The road less traveled…

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Email: Your Band is falling apart

When I got to Hot Springs, NC I thoroughly enjoyed a breakfast of grapes, an orange, some chocolate mini donuts, and a chocolate milk. I sat at a picnic table for most of the day soaking in the sun and chatting with other thru-hikers while my group was running their errands and getting organized.

We later decided to simply cross the river and pitch our tents for free so that we could walk back to town and enjoy an evening in the pub with some live music and chat about how everything was going.

And the next day…our group began to slip apart.

Fievel decided to take the next 3 days off to rest up her knee (which was a very wise decision on her part). She was then going to grab a shuttle to Erwin, TN and meet up with us there to continue hiking. Beaker decided to go back into town with Fievel to run some errands as well, so Ringo and I headed out on the trail hoping for an 18 mile day. It was during this day that the amazing “Fal and Hercules” trail magic occurred, so we were not 100% sure we would make it to the shelter, but we did. Beaker showed up later that evening having to hike in the dark for a few hours because he chose to stay in town a little longer then planned.

The next morning was a scary/steep hike right away from the shelter. When we got to the top there was a side trail to go to the fire tower. Now usually fire towers are worth the extra little hike because the reward is usually amazing panoramic views. However, a group of us hiked up to this particular fire tower and found it trashed and encompassed with crazy barbed wire, so there were no pretty views to be had. Not a great way to start the day.

"Beans" trying to get up the fire tower surrounded with barbed wire

The rest of the day was spent hiking along the ridge line with plenty of fun places to stop.

Ringo, Beaker, Cicada, and I...the camera started tilting....so we followed it.

Me at the cliffs (2 days outside of Hot Springs, NC)

Ringo and Cicada being silly...go figure.

me and the boys - another cliff lookout. We hiked for 3 hours along the ridge line on this day, so there were many necessary breaks to enjoy the views

"High Rocks" elevation 4280 at summit

We hit our 300 mile mark and also climbed “Big Butt” Mt. It was very anti-climatic. About 18 thru-hikers stopped at the same shelter and had a nice lunch break in the sunshine.

Because there were so many of us thru-hikers at the same pace for a while, the next shelter that we were planning on staying in was already full. Since it was only 3:00 and we were gonna have to put up our tents, we decided to keep hiking for a while. 30 minutes later…it started to rain. So for the next 8 miles…it was raining. And miserable. I would have to say it was the most miserable I had felt on the trail so far. I finally made it to the next shelter 20-40 minutes before everyone else, walked WAY TOO FAR to filter some water for dinner…and felt better once I had dry clothes and a hot meal. Ringo on the other hand was not feeling 100% and got sick during the night. The next morning he decided he was going to just take it slow, but after a few miles ended up hitching to Erwin and taking a week off from the trail. (He joined us again with Kristin.)

The rest of the day for myself was pretty good. I stopped at a shelter for lunch and a hiker had a fire going so I was able to dry my gear from the downpour I walked in the day before. There was an awesome view from “High Peaks” where I stopped and had a snack, and then a relaxing hike to the next shelter where I chatted with a group who was out for just the weekend. There was also an adorable dog named “Fuego”  who I felt was protecting me from the bears. However, when Beaker showed up at the shelter a little later, he said all he wanted was some gatorade, a bathroom, and to go to bed. He was not looking well. So all-in-all, our group was not doing too well on the trail between Hot Springs and Erwin. It was only 6 miles on the last day to get to Erwin, so Beaker and I got there early enough to shower, do laundry, and head to town with Cicada and Curry where Fievel met up with us later.

Our crazy Erwin adventures included going to see “The Hunger Games”, eating at an AYCE (all you can eat) pizza/salad buffet, getting some rides from people all over town, buying a shirt for 50 cents at a thrift store, and watching “The Sandlot” back at the hostel with a bunch of other hikers. We also ended up eating all of Ringo’s snack food that his mother sent to him and he no longer needed since he went home sick. It was a good day of rest and relaxation that was much needed.

-Sketch

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April 18, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Email: Above and Beyond Trail Magic…Lets call it Trail Heaven!

Location: About 15 miles north of Hot Springs, NC

Ringo and I were about 3/4 done with our 18.5 mile day when we came to a highway crossing with a sign at the trailhead. It said Trail Magic was 300 some yards away from 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. At first we were a little bummed as we both thought it was Wednesday…so we stared sadly at the sign a while, possibly drooling, and realized “wait, it IS Thursday.” So after dramatic high fives we hightailed it 5 minutes down the road, up a seriously steep driveway to a beautiful log home with other assorted backpacker gear strewn across their front lawn.

