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 16, 2001
Today’s Miles: 0
Trip Miles: 416.4
I just sat around at the hostel all day, relaxing. I took a nap for most of the afternoon, and later made another run to the supermarket.
Nearly all the hikers here today went slackpacking. Probably nine out of ten hikers have done it at least once since Hot Springs.
Warning: personal trail politics to follow.
Slackpacking is where a thru-hiker arranges to do a day hike while staying in town, usually at a hostel. This takes all the challenge out of everything – you’re clean, get a hot breakfast and dinner in town, and carry virtually no weight. On most occasions, a slackpack is done southbound – especially if the grade of the trail is easier in that direction.
On some days I feel as though I’m the only person trudging up these mountains with a full pack! I intend to carry it the whole way, up Katahdin, and don’t intend to interfere with the northbound progression of my hike. I also make an effort to pass all the white blazes. My grandmother could slackpack the trail, given the time. To each his own, I suppose. Life is good.
This was a relaxing zero-day at Kincora. The hostel was quiet and empty for most of the day as most of the hikers took advantage of a slack-packing opportunity. There was a relaxing common area with couches, books, a radio, and a kitchen. It was the first time I had access to a kitchen on the hike – a most revered luxury, especially so to me because I did not carry a backpacking stove. I cooked myself a simple pasta meal. Some of the other other hikers poked fun at me for craving something that they eat all the time on the trail.The walls of the hostel were covered in postcards. The images on these postcards were all more or less the same – they were summit photos.
There’s a big wooden sign on the summit of Mount Katahdin, at the northern end of the trail. For a thru-hiker to arrive at this sign is a glorious moment of achievement beyond description.
The custom is to get a victory photo at the sign. The photo basically says “I did it,” as the sign on Katahdin marks the summit of not only the mountain, but the entire Appalachian Trail – each and every weary step from Georgia to Maine, and all that such a journey entails.
Once this victory photo of a successful thru-hike is acquired, the custom was to have post cards of it printed out and sent as thank-you notes to folks that helped along the way and made the trip possible.
The interior of Kincora was plastered in these – images of joy, with notes of gratefulness to Bob Peoples (The guy behind Kincora Hostel).
Nothing grows on the peak of Katahdin, save for lichen on bare rock. So these summit images have four key components – rock, sky, the sign, and the hiker. Some were under crystal-blue skies, others shrouded in a thick grey cloud, and even a few with a layer of snow. The most striking thing they all had in common was the epitome of success and achievement that they represented. It’s an image that haunted me (And every thru-hiker, I imagine), for every minute of every day since I set foot on Springer Mountain.
Thursday, May 17, 2001
Kincora Hostel to Trail Days(Damascus, VA)
Today’s Miles: 0
Trip Miles: 416.4
It wasn’t long before we were all packed into Bob’s truck and on our way to Damascus. We fit about thirteen hikers in his truck – and all our gear! I rode in the back with Peanut Butter, Willow, Zig-Zag, and Manchester. The drive was over an hour, uncomfortable but fun, and we soon rolled into the festivities of Trail Days.
Trail Days is like a cross between a class reunion and Woodstock. Hikers invade the town essentially to celebrate ourselves and set up virtual tent cities throughout the town. All the hikers of last season and the seasons before reunite. Hikers of this current year meet up with those who have been weeks ahead (And behind), arrange to meet friends and family, and generally party for the weekend.
Maybe you’ve seen a church with one of those tacky signboards out front, saying something like “Free ticket to heaven – apply within”.
Arriving into town, we passed a church that said “Keep on keepin’ on” out front. Right on!
I established a tent site in an area known as The Island, and hit the post office, outfitter, and restaurants – the usual chores. I sent a package ahead from here to myself to Pearisburg Virginia, my next town stop. I met up with all kinds of people I’ve known (or haven’t known) from along the way, and chatted of ourselves and news of others. Gumbai and Lucky Strike are going to hike out of town tomorrow, before the actual festivities begin. That’ll put them well ahead of me, and I know I won’t catch them for a fairly long time, if ever. We stayed up late into the night talking and relaxing. Life is good.
