AT Thru-Hike #38 – J-Bird is Smiling

“Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.” – Helen Keller

“The greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can.” – Sydney Smith

Day 54

I awoke, checked my beard for ticks, threw down a pop tart, and headed out. It didn’t take long for light rain to begin to fall, and it continued for most of the day. Mentally, I played a little game and told myself that every drop of rain that hit me today was going to make me stronger and more determined. That may sound silly, but it beats letting multiple days of rain wear you down mentally and physically. You play whatever mental games you must to stay motivated and hiking.  I know of several hikers now off the trail, essentially because multiple days  of rain took a heavy toll and they were no longer having fun.

By mid-afternoon, the rain let up just a bit, and I passed a series of poster board signs on trees announcing Trail Magic ahead! Signs are not necessary to draw hikers in, but they did build anticipation and made me drool just a bit. After all the rain, it couldn’t have come at a better time. As I approached the tent and chairs, I could tell this was going to be something special. They had a generator going to charge hiker electronics. Anyone who goes to that level of trouble to meet hikers’ needs is about to deliver some magic…and they did!

Caloric Magic!
Caloric Magic!

The Trail Angels were DeAnn and Dave Werner, from Pennsylvania, along with DeAnn’s sister, Deb, and her husband, Vince. Dave informed me that their daughter’s fiancé, trail name J-Bird, thru-hiked the AT in 2010 and had a wonderful experience. He especially appreciated all the Trail Magic and wanted to return to the AT in 2011 and serve as a Trail Angel himself. Unfortunately and sadly, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, died in 2012, and never got the chance to be a Trail Angel. In his honor, DeAnn and Dave have been returning to the trail as Trail Angels every first week of May since he died, giving the magic to hikers that J-Bird himself so badly wanted to give. Their Trail Magic was magnificent and truly honored J-Bird’s memory. There was a lot of food, including fruit, vegetables, hot dogs, and scrumptious meatball sandwiches. They also offered a mini-hiker store, with everything from batteries to wet wipes to hygiene supplies yet it was all free. There were all sorts of drinks and desserts. To top it all off, they had cards and pens so we could write messages to our loved ones, and also took care of putting the postage on and mailing them. Thanks to them, I was able to send a Mother’s Day card to Lil Jan. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart, and told them they truly had honored J-Bird’s memory in a big way. I left with not only a re-charged phone and battery, but a full belly and just an overall better outlook on life. That’s what Trail Magic can do for a tired hiker who has been busting his butt up and down mountains in the rain for several days.

After 16.1 miles, I rolled into Bland, Virginia and hitched a ride with Bubba to the Big Walker Motel. I was initially reluctant to stay at a town called Bland, but after looking at the map, I realized it was a better option than Boring, Iowa or Mediocre, Minnesota. Bubba was quite the character for a Bland guy. As a shuttler of hikers, he has seen his fair share of interesting things. Two of his experiences are particularly noteworthy:

– He once shuttled two female German hikers who rode in the back of his pickup truck with their gear. He noticed a car swerving behind him and looked back and the girls had removed their wet tops to let them air out. (In this context, I’m not entirely sure what “them” refers to.) He told them public highway nudity was not allowed in this country (except maybe in Mississippi) and they acted surprised.  They were probably from Boobvaria.  I told him it’s a good thing he handled the situation, otherwise the town would’ve been renamed Notso Bland. More on Bubba and this story at http://m.swvatoday.com/news/article_d8c02b40-f5eb-11e5-b883-531ab1bda78c.html?mode=jqm

– He also gave a ride, and later received a thank you card, from a hiker with the trail name Bismarck. He found out later that Bismarck had been hiking the AT for six years, to avoid being arrested for embezzling $8.7 million from Pepsi, his employer. The law eventually caught up with Bismarck at Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia, and he ended up in prison. Bubba told me they recovered less than $1 million and there are rumors that Bismarck stashed the money at various spots on the AT. I’ll begin looking immediately. More on Bismarck, the AT fugitive, can be found here… http://www.sbnation.com/longform/2015/7/1/8861183/james-hammes-appalachian-trail-bismarck

Postcard from Bismarck, lower left
Postcard from Bismarck, lower left

I checked into my room at the Big Walker Motel and checked the forecast. It was supposed to be cold and rainy all day the following day. Thus, I decided to take a zero day. That night, I ordered spaghetti and meatballs, a salad, and a large, family-sized order of cinnamon rolls and had them delivered to my room. After eating a few thousand calories worth of food, I took a hot bath and shower, and then hand-washed my clothes in the tub. I went to bed that night thankful for the Trail Magic I had received, and thankful to be clean, out of the rain, and full of pasta and countless cinnamon rolls.

Day 55

Not wanting to do anything too exciting in a town called Bland, I spent most of the day resting in my motel room, eating more cinnamon rolls, watching a little TV, and blogging. I did venture out for a couple of hours to re-supply at the Dollar Store, have dinner at a gas station Dairy Queen, and pick up a foot-long Spicy Italian sub at Subway for tomorrow’s hike. I also called Lil Jan. As always, it was great to hear her voice and get caught up on family events. She always tells me she loves me and is proud of what I’m doing, and that is even more filling than the 18 cinnamon rolls I’d eaten in the past 24 hours.

Day 56

I awoke, ate the last two cinnamon rolls, checked out of the motel, and took a shuttle back to the trailhead. The hike today was unusually flat, with overcast skies. I was beginning to wonder if the sun ever shines in Virginia. Just before passing the Jenny Knob Shelter, I reached the 600-mile milestone and celebrated with a Pay-Day candy bar.

Another Mini-Milestone
Another Mini-Milestone

As the skies darkened, I checked the forecast and saw that yet another thunderstorm was headed my way. After a 16.1 mile day, I stopped at mile 606 and quickly set up camp. As the rain started to fall, I took care of some business while hugging a tree at the recently named 20-Cinnamon-Roll Gap.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #37 – Hike Your Own Hike

“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”     – Roy E. Disney

“One of the most important things that I have learned in my 57 years is that life is all about choices.  On every journey you take, you face choices. At every fork in the road, you make a choice.  And it is those decisions that shape our lives.”     – Mike DeWine

Day 53

Shortly after breaking camp and beginning the long ascent up Chestnut Knob, it began to rain. Once again, my strategy (when it’s not too cold) was to wear as little as possible. It may sound strange, but I rarely wear my rain jacket in the rain. With enough rain, you still end up wet and the rain jacket only adds to the wetness by making you perspire more. I’d rather just have my quick-drying synthetic t-shirt get wet, and have my dry rain jacket available for duty around camp at night.

As I reached Chestnut Knob Shelter, a fully enclosed concrete shelter, a heavy rain began to pour. I quickly stepped in and ended up staying three hours with Hopscotch, a southbound section hiker. He was on his way to Damascus for Trail Days, and we shared notes on the trail ahead. He is a military Intel analyst/cryptologist, so we shared a few war stories. The rain eventually subsided and I headed back out and across a very long, rocky ridge at Garden Mountain. The rocks took a toll on my feet and legs, with the feet alternating between pain and numbness. After an 11.6 mile, rain filled day, I headed 25 yards downhill from the ridge and stealth camped at mile 573.8. Shortly after hunkering down in my tent, the rain began to fall again.

