Remember When: An AT SOBO Journey
Over 1,300 Miles in and a Lot Has Happened
Now that Gray and I are over 1,300 miles in on our AT southbound thru-hike, it occurred to me that I really needed to update my blog. But so much has happened since my last blog in Maine, I thought. How in the world could I possibly retell over 1,000 miles of memories? Luckily for me, I recalled an impromptu trail game entitled “Remember When” that Gray and I made up when we had strolled through the low hills of Pennsylvania. When you’ve finally run out of things to talk about (this happens after 1,000 miles), you’re bound to try to get creative for the sake of entertainment. The game is simple enough. Someone simply states the phrase, “Remember when” and must finish the sentence with one of the most ridiculous and memorable moments they have had on trail. The next person does the same, with each person taking turns until they’ve recounted all their stories. This makes for some laughs and gets at the heart of what makes a thru-hike a thru-hike: memorable moments between long miles. With that same spirit, I’ve decided to play “Remember When” throughout this article. It’s a sort of speed round to what has happened to us and for us thus far. So buckle up and get ready for some thru-hiker shenanigans!
Remember When We Saw Some Awesome Wildlife?
I knew that we would encounter many animals of the forest before we set out on our hike. I was hopeful that deer, bear, and even several variety of snakes would be seen throughout the journey. Well, besides not seeing a moose in New England, I haven’t been disappointed. So far, our bear count is up to six. The first encounter happened while hiking through New Hampshire. Gray was hiking about 20 yards ahead of me when I saw a bush to his right start to shake. Not noticing the quaking shrub, he meandered past it; however, I realized that either the world’s most rabid squirrel or a large animal was hiding behind the leaves. As I became parallel with the plant, the beast began to grunt a few times. Yep, definitely not a squirrel. Suddenly, a panicked black bear ran in the opposite direction as I merely watched on in fascination. As if to make the moment more comical, he turned around to make sure I wasn’t in pursuit of him. I never knew my 120-pound frame could be so scary to an animal easily twice my size.
Since then, we have come in contact with a disinterested juvenile bear in Pennsylvania and two sets of mama bear and cub combos while hiking the Shenandoahs. While watching a cub shimmy down a tree or run across the trail has me thinking, “Awww!!! Look at him! Isn’t that cute?” it would be asinine to forget mom is always watching. In both cases, maintaining a respectful distance and calm voice were all that was necessary for both parties to go their respective ways safely.
Besides the excitement of seeing bear, we’ve encountered several deer along the way. Deer are not rare throughout the Appalachian Trail, but the deer in the Shenandoahs are most certainly a different breed. These deer do not run from hikers. Instead, they continue to quietly feed on the grass from lengthy meadows or graze on mountain sides, immune to our presence. Instead, they seem to enjoy watching me as much as I enjoy watching them. Just yesterday, a young buck decided to go hiking along the AT in front of me and Gray. As we hiked up behind him, he decided he didn’t mind our being there one little bit. This meant literally hiking directly behind this deer for about a quarter of a mile before he finally found better grass off the trail to the left.
Though they may typically be larger, the mammalian variety of animals still don’t have the same effect on the nerves as the reptilian species. Snakes are a part of the forest and a part of the trail. When hiking long distances, they are sure to be seen. That doesn’t mean they don’t send a small shiver down my spine every time I see one. The more common species of snake to be found are the large black rat snakes that remain pretty docile. They are the snake you don’t mind seeing around shelters because it probably means the structure is mouse-free. They, like the other common garter snake, are seen frequently. I have more than once nearly stepped on a large rat snake’s tail, not watching my step quite well enough. I have come to be comfortable to their comings and goings, but remain vigilant to the possibility of running into either the timber rattler or copperhead. One nasty strike from either of them means a hospital visit, a monster bill, and the end of the thru-hike. Luckily, these guys have remained elusive with the exception of one particular occasion when Gray and I decided to pull a 30-mile hike to the famous Doyle Hotel.
Remember when We Hiked 30 Miles Just to Stay in the Doyle?
