13. Hi ho hi ho……

Day 47

Marion to Atkins. 11.6 miles.

Nice easy day hiking, little ups, little downs, mild weather. Crushed the miles in 5 hours hiking with a guy whose real name was Cornelius Rumblejunk, made my day! On the way I passed an old school house that you could look around, I was loving the punishment list!

I wanted to stay in Atkins, but the only motel was fully booked, literally no room at the inn, so I ended up shuttling back to where I started my day in Marion. Best decision ever, I got a motel room, a giant pizza and it rained all night!

Day 48

Atkins to Knot Maul Shelter. 14.3 miles.

Because it rained all night long the trail was bog. It was so muddy I either slipped and slid or it was so sticky I couldn’t move my feet. There were three major uphills to battle today, the first one was short but very steep, fresh morning legs meant I coped well. The second was long but well graded and very enjoyable (what?  Who am I?). At the top was a milestone I seriously never expected to see, let alone stride past, the quarter way marker!!

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The third was steep, long and at the end of the day which was pure torture. The terrain was so varied today, I spent time in the woods, on ridges and walked through open fields with wildflowers and cows, it could have been Devon.

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Day 49

Knot Maul Shelter to Chestnut Knob Shelter. 9.7 miles.

I was dreading today’s hike, the end of the day was a mammoth 4.5 mile uphill. The first 5 miles of the day passed unremarkably except for the fact that it rained even more in the night rendering the trail a slip and slide again, I have got myself a groin strain from gripping so hard.

And then it was time to climb, steep and continuous. I actually had a really proud moment when I outpaced several hikers who were in my age bracket,  I usually only overtake the over 70’s. The view from the top was incredible. The shelter is a fully enclosed stone building which I decided to sleep in as it’s freezing up here at the top, but even as I write this I can hear the mice scurrying.

Day 50

Chestnut Knob Shelter to Stealth campsite. 15.1 miles.

Today was a weird day, the weather was perfect, blue skies, warm in the sun but a cool breeze, but the trail was not! There was a long stretch of about 10 miles with no markers or indicators to tell me how far I’d hiked. My mind played tricks on me, I would rest after what felt like eternity, convinced I’d walked at least a mile, but when I checked, barely 10 mins had passed and I’d maybe walked 0.1 mile. I upped the anti in the afternoon and plowed through the miles and was rewarded with a great stealth camp spot right next to a river crossing with mini falls. I soaked my feet and ate my dinner with a great view and I am reminded just how lucky I am.

Day 51

Stealth campsite to Bland. 8 miles.

Everything was a blur today. I nailed the 8 miles in way under 4 hours knowing my reward was food, food, food. At the road crossing I managed to get a hitch into town with a guy I’m lovingly calling a redneck who informed me the next section of trail is well know for copperhead and rattlesnakes (deadliest snakes in North America). His passing piece of advice was, if I get bitten and suck the venom out, don’t swallow it!!! No sir I won’t!! I’m in town for less than 18 hours and I intend to enjoy every glutinous minute of it!

Day 52

Bland to Jenny Knob Shelter. 11.7 miles.

Today was hot and humid, such a change from the cold and wet I’ve been engulfed in recently, it felt more like a jungle. I was covered in sweat all day but grateful that the trail is drying out.

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The Amazon?

There has been a strange outbreak of caterpillars, they are everywhere, hanging from the trees, I looked down at one point and I had 4 on my shirt, later I found 2 in my hair and countless on my pack but, even with these tiny hitchhikers all over me I still managed to pass the 600 mile marker.

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Day 53

Jenny Knob Shelter to Wapiti Shelter. 14.7 miles.

Last night was the first night I didn’t sleep in socks! Yay!

I was really looking forward to today as I had a great pitstop at a waterfall to look forward to and it didn’t disappoint. After just 8 miles I was happily eating my lunch in the glorious sunshine, feet in the river, watching water cascading over the falls. It was perfect, I spent over an hour relaxing and didn’t want to leave.

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I had just 7 miles to hike in the afternoon over relatively easy terrain. I have discovered that no matter how many miles I hike whether it’s 5 or 15, the last mile of the day is torturous, so I was relieved to arrive at camp for the night. Tonight has been one of my favourite at a shelter so far, there are only 5 people here, all great company, laughter and stories were shared and the absence of trail Bros was extremely refreshing.

