Dan and Hannah Hike to Charlie’s Bunion in the Great Smokies (Tennessee and North Carolina)

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My college roommate, Big Steve, who hailed from Virginia, always said people are friendlier (i.e., more welcoming) in the South.  I cannot disagree.  The you-alls, the yes sir’s, yes ma’am’s, and the look at you in the eyes smiles.   I love it.  Now more than ever we need that civility as a starting point for conversations rather than debates with others.  I once taught poetry to a class of sixth graders for a nun who was a student of mine at Eastern Connecticut State University.  When I came into the room, everyone stood up.  It was very cool.  As a prof of the Exploring Teaching class at the University of New England, I had my students stand when a guest speaker came into the room.  After this election season, we need to listen more and judge less.

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I do have a Big Beware for you!!  Think Jersey shore Sunday afternoon on the Garden State Parkway.   Think LA anytime.   Think the Washington Beltway whenever.  Coming from the west to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we leave I-40 for the 22-mile gauntlet drive to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  First on the drive in, there is Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, and then comes the shops of Gatlinburg.  Get this, on a non-holiday October Monday morning at 11A, the traffic is insane in G-Town.  There are more stores and shoppers per square inch than at the Mall of America in Minne-snow-ta.   I remind you it’s mid-morning Monday.  It takes three changes of the traffic light to get to the next traffic light!

But…later we learn there is a bypass around Gatlinburg to the Great Smokies.  Take it!  Save yourself.

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At the parking lot of Newfound Gap

While Hannah trolls for a parking spot at the west side Visitor Center, I seek out a ranger  to learn more about the Ramsey Cascades waterfall hike that we are counting on.  After our experience yesterday with a waterless waterfall in nearby Dayton, TN, I ask if there will be any water coming over the falls.  The good news is that there is water at the falls. The bad news is that the trail is closed due  a bridge out thanks to a fallen tree.

Hearing we’d like to hike for three to four hours, she suggests the Charlie’s Bunion hike beginning at Newfound Gap in the center of the park on the Tennessee/North Carolina line.

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The trail immediately grabs our attention with its steady climb, with logs placed conveniently across the trail to make the stepping up easier as well as a measure to limit the erosion.  With Hannah motoring in the lead, we are rocking westward along the Appalachian Trail on this sunny 72F afternoon.  We pass southbound thru-hikers (those hiking the entire 2180 miles of the AT from Maine to Georgia), who are now within 200 miles of their holy grail of finishing at Springer Mountain in Georgia.

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The promised rocks and roots of the trail

The first 2.7 miles of the trail to Charlie’s Bunion is almost entirely uphill.  Sweating and panting to keep up with Hannah’s pace, I am loving the physical challenge of such trails.  Though the trail is rated “moderate” by the park service, it’s a serious, no let-up eight-mile round-trip workout.

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In contrast, when I am at the gym, if I am tired, I chill and just pedal lightly on the recumbent bicycle.  In pickleball, I stop early if I get weary.  But today on a gut busting 90 minutes of steady uphill climbing, I have no choice but to put one foot ahead of the other and rock on.  That said, I know that we are living the dream – hiking in the Great Smokies.

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White blaze of the Appalachian Trail

In addition, I love the “day hiking-ness” of our hikes.  While AT thru-hikers are heading to the Ice House Shelter near Charlie’s Bunion to “sleep” with others in a three-sided shelter where mice scurry over sleeping bags and fellow hikers snore like the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Hannah and I have a humane alternative this evening.  At our motel, we will shower, have a glass of wine, and later sleep in a comfortable bed.  Ah, the good life of the day hiker.

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Sort of looks like a bunion, yes?

The final third of the trail is basically downhill.  Rocky and root-filled, the trail keeps our attention as our stride length increases and we continue to have a heckuva workout.  On this mountain ridge line, often with steep drop offs to either side, we never feel in peril as we hike through thick brush and tall trees.

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Charlie with his friends Dan and Hannah

As the AT heads to the right, we take the 100 yard spur trail to 5565’ Charlie’s Bunion.   The area beneath the Bunion allows us to rest, then climb the rock outcropping that, yes, does look like a bunion.  Later I snap the arty picture below of Hannah removing her socks and boots, which impresses the hell out of me.  Perhaps, you too from such a modest photographer?

In 1929, when two hikers, Charlie Conner and Horace Kephart, paused for a rest at this spot, Connor took off his boots and socks and exposed a bunion that reassembled the surrounding rocks.  Kephart said, Charlie I’m going to get this place put on a government map for you.  Hence the name.

With four rocky miles back over up and down terrain, we spend less than 15 minutes at Charlie’s vista with Gatlinburg to the west and the North Carolina mountains to the east.  Check out the video below as we head back to the trailhead.

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The hike to the trailhead continues to be quite the physical challenge, but with no choice but to move forward, we rock on.

As we pass a twenty-something couple, I think what a worthwhile test of a relationship it would be for those considering marriage to hike together to learn how each other deals with stress and the challenges of such a tough climb.  Marriage is so much more of a challenge than this trail!  Do I hear an Amen!

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Anyone married, even a few years, let alone the 44 that Hannah and I have been, knows that life is challenges, compromises and negotiations.  You don’t have to live too long to know that much of life is not about succeeding at Plan A, but learning to deal with Plan B on a regular basis.  I am most fortunate to share the joys and challenges of the trail and life than with Hannah Banana.

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Dan and Hannah Hike to Springer Mountain in Georgia

Ami map of AT in GA

Fueled by biscuits and decafe (Dan) and biscuits and gravy (Hannah) at our Best Western Mountain View Inn in East Ellijay in northern Georgia, we head out this first Monday of October on rural route 52 for Springer Mountain – the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and what will be our 14th of 14 AT states.

Ami 4 H on approach trail to Mt S

Hannah on the Approach Trail to Springer Mountain the day before

Most thru-hikers reach the southern start of the AT thru Amicalola State Park.  By doing that though, thru-hikers must take an Approach Trail for 8.5 miles to just get to the start of their hike of five million steps to Mount Katahdin in Maine.  But we have heard of a back door to get to Springer.

Turning off route 52 at the Chevron Station onto Roy Road, we wind for 9.7 miles through forests and farm land in rural northern Georgia.  From there it is 2.2 miles on Doublehead Gap Road to the National Forest fire road across from the Baptist Church.  This seems like the textbook definition of “the sticks” to this Yankee.  (not that there is anything wrong with that to quote Jerry Seinfeld.)

 

SM 1 sign on gravel road

Fire roads are a roll of the dice.  They are usually gravelly, often unimproved with potholes aplenty.  This road has all that with the added feature of being just one lane wide for much of the way.  As we start out up the mountain, a pickup truck passes by; such a vehicle is just the kind of transportation AT thru-hikers would use to be shuttled to this backdoor to Springer Mountain.

One lane fire road to the AT near Springer Mountain

One lane fire road to the AT near Springer Mountain

As I drive on, I am well aware that there could be another vehicle at every turn which would require that I back up for a quite a while; no easy task for someone who lacks even basic spatial awareness to back up into a simple parking space.

Driving 10 mph on this winding mountain road, I slow to a crawl to bump through potholes fortunately more apparent now that they are filled from last night’s rain.  For 35 “steering-wheel-death-gripping” minutes I never relax.  Each turn of the odometer lifts my spirits.  Feeling quite the hero, I find it stunningly that once I pull into the trailhead parking lot, we see five other compact cars already here.

