Top of Georgia Hostel – the end of the line. 

As nice as the hostel is, the bunkbeds here have the same crappy thin rubber mattress I experienced at Mountain Crossing. The lack of room mates allowed me to repurpose another mattress and double up my comfort level a little. For some crazy reason, I had signed myself up for breakfast this morning at 7. Seemed like a good idea last night. Not so much this morning as I lay there listening to my alarm, trying to convince myself to get up. The alternative is that I don’t eat until the shuttle takes me into town at 1pm. That’s a long time to wait for breakfast.

Mark on the AT 2015 3

This dog has thru-hiked the AT!

After brekky, I managed to get some laundry done, and by that I mean Buttercup who works at the hostel did it for a small fee. They even outfit you with some scrubs so everything can get washed. Nice. Besides laundry services, the the Top of Georgia hostel also offer re-supplies, gear and you can also send out a package if you need to. Everyone is super friendly and there’s a very mellow atmosphere around the place. It is here that I learned that my new Superfeet insoles may be responsible for my knee issue. A lot of people find that they need to be broken in for several weeks before before heading out on a longer trip like this. It’s about the only thing that is completely new and untested in my set up, having picked up the insoles literally the day before I left.

Mark on the AT 2015 1Found this guy just off the front porch. The 2 black round spots reminded me of MIB for some reason. The universe is on Orion’s belt.

I spent the rest of the day hanging out in town. First stop was lunch at Subway. The double meat sub did zero to satiate my appetite so I walked over to the burger place for round two only to discover that apparently they aren’t open on Sunday’s. Seriously, you’re a few miles away from the Appalachian trail where 2500 starving hikers through hike very year not to mention all the section hikers and you close on a Sunday?

Back at the hostel, I met up with Alaska Bill who I had first met at Mountain crossing and then again last night at the shelter. Bill is in his 60’s and as the name implies, is from Alaska. He recently lost his wife and thought he’d go for a walk to figure things out. He was in some pretty significant pain himself. “The old body isn’t what it used to be,”he said. He isn’t sure how far he’ll get or what he’s going to do if/when he gets off the trail. If you can get over the steep physical curve of hiking with a 30Ls backpack day in and day out, this type of a journey can be quite therapeutic for some.

In the meantime, the 2 kids and dad really wanted to complete all of Georgia so they left their packs behind and got dropped off just across the state line into North Carolina earlier today. They are all day hiking back to the hostel in an effort to finish Georgia off before heading back home to Ohio later today. A couple of young German girls arrived and checked in as Bill and I chatted. They’re on a driving/hiking trip of the US for a few weeks.

Mark on the AT 2015 2We sat around at the back of the hostel watching the sunset, the girls giddy about the existence of fireflies. There’s definitely no shortage of interesting stories here on the trail.

Injury report: knee still hurts to move pretty much all the time. I’m thinking maybe a couple more days to see what happens. Or at least that’s what I thought before heading to bed.

I woke up the following morning with my knee still throbbing. By the time I finished my tea I decided I was done. It’s not that it was an easy decision as I had been thinking about little else, but based on how I feel after a day and a half off, I just don’t think it will improve to the point where I can hike over mountains as a daily event for the next few months. I also think of all the other things I could be doing with my time rather than sitting around here wondering if my knee will improve. Lori already has a job, I should probably do the same, there’s also the Ontario HU meeting next weekend which Lori has already signed up for as a presenter that I could now attend.

But with Lori working, I was going to have to get home on my own. I tried to arrange for a car rental from Haiawasee to Buffalo on my phone but things weren’t going well. The first quote I managed to find online was $39 for the rental plus $.25/mile and an additional $280 fee for dropping off the rental in another city. That’s for a one day rental by the way. No thanks. I had a similar result with the next attempt. I know cheaper rentals can be had with unlimited miles so I expanded my pick up area a little and found a decent rate from Avis for $125. Seemed almost too good to be true so I called to double check the rate. Apparently it wasn’t accurate at all. I was told it would be $110 instead. Hmmm, twist my arm…ok! Only catch is that I now had to get myself to Asheville NC which is about 2 hrs away to pick up the car.

