Blessed Beyond Measure

It’s Lil Jan here and it’s time for my update on how things are going for me while my crazy husband is out walking every day for 6 months! My last blog left off with my anticipation of meeting Steve for the 1st time since he had been gone, about 6 weeks. Of course, I was very excited to pick him up and had butterflies in my stomach in anticipation…will he remember me? will I recognize him? will he smell REALLY bad? what will we talk about? will he like my yellow dress? So many things to consider! So I left Union SC early that morning and headed North to meet my mountain man. Beautiful weather, beautiful mountain scenery and then a much-needed, beautiful reunion! I’ll spare you all the mushy details and just say…he definitely remembered me; he looked the same only hairier and slimmer, he actually didn’t smell too bad because he had rinsed off, brushed his teeth and changed his shirt in the bathroom before I arrived; we found LOTS to talk about; and I’m pretty sure he liked my yellow dress! Other details can be read in his blog #29.

After 3 days of blissful reunion, the time came for me to return Steve  (Fob) back to the trail. My mom and dad and sister and husband joined us for a brief hello and goodbye as they were making their way to visit my other sister in Bristol, VA. It was good for us all to lay eyes on him to convince us that he is actually doing pretty well at this hiking thing! I drove away with a few tears in my eyes, prayers on my lips, and love in my heart and headed to Birmingham, AL to stay for the next few weeks. I had lots of activities planned while I was there and I was very excited to spend some quality time with my dear friends, The Diamonds and The Genrys.

Family Full of Joy
Family Full of Joy

God has given me many blessings in my life and one of those blessings is having friends that no matter how far away you are from them or how long it’s been since you’ve seen them, when you get together again it’s just like you’ve never been apart! The Diamonds are those kind of friends! Our paths first crossed when our families moved to Florida the same summer back in 2008. Despite the fact that they had girls several years younger than our boys, they homeschooled their kids, and unlike us were very much an “artsy” family, we quickly developed a bond that I would consider as close as family! I love them to my core and I was excited to be able to spend the next month with them and share in one of the most wonderful events…the marriage of my youngest son, Kyle. Not only were they letting me camp out in their basement for over a month, they housed & fed all 9 groomsmen for the wedding weekend. Now that’s great friends!

While I was there I was also able to see the girls (Carolyn, Mary Brook & Ann Marie) in the musical, Tartuffe. All three girls had large parts and did a fabulous job! The next week I was able to hear Jenny’s choir concert that she led for the girls’ homeschool group. I was also in town for Carolyn’s graduation. She’s got big dreams and I know God has great plans for her as well. One of the many things I love about being with the Diamonds is that there is always music going on somewhere. It may be upstairs in Ann Marie’s room as she listens and sings to the radio. It may be on the keyboard in the hallway as Mary Brook is learning a new song. It may be in the basement as Carolyn is creating a new dance routine. It may be Brad or Jenny singing whatever song pops in their heads. It very well could be all three girls singing songs from “Phantom of the Opera” or “Wicked” or “Into the Woods” in perfect harmony at the top of their lungs. Or even better, it might possibly be all of those at the same time! It is truly a wonderful thing to witness!

Sums Up the Diamonds
Sums Up the Diamonds

Birmingham is also the home place of my son, Kyle’s, new wife. Her family is another blessing in my life. Even though we haven’t known each other but a couple of years, they are just the kind of people that make you feel right at home! It was great to be able to hang out with them, worship with them, play games with them and of course, celebrate the joining of our two kids! Laci’s mom, Tami, graciously involved me in many of the wedding details which I thoroughly enjoyed and was happy to be there to help her finalize things. Tami & Tim had worked hard to make the day so special and all their hard work paid off! It was truly a blessed and beautiful day! More on that later.

Two Families Unite
Two Families Unite

After I had been in Birmingham for a few days, the Genrys and I headed to Harding University in Searcy, AR for the graduation of Kyle and Laci. We were all very excited to see the kids and be together again since it had been awhile since we had seen them. Jason and Rachel, my oldest son and his wife, were also coming in so it was going to a great family weekend…except one LARGE part of our family was not going to be present. Sir FOB wasn’t coming off the trail for graduation since he was going to come off the trail the following week for the wedding. His presence was certainly missed, but I think it was harder on him than us since we were all together.

As I’m counting my blessings in this blog, I have to put my two sons high on the list…right after God and FOB! They have both brought so much joy to my life and I pray that we all have many years of joy and blessings together and now I have two daughters to bring even more joy and blessings! As graduations go, Harding’s ceremonies are always uplifting to attend. As I stated in my last blog, I love going to Harding for whatever reason. It’s just my little slice of Heaven on Earth. The day after graduation was Mother’s Day and it was wonderful to be able to spend it in worship with my kids and of course, a big Mother’s Day dinner. I haven’t had both of my boys with me for Mother’s Day in several years, so this was a great treat. Once lunch was over, Kyle and I headed back to Birmingham in his car to start the Wedding Week activities. The 7 hour car ride was a great opportunity for us to catch up on all that’s been going on with him, his future job plans, his thoughts on the wedding and marriage, and of course for those of you that know Kyle, some deep, religious musings!

Johnson Family Minus Fob
Johnson Family Minus Fob

After we got back to Birmingham, the next big news was that Steve surprised us and came into town a day early! He had had a rough week of weather and was ready to be back amongst his family and friends living a “normal” lifestyle (like bathing every day and sleeping in a bed!) I was very happy to have him back with me and was as content as a pig in a mud hole, especially once Jason and Rachel arrived because then my family unit was all together again in one place! That puts a smile on my face anytime!

So the wedding weekend finally came around and I was so happy to have my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews from both sides of the family in attendance, along with friends from all over. We couldn’t have asked for better weather for an outside wedding and everything was just perfect! God was certainly smiling down on us all as he witnessed this blessed union. The bride and groom were so happy and I pray that they will always remember how much love was felt by all that were in attendance on that day. You can read more and see more pictures on FOB’s blog #40, if you’re interested.

Jan's Family
Jan’s Family
Fob's Family
Fob’s Family

Once the wedding festivities were over, then I had to face the fact that in one more day, I’d be living the single life again. It was time for my mountain man to head back to the mountains. I knew he was getting antsy to be back on the trail, but he was also sad to have to leave me again. We didn’t have a set plan for our next rendezvous, but we knew it was going to be at least 6 weeks or so. As I’ve said before, being apart from one another is not something we look forward to, but in order for him to accomplish this “bucket list” item, he’s got to move on. He knows that I am with him in spirit and that I’m praying and thinking about him constantly and I’m know he’s doing the same for me.

I planned to stay in Birmingham for another week and a half so that I could see Kyle and Laci when they returned from their honeymoon. They had a great time visiting the Seattle, Washington area and I was glad to spend one more night with them before I headed back to South Carolina.

Before I sign off, I would be remiss not to mention the blessings of being able to spend time with my parents and sister and husband while Steve has been gone. I know that I will treasure the memories of this time here with them and I hope that I’ve brought some joy to them by me being here. I have been truly blessed by two wonderful, God-fearing parents that have raised me to know and appreciate the love of our Heavenly Father. My older sister, Carol, and her husband, Scott, have been so wonderful to let me call their home my home for a while. I was also able to spend some time with each of their daughters, Summer and Dana, which was a treat as well. While I’ve been here, I’ve developed a new hobby…adult coloring books…the newest craze. Carol and I usually start our day with a cup of coffee, a coloring book and gel pens! It’s really not just for kids anymore and it’s great mental therapy, just like the experts profess it to be!

