Dan and Hannah Hike the Appalachian Trail at Fontana Dam, North Carolina


Having hiked to Charlie’s Bunion in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park earlier in the day, we now sit high above the valley floor at our Quality Inn and Suites motel here in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  It doesn’t get much better than wine with Hannah at 100 feet.  Click here for the link to the Charlie’s Bunion blog.


Taking the bypass around the Gatlinburg craziness this first week of October, we avoid the traffic, the shopping frenzy, and the snarl.  Later in the day we find the trail log of a thru-hiker at an Appalachian Trail shelter who gives her two cents about Gatlinburg.  Do not go to Gatlinburg, TENN!!! Not a friendly town.  Too many tourists that do not like stinky “homeless looking” hikers.  We met some cool cats through the Smokies.


Fontana Lake

Driving an hour through the Great Smokies to Cherokee, NC, we head west on backroads for the Appalachian Trail at Fontana Dam.  As we approach the reservoir at Fontana Dam, we are stunned to see how low the lake is.  Just two days ago, we hiked in eastern Tennessee to 80’ Laurel Falls, which didn’t have a trickle flowing from its head waters. Click here for the link to the Laurel Falls blog.


Downstream on the Little Tennessee River

At the Fontana Dam Visitors Center, we learn that each fall the lake is drawn down (water is released into the Little Tennessee River) to prepare for winter snows and spring rains.  This is all done to avoid the flooding of cities and farmland downstream, specifically Chattanooga, TN.  During World War II, Fontana Dam was built in just 18 m0nths because of the war time need for electricity.


The white blaze of the Appalachian Trail as we head to the Shuckstack Tower

Walking the 2000 steps across this massive dam, we head north on the Appalachian Trail to Shuckstack Mountain, a killer assent of 2000’ elevation gain.   With no intention of making this brutal climb, we look to just explore the approach to the mountain.  Our plan is to hike ten minutes up the steep trail or until we cry “uncle;” in nine minutes we cry “uncle and aunt” and return down the mountain with our tails between our legs.


Hannah on the lower bunk of the Fontana Hilton

With the mountain rightfully claiming victory, we return to the dam and head south on the Appalachian Trail.  Seeing southbound thru-hikers who are within 150 miles of finishing their 2180-mile hike through 14 states, we notice the Fontana Hilton, the sweetest shelter we have seen on the Appalachian Trail.  With a metal roof, the shelter has double wooden platforms on either side of the structure for mats and sleeping bags.


Cell phone charger at the Fontana Hilton

Outside there is a solar phone charger!  Nearby is a fire pit you might see in the finest of backyards in Ithaca, New York; no outhouse or composting toilet for these thru-hikers, there is a fine stone building with a flush toilet, sink, and shower.


Dan on the Appalachian Trail to the south of Fontana Dam

Heading south on the AT for the next mile and a half, we have an easy peezy walk in the park above the reservoir’s edge.   Arriving at the marina, we learn that though the lake has been drawn down, it is still 12-14’ below normal.  Being 24-square miles, Lake Fontana must have a gazillion less gallons of water for the parched populace.


Nearby, we see this small memorial to BamaHiker, the last place where James hiked on the AT.  His wife has printed the paragraph below of his dream of thru-hiking the AT that was cut short due to pancreatic cancer.

She asks hikers to take a stone that she has placed in a pair of James’s boots to celebrate the journey that he wasn’t able to complete.

Since she left her email address requesting a picture of our hike, later I email her with some of these blog pictures near the Fontana Dam.  The next day Brenda emails back.  With her permission, I share her response.


The boots of James


Dear Dan, thank you so much for your email. Please know it so excites me to hear from hikers that stop, take the pebbles and carry them along the trail. I appreciate you and your wife, Hannah, for taking one of my husband’s pebbles. I look forward to reading your blog. I just went to the site and added my email so I can follow you and your adventures. I would count it as an honor if you would include my husband’s story in your blog. He was an awesome man, husband, father and Christian. He is sorely missed! I hope that his story inspires other hikers to press on and not give up. I pray that his spirit of determination helps them along the trail through those difficult days. 

 May God bless you and your wife, Brenda

What has been another good day on the Appalachian Trail has bumped up to a heart-tugging day of joy for us.

By the way, once home, Hannah emails too, and offers Brenda a homemade shawl from our friend Helen, who creates them in memory of her son.  Helen hopes the shawls provide comfort to others experiencing a difficult time in their lives.  Here’s Brenda’s response to Hannah’s outreach.

