The Lure of the Appalachian Trail

Our Summer Vacation – Day 13 continued

On our drive from Valdosta, Ga to Amicalola Falls State Park, my wife and I passed through Cordele, Ga.  Inside the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor’s Center is a display honoring a man from Cordele, Gene Espy.

In 1951, at age 24, Mr. Espey became the second man to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  The display contains the equipment he carried, much of it military surplus.

At 50 pounds, Mr. Espy’s equipment is 20 pounds heavier than today’s hikers carry

Here is a list of the items he took.  None were high tech or ultralight or carbon fiber.

espey equipment

In 2008, Gene Espy published an autobiography titled The Trail of My Life: The Gene Espy Story.  Earlier this year I purchased a copy of that book on-line.  When I opened it to begin reading, I was surprised to find Mr. Espy’s autograph and the inscription “Best Wishes and Good Hiking to Eric”.  It was dated Sept. 10, 2009.


I also have the book written by the very first A.T. thru-hiker Earl V. Shaffer.  Mr. Shaffer completed his hike in 1948 after serving in the South Pacific during WW II.  His best friend had lost his life during fighting on Iwo Jima and Earl Shaffer’s goal was to “walk the Army out of my system”.  His book is titled Walking With Spring – The story that inspired thousands of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.  


In 1955,  Emma Gatewood, aka “Grandma Gatewood”, became the first female to thru-hike the A.T.  She was 67, wore Converse All-Star tennis shoes and carried a shower curtain for shelter.  Prior to her hike she told her family she was “going for a walk”. Grandma Gatewood ended up hiking the A.T. multiple times and also hiked the Oregon Trail.  She once said “I get faster as I get older.”


Speaking of fast, on August 28, 2018, Karel Sabbe (age 28) set a new speed record for hiking the A.T.  Mr. Sabbe, a dentist from Ghent, Belgium, completed his hike in 41 days, 7 hours, 39 minutes.  That’s an average of over 52 miles a day.  The previous record was 45 days, 12 hours, 15 minutes, set by Joe McConaughy in 2017.  The average successful thru-hiker takes about 5 months to hike the 2191 miles thru 14 states from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

You can find the link to his story here:

When Earl Shaffer, the very first thru-hiker, started his hike in 1948, he encountered a family having a picnic in the Georgia countryside.  Seeing Mr. Shaffer carrying his backpack, the husband asked “Howdy, where you headin’?”

“To Maine” replied Earl Shaffer, eliciting shock from the couple and their small son.

Finally the wife spoke up.

“Y’all mean to say you are walkin’ all the way to Maine, over the mountains, all by yourself, and carryin’ that thing?”

“Yes Ma’am” replied Earl.

The woman shook her head, chuckled, and said “I’m glad I got sense, Mister. I’m glad I got sense.”

Since Earl Shaffer’s hike in 1948, over 15,000 hikers have successfully thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

Earl started his book with a verse he wrote

There’s a lone footpath along the crest                                                                                                     of the Appalachian Chain,                                                                                                                 On the cloud-high hills so richly blest                                                                                                      with sun and wind and rain.

Today’s hikers typically inspire themselves with a shorter, less romantic verse”

No rain, no pain, no Maine.

Unable to resist at least a short hike before leaving, my wife dropped me off at the top of beautiful Amicalola Falls.  As she drove back around to the bottom, I hiked a mile thru woods, over rocks, and along ridges back to the Visitor’s Center.

Then it was west, winding through the hills & hollers of north Georgia, to I-75.

One more night on the road and we were home.

We had learned a lot, made some great memories, and lost a friend during our journey.

After 8 different beds on a 14 night road trip, it was good to get back home.

Without bedbugs.




river trail cabin drivewayOur Summer Vacation – Night 2

Less than 24 hours after our arrival, I was in love with Damascus, Va.  Know what pops up if you Google “Friendliest Town on the Appalachian Trail”?

That’s right.  Damascus, Virginia.

About the only thing I did NOT love about Damascus was our AT&T phone service.  There was none.  That made reestablishing contact with my wife after my bike ride a challenge.   Our only method of contact was for me to find wi-fi, send her a text, and hope she also was someplace with wifi.

