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 02, 2001
Painter Branch to Max Patch
Today’s Miles: 11.3
Trip Miles: 261.2
I got a late start after dealing with my wet, muddy tent. I strapped it to the outside of my pack so it would have a chance to dry out over the course of the day.
The storm subsided at some point during the night. It was a humid, overcast morning.
Getting myself to start moving was a slow task. Things were easier once I began climbing the remainder of Snowbird Mountain, even though the gnats were constantly hovering and dive-bombing my grimy face. It’s funny how sometimes I actually welcome sweat – it seems to clear off some of the perpetual dirt.
There were still some guys hanging around at the Groundhog Creek Shelter when I arrived early in the afternoon, drying out their gear. The sky looked as though it wanted to storm again, and occasional drops of rain fell.
A small, mid-afternoon fire was lit, and I stayed around the shelter simply enjoying the good company. It’s a different feeling to just hang out in the woods all day, as I’m usually always on the move. I decided that I’d stay at the shelter if it rained, and if it cleared up I’d go on to Max Patch Mountain, which I so badly wanted to do.
There’s a funny kid my age here named Shaggy who hikes into the night, often until as late as three in the morning. He then he sleeps late into the day. What an interesting way to go.
I was feeling pretty famished today, and ate most of my food supplies over the afternoon. I’ll have to make it to Hot Springs soon.
The weather eventually did clear up. I’m now standing up on Max Patch, and I’m so glad I’m here! I’m sure it’s the most amazing place I’ve encountered along the trail thus far! It’s a high bald with virtually no trees – just an absolutely huge “hill” covered in grass! Panoramic vistas conquer every direction. It’s incredible. To be at places like this is a reason I’m doing this whole hike! Sunset, stars, sunrise…the best trilogy ever created! I can’t handle it.
I imagine in the winter one could sled down this whole mountain, with momentum that would carry you for miles! Or, remember rolling laterally down grassy slopes as a kid? Ah! Euphoric and simply unreal…is this really happening?
Fear not – I’ll have my rain gear handy to scurry off this high point in the event that a storm rolls in tonight. One hiker writes in virtually every register entry that “It’s a great day to be alive.” How true! Life is good.
Max Patch was indeed simply spectacular. Evenings such as this summed up the whole reason I came to the Appalachian Trail. I believe that Max Patch is a special place for most thru-hikers who are fortunate to see it good weather, partially due to its placement immediately after leaving the Smoky Mountains. In 2001 there was a hiker who was so enamored with the place that he spent a good number of zero days there (Or maybe just one zero day, I can’t remember). He ultimately took on the trail name of “Patch.”
Snowbird Mountain had a large homing transmission tower on its summit. It buzzed loudly and resembled some sort of large, space age device.
The guys at Groundhog Creek Shelter were all soaked by the previous night’s storm and seemed altogether miserable. I gained some solace from their company, realizing that the trail had been rough on everybody, not just me. This eventually gave way to humor at our wretched state (All you can do is laugh, right?), and led to a euphoric turn of events with such a beautiful evening at Max Patch.
In the latter half of the Smokies I started falling in with some familiar faces that I’d often see through this stretch of the trail. Folks with trail names such as Turtle, Chewbacca, Front Royal, Ponch, Shaggy, and others. Every step north up the trail only strengthened the sense of camaraderie and kinship.
Thursday, May 03, 2001
Max Patch to Hot Springs, NC
Today’s Miles: 19.8
Trip Miles: 281
I enjoyed quite possibly the best sunrise of my life from Max Patch this morning. I told myself last night that I would wake up in time for it, and I did.
I was all alone for a while atop this grassy mountain to marvel at the glorious dawn. The sun was just a red-orange orb for a moment as it crawled up, about the size of a full moon, and you could stare right at it with the naked eye. Eventually some other humans (hikers Rocky and Doose) crept out of their tents to admire the spectacle, choosing their own solitary spots. We didn’t break the precious silence with a single word – a simple nod or wave was plenty.
I was moving north early this morning after the sun hid behind some puffy clouds. The walking was wonderful, passing over many small streams and pleasant areas until I met up with Bushwhack, Stock, and Kelly, who were just beginning to get moving at the first shelter I encountered.
After a considerable climb up Bluff Mountain, the rest of the day was all relatively downhill until the town of Hot Springs. I also met Chewbacca and Turtle late in the day.
The first things I did in town, naturally, were to shower, do laundry, and grab a Coke. I didn’t bother to run my clothes through the dryer, because, like Famino pointed out, “That’s what I bought all these synthetics for!” Finally I made it to a place that served hot food before it closed.
“I’d like one whole pizza with sausage and pepperoni,” I said.
