February 29, 2008

We took our first zero day yesterday, meaning we didn't hike any miles. We were hesitant to stay in Franklin, NC an extra day, but due to my sleeping bag situation it wasn't really an option. I had tried to save money and weight by using a kids sleeping bag, and I think I was a little too big. The sleeping bag was stretched a light tight, and I had trouble sleeping any time the temperature dropped below 45 degrees F.

When we went to Franklin I had high hopes for finding a new sleeping bag at the outfitters, but that place left a lot to be desired. They only had one women's specific bag, and only carried North Face brand bags. So I found a bag online and had it overnighted. Now I am warm and comfortable in a shelter and on the trail once again.

Yesterday we relaxed a lot, and watched some tv,which we never did at home since we didn't have cable. We also walked to Ingles grocery store and resupplied. We bought a few bananas, poptarts, red beans and rice, frosted animal cookies, chocolate chips and peanut butter chips for our trail mix, teddy grahams, snickers, tuna, and tortillas. We were also able to spend some time talking to family, which was nice.

Today we mailed home my old sleeping bag and as soon as we started discussing how to get back to the trail a woman began apologizing profusely that she couldn't take us, as she was heading to Georgia and her car was too small. Before even a minute had passed a couple asked us where we needed to go and immediately volunteered to take us. Their names were Joe and Judy, and it turned out that they are members of the local Nantahala hiking club. When they dropped us off, it looked like they headed back in the direction we came from, meaning they went up to 20 miles out of their way to help us out. The people in these small trail towns are absolutely incredible.

We hopped out of their truck and into the snow... the weather forecast said rain but it has been snowing for hours. Maybe it's lucky leap year snow: ) We called it a super-short day today because we wanted to stay dry and in a shelter. Hopefully we'll get a good workout tomorrow.

-- Amanda

March 1, 2008

First of all, since it is the first day of March I want to say Happy Birthday to my mom, dad, and my little brother Tyler, all of whom have birthdays this month. Happy Birthday!!

Today was a spectacular day! I woke up around 4 AM to find that the snow had turned into rain. I quickly dozed back off to that glorious sound of rain on a shelter's tin roof. We woke up around 7 AM, packed up, and headed out to the slushy trail around 8 AM. The climb up to Siler Bald was brutal. The snow was deep and wet making every step more laborious than it otherwise would have been. As usual, we reached the top in the clouds with no good view; we pressed on. We had been following dog-like prints in the snow for quite sometime. They weren't abnormally large, but they weren't small either. There were also enough prints that multiple animals must have been present. Since we were hiking down to Wayah (wolf) gap, the thought did cross my mind. What does a wolf print look like. Are there still wolves in the area? I figured the prints were from some lost hunting dogs, but who knows. I also seem to remember the forest service transporting and releasing a pack of wolves in the Appalachian mountains a long time ago. Any one have more info on this? Please feel free to comment on this journal entry.

Anyway, we hiked down to Wayah Gap and then climbed all the way up back up to Wayah Bald. There is an observation tower at the top. By the time we reached the top the skies had cleared. We climbed the tower to see our best view thus far. While near the top, we met Mike and his wife. They were very nice and seemed interested in our hike. Mike also seemed interested in my astronomy background, so I pounced on the opportunity and talked astronomy for a little while (probably boring him to death in the process). It was great though!

We began our descent from the bald by basically sliding down the other side in the snow. The terrain was much easier than it had been earlier that day. We were feeling good so we decided to attempt a new mileage record. Our target was Wesser Bald Shelter. Only 3 miles to go and our feet/knees were killing us and our spirits were pretty low. We stumbled down into Tellico Gap and that's when it happened.

For those of you who are still skeptical about trail magic, definitely read this next part closely. Amanda and I were in a good bit of pain and we knew that, in order to make our goal, we had another long climb after Tellico Gap. I reached the gap ahead of Amanda, dropped my pack, and sat down to take a break.

There was country music emanating from a parked black truck. Three ladies were sitting on the tailgate one of the ladies asked if I wanted a snack. I said "That would be great!" As she walked over she said, "Oh, and would you like a beer?" Right then, a beam of light shone down through the clouds and illuminated that truck and those three women. That's when I realized that these were no normal women, these were trail angels.

