2019 TGO Challenge (Scotland)

Sunset over Loch Morar. Photo By Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

This past May, I had the opportunity to do my very first international hike. I was completely excited and honored to participate in the 40th annual running of The Great Outdoor Challenge aka TGO Challenge in Scotland. It’s a self-supported, Scottish west coast to east coast backpacking adventure taking you through some of the most remote parts of the Scottish backcountry.  Challengers are not allowed to get any assistance such as motor vehicles once they begin the challenge. Camping in the backcountry is a large part of the experience, but if you plan your route out right you can stay in hostels, B&Bs or hotels along the way.

Looking down at Loch Nevis. Photo Taken By: Bigfoot

Speaking of routes. Each challenger designs his or hers own route. The route can consist of road walks, established trails and off trail crossing private properties. You can also hike as a team, but no more than 4 members per team. Also challengers have two weeks to complete the challenge and must check in with mission control (TGO Challenge coordinators) as the reach certain points along their routes. This is to insure the safety of all challengers.

This year I was apart of a four person team that involved some names you probably recognize from YouTube, Darwin and Bigfoot. If you don’t already follow these guys then you should. They have a wealth of knowledge and are a huge asset to the backpacking community. The Blackalachian also joined for a good part of the hike.

Our friends over at Zpacks and a couple of their guests were also there and we spent most of the time hiking together in some sort of fashion. Even though we were two groups of four, we all only camped together one night. We all had different hiking speeds and styles so it was a treat to get us all together in one location for any length of time.

Both groups on the western coast of Scotland. Photo By: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

Our hike began on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean in the coastal village of Mallaig. A small fishing port on the west coast of the Highlands of Scotland. We had typical Scottish weather for our start, cold and wet. But by the end of the first day that would change for a while.

The weather during the first week was unseasonably warm and dry. At times it felt like I was hiking out west like in Arizona or California. This type of weather definitely made hiking through the peat bogs a little easier. And our route coupled with the great weather gave us a lot of opportunities for great views.

The boat dock at Oban Bothy at the end of Loch Morar. Photo By: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

As for our route, we began in Mallaig after we signed the official registry at the West Highland Hotel. We all dropped back down to the banks of the ocean, touched the water and began our journey east.

Our route then took us by Tarbet and along the banks of 310 m (1,017 ft) deep Loch Morar, the deepest Loch in Scotland. The first night a few of us stayed at the Oban Bothy while the others wild camped. Bothys are old abandoned houses that folks can camp in while they are out in the wilderness. Some are maintained while others are not.

Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

The next day we all continued east through a valley as we followed the River Pean. This gave us an opportunity to stop at Glenpean Bothy for a break. We finished our day with a 13 mile road walk along Loch Arkaig and we made camp on a lot along the banks of the Loch. This was the only night that both groups would all be in the same place for camp.

Loch Arkaig Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

The next day we continued east as we made our way through Achnacarry, Gairlochy and traveled along part of the Great Glen Way on our way towards Fort William. We took a break at Neptune’s Staircase, a series of locks that boats must travel through in order to get into Loch Lochy. Neptune’s Staircwase is located in Banavie which is just outside of Caol. We did our first resupply at a Co-op (a small grocery store chain) in Caol. They had everything we needed to continue our journey east.

We ended our day at the Ben Nevis Inn, located just outside of Fort William. It was more like a hostel type setting with a very nice restaurant and bar. Plus the inn was nestled at the foot of Ben Nevis, the tallest Munro (mountain) in the whole United Kingdom (1,345 metres (4,413 ft) above sea level. That would be on our agenda for the next morning.. Munros are mountains in Scotland with a height over 3,000 feet, and are listed on the Scottish Mountaineering Club official list of Munros.

The Summit of Ben Nevis, the tallest Munro (mountain) in the United Kingdom. Photo By: Trystan Bostwick

The next morning we made our climb up Ben Nevis. It was cold, windy and still had plenty snow on top. What an epic summit! On top there was a small structure used to house personnel who would observe the weather on the mountain back in the day. Ben Nevis is a very popular mountain. Once an active volcano that collapsed in on itself. Nearly 125,000 walkers hike up to the summit every year.

Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

After summiting Ben Nevis we continued our journey east through Allt Criche. Along our route were several concrete faced tunnels going back underneath the mountain. ADIT No9,10 and so on are carved in the concrete on the face of each tunnel. Each tunnel had a 24″ pipe coming out of them and the tunnel openings were gated off by iron rod gates. These tunnels were used for drainage and ventilation for a main mining shaft. There’s a gold mine near Fort William that these may or may not be connected to. Either way, very cool find.

Our route then took us through Fersit, along side Allt Cam, Loch Pattack and Loch Ericht. We took a break at the Snack Shack in Dalwhinnie. The food there was absolutely amazing. It was nice to sit down for a while and get a warm good meal.

Zpacks Duplex with a sunrise view just outside of Kingussie. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it Hikes

After our break, it was time to push for a few more miles. We hiked along a river for a bit till we made it to Loch Cuaich. We were planning to camp there and had even set up our tents, but we began experiencing extreme wind gusts which were blowing the tents down. So a few of us decided to push on to a lower elevation just outside Kingussie.

The next morning we pushed on into Kingussie and had breakfast at a little coffee shop called the Sugar Bowl as we waited for the others to catch up. The food was amazing and the owners of the coffee shop were super friendly. While in town we also resupplied at the local Co-op.

The Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy inside the Caringorm National Park. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

Kingussie was the last town we would hit before entering the Cairngorms National Park. It would be one of the most remote areas we would be in during our whole trip. Both Matt Favero aka Details and myself stayed at the Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy. Recently restored it was by far the nicest Bothy we stay at while in Scotland. But the next morning we would make our push through the Cairngorms. The forecast was for weather to move in. So we weren’t sure what to expect.