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Happy Father’s Day, Dad!
Great Time With Family
Great Time With Family

So, what happened next? I left for Virginia and spent a few days there with my friends Chuck and Jana (yet again another blessing). We lived in Virginia while Steve was stationed at the Pentagon and it was great to see some old friends from our time there.  I then headed to Slatington, Pennsylvania, to pick up my crazy, hiking mountain man!  We’re staying in Kempton at a nice Bed & Breakfast for three days to catch up and bask in each other’s love…and the blessings just keep coming!

God bless,
Lil Jan

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AT Thru-Hike #51 – A Onesie And A Twosie

“There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.”     – William Butler Yeats

“The man who has accomplished all that he thinks worthwhile has begun to die.”     – E. T. Trigg

Day 84

After a night of thunderstorms, I awoke to an overcast, humid morning. The trail crosses Skyline Drive several times and that’s often where the best views are. At mile 882 I stopped for water at Blackrock Hut. As I filtered water at the spring near the hut, I looked up and saw AT snake #10 about 15 feet away on a pile of rocks. As I stood up and got my phone out, he slithered between two rocks and out of sight.

Back at the hut, I met a hiker and his injured dog. The dog’s paws were torn up from the trail and the hiker was cutting way back on miles to give them time to heal. Although I understand a hiker’s need for companionship, I’m personally not a big fan of taking dogs on long distance hikes. Logistically, they make everything more difficult…provisions, rock scrambles, stores, hotels, etc. It can also take a major toll on them physically. The same is true for hikers, but the dog doesn’t get a vote. So I wouldn’t recommend bringing a dog along, even though I enjoy petting them and receiving an occasional lick on the mouth.

A half-mile later, I climbed Blackrock, a massive pile of boulders and perhaps the most interesting geological feature in all of Shenandoah National Park (SNP). I’m told the boulders are there, rather than trees, because they are still shifting/moving. Later that day, at mile 891.5, I took a .5 mile side trail to my first SNP eatery, the Loft Mountain Wayside! I downed a cheeseburger, fries, and milkshake in under five minutes, got water, and charged my phone. I kept waiting for Mickey Mouse to appear and give me a big Disney hug but that never happened.

Great Tenting Spot
Great Tenting Spot

Partially full and happy, I hiked on and crossed Ivy Creek. That’s when I entered the area that had been burned by the April forest fire. The fire, second largest in SNP history, burned over 16 square miles, causing the evacuation of hikers and the temporary closing of Skyline Drive. I decided to stealth camp in this area, at mile 893, finishing up a 20.5 mile day. As I set up camp, Tree and Big Pea passed by and we spoke briefly. After crawling into my tent, I had a good SNP milkshake belch, breathed in the light smell of burnt forest, and dozed off to sleep.

Day 85

Choosing the most difficult section of the AT in SNP is like choosing the ugliest Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. But for me, I would go with the section between miles 892.1 and 911.9. There were a few moderate climbs, enough to cause me to break out into a full sweat. I saw a few deer and a few hikers going in each direction. Most hikers reported having seen one or more bears in the park, but so far I’d only seen large mounds of bear poop.

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As I hit the 19-mile mark on the day, I was tired and more rain was in the forecast. I looked at my guide and saw that the Lewis Mountain Campground and Cabins, featuring a camp store with laundry and showers, was only 3 miles away. Decision time. Option 1 – stop now and camp, stay dry, rest tired feet and body. Option 2 – press on, risk getting wet, further tire the body, but reach the campground. My feet voted for Option 1, but they were overruled by the rest of my body. I pressed on and hiked to the campground, just as rain started to fall. It had been a 22-mile day, my longest on the AT so far, and my 6th 20+ day overall.

At the Lewis Mountain Campground store, I met the manager, Randy, who has been working there more than 30 years. He’s a friendly, outgoing person who loves telling stories and jokes to hikers. My first priority was to take my first-ever coin-operated hot shower. As the rain continued to fall, I put in a load of laundry and purchased a Stromboli and chocolate ice cream. As I sat there on the porch eating, Tree Beard approached me and said, “Hey, Fob, a bunch of us went in on the hiker cabin if you want to join us. It’s rustic, and all the beds are taken, but you can sleep on the floor or on the covered porch under a picnic table. It would save you from having to tent in the rain.” I replied, “Yes! Absolutely! Thank you so much! I’ll be over in 10 minutes.”

It’s funny how perspectives change on the AT. In the real world, it’s so easy to complain if the hotel room temperature is a little cool or warm or the church pew isn’t soft enough. Here I am, on the AT, absolutely thrilled to be offered a 6′ by 3′ section of dirty floor in a small, rustic cabin with 5 other tired, smelly hikers. That, my friends, is how the AT can change your perspective and make you appreciate what you have rather than complain about what you don’t have.  Mission trips, by the way, have a similar effect.

I See You!
I See You!

Several of us sat around the small cabin porch that night telling stories and enjoying each other’s company. I met Happy, an older military veteran doing a section hike. We were joined by Tree Beard, Waterfall, Pantry, Too Tall, Tree, and Arrow. Arrow, a short, friendly hiker in her early 20s, is considering a military career, and asked for my advice on the differences between the services, types of jobs within the military, pros and cons of military life, etc. Having grown up as a military kid and then having served a 23-year Air Force career myself, I had some opinions on these subjects. Among other things, I told her the most successful people I knew in the military had two things in common:

1. People skills…the ability to understand, relate to, and get along with people. No one likes to work for or with self-centered jerks. On the contrary, people who respect you and enjoy working with/for you are generally going to be highly motivated…which makes it easier to accomplish the mission.

2. Communication skills…the ability to sell your ideas through speaking, writing, or giving a presentation. If you have good ideas on how to fix things, how to “work your boss’s problems”, and you can effectively pitch your solutions, you are going to stand out.

As an Air Force personnel officer, I have given career and other forms of counseling to hundreds, maybe thousands of Airmen through the years. It felt good to wear that hat again and try to help out a young lady who is trying to plan out her life while on the AT.

Hard to Nap with This in Your Face!
Hard to Nap with This in Your Face!

As we sat there, I checked tomorrow’s forecast. It was supposed to rain most of the day. Tree Beard, who is quickly turning into one of my favorite hikers said, “You know, we could take a zero tomorrow and avoid the rain. One of the nicer, regular cabins is available. If we split the cost it’d be cheap. And I talked to Randy, the manager. I think I might be able to convince him to loan me his truck so we can go into town for some grub and re-supply.” He had me at “zero day and avoid the rain”. Yes, we can hike in the rain, and sometimes we need to. But sometimes you audible to a day just hanging out with friends, staying dry, not hiking, and resting the body. Everyone wholeheartedly agreed with Tree Beard’s proposal, as did my feet.

Day 86

I slept well last night on the floor next to Tree and an old wood stove. When I awoke, Tree Beard was on the porch in deep thought, plotting a strategy. I have been amazed out here with the boldness with which hikers ask for things. I know a hiker who saw an older woman working on some landscaping and other yard work on the main drag in Hot Springs. He approached her and offered to do whatever yard work needed done in exchange for a bed or couch to sleep on. She counter-offered that in exchange for his work, she would pay the $20 fee for his hostel stay that night. Deal! That’s how you do the AT on a budget.

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I don’t know what he said or how he did it, but somehow Tree Beard convinced Randy to loan us his truck not once, but twice, today! I wouldn’t loan a vehicle to a just passing through thru-hiker in a million years. We smell and we haven’t driven a vehicle in awhile. Still, I appreciated Randy’s kindness and the trust he put in us. Perhaps after thirty years of doing this, he has a good sense of who he can trust. I repaid the favor by filling up his truck with gas.

We all piled in the truck and headed to the Big Meadows Wayside for a delicious hiker’s breakfast. At the gift shop, I got several SNP postcards for family. Tree Beard dropped $40 on a red bear onesie with a trap door opening in the back. It reminded me of something Jason, my eldest, would have worn to play club softball in at Harding University.

