Today has been my first “zero day” on the trail. A zero day is a day when you don’t hike at all. Totally take the day off. A “nero day” is a “near zero,” where you do short miles, usually on your way to town. Like if you hike just 2 hours in the morning or something and then get into a town. I’m aiming for about 1 zero a week, but Nero’s are pretty common whenever we need to get into a town to resupply. It is very nice to be here in Blairsville just to sleep in a comfortable bed for a change and get a hot shower. Last night we all pigged out at the all you can eat pizza and salad buffet. We don’t get any fresh fruits and vegetables on the trail, so I ate a huge salad during that meal. After that everyone headed over to a bar to have some drinks, so I peeled off and came back to the motel to catch up on internet stuff. Great to hear from many of you. Your words of encouragement or questions about how this is all going really help to give me a boost out here! Some people tell me they have always dreamed about doing this trail, but are now too old or have health issues that prevent them from doing it. They say they are living this trip vicariously through me. Another friend is reading this blog with her 2 twin 7 year old (?) grandsons and sharing it with them. I carry all these stories a with me as I hike, and they definitely inspire me to keep pushing when it gets tough.
Zero days are nice to relax for a bit, but they are certainly not just lay around days. We need to sit down and go through the guidebook to figure out how far we will go for our next chunk, where we will camp each night, how many miles per day, and where the next town stop will be. Then we have to go grocery shopping for our food for the next set of days. After that I need to catch up on internet stuff, replying to all of you, posting videos and photos, doing stuff for the charity side of things, catching up on news, etc. And of course do laundry to wash all the stink clothes we have been wearing. We only carry 2 sets of clothes (yes including underwear and socks), one for hiking and one for the camp. When we are doing laundry, we just wear our rain gear around town. And of course the shops and stuff we need around town can be spread out in different areas, so there is definitely some walking involved even though we are off the trail. But at least we are not carrying our heavy backpacks with us!
A friend of mine from Georgia said that there is Atlanta and then there is Georgia. I spent a couple of days in a suburb of Atlanta just before starting the hike so I got to see that end of things. Very diverse in that area. All kinds of international restaurants and people. Seemed pretty cosmopolitan. Here in Blairsville, I am starting to see more of the “Georgia” side of things. Really cool little town and everyone has been super friendly and helpful to us. But it is definitely an all-white town and part of the Bible-belt. A lot of Christian slogans and postings in the restaurants, our motel, etc. Plenty of pro-military, pro-vet, and strongly patriotic flags and things around. Definitely a politically conservative area. It’s interesting and different for me to experience, since most of my life I have lived in pretty liberal areas. Fun to observe. I was telling another hiker today that I feel like a student in a college town being here. You know how college towns have the college, but also the regular town with regular people living their lives? And these regular people are proud of having the college there and support the athletics and events, etc. But at the same time, many of the people could do without all the crazy 18 and 19 year olds running around doing all the crazy 18 and 19 year old stuff. That’s what it feels like here, except it’s US rather than the college students. The people here seem proud to be a town near the AT, and happy to have the business that hiker season brings each year, but probably could do without all of us taking over their town each spring. We roll 10-15 deep into restaurants to the all you can eat buffets, take up a huge section, and generally are pretty loud and smelly from all the hiking. Same goes with grocery stores and bars. Don’t get me wrong. People are very welcoming. But I can also understand if they are a little overwhelmed with all of it too. We swarm in, have all our needs to get taken care of in a day or two, and then zoom out and back on the trail again. And the next day another whole group rolls in. Interesting little subculture here.
