A Walk in the Woods: A Thru-Hiker’s Movie Review

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The view from the Chestnut Knob on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

I was cautiously optimistic as I walked into the theater with my mom and dad to watch A Walk in the Woods… the trailer looked good, the cast sounded awesome, and I believed that there was plenty of comedic gold in Bryson’s book for the screen-writers to work their magic with… My optimism didn’t last long… The movie lacked coherency, character development, and to my surprise, it even managed to dilute the parts of the book that I thought were funny, and highlighted the parts that I thought were awful… I didn’t love the book, but I’d recommend it over the movie any day!

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Fallen Arches (Days 37 & 38)

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Like many thru-hikers, my feet are getting bigger even as my waist is getting smaller. I just got new pants that are six sizes smaller than the pants I started with, and I just bought new boots that are almost 2 sizes bigger than the ones I started with.

My feet have been hurting for a while. I’ve experimented with switching socks, with blister remedies, and with different kinds of insoles, but my poor little toes still seem to be grumpy about all the walking that I’m doing. The last time I was in town I decided that I needed to get new boots…

As I was sitting and contemplating new boots at one of the outfitters, the owner came over and offered to help. Since the outfitters was literally on the AT, he had a lot of experience with thru-hikers. He pulled up the little foot measuring device and started poking, pushing, and smooshing my foot trying to get it to line up with the measurement parameters. A few times he poked at painful spots and I couldn’t help but grimace a bit. In response he said, “if it hurts too much, just hit me.” He then continued poking and prodding my foot. This measurement session went on for so long that I started to wonder if perhaps he had a foot fetish of some kind.

Eventually he paused, looked up at me and asked, “Are you big boned?” I have to admit that I gave him a blank stare in response to that. Was he serious? Does anyone actually ask that in the hopes of getting an informative answer? Apparently the answer to the above questions is… yes. He was earnestly awaiting my reply. I was sufficiently taken aback that I fumbled my answer a bit, “Ummm, I don’t think so,” I said as I pointed to my scrawny arms. He then continued poking and prodding my foot.

Eventually he came to the conclusion that I have really high arches, which are falling, causing me pain, and mashing my poor little toes up against my boot. He recommended much larger, wider boots, and custom insoles since none of the pre-form ones have high enough arch support for me.

I’ve actually ended up buying a couple pair of boots hoping that one will magically alleviate all of my pain and make my toes happy. I’ll add them to the parameter space of the ongoing happy feet experiments (I think I’ve found the best socks, blister remedies, and over the counter insoles for me at this point).

The theme of this post is fallen, so the picture at the top of this post is thematically related because it is from a tulip poplar that had fallen over the trail.

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Late in today’s hiking I came upon a section of the trail where the birds were falling all over themselves and making tons and tons of noise. Peering up into the tree branches I spotted the source of the trouble…a six foot long predatory looking snake hanging on a branch over the trail. I wouldn’t want that to fall!

Slacking (Days 34-36)

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I seem to have fallen in with a group of slackers (slack packers). Slacking, in this context, essentially means hiking a section of the Appalachian trail with a daypack instead of a fully loaded backpack (full of overnight gear and multiple days of food).

I was first introduced to the concept while I was hunkered down at a hostel for the night avoiding the rain. A fellow hiker suggested that we could slackpack the next day in the rain, still put in our miles, but be assured of a nice warm dry place to sleep at the end of the night. It sounded too good to be true… Trading in the 30-35 lb backpack for a 5 lb daypack, and end up in a warm dry place at the end of the night! What did I have to lose?

The most obvious answer to that is $$. To make slackpacking work you need to gets rides to the trailhead and then either rides back to your heavy stuff at the end of the day, or rides back to where you finished for the day the next morning so that you can continue on. Typically thru-hikers get these rides from shuttle services run by the hostels and they change at least $1.50/mile. If multiple people are interested in slackpacking the same section of trail, you can split the cost of the shuttle services and suddenly the financial downside seems to melt away with the rain.

