The Final Days Of My 2023 Flip Flop AT Thru-Hike
A Recap of the Final Days
June Floods and The Gorham Vortex
The most stubborn hikers (my daughter and I included) stayed course and waded through the June floods and mud pits. Trekking poles were being chucked down and over steep boulder descends. We were grasping onto slug covered tree trunks, slick rock slabs, and roots growing out of the side of mountains to hoist ourselves into the higher elevations. The dirt caked under our fingernails and callused palms told the story. We met several early NOBO’s and Flip Floppers that were caught in a Gorham, NH vortex. Hikers in this bubble were forced to make big decisions. This was no longer a trail we were hiking … this was a bottomless mudslide (minus the vodka, coffee liqueur, and Irish cream). Facing knee deep to chest high pools of rushing water, some retreated from the trail temporarily; some permanently. A few flip floppers considered flopping back south early and returning to Maine once waters subsided.
The perpetual rain and residual smoke from the Canadian wildfires created unpredictable weather patterns. It was epic; it was what we had been waiting for. This was an adventure that would live in our memories for a lifetime. The Presidentials, Wildcats, and Mahoosuc Traverse through most of Maine were socked in, but we reveled in glorious views on Franconia Ridge, The Bigelows, and Katahdin. We worked hard for those views. But as I now look back, the joy was in the entirety of the journey, not just the views along the way.
The 4K’s in Maine
After making it through The Whites, one could only hope the terrain would be just a little more forgiving. Nothing could have prepared me for summiting ten 4,000 footers with no switchbacks before reaching the 100 Mile Wilderness – nothing. We celebrated the 4th of July in the tent atop Beemus Mountain. Fireworks consisted of ground shaking thunder rolls and a sky show of brilliantly forked lightening cracks. Nutella mixed with crushed salty potato chips rolled into tortillas was our dinner of champions as the rain pummeled the tent for hours into early morning.
On days when the clouds rolled out intermittently, the sunshine soaking into our skin felt glorious and the long-range views were spectacular. The pines, gray jays, moss covered forest floors, wild blueberries, territorial red tailed squirrels, moose, crystal clear ponds, lakes, loons – they all led up to a beautiful Maine event on the Katahdin summit.
Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness to Katahdin:
I romanticized about this section for many years. We were welcomed with progressively challenging hiking conditions leading into the Hundred Mile Wilderness; but with great risk and determination comes great reward. Resupplying at Shaws in Monson provided a glimpse into the toll Maine had taken on some of the hikers on trail with us, particularly the NOBO’s. One last push to Mama K; one last push.
Majestic, Beautiful and Bittersweet
Hiking through the 100 Mile Wilderness is traditionally a time when I imagined a thru hiker would want to slow down, soak it all in, and spend time in retrospection. Most of the thru hikers we knew were eager to get it done, and understandably so. Maine was beautifully rugged but so very brutal on the body. Some hikers chose reroute options due to high water. But to purists, forced rerouting felt soul crushing. We made it through the wilderness in 5 and a half days after highly considering slack-packing due to the rising creeks and rivers, in addition to the overwhelming stench of moldy gear. A couple water crossings were downright harrowing, but we took our time and safely crossed each one; nervously laughing with sighs of relief. We didn’t die, so life was good!
It rained on and off every day we were in the wilderness. We smelled worse than ever, and I dealt with some severe chafing after walking for days in the rain. Not one single day passed since the start of NH without wet feet. When your body is in that much discomfort, all you can think about is the end game. But the beauty that surrounded us took precedence over all those discomforts. I am sure as I transition into life back home, the words to describe the majestic beauty of The 100 Mile Wilderness will come.
The Maine Event
There is not one single day or portion of my journey that I would change, because it was all so amazingly perfect. It had just enough of that “survival mode” rush that was on continuous replay in the mind. We summited Katahdin on 7.20.23 at 10:12am. It was a day and time I will never EVER forget. Sitting at the summit was an encapsulated hour frozen in time; a compilation of pure joy, pain, elation, struggle, determination, grit, exhaustion, fulfillment, and disbelief. How in the world did we manage to hike all those miles?
Flopping From Maine to Damascus
I chose to start my Flip Flop thru hike in Damascus, so the journey did not end for me at the Katahdin summit. The NC/TN/GA portions of the trail are very familiar. Section hiking those states over a period of previous years, some more than once, gave me confidence to push through and focus on finishing. We took a couple much needed zero days and enjoyed family time in Bar Harbor, Acadia before heading back south.
This portion of the journey consisted of hiking SOBO 495 miles from Elk Park through Damascus, Roan Highlands, Hot Springs, Max Patch, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Nantahala, Fontana Dam, Winding Stair Gap, Neel Gap, Blood Mountain Wilderness (just to name a few of my favorites) to the finish line at Springer Mountain GA on 8.29.23. The weather in TN and NC was glorious (except for an unexpected tornado warning that forced us off trail for a night at Hughes Gap).
There were no other ’23 thru hikers on trail during this period, except for one SOBO on Springer Mountain. He had hiked the trail in 83 days and was finishing the Triple Crown. We saw 3 black bear on the trail in the Smokies. Night hiking and very early morning starts were ramped up. Carrying additional water was necessary in some dry sections. Many sections had become overgrown. We spent the night with an ATC Sweat Crew at Cosby Knob Shelter that had just cleared a 4 day stretch of the trail near Newfound Gap
The SOBO End At Springer Mountain, GA
I felt more relaxed to be hiking through familiar terrain, and we covered much higher mileage days with more ease. A round of steroids was needed after trekking through some blow downs covered with poison ivy just before Standing Bear. The itching became relentless as days passed and sweat spread it to surrounding open pores. Georgia welcomed us with high humidity and intermittent thunderstorms. We pushed mileage harder than ever to the finish, as a tropical storm was moving up the coast from the Gulf of Mexico. We summited Springer Mountain on 8.29.23.
Hiking those states SOBO was a completely different journey for me. It was a welcomed change after previously experiencing the southern states NOBO. The jury is still out as to whether or not hiking that portion of the AT is more difficult going NOBO or SOBO. To me, it all felt the same – beautifully strenuous.
Life After A Thru Hike
Hiking the Appalachian Trail has been a journey of a lifetime. It took me 6 months (to include 25 zero days) to complete my thru hike. My daughter, Prickleberry, continued on to complete her last 250 miles in Southern VA creating a short-term tramily of 2 others (a SOBO and a Flip Flopper) She is on track to official thru-hiker status next week. I am elated that we will share memories of this journey for years to come, but even more so that she chose to finish on her own…hiking her own hike.
After returning home, I am back to work with a physical therapy rehab team. Do I think about the trail every day? Yes, at least every hour of the day as portions of the journey replay in my mind. I often wake in early morning with an initial sense of being in my tent somewhere in the forest. I certainly do not sweat the little things as much as I used to. There is peace in knowing that life can be lived in simplicity without all the materialism and consumerism that plagues our minds and drives our hustle culture.
I hope to continue harnessing the joy of what my daughter has coined, “cracking the happiness code by hiking the trail.” Maybe I will hike another long trail in the future. For now, I am grateful to be surrounded by many trails in our own backyard in Western North Carolina. I look forward to exploring the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) and the Appalachian High Route (AHR).
Never stop exploring and climbing your mountains, wherever and whatever they may be!
Joanne “Lucky Penny” Gigliotti (AT ’23)
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