It’s hard to believe it has already been more than one month since we summited Springer Mountain in Georgia and completed our 2,200-mile sabbatical thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Time has flown by as we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas and multiple birthdays with family, but overall the transition off the trail has been surprisingly easy for us. We heard from other people that we would be “weird” after the trail (we probably already were), or that we would have trouble sleeping indoors in a bed (ridiculous, we sleep like rocks), or that we might experience post-trail depression, but that hasn’t happened (probably because we weren’t trying to escape from our everyday lives and actually really love what we do). We mostly feel more aware and grateful for all the little comforts of the modern world that we live in.
If there is any drawback that we’ve noticed since coming off the trail, it’s how many distractions exist and how easily we can be distracted from what matters most. While we were hiking it was easy to be praying for extended periods of time throughout the day, but it can be hard to carve out that time off the trail. Continual prayer is just one of the many habits we developed while hiking that we have tried to adopt into our lives off the trail. Another more obvious one would be staying fit — hiking close to 30 miles a day became a breeze, stopping not because we were tired but only because we ran out of hours in the day. We were in the best shape of our lives by far and didn’t want to lose that physical ability and endurance just because our hike was over, so we’ve taken up trail running, easily jogging six miles a day. Another habit we wanted to continue was waking up early. Although we’re no longer waking up at 4:30am like when we were on the trail, we do enjoy getting up before the sun to see the sunrise and enjoy the stillness of the early morning that seems so much more peaceful than any other time of the day.
In addition to the habits we formed, there are also a lot of “life lessons” that we learned on the trail that we hope to apply to how we live, and we will list a few of those later in the post along with our plans for the future, which we prayed a lot about while on the trail, but we should probably just get right to the photos. After all, Jordan did carry our professional DSLR for the entire trail (hence his trail name: “Canon”) and took thousands of photos! We’ve narrowed the pictures down a bit, and they are organized by state for your viewing below.
Maine was definitely the hardest part of the trail for us. Maybe that’s because we were just starting out and were still getting our trail legs, but looking back now we still think that Maine was the hardest terrain on the entire trail. For south-bounders (“SOBOs”) like us, the starting point of our 2,200-mile hike is at the northernmost terminus of the Appalachian Trail: the summit of Mt. Katahdin. On June 19, 2018, we scrambled up this mountain, climbing more than hiking, and pulling ourselves up the occasional iron bar bolted into the boulders. At the summit, we braved the freezing 35-mile-per-hour sustained winds for a couple minutes before turning around and hiking down, officially starting our thru-hike. Immediately following this intimidating mountain is the 100 Mile Wilderness, the longest section of trail that doesn’t cross any roads, go near a town or show any signs of civilization. When we weren’t tripping on the root-covered trail and falling flat on our faces multiple times a day, we were hiking straight up mountains with no switchbacks and climbing up and over rocky trail and rock-slab mountains. We also experienced record high temps during a national heat wave.
With the hardest state out of the way, we were excited to enter the second state of 14, which we found out was the second-hardest state on the AT. We felt that Southern Maine prepared us for the White Mountains, and although these mountains were much higher in elevation, we didn’t feel that they were as hard as the mountains we’d climbed in Maine. Even with Cassie’s worsening foot injury, we pressed on to summit Mt. Washington on a beautiful clear day knowing that bad weather was forecasted the following day. Good thing we did because the next day when we were safely sheltered in the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Lakes of the Clouds Hut, Mt. Washington Observatory clocked 70-mile-per-hour sustained winds with gusts close to 100 mph. Mt. Washington proudly claims the world’s worst weather, and still holds the record for the highest measured wind speeds not involved with a tropical cyclone with a recorded windspeed of 231 miles per hour. Once the winds subsided, we hiked through and tented in 24-hours of pouring rain, and the next day got off the trail for Cassie to recover from her foot injury, which we thought at that point was tendonitis but turned out to be bone bruise. We had to take two weeks off before Cassie was able to continue hiking, at which point we re-entered the White Mountains at the road crossing where we had left off with restored hope that we were going to see this trail through to the end. While we were on Franconia Ridge, the clouds suddenly cleared and we got great views of the White Mountains. We were so high in elevation that we even spotted a plane flying BELOW us! The end of the trail in New Hampshire was through our first trail town, Hanover, home of Dartmouth College. It was quite odd, but invigorating, to hike on the white-blazed trail through a city center, following the blazes on sidewalks and telephone poles. We couldn’t help ourselves taking our breaks at coffee shops, pizza parlors and bakeries before hiking out of Hanover, New Hampshire and into Norwich, Vermont a couple miles further.
We were SO excited about entering Vermont, our third state on the AT. We began referring to Vermont as “the Promise Land” because it marked the end of the hardest parts of the trail for us. On a bridge over the Connecticut River, we crossed the state line leaving New Hampshire behind and looking forward to Vermont, where we were told is where the most trail magic happens. We hit trail magic right away in Vermont as we passed mailbox after mailbox with offerings for thru-hikers: homemade banana bread, watermelon slices, Cokes and candy. We even got lodged by trail angels, once at a church, in a couple’s home, and in a barn on a very rainy night. We enjoyed the Green Mountains and dairy farms of Vermont so much that we want to return to finish the northern half of The Long Trail, since the AT coincides with it for 100 of its 272 miles, but we could have done without so much mud! The boot-sucking mud is so notorious there that hikers refer to the state as “Vermud.”
