Happy 2021 – Year of My AT Flip Flop

How I Got Here and a Quick ‘Get Lost’ to 2020

To tell how I ended up here on New Year’s Day,  about 2 months from starting my AT thru-hike, I have to go back to 2019.  Today, 2019 feels like a lifetime ago.  I think everyone can relate.  Let’s just say that 2020 changed our lives, our plans, and just about everything, but the story starts months before any of us had any awareness of things like coronavirus, COVID, social distancing, face masks as a daily reality, and all the changes associated with life during a pandemic.

In 2019, I decided I wanted to do a 2020 AT thru-hike and figured that I would do an alternative itinerary.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy was hosting a Flip Flop Festival in Harpers Ferry, WV.  I thought this would be kind of an easy start for transportation and less crowded trail and shelter conditions.  I had lived in the DC area for many years and knew that if I flew into DC, I could take the DC Metro to Union Station and, from Union Station, take the local commuter train, the MARC train, (or pay more and take Amtrak) and get to Harpers Ferry in about an hour from DC.

I contacted the ATC and offered to volunteer for the Festival.  I reserved a room in town.  I got a backpacking friend to agree to hike the first week or so with me on my way north to Maine.  My gear list was as perfect as I could get it to be.  I was ready to go.

Then came COVID.   We all learned that much of our lives, including our thru-hiking plans, were turned upside down.  The festival was cancelled.  My room was cancelled.  No flight to DC.  No Metro ride to Union Station.  No MARC train.  No thru-hike.

Like the entire world, I was more than happy to say goodbye to 2020.

Searching for 2020 Alternatives to the AT

First, I have to say that I have a long history of fascination with and hiking on the AT included an abandoned thru-hike attempt in 2016 after 485 miles that resulted in a foot injury requiring surgery.   Anyway, with my 2020 AT plans gone, I started considering alternatives.  The Arizona Trail is very close; I live in Phoenix.  I would be able to comply with the request of the Arizona Trail Association to be fully self-supporting with family and friends support for that hike.  Then the summer of fires started and about 150 miles of the AZT’s 800 miles were burned and closed and the final section in the south was closed for construction of the border wall.  So, I decided that there would be no SOBO thru-hike of the AZT in 2020.  I had also considered a SOBO of the PCT, no permits were issued in 2020, and plans to hike the Colorado Trail with a friend fell through.  In reality, all choices beyond the AT are great choices, but, for me, are second choices and none of them worked out.

October Escape – AT Section Hike

Summer in Phoenix is rough unless you love hiking under cloudless skies with highs up to 115 degrees.  I mostly stick to night bicycling or going up to Flagstaff to enjoy the summer climate at 6909 feet or spending time at the beach in San Diego.  That is what people do.  But then in 2020, COVID and travel restrictions and lockdowns and COVID fears became the new normal.  So, although I did manage to do some time in Flagstaff and a trip to the beach, things were limited and always carried the background noise of COIVD fears and precautions. Add that to what can feel like endless Phoenix summer, and I was ready for a change after months of 100+ degree days.

So in September, a friend and I decided to fly to Knoxville (thanks to points), shuttle to Standing Bear, and hike north for a few weeks.  We decided to go slow, enjoy the AT as much as possible, and just appreciate hiking the NC-TN border with beautiful fall colors and relatively few people. My friend had never hiked in the eastern forest, barely understood fog or moss or ferns (being an Arizona native can do that to you), and was fascinated with all the types of wild mushrooms.  To add excitement, there was a late night encounter with 4 aggressive, but ultimately harmless, bears and some, ummm, interesting drifters at a of couple shelters (more on those adventures in future posts).  We met a handful of SOBO hikers and a flip flopper or two who were only a few hundred miles from Springer and completion of a thru-hike in 2020 – quite an accomplishment and display of determination any year but that much more in 2020.  Our section hike was an amazing 3 weeks.

Post-Hike,  The AT Sticks With Me

I missed the AT before we even boarded our flight at Tri-Cities Airport in Johnson City, TN.  The yearning for life in a tent, stinking clothes, a diet of Top Ramen, Pop Tarts, and Snickers bars, and the freedom of the trail can be very strong.  For me, it only grew more intense as time passed  along.  I found myself daydreaming about the trail.  I trolled REI, ZPacks, Backcountry, Gossamer Gear and lots of other backpacking websites.  I watched hours of Darwin and Dixie on YouTube and at least my third time of watching Reese Witherspoon in Wild.

I had to go back.  There really was no choice.  I had to.

So over a few weeks, I planned to do a flip flop in early March starting from Roan Mountain, TN and The Station at 19E, an amazing hostel, pub, and music venue that provides over the top level service to hikers. That is were my October section hike ended and seemed like a good place to begin an early start flip flop.  In the planning, I did what most backpackers love to do, I bought some new, lighter needless to say, gear.  I sold my old gear on eBay.  I bought a ticket to Johnson City. I reserved my shuttle, and I booked a hostel bed.   Between now and early March, I will keep busy continuing to volunteer at the COVID mass immunizations and doing day hikes and a shake down or two.

Happy New Year!  Two months and a few days until I head towards the AT.  I can’t wait.





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Comments 7

  • pearwood : Jan 1st

    Outstanding, David. Looking forward to reading how it goes.
    Steve / pearwood

    • David Smith : Jan 3rd

      Thanks a lot, Steve!

  • Carey "CB" Shoff : Jan 2nd

    Best of Luck…look forward to following along!

    • David Smith : Jan 3rd



  • Morgan : Jan 2nd

    This was a great read. I look forward to following your journey!

  • Melissa : Jan 3rd

    Thanks for the share, David.
    Are you going south bound or northbound in March? I’m trying to plan my flip flop for early in March. I’m hoping to figure it out so I can end at Katahdin! Hope to meet you in the trail.

    • David Smith : Jan 3rd

      I guess if you want to finish in Maine, you need to start SOBO and then flip to NOBO. Have you considered Harpers Ferry? It is readily accessable from Washington, DC by Amtrak (1 train a day) or by the local commuter train system, MARC. The MARC trains run frequently and are pretty cheap. You can get to DC’s train station (Union Station) easily by the DC Metro from National Airport or by train from BWI airport. Harpers Ferry is a small town and you can walk from the train station to a hotel or head out directly onto the AT.

      At some point, you will run into the NOBO bubble. It will have thinned out significantly by the time you do. If I remember correctly, about 20% of NOBO hikers quit at Neel Gap in Georgia and close to 50% quit by 500 miles (around Damascus, VA).

      The nice part about going SOBO from HF is that you have well over 100 miles of trail that is not especially difficult. It gives you time to build strength and endurance before you get too much more challenging climbs further south in Virginia.

      If you follow that agenda, we should cross paths.

      Keep in contact, please.



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