Back home on the AT with Wankles: The Grayson Highlands

It took all of about three minutes to convince myself that I needed to take a trip back to the AT, specifically the Grayson Highlands in Virginia this past week. For whatever reason, I was feeling much more anxious to be back on trail than normal, and with a short stint of weather in the 50's, I knew I had to take advantage of it, especially in January. I looked at my gear, compiled a list, packed up, and headed out from Columbus, Ohio on Wednesday the 24th. Prior to me leaving, my good friend Wankles had messaged me with hopes of having some time to come out on the weekend, and within an hour, he texted me back committing to hiking a couple days with me. 

I guess you should know if you already don't, that both myself and Wankles thru hiked the Appalachian Trail back in 2016, and although we had never hiked much together during our separate thru's, we've become extremely close friends over the last couple of years. Both being photographers who document their times in the backcountry, we have a lot in common and click really well on trail. I'm beginning to realize that a lot of my good friends are directly linked to the AT, which is something that makes me incredibly happy. 

Wankles on Mt. Rogers, the highpoint in VA.

Wankles on Mt. Rogers, the highpoint in VA.

As the morning quickly turned to afternoon, I found myself that much closer to Damascus, VA, the coveted trail town that hosts Trail Days. On a thru hike, Damascus is the holy grail of towns for NoBo's as they make their way through the Southern States. "After Damascus, we can send our winter clothes home!" say all of the Northbounders, as they pack up their goose feather filled coats, extra socks, and layers. Little do they, or did I know, that the Grayson Highlands get cold, and that's immediately right after Damascus. I arrived into town around 2:30 P.M with an overwhelming sense of both joy, and anxiousness deep in my chest. I hadn't been on the AT in quite some time, almost a year to be exact, but also, anytime I leave to go hike alone, I always have a bit of hesitancy to begin. I parked my car at the public parking behind the old Dollar General, grabbed a few things from the store, shoved them into my pack, and started walking down the street. The white blazes began to make themselves apparent as vivid memories of my time in Damascus started to flash in front of me. The beers we drank there! The socks I bought at that store! The green polka doted shorts shorts that I bought from the thrift store. It all started coming back. I turned right at the Marathon Gas Station, followed the blazes onto the Virginia Creeper Trail, walked the gravel towpath style trail until it split with the AT, and I was off. 

I was greeted with a frozen trail, a gradual incline, and more rhododendron then I could have ever tried to remember. I began to feel the burn in my calves that I had forgot about. The hunger that begins to appear after a mere 6 miles took hold, and soon enough I was shoving handfuls of chips into my gullet as fast as I could. White blaze after white blaze passed by as my softened feet carried me around bends, over bridges and to my first campsite of the section hike. The temperature was dropping quickly below freezing as my frigid hands fumbled with my tent and sleeping bad. Eventually, I settled in after a nice dinner of cold ramen, yum! Darkness had set in, my mind was racing, and low and behold, it was 7:00 P.M. I thought briefly to myself, "How the hell am I going to sit in this tent for the next 12 hours?". That I did though. I awoke at 6:15 or so, took a stroll to the bushes to pee, stretched a little bit, and immediately rushed back into my tent. The sun wasn't set to rise for another hour or so, and as the air passed over the river right next to my camp, I could feel the bitterness enter my bones. It was cold, I'm not much of a morning person, and I was tired because I had slept too long, so what the hell, what was another hour? I hopped back in my quilt, went back to sleep, and woke up with first light. It wasn't much warmer, but at least there was a sign of hope. I packed my backpack up, shoved a pop tart into my pocket, and started walking. 

White Blaze near the Highlands

White Blaze near the Highlands

Being back home, I think that's what I miss most about the trail. The tendency and way of life that is moving as soon as you wake. Using your physical body from sun up to sun down. Constantly being in motion. Being driven and motivated enough to literally walk towards something each and every day, even if you're not sure of what you're walking towards. 