Day 54

Wapiti Shelter to Woods Hole Hostel. 8 miles.

I woke up this morning not feeling great, stiff neck, sore throat, you know the rest. Took me a while to pack up, lacking energy, good job it’s just a short day today. Unfortunately it started with a huge climb, very steep and rocky. It completely whipped me. Luckily there was a cracking view from the top where I sat recovering for over an hour.

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I only had 4 miles left to hike but completely misjudged my water needs and subsequently I ran out with over 2 miles to go which made the hike nearing on miserable. I arrived at the most magical, rustic hostel, caught up with some trail friends and ate a great feast. During the night my health rapidly declined to a miserable state, so I am now in town nursing a full blown cold and my very typical hacking cough, hoping to kick this bugs arse with lemsip and fresh orange juice.

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12. Faith Restored

Day 41

Damascus (Trail Days)  to Saunders Shelter.  9 miles.

I was ready to leave, I needed to be back on the trail surrounded by mountains and serenity.  I hiked out with a trail friend I met in the Smokies, we both have a similar hiking pace and social anxiety which meant she was equally ready to get out of town. We didn’t leave until 4:30pm and had 9 miles to hike. We knew we would get into camp late but nothing could stop us leaving.  It was amazing to be hiking again but my trail vacation meant that any fitness I had built up got left behind in my beer cup. The hike was hard and when we rocked into the shelter at 8:15pm I was a mixture of very proud that we made such amazing time but also very very broken. My feet felt like I was walking on broken glass,  I had hoped that resting them would of given them a head start but they were worse than they had ever been, all I could think was that if they felt like this in the morning I’m not going anywhere.

Day 42

Saunders Shelter to random campsite. 12.3 miles.

It was freezing in the night, the temp dropped to well below freezing, when I first woke up there was a frost so I promptly went back to sleep. Goods news was that my feet recovered a reasonable amount overnight and with some massaging I coaxed them into my shoes. Oh yeah, I bought new shoes, I’ve ditched my big boots in favour of trail runners, basically, very light trainers with a few extras. They have pros and cons, but I’m willing to try anything that might help me walk the next 1700 miles. So far I like them, they are comfy and so light in comparison to my boots,  but they definitely don’t offer a much support. I’ll keep you posted.

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New shoes

The morning hike was very nice, a well behaved trail meant we did great mileage before lunch and the weather,  even though it’s chilly is great for hiking. The afternoon saw a huge 4 mile ascent. I was beginning to get pretty bad trail rage when I looked around and realised what a view I had, no one can be angry at that kind of beauty.

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We arrived at a stealth campsite, set up our tents and started layering up, to bed tonight I am literally wearing everything, 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of leggings, 2 long sleeved tops, hat, scarf and gloves, my down jacket and sleeping in a down sleeping bag, I’m warmer than last night but not by much.

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Day 43

Campsite to  The Scales campsite. 15 miles.

My hiking buddy decided she needed to get off the trail today as she wasn’t feeling well so I’m back solo again.

Today was one of my very favourite days on the trail so far. I busted out since great miles first thing in the morning then bag a long climb up to the highest peak in Virginia, Mt Rogers. It was hard going over difficult terrain but I stayed upbeat, hiked at my own pace and actually enjoyed it. From the top I was rewarded with magnificent views.

From the top I entered Grayson Highlands State Park, I had been looking forward to this section since this whole hike idea came about. It’s beautifully rugged and best of all it’s teaming with wild ponies. The whole day reminded me of hiking on Dartmoor, only much steeper and much higher.

It was a very technical descent, lots of rock climbing, squeezing through tunnels and caves and for over 4 miles it was a boulder field.  I twisted my ankles in every direction possible and impossible, slipped, shunted and tripped but I still have yet to biff it. Every mile or so I would come across a little family of ponies,  one even followed me for half a mile, it was so amazing, I loved it so much.

Big milestone today, the 500 mile marker, I didn’t stop for long, seeing it made me just want to keep hiking, it was very inspiring.

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Proud

When I got to the shelter, my destination for the night, I found it already full and due to state park restrictions got cannot camp in the park. I was forced to hike on. I hiked for another 2.5 miles and came across as few tents set up in a field,  they were a trail maintenance team and had a great set up with a campfire burning,  a primitive toilet with toilet paper and everything. They were very friendly and offered me snacks and fresh water, since things turn out great on the trail.  It’s still very cold tonight but it’s supposed to rain, I’m very much looking forward to assume more summery weather,  everyone is very surprised at the unseasonably cold weather this year.

