Day 28 Nice day off today in Gatlinburg. Woke up to snow in the hills above us, so grateful that we were nice and warm down here. Heard they had sleet and snow up there and 20mph winds. Temperatures in the high teens. What a mess. I’m sharing a motel room with this guy Brian who I met on the trail. We rolled out of bed at a leisurely hour and made our way down to Crocker’s Breakfast Camp. There was a long line and we had to wait, so we wandered down to Starbucks to get a coffee. Met “Willy Walker” down there, a guy who I’ve hiked and camped with along the trail. Unfortunately, he got an infected blister on his foot and the doctor has laid him up for several days. Bummer. He’s an awesome guy. He has actually hiked the entire AT in sections before, and is attempting to do it all at once this time. Hope he makes it back. Once we got our table, I had a huge veggie omelet, grits with brown sugar, biscuit, OJ, and a cinnamon roll the size of my head to start the day. After that we headed over to the outdoor store to resupply. Finally I found some new underwear to replace the ones I had been wearing. I had Exofficio boxer briefs before which were recommended for hiking in. But they would always ride up- the legs would bunch up in my crotch and I was always trying to pull them back down. Very irritating while trying to hike. So I switched today to the regular brief style underwear, which hopefully will work much better. Have been looking for new ones for a few weeks now. They only had size XXL, which I thought would be too big, but I tried them on in the dressing room (shhh, don’t tell) and they fit perfectly. Thank God. Did our grocery shopping after that. I bought more food for breakfast than I have been carrying. I have only been eating one Clif Bar for breakfast and I don’t think that has been giving me enough fuel. Hopefully this extra food (and weight) will give me more energy on the trail. Also got some Mountain House dehydrated meals for dinner for the first time. You just pour boiling water into the bag and eat it from there. Way healthier with lots of vegetables and stuff in them, plus no dishes afterwards. Lightweight too. Only problem is that they cost a bit more, but I think it is worth it. Came back to the hotel and made an effort to shed some weight from my pack. Have definitely decided to ship the iPad mini home. It is Sunday, so I’ll head to the post office first thing tomorrow morning before the hike. Also dumped the guidebook. I have a PDF version on my phone and that should be enough. Tossed or replaced a few other small things, so hopefully the pack will be lighter tomorrow. Really want to weigh it and recheck my base weight (everything minus food, water, and fuel as they fluctuate). The outdoor shop has a scale but they don’t open until 10, so not sure if I’ll still be in town by then. Have 10.5 miles to do tomorrow, so don’t want to start too late in the day. Had my first 5 Guys burger experience for dinner, then my first ever visit to a Ben and Jerry’s shop after that. Came back to the hotel and was talking on the phone out on the lanai, when I suddenly saw a huge black bear run down the street! I couldn’t believe my eyes. It soon passed out of my view, but I saw some people running indoors and soon after a few police cars were here driving all around these streets looking for it. Guess that happens from time to time when there are so many bears in the area. Soon time for bed. Back to the grind tomorrow. It will be a longer push this time. 6 days to get to Hot Springs. Day 29 Arranged a taxi for 7:45am this morning to get to the post office. Couldn’t go on my zero since it was a Sunday. As I said, I decided to get rid of the iPad to save weight. I actually decided to send it to my niece as a birthday gift. It is her 13th birthday on the 13th. She broke her laptop a year or more ago, dropping it as she ran down the stairs, and hasn’t had one since. I bought a keyboard case for this iPad, so it will be like a mini laptop for her. Felt like I was forgetting everything this morning as I was trying to get going. I walked down to the taxi but then realized I had left the iPad in the room. Went back up for it and we took off, but then realized I’d left my trekking poles in front of the hotel room, so we had to go back. Too much laba laba. There was a free 8:30am and 11am shuttle back to the trailhead. I missed the 8:30 one because of the post office run, so had to wait. I went to the gear store for some more water purification drops and also to weigh my pack. I got rid of the iPad, my hiking umbrella, and the guidebook, so I thought my weight would be pretty low, however my base weight is still at 27 pounds, and with a 6 day supply of food, fuel, and 2 liters of water my total weight was 42 pounds. Still a lot more than I’d like it to be. That was frustrating. I went through my whole pack this zero day and really tried to eliminate anything extra. The only other thing I can think of is changing my trowel. I got a good one but there are lighter and more basic ones out there. But that won’t save too much weight. I’d love to get my base weight down another 