It is quite social here on the trail. People have quickly made groups to hike together and hang out in towns. These groups will split up as people start hiking different distances, and we will all reform into new groups multiple times as we move north. I find myself hanging on the edge of the group. Perhaps some of it has to do with my age. Most people on this trail are just out of college or retired. I’m one of the rare ones that falls in the middle. I do like to socialize and meet these people and have some laughs. But I also feel like I have a lot to do to get ready for the next section. It’s kind of a two edge sword. It’s nice to share motel rooms to save money, or walk to the store with a group to shop. But then everyone is on a slightly different time schedule, so you end up having to wait on people and lose some time. I’m starting to feel like I just want to head off alone and get my stuff done when I am ready. And I also like to have some quiet time to read a book, blog like this, catch up on the internet, etc while I am in town. On the trail, I am always the first one out of camp early in the morning and so I hike alone for many hours before I see any other people. I hear stories in the afternoons or evenings of people hiking together or running into each other on the trail. I enjoy the solitude and early mornings alone, but sometimes feel like I may be missing out on some opportunities to make friends and socialize more. And I do feel people kind of looking at me a bit funny, like why am I not spending more time with the group. I don’t know. Just trying to find my balance out here between my own time and time with people. Sometimes I think that the overwhelm of this huge journey is driving people to connect in big social groups, and all the drinking and weed smoking that goes on all the time. Like a buffer from the fear. But I know that it is also fun to socialize and hang with people as we go along this journey. I just find it hard to balance both with how full our days are. Anyway, I will find my balance eventually.
Back on the trail tomorrow, heading for Whitley Gap. The creature comforts have been nice, but soon it’s back to reality.
Left town and got back on the trail today. As we were getting up and getting ready for the day, one of the other hikers commented “I wish I was more like you, Micah. You got all the stuff done that you were supposed to during our town break. Most of the rest of us just hung out and drank.” That was interesting to hear, since yesterday I had been feeling conflicted about bring in my room blogging and getting stuff ready while everyone else was upstairs hanging out. Again, just finding my balance between the 2, but definitely need to stay on top of things first and foremost.
Had breakfast in town and then hitchhiked the 14 miles back to Neel Gap where the trail starts again. Got a ride in about 15 minutes from a guy with a pickup. The 2 of us got in but then just a bit down the road we saw maybe 6 more of our group hitchhiking, so he picked them up too. Very nice guy. He said he picks up hundreds of hikers. This guy actually has a relative living out in Waianae in Hawaii and was living out there with him for a bit once.
Got to Neel Gap and bought a couple last supplies at the outfitter there before getting on the trail. Late start for me, around 10am. Hiked alone for a bit, but Ian and Becker caught up to me and so I hiked with them the rest of the day. That was unusual but a nice change for me. Usually I’m up so early that I hike alone all day. Was nice to have some conversation while we hiked. We took a nice long lunch break at the top of a mountain with a beautiful view, and then stopped a couple more times to chat with day hikers. Most people are curious about the world of thru hiking and have questions. Was a pleasant change today. Usually I’m kind of locked in to getting my miles in and getting to the next camp early enough to chill. Today meandered a bit more but was a good change of pace.
You know, one thing I really enjoy out here is the cast of characters that I have met. This guy Richard (trail name: Old Man) is out here in his late 60s and is struggling through but making it every day. And he is the whackiest, zaniest, most off the wall guy you have ever met. He is hilarious. We are all in tears several times daily. He really helps to keep the mood up out here. Today many from our larger group hiked further to Low Gap, a 12 mile day. But Old Man, Becker, Ian, and I were not up for going that far, so the 4 of us have become a smaller group for now and are having an absolute blast hiking and camping together. We get spread out hiking at different paces, but all met up here at Whitley Gap tonight and have again been cry laughing at Old Man’s antics. The only problem with this shelter is that it is 1.2 miles off the AT on a side trail. And the last part before the camp site was all downhill. So that means that tomorrow we have to walk back up that hill and 1.2 miles just to get back on the AT. But it fit mileage wise for today, so we came here. Tomorrow will be another 7 or 8 mile day to Poplar Stamp Gap, and then we are shifting up to 10 miles a day after that.
It was great to be in town and rest up for a day, but it feels really nice to get back out here on the trail and start hiking again for our next 5 day section.
