Day 41 – Tuesday, April 19: Damascus, VA, Zero Day, 469.0 total AT miles.

Note: Instead of typing this entry using the Notes app on my iPhone, I typed it directly into the WordPress app. I don’t know what happened to the last half of this entry. My apologies.

I woke up at 8:00 tired and sore. It’s never a good day when you wake up tired. But I was thankful – I had made it. I was still happy from the marathon hike the night prior.

I exited my tent and walked (quite literally) across the street to the same flush toilet in the park I used last night. I didn’t want to impose on the nice lady that let us tent in her yard, nor did I want to potentially embarrass her in front of her neighbors.

Upon finishing, I received a call from Shaggy. He ended up stealth camping a mile and a half outside of Damascus. He was nearly to town and wanted to meet up. I told him we’d be packed up in an hour and meet him downtown.

Upon returning to our camp on the river, Savage and Maria were already packing up. They had good news – our benefactor made us fresh blueberry muffins. The day was looking better.

 

Savage breakfasting on the river.
 
Maria split off to head to a hostel and Savage and I set off to meet Shaggy. We found him (only incidentally) by the flush toilets in the park. The three of us started scouring the AT Guide to find lodgings for the night. I called Medicine Man to see when he would be in town – he was hitching in from Shady Valley, TN. Summer, his Golden Retriever, was limping and had a burr in her paw. He met us in 15 minutes and the four of us booked a room in the Virginia Creeper Lodge.

It was great seeing Medicine Man again. He was able to fill us in on Moon Boots, Canuck and Clutch. They had been pushing hard and should be in town in a few hours – we went ahead and pre-booked them a room as well.

The Virginia Creeper Lodge is ridiculously nice. High ceilings, full back porch overlooking the river, huge kitchen – and an outside grill. I was excited for sure.

Note: and this is where the app cut off my entry.

To make a long story short, I bought new boots and a new summer sleeping bag.

  

Day 40 – Monday, April 18: Vandeventer Shelter to Stealth Camp (Damascus, VA), 33.1 miles, 469.0 total AT miles.

Before I went to sleep last night, I chatted with Savage and Maria, a fellow ATer I’ve met a few times now on the trail. We spoke about exactly what it would take to make it to Damascus, VA by tomorrow.

The terrain did look easy enough. And my toes and heel were fine as long as I kept my socks dry and tape clean. I knew I had the legs to make it the 33 miles to Damascus. I went to bed truly undecided as to whether or not I’d give it a genuine attempt.

I woke up at 6:00 and retrieved the bear bags. I dropped off Savage’s bag and asked if she really wanted to make the push to Damascus. I was surprised to hear a “let’s do this!” come from her tent. I noticed Maria was already breaking camp as well.

I finished packing at 7:00 and asked Savage and Maria if we were really going to try to hike the 33 miles to Damascus. It was decided that we’d try, making no promises. I knew it all depended on my feet. I already kind of trashed them running down a mountain to the Black Bear Resort – I didn’t need to do it again trying to make it to Damascus.

I set off hiking at an average pace. Today’s trail largely followed a ridge – this had it’s benefits and disadvantages. The plus – I wouldn’t have any big elevation gains or losses; the minus – I’d face a whole lot of small ups and downs, kind of like a sustained workout.

The three of us met at Iron Mountain Shelter 7 miles up trail at 10:00 – I made a hot lunch looking to load up on carbs for the miles ahead.

After passing the road crossing for Shady Valley, TN, the trail deviates through a private farm. The change of scenery, from a wooded, rocky ridge line to green, rolling hills, was abrupt and remarkable. I crossed through a beautiful field of dandelions in the warm spring sun.

  

After a brief stop at Low Gap (for the re-taping of my toes), the three of us pressed on. It was becoming evident that, if we were to continue at this pace, we’d be night-hiking into Damascus. Did we really want to do that? It was Maria that ended the debate – if my toes were bleeding, I’d put on a Band-Aid and hike on. (Thankfully, it never came to that.) We left at 4:30, having covered 20 miles – a big day already.

I was certainly feeling fatigued. My legs were great and my feet were okay. Noticing I had intermittent cell coverage and a full charge, I put in my headphones and listened to music for motivation.

We were forced to stop at the Abingdon Gap Shelter to gather water. The next spring was 8 miles away – a mere two miles outside of Damascus. We sat and had a quick snack. If we left this shelter, it meant we were essentially committing to making it to Damascus.

That meant it would be getting dark. Savage had already run across a bear at dusk, as had many other campers. We agreed to hike until sunset and then wait until the slowest hiker (me) caught up, making the eventual push into town together for safety’s sake.

About five minutes outside of Abingdon Gap, I stopped. My feel were swollen from the 23 miles I’d already hiked. I could feel the toe box of my boot rubbing against my toes. I had threatened to do this for a while now, but I took my boots off, slipped on a pair of my thickest socks, and decided to wear my camp shoes the final ten miles into Damascus.

I’m so glad I did. Long-distance hiking in camp shoes (of any type) is probably not a good idea. My North Face slippers aren’t rigid nor do they provide any ankle or heel support. But it didn’t matter. After slipping my Superfeet insoles into the camp shoes, I was able to finally walk comfortably for the first time in days.

As discussed, I found Savage and Maria waiting for me just shy of the TN/VA border at sunset. We were all tired, but in great spirits. In the next few hours, we’d be checking off some seminal hiking milestones. We’d already hiked a marathon and made our first 30-plus mile day by the time we reached the border. I snapped a photo at sunset and pressed on.

  

The final four miles into Damascus were sincerely jubilant. The three of us were accomplishing a serious milestone. Damascus, VA is “Trail Town, USA” – not to mention it would mean covering over 150 miles in eight days, just like I had hoped.