AT sign at trailhead parking

AT sign at trailhead parking

Thankfully this trailhead parking is on the AT itself; but first we have an easy, flat mile hike south on a very rocky trail to the summit of Springer Mountain.

SM 2B H on trail

On the way we meet a young couple in their late twenties with big time backpacks.  They are out to hike to Unicol Gap, 52 miles away over the next five days.  When we ask if they have trail names, they say their shuttle driver gave them each one.  Because of her fear of lizards, he dubbed her Liz.   With his big pack he named him Pack Mule or Mule.

White blaze of the Appalachian Trail

White blaze indicating the Appalachian Trail

Within two tenths of a mile of the summit there is a blue blaze (side) trail to the Springer Mountain shelter: wooden framed open front structure with nearby privy and water supply.  Then we meet an equally sunny twenty-something couple heading to the summit.  Again as newbies to the trail, they have no official trail names, but they are considering Tortoise (he) and Hare (she).

Plaque at the summit of Springer Mountain

Plaque at the summit of Springer Mountain

The summit is marked with a plaque noting the challenge that lies ahead for thru-hikers.  Beneath the marker is a trail log which we open to read the entries from the last few days.  Here’s one from a thru-hiker.

Trail log at Springer Mountain

Trail log at Springer Mountain

October 1 – Can I still use my trail name when I get home?!?  I can’t believe it.  I’m here.  Thank you for the lessons and discipline of the trail.  You’re what I needed!!  Apollo

Hannah adds to the register.   October 5 – Dan and Hannah – about to walk our last of the 14 states of the AT.  Came from Maine to do it!!  Yahoo!!   Hannah and Dan

As we retrace our steps back to the parking lot trailhead, we pass three young women who, like the others, plan to hike the 8+ miles to the Hawksbill Shelter for their first night on the trail.

AT to Cover cove Shelter

AT to Stover Creek Shelter

Once on the trail heading north we find the hiking more “walking in the woods” than stepping over and around the rocks as we had done to and from the summit.  Whereas our pace was not quite 2 mph to Springer Mountain we are now rolling through the Georgia woods at 2.5 mph heading to the Stover Creek Shelter, 1.8 mile from the parking trailhead.

After stone hopping across small streams, we meet up with Liz and Mule eating lunch out of a pouch.  Passing no judgement, I think that doing that holds no charm for me.  Eating freeze dried everything for the five to six months while hiking the entire Appalachian Trail leaves me, well, cold.

Stover Creek Shelter on the AT

Stover Creek Shelter on the AT

Having turned around at the Stover Creek Shelter, we arrive back at the trailhead after six miles of hiking over three hours.  We have bagged Georgia, our final AT state.  Celebrating that accomplishment will have to wait as we have the most harrowing part of our trip ahead – driving down the mountain on the narrow forest fire road.

Together on the AT

Together on the AT

Hannah takes her turn behind the wheel and masterfully works her way down the 6.5 mile hill in 30 minutes.  By the way, we do finally pass a truck coming up the mountain.  Fortunately, we pass at a wide point in the one lane road.

View from Springer Mountain

View from Springer Mountain

Springer Mountain is all it’s cracked up to be and now it’s on to Great Smoky Mountain National Park to get another crack at the AT, this time on the North Carolina/Tennessee border.

Dan Hikes Moxie Bald Mountain on the Applachian Trail in Maine

Paul, Maine hiker extraordinaire

Paul, my Maine hiker extraordinaire

Paul is my wild and crazy hiking amigo. He takes me places I would never go.  Four years back we hiked Speck Mountain on the Appalachian Trail in western Maine; a tough eight mile, five hour hike over rocks, stones, and boulders that brought me to my knees.  We’ve hiked the Loop Trail to Tumbledown Mountain near Weld in central Maine, which has a stony winding tunnel of rocks called “The Chimney” that we climbed through!  The guidebook describes this tunnel through the mountain itself as not safe for novices, children, or dogs.  After, we panned for gold!

Paul at Devil's Doorstep on the way to Moxie Bald Mountain

Paul at Devil’s Doorstep on the way to Moxie Bald Mountain

It’s never dull with Paul.   Now when he suggests a hike, I ask him to send me a link describing it.  The Moxie Bald Mountain Trail is a moderate/difficult-rated four mile round trip to the summit with an elevation gain of 1300 feet. That seems doable; I wonder what I am missing.

Thompson's Restaurant in Bingham, Maine

Thompson’s Restaurant in Bingham, Maine

In his made-for-backroads SUV, we drive north on the Maine Turnpike to route 201 through Skowhegan and on to breakfast in Bingham, some three hours from York this mid-July. With excellent Yelp reviews, the country Thompson Restaurant on the Main Street does not disappoint. It’s a classic small town Maine diner with a menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; counter stools, three booths, and a smattering of tables for four or six. We pay $12 total for coffee, two eggs, home fries, and toast.

The pole with no street sign which we are reasonably confident is Town Line Road

The pole with no street sign which we are reasonably confident is Town Line Road

And then my Paul reality (unmarked roads) hits as we head out of town on route 16 to the east looking for the Town Line Road.   When we pass a road with a metal post with no street sign, we guess that this must be it based on our calculations.

Another unmarked road on our way to the trailhead

Another unmarked road on our way to the trailhead

We go for it. The rocky and gravelly road takes us through country that only moose, hunters, and hermits would love.   Since the massive logging trucks drive this road regularly, the road is well maintained. Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News is the source of our directions to the summit of Moxie Bald.

Just past a Recreational Trail Crossing sign and the Moscow town line, turn right onto Town Line Road. Drive 2.6 miles to the end of the road and turn right onto Deadwater Road (no sign). Drive 4 miles to a fork in the road and take the left fork onto Trestle Road (no sign), staying along the power lines. Drive 2.9 miles and turn right onto an unmarked road (which is just past an unmarked road on the left that has a bridge over Moxie Stream). Drive uphill on the unmarked road 0.7 mile to a fork in the road, and take the left fork onto the unmarked Moxie Bald Road. Drive 3 miles to a bridge over Bald Mountain Brook. Cross the bridge and park on the right, well out of the way of traffic. Walk about 0.1 mile farther to where the Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses the road. Take a right to hike the trail northbound to Moxie Bald Mountain.

Heading north to Moxie Bald on the Appalachian Trail

Heading north to Moxie Bald on the Appalachian Trail

That’s a lot of unmarked and no signage roads (my boldface), but the directions to the tenth of a mile prove spot on. On a July day forecasted to go into the mid-80s, we lather on organic Skeeter Skedaddle and lube on sunscreen. In my lightweight Under Armor shirt and Nike shorts, I strap on my fanny pack with two bottles of water, tangerines, apple slices, and tuna salad sandwiches by Hannah.

MB 2D Paul on trailWe enter the forest to our right a little before 10A.   Covered by leaves lapping onto the trail we run into Itis (his trail name [we never find out why]), the first of five AT thru-hikers we will meet today. Soon after, a young female solo hiking comes by. Trail names are often given by others and as yet she doesn’t have one. Her heavy hiking boots proved uncomfortable at Mt. Katahdin so she ditched them for lightweight hiking sandals.