The Cairngorms. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

The next morning as we got up on the plateau we were met with fierce winds and much colder temps. Our plan was to hit the 4 tallest peaks in the Cairngorms, but we could see rain in the distance and chose to take the bad weather route and make our way out of the mountains. But by the time we got back down to the valley the skies were clear and sunny…. go figure.. So we decided to go ahead and push our way in to Braemar and take and extra zero as we waited for the others to catch up.

Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

Braemar was absolutely the most beautiful town we went in. The locals were very friendly and there were plenty of places to eat and grab a few souvenirs. The Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park in Braemar is the home of the oldest running of the Highlands Games. Even the Queen has been know to attend these games.

After the rest of the crew caught up and a few days of R&R in Braemar. We all continued our trek east to Ballater. Another town with opportunities to resupply and get local lodging. But before we made it to Ballater we had one more Munro to summit, Lochnagar. Ranking only 20th tallest Munro, Lochnagar stands at 1,155 meters (3,789′) above sea level.

Munro Lochnagar. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

Our route took us up the western side of the Munro which was steep and treacherous. As we approached the summit, a light rain and low cloud ceiling had moved in which made our visibility very limited. In fact there were several moments I couldn’t see the other guys who were less than 50 yards from me. But once we got to the summit it was time to celebrate. We had earned this one……

After a very brief celebration, we all began a quick descent off Lochnagar and continued our journey to Ballater. Once there we got a room at the Glenaden Hotel and resupplied at the local Co-op. The next morning was gonna be a gonna be a special treat as we would begin our next leg of our route on the DeeSide Way.

The next morning, before leaving town. I purchased a couple pastries to have for breakfast and to carry with me to eat later that day. But these just weren’t any pastries. There were made by Chalmers Bakery which has a Coat of Arms displayed at the business. This means the monarch (Queen Elizabeth II) grants the business to supply the Royal Household with goods or services. This also entitles the business to display the Royal Arms on their packaging and stationery by way of advertising. In short, Chalmers Brakery makes pastries for the Queen and the Royal Family. Now that’s cool!…….. While I was in the shop I also met Pamela Chalmer, the owner of the bakery.

The DeeSide Way. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

If that wasn’t cool enough we left the beautiful little town of Ballater via the DeeSide Way. It’s a “Rails To Trail” path which runs around 41 miles from Ballater to Aberdeen. We would find ourselves hiking the full length of this trail for the next couple of days. But this day was gonna end on a very wet note. Before we could make it to Banchory. It began to rain very heavily. It would be the only time we would hike in heavy rain though.

Banchory was a nice town with plenty of options for lodging and resupplying. The locals were friendly and inviting. A few of us stayed at a The Stag. A small hostel positioned above a bar much like the Glenaden Hotel that we stayed at in Ballater. We were looking forward to the next morning. It was going to be a little dryer and it would be our last day on trail. But I had no idea what this next section had in store for me. In fact it would change everything for me for the next couple of months.

Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

The next morning we all got back on the DeeSide Way and headed east. Early on that day everything was good. It was just another day on trail. But as we approached the little town of Peterculter I began getting a cramping sensation in my left tibialis anterior muscle. I simply thought I was dehydrated and needed to drink something. We still had eight miles to go to the coast and our final destination.

So after a short break we pushed on. I noticed immediately that something wasn’t right. It hurt with intense pain with every step I made. So I backed way off my speed and limped the rest of the way. The guys noticed something was up and hung back to finish the walk with me so we could all finish together. I can’t even begin to tell you what that meant to me. Details, Bigfoot and Darwin made the decision that they were not gonna finish this epic hike without me and we’re there when it mattered most. Now that is true character.

My Beardedself on the bank of the North Sea. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

But after those eight painful miles we all made it to the Lighthouse Girdle Ness. We all walked down to the banks of the North Sea and took our pictures and videos. What a feeling of accomplishment. This felt so different than any other thru-hike. I just walked coast to coast across Scotland, completing my first TGO Challenge and my first ever international hike. Oh, and to add to that I just completed the DeeSide Way as well. Wow!!! Even in immense pain, I was filled with so much joy.

Official TGO completion photo of the two groups. Photo taken by: Plug-it In Hikes

Now since the other guys wouldn’t get there till the next day. We went into Aberdeen and got a hotel room for the night and rejoined the others at the light house the next day for the official group photo and make our way to Montrose to sign the official completion registry. It was great seeing some of the other challengers that we met along the way there and knowing they had a successful completion too. And hanging out for the banquet and hearing all the stories was certainly a treat.

I’d like to thank all the folks who put this amazing event on. From the veters and mission control to all the other volunteers. It was nice knowing if something went wrong, they had my back. So thank you!!!!!! I’ll certainly be back to participate in another challenge again someday.

What an incredible hike.

LET’S BE TOURISTS

Getting to tour all the villages, towns and cities along the way was as much fun as the hike itself. We traveled my plane, trains, buses and automobiles on this trip. Seen amazing sights and architecture. Scotland is stunningly beautiful from coast to coast. Every town and city had something to offer. I made sure to eat local foods like Haggis and drink local beers. We made stops at Dunnottar Castle, The National Wallace Monument, Stirling Castle and more. Every location was filled with beauty and tons on history.