I knew I would be eventually traversing up to Buzzard Rock, an incredibly beautiful area near Whitetop Mountain, but I had honestly kind of forgotten what was between Damascus and Whitetop. The day went as if I was on a thru hike of my own again. I hiked at a moderate pace, thinking of old friends, trying to remember everything from my '16 thru hike, and putting miles in as if I was on my way to Maine. All of a sudden, 7 miles had gone by without much notice. I decided I would stop for a nice break at an upcoming water source. The brisk air that filled the atmosphere the day prior had shifted to a much more comfortable 45 degrees, allowing me to hike without much perspiration while staying warm on the inclines. To my unexpected surprise, I didn't remember almost a damn thing from the 15 miles between where I camped and Whitetop. Up until about the last three miles, everything seemed to be new to me. Sure, I felt a connection to it, not only because I've already hiked it, but because it's the AT, but also it felt as if I had never been there. Odd would be an understatement. 

As I rounded the last bend before I started ascending to Buzzard Rock, I could see that the tops of the tree's on the summit were completely frozen. I hurried along the narrow trail, all of a sudden rejuvenated with energy. I raced to the top, stopping every once in awhile to enjoy the view behind me as it showed the entire range behind me crystal clear. Soon enough, snow began to fall from the trees as if it was snowing, but as I took notice to the trees, the snow was just melting from the tops. I broke through tree line, and in front of me was the summit of Buzzard Rock, with what do ya know? Birds flying around everywhere. What a sight to see. The entire landscape was frozen in time with nothing but the wind howling as it ripped through the frozen brush and the sporadic call of a bird from afar. 

Looking North from Buzzard Rock

Looking North from Buzzard Rock

With no phone service for the prior 24 hours or so, I was still assuming that I was meeting Wankles at Elk Garden, a road crossing roughly 3 miles from the summit of Whitetop. As I filled my bottles at the piped spring on the summit, something I was anticipating, I turned my phone on, and to my pleasant surprise this time around, Wankles was going to be at the road just ahead a few hours from then! I was planning on taking a nice break then heading down to the other road crossing, but it seemed as if my day was over. I found a nice flat spot on the summit, set up, got cozy, and waited for the sunset. With about an hour to spare, I got my dinner rolling, enjoyed a cigarette at the top, and just thought to myself, "How does it get any better than this?" That was something that I asked myself a lot on my thru hike, and my question was always answered. Deep in my thoughts, all of a sudden the sun was almost down. I grabbed my camera, snapped a few photos, and settled in as I awaited Wankles' arrival.

Sunset at Whitetop Mountain Looking West

Sunset at Whitetop Mountain Looking West

A few hours passed as I watched a couple of downloaded movies on my phone, and the next thing I knew, I heard a whistle, saw a couple of lights pull up, and I headed down to the parking lot. None other than Wankles was standing outside of his car, packing up and getting ready for what would be an amazing weekend ahead. 

It had been well over a few months since we had seen each other, and it couldn't have been better to reunite back on our home turf, our favorite place, the AT. Like I mentioned above, Wankles and I had thru hiked the same year, and as photographers, we both fell in love with capturing the AT and everything that encompasses the trail. It was well past dark when Wankles arrived, so we got his shelter set up, had a small safety meeting, and headed to bed, anxious as could be to get a full day on trail the next day, but also...ponies. We were a mere 8 or so miles out from entering the Grayson Highlands.

The sun eclipsed over the layers of mountains as Wankles started running around the tents, trying to get the best angle and light. I slept in a little bit as I had only gotten about 6 hours of sleep the night prior. I laid in the tent, watched the sun rise, started packing up, and soon enough, our feet began moving. Both of us had some sort of intensity about us that day. We were entirely too stoked on hiking, but also, the anxiousness and nervousness was beginning to fade away and dissipate into something more relaxing. Something...comfortable. 

We passed by Elk Garden, through the gate, up and into the Pines, and on our way to the Highlands. It's a fairly rocky and rooty section of trail, something I so ignorantly forgot about. Wankles and I talked extensively about the AT, especially during our thru hikes. We discussed how it's changed via social media, the preconceived notions of the trail, and so on. We rambled about stories from the White's, our time spent in Maine, and of course all of the breakfasts we ate in the South. Somehow though, all of the little bits of the AT were forgotten. Memories that were once so vivid, sharp, and seemingly unforgettable, all of a sudden weren't anywhere to be found. Repressed, filed away, and buried under two years worth of travel, family and friends, I eventually found them. "A lot has changed in two years...." I thought to myself as we made our way to the entrance to the highlands.