Rocky and rooted Moxie Bald Trail

Rocky and rooted Moxie Bald Trail

The trail is muddy but not so much that we can’t easily walk around the muddy spots. We gently rise towards Moxie Bald, but it is in no way strenuous on this well-maintained trail. We meet another thru-hiker called Four Ounces. Smiling, he never reveals how he got that trail name, but he is on a smoking pace, having left Katahdin 135 miles away just one week ago.

Views to Sugarloaf Mountain to the west

Views to Sugarloaf Mountain to the west

While the first 1.6 miles is a walk in the park, we come upon a junction where to the left we can take the Summit Bypass Trail or to the right head directly to the summit of Moxie Bald Mountain.  We head right as the trail steepens over the last 0.4 of a mile to the top: but it is not so arduous that we can’t continue to talk and climb and climb and talk.

Dan at Devil's Doorstep

Dan at Devil’s Doorstep

Soon we are upon the Devil’s Doorstep, a series of stone monoliths 4o to 60 feet long with passageways. It’s all very cool as we climb upon rocks and over roots seeking the summit. Emerging out of the forest, we rock scramble over the massive stones on the mountainside on the way to the bald (a mountain top with no trees).

Dan with veteran AT hiker, Wildcat

Dan with veteran AT hiker, Wildcat

We see a thru-hiker in the distance, who turns out to be Wildcat (trail name) who has completed the AT years ago. As a chaplain supported by the Methodist Church, his mission is to follow the golden rule and help out others on the trail. Different from Four Ounces, he has taken more than two weeks to get to this point on the AT; he has had Trail Magic in the form of friends providing a meal and a place to stay off-trail four times since he left Katahdin.

From the summit looking northeast to Mount Kahtadin

From the summit looking northeast to Mount Kahtadin

Atop Moxie Bald Mountain on this hazy Monday, we have a 360 degree view to Mount Katahdin, Sugarloaf, and the Bigelows.  A little after noon, Paul and I are of one mind that we’d rather keep our hiking momentum going by hiking back to the trailhead now and then have lunch in town at a picnic table.

Hauling on the hauling with a deflating tire. We want no part of any Maine version of a trumped up Deflategate scandal

Hauling ass on the hauling road with a deflating tire. We want no part of any Maine version of a trumped up Deflategate scandal.  In Tom we trust.

Arriving at the trailhead more than 3.5 hours later, we drive out the gravelly hauling road when two things occur. One, we see a moose in the road, who scampers into the wetlands before I can ask him to look this way for a picture. Two, the tire pressure light goes on the dashboard indicating one of the tires has been punctured on this rocky road. We opt for Paul to cowboy it out on this logging road at 40 mph to see if we can get to route 16, twelve miles away, before every bit of air is out of the deflating tire.

Paul's trusty work SUV at Lavallee's Garage in Moscow, Maine

Paul’s trusty work SUV at Lavallee’s Garage in Moscow, Maine

Sitting high in the saddle, Paul is rocking along the logging road.  He then comes up with another brilliant idea. We’ll go back to Thompson’s Restaurant and ask the waitress where is the best garage to have a tire fixed. We drive into the lot at Lavallee’s Garage where the mechanic puts the car on the lift immediately, plugs the tire, and charges Paul $10.

Gotta love small town Maine, its people, its hauling roads, and its Moxie Bald Mountain along the Appalachian Trail!

Dan and Hannah Hike the Jones Run Falls Trail in Shenandoah National Park

With the Vintager B&B in the background where we stayed

The Vintager B&B in the background where we stayed

Heading west on I-64 from Richmond, Virginia, Hannah and I have just had one of the Top Ten weekends of our lives this late April day.  Our son Will married Laurel Ann Crane yesterday under rainy skies; rain that was a blessing – a blessing because that kept the twenty- and thirty-something energy in the modern day barn all night long rocking to the music.

Laurel Ann minutes before the ceremony

Laurel Ann minutes before the ceremony

Because of the rain and mid-40s, 30 degrees below normal, everyone stayed in the barn. These young’uns never stopped dancing.   Given their father’s reluctance to dance, you might never have guessed that the York Rothermel kids can boogie.  Can they ever!  Robyn didn’t miss a beat.  For her rocking style at the wedding, Molly earned a bronze medal for her moves.   Will and his cousin Abby rocked on the dance floor all night long for dancing supremacy. The judges could not decide and awarded each the gold medal.

Proud Mama Bear with her cub

Proud Mama Bear with her cub

And, yes, I got my groove on and danced, and then danced some more. Since there were so many people dancing (thanks to the rain) I could hide in the crowd and catch my dancing groove. My secret? I’d watch the kids dancing and mirror their moves. It was all very cool, even if I wasn’t quite as cool as I thought I was.

Will and Laurel kiss with all attendantsHave you classmates in the Fair Lawn High School class of 1966 or others of that era got to this point in your lives? There was no traditional “couples” dance where the dj asks all married couples to come to the dance floor. She then asks those married, say five years, to leave the dance floor. More music is played and then those married ten years or less are asked to leave.   As it turns out, our nearly 43 years married would have won!  Tonight, we needed no such attention.  We’ll take our notoriety in being the parents of the groom.

Ready for a wedding in the Modern Barn

Ready for Will and Laurel in the modern barn

Driving from the site of Will and Laurel’s wedding at the Vintager B&B in Quinton, Virginia, we leave behind our new family, Will and Laurel, her parents Sandy and Ken, and her sister Courtney and husband Josh.   The forecast for the Shenandoahs this morning is for clearing as we drive past Charlottesville to the Skyline Drive heading north. (By the way, heading south at this point is the Blue Ridge Highway.)  The ranger directs us to the Jones Run Falls Trail which has three waterfalls for our hiking pleasure.

At the southern entrance to the Skyline Drive

At the southern entrance to the Skyline Drive

Throughout the park, the Skyline Drive is a winding ribbon of highway along the ridge of the Shenandoahs.  Just after the ranger station, we see a mother bear and three cubs crossing the Skyline Drive directly in front of us; the cubs no bigger than a foot long (they looked like black lab puppies). Once safely across, mama bear raises high on her back legs to make sure that we are moving on. Mother bears of all species would do the same.

Jumping on to the Appalachian Trail to begin the Jones Run Falls Loop Trail

Jumping on to the Appalachian Trail to begin the Jones Run Falls Loop Trail

Twenty miles after the ranger station we pull into the trailhead at Jones Run Trail with room for twenty cars. Our car thermometer shows the temperature has dropped to 43F.  With overcast skies, we take no chances and pull on pants, long sleeve shirts, and sweatshirts for this 6.5 mile loop trail with a 1700’ of elevation gain which is rated “moderate.”

JF AT map

For the first mile we are hiking north on the Appalachian Trail as this ridge hike descends gently into the Virginia forest. Within minutes, we meet up with two AT hikers, the younger of which is a flip-flopper.

Slapshot

Slapshot

As a flip flopper, he started hiking in the middle of the AT at Harper’s Ferry, WV and is heading to Georgia during the better spring weather in the American South. Hiking 1120 miles to Springer Mountain, he will then be driven back to Harper’s Ferry and hike the 1160 miles to the trail terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine.   He is using a hockey stick as his trekking pole. Hence the trail name – Slapshot.

Crossing the Doyles River

Crossing the Doyles River

Within minutes we pass a young couple out for three days of backpacking. Guys have hit gold when they find an adventurous female willing to sleep on the ground in a tent, eat pork and beans from a can, and think that hiking in the pouring rain is a hoot. My gold is Hannah who likes to hike for three or four hours, return to the motel for showers, a glass of wine, and then sweet slumber.