At 10:45, the three of us walked out of the woods and right onto Water Street. We walked towards town, stopping at the flush toilets in the park, and started looked for somewhere, anywhere, that was open and sold food.

A townie pointed us towards the Food City, my first real grocery store in over a week. We bought a roast chicken, French bread, cheese and all the fixings for a serious sandwich buffet. As we were exiting, a lady approached and asked if we needed a ride – another benefit of hiking with women.

We explained we were planning on tenting by the river, right in the heart of downtown. She immediately said we could do better, offering her backyard as a campsite. I was apologetically polite at first – then she told us she lived on the river right in the heart of downtown.

I couldn’t believe our luck. We finally sat to eat sandwiches on a cozy private lawn in the heart of Damascus at midnight. I went to bed tired, but full – I was content and thankful for the people that pushed me to hike my first 30-plus.

A few things – while I’m officially in Damascus, I’m not expecting to be very productive. I’m beat.

The lens on my camera grinded to a halt today. I think I somehow got sand and/or water in it. I’m gonna try to take it apart and clean it – otherwise I’m buying one online and having it shipped to me somewhere in Virginia.

I cleaned my feet before getting into my sleeping bag and am surprised at the relatively little damage incurred during today’s mega-hike.

I don’t plan on waking up early. The grass is soft and the breeze is nice and cool here by the river. I’m happy I made it to Damascus on time. I finally feel legitimate – I’m a thru-hiker.

Breakfast: Kashi protein bar, V8 protein bar (gifted from Savage).

Lunch: Alfredo Pasta Side with tuna

Snack: the last of my granola, my last bag of beef jerky

Dinner: 2 roast chicken sandwiches with Swiss cheese, mustard, lettuce, cucumbers and bell peppers.

Money: Food City $23.38

Day 39 – Sunday, April 17: Stealth Camp (Hampton, TN side trail) to Vandeventer Shelter, 14.9 miles, 435.9 total AT miles.

I woke at first light and slowly stretched my legs. They were stiff, but feeling better. I pulled my feet out of my sleeping bag and began the difficult task of taping my toes. I made sure every hot spot was covered before putting on my river-clean sock liners and hiking socks. I decided to start the day in boots to see how things would go.

I grabbed my bear bag and packed up, leaving camp with Shaggy and Clutch right at 8:00am. My feet felt fine as I started the 2000 foot ascent up to Pond Flats. About halfway up the mountain, I knew I was going to be fine to push forward towards Damascus – the tape was doing the trick. Shaggy took the lead.

At the top, I had breakfast with Clutch and started my descent as he was finishing a cup of coffee. While I had seen some smoke in the air that morning, it wasn’t until I made it to the northern side of the mountain that I saw the source  – it appeared the forest close to Watauga Lake was on fire.

  
I called home and asked my mother to search online for any news on a potential forest fire. Sure enough, at some point yesterday the fire broke out and consumed a large swath of land close to the shore.

I opened my GPS/mapping app and was surprised to see that the AT actually ran very close to the fire. I picked up my pace – I was certain when I reached the bottom there’d be some sort of trail closing. When I got there at 11:00 – nothing. Shaggy was still ahead and Clutch somewhere behind.

I entered the Shook Branch Recreation Area and began following the trail along the shore, seemingly right into the fire.

The smoke was starting to get thick as I ran across the first of many U.S. Forest Service firefighters – I was kind of surprised he let me pass through.

Apparently, the fire started burning Saturday and was largely contained by the time I arrived. The AT itself, as it deviated away from shore towards the Watauga Lake shelter, acted as a natural fire line.

  

As I was hiking along, the firefighters were starting a controlled burn of the area between the AT and the shore not yet effected by the fire. Here the smoke was at it’s worst – at times I could barely see in front of me. I was able to get one picture – it’s on my digital camera so will have to wait for later.

I stopped at a spring just after the controlled burn and chatted with one of the firefighters for a minute. He told me they may have to shut down the AT temporarily until the fire burns itself out. He also confirmed my suspicions that fire most likely started when someone left a campfire unattended.

I doubt it was a thru-hiker. We’ve been warned for days not camp at Watauga due to bear activity – there’s been signs posted on most trailheads.

I crossed the Watauga Dam and met up with Shaggy at the trailhead on the side of the road. I reapplied tape and made a hot lunch. My feet were doing fine considering I just hiked 10 miles. Shaggy zoomed ahead – I told him I’d do my best to catch up, but had to listen to my body.

The ascent leaving Watauga back up to 4,000 feet was tough. Luckily, some kind person left a cooler full of Mountain Dew halfway up – it did the trick.

As I was hiking, I kept catching glimpses of the fire. It was an impressive sight.

  
I eventually made it to the Vandeventer Shelter at 5:00 and decided to make camp. I’m really glad I did. The only available tent sites were located behind the shelter – with a stunning view of Watauga Lake and the valley below.

I made a quick dinner and climbed to the top of a rock outcropping, eating as I watched the sun set.

  

I’m looking forward to sunrise tomorrow – I’ve got some prime real estate. As I was starting to clean up, I received a late text from Savage – she had reached the dam with the other guys (Canuck, Moon Boots, Medicine Man and Clutch) and decided to press forward towards Vandeventer. Awesome – I wouldn’t be tenting with strangers after all.

At around 8:30pm, I received a series of rapid texts from Savage. She was a mile and a half away gathering water, when she came face-to-face with a large black bear. She screamed and it took off running. By the time she collected herself, the sun had set and she was scared. I put on my boots, grabbed my poles, knife and mace, and headed down trail to walk her back to the shelter.

She wasn’t too far away when we met – she certainly was rattled. We made it back to camp at 10:00 – I promptly turned in for the night.

What a day – what a week. Seven days ago in Irwin, TN, I made it my goal to reach Damascus, VA in eight days. I’ve got one and half days worth of food and one day left to meet my self-imposed timeline. Damascus is 33 miles away. While those 33 miles are as flat as any backpacker can ask for, I’m not giving my hiking a marathon-plus good chances.

