Hell Hath No Fury Like Lightning on a Ridge-Line: Erwin TN to Damascus VA
You can learn a lot about yourself when you walk alone all day.
For example, I had no idea how much I appreciated a good Subway sandwich until I spent hours, literally hours trying to go through all the different possible combinations of sandwiches that I was going to get when I got into town. I also had no idea how much I dislike hiking atop a ridge-line in the midst of a Thunderstorm. There’s a great deal that I’ve been able to learn about myself over the last 37 some odd days that I’ve been out here on trail. It’s really skewed my perception of time; it seems as much an eternity as it does a momentary blip. We talk a lot out here about how that changes – being out here long enough to feel like your life has changed, but not long enough to really have it change with any sense of permanence.
Of course, we as thru-hikers will be forever changed, and many of us already have. Eventually we will reach Maine, hopefully, and take Greyhound Buses and Amtrak Trains back home, leaving this lifestyle for the more traditional one. It has only been 37 days since I got out here, but I already sense myself changing, and I am certain that no one out here will return home the same.
Day 30: April 1st
Erwin, TN to Indian Grave Gap: 351.3 Miles
Miles Hiked: 8.4
An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker will do just about anything for hot dogs and pancakes, this much I know. I didn’t sleep particularly well last night, and I’m not sure whether that’s due to the pitcher of Margarita that I split with Houdini (which was low in Tequila but super high in sugar) or the many hot pockets I ate at the hostel. It’s incredible how poor of a diet you can have as a Thru-Hiker and still be able to lose weight and get into better shape each day. I’m not sure if there’s anywhere else in the world where you could get away with eating like this and not have to get carted off on a gurney into a heart bypass surgery after two months. I also had trouble sleeping because I stayed up until well after 1:00am watching the final three episodes of season three of House of Cards on Netflix. Let’s get real here for a second (spoiler alert): Was that supposed to be a big twist?? They were foreshadowing Claire leaving for the entire season! The Doug/Rachel sequence was super tense and actually really surprised the hell out of me, but other than that I thought everything was pretty so-so. Nothing nearly as powerful as Frank Underwood knocking his ring against the presidential desk at the end of season two. But anyway, this has nothing to do with the Appalachian Trail.
I left around 1:00pm, after finishing the blog and picking up some more supplies I needed (more fuel, a new bandana, some postcards, etc). After leaving the hostel I gave Amanda a call, and I was actually able to keep a conversation going with her for about 45 minutes before I lost service. For those of you that have AT&T and are considering hiking the trail – it’s a signal-devoid wasteland when it comes to cell service down here. I hope you like connecting through wifi! The rest of the hike was easy, a sure indicator that I’m starting to really adapt to being on the trail. It was only 8.4 miles, but it really flew by. At one point I came across Clif, lying down by the river and making a slight groaning sound. I guess he ate so much at breakfast that he made himself ill, and was having a tough time navigating the trail. After pausing at a shelter four miles in I continued on to Indian Grave Gap, where I ran into the usual crew that has been assembling over the past couple of weeks: Brightside, Rolling Thunder, Clif, Banana Boat, Houdini, Mozart, and Romeo. Fresh Grounds went through a good 40 or 50 hot dogs, a huge can of ravioli, a large of Potatoes and Vegetables, and lots of other food. We made a fire (Rolling Thunder was there, so of course we made a fire) and sat back for a bit before the group slowly dissembled into sleep. I won’t lie – I actually watched an episode or two of The Office since I had service there and would be at a hostel the next night. Real wilderness like, I know.