I was one of those people who had to read up on the Appalachian Trail as much as possible before setting out on my hike. Through my obsessive research, I found out about the Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. If you haven’t already heard of the Doyle, it is an old hotel with a very interesting background. Its history goes further back, but it derives its current name from a man with the last name of Doyle who decided to purchase and run the hotel in the 1940s. It has served many patrons throughout the decades; in fact, I heard that even Charles Dickens once made his stay there. It has taken care of AT hikers for many years and has even seen the death of a gentleman whose body wasn’t discovered until days later, still locked in his room. If you’re interested in that story, simply Google “Baltimore Jack and Doyle Hotel.” If ever the Doyle were illustrious before, those days are long in the past. However, it is an icon, and in true thru-hiker spirit, the crazier the better. I had to stay there.
At the time of our stay, Gray and I were pulling longer miles in the flat geography that is Pennsylvania. These recent accomplishments made us feel confident that we could hike a 30-mile day with a little night hiking to cap off the feat. We called the hotel to let them know we would be arriving late, and set out in fierce determination to stay in the Doyle. The day was easy enough. After a climb, we seemed to remain high on a ridgeline with little in our way. Miles clicked by as the sun began to retreat behind the tired hills of the state. Our headlamps were turned on and we continued our quick pace toward Duncannon. Becoming tired, but still motivated, we saw we only had five to six miles left. After a day like that, what could go wrong?
Though we saw there was a long descent into the city, we hadn’t banked on large rock formations and strange crossing switchbacks in the dark. The trail seemed to twist in wrong directions, leaving us unsure if we had taken a wrong turn. Boulders and sharp descents stretched on into the night, taking our three-mile-per-hour pace and cutting it in half. Sweaty and frustrated, we began to grow irritated. This was only exasperated by what happened next. Gray remained ahead of me by only ten yards when I saw him trip or kick over something in the dark. Following that, I heard sharp rustling in the dry leaves to my right and the strangest vibration.
I didn’t like that vibrating noise. I knew that snakes were capable of making such a sound with their tail when threatened. Instinctively, I turned my headlamp to rest upon the scales of a snake with interweavings of copper hues. “Damn it” and other expletives filled my mind when I realized that Gray had kicked a copperhead without knowing it. The snake stopped its vibrating and raised its head at me, daring me to come closer. Gingerly, I stepped away. “Do you know what that was?” I called to Gray in the ebony haze.
“Nope, I just felt something hit my shoe and then my trekking pole,” he called back.
“That was a damn copperhead.”
He remained quiet at first so that I thought he may not have heard me. Finally, he replied, “I wish you hadn’t told me that.” The rest of the walk was intense. Every stick was a copperhead or maybe even a timber rattler to our now overeager imaginations. Eventually we stumbled through the dark and into the city of Duncannon. By the time we made it to the street that housed the Doyle, my feet were screaming for reprieve and my body longed for water. Maybe it was our exhausted state, but as we neared the old hotel, my previous expectations were cleared.
Prior to our arrival, many reviews had been unkind and frankly, whiny about the hotel. They made the place seem like a war zone rather than a hiker retreat. What we received was hospitality, a private room for 30 bucks, a shower, and a pretty comfortable bed. The bathroom may have needed some love, as seen by the missing ceiling tiles, but by thru-hiker standards, it was perfect.
Remember when We Took Some Side Trips and Drank Some Beer?
The Doyle was one of many places we wanted to see along the way. However, some sightseeing locations were not so easily accessed as the old hotel. When nearing the city of Port Clinton, Pennsylvania, we had heard that just a 20-minute drive away was the nation’s oldest brewery, Yuengling. Fans of beer and history, it immediately grabbed our attention. I wasn’t hopeful that we would find a ride in the sleepy town, but in five minutes I had an Uber and we were on our way to Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
As the driver dropped us off at our motel, he leaned back mechanically and questioned whether this was really the place we wanted him to leave us. I wasn’t sure if it was the broken sign out front or the look of some folks loitering in the parking lot that gave him this impression, but we assured him we would be fine. After settling in to our new home, we set off on foot for the brewery. Once there, we were treated to free drinks and a look around the old cave system, carved into the mountains, that used to house the beer. Always lovers of history, we were interested to hear that, using the same cave system, Yuengling made ice cream for a while during prohibition in order to stay in business. Talk about some sweet history! ; )
Pennsylvania continued not to disappoint us as we later decided to take a side trip to Gettysburg. As we walked among the hillsides once embroiled in war, the fog from the rain that day cast an eerie blanket over the scene in front of us. Large monuments dedicated to the Union cause rose in the gloom. Cannons strategically placed in the same spot they may have been over a century ago were scattered around the area. Ghosts seemed to walk the place and more than once I shivered in the gray mist of the battlefield. Touring the cemetery across the street and the museum not far from there left us both in complete awe. It was a trip worth pursuing and one certainly worth remembering.