I intend to be hiking at 7:00am, so we’ll see how tomorrow goes.

Worse than it looks, but still pretty bad. I can’t wait to get new boots.

I’m glad the group is catching up – looks like we’ll all be in Damascus on Wednesday. I can’t wait to see Medicine Man and Summer – he’s been talking about hiking with his Golden Retriever ever since I met him.

My plan for Damascus is to arrive early Wednesday morning and get a room for one night. I’ll be leaving Thurday afternoon and tent just outside of town – I’m finding that I feel best (and hike best) when I don’t spend idle time in towns. If I need more rest, I can do it from my tent at camp. We’ll see how that goes.

Breakfast: granola, prunes

Snack: one beef jerky tortilla roll up

Lunch: Fettucini Alfredo Pasta side with salmon

Snack: Mountain Dew

Dinner: Couscous with tuna, mushroom gravy and Parmesan cheese

Day 38 – Saturday, April 16: Dennis Cove Road (Black Bear Resort) to Stealth Camp (Hampton, TN side trail), 2.8 miles, 421.0 total AT miles.

Note: I’m uploading yesterday and today’s post from the trailhead outside of camp by headlamp light. It was spooky at first, but I’m fine now. It’s crazy how going around the bend (or in our case tonight, into a small valley to camp) can totally disrupt cell service. It’s really something I take for granted living in the city.

I woke up and immediately felt yesterday’s run down the mountain. My thighs were stiff and my feet were killing me – my toes literally throbbing. It was early, about 7:30, and I hobbled to the shower.

The shower was awesome. I stayed in there for about half an hour. When I finally made my way back to our cabin, everyone was up and packing. The shuttle for town was to leave at 9:00am. The four of us hung out on the front porch and waited.

  
I got a chance to weigh myself on the scale – I’ve lost a little more weight. Not much, but still noticeable. My pack, with four days food and two liters of water, weights 38 pounds. I hope to get that down considerably once I make my summer gear swaps.

While I had no real business following Shaggy and Medicine Man to town, I figured I might as well stop by the Dollar General and grab some snacks before hitting the trail. I threw my pack in the shuttle and headed to town.

I’m glad I did. Within five minutes of walking with my pack on, I knew something was wrong. My feet started hurting very badly. I’m sure all these days of strong hiking haven’t helped, but I now know I need new boots as soon as possible. Every step was excruciating. I changed into my camp shoes and continued on to McDonald’s for breakfast.

I got to meet Medicine Man’s parents (and Summer), before they left to go tour the area. I compulsively grabbed a few extra things from Dollar General and made my way back to the shuttle stop.

While I could have gotten off at the trailhead, I rode with the guys back to Black Bear. Shaggy bought some fuel and the three of us took off. Sort of.

I was hobbling. For two days, I had southbound AT hikers tell me how much of a treat the next couple of miles would be. I tried to be excited as I walked through miniature canyons and made my approach to Laurel Falls – but my feet (really my toes) were on fire. I could move, but slowly.

   

Shortly after Laurel Falls, the trail splits – one went to Hampton, one continued on as the AT. I found Shaggy and Clutch waiting for me at the crossroads. They knew my feet were in pretty bad condition and wanted to see how I felt before making the 2,000-foot ascent to Pond Flats. I couldn’t do it.

It was very disheartening. We sat there for a few minutes and discussed our options. It was decided that, considering our recent good mileage, taking a day off to rest was for the best. Shaggy was still going strong, but didn’t want to get too far ahead. Clutch wanted to rest as well.

As we were doing some trailside planning, a father and his two young kids approached. He wanted to know if he could help us out in any way. If we could get to town easily, maybe grab some steaks from the grocery store, then taking a day to rest our tired muscles might be worth it.

We set our packs down at a campsite by the river. Shaggy stayed behind. I decided to walk the trail in my camp shoes to see if a change in footwear really made a difference. I also figured a short walk (with no pack on) would help keep my muscles loose. And I could gauge how I might feel hiking tomorrow.

After a level walk from the trail crossing to the parking area, the helpful dad drove Clutch and I into town. We stopped at McDonald’s (for Shaggy), Subway (for Clutch) and Brown’s Grocery for me. I bought steaks.

Clutch and I made our way back to camp by 4:30. I started a fire and, noticing Clutch had run a clothesline, decided to wash my socks by the river – I even made clothespins out of sticks. 

Dinner would have been awesome, except I managed to buy the toughest steaks imaginable. They were inedible, I kid you not. I mean, check out our setup – I made a separate cooking fire using this grill grate I found. Dinner was so bad that, after a few minutes of pretending we could eat those steaks, we broke down laughing and threw them in our trash bags. I improvised a quick dinner and made my way to bed.

  
I’ll be honest – I’m concerned about my feet. I’ve got a few options. Assuming the tightness I felt with my boots is due to swelling, I might be fine tomorrow and can carry on (slowly) towards Damascus – it’s only 47 miles away. If not, I can try to hike in my camp shoes – folks do it all the time. Either way, I’ll know first thing tomorrow – that ascent up to Pond Flats is pretty steep.

One thing is certain, if I can’t hike out tomorrow, I won’t. I’m not going to put this whole thing at risk because I’m being stubborn about getting to Virginia quickly. 

If it comes to it, I’ll bite the bullet and hitch to Elizabethton (the next town over). From there, I can catch a ride to Johnson City and buy new boots from Dick’s Sporting Goods. I wouldn’t be that far behind the group. Worse case scenario, I’ll see everyone in Damascus.

The good news is I’ll know in a few hours.

On hitching: I never thought I’d be “thumbing it” from the side of the road with such gusto. If you’re concerned, let me assure you, so am I. It’s weird.