Day 31: AApripril 2nd
Indian Grave Gap to The Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel: 367.2 Miles
Miles Hiked: 15.9
Another great day, despite some incoming bad weather that was posed to give me issues a little down the road. I got a late start (this is a pretty common trend.. I’m not good at getting going early in the morning unfortunately) to the day thanks to the delicious culinary skills of Fresh Grounds. He was making apple cinnamon walnut banana pancakes, and I must have had three or four of them alongside a couple of cups of coffee and some fruit cocktail. The day started off with a 1000 foot climb of Unica mountain, which was a really neat experience. The forest ecology of the area changes rapidly once you reach the time. You have your typical birch and oak tree populations surrounding you on the ascent up, but as soon as I crested the top I found myself walking in a dense spruce forest, where the trail was marked not by a path, but only by the blazes. After descending the mountain I hiked another couple of miles to a shelter, where I found Rolling Thunder, Brightside, Clif, Romeo, and Mozart eating lunch. Typically most of us hikers don’t hike together, but since many of us share similar paces we will often congregate at shelters or other scenic areas for lunch. Usually I don’t pause for lunch… or at all, while I’m hiking, but since everyone was there I stopped to make myself one of the great culinary masterpieces of The Appalachian Trail: A wrap with peanut butter, cold SPAM, hot sauce, and cheese. And yes, it was delicious.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful – with the one exception of the terrifying descent to the hostel. This wasn’t actually terrifying by any normal conventions – it was just a side road off the trail after all. The Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel was half a mile down this road, which wasn’t marked (for reasons we would later learn) and seemed to go in all sorts of directions. It was getting a little dark, thanks to my late start, and it seemed like I was going further into a scene from Deliverance than I was to a Hostel. As I walked down the road I saw collapsed barns, ditches filled with trash, and a few pieces of property surrounding by PRIVATE! signs and tarps blocking any view. I finally got to the Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel, run by Connie, or “CeeCee”, a very eccentric but very friendly caretaker. After Romeo and I checked into the bunk house we cooked dinner in her living room, using the head from the wood stove as a fuel source to heat up our pots. I experimented with a Pad Thai dish… or what I was at least hoping would turn out a little like Pad Thai. I took ramen noodles, cooked them in about half the usual water, and added heaping scoops of peanut butter and hot sauce. CeeCee also allowed me to take as many Jalapenos as I wanted from her fridge (the Hostel was her house with rooms for guests and a bunk room in back). I probably took too many, but it came out pretty good. As for the story behind the lack of notifications: apparently she has a pretty hostile neighbor that doesn’t seem to understand or respect the thru-hiking culture, and he continues to accuse CeeCee of constantly inviting homeless people into her home. He’s taken down every sign that she has put up leading to the hostel, and on more than one occasion he has put up false price listings for her hostel near the trail head, listing options such as “shower for 40 dollars” and “50 dollars for a stay.” No wonder this guy had surrounded his property with tarps. I’m just glad that we didn’t have to run into him. After dinner Romeo and I relaxed and watched the first half of The Matrix on VHS, which was awesome – they literally had a commercial on the tape advertising the incredible new technology known as the “DVD.” I doubt that such a thing could catch on though. The idea seems crazy.
Day 32: April 3rd
The Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel to Overmountain Shelter: 384.6 Miles
Miles Hiked: 18.1
Don’t let these pictures fool you – we had some incredible views, but I was really bugging out during the hike today. This is where I first began to realize that I really, really do not like hiking with the thread of lightning looming (literally) overhead. For those of you that don’t know me – I’m pretty relaxed 80 percent of the time, and super anxious and worried the other 20 percent of the time. I haven’t in five years (nor will I ever again), I carried a bear bell because I was so scared of meeting a bear for the first 400 miles, and I’m convinced that every clap of thunder will immediately precede a bolt of lightning that was headed straight for my head. This and the other experience I’m going to describe coming up have really altered the way I’ve been looking at this hike, but more on that later.
Romeo and I tried to get moving early, but we ended up staying up later than we would have liked helping CeeCee clean all fo the leavenings out of her oven for Passover (not that I minded helping, but we lost track of time). We got moving around 9:15 or so, and once we got moving the day started moving quickly. A little too quickly in fact. We had heard that there were thunderstorms inbound, and we were supposed to be scaling up Roan Mountain, one of the last great titans remaining before us in North Carolina (or Tennessee, I’m not sure since the trail goes back and forth so many times). The first few hours were ok, but as I started climbing towards the top of the mountain I heard a clap of thunder, and my heart began to p0und. I mean this is the audibly, coming out of my chest type of way. Growing up we were always taught not to be outside when lightning strikes, and to seek shelter quickly and remain still until it was over. For some reason though, most of the people I’ve talked to out here have told me that they just simply hike through it, since there’s a pretty low chance you’ll get hit if you aren’t on an exposed ridge. My usual response went something like this:
“Wait a minute… pretty low chance? As in, some? You’re ok with that?”