What I have been pleasantly surprised by is the amount of history simply left on trail. Prior to this hike, I did not know that the original Washington Monument was erected in a small town in Maryland. It’s not nearly as large as the more famous monument in DC, but amazing nonetheless. We have passed by strange stone walls that have long been forgotten since the 18th century, left to decay in the quiet woods of Vermont. Even the site of an old barn where General Washington ordered the vaccination of his soldiers was still sitting, lonely, in the forest of New York.
Remember when We Tried Hiking 20 Miles Through the White Mountains?
One of the more beautiful places I have ever hiked was the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The mountains here are large giants that rise up to kiss the sky, leaving you breathless before you’ve even begun climbing. They are not to be trifled with and should be respected for their difficulty in terrain as well as for their vacillating weather conditions, which can range from comfortable to hypothermic in mere seconds. With all this being said, Gray and I had begun to feel at home in the serene landscape. It had been some days since our hike out of Gorham, New Hampshire, and up Mount Madison. We had traversed the famous and hazardous Mount Washington and continued cruising the Presidentials. Our confidence was much higher and one night while completing a work for stay at Zealand Hut, we determined to push 20 miles up and into Lincoln, New Hampshire, for some well deserved R&R. Now hiking with a new hiker friend, Karate Kid, we started the hike off strong. He led the way, striding effortlessly up stony steps going straight and into a green abyss. It wasn’t long before we simply couldn’t keep up and our pace backed away from his. Even so, we were determined to make our goal and pushed forward.
That morning was covered in gray mist and twilight, leaving the bones chilled, even in August. We hurried to the next closest AMC hut for coffee to warm our blood. While not as fast as Karate Kid, we were managing a favorable pace. Downing our second cup of coffee, onward we pressed into the mountains. As we hiked forward we began to see several day hikers coming in from bisecting trails. This has and will always be a warning that there is a great peak in the not-so-far distance and it will not be lonely. This was confirmed as we reached the top of Mount Garfield bespeckled with tourists. Maybe the mountain wasn’t quiet that day, but the view was jaw-dropping. Green crests rose out of deep valleys and seemed to meet the clouds. The height of the mountains in Maine and New Hampshire were unlike anything I had ever seen and Garfield was no exception.
Realizing we had to move on, we continued farther up trail, meeting a northbound hiker. In our short conversation, he mentioned the Franconia Ridge and the captivating walk that awaited us there. On the trail, many things are overhyped (Just ask people about the rocks in Pennsylvania and you would think the trail was littered with knives to step on), but this hiker was right on with everything he told us. For me, there have been four great climbs that have left me speechless. They are, in no particular order, Mount Katahdin, Mount Washington, Mount Madison, and the Franconia Ridge. Once atop Mount Lafayette, a series of mountains meet together to form a ridge that looks as fantastical as something out of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Green gives away to rock at the crest as you reach the alpine zone. We were quickly reminded of the height and exposure as wind whipped our faces violently. More than once, a strap on my pack was thrown into my face or ear, leaving a stinging reminder that for all its beauty, the Franconia Ridge is not a place to loiter. We moved along the rocky line quickly, taking in the mountains on either side of us. A glider plane flew quietly overhead, so close we could make out the figures in the cockpit. I realized the plane was not flying so low as much as we were so high.
