End of the Trail

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's JournalLeave a Comment

Days after getting home from Europe and China, I strap my backpack on and head for Georgia. Georgia is the end of the trail for me.

It’s amazing to me how I started this hiking adventure in the cold of spring and am now finishing it in the cold of fall. It feels full circle.

Earlier in my hike, an older male hiker told me to skip Georgia claiming it was boring. I didn’t take his advice and I’m glad. Georgia mountains are classic. The beauty is simple and the vistas are sprinkled apart. I like working for a beautiful view so maybe the PUDs (which stands for Pointless Ups and Downs) aren’t so pointless after all.

I also think it would be a shame for anyone who has hiked a decent amount on the Appalachian Trail to miss seeing the southern terminus- Springer Mountain and also Amicalola Falls where there is the approach trail.

I am surprised when I find myself often alone at night seeing only a handful of hikers during the day. It’s much quieter than I expected but this suits my mood. Also, I have done more stealth camping on this section than other parts of the trail. One night, I camped on a ridge. It was a great location for watching the sunset. By 6:00 it was dark and I was in my tent listening to a coyote a few miles away. By 2:00 am, the coyote was outside my tent on the ridge I was on.

I also appreciate the rich history of Georgia mountains. Much of it is sad and violent. I have noticed that most historical sites are connected to violence. This is a sad commentary about our past.

Hiking Blood Mountain is memorable. There are boulders and rocks all around. It is here that the Cherokee and Creek Nation fought each other resulting in much bloodshed. Ultimately, the Creek retreated further south and the Cherokee remained until the federal government forced them to relocate. This infamous removal later became known as the Trail of Tears due to the many lives lost as a result of exhaustion, disease and starvation.

It’s easy here to imagine their stories. This was their home. It is beautiful. My mind sees warriors, women and their children. There is a presence you can feel if you are quiet. It’s powerful and it surrounds me. My silence is offered as a peace prayer.

There are only 40 remaining miles from the top of Blood Mountain where an old stone shelter sits to Amicalola Falls. For the first time it fully dawns on me that I am almost done with my hike. I don’t know how I feel about this.

I do two 10-12 mile days and then plan on ending with two easy 8 mile days. That plans goes out the window when I decide to combine my two final days into one 16 mile day. This is nothing of course for a south bound thru-hiker. But for me, it will be a long final push.

I wake up early and start hiking while it is still dark. I hadn’t used my headlight for hiking yet so this is first. I manage to stay on the trail only to get lost after the sun comes up. This adds about a mile to my already full day.

My spirits are high as I see signs for Springer Mountain. I get there by late morning and am surprised that no other hikers are around. I see one person heading northbound towards the Springer parking lot while I head south to Springer Mountain but that’s it.

I take my time taking it all in. The view. The rocks. The plaques. The sign-in log where a lady who obviously did not hike more than the mile up from the parking lot complains that the trail should be graded better. I laugh. She doesn’t get it.

I eat my final lunch alone. The lentils and rice taste pretty good when I add double seasoning to them. I linger until I sense it’s time to leave. I still have 9 miles to go and my pace always slows as the day wears on. As I head down the approach trail towards the falls, I see a large group of day hikers headed north to the top of Springer. I say hello then push on.

I struggle during my last miles. I’ve decided I will stay at the Lodge as a reward but know I must first get there. I run out of water with 5 miles to go. This shouldn’t be a big deal but there was a ton of sodium in my lunch and just knowing I don’t have water makes me parched.

I come down the final stretch to where there are signs of civilization and pointers for the Lodge. There is a footpath over water.

I feel a rush of emotions. I know better than to analyze them so I instead allow them to be. I throw my pack off, sit down next to the water and start to cry. My sabbatical has come to an end.

Crazy Fun

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's Journal1 Comment

Crazy Fun: Day 1

Think about a day when it felt like you were the Biblical guy named Job. One thing after another goes wrong. Probably about the time the third inconceivable event happens, you ask, what is going on?

My sabbatical officially ends after this 20 day trip to Europe and China. Mike and I have an itinerary that consists of a combination of work and leisure. I get to return to Germany after being away for almost 20 years while Mike works in Berlin. Next, we take a train to Prague for a long romantic weekend. Lastly, we fly to Chengdu where I’ll experience China for the first time while Mike meets his Chinese team.

The beginning of the trip goes as planned. The second half of the trip, not so much.

Berlin is beautiful and Prague is charming. Sunday morning, we leave our boutique hotel in Prague to catch a train back to Berlin to catch our flights to China. When we arrive at the train station, we can see our train is delayed. This makes sense as the cab driver talked about some nasty wind storms sweeping across Europe. Delays happen. No problem.

But our delay turns into a cancellation due to downed trees. We don’t learn about this from the arrival board that simply keeps bumping the time to later and later but from checking the German train schedule online.

Ok, we now have a curve ball to deal with.

We try to find the two car rental places at the train station as Berlin is only 4 hours away by car. Heck, Mike and I still have German driver’s licenses from when we lived in Bavaria. This will be fun plus we still have time to make our flights to China if we hurry.

