It was always supposed to be the back up plan to my 40@40 goal. In case I could not get into the 40miler at Uwharrie, I thought I could run a self-supported 40miler on the A.T. However, once COVID-19 ruined my kids’ summer camp experiences, I turned the backup plan into the main plan for our family vacation this summer.
Based on the recommendation of GOP, I located the perfect 40+ miles of the AT that would allow for easy transitions by our family. The goal was for my daughter and me to hike the entire section and Jack joined us for the first day and a half. Then we would trade out Jack for James and Thomas for the next 24 hours, and culminate with a long final day and a half of Ellie and me. The plan was perfect (Spoiler: and so was the execution…mostly).
Day 1: 12.24 miles
All six of us launched out from the Laurel Falls parking lot that took us up a 1 mile spur trail to the Appalachian Trail. This was a gorgeous hike along the Laurel Fork river, which alone would have been a beautiful day hike. The water that had cut through the canyons over the centuries left an amazing rock formation that led to the base of these falls.
At this point, Lindsay, James and Thomas returned the 3 miles back to the car to spend the afternoon swimming in Lake Watauga. Ellie, Jack and I ventured forward. We moved along fairly well, and came across a NoBo (north bound hiker) we had met the day before while scoping out one of the trailheads. Talking to him on the trail made us feel like we were immediately part of the AT community.
I did fail to look at the elevation chart for the first day and was later surprised to discover we had climbed nearly 3,000 feet during the afternoon hike. This would explain the sore legs and tired bodies by the time we reached camp. Having seen some fresh bear scat a few miles before our campsite, I decided to hang the food bag way way far away from our camp that night. This led to our one minor incident.
While I went in search of cell service–having bought a burner verizon phone to make sure Lindsay and I coordinated all of the handoffs–Jack had seen me go left from the campsite, but had not seen me double back. So when I returned to camp and Ellie informed me that Jack had gone looking for me, panic ensued–for me only. I sprinted in the direction he went, but after covering a quarter mile, I still had not found him. By this point I returned to camp. Still no Jack. So I went off in search a second time, which is right when he sauntered back to camp; unpulsed, saying, “I knew where I was…I just did not know where you were.”
That night we enjoyed some dehydrated dinners, made camp, filtered water, and I tried to sleep (miserably) in a tent. The next morning, we broke down camp and hit the trail.
Day 2: 12.47miles (5.85miles (AM); 6.62miles (PM))
Jack earned the trailname “This Way” because he was always out front leading us. I was interested by how he would respond to the food and sleeping conditions. But I was most impressed with how he pushed up those 3000 feet without complaint. The elevation gain allowed us to have a great view through the trees of the valley. And it turns out we camped one mile parallel from where the AirBNB cabin was.
My nickname was given out that morning, as I propped myself up against a tree and managed to grab ahold of a slug. Three minutes later grabbing another tree, I put my fingers into a second slug. Therefore, the kids named me “Slugs.”
Jack’s reflection was that he enjoyed “hiking the AT, seeing a great view of the valley and the cabin was awesome and it was a very fun trip.” While climbing the rocks near Laurel Falls he dropped back to me with a big grin and said, “Thanks dad for coming up with this idea, this is fun.” While granted he did not say that after covering 18 miles…I know in his heart he still thinks so.
By 10am we arrived at the critical junction. The handoff point. On a random gravel road crossing, Lindsay was supposed to arrive with James and Thomas, retrieve Jack, and bring us our food and gear bags for the next day’s journey. In the planning, this was the point of the trip I was most worried about. Would she find us? Would we find them? Thankfully, it happened without incident.
Jack jumped off the trail and James and Thomas bounded onto the trail. What I did not expect was the general fatigue I would have from the previous day’s hike, the miserable night’s sleep, not eating enough and the effects of carrying a 40lb pack on my body.
So 3 miles into the afternoon hike, I led the kids off trail and into a shelter to rest. There we met a NoBo Thru-Hiker (someone starting in Georgia and going all the way to Maine). He was 32 days into his hike, and drying out his blistered feet. As we chatted, he affirmed that the first week was far harder than he had expected. This–plus the fact that his son was a teacher in China (could COVID have found me on the trail?)–quickly pushed me back onto the trail.
During this stretch, Thomas received his trailname which was “Trowel-blazer.” I will spare you the details, but let’s just say that Thomas would frequently need a porta-potty but that the AT does not provide such amenities, and instead requires you to blaze a trail with a trowel.
By that afternoon, we reached a campsite right along Elk River. Still tired, and worried about making the next day’s handoff spot on time, I told the kids to drop their packs and hike an additional .75 miles up river to a waterfall to see if that would be a better campsite. This was a fool’s errand, because we arrived at Jones Falls–where there was no campground–just as a pop-up thunderstorm began to drench us. And as it turns out, our unsecured packs nearly a mile away. For Thomas, this was his highlight: “We were walking to Jones Falls when it started to pour. We had to run for ten minutes to our campsite. We ended up being soaked, but it was fun.”
For James and I…not so much. As we sprinted back to salvage the packs, James tripped (for the 5th time that day) and knocked the wind out of himself. While he stood gasping for breath and we were getting soaked, I allowed for a momentary thought–we should bail out tomorrow. His tripping on the trail coupled with James’ night terrors earned himself the name: “Screaming Falls.”
