Saturday, May 31, 2014

100 Days

Day 86: Zero day in Pittsburgh
Day 87: Zero day in Pittsburgh
Day 88: Zero day in Pittsburgh
Day 89: Zero day in Pittsburgh
Day 90: Harper's Ferry to Crampton Gap Shelter (7.5 miles)
Day 91: Crampton Gap to Annapolis Rocks Campsite (14.1 miles)
Day 92: Annapolis Rocks to Raven's Rock Shelter (11.5 miles)
Day 93: Raven's Rock to Pen-Mar Park, Waynesboro, PA, Days Inn (4.6 miles)
Day 94: Pen-Mar Park to Tumbling Run Shelters (8.6 miles)
Day 95: Tumbling Run to Quarry Gap Shelters (12.2 miles)
Day 96: Quarry Gap to Pine Grove Furnace State Park Campground (16.9 miles) Half-Gallon Challenge
Day 97: PGFSP to Little Dogwood Run (15.6 miles)
Day 98: Little Dogwood Run to stealth campsite near piped spring (17.3 miles)
Day 99: Campsite to Duncannon, PA, The Doyle Hotel (12.3 miles)
Day 100: The Doyle to Clark's Ferry Shelter (4.3 miles)

Hike recap...
Our hike since returning to the trail has been awesome. Aside from having head colds, the terrain has been easy so our mileages have been rather consistent. We did a short day into Waynesboro to try to recover from our colds more quickly by spending a night in a warm bed and having a hot shower. The other short day was coming out of Duncannon because we didn't leave until 5pm due to a severe thunderstorm moving through the area. Our stay at the Doyle was amazing! The run-down old hotel definitely has some charm! Our attempt at the Half-Gallon Challenge was a bit pathetic. First, the General Store was closed so we couldn't participate in the "official" challenge, but the Ironmaster's hostel next door sold 1.75 quart containers of ice cream so we decided to make our own challenge. We decided to try and race each other which was a huge mistake! Eating ice cream very quickly is no fun at all, so we ended up eating half that night and half the next day. Our 98th day brought us through the Cumberland Valley and the quaint town of Boiling Springs just in time for their Memorial Day Parade. Sheila enjoyed the free eggs she yogi'd from the customers at Cafe 101, but she did not enjoy the 21 gun salute at the end of the parade. 

Reflections on 100 days...
Wow. 100 days! It seems like just yesterday we set out from Amicalola Falls in about 4 inches of snow and struggled to summit Springer Mountain before nightfall. I can still remember the feeling of the anticipation and excitement of what was to come. I remember being nervous of walking over to h the shelter to meet the other hikers at the end of our 8.8 mile day. I remember being really unsure of myself and unsure if I could really do the thing. The AT was a big and scary unknown. 

Today, I'm a little more confident in who I am and why I'm out here, and I'm still excited about what's to come (New England!!! Whaaaa?!) The AT is still an unknown in many ways, but it also feels like home. Our 5x8 tent is the coziest little house we could ask for and walking the spine of Appalachia is the best commute. The AT has become the "real life," and everything else is referred to as the "before times." I'm confident we can summit Katahdin before having to head home and start the newest chapter of our lives. 

The past 100 days have been marked by plenty of ups and downs (literally and figuratively), some of which I've documented in previous blog posts. It's hard to capture every moment out here to share with the world, but thinking back on these 100 days fills me with an immense feeling of joy and accomplishment. Hiking everyday for 11 hours a day is hard work. Sometimes you're rewarded with a great view or particularly nice terrain, but more often than not you seem to be trudging up and down pointless mountains over snowy, slushy, muddy, rocky, root-y, or uneven terrain. It's painful and exhausting more often than not. Hiking the AT is not about finding happiness in every step, though for us there is an inherent happiness in the hike. For me it's more about finding joy in the personal growth I have experienced which has stemmed from pushing my physical and mental limits and stepping outside my comfort zone. 

There is a quote I often see on cheesy home decor products that says, "Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the number of moments that take your breath away" and I have found it to be so incredibly true. For over 100 days now I've been able to wake up alongside the most loving and kind man and our silly dog in a little tent in the woods with the biggest grin on my face, and it continues to take my breath away. 