Their House 😉

“Fal” and “Hercules” greeted us on the front porch, where I swear a chorus of angels began singing when “Fal” asked: “Would you like to start with a Belgium Waffle!?” After we promptly removed our boots and washed up in a real bathroom, we were shown to the dining room where a lovely tableclothed table with real linen napkins was filled with fellow hiker friends!

“Hercules” came over with a choice of beverages on a menu with a handy 7 day forecast on the back, which is one of the top 5 topics of conversation among hikers. (I will go in further detail of the other topics in a later blog.) Of course I chose my favorite Dr Pepper, followed by the smart choice of Gatorade as we still had some miles to do that day! I was served my soda with a chilled mug and “Hercules” did the fancy napkin move and laid it across my lap. Very Classy!

We were served warm cornbread muffins with heaps of butter while waiting for our waffles and enjoyed conversation with the group of hikers around the table.

Group of hikers enjoying their meal and "Fal" and "Hercules" in back

Everyone had a goof happy smile because lets face it, someone offers you a Belgium Waffle as an appetizer and you know its gonna be a good day.

After our 1st course of waffles, we were served a plentiful helping of a pork stew with loads of yummy veggies! Yes, I said yummy veggies. When you’re a starving hiker you eat anything! They even had a black bean soup option for all the vegetarian hikers. Following the stew we were given 2 dessert choices: Banana Split or Bread Pudding. I chose the Banana Split (got the last one) and Ringo got the other so we could share. Now “Trail Mix” was dining with us and he also got the banana split. When “Hercules” brought it over, all of our jaws dropped at the beauty of this thing. I am NOT over-exaggerating. It was the perfect image of what wikipedia would have whenever someone googled a “Banana Split“. So needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my dessert and shared very little with Ringo.

Jaw dropping banana split

Now “Fal” and “Hercules” successfully thru-hiked in 1999 and have opened their home up to hikers for the past 10 years.

"Hercules" and "Fal's" license plate

They said they do Trail Magic all day Thursday and Friday every week up to the first 400 hikers that come thru. Not only do they open their home and share their love and compassion for fellow hikers, they also share their faith! Without being pushy, they pose a few questions during our 2nd course to get us thinking, and then offer a selection of books (real books, not pamphlets) to anyone who would like one. They even put it in a ziploc baggie for you! And yes, ziploc baggies are another thing thru-hikers cherish. “Fal” and “Hercules” truly go above and beyond the simple term of “trail magic” and I seriously doubt any future trail magic experience could top that. As we finished our meal they invited us to take whatever water we needed, gave us big hugs, wished us the best of luck and asked us to e-mail pictures of us when we reach the top of Katahdin in Maine. It felt like I was saying goodbye to close relatives after a holiday get-together. It was definitely the most “homely” experience I’ve had on trail so far, and it was extremely uplifting for the soul.

Ringo and I slowly waddled down their driveway, wondering how we were gonna push thru the next 5 miles. Our 2nd wind for all the sugar hit us halfway and we made it to our shelter destination right before dark. Everyone at the shelter was able to experience the trail magic at “Hercules” and “Fal’s” house, so spirits were extremely high!

I will end this post on the emphasis that food is 90% of what hikers think of during the day. Whether its the snickers bar that’s not making it past 3:00, or the dehydrated lasagna that is gonna be your dinner. So when experiences like Trail Magic become a part of our day, it is such a mental and spiritual uplifting high that is simply too wonderful for words. So Thank You to “Fal” and “Hercules” – that snapshot of Trail Magic experience will forever be remembered.

-Sketch

April 13, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Email: Standing Bear Farm Hostel

It usually takes hikers 5-6 days to hike thru the entirety of the Smokies. On the Northern end of the park is a wonderfully located hostel called the Standing Bear Farm. It is a simple place with the bare necessities to re-supply/rest up for the next 2-3 days to Hot Springs, NC.

We took a “Nero Day” there, which means that we hiked a short day and took the rest of the day off. A “Zero Day” is when a hiker takes a complete day off, hiking zero miles.

Standing Bear Farm is exactly what it says, its a farm. Which means the bunkhouse was just an old-school shed with about 16 bunks in it and a wood stove.

Me out front of the Bunkhouse

Fievel in Bunkroom

Me in my bunk...organizing

There was also a small cabin for 5 people on property, a kitchen area with a pizza oven and microwave, a “laundry room”, internet/phone shack, shower house (including an outdoor shower which was simply divine), and an outhouse. They also had a “store” for re-supply that had everything from frozen pizzas to clothes. They worked on an “honor” system which I thought was truly trusting of the hiking community. Everything that hikers took from the store they just wrote down on the envelope provided and at the end of your stay they would just tally up the total.

