On February 10th, a group of us hiked 22(ish) miles in an attempt to raise awareness about the high number of veteran suicide rates. It’s difficult to gauge how successfully the goal of the hike was or will be met. My hope is that maybe there are a few people who now know that a problem exists that were not aware of it beforehand, and who will now be more sensitive to the issues veterans face and will reach out to the veterans they know to try and make sure those vets are okay.

The hike itself, in my opinion, went very well. I was joined by my nephew Bryan, a former Marine, and a gentleman named Will from Virginia, a retired Navy Chief. Bryan has been on board with this hike from the beginning. He’s young (early 30’s) and fit, and I’ve hiked with him before and knew he would be able to make the distance we wanted to cover. He didn’t disappoint, and I was glad he came. He’s good company to have on the trail, with a positive attitude and upbeat personality.

Bryan also recruited some of his friends to help us out. Mitchell, also a former Marine, and his wife Lindsey, shuttled us from the Unicoi Gap parking lot to the start of our hike at Neel Gap. They also hiked about eight miles with us to Cowrock Mountain before turning around to head back home, putting in a long day themselves at 16 miles. I really appreciated them coming along and supporting our hike. Because my focus was on making miles in decent time, especially to begin the day, I didn’t get to spend as much time with them as I would have liked, or interview them for the trip video (below). I do want to give them recognition for the part they played however, and a very heartfelt thank you.

The surprising hiker of the day was Will. I had posted an article dealing with the issues veterans face, and a pre-hike video, in several venues such as Facebook and the various forums I frequent. He contacted me through Hammock Forums, asking if he could join us on our hike. It really blew my mind that he was willing to drive eight hours from Virginia, sleep in his car at the Unicoi Trailhead, and hike 22 miles with us. I can still hardly believe it!

I really stepped up my conditioning for this hike, and it paid off. In my “Suffer fest” article and video, I chronicled how I had slacked off and how my conditioning had declined as a result. Two months and many miles later, I was able to hike the 22 miles and even felt like I still had a little in the tank at the end. Personally speaking, that is very gratifying.

We started our hike at 7:14 that morning from the Byron Reece Memorial parking lot just north on Neel Gap, hiking up the trail of the same name. It’s a pretty steep and rocky start but just what we needed with starting temperatures in the 20’s. In less than a mile we were at the junction of the AT. There we met our first thru-hiker of the day, Grinch. He was one day out from completing a thru hike of the entire Appalachian Trail… very exciting!

We turned northbound on the AT and headed down into Neel Gap, stopping for a few minutes at Mountain Crossing for final adjustments before hiking on. It was turning into a gorgeous day as we climbed up Levelland Mountain to meet the sunrise.

As the sun came up and we warmed up, we tried to find a good hiking groove. Will was obviously in a class by himself on this hike, pulling farther ahead and soon out of sight. Mitchell and Lindsey struggled to find a groove, dropping a glove at one point and going back to find it, and having a hiking pole fall apart another time. Bryan slowed down to make sure they were okay.

I stopped at Cowrock Mountain to wait for them and make sure all was well. That’s where Lindsey and Mitchell decided to head back. We were glad to have them along and appreciated their support.

From there Bryan and I descended into Tesnatee Gap and then began the steep climb up Wildcat Mountain. Will was waiting for us at the top, talking to our second thru hiker of the day, Fax Machine. He had been on the trail for four days and was headed to Maine-his journey was just beginning!

We left Wildcat, crossed Hogpen Gap and set a pretty good pace to Low Gap and the shelter there, stopping for lunch at about 12 miles in to our hike. Only ten more to go! Fax Machine caught back up to us as we were eating and we enjoyed talking to him.

After spending about half an hour we hit the trail again, well feed and poorly rested lol. I took the opportunity to interview Will and Bryan. This section of the trail between Low Gap and up until just before Chattahoochee gap is particularly nice, and you can really “turn and burn” through it if you’re in a hurry as we were that day, but I also recommend going through there taking your time, because it really is a scenic stretch of trail as well.

At Chattahoochee Gap, Bryan and I (no sign of Will yet!) took a little break, drank some water and ate a snack. Here is where I decided to “cheat” as well. After Chattahochee Gap, the trail gets noticeably rougher and rockier, and the climb up Blue Mountain begins. Although it’s not a steep climb, it is a long gradual climb, and after already hiking 18(ish) miles I thought a little boost might come in handy, so I drank a “5 Hour Energy Drink” knock-off (from Aldi) that I had brought specifically for the occasion.

We continued our hike, and once we found the rocks and beginning incline up Blue Mountain, we also found Will perched beside the trail waiting on us so we could all finish together. My little energy boost really did work well, and I had to consciously control my pace and foot placement over the rocks because my legs wanted to move too quickly and I found myself stumbling due to rushing my pace. It was good to know that after 18-19 miles I still had a little juice in me, even if it took a “cheat” to boost it!

We climbed steadily to the top of Blue Mountain. The afternoon was progressing and we summitted at a little before 5 PM, and we figured we’d be to the cars by 5:30. The descent went smoothly, and our estimate was correct. The cars are always a welcome sight at the end of a long hike. However, whether it was my “cheat” still coursing through my system, or the conditioning I had been doing (probably a combination of the two), I still felt like I had more miles in me. At the trailhead, Bryan and I said our goodbyes to Will and headed home after a hard day of hiking.

Here I really want to take a moment to thank Will for joining us. He really made a sacrifice to do so, driving eight hours from Virginia, arriving at Unicoi Gap at 2:00 AM and napping in his car to meet us that morning. Originally his plan was to finish the hike, load his pack for an overnight, backpack BACK up Blue, or perhaps Rocky Mountain on the other side of Unicoi Gap (either way is a steep climb), and hammock under the full moon before heading home. What he ended up doing was waiting to see if Fax Machine would show up. Fax had mentioned his plan to hike to Unicoi and hitch into Helen for a mail drop he had waiting there. Sure enough as Bryan and I drove home, Will called me and told me that Fax Machine had indeed showed up. It was great of Will to look out for him like that. I enjoyed meeting and hiking with Will and hope that in the future we will have more opportunity to do the same!

I also want to thank my nephew Bryan. He was on board with the hike from the first moment I mentioned it to him, and is always great company out on the trail. And again, his friends Mitchell and Lindsey were great as well, supporting us and hiking part of the way with us. Having all of them along made a long hard day more enjoyable.

P.S. I’ll be 50 in March. I haven’t tried to walk 20 plus miles for nearly thirty years, since I was a Marine. Most of the time in between was spent doing as little physical activity as possible. Just last November I struggled mightily just to complete 15 miles. Here’s the bottom line: don’t let your concept of being “old” or out of shape stop you from setting a goal and working towards it. I’m not saying everyone needs to get out and hike 20 miles, but you can train and condition to walk as far as you want to walk in a day’s time. If I can do it anyone can. Get off the couch-get on the trail!