5 pounds, but I just don’t see how. There are a lot of people out here with base weights of 20 pounds or lower. Many of them spent huge money to buy the very ultralight brands like Z-Packs for their pack and tent. Their tents use their trekking poles to set up rather than usual tent poles, and the material is super light cuban fiber that costs a few hundred dollars more. They look a little flimsy to me if it got really windy, but they are light. I invested in an ultralight tent and backpack myself, but just not to that level. My stuff is definitely sturdier and better padded than what they are carrying, but a bit heavier. Pros and cons. Well, I’ll try to get a shakedown from someone at a gear store sometime and see what they can recommend to lower my weight further. I tried to hitchhike up to the trailhead at 10:30am to save some time, but after a few minutes a cop pulled over and told me that hitchhiking is illegal in the city limits, so I had to wait for the 11am shuttle. The hike was good today. Gradual, not too steep. There was still a bit of snow left over from the last couple of days, and we walked through a lot of slush. The weather was dry though fortunately, as the forecast had predicted rain. Not too cold today, and the weather report is calling for highs in the upper 70s and sunshine for the next several days! Have a 13 mile day tomorrow to Cosby’s Knob Shelter (hehehe). I think it’s only another day and a half of hiking until we exit Smokey Mountain National Park. Day 30 Up and out by 7am this morning. 13.3 mile day of hiking, including the 0.4 miles back to the AT. Some shelters and campsites are located a bit off the trail, which is annoying since it’s just extra distance for us to walk at the end and beginning of our days. We are slowly descending since we are leaving the Smokies, so a good amount of flat and downhill today, although plenty of ups too. Am glad to be going down again, as it has been pretty cold up at this elevation. We are all waiting for some proper spring weather. The locals tell us it is unseasonably cold for this time of year. I didn’t see a soul for most of the day as I was hiking. Got ahead of everyone with my early start. But then I sat down for lunch at noon and a group I’d met yesterday on the shuttle zoomed by. Apparently they left 1.5 hours after me and still passed me. When I got to tonight’s shelter I expected to see them, but I hear that they pushed ahead and were doing a 23 mile day. Wow! One of the guys did the Pacific Crest Trail last year. He is a military vet, out here to heal his PTSD. He said it helps a lot until he gets into a big zoo like Gatlinburg, which freaks him out. I was the first one at the shelter today so got my pick of the campsites. Set up my tent and was relaxing, when a girl came by and announced herself as a “trail runner.” She works for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and has a full time job hiking her section of the trail and taking care of it. She picks up trash (30 lbs last week she said), checks hikers’ permits, and makes sure we are all following the rules out here. She is out here hiking and camping with us 5 days a week for 15 weeks, before returning to town and doing other tasks related to the AT. Interesting job. I wasn’t supposed to have my tent set up until the shelter fills up as per the park rules, but she let me slide. After a long day of hiking it would have sucked to have had to break down my tent and move all my stuff to the shelter. Last night the only place I had space to pitch my tent was on a bit of a slope. I was sleeping at an angle all night and always sliding to the side. Didn’t think it would be too bad when I set up, but I didn’t sleep too well last night as a result. I have a much flatter surface tonight, although still slightly slanted. I have a feeling I will sleep much better! By the way, you guys are blowing me away with the donations. It’s really overwhelming. I had a little reception on the top of a mountain today and checked. In the 2 days since I last checked when I was in town, it has shot up $550. We are creeping up on 11K. You guys are amazing. Thank you all so much again. Every extra dollar we raise really is helping a young woman out there to avoid an unspeakable life of being trafficked, and instead being given a huge amount of life opportunity through a safe place to live, a loving family environment, and a college education. Mahalo, you guys. You really are helping to change lives. Day 31 12.8 miles today. We continue to drop down out of the Smokies, so things are getting warmer. Saw quite a few wild flowers today which were beautiful. Overall, the scenery in the Smokies was amazing. The best so far. We left the park today which was a nice milestone. Everybody seemed pretty geared up about entering the Smokies, going over the highest point on the trail, etc. It did throw us a couple of really tough days, but overall wasn’t anything too crazy. Mostly the cold weather was the biggest issue. Glad to be camping warmer tonight. Just after I left the park, trail magic! A woman and her daughter from Mississippi were just on vacation, driving