Amanda and I both had a snack and a Corona with a lime (yes, they even had a lime!) I want to sincerely thank you all for that beer and snack. It was the best beer of my life. That act of kindness completely turned the day around. We flew up the other side of the gap, reached the observation tower, and witnessed one of the most beautiful flourescent pink sunsets I have ever seen. The view from that tower tops any view I have ever seen from any other mountain top. You could see Fontana, Newfound Gap. You could see where we came from and where we were going. We continued on through the twilight to reach the shelter where I currently sit. It's not too cold tonight, but after 17.9 miles I am exhausted. Amanda is snoring pretty loudly.

A day of records:
1. Most miles hiked thus far
2. Best view from any mountain top ever
3. Best beer ever

By the way, I learned that one beer can nearly do Amanda in if all she has had to eat all day is a little trail mix and a bagel. She had the giggles all the way up the other side of the gap.

-- Joshua

March 2, 2008

Today was exhausting. 12.6 miles doesn't sound like much compared to the 17.9 we walked yesterday, but today was much more challenging. We started out at 4115ft, dropped to 1740ft, and then spent the rest of the day climbing to 4330ft. No flat ground today.

It got up to 80 degrees F this afternoon on the sunny sides of the mountains, but each time we rounded a corner to the sunless sides it was 55 degrees F and there was still snow on the ground. What a drastic difference rays of sun make.

We had an incredible view at the Nantahala Gorge overlook. Other than that we just enjoyed the sun and took the uphill one step at a time.

I'm off to enjoy a tasty meal of red beans and rice in a tortilla... yum!

-- Amanda

March 3, 2008

It's not the aching feet that is tough to handle. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying my feet don't hurt because they certainly do. They hurt a lot, every single day. If you want to know how they feel, I would suggest taking your shoes off and running across a bunch of sharp rocks repeatedly for 24 hours. But anyway, it's not the pain that really gets to you. It is the vicious cycle that this pain perpetuates. As your feet start to hurt, you get sloppy. You drag instead of lift and often choose less than ideal foot placement. This leads to further slips, stubbed toes, stressed ankles, and overall more sore feet. This simply repeats. The hard part is overcoming this.

We hiked 15.2 miles today and the terrain was a lot tougher than I had anticipated. The climb out of Stecoah Gap was brutal. We were both exhausted so this entry will consist of just a food recommendation.

Food Recommendation: Mahatma Red Beans and Rice Wraps

I suggest adding your favorite hot sauce to spice up this delicious meal. Just cook the red beans and rice as the directions state then add the hot sauce. Place desired amount on tortilla and wrap it up. Mmmmm Good.

Warning: This meal has one very undesirable side effect. I recommend eating this only on a warm evening because you will want to unzip your sleeping bag for exhaust purposes. I woke up at 5 AM to what I thought smelled like burning rubber. I thought for a second that the previous night's cooking fire had come back to life. I quickly realized that when I moved around in my bag, the smell became stronger. Needless to say, that was just the beginning. I had gas all day. I also learned from experience that my Amanda's mom was right; Never pass gas on a wooden floor. I let one go while sitting on the shelter floor and as Amanda put it "It sounded like a warzone."


-- Joshua

March 4, 2008

From my experiences so far, I have found that there are two distinctly and very different types of hikers with respect to how they plan a thru-hike. The first type is the one to which Amanda and I belong. It is the type of hiker that does little to no planning on a day-to-day basis, aside from knowing where the next resupply town is and how much food to carry until them. Now I am not referring to preparing. Amanda and I spent a lot of time deciding which gear to buy. Instead, I am referring to planning the trip all the way from Georgia to Maine. Before leaving Chapel Hill, I had only looked at the first 10 miles of the Thru-Hiker's Companion. Each night Amanda and I pull out our little printed pages of the companion and spend about 5 minutes looking at the upcoming miles and landmarks for the upcoming day. Even then we don't plan to hike a certain number of miles. If we know it's going to rain, we will try to make it to a shelter, but other than that we stop when we get tired.

The second type of planner is the group to which Grasshopper and Breakman belong. They are on a bit of a different schedule than Amanda and I. They tent just outside the shelters and appear to go to bed by 5:30 PM and are gone by the time we wake up. Due to our different schedules they were usually heading to bed just as Amanda and I arrived at the shelter. We had a chance to talk with them for a little while outside of Cable Gap Shelter. They are such a wonderfully nice couple. I hope we see them often in our journey. Grasshopper and Breakman have done a lot of planning. They have maildrops as their primary food source for their entire trip. This means they had to sit down and estimate roughly where they would be each day. Their ability to do this (and all other hikers who plan the whole hike) amazes me! Amanda and I tried to plan this way, but with little long distance backpacking experience we gave up since we had no idea how many miles we would do each day.