Doyles River approaching the Upper Falls

Doyles River approaching the Upper Falls

As we hike the Browns Gap Fire Road, we see more day hikers coming back from the waterfalls this Sunday. Once two miles in, we turn east to hike along the Doyles River itself. We are in luck as the leaves are within a week or two of leafing out so we can clearly see the torrent of river; all from the same storm that doused Will and Laurel’s wedding last night near Richmond.

Rams in front of the Upper Doyles River Falls

Rams in front of the Upper Doyles River Falls

Still descending, we come upon the 28’ Upper Doyles River Falls. With melting snows and heavy rains feeding it, we are transfixed by nature’s exuberance – waterfalls. See the video below.

 

Soon we are descending the serpentine trail to the 63’ Lower Doyles River

Lower Doyles River Falls

Lower Doyles River Falls

Falls. We love us some falls. I hope you do too for here is our second falls video.

We continue descending on our trail with rocks that are manageable and nothing like the boot shredding rocks of the AT in Pennsylvania. Two hours into our hike we turn at the Jones Run Falls Trail and make our climb towards Skyline Drive. The temperature has gone to the high 5os now as we are down to tee shirts with our long sleeve shirts wrapped around our waists.

Poles needed for crossing the Jones Run

Poles needed for crossing the Jones Run

River crossings are few, but we come across one where we fortunately find two 5 to 6 foot river-crossing-branches that we use to steady ourselves. Though we must balance on slightly submerged rocks, we successful ford the stream and are on our way.

Soon we come to the third of three waterfalls, the Jones Run Falls.

Jones Run Falls

Jones Run Falls

Into our third hour of hiking, it’s all up hill. But the trail is not one that has us mountain climbing at all.  In fact, it’s gentle rise over two or three miles is pleasant and easy going. The Jones Run Falls Trail Loop with its three falls is a “don’t miss” hike in western Virginia.

Laurel Ann and Will Rothermel

Laurel Ann and Will Rothermel

It’s a good 75 minutes to our overnight stay in Luray, VA. Still aglow this day after our Second Wedding of the Century, we are just so damn happy for them and for ourselves.

Bon voyage Will and Laurel.

Dan and Hannah Hike the Appalachian Trail near Erwin, Tennessee

Appalachian Trail MapAfter days of rain in the forecast, the rain gods finally have their way.  Tuesday le deluge comes to western North Carolina.  After John Denver hiking (i.e., that’s right – sunshine on our shoulders) near Hot Springs, we have rain and more rain on this our zero day (no hiking).  Stepping in and out of drenching downpours, we hit Asheville hot spots: Lunch at O’Charley’s with Hannah’s sister Bettsy, then later dinner at Chorizo (Mexican) with Jeff, my College of Wooster tennis teammate.

map of erwin tnNo matter the weather, there is no doubt we are going to hike in Tennessee this mid-October Wednesday. Only 45 minutes from the AT in Tennessee, we won’t miss this chance as tomorrow we head for home some 1000 miles away.

Parking by the Nolichucky River in Erwin, TN

Parking by the Nolichucky River in Erwin, TN

Waking in the Mars Hill, NC Comfort Inn, we can’t even see across the parking lot. The fog is Great Smoky Mountain thick. After a motel breakfast that includes biscuits and gravy for Hannah, we drive west on I-26 to Erwin, Tennessee, a mere 45 miles away, through fog, then into sunlight. The AT passes through Erwin a mere 340 miles from the AT’s origin at Springer Mountain, Georgia. The hiking gods have smiled upon us as we will be hiking precipitation-free today.

Nolichucky River at flood stage

Nolichucky River at flood stage

Driving along the Nolichucky River, we are winding our way deeper into the rural South. Visions of Deliverance come to mind. Deliverance (1972) scared the bejesus out of me.  All the worst stereotypes of hillbilly mountain folk are shown in terrifying detail.  It’s a disturbing movie along the lines of Fargo (1996) in that it’s all too real and frightening.  Even so, we are fearless today.

ET 1C Unaka Springs FBChurchPassing the Nolichucky Hostel and Outfitters on River Road, we park roadside. After yesterday’s heavy rains, the Nolichucky is at flood stage.  Crossing the bridge, we see another of the many small churches in town. Erwin has 6000 people.  YP.com lists 254 churches in Erwin!  You do the math.

ET 1 hanging elephantOnce home to Cherokee Indians, Erwin earned some notoriety in 1916 by holding a public execution of an elephant. Who knew? Mary, the elephant, had killed her handler, Walter Eldridge, in nearby Kingsport.

Mountainside above the Nolichucky River

Mountainside above the Nolichucky River

Crossing a railroad, we climb mountainside above the Nolichucky River on this 50F degree morning. With the heavy wind and rains of the past 24 hours, the trail is leaf covered; our goal is to hike four miles to the Curley Map Gap Shelter. Starting at 1700 feet here in the valley, we will climb 1400 feet more.

Trail of rhododendrons

Trail of rhododendrons

Along the mountainside through a thick forest above the river, we have the beauty of lush rhododendrons each step of the way. The trail is foot-pleasing dirt with enough rocks to keep our attention. We are walking in a forest treasureland far beyond the routines and “to-dos” of daily life.  Again, we are blessed.

Lush rhododendrons along the Appalachian Trail

Lush rhododendrons along the Appalachian Trail

After two miles of hiking we have a steady climb with switchbacks through the deciduous forest. As our sweatshirts come off, shorts and tee shirts feel just right. October is just a fantastic, invigorating month to hike in the South. (Two weeks later on November first, this area gets seven inches of snow!)

Another VCU Ram sighting

Another VCU Ram sighting

Once done with the steady climb, we return to our ridge line conversation.  Is it a red flag to feel sorry for anotherOn the surface, feeling sorry for another might make it seem like one cares.  Not so fast my friend.  Could something else be going on?  Say a little self-righteous judgment?  When we feel sorry for another, are we really saying that “we have decided that you have not made the right choice or, more likely, the choice we would have made?”  Projecting that their life is something less because it is not the life we would choose seems a tad arrogant. Well, a ton arrogant.

“Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.” – Wayne Dyer

Curley Maple Gap Shelter log entries of thru-hikers

Curley Maple Gap Shelter log entries of thru-hikers

And then the Curley Maple Gap Shelter appears suddenly. What a blessing these shelters are for thru-hikers, especially in storms like last night. They are free and foster togetherness, whether one wants it or not. (Click on log entries image to read them more easily.)

Let me show you the Curley Maple Gap Shelter.

ET 5B mountain stream

Heading back down the mountain, we soon meet Loaf who is section hiking the AT. (A section hiker is one planning to hike the entire AT, but in sections of say, two weeks here, four weeks there, over the course of a number of years).

ET 3C H on trailHe did find a shelter last night from the rain, but said Monday’s 50 mph winds on Big Bald (a mountain top without trees) were the toughest.  Funny 50 miles south of Big Bald that same day, we were hiking in the 70F degree sunshine of the AT near Hot Springs. His trail name Loaf was given to him years ago, when starting off on the AT at Springer Mountain, he carried a loaf of French bread for days for a fellow female hiker.

ET 6A welcome to DamascusBack at the Nolichucky, we pack up a little after noon, set to take a 20 mile detour to see Damascus, VA, just over the Tennessee border.  Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Damascus is known as the #1 “Trail Town” along the A.T.