Maybe it’s the anxious person in me, the person that Connor is, and the person that Seeker is trying not to be. You don’t become someone completely new out here though, and that’s something I need to understand and adapt to. Whatever the reason, I get really anxious when there’s lightning ahead; sue me if you must. I pushed up over the mountain and onto the shelter, but I was not having a good time doing so. My heart was pounding, I was paying no attention to my body at all (and subsequently stubbing my toe every couple of steps since I was focusing on getting to shelter) and I was pretty much miserable. Once I got to the shelter Romeo and I checked the weather, and decided to push on as it looked like the storms might hold off. Of course, “pushing on” meant moving over two massive balds, devoid of trees and other tall obstacles. Wonderful.
In the end everything was ok, and this is almost always the end of the story like this. Almost always. Still though, the anxious side of me keeps planting that “what if” thought in the back of my head. What if the storm had come in. What if we had gotten trapped up there. Would it be worth it, to risk your life to gain a couple of extra miles or to stay closer to your hiking group? The rest of the day went much better, and The Barn was a really cool spot. It’s actually called overmountain shelter, and it’s a converted barn that holds well beyond 25 people. Interestingly enough, pretty much everybody there was a section hiker, which was a big change from what we had been seeing so far. I was so used to be surrounded by Thru-Hikers that I had forgotten how to act; mainly, to say that I needed to not flaunt the fact that I smelled terrible, cursed constantly, and was generally pretty loud and boisterous. We’re all like that out here. Another plus of staying in a shelter with lots of section hikers: plenty of opportunities for Yogi-ing. To “Yogi” something is to indirectly solicit for food. You might approach a family, chat with them, strike up a conversation, but the incentive is always the same: get the section hiker or weekender to offer you food without asking for it. Perhaps it’s not the most humble act, but I don’t personally think there’s anything too wrong with it. After all, we need all the calories we can get, and a hot dog is incredible after you’ve been eating noodle sides and peanut butter for four days.
Day 33: April 4th
Overmountain Shelter to Mountaineer Shelter: 402.6 miles
Miles Hiked: 18.0
Today started off like a scene from The Wizard of Oz. Through the cracks in the side of the barn we could see the wind blowing sideways, and a dark misty cloud that surrounded the valley we were in. Nobody was in a huge rush to get going. Most of our crew that was there that night got set up in one corner, so we were all moving out and about long before many of the section hikers were up. The first hour or two was pretty much nothing but strong wind, fog, and rain – like Saruman trying to bring down the Cahadras Pass in The Fellowship of the Ring. My slow hiking speed played out to my adventure today though – by the time I actually ascending Hump Mountain the skies had begun to part, and there was an incredible view to be seen. I also managed to lose my toothbrush, dropping it out of my pocket at some point when I was walking up the hill. Houdini picked it up, and I heard him shout from half a mile away, yelling “Hey Seeker, I found your toothbrush!” Everyone got a kick out of that story later on, because it’s the essence of what my trail name is about. I’m always losing things, and always looking for them. I don’t necessarily lose them; in fact I almost never do, but I’m always looking around for them. The rest of the day was pretty easy – a great hike in fact. The views were great, the terrain doable (but not easy), and I walked into Mountaineer Shelter happy, energetic and for once, not limping. Right before we went to bed we saw Sparkle rejoin us, who I hadn’t seen in a couple of weeks. He had been hiking with some people in back, but wanted to get away from them a little in order to start putting in some longer mile days. The shelter was pretty awesome as well – I wish I had taken more pictures. It had three levels to it, with a “penthouse” up top that had an awesome wooden bear carving up there. Brightside kept telling everybody that “there was a bear up top” of the shelter, and nobody believed her at first, myself included. She was right though. There really was a bear up there.