A moment later Buttercup put another damper in the plan when she told me that hostel wouldn’t shuttle me that far as that would take 4 hrs there and back. But she did give me a list of other people that offer shuttles. First names that immediately jumped off the page were Joyce & Sally who ironically enough were the ones Lori and I used to get dropped off on the AT and who we called to pick us up right here at Dick’s Gap when Lori’s knee gave out. I called them first and 20 min later I was sitting in Joyce’s Subaru being chauffeured to Asheville for the small fortune of $140. Still much much better than the $500 I started out with.

The adventure continued when I arrived at Avis in Asheville and was informed they were out of cars. “You’re what?” I asked. C’mon, you have one job, ONE JOB! (No I didn’t say that). Lady behind the counter advised me they were expecting a few vehicles back anytime, in fact 2 of the vehicles were already late. A gentleman walked in right after me and also got the bad news. I made myself comfy and txt Lori the update. 30 min later a Jeep compass was returned but the lady complains that something is wrong with the handling as it pulls a lot to one side, said it was “dangerous” in fact. I gave the lady behind the counter a look attempting to convey: “don’t be trying to give me that broken-ass vehicle!” The message seemed to be received as she said they would take it off the road and have someone look at the problem. Cue the next actors on this episode of Seinfeld: a group of three walked in for their reservation only to discover…NO CAR FOR YOU!!

Eventually another Compass came back and I offered it to the 3-some after learning they had a flight to catch in Charlotte. About the same time the Manager arrived and I could hear her tell the other lady behind the counter to clear everyone out. With that, as if by magic, she remembered they had a vehicle hiding in the back and offered it to me.

Mark on the AT 2015Been holding out have we?


“And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may ask yourself
Well…How did I get here?”

Just like that I was on my way home. I stopped for dinner at a 5 Guys Burger & Fries (yes I know you’re shocked to read this) and booked a hotel via Priceline’s Express Deal. Turned out to be one of the shwankiest places I’ve stayed so far. Definitely more upscale than my hammock in the middle of a torrential downpour.

My friend Paul happened to be in the states and offered to pick me up where I dropped off my ride in Buffalo the following afternoon. Thanks Paul!!

Surprisingly I’m not as disappointed as I thought I would be about getting off the trail. Don’t get me wrong, thru-hiking the AT is still on my bucket list, but I can wait for that. There are too many things happening back home that I’m looking forward to. Getting Lori riding on her new bike, helping Kimberly pass her G2 drivers license, the HU meeting, hiking on the Bruce Trail, getting a job….ok so I’m excited about some of the things waiting for me back home. Maybe I’ll even catch up on the blog. HA! One day…

Day 7 – Dick’s Gap, how ironic – yeah I really do think

It was mostly downhill this morning, and by downhill I mean that the trail went down, then back up, then down some more then up then…you get the picture. These are also known as PUD’s. Pointless Up and Down’s! Actually this section really wasn’t all that bad but I still hadn’t recovered energy wise from the previous day and had been keeping a record pace covering about 7.5 miles in roughly 5 hours. The plan at the moment is to make it to Dick’s Gap where I’m going to take at least a couple of days off at a hostel, maybe more.

Except a bathroom break at the Swag of the Blue Ridge here (there’s a really nice spot behind one of the trees, just watch your step), I managed those 5 hours without a break. Continue reading

AT Day 6 – What’s more fun than climbing a mountain on the Appalachian Trail? How about climbing three in one day?

After getting up a few times to make some micro adjustments to my hammock and UQ, I have to say I slept quite well. Love, love the new hammock. Although quite light, the rain kept us company most of the night. Save for the torrential biblical type stuff, I very much enjoy hiking and camping when it’s raining. As usual I’m in no hurry to get going this early in the morning. Karen is up and packed before I can finish my tea. She heads out while I tend to my new blisters and contemplate how far I want to hike today. I decide to try a tip I picked up at Mountain Crossing yesterday and cover all the blister ban aids with duct tape. That’s right, I duct taped my feet! It’s all about the sex appeal out here, you know.