Now what?
Now what?

This is as good a time as any discuss the popular and somewhat overused AT expression, “Hike Your Own Hike.” It basically means each person “owns” their AT hike and gets to decide the right way to hike it for them. It also means hikers shouldn’t criticize others who hold different views. Still, you’ll find some friendly banter between hikers as they discuss their respective positions on a host of issues. Here, then, are my personal opinions on some of these issues. This is how I’m “hiking my own hike”. I don’t judge or criticize others for holding different views…at least not to their face.

1. Must one hike the 8.8 mile Approach Trail from Amicalola Falls State Park to Springer Mountain in Georgia? My view: Absolutely not. Rationale:

– Quite simply, it’s not part of the 2189.1 mile AT. I’m attempting to hike the AT, not trails that feed the AT. I wouldn’t hike the 8.8 miles leading to the start of the AT any more than I would continue north for 8.8 miles after summiting Katahdin.

– I’m told it’s a very difficult, strenuous way to begin the hike, making a raw hiker susceptible to injury. A fellow hiker, Dirty Deed, who did the Approach Trail, in retrospect called it a complete waste of time.

– I had a group of 10 family and friends who wanted to join me and hike the first mile of the AT with me. Thus, it was easier for everyone to meet at the Springer Mountain parking lot and hike to the southern terminus together.

– So I didn’t do and wouldn’t recommend the Approach Trail, although I joined with a few family members and walked up the killer stairs at Amicalola Falls (part of the Approach Trail) on our way to lunch at the lodge.

2. Is it acceptable to take blue blazed shortcuts (to dodge a difficult section or hit a prettier section) or Aqua blaze (canoe parallel to the trail)? My view: Absolutely not. Rationale:

– A successful thru-hike, to me, occurs when one hikes all 2189.1 miles. I would forever regret taking any shortcuts that lessen that mileage by even a foot. In fact, I always exit a shelter on the same path I came in on so as to not miss a single white blaze.

– Also, I’m hiking the AT, not canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, or snowmobiling it. My goal is to be a thru-hiker, not a thru-traveler. Using any method other than my legs (and butt, occasionally) would cause me to have to put an asterisk by my name in the honor roll. To me, hiking it all means HIKING…IT ALL.

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3. Northbound or Southbound or Flip-Flop (typically, Harpers Ferry to Maine, then Harpers Ferry to GA)? My view: Northbound. Rationale:

– Most importantly, I want to be standing at Katahdin’s summit, with my hands in the air, at the END of my journey. That’s the iconic photo. In fact, at photo boards at hostels and elsewhere, I’ve not seen one of a hiker concluding a thru-hike by summiting Springer or strolling into Harper’s Ferry on a flip-flop.

– Some say Katahdin is the most difficult of all the climbs on the AT, and I like the idea of saving that final big test for last.

– Most hikers go northbound, and I like interacting with others. While that causes occasional crowding at shelters early on, the herd quickly thins out and there is as much solitude as you want.

– The last hundred miles on the AT in Maine is reportedly difficult and barren wilderness. I’d rather end there as an experienced hiker with trail legs rather than begin there as an inexperienced, overweight rookie.

– All that said, I recognize there are benefits to going southbound or flip-flopping, including weather, family reasons, more solitude, etc. SOBOs who complete the AT are most certainly thru-hikers and I wouldn’t put an asterisk by their name. I just prefer being a NOBO.

4. Is it okay to “slack pack”, which means you have someone else (a friend, family member, hostel owner, etc) carry (drive) your backpack for you for a day or more so you can do an unencumbered, bigger mileage day? My view: Absolutely not. This would earn me the dreaded asterisk by my name. Rationale:

– Part of the AT’s appeal is the high level of difficulty and a big part of that is carrying a 25 to 35 pound backpack. That’s my job…not someone else’s. I wouldn’t go whitewater rafting and have someone else paddle for me, or go on the world’s fastest roller coaster and have them apply a brake throughout to make it easier. If I wanted an easier challenge, I’d have chosen an easier trail…or just gone bowling.

– Almost without exception, slack packers have to rush to hit the big miles and rendezvous with their backpack. Rushing is the last thing I want to do. Big, easy miles isn’t my goal. It’s about enjoying the journey. One female slack packer zoomed by me to reach her 30-mile day, with thunderstorms forecasted. I asked her what her intentions were regarding (not yet blogged about) McAfee Knob, arguably the second most famous landmark on the trail. Out of breath, she said, “Don’t have time to stop there. Gotta hit pickup point. Will have to return some day to get a pic and enjoy.” Seriously? If I were to skip (or rush) McAfee Knob, lookouts, waterfalls, etc., due to a time pressure to have a big mileage day, I’d be missing the main purpose of hiking the AT.  I’m not suggesting all slack packers miss all the cool sights.  I am suggesting you are more likely to miss cool things when you’re rushing.

– Along those same lines, I came across this note in an AT shelter log by a fellow hiker named Arrow:  “How many of us gazed off Black Rock, splashed in the waters of a 200′ falls, relaxed in the sun on Apple Orchard Mountain, and scrambled over the massive boulders of the Devils Marble Yard?  Since when did big mileage become so important that we are willing to skip wonderful side adventures?  Since when did we begin to focus so much on a number that we miss the things that make the AT so beautiful and exciting?  Many of us came here to escape the busy, over-productive, hurry-hurry civilization, but perhaps we have brought it along with us?”  He nailed it!

– There is often a fee for the shuttle service, and possibly also for a second night at the hostel if you hike back to it.

– No flexibility to stop early for the day in real bad weather. You simply have to get to the pickup point.

– Most importantly, for me, is that my mom’s ashes are in a pouch inside my backpack. She will remain in it, and it will not leave my sight. My pack is an extension of me on many levels, and it will remain with me to the end.

Cat Got Your Bunn?
Cat Got Your Bunn?

So those are my personal views on what it means for me to hike my own hike. Each hiker resolves these issues in a way that works for them. So long as we all can look ourselves in the mirror at the end and feel good about our hike (however we defined it), that’s the main thing. I guess that same principle applies to how you live your life, and how you’ll feel about your life as you reflect on it towards the end of the journey.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #36 – All Aboard The Gravy Train

“Into each life some rain must fall.”     –  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”     – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Day 51

Light rain, particularly on a warm, muggy day, is a refreshing thing on the AT. Heavy rain and rain that lasts for several days gets old pretty quickly. It makes everything more challenging…the trail can become muddy (or even turn into a stream), the hiking pace slows, rocks become slicker, and visibility drops making the “money” views not so grand. For wearers of glasses, your choices are to take them off and have blurred vision, or leave them on and drive in the rain with no windshield wiper. While the contents of a well-packed and covered backpack can mostly stay dry, the same cannot be said for the hiker carrying it. You end up soaked to the bone by the rain and by your own sweat forming under any attempts to cover yourself with rain gear. Wet socks/feet make you more susceptible to blistering. If it’s rainy and cold, the misery factor increases as does the chance of getting sick.

I Love AT Bugs
I Love AT Bugs

Four upsides to all this: 1) water sources will be more frequent and reliable; 2) you appreciate the sunshine that will eventually appear so much more; 3) overcoming shared rainy misery bonds hikers; and 4) like other AT challenges, overcoming extended rain makes you a tougher, more resilient person.

