200 or so miles into the trail, I have experienced everything from extremely painful blisters, snake encounters, the loss of my hiking partner, a nasty allergic reaction to gnat bites, and many other challenges and inner struggles. Some people out here thru-hiking the Appalachian trail absolutely astonish and inspire me. It’s like they were bred to do this. They can hike a 25-mile day with a 30 plus pound backpack and make it look easy. Personally, for me this is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I am definitely not brand spanking new to backpacking, but I am not an expert either. I would say I am somewhere in the middle. I have never been some super star athlete that could flawlessly achieve a win. Every sport I played I needed to work twice as hard as someone who was a natural athlete. My genetics are just not wired that way. However, I have never used that as an excuse to not go after something I want. It just means I need to work a little bit harder than the others. I knew that attempting to hike 2,100 plus miles at once was not going to be easy, not by any means. I guess what I was not prepared for were all the challenges that seem to just keep smacking me down just as I am recuperating from the last big hit. I totally understand why only 25 percent of the thousands that attempt this quit. If this was easy, everyone would be out here completing it. I will never forget my 3rd day into this 2,100 plus mile adventure. It was raining. I was carrying way too much heavy food up Sassafras Mountain. I was winded, and thinking, WTF are you doing out here Jessica?! Then, all of a sudden G.I. Joe appeared (I later officially met him at the shelter and learned he is a trail runner and has run the entire trail). He stopped and said, stick with it. You are doing amazing! You will get better and stronger and your trail legs will come somewhere in Virginia.” At that moment, I just kind of forced a smile and didn't really give his words of wisdom much thought. As I moved forward, I realized how right G.I. Joe was. This is not a sprint. It’s a marathon—a 6 month marathon for most. As long as I stick with this, I will make it to Maine eventually. 12 Big Takeaways So Far: 1. Everyone’s In Pain, Not Just You. When you are hiking up mountains every day with a 35 lb backpack, things are going to hurt. You need to learn what minor aches and pains are and what might be something more serious. Nevertheless, for the most part, everyone is sore, getting blisters, rolling ankles, and popping Advil as if they were candy. You just need to learn to embrace the suck and rest when your body tells you to. 2. Mother Nature, Injuries, and Life Might Have Other Plans In Store! Shit happens. You might have one idea of how your week is going to go. However, blisters on your feet might slow you down. Rain might keep you in town for a few extra days. Personal issues at home might arise. You just need to be ok with rolling with the punches as they land. Doing what you need to do and then getting back on track. 3. Food Is Heavy. After picking up a resupply with too much food and then climbing out of Standing Bear (5 miles straight up) on an 85 degree day, you will never make that mistake again. EVER. Learn from your mistakes; it’s what’s going to make you more efficient at everything. 4. You Never Go Down Hill All Day Long. Ever. What goes down must come up! Don’t ever look at the AWOL elevation map and say, "Awesome, tomorrow is pretty much all downhill." LIES, all lies. It might be 85% downhill, but let me assure you that you will have 1 to 2 major steep climbs accompanying it. And you might as well just get use to false summits. I have quickly learned what looks like the top isn’t. 5. The Trail Always Provides. Call it the universe, God, or whatever else, the trail always provides when you need it the most. Just as morale is low, your feet are killing you, and you think you’re going to die going up Jacobs ladder, BOOM! You hit a gap and encounter trail magic. Never underestimate what a full stomach of food and a soda can do for you. Trail angles are real and absolutely worthy of their names as angles. They have helped me restore my faith in humanity. 6. Follow Your Gut When we arrived at Fontana Dam, we had some postal issues. A few of us had resupply boxes waiting for us but unfortunately, the post office did not open until 11:45 that day. By the time we finally got our shit together and got onto the shuttle back to the trail it was 2:30. Some of our group still wanted to hike out and begin the Smokies with a night hike to the first and only campsite. I really did not like this plan at all. I had heard stories about horrific experiences at this campsite. Then our shuttle driver mentioned another hiker’s bad experience at this camp site. Long story short, I convinced the crew to stay at the “Fontana Hilton” and hike out early the next morning. Well, that morning we ran into two women who were totally disheveled and covered in down feathers!! These women were section hikers and had hiked into this camp site the same day we were supposed to. A bear came into camp, shredded their tents, and took off with their backpacks. They then ended up night hiking out and spending the night on the dam where we found them. Moral of the story: Follow your gut, always. 7. The Great Smokey Mountains Are Amazing & Vampire Gnats Are Real! My favorite miles on the trail so far have been the Great Smokey Mountains. I don’t think I will ever be able to truly convey just how amazing hiking the ridge lines here were. It truly was bittersweet finishing this 71 mile stretch. These breathtaking views are what inspire me to keep going. However, vampire gnats are real and were my least favorite experience within the smokies. My ankles swelled so bad from all the bites that my feet looked like an ogres. Deet, bug nets, and garlic remedies, all of these are useless when you are within a swarm of any pesky bug. The photos of my swollen feet prove this and the fact that vampire gnats exist. 8. “Zero” Days Are A Mythical Thing. A "zero" is a zero-mileage day in town. By the time you get all your town chores done, you have just walked a 5 mile day. Hitting the adorable mountain towns have been another highlight for me. I love them and meeting the locals. And eating a lot of food… and cheesecake… and eating more food that is not trail mix or dehydrated. 9. She-wees and Diva Cups Are Normal Dinner Conversation. After a long day of hiking, I can assure you that the conversations while cooking your dehydrated meal around the fire will never be dull. You will laugh a lot and start to form special bonds with your new “trail family.” 10. You Will Never Escape Drama. Drama is on the trail too. You think you are going to come out here and see no-one. Escape it all. Yes, at times you won’t come across anyone for miles. However, for the most part, you will be running into lots of people with lots of different opinions. Everything from the purist who thinks hiking the trail means not skipping one single step or white blaze to the relaxed “yellow blazer” (talking a car to skip a section-Named for the yellow line down the center of the road). My best advice for this is: “What other people think about you is none of your business. It’s their business. Wasting your time thinking about what they are thinking about you serves nothing. Seeking approval is a waste of your time and energy; it will only bring you suffering. It’s not about whether others approve of you, but if you approve of you. This is what counts.” Hike this how you want to hike it. Be open to learning and growing from the people you admire along the journey. 11. Hitch Hiking and Taking Food From Strangers Is Acceptable. As a mother I always say, “Never talk to strangers” to my daughter. So why do I feel like such a hypocrite now?! Considering I have taken food from strangers and even hitchhiked with a total stranger. I would much rather pay a shuttle, but sometimes, you have no choice but to hitch a ride. If you are going to hitch, do it with a partner and be extremely cautious at all times. I was fortunate to have two amazing experiences hitching so far. From a women in her mini cooper from D.C. She was at the mini cooper convention in Fontana (pictured below). From a church ministry bus. They were kind enough to shuttle 5 of us into town after a grueling day (pictured below). 12. No Matter How Many Miles You Have Done, You Are Amazing! As Lumpy from standing bear would say,” If anyone has not told you this lately, congratulations. You have made it further than most.” I find that for me, small goals work best. Thinking about still having 1900 plus miles to go can be extremely daunting. Hell, thinking about your next 10 miles can be daunting some days. Instead, I find it best to set day-by-day and short term goals. Plan a 7 mile day to the first shelter. If you reach that shelter and want to do another 5 miles to the next one, then go for it. Then at the end of the night, pat yourself on the back and plan your next set of goals. I have learned and experienced so much in such a short period. I have struggled, laughed so hard I almost pee’ed my pants, and can’t imagine how much more is to come. —Goldilocks, formally known as Jess!