A call to the editor: Friday, September 7th
After a long period 'incommunicado,' I got a call from Francis. They were in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Francis had hoped to send a journal from Washington D.C., but they never ran across a terminal.
Friday, September 7th
Sunday, September 9th, 6 PM EST - Waynesboro, VA
Trail Magic has blessed us again!
The DC experience
At Harper's Ferry we visited the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the governing body of the AT. A woman interviewed us about our AT experience, and the next day she let us hitch a ride with her to DC. Trail Magic!
DC was incredible mainly because Heather Moon, an ardent supporter of us, had her company, Oakwood Worldwide, put us up in this beautiful apartment in the middle of DC! It was AMAZING! We were living in luxury. We spent a whole day just hanging out in the apartment, admiring the running hot water, the TV, and the air conditioning.
Thank you Heather and Oakwood! Trail Magic, once again!
Shenandoah National Park
After visiting our beautiful capitol, we made our way back to Harper's Ferry and back on the trail. Feeling refreshed and patriotic, we headed into the longest state on the trail - Virginia.
We blazed through the Shenandoah National Park, and lamented that the trail effectively hugs Skyline Drive, the thoroughfare through the park.
Changing psychology and hiking style
How that we're more than halfway through, an interesting change has occurred in our psychology. We no longer talk about how many miles we have walked, but rather we are starting to think about how many more miles we have left to walk. As of today, it's 850 miles to go.
At 25 miles per day, we would finish Oct 12. Normally, this would be doable, but our daylight is rapidly fading. It is impossible to walk on the trail without flashlights before 6:30AM and after 8PM.
To maximize our hiking time, we get up in darkness (5AM) and eat breakfast in the dark. We pack up in the dark, and just when there is barely enough light to see, we hit the trail.
We continue walking until we strain to see the path. At that point, we pull aside on the trail, make a camp, and quickly fall asleep.
Moreover, the shorter days have encouraged us to change our hiking style. Before we strolled at a plodding pace because we had so much daylight; we also took 2 hour lunches. People would frequently pass us during the day.
Now, we walk vigorously all day long. Since we're not walking as many hours as we used to, we can afford to "power walk" without burning out before sunset. Believe me, we still end the day exhausted, which helps us fall asleep quickly no matter how crummy the campsite might be.
One of our goals on this journey is to savor some of the off-the-trail sites. It would be a shame to pass up some of the major cities and attractions that are just a short distance away.
Francis' favorite US President is Thomas Jefferson, so we decided to visit his home and grave at Monticello. We hitched to Charlottesville, and along the way met Jim Morgan, who drove us on a quick tour of UVA, introduced us to our first Waffle House chain restaurant, and dropped us off at Monticello.
After all this generosity and trail magic, Jim gave us his home phone number and offered to help us out in case the need arises. Little did he (and we) know that we would call on his aid later....
Feeling like a pair of idiots
At the end of the park, we needed to pick up our resupply package. That is where we encountered a major challenge:
We were not sure where we sent the package!
As silly as that sounds, it's true!
Normally, we send all our resupply packages to US Post Offices. However, in Waynesboro we made an exception because the PO was significantly off the trail. Instead, we had shipped the package to a hotel that was right off the trail. This was useful because:
a) We avoided having to hitch a ride to a PO.
b) We could pick up the package anytime (vs. the PO, which is closed most of Sat and all of Sun).
The problem was that we couldn't remember where we shipped it! Normally our guidebook would tell us the answer, but we did not have it because we skipped the resupply box right before the Waynesboro one. We skipped it because we didn't need the food inside, and didn't think we needed the guidebook either. Oops.
So we called the two nearby hotels, and both said they didn't have the package. A third hotel had closed, and we feared that maybe the package went there.
We also thought that maybe the package went to the PO somehow. It wouldn't be the first time that the PO did something strange. It was Saturday afternoon, and the PO didn't open until Monday.
We really didn't want to press on without our box because it had five days of food and other valuable supplies. We really wanted to check the PO on Monday. We called on Jim, because he had offered to let us crash in his guest house if we were caught in a tough situation. We left a message.
While waiting to call Jim back, a kind couple Virginia saw us sitting by the gas station, and said, "How's the hike going?"
We told them our sob story, and they offered to drive us to the two hotels to make sure the package wasn't there. It wasn't. Then they offered to drive us close to Jim's place. We graciously accepted their generosity and traded trail tales in the car ride. "Wild Bill" is a pastor who has hiked over 1000 miles of the trail.
They dropped us off in Charlottesville, because we thought that was near Jim's place. It wasn't.
When we finally got a hold of Jim, we found out that we were 30 minutes from his house, and that we would have been better off staying put. To top it off, Jim had gone looking for us at 9PM.
Despite being so far away, Jim drove down to pick us up and put us up in his charming guest house on his beautiful 20 acre ranch. We met his wonderful wife, Cathy, and spent all day Sunday with them. It has been fantastic!
Tomorrow we hope to find the elusive package at the Waynesboro PO. If not, then we'll head to a grocery store and just buy a bunch of food there and kiss the package good bye. We'll take with us an incredible memory of staying with the Morgans! Trail Magic at its best!
A call to the editor: Tuesday, September 11th, 4:30 PM EST - NYC/Pentagon Tragedy
All day I've been thinking how morbidly funny it was that Francis and Lisa probably have no idea what's happened today. Then they called. They had run out of water and got off the trail in Pearisburg, Virginia. Arriving at a gas station around 4 pm EST, an attendant assumed (rightly) that they were out-of-touch AT hikers and proceeded to fill them in on the days events. Francis, in true form, laughed and said he was sure the attendant told that same story to every hiker who passed through. Then Francis and Lisa saw the television. Of course you can imagine their shock, amplified by the fact that they had just been in NYC and Washington D.C. over the past few weeks. If you think about the entire world population, Francis and Lisa are some of the last people to ever see the World Trade Center intact, to experience Manhattan before the effects of today's tragedy take hold.
So they're in Pearisburg. They've got 700 miles to go, which is approximately one month away. I'm sure we'll all have a lot to think about as they continue onward.
Wednesday, September 12th - Dragon's Tooth, VA
Let me update you a bit more on what happened Sept 11:
We had run out of water, and had to walk into town to refuel. When we walked into the gas station mini-mart, the woman at the cashier said, "It looks like you're hiking the AT. You probably haven't heard the news."
It was 2PM EST and I replied, "No, what happened?"
Her eyes widened and she said, "Both of the towers in the World Trade Center have been destroyed, they are GONE. A plane has flown into the Pentagon. Another plane has crashed near Pittsburg, PA. The President is in the air on Air Force One, nobody knows where he is. We are under terrorist attack."
I quickly replied, "Oh sure, and I bet California has fallen into the ocean too."
"I'm serious," she assured me.
"Yeah, right. I know you guys like to tease us thru-hikers because you know we're so disconnected from the world while we're walking the AT. We have no idea what's going on...."
At that point, overhearing the radio, hearing CBS news, I realized that this was not a joke.
We rushed to a TV in a Best Western hotel, and saw the horror, albeit much later than most of the world. We wonder how long it will take for some of our hiking companions to find out the news.
Curiously, life continues to move normally in the small towns along the Appalachian Trail. They are so far removed from the big cities that you would never know that most of America is in a crisis.
In many ways it's wonderful to be on the trail. The wilderness never felt so safe. The little animals continue their busy work. The stars continue to shine. The calmness continues to pervade.
We're at the base of a mountain called Dragon's Tooth. A wonderful man has welcomed us into his home (the Four Pines), giving us a shower, laundry, shelter, and Net access.
We'll be in Pearisburg, PA by Friday. We have less than 700 miles to go.
We're aiming to be back home around Oct 15. We need to change our flight plans, which will be difficult given the airline situation.
We hope to give blood when we run into a nearby hospital.
Lisa still can't believe that those towers that she just saw a few weeks ago for the first time in her life are gone. They seemed so strong and awesome. She had just been in Washington DC a few days ago for the first time; to think that now it's in chaos. It's all too surreal for both of us.
We hope that everyone is coping with the crisis.
Wednesday, September 17th - Bland, VA
Yep, that's the name of this town: Bland.
I wonder what inspires someone to establish a town and say, "Gee, I think I'll call this place.... Bland."
Anyway, we're staying with a wonderful couple: Murray Ann and George. George, an AT Thru-Hiker of '89, is also a retired Pastor. Murray Ann is a Pastor now. Both have been fantastic.
They've done some amazing trail magic, including laundry, food, shower, and great conversation. We loved the broccoli quiche that Murray cooked up! The trail magic never ceases to amaze and delight us.
We're closing in on Damascus, VA - the Friendliest Hiker Town on the AT. We're excited to be there by Saturday. Only the tallest mountain in Virginia and about 100 miles stands in our way.
The trail has been getting harder. Although it will never get as hard as Maine and New Hampshire, it will get much more challenging from here on out.
Moreover, the weather is getting much colder as Fall sets in. Although the cooler temperatures are wonderful for hiking during the day (60-75 F), they are getting a bit too cold for the night (40s). It makes it really hard to get going in the morning, especially when we have to crawl out of our warm sleeping bag in the darkness to cook up a meal.
We're pushing back our ETA to Springer Mountain to Oct 15. We may have to push it back further if we find that we're not making good time. We may have to push it back to Oct 20. We just don't want to feel rushed at the end of the trip, because we risk not enjoying the trail as much as we would otherwise.
We really don't want to deal with very cold weather, and we expect the coldest temps to be in the Smokies (due to their high elevation). Cold weather forces us to carry more clothes which weighs us down, (which, in turn, slows us down).
Moreover, a hiker tends to eat more calories in cold weather than hot weather. This will force us to carry even more weight!
Anyway, the challenges and joys continue. The trail ending is only 600 miles away (about a month).
Lastly, fortunately none of our friends have lost anyone in the terrorist attacks. I'm ready to buy an American flag when we get back!
A call to the editor: Wednesday, September 19th, 9 PM EST
Francis and Lisa called at around 6 PM PST. They've left Bland, VA and are nearing Damascus, VA. Even though it's been raining, they've recently been averaging 3.5 miles per hour! Compare that to their usual 2 mph. Lisa had a good day today because she was leading Francis at break neck speed!
More Trail Magic: the couple who housed Francis and Lisa in Bland, VA had some tricks up their sleeves. Hearing that the food in the packages tastes like laundry detergent, they gave Francis and Lisa a bunch of trail mix... in a bag, tied to a tree, 30 miles down the trail from Bland! Quite a surprise for Francis and Lisa to walk along the AT, hours away from Bland, and run into a strange bag hanging in the middle of nowhere, addressed to them!
Okay, enough exclamation points. At this point, their return plane ticket is officially scheduled for October 20.
They'll send a new update from Damascus.
Oct 2, 2001 @ 5PM in Hot Springs, NC
The first day of fall was balmy, but the next day had cold rain. After the rain stopped, the cold set in. Temps have dropped into the high 30s at night.
Normally, this is no big deal, except that we have a 40 degree bag! Oops!
So we asked my mom to ship our 20 degree bag and parka to Hot Springs. But here we are and nothing is there. Here's what I figured must have happened on Sept 21:
1. I sent and email at 10AM telling her NOT to send me the 20 degree bag and to send it to Kinkora's.
2. After thinking it over for a few hours, I realized that we should probably have it, so we called around 3PM to tell her send the 20 degree bag. Also, I told her to send it to Hot Springs (120 miles south of Kinkora) to give the package a few extra days to get here.
3. At 6PM, she reads my email (see #1) and assumes that I changed my mind about the bag and the destination, so she didn't send the bag and she mailed it to Kinkora, instead of Hot Springs.
4. Although she mailed it Sept 21 via Priority Mail, Kinkora received it Oct 1. (We left Kinkora a few days before.) The USPS promises 3-4 day delivery, but due to the terrorist attacks, they took it ground and it took 10 days.
