Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Stuff of Thru-Hikes

With an unexpected zero at Hemlock Hollow Hostel, we've had some time to actually reflect on our wild 36/37 days on the trail. 

These are the things that thru-hikes are made of: food, weather, miles, and people. You may want to hike to be in the woods and see the sights, and thats all fine and dandy, but this is what will make it an experience.

The Food
When you're hiking for hours on end you tend to only really think about food, especially the kind of food you can't get on the trail. During our stint in the Smoky Mountains, we actually took the song "Peaches" by The President's of the United States of America and made our version with lyrics such as "Going to the hostel/Gonna eat a lot of pizzas" and "Millions of pizzas/Pizzas for me/Millions of pizzas/Pizzas probably not for free." Needless to say, our trail foods tend to be a little lacking in one way or another. For breakfast, we tend to have a few scoops of Nutella and peanut butter, paired with a pack of breakfast biscuits or spread a-top a hearty piece of Hudson Bay Bread. Lunch has evolved into a tortilla filled with peanut butter and Nutella. Snacks are varied: Snickers, trail bars, GORP, gummy bears, Cheez-Its, etc. Dinner is a couple of packets of Ramen mixed with peanut butter, olive oil, hot sauce, and black pepper (backpacker's pad thai). When we get into town, we are often craving  a burger and a beer. Then Chase (who has been dubbed The Ramen Shaman) usually buys a pizza, a two liter of Coke, a couple pints of Ben & Jerry's, and whatever else strikes his fancy. Town stops have proved expensive when faced with such a voracious eater.

The Weather
We have been blessed with exceptional weather so far. It's snowed maybe 3 times? It has rained a few more times than that. We often have freezing temperatures in the morning, but nothing too serious. Lots of sunshine and 50 degree days. Our first two days in the Smoky Mountains were incredible, weather-wise. Highs in the mid-60s (which is really hot when you're hiking) and clear views. Our climb up Rocky Top Mountain was hot and dry, and we really felt like we were hiking in the Southwest. It's definitely harder to stay motivated when there is a constant drizzle. I have to really try and stay positive during days like these. Weather is also common camp talk, in addition to poop. Get desensitized y'all. 

The Miles
Our mileages have been kind of all over the place. We've done as many miles as 16 in a day and as few as 0.3 mi. For those close friends and family who have our spreadsheet plan, we are about a week behind schedule, which given the number of zeros we've had is about right. We hope to take fewer zeroes in the future, but the trail may have other plans for us. We are hoping to increase our mileages to between 13 and 18 regularly now that we have our trail legs. "It ain't about the miles, it's about the smiles!"

The People
Thru-hikers are crazy awesome. A lot of them are weird, but you're probably weird too, so its all good. We've camped with all types: from stoners and retired Army Lt. Colonels to recent grads heading to med school in the fall. Almost everyone exudes a genuinely "good guy" feel (and hiker funk, mind you) that can't be matched in the outside world. It's really incredible making what are sure to be life-long friends in such an environment. One of my favorite days on the trail so far has been the day that we zeroed at the Double Spring Shelter in the Smoky's just because of the amazing camaraderie felt between all of us after pulling together to gather firewood and cold-proof the shelter as much as we could. Falling asleep to Quailman and Icicle reading The Hobbit is a great memory. Giving Pacman the secret trail name of "Gandalf" brought us all closer together. We've met a Batman and a Penguinman, a Windscreen and a Rocketgirl, a Tog, a Socs, a Blaze (named so because she caught her hair on fire the first night), a Vegemite, a Priest, and countless others. Most of them are way past us now, but I've heard tale that the trail often brings people back together when they least expect it. We are so grateful to the trail for bringing all these crazy folks together! I look forward to meeting many more characters!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Trail Daze: Days 16 - 25

Hullo world! Life on the trail is really busy so we haven't had hardly any time to post. After a long day of hiking, the last thing I want to do is stare at a bright little electronic screen before bed. Usually we just want to stuff our faces and pass out! 

Below is a summary of our most recent adventures. I figure there isn't much point in detailing "First, we left camp. Then, we hiked. Then, we ate..." etc., so here is a highlight reel of sorts of our day to day life. 