Kitchen area

Owner, Curtis, and Thru-hiker "GRok" in the sitting room/kitchen

Internet/Phone room

The “laundry room” did indeed have a dryer. However, the washing portion was two deep sinks with washboards and an old-school ringer. So Fievel and I did our laundry together the old fashioned way.

Me doing laundry old school

Fievel doing laundry old school....one washed...one rung...

It was a very interesting experience and I think that we did a pretty excellent job.

Our day was spent relaxing and playing some competitive card games. Ringo’s mother sent him a mail drop and apparently he had too much food for the week, so we decided to pool some food together and made a ginormous pasta feast for the evening. It was delicious, thank you Ringo’s mom!

Me and Fievel and our delicious pasta creations....thanks to leftover food from Ringo's Mom!

"Cicada" and Sadie the dog

Me and Sadie

The nero day was successful and I woke up the next day ready to hike, but the odds were not in our favor. Fievel’s knee started acting up so we decided to take our first “Zero day”, which meant a whole day of rest and relaxation with more pizza and pringles and dr pepper. The owners, Curtis and Maria, were very nice people and were happy to have us stay another day. At one point Curtis came into the bunkroom with their baby squirrel (they rescued it and are raising it til its able to go back in the woods ). Fievel was not allowed to sit around all day doing nothing, so he made her feed the squirrel.

Fievel feeding squirrel warm milk

It’s name was Squirrel 2. After Squirrel 2 was done eating, I held it for a while and let it nest inside of my coat pocket…for about 2 hours.

Squirrel "nesting" in my pocket after a full meal

Still nesting...tried to take her out and she kept making crazy squeaky sounds...don't worry...no squirrel poo was left.

It was mighty comfy in there! And then my pocket smelled like a squirrel and their dog “Sadie” kept stickin her face in the pocket.

Because we were all stuck there for another day, Curtis offered to take us to the gas station 15 minutes down the road to watch the basketball game. We were also able to get some good deli food there and since they had their liquor license we could buy some beer and sit there and watch the game. It was an interesting gas station experience to say the least.

So long story short, next time you hike the Smokies you better make a stop in at Standing Bear Farm. The owners are wonderfully nice, the atmosphere is delightfully rustic and appealing, and you might be able to have a squirrel take a nap in your pocket. One more thing to check off my “bucket list”.

-Sketch

April 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Reverse Zoo

As mentioned in a previous post, one shelter still had chain link fence across the front to keep humans in and bears out. Here are the pictures to go along with that.

Davenport shelter....bear/human protection

Group inside the cage

Group outside of Davenport shelter with new friend "Cicada" (seated)

In case of curiosity, the brown signs says, “Warning: Do not cook or eat in this shelter. Food odors attract bears. Notice: We need your cooperation. Please use the privy where one is provided or dig a shallow hole well away from the shelter and spring area. This shelter will be closed to camping if human waste (feces) and toilet paper accumulate to an unacceptable level around the shelter area.”

April 9, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Snail Mail Better Then Snail Internet: Part 2

(Jill’s letter and pictures continued…)

Somewhere in the Smokies...again...

There are many noteworthy events that occurred while in the Smokies:

1.) We reached 200 miles!

2.) We climbed to the top of Clingmans Dome which is the highest point on the AT! (6,643 feet)

View from the area of Clingmans Dome

Near Clingmans Dome

3.) We reached the TN/NC state border

TN/NC Border

Group at TN/NC Border

where I met a man from Jay, ME. He even knew where the tiny town of Chesterville, ME was. A few minutes later he came back and handed me half a bag of Werthers Original hard candies and said it was all he could find in his car to give me and wished us luck. Spur-of-the-moment Trail Magic.

Only that many miles left to Katahdin, ME

Pretty section of trail

4.) “Charlies Bunion” was a memorable stop on the trail with awesome views!

Views near "Charlies Bunion"

Group at "Charlies Bunion" lookout

Group again at "Charlies Bunion" lookout

Would you look at that view?
Simply amazing!

This is a good view too.


Another "Charlies Bunion" scenery view

Enough of a caution?

Overall the scenery in the Smokies is my favorite we’ve seen so far. At times it felt like I was a hobbit in a “Lord of the Rings” movie, you know, except for the whole hairy feet thing…

Me and more pretty trail

On a more somber note, while we were in the Smokies, 2 hikers (Derek Lueking and Michael Giovanni Cocchini-click to read more) in their 20′s went missing. Throughout our time there we were constantly running into search parties and even the family of one of the hikers was at the state line. So please keep these guys and their families in your prayers!

