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.
Wednesday, May 09, 2001
Hogback Ridge Shelter to Bald Mountain Shelter
Today’s Miles: 10.1
Trip Miles: 333.8
The rain continued on through the night. It was a damp, foggy morning.
Knowing that I didn’t want to travel very far today, I spent most of the early hours reading and relaxing.
The fog lifted and the sun shined down by the time I got started, with the promise of an excellent day. The trail leading down to the road crossing at Sam’s Gap opened up into a grassy field, lined with what I imagine were young sunflowers, smelling of sweet honeysuckle.
Soon I came upon a few hikers gathered around, lounging on the trail. “What is this?” I asked.
Trail magic! Somebody named “Miss Janet” left a huge cooler on the trail, packed with sodas, candy bars, and goodies! I paused, enjoyed, and continued on toward the road.
There I began the road-walk down a winding mountain highway with my thumb out, hugging the guardrail as eighteen-wheelers whizzed by. I strode through tall grass, with snakes and ticks on my mind. Why does it seem that the thickest traffic is always going in the other direction? Friendly drivers occasionally waved at me as if to acknowledge what I was doing, in the manner that school bus drivers always wave at each other.
A young guy on a road trip stopped for me, after only about fifteen minutes of treacherously walking down the shoulder. He stopped right in the middle of the lane! After my repeated thanks, he left me at a general store and restaurant. The store had all the supplies I needed, and I got a fabulous double burger with bacon and fries at the restaurant. YUM! That was one tasty burger. No Coke – I had to settle for a refreshing Pepsi to wash down that tasty burger.
They had a sign posted in the restaurant saying that a thru-hiker named Jiff forgot an item there two days ago – just a hat. I’m taking it up the trail, and hope to find Jiff within the next week.
The song “Born to be Wild” came on the jukebox after I filled my water and washed up in the restroom, making for perfect exit music. I know all the words – we used to sing that song aloud on our bicycle adventures.
The guy that I got a ride back up to the trail with was in a van doing some sort of hardware delivery service all over the southeast. I said it must be a pretty cool job, doing a lot of driving and seeing the country. He said he’s been doing it for many years now (twenty or so) and it gets old after a while. He said he missed the experience of seeing his kids grow up. I suppose a lot of people’s jobs are like that. In his situation, you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do to make a living… but then there are people who work the same long hours unnecessarily, only to get a bigger house, bigger car, or more expensive clothes. It makes you think.
The world has come to life since I left the Smokies. I wandered down another grassy field with little yellow flowers sprinkled everywhere. There were even dandelions, the ones you blow the soft feathers off of as a kid. It reminded me of home.
Later the trail looked just perfect. The sky was a great bright blue up above, with big white puffy clouds. The sunlight filtered elegantly through the high bows of trees and green leaves, which rustled in the breeze. It shined upon last autumn’s leaves blanketing the trail, radiating a golden glow, as if I were meandering down a yellow brick road.
Flowers of a menagerie of colors line the trail – flaming red-orange, yellow, blue, purple, pink, and white. Butterflies fluttered at eye level, chipmunks and squirrels danced along logs, and the junco birds (my little friends) hopped about.
Then I climbed Big Bald – another huge, grassy, wide open bald mountain. I can’t get enough of these sorts of mountains. I planned to spend the night on the peak, like we did at Max Patch. Unfortunately a forest service road runs up there, so any old Tennessee hillbilly could drive up in the middle of the night and try to do Deliverance-type things to me.
I had my dinner on Big Bald, and a strong cold wind was blowing – so strong that I had to wear my fleece and gloves, and anchor my lightweight gear items with heavier ones so they wouldn’t blow away. I also had visions of some horrendous, hell-blower of a storm coming crashing through overnight, so all of those factors made me decide to stay here at the shelter, a mile farther down the trail.
Leatherfeet and Groovy and I discussed trail talk, and Dharma Bum and Front Royal moved on for some night hiking. It’s so peaceful and quiet here tonight – no birds, surprisingly no wind… nothing. That is, until the mice come out! Life is good.