Donnottar Castle. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
Inside the Donnottar Castle grounds. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
The streets of Edinburgh. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
West Highlands Rail Steam locomotive going through Fort William. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
The flight to Glasgow Scotland. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
My Zpacks Duplex tent and Zpacks Sleeping Bag. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
Rhododendrons along Loch Morar. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
The bridge in Braemar. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
Evening walk in a Loch Pattack. Photo taken by Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
Abandoned train trestle. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
Ben Nevis. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
Sunset over Loch Morar. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
Matt “Details” Favero resting by a Loch Cuaich. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
Darwin and Details share some trail time. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
The DeeSide Way. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
My Beardedself riding the trail from Montrose to Edinburgh. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
My Beardedself and Bigfoot in Edinburgh. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes
The Blackalachian taking a break and enjoying the view. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug- it In Hikes

details enjoying his time in the peat bogs. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

Me and my buddy Trystan on Ben Nevis. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

Me Beardedself enjoying a Tennent’s Lager up on Ben NevisPhot taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

THE VIDEOS:

The videos for the TGO Challenge Series are at these links:

TGO Trailer: https://youtu.be/Z_lmMvvHG0k

Episode ONE: https://youtu.be/Z5H0ns-e6jo

Episode TWO: https://youtu.be/ozHeiv1s5Dw

Episode THREE: https://youtu.be/iO_iFostfx8

POST HIKE REPORT:

Treating my shin splints with Astym Therapy at Cora Physical Therapy. Photo taken by: Benny Braden aka Plug-it In Hikes

To update everyone about the pain I had in my left leg. It ended up being shin splints. I feel there were several elements that contributed to this. 1st- I took my insole out of my left Brooks Caldera due to it floating and bunching up in the shoe when I would cross a stream. 2nd – the DeeSide Way is a very flat and hard surface. And 3rd- I was pushing as hard as I could go without actually running. Those three things combined contributed to my shin splints.

Now since I’ve been back home I’ve made a big change in my footwear, switching to the Altra TIMP 1.5. I’ll go into that detail in another blog post. Ive also started treating my shin splints with some Astym Therapy at my physical therapist Cora Physical Therapy. So far we’ve made great progress and feel I’ll be back to hiking by late July.

My Favorite Gear – Zpacks Duplex Tent

Zpacks Duplex in central Scotland, United Kingdom
I’m starting out this series with the oldest piece of gear that I have…. the Zpacks Duplex tent. In fact I’ve owned 3 of them. I still have my first one that I bought in 2015 that has over 3,000 miles and over 200 nights. It’s still going strong with no rips, tears or holes. In fact I still use it a lot. I also had a 2018 version that I sold to a friend and a 2019 version that I took on my recent TGO Challenge in Scotland.
In 2015 I was getting back into backpacking. Until then my pack weight was on average 45 lbs per hike. All of my gear choices were NOT on the light side, but I began watching a lot of YouTube and found guys like Will “Redbeard” Wood and Chad “Stick” Poindexter. They were at the forefront of the ultralight backpacking gear phenomenon. Or at least they were on my radar then. That’s when I learned about Zpacks. A upcoming ultralight backpacking gear company based out of Melbourne Florida.
Zpacks Duplex Flex at Max Patch, NC in -14 degree temps
I began my research on them and began buying their gear. By 2016 nearly 95% of my gear was made by Zpacks. Tent, sleeping bag, backpack, dry bags and stuff sacks, rain gear and more. I began using this gear in every condition I could think of; sunny, rainy, windy, summer, winter, blizzard like conditions and even in tropical storms. I wanted to know if gear this light could actually hold up. And I wanted to gear I could depend on.
But the gear that took the most pounding by the elements was the Duplex tent. Now what attracted me to the Duplex was the ease of set up and break down, the weight and the amount of room it provides. I also love the adjustability it has. I could set it up higher or lower depending on the conditions present and the desired pitch.

Here are the current specs according to the Zpacks website.
The standard Duplex is made from .51 oz/sqyd Dyneema Composite Fabric other wiser known as DCF. It has a high strength to weight ratio, chemical free & PFC free, waterproof, stretch free, taped seams and easily repaired.
The standard Duplex weights in at 19. 4 ozs (550 grams). With walls and doors built out of the .51 ozs/sqyd for the standard, the .67 oz/sqyd for the camouflage and the .74 ozs/sqrd is used for the Spruce Green models. All floors are made from the 1.0 ozs/sqyd DCF. It’s more puncture resistant and can handle the abuse.
Eight tent stakes are required to properly stake the Duplex down. These are not included in the cost of the Duplex, but Zpacks does sell several ultralight weight tent stake options. You’ll also need two trekking poles to set up the Duplex or you can use the Flex option by using the optional Flex pole kit.

More Specs:

Exterior Dimensions:

•Peak height: 48″ (122 cm)
•Ridgeline width: 53″ (135 cm)
•Width including vestibules: 86.5″ (220 cm)
•Vestibule space: 20.75″ (53 cm) depth on each side
•Length: 100″ (254 cm)

Interior Dimensions:

•Peak height: 48″ (122 cm)
•Floor width: 45″ (114 cm)
•Floor length: 7.5 feet (2.3 meters)
•Zipper entry height: 36″ (91 cm)

Packed Dimensions:

•7″ diameter by 13″ tall (18 cm x 33 cm) / 520 cubic inches (8.5L)

THE LIKES & DISLIKES

LET’S START WITH THE DISLIKES
To be honest there’s a lot of things that I love about this tent, but only two things that I don’t. So let’s talk about the “DISLIKES” first.
For starts I guess my first dislike is the same criticism that everyone else has with a single wall tent….. the condensation. You simply can’t get away from it if you’re using a single wall tent like the Duplex. But the levels of condensation will vary depending on the location, temperature and weather conditions you’re camping in. I typically try to camp under trees, away from balds or meadows, away from streams and I leave two of the four doors open at night so I get a little cross breeze action. Doing all these things can help lessen the amount of condensation inside the tent. Sometimes eliminating it all together.
The other thing I don’t like about this tent is the length. Even with the tent being 100″ (254 cm) and me being 5’9″ (175.26 cm). Once I climb into my sleeping bag the top of the foot box sometimes rubs the end on the Duplex. Now this doesn’t happen all the time, but as I toss and turn in my sleep, I sometimes slide towards on end or the other. Now to be fair, this probably isn’t the tents fault. I use the Thermarest Neo Air and Uberlight. These two sleeping pads are known to slide around a bit…… especially the new Uberlite. But it would be nice if there was just a little more room on each end.
Now you can pitch the Duplex a little higher which can raise the end wall of the tent some. But that also narrows your width some too.
But that’s it. The only two things that I don’t like about the Duplex.
Zpacks Carbon Fiber Trekking Pole used to set up the Duplex