ET 6 trail town signIt holds Trail Days, a multi-day festival attracting thousands of hikers during mid-May each year (Mid-May is about the time that many thru-hikers who began hiking the AT at Springer Mountain, Georgia arrive in southern Virginia).

With Tennessee in the books as our 13th of 14 states of the AT, we set our sights on #14 Georgia next fall.  What an opportunity we have to combine it with some hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Dan and Hannah Hike the Appalachian Trail near Boiling Springs, PA

 

My second cousin Katie, a fulltime weather genius

My second cousin Katie rocking the weather in FLA

Off to Richmond, VA (RVA) to see our son Will and his fiancée Laurel, I have had rain on the brain for days.  I have two weather apps on my iPhone.  On our laptop, the weather channel icon has the position of honor on the tool bar.  I’m all over the weather.  Reasonably, one might suggest counseling.  For the last ten days, rain has been in and out of the forecast for our hiking adventure to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and points south.

Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine

Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine

After a day of hiking on the Appalachian Trail (AT) near Delaware Water Gap, PA (see blog for November 1, 2014), Hannah and I sack out at the Comfort Inn in Allentown, PA; the morning forecast is for a 70% chance of rain.  Make it 100%, it doesn’t matter!  We are hiking manana.  Be it with ponchos and/or umbrellas.  I’m serious; I’ll bring umbrellas on the trail even if I look like Mr. Mary Poppins.  Let me tell you, we haven’t driven the long way to RVA by way of I-81 to just drive the long way to RVA.  Fortunately, Hannah is game for hiking among the raindrops.

In the morning, thankfully the percentage chance of rain is down to 20%.  Rain has been pushed back to the afternoon.  Sweet.

Boiling Springs, PA

Boiling Springs, PA

It’s nearly a two hour drive on I-78 and I-81 from Allentown, PA to the AT town of Boiling Springs, PA.  A town of 3000+, Boiling Springs gets its name from its natural artesian wells.  Going right through town, the AT in Boiling Springs is just about the halfway point of the AT’s 2180 miles.

The trail begins across

The trail begins across Yellow Beeches Creek

Once in town, we are directed to the far end of the Children’s Lake, home to ducks, swans, and geese, for trailhead parking.  As we ready for the hike, a few drops fall; the Universe wants our attention.   Dan and Hannah don’t be fools. Pack your ponchos. I’m only going to say this once.  All ears, we pack our ponchos with our water bottles and Nature Valley crunchy Oats ‘n Honey granola bars (a personal favorite).

The trail to the soybean and corn fields

The trail to the soybean and corn fields

Starting at a modest elevation of 500 feet, we have four miles of trail to the Alex Kennedy Shelter.  At our highest point we will climb to the 1060 foot Center Point Knob.  Crossing the bridge over the Yellow Beeches Creek, we cross a railroad and hike for the next two miles through soy bean and corn fields.  How great is it that Old MacDonald lets us e-i-e-i-o through his fields.

Bisecting the Indian corn fields and soy bean fields

Bisecting the Indian corn and soy bean fields

And then light rain starts to fall. Not enough to take our ponchos out but enough to get our attention.  In the lead, Hannah turns and says, Did we pack both ponchos?  A quick check shows that we did not.  Bummer.  What to do?

The AT crosses the Pennsylvania country side

The AT crosses the Pennsylvania country side (Double white blazes mean a turn in the trail)

Hike on and hope it doesn’t rain?  Blame? (always a “go to” strategy in times of stress).  We choose door number three.  Just turn the hell around and go back the half mile we’ve come, get the other poncho, and start again. It is what it is.  Perhaps something new and cool will happen because of this development.  On the plus side, we will get in an extra mile of hiking today.

BS 5A h crossing field

Going back the half mile to get the poncho is like having a generator in New England.  Hear me out.  Today it may not rain and thus we have no need for the ponchos; likewise we may never lose power and ever need a generator.  But not having to think of the possibilities of rain or losing power settles the soul and allows us to be in the moment.

The white blazes guide us on the AT

The white blazes guide us on the AT

As you can imagine, the fields are reasonably level and take us through the country side similar to what we might have seen 150 years ago during the Civil War.  Just 25 miles, as the soldiers march, north of Gettysburg, Boiling Springs was a stop along the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.

You can't keep a good VCU Ram down

You can’t keep a good VCU Ram down

We think back to our chance meeting with T-Bone (her trail name), the thru-hiker we met yesterday. By a fairly direct route, we drove the 145 miles from Delaware Water Gap, PA to Boiling Springs in about three hours; on the other hand she has 173 miles of trails to Boiling Springs that might take her 10 to 12 days. God bless you, Henry Ford!

Atop Center Point Knob

Atop Center Point Knob

With the fields behind us, our early afternoon hike during mid-October takes us into the forest. Climbing 500 feet to the top of Center Point Knob, I take smaller steps as my breathing increases. Under overcast skies, but no longer even any sprinkles, I go from Maine sweatshirt to VCU basketball tee shirt.

Once at the top, we descend the mountain heading north on the AT.  As with most of the AT that we know and love, we have rocks and roots aplenty.  Even so, we do not have the sharp, angular, jagged rocks of eastern Pennsylvania attacking our hiking boots as they did yesterday at the Delaware Water Gap.

Arriving at the Alex Kennedy Shelter after four miles of hiking, we know the rain is acoming.  Of that there is no doubt.

Enjoy the shelter video.

A quick bite of apples and granola bars and we are heading back to Boiling Springs to beat the rain.  Over nine miles of hiking (including the bonus mile of backtracking), we complete our outdoor adventure in three hours.  We now face a choice of how to get to Richmond on this Friday of Columbus Day Weekend.

BS 9D H on trail

We can be idiots and drive directly from Boiling Springs to the Beltway around Washington, DC, and then on through the hell that is I-95 from DC to Richmond during the evening commute.

Or we can add 100 miles to our drive by heading southwest on I-81 and then come in to Richmond from the west on route 64.

We like to think we aren’t stupid; we take option two.  With five hours of driving ahead of us, we stow our packs quickly as, wouldn’t you know it at this very moment (cue B.J. Thomas) the rain drops keep falling on our heads.

By the way, check out this shelter outhouse on the Appalachian Trail

 

 

Dan and Hannah Hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland

MD map

If you love to hike, come to Maryland.

From Frederick, Maryland, which is just 45 miles northwest of Washington, DC, Hannah and I drive west on Route 340 to exit 17, following signs to Gathland State Park.  Driving the winding country roads of the Maryland countryside the first week of November, we have hit bucolic pay dirt.  Together Hannah and I will hike in mid-60s weather, ready for any unexpected adventure that comes our way.  Freedom  of the open road is a cliché, but it’s what I was hoping to purchase when I retired.  I get that and more today.

Gathland St Park arch

Today we’ll hike south toward Weverton Cliffs (near Harper’s Ferry, WV) on the Appalachian Trail (AT) where we hiked just a year ago.  Driving up the Gapland Road from Burkittsville, we come upon a 40 foot stone arch dedicated to the war correspondents of the Civil War in truly the middle of nowhere.  And Nowhere, Maryland is just where we want to be today.  No traffic nor list of things to do.