This was clearly a great day. The open meadows were absolutely beautiful, and then I was rocketed up the spectacular Big Bald, buoyed by extra calories, caffeine, and sugar.
Thursday, May 10, 2001
Bald Mountain Shelter to No Business Knob Shelter
Today’s Miles: 10.5
Trip Miles: 344.3
I woke in the middle of the night and saw a fire burning in the ring in front of the shelter. “Now what in the world could have started that?” I thought. I imagined that a night hiker must have passed through in the middle of the night and did it, maybe before turning in for the night.
It soon burned itself out, and I assumed I’d find a newcomer at the shelter in the morning… I but never did. Groovy said she saw the fire as well, so I wasn’t hallucinating or anything. Very odd.
I took it easy again this morning, not getting started until nearly noon. This is the life.
My travels were relatively quick and easy today. I hiked through the afternoon with Shaggy, who’s notorious for night-hiking. We had some good conversation while we walked. He said that he didn’t start the fire at 3 am last night. So who, if anybody, did? I suppose I’ll never know.
One thing I’ve come to realize is the extent to which people are clean freaks, needlessly. I’m practically rolling in dirt here in the woods. I only occasionally wash my hands with small moist towelettes. My water bottles are rarely cleaned, and they’re becoming somewhat grimy. Most of my gear has been deluged in pure mud and muck. People wash their cooking pots and utensils with minimal water, repeatedly with the same soiled rag. And zero water is required to brush one’s teeth! Zero!
Several of these small revelations pop up every day. They’re not exactly the answer to the meaning of life or anything, but, hey, maybe it’s a start.
This evening I simply ate, gathered firewood, started and tended the fire, got water from a spring, and relaxed… a typical routine. The spring was surrounded by a tall, mature stand of spruce and hemlock trees, blanketing the ground with soft needles. I think the call of the Northern Oriole that I’ve heard over the past weeks could be the coolest-sounding bird I’ve ever heard. Life is good.
The fire was most likely re-kindled from hot coals that were left over by previous visitors, simply restarted by a light breeze.
Shaggy liked to study bird songs, and got me more tuned-in to them.
Friday, May 11, 2001
No Business Knob Shelter to Curly Maple Gap Shelter
Today’s Miles: 10.5
Trip Miles: 354.8
Dawn is my alarm clock – no obnoxious buzzing, no set cassette tape of the Rocky theme, no “It’s time to get up and go to work.” Only the first light of the sun, and the rustle of nature coming to life … birds singing.
I was up at six o’clock today, and moving shortly thereafter. Striding along in the early morning, I looked down upon the town of Erwin, Tennessee and the flowing Nolichucky River.
A hostel on the trail near Erwin lets hikers use bicycles to run errands in town, for free.
The bike was stuck in one gear, and the brakes just barely worked, but … a bicycle! I rode one of those puppies into town as if I’d never been on a bike before. The primary order of business of course was to raid the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet for lunch. A television inside the restaurant played a show called Moral Court. The plaintiff was upset because her girlfriend referred to her as “auntie” instead of telling the truth, that being the fact that they were lesbian lovers… making me wish they didn’t have a tv.
I won’t even admit how much I ate at the buffet, but let me tell you… oh, it was a lot.
The town of Erwin has some interesting history associated with it. A circus came through town sometime in the early 20th century. An elephant ended up mauling and killing its trainer, or a small child or something, so the townspeople of Erwin decided that the elephant must die.
They tried shooting it with a shotgun, but the elephant simply laughed in their faces and got even more pissed off. They tried all these horrendous things with no effect, including, I believe, tying it to the train tracks and ramming it with locomotives! Finally, they brought in a tall construction crane and lynched the poor thing. This is true! (Mostly true, at least the part about the hanging). I even rode the bicycle past a store called “The Hanging Elephant.” These people are proud of this! It gives notoriety.
I bought some hot dogs and buns at the market when I resupplied, so now we’re enjoying cooking them over a fire on this beautiful night at the shelter. We’re just so happy to be where we are. Life is good.
