Smokies, Trail Names, and Spring, Oh My!
It’s been a bit since I posted an update, so I figure I’ll take the time to chat about a jumble of different things from the past 345 miles.
I’ve made a lot of changes to my overall hiking experience, my gear, and my food. There have also been some incredible things along the way including: emotional moments, trail magic, and some seasonal changes as well. I also wanted to take a little time to share about my trail family and the lovely people I have been hiking with on the journey.
My Smokies Experience
My last post was right before I headed into the Great Smoky Mountains when I made the tough decision to send my pup Flynn back home to Maine.
I was really looking forward to the Smokies. I heard that they were incredibly beautiful and I came in with really high hopes. My hopes might have been a little too high considering the weather in the mountains in mid-March.
We started by hiking past the Fontana Dam, which was stunning. Plus we were walking on pavement, which felt pretty plush.
Our first day was beautiful. It was a lot of climbing, but a clear, sunny day after a big snowstorm. We took the time to climb a fire tower that was off trail. The tower itself was a bit rickety, the floor looked iffy, there were railings missing, but the view of the fresh snow in the mountains was incredible. I snagged this photo there:
Hiking in the snow was physically tough, but the following day the snow turned into a slushy, icy luge. That was the hardest day that I have had yet. There was no good place to stop for lunch so I was starving all day, and by the end of the day I was so sick and tired of sliding around, falling, and feeling out of control. My feet and boots were soaked and frozen. It was a completely miserable day. The pictures below don’t do the difficult terrain justice but it gives you a bit of an idea.
In the Smokies, you reach the highest point of elevation of the entire Appalachian Trail: Clingmans Dome. Apparently the views are incredible on a clear day, but all we could see was fog, a common theme during most of our time in the Smokies. It was still exciting, and we treated ourselves to candy bars when we got there.
We ended up hiking into Newfound Gap and getting our very first hitch into Gatlinburg, Tenn., where we took a much-needed zero day. The man who gave us a hitch let us pile into the cab and bed of his brand new truck. It was glorious riding in the bed, looking up at the mountains that we had hiked and were going to be hiking, while knowing a hot shower and cozy bed were in our near future.
Gatlinburg was a blast, but it was absolutely mobbed with people since it was the FFA state convention. That didn’t stop us from eating excessive amounts of food, getting a few too many beverages, and playing late-night mini golf.
When we got back into the Smokies, the slush had mostly melted and rain was expected. As I’ve repeatedly learned, you cannot trust the weather predictions. It was beautiful over the last few days in the Smokies. We caught glimpses of beautiful views through the fog, everything looked more green, and temperatures began warming. Some of our fellow hikers even had some bear encounters.
For our final night in the Smokies we had a campfire before the rain came. It was wonderful. It was a nice way to end our time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park while reminiscing with other hikers about the insane weather we hiked through.
I Get My Trail Name
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, when you hike long trails everyone refers to one another by their trail names instead of their real names. Usually it is earned by an embarrassing moment, or something that describes you in some way along your journey.
I have earned my trail name, and drumroll please… my trail name is Quesadilla. My friends call me Quesa-dad-o, though, because I make a lot of cheesy “dad” jokes. Haha, cheesy, get it? So I have begun to embrace that variation of my original trail name.
Changing My Hike
I have made some changes to my daily hiking routine that I’ve really been enjoying.
Side trips: I take other trails to fire towers, views, and other sights. It gives me something to look forward to each day and it makes each day more exciting and different. Instead of waking up and hiking however many miles we’ve planned, it breaks up the day a bit and it reminds me to take a second to enjoy being out here and to live in the moment. Plus it’s often a time for us to sit for a second, get off our feet, and maybe eat a snack.
Lunch: Instead of trying to rush through the day, we give ourselves about an hour to eat lunch each day. It gives us time to take off our shoes and give our feet a rest. It’s way better to sit down and make a real lunch than it is to try to scarf down a protein bar while walking. Again, it just gives the mind and body some time to rest and enjoy being in the moment. It’s also a nice time for the group to meet back up if we are hiking different paces and confirm the plan for where we want to camp that night.
Body care: I’ve been trying to be more kind to my body. I’ve started taking some daily vitamins: a multivitamin, fish oil, and vitamin B-12. I’ve been trying to be better about stretching, but there is still more room for improvement there. I also have been taking better care of my feet; they take a major beating each day and being sure to take the time to care for them is important. As for diet, I’ve been making some changes as well, which I will talk about more below.
Increasing mileage: We’ve been slowly increasing our daily miles. We are comfortably doing about 15 miles a day right now (depending on elevation, of course) and we did our very first 20-mile day. It was a doozie! We’ve taken several zero days already, which is important for body recovery and muscle growth.
Changing My Gear
Two trekking poles: When I was hiking with Flynn I was using one pole instead of two. The idea was that I would have one free hand to hold onto the leash as needed. Without Flynn I decided to start hiking with two poles, and man does it make a difference. It helps so much on the downhills, and it makes hiking much easier on my knees.
New shoes: I changed out my Vasque hiking boots for some Solomon trail runners. So far it’s been great. I’ve only been hiking in them for about 75 miles but my feet hurt way less, my knees hurt less, and they dry out faster. They are also easier to put on and take off. They are lighter, and my feet are rubbing a lot less in them.
Dirty Girl Gaiters: I got some beautiful purple ones. I love them so much. They are fun to look down at, and they keep my socks super clean without making my feet sweat like my other gaiters did.
Knee brace: My right knee has been really bothering me since the first week and a half into my hike. I have an old sports injury; I had a partial MCL, and partial meniscus tear. I also have a history of patellar tendinitis in that knee. After trying ibuprofen and not having much success, I purchased a knee brace about five days ago and it is working wonders. Basically all my knee pain is gone, which is wonderful.