Entering the Highlands

Entering the Highlands

The landscape drastically began to change, the pines began to be more visible, the light began to refract through the branches and trees, and all of a sudden we arrived at the entrance. Our excitement level was through the roof, and as we began to navigate the rutted, deep, narrow trench of a trail through the highlands, I think we both realized how perfect of a setting the highlands actually were. The Grayson Highlands is a state park in Virginia, home to hikers of all status and length, a mesmerizing landscape reminiscent of something from Lord of the Rings, and lets not forget, small, graceful, quite beautiful, ponies. The Highlands could very well be the most anticipated section of trail in the South because of the ponies. Stories and rumors surface about the ponies well in advance of arriving to them on a thru hike, but Wankles and I both knew what was coming. 

Here are some views and ponies from the Highlands:

GH '18 Finals-7.jpg
Pony!

Pony!

We took our time meandering through the highlands this time around, making damn sure we fully experience the beauty that lay within. We stopped a few times for a snack and safety meeting, played with multiple herds of ponies, and eventually made our way through the Highlands and into our camp that night, a nice flat spot on the side of the ridge, well clear of the wind that was gusting atop. We lit our first fire of the trip, ate our usual dinner, took some night shots, and headed to bed. By the time our fire wore down, it was almost 10 o'clock, and a much needed rest was in order. We had a big day ahead of us, little did we know.

Getting the fire going.

Getting the fire going.

We woke up with plans of hiking 17 miles to Trimpi shelter, and as our day sped on, we got word that the forecast wasn't in our favor anymore. What once was going to be a sunny, warm day, had all of a sudden turned into a predicted rain, tempted to start around 7:00 P.M. Both Wankles and I didn't want to get soaked, especially on a section hike. Sure, if we were thru hiking, things would be different, but hell, who wants to get wet when they're out for only a few days?

Now let me interrupt this section by saying that I had been trying a new pair of shoes on trail. I had picked up a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves, a minimalist, zero drop shoe, with essentially NO cushioning. Seriously, they have nothing. My feet had been a little more beaten up than normal over the last couple of days, but the real problem lay in my tendon on my right foot. I could feel it under duress, but didn't really have much of an option other than to hike on and to get to Marion so I could start the resting process. 

Just a beautiful section of trail.

Just a beautiful section of trail.

Wankles cruising along.

Wankles cruising along.

Back to the trail. We decided to turn on the jets, and try and beat the rain. Instead of a 17 mile day, we decided to try and get to Marion that night. A 26.7 mile hike from our campsite to the town would provide salvation from the impending rain, well, freezing rain for that matter. As the miles passed by, the pain in my right foot intensified. Soon enough, we arrived to our original destination, Trimpi Shelter, and at 3:00 or so, we had plenty of time to kill, so I took some time to decide if I should hike on or not. I arrived at the decision that I would rather have a foot in pain than be wet and still have that same foot in pain. We enjoyed our brief break, and with around 10 or so miles to go, we set off into the evening, trying to push miles before it got dark. As we climbed out of the shelter and back onto the trail, the pain in my foot became nearly unbearable as a couple more miles disappeared beneath my feet. I couldn't possibly hike anymore, my feet were telling me. The shoes had essentially failed me two days prior, and I had been trying to fix a broken record ever since. The pain began to shoot through my foot as if there was no end, and eventually I came to the conclusion that if something didn't change, I was going to be wet the morning after as I would be hiking in the rain. Wankles looked at me and offered to literally switch me shoes so I could make it to Marion. Luckily, he was wearing Altra Timps, and if you're not familiar, they basically look like moon shoes. All the cushion in the world. Honestly, I was dreaming about those shoes the entire time anyways, I couldn't help but think about how alllllll that cushion would help my foot tremendously. Just like that, I had his shoes on. We swapped, and we were on our way. To be truthful, we both were kind of interested in trying each others' shoes anyways, we had never hiked in the models we each had on, so it has a benefit to him anyways. I couldn't get over the fact that I was wearing his shoes though, it made me chuckle as my foot all of a sudden stopped getting worse.