The reason I discussed planning is because I wanted to emphasize that today Amanda and I had no plan. We both barely slept at all last night because the shelter was very low to the ground and every time the wind blew (which was often) it sounded like a large animal was crawling into the shelter with you. You couldn't help but wake up and look around because each time you were just absolutely sure there was a bear ready to snuggle up next to you. Anyway, the rain and fierce wind began around 6 AM. With no motivation to get out of our sleeping bags, we didn't set out until 9 AM. It was still pouring with wind gusts up to 25 mph or so. My rain pants kept sliding down and my pack kept causing my rain coat to ride up. I was thoroughly soaked. The night before, we noticed we would cross a road after about 4.5 miles of hiking. The general store lay 5 miles east down the road. Amanda and I need to resupply if we want to make it through the Smokies and to Hot Springs. Our plan was to hitchhike to the general store and back. So there we were, two soggy hikers standing on the side of the road with our thumbs out. Who in their right mind is going to pick up soggy, muddy, smelly hikers in the pouring down rain? The answer is no one. After 35 minutes we gave up and decided to hike to the Fontana Shelter to regroup (1 mile farther).

Here is something you should know about hiking the AT. Just like life, it has its ups and downs. When I think about the ups and downs of life, I think of them as typically being slow and gradual. Good things happen and you grow more positive and optimistic; bad things happen and they knock you down for a while until you get over them. The ups and downs of hiking the AT come at you a lot faster, like a roller coaster. This morning even before heading out into the cold rain, Amanda and I were on top of the world. We left the shelter ready for another amazing day. Three hours later, after being battered by ferocious winds and rain, we were down. Standing beside a road with cold streams of water trickling down your arm as you reach out to raise your thumb I was at my lowest point thus far. Little did we know that 30 minutes later we would be 7 miles west down the road in Fontana Village's General Store warm, buying supplies, and drying out. Little did we know that just 3 hours later we would be full off of hot dogs and nachos, the skies would be blue, we would have all our supplies, and we would be completely dry. I would have scoffed at someone had they told me that in only 7 hours I would be writing a journal entry in the Hilton of shelters with a spectacular view having had a hot shower and having seen a great sunset from the top of Fontana Dam. Yet here I am.

So to all you future thru-hikers as well as a note to self remember that downs will be rapidly followed by ups. So hang there. In the words of Tater, "Take a couple of days off before deciding to quit the trail." Tater knows that after a couple of days you will be back on top of the world.

If you want to know how all this happened, keep reading. I will include it in a future entry as I am too tired to include it in this one.

And by the way, the shelter actually has a sign on it that says "The Fontana Hilton."

-- Joshua

March 5, 2008

We woke up well rested at the "Fontana Hilton." Best view from any place I've ever spent the night, except maybe the rim of the Grand Canyon. We set off across the Fontana Dam, which Josh especially loved, and we talked about how it is the perfect place for a school field trip.

Even more exciting, today marked our entrance into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Almost as soon as we set foot into the Smokies alight snow began to fall, despite the fact that we were supposed to be precipitation free for two days. Which reminds me; snow flakes can actually fall in the shape of snowflakes, like the kind you cut out of paper in elementary school. Josh and I had no idea that was the case. We'd only ever seen the wet. melty snow ball-type snow that falls in eastern and central NC. Today the snowflakes looked like very fine pencil shavings, so we are up to three ways in which snow presents itself.

As we hiked along the 2870 foot climb straight up to the shelter, the sun began to peak out and the layers of ice on the tree branches began to melt. For 30 minutes we were pelted with chunks of ice the size of quarters. It was the closest thing to a blizzard we have ever experienced and it wasn't even actually snowing. It was really bizarre.

