After 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes Jen has finally finished the 2,181 mile trail. She reached the end at 3:26 p.m. today. Hard to express how proud of her we are. Pics and more stories from the trail to come soon.
I’ve been asked a lot of questions lately about why I’m wanting to attempt a thru-hike, like “why now?” or “aren’t you scared?” and I’ve decided to answer them here on this post. Hopefully, it will help my friends and family understand why I’m hiking and, more importantly, why I’m NOT doing this hike.
I truly believe that thru-hiking the AT isn’t something you can just set out to do “one day” because, in my mind, unless you make it happen and decide “Hey, I’m going to do this, no more excuses” you really aren’t going to do it. For some people, maybe they can plan their hike in 2025 and stick to it, but for most of us I think life happens and things get pushed aside and our plans and dreams kind of take the back burner for a while. Sure, I have a nice home and husband, sweet pets (that I’m seriously going to miss) and a pretty good job… but is that really what life is all about? I don’t think so. I think without finding myself first, I’m not truly ever going to be able to accept all the things in my life. This is the first of many reasons I’m hiking the trail: to find myself.
To the question “Why now?” that I’m getting, the answer I have is simple: “Why not?” Once again, I really think that life isn’t going to slow down. I don’t want to be 58 years old wondering when I can seriously start my thru-hike. Oh, maybe after retirement or maybe after so-and-so is feeling better ain’t gonna cut it in my book. If you don’t make your opportunities you may never get that opportunity.
To the question “Aren’t you scared? Why isn’t your husband going with you?!” I have a more complicated answer. First off, hell yes I’m scared! I mean, walking 2,181 miles (official 2011 mileage anyway) without the comforts of home and your loved ones is hard enough. Add to that being afraid of bumps in the night or the fear of being alone and it’s going to be tough. Also, I know as a hiker that there’s an entire community of people waiting out there. Thru and section hikers, trail angels, park rangers, ridge runners, you name it, they’re all out there. Since 1974, there have been 9 murders in the vicinity of the AT. Not all of those people were thru hikers, some of them weren’t hikers at all. How many murders were in your town last year? I’m seriously not worried about getting raped/mugged/killed/eaten by animals. Chances are, those things could happen anywhere in the world I go. Common sense is something I have a lot of, and I’m not going to worry that all these things are going to happen to me in the woods. Seriously folks, they happen everywhere.
So yeah, my husband isn’t going. I know, I know, I’m but a fair maiden! Here’s the deal kids, people are allowed to do things without their spouses. The fact that we have 7 pets, car payments, and a mortgage means we can’t both take sabbatical from work at the same time and go for 6 months each with no income. That would mean people to take care of the pets, house, and repossession of our cars and foreclosure of said house. It’s not practical for us. Plus, I kind of like that guy, so I’m not going to jeopardize our relationship by spending every waking moment of 6 months of my life with him. I mean, we love each other, but that kind of alone time might not exactly bring two people close together. I’ve heard stories both ways. Couples honeymoon on the AT and hop off the trail and get divorced. Some couples don’t, but some couples do. I think we’d be the couple that does divorce. I can imagine the fighting, and it ain’t pretty. Instead, he’ll be supporting me from home, whether with encouraging words, sending packages, or new T-shirts that don’t smell like hiker. He’s going to come visit me often and that’s never a bad thing. He’ll probably even bring our dog to visit a few times too.
As for why I feel like now is the right time, I have plenty of answers for that question too. My mom always asked me when I was younger “Why do you hate the world?” which is a really crappy thing to ask a kid/teenager. She asked me all the time (hi, mom!). Seriously, I kind of do. Working retail in Pigeon Forge, TN for a few years, you’ll hate it too. I have no faith in humanity. I scoff at stories of compassion and kindness, as to me it’s just bull. I want all that to change. I’d like to become more compassionate. I think in the world we live in today, one of status updates and instant gratification and DVRs and reality television, it’s very easy to become jaded and to just accept that things in this world are shitty. I’m ready for a change. Sure, the trail isn’t going to change all that, but it sure will make me think twice. When you’re at a low point on the trail and the only person you have to talk to is yourself, maybe that will be the moment something good happens, whether in the form of an epiphany or passing a trail angel with a nice cold bottle of Coke. I just want to see for myself that people can be good for no other reason than they want to.
In terms of the community, I’m really looking forward to a place where I can belong. I’ve never had a best friend who was always there for me when I needed them. I’ve never had a feeling that I belonged anywhere. When I’m out on a trail, whether in a group or by myself, I don’t feel that way. It’s almost as if nothing else matters other than being in that moment. It’s going to be interesting to be in an entire community of people who are there for one goal – to make it to Katahdin, preferably in one piece. I’ve been told the trail community is a lot like the AA community. We all have this addiction (hiking in our case) and we’re all there to support each other in our goal (replace sobriety with summiting). You might not like this analogy, but it’s all I’ve got in terms of the community right now 🙂
So yeah, maybe the trail won’t bring me peace, or get me a friend with whom I belong, or tell me who I want to be if I ever grow up, or make me see humanity in a whole new way… but I’m trying. The trail is the best way I know how. I do know that when I’m on the trail, I’m at peace. I don’t worry about debt ceilings or carbon foot prints or children starving in third-world countries. I worry about making it to camp before it rains, missing my family, and whether or not my socks will be dry in the morning. I’m hoping that the simple approach I’ll be taking to life on the trail will help me find clarity. I think that’s all anyone wants anyway.
