Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Hiker Week

We have been talking on the trail and we thought the weekly cycle of a thru-hiker is a bit different than the weekly 7 day cycle of most everyone else.  For example, we have had a lot of trail Fridays, not just the day Friday, but anytime we hike into a town for resupply, shower, laundry, and real food, that is a Friday for a hiker.  So here are the days of the week as we see them...

Monday:  Any day we leave a town.  We typically wake up in a hotel bed, have some breakfast in town, and drag our feet getting back to work, aka, hiking the trail.

Weekday (Wednesday):  Any full day consisting of waking up in a campsite and hiking to a campsite, all in the woods.  Some may consider this more of a Saturday, a break from the norm and a chance to get out in nature, but this is our norm and being busy breaking camp, hiking, and setting up camp for more than 12 hours a day this could be considered our full time job.

Friday:  Any day we will be hitting a means real food, a warm shower, clean clothes, and cold beer.  Sounds like a Friday to me!

Sunday:  A zero day.  A day of no hiking.  A day of rest. 

So we figure for the next few months we will just have trail Mondays, trail Wednesdays, trail Fridays, and some trail Sundays.  It is interesting when your "weekly" cycle doesn't really fit into the standard 7 day week!

Snow Day!

April 21.  After a relaxing morning at the coffee shop and the outfitters store we headed out of Damascus for the trail.  Before leaving I weighed my backpack...40 pounds with water and 6 days of food, and 20 pounds dry weight.  Dry weight is my pack without food and water, only my gear.  Before leaving home I wanted a pack weight around 18 pounds, now I'd rather have my dry weight around 8 or 10 pounds!  That means I'd have to buy all new gear that probably won't happen on this trip.  Meat weighed in at 37 pounds and Flosser at 33.  I am still the smallest guy with the heaviest pack...shoot. 

We headed up the trail and found some trail magic about a mile in.  Nothing like sodas and beer to get us up the hill!  The weather forecast called for rain at 4 PM.  At 3 PM on the dot the wind moved in and it POURED!  We could see the hail hitting the trail in front of us and it rained so hard I could feel the water running down my back in between my rain coat and my backpack.  We stopped at the first shelter and the rain had stopped so I took some night time cold medicine and passed out before 7 PM and slept through the night.  In Damascus I started feeling like I was catching a cold so I bought some cold medicine.  I had some name brand stuff first, but it was $6 and I found some off brand stuff for $1 and though I'd try that.  It knocked me out the first night!

April 22.  We woke up and started hiking.  I left the shelter first and walked on my own and a half mile up the trail I came across 7 or 8 white tail deer.  A few of them took off across the trail and stopped and looked at me.  As I walked a little further another one on the other side of the trail only 20 or 30 feet in front of me stood up and walked across the trail.  It was a great way to start my hike!  Later in the day we came across some trail magic with beer and soda in a cold creek! 

As we hiked up to Mt Rogers the weather started getting worse and I was walking in front of Meat and I took a step on a rock and my foot slid out from under me...oh great, here we go again.  I fell sideways and hit the rock, then I bounced and fell a few more feet lower and landed flat on the dirt.  When the dust cleared Meat said "Are you OK?"  I wiggled my fingers and toes and they all worked, and said yes.  Meat then said "Wait there, let me take a picture!"  Then he said "Wait there again, I think Flosser is coming!"  Glad he was worried about me!  I got lucky with this fall...between the rocks and pony poop I landed in an ideal place.  Could have been worse!

We finally made it to the top of Mt Rogers after 7 PM and Flosser found the last spot in the shelter and Meat and I found a place to set up our tents.  At 5,430 feet it was freezing cold so we ate quickly and got ready to get in our bags.  The 18.6 miles of hiking also made us pretty tired.  As soon as we hung our bear bags the snow started falling...  Around 10 PM I started hearing the creeking of my rain fly and tent poles from the snow piling up so for the next few hours I woke up several times to hit the fly to get the snow weight off.  I wore all of my clothes to bed and even unfolded my emergency blanket and laid it out under my bag on top of my sleeping pad to keep me was going to be a cold night.