Day 44

The Scales campsite to Hiker Hostel. 14 miles.

I woke up periodically during the night to lashing rain against my tent,  I stayed dry and warm,  thank goodness, I love my little tent home. The forecast called for rain all day so I decided to not drag it out and got on the trail the earliest to date. It was a head down and hike the miles kind of day. It was slippery and frustrating being so wet and I could feel the trail ripping my feet up, I decided to get off the trail after 14 miles and dry out at a hostel which was a great choice because my feet couldn’t of taken much more. Just as I was crying out in despair I came across a loud and cascading waterfall that got me though the last several miles.

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Ripped up feet

For now I’m resting up for a day but can’t wait to get back on the trail. Life is good.

11. Trail Vacation

So I’m back after a few days break from the trail. I took a couple of days rest, my body, especially my feet were crying out for some recovery time. While I genuinely love living such a simplistic life, everything I could possibly need fits in a pack I carry everywhere with me, sometimes my mental health needs more, shampoo and conditioner, cheese, fruit and talking to people I love is usually enough to revive me.

I spent the next couple of days at a enormous hiker festival called Trail Days, a convergence of about 15,000 hikers, with street vendors,  food, parties etc. It has meant I have now crossed the border from Tennessee to Virginia,  my 4th state and the 400 mile mark. I wanted to check it out just so I could say I’d experienced it, but as most of you reading this who know me will know, it was 100% not my scene. I’m really glad I went,  mostly because it made me miss and crave the trail so much. I couldn’t wait to get back to the mountains which, with the drama of the last week I spent on the trail felt great because I was worried I wouldn’t feel like that again.  I actually left half way through the festivities,  believe it or not there were more monsters in town than in the wilderness. Check out this bad boy I  woke up to on my tent, I also flicked at least 10 ticks off my tent which sealed the deal on my early exit.

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Not my favourite!

I’m going to try really hard to not whine and complain all the way through this post, but these last few days on the trail have really tested me, physically and mentally.

Day 31

Hot Springs to Spring Mountain Shelter. 11 miles.

I thoroughly indulged myself in town and leaving civilisation behind was hard. It was a big uphill day but the temperature was cool enough that I was able to hike in a long sleeved top and I was still chilly.

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Hot Springs in the distance

There has been a devastating forest fire in this area and the trail only reopened days ago.  All day I hiked through charred trees and blackened brush, some of which was still smouldering and smelt terrible.

It was a hard day of hiking,  people say you develop trail legs and hiking will become second nature,  knocking out 20 miles or more. Well I call bullshit, I’ve been hiking for over 4 weeks and my legs feel like wobbly jelly everyday, like someone has filled my boots with concrete and I’m huffing and puffing bloody little pigs out of their homes. I hope the day when every uphill isn’t torture on my body is soon.

There are lots of people at the shelter and camping tonight. I have a pretty decent flat spot for Agnes (my tent) to be pitched , it’s pretty chilly up here but I’m tucked up in bed by 7pm, funnily enough not the earliest I’ve been to bed on the trail.

Day 32

Spring Mountain Shelter to Little Laurel Shelter.  8.6 miles.

Well that was a very unpleasant night. It started to rain and as the temperature dropped it turned to sleet then snow.  All the snow that collected on the outside of my tent froze solid so I was basically sleeping in an ice cave and not the good kind with furs and vodka. I wasn’t freezing inside but I was just on the edge of keeping me awake cold.

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Ice around my tent

It meant I had a very slow start to the day, it continued to sleet until about 10am and I saw no point in leaving my sleeping bag to hike in that kind of weather. Plus, overnight my hiking boots which I keep in the vestibule of my tent froze solid where my feet were sweaty the day before, also extremely unpleasant, so I didn’t leave camp until 11:30am.