Beautiful Blaze.

Beautiful Blaze.

No cushion, extremely minimalist, zero drop shoe = intense tendon pain in the foot if you're not ready for it. I thought I had prepared enough to use them on a longer hike, but I was severely wrong. 

8 miles to go. We hiked on as the sun began to set. 7 miles to go. "We've got this dude, it feels so good to be getting a marathon in STRAIGHT OFF THE COUCH.", we yelped as we trotted down trail. 6 miles remaining. 5 miles. It's dark now. We clicked our headlamps on as we traversed down the ridge back into the valley. 4 miles. 3 miles. 2 miles. 1 mile. Boom, Partnership Shelter appeared out of the thick, black forest and into our eyesight. We made it. We had successfully hiked 26.7 miles, 8 of which were in the opposite persons' shoes. 26.7 miles through Virginia. Over ridges, through valleys, over streams, and up mountains. Straight off the couch. Somehow, our weak, once powerful and determined legs had carried us a full marathon to our destination. It began to rain as we pulled into the visitor center and called a trail angel to give us a ride into town. We had beat the rain, pushed our physical limits at the time, and had a blast doing it. 

Sparks, the trail angel, was set to arrive in about 20 minutes, so we sat down under and awning, took our packs off, and kicked back and relaxed finally. Our thighs and calves screamed in agony, my foot throbbed as the blood rushed into it, and the goosebumps on my legs began to rise as the cold rain soaked into my skin. Sparks arrived just as he said he would with his wife. The heater kicked on, we warmed up, shared stories of our thru hikes, talked trail, and arrived to the Econolodge. They happily agreed to pick us up in the morning and take us back to Wankles' car on top of Whitetop. What kind, generous people Sparks and his wife are. They wished us a good night and we hobbled into the hotel lobby to get a room.

Moments later, our hunger stricken stomachs led us to the mexican joint against our painstakingly throbbing legs' wants and needs. We ordered a 32oz beer each, feasted on chips and salsa, burritos, and more, and just kind of basked in the glory that is hiking along the AT for a moment. Both of us were kind of in awe from the days events, and although our hunger for food dissipated into our stomachs, the hunger for more hiking never wavered. We talked about what we would do if we just decided to keep going. Go to Maine again, summit Katahdin, and maybe come back for the rest of the south. We joked about starting another thru hike, as if it was out of the question, but I think both of us had a little bit of truth in what we were saying. We both yearned to be back on the trail for another thru hike. The call of the AT is strong, especially around the spring time as it is when we started back in '16. 

Alas, we laughed it off as if it was a joke. "It would be pretty fun to do it again, but I think I'll do it in another stage of my life.", Wankles pondered. Myself? I'm not so sure. I could leave tomorrow for another thru hike of the AT and be completely content with my decision. I love that trail and everything that encapsulates it. Everything the trail touches turns to gold. 

We hobbled back 'home' to our room, and within minutes we were both passed out. A long day was behind us, indeed. 

Our morning started with a breakfast from Bojangles, a pleasant ride up to our car from Sparks and his wife, and more trail talk than we could handle. Sparks has been shuttling hikers since '14 when his son thru hiked, and we were grateful to hear all the stories from his talkative wife. They were both more than elated to help us, and I couldn't have asked for more of a genuine interaction. What wonderful people. 

We got to the car, headed towards Damascus, recounted the awesome and wonderful time we had the last couple days, and went our separate ways. I hopped in my car, taken back by the sudden entrance back to society, got my bearings, stopped to get gas, and headed home. 

The small trip that felt like a lifetime was over. I wasn't thru hiking the AT, contrary to what my brain was telling me. I had to go home, but how could I do that when I felt most at home on the AT?

If you prefer videos over reading, or if you like both, here is the video!

Gear Review: Insulated Jackets (Down VS. Synthetic)

Down VS. Synthetic

The never ending debate for thru hikers and backpackers alike is whether synthetic or down is a better option for insulation. Really, I think it depends on the climate and conditions you'll be hiking in, especially when talking about jackets or worn layers. As far as sleeping bags or quilts go, down wins every time, no questions asked.

