As you’ve just learned, I love to hike! I love being out in the middle of God’s creation. Out there, I experience a lot of peace, and I’m able to clear my mind of all the clutter life brings. I honestly feel that hiking makes me a better husband and father. It makes me better mentally, and of course, physically. But, while I’m very passionate about hiking, never did I imagine that I would ever attempt something so challenging that I’d be pushing my bearded self to the edge, both physically and mentally. And that’s the story!
The Idea ... Thanksgiving weekend, 2016. A close friend, Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog, and I did a short Smoky Mountains backpacking trip with our kids from Newfound Gap to Mt. LeConte. It was the first time I had been to Mt. LeConte, and it was absolutely beautiful! Sitting at Cliff Tops, watching the sunset and watching Chimney Tops burn (terrible fire) below us, the thought came to me to take a break from section hiking the Appalachian Trail and focus on hiking all the trails in the Smokies, instead; i.e., complete the “GSMNP 900-Miler”, as it’s called. I thought it might take me a year because I didn’t know how many miles of trails there were or how hard the journey would be. But, it was a decision that felt right.
The Adventure Begins ... 3:00 AM, December 31, 2016. It started at the Alum Cave Trailhead. A group of us hiked up Mt. LeConte to see the last sunrise of 2016. When we got to Mt. LeConte Lodge, the wind was blowing pretty hard, and the temperature was hovering around 9 degrees. Some of the group turned back, but a smaller number of us pushed on toward Myrtle Point (the best spot on LeConte to see a sunrise). My plan was to start my “GSMNP 900-Miler” with this hike up Mt. LeConte and finish with a hike there, as well. And, I wanted to start by involving some of my “Hike the Smokies” Facebook friends because 1) their posts and pictures had influenced my decision, 2) I wanted to learn from them all I could about the history and the trails, and 3) because I had never met most of them face-to-face, and this was the perfect opportunity to do so. Later on in my adventure, I got to hike with some of them again, and several helped me with shuttles and lodging. What a great beginning!
January, 2017. I worked 3 days a week at the business I’ve owned since 2002 (Plug-It In Electrical Service, Inc.) and hiked the other 4 days. I was doing about 50 miles a week. During January, I experienced the coldest temperature (6 degrees) when I was camped out at CS#17 on Little Bottoms Trail in about 4” of snow. Everything was frozen and laced in white. It was the perfect setting for pictures and for a good ice beard. A good ice beard reminds me not to get complacent in these extreme conditions. Things can go very wrong very quickly! A life and death struggle is just one bad decision away!
During the third week of January, I decided that I could probably do all the trails by the end of May, instead of completing them in a year. This would free up my summer to focus on family. Shortly after making this decision, I began to wonder what the fastest completion time for the 900-Miler was, so I called the GSMNP 900-Miler Club to find out. They told me the current record, held by Sharon Spezia, was 4 months and 12 days. I immediately thought to my bearded self that this could be a challenge for me. Perhaps, I could break the record. So, I started out to do exactly that!
February, 2017. In early February I began hiking with new determination. I began doing more miles and started making preparations to hike full-time. I wrapped up a job or two and was good to go. February 4th was my 44th birthday, and, you guessed it, I was hiking that day!
For the record, I only camped in the backcountry a total of 19 nights (15 in my Zpacks duplex tent and 4 in shelters). The rest was day hiking, but instead of driving home at night (1-3 hours away), I would drive to a nearby store and sleep in my truck. This allowed me to save gas and time, resupply, and simply get some fresh foods. I always made it a point to purchase my dinner and breakfast from the store where I was staying. It was the least I could do for them for not kicking me out of their parking lots.
March, 2017. During the final 8 days, I completed my longest mileage day - 35 miles. It was Hike-40, and I was trying to beat the snow that was forecast, but the morning after, at the shelter, I awoke to find only 4 inches of snow. That was good news; it meant that I could still make big miles that day, and I could push my finish date up a day to March 18th, rather than the 19th.
As I neared the end of my adventure, I realized that this journey was making noise in the hiking community, that a number of people might show up to see me finish, and that the Park Service ought to know, so as not to be caught off guard. So, I contacted my good friend, Teri Samples who said that she would take care of everything. When I finished, I learned that she had notified not only the Park Service, but also our local television channels and newspapers.
On March 18th, I woke up ready to finish. It was Hike-47. Nearly all of my closest friends joined me. This last hike was up Mt. LeConte, just as my first one was. About 200 yards from the finish was a moment I’ll never forget. As I was climbing a short hill, I looked up to see none other than Sharon Spezia, the previous record holder. She had hiked up here to have this moment with me. With smiles on our faces, we hugged, and she congratulated me. It was an incredible moment! I had been wanting to talk to her ever since I decided to break her record, but I was never able to get in touch with her.
I could feel the anticipation inside me, as I started walking toward a long tunnel of hikers. I had never seen that many people at a GSMNP 900-Miler celebration before. I could hear everyone clapping and cheering, as I entered the tunnel. I immediately thanked God for this opportunity and for getting me here. To Him be the glory! As I neared the end of the tunnel, I knew I was getting close to the one I most wanted to see - My Beautiful Bride. She had told me on the phone that she would be waiting for me, so that was all I was thinking about.
As I exited the tunnel, there she was! It was everything I could do to keep from crying. I was so happy to see her! She met me with a big kiss and an even bigger hug! I hadn’t realized until then how much I had missed her because I had been keeping my bearded self occupied with the details of the trail, so I wouldn’t think about it.
After catching up with my family, I did interviews with Knoxville TV station WBIR and the Knoxville News Sentinel. Then, many people came to congratulate and talk to me. Some I knew, and some I didn’t, but I appreciate all of them for taking time from their busy schedules to come and share this special time with me.
After all was over at hike’s end, many hiker friends went with us to celebrate at Smoky Mountain Brewery, my absolute favorite place to go after a hike. These guys had come from Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina just to hike with me. What amazing friends I have! I thank God for every one of them!
As we celebrated, I began to understand what had happened. God had enabled this ordinary man to do something extraordinary - something I could not have done without His help and strength. I leaned on Him for His guidance, strength, and wisdom each day. He deserves all the glory for this hiking record. He was my ultimate trail guide!
So, what’s next?
I’ve decided that this October (2017), I’m going to do it again. BUT EVEN FASTER! My goal is to complete this in just 45 days total. That would break my own record of 78 days. If I’m able to complete this feat, it will also make me a two-time GSMNP 900-Miler in one year, tying me with Sharon Spezia in that accomplishment - a real honor for me, if I can share that record with her. (Sharon has also done two “maps” in one year and is a 7-time GSMNP 900-Miler.) It should be an extraordinary journey, and I’m looking forward to what God will show and teach me. Again, He will be my ultimate trail guide.
“In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.” (Proverbs 3:6, ESV)