For the last few days Rojo, Conundrum, Solo, Mosey, and I have all succumbed to the temptation and have been surviving the rain by slackpacking between hostels.

There are definitely some things that I love about slacking… I definitely cover distance much more quickly and painlessly with 5 lbs on my back than with 35 lbs on my back. I also definitely love having a warm, dry bed waiting for me on cold rainy nights. I’m also vaguely entertained by the fact that I’ve never ridden in the back of so many pickup trucks before in my life.

I find, however, that I miss my big, heavy full pack. In the past month I’ve gotten really used to being on my own. To having the freedom to hike when I want to hike and to stop for the night when and wherever I want. Having my full pack affords me a lot of independence and flexibility that I’ve grown really accustomed to. Slackpacking locks me in a fixed start time, which has to be negotiated with the other hikers and with the shuttle service provider, and is typically 3-4 hours later than I usually hit the trail. It also locks me into a fixed mileage for the day, I no longer have the option to just stop and pitch my tent for the day or to press on a few extra miles when I’m feeling really great.

Staying in the hostels can be really great, but there are some downsides to that too. The bunkhouses don’t afford you the same kind of privacy that tenting does, and man oh man, there are some impressive snorers amongst us. Some of the hostels are also kind of sketchy and downright dirty.

I think that for me slackpacking is like taking a mini-vacation… It’s can be really great, but I’m not sure that I’d want to do it all of the time.

I mentioned earlier that all the rain is part of what’s motivated our recent bout of slackpacking. That rain has made the trails incredibly muddy, but has had some really positive side effects as well. The waterfalls around here are truly impressive right now.

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The Roan Highlands (Days 32 & 33)

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When the sun finally comes out after a number of consecutive rainy days it’s an amazing thing. The moisture was still clinging to the air and the trees were dripping, but the sun finally came out!

I’d been hearing for days that Roan Mtn was some of the best, prettiest hiking on the AT. I’d hiked a couple of shorter days hoping to get nicer weather for this supposedly awesome portion of the trail. Roan Mtn is also the tallest mountain between here and the White Mountains in NH.

Cee Cee at the hostel the night before had said, “you’ll moan and you’ll groan, going up Roan.” She was right. The trail going up Roan was long and was in the process of being redirected to add more switchbacks.

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When we were about half mile from the summit, we ran into a group of three or four people that were surveying the trail and they gave us some bad news, the section between us and the summit had an additional 0.4 miles due to the redirects… Instead of 0.5 miles to go, we had 0.9 to go. The new trail was nice, but they hadn’t figured out the drainage for it yet. It was very wet and muddy going.

We got to the summit and there was a parking lot and an ok view… Not at all what I’d expected based on trail rumor. I ate my lunch there and pushed on.

I came down from the summit, hiking through the alpine hemlock forest, and just zipping along when I came around the corner to another parking lot that was chock full of cars. I looked up at the trail ahead, this was clearly what everyone was talking about. The trail stretched on and on over beautiful grassy Balds.

The trail rumors turned out to be true! It’s been phenomenal hiking for the last two days.

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Eventually we descended from the final bald and into the woods. Not long after, I came to the sign indicating that I was done with hiking North Carolina. It definitely ended on a very positive note!

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Uncle Johnny’s Nolichuky Hostel

This place is like summer camp for thru hikers. There’s a bunkhouse and a bunch of small cabins with central shower and bathroom facilities. There is even a small outfitters store so that you can buy essentials like snickers bars and soda. There’s almost always somebody throwing a case of beer on the table and offering to share… And the evenings are full of trail magic with cars driving by and dropping off gatorade and snacks people think that the hikers might like.