Day 16: Nero in Franklin
Not the Roman Emperor, a day where we did nearly zero miles! We did 0.3 miles this day because we ended up needing to spend a lot more time in town doing all the things we should have done on our zero day. We also met a great group of hikers (including Icicle and Quailman) who dubbed Kelley "Cheez-it" because she insisted that we carry 3.5lbs of the cheese flavored snack to get us through the Smoky Mountains! It was a fun-filled night at the Rock House Lodge (the sweet taproom inside of Outdoor 76) and we ended up hitting the trail at Winding Stair Gap around 8:30 that night. Cheez-it couldn't find her headlamp, but we sucked it up and night hiked the 0.3 miles to the closest campsite. Chase fell into a creek and skinned his knee (while wearing the only headlamp), and we pitched camp  on the flattest spot around, which just so happened to be the AT. We were glad we spent the extra day in town with great folks and we definitely second-guessed our decision to camp instead of staying the night in a warm bed.

Day 17: Winding Stair Gap to Wayah Bald Shelter
We woke to a heavy fog and instantly realized we were camping next to a homeless person. The night before we thought another thru-hiker had pitched his tent at the campsite, but upon further inspection, it was definitely a homeless person in a Wal-Mart tent covered in blue tarp material, which was tied off to the fallen trees in the area. No thru-hiker would go to that much trouble. But we weren't ax-murdered, so that was good. We were soon being passed by our comrades from the night before, Chainsaw, Pacman, AppleJacks, Icicle, and Quailman. We hiked through this crazy stuff called hoarfrost, which is basically these 2in long bits of frost that hang off of tree branches horizontally. Aparently it is really rare to encounter the stuff, so we felt very fortunate. We camped just outside the shelter as there were no tentsites big enough for our monstrous Tarptent. It felt very cool to be a part of a hiker group.

Day 18: Wayah Bald Shelter to Wesser Bald Shelter
Wesser Bald fire tower was AWESOME. We could see Cheoah Bald and the beginning of the Smoky's. It was sunny and beautiful so we sat up there with a section hiker, Chainsaw, Icicle, and Quailman for about an hour before heading down the the shelter to camp for the night. Great campsite with the crew! Had a fire and learned all about how a friend of Chainsaw's married his half-sister. Ah, the South! We were all stoked to get to the Nantahala Outdoor Center the next day!

Day 19: Wesser Bald to Grassy Gap
We followed Chainsaw out of camp by about 5 minutes, but he beat us to the NOC by about an hour and a half. As a result, he injured his foot on the steep downhill and was going to take a zero day to try to recover (since then, we heard that he had to get surgury and is off the trail). The Jump-Off was really cool. Sheila did great with all of the steep downhill. Chase had to help her down one section only because I didn't want her jumping down 4ft off of a boulder. We couldn't get our Smoky Mountain thru-hiker passes becasue the NOC's internet was down, but we did have a killer lunch and a Bell's Hopslam! We packed out a couple of beers to have with Quailman and Icicle that night, but they ended up pushing on further. I was content to stay 3.0 mi into the climb out of the NOC, because it was pretty tough going and I was trying to carry a full pack for the first time since Tesnatee Gap. The campsite at Grassy Gap had a sweet rock formation above it, so we took some time to explore the caves for bears (none were found).

Day 20: Grassy Gap to a campsite just before Stecoah Gap
Hard going for the rest of the climb. Cheez-it's calves were burning from exertion and dehydration. The cure for this was to transfer some weight back onto Chase and to have a nice long lunch at Sassafras Gap Shelter. The sun came out in this time and made everything a bit better. The views from Cheoah Bald were breathtaking! To think we were looking at this spot from the Wesser Bald fire tower only two days ago was crazy! We hiked until about sundown and stopped to camp on a little mountain with a view into Stecoah. Sunset was amazing from our campsite.

Day 21: Stecoah Gap to Fontana
We had to get up early and make it 16 miles before 4pm in order to turn Sheila over to the kennel. Our only 16 mile day so far had been into Winding Stair Gap and we got there by 7pm. Naturally, I was stressed. We also had to climb the infamously steep Jacob's Ladder, which I thought was a rock scramble (it's not). We pushed hard and fast and managed to get in by 4:40pm. I was literally running down the mountain, very angry at Chase for this time constraint. We turned Sheila over with many apologies. The only positive thing about being late was that I didn't have time to get emotional. Sheila hopped into the back of the car, laid down, and took a well-deserved nap. We caught the shuttle into the village and planned on getting a room. Icicle's parents were supposed to get them a room at the lodge, and they had told us previously that we could stay with them if we wanted to. I was willing to spend the $90 to get my own private room, but as soon as we walked in the door, Quailman and Icicle handed us the key to the room. We took showers and cooled off. It ended up being a great hiker-reunion kind of night, and I was grateful to be there.

