December 19, 2009
I’ve been home for a month – so now I have a little bit of perspective on this fantastic experience.  So what are the big take aways?  People have asked me how this experience has changed me, and that’s a really good question. It’s so strange how I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – did this crazy journey actually happen now that I’m back in my own bed in Kansas – or New Orleans?  It’s good to be home and I’m happy in my familiar world – so what’s changed?

I feel calm.  Secure.  I know that I can manage challenges.  I’m not worried too much about what the future holds.  I’m willing to take time to be intentional about next steps and not just rush through my days.  I’m finding it much easier to meditate, and I’m making it more of a priority to take a small chunk of my day and be still.  I’m not really interested in going back to a frantic existence packed with too many obligations.  I had been working on this before I left for the trip, but I’m even more committed to it  now.  Success and happiness won’t be measured by how packed my calendar is or how many accomplishments I can check off every day.

I have less patience or need for daily news – so much of it seems like unnecessary static that fills my brain and doesn’t help anything.  I can keep up with the big stuff via some weekly publications, and even those can have the tendency to over-focus on minutiae that will not matter at all in a month or two.  A lot of what we label information and become addicted to is basically irrelevant.

I’m physically stronger, and hope to retain some of that strength.  I know my body can do far more than I ever gave it credit for in the past.  I can manage pain better than I thought I could, and I now know my body can recover from being pushed. On the trail, it’s so important to take care of your body – to eat when you’re hungry, to drink all the time, to rest – I worked hard but I also slept a lot, and ate a lot, and stayed hydrated!  I’m trying to remember not to put off the needs of my body now that I’m in a safer environment – it’s so easy to ignore your body’s messages in daily life.

I have a lot more faith that things will work out.  Or that I can handle what happens.  Granted, I think I had an easy relatively uneventful hike in terms of things that were scary.  I never thought I was going to die.  That first day in Maine was pretty scary for a couple of hours, but I never went for a long period of time being frightened or physically deprived.  I was healthy and safe, for the most part.  But that’s true for many of us most of the time and we still can be pretty good at worrying.  I come from a long line of worriers, and I did worry plenty on the trail, but I also kept going and didn’t let worries stop me.  So hopefully I’ve reinforced something I already knew – as Mark Twain said, most of the worst things in my life never actually happened.  And whatever does happen, even if it’s difficult or scary, we deal with it one step at a time.

I’ve realized that everyone has very different experiences and opinions about basically the same things.  This isn’t really a revelation, but it’s so prevalent on the trail because you hear so much about what’s coming up, either by word of mouth or in the shelter registers. So one person’s favorite hostel, or view, is another person’s nightmare experience because of bad weather, or place that they thought was dirty and no fun.  Some of these differences in experience are because of external circumstances, because of who was there or if it was foggy or raining – but really in life as well, you need to be aware that other people’s reviews or ideas of what’s good or bad are likely to be different from yours, and to take others’ recommendations with a grain of salt, especially if your tastes are usually unique anyway.  I tried to go into every section of trail, trail town, and hostel with an open mind to soak in whatever happened.  And that’s a good thing to remember in daily life too.

Many people who hike the trail comment that it restored their faith in humanity, that there are mostly good people out there who will help you if you need it, and beyond that, will go out of their way to do something for you even if you don’t ask.  And it’s true.  The AT is surrounded by a caring community of people who make it a project to help hikers, to provide food, water, rides, treats, and plain old encouragement.  Hikers call all of this good will “trail magic”.  And even when someone has planned it, it does feel magical.  Yet more amazing is the unplanned “magic” that happens. The person, item, or experience that happens to show up just when you need it.  It’s very difficult to explain.  But I think that this type of magic actually exists in real life too – we just pay less attention to it.  When you’re a hiker, you have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get you into town or to help you in other ways, and in regular life people pride themselves in being independent and not needing help.  We also perhaps fail to notice all of the serendipitous occurrences that bring us what we need when we need it. But it does happen in daily life, and it’s worth noting and appreciating.

Once people have hiked the trail, it draws them back – they come back to help other hikers, to pay it forward, to re-immerse themselves in the experience of having a simple life focused on being in the moment, to participate in genuine fellowship, and to follow a very clearly marked physical path. But I think the other thing that happens is that they realize they can do this same type of thing to some degree every day, on the trail or not.  We can all pay attention to the needs of others and help out, we can seek and accept help when we need it rather than insisting on being independent. We can purge unnecessary possessions, distractions, and “static” that has the potential to fill our days with worry and fear.  We can live more intentionally and simply, and we can work to create caring vibrant communities.