AT in MD

With no one in sight, we cross the road and find a welcome path to the AT.  Today we are in for unexpected treat – ridge hiking.  We’ll have a mostly level terrain across mountain tops, where the trail is wide enough for Hannah and me to maintain a rockin’ pace as we walk side by side.

Today on the trail I introduce the topic of how to share our riches.  What is truly being generous?   Giving what you have?  Tithing?  Giving til it hurts?   What do we really need anyway?  Are we letting prudence get in the way of our giving?  Is our faith greater than our fear?

AT trail in MD 2

Without a conscious, frontal lobe focus on the giving-away-money part of our life, we just don’t seem to make it happen as much as we’d like.  Here’s a thought: Let’s pick a dollar amount to give each month and the last day of every month see how we’ve done.  If we haven’t reached our giving goal, we don’t leave the room until we find a home for the balance of the month’s giving.  Let’s talk about being generous the next time we meet.

Side by side on dried brown leaves we walk through the Maryland countryside on this sun-dappled fall day.  From time to time, branches with green leaves from a recent storm block our path, but they are easy to circumvent and return to the trail.  We hear geese squawking south this November day and feel few rocks beneath the dried leaves.  In seventy minutes we arrive at the turn to the Ed Garvey Shelter after 3.7 miles of ridge line hiking.  By the way, Ed Garvey was a thru-hiker (hiked from Georgia to Maine in one calendar year) and a former president of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

Ed Garvey Shelter

Ed Garvey Shelter

The shelter is a two story building of wooden floors with a loft above that is reached by a back entrance.  Climbing the stairs to the loft we find a pristine room; the broom hints at why.  At the picnic table out front we lunch on our Subway subs, scanning the valley below through a thicket of saplings.  The raised privy lies to our south while benches on three sides in front of us face the campfire.  Each shelter has a log for hikers to record impressions of their hike.

AT trail in MD 3

The latest entry is October 29th from a couple hiking during the snowstorm just a few days ago.

The firewood we collected was damp (even with flammable toothpaste) however we discovered skin-on-skin is a wonderful way to stay warm.   – LaChelle and Tim

 From October 4th

I was here 4 months ago.  It was naked hiking day (editor’s note – hiking sans clothes on June 21st) and hot.  How I miss the trail.  – Yinz

Hannah at the Ed Garvey shelter

Hannah at the back entrance of the Ed Garvey shelter

Hannah adds to the log.

Dan and Hannah from York, ME – ½ day hike to and from Gathland State Park.  What a beauty-full spot and shelter.  Thank you Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  And here’s to Ed. Garvey.   2-Ply (Hannah)* and Jersey (Dan)   [Our trail names.]

 

AT trail in MD 3

Today is hiking at its best: Hannah, warm temperatures, and ridge hiking on a trail wide enough to walk and talk side by side.  We are blessed with this Maryland hiking escape.

As always when hiking, know thyself, thy limits, and the conditions.  Be prepared.

*Hannah’s trail name is between you and her.  Email her.

Dan and Hannah Hike to Pinwheel Vista on the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey

Max at ten days

Max at ten days

Maxwell Archer Rawding has arrived!

Hannah and I are bee-lining it from Maine through JERSEY to Virginia to see Owen Daniel’s little brother Max, who is five days old today.  As grandparents, we now have more time, energy, and moolah to really enjoy our grandkids than we had when we were parents ourselves.

Owen and Max with Omi and Boppa

Owen and Max with Omi and Boppa

Why just the other day at an elementary school Spring Fling of carnival rides and petting zoos, we saw cotton candy for sale.  With their Omi and Boppa (our grandparent nicknames), Owen and Max are going to enjoy the good life at the end of a cotton candy swirl.

Goshen Plaza Diner, New York

Goshen Plaza Diner, New York

With 550 miles of driving through the maw of the monster (traffic in the Northeast) ahead, we find a hike along the way to break up our trip to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Having grown up in nearby Fair Lawn, JERSEY, I am coming home to love a state I couldn’t wait to leave when I was 18!

Leaving home in York at 520A, we travel 250 miles on Interstates to the Goshen Plaza Diner in New York for our pre-hike breakfast; it’s just 15 miles from our trailhead at Wawayanda (pronounced by the locals as Way-Way-On-da) State Park.  Wawayanda is Lenape for “winding waters.”

Good times at the Goshen Plaza Diner

Hannah knows breakfast!  Good times at the Goshen Plaza Diner

The Goshen Plaza Diner is a classic New York diner with booths, shiny metal interiors with mirrors everywhere, and veteran waitresses.  At 10A we easily score a booth and Susan, with seven years of experience and diamond ear studs, warmly welcomes us.  Though I love pancakes when eating out, I find that I am still hungry an hour later; that just won’t do when hiking.  So it’s two eggs over easy, home fries, and rye toast for me while Hannah spices up her breakfast with four strips of crispy bacon.  Susan is cheery and engaging in a JERSEY sort of way, which is a good thing.  In fact, a very good thing.

9G Wawayanda Park sign

After breakfast in New York we cross into JERSEY and turn right to enter the near empty parking lot on this mid-May Thursday (no one is collecting the $10 admission fee for out-of-state vehicles).  Changing into hiking boots, we find the blue blaze trail (side trail) is immediately in front of us, just three tenths of a mile from the white blazes (signifying the main trail) of the 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail (AT).  I wasn’t much of a hiker as kid but growing up in JERSEY meant baseball, basketball, and tennis all the time with the guys in the neighborhood.

AT map 2

Setting foot on the Pinwheel Vista trail, we make JERSEY #10 of 14 states that we’ve hiked on the Appalachian Trail.   (Going from south to north, it’s Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.  I think of the 62 miles of the AT in JERSEY as an easy going, mellow part of the trail.  BTW, JERSEY guys can be easy going, mellow themselves.

Easy-going Jersey guy

Easy-going Jersey guy

The nine-mile round trip Pinwheel Vista hike through the rolling mountains of JERSEY has its trees that are not fully leafed out.   But today’s spring green is a most pleasing-to-the-eye forest color.

White blazes of the Appalachian Trail

White blazes of the Appalachian Trail

Setting out at 1120A, we are shooting for a rockin’ three miles per hour pace to complete the nine mile hike in around three hours.  What’s the hurry sister and brother, you may be thinking.  We have an evening motel reservation in Newark, Delaware, which means we’ll be traveling the length of JERSEY during the afternoon commuter rush hour when we finish the hike.

Hannah by the puncheons through the boggy part of the trail

Hannah by the puncheons through the boggy part of the trail

With drizzle and a thundershower in the forecast, we find the well-marked trail moist but not too sloppy and messy.  And then voila, we see a hiker with a huge pack and I greet him with Are you a thru-hiker (meaning he’s hiking the AT from Georgia to Maine in one calendar year).  His trail name is Captain Cook; he’s, in fact, is a section hiker hiking a part of the AT; in his case he is going from Pennsylvania to Vermont this time.  Still looking for a trail name myself and with no nautical experience, I find his trail name doesn’t bring me any closer to finding one for myself.

 

The red spotted newt on the trail.  “He” is an intermediate terrestrial version, as “he” started in the water and the adult form returns to the water.  This stage is called an “eft”.  (Thank you Patty P for this information.)

The red spotted newt on the trail. “He” is an intermediate terrestrial version, as “he” started in the water and the adult form returns to the water. This stage is called an “eft”. (Thank you Patty P for this information.)