Lindamood School
Lindamood School

Day 51 was a rainy day. My approach was to wear very little (shorts, sometimes a shirt, and boots), spend time in prayer, think positive thoughts, and keep moving. Near a stream at mile 540.1, two rabbits hopped by alongside the trail. That didn’t lift my spirits much but here’s what did…Trail Magic! The historic Lindamood School, part of the Settlers Museum, is a one-room schoolhouse from the 1890s. A local Baptist church stocks it with free food, drinks, and supplies for hikers. It would have been magic enough to simply have a place to get a break from the rain. All the goodies inside were a much appreciated bonus. Yet another church group letting their light shine on the AT!

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So Far, No Sunshine in VA
So Far, No Sunshine in VA

After a short, rainy 6.2 mile and day, I decided to stop in Atkins and dry out at the Relax Inn. After checking in, my first stop was the delicious All-You-Can-Eat buffet at the nearby Barn Restaurant, a hiker favorite. By mid-afternoon the rain stopped and I was able to lay out my wet tent and boots in the parking lot while I did laundry. Since the laundry room was next to my room, I was able to put all my clothes in the washer and then sprint to my room wearing just a towel. As I entered my room, I noticed a trellis on the far side of the parking lot that would be a perfect spot to hang my tent. Not seeing anyone around, I grabbed my tent and ran across the parking lot in my towel. After hanging it and beginning the return sprint, I looked over and Princess Grit was entering the parking lot. She yelled, “Is that you, Fob?” and I yelled back, “Never heard of him!” and ducked into my room.

The Barn AYCE!
The Barn AYCE!

That night Buddah Jim, Princess Grit, several other hikers and I ate at a Mexican restaurant attached to, appropriately, a gas station. Buddah Jim told me all about his work at a psychiatric hospital. Based on his description of some of the patients, I believe most aspiring thru-hikers would feel right at home there.

Day 52

Before leaving the motel, I picked up a couple of items from the hiker box, including some beef jerky. A few miles after crossing the I-81 underpass out of Atkins, I reached mile 547.275…the one quarter mark on the Appalachian Trail! Later that day, near mile 556, I saw my 6th harmless AT snake.

Snaked Up on Him
Snaked Up on Him

At mile 557.3, atop Brushy Mountain, I started getting hungry and remembered the beef jerky I had picked up from the motel’s hiker box. That sounded good so I reached into the package, pulled out two pieces, and stuffed them in my mouth. Instantly, I knew something was wrong. They tasted like wet cardboard that had been sautéed in bacon grease. I gagged for a moment and then swallowed them simply for the calories. A little while later, I commented on the disappointing beef jerky to a fellow hiker. He looked at the package and said, “Dude, you’re eating dog treats!” I couldn’t believe it! There was no mention of dogs or pictures of dogs on the package. There were some Spanish phrases on the package, but nothing about perros (dogs). Later, I complained to Conductor about the misleading labeling. He asked who made them and I told him Gravy Train. He told me Gravy Train is a well-known dog food company, so the package really doesn’t need a warning label stating, “These are dog treats.  Not to be consumed by hikers.” And yet, having stuffed the bacon-flavored cardboard in my mouth, I would say it does. They were so bad, in fact, that I’m not even sure our dog, Mandy, would eat them.

Yes, he did!
Yes, he did!
Fob 2 - AT Fish 0
Fob 2 – AT Fish 0

As I ascended Lynn Camp Mountain, I saw and got video of AT Snake #7, a black snake. I checked the forecast and saw that heavy rain was due to hit in about 30 minutes. It was time to descend the mountain in full beast mode. I kicked it into high gear and made it to a pretty campsite right on Lick Creek with enough time to pitch my tent, heat up some instant potatoes to accompany my Mike n Ikes, and hang my bear bag. Then, with the sun setting and a light rain beginning to fall, I caught my second AT fish using a piece of Slim Jim. I would have used some beef jerky for bait, but Gravy Train is really just for dogs.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #35 – ENTJs on the AT

“The first thing you have to know is yourself. A man who knows himself can step outside himself and watch his own reactions like an observer.” – Adam Smith

“Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have.” – Doris Mortman

Day 50

I got back on the trail and was a little sad that I had hiked myself out of wild pony country. There were plenty more fields and pastures, though, including one stretch that looked straight out of Little House on the Prairie.

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The big goal today was to make it to Partnership Shelter and order a pizza. That’s right, it’s the only AT shelter I know of where you can call and have a pizza delivered to you. It is also the rare shelter that has showers. I arrived there just before 3 p.m. and went in on a large pizza and family-sized cheese bread with Reading Man. We devoured it at the shelter picnic table and shared some with Dirty Deed, Buckles, Grit, Olive Oil, and others.

Partnership Shelter
Partnership Shelter
Shelter Pizza!
Shelter Pizza!

Around 4:30 p.m. I checked the forecast and saw that rain was expected to begin in 3 hours and last for 3 days. Given the somewhat crowded shelter and Fob’s Law #1…”shelters with 7 or more people will have at least one loud snorer who needs to be stabbed in the temple with a spork”…I decided to hike on.

As I climbed Glade Mountain, I could feel the storm approaching and kicked it into high gear to get to a flat spot at the summit. At mile 537.6, after a 19.4 mile day, I pitched my tent, hung my bear bag, and crawled into the tent just as rain started to fall. Before dozing off to heavy rain, I received a message from my friend, Darrell Brimberry, with a video clip of Heart performing Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven at the Kennedy Center Honors. Great stuff!

I would estimate that the closest human being to me to the north was more than 1.5 miles away at the next shelter…and more than 5 miles away to the south. That brings up a question that I’m frequently asked by friends and family: Does it bother you to hike alone or sometimes camp alone atop mountains and other remote places?

Dragon Tree...Glade Mountain Companion
Dragon Tree…Glade Mountain Companion

I will attempt to answer that in a way that only my youngest, Myers-Briggs loving son, Kyle, aka The Trailpooper, aka B.W. Pot, can appreciate. Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Briggs, developed a personality inventory to make C. G. Jung’s theory of psychological types understandable and useful in people’s lives.  (I used to teach AP Psych so bear with me as I geek out a bit.)  By answering a series of questions, you can find out to which of the 16 personality types you belong. It turns out both Kyle and I are ENTJs…Extraverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, and Judging…aka, The Commander…aka, The Executive. That’s one reason he and I are so much alike. That can be both a good and bad thing on the AT:

The Good…
– Driven, determined…loves a big challenge (probably explains why I’m out here).
– Confident…given enough time and resources, believes any goal can be achieved, sometimes through sheer willpower.
– Extremely rational…helps with AT decision-making related to logistics, mileage, etc. For big decisions, B.W. Pot and I will typically (and nerdily) write out pros and cons on a sheet of paper to help in our analysis. If I’m feeling especially nerdy, I’ll put said pros and cons into an Excel spreadsheet.  What gets me into the Nerd Hall of Fame (and sucks the joy out of life) is when I weight each factor by importance, and then multiply, and then sum the columns to mathematically compute the right, rational, best choice.  I still make plenty of bad decisions, but rarely because I didn’t analyze the pros and cons involved.
– The Extroverted (E) nature, which I’m just barely (52%/48%) makes me comfortable and able to draw energy from groups (at shelters, campfires, etc.). I enjoy good conversation and being around people as much as anyone.
– The 48% Introverted (I) nature makes me just as comfortable and able to draw energy from being/hiking alone, solo camping atop a mountain, reading by a quiet lake, etc. Some of my best thinking and writing happens in solitude. Don’t ever worry that I’m unhappy when I’m alone on the trail.  Still, I miss my wife whether I’m alone or with people.
– Thinks strategically, with a long term focus (summiting Katahdin), while executing each step of their plans with determination and precision (5 million steps actually!).
– Strong-willed – unlikely to give up when the going gets tough (time will tell)
– Inspirational – hopefully to some…at least my two sons who are my pride and joy and the two folks on the planet I most want to inspire, encourage, and mentor.  If I leave any legacy after I’m dead and gone, it will be those two fellas.  Well, them and a couple of ladies who have written incredibly encouraging things to me on my Trailjournals guest book.

