Sweet Hot Springs

Frankly I was pretty worried as I descended into Hot Springs. I was afraid the trail towns would be shunning thru hikers because of the virus. The last few days have been bad. The terrain is fine but the weight of everything going on in the world feels like an extra ton in my pack. When I slow my mind down a bit I can hear the birds sing and the streams rushing in the valley and I do get a lot of peace from that. But every time I check in on the news or connect with Bryan I am thrust into a world that is out of control. It’s really hard to even fit these two realities into my mind right now. The trail and the forest are so beautiful and I belong here but I know so many people are suffering illness, anxiety and financial hardship. I hope the trail can provide some answers.

Cool AT Marker on a stone outside Hot Springs

I got up early today and was hiking by 7 so I could enjoy the sunrise with my hiking mug full of coffee. I recently added this mug to my kit and it has been a game changer. Now I can make an extra large cup of coffee and slowly sip it for the first hour or so on my hike. It is 19 miles into Hot Springs from my Shelter but the trail was easy and I got in around 1:30 without stopping for lunch or a break. As I walked into town I found my B&B right away and received a big “howdy and welcome” from the innkeepers. I took a long shower and headed down to a super friendly restaurant down the street. They apologized a hundred times for not being able to serve indoors and they were so nice to let me eat on the front porch. They peppered me with questions about the trail and said they were glad that I was staying on.

Hot Springs in bloom – the jewel of the Blue Ridge

These kind words meant so much to me right now and I thanked them back a hundred times for being open and so sweet to the hikers that are still out here. Rumor has it that about half of the hikers left the trail over the last few days. It breaks my heart to see them go. For me this trail is more than an adventure. It is a form of rehab and therapy to help find happiness and a sense of peace. The decision to hike 2,200 miles did not come easily but my goals are much larger than the distance and elevations I am logging. I still see a safe path forward and I’m not ready to leave. The trail has just hinted at what it can do for me and I’m eager to stay with in it and see what I can learn.

Cool! 268.3 miles down!

Talk about learning – I found out today that you can quite happily resupply for your hike at the Dollar General. I don’t think I had ever been in one before but it has everything a thru hiker dreams of. Tuna packets, rice sides, tortillas and sour patch kids. Man, can we talk about tortillas for a second? They are a hikers answer for every meal. Cheap extra calories and they hold breakfast, lunch and dinner like a champ. Hooray for tortillas!

Nice waterfall. Also doubles as a hiker bathtub!

After dinner and resupply, my running coach drove up from Asheville and we shared a beer on the beautiful grounds of my B&B. It was so generous of him to come and spend time with me and I really enjoyed hearing about is recent adoption of two sibling boys (now 3 and 5 years’ old). Randy also runs a high school track and field team with 60 athletes! That is super impressive. He is a great guy and a terrific father to these lucky boys. It was a wonderful visit and set me up well for the killer climb out of town tomorrow. Thank you Hot Springs for being so awesome when I needed it.


Hello Spring

One of the coolest things about a northbound thru hike is that you get to walk through spring for weeks on end as it is happening right before your eyes. These sweet little wildflowers showed up for the first time today and it made me stop and look around for a bit. The trees are budding and a butterfly joined me for my lunch spot along the trail.

Hiking with Mallwalker

Today was tough. It was hard to leave Bryan and Chuck at Davenport Gap and I was not sure I was doing the right thing by getting back on the trail. Right before I got out of the car I got an email from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) now asking thru hikers to leave the trail for a few weeks because of the virus and then come back. I’ve spent a lot of time of the past few days reading the CDC and WHO advice and I just don’t share the ATC’s opinion on what is best for me and others that I come in contact with. I am isolating myself from others, practicing increased hygiene habits and not using shuttles, hostels or trail shelters. In fact, I believe the ATC’s advice may be counterproductive if hikers leave the trail, expose themselves to the virus and then return and spread it to others on the trail and small towns. They may be right but I am going to stay out here for now and continue to monitor things.