Day 34: April 5th
Mountaineer Shelter to Kincora Hostel: 418.5 Miles
Miles Hiked: 16.1
I asked Brightside to get me up early this morning, so I could try and get to the Hostel we were going to stay at in the early afternoon. It worked… sort of. I left right as the sun broke, and my early start was rewarded by the awesome sunrise that I captured below. The rest of the day rolled by pretty quick – Romeo, Roadside and I ran into each at the shelter by noon, and from there on out it was a pretty easy descent to the road crossing that brought us to the Kincora hostel. Today was also Easter Sunday, which I did not realize right away. We got to the Hostel in good time, and I was all settled in with my sleeping bag unfolded by 3:00pm. With nothing else to do until the shuttle into town, I sat down alongside Sonic, Romeo (who did his best Ron Haven impression and really got into the roll) Houdini, Mozart, Hot Pants, and Sparkle in a very serious and competitive game of Monopoly. We played that game all night, and I’ve never seen a boardgame get taken more seriously.
Our game was interrupted twice. The first was for an amazing Easter Dinner that Rambling Man and some of the locals around there cooked for us, which was incredible! We had a huge Easter ham, a green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, rolls, and cooked carrots. I can’t even express how lucky I felt to be able to have that among such great company. After stuffing our faces, we went back to our Capitalistic competition until Mr. Bob People’s, the hostel owner and famous trail figure gave us a shuttle down to the grocery store. The store actually wasn’t open, but they made a special opening just for all of the thru-hikers that were coming in. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of their business comes from resupplies, but that’s only speculation of course. The monopoly game ended up lasting until about 10:00pm, at which point we were too tired to continue. We declared the winner based on the total assets of each person, and I got a respectable third. Better than nothing.
Day 35: April 6th
Kincora Hostel: 418.5 Miles
Miles Hiked: 0
Another zero day, done in order to rest my partially injured foot and prepare for a challenging feat that I would attempt over the next two days. I am extremely flat footed, which presents a couple of difficulties for me on trail. One of these is that my ankles protrude inwards, a lot. I have a duck walk, and I can’t walk barefoot for more than a minute or two before getting increasing levels of serious pain my feet. My right foot was swollen from hustling down to the hostel the previous day, and while I could have hiked, we had heard there were thunderstorms and decided to take a zero to wait them out and recover so that we could attempt to get from Kincora to Damascus in two days. Brightside, Rolling Thunder, Banana Boat and Mozart pressed on, but Houdini, Roadside, Sparkle, Hot Pants, Romeo and I zeroed. There were 54 miles from Kincora to Damascus, and you could complete it in two days by trying one of the following two challenges: Completing two days of 25 and 26 miles, respectively, or by doing a 17 mile day followed by a 37 mile day, known as “The Damascathon.” I knew I couldn’t do the latter, and hell – I didn’t even know if I could do the former, but I sure wanted to try for it. We spent the zero talking this over, eating through lots of food, taking another trip into town, and playing – what else – more Monopoly. I actually lost because I had only 12 dollars left, with all my properties mortgaged, and I couldn’t pay the 50 dollar doctors fee that I got from a chance card. Brutal.
Day 36: April 7th
Kincora Hostel to Iron Mountain Shelter: 443.0 Miles
Miles Hiked: 25.5
Hell hath no fury like lightning on a ridge-line. As I mentioned earlier, I can be a pretty anxious person, and today that came out in force. I had a great challenge ahead of me as a I started the day: make it 54 miles from Kincora Hostel to Damascus, VA, in two days. Sparkle and I both decided to get up at 5:00am in order to try and beat the weather we were having, and by 6:00am we were on the trail and moving. The night hike portion was actually really cool. I took point, as I had a stronger headlamp at the time, and the first few miles went by very quickly. This was probably made easy by the fact that our eyes were pinned to the ground, to avoid any serious stumbles over the boulders that we had to traverse down to Laurel Falls. When we arrived at Laurel Falls around 7:00a it was still dark out, but I could JUST barely make out the massive waterfall that was ahead. I wish I had pictures to see it, but we couldn’t stick around to take any. The storm was coming, and we had to keep moving.