The Bad…
– Sometimes not emotionally expressive…more likely to analyze/rationalize with a fellow hiker who’s hurting than to give them the hug and shoulder to cry on they actually need.
– Low tolerance for people viewed as inefficient, incompetent, or lazy (“of course you’re struggling, you have a 12-lb. stove!”).
– Can sometimes be condescending, insensitive, and arrogant…not me, but other ENTJs. 🙂
– Too much willpower/confidence can lead to pushing their vision/agenda, and theirs alone. As a mostly solo hiker, it’s probably good that I don’t have to regularly confer/negotiate with others on when to start and stop, where to stay, and the myriad other daily decisions that couples/groups hiking together deal with.  All decisions out here are mine alone, however good or bad they be.
– Sometimes impatient and intolerant. More likely to confront (rationally, of course) or walk away from a pot smoker, than to sit there breathing it in and “tolerating” it.  Also, I have to take the AT golden rule, “Hike Your Own Hike,” to heart, so as not to be judgmental towards people going about things contrary to my approach (like those who slack pack).

Among the famous ENTJs in history are Julius Caesar, David Letterman, and Jeb Bush…and I can see a bit of each of them in me and Kyle. Other famous ENTJs include Adolf Hitler and Hillary Clinton, the knowledge of which keeps me up at night.

Anyway, I would encourage everyone to take the Myers-Briggs test and see how well it captures your personality. It can help you to leverage your personality strengths and be aware of potential weaknesses. If you disagree with me, you are clearly irrational and need to reconsider your position.  I have a spreadsheet you can use.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #34 – The Magical Wild Pony Mystery Tour

One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses.”     – Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People

Day 49

Despite my daily routine of mountain Kegel exercises, my bladder woke me up at 6 a.m. and informed me it was time to take a short walk in the woods.  As I exited the shelter full of sleeping hikers with regular sized prostates, I heard a sound over by the picnic table.  I looked up and there was a wild pony grazing only 10 yards from the shelter.  That was an early indication that this was going to a magnificent day 2 on the magical wild pony mystery tour.

Pre-Dawn Shelter Visitor
Pre-Dawn Shelter Visitor

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I packed up and headed AT north towards Grayson Highlands State Park.  So without further ado, let me go ahead and announce that we have a new champion for best AT section!  Yes, the 5-mile section from the Mount Rogers side trail (mile 497) to the northern end of Grayson Highlands State Park (mile 502.4) is, in my humble opinion, the overall best section of trail to date.  The Roan Highlands north of Carvers Gap moves to second place and the section of trail in the Smokies from Spence Field Shelter to Thunderhead Mountain moves to third.  What makes Grayson Highlands so special?  Start with wonderful vistas in every direction.  Add in varied terrain, including rock climbs, rolling balds, majestic forests, and even Fat Man’s Squeeze.  Finally, top it off with dozens of midget wild ponies roaming freely.  I stopped and visited with several of them.  It’s the kind of section you might come up with if you were designing a perfect AT section on a computer.  I will be bringing my wife and future grandchildren here someday.  You can count on that.

Grayson Highlands
Grayson Highlands

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Near the end of this incredible section, I crossed the 500 mile mark on my AT journey.  Like so many hikers who have gone before me, I paused for a moment, took a picture, and joined The Proclaimers in singing, “I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more.”  Then I added, “And then I’d walk 500 miles, and then I’d walk 689.1 more.”  Shortly after reaching this milestone, I came across trail maintainers from Konnarock, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s flagship crew program.  The crew, volunteers of different ages and backgrounds, work on the AT from Rockfish Gap, near Waynesboro, Virginia, to the Trail’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia. I stopped for a few moments to thank them for their service and discuss their plans for the day and week.  I just really appreciate people who volunteer their time to cut fallen trees, move rocks, shovel dirt, and do whatever else is necessary to give us hikers a much better path to traverse.

And I Would Walk 500 More
And I Would Walk 500 More
Konnarock Trail Crew
Konnarock Trail Crew

As I approached The Scales livestock corral at mile 505.5, there was a longhorn bull standing in the middle of the trail, just looking at me.  I know almost nothing about farming and cattle, but assumed those horns could be used to defend against a coyote, scratch itself, or gore a long distance hiker.  I gave him some space and apologized for all the beef I had eaten, and will continue to eat, in my lifetime.  He eventually moved on a few feet and I quickly hiked by without incident. As I passed through The Scales corral, I stopped and read a display about the history of the place.  Long ago, ranchers determined their cattle were more profitable if they were weighed heavy at a corral atop a mountain, rather than herding them to the valley where they would weigh less.  That makes sense.

You want a piece of me?
You want a piece of me?

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Around mile 515 it was good to see Cambria and a few other hikers who had stopped along the trail to eat some supper.  Cambria, you may recall, is the young lady who was not only born in the same state as me (Delaware), but at the same hospital at Dover Air Force Base.  However, since I am roughly thirty years older than her, I suspect our mothers used different Fobstetricians.

Eat More Chicken
Eat More Chicken

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After an incredible, 21.1 mile, wild pony-filled day…my longest mileage day to date…I stealth camped by a stream with Conductor, Tumbleweed, and Princess Grit.  I learned that Grit is a section hiker from Nashville, Tennessee who models for Nissan at car shows around the country.  I waited for her to ask if I, too, was a model, but the question never came.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #33 – The Wild Pony Whisperer

“I discovered that the horse is life itself, a metaphor but also an example of life’s mystery and unpredictability, of life’s generosity and beauty, a worthy object of repeated and ever changing contemplation.” – Jane Smiley

Day 47

Cy Clops and I awoke and got packed up. I gave him my winter gear (base layer pants and shirt, winter gloves, & thick socks) along with my prescription sunglasses (not used) and rain pants (not used enough) to mail to Janet for me. This will lower my pack weight and volume until I need these items again later on up north.

For the Jarrell Boys
For the Jarrell Boys

We then headed to Mojoe’s Trailside Coffeehouse for breakfast…Cyclops by car and me my foot, as I had not yet hiked that section of the trail through town. Moses and Conductor joined us for breakfast. Conductor informed us that 25% of aspiring thru-hikers never make it beyond Neels Gap (mile 31.7) and another 25% never make it beyond Damascus (mile 469). While it feels good to have achieved that milestone, being in the “top 50%” isn’t the goal. The goal is to reach Katahdin’s summit and earn the title Thru-Hiker.

