AT Day 64 – It’s My Birthday And I’ll Camp If I Want To

almost Delps Spring to Leroy Smith Shelter
Powerline Camp
to Trailhead Birthday Camp
AT miles:
Total miles: 1285.1
Elevation change: 630ft gain, 1247ft loss

Heeey, happy birthday to me. I’ve had a lot of great birthdays in my 32 years on this planet, but I’ve never experienced one during a thru-hike. I started north from the Mexican border on the PCT a week after turning 25 in 2015, and I was a few months into 29 by the time SpiceRack and I started south on the CDT in 2019. To be on the Appalachian Trail, deep into the Appalachian Trail, as I ring in the new year is a trippy experience for this reason. How can I be a touch shy of 1300 miles into a long hike when the mountains of my youth are still blanketed in deep snow (maybe, it’s been a dry year in CA)? This is partly the magic of the AT. Winter is just now loosening its grip on the eastern mountains, yet here I am, revoltingly stinky with the accumulated sweat and grime of months on the trail. What a treat. To have the continuity of the trail link the end of one year to the beginning of the next is oddly comforting, as well. To have friendly faces waiting for me at a trail junction, even more so. Cake, hot food, and thoughtful notes from the ones that couldn’t be here, what more could I ask for?

With plans set to meet with Spice and Tango just seven-ish miles up the trail, for the first time in a while I woke up without feeling the pressure of the trail to get up and moving. That was birthday treat enough. I snoozed my alarm twice, making sure to sip some water each time to get the day, nay the year, started on the right foot.

The sky did that strange thing that it likes to do, starting perfectly clear before pulling and painting gray out of thin air. I watched it happen as well as I could while tipping back my bag of trail mix until it was just scattering crumbs in my beard. Packing up went faster than it ever had, perhaps because I lacked the fumbling urgency of previous mornings, perhaps because I was older and wiser.

Pennsylvania, you got me rocks for my birthday? Oh, you shouldn’t have.

My pack and body both felt lighter and more agile than they had in weeks as I dodged the tall tufts of tick-grass on the short climb back to the trail. With just three bars and a smear of peanut butter to my name, I was counting on the promise of hot food ahead, and enjoying the freedom of a body suited to carrying a heavier load. The small rocks that had slayed me yesterday were of no concern and I tiptoed and glided over them.

Kicking it.

With time to burn, I moved without urgency, trying to notice more, trying to think less. I sat on a log, just because it looked like a nice place to sit. I watched the light change with the flowing clouds. But I could only sit still for so long after so many days spent in constant motion. Even with my focuses lollygagging, I reached the trail junction to the Leroy Smith shelter a little early and alone.

Woah, what’s Natalie doing here?

However, thirty seconds later, here came Tango bouncing up the trail, tail high and ears perked in my direction. He’d caught my scent. Then I saw someone that I didn’t expect. Natalie, all the way from Colorado, followed the panting hound, SpiceRack right behind her. Bearing gifts of flowers, Oreos, and hugs, they encircled me, somehow not repelled by my stinky socks. We said hello, ate some cookies, and Natalie touched her first white blaze.

Rustic and colorful, just like me.

A mile down the side trail, we reached Blackbird, parked in a large gravel lot, home for the next 24 hours. The celebration commenced with a hot shower, my first since DC, then continued with endless rounds of fizzy beverages and plates of food. I didn’t even step foot in the van, and just lounged in a comfy chair, eating what was placed in front of me. Chips, salsa, guac, booch, strawberries, and tea. A towering, van-baked cake, rustic and chocolatey, followed. It was worthy of the occasion, worthy of my hiker hunger, and I looked forward to eating some more for breakfast. A few raindrops prompted us to set up the awning, but the evening was as warm as the conversation and company. The precipitation was no bother and had been replaced by a Tiffany spread of stars behind a clearing sky by the time I had spooned down my third portion of lentil, cauliflower, and kale stew.

A good way to pass the afternoon.

The following conversation and digestion period covered a range of topics, both close to and far from trail. My belly gurgled contentedly and joined in the warming spread of happy energy pulsing in my limbs. This whole birthday-on-trail thing was pretty sweet. A stick-breaking racoon trundled through camp, then we called it a night. Spice and I pitched our tent, giving the full comfort of the van experience to our guest, then lay down on the dirt, right where we belonged. Lying next to her in a tent for the first time since last July felt right. We each got CDT shivers, and I fell asleep with memories of the past echoing in my empty, old-man skull. 31 year old me did a good job of getting this far on the AT. I was excited to see the new and improved version take me the rest of the way.

