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Almost?

14 Jun

We have been a bit cautious when using the word “almost”. Starting 400 miles back people kept telling us we were “almost” done. We would always smile and say “well, we know a lot can happen in (insert # here) miles”. The last few days have been a prime example of that.
We had to pick up our food drop Monday before leaving Fontana Dam. Jen lost the Rock/Paper/Scissors game and had to shuttle into the village early for the box. It was raining, of course, and we had gotten up early to get to the PO when it opened. Jen left for the shuttle and I continued to fill water and break down our camp. I had our stuff ready to go and just needed Jen to return with the food for our packs so I read while I waited, and waited. Soon I decided to heat up water for coffee and wait some more. It was pouring rain. Finally at 1145 poor Jen returned to the shelter looking like an angry drowned rat. When she arrived at the village, after waiting for a shuttle that never came and taking a ride from a random resort employee, she found that we were in resort summer hours and the PO did not open until 1145. So she waited… And waited. They were nice enough to open “early” at 1130 for her to get our package and get back to the trail. By the time she got back to the shelter neither of us were in the mood to hike out into the rain, so we took a second zero day.
The good thing about a second zero day is that you are ready to hike when the time comes. We were getting antsy and were excited to head out for a long day. The other nice part was that we headed out into a sunny day. The weather was warm and humid, but we were not complaining. Sun = Happy Hikers.
This day saw us 18.2 miles further down the trail. There were many short steep climbs, but with the sun shining we were just happy to walk. At the end of the day we set up camp in one of the many gaps, and proceeded to cook dinner. Unfortunately the wet weather has brought in lots of gnats. It wasn’t long before they set their sites on us and the dog. Poor Georgy had to fend for himself as we sought shelter in our trusty tent.
On the twelfth we walked down into the NOC. A large outdoor center on the Nantahala river that specializes in rafting and kayaking. We were very happy for we ate BBQ and drank beers. After lunch we secured our status as professional hobos outside of the outdoor retailer. We rested in their display hammocks and charged our phones in the outside outlets for about, I don’t know, three hours. It was great. Bear laid on the cool concrete near the door so he got wafts of AC as shoppers went in and out. As I said, professional hobos. Once digested we walked another 0.8 miles to the nearest shelter to sleep for the night.
We woke at our normal time, 8-8:30, and started hiking. The morning was sunny, but very windy. We snacked at an overlook and were able to get phone service. After looking at the weather it became obvious that the wind was moving a storm our way. We continued to walk and the sky changed quickly. Soon it was that sickly green you witness before a hurricane or tornado. The wind was strong and our adrenaline spiked when a tree crashed down to the right of the trail. That wood cracking was enough to quicken our pace along to the next shelter. There we decided to just stay the night and make up the miles in the morning.
June 14, up early and hiking before 8am! It was a clear, cool morning and the sun was starting to shine. We walked easily and covered the miles quickly. We met a father and son around lunchtime who shared some food with us. Jason and Jeremy were out to cover a section of the trail. When we ran into them again a few miles down the trail they offered us a ride into town! Traci and Zach, mom and son, made up the rest of this fabulous family. After not only giving us a ride to pick up our box and taking us to the hotel, they insisted on picking us up in the morning to take us back to the trailhead. Trail Angels! We are so grateful for their generosity. Once again it is hard to find the words for how thankful we are for their acts of kindness. Franklin was the kind of town where cat calls are still whooped out of windows of trucks and hitching made me nervous.
Fast forward a few days of walking and we are continuing to make great time. We are looking forward to seeing our families in less than a week! We have crossed into GA and have less than 60 miles to go. I think we are almost ready to use the word almost. However, we are still cautious. Maybe we will say “almost” when have less than a mile to go. Maybe when there are just a few steps left. It is a tricky word and our emotions and exhaustion level change by the day, sometimes hour. I can say that we are ready to see our families and our significant others and look forward to sharing this massive achievement with those who have helped make a lifelong dream a reality.

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Smokies? Check.

9 Jun

It has been a long, wet week for Lucky and I in Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP/Smokies). We had been anticipating this 72-mile section of trail for many states as Northbounders had recounted their tales of difficulties in the Smokies. Cold temperatures, snow, endless wet days, and lots of climbing combined with the park’s “No Dog” policy made us dread what was coming. So after dropping Georgy off with Lida from Loving Care Kennels (who picked him up at the trail side before entering the park), we headed up into GSMNP. We stayed the first night at Davenport Gap Shelter, which stood out as the only shelter in the park that is still caged. This is suppose to prevent bears from entering the shelter, but ends up just making us humans feels like we are on display in the zoo.