Fob & Cy Clops
Fob & Cy Clops

Moses and I took a few photos with Cy Clops, said our farewells, and headed north out of Damascus…with Bohemian Rhapsody still ringing in our ears. Near mile 474 Moses, Conductor, several other hikers and I stopped for second breakfast and to ponder a warning sign. It told us that a bridge was out .5 miles ahead and thus, to avoid having to ford a river, an approved (and shorter) detour could be taken. Moses, the only one among us with any chance of parting the waters, chose the detour. I had waited a lifetime to ford an AT river and, along with several others, chose not to take the shortcut. I got to the river and saw that there was a moderately risky path across on boulders, but they were slick, wet, and spaced such that trekking poles would be needed to jump from one boulder to the next. It was a water and rock Fobstacle Course. I estimated that I could probably make the journey 3 out of 4 times without falling in. Liking those odds, I just went for it without taking my boots off. I made it! That wouldn’t have happened 30 pounds ago. As I reached the other side, the other hikers were putting on their shoes and socks so I assume they walked across in their water shoes.

Anti-Inflammatory
Anti-Inflammatory Creek Soak

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Light rain fell off and on throughout the day. At mile 481.3 I stopped to eat the second half of my Subway spicy Italian sub from Damascus and soak my feet in a stream. A couple miles later I passed the long and beautiful Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge. After 15.8 miles I called it a day and tented with Moses, Conductor and others near the Lost Mountain Shelter. Just as I got in my tent and zipped up inside my sleeping bag, the sky opened up and a massive thunderstorm hit. There’s nothing quite like dozing off to sleep atop a mountain with heavy rain pounding the side of your tent.

North of Damascus
North of Damascus
Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge
Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge

Day 48

Despite rain throughout much of the morning, I was pretty motivated because today we would come to the beautiful Mount Rogers (highest point in Virginia) and scenic, wild pony-filled Grayson Highlands. Near mile 490.6 Moses caught up to me near the summit of Whitetop Mountain. As we sat there on a couple of rocks having snacks, two deer approached fairly closely, froze, stared at us, and then wandered off. I was able to video that and post it to my Facebook page. After descending the mountain, Moses, Olive Oil and I took a long break at the VA 600 parking lot. I spread out my wet rain fly and ground cloth so they could dry out in the sun, and laid in the thick grass picking granola crumbs out of my beard.

Dos Does
Dos Does

After a 12.3 mile day I stopped at Thomas Knob Shelter, well within the southern boundary of wild pony country. While I’m really not much of a horse guy (that’s Lil Jan’s domain), for some reason I was pretty excited to see and interact with some midget wild ponies. Unfortunately, my first interaction was anything but positive. As I traveled for water at a spring 50 yards behind the shelter, I approached a momma pony just standing there a yard or two off the path. At her feet was her dead baby pony or foal. We believe it died in the heavy thunderstorm the night before. A hiker returning from the spring told me the mom had been standing over it for the past three hours. She would occasionally nudge it, trying to wake it up. It was the saddest thing to watch. I wondered how long she would stay there before realizing all hope was gone. Whether it be humans or ponies, there is something very special about the love and care of a mother for her offspring.

Mare in Mourning
Mare in Mourning
RIP, Lil Foal
RIP, Lil Foal

As I went to hang my bear bag near the shelter that evening, two wild ponies emerged from the woods and walked right by me. It was strange, exciting, and magical, and I started channeling my inner Dr. Doolittle. I wondered why I was hanging a bear bag, when surely a bear would choose a fresh wild pony over packaged Beef Stroganoff. In my unbridled enthusiasm, I asked if they were from Filly and whether they were Spurs fans. They didn’t speak, but I could tell they thought I was a stud, maybe even the shelter mare. I told them I had Ramen noodle-induced trots, was not stable, and couldn’t talk furlong.

A bit later, just before sunset, I explored an area north of the shelter and came across a campsite with more wild ponies. All I could think of was that every dad (or mom) with a daughter (or son) who loves horses really needs to camp here and give them the experience of a lifetime. I decided it was time to fulfill another sub-AT bucket list item and interview Mary Brook, a wild talking pony. I chose her because of her pleasant disposition, wide girth, and ability to speak English.  Video of the interview is posted on my Facebook page. I harnessed my courage and asked her if she had ever seen a long distance hiker better looking than me (answer: nay); whether it bothered her being a midget horse and having people call her names like Colt Shorty-Five (answer: nay); and whether she would like to go to “mane” with me (answer: nay). Off camera she told me, “I canter do this interview any more,” and then left the area with a handsome mustang.

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I returned to the shelter, ate some cheese with thorough bread, and then took a position next to Conductor in the shelter’s hind quarters. All horsing aside, I needed a good night’s sleep in order to get out of the gait early and get a leg up on the other hikers.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #32 – One Eye On Damascus

“Long friendships are like jewels, polished over time to become beautiful and enduring.” – Celia Brayfield

Day 45

NesQuick and I took a selfie, broke camp, and headed north towards Damascus. A few miles into the day’s hike, I saw AT snake #5, a little guy slithering across the trail. At mile 465.1 I crossed the border into Virginia, the 4th of 14 states on the Appalachian Trail. I’ll be in Virginia for over 500 miles…over one fourth of the AT.

NesQuick & Fob
NesQuick & Fob
What's up, Virginia, what's up?
What’s up, Virginia, what’s up?  Virginia, jump on it!  Jump on it!

After a 12.9 mile day, I entered Damascus, Trail Town America, with NesQuick, Buckles, and Dirty Deed just behind me. We celebrated our arrival at arguably the best trail town on the AT by posing at the town welcome sign. After putting our shirts on, our first stop was Pizza Plus, where I ate a medium meat lovers pizza and a salad and drank 8 glasses of Mountain Dew. My eyes would remain wide open for the next 12 hours.

Lil Snake
Lil Snake
Look Out, Damascus!
Look Out, Damascus!

Among many good town lodging options, NesQuick and I shared a room at Dave’s Place, a cheap, basic hostel associated with the Mount Rogers Outfitter. After a hot shower, I crossed the street to spend some time with the foot guy at the Outfitter. I explained my foot pain and showed him the blisters on the edge of my feet. He listened and examined my feet, boots, socks, liners, and insoles in detail. He said my boots (Oboz Sawtooth Mids) were excellent choices, still fit well, and had plenty of tread on them. The socks and liners were also fine, but he recommended I rotate them with my other set about mid-day, and hang the sweaty ones on the back of my pack to dry. The issue was my insoles. They were too soft/squishy and had flattened out which can happen after 468.5 miles. He recommended I try Superfeet Green Premium Insoles. I did and I felt an immediate improvement! In fact, I jumped up and down in the store with no pain, and came awkwardly close to hugging the foot guy. Count me among the Superfeet fans. I wish I had started with them.

Trail Town, USA, Playground
Trail Town, USA, Playground

NesQuick and I re-supplied at the Dollar General. Then he, Conductor, several other hikers and I went to Bobo McFarland’s where I feasted on some fish and chips. I was asked to tell the story behind my trail name for about the hundredth time, and folks still enjoy it.  Getting a lot of mileage out of Kyle’s trail poop.