Climbing up to Max Patch

When we got to the start, we saw Mallwalker and his hiking buddy that I met a few days ago. His buddy was having bad knee pain so Bryan drove him to the nearest hostel so he could take a few days of rest. I asked Bryan later on the phone if the hostel was open and he said it was but that it looked liked everyone was just sitting around getting high. I didn’t see that in the CDC protocol but I’ll take a closer look😬

View from Max Patch

I hiked 18 miles today and it was pretty challenging but it was all worth it when I got up to Max Patch. This is a bald on top of the biggest climb of the day and it was packed with locals from Asheville and Hot Springs out having picnics and playing with their dogs. I’m sure everyone is going stir crazy in town and it really lifted my spirits to see everyone enjoying themselves in the beautiful weather. I parted with Mallwalker at Max Patch and headed into the Roaring Fork Shelter and set up my tent. I’ve got the place to myself tonight so I had a leisurely dinner and enjoyed the quiet.

Roaring Fork

I am going to push another longish 19 mile day tomorrow to get to Hot Springs and spend some time with my running coach Randy Ashley. I’ve been working with him on my marathon running for the past 6 years and he is great. It will be great to connect with Randy and see what is happening in Hot Springs.

Taco Takes a Break

The virus news is getting worse by the minute and I am going to get back on the trail tomorrow morning but Chuck a/k/a Taco is going to head back home with Bryan. My hope is that things are going to settle down enough for him to come back on trail when Neil returns in early April but this feels like the right thing to do now.

Taco chilling on the couch

I called ahead to the next two trail towns and the hostels are closed but hotels and food stores are still open. I’m worried that over the next few weeks that it could get hard to find shelter and food for Chuck but I am confident that I can press on and still follow the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) guidelines for staying healthy and not passing along the virus. I will stay away from shelters, practice distancing and hand washing and am prepared to isolate myself if I get sick. I believe I am still better off in the woods right now and will be careful around my fellow hikers.

End of the Smokies Permit Box

A lot of people are suffering right now and I hope that I can have the best of both worlds by continuing my hike safely and helping those small businesses in the towns I pass through. I trust that I will be welcome when I arrive but will gauge that when I get to Hot Springs on Friday.

Sunrise at Charlie’s Bunion

It’s a terrible name but a spectacular spot in the Smokies about 4 miles from Newfound Gap that looks down into the valleys below from an outcropping of rock just off the AT. My hiking buddies that I’ve been with for the past few days and I decided to get up early and head out there for the sunrise. We got to the spot just as the fog was parting and the wind was driving the clouds down into the valley.

View from Charlie’s Bunion

We spent about an hour peering into the void and waiting for the clouds to part and the sun to peek out above the ridge line across the way. It was perfectly quiet except for the sound of the wind and we all agreed that this was definitely the highlight of the hike so far.


It was a perfect start to our long 20 mile day to push to get into Crosby Knob Shelter. We hiked strong all day and took a nice break for lunch about half way. Today really showed off the amazing diversity of the Smokies. Every few miles the trail was transformed from pine forests to rhododendron to high balds along skinny ridge lines.

Magical Smokies Trail

We ran into 2 slackpackers (hiking without your pack and having someone drive it to your next destination) that were trying to push 38 miles that day and it was showing with 16 miles left they were pretty wiped out. They said they were starting to get concerned about timing since they had taken 6 zeros already. 6 zeros! It’s really funny to hear all of the different ways that people are attacking this trail. I’m more of the steady keep moving guy with a zero here and there but these hikers were in another wavelength for sure. Hike your own hike!


We got into the shelter around 4:30 and met some really friendly thru-hikers that we shared dinner with. I made a sweet trail burrito (actually 3) and went to bed full and happy. We laid around in the shelters telling funny stories and then slept hard through a set of intense thunderstorms. It was still raining hard for the morning hike out and the trail looked more like a rocky river.


I made it to the northern terminus of the Smokies and Bryan and Taco picked me up and we headed into Asheville for a fancy zero in a nice hotel downtown. Things are very creepy in town with the virus but we were able to get some food and do laundry. My heart really goes out to all of the workers that have lost their jobs over the last week and hoping that things turn soon. Let’s be extra generous with tips and smiles for the next few weeks. This is stressful as hell.

20 Done and Fun!

Going to lay in bed for the best part of tomorrow and soak up my time with Bryan. Back on the trail on Thursday and plan to be in Hot Springs by Friday.

Taco caught Platinum Blazing

Peace with the Smokies

Nailed It

Woke up today in a crazy good mood and anxious to hit the climb up to Clingmans Dome. I don’t know if it was the 13 hours I spent in my sleeping bag or the great sleep I got with the hard rain last night but I was ready to get things right with the Smokies.