Friday, May 18, 2001
Today’s Miles: 0
Trip Miles: 416.4
Having a great time!
There was a rock band at the pavilion.
A three piece rock band.
A power trio!
They played Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, AC/DC, Ted Nugent, The Doors – all my favorite stuff. Rock and roll!
Life is good.
Saturday, May 19, 2001
Today’s Miles: 0.0
Trip Miles: 416.4
The drum circles pounded all through the night, even until the sun came up. Primal hoots and hollers called out from all directions, answering one another. All the dogs within earshot aroused in a barking chorus. The drums rolled on, and people danced around in the firelight, singing songs. Idle guitars strummed. Moments later the air finally subdued, and the canopy of stars gave way to dawn.
Trying to take a nap in the mid-afternoon proved useless. My tent felt like a sauna, so I strolled around town, gorging my stomach. I think I had three dinners last night. Today is one of the best days of the year for the kids in Damascus, as they run rampant with squirt guns, deluging anybody that dares to give them even a glance of acknowledgement. Four little demons soaked me from top to bottom, so I decided to pick up some ammunition at the dollar store for the hiker parade.
The hiker parade is exactly as it sounds – all the hikers boisterously march down the main street. Locals line the street to watch, and many like to soak the hikers with squirt guns and water balloons. We, in turn, defend ourselves. My last minute weaponry consisted of thirteen water balloons, not one of which went to waste. Somebody even soaked a cop.
The talent show that followed was entertaining, and I returned to the island to hang out. A lot of people found a different place to set up their tents because of all the noise last night. We stayed there at camp for a bit, celebrating Dharma Bum’s twentieth birthday, then it was off to see the rock band again.
They played more great stuff, and I was sure that the last song would be Freebird, because everybody was yelling for it the past two nights. Gotta yell for Freebird, naturally.
What came next was so totally unexpected. The opening notes of none other than Neil Young’s Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World lifted me to a higher dimension. That’s basically been my personal theme song for a long time. It couldn’t have been more perfect. I knew it was the last live music I’d hear for a long time, but then again I’ll usually listen to all live tunes as if it’s the last time I’ll hear it.
The stroll back to the island tent city was ethereal. It was simply one of those times where you suddenly find yourself alone for a few moments and contemplating after a big event with lots of people where you had a great time. I’m writing this before going to the bonfire and drum circle one final night before I leave town tomorrow. Life is good.
Damascus is a sleepy town in southwest Virginia (On the border with Tennessee), with a population of typically less than 1,000 residents. There were definitely less than 1,000 residents when I was there in 2001.
Not only does the Appalachian Trail go down Main Street, but so does the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, as well as lesser-known trails like the Virginia Creeper. Every year in May about 20,000 people descend on this quiet place for the Trail Days Festival – the largest single gathering of Appalachian Trail hikers in existence.
I stand by my comment that Trail Days is best described as a cross between Woodstock and a class reunion. Thru hikers in fact refer to themselves as “Class of 2001, Class of 2002,” and so on.
It was good fun. Throughout the days I wandered around town and took in the event’s atmosphere, discovering time-honored local haunts like “The Place” Hostel, Dot’s Inn, Mount Rogers Outfitters, and other more temporal establishments like the Sidetrack Cafe and Quincey’s. In the nights I was introduced to the hippy rituals of drum circles, bonfires, and bad guitar-playing with heart-felt (And even worse quality) singing. I particularly remember a stirring sing-a-long rendition of “American Pie” in the wee hours before sunrise.
When put in writing years after the fact, such a scene sounds token and even mundane – typecast with a guitar-wielding-white-guy-in-dreadlocks, and the whole nine yards… but in the thick of the moment there is great beauty and perfection.
The Appalachian Trail drew such a cast of characters from all walks of life, all in transitional phases with many rediscovering themselves and the great wide world for the first time. Put these folks around a 3am campfire in the heart of the green, humid, southern Appalachians in springtime and you’ll find magic in a broken, out-of-tune rendition of American Pie too… a song that we all knew, but revisited as if for the first time in such a setting.