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AT day 5, should I stay or should I go?

So apparently it’s been a while since my last update from the AT. In fact this update is pretty far from the AT all together. I love how life can grab a hold of the handlebars and take you off in a different direction so quickly. You have this idea of what you want to do, where you want to be but things you never expected pop up and all of a sudden you’re in a completely different place than you had envisioned.

“And you may find yourself, living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself, in another part of the world
And you may ask yourself, well…how did I get here?”

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AT Day 4, a nero at Neel Gap

Fantastic sleep last night. I do my typical learn how to walk, tea and Cliff bar thing. I also pay my respects at the privy which turns out to be the cleanest yet. Exton asks if he can hike with me this morning and we head out together. He’s hiking back to his car by Neel Gap and I’ve decided to take a NERO at Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap. What’s a NERO? Where a ZERO is basically a day off where you hike zero miles, a nero is one where you hike nearly zero miles. Nero. Neel Gap is 2.8 miles away which makes this a nero day. Although I feel well rested and my knee feels better than last night, there’s definitely something going on with it and I think taking most of the day off will help. Continue reading

AT Day 3, hammock city

I wake to water splashing onto the mesh and into my hammock, as another wild storm passes overhead. It’s 5am and the rain has picked up back to Monsoon again. Biblical even. This has to be the hardest rain I’ve ever camped in. I reach under the hammock to feel the my UQ. Wet and mucky, again. UGH! “Forget it, I’ll deal with it when I get up in a couple of hrs,” I think to myself as I doze back off. Lori and I once slept in our hammocks during the tail end of a hurricane and didn’t get this wet. I think it helped that we had nice thick grass under the hammocks to help absorb the rain while the hard packed dirt beneath me tonight is doing the exact opposite. It seemed like such a perfect spot last night when I was setting up.

A couple of hours later, I try unsuccessfully, to tune out the voices I hear just outside my floating palace of one. Ok so setting up the hammock directly in front of the shelter where everyone congregates, may not have been the most perfect spot. It’s daylight and still raining. Might as well get up and assess the sitch. The piece of Tyvek I use as a ground sheet under the hammock, and my hiking shoes sitting on top, are completely caked with muck. The UQ is still damp and also covered with muck. As an added bonus, I find my hiking shorts have fallen off the top of the hammock and are laying in the mud completely covered, nice. Continue reading

AT – Day 2, a poop in the woods

Usually it takes me a day or two to get comfortable sleeping in the woods but I have to say I slept fantastic last night. Had to force myself to get up and leave my little floating cocoon. My calves screamed at me the second my feet hit the ground. The ladies said they slept pretty well, and didn’t fall out of their hammocks – woohoo! I made a tea and slowly packed up camp, calves feeling better with every step. I don’t typically eat breakfast first thing in the morning so I forced a Cliff bar down before heading out.

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Pretty quiet hiking most of the day, almost tranquil. The forest tends to insulate the sound pretty well, and there’s definitely a lot of forest here. I pulled into Hawk Mountain shelter at mile marker 8.1 and found a couple of guys packing up their gear. I was hoping to use the privy and to re-fill on water at the water source my map book indicated was .1 mile behind the shelter. Continue reading

AT – Day 1, conquering Springer

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Strange but I was actually feeling nervous, you know, like before an interview butterflies-in-the-tummy-nervous. So I’m not sure if it was the nerves or the food at the lodge or what, but man was I happy to have a full bathroom for some quality one on one porcelain time this morning. First thing after getting up – hit the bathroom, unpacked my new gear – bathroom, text Lori – bathroom, went for breakfast – bathroom. It was a nicely tiled bathroom, something you’d find in a more upscale hotel. Talked to Lori on the phone for a bit. Apparently she didn’t get home till after midnight, yuck. I re-packed my backpack with the few extra goodies I had shipped to the hostel the previous day, and went in for one final round in that super snazzy bathroom before hitting the trail at the crack of 11.

