Zero in a Hole

Zeros are supposed to be restful and fun. Sleeping in and lazily shopping for resupply items are the only things on the agenda. Maybe a beer in the afternoon? Unfortunately, I spent yet another zero deep in the Coronavirus vs Appalachian Trail hole. It seems to get darker each time I get in and today was a doozy.

TN/VA Border

Before we get to the serious stuff let me tell you how charming Damascus is. The town is small and friendly with a beautiful river running through downtown and beautiful bright green fields in the valley. The Virginia Creeper trail runs right through town and it is a terrific place for cycling, hiking, running or just enjoying one of their quaint bed and breakfasts. I booked a sweet room at the Dragonfly Inn and my hosts Patti and Ralph have treated me like family. The side of the family that you like even.

Bright Blue Skies in Damascus

I had Amazon ship me a new pair of shoes and I cleaned all my gear and repacked food for the next 4 days. I also made plans to meet my friends Michele and Craig on Sunday. They are up here traveling through Virginia and are going to hike a few hours with us on the AT.

old shoes vs new shoes

As I was chilling out on the front porch today, I made the mistake of checking in on the latest with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). They sent a letter yesterday to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior asking the Department to close the trail until April 30. The ATC has issued several letters over the last few weeks as the crisis has unfolded asking hikers to postpone or get off trail. They even issued a notice earlier in the week that they would not recognize any 2020 thru-hikers that continue after the end of March. I expected some guidance from them but I was shocked that they were taking such a drastic move to try to close the trail. Even the shelter in place orders did not try to limit outdoor activities like hiking while social distancing.

Damascus loves its hikers!

I feel strongly that the trail should remain open to provide a safe place for people to retreat to during this pandemic. In my opinion, the trail can and should be used during this stressful time to give people a healthy outlet. Of course, we have to maintain a strict set of behaviors to limit contact with others but shutting down the trail sounds very counterproductive to me. I emailed a letter to the ATC Board and also shared it with the Secretary of the Department of Interior and my Senator. I fully support all of the social distancing recommendations of the ATC and local officials but removing this beautiful resource from the public didn’t make sense to me.

Within 30 minutes of sending the email, I got a text message from the director of advancement from the ATC asking to schedule a call later in the afternoon. I was really impressed and happy for the opportunity to speak with them and we set a time. We spoke for almost an hour and had a really good conversation. They wanted to speak to me in person because they had received a lot of negative comments but they thought my outreach was done in a way that left room for discussion. I learned a lot about the evolution of their thinking and I feel like they heard my concerns. They are trying to balance many different constituencies but my main point was that they also need to consider the benefits to the public of being on trail. We agreed on a lot (and some things not so much 😬) but the conversation was important to me and we left the line of communication open. In the end, I think that is really the most amazing thing about the call. We exchanged complex and emotional topics in a professional manner. Yeah for us!

Old shoe tree in Damascus

One thing we did agree on is that for many the trail is not a vacation that can simply be put on hold. I am one of those many. For me, this is opportunity to change my life and rediscover some things about me that I had lost. That is a big deal to me but seems quite silly in the grand scheme of what is going on. But wait, do we really know what the hell is going on? I am lurching from hour to hour from one extreme to the other. One person tells me this is overblown media driven madness. The next tells me that it’s immoral to keep going. The advice is shifting by the minute and we are in deeply uncharted territory. I spent 6 hours today reading in-depth articles on a wide variety of news sources and came out feeling like I was in free fall. Ironically, writing this blog is the most grounding thing I did today. You know this isn’t for you, right?

Last hike with Jitter

Jitter also left trail today so that was tough. Her hips were in bad shape the last few days and I think the stress of everything else was weighing on her. I got to meet her husband Mike and dog Appolo today and that was fun. I hope she can get back on trail soon. She is a tough cookie and a great hiking buddy. Our crew will be smaller tomorrow but heading back out and will look to the trail, trees and critters to lift our spirits. Stay healthy and as sane as possible.

