When does a thru hike start to seem over? The minute one hits 2,000 miles. The remaining 189 seem like nothing in comparison. Today it slammed into me like a 60mph gust of wind…I have almost succeeded in a task I once deemed impossible. My 2000.0 mile mark happened on a picture perfect evening…the horizon appeared artistically airbrushed as it reflected a breathtaking orange, pink fiery sunset. Jets flew high above through atmospheric conditions conducive to creating lingering yellow-orange contrail clouds like tic-tac-toe boards reflecting the setting sun. What a beautiful moment to experience such a milestone and ponder the end that is now ever so near!
This hundred miles began hiking out of Hot Springs after a restful day in town. It was an uphill kind of battle…literally! After getting a late start, we made it twenty miles to Max Patch just in time to set up camp and view the painting in the sky of the sun going to sleep. As incredible as the evening was, the morning sunrise on Max Patch was a dream come true and likely the best Monday of my life!
Two out of three days consisted of nearly all climbs. It was arduous work up from 1,500ft to 6,643ft of elevation changes, but the path led us into the heart of the Smoky Mountains. The Smokies have a different flavor than other parts of the AT. There are numerous wood steps, varying greens of verdant vegetation, and mass graveyards of fallen trees. The strict camping guidelines in the park, the threat of 2-4 inches of snow, temperatures in the teens, and the obstacle course of downed trees across the trail made me want to get out of the Smokies as quickly as possible. Luckily, we planned a break in the middle to meet a trail angel friend at Newfound Gap, a fifteen mile drive into Gatlinburg. On our 15.6 mile hike that day to arrive at the meeting place, there was a high wind warning of 40-60mph sustained winds. While the weather in Gatlinburg was a balmy, sunny 71 degrees, our hike never reached temperatures above the high 30s and the high winds flung sleet and snow at us mixed with a very cold, unpredicted, steady rain. Our trail angel and friend, TJ, was waiting for us at the trailhead with a warm vehicle, drinks, goodies, and lunch in Gatlinburg! After the coldest, most miserable day on trail so far, she was my trail angel at the time it was needed and appreciated the most.
As I write this penultimate journal entry, the quarter moon is shining through the roof of my little tent, my home for the past six months. The night is quiet and calm with mllions of viewable stars dappling the sky. It hits home that as difficult as this journey has been, it has been ever so more rewarding. The friends, relationships, and angels who helped along the way, the beautiful sights and places experienced, the lessons learned, and forever memories have defined this epic journey of clarity.
As it draws to an end, there are many things I will dearly miss about life on the Appalachian Trail:
- Coffee and Poptart breakfasts from the warmth of my sleeping bag
- Living out of my backpack and knowing I have exactly and only what I need to survive relatively comfortably
- The peaceful nights and animal lullabies that put me to sleep in the woods
- Comraderie and gut clenching laughter with other hikers
- Concern and kindness bestowed upon me by strangers
- The banal daily tasks of filtering water, breaking down and setting up camp, building a fire, cooking dinner on a campstove, packing the backpack, and walking for miles one step at a time
- Never knowing the day of the week
- The elated feeling of knowing a town is just a few miles ahead
An unexpected overnight ice storm and temperatures in the teens are reminders to push these last few miles so as not to tempt Old Man Winter too much longer. One hundred eighty nine and counting! (156 miles now! )
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