On on! To Katahdin! 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Psychologically" Halfway

Harper's Ferry is touted as the "psychological" halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. If you look at a map of the AT and you pointed to the visual middle of the trail, your finger would land damn near Harper's Ferry, WV but this isn't why it is considered the half-way point. The actual 2014 AT midpoint is somewhere just north of a woods road at mile number 1092.65, whereas Harper's Ferry is situated around mile 1019. But Harper's Ferry is celebrated and will continue to be celebrated as a major milestone for a few reasons. By this point in an AT thru-hike, a person has endured countless hardships, whether that be injury, inclement weather, the loss of a hiking partner or group, or some combination of all three. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters also resides in Harper's Ferry and many a thru-hiker delight in having their photos taken outside of the building. The ATC keeps photo books dating back to the '70s full of hiker portraits.

We were beyond ecstatic to arrive in fabled Harper's Ferry (albeit by car). Our shuttle driver, Strings, parked behind the building and we four walked up the steps and opened the creaky screen door, letting it slam behind us. I don't know what I was really expecting from the small, whitewashed building, but I can tell you I was on the verge of tears. My eyes instantly settled on an aged wooden plank in the back of the room. The old Katahdin sign was beautiful and didn't seem real at all. We are at the ATC! They are going to take our picture! We're thru-hikers!

We were soon standing out front trying to keep Sheila still as the volunteer fiddled with the camera. She took a few different shots of us and we then followed her inside to watch the photo print and fill out the required information. While we were waiting, we spoke with another volunteer behind the desk and told him a little of our recent travels, what with having to skip ahead in order to finish at Katahdin by August. That's when everything changed.

The woman who had taken our picture was ready to fill out the information, including our start date and what number hiker we were to come to the ATC as a thru-hiker. She reached for the red permanent marker reserved for thru-hikers when the man at the counter stopped her.

"They aren't thru-hikers. They are doing an alternate hike since they missed some of the trail. Use the brown pen."

I was a little shocked when I heard this, but it didn't really register with me. It was as I was filling out our trail names and writing GA>ME that I realized that what he had said really bothered me. We are thru-hikers damn it. I mean, of course I understood that we wouldn't actually be hikers number 146 and 147, but being classified as an "alternate" really rubbed me the wrong way.

Chase and I have struggled through so much out here and we have found so many reasons to rejoice in the trail life. We feel like the AT has become a part of us, that the trail runs in our veins, guiding us toward Maine and helping us to grow along the way. To be classified in such a way really did some damage to my spirit. Our Maryland hike has been characterized by both of us having head colds and me dealing with the realization that the psychological halfway point isn't really halfway for us.

I've since come to terms with the brown "21" written over our ATC photo. We still have over half of the AT to hike and so much more time to spend out here in the woods and with each other. The numbers and milestones really are all "psychological," but the physical reality of what we are doing is still immense and applaudable.

Once we reach Katahdin, our AT miles hiked will be something like 1931.6 miles. Next year, we will hike the 22 miles into Damascus and party like a thru-hiker at Trail Days. We will make up the trail we missed from Glasgow to Harper's Ferry over the next couple of years as time allows on weekends and holidays.

I don't know when we will make it back to the ATC, but the next time we are there, I plan on holding my head high as we walk through the door and eating all of the cookies left for thru-hikers because damn it, I am an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Hiking with a Dog: 780 miles later

Now that we have officially passed the 1/3rd mark, I think this is an appropriate time to update our followers on what it has been like hiking with Sheila the Australian Mountain Dog. We've learned a few lessons along the way, and for anyone considering bringing their outdoor-loving dog on a long backpacking trip, you might want to take notes!

Hiking with Sheila is so rewarding, but it's also very challenging. Making sure she is happy and healthy is our number one priority. Having her along for the adventure adds one more variable to the equation of getting to Katahdin.

Food & Water
In the beginning, we were stopping every 15 minutes to give her water which made our average pace barely above 1 mph. After hiking 780+ miles, we usually stop every hour or hour and a half to water her, depending on the terrain and the temperature. Between the two of us, we carry 6.5L of water to make sure that we all have enough. She can easily drink about 2L of water per day (sometimes a half-liter or more while in camp in the morning and at night, and a liter throughout the day). Doggy dehydration is serious, so make sure to carry extra for your thirsty pooch. We don't let her drink from streams or rivers directly due to the risk of Giardia, though sometimes she will sneak in a few laps.

