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 153 – Looking Up

The hardest days for me on trail were in New York, so we took a break from steep rock climbs in rain by spending time off trail in New York City. It was fun, although exhausting, to be a tourist, so when Mountain Dew suggested a third day off trail, I agreed. The three of us spent that day doing almost nothing.

I returned to the trail having missed the worst of the rainstorms and thought I would enjoy the trail again. I was wrong. I had been living trail life over four months by then and thunderstorms the next day knocked me back into misery. This post isn’t about that though, so suffice it to say that my friend’s prediction of “…every day a new misery” was absolutely correct.

Right after that a string of Trail Angels changed my attitude even though the rain kept coming. Looking back, it seems like an entire community of thoughtful people were where I needed them to boost my morale and keep me hiking north.

First, we ran into Bill, a thru hiker from 1998, who was doing shelter maintenance about four miles into our day. He invited us to go skydiving with him. We said “Yes!” and the day became even better. First, we had an awesome jump. I have wanted to skydive for 26 years and now I have! Loved it.

Afterwards, Bill dropped us back on trail so we could hike three more miles without our packs to his house. He treated us to ice cream and cokes, let us clean up and do laundry, then showed us to his rec room where we could sleep warm and dry. The next morning, his wife Amy made us a full breakfast while we visited with his kids. The whole experience was so unexpected and wonderful it was hard to believe.

A few days later, in Connecticut, we were facing a long rainy day punctuated by sudden hard rains. Heather, the daughter of my mom’s friend, Kathy, was going to meet us in a town about seven miles away. She surprised us by waiting at the trailhead with cokes and fruit and a plan for the day. We put our packs in her car and slack packed the next five miles with more of her treats in our daypacks, then called her when we finished. She picked us up after navigating closed roads and muddy unmaintained dirt roads, then took us to the post office and visitor center hiker showers before we headed for an early dinner.

All the while the rain simply poured, but we didn’t care because our packs were dry and so were we. After dinner, Heather brought out her laptop and we finally had a chance to look at our skydiving photos and post them. The whole day was awesome because of Heather. Without her help, we probably would have hitched to town and given up the extra hiking. Instead, she dropped us where we had left off and we hiked to camp in light drizzle which stopped before we set up camp. I know we were smiling all the way to camp and thankful to have had an easy way to put in a full day of hiking plus spend time cleaning up and enjoying her company.

The third set of Trail Angels came along on my second worst day of the trail. The rain had been relentless. There had been three flash flood warnings over five different days. Once, the trail literally was underwater 6 inches within minutes, and lightning was striking in front of my face. I woke up the morning after the third one and looked at Wingman and said “I don’t want to carry this pack anymore.” Of course I put my pack on my back and walked anyway. Four miles into our hike we arrived at the Cookie Lady’s house and our luck changed completely.

The Cookie Lady had a cat that loves hikers and gave us delicious homemade cookies, then let us pick blueberries in her blueberry orchard for no cost at all. We just needed to give her half of what we picked! It was wonderful – and delicious. While we were there, Tom stopped by. He was waiting for some southbound hikers that he was helping slack pack. He offered to let us camp out at his home which was on the trail in the town of Dalton, Massachusetts. Then he offered to take our packs the rest of the way there for free! We made really good time, go to the community center shower before it closed. Plus, it didn’t even rain that day which was a miracle in and of itself! The next morning by dawn, Tom had laid out an entire picnic table full of all kinds of donuts and coffee and juice for the 20+ hikers that were camped out at his house. He also took our packs all the way to Bascom Lodge, 17.5 trail miles, so we could make it there before dinner. Wow!

Finally, as we walked up to the top of Mount Greylock and Bascom Lodge, Brad, one of the co-owners and the brother-in-law of my friend Ellen, was waiting for us as we arrived. We were already booked to stay at his place, but he made it even more special by taking the time to to treat us to dinner and visit with us then – and at breakfast next day. The meals were fabulous as was his company!

We were able to hike a little over 17 miles that day, fully loaded and coming into Bennington, Vermont in the dark with headlamps down some steep rocks. We were happy though, because we made a lot of good miles and finally hiking is becoming good again.