Up and on the trail by 7:45 this morning. Late last night we suddenly hear this super loud scream. Almost sounded like a woman screaming at first, but it was clearly an animal of some kind. I thought it was an owl, but today other people were saying it was probably a bobcat. Bit of a climb getting back to the AT from our camp site. I decided to hike this morning with the podcast “This American Life” from NPR on the headphones. That was actually really good to listen to on the trail. Really took my mind off the hiking and took me to some interesting places. A few times I had to laugh out loud. I looked around to see if anyone was hiking behind me, but luckily I was alone. Probably looked like a crazy dude laughing his way through the woods. Lol!
While hiking, I was surprised to see 2 guys from our group hiking back the way we had all come. Turns out one had knee problems and the other guy had shin splints. They were heading back to town to rest for a few days on the advice of a physical therapist named Joe that we are hiking with. He said they should be good as new in 5 days or so. Was a good warning tho. Those guys had gone ahead with part of the group to hike a 12 mile day the day before. Me and a few others kept it at 7-8, thinking we weren’t ready for that long of a day yet. And even though they were already having problems, these guys pushed on and joined the 12 mile group. Really pays to err on the side of lower miles this early on. Hopefully those guys get healthy soon and can get back out here.
I dropped down into Low Gap towards the end of the day, and met a family camping down there. Turns out they were a missionary family of 6 with a small dog and are planning to hike all the way to Maine! The youngest kid was only 9. They told me they were not preaching, but just being walking examples of pure love. Very interesting and kind people. I took some video of them telling their story, and I told them about my charity hike. They dad then excused himself and goes back into his tent and comes back with a $50 bill to donate. Really surprised me. He said they are not rich, but always like to give and have never been homeless or gone hungry.
We are now camping at Poplar Stamp Gap. No shelter here, so just a few people here. It did start raining on the trail a couple of times for the first time since I’ve been hiking, but it was just a light sprinkle. When I got to camp I started stretching as is my routine before I set up my tent. It started raining lightly again and I ignored it, but suddenly it became a pretty steady downpour. Apparently it rains a lot on the AT, so I finally got to experience it. The problem is that I have an ultralight tent, which means that most of the walls are mesh. So between the time that I set up my tent and the time that I get the rainfly on, lots of rain gets in. I have to mop it out with my camp towel. Not too bad, but makes everything damp in my tent. Just another layer of challenge out here. Tomorrow is supposed to rain in the afternoon, and then snow is forecast for Wednesday. We will see. I called and reserved us a motel room to share on Thursday in Hiawasse, our next resupply town.
I set up to cook dinner last night, but forgot to extend the arms on my stove to better balance the pot. So of course after a couple of minutes, my pot falls off the stove and my noodle and rice dish goes into the dirt. I was thinking I was stuck with just a Snickers bar for dinner, since we only carry just enough food for each day to keep the pack weight down. But right away, after everyone groaned at what just happened to me, this girl named Spice (trail name) steps forward and hands me her dinner. She had cooked and dehydrated all her own meals and said that she had packed enough food for 14 days. Not sure how or why she was carrying that much food, but I was hugely grateful to her for sharing what she had. People are amazingly kind like that out here. Turned out to be some pretty tasty food too. Beans and quinoa. I got lucky there. Spices told us that it was only her 3rd day on the trail, and she started at the same place we did. Took us 8 days. She is a runner and in quite good shape, so is starting out doing 15-20 miles a day. Very impressive that she was able to do that! Hope she’s not overdoing it tho.
Nice hike today. After 7 hiking days of 7-9 Miles, I pushed it up to 9.8 miles today. That has been the plan all along. I’ll hike 10 mile days for another week and then bump it to 12, as long as I’m feeling good. This was advised to me by a guy back in Hawaii who did this whole trail. Passed by the missionary family as they were breaking camp this morning. Still amazed that they are doing this with a 9 year old and a small dog.