THE LIKES

Now there are certainly more likes than dislikes with this tent. After all I have own 3 different versions of the Duplex. Here’s what all I like about the Duplex.
•Lightweight: My camo Duplex weighs in at 20.4 ozs (578.44 grams). Having a two person tent that weighs this little has its huge advantages.
•Material: The DCF Material is easy to repair in the field. Having this ability can save a backpacking trip from becoming a nightmare.
•Waterproof: The DCF is naturally waterproof so you don’t ever have to worry about the material went out like you do with Silnylon.
•Easy To Setup: The Duplex sets up easier than any other tent I’ve ever owned. I can set it up and break it down within a minute. That’s pretty good in situations where you’re have to set up or break down in the rain.
•Durability: Even though the DCF material feels delicate, it can withstand a little abuse. I’ve had my Duplex in extremely high winds, hail storms with falling limbs and debris, I’ve had hickory nuts fall on it and still no damage. But I will also say that I do my very best to not expose it to that kind of stuff if I can help it.

SUMMARY

I’ll summarize this article by saying this. I’ve never once regretted purchasing any of my Duplex tents. They have out performed and exceeded my expectations. For me personally I absolutely love the camouflage version. It gives a little more privacy and blends in with the environment really well. And that is a huge plus in my book.
So if you’re consider the Zpacks Duplex, I honestly don’t think you’ll be disappointed… And you back will absolutely love you for it…

New Series Coming Soon……. My Favorite Gear “Likes & Dislikes”

View of the Scottish countryside from the inside of my Zpacks Duplex.

Beginning next weekend I’m super excited to announce that I’ll be starting a new series of blog posts called “My Favorite Gear (Likes & Dislikes). I’m making this new series to show everyone my favorite gear and what I like, what I dislike and what I would change to make the gear better for me.

I’ve posted several gear lists before but never really talked about individual pieces of gear in detail. So why not… Every piece of gear I use has been field tested for a minimum of 230 miles. Some of the gear I’ll be reviewing has over 2,000 miles on them. Now that’s a gear test. Some of the gear is prototypes that never made it to production while other prototypes did. I also plan on giving first looks at new gear just now being released on the market.

The Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacket and Rain Kilt at Ozone Fall, TN

So be watching for this new series. I believe all you gear heads will certainly be interested in this. Each blog post will contain URL links which will take you to where you can get the gear. Each post will also be accompanied with a video linked to my YouTube channel.

My goal for this series is to give you an up close look at the gear and share with you my experience with that gear.

If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel to send me a message or comment.

Scottish Roots Shine Through The Smokies

I’ve always been interested in my ancestry and heritage. I remember back in my early 20s driving around to graveyards throughout East Tennessee collecting data from tombstones and reading tons of genealogy books and court records. I eventually was able to trace my family history back to the Revolutionary War and find links to Scotland as well.

Many Scottish and Irish immigrants settled in the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. They chose these Appalachian Mountains cause it reminded them of the Highlands and Cairngorm Mountains they left behind. But the lush green valleys of Tennessee also reminded them of their eastern Scottish farms with the gentle rolling hills and its many streams.

This past summer I had the opportunity to be a hike in Scotland. The Great Outdoor (TGO) Challenge. It’s a self-supported Scottish coast to coast backpacking adventure.  Challengers are required to hike from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland, all on foot with no assistance from motorized vehicles and are required to complete it in under two weeks.

This was an exciting opportunity since my ancestors came from Scotland. I would be walking on the same ground that they once did. I was also excited to see all the old settlements and castles that lace the countryside. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew I’d be seeing historical sites that would predate the 1200 AD. The things I would discover along way would reinforce everything I had learned about my ancestors and how they lived.

As I began my hike across the Scottish countryside. I walked along many settlements, properties and castles. The one thing I noticed immediately was they all built their fences/walls out of stone. You can find a lot of old settlements in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park like this as well. Settlers would build these walls/fences along their property boundaries out of stone they found on the property. Built identically, walls/fences in both Scotland and Tennessee mirror each other as if they were built by the same people.

Another striking similarity was how they lived. Both the Scottish and the Tennessee setters we’re farmers. Raising sheep, goats, chickens and cattle they could provide their own milk, eggs, meat and materials for making clothing. They also worked gardens which would provide the vegetables as well. Nothing went to waist. They found ways to be efficient with what they had. And those same ways and traditions were passed on to their child and grandchildren who immigrated to the Smokies and East Tennessee.

So my trip to Scotland was not only a walk across a beautiful country. It was also a walk to discover the land my ancestors left behind. I am grateful to have been able to walk the same soil they once walked, drink the same water they once drank and see the same views of their beautiful Highlands and Cairngorms Mountains they once looked at.

One Breath

I recently made a post on my social media about my struggle with PTS (Post Traumatic Stress). In the post I was essentially describing my “bad” days. The days that the weight of the world feels like it’s on my shoulders and I either want to just crawl into a bed and never to reappear till the next season or that I feel like a walking nuclear bomb.

But in the last year I’ve been able to somewhat control my triggers by “cutting them off at the pass” or avoiding things or people that I know will make it worse. Sometimes I can feel the stress building like in a tea pot. For me that’s a huge improvement. I use to not be able to feel that till it was too late. So I honestly feel progress is being made.