It will get better. It will get better. It will get better.

Weather Wonderland

Laurel Falls

We climbed out of Hampton TN on Tuesday morning and headed through Laurel Canyon and the beautiful Laurel Falls. The hiking in Tennessee has been interesting because we are passing through a mixture of private land with easements for the AT and some state parks. Most of today’s hike went along side the Watauga lake and dam. There were some steep climbs around the dam and the views were cool of the earth dam construction.

Watauga Dam

We stopped for lunch along side an abandoned restroom and huddled against the wall to get out of the wind. It wasn’t glamorous but it got the job done. I was surprised that we weren’t harassed by the police given our drowned rat attire but I wouldn’t want to come near us either. The rest of the hike was pretty easy and we arrived near the Vanderveder Shelter just in time for the rain. I set up my tent behind the shelter in an area that quickly turned into an big mud pit.

Luncheon

We woke up at 5 to a miserable freezing rain/fog combination and it took me forever to get my tent packed up. It was so cold that I had to take breaks to warm my hands up before diving back into wrestling with a frozen wet tent. As I was headed back around the shelter I banged my head on the shelter awning so hard that it knocked me straight back on my butt. After the packing fiasco was over we headed out on our 23 mile hike at 6:30.

Winter is back!

When the sun came up we realized that the trail was covered in snow and it was beautiful and quiet but damn cold. Our gloves were soaked so we had to hike with our hands buried in our pockets for the rest of the morning. When we got about half way we came through a part of the AT that crosses through a beautiful private farm.

Welcoming AT sign painted on a barn

As we looked back across the grazing field we saw the most amazing view of the mountains we just hiked through and the bright line of snow and ice that looked like it had been painted on. As tough as today was it is times like these that make it all worth it. We were just a handful of lucky people to see that beautiful work of nature at the right time.

Ooooohh Ahhhhh

Ok – back to the miserable parts. The sun peaked out for a minute and then another round of storms came through as we were about 8 miles from finishing our long day. We were pelted with ice, snow, rain and sleet as we made our way over the last few hills. This derelict little Boy Scout hut almost became our shelter but we decided to push on to Abington Gap in hopes the tent sites were a little drier.

Boy Scout Hut

Nope. The Abington Shelter area was covered in snow too but I found a pretty good site and set up tent and ate a nice big dinner. Days like this on the AT really make you appreciate the easy warm ones but to be honest I felt really good when I got into camp tonight. It was an honest day’s work and my body and mind were tired but proud. I also have two sweet nights coming up in a fancy B&B in Damascus to look forward to! Bring on the soft bed and hot shower.

Ahhh. Springtime in the Blue Ridge

A Different World

I am getting a few questions about why I am staying on trail and I wanted to spend an few minutes trying to explain this from the perspective of a hiker. It’s a different world out here. The trail is peaceful, safe and it’s easy to access resupply stores. We are isolated from the virus and are not coming in contact with anyone else except when we get groceries or check into a hotel. The last few days we have only seen a handful of other hikers. We are keeping a safe distance from them and they from us. We minimize our interactions in town and keep our hands clean. We are also isolated from the news and get updates only every few days. This gives us some space to focus on our daily obstacles. They do not involve the virus.

View dropping into Hampton, TN

The alternative is to leave the trail and go back to Atlanta where I will be at greater risk and increase the chances of passing it along to others if I get sick. Out here, my days are filled with wide open spaces, clean air and tons of sunshine. I’ve honestly never felt healthier, am eating great food and drinking tons of water. I am staying on trail because it feels like the safest thing for me and everyone else. I am LOVING the long days, cool nights and constant logistical challenges of keeping myself clean, fed and warm. It’s hard work but it is simple and straightforward. There are no nuances out here. You either have enough calories to push that 20 mile day or you don’t.