Ultimately, I learned that I have a lot of power to shape my life and that most reasons people give for not being able to do things are self-created.  I’m excited to see what’s next once I’ve rested and regrouped a bit more.  I’m so grateful to everyone who supported me and believed in me and helped me along the way.  I’ve been spending the past week or so sending thank yous and contacting people who helped me, and there’s still much to do on that front, but it’s so heartening to think how many people supported me and helped me to achieve this dream.  Thank you so much, and if I can help you with your dream sometime, please let me know!


December 1, 2009
Well, I’ve been home for a little less than two weeks.  It still feels great to be home!  Most of the gear is clean and put away.  I still need to wash a very dirty pack and a very filthy sleeping bag.  Amazing the level of dirt I was living/sleeping in!  Anyway, I’ve amassed some statistics that are interesting – to me, anyway!  So here goes:

The trip took 203 days.  Of those days, 32 were spent not hiking at all (days in town, travel days from Maine to Virginia, days at the beach with Shaw, etc.)  Of the 171 hiking days, 10 were less than five miles, 36 were between 5 and 10 miles, 58 were between 10 and 15 miles, 47 were between 15 and 18 miles, and 20 days were over 18 miles.  These mileage statistics are trail miles – they don’t include the sometimes half mile side trails to shelters, the walks into towns, etc.  So really, most daily mileage was probably between a half mile and 2 miles longer than I recorded.  I spent 43 nights in motels or hostels, 23 nights with friends, 69 nights in my tent and 60 nights in shelters.  I was only completely alone in the woods at night on 14 nights.  Any other time there was at least one other person sleeping in the vicinity.

I hiked totally by myself 100 out of the 171 days, and of the 71 that I hiked with other people sometimes it was only for a few hours or part of the day.

Of the 2178 miles of trail, I followed the exact route of the trail – the white blazes – 98.7 % of the time.  I missed about 14.4 miles of trail total, generally through or near towns  – often where the trail followed roads and was not in the woods, mostly because of being picked up and dropped off in slightly different places. And I walked on roads instead of the trail for about another 13.5 miles.  Other than that, I was on the AT, baby!  Bill Bryson hiked less than 40% of the trail, and I’m finding that more and more people who hiked the trail in a season actually skipped 100 miles in Pennsylvania, or a chunk of Maine, or some of the Whites, or a section in Virginia, or whatever. So I’m even more proud that I was able to accomplish hiking the entire trail!

I had very few blisters – a couple on my toes here and there, and no blisters at all for the last 1200 miles.  I did not lose any toenails, and I don’t look appreciably different than when I left for the trail.  The only other injuries I suffered from were two yellow jacket stings – both in New Hampshire! – and numerous mostly small scrapes and cuts usually on my shins and knees.  I didn’t fall down as much as I thought I would, and I only caught air twice.  I fell in a bog once but only with one leg up to my knee.  I didn’t have any difficulty fording any streams – they were all super low when I crossed.  I didn’t have to hike in any major lightning storms or snowstorms. 

I didn’t get giardia, Lyme disease, or even a cold while on the trail!  I only was sick twice, both in town, once with an unexplained fever and once with a 24 hour intestinal thing.  I didn’t run out of food or get attacked by any wild animals.  A mouse did get into my food bag once, when I had it hung too close to my pack – so the mouse could jump to it!  Luckily, it only got into my trash stored in the bag and not the food itself.

I saw a tremendous amount of wildlife including four moose, at least 13 bears, numerous deer, a weasel, tons of frogs and toads, a bazillion squirrels and chipmunks, and all manner of birds.  I saw at least six copperhead snakes and many more non-poisonous ones, but never saw a rattlesnake, even though they’re common. I didn’t see any skunks, possums, racoons, bobcats or mountain lions, and I’m not sure if I saw a coyote or not.

My favorite trail meal was a whole box of Kraft original macaroni and cheese with a pouch of tuna mixed in.  I was always happy to eat it, and it was almost always my first meal out of town because it was heavy.  My total pack weight hovered around 25-31 pounds most of the time.  It was heavier at the end (somewhat surprisingly!)  because I had more gear and kept carrying more food.  Clearly, I need to take some more tips from Ray Jardine!