There are plenty of more wholesome going-on’s at Trail Days too, like the aforementioned “Hiker Parade” and a fun and silly “talent show” to boot. Vendors set up shop for the weekend, including several from notable outdoor outfitting companies. Legends are told up and down the trail prior to the event of the free stuff that is to be had. For example I received a free replacement cartridge for my PUR Hiker water filter. LEKI reportedly gave away plenty of free hiking poles too.
Prior to 2003, hikers were allowed to camp in the midst of town. The “Island” I refer to, where I camped, was in an area below the town’s public swimming pool complex. We were also allowed to camp along “The River” on Laurel Creek near the “Old Mill.” In 2003 the local residents moved the designated camping area to a new site, a short distance outside of town that was not-so-fondly referred to as the “Toxic Waste Dump.”
Sunday, May 20, 2001
Trail Days to Kincora Hostel
Today’s Miles: 0
Trip Miles: 416.4
And so I left Trail Days at ten in the morning on Sunday. Bob Peoples and other members of the Tennessee Eastman trail club organized an opportunity for thru-hikers to volunteer and do some trail maintenance today and tomorrow.
I worked for hours today with other hikers and volunteers, hauling and spreading gravel on a badly eroded section of the trail at Carver’s Gap, just north of Roan Mountain. It’s a great way to give something back, and a nice interlude from the daily routine of walking all day. My arms got quite a workout, after being allowed to grow weak since the beginning of April – the old hiker-tyranosaurus-rex-syndrome.
Forest Phil prepared hot dogs and hamburgers for everybody afterward, back at the hostel. Everybody is evidently having such a good time. It’s funny how we all grow more comfortable the farther north we go, and happier as well. Most of the grumpy folks and others that obviously weren’t having fun gradually got weeded out. We jokingly pick on each other as you’d see the best of friends do. Bob undoubtedly runs such a special place to stay here. The bunk room and whole place is so packed that I’m sleeping out on the porch with a few others. I’ll probably sleep better here in the fresh air anyway.
I caught up with so many people at Trail Days that I thought I’d never see again, like Randy and JM, for instance. Better yet, I met so many others that I’ve known of for a long time – other hikers on Trailjournals.com, Leif, Nimblewill Nomad, Diamond Doug, Honey Bear, and more. It’s great to meet them, because it’s more proof that this hike is becoming a full circle reality, rather than a dream from in front of my computer screen. It’s still difficult at times for me to fully actually comprehend that I AM ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL. Some things just don’t seem real. More work on the trail at Roan Mountain tomorrow, then I continue north
Life is good.
The post-Trail Days maintenance event was championed by Baltimore Jack. It served as not only a a way to clear my conscience by doing some honest trail-work, but also as an excuse to hang out with Jack, Bob Peoples, and all who were involved… not to mention a couple more nights at Kincora. Our force in numbers was used to set a bucket brigade to place gravel under a new stretch of relocated trail.
The exact course of the official Appalachian Trail changes on a yearly basis with various relocations such as this – yet another reason why such doggedly purist white-blazing was silly in retrospect.
Some explanation of the names I mentioned above – Leif was the trail name of Matt Olsen, a founder of the website trailjournals.com and former thru-hiker. Nimblewill Nomad gained notoriety for being one of the first to backpack what’s called the Eastern Continental Trail, an extension of the AT that begins at Key West Florida and extends beyond Katahdin to Cape Gaspe in Canada where the Appalachian Mountain chain falls into the sea. His flowing white hair and long beard were hard to miss. He gave a talk at Trail Days about his hike and wrote a book, but that journey was just the beginning.
Finally, Honey Bear is the trail name of a prior year’s (2000) thru-hiker named Josh Thompson. His journal was posted that year on the old trailplace.com website, hosted by Wingfoot. Josh’s journal remains as one of my favorite accounts of hiking the Appalachian Trail, serving as one of my primary inspirations throughout the planning phase of the trip. He showed up at Kincora to revisit it after Trail Days in 2001. I sheepishly introduced myself and told him I liked his journal.