Sadly, one company quotes $300 for a one way drop fee. The other company that we finally locate outside the terminal and across the street, quotes us a $500 drop fee. This pretty much sucks as the actual car rental fee is only $45 per day.

I suggest we call the airlines to see if we can get a cheap flight directly to Amsterdam which is where we’re catching our direct flight to Chengdu tonight. Turns out, we could have gotten airline tickets for $72 per person IF we had booked them last week. But they now cost over $500 per person since it’s the day of departure.

We rent the insanely overpriced rental car and head for the autobahn.

The weather is still rainy and windy but we feel good about how we handled the situation. We see four different rainbows during this drive that brighten the day and cheer us on.

We arrive to Tegel Airport in Berlin almost 3 hours before our flight. Sadly, our plane is delayed and our connection time is tight. We find out when we finally land in Amsterdam that even though our flight does not leave for 15 more minutes, boarding is over and we will not be allowed on the plane. I want to cry.

After waiting in a rescheduling line, we are politely told there are no direct flights the next day. This means not only will we lose a day in China but our 10 hour direct flight will now turn into an 18 hour travel day. Now I want to scream. I consider flying home to the States and calling it quits. I see sadness in Mike’s eyes at this thought so I reconsider.

No good decisions are likely to be made with us both so tired so we head dejectedly to our complimentary hotel room. It’s 11:00 pm by time we fall into our two twin beds on roller wheels that have been pushed together. Mike pulls me over to his side of the bed and holds me tight. It’s been a full challenging day.

Crazy Fun: Day 2

Morning arrives the way it always does. I sense the calm below the turbulence of yesterday. I sit down to breakfast and notice the sunrise out the window. I don’t know yet what today will bring but I do know we will eventually make it to China.

Our first flight takes us to Guangzhou. I look out the window as we approach and I see a set of skyscrapers like you would in any large city. Then I see another set. And another. And another. I rub my eyes. There are over a dozen cities within this city. It feels like a science fiction book. I feel like I have arrived on another planet.

Our plane lands and we slowly make it through customs. Unfortunately, our luggage does not come out on the conveyor belt at the baggage claim area. Really? You got to be kidding me. Is there a hidden camera somewhere with a producer saying, wouldn’t it be funny if…

Last night, the airline told us they would forward our baggage to our rescheduled flight and the hotel would give us a travel kit with basic toiletries. At the time, this sounded like a reasonable plan. Now that our bags have obviously gotten lost, I think about how I would do it differently in the future.

Three hours fly by. Communication is an issue. Getting through security is an issue. Time is an issue. I look at my watch, our next flight leaves in 30 minutes. We try our best and even made it all the way back to the baggage area for the second time but this is not going to be enough. I surrender to the reality that our luggage is lost and if we don’t hurry, we’ll miss another flight.

Mike literally takes off running towards our gate which is on the other side of the airport. I follow him but can’t keep his pace. He looks back and I tell him to go hold a place for us in the security line. Sweat is dripping from us as we make it to the empty gate. Fortunately, this time the plane is waiting and we are quickly driven to it. The drive takes over 10 minutes as this airport is ginormous. We arrive to find we are the last passengers to board and the only Caucasians on the flight.

We settle into our empty seats towards the front of the plane. We’re happy we’ve made the flight but we’re anxious that we have no luggage. There’s nothing else we can do so we eat our first Chinese meal on the trip, which is quite satisfying, then fall asleep for the remainder of the flight. We usually do not sleep well on planes but exhaustion is like a magic spell so sleep comes easily.

It’s raining in Chengdu when we land. This is actually good as it will help with the air quality. AQI stand for air quality index. AQI measures the pollutants in the air. 50 or under is considered safe. At home in North Carolina, AQI ranges from 30-40. In Chengdu, 160-180 AQI ranges are typical. 500+ days are not unheard of. It dawns on me I take for granted the clean air and water I have at home.

We head immediately to baggage to report a claim. When we finally talk to someone who understands us, they basically say it’s not their problem and we need to contact the airline from Amsterdam. They reluctantly agree to make copies of our baggage receipts but we later find out no official claim is ever made.

We are taken to our hotel which is 5 stars based on US standards and customer service but at a 3 star price. Our room is on one of the higher floors and the view out our window that spans an entire 25 foot wall is breath taking. It’s after lunch but Mike still has plans of working a full day even though he has been traveling for the last 20 hours. He tells me not to worry about him and that he will aim for being back in the room after a working dinner with his staff. He kisses me goodbye before heading to the office.

I have work of my own to do and locate a customer service number for making an official baggage claim. Amsterdam tells me the lost baggage is not their fault and that the Chinese airline is the one who is responsible for making the claim. I get passed from one person to another. I struggle accepting the fact that nobody is going to claim responsibility. It reminds me of when I used to work at a middle school with 7th and 8th graders. Over an hour elapses and I have only minimal confidence about ever seeing our luggage again.

After hanging up the phone, I pause and reflect. What is going on? Why is this happening?

I frequently tell clients my belief that life is a school of sorts. To see if we have mastered certain lessons, we are given tests. This is my approach to challenges in life.

I think about the small book that I took with me while hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail. It contained basic Buddhist teachings. I liked the fact that they were simple and easy enough for me to condense into a personal mantra: Expect nothing. Embrace everything.