Day 22: Zero in Fontana
Laundry, hot dogs, beer. That's all we did that day. And then at 11pm we scrambled to get our bags ready to leave for the Smoky Mountains in the morning. We are really bad at Zero days. 

Day 23: Fontana to Mollies Ridge Shelter
We left late because we still had a million things to do before being able to leave the lodge. We hiked up to the Fontana Hilton shelter and hung out for a bit before setting off with Icicle and Quailman to begin our Smoky Mountain adventure. Actual bathrooms and showers are the only thing that make this shelter a "Hilton," which should show you how low hiker standards are. We spent an hour going over Fontana Dam, leading me to name our little group "The Lolly-Gaggers" for lolly-gagging about. We made it up the shelter around 8pm. There were a bunch of kids from the University of South Florida on a Spring Break backpacking trip, which was kind of surreal. We were just happy there was room in the shelter. 

Day 24: Mollies Ridge to Derrick Knob Shelter
Had a lovely lunch break at Spencer's Field which I can only describe as a meadow of tall grass. I'm sure it's beautiful in the summer, but it was still breathtaking in the winter.The hike up to Rocky Top felt like a desert. I probably should have put sunscreen on. The views were spectacular! We were fortunate to have such a good weather introduction to the Smoky's, but our luck would soon turn. 

Day 25: Derrick Knob to Double Spring Shelter
Woke up to wet weather! No sleep in a tin-roof shelter when the rain is pelting down! We hiked through it to the next shelter, Siler's Bald Shelter, and just so happened to have enough service to check the weather. Holy Winter Storm Batman! The forecast called for 10 degrees that night with windchill of -13 degrees on top of Clingman's Dome the next day, which we were supposed to summit on this day. Icicle and I were totally spooked by the weather forecast and once the group decided to hole up at the next shelter, we booked it the 2 miles in 30 minutes. So there would be 6 of us in the shelter; Pacman, TOG, Icicle, Quailman, Chase and I. We gathered firewood to last us through the cold evening, and made a plan to try and keep extra warm. We strung up our tents across the opening of the lower bunk in order to retain our heat a little better. All of our gear was wet, so we strung up a laundry line while Pacman stoked the fire. It started to sleet not long after we got in, and the northerners made sure that we Floridians knew the difference between the types of wintry mix. Chase and I were excited about snow! Some section hikers came in around 6pm and we welcomed them gladly into our warm bunk. Quailman and Icicle read The Hobbit aloud while we snuggled in our bags and Pacman kept the fire going for a few more hours. The temperature was dropping quickly, but it was a balmy 25 degrees in our tent-barricaded bunk filled with the heat of 8 bodies. Would we survive???? Tune in next week to find out! ;)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Trail Life: Days 11 - 15

Day 11 - Sassafras Gap to Cowart Gap
That morning was pretty chilly. Quailman and Icicle got out of camp before us and headed for Dick's Creek to catch a ride into Hiawassee. We warmed right up on the way out of the gap, planning to camp as low as possible that night due to the forecast for lows in the teens. Cowart Gap looked like a great place on the map, as it was much lower than the shelter at Plumorchard Gap. We look it easy as the terrain was pretty tough and I didn't want to exacerbate my newly healed leg. The climb out of Addis Gap was particularly tough and I felt some strain in my left leg again. I was really worried until I really focused on the pain and realized it was coming from a different muscle group. I assumed I must have bruised the muscle a bit when I fell on my butt the day before. We made good time past Kelly Knob and arrived at Dick's Creek Gap for lunch and water. When we arrived, there was a creepy guy hanging around. I feel bad about saying this, but he was either just real poor mountain folk or a meth head. He was wearing a beat up pair of baggy jeans and a Georgia Bulldogs coat with a ball cap. He was missing a lot of teeth, and seemed just generally not well taken care of. He had an old terrier-type dog with him and was driving a newer Chevy truck. I definitely got a bad vibe from him as soon as we walked up. Thankfully, there was a road crew in the area and a lot of traffic because if there hadn't been, we would have moved on without stopping. He was putting up a shuttle-for-fee sign on the info board and when we walked past to set our stuff on a picnic table, he commented to us that his dog wasn't friendly. The dog was off-leash and looked like it probably wasn't vaccinated at all, so I definitely wasn't comfortable having Sheila so close to it. The dog followed us up to the picnic area and so did the guy. He kept trying to talk to us and we were trying to avoid conversation with him. He kept getting closer as his dog got closer, but eventually he picked up the dog and left. I almost took down his shuttle sign. That has been the only weird experience we've had so far. From the gap, it was only 1.8 miles to where we planned to camp, so we huffed it up the mountain and got to Cowart Gap with some time to spare before sunset. At first, it looked like a great place to camp! Tall evergreens with a nice soft pine needle floor. Picturesque in the fading light of day for sure! Then we started noticing some things. First, the campsite was on an old fire road or a hunting road (not mentioned in the guidebook). Second, all of the lower branches of these lovely evergreens looked dead and deadly. This forced us to pitch camp right next to the fire ring, which brings me to the the third observation. Scat everywhere! This area was clearly frequented by a variety of wildlife, so we would take extra precautions when hanging our bear bag and cooking. Lastly, this was a cold gap. We lost daylight about an hour before actual sunset, which forced us into our tent just after cooking. It was set to be a cold night indeed. I didn't sleep too well that night becasue I was worried about the dog being cold and the possibility of animals coming into camp and the fact that when our sleeping bags are zipped together, they are a little drafty! But we somehow got through the night!