Dear Hannah.
I rec’d your precious package.  It  so touched my heart!! As I wrapped it around me, I could feel my sweet husband’s embrace. I  could also feel the  love of the precious lady that had spent much time making it and the love of the sweet lady that took time to send it to me. I could not help it, I had a good cry!! Words cannot express my appreciation for you and Ms. Helen. But I do so thank you! I will send a card to Ms. Helen to personally thank her. Would it okay to send a picture of my husband,  James?
You are so right about my James.  He was a wonderful loving husband and father .  He was devoted to his savior, Jesus and his Christian faith. He loved serving in our church as a leader for a  young boys’ ministry for almost  30 years. He had a love for the outdoors and nature which drew him to hiking .
Please know, if you guys are ever in North Alabama ,  please let me know. You have a place to call home here! God bless. Look forward to hearing from you and can’t wait to read the blog.
Love, Brenda  

Please contact Hannah at hannahrothermel@gmail.com if you know of someone who could use the loving warmth of a Maine shawl during a time of crises, acceptance, or reflection.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.

Dan and Hannah Hike from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smokies (North Carolina and Tennessee)



In May of 1994, my teaching year ended early as I had just finished my one-year appointment as the Teacher-in-Residence at the University of New Hampshire.  While my public school colleagues in Kittery, Maine had a month more of school, I had time to act on Michael Jordan’s decision to step away from basketball and play baseball.  Assigned to the Birmingham Barons, Jordan was a work-in-progress as a baseball player, but still a national icon for many of us, especially the fourth grade boy living at our house.

Birmingham Barons homefield

Birmingham Barons homefield

Hannah and I pulled Will out of York Elementary for a week so he could drive with me 1100 miles to see Michael Jordan play baseball in Alabama.  After two serious days of driving, we got seats with 4000 others (minor league games might normally draw a few hundred) to watch Michael glide in right field, cheer his every move, and even get a hit.  Who else played?  Who won?  No idea.  Will remembers the free Krystal Burgers (mini-hamburgers) we won as part of an in-game promotion.

Hannah in the Great Smokies

Hannah in the Great Smokies

On the way home Will and I hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee side near Gatlinburg.  The park is so named Smoky for the clouds that descend into the valleys and then slowly burn off.

BR map of area

Cl 1A D at sign

Today in the first week of October Hannah and I enter the same park on the North Carolina side near Cherokee to hike the AT on the NC/TN border near Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the entire AT.  (At the visitor center, the ranger tells us there are 20 mountains in North Carolina higher than the New Englander’s beloved Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.  Who knew?)

Cars trolling for parking places at Clingman's Dome

Cars trolling for parking places at Clingman’s Dome


Driving 15 miles from the Ocalusee Visitor Center on the Newfound Gap Road in our rented Ford Fiesta, we turn south and climb along the shoulderless 7-mile summit road to a parking lot clogged with cars trolling for spaces at 1130A on a Tuesday!  (By the way, the road to Clingman’s Dome is closed from December through March due to the weather.)  There isn’t a parking spot to be had.  What drivers can do, as we do, is drive a few hundred yards back down the mountain and park on the grassy shoulder.

At the base of the sidewalk to the Clingman's Dome Tower

At the base of the sidewalk to the Clingman’s Dome Tower

The place is swarming with people willing to take the steep half-mile paved sidewalk to the top of Clingman’s Dome.  All body types, mostly seniors, but also families with homeschoolers, choke the walkway.  There are benches along the paved sidewalk, and we always see someone resting there.  By the way, Clingman’s Dome was named after Thomas Clingman, a Confederate general during the American Civil War.

From the Clingman's Dome Tower looking to Tennessee

From the Clingman’s Dome Tower looking to Tennessee

After the half mile climb there is a curly cue concrete structure to an observation deck with a 360 degree view towards Gatlinburg, TN and back to Cherokee, Sylva, and Bryson City, NC.   We are packed together and look to escape as soon as we get there.  A park volunteer tells us that we should see this place in a week or two when prime time foliage season arrives.  We count our blessings that we will not.

Hitting the Appalachian Trail on the NC/TN border

Hitting the Appalachian Trail on the NC/TN border

Just 150 feet back down the paved sidewalk is the AT heading south along the NC/TN border through a southern pine forest.  Similar to hiking the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon, the AT from Clingman’s Dome means Hannah and I will have the easier downhill hiking for the first half of our hike.

Cl 3D steps on trail

For the first third of a mile we descend ever so slightly into the “green tunnel” with the forest canopy covering us.  The trail is indeed easy going with its few ups and many downs.  We see that the Double Springs Gap Shelter is 2.5 miles away, a perfect turn around destination for our day hike.  Usually just wide enough for one of us, the trail is rocky and quite narrow.

Cl 3G more of trail

With the heavy rains of the past weekend and Hurricane Joaquin out to sea, the sky is sun-filled in early October.  With the occasional views to the mountains around us, I have what amounts to a perfect day of hiking – a well-marked trail, temps in the 70s, and Hannah.


Double Springs Gap Shelter on the AT

Double Springs Gap Shelter on the AT

After the swarms of humanity at the mountain top of Clingman’s Dome, we arrive at the Double Springs Gap Shelter in 75 minutes having not seen a single hiker.  The shelter has been recently remodeled and this video gives you some idea about our afternoon lunch venue.