But, folks that live near trail towns are used to giving hikers rides – a few even have trail names without actually having set foot on the trail (more like a road name, which is another story entirely).

I’ve learned a few tips to ensure I get a quick hitch. First, keep the pack on – it looks heavy. Second, keep the trekking poles out – it shows I’m hiker, that I’m hitching for a legitimate reason. Third, swap the sunglasses for eyeglasses – Canuck taught me that one. And finally, stand in front of a church – it works.

I’m going to bed hopeful about tomorrow. Small injuries are bound to happen. Please don’t worry. I’m going to finish this thing.

Breakfast: McDonalds Chicken Biscuit, hashbrowns, side of biscuit and gravy, coffee

Lunch: 6″ Subway Roast Chicken sub, 10 McNuggets

Dinner: Chewy steak then (sigh) beef jerky tortilla roll ups dipped in McDonalds BBQ sauce, granola

Day 37 – Friday, April 15: Stealth Camp (US 19E) to Dennis Cove Rd. (Black Bear Resort), 24.9 miles, 418.2 total AT miles.

I woke at 7:00 – kind of late for me. I was first out of my tent and went over to check on the hawk/falcon – it was still alive, very alert to the movements around its teepee-cage.

Medicine Man and Shaggy woke up as I was breaking camp. We sat around waiting for 8:00, expecting a call from the Carolina Raptor Society. When no call came by 8:15, Medicine Man and I hopped on the phones.

I eventually got in touch with some student volunteers from Lees McRae College – they help staff an animal rehabilitation clinic that takes in injured birds of prey. Because they were so close, we decided to meet one hour later at the trailhead. 

The goodbye between Medicine Man and Vladmir (the hawk) was touching. He handed the bundled Vladmir to the veterinary student who placed him/her in cage. Apparently, if Vladmir pulls through, Medicine Man will be invited to his release back into the wild.

Right before the hawk exchange, Clutch rolled into camp. Apparently, he tented just a few miles away from us and was ready to move. The four of us set off at 10:30, with no clear goal on how far we should shoot for today. Saving Vladmir took some time. I decided to hang back for a little while – I had cell reception and was desperately trying to figure out a way to get to an REI.

While I’d really LIKE to exchange my tent, I really NEED to buy new boots. I’ve read that long-distance hikers’ feet will grow by a full shoe size over the course of the hike. I’m beginning to wonder if my heel blister and toe nail pain are related. Truth be told, the only reason I didn’t rent a car and drive to Asheville this morning is because I couldn’t find one – the Bristol NASCAR race is this weekend.

I put away the phone and started hiking at 11:00. After a difficult little push out of the valley, the trail leveled off and I started making some really good time. While my feet were certainly sore, everything else was doing fine.

  
If I wasn’t walking across fields, I was strolling through pine forest, with only minor ascents and descents for several hours. At around 2:00pm, I turned a sharp corner in the trail, and ran right into Shaggy, Medicine Man, and Clutch having a hot lunch. I plopped right down and joined them. After a quick break, we were off again.

At 4:00, we came across a park bench – a store-bought, wrought iron bench, that someone had lugged up the trail. We paused to talk about our options.

My personal push to Damascus puts me on par with Shaggy and Medicine Man’s push to Hampton – we all want/need to be in Hampton by tomorrow morning. For me, Hampton is only 47 miles away from Damascus – easy to accomplish in my self-imposed drive to Virginia, now in its fifth day (3 days left).

Shaggy has new boots waiting for him at the post office. The only problem is that they close at 10:00am tomorrow.

And Medicine Man is meeting his parents in Hampton. They’re driving Summer, his golden retriever, down from Massachusetts to hike the AT.

After consulting the AT Guide, we saw that there was a hostel only three miles outside of Hampton – and they offered shuttles. Shaggy could get his shoes, Medicine Man could get his dog, and I can be that much closer to Damascus. Clutch was just along for the ride.

The problem with the hostel (Black Bear Resort) was that it was 14 miles away and we had a few nagging climbs ahead. I made a quick call and was happy to hear that the four of us could get a cabin for $45 (shower included – it’s been 5-plus days without a shower). The catch was that we needed to get there by 8:00, 8:30 at the latest, to secure the cabin.

Fourteen miles (plus the half mile trail to Black Bear) in four hours is well outside of my hiking ability. I would need to be hiking as fast as I could, for four hours straight, to make it on time. Thankfully, we’ve got Clutch.

He’s Swiss-German and one of the strongest hikers on the trail. Within 5 minutes, he was well ahead of us. Although the hostel reservation was on my card, I gave Clutch permission to get the room.

I was feeling good. I couldn’t feel any pain in my heel or toe and pushed as hard as I could – at times literally running down the trail just to gain a few extra minutes.

At 7:30, Medicine Man, Shaggy and I stopped to check our distance away from Back Bear. We were at the top of White Rock Mountain and the hostel was 4 miles away. I quickly called to explain that we were sorry and should be there within an hour. The caretaker was completely fine with waiting, but I felt bad. I had been hiking hard all day and it was looking like I was going to come up a few miles short of my goal.

I was still feeling strong. At first, I just started jogging down the mountain, using my trekking poles to hop over rocks and logs. Then I started building momentum – it began to feel not that unnatural to run with my pack on. I paused to take a quick picture of the setting sun and zoomed on.

  
I must have looked “crazy and insane” as I ran down that mountain. I spooked some hiker tenting just off trail – he was walking around with his shirt off and I came barreling down the trail. He jumped and yelled. Because I was watching roots and rocks whiz beneath my feet, I didn’t see him. I screamed out loud and kept running – I didn’t stop to give an explanation.