April 23.  Snow everywhere!  I woke up early and went to get the bear bag down to get our food.  I untied Meat's rope and tried to lower the bags...but they didn't move.  I yanked on it, they didn't move.  The rope was frozen to the tree!  I tied a rock to the end of the rope to throw it up over the branch and pull it down the otherside and I got it stuck up there.  I went and got my rope and tied a rock to it and got it around the food bags and pulled hard!  They broke away and I caught them as they fell.  By then most everyone else was waking up and starting to move.  Meat had a big snow drift going up his tent door.  I checked on Flosser in the shelter to find out that snow had been blowing in the roof line all night and there was as much snow inside as outside!  I packed my tent, I mean sheet of ice.  The guidelines were frozen in straight lines and my boots were so frozen that I couldn't change the laces from the day before.  Nothing to do but hike on!

The Grayson Highlands is where most AT hikes see lots of wild ponies roaming around.  We saw only 1.  It was walking up a trail by itself in the snow.  Its hair was all matted down with layers of snow and ice and it did not look happy.  It sniffed each of us for food and then moved on up the mountain.  Walking in the highlands was like being on a frozen tundra with crazy winds and blowing snow.  It was a cold hike but later in the day we finally started hiking in lower elevations.  We had lunch in a shelter that marked mile 500 so far, pretty good!  We got below 4,000 feet and finally got out of the snow.  We came to a road crossing and got some great trail magic!  A few people were set up with hot cocoa, chili, lasagna, and more!  We hiked on in search of the lowest elevation camping we could find.  The weather report said that tonight was going to be colder than last night, and we read the temperature in our tents near 20 degrees last night!  I have heard that every thousand feet up the temp drops a few degrees, so I wanted to get lower!  We also heard a local say that the mountains are warmer because "heat rises", but I don't believe him.  We found a great spot at 2,979...more than 2,000 feet lower than last night.  It was windy and chilly, but at least the wind dried our gear!  Another big day, a 19 mile hike through cold and snow!

April 24.  All day we hiked in and out of the snow, but not as bad as yesterday.  My feet, shin, and knees hurt pretty bad.  I feel like 500 miles in and I'm just now falling apart.  Coming out of Damascus I felt like I was getting a cold, but I think a few days of hiking in freezing temperatures must have kicked it out of me!  My feet and legs do hurt, but I get most of the pain when we stop and rest, so it seems like we should just keep hiking!  We made great progress today even passing by a shelter where we could have pizza delivered to us!  We wanted to hit town early tomorrow, we heard they have a 16 ounce "Hiker Burger".  We pounded out a 20 mile day and camped on a ridge for the night.  This was the third straight day of big miles, we were all ready for a town day!

April 25.  It rained all night so we packed up our wet gear.  No matter, we were heading to town!  About 1 mile in I felt water dripping down my backside...I stopped to check it out and found that my water bladder wasn't closed all the way and had leaked about a liter of water into my bag. No matter, we were hiking to town! We hiked the 8 miles into town and made it in time to have the 1 pound "Hiker Burger" for lunch.  That was big...a lot of meat, but it was good!  We checked into the hotel, dried our gear, got our food, did laundry, cleaned up, and relaxed.  75 miles of hiking in 4 days, pretty good!  I think we all have our trail legs!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hiking With The Father Of The Bride

April 16.  Amy's dad Rod arrived at the Kincora hostel this morning to hike with us.  We left after our food shipment arrived and quickly taught Rod about the white blazes, double white, and blue.  We passed by a great waterfall and walked along the stream for awhile on a nice trail, then it went up!  For the next few hours we hiked straight up in 90 degree heat, a great intro to the AT for Rod.  We hiked 5 or 6 miles and decided to camp on top of Pond Flat, which did not have a pond and really wasn't flat.  A good first day for Rod, or as he would say, "brutal".