Jitter and Mallwalker – weird headgear is a must on the AT!

For me, that has been the most therapeutic thing about the trail. My professional life as a lawyer is filled with complex, fast-moving and uncertain judgment calls with high stakes and delayed satisfactions. My deal closings feel good but they are months apart and there is only so much control I have over their success. Here, I need to find a water source and stay warm at night so I go to the stream and the wrap myself in my sleeping bag. These are immediate and physically satisfying tasks and they are fun to solve.

Beautiful old barn outside Hampton

I’m constantly thinking about what is going on but there isn’t much I can do. I am choosing to stay safe out here and try to do my best to help Bryan and friends from home manage the stress. I hope these blog entries help in some small way. At least as a reminder that everything is working just as it should out here. Spring is coming on strong and the trail is just as beautiful as it always has been. The critters are waking up from the winter and greeting us as we walk through their safe, beautiful and peaceful world. There are open and happy people that are helping us and we are moving forward at a steady pace.

Yikes! Snake critters coming out too!

We are taking a nero today in Hampton before pushing 3 days to Damascus. I am getting a new pair of shoes and superfeet inserts there and taking a true zero in a nice B&B. Reaching Virginia will feel great and then will set my sights on the halfway-ish mark of Harpers Ferry.

400!

400 Miles. Only 1,800 to go.

The first 100 miles seemed to take forever but the last few are falling fast. Mallwalker, Jitter and I made it to 400 today a little after we climbed out of our overnight stay at the Mountain Harbor B&B. It is rated #1 in the AT Platinum Blazing guide book and for good reason. Our host Mary made a breakfast spread that looks like Thanksgiving. Pancakes, sausage, tomato pie, hash brown casserole, homemade cherry struedel, biscuits and gravy and fresh fruit. She looked so proud when we piled everything she offered onto our plates. We waddled out of there with happy bellies but slow legs.

Well deserved Mountain Harbor!

The terrain for today’s hike was pretty tame but a little frustrating they way the trail hooks in a big circle and dumps you back even closer to the town you just left. To stay sane out here you should never look at the actual map of the trail – just waypoints and elevation plots. It seems like we are more often headed east and west. So, after our 17 mile day we were back where we started. Ahhhh. Thanks AT!

Lunch at Mountaineer Falls

We were feeling pretty beat up today so we took a long lunch at Mountaineer Falls. After lunch, I went to play in the waterfall and immediately fell on my behind pretty hard and landed with both of my elbows on the rock. I was stunned and worried I had broken something but I was just bruised. So – lesson learned. See pretty waterfall. Don’t go play in pretty waterfall.

Why are we hiking south for 2 hours?

We headed back on trail after lunch intending to do 9 more to make it to the next shelter but we started to drag pretty hard about 2 miles from our goal and decided to camp at a nice spot along a good sized stream. The big days in the Roan Highlands were still in our legs and it caught up fast today. We set up camp, ate dinner and worked on our feet.

Laundry Day

It might be the warmer temps or the 400 plus miles we just walked but our feet are yelling back. It was time to give them some love. We did a nice soak in the cold creek and then lathered them with coconut oil and wrapped them in our nice clean wool socks. I can’t tell you how good they feel right now tucked in my sleeping bag and getting the next 10 hours off duty.

Organic, fair trade, gluten free cryotherapy

Roan Mountain

Blue Beauties

Roan Mountain has been a goal for a long time now. I’ve been wanting to hike this area since I first read about it in a great nonfiction book called “Stand Up That Mountain” by Jay Erskine Leutze. It is the story of a lawyer that saved one of the most beautiful sections of the AT from a mining operation through a hell of a lot of work and a true love for these beautiful highland balds. It is a spectacular area and shows off some amazing views of the Blue Ridge mountains. I put a short video together to share my favorite day so far.