Appalachian Trail on the NC/TN border

Appalachian Trail on the NC/TN border

Having hiked 75 minutes basically downhill to the gap (i.e., between two mountains) we have 2.8 miles uphill back to Clingman’s Dome.  Passing a few hikers, we have one catch our attention.  He’s a Appalachian Trail flip flopper who is within 190 miles of finishing his 2180 mile hike at Springer Mountain, Georgia.   His flip flop hike began in April at Harper’s Ferry, WV.  From there he headed north to Mt. Katahdin.  Once done with the northern part of the AT, he returned to Harper’s Ferry and headed south.  He’s six months into his thru-hike and nearing the finish line in Georgia.


Cl Harpers Ferry

As we are about to leave, Hannah asks his trail name.  He says Danger Bird from the Neil Young song of the same name.  He sings for us, Danger bird, he flies alone.  And he rides the wind back to his home.  Different than most trail names, he gave it to himself.  I like that.

The incomparable Richard Harris singing the 60s Classic, MacArthur Park

The incomparable Richard Harris

I’ve always longed for a trail name; my latest thought is Jersey in reference to my birth state.  But I do like the idea of taking it from a song.  Hmmmm, what about my all-time favorite song, MacArthur Park written by Jimmy Webb and sung by Richard Harris.  Hannah does not think much of the trail name Sweet Green Icing from the song.  I’m not sure Cake from the line Someone left the cake out in the rain resonates either.  It doesn’t help that MacArthur Park is one of Hannah’s Rock Bottom worst songs ever.  I’ll not give up.

Cl 3H H on trail

The climb back to Clingman’s Dome has us sweating and not at all remembering how much downhill we had two hours ago.  Even so, we return at 3P to just as many people climbing to the top of the Clingman’s Dome Tower and just as many cars circling to find a parking spot.

We return to our night’s stay at Chestnut Tree Inn in Cherokee, NC, and what we think is an Internet bargain.   Stay tuned for the further education of Dan and Hannah.


For your listening pleasure click on the link below for 7:24 of the ecstacy that is MacArthur Park by Richard Harris


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 and Hannah Hike in Amicalola State Park in Georgia

Ami map of AT in GA

To our northeast in South Carolina, punishing rains (15 to 20 inches) spawned by Hurricane Joaquin are swamping the Palmetto State (by  the way, palmetto means “little palm”).   In intermittent mist and showers here in northern Georgia, we have come to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) this first week of October.

Ami D at Unity of North Atlanta

On Sundays when we travel, we look for a Unity Church to make a connection with locals and add some practical positiveness to our day.  This morning, Unity of North Atlanta (UNA) delivers.  The talk this morning focuses on successful relationships having two key components – acceptance and forgiveness.  UNA gives each newbie a rose.

Ami 1 D at Ami sign

Our hiking destination today is in Amicalola State Park some 60 miles to the northwest of Atlanta.  Not trusting our WAZE GPS alone, we pull out our Georgia road map as we drive north on I-575 to two-lane country roads towards the North Carolina border.

Ami 1AA D and H at Arch

Paying $5 admission, we head to the Visitor Center for some hiking suggestions.  Amicalola State Park is known far and wide by AT thru-hikers as the jumping off point for hiking the Appalachian Trail from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin in Maine, 2180 miles away.  Though, it must be pointed out that AT hikers leaving Amicalola still have an 8.5 mile Approach Trail to hike before they actually start the AT at Springer Mountain.  Though Hannah and I won’t officially hike on the AT today, we are knocking on the door of completing our 14th of 14 AT states.

Ami Trail of Tears 2

Trails of Tears

Amicalola is a Cherokee Indian word for “tumbling waters.”  The Cherokee tribe controlled this area until 1832, when the Treaty of New Echota forced the Cherokee to leave and go further west into the Ozarks. This mass removal would later be known as the Trail of Tears.

Ami 2E raging creek


Learning from the young ranger that Amicalola has a 729 foot waterfall, the largest east of the Rockies, we are all in to hike the one mile trail to the top of the falls.  Appreciative of her guidance, I give the young ranger my Unity rose; what had been all business turns into a country smile moment for both of us.

Ami 2F H posing at creek

Winding through the forest paralleling the Amicalola Lodge Road past picnic areas and families playing touch football, the trail is level and easy going on this cloudy 65F afternoon.  Crossing over the road that takes drivers to the top of the falls, we pass the roaring creek engorged by the recent rains.

Ami 2CC trail angel

Trail angel offering assistance

After hiking just a few hundred yards, Hannah needs relief from the scraping of her ankles due to her new hiking boots.  At this point a young trail angel steps up to offer Hannah some surgical tape to secure her Band-Aids.  We learn that she is day hiking on her own while her husband fly fishes in the nearby creek.  She tells us later that they will have dinner together.  And this is where it gets so cute.  Dinner for them is a picnic here at the park.