We made it to the shelter earlier and more energized than expected, so we went an extra 2.5 miles to the next one (you are required to sleep in shelters in the Smokies.) Tonight we are spending the night in a caged shelter -- safe from the 400 to 600 bears that live in the park. Keeping us company are Traveler, Grasshopper, and Breakman. Traveler says he snores... we'll see how this goes. He is a retired radiation oncologist who says his picture is on the wall at the Atlanta REI because he spends so much money there. We've been hiking about the same speed as Grasshopper and Breakman for a few days now, and it has been great having their company at night. They are truly kind and generous people with a great sense of humor.

-- Amanda

March 6, 2008

Today was way harder than expected. The southern Smokies are tough and filled with what Traveler calls PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs). Now don't get me wrong, some of them certainly aren't pointless. Amanda and I saw our best views yet; Stunning 360 degree views from balds were frequent and much appreciated. However, there seemed to be a lot of hopping up and over ridges. To summarize today, we worked really hard and only made it 14.7 miles. Not bad, but we were hoping to do more. Rain is expected all day tomorrow and we are dreading it.

Now, back to how we ended up at the Fontana Village's General Store. We crossed the road and that's when I saw the Fontana Village's Dock bathroom facilities for thru-hikers. I went into the men's and it had to be 80 degrees. I was ready to throw my ThermaRest down next to the urinal and call it a day. We regrouped in the bathroom, hanging up wet things on the stall doors. I noticed there was a phone with a number you could dial to reach the Fontana Village shuttle. For 2 dollars a person they would pick you up. We called and a nice lady by the name of Tina was there within 10 minutes. She took us to the general store and showed us around the village. She recommended hotdogs from the HellBender gas station and told us to let the lady in the store know when we wanted a ride back out to the trail and she would be notified via walkie-talkie.

We found everything we needed at the general store. With respect to price, yeah.. things were more expensive, but well within reason for a small store so far out in the middle of no where. I definitely recommend the place to all thru-hikers. We had a great conversation with Susan, the manager of the general store, about here job and the commute each day. She even gave us two pumpkin spice cappuccino. Thank you!

We walked down to the HellBender and ate four hotdogs, nachos, and a large bag of chips. Once again we were greeted by another extremely nice lady. I love Fontana Village! We conversed with her for about an hour and a half while a nasty line of storms swept through the area.

Finally, we were shuttled back to he boat dock where we found the skies clear and the temperature warm. We walked the last mile to the shelter, enjoyed the view, took free showers at the dam's visitor center and had a great night. What an amazing turn of events.

-- Joshua

March 7, 2008

It was an uneventful day minus the fact that the rain was out to get us. We read online that rain gear is useless if it rains for any extended amount of time, but we thought 'what foolishness! It's rain gear - certainly that's nonsense.' After 30 minutes of steady rain, rain gear is indeed useless after all. Lots of walking on a trail that was essentially a creek bed and lots of soaking wet clothes today too. I suppose I should make an effort to appreciate the rain... it melted the knee to thigh high drifts of snow that were here only last week (hence the flooded trail.)

We noticed many uprooted trees just south of Newfound Gap. These were very old trees with large root systems. In fact, anything growing around the trees, above its roots was also uprooted when they fell. We joked with one other hiker that there were more tree horizontal than vertical. If anyone knows the reason for this, please leave us a comment in this journal entry. We would love to know what led to their demise.

-- Amanda

March 8, 2008

So you want to train for thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and you want to stop early because you prefer cold to hot like Amanda and I? Okay, after the past two days I have developed an excellent training regiment that will whip you into shape in no time at all.

Step 1: Purchase a StairMaster
Yes, we need to simulate climbing a mountain and while most mountains don't have steps this will have to suffice.

Step 2: Set thermostat to 40 degrees
We need to get you ready for those cool days of hiking. Maybe you are thinking that 40 degrees isn't all that bad. Well, you are right. I think that 40 degree hiking is excellent, but just wait we aren't done.

Step 3: Buy an industrial strength fan
Up here in the mountains there are very few days when the wind isn't whipping so this fan will come in handy. Now I'm not talking about a little 25 dollar fan from WalMart. No, I'm talking about one of those heavy duty fans you could also use as a mulcher grinding up sticks, limbs, and even that tree stump in your front yard.

Step 4: Place fan in front of show, remove your shower curtain, turn your fan on medium, set shower water temp to cold and hop in
Yep, it's not just a 40 degree sunny day, it's a 40 degree windy rainy day. You can put on rain gear if you want but you will soon find it to be quite useless.