I’ve finally recaptured my love of hiking again. If I can hold onto that feeling for seven more weeks, I may reach the summit a happy hiker!

Day 27 – The Hitch

Hitchhiking is normal for thru-hikers. Often you arrive just a few miles from town and you haven’t had a way or desire to set up a shuttle, because you don’t know exactly when you will arrive or you don’t want to spend the money. Since timing your arrival at a road crossing is very challenging, many hikers will hitchhike on into town.

There are places where it’s known to be in “easy hitch” which just means that the town is so used to thru-hikers needing a lift, that the people are willing to pull over. Other areas are more challenging for hitch hiking.

When we arrived at Newfound Gap, Mexican Mainer and I were planning to hitch to Cherokee. We had heard there was a transit service from Cherokee to Newfound Gap, but when I had cell service for moment I found out there was not. There were plenty of free shuttles to Gatlinburg in the opposite direction, but we didn’t want to go there. We wanted to go to Cherokee.

We popped up into the gap and found it was a major tourist parking area for day trails and some good views. It was so foggy that day we didn’t really have any views, but as I came over the road a man asked if I wanted coffee and donuts. His name is Ed and he was a trail angel with a car full of wonderful treats and hot beverages!

Our friend Boorah had already been trying to hitch a ride for a couple of minutes. Boorah put his thumb out again and the second Mexican Mainer waved at the same couple in a truck, they immediately stopped.

We convinced them Cherokee was the very next town in the direction they were going and they let us pile into the back of their truck. It was pretty cold, so we bundled up and huddled together for 20 mile drive into town.

It was such a wonderful feeling to catch a hitch so easily and know we would have no trouble going to the town to stay overnight. We needed to resupply and the weather has been really awful the last few days so it was exciting to know we were going to be -in a warm clean bedroom with real sheets and hot cocoa and coffee in the lobby anytime we wanted it. We saw leafless trees whizzing by, winter was still there, and suddenly Mexican Mainer started singing a song of thanks to the great spirit in both Spanish and English. It was beautiful and I managed to pull my cold fingers out of their gloves and press the record button.

When they stopped to let us out we learned they didn’t even realize we were hitchhiking at first. They stopped because they thought something was wrong as there were so many people gathered around that parking area! Once they realized we were thru hiking though, they didn’t mind giving us a lift and had been talking about other people they knew who did long hikes. We spent about 10 minutes visiting with them after, answering questions about hiking and then getting their advice on hotels and restaurants to have stayed at in Cherokee.

When it’s just a short distance, it’s worth asking for a hitch. When you need to be certain of your ride, like I do next Saturday when I going to meet Melynn who is flying in to join me for a few days, then it’s worth setting up a shuttle and waiting a couple hours if you arrive early. Setting up a shuttle is usually not that difficult, but I haven’t managed to set up Saturday’s yet. No worries – there are plenty of shuttle drivers in Erwin and I will be able to get one last minute if I need one.

Coming back from Cherokee took a little longer, but we had two great people stop and give us rides, which took us back and the Baptist Church from another town had just arrived with its shuttle and set up another trail magic spot. So, before we took off on the day’s hike we had more coffee and donuts and put some candy bars in our pockets along with an orange and went on our way.

Day 21 – Shelter in a Storm

Many of my fears came true over the last three nights. My worries of hard rain and wind, followed by freezing temps, while in the Smoky Mountains far from a road or help came true.

Friday started fairly warm and partly sunny as we left Fontana Dam at 1782′ elevation and headed into Smoky Mountain National Park with Millie’s Ridge Shelter as our destination 12 miles away. At 4582′ elevation, the weather can be much colder and by the time I arrived there at 4:00, the rain had begun again and the cold and wind were coming.

The Smokies have extra rules about camping: thru-hikers must give up space to registered section hikers at the shelter, yet they MUST stay in the shelter unless it is full. So, thru hikers go to the shelter and wait to see if section hikers come and kick them out. (Some section hikers don’t carry a tent because they know they have a guaranteed space at the shelter.) If kicked out, a thru hiker can pitch their tent nearby, but only at a shelter site. Most of the time it works fine, but when the majority of AT thru hikers start in March/April, it can be a problem.