We returned to the campground and checked into our new, upgraded cabin. This one had two bedrooms with queen beds, and a bathroom in the middle. It’s designed for four people. Our plan was to double that number, plus a dog, by bringing in two cots and using the remaining floor space. Tree Beard offered the 8th and final spot to Fire Starter, a rare late 30s/early 40s female hiker. We spent the afternoon resting, reading, napping, blogging, calling family, and snacking.

Good friends, good times
Good friends, good times

That evening, we all piled back into Randy’s truck as rain started to fall. Tree, bless his heart, volunteered to sit in the bed of the truck and endure the rain for our 20-minute drive to Elkton. I was scrunched in the back kiddie jumper seat with two other hikers, including Fire Starter. With our knees semi-painfully jammed next to each other’s, I asked her where she was from (near Nashville) and what college she went to (Harding University). Imagine that! She graduated in 2006 and won some awards as editor of the school newspaper, The Bison. I’m in the backseat of a truck in the rain with a fellow hiker, and she graduated from the same university as my two sons. I thought…it’s a small world. In fact, here on the AT in SNP, you could say it’s a small world after all.

After a delicious meal at Ciro’s Italian restaurant in Elkton, we stopped at a grocery store and then returned to the cabin. Since I slept on the floor the previous night, I qualified for a highly coveted spot on the queen bed. Tree Beard earned the other spot by virtue of having suggested the zero day and for acquiring the use of the truck. Pantry and his dog were on the floor, Arrow was on the cot, and the four other hikers were in the adjoining cabin.

As I laid there on the bed, Tree Beard emerged from the bathroom wearing his red bear onesie with a trap door. Of the roughly 4000 people who will attempt an AT thru-hike this year, I somehow managed to be in bed with a guy named Tree Beard wearing a red onesie. I can’t make this stuff up. As he crawled into bed and we turned the lights off, I told him I appreciated all he had done for us today. I also reminded him that I’m happily married and he had better keep his trap door shut!

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #50 – Just Don’t Quit

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” – Galatians 6:9

“Age wrinkles the body. Quitting wrinkles the soul.” – General Douglas MacArthur

“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.” – Lance Armstrong

Day 83

After having breakfast at the hostel, I headed over to the Waynesboro library. I was able to call (FaceTime) with both Mr. Reeve’s and Mrs. Wilkinson’s classes at Foundation Christian Academy where I used to teach. I can always count on these youngsters to encourage me, ask good questions, and make me laugh. One of them asked if I have been scared of anything out here on the trail. The answer is no, although I have been stressed a few times trying to find a flat spot to camp with a thunderstorm bearing down on me. I hope in some small way I can inspire these amazing young people to dream big dreams and push the boundaries of their comfort zones. Perhaps some day one of them will grow up and decide to hike the AT.

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At 11 a.m. Southerner picked me up and returned me to the trailhead. As I was getting out of his truck, he said, “Fob, I’ve been giving rides to hikers for more than a decade. You’ve hiked over 860 miles. People who make it this far rarely quit. A family emergency or injury could take you out. But just don’t quit.” I appreciated his little pep talk and the two rides he gave me.

Just don’t quit. There is a lot of power, and potential, in those three words. I have only quit (resigned from) one thing in my life, and that was something I felt I needed to do.  It was among the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Out here on the trail, there is always…always…a voice in your head giving you a good reason to quit (tired, homesick, lack of funds, rocks, bugs, bitter cold, gear failure, heat and humidity, etc.). There is also another voice giving you one or more reasons to stay. My reasons to stay are on my very first AT blog which I refer to regularly. My strategy, which has worked so far, is to have an overwhelming number of reasons to stay, which counteract and muffle the voices suggesting otherwise. In other words, leaving has to be more painful than staying. So, barring an injury or family emergency, I’m staying. I’m not quitting. Ever. Just typing those words and publicly making that pledge has given me yet another reason not to quit. The voice telling me to stay just got louder.

One mile into today’s hike, I filled out a registration form and entered the 103.2-mile long Shenandoah National Park (SNP). If you want to get an idea what hiking the AT is like, don’t base it on hiking the SNP. Hiking the AT in SNP is like spending a week at Disney World. For starters, the terrain is fairly easy, with only a few moderate hills. At times, it feels like you’re walking through an airport on a moving walkway. On top of that, you have several eateries throughout the park…just bring some cash as they aren’t cheap. I brought three days worth of food and only ate two days worth. You also have various campgrounds and resorts available along the way. If that weren’t enough, the park is full of bears, deer, and other wildlife. After 862.3 challenging, sometimes grueling, miles on the AT, I was ready for a week of pampering…or so I thought.

Given my late start, I only hiked 11.2 miles today. I passed a couple of Southbounders getting water, along with a day-hiking couple from the Netherlands. At mile 870, I passed a somewhat interesting milestone as that is how far Bill Bryson hiked (across various sections) before stopping to write his book, A Walk in the Woods.

Comm Towers, Bears Den Mountain
Comm Towers, Bears Den Mountain…and an approaching storm

That’s also when I heard the first rumblings of a massive thunderstorm headed my way. I had about 30 minutes before it (and sunset) would arrive, so I picked up my pace and began looking for a spot to camp. The first two spots I came to were perfect, except that hikers were already there and set up. I hiked on.

With about 15 minutes to go until the “yellow/red band” (severe thunderstorm) hit the blue dot (me) on my weather app, and with the thunder getting louder, I climbed toward Turk Gap as fast as I can hike uphill without actually running. At mile 872.5, the wind picked up, lighting struck nearby, and I felt the first drop of rain. I was tense, out of breath, and in an increasingly dangerous situation. So I stopped. I took a deep breath, gathered myself, and went through my options. The only good option was to go into the woods and carve out a place to camp…quickly. I dropped my pack and set up my tent in record time. I grabbed a few granola bars out of my food bag and then hung it in a nearby tree…also in record time. (Surviving a thunderstorm does you no good if you’re eaten by a bear.). As the leading edge of the thunderstorm hit and the heavy rain began to fall, I jumped into my tent and zipped it up. A minute later, lighting struck nearby. I can’t say how close, but it was loud and there was a flash-bang.

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While I was still in some danger from a lightning strike or tree falling on me (see http://appalachiantrail.com/20150316/appalachian-trail-hiker-jason-parish-suffers-fatal-injury/ ), I felt safe and secure inside my tent. I stripped off all my clothes, blew up my air mattress, and stretched out across it.

As heavy rain, thunder, and lightning continued, I ate three granola bars for dinner. I thanked God for, once again, providing relative safety, warmth and comfort inside my tent. I thought about my first ten miles in Shenandoah National Park, the supposed Disney World of AT hiking, and wondered whether I should have vacationed on a cruise ship instead. I thought about my wife, sons, and daughters-in-law.  I wondered whether lightning hitting my food bag would cause my pop tarts to be warm in the morning.  I thought about a lot of things that night, but not about quitting. Why? Well, as my friend Southerner might say, you “just don’t quit.”

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #49 – Doing the Fob

“I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.” – David Lynch

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; Consider her ways, and be wise.” – Proverbs 6:6

Day 80

I began the day with the steepest descent in Virginia, a 3100-foot plunge over three miles. It was rocky and not easy, but I was better off than those climbing The Priest from the south. At the base, I crossed the Tye River suspension bridge and then reversed the process, climbing 3000 feet over six miles. Whoever said the AT in Virginia is flat has never hiked the AT in Virginia.