The last 3 miles of the hike today dropped me 1000 ft. down into Unicoi Gap, and then another 1000 ft. back up to to top of Rocky Mountain where I’m camping tonight. As I got to the bottom on Unicoi Gap, there was a parking lot there with a group of people who had a whole BBQ grill and table of food set up to feed us hikers! This is what is called “trail magic” out here. People who want to support thru-hikers like myself just set up from place to place and give us food, drinks, and sometimes even invite us to their homes for showers, dinner, and a warm bed. It’s incredible. I have read a lot about it, but today was my first time to experience it. Turns out it was a church group out doing some doing some good deeds and showing hikers some love. I was planning to stop at this exact spot for lunch anyways, but instead of my tortillas with cheese and salami, these kind people were serving hamburgers, hotdogs, chili, cornbread, chips, cookies, and sweet tea. Unreal! I tucked in and had myself a very nice lunch. I was able to share with them about the charity hike I’m doing, and they took my website info down and promised to share it. I’m sure glad I didn’t stop for my own lunch a bit earlier!
Now I’m all set up in my camp here. My 3 buddies always leave later than me. I’ve been doing the mileage planning, and they are happy to just follow the plan I make. I just looked at miles and not elevation or terrain for today’s section, and have ended up camping on top of a mountain. Great view, but a bit windy at times and it is supposed to rain and snow tonight. Not a totally ideal spot if the weather gets bad, but so far it’s fine. The next campsite is 2 miles further on, and I’m not up for and more hiking today. What’s more, there is no water source here, so I had to stop a mile before camp and load up with 5 heavy liters of water and carry it up the rest of this mountain. So I certainly didn’t want to carry all that water weight any further. We will see if my friends make it. I’ve already been here about 3 hours. Maybe they made a different plan. Either way, we will all end up in Hiawassee on Thursday. I called and reserved a motel for us there already.
My friends never made it last night. I had some reception and checked my phone before bed, and they had texted saying the weather was too bad so they headed for town. So I camped alone on top of Rocky Mountain. I was was worried about any strong wind on the mountain with the weather. It did get very windy, but the wind stayed up high in the tree tops and not down where my tent was. The night passed smoothly, but when I woke up I found that the weather man hadn’t been lying about the snow. Not a ton, but enough to stick. Didn’t feel like dealing with it so I went back to bed for 45 minutes, but eventually had to leave my sleeping bag and start getting ready. It was around 32 degrees (0 C).
It was still dark when I got up, and one of the first things I had to do was poop. In the dark. With a headlamp. In the snow. In the wind. In the cold. And no outhouse. Wow, that wasn’t fun at all. Due to the elements, I had to forego the awesome backcountry bidet that myself and one other hiker invented. The Sawyer Squeeze water filter that I was carrying before gets clogged every so often, and has to be back flushed. They include a large syringe (no needle) to do the back flushing. So we figured out that we could back flush our own backsides using that same syringe. I threw away my filter after it froze, but kept my syringe to try out this method. The only issue was how to bring extra water to get several “shots.” So I asked the guy at the gear outfitter and he recommended a small, wide-mouth bottle to fill with water and take with you for refills. I tried this method out 2 mornings ago when it was warmer, and it was quite successful! After coming back from Asia where they use the water hose method, I simply hate toilet paper, so this is a great discovery for me. Especially out here where we don’t shower for 4-5 days at a time. Way more hygienic and less abrasive.
Did 10 miles today in the snow and cold. Actually the water source for this camp site tonight, Addis Gap, is a 1/2 mile away, so after I set up camp I had to walk an 11th mile to get water. At least I didn’t have to carry my pack tho. Didn’t see a single soul hiking all day. Guess everyone bailed into town to escape the cold and snow. It is really cold here. Can’t do anything except lay in my sleeping bag. It’s supposed to drop to 23 degrees tonight. I’m warm enough, but wearing every article of clothing I have with me inside of my sleeping bag. My iPad battery was dead as soon as I got out here from the motel (not sure why), so no books to read. Need to conserve cell phone battery, so just using it to blog now and then save it for GPS access on the trail tomorrow.
