Day 199 – Better Late Than Never

The finish for northbound (NOBO) AT thru-hikers: Mt Katahdin

I did it! On October 5, I finished backpacking 2,190.9 miles over 6.5 months – 199 days to be exact – through 14 states and lots and lots of rain. The Appalachian Trail thru-hike dream became my life for many months and now it’s done. A success. I am delighted to once again go to sleep each night without having to crawl on the ground and carefully pull off muddy boots as I ease into bed.

Fall in Maine on the AT

The last two weeks were fantastic. The trees in Maine were beautiful, plus we had mostly warm temperatures. Mrs. Santiago picked us up each night it was possible to reach a road crossing, and pampered us with drinks and treats as we headed into town for showers and yummy restaurant dinners. We grew soft from slack packing most of the last six weeks, so when we did carry full packs and camped out, we were quickly reminded how much tougher it is to backpack and camp. However the few nights we camped during those last days were gorgeous, with lakes and fall color everywhere. I enjoyed camping, even though I took advantage of every chance to be picked up and taken to a hotel with shower and warm meals.

Many people ask if I plan to hike the AT again. Nope. Not ever. I’m glad I hiked it and reached my goal, but I thought the AT was all about hiking when it turned out to be all about the kindness of others. Lots of people went out of their way to help me be successful and those are my best memories. Future posts will reveal some of the wonderful lessons and insight gained by stubbornly sticking with the challenge, but it was the generosity of strangers and friends that stand out the most.

Very happy NOBO thru-hikers celebrating on top of Mt Katahdin

Well…, okay I would hike part of it again, just not the entire trail. More than two months after finishing, I can say I am in love with hiking and have made time for many day hikes since finishing the AT. I have plans to hike the Chisos Mountains in early February, and part of The Lone Star Trail at the end of February. The year 2021 is my target for starting and finishing a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, which is 2,650 miles and purported to have an easier grade and fantastic views… plus hardly any rain. I research trails almost every day. Yep, the hiking bug is still with me.

In the meantime, lots and lots of people seem to want to hear me speak about adventures from the trail. I plan to use my stories to entertain and motivate people to go out and reach their own goals, whatever they may be. There are plenty of life lessons from the trail which can be applied to any other goal and I have both the skill to weave those stories into presentations people want to hear, and to help people reach their own goals through life coaching. I plan to keep hiking while encouraging other people to move from dream to life, too. When I’m a part of helping others reach their life goals, I’m a happy camper – and after 199 days of mostly camping along the trail, I definitely know how to be a happy camper.

Day 71 – Wild Ponies

Wild ponies live everywhere near Grayson Highlands State Park, and all the hikers were looking forward to seeing them as we went through on the AT. Everyone except me, as I didn’t want to have my hopes up. The last time I hiked there we saw exactly one pony, who was not interested in us whatsoever and didn’t seem all that wild. So my hopes were low when we headed into the park a couple weeks ago.

Boy, was I surprised after all! There were ponies everywhere! We must have seen at least four different herds plus many more ponies along the trail. Seeing them was delightful and filled me with smiles and laughter.

Wingman saw a herd in the distance miles before we reached the park. They were about a quarter mile away across a grassy, thorny bald and the fence had been removed between us and them, so we decided to stroll out and see if we could photo them. We clicked away as we came closer in case they spooked and ran, but the opposite happened!

When they saw us coming near, they came up and surrounded us. We hoped they did not mind we had no treats to share, and it was a little spooky when they kept crowding around. We took a bunch of photos and walked back to the trail, excited with our encounter with the wild ponies, but that was just the beginning.

As we neared the shelter, a hiker told us a pair of ponies came up and licked the salt from her arms and legs. Thank goodness she gave us the heads up, because that’s exactly what happened to me a minute later. It tickled and we finally had to keep moving along before they would stop.

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That night a herd was near our campsite, just outside the park boundary. We heard neighing in the evening and morning before we caught sight of them. Then we saw at least two or three more herds as we walked through the park and back out.