A friend of mine Michelle Keller-Adrianse recently made a comment on my social media. She also struggles with PTS and shared how she approaches life. She wrote “one day, one step, one breath and one prayer at a time” Her comment was simple, but it has stuck with me ever since. Could this be a great tool to help me stay focused on the progress? Or help me focus on the “here and now”? It definitely got me thinking.

I’m always trying to figure out ways of becoming a better husband and father, but sometimes it feels like I’ve run out of ideas. You see when I first began experiencing the symptoms of PTS I had no earthly idea what I was dealing with. I just thought I was either pissed, no longer in love, hating my life, feeling down and very agitated. I didn’t realize the monster that was about to reek havoc on not only my life, but my wife and children’s too. I was about to do damage that would take years to undo.

So when my friend commented with the quote the other day it got m thinking again. It was a fresh look at an old problem. Sort of like looking at the same problem, but from a different angle. This has allowed me to try a new approach to my “bad days”. Now to be honest I’ve used this approach before or at least one similar to it. But this time it’s just slightly different.

The “one breath” element wasn’t something new. We’ve all heard the saying “step back and take a deep breath” right? But for what ever reason I had forgotten about this simple “tried and true” method of gathering yourself and calming down. Now to be honest I can’t tell you that this will be my “silver bullet”. I haven’t had a “bad day” since I wrote that social media post, but I can tell you it certainly gives me hope. And HOPE and FAITH is what keeps me going. HOPE for days I no longer have to struggle with the signs and symptoms of PTS. And FAITH in God that He is gonna take care of me until I be symptom free. That He will not leave me or forsaken me.

I wanted to share this with you. I honestly feel like this could help others as it’s helped me.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

‭‭Jeremiah‬ ‭29:11‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Benton MacKaye Trail Thru-Hike 2019

The Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) runs from Springer Mt Georgia to the Baxter Creek Trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s nearly 290 miles of trail and some road sections.
In 2018 me and my friend Will “”Redbeard” Wood attempted to through hike the BMT, but after both of us became injured we made the decision to call it. We bailed out at the halfway point. It was the single toughest decision I’ve had to make in a long time. But I had been dealing with my injuries since day 1 and I struggled with every step.
But when I got off trail I vowed to return and do the trail in it’s entirety. That would mean redo over 146 miles again. But my goal wasn’t just to hike the trail, I wanted to thru-hike it. There’s something very fulfilling about thru-hiking a trail. Knowing you hiked every step in a single trip.
Plus I get the added benefit of walking off some of my “mental junk”. Stress and all the mental baggage we carry with us throughout life. Not releasing this or decompressing can lead up to unhealthy levels of “mental junk”. Long distance hiking allows me to cope with my PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) and allows me to get rid of my mental junk and function without becoming a monster at home.

Mapping & Planning

Last time I attempted to thru-hike the BMT I was using the green guide book. It was good, but at times hard to figure out which direction to go at certain trail intersections which aren’t marked very well.
So this time I not only used that guide book, but I also used the new BMT Guthook App. It was spot on and very easy to use. The data seemed to be very accurate and detailed. And honestly it was what I used on trail. I used the guide book as part of my planning phase. I would highly recommend both to be used in that manner.

Georgia Section

Southern Terminus of the Benton MacKaye Trail on Springer Mountain,

I began my thru-hike on a soggy Sunday morning. My good friend Dewey Slusher gave me a ride down to Springer so I wouldn’t have to leave my truck unattended there. We arrived and took a few photos and I was on my way.
The Georgia section in general was in great shape. There were very few blow downs and the trail was generally well marked, but it could use a little better blazing near intersections.

Toccoa River Suspension Bridge is located 15.1 miles from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, GA

Brawley Mountain Fire Tower locates 33.5 miles from the southern terminus.

Shallowford Rd iron bridge located 38 miles from the southern terminus.

Point of interest in near the Shallowford Rd Iron Bridge is the Iron Bridge Cafe. Located right across the road from the bridge, it offered fresh cooked meals with a southern flair along with snacks, ice cream and soft drinks. There’s also restrooms, water and electrical outlets at this location to use on your visit. Also as I was in the Cohutta Wildlife Management Area, I met another thru-hiker “U-Turn”. He thru-hiked the Pinhoti Trail and then proceeded NOBO on to the Smokies. But while I’m the Cohuttas, I was treated to some trail magic that a friend had left for me. Perfect timing too. I was pushing for miles and was mentally and physically spent.

Indian Rock Shelter is located 52.4 miles from the southern terminus. It is the only shelter in the Georgia section of the BMT.

Tennessee Section

Immediately crossing the Tennessee border you’re greeted with a steep climb with no switchbacks as you make your way up Big Frog Mountain. And to be honest, in my opinion I thought this was the toughest climb I did on the whole trail. But on the way down the mountain I was treated to some trail magic which came at a great time to lift my spirits.
Getting to Thunder Rock Campground makes it all worth it. It’s a great place to either camp or take a break and off load some trash. I spent 10 years on the Ocoee River teaching Swiftwater Rescue for the Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads. It’s where we taught our level 1 class. In that class we taught law enforcement, firefighters, ems and rescue personnel how to effectively and safely perform rescues in fast moving waters like ones experienced is flooding conditions.
The Little Frog Wilderness is pretty awesome too. Once again knowing you are about to enter the community of Reliance. It’s a great place to send a resupply shipment to and to take a zero. I stayed at Hiwassee Whitewater Co otherwise known as Flip Flop Burgers. They have amazing food, great atmosphere to relax in as well as a bunk house and shower house. Owners Bryan and Michele really make their guest feel right at home.
As you continue your hike north you get to hike along the Hiwassee River. We also taught a level 2 Swiftwater Rescue class on the Hiwassee. And being on the river banks really brought back some great memories.