Tomorrow I will head into Hiawassee. Half day hike- just 5.5 miles. Hope to be there by lunchtime. I’ve decided to try out a system of hiking for about 5 days and then taking a zero day the next day. That gives me a day and a half (2 nights) in town if I plan it right. I know some people who have taken only 5 zero days for the entire hike!!! But others encourage taking them as often as you feel you need them and enjoy the hike as much as possible. At this point I just feel like despite the fact that it will extend my hike, I will need those days off every 6th day or so just to keep mentally sane and keep going. 5 days at a stretch out here is a long time, especially with all the miles we hike and especially if it’s cold, snowy, or rainy. I feel like I’m going to need to go quality over quantity if I’m going to be able to hang with this for the long term. Very much looking forward to the hot shower and hot meal in town tomorrow!!!
PS. Ahhhh! What a tease! I just heard some lady outside my tent talking to other campers here. She said, “I got hot chocolate and food for you guys, and I have my car here if you want to warm up inside.” (We are camped near a dirt road.) My first thought was YEA!!! More trail magic when we need it most!” So I crawled out of my nice warm sleeping bag and went to go investigate. Turns out there are a couple guys who are combat veterans and are being sponsored to do this as a means of recovering from PTSD or other related issues, and this lady is supporting just them. Damn! Oh well. I’ll still be in town tomorrow for all the good stuff. They can have their damn hot chocolate. Nope, I’m not envious at all. Lol!
The lady (Momma Goose- has thru-hiked both the AT and PCT) just came and knocked on my tent. No hot chocolate, but she gave me a sub-sandwich that will be my dinner. Super nice of her. More trail magic. Ok, so now I take back all the mean things I muttered under my breath about her earlier. Haha!
Some extra motivation to get out of bed this morning in the dark and cold. Town day! Got on the trail at 7am. Had only 5.5 miles to do to get to the road where the motel shuttle would pick me up. Pretty easy hiking day. On the way down, I ran into my buddies who I got separated from a couple days ago. I guess they felt bad for getting separated, so after a night in town they decided to try to get back on schedule with me. They left their packs at the motel (called a “slack pack”) and did a long day hike with just food and water in the reverse direction. There were 2 spots on the trail to get off and get to Hiawassee, one before town and one after. They had gotten off at the before one, and now were getting back on at the after one where I was headed. They hiked 17.5 miles back to cover all the ground I had done in the past couple days but they hadn’t done yet, and then got a ride back into town. Very nice of them. Made me feel like a real member of the team. I hiked out to the road and got there a bit early. The shuttle from the motel arrived at 11:15am. I tried to hitchhike while waiting, but no luck, so just caught the shuttle when it came. Luckily the sun came out today and was melting all the snow and warming things up a bit, although it was still cold. Saw a couple hikers I knew passing by as I stood there. Cool how we all get to know each other and then just keep crossing paths here and there. As I was getting into the shuttle, another hiker said “Don’t get shot” at the Budget Inn motel. Turns out that a couple of months ago some guy caught his wife cheating with another guy here in this motel and shot him. High drama. I’ll be sure to keep away from married women while I’m in Hiawassee.
Came into town and went to find lunch. Of course ran into a couple more hikers who I knew and they invited me to join them. Had a huge fantastic meal, as we always do coming off several days on the trail. The girl with us looked glum and told me that they had stayed at the Holiday Inn the night before and there was an incident. Turns out people were smoking weed at the motel and someone called the cops. The cops somehow singled out their room and knocked. They came in with tasers pointed at her. No one was smoking in the room, but they had a pipe and a small amount of weed out on the table. The girl admitted to it being hers, and they proceeded to fine her $1700!!! Wow! Crazy punishment and way too high of a fine, but at the same time I have been feeling like people have been a bit too free with all that stuff at the motels in town. It goes on all the time on the trail, but I think people come into town and forget where we are. This is Georgia and this is the south. It’s certainly not California. The word has spread like wildfire, so hopefully people start being a little more discrete. Just because we hike, doesn’t mean we are exempt from local laws or conservative approaches here. Still feel bad for her tho. That’s a ton of money. She said she can survive it, but that would have taken another hiker off the trail for good.