Fairy Forest Land

The day started off pretty foggy and rainy but as I got closer to Newfound Gap things really brightened up as I hiked through the famous parts of the AT that looks like the fairy forest or where the Ewoks would hang out. I stopped for lunch at Newfound and got some trail magic and ran into my hiking buddy Jitter. We decided to meet up for the night at the next shelter in about 3 miles.

State Line Glory

We got to Icewater Springs Shelter just as the sun really came out and had a great dinner basking on the hill. I pulled my sleeping stuff out and had a great conversation with a group of medical students here on spring break. The shelter filled up tonight (hooray) and I was happy to be allowed to set up my tent.

Icewater Springs Shelter

I think a big reason for my funk yesterday was the Appalachian Trail Debbie Downer that I ran into. We are on the lookout for bears and wild boars but this dangerous creature took me by surprise. As I passed a hiker headed the other way, I said hello and he attacked:

Low Branch (LB): “Hey there, beautiful day isn’t it?”

AT Debbie Downer (DD): “Are you trying to thru hike?”

LB: “Sure am and feeling great.”

DD: “What did you do, quit your job or something?”

LB: “Actually, my firm was really cool and gave me a leave of absence and the trail has been amazing.”

DD: “It looks pretty miserable and I would hate to sleep in a tent and eat noodles for 6 months.”

LB: Maybe I can get this guy out of the ditch. “Actually, I’ve stayed in some really cool hostels and I’m making some tasty food.”

DD: “Well, you have a LONG way to go.”

LB: No shit Magellan. I have a map too. “See yah down trail.”

Man, you can only run from this stuff. I’m on mile 12 of a 17 mile day and staying positive to keep going but people like this just want to beat you down. It ain’t happening. Just keep hiking and stay happy. Debbies beware.

Ha ha.

Bad Mountain Juju

Talking with my shelter mates Braids and Pitstop tonight, we all agree that the Smokies are not our favorite section. Here are our reasons. The ATC ridge runners act like babysitter cops and stop and ask you for your permit in the most unfriendly ways possible. You are required to stay in shelters with the constant threat that you can be kicked out at any time during the night by a section hiker with a reservation. Don’t ask me to explain this rule since it makes no sense. Finally, no trail magic! At least not yet. There is just one road that crosses the AT in the park and we haven’t gotten there yet.

The view from Rocky Top

The funk doesn’t take hold for long especially when you get to these amazing mountain tops and are surrounded by 360 degrees of rolling blue hills that truly do smoke in the late afternoon. As I was coming into the shelter around 5pm tonight there was a beautiful plume of smokey clouds rising out of the valley in a light rain. Interrupted, or course, by another ridge runner asking about my permit!


About midday I met a trail volunteer that was out doing maintenance. Neil and I were talking about how awesome it would be to run along the trails with a big ass saw and cut out the downed trees in the trails. We were right! This 5 foot saw is as cool as it looks. Lucky devil.

Can you find my lunch in this mess?

I treated myself to a leisurely lunch and a cup of coffee along the trail. I still haven’t really perfected the art of the partial lunch unpack and end up dumping the entire contents of my pack out all over the place until I find what I need. I can pee without stopping the hike (yes, off trail) so I’m proud of that. I found a cool view point and made a trail burrito. I am really happy with my new food choices that I picked up in Fontana. I have a lot more variety and it’s stuff I actually want to eat right now. We are all trading recipies and ingredients with each other and coming up with some pretty tasty and healthy trail cuisine.

Missing my tent

Not thrilled about another night in the shelter – especially after last night. Socrates’ alarm went off at 4am and woke everyone except him. It went off for about 10 minutes before Chives started kicking him in the side. So many questions. An alarm on the AT? 4am? Socrates? The word on the trail is that it isn’t cool to get a philosopher trail name. Fortunately I have a great set of friendly bunk mates tonight and looking forward to setting off with them in the morning to climb up and over Clingman’s Dome. Next post – things to be afraid of in the Smokies.

Fontana Damn It

Thank you Bob

Spooky. I just came off a pretty down day and as I lay down in the shelter I look up at the ceiling and see this reassuring message to help me sleep. The trail really does provide. In this case some much needed emotional support. I went into Fontana yesterday thinking I would take a zero but made the mistake of opening the New York Times and got sucked into the shit show that is the corona virus. I decided to skip the zero and head back out on the trail after Bryan left with Chuck and Proper back to Atlanta.