Off I walked to the Food Town grocery store, a known wi-fi hot spot.  That’s where my wife, my brother and I had an economical  and tasty breakfast that morning.  In Damascus, virtually everything is within walking distance.  Even Mt. Katahdin, Maine – some 1500 miles to the north – is within walking distance for determined northbound thru-hikers passing me on the sidewalk.

From a rocking chair in front of Food Town I reestablished contact with my wife. She was miffed because she had driven back to the bike shop where she THOUGHT I would be, unaware that I had actually switched to another bike shop with an earlier shuttle to Mt. Rogers.

Did I mention the phone service sucks?

It was now time to check in to our home for night 2, described as a “secluded cabin next to a rushing mountain stream.”  We had booked it on Airbnb, our very first time using that service.

My wife was a little grumpy as she pulled up to the curb in front of my Food Town rocking chair to pick me up, but that would soon change.  Our “secluded cabin” turned out to be right next door to Food Town and it improved her attitude considerably.  It was hidden down a driveway in a grove of trees overlooking the Virginia Creeper Trail and Laurel Creek, the same creek I had followed down from Mt. Rogers on my bike.

The interior of our cabin was beautiful, but the deck was magnificent.  Hidden in the treetops, the deck overlooked the Virginia Creeper Trail and the swift, noisy, much bigger Laurel Creek just after its confluence with Beaver Dam Creek.  I could, and did, sit there every idle minute soaking up the “sounds of silence, Mother Nature-style

Look & Listen for yourself.  We had TV, but who needed it?  Bravo, Airbnb!

For dinner, we picked up Jed, Orlando, & Free Bird and headed to the Old Mill Inn a few blocks from our cabin.  On the way we made stops for our passengers at the drug store & post office.  They could have walked, but “riding in a car is a bit of a novelty for us now” observed Free Bird.

Our table for dinner was, by choice, very noisy.

Free Bird & Orlando at our dinner table
The View of Laurel Creek from my  dinner chair at the Old Mill Inn, Damascus,Va.

Too soon the evening came to an end.  After dinner we dropped Jed, Orlando and Free Bird off at the Appalachian Trail Town Inn, and headed to our Cabin.  9 pm is jokingly referred to by weary hikers as “hiker midnight”.  It’s might also be called, not so jokingly, “Baby Boomer” midnight.

Back to our Cabin beside the Laurel River, we were quickly awash in sensory delights. From our comfortable perch on our deck, a stone’s throw from the water, we relaxed to the soothing sound of water rushing over and around the rock-strewn creek bed.  As the air cooled and the evening light slowly faded to darkness, the words of a country song came to mind:

If heaven was an hour, it would be twilight.

No argument here.

Snuggling With My Sweetie on the Appalachian Trail

Our Summer Vacation – Night 1

First night on the road I rarely sleep well.  Our first night in Damascus, Va. was no exception.  Though the accommodations were clean & modern, my wife and I shared a three-quarter size (think “over-sized twin”) bed.  I was hemmed in against two walls and my wife.  My only avenue of escape during the night was over the metal railing at the end of the bed (risky) or over my sleeping wife (more risky).

We were gonna snuggle whether we liked it or not.

Our special “Virginia is for Lovers – not Sleepers” Bed

Day 1 ended pleasantly with us meeting our fellow hostel mates, thru-hikers all on the Appalachian Trail.  We met Free Bird from Denver (formerly from Albuquerque), Orlando, from Orlando, and Stickum who was pretty quiet and I never found out where he was from.  To qualify as a “thru-hiker” one must be in the process of hiking the entire A.T. within 12 months.

Thru-Hikers (l-r) Free Bird, Orlando, Jed & & my snuggle buddy Val

Almost all hikers on the A.T. go by “trail names” instead of their real name.  While most trail names are assigned by fellow hikers, my brother picked his own.  He is Jed Morgensen.  That is the name he gave the imaginary cowboy friend he played with when he was a little kid. On the trail, he is typically referred to as “Jed”.

In case you are not familiar with the Appalachian Trail, it extends 2,192 mountainous miles through 14 states.  Though Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains boasts the highest elevation on the trail at 6,643 ft, successfully hiking the entire trail is the equivalent of climbing (and descending) Mount Everest 16 times.  On average, it takes 165 days to complete the trail.  Since towns are infrequent, hikers carry everything they need to survive on their backs.  Water is filtered from streams.  The world is your toilet because actual toilets, even primitive ones, are spaced about a day’s hike apart.  If you are lucky.

One trail guide I read advised hikers to leave all toiletries except toothbrush and toothpaste at home.  Their rationale?  You’re gonna stink no matter what you do so there is no sense carrying the extra weight.

I hope I am not making this sound so exciting & adventurous that the A.T. is suddenly flooded with an influx of new hikers irresistibly drawn by my romantic description of life on the trail.  If past statistics hold up, about 1 in 4 of the 3,024 thru-hikers registered as of June 19, 2018 will complete the trail within 12 months.

There are plenty of highlights along the trail.  The views are breathtaking!  So, if you go, don’t forget to glance up once in a while from swatting mosquitos, scratching tick bites, and keeping a watchful eye out for bears and rattlesnakes to enjoy the view.  If it’s not too foggy. Or raining.

Another bright spot?   You can consume approximately 5,500 calories a day and still lose weight!

Incredibly, my brother took a guitar along.  No, he doesn’t carry it.  He mails it ahead to himself from town-to-town along the trail.  It cost’s about $40 each time but we all have things we like to splurge on that make us happy.

And the Post Office can use the money.

As hiker midnight (9 pm) came and went on our first night, the soft sounds of a guitar and my brother’s melodious voice filled the comfortable confines of the Appalachian Train Town Inn.

My brother is having the time of his life.  And so is Jed.

It was good to see him again.

I mean “them”.


The Road to Damascus

Our Summer Vacation – Day 1

On June 5, my wife and I embarked on a two week roadtrip that would cover 3800 miles and take us through 9 states.  Our first goal was to track down my brother, Richard.  He had been hiking the Appalachian Trail since March 4.  We hoped our paths would cross in Damascus, Va.

Car loaded and 24 oz cups of coffee in hand, we headed east from Jefferson City.  In St. Louis, Google maps took us on a bit of a strange urban route, but we survived.  South on I-55 to Cape Girardeau where we turned left on a two-lane road east toward Cairo, Il..  Just across the Illinois line a passing car threw up a rock and chipped our windshield.

Welcome to Illinois!

For 20 miles we followed a woman with her left-turn blinker on. I’m sure at some point she turned left, but not before we finally got around her as we entered Whitehaven, Ky.

Our plans were to spend the night in the vicinity of Knoxville.  A phone call from my brother as we were navigating Nashville changed those plans

“You got a place to stay tonight?” he asked.

“Nope” I responded. “We booked a place on Airbnb for tomorrow night but we didn’t know how far we would make it tonight.

“Well, I’m in Damascus and I have a place in a newly-remodeled hostel.  It’s $50 and they only have one room left.  If you want it I will have them reserve it for you” my brother offered.

“Sounds good!” I said, and I heard him talking to the proprietor in the background.

“Correction: It’s $50 PER PERSON” my brother clarified.  Didn’t sound quite as good but we took it.

We got food to go at a Chick-fil-a in Nashville and got back on Interstate 40.IMG_E0451

As the trip odometer passed 700 miles we entered beautiful southern Virginia.  Before dark, we were parked in front of the Appalachian Trail Town Inn in Damascus, Va.  My brother was waiting on the front porch.

It had been over 3 months since I had seen him.  In that time he had hiked over 700 miles carrying a 30+ pound pack from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Damascus, Va.  He had lost 30 pounds, grown a beard, and had endured the coldest Spring in years on the Appalachian Trail.

My wife and I had traveled approximately that same distance since we left home at 6 am that morning – and maybe gained a pound or two on all the snacks we packed.

We were about to get up close and personal with the A.T.  It goes right down the main drag in Damascus and passed within a few dozen yards of our bedroom window.

My wife and I unpacked more luggage than everyone else in the place – combined – and set about to get acquainted with our hostel mates.

IMG_0119  My brother, Richard Reece, aka Jed Morgensen

A picture of the Appalachian Trail Town Inn taken from the Appalachian Trail
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