Trail Update! Mile 343.7 Erwin

Hi everyone/howdy y’all (despite efforts to resist southern American slang is contagious!). A lot has happened since I last posted – I wanted to share where I am and what’s been going on.

I’m currently sat in the shade escaping the fierce afternoon heat at “Uncle Johnny’s” hostel. The hostel sits right next to the AT and the Nolichucky river just outside the small town of Erwin, Tennessee. This is the 31st day of my Thru-Hike and so far I’ve covered 343.7 miles – will probably do ten or so later today when the heat dies down.

Nolichucky River
Uncle Johnnys

Physically/health-wise I’m in good shape. No major injuries or illnesses sustained yet (touch wood!) and I definitely feel like I’m getting into the swing of the hike after the first few weeks. There have absolutely been some tough times along the way, but I haven’t had a single day when I regretted being out here and embracing this challenge.

When I last posted, I had recently crossed into North Carolina for the first time. Looking back at the miles I’ve covered, the hike is characterized by “hops” from one major waypoint/landmark to another, which typically takes three days plus. At each waypoint, hikers are concentrated in a few well-known spots. Time in town flies by. People recharge (literally and metaphorically!) and resupply. They shower, clean stuff and heal up. They indulge in the delights of town food/alcohol (the stuff of dreams when you’re out in the backcountry). Separated friends catch up and regroup, people socialize/party, some wait for mail drops and others organise fun side-adventures like going fishing or white water rafting.

The hiking “hops” from my last update near state lines to present day have been as follows:

  1. GA/NC State lines to Franklin
  2. Franklin to Fontana Dam (Gateway to Smoky Mountains)
  3. Tbrough the Smoky Mountains (Fontana Dam to Standing Bear hostel)
  4. Standing Bear Hostel to Hot Springs
  5. Hot Springs to Uncle Johnnys/Erwin

Looking ahead – everyone is focused on hitting as many miles as possible to get to Damascus for the 18th, which is the start of Trail Days”. Trail Days is a legendary multi-day thru-hiker festival and party which attracts a huge number of people – D-Town residents, thru-hikers (past and present). Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to or hiked with is going to be there (one way or another!) and people are excited. Damascus is 126 miles ahead and we have seven days to get there. I want to get as close as I can by hiking – a hitch (there and back afterwards) is very much plan B. It’s going to be intense!

If internet and battery permits, I’ll revisit these previous sections on the blog and share the stories from my hike, it’s been awesome.

I’ll leave you for now with an amusing story from yesterday. I “cowboy camped” (no tent, just sleeping bag under the stars) day before yesterday on “Big Bald” mountain. In the middle of the night, I rolled over and a sudden gust blew my inflatable pillow off the side of the mountain! I’d raised my head for just a second and it was gone. I got up but it was pitch dark and the wind was howling. Zero chance of finding it, so I grumpily went back to sleep. You never appreciate just how nice a pillow is out here until it’s gone!

The next day, after watching the sunrise I told the other hikers about my pillow woes (to their amusement and sympathy), then we hurriedly got off Big Bald after being ambushed suddenly by a cloud that dumped horizontal rain right on top of us. I scrambled two miles down to the next shelter to regroup. All the while, I scanned the hillsides looking for my pillow to no avail. At the shelter, I was tucking into some porridge and ramen (separately) when another hiker (Chandler) popped up and handed me the pillow! He’d found it just off the trail in a bush about half a mile from the summit. I could barely contain my excitement and the reunion caused great amusement to everyone in the shelter. “The trail provides” – as they say! Here’s a pic of the historic moment (featuring the latest in trail fashion, my Zpacks Rain Kilt).

Reunited and so excited. Thanks Chandler!

Lots of love everyone – T x

D8 – Crossing State Lines! Campsite to Standing Indian.

Could tell it was going to be a scorcher as soon as I woke up today! It was mid twenties (Celsius) for most of the day today. It also happened to be a day where I was gaining elevation from 2900 to 4700 feet, as I hiked the 16.3 miles to Standing Indian Mountain shelter.

Hiking in the heat can be trickier than hiking in the rain. It saps your energy and if you’re not careful, dehydration, sunburn or heatstroke may follow.