Step 5: But wait, how are you suppose to train for hiking when you are standing in the shower? This is where it gets a little tricky. You will need to place you stair master in your shower.

Step 6: Climb for 10 hours.

Ahhh yes, the rainy day is over so for tomorrow's training we should be able to take the StairMaster out of the shower and turn the fan off. Wrong.

Since your thermostat probably won't go down to 10 degrees you will need to find a way to put your shower in your freezer. And don't forget the fan, you are going to want to bump that up to high. So now it is 10 degrees, the wind is ferocious, and the shower is spewing snow. Climb for 8 hours in this blizzard.

Now you are prepared for what Amanda and I experienced the past few days. All rain yesterday and all snow today. The snow drifts were knee deep in places and we were completely exposed on the ridges. While we were very cold and tired, we knew that this was what some days were going to be like so we pushed on.

We arrived at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter at around 4 PM. We found Donkeylegs (www.donkeylegs.com) bundled up in his sleeping bag asleep. We first met Donkeylegs in a shelter just past Mt. Albert the last time we had a dose of insanely frigid weather. We tried to start a fire but everything was obviously to wet. While we were eating more dry ramen Donkeylegs awoke from his slumber and we all conversed about everything from other thru-hikers to trail magic. As you know from reading our journal entries, Amanda and I have been very fortunate when it comes to trail magic. Donkeylegs however, has not been quite so lucky. He told us about how it was frustrating that his only 'trail magic' experience was finding a piece of rope which he used as a makeshift belt to hold his pants up. He then informed us that this led to painful rope burn. Amanda and I both hope that his trail magic luck will improve soon.

-- Joshua

March 9, 2008

At last the sun came out to save the day and lift our soggy, frozen spirits! It's amazing how much good a little sunshine and some gorgeous views can do the soul. We were especially fortunate to have such great views in the Smokies, as air pollution has had such an enormous impact in the park. The ozone, nitrogen, and sulfur levels rank among the highest in the entire country and on a clear day, the pollution can reduce visibility from 93 to 22 miles.

We quickly forgot how miserable it had been packing up in the single digit temperatures. We even let it drift from minds that it took us each over 10 minutes to put on our frozen solid boots, only to find that they were then impossible to tighten and nearly impossible to hike in. What a wondrous thing sunlight is!

We are less than a mile from being out of the Smokies at this point, but will surely be carrying our wounds from this place for quite some time. Josh somehow managed to bang his head twice on shelter beams, and to slam his head into three fallen trees, one of which produced a scab. On the other hand, I somehow managed to fall down five times in two days, after not falling down a single time in the preceding 200+ miles. Fortunately the falls only produced bruises. Hopefully we are out of the two inch thick ice for a while and I can recuperate.

Tonight we are sharing a shelter with two UNC students, Mark and Craige. Mark actually lives with a friend and coworker of Josh's. Small world. Hopefully we didn't annoy them with our constant chatter... we nearly talked their heads off.

We've been debating trail names. Grasshopper and Breakman suggested "StarMan" for Josh, and "Discount" (from working at REI) for me. Traveler thought Josh should be "Hungry". I think Josh should be "AYCE" for All-You-Can-Eat -- he just can't eat enough. "Astro AYCE" would be good too since he wants to include astronomy. I might choose a name referencing my undying love for Max Patch, a grassy bald on the AT which we are soon to arrive at. Josh has suggested "TwigSnapper", as I tend to drag my feet, getting twigs stuck between them, and snapping them in the process. Anyone have any ideas?

In other news, congratulations to our favorite sister Amber -- she got into the school of nursing at UNCW!!!

-- Amanda

March 10, 2008

Today was an absolutely glorious day. It started off wonderfully, and just kept getting better. You have to love days like that.

This may sound ridiculous, but my day started off with the gift of 2 oranges. I'd been craving oranges for days, and the guys from UNC happened to bring a whole bag of them on their spring break backpacking excursion. They were kind enough to give us 2.

Soon after we made it out of the Smokies we encountered Skipper, a thru-hiker who is experiencing the trail southbound, from Maine to Georgia. In trail lingo this makes him a "SOBO" (we're "NOBO's"). He had to take time off in the middle as his wife was having surgery, so he's the very last SOBO making his way to GA. Due to weather conditions, most SOBO's start May-July, so we won't see another for quite some time. After meeting Skipper, who was named accordingly as he did look like a seafaring man, we happened upon some trail magic: a bag of food tied to a tree containing cheese puffs and oranges. We hoped this wasn't too greedy of us, but we took the oranges and left the cheese puffs for the next passerby. Hopefully Donkeylegs ran into his first real trail magic.