Day 12: Cowart Gap to Muskrat Creek Shelter
What a great day! This was the day we were set to enter North Carolina! One state down, 13 to go! It was freezing when we left camp in the morning. I put toe warmers in my boots to warm them up so that my feet wouldn't be miserable for the first hour. I cannot stand having cold fingers or cold toes. The fingers are easily managed because we bought these awesome Outdoor Research Flurry mitts that keep my hands very warm. The toe warmers are great on very cold mornings. Anyway, we booked it up the mountain in order to warm up. We even put on our rain jackets to cut the frigid wind. About a mile out of the gap, we realized we left Sheila's leash back at the campsite. We set our packs down and Chase jogged back down to get it. While I was waiting for him to come back, I met a group of hikers who had started on February 1st who said they were thru-camping. The one girl, Nomad, had contacted me on Facebook previously, so it was kind of cool to meet them. They were an interesting bunch, offering me a hit off a joint at 10am. They moved on a little while later and only one other hiker passed me while I waited for Chase to come back. Later on, we would learn the name of that hiker and hang out with him a bit, but I don't want to ruin the surprise! Chase came running back up the hill, drenched in sweat and stripped down to his baselayer top. We moved on and picked up the pace a little to make up time. I felt really good the rest of the day. The climbs were all pretty steep but we didn't need to take any long breaks for me to rest up. This made me feel so great! I was healed! I could hike normally again! And we were headed to NC! Such a great day indeed! We met the same thru-camping group at the border and they took our picture next to the sign. Chase held up Sheila so she could be in it too! It's such a great feeling getting that first state down. Georgia is no walk in the park. There are no fireworks or confetti when you pass the border, but I highly suggest making some noise to celebrate! As we passed by whooping and hollering, I remembered our first night on the trail and how everyday is a day to celebrate. We were going to camp at Bly Gap, but I was feeling very good so we pushed to Muskrat Creek Shelter. The climb up Courthouse Bald was fun! It was very steep and very windy, but I was so high from passing the border that it was just a fun challenge. There were no views from the top but it was amazing pushing to the highest elevation we had been at so far. We were also looking forward to being in familiar territory for the next two days, as we had section hiked from Deep Gap to Glassmine Gap over the summer. When we arrived at Muskrat Creek and got water to cook, it was already below freezing. We hurried as quick as we could to avoid freezing the water filter. It's a real problem in the winter. We sleep with the filter on most nights because it could crack if we are not careful. We crawled into the tent, put Sheila in her jacket, and bundled up for a cold night. 