Halfway up the mountain, I caught Gamel and the two of us got water and finished off my dried, salted Amish peas at the Harpers Creek Shelter. She is a very sweet, East Tennessee lady in her mid-60s who lost her husband to cancer not long ago. I told her I was proud of her for being out here doing what she’s doing. Her face lit up and she said, “Thanks, Fob, you are the first person to tell me that!” It was a reminder to me that taking just a few seconds to recognize someone and show appreciation can really give them a lift. I have been on the receiving end of such kindness from family, friends, blog readers, etc., but need to make more of an effort to be a giver of such kindness. As I got ready to leave, a young, section hiking couple from Sterling, Virginia arrived to feed their infant, who was riding on her mom’s back. Future AT thru-hiker there, I bet.

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Our long climb to the top was rewarded with a spectacular view from Hanging Rock Overlook. I met another young couple there on a weekend section hike. I agreed to take their picture but declined their offer of a beer. Speaking of beer, Gamel and several other hikers decided to get off the trail at Reeds Gap and go to a nearby brewery for dinner and to camp. I decided to press on, and ended the 17.3-mile day camping alone at mile 844.

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After a tortilla with hard salami and sharp cheddar cheese supper, I felt a pain and sharp rumbling in my stomach. I mostly blame the Amish and their dried peas for this. Nature was calling and I was the only hiker around to answer. I rarely have to do my business in the woods these days, as I can usually can wait to get to a privy, hostel, or trail town. There would be no waiting tonight. I grabbed my toilet paper and quickly travelled around some bushes and found a nice, secluded tree about 20 yards off the trail. I dropped my shorts and underwear down around my ankles and assumed the 90 degree position with my back up against the tree. With my recent weight loss, and trail legs firmly under me, I can stay in that position for as long as I need to…even overnight.

About mid-movement, I just happened to glance down and, to my horror, noticed that my left foot was firmly planted in a nest of fire ants! They built their mound under the leaves I was standing on, and they had every intention of defending it. Faced with a contingency I had never considered or prepared for, I did what any other aspiring thru-hiker would do…I panicked! My first instinct was to hop directly toward their position, so I did. Then, as the lead fire ants set up a perimeter on my underwear, another platoon began scaling my left hiking sock toward my bare shin. I took a deep breath and dropped a bomb on their home base, striking the edge of their nest. The impact knocked several off their feet, and completely ruined the day of several others.

As the first ants summited my left sock, I raised up that foot and started shaking it, and swung my left hand down to swat at them. I then did a second hop, positioning myself directly over enemy lines, as hundreds of ants emerged from the nest. Just as the first ant stuck his mandibles into my left shin, I carpet bombed them, complete with sound effects. This was Day 3 at Gettysburg, and they were General Pickett. Their scouts were firmly entrenched all over my underwear and shorts now, but the villagers were in a full sprint to avoid the heavy bombardment. Once again, I raised and shook my left foot, and swung my hand down to swat at their antfantry maneuvering through my leg hair.

My counter-offensive continued for a solid minute…hop, drop, shake, and swat. Collectively, this technique is called doing The Fob. Put it to music, and you have a dance that could be every bit as popular as the hokey pokey. Sometime when you’re alone (or with that special someone) give it a try…hop (with half turn), drop (simulate by bending knees and wiggling rump), then raise and shake a foot, and then swat your ankle or knee. I find it works best while listening to You Dropped a Bomb on Me by The Gap Band…or the American Idol classic, Pants on the Ground.

Out of ordnance, I hopped away from the carnage, swat killed the remaining ants from my drawers, and then cleaned up. Although they inflicted a dozen bites on my left leg, I rendered their entire community uninhabitable. I suspect the survivors will move to Reeds Gap and start over again.

Day 81

I was motivated right out of the gate today because my destination was Waynesboro, a popular trail town. Wayne’s-boro! Wayne’s-boro! Party on! Excellent! Near Humpback Mountain I passed a mother and daughter who were looking for and photographing butterflies. They were having the best time together and it made me miss my family.  Jason and Kyle used to love going into the woods with me looking for butterflies.  Not true.

At mile 856.3 I stopped to get water at a stream near the Paul C. Wolfe Shelter. The water source, Mill Creek, has a waterfall and an area deep enough to soak. If I hadn’t been so focused on getting to Waynesboro, I would have spent a couple of hours there.

After a 17.3 mile day, I emerged from the woods at Rockfish Gap. Waynesboro, to their credit, has a sign posted where the trail exits the woods and you enter civilization. It contains the names and phone numbers of locals who have identified themselves as Trail Angels and are willing to give free shuttle rides into town for hikers. I greatly appreciated the handy list and wish all trail towns would do the same. I walked down a highway ramp and stopped at a roadside gourmet popcorn vendor’s stand. Hungry, sweaty, and tired, I quickly consumed a hot dog, Mountain Dew, and Gatorade. I then called Tom “Southerner” Brown who said he’d be there in 10 minutes to shuttle me to town. How cool is that?!

Southerner was there in under 10 minutes and gave me a quick driving tour of the town, pointing out restaurants, the grocery store, laundromat, etc. He’s been giving rides to hikers for more than a decade and was very personable and helpful. He served in the Army Reserve, the IRS Criminal Division, and some other security related positions I’m not at liberty to share. I started to confess to him that on my 2013 federal tax return, I may have overvalued a Goodwill charitable donation. Specifically, the bag of old clothes probably wasn’t worth the $30 I claimed. I decided to keep that to myself, so that Southerner wouldn’t feel any pressure to make a phone call to his old office and make that problem go away.

I decided to spend two nights in Waynesboro so that I could take a full zero day. I also decided to take advantage of a hostel run in the basement of Grace Lutheran. Good call! They open the doors at 5 p.m. and provide cots in their air conditioned Fellowship Hall, showers (best I’ve had on the AT so far), Internet, breakfast, and a hiker lounge. It’s free, although they appreciate donations to cover their costs.

What you talkin' bout, Weasie's?
What you talkin’ bout, Weasie’s?

After showering, I walked across town to do laundry and then had a terrific Western omelette dinner at Weasie’s Kitchen. On the way back to the hostel, I re-supplied at a grocery store. Other hikers taking advantage of the hostel included Gamel, Legs, Verge, Hawaii, Tailspin, Chicken Feathers, Arrow, Apollo, and Two Ton. As I sat in the hiker lounge thinking the evening couldn’t possibly get any better, a fellow hiker popped in a VHS of The Shawshank Redemption…one of my Top 5 all-time favorite movies. I sat there on the couch with Legs and Verge (sisters) and a few others, happy to be off the trail for awhile, and happy to be enjoying a great movie.

Day 82

I started my zero day with a wonderful breakfast courtesy of Grace Lutheran. I then showered and headed over to the YMCA. They didn’t have a hot tub, but they did have scales, and I came in at 199.5…down 35.1 lbs since starting my journey. I haven’t been under 200 lbs since college and it feels great.

That sub-200 weight wouldn’t last for long as I headed for lunch at Ming Garden’s all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. I had four full plates of food and two desserts. I dare any ants to attack me now! I then spent the rest of the afternoon at the library…digesting, resting and blogging. I also did some research and tracked down John and Linda, a sweet couple willing to give me a ride to Wednesday evening Bible Study at Waynesboro Church of Christ. It is always nice getting back on the trail after having been fed spiritually, physically, and emotionally. John and Linda not only drove me back to the hostel, but stopped at The Cook Out restaurant on the way so I could get some dinner to go (great burger and shake, but 4 small onion rings do no make a good side order of onion rings).

That night, I called Southerner and he graciously agreed to pick me up in the morning and return me to the trailhead. I went to sleep that night thankful to have stopped in Waynesboro. I was also excited to take on the next leg of my journey…the magnificent Shenandoah National Park!

