English text reviewed by Kremlin
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a popular long distance hiking trail in the United States. It goes along the east coast of the United States (Georgia to Maine) for approximately 3500 km. It takes about five to six months on average, for a hiker to see the end! We will, of course, try not do the entire trail … 3500 kilometers is a lot!
One weekday evening, I approached the office of my colleague Nadine to ask her about a project. Knowing I go hiking regularly, she asked me if I would be interested to take a week off from work. My immediate response was ,” Of course! “. Right away ideas fuse on destinations. The Pacific Crest Trail (another long distance trail from California to Washington) particularly interested Nadine and I liked the idea of the Appalachian Trail … We only know that we want different landscapes from the forests of New England.
The Smokies and Bears
North Carolina interested us most but we quickly realized that the Smokies (short for The Great Smoky Mountains National Park ), which the AT runs through, is probably too hard for the rookies that we are. And then there are bears. BEARS ! The lean tos have metal bars to avoid meeting these four-footed visitors because humans have a tendency to feed them, thus, encouraging the animals to come begging for food. The stories about bears forcing hikers to leave their backpacks behind them are common. In short, no thank you bear! It’s easy, it seems, to see these critters along the trail but they run very fast most of the time.
A place with less bears, we decide, so … An internet search for “Virginia, Appalachian Trail week” took us on a forum describing weeks long hike on the Appalachian Trail. Starting at Mt. Roger Headquarters in Damascus (small town of 900 inhabitants), we would be walking from AT shelters to lean tos and go 62 miles, almost 100 km, along the famous hiking trail.
A month later and a 14 hours bus ride, we finally arrived in Marion, the nearest town to Partnership Shelter-the first hut where we spent the night. It’s five stars! Hot shower (did not work when we arrived), outdoor toilet and floor!
Nicknamed Pizza shelter, thanks to the opportunity of pizza delivery on site, it is famous among hikers, who are often hungry after the kilometers traveled each day and who fantasize about food that isn’t instant rice or ramen.
We met a section hiker (1), Beth, who was doing the second half of the trail about 15 years after covering the first part. Hungry, after a day of walking in the rain, she suggested we order pizza. We did not deserve ours since we had just arrived from NYC by bus but we jumped at the occasion: after all, who says no to pizza in the woods! Once our pizzas in hand (with exorbitant shipping prices …) we returned to the cabin and met three hungry hikers who begged to get the delivery number.
Once it was time to go to bed (8pm like chickens), we suspended our food from a tree and hopped in bed! Always suspend your food bag on the AT as food odors can attract bears, mice and other rodents.
First day of walking: Partnership Shelter to Trimpi Shelter
We thought we would suffer because of the rocks, crazy mountains to climb, hunger … Nope! We started our week of hiking IN THE RAIN instead! Not the small Parisian drizzle but real downpour soaking you from head to toe rain. We later learned that a hurricane was on its way to the southern United States. Socks, shoes, underwear (!) Nothing stayed dry … We had fortunately taken the precaution to put our sleeping bag in a trash bag and a pack cover for the backpack. There is nothing worse than spending a day walking in the rain and then to finally slip into a soaked sleeping bag.
We quickly finished the 9 miles to the Trimpi shelter. The field was much less rugged than the New York roads and Trimpi shelter welcomed us with open arms. Someone had a bright idea to cover the inlet with a large tarp, protecting us from the rain.
Each shelter has a trail log, a sort of book where hikers write their thoughts, their impressions of the trail, a real Facebook with often funny passages. It is also a way to keep in contact with other hikers you meet along those 3500 km. We soon discovered that snakes tend to fall from the ceiling here, certainly in search of mice for breakfast. Glups! Nice …
A young man with a strong southern accent, joined us for the night, soaked. He took out his clothes, sleeping bag, etc., and a pistol he secured on his chest! If we had any doubts about the fact that we were in the South, they were dispelled immediately.
