carolina looking north to the Smokies.
Patriot (left) and Panty (right) posing for a photo in North Carolina looking north to the Smokies.

Each day I also meet other thru-hikers throughout the day whether on the trail– at a shelter, a  campsite–or in town at a post office, outfitter, bar, restaurant. And we often meet other kind souls, “trail angels,” along the trail providing “trail magic,” food, drinks and other snacks for thru hikers. This week I ran into two trail magics in one day–that was a first! The first man was serving apples, drinks and homemade brownies out of the back of his pickup truck; and the second group were former AT thru-hikers from 2012 who were making burgers!

It has been less than a month of knowing many of these people and we have formed very close friendships. 90% of the people who we meet are great, friendly and good-natured. While everyone is very different from one another there does seem a common ethos and energy of adventurous, easy-going, open-minded and open-hearted and determined people.

I am learning so much about myself, others and loving the challenge,  adventure and fun of everyday and every climb up and down each mountain (they go on forever). There is the chance to focus on what’s in front of you and literally to think about each step. You can’t multitask; you must live simply and carry your food, clothes and shelter on your back; you must be kind to those around; and you must be open and ready to what the day brings.

The wildflowers were starting to bloom and the birch trees were bending as we walked through Big Bald in TN.

The trail has been as much about the miles, the landscapes, the forest, and the people on and off the trail. It is common to hear and to say, “Hiking the AT has restored my faith in the goodness of humanity.” Whether it be kindness among other hikers, trail angels giving trail magic or other kind people in trail towns, there is so much humble goodness from strangers and friends alike.

Two kind men at the Baptist Church in Franklin, NC preparing a free, all-you-can-eat breakfast for thru-hikers. They did this everyday for an entire month.
Two kind men at the Baptist Church in Franklin, NC preparing a free, all-you-can-eat breakfast for thru-hikers. They did this everyday for an entire month.

This week two of my hiking partners, Hatchet and Tailspin, each asked me separately. “Do you think the trail is changing you?” And “Do you think this is the most challenging thing you’ve ever done?” My answer to both questions is without a doubt, “Yes!”

Thus far the last month has been incredibly rewarding and satisfying physically, mentally and naturally! It is an experience like many others in life where you get as much out of it as what you put into it. So here’s to tomorrow, and the next few hundreds miles!

12 thoughts on “401 Miles In and I’m Having a Blast

  1. “Hey Girl!” << Love it! I'm still on board for taking a bit of time and hiking a section with you. I'm thinking about perhaps meeting you in Harpers Ferry and going up to Harrisburg–depending on timing. Let me know your thoughts.

  2. Reading this gives me such a huge smile – I am so happy for you. Thank you for sharing this unique and incredible experience Laura!!!

  3. Hey Darlin! LOVE this Blog- so fun to see a glimpse of what you are experiencing! Really want to come join you for a section if we can swing it! Xoxox Jen

  4. Hey Girl! I enjoyed every bit of this blog! Eres una valiente y tienes toda mi admiración!! Keep on sharing your thoughts, emotions and photos. Big hug.

  5. I just love love love love reading about your experience! So proud of you and happy for your adventures!!! Great work and keep it up!! It sounds incredibly hard but even more rewarding and enlightening. Take care.

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