April 17.  We woke up and hiked a few miles down into a nice park with a lake.  We took a break and used the restrooms in the state park.  A nice lady working there gave us the weather forecast, which turned out to be completely wrong!  We hiked past the lake and back up the mountains to hit a ridge line trail.  It was another tough climb.  We stopped in a shelter for a bit to wait out a small rain shower.  The lady at the lake said no rain for several days, she was about to be proved way wrong...  After heading down a LONG side trail to fill up water we hiked on to find a dry place to camp.  It rained on us but luckily it stopped long enough for us to set up our tents and have dinner.  As we hung the bear bags it started again, we jumped in the tents and it poured.  It poured all night...
April 18.  Woke up to rain.  Well, not so much rain as being in a cloud that coats the trees with water and they drip all over.  We all sat in our tents and had breakfast and contemplated waiting our the rain.  After sitting around for an hour Rod and I decided we would start walking and Flosser and Meat (Ryan's trail name is now Meat) were close behind.  We all packed away our soaking wet tents and gear.  Wet tents are A LOT heavier than dry tents.  We walked several miles to the first shelter and had lunch but we were all so wet and cold that we needed to keep moving to warm up.  Rod took off out of the shelter and I followed behind. About a half mile in I stopped to water a tree and then hiked on to catch Rod.  For the next several hours I hiked hard trying to catch him.  I was impressed!  Rod seemed to have his trail legs and was moving fast despite almost losing both of his big toenails from the previous day.  I approached the next shelter, 13 miles from the start of the day, and found Meat there, with no trace of Rod.  Crap.  Flosser arrived too, surprised that he hadn't caught Rod, and even more surprised to not see him there!  We wondered what might have happened...he couldn't have passed by...did he take a wrong turn...was he lost...maybe we should head back and check on him...  We talked to a nice older man doing a day hike, turns out he was also a Ball State grad, three Cardinals in a shelter on the AT, Chirp, Chirp!  He started back down the trail and said he would look for Rod.  A few minutes later I did the same.  About a quarter mile back I ran into Rod, turns out we must have passed him when he took a bathroom break or filled up water!  We let him know that we typically leave our trekking poles or something near the trail to let the other guys know where we are, lesson learned!  We all decided that we were so wet and cold that sleeping in the shelter would be the best idea.  A long, cold, and wet 13 miles and our sleeping bags felt amazing!

April 19.  A great idea to sleep in the shelter.  We woke up to more fog and dripping trees and loaded up our soggy gear and sloshed out on the trail.  Later in the morning the sun finally burned off the clouds and we hiked on towards Damascus.  In the afternoon we crossed the TN/VA state line, 3 states down, 11 more to go!  We hiked a few more miles and camped 2 miles from town.  This was a big day for us, and big miles for Rod!  A 16 mile day and Rod did great but said his feet were really hurting him.  Meat hiked into town with another hiker for drinks and food and made it back to the tents after midnight.  We also had time to dry out the gear...trail Friday tomorrow, heading into town!

April 20.  Woke up and hiked the 2 miles into town and picked up the food shipments and headed to the local coffee shop.  Rod said he had a blast hiking with us but for the next few days he thought he might go find some trails on his own and set a slower pace so he could stop and smell the roses.  We thought that was great because he was on vacation and wanted to enjoy nature...we however are pretty much working full time on the trail, hiking almost 8 or 10 hours each day.  It is interesting to look at thru-hiking compared to normal hiking, similar but VERY different.  Rod said bye as we headed to do our laundry.  He said he did have fun and we really enjoyed having him with us!  Flosser, Meat, and I did laundry, hitched a ride across town to an all you can eat pizza buffet, did some shopping, and headed over to a house that one of the other hikers had rented.  We hung out with a whole group of hikers all night by a fire with good drinks and good stories.  We fell asleep around 1 AM, Meat slept in the house in a cubby hole under the stairs and Flosser and I set out our sleeping bags on the back porch.