Day 46

Let me tell you about my dear friend, Jeff Battreall. When I arrived at McGuire AFB, New Jersey in 1981 (Christmas week of my 10th grade year) Jeff was one of the first people I met. He was a few years older, but we formed an instant bond. Our dads were both colonels and he lived a few houses down from me on Orly Place (Colonels Row). He was incredibly funny, witty, and sarcastic, and he had a license and really nice Ford Mustang. We shared a similar taste in music and sports (including neighborhood dunk contests on a 9′ rim), and dated the same girl (at different times). He has a larger than life personality and an infectious positive spirit. We would spend hours driving around, sometimes with our ladies, listening to and singing loudly with Queen, Duran Duran, Prince, Styx and the Little River Band. We’ve had extended arguments over who sounds better singing Styx’ Mr. Roboto and the meaning of Prince’s Little Red Corvette. More than anyone else, Jeff made my high school years fun. Beyond the fun, he is a loyal friend and we have remained in contact for the past three decades. He has even visited on a few occasions, including my Air Force retirement ceremony at MacDill AFB, Florida in 2011. I don’t know of a civilian who loves and appreciates the military more than Jeff. It was no surprise when Jeff heard that I was hiking the AT, and said he wanted to meet me in Damascus and hang out.

Beautiful Damascus
Beautiful Damascus

Before his noon arrival, I had two priorities to attend to. First, I went to a hostel down the street to do laundry. Second, I Face-Timed with Mr. Terry Reeve’s 6th grade class at Foundation Christian Academy. They are one of two classes following my AT journey and completing some related assignments. I enjoyed talking with them and answering their questions, half of which related to bears and going to the bathroom in the woods.

Band of Brothers
Band of Brothers

While waiting for Jeff’s arrival, NesQuick and I ran into my hiking buddy, Moses. He was considering hiking out, but I told him Jeff was coming and that meant we had wheels and a fun night in store. He decided to stay and join in on what would become a crazy fun night. Jeff arrived, hugged me, and said, “Here’s your duct tape. See ya later.” I introduced him to Moses and NesQuick and the four of us walked to Hey Joes Tacos and More for lunch. Jeff treated, which was cool of him. Whether it has been five days or five years since I’ve last seen Jeff, we always pick up right where we left off. I told him that in trail towns, hikers are either eating or planning the next meal. It’s what we do. We decided the next stop was the grocery store to get some ice cream, so Jeff drove us there. We then went to Beaverdam Creek and, like the Little Rascals, sat on the creek bank eating Ben and Jerry’s, talking, and enjoying a few moments off our feet.

I Can Explain
I Can Explain

We decided Jeff needed a trail name because “Jeff” as a trail name is as boring as they come. Jeff had an eye injury as a child which eventually resulted in him losing the eye as an adult. It was devastating to him at first but, consistent with his nature, he’s learned to take it in stride and even have fun with it.  He looked at us and said, “How about Cy Clops?” It never occurred to us to name him after a race of savage, one-eyed giants, but in retrospect it was a brilliant choice. It also signaled that his one eye was fair game for some friendly banter. Eye, for One, loved the name. It’s a (Stevie) wonder we hadn’t thought of it sooner.

After stopping by another Outfitter and then a coffee shop, Cy Clops drove us back down to the center of town. Moses, appropriately focused on the next meal, suggested we drive to Abingdon for supper. That night we went into Abingdon and had fantastic BBQ at Bonefire Smokehouse. It was so good that NesQuick, a vegetarian who hasn’t eaten meat in three years, ate a plate full of pig and cow! As Cy Clops discussed the menu with the waitress, she suggested he consider the 3-meat combo…to which I replied, “he’s had his EYE on that ever since we got here!” NesQuick and Moses nearly spit water out as we laughed uncontrollably.

Bonefire Smokehouse...Turning Vegetarians to the Dark Side
Bonefire Smokehouse…Turning Vegetarians to the Dark Side

On our way back to Damascus, Cy Clops reached for the radio.  I just knew he was going to play Eye of the Tiger, Hungry Eye, Don’t It Make My Brown Eye Blue, or For Your Eye Only.  NesQuick was expecting Brown Eyed Girl, When You Close Your Eye, Private Eye, or Betty Davis Eye.  Moses was holding out for In Your Eye, Eye Without a Face, You Can’t Hide Your Lyin’ Eye, or anything from Third Eye Blind.  Instead, we returned to our roots and started rocking out to Queen, Prince, Michael Jackson, and the Backstreet Boys. Cy Clops and I shared lead vocals, while NesQuick and Moses handled backup vocals and lead air guitar and air drums from the backseat. We sang our hearts out. Prince would have wanted us to. It felt like 1983 at McGuire AFB all over again. We could have only sounded better had we been in a recording studio…and had talent. Cy Clops circled the grocery store parking lot two dozen times as we sang Bohemian Rhapsody.  (See the video at  https://youtu.be/ZeMyEXRbxbY )

As we sang, “Momma, just killed a man…put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger, now he’s dead” with the windows down, three concerned young skateboarders picked up their boards and left the parking lot. We cruised the “backstreets” of Damascus several times singing I Want It That Way. To Cy Clops’ credit, he kept one eye on the road…for he could do no more.

Cy Clops and I returned to the hostel and talked for a couple more hours. He told me about some of the celebrities he had met and interacted with during his many years as a flight attendant. The list includes Dr J (enormous hands), Kate Beckinsale (during a 30-minute conversation, he offered her his thoughts on a character in a tv series her husband produces), Nelly (charged his phone using Jeff’s portable battery), Larry Bird (told him he could lie down in the aisle if his back hurt), Prince Andrew, Vanilla Ice, Cheap Trick, George Carlin, Darryl Dawkins (Chocolate Thunder), Ron Howard, and Bo Jackson.

The conversation then became a little more serious. We shared our experiences and pain related to the deaths of our mothers…and he discussed the difficulty in losing his eye and the end of his marriage. It was a good “bro talk” and felt good to share some deep thoughts, something “bros” are not always good at. He showed me the SOCOM coin I had given him at my retirement ceremony, and then reciprocated by giving me a set of his flight attendant wings and a Paracord Survival Strap Bracelet with OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) Veteran written on it. It was a very thoughtful gesture and I will wear the bracelet proudly on my thru-hike attempt.

A Very Special Gift
A Very Special Gift

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…hiking 2189.1 miles and reaching Katahdin’s summit is my ultimate bucket list goal. But the AT is so much more about the journey…the interesting people, the views, the trail towns, and all the crazy things that happen along the way. That’s why I try hard not to get caught up in the mentality of having big mileage days and getting the trail done quickly. The AT is a magnificent, 22-course meal that is meant to be slowly savored a bite at a time. The last one from the dinner table wins. While I’m sure many great memories and experiences remain in store for me, I doubt there will be a more fun night than the one had by Fob, Moses, NesQuick, and Cy Clops as they cruised the Damascus roads and partied like it was 1999.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #31 – Maybe It’s All Good Stuff

“A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.” – Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), English Preacher

Day 43

Sadly, my reunion with Lil Jan had come to an end, and she drove me back to the Shook Branch Recreation Area. Her parents (MawMaw and Papa) and sister and brother-in-law (Carol and Scott) were in the area visiting Janet’s other sister and decided to stop by and hug my neck. It was great to see them if only for a few minutes. After saying our goodbyes, and giving Lil Jan a final kiss, they departed.