Day 13 - Muskrat Creek Shelter to Carter Gap Shelter
Very, very cold morning! So cold that Sheila was actually shivering! She was lying on the ground while we were packing up the tent and stood up shivering. I wrapped her up in my Patagonia Micro Puff jacket to warm her back up. Once we got up and moving everything was fine, so I wasn't too worried about her. I made a mental note just to keep an eye on her during cold mornings. We made quick miles over the relatively easy terrain. I was getting really tired going up Standing Indian Mountain and feeling really discouraged until Chase pointed out that I was moving up the mountain much faster than any other climb previously. I didn't feel so bad after that! We stopped for a longer break at our favorite campsite on top of Standing Indian. It feels so good lying out in the grass in the sun on top of mountain with a view! We aired out our shoes and dried our socks while enjoying a Snickers. Then we got going down to Beech Gap. On the way, we met some section hikers who were pushing a 16 mile days to get to the NOC in 3 days. They passed us by and we weighed our options while taking a break at the gap. We could stay and camp early, or push to Carter Gap and be in a good  position to get into Franklin by Sunday, a day earlier than we had planned. We decided that Chase should hike ahead and get to Carter before nightfall and start setting up camp so there weren't as many chores to do when I got there. Sheila and I followed behind him about 5 minutes after he left the gap. I caught up to him about 5 minutes later as he had stopped to talk to the section hikers. They all walked off together and I gave them a couple minute head start so that Sheila would follow me instead of them. Still, I was able to catch this group of fast hikers not too far from the shelter! This made me feel really good about myself, coming from having to take a zero due to injury to hiking my longest day ever quickly was really just the best feeling. We set up the tent near the shelter in a thicket of rhodededron, got water, cooked, and crawled in our bags not long after nightfall. I fell asleep quickly but I woke up around 3am to the sound of something brushing up against the tent. I sat frozen for a few minutes as it happened again and again all around us. Finally I whispered to Chase that there was something outside. He sat up sleepily and listened, commenting that it was probably a skunk or something. I think he was skeptical until he heard it too, on both sides of the tent at the same time. He got a little wide-eyed and started to unzip the tent. He poked his head out and sighed, "It's snow!" The sound was the snow sloughing off of the tent fly! I think it's obvious we are Floridians... 

Day 14 - Carter Gap Shelter to Winding Stair Gap
After last night's adventure, we got out of camp around 8 and happily snapped pictures of the winter wonderland we found ourselves in. 1/4 of a inch of snow was all it took to make everything seem magical. I was exciting hiking through this light snowfall because you could see animal tracks on the trail. I would love to pick up a book on tracks and scat and the Appalachian flora, just so we know what's out there! Sheila's paws were a bit unhappy in the snow, so we put on her fleece booties. Dogbooties.com sells these great lightweight socks essentially that secure via an elastic velcro so they actually stay on her feet while she is hiking. Fleece also insulates when wet, so for the snow, these were a great purchase. She was soon trotting along happily again. The snow had melted by the time we got to Betty Creek Gap, and we took a break to prepare for climbing up Albert. We were debating making today a 16-mile day and pushing to Winding Stair Gap to get picked up to go into Franklin a day early. The daunting part of that plan was that we would have 9 more miles to go after summiting Albert, which is a really tough climb. The lure of pizza and beer was too much though, and we decided to go for it! On the way up to Albert we met a Southbounder named Prada. He saw Sheila and immediately recognized her! Sheep Dog has made us famous for sure. We chatted with him about his cold weather hike, about being stoked for 100 miles left until Springer, and took a picture with him. He was a really cool guy, and I hope his final 100 miles were amazing. We pushed onwards and upwards. The climb up was much easier than I remembered from my first hike back in July. We were at the top before I knew it. Sheila had no trouble with the steep ascent. I swear she is part mountain goat. We ate lunch at the top of the fire tower and took some pictures. Then we huffed it to Long Branch Shelter to use the facilities and relax for a bit. 6 more miles to go! A group stopped us at Glassmine Gap and chatted with us about hiking with a dog and thru-hiking in general. They seemed like a newbie kind of group. One guy was in jeans and a button down plaid shirt. We eventually got free of them and booked it down to Winding Stair. We stopped at Rock Gap to rest a minute and I seriously reconsidered pushing on another 4 miles. I was so tired! Sheila was falling asleep on her feet. But the pizza and beer got a hold of us, so on we went! On the last couple of ascents and descents, everything seemed blurry. Fatigue made our legs feel like Jell-O. Night was coming quickly and we would be lucky to be there before 6pm. Finally, we passed the sign for the gap. It seemed like forever to actually reach the road beyond the sign, but we were so happy when we got there. The Budget Inn van picked us up and brought us into town. We settled Sheila into the room and called for a ride to the pizza joint. Vito's Pizza in Franklin will come and pick up hikers from the Budget and bring them in to eat and drink! It was awesome! We ordered a large pizza, a chicken parm sub to split, an order of cheese sticks (which ended up being similar to a small cheese pizza) and a couple of beers. We ended up having leftovers for the next day, which was fine with us. You sleep so well when your fat, clean, and happy.