April 21.  Woke up early because the patio had full sunshine before 7 AM.  We packed our gear and headed to the coffee shop.  We had a great breakfast and drug our feet getting back to the trail.  The forecast called for some nasty storms in the afternoon.  It would be more comfortable to stay in town another day and take a zero, but as the saying goes "No pain, no rain, no Maine".  So back to the trail it is...Happy Hiking!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Roan Highlands

The Roan Highlands were not as cold as we had been in recently, but one night Brian did wrap his emergency blanket around his sleeping bag in his tent. Our first day up we passed a lot of ice on the trail and some ice on a waterfall. The highlands and the sequence of bald mountain tops in the 5,000 foot range made for some good hiking and some great views! I would suggest a visit sometime and I hope to come back for a few days as well! In the highlands we stayed at the Overmountain Shelter which is an old barn overlooking a fantastic valley.
We made our way out of the highlands and crossed a busy road and saw our first bear. Unfortunately it was had been hit on the road. It is sad how much garbage and trash we see everytime we get close to a major road crossing. It is most likely all of the fast food trash that draws animals like that bear to the road. Not only do we make nature look ugly with our trash, it can even kill the wildlife!
The hiking after Roan was interesting as we passed through some valleys, pastures, and along a wide river. We had to walk around several cows once and took a break in the front lawn of a country mountain church. In the highlands we had done some short days only hiking 9 and 10 miles but enjoying the views. Coming out of Roan we pushed hard on a 22 mile day! Brian ended up sleeping on a bunkhouse in a hostel while Ryan and hiked on and camped near a stream. The next day was a brutal 12 mile hike into the Kincora hostel. We got cleaned up and took the shuttle into town which turned out to mean putting 18 people into Bob Peoples' truck. I sat in the bed of the truck with 10 other hikers, some of them had not yet showered, and I tried not to get car sick as we hugged the turns down the tight, winding mountain road. In town we hit several stores and I went to Arby's and had 3 big sandwiches and fries. We all piled back in the truck and headed back up the mountain. We sat around and had a good time telling stories and talking with the other hikers. In the morning Brian, Ryan, and I headed back into town with Seiko, another guy who works at the hostel, for a good meal at a local diner. About that time my father-in-law Rod showed up, ready to hike for the next few days with us. We grabbed our gear and hit the trail.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Brrrr, It's Cold In Here!

April 10. Woke up in the hotel in Erwin and had a busy morning getting things done, sending home a package, mailing cards, eating at the Huddle House, and hanging out at the library. Ryan has been in contact with a guy from Big Agnes, the company we bought our tents from. They asked if we wanted to test out some new Air Core sleeping pads so I traded out my Exped for this and we'll see what I think in the next few weeks. After our morning of town work we started walking back to the trail some 4 or more miles away...luckily along the way a guy in a truck picked us up and saved us the extra walking. We packed our gear, weighed in (I think my pack is closer to 34 or 35 pounds now!) and headed out on the trail. We made 4 miles and stopped to camp just past the shelter. We stopped at the shelter to talk to some other hikers and when we were ready to go I lead the way out. Unfortunately I lead us up the wrong trail and everyone there had a good laugh at the three of us a few minutes later when we came back past and headed out on the correct trail. Back to the woods and back to the trail!

April 11. Brrrrrr! It got cold! We knew that some cold weather was headed our way and it hit! Overnight the temperature dropped and we woke up with the thermometers in our tents reading in the 30's. Of course, this was a bad time to be changing out our air mattresses. The new demo Air Core pads from Big Agnes are great, but they are made for warm weather camping. Sleeping pads are rated on the "R" scale for warmth, higher numbers being warmer. We all had pads rated around 2.5 or 3, these new pads are rated at 1. I don't really know how the rating system works or what it really means, I just know that I woke up freezing today. We hiked throughout the day, working with the temperature to try to stay comfortable. The wind and the cooler temps made for a day full of putting on and taking off layers. By the end of the day we were just ready to set up the tents and get warm in our sleeping bags. The only problem was that we knew tonight was going to be even colder that last night. We set up the tents and quickly got in them. I even set my tent up keeping the sides low to the ground trying to keep the cold out and the heat in. Inside the tent I put on almost all of my clothes...on the bottom, socks, underwear, tights, shorts, and hiking pants. On the top long thermal shirt, long hiking shirt, and Thermawrap jacket and fleece hat. Then I wrapped up in my 15 degree sleeping bag. I took my backpack rain cover and wrapped it under the foot of my sleeping bag and put my raincoat over the top to try to keep me warm. With all of these clothes on I had a pillow of gloves, clean underwear, and a dry bag, but the plan was to stay warm!

April 12. Ice! Ice cold...woke up to find the thermometer in my tent reading well below 30 degrees, Ryan said his read 25. There were ice crystals all over the inside of my rain fly. My sleeping bag was wet where I had placed my rain coat, it kept all the water condensation in place. I got out of my tent to find more ice on the outside and frost on the grass around me. I added neutralizer to my iodine water and within a few minutes the bottles had almost completely frozen. I ended up drinking iced mocha and iced Emergen-C, with are both more enjoyable on a warm day than a frozen morning. We walked a few miles to the Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel. There "CC" took us in and we had coffee, juice, eggs, and bacon. She told us about her unfriendly neighbor who takes down her signs and tries to keep hikers away. She told us some pretty horrible things he has done. During breakfast we heard him take his ATV up the trail. She said he was riding up into the National Forest, illegal, in order to take her signs down, or put his own up. When we were getting ready to go he came back down the trail and passed us to go get his mail. On the way back to his house Brian smiled and nodded a hello to him. Unfriendly neighbor gave us a very mean look and flipped us the bird! Not just a normal middle finger gesture though, he made sure to show it, pull back slightly, and really push it back at us for emphasis. Wow! We made our way back to the AT to find that the neighbor had ridden up there and pulled several fallen trees and limbs over the side trail to the hostel to block it. Ryan and I got to work moving the debris as far away as possible while Brian got his Sharpie out and made several little signs on trees showing how to get to the hostel. Unfortunately this is probably a daily occurrence and our efforts were probably futile, but we couldn't help but try to do something for CC. I guess in life some people are just angry and unfriendly neighbor is one of them. Hopefully he finds a way to turn that around, but it is doubtful. We hiked on and covered a good 10 miles on some pretty tough terrain and made it most of the way up to the top of Roan Mountain. Roan Mountain has an elevation of 6,285 feet and this will be the last time we will top 6,000 feet on the AT until we make it to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Rain, Wind, and KFC All You Can Eat!

April 4.  Woke up in the hotel and took a relaxing morning with coffee and a walk around town.  It is nice to start the day with running water and a flush toilet now and then!  Before leaving town my aunt Karen sent me a message asking if we got her care package, yesterday in the mix of picking up 9 packages we missed the 10th one so I went back and picked up the chocolate covered pretzels, muffins, and more.  That worked perfectly for our mid morning snack!  Before leaving we stopped by the outfitter and weighed our packs, Brian and Ryan were at 35 pounds and I was at 38 pounds with 5 days of food and water.  Not bad, better than when I was at 48 pounds, but still looking forward to dropping more weight!  I also weighed myself before leaving town and it seems that I've maintained weight for the first month, thanks to Amy's 5,000 calorie a day meal plan!  Out on the trail we climbed higher out of the gap it got hotter and my thermometer again registered above 90 degrees.  We took a short side trail to an old fire tower and had a great view from the top.  Along side a small lake we saw our second snake of the hike, this was a large water snake.  The first snake we saw was a couple of days ago when we saw a small snake along trail as it tried to attack Brian's hiking pole.  Later in the day we stopped for water and Ryan's brand new water filter broke on its first was new because the old one broke last week and the company sent him a new one.  Needless to say, Ryan was not happy, I'd tell you the rest of that story but I am sure Ryan is writing up a great blog post about it, check it out!  We hiked on and set up camp on a great ridge with a fantastic sunset and potential sunrise tomorrow morning.

April 5.  Today marks 4 weeks on the trail.  Woke up to no sunrise, it rained last night and the clouds had rolled in.  We packed up camp and headed down the hill.  At the road crossing we read a sign about trail magic a half mile down the road.  We walked there and knocked on the door to meet Hercules and FAL, past thru-hikers themselves.  They invited us in to their kitchen table with several other hikers and the magic began.  We had our choice of drinks first, coffee and tea for me.  The first course was a fresh made belgium waffle.  Next came a big bowl of hot home made stew.  When you think you can't take anymore you have your choice of dessert, home made apple crisp for me!  We had fresh baked home made bread as well.  They do this almost everyday for hikers and have been for the past 8 years right there, out of their home.  They said they have served more than 2,900 hikers in that time, impressive!  They are a very nice couple and it was very much appreciated and it will be hard to top that trail magic in the future!

After leaving the house it was one big climb for the next 6 miles.  The day warmed up and the sweat was dripping off us.  We made it to a shelter in time for lunch and to take cover from an afternoon rain storm.  We waited out the rain for an hour and continued up.  Not long after it started raining again.  We came to a trail crossing for the "Good Weather Trail" and the "Bad Weather Trail" for the Blackstack Cliffs, we chose the good weather trail despite the storms.  We hiked up a very rocky trail and passed through places where my backpack was almost too big to fit through.  The climb was worth it and the view of the farms, rolling hills, and mountains nestled under storm clouds was fantastic.  By that time the rain had really started coming down and we scrambled down the tricky rock trail to get off the mountain.  We walked in the rain to the next shelter and we were soaked by the time we got there.  The shelter was already full so I set up my tent in the rain, ate my dinner, and crawled in my sleeping bag to warm up and fall asleep.

April 6.  It rained all night, woke up wet and cold still, but at least the rain had stopped.  During the night we heard a pack of yipping coyotes passing the shelter.  It was a pretty incredible sound. I packed my wet gear up and started walking in search of sunshine and a place to dry my gear out.  Ryan and Brian were a bit behind me, taking time to eat breakfast and pack their gear, I wanted out of the fog and into the sun and I was cold and the best way to heat up is to get the internal furnace going by walking.  As I walked ahead I wasn't paying enough attention and I stepped on a wet log used across the trail to divert water.  My Merrill Chameleon shoes with Vibram soles are fantastic on most surfaces, but on the wet log they were like tuxedo shoes on ice.  My foot slide out from under me and I stabbed my trekking poles into the ground in front of me.  For a split second I thought I was safe...then I started leaning forward.  It seemed to take forever, I felt the left pole dig into the ground and I could hear it tearing through the dirt as I fell forward.  I kept my arms in so I wouldn't break anything and landed square on my shoulder.  I laid there for a second, mostly because I was facing downhill with my arms pinned under me and my 30 pound backpack on top of me.  It was tough getting up and I was fine, the only negative was that Brian and Ryan were not there to see it all happen and laugh about it with me!
We finally stopped at 3 PM and got everything out of our packs and hung it up to dry.  We camped on a ridge with a great sunset, moon rise, moon set, and sunrise, pretty nice spot!

April 7.  We hiked to a road crossing today and ran into some great trail magic. Two past thru-hikers were there cooking hash browns and eggs, with muffins, candy, fruit, and drinks.  They set up there each year for a week or two and cook for thru-hikers right out of the back of their pickup truck, it was a great stop!  We hiked on and ended the day on top of Big Bald, a 5,500 foot bald offering 360 degree views of mountains, valleys, and city lights in the distance.  We decided to camp there for the night and planned on some great views!

April 8.  Windy...we placed our tents facing away from the wind but at 3 AM the wind changed directions and I woke up to my tent blowing over sideways on me.  I got dressed in all of my clothes and got out and moved my tent so it didn't blow so hard.  The morning sunrise was nice and a great way to start Easter Sunday!  We packed up the tents as quickly and carefully as possible and tried not to lose anything in the wind.  It was a cold night, my thermometer was below 40 in the tent, Ryan said his was close to 35!  I have sent most of my clothes home so the only thing I had left to wear in the cold was a pair of running shorts and another pair of underwear!  Even with the cold wind that was one of my favorite camp spots so far and I really enjoyed the views!

