Monday, April 30, 2018

400 Miles!

We headed out at about 9:30 again this morning. The mornings have been foggy and cold. I actually snapped the following photo yesterday morning, but forgot to include it. Just as I took the picture, a random hiker walked into the frame to get his bear bag. I think it adds a nice touch to the photo.

My pack is heavy again, so I'm not getting much relief in that department. I'm having a little trouble with trench foot in my left foot, but I have some ointment that is taking care of it. It's caused by constant exposure to cold water or mud, so it's pretty common on the Trail, especially given the weather we've had up to now. Forest's paws are doing much better than mine, I'm glad to say!

I found ramps and rock lettuce today, which were a nice addition to my usual trail food. We passed the 400-mile mark this afternoon! Virginia is coming up fast!

After hiking a little over 16 miles today, we arrived at a campsite just about a mile short of Moreland Gap Shelter at about 5:45 this evening. It's pretty secluded, and there isn't a water source, so I don't expect company here. I'm beat. Tomorrow should be a relatively short day to my next resupply stop, and then I'll have another quick overnight stay before forging ahead toward Virginia.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Mountain Harbour B&B/Hiker Hostel

We got moving at about 9:30 this morning. It was another beautiful day with temperatures perfect for hiking. Unfortunately, I broke my glasses, so I feel like I didn't see much. My wife is sending a pair of sunglasses that I have at home until we can get mine repaired or replaced. Hopefully, my photos will be good enough that I'll enjoy these views later! And yes, one of Forest's favorite positions outside seems to be upside down (also known as "Belly")! He's such a clown.

I arrived at Mountain Harbour Hostel (mile marker 393.3) in Roan Mountain, TN, at about 6:30 this evening. My wife was able to get me a bed in the loft there for the night. I picked up my resupply box, which made me laugh; my son had covered it with stickers and drawings. 👦😁 My clothes are washed and in the dryer, and all of my electronics are recharging, so we'll be ready to head out in the morning.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Stan Murray Shelter

Last night I was able to grab a secluded, private campsite, but I still had trouble falling asleep before midnight. I got a fair amount of sleep, though. Packing up is much easier on a sunny morning, so we hit the Trail again at about 9:30 a.m.

Because it was such a gorgeous day, we took a quick break at Little Rock Knob to take some photos. More breathtaking views. Only 8 miles to Carvers Gap.

We hiked a total of 13 miles today to Stan Murray Shelter (mile marker 381). Tomorrow night I expect to pick up my resupply package and stay at Mountain Harbor Hostel so that I can recharge my phone and battery pack.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Clyde Smith Shelter

It was pouring, foggy and miserable this morning, but I packed up camp and got ready to move at the first break. The woods are hauntingly beautiful in this weather and during this season, but I have to keep my eyes on our goal for today, which is a shelter 10 miles away.

We headed out a little after noon and were eventually rewarded with breaks in the clouds that gave way to a beautiful day. We took a quick rest stop at Iron Mountain at about 5 p.m. As usual, Forest took advantage of the time to grab a quick snooze.

I took a great video today while I hiked. Very pretty views and no talking, except for at the end when I suddenly took a soft fall. All I had to say was, "Forest, come" for him to turn and stand by me and "Brace" for him to take a solid stance so that I could support myself on him to get up and stop the video. Even with the distraction of all of the hiking we have done, his training still shines through. This skill is especially helpful to me at times like this when my back is not 100%. Cell service is in and out and weak when I have a signal at all. I'm still working on a way around this so that I can transfer videos like this to the folks at home.

We made it to Clyde Smith Shelter (mile marker 370; elevation 4,418 feet) tonight at about 6:30 and set up camp. I just need to repeat this progress each day, grab the packages waiting for me at my resupply stops and keep moving on to Damascus, VA. Only about 100 miles to go to that next huge milestone!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

PTSD and the Trail

My back was bothering me again today, and I knew the 42-pound pack wouldn't help. I went back and forth whether to just hike a shorter day, but then someone started a big fire in the pit here, and all of the crowd that was here last night moved on. The peace and quiet that remained convinced me to just stay put and dry my clothes and gear over the fire. Just birds, and a light wind and the sound of Forest snoring. This is the first time I've really relaxed in a long time. I think I will catch up on some sleep.

I've been thinking a lot about how to explain why I am here, and why the Trail and hiking in general are so important to me, and why I choose to reveal myself only under a trail name, with no photographs of myself. I don't often like to talk about myself or my service-connected disability. It's never the goal of a soldier to be in the spotlight. I am doing this now because being able to write it down without fearing judging or pitying looks makes it easier.