Ami 3 D beneath falls

After one half mile of skirting the creek, we soon come to the first of two sets of wooden stairways that will take us to the top of the falls.  On this Sunday afternoon we are among many enjoying nature’s hydro-wonderland.  The video below captures our first look at this stunning falls.

Ami 3B H at falls

The stairway climb of first 175 steps and then 450 more has us mingling with families and couples.  In the presence of waterfalls I am mesmerized as I would travel hundreds of miles to be in their hydro-glory.  Along the staircases there are benches for the weary, but we step intently on these grated metal treads to the top, overlooking the valley here in north Georgia.

The Approach Trail to Springer Mountain

The Approach Trail to Springer Mountain

Once at the top, we take the Approach Trail to Mt. Springer just like AT thru-hikers would do.  The edges of the South Carolina storms sprinkle us with light rain, though the forest canopy keeps us mostly dry.  With the refreshing feel to the Georgia rain this fall day, we turn back after a mile to get a second chance at waterfall splendor.

Ami 3D staircases of falls

Approaching five o’clock, families and couples continue to climb the wooden stair cases as we descend. All is not rainbows and roses on the trail.  We do pass a mother with weary eyes holding the hand of her most unhappy preschool son who is sobbing that he doesn’t want to climb anymore; meanwhile his two year old sister is being carried by dad.  Lesson learned by Dan and Hannah.  We’ll wait til our grandsons Owen and Max are both school kids before we bring them here.

Ami 3C falls

Rather than returning tomorrow to Amicalola State Park to hike the 8.5 miles to Springer Mountain and the AT, we have learned of a back road off route 52 that will take us within a mile of Springer Mountain.  With confirming directions from the Visitor Center, we will attack the mountain from the backside manana.

Tonight we have what AT hikers do not have: a warm bed, a shared bottle of Cabernet, and a hot tub at our Best Western Mountain View Inn in East Ellijay, Georgia.  We will sleep well tonight.


Dan and Hannah Hike the Appalachian Trail at Elkwallow in the Shenandoah National Park

Days Inn, Luray, Virginia with the Shenandoah Mountains in the background

Days Inn, Luray, Virginia with the Shenandoah Mountains in the background

We, or let’s be honest, I have chosen poorly for tonight’s motel stay in Luray, Virginia.  I choked.  Having just hiked three hours in the Shenandoah National Park in late April, Hannah and I arrive just before 7P in this town famous for its caverns.  Pulling into the first motel that we see, a Days Inn, we inquire about a room.

It’s two double beds for $62 and with a minimalist continental breakfast: Raisin Bran or Fruit Loops, mini store-bought bagels, oatmeal in a pouch, OJ, and coffee. That’s not good.  It’s a classic deal breaker!  But I’m soft. Having driven from Richmond this morning, hiked, and then driven 90 minutes more, I am just ready to kick back with an evening glass of wine with Hannah rather check out more in-town motels.  I convince myself that the breakfast can’t actually be as bad as what the motel clerk said it was.

EW  Luray

Downtown Luray, Virginia (population 4860)

As expected, the breakfast is dismal.   Neither fueled for our hike on the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah National Park or energized for the 600+ miles of driving home after we hike, the breakfast does prove to be the source of another good life lesson.  Take the time to get three bids for our business. That said, this hardly qualifies as even a first world problem.

The Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

The Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

With temps in the low 40s, it’s pants, long sleeve tee-shirt, and sweatshirt weather for our morning hike.  Leaving Luray via Route 211, we immediately climb the switchbacks of the three lane highway to the mountain top Skyline Drive as the temperature continues to drop. We select Elkwallow as our point to access the AT. (By the way, the verb “wallow” means to roll about or lie in water, snow, mud, or dust. The noun “wallow” is an area where animals wallow.)

Appalachian Trail HIker

Appalachian Trail Hiker

Pulling into the parking lot at the Elkwallow Camp Store, we jump onto the AT ready to begin a hike with 900 feet of elevation gain towards Rattlesnake Point. We’ll hike parallel to Skyline Drive, though we often can’t see the road from the trail.

EW 1B  H on trailApproaching from the north, we meet a young woman hiking a section of the AT for the past three weeks.   As soon as she sees us, she asks if we know what the weather will be. Though it’s sunny and 43F now, she has been hiking in rain and cold temps, colder than what she has expected. Whether it’s the cold or her caution or us, she is not into much conversation.

EW 3A  H on trailWe do learn she is from New England but shares few details of her life. Though one detail she does is telling – her dad didn’t want her to hike the AT alone.   She reminds me that females can feel and be more vulnerable hiking alone on the AT.  I think to myself, what would my advice be if our daughters Robyn or Molly wanted to hike the AT on their own.  My first reaction is that I’d be all in, supporting their goal to complete this daunting challenge.