The first part of the day had a 2,000 foot climb, and Sparkle and I made it up over this as easily as if we were on flat ground. This wasn’t actually “easy” of course, but with the adrenaline of the storm pushing me I wasn’t really paying attention to the usual signs such as thirst, tiredness, or hunger. I just kept moving. After a couple of miles we got to the Shook Branch Recreational area, which was depicted in the first picture at the end of today. We took a few quick pictures, and I will admit that the view was pretty incredible. Low clouds floated over the lake, like cold breath on a hot drink during the morning routine of a hiker in shelter. We left the lake quickly, moving at a fast 3mph pace in order to get away from the lake and through the trail, four miles of which was closed to all except thru-hikers due to a family of bears that had taken up residence in the area (and really made their presence known). We made it past the shelter and over the dam, but that was as far as the easy morning could take us. Thunder rumbled in the distance, barely discernible amidst the rain and wind. The storm was here.
Rain and wind pelted down from all directions, and it didn’t take long for me to realize what was happening. Sparkle and I were moving upwards onto a long ridge-line, and the storm was moving towards us from the opposite direction. We were headed directly into the heart of the storm. We were at a little over 4,000 feet of elevation, and while it wasn’t an exposed ridge-line, it was still a ridge-line, with only thin trees protecting you from being the tallest object on the ridge. Sure, the chances of being struck were low. Very low, in fact. But what makes up those statistics anyway. 1 in 700,000? Does this include the entire country? City People? What about reducing that population to people who spend lots of time outside, people who hike a lot, or people who are Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail. What about people who are Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail who are currently up above 4,000 feet on a ridge-line with only the trees surrounding them to protect them from becoming a human lightning rod? I don’t really understand everyone else’s ease with it – I can’t tell if it’s some some sort of peer pressure thing (come on, everyone is doing it!) and there’s in fact a real threat, or if my anxiety is simply spilling over into this part of the hike and I wasn’t yet aware of it.
We climbed up to Vandeventer Shelter, and I quickly lost my cool and composure. The sound of a thousand trucks backfiring filled the air, more akin to gunshots or cannon fire than the thunder I remembered listening to from the safety my my bedroom window. Lightning was flashing ever five to ten seconds, and it was lightning of every sort: flashes, bolts, etc. Two or three times I would burst out running as a crack of thunder burst, only for Sparkle to find me huddled down a little of the ridge, cowering in fright. I am by no means a proud man, so I’d rather be honest about what happened: I lost my cool, and I was really having a full blown anxiety attack. I’ve never been that terrified in my life. Every time I went and hid, Sparkle would will me out, yelling “come on man, we have to keep moving! We go this!” There was also a point where, after a very close bolt of lightning, I chucked my poles on the trail and ran. Sparkle found me hiding under a bush again, holding my poles. “You’re going to need these” he says, and he calmly kept hiking. I made it to the first shelter – Vendenter Shelter – eventually, and I was obsessively checking the weather every five minutes to see what the rest of the day looked like. I so badly wanted to stay there, but I had this challenge that I really wanted to meet – and I was going to meet it. Roadside and I left that shelter around 3:15pm (Sparkle had already moved on) and for a little while it looked like we had been granted a reprieve. We could see down the ridge, where people sat in their homes, maybe watching baseball or having dinner with their family. This was the first moment where I really doubted what I was doing out here: If I wasn’t happy, then why was I out here? I wasn’t just unhappy; I was miserable, exhausted from being so panicked and yet still wired from the adrenaline of the moment. The rain began to pick back up about three miles away from the shelter, and while I listened very closely for thunder, not hearing any but nevertheless anxiously waiting for what I knew was coming. I kept myself ultimatums: “Once I get over this hill, I’ll set up and stealth camp at the first sign of thunder or lightning.” Sure, I had no water and was extremely dehydrated, but that wasn’t my priority in that moment. In two separate instances I paused, unable to either move forward or backwards, as if being pulled by invisible ropes from both directions. My mind flipped back and forth quicker than I could follow, arguing with itself about what to do. I moved on, begrudgingly, but with each step my feet grew heavier, my spirit lower. I kept running these thoughts in my head – thoughts of home, of friends and family, of the future and the things I wanted to do and see. I know I have a flair for the dramatic, but I’m just writing this to you as I experienced it. It was pure, distilled anxiety. Some of the danger was in my head, some of it was real, but that line was muddled beyond recognition. Besides – do we really really need to always define where that line is? This trip is supposed to be the trip of a lifetime, and getting a dozen extra miles out of the way is not worth that. Nothing is worth that, at least what was in my head. Maybe the chances of danger were far off and minute, but to me they were very real.