As far as insulating jackets go, I've tried 3 different pieces over the last 4,500 miles. Three different brands, three different weights, and three different prices. Some swear by synthetic for every application due to its ability to retain heat when wet. Some swear by down due to its warmth to weight ratio. It should always be left up to the user to decide which is best for which condition, but here are some thoughts on the subject based on what I've used and where I used it.

What I've used:

  • Patagonia Down Sweater
  • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket
  • Montbell UL Thermawrap Parka

Patagonia Down Sweater:

Before I had even set out on my first thru hike, I had picked up a Down Sweater from Patagonia because it looked nice, was Patagonia (I thought that automatically meant it was amazing), and it was fairly inexpensive for a down jacket. I had seen this jacket used plenty of times on my section hikes of the AT. People swore by Patagonia so I picked one up in the Fall of 2015 to test out on a section hike and the weekenders leading up to my attempt at a thru hike. 

I was actually fairly impressed at first with the fit and cut of the jacket. It was comfortable, fit quite nicely, and seemed to be exactly what I needed. It seemed to be of a high quality design and build, and it definitely seemed to be warm, living up to its' 800 fill claim. The jacket compresses into it's own pocket, making it the about the size of a small water bottle allowing easy storage in your pack. It's constructed of 100% recycled ripstop and has a coating of DWR for moisture repellent. 

As far as weight goes, it's a moderately light piece of gear clocking in at 13.2oz. By no means is it a UL option for insulation, but not too heavy either. With Patagonia comes a fairly decent price tag as well. At $229 from their website or REI, it's a moderately expensive piece of gear. 

My first hike with it was a little 20 mile stretch on the AT in Virginia from Catawba to Daleville. I didn't have to bring the jacket out until night when the temperature dropped into the 40's, and when I did I was fairly happy. It immediately struck me as a warm piece of gear. I could feel it trapping heat underneath which was a good sign. I loved the pockets both on the outside and the interior chest pocket which is where I stored my phone when it was cold. For my first night out with the jacket, I was pretty happy.

When I got home from the little overnighter, I not only found that there was a snag in the jacket which was leading to feathers falling out, but I also realized that I wanted a hood. I'm not sure what I was thinking purchasing a warm jacket without a hood, but I immediately realized that it was a mistake on my end. 

I honestly really do enjoy the jacket for what it is, however; I believe there are some both lighter and warmer options out there for the price. If you pick up the jacket, you'll be satisfied with it thats for sure, but keep in mind the lack of hood and the weight! 

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer:

At this point, the Ghost Whisperer is probably the favorite among thru hikers. Last year on the AT and this year on the CDT I saw more than a handful of people using this jacket. I was one of those people last year on the AT. After I returned the Patagonia Down Sweater to REI, I picked up the Ghost Whisperer on clearance because it was a color scheme from the previous year. 

The sub 8oz Down Jacket had killer reviews and everyone was raving about it online, so as you can imagine I was INCREDIBLY stoked about it. I'll be upfront about it. This jacket is awesome.

It's incredibly warm as it's packed with 800 fill down, it's incredibly compressible as it packs into its own pocket, and let me reiterate, the jacket is SUB 8oz. The price point for the MH Ghost Whisperer Jacket is a whopping $350 from their website, however; you can pick these up quite often on Amazon or REI for much cheaper. Whether it be last years model or a weird color, keep an eye out. 

I set out on the AT with this jacket packed away in my pack when I started my hike back on 3/13/16. For the first few days, the weather was unbelievably warm. I was able to hike in shorts and a t shirt up until Hiawasee when the temperature dropped below freezing and the snow started to fall. My first impressions of the jacket stayed true to the end of the trail. I used the Ghost Whisperer as my primary layer for insulation throughout the entire trail, and as  Spring tried to poke its way through Winter, I got to test it out in some frigid conditions. My first day in North Carolina, the temperature hardly reached above freezing, and as the sun dropped below the horizon, so did the temperature. That night I entered NC, the temp dropped to a freezing 8 degrees allowing me to put every bit of gear and clothes I had to the test. I had multiple base layers on, my Ghost Whisperer, and I was tucked away in my Nemo 20 degree Spoon Bag. To my surprise, I was warmer than I imagined I would be when I looked at the small thermometer I had attached to my pack. (lol). b

The jacket did its job. It kept me warm as could be down to 8 degrees, the furthest I've ever pushed my gear in the cold. For the late spring and summer months it was TOO warm. This thing is incredibly puffy, and the way they designed the cinch cords for the torso, it really traps the heat in quite well. I can vividly remember walking around Hot Springs with it on and feeling like I was going to pass out because of how warm it was. I ended up keeping the jacket in my pack the entire hike. It was completely useless during the summer, but once I started getting back to elevation in Mass and Vermont, eventually leading to NH and Maine, I was stoked that I had it again.

