This is my original Appalachian Trail journal from 2001 (Edited for grammar).
It includes additions that were written sixteen years later (in 2017). These are in italics.
Thursday, April 19, 2001
Plumorchard Gap Shelter to Standing Indian Shelter
Today’s Miles: 13.7
Trip Miles: 93.4
Tenderheart seems to have made a new friend. A stray dog has been following her since the beginning of the morning. It’s a beautiful dog. He’s very quiet, timid, and jumpy. He’ll leap back in fear at our slightest movements. This poor guy obviously must have been through something rough. He’s very thin and obviously hungry or starved, but oddly very finicky about what he’ll eat when we try to feed him.
If he’s still around tomorrow morning, Tenderheart is going to try to get him into a humane society or something in Franklin, N.C. She’s the only one of us he seems to like and not fear too much. He’s primarily a black or dark brown, with tan legs and tiny tan patches above his eyes. I don’t know what breed he is.
Not only do I have North Carolina in my mind, but I have it under my feet! Georgia is tucked under my belt…it’s been good. The state greets you with a gnarled oak tree, followed by an immediate steep climb up Sharp Top and Court House Bald. The climb up Sharp Top required me to grasp the tree limbs as handholds to vault myself up the mountain. Welcome!
I’m finally on the second map of the full Appalachian Trail set – going from the purple colored map I’ve been using to the big bad-ass red-colored one. I met Gorp Dealer and Flatlander today. They both seem to be moving pretty fast. I didn’t see Kristie and Willow.
And oh, get this – I met a friendly southbound section hiker too… he felt that I was in need of a religious pamphlet to read, warning me about going to Hell. That’s two days in a row now! This must be why they call this part of the country the “Bible Belt.”
Friday, April 20, 2001
Standing Indian Shelter to Big Spring Shelter
Today’s Miles: 14.4
Trip Miles: 107.8
The dog that’s been following Tenderheart is still around. She named him George, because he was found in Georgia. I gave him the last Slim Jim out of my food bag before leaving the shelter. The poor thing must be so hungry. I wish I had some beef jerky or something with me for this stretch of the trail.
I climbed to the top of Standing Indian Mountain in the morning. It’s the highest elevation I’ve reached so far at 5500 feet above sea level.
Late in the day I then tackled the rock scramble up Albert Mountain. At one point I had to throw my stick on the rock up above my head and use my hands to climb up the rocks.
The view from the top was the best I’ve seen so far. There’s a rickety fire tower that offers three hundred and sixty degree views all around. I could have used all the film in my camera up there alone! It was tempting to set up camp right there for the night, but I decided to come down here to the shelter. A bunch of great people have rolled in since I arrived, so I made the right choice.
Well, I knew it had to happen at some point. Duct Tape took a fall today. It was while I was going down Standing Indian Mountain, and thinking about how much stronger I feel since I began the hike. My left foot caught a rock hidden under some leaves, and down I went. My momentum and the weight of my pack pushed me straight forward into the ground. Face plant.
It was as if the trail was saying, “So you think you’re tough, buddy? Well, take this!” I got right back up unscathed, save for a bruised ego.
My feet are still slowly healing, and my knees are giving me a bit of pain every day, but not terribly. My lips are chapped and sunburned badly, and even cracking and bleeding a very little. Other than that, all systems are good. A lot of people are coming down with nasty cases of poison ivy. I’ll have to watch where I step more closely.
Today I met Pam, Jamie, Joker, Minx, Pepe, Iculus, Cartman, and Frogman. The last four are a cool group of guys, but they’re moving pretty fast. We’ll see if I can keep up with any of them. Iculus is twenty years old like myself, and left college because “he didn’t dig it,” …and so he could do things like this first. See? I’m not the only one!
Nearly everybody out here has had enough of their old job and is looking for something different. Most are just out of school, retired, between jobs, divorced… transitional phases. One person I met is out here because his wife recently got sick and passed away (JM, back at Goose Creek.) The trail is a good thing.
Saturday, April 21, 2001
Big Spring Shelter to Siler Bald Shelter
Today’s Miles: 12.8
Trip Miles: 120.6
I spent almost every day of the summer when I was twelve years old at an amusement park called Dorney Park. My friends and I had season passes. Like clockwork each day, my friend Bill’s mother would drive us there (In a windy, fun convertible with the top down) at around four o’clock.