Struggling in the heat
Funny side trail name alert

To cope, I made good use of the sunscreen I had been lugging with me and donned my UV shirt, buff, hat, sunnies – the whole lot! Whenever I reached a small stream I would douse most of my clothing, including UV buff and hat to provide me with a little extra evaporative cooling. As I hiked I tried to step in line with the shade from trees overhead and take it easy when I felt myself overheating.

Highlight of the day was reaching the Georgia/North Carolina border – my first state lines. It felt like the first really important milestone I’d hit.

State Lines!

There was a small posse of hikers there taking a minute to enjoy the moment, including the first Thru-Hiking dog I’d met – Niko (and his owner, Peanut).

I cracked on through the sun and linked up with another hiker, Sunshine for the last five miles or so. Sunshine is a flight instructor, pilot and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT – west coast equivalent to the AT) Thru-Hiker. He was rapid and good hiking company!

Finally arrived at Standing Indian, one of the highest shelters I’d been to yet. There were TONS of people there and I found one of the last tent spots, which had quite an “interesting” gradient/camber… still a nice looking spot though!

I was relentlessly attacked by mice again in the night – the first time whilst in my tent. They scampered all over the outside, so to get my revenge, when I could make out a silhouette I’d give the tent material a good whack and catapult the offending rodent away. Luckily I managed to catapult enough to defend my “castle” from the mouse siege. No damage sustained, unlike my pal Snail Trainer, who in the days to come would wake up to see a pair of mousey eyes looking straight at him from a newly gnawed hole in the roof of his tent!

T x

D7 Hike your own hike (HYOH) – Storm Aftermath.

Slightly different type of blog today!

I’ve started to notice that adverse weather (particularly overnight storms) are a catalyst for change in hiking groups and partnerships. As we picked up the pieces from the brutal storm, my frequent hiking trio disbanded again. Tyler left first, then Charlotte, then later I was the last to leave the cheese factory campsite. This is a great example of “Hike your own hike” (HYOH) – let me explain.

HYOH is a golden rule of thru-hiking and arguably the most commonly given piece of advice to prospective or current hikers, to the point that it gets parodied and becomes a meme. HYOH is both a philosophy and framework to enable the diverse range of characters out here to coexist and achieve their goals. It means exactly what it says – it’s your hike, so do exactly as you want to. Don’t feel pressured to do anything you don’t want to or because someone tells you to. This sounds like an obvious message (and there are limits), but it’s worth unpacking a little.

HYOH stems from the fact that no two hikes are the same (even for couples on the trail), and that we should respect the different ways people live in the hiking community, or attempt section hikes/thru-hikes. It’s a shared acceptance that everyone has sacrificed or staked a lot to be here and consequently, hikers should feel empowered to do what they think is right, rather than bowing to peer pressure or trends. HYOH is not about being selfish per se – it’s about about embracing the unique opportunities hiking affords in the manner that best suits the individual.

Partnerships, friendships and relationships of all kinds form rapidly and organically on the trail. They’re disrupted equally rapidly – injuries, finances, hiking pace, differing preferences. HYOH being embedded into hiking culture is really liberating and helps ease this disruption. There are still grey areas and moral dilemmas, but I do find (in my short time out here so far) that the HYOH philosophy being talked about and actively promoted leads to people tending to make better/more fulfilling choices than perhaps they would “off-trail”. For some hikers adopting this attitude comes easily, for others there’s a HYOH adjustment period. I think I was in the latter camp but well adjusted now!

So back to my hiking trio disbanding. No drama, no falling out – we all simply wanted to do things in our own time and at our own pace. To hike our own hikes. Maybe we’d hike all together again, maybe not – no pressure.

Personally I was shattered after my overwatch session (ensuring my tent didn’t blow over in the freezing storm) the previous night and so took my time hiking that day, which included an ascent of Tray Mountain in the snow.

I hiked 13.4 miles that day, entirely alone and had a blast – I enjoyed the contrast of the solitude. There was lots of up-and-down (Tray Mt. and Kelly Knob were tough!) – see elevation chart below. I went from tent icon on far left to tent icon on far right.

I stopped to make camp at a nice quiet spot when I felt tired, just past Dick’s creek gap. Yes – there are some funny names on the AT. They keep getting better – I have a few corkers saved for you all!