Ltd Dan (his trail-name(2), nwas crossing Virginia State from border to border along the Appalachian Trail and carried his pistol and bullets everywhere because as an American, it is his duty to withstand his government at gunpoint if ever the need arises. Needless to say we did not try too hard to make him change his mind that night.
Trimpi Shelter to Hurricane Shelter
AAfter a night without incident and without snake, we continued our journey braving a hurricane directing us to a refuge of the same name! ! We had 9 miles (14 km) to hike in the rain with a steep climb in the pouring rain with strong winds. Once at the shelter, it was already occupied by two couples and a dog who had a good idea to stay warm (and dry!) instead of venturing out in such a horrible time.
We spent the rest of the day and evening talking to Sassifras and Ascot. This couple did a flip-flop, meaning they walked the entire length of the trail but started in the middle (at Harper’s Ferry, PA), went north up to Mt. Katahdin in Maine and back down south passing Harper’s Ferry mid point to the southern terminus of the AT at Springer Mountain in the state of Georgia. Those thru-hikers hoped to have a little more time with better weather and to avoid the often overcrowded shelters at the beginning where hundreds of people start at the same time. Only 20% eventually make it through the entire 3500 kilometers of the AT. This was the time for us to learn about the best gear to bring along a thru-hike and what to eat. Such a nice couple who inspires you to want to start such an exhilarating adventure!
The night was scary with big branches falling on the metal roof with a shattering noise. A privy outing would turn into an obstacle course to avoid a big mud puddle or to jump aside to avoid taking a branch on the head.
De Hurricane to Old Orchard Shelter
We fortunately had five miles to go to reach the next shelter as the rain continued to fall. We despaired to see blue skies! We crossed two thru-hikers that we had run into the day before and as others trying to pass the rain by going as far as they could.
We took advantage of the bad weather and the few miles to go that day to rest, try weird food mix and just talk.
De Old Orchard shelter to Wise shelter
The night was once again awful. For the first time we were alone and because of the rain, branches falling on the roof and mice jumping around (Attila, the mouse, jumped on Nadine’s head), I slept very little, and I was happy to wake up to BLUE SKIES! Our luck (and weather) had taken a sunnier twist.
The weather forecast predicted sunshine for the next 5 days, exactly the time we had left on the road. When we were packing, a hiker arrived to the shelter and started talking to us. This gentleman named Base-Jumper would become a familiar face for the three days to come!
The nice weather was finally here and we were able to enjoy the legendary beauty of Grayson Highlands – bald mountains with wild ponies frolicking in the tall grass. After three days of walking in the rain with wet feet (nothing worse than putting on wet socks in the morning …), we finally rediscovered the pleasure of having dry feet. Once we’ve arrived at the top of the mountain, a splendid view was laid out at our feet.
In the middle of those mountains, we came across real restrooms! Oh joy, happiness, real toilet paper with a breathtaking view!
Wise Shelter is a fairly large shelter in the middle of a small clearing and we were joined by Base-Jumper, a retired couple from Michigan, and two former thru-hikers who came back to their favorite section of the trail some 20 years later. Between a few sips of whiskey and a good dinner, the night sky was finally showing itself after three days of rain and we were able to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way!
Wise Shelter to Thomas Knob Shelter
Base-Jumper accompanied us to the next shelter and it was an opportunity to take lots of pictures and get to know each other as well as finally seeing the wild ponies! This was also the time when I received my trail-name. As I have a tendency to jump from rock to rock, Base-Jumper baptized me “Rock-Hopper”! This is how I would introduce myself from now on to other fellow hikers.
There was quite a crowd Thomas Knob shelter! Situated on top of a mountain, the view was breathtaking. We met a 16 years old girl, Twiggy, and her grandfather as well as a former thru-hiker, Valley Girl, and his father. Valley Girl has a lifestyle that I would like to follow in the long run! He lives in Alaska for 6 months a year, organizing trips for wealthy adventurers … and travels the rest of the year! He finished the AT a few years earlier and the Camino de Santiago. My new role- model.