Perhaps this is the meaning. Perhaps this is the lesson I am being called to learn.

After trip update:

After hours of phone calls by myself, Mike and most importantly, our friend Wei Chengdong who speaks Chinese, our luggage was located. It turns out the airline in Amsterdam did not remove our original baggage tags so when they arrived to Guangzhou, nobody knew what to do. We ended up going 4 full days with the same set of clothes.

I spoke to a delightful young Chinese woman in her 20s who worked in the restaurant part of our hotel the night after our luggage finally arrived. She asked about our trip and I shared that we were from North Carolina traveling to Berlin, Prague and China. Her eyes lit up at the sound of the adventure and two words burst out of her mouth: CRAZY FUN! I laughed as she had no idea about the recent adversity but her phase couldn’t have described the trip more perfectly.

Additionally, while it was challenging, I am also aware our experience is what my daughter Chelsea would call a first world problem. I do not pretend we were ever without food, shelter or safety. For this, I am most grateful.

I’ve asked myself if I would do it again knowing what I know now. And my answer is a resounding yes.

I want more crazy fun as I approach this second half of my life. And this is exactly what happens when we expect nothing and embrace everything. What a wonderful lesson to learn.

Fontana Dam to Franklin

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's Journal2 Comments

Summer is over and the air of September is calling me back to the trail.

I make a last minute decision after looking at the weather to head out. Hurricane Irma has been named. She is big and ugly but it will take her over a week to reach where I’m headed. This is the beauty of section hiking.

I did a mini-hike over the summer around Fontana. The shelter there is referred to as the Fontana Hilton. This is because it is the only shelter on the trail to have hot showers and electricity. Actually, the shelter is not connected to the showers but they are relatively close by.

There is a really nice Visitor Center as well. I met a couple in their 70s who volunteer every year at the Center. I learn that Fontana Dam was built in the 1940s during World War II. Many saw it as a symbol of technological greatness and it added to morale during wartime.

The hike south of Fontana Dam has many views of the lake that enchant me. I end up stopping often to take it all in.

Halfway between Fontana and Franklin, I reach the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). I ask myself if this is a fun wilderness park or a man made monstrosity? I decide it’s both.

Rain is in the forecast for the evening so I secure a bunk in a bunkhouse and take a hot shower. I try to hide my end of day waddle that I attribute to lactic acid as I walk into the center of the NOC. I ask for seat outside at one of the two restaurants that overlook the river.

I pull out a copy of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I read it years ago and saw it on my book shelf recently. It seemed to call me to read it again so I brought it on this section in spite of it’s weight.

I read part of my current chapter and then put the book down to focus on being present. That is the point of the book after all.

I notice the juxtaposition of nature and commercialism but for some reason, I don’t feel like judging it like I normally would. My pizza and beer arrive and I pay attention to how freaking good they taste.

Soon into my second half of this section, I meet my first south bounder. A south bounder, or SOBO, is someone who starts in Maine and will finish in Georgia. His trail name is Rock. He tells me he started hiking the end of May. I question him about this as I know that Mount Katahdin doesn’t open till June 15th. He smiles and explains how he flip flopped starting south of Katahdin then headed north before beginning his true south bound hike.

Rock has made great time which is fortunate because he is almost out of money. In spite of this, his optimism abounds and I have complete faith he will make it to Georgia which is a week away with his 20+ mile per day pace he has achieved.

Another contrast strikes me as I look at him closely. He is emaciated and if I had to guess, down to 5% body fat. But he is glowing to me. He has a beautiful light inside him that I can see. Not with my eyes but with my heart. He has figured out how to BE. And BEing looks gorgeous.

The next morning I meet four Hispanic couples from Jacksonville, Florida. The are originally from all over South America: Columbia, Venezuela, Costa Rica. I have listened recently to an hour of my conversational Spanish lessons and say with a little too much confidence, buenos días! A woman beams and start speaking Spanish very rapidly. I have to interject and explain, no hablo muy bien. She laughs and says she was sure I was a native speaker based on my greeting. I laugh and a new friendship is forged.

I hike alone during the day, stopping often to try practice BEing. I am ashamed how little I do this anymore. What happened?

I think back to my first memory of napping in a diaper under a tree and waking up to notice the wind. I wasn’t yet two years old but I remember. I lifted my head, felt the wind, noticed the silence and then went back to sleep.

I remember college, early in my relationship with Mike. I stopped thinking about the past and worrying about the future. The only thing that mattered was the present moment. It felt light and freeing.

This section of the trail, like much of the Smokey Mountains has burned parts from recent forest fires. The fires were tragic to plant, animal and human life. But now there are wild flowers blooming and I have rare views due to the dead trees. Life follows death.

I finish my section knowing Hurricane Irma will be arriving within a day or two. I head home. This has been my most beautiful hike to date. I think of the mountain lake, of wildflowers blooming, of Rock and of my new Hispanic friends.

It’s time to remember how to BE again.

Smokey Mountain Surprise- Part 2

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's JournalLeave a Comment

I dropped off the other hikers in town. It’s my anniversary today. I start driving toward the cozy studio apartment I’ve rented with a view of Mount Leconte. The plan is for Mike to join me for the weekend and then I will finish this section of hiking.

