A Novice Emerges Trail Hardened after Snows in Smokies

I’m a little late on the blog scene here at The Trek as I’m nearing 1,000 miles. So let me get you caught up on the first 900 miles as I hike NOBO.

In the Beginning

To get started, my trail name is Crazy Horse. Although lately I feel like it should be Flash or something, since the fly on my shorts keeps unzipping as I hike. Anyway, I had never backpacked in my life until December 2017. Shortly thereafter I had this wild idea and decided to hike the AT. Two months later I was at Springer Mountain and raring to go. How I got from never backpacking to the trail in two months is another story.

I started my NOBO hike on Feb. 28 to beat the bubble of springtime hikers. It was around this time that I began a detailed personal blog of each day on the AT, if you feel so inclined to read about the daily minutia of trail life. But for the abbreviated version, here we go.

Georgia to the Smokies

The first few days were rainy and quite miserable. By day three I was so excited for frozen pizza at Neel Gap you would think I’d been underfed for months. Georgia flew by and was generally pleasant apart from the rainy first two days. The climbs were tedious and put me to the test, which I passed.

I was hiking with a friend who was with me until Newfound Gap in the Smokies. He had a schedule to keep and pushed me to go a bit farther each day than I would have on my own but it did help me get my trail legs quickly. By day four we were already hiking more than 18 miles a day.

Sometime during our second week we entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is when the snow began… and never ceased. I found that shorts and a T-shirt with Frogg Toggs on top were sufficient to keep me warm while hiking. Luckily, since we started so early, my buddy and I were able to snag shelter space throughout the park. No one wanted to tent in a foot of snow.

There were several groups of frat guys on spring break who were horribly unprepared for the snowy conditions. It was humorous to watch them try to cope with Mother Nature yet disheartening with their disregard for Leave No Trace. At night the temperature was around 15 with a windchill of -5. If I could survive this I could survive anything else the trail has to offer, I thought.

At Newfound Gap the snow had closed the road into Gatlinburg. My buddy needed to get picked up in Gatlinburg to go home so we were faced with a 15-mile hike to town. Fortunately, the snowplow truck was in the parking lot at the gap. I chatted up the driver and was able to snag the greatest trail magic of all: a ride down the mountains into Gatlinburg!

It was here that we celebrated our first two weeks on the trail and a reprieve from the snow with copious amounts of food and drink. We took it a step further and sat through a timeshare presentation to snag free Dollywood tickets. And with that, I had the most amazing zero day at Dollywood amusement park and even saw Dolly Parton herself.

On My Own

I bid my friend goodbye and set off to finish the Smokies solo. I was finally on my own and felt sure of myself. It had been nice to have a companion for the first two weeks to get the kinks out and support each other on rough days. Now, with only me, myself, and I, the trail was at my disposal. There were no rules (except LNT) and I had only myself to rely on, no one else. A graffitied sign on the trail put it best: “No horses, no parents, no bedtimes, no homework.”

The snow continued to follow me into Hot Springs, N.C., where I booked a hostel. Like any good millennial, I had planned to sit on my phone all day and veg out. Of course the town’s fiber optic line had to get accidentally cut by some railroad maintenance, thus severing all internet and phone service to the town. I learned a lot from the visitor center that day. Fun fact: the town was originally called Warm Springs.

Virginia

I would battle snow on and off through half of Virginia. Every nor’easter that came through seemed to dump a few inches. Many a view were ruined by fog but I made the best of it. Life is like a box of chocolates…

I never really picked up the Virginia Blues. In fact, I rather enjoyed the state. Hiking along ridges with valleys on either side was my favorite terrain. It was here where I finally found some other hikers who matched my pace and we enjoyed a week of hiking together. Around this time during week five I finally earned my trail name.

From Damascus to Pearisburg to Daleville to Waynesboro, I seemed to eat my way through Virginia, one zero day at a time. However, the best meal on the trail had to be back in Tennessee at Mountain Harbour B&B and hostel. Seriously, they have the best breakfast ever. If you haven’t passed it already (it’s after Roan Mountain for NOBOs), book your stay.

My parents came to visit somewhere around McAfee Knob. We hiked a few miles on the trail together but mostly enjoyed the food in Roanoke. While we wandered downtown we stumbled onto the city’s Pride Festival. Sometimes it pays to get off the trail for a zero here and there; you never know what you’ll run into.

Perhaps my the craziest feat on the trail was the day I hiked from Cole Mountain to The Priest, down to the river, and then up Three Ridges (a ridiculous climb), just to reach Devils Backbone Brewery at Reed Gap. Yes, a 30-mile day is worth it for a cold brew.

Overall, Virginia was great. Good food, good brews, good terrain, and great views. Nothing beats McAfee Knob and the Tinker Cliffs.

Onward

To wrap up this disjointed summary, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the trail so far. I’m just out of Shenandoah National Park and ready for Harpers Ferry. I’m actually glad to have experienced all the snow because it hardened me into a true mountain man. I’ve also been lucky — I missed the stomach bugs other hikers contracted, my gear has held up for the most part, and my body is withstanding the ridiculous amount of stress I continue to hurl at it. Here’s to the next 900.

Last, be sure to check out my videos from the trail. They’re much more exciting than all these words and you can get a real feel for the AT experience.

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Comments 4

  • SidneyS : May 1st

    Hi! You said at the start that your fly keeps unzipping as you hike. Try tying a hair tie or a rubber band to the pull on your zipper, then loop the tie around your fly button then button your shorts on top. This should help keep you from earning the trail name Flash 😉

    Reply
    • Danny Strayer : May 1st

      Thanks for the tip! I’ll have to try that!

      Reply
  • TBR : May 2nd

    Man, that’s been quite the hike!

    Major points for toughing out all that snow …

    Reply
    • Danny Strayer : May 2nd

      Thanks man! It was quite a feat but I can’t see anything stopping me now short of a volcano!

      Reply

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