There have been few hiking related deaths on the AT among thousands, millions(?) who have hiked this trail.  A notorious one in 1996 when two young women were murdered spooks people who are inclined to be spooked.  If Robyn or Molly are so inclined to hike the Appalachian Trail, I am on board and will be  cheer lead from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.  I’d love to meet up and hike with them from time to time, buy them a meal, and treat them to an overnight in a motel.

Shenandoah Valley to the west

Shenandoah Valley to the west

Once past Matthew Arms Campground, the trail levels out to ridgeline hiking; our core body temperatures warm with our steady pace. With no leaves on the trees, we see vistas to the valley below. The downside is that we have mostly brown trunks and brown branches as company in our hiking day.

As 10A approaches, we look for a turnaround point 90 minutes into our hike. We’ll straddle the Skyline Drive on our way back, though we are rarely close enough to hear the few cars that pass on this cool pre-season spring day.

EW 3 Trail north of Matthew ArmsThen another backpack toting hiker approaches. We learn his trail name is Early Light; we share with him that we, too, are early risers.  As another three week section hiker, he is hiking north from Roanoke, VA. He’s so happy to be within a day of getting off the trail at Harper’s Ferry, WV where he will get a bus to head back home to Massachusetts.  After weeks on the trail, he openly laments that he finds the hiking quite monotonous.  Rarely has he seen vistas and lakes to punctuate the sameness.  I’ve heard that thru-hikers call the AT the “green tunnel” once the leaves come out. When you hike, you could really be anywhere; it all looks the same. It’s no surprise that a beer and pizza are what he looks forward to.

EW 3E  white blaze of trailAs for me, sleeping in shelters with others, hiking in bad weather, and my balky knees after all day hiking are three of many reasons why I wouldn’t hike the entire AT.  Another reason is that hiking for 8 t0 10 hours a day would be tedious.  Early Light says he understands why kids have their iPods and their books on tape; he has not come around to those diversions.  Given his doubts, I wonder whether he’ll finish all 2180 miles of the AT in sections after finishing these 250 miles.

EW 3D  more of trailAfter three hours on the AT, we arrive back at the Elkwallow parking lot knowing we are staring at 600+ miles of driving home through the traffic-clogged Northeast. But I wouldn’t have missed the chance of three hours on the AT in Virginia just to get a jump on the long drive. These are golden moments.


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.



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 in northern Maryland

A vow is a vow. Would Sir Lancelot go back on a vow?  Lady Lancelot?  Not even, Baby Lancelot would. If they wouldn’t, neither will we!

After having our spirits and feet shredded by the jagged rocks of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in eastern Pennsylvania near Wind Gap, we vow to never hike in the Keystone State again. So ditching our plans to hike the AT north of Harrisburg at Duncannon this late April morning, we drive south below Gettysburg, PA through the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland to the town of Smithsburg.

The blue blaze trail leads to the main trail, the Appalachian Trail

The blue blaze trail leads to the main trail, the Appalachian Trail

Only later do we learn that we have passed near the presidential retreat of Camp David.  Catoctin Mountain Park does not indicate the location of Camp David on park maps due to privacy and security concerns.   Arriving at Wolfsville Road, we return to a trailhead where we parked six months ago. At that time we hiked north on the AT; today we head south.

The white blaze of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland

The white blaze of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland

We need some mellow hiking today after yesterday’s jagged, spirit-breaking rocks, masquerading as a trail. Having previously hiked five times in Maryland, we pine for its mellow ridge line hiking with fewer rocks; it’s just the ticket to refresh our legs and renew our love of hiking.

Rocky stairway on the AT

Rocky stairway on the AT

From Wolfsville Road, we climb the switchbacks up a mountain with a different kind of rocks. Flatter and smoother, these rocks are positioned by trail makers that allow us easy access up the mountain. After a day of rain, the weather has cleared and the sun shines brightly on the hiker-friendly landscape of Maryland.

Hannah ridge line hiking in Maryland

Hannah ridge line hiking in Maryland

Once at the summit we begin our ridge trail hiking and soon spot a group of young hikers. Always looking to connect, we learn that they are from the Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania. As recent high school graduates, they are backpacking and camping and completing other non-classroom activities as part of a gap year of experiences before they begin their pursuit of their Bachelor of Science degrees in Bible Studies.

VCU Ram just north of the Commonwealth

VCU Ram just north of the Commonwealth

Logan, a senior intern, hikes along with us as he leaves the eighteen year-olds on their own for a while. For this experience, the students are outdoors for five days to learn about themselves in close quarters; that means they can’t avoid the issues that come up with each other on the trail.