By the time we traversed the other side of the ridge, we were sore, cold, and wind-blown. Still, we had to get down this mountain for there was no place else to go. As we descended and the open rock gave way to bushes and vegetation, the wind began to die down. Now we could concentrate on getting off the mountain and into Lincoln. This seemed simple enough, but at this point, my knees had had enough. Each step was met with a sharp, piercing pain that reverberated down to my feet. Before long, I became worried that I wouldn’t make it to town. I could barely stand as it was. Quickly, we formed a plan. Two miles shy of the town was a small AMC-managed campground. We would have to pay to stay there, but we really didn’t have any other choice. Painfully, we continued on until we found the caretaker and a place to pitch our tent. That night, we licked our wounds and kicked ourselves for trying something so foolish as pulling 20 miles in that section of trail. Even two miles shy, and knowing the attempt was dumb, I was still a little proud of the 18-mile day through some of the most pristine and rugged landscape on the AT.
Remember when We Experienced Trail Magic and Some AT Traditions?
Going southbound is the counter hike to a northbound thru in more ways than direction. Where going NOBO is often very busy and crowded with fellow hikers, it can be days or even weeks before a SOBO hiker finds the familiar face of hiker trash. The same can be said for trail magic. As a resident of Georgia, I have seen the hiker feeds that await northbound travelers just days into their journey. The same experience is not to be had for southbound hikers, or so I was told.
I did not expect much trail magic. However, sometimes you get lucky. On one particularly windy day, which was becoming customary for hiking in the White Mountains, we came across what can only be described as water in the desert: a hiker feed! Under a large awning, providing shelter from the raindrops pelting our heads, we were beckoned forth to sit and enjoy craft beer, mojitos, steak, parfaits, pancakes, sandwiches, hot dogs, wine… the point is made. It was amazing. The family hosting this event was particularly great company in their splendid humor and genuine kindness. Some of them were past thru-hikers themselves, and they recounted some of their own stories and asked us about ours. We happily obliged through mouthfuls of chips and beer. Other hikers arrived, and before long we were all laughing and relaxed as if we had known one another for years. After being vortexed for some time, we finally pulled ourselves away. But not before taking a water bottle filled with wine, two fluffernutter sandwiches, and four hot dogs. Life was good!
Such kindness was more than appreciated, and we have continued to be met with more sweetness than could have ever been expected. Whether it was from the quick hitch into Stratton to the beer bought for us at a local brewery, it’s always amazed me at how much others will cheer us on and support our effort, even though we are complete strangers. The world is still good, people are still kind, and I will do my best to pay it forward.
Besides having moments of trail magic, we’ve also tried our best to preserve some AT traditions on our route. When reaching the halfway point in our journey, Gray continued to discuss the half-gallon challenge, a hiker tradition in which a half gallon of ice cream is consumed in one sitting. The prize is a small wooden spoon that simply reads, “I completed the half gallon challenge.” He talked about taking out that quart and pint of ice cream with enthusiasm. So much so that he found himself discussing the famous tradition with two section hikers who informed him that the store that hosted the challenge would be closed the day we were to pass through. I have never seen a man so quickly deflated. Upon hearing this news, he looked around to find my gaze before exclaiming, “That sucks.” We decided to at least eat a pint at another local store if nothing else while we had lunch. However, Gray became excited again as we approached the official camp store. As we neared the door, the front read, “Closed: Monday- Friday Open: Saturday-Sunday.” Being that it was a Friday, I thought Gray might again deflate like a week-old party balloon. Instead, he tried the handle to find a young lady working the counter. The store was in fact open and the challenge was still on. We bought the quart since we had recently eaten our pint that day and finished the half-gallon challenge properly. Little wooden spoons in hand, we made our way to the next lean-to, burping Neapolitan ice cream as we went.
Making More Miles Means Making More Memories (Wow, That’s a Lot of Alliteration)
These past 1,377 miles have been a whirl, and I don’t think I could perfectly convey all the things I have seen or done. There’s so much more to tell about such as the hostel experiences, the many people we’ve met, or even the time I got E. coli in Vermont (though honestly, nobody wants the details of that). The trail has taught us a lot about ourselves, brought us even closer than we were before, and unveiled the majesty of nature. We’ll do everything we can to make it back home to Georgia, and I can’t wait to see what the next 900 miles bring.
P.S. Daily updates to our journey can be found at LandBHikes on Instagram
Wren and Gray
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