An hour into our hike, we spot an athletic looking hiker with a back pack who acknowledges he’s a thru-hiker, having left Springer Mountain in Georgia on his way to Mount Katahdin in Maine.  His trail name is Sloth, which he says, when we ask, is an inside joke.  Way inside for this lean and fit college student (University of North Carolina) is no sloth; since late February, he and his buddy have completed 1350 of 2179 miles of the trail.  Maybe irony in a trail name is the way for me to go?  Dancing Dan?  I think not.

9 D on trail above stream VCU

Soon his buddy Rameses (trail name) comes by.  Rameses is the animal mascot of UNC.  Just as athletic, Rameses says this is one helluva way to spend a spring semester and he doesn’t have to pay tuition.  Like the Mormons on missions and the British with their gap year, these young men have stepped away from their university studies to take an unconventional path.  Maybe a college nickname as a trail name might work for me?   Sun Devil Dan?  Nah.

Cable secures this bridge during high water

Cable secures this bridge during high water

Feeling a time crunch to find Pinwheel Vista, we know the geography of JERSEY is not our friend today.  We have some 220 miles to our motel in Newark, Delaware (pronounced New-Ark) going through the belly of the beast of JERSEY traffic.  We have been had for dinner by the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike before.  We keep up a good pace on the trail and are looking for the blue blaze side trail to Pinwheel Vista.

9F river on trail

Approaching the 90 minute mark of the hike and still seeing no blue blaze marking to Pinwheel Vista, we find ourselves heading down the other side of the mountain!  That is not a good thing!  We are supposed to be at a vista.  And then we meet Stephanie and Heather, college girls from JERSEY, who are hiking up the mountain from the opposite direction.  When we ask if they have seen any blue blazes to Pinwheel Vista, they shake their heads no.

Blue blaze trail to Pinwheel Vista

Blue blaze trail to Pinwheel Vista

Retracing our steps, they help us find, in literally 100 feet, the massive pile of rocks indicating the Pinwheel Vista turn-off; its blue blaze hidden behind the leaves of a newly greening small tree.  We had walked right by it!  In 100 yards we are looking over the valley to the Pochuck Mountains on this quite humid and threatening-to-rain day.

Dan and Hannah at Pinwheel Vista

Dan and Hannah at Pinwheel Vista

A quick look and then it’s time to turn for the trailhead.  With a purposeful, steady pace, we cruise through the forest.  I’m so fortunate to be married to someone so athletically fit who can cruise (and likes to!) along the trails in the mountains, over the streams, and through the woods.  (You can sing that last sentence to the tune of Jingle Bells.)

Meeting the two college girls from JERSEY who went to college at William Paterson University (where I spent a summer in 1969), I just may have my AT trail name: Jersey!

Enjoy this one minute video heading for the trailhead at Wawayanda State Park.

 

Rawding boys

Leaving Wawayanda State Park by 320P, we are no match for late afternoon JERSEY commuter traffic.  What is normally a three hour trip to Delaware takes us five hours.  Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.  So sayeth Davy Crockett.

Molly with her sons, Owen and Max

Molly with their sons, Owen and Max

No matter, for tomorrow we will see our six day old grandson Max and his what’s-happening two year old big brother Owen.

Dan and Hannah Hike Caleb’s Peak on the Appalachian Trail near Kent, Connecticut

If you didn’t know it before, you know it now.  We are early morning people!   Four hours from home in York, Maine lies Caleb Peak on the Appalachian Trail near Kent in western Connecticut.  To beat the Hartford, CT commuter traffic two and a half hours away, we set our alarm for 4A.  Off by 430A, we will not see sunrise til well after 7A  on this late October morning in New England.

State of Connecticut (We hiked in the western green section of the map.)

State of Connecticut (We hiked near Kent in the central part of the western green section of the map.)

Sailing through Hartford on I-84, we are quickly dumped onto suburban roads heading west.  Just after 7A, the school buses are out; parents driving kids to school line up to turn left into the school lot.  Dunkin’ Donuts, Cumberland Farms, and traffic lights keep us well under the 35 mph speed limit.  Patty’s Restaurant in Litchfield, CT, thirty minutes from our trailhead in Kent, CT, is our breakfast destination.

Ordering two eggs (over easy for me, over hard for Hannah), home fries, and toast for $4.25 each, we have ourselves a very basic breakfast; one that is hard to screw up.  And they don’t.  What I am reminded of is that a good breakfast does not make it a good breakfast experience.  Hear me out.

Dan and Hannah at Patty's Restaurant

Dan and Hannah at Patty’s Restaurant

For me, a good breakfast experience is complete with an engaging waitress.  On this morning, there are customers at only one other table in a restaurant of 12 to 15 tables.  So the waitresses have time to engage.  They are nice enough and attentive, but they don’t know I love to interact.  They are not mind readers!

It is I who blow it big time by not initiating the conversation and giving them the cue to fully engage with us.  I can make the excuse that I am groggy from driving 190 miles in the predawn, but a mirror shows who dropped the ball; so Hannah and I are filled but not satisfied.  I’ll do better next time.  I promise.

I am amused when I go the men’s room.

1 Patty's gnome

Just 30 minutes from our trailhead in Kent we wind along rural roads, appreciating the country homes out in the woods; and so very thankful that we live near town ourselves.

Kent, CT on the banks of Housatonic River

Kent, CT on the banks of Housatonic River

Arriving on Route 341, we blink and miss the town of Kent; we then cross the Housatonic River and turn right on Skiff Mountain Road at the playing fields of the Kent School.

1 kent school

It’s a mile on Skiff Mountain Road to a right turn on River Road, which we have been warned is not paved but gravel.  (We get excellent directions at this link – Caleb Peak Trail).

What we saw turning right on the gravelly River Road

What we see turning right on the gravelly River Road

River Road hugs the Housatonic River, and about a mile later Hannah’s eagle eye spots the very small AT sign at the trailhead.

AT symbol on a trailhead tree

AT symbol on a trailhead tree

Today will be my 9th of 14 AT states.  Previously (going south to north), I’ve hiked the AT in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.  By the way, Hannah has run on the AT in North Carolina and is one up on me.

Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine

Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine

Though it’s only 1.2 miles of hiking to Caleb Peak, we see a mountain of stone before us; the guidebook promises 99 steps to make our way to the summit.  Heading south on the AT towards the looming mountain across from the Housatonic River, we are here in late October and most of the leaves have fallen.

Trail to Caleb's Peak in late October

Trail to Caleb’s Peak in late October

Our sometimes rocky trail is covered with brown leaves, but the white blazes (painted 8 inch splashes of white paint) on the trees and rocks guide us without fail.  On the slowly rising ground our foot placements are deliberate and steady due to the leafy-covered trail.

The trail gets stony along the massive stone face

The trail gets stony along the massive stone face

Within 0.2 of a mile we are climbing by grabbing rocks to maintain our balance.  The rocks are irregularly placed and in no way seem like the advertised 99 steps.  Breathing heavier, we drop the conversation as I follow Hannah onward.  Fortunate that we only need fanny packs for our water and gorp, I can’t imagine lugging and balancing a 40 pound pack (common for AT hikers) up this precipitous rocky mountain edge.

And then we hit the 99 stone steps.  They are a godsend in negotiating this mountain wall with steady, sure, solid foot plants.

Looking back on some of the 99 steps

Looking back on some of the 99 steps

It’s hand-to-hand combat as we assault the mountain to the St. John’s Ledges which looks over the river valley; in 25 minutes we’ve gone just 0.5 of a mile.