For food, she started out eating twice as much as she did at home (about 4 cups per day, 2 in the morning and 2 in camp at night). We didn't anticipate how hard it would be to actually get her to eat. She would eat a few handfuls in the morning, and maybe a few more when we stopped for lunch. We finally learned to accept that she wants to eat the majority of her food at night. Nowadays she eats 5 cups of food per day; 1 in the morning, 1 in the afternoon, and 3 at night. She still acts a little picky and we have to work pretty hard to convince her to eat. There was a 2 week period where she was losing weight and we were worried she would have to go home, but we started putting about a tablespoon of olive oil in her food at night and we haven't had a problem since (fingers crossed!) She carries about 5 days of food in her pack and we will usually carry an extra day for her, just in case. 

Since the weather has warmed up, ticks have been our number one battle. She started out on a Seresto tick and flea collar, but we found that it just wasn't potent enough to fend off the explosion of ticks that seemed to come out of nowhere as we crossed into May. We were spending 1.5 to 2 hours per night picking off 30+ ticks (including the dreaded deer tick). When we decided to skip some of the trail to let Cheez-it's foot recover and to get back on track, we switched to the Preventic collar and within 48 hours all of the ticks that were attached to her were dried up and dead! We will see how the new collar works once we are back on the trail, but for now, we are very happy with the switch. The Seresto collar works supposedly for 6 months and the Preventic is effective for only 3 months, but we think this is the best move. I will report when we return! We are also working with Tarptent to see about getting a "dog bivy" that will fit in our vestibule and keep her separated from us while keeping her from running off after an animal in the middle of the night. A big problem we were having with the ticks is that the live ticks would crawl off of her and onto us in the middle of the night. We are hoping that the fast acting Preventic will help solve some of this problem.

Wild Animals
Sheila is a herding dog by instinct. If she spots an animal in the woods and it just so happens to be running away, she really wants to chase it. Thankfully, she has only bolted off once after some deer. She also chased a bird that was flying in the sky in the Grayson Highlands. On that note, Sheila didn't seem to mind the ponies until we started making a big about them. Oh! She chased the goats at Woods Hole Hostel and we had to turn off the electric fence to get her back out. Thank goodness she actually listens to us when we yell at her.

We have come across one rattlesnake so far, but we know they become more common in PA. A guy named Bangarang told us about a rattlesnake vaccine you can get out west, but the few veterinarians we asked here on the east coast have never heard of it. Just be careful if you chose to hike with your dog in rattlesnake areas. Always keep your dog close and keep an eye out for any snake that may be on the trail or just off the trail. Rattlesnakes will often let you know if you're too close, but it's best not to push your luck.

Hostels & Town Stays
We have been very lucky at each hostel we've stayed at in that they have let us leave Sheila in the room while we run any errands. This is not a privilege, so always ask if it is okay. And don't leave your dog if you know that they are prone to whining or could become destructive if left alone. It really helps to hike as a pair if you take your dog, that way one of you can hang outside with the dog while the other runs into the store or orders food. Town seems to stress Sheila out immensely. The noise of cars and motorcycles really freaks her out after a week or two in the woods. We find that minimizing our time in town minimizes her stress.

Sheila's gear has been holding up wonderfully. Her saddlebags are showing some wear from her rubbing up against rocks and things, but I'm sure that they will survive for the rest of the trip. We have had a spot of trouble with the fit of the pack, causeing the whole thing to slide forward as we were coming down a steep descent, but I think the issue was more user error than a design flaw. I am really sad to hear that Granite Gear is discontinuing the Long Howl, because it's the only one we've found with this type of design and we prefer it much more than the typical dog packs.

For hiking in snow, I definitely recommend the fleece booties. They are cheap and they get the job done. I was very hesitant about the hard-soled booties you can buy for your dog because none of them seemed to fit quite right and they seemed like they might do more harm than good in the long run. I just felt like they didn't allow her foot to move naturally, so when we found these simple fleece socks I was really excited. The fleece insulated her pawpads from the snow and slush while keeping the ice from building up between her toes and allowing her to walk naturally. I don't worry about rocks so much, though I'm sure she gets tired of walking on them (just like us!) After a long day on rocks, we usually rub her pads down with Musher's Secret to help nourish them. She loves a good footrub at the end of the day. These booties combined with the moisturizing power of Musher's Secret have helped to keep Sheila's feet happy and healthy.