There was only one young couple there and myself, although later Dean joined. Dean was the hiker who had promised a (sorely needed) road to town ahead, then left the message in sticks proclaiming “Sorry no road” that led to the epic 19 miles in the rain. He was actually a really nice guy and we enjoyed a chilled dinner together before I turned in. Think he was relieved I clearly didn’t have any grudges! It’s funny how things work out, if he hadn’t left that message, I wouldn’t have seen the bear.

A peaceful night – best sleep yet.

T x

D6 – Hiawassee/Cheese Factory campsite: THE BIG STORM

Waking up in a bed was surreal. But not as surreal as the hotel breakfast buffet that waited for me downstairs. Biscuits, Grits, Turkey Sausage, Gravy? You know you’re in the south when there’s gravy for breakfast… Of course I decided to get fully involved and grabbed a bran muffin, made myself some turkey biscuit stacks (dipped in gravy) and washed it all down with Cranberry Juice. Bizarre but good, calories be damned.

We returned to the room and arranged/repacked gear, then checked out. Whilst checking out we met some other thru-hikers: “GG”, “VDub”, “Lost and Found” and “Hangman”. GG was a Golden Girls fan, Lost and Found kept finding items on the trail and heroically returning them to their owners, VDub was carrying whiskey (I think from Virginia) everywhere she went and Hangman was a pro bear bag hanger. Charlotte, Tyler and I didn’t have trail names yet and enjoyed hearing the mythology behind each of these.

After leaving we headed to the coin laundry and washed our filthy gear, then we headed to the outfitters. Tyler’s tent (which replaced one the TSA originally “lost” when he traveled to the trail from Texas) was busted from high winds, so he purchased a new one – a Big Agnes UL2 (popular tent on the trail). I grabbed a lightweight thermal beanie and gloves as I’d heard it would be a cold one that evening.

Next stop was Taco Bell – we’d agreed to go as I’d never been and it’s a right of passage for anyone visiting the states. I had an XXL grilled stuffed burrito with steak and two chicken and cheese quesadillas. Super tasty but I felt incredibly bloated afterwards! There was another hiker in there we chatted with – a girl called “Her Dudeness” who had previously attemptef a Southbound AT hike but had to pull out with a foot fracture.

Last stop was the supermarket – Ingles, where we restocked our food bags. Key purchases for me – babybels, chocolate raisins, jerky and tortillas. Afterwards we called a shuttle to take us back to the trail at Unicoi. The weather forecast was horrendous and our driver gave us his two cents as he shuttled us:

“What the F*** are y’all doing heading out on the trail today?”

As Thru-Hikers, we need to keep moving or Mt. Katahdin in Maine will become impossible to reach. Town was full and we didn’t want to spend any more money whilst stalling on our hiking goals. However, in retrospect we were walking straight into the nastiest storm yet.

Hiking out of Unicoi at about 6pm, there was a noticeable chill in the air. It was a tough, steep hike up Rocky Mountain (the first “P” to the Binoculars on the elevation map below. As we got higher, we hiked into snow! We pushed through the snowy trail to the top of Rocky and carefully navigated a rocky, slippery descent. Charlotte was struggling – she was having trouble with her knees and was worried about the future of her hike.

The second “P” was Indian Grave Gap. Beth and Dan were camped there and we said hello – but wanted to go a little further as it felt like we had been hiking for about five minutes! It was starting to get really cold now though.

We pushed on to the Cheese Factory site (there used to be a Cheese Factory there, right on the side of a mountain!) about four miles from Unicoi. It was deathly cold and the wind was howling with some very strong gusts. Tyler and I set up our tents as quickly as possible and ensured we were layered up appropriately (all the layers). Charlotte was in a bad way and really struggling. I made her a hot chocolate and got her to drink it all quickly. She’d got so cold on the hike up and setting up her hammock that I was genuinely concerned – temperature was well below zero now with severe wind chill. She was shaking uncontrollably and pre-hypothermic.

Tyler and I were worried that either Charlotte’s gear wasn’t warm enough for the severe conditions or that she was now so cold that if she got into trouble it would be dangerous, so we agreed one of us should try and keep an eye on her. I suggested she stay in my tent (I have a two man) and she accepted and moved her stuff over.