I ended up making it to the shelter, and I Roadside and Sparkle greeted me with thunderous (ha, pun intended) applause and cheers. I had made it. I was alive. Soaked, wet, and cold, but alive. Also present was Neon Mountains, Freeball, and Gandalf the Brown, and we cooked dinner in the shelter quickly and went to bed early, as all of us were aiming to get to Damascus the next day. The body rests easy after that much stress, I promise you that.
Day 37: April 8th
Iron Mountain Shelter to Damascus, VA: 26.3
Today was a much smoother today than yesterday. In a return to form, the hike became all about the physical challenge more than the fear of getting struck by lightning. Roadside, Sparkle and I got up at 5:00am and were on the move by 6:00am, hiking in a close line until we were able to see on our own without the aid of our headlamps. It was an extremely long day, but nothing super eventful happened. The struggles were internal today – a conflict between the will to move forward and the body’s need to stop moving and rest. I held up fine until about 5 miles out from Damascus. My feet began hurting in a real bad way – they were swelling significantly, especially my right foot. By two miles out I was outright limping, and that was even with the 1400mg of Ibuprofen I had taken throughout the day. I made it into Damascus exhausted and depleted, but I made it. I know what I’m capable of. And I also know that it’s not by any means fun, and that it’s not something I’d like to try again anytime soon.
The rest of the evening was much better – Roadside and I got pizza at an All You Can Eat restaurant, and Chip organized a huge cookout at The Wood Chuck Hostel, where I got to see a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a week or two: Four, Five, Plissken, Stealth, Cruise Control, etc. That’s why I’m out here really – despite the battle between exhaustion and elation, between needing to get hiking and wanting to stay in your sleeping bag – it’s about the people you meet and the experiences we go through together. I’ll end on that note for now. I think the picture says it all.
“I like lots of people our age when they’re one by one,” he said, “but I loathe and despite my generation, Sully. We had an opportunity to change everything. We actually did. Instead, we settled for designer jeans, two tickets to Mariah Carey at Radio City Music Hall, frequent-flier miles, James Cameron’s Titanic, and retirement portfolios. The only generation even close to us in pure, selfish self-indulgence is the so-called Lost Generation of the twenties, and at least most of them had the decency to stay drunk. We couldn’t even do that, Mam, we suck.”
I finished reading Steven King’s Hearts in Atlantis last night, as I settled in to my bunk in Damascus. This line really shook me. It made me think about why I’m out here. In the context of the book, two men are at a funeral for another man that they served with in Vietnam, and the lieutenant is bitterly reflecting on how his generation squandered their change to make a real change. I think about that a lot. In fact, that line has been running through my head over and over again since I finished it. This trip really is about me – about chasing my dream, achieving my goals, etc. Maybe I’m just writing this because I’m still in awe of that book, but it really made me think a lot about the trail, what it means to me, and where I’m doing after. Bringing it back to where I started, I reiterate that we will not be here forever. We will move on to jobs, to suits and ties for some, to more merino wool and down jackets for others, but we will move on. We’ll have to. What then? How can I use these experiences now to shape my life moving forward so that, if I’m part of a population of people that gets the opportunity to change everything (or even something), we actually can? I don’t know the answers yet, but I’m glad I’m thinking about it.
Also, as a post-post script, I’m not hiking in a thunderstorm like that again. Ever. I would rather not make it to Katahdin and finish up the trail in sections than go through that again. This is supposed to be about enjoying what’s out there, not letting my anxiety play out as I run from tree to tree. No way. Maybe I’ll miss out on keeping up with people from time to time, but I’ll be waiting out storms from here on out. What I lose in miles I gain in peace of mind, and that’s fine by me.
Almost 500 miles in, I’ll see you guys down the road1
Also, here are the rest of the videos I’ve made so far. It’s a bunch of great views with me feeling really awkward talking in front of a camera inserted at various points between. Enjoy!
There’s a lot of foul language in this one – this was the thunderstorm episode. Children be warned.
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