Closing Out 2022 with My First Thru-Hike
Up until the last days of 2022 I had spent my life as an avid day hiker and newer weekend warrior backpacker. I picked up my hiking and weight lifting routines to start preparing for my 2023 AT thru hike. I could tell I was getting stronger on my day hikes, but I didn’t know if I was preparing enough to be ready to survive the AT.
At the beginning of November, Tropical Storm Nicole cancelled some backpacking plans I had with a friend. I found myself with a Friday off of work and a full backpack ready to be outside. After 5 minutes browsing FarOut I set off to Unicoi Gap for a short hike up to Blue Mountain shelter for the night. The next morning, I came down off the mountain and the Fresh Ground Leap Frog Café was in the parking lot! I chatted with Fresh Ground for a while (having no clue who he was at the time) and he told me about a group hiking the Foothills Trail at the end of the year wanting to bring together AT alumni and hopefuls. Fast forward a few weeks to some internet sleuthing and my dad and I (and my dog Jake) were signed up for Ramdino’s End of Days Hike of the Foothills Trail.
What is the Foothills Trail?
The Foothills Trail is a National Recreation Trail along the North Carolina/South Carolina border. We started at Oconee State Park to the West and travelled East to end at Table Rock State Park. FarOut claims the trail is 76.2 miles with almost 14,000ft of elevation gain headed EABO. An AT thru-hiker we met on the trail told us he thought it was a good representation for what we would expect for about a third of the AT.
Day 1: 11.3 Miles, 1,818 ft Ascent
We started Day 1 with a 4am alarm to catch a 9:30am shuttle at Table Rock State Park. Taz was our shuttle driver, and we shared the ride with Come Along (AT22). On our way Taz kept stopping at various points where the road crossed the trail and telling us the mileage. After about the third time he did that it finally hit me: he was showing us the bailout points! I assumed our “we don’t know what we’re doing let’s get packs from REI” backpacks identified us as newbies. My dad and I later discussed that both of us went into this hike not knowing how long it would take, but we never considered not finishing. The goal was 5 days. We had never done more than 12 miles/day with full packs, and that was only a two-day trip. This trail was going to really push our limits.
We got on the trail and tried to get our pace going. It didn’t take too long before Ramdino and Come Along left us in the dust along with some other former thru-hikers that had started the same time as us. We met them all again 6 miles up trail where a large group was gathered around the Leap Frog Café. As we approached, Fresh Ground shouted at us asking if we were hungry. By the time we sat down our packs and walked over we had hot grilled cheese with bacon sandwiches ready for us. We mostly listened while AT alumni surrounded us telling stories about their days on trail.
I struck up a conversation with Gutsy, an incredible triple crowner who’s knees and sciatica have kept her from continuing to hike as much as she would like. She wasn’t hiking with the group, but seemed to be enjoying hanging out and experiencing hiker culture. With full stomachs we took off down the trail to find a campsite for the night. We started looking for real estate around 4:30 and landed at a spot along the Chattooga River. My dad and I set up camp and made a quick dinner before climbing into our tents at hiker midnight to settle in for a very cold night in the teens.
Day 2: 18.3 Miles, 3,458 ft Ascent
We packed up camp and hit the trail quickly in the morning. Fresh Ground was supposed to be set up with a hot breakfast 6 miles from our campsite. My dad experienced hiking under headlamp for the first time as we made our way down the trail with only quick protein bars to get our energy started. We passed by Vet Ruski, Linda, Linda, and Greyhound as we made our way along the icy Chattooga River. The sun entered the gorge as we hiked, providing beautiful views. We smelled the bacon cooking before we saw Fresh Ground; I think that was the fastest 0.1 miles that my dad hiked the entire trip!
A few hikers took off as we arrived, leaving very few at there with us. We chatted some with Fresh Ground and I spoke with Gutsy, who had shown up with a propane heater for the hikers to use while eating. Fresh Ground told us he was setting up for dinner with chicken noodle soup at mile 28.3, 12 miles from where we were eating breakfast. My dad and I looked at each other and started doing mental math. We would have to push more than we ever had if we wanted to get dinner too! With chicken noodle soup as motivation we set off down the trail.