I’ve talked to plenty of thru hikers since and we all agree that night was especially severe, non-trail experience included. The freezing wind howled ferociously all night and gusts threatened to knock even the sturdiest tents over. I used my body to brace against the tent support poles and support them in the wind. I cinched my sleeping bag quilt around me super tight, over my head. Using my buff and hat, I also rigged my portable charger to fast charge my phone, with both tucked between my leggings and shorts to use as heat pads. I barely slept all night but was confident that my gear would protect us. It was uncomfortable – but the situation was under control and wouldn’t be dangerous as long as I was careful.

We’d been lucky with weather until now and this storm was part and parcel of a nomadic life in the mountains. Despite it all, I still felt lucky to be out here – all part of life’s rich tapestry!

Tom x

D5 The big one – Levellent to Unicoi. 19 Miles and a bear!

Overnight the weather became really severe… very heavy wind and rain. Camping on Levellent Mountain was fairly intense and I woke up several times to hammering rain and shrieking wind. Here’s a little clip of the experience from inside my tent. I promise you the rain and wind was much louder in person!

https://youtu.be/H_bu9Q2Hj6k

Weathering the storm was going fairly well, until the wind ripped out several of my guy lines and a main support pole, sending cold wind and rain lashing through my tent inner. That woke me up pretty quick and “motivated” me to fix the situation as quickly as possible. Pro tip: In foul weather – really secure your guy-lines, maybe with rocks. This is especially important if you have a non-freestanding tent like mine, where the guy-lines are essential to structural integrity. Lesson learned.

Most of our stuff was fairly soaked the next day. The hiking trio had differing levels of gear arrangement and foul weather prep required, so we set off independently – Tyler first, then me, then Charlotte last.

Foul weather ready

I moved as fast as I could to keep warm as the wind howled and rain beat down relentlessly. I passed lots of other hikers, some of whom had full body one-piece rain gear that looked a lot like HAZMAT suits! My rain kilt was working perfectly – easy to move, good ventilation and the rain was being deflected away from my compression leggings and shoes. Given how humid it was it was perfect for me.

In hiker terms, I was “hauling ass”. The poor conditions really motivated me and I barely stopped until I hit Low Gap shelter by early afternoon – nine miles for the day so far.

There were plenty of other hikers sheltering from the storm at Low Gap including Mike, Tyler, Beth and Dan and an Englishman with the trail name “Snail Trainer” who I’d met at Springer Shelter. Some decided to stay at Low Gap for the night, but when Charlotte turned up we decided to try and make a few more miles to a nearby road where we could get a ride into a nearby town (Hiawassee) and enjoy a bed and possibly even a shower! Dean, a hiker at Low Gap had said there was road access five miles down the trail at Chattahoochee Gap and we set off intent on finding it.

After some hard, cold miles at a firm pace, we arrived at Chattahoochee to find that Dean had left us a message in sticks on the trail: “Sorry – No Road”. Evidently he had been mistaken. I found the situation fairly amusing, but Charlotte was furious! I wish I had a photo of the primitive sign, our crew and how pathetic we looked as we replanned in the wind and rain. I reviewed my Guthook Nav app and laid out the two available options to the team:

1. Camp at Blue Mountain Shelter, three miles ahead (where we would likely be battered by even more severe cold, wind rain and snow overnight). Approx 17 miles for the day.

2. Hike another 2.3 miles (beyond Blue) to Unicoi Gap, where we could definitely get a ride into town. 19 miles for the day.

We put it to a vote and unanimously agreed to go for option two. Spirits were a bit low. Charlotte wasn’t happy at all and needed some space, but I admired her determination as she got on with the task at hand and hiked the miles. I led the group for the remainder of the day and kept a fast pace despite the slippery conditions and our fatigue. I felt it was really important to get off Blue Mountain as soon as possible to avoid getting caught in nasty weather when we were tired. Every now and then we’d stop to make sure that everyone was still ok and visible through the mist/fog. There were some very technical rocky and muddy sections where careful foot and pole placement was essential. I found the situation really enjoyable in a perverse kind of way. It was the first time I felt like I was approaching my physical limits on the AT and it felt great to overcome tiredness, bad weather and difficult terrain to hike my most miles yet in a day.