Monday, May 21, 2001
Today’s Miles: 0
Trip Miles: 416.4
Did more work with hauling gravel up Roan Mountain today. This must be the way the Ancient Egyptians built things! My shoulders and neck are so sore. A storm and heavy downpour blew in at the instant we were finished. It was satisfying to see the project reach completion.
We had a pancake breakfast. Later Baltimore Jack prepared a huge lasagna dinner with salad and garlic bread, and the Barefoot Sisters (Isis and Jackrabbit) made an awesome gingerbread cake from scratch. I never imagined that I’d be eating this well – it won’t last for long though, I suppose. On the drive back to the hostel from the mountain we played the “guess the classic rock song on the radio by artist” game, like we used to do in the kitchen at work. It was good to hear some Stones, Bad Company, CCR, and others. Life is good.
Later I’d learn that Baltimore Jack’s lasagna was almost as famous as he was. We were also graced by the presence of the “Blister Sisters” at Kincora, semi-famous in their own right. They were in the midst of the southbound section of their “yo-yo” thru hike. Yo-yo is the term used when someone thru-hikes the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine (Or vice-versa) and then proceeds to turn around and immediately do another thru-hike in the opposite direction. The Barefoot Sisters later wrote a few books too, and yes, they hiked barefoot.
The classic rock song game is simple. When a song starts on the radio, be the first to shout out the name of the artist and you win (Usually within a matter of seconds). Music is a rare and special treat after going without it for so long.
Tuesday, May 22, 2001
Kincora Hostel to Watuga Lake Shelter
Today’s Miles: 10.6
Trip Miles: 427
Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” played in my head as I left the hostel this afternoon. It’s such a hard place to leave. It started to rain just as I stepped off the porch too, making for a sharp wake-up call back to reality after some time off the trail.
The rain turned into a full-fledged thunderstorm, dumping buckets of water on me. I stopped to throw on my pack cover and rain jacket, and plodded onward.
The trail itself was a river, soaking my socks and shoes with water and mud. I could barely see through my fogged, rain covered glasses as I watched my footing on treacherous, slippery rocks and roots.
The steep descent into Laurel Fork Gorge was tricky with the given conditions, but I made it. There was a beautiful, magnificent waterfall. It’s a shame it wasn’t a nicer day. I climbed up and over Pond Mountain, cursing my woeful condition after having been off the trail for a few days. My calves and knees were screaming. I yawned to pop my ears with the elevation change – a thing I do out here on a virtually daily basis.
The summit was in a thick cloud and still wet, but the rain ceased as I made my way down the other side. The trail leveled off at a large lake, and wound around it to this shelter, with the mists and clouds floating all about. On a day such as this, it looked more like Loch Ness and less like Watuga Lake.
Dharma Bum and Front Royal are here tonight. They were glad to see me, thinking that all their friends were ahead. Front Royal threw a rubber snake at me. It looked just like the two small ones I saw down by the gorge. A little toy like that can be a world of fun and entertainment out here. I asked them if they got wet. “Very wet” was the response. In the scheme of things, though, we’ve been long overdue for this kind of weather.
I write now from within my tent pitched just behind the shelter, by the light of my headlamp. Darkness surrounds. There aren’t many good tent sites around, so I’ll be sleeping rather uncomfortably on a bit of a hillside. The weather remains overcast and damp, so I’ll have little chance of drying out my wet stuff overnight. Hoping for a dry morning tomorrow. Life is good. OLD
Dharma Bum and Front Royal were both young hikers like myself. Dharma Bum celebrated his 20th birthday only a few days prior, in Damascus. Front Royal was even younger at the time – 17 or 18 I believe. I was 20 years old.
None of us would go on to complete the Appalachian Trail in 2001.
Front Royal hailed from the town of Front Royal Virginia, a common stop along the Trail – hence the trail name.
Dharma Bum was from Texas. Seven years later he and I would cross paths on The Long Trail in Vermont, completely at random. Now that’s trail magic.
Wednesday, May 23, 2001
Watuga Lake Shelter to Iron Mountain Shelter
Today’s Miles: 13.7
Trip Miles: 427
I climbed out of my tent and looked above to see clear blue skies. It was late, about nine or so, but I had that super feeling of knowing I got a good night’s sleep. After a breakfast of crushed pop tarts and a multivitamin, I slid on my wet socks and shoes and squished up the trail.