Changing My Food
I’m still experimenting and trying new things to figure out what I like best.
There are a lot of things to consider: the weight of the food you’re carrying, the nutritional value of the food you’re carrying, how the food keeps in a warm backpack, the taste and enjoyment of your food, the price, how often you want to be cooking food vs. eating on the go, and the cleanup involved. There’s a lot to think about. Basically, every time I have been restocking food I have been making more and more changes and deciding what works best and what I like.
The hardest thing is getting enough protein. I’ve been adding tuna packets to all my dinners, and now I’m testing out some new breakfast foods with more protein than my junky, sugary (but high calorie) Pop-Tarts.
It’s kind of fun figuring what I like to eat and what my body appreciates me eating. Sometimes I even get pretty creative with cooking, adding bacon bits, and stealing a few jelly packets from hotels to shake up my normal peanut butter tortilla for lunch.
It’s fun to be a hiker chef out here. One day I packed out a banana and made a tortilla with peanut butter, banana, and honey for lunch. It was so yummy; hiker gourmet. It’s the little things that make the trail so much more enjoyable.
We have been completely spoiled by some of the previous thru-hikers who have gone out of their way to make our hike so incredible. We have run into a ton of delicious trail magic and it always seems to come when we need it most.
One of the things that I miss most about being home is enjoying breakfast with my grandparents in the morning. We always have eggs and bacon from our small farm and we get up early to drink coffee together before taking off for work. On the trail I don’t cook breakfast; I usually just toss a Pop-Tart or protein bar down my gullet and get moving. So when I hit breakfast trail magic twice it made me feel closer to home. It made me so happy and reminded me of my mornings back home.
We also hiked on Easter and someone went out of their way to hide eggs with candy along the trail. It was so sweet and thoughtful and it brought me so much happiness while we hiking into Hot Springs, N.C.
The kindness of strangers out here is unreal. Everyone is so giving and thoughtful, and it makes being out here feel like a blessing.
Along with the beautiful and kind folks making the trail feel like a magical place, the sights we get see along the way do something similar. These are some of the places that just take your breath away when you’re standing there. Well, they took my breath away at least. Unfortunately, the photos just don’t do these beautiful places justice.
Spring Has Sprung
Being out here each day makes you more aware of your surroundings. They say “spring has sprung,” but while you’re outside every day it feels like a longer process; it doesn’t just suddenly happen overnight like it seems to in regular life. It’s small details to start: you notice a bird chirping one morning while lying in your tent. You get a bug caught on your sweaty face while you’re sitting still for a water break.
Then it gets a little more obvious: you see some small patches of flowers lining the trail, almost as if they’re cheering you on as your legs scream at you during your uphill climb. Then the mice come out, and you hear other hikers complaining about mice jumping on their heads at night while they try to get some sound sleep in the shelters. On a rainy morning you see salamanders and centipedes moving about.
You get startled by a deer that silently ignores your presence and continues to nibble as you walk by.
Then you see small baby buds on trees. Owls call at night, waking you up and reminding you that you’re sleeping outdoors in their world. One day a fellow hiker collected baby ferns, or fiddleheads, along the trail. We sautéed them up with salt and pepper. At home we call those the tasty treat under your feet, and boy, were they tasty.
As spring continues to develop and we see more and more life, the ticks and mosquitoes will come out. But for now it’s beautiful to watch life come back in the forest as it begins to warm up again.
My Trail Family
I keep saying that “we” did this and “we” did that so I figure it might be nice to let you in on a little secret… I’m not hiking alone. I’ve got an awesome trail family that I’m dying to tell everyone about,
Overdrive: She’s my main hiking pal and the snack police. We hike together all day, every day, and we never tent more than like two inches away from one another. We joke a lot, and she basically makes fun of everything I do, but she’s cool. She’s an Ivy League Marine from upstate New York, and she’s pretty impressive. She can kick my butt so I try to keep on her good side. She has recently started an album of photos consisting of me eating several different food items.
Ironman: A tall man with a friendly face from Philadelphia. He travels all over the world to run marathons and do Ironman races. He also keeps an awesome steady pace up hills and always has extra water to share. He’s the glue of our trail family. He also has a lovely and impressively high voice when the time calls for it.
(The Good) Pilgrim: A thought-provoking man from Mississippi who often makes me think deeper about life. He creates poems and songs as he walks, and occasionally shares music that he recorded before the trail. Unfortunately, there is a bad Pilgrim on trail who may or may not be wanted by the FBI, but this Pilgrim does good deeds including but not limited to filling the leaf litter containers in the privy.
Murphy: A real go-getter from New Jersey. For a while he stayed ahead of us, wanting to push for more miles than we did. He often refers to pizza as pie, which can be particularly confusing. He can also crush several bottles of grape and blue raspberry Hooch in a moment’s notice. He’s very talkative and can often be spotted in his bright blue puffy.
Mudfoot: A lovely Florida gal with a personality that absolutely anyone can get along with. She is always smiling and laughing and making others do the same. For a while she was a bit behind us because she likes to take her time walking. She’s an avid salad eater and an aggressive sleeper. She just recently changed out her walking wizard staff for trekking poles.
I’ve met several others along the way; we often get a day ahead or a day behind, but it’s fun to see familiar faces over and over again. There are some faces that I may never see again, usually because they’re way faster than me, but I’ll remember the good times for sure. Maybe we will even see each other in 1,000 miles or something. That’s the beauty of the trail.
Until next time, thanks for reading and being a part of my journey.
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