North Carolina Section

The North Carolina section seemed to be a little more remote. I really enjoyed the Citico Wilderness. It was very thick and rugged which reminded me of some of my favorite places in the Smokies. But North Carolina also had some places that were truly epic and a must see.
My campsite at Whigg Meadows was amazing! A grassy bald that offered up a beautiful sunset made for a great ending to my day. And the next morning I was treated to so trail magic at Mud Gap.
The Topaco Lodge is another must stop location. My buddy Sean Kamp met me and treated me to a pizza and beer at the lodge. It was absolutely amazing. The next day I pushed on to the Fontana Village Resort which was another great place to mail a resupply to.

Smokies Section

Entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was like going home. It was entering familiar territory. An area I knew like the back of my hand. Also knowing I was going to be hiking on Lakeshore Trail meant that my elevation change was going to be minor compared to what it had been. It was a great opportunity to put in some big miles without killing myself or my feet. After just 1.5 days I was in Bryon City taking a zero and spending sometime with my friends and sponsors Bryson City Outdoors. Definitely a great place to resupply at and replace any gear that might become damaged along your thru-hike.

Also while in Bryson City I spent some time at Horace Kephart‘s grave. It’s because of his efforts and others like him that we have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The land was protected and set aside for generations to come.
Other locations to checkout while in Bryson City is the Smoky Mountain Scenic Railroad, Anthony’s Pizza, Everett’s and the Relax Inn.

Once back on trail I kicked it into high gear and finished the Smokies in 2.25 days. I stayed at Smokemont Campground and at campsite 38 on top of Mount Sterling. The old fire tower gave me a 360 degree view and provided the perfect viewing point for the sunset the last evening and sunrise the last morning on trail.

With only 6 miles to finish my 289.7 mile thru-hike. I woke up early and proceeded down Baxter Creek Trail. While make my descent I ran into a couple of the Smokies Park Rangers Will and Nick. They were out checking trail conditions and picking up trash some irresponsible hikers had left behind. I certainly appreciate the Rangers and all they do for the park.
once at the bottom my friend Dana Parish met me with coffee and doughnuts!!!! She really loves me and understands what a bearded thru-hiker wants after a long hike…… FOOD!!!

But as much as I was excited to be done, I wasn’t quite finished……. Yes I finished my thru-hike of the Benton MacKaye Trail, but I had one more thing to do…..
A couple of days after I finished my thru-hike, I came back to the trailhead and picked up my friend Chris Smith aka U-Turn. The thru-hiker I met in Georgia. I gave hime a ride to Knoxville where he was able to rent a car and go back home to Florida. I really enjoyed my time with him and glad I was able to help him out the same way as Kristen and Clint from Vegas was able to help me out last year.

Final Thoughts

After completing my thru-hike of the BMT. I wanted to share my thoughts on this trail. Let you know what I liked and didn’t like about the trail. So here goes…….
Overall, I absolutely love this trail. It was tough and challenging, but then again I was doing low to mid twenties most days. I chose to go north bound simply because with me living about 1.5 hours from the northern terminus, it was sort of like I was hiking home. But this also created a few small issues for me. Number 1, the BMT has very few switchbacks. Therefore the trail usually goes straight up and then straight down the mountains. A lot of these are very steep which gave me very sore ankles. My feet, ankles, knees and achilles were extremely tender and sore the first few days.
I also was not too keen on the road walks, but sometimes that’s a necessary evil. Only problem spot I ran into was when I got on Boardtown Rd after the Indian Rock shelter in Georgia. I had a few dogs that were a bit aggressive…… as in a pit bull was literally nudging me with his muzzle on my calves to keep me moving down the road. Of course I didn’t give him any attention and just kept walking……
But I also liked the fact that I live roughly 1.5 to 2 hours from the entire trail. This allowed me to come home a couple of times to take zeros since I was moving so fast and was ahead of schedule.
If I could offer up any suggestions to make this trip any better. I would recommend more blazing at intersections. Some intersections were a little confusing and if it wasn’t for my Guthook App I probably would’ve made a wrong turn. So either more blazing or better signs at intersections (kind of the way the Smokies are).
Last but not least, I really appreciated the communication between me and the Benton MacKaye Trail Association. Anytime I ran into issues or seen areas on the trail that needed immediate attention. They were responsive and got it taken care of. Receiving this kind of response showed me the dedication they have to keeping the trail maintained and free of obstacles so hikers could have the best possible experience while hiking the trail. They also did follow ups insuring me those problems were being taken care of. Honestly that impressed me a lot. And made me proud to be a member of the BMT Association. You can become a member too. Here’s how.
You can also stay connected with the BMT Association through their social media.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Benton-MacKaye-Trail-Association-125189563051/
Instagram: https://instagram.com/bentonmackayetrail?utm_source=ig_profile_share&igshid=146m4ewynm59f
Twitter: https://twitter.com/BentonTrail

Video Series

The video series for this thru-hike will be released later in April 2019. A link will be placed here to my YouTube channel when those are ready.

2018 JMT NOBO THRU-HIKE – (John Muir Trail , California)

It’s no secret that the John Muir Trail in California is one of the most scenic trails in the US. It runs 211 miles from Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states to Happy Isles in the Yosemite National Park. It’s so popular that sometimes it’s a challenge to even get a permit for it. Many try each year, but come up empty handed. So when me and my buddy Chad “Stick” Poindexter over at Stick’s Blog started talking about attempting a thru-hike of the JMT I was beyond stoked, but understood the challenge of getting the permits.
During the planning stage of our hike I was pretty busy hiking other trails. So Stick took the lead on all the planning and he did a phenomenal job. He also did an article on his blog about the process of abstaining the permits. Here’s a link to the article, JMT Summer 2018 Permits & Plans.