We took off, and I learned that I like to make up little tunes as I’m hiking to motivate myself to keep moving. I probably sang “chicken noodle soouuupppp” 50 times over those 12 miles. We put our heads down and made miles. When we stopped for water, I knew it was time for the always eventful first poop in the woods. I took off with my trowel, found my spot, and did my business. An exciting first, I had successful aim with my cathole and didn’t have to do any cleanup besides filling in the hole with dirt! It’s the little things that bring you joy when you’re backpacking.
That afternoon we crossed the state line into North Carolina. I know we crossed a few times throughout the trip, but this was the only sign we saw signaling the line. Luckily the last 3 miles or so were all downhill with some beautiful views of Lake Jocassee.
Fresh Ground was waiting for us as promised, and I had some hot chocolate and incredible chicken noodle soup while trying to wrap my head around the fact we had gone over 18 miles that day! About 30 minutes after we arrived, Mona Leafa caught up to us. We hadn’t seen her since the previous afternoon. Fresh Ground fed her and let us know he was staying there for the night and planned to serve breakfast in the morning. My dad and I looked at each other and both had the same thought that we needed to make camp as close as we could to take advantage of another Fresh Ground breakfast.
We set up camp within view of the Café and had a warmer evening than the first night. Before we went to bed we decided to dump my bear barrel hidden in the woods near the parking lot with the extra food we packed due to packing our hunger fears as well as meals we wouldn’t need thanks to Fresh Ground. When we got home we weighed the bear barrel and had dropped 4lbs of food!
Day 3: 16.52 Miles, 2,782 ft Ascent
We started the morning with bacon and eggs again, and then set off to Whitewater Falls. Mona Leafa was taking a little longer than us to get moving, but told us she was going to try to hit a 20 mile day. Driver was dropped off by his wife at the parking lot and after a quick bite to eat took off down the trail. We caught up with him after sightseeing the waterfall and found out he was from a town about an hour from where my dad lives and hikes the same areas that are my favorites in Southern Ohio. Driver was also trying to hit 20 miles, but our pace was slightly faster than his so we ended up playing leap frog with him most of the day.
This day started with a lot of down hills, and what goes down must go up. This is the day when the number of stairs really started to become noticeable. Unpopular opinion, I really like the stairs because counting them helps keep me distracted. I also figured out that I could hook my fanny pack around the top buckle of my backpack and eat my snacks out of it while hiking, no hands! Game changer.
We passed the halfway point and missed the sign. I never thought about quitting, but I also still wasn’t convinced we could finish since we were doing so much more than we had ever tried before. We set our sights on a campsite and make camp right before sunset. Mona Leafa stopped by as we were setting up and we chatted for a while as we got her backpacking history story. She enjoys night hiking, so she left us with a few more hours planned on the trail leapfrogging Driver.
This was the roughest night I had coming into camp. I could tell my feet were swollen. I spent 30 minutes stretching and massaging my feet/legs that evening before I went to sleep to try to help any recovery I could get at night.
Day 4: 16.39 Miles, 3,573 ft Ascent
We woke up to snow flurries on the morning of Day 4, but for some reason my dad and I both thought it was the warmest morning yet. My legs were tight and didn’t want to move, but I could get to the pace I wanted after a quarter mile or so. Nothing ‘hurt’ per say, but my Achilles felt really tight, something I hadn’t experienced before. I told my dad we had to make our breaks meaningful because if I stopped I wasn’t going to get going again easily.
We had been out of cell coverage for a couple of days, but had heard there was supposed to be rain the night of day 4 and into day 5. I checked the forecast when we got back in service that morning and saw that was still generally the forecast. Fast forward to lunchtime and we lost any faith we had in weathermen. It started pouring. We got out our rain gear probably a few minutes too late, and then by the time we had them it and started walking it wasn’t maybe 10 minutes before the shower was done. It kept spitting rain on and off for a few hours, but by the time we made camp that night everything we had was soaked.