Trees and downed utility poles line the road.

My most pressing concerns are the likely lack of electricity in the rental and the closed roads surrounding Gaitlinburg which might prevent Mike from getting here.

Goodnews has become my official trail name and I am beaming with good news when I arrived at the studio apartment to find the lights working. I love electricity!

I call Mike and explain the situation. He says a storm is not going to keep him from seeing his baby. True to his word, he makes it to Gaitlinburg in spite of multiple road closings and detours. I savor our time together. I want to stay wrapped up in blankets looking at Mount Leconte forever.

Sunday arrives too soon and I feel depressed about returning to the trail. Why do good things eventually have to end? Trying to help, Mike reminds me that I don’t have to do this and that I can come home if I want to. He takes me to lunch and I delay leaving as long as I can.

I want to go home but instead I go back to Newfound Gap and start hiking towards Collins Shelter. The ground is like a big slushy with melting snow and mud everywhere. My pack gets wet because I don’t think to cover it and my socks are soaked from my boots wading through too many ice puddles. When I arrive at the shelter, nobody is there so I strip out of my wet clothing and put on some thermals. I huddle up in my sleeping bag with a book on Buddhism and try to get warm.

I drift in and out of sleep. Passages from the book talk to me and my present situation.

And why is it you suffer?

I reply to this inner voice, “Enough already. I get it. I suffer because I desire things. Things like heat and my husband and real food and dry socks and my bed.”

The lesson that I am being called to learn is appropriate for the Smokey Mountains. I will hear the question, and why is it you suffer, repeated many time during this trying and beautiful section of the Appalachian Trail.

Klingman’s Dome has visibility when I arrive mid-morning. This is a treat. Many hikers arrive full of expectations of a panoramic view only to find clouds. That’s the thing about scenic places, you’re not guaranteed a scene if the weather doesn’t cooperate. But when it does, it’s breath taking.

My mood changes as the weather improves. The concept of impermanence is being showcased to me. There is so much for my soul to learn if I surrender to the trail. And if I continue to fight it, there’s sure to be more suffering.

My last night in the Smokies, I arrive at a rustic campsite after an 18 mile day. I’m tired but it’s a good tired. I indulge in an entire pot full of macaroni and cheese and tuna. With all the squeeze cheese and added oil I used, it is about a 1,500 calorie meal. I’ve been eating whatever I want when hiking and still have lost 5 pounds. That’s the perk of hiking up mountains and down mountains all day.

For all my earlier wanting to go home, I take my sweet time on the last day. I have coffee at the firetower and chat with a hiker from Maine. I watch wild turkeys scratching for food on the side of the trail. I look for the mama bear and her cubs that other hikers saw the day before near Fontana Dam.

Summer is around the corner and I’ve chosen to take some time off before attempting to make it to Springer, GA. I think about my son’s upcoming graduation, our family trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon when our youngest turns 21, a week visiting my folks in Cincinnati and my aunt at Lake Michigan. I am getting to travel and do things that I had put on hold for too long.

Fall will arrive before I know it and when it does, I’ll be ready to hike on.

Next Post: Fontana Dam to Franklin

Smokey Mountain Surprise- Part 1

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's Journal1 Comment

The Smokey Mountains are a mix of excitement and concern for an Appalachian Trail hiker. They are home to almost 1,500 black bears, have well maintained trails, beautiful scenic overlooks and some of the nicest shelters on the AT. But they also require a permit, have packed shelters during peak season and are known for harsh unpredictable weather.

I know this going into my south bound journey through the 72 mile Smokey Mountain section of the Appalachian Trail. I have chosen to break it down into two small sections as my anniversary falls in the middle of this trip. The first section will bring me to Newfound Gap, which is about mid-point. I will come off the trail for the weekend to stay with Mike in Gatlinburg. Come check out time on Sunday, it’s back to hiking the section section which will bring me to Fontana Dam.

The beginning of the trip is blistery hot. The day I climb Mount Cammerer, it’s in the 90s and I run out of water for the first time. I make it to the water source before Cosby Knob Shelter where I have a permit to sleep. Unfortunately, when I arrive late at 8:00 pm to the shelter, I see over 20 food bags hung on the bear cables. This is a bad sign. I push past the tarp that covers the entrance to the shelter and find over 20 hikers all bedded down for the night.

As a side note, the Smokey Mountains has a policy that section hikers and campers have to pick the exact shelters where they want to stay and the exact dates they will be staying. They pay a per night rate to stay in the shelters. If there is not availability, a permit will not be issued and different dates need to be selected. I struggled with finding open times and then thought I was good to go when I finally found open slots. Silly me!

Thru-hikers, on the other hand, pay a single lower price and are given a permit that allows them access to any shelter on any night, provided there is room. In theory, if the shelter is fully occupied by non-thru-hikers with valid permits, the thru-hiker forfeits shelter rights and instead must set up a tent.

This is why I am frustrated when a 20 something female hiker looks up when I come into the shelter and says, “It’s full. You can’t sleep here.”