The first half of the day was good it stayed dry but the trail was a slippery mess. I crossed paths with several hikers who had biffed it in the mud,  I’ve yet to bite the dust on the trail but I know it’s coming and it’s almost worst worrying about falling over for the first time. After about 4 miles there was a sign that said store, so naturally I followed it to find the strangest booth selling junk food especially for hikers, I call it heaven!  Half an hour and 1000 calories later I set off for the second half of my day. After 2 more miles there was a sign for a hiker hostel and I seriously stood at the road crossing for 10 mins trying to decide what to do. Eventually I thought, stick to your plan Sophie, it’s only 3.3 miles to the next shelter,  every step you take today is one you don’t have to take tomorrow (insert pep talk here). I was dead chuffed with myself, on I hiked passing up the opportunity for a nice, inside, warm bed. Literally 10 mins after leaving the road crossing it began to hail, teeny hail stones that were like needles falling from the sky, then the wind started, blowing tree and leaf water on to me every 5 seconds, also did I mention it was 3.3 miles of steep uphill, the trail was so muddy that it was like trying to climb up the wrong way on an escalator. The mountain seemed never ending and I definitely cried and swore a lot, but eventually after and hour and a half I arrived into camp, very wet, cold and grumpy. I immediately set up my tent in the rain, boiled some water to make a hot water bottle with and got in my sleeping bag. This is definitely the coldest it has been so far on the trail, my boots are caked in mud and my clothes are soaked through to my underwear and I’m going to have to wear them tomorrow.

Day 33

Little Laurel Shelter to Jerry Cabin Shelter.  6.8 miles.

Another very uncomfortable night, freezing temperatures and gale force winds.  I had to put cold wet clothes back on this morning, my leggings were frozen at the foot ends, I can’t think of another word for unpleasant, but you get the picture. My tent looks like it has been mud blasted, there is no way I’ll be able to sleep another night in it. The weather is so bad already I’m just doing a short day so that I can secure a spot in a shelter tonight. It hailed all morning so I got another late start, the terrain was extremely challenging, big boulders to climb over which I would usually be excited about, but the fog was so thick I couldn’t see anything, every surface I stepped on was slick with wet moss or mud and it continued to sleet.

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Challenging terrain

After just 2 miles I was pretty close to breaking point. I saw I sign that was nailed to a tree that said Trail Magic up ahead. At first I thought I’d missed it, it’s hard to keep track of what day it is on the trail, but as I rounded the next corner there was another sign pointing off the trail and to go 150 yards. At first I was worried it was leading me to murder town but I decided to follow it, and I’m so glad I did. A local hiking group had set up a village of big tents filled with all the food and drinks you could ever dream of. Despite the weather they were barbecuing burgers and hotdogs, roasting vegetables, they had a roaring fire going and a tent full of homemade bread, cakes, chips, fruit salads and snacks. I immediately burst into tears and hugged the nearest kindly man I could find. It was so uplifting and heartwarming to think how much work these people had put into making a perfect strangers day better. I ate and cried, and ate some more, they said they knew this section of the trail was tough which is why they had chosen that spot.

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Trail magic

I’m not sure words could describe how much that act of kindness meant to me, it was hard to tear myself away from them, as I was leaving a lady was trying to stuff peanuts into my pockets for later, but I still had 5 more miles to hike. It continued to sleet all day and I continued to be extremely grumpy about it until I rocked up to the shelter and realised it was the 300 mile marker. Every item of clothing I have with me is soaking wet, but at least I have a spot in the shelter for the night.

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300 miles baby

 

Day 34

Jerry Cabin Shelter to Erwin, TN. 10 miles.

I was much warmer last night in the shelter, but I couldn’t face putting my wet clothes back on so I decided to hike in my pj’s. It’s not the best idea as it’s vital to have dry clothes to put on after a day of hiking, but I was hiking towards town so I didn’t care about anything but warm. It stayed dry today and the terrain was good. I have been so miserable for the last 3 days it was like the trail was saying,  ‘i don’t know what all the fuss was about’, me and the trail are on a friendship timeout right now! I got to a road crossing and immediately stuck my thumb out, and within 5 mins I was in a car heading towards town. I know rain is the weather of my people but it really has been hard. I never expected snow in May and was mentally unprepared for it. I’m now drying out and warming up in a motel, I’m taking a few days off this week, I need some recovery time as I have a few injuries that need to heal. I’m skipping ahead this weekend to Virginia as there is a huge hiker festival going on, so for now I leave you much happier, warmer and dryer, gearing up for more trail heaven and less trail hell.

 

9. Much better

Day 25

Newfound Gap to Pecks Corner Shelter.  10.2 miles.