In the middle of the day we happened upon a bald that had a rather large FAA radar building built upon it. Apparently it's used by air traffic controllers to track planes. As you can tell if you look at the photos, Josh was beyond thrilled to stumble upon such a place--it wasn't listed in our guidebook. I enjoyed the views at the bald while he stared wide-eyed at the building.

Our day ended at Max Patch. Hiking 17 miles was worth it to end up at such a gorgeous place in time to catch the sunset. We were married there on the AT in late September, so it was incredibly exciting to revisit the bald. We talked about how perfect (to us) our wedding had been, and how we hoped that everyone who helped make it possible and who attended knew how much it meant to both of us.

If you haven't ever been to Max Patch, where there's 360 degree views of nothing but mountains, I could not recommend it more. It'll take your breath away and steal your heart.

-- Amanda

March 11, 2008

It goes without saying that some sections of the AT are better than others; everyone knows that. However, which sections are "great" and which sections are not so great are lesser known. So in an effort to help those of you out there interested in just hiking parts of the trail I'm going to recommend my favorite sections:

Note: My recommendations are highly influenced/biased by weather. If I do not include a section you feel should be included, this is probably because it was raining or snowing and we couldn't see anything.

In Georgia, I would recommend Trey Mtn. While Amanda and I summited this peak in the fog and at night, I have a feeling it had a great view. The only other wonderful spot in GA was Blood Mountain, but this spot is heavily visited due to proximity to a road so this detracts from it a bit.

In North Carolina, I really enjoyed the balds and towers of the south. I would definitely recommend the section from Wayah Bald to the NOC.

As for the Smokies, I very much recommend the 20 mile section south of Newfound Gap. There are great balds with spectacular views.

The reasons I am telling you about my favorite sections thus far is because of how boring today's section was between Max Patch and Hot Springs. There really is just nothing to see. We persevered through the boredom and had a big day - 17.5 miles. This puts us around 3 miles from Hot Springs. The plan is to wake up early, hike into town and eat a big breakfast. We will see how that goes.

-- Joshua

March 12, 2008

Almost every moment of today exceeded our expectations. The day started out early... I was so excited about the thought of heading into a town for 'real' food and mail that I awoke at 6AM, which only days ago was 5AM. Josh refused to get up for another hour, since the sun wasn't yet revealing itself.

We camped only 2 miles from Hot Springs, so the downhill route into the town didn't take much time at all. Hot Springs, NC is the first town on the AT heading northward that the trail goes straight through. It's a lovely quaint little town full of friendly folks, and it hasn't been overrun with chain restaurants and the commercial world, which is pleasant to say the least. The town is also set up perfectly from a hungry hiker standpoint: there is an amazing diner almost as soon as you enter town.

We enjoyed an incredible breakfast at the Smoky Mountain Diner -- a skillet breakfast with eggs, sausage, onions, peppers, cheese, hashbrowns, and mushrooms, plus biscuits, a country ham biscuit and chocolate milk. The server didn't think we would be able to eat it all, but we easily proved her wrong.

After that, we picked up our first mail drop, where we received a lovely letter -- thanks Samantha! -- and a phenomenal package from my parents. 21 pounds of treasure... everything from MRE components to energy drink mix, beef jerky to Lindt chocolate truffles... we are now living a life of luxury. Thanks mom and dad for the inexpressibly wonderful package. We somehow managed to get it all in our packs.

While in Hot Springs, we also did laundry and took showers. The laundromat had a sign that read "When doing laundry you must wear clothes. A towel only is not acceptable!" Apparently they have had issues in the past with hikers trying to get every last bit of their clothes clean. As for showers, the only place to simply take a shower versus spend the night as well is Hot Springs Resort and Spa. It was so disorganized that it took us over an hour to sort out where and how to take a shower. For other hikers: Our guidebook said it would cost 2 dollars, the price has increased to 5 dollars and does not include soap, shampoo, or towel. The showers are located across the street from the spa in the campground where no one was working. The campground's store was supposedly in charge of the showers but they were clueless. We eventually had to have someone from the spa come unlock the showers for us. That was the only hassle we encountered all day though.