MD gap yearI think of a gap year as a concept from Great Britain where students spend the year between high school and college traveling, working, volunteering, or completing an internship. It seems to me that such students would bring an earnestness and commitment to their academic studies after having a taste of the “real world.”

My top of the line colleague, Dr. Hair Koirala, in the Department of Education at Eastern Connecticut State University.

My esteemed colleague, Dr. Hair Koirala, in the Department of Education at Eastern Connecticut State University.

As a retired professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University and the University of New England, I taught 18 to 22 year old undergrads as well as older, non-traditional students.  These older students were returning for teacher training after often having had another career. Almost always, they were fully invested in their studies after having this “gap” time between high school and their decision to seek teacher certification.

There are a few rocky stretches on the AT in Maryland

There are some rocky stretches on the AT in Maryland

The gap year reminds me of what Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) do when they complete an 18 month (for young women) and 24 month (for young men) mission, often after their first year of college.  With a specific purpose to bring the Word to others during their mission, they gain the added benefit of having time to reflect on their opportunities and how they can serve others.  I can only guess they also return more devoted to their studies after going on their mission.

Mellow ridge line hiking in Maryland

Mellow ridge line hiking in Maryland

Thirty-four students, interns, and chaperones are strung out over the trail here in northern Maryland, hiking in groups of six to seven. And just as you would expect, they are stereotypically delightful, upbeat, willing to engage, and make eye contact; they are excellent ambassadors of Christianity.

MD 3B H on less rockyIn a forest that is just about to blossom with new leaves in late April, our trail is ridge line so we have very little elevation gain as we hike. With no destination in mind, we plan to hike out 90 minutes and double back to complete three hours of hiking this afternoon. Our weary legs could use a break after the nasty, protruding rocks of the AT in Pennsylvania.  (We just can’t let it go!)

A few more rocks on the AT

A few more rocks on the AT

We do have rocky stretches, but they are just sections amid miles of flatter, softer packed dirt and rock terrain.  Today we have done a week’s worth of whining about yesterday’s rocky trail hiking; ergo we have used up our allotment of bellyaching and finally cease our grumbling.

MD 3A H on less rocky partWe run into “Little Buddy” (trail name), a twenty something out for a few days of backpacking with his father. They are agreeable sorts, in no hurry, and tell us of their surprise of getting to the Red Raven Shelter 12 miles back last night and seeing the shelter full of young hikers and tents everywhere filled with the Lancaster Bible students.

MD 3C ridge line trailFather/son bonding has many venues. Some do it on the trail. In two days, I’ll have the chance to do some of my own with our son Will on golf courses in the Richmond, VA area. I like my bonding on emerald fairways and greens that funnel my ball to the hole. Each to his own.

Will and Laurel toast picture

The future Mr. and Mrs. Rothermel

Descending the last mountain, I feel my left knee begin to ache from yesterday’s hike in the unforgiving rocks of Pennsylvania.  Tomorrow is a light day of canal path walking at Great Falls National Park near Washington, DC with the Family Rawding.

And then after, off to Richmond, Virginia for Will’s marriage to Laurel Ann Crane.


Dan and Hannah Hike the Rocky, Rocky Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania

Climbing the Appalachian Trail to Hahn's Lookout

The Appalachian Trail near Wind Gap, PA

Among Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, Pennsylvania has the reputation of being a trail with punishing, boot-shredding rocks. Hannah and I have no reason to doubt that reputation, but we’ve hiked in Pennsylvania before, once near the Delaware Water Gap in the east and again near Gettysburg to the south at Boiling Springs, and found no such mean-spirited rocks.

Marathon Molly in 2007

Marathon Molly in 2007

It’s a nasty Patriots Day on a mid-April Monday in New England as we travel by way of Pennsylvania to Virginia for Will and Laurel’s wedding.  In Boston, the steady rain is pelting the marathon runners similar to what our daughter Molly experienced running into 20 to 30 mph headwinds from Hopkinton to Boston in 2007.   Today we hope the drenching rain abates and our ponchos will deflect the light rain.

Mom and Dad 1

Mom and Dad

Crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York State and heading to Jersey on I-287, we pass the senior living complex where my Mom and Dad lived after moving from their home of more than fifty years in Radburn, NJ. Dad died three years ago while Mom passed on last year; they each lived rich lives into their 90s. As I get nostalgic, I do think how much they enjoyed hearing about the lives of their grandchildren. I miss not being able to call up and talk about Robyn’s recent college degree, Will’s new job, and Molly’s new house. But damn, I had so many good years of calls and visits; we all had a great run together.

Climbing the Appalachian Trail to Hahn's Lookout

Climbing the Appalachian Trail to Hahn’s Lookout

As we cross into Pennsylvania, we learn that this area is called the Slate Belt. That is an ominous sign for today’s hike. Thanks to my Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Companion, we find the trailhead at the far end of the little town of Wind Gap. With the rain now just mist, we pack our ponchos in Hannah’s backpack as I big-heartedly carry our water bottles.