Bill and I would hang around the park all night – walking around, going on the rides, and looking at girls. Once, he even got a sixteen year old’s phone number! I think we told them that we were fourteen, when we were really twelve. We even got to know some of the people that worked there, and the days of the week they worked and such.
There’s nothing like riding in the front seat of a wooden roller coaster on a warm summer’s night with the wind blowing back your hair. One night we were so close to the holiday fireworks that the ash and wrappings fell on us, and the fireman instructed us to stand by their trucks. We had our whole school careers ahead of us. It was a great summer.
We would wait near the back gate of the park at ten o’clock. That’s when the park closed and my mother would pick us up. We’d just lay in the grass, check out the stars, and see how far we could throw rocks into the duck pond. That area isn’t even a public gate anymore since they redeveloped the park in ensuing years. When my mom would drop Bill off at his house, he’d always disappear into this tunnel of shrubbery that led to his front door. He called it The Batcave.
During these last few days in the mountains, bits and pieces of green have been popping up everywhere with the changing seasons. I’ve been walking through some tunnels of small trees and bushes on the mountaintops that are very similar to “The Batcave.” Sometimes when I go through those areas, I think of that summer.
I took a half-mile side trail off of the Appalachian Trail to have lunch under a special tree. It’s called the Wasilik Poplar, and it’s supposedly the second-largest yellow poplar tree in the world. It’s one big tree! Sadly, it looks like it’s dying.
Cartman and I pushed a really good pace up to this shelter tonight. I think he and Frogman continued on up the trail. Before I set up here for the night I had to get a look at the top of Siler Bald. A bald is a mountain that is entirely forested except for the summit, which is naturally an open, grassy field, with high exposure and excellent views. I can’t wait to hike over it tomorrow morning.
It’s now nearly nine p.m. as I write this, and the last embers of a campfire we had going are slowly dying down. We were discussing how simple everything is out here, and how amazed we are about how little you need to actually live. At one point we were even laughing out loud at the unfortunate souls that work a million hours a week just to pay for their fancy SUV’s and “things.” Somebody said that the things they own own them.
Well, the stars are coming out, as well as Franklin’s city lights in the distance, and I am turning in. Life is good.
Today I passed a road that led to a hostel called “Rainbow Springs Campground.” The hostel was made famous (Or more accurately, infamous) by Bill Bryson’s portrayal of it in his famous book “A Walk in the Woods.” Most thru-hikers regard Bryson as a sort of wanna-be-poser, primarily because he skipped around the trail quite a bit and never did in fact backpack the full length of the Appalachian Trail.
The majority of hikers who are critical of the book cite the fact that it’s not an accurate portrayal of the Trail and thru-hiking culture, which is valid. But I also think their strongest feelings stem from a sort of resentment and jealousy that Bryson penned the most popular and financially successful book about the Appalachian Trail without even hiking the whole thing.
I had a nice break at Winding Stair Gap with a group of other hikers. This is where the Appalachian Trail crosses a state highway which leads to Franklin, North Carolina – a popular resupply stop and “trail town.”
It was a steep ascent from here of almost 1,000 feet to Siler Bald Shelter. I wrote above that “Cartman and I pushed a really good pace up to this shelter tonight,” but in retrospect now I get the impression that he was just trying to lose me. He kicked on the afterburners and seemed mildly perturbed that I was keeping up. Frogman was waiting for him at the shelter, where they decided to move on up the trail for the evening. I wouldn’t be seeing much more of them for the rest of the trip, as they kept up a faster overall pace than I did.
Sunday, April 22, 2001
Siler Bald Shelter to Cold Spring Shelter
Today’s Miles: 12.1
Trip Miles: 132.7
Chainsaw Dave sure did earn his trail name! His vicious snoring in the shelter kept me awake for half the night. He’s lucky that he’s a cool guy. Ha.
Gumbai and Spunk were also in the shelter – they’re both very educated people, so I awoke to some stimulating, intelligent conversation. I’m hoping to put in eighteen miles today.
It was another gorgeous day. We’ve been so lucky about not getting too much rain.
Another day brings the same great story about doing nothing. Here we are, lounging around a campfire tonight as the daylight fades. Iculus just rolled in at nearly 8:30 pm. He did a really long day. I never did end up doing the eighteen miles. A new big-time trouble hotspot flared up on the other side of my left heel. Enough’s enough! I’m getting new shoes at my resupply stop tomorrow, at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
It was funny – I stopped at this shelter for a break, and considered pushing the extra miles in the heat. But then I thought… wait… PUSH? I’m out here to enjoy myself! So here I am, having the time of my life in the woods.