Day 2 we hiked 14.8 miles to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, the most remote shelter in the park. We enjoyed our only day of sunshine of the week and made it to the full shelter before the evening rains began (which would continue every night the rest of the week). We made our current favorite dinner (Thai peanut pasta) and bedded down in the spacious shelter as our sheltermates kept the fire going in the shelter’s fireplace.

Day 3 was our shortest day of the week, 12.6 miles to the most popular shelter in the park- Icewater Spring Shelter. Being forced to walk shelter to shelter was one of the other frustrating rules of the park. Everyone has to stay at shelters each night and must have a permit for each specific shelter (luckily thru-hikers are exempt from the second part). Since we had a shorter day we decided to “grease the groove”, which involved doing push-ups and planks every hour on the hour to improve our fitness. Though it was tough, it really broke up the day! At Icewater we got to meet some great folks, including a couple of married nurses who gave great career advice. We also met some of the coolest kids ever! Amelia (10 years old), her brother Brody (8 years old) and their friend Porter (also 10 years old) were on a camping trip with their dad’s Jason and Adam. The 5 of them were hiking the 72 miles of the AT in the park and were doing the same mileage as us. These kids were doing 15 miles a day with few complaints and an awesome attitude. They were definitely the most hard-core (as well as the most fun and well-behaved) kids we have met on the trail!

Day 4 we knocked out 15.5 miles, crossing our first two big milestone of the smokies- climbing Clingman’s Dome (the highest point of the AT at 6,643 feet) and having less than 200 miles left! Both were exciting and we were also able to sneak into the shelter minutes before the evening’s deluge of rain began.

Day 5 was our longest day in the park, 17.5 miles to Mollie’s Ridge Shelter. We enjoyed our final lunch with the awesome kids and dads before climbing to the top of Rocky Top and a HUGE milestone- 2,000 miles completed! A photo shoot ensued, along with calls and texts home to share our accomplishment. As usual, the trail made sure we knew our place and rewarded us with an incredible lightening storm and 4 inches of rain in under an hour. Needless to stay we looked like wet rats when we entered the full shelter too late. Thankfully everyone welcomed us to set up our tent in the cooking area and we were able to have a dry night despite the endless rain.

Today was day 6, and we exited the park with glee. We finished the last 10 miles in under 4 hours, leap frogging with a group of Sierra Club members who had been very sweet to us, providing us with morning coffee and even hanging our bear bag in the rain! The kindness of strangers never fails to warm our hearts and every moment of trail magic means a lot to us. The final amazing moment of the week came when Lida returned my gorgeous boy to us- a happy Bear, groomed for the summer. Now all three of us can continue a Smoky-free adventure for the last 165 miles!

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Top Ten Essentials

9 Jun

In outdoor stores across the country they provide a list of 10 “essentials” for an outdoor adventure. These usually include a compass, map, sunscreen, etc. After 2,000 miles we have decided to create our own list- Carrot and Lucky’s 10 Thru-Hiker Essentials. Here it is:

1) Ear plugs- After many a sleepless night in the shelters with snoring hikers and loud early morning risers, We realized the importance of ear plugs. Lucky and I pop them in early and enjoy the blissful peace of muffled noises we can’t quite decipher. Our quality of sleep in shelters went through the roof.

2) Eye mask- This one closely follows #1, this time allowing us to get to sleep before sunset and stay asleep after sunrise. I use a bandana and Lucky uses a Buff.

3) Fruit snacks- We eat these constantly throughout the day. They provide quick bursts of energy while our bodies digest the protein bars, and they are delicious. Also, they have 100% of your vitamin C-bonus!

4) Visor- This one provides a duel purpose- it not only protects from the sun (so you can send expensive sunglasses home), but keeps the rain out of your eyes as well. Love it.

5) Benedryl/melatonin- These have become begrudging essentials to our trail life. While we would love to be able to sleep well without them, after years of nightshift it just isn’t possible. The extra help these sleep aids provide is priceless!

6) Thermarest Neoair- This is the last sleep essential, but a huge one. It is expensive ($160) and worth every single penny. It provides warmth and an incredible 2+ inch barrier from the ground. We have slept the whole night on huge roots and not even noticed!

7) Platypus- While the name brand isn’t necessarily important, Platypus is making a great hydration bladder with a zip closure. Having a straw available with water at all times makes hydration a lot simpler when you are hiking all day long.