I’m tired. I know the rules. I say out loud, “well, I have a permit that says I am supposed to stay at this specific shelter on this specific night so I guess you’re just going to have to make room for me.” An older male hiker sympathetically comments that other than the six people in his party, the rest are thru hikers who have conveniently ignored stated policy: Thru-Hikers must always give up bunk space in shelters to those with shelter reservations.

I nod but also recognize the pointless of rules that can’t be enforced. Plus, I also empathize with thru-hikers who do have a more challenging goal then section hikers like me. Although, by this time in my journey, I have put in as many miles as the North Bounders in this shelter.

I surrender to the scene and find a very narrow space on the shelf in front of the official bunk row. It just happens to be in front of the girl who told me to leave. She gives me a dirty look before pulling her sleeping bag over her head to retire for the night. The tension is still present but soon fades as everyone is tired and in need of sleep. As soon as I settle into my own sleeping bag, I see an enormously large mouse scurry over our hanging back packs. I ask myself, how can a mouse get that big?

I leave at sunrise and shake off the negativity from last night. I make a mental note to arrive before 5:00 pm to shelters if I want a better chance of getting a bunk space. It’s a full 14 mile day but I manage to arrive at the next shelter before dinner. To my surprise, it’s deserted. I shake my head thinking about the contrast to the previous shelter.

What is going on? Last night I must have run into the bubble. The bubble refers to the large group of North Bound thru-hikers who start within weeks of each other often creating a traffic jam of sorts along the way.

Eventually, a couple arrives at the campsite followed by a guy who looks like he is going to vomit. The guy is only a day into hiking and is majorly struggling. Another couple and a European man who could easily be on the cover of GQ walk into camp. The conversation turns to the incoming storm. Several individuals have received text alerts of incoming snow and up to 70 mph winds. Hikers are being asked to evacuate. This seems a little bit dramatic considering the blistery weather just a day ago but then again, this is what the Smokies are known for.

I set an alarm to wake up early and get my 12 mile day knocked out by lunchtime if at all possible.

The winds make their appearance before sunrise. I am concerned about the narrow ridges I must walk across. In some spots the trail is only 2′ wide and erosion is winning. The terrain combined with the 70 mph winds make this my most dangerous day on the Appalachian Trail to date. For motivation, I sing church tunes from when I was a kid at the top of my lungs. “Be not afraid, I go before you always…” I decide the person who wrote the song doesn’t know about positive word choice so I change the lyrics to, “be safe and calm, I go before you always.” I like this better.

I see no one all morning. The storm is picking up. The ground around a huge tree is heaving as its roots emerge. This tells me to be careful. I watch the tree and wait for a break in the wind. When it happens, I run past the tree as safely as possible with my full pack. I continue walking for about another minute before I hear the sound of it falling. I cringe and push on. The section near Charlie’s Bunion will be the last ridge and then it should start to feel more safe.

I feel almost giddy by the time I arrive at the Newfound Gap parking lot. On the sunny day when I left my truck, there were over 100 vehicles and tourists everywhere. Today the are only a half a dozen vehicles presumably left by hikers like me. And the road to town has been closed due to the storm.

As I get to my truck, I see two older men emerge from the trail, then a younger one. I ask them if they want a ride into Gaitlinburg. They gratefully say yes. Then I notice a whole slew of other hikers camping out in the restrooms. I tell them they are welcome to pack into the back of my truck and we will try to get through the closed road. They are ecstatic and appreciative.

We take off and a game of Frogger begins with my truck weaving around fallen branches and small trees. Occasionally, the truck’s tire will go over a limb and it will fly up into the air. I check the rear view mirror when this happens to make sure nobody in the back ends up hit by the debris. Each time I look, I smile because I see my cargo laughing and having fun.

We get to a curve where there is a large fallen tree and another truck that has been forced to a stop. This tree can’t be driven around. Two men from the other truck ask if we have a chainsaw. I shake my head. They say they have a hatchet and a hacksaw but it will be a slow process. Everyone jumps out the back of the truck and helps with the tedious chore of cutting the tree with hand tools. It takes a little under an hour, but adrenaline wins in the end and we get through.

By the time we get down the winding closed road and to the edge of town, our spirits sink because we notice that Gatlinburg is without power due to the storm.

Next Post: Smokey Mountain Surprise- Part 2

Hampton & Damascus

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's JournalLeave a Comment

I took time off the trail for Easter. My side of the family always comes to visit the farm and we often end up with close to 20 people at our house for holiday. We actually have enough bed space between the house and the barn to accommodate everyone.

Easter was great. I was so appreciative of having a refrigerator and a well stocked kitchen. It seemed easier than previous years. I suspect some of the adversity I have faced is helping me look at life differently. I am becoming more relaxed, more grateful and more present.

Easter is over and I need to resume logging miles. I am heading back to pick up where I left off. My new goal is making it to Hampton, Tennessee then further north to Damascus, Virginia.

By late morning, I see my first fellow hiker whose trail name is Weathergirl. She begins walking with me and her story soon emerges. Weathergirl has battled a slew of health issues. The trail is her personal determination to not let illness define her life.