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #48 – I Must Confess

“Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”     –  Proverbs 28:13

“In one long glorious acknowledgement of failure, he laid himself bare before God.” – John Grisham, The Testament

Day 79

With the taste of leftover Boy Scout spaghetti still lingering in my mouth, I broke camp and headed north. At mile 818.2 I crossed the north fork of the Piney River, an area one hiker accurately described as a Yoda marsh. Described, he did.

I was initially surprised by the large number of day hikers on the trail today, and then I remembered it was Memorial Day weekend. I spoke with several of these clean, smiling people with Fannie packs and answered several questions about my hike. I also passed most of them on the uphills. This provided a small boost to my ego which had taken a hit earlier in my journey when I was passed by a woman and her wiener dog. Along with thirty other people, I stopped and scrambled up the scenic Sky Rock at mile 822.8.

Getting Some Findley Love
Getting Some Findley Love

By mid-afternoon the rain started to fall. Rather than take on Virginia’s steepest descent in the rain, I ended my 14.3 mile day at The Priest Shelter atop Priest Mountain. I was joined in and around the shelter by an assortment of hikers, including Hawaii, Clancy and his dog Findley, Spaghetti Legs, Gamel, and Pantry. The Priest is one of the more famous shelters along the AT because it is a tradition for hikers to write confessions to The Priest in the shelter log book. As the rain fell, I blew up my air mattress in the shelter, got out of my wet clothes, and began nibbling on and sharing the dried, salted green peas I’d purchased from the Amish Cupboard in Buena Vista. I started to wish there was an Amish Cupboard near my house, and then I remembered my house is on wheels and I can drive and live near an Amish store whenever I want.

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I spent the next hour reading confessions from the log and writing several of my own. Other hikers confessed to things like…

– Not digging their cat holes 6 inches deep
– Getting another hiker’s Nalgene “pee bottle” out of a hiker box and using it as their drinking bottle for a month
– Not liking certain other hikers…even hiding in the woods to avoid them
– Not believing in God
– Not having showered or brushed their teeth in several weeks

I added my own dozen confessions, including…

– Attempting to smell southbound women hikers as they pass by just in case they’re wearing perfume
– Never having voted for a Democrat, or anyone pro-choice, my entire life (actually proud of that)
– Fishing without a license in various states along the AT
– The only time I can recall cheating on a test was a music test in 8th grade at Caesar Rodney Junior High School. One of the questions was a series of musical notes written on the chalkboard, and we had to figure out the song. While the teacher stepped out of the room for a second, a fellow student hummed the tune and that gave me the answer. That’s bothered me since 1978. I’m letting it go now.

Later that evening, I had a good chat with Hawaii, a mid-20s guy from…well, you can figure it out. We began by torturing ourselves by naming the food we most crave. His number one craving was duck, a food introduced to him by his Chinese girlfriend. I went with the Victoria’s Filet Mignon at Outback with the horseradish crust on it…with a Blooming Onion, bread and butter, a loaded baked potato, and salad. I’m counting that as one item…deal with it. We also discussed why, according to him, older people tend to complete the AT at a higher success rate than the younger, fitter crowd. His theory, and experience from hiking with many in their 20s, is that there are 3 main reasons:

1. Younger hikers tend to let their egos go wild and make unwise decisions about mileage, causing injury. They go for too many miles, too soon, and their bodies don’t play along. Older, wiser hikers generally have aged, less fit bodies to work with, and yet they know how to get more out of them without injury.

2. Younger hikers tend to run out of money, and that is often the result of vast sums of money spent on beer in trail towns.

3. Many (but not all) younger hikers begin the trail not having experienced many hardships in life. They may not have experienced the kind of physical and emotional challenges (serving in combat, dealing with loss or loneliness, etc.) that harden and toughen those who have. While I agree with Hawaii’s perspective on this, there are certainly exceptions. I have met millennials out here who are as tough as nails, having survived domestic violence, horrific war wounds to the face, and other hardships much more daunting than anything I’ve been through.

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As I laid there in the shelter with rain falling outside, I thought of a few more confessions I should have made. I relieved myself too close to Ottie Cline Powell’s memorial, and for that I am truly sorry. I also might have loudly spoke an inappropriate word when I landed on my back and elbow at Dismal Falls.

Before dozing off to sleep, I coughed up a dried, salted Amish green pea onto Hawaii’s air mattress. I must confess to reaching over, picking it up, putting it back in my mouth, chewing it some more, an then re-swallowing it. I’m not proud of what I did, but when it comes to confessions, I guess we rarely are.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #47 – Haircut for a Hog

“It is not genius, nor glory, nor love that reflects the greatness of the human soul; it is kindness.” – Henri-Dominique Lacordaire

Day 77

After a night of bug attacks and getting only an hour of sleep, I was so glad to say goodbye to Punchbowl Shelter. I was also glad that today would be a short day, just 11.3 miles, as I was heading to Buena Vista to shower, do laundry, and resupply.

Bridge
Pedlar River Bridge

After crossing the Pedlar River Bridge, I crossed the AT 800 mile marker, spelled out in sticks. While on the surface insignificant in the context of a 2189.1 mile journey, I have come to appreciate these little milestone markers. They are good opportunities to pray, eat a candy bar, reflect on the progress made, and consider the physical and mental work that remains. Whether you’ve embarked on a goal to write a book, lose some weight, raise a child, or hike a trail, I’d suggest breaking it up into a series of smaller pieces and celebrating each one of them.  I’m not sure I can hike 2200 miles, but I might be able to hike 100 miles 22 times.

Baby Steps...Lots of Em
Baby Steps…Lots of Em

Shortly after crossing the 800-mile marker, I approached a historical sign with a bench next to it. The sign informed hikers that the next 1.4 mile section of trail featured the remains of the Brown Mountain Creek community. In the early 1900s, freed slaves built and lived in this community. They worked hard, lived in small homes, and ate simple but nourishing food. Living as sharecroppers, they raised tobacco, corn, wheat, and oats. It was a simple life and, most importantly, they were free. The community disbanded when they sold their land to the National Forest Service in the early 1920s. I didn’t see any remnants of their community as I passed through, although it was overcast and fairly dark in the woods and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for.

Brown Mountain Community Sign
Brown Mountain Community Sign

I emerged from the woods at a parking lot on US 60, 9.3 miles east of Buena Vista. I tried hitchhiking for 15 minutes, but all 50 or so cars and trucks passed by. It wasn’t a great first impression of the town, but then again I was a smelly, sweaty male hiker so I can understand the reluctance. Tired of waiting, I called a shuttle service and 45 minutes and $15 later, I finally arrived at the Budget Inn. I was so hungry that I chose Burger King (across the street) over a shower, which doesn’t happen often. I managed to spend $16 at Burger King, eating a variety of food from each section of the large overhead menu. I stepped outside, belched loudly, and smelled myself. It was quite possible I was the most disgusting living thing in Virginia that afternoon.

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After showering and doing laundry, I walked up the road to re-supply at the Family Dollar and the Amish Cupboard, which has a variety of canned and dried foods, jerky, etc. I then ate some excellent Mexican food for supper at Don Tequilas. After dropping my stuff off at the hotel, I walked next door and finished off the day with some shaved ice.

Day 78

Job 1 today was to walk back downtown and be the first customer at the barber shop when they opened. The barber lady was very nice and quite interested in my hike. I told her to basically cut all my hair off but don’t touch the beard, because it grows only one centimeter per year. She told me about the town, its economic struggles, and history of flooding. After the haircut, I ate a footlong sub at Subway and then walked up to the town intersection to try to get a hitch. This time it only took two minutes! Kara, a very kind lady in a convertible, pulled in and offered me a ride to the trailhead, restoring my faith in humanity.