If I were to go back and hike the trail again, there’s very little, if anything that I would change.  I enjoyed my days alone and the days I hiked with other people.  I liked my flip-flop way of hiking the trail, beginning in Virginia.  It was fun to have the experience of being a northbounder and being a southbounder, and it gave me more time to enjoy the trail and easier transitions to the difficult parts of the trail.  I think I did a good job of mixing high mile days – these allowed me to complete the whole trail in a season- and low mile days that gave me time to savor the landscapes, people and towns along the way.  I managed to stay present for most of the hike – soaking in the scenery instead of just putting my head down and marching.  I have a passel of incredible memories that I’ll treasure.

That’s it for now – perhaps there will be one more entry that’s all reflective and divulges the meaning of the trip – we’ll see!

The last miles . . .

November 18, 2009 6:18 p.m. old time
Well, I’m really at journey’s end – literally 0.2 miles from the summit of Springer Mountain and the end of the AT. Then there’s the 8 plus mile down to Amicalola Falls State Park where I will see my sweetheart TOMORROW!

It rained a lot last night – it sounded especially major on the tin roof.  Still raining now, but not too hard, and I’m under cover at the pretty Springer Mountain shelter.  It was overall an uneventful quiet hike on a foggy woodland trail.  Saw three people total – two hikers at a forest road crossing heading north and a guy running with his dog right around the parking area just before the summit.  Oh, but I did see a bear today!  Probably the last one of this hike – he was right in the trail maybe 50 feet in front of me digging in the leaves.  I was just thinking about getting my camera, then he looked up and I said, “Hey, bear” and he took off like a shot!  Down the trail and then down the hill.  So cool to see one more bear on my last full day on the AT!

It’s cold, drippy, foggy and yucky.  But I’m under cover and mostly warm except for my writing hand fingers.  Can’t believe this is it!  Still amazed that I did this – who knew I could hike 20 mile days, and all of the other things I did on this trip!

November 25, 2009 9:20  p.m.
Well, that was my last official entry from the trail.  I got up the next day to a foggy morning that quickly gave way to sunshine – so by the time I left the Springer Mountain shelter the sun was up and clearly out – I was thrilled to have a sunny day for those last few steps to the end of the AT.  I was all alone, and I packed up and stepped back onto the trail, full of emotion as I took those last few paces to the summit of Springer – and then there I was!  Looking at the rock with the plaque and the very last white blaze!  And a valley full of clouds.  My mental state?  Happy and in awe.  I signed the last register that is located in a drawer inside the rock, and breathed and looked around, then started down the long blue blazed trail to the state park.

It was a magical morning, sun shining through the fog in a pronounced way that I don’t think I’ve seen yet.  It was beautiful.  I stopped about halfway down at the Len Foote Hike Inn and visited with the staff there and had chocolate chip cake and lemonade, then got back on the trail and hiked in the now clear sunshine.  Eventually I reached the impressive falls, with lots of stairs (over 400) to go down.  Glad I was going down!  I arrived at the visitors’ center eventually and had ice cream and made phone calls and purchased a copy of Earl Shaffer’s book, Walking with Spring.  He was the first person to complete a thru-hike in 1948.

Then I curled up in the sun with the book and waited patiently while my sweet husband drove all day, getting stuck in traffic with accidents around Atlanta.  I walked with Earl all the way to New Hampshire as it got dark and then my dear sweetie pie arrived – and we were so so happy to see each other! We pulled over at the first spot to stay (Holiday Inn Express – yay!) and had champagne and a very happy reunion. And then I was home in New Orelans the next day, my birthday – a great birthday present!

Photos – click the link!

Rain and mist again . . .

November 17, 2009 6:02 p.m – still old time, so still light!
Wow – really closing in on this whole thing – I’m only 15 miles away from Springer – but I’ll summit the day after tomorrow first thing in the morning, unless it’s too cold to stay up there, then I’ll summit tomorrow and run down the hill.

Right now I’m at Gooch Mountain shelter – got here around 4:30 and have been relaxing, reading the shelter log – it’s just me here so a little lonely but ok. I’ve been watching the fog come and go – it’s much colder when the fog is around.  Then it will clear up and feel warmer, then fog up and be colder again.