We passed quite a few bridges, saw all the waterfalls, and climbed all the stairs on day 4. We tackled a section called Heartbreak Ridge, where I counted 287 almost consecutive steps. Mona Leafa found me on Facebook and warned me about someone suspicious she had encountered in the woods. We ended up staying in contact most of the day. She started the day 6 miles in front of us. We think we may have been maybe half a mile behind her at one point but could never catch up. She did another big mileage day and climbed most of Sassafras Mountain to end her day. For better or worse, we kept that entire climb for our last day. We were able to let her know that we found her fleece she had dropped on the trail, and she planned to stay with Fresh Ground on top of Sassafras Mountain on Day 5 until we got there so we could give it to her.
My dad and I rolled into camp with 17 miles left to go the last day. We were all tired and my dad and I really enjoyed the warm dinner that night. Both of our tents had our clothes strung up like a laundromat to try to dry, but the humidity was so high that it was a losing battle. That night was the first time I let myself really believe that we might actually finish the trail.
Day 5: 17.35 Miles, 3,491 ft Ascent
It rained overnight, but we caught a break when we started on the trail at 6:30am. Our plan was to get to the bottom of the mountain (3.5 miles) before eating breakfast and then tackling the 2,000ft climb to get to the Sassafras Mountain summit and Fresh Ground. We got to the bottom and decided to try eating a couple of protein bars and try to keep food at the top for our motivation for the climb.
My dad took off, but I started struggling. Really struggling. I wasn’t there mentally or physically, and I started wheezing/crying/ feeling high anxiety about a third of the way up. I knew I had to stop and get more food in me or my body might completely give up on me. The next campsite I found I stopped and cooked some oatmeal and had a cup of coffee. It started pouring rain for the first time that day as soon as I got my cooking gear out, but I ignored it because I knew I needed to get some calories in me.
I was a new person after eating. I got out my headphones and trudged up the rest of that mountain. Shout out to Act 1 of Hamilton for getting me up that mountain. I had never understood why you would listen to music while hiking before that moment, but that’s what I needed at the time and what got me through.
We made it to the top and Fresh Ground was waiting for us as promised. He had already fed 9 hungry hikers earlier that morning who were also part of the group and would finish. Thanks to Mona Leafa, he knew he we were close behind the others and so he waited around for us to get there. I don’t like bananas in food, but those 4 banana pancakes tasted like the best meal I had ever had.
Fresh Ground packed up as we were leaving and we helped him take down his tarp. He wouldn’t let us help with anything else. We said our sincere thank yous and goodbyes and made our way down the trail with Mona Leafa. My dad and I were both really happy we had Mona Leafa to hike with us to the end. After so many days together we needed the distraction so we didn’t strangle each other. Mona Leafa was a really good story teller, and we swapped stories about our different adventures. Even though my dad and I aren’t long-distance thru-hikers yet, we’ve had some pretty cool adventures ourselves.
I don’t remember too much about those last 10 miles. It was a lot of “one foot in front of the other” and listening to stories. During our last climb, the sky opened up and it started pouring rain about 200 feet from the top of the ridge. I just stopped, looked at the sky, smiled, and kept on grinding. That’s all you can do. And somehow when I should’ve been miserable I was extremely content.
We got to the end of the trail and back to civilization. It was tough saying our goodbyes to Mona Leafa after the bond we had formed over the prior few days, but I think we’ll find her again someday on the trail.
It was done. I am now Courtney, Foothills Trail Thru-Hiker. Wow.
Driving back home was more miserable than I had been at any point on the trail. It hurt to push my foot on the gas, and I had never been so happy to not drive a standard. I kept trying to massage my calf while not falling asleep at the wheel. We intentionally added 3o minutes to our 4-hour drive to stay on interstates instead of staying on back roads. I was extremely happy to make it home and find a shower.
My dad and I were both very excited that we were able to finish in our goal time. We pushed ourselves harder than we want to when we start the AT, but this showed us we could survive multi-day mileage. We both came off the trail even more excited about the AT. We’re going to keep preparing and training like we have been and count down the days until we hit the trail!
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