Fontana Dam

I started late and didn’t see a soul on the trail. I got choked up when I had to put Taco in the car back to Atlanta and was missing Bryan even before he left. I expected a ton of solitude on the trail but the timing was crap today as I tried to unpack the rush of terrible world news alone. I haven’t been able to keep up over the last 2 weeks and it was just too much to process in such a short time.

Low Branch, Bryan, Proper and Taco

As I climbed out of Fontana I tried to calm down by counting my breaths and also my blessings. We are in good health, have safe homes, good jobs, loving families. We are being kind and generous to others and taking precautions to stay healthy. It really will be all okay. As the miles passed I invited the mountains to help me feel better. The clean air, rocks and strong trees all are healing. They are where I go when I’m feeling lost and they remind me of everything that is right and good in the world.

The Fontana Hilton Shelter. With showers even!

I got about 14 miles in and hit the Mollies Ridge Shelter and there was Chives! I was so glad to see a friendly face. Chives was also hiking with his dog Liberty until we got to the Smokies and Ranger F’ing Rick hates dogs. We had a great long conversation yesterday about the logistics of hiking with your best friend. As I approached the shelter he asked “How’s it hiking without Taco?” “It f’ing sucks and I’m grumpy as hell” I said.

Ramen Bomb

Nothing says comfort food like a Ramen Bomb so I got to mixing the ramen, instant potatoes and tuna packet and it was delicious. I had a good conversation with MF Poppins (the MF stands for what you think it stands for) about the joys of lawyering and I was out of my funk. MF was a DA in Brooklyn and cusses like a sailor. She made me laugh and we finished our meals together and traded some trail stories. Good ole Bob Marley was there to cover the last bit of wound for the day as I tucked into my bag for the night.


Sunrise headed into Fontana Dam

I had a great night sleep at the Brown Fork Gap Shelter. I had set up my tent in a really quiet part of a small valley near the stream and it was a warm night. Chuck insisted on being on my sleeping bag and pad so we spooned and he rested his head on my arm. He is really getting used to being in the tent and has stopped growling if someone walks nearby.

We had a pretty easy 13 mile hike into Fontana Dam and the weather was perfect. The sun came up about 30 minutes into the hike and we caught some amazing views. As we came up over the largest climb of the day I ran into a young woman along the trail that was head in hands sobbing and crouched on a rock. Elsa a/k/a Proper is suffering a pretty painful Achilles injury and she was trying to figure out whether she could finish the hike and was on the phone with her parents. To complicate things, she is from The Netherlands and traveling home is either really difficult or impossible right now. I gave her a few words of encouragement and then hiked a few hundred yards down the trail.

I went back a few minutes later and offered for her to stay with me in Fontana and also for her to ride back to Atlanta with Bryan and stay at our house to get some medical advice and possibly a flight home if she can’t get back to the trail. Hopefully she can confirm that nothing is broken and just skip the Smokies and come back with Bryan when he brings Chuck back.

Chuck at the Fontana Dam Shuttle Stop

Proper made it down the mountain a few hours later and joined me for the night at a cabin I rented just outside the Smokies and is going to head back with Bryan today when he comes to pick up Chuck. I’m imposing a huge burden on Bryan but at the same time feel compelled to help Elsa. I know the feeling of being out of the country and being in a vulnerable situation without family nearby. With everything that is going on right now it just felt right to help in this way. Maybe she can get back and finish her thru-hike but if not at least she can enjoy some kindness. Plus, Taco a/k/a Chuck loves her and spent the afternoon snuggled on the couch together after his hamburger dinner at the nearby restaurant.

Hamburger for Taco

I am going to spend this rainy Friday in town and do some resupply and then hit the Smokies hard Saturday morning. Wishing Proper a speedy recovery and return to the trail soon.

Taco and Low Branch

We started out from NOC with the plan to just hike 8 miles since the elevation looked nasty. As we climbed out of the valley, the sun came out and trapped the clouds down below. The conditions were perfect but the trail was challenging as promised.