around the area, and they decided to get some snacks and drinks for us hikers. It was right at lunchtime, but they mainly had sweet snacks and fruit. I wanted to eat my lunch first, but I couldn’t help myself and had to dive in the sweets and fruit, then ate my lunch afterwards. Met a fellow hiker there, except she was a SoBo (south bound). She started in May of last year at the halfway point, hiked north to Maine, flip flopped back to the center and os now heading south to the finish. She took January and February off for the winter. She said her plan is to finish the trail in 364 days. Slow and low was her motto. Slow pace, low miles. We need to finish the hike within one calendar year to officially be called “thru-hikers,” so she will just qualify. She said she has taken tons of zero days and spent extra days at hostels in towns that she really liked. She is just putting a lot of emphasis on enjoying trip. She is hiking with a service dog, but the Smokies don’t allow dogs In the park and it’s a lot of red tape to get a service dog in, so she left it with a friend for a few days. She said she has been having a lot of anxiety without her dog, so she is going to up her pace from 15 miles a day to 25 while in the park, just to get back with her dog. Pretty inspiring lady. Was so cool that while we are just getting started, she is coming to the end of her trip. Hard to imagine. She said the 2 most difficult stretches have been southern Maine and Pennsylvania. There are only 5 of us camped here tonight at this site. It’s nice to be away from a hostel and be able to camp at a regular campsite, which we couldn’t do in the Smokies. Day 32 One month on the trail today! That feels good. Nice landmark as I go. A full month sounds like a long stretch of time to be out here. Like I have always been saying 6 months, 6 months, but now it’s down to 5. Chipping away. Keep chopping wood. Guess I am actually making some slow progress. Hiked my 3rd straight 13 mile day today. The terrain was a lot of uphill, so it took a while but I got here. I ended up taking a wrong turn about a mile before I got here to camp. I came down to what looked like a 3 way intersection and couldn’t figure out whether to go right or left. The white blaze said to go left, so I headed that way. But I didn’t see any more white blazes in that direction and the trail didn’t look that well traveled. It was actually a dirt road. But the opposite direction didn’t look any better, so I just headed that way. Walked for about a mile and then came to a stream. I knew the campsite tonight didn’t have a water source right by it and we had to get our water about 0.2 miles before the camp, so I checked my GPS to see if this was the closest water source. The GPS showed me quite a ways off the trail- I think I had walked for about a mile in the wrong direction. So I headed back and when I got back to that intersection, I saw that it was actually a 4 way intersection. With the dirt road running left and right, I hadn’t noticed that the trail just crossed it and kept going. So who knows, maybe I actually hiked 14 or 15 miles today. Oops. I maybe, hopefully have solved one of my physical issues. The muscle on the back of my left shoulder has been knotted up and causing quite a bit of discomfort while I’m hiking. I couldn’t decide if that was from my pack or trekking pole, but today I suddenly wondered if my trekking poles weren’t too long. They are adjustable and I have them at the max of 140cm each since I’m tall. So just to play around with it, I lowered both poles 5cm this morning. After a while, my shoulder/back muscle stopped hurting and didn’t bother me again the rest of the day. One day of this doesn’t prove anything, so I’ll keep with this adjustment for a few more days and see how it goes. But I’m cautiously optimistic. One less thing to bother me. The balls of my feet are still killing me from time to time during the day, and my lower back seizes up once in a while, but hopefully they will adjust. No rain, no pain, no Maine. People have asked me about my motivation out here. Like what keeps me going day after day for these long miles. Well, obviously the fundraiser to help the girls in Thailand is a huge part of that. Thoughts of how this money will help to better their lives, provide them with an education and safe shelter, perhaps help them to one day attain Thai citizenship, or help to bring more new girls into the center all go through my mind. But I also get taken back sometimes to something I studied in grad school. I studied language teaching and I once wrote a paper on motivation for language learning. Like what drives people to keep fighting through the long and arduous process of learning a foreign language. There was a researcher named Zoltan Dornyei who took psychological motivation theory and related it to language learning. A couple of the things he talked about really stuck in my brain. One thing he talked about was your “ideal future self.” This is someone you want to be in the future, and so the drive and the motivation come from wanting to decrease the distance between your current self and