Lori text me: “just remember Andrew Skurka’s words. Hiking is a tortoise’s game, not a hare’s.
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And so a new adventure begins: The Appalachian Trail.

We’ve talked about doing this hike for a long time. Initially we considered doing it together but after a short test hike a couple of years ago, Lori decided that she didn’t love it as much as me. Something about not enjoying climbing mountains all day long, non-stop sweating and the constant bugs. With that in mind she gave me the green light to go hike.

It took Lori & I a couple of days to drive down to Georgia, about 1300km’s (800 miles), where the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is. We left pretty late the first day and then got delayed at the border. “So how long you gonna be in the states?” I was asked. “Oh about 3 months,” I replied. Seemed to be the wrong answer as it prompted even more questions followed by: “well that’s a long time so you’re gonna have to go see immigration and talk to them.”

Surprisingly it only took about 30 min to clear immigration. I say surprisingly because when we arrived, the room was full of people. I couldn’t help but wonder what they do with Snowbirds every year. “Yes I’ll be here for 6 months!”  I think the correct answer lies somewhere between 1-2 weeks.

Lori dropped me off at the Hiker Hostel, in fact we spent a night at the Hostel shipping container cabin. Super cool set up; queen bed, tiny hotel sized fridge, sink, bathroom, a tiny counter height table. Everything you need and at $55/night, it even included breakfast the next morning.

Lori was planning on driving all the way home to Brantford, an easy 13.5 hrs ;), so she left right after brekky. I waved goodbye and watched her drive off and all of a sudden the reality of what I was doing hit me. I’m planning on hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) for a few months hopefully getting all the way to Maine, 2189 miles north.

Now there are many ways to hike a trail like this. You can go out for a short day hike here and there. This is pretty easy to do as you don’t really need any specialized equipment. Just some good trail runners and maybe a hydration pack or day pack with some water and snacks. You leave your car in a parking lot and off you go for an hour or 3 or 6. You hike a few miles and then return back to your car. Some will hike with a buddy and will leave a second car at a location ahead somewhere allowing them to hike on rather than having to double back to the original starting point. Of course to hike all 2189 miles it would take most of a lifetime or two to get’er done.

Some people will also do what’s called a section hike. This is a little more involved and closer resembles a thru-hike as far as gear or equipment needed. A section hike can be anything from a few days to even a few weeks. Basically anything more than a day hike and less than a thru-hike would fall into this category. Because you’re going to be on the trail overnight you’re going to need a little bit more than a hydration pack. Overnighting it in the woods typically requires the Big 3: backpack, shelter and sleep system (sleeping bag and mattress pad). You’ll need to bring other items such as food, a stove or cooking kit, clothes, first aid kit, toiletries, things like that. You’re also going to need to figure out the logistics of getting to the trail and then back off the trail. But this allow you to hike a longer section of the trail, it also provides you with a different experience of the trail than just day hiking.

A thru-hike is pretty much a really long section hike. Gear wise it requires a similar set up, I would even go as far as saying one will take less gear for a thru-hike. With a section hike you might bring a few extras, perhaps you’re trying out a new piece of gear or are trying to decide between 2 pieces so you bring both to test. I think it’s a little easier to get away with bringing an extra few ounces knowing that the hike is only going to be a few days, while I think you need to have your gear set up dialled in for a thru-hike. With that said, you can always ship something home or get different gear sent out to a town close to the trail. A thru-hike requires hiking continuously for around 4-6 months depending on how fast you hike and how many days off you take. Simple math will tell you that hiking an average of 16 miles each day it would take about 4.5 months to hike all 2189 miles. That’s assuming you hike 16 miles each and every day without stopping.