A tough decision...
Overall, we would not take her on another long-distance backpacking trip. We would take her out for a week or so at a time, but being on the trail for 6 months with your dog is a lot of extra hard work. If you're considering taking Fido for a long hike, be mentally prepared to spend a few hours a day taking care of your pet. If you aren't committed to the idea of putting your animal first in every situation, then don't bring them along. It has been very tough for us to continue on with her because on one hand we know she is having a blast, but on the other hand the risk to her health from tick-borne disease is real and has really been weighing on my mind. 

For now, she will continue to hike with us and she will continue to steal the hearts of the hikers around her (including ours!) but if this new medication seems less than effective, we might end up taking her off-trail. Just please, please be a responsible pet owner if you decide that you are up to the challenge! If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or send us an email to

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Goodbyes and Trail Magic: Days 69 - 85

Day 69: Doc's Knob Shelter to spring, campsite (12.8 miles)
Day 70: Campsite to Stony Creek Valley (15 miles)
Day 71: Stony Creek Valley to footbridge, stream, campsite (13.3 miles)
Day 72: Campsite to VA 42, Four Pines Hostel (7.3 miles)
Day 73: Zero at Four Pines
Day 74: VA 42 to Craig Creek (11.5 miles)
Day 75: Craig Creek to Four Pines Hostel (15.3 miles)
Day 76: Four Pines Hostel to Lambert's Meadow Campsite (16.6 miles)
Day 77: Lambert's Meadow to Daleville, VA (9.4 miles)
Day 78: Daleville, VA to stealth campsite (6ish miles)
Day 79: Campsite to stealth campsite past Bearwallow Gap (16ish miles)
Day 80: Campsite to Cornelius Creek Shelter (15ish miles)
Day 81: Cornelius Creek to Marble Spring Campsite (12.2 miles)
Day 82: Marble Spring to US 501, Glasgow VA and Buena Vista VA (7.7 miles)
Day 83: Zero in Buena Vista, camped at Devil's Backbone Brewpub
Day 84: Zero in Charlottesville, trail magic in Shenandoah
Day 85: Zero in Charlottesville, trail magic in Shenandoah 

As you can see from the above, we've been pretty busy! After coming back from Virginia Beach, we were super motivated to make up for lost time on the trail. We took an unexpected zero at Four Pines Hostel to wait out some weather (the same weather that put tornadoes down in Pearisburg), and had an amazing stretch of clear, sunny weather to cover Dragon's Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs, which are some of the most picturesque sections of the Appalachian Trail! 

After we left Pearisburg, Cheez-it started having some foot issues. First, the top of her ankle was very sore and left her limping down the trail most of the time. That problem was solved by doing "alphabet stretches." To do alphabet stretches, point your toes and imagine that they are a paint brush. Then use that paint brush to write out each letter of the alphabet. This is a really good ankle strengthening exercise that I would recommend to all hikers. After this issue was resolved, Cheez-it's ball of her foot would be very painful by the end of the day and the top of her foot would be swollen. She dealt with this pain with a "grit and bear it" approach that had drained her of all patience by the time we arrived in Daleville. We were convinced that new shoes would help resolve this problem since she had been hiking in her Vasque Mantra 2.0's with stock insoles since Franklin. We picked up a pair of Dr. Scholl's massaging gel insoles at the recommendation of Dr. Grandpa Kibble and bought Cheez-it a pair of Salomon Synapse trail runners. It was clear the moment we left Daleville that the Dr. Scholl's were not supportive enough, so she switched back to hiking in the brand-new stock insoles of the Salomon's. This seemed to help, but as we neared Glasgow, VA Cheez-it's feet were in so much pain we had to stop every mile or so to let them rest.