I’m not doing this hike to prove anything to anyone else. This journey is mine and mine alone. If something happens (like an injury or family emergency) I’m going to get off the trail, but I will have by no means failed. I’m out there to hike my own hike and I don’t have to prove to anyone just how tough I am. I’m not going to break land speed records or run away and cheat on my husband (seriously, been asked about both of those). I’m not out there to make connections to find my next place in life, but that very may well happen.
Feel free to ask me anything you’d like about my journey. I’ve had lots of great questions and I hope I’ve been able to answer some of yours!
Yesterday I was supposed to get in a good 16 mile day. Unfortunately, a surprise job assignment popped up last week and I ended up working a 70-hour week. Needless to say, Saturday morning I didn’t feel like I was up for a 16-mile enjoyable hike. I was looking forward to Saturday as I hadn’t hiked any of the 16 planned, but I came up with another option instead: Roundtop Trail. I’ve been wanting to hike this one forever, but there’s no bridge at the end of this trail and it ends right at Little River. Little River is wide and swift. High water and bad weather can make this hike end quite dangerously. After finding out the river was at a nice 70 degrees and running not too high, we decided to attempt this hike after waiting all year. It didn’t disappoint!
David and I hiked this one alone. The hot weather (100-degree heat indexes most of the week!) kept my friends either at the pool or on the lake and they mostly believed I was a little nuts for hiking in this weather. I’m pretty sure David did too, but that’s okay 🙂 We took two cars and left mine at the Townsend Y and his at Metcalf Bottoms. We set out on the trail at almost exactly 10:00. The first two miles of this hike are uphill, a very gentle uphill at that. Within the first 500 feet of the trail we saw two very vibrant Turk’s Cap lillies, the only ones we saw the whole trail. At the 0.5 mile-ish mark, you’re reminded why it’s so important to have an area like the Smokies as protected federal land. There’s a cabin built within a stone’s throw of the trail. David said we should go knock on the door and ask if they had breakfast ready 😉 We continued on, the humidity sweltering, and the sweat building up quick. There wasn’t too much to see until about the 1.5 mile mark when I saw a yellow-fringed orchid. I was really excited to see it and we took several photos. After reaching the top of the hill, it’s a pretty gentle grade back downhill until about 3.5 miles, when the trail takes a VERY STEEP turn nearly directly down the hill. With the humidity, the trail was very slippery considering it rained the night before and we did lots of slipping and going slowly. We found some wild bluberries on this steep section and decided to stop and have a snack to regroup before heading downhill any further.
After making it down the steep part of the hill, the trail again very gently went on down. We saw some private land markers. Interestingly enough, there were no NPS land markers, which I thought unusual, especially since the Brown Book said we’d see plenty of them. Just before the trail takes a short uphill stint, I notice a tree hanging low over the trail and stop to take a look at the bark, trying to figure out why it looked so strange… trying to figure out if it was a nest of some sort of strange bark. I went on underneath and David was behind me. All of a sudden I hear an, “OH!! OWWW, OH!” and I turn around to see a swarm of yellow jackets getting ready to attack him. I yelled out, “RUN!! RUN NOW! YELLOW JACKETS!” and off we took for about a quarter mile. We stopped and checked out his sting, which didn’t have the stinger still in it, so we were good. It swelled a bit, but we didn’t have any adverse reactions. We were very thankful that they didn’t follow up. That swarm was SO CLOSE to getting him too. We were nearly to the end of the trail at that point. We saw a tiny toad, about the size of a thumbnail and a really cool mushroom that was white with black spikes all over it. We’ve been unable to identify it. Soon, we were able to see the people hanging out at the Y and some kids running up the trail. They were really surprised we came from 7.5 miles away too!
We get to the river and load up our keys in a plastic bag, grab a hiking pole, and start our trek down river. If the river wasn’t moving swiftly today, I’d hate to see it when it is! We walked for a bit and then decided just to give in and float with the current. I laughed the entire time, my pack up over my head like a PFD. We climbed out in front of a bunch of tourists. I’m sure they thought we were nuts, hopping out of the river with a full set of clothes, shoes, hiking poles, and backpacks, but it sure was fun!
I’ve decided all hikes in the summer should end with a swim. The hike wasn’t long or hard, but it was definitely enjoyable. Next weekend I’m getting in close to 30 miles with a good friend. I’m really looking forward to it!
On Sunday, I hiked with some friends of mine down the Sugarland Mountain Trail and we came out Huskey Gap Trail. We started the hike off Clingmans Dome Road and hiked on the AT for 0.2 miles before reaching Sugarland Mountain. From the beginning of the hike I was expecting a day much like the one before, as the elevation, temperature, and humidity were all about the same and the trail was just as muddy, but I was in for a big surprise!