8) Drink mixes/Coffee- While we try to drink as much water as we can, eventually we need some extra energy or electrolytes. I have tried to go caffeine free in the backcountry in the past and it was not worth it. Instant coffee in the morning and caffeinated energy drinks in the afternoon improve our quality of life tremendously!

9) Compactor bag- After many weeks of rain, keeping the inside of our backpacks dry has become key. We line our packs with heavy duty trash/compactor bags and it keeps everything inside completely dry. Amazing!

10) Dry sleep clothes- This one goes along with #9. After being soaked to the bone for 8-12 hours in the rain, putting on dry clothes to sleep at night makes all the difference. Essential!!!

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2,000 Miles Down!

7 Jun

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Erwin to Hot Springs

30 May

This week has been an incredibly tough, but rewarding, week. After hiking 26.2 miles last Saturday into Erwin, TN we spent the night at Uncle Johnny’s campground where we had sent our resupply box. We ate a hardy breakfast at Huddle House (including sausage for Bear) and set out on the 68 mile section to Hot Springs, NC. As we have learned over the past 1,900 miles, each town stop ends with an uphill climb back into the mountains. This was no different. With full packs, full bellies and brand new shoes we had shipped ourselves we were struggling. It has become a seemingly impossible task to make ourselves hike more than 10 miles out of town, and Sunday was no different. We got 9.5 miles before finding a beautiful stream to camp by and enjoying some cheddar broccoli pasta for dinner.

Monday we fared better, hiking 17.5 miles including lots of climbing over Little Bald and Big Bald, which included incredible 360 degree views. We even got to enjoy some southbound company in the form of two section hikers, Sarah and Tammy. It has been a little isolating to be the only hikers going our direction and over the next three days we got to enjoy the comradery of leap frogging with other folks and sharing food (mainly them sharing with us beggars thru hikers!). Tuesday we did 14.7 miles from Hogback Ridge Shelter to Jerry Cabin Shelter, including breaks to dry our tent out in the sun after a spontaneous rainstorm soaked everything the night before. Unfortunately, by this time it had become very obvious that Emily’s new shoes were too big and the little “hot spot” that had started Sunday had become a full-blown blister. Morning wound care was soon introduced and became TID (3x a day) by the next day. Huge props to her for not letting it slow her down one bit and continuing to knock out the miles!

Wednesday started off with 5 miles of beautiful cliffs and some more technical terrain over to Camp Creek Bald, before we descended 6.5 miles into Allen Gap. There we enjoyed some sodas from Mom’s Store while chatting with Sarah, Tammy and some bikers touring from Florida to Canada. Then we proceeded to climb the last 7 miles of the day before camping on Rich Mountain and enjoying some dehydrated meals including a ridiculously good chicken, potatoes and dressing with breadcrumbs. Yum!

This morning we got up at 8am (our usual wake up time) and had tea and pastries before knocking out the last 8.2 miles into town. We hadn’t been able to find a dog-friendly place to stay and were getting stressed out about possibly being unable to “zero” tomorrow. Luckily, we walked right into Iron Horse Inn and they welcomed Bear along with us for two nights. Again – the trail provides! Now we are off to nap (and time off our feet for blister healing) before heading out to enjoy some beers by the river and then a long night’s rest!

Here are some photos including some views from Big Bald, our “yard sale” drying method for our gear, and Bear and I cuddling up. Also included is one of Emily’s blister- not for the feint of heart!