It was cold at the summit (1500 m)! Our fleeces, down jackets and socks were barely enough to stay warm. The glass of whiskey offered by our companions of the day did help! After sunset, we went to admire the Milky Way visible thanks to the total absence of artificial light in the area. We even saw shooting stars! We shared the upper floor of the shelter with Twiggy who was so bundled up, she looked like a sushi roll in her sleeping bag. Because of the slanted ground she rolled towards us during the night.
Awake at dawn, we went to see the sun rise , it was very cold! Nadine technique was effective: the poncho sleeping-bag! Valley Girl and his father learned that we do not have enough food to end our trip without a serious belt tightening and graciously offered us a huge box of biscuits and pasta! TRAIL MAGIC! It helped them too. They took too much food and so they would have less weight to carry. In all cases, they were officially our heroes!
The top of Whitetop was completely bald and offered a panoramic view for whom was ready to sweat enough to get up it to admire the view. After a well deserved nap at the top, we began our descent passing some hard-breathing hikers. They have asked us if we were French and German … Our friend Base-Jumper had passed before us! He even left a few messages in the shelter log at Lost Mountain Shelter for us. We also found a message from Sassafras and Ascot who have decided to hike more miles since our last meeting.
The AT joins the Virginia Creeper Trail for a few kilometers. Once an old railway road, it was turned into a pedestrian path along the river. It is very popular with cyclists and we had to learn to share the road again. This section of the trail is flat, which was a very welcoming change after the ups and down of the Blue Ridge Mountains! It was unfortunately short-lived and we had to climb again up to a ridge without water (we almost longed for the first days of rain) and the last sips of water were painful. The climb, the heat and the fatigue made the last part of the day very tough until we reach the shelter! Three hikers just as exhausted as us, joined us. They just arrived from Damascus and asked us if we are Sauerkraut (Nadine trail-name) and Rock-Hopper! Again our fame (or rather B-J) preceded us. One of them carried a camera of several kilos around his neck … I hope the quality of the pictures is worth it.
Two hikers arrived when the sun set and set up hammocks! The first hammock I saw on AT. I did not know then that I would eventually buy one myself next year.
…. and the return of the rain! Luckily this was the last day. The sound of raindrops hitting the metal roof of the shelter woke us up as well as the sound of five hikers desperately trying to cram their belongings in their bags (does not look like their tents hold up). We decided to take the blue trail to reach the AT again and reached the trail at the same time that the older hikers that had left before us. Surprised, they finally understood the subterfuge and had a good laugh.
Nadine was not feeling well and wanted to avoid the rain so we followed the Virginia Creeper Trail for our arrival in Damascus … and we fell on …. Base-Jumper and his wife Nancy! Despite our very smelly armpits, we went to lunch with them to tell our respective adventures.
The first coffee …… the first burger … .. Aaaaah joy and happiness! We also bought a clean shirts because the smell of ours reminded me of a mix of rancid onions and Corsican cheese.
We had booked an AirBnB in Damascus and this little cottage was really fun! It had travel photographs on the walls, hiking books and a kitchen … When we arrived, the owner, Joffrey, offered us a beer and after the shower, I think, I’ve reached hiker’s Nirvana. Breakfast at Mojo’s: really recommend! Best pancakes and cakes around the corner, or at least post-hike!
Our driver took us back to Marion to take our bus to NYC. He knew a lot of stories about the AT! Among others, he told us a little anecdote about thru-hikers how they would steal restaurant menus to read as “porn trail” around the fire at shelters.
The return to civilization (NYC) was violent and our new appetite took weeks to fade … but the memories remain and I have since walked 200 km more on the Appalachian Trail … One day I will thru-hike it in whole! Meanwhile, I am following Kremlin’s adventures, a friend who is travelling SOBO on the AT this year … (3)… You go girl!!
(3) South-Bound : from North to South (retour au texte 3)