I’m spending the night tomorrow at the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center). I’d planned on just stopping in there for the day, like what I did at my first stop in Hiwawassee, Georgia… but tonight will be my tenth consecutive night in the woods, without bathing or doing laundry, so washing up and eating hot food is going to feel so good. These simple things that are taken for granted in everyday life have become heavenly luxuries. Still, cold water from a spring and a dry slab of wood to sleep on can make one so happy.
This would be my second night staying at the same shelter as Chainsaw Dave. He was a friendly young guy in his twenties who didn’t really seem to have an aspiration to thru-hike. He was just taking his time and enjoying himself. He’d usually arrive at the shelters early and be sure to build a campfire each and every night.
I’d never been camping as a child or young adult (Not even once), so it was mostly he and a few others who ultimately taught me how to build a campfire – even in the rain with damp wood.
Gumbai was here again at the shelter. He’s an older gentleman I’d come to hike with fairly often through this section. “Gumbai” was his self-appointed trailname at the time, as several other hikers new him by the name “Stormin Norman.” He was a retired Colonel of the US Navy. I’ve never been a military man, but I gather that being a Colonel is a pretty big deal.
Monday, April 23, 2001
Cold Spring Shelter to The Nantahala Outdoor Center
Today’s Miles: 11.5
Trip Miles: 144.2
Another incredible day! I hiked in my flip-flops again, not taking any chances with the hotspot that’s flared up. The foot nonsense ought to finally come to an end as of tomorrow.
Views – am I ever going to stop writing about these jaw dropping vistas? I hope not! I had another 360-degree look at North Carolina’s golden majesty. The Smokies loom on the northern horizon. It’s so daunting to try to capture this with words and photographs. My camera is so meek and pathetic – I don’t know where to point it! There’s no camera in the world that would do a proper job.
Later I passed a rock outcropping, and as far as pictures go, that would have been another good photo. As I continued, I became slightly disappointed that I didn’t snap a picture from up there. Then, I had a new idea. From this day forward, I’m going to make a conscious effort to eliminate the phrase “would have been” from my vocabulary. It’s a negative, and useless way to think! Think about it – when you say those words, it’s always in vain. Aha!
Everything bloomed and came to life as I descended into the valley and its lower elevations. The world is so barren on these high ridges that I’ve been traversing. I entered a refreshing, green, luscious atmosphere with birds singing and yellow, white, and purple wildflowers everywhere. Wandering into the valleys is always so euphoric.
Once, I remember, on one of my preparation hikes, I could hear church bells playing “Amazing Grace” in the distance as I made my way into Port Clinton Pennsylvania. It was as if I was being heralded and welcomed into town. Today, I imagined that I was descending into the fair valley of Rivendell, from Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” with elves singing. Did I ever mention that those are great books? Those are great books!
And finally, into town for a hot shower, hot food, and a bed… hiker heaven! Gumbai and I were hooting and hollering with joy when we first heard the sound of traffic on the road.
The shower was so good. I hadn’t showered in ten days! The poor lady in the room where we signed in to the hostel asked us to prop the door open because our hiker stench was so foul.
The film of dirt and salt and sweat washed right off of me. The perpetual dirt under my fingernails is temporarily gone. I can clean my fingernails out at night, but the dirt is back the next morning! I have no idea where the crud comes from, as well as a number of small cuts and bug bites that magically appear. I got my first look in a mirror, and I’m quite tan already… and, yes, I must say, I do believe the beginnings of a beard are forming. Woo hoo!
And dinner, oh, dinner! How odd it is to be civilized. A fork? What is this?! How do I use it? I had a very pleasant meal with Bird Nerd and Cheatin’ Vegan. I plan to go back to the restaurant for breakfast. Mmmm…food!
There are so many hikers here. It seems that I’m at last with a number of people that have been a day ahead of (or behind me) for a while… it’s wonderful. And when I introduce myself, they say “Oh, Duct Tape! I heard about you!” I typically know their names as well from the register entries, and now I finally get to match faces with the names.
And get this – one hiker who was a few days ahead of me… he liked it here so much at the NOC that he inquired about a job, and now he’s a permanent resident. Strange, wonderful stuff. Life is good! To be a thru-hiker!
Wayah bald was just an “okay” viewpoint. There was a low stone observation deck that the Wingfoot guidebook said was a great spot for a break, but local tourists were kind of annoying.