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Trail Provisions

26 May

Well, we are now at a place in Roan Mountain, TN. I have never been here, but have read a lot about eastern Tennessee as I have dabbled in my love of Appalachian folklore and life. It is a very beautiful part of the country. Green mountains, gorgeous trail, and spring fed hollows. It is simple in its beauty with untouched mountains and a sparse population. This is the part of the trail where it gets the reputation of being a “green tunnel”. The trail has a life of its own as it meanders down the coast, and it also has its own bit of magic that is rarely talked about off the trail.
We have explained before about trail magic and trail angels. However, there is another saying amongst hikers and it is that the “trail provides”. It sounds hokey I know, but I swear it is true. You just have to put it out into the universe and chances are you will get what you need. We, of course, have examples.
Most recently we experienced the trail providing for us in Damascus. We had always planned on staying in and zero-ing in Damascus. We had never even considered that we may be there during Trail Days. (A festival for hikers and vendors.) For a hiking town Damascus is surprisingly not dog friendly. There is a hostel there that accepts dogs but when we called for a reservation they were booked. So our new plan was to hike in, get our box, and hike out to the other side of town. For no real reason we ended up taking an extra day to get to Damascus. As luck would have it that extra day allowed for a vacancy at the hostel. We had a half day into town, an enormous meal, and a hostel with Internet! This proved to be awesome because it allowed me to Skype with my husband, and Jen to “FaceTime” with her boyfriend. We were happy girls. (The ice cream sundaes we had for dinner may have also helped improve our moods.) We needed a place to rest and refuel, we were sure it was not going to happen, and as we walked by the hostel we noticed a vacancy sign. It was early in the day and there was room in the Inn. The trail provided.
Another example. On our last day in the Grayson Highlands we had cut our food quite short. Somehow we had not put lunches in our last drop. We are not sure what happened but we suspect somewhere we will have double lunches. When that happens it will be less of an issue. Too little food proved to be a challenge. My poor hiking partner was starving. I was hungry, but Jen just does not have the fat reserves that this lady has and it was quite difficult for her to keep her energy level high enough to sustain the hiking we were doing. After a meager breakfast we set off down the trail with our empty food bags. Then, about 4 miles in, there was trail magic! Polaris, a thru hiker from last year, was there to support his moms current thru hike. His dad had driven in coolers of drinks and food! They were super friendly and encouraged us to take some food for the road…and we did. That day we went from having nothing to having too much. It was truly amazing. We were hungry, and then we were not. The trail provided.
Now for an obscure example of the trail providing. Somewhere in the Northern part of this journey I received an impossible gift from the trail. A tiny screw. My phone case is water proof. Where the head phone jack is there is a watertight screw. The case comes with a replacement plastic screw in case you lose the metal one. Well, I lost the metal one and then the plastic one. We were in a very rainy patch and I was worried about my phone. I keep it in my hip belt pocket to use the camera. At that particular time we did not have an extra zip lock and my phone was vulnerable. So that evening in the dark of the shelter I looked to my left and what did I see? A screw for my phone case! I asked everyone who was there if it belonged to them and no one claimed it. Magic! My phone was saved. I like to think that the screws I had lost showed up to replace the hardware I now use for my phone case. This little guy has been with me since. It is in my case now. Once again, the trail provided.
I know this may sound silly, but believe me it is not.
Last, but most definitely not least, was a time in Maine. I was sick. Not the call out from work sick, but the I need to get to the hospital sick. I had been running a temperature way above 101 for almost two days, been very ill multiple times, had not had a shower in at least 7 days, and had been deliriously resting in a tent while my hiking partner did her best to care for me with what she had. It was not much. We managed to get to a “road” sandwiched between two mountains. No cell service. No cars. Then as we were trying to figure out what to do, a family showed up. After talking to us for a bit they decided to cut their trip in half and take us to the hospital. So, these total strangers loaded up two dirty hikers and a dog and took us to the closest hospital. I cannot thank these people enough. When in need I was provided true Trail Angels.
I don’t know how it works or why. It is one of the great mysteries of the trail. All I know is that it is somehow true. If you put it out there…chances are you will get what you need. “The trail will provide.”