I reached Dennis Cove Road and checked my watch – 8:05. I was a short ten-minute walk away from Black Bear Resort. I put my trekking poles away and started strolling down the street. At 8:15, I walked through the front door and nearly right into Clutch. He was finishing a pizza – he had been there for half an hour.

While I didn’t meet my goal, pushing myself hard had it’s advantages – I was the last customer to buy snacks from the camp store. I bought a whole bag of stuff – enough for Medicine Man and Shaggy to share when they finally arrived. Medicine Man was maybe 20 minutes behind me – Shaggy another 30 after that.

But when he did arrive, the three of us feasted. I was starving. After dinner, I noticed a couple trout fishing by flashlight outside our cabin. I spoke with husband for a good half hour. When I returned, everyone was asleep.

Right now, I’m sitting on porch. My legs feel good, but my feet hurt terribly. I’m actually a little concerned. My toes are red and my heels are raw. When I make it to Damascus (hopefully in three days), the first thing I’ll do is buy a new pair of boots.

I’m feeling good about this past week – this is how I want to be hiking.

While I was hiking today, I got a message from Savage – Moon Boots woke yesterday with bad ankle pains, his shin splints flaring up. The three of them (Canuck included) decided to stay at a hostel tonight in Roan Mountain – that puts them a full 25 miles behind. I hope all is well. As I’ll probably be staying two nights in or near Damascus, I’m sure I’ll see them.

Breakfast – Sierra Mix Clif Bar, dried cranberries, a Snickers bar

Snack – Little Debbie Brownie, the last of my beef jerky

Lunch – Fettucini Alfredo Pasta Side with crumbled bacon

Dinner – one frozen cheeseburger, one frozen chicken sandwich, small bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, Mrs. Freshley’s Frosted Honeybun

Money:

$11.75 – room charge

$7.89 – Dinner

Day 36 – Thursday, April 14: Ash Gap to Stealth Camp (0.2 miles from US 19E), 18.6 miles, 393.3 total AT miles.

Motivated by yesterday’s good hiking, I woke early, ready to go. I was packed and leaving camp by 6:00. Certain others would soon be following, I started heading up Roan High Bald, hoping to catch the sunrise.

I was sluggish and moving slow. To make matters worse, the blister I treated last night was beginning to sting. I stopped after a mile and changed bandages – temporary relief at best.

While the trail was beautiful (I was again hiking through a spruce forest), I wasn’t rewarded with any views. The descent down Roan was steep – I somehow missed the shelter at the top. I eventually made it the 4 miles to Carvers Gap. My heel was starting to hurt again.

The trail crossed Carvers Gap and immediately starts ascending Round Bald, the first of many balds I would traverse today.

  
I continued following the ridge and paused at Jane Bald to take a break. I took my boot off and changed bandages again, this time taping my heel tighter and in different directions. After a short snack, I began pushing forward again.

After Jane Bald, the trail descends into the woods. I stopped just short of Stan Murray Shelter at 10:30, having only covered 8 miles on the day. I still felt a little sluggish and my heel was still hurting – although now only when I ascended. It was fine on the downhills.

I decided that I needed a hot lunch. I never make hot breakfasts or lunches, choosing to reserve fuel for dinner only. I hoped that a warm plate of food might give me that extra energy needed to start making miles. Regardless, it did feel good to sit and rest.

I passed Overmountain Shelter, a cool, old barn now repurposed for AT hikers.

  
Overmountain Shelter also marks the beginning of the ascent up Hump Mountain – supposedly the last mountain at this altitude for quite some time.

  
I finally made my way to the top of Hump Mountain and took a break. I was about to begin the long, steep descent towards Roan Mountain, TN (a tiny town just off the trail). I initially planned on camping a few miles short of the road crossing, but decides to try to hitch into town given my dwindling supply of Band-AIDS and athletic tape.

During the descent, I hit a milestone – I officially left North Carolina. That’s two states down – and I’ll only be in Tennessee for another three days before entering Virginia – pretty neat.

  
After successful hitches to and from Roan Mountain to purchase Band-Aids and tape (and a few more meals, considering how much I enjoyed today’s hot lunch) from the Dollar General, I made my way back to the AT.

I still had not seen any of my hiking buddies all day – I actually hadn’t seen anyone. I called Medicine Man on a whim and he picked up. Apparently, he was only two miles back and apologized for not catching up.

As he was descending Hump Mountain, he stumbled across an injured falcon (or hawk) – it had a broken wing. Apparently, he’s done this before – he caught the bird in his sweater and started carrying it towards the road crossing in hopes he’d get cell coverage.

He was now making his way towards me – with Shaggy and the injured raptor in tow. I set up my tent and started a fire. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, they arrive. I started helping Medicine Man construct a makeshift cage by jamming sticks in the ground and covering them with extra clothes.

  
What a day. Apparently the Carolina Raptor Society will be calling me at 8:00am and will hopefully come to get this bird. He/she really is a beautiful creature.

I made a quick dinner and hopped right in the tent.

When I took off my socks tonight, my heel looked a little better. I hope I got to it early enough.

Neither Shaggy nor Medicine Man know how far back the others are. I’m sure they’ll catch up – there’s nothing but flat ground ahead.

With the extra food I snagged from the Dollar General, I have more than enough to get me to Damascus – it’s 75 miles away and I have a solid four days worth of food.

I need to rent a car once I get to Damascus to get to an REI. It’s time to return my tent. It’s pretty beat up for only a little over a month on the trail. Plus, I need to buy new boots – my Merrells are starting to feel a little flimsy. Then there’s the summer sleeping bag I need to buy and new hiking t-shirt. I figure it’s better to rent a care and drive to an REI (where I have my member dividends to spend) than shell out bucks at some outfitter in Damascus.

Breakfast: breakfast mix, Clif Bar

Snack: bag of beef jerky, prunes

Lunch: Teriyaki Noodle Pasta Sidewith bacon bits and a dash of instant mashed potatoes

Snack: nut mix, 2 Little Debbie Raisin Creme Pies

Dinner: Broccoli and cheese Pasta Side with canned beef, wrapped in tortillas.