I have a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), brought on by bad stuff that happened to me during the war in Iraq. I won't go into any details regarding exactly what happened to me (only a very small circle of individuals that I love and trust know), but suffice it to say that I have suffered from haunting nightmares, severe anxiety attacks and debilitating paranoia ever since that time in 2003. I stuffed it down for years; I've been to the very bottom depths of depression that almost ended my life not once, but twice; and I've been addicted to pain medications thrown at my condition by the VA, without any attempt to heal what was broken. I don't want your pity; it's just a fact, and whether you believe in PTSD or not is nothing to me. This is just my story.

I credit my wife and two very important organizations for my even being able to consider that a more healthy future is possible:

  • Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing for reminding me of the peace and relaxation that comes with fly fishing and being outdoors in general on a day like today. The men and women who run and volunteer for this organization gave me and other veterans a nonjudgmental sanctuary, where we could find camaraderie with like-minded individuals in a nonthreatening environment.
  • Canines for Service for giving me the gift of a service dog that has been specially trained to mitigate PTSD and help me when I am in pain, whether it be physical or emotional. This organization rescues dogs thrown away at shelters, and then uses them to rescue damaged people like me.
(Information on both of these organizations is available via the links provided at the top of the right navigation bar for this blog. I encourage you to give generously to these causes.)

Forest. How do I do this animal justice? When I first went to Wilmington, NC, to be trained to work with him (because it is 100% a team effort, and I had to be up to the challenge as much as he was), I had high hopes, but really didn't understand what to expect as far as PTSD support. He helped me get up from the floor, helped me take my jacket off, got bottles of water out of the refrigerator for me, loaded the laundry and unloaded the dryer, and retrieved items as small as dimes and as heavy as 10 pounds. Cool, right? What I really didn't immediately get the impact of were the softer skills. How he would rise up on my lap and just be held for as long as I needed him. How he would curl into me and press himself into my body if I sat on the floor, or laid on the bed. How he would circle me to gently push people out of my personal space. How he would eventually be so in tune with me that he would recognize that my nightmares were not normal, and would slam himself into me to wake me up (subtlety has never been his strong suit...LOL). How he realized I was upset on the phone one day, and took the phone out of my hand and buried it under a rug. He is an old soul, a bit of a clown, and I am grateful for him every day.

I tell you about all of this not to make you pity me or hear you say, "What a good boy!" I tell you this because it is so important for you, and everyone in the world we live in, to understand fully why it is so critical that no one distracts Forest (or any legitimate, trained service dog) while he is working. You may not notice the faraway blank look in my eyes when a loud explosion or shout takes me back to Iraq and makes me want cover. You may not be aware that anger is building under my calm exterior and about to blow. You may not see the anxiety start to build and threaten to send me screaming out of a building. But you can see me petting Forest, you can see Forest leaning on me, you can see Forest suddenly get up and lead me toward the nearest exit. This is the easiest way for you to understand how important he is to my life and how critical it is that he remains focused on me and only me.

I posted a video recently where I spoke about me working when we are on the Trail, and Forest working when we are in towns. If it were not for Forest, I would not be able to speak to strangers easily. If it were not for Forest, I would not be able to walk into restaurants and order food. If it were not for Forest, I would not be able to go into a store and speak with salespeople about hiking gear. If it were not for Forest, I would never ever be able to go into a Walmart (well...maybe no loss there). If it were not for Forest, I would not be able to lie down in our tent, surrounded by 20 to 30 other tents. If it were not for Forest, I would not be able to lie down in a bunk, listening to the snores of strangers. Forest earns his keep and his place forever in my heart every moment that we are in town. I am so lucky that he is with me on this journey and that he has taken to hiking like a fish to water. This dog has a huge heart.

People have wondered why I am on the Trail. Many thought I was going simply to run hide from civilization and just be alone. Most don't realize that there are thousands of people on the Trail right now; if I wanted solitude, it's the last place I would look at the moment. I needed to hike this hike because the hardest thing for me to do is still to be surrounded by strangers, in strange places, separate from my family that I love and at the same time do not want to forever be a crutch for me. I needed to hike this hike to be a better husband, to be a better father, to be a better person and, maybe just maybe, to begin to heal at least a little.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Curley Maple Gap Shelter to Cherry Gap Shelter

After we got to Curley Maple Gap Shelter I decided that we should sleep in the shelter instead of pitching the tent in the rain. I had much less work to do both last night and this morning as a result. There were only a few people in the shelter. Forest didn't make a sound to bother anyone, and I slept better than I had been.