Getting There

Getting there was almost as much fun as the hike itself. Stick and I decided to make the nearly 2000 mile drive out there. But this gave us some flexibility and allowed us to do a little sightseeing along the way. We caught a sunrise at the Hoover Dam, went to the Badwater Basin the lowest point in the northern hemisphere. It’s located in Death Valley National Park, we spent the night in Mammoth Lakes and Onion Valley Campground so we could acclimate a bit. We were able to park the car in Lone Pine for a fee and we shared a shuttle with a family from Canada up to Horseshoe Meadow where we spent our final night before we officially began our hike.

The Thru-Hike Begins

We began our thru-hike on July 4th 2018 around 7:30 AM PST at the Cottonwoods Lakes Trailhead at Horseshoe Meadows campground. After only hiking 100 yards and trying to shoot introductory video. I could tell I was already getting short of breath. My East Tennessee lungs weren’t use to the 10,000′ elevation yet.
The trail was like nothing I had ever hiked before. I was captivated by all the beauty around me…… well minus Stick of course.. The rugged granite mountains, the clear blue lakes full of golden trout and the tall redwoods were absolutely amazing. I kept thinking this must be what heaven is like… or at least I hope so.

Weather

The weather was great. It was in the mid 50s at night and 70s during the day. We had mostly sunny weather the whole time with the daily obligatory passing thunderstorm. The thunderstorms we pretty fierce though. Lots of cloud to ground lightning and lots of pea size hail. Usually I would set my Zpacks Camo Duplex up when it would start raining. I would eat a little snack then take a short nap. Once the storm passed, I’d pack up and push for a few more miles. This was my daily routine that I’d sometimes repeat several times a day. Lightning is a real danger on the JMT.

Special Locations on the JMT

There are locations along the JMT that are more special than other. Locations that make you not ever want to leave them. I came across a few of those on my thru-hike. They were so beautiful and so majestic that I was in complete amazement that those place existed. Here are the locations along the John Muir Trail that were the most beautiful places in my opinion.

GUITAR LAKE

MOUNT WHITNEY

Definitely a sunrise I’ll never forget from the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states (14,505′). I was able to FaceTime my bride so she could see the sunrise too.

FORESTER PASS

GLEN PASS

RAE LAKES

Single handedly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to in my life. I only had 8 miles in by 10: AM that day and I was pushing for more. Otherwise I certainly would’ve camped there.

VIRGINIA LAKE

DEVILS POSTPILE

HALF DOME

And to finish my JMT thru-hike with a sunrise on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park could not have been more amazing. It’s a definitely MUST.

The Videos

I shot video every single day of my thru-hike. I wanted to capture every thing I could. After all this was my “dream hike”.
I used my GoPro Hero 5 Session to shoot video and my iPhon 8 Plus to shoot stills. The GoPro stability wasn’t great and I destroyed my iPhone just after MTR. So in the end it turned out ok, but next time I go I’ll be using my new Hero 7 and iPhone XS Max.

THE VIDEOS

Here is the link to the JMT NOBO Series on my YouTube channel.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLh1Yb_GDZwcWzbHkZXQ3Pg_o_xfeOrFSx

Best Day Hikes in the Smokies – Ramsey Cascades Trail

When the conversation of “Best Day Hikes in the Smokies” comes up, Ramsey Cascades has to be in the mix. After all it’s one of the most popular day hikes in the Smokies. And this is why…

Ramsey Cascades Trail is located just minutes from downtown Gatlinburg, in the Greenbrier area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) on the Tennessee side. This trail has five major things going for it.

(1.) It’s considered the “quieter” side of the Smokies. With it being off the beaten path, most tourists are unaware of its existence. Therefore making this hidden gem less crowded. You still have the day hikers and tourists, but not as bad as Cade’s Cove or Newfound Gap.

(2.) Ramsey Cascades Trail is only 4 miles in length, but plan to hike 8 miles (in and back out). And with an elevation gain of 2,200′, it’s a slight steady climb. The last 3 miles the trail becomes more rugged, but still considered as a moderately difficult hike.

(3.) Ramsey Cascades Trail is home to some of the largest Tulip Popular Trees in the Park. Measured as the largest Tulip Popular trees on the Tennessee side of the Smokies. These majestic trees tower over the surrounding hardwoods. You will find these trees around 3 miles into your hike.

(4.) Ramsey Cascades Trail has a couple unique footlog bridges that make for a beautiful and natural way to cross the stream without looking out of place. These footlog bridges are designed and hand built by park employees. The logs used to make these bridges are recovered from naturally downed trees due to storms or high winds.

(5.) Ramsey Cascades Trail has a destination like no other. Once you get to the end of the 4 mile long trail, you’ll get to one of the most beautiful waterfalls/cascades in the park, Ramsey Cascades. At around 100′ high, Ramsey Cascades is also the tallest waterfall in the park.

Things you should know

When planning your trip, give yourself plenty of time to hike in and hike back out. It takes the typical hiker 5 to 7 hours to hike in and back out to your car. Obviously weather and trail conditions can effect this timing.

Expect to see other hikers. Even though Ramsey Cascades Trail is “off the beaten path”. You will more than likely see day hikers and some tourists. During Spring and Autumn expect to see more people due to the wildflowers and fall colors.

Be sure to wear sturdy footwear and dress appropriately. Weather conditions can change on a moments notice in the Smokies. You can check for weather conditions on the GSMNP Weather website. Current weather forecasts for the park are available by phone at (865) 436-1200 extension 630.

Also check with the GSMNP Temporary Road Closures website during wintery weather since the park does close both main and secondary roads in the park if snow is forecasted. You you can also call (865) 436-1200 to receive updated road conditions and temporary closures.

Prohibited

Do not attempt to climb to the top of the falls. Several people have been killed trying to do so.