P.S. I have seen no bears, only bear fur. So far my wildlife encounters have been with squirrels, mice, snakes, and snails.

Happy to read your comments and more pictures to come soon!

-Sketch

April 3, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Snail Mail Better Then Snail Internet: Part 1

Apparently the internet was extremely slow at Standing Bear Farm hostel so Jill snail mailed this letter:

The southern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park begins at Fontana Dam, NC. We arrived at Fontana Dam on a Sunday afternoon and had some time to kill since we needed to go to the post office Monday morning.

Sunrise from the Fontana Dam shelter, AKA Fontana Hilton

Luckily the shelter for thru-hikers, AKA Fontana Hilton, is by far the most luxurious shelter ever seen. It accommodates up to 24 people, there was running water, picnic tables, lovely view of the lake, and hot showers that were FREE and less then a 5 minute walk.

As a bonus, half a mile down the road was the Fontana Dam visitor center. Although it was not due to open until May, the soda machines were on and I swear a Mr. Pibb has never tasted so good. Best $1.25 I spent.

The actual town of Fontana Dam has very little. Post office, general store, restaurant, hotel, gas station…that was pretty much it. The general store hours were only Friday-Sunday, but the lady opened up for us since she was doing paper work. Because it was early on in the season, it was one of those scenes where there might be 2 items on the shelf and you better check the expiration dates.

Luckily I had more than enough supply in my mail drops with some extra goodies from Joe and 2 of my sisters.

We had decided to grab a quick brekkie so we headed to the “gas station”, which was an old garage converted to a quick stop/gift shop/bar with pool table. So we enjoyed our breakfast biscuits and chocolate milk while sitting at a bar with beer taps in front of us. It was a priceless stop.

Breakfast at the "Pit Stop", enjoyin chocolate donuts and chocolate milk at the bar

Are we still in North Carolina?

Quick shot at the Fontana Dam as the trail passes over it.

Our climb out of Fontana into the Smokies was one of the more difficult climbs so far. It was HOT, and we got sunburnt! And there was very little re-supply of water sources on the way, so by the time we got to the shelter we were parched and exhausted!

Entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

However the rest of the time spent in the Smokies were fantastic with breathtaking views around every corner! We met a lot of people on the way as many college students were out on spring break?

Me and the "A.T." Tree

Getting dinner ready at the shelter

Sketch and Beeker, Somewhere in the Smokies

Sketch, in the Smokies

Panoramic Smokies, Sketch

Panoramic Smokies, Ringo

Thunderhead Mountain

In the Smokies you are only allowed to sleep in designated campsites or shelters. Along the AT, there are shelters every 5-10 miles. Some of them were closed due to high bear activity in the area. Also, because it was spring break, the shelters were at max capacity the week we were there. One night we stayed in a shelter built for 12 people and managed to squeeze in 16. Quite cozy!

One of the shelters built to hold 12...there was 16 people and their gear somehow shoved inside

Me in my "bunk" space

Heart on the Trail

Another shelter was a little older and still had chain link fence across the entire front to keep the humans in and the bears out! Nothing brings a good night sleep better then the feeling of being locked in a cage with the sounds of mice scratching through a hikers possessions.

(to be continued…so many pictures!)

April 2, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Week 4: Call Update and More Pictures

Sunday, March 25 Jill attempted to call but only heard silence on this end.

Wednesday, March 28 she called from civilization again. Made it to a library in Hot Springs, NC to send a ton of pictures in 8 emails! While talking to her on the phone she saw the first tick of the hike and it happened while in town. They were nearly to TN at that time. Another snail mail letter was received later that day as well as a postcard which ended with saying less then 2000 miles to Maine!

On top of Wesser Bald, gorgeous 360 views of the Smokies

Hi dad!

The group on Wesser Bald: Sketch, Ringo, Feivel, Beaker

Another breakfast with a view

Taking a break at Rufus A. Morgan Shelter

Enjoying a beer at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC)...while waiting for my pants to dry

Enjoying beer and pizza at the NOC

Fontana Dam, group waiting for the morning shuttle to town

Serious blister cleaning party

Letter to come followed by more pictures.

April 2, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

End of Georgia, Beginning of North Carolina Pictures

Georgia Mountains

Georgia/North Carolina Border

Blister Care/Prevention...yes...that is duct tape

Breakfast with a view at Wayah Bald Stone Tower

Wayah Bald is a high-altitude treeless open area in Nantahala National Forest, near Franklin, North Carolina reaching 5,385 feet.

Group Photo at Fire Tower

April 1, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments