A little over a year ago I began my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, accompanied by my friend, Michael for the first 260 miles. A year later, Michael has decided to return to the trail and pick up where he left off.
JOURNEY TO THE TRAIL
Michael and my friendship began back when I lived in Wisconsin. In December of 2017, he joined me for my first ever backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. That gave me the idea to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Michael was also onboard for that adventure, although his job would only allow him to hike the first two weeks of the trail with me.
Now, fast forward to 2019 and Michael no longer lives in Wisconsin. Since hiking those two weeks on the AT, Michael was drawn to the mountains and has moved to Asheville, North Carolina, right in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. After completing my thru-hike, I headed down to Asheville to backpack the Art Loeb Trail with Michael. This was the last time we saw each other before I left for New Zealand.
I was a little surprised when he told me he wanted to continue hiking sections of the AT. When he left the trail last year he said he’d had enough! Two weeks on the AT was too long he said. His hike had ended in a finale of snowstorms and freezing temperatures in the Smoky Mountains so to be fair, it was pretty shit weather when those words were spoken.
But, with 216 miles of the AT under his belt, I knew he could handle the next 200! So back in February, a day before he set off on the trail, I asked him a few questions about his hike:
What made you want to hike the AT again?
Honestly, I don’t know. I got the idea in my head and wouldn’t let it go. It’s an excuse to get away. For me it’s alone time.
How long are you planning to hike?
Where are you starting and ending your hike?
I am starting where I left off at Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountains and hoping to hike to Damascus, Virginia.
How many miles is that?
About 260 miles. I have to average 16 miles a day.
Any zero days planned?
No, just a quick resupply in Hot Springs, North Carolina.
Last year we started on February 28th in Georgia. This year you are starting on February 23rd a bit farther north. Why did you decide to return to the trail so much earlier?
It was the best time of year to get away for work purposes. On the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website it shows a lot of people are starting their hikes earlier this year.
Last year the road through Newfound Gap kept closing due to snow. Is it going to be a problem getting to the trailhead this year?
It was just closed due to high winds but the upcoming forecast is showing good weather.
Last year you were feeling pretty miserable when we reached Newfound Gap. Your boots were soaked and frozen. What are you doing differently this hike?
I have waterproof boots this time. I’ve been wearing them since July so they’re worn in. I won’t be wearing cotton socks. I’m bringing more socks. And bringing more band-aids for blisters.
How much does your pack weigh?
32 pounds with food and water. Last year it weighed 36 pounds I think.
Are you bringing the big cooking bowl from last year that ended up lighting our stove on fire?
What about instant potatoes? You got sick eating them last year.
I packed instant potatoes. I’m bringing more spices to make my food taste better.
Will you use a trail name? You never adopted one last year.
If someone gives me one.
What are you looking forward to most?
The weather will be close to perfect. I’ll get to the see the Smokies this time without all the snow.
Are you planning on section hiking more of the AT in the future?
Yes, I’d like to finish it one day.
Are you upset you didn’t get to summit Katahdin with me as planned when I finished my thru-hike last year?
To a degree, yes, but not really. Because if I keep section hiking then it will be nice to finish on my own.
Are you worried about bears?
No, they shouldn’t be active yet.
We both started the trail last year without a lot of preparation. We didn’t plan anything, we just kind of did it. Did you prepare more this time around?
No. In all honesty I really didn’t plan it. I didn’t think about it. I hadn’t done any packing until a few days ago. All my gear was in storage. I didn’t plan any food. I’m going to the store tonight to buy food.
Last year when you left me at Newfound Gap, that was the first time I backpacked alone. Now you’ll be starting at Newfound Gap alone. Is this your first solo backpacking trip?
Do you wish I was hiking with you?
No, I feel like I need to do it on my own. Just for the experience of being out there by myself for two weeks.
ON THE TRAIL
When Michael returned from the trail, he told me stories of his adventures. It began at Newfound Gap as he hiked through the extremely wet Smoky Mountains. Recent rains had soaked the trail. In the Smokies, the trail is more of a trench that is pretty deep at times. Michael’s waterproof boots became soaked as the water levels were ankle deep.
After the Smokies the weather was decent but the temperatures dropped at night. He only saw one other thru-hiker, a girl with no trail name. They encountered each other several times. Her soft-spoken nature led Michael to comment that she was like a whispering willow. And thus she took on the trail name Willow. She later gave Michael the name Pac Man, because he was always digging for items in his pack. I wonder if he will continue to use this trail name on future hikes.
Over the course of four days Michael hiked about 67 miles from Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains to Hot Springs, North Carolina. In the early morning of the fourth day, he slipped on ice-covered rocks while crossing a stream and hurt his knee. He limped another nine miles into Hot Springs. Unfortunately, this is where his hike ended, cut short by his knee injury. His friend picked him up in Hot Springs and he returned to Asheville.
Sadly, this is how many hikes end on the AT. I met several hikers during my thru-hike that did not finish due to injuries. My own knee pain threatened to derail my hike at times. Though his hike ended prematurely, I am sure Michael will be back on the trail again someday!
ONE YEAR AGO
My memories of hiking with Michael last year on the AT will live on forever in this video:
THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES
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