Ridgeline hiking on the AT

Ridgeline hiking on the AT

Heading under Route 33 to the white blazes of the AT, we are set to climb to Hahn’s Lookout, a mile south on the AT. Here the AT is a trail of finely designed switchbacks with the usual run-of-the-mill rocks; but no rockier than other trails that we have hiked up and down the AT.

In the cloud at Hahn's Outlook

In the cloud at Hahn’s Outlook

It’s like we have stolen a day of hiking since it was iffy whether we would be on the trail at all, given the morning’s drenching rain. But no two ways about it, we are hiking in a cloud. Arriving at Hahn’s Outlook there is nothing to see of the valley below. Mist goes from light to heavy; with a wet trail, we step carefully among the rocks.

VCU Ram on the Appalachian Trail in PA

VCU Ram on the Appalachian Trail in PA

Rising to the ridge line after a modest 400 to 500 feet gain in elevation, we start to see that the rocks are having baby rocks. Protruding from the ground like the fins of a shark or the scales of a stegosaurus, they make our foot plants uneven; we find ourselves hiking with swiveling ankles adjusting to the varied, moist rocks from the rain over the last 18 hours.

You want rocks?  Pennsylvania's got rocks for you.

You want rocks? Pennsylvania’s got rocks.

With little to see hiking in a cloud, we set a goal of finding the Kirkwood Shelter 4.6 miles from the trailhead. The rocky trail is very well-marked as we walk single file; we don’t expect to see anyone. Who’d be hiking in the mist of early April but Maine-iacs?  Northbound thru-hikers starting in Georgia are only a month into their hike, spending nights somewhere in North Carolina or Virginia. Southbound thru-hikers cannot even start til next month (May) because of the snowy conditions at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

On the AT near Wind Gap, PA

On the AT near Wind Gap, PA

Still buoyed by the thoughts that this is bonus hiking, we see no signs of the shelter 90 minutes into our ridgeline hike. Due to the rocky terrain, we are hiking at best 2 mph.   This is no trail for sneakers, but our hiking boots provide us with modest protection.  Over the next 20 minutes, we find no blue blaze trail (side trail) to the hoped-for shelter. The rocks are more than annoying as we start to feel it in our knees due to the many angled steps we have taken on the wet rocks.

Shark fins protruding on the trail

Shark fins protruding on the trail

At a clearing of high tension wire towers, Hannah has had enough. She takes off her socks to revitalize her feet, but she says, I’ll go ten minutes more if you want. (We’ve been out nearly two hours.) But I don’t want to and am ready to turn back. A full afternoon of exercise is what we wanted; and in that we have succeeded. There is no reason to subject ourselves to the rocky landscape anymore.

WG 4 H descending rocky trailTurning for home, we still have nearly two hours of rocky trail hiking ahead of us. We are now firm believers in the legend of the rocks on the AT in PA. We are, in fact, disciples.  Three hours of rocks has us swearing we will never return to Pennsylvania to hike. Ever. The Land of Brotherly Love? Not on the AT near Wind Gap!

In a cloud on the AT

In a cloud on the AT

The mistiness has stopped, but the trail remains wet and as you might have guessed, quite rocky. We have no way around the rocks but through them. The rocks rule. I bow to their majesty. I will never trespass their sacred realm again.

Tomorrow, it’s off to Maryland where we will find some of our favorite trails on the AT. Rocks? Sure, but not so sharp, unforgiving, or numerous. This part of the AT in Pennsylvania is the kind of hike that could make you hate hiking.

Hannah’s final words to others: Don’t Do It.   We’ve done it for you; you don’t have to beat yourselves up.

Do I hear an Amen!


Dan and Hannah Hike the Appalachian Trail near Smithsburg, Maryland

The crash has nothing to do with the Appalachian Trail

The crash has nothing to do with the Appalachian Trail

We love hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Maryland.  When here in the Oyster State, we have had sublime ridgeline hiking; those easy going trails that make the day feel like a walk in the park.  As we wrap up our week of AT hiking in the South, we come to Smithsburg in northern Maryland in mid-October. During the Civil War, Smithsburg was a hospital town, treating soldiers from the nearby Battle of Antietam.

We’ve come north from Richmond, VA through the I-95 logjam of northern Virginia, west on the I-495 beltway to I-270 to Frederick, MD. Lunching on Subway subs at a local park, we know we have just three hours and change to hike before our dinner plans. We, who think happy hour nachos and margaritas at Ruby’s are a big deal, have dinner plans.

Wolfsville Road in October

Wolfsville Road in October

Turning east towards the mountains from Smithsburg, we head up Wolfsville Road to trailhead parking for 12 cars. A blue blaze trail to the AT takes us into the Maryland woods on this October day at 60 degrees (blue blaze trails are side trails leading to the white blaze main trail).