The ponies were brought in several decades ago to help control the thorns and grasses. They munch right down on the thorny brambles and survive cold Virginia winters just fine. Although ponies are used to people coming along the trail and in the park, the ponies are meant to stay wild and are left on their own for the most part.

I’m so glad we saw so many ponies! It was a real treat, especially since I know they are sometimes more elusive. Plus, we didn’t have them steal our food bags when we weren’t looking, like other hikers did. One hiker even found a pony trying to swallow his boot gaiter. (Another quick thinking hiker saved both the pony from indigestion and the gaiter from being a snack.) That night we hung our food bags away from both bears and ponies.

My hopes were low when I reached pony territory, but my spirits were high when I left!

Day 14 – Fear of Future

There are a lot of things I thought would be challenging on this journey. Steep climbs, having enough food, finding water, blisters, falling down the mountain, bears, snakes and deer ticks were on the list.

I didn’t expect to be scared though, and frankly I have been scared quite a bit. Since we started 14 days ago, there have been predictions of rain followed by very cold temps – in the mid-20s – for many nights. It has been worrying us as we plan our mileage and where we could catch a shuttle to stay in a hostel if the weather turned bad. That assumes there is vacancy, too. One night when we caught a night in a hostel several people were having trouble finding a place to stay and had to camp in the cold windy rain storm.

So far we have done alright. We made it through some pretty cold nights, like 29° with howling wind. We were in a hostel the night of the first bad cold thunderstorm and weathered it out in our tents on the next thunderstorm which had warmer temps. Unfortunately Bluejay (Karen) had over 2 inches of water in the corner of her tent after that storm. My tent was dry inside and very muddy on the outside from the splash of hard rain. It wasn’t cold so we were fine.

By the way, a warm day is when we don’t have on gloves to break down our tents or start hiking. Today was the first day I didn’t have my winter coat on when I left my tent. It’s often 50 to 60° later in the day hiking so that’s perfect hiking weather. It’s just when it goes down to the low 30s at night that it’s kind of miserable getting going in the morning.

So we check the weather with a special AT app whenever we have service and plan for how to get off the trail into a real shelter, like a hostel or hotel, if it’s going to be freezing rain or worse.

It was predicting rain all night tomorrow night turning to snow in the middle of the night and waking up about 25°. We are very scared of becoming soaked through our rain gear and tents and then having it turn very cold. I realized a couple of days ago that I was not focusing on the present moment, because I was worried too hard about the future. Just like life off the trail, when you focus on what might happen to you, you forget to enjoy what is actually happening to you.

On the other hand, we can’t ignore the possibility that we could be in real trouble if we didn’t plan well. So there is that fine line of planning for the future while enjoying the present that I’ve been running into my entire life. I decided I was going to quit fearing the future and just hike the hike I was on that day. Each night we check the weather and make a contingency plan. Then we camp and enjoy the next day. It’s worked for two days so far and as luck would have it the bad weather predicted for tomorrow night has pushed off.

Here’s the catch: just when I thought my new plan was going to work, we hear there’s a blizzard predicted for Saturday and Sunday in the Smoky Mountains. There aren’t any places to get off the trail two days into the Smoky Mountains, which is where we will be if we stay on our course. We are certainly not prepared to camp in a blizzard.

So I have had to renew my resolve to enjoy the day and not fear the future. It is a beautiful day down at Nantahalla Outdoor Center where I am writing this blog waiting for their restaurant open at 11 so I can eat a big meal before we hike 8 miles with a 3300′ elevation gain. It’s supposed to be so nice today, and I will put on sunscreen when I switch to shorts and T-shirt.

Cross your fingers that it does not blizzard on us, like it did for thru hikers in the Smokies three weeks ago. They were holed in camp shelters and visitor center restrooms as the roads closed and there was no way to get out for a day. I hope the hardest part turns out to be focusing on a great day and not making it through a terrible night. We will find out soon enough.

Passed 100 mile mark three days ago. WooHoo!