Got my laundry done and took a hot shower (both huge blessings of town life), and then we went back to the same restaurant for dinner. My buddies Ian, Becker, and Richard (trail names: Natty Light, Natty Daddy, and Dirty Old Man Dick- or DOM D for short) all had arrived back from the long slack pack and joined us. The restaurant has a new challenge they just started. Eat a huge 1 pound burger with a basket of fries in less than 5 minutes and you get $5 off the $15 burger and you get a sticker saying you did it. I thought the prize was pretty lame. The burger should be free if you make it. But Natty Daddy and Natty Light had to try it. Of course they couldn’t finish it in time, but it was hilarious to watch them try. I’ll put the video on Facebook and my YouTube channel (Trekking Against Trafficking). Afterwards, I told the owner about my idea that the prize should be a free burger. He thought about it and agreed and said he would change the rules the next day.
Got to bed pretty early. So nice to have a warm bed and room instead of a tent. 4 of us shared the room as is customary to save money out here. Only 2 full sized beds, so we share. I shared with DOM D. He asked if I snore, and I said no, but half way through the night I woke up and he had moved to the floor. In the morning he said that I talk in my sleep. Lol! Guilty.
Full day off today! My 3 friends headed off today, as they took a zero yesterday. But we planned out our mileage so that I will meet up with them tomorrow night. They will just do 2 short days, and I’ll do 11 miles tomorrow. Then we will finally be back on track. Breakfast this morning was at Taco Bell. We thought they had the breakfast stuff but they didn’t, so it was just tacos and burritos to start the say. Oh well. Beggars can’t be choosers.
There is a satellite branch of the Mountain Crossings gear shop that we visited back in Neel Gap here, so I headed in to get some gear. Seems like there is always something to buy or change out. My awesome Broncos gloves fell apart. I was walking in the snow and cold with 5 fingers poking out yesterday. So got some nice new quality gloves, a lighter beanie cap, more fuel for my stove, some duct tape, and a couple more stakes for my tent so I can stake out the guy lines if it gets super windy. The guys there is supposed to be ordering me a hiking umbrella for tomorrow so I can take a look at it. Read about those and saw a guy using one the other day. People really swear by them. The handle tucks into your pack so your hands are free, and it keeps you drier while hiking and while having lunch, etc. I’m curious.
One rule I am learning is to always check the hiker boxes before doing anything else. Every motel or hostel sets up these boxes for us to leave things in that we no longer want or need. Also, when we grocery shop, we don’t need the 10 packets of oatmeal that come in the box. We only need 5. So the rest go in the hiker box. There are always all kinds of goodies in there, and you can get a lot of your food items from it. After buying the new tent stakes, I looked in there and found 7 of the exact stakes that I already carry, for free, so I returned the expensive new ones. Always check the hiker boxes first.
After that I walked to get my remaining grocery items for the week. I stopped at a local thrift store on the way as I needed some clothes to wear while I’m doing my laundry. People say to just wear your rain gear while doing laundry, but my rain gear gets muddy and dirty too out there and needs to be washed every week. So rather than walking around naked for a couple hours waiting for my laundry, or having to wait for a second wash cycle for my rain gear, I decided to try to find something cheap and light. Found these super ugly brown and yellow swimming shorts with some kind of Hawaii sunset theme on them and with the underwear already built in, and a fishing t-shirt in the racks. And for only $7. Perfect! I can’t wait to match those with my crocks next week when I’m doing laundry again! Got my groceries and some fresh fruit for some vitamins and now back in the motel to do my blogging, fundraising internet stuff, and catch up with all of you guys. Will post the blogs from the past few days too.
Gonna enjoy the rest of my zero day and then tomorrow morning it’s back to the trail universe.