this future ideal self. For a Japanese student learning English, for example, they may have a favorite musician or actor that sings or speaks in English and they dream of one day being able to fully understand exactly what that person is saying. Or they may be dating someone who is a native English speaker and they really want to be able to fully communicate fluently with that person. So this provides the motivation they need. Another self that Zornyei talked about is the “feared future self.” This is someone that you do not want to become in the future. A language student may fear not studying hard enough or not making enough progress in the language, and having to return home and admit failure, or not be able to pass a language exam that they need. This provides a negative motivation to not have to face that negative reality later. I relate these same theories to my hike. My ideal future self out here is someone who completes the entire AT. Someone who eventually stands at the top of Mt. Katadin on that sign with my arms raised in triumph. Someone who has the perseverance to battle through all the tough times and still has the strength to keep fighting another day. Someone who keeps their word and finishes what he starts. I know a lot of people are following my hike and a lot of people are rooting for me to finish. Some people wish they could be out here with me or wish they had done this at some point in their own lives, but age or health now prevent them from doing this so they are living it vicariously through me. I know that a lot of people have donated money to this cause because of my hike. Yes, all that money still goes to the organization even if I quit tomorrow, but I feel like I still need to hold up my end of the bargain. You guys got us over the 10K goal, now I want to be that guy who does what I said I was going to do. Complete this trail. Plus, the longer I’m out here posting updates, photos, videos, etc, the more time there is for more donations to come in and the more people I will be able to meet and tell them about what I am doing. So that’s my ideal future self, and so every day that I wake up and get out of this tent moaning and groaning and just put one foot in front of the other, the more I close this gap between myself and that guy. In terms of my feared future self, I just don’t want to have to tuck my tail between my legs and go home and have to tell everybody that I failed. I made all this fuss about the hike, so many people supported me, so many people donated their hard earned cash, and I just couldn’t handle. I burnt out. I gave up. I quit. Thanks for all the donations guys. Sorry I couldn’t hold up my end of the bargain. Of course there is always the possibility of getting injured or sick (knock on wood), but those things are mostly out of my control. If they happen, there isn’t much I can do about it. But baring any of that, I just really don’t want to be that guy who gives up and can’t handle the grind mentally. 75-80% of people who set out to do this whole trail do fail. Only 20-25% make it. So it is tough. Not easy at all. But that’s why I am pretty liberal with my zero town days. I’m trying to keep myself from getting mentally burnt out from doing this day after day, the same thing. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I want to be in it for the long haul no matter how long it takes. So that is my future feared self. The guy who quits. That fear also drives me to not be that guy and just keep walking, one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. Day 33 I had made a hiking plan 2 weeks ago or so all the way up to Hot Springs, NC. I usually only plan the next 4-5 days until the next town stop, but I have an old high school classmate, Christina Terminello, and her father “Mr. T” who was our math teacher, living a few hours from Hot Springs and we were making plans to meet up. From that plan, I was supposed to hike only 11 miles today, a nice break from 3 straight 13s. But last night when I checked it, there was no campsite where I had planned to stay. I must have looked at it wrong. So I decided to just push for the next shelter which was 14.7 miles. I’m planning to bump my mileage up to 15 miles a day after Hot Springs anyway, so I figured I might as well get a preview. I also wanted to pick up my speed. My speed has varied a lot on this hike. Anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 miles per hour, depending on the terrain and how tired I feel. I tent to start off faster but then slow down as I go. So I made a conscious effort to really move today, and I was able to average around 2.2 miles an hour all day and get to camp by 2:15pm. I also made a point to eat something every hour and to drink more water. Nice early arrival for such a long day of hiking. My longest yet. It was a good intro to what’s to come. I really want to get my body used to that pace and mileage and start cranking out the days. It’s been a month already, and I have taken it very slowly to allow my body to adjust. But soon it’s time to ramp this thing up. In order to increase my walking speed, I thought back to a reading