Falling Trees, Coyotes and a Giant Fire

First off – an apology. I forgot to update everyone on Proper. Bryan took amazing care of her in Decatur and as she was heading back to Davenport Gap her father urged her to come home and she flew back to The Netherlands the next day. She sent us a beautiful chocolate thank you treat and a sweet note. I am sad she had to leave and hope she can come back soon to finish her adventure. It felt great that we could help her and that her transition off the trail was pleasant.

The last two days have been perfect. The sun has been out and it is still cool for great hiking. We got an early start out of Erwin on Thursday morning and climbed out of the valley along a strong flowing creek. As we worked out way up to Beauty Spot we ran into a ton of day hikers and even had some trail magic. I spent a leisurely lunch on top of the Beauty Spot Bald and chatted with some really friendly hikers out for the day. They loaded me down with cookies, grapes and roasted nuts.

The view from Beauty Spot

We camped near Cherry Log Shelter and it was such a beautiful warm night we decided to build a fire. It was so relaxing to sit next to the warm fire and doze off thinking about all the amazing spots I saw on the trail. We chatted mostly about food (and especially lasagna) and planned our day tomorrow up to Roan Mountain. About a half an hour after we went to bed a pack of coyotes came past our site yelping and howling. It sounded pretty close but they took off and we didn’t hear them for the rest of the night. I thought Jitter was going to jump out of her tent when she heard them but after they passed she was able to relax and get some sleep.

Bryan thinks this is a tiny fire but we were so proud of it!

Today’s hike was up to Roan Mountain to the highest shelter on the AT. As we left camp a huge tree fell near the trail and it scared us half to death. We kept a close eye on the trees as they creaked in the wind. As we came across one of the first ridges we found a tree that we could walk into. No wonder these guys are falling down.

A tree hugging me!

The climb up Roan was challenging but beautiful. It was about 5 miles and wound around about 100 switchbacks with amazing views. We got to the shelter area around 5 and it is a quite impressive two story structure with 4 walls. The Taj of the trail for sure.

Roan Mountain Shelter. Fancy!

Things felt normal, happy and light over the past few days and I soaked it in. The last few weeks have been pretty tough while everyone was leaving but it feels like the hikers that are here are going to try to stay on trail. Everyone has a different set of circumstances and reasons for leaving and I don’t want to take away from that at all. It just breaks my heart to see their dreams on hold. The trail is still providing for me so I think it’s right for me to stay on. Hoping to be in Virginia by the end of the week!

Camp bliss

New Age Zero

Nolichucky River Running Fast!

In this new age of AT hiking amongst the virus the classic zero is turned on its head. I only had one zero in the good ole days 3 weeks ago and it was awesome. We hung out at a hostel in Franklin and shared food and played guitar. Ahhhh. Remember back then? Now, it is much more heavy on the logistics (and crappy highway schelping) but it can still be fun.

No – not the AT but the walk from the AT to the Citgo.

I slept in late and drank delicious coffee that the hotel brewed. It probably was terrible coffee but if you don’t have to make it yourself in the tent it tastes amazing. I did my laundry and then walked a few miles to Uncle Johnnys Hostel on the AT to retrieve my box. I was super nervous about going because I had heard that the owner was threatening thru hikers on Facebook and got banned from the 2020 AT Facebook page. They were still giving out boxes that had been sent so I came bearing a gift of a tin of fancy feast cat food. When I stopped by the hostel last night on my way in they were closed but I was surrounded by some aggressively friendly cats that were demanding treats.

Peace offering

I approached the door with a soft knock and Drew answered (gotta be cool with a name like that, right?). He couldn’t have been more pleasant and helpful. He immediately got my box, apologized profusely for closing the hostel facilities and told me that I was right to stay on the trail. In fact, he said that if they don’t reopen soon he is going to head out and join us soon. He graciously accepted the cat food and we served his friends the treat on the porch. He even accepted Taco’s dog food for his own dog for when they go hiking.