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Only 1972 miles to go……

Absolutely glorious day of hiking, very uphill but the gradient was perfect,  we were treated to some spectacular views, cool temperatures, clear skies, perfect. The highlight of the day was a small detour to an outcrop of rocks called Charlies Bunion, a lookout point that gave us views for miles and rocks to play on.

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The rest of the afternoon saw us hiking along the mountain ridge with serious drop offs on both sides,  every few steps would take your beath away from either the drop or the beauty.

Day 26

Pecks Corner Shelter to Cosby Knob Shelter.  12.6 miles.

Nature flocks to me!! So today I ate lunch with a bear! After another great morning of hiking we stopped at a shelter for lunch only to find a bear hanging out. There were a few hikers around beating their trekking poles to keep him away but he kept coming back, circling around, I felt bad eating my salmon in front of him. I have to say, naturally I was afraid of him, but I was also in awe that I’m able to share the woods with these guys. To top off an already great lunch stop, I also got to dance with a butterfly.

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Mr bear

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The trail is not always what I expect but it is always interesting and surprising.

We definitely decided to sleep with our trekking poles in our tent with us tonight just in case Mr bear comes back!

Day 27

Cosby Knob Shelter to Davenport Gap. 8 miles.

Only a short day today,  but the majority of the miles were downhill, I know I seem to complain a lot about uphill,  but let me just tell you a quick bit about downhill. Now, I actively like going downhill, what I don’t like is downhill where the trail is full of little rocks, like gravel but big, moving chunks of chipped off mountain rocks. It makes your feet feel like they are being grated, not the nice pedi-egg dead skin remover, I mean an angry Italian grating slices off your soles like parmesan cheese. None of that mattered when we got to the Gap to see our very own trail angels in the form of my best friends parents, who are driving north and offered to take Willow with them. They rescued us for the night and took us out for the best tasting burgers and the fanciest hotel we have stayed in, white sheets and a flat screen TV, we were like pigs in shit.

Day 28

Max Patch to Deer Park Mountain Shelter.  17 miles.

The Boyd family kindly dropped me off at the top of the mountain today but without my hiking partner. Today was my first day as a lone wolf.  Max Patch is a huge bald on the top of a mountain, everything was green and lush from overnight rain, but cloud came in quickly and I got very disorientated, I could barely see my hand in front of my face, luckily I was saved by a couple of hikers and together we found the trail through the fog.

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Max Patch

I quickly blazed ahead of them and busted out 5.2 miles before lunch over very favourable terrain.

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Wild flowers everywhere

It meant I only had 3 miles to do in the afternoon so subsequently I arrived at the place I had planned to camp at 2:30pm, WAY to early for me to stop and without my hiking partner to reign me in I decided to push on to the next shelter 8 miles away. Some might say it was reckless, especially since it was raining and there may or may not have been thunder and lightning, but it was too late to take back the decision, so I carried on. In reality it meant that I was hiking until gone 7pm and did my first big mileage day of 17miles. When I got to the shelter I was greeted by familiar faces and congratulations on such grand mileage, as well as my favourite trail dog Vinny, who’s paw prints I had been tracking all day convinced I would run into a bear around each corner. I’m glad I did it, it was a real body and mind test but I will not be in a rush to do it again.  Camping tonight on my own was weird, my tiny tent felt like a 6 person tent when just the night before it felt like a half person tent. Surprisingly I wasn’t scared, lonely maybe, but I must remind myself this is my hike. 

Day 29

Deer Park Mountain Shelter to Hot Springs. 3.2 miles.

After my epic day yesterday I only had a few miles to hike into town today, which was great as it was my birthday and all I could think about was bed, shower, food! I treated myself to a few luxuries including a boutique motel with a fancy 4 poster bed (bad news was the barbarians didn’t have a TV in the room, thank God for Netflix) and a full size bottle of shampoo and conditioner, happy birthday to me!

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Luxurious

I didn’t mind spending my birthday on my own, today and every other day has given me such appreciation for my family and friends.  I have said before that I am hiking to give myself the very best chance to be a better person, recently I have found myself saying I’m hiking north,  not that I’m hiking to Maine,  I will hike until the trail is done with me, that may be in 5 days, 5 weeks or 5 months, my goal is not to just finish the trail, but to transform myself with each step. Enough with the deep and meaningful for today,  here’s a picture of my birthday meal, which would not be complete without some fried cheese. Happy days everyone!!

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Fried goodness