Day 15 - Zero in Franklin
This zero day sucked! We were so disorganized! We went to breakfast and came back to the room feeling like zombies. The Budget didn't have the boxes we bounced from the Hiawassee Budget, so we had to wait for the Sapphire Inn to bring them by at 11. By then, laundry had to be done before we could run our normal errands. I needed to pick up extra dog food and we needed to resupply through Fontana. We decided to ship a resupply box to Fontana to get us through the Smokies, so we had to buy extra and figure out how to efficiently ship it. We decided to walk to get these errands done, as the 4 o'clock shuttle seemed a little late in the day for us. By the time we hit the pet store and got to the Three Eagles Outfitters, the shuttle had caught up. The outfitter ended up being closed (closes at 4pm on Sunday) so we rode over to Ingles to get food. We ended up holding up everyone else because we were buying 2 weeks worth of resupply. We got back to the hotel and still felt like we had a whole days worth of stuff to do. We planned to ride back to the outfitter in the morning and to hit the post office too. We would try to catch the 11am shuttle back to the trail. We went to bed pretty uneasy with the daunting task ahead! 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Getting into the swing of things: Days 6 - 10

Hello from Franklin! I have updated our ETA's on the Mail Drop page! We have started to pick up the pace in order to meet our 15-mile per day average, but we are not quite there. My injury has fully recovered, as you will read in future blog posts. 

Below is a summary of days 6 through 10 on the trail. I think posting in 4 day groupings makes blogging a bit more manageable. 

We haven't posted many photos yet because we are still working out transferring them from the camera to the iPad. Hopefully soon though! 

Day 6: Zero in Hiawassee

Our zero mile day (commonly called a Zero in the hiking world) in Hiawassee was just what I needed to heal up and feel better. We woke up pretty early, ate breakfast at the Subway, talked about our hiking plan, and started in on the chores that needed to be done. We sorted laundry and set up the tent. We laid the sleeping bags over a railing in the sun so they could air out and dry out a little. I brushed Sheila and brushed her teeth. We then decided to take a break and walk up to the local grocery store, Ingles, for lunch and resupply. We have been jokingly calling the place Ingl├ęs (as in the Spanish word for english), so we had a lot of fun walking around and deciding what we would eat for the next ten days. We decided to stock up on all the hiker favorites, things that are lightweight but calorie-packed like Ramen and Snickers. We had also heard about this great recipe for a backpacker's Pad Thai that called for chunky peanut butter in chicken-flavored Ramen with a little hot sauce added. I was particularly stoked about this meal option, as Pad Thai is one of my favorite foods. We also bought a lot of trail bars and these great breakfast biscuits that would be sure to get us going in the morning. For lunch, we settled on a great Ingles deli sub made with Boar's Head meats. We agreed to only eat half today so we could eat the other half on the trail the next day. We also bought a bag of Cheez-Its, which were a wonderfully salty and cheesey snack to balance all of the sweet and bland trail bars. When dinner time rolled around, we walked up to the local all-you-can-eat (AYCE) buffet, Daniel's. We heard from our shuttle driver that they had a pretty great salad bar and we were in desperate need of some veggies. The salad bar ended up being only okay, and everything else was fried. I had an entire plate of deep-fried, brown meats. Since the veggie options weren't spectacular, we opted to finish off with a dessert of raw broccoli (the only real vegetable on the bar besides cucumbers). Feeling pretty satisfied, we hiked back to the motel to pack our bags and get ready to hit the trail the next day. We ended up sharing a couple of beers with a couple of other hikers, Honeybun and Derrick, who had pulled a 19 mile day to get into town. They were both planning to zero as a result. I think they might have been ex-military, but I could be wrong. We had a great night overall, and were excited to get back out there. My leg was feeling much, much better, but even so, we talked about taking it slow once we hit the trail, doing low-mileage days just to make sure everything would be alright. Sheila relished her time in town, sleeping most of the day away.