The hike was fine today, but with varying levels of mist, fog and light rain.  I left around 9 a.m. (old time) from Neels Gap – said goodbye to Pirate, who had put out a nice breakfast spread for just me – bagels, pop tarts, juice, bread, jam – yum!  I slowly climbed up Blood Mountain, taking my time and happy that it didn’t feel tremendously challenging.  Thinking, of course, of Meredith  who was brutally murdered near there just a couple of years ago – always gets me a little more serious.  Saw some guys coming down the mountain who had stayed in the shelter on top, so I was surprised when I got to the shelter (which I practically tripped over because it was so foggy) and peeked in the window of the stone structure to see about four more people snoozing away in their sleeping bags.  So I crept away down the mountain.  Ran into a bunch of day hikers today – surprising for a cold-ish, rainy-ish Tuesday in mid-November.  But no one here at the shelter except a bold squirrel who I encouraged to go away.  I’m sure the mice will be out and about having a mouse party once it gets dark.

No real views today, but sometimes you could see out to bluish mountains with pink-y grey steely sky.  Georgia has seemed pretty easy overall – a nice trail.  I do have a couple of plus 500 foot climbs tomorrow, but just like everything else, just put one foot in front of the other . . .

Photos – click the link!

Soaking in the last days . . .

November 16, 2009 4:42 p.m.
I’m at Neels Gap with just 30.7 miles to go on this fantastic journey!  Oh, plus the 8.8 or so down the mountain to Amicalola Falls State Park, so really about 39 miles left.  Two more nights camping out, plus tonight at this hostel.  3 more days of hiking, then home!

So, I didn’t write yesterday – when I got to the shelter there was a guy there who had thru hiked in ’04 and had just left his girlfriend at the car after hiking with her for a couple of weeks – they were having major issues and he talked and talked about it and I tried to listen and offer a little bit of hopefully helpful advice – thus no writing. So, back to Tray Mountain Shelter – I woke up to a gorgeous sunrise all to myself, and a warm and starry night before that – so surprising just how warm it was up on the mountain!  I did have a mouse on my head at some point – ack!  Maybe they are always crawling on my head and I don’t notice it because usually I’m wearing a hat while sleeping – hmmm!

Anyway, got on the trail, over Tray Mountain and down to a campsite where there was a good sized group of people – I stopped to get water and chat with them – one works as a therapist in the Atlanta area and I think she was there with hiking friends and some of her clients who probably hadn’t been camping much.  They had a great set up and it was nice to hang out and chat with them.  One of the adults, Ten Percent, had thru hiked a couple of years ago as a southbounder (I continue to be in awe of southbounders!) and while we were all chatting he made me a bagel toasted in OIL and filled with Nutella AND cream cheese!  Heavenly!  It was a gorgeous sun-filled day. 

Then I came down into Unicoi Gap and had cell service so I made phone calls and even briefly got on the Internet, and then started on the big climb out of the gap.  Near the top of the hill I ran into Don Coolio who had thru hiked this year, but who I had not met.  Then down the trail came Storyteller who I had met a couple of times briefly – so nice to chat with them about AT stuff.  We remarked on how incredibly rarefied this experience is – we seem to be able to remember every shelter, every road crossing – and even though we were at different places at different times we know exactly what the other one is talking about when they mention a place.  I wonder how to transfer that level of awareness to daily life – even when you are going to the same places each day – maybe that’s part of what’s unusual about a journey like the AT – every day is a new section of trail, so there’s something original to see every day – even when it looks really similar to the trail somewhere else!

Wow – it’s much later now – I’m in the hostel sitting in an easy chair and Peter Gabriel is playing on the radio and I have a sweet cat on my lap – yay!  But I appear to be the only other hostel guest.  Also around is Pirate, a character who runs the hostel and has hiked the AT 17 times, he says.  He takes photos of every hiker who comes to the hostel – so it was cool to go back and look at the wall and see who I recognized – I’ve met a lot of the class of 2009!

Today was another warm incredible day on the trail.  I was up on the ridge for a lot of the day with gorgeous views.  No leaves on the trees means I can see far to the purple mountains in the distance. Then there are red blackberry leaves in the foreground lit by the sun and sometimes when the light is just right, hundreds of single spiderweb filaments sparkle as they stream from the branches.  Magical.

Got here early and cruised around the famous outfitter here, where northbounders often participate in a gear “shake down” – staff at the outfitter go through the hikers’ packs and try to help them lighten their loads, and often sell them new gear more appropriate for a thru-hike.  The shop is decorated with old packs and old hiking boots – beautiful!  I had to keep myself from buying a copy of the Barefoot Sisters’ book – they hiked the AT barefoot and were the original inspiration for my consideration of doing it in my Five Fingers shoes – but the book is big and heavy and will have to wait a little longer.  Oh, I got a free pint of Ben and Jerry’s when I arrived for having hiked the miles from Maine to here – cool!