Whilst hiking the last miles down from Blue Mountain, I SAW MY FIRST BEAR!! About fifty yards to my right on the ridgeline above, a juvenile Black Bear was padding away from me. It turned its head, looked directly at me and then bounded over the ridge – and that was that. My sighting happened in the span of a few seconds and being some distance ahead, Tyler and Charlotte sadly missed out. Fingers crossed they get to see one (safely!) too. There hadn’t really been time for me to feel threatened at all, not that I would have given the bear’s passive behaviour. I felt incredibly lucky to see such a beautiful and powerful animal in its natural habitat. Bear sightings are rare and I’d seen one within my first week – crazy. Sadly no chance to get a picture, but if a suitable opportunity arises, then we’ll see…

Finally down in Unicoi Gap, we made a half hearted attempt at hitchhiking before caving and calling a hiker shuttle (it was getting dark and the temperature was dropping fast to near freezing). Gene took us to Hiawassee for about 10 bucks each, (not too bad), where the three of us split a plush room at the Holiday Inn for 40 bucks apiece. A bit steep – but it was past 9pm and no room at the inn elsewhere. Wet, cold, tired and dirty hiking beggars can’t be choosers! A big hotel breakfast the following day would ease the sting…

In the room, we enjoyed hot showers (!!!) hung out wet gear to air and collapsed into fluffy beds. Job well done. Tomorrow would bring a “Nero”, a near zero mile hiking day where you typically hike out at the end of the day to rejoin the trail and find a place to camp. The prospect of spending time in town was amusing and alluring in equal measure! We felt we had earned it after our toughest day yet: 19 miles, 3904 ft climbed, 4403 ft descended and a whole lot of rain.

T x

D4: Running down Blood Mountain

As Tyler, Charlotte and I got up and prepared for the day ahead, we noticed that the weather had turned. It was very steamy and wet outside, so rain gear was deployed for the first time and everyone got a kick out of my rain kilt (the height of trail fashion… pic to be shared at a later date!) According to forecasts, hiking conditions would be “interesting” over the coming days.

The plan for the day was to climb and ascend Blood Mountain, the highest peak in the Georgia section of the AT. It’s about 4500 ft and fairly steep up and down.

Elevation map from the “Guthook” App I use for Nav.

As you near the mountain there’s an ominous, tombstone-like sign marking the “Blood Mountain Wilderness”. Here’s a damp Tom pondering the prospect.

The climb up was quite steep and rocky, but the weather wasn’t as bad as we had feared. We knuckled down and with plenty of effort, grinded our way to the top. Some more pumping drum and bass music helped me with the climb, as I timed my pole plants with the beats and breaks.

Eventually we made it to the top, where there was this cool stone shelter. Bet it gets cold and dank in there!

We had no plans to stay (you need a special bear cannister for this short section of trail and we didn’t have them) so we enjoyed the summit, which offered great views of the mountains.

Dodgy selfie at Blood Mountain summit

The weather was improving and the hike uphill had been slow and torturous, so Tyler and I decided to have some fun and run the downhill portion. We took off fast and made the two mile, 1400 ft descent in about 30 minutes. The trail was very technical and rocky at times, so careful foot placement was vital to prevent trail-ending injuries. With poles in tow, it felt like skiing downhill, but in shoes! It might have been a bit reckless, but the experience of running down Blood Mountain was so exhilarating and novel Tyler and I both felt it was well worth the risk – we were on a high for hours afterwards.

Feeling awesome after running down Blood Mountain

At the bottom of Blood Mountain is Neel Gap, with a store and outfitter right on the trail. There’s a tree with loads of old shoes hanging from the branches – either old shoes discarded as new ones are purchased from the outfitters, or from disgruntled hikers quitting the trail in a rage!

Loads of hikers were there, so we spent a long time chilling and chatting as everyone resupplied and enjoyed the hot food offering. I had a sausage, cheese and biscuit sandwich and a veggie burrito from the store. Basic but hearty fare!

We linked back up with Charlotte and our trio continued to AT mile 33.3 on Levellent Mountain, where we hastily made camp as the weather set in. Despite the damp start, definitely the best day on the trail so far. Running down Blood Mountain is an experience I’ll never forget – I can understand the appeal of trail running now!

T x

Day 3: Hawk Mtn to perfect camping near Gooch Gap

Shout out to everyone reading the blog! Feel free to leave a comment, whether so know you well, a little, or not at all! I enjoy reading them and it momentarily takes my mind off how muddy I am!

The night at Hawk Mountain convinced me that using my tent was a better option than shelters. I’d slept well and it had been nice to have had a bit of personal space as well as no nuisance from mice and the like.