Soon the trail levels out and our conversation begins again.

The trail levels out above the 99 steps

The trail levels out above the 99 steps

It’s an easy 0.7 mile further up the mountain to the lookout at Caleb’s Peak.

The Housatonic River from Caleb's Peak

The Housatonic River from Caleb’s Peak

As hikers know well, the trail down is tougher than climbing up.  Ascending has us sweating beneath our shirts, but climbing down we are wary of sliding on rocks, especially this time of year when the trail is entirely covered with dead yellow and brown leaves.  Often we climb down side saddle or even backwards to maintain our balance.

Stony trail down the mountain

Stony trail down the mountain

And then it happens, first I slip on my butt, then Hannah does; each time we bounce back up, fortunate not to have twisted an ankle or knocked a noggin.  Our guardian angels are working overtime today.  We don’t see another hiker all day and it is clear that this would be no trail to climb in wet weather.

In just under two hours we are back at the trailhead and still want another hour of hiking.  We head north on the AT now, which is the aforementioned River Road.

Heading north on the AT on River Road

Heading north on the AT on River Road

In less than a mile the road becomes a trail along the Housatonic River.  It brings to mind another era of tire swings, rafts, and fishing poles.  A nostalgia that I did not experience growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1950s.

The photographer got lucky with this dream shot

The photographer got lucky with this dream shot

We hike out 30 minutes and return 30 to reach our goal of three hours of hiking today.

Weary from the 4A wake up call, traveling four hours to this point, and hiking for three hours, we take country roads back to I-84 and eventually to Mom’s apartment in New Jersey two hours away.

Dan and Mom in New Jersey

Dan and Mom in New Jersey

Mom is a pretty sweet journey’s end.

Dan and Hannah Hike to Thundering Falls, Vermont on the Appalachian Trail

Inn at Long Trail with Deer Leap Mountain in the background

Inn at Long Trail with Deer Leap Mountain in the background

Driving just two miles from our top floor room at the North Star Lodge in Killington, VT, we park across the street from the iconic Inn at Long Trail on Route 4.

Killlington, Vermont

Killlington, Vermont

Established in 1761, Killington was a rural town of farmers, raising crops and tending sheep.  Now it is known as a hot spot for ski bums and bunnies.   Killington’s voters have twice voted to secede from Vermont and join the state of New Hampshire; Killington is in fact 25 miles west of the NH border.  The movement comes from a frustration with the amount of taxes Killington sends to the state of Vermont. The votes are largely symbolic since secession would require the approval of both states’ legislatures.

The Appalachian Trail in Vermont near Killington

The Appalachian Trail in Vermont (and New Hampshire) near Killington

Today we hike east on the Appalachian Trail towards Thundering Falls.  Before we head out, we check in at the Inn lobby.  The accommodating morning clerk gives us a map of both the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail.  Today it will be the AT, tomorrow the LT.

The blue blaze side trail to the Appalachian Trail

The blue blaze side trail to the Appalachian Trail

Starting a the east end of the Inn at Long Trail parking lot, we take to the blue blaze trail (8 inch splashes of blue paint on trees and rocks indicating a side trail) which will lead us to the main trail with its white blazes; immediately we are climbing, breathing heavier, and skirting the side of Deer Leap Mountain to our left.

The climb is rocky and parallel to Route 4 for one half mile.  The golden and brown leaves cover the trail; that said, the blue, and later the white blazes of the AT, keep us confident that we are on the right trail.

TF Hike 3

Our mid-October morning is 50 degrees and we are protected from the mountain side winds by the thick forest.  The climb is steep, our attention focused on the climb so our plan to discuss some of our couple’s retreat questions will have to wait.

This is my 8th of 14 states which the AT crosses.  Previously, I’ve hiked the AT (going from south to north) in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.  By the way, Hannah has run on the AT in North Carolina, making her total nine.

Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail

Quickly the trail descends some 800 feet over the next 20 minutes.  As counterintuitive as it may be, it’s more challenging to hike down a mountain than up.  True we burn more calories climbing up, but we must step carefully to maintain our balance as we inch down.  My heavy Timberland hiking boots with three pairs of mixed blend wool socks give me a firm foundation in descent.

Shortly we are rolling into Gifford Woods State Park.

Across from Gifford Woods, the AT is a delightful meandering level trail that allows us to resume conversation and make it a walk in the park along Kent Pond.

Kent Pond on the AT

Kent Pond on the AT

We resume our “couple’s retreat” discussion of our marriage.

What should we do more together? and What do you enjoy most about me as a spouse?

With few leaves on the trees, peak foliage has passed.  Last night’s rain has brought down even more leaves.  It is ideal hiking weather with not an insect to be found and still no bear to be observed.

TF Hike 8 TF sign

We don’t expect to see any thru-hikers today since northbound hikers on the AT are still 485 miles from Katahdin.  By this mid-October day, Mount Katahdin has closed for AT hikers because of wintery weather.

Thundering Falls in October

Thundering Falls in October

After an easy hour and three quarters of hiking, maybe 3.5 miles, we come upon a short blue blaze trail to Thundering Falls.  These falls cascade some 60 feet as we watch from an observation deck elevated two stories above the Thundering Brook.

Check out this 41 second video shot at Thundering Falls.

It’s a perfect day for hiking with Hannah now in the sunny mid-50s but entirely under the forest canopy.

TF 9A H at AT sign

Heading for home on the level forest trail, I bring up more marriage questions to give verbal substance to our hike.

How do we do spending and giving away our money?  How can we deepen our physical relationship?

And then we come upon the Mother Lode: Fullspeed (trail name because he always leads their two-person hike) and Notso (always following behind), section hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Fullspeed, Hannah, and Notso

Fullspeed, Hannah, and Notso

Since 1984 they have hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail in one and two week “sections,” generally in the fall and winter when the trail is less crowded and the bugs are minimal.

Today they have begun another week long section of the AT minutes ago at Gifford Woods.  In nine days their shuttle will pick them up further north in Vermont.  Their packs are stunningly big and heavy at 65 pounds.  Notso estimates 10-15 pounds are water and will be gone by day’s end.  All told they have completed 1700 miles of the 2179 miles of the AT over 29 years.

They ask about our trail names.

2-Ply and Shootin'

2-Ply and Shootin’

I mention mine is Shootin’ because I like to stop and Shoot the Breeze with fellow hikers.

Hannah explains her trail name of 2- Ply.

As we were about to leave for home after a lovely weekend of hiking and spending time with dear friends, I ran up to the bathroom for one last visit. Just for fun, I came back down with a strip of toilet paper hanging out of the back of my waistband. George, in an effort to “save” me, sidled up to me and tried to remove the strip so others wouldn’t see (there were others in the room whom we didn’t know all that well.) In short order, I let it be known that I had, on purpose, left the strip hanging…  Just for fun.  I guess my performance that morning “earned” me my trail name: 2-ply!!

Though we’ve been on the trail for three hours, we are more energized now because of our interactions with Fullspeed and Notso.  I don’t envy their evening accommodations in a tent or a shelter.  For us, it’s off to the North Star Lodge for a nap and then a glass of wine to toast our forty-one years together.

G North Star sign and Killington Mt

PS  For your viewing pleasure here is a 17 second video with Hannah at the Thundering Falls filled with irony.