“OK, that’ll be about twenty minutes,” the girl said.
“Actually,” I had a second thought, “Could you make that two?”
“Two whole pizzas?”
“With sausage and pepperoni?”
I sat down and had one of the pizzas right there, with another Coke. I brought the other back to the hostel to save for later in the night.
This town again has a big gang of hikers here who were ahead of me for a long way, and more coming in that were behind, so it’s like catching up with old friends. As of today, I’ve been “on the trail” for a full month. Life is good.
Stock and Kelly were a young couple who, like myself, were from Pennsylvania. I’d end up seeing them fairly often here and there up the trail. One of the random memories that stays with me is how so much steam rose from the sweaty backs (And backpacks) of Bushwacker, Stock, and Kelly when we stopped for a break in the middle of a climb.
By a strange twist of coincidence and fate, I’d end up on the summit of Mount Katahdin and finishing the Appalachian on the exact same day as Stock and Kelly, a full year and a half later, in 2002.
Hot Springs, North Carolina, was one of the very best “trail towns” of the trip (It also happened to be the first true town of the trip). The blazed trail goes right down the main street, so all hikers pass through Hot Springs.
It’s home to a “famous” hostel that’s become synonymous with the Trail’s lore over the decades, called Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn. I arrived in town late in the day after hiking nearly 20 miles, so Elmer’s place was unfortunately full for the night.
I ended up staying at an equally pleasant hostel (Actually a bed and breakfast) called the Duckett House. It was a huge, white, Victorian-style home with a big wrap-around porch. The setting was exquisite.
It was at the Duckett House on this evening that I first met the famous thru-hiker called Baltimore Jack. I’d first seen his name via the old trailplace.com message board, where I noted that he always seemed to give good, sound advice. He was a repeat thru-hiker, on track to finish the Appalachian Trail for the sixth(?) consecutive year. He was not at all like I expected him to be from the message boards. He was middle aged and still slightly overweight, with the outspoken demeanor of your classic native New-Englander.
As a former teacher he had a way of speaking that demanded attention, but you’d listen willingly and without regret. When it came to The Trail, he sure knew what he was talking about… and he was funny, too. When I first met him at the Duckett House this evening he was “holding court,” talking on and on about this and that to a group of green, enraptured, wanna-be thru-hikers, of which I was one.
Jack was a truly legendary character of the Appalachian Trail. He passed away in 2016.
Friday, May 04, 2001
Hot Springs, NC
Today’s Miles: 0
Trip Miles: 281
The place where I’m staying is a big, white, colonial house with a wrap-around porch and hardwood floors. It’s beautiful. We were served coffee and a family style breakfast with Simon and Garfunkel and other good tunes playing quietly in the background.
Hot Springs is a quiet little town with very few business, quaintly nestled in the towering Appalachians along the French Broad River. The trail itself goes right down the main street, with white blazes on the telephone poles. That one street is essentially the whole town.
I picked up my mail drop at the post office today. I love letters! This time, I sat out along the curb and sidewalk to have a read. I’ll have to make time to write back. Corresponding in such a way while traveling is so excellent!
I then got a chance to go online at the library and read my guestbook and e-mail. Wow! I can’t believe the things that have been written. It keeps me going, surely. It’s funny though, I thought after sending an e-mail today that I probably won’t be so eager to find a computer again. It defeats some of the purpose of the experience, I think. We’ll see what I do. I may just resort to only letters.
I got to meet Wingfoot today. Grasshopper and Stryder were already on his porch talking with him when I went up to visit. The guy obviously loves the trail, and we got a lot of good advice. I ate another whole pizza for dinner. Oh, and this place I’m staying – it has wooden screen doors. Life is good.
Somewhere back in the Smokies I left my headlamp behind by accident. It was an old Princeton Tech brand light that actually had interchangeable incandescent bulbs that were prone to burn out, so I stockpiled a bunch of backups before the trip, and even had some included in some of my mail drops. Since I’d lost it in the Smokies, I bought a new one here at the outfitter in Hot Springs. This time I got one of the fancy new LED lights I’d been seeing on the trail, a Petzl Tikka. The Petzl was a great headlamp that lasted for many years.
In this entry I mention checking my guestbook on the internet at the library. I’m referring to the website comments on the page I originally had on trailjournals.com. You probably remember that most of the old websites back in the day used to have a “guestbook” feature.
It was here at this post office that a friend sent me a paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’d first read Tolkien’s trilogy when I was in junior high school in the mid-nineties, and it was fun to begin it again out here on the trail. Prior to this I didn’t carry any books on the trail.