It's a fairly durable jacket. It went through 2,000+ miles of abuse on the AT and only suffered two holes that were spewing down feathers. One of them was caused by a snag on a thorn and the other I wasn't able to identify what caused it. 

This jacket is one of the more popular options for good reason. It's a piece of gear that should last you quite some time if you take care of it. Mountain Hardwear makes some of the best technical pieces on the market, and this jacket isn't any different. 

Montbell UL Thermawrap Parka:

Ah yes, the jacket I've been wearing all this year. On trail, I logged a little over 2,000 miles with this jacket this year on the CDT and Long Trail, and as I write this I'm wearing it as it's a bit chilly in the coffee shop today. 

The UL Thermawrap Parka is the hooded version of their UL Thermawrap which a few of my buddies have. (Neemor and Scooter). This cold layer jacket is stuffed with 40 gram STRETCH Exceloft synthetic insulation, providing plenty of warmth for 3 1/3 seasons IMO. The jacket has recently been redesigned with a better fit, and "strategically placed stretch areas", making for an incredibly comfortable jacket. It has hand pockets on both sides, and a chest pocket with a zipper on the left side making for easy access for your phone or anything that needs to be next to the body for quick access or importance. The price point for the Thermawrap Parka clocks in at $209 straight from Montebell's website. A much lower price than the Ghost Whisperer. 

Thermawrap in the Smokies / Cred: Kylie Torrence  

Thermawrap in the Smokies / Cred: Kylie Torrence  

I used this jacket to add a layer when it got below freezing on the CDT when I slept. I used this jacket as my pillow when it was too hot, but most importantly, I used this jacket to HIKE in. This was my number one concert on the CDT due to the trails volatile weather. I wanted a jacket that I could hike in if need be during a cold spell, cold rain, or even snow. I needed a jacket that could keep its warmth and dry out quickly if it got wet. This is that jacket.

This thing compressed quite small just like most jackets do. It's got all the features that I and most folks want; pockets, hood, warmth, and weight. Speaking of the weight, it clocks in at a low 9.2oz, making it just a bit heavier than the GW, but not by much. I find the warmth to be more than sufficient for most conditions, granted you have base layers beneath it. It's probably the most comfortable jacket I've ever worn, and even after 2,000 miles and then some, I still don't want to take it off. 

As of right now, it has suffered zero damages from the trail, even during some of the bushwhacks. It has lost zero warmth from when I got it, which means I'll be getting at least another season out of this bad boy. Honestly, I love this jacket so much that I'll probably never use anything else, well, except for maybe next year on the PCT. I'll talk about that more in depth at a later point. 

Final Thoughts:

Like I said, I think theres a time and place for everything. If I were to redo the AT, I probably would carry the Thermawrap for its ability to retain heat if it gets wet, which on the AT is a common occurrence. Just like the AT, the CDT brought plenty of interesting weather, and the comfort I felt knowing my warm layer could get wet if it came down to saving my life was more than enough to use it again. 

If you're planning a trip that has very little weather fluctuation, or if its a generally dry or warm climate you're going to, I would suggest bringing a down jacket. It's generally lighter and warmer, and if you don't have to worry about anything getting wet, why carry synthetic?

There are a literal ton of options out there for both synthetic and down, so take your pick really. Montebell makes some INSANE down jackets that I have my eye on. REI has a few of their own options that are comparable, as well as OR, Marmot, and just about every other brand out there. Overall, it's really hard to go wrong on a jacket of any kind, but to let you in on a secret; I pay close attention to weight and performance, as should you!

Take your pick and hit the trails!