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Minor Changes

20 May

I am laying in a top bunk of a hostel as I write this. You heard right, top bunk. So when the headline reads “AT hiker dies in tragic bunk bed accident” you will know it’s true. I feel there should be laws about people over a certain age sleeping in bunk beds, but when you’re basically homeless any bed will do. Actually the hostel in Damascus is quite lovely despite the bunks. We are staying at a place called the Hikers Inn and we are grateful for they allow our 4 legged companion to stay with us. They even have a dog bed! I know my hiking partner posted a recent update so I will spare you a repeat of those details. What I wanted to talk about were the small changes that have taken place from the beginning of our journey until now. Some friends have inquired about the differences so I will tell.
One of the main changes we have made is in terms of mileage. When we first started last June we wanted to do big mile days. Our first day on the trail was 25 miles. We were doing fine until all of our little issues started to build up. Swollen/infected feet, porcupines, abdominal problems. So, we started a series of high mileage days followed by low or no mileage days. We struggled with consistency. What we found out around Pennsylvania is that we really liked days around the 18 mile mark. This amount of miles left us feeling like we covered significant ground but also have us time to enjoy views and smell flowers. So during these southern states we are trying to learn from this. We were doing well, but this last week resembled mileage from our earlier months. Big, big, nero, big. So we have used the time in Damascus to come up with a plan that is consistent in hopes to accomplish timely miles and be nice to our bodies.
We made very few changes to our gear. I bought a new 20 degree synthetic bag for the wet spring, and in anticipation for the PCT next year. I love the bag and have been happy on wet mornings. Jen kept her 1+ season bag and added a liner. The liner is a thin piece of fabric that adds 15 degrees of warmth to her down bag. She too is happy and warm. I plan on getting a liner as my summer cover as we head further south. As the days get warm it is truly all we will need and takes up less room in the pack.
Our packs are the same. Mine has needed repairs and some patching, but Jens was of a bit sturdier build and has held up well. I have no complaints though, we put our packs thorough a lot and under the circumstances they have done better than any I have owned. We still carry 32-35liters of gear and food with our packs weighing in at about 30 pounds when full. We did have to purchase new pack covers to fight off the rain, but that is a purchase well worth it’s weight.
Our footwear and apparel have had minor alterations. I am currently hiking in the same shoes as Jen, but look forward to getting new shoes in Erwin. The shoes we are in are fine, but my feet are low in volume and have a bit too much room in my current shoes. Jen will also get new shoes in Erwin. We will weigh in on her thoughts at a later time. Our socks are different. We have a new favorite. For a long time we both swore by a certain brand of wool socks. Now, we are swearing by another. Darn Tough wool socks are made in Vermont, and as far as we are concerned… they rock. We are also sporting wool shirts. Last year Jens best friend Alison gave her a wool shirt to hike in. She conquered 1300 miles in that shirt before it needed to be retired. We were in awe at how well it handled both the wear and tear as well as the hiker smell. This section we each have one of these fine garments. They are, as expected, holding up quite well.
Mentally, we are better. Our attitude is slightly healthier than before. We no longer just have to put our heads down and hike. We have less pressure due to weather, and enjoy talking about the miles to come. We will do a comprehensive gear post/ review when we are done with the hike, but that requires links etc. that are bit too fancy for the phone. Stay tuned, we will update you in a few days!

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Tennessee!

16 May

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We finally crossed over the border today into our 12th state!

Finishing Virginia

15 May

Emily and I are relaxing at the Hiker’s Inn in Damascus, VA, our last stop before crossing over into Tennessee. It has been a long time since we crossed over the state line from West Virginia to Virginia- over 500 miles (and 6 months) ago. So it will be an amazing feeling to go into our 12th state tomorrow, knowing we only have 450 miles to go! That being said, Virginia has been so good to us. From getting to spend time with our families to enjoying the variety of scenery, it has been incredible. We have finished this last week in VA with one of the highlights of the trail for many people- Grayson Highlands. It is known for its beautiful vistas, open field hiking and most importantly the wild ponies that live in the area. We saw over 20 ponies, including some very new colts that looked only a few weeks old. Georgy befriended one at Thomas Knob Shelter and they spent an evening and a morning playing while the colt’s mom and I looked on. It was an incredible experience and here are some pics from the last week:

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Food Update

14 May

One of the big questions we get about trail life is “what do you eat?” Since we have definitely adapted and improved our diet since we started in Maine, I think it is time to come back to this question. One of our big changes in strategy during this second part of the trail has been food drops. We bought all of our food for the last 800 miles and separated it into 3-6 day groups and shipped them to ourselves in towns along the trail. Many gear stores and hostels accept packages for thru hikers along with post offices. So now it has become a game of hiking drop to drop instead of scrambling to find grocery stores or gas stations to buy food and supplies. This has worked well for us because at this point we know what we like. Pop tarts? No thank you. Fruit snacks? Yes please!

So here is the breakdown of our breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks followed by pics from our last drop.

Breakfast:
-Drink of 1 scoop Slim Fast high protein, 1 instant coffee packet and 1 scoop dehydrated milk
-Dehydrated pineapple, mango and kiwi
-Fig newtons or protein bar

Snack 1:
-Protein bar (we shoot for at least 20grams. Powerbar chocolate peanut butter is a favorite)
-Fruit snacks (Welches is my fav, Motts is Emily’s)

Lunch:
-Tortillas with either peanut butter, Justin’s maple almond butter, Nutella, or tuna fish salad packet
-Pretzels or salty trail mix

Dinner:
We eat 5 main dinners:
1) Kraft Mac and cheese (comfort food that never gets old)
2) Thai peanut pasta (whole wheat linguini with peanut butter, soy sauce and brown sugar)- so much protein and so filling!
3) Whole wheat pasta with Sundried tomatoes, olive oil and parmesan cheese- delicious!!
4) Darn Good Chili- dehydrated chili found with the soups
5) Lipton Cheddar pasta with broccoli with a packet of tuna mixed in.

Dessert:
-Mini kitkats, Reese’s peanut butter cups, Jordan almonds, almond joy pieces.

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