After showering, we went back to the Smoky Mountain Diner, hung our packs on the outside of the building (they have special hooks for packs), and ordered another superb meal. They have a 12oz burger there called 'The Hungry Hiker' for $7.99. We split it and shared macaroni, cucumber salad, okra, and corn nuggets as well. I didn't realize that any place outside of Bear Grass, NC had corn nuggets (deep fried cream corn).

We are now tenting about a mile past Hot Springs. We are up on a ridge and we can hear trains going through the town at least hourly. I wasn't aware that trains are still so utilized, aside from the Amtrak system.

It was nice to spend the day in town. It gave us the chance to rest and enjoy the company of others. We are quickly finding out that the best part of hiking the trail is the people you meet along the way. From current and past thru-hikers to miscellaneous and curious people we just happen to cross paths with, everyone has been so kind, unique, interesting, and interested and an overall pleasure to meet.

-- Amanda

March 13, 2008

Woke up several times to the sound of trains passing through Hot Springs. I didn't mind though because I took this to mean that the town still had a pulse. From our ridgetop view I noticed what looked like a factory by the river. It seems to still be running, which is quite shocking. Amanda may have already included this, but in case she didn't, Hot Springs is a great little town. It is great for many reasons, but the one that stands out the most in my mind is it's not being commercialized. Instead of McDonalds, Lowes, and REI you have the Smoky Mountain Diner, Gentry's Hardware, and Bluff Mountain Outfitters. I hope the town never loses this.

Hearing the trains all last night also made me think of the really cool experience I had yesterday while leaving town. The trail took us up the side of a ridge next to the river. About halfway up was a rock outcropping with a spectacular view of the town below. When I was young I remember seeing a PBS special on people who would set up entire model cities in their basement. I was even more fascinated with these model cities which would include little people, trees, buildings, cars, moving trains with steam puffing from the chimney. They would have snow-covered mountains with tunnels for the trains and intersections with stoplights and crosswalks. They never "finished" their little creation. They simply continued to add and change. As I looked down from this rock I thought of these model cities. I could see the school with the buses parked out front. I could see the stoplights and the crosswalks. I saw the train track running along the river, crossing over the main street, curving back through the town, and winding off into the distant mountains. It felt as if I could reach out and play with this little model town before me. Just then, as I stood there on the rock, I heard the faint sound of a train whistle echoing through the mountains. Winding down the mountain way off in the distance was the very bright light of a locomotive hauling at least 50 cargo cars of various shapes and colors. It began to slow as it entered the town. The lights at the crossing began flashing, the gates dropped and the little cars came to a stop. The train crept through the town, bringing everything to a standstill. It soon moved on along the river and vanished down the valley. The town came back to life. I stood there, half expecting to see the same train loop around and the whole thing repeat as it always did in those little model towns, but it never did. I apologize if I bore you with such simple things and simple memories, but that's what hiking this trail is about. The simple.

The only exciting thing that happened today was more trail magic. Near the end of the day, we descended down into Allen Gap to find a sign which read:

Long Distance Section Hikers and Thru-hikers
Trail Magic: All you can eat waffles, BBQ, chili, desserts, cold and warm drinks.

This was followed by directions to the couple's home. Having been craving waffles for the past 50 miles, I couldn't resist the opportunity. We soon found ourselves in front of a beautiful cabin style home and were greeted at the door by Fal and Hercules, who had thru-hiked back in '99. They led us to the kitchen (the most beautiful I had ever been in) and asked us what we wanted to eat/drink. I had two waffles and half a BBQ and slaw sandwich, as well as a fancy layered ice cream cake-like dessert. Amanda had a waffle, the other half of the BBQ sandwich, and an ice cream sundae with fudge brownie. The couple was so generous and friendly. After we ate, they sat down with us and said they wanted to take the conversation to a deeper topic. Amanda and I looked at each other, confused. Hercules then asked us what our definition of "gentleman" was. Then he asked us for our definition of "tolerance." Amanda and I were completely baffled. Finally they asked us about "absolute truths." It turns out that Hercules and Fal are devout christians who like to offer religious books to hikers as well as offer religious guidance. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, but if you would be uncomfortable in such a situation you may want to avoid this trail magic spot near Allen Gap.

After the great food, we headed back to the trail, hiked a few miles farther, and set up the tent.