Ominous looking clouds fill the sky by the end of the afternoon. There is supposed to be the Vango/Abby Memorial Hostel somewhere close by. It’s run by a previous thru-hiker named Scottie. We look for the wooden sign that lists the mileage remaining to get to Springer, GA. This is the only indicator for where to get off the trail to find the hostel. For a brief moment, I feel like a little kid on a grand adventure.

Another hiker, whose trail name is Wombat, is sitting on a bench attentively placed at a vista point right before the secret signage. We share the information about the hostel hidden in the woods and he says he will join us. Wombat is in his 50s and seems to be questioning why he is hiking the trail and how he got himself into this. He is nursing some injuries and seems homesick to me.

I am growing accustomed to seeing internal mental struggles in a hiker’s eyes. A combination of hardships and lots of time alone seems to be the cause. Doubt descends like a dark storm cloud and hikers start to second guess the goals they’ve previously set. This is a crossroad where every hiker must chose between pushing on or throwing in the towel.

Weathergirl and I head down a path and within several minutes see a charming clearing. We go to the main house and meet Scottie who gives us the key to the second story room that we’ll share for the night. After cleaning up, the rain begins and I watch it from our balcony. It’s lovely.

I take off early in the morning ahead of Weathergirl and Wombat. I am very protective of my time and I make sure to hike alone for parts of each day. I like talking to other hikers and hearing their stories but I must avoid the trap of putting on my counselor hat. Focusing on other’s needs has a way of distracting you from taking care of your own needs. The words, healer, heal thyself, repeatedly enter my mind.

In Hampton, I meet a trio including grandparents and a granddaughter. The grandfather is 70- the oldest thru-hiker I have met. The granddaughter is 14- the youngest thru-hiker I have met. We end up doing some sections together for the next couple of days. I seek to find a balance between times of solitude and times of connecting.

The granddaughter, a 20 year old section hiker from California named Robin and I all slack pack together. Watagua Lake is flooded from the recent rains. We can see the Appalachian Trail but it is underwater and we must detour at a higher elevation. Poison ivy is everywhere and by the end of the day, I have a nasty itchy rash surrounding my ankle. I will later find out this is actually heat rash and an allergic reaction I am having to the wool in my socks. None of this matters though because what is important is that I have completed my first 20 mile day.

Another day of hiking and Damascus arrives. I say goodbye to the trio and look around the famous trail town. It’s quaint and lively this time of year with many thru-hikers taking a zero day and resupplying. I will be heading home to see Mike and take a brief break. I have decided I will flip flop back to near Max Patch and begin hiking southbound through the Smokey Mountains.

Next Post: Smokey Mountain Surprise

Facing Roan Mountain

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's JournalLeave a Comment

Roan Mountain conjures images of dying by hypothermia for me.

While at my hiking workshop last December, a previous thru-hiker named Hailey shared her experience of being wet and cold to the point of hypothermia symptoms setting in on Roan Mountain.

She said her brain wasn’t working right and if it hadn’t of been for the help of other hikers who made her eat and then put her inside her sleeping bag, she might have not made it through the night.

This is the story playing in mind when I wake up to howling high winds and a gloomy dark sky with the goal of getting to the top of Roan Mountain by day’s end. I quickly pack up my tent and am grateful when I see my food bag still hanging in the tree where I left it.

I walk at a decent pace putting in 5 miles by 10:00 in the morning when I arrive at the Clyde Smith Shelter. To my surprise, there is a party of sorts going on.

There is a man named Paul, trail name “Half Price”, who is drinking a hot cup of tea on his bunk. Paul is originally from England and he shares some of his tea with me.

Three younger guys in their late teens and early twenties that I had seen the previous week near Erwin TN are cooking a gourmet breakfast of eggs, cheese and wild leeks. Their approach to the trail has been a combination of hiking and partying whenever they come to a town or a hostel with resupplies.

Everyone is talking of a storm front coming our way. The forecast is calling for buckets of cold rain. Hailey’s story of Roan Mountain flashes in my mind. The four of them are done hiking for the day regardless of the mere two mile hike they put in from the hostel they slept at last night. They suggest I do the same. I don’t like the idea of stopping before my destination goal and yet, there is no way I will make it uphill to the top of Roan Mountain before the storm.

I claim a bunk space in the shelter and pull out my food bag to find something to eat.

The rain begins about an hour after I arrive. A continuous stream of soaked hikers appear: a group of men and male students from a high school in Ohio, a couple from the Netherlands, a father and daughter pair. The shelter is now over capacity. New arrivals see this when they poke their heads into the shelter and then retreat to pitch their tents in the rain.

I am cold and get into my sleeping bag by dinner time. Tomorrow I will make up for lost mileage.

Morning arrives and I get an early start. It’s bitterly cold in the high 30s and I have no regrets about the decision to stay dry at the shelter. I think about two of the hikers who stopped only long enough to eat lunch and then pushed on. I hope they are ok.

I hike 9 miles, almost all uphill, and make it to Roan Mountain Shelter by lunch. The shelter is a log cabin with a sleeping loft. It is dark and shaded and feels eerie to me. I quickly eat and refill my water containers then head on.