Love my in laws!
Love my in laws!

One thing that will help take the sting out of saying goodbye is a bit of…Trail Magic! Yes, right there at the Rec Area a group of 2015 thru-hikers had reunited from different parts of the country to set up a magnificent cookout. I knew it would be special because those who have hiked the trail know just how to serve up some magic. Among many possible options, I went with a bacon cheeseburger, chips, soda, and dessert. I sat there for 30 minutes picking their brains about their experiences and what to expect as I head northward. So, I want to give a big shout out to Rock Boat, Forward, Jeopardy, Doc, Klank, and Poboy for the conversation and the magic. (I would learn later that Forward is friends with Karen King, a church friend from our Virginia days.)

The Magic Continues
The Magic Continues

One of the last things said to me by Rock Boat was, “There were lots of good and bad things that happened on the trail, but I only remember the good stuff.” His comment gave me something to think about as I headed out for the beautiful, several mile long hike along Wautaga Lake. Did he actually forget the bad stuff that happened on his thru-hike? Or, was the bad stuff, in the context of the overall hike, eventually considered to be part of the good stuff? For example, was the hike through a thunderstorm (considered “bad” at the time) ultimately considered part of the “good” because he had overcome it, survived, and developed a closer bond with other survivors as a result? In James 1:2-4, James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” I’m trying to take these verses to heart and really apply them out here. I’m trying to find joy in the thunderstorm, the foot/toe numbness, the homesickness, and other trail trials, knowing that God will somehow use them to make me a more mature and complete person and Christian. Overcoming some “bad” stuff has already increased my trail perseverance, resolve, and “bad” tolerance levels, and a goal is to have that translate back in the real world. I want to more consistently find joy in the seemingly good and bad, and know that God will use both to mold me into the man he wants me to be. I also want to have a much higher percentage of bad stuff…daily annoyances, perceived slights, inconveniences, traffic jams, cold showers, etc…be small stuff that I don’t sweat.

Charred Forest
Charred Forest

As I hiked along the lake, I passed the Wautaga Lake Shelter that has been closed due to bear activity. I also passed a 1/2 mile long section of the trail which had burned in the recent forest fire (arson suspected). Later, a group from the Centerview Church of Christ, where I had worshipped the preceding Sunday, passed me from the other direction. It was great to see David Irick, one of their ministers, and other familiar faces, out on a day hike. We spoke for a few moments and David was kind enough to give me my first Yoo-hoo chocolate drink. Later, near Wilbur Dam Road, I enjoyed one final parting gift from the Centerview congregation…a cooler full of Throwback Mountain Dew!

Thanks, Centerview Church of Christ!
Thanks, Centerview Church of Christ!

After a fairly easy 9.1 mile day, I stayed at the Vandeventer Shelter with a gorgeous view behind it. The shelter and surrounding tent sites were full that night, with a cast of characters including 5-Star, Odysseus, and NesQuick (my hiking buddy from the Great Smoky Mountains Bubble). There was also a rather odd fellow (section hiker) who said he and his fiancé had been robbed of their food and money while getting water at a shelter a few days prior. Then they had a big fight and were now hiking in opposite directions, even though they were “on their way to Texas.” I wondered if he knew the AT doesn’t go through Texas.  He had no food, no stove, his phone was dead, and he never got out of his sleeping bag. This all seemed rather bizarre to me. Although he didn’t ask for any help, the aspiring thru-hikers passed around a large ziplock bag at campfire that night and filled it with snacks for him. That night, I did my best to find joy in the loud snoring of the hiker right next to me in the shelter. Maybe his snoring kept the mice away.

Sunrise at Vandeventer Shelter
Sunrise at Vandeventer Shelter

Day 44

I awoke and immediately had two things working in my favor: an early start (6:50 a.m., to get away from Sir Snores-a-Lot) and a relatively flat topography ahead. This had the potential to be a big mileage day, although that’s rarely my goal.

Always reminds me of B.W. Pot, aka the Trail Pooper
Always reminds me of B.W. Pot, aka the Trail Pooper

At mile 444 I passed the Uncle Nick Grindstaff Monument. According to his tombstone, he was born December 26, 1851 and died July 22, 1953. He lived as a hermit on Iron Mountain the last 40 years of his life, and his tombstone reads, “He lived alone, suffered alone, and died alone.” For more on his life and story, check out… http://appalachiantreks.blogspot.com/2012/07/uncle-nick-grindstaff.html?m=1

As I descended Iron Mountain, I looked down at my sweaty right forearm and noticed my first AT tick walking along it. I brushed him off and spent the next mile running my fingers through my hair and checking various body crevices. I fear ticks and the diseases they carry more than I fear snakes and bears combined.  (Although a combined Snake-Bear would be fairly intimidating.)

A Real Beard and. Wanna Be
A Real Beard and A Wanna Be
A Break from the Mountains
A Break from the Mountains

At mile 447.3 I began a peaceful, scenic walk through a pasture. Out here on the AT, I love how God can just flip a switch and send us from mountains to pastures, from wind to stillness, and from shady laurel valleys to sunny ridges in mere moments.  If you don’t like the scenery, keep hiking and wait a few minutes. Halfway across the pasture I stopped and visited with Mountain Man, a rare southbound hiker. We exchanged trail notes and our beards posed for a selfie together.  Later, I came across a metal cage full of…Trail Magic!  I had a soda and a snack, courtesy of the Girls in Action, a 4th-6th Grade mission group from the Nelson Chapel Baptist Church, Mountain City, Tennessee.  I hope my fellow hikers and I don’t just see and appreciate the magic, and the Trail Angels, but also the faith in Christ and desire to live like Him that motivates much of it.  In other words, I hope they receive not just the Mountain Dew, but ultimately the Gospel Message that can really change their lives, and mine.

Carving Out a Campsite
Carving Out a Campsite

As I descended Locust Knob, I met a couple from Johnson City out on a day hike.  They have hiked local AT sections and other area trails for the past decade and have set up numerous off-trail secret campsites behind rock formations and other barriers for their own use.  He asked if I noticed the two mating butterflies floating around about 30 yards south.  I told him I had, but wasn’t sure if they were mating or just holding hands. He asked, “Did you notice they were two different species?  That’s just wrong.”  I suggested maybe a third species would result, but that didn’t satisfy him.  He also told me the green plant I had been seeing in abundance all day long was a May Apple.

May Apple
May Apple
May Apples
May Apples

After a 20.2 mile day, I stealth camped near a spring at mile 456.1. A short time later, NesQuick (who is having serious foot issues) and Dawn (aka Slim Rim, from Vermont) joined me and tented nearby. As we ate supper (for me, that meant Mountain House Pasta Primavera with 2 Parmesan cheese packets), she asked about my family and I bragged on my sons for a few minutes. She replied, “That’s really cool. I hope my dad talks that way about me when I’m not around.” I hope he does too.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #30 – The Voice From My Pack

The Voice From My Pack

Woke up this morning, felt the weight of my heart,
Didn’t feel like hiking, didn’t even wanna start.