After heading down Sugarland Mountain Trail for about 1 mile, the rocky trail ended and the soft dirt began. As we descended down the spine of Sugarland Mountain, the fog began to lift and the plant life and weather began to change. Towards the top we saw many fraiser fir trees and not too much in terms of greenery other than a few ferns here and there along the trail. Once we got closer to the Rough Creek Trail junction, the variety started to show itself. We also ended up with spectacular views.
LeConte was highly visible, as well as the valley into Elkmont and Chimney Tops. It’s very strange to be able to look at the Chimney’s from above, as I’ve only ever done that from the Alum Cave Trail before. The flora, however, was the real show stopper. We saw at least 75 turk’s cap lillies, several colors of bee balm, trillium fruiting, ferns everywhere, heal-all, Indian pipe at least 6-7 inches high, FOUR yellow-fringed orchids, rhododenron blooming, one very small section of flame azalea, black cohosh, and I’m sure a few I’m forgetting. Every time we thought the flowers were probably done, we’d see even more. For about 4 miles we saw nothing but gorgeous greenery and colorful wildflowers.
We stopped at the old campsite 21 for a short break and refueling and then we were off again to Huskey Gap. The Huskey Gap trail didn’t have much in the way of greenery or flowers. We did see silver bells, but that was about it. We also spotted a bear on the trail about a quarter-mile in front of us. We knew we’d see one because the entire way down Sugarland Mountain was covered in bear scat and most all the rocks on the trail had been recently worked loose if you looked down at them. Fortunately, the bear heard us coming, took a look, and scampered off down the trail. We didn’t see him again.
The road really sneaked up on us, which was strange considering how busy Newfound Gap Road is. All of a sudden you could see it, and you can see it before you hear it. Getting back from this easy 11.2 mile hike wasn’t difficult at all and thankfully we were all able to cross the road quickly and safely.
Sugarland Mountain Trail was truly an unexpected treat for me. It’s so beautiful and unspoiled I hate to share the fact that it was so wonderful with anyone else for fear it might become too popular and lose it’s magic.
On Saturday, David and I were going to attempt a longer hike in the Balsam Mountain/Cataloochee section of the GSMNP. We were going to do a loop hike consisting of Hemphill Bald Trail, Caldwell Fork, and Rough Fork Trail. The weather didn’t cooperate and a sign at the Hemphill Bald and Rough Fork Trailheads let us know that 2.5 miles in on Caldwell Fork a bridge was out. We didn’t know if we’d be using that bridge and the sign warned us that if it had recently rained the crossing would be dangerous.
The temperature outside was in the high 50s at 9:30 a.m. when we arrived at the trailhead. The humidity, however, was a nice near-100%. The humidity was thick and took your breath as you were hiking a hill. I had no idea how soaking wet one could be with sweat and condensation at 58 degrees until Saturday! We decided after hiking for a short time that it would be safer and easier on the lungs if we just went to Hemphill Bald and came back down the trail. The fog was so thick we could barely see more than 5 feet in front of us and we knew we’d see no views, so we weren’t too disappointed.
On the way up the trail at about the 1-mile mark, you meet a split rail fence and follow it all the way up until about mile 4, when it turns into a barbed wire fence belonging to the Cataloochee Ranch. We expected to see animals on this hike, but we were thinking elk. We saw bulls, lots and lots of bulls, in that barbed wire fence. We did hear a boar just before the 4-mile area though. Not something I’d want to see or run in to!
As for wildlife, we truly didn’t see any until we got back into the car. The flora, however, was much better than expected! Lately in the Smokies I’ve been seeing lots of fungi due to the moisture and we saw no different today. Reds, bright orange, yellow, and the standard tans grew all along the trail. As for flowers we saw crimson bee balm, heal-all, and turk’s cap lillies, which was a true treat. The elevation of the trail meant that rhododendron were only just starting to bloom, as elsewhere in the park they’re at the end of their flowering. At the 3-mile mark, we walked through a gorgeous blooming rhododendron tunnel. With the thick fog it made for a gorgeous sight!
We didn’t see a soul until we were about 1.5 miles from the trailhead on our way out. We passed a group of people wearing blue jeans and nice shoes. At about the 1 mile to go point we passed two people about our age out on a day hike.
On our way back down Balsam Mountain Road we did end up seeing two elk in the exact same place we saw them the last time we were up here, just a little bit before you reach the end of Flat Creek Trail.
In summary, Hemphill Bald is uphill both ways and it ain’t no joke in the humidity. I’d love to do this beautiful trail in the fall.
Hi everyone and welcome to my blog about my outdoor activities and prep until I hit the AT in 2012! The decision to start this blog was about keeping my friends and family updated with my whereabouts on the AT for my thru hike, but I’d also like to let people know about all the interesting outdoor activities I’m doing this summer as well.
Not only am I hiking this year, but I also do indoor rock climbing and kayaking too. I’d love to do more of the other two, but I’m still pretty novice. Anyway, welcome to the blog and I hope to see you all soon!