Day 7: Tesnatee to Low Gap Shelter 
We woke up pretty early in order to get our bags packed and be ready by our 9am shuttle departure time. Our driver ended up knocking on our door at 8:15am, which made me feel rushed. We hit the post office so Chase could fill out his change of address form and then headed to the gap. I was feeling pretty ready to take on the day. The man who drove us back to the gap seemed nice enough, kind of your "good ol' boy" type. We got to the gap a little after 9:30am and started our huff up out of the gap carrying 10 days worth of food and full water. Just before setting off, we met a hiker named Penguinman whom we had met at the base of Springer our second day on the trail. At the time, he had been heading up to the top with his wife in order to get some pictures of him signing the register and near the plaque, etc. His wife was wearing a big, puffy parka with faux fur around the hood and a pair of baggy jeans. We heard later on that she wasn't able to get up to the top of Springer, and I'm not surprised. It was really icy that day. Anyway, we met Penguinman again and set off from the bottom of Tesnatee Gap. The climb was just as hard as it had been two days ago, but by taking it at an easy pace with lots of stops to rest, we made it to the top without incident. We were passed by quite a few hikers on the way, but we made it! There were several great views from the top of the gap. It was such a beautiful and sunny day, you could actually see the outline of Atlanta in the distance. Seeing the hazy outline of a gigantic city from the top of a mountain will certainly make you feel very small. After sightseeing for a bit, we pushed on to Hogpen Gap and ate our lunch of leftover subs in a little clearing. Some section hikers passed us while we ate, as did Penguinman, who had stopped at Hogpen to get water. We took our time and made it to Low Gap Shelter by about 3pm. The shelter area was really beautiful and the water source was great. There were many great places to tent as well. The section hikers who passed us earlier were setting up in the shelter and building a fire. We all chatted a bit as I signed the register, and then we went off to set up our tent. Some other thru-hikers trickled in as we set up camp and made dinner. Trish and her boyfriend Jessie recognized us from the blogosphere because of Sheila. She has made us so popular! Trisha was really funny and thinking back on that night, I hope we bump into them again soon. A couple of solo thru-hikers joined our little group, including a guy named Gizmo who had hiked from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. The night at Low Gap marked his 66th on the trail. The last group to arrive was a couple that I had actually been in contact with a little pre-trail, Kristin and Eric (now known as Icicle and Quailman). They were super awesome and I was really glad we got to meet them. If it wasn't for having to pull off the trail for a day, we may have not met them so soon! Our little group of hikers stayed up until 9pm, talking and passing a flask around the campfire. So many great stories were told and lots of great coversation was had that night. It was probably one of my favorite nights on the trail, and I'm very grateful for the zero in Hiawassee for making it possible!

Day 8: Low Gap Shelter to Blue Mountain Shelter
After such a great night, Chase and I woke up and got out of camp later than we wanted to. This wasn't that big of a deal, since we were planning a pretty low mileage day anyway. While we packed up camp, Icicle and Quailman offered to carry some of our weight for us to help my leg recover and take some of the burden off of Chase. They were planning a shorter day as well and seemed really eager to help out, so we graciously accepted their offer. They hiked a bit faster than us, so even though we got out of camp earlier, they passed us in the first few miles. Taking it easy allowed us to really take in the scenery. It was another warm, lovely day on the trail filled with sunshine and a few great views. The beauty of hiking in the winter is that you almost always have a view of the mountains surrounding you. We took our last break of the day 3 miles from the shelter. The terrain looked really easy, so I wasn't worried about worsening my injury at all, but this last bit of the hike ended up being tons of rocks. Rocks are terrible because they wear your feet out if you walk on them, they can move and make you roll an ankle very easily, and you have to slow way down to avoid either of those things. We finally made it the shelter a little after Icicle and Quailman. They were still plopped on the ground eating what they could, which is a pretty common practice (eat first, everything else second) after a day of hiking. Chase set up the tent while I gathered water and signed the register. We also collected firewood and got ready to have a little campfire that night. That is the great thing about getting into camp early; so much time to do things before it gets dark and cold. We ended up sitting around with them until about 8pm. They were planning on zeroing at the shelter the next day to let Icicle rest a little, as she was thinking she might have pulled a muscle in her calf hiking through the rocks. It was nice being able to hang out with them a second night and get to know them more. We finished off the last of the booze we packed in and called it a night.