As I arrived and looked into the shelter for Blue Jay, the RidgeRunner there, who assists hikers and enforces rules, told me the shelter was already reserved fully, however since bad weather was coming it might turn out some would not arrive and I might have a space. It wasn’t likely, as about seven thru hikers were ahead of me in line for a twelve person shelter. He did not want us to pitch a tent as the shelter wasn’t sure to be “full” yet.

The rain was coming steady and the last thing I wanted was to wait a few hours – without setting up a tent or eating – to find out if I was in or out of the shelter. A couple men were setting up tents anyway, but when another hiker told me Blue Jay had gone ahead 3.1 more miles to try for that shelter, I decided to hike on in the rain, too.

I made it to the Russell Field Shelter and there was space for me at the moment. Seven section hikers had reserved, but only two had shown up and it was just past 6:00. Thirteen total people were in a twelve person shelter and they were willing to squish together to make room if a couple more showed up. I was excited to be inside because the rain was pouring down hard minutes after I arrived. I cooked, steam-baked muffins for a few hikers, and was about to sit down and read trail notes at dusk when a couple hikers walked in the shelter drenched. They were quickly followed by another three. These were the five remaining reservations and it meant I was out in the rain and dark to pitch my tent. Did I mention the temp had dropped into the low forties by then?

Some of the other hikers asked if they were the section hikers and before I could digest I was about to be booted out, the top row of people split up and moved over to each side as tight as they could and asked if the five could fit in the space they created. They said sure and I was able to stay in and stay dry! It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to panic about going out in the downpour to put up my tent. The next morning one of the men said many of us had expressions of shock as they walked in and we realized how many of them were arriving so late. You can believe that was true!

The next day was nice enough, but I was tired from 19 straight days of hiking and only made it 9.4 miles to Derrick Knob Shelter. The next one was 5.6 miles farther and I couldn’t do it in daylight, plus the predicted freezing rain and snow with temps in the teens seemed to be about to come true. I asked the RidgeRunner there if I had a spot and she thought I might. Many thru hikers ahead of me for that shelter were going on as it was only 3:00. I was willing to pitch my tent, but she advised me to wait. The low temp expected was 18 degrees and the cold was already setting in.

I made an early dinner and checked around 5:00 with the RidgeRunner to see if I could put on dry socks and go to sleep. There were three more section hikers expected, and we were already seventeen in a twelve person shelter, but she said okay as we had made room for all of us and two had come after me. Those two would be first out. By 7:00 the rain was beginning to freeze and two of the three other section hikers arrived. The last two thru hikers moved down to the bench in front of our sleep area because one left his tent in the last shelter by accident. No way he was going outside, nor would we want him to go. Even the dirt floor between bunks and tarp wall would be better.

At 8:30, the last section hiker to arrive wondered where his friend was and worried aloud because the friend had no headlamp or tent and it was dark. There was ice forming everywhere, on the bear cables, tree branches, and ground. Another hiker who was experienced in winter hiking took his backpack, cook stove, and headlamp out into the storm to search for the friend of the other hiker. He found him half a mile away where he was struggling to see the trail with his phone flashlight and about to give up and put his sleeping bag by a log and try to wait it out. It was hard to believe he thought that a better option than to continue looking for the path, as he would not have likely lived through it since the rain would have soaked him in his bag before freezing.

We had twenty in the twelve person shelter and a little fire burned through the night. Again, I was just fine after all.

Here’s the thing that struck me the most: several people DID set up tents and weather out the storm with no problem, both storms even. I was so scared to be out there, but the hiker I’m sharing a hotel room with tonight was one who set up her tent for both. She is a slower hiker and didn’t even check the shelter the second night as she knew it would be full. Her trail name is Mexican Mainer (from Mexico and lives in Maine). She believes the trail will provide what we need, and so far it has. Today I spent with her and we are treating ourselves to a night in the hotel since it snowed again at Mt. Collins Shelter last night, too.

I find it very motivating to see her just keep going until we are wherever we need to be. Maybe I won’t worry quite so hard about being out in the cold, rain, snow – or all of those put together – now that I’ve seen it can be done by someone a lot like me. There are almost 2000 miles to go. I’m sure to have another chance to weather out a storm.