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Troop 27 Trail Magic
Troop 27 Trail Magic

Given my late start, I only hiked 6.3 miles today, but half of that was up a fairly steep mountain to Bald Knob, which isn’t. I tent camped at Hog Camp Gap, a sprawling grassy meadow, along with Gamel, Verge and Legs (really cool sisters), Pantry and his dog, Jelly and Peanut Butter (another dog), and several others. Pantry easily has the largest food bag on the AT this year, with a wide assortment of food, herbs, and spices.

About 25 yards from us was an impressive encampment of Boys Scouts…specifically, BS Troop 27 out of Newport News. Just prior to sunset, Scoutmaster Tommy, their leader, walked down to us and said, “Hey guys, we have plenty of leftover spaghetti and bread if you guys are interested.” We looked at each other, grinned from ear to ear, thanked him, wiped drool from our chins, and made our way up the trail to the Troop 27 encampment.  We were like pigs running toward a trough at feeding time. It was Hog Camp Gap, after all, and if aspiring thru-hikers are anything…we are ravenous hogs.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #46 – The Sad Tale of Ottie Cline Powell

“We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.” – Isabel Allende

Kyrie eleison – the Greek, Κύριε, ἐλέησον, is translated Lord, Have Mercy

“The wind blows hard against this mountain side, across the sea into my soul.  It reaches into where I cannot hide, setting my feet upon the road.”     – Kyrie, by Mr. Mister, 1985

Day 76

For 4-year-old Ottie Cline Powell, November 9, 1890, began as a typical day. The 5th of Edwin and Emma Belle Powell’s eight children, little Ottie awoke, got dressed, and headed out with his siblings to the one room schoolhouse near his family’s farm. It was a chilly, overcast day in Amherst County, Virginia. A few inches of snow had fallen the week prior.

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Upon his arrival at the Tower Hill schoolhouse, his teacher, Miss Nancy Gilbert, probably welcomed little Ottie, an intelligent young man with blue eyes and a fair complexion. She also noticed that she had used up her supply of firewood during the recent snow. During recess, she instructed her students to return with some sticks to fuel the school’s wood-burning stove. Little Ottie, barefoot at the time, went looking for wood, wandered off, and didn’t return. Miss Gilbert couldn’t find him and became increasingly concerned. She sent her students home with instructions to tell their parents that little Ottie was missing. More than 1500 locals and several dogs began searching for him, in the rain and then ice, in ever-widening circles. “Ottie! Ottie Powell! Where are you? Come here, Ottie!” There was no sign of him. The entire community was baffled by his disappearance and his parents were heartbroken.

When I was young I thought of growing old, of what my life would mean to me.  Would I have followed down my chosen road?  Or only wished that I could be? 

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On April 5, 1891, nearly five months later, a hunting dog picked up a scent and led a hunter up an old hunting and Indian trail to the top of Bluff Mountain. It was there, seven miles from the schoolhouse, at 3372 feet, that little Ottie’s remains were found. Experts believe he got lost, panicked, and started to run. After climbing the mountain, he collapsed and succumbed to the freezing temperatures. An autopsy showed he had undigested chestnuts from school in his stomach, an indication that, thankfully, he didn’t suffer for long.

James River Footbridge
James River Footbridge

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On Day 76, I made the long descent from Highcock Knob and crossed the James River footbridge, the longest foot-use only bridge on the AT. I then began the exhausting, very difficult, 2700-foot climb up Bluff Mountain. It would turn out to be the toughest climb for me in Virginia, partly due to the humidity and partly because there were no water sources and I carried a woefully inadequate two liters of water. I eventually arrived at the summit, completely drained and soaked to the bone with sweat.

My heart is old, it holds my memories.  My body burns a gemlike flame.  Somewhere between the soul and soft machine, is where I find myself again.

At the summit I looked over and saw the memorial to Ottie Cline Powell, placed on the spot where his body was found over 125 years ago. A lot of emotions ran through my mind. First, I felt sad for little Ottie, and imagined the despair and panic he likely felt as he ran and ran and yet couldn’t find his schoolhouse. I so wished there wasn’t a 125 year gap between our Bluff Mountain summits, so that I could have rescued that little boy. Second, I was amazed that such a young boy, just one month shy of his 5th birthday, in his bare feet, in those conditions, could have traveled seven miles, much of it uphill in rugged wilderness. That is simply remarkable. Finally, I felt thankful that it was likely he didn’t suffer for long up on that mountain. I’m also thankful that he’s in heaven now. Perhaps someday I will meet little Ottie and give him a fist pump, the standard greeting between long distance hikers.

Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel, Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night, Kyrie eleison where I’m going will you follow?  Kyrie eleison on a highway in the light.

I descended Bluff Mountain and arrived at Punchbowl Shelter after a physically grueling 18.2 mile day. The first priority at camp was to filter and consume nearly 2 liters of water. I was clearly dehydrated. The second priority was to retrieve my fishing gear and try to catch a fish at the nearby mountain pond. I got some nibbles but ultimately struck out, bringing my record versus AT fish to 2-2. I then ate dinner at the shelter picnic table, along with Training Wheels, Shoe Leather, Big Stick, and Uno. One of them, reading from the shelter journal, informed us that the shelter was reportedly haunted by the ghost of Ottie Cline Powell. Someone else said the ghost was probably carrying firewood. Too soon.

Fob at Punchbowl Shelter
Fob at Punchbowl Shelter
Shoe Leather at Punchbowl Shelter
Shoe Leather at Punchbowl Shelter

Since a light rain started to fall toward the tail end of supper, and I hadn’t yet set up my tent, I decided to sleep in the shelter. I was joined in the shelter by Shoe Leather (a south bounder) and Uno. This would turn out to be one of the worst decisions I’ve made so far on the trail. As I settled into my sleeping bag about 9:00 p.m., the bugs descended on Punchbowl Shelter. First came the mosquitos. I could hear them loudly buzzing my ears. Each time they came close, I slapped myself in an attempt to kill them. I probably slapped myself upside the head 25 times between 9:00 and 9:30. I didn’t kill any mosquitos but gave myself a slight concussion. Next came the black flies. I hate black flies with a passion. They targeted my arms, already in bad shape from poison ivy. I was miserable and fighting a losing battle. My only option was to pull my sleeping bag liner up and over my head. This technique kept the bugs at bay, but also meant sleeping in a 100 degree, sweat-filled cocoon. It was easily my worst night on the AT. I might have slept an hour. I told myself to never again sleep in a shelter, especially one near a bug-producing pond. If I could live that night over again, I would have summoned the ghost of Ottie Cline Powell and had him club me over the head with a piece of firewood to put an end to my misery.

Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel, Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night, Kyrie eleison where I’m going will you follow? Kyrie eleison on a highway in the light.

Rest well, sweet Ottie.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #45 – We’ll Go Fishing in the Craw Fish Hole

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Day 74

Just a few miles into the hike this morning, I saw the first of what would be many views and crossings of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Given the beauty and popularity of that road, I was surprised not to hear or see any traffic on it. I would learn later that they occasionally shut down sections of it to trim branches or do maintenance on it.

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The Virginia rains that I had become accustomed to had been replaced by high humidity and oppressive heat. Sweat was pouring off of me at an alarming rate. I decided to take my shirt off, which didn’t cool me off much, but did provide a scary sight for southbound hikers. The hotter it got, the more motivated I became to reach today’s big goal…Jennings Creek! Two words in my AT guidebook drew me like a magnet to the creek: “swimming hole.”