We hit another stop for trail magic when we found some hard boiled, decorated Easter Eggs hidden along a section of the trial.  They led us to a full cooler of candy, fruit, and beer, couldn't ask for more!

April 9.  We camped 4 miles out of Erwin, TN and quickly made it into town.  Our first stop was McDonald's and Ryan and I each had a Big Mac value meal followed by 2 more dollar sandwiches, and we were still hungry!  Ryan visited the clinic again and got more meds for his lingering cold or allergy or whatever he has going on.  We cleaned our clothes, showered, and got ready for a night out on the town!  We tried for a China Buffet but it wasn't open.  We settled for the KFC all you can eat buffet, amazing!  We headed back to the hotel to hang out with a few hikers and had a fun evening!

Friday, April 6, 2012

On To Hot Springs

March 30.  Woke up in the Grand Prix hotel in Gatlinbrug for the third morning in a row.  At least today we should be heading back to the trail!  We started with doughnuts and coffee at the hotel and then headed down to the national park road with a group of 3 girl hikers, all 5 of us looking to hitch a ride.  About 4 minutes into the process a young guy had pulled over and naturally offered the three young ladies a ride to the trail.  The two guys with beards, us, were left sitting on the curb with our thumbs in the air.  We tried to hitch a ride for the next half hour without any success until a big SUV pulled over with two guys and they said "we decided you guys don't look too dangerous!". We put our stuff in the back and set our packs on top of theirs.  They turned out to be hikers themselves and were heading up the mountain to camp for a couple days.  We enjoyed the ride up the mountain with Patrick and Steve and we talked about gear and the hikes they've done in the area.  They said there are some 900 miles of trails in the Smokey Mountains and it is their goal to hike them all!  We got dropped off at the trail and headed out, glad to be hiking again.

While we were in Gatlinburg we constantly saw cars with license plates from Indiana and Ryan kept joking that he would probably run into someone from home with so many Hoosiers around.  About a mile into the trail we passed a group and I saw someone with a Purdue hat and thought, more Indiana people.  Then I saw that one person had a South Adams Starfires shirt on, people from Berne!  I stopped and talked and it ended up being a family from Berne and Kent works literally next door to my mom!  We got some pictures and Kent said he would email them to my mom to show her they met up with me and that I am alive and well.  Small world!

I hiked on ahead of Ryan today so he could rest his injury and so I could make it to meet my cousin Justin by Sunday morning.  After lunch I hiked 12 miles in 4 hours in the pouring rain.  When I got to the shelter for the night I hung my clothes out to dry, ate dinner quickly, and got into my sleeping bag to warm up.  Being in the chilly rain for a few hours really froze my fingers and when I set up my spot in the shelter for the night they were so cold that I had a hard time opening bags, unclipping things, and I almost couldn't squeeze my toothpaste out of the tube!  Needless to say, my thermals and 15 degree down bag felt great!  We started hiking today at 11 AM and I was able to put down a good 16 miles in the rain, not a bad day!

March 31.  Rain.  It poured all night last night, hard!  I was happy to be in a shelter for sure, although the guide book says that it is the most remote shelter in the national park, and it wet weather it can be a "very soggy place".  Great!  I stayed dry but the shelter and upper sleeping level did seem to have a slight lean to the far back corner.  I picked the high end to sleep on which worked great until the middle of the night when I had worked my way over to elbowing the guy next to me.  He said about an hour later he elbowed the girl next to him.  We figured it would be like a domino effect and by the morning we would all have worked our way down to the low end of the sleeping platform leaving the other side bare of everything except our hiking boots set out below.  It was also an interesting night of sleep because at one point I opened the valve on my sleeping pad to let some air out and I must not have closed it properly.  About an hour later I woke up with no pad, just me sleeping on the hard floor.  I didn't refill my pad and spent the rest of the night tossing and turning on the wood planks. 

Headed out down the trial, time to get out of the Smokey Mountains!  The rain had stopped but the hills where saturated with water and all of it seemed to be pouring out onto the trail and pooling up in big mud bogs right where I needed to step.  It was a pretty muddy day to say the least.  Heading downhill made for a quick pace and I quickly hiked 17 miles in 7 hours.  I hit our target campsite at 3 PM and found Brian's tent already set up.  We camped next to a couple of other thru-hikers and had a fun evening.