Pets and bicycles are prohibited on the trail.

Pets are not allowed on this trail. The only two trails in the park that allow pets are the Gatlinburg Trail near the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the Oconaluftee River Trailnear the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Learn more about pet restrictions in the park.

The Video

Here is the video “Best Day Hikes in the Smokies – Ramsey Cascades Trail”. This will give you a great visual of what to expect when you’re hiking this trail.

https://youtu.be/t50DKAP_YHc

Heartache, Perseverance and Healing (Ashley’s PTS Story)

 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

‭‭John‬ ‭14:27‬

A truth I will learn through heartache, perseverance, and healing.

Written By: Ashley Braden

Ashely and Benny at their wedding Nov. 24, 2013

     I’m standing in front of him, blocking the door, trying to keep him from leaving…again. He’s yelling at me to move. Cursing me for standing in his way. All I want is a hug, a kiss, and a simple “I love you” before he leaves. I beg. I’m crying harder than ever. He looks at me and it appears that he feels zero sympathy. It feels as though he doesn’t love me or our kids, even though I know he really and truly does. A scenario that we’d played out before and would continue to play out off and on for months to come. 

Phot Courtesy of : Outmersive Films


I’d never had to “deal” with anyone suffering from PTS before. We didn’t even realize that’s what was going on. All I knew was that my new husband acted like he hated me every single time we would disagree over anything, even the small stuff or when the kids would get too loud or argue or make a mistake. “That’s it, GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!” were words I heard too many times… my response? “No. We are married, this is my house now too and we have 3 kids. I’m not leaving.” So he left. Every. Single. Time. I would text and call over and over. Each and every time he left, I would go to the safe and count our handguns to make sure they were all there. I prayed he would not be found somewhere in his truck with a self inflicted gunshot. I worried myself sick sometimes and cried myself to sleep most times. He would leave and stay gone until the next day and when he would come home it would be as if nothing had ever happened. I would try to talk to him but he would not discuss anything. It was during this time that I really learned to pray.. when I learned how to spill my heart to God, trust him, and wait… wait very patiently. 

My Beardedself and my Beautiful Bride Ashley


One time when we were arguing, most likely over something small and unimportant, he decided to throw a bunch of my belongings outside… this included the wedding dress that I married him in. I picked my things up as he once again told me to get out and that he wanted a divorce. I left this time. I drove approximately 10 minutes away to my aunt and uncles. I pulled up and after my uncle made sure that the children or I had not been physically hurt, I asked him to please go check on Benny. I knew something was not right. He was dealing with a demon much bigger than I had ever had to face. I had some trouble with depression a couple of times as a younger adult and I knew this was not depression. I had also dealt with anxiety and this was like an anxiety attack on the largest dose of steroids you could imagine. After my uncle left I contacted a couple of our friends, Mike and Jonathan. They also headed towards our house. Benny was still there, in the back yard, digging. Digging. Digging. We were in the middle of a major addition project on our house. More stress for him. They talked to him, calmed him down. But it did not end the fits he had. 

Benny Braden


The fits continued…like a toddler version of the Hulk who hadn’t slept in days and all they wanted was for you to buy them a new toy…having a major meltdown with every toy you passed in the toy aisle at Walmart. And every time he left, I got stronger. I started praying like never before. I started loving Benny harder and loving God more. Each time he’d leave, I’d write a note and leave it on his pillow. Or I’d write down my prayers and leave them out for him to read. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed. And when I thought I couldn’t pray anymore, I prayed again. I KNEW God would fix him. I praised God for answering my prayers before he ever answered them. 

Ashley Braden in Frozen Head State Park

He kept saying he was broken. And I kept reminding him that God mends all things. I knew this because God had mended me. Many many times. He healed me of depression and anxiety when I was 18 and had lost my great-grandmother. He healed me of depression, anxiety, and self harm when I was going through separation and divorce with my ex-husband. I KNEW God could heal him. And that’s when he started backpacking. 

My Beardedself on top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park


With every backpacking trip, he had fewer meltdowns. With every backpacking trip, we grew closer. With every backpacking trip, I saw sparkle come back into his eyes. He would share with me the beauty of Gods creation that he saw. He would explain how close he felt to God while he was hiking.

My husband was being mended. God was answering my prayers just as I knew he would. We both grew closer to God and as we grew closer to God, we grew closer to each other. Our family was happier. Less stressed. Over time it got better and better and we all no longer felt like we had to walk on eggshells around him. There came a point where I could no longer remember the last time he left in anger. I could no longer remember when we’d had our last argument. We could disagree and it not turn into an atomic bomb exploding in our house. Our kids could argue like siblings do or be loud like kids are and it would not send him into hysterics. He finally figured out what was causing the anxiety attacks and the outbursts.. Post Traumatic Stress. 

My Beardedself as 1st Lieutenant, Head Rescue Diver, EMT, Water Rescue Team Leader, Swiftwater Rescue Instructor and Vehicle Extrications Instructor at Roane Co Rescue Squad.


Before we met, Benny had been an EMT worker, a rescue diver, a rescue squad member, etc. He’d seen too many things in this life that stuck with him long after the job was over. It took a toll on him and led to PTS. Finally we could put a name to what had caused his explosions. It made perfect sense now. My husband had suffered from Post Traumatic Stress. He still gets anxious occasionally but that’s when I say, “Honey..it’s time for a hike.” And even if he just takes a few hours on the trail…he doesn’t explode. He has left home since the hard times in moments of anxiety and frustration.. But I understand now that sometimes he just needs space. I don’t stop him if he needs to go and he has not stayed gone all night in years. He comes home and climbs in bed beside me and wakes up feeling refreshed again. He wakes up to face another day. To hike another hike. To live another moment. To be free. 

Always thinking of my beautiful bride while I’m out on the trail.

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