I got in to the hostel early on a hot summer afternoon and got talked into going tubing down the Nolinchucky river with five or six other hikers. On the way to putting into the river Sarg told us the rules. Drinking in the tubes is ok, shoving the empty cans between the tube and cover is not ok. He then told us to beware of “rock enemas” and that our take out point was at the really big beach we’d come to in 3 to 3 1/2 hrs. We asked for specifics, but he assured us, “You can’t miss it”.

We started floating down the river and about 5 minutes later the six of us pulled over to shore and the Miller Light was handed out. Floating down the river with a beer in hand… Life was good!

Suddenly we hear the rumble of rapids ahead of us. Sounds like fun? We were a little nervous since there was enough of a drop over the rapids that you couldn’t see the water on the other side of the drop off. Everyone finished off their beers so they could hold on tight to their rafts. The rapids were pretty impressive (probably because of all that rain I’ve been complaining about). One of the guys dumped impressively, got tossed around the rocks, and lost his tube into a whirlpool. I saw that he was ok, so went after his tube (he was already at least 100 yards downriver). I grabbed my tube and slid into the water so I could grab the other tube. I was surprised that I couldn’t reach the bottoming the river where I was, but I’m a strong swimmer so I held onto my tube and swam over and grabbed the other tube. With a tube in each hand I then navigated the rest of that section of rapids and returned the tube to my fellow hiker. Between the two of us we only ended up with slightly scuffed up knees as souvenirs of that ordeal.

We all sat on the shore at the base of those rapids letting the adrenaline disperse from our systems a bit. As we were sitting there another group of people came down the river and got separated from their tubes and tossed about in the rapids. These guys were wearing life jackets though (why hadn’t Uncle Johnny’s provided us with some?), which seemed like a good idea. Once again, I swam into the middle of the river to do tube retrieval. Having done some whitewater rafting bin the past, I would guess that the little section of rapids when we went through it was probably class IV.

We floated down river for another hour without hitting much of anything more than a class II rapid and started wandering about where the take out point was. One of the guys stopped to help and old man get his fishing lure unstuck from the rocks. It turned out that the tent sites immediately across the river was where we were supposed to take our rafts out and get picked up. There was no beech anywhere in site. If it hasn’t been for the random act of kindness and the fishing lure retrieval we would have missed it!

Sarg came and picked us up, and then regaled us with the story of Erwin’s infamy… The story of Murderous Mary. Apparently Murderous Mary was an elephant that killed it’s trainer and was put on trial for murder. The elephant was found guilty and sentenced to death! They had trouble executing the sentence though… According to the story they tried to shoot her and failed, then they tried to electrocute her, but didn’t have enough power. Finally, they decided to hang her, but they even botched that on the first try (they forgot to unchain her from the ground before hoisting her up in the crane). They had a postcard of the hanging in the hostel (the photo and caption are below). Sarg said that they wanted to make up t-shirts that said, “I’m hung better than Murderous Mary”, but that folks thought it was inappropriate. Sarg then wrapped up the story by telling us that Murderous Mary and that handling of that case was Erwin’s “claim to shame.” Despite the caption on the postcard, it didn’t sound like it was handled very humanely.

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After we got back to the hostel, I was starving, so when Sarg offered to drive us into town to get food I said I’d like to go. There were only two of us and we were going to different places off of the highway so he said he’d drop me off at the off ramp, and pick me up again at the on ramp in 15 minutes on the return trip to the hostel.

I got my food and walked over to the on ramp, sat on the curb and waited while I ate my take-out food. Then, still waiting, I called my mom to chat since I didn’t have cell service at the hostel. As I chatted with my mom time passed and still no shuttle. Three different guys in pickup trucks stopped and offered me rides, which I kindly declined. Eventually Sarg came back… He’d forgotten all about me and had left me abandoned on the side of the highway. He didn’t remember to come and get me until someone back at the hostel asked where I was!

Anyway, I definitely had some exciting times at Uncle Johnny’s even though they were incredibly disorganized and the facilities seemed a bit run down.