By this point we had already been discussing our options regarding finishing the trail. Cheez-it had been accepted to the College of William & Mary School of Marine Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the moment she accepted the offer, we imposed a firm deadline for having to complete our hike. Orientation at VIMS is the 22nd and 23rd of August, and we have to find somewhere to live and move to Virginia from Florida before that. If we stayed on the trail and just kept hiking normally, the soonest we could be done with the trail was something like August 10th, which didn't seem likely since we would probably be taking a few more zeroes. We decided we would skip what we had left in Virginia and get back on the trail at Harper's Ferry. This was a really tough decision for Cheez-it to swallow. Skipping this section of trail meant leaving Icicle and Quailman behind. It meant we wouldn't hike into Harper's Ferry, proud and tired and dirty, and have our picture taken at the ATC headquarters. It meant missing 1/10th of the trail, which is really just a drop in the bucket, but there is something so emotional about making the decision to skip a significant portion of the trail. Would we really be thru-hikers at that point?

We talked and I (Cheez-it) cried a lot. But it made sense. It would put us on track to finish by late July/early August. We would be able to come back on weekends and section hike the Shenandoah's. We could take time off to rest my foot and get Sheila on new tick medication. So we decided to jump trail.

We spent one last night camped with Icicle & Quailman at Marble Spring, and we all hitched into Glasgow to get pizza and beer. We all ended up getting a ride into the larger town of Buena Vista and really celebrated with margaritas and fajitas. The next morning, the finality of our parting hit home as they caught a shuttle to the Food Lion to resupply and we tried to figure out the rental car situation. We cried and group-hugged and promised to keep in touch. It was hard watching them drive away. We had been through so much together and we connected with them like we had with no other hikers. It was at that moment that I understood what it must be like for a solo hiker to fall behind their group. I had always wondered, "Why don't they just do their own thing and find another group?" And the answer is because it's hard. When you're out here every day conquering the same obstacles with the same group of people, it's hard to leave them behind or be left behind. You build life-long friendships out here. No one really understands what your going through like another hiker, especially one that you have been with since the beginning.

Enough with the sappy stuff before I start crying all over the keyboard!

We got a rental car and drove to Reeds Gap to pick up any hikers looking to go to the Devils Backbone Brewpub, where they would let hikers camp for free. We didn't see anyone at the AT crossing, but when we got to the pub, we met ReRoute, Geared-Up, and Kristo. We spent a great night with them and offered to slackpack them into Waynesboro since we had to go there the next day anyway to go to the foot doctor to have Cheez-it's foot checked out in case of stress fracture or the dreaded plantar fasciitis. They really appreciated the offer and we had fun doing it! We also picked up the packs of Simba and Brightside as we drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway into Waynesboro. The foot doctor ended up being closed that day, so we hatched a plan to do some trail magic along Skyline Drive. We picked up some Cokes, lemonade, apples, bananas, and oranges and entered Shenandoah. The first hiker we saw was Good Company at Beagle Gap, waiting on a friend to come pick him up. We drove on and stopped at every AT crossing to try and catch hikers as they crossed the road. We ended up meeting a lot of people that we had met at Four Pines when we unexpectedly zeroed there. We were able to give out magic to Survivorman, a section hiker named Trashcan, Prom Queen, Wees, Cowgirl, Poohbear, Sunbear, Good Company (again), Spicekit, Coconut, Shybear, Top O, GramCracker, and Grasshopper. I may have missed some names, but I had them all sign-in on our trail magic log book so I'll update that later. It was so much fun doing trail magic!

Now, we are off to Washington DC to be a bit touristy and then off to Pittsburg to visit The Ramen Shaman's aunt and uncle and my sister, Cassie. We plan to get back on the trail on Friday at Harper's Ferry.

We will be updating our mail-drop page soonly to let everyone know of our next stops along the trail. The rental car and the time off has been rather costly, so I'm not sure we will be staying in too many hostels going forward. If you want to help out, but aren't sure about what to send, generic Visa gift-cards would really help us out at this point. We have our resupply down to a science, and while we surely appreciate and are excited to receive packages, sometimes we aren't sure what we need until we are in town, and putting together food for the week from a few mail-drops is hard to do. We would  love to receive cards of encouragement and support to help us over this rough spot in our trail experience.

Thanks to all of our readers for the continued support and encouragement! Check out our Facebook page for new photos from the trail which we will be posting before the end of the week!