Day 9: Blue Mountain Shelter to Rocky Mountain
Our ninth day on the trail was pretty interesting. We woke up later than we wanted (as usual), took a group photo with Icicle and Quailman, said our good-byes, and hit the trail. It was very cold and windy, so we stopped a little way down the trail and put our mid layers back on. I have these Outdoor Research Flurry mittens that are amazing. Even in the high winds, my hands were toasty warm. We hiked down into Unicoi Gap feeling very good. The pain in my leg seemed to have disappeared entirely. We were already craving a burger, so we decided to try our hand at hitching and to grab lunch in Hiawassee. Chase stood out by the road while I hung back at the parking lot because I was feeling a bit shy. 15 minutes or so went by with no luck, and I was putting my pack on to keep going up the trail when a white SUV pulled in to drop off a hiker. The elderly couple kindly offered to take all 3 of us into town. They ended up buying us lunch from Hardee's which was an incredible piece of trail magic! Even Sheila got a burger! From the Hardee's we walked over to the Ingles and restocked on snacks. Chase had been eating like a bear already, and we needed more snacks to keep him happy. We also picked up some Terra chips for Icicle and Quailman! $40 later, we had to hitch back out the gap. We set off down the road and waited until we were on the edge of town to stick our thumbs out. It really was embarrassing for me, but after a few minutes, it seemed like the natural thing to do. In a trail town like Hiawassee, we didn't expect to wait long for a ride, and we didn't. A gentleman in an older Chevy truck picked us up as he was leaving town. Sheila and I jumped in the back of the truck and off we went! Unfortunately, the guy was about to run out of gas, so he had to drop us off about 2 miles from the gap and head back to town. I guess when we picked us up he thought we were going to Dick's Creek Gap. Anyway, we stuck our thumbs out again, this time on a country mountian highway between two small towns. It seemed like more people were driving into Hiawassee than into Helen, and we didn't get a ride until we were about a mile from the gap. It seems like when you have no hope left, the trail provides. A guy named Mike picked us up. His kids own the Hayloft restaurant in Helen, GA. He told us that at the Hayloft, they will come pick you up from the gap to eat lunch! That would have been good for us to know earlier in the day! Because of the unexpected hitching adventure, we didn't get back to the gap until 4 o'clock. We checked the guide and decided we could only get to the campsite on top of Rocky Mountain before nightfall. My leg  was feeling a bit sore from walking on the road with out trekking poles, but as soon as my feet touched the mountain, everything felt fine. We climbed out of the gap and arrived sooner than expected at the campsite. The camping area was beautiful; nice grassy and mossy spot with a view of the town below. As night fell, the city lights came to life below and provided a contrast to the starry night above. It was a cold and windy night on top of the mountain. At this point, life on the trail was beginning to normalize and really feel like home.

Day 10: Rocky Mountain to Sassafras Gap
Because I was feeling better, we decided to push our miles up a little and get to Sassafras Gap that day. We got out of camp pretty early, but the wind was bitterly cold and seemed to cut through to the bone. It was a foggy morning but as the sun rose and teh fog burned off, the day proved to be sunny and warm again. The great weather really made my mood soar. We made great time to Tray Mountain Shelter, where we took a longer break to get water and eat lunch. On the way out of the shelter, we ended up running into Icicle and Quailman! They were planning on camping at Sassafras Gap and to go into Hiawassee from Dick's Creek Gap the next day. We let them hike on ahead and continued to take it easy on our longest day since my injury yet. We met a group of hikers from Germany at Steeltrap Gap as we were taking a break. They were also heading for Sassafras and was wondering how to signal to their third hiking buddy that they moved on. I was changing my pants at the time. No time for modesty on the trail! ;) The Patagonia Houdini wind pants I was wearing as hiking pants had torn a bit in the seat of the pants and I didn't want to further damage them, so I changed to just hiking in my base layer bottoms. We moved on ahead of the Germas, but they caught up and passed us soon after. The last few miles to Sassafras Gap were mostly uphill, and it took us longer to reach the gap than I thought. I was trying not to feel too down about moving slow; after all I was still recovering. We met up with Icicle and Quailman and set up our tent near theirs. I have them the Terra chips and they seemed really grateful! I guess they were on their last portions of food before resupply in Hiawassee. We shared the bag between the four us as we set up home for the night. No campfire that night; we were all pretty beat and we were looking at a harder day in terms of elevation changes for that next day. It was a quiet night indeed. 

Posting blog updates has proven to be a little more sparse than we anticipated. I promise to try and do better! Chores tend to eat up your free time when you get into camp, especially if you arrive late. Also, I tend to be so tired at the end of the night that I fall asleep by 8pm. I have been keeping up a written journal to help reflect on the days past. 

Thank you everyone for your continued support!