The way the sun shined off the surface of Watuga Lake was fabulous as I walked over the dam. The view from behind Vanderventer shelter was just as incredible.
Today was one of the clearest days so far. I looked back over the lake, and could see as far as the high peak of Roan Mountain, sharp on the horizon. I took about a two hour break for lunch there, and continued on.
The hike during the rest of the afternoon was all lovely, flat ridge-walking on a beautiful day. Tall grasses lined the footpath on both sides, brushing and tickling my shins with every step, going “woosh, woosh.” Open areas called for an ample amount of breaks and basking in the sun. I saw some tiny little cars sliding down a distant country road from afar.
I’m pretty sure I heard a bear, because I heard a large animal crash through the underbrush down from the ridge, and had seen some fresh scat not long before. I couldn’t see it (I’m beginning to think I’m destined never to see a bear), so I didn’t stop walking. Now I wish I had followed the noise a little to see if I could get a look at it.
This afternoon was one of those times where you’re thinking “I love hiking! I love life!”
Now it’s eight PM, and I’m in the shelter with Dharma Bum, Front Royal, and Grover. We’re relaxing nice and dry and ever so content as rain pelts against the roof. The thunder’s rolling so loud and deep that it shakes the wood, giving a sort of massage effect. I’ll be in bed before nine so I can get an early start tomorrow. I may go for the marathon challenge into Damascus tomorrow – twenty-six miles. We’ll see if I feel up to it or not. I’ve talked the others into probably going for it as well. I saw a mouse running around here, long before dark – a bold little guy. Maybe I’ll get a good photo opportunity overnight. Life is good.
Thursday, May 24, 2001
Iron Mountain Shelter to Damascus, VA
Today’s Miles: 26.3
Trip Miles: 453.3
Getting out of my sleeping bag in the morning required a lot of concentrated motivation, but I did it. There was a chill in the air.
I had a short chat with Monkey about all things Bruce – he’s another Springsteen fan. We’re taking over the trail! Then it was off to the races for the marathon challenge – twenty six miles to the state line and Damascus, Virginia.
I had some views in the morning, down to the valley shrouded in a blanket of mist, with another plush green ridge on the horizon and cut away by the blue sky. It looked very cool.
Eight miles were done before noon, over some forgiving, flat terrain. The sky turned dark and threatened rain, and would continue to do so for the rest of the day. I pressing on at a respectable three miles an hour, stopping occasionally for waters and snacks. It felt good to have a sense of mission and purpose!
Dharma Bum caught up with me at the road crossing to Shady Valley. I hiked on with him to Abington Gap Shelter, where we met up with Front Royal, Grasshopper, and Monkey – all but Grasshopper pushing for the marathon too.
I was losing steam and began to hear thunder in the distance on the final stretch.
That’s when I saw it – the state line.
I stepped into my fourth state – Virginia.
I sat there for about twenty minutes, regardless of the oncoming rain and luxuries of town that awaited. I marveled introspectively in awe at having come so far. It was more of a solemn dawdling and contemplation than open celebration. I then strode forth, northward as usual, but ever so slightly different than the hiker that walked a moment before.
Triumphantly descending into town an hour later, I treated myself to dinner at a restaurant called Quincey’s, voraciously consuming a family sized stromboli, two liters of Dr. Pepper, and a chicken sandwich.
Classic rock played on the jukebox, and my hiker friends around me satisfied themselves just as fully and jubilantly. It was feasting and drinking and being festive – a good time for all. I’m now staying the night at a large colonial house owned by the local Baptist church. They run an extremely affordable and wonderful hostel for hikers and long distance cyclists. I’m stuffed and clean and happy tonight.
This building has a wooden screen door.
Life is good.
We called this day the “Damasc-a-thon,” and thought we were quite creative in doing so, but it turns out that this 26-mile day was somewhat of a common push for ambitious thru-hikers. It was due to the forgiving terrain and dual excitement of reaching Damascus and a new state, Virginia.