The view from Wesser Bald was lonely and fantastic. There was an observation tower on its summit with yet another 360-degree view of rolling mountain ridges in all directions.
The overlook from which I regretted not taking a photo was called “The Jumpup.”
The Nantahala Outdoor Center is much more than an Appalachian-Trail-stop. A hikers’ footbridge spans the namesake Nantahala River, known for its whitewater rafting and kayaking. The Outdoor Center is a large outfitter with dining, lodging, and all sorts of guided river trips and training courses. Numerous U.S. Olympians in water sports have trained here.
I didn’t know (or particularly care) about any of this about the NOC at the time. I knew there was whitewater rafting done here, and that was about all. Most of all, there was FOOD here, as well as my food resupply in the mail… and a shoe store.
The word Nantahala is a Cherokee term, meaning “Land of the Noonday Sun.”
Tuesday, April 24, 2001
Nantahala Outdoor Center to Sassafrass Gap Shelter
Today’s Miles: 6.9
Trip Miles: 151.1
I was awake for half the night. I think I’m already having trouble falling asleep indoors. It’s just too stuffy without any fresh air. The five million Cokes I drank may also have had something to do with it! After a pancakes and sausage breakfast and a great pair of new shoes at the outfitter, I was ready to go.
The six mile ascent wasn’t nearly as taxing as I imagined. Soon I came upon a small plaque along the trail, honoring a firefighter who had died at that spot while battling a forest fire.
It was then that it began to rain. By the time I reached this shelter I was thoroughly soaked and quite chilly. The temperature dropped. We’re packed like sardines in the shelter, and it’s looking to be a cold, damp night.
There’s a section hiker here that doesn’t stop talking! He keeps going and going – I don’t know how he does it. Things are getting pretty rowdy, which is very entertaining after being around subdued hikers for days.
Wildlife report: Gumbai said he saw his first snake yesterday. He thinks it was a bull snake – it surely wasn’t a copperhead or rattler. Pepe said he saw a bear near Cowrock Mountain (Georgia). He said he likely wouldn’t have noticed it, but he stopped to adjust his pack and saw it up in a tree. He thought it was a trash bag or something until it turned and looked at him, and he saw the silhouette of a bear’s head. It dropped to the ground and ran away as soon as his camera flashed.
Famino had a unique mouse experience at one of the shelters. A mother mouse gave birth to three babies in the sleeping bag compartment of his pack! It chewed up Ojisan’s bandannas to use as a nest for the babies.
I’ve only seen deer, turkey vultures, butterflies, wild turkeys, chipmunks, squirrels, and thousands of those little junco birds – and I’ve heard grouse thumping in the distance. I’ve also seen many bare tree trunks with the bark freshly shredded off, probably by bears. Life is good!
Here at the NOC I finally bought my new shoes, and I never had blisters again on the Appalachian Trail. The salesman was a young guy in his twenties, and he did a great job of selecting a handful of shoes for me, and letting me try them out.
I chose a pair of low-top shoes, like trail runners but beefier with Vibram soles, similar in shape to today’s Merrel Moab Ventilators, but thicker. They were made by a company called Garmont.
For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the actual model, but I loved these shoes. They saw me through 1,500 miles and were still kicking when I replaced them with a fresh pair of the exact same shoes. Garmont discontinued this model in 2002.
I also had my mail drop of food sent here to the outfitter at the NOC, with a nice lightweight three days of food to get me to the next stop at Fontana Dam, 30 miles up the trail.
The profile map showed a long, grueling climb north out of the NOC, but it was gradual and not really so bad, climbing 2,600 feet over the course of about six miles.
Rainy nights were always understandably crowded in the shelters. Thru-hikers tend to adopt a number of catch-phrases, and one of them goes something like “There’s always room for one more” in a shelter, even when there’s not. Folks get carried away with this, almost to the degree that everybody has to roll over in unison. Most hikers sleep in mummy-style sleeping bags where everything can be zipped inside the bag except the tip of your nose and mouth, so privacy and personal space isn’t much of an issue in these scenarios.
Wednesday, April 25, 2001
Sassafrass Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam Shelter
Today’s Miles: 21.8
Trip Miles: 172.9
My first twenty-mile day! The weather cleared for yet another pristine, blue-skied day, and I was on my feet and moving north by eight a.m. I noticed something on the steep downhills – when I’d gain too much momentum, I’d often stop and grab small trees to stop myself. I sometimes do the same when I’m going straight up the steepest ascents – pull small limbs for more leverage, even holding them and sort of rappelling up short rock faces. I thought that a lot of hikers must do this with the same tree along the trail, over and over, until one sorry fellow eventually comes along and the whole tree gets yanked out.