The trail descended steeply toward Erwin Tennessee. Immediately at the trailhead there was a road and the Nolichucky River, as well as “Uncle Johnny’s” hostel. The town of Erwin itself was actually four miles down the road.
Uncle Johnny had what you might call a “captive audience” with the location of his hostel. He’d earned a reputation among thru-hikers for nickel-and-diming everything when you stayed there, with a plethora of surcharges. For example, the restrooms were rumored to be void of toilet paper, but he’d be happy to sell you some.
I avoided the lure of town altogether by running my errands throughout the day, without spending a night in Erwin.
Coming off of the trail this day, I went immediately to the hostel. There I met a number of hikers that had been hanging out for a couple days, and I met Uncle Johnny himself. I got to use one of his bicycles for the day, stored some of my gear there, and went into town. Personally I think Uncle Johnny’s bad reputation was blown out of proportion, but I could see how he could rub folks the wrong way.
After stuffing myself with the pizza buffet, it was a busy afternoon of running errands and navigating my way around town to do so. I found the supermarket, dollar store, post office, and even the library to check up on the guestbook comments on my old journal. I had the thrilling idea of packing hot dogs up to the next shelter and building a roaring fire for dinner, which felt brilliant and utterly satisfying.
In a previous journal entry I mentioned that somebody named Miss Janet left a cooler of snacks and sodas back at Sam’s Gap. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Miss Janet had a home in downtown Erwin where she began offering lodging to hikers. In the ensuing years Miss Janet’s hostel would become increasingly popular, resulting in an interesting feud between her and Uncle Johnny.
The cooler she left at Sam’s Gap (for example) would most often be referred to as “trail magic.” In the old days the phrase was used to describe the wonderful twists of fate that happened to hikers, like the way there were some flip-flops at just the right time in the hiker box at Goose Creek when I was sidelined with foot trouble. Nowadays “trail magic” usually means free food and cold drinks at a road crossing. It’s common to hear former thru-hikers say that they’re going to “do some trail magic.”
Saturday, May 12, 2001
Curly Maple Gap Shelter to Clyde Smith Shelter
Today’s Miles: 20.9
Trip Miles: 375.7
That’s what’s out here.
There’s just peace everywhere, enveloping me. There can be more, I suppose, but you have to bring it out here with you.
If anybody jokingly asks, “So, did you find yourself, huh?” when this trip is over, I can say “I found peace.”
When I was planning this trip, I was so engrossed in it that I didn’t give much thought to what I’d do when it’s over. After finishing it, I thought – hey, something will come along. And that’s true, something will come. The thing is, I’ll be in the exact same position when I finish as when I started, except I’ll be broke. Sure, there may be some psychological and physiological changes, and this wonderful experience, but I won’t have anything to show for it in “real world” terms.
I think that’s part of the answer, though. The experience is always the most important part – in all things in life. Everything else is secondary.
I began hiking in the rain this morning, and found myself walking in a thick cloud of mist for most of the day. I could see the particles of water in the air right before my eyes, gliding sideways with the wind. For once I noticed how silently I was walking, as all things were still. I was passing through like a soft breeze, disturbing nothing and steadily passing the world by. It was very… peaceful.
I saw two deer in a thick forest of red spruce on top of Unaka Mountain. They stopped what they were doing when they heard me, stared at me for a few moments Somehow they knew that I meant no harm, and continued about their business.
They made me think of the last deer I saw in the Smokies. It was walking north on the trail about one hundred yards ahead of me, consistently for about five minutes. It ran off into the woods when it finally saw me. As I passed I could barely see it through the brush, standing, watching and waiting for me to move along.
I also saw a bird’s nest next to the trail, near the end of the day. The mother sitting on it flew off when I came by and started stressfully chirping until I went away.
I got into camp just in time, before more rain and another storm hit. Dolphin Boy, Indian Summer, Chewbacca, Turtle, Loco, Shaggy, and Mojo arrived later, all thoroughly soaked. Life is good.