We packed up and got ready to go. The aim was to cover around ten miles and find a place to camp around Gooch Gap. This section of the trail in Georgia is chock full of smallish mountains, so it was up, down, up, down all day. It was also quite hot – probably low to mid twenties (Celsius!) The trail was dusty and plenty of water was required.

The hike was great, climbs and descents both offered stunning views through the treeline of the surrounding mountains. On this part of the trail you can see a beautiful layering effect as the mountains fade from dark greens and browns in the foreground to lighter shades in the background. Some better illustrative shots later – for now here’s a corny selfie that shows how grumpy I looked to be out on the AT:

We pushed on to Gooch Gap, which had been the planned camping spot. To our amusement, here a “good old boy”-type rolled up in his pickup truck and dished out bottles of water. I wish I had a picture as this chap had a phenomenal bowl haircut… After listening to some stories, most of which revolved around “young’uns” getting into trouble, we decided that the roadside spot at Gooch Gap might not be the best place to stay. It was Friday and we thought road traffic at the Gap would disturb us.

We decided to push on a couple of miles, and I led our trio up the hills towards Ramrock Mountain. I managed to make Charlotte and Tyler grumpy with the quick uphill pace I was keeping – sorry guys! Shoe will be on the other foot soon, I promise!

We parked ourselves atop a hill where there were some likely spots for tents. A few people were there already – a young couple (Beth and Dan) and a veteran Thru-Hiker with the trail name Highland Dave.

I chatted with Dave as I set up, he had hundreds of stories. He claimed to have recently hiked the AT northbound then back southbound in one go, nearly 4500 miles! He was a Dalonegha native (town close to Springer Mountain and grew up hiking in the area. He told me of a site nearby called Cherlita’s grave, where legend has it a Native American princess who was thousands of years old lost her immortality. She fell in love with a European settler and left the land which kept her youthful.
And apparently Dalonegha was the original gold rush site and is the place referred to in the “there’s gold in them there hills” quote. He also shared some Thru-Hiking stories and showed me photos of the best hitch-hike he ever got – a 1911 Model T Ford in immaculate condition!
After the stories, we traded food (some of my Toblerone chunks for his Pop Tarts, I think he came off better..) and I finished setting up.

Here’s my tent in situe:

Just past the tents there was a cliff offering an unrestricted view of the peaks, valleys and ridges that surrounded us. I’m running out of superlatives – I think I need to ration them more carefully! But this really was a “wow” moment. I dropped everything and tried to capture something to remember the moment by.

There was one final task to attend to. Until now I had used “bear boxes” – big static metal containers to store food bags and deter bears. There wasn’t one here, so I had to hang a bear bag! It was dark so I didn’t take a picture, but I will admit it took me a while to find a suitable tree with the headtorch, sling the line over, hoist the bag and tie off. But we got there in the end!

I drifted off feeling on top of the world at this wonderful spot (infinitely better than Gooch) thinking of my favourite picture I’d taken of the trip so far. Beth and Dan were sitting at the cliff and everything had lined up perfectly for a really nice shot – which I will be passing on to them as a souvenir of their trip.

Lots of love all – T x

Springer to Hawk Mountain

It’s been a mad few days – time to catch up on the blog…

Wednesday night in the Springer Mountain Shelter was eventful… The mice were relentless, scuttling around inside the walls and then darting out on raiding parties for goodies. Matt woke up to two mice licking salt from his forehead! I stupidly accidentally left a mini Twix bar in the “brain” (detachable top lid of my pack) and the mice wasted no time in making a small incision and extracting it.

Oops. Damn shelter mice!

I packed up and since we were all ready at the same time, set off down the trail with Charlotte and Tyler again. It was a really easy days hike and there were a lot of laughs as the three of us got to know each other a little better. Tyler is 25 – a 6’6″ vegan scientist (from a farming background) and ex-strongman competitor from Amarillo, Texas. Charlotte is 29, from Rhode Island and has spent the last few years of her life in Chiang Mai in Thailand doing all manner of things including taking care of horses and teaching English to kids. They’re interesting people as I’m sure you can imagine!

The weather was terrific and the trail to hike for the day was almost completely downhill, with gentle gradient. We crossed lots of small bridges and were hiking next to little streams and creeks for most of the day.