Our all-time favorite single day on the trail was in Massachusetts. We woke up at 3am and began hiking in the dark with our headlamps lighting the way as we climbed up Massachusetts’ highest mountain: Mt. Greylock. At the summit of the highest peak in sight, we waited for what turned out to be a breathtaking sunrise. After nature’s incredible light show, we were treated to breakfast in the fancy lodge on the summit by some lodge guests who we met watching the sunrise, and we sipped on fresh coffee and enjoyed an array of homemade cookies and muffins in the warmth of the lodge. Once we descended the mountain, we stopped by a trailside restaurant for deli sandwiches and subs as well as a massive banana split. The trail then re-entered the woods and by evening we reached the the second trail town of the day in Dalton where we found a trail angel who offered to let us tent in his backyard, along with at least seven other tents. This gentleman has been hosting hikers for three decades, and even fed us a fried chicken dinner that night and donuts and coffee for breakfast the next morning. Other highlights in Massachusetts were Upper Goose Pond’s red cabin where a full-time caretaker cooks a pancake breakfast and the many instances of trail magic where Jordan received beer!
In Connecticut, we enjoyed the long riverside walks, but not so much the hot road walks. One day while hiking, Cassie said, “You know what kind of trail magic I’d love: if someone would just let us sit in their car with the air-conditioning on.” A day later as we were profusely sweating on another road walk on a 90-degree day, a van pulled over. It was trail angel Lisa who goes by Jaguar Paw. She rolled down the window and said, “Today I’m offering a strange form of trail magic: a ride in an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned grocery store.” It’s amazing how God provides! Even though we didn’t need a thing, we jumped in the car for brief relief from the relentless heat. Later we decided to take Lisa up on her offer to shower at her house, borrow some dress clothes, accompany her to a delicious Mexican restaurant and then camp in her yard.
New York was like a mini Maine with rugged rocky peaks and aptly-named sections like “the lemon squeezer”, where the white blazes lead you into a one-foot-wide crack between two boulders. Of course, there were blue-blazed trails pointing to the “easy way” bypasses, but we couldn’t take those, of course, as we were strictly following the official white-blazed AT. One of our worst days on the trail was hiking up Bear Mountain, not because it was a hard mountain to climb, but because it was so touristy! The summit was crowded on Labor Day weekend with people dressed in their Sunday best since you can drive to the top and see New York City in the distance. Drenched in sweat after hiking 23 miles at that point in the day, we hiked on barely even stopping at the top.
New Jersey was surprisingly beautiful and was the flattest section of the trail yet, where we enjoyed miles of boardwalks over wetlands brimming with purple and orange flowers, Monarch butterflies, swans, green herons and lots of droopy, dew-covered spiderwebs.
We crossed into Pennsylvania on the bridge over the Delaware River next to the whizzing traffic of 18-wheelers, but this is not what you might picture when thinking of the beautiful area of Delaware Water Gap. We experienced a lot of rain in Pennsylvania as well as a lot of rocks. Pennsylvania is notorious for its rocky section of the trail, and perhaps that’s why Cassie’s foot injury resurfaced. We took four days off the trail with Jordan’s cousins, a wonderful time full off good food and camaraderie, but it wasn’t enough. One full hiking day later, Cassie could barely walk. That’s when we called Cassie’s cousins who graciously shared their home and lives with us for a full two weeks off the trail. This forced rest turned out to be a blessing in disguise so we could spend more time with family we don’t often see and also be off the trail during Hurricane Florence, frequently checking in on our families in North Carolina. Cassie finally got her injury checked out at a sports medicine clinic and found out that she did not have Achilles tendonitis after all. After some x-rays, she was diagnosed with a bone bruise, which happens when too much pressure is put on a bone and causes fluid and swelling in the bone marrow. The problem was being caused by her hiking boots, so we ordered trail runners (which look like beefed-up running shoes) and never had the problem again! Once we got back on the trail, we continued hiking through the rocky terrain with thankful hearts that we were able to hike at all. This is also the state where we passed the halfway mark!
When we entered Maryland, we learned a lesson. Nature does not know state boundaries. The rocks notorious for Pennsylvania did not stop when we crossed the Mason Dixon line and officially entered the south. The rocks may have continued, but we felt like we were getting closer and closer to home. Our time in Maryland was just a two-day stint for us since we’ve worked ourselves back up to hiking more than 20 miles a day, but it was especially noteworthy because it’s where we celebrated our halfway point the thru-hiker way: by eating a half gallon of ice cream at a really yummy dairy farm!
The Appalachian Trail only cuts through West Virginia for four miles. We walked through the colonial downtown of Harpers Ferry and stopped at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters to get our picture taken and to record our names in the ATC history books forever. If you ever visit the ATC HQ, you can look in the photo albums for our portrait (below) taken on October 8, 2018!
Virginia has the most mileage of the trail of any state with 550.3 miles (one-fourth of the entire trail), but never felt the “Virginia blues” that many hikers complain about, either because we watched the forest magically transform to autumn before our eyes, or because we re-hiked the section of trail in Shenandoah National Park where this crazy dream was born, or because of the friends and family we got to visit with along the way. Most likely it’s all of these things combined. We hiked too many ridges to count on a bed of yellow, orange, red and green leaves with layered views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We paralleled the length of Skyline Drive until it turned into the Blue Ridge Parkway and then we kept on hiking. The weather was beautiful with cool days (perfect for hiking) and cold nights (perfect for snuggling in our down double sleeping bag). By God’s grace, we were able to hike 25 to 31 miles each day and still found joy in each step. We got to see family and friends in Northern Virginia, which was a much-needed rest since we hadn’t taken a day off from hiking in more than three weeks! As we continued hiking down into Southern Virginia, we got to some iconic sights known as the Triple Crown: McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, and Dragon’s Tooth. Then just three miles short of the Tennessee border, we took a few days off the trail to spend time with Cassie’s sister and nieces who visited us in the cute trail town of Damascus. With them, we revisited the unique section of trail in Grayson Highlands State Park so they could see the wild ponies. When we returned just two days after we’d hiked through in gorgeous sunny weather, it was covered in snow!