Thanks for all the support and well-wishes, everybody. I love you all.

This post was originally published on my blog Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.

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Comments 9

  • Hazelnut : Apr 28th

    Happy Birthday.
    Your posts are nourishment to our hungry souls. Many of us would love to send you birthday burritos…

    We live in Northern Maine, so we shall see what kind of trail magic we can shake down before your Maine arrival.

    Thanks for sharing your writing style and candor. Fun following your optimism and quiet humor. Your writing prepared/ convinced me to try to meet my thru hiking friend @ Shenandoah Valley National Park instead of Pennsylvania- where they would likely have to bury me on the trail or- just hide me under a rock pile.
    Happy that Spice Rack, Tango and Natalie were there for your birthday.
    Glad you write without ceasing and climb the same way. Happy Journeys.

  • Kelli : Apr 28th

    Sounds perfect.
    Happy Birthday Owen!
    Thanks for sharing your journey.

    • S. R. Burns : Apr 28th

      Happy birthday!! I want you to know that I find your posts very inspiring and uplifting. After a day of work, your writing takes me away… travel on good sir and I will be reading! Once again….


      • Chris : Apr 29th

        I’m just like you, I find the posts refreshing. They’ve become my morning routine. A quick break between the morning commute and work. During evening walks with my wife, I’ll sometimes catch myself retelling what Owen had experienced, as if I was experiencing it first hand.

  • Sylvia : Apr 29th

    Happy belated birthday! Glad you got to enjoy it so!
    I’ve been following you for a bit, jealous of your freedom, enjoying your writing, as a finish up a career in the microbiology lab…
    I’m in Connecticut so maybe if the timing is right I can get some trail magic to you…

  • Bluewhale : Apr 29th

    Happy Birthday! You’re a poet and philosopher, and I’ve looked forward to your post every day. Happy to have finally met SpiceRack!

    Stay safe and keep appreciating every day on the trail.

  • TIM : Apr 29th

    Happy Belated ditto to alot already said. Look forward to your post everyday crushed my writing aspirations. Godspeed

  • Manger Cat : May 2nd

    Happy Birthday!!!! What a wonderful way to spend your birthday. With those you love the most while hiking the Appalachian Trail.

    Your blog appeared in my Google News feed a few days back as an “In Case You Missed It” item from a few weeks back. I read all of your posts that followed, then went back and read everything you’d posted from the beginning of your journey on the Appalachian Trail.

    I experienced a sense of sadness when I finished reading all your entries. A sadness similar to how you feel after reading a good book.

    Craving more than just having your daily entries to read, I went in search of other bloggers writing about their experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail. I quickly discovered how fortunate I was to have come across your blog in my news feed.

    I found many bloggers who posted two or three paragraphs about the previous week on the Trail. Bloggers whose entries mainly consisted of descriptions about the hostel they spent the night in, the shuttle rides there and back, and the people they met on the shuttle and at the hostel. A few bloggers posts focused on their morning meal from a restaurant in the town they had spent the previous night in or how elated they were to discover the town they would be spending the night in had a McDonalds. A few bloggers posts focused on reviewing and describing the audio books and music the listened to in ordered to pass the time while hiking the Appalachian Trail. One blogger who posted daily would include the costs they incurred each day for a hostel or motel room, shuttle fees to and from where they spent the night, and the cost of meals at various places. One blogger wrote about pitching their tent and spending the night alone in for the first time after being on the Appalachian Trail for almost 30 days. I was left wondering why someone would carry all that extra weight around with them when they only intended to use it once a month. . . .

    Of course, there were also a number of things that I learned from reading numerous blogs. The numerous “Trail Angels” at various locations along the Trail who provided everything from bottled water to thirsty hikers to those who set up barbecues along the Trail and provided a full meal. Then there are the “Special Trail Angels” who invited a select few hikers to spend the nights in their homes, often providing them with supper and/or breakfast. It was also interesting to get some insight on those hikers who chose to thru hike in groups rather than alone. It seems to bring about an almost completely different hiking experience if you opt to thru hike the Appalachian Trail trail in a group versus hiking it alone.

    For now, I will satisfy my need to read blogs written by thru hikers by going back and reading your blogs about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.

    As a side note, a very small part of the Continental Divide Trail crosses my cousins property in New Mexico.

    I have a number of questions for you, but they can wait until a future post. For now, I’ll look forward to your future post, while reading about your previous hikes. I’ll keep searching for other bloggers who capture my interest as much as you do.

    Thank you for taking the time to write about your journey and giving all of us a daily update.

    Manger Cat

    • Smitty : May 10th

      Ditto manger cat


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