speed exercise I used to do in my ESL reading classes. Got this idea from the book Reading Power. I would pass out novelettes to each student and tell them to start anywhere in the book. Just mark their starting point and read casually for 5 minutes. I’d time it and they would also mark their ending point. Then they counted how many pages they had read, and this was their baseline. Then they had to go forward and read the exact same number of pages, but this time they had only 4 minutes to read the same amount of material. I told them to move their eyes faster. They would comprehend less, but just cover the material and move their eyes faster. Then we did it again, but this time with only 3 minutes. And again with only 2 minutes. By this point, they understood almost nothing of what they were reading, but the point was for them to just practice moving their eyes faster. The last step was for them to read ahead again for 5 minutes, but this time with no pressure to cover a certain number of pages. Just relax and read for 5 minutes, just like we did at the beginning. They marked their progress on this last one and compared it to their first one, and the difference was always amazing! Some students would cover 2 extra pages! It really was just a matter of habit in terms of how fast their eyes moved over the page, and once we did that exercise and trained their eyes to move faster, they started reading faster even when they were just reading casually. We had raised their baseline normal. Similarly, as I push myself to walk faster, even though it is tough and tiring, I think I will raise my baseline normal over time, and eventually I will start walking that speed more naturally, without it seeming like such an effort. Raise my own baseline normal. The good thing about getting this far today is that I only have 3 more miles to go to get to Hot Springs in the morning. Nice early arrival. Then I will have more time to spend with the Terminello family. They live about 3.5 hours from Hot Springs, so it will be a nice drive to check out the countryside and catch up! Looking forward to this next break! Day 34 Nice easy hike this morning. Only 1 hour, mostly down hill, 3 miles. The trail actually goes down the Main Street of Hot Springs, NC. There were markers built into the sidewalk marking the AT. The Smokey Mountain Diner was the first thing I came to, and everyone from the trail was there grabbing breakfast. I didn’t have any breakfast at all when I woke up since I had heard about this place and figured I’d wait, so I was pretty hungry. But I was waiting for my classmate Christina to arrive, so I waited. There was no 4G service on my phone in this town, but other hikers told me that the library had good free WiFi that I could connect to from outside. I walked down there and even though the library was closed, there was a bench outside and nice fast WiFi with no password. Very nice service that they do, probably just for us hikers. Soon after that, Christina showed up and we went back to the restaurant for breakfast. Very good to see her and catch up after so many years! She was a little surprised as we walked in to the restaurant, because there were so many hikers in there and we all knew each other and were saying hi. I hike alone and just hang out and have dinner with whoever is at the shelter or campsite each night. I’m not part of a group at all now, so I don’t know any of these people well, but just the fact that we all are doing this same hike and being challenged by these same obstacles seems to bond us all. It does become a real community. To my surprise, Christina’s house was almost 4 hours from Hot Springs. Quite a long drive round trip. Very kind of her to make that kind of effort. Her Dad was our math teacher in high school and they have both moved up here from Hawaii. Actually, Christina’s upstairs neighbor in her apartment building had a busted pipe and so her whole apartment got flooded as a result. So we are staying at her dad and his wife’s place instead. This actually works out better since I now get to visit a lot with both of them. The 4 hour drive was an excellent amount of time for Christina and I to catch up, and since we got here it has been wonderful visiting with both of them and getting to meet Mr. T’s new wife Jan. Mr. T and Jan had a birthday party to attend last night, so Christina and I went and grabbed dinner at California Pizza Kitchen. That’s one of my favorite restaurants. The Thai Chicken pizza is always my go to. We also had the spinach artichoke dip, a salad, and the butter cake with ice cream for dessert. Such a huge treat after days of trail food. I was a happy, full man after all that food! The crazy thing about all this is that I can eat like a pig like that and we still lose weight. I weighed myself here on their bathroom scale. I started this hike at around 245 pounds, and am down to 230 after only a month. Crazy. Anyway, time for bed. So nice to have a real bed after 5 nights in a tent. These town days are always a treat, but even more so when I get these homestay opportunities. The kindness of people is always overwhelming.