5. Kinkora, knowing that we had already left, thought they would help us out by sending it back to California.
So Lisa's GoLite parka, our gloves, our thermal underwear, and other valuable winter gear have been making the rounds around the USPS offices. We've been contributing to the economy!
Only 17 days and 270 miles to go!
What to do?
The cost of overnighting my GoLite parka from California is almost as much as it costs to buy a fleece sweater here in Hot Springs ($40). Besides, I don't even trust the USPS to get us the packages.
Meanwhile, we just found out our drift box was destroyed on route to Harper's Ferry. This box contained our camcorder recharger, extra tapes, medical supplies, a fleece, and other valuables. We may never see any of it again, so we'll have to deal with that soon.
The woes of sending packages!
We are headed into the highest elevations on the trail (the Smoky Mountains), so we expect to experience some cold temps, and probably some snow.
We're pushing ahead with light clothing and a 40 degree bag. We may be a bit cold at times, but at least it will motivate us to MOVE to stay warm!
MORAL OF THE STORY: Don't ship stuff by USPS. Put it on your back, and walk there yourself.
A call to the editor: Wednesday, October 10th, 7:15 PM EST
They finally got a package of warm clothes just in time! They FedEx'ed it to themselves and got it right before they hit the Smoky Mountains. Hiking the Smoky Mountains involves camping at 6000 ft elevations. The temperature was 22 degrees!
Francis says, "We smoked through the Smoky Mountains." The did it all in 3 days. Day 2 was a 25 mile day, and the next was a 29 mile day to get out. "We jammed!"
Requisite Trail Magic - They met Jim Chester on the trail who invited them into his house. Nice bed. Showers. The works.
Now they're closing on Georgia - the last state. With 130 miles to go, they figure they have 7 days to go. Springer Mountain is the end of the AT, and they expect to get there Oct 16th or 17th.
Things are going great! Francis says it might rain tomorrow. The leaves are changing--fall is here. "Awesome! All that good stuff."
They should give us one more update from Neel's Gap in about 5 days. Stay tuned!
A call to the editor: Monday, October 15th, 2:30 PM EST
They will finish tomorrow! Francis, however, has broken his glasses. Until he receives our overnight shipment of contacts, he's being led by Lisa. More news soon!
Thursday, October 18th - THE PARTY'S OVER
Yup, the AT thru-hike is officially over. The Appalachian Trail was completed yesterday. By now, Francis and Lisa have already started a well earned vacation in New Mexico. We expect them back home in the San Francisco Bay Area in a week. Lucia (Francis' mother) writes, "He laughed when I asked him if the Sandia Mountains were not tempting enough to climb. (-:)~"
Monday, November 26th - The Final Stretch (Oct 10-15)
Although we finished about a month ago, the memories are still fresh. It's about time we put them down. Here we go:
The AT doesn't let Northbounders off easy. After hiking 80% of the miles, they run into the toughest part, with the most treacherous weather.
That's one of the reasons we chose to head south on the AT; we knew that the hardest part was in Maine and New Hampshire. Sure people warned us about Georgia, but we knew it was nothing compared to Maine.
In short, we thought we would get off easy.
We were wrong.
As the Oct 10th journal entry indicates, the weather forecast predicted rain. Little did we know how much we would get.
After Jim Chester (Trail Angel who let us stay at his house) dropped us off, we began to walk up and down the steep hills of North Carolina. The rain started coming down that afternoon. It rained while we set up camp, it rained hard that night, and it was raining when we woke up.
We had set up our GoLite tarp poorly, so a little bit of water had leaked in from the side. It wasn't a big deal because our synthetic bag keeps us warm even when we're wet.
Here's a simple fact: I don't care what method of rain protection you use, if it rains for more than 48 hours straight, you and your gear are bound to get wet.
That next day it rained all day long. Rain. Rain. Rain.
After slogging through the rain and mud, we came upon a solitary twisted old oak tree, which marks the famous Bly Gap, the northern border of Georgia! We knew we only had 76 miles to go, about three days.
We set up our tarp in the drizzle and drank from the cool piped spring nearby. The wind really started picking up that night. Fortunately, we were dry in our tarp - at least as dry as we could be.