Charlotte and Tyler at one of the many bridges

We decided to heed Bob’s advice (the old Ranger from day one) and stick to ~8 miles for the first few days to avoid injury and get properly acclimatised. To pass the time, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch creek-side and headed down a blue blaze side trail to check out Long Creek Falls – beautiful spot to filter water and sit a while.

Long Creek Falls

I’m sad to to report that someone had defaced one of the boulders, scratching a racist message into it that I don’t care to repeat. Charlotte grabbed a stone and obscured it. I had a bit of a play with my camera to capture a long exposure – see below:

Long Creek Falls Long Exposure

A short hike later, we made it to Hawk Mountain Campsite, where the three of us made camp. There was an amusing moment when a hiker passing our camp (to get to the water source) came by, vigorously pole-planting his trekking poles. The only problem was, his collapsible trekking poles (z-poles) were unfixed and so were flopping around like an enraged jellyfish. The pole plants only made it funnier! He either didn’t notice or wasn’t quite all there – we couldn’t decide which. We decided to name him “Flaccid Frank” and will try and get to the bottom of the matter if we cross paths again…

The rest of the evening was fairly chilled – dinner and a rest, preparing for a longer hike the following day. It was a beautiful day hiking, and I felt very lucky for the wonderful weather and good company.

Sunset at Hawk Mountain Campsite

Tom x

AT Approach Trail

(Not all posts will be this long – don’t worry!)

I awoke on Wednesday 11th April with the prospect of my first day of hiking. After one of the most meticulous showers I’ve ever had (who knows when the next one might be?) I joined the other hostel guys for breakfast.

Over granola bars, fruit and coffee, we made last minute adjustments to gear.
Then it was time – off to the truck for our shuttle. We clutched our packs like nervous kids on the first day of school. Our destination was the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at Amicalola Falls State Park – the AT Approach Trail.

The Approach Trail is an 8.8 mile hike, which starts at Amicalola Falls and ends atop Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the AT. Whilst not strictly part of the AT itself, it’s a very common starting point for AT hikers.

Pros:
-Register your hike with the ATC, which helps them to collect better data on AT hiking and plan conservation efforts accordingly.
-Free briefing on thru-hiking from a Ranger
-Opportunity to raid the “hiker box” of discarded gear.
-Chance to enjoy the waterfalls themselves, which are fairly impressive.
-Classic photo-op at the ATC Archway (most important, naturally…)

Cons:
-Literally hundreds of steps to ascend to climb the falls, under the weight of a full pack.
-Extra 9 miles for the thru-hike.

I could have elected to skip but hey, when you have ~2200 miles to go, another 9 can’t hurt!

At the ATC I did the ceremonial pack weigh-in (39lbs – I’d packed too much food and water… oops) then headed in for a briefing. Ranger Bob took us through the various dos and don’ts of hiking the AT and ensured we weren’t about to do something very silly, such as heading out into the wilderness without shelter or sleeping bags. Sounds obvious – but over the years Bob really had seen it all. It became a good-natured joke in the days to follow that if were about to do something stupid, Bob might jump out from a nearby tree to chastise us…

After our lecture we signed the AT register and were given a tag (a great way to spot fellow thru-hikers) with our thru-hiker number. We headed outside and each took “the photo” at the Arch, and then it was time to go – following the “blue blaze” markers which would take us to Springer Mountain.

2190.9 miles to go… Yikes! I look a bit funny here because Bob isn’t very good with cameras…

Starting hiking felt a bit strange. After months of buildup, I knew I was setting off on a huge adventure, but beginning to walk quietly away from a car park didn’t and couldn’t match up with the grand thoughts swirling in my head. I knew I was being silly and so instead focussed on trying to get a good rhythm going with my trekking poles. I was brought back down to earth when I arrived at the base of the falls.

That sign is no joke – and there are more that follow warning of even more steps… It was hot and my jacket and collared shirt lasted only a few minutes. I was trying to keep pace with the fastest guy from the hostel, Robert, but he’s a keen trail runner and soon blazed off into the distance. I gritted my teeth and cracked on.

Admiring the falls: A good excuse to catch breath

Steps, steps, steps

Finally I reached the top and was rewarded with a beautiful view of the mountains: my new home!