Well, it’s time to organize my pack one last time to hike these last couple of days – can’t believe it’s almost over!

Photos – click the link!

November 12, 2009 8:03 p.m. (old time)
Tenting (tenting!!) right now by the Timber Ridge Trail about 0.4 miles south of Carter Gap Shelters.  The original plan was to sleep at Carter Gap, but the shelter is not very big and there were four guys there, and so I decided to hike on a little so I wouldn’t cramp their style by going to bed at 7:15 real time!
Got a ride back to the trail with Ronnie Haven, who is a big hiker advocate and owns just about all of the motels in Franklin – he hopes to hike the whole trail someday with his wife.  So I started hiking around 9:30 old time. It was a pretty sunny day, thankfully, and the wintry woods were full of woodpeckers and squirrels, and one deer that I saw.  I had a fantastic view from the top of Albert Mountain, I met a few section hikers, all northbound, and ate lunch by myself at a pretty view.  Dinner by myself too.  It’s ok, but I’m really ready to be done. 91.4 miles to go.  I may just try to do big miles every day – no reason not to, I don’t think.  I’m sleepy – maybe more tomorrow.

11/13/09 8:32 p.m. old time
At Plum Orchard Gap Shelter, except that it’s written Plumorchard – I saw it at first as Plume-o-shard – like a French pronunciation or something! Well, I hiked nearly 20 miles today – a pretty sunny day for hiking – may have seen a coyote today – not sure!  Too far away and in the rhododendrons to be sure.  Lots of rhododendrons, and lots of tawny bare woods.  But I’ve crossed into Georgia!! and hiked over 2100 miles now!  Definitely got a little emotional crossing into Georgia!  Now my little signature that says VA-ME VA-GA is actually true!!  So exciting!

But still ready to be done.  Thought I’d be alone at this shelter tonight, but a sectioner named Dan came in after dark.  He has one of those great little Trangia titanium stoves – cool, but very similar to LB’s which was made out of a Heineken can, thus much cheaper! Nice to have the company.  He’s on the top level, I’m on the bottom – I think mice are worse up top!

11/14/09 7:46 p.m.
At Tray Mountain Shelter – up on a ridge with incredible views and not too cold – it was WARM today – someone is looking out for me! and it’s Saturday night and I saw a ton of weekend hikers out today, and NO ONE is here!  I think this is the second time I’m actually sleeping in a shelter (not my tent) by myself.  But it’s out of the wind and seems cozy and I can spread out a little more than in my tent.  LB and Two Fly were terrible influences – while hiking together we literally never tented!  Always ended up at a shelter – of course, in the Smokies they require you to sleep in the shelters, so that was part of it.  And now that the bugs are not a problem, the tent is not as crucial.  The one drawback is mice, but my food bags are on the bear cables outside which will hopefully not be attacked by mice.

Only 56.5 miles left to Springer!  I feel so lucky with this weather.  It’s warm and sunny.  Today was a gorgeous day on the trail  and while it was tiring, I did my best to really soak in the scenery.  I took a lot of little nature photos today – milkweed pods popping, the last of the purple wildflowers, sunlit blackberry and cat claw leaves, tree silhouettes, etc.   Although it seems like a short day mile-wise, and the trail itself was very walkable, there were six significant ups and downs – 700 feet here, 900 feet there, 1200 feet here, 800 feet there – it added up!  And it was steep in places.  Not Maine, but steep nevertheless.

Took a nice lunch break in the sun at Kelly Knob and watched some of the last of the assorted invertebrates doing their thing in the sunshine – a yellow butterfly, a weevil of some sort, a tiny brown inchworm moving around and around a blackberry leaf, little green flies, and a yellow jacket.  Don’t Fear the Reaper was going through my head all day – perhaps because of the obvious season changes- “Seasons don’t fear the Reaper, nor do the wind and the sun and the rain . . .” Ok – tired and going to close my eyes.

Photos – click the link!


November 21, 2009 3:40 p.m.
Can’t believe I’m back home in New Orleans and finished with the entire Appalachian Trail!  If I didn’t have photos and some very very dirty gear, I might think it was all a dream!  It’s SO GOOD to be home, and I’ll post the last of the journal entries and photos in the next few days, plus all of the last reflections, statistics, etc.  But right now I’m soaking in being HOME!