Besides logistics, the biggest difference between the three I think is the commitment of time required to do each one. Some folks prefer day hikes, while others like to go out for several days and nights at a time. Some enjoy the hike itself and love to do lots of miles but don’t like to sleep in the woods, so day hiking might be a better fit for them. Some love to go at it alone, while some love the social atmosphere present at some of the shelters along the way.

Lori and I have made plans to seeing each other somewhere down the trail but with Lori starting a new job in 2 days, we’re not sure how much time off she’ll have or when. So it’s all up in the air at the moment. Being away from her is going to be the most difficult thing if I hike the entire trail. I say if, only because thru-hiking the AT has a success rate of only about 26%. That means that out of the 2000 + aspiring thru-hikers that set out to hike the entire length every year, only about 500 or so actually make it.

There are many reasons for a success rate that low, the biggest one of which is that it’s really quite difficult. You’re hiking over mountains, smaller one, big ones, and even bigger ones. But lots and lots of mountains. The elevation gain alone is the equivalent to hiking up Mount Everest 16 times and the AT has an elevation gain/loss of over 515,000 feet. The hardest sections are reported to be at the start of the trail regardless if you’re starting at the southern terminus of Springer Mountain in Georgia or the northern terminus at Mt Katahdin in Baxter State Park located in Maine. It’s a physical challenge no doubt but also a mental one too.

That’s a long friggin way

Although I think starting from the north and hiking south is more challenging for several reasons. For one, you face climbing and descending Mt Katahdin as your first order of business. Next as you leave Baxter state park, you are greeted by the 100 mile wilderness. As the name implies there is nothing except wilderness for 100 miles. No restaurants, no resupply store, no coffee shops, just 100 miles of you and the wilderness. Oh and just in case you’re thinking “that’s not that bad,” let’s not forget the ferocious black flies and mosquitoes that are with you very step of the way along this stretch. If you make it out alive, and that’s a big if, you are then faced with hiking over the White Mountains in NH. I’m getting tired just thinking about all that.

I’ve decided to start in south where the biggest worries I have are just the mountains and the bears. If I can take it easy over the first couple of weeks and avoid injuries, I’ll have a good shot at 2000+ miles. But to be honest I’m happy to just be out here hiking for as long as I can.

The Hiker hostel where we stayed last night provides shuttle service to the starting point of the Appalachian Trail, or to Amicalola Falls. Amicalola is actually considered the unofficial beginning to the AT.

I signed in at the visitor centre here as a thru-hiker and proceeded to climb the 650 or so stairs to get to the top of the falls. Killer by the way! But don’t worry, I only almost passed out once.

About 175 steps up, you’re greeting by this sight. Not bad. The next 475 steps are a lot less anti-climactic and offer less of a reward. Unless you consider ending the pain a reward.

On my way up the stairs I met Jeremy who is from Maine and is planning on (thru) hiking home. Cool. We suffered up the stairs together at least. Jeremy kept on trucking to the top of Springer while I ducked into Amicalola Falls Lodge calling it a day. Gotta start off small after all, right? Amicalola Falls Lodge offers all the creature comforts, a clean bed, a restaurant and internet, and after some negotiations at the front desk I even got a discounted rate for a room.

Tomorrow, I hike the Appalachian Trail!

That space in between

So I’ve been home for a couple of weeks and have to admit that I’m feeling a little deflated, bored, and maybe even a little depressed. It’s hard to come off a year of constant motion, of picking up daily and moving on to somewhere new and exciting, and just STOP. Even harder to come off the adrenalin packed month I’ve had in California; flying high in a formation clinic, driving a sling shot or munching on a Schat’s Bakery sandwich at a quiet overlook while staring out at the ever captivating Sierras. It’s kind of hard to get excited about watching traffic go by outside our window and reading the weekly Canadian Tire flyer with my morning tea. UGH! I’ve tried to get out as much as I can but even hiking on the local trails is a little anti-climactic after hiking out west.

Maybe it’s the post adventure doldrums. Maybe I’m feeling this way because everything associated with “here” has to do with our former eat/work/sleep lives. Maybe reality lies somewhere in between, I have no clue. Continue reading