This day held yet another one of my favorite memories of the trail – Unaka Mountain. The fog and mist were so exquisite, and as I wrote, all was just so peaceful and beautiful.
Before climbing Unaka Mountain I passed a place called Beauty Spot. This scenic viewpoint was right there on the trail, but I never saw it because of the fog… which had a magic all of its own.
Unaka Mountain reminds of some hikers called Trilia and Moose. They were a young couple, and she had an interesting backstory. Apparently she started the trail with her husband, and they weren’t getting along so well. He left the trail, and she started filing divorce papers from the trail towns and took up hiking with Moose. Later the new couple got a dog that they started hiking with, and they named it Unaka, inspired by the beauty of Unaka Mountain.
On the mountain I saw a hiker I knew called Doose, hiking south toward Erwin. He was a northbound thru-hiker like myself, but going in the opposite direction today because he was doing something called “slackpacking.” Slackpacking refers to carrying only a single day’s worth of supplies, rather than your full backpacking gear. Several hostels along the way, like Uncle Johnny’s, would facilitate these day hikes by shuttling hikers to all of the local trailheads. This way thru-hikers could stay in town, with all it’s luxuries, while still covering miles… without all the weight!
The slackpacking set-up also meant more income for the hostels, so it was a win-win for both parties. I never did any slackpacking because I didn’t want to break up the northbound continuity of my trip.
Sunday, May 13, 2001
Clyde Smith Shelter to Overmountain Shelter
Today’s Miles: 12.4
Trip Miles: 388.1
I was up and stirring early in a damp, thick fog. I had intended to get an early start but could not find any motivation whatsoever, nibbling on my cold breakfast of Pop-Tarts, feeling utterly weary. After a few minutes of personal debate, I went back to a comfortable slumber. I hiked 20 miles yesterday.
It turned out to be a beautiful day when I awoke the second time, but I still had a slow time getting moving. I was so dirty and smelly, and when I’d rub my eyes, I’d just feel pure sweat and salt and grime on my face. I haven’t had any clean material to wipe my glasses with for days now. My socks are the worst. The bottoms are stiff like cardboard from dried sweat, and the stench … it’s unbearable. Still, as I slide them on my feet, I’m far happier than I’d ever be putting on work shoes.
“Hey Duct Tape, you kicked me in the head a few times last night,” Turtle says to me. Such are the cramped sleeping conditions in the shelters.
The long ascent up Roan Mountain in the beginning of the day wasn’t nearly as taxing as I thought it would be. It could possibly have been the hardest climb of the trip so far, save for where I got sidetracked up the logging road of death a few days ago! The summit of Roan is over six thousand feet, and it surely felt like it with a brisk, cold wind that cut right through my sweat-soaked t-shirt. I enjoyed the high, unique atmosphere, and made my way down.
Magic befell me when I came to the road crossing at Carver’s Gap. The trail maintainers of the Tennessee Eastman Club had organized a work party to relocate a section of the trail, and many hikers ahead of me, many of them friends of mine, had participated. The work was finished before I arrived, and a generously large barbecue was underway. There were hot dogs, hamburgers… everything.
Seeing that I was a hiker, I was flagged down and invited to come gorge myself, and a wonderfully blissful afternoon ensued. I lounged around in the grass with the sun in my face – talking, laughing, and eating. Everybody was obviously so happy to be alive on this day, and to be right there. Stryder declared that the word of the day was “satiated”, contentedly holding his hand over his stomach – so fitting. I met Jiff and returned her lost hat.
The hike from there to this place for the night was a gorgeous, late afternoon traverse over a bald mountain. I slowed down to savor each step and could almost leave my body and see myself – a lone figure enveloped in this beautiful scenery. There were continuous views all around the mountains and valleys. I took off my bandana to feel the wind in my hair, and I watched the breeze rustle and brush upon the tall grasses. I had a truly special trail moment there, being a carefree traveler in this great land. This must be heaven.