We awoke to the beating sound of the rain against our tarp. Tired and bit moist, we crawled out into the rain, packed up, and moved on. Our obsession with Springer Mountain, the end of our journey, pushed us on.
That day, the third day of rain, was like a monsoon. Although we had experienced incessant rain in Costa Rica, this was truly impressive. Nature was letting us have it. The winds whipped so hard that it bent our strong GoLite umbrellas. They didn't break or get inverted, but they were certainly tested.
The constant rain made it hard to eat, since the rain would rarely stop for more than 30 minutes. In the end, we had to cross our fingers and cook a warm meal up when there was a slight letup in the rain. A couple of times we timed it poorly and were drizzled on while we were cooking and eating.
We pressed on.
That night we stopped hiking at 6PM - abnormally early for us. Mentally exhausted, we wanted a good night sleep. The previous night we got slightly wet because it was raining so hard and we didn't set up our tarp very well. Normally we can get away with a sloppy setup, but when it's raining hard and windy, you must be meticulous.
Perhaps we were getting lazy with our tarp set ups as we neared the end of our journey. Or perhaps it's simply because weren't test enough in our journey; indeed, many AT historians pointed out that we received less rain than normal this summer.
This night, however, we didn't want to get wet. Therefore, we made our tarp a rocket ship.
Indeed, as Francis thrust the final stake into the ground, he couldn't help but admire his masterpiece: a whopping 14 guy lines tied tightly to make the GoLite tarp look like a space ship. It was low to the ground, and one side (Lisa's side) would be flush to the ground, to make it simply impossible for water to leak through. After admiring the aerodynamic shelter, Lisa and Francis snuggled in for a good night sleep.
As we drifted asleep Francis had visions that Al Capone and his cronies were standing outside the tarp, armed with machine guns. All night long the cankerous machine gun-like rattle of rain battered against our thin tarp.
The rapid fire rain hammered our tarp all night, but we were safe in our space ship. The last time we were pelted so hard by rain was in Maine. For twelve hours we lay huddled in our dry home as nature unleashed its fury upon our surroundings.
We cooked a warm meal under our tarp the next morning, while the rain continued to slam for the fourth day in a row. Although we ate freeze-dried food for two and grits for two (two full servings each), we were hungry just two hours later. That just goes to show that the expensive freeze dried meals don't supply a thru-hiker with enough energy.
Branches and trees had fallen all over the trail, making it a veritable obstacle course. After hiking until midday we pulled aside under a pathetic roof (a trail head sign with a roof 2 feet wide). That was when M.A. (Maine Author), a section hiker, came by and offered us a ton of food. That trail magic was the beginning of our good fortune. By the time we put the last morsel of food in our mouths, the rain had stopped!
Even though the clouds lingered for a few hours, by late afternoon we felt the warmth of the sun's rays. What a glorious feeling!
To celebrate, we found a nice open space off the trail and unpacked everything we owned. After four days of incessant rain, everything gets wet. And wetness means weight. Our packs felt about five pounds heavier than when everything was dry.
We lounged around and ate a satisfying meal. Meanwhile, all our gear and clothing was drying off quickly, thanks GoLite's intelligent fabrics. We slapped our (once-again) light packs on our backs and set off to Springer, with only two days to go.
We received our next to last trail magic from Dan, who drove us to Helen, GA so we could enjoy being tourists in this German-like down. Then he took us into his home and gave us the shower and bed that we treasured so much. But nothing was as good as being able to do laundry after so many days in the rain! Thank you Dan!
Georgia was tough, but not because of the terrain. It was hard because of the weather conditions. We were hoping to waltz the final 150 miles into Springer, but the AT had other plans.
Nevertheless, once the rain stopped, we breezed over Blood Mountain, the tallest mountain in Georgia. Many Northbounders had warned us about it, we almost didn't even notice it. Maybe that's because at Neels Gap, right before Blood Mountain, we were each given a free pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream as our reward to making it within 33 miles of the end. We savored every bite with big bright smiles across our faces.