Schelping back with my box

On my walk back to the hotel I felt a renewed sense of purpose. I felt proud that I’m following my own rules of no shuttles, hostels, shelters, congregating or food sharing. The AT most certainly can be done this way. Sure, it’s more effort but this is a 2,200 mile hike to Maine for crying out loud. A walk to town isn’t going to kill me.

Wonderful healthy Outdoor Herbivore

My box was stuffed full of 5 days of healthy outdoor herbivore meals and organic twizzlers! It is an embarrassment of riches and though my pack will be heavy I will be eating like a king on my way into the Roan Highlands. I gave the dog treats away to the friendly front desk clerk at the hotel and then hiked a 2 mile ditch into Erwin for a late lunch/dinner. They were really sweet too and thankful for the business. I did some window shopping at the Dollar General and well – that is about all there is to do in Erwin. I hiked past a nuclear fuel facility and decided it was best not to inquire any further in that one. Uranium mining maybe?

Organic twizzlers cut specially for hip pocket access

I’m really excited for the next 3 days as I head into the Roan Highlands with all sun and warm temps in the forecast. This is a really special part of The AT and I have a treehouse cabin booked just shy of the 400 mile mark. I’ll share some great pics as I hike it through.

Ok. Not healthy but delicious!

Push to Pizza

On top of Big Bald

I got up early today with the intention of doing a 20 mile day to the No Business Knob shelter and then finishing up tomorrow to Erwin, TN. The morning was beautiful and as Jitter and I climbed out of camp we met the sun coming over the mountains and a sweet lab mix playing along the trail near her mom. The terrain was pretty tough today but I wanted to get as close to Erwin as I could as I had a hotel reservation there and was looking forward to getting a shower and my clothes cleaned.

Trail to the sky

I lost Jitter about 5 miles in and left her a note at the next shelter. When I got there around 4:30 I decided to push another 7 miles and get to the hotel a night early so I could take a true zero tomorrow and recuperate out of the rain. It was really eerie on the trail today. I didn’t see any other hikers until I got to the last shelter. When I got there most of them were getting off tomorrow for good. It’s so hard to be out here right now trying to push through with so many people leaving. Several times during the day I had to yell out my new mantra “I’m gonna make it!” into the woods and sending the birds and squirrels scampering. Poor critters don’t know what to do about this stinky crazy man with his home on his back screaming into the woods. I even stopped at one point today and hugged a tree. If felt good.

Where is everyone?

I know there are still hikers out there but it’s getting lonely. I’ve received so many great texts and messages from friends and family over the past few days. It’s a jolt of energy each time I get one and keeps me going.

AT Rock marking

My hotel was another mile or so off the trail so today ended up being around 28 miles and by the time I got here I was cooked. I took an amazing shower and ordered a pizza and salad while I cleaned up all my gear. The pizza was amazing too but I just about fell asleep eating it so I left my laundry for tomorrow and am hitting the sack. I am going to rest and resupply tomorrow and plan my next push to Roan Mountain. Please send good vibes for an improvement in the virus situation and for all of those good people out there struggling to keep their lives in order.

Glorious beautiful wonderful pizza!

Something Sweet, Beautiful or Warm

White Cliff Rocks

The mountains were perfect today. The sun was warm and the breeze was light and cooling. The fog cleared out early and left long clean views and fresh air that had just a hint of spring sweetness. My body is really hitting its stride. My feet feel great and I’ve found my favorite strides for climbing and descending. The days are falling into an easy rhythm of sunrise starts and early lunches followed by an early camp by 3 or 4. It really couldn’t be going any better except for what’s happening above the neck.

AT Markers showing me the way

I’m getting sporadic cell coverage just strong enough to open the paper for a few minutes. I have a short morning call with Bryan and shocked again with another dose of horror from the news and then I’m in blackout zones for most of the day. My mind races and fills in the rest with the worst case scenarios. My head stories get worse as the day goes by. I’m shocked back into my surroundings by a beautiful crystal clear mountain spring offering cold clean water. The birds are singing in the background. Which is the right reality here. What’s really going on?