It’s been just nine months, but the pain feels so real,
Some wounds do persist, some hearts never heal.

A pouch with her ashes, a voice from my pack…
“Keep hiking son, I’ll forever have your back.”

My dear mother loved me, and my sisters too,
Hearts as big as hers, there just are so few.

But no phone calls today, or sweet cards to sign,
No flowers to send, to this precious mother of mine.

A pouch with her ashes, a voice from my pack…
“Keep hiking son, I’ll forever have your back.”

I don’t call the shots, didn’t hang the stars and moon,
But from my vantage point, God took mom too soon.

Guess he needed an angel, and she fit the bill,
He’ll put her to work, but I miss her still.

A pouch with her ashes, a voice from my pack…
“Keep hiking son, I’ll forever have your back.”

So I’m hiking the AT, hike most every day,
Told mom I would do it, she told me she’d pray.

I know mom’s in heaven, but today I shed tears,
We just have her ashes, and memories to hold dear.

A pouch with her ashes, a voice from my pack…
“Keep hiking son, I’ll forever have your back.”

Got out of my tent, and laced up my boots,
What’s in store today, mom?…probably more rocks and roots.

One step at a time, in the snow and the rain,
With mom in my backpack, we’ll make it to Maine.

A pouch with her ashes, a voice from my pack…
“Keep hiking son, I’ll forever have your back.”

At Katahdin’s summit, I’ll see mom’s smiling face,
I’ll kneel to the ground, where her ashes I’ll place.

Our journey will have ended, as mother and son,
But she’ll remain in my heart, I’ll still miss her a ton.

A pouch with her ashes, a voice from my pack…
“Keep hiking son, I’ll forever have your back.”

I thank God for her life, and all she means to me,
Our moms are so special, I think you’ll agree.

If your mom is still living, I so envy you,
Tell her you love her, cards alone just won’t do.

To the pouch with her ashes, to the voice from my pack…
“I’ll keep hiking mom, and never look back.”

I love you, Mom! Happy Mothers Day! Now let’s go climb that mountain together…

Fob

Mom on Board
Mom on Board

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AT Thru-Hike #29 – Just To Be Your Man

Baby lock the door and turn the lights down low Put some music on that’s soft and slow
Baby we ain’t got no place to go
I hope you understand
– Josh Turner, from Your Man

Days 40-42

I awoke on the day I would be reunited with my wife! Although it had only been 40 days in the wilderness, I missed her even more than I did while I was deployed to Afghanistan for nearly six months. I can’t explain that, but maybe it’s because there is more solitude on the trail, and I’m more in love with her today than I was in 2007.

Lake Wautaga
Wautaga Lake
Passing Time with Feathered Friends
Passing Time with Feathered Friends

At the bottom of the hill, I discovered some… Trail Magic! Yes, some 2015 thru-hikers had left a cooler of ice-cold sodas and I helped myself to a 7-Up. After a whopping .4 mile hike that took all of 10 minutes, I sat down at a picnic table near the swimming area at the scenic Shook Branch Rec Area on Wautaga Lake. For the next 2.5 hours, I would feed crackers to ducks and geese and their offspring, inventory my food, and think about the arrival of my gorgeous  wife!

I’ve been thinking ’bout this all day long
Never felt a feeling quite this strong
I can’t believe how much it turns me on
Just to be your man

Our View
Our View

After 2.5 hours which felt like 10, Lil Jan pulled up in our Lil Honda Fit! I was curious to see if she would be in a yellow springy dress like I had requested. (I have a thing for yellow springy dresses even though she tells me they are out of fashion.) Like an angel sent from heaven, she jumped out of the car, wearing a stunning yellow springy dress, and came running toward me faster than I’ve ever seen her run!  Wow!  Just wow!

There’s no hurry
Don’t you worry
We can take our time
Come a little closer
Let’s go over
What I had in mind

We embraced and kissed and my heart just melted. One of the geese teared up.  She looked sooooooo good! I felt bad that I was a stinky, nasty hiker who hadn’t showered in days. If that bothered her, she didn’t let on.

Before heading to the lakeside cottage she had rented for 3 nights (3 nights!), we went into Hampton to grab lunch and then to a small country grocery store. She was getting our food for the cottage and I was re-stocking my trail food. As she perused the food options from aisle to aisle, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was stalking her without her knowing it. She looked so good. Someone once said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.”  I had four such moments just watching her check the expiration dates on sandwich meat an aisle over.  Her yellow dress was the brightest thing in the store, maybe even the town, and I was the luckiest man alive.

As we drove toward the cottage, we stopped by our pickup point and gave ice cream sandwiches to Brief Thief and another hiker….I think it was Bevo.  The 30 minute drive seemed to take 3 hours. I was torn between wanting her to drive safely on the curvy mountain roads and wanting her to go all Crazy Taxi. We finally arrived to an adorable cottage overlooking Wautaga Lake. It had everything we needed, including a secluded hot tub with a view of the lake. I had planned to pick her up and carry her across the threshold, but was too exhausted after lugging her 90 pound suitcase up the stairs. Once inside, my mind raced as I processed so many competing priorities…close the sliding door I had just opened, put the ice cream in the freezer, take a hot shower, drink a quart of milk, get caught up on family news…

Baby lock the door and turn the lights down low
Put some music on that’s soft and slow
Baby we ain’t got no place to go
I hope you understand

I’ve been thinking ’bout this all day long (40 days actually)
Never felt a feeling quite this strong
I can’t believe how much it turns me on
Just to be your man

The next 3 days would be the most relaxing and satisfying I’ve ever had. Lil Jan fed me all of my special food requests, pampered me, massaged me (even my feet!), and stretched me. The hot tub was piping hot and quite refreshing for my aching body. As for the conversation, it was exhilarating and breathtaking (even for a long distance hiker). She brought me up on family news like never before.

Ain’t nobody ever love nobody
The way that I love you
We’re alone now
You don’t know how
Long I’ve wanted to

Lock the door and turn the lights down low
Put some music on that’s soft and slow
Baby we ain’t got no place to go
I hope you understand

Hot Tub Magic
Hot Tub!  Just what the doctor ordered!

I am so richly blessed being married to Lil Jan. She has encouraged me so many times in so many ways in the 3+ decades I’ve known her. The three magical days and nights on Wautaga Lake are just the latest example. She is a wonderful Christian mom who raised two outstanding young men. She is the kind of friend that everyone deserves to have at least one of in their lifetime. She is a nurturer, a giver, and a leader. She is sexy, funny, and a talented singer and speaker.  I learned recently she is even comfortable handling weapons at a firing range!  Who knew?  She is the only person on the planet I could live in a 32′ house on wheels with and never grow tired of it.  It’s a cliché, but without a doubt she makes me want to be a better man. She dazzled me the first time I met her and has only grown more beautiful through the years. If you are wondering whether 6 months on the AT can hurt a relationship, I say “not this one”. We’re in it for the long haul…til death do us part. So just how does it feel to be her man? Take us to the end, Josh…

I’ve been thinking ’bout this all day long
Never felt a feeling quite this strong
I can’t believe how much it turns me on
Just to be your man
I can’t believe how much it turns me on
Just to be your man

(And then I put the ice cream sandwiches away.)

Fob

Lil Jan on the Porch
Lil Jan on the Porch

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