However, we returned to the campsite, dried out our gear best we could, ate some food and I listened to Ellie, James and Thomas laugh in their tent while they played cards.
My closing notes from the journal that day read: “Kids are happy; Dad’s exhausted.”
Once again, I could not fall asleep in the hammock, so at 12:30am I climbed out of my fancy Eno hammock and laid on the dirt in my sleeping bag. This is how I camped as a kid–no thermarest mattress, no stuff-sack pillows. Just a sleeping bag, some dirt and a balled up t-shirt for a pillow. And this is how I finally fell asleep.
Day 3: 14.83 miles (+2 miles hitchhiking:: 5miles (AM); 9.75miles (PM)
I awoke just as the sun was rising over the river, and I came to the conclusion that I have transitioned in life. I would rather wake up for a sunrise than stay up late for a sunset. This is a sign of maturity.
The day began with us retracing our steps (though they had been washed out) past Jones Falls and out onto our first grassy field. Here we pushed through grass, when we inadvertidenly missed a trail blaze and continued forward on an AT trail. After climbing up a long, straight, uphill that wiped all of us out. We began a quick descent towards the valley, where I knew laid a hotel with the “best breakfast on the A.T.” as well as Lindsay. Unfortunately, when Thomas and Ellie correctly asked me, “Hey dad, we have not seen a blaze for a while, are you sure we are still on the right trail” I calculated the idea that we would have to reclimb that steep hill and retrace our steps once again. Surveying the map, I figured we were on a dirt road near the A.T. and would be “fine” to continue heading down. After a mile or so, we came to what appeared to be the abrupt ending of this AT trail and my heart sunk. Just as I began to consider we must be lost, a paved highway appeared. Joy erupted. I was right! I felt proud. But as we approached the road I realized I did not know if we should go left or right. So I guessed right, and we headed off. After another 10 minutes of walking on the road, I flagged down a pickup truck passing by. Turns out, I was way off the map, heading in the wrong direction and had just crossed the border. Graciously, Joe offered to give us a ride into town. So we hitch-hiked 4 miles back to the Mountain Harbour Hostel. (This adventure was turning into the full AT experience with us graced by the hospitality of folks).
Dropping Thomas and James at the Hostel with Lindsay, Ellie and I began the biggest push of the trip. We climbed 6 miles straight uphill for the next 3 hours. This was a steady climb through the woods that ended up on the first bald of our trip at the base of Big Hump Mountain. What impressed me most was how Ellie stayed pace with me and she earned the trail name: “No B.S.” not only for her lack of complaining but also because she took “no beauty stops” along the way.
I realized as we climbed 3200 feet over those 6 miles that while I have run ultras, Ellie has never done something so physically demanding. Her sheer will and grit was impressive. Never once did I feel that she was “holding me back” but rather was a partner in this journey. As we summited the top of Big Hump Mountain, she kept exclaiming, “It is so pretty. Wow.” I hope that she learned that because of the effort, training, work and perseverance she demonstrated on that trip she was able to gain a stunning view of God’s creation.
Summitting Big Hump Mountain meant that we had to drop quickly into a gap just as a thunderstorm threatened to come over us. Due to blazing heat, the exposure on the balds and the soaking we had received the day before, we decided to hunker down for an hour as the storm passed beside us. Eventually we pressed forward, summited Little Hump Mountain and arrived at Overmountain Shelter.
Here we had a decision. It was 5:15pm. We had hiked 14miles. We could have continued 2 more miles to another shelter, or stay the night at an amazing campsite. I looked at Ellie and told her she gets to make the call. I have learned on long training runs I will often turn to my son and say “I need you to be the voice of reason here…do we go back to the car or keep pressing forward.”
After filling our water bottles, we both knew we needed to stay put. So we pitched our tent and enjoyed one of the best campsites I have ever been at. I am proud of my daughter for not being too determined to press on, but pausing to appreciate the place we were in.
Day 4: 13.21miles
Today was supposed to be a short venture to catch up with rest of the family and climb to Roan High Knob, the highest shelter on the A.T. as a celebratory end to this adventure. However, I did not expect the amount of elevation change, nor calculate for sore muscles that caused our pace to drop. Once again, as we approached the area where I thought we would encounter Lindsay, my hope soared that we were closer than we were. They say that in a rescue mission, the most dangerous point is when the victim’s help first arrives because they let their guard down and often the internal fight to stay alive dissipates. While not that extreme, there definitely was a dwindling in motivation as we drew closer to the family. Every time we crested another bald, we would see day hikers coming at us whom we falsely assumed were Lindsay, Jack, James and Thomas. We would be guessing who was wearing the pink shirt, the tangerine shorts, or walking with their new found girlfriend. Eventually, we connected with everyone at the top of Round Bald, and got to take a wonderful family photo.
After a short rest, the six of us climbed to Roan High Bluff to finish off the 45+ miles.
Then we realized…it was another 2 miles back to the car and the hot tub at the cabin.
Total Milage: 52.75miles
–Slugs, This Way, NoBS, Trowelblazer & Screaming Falls