Whipped Cream Clouds

I stopped for a break and ran into Bilbo, Glider, Jiter and Blackbeard and we continued on together after a few minutes of horsing around. I got so caught up in conversation and great hiking that we blew right past our stop and kept on pushing hard with the group. Bilbo, Blackbeard and I really got an good pace going and the miles flew past.

NOC to Brown Fork Gap Shelter

As we were plowing down one descent I hit my head pretty hard on 3 low branches within about 20 feet and the group thought it was hysterical. I have a bad habit of keeping my head down when I run or hike and I need to work on that a little in the woods. They decided right then that my trail name is now Low Branch. Chuck also got his trail name and it is Taco. When we took a shuttle ride the other day he literally inhaled a double meat Taco Bell taco that the shuttle driver had for him. Taco is really becoming the star of the trail and everyone loves hanging out with him at the shelters. I am going to miss him terribly during the Smokies (no dogs allowed).

Cheoah Bald

The group stopped for another break but I pushed on mostly because I was out of snacks and wanted to get to camp and make dinner. Just when I needed it, I came across some trail magic green apples. They were delicious! Have you ever seen a thru hiker devour and apple? It’s quite a sight and leaves nothing but seeds and a stem. So, my planned short day turned into a 16 miler but it was a blast and I got into camp and made a double portion of my favorite Outdoor Herbivore meal called Pea-nutty Matchsticks. My nightcap was a hot Emergen-C toddy and all was well for a quiet and warm night. No tacos for Taco but he enjoyed his dinner and curled up on dad’s bed. I couldn’t get him off so we snuggled up together and fell asleep quickly.

Peas. Peanuts. 1,100 calories of awesome.

We are headed to Fontana Dam today to meet Bryan so he can pick up Chuck. I don’t really want to take a zero but I am a day early and this place I am staying at has a pool so it will be a good chance to stretch out in the water and resupply for the next push. I am really excited about the Smokies. I spent nearly every summer of my childhood there with Mama and Papa Johnson and there are terrific memories all over those beautiful hills. I’ll have to reintroduce myself as Low Branch but I suspect the trees have already passed on the word to watch out for this guy and his dog Taco.

Caution: Emotions Ahead

Nantahala Outdoor Center

I had a great connection with a fellow hiker last night over dinner here at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. I don’t know how it came up but we started talking about how much we have been crying over the last few days. The first week was all planning, worrying and adrenaline. Now I am accepting that everything is working just great and the anxiety is falling away. Chuck is having a blast, the pack feels good, it’s easy and fun to make new hiking friends and I am not injured or sick. On top of all that I get to hike all day in quiet beauty. It’s almost too much to take in.


This flood is all happy tears. The mornings are especially intense when we first set out and start planning another peaceful day. I just can’t believe that I get to be here right now and spend all of this time with Chuck on this amazing trail. I’m overwhelmed by the little things I notice like how soft and quiet the leaf covered trail was yesterday. Start the crying. The soft misty rain reflects back a bluish grey off the valleys. Tears. On top of the ridge coming into Nantahala Outdoor Center the fire damaged trees set against the overlook stopped me in my tracks. Uh oh, it’s welling up again! This trail is actually quite elegant and it puts on a thousand different shows a minute. You just have to be prepared for the emotional roller coaster. Screw it, I’m going to throw my hands up and enjoy this ride.

Chuck on a cool
narrow ridge line trail

Just when I think I am pulling it together I come across some more trail magic and start the crying all over again. The trail angel we had yesterday had been sitting in his truck all morning and we were the first thru hikers he had seen. He promised himself that he would stay out there and give away goodies until they were gone before he would head off for some fishing. People are generous, patient and supportive. No, really!

Sugar Rush of Emotions!

I’ve also been thinking a lot about how lucky I am to be healthy and strong enough to be out here right now. Today, my friend Betty is staring the most intense part of her stem cell treatments for multiple myeloma and she has been on my mind constantly during this hike. She is an amazing friend in so many ways and someone that I truly admire. She is hardworking, funny, generous and has a positive force like I’ve never seen before. Betty literally can pull you though anything with her energy and vuvuzuela. This cancer doesn’t have a chance with Betty fighting back but I know the next stage of this battle is going to be tough. She will be back out on that racecourse in no time but for now she needs a little of that energy back from all of us that she has given so graciously. We love you Betty and just know that you are not alone for one second of the day. We are walking with you through this and will celebrate on the other side together.


Shit. Crying again!