If I want to get back on schedule, I will need to walk 8 more miles to get to Overmountain Shelter which is a huge converted barn with great views. 17 miles is ambitious but if the weather cooperates, I think I can do it.

I walk alone the entire day. I reflect a lot. I think about my life. It’s half way over. What do I want to do with the second half?

My legs and feet ache as I push past Stan Murray Shelter determined to make it to the barn.

After an embarrassingly slow pace, I see the sign for Overmountain Shelter. Not knowing if there will be a privy at the shelter, I decide to empty my bladder in the woods. I have learned how to squat and pee without having to take my backpack off. I am proud of this skill that saves time and is very efficient. I assume the position like a dozen earlier times but something is different. The weight of my pack is too heavy for my tired legs and they give out.

My backside lands in the dirt as my bladder responds to the earlier signal to eliminate. I have no choice but to go with the flow so to speak. I look around once again for some hidden camera I believe the universe uses for moments just like this.

I laugh at myself and the humor contained in the embarrassing moment. Eventually, I pick myself up and clean off. I head down the side trail to the shelter where I can now see other hikers and a beautiful view.

My day is coming to an end. I see Paul and we agree to hike together the next day over Hump Mountain. It will be a relatively easy 9 miles that will take me to my truck. I need to get home before Easter.

Next Post: Hampton & Damascus

Monsters in the Night

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's Journal6 Comments

I wanted to ease into things.

Hence, the weekend day hiking trip with my spouse Mike followed by the four day section hike with my classmate Dave. This would assure no extended time alone. It felt safe and familiar.

Now it is time let go of safety even if it means facing my personal monsters in the night.

I have spent time alone with my inner self in the past. I have a broken part that is fractured and wants to heal but doesn’t quite know how. It is this broken self that stays hidden and can go unnoticed when I keep busy and distracted. But keeping overly occupied isn’t a formula for success. Living in high gear without direction is neither sustainable nor fun.

I am now seeing this hike as my own journey versus sharing in my son’s journey. Kerry’s been trying to get this point through to me quite some time. He explicitly commented from the beginning, “mom, you gotta hike your own hike.”

Which is fortunate because he recently called to informed me that his stress fracture in his foot is not healing and his hike will need to be put on hold. This comes after he has already told Microsoft he is leaving. Not having a job doesn’t seem to worry or phase him. Unlike me, he is not afraid.

I tell my clients that life is full of curve balls. And instead of trying to duck when life throws us one, we are better off learning how to hit curve balls.

So I will continue hiking my own hike of 500 miles.

My current section takes takes me beyond Erwin, TN. And my first day, I meet Karin, a woman in her late 50’s from Germany. She delights in my broken German and we talk all afternoon, eventually making it to a campsite with plenty of other hikers.

Time passes by. Karin pushes ahead, also being a stronger hiker than me. I don’t mind being slow. It’s only a problem when I feel I have to be something I am not. When I accept who I am and what I can do, it becomes easy. And even though I am alone at the end of a long day, it feels good when I make it to Erwin.

It’s Friday and Mike is waiting for me. He smiles as he walks across the bridge to where I exit the forest. He will be with me all weekend at a local Farmstay. We have a bed and bathroom all to ourselves. It feels more luxurious than some of the 5 star hotels I have stayed at. Luxury is relative to one’s current state of existence.

The weekend feels literally and figuratively like the top of the world. We enjoy the panoramic views from Beauty Spot and enjoy delicious homemade food. But Sunday afternoon comes sooner than I like and Mike drops me back off alone on the trail.

My sad heart gets sadder as evening approaches and I make it to a campsite where no other hikers have stopped.

I set up my tent and hang a bear bag for the first time alone. It’s pathetically comical watching me throw my bag over a branch 20 feet high. I finally get my food secured enough to feel safe and crawl into my tent.

The wind howls and I ask myself, why am I doing this?

Then I remember. I don’t want to run away from the things that scare me. I want to face them and overcome them. I know I can do this. I think about my favorite quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

“Fear is the mind-killer. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

I say it to myself several times until I know I will be fine tonight.

Next post: Facing Roan Mountain

Official Hike Begins

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's JournalLeave a Comment

I am meeting a hiking classmate named Dave to do a four day section together. He is a much stronger hiker than me but agreed to daily mileage that I can handle.

My goal is to hike four days with Dave, head home for the weekend, and then hit the trail again the following week.

What I find almost immediately into hiking is that shelters are pretty creepy if you are not used to them. We stay at Spring Mountain Shelter our first night. This is basically a simple lean-to that is enclosed on three sides and open on one side. Our shelter is full with five sleeping bags occupied by five hikers side by side. I am the only female.

You can hear everything in a shelter: people turning over on their crackly sleeping pads, night owl hikers conversing, digestive issues likely stemming from poor diets, and mice scampering around looking for tasty treats not hung in bear bags.

When I first get into my sleeping bag for the night, I have a claustrophobic moment. I tightly close my eyes and wish for a “Go Home” button to push. Sadly, no button appears and I am stuck here for the night.

Morning arrives with minimal sleep but all my earlier fears melt with the light.