Day 35 – Wednesday, April 13: Deep Gap to Ash Gap, 20.3 miles, 374.7 total AT miles.

.I woke up to a hissing sound coming from outside of my tent. It was 6:15am and someone was deflating an air mattress. That meant someone in my hiking group was getting ready to leave. I immediately started packing up.

I emerged from my tent 20 minutes later to find Medicine Man in a similar stage of breaking camp and Moon Boots already gone. It was Moon Boot’s declared goal of reaching Ash Gap – two-thirds of the way up Roan High Knob at 5,500 feet and over 20 miles from where we were camped that evening.

I left camp at 7:10 with Medicine Man on my heels. It was cold – I started hiking in full winter gear as the sun was starting to rise.

The first summit of the day was Unaka Mountain, itself an impressive gain to over 5,000 feet. Unaka was very cool. As I approached the top, I found myself in a dense spruce forest – I wouldn’t have known they were spruces had the AT Guide not pointed it out.

  
The trail was difficult to find amongst all the trees – I found myself pausing several times, trying to find a white blaze indicating I was still on route.

About six miles up trail, I came to a road crossing and ran into some trail magic. Although I was now hiking in a t-shirt with my pants rolled up, I stopped to have coffee and chat – even scored a snack for down the road.

As I was packing up to leave, Medicine Man rounded the corner. He grabbed a quick cup and the two of us set off for a spring to refill water. As we were nearing the spring, I saw three deer – they took off running as soon as we approached. There was no chance of getting a picture.

After a quick break in what looked like an old orchard, we both set off again. Moon Boots was still ahead and it was nearing lunch time. Today was far from easy – there were several small climbs that really seemed to come out of nowhere and slow me down. We stopped a quarter mile shy of Greasy Creek Hostel and had lunch.

We were hiking again half an hour later, fully recharged, and ran right into Moon Boots – he stopped at the road crossing leading to the hostel to take his lunch. We were right behind him the whole time and had no idea.

The next few miles were fairly easy, but I wasn’t going to be fooled. The last third of the day called for the steep ascent up and down Little Rock Knob, followed by the three-mile ascent of Roan.

  
I handled Little Rock Knob fine – and was even rewarded with trail magic at Hughes Gap. This time snacks from another thru-hiker’s parents – it was good timing.

The three of us started pressing up Roan. Ash Gap was supposed to have an unreliable water source. That meant I filled up 4 liters (nearly 9 pounds) at a spring 2.5 miles away from camp. What can I say? I like water. But that made my pack heavy and I slowed down considerably.

The climb up was rugged and beautiful – it’s a good feeling knowing you’re only a mile from camp and can slow down. I’ll be honest, if had to hike any further that I did, I would have had to stop and eat. But I pressed on and made it into camp at 5:30.

The campsite is nice – there is actually water up here, too. I set up my tent and was getting ready to cook dinner when Clutch came in. The four of us ate with some other hikers stopping for the night and, after a peaceful sit by the fire, we all started to get ready for bed.

We had been debating for the last couple of hours whether or not the rest of our group would make it. As Moon Boots and I were extinguishing the camp fire, we saw a pair of headlights roll into camp. Savage and Canuck had finally made it.

They got distracted at by the promise of cold drinks and ice cream at the Greasy Creek Hostel and decided to make it a long day. It’s 9:30 now and Shaggy still hasn’t made it to camp.

Tomorrow looks like fun – I’ll be hiking at or near 6,000 feet for the first half of the day before losing elevation considerably as I approach camp – in all, probably close to another 20 mile day.

I’m still committed to reaching Damascus in five days now – that’s 96 miles away. While tomorrow may prove a little challenging, the next four days have some of the flattest terrain I’ve come across yet. I’m excited to see how well I move.

One area of concern is my left heel. I developed a blister today and treated it as soon as I made it to camp. I applied Neosporin and bandages before taping my whole heel up in athletic tape. It shouldn’t be a problem tomorrow – here’s hoping anyways.

Twice today, we ran across hikers battling shin splints – one was getting off the trail at the hostel and the other was trying to take it easy by slackpacking (hiking without your pack, often from road crossing to road crossing so someone can pick you up). Moon Boots is also suffering from a mild case. This trail is more brutal than I thought, for sure.

Breakfast: Little Debbie Frosted Brownie, Coffee Nut M&Ms

Snack: coffee, Banana Moon pie

Lunch: granola, nuts, bag of beef jerky

Snack: granola bar, almonds

Dinner: Salmon in butter pasta with Parmesan cheese and Ritz crackers.

Day 34 – Tuesday, April 12: Nolichucky River (Erwin, TN) to Deep Gap, 12.0 miles, 354.4 total AT miles.

I woke early but laid in my sleeping bag, waiting for the rain to stop. The storm wasn’t bad – just saturating. Although I was awake at 6:00, I didn’t start packing in earnest until 7:00. By 7:30, I could hear everyone pre-packing in their tents from within my own tent. A conversation about the weather ensued.

Medicine Man was checking the radar and thought he saw a break in the storm. Sure enough, by 8:30, the rain slowed. Just as I had taken the rainfly off my tent, the skies opened up. I scrambled to pack up my tent in the downpour.

By the time I finally closed my pack and covered it with my pack cover, the rain slowed. Too late for me – my tent was saturated and my pack was drenched. I started my hike in shorts with gaiters covering my socks and boots, wearing my rain jacket over my hiking shirt. It was brisk but the rapid ascent out of Erwin quickly warmed me up. I was near the end of the line.

The trail out of Erwin follows several streams that flow towards the Nolichucky – I noticed that soon I would be ascending into the clouds.