April 1.  At 9 AM on the dot we made it to the highway to meet up with my cousin Justin from Indiana.  We stopped by the hiker hostel to get our food resupply and headed up the trail.  And it was UP...something like 3,000 feet in the first 6 miles.  That was a good climb for me and I've been on the trail a few weeks, a pretty tough climb for Justin's first day.  Somewhere around mile 11 we hit some trail cans of Coke and a nice place to rest.  It was at this point that I remembered that our first day out on the trail Brian, Ryan, and I only hiked 8 miles and were dead tired.  For Justin's first day we were already at 11 miles!  We hiked on about another mile and set up camp on the flattest surface we could find.  Ironically, just next to our campsite was one of the North Carolina Bear Sanctuary signs, back into bear country!  We had our dinner, Justin gave me one of his cooked backpacker dinners, either because he was being nice or because he wanted to get rid of as much weight as possible!  It was really good, and a tasty change from my cold mashed potatoes and beef jerky.  We were all tired, but Justin was drop dead exhausted, either that or he wanted to kill me, but I couldn't tell.  We all went to sleep and sometime later in the night the winds rolled in like a freight train.  All night I wondered if the trees above me would fall over or if they'd stay standing.  My tent blew around in the wind, Justin's tent only had two stakes in the front so his 3 person tent blew over and became more of a one man tent.  Luckily it was all just wind and no rain!

April 2.  Woke up with dry tents today, probably because we were about to be blown off the side of the mountain.  Justin didn't feel too bad after his first day so we kept on climbing the mountain we had camped on.  Today's trail started a little more level but later in the day we climbed Bluff Mountain.  This mountain got its name because it climb and climb and climb only to get to what you think is the top but when you get there you see that there is more climbing.  This happens a couple times and by the time we got to the top we were beat.  We headed down the other side and set up camp about half way down in an old road bed.  After this 14 mile day we were all tired, especially Justin.  Another tough day, really hard for his second day on the trail.  We sat down for dinner and Ryan made a camp fire and surprised us with a six pack of craft beer that his friends had given him yesterday and that he hauled up the mountain in his backpack!  He was happy to reduce the weight and we were more than happy to help him!

April 3.  Today was mostly downhill into Hot Springs.  Mostly.  Justin will probably be the first to tell you that it is never just up or down on the tail, always rolling and always tough.  It didn't help that this was one of the hottest days we had so far and the thermometer on my backpack was reading well into the 90's in the direct sun.  We were all looking forward to getting into town. We made our final descent and hit the sidewalk around 2 in the afternoon.  Hot Springs is unique in that the AT actually goes through down town and is marked by AT symbols in the sidewalk.  First thing into town we got a beer and then headed to the outfitter to pick up our resupply boxes.  And boxes we had!  After the girl ran through the whole package log Brian had 3, Ryan had 4, and I had 2...that's a lot of treats!  Brian got some caramels and cake, Ryan had goodie boxes of candy and more, and my mom's coworker Jill and her mom sent us cookies, twinkies, and ho-ho's!  We had a whole convenient store with us!  We had a great meal at the local restaurant, chicken fried steak was amazing!  We went to the coin laundry and cleaned our clothes.  Justin was picked up by an AT taxi driver to take him back to his car.  Justin said he had a good 3 days hiking with us but he was happy to get off the trail and avoid the next big climb out of Hot Springs.  He probaly thinks we are a little crazy for hiking the AT, but at least he doesn't hate us for putting him through the three day climb!  After cleaning our clothes it started pouring rain so we decided to spend the night in town and we got a room right above the tavern where the rest of the hiking crew was already enjoying the evening.  We spent the rest of the night there with some drinks, sharing good trail stories, and sharing our boxes of trail magic goodies and snacks with a very appreciative crowd of hungry hikers!  Out of Hot Springs tomorrow and on to Erwin!