Our second night, we decide to tent instead of using the shelter. I use a one person tent that Dave lends me since my own tent did not ship in time. About an hour after heading to bed, a massive thunderstorm passes through. Lightening stricks multiple times less than a mile north of us and over 2 inches of rain fall in less than an hour. Again, I want a “Go Home” button to push. And again, no magic button appears.

It strikes me as both embarrassing and true that I have slept in a bed my entire life, which is why sleeping outdoors is not very familiar to me. It’s out of my comfort zone. And yet, this is also something I am looking for. I want to be out of my comfort zone.

I hike alone the next day and enjoy magnificent views from Big Firescald Knob. I pull out a book to read on Howard’s Rock. I am grateful as a novice hiker to have even made it to this spot. And to have a perfectly clear day on this ridge is a special treat.

Dave and I meet a stray hiker that we fondly dub Whiskey Dan. Dan is a university professor who hikes to clear his mind and get out of the city. Dan asks our last day if it would be ok to hike with me. I say I don’t mind so long as he doesn’t mind going at my pace. He agrees and begins walking behind me within talking distance. He is soon sharing some of his very tragic recent life events with me.

Sometimes talking to somebody about the stuff you are holding inside can help. I know this well and Dan knows I am counselor which is why I think he’s chosen me to talk to.

We finish day four of hiking and head back to Hot Springs. All three of us hobble out of my farm truck when we get to town. We head into Iron Horse Station and have a farewell dinner.

The beer is cold and the food is good. We finish the meal and then say good bye to each other. I have completed my first section hike with multi-overnights sleeping in the woods.

As I walk to the truck, I think about the discomforts I’ve experienced: freezing morning temperatures, being scared at night, sore legs and feet. But I also think about the positives: fresh air and exercise, the time away from my office, the beautiful views and the great people I’ve met. I think duality is helping me appreciate life more.

I smile and climb into my truck to head home.

Next post: Monsters in the Night

20 miles in 2 days

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's JournalLeave a Comment

My sabbatical from work starts in 1 week so I think it is time to start some preliminary hiking.

Being a bit anxious, I am picking the only part of the Appalachian Trail I am familiar with: Hot Springs, the site of my hiking workshop last December.

My goal is hiking from Max Patch, a well-known bald, to Hot Springs in North Carolina. Bald is an interesting word that I hadn’t heard before in reference to a mountain. Like a person who no longer has hair, a bald is a mountain that does not have trees at the top of it. This makes for some really beautiful and impressive views.

I am hiking an easy 6.6 mile section by myself into Hot Springs. Then I will check into the hostel, have Mike join me for dinner and complete the more difficult 13.2 miles the next day.

I check the weather forecast which is calling for 45 degrees and cloudy. No problem, right?

I drive to where my GPS says there is a parking area next to the Appalachian Trail that will lead me by foot north into Hot Springs. The paved back road becomes an unpaved dirt path. I swear in my head I hear banjos from Deliverance playing. Then the brush clears and I see a tiny space to park my farm truck.

I get my pack out and begin my hike.

It’s quiet for the first mile then I hear someone else. I look behind me and see a tall person whose gender I can’t yet make out carrying a huge backpack. A few minutes later, I meet Sarah, a young women in her 20’s. Sarah is athletic, quiet and sweet. She has already hiked the El Camino de Santiago, a famous hiking trail in Spain.

Sarah slows to my pace and we walk together until arriving at Deer Park Mountain Shelter. There she shows me one of the items inside her enormous pack. It’s a small guitar. I’ve heard of hikers carrying unlikely items in their backpacks and Sarah confirms this does sometimes occur.

I leave Sarah happily filling her water bladder at a tiny stream when we part ways. Bladder is a new word I learn that refers to a bag like container that can be filled with water and later filtered for drinking. I actually have a 32 ounce one that came with my filter that is in my backpack. I just didn’t know it had a name.

I move on to finish my section and check-in to our lodging before Mike arrives. He manages to join me in time for dinner.

After dinner, we head back to the hostel while Mike is disappointed to learn there is no TV to watch the basketball game. But he is resourceful and finds a way to listen to it on his phone. After the game, he falls asleep while I think about tomorrow’s high mileage hike.

In the morning, we pack up and head out.

Unfortunately, the forecasted 45 degree cloudy weather is inaccurate. Today it is actually 24 degrees and snowing. Apparently, many towns near the AT are at lower elevations and can have different weather than the higher elevations where you are actually hiking. Who knew?

I had imagined a leisure pace with many breaks at scenic settings. I’d laugh right now if I wasn’t so cold. It sadly hurts our fingers and our core temperature to stop more than 5 minutes. Our only real break of the day is at Walnut Mountain Shelter to quickly eat a peanut butter sandwich which even frozen, tastes better than I expect it to.

Mike pushes on and I try to complain as little as possible since I am the reason we were doing this hike. And surprisingly, after 7 plus hours at a very respectable pace for non-hikers, we arrive exhausted at our farm truck.

Steam comes off my feet after I take off my boots and socks. I thank Mike for coming with me and tell him I can’t imagine I would have made it if I was by myself.

As Mike drives us back to town to pick up our other vehicle, I start silently wondering if I am capable of doing this journey on my own. I guess there is only one way to find out.

Next post: Official Hike Begins