Now, I have this friend named David. He’s known for a whole string of spontaneous, amusing, senseless things, like accidentally destroying any poor, indifferent, inanimate object he lays his hands on. I could fill this whole journal with stories about him.
Our cross-country running course in high school was a true course of it’s type, in a wooded area. Every Autumn, the cross-country team would go up and do maintenance on the course, clearing the trail of all the brush that tried to reclaim it throughout the summer months.
Dave took the phrase “clearing the trail” a little too far. He’d get down in a football stance, charge random tree trunks, and then push, shove, and drive and grunt until he’d bring the whole tree toppling down. He did this for fun, literally knocking down live trees. At our competitions on other school’s courses, sometimes we’d wander off after the race and bring down a few choice saplings. The biggest downed trunk from our own course proudly served as the start/finish line marker for the rest of the season.
Before he knew that I planned to do this trip on the Appalachian Trail, Dave asked me to take him for a hike this summer. It never happened – Dave would hate backpacking. Today, as I reached and buoyed myself on thin limbs, I smiled and wondered what the forest service would think of Dave’s “leave no trace” principles!
I grew weary during the last miles in the twilight, and rolled into Fontana Dam Shelter at about 7:30, when it was nearly dark. Fantastic views of Lake Fontana and the dam itself taunted me for hours from the ridge as I descended.
On the trail there are some days to push, and some days to take it easy. I didn’t know why, but I felt that I should push today.
I found out why when I arrived at this shelter. A trail angel had driven over one hundred miles to bring hot dogs, sodas, marshmallows, and Oreo cookies to us. We sat around a campfire and cooked marshmallows over the ends of sticks, here beside the lake and under the stars.
I caught up with a number of people that I know and others that I don’t, like the aptly named Harmonica Joe, who sure enough played his harmonica at the fire. Wonderful things like this are yet another one of the many facets that make this trail so great. Another great moment, another great evening, and a day off tomorrow. Life is good.
My new shoes gave me a fresh enthusiasm. I finally felt that I’d gotten my trail-legs, so to speak, and wanted to prove to myself that I could do a twenty-mile day. I was feeling good this morning and went for it.
The view at Cheoah Bald was still fogged-in when I arrived there early in the morning. I remember this place as being a favorite campsite of a hiker called Lone Wolf, a “blue-blazing” hiker of relative fame in the thru-hiking circles and internet message boards. He had done various section-hikes of the trail over the years, but never a thru-hike. He had supposedly never cared to do so.
The official Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia is marked by “white blazes” on the trees – vertical rectangles of white paint that are two inches wide and six inches long. Theoretically, from every white blaze you’re supposed to be able to see another mark to the north and another one to the south, but that isn’t always the case.
There’s always been a tendency of some folks to skip sections of the trail, hitchhiking from place to place and only hiking choice sections of trail. Later they go home and claim to have walked from Georgia to Maine, when that statement isn’t completely honest. These folks have come to be known as “yellow blazers.”
This causes a degree of resentment among those of who actually DO walk from Georgia to Maine. Some folks take this notion to an extreme and vow to walk every step of the white-blazed trail, or even the extreme-extreme where people actually try to TOUCH every blaze. These folks are known as “purists” or “white-blazers.” A small contingent of this group tends to harbor a holier-than-thou attitude.
Side trails of the main Appalachian Trail – primarily off-shoots to shelters and points of interest – are marked with blue-colored paint blazes. In response to the attitude of some white-blazers, a clique of hikers called themselves “blue-blazers” or “hobo-hikin’-trash.” This was primarily a group of middle-aged guys who liked to section hike every year, mostly south of the Mason-Dixon line, taking pride in not giving a damn about thru-hiking. Lone Wolf was one of the most vocal “blue-blazers.”
The weather began to clear up later, after I passed beyond Cheoah Bald. I grew tired as the day wore on. It was either at Brown Fork Gap Shelter or Cable Gap Shelter that I caught up with Gumbai, where he planned to spend the night. I tried to talk him into continuing on to Fontana Dam with me, but my efforts were in vain.
Fontana Dam is a significant landmark for northbound Appalachian Trail hikers. Beyond it lies the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.