Neon, Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail (Segment 5)
Every year Appalachian Trail (AT) thru hikers, gear heads and dreamers flock to Damascus, Virginia for the annual “Trail Days” festival. This year, Trail Days was held from May 17-19 and attracted thousands of outdoor enthusiasts from all over the globe. Hyperlite Mountain Gear attends Trail Days every year to meet fellow enthusiasts and show off some of its innovative ultralight gear and accessories. One of the people Hyperlite Mountain Gear met at this year’s festival was a thru-hiker named Brenna (trail name “Neon”). Unfortunately, Brenna had all of her gear stolen from her tent while she was exploring the festival. When founder Mike St. Pierre heard what had happened to Neon, he decided to hook her up with a free Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider 2400 pack as well as a some other free Hyperlite Mountain Gear products. Mike also spread her story among other equipment vendors at the festival. By the end of the day, Neon had an entirely brand new setup of equipment free of charge. With the ultralight and rain-proof 2400 Windrider Hyperlite Mountain Gear trimmed Neon’s pack weight significantly which should make the next 1,700 miles to Maine even more fun. As a way of saying “Thank You” to Mike and the rest of the Hyperlite Mountain Gear team, Neon has been keeping us all up to date with periodic posts and pictures from the AT. We hope that you’ll check in regularly to follow Neon along the trail! Here’s Neon’s fifth post from the trail . . .
After the Smokies, I was looking to get away from Ramon and hike on my own. I enjoyed spending time with him and having a hiking buddy but I also wanted to hang out with other people. He was also very slow getting ready in the morning and I was sick of waiting up to an hour each day for him. He was planning on going about 13 miles that day with Briton, so I decided to keep moving. That day I passed over Max Patch; the first of many balds along the trail. I have never experienced winds like that in my life and I can only guess their speed. 150 mph is my guess. A more realistic person might say 60 mph; either way they were insane. I had to walk at an angle, my body leaning into the wind so that I didn’t fall over. Then a gust would come and I would get blown sideways and have to dig my trekking poles into the ground to regain my position. It was awesome.
That same day day I got to talking with a section hiker about my experience and she asked me if I was still enjoying myself. I answered with great conviction that I still got up each day and was excited to hike. The trail was continually changing and each day still brought me something new.
At the shelter that night I had my first encounter with yellow blazers (people who skip part of the trail by hitching a ride). Two of the hikers there had skipped the Smokies. It was early in the trip and most everyone was still committed to walking to Katahdin so there was an awkward moment when they said they had hitched ahead and skipped the Smokies. I didn’t know how to react, this time anyway. The farther north I got, the more people I met that had skipped at least one section. Instead of getting off the trail when people got tired of hiking, they hitch to meet their friends so they can still get some of the experience. Many people don’t have the time, money, or desire for a full thru-hike, but for me yellow-blazing did not mesh my motivation for doing the trail.
The next night I was discussing my lack of a trail name with Stealth. At this point, he was still just Matt and I was still Brenna and we were both feeling left out since most everyone else already had names. I suggested Stealth for him because he wore all black and had a habit of walking quietly and sneaking up on people on the trail. We decided, based on my bright orange Crocs and yellow rain jacket, that Neon might be good for me. I hadn’t met anyone else by that name and it was short and easy to remember. That next day I started signing Neon in the shelter logs and introducing myself as such. There was a strange transition period where I had to get used to going by a different name but after a while it started to seem alright.
After a couple days of cold, rain, and wind, I did a 3 mile “nero” (nearly zero miles) to Hot Springs, NC. Hot Springs is the first town through which the trail passes directly. Stealth and I somehow got lost going into town, despite the fact that the sidewalks were engraved with the AT symbol in order to show the way. In typical thru-hiker style, if there wasn’t a blaze every five feet then we were lost. We stopped at the first restaurant we came to, Smoke Mountain Diner, and got some excellent food- including the best cinnamon roll I have ever had in my life. There were a bunch of hikers there, most of whom I knew and we all hung out while we gorged ourselves.
My oldest sister, Sarah, was flying in that day to do the next 70 miles to Erwin, TN. Seven of us decided to split a room at a local hotel, the Iron Horse Station, and bummed around all day and watched TV. When Sarah got there that afternoon we got a few beers at the Spring Creek Tavern where they had live music. Sarah had talked about doing a thru-hike at some point and I wanted her to get a the full experience; crowded hotel room, trail town, and the trail.
The next day, we set off early for the trail but before we could even get started someone told us that the trail was flooded. It wad been raining like crazy for days and they said the water was waist deep and we would have to hitch around. Sarah and I decided to go see for ourselves and the trail was flooded, but not up our waists. I bushwhacked around while Sarah took off her boots and walked through the water. Eventually though, we got to a point with an overhang where the water was deeper and the current stronger. Instead of wading out and possibly getting swept away, we took a blue blaze trail up the side of the overhang and came down the other side about 50 feet beyond where we had left the trail. Where we returned to the trail we could see a tent floating in the river. It was tied down and there was a bunch of stuff strewn about. I took off my boots and stepped into the water to look into the tent just to make sure there was no body floating inside. It seemed like someone left in a hurry; there was ramen and all sorts of gear floating inside, but no body. The trail was still flooded there, but we walked just to the side of it, knowing that soon the trail would climb up and out of the valley.
We did 11 miles that day and Sarah seemed to be hurting a bit. I had told everyone that she was going to come and visit and they all told me she wouldn’t be able to handle the miles. Eight to ten, they all said. I thought she would be fine doing more and we had to average 14 per day in order to make it to Erwin on time. Watching her that first day made it seem like it wouldn’t end up being as easy I thought, but I knew she would suck it up and do the miles either way.
The next few miles were uneventful as far as hiking goes, but it was really nice to spend some time with Sarah. The first few days I hiked ahead, but I realized I was wasting our time together. For the past four years I had been at school in Missouri and since she is seven years older than me, we hadn’t lived together in about 12 years. While we saw each other reasonably often, it was usually in the presence of other family members and so it was unusual to have time together just the two of us.It turned out that Sarah had no problem turning on the miles and did a couple 15 miles days and a 16.5 to finish off her trip. We got into Erwin on time and went to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel which is is right on the trail. It is overpriced and dirty, but known to be a good time. The group renting the nice cabin with the kitchen invited us over for a feast with steak, garlic bread, ice cream, salad, beer, mashed potatoes and a fritatta. A bunch of people were also having a bonfire outside and everyone seemed to be making the most of their night in town. Ramon and Briton had gotten in earlier that day and had tried to hitch into town for a resupply. The guy who picked them up asked if they wanted to go rafting on the very swollen Nolichucky River and so they went down the river all afternoon. Ramon got his trail name that day, Turbo, because the guy kept yelling at them that they were his turbo on the river. While I had previously been looking to get away from him, now I was looking forward to hiking with Turbo again. We planned to leave the next morning with another friend, Quinoa, and begin the race to Damascus for Trail Days.