  
While the rain had largely tapered off and it was starting to warm up, I was moving slow. My legs felt good – it was the late start that got to me, a real demotivator.

After reconvening at Curly Gap Shelter for snacks, the group marched on, heading for Indian Grave Gap 5 miles away. The weather was brisk, but the terrain was relatively flat – I finally got moving.

It’s a rare day that we’re all on the same page, but as we pulled into Indian Grave, the seven of us were within ten minutes of each other. We had a quick lunch and considered our options – the forecast (as best we knew it) still called for more rain.

  
By this time, it was 2:00pm and conversation switched to logistics. We could either stop in 4 miles after summiting Beauty Spot or stop in 9 miles after summiting Unaka Mountain. Both were very doable. I left Indian Gap very much undecided.

I kept up for much of today’s hike, even set the pace for a few miles. I had the legs to go on, but then I hit Beauty Spot.

I read about Beauty Spot in trail journals for years, that it was a mini Max Patch with awesome views. When I finally arrived, I was still sacked in the same fog I had been hiking in all day.

  
I think I was screwing around with my headphones, but I swear I could feel the sun on the back of my neck. I turned around and saw the sun trying to break through the clouds. Pretty neat picture, I thought.

  
Within five minutes, I kid you not, the clouds started breaking up. The view, the very experience, was stunning! I starting laughing out loud in very real happiness. For the first time all day, I was catching glimpses of blue skies and green valleys. I can’t wait to upload pics from my digital camera.

  
I spent an hour (easily) taking in the views and snapping shots. It was awesome – again, one of those times I wish I could have shared this with a friend or loved one.

I was slow decending Beauty Spot and made my way towards the base of Unaka Mountain. I crossed a USFS (forest service) road and was almost surprised to see everyone tenting in the gap. As I emerged into the clearing, I immeadiately understood why.

The combination of bright sunlight and brisk wind created that win- tunnel drying effect I had last experienced in Bag’s Creek Gap with Savage and Kool-Aid.

I ended up stringing my bear bag rope up as a clothesline and drying my tent in the breeze – after an hour, it was bone dry. I made camp and cooked a hearty dinner, snapping one last shot of camp before I retired to my tent.

  

My goal is to wake early and move quickly. Despite the terrain, I want to make it to the base of Roan Mountain tomorrow, some 21 miles away. Damascus is about 115 miles away – I have six days left.

I did a lot of thinking today about life after trail, whatever that my look like. No real conclusions, but I did make a few resolutions.

Breakfast: White Chocoate Macadamia Nut Clif Bar, Sierra Mix Clif Bar

Snack: Little Debbie Raisin Creme Pie

Lunch: 2 beef jerky tortilla roll ups, almonds/peanuts

Snack: Little Debbie Frosted Brownie

Dinner: beef gravy mac and cheese with bacon bits, 2 tortillas, a shared bag of peach gummies.

Day 33 – Monday, April 11: a spring (1.3 miles north of Sam’s Gap) to Nolichucky River (Erwin, TN), 23.5 miles, 342.4 total AT miles.

I woke up early and, for the first time in recent memory, warm. I was determined to make big miles today. With a few exceptions, the terrain looked only moderately difficult. I left camp at 7:00, (jealously) watching Shaggy eat cheese grits from his tent.
Less than a mile outside of camp, I crested a small rise and paused to watch the sunrise. Man, I was feeling really good today. I munched on breakfast in the early morning silence before pressing on.

  
After a quick water refill at Low Gap, I started making the push up Big Bald – a mountain that’s been visible in the distance for a few days now. The ascent slowed me down, but I was really feeling good. I reached the summit at 10:00 and enjoyed the amazing views – not as beautiful as Max Patch, but still stunning nonetheless. As I was descending Big Bald, thought I could hear Moon Boots shouting from the summit, but I couldn’t be sure. Whoever it was, they sounded excited. I pressed on.

  
I stopped to have a quick snack at Bald Mountain Shelter and utilize the privy. I struck up a conversation with a few hikers – weather talk. Trail rumor had rain moving in tonight – light showers starting at 9:00pm and getting worse throughout tomorrow.

This was good news – I’d have plenty of time to make camp before the bad weather started. Still hiking alone, I enjoyed the easy walk to Spivey Gap, 14 miles north of where I started. I made it there at 2:30, now very hungry for lunch.

  
As I made my way up to the road, I saw a few people mulling around a white van. Good timing! A gentleman named Rob Bird was giving out trail magic to hikers. I enjoyed a soda and some cookies with my lunch.

As I sat and chatted with Rob and some other hikers, I was mindful of the time – if I wanted to keep up with the big miles today, I’d need to leave soon. My goal was to make it back to Erwin, TN and camp by the river. If I ran out of time or energy, I could stop at No Business Knob Shelter, a mere 4 miles way.

I heard them before I saw them, even warning Rob to get those sodas handy again, and watched as my hiking buddies emerged from the woods. I really wanted to hike all the way back to Erwin. I thought it’d be kinda cool to have covered the 33 miles back to town in a day and a half. Everyone was in agreement and we got started hiking again.

No Business Knob was the last water source before Erwin – I had over a liter left and decided to keep pushing. It’s funny – it doesn’t matter what time I leave, my hiking buddies catch up to me pretty quickly. I was passed by nearly everyone within an hour.

About 4 miles outside of Erwin, I had to stop. It was about 5:00 and I was starting to feel a little weak. I plopped down right next to the AT and went for my food bag, gobbling snacks to give me the extra energy to keep pushing. After about 15 minutes, I picked myself up and carried on. I decided to listen to music for the first time in about a week – I finally had decent cell reception again. I’m glad I did – good music really helps get down (or up) bad mountains.