We got back on the Trail at about 9 a.m. It was cloudy and rainy when we set out, but little by little the trees began to sprout blue sky. Sorry some of the photos are a little blurry; they were captured from a video chat with my wife. I took her along for a little virtual hike today. 👩😘

I didn't think we would arrive at Cherry Gap Shelter (mile marker 360.9) until about 6:30 p.m., but because the weather cleared a little we made better time and completed the 13 miles by 4:00 p.m. It felt great to be on the move again. Because I arrived so early, I had plenty of time to collect water, pitch my tent, prepare our dinner and relax a little before turning in.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Finally...Back on the Trail!

I had quite a wait for the UPS guy today. Here are a few photos that capture some of my thoughts through the afternoon.

I think I have another 200 miles in these shoes! 
Lost my big Titanium spoon somewhere
 Forest's food finally arrived at about 5 p.m., thanks to our rural location (so much for paying $50 for express delivery). I distributed it between my pack and Forest's and weighed both packs. 42 pounds for my pack, and 6 for his. We only have 4.2 miles to go, so we're back on the Trail at about 5:15 p.m.!

Of course, just as we set out it began to pour again, but that didn't stop us. We arrived at Curley Maple Gap Shelter at a little after 7 p.m. Just enough time before dark to set up camp and get settled in. Thanks for bearing with us through all of the crazy delays!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Rewind...Uncle Johnny's Yet Again

It felt so good to sleep on a mattress last night in the bunkroom. Refreshed, I was all packed up and ready to go, but was met with the following ominous view.

In checking the weather report, I learned there were high wind warnings up until 2 a.m. Tuesday. I decided to wait a bit and see if it began to clear at all, but then we started getting reports from hikers on the mountain of winds in excess of 50 mph, falling tree limbs and overflowing shelters. Some people that left this morning actually came back. At that point, I had no choice but to zero again. As a result, I had to come up with a new plan because I would no longer have enough food for Forest to reach the next resupply point. I called my wife and we decided she would express mail some of his food to me at Uncle Johnny's. I'll have to wait here tomorrow until it arrives (hopefully no later than noon). As soon as I have it, we will hit the Trail. If we can't make it the 12.6 miles to the campsite that was our original destination, we only have to hike 4 miles to reach Curley Maple Gap Shelter. I am eager to get back on the Trail and get out of this Bubble.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Uncle Johnny's Again...

After getting back so late last night, I set an alarm to get me up at 6 so we could get an early start back on the Trail North. As we were getting ready, I realized that Forest's new leash ($50 from REI just purchased when I was home last) was broken. I was able to take the string from my tent stakes and loop it around to make a temporary fix, but there was no way it would hold up on the Trail. So, another difficult spend another day here at Uncle Johnny's and take the evening shuttle back to town to try to find a new leash that will work for us. It's so frustrating, but just another stumbling block that the Trail has thrown at me. It will slow me down a bit and add more unexpected expenses, but it won't stop me!

We took advantage of the slow morning to fix one of my favorite morning treats. Bacon and cinnamon rolls fried in bacon grease.

One of the things that I'm preparing for as the weather gets warmer is keeping Forest cool and hydrated. I'm already having to reign him in when he tries to grab a drink from standing water, so I have to be careful that he doesn't get exposed to one of the parasites that can be found in streams and creeks. About the only solution will be to carry more filtered water and make sure that he takes frequent breaks to drink. Fortunately, as I shed some of my winter weight and send it home, I'll be able to take on more water in exchange. I may also try to get a prescription for the medicine commonly used to treat a parasite infection so that I can fill it if he develops sudden vomiting and diarrhea.

I've reserved a bunk room for tonight, as we are expecting 50 mph winds. A major risk on the Trail is falling debris from dead trees. Since this already happened here at Uncle Johnny's before we arrived, I thought I'd rather be safe than sorry tonight and sleep indoors. But first, dinner. If you look closely at the picture below, you'll see Forest sleeping behind my feet while I eat. He doesn't move for the entire meal.

I spent the day planning the next section of Trail. I plan up to 7 days between resupply boxes; if I went longer, I'd be carrying too much weight. Right now, we are about 125 miles from Damascus, VA. Tomorrow morning, I'll be facing a long stretch of Trail with few opportunities to recharge my phone and backup charger. First, we will head to Mountain Harbour B&B/Hiker Hostel, where I'll grab my next resupply box, and then we will push straight on to Black Bear Resort, our last hostel and resupply stop in Tennessee. I'll apologize in advance if you don't hear too much from me over the next week.

Oh, and in case some of you are wondering why I didn't fish the Nolichucky River since I ended up staying here so long: unfortunately, I didn't have a permit, and they don't sell state permits in the hostels. That's something we fisherman need to start pushing for--either for states to sell the permits in the hostels, or come up with some type of Trail fishing permit, that would allow us to fish across state lines.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Slackpacking Back to Uncle Johnny's

This morning Forest and I caught the shuttle back to Sam's Gap (mile marker 317.4), where we had been forced to leave the trail Thursday. Everything we didn't need was left at Uncle Johnny's to wait for us to return either late tonight or tomorrow. We decided to leave open the option to hike back in 1 day if we were able, or to camp along the way overnight.