In 2001 the self-appointed master of the Appalachian Trail was Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce. He’d done seven thru-hikes since 1985, owned the most popular website about the trail (The old TrailPlace.com), and published the most popular (And useful) guidebook for hiking the trail. Most thru-hikers, including myself, carried it. He made his home and “Center for Appalachian Trail Studies” in Hot Springs, so I took the opportunity to meet him on this day. When I arrived, Grasshopper and Stryder were already sitting there on the porch with him (I’d first met Grasshopper and Stryder in the thunderstorm the first day out of the Smokies).
Unfortunately I don’t remember a great deal from the conversation. There was an anecdote about how he first got his trail name. The way he told it was that he was a young man that flew past an older gentleman on a steep climb, and the guy called him Wingfoot. He told us about how on one of his more recent thru-hikes he started the trail anonymously as just “Dan.” It worked until he arrived at Neel’s Gap and his cover was blown by the owners of the outfitter there.
I remember leaving his porch feeling as though it was pleasant chat with a nice guy who simply loved the trail. Wingfoot was set in his ways and ruled his internet message board with an iron fist of censorship. This combined with his talent for self-promotion, clashes with the Appalachian Trail Conference, and other rumors ultimately made him the guy that everybody loved to hate.
Regardless, it felt so cool to have first met both Wingfoot and Baltimore Jack within 24 hours in Hot Springs, North Carolina, en route of my own long hike on the Appalachian Trail. Once again I felt as though I’d come full circle and “arrived.”
Saturday, May 05, 2001
Hot Springs to Spring Mountain Shelter
Today’s Miles: 12.8
Trip Miles: 293.8
I sent some things home at the post office and got back on the trail. It beautifully followed the French Broad River for a little while before ascending back into the mountains. The way the sun sparkled off the foaming water at eye level was magnificent. There were train tracks before crossing the river – the sound of them reminded me of the train back home in Allentown.
I stopped at a rocky point called Lady’s Leap, looking back over Hot Springs. I bid farewell to the town and a good time there, and turned, continuing on my journey.
A dark freckle on my leg caused me to tear up the surrounding skin, before realizing that it was indeed just a freckle – tick paranoia! The bugs are becoming quite thick now that spring is turning into summer. There’s a million of these small bugs that swarm you and bite like mosquitoes. If one gets at you long enough before you notice, it’ll leave a small wound and a drop of blood on the spot where it bit. I only have two such spots – the rest I’ve swatted dead like a pro, but I do have many itchy bites.
I started a quick fire tonight at the shelter to keep the bugs away. Manchester says that you just have to give the bugs some respect, and they’ll leave you alone. Sorry! Doesn’t work.
The drinking water sources lately have been shallow, muddy puddles. I hope I don’t have to put up with that for too long. My poor treatment filter wasn’t made to handle that stuff.
Famino and I are the only ones in the shelter tonight. It’s a clear, cool night with a bright moon after a hot, muggy day, so some hikers are pushing on tonight in the dark. Not me! I’m not quite ready to do that yet. Maybe at some point I will. I spent the hottest part of the day lounging around in the grass anyway, reading a book and enjoying a snack. Life is good.
Sunday, May 06, 2001
Spring Mountain Shelter to Little Laurel Shelter
Today’s Miles: 8.6
Trip Miles: 302.4
I approached a road crossing where a man with two very small children were heading into the woods. I was wearing a bandanna.
“Look Daddy! That man looks like a piwate!”
“Arrrr…” I grumbled. The boy giggled, and walked up to me on the starboard flank.
“Arrrr.” I repeated.
“Why do you go ‘Arrrr’?”
“Aye, because I’m a pirate,” I muttered.
“But, but, where’s your boat? Don’t you have a boat?”
I unfurled my sails and treaded forward on these stormy seas, with thunder rolling in the distance all day long. The dad surely must have thought that I was quite an unsavory character.
Life is good, Arrrrr!
My use of the phrase “unsavory character” in this journal entry makes me smile – it was intended as an inside joke between me and a couple friends.
When I was in the sixth grade we went on a school field trip to an overlook called Bake Oven Knob to do some birdwatching. The Knob holds a sweeping vista to the south of the Lehigh Valley, where I grew up in Pennsylvania. Within a thirty minute drive of my old home, it was accessible via a gravel road up the mountain and came to be known as a sort of party spot for the more adventurous among us. It also happened to be on the Appalachian Trail.
One day in high school I was up there with my friends Zach and Mike. By this time the Appalachian Trail had a magnetism all of its own to me. We ventured beyond the overlook, following the trail through a gnarly boulder field, where we eventually discovered the Bake Oven Knob Shelter. It was the first trail shelter I’d ever seen. Built many decades prior to our visit, it was a rustic, dingy sight to behold. An Appalachian Trail thru-hiker was sitting inside.