The descent into Erwin was probably one of the most frustrating to date. And not for it’s difficulty – it was well-graded with numerous switchbacks. The problem was that there were too many nice views. Every ten minutes or so, the trail would cut back towards town and “reward” you with a great view. The first one was nice, but then they started teasing me – only serving to highlight my lack of progress.

  
Our plan was to tent (for free) on the banks of the Nolichucky River, about a quarter mile from Uncle Johnny’s hostel. As I made my way down the road, I saw my buddies hanging out on the front porch, laughing with a large group of hikers. I walked over.

Moon Boots and Medicine Man were offered a ride into town as soon as they got there, maybe a half hour ahead of me. I decided to use the toilet (it flushed – huge score). I’m only gonna say this because it was so comical – but this cat just wouldn’t leave me alone, even as I sat there trying to do my business. He laid between my boots and clawed at my shoelaces. It was kind of funny.

It didn’t take long for Moon Boots and Medicine Man to get back. They were smiling and holding four huge bags of McDonalds. We made our way to the river and quickly set up camp as the sun set. Then the feast – it was great. We listened to music and ate burgers, congratulating each other on everyone’s biggest mileage day yet.

It’s 10:00pm and the rain still hasn’t come yet. I’m beat – I mean really beat. My legs are sore and my left big toenail is killing me.

Damascus, VA is only 125 miles away – I still want to be there by next Tuesday. The terrain looks rough for the next two days. Tomorrow, I’ll rapidly gain elevation and stay there until I hit Roan Mountain. It’s supposed to be difficult but beautiful. I hope the weather holds out.

Breakfast: breakfast mix is back (almonds, peanuts, granola, apricots, raisins, prunes)

Snack: Little Debbie Raisin Creme Pie

Lunch: Mountain Lion (another Mountain Dew knockoff), a mini Moon Pie, three beef jerky tortilla wraps with yellow mustard, the rest of today’s breakfast mix

Snack: Bag of peach-flavored gummies, Little Debbie Frosted Brownie

Dinner: two double cheeseburgers

Day 32 – Sunday, April 10: Devil Fork Gap (Erwin, TN) to a spring, 1.3 miles north of Sam’s Gap, 10.0 miles, 318.9 total AT miles.

I woke up early and quickly headed to the lobby for a cup of coffee and a donut. I looked like my decision to stay and wait out the polar vortex paid off. Shuttles dropped off a few sets of hikers, only checking into the hotel to get out of the cold. Apparently it was in the low 20s all night at Bald Mountain Shelter, seven miles north of where I’m tenting tonight.

I returned to my room and started packing up. I grabbed a few extra meals (some real high-dollar stuff) from the hiker box on the way – this brings my food supply to 8 days (excluding tonight). I guarantee, my pack hasn’t been this heavy since walking through the stone archway at Amicalola Falls a month ago.

Eight days of food gives me a few options – Damascus, VA is only 150 miles away, an extremely doable trek for that size food supply. If I fall short, there’s a few small towns before hitting Damascus I can quickly resupply in.

I packed my bag and called the shuttle. I missed the window on the 10:00am departure and waited for the 11:30. We had to split the group – the shuttle couldn’t take us all. It was decided the slower hikers should start first, get a head start. I rode in the front seat.

We arrived at Devil Fork Gap at noon and hit the trail hard. We faced a steep ascent up Lick Rock. The trail was beautiful. For nearly a mile, I hiked alongside a series of springs, some significant, some mere muddy puddles, as they all slowly flowed down the mountain. It was very cool to hike with plants for the first time – they stood in stark contrast to the barren landscape I’ve become accustomed to.

  

After crossing Lick Rock (it’s a mountain), the trail leveled off. I decided to clock myself – see what this enormous pack did to my speed. I made the 2.8 miles to Hogback Ridge Shelter in just over an hour. It felt really good to move.

After a quick water refill, I hiked on toward’s Sam’s Gap – a significant road crossing. Here, the trail actually follows an underpass for I-26.

  
Savage had taken the lead from the start and the faster hikers eventually caught up with the 30-somethings (myself and Medicine Man). We all hiked into Sam’s Gap and found Savge waiting for us in the parking lot. It was nearly 4:00.

We all had a quick snack and decided to camp at the next available water source/tent site. The trail north gently rose and I found myself walking alongside an old barbed wire fence. I had noticed in earlier in the day, but as I left Sam’s Gap, the fence really started to stand out.

  
And I’m talking miles of this fence. For a while now, the AT has straddled the TN/NC border – this fence was an old private property demarcation line. The best we could figure, long ago, a property owner must have purchased a lot that stopped at the state line – so he put up a fence to mark what was his. Kinda cool.

About two miles outside of Sam’s Gap, we came across a spring and tentsite, one not officially marked on the map. The site was small, but there was a faint side trail heading uphill, away from the spring. At the top, we found a space enough for us all and a large fire ring (with pre-stocked wood pile). Awesome.

I made camp and ate a big dinner. After listening to some music around the campfire and a failed Jiffy-Pop experiment, we went to bed.

I want to start putting up some big miles. I feel great. The weather looks better in the coming days – I didn’t mind getting my hands wet in the spring this evening, for instance.

I want to be in Damascus in eight days.

We’re getting some really high winds tonight. It’s probably because I’m on a mountain top instead of in a gap.

One more thing – the little rise I’m tenting on is very close to the AT. While I was returning from gathering water, I noticed the old barbed wire fence runs right up the hill and through the middle of our camp – I found a piece of barbed wire about two feet from my tent.

  
According to the barbed wire fence, I’m on the Tennesee side.

Breakfast: coffee, donut

Lunch: prunes, raisins, dried apricots, beef jerky

Snack #1: Little Debbie Raisin Creme Pie

Snack #2: almond/peanut mix, beef jerky

Dinner: Mac and cheese with canned chicken and kale, Little Debbie frosted brownie

Money: $5.00 – shuttle