Highlights from the First 500 Miles
Every 100 miles crossed on the Appalachian Trail is a cause for celebration. We take a photo, think of all the effort it took to reach that point, and then keep walking. Five hundred was a huge goal, and something my tramily and I had looked forward to for the entire duration of our hike. We had The Proclaimers queued up and ready to go, and we were excited to feel like we were really getting somewhere.
The morning that we reached 500 miles, it was rainy and misty, making it hard to get a good view from Mount Rogers and the surrounding areas. Still, we ascended the mountain in the magical fog, took a break at the Thomas Knob Shelter, and kept walking toward the 500th mile. On the way, we ran into some of the famous wild ponies of the Grayson Highlands. These friendly little creatures stopped to search for snacks and licked our salty knees. We felt like we had been blessed.
A bit farther down the trail, we finally crossed the actual 500-mile marker, laid out in rocks on the grass. We took the requisite photos, did a little dance, and kept walking toward the Wise Shelter and the rest of the beautiful Highlands and the state of Virginia.
Highlights Since 150 Miles
The last time I wrote a blog post, we had just hit 150 miles. Clearly, I am not so good at the updating. I know, I know. The shame. I’m trying to get better.
Since I last wrote, we’ve experienced all sorts of events (e.g., sunrise on Max Patch and Clingmans Dome, two double-zero weekends with my amazing family), places (e.g., the Smokies, Hot Springs, Damascus, the beginning of Virginia), and festivities (e.g., Trail Days, Hikerpalooza in Roan Mountain). There are so many to name that I feel bad even attempting a list. But I want to reflect on some of the highlights since I last wrote, and to share the goodness of the Appalachian Trail.
So here, in no order whatsoever, are just a few moments, places, and experiences that stand out about this first quarter of the AT.
1. Getting Adopted in Roan Mountain, TN
One of my favorite things about the AT is that sometimes the best experiences are the ones you didn’t plan and never saw coming. The town of Roan Mountain, TN, was like that. Originally we had no intention of stopping in this little hamlet. That changed quickly, however. When I finally stumbled to Overmountain Shelter at the end of a long but beautiful 20-mile day, my friend Krazy Glue told me about a festival called Hikerpalooza going on in town that weekend. The plan was to get a ride to The Station at 19E, get a beer, check out the music and food, and get back to the trail.
When we got to Roan Mountain, though, we got sucked into the most hospitable vortex the hiking world has ever seen. At The Station, we enjoyed craft beer and conversation, caught up on Game of Thrones (up until that point! No spoilers!), and were convinced to stay in town at the community park, where camping was free for the weekend. That Saturday morning, through a fortuitous series of events, we met an awesome local named Birgit. She quickly befriended us and put us up for the night. That day we got to take showers, enjoyed the Hikerpalooza festivities at the town park, saw our other trail friends, and had a luxurious night of sleep.
The hospitality and kindness we experienced in Roan Mountain are extraordinarily special highlights of the AT so far. I’m grateful for the memories and friendships forged in this unexpected, delightful little town. It was the perfect rest before continuing our hike toward Damascus.
2. The Second Half of the Smokies
The Smokies are the first big goal of the AT, and they are sometimes a cause of worry for northbound thru-hikers since the terrain is tough and the mountains more dramatic than what comes before. Though they were not as difficult as I imagined, I still struggled with the endless steep uphills and equally difficult downhills for the first half. It was frustrating terrain that made reasonable distances impossible. I felt defeated in that half.
The second half, however, made the struggle worth it. Three days into the Smokies, Krazy Glue and I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and madly hiked three miles to Clingmans Dome to see the perfect sunrise. From that point on, the Smokies were majestic. The summits were covered in conifers and the views to the valleys below were grand. We enjoyed a photo shoot at Charlies Bunion and a cruise through our first 20-mile day. I finally started to feel strong and capable of covering the distance.
3. Sunrise on Max Patch
We narrowly escaped a freeze in the Smokies, ran out to Davenport Gap in the pouring rain, and spent a warm and restful weekend with my folks for Easter. It was hard to go back to the trail after that, but Max Patch was calling.
The Monday we hiked to Max Patch was clear, warm, and tiring. The night was cold and no rain was in the forecast, so we cowboy camped for the first time under the stars. There was no wind and the night sky turned slowly above us: The Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Pleiades. When the sun started rising, we woke naturally and watched the earth come alive. I felt small and quiet and content. This is what I came out here for, I thought. This is what keeps me walking.
4. Roan Mountain and the Roan Highlands
Though Roan Mountain itself is not graced with clear views to the valleys below, I still found that day and the day after to be some of the most beautiful hiking of the trail. Ascending the mountain, the environment changes from dense deciduous forest, to rhododendron-covered ridges, to huge stands of conifers. At the top, the clouds swirl through the trees.
On the day I ascended Roan Mountain, I decided to push seven more miles to the Overmountain Shelter, a rather infamous stop on the AT. It’s a converted barn, with more sleeping space than usual for a trail shelter, and its location on the ridge of a valley gives it a beautiful view. On the way to this shelter, I walked over three wind-whipped balds. Something about bald mountains makes uphills slightly less painful, I think. The views are wider and more sweeping. I feel a kind of Sound-of-Music-esque majesty, or maybe a Wuthering-Heights-ness that makes me feel dramatic and alive. I barely made it to Overmountain by dark, because it was a 20-mile day and I took so many photos from the top of those balds.
The day after Overmountain was even more spectacular. The trail goes over the underwhelmingly named Little Hump Mountain and Hump Mountain, which are more beautiful than their settler titles convey. That day there were some clouds, which rolled across the sky and created shadows on the valleys below. The wind whirled around me as I ascended the huge green mass of earth, and I was rewarded with miles-wide views when I crested the summit. These are the kinds of uphills that make you forget all your pain, and leave you with only awe.
5. Damascus and Trail Days
We reached Damascus, VA, about a week before the infamous Trail Days festival. As any proper nero (near-zero) should go, we made a beeline for the Pizza Plus, then got a ride to The Place hostel, did laundry, got new shoes, ate at the extraordinary Damascus Diner, and enjoyed the town before it became wildly busy.
Damascus was a huge milestone. Even though you move when you walk, sometimes it feels like progress is frustratingly slow. I think my entire tramily and I felt satisfied and proud to have made it to this well-known trail town. We took the required photos at the sign, feeling happy.
About a week later, we got a ride back to Damascus from Atkins, and we stayed for two days at the Trail Days festival. I don’t even know what to say about Trail Days, so I’ll just say this: it was an experience. It was wild, loud, hot, exciting, crowded, high-energy, exhausting, and very, very fun. We circulated to all of the raffles and won a haul of free gear, met up with friends we hadn’t seen in a while on trail, enjoyed free food, walked in the hiker parade, and partied in the woods. I’m glad we went, but I was equally happy to get back on trail.
After Trail Days, we picked up the pace, crossed the one-quarter mark, and enjoyed getting back in the groove. I love and embrace zero days, but being back on the AT is being home. My tramily and I are feeling strong and we can’t wait to see what the next 500, 1,000, 1,500 miles will bring. I am beyond happy to be out here and grateful for the chance to chase this crazy dream.
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