We talked his ear off for as long as he could stand it. We saw signs leading to a “spring.” We wanted to go see it. We were in a mood of adventurous discovery and imagined “mountain springs” of gushing water similar to something like the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone. We told the thru-hiker, a middle-aged man, that we were going down the trail to it. Before we left, he said with a grin, “I’d watch out, there’s a couple of unsavory characters down there.”
So all the while on way down the hill to the mountain spring (Actually a mud puddle), we kept our eyes and ears peeled for the unsavory characters that never materialized. We later laughed in relief at the man’s choice use of vocabulary, and the term “unsavory character” became a catch phrase among us ever since.
Monday, May 07, 2001
Little Laurel Shelter to Flint Mountain Shelter
Today’s Miles: 12.6
Trip Miles: 315
Thunder was rumbling in the distance all day long yesterday, even when there were clear skies. It never did rain on me, but a front obviously did come through.
I woke this morning to cloudy skies and a brisk, cold wind. The temperature dropped rather dramatically.
I didn’t especially feel like going anywhere, but I got up and had some breakfast anyway. After considering getting up and packing my things to start walking, I decided “Heck, it’s a Monday, what a perfect day to sleep in… because I can!” So I did – in my warm sleeping bag.
After about two hours I woke up feeling refreshed, and read a little bit. Some junco birds were hopping around the area, eating crumbs. I swear those guys are following me up the trail.
It was nearly noon by the time I finally hit the trail, and the sun had come out for a little while. The terrain varied a lot within a short distance – rock scrambles, an old logging road, and an open, grassy field on top of a mountain!
This is also a morbid section of the AT. Yesterday I passed a memorial for a hiker who had died right at that spot on the trail from a heart attack, and then there was the headstone of another person.
Today, I passed a memorial in the spot where a hiker chose for his ashes to be spread. A few miles later, I encountered the Shelton headstones. The headstones are for two Union soldiers during the Civil War who were ambushed and killed at that spot while attempting to return home to their family – they were brothers. Their thirteen year old nephew was with them, and he was killed as well. I paused and briefly contemplated life and death at all these sites.
Unkie and I are pretty sure we saw a Peregrine Falcon this afternoon. There’s an absolutely huge fire going here at the shelter tonight – you should see all the branches Zorro collected. Life is good.
In this entry I mention the day of the week, that it was Monday. Most of the time on the trail I’d forget what day it was, even though it’d say so on my wristwatch. The only practical use this had on the trail was in planning when to arrive in town. The post offices were closed on weekends.
Tuesday, May 08, 2001
Flint Mountain Shelter to Hogback Ridge Shelter
Today’s Miles: 8.7
Trip Miles: 323.7
I climbed over my first stile today.
What in the blazes is a stile, you ask? Sometimes, the AT goes through farmers’ grazing fields, fenced off with barbed wire. Stiles are just a spiffy name for stepladders that are built so backpackers can climb over the fences. It was odd because Zorro was telling me a little about the trail in Virginia, and I mentioned that it will be neat when I go over my first stile… and then there it was, the very next morning!
I hoofed up the steepest and possibly most difficult climb of my adventure so far, on an old rugged logging road. Struggling and toiling to get to the top through some thick underbrush, squeezing beneath and clambering over some serious blowdowns, I thought, “Gee, this section of the trail isn’t maintained very well… there aren’t even many blazes!”
Finally I got to the top of the climb – so satisfied and proud to be there. I gallivanted on down the trail along the ridge, and suddenly it didn’t look to be much of a trail at all. That’s when it hit me – this wasn’t the AT! Lost! Where’s the AT!? And so I backtracked all the way down… and down and down the infamous mountain I had just come up, all the way to the bottom near some old, dilapidated cabin ruins. That’s where I saw the fork where I had strayed off the AT … at the bottom. It turned out that the real AT doesn’t go up that mountain at all.
The little side trip ruined my goal for the day of trying to get as far as Big Bald Mountain, so I stopped short at this shelter for the night. That means I’m going to run out of food before I get to the town of Erwin. There’s supposed to be a restaurant and a small convenience store a few miles down a paved road from Sam’s Gap tomorrow, so I’ll have to hitchhike down there and hope to get some food. Half-Day and Joyster were kind enough to offer me some of theirs!
I met a pastor on the trail that lets hikers stay at their church in town (Erwin). They’re holding a breakfast for hikers on Saturday morning – too bad I’ll be too far ahead by then. It’s starting to rain, and I’m nice and dry for the night. Life is good.
I mentioned that Zorro was telling me about the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. There’s a common perception throughout the southern states that the trail up ahead in Virginia is often level, easy, and flat as a pancake…