This shelter is actually an old renovated barn, tucked in the most picturesque valley one could imagine. I arrived just as the sun was setting over the fields, and Famino greeted me. More hikers rolled in later, all of which I’m comfortably familiar with, like family. We laughed and joked late into a clear starry night, as embers in the campfire crackled. Famino swears that a better movie doesn’t exist than Rocky IV, that ends in the number four. We agree, and boisterous Rocky impersonations then abound. The other night, it was The Karate Kid and Mr. Miagi lines. We talk of movies, music, and many things, and gradually doze off, one by one. Life is good.
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!
Roan Mountain is one of the higher peaks of the southern Appalachians. I remember the chill and unique smell of pine and crisp mountain air near its summit, after a nearly 2,000-foot climb to reach there.
The descent to Carvers Gap didn’t take very long, and I arrived just in time for the Hiker Feed, which was a big surprise to me. So many familiar faces were there. I touched upon the term “trail magic,” and both of its definitions were in action here. My returning of Jiff’s hat to her was an example of the old sort of trail magic, and the hiker feed in itself was an example of the new type of trail magic.
The climb out of Carvers Gap used to be steep and direct, a staircase that was dubbed the Stairway to Heaven. The recent work by Bob Peoples and the trail club constructed some more gradual switchbacks through the area.
My spirits soared for the rest of the day. It was one of those moments where I realized “I am hiking the Appalachian Trail… right now,” and the very thought of it made me feel as though I was walking on air.
The stretch of trail north of Carver’s Gap was one of the most scenic of the whole Trail, called the Roan Highlands. Here there’s a series of bald, grassy, sweeping peaks.
In the first book about the AT I ever owned, Walking the Appalachian Trail, there was a photo of the Road Highlands that was one of the images I drooled over for a long time.
The Overmountain Shelter, where I stayed this night, is often cited as the most beautiful shelter on the AT. It’s an old red barn, quaintly situated among fine green scenery. There was a party atmosphere after the hiker feed, with a roaring fire. Everybody there seemed to be in a good mood and feeling great. I slept in the upstairs level of the barn, the loft.
Monday, May 14, 2001
Overmountain Shelter to Moreland Gap Shelter
Today’s Miles: 22.5
Trip Miles: 410.6
“Oh no! They have Spy-Tech!”
At one point as a child I wanted to be a detective when I grew up. There was this popular toy brand at the time, called Spy-Tech. They made all sorts of cool gadgets – long range microphones, fingerprint kits, special binoculars, periscopes, undercover ID’s, and more. I loved the stuff. Each item came with a little booklet, containing all sorts of invaluable spying tips and tricks.
The Hardy Boys book series taught me a lot as well. One small Spy-Tech booklet, I remember, told about the old Japanese ninjas and how stealthy they were. I used to sneak around sometimes, and pretend to be a ninja.
I was awake in my sleeping bag at Overmountain Shelter in the middle of the night, in the pitch black darkness. An inevitable, necessary duty troubled my conscious thought. Here I am, out in the wilderness, and nature still manages to call.
I summon my will and creep out of my sleeping bag, stealthy and silent as a ninja. The hikers slumbering beside me must not be disturbed as I blindly feel for my glasses in the inky darkness. I ever so silently find my flip-flops and slide them onto my feet, escaping into the night.
My eyes soon adjust to a cat-like night-vision beneath the stars, peering out to the grim, colorless silhouettes and shadows of stark trees and limbs. The forest is noiseless as I find a suitable spot, do my business, and find my way back to the slab of wood I use as a bed, liberated. I quietly return to my sleeping bag, which is still warm, and peacefully drift back to sleep, relieved. Mission accomplished.
I was up again before the dawn, but not to answer nature’s call this time. I packed up my things, again smooth as a ninja. I was actually heading up the trail before the sunrise, soaking up the pristine, glorious morning. The hike brought me along the ridge of the Hump Mountains – more utterly spectacular balds. The low sun was so bright and dazzling that it nearly blinded me, forcing me to shield my eyes. The wind still blew unceasingly across this open terrain, until I descended to the true valley.