Blue blaze side trail to the Appalachian Trail

Blue blaze side trail to the Appalachian Trail

Immediately as we head north on the AT we pass the Ensign Cowell Shelter. I’d have to lose a large bet or be held at gun point to stay overnight in a shelter. Lying on a thin pad in a sleeping bag on pine floors, wedged shoulder to shoulder with another of God’s smelliest human beings?  I think not. Snoring!  NASA still hasn’t developed earplugs with enough sound-proofing to give a hiker a good night’s sleep in AT shelters; and don’t get me started on the mice that scurry over and around and, yes through, sleeping bags.  Okay, I admit it, I’m soft.

Check out the Ensign Cowell Shelter.

With an ambitious goal to hike the five miles to and from the Raven Rock Shelter in three to four hours, we have a tight window to make our dinner plans in nearby Ijamsville (the j is silent).  Today is another golden day in the South and the last one before we head home to winter in Maine. (That’s not as appealing as it sounds.) Our trail guidebook says we will be hiking between 1100’ and 1400’ to the Raven Rock Shelter.  We love our mellow Maryland hills.

Rocks aplenty on the AT in Maryland

Rocks aplenty on the AT in northern Maryland

Stepping along the AT of yellow and brown fall leaves, we find the trail well-marked with white blazes. Truth be told the leaves are hiding a rocky terrain similar to ones we found on the boot-shredding AT in Pennsylvania. Still, the trails here in the Terrapin State allow us to talk easily without the huffing and puffing that we do when climbing the mountains of the AT in North Carolina.

From forest to fields to forest

From forest to fields to forest

Soon we are crossing fields, passing other hikers with backpacks who are out for a few days on the trail before the winter snows. When hiking in the South, I travel back in my mind to Civil War times. Surveying the hills, farmland, and valleys as we hike, I wonder what it was like for soldiers as well as the townsfolk trying to survive the ravages and uncertainty of war.  What must have been the terror and hope of slaves traveling the Underground Railroad through this part of the country?

MD 3 Han on ATWondering how far it is to the shelter, we meet up with a young couple from nearby Hood College. They let on that they lost the trail and are turning back. Undeterred, we have no doubt we’ll find the trail and carry on. And we do.

MD 7 trailAfter 90 minutes of hiking and no Raven Rock Shelter in view, we wonder, considering our dinner plans, do we go on or do we turn back?   Four teenage boys out for a first time backpacking adventure, going in the opposite direction, say the shelter is 2-3 hours away. We dismiss their youthful wild guess and hike on.

MD 4 rocky trailSoon thereafter we meet up with a 40-something male hiker, who tells us we are a mile away from the shelter as he points upward to the mountain before us.  We weigh another hour of mountain climbing versus our dinner plans?  With never a doubt, we head back to the trailhead.  for out “don’t miss” dinner plans.

VCU Rams are everywhere on the AT

VCU Rams are everywhere on the AT

Hiking back to the Wolfsville Road trailhead, we meet Bubble Gum (his trail name). Wanting to get to the Raven Rock Shelter before dark, he is understandably distracted talking to day-hiking dilettantes (i.e. dabblers) like us. We do learn that his trail name comes from giving bubble gum to other hikers.  Sadly, he never offers us any.  Such can be the dismissive approach to us day hikers.

Maryland's Appalachian Trail

Maryland’s Appalachian Trail

Heading for the trailhead, we soak in every last bit of our fifth of five hikes on the AT over the last week. After thirty years of running on streets and biking country roads, we have found gold in hiking the trails of the Appalachian Mountains.

MD 5 white blaze trailHeading for dinner, we see the teenagers on the trail ahead. They hear us and pick up the pace!  Kids!  A fool’s errand. We have dinner plans, fanny packs, and years of hiking experience; they have heavy backpacks, youthful bravado, and mistaken notions of their own fitness.  It’s no contest as they finally relent, step aside, and let us pass. We smile graciously as they look beaten and stunned that we two, who are probably older than their grandparents, go sailing by.

Packing up off Wolfsville Road, we navigate the modest 5P traffic through Frederick and Ijamsville, Maryland for our dinner plans.

Wendy and Hannah, 1970 grads of the College of Wooster, Ohio

Wendy and Hannah, 1970 grads of the College of Wooster, Ohio

Arriving at the home of Hannah’s College of Wooster classmate, Wendy and her husband Bill, we are welcomed like long lost friends.  Wendy and Hannah find the forty plus years since they were last together melt away. (While they graduated from this liberal arts college in Ohio, I lasted just three years there and graduated from the Harvard of the West – Arizona State.).  Treated like old friends, we reconnect over wine and cheese, down home dinner, and a mutual interest that allows our stories and theirs to emerge in a soul-satisfying confluence.

We’ll be back again. To both the AT in Maryland and Wendy and Bill’s, you can count on that.