I treated myself to a bit of headphone hiking after those stairs. SG Lewis’s new album Dusk was an ideal soundtrack (check it out if you can!) and the weather was beautiful. When I reached my first downhill section I got a bit excited and ran down, smiling all the way as Darude’s Sandstorm blared.

I stopped a few hours later when some thru hikers invited me to join them at the side of the trail for lunch. Charlotte and Tyler had met that day at the ATC and seemed happy with more company. We hit it off (more on those two another time) and hiked off together with our sites set on Springer and a stay at the shelter nearby overnight. Some hard hiking later (lots of up), we eventually made it to the summit.

Springer Mountain

First “white blaze” marks the start of the AT

Other hikers arrived and we signed the shelter log which was cleverly hidden under a rock.

I departed Springer with Matt (from my hostel the night before) and whilst enjoying the downhill and good conversation, we flew past the (quite obvious) side trail markings for the Springer shelter. This added a needless few miles to the end of the day and provided amusement to the other hikers at the Springer shelter when we finally arrived. Tired, we grabbed a spot in the upstairs portion of the shelter rather than tenting outside.

Springer Shelter
Orange and blue is mine.
Quick and tasty. Crumble in Ritz crackers if you’re as hungry as I was!

We filtered water from a nearby stream, then cooked dinner and chatted with other hikers. After catching up with Tyler and Charlotte at their camping spot near the shelter, I headed to bed tired but happy with my first day and excited about the prospect of what the rest of the trail had to offer.

Lots of love all – T x

Pre-AT: USA

I set off for my AT adventure on Monday 9th April. My route to the trail would take me from London Gatwick to Chicago, where I would break the journey staying with friends. Then on Tuesday I’d fly to Atlanta and get a shuttle to a property near the trail – Barefoot Hills. This would be my base for the night before heading off for the “AT Approach Trail” on Wednesday.

On Monday I said goodbye to family and took a train from my parents house to London Gatwick airport. Whilst waiting in the Norwegian Air check-in queue, something special happened…

There is a concept in the AT community known as “trail magic”. Trail magic is a catch all term to represent the serendipitous moments, beautiful coincidences and acts of kindness a thru-hiker experiences on their journey. Whilst chatting with a lovely American family, a girl several bodies back in the queue heard me mention I was headed for the AT and intercepted me! Olivia (trail name “Big Spoon”) was a 2014 thru hiker from Massachusetts. She shared her AT stories and tips with me all the way to my gate and passed on her details with promise of a home cooked meal when I hit Massachusetts! Olivia – if you’re reading this, I’m on my way!

Flight was ok – I watched a few movies and catnapped a bit. Nine hours later I was in an Uber to Danny and Nicole’s apartment. Danny was a comrade from the 2015-17 Vodafone UK Graduate intake – we’ve had our fair share of adventures over the past few years! The last time I’d properly seen Danny and Nicole was last summer at the SW4 music festival in London. They’d both since moved from the UK to Chicago and I had the privilege of being their first international visitor!

I leapt out of the Uber and soon we were all jumping around with excitement as we said hello – it was great! We had a quick beer in the apartment as we caught up a little them ventured into Chicago for food and drink.

Danny and Nicole steered us in the direction of some quality deep dish Pizza and took me to one of their favourite bars. I was starving after the flight and it went down a treat.

All too quickly it was time for bed – I had a fantastic evening guys, thanks so much for your hospitality. Really was great to see you and I hope to visit Chicago again soon. I woke up for the first time in USA with this view:

Not too shabby…

In the morning we said our goodbyes and I headed to O’Hare for my connecting flight to Atlanta. A few hours later I grabbed the MARTA train to Sandy Springs (sounds like a Fortnite Battle Royale videogame location) to grab a last few supplies from REI – the premier backpacking chain in the USA.

After REI I linked up with the shuttle from my hotel and we drove down to the property, with a stop at Walmart and a Gas Station for supplies. I was staying in the property with four other guys (Mike, Matt, Erin and Robert) who were all aspiring thru hikers. Our shuttle driver Chris showed us around and lit a campfire – then the Thru-hikers in-waiting shared stories and shot the breeze until it was time for bed.

My room was gorgeous and I relished the comfort knowing what lay ahead!

I went to bed nervous but very excited about the prospect of my first day on trail – the “Approach Trail” which leads to the first white blaze marker for the AT atop Springer Mountain.

Lots of love all – T x