Jennings Creek
Jennings Creek

I crossed over the VA 614 bridge and arrived at Jennings Creek by 4:15 p.m. As two male hikers eating lunch on a large creekside boulder watched in amusement, I stripped down to my synthetic, quick drying underwear and waded out into the frigid waters. Once I got over the initial shock of the cold water and caught my breath, it was a wonderfully refreshing moment. I swam out to the whirlpool and fobbed up and down like a manatee playing in a tidal pool. I eventually waded over to a large boulder and stretched out across it to nap and dry out. Later, as I waded back to shore, I caught a large crawfish, named him Cajun, and looked for another in order to have a crawfish duel. I couldn’t find another so he remained the Jennings Creek champ, uncontested and undefeated. As you might suspect, the next item on the agenda was fishing. Unfortunately, I was shut out, moving my record versus AT fish to 2-1. I think they might have been spooked by my earlier frolicking in synthetic, quick drying underwear. As I walked a few yards from the creek, I spotted and got a picture of a bird’s nest, a final gift from this excellent AT watering hole.

Cajun, the Champ
Cajun, the Champ

Refreshed, I felt like hiking a while longer, so I did. Five minutes into my ascent up Fork Mountain, I saw a 6′ long black snake (#8) right on the trail. Knowing they can bite but are non-venomous, I reached out and grabbed his tail and he spun around. I chose to show him mercy and not make a belt out of him.

Largest Yet
Largest Yet

After a 20.8 mile day, I stopped at a deep ravine and stayed in the large, 20-person Bryant Ridge Shelter, along with Tree, Big Stick, and several others. One hiker about my age, while going down 15 or so steps to the water source, lost his balance and wiped out. All the other hikers, myself included, started laughing out loud at his misfortune. Then we went over to the bushes to check on him and confirm that he wasn’t injured. We probably should have checked on him before laughing.

Day 75

Today was a really tough day of hiking. First of all, it was unbelievably hot and humid, and there were no swimming holes to provide relief. Second, the morning featured a 3000-foot climb and the afternoon featured a 2000-foot descent. All day there was almost no flat terrain to catch a breather. Third, I awoke with a small outbreak of poison ivy on my right forearm, which served me right for laughing at the hiker who fell yesterday. I’m very susceptible to getting poison ivy, so I’m surprised my first bout on the trail didn’t happen until 75 days in. Fortunately I have my trail legs and there were plenty of water sources, so I just drank a lot, powered through the climbs and descents, and tried to ignore the poison ivy.

FAA Tower
FAA Tower

Today’s top man-made sight was a large Federal Aviation Administration tower/facility at the top of Apple Orchard Mountain. Less than half a mile later, I hiked under The Guillotine, a large boulder hanging right over the trail between two even larger boulders. After passing the Thunder Hill Shelter, which was closed indefinitely due to bear activity, I saw snake #9, a harmless fellow about a foot long.

The Guillotine
The Guillotine

After a hot, exhausting 17.1 mile day, I tent camped at Marble Spring along with Big Stick, Smiley (epic snorer), and David and Sarah from DC. I also met Tree Beard (who has a long beard in a pony tail) and Waterfall (who fell earlier on his journey while trying to position himself higher up on a waterfall).

Bird's Nest
Bird’s Nest
Snails Pace
Snails Pace

The story being told around the campfire that evening was that an aggressive bear had been harassing hikers at the Thunder Hill Shelter. The bear also knew how to knock most bear bags down and one evening helped himself to several bags of hiker food. Then the bear followed/stalked a group of hikers from the shelter down to the Harrison Ground Spring camping area. Once that was reported to authorities, the bear had to be put down near Petites Gap. I can’t confirm whether all the details of that story are actually true, but it was certainly the talk around the campfire that night.  There was also a rumor that a male model was posing in his underwear for a GQ photo shoot at Jennings Creek. I don’t know where all these crazy rumors come from.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #44 – Fob on the Knob

“There is something almost primal about standing atop a tall mountain, as if you have satisfied some deep and ancient part of human nature which drives us to explore our world and to reach new heights.” – Wash

Day 71

I was one of the first hikers out of the gate, but five or six slack packers passed me during the first two hours of the day. Without backpacks, they were rushing to do 27 miles to Troutville where the shuttle driver would pick them up, return them to the hostel, and then return them to Troutville the following morning. As previously discussed, I don’t slack pack as a matter of principle. The AT is meant to be enjoyed, not rushed, and that was especially true of this section of trail.

Red Eft or Newt
Red Eft or Newt

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Around noon I stopped at Catawba Mountain Shelter to get water. While there, I met and got information on the trail ahead from Matt, a friendly and helpful ridge runner. An hour later, I was standing on McAfee Knob, the most famous ledge and among the top two most photographed spots on the AT. I have been reading about this ledge and looking at hiker photos on it for more than two decades. This is the ledge Robert Redford and Nick Nolte are standing on in the movie poster for A Walk in the Woods (a photo-shopped picture as neither actor has been to this spot). It all felt a little surreal. I waited my turn for a photo and then a young man named Terrence took several pictures of me on the ledge. It was cloudy out so there was limited visibility, but even the clouds provided a neat backdrop for this iconic spot. The final few pictures involved me sitting on the edge of the ledge, the scariest thing I’ve done since climbing the Shuckstack fire tower in the Smokies. It was another medium sized step in overcoming my fear of heights.

Some Dreams Come True
Some Dreams Come True

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At Campbell Shelter, I stopped for water and met some young Tennessee Volunteer fans out on a section hike. Towards the end of the day, as storms once again threatened, I made a final climb to the stunningly beautiful views from Tinker Cliffs, passing ETA, Training Wheels, and their tents. (She earned that name after falling down several times during the first two weeks of her hike, including once just walking by a campfire.) Apparently Revolutionary War deserters hid out at Tinker Cliffs repairing pots and pans for money and acquired the name “tinkers.” The trail follows right along the edge with drops of 150 feet. It was a perfect spot for tenting with a view, so I called it a day after 14.9 miles. I cooked some Ramen Bomb on a large, flat rock on the edge of the cliffs.  As I dozed off to sleep, I wondered what it must have been like to live up there as a war deserter, repairing pots and pans, while others were down below  fighting for independence and the creation of a new nation.

Fob on the Knob
Fob on the Knob

Day 72

I began the day with another great section of trail. In fact, the hike from McAfee Knob (yesterday, mile 711.4) to today’s Hay Rock (mile 723.5) comes in at 4th place, so far, on my favorite sections of the trail. There were at least five scenic overlooks with views stretching for miles. Having exhausted most of my water supply up on the cliffs, I stopped at Lamberts Meadow Shelter to get more. This was yet another shelter that had been closed indefinitely due to bear activity. As I filtered my water a little faster than normal, I had my head on a swivel in anticipation of a bear arriving and going all Revenant on me.

From the Opposite Side
From the Opposite Side of McAfee Knob

Of the 10.8 miles hiked today, the final few into Daleville/Roanoke were scenic and relatively flat. I was looking forward to getting there because the plan was for Debbie Freeman, a longtime family friend, to pick me up and treat me to some southern hospitality. Long ago, my family got to know the Smyth family (Debbie’s maiden name) through the school friendship between Debbie and my oldest sister, Ellen. My mom and Debbie’s mom also became close friends and kept in contact for over forty years. My first memory of the Smyth family was as an 8-year-old, in 1974, when my family returned from our military assignment to Germany. Before moving into our home in Dover, Delaware, we stayed with their family in a big home out in the country. My main memories are of a house full of cute girls of various ages, a bumper pool table that I was allowed to play, and a rope swing. I love this country! Their dad was a newspaper editor and I remember him constantly sitting in his big chair with a newspaper and pen to mark it up. Their family was very kind to us, and it’s interesting that 42 years later, Debbie and her husband Bill would once again show hospitality to a tired long distance hiker like me.

Fob & Debbie
Fob & Debbie
Oh Beehive!
“Oh Beehive!”  (Austin Powers)

The first treat was seeing and learning about her latest hobby, beekeeping. I learned the ins and outs of starting and maintaining a hive and the role of each type of bee. The magnificence of their design, roles, and coordinated effort to survive once again pointed to a Grand Designer. It was all fascinating and now I’m thinking about getting Lil Jan a beehive starter kit for her birthday. If I ask for her permission, I bet she’d say, “No honey.”