The mountain springs along the NC/TN border are amazing

At lunch another hiking buddy decided to go home. A victim of the craziness out there that we don’t really understand. Each time someone leaves it feels like a death in the family and I had too much. I reached out to the group and just asked for some help to get me out of the ditch. They understood completely and helped put a few things into perspective and it got me through the rest of the day. One of our buddies Mango is hiking through a stage 4 cancer diagnosis and stopping in Damascus for treatment before pressing on to Maine. He is carrying some heavy stuff through. I can too.

Beautiful steps up to a perfect summit day

When I got into our camp spot at mile 301 there was trail magic waiting for us! Derrick ran up here from town with bananas, dates and snickers bars. It was such a wonderful surprise and we chatted with him about his impressive ultra running career while we built a fire in the shelter fireplace. Somehow this trail continues to rescue me from the dark place. I think she can sense it and sends something sweet, beautiful or warm ahead. Today, she knew how bad I was hurting and so she sent all three.

Shelter Fire

Chain Reaction

AT Sidewalk Markings in Hot Springs

My friend Matthew turned me on to this great little band called Cloud Cult and my favorite song of theirs is called “Chain Reaction” from their 2007 album “The Meaning of 8.” These lyrics ring so true to me and something I think about every day. It goes like this:

“You have eyes like mine. Are we strangers or am I you are I. Put your face on mine. What you feel makes a part of what I’ll feel – it’s a chain reaction. Put out fear and they’ll feel fear. It’s a chain reaction. Put out love and they’ll feel love. It’s a chain reaction. Put your face on mine. “

The Laughing Heart Lodge – Good vibes from great people

The last day has been a great example of what Cloud Cult is teaching us. The nice people in Hot Springs put out nothing but love under really challenging circumstances. It turned me right around and I wanted to give that back. When I left today I wrote a long note and left an extra big tip for the innkeepers thanking them for being so kind and welcoming. The first hiker I saw on the trail today got an extra big smile and I told them how happy I was to see them out here. I got a sweet text message from Bryan with a picture of our blooming Ginkgo tree with the outstanding news that there is toilet paper at the Kroger! Talk about putting out love. After I heard that I yelled out into the fog “Everything is going to be okay!”

Good vibes sometimes come in the form of cash money

I got to the first shelter pretty early and decided to treat myself to a short 12 mile day and call it quits. I had a nice lunch and cup of coffee and then had a great hour long visit from a day hiker named Warren Atwood. We chatted about a lot but we really connected about his work with CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children and I shared with him about the great work that CHRIS 180 is doing in Atlanta for foster youth. More of that putting out love thing. It’s really working.

Short Miles + Sour Patch Kids = Happy Hiker

There is not a damn thing I can do to change what is going on in the world but I absolutely can change my reaction to it. If nothing else I can at least acknowledge that fact and try to not transmit more fear. The facts suck but they are the facts. I truly believe that the best way to help each other right now is to be optimistic. Shit – fake it a little if you have to. Wash your hands, keep a healthy distance and pass on hope.

Amen

Going to read a book this afternoon that I picked up in Hot Springs and then get up early for a big day to Jerry’s Cabin shelter. Looks like I can get to Erwin TN by Tuesday or Wednesday and I have a box of awesome food waiting for me there and a room booked at the luxurious APPO Mountain Inn. I connected with 4 other thru hikers this afternoon that are sleeping near this shelter with me. There is a mouse in the shelter that sounds like he is in the middle of some big project of some kind so I’m going to leave him be and hope he doesn’t visit me in my tent. He knows I have sour patch kids so that might be an issue. We all had a fun dinner together and going to head out in the morning to catch the sunrise. Or fog rise. 😬

Thank you Hot Springs