It was a beautiful, warm day and with our weight significantly reduced we were able to make great time. At about 12:30, we stopped to take a break at Spivey Gap, along Big Creek.

At a little after 9 p.m., we arrived back at Uncle Johnny' and tired, but with a real sense of accomplishment for the day. 25 miles!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Still Tweaking the Plan

Last night I met an extraordinary Trail personality. Originally from Lithuania, Pappy is an 87-year-old Korean War Veteran who has hiked all of the major trails in the U.S. He is now hiking the Appalachian Trail for the second time. He left Springer Mountain on March 3 (2 days after I did) and has caught up to me at Uncle Johnny's. And, he was already up and gone this morning when I woke up! It was fascinating spending time talking with him last night. Thank you for your service to our country and for our dedication to our trails, Pappy!

When I got up this morning, my back was bothering me, and I could tell right away that I needed to give it a rest. In addition, the group that was planning on slackpacking back to Whistling Gap where we left the Trail was splintering. Part of the group wanted to leave this morning and hike all the way back to Uncle Johnny's in 1 day, which would be about 26 miles. I knew that I couldn't do that with Forest and my back the way it was, and two of the other folks said they couldn't either. So, three went ahead this morning, while the other three (including myself) decided to leave tomorrow morning and hike back in a more reasonable 2 days. Once we get back to Uncle Johnny's, our plan is to shower, collect our packs and resume the Trail immediately, camping along the Trail or at the next shelter.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

An Early Arrival at Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel

I left Hogback Ridge Shelter at about 9:30 this morning, intending to hike about 13.5 miles to Whistling Gap. Unfortunately, my stomach had other ideas. Yesterday afternoon I had come across a couple providing Trail Magic. There was a great variety of food, but what got my attention and the attention of other folks on the Trail with me, were the hot dogs. This morning we believe they decided to rebel. All of us have stomach aches, are nauseous and...let's see, how can I say this delicately...didn't want to be far from a restroom, and preferably not one behind a tree. We all decided to go in together on a shuttle to take us about 20 miles to Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel in Erwin, TN.


Uncle Johnny's was supposed to be my destination tomorrow, so my resupply box was waiting there for me. I picked it up to sort it out and decided to repack my backpack while I waited to shower. I also had to figure out how I was going to proceed: should I go back and pick up where we left the Trail, or should I jump ahead a little, and make up the 20 miles or so after I finish up in Maine? There were pros and cons to both approaches, and either one would effect my next resupply location. These are just the things that happen on the Trail that you can't foresee.

Once I showered and mulled over my options, I decided that "slackpacking" was the way to go. This means that I will leave all of my gear except the bare minimum here at Uncle Johnny's, get the shuttle back to where we were picked up and then hike back to Johnny's over the next two days. Without my pack, Forest and I will be able to make better time. This means that I will definitely have to rethink my next resupply stop, as I won't have enough food for me or Forest to get to the original stop. I had also originally planned to take some time to fish the Nolichucky, but this turn of events may prevent that.

Tonight Forest and I took the shuttle into Erwin to tap the ATM (I didn't have cash, so I have to reimburse another hiker for my share of the shuttle), get some dinner and look around.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hogback Ridge Shelter

We got an early start this morning at about 8:45, anticipating a 15-mile day. The following photo was taken from a video I shot yesterday during the snowstorm. I'm glad to see a mostly sunny day today.

When we took a break for lunch, I finally had a decent cell signal so that I could call my wife. It was so good to hear her voice. One of the problems I've had when I stay at hostels is that everyone congregates in places that have Wifi, and they all bring their dogs and don't pay attention to what they are doing. Consequently, they all try to sniff or play with Forest, and I can't concentrate on a call or get anything done online. For that reason, I tend to just avoid those areas. Another reason it will be good to get beyond the Bubble.

At about 4:30, we took a break at Devil's Fork Gap near a waterfall. It was hot hiking, even though the temperature was only in the low 70s, and Forest and I were both tired. The sound of falling water was so peaceful; I just wanted to sleep right there. We still had 4 miles to go, though, so I forced myself to get moving again.

We arrived at our destination, Hogback Ridge Shelter (mile 316.9; elevation 4,263 feet), at about 7:30 p.m. It was about all I could do to get water, make dinner for us and set up camp. I have a feeling I'm going to sleep tonight.

How It All Began

In August 2017 Canines for Service Inc. in Wilmington, NC, provided Service Dog Forest to me (U.S. Army Veteran "Fisher"). It was ...