In the afternoon I found myself ambling through farmers’ fields and sidestepping piles of manure. Cattle grazed near the trail. One cluster of cows was smack dab in the middle of my path, relaxing in a shady area.
These weren’t your average, everyday, docile cattle either.
These were longhorns.
I rashly assumed that they were accustomed to hikers. I strode confidently right up to them, doing my best to herd them off the trail. Bad idea. I managed to piss one of them off something awful. Imagine a huge, ten million pound longhorn bull, a mere car’s length away, taking an aggressive step toward you, snorting and grunting with a mean, wild, blank stare. I thought for a second that my hiking career was going to be over.
I turned my tail and fled, and then found a way around the cattle, this time giving them plenty of room. Not long after that incident, I came upon a snake stretched across the trail, sunning itself. It looked quite comfortable and didn’t want to let me pass. It took a bit of encouraging and prodding with my stick, but it eventually slithered off to the side. I saw another snake a few hours later. That’s two snakes in one day!
I’m now so tired and exhausted. It was a long afternoon over miles of rolling terrain. I was alone here at the shelter until dusk when Batman came up, moaning and groaning. I’m apparently not the only one who had a rough time with this section. Rocky and Scar soon followed. I’m spent, out of food, and filthy. Life is good.
I deliberately woke early on this day to get a jump-start on the large crowd at the shelter. The morning sun over the Roan Highlands was blinding, and from there it was a long descent of almost 3,000 feet to the infamous road-crossing at state highway 19E.
Some years ago the federal government used the eminent domain law to acquire the land through here for the Appalachian Trail. Ever since then, there’s been stories of the Tennessee locals harassing hikers in the area, presumably the descendants of the long-time landowners.
I passed quickly through the valley, and my only negative memory is the strenuous nature of the trail north of the road, going up and down several lesser mountain peaks that harbored no views. Apparently in the ensuing years the trail has been re-routed through this area, around the peaks for a more pleasant hiking experience.
Tuesday, May 15, 2001
Moreland Gap Shelter to Kincora Hostel
Today’s Miles: 5.8
Trip Miles: 416.4
This place certainly lives up to its reputation as the best hostel on the Appalachian Trail, in my opinion. Bob Peoples is perhaps one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I feel right at home here, as do the other hikers who are staying.
I stumbled in, exhausted after a relatively short hike. It had been another ten day stretch without showering or doing laundry. Taking care of both of those things at once was ethereal.
Hot dogs and hamburger meat were up for grabs in the community refrigerator, so we fired them up on an outdoor grill and had a grand feast. Some of my friends who were behind me arrived later in the day.
A great couple who runs a hostel in Andover, Maine cooked a wonderful spaghetti dinner. We hikers gratefully wolfed it down, sitting family style at a table on the front porch. I met a hiker named Seiko who lives nearby. He’s done the Appalachian Trail an insane number of times – more than ten. The thing is, you never hear about guys like him because he doesn’t self-promote himself.
Bob drove us to a supermarket to resupply on groceries. The place was absolutely huge – what a shock to the senses! So many options! We hikers ran rampantly up and down the aisles, with wildly famished eyes, mothers pulling their children away. I purchased my hiking resupply items, as well as some goodies for continuous feasting with the kitchen facilities at Kincora.
I decided to accept the offer of a ride into Damascus, Virginia, the day after tomorrow for Trail Days. I’ve been feeling especially sluggish lately, and feel I need the rest. Life is good.
In retrospect I could have continued up the trail and arrived in Virginia in plenty of time for the Trail Days festival. I think I just wanted to take a day off here, soak in the amazing atmosphere, and catch up on my journal.
Every thru-hiker has a moment where they arrive at a supermarket grocery store and they’re simply overwhelmed by all the food and options. I had that experience on this specific supermarket trip. I remember buying an Entenmann’s chocolate cake here and eating the whole thing in a single sitting.
Bob Peoples was certainly a special man – so kind, friendly, and fun… good energy to be around. I stand by my comment that this was the best hostel on the Appalachian Trail. Baltimore Jack was here as well, and the two of them together just drew good energy and a great crowd.