-- Joshua

March 14, 2008

We woke this morning to warm temps and blue skies. We knew the forecast called for 40 percent chance of showers but certainly didn't think this meant rain most of the day. The trail took us back up into the mountains. It ran along a very rocky ridge just before Jerry's Cabin shelter. I wish it had been a clear day because the view from this spot would have been spectacular. Even with the fog and light rain we occasionally had good views of the Tennessee Valley. We will return here someday to hike this section again.

We stopped at Jerry's Cabin shelter to dry off and we enjoyed a feast of miscellaneous foods we had received in our maildrop- thanks again! When the rain let up a bit, we set off for Flint Mountain shelter. We climbed over Big Butt (yes, the mountain is called Big Butt and if there had been a sign Amanda and I had plans to take a picture with it, possibly mooning the camera--so you are lucky there wasn't one). The terrain became fairly easy after this. We passed the Shelton graves. Apparently they were an uncle and nephew killed near that spot during the civil war. I was appalled that the site was covered in tacky fake flowers. It ruined the site for me.

We arrived at Flint Mountain shelter around 8PM just as it was getting dark. We met Phil and Adam (other thru-hikers), as well as Dave and Carl, a couple of older section hikers from up north. All were very nice and we had great conversations. People are awesome!

-- Joshua

March 15, 2008

It was a short, semi miserable day for us today. 40 degrees and thunderstorming with cold bursts of wind - that's the recipe for a soggy frowning hiker. We had plans of doing a bigger mile day to get into town a little faster (we miss our friends and family and are eager to say hello), but someone along the way told us the forecast for scattered showers had been replaced with all night long thunderstorms so we decided to tuck into a shelter earlier than usual. Look at us using common sense mom and dad! I will admit that it is quite unnerving being on the top of a mountain with metal trekking poles when it is thundering and lightening.

One of the flashes of lightening today gave off a bright pink hue... that was a new experience. Also, when it rains, we've noticed certain trees with soap suds like piles under/draining from them. If anyone knows the reason for this, we are curious, so please share.

MRE meals were what was for dinner (that's what the marines eat). It was some of the best food we've had thus far. Either we were ridiculously hungry or those meals are absolutely delicious. Sometimes it is hard to tell.

We are spending the night with three other thru-hikers; Alex from Montreal, and Phil and Adam who are both taking a semester off from college to trek to Maine. Phil goes to Duke, but we told him we won't hold it against him. We've never agreed with that whole UNC - Duke rivalry outside of basketball.

-- Amanda

March 16, 2008

We had a surprise first thing this morning. Ten minutes after leaving the shelter we ran into a hiker and began making small talk. Within minutes, another hiker emerged from the fog and asked "Amanda and Josh!?" It was HikerMan who had been following us online. To say that we felt like many celebrities might be stretching it, but it was a pretty cool experience. After that it was a quite foggy day. I'd really been looking forward to visiting Big Bald, a bald with an elevation much higher than Max Patch, but it was completely fogged in and frost covered when we got there. We joked with Adam and Phil over lunch that it was like a frozen tundra. Brrr.

We met someone today who started March 1st, which means that he has been doing over 20 miles each day. "Met" might be too strong a word - he would barely stop long enough to tell me his name which I was unable to decipher before he was running again. Josh and I spent a lot of time talking about 'hike your own hike', and how everyone is out here for different reasons and with different goals. Even so, I hope the individuals who are in such a hurry do get to experience some of the trail culture and incredible individuals like those we have met along the way thus far. In a shelter near Franklin, a SOBO about to end their journey wrote "this is not a race. the first one to finish loses." For myself, I like that mentality. It is about the journey. When is the next opportunity I'll have to take six months off to play in the woods, concerned about little other than putting one foot in front of the other? It is a simple life, and I love it.

-- Amanda

March 17, 2008

Thank you to everyone who has signed our guestbook and left comments on our journal entries. While on the trail we look forward to reading what you have written. Needless to say, we feel loved! Thank you for your interest and support - it means a lot to us both.

Also, if you have any questions of would like us to address anything in particular in our journals, let us know and we will see what we can do. : )

We are spending tonight and tomorrow in Erwin to rest our aches and pains. From now on, we will be sending our entries home for them to be typed up. This should mean more frequent updates. Until next time, take care.

-- Amanda