4th Best AT Section (so far)
4th Best AT Section (so far)
Beautiful Approach to Daleville/Roanoke
Beautiful Approach to Daleville/Roanoke

After starting my laundry, I headed straight for a shower and bath. Debbie provided me with muscle-soothing Epsom salt and lavender bath oil. I had never had a bath with an essential oil before (or even a nonessential oil) and it was luxurious! I laid back, took a deep breath and closed my eyes, and all was right in the universe. I imagined snapping my fingers and having two eunuchs in togas enter, one holding a platter with grapes and cheeses and the other a cold Mountain Dew. I snapped back to reality, put on Bill’s bathrobe, and headed down to supper feeling like a million dollars. Debbie prepared a scrumptious meal featuring chicken, asparagus, bread, and more! It was so, so good. It was great catching up on what our respective family members have been up to.

Day 73

The next morning, Debbie filled up my tank with a wonderful breakfast and then took me to Wal-Mart to resupply. She then returned me to Daleville and the trailhead. She and Bill were excellent hosts and I truly appreciate their kindness to me. After eating some pasta and salad from Pizza Hut, I got back on the trail at 2:15 p.m.

The rest of the day was uneventful. I hiked 11.2 miles and then tented near the Wilson Creek Shelter along with several other hikers. It was good to see and chat with Gamel again, and also to meet Tree from Indiana. He received that name from fellow hikers after knowing and sharing too much information about AT trees while under the influence of something.

As I dozed off to sleep about 9:00 p.m., I caught a final faint whiff of lavender and then it was gone forever.

Fob

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AT Thru-Hike #43 – There’s No Place Like Homeplace

“We never repent of having eaten too little.”     – Thomas Jefferson, 1825

Day 70

I hit the trail, crossed several footbridges, and began the climb up Brush Mountain. At the summit was a wooden bench, which is uncommon and highly appreciated on the AT. Along the Brush Mountain ridge line, at mile 690.1, I took a short side trail to the Audie Murphy monument. Murphy was the most decorated American soldier of World War II. After the war, he acted in movies for over twenty years and eventually got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On May 28, 1971, Murphy died when the private plane he was in crashed near the monument in his honor on Brush Mountain. He was 45 years old. I stopped to pay my respects to this hero, a great soldier from what has been called the greatest generation.

Audie Murphy Memorial
Audie Murphy Memorial
Close-Up
Close-Up

As morning turned to afternoon, I set my sights on the famous Dragons Tooth. Like Albert Mountain, Jacobs Ladder, and other notable trail challenges, it has a reputation for being a very tough climb with rewarding views. The climb to it wasn’t steep, but was long and extremely rocky. I eventually arrived and was impressed with it and the views from it. I also thought it was a bit over-rated in terms of level of difficulty. It was tough, but not super tough. And then came the descent, and I realized what other hikers were talking about and where Dragons Tooth’s reputation comes from. It was very tricky, especially as light rain began to fall. I had to scramble down and around rocks using both hands, at one point passing the 700 mile marker on my journey.  In a few spots I had to slide down rocks on my rear. In other places, metal rungs were inserted in rocks to provide a foothold. It reminded me, on a smaller scale, of some of the rock scrambles I’ve heard about in New Hampshire and Maine.

image

image

At the bottom of the mountain, at Newport Road, after a 16.8-mile day, I decided to hike .3 miles east and stay at the Four Pines Hostel. The lodging is a 3-bay garage with shower (no towels), along with a separate barn with sleeping platforms. There’s no fee but they accept donations. The place was packed when I arrived, with people on cots, couches, and the floor…playing cards, drinking beer, eating, checking each other for ticks, sharing stories, napping, picking at their feet, and airing out tents and clothes. It reminded me of the kind of place where Charles Manson would have recruited. I managed to find a recliner that wasn’t yet taken, next to a couch occupied by a sweet lady hiker in her mid-60s with the trail named Gamel. That’s a combination of “Georgia (GA) to Maine (ME)” and her nickname, Mel, which is short for Melanie. She is from East Tennessee and filled me in on the towns and things to do there, as it is a region where Lil Jan and I have discussed putting down roots someday. I also met the owner, Joe Mitchell, and his wife handed me some sort of brownie/cookie dessert that was delicious.

Dragons Tooth
Dragons Tooth
Dragons Tooth
Dragons Tooth

The highlight of the evening, though, was set in motion moments later when the shuttle driver asked if anyone wanted to go to the all-you-can-eat, family style Homeplace Restaurant. Uhhh…yeah!!! Certain words and phrases excite hikers, and can even cause frenzies when we’re in groups. The list includes…
– All You Can Eat
– Trail Magic
– REI Sale
– Hot Shower
– Reliable Spring
– Free WiFi
– Free {fill in the blank}
– Easy Hitch
– Flat Terrain
– Milkshake
– Ramen Bomb
– Summit
– Campfire
– Hot Tub or Hot Bath
– Trail Legs
– Outfitter
– Buffet
– Zero Day
– Katahdin

My personal list would also include…
– Lil Jan
– Yellow, springy dress
– Outback
– Mountain Dew
– Darn Good Chili
– Gold Bond

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image

A gaggle of hikers piled in the large van and a truck and headed to the Homeplace. One hiker was on the floorboard and two were in the trunk. It felt like a prison work crew, only smellier. Upon arrival, eleven of us were seated at one table, including three other Air Force veterans (sponsored by a program called Warrior Hike) and four Marines. It was probably the most heavily defended restaurant table in Catawba that evening. We were a scraggly, hairy bunch, and most of us had not yet showered or eaten.

Hiker Artwork on Wall, Four Pines Hostel
Hiker Artwork on Wall, Four Pines Hostel

What happened next will go down as one of the most prolific displays of eating in American history. The sweet country waitress brought out the initial round of roast beef, chicken, ham, mac n cheese, pinto beans, green beans, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and cole slaw. She told us to let her know when we wanted seconds on anything.  I pulled her aside and said, “Ma’am, we haven’t eaten in like three hours.  You’ll want to go ahead and get started on seconds and thirds now.” We were like vultures at a fresh highway roadkill. The large bowl of pinto beans was passed around, and was empty by the third person. As the ranking military guy at the table, I didn’t pass the mac n cheese at all. Instead, I selfishly made the family-style bowl my personal bowl. What good is it to make rank if you can’t leverage it for a private bowl of mac n cheese on the AT?

View from Dragons Tooth
View from Dragons Tooth

The Marines were sucking on chicken bones and then piling them up in a mass grave at the center of the table, as grease ran down their chins and hands. The former Air Force TACP (Tactical Air Control Party specialist, aka a special ops guy) sitting next to me had nine helpings of roast beef, six pieces of chicken, and four large pieces of ham. I started to ask him if this was his first time eating. I also looked under the table by his feet to see if it was coming out the other end. Each time the waitress came by, we were out of something and ready for more. Each time, I would point at TAC-P and tell her, “And he’ll need some more roast beef.” He would then grunt and nod his head, too busy eating to speak. It was the least I could do for a special ops guy with the most epic trail beard to date.

There was very little table conversation as we were too busy stuffing our faces and asking for more, as if our very survival depended on it. The whole spectacle was fun to watch and more than a little embarrassing. Later, the waitress, in perhaps the most unnecessary question of the evening, asked if we’d like some peach cobbler with ice cream. I said, “We would, please, with coffee, and my friend TAC-P here would like his cobbler with just a couple more slices of roast beef.